How I Spent My Summer

Creative Nonfiction
Marsa Laird


Photo Credit: Carl Grant/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

It was the worst summer of my life. But it really began in the spring when my parents were yelling at each other all the time; I don’t know why. My mother even threw a dish at my father’s head. She was cranky and I was usually her target because my father was at work and my older sister could anticipate her bad moods and disappear. But I was only eight years old and usually didn’t know how to read the warning signs.

One morning I fidgeted while she was braiding my hair. When she yanked too hard, I yelled “Ow!” She stopped and said she had enough of my whining and snipped both braids off with a pair of large scissors. If she was sorry she never said so. I cried. I looked like a girl I saw once in a picture of children at an orphanage. The only good thing was that school was over for the summer so none of my friends would see me. My hairstyle already stood out because all the other girls wore theirs loose. But my mother insisted on braids—so my hair wouldn’t get in my eyes, she said—until she lopped them off. Right after that she took me to a resort hotel in the mountains, without any explanation. We went by bus. My father stayed in the city and my sister had a job at a girls’ camp.

It wasn’t a vacation. My mother left me alone for a few hours every morning and afternoon because she had to work. I learned she had taken a summer job as a chambermaid, which meant you had to clean other people’s rooms and change their sheets and towels. If they were satisfied, they might leave you a tip. It seemed strange to me they couldn’t make their own beds. At home my sister and I did, although my mother never really taught me how. To this day my husband marvels at the labor-intensive way I change pillowcases, which I worked out for myself when I was around six and have never abandoned. But I didn’t know why my mother needed a job anyhow, because my father had one.

I ate breakfast alone in the hotel kitchen. Also lunch. My mother and I had supper together, but by then she was tired and didn’t ask me much about how I spent my day. Mornings I explored the hotel grounds. I picked wild flowers and tied them together around my head because I thought they made my ragged hair less noticeable. I also picked up stuff I saw lying on the ground if it looked interesting. When I found a few bird feathers I stuck them in my floral headdress so I could be an Indian princess. A fancy cigar band was a ring. Sometimes I took off my shoes and waded in a shallow stream nearby to watch the frogs hop around. When I imitated their croaks it scared the rabbits out of the bushes. I made dolls from twigs and straw and scolded them if they were bad. One I named Sonia after a Russian doll my aunt gave me for my birthday. Sonia always behaved. After lunch I looked through old magazines and books I found on a shelf in the hotel lobby. Best of all, I played with a dog that belonged to the owner of the hotel, a black cocker named Inky. He was always jumping on me and licking my face. But even with Inky to play with, I was lonely.

One afternoon while I was throwing a stick for Inky to fetch, a boy my age came over and wanted to join us. His name was Monty. For a few days we had fun acting Robin Hood and Maid Marion; I got him to agree that a girl could shoot a bow too. We also pretended to be pirates looking for treasure from a map we made and rubbed dirt on so it would look old. When it rained we played checkers with an old set we found in a hotel closet. I beat him.

But Monty came over to me one morning with his head down and said in a whisper so low I could hardly hear him that he couldn’t play with me anymore because I wasn’t a guest. His mother told him she didn’t want him to “associate” with the children of the help. We really couldn’t understand it and I didn’t tell my mother. I was by myself again except for Inky, who didn’t seem to mind that my mother made beds.

By the time we got home, school was about to start. My parents stopped yelling at each other as much and my hair had grown in a little. My mother evened it out so it didn’t look as terrible and bought me a barrette in the shape of a bow. At school our first assignment was to write about how we spent our vacation. I wrote that I had a great summer and made a new friend.

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Marsa Laird retired after teaching art history to undergraduates for 20 years and took up memoir writing. Her work has appeared in One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo, a collection of stories about the Peace Corps in Africa, and in Toasted Cheese (“Transmutation”). Last spring she tried her hand at op-ed writing and had a piece published in the Daily News on starvation in Somalia, the country where she served as a Peace Corps teacher. Email: marsalaird[at]yahoo.com

Secret Admirer

Creative Nonfiction
Zixu Fan


Photo Credit: Chris JL/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Kids in China do not call elderly people “Mr.” or “Mrs.,” but “grandma” or “grandpa” instead. As there were lots of neighbors living in our old apartment, I got many chances to call “grandma” and “grandpa” every day I saw them during my childhood. I still remember one of our neighbors, Grandma Duan, who lived on the third floor with her grandson, Hao, in our apartment. She was a very nice lady, and often liked to share some parenting experiences on Hao with my mother each time they met in the corridor. As Hao was 5 years older than me, mom told me to call him Brother Hao. Since I was the only child in my family and seldom met my own grandma, the more “grandma” and “brother” my mother taught me to say when seeing these two neighbors, the more I felt they were my own grandmother and brother.

When speaking of Brother Hao, almost all my neighbors could not stop praising that he was such an excellent student in my primary school. As a straight-A student and the leader of Young Pioneers at school, Hao also developed lots of hobbies and got numerous awards in academic competitions.

Every morning, Hao would walk to school from our community, wearing a clean white shirt and a bright red scarf* on his chest. I often liked to follow behind him, thinking he looked really handsome and full of energy. I could not bring myself say hello to him, as I considered myself such a nobody in school.

I could never forget that Monday when Hao was chosen to be the flag-raiser during our flag-raising ceremony. His hair was cut smooth, his uniform tidy, and his figure tall and straight. When the national anthem started to play, he threw the red flag highly in the air and saluted, like a loyal soldier. After the ceremony was finished, Hao came to our audience and started to introduce himself in a loud and clear voice. Hearing he had such a great academic performance and won so many competitions, I came to think it would be mission impossible to become as successful as Brother Hao, let alone greater than him, as I still couldn’t recite all the pinyin in class.

When I gathered with other six- or seven-year-old girls at school, we usually liked to talk about our family members. By showing off our talented, strong or handsome brothers or cousins, we could be admired by everybody in the group. I couldn’t tell when I first began to brag that Hao was my brother, but some kids remembered it very well and spread it out quickly, until one day my dear friend, Lan, even told it to my science teacher in class.

“Mr. Miao? Mr. Miao is Zixu’s brother?” our science teacher Miss Liu asked us as she also taught Miao’s class.

“No, no, no, Mr. Miao is my brother. Zixu’s brother is Mr. Duan Hao,” Lan corrected it to Miss Liu.

“Mr. Duan? Mr. Duan Hao is your brother? You are not kidding, Zixu?” Miss Liu no longer cared about Miao any more, as this news was no doubt unbelievable. Her small eyes sparkled with excitement, as if she was going to think highly of me from then on.

Then everybody at school changed their attitude to me as the whole world came to know I had an outstanding brother. Even I became proud of myself and held my head high when passing other kids. But nobody actually knew Hao was only my neighbor, not brother, and what’s more ironic, I never had the courage to speak to him even once.

One afternoon after we finished our art class, I was playing paper airplane with Lan on our way home. We raced to see who could fly the plane further, but I did not take it seriously enough until I noticed Hao was walking behind us. I was quite sure he was watching us, so I suddenly stopped messing around and tried to show off in front of him by flying my plane as hard as I could, but to my disappointment, it flew nearer and nearer. Damn that paper.

When I failed many times and wanted to give up, the miracle finally happened. This time my plane flew out of our sight, and when we rushed up to catch it, we found it was lying peacefully on the roof of one apartment’s basement, so high and far that we could not reach it.

Lan and I tried to use a nearby broom to sweep it down, but in vain. As I lost my plane, we did not enjoy our game any more and headed home instead. Lan arrived at her apartment first so we joked outside the gate for one or two minutes and said goodbye. Then I continued to walk on my way, but found Hao disappeared without any trace.

Thinking I could go home and fold a new plane, I did not feel disappointed at losing the old one and walked happily towards home. When I finally reached the lawn in front of our apartment, I found Hao was waiting on the stone step, with my lost plane in his hand.

Before I came to realize what happened I had already gone to him. Looking at me, Hao took out the plane and handed it to me: “Here, your plane.” His voice was loud and clear as usual.

To my surprise, he had swept my plane down! I was too exited and nervous to say anything, so I just took the plane from his hand and ran away quickly.

It was a pity that I did not say “thank you” to him on that day, but it didn’t matter as he had already become a hero to me.

I don’t know why I was braver and braver later, that I started to send him one present after another. One of my hobbies in the first grade was pottery, and every weekend after I came back from the art center I would ask our cleaner to give my masterpiece to Hao when she went to work at his home on Monday. Almost all the pottery I created was sent to Hao, and later I even began to make some watercolor paintings for him.

However, my happy days didn’t last too long. One noon before having lunch, our music teacher Miss Yang gave my deskmate and me detention as we quarreled in her class. I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong, since it was this annoying boy who bullied me first, so I tried to explain the situation and put the all blame on my deskmate when Miss Yang questioned us. Though she didn’t seem to believe what I said, I still spoke with great confidence until our science teacher Miss Liu, who worked in the same office, came to interrupt.

After hearing what happened between me and that boy from Miss Yang, Miss Liu looked at me, and sneered, “You know she’s told me Mr. Duan Hao is her brother!”

“Aha?! Are you serious?” Miss Yang immediately turned to me. “You mean the straight-A student in the sixth grade?! The Young Pioneer’s Leader… is your brother? But why are you so different from him?” she said it so disdainfully that I blushed again and again.

Miss Yang still let us stay for ten more minutes, but I didn’t say a word this time, as all I wanted was run out of the office and never return.

It was such a shame so I determined to hide my admiration for Hao deep in heart, without mentioning to others that he was my brother from then on.

When I rose to grade two, Hao already graduated and went to the best middle school in our neighborhood. Seeing him dressed in a dark blue and white striped uniform, riding a bicycle to school as fast as the wind every morning, I decided to study hard and go to the same middle school when I graduated. One day before I realized my dream, Mrs. Duan finally called my mom in the corridor and told her not to let me send any presents to Hao, as my kindness was too much for them. She sent some Japanese stationery to me in return, which was brought from Hao’s parents who worked in Japan. I still remember there were some beautiful tissues with famous cartoons printed on its wrapping paper, which I liked so much that I never used it. When I opened it many years later, those tissues already turned yellow.

After graduating from junior high, Hao went to No.4 High School, one of the top high schools in Beijing. At the same time I also came to be a top student and won many competitions at school. I worked hard step by step, and came to realize he was not beyond my reach.

I got enrolled into another top high school in Beijing, though it was not the same school Hao had attended. We seldom met as he went home much less frequently, and I almost forgot him when my school life turned busier and busier. Aside from studying, I also made lots of friends in class who were also talented, hardworking, and attractive. Once my mother said she met Mrs. Duan on the third floor, who told her Hao was rejected by his dream school, Peking University, so he decided to prepare Gaokao for another year.

After going to college for two years, I came back to our old home with my father one afternoon. I found Mrs. Duan was standing outside the gate, together with one middle-aged man and one young man. My dad went straight to say hello to them, which confused me for a second. When I went further, I finally recognized that grey-haired man was Hao’s father, and that chubby guy with a round face and a pair of round glasses was actually Hao!

To my surprise, he didn’t look like the standard good boy he used to be.

Seeing I was coming, Mrs. Duan began to praise to my dad that I studied very well and went to a top university, that I grew into a beautiful girl she even didn’t recognize. When my dad said thank you in return, I took a glance at Hao, and found he was peering at me at the same time.

Feeling a little embarrassed, I forced a smile to him, and he also smiled shyly to me in return.

 

*All primary students are supposed to wear red scarf, which is the sign of Young Pioneers.

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Zixu Fan is a Chinese student studying fiction writing in the MFA program at The College of New Rochelle. She published her first Chinese novel, The Falling Flowers, in 2012, and came to join the MFA program in the U.S. to further sharpen her writing skills, as there are few programs to train creative writers in China. The prose “Secret Admirer,” tells about her secret admiration for her neighbor, a straight-A and talented boy in her primary school. Email: zf4059gs[at]cnr.edu

Japan

Creative Nonfiction
Mary Street


Photo Credit: peter-rabbit/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The tires on the rental car crunched on the gravel as we pulled into the parking area. We could see the lights on in my mother’s first floor apartment, a sign that she was waiting up for us. My brother and I had spent the day flying to the Eastern Shore of Maryland from California where we lived. We came to sort out why my mother had collapsed on the sidewalk and could no longer walk. She was later diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Aunt Millie greeted us at the door, since she had been staying at the apartment to nurse her sister, our mother. We weaved our way through an overcrowded living room to the back bedroom where my mother lay. I had last seen her one year ago, and she had shrunken in size and spirits since then.

At her bedside we kissed and hugged, trying to seem brave and cheerful in the face of what was transpiring before us: she was dying of cancer.

Her final passage at the end of her life was as peaceful as we could make it. Having been a nurse, she knew her body was winding down, and she accepted this with grace. True to form, she cared more for those around her than for herself, so she bore her sorrow with great dignity.

We had her readmitted to the hospital for palliative care, and we contacted her siblings to come visit her there. Her older brother, my Uncle Bill, met me in the hospital’s waiting area. While my mother slept, he and I sat on the red vinyl sofa, speaking softly about her condition.

Uncle Bill grew quiet, folded his hands on his lap, and contemplated his fingers. He stood up slowly and walked toward the window, which looked out on a massive elm tree whose lush green branches extended toward the building.

“Oh, yes… the day she was born was a special day in May,” he said. His back was to me as he addressed the tree outside the window, his voice growing deeper and richer in tone as he recalled that day. Uncle Bill was an extraordinary storyteller.

“Me and Calvin and Mildred, we were told to leave our mother in peace. So we ran down to the barn to be out of her way. We found old Howard near the mare’s stall. He was anxious about that mare. She was giving him signs that her foal was ready to be born. And, do you know? That very morning the mare did give birth to a beautiful foal. A beautiful colt. All sleek and shiny black. We children had never witnessed anything like that on the farm until that morning. Oh yes, oh my, we were so thrilled and excited. Why, we ran out of that barn and on up the hill to the big house. All the way up the hill, we shouted ‘the mare has a new baby colt!’ And, do you know? In our great excitement when we ran inside the kitchen, we were told to hush up now. Our mother, Miss Annie Rebecca, had just given birth to our own new baby sister.” Then he turned away from the window and faced me. “And that was Louise, your wonderful mother. Oh yes, oh yes, it was a very wonderful day in May.”

After she died, a crew of family members courageously sorted her belongings at her apartment. She was a saver, but most of her treasures were destined for the thrift shop.

Of all the items that I came across, including childhood drawings, photographs, and other mementos saved by a loving mother, there were three significant things. She kept every letter I had ever sent to her over a thirty-year period. She had a box of many white kid gloves, elbow-length with pearl buttons, the kind of gloves that would be worn in another century with a full-length fancy dress. I kept both of those boxes.

The third box held something that I could not keep, even though it took my breath away when I opened the box. Inside was my hair. Until I was thirteen years old, I had never had my hair cut. My long blond ponytail reached my waist. She had kept this remnant from my youth like a relic preserved in a box.

One year later, I travelled to Kyoto, Japan, on a textile tour. It seemed fitting to make this trip, since my mother and I had shared a passion for sewing. She made most of my clothes, picking out the patterns and fabrics with me. When I was old enough, she taught me how to sew and gave me a sewing machine. I felt she would be looking down on me as I visited kimono designers and ikat dyers in Japan.

As I wandered through a flea market in Kyoto, I saw many old kimonos and obis for sale in the stalls. I was told that the Japanese are superstitious about wearing a dead family member’s clothing, so the clothes are sent to the flea market. I thought of the box of my blond, wavy hair that my mother could not bear to throw away.

Since then, I’ve tried to travel lightly, without too many possessions to weigh me down. But no doubt, once my life is completed, there will be a raised eyebrow, a shrug, a little laughter, as others sift through the things I have chosen to carry on my journey.

I still have the box of gloves.

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Mary Street will have her work published in Inscape NCC Literary Journal in September, 2017. This submission is part of a memoir she is writing. She is a graduate of California College of Arts and Crafts and resides in California with her husband. Email: marystreet65[at]gmail.com

Ethnography of an Adult Ballet Class

Creative Nonfiction
Laura Marostica


Photo Credit: Angie Chung/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

The Old Lady, first, is important to the adult ballet class (“adult” here carries not a hint of eroticism). The Old Man also occasionally makes an appearance, though because he is frequently outnumbered or simply alone, his is a quiet presence. The Old Lady ranges in age from late forties to early eighties, her title used primarily because of the contrast she provides to most students at a ballet school. She and her fellow Old Ladies can make up as much as forty percent of any given class. She may be attending because it was the joy of her youth and now she can return to it at her leisure. It may be an intrinsic aspect of her exercise regimen, supplemented with Pilates and perhaps Zumba.

Not every Old Lady is motivated by nostalgia or endorphins. Sometimes she has built up a brood of Old Lady friends. They lean their forearms on the barre and discuss children and home additions, brought back to class again and again by the companionship that blossoms between breaks in the music.

The Old Lady contingent provides two key components to the adult class environment: enthusiasm and indignity. She complains cheerfully of her sore hamstrings from the grueling class the day before and her inability to quite master the petit allegro combination. When the teacher asks another student to demonstrate a particular step, the Old Lady will often proffer an admiring comment of her own or a smattering of applause. Sometimes the Old Lady will throw up her hands during jumps—her knees are giving her problems again—and sit to the side, rubbing her joints and watching class as avidly as if this were the Royal Ballet, the students not a mélange of sweaty women in leggings, uncoordinated and barely keeping up with the patient pianist, but the corps of Swan Lake, arms lifted in flight, head pieces glimmering as Tchaikovsky’s wailing violins fling them up, up, up—

The Old Lady contingent is good for morale. Some may be irritated by their chattiness, their indifference to musicality, their total lack of spatial awareness. Someday, though, all dancers join their ranks, grasping the barre with gnarled fingers and lifting unpointed toes just barely off the floor, too deaf to notice the piano but sure, so sure that dance will never leave the body.

The presence of the Old Lady, the future, is tempered by the frequent attendance of the Student, the past. The Student also takes adult class for a variety of reasons. Perhaps her training program is off for two weeks after Nutcracker performances, and she wants to stay in shape; perhaps she is visiting from another city, and takes class to stay in shape; often she is neither of these, but a current student at the same studio, and she takes class twice a day, to stay in shape. Students take class. Always take, never go to, never have—they take the experience into themselves, drink it, capture it, keep it—because it is the timepiece for living. The barre is as familiar as the dining room table, more welcoming than the desk. A week without ballet class has the same feeling as the first week of summer vacation: disorienting, aimless.

The Student stands out for her discipline and adherence to ballet class conventions. Her hair is frequently in a neat bun, perhaps pinned and hairsprayed. She wears a leotard and tights, the inescapable, universal ballet uniform ideal for identifying misaligned hips, observing muscle groups, and crippling self-esteem. (But because she is taking adult class, the Student is probably wearing black tights instead of pink, worn fashionably over the leotard and rolled low on the hips).

The Student lends an earnest note to the adult ballet class. Her movements are precise and musical, arms gracefully supported but airy and relaxed even as her legs move with lightning speed. Every head and hand movement is coordinated, in sync with the piano, even when the combination has just been demonstrated for the first time.

If her pirouettes are off that day, the Student will spend time in the corner of the studio, practicing the turn again and again, her head whipping around to spot her own fierce face in the mirror, one, two, three times before landing. She will always stretch carefully before and after class, not unaware of the envious glances directed at her from the Old Lady cluster nearby.

Indeed, the Student demographic may heighten the tension of the adult class atmosphere. This is especially the case if the teacher is prone to pay more attention to these participants than to others—which, of course, he almost always is. (For mysterious reasons, teachers of adult ballet classes tend to be male.) He is captivated by the presence of a work-in-progress, a student in line for performances and maybe even a career, so he will shower the Student in corrections. And corrections to technique, in ballet class, are signals of a teacher’s admiration; dancers who are passed by without comment are beyond help.

This degree of attention is often disgruntling to the Old Lady, as she and her friends faithfully worship the Teacher, laughing at all his jokes, clustering around him like preening hens.

The Teacher may deal with preening in a number of ways. Sometimes he is oblivious to it, preferring his own pearls of wisdom to class conversation. Example A: “If I were born a musical instrument, I would have been a trombone. But I would have wanted to be a viola.” At other times, in other studios, he appreciates preening and selects a few participants to flirt with during class, leaning across the barre, stopping to chat during grands battements. Example B: “You should do hair commercials.”

Interestingly, the Old Lady is not disgruntled by the presence of and attention received by the Professional, another common demographic of the adult ballet class. The Professional, like the Student, may be in class because she is off-season—in which case she is simply taking class because it is her life’s work—or she may be coming back from an injury, in which case she must take a class below her normal company level to ease herself into recovery.

It is in fact impossible to be disgruntled by a Professional in class. The Professional is disinterested in taking attention away from anyone, although naturally she accumulates stares. Her grace is unstudied; teacher and fellow dancers alike lose sight of the combination’s particulars and are simply moved by her movement. She is likely to be sloppily dressed. She will frequently not follow combinations as they’ve been explained by the teacher, or stop in the middle of them to stretch. No one minds. She is lovely to behold in every position; in arabesque her leg stretches behind her in a sweeping arc and her back lifts in a supple bow. It is breathtaking—

Because there is nothing in this world so beautiful as a good arabesque, and because that is why I’m in class, in my faded leotard from the tenth grade and my ill-fitting sweatpants. Here I am, the Lost Dancer: nowhere near a Student (not anymore), light-years away from the Professional, but still beyond the gentle interest and rudimentary technique of the Old Lady.

The Lost Dancer is the unmoored dancer, who knows that life has moved forward, outward, upward without ballet, but who cannot bear to leave it. We are legion, found in classes the world over, standing at the back of the room.

I wonder if my teachers can see from the timidity of my movement that half the time I hope they don’t look my direction at all, ashamed as I am of my diminishment. I wonder if my teachers can see, the other times, the asterisk that I will so desperately to glint above my left shoulder when I go to class: the one that says, “I know her extension isn’t what it was, and she can’t remember the combinations as well anymore, I know her feet used to arch better and jump higher, but look how much she loves this! Look at her dance to this music!”

For the Lost Dancer, adult ballet class is pleasure and pain. Pain because visions of Sugarplums dance in her head all months of the year, choreographed and set to music; pain because she knows that when she chose college over dance, she closed a door that has sealed and will not, will not open again; pain because she might always wonder what was over its threshold.

Pleasure because of this: there is a moment before every combination, before the pianist plays the opening notes that start every dancer’s metronome, when we wait in fifth position. Then as the teacher says “And” to signal the music’s beginning, we move one arm in preparation—a gentle extension from the elbow, six inches, a bit more.

Just a breath. Just that.

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Laura Marostica’s writing has appeared in, among others, Rum Punch Press, Iron Horse Literary Review, and Buzzfeed. She blogs inconsistently at lauradomenica.wordpress.com. She lives in Northern California with her husband. Email: marostica[at]fordham.edu

The Goddess of Sunday Brunch

Creative Nonfiction
Autumn Shah


Photo Credit: Sam Howzit/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Sam Howzit/Flickr (CC-by)

The Tiki gods look forlorn, their power stripped. Pale yellow sticky notes with numbers written in Sharpie adhere to the sides of their wooden heads. One Tiki, the size of a seated Labrador, sits on the ground, posing beside a stack of old phone books and printer manuals. Another, with a blue scowl, cowers under a metal workbench while a third waits by a dimpled brass umbrella stand, a highly perturbed look on its face.

I have never been to an auction before. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I pictured something a little more distinguished. I thought auctions were quiet, tense affairs with lots of money on the line, where people spoke in nods and raised eyebrows. I thought they took place in grand estates in the country or auction houses with Rococo chairs and heavy, velvet drapes, not in small warehouses tucked behind the outerbelt, items stacked everywhere next to junk that hadn’t sold in past auctions. The warehouse looks like a rummage sale booth at an antiques mall.

This stuff is barely old enough to be in my grandmother’s basement, though. The Kahiki Supper Club, where the current auction items came from, opened in 1961. It would have been a unique attraction for any city, but it was an especially big deal for unassuming Columbus, Ohio. Suddenly there was a sea dragon soaring off of a dramatically-sloped roof built to resemble an enormous Polynesian fighting boat, looking right out over Broad Street.

It was an extraordinary thing in the 1980s, when I was a shy teenager searching for something—extraordinary or otherwise—inside myself.

*

From the time I was very young, my sister and I had begged for a peek inside the restaurant. We drove by it probably once a week on our way downtown or to the strip mall across the street where our mother’s favorite clothing stores were located.

“It’s not really a place for children. It’s too fancy and too expensive,” Mother would say.

She had dined there several times. Each new boyfriend sought to impress her by taking her to Columbus’s most unique restaurant.

My mom was blonde, vivacious, and beautiful. And to trump it all, she was British. Other than the Kahiki, she was the most exotic thing in our nook of Columbus. Friends and teachers gushed over my mom’s beauty and her accent. Inevitably, people would ask me, “Where’s your accent?” I never admitted that I secretly wanted one, or that I could put one on if I chose. Because at what point can you decide you’re something else and not be called a fake? Somehow my mom’s accent lifted her above our grungy apartment and the precariousness that was our life after my dad left.

My mother told us about the swaying bridge just beyond the doors, waterfalls and birds, even the cracks of thunder. She told us there was a “Mystery Girl” in a grass skirt who served bubbling drinks in a large bowl after offering it up for a blessing from the Tiki god. It was so wrong, even taboo to my Jehovah’s Witness upbringing, but so fascinating.

Most compelling was the giant Tiki god himself, who, she said, towered over everything, his eyes burning red and a fire raging in his mouth.  “As soon as you walk in, he’s right there!” she said.

As my mom regaled us with descriptions of the Kahiki I pictured myself in her place, being served flaming food with pineapple and cherries while sitting among birds in a rainforest. I longed to be my mom: beautiful and sought after, making conversation with men in fancy restaurants and sitting in wicker butterfly chairs. I promised myself that some day, I too would sit in a butterfly chair and order dinner with fruit in it.

*

I didn’t come to the auction to buy anything, just to reminisce. Twelve years have passed since the Kahiki closed. As I wander around, I can’t imagine taking any of this stuff home. I try to imagine the carved wooden warrior mask with googly eyes on the bare wall above my piano, a light fixture that resembles a puffer fish over the kitchen table.

There had been a souvenir shop inside called The Beachcomber that stood off the restaurant’s foyer which was commandeered by a feisty old Chinese woman. Rows of Zombie and Headhunter mugs were sold, along with other Kahiki souvenirs, Tiki kitsch, and Asian knickknacks.

I’d like to have a single Headhunter mug to replace the one trapped in my mother’s attic in a box. I kept the original as a souvenir from my first trip to the Kahiki.

*

I walked through the parking lot beside my mother, who was bouncing in excitement or perhaps because of the frigid December air. It was so cold that year I could taste it on my tongue. For my sixteenth birthday I was finally going to step through those doors. Daniel, my mother’s boyfriend, loped along on my other side.

The parking lot lay to the side of the entrance so that when we walked around the corner we were transported to another world, another time even: primitive, geometric designs colored the façade; the roof overextended, pointing outward and upward; the sea dragon looked about to take off into the ocean of sky.

As we approached the Easter Island heads standing sentry on either side of the hexagonal doors, my stomach tightened in the same way it did when I was called to the board to do a math problem at school. Flames from the torches on their heads snapped in the chill wind.

We walked across a swaying bridge and through the front doors into a cave hung with greenery. I marveled at the tape-generated sounds of birds and the walls trickling with water. We stepped through another door into a circular foyer dominated by an eerily-lit, unfriendly-looking monkey-head fountain. Through the foyer, to the hostess stand, we entered the main area of the restaurant. A thatched hut village sprawled out before us, surrounded by palm trees and tropical plants with leaves larger than my head, Tiki torches staked throughout.

A hostess with soft waves of black hair, dressed in a Hawaiian sarong, greeted us, but I barely heard her as I gawked at the fearsome, angry-eyed Tiki god looming at the far end of the restaurant. His prominent, square forehead and elongated nose, nostrils flared, accentuated his disapproval.

My mother told the hostess that we wanted to sit next to the aquarium or the birds.

“Do you have a reservation?” she asked in a melodic, accented voice.

“No. We’re here for my daughter’s birthday.” My mother beamed and I blushed, because even I knew that at a fancy restaurant you need a reservation.

“Well, there are no bad seats, so don’t worry,” a woman with white-blonde hair said, taking charge. She took up her pen, examining her map, then told us there would be a bit of a wait.

As we waited, I watched the servers flit around in their floral uniforms and leis. I felt as if I were in another country—all the servers looked Asian, the scent of the food was tangy and fruity, the music that played in the ether was a twangy calypso-rock blend.

We finally followed the hostess through the dining area and my heart beat faster until we were led to a booth surrounded on three sides by wicker walls. No butterfly chair, no birds in sight. I could see the aquarium if I looked between two poles that served as a corner into the aquarium seating section.

“You don’t have anything next to the aquarium?” Daniel asked.

“No. You need reservation,” the hostess said, her English abrupt.

Once the hostess put down our menus and turned away, Daniel got up and my mom looked at him questioningly.

“I’m going to go see if they can get us something better.”

“Daniel, no. This is nice! Isn’t it, Autumn?” Mom said, her eyes wide and eyebrows high.

It wasn’t, but I slid into the booth. Something in my chest pinched in disappointment.

“We can see the aquarium behind us just fine, can’t we?” she prompted me. But I remained quiet.

Every now and then I heard a bird screech in the distance. The drinks menu, which was as lengthy as the dinner menu, listed cocktails with names like Blue Hurricane, Jungle Fever, Headhunter, and Zombie. They came in sculpted mugs in the shape of a Tiki god, a warrior or a totem-like animal. Daniel ordered a fancy drink so that I could have the headhunter mug it came in.

I don’t recall what I ate but I remember thinking it was nothing special; it tasted like Mark Pi’s drive-thru Chinese that we brought home once a week—with the addition of pineapple.

Toward the end of our meal, the ukulele-playing waiters delivered a small cake and set it in front of me. I bashfully blew out the candle. The manager who had assigned our seat came to our table right behind the musicians and told us we could tour the restaurant. I was embarrassed enough about the cake, but somehow I was coerced. I made sure from my sloped shoulders and dour expression that people knew I was being forced to look over their food at the scenery behind them.

We walked along the aquarium side where fish with flowing tails and dorsal fins glided past diners’ faces. On the opposite side of the restaurant, in the rainforest section, it rained and thundered every fifteen minutes and the cockatoo fluffed its white, wet feathers.

We threaded our way through tables under a thatched roof hung with colorful, bizarrely-shaped lanterns to return to the front of the dining area. I stood at the threshold and looked up at the ceiling, seemingly as high as the sky.

I felt I was under the scrutiny of the Tiki god, felt the warmth of the fire that raged in his gaping mouth. I imagined that in the rainforest of New Guinea or at the foot of a volcano in Hawaii, the sight of this would make my knees shake. I wanted to know the secrets of this place. I wanted to be a part of it.

I took one last look at the formidable monolith and, on an impulse, asked for an application on the way out.

*

I find a Sauder bookcase displaying various mugs. My heart races as I wonder what the starting bid is for just one Headhunter. I look down at the auction list I was given. The mugs are being sold by the case. I peer down into a box of Zombie mug shards. I’m wondering why anyone would want this when a large shadow falls across the box.

“Are you a mosaic artist?” a thick man in a shiny, gray suit asks me.

What a bizarre question, I think. But then I realize that must be what you would do with a box of shards.

“No, I’m just looking,” I say, trying to sound casual but not really knowing how to behave since I am an impostor here, posing as someone who might actually buy something.

He holds out his hand and introduces himself. He’s the auction writer, the manager. He has a waxy, ruddy face and puffy eyes. His blonde hair looks unnaturally slicked back, like he chooses to fight with it only during these auction preview days.

“Do you have a connection to the Kahiki? Or you just like Tiki?” he asks.

“I worked there as a hostess when I was sixteen,” I say.

“Really?” He leans back, as if to assess my face to calculate how long ago that actually was. I don’t help him out.

“That’s lucky!” he continues. “What an experience. We’ve had a couple people come through that used to work there. I wonder if you knew each other.”

I often think about some of the people I worked with and how easy it should be, with all the social media, to look them up, but I have no last names. There must be a hundred thousand Lisas, a million Joses.

*

No matter the weather outside, the atmosphere in the restaurant was constant: artificially lit to perfection, cool breezes from the cave entrance and warmth from the blazing bamboo torches and the Tiki fires.

It was closer to school than it was to home so I often went straight there and waited for the dinner shift to begin. Sometimes Lisa, the manager, was already there when I came in, conducting a server’s meeting around a rectangular table in Ship or sitting at the bar, a fizzy, clear drink beside her, scrutinizing important-looking papers. I respected her privacy and her absorption and skirted around her. I’d pick an area that suited my fancy that day and do my homework or read before changing into my green floral polyester sarong and pink lei.

Above the low-playing music and the fall of water, no other noise invaded the hushed atmosphere of the pre-dinner hour. The occasional busboy sat at a table rolling softly-clinking silverware into cloth napkins, the birds behind the glass perched with their heads tucked beneath a wing. Even in the kitchen, with its slick, oily floor, the sous chefs chopped, unhurried, in the temporary calm before the maelstrom of diners blew in.

Once the shift started, I stood at attention waiting for Lisa to give instructions on the general strategy for the evening. She was in the habit of wearing ruffled white blouses that accentuated her already-large breasts. She disguised the rest of her plumpness attractively beneath A-line skirts and tailored, flared jackets that made me feel under-dressed and overexposed in my V-neck sarong.

On slow weeknights, like Mondays and Tuesdays, it was often just the two of us. Between us, we mapped out seating, controlled the music and the thunder, restocked boxes of matches, wiped down menus, and dusted plastic foliage.

I wasn’t quite sure what to think of Lisa. Her authority and my own curiosity about her intimidated me. She was ten years older than me and about ten years younger than my mother. She was part of a world more secret and sophisticated than mine. She went places late at night after the restaurant closed, she ran in flustered from other unknown places at 4:30 in the afternoon. She often arrived to work disheveled, her chest red and splotchy, but once she was all tucked in and buttoned up, she was ready to command. I watched this transformation and it set my mind to imagining who she was when she wasn’t at the Kahiki.

*

I try to find an excuse to buy something, to take a piece of history home with me. If I could simply take an item up to a register and walk out with it, I would. But the process of an auction requires more dedication and perseverance than I have.

Aside from a single mug, the only item I might consider is a cheaply framed 11×17 photo of the Kahiki taken from the outside. In its heyday, celebrities, such as Milton Berle, Robert Goulet and Zsa Zsa Gabor visited, fresh flower leis were flown in a couple times a week, and a wahine on a giant billboard winked seductively, advertising the restaurant. The photo evokes that time and is still striking as flames and outdoor lighting illuminate the building beneath a purple-pink Ohio dusk. It highlights the anomaly of this otherworldly structure that should be surrounded by hibiscus, and palms bearing coconuts rather than sparse fir trees and blacktop.

*

In the 1960s, most of the servers and all of the Mystery Girls were Caucasian but when I worked there at the beginning of the 1990s a variety of nationalities held those positions. Josephine, the most seasoned hostess, was vivacious and as outspoken in English as she was in Tagalog. She had long, straight hair with severely cut bangs. She was petite and sassy and her hips swayed in the grass skirt that at least one of us was required to wear. Maggie and I were always grateful that Josephine happily donned it.

Josephine was my best friend at the restaurant. When I started at the Kahiki, Lisa trained me in my duties but Josephine guided me on the ins and outs: which servers to seat lightly and which ones could handle anything, how to gauge their moods, and which cooks gave leftover cake after the buffet. She shooed the busboys away when they hung around me too long. She pinned a tight grass skirt and taught me how to say ‘I love you’ in her bird-like Tagalog—mahal kita—and ‘I’m hungry’—nagugutom ako.

*

As I turn away from the rows of mugs, I entertain the thought of buying a case and imagine myself trying to talk one of my daughters into having a Tiki-themed birthday party with Headhunter mugs for the party favor. If I were a more charming person, maybe I could charm that auction manager out of just one little, itty-bitty mug.

The few butterfly chairs are scattered throughout the warehouse, perched alone, out of their flutter, their weave unfurling, the bamboo strips frayed. I wonder about the assortment of people these chairs have held in their wings. It calls to mind a photo I have, one that I will rush upstairs to search my albums for once I get home.

All of my pictures from the Kahiki are of the people I worked with; I suppose I didn’t dare to point a camera at the Tiki god himself. When I search, I find the one I am looking for. It is a Polaroid of a silver-mopped man in oversized glasses, an open-mouthed smile on his face, sitting in a butterfly chair with Josephine on his lap. I don’t know how I ended up with this picture; it should have gone to the silver-haired man but must have been discarded for a retake. He is one of the hundreds of strangers she had her picture taken with. When I examine the photo now, after so many years, I notice that Josephine looks different from the way I remember her. She has the same haircut, the same rose-tinted, butter-pecan complexion devoid of makeup, the same red floral bikini. But now I notice the dark look on her face. I stare at the picture and try to guess what she’s thinking. She sits stiffly, facing the camera but with her eyes averted.

For the first time, more than twenty years later, I think about how she might have felt sitting in all those men’s laps as the Mystery Girl. She was an immigrant woman from the Philippines with a poor command of the English language. What kind of life had she come from? Did she have other aspirations, dreams she wanted to follow in this country? When she made her plans to immigrate to the U.S., did she imagine herself hanging leis around men’s necks so they could pose for photographs with a “native”?

*

I don’t remember if I was told beforehand that I would have to wear the grass skirt outfit on Sundays. As self-conscious as I was, it still would not have deterred me. After all, I was working on breaking out of the mold I had put myself in, trying to figure out if I was the type who could wear a grass skirt and bikini top in front of people. The outfit was the same one that the Mystery Girl wore. I was too young to be mysterious and thankfully deemed too young to award a kiss and a lei. A server carried the smoking bowl while I gave a weak-armed thump on the gong with herculean effort—a much more anti-climactic ritual.

No matter what I did, I looked like a pale, spindly, uncooked shrimp in the grass skirt outfit, my skin so white it was almost blue. The cloth of the outfit was frayed, the eyelets stretched, the colors fading. I wondered if the get-up had been around since the sixties when the restaurant first opened. I tried to cover as much skin as I could. I wore pantyhose underneath the grass skirt for warmth as well as to give some color to my legs (no underwear, because mom always said, “Don’t stifle yourself down there—they put built-in panties for a reason.”). I piled on the leis to hide as much of my sunken chest as I could. I used a half-dozen pins to keep the multicolored floral bra on; it was made for someone much bustier than I was.

One slow Sunday, as they’d all been lately, the cleaning lady let me in after I knocked on the inner door several times. I started the atmospheric soundtrack and the slack-key and ukulele music. The servers spent the last few minutes folding silverware into napkins and Jim, the less scurrilous bartender, dried glasses and poured out fresh maraschino cherries that he would sneak to me throughout the day.

I moved the hostess podium to the walkway in front of the bar, where I would be more accessible to greet and also seat guests. I fiddled with my bra and adjusted the pins on my skirt as the first guests entered. It was an elderly couple, coming straight from church, it appeared, by his grey suit and her powder-blue dress.

“Welcome to the Kahiki. Do you have a seating preference?” I asked as I gathered two menus to my chest.

“Surprise us,” the husband said with a wink.

The couple moved slightly ahead of me, gawking at the Tiki god as I swished around the podium.

A sudden cold rush of air swirled around my legs and bottom. And just like in the cartoon when Wile E. doesn’t realize he’s just run off a cliff until he looks down to see the empty abyss below, I looked down. And yelped.

My skirt was gone.

I looked up and there was Julio—a charming, flirtatious, yet moody server. He stood gaping at me, eyes wide and his face flushed pink. He dashed back from the direction he had come.

I looked behind me and saw my skirt hanging from the bamboo wall where it had gotten snagged. I used the menus to cover myself and with my free hand snatched the skirt, wrapped it around myself as best I could, and held it in place as I proceeded to seat the couple. They had been so entranced with their surroundings that they had not noticed a thing.

I pinned the skirt back in place as I detoured through Fish and returned to my podium. My face was on fire and a bubble of dread floated in my chest. I imagined Julio laughing and teasing me as soon as he got the chance. Even worse, I could hear him telling everyone, so that when I came for my next shift, the whole crew would point and snigger behind my back. It would be like middle school all over again.

I’d quit. Yes, I’d call Lisa now, tell her I was sick and never show up again.

Back at the podium, I avoided looking at Jim, not wanting to know if he had seen too.

On my way to seat the next group in Rain, wishing the ground would swallow me up, Julio caught my eye and put a finger to his lips. I melted with relief.

*

Working at the Kahiki was liberating in a way I couldn’t comprehend at the time. Like the butterfly chairs and the Tiki gods in the auction house, I was out of my element. My wings were unfurling: I was metamorphosing into someone others found interesting and fun. By placing myself amidst a community of so much diversity, I was the unique one and also privy to another world. I wasn’t just dining there across from men who wanted to flatter me; I was digging deeper into this culture and into myself.

Without a reputation, without a history, I could be who I wanted to be. No one there knew me as the mousy bookworm who had cried at my desk over Lassie Come Home in the third grade or the girl who sat out gym class because she couldn’t stand the humiliation of being chosen last and with obvious reluctance. There was no one there to compare me to my mother.

The confidence I gained carried over to school. I found that if I could make decisions (and mistakes), prove myself indispensable, then I could also raise my hand in class. I could make myself stand out to be chosen in gym class, rather than slinking to the corners. I could take responsibility for my schoolwork and activities. If I could banter with strangers on the way to a table in Fish, maybe I wasn’t as shy as people always said I was. At the Kahiki, I could reinvent myself, and I didn’t even need an accent.

*

There is a Sauder computer desk minus the computer and a chair, displaying cloth napkins and cocktail napkins, old menus, and banquet information pamphlets. While I browse, I think of Mr. Tsao, the second and last owner of the Kahiki. He came in several times while I was working and his heft seemed to fill the room, his body spilling over the bar stools. He was bigger than life, just like the Tiki god itself, except that he wore a smile to light up the room and possessed a big belly laugh. Because he was such a comforting presence, it alarmed me to see him talking over papers in hushed, serious tones with Lisa or with men that none of us recognized. I realize now that the restaurant, even then, was in trouble.

I remember the physical signs: the shredding bamboo walls, the crackly static of thunder in the bathroom, the rain that sometimes clogged in Rain, the threadbare carpet, the sputtering fountains. There were sections of the restaurant that we didn’t use, or only for special occasions. I remember how, near the end of my time there, patrons went from wearing their finest to dropping in wearing jeans or shorts and flip-flops. How it became a sad decline of campy, Polynesian pop culture.

I think of when the Kahiki closed its doors for good in 2000, almost ten years after I quit. Bits of it were sold off and shipped around the world before the beautiful fighting boat was conquered and destroyed by a wrecking ball. The local news showed coverage of the monumental Tiki god being hauled out in sections by a crane from a hole in the roof, his face ripped off. Seeing him at the mercy of cables and levers, he didn’t look so fearsome. I remember having to look away with that heavy, tugging feeling at witnessing someone else’s humiliation. His kingdom had fallen with the swipe of a pen and the historic landmark was junked for a chain drug store.

I take a last scan around the warehouse, breathing in the scent of musty carpet, hoping to see something that will ignite a lost memory. But they’ve all become mere objects, so incongruous that I barely recognize them. There is a blood-red, crackled glass orb with veins of purple that once hung, lit, from the walls of a hut. Away from the wavering lights of the flame, it has lost its essence.

As I leave empty-handed, I realize that working at the Kahiki was liberating in a way I couldn’t comprehend at the time. Like the butterfly chairs and the Tiki gods in the auction house, I was out of my element.

It saddens me to think of the once formidable, enigmatic Tiki and where he ended up, supine on a bed of rotting leaves in Vermont, a tarp pulled tight over his face.

pencilAutumn Shah lives in Dublin, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus where she is a stay-at-home mom of two girls. She graduated magna cum laude from Ohio State University in 2001 with a degree in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. She has worked in information technology and as an ESL teacher. She likes to write creative nonfiction essays and is currently working on a novel. Email: autumn.shah[at]gmail.com

Late Blessing

Creative Nonfiction
Linda C. Wisniewski


Photo Credit: Jodi Green/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Jodi Green/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I slid a pan of cornbread into the oven and blessed it, like my mother, who made the sign of the cross over every cake, bread and pie she baked.

In middle age, I took up the practice in homage to her and because I could finally do it without cringing. I believed I had put down the heavy load of pain she handed me through a religion I now saw as outmoded and rife with meaningless ritual.

In my eyes, my mother was a long-suffering martyr, verbally abused by my father and devoted to a fantasy of happiness in the hereafter. She read books about saints who endured hideous torture, and quoted their stories to me, her little girl. Suffering earned points with God, and justified staying in a bad marriage. Even then, I didn’t buy the message. My friends’ parents were loving, their homes quiet and safe, and they went to church too. I thought it should be easy for her to leave and take me with her.

I saw her as cold and uncaring. When a big girl pushed me against a locker in junior high, I came home after school in tears and told my mother. She shook her head for a second in sympathy then told me to get over it and went back to cooking dinner. She had to, after all, live the life she had chosen. I planned my exit every day. I would leave for college and be free and happy, nothing like her.

Although she told me to get over my hurt, I don’t think she ever let anything go. No insult was too small to add to her storehouse of suffering. Bitterness colored the stories she told as far back as I remember: My father stood her up when they were dating. Her mother told her to marry him before he changed his mind. He tried to hit her and knocked off her glasses while teaching her to drive. As I listened to her woeful words, I disappeared to myself and became her sounding board, for she had no close friends. Her own mother often told her, albeit in gentle Polish phrases, to calm down.

In the era of women’s liberation, I recalled the walk on our knees down the aisle of the church on Holy Thursday to kiss the feet of the crucifix. To me, a young woman now, we were the image of humiliation. I didn’t know then that humility has the same root.

Now I bless my bread, knowing there was more to her, each memory another facet to her complexity: Her merry laugh when her brother Johnny told a joke. Her worn hands making me pretty dresses after sewing all day in a factory. The Saturday mornings she led me through five stores to find the right Easter shoes. The grocery list she filled for her elderly mother every Wednesday. And the way, in her own old age, she tried to learn and grow.

She shared her disappointment in her lifelong friend.

“Agnes is so prejudiced. She hates the Puerto Ricans on the East End.”

“Didn’t you live there when you were kids?”

“Yes, I guess we were the ‘spics back then. She just can’t see it.”

One Christmas Day she made all the food herself. With a full serving dish in each hand, she whispered: “I feel like I’m going to pass out.”

“For heaven’s sake, sit down.”

“I can’t.”

“It’s okay, we love you.”

Her eyes filled. Horrified for making her cry, I carried dishes from kitchen to table and cleaned up afterward.

When I was a young wife, I could barely stand to be around her. She was so anxious, so eager to please and so easily cowed. She offered me leftovers to take home.

“If you don’t take them, I’ll have to throw them away.”

“So you’re giving me your garbage?” My disdain hit its mark.

I winced at her downcast face, never dreaming I would ever be like her.

Now she is gone, and I know just how hard it is to change. Lifelong habits, even as they hurt us, even as we are aware of that hurt, are easier to continue than to act in a different and completely conscious way. I chase after my grown kids with bags of leftovers as they leave my house. I grab stuffed toys and children’s books to entertain my nephew’s children, to keep them with me just a few minutes longer, believing those minutes are all I need to make them like me. It doesn’t cross my mind that they already like me. Even love me. There is always more for me to do. By myself, without the gifts and the doing, I am never enough.

When my baby cried in his crib, my friend asked if he liked to be picked up. Yes, I said, staring down at him. When she held him, he turned his head to me.

“He knows your voice.”

I didn’t believe her.

When he fell, at three, and shrieked in pain, I frantically asked him what happened. His little playmate spoke up.

“Why don’t you just give him a hug?”

A smart and easily-bored teenager, he kept his nose in his Game Boy for days, making me look like a bad parent to my friends with high-achieving kids.

“Go outside, call a friend,” I said.

A quiet and bookish girl myself, here’s what my mother said to me: “Why do you always have your nose in a book? Go outside and make some friends.”

She must have felt inadequate. Her child was not popular enough and it was her fault. Now it was mine.

With cornbread in the oven and my apron folded over the back of a chair, I long to take her hand.

“Let’s sit,” I would say. For just a moment or two, we could step off the treadmill of worry, and stop caring whether we are working hard enough, doing enough, being enough.

God knows, now that I’ve been all the things I didn’t like about her, I understand. It took a lifetime of therapy, meditation, being loved, and actively, consciously loving others who are fraught with worry, just as they are patient with me.

I used to worry about my son. We rarely talked. He clammed up around fifth grade, the year I had major surgery after painful bouts of diverticulitis.

“Who will take care of me if you go in the hospital, too?” he asked his dad.

That same year, my mother was a widow sliding into dementia hundreds of miles away, and I could do little to help her. My marriage hit a rough spot and I criticized my husband at home, not caring to hide it from our son, believing I was sticking up for myself. Unlike my mother.

During those anxious years, I pushed my boy to be more like the active, popular children of my friends. I made him volunteer at the theater and join the track team. At dinner one evening, I snatched a Left Behind novel from his hands. What I knew of those books was fear and punishment and not being saved. Judgment and suffering for choosing the wrong faith.

“You’re not reading that crap,” I said.

He rolled his eyes but did not argue. Now I am haunted by his downcast face. I want to go back and have that helpful parent discussion, the one where I let him read the book and we talk about it, but he’s 25 now, and living on his own.

The other day, I pressed his number into the keypad on my cell phone. As before, our conversation had long pauses but I let them be, recalling the long comfortable silences between his father and I when we were dating. When my boy finally spoke, I imagined reaching into the phone, touching him.

“I’m sorry for asking you to repeat yourself. My hearing is getting bad.”

“No, it’s all right. I was mumbling.”

In a long sweet flow of words, he told me about his girlfriend, his work, and his plans to travel. It took a long time for him to say these things, and a long time for me to listen, breathing.

“It was good talking with you,” I said.

“Yeah, definitely.”

“Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Mother Teresa said: “The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.”

Before my mother died, I told her about the work I do at my church, where all are welcome. Because I just can’t stop going to church.

“You’ll have a special place in heaven,” she said.

With heat and time, dough rises, transforms into a loaf. The oven timer pings. I open the door to a miracle.

pencilLinda C. Wisniewski shares an empty nest with her retired scientist husband in beautiful Bucks County, PA. She writes for a weekly newspaper and teaches memoir workshops. Her memoir, Off Kilter, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press. Visit her online at lindawis.com. Email: lindawis[at]comcast.net

Medfield Revisited

Creative Nonfiction
Brett Peruzzi


Photo Credit: Wiggle Butts Pet Photography/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Photo Credit: Wiggle Butts Pet Photography/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

In the few old black-and-white photos that exist of my great-uncle Jimmy, he is never smiling. A thin, narrow-faced young man with black hair swept back from a prominent forehead, he peers warily at the camera like a skittish animal, ready to flee at the first sign of danger.

Sometime when he was in his twenties, in the years immediately following World War II, my great-grandparents had their youngest son committed to Medfield State Hospital in the countryside southwest of Boston. Was he schizophrenic, bipolar, or perhaps just deeply depressed? It’s hard to say, since my family barely mentioned his existence and had little contact with him for decades. The only thing I ever heard my grandmother or great-aunt say about Jimmy, since their husbands rarely spoke about him, was that he was shy and didn’t mix well with people.

Just mentioning Jimmy’s name in my grandfather’s presence was enough to send him into a sputtering fit of rage, which was then followed by a gloomy silence that might last for hours. It definitely didn’t help that my grandmother wielded her brother-in-law’s name like a club against her husband, castigating him with his failings as a brother, that he never visited Jimmy year after year, which eventually ran into decades, and this no doubt flooded my grandfather with guilt.

My mother, on the other hand, had no reservations about telling me of the quiet and gentle uncle she remembered from her childhood in the 1940s before he went to Medfield. She told me that when she was training to be an RN in the early 1960s, she did her psych rotation at Medfield and saw Uncle Jimmy often, since he apparently was well enough to be allowed outside on his own to do landscaping and work on the farm on the hospital grounds that supplied much of the institution’s produce and milk. She said he remembered her and would wave and call out to her, and seemed happy to be outside working.

But I heard these stories from my mother, ironically, years after I had visited Medfield with the St. John’s Catholic Youth Organization group in my early teens during the mid-1970s. The church youth group went there once or twice a year to put on dances and holiday parties for the patients, and though my friends and I didn’t belong to CYO, we wormed our way along on a few of the trips not out of a sense of community service or compassion, but more so because we were titillated at the idea we could meet some genuine crazy people.

Had I known at that time that a relative of mine was there, I probably never would have gone on those trips, out of sheer adolescent embarrassment. Though even if I had encountered him, Uncle Jimmy and I had never met and would not have recognized each another anyway, and for privacy reasons neither patients nor visitors disclosed their last names.

After the federal mandate in the 1970s to move as many psychiatric patients as possible to less restrictive, community-based housing, the patient population at Medfield, which at its peak was over two thousand, and in some years outnumbered the townspeople, began to decline dramatically. Eventually, in the 1980s, Uncle Jimmy left the place where he had spent the majority of his life and was placed in a group home in Weymouth, a suburban town that bordered Quincy, the city he was born in and where his remaining family members still lived. But even with this new proximity, his two living brothers (a third had already died), including my grandfather, rarely, if ever, visited him or inquired about him.

Perhaps the dual burdens of both the shame of having a mentally ill family member, and the guilt from ignoring him, kept them away, because neither were cold-hearted men, but their youngest brother was not a topic that was open for discussion. Their wives, however, took matters into their own hands and paid Uncle Jimmy occasional visits. In 1999, at seventy-six years of age, Uncle Jimmy died of cancer, no doubt related to his fifty-year history as a heavy smoker. His oldest brother, my grandfather, Anthony, had died four years before; I wonder if Uncle Jimmy even knew. His only living brother, my great-uncle Albino, would live another two years, but as far as I know my grandmother and Albino’s wife, my great-aunt Gilda, were the only members of the family who attended Uncle Jimmy’s wake, since Albino was notified of his death as next of kin.

Years passed and I didn’t think much about Uncle Jimmy until I started to pass through Medfield to visit one of my sisters at her home southwest of Boston, or while kayaking the Charles River, which ran through the town, right at the edge of the old hospital grounds. When I learned that the grounds were now open to the public as a recreational and historic walking area, I knew this was my opportunity to try to integrate the family’s past there with everything I knew.

It was a humid summer day as my wife and I walked around the gate that blocked vehicle access to the grounds. We ascended a potholed road up a hill that soon passed the white-columned administration building that I remembered from my visits with the church group as a teenager. Then the Neo-Gothic-style buildings dating from the 1890s that housed the patients came into view—red brick, peeling paint, with slate roofs and arched windows, which, now, along with the doors, were completely boarded up to keep the curious out. Without knowing the history it could have been mistaken for an old college campus.

I pictured my mother, who had died the year before Uncle Jimmy, when she was doing her nursing training there in her late teens, walking across the campus in her white uniform and cap from her dormitory, since many of the staff then lived on site. I pictured Uncle Jimmy, contentedly doing landscaping work in the fresh air, waving to her as she passed. As I took photos of the dozens of buildings spread over hundreds of acres of grounds, connected by walkways, lush lawns, and numerous shade trees, my wife remarked at what a peaceful place it was. I hoped that Uncle Jimmy had found a peace at Medfield that had eluded him in the outside world.

The visit to the old hospital grounds in Medfield stuck with me, and I researched the history of it on the Web and tried to further understand my family’s experience within the context of those times. Often families were told that the best thing they could do for a mentally disabled family member was to commit them, and before modern psychotropic drugs and other treatment options came into widespread use, many felt they had no other choice.

There was only one more source of information I had to turn to, in my attempt to fit together the pieces of this family puzzle: my great-aunt Gilda, now ninety, but still mentally sharp, was the only living member that remained of her generation who knew Jimmy, and no doubt could tell me things that weren’t going to be found anywhere else. I called her up and casually mentioned that I had visited the hospital grounds and was thinking about Uncle Jimmy, and asked her what she could tell me about him. Why was he sent to Medfield? She repeated what I had heard before from her and my grandmother: that Jimmy was shy, didn’t mix well with people. My grandmother, with her lifelong animus towards her father-in-law, also used to tell me that Jimmy was not treated well by his father, which she intimated was the cause of his problems.

Rather than try to tell my nonagenarian great-aunt that shyness didn’t get people committed to mental hospitals, I asked what else she knew about his time there. She said that in his early years at Medfield, into the 1950s, they would have him home for a visit at Christmas, but he became increasingly uncomfortable being away from the hospital, and would ask to be brought back right after the holiday, rather than staying at their house for a few additional days, as he once did. I recalled that my grandmother told me once that Uncle Jimmy stayed with them a few times as well, long before I was born, and that she was always afraid he was going to accidentally burn the house down because he often paced the house, chain-smoking at night after everyone was asleep. Knowing my grandmother and her neurotic, worrying, nature, no doubt Uncle Jimmy picked up on the fact that his presence made her nervous. No wonder he wanted to go back to Medfield, where he probably felt more accepted, and had more relative freedom and independence as he performed his work duties on the hospital campus.

But Aunt Gilda had another revelation for me that would prove to be even more surprising.

“Did you know your great-aunt Mary was in Medfield, too?” she asked me.

“What!?” I exclaimed. The only thing I had ever heard about this sister of my grandfather was that she died young, from a brain tumor, before I was born.

That was later on, asserted Aunt Gilda. Before that, she spent time at Medfield. I asked Aunt Gilda why she was there, and half-expected another benign, euphemistic explanation, like Uncle Jimmy’s shyness.

“She went berserk,” Aunt Gilda said bluntly. “Her husband left her and took their only child, a girl, and it made Mary go crazy.” It didn’t take me more than a few seconds to realize that Aunt Mary’s mental illness was probably the reason her husband left with their child, not the cause of it, but I kept that to myself. And also that the brain tumor that eventually killed her may have contributed to the psychiatric problems that got her committed to Medfield.

So Uncle Jimmy was not the lone family member with a major mental illness, as I had believed. And, I thought now, who knows what other psychiatric problems, short of requiring hospitalization, were swirling around in the family’s past, lost to time, shame and guilt, the keeping of secrets, and the passing of the generations? Perhaps the same could be said of many families, if one looks deeply enough, without even walking the grounds of an abandoned state mental hospital, where the ghosts of the past wait to be awakened.

pencilBrett Peruzzi lives in Framingham, Massachusetts. His poems and prose have previously appeared in The Boston Globe, Exquisite Corpse, Sahara, Pine Island Journal, Boston Poetry Magazine, Gloom Cupboard, and other publications. He is currently working on a book-length memoir. Email: brettperuzzi[at]hotmail.com

And So It Goes

Creative Nonfiction
Luanne Castle


Photo Credit: Kevin Muir/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Kevin Muir/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Their beginning

Pieter scrubbed before he visited Neeltje on the porch, but the oily smell of herring clung to his skin and hair, to his coat and boots. He left at ten every night. Later, she would press her hands, the ones he held as they sat turned toward each other in the small chairs, to her face and inhale. It had the effect of smelling salts or a burnt feather, reviving her from the dullness she felt when he was not around.

Their ending

When he felt invisible cold vines wrap around his ankles and calves, he saw her more clearly than he had in twenty years. His son Karel whispered that he would be seeing Mother soon. Pieter first thought he meant the mother he had never known, but then realized it was Neeltje and smiled at the image of her standing before the light.

And so it goes.

On those evenings, her parents sat at the table inside the window, struggling to keep their eyes open over her mending and his reading. They didn’t seem to notice when she and Pieter disappeared from view for a half hour. Or in the early months when she first let out her skirt.

He thought of his family—his children, grandchildren, and their children. His oldest great-grandchild married young, but she didn’t have to. The man was older, a college graduate. Their first living room furniture was made from California orange crates, and Pieter doubted she realized her great-grandfather had ever been anything but a shrunken old man. Or that he had built chests and credenzas when Grand Rapids meant well-made furniture.

To get permission, they had to contact his mother’s father, the legal guardian that had signed Pieter and his brother into the city-run orphanage four years before. Old enough to be financially responsible for himself, but not old enough to sign his own marriage license. Laws written by old men who couldn’t remember their youths.

Every three months he moved to a different farmhouse. He was supposed to be with his eldest son Karel this season, but Karel’s wife Clara had cancer of the womb and lay dying in the upstairs bedroom. Now he had taken ill at Pete’s where the pies and fried chicken weren’t as good as Clara’s. But they treated him well, bringing him his pipe or a shawl when he asked for it.

She was a 16-year-old ex-schoolgirl when Karel was born. She swaddled the baby carefully, and against her mother’s instructions, carried him to the dock to wait for Pieter. When he said they should leave their families and move to Kloetinge where he could learn the trade of shoemaker, her cycles stopped again. Jan was born in Kloetinge without family nearly.

Nine children born to Neeltje. Two funerals. The one he remembered in color and detail was the first, young Jan, three months old after they had arrived in Michigan. Neeltje was only 19 when she buried her second born. After that, she went some place Pieter couldn’t follow. Gradually, over the next 44 years, he stopped searching.

When Pieter’s wealthy grandmother passed away, his own bequest bought Pieter, Neeltje, and their two babies a voyage on the S.S. Zaandam to New York and then a train ride to Grand Rapids where other Zeeuws had moved. Their young blond family was dutifully welcomed, but without warmth, into the neighborhood. A church elder hired Pieter on at his furniture factory.

For years Pieter wondered if the sawdust and paint chemicals would harm his lungs, exposed as he’d been to young Karel’s tuberculosis. But he retired without incident, although his legs sometimes gave him trouble, especially in damp weather.

Neeltje’s motions with the children were deliberate and patient. When she washed small faces, their eyes gazed up into hers. After Rosa died, she gave birth to yet another daughter and called her Rosa. The last child they called Nellie after her mother; she was born slow with a pinched face and poor eyesight.

His mind wandered further back in time. The orphanage teacher with a swaggering moustache beat him across the back of his thighs with a cane after daily prayers. Afterward, Pieter found adventure stories in the Bible and imagined himself far away on another continent.

Neeltje did things without fanfare or explanation, and that’s how she died. He wasn’t sure what happened, but after he saw she was gone, he realized that even though she’d been at his side since they were teens, he had the sense he didn’t know her. Perhaps he’d been mistaken not to try to pull her back after Jan’s death. He should have tried harder. Now he envisioned her as a teen with a broad plain face, a bashful half-smile, and colorless hair. He’d made her a mother many times over, but she had been only a girl.

Pieter didn’t have a photograph of his mother. As he grew up, he didn’t know her stories. When Pieter was fifteen, his father died and not one of the older siblings, the uncles, or his mother’s father came to save his younger brother and himself from the orphanage that resembled a dark brick church adorned with stone angels. City taxes, including those of his uncles’ import business, had helped support the institution for years. The family figured they might as well make use of it.

He wanted to do it all over again. He would look often at her, at Neeltje, smiling or frowning. And at the children laughing with their mother. The smells of the fish, the leather, the fresh cut wood would be with him, but he would notice her so that when she died—because it always came to that—he would be prepared. He would see the way she was. The way they were. And it would be enough.

pencilLuanne Castle studied at the University of California, Riverside (PhD), Western Michigan University (MFA), and Stanford University. Her poetry and prose have appeared in Grist, River Teeth, Extract(s), Crack the Spine, The Review Review, and many other journals. Winner of the 2015 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award, Doll God, Luanne’s first collection of poetry, was published by Aldrich Press. She divides her time between California and Arizona, where she shares land with a herd of javelina. Email: luanne.castle[at]gmail.com

On Death and Dying

Creative Nonfiction
Theresa Kelly


Photo Credit: Anathea Utley (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Anathea Utley (CC-by)

i.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about dying.

ii.

When my mom and dad had been dating for about three years, his dad passed away from pancreatic cancer.

(To be honest, it took me about five minutes to remember what my grandpa had died from. A bad memory and four grandparents dead before I was born makes it a little difficult to keep it all straight.)

My mom told me, “Sometimes death pulls people apart, and sometimes it brings them closer. I really think this brought your dad and me closer.” Shortly before the finals week of his senior year of college, my dad suddenly went home for the funeral. His teachers mailed him his finals. He didn’t walk in graduation from Penn State.

He was twenty-two, and his dad was dead. He wasn’t the head of the family now though. He had three older brothers and an older sister. He was the baby, and his dad was dead.

iii.

I’m the baby of my family as well. I’m twenty-two and in my senior year of college.

When I leave to go back to college, I hug him—hard.

At night, when he kisses me on the head, slightly to the left of where he normally does, I tell him, childishly, “wrong.” He kisses me again, in the center, where my part meets what would be my bangs (if I still had them), where he always does. It feels like home.

iv.

When I was in tenth grade, I wrote a novella inspired by the stages of grief. I went to the local library and checked out the book On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. In it, she interviewed dozens, if not hundreds of cancer patients. She analyzed how people deal with dying—and death. She went through the stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Kübler-Ross explained something in that book that stuck with me to this day. The stages are fluid. Sometimes we’re roaring with anger, sometimes we can’t believe it’s happening, sometimes we can’t get out of bed, and then sometimes we’re angry again.

There’s no right way to deal with death and dying.

v.

When she was twenty-two years old, in the middle of the night, Sarah’s father died of a heart attack. I’d known Sarah since I was in middle school. We met through my best friend’s family.

I found out through a generic Facebook, “I’m so sorry,” post. I texted my best friend, “Is something wrong with Sarah?” She texted me back, “It’s awful. Her dad is dead.”

I gasped and felt secondhand grief burn the corners of my eyes.

At the wake, a few days later, I walked through the line. Sarah’s uncle looked perplexed when he saw me. “I’m—I’m friends with Sarah,” I explained, gesturing towards her. I wished I was wearing a different outfit, instead of my stupid roughly black shirt that I wore to work all the time. It seemed too festive. I could hear Sarah’s mom wailing down the line.

His face lit with recognition. “None of Sarah’s other friends went through the whole line. They just went straight to her.” I winced at the wake faux pas. You were supposed to say your sympathies to everyone in line.

My mother—behind me, always, in support—made a sympathetic noise.

“I— sorry,” I said, hesitant, unsure of how to make it better.

He made an it’s-okay type of movement with his shoulders, and I went down the rest of the line. When I got to Sarah, I was already tearing. “I always cry at these things, I’m sorry. I feel like I’m supposed to say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ but that sounds so stupid.” I really wanted to say “fucking” stupid, but I had seen her small cousins running about.

She laughed, and I was stunned. “It’s okay.” She looked at my tearing eyes. “Wow, you weren’t kidding.” She seemed rather nonchalant, but she always did, so it was hardly something new.

My mom murmured an apology and moved aside. I talked to Sarah for a few minutes, while there was a break in the line. I couldn’t tell you what about. What do you say to someone whose father has just died?

I feel like I remember her mom hugging me, but then again, maybe I hugged her. She was sobbing, barely supporting her own weight. I remembered that Sarah’s dad had taken a heart attack in the middle of the night, and I wondered how someone woke up next to their dead husband and didn’t just scream and scream and scream. I was sure the horror movie scream woke Sarah up.

I had never asked her. I never will.

vi.

When I was a little girl, I used to cry in the middle of the night because I didn’t have grandparents. My mom and dad would come in and comfort me: It was okay that Keri, my best friend, saw her grandma every week. It was okay.

I pouted though. It wasn’t fair.

My dad told me stories about my mother’s mom. She was always baking, and he was sure—he whispered, like a secret—that she was flying around in heaven with peanut butter stuck to her wings. I giggled, they tucked me in, and I fell asleep.

vii.

Years later, I made a reference to peanut-butter winged angels. My parents didn’t remember.

It’s strange, how things that comfort some people don’t comfort others. It’s strange how I never had grandparents, but they didn’t have parents, and they’re the ones who comforted me. Maybe that’s what parenthood is all about?

viii.

The first time I saw a dead body, I was in elementary school, and Keri’s grandpa had died. I knew I had to go to the wake; she was my best friend, but I was terrified. I hid near the back of the room, while my mom went to the front and murmured to her parents that I was here. Keri, delighted, ran back to me. I told her, “I’m really sorry about your grandpa.”

She told me, “It’s okay.”

I was already crying—always a sympathetic crier, in a room aching with grief—and she handed me tissues. I looked down at her sneakers and black jeans and wondered why my mom had said I had to dress up, if Keri didn’t have to.

Her grandma came over to me then, and she grabbed my hand. “Come on, Theresa.”

Eyes wide with terror, I looked for my mom. She shot me a look that quite clearly told me she didn’t know a polite way to extract me. Her grandma—for a reason I’ll never understand—led me straight to the casket and put my hand on her dead husband’s face. Grief makes people do funny things, but I wasn’t sure why it was necessary for his granddaughter’s best friend to touch his face.

I cried regardless.

ix.

In twelfth grade, I took genetics. I filled out a family tree and asked my mom to confirm how my grandparents had died. I felt stupid for not knowing, but then again, she had no idea how most of my great-grandparents had died. Thirty-some years had faded the grief.

x.

Late in my high school career, sitting at my desk, listening to Taylor Swift, I was interrupted by a knock on my door. Slow and solemnly, my mom sat on my bed. “What’s wrong?” I asked her. If something wasn’t wrong, she would’ve just stood in my doorway. I muted the music.

I don’t remember how she told me, what words she used. My Aunt Karen—though—she was definitely dead. My eyes welled instantly, and I covered my mouth. “How’s Daddy?”

“He’s— okay,” she said, hesitantly, slowly. She told me what had happened—or I guess she didn’t, because they didn’t really know. Aunt Karen had died in her sleep. She wasn’t old per say, but when my mom was in the hospital having me, Aunt Karen was having a brain aneurysm and a stroke and becoming permanently physically disabled. She was “lucky” she hadn’t died eighteen or so years ago.

My tongue felt thick. “Should I… talk to him? I don’t want to make it worse.” Relatives had died before, but never someone this close to my family. Never someone I had seen every Christmas and every Thanksgiving.

She told me she thought he would like that. I walked down to the kitchen, slowly, where my dad was facing the window at the sink. “Dad,” I said—and swallowed, hard.

He turned around, and he was crying—real, big tears. It was the first time I remembered ever seeing him cry.

I did the only thing I knew how to, and I hugged him.

xi.

I’m still thinking a lot about dying, and a lot about what it means. There’s no right way to deal with death or dying—and maybe there’s no right time to start dealing with the potential for death or dying. Maybe I’ll never know the most comforting thing to say, and maybe I’ll never stop crying at funerals and wakes.

My dad lost his dad when he was my age. My parents were both orphans by the time they were thirty. I look at a calendar, think about the next eight years of my life, think about my parents, think about death and dying, and think about the fact that I’m crazy paranoid (knock on wood), and know they’re likely to live another thirty years. I hope my future children know them.

I don’t know why I think about things like this.

xii.

I think, maybe, I’m afraid.

pencilTheresa Kelly is a senior at West Chester University majoring in English literature secondary education. She is the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper. Theresa has previously been published by Lip Magazine, Daedalus Literary Magazine, and Literati. Email: theresajoykelly[at]hotmail.com

 

A Field Guide to Missing

Creative Nonfiction
Emily Pifer


Photo Credit: Fabian/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Photo Credit: Fabian/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

First, you must leave or get left. The truth is: you have less control over the getting left, and more over the leaving. Not to mention, if you’re left, it doesn’t feel the same. It feels bad, yes, but it’s supposed to, so, it doesn’t feel as bad. You see, when it comes to missing, it’s best to do the leaving.

And it’s best, you may guess, to leave soon. Leave hard and fast and—listen—cold. Leave the ground wondering what it did wrong. Leave the walls whispering your name, unbelieving you’re gone. Leave the people, the people you know, the people who know you, grasping for remnants of your DNA.

It’s in your best interest to rush out, the wind at your back. If both the calendar tacked above your desk and the one hanging by a bright, plastic letter X on your refrigerator show you leaving Tuesday, leave before the end of the weekend. Go on Sunday afternoon when the town is taking a nap, or eating, unsuspecting. This, you’ll see, is like committing farewell robbery.

And if you really want to do this properly, rather than savoring the days before you go, the moments of sustenance, the fuel of journal writings, you should wish each painstaking moment away—far (far) away. Make a paper chain of what remains, tally the evenings standing before you and gone away, count down the sunrises left before escape.

Don’t engage in goodbyes like closure like peace of mind, careful hugs and kisses on the cheek at the last hour of so-long-bon-voyage parties. Tell guests there’s no need. If they say, “This is not goodbye, this is see you soon.” Say, “Well actually, I’m not sure when I’ll see you.” Don’t let their earth settle, your dust sink.

Pack timeworn memories, hard-fought heartaches, and small kitchen appliances in a hurried haste. Close your eyes as you fold and wrap, see yourself far away. Then it’s as simple as a crammed trunk slammed closed, keys in the ignition, eyes in the rearview mirror, but for a moment.

A note: It enhances your eventual missing if you are particular about what you leave behind. Particularly, try (try) to leave good and decent contingencies. If what you are leaving is, in general, shabby and shoddy, a deep and dark and noxious body of missing will be harder to come by—impossible, maybe. You must leave life behind. And not just any life, yours—the one you built from tears and nightmares. So, in general, as a rule of thumb, you must leave important things. Below, for your edification, are examples of such things.

An other who cares for you despite the doom threatening to boil your insides; a companion who sees through your neurosis as manageable and sometimes even charming; a friend who lets you eat their cereal; a group of souls who vibrate with your own, gentle and warm and tumbling—like they were custom-designed to help dry out the delicate fibers of your being; a comfortable chair; trees, dark corners, and cracks that have taught you; somewhere to be; books left open and unfinished, their pages flapping in the wind and soon moist in morning dew.

The second thing to do, after you’ve left only your ghost, is to point your bones toward a place as cold as you. This is the key. When you settle in this place, this new place, you should aim for a dull, but constant feeling of unsettling. Don’t harbor feelings of fitting. After all, belonging interrupts longing. Instead, cross your arms. Surround yourself with people who do not understand you and—listen—make sure you do not give them a chance to. Sequester. And do not plant seeds. And do not break ground—anywhere. Look in the mirror and yearn for what you were, before.

Begin adding all the things that were better, before. Scour your mind to remember the exact happenings in the very instant of your leaving. There was a flicker of something. Your days there came back to you in a series of unordered flashes. You felt different, suddenly, and thought maybe (maybe), but you looked down—your foot was on the gas. Knead that instant like dough. Consider pages left. Don’t just read the lines of that weathered paperback, feel it in your hands, notice how the ink blurs and evaporates right before the climax.

Fill in blanks.

Soon, if you’ve done it right, you’ll begin to notice the missing like a headache behind your eyes. Then, it aggravates into a subtle ache in your mind space. Before you know, it starts to quake. You’re rocked from somewhere off the spectrum everyday when you wake, and again at night. There is pain. It’s especially throbbing when a sliver of sunshine reaches across a precise strip of sidewalk in a certain way. In that small strip of shine, you’ll feel the vast pang of joy that can’t be shared, not because you can’t find the words, because there’s no one there.

You chose.

A third thing to do is to remind yourself of what is true: you are not permitted to miss that place you (you) left. You treated it as a marked gravel road to get somewhere else. You ignored the smoke-signal dust stirring up behind you. Despair. At this point, you’ll begin driving through a long, dark tunnel. There is an end, you suspect, but no light to guide you.

You’ll know you’ve done it—the missing—in a thorough sort of way when your tunnel becomes deeper, wider, black. Black. It turns into a well, wide enough that if you stand at the center with outstretched arms, you feel nothing but empty air. A damp breeze moves through the space between your fingers. It reminds you. All that, beyond your grasp.

*

In October of 1987, Jessica McClure Morales, then eighteen months old, fell into abandoned water well just outside the fence in her aunt’s backyard in Midland, Texas. She was trapped deep down under the well’s shaft—and the whole country watched, held, prayed. Two-and-a-half days later, she was rescued, dirty and damaged and crying and okay. Now, she says, she doesn’t remember any of it happening.

Thick, dark bangs cover the scars on her forehead. Long dresses cover the ones on her thighs. I haven’t found anything to cover mine.

pencilEmily Pifer is a candidate in the MFA program in creative nonfiction at the University of Wyoming. She comes from the hills and hollows of Appalachia, but spent much of her childhood in suburban Ohio. Emily studied journalism and creative writing at Ohio University before moving to New York City, where she worked at Esquire and Women’s Health. She’s currently working on a collection of essays that explore cultures, conditions, and definitions of self. Email: piferemily[at]gmail.com