Browsing Tag

relationships

Family, Guest Posts, memories

Four Shots: Looking for Signs of a Life

August 14, 2021
white

by Suzanne Orrell

The black and white photograph you scanned that day shows your mother ­–– my would-be-mother-in-law. She is holding you on her jutted-out hip in waist high water at Lake Pontchartrain Beach. Her dark curls gather under a sun bright straw hat. Upturned crinkles smile at the corner of her eyes. The crook of your left arm is firmly clasped around her neck. Sunshine catches water droplets that linger before sloping from the fingertips of your right hand. Fred, your older brother, easily splashes beside you. The shot captures the roller coaster tracks of the Zephyr in the background as they arc skyward before sinking into troughs. You look certain that she, is

Your mother, guiding you down a playground slide. Your brother sits behind you, hands taut against your tummy. Both of you, dressed in plaid, short sleeved shirts patiently smile, not one hair out of place on either of your heads. This shot shows how the skinny white belt encircling the dark material of her dress accentuates your mother’s waist. Her hair looks freshly done. She has recently applied lipstick. She looks stylish, seems cheerful. The gleam in her eye is genuine given the low sky, broken by distant storm clouds. When you first discovered this photograph a couple of years ago, you called me in from the kitchen. Somehow, in all this time, it is one you’d not seen. “Does this look like her?” you ask. I couldn’t believe you weren’t certain that, she is

Your mother, tacking friction rubbed balloons to the wall for your birthday party. The black and white photograph proves it is your fifth because the number five is visible on the party-hat you are wearing. Neighborhood hat-wearing children gather with you around a large, unopened present. Even Jingles, the German Shepherd, wears a hat. Your mother wears one too. If there is a gleam in her eye in this shot, it is obscured from behind her cat-eyed glasses. Her hair looks flat, faded. She does not smile. She is staring down the barrel of the camera. If a look could kill. Her floral apron makes her look frumpy. “Has she put on weight? Or maybe, is it conceivable she’s pregnant with my sister?” you ask.

The final shot you scanned that day shows a tall glass lamp with a dark lampshade crowned by a belt of white ribbon. The lamp offers zero illumination. The black and white photograph shows off the lamp’s proportions visible in the long-necked taper toward the flared curve of the base. It is graceful, transparent, window-pane wavy yet impossible to tell whether the lamp is wired for a three-way or single wattage bulb. After the photograph was taken, your mother, custom fit tiny red pieces of tile to this lamp, little mosaic pulse points positioned in cement. Then, in one final action she extinguished her own life. Your mother is absent, missing, from all further photographs.

Today, the lamp sits in its final resting place, a monument on a waist high table in your stepmother’s house, surrounded by accumulated clutter, a melee of mail–some not even opened–magazines, mess. Despite its height, despite its grace, despite the red tiles, despite her handiwork, the lamp tends to go unnoticed amidst the chaos. It’s plugged in, but rarely, if ever, switched on.

You, forever her son, scan the documentation, search the long shadows in black and white, looking for clues that she, is your mother.

Suzanne Orrell lives and writes in Idaho. A former chef and caterer, she finds that writing, like cooking, requires patience, craft and honesty. When she’s not writing or dreaming up the next meal she enjoys taking long walks, playing tennis and travel.

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Leigh Stein is amazing, no really she is. Leigh was cofounder and executive director of Out of the Binders/BinderCon, a feminist literary nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the careers of women and gender variant writers. The Land of Enchantment was our first introduction to Leigh, and her memoir of a broken love and lost dreams placed this writer firmly on our radar. Leigh’s recent novel, Self Care, received rave (and starred) reviews and is a highbrow yet satirical look at influencer culture. This month, though, she released a book of poetry  that is everything. What to Miss When: Poems is a look at the internet, the pandemic, and the life lived in between. Leigh is an amazing talent, pick up one of her books and let us know what you think!

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, Relationships

When Spicing Things Up Cools Everything Down

August 8, 2021
cinnamon

by Joelle Hann

I knew the box was coming but expected it to be small. The size of a shoebox, or maybe a jewelry case. So when I was handed a box big enough to house a couple of Queen-sized duvets, my heart stopped. I didn’t have enough space in my Brooklyn apartment for whatever was inside. It suddenly felt less like a gift and more like a headache.

“I’m getting you a present!” David had said, several weeks earlier. We’d been having long phone calls for a couple of months, him in Chicago, me in Brooklyn. We’d met on a weekly Zoom cocktail hour, organized by mutual friends, during the first weeks of shutdown, then started flirting in private texts. The phone calls followed. Illinois’ high COVID levels had prevented us from meeting in person so far. The word “relationship” was not yet on the table.

But a gift, that was significant. That was a step. Blood had rushed to my face.

“So, I’ll need your address. And also, what spices do you like?”

Spices?

“I just love this spice store I discovered and I want to buy everything. But that’s crazy, so I’m buying them for friends instead.”

My blush had subsided. “So, actually this is a present for me,” he’d said, as if reading my mind.

I had thinned out my spice cupboard earlier in the pandemic, chucking whatever was expired or unrecognizable, leftovers from some long-gone roommate, or a dinner party I’d once had. I didn’t want more clutter.

“Please! Pretty please, let me buy them. You’re going to love them.”

I loved that he wanted to give me something. I also knew that he could get lost in worlds of his own making. On the phone, he tended towards monologues rather than conversations. I could put him on speaker phone and walk into another room without him noticing. But, then again, why crush his enthusiasm?

I let him make a list. I could always use more turmeric and cardamom, I reasoned. “But no cinnamon. I’m the one person on earth who does not like cinnamon.”

Several weeks later the shipment had not arrived. That wasn’t a bad thing except that it added to my doubt. I wondered if David was someone who made grandiose gestures without following through, like proposing marriage without offering a ring.

He copped to it before I could bring it up. “I lost the list,” he offered on one of our phone calls. “It must be here somewhere under all these other piles of papers.”

I tried to reframe his fumble. David was brainy and tech obsessed. He didn’t so much fall down rabbit holes on YouTube, TikTok and Twitter as run down them. Of course he’d lost that list! His cluelessness was almost endearing. His love for gadgets and his new efforts to learn to cook produced some interesting purchases. The excess of spices was one. A self-contained grow box of salad greens was another. It had an embedded light to help sprout basil and lettuce from plastic soil pods — all on his bookshelf.

My friend Max, who, long before I’d met her, had been a popstar in Australia, was staying with me when the oversized box finally did arrive. I hauled it upstairs into my sun-streaked kitchen pausing on the landing to catch my breath.

“We have to film this!” Max exclaimed, pulling out her iPhone. She moved the table from against the wall into the full sun. “This is incredible! The light is fantastic!”

I squinted into the blazing sun, stripping the tape off the box. She brought the phone in for a close-up, then pulled away for dramatic effect. I dug toward the bottom, tossing out wads of crumpled brown paper, looking for an end to the packets inside — 20, 25, 30, 50? Seven kinds of dried chilies; countless spice jars; a boxed set of pre-sweetened hot chocolates and chai, a Chicago-themed trio of spicy garnishes, one called Chicago Deep Dish, containing shelf-stabilized cheese. A lot of cinnamon.

“My god, this guy must really like you,” Max swooped around me as I unspooled each item, reading its label out loud into the camera. “That’s gotta feel good.”

“These can’t all be for me.” I said, showing Max the labels trimmed in scarlet, embossed in gold. Who was I supposed to be, to relish all of these things?

There was no chance I would use the hot chocolate or the chai mix.  I made chai at home, brewing the ginger, cardamom, saffron and black tea on my stove. I had Dutch-processed cocoa in my cupboard already, but if I wanted hot cocoa, I’d go to my favorite coffee shop where they made it better than I ever could. What to do with seven kinds of chilies? There was no turmeric.

To my surprise, in Max’s unboxing video, I don’t look disappointed. I look like I’m enjoying myself. I posted the clip to Instagram where it got a lot of comments. “I’m jealous — and also loving this!” said one friend. “I watched this all the way through!” said another.  “Who is this admirer? How do I get one?”

I sent a copy to David. I felt queasy about all the excess; the shipping label cited $230 spent. I could not gush so the video stood in as my thank you. He seemed satisfied, admitting that he’d sent my Instagram video to the spice company. They’d wished him luck in his courtship, a word that now made me wince. If he was going to spend so much on me, why not buy AirPods, something I wanted?

I remembered years ago when a boyfriend had taken me out for my birthday at the Gramercy Tavern, an upscale restaurant in Manhattan. I’d been ambivalent about him and I think he’d known that. But I couldn’t deny that the amuse bouche romanced me, especially with the wine pairing, and the duck confit that followed, served from the left, and the creme brulee with the hard, burnt-sugar crust we had to crack before spooning out the buttery insides. I hadn’t broken up with him just then.

And who hasn’t given gifts that were more about themselves than the recipient? For my part, these included second-hand novels with strong feminist plots that I’d given to my mother when I was in college, in a desperate wish that she’d liberate herself from my controlling father. I’d made healthy meals for my sister-in-law who avoided vegetables, preferring pizza and Doritos. When I was 22, I’d given a high-school friend the wedding present of a bird cage, an unsubtle metaphor for the way I felt she was trapping herself in a loveless marriage.

I realized that the very best gifts sometimes knew the receiver better than they knew themselves. The Gramercy Tavern boyfriend had once bought me an incomparable ring. One friend regularly sent me eye-opening books that I would have otherwise passed by. Max had an instinct about the clothes I should try.

The night I received the oversized box from David, Max invited her Aussie friend Matthew and his boyfriend Scott over for dinner.

“They’re fine — they’re careful,” Max said, justifying the invitation of strangers into my home during COVID. “Matt loves to cook. He’ll cook for us. Show him the box.”

Dinner was splayed chicken rubbed with cacao and chilis dug up from the depths of the box, plus vegan pudding and wine. After, I gave the boys a tour of the rest of the spices, taking a closer look myself, now that the shock had worn off. They oohed and aahed over the varieties of chilies — mulatto, ancho, guajillo, chipotle, New Mexico, chile de arbol — the cinnamon, the hot chocolates.

“Take whatever you want!” I plied Matt and Scott with packets. I slid the cinnamon sticks into small plastic snack bags, labelling each with a black Sharpie. I made a bag for Max, too, who exclaimed, “It’s antiviral!”

Matt passed on the hot chocolates and chai mix. Like me, he didn’t want the added sugar or dehydrated milk powders. But Scott was curious. For a moment, I got caught up in his fascination with the chilies, their odd, flattened shapes that ranged from plump to skinny, matte to shiny, the evocative descriptions typed up on the pretty labels. We googled “guajillo” and “korintje,” and admired the many rolls and folds of cinnamon. I wondered what made the Ceylon cinnamon “quills” and the korintje “sticks,” and why one was a fat roll while others were slivers and shavings. It did seem like if I learned to cook with seven kinds of chilies from around the world my life might be more interesting. I might even find a compatible boyfriend in my own city.

Scott asked repeatedly if I didn’t want to keep more for myself. I wavered, drawn in by the suggestion of faraway places and cultures: Turkey, Ceylon, Madagascar, New Mexico, even Chicago. Places I wouldn’t have the opportunity to visit for a long time under pandemic travel rules. But then I remembered how I hated clutter and I swallowed my fantasies. I insisted that they take what I foisted on them. “Please, you’re doing me a favor.”

What spices were left after our dinner, I shut into the box and put under my desk, unable to either move them into my cupboard or throw them out.

I did not text David in the week that followed, and he wasn’t in touch much, either, except for a quick note about the fun of courting.

But the budding romance now seemed as artificial as that plastic box of red-leaf lettuce sprouts growing in David’s 57th floor apartment in downtown Chicago. It was cute and kind of a miracle. But it was also unlikely to produce much satisfaction before becoming a lot more work than either of us had signed up for.

Maybe we both had needed a pie-in-the sky fantasy, a sparkle of connection at a safe distance. Some light flirtation to get us through a difficult period of isolation.

Max stayed with me for several more days. After my morning walks, as I sat down to a day of work, she’d call down to ask if I wanted a coffee. Later, she’d bring me a cup, with milk she’d frothed by hand. “I made it strong. I know that’s how you like it.”

She’d walked out of her way to find organic coffee beans so that I wasn’t ingesting pesticides, and she insisted that the milk be organic. She brought the hot drink downstairs and across the living room and put it in my hands. It was a simple gesture that cost her nothing but gave me a lot. “Sometimes all you need is a good cup of tea!”

A few weeks later I gave away the rest of the spices. The hot-chocolate set went to a friend on her 50th birthday, and the remaining chilies and cinnamon went to two chef friends who’d driven up from North Carolina for haircuts and facials in Manhattan.

For myself, I ordered a half-pound each of organic turmeric, cardamom, and ginger and dispensed them into clean glass jars that I had on hand. There was still room in my cupboard for the right kind of spice.

Joelle Hann has published essays, journalism and poetry on NPR, in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, Poets & Writers, McSweeney’s and in many other print and online outlets. She was a writing fellow at CUNY’s Writer’s Institute from 2015 – 2016 and a poetry fellow at NYU before that. Joelle lives in Brooklyn, NY. You can read her clips at www.joellehann.com and find her on Twitter: @joellehann

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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cancer, Guest Posts, Starting Over

27 Stitches

July 27, 2021
surgery

by Lauren Gobell

I got skin cancer for the first time when I was 28. Basal cell carcinoma, right temple, one freeze and burn surgery required. I’ll wear lots of sunscreen, and this won’t happen again. This is my health scare, and now it’s done, I reassured myself. But a year later, at twenty-nine, my white scar that I was painfully self-conscious of became suspiciously pink around the edges. My insides churned in that way that only happens when you know something bigger than you is brewing beneath the surface.

By then, I was four-and-a-half years into my marriage, and it’d been touch and go the entire time. After the diagnosis, I brought my then-husband to a consultation, so a doctor could explain that “basal” is not to be confused with “benign.” This was in fact, cancer, and therefore, it needed to be removed for medical reasons. After confirmation from a medical professional, my then-husband felt reassured that I was not just being dramatic about the whole skin cancer bit. By the time my surgery came in December, we’d separated, but I knew we were most likely headed for a divorce.

Prior to my surgery, I noticed another spot on my center forehead, near the hairline. I call this a, “For Fuck’s Sake” moment. As humans, we’re  all guaranteed 2-3 “For Fuck’s Sake” moments in our lifetime. These are the moments that bring us to our knees. They sometimes make us more resilient in the long run, but, let me abundantly clear, the interim period is extremely unpleasant, and if not handled properly, can really get the better of you.

Two weeks later, that biopsy from my For Fuck’s Sake moment came back positive as well. My one surgery in December would now be a “two for one” surgery. I spent hours bracing for impact before the operation. I scoured the internet for pictures of MOHs surgeries, telling myself it would make it easier post surgery to deal with my own recovery.

I was mistaken.

On December 15, 2016, I had an eight-hour surgery to remove both basal cells which left me with two facial scars. There were twenty-seven external stitches total, and I simply didn’t recognize myself every time I accidentally caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. The pale, terrified, stitched-together girl that gazed warily back at me seemed like an imposter. How could this be my life? How did this happen? It was the first time I’ve ever truly felt unlovable, and that feeling lingered for longer than I care to admit.

I wish I could tell you that going through skin cancer quickly made me realize I was a badass. I wish I could tell you that when I caught people looking at my scars, I came back with some fabulous fictitious tale about a skiing excursion gone awry. I wish I could tell you that I left my toxic marriage right then and there.

But I didn’t feel like a badass; I felt broken. But I couldn’t make a clever joke; I was mortified by my own appearance. As women, we’re told by society both directly and indirectly to be hairless, poreless, blemishless. Most days, I was haunted by an inner voice that hissed,Who would ever want you now?”

Fortunately, as the months crept by, my scars went from bright red, to medium red, to an aggravated pink, and finally a subdued white.

And then, five months after my surgery, my husband did the smartest thing he could have possibly done.

He called me dumb.

He called me dumb one last time.

The specifics of that conversation don’t really matter. My hungover husband who had driven home blitzed the night before, who was so hung over we missed therapy with the Christian marriagie counselor he insisted on seeing, called me dumb because I refused to agree that the Hulu show we were watching at the time was “liberal propaganda.”

Dear reader, sometimes specifics do matter.

Because those lovely specifics converged at just the right moment and created a crescendo, a tidal wave of clarity if you will. And when that wave broke, it allowed me to have another “For Fuck’s Sake” moment when I needed it most.

Dear reader, my hungover, drove-home-drunk husband called me dumb, and suddenly everything within me realigned. All the nuts and bolts came together with a resounding internal click.

This was not, is not, could no longer be my life.

The beauty of a For Fuck’s Sake  moment is that it brings about clarity whiplash. Meaning, the truth comes at you so fast, you’re forced to examine it head-on. And since I’d just dealt with a FFS moments months earlier with my two-for-one basal cell diagnosis, I had a better inkling of how to handle a FFS this time around. That skin cancer FFS had been overwhelming, but this FFS ended up being the compelling kind.

The best way to handle an FFS moment is by taking action while doing everything possible to maintain your sense of humor. I had just handled double skin cancer surgery. Surely, I could handle divorce.

And so, I did it. I finally walked away from a dysfunctional nine-year relationship that frankly, never should have made it past a year. I found a mediator. I filed for divorce. And since I was a teacher at the time, my summer job became “Getting Divorced.”

It turns out, that if you have the luxury of making “Getting Divorced” your sole job, you can actually expedite the whole thing rather quickly. I made a “Getting Divorced” playlist. I did more cardio than most doctors would recommend in a fiscal quarter. I went through a brief, albeit dedicated, house music phase. Please be advised, A For Fuck’s Sake moment requires outside-the-box coping strategies. Green smoothies and an FFS don’t pair well.

Nine weeks after uttering the words, “I want a divorce,” I walked out of the courthouse with my marriage dissolved. Sometimes we have to leave.

I left a marriage having been brought up in a very strict, conservative household, having been told my whole life that nothing was more important, nothing was more sacred than marriage.

And yet, I was still able to rebuild my life. I was able to regain financial security and independence. I was able to make a career change. I was able to date and form healthyish, (just being honest, some things really take time) romantic relationships again. And so it turns out, there are things more important, more sacred than marriage. Self-worth being one of them.

27 stitches broke my soul, but they forced me to become whole.

Most days, I still wish skin cancer wasn’t part of my vocabulary, but in a strange way it saved me from myself. Because for fuck’s sake, it gave me my moment.

Please Note: In a bizarre twist of fate, I heard from my ex-husband a couple years after I walked out of that courthouse. He got skin cancer. Life is simultaneously strange and simple.

Lauren Gobell is a former middle school English teacher and now works for a digital media company. She is probably running, reading a thriller, or reapplying sunscreen.

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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eating disorder, Guest Posts, pandemic

Mother Daughter Stew

July 25, 2021
ingredients

by Nancy Crisafulli 

Ingredients

From Mother’s Expansive Garden 

1 cup low-cal self-esteem

For correct blend mix equal parts shame, blame and overripe guilt.

2 cups shredded body image

Tear fresh images into bite-sized pieces, rinse under cold water and drain completely.

8 oz. night-blooming tobacco

Steep tobacco in 7-14 oz of any red wine (see directions below).

1 lb. depressed family history

This ingredient may also be found in Father’s garden and is often mistaken for a bothersome, invasive weed.

From Daughter’s Secret Pantry

1 cup high-concentrate anxiety – Use full strength – do not dilute.

2 cups well-seasoned perfectionism – Straight A+ seasoning is preferred, but type A will also work.

4 oz. flowering fear of failure (FFF)

Note: FFF is a bitter herb that will significantly impact the flavor of your stew -remember, a little goes a very long way.

2 lbs. genetic predisposition – This underrated ingredient can be found at many organic stores including Roots and MoMs Organic Market).

Optional Non-Organic Ingredients

7 Tbsp. expectation to excel in all endeavors (EEE)

EEE grows like a wildflower in suburbia so check your backyard before purchasing.

Multiple shots of reprocessed Insta-Selfies – Adjust lighting, filters, angles and number of shots for maximum impact.

Directions

Step 1: 

In medium-sized bowl, carefully combine mother’s low-cal self-esteem and shredded body image with daughter’s undiluted anxiety. Mix thoroughly.

*Mother: To be sure ingredients are thoroughly blended, pinch and knead the fatty area behind your knee (or any other unattractive body part) repeatedly while chatting heart-to-heart with your adolescent daughter. Adding this personal touch is guaranteed to work better than the most efficient KitchenAid.

Step 2: 

Macerate night-blooming tobacco in red wine and let soak in a tub until all liquid is absorbed.

*Daughter: While Mother macerates, use a paring knife or other sharp object to make shallow cuts in your flowering fear of failure. Cover carefully with a dry cloth and store in a cool, dark place.

Step 3

In a separate bowl, sift together mother’s depressed family history with daughter’s genetic predisposition. Do this slowly, alternating just a bit of depressed history with a little predisposition until you have the perfect mix of these secret family ingredients.

Step 4: 

Place all prepared items from mother’s garden and daughter’s pantry into the domestic cooking device of your choice (see side bar for choices). Sprinkle freely with non-organic optional ingredients to taste and cook as directed.

Step 5: 

Serve piping hot with a side of solitude and regret.

Sans appétit!

Tip

For a less robust stew, slowly introduce one or more tempering agents (Wellbutrin, Ativan, Lexipro) before the stew is fully cooked. See individual packaging for suggested amounts.

Yield

This recipe serves 1-2 but, properly stored, its prolonged shelf life can often under-nourish an entire family for generations! Studies have shown that a sustained diet of this popular stew is almost guaranteed to yield the following:

Daughter

  • Drastic reduction in calories and fat
  • Grinding, obsessive exercise
  • A feast of secrecy and self-loathing
  • Suicidal thoughts and/or actions

Mother

  • Growing dread of family meals
  • Searing, wild remorse
  • Frantic weeding of personal garden
  • Ravenous craving for a shared bowl of daughter’s favorite childhood ice cream

Chef’s Note:

Organic vs Non-Organic? Conventional wisdom suggests that our genes and the environment around us play important parts in the development of eating disorders and other chronic diseases. For people recovering from anorexia, bulimia or other EDs during this pandemic, the combined ingredients of Corona-related stress, grief, lack of structure, and social isolation may be the perfect recipe for relapse.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out:

National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)
https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support

Academy for Eating Disorders
https://www.aedweb.org/expert-directory

 National Alliance on Mental Health Illness (NAMI)
https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Eating-Disorders/Discuss

stew

Nancy Crisafulli received her BA in English Literature from the University of Maryland and spent the next forty years in the field of instructional design in and around Washington, DC. She did most of that writing in a corporate office. Her other writing has been languishing in her spare bedroom and recently asked to move out. A few of those pieces have been published in Under the Gum Tree and The Sun. When she isn’t writing, Nancy is probably out walking, doing yoga, playing with the grands, or on the co-ed softball field with her husband and best friend, Frank.

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Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, memories, Relationships

Camping Under the Influence

July 14, 2021
camping

By Carrie Friedman

I squint as I read the fine print of the disclaimer that says the campsite is NOT responsible for any coyote, snake, or bear bites or maulings. As I sign our lives away, I say, “This was a mistake,” loud enough for my husband to hear. Our daughters are already running free, up and down the meadow, like they’ve never seen so much open space, possibly because they never have in our crowded Los Angeles suburb. We have arrived at this southern California campsite for a whole weekend of “unstructured fun!” as the parent-email boasted, with other families from our daughters’ school. Our daughters begged us to go this year, so here we all are. “It could just be that you’re not in the right mindset,” my husband, who is one important notch more outdoorsy than I am, says.

He’s not wrong. Only hours earlier, I boarded a plane back to California, from my native Wisconsin. I was visiting my dad, who is in the late stages of dementia and Parkinson’s. Every time I leave him, I know that this could be the last time I see him. This slow-motion loss feels unscalable.

“I’ll be fine,” I say. I want our girls to have this camp experience.

I go to the campsite store and buy a bottle of wine and a bottle of pre-made, pre-mixed margaritas. I start drinking as soon as I find a cup. I drink to blur the edges.

I’ve never been the type of person who drinks in the wilderness, gulping the air like it’s a delicious treat, then says (and means) things like, “I love nature,” or talks about a higher being “creating this masterpiece for us.” But when I inhale the air at the campsite today, I feel a familiar ache. I’m reminded of why I hate camping: it makes me homesick. If the smells of evergreen, mildew, loneliness, and campfire were blended in a bottle, they’d be called Eau de homesickness.

I down a margarita as if I’m a marathoner at a pitstop.

When I was a gawky and overly sensitive 10 year old at summer camp in Wisconsin, my escape was red Kool-Aid that the camp rebranded “Bug Juice.” It was so sweet and concentrated you could chew the sugar granules. I was addicted to the sugar high it gave me: it helped me forget how much I missed my family back home, 90 miles from camp. It helped me feel less awkward around kids I didn’t know. The inevitable crash left me lower than before, sobbing all night in bed while my cabinmates slept. It was a gutting cry, a cry that physically hurt – replaying every fight I’d ever had with my parents or siblings, wishing I were back with them.

My dad, sensing my homesickness, would send funny letters, mailed to arrive by every day’s rest time. I’d read them as I scratched mosquito bites into scabs. His words always made things better.

I drink my way through the first half of the weekend – buzzed, friendly, seemingly carefree – having a drink anytime the ache, or a thought or memory about my dad tries to creep in, like a sad version of a drinking game.

People call this “Glamping” because we are in cabins with indoor bathrooms, not tents and outhouses, but there is nothing “glam” about it. Directly above our bed is what appears to be a hastily made loft with about 20 inches of crawl space and some crib-sized mattresses for our six and seven year old. A rickety metal ladder is propped precariously against a wooden railing that feels like it is as sturdy and well-put together as a shelf I constructed in shop class in third grade. My kids and husband sleep well. I stare at the cedar walls and ceiling all night, trying not to think but thinking nonetheless. If that was the last time I’ll ever see my father, did I say everything I needed to say?

The next morning, I admit to my husband that perhaps the pivot from emotional wilderness into actual wilderness was too much for me. He offers to pack us up and leave early. But the kids are having so much fun, we decide. They have already strapped on their bike helmets and taken off on their scooters with their friends for the morning.

The days are packed and noisy. There’s a hike and a talent show. And smores and drinks with other parents, as our kids don glowstick necklaces and bracelets and chase each other through the woods – streaks of neon as they run past and between the trees.

I buy and drink more wine. In the middle of the final night, dizzy from alcohol, I leap out of bed and vomit in our cabin toilet. As I’m about to flush, I spot a giant brown spider on the handle. I nearly vomit again, but instead scream into a towel, so as not to wake my family.

“I just killed a brown recluse spider in our bathroom,” I tell my husband. He rolls over in bed. I’m not expecting a parade but at least a little gratitude for saving his and our daughters’ lives would be nice.

“Really, Carrie?” he asks, dubious. “A brown recluse, with the violin shape on its back and everything?”

“Yes,” I whisper, a chill running down my spine. “Except it was so big it was more like a cello. This guy could have carried our suitcases. I’m done with camping,” I say.

“Glamping,” my husband corrects.

“I’m going to sleep out in the van.”

I wake up on the third row of seats in the back of the minivan to a blinding sunrise. It’s a new day. My pounding hangover headache feels like a nuisance, a distraction, from the real pain I’ve been trying to avoid. How quickly in the two years since my father’s diagnosis and rapid decline, had my drinking gone from a glass of wine after the kids went to bed to “take the edge off” to “mommy juice at a late afternoon playdate,” to a nightly necessity to numb or push out sadness, which I defended as “self-care.” If this is self-care, it’s not working.

Again, the smells of homesickness fill the air, and I remember things I don’t want to remember.

The letters my dad sent me when I was at camp were a funny serialized mystery he had written, in installments. Each chapter ended on a cliffhanger, and he timed when he mailed them perfectly: I always had a new letter, a new chapter, waiting for me in my cubby every afternoon for resting time. But my camp experience began to improve. I enjoyed horseback riding and canoeing and making lanyard bracelets. When I returned home after camp, my dad discovered his last three envelopes unopened in my suitcase. I tried to explain that I was too tired to read each day. My dad pretended not to care, but I could tell he was hurt.

With this memory, my gulping sobs shake the van.

Suddenly, I am starving. The campsite seems deserted at 7am. I walk to the restaurant/general store. Campfire ashes from the night before float in the air like feathers. My eye makeup presumably everywhere, I imagine I look like a raccoon walking on its hind legs.

I wander through the empty store/restaurant, looking at foods and offerings but not really seeing them. For awhile, I stare without realizing it at a woman making eggs in the kitchen. She has long press-on nails that wrap around the spatula and flip fried eggs and scrape scrambled eggs on the griddle. She has velvety Disney princess eye lashes that must take forever to glue to her eyelids.

I can tell by the way she’s looking at me that my eyes are swollen and red.

“Rough night?” she asks.

“Rough week,” I say. “Rough year.”

“What can I get for you, Hon?” she asks.

Her term of endearment makes me cry again. “Could you make cheesy eggs? They’re just scrambled eggs with cheese on top.”

“Of course, Hon,” she says.

She unwraps and slaps an orange Kraft single on top of the scrambled eggs. It becomes shiny with sweat as it starts to melt.

Cheesy eggs taste like what he used to make on Sundays when we were kids and teens. His variations on the classics, like applesauce pancakes, fried matzo, spaghetti pie, never tasted very good, but now, just thinking of them makes me crave them. The gooey applesauce, somehow still cold, oozed out from the otherwise cooked pancake. The nutty, charred edges of the matzo.

The cook hands me a Styrofoam plate with the eggs covered in cheese, then says, “I’ll ring you up. They’re a dollar fifty.”

Maybe she feels sorry for me and is giving me a discount, I think as I swipe my debit card. Nothing costs so little anymore, let alone a protein.

I sit at a picnic table in the woods, with the yellow scramble. The eggs taste like cheese flavored plastic, just like when my dad made them, and go down easy. Comfort food indeed.

Before I left the last time, he said two things that made sense. I was shocked by the clarity with which he said each, considering he barely speaks anymore and when he does, it’s usually gibberish. He said, “You never give up,” more as a command than a fact, and “I love you so much.” When I was a teenager, I had felt overwhelmed by his belief in me. At that time, I think he loved me more than I loved myself. I felt that way again, but stronger in the thought of losing him.

I can’t swallow anymore because of the lump in my throat. I’m remembering all the things I wanted to say to him, but didn’t, two days ago while I sat with him and held his hand: I’m sorry I didn’t open those last chapters of your story, I’m sorry we made fun of your creative Sunday meals. Thank you for writing those letters, thank you for your food and time and love.

I sit in the pain and really let myself feel it. Sober. At first it feels like I might suffocate, so I take slow, deep breaths while I cry. I cry because I miss my father, and I cry for the moments I have missed with my own children this weekend, blurry from alcohol when they could be sharper, more vibrant in the light of reality: my older daughter singing in the talent show, my younger daughter blowing dandelion fuzz every chance she could, strands of roasted marshmallows sticky on their cheeks.

I decide it’s time to stop multiplying my depressants, so I vow to quit drinking and camping, at least for a while.

“Well,” my husband says as we pack the car, “at least we weren’t mauled by any bears.” I laugh. I breathe in the last of the evergreen, mildew, and campfire smells. I’m relieved to be leaving, but to my surprise the wilderness and the loneliness follow me home.

Carrie Friedman lives and writes in southern California. She has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, among other places. Her website is: www.carriefriedman.com

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Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, Relationships

Daylight

July 11, 2021
love

This piece was written in response to Dustin Grinnell’s essay from earlier this year, How to Fix a Bluey Heart. We love the idea of publishing response pieces, so keep them coming! 

By Sam Cooke

The first playlist I made for someone came in the form of a mix CD that I’d burnt on an old Dell desktop computer. It was a summer mix, meant to be played in my best friend’s pink Sony portable CD player as we skateboarded and biked down the backroads of our small Florida town.

I liked the feeling of sharing music with people in my life. I felt a sense of vulnerability in showing someone “this is what reminds me of you”. This particular mix, carefully curated in 2003, covered everything from “Dip It Low” by Christina Millian to “Summer of ‘69” by Bryan Adams. When the computer hissed—the sound it would make as it finished burning songs onto a CD—I felt a sense of completion. My work there was done, and my first playlist was born.

Music was also my biggest coping mechanism. It followed me through the most troubling times of my childhood. My father, the addict, provided little warmth and comfort to my two sisters and me. Perhaps the only fruitful thing he ever did for us in those early years was share his love of music. There was always a song playing, which meant that every emotion was always associated with music. My morning routine before school became second nature to me: wake up, turn on MTV’s music video hour, and have music videos playing in the background while I got ready for school. Then I’d put in my headphones on the iPod shuffle (the one that didn’t have a screen and didn’t let you choose what song you were listening to) and walk to the bus stop. I was the last of my friends to get a car, but I’d always come ready with a new playlist to listen to on the way to school. Each day, I’d fumble with their car stereos and press play for the ten-minute drive from my house to our high school.

In the age of iPhones and music streaming services, creating and sharing playlists became astronomically easier for me. When I got my first iPhone as a graduation present from my grandparents, the first app I downloaded was Pandora. Remember those days? It was a professional playlist-making service that recorded your musical interests and found songs that you would probably like based on said interests. My days of burning CDs slowly came to an end as cars began building models with AUX adaptors and Apple Music and Spotify took over. I tucked away my packet of blank CDs that were just waiting to be given a musical home and put my thumbs to work. The words “New Playlist” became ingrained in my brain.

I made playlists for myself as well: thirteen songs here and there that brought me back to a moment; a playlist of fifty-odd songs that inspired me to write; songs to listen to when I needed to feel pumped; songs to play in my ears when I was training to become a runner (that was a short-lived thirty songs). Songs were everywhere.

It wasn’t until my early twenties, though, that I realized that I wasn’t making any playlists about love. I didn’t have a high school sweetheart to remember with fondness—days spent at the beach, nights tangled up in sheets (a la “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset” by Luke Bryan). And I didn’t have a first love who would haunt relationships that I’d enter into long after their scent was off my favorite pull-over hoodie. I was twenty-two and realizing, with a jaded and bitter heart, that I had never been in love.

That didn’t mean there wasn’t heartbreak. In 2013, I listened to the song “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift on repeat. Though I don’t have the exact data points, it’s safe to assume that the total play count neared at least five hundred. I’d scream along to it in my Nissan Versa on the way to work at a hospital gift shop. My best friend Jenna and I would listen to it in her Nissan Versa on the way to the beach. When I saw Taylor Swift in concert that year, I swayed with a beer in hand as I sang along to the words, “There we are again when I loved you so.” That was the product of my first true heartbreak, a story of unrequited love with someone I worked with.      The words “I don’t feel the same” were never said, I was just left with silence. For someone who constantly has music, silence is deafening.

I wish I could say that in the years that followed, my playlists were eventually filled with love songs. But they weren’t. Even after packing up and leavingmy small hometown for New York City, where I was sure I’d meet someone to fall in love with, I was met with more heartache. I went for drinks with men who looked at their phones. I walked down busy Brooklyn streets with men who thought it was “cute” that I was trying to be a professional novelist. There are various usages of the word “cute”, and these men were not calling me attractive. They pitied me. I was cute. And though I knew many of the men I’d met were simply not a right fit, at the end of the date I’d slip my headphones back in and take the subway home filled with a sense of sadness. I felt there was something about me that was missing. And so, I’d listen to my playlists. I’d play “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift, like I mentioned, but I’d also play deeply romantic love songs that made me daydream about falling in love. These included “If I Should Fall Behind” by Bruce Springsteen and “You Get Me” by Michelle Branch. I was lovesick, not for a specific person, but for the feeling that stirred inside me when I heard a great love song.

One day, I would make a playlist for myself of songs that reminded me of the person I loved so dearly, and I would be able to share that playlist with them. And though they’d laugh at the weird variety of it—everything from U2 to Usher—they would know that my love language was making playlists. They’d listen to it in the shower or on the way to work. They’d start a song over because of a certain lyric that hit in a way they could never describe. Maybe it would be a lyric that reminded them of me. Hopefully it would be a lyric that reminded them of me.

My lack of love song playlists allowed me to really dive into what my idea of love was. I had a skewed perception. My grandparents have been married for 67 years and their relationship started as an arranged marriage in the village of Lefkara, Cyprus. They grew to love each other, though, despite not having a say in the matter. My parents seemed to have married as friends, creating a family together that then fell apart because of addiction. The day my mom filed for divorce, I don’t think she even shed a tear as she accepted full responsibility for my two sisters and me and just went about her life. And then there were my two best friends, who both fell in love at a young age and married their high school boyfriends before we were twenty-five years old. Though there were different degrees of love around me, I’d never understood how to get from first-meet to forever. I wasn’t sure if there was a path for me, or even what that would look like. Come what may, I had my playlists and my books, so I could always slip into someone else’s love story and pretend it was mine.

Then I met Dustin.

Meeting him was one of those moments in life where I wish I had kept a written record of it; what I was wearing, what my hair looked like, what song was playing on the overhead speaker that surrounded us in the lobby of the college that housed our MFA in Creative Writing program. But I don’t have any of that. I assume the first thing we said to each other was “hi”, as we were being introduced. He was one year into the program, writing fiction, and I was the new girl, starting my first semester as a writer for young people. I was in the program to write and to hone my craft, because if I wanted to be on track to be a New York Times bestseller before I was thirty, I still had a lot of learning to do. And after five minutes of talking to Dustin, I could tell he wanted the same thing. He was articulate and intelligent, and he had a sarcastic edge that went underappreciated by our classmates.

We took to each other pretty quickly. We’d eat lunch together and sit next to each other in classes. We were just on campus for ten days, as was how our low-residency MFA program worked, but in those ten days we spent hours together. One afternoon, when we both had no classes to attend, we got into his car and drove into Boston. We walked the streets of downtown and talked about everything from how different it was from where I lived in New York City, to the intimidation we felt when reading books by our favorite authors; Michael Crichton for him, Morgan Matson for me. We sat at a high top in a bar and I told him about a best friend from high school who had died the summer before, and how guilt followed me around because I hadn’t spoken to him in years. He did whatever it took to make me laugh, a trait he still brings to our dynamic two years later.

When I left Boston at the end of the ten days, I knew that what we had was special. He quickly became the person I wanted to tell the best parts about my day to and the person who would help me through the worst parts. And it was easy. To me, it felt like a no brainer that we would end up together. We had identical goals, similar personalities, and care for one another  that was deeply rooted. I should be clear that very early on we said we didn’t know what our relationship was. Some days I imagined passionate physical encounters where he’d make my body feel a way it never had before. Some days I thought about what it would be like to introduce a boyfriend to Dustin, have them get along and become friends. Most days, though, I thought about what it would be like to spend my life with him.

As the months of togetherness went on, the insecurities that had been following me around my entire life were on full display. In our early months of friendship, I’d hear about women he’d loved before. Beautiful, petite women with successful careers and wealthy families. The self-image issues that I had tried so desperately to push to the back were front and center again, and instead of trusting that I could share these with him, I ignored it. When I would come to Boston for a weekend to visit him, I would pretend that I didn’t see the notifications on his phone from dating apps or other women. I began to look at myself in the mirror and outline all the reasons he didn’t love me: I wasn’t thin enough, I wasn’t on a secure career path, I was dirt poor growing up, I wasn’t girly enough. Of course he didn’t want to be with me romantically. These were the insecurities that haunted me from men in the past, and now he was paying for it, whether he knew it or not. The assumptions that love could only look like the beautiful woman he’d dated in college settled in on me, and again, I started curating playlists about heartbreak.

Again, though, I was good at holding onto hope. I was growing tired of New York City and wanted a change of scenery. As a preschool teacher, I could find a job pretty much anywhere. So without much thought, I set my sights on Boston. I found an apartment on Facebook marketplace with three other women my age, and Dustin and I celebrated the prospect of us living less than thirty minutes away from each other. I made a playlist.

Living so close together felt like a fairytale. We would meet at a coffee shop and work on our stories over iced coffees and spicy egg sandwiches. At lunch, we’d go to the bar next door and get margaritas and nachos. We’d watch a movie together every Saturday night. Some nights, after the movie, I’d sleep on his couch and we’d make breakfast together the next morning. It felt deeply confusing and deeply fulfilling at the same time. I was so confused how I loved this man as hard as I did, but still felt like a visiting buddy from college when he’d pass me an extra pillow and blanket. And we talked about it constantly. While there were times where we did get physical, the majority of our time was spent talking, often late into the evening and continuing early the next morning. With each day that passed, I knew I was loving him harder than I’d ever thought I could love someone. We were happy.

Just a few months into me living in Boston, the coronavirus pandemic hit hard. I was sent home to teach preschool aged children a few times a week via Zoom, and Dustin worked from home as well. We had an unspoken agreement that we would still find a way to see each other. I’d ride my bike to his studio apartment or he’d pick me up and we’d bring my laptop to a park near my apartment. Without words, I began packing an overnight bag on Saturdays and we’d spend every weekend together. Everything in my life was uncertain. I didn’t know what work looked like, and with one year left in my MFA program, I had no real clue about what publishing would look like in the post-pandemic world. Dustin and I would sprawl out across his living room, me laid back in a tan recliner and him with his legs up on the couch, and we’d ponder the meaning of a writing life. We’d spend hours watching a true crime documentary, and then quote the absurdity of it all.  Slowly—painstakingly slow, actually— my insecurities were at bay. They would sneak up sometimes when I’d wander deep into my brain about the type of woman that Dustin should be with. When I eventually started sharing these insecurities with him, he told me I had every part of him. When I told him I was terrified he was going to leave me, much like my father had when I was a child, he told me he was my rock and that he wasn’t going anywhere. In the past, when I’d get lost in dark or deep thoughts, I never had a way to escape them. He notices when I start to have spiraling thoughts, whether they’re about us or a worry about my future, and he grabs my hands and pulls me out of the darkness. He’s constantly pulling me into daylight.

In my years of listening to love songs, it was implanted in me that when you meet the person who brings out a joy in your life that you didn’t know existed, you would feel it right away. You’d instantly make plans to run away with that person, surely ready to commit your life to them. Mornings would be sun shining through the window, lighting the silhouette of your soulmate perfectly. I was positive that’s what love was, that this was the only way love looked. With Dustin, I was learning that sure, love does look like that, but it also looks like the person who will hold you when you’re crying over having missed saying goodbye to your students. Love looks like knowing someone is out of K-cups and ordering them Dunkin’ Donuts on Uber Eats so they don’t go without. Love looks like bike rides along the Charles River and getting into an argument because one of us (me) can’t jump fences. Eventually, without a word of recognition, our Saturday nights turned into me lying next to him in his bed. We’d talk through the darkness, him once remarking that it felt like summer camp. He’d hold me for a little while, until one of us said goodnight and rolled over.

In our two years in each other’s lives, we taught each other what love looked like for us. I never called him my boyfriend, yet every time we left each other for the day, we’d exchange an “I love you”. And I do. I love him on a level that love songs never prepared me for—because it’s not a show. Loving him is not over-exaggerated for a good rhyme or a beautiful melody. Loving him exists on the days that feel so good I might explode, and the days that feel so bad I don’t want to get out of bed. Loving him is there when I stumble over not calling him my boyfriend and when he tells me that I helped fix his heart. “You fix it, you keep it,” we joked on Valentine’s Day.

And so, I made him a playlist: “Daylight” by Taylor Swift, “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd (which was his addition), “I Choose You” by Sarah Bareilles. But there were sad songs, too, because we were learning that love wasn’t always the perfect melody. Sometimes we would piss each other off and sometimes our feelings weren’t affected by each other at all. But we both kept our promise. We stayed put.

I’d spent my entire life thinking that love existed only in a love song, and only in the way that it was painted. You either loved someone forever or never thought of them again. It was only love if you loved them with such a physical passion that you couldn’t see straight. Love was either ‘this’ or ‘that’. To quote the song that Dustin and I both fondly say reminds us of each other, “I once believed love would be black and white, but it’s golden. Like daylight.”

And it is golden. He’ll do anything to make me laugh. He’ll challenge me when I’m being stubborn. He’ll poke me to open up, instead of going into “sad town”. He’ll tell me at all hours of the day that he believes in me, that he’s proud. With him, I have the home I always searched for and the companionship I always dreamed about. There are moments of darkness, sure, but the majority of our life together is daylight.

Sam Cooke is a Boston based writer and educator. Her fiction and essays have been published in Sad Girls Club Lit, Bluing the Blade and Prometheus Dreaming.

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emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Book Excerpts, Books I Will Read Again, Guest Posts

Stranger Care by Sarah Sentilles, an excerpt

May 2, 2021
trees

A couple of weeks ago we told you about an incredible writing opportunity available if you preorder Sarah Sentilles Stranger Care. Read more about how to join us in a generative writing workshop here. Sarah was kind enough to give us an excerpt, so if you are like me and can’t wait for the release of the book on Tuesday, here is a taste of what the buzz is about.

Excerpt from Stranger Care, by Sarah Sentilles

trailing spouse

I always imagined myself a mother. I kept a list of possible names for my future children, pictured myself pregnant and listening to fast fetal heartbeats, looking in wonder at the image on the screen. But I had reservations. I’d absorbed the messages in the cultural ether that framed motherhood as both holy work and trap. My ambivalence grew.

When Eric and I married in 2004 we agreed we’d eventually have a child, but we were busy doing other things—­writing dissertations, writing books, chasing academic jobs around the country—­and by the time we started talking in earnest about becoming parents, I was in my midthirties, and Eric was close to forty.

We moved to Southern California in 2007 and lived in a townhouse subsidized by the university where we both taught. Eric had been hired for his first tenure-­track faculty position in a graduate school of education, preparing teachers for public school classrooms. I was the “trailing spouse,” language that reminded me of the signs along some California highways that show an adult holding the hand of a small child who appears to float in the wind, feet not touching the ground.

Eric liked our life as it was. He liked our freedom, the ease of escaping to the Sierras to backpack and to the Alabama Hills to climb, the unfettered time for activism, for work that might make a difference. We could turn our attention and our resources toward all children, he reasoned, not just our own.

“You’re enough for me,” he said. “I’m okay if it’s just the two of us.”

My friends had desperately wanted to be pregnant, and many had been willing to do anything to make pregnancy possible—­take hormones, give themselves shots, find egg donors, buy sperm, endure IVF procedure after IVF procedure, go into debt, hire surrogates. Their certainty threw my uncertainty into relief.

“I don’t know what I want,” I said.

“Figure out what you want,” he said, “and we’ll do whatever you decide.”

I’d struggled for most of my life to name my desire, separate it from other people’s expectations. To know my answers to even the smallest questions—­pizza or burrito, hike or bike ride, comedy or documentary—­I had to meditate, write in my journal. And when I did manage to figure out what I wanted, it was hard for me to say it. I didn’t trust my knowing. Especially when someone else wanted something different.

Eric does not suffer from indecision. He knows what he wants, and he isn’t afraid to say it. For him, this isn’t about control. It’s about integrity and honesty. It’s about not making other people read your mind. He says what he needs, and he trusts I will do the same.

But I didn’t do the same. When it was time for us to figure out if we wanted to have a baby, I hadn’t been saying what I wanted for years. And Eric was always so sure. If I didn’t know what I wanted for dinner, then why not eat what he wanted to eat? Why not watch what he wanted to watch? Why not hike where he wanted to hike?

These little deferrals accumulate.

I imagine it feels good to be married to someone who accommodates, especially if you don’t know that’s what’s happening. It makes it easier to say “We’ll do whatever you decide” because past experience indicates we always agree.

Until we didn’t.

Until I wanted a baby, and he did not.

the biggest gift

I wanted a baby, but I’d also swallowed whole the story that being a mother would ruin my writing, ruin my life. If I have to play with trains for one more second, a friend texted me, I’m going to shoot myself. Everyone I knew who had kids complained about it. There wasn’t enough money. There wasn’t enough sleep or sex or play. There wasn’t enough time to paint or write or read. There wasn’t enough time alone or time off or time, period.

“Work, kids, marriage, health,” Eric said on repeat after he read some article in some magazine about parenthood and its demands. “Choose three.”

I didn’t believe that scarcity narrative, but I couldn’t point to anyone’s life where it wasn’t true.

Sometimes when we shopped at Target, we’d see tired parents wheeling carts filled with plastic through the aisles, kids running behind them. “Why do you want to be a mother?” Eric would ask me while a toddler screamed and threw himself on the floor next to shelves and shelves of detergent.

“Because I want to” was all I could muster.

Eric didn’t want to have a baby because of the stress parenthood would bring, but there was a deeper resistance, too. Eric loves the earth and hates what people do to it. He follows me around the house turning down heat, turning off lights. “When did you two become vampires?” a friend asked when she came over for cocktails and walked into our dark kitchen. The environmental argument against making another human was a logical one for him to make, an ethical extension of his worldview. “We’re a cancer,” he said and emailed me article after article about overpopulation and melting ice and the great Pacific garbage patch and how much an American child consumes compared to a child born somewhere else. “The biggest gift I can give to a planet under stress is not creating another human,” he said.

Knowing that Eric thought having a baby would cause the earth harm made it harder for me to admit my longing for one. How do you pit personal desire against planetary destruction?

the wisdom of mother trees

In the forest, underground, there is another world. In a single footstep, hundreds of miles of fungal networks are buried in the soil. The ecologist Suzanne Simard studies how trees use those networks to talk to each other, to communicate their needs and help their neighbors. These pathways connect trees, allowing the forest to behave as if it were a single organism. Through the fungal threads, trees share carbon. They send warnings and distress signals to one another. And they look for kin.

Scientists have mapped those underground grids, which look like our brain’s neural networks. The trees are the nodes and the fungal highways are the links. The busiest nodes are called hub trees or mother trees. A mother tree might be connected to hundreds of other trees. She nurtures her young, the new growth of the understory.

Simard wanted to know if mother trees could tell the difference between their seedlings and seedlings from other trees. And if they could, did they favor their offspring? She did an experiment. She grew mother trees alongside both kin and stranger seedlings. And it turned out mother trees knew their offspring. They colonized their kin with bigger mycorrhizal networks than they did the stranger seedlings. They sent them more carbon. They even reduced their own root competition to make room for their young. And when the mother trees were injured or dying, they sent carbon and defense signals to their seedlings, messages of wisdom that increased the resistance of their young to future stresses.

But trees also help strangers. They cooperate and share. As the climate changes, as the earth heats up, ponderosa pine, a lower elevation species, will replace Douglas fir. In a greenhouse, Simard and her team grew Douglas fir and ponderosa pine seedlings. They then injured the Doug fir that was acting as the mother tree. When the mother fir was injured, she gifted her carbon to the ponderosas. She also sent them a warning, information that gave the ponderosas an advantage as they took on a more dominant role in the ecosystem. She shared what she knew about the warming world with the trees that would take her place.

brave enough to have your heart broken

Eric and I met in divinity school in 1999. I was studying to become an Episcopal priest; he was studying to confirm that if people think they know God it is not God they know. Radical agnostic read the bumper sticker on his car. I don’t know and you don’t either. In school, instead of Does God exist? we were taught to ask What do our ideas about God do? Whom do they harm? Whom do they help? We learned to engage not whether someone’s belief about God is true—­because how could you prove it?—­but rather the ways faith affects people’s lives. That can be measured, observed, evaluated, changed.

Humans play a crucial role in creating the world in which we find ourselves, its beauty and its terror—­about this, Eric and I agree. We understand that the world is made and believe it can be unmade and remade to be more just and life-­giving for the most vulnerable among us.

But Eric thinks humans, as a species, will never choose to do that.

And I think we might.

Sarah Sentilles is a writer, teacher, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN Award for Creative Nonfiction. Her next book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, will be published by Random House in May 2021. Her writing has appeared in The New York TimesThe New YorkerOprah Magazine, Ms., Religion Dispatches, Oregon ArtsWatch, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. She’s had residencies at Hedgebrook and Yaddo. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Yale and master’s and doctoral degrees at Harvard. She is the co-founder of the Alliance of Idaho, which works to protect the human rights of immigrants by engaging in education, outreach, and advocacy at local, state, and national levels

*Excerpted from Stranger Care by Sarah Sentilles Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Sentilles. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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sentilles book stranger care

Sarah Sentilles is a writer, teacher, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN Award for Creative Nonfiction.  Her most recent book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, is the moving story of what one woman learned from fostering a newborn—about injustice, about making mistakes, about how to better love and protect people beyond our immediate kin. Sarah’s writing is lyrical and powerful and she ventures into spaces that make us uncomfortable as she speaks for the most vulnerable among us. This is a book not to be missed.

Pre-order a copy of Stranger Care to get exclusive free access to a one-hour generative writing workshop with Sarah, via Zoom on May 25th at 7pm Eastern time. If you register for the workshop and can’t attend, a recording of the event will be available. More details here.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, poetry

Morning

April 5, 2021
morning

By Eric LaFountain

Slower mornings are so much better than those

track race mornings, when the gun went off and the

sprinting began in a frantic a.m. rush.

I can’t sprint anymore,

I don’t know where that sprinter went,

I prefer if he never returns.

I’ll take my coffee in bed on a Wednesday.

Please don’t rush me or expect a prompt response.

I’m busy smelling the fresh brew now (it has notes of pecan and milk chocolate).

I like resting the warm mug on my naked

stomach and the phrase “mocha java,” the way it sounds

said aloud, how it makes my mouth water.

Are you seriously still trying to reach me?

The deadline has passed and everything is okay.

Our world is closed, our world opened, our world closed again.

I barely noticed.

Coffee beans should be oily, fragrant, decadent.

And the morning should be wide open and roomy to enjoy all of those sips.

I already told you I’m not on your timeline.

I already told you I’m not up to task.

You’re too loud, and I don’t like the sound of your voice.

It’s a bus fume voice, there are so many

bus fume voices, bad for the health, bad to be near and breathe in.

Someone told me once about Hunter-Gatherers, how they only

hunted a couple hours a day, at most, then spent the rest

relaxing in rivers and napping and having sex.

So can’t you see I’m a Hunter-Gatherer?

What’s so hard to understand?

Can we maybe try this again, start over?

Do you like the smell of my coffee?

Would you like to have some and lay in my bed?

Just climb in already, get comfortable.

I’m sorry but I forgot what we were talking about.

I forgot if the world is closed or opened or has closed again.

Eric LaFountain lives and teaches in Miami. His short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Potomac Review, Jabberwock Review, Hobart, and Pleiades. He’s currently working on a YA novel about an abandoned boy and abandoned cat. You can follow him on Instagram @eric.lafountain.

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This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Relationships

A Four Way Stop (is a conversation)

March 22, 2021
traffic

By Tanya Ward Goodman

Many years ago, fresh out of college and broke as an egg in a bakery I took a job teaching traffic school. I dutifully learned as much as I could about the rules of the road and then, a few times a week, I talked for nearly eight hours straight in a series of hotel conference rooms. In addition to a much needed paycheck, the main perk of overseeing this detention for grown ups, was my access to a group of adults, most of whom were happy to answer my questions about “the real world.” I taught them the regulations of a four-way stop and reminded them who has right of way on a hill and, in return, they gave me their opinions on everything from cheap health insurance to the best Dim Sum.

I’ve been thinking about this class lately as I drive around Los Angeles. In the twenty-five years I’ve spent in this city, traffic has become increasingly congested. My old secret, speedy routes are flooded with Wazers and every four-way stop seems to have been reduced to a hair raising game of “Chicken.” Nearly everyone seems to have one eye on the road and one eye on the screen. At stoplights, heads are bent over texts and emails and status updates.

During the lunch break at Traffic School we all ate pizza because it was included in the price of the class. Because these classes usually took place in a corporate hotel in some far flung suburb, everyone stayed together. Because no one had the opportunity of turning their faces toward the tiny screen of a phone, we all looked up and into the eyes of the person across the table. As a result of these conversations, I wound up with book recommendations, casserole recipes and once, even a date with someone’s recently divorced nephew.

A four-way stop is like a conversation. It is an exchange that requires awareness and patience and the desire to take an interest in the lives of your fellow human. At a four-way stop, the first person to arrive has the right of way. If two or more people arrive at the same time and are travelling a perpendicular route, the default always goes to the person on the right. If there isn’t a person directly to the right, the turn passes to the right of the empty space. In this way you alternate between east west traffic and north south traffic. It’s a loose and imperfect system and one that was developed when there were less cars and fewer distractions. It’s a system that relies upon eye contact and careful attention.

At the beginning of every class, I’d go around the room and ask my students what brought them to traffic school. I knew there were two ways to answer that question. It was truthful to say “because I don’t want the points on my record.” It was also truthful to say “because I was driving 85 miles per hour in a school zone.” Both answers revealed something about the student. Both answers spoke to the commonality of the group. No one argued about whether or not they belonged in traffic school. Everyone accepted the fact that they’d broken the rules. Some people may have disliked the rules or disagreed with them, but we all believed in the existence of the rules.

As I drive around my city, there appears to be less and less belief in the existence of the rules. The streets, which belong to all of us at once, seem considered by some drivers to be private property. Rules apply only when deemed convenient or without burden. The conversation of the four-way-stop has turned into a shouting match or worse, the concentrated, willful obliviousness my children call “ghosting.” From some, there is no response save the gunning of the engine and the squeal of tires.

What separates us on the streets is mostly paint. There are yellow stripes between lanes and painted shapes and words on signs to guide us and keep the peace. When I was just out of college and teaching traffic school to a room full of adults, I was moved by our general acceptance of the power of paint. That we would drive at high speeds in opposing directions separated only by a line the width of my palm seemed a shared acknowledgement of both our vulnerability and our courage. Our human bodies are soft and cars are hard. This fragility can also be applied to the rules of the road and the whisper thin strands of humanity that connect us all.

Tanya Ward Goodman is the author of “Leaving Tinkertown,” (University of New Mexico Press 2013.) Winner of New Mexico-Arizona Book Award for Best Book, Best First Book and Best NM Biography. Winner of Sarton Memoir Award and New Mexico Presswomen’s Zia Book Award. Her essays and short stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Family Magazine, The Orange County Register, Alligator Juniper, Perceptions: A Magazine of the Arts, the “Cup of Comfort” series published by Adams Media, Literary Mama, The Huffington Post and Brain Child Magazine and is a blogger for the TheNextFamily website.

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This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Abuse, Guest Posts, Relationships

Love Thy Neighbor

March 3, 2021
told

By Kelly Wallace

Biking around my Portland neighborhood, I saw a moving truck with a good looking guy front of a house. He was photographing a Bianchi bicycle in front of the fence.

“Nice bike,” I told him as I cycled by. He was tall, thin, and looked Italian with dark curly hair.

“Thanks. I’m trying to sell it on Craiglist,” he said. “I used to ride it to my job. But since I retired a year ago, I don’t need it anymore.”

“Where did you move here from?” I asked. Up close, I noticed silver mixed in with his black bangs and sexy eyes.

“I was living in Florida,” he told me.

“Well, welcome to the neighborhood,” I said. “It’s a beauty. Good luck selling it.” Cycling to my exercise class, I made a mental note to try and strike up another conversation. It was exciting to have a hot new guy so geographically desirable.

He was often out in his front yard. I stopped to chat whenever biking by. We’d chat about cycling and his luscious garden. He’d managed to retire at 40 by never going on vacations, buying everything second hand and cooking at home, he said. He spent hours planting vegetables. As a 38-year-old, brunette business consultant, with fifteen years of recovery from alcoholism under my belt, I’d purchased my own two-bedroom bungalow but felt lonely living alone. An agnostic, I didn’t want marriage or kids. The only relationship I’d been in post college was five years with someone who couldn’t commit. As a survivor of sexual abuse, emotional intimacy wasn’t easy for me.

One night I asked him if I could try some cherry tomatoes from his garden. After the tomato tasting, he offered to make me dinner. We stayed up late talking. Within weeks we were an item. On Halloween we rode in the pouring rain to haunted houses, posting pictures of each other sitting on bales of hay. We sautéed Thai green curry with shrimp in his kitchen, then played cribbage on my sofa with my brown tabby Billie. He drank a beer here and there while he cooked but it didn’t bother me. My craving for alcohol had long since disappeared.

When I was sick, he made shakshouka, a middle eastern poached egg dish. He was a great cook and offered me tips, like the importance of having a good cooking knife. He taught me how healthy food was nurturing – something I needed after struggling with drinking and starving my way through college, another byproduct of my childhood trauma.

It was so awesome with him just a few houses down, not even a car, cab or Uber away. I loved popping into his place for dinner, snuggling up to watch old episodes of “The Jersey Shore,” then going home to sleep in my own bed. It felt like the perfect distance, the trick to finding love at last.

In June, during a city wide bicycle festival we road our bikes in the Bowie vs. Prince annual ride. We dressed up in David Bowie outfits, rode through town with hundreds of others and danced in competitions featuring the two iconic musical performers. On a rare Portland snow day, when the entire city shut down, we walked around our precinct, holding hands. We went to the mountain and tried cross country skiing, gliding along groomed trails, posting goofy pictures of ourselves with a frozen lake in the background on Facebook.

I invited him to my family Thanksgiving. Roasting cauliflower and delicata squash in the morning at his house, he prepared dishes to take to my dad and stepmom’s house an hour way. We feasted on turkey, mashed potatoes, and my stepmom’s famous lime green Jello salad. My dad and stepmom rarely drank. After years of not talking to them, we’d reconciled in therapy. On one visit, my stepmom and Dad sang “Walkin’ After Midnight,” by Patsy Cline in my beau’s living room while he accompanied on guitar. I loved watching him play, a remnant of his former life as a high school band teacher, before I knew him.

I was traveling a lot, mostly by myself. I went to the Women’s March in Washington, then to Atlanta to visit my cousin, renting Airbnb’s. I admitted that the owner of an apartment in Kyoto had invited me to go out for a beer, but I’d turned him down. Though I’d declined his invite, my boyfriend thought I was hanging out with him. I reassured him I wasn’t for hours over Skype.

“He seems too possessive,” my pal Julie said one night. “He’s sounds narcissistic.” She had a masters in vocational rehabilitation and knew about personality disorders. After a fight, I told him what Julie had said.

 “So Julie thinks I’m a narcissist? What did you say when she said that?” He asked while making parsnip puree at the hot stove.

“I told her I didn’t think it was true,” I said, but I had doubts, tucking away her observation.

A psychic once told me, “You are a loner in this lifetime.” At seven, I told my mom that I was being molested by my paternal grandpa. She believed me. My dad did not. At eight, I testified against my father’s father in a courtroom and his side of the family turned against me. They insisted I wasn’t telling the truth. He was found not guilty. I thought it was all my fault. I didn’t know sexual assault cases were incredibly difficult to prove in a court of law – the chances of conviction were less than 3%.

As an adult, I escaped to college 3000 miles away. Now, with my partner’s charismatic personality, he was a bridge to my paternal relatives, making me feel more protected and at ease around them. Besides, they had a four-month old border collie that he loved to play with and soon he got his own dog.

My boyfriend adopted a twelve-week old golden lab mix, Augie, and he watched YouTube videos to learn to teach him new tricks. At a special store that sold only organic pet toys, he bought the puppy a special synthetic tennis ball.

The puppy went everywhere with him. He bought a trailer for his bike to put him in and watched videos on how to get the canine to be comfortable in the carrier. We went out to dinner one night, biking with the Augie in the trailer as a test run and sat at a picnic table with us after we ate. “Take a picture of us,” he asked as he fed the dog the leftover pizza crusts. I uploaded it to Instagram. It seemed insanely cute.

Weeks later, I went to upstate New York for my college reunion. As soon as I landed, we argued over the phone. I didn’t tell my girlfriends what was happening. I thought I could follow what the relationship book I’d consulted said: keep the lines of communication open and try to make it work. My beau posted videos of himself training the pup. I was glad he had company while I was away.

On the last day, there was an event at a winery. Not knowing what to do with myself at the winery and surrounded by drinking, I followed my schoolmates, Melissa, Katie, and Tuesday, listening to their interchanges about their kids, and work life. All three were happily married. I broke down crying.

“What’s going on?” Katie put her arm around my shoulder.

“It’s not working out with my boyfriend,” I admitted. “We’ve been fighting all weekend.”

“Let’s go out the parking lot,” Melissa said. Tuesday followed behind.

“Your marriages are perfect and I feel like a failure in comparison,” I confessed. “But I feel stuck since he lives down the street from me and wants to be together.”

We stood in a circle like a college football huddle.

“We aren’t perfect,” Tuesday said.

 “But if you’re not in love and happy, you don’t have to stay,” Melissa said.

“He has his puppy,” Melissa reassured. “He’ll meet someone else.”

I finally realized I could put a stop to it, just like as a child when I told my mom what happened. I broke up with him calmly over the phone.

Now, entering my twentieth year of sobriety, we still live on the the same block. I see him walking his dog every day but keep my distance. We had some good times together and I don’t regret loving him but I’m relieved it’s over. I’m more comfortable being single. The only downside of dating a neighbor three houses down is I have to keep seeing him long after I stopped seeing him. But when I try out a new vegetable recipe I think of him fondly and all that he taught me about cooking and nourishing myself.

Kelly Wallace recently completed work on The Book of Kelly, a memoir, about her experience as an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She previously had words in On Loan From the Cosmos and The Manifest-Station.

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A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Relationships

Revenge Outfit

February 24, 2021
roger

By Amy Turner

“Always be dressed like you’re going to run into your ex” was a maxim a friend trotted out recently and I had an urge to fight it. But could also not help thinking about Roger. Roger was a man I dated. A stylish, bitter, brilliant man. A Goop kind of man. Which at a certain age, is appealing. Until there are too many lip balms and you want to be the vain one. The other thing he had was impeccable taste. So, when I began shopping, after we’d broken up, I’d stand in the mirror, looking at a blouse and think: would Roger like this?

It was awful. His ghost floated in the mirror behind me, squinting, the way he had during our relationship. Judging my taste, body, all of it.

Was this the height of low self esteem? Yes!  But sometimes the universe pinches with one hand and provides with the other. Because Roger had no qualms about buying the perfect thing. Whereas I was nothing but qualms, which resulted in piles of ill-fitting bargain dresses.

Until we broke up: and in a fit of rage, I spent money. I will never be superficial and unkind, I promised myself, purchasing a Marc Jacobs blouse. I wore the blouse to an editor’s fashion launch and when I was told I looked fantastic it was true.  Good silk did look fantastic. Previously, I would go to events like that, in a sad poly blend singing out in defense, I am an artist, I am not materialistic! Then I’d walk in and a wave of shame would render me mute. Which is not helpful for writers even if you do go to a lot of therapy.

That ex-boyfriend knew clothes were armor. He knew people thin slice. I remember asking him, why do you judge people externally? Saves time, he said with a laugh. I burned. What a garbage person. What an absolute cretin. But he had asked me to dinner five years earlier I was wearing a safety orange t-shirt, Levis, and combat boots.  So, unless he was turned on by highway maintenance workers, his theory needed work.

Thankfully, we broke up and my re-active era of fancy clothes waned. Sure, it felt nice. But it also felt like a bid for value.  I began looking around my world for a gentler person to put in my dressing room with me. I kicked Roger out and I decided on… my hair colorist, G. Good colorists are prime visual movers and I appreciate healthy tricks/support.  She’s a master of subtle improvements and looks like Los Angeles cool plus health. (If my hair salon doesn’t intimidate me, I’m not interested.) So, now I think would I go see G in this.  I know that if I would feel comfortable wearing it to see her, I’m keeping it.

The things I’m not keeping? The pile on the floor that says: You could wear that skirt to a luncheon, if you could find a matching sweater (What luncheon? Where is the sweater? Is Nixon president?). This dress is an Around The House Dress (Because the print is vile and it is okay to torture people in the house?). Those pants are not the right length but good for work. (Work is asexual, be a corgi! Who cares!)

It is how a lot of people shop. It is not bad, per see. But it leads to purchases that require justifying.  The way my relationship with Roger needed justifying. He is good at constructing drinks involving espresso and tequila. He is not good for going to your folks for Thanksgiving. He is good for making jokes. He is not good for revealing tender dreams. He is good for doing 60 down Beverly in a Bavarian twin turbo engine. He is not good if you want to feel safe. We had a lot of caveats in our relationship, namely I couldn’t talk about my feelings. It’s seemed all his feelings were funneled into the latest Paul Smith shirt he bought. Worn to coffee, the beach, and meetings. Until I ended things and he cursed me for longing for mediocrity/wanting to go the speed limit/feel safe.  But I could not place my heart in a shirt.  Fancy or otherwise.

Now, my clothes can be from anywhere. Zara, Target, or the vintage store on third where I got the Marant blouse that was still too expensive, but they must feel beautiful.  I would be happy to run into my ex in these outfits. Happy to have made it through mimicking his extravagance in my thirties, learning what I value. Which was not what he did.

The adage ‘women dress for women’ is more true for me now, despite being a woman who dressed to run into her ex-boyfriend for a few years. I’m not mad. It tamped out my I’m-a scrappy-art monster-who-will-never-invest-in-herself attitude.  But it’s a relief to not have him hovering in my closet.

Recently, we ran into each other on the street.  He looked me up and down, just like the phantom I’d imagined in my mirror.

When he asked me to dinner, I said no.

Which felt so good, I can’t even remember what I was wearing.

Sometimes, boundaries are the cutest.

Amy Turner lives in Los Angeles and writes in TV.

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Rebecca Solnit’s story of  life in San Francisco in the 1980s is as much memoir as it is social commentary. Becoming an activist and a writer in a society that prefers women be silent is a central theme. If you are unfamiliar with Solnit’s work, this is a good entry point. If you are familiar with her writing, this is a must read as she discusses what liberated her as a writer when she was discovering herself as a person. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Gender & Sexuality, Guest Posts

Dan Chalmers

January 21, 2021
dan

By Christine Heuner

“He’s doing it again,” Gianna reported at lunch, looking across the cafeteria at Dan Chalmers, his eyes fixed on Rachel.

Gianna nudged Rachel. “Hey,” she said. “Look.”

Rachel flickered her eyes to see Dan’s eyes on her. When he caught her glance, he looked away.

“See,” Gianna said. “Told you.”

“Quit it,” Rachel said, looking down at her anatomy notes.

In anatomy class, Rachel and Dan, both high-school juniors, were lab partners. He took the lead in dissecting a cat, and she was grateful.

She hadn’t noticed him looking at her until hawk-eyed Gianna picked up on it. Gianna also heard from Allison Levy who heard from Owen Lehrer that Dan had a crush on Rachel, and Owen was always a steady, reliable source. The only interaction Rachel had with Dan other than the cat dissection was when she bumped into him in the threshold between the hallway and classroom. They moved to get out of each other’s way, but ended up shifting in the same direction. They smiled; Dan might’ve said he was sorry.

But Rachel couldn’t dedicate her thoughts to Dan. Only weeks ago, she and her best friend of one year, Val, had taken off their clothes in Val’s room while Val’s parents were out. Facing each other in Val’s bed, they made each other feel good. Rachel had never been attracted to another girl, and her lingering feelings about Val confused her. She tried to find other girls attractive, focusing on the swell of their breasts, their curves. She fixed her attention on eyes, lips, hair, but only Val’s dimpled smile, her full, glossy lips, brown eyes, and shoulder-length blond hair, loose and curly, snagged Rachel’s attention. Rachel noticed how good Val looked in her leggings. Her cut-off shirts revealed her belly button and light skin. When Val spoke, she gestured with her hands. Her laugh was as bright as her costume jewelry.

Rachel was excited the next time she and Val were alone in Val’s room; she sat closer to Val than she usually did while Val sketched and Rachel painted with watercolors. When they watched a horror movie, Rachel leaned closer to Val, put her head on her shoulder, and held her hand. They rested their arms on Val’s thigh. Rachel hoped Val might change her position, lean in and kiss her, but she didn’t. Rachel assumed Val was anxious about her parents coming in her room, but another day when Val’s parents were both out to dinner, Val didn’t come closer as Rachel hoped she would. Val never asked to touch her again, and Rachel wondered if Val thought their moment in her bed was a mistake or a distraction from boredom. Rachel’s stomach lifted when she thought of them together, and then fall with shame for what she wasn’t supposed to feel.

Rachel tried to keep a distance between her and Val. She lazed around the house, muddled through chores, watched romance films with tidy endings. She attended to her grades as a distraction and to keep her parents off her case. She memorized the limbic system, math formulas, irregular verbs. She fed and walked her dog Cinnamon, played with her ferret Stella, went out on two dates with Jonas Martino, a senior. He made good money at his part-time construction job and flashed his thick wallet, bulging indiscreetly from his back jeans pocket.

After dinner and a drive through the mountains, where Jonas pointed out his favorite estates, he parked his Jeep in a dark parking lot and pressed his tongue in Rachel’s mouth. He tried to go up her shirt. She pushed him away. “Stop.”

His eyes narrowed in hostile impatience. “If that’s the way you want it,” he said.

She wanted a slow kiss from soft lips, gentle fingers, hair on her cheek, the smell of lavender shampoo, vanilla and honeysuckle. “Keep doing what you’re doing,” she had told Val. “Don’t stop.”

Unable to restrain herself, Rachel cried.

“Holy shit,” Jonas said. “Sorry.”

Rachel wiped her cheeks in quick fury, snapping, “I’m fine.”

As Jonas drove her home, she recalled Val scratching her back, laughing as Rachel murmured, “That feels so good.”

Rachel shivered; chills raised bumps on her arms.

I’ll never be free of this.

I don’t want to be free.

Rachel hung out a few times with Gianna, but only felt an aching emptiness when they sat in her dull blue-gray room, listening to music, gossiping about bullshit. She imagined kissing Gianna, but the thought enticed her as much as kissing her own hand.

Tuesdays after school, Rachel stayed late for Key Club. Her mother wanted her to join more activities, and this was Rachel’s compromise. While she waited for her mother to pick her up, Dan Chalmers approached her in the near-empty parking lot.

“I fixed up my Corvette,” he said, tipping his head vaguely to the right. “Do you want to go for a ride?”

He was the only red-head she knew. He had small eyes and flecks of acne on his cheeks. He smiled hesitantly, as if the wrong word from her might destroy him.

“Sorry. I’m busy. I have all this homework.”

“Maybe we can study together then.”

“I don’t think so.” She shifted her backpack straps.

He came closer to her with surprising quickness. His body was long and lean. “I like you a lot, Rachel.”

She shook her head.

“I think about you all the time.”

“You’ll get over it,” she could have said, but he had been kind to her, slicing into the cat’s chest cavity while she gagged, giving her his notes when she was absent with strep throat.

“Won’t you give me a chance? I’ve had a crush on you for so long.”

And yet she had not noticed it other than what Gianna reported. Now, she wondered if Mrs. Moss, their anatomy teacher, knew about this crush and assigned them as lab partners, hoping for the best.

“I’m sorry. I really am.”

“Is there someone else?”

Unbidden, an image of Val, laughing, dimples pressed into her cheeks, rose to the surface. She shivered, remembering Val’s fingers on her skin.

She shook her head. “I’m just not ready.”

He kicked at the pavement with his black Nike sneaker. “Do you think you could ever be ready?”

“I don’t know.”

He exhaled a labored breath and slouched his shoulders. He was too thin. “Can’t we just go for a drive? The car is great. You’ll love it.”

She couldn’t tell if his persistence was more exasperating than her consistent refusals. It pained her to see his cheeks flushed, the acne more prominent.

“I can’t.” Why was her mother so late?

“You mean you won’t.”

“I guess.”

“Will you at least think about it?”

She nodded, but his expression fell, his hope gone.

As her mother drove home, Rachel imagined telling Val and the rest of her friends about Dan, but decided to keep his agony to herself. Another thought of Val intruded: They got out of Val’s bed that day, naked, a little shy with each other. They handed each other their clothes and dressed in silence. It was a complete moment, a fulfillment of a desire they’d hidden or didn’t know they had. But Val, somehow, stuffed it away. Rachel’s heart sank as if, instead of Dan, she were the one rejected, left alone to suffer.   

Val continued calling Rachel, asking to get together. Finally, Rachel gave in, accepting Val’s request to go to the Halloween bash as zombies. Val had been practicing makeup techniques online. “I can do wounds,” she said. “I’m perfecting the weeping sore.”

Rachel and Val spent hours in Val’s room getting ready. Rachel’s mother, Kate, came to take pictures.

“This is absolutely disgusting,” Kate said, wincing at the bruise on Rachel’s eye, the oozing gash on her cheek.

Rachel gave her mother a look.

“I mean it in a good way,” Kate said. “You’re talented, Val. You should do makeup for Hollywood.” Val beamed. Her lipstick, the deep-red of blood, made her lips look kissable.

At the Halloween bash in the school gym, all the chaperones made Rachel and Val pose for pictures in their ripped flannels and jeans and boots, their hair wild, teased with a comb and hair sprayed. Everyone agreed that if zombies walked the earth, this is what they would look like. The principal created an award for Val, giving her free cupcakes and snacks. She took her fairy godmother wand, a shimmery silver baton with streamers, and handed it to Val.

“Here, my dear,” she said. “You’re queen of the apocalypse.”

 Val laughed and took the wand. “Not sure you want me to be in charge, Mrs. Cullen, but okay.” She pointed the wand at her friends. “Now, who am I going to turn into a frog?”

In spite of the music, played at normal volume, not many people danced; Rachel and Val gathered with Gianna and Gianna’s friend Tara by the bleachers. Rachel startled to see Dan Chalmers, dressed as Pennywise the clown, by her side.

“You look really creepy,” Rachel said. “Who did your makeup?”

“My Dad.” Rachel imagined that Dan came from an intact family like her own. He might have told his father about her, plied him for advice about how to ask her out.

“Your dad did your makeup?”

“Yeah. He has a steady hand. He paints model airplanes and boats.” Dan rocked back and forth on his heels. He would have a good father. That sounded right.

“So,” Rachel said. What else could she say?

“You did a great job on your makeup,” he said. Val, seated not far from Rachel, looked up.

“It’s all Val,” Rachel said. Val turned and smiled. Rachel’s felt a warm pressure in her chest.

“Awesome job, Val,” Dan said, raising his voice and leaning in.

She acknowledged him with a wave of her wand. “I did it by magic.”

“Huh,” he said as Rachel felt herself grow warmer. She knew Dan wanted to speak to her, erase the rest of them.

Rachel noticed that Tara made eye contact with Gianna, opened her eyes wide and tipped her head to the left. Gianna gave a quick glance over her shoulder at Dan and said, “Hey, guys. Let’s get something to drink.” She still had a soda can in her hand.

Only Val looked back at Rachel, shrugged her shoulders, mouthed “I’m sorry,” and, swinging her wand, jogged to catch up with the others.

“That was subtle,” Dan said. Rachel had to smile.

“I didn’t mean to take you from your friends. I just thought I’d come say hi. How are you?” He had to raise his voice a little to talk over “Thriller.” He leaned in toward her, smelling vaguely of Axe. She wondered if he’d put it on, hoping to see her. To impress. He’d helped raise her grade from a ‘C’ to a ‘B+’ in anatomy, and she was grateful, but standing beside him all she wanted to do was escape. She wanted to be with her friends.

“I’m good,” Rachel said, looking away. It was hard to look at the clown makeup without feeling uneasy.

“So, maybe… I was wondering if you might like to go out sometime.”

“Dan—”

“It doesn’t have to be like a date. We could just go as friends.”

But we’re not friends. “I don’t know.”

His voice tensed. “What does that even mean?”

His eyes, black-rimmed, looked cruel; the red slivers of makeup, sharp against the white background, ran vertically from his forehead to the edges of his mouth like ribbons of blood. This and his red hair, thick on top, looked menacing.

“I don’t know,” she said again; sweat gathered on her forehead.

“You think I’m a loser, don’t you? You think I’m pathetic.” His voice was flat; dull.

“No.”

“I am, maybe,” he said, looking down. He tapped his black Nike sneaker against the base of the bleacher. “You know I’m crazy about you. I’ve made it so obvious.”

She looked down at her nails, painted black. Val had decorated her completely.

Crazy about you.

When she didn’t answer, he said, “This is going to sound stupid to you, but I feel like we belong together.”

“How could you possibly know that?” she said, an arch rising in her voice. “You don’t even know me that well.”

He spoke methodically, as if reciting a list: “I know you love animals. I know you’re a good friend, especially to Val. You work hard, you listen well. I like your clothes. Your hair—”

This hair?” she said, pointing at her ragged head, the raised strands stiff with hairspray.

He smiled, but she sensed his latent annoyance at being interrupted. He shifted his position and cracked his knuckles.

“I notice you. I notice everything about you. You’re beautiful, Rachel.”

There was no way to make her escape. She felt dizzy. Trapped. Yet she had an impulse to kiss him on his white, unblemished cheek. She almost smiled, thinking of the silly image: this zombie and clown sharing a moment of affection.

“I don’t like you that way, Dan. I just don’t. I’m sorry. And I can’t go out as friends, pretending… you know. Why waste your money on me?”

He gave her an actual smile. Combined with the painted-on grin, he looked like he wanted to rip her head off. She shivered.

“It wouldn’t be a waste. I’d be honored.”

She shook her head, knowing how ridiculous she must look with her weeping wound and her teased hair, so messy and fake amidst all this gravity.

“I’ve got to go,” she said. She turned around, walked a few paces, then turned back. “I just want to tell you: You’re the bravest person I know.”

After the Halloween bash, Val and Rachel waited outside the gym for Rachel’s mother to pick them up. Val told Rachel she had a boyfriend named Clay who she met online.

Rachel’s head spun and temples throbbed. “Online? Where online?”

“He follows me on Instagram. Does it matter?”

Rachel pressed her with questions: How old is he? Where does he go to school? What does he look like?

“He’s almost twenty-one. He works for a towing company. He has brown hair, brownish eyes. They’re light brown, sort of like maple syrup.”

Rachel looked at Val’s dark lips, the fake blood smeared on her cheek; it looked almost like a bruise under the streetlamps.

“What?” Val asked. “I thought you’d be happy for me.”

Rachel’s chest burned; her stomach lurched. She felt hot; even her scalp prickled. “What about that day with you and me in your room? What about that?”

Val looked away; Rachel could not sense of Val were angry, sad, or simply indifferent.

Rachel touched Val’s arm gently. “Val?”

“It was good,” Val said, though her expression belied her words, her mouth pulled down, her eyes askance. “But you know it can’t be more than that. I—”

“Why not?” Rachel spoke with a new confidence, born of anger. Good wasn’t a strong enough word. She pressed against it.

“Because we’re not gay, Rach. That’s why not.”

Rachel felt dizzy; nausea gripped her. “You know what, Val? You can just fuck off.”

She stepped away from Val just as her mother pulled up in her Escalade. Rachel got in the passenger seat, left Val to sit by herself in the backseat.

At Val’s house, Val said, “Thank you, Mrs. Downey,” and gave Rachel a weak good-bye that she did not answer.

“What is it?” her mother said as soon as Val closed the door. “Oh, sweetie,” she said. “Come here.”

Rachel shook her head; her mother handed her a tissue. Rachel wiped her face, the tissue smeared with red paint that looked like bright blood. Rachel shivered, recalling Val’s fingers on her skin as she applied the make-up, her warm breath on her cheek.

She imagined Val kissing over-aged Clay, her tongue in his mouth, her satisfied smile as she pulled away, gazing into his maple-syrup eyes. Rachel wished she could recall the feel of Val’s tongue upon hers, the taste of her, but she could not. It was as if the entire moment was a fantasy, fake as the costumes Val conjured for them.

When Rachel got home, she ran to the bathroom, stared at the face Val had created: the damaged cheek, the hollowed eyes surrounded with blue-and-purple shadows as if she’d been punched.

At the cafeteria the following Monday, Rachel approached Dan Chalmers at his lunch table, asking quietly if they could talk. He had just taken a bite of a whole-wheat sandwich. She could feel all of his friends looking at her.

“What’s up?” he asked as they stood by the vending machines.

“I’m ready to go out… I mean, if you still want to.”

He paused as if he hadn’t heard her correctly.

“You mean it?” he asked. “This isn’t some bet?”

“Of course not,” she said. “I’m sorry I put you off before.” She noticed his acne had cleared a bit. He wore a dark green Henley that accentuated his light green eyes. He looked almost handsome.

In the dark movie theater, Rachel settled close to Dan. He was hesitant, holding her hand like an egg. He told her she smelled good.

Rachel thought all night about whether or not he would try to kiss her.

In her driveway, he leaned toward Rachel in his Corvette, a barely perceptible motion. She moved in, uniting their lips, touching her tongue to his. She closed her eyes, and she was in Val’s room, Val’s bed.

It was Val’s lips she kissed.

Christine C. Heuner has been teaching high-school English for over twenty years. She lives with her family in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Narrative, Philadelphia Stories, Flash Fiction magazine, and others.

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Guest Posts, Self Care, Self Image

Resistant as F*ck, part 2

January 14, 2021
body

This is part two of a two part essay.  Read the first installment here.

By Melody Greenfield

Drew agrees to come back later in the week. In preparation for his arrival, I light some candles, curl my hair in loose, sexy waves, and down the requisite two glasses of wine, just like I’d done at the bar. Just like always. I’m uptight by nature, and a bit of vino helps me to relax the way that, years later, yoga nidra meditation will.

Greeting Drew at the door, I feel confident and uninhibited. I go to give him a long kiss, then lift up his shirt and run my hands against his strong, warm abdomen. He tenses up instantly.

“I don’t usually do things like this—sex on the first date,” he confesses in his smooth, sexy voice as he takes a seat in the overstuffed chair. “And now, I don’t know if we’re good together anywhere but here,” he motions over to my bed.

I sit on the ottoman facing him and reach up for his face. I try to pull it towards mine in an effort to comfort us both, but he backs away again—resisting my touch, my advances.

“Stop trying to distract me with your eyes and your feminine wiles,” he warns me. “I know what you’re doing. Focus for a minute. I want to talk to you.”

I attempt to seduce him the way I do every man—with a look that will be his undoing—but he sees right through me, even though he’s half blind.

“Sex too soon…” his voice trails off. “It ruins things. I mean it.” He is opening himself up to me, but I want him to open me up, instead. I decide that if I refresh his memory on our compatibility in bed, it will prove, somehow, that we work well everywhere. “Seriously,” Drew says. “You’re so beautiful and way too smart to be doing these kinds of things. Why do you do them?”

I get quiet for a minute. “I don’t know,” I sigh, looking down. I refuse to say out loud what I already half-intuit. That I want to feel powerful, desired, sought after. That I hope his physical yearning for me will translate, miraculously, into love. That at the same time, I am too scared to delve into something real, for fear I’ll get hurt. My childhood babysitter was right: I do have walls up all around me.

I can stand naked before this man, but I can’t expose more than flesh. That would be riskier than the unprotected sex we’ve already had. Here in this moment, I don’t want to face reality. Or my patterns. So, I lift my chin back up and give him a puzzled look like I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. I suspect though, that by being inside my body, Drew has somehow gained access to all of these answers; to my psyche; to the stories I hold tight in the core of me; to the secrets I bury between my legs. And, of course, this makes him the exception. He may be the first person since the babysitter, who knew me well, to read me in this way. He is that rare soul—unusually perceptive and sensitive to those around him—who picks up on things that others shrug off, just like I’m doing now in hopes of barring him from the truths of me.

It’s not working though. He wants answers. I make my mouth go all pouty and give him my best distracting, sultry stare. Think Blue Steel from Zoolander, only sexier. Maybe that will do the trick, I think, but it’s no use either.

“I’m not going to sleep with you tonight, you know,” he says, disappointed at my blatant attempts at seduction. “We really have to start over if we’re going to do this right,” he continues, softer.

But I have a different idea. Reliant as ever on my sexuality, I wrap my legs around his body and plead for him to touch me. I convince myself that I can make this man love me without so much as knowing me. (To his credit, I should probably know and love myself, first.) I convince myself that a purely sensory experience can open his heart, as I believe it has mine. I convince myself that I’m good at convincing, but again, Drew is the outlier.

“I should go,” he says brashly, the upset visible on his face, in his eye, even in the candlelight.

“Don’t leave,” I plead, my buzz wearing off quickly. I tell him, as I’ve told so many others before him, that I hate it when you go. I yearn, instead, to feel that release, that human connection and contact that drives me. But I don’t share that. Nor do I share that there is a part of me that goes through the motions of sex for the afterward, when the guy pulls you in close and falls asleep with his nose in your hair. Or that listening as a man’s heartbeat slows to a normal rhythm, your ear to his chest, is the closest thing you can get to a real connection with a veritable stranger. Or that watching my partner close his eyes peacefully in my bed is, for me, the ultimate feeling of security.

I never get the chance.

“You left your jacket here,” I inform his message machine and type to his phone mere moments later. “Do you want to come back to get it?” I ask, but he doesn’t answer. Suddenly nauseous, I realize that he isn’t going to reply, that I have sabotaged another potential relationship, alienated another partner, and I am to blame. His forgotten belonging, his fleecy overcoat, serves as the sole reminder of what we shared: the passion, the intensity, the feel-good endorphins I confused for real emotions; the connection I futilely hoped would extend beyond the physical. Alone in the bed we so recently shared, I breathe him in with a pang of regret. If I can’t have him beside me or inside me, at least I can have his sweet scent. I cling to his sweatshirt pathetically, leaving a trail of salt in its soft hood—a realization which makes me think of his manhood and our lovemaking all over again.

***

“We’ll always have real estate in each other’s important zip codes,” Drew tells me some months later, after I’ve informed him of my impending move, and he’s decided there are no hard feelings. I’m not entirely sure what he means by the real estate comment (he often says things that go over my head, and I chalk it up to a mismatch in intelligence—he’s lightyears ahead of me, despite having no formal education beyond the twelfth grade), but he claims it’s a good thing. Something no one can take away from us. Something as resistant as tear stains on a jacket, or so he jokes, after I sheepishly out myself. We’re both giant (albeit good-looking) nerds, and his smart sense of humor endears me to him even more. Fortunately, Drew remains open to texting and talking occasionally. I even manage to convince him that we should celebrate his thirty-first birthday together. He’s not typically one for celebrating, he says, but I insist. I like making a big deal over people to let them know how much I care.

I bring a personalized cake over to his place, a studio apartment in Burbank. I bring his jacket, too. He’s grateful but doesn’t beg me to stay—that night or in the country—as I’d hoped. Instead, after he blows out his candle and makes a wish, he offers to walk me out to my car. I stall by petting Rowdy. That’s a good girl, I say to her, even though I’m totally clueless when it comes to animals. (My parents gave the dog away when I was a baby, and I haven’t had one since.) I’ve always hated leaving, hated being left. But this goodbye is especially tough—especially poignant—because it’s final. In just a few weeks’ time, I’ll be Canada-bound.

His parting words to me: “I really could have loved you, if only you’d let me.”

 ***

I think of Drew occasionally, even now, three-plus years into a happy marriage. That last sentence specifically—more than the smell of him or his touch or the way he saw into my soul— sticks with me. At the time, it gutted me. During quiet, reflective moments, I’ve been known to mouth a silent “thank you” or two into the ether. I like to think he sparked a resistance inside of me—a revolution of sorts. Though we hardly knew each other, despite a physical connection that felt transcendent, even spiritual, the way he cared for my body, loved my body, made me want to care more, too. By the time I met my now-husband Eric, a few months into my international move, I was ready to believe what I now know to be true—that my body is a fucking masterpiece. And it was Drew who laid the groundwork, the foundation.

Ironically, in older homes, like the ones you’ll often find in less-affluent Canadian suburbs, foundations are built of brick as opposed to concrete. Brick—the very material I envisioned when my childhood babysitter told me I had walls up all around me. Drew strengthened the foundation, but he also began to chip away at those walls, brick by brick. Why do you do it? he’d asked about the way I mistreated my body, the implication being: Why don’t you love yourself the way I could have loved you? Maybe it sounds cruel—how he put the onus all on me. But we’ve kept in touch, very loosely, over the years. A “happy birthday” here; a “you were a beautiful bride,” there; and, most recently, an encouraging nod about my writing: “The vulnerability you write with is a gift. More people should be able to read your beautiful words,” he said after clicking on the link to a published essay I’d posted on social media. I know he had the very best of intentions. That he faulted himself for sleeping with me “too soon” as much as he blamed me. We both met our b’sherts—the life-partners we were destined to be with—after we almost-loved one another. It comforts me to think that we launched each other into loves that are an even better fit.

***

If I rewind back to my childhood, I’m confronted by my own fragility: I had a high resistance to, a low tolerance for, heartbreak—despite the hard façade I presented to the world. I feared that men would leave, like my emotionally-absent father already had, so I gave them my body—my amazing, beautiful body, my chef- d’oeuvre—without having to earn it. I was resistant to change this pattern because it had become comfortable, routine. What’s more, I resisted the truth about my own body—its inherent greatness—because acknowledging it would have required a shift: I’d have to start caring for myself the way it cared for me. The way Drew cared. The way Eric still does.

I never had to pray for Eric’s love—he gave it freely, the way I gave myself to the ninety-three men who preceded him. His gestures, his lightness—they reminded me of Drew. Of what might have been but never was. This is intimacy, I thought on our first night together. This is what people do when they care. This is how bodies care. How they love: gently, with small caresses. I want to respect your body, he told me, and he showed me with his actions too, looking deep into my eyes—blue-to-blue. He saw my body as something sacred. As the foundation to build his love upon. The very foundation that Drew had strengthened and simultaneously dismantled.

But I had to do the inner-work necessary to believe him. To believe them: Eric and Drew and all the bedfellows prior. If talk is cheap, pillow-talk is cheaper. Through my Pilates practice, I learned the importance of opposition. In Pilates, we stretch in two directions at once. We press down to go up. Reach forward but pull back. I was learning to be two things at once, too. I could strengthen my bones and muscles—harden my core—without also hardening my insides. I could be as emotionally pliable outside the studio as I was physically pliable on my mat.

In college, I’d written a children’s story about a turtle named Sammy with a tough exterior but sweet interior. I didn’t even know I was writing about myself. A sixth-grade student aptly pointed it out to me after I read the story aloud. (I dabbled in teaching English before ditching the kids and books for adults and Pilates equipment.) Ms. Greenfield—you’re Sammy. You’re the turtle! Strong center, soft heart-center: of course, I was. It was an opposition as true as the Pilates ones I still preach. How obvious it seems now in hindsight.

To some extent, although my walls are low enough for a wolf—big, bad, or otherwise—or a genuine suitor, like my husband, to get in, I wrestle with my Sammy-like tendencies, even today. But I know there’s been a shift, an easing. What protects me aren’t bricks or a turtle shell anymore so much as the physical body I’ve built for myself. (Think: less plaster, more abs of steel.) But it’s not physical perfection I’m after, either. This pièce de resistance is perfect in its imperfections, the stretch marks and scars proof of where I’ve been and how far we—this body and I—have come.

“MELODY GREENFIELD” has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing (CNF) from Antioch University Los Angeles. The LA-native and Pilates instructor has been published under this pseudonym in The Los Angeles Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and forthcoming in HOOT. Her work can also be found under a different name in Brevity, Lunch Ticket, Annotation Nation, and Meow Meow Pow Pow. She enjoys reading CNF, furthering her Pilates practice, and occasionally curling her hair and getting out of stretchy pants to enjoy this pandemic-life with her aforementioned husband. Melody can be found here on Facebook and as @melodygreenfield_writer on Instagram.

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Guest Posts, Self Care, Self Image

Resistant as F*ck, part 1

January 13, 2021

Photo credit: Peak Pilates

This is part one of a two part essay.  Read part two here

By Melody Greenfield

My body is a masterpiece.

Sacred.

A pièce de résistance.  

An amazing doer of all the gerunds: twisting; bending; reaching; rounding; arching; fucking; praying.

But for so long I didn’t regard it as such or even so much as respect it. As a pre-teen and teen, I deprived my body of food. I chided myself for the way I stored fat on my cellulite-ridden thighs. For the way I resembled my pear-shaped, chef-mother. The photos, however, tell a different story: I was thin enough to slide through a fence; I was simply developing faster than other girls my age. What I thought was fat was actually just my new womanly shape (hello, hips!). What I thought was cellulite could only be seen under a microscope if I pinched and squished and otherwise manipulated and contorted my skin. I exercised compulsively (if there was an informercial for it, I owned it), then went through rebellious periods where I was completely sedentary. This pattern continued on into my twenties, when I doubled-down on misusing my body—sleeping with too many men, often unprotected. My type (aside from tall, dark-haired, bespectacled, and Jewish) was whatever was new. Fortunately, my body was resistant…to STIs.

My heart did its fair share of resisting too—always looking to dodge suffering. My childhood babysitter once told me, on a walk around the neighborhood, that I had walls up all around me. I was about seven at the time. Even then, I was suited up in armor to resist hurt and heartbreak. I think she was trying to warn me that, later on, if I continued to keep my guard up, it would be hard to form lasting relationships, which was exactly the point. I pictured a brick structure when she spoke. Think: the indestructible third house in The Three Little Pigs. Impenetrable. Resistant to wolves. I wore those walls proudly for decades because change is hard and scary, hence my resistance to it. The walls kept me safe. If no one could get in, no one could leave, either. Likewise, if my body never changed, I would never become my Jenny Craig- and Weight Watchers-going mother. May Mom never fit into my pants was a secret mantra of mine that I recited even at her thinnest when, on occasion, she tried (and failed) to borrow my jeans.

Judaism teaches that each morning when we wake, we should take the time to appreciate our bodies, aloud. In reciting the Birchot HaShachar blessing, we thank God for the miracle of our bodies—these complex machines that work so hard to keep us alive. If only I could have conjured this prayer to mind all those evenings that I willingly went to bed hungry, ignoring the empty feeling in the pit of my already-flat stomach. If only I could have conjured this prayer to mind all those times that I exercised obsessively—doing jumping jacks on the school yard and then coming home to pop workout videos into my parents’ VCR. Two favorites were The Firm Aerobic Workout with Weights (Volume 3) and Kathy Kaehler’s Strong Legs; she was Michelle Pfeiffer’s personal trainer, and my hope was that she’d make my legs not only strong, but also skinny and cellulite-free. If only I could have conjured this prayer to mind all those nights that I treated my body as so much less than a gift when I gave it away to men who didn’t care, who wouldn’t stay. Your own father doesn’t love you, or so I believed. Why on earth would they?

Since taking up Pilates nearly a decade ago and especially since teaching it for the past six-plus years, I’ve learned to love myself a bit more. To treat this God-given vessel, this container that expertly stores my equally-worthy insides, as something special. To show it a modicum of respect. To celebrate its splendors. Interestingly, in Pilates when we work with the apparatus—complex machines (like our own bodies), designed to stretch and strengthen the limbs—we are often resisting the springs, pushing back against them. Take the Leg Springs series on the Cadillac: We push our legs into the straps, and the attached springs try to bully us—woman versus apparatus—but we don’t let them win. We are the machine. They’re strong, but we’re stronger (especially after years of that Kathy Kaehler routine). Other times, we’re asked to lean into the springs. We allow them to give us feedback. To support us. Take Airplane on the same piece of equipment: We press our feet into the straps and our hands into the metal poles behind us in order to sail through the air. The springs help us levitate. This is how I see my body now—as this magnificent structure that quite literally soars. But what a journey it’s been to get to that place. For far too long, rather than lift myself up, I was the damn bully-spring, fighting myself.

***

December 2013: North Hollywood, California

It isn’t my body but the road I’m focused on as I rush, in my bite-sized electric Chevy, to meet Drew—my date. We’ve been texting for several weeks since both swiping right on Tinder, and tonight we’re meeting face-to-face at a dive bar in North Hollywood, which I’m speeding to straight from a bad day at work. I’m in a new job as an admissions assistant at a small private school, just down the street. This is our busy season with prospective parent tours, so no more leaving the office when there’s still daylight to burn. Stealing a glance in my light-up sun visor, I confirm—to my horror—that my hair, which I’ve deepened for the fall, is having a worse day than I am, even resisting the quick finger-combing I gave it. I also confirm, via the car clock on my dashboard, that I’m seven minutes late for our date. Crap. It always embarrassed me as a kid when my mom ran late, so I try my hardest to value other people’s time.

With the help of street lamps, I can make out a tall, lean Drew—his back against the bar’s entrance—from my parking spot across the street. He’s dressed for the occasion in dark denim and a button-down shirt, which makes me suddenly self-conscious of my own attire: wrinkled corduroys and a sweater that isn’t as figure-hugging as it was when I put it on early this morning. Aware that he’s been waiting for me, I quickly touch up my burgundy lipstick, blot with a tissue from a to-go pack in my purse, check the mirror once more to make sure no tissue bits have stuck on, then dart across Magnolia. The air is brisk in that LA-winter way that feels more like East Coast fall, and I go in straight for the hug (remember those?), hoping to warm up. I’m also convinced that physical contact is the surest way to make my date warm up to me, and it seems to work, too. He pulls me in close, surprising me; so close, in fact, that I can smell the musky cologne on the nape of his neck. When I take a step back, I can see that his pleasant face matches his profile pictures. Delicious, I’m still thinking as we take our seats. I’m drunk on the idea of him—heady and dizzy and floaty-feeling—and this is all before I’ve taken so much as a sip of booze.

Sitting across the table from him, I can finally inspect Drew, close up. He’s thirty to my twenty-nine and six feet tall to my five foot seven. He has even, honey-colored skin and a warm smile. He’s put together, well dressed and groomed. His voice is sexy and soothing, as deep as it is gentle. I find myself admiring his strong, capable hands and the way he effortlessly strings words together. I love an articulate man. What holds my attention most though is not his vocabulary or the timbre of his speaking voice but his eyes. Even in the dimly-lit bar, I can tell there is something off about them—I just can’t quite put my finger on what.

Just then, our waitress whizzes by, creating a brief breeze, and I catch another whiff of that yummy musky man-scent that got my juices flowing and made my head all spinny a few minutes ago. When she swings back around the corner again, I order a glass of Pinot Grigio, then another. Just be normal, I say to myself. Quit staring. I try to distract myself by prattling on nervously about my crappy work day. I’ve had so many of them in this new role, and I’ll have many more before I’m eventually laid off in June, which, I learn, is Drew’s birthday month. Typically, Gemini men and I don’t mix, but I already find myself hoping: Maybe he’ll be the exception. Incidentally, Drew will soon be let go too, only neither of us knows this yet. Nor do we know that sixteen days after his June 9th birthday, I’ll surprise us both by moving in with friends across the globe in Toronto.

In between crisp, fruity sips, I explain that my boss makes me feel incompetent, which, in turn, makes me act incompetently (the ol’ self-fulfilling prophesy at work); I’m worried that too many more days like today—when I was admonished for alphabetizing the touring parents’ nametags in rows instead of columns and slicing the bagels unevenly—and I’ll be sent packing. Of course, I’m right to suspect as much, but Drew does his best to reassure me. Isn’t it possible you’re being too hard on yourself? It’s probably not as bad as you’re making it out to be in your own head (except that it is). I divert his question with humor—“No non-Jewish person should ever correct a Jew when it comes to handling bagels. Am I right?”—then deflect by asking about his job, instead. As it turns out, he’s been a glove designer at the same company for eleven years now.

“Holy shit,” I say. I tell him I admire his ability to stay put and wonder silently if this means he might stick around with me, too.

“I’m blind in one eye,” Drew blurts out. Talk about a non sequitur. “I’m sorry to cut you off. I just needed to say something.”

Crap. He must have noticed me staring. “That’s okay,” I assure him, both about interrupting me and being part-blind. “If you’re willing to share, I’d love to learn more.”

“Well, I wasn’t born blind, but I didn’t get the care I needed, not soon enough anyway. It was too late to save my vision by the time I finally saw a doctor. Please don’t feel bad for me,” he says in response to my doe eyes. “That isn’t why I told you. I just sensed you were wondering about it. It’s no big deal that you were curious. Everyone is.”

I’m ashamed to admit this, but rather than go to a place of empathy or outrage over his negligent upbringing, my mind goes instead to a place of curiosity. To him, I may look concerned, wounded, even horrified, but I’m actually determining where to affix my gaze—that intense look that gets me into exactly the kind of trouble I seek. I’m also worrying that, in staring at his one eye all night, I’ve failed to send out those come-hither signals with my own. I take his hands in mine, tell him I’m sorry about his sucky vision, his suckier parents, and my blatant staring, then invite him back to my apartment to make it up to him.

 ***

Comfortable on my own turf and emboldened by the liquor (which I’m not as resistant to as I like to believe), I begin to kiss Drew. Like my car, the kissing is electric—all tongue and lips. It’s the kind that leaves you lightheaded and that happens when two people either really like each other, have an undeniable physical connection, or both. Hoping for option C, I run my fingers through his hair voraciously. I’m hungry for more of him, greedy for the high that sex brings.

Drew unbuttons my blouse, as I likewise busy myself removing his clothes. This is a man who works with his hands, I think to myself as he expertly undresses me. I am startled, but not revolted, by his many tattoos—a tiger on his chest (my husband has a nearly identical one in the same spot); a symbol of some kind on his left shoulder; a star below his waist; and a quotation written across his ribs—In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king—he tells me later. Gently, Drew licks and breathes on each of my nipples until my entire body warms and responds. He holds me close, and his intoxicating scent—part man, part cologne—fills my nostrils once more. Tenderly, he makes his way down my torso and in between my legs, licking me softly, then sucking on me more aggressively, drawing a figure eight with his tongue.

“Mmmmmmm. You taste so good,” he says, as he reaches his left hand out for my larger breast, and my legs begin to quiver. I pull on his hair, and my body unfolds, submitting to him, wholly. Finally, the build-up becomes too much to bear. I’m cumming!” I shout for the first time that evening but not the last. Before I know it, I am tasting my own sweetness in his mouth and putting his hard condom-less penis inside of me.

“Oh my God,” he says, his hood gently massaging me. “You feel amazing.”

“Yeah?” I ask innocently. I’ve heard this countless times before but never tire of it. Compliments are my crack. I grab onto his firm butt cheeks, moist with perspiration, as he holds onto my face, seeming to see all of me, if only with one eye.

“You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever been inside of,” he whispers sensually in my ear like he knows it’s a portal to my soul. “Your body is perfect,” he goes on as he slides himself in and out of me more gently than any one-night stand has before. Men always praise my physical form—my hourglass figure—but I’m still a few years away from believing that what they say is true.

It does occur to me, for an instant, that Drew is being genuine, but the thought is fleeting, my inner-skeptic loud. I force myself to quiet the noise, to stay present. I kiss him hard, and the shock I feel courses through us both. “You feel amazing too, baby” I tell him, and I mean it. In this moment, as I glance up at him, and we move in sync together, we are utterly connected. It’s like he was made just for me.

“I love fucking you,” he tells me as we near climax, but I hear what I want to hear instead, mentally subtracting one word from his sentence. He is making love to me; he can love me. I am sure of it. In fact, touching me in ways no one ever has before—brushing the wispy, chocolate brown tendrils from my too-pale, too-trusting face; cupping my head with his gentle hands; tickling the tops of my ears; looking deep into me, his thumbs against my now-messy brows—he already is loving me, or so I reason.

Drew places one arm under the small of my back and pulls me in close as he hardens and contracts inside of me. Together, we surrender to the building sensations. I feel hazy and clear-headed all at once. In control and out of it. My heart and groin clamp onto him with equal intensity and, magically, our bodies shudder in unison. He moves to pull himself out of me just then, but I reach for his penis and put it back inside of me, as a rush of semen fills me and makes me whole.

I know it’s dangerous, which is part of the allure. It gives me the kind of stomach-dropping thrill that roller coasters used to until I became terrified of them, without warning or reason. I’ve been on birth control since before my seventeenth birthday, so pregnancy isn’t my concern, but there are diseases out there that, HPV aside, I’ve been lucky enough to dodge. (Thank you, resistant body!) But that’s just it. Taking chances—even big ones—is habit at this point, and I am hooked on it the way I’m now hooked on this beautiful man. On the way he strokes the soft spot behind my ears and uses the tips of his fingers to trace a line from my jaw down to my neck. There is no denying that this is different. That he is different.

We fall into a blissful sleep: Drew’s stomach against my back, his hands wrapped around my small waist (a family trait). Some hours later, he turns towards me—our bodies two crescent moons making a full one—and softly kisses me. It’s late, or rather early, and my date has to leave on account of his pit bull Rowdy. I turn to look at my nightstand and see that the green numbers on the alarm clock read 4:03 a.m. That means his dog has been alone for at least nine hours, and now I’ll be alone, too. He kisses me again on the lips, and this time, it means goodbye.

I don’t feel contemplative or regretful about our night. I’m on autopilot. Groggy and still naked, I take out my list of sexual partners, which by now is thirteen years old and several pages long, front to back. Even in the dark, I can see that my lopsided C-cup breasts are also thankfully round and perky (another genetic win). My nipples, quarter-sized and peachy-pink, harden as my bare feet touch the floor. I’m grateful for the faux marble, which I’ll take over ugly apartment carpeting any day. When I stare down at myself, I don’t love how I look, but when I’m standing upright in front of my closet’s (slimming) full-length mirror, I don’t hate the curves I see, either. Yesterday morning I weighed in at 130.5 pounds—half a pound more than I’d like. I’d jotted that down on a Post-it Note. Now, grabbing a pen from the kitchen, I neatly write Drew’s name down beside the number eighty-five on my ever-growing list. (May my body not follow suit!)

85) Drew M.

I like the way this distinct combination of letters and numbers looks on the page—round and clean—and how his initials, DM, like direct messaging, remind me of the way we first communicated: with words instead of bodies. I like the way committing this act to paper feels—the “8” in 85 conjuring to mind the figure eights he drew on me with his tongue a few hours ago (word-play always makes me smirk), and how writing it down solidifies the experience, makes it real. This really happened. He really happened.

As a teenager and young adult, I kept detailed food journals, cataloguing everything I ingested. A page from seventh grade might have looked something like this:

 

Weekday:

Breakfast: Half a plain bagel and 1 pack of Sour Punch Straws (blue raspberry) from the food truck

Snack: 3 Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies from the vending machine – gave the rest away

After-school: Half a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (blue box)

Saturday:

Breakfast: 2 bowls of Life cereal with nonfat milk

Lunch: 1 Yoplait yogurt cup (peach)

Dinner: Half a chicken tender and a Shirley Temple at Michael’s bar mitzvah

Then, with equal precision, I kept track—am still keeping track—of the men I put into my body: 7 Mikes, 6 Adams, 5 Matts, 5 Jon/John/Jonathans, 4 Dans, 3 Jeffs and a Geoff,

3 Joshes, 21 J-names, 15 M-names, 60 Jews, 40 men from the Interwebs. I like that there’s never been another Drew—just two Andrews and a Dru surname. As I play the night’s happenings back in my head, I shiver. I need socks, and another dose of this man.

To Be Continued…

“MELODY GREENFIELD” has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing (CNF) from Antioch University Los Angeles. The LA-native and Pilates instructor has been published under this pseudonym in The Los Angeles Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and forthcoming in HOOT. Her work can also be found under a different name in Brevity, Lunch Ticket, Annotation Nation, and Meow Meow Pow Pow. She enjoys reading CNF, furthering her Pilates practice, and occasionally curling her hair and getting out of stretchy pants to enjoy this pandemic-life with her aforementioned husband. Melody can be found here on Facebook and as @melodygreenfield_writer on Instagram.

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