August in the Time of COVID

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Laura Sweeney


Image of a tree-lined lake at dusk. The shoreline is mostly in shadow. Leafy trees are in silhouette, backlit by the setting sun, and reflected onto the lake's smooth surface. The cloudless sky is a very pale blue tinged with pale yellow-pink at the horizon. The pink of the sky is mirrored on the water.

Photo Credit: Jamie Cantrell/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

It’s August. Or is it? In this COVID time, hard to tell. Feels more like September though I’m not from here, don’t know the weather and whether it should be more humid or less. Leaves fall, still green.

August. Five months into this pandemic. Where has the time gone? March—stockpiling like a mad woman, April—teaching Zoom class, May—thesis defense, June—post MFA collapse, July—devouring virtual conferences. This may be a forced sabbatical, but it’s not a vacation.

When my dog Freya and I first moved here, to the boot of Southern Illinois, we lived in a crappy apartment in a writer’s ghetto too close to campus and, before that, at University Village. I discovered Carbondale is a border town, an in-between place, not quite southern, not quite northern. A place in transition. Like me.

It was the Bryant family who I knew first, maybe the only family I knew in town. Cheryl, my landlady, has a good reputation and came highly recommended. She told me this neighborhood on the corner of Billy Bryan and Gher nestled between two dead-end streets, is mostly quiet, safe. I mispronounced it as grrrr, but she corrected me, said: say Gher as in Gary. This August, going on three years as her neighbor. Once she invited me to a pancake breakfast. Often, she’s invited me for cocktails, even offered furniture, which I declined. My bohemian ways must seem odd to her; she must sense there is a backstory.

Don’t know the backstory of this house, other than it was built circa 1945. I try to imagine who might have owned it then, some soldier returning from war? A Japanese mental health specialist lived here a few years back and then a couple with Dobermans who scared the neighbors across the street. But that couple moved out suddenly in the middle of the night.

And Labor Day weekend we moved in.

My landlady was right. Despite the angst of no job no prospects, there’s peace here. I often fall asleep watching a rom-com. Last night it was Nights in Rodanthe. Freya sleeps next to me, nestled in my bedding in the middle of the living room on the hardwood floor underneath the ceiling fan, and I don’t care that some would oppose such a companion.

From here you can hear the train, or is it Amtrak, rumbling downtown just like I had as a kid, awake August nights in that house with no air conditioning lying so still next to the screened window trying to catch a breeze. And here, just like home, crickets and locusts chorus all night.

Freya and I love this yard, its unfenced expanse, getting to know the neighbors who walk by with their binoculars because they say they have spotted a rare bird though I didn’t catch the name. And yesterday the badger next door poked his head out from his cubby hole underneath my landlady’s garage and watched as Freya and I did yard laps. How cute he and his badger wife are as they look both ways before they cross the street, then scamper between garages, fences, and sheds.

Bark is beautiful, one of the newscasters said. And the Bradford pear tree that fans my front lawn. The tent caterpillar nests intrigue. Even the rake resting against our maple tree and the mushrooms that sprout nearby, tiny penises that grow into Chinese hats or cocktail umbrellas. This region is rich in mushrooms and research for their medicinal properties. In Oakwood Park, just blocks from here, thrive the red kind with white dots that remind me of elves or gnomes. And earlier this month, mustard-yellow ones that grow in Frisbee-sized patches proliferated my yard till they turned brown and shriveled like funnel cake. Are they safe or poisonous? In the case of war or famine, Americans don’t know the resources we have around us. Fortunately, Freya leaves them alone.

There’s a giant cobweb strewn across my front porch, so I avoid that door. And there’s no telling what other spiders I may find. Once, while admiring one dangling from her thread, the breeze blowing her back and forth, another jumped down my shirt. Fireflies and butterflies and dragonflies flit about. And a batch of boxelder bugs camped at the edge of my garage until I doused them in apple cider vinegar. Mud wasps decorated my garage doorway, too, with organ pipe nests until I doused them with apple cider vinegar. But we’ve come to a compromise. They build their nests above the garage door. I hear them buzzing.

The garage intrigues: plenty of shelves and outlets, a couple of paint cans, a medicine cabinet, two torn mattresses above the rafters, a yellow ruler tucked in the ceiling. Also a security box that yielded no treasure. The garage door leads into the foyer and a white board with the question “How will I be resilient today?” scrawled across it.

Still, yesterday it all welled up inside me. The dominoes are falling, as my landlady says. I wanted to escape hours away but opted to drive to Murphysboro State Park just miles west of here. Passed the Smoky the Bear sign, chance of fire low. Sat at a picnic table at Waterlily Point and played fetch with Freya who found an orange tennis ball near a fire ring. Took solace in the white egret at the edge of the marsh. And the pine cones lining the parking lot.

At home, I often sit on a stack of cement blocks beside my garage while Freya sunbathes at the edge of the driveway or that nook under the mailbox. My landlady offered a chair but somehow this stoop feels better. Once I found a five-lined skink, its yellow stripes and electric blue tail pulsing. Maybe it means my luck is shifting.

Once the loony neighbor from 704, the one who claims he has seven PhDs and is a veteran of the Air Force and Navy and Marines, knocked on my back door asking me to take him to the gas station. When I turned him away, he offered a blessing. Now he walks by spewing obscenities about Hitler or holy water. I make every attempt to not make eye contact. Maybe that’s not nice or neighborly. Maybe I should ask about his time in the service or his POW flag. Certainly, I don’t want Freya wandering over into his yard.

As we do our yard laps, I pray for a vaccine, for the elections, for the essential workers on the frontlines. And to keep this a peaceful neighborhood. With the exception of the creepy dude, or the occasional domestic squabble, or the shirtless guy with his beer gut hanging out, I feel safe here. It was divine intervention the previous renters moved out in the middle of the night with no explanation. This one-story soldier cottage no basement with foyer and sun porch is perfect for a writer and her dog.

Oh, how I want to believe it’s safe here. But shopping, even though Walgreens is within walking distance, is limited. I shop off-hours, annoyed by customers ignoring the intercom reminders to wear a mask. Annoyed by the escalating incidence rate. All summer I deliberated whether to move back home. Explained to my landlady that my elderly parents live in the northwest corner of Iowa. There’s a meatpacking plant, an outbreak. But folks at the checkout counter with no social distancing or face masks are creepier.

I’m one of the immunocompromised, a lung obstruction. Limited options. No one stares or mocks or asks questions or finds it unusual at all as I insert my EBT card, then afterwards check the hand sanitizer to be sure it’s ethanol not methanol, squirt a bit and rub my palms together as I leave.

Back on my block, I check my mailbox. Two years and still don’t know when the mail arrives. I don’t wear gloves anymore the way I did back in March when I’d wipe down every grocery item. Even my landlady is casual as she stands too close without a mask and asks about fall plans. I’m looking online for freelance gigs, wonder how much to reveal to her. But heard a preacher say when you know the nature of a thing it’s easier to deal with, and the nature of a landlady is to squeeze as much rent as possible. Fortunately, she understands my predicament, was willing to reduce my rent. I looked up the property tax online. She’s still making money.

Yes, the weather seems odd these days, as the school year is upon us. This morning, signs of life at the baseball diamonds. Nice to hear the country music play as Freya and I walked the gravel path. Good to hear the whack of baseball bats and to see the camaraderie of the men hitting balls in practice.

Still, our first August here seems so long ago, as the days weeks months run together. On my good days Psalm 23 comes to mind: He makes me lie down in green pastures. This house, on this corner, in this in-between place where Freya and I walk laps. I’ve decided to leave the branches the storm leveled as yard art. But on my not-so-good days, I’m weary. Weary. And just shuffle along, wondering when this winter that never ends finally ends, what will we do? Will we look back on this time in American history as if August never happened?

Before this pandemic, all the pieces were coming together: the winding path of my education, the veered career trajectory. But now this woman on sabbatical, this woman with no makeup, this woman who hasn’t given herself a pedicure all summer though she gets a kick out of how often her dog Freya grooms her paws, longs for days to dress up. What is the look in my eyes the clerk sees peering out from my disheveled hair and multicolored kerchief?

I check my stoop for the five-lined skink, sit and open a package. The book is Life Interrupted, about Nineveh and Jonah’s shelter in the whale. The heat makes me stand and go back inside to pour myself a glass of low-sodium V8 juice and despite video fatigue watch a few more rom-coms until six p.m., then turn on ABC news. I scan the coronavirusillinois.gov site for the latest incident rate. An hour later, go back into the kitchen and make hot chocolate even though it’s August. Freya potties outside, one more yard lap, before her last treat of the day. Maybe a splash of milk. Maybe a half teenie Greenie. We settle on our bedding on the hardwood floor to watch a movie and fall asleep.

pencil

Laura Sweeney facilitates Writers for Life in Iowa and Illinois. She represented the Iowa Arts Council at the First International Teaching Artist’s Conference in Oslo, Norway. Her poems and prose appear in sixty plus journals and ten anthologies in the States, Canada, Britain, Indonesia, and China. Her recent awards include a scholarship to the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. In 2021, she received an Editor’s Prize in Flash Discourse from Open: Journal of Arts & Letters; Poetry Society of Michigan’s Barbara Sykes Memorial Humor Award; and two of her poems appear in the anthology Impact: Personal Portraits of Activism, which received an American Book Fest Best Book Award in Current Events category and finalist in the Social Change category. She is a PhD candidate, English/Creative Writing, at Illinois State University. Email: lauraswny[at]hotmail.com

The Hardest Part

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Jessica Upper


Image of a basket of tomatoes. The basket is rectangular, wooden, with a handle. The tomatoes are large and irregularly shaped, in varying red hues. The background of the image is a pinkish wall and large window that are out of focus.

Photo credit: Susy Morris/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Ellie’s* sister drove her back from the driving test centre in Marston for the second time in two months. Before they left the parking lot, they rolled down the windows in the back of Lisa’s car so that as much cool air could get in as possible on the way home. Once they reached the highway, the hot August wind whipped Ellie’s hair into her face, a few strands catching in the frames of her glasses. She pulled them out painfully and tried to hold her hair back with one hand, wishing she had an elastic.

With the windows down it was too noisy for the sisters to talk, which suited Ellie fine. What was there to say? She gazed out the window at brittle brown fields of soybeans alternating with lush swaths of leafy green corn. She had failed again, that’s all there was to it. Last time Lisa had been sympathetic and patronizing on the way home from the testing centre. Ellie had probably just had a bad tester, Lisa asserted. Next time she’d have better luck. But today’s examiner was a different person and the results were the same. He was a very kind man, Ellie had to admit, who seemed genuinely regretful when he gave her the bad news.

“Too slow,” was his verdict. “If you can’t keep up with the pace of traffic, it’s just as dangerous as going too fast. You need to drive with more confidence and that just comes with practice.” Ellie couldn’t imagine getting behind the wheel again, let alone attempting her driver’s test one more time. It was too humiliating. And yet, what choice did she have? Until she got her licence, she and the kids were stranded at home, dependent on anyone willing to give them a lift.

Maybe it was time to move into town, like John had done. How ironic, Ellie thought, that he had been the one to get an apartment in Fernville when she was the one without a car or licence. Part of her hoped his apartment was a real shithole, but when she remembered that the kids had to stay there on weekends, she took back this wish. Everything always came down to the kids.

Before long the house came into view on the horizon. Ellie usually liked travelling the highway back from Marston because of the vantage it gave of her home. Driving east from Fernville all you could see was a clump of trees, mostly white pines, just off the road, the farmhouse hidden among them like a face badly in need of a shave. But coming in from the southwest the house and most of the surrounding property was visible. It looked good these days, she conceded, especially since John had finally covered up the tar paper last fall with board and batten.

Had he already met the girl when he started all those jobs around the house? Ellie wondered. She’d imagined, in those absurdly warm early days of November, that Zoë’s impending birth had instilled a nesting instinct in him, the way that it supposedly did with mothers. But perhaps it was actually guilt that fueled John’s flurry of domestic activity, making it up to her before she even knew of his betrayal. Ellie had been relieved to see him up on the ladder every weekend as it meant she could take a break from nagging him about the siding. Now it made her ill to think that the completion of this work may have been a consequence of John’s affair.

As they got closer, Ellie turned her attention to the vegetable garden. Even from half a kilometre away, she could make out the abundant potato crop and sprawling asparagus plants, long gone to seed, the tangled mess of the herb garden, and raised beds full of ripening tomatoes. The children’s sunflowers created a radiant border along the driveway. The sight of those tall, hardy stalks, diligently and exuberantly measured by her daughter and sons throughout the summer, made Ellie’s eyes start with sudden tears. Their pleasure in something so simple as a growing plant coupled with their impulse to quantify this wonder touched her deeply.

But now was not the time for crying. Ellie had an urge to tell Lisa to slow down and let her jump, visualizing herself somersaulting from the car like a stuntman. She needed to get out as soon as possible, on to the next thing, away from her thoughts. By the time they pulled into the driveway, Ellie’s seat belt was off; she opened her door while the vehicle coasted to a stop, heat rushing in.

“Thanks Lisa,” she said, disentangling her purse strap from below the seat.

Her skin made a brief sucking sound as she pulled herself off the car’s vinyl interior. Standing, Ellie tried unsuccessfully to smooth the back of her damp shorts, then reminded herself that it didn’t matter. She was just going to change into work clothes anyway. The shorts could join the ever-expanding pile of laundry waiting for her in various hampers around the house.

Sizing up the garden as she walked down the drive, Ellie began a mental list of jobs to do: thin the new beet crop, weed the carrots, re-stake the tomatoes pulled over by the weight of their fruit. She was tempted to start right away, while the sitter was here, but the heat seemed to be at its most oppressive just now. Better to wait until the sun dropped a little, she decided. Besides, she needed to pay Dot first.

Lisa caught up to Ellie as she opened the front door. “Your zucchinis are gigantic,” she commented.

Ellie nodded in brief acknowledgment, hoping her sister was not going to stay long. Probably she should offer Lisa some zucchini, something to thank her for the ride. She had a ridiculous amount still to harvest, and should have picked them before they were the size of baseball bats. Yet, Ellie felt excessively possessive of this summer’s crops. Growing food seemed like the only thing she could do right lately. More than ever, she felt the need to hold onto everything the garden provided, like those families who farmed the land long ago, taking and preserving all they could get from the soil before the weather turned. There was no way of knowing when this overproduction of leaves, fruits, and tubers would suddenly stop.

“Mom!” yelled Rose as Ellie came through the door. She bounded over from the kitchen table where a game of Sorry! appeared to be in full swing. Pulling at the back of her own sweaty shorts, halting in front of her mother, she asked, “Did you pass?”

Ellie shrugged. “Not this time.”

“Oh.” Rose’s mouth turned down at the corners, conveying her dismay.

Ellie patted her eleven-year-old daughter’s shoulder as if she were the one in need of comforting, and hung her purse by the door. “How are things going here?”

“Great!” Rose’s cheeriness returned. She gestured to Dot, sitting at the table with Finn and Michael. “We’re playing round three. I won the first two times, but Dot’s in the lead now. She’s really good.”

Dot looked up from the gameboard smiling wanly. Ellie had the impression that the girl would rather be somewhere else. Watching her twirl a lock of blonde hair around her index finger, Ellie felt empathy for Dot, relegated to sitting around the sticky kitchen table, playing a game in which she had no interest, with some little kids.

A sudden screech emanated from upstairs.

“Zoë’s waking up from her nap,” Rose explained unnecessarily.

“I’ll go get her.” Dot jumped up from the table. Moments later she appeared back in the kitchen, Zoë in her arms. “I have a warm baby here for you!”

Ellie managed a smile. She had barely had time to take off her sandals, hadn’t even visited the bathroom yet, and here was Dot unloading Zoë into her embrace. The baby smelled faintly of zinc ointment and vinegar. Ellie could never figure out why her children’s sweat had such an acidic odour, but there was something strangely comforting about the smell. She couldn’t help putting her nose into the crease of skin below Zoë’s chin, inhaling deeply, while also making her daughter giggle. But then Zoë’s arm arced up defensively, her fist catching Ellie in the nose, the sweet maternal moment ending abruptly.

“Ouch, that looked like it hurt,” Dot said, wincing.

“I’ll be okay,” said Ellie, shifting Zoë to her hip. “Have the kids had lunch?”

“Not yet.”

“Okay.” Ellie inwardly wished she and Lisa had arrived home about half an hour later. She plopped Zoë into the high chair at the end of the table, sweeping up a sippy cup of lukewarm water from the floor and depositing it on her tray. “Thanks again, Dot. What do I owe you?”

“Twenty will be fine.”

Ellie returned to the hall for her purse. She opened her wallet, withdrawing the last bill inside, and wondered when she would next be able to get a ride to the bank in Fernville. “You’re okay to walk home?” she called towards the kitchen, where Dot was lingering. “I would offer you a lift, but…”

“I can give her a ride after we eat,” Lisa interjected.

Ellie sighed and rubbed at her temples, trying to remember what she had on hand for lunch. It was too hot to turn on the stove and the bread had run out yesterday. Her guests, she decided, would have to be satisfied with peanut butter on saltines.

*

The heat wave continued into the following week, even as the daylight began its slow ebb towards the autumnal equinox. Ellie tried to get into the garden as early as possible each morning, to water and weed before the sun’s intense rays undid all of her irrigation efforts.

Morning had never been her favourite time of day and now that John was gone, she resented it more than ever. Since Rose was a baby, John had always been the first one awake with the kids. He made them breakfast, sent them upstairs to brush their teeth before Ellie was out of bed. By the time she rose, coffee was waiting and the school bus only minutes away.

Of course, their morning routine had changed even before John left. Zoë, rarely wakeful during the night, was fully alert with the sunrise, crying to be nursed. Maybe she sensed that her three older siblings were early risers and wanted to be in their presence.

As usual the children were sitting in front of the television when Ellie and Zoë stumbled downstairs, eyes glued to the screen, mechanically raising spoons to their mouths from the bowls in front of their crossed legs. In the kitchen they left the cereal box out, surrounded by spilled milk and scattered golden flakes. More discouraging to Ellie, though, was the sight of the cold coffeemaker, holding yesterday’s grounds, not a drop of coffee to be coaxed from the carafe. How did anyone survive single parenting?

Last night Ellie had pulled out the canning pot and as many Mason jars as she could find, washed them all thoroughly and left them to dry on the counter. This morning the glasses sat gleaming expectantly and Ellie decided to forgo a cup of coffee until after she had spent time in the garden. She buckled Zoë into the bouncy chair beside Rose on the living room rug, turned away from the television; she would be more interested in watching her sister and brothers anyway.

“Keep an eye on her, Rose,” she instructed. “One of these days she might try to get out.”

Rose nodded, flitting her eyes briefly between her mother and the TV.

Ellie slipped on her sandals and opened the side door. The air was slightly cooler outside, vibrating with the shrillness of crickets’ song, mercifully drowning out the animated voices on the screen inside. Swallows swooped through the greenish-pink sky, scooping up mosquitoes from shady patches beneath the pines. Ellie felt a brief pang of nostalgia. She remembered moments like this growing up, when her father needed her and Lisa to go out to the lettuce patch to pick heads for the Saturday market. Just as now, she grumbled at getting out of bed early, but as soon as she was outdoors, the colour and stillness, the undeniable newness of dawn evoked an unlooked-for joy.

Ellie grabbed a basket hiding in the weeds and set to work among the tomatoes. Every plant seemed to have reached the zenith of its growth and was now evolving towards decay. Squatting, reaching among the yellowing leaves, Ellie felt some smaller branches snap off, yet most of the thick ropy network of vegetation held securely onto ripe bunches of red fruit. Ellie filled the basket easily and began loading a nearby plastic pail.

By the time she had filled a third, her craving for coffee, a slight caffeine headache behind the eyes, won out over her ambition to harvest the entire crop in one morning. There was nowhere to put more tomatoes, anyway; she had to process what she’d picked to make room in the kitchen. John was supposed to come get Rose, Finn, and Michael after lunch; so long as Zoë had an afternoon nap, Ellie could can several quarts later. She stood, swatting at an errant mosquito, feeling a sense of accomplishment, as if the jars were already filled.

She hauled the pails up to the deck, then brought the full basket into the house. The kids still sat zombified in front of the TV, their bowls now empty. Zoë was the only one moving, grabbing unsuccessfully at her toes with one hand, and chewing her fingers on the other like a dog with a bone.

While the coffee maker unhurriedly dripped oily liquid into its pot, Ellie sat at the table, allowing herself a moment of idleness. She closed her eyes to the messy kitchen, tuning out the shrill voices and symphonic soundtrack of the kids’ cartoons, bringing her fingers to her nose, inhaling the bitter, pungent tomato smell that would cling to her for the rest of the day, the rest of the season.

The phone rang. Probably Lisa, checking in. Hopefully not John cancelling. Ellie picked up the shiny black receiver and gave a tentative, “Hello?”

“Hi, Ellie.” It was Lisa. “Are you listening to the radio?”

Ellie blinked and glanced at the clock on the stove. 7:37. Usually she didn’t put the radio on until after breakfast, during her morning chores. “No,” she said. “Why?”

“They’re saying to watch out for tornadoes,” said Lisa. “In our area.”

“Who is?”

“CBC. It’s on TV too.”

“Huh.” Ellie glanced out the kitchen window where the sky was now decidedly more green than pink. “Do you really think so?”

“I don’t know,” said Lisa. “I mean, it looks fine outside here. Still hot.”

“Is it supposed to cool down finally?” Ellie asked, realizing she hadn’t listened to a weather report in the last two days.

Finn burst into the kitchen, a faint milk moustache above his lips. “Mom!” he yelled. “Are we going to have a tornado?”

Rose and Michael appeared behind him, the same question on their faces.

Ellie covered the phone’s mouthpiece. “Probably not,” she reassured the children. “Is that what you heard on TV?”

Finn nodded, his eyes wide. “I hope we do!”

“I better let you go,” Ellie said to Lisa. “Thanks for phoning.”

“Wait. What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I’ll call you later,” she promised.

“Okay, guys. There’s nothing to worry about,” Ellie said to the children, who were still looking at her expectantly. “No more TV for now. You’ve rotted your brains enough for one morning.” She poured herself a coffee. “Time to get dressed.”

Rose rolled her eyes and Michael and Finn protested, but the three obligingly trudged upstairs. As soon as they had gone, Ellie turned the TV dial to the news station, keeping the volume low. Mug in hand, she rocked Zoë’s bouncy seat with her foot, watching the station’s meteorologist point to different areas on a map of southern Ontario coloured in pixilated bands that moved briskly, guided as it were by the sweep of his hand. With growing dread, she listened as he described the cold front expected later in the day, a wave of blue colliding with the yellow and red blobs around Fernville. The perfect conditions for a tornado to form, he said, droning on about weather systems and mixed air.

Ellie turned off the TV as the phone rang again.

“Hi,” said John. “You watching the news?”

“Yup.”

“Not a great forecast,” he said. “Especially for the garden.”

She was both bothered and touched that John correctly identified her first concern.

“Do you think we’ll get one?” she asked.

John clucked his tongue, considering. “Hard to say. We’ve never had one the whole time we’ve lived here. Maybe we’re due.”

Ellie wanted to say that was the stupidest reasoning she had ever heard, but bit her tongue. “Are you taking it seriously?” she asked.

“Well, that’s why I’m calling. I feel like we probably should take it seriously, for the kids at least,” he hesitated. “And this apartment doesn’t have a basement.”

Ellie’s heart sank. Her plans for the next twenty-four hours trickled away like drops of water running into the cracks on the garden path. She kept her voice flat. “Right.”

“Uh, also…” John cleared his throat. “I wondered if you could spare me some shelter.”

Ellie closed her eyes. What a request. Unbidden, her mind played out a scene of John caught up in a black funnel cloud, shrugging his shoulders helplessly as the children looked on, as if to say: “Blame your mother.” John always did have a way with words.

*

The pickup truck rumbled into the driveway a couple hours later, heat still nauseatingly present despite the appearance of clouds. Michael and Finn were thrilled at John’s arrival, bombarding him with questions about what was in his grocery bags as soon as he stepped out of the truck. They had whooped for joy when they learned they were not going to his apartment this weekend and moreover that he was going to stay a few hours. Rose seemed happy to remain at home, too, but was less enthusiastic when John showed up. She did not follow her brothers down the driveway, and offered John only a small smile when he ruffled her hair in passing.

“How did your driving test go?” John asked Ellie as he approached the deck.

Ellie gritted her teeth and looked away. “Didn’t get it.”

“Hmm.”

An awkward pause. Would he have advice for her? Condolences?

“Maybe I should bring stuff right into the house,” John suggested.

“Yeah,” said Ellie, relieved to drop the subject. “Definitely the water.”

“Okay, guys, let’s go set up camp in the basement.”

“I think I’ll help Mom instead,” Rose piped up.

Was this gesture of support significant? Ellie had tried to stay attuned to her children’s feelings since John moved out in June, but it wasn’t easy to discern allegiances. There had been tears initially, of course, and some confusion, especially from Michael, who was after all only four. John and Ellie struggled to explain that they needed to live apart for a while to figure some things out, although they could not say what those things were. Finn, who at seven exhibited some of his father’s easy-going manner, seemed to adapt quickly to the new situation; if he could watch Ninja Turtles and baseball at either residence, he didn’t mind whether it was the house he grew up in or his father’s two-bedroom apartment above the laundromat.

Rose cried too at first, but asked no questions, except: would she have to share a room with her brothers in the Fernville apartment? Ellie suspected Rose had heard the late night fights between her and John that started last winter, and had sussed out the situation with her father’s new “friend.” She was mature enough to know that her dad was guilty of some transgression, even if no one said the word “affair” out loud. Ellie and John both attempted to talk to Rose about the separation, encouraging her to share her feelings, but so far Rose had kept quietly opaque. Perhaps this was her way of expressing her dissatisfaction.

While the boys wrestled sleeping bags down the narrow cellar steps, Ellie and Rose gathered supplies upstairs, Ellie pondering how to ask Rose what she was feeling towards her father these days. In Zoë’s room, Rose filled a bag with sleepers, burp cloths, and toys, while her mother prepared to change her sister’s diaper.

“Do you want to learn how?” Ellie asked.

“Okay.”

Ellie showed Rose how to arrange two large squares of cotton on top of one another, lift the baby’s feet in order to tuck the cloth underneath her backside, then wrap the remainder up and over.

“The hardest part is putting in the pins,” said Ellie, “but there’s a trick. Watch.” She opened the clasp of a diaper pin, and gently ran the metal spear through her hair, close to the scalp. A moment later, the pin glided easily through the several layers of diaper cloth.

“Cool,” said Rose. “Who knew it was good to have greasy hair!”

Ellie glanced at her daughter sharply, but saw from Rose’s expression that her words were spoken without malice.

“Can I do the other side?”

Ellie watched as Rose carefully ran the second pin through her long, tangled locks then awkwardly pushed it through the white cloth without poking her sister or herself. The diaper was loose, but Ellie smiled her approval and demonstrated how to pull the plastic diaper cover up over Zoë’s legs, making sure the fabric was tucked inside.

“If you ever want to do it by yourself, let me know,” Ellie said, giving Rose’s hand a squeeze. She paused. “You’ve been such a good helper this summer.”

Rose squeezed her mother’s hand in return and then her eyes darted to the window. It was as if a curtain had suddenly been pulled across plunging the room into shadow. Rose and her mother got up to peer out at an early afternoon that now resembled dusk. Moments later raindrops pelted the window with such force that Ellie jumped back; the hairs on her arms rose with electricity. At almost the same moment, John bellowed their names from downstairs.

“Take Zoë,” Ellie commanded, while she stuffed more diapers in the baby’s bag, then tore down the hall grabbing blankets and sweaters from everyone’s rooms. By the time she got to the first floor and glanced out the front windows, water was streaming down, like a school play in which a rainstorm is created by people behind the scenes dumping buckets from the back of the set. As she hurried into the kitchen, a flash of lightning illuminated the room, thunder crashing a split second later, making the floorboards tremble. Somewhere in her brain, Ellie registered the dark stove clock; the power was out. In the same instant she remembered she hadn’t called Lisa back.

And then there was John standing in the entrance to the basement, waiting for her, and Ellie’s forward momentum suddenly ceased. At first she thought he was a stranger. How could this man look so out of place in his own home? Somehow the past eight months, distanced from one another in so many ways, seemed longer than the fifteen years they had been married. Ellie felt more shaken by this thought than by the storm as she moved brusquely past him.

“Ellie.” His voice stopped her as she reached the bottom step. She turned in his direction.

“Thanks for letting me in,” John said.

Before she could respond another thunderclap reverberated above them like a giant’s boot stomping down on the house; this time the lightning flash was simultaneous. Zoë began sobbing, a fearful crying Ellie had never heard before. She joined the circle of lawn chairs the kids had arranged around a camping lantern, took the baby from Rose and attempted to soothe her in a voice she hoped sounded calmer than she felt. In her arms, Zoë trembled and her cry changed to a whimper. For the next five minutes lightning and thunder continued in successive waves, crashing and insistent, until the gap between them slowly increased, replaced by a new noise.

“What is it, Daddy?” Michael whispered.

“It’s the wind.”

“Really?” asked Finn, doubtfully, and Ellie too questioned John’s answer. The growing roar outside had to be made by humans, a massive obnoxious motor intent on destruction. How could nature—the same force that had painted a serene pastel morning just for her—produce something so loud and malevolent? Underneath the roar, Ellie heard a snapping of tree branches and beyond that an icy pinging: the promised hail.

“What do you think of all this?” asked John, looking in turn at each of the children’s faces, his eyebrows raised in an exaggerated expression of fascination.

“It’s cool,” said Finn, and Michael immediately agreed.

Rose replied, “It’s pretty exciting.”

Ellie inspected the children’s faces as well, checking their sincerity. They seemed strangely unperturbed by the intense booms of thunder and alien noise of the wind. Even Zoë was nearly asleep. Perhaps they drew comfort from the six of them sitting here together after this summer apart. Or maybe it was just the novelty. Glancing around, Ellie saw that John and the boys had tried to make it cozy in the dank, cobwebby basement, placing candles on the metal shelving, laying out sleeping bags and pillows on some old skids.

“What do you think of the storm, Mom?” asked Rose.

“It is exciting,” Ellie agreed, catching her daughter’s eye, aware that she was being equally scrutinized. “And a bit scary,” she admitted.

“What about you, Dad?”

As he opened his mouth to answer, the naked lightbulb over John’s head snapped on, startling them all. John gaped in comic surprise at the bulb and the children giggled. The invisible curtain was once again yanked by an unseen hand across the only window in the room; sunlight spilled in.

“Is it over already?” asked Finn, disappointment furrowing his brow. “We didn’t even get to sleep yet.”

Ellie and John both shrugged, then sat listening. The world had gone quiet again.

“I’ll go check,” said John.

Twenty minutes later, standing shivering in the middle of what was left of her tomato patch, Ellie had the surreal feeling that she had never set foot in this place before. This was someone else’s garden, if it could even be called that. The ground around her was littered with uprooted plants still tied to their stakes, smashed tomatoes, an incongruous medley of stems, petals, and roots from other vegetables. Gone were the dusty pathways of the morning, replaced by puddles and chaos. The heat, too, was noticeably missing.

The debris in the garden and yard was significant: several saplings and large tree limbs had fallen in the wind, two garage windows were broken, the old chicken coop upended. Smaller branches, leaves, and sunflower remnants lay scattered everywhere. The garden clean up alone would take many hours, maybe days, and there was likely little to be salvaged. The three pails and one basket of tomatoes in the kitchen were all that Ellie would harvest of this crop.

At least the house was fine, she thought. The car, sitting unused by the garage, had pine boughs plastered all over it, but was undamaged. Most importantly, she and the kids and John were all safe. If a tornado had actually touched down, it would all surely be much worse. But the garden… The thing she had been holding to so tightly. All of those plants that would never be picked and preserved, the saved jars that would remain empty. Ellie looked around in bewilderment, swallowed hard. Was this the time to cry?

“Mom! Look!” Finn and Rose squelched through the mud, plastic bags outstretched between their hands. Ellie peered into Finn’s: dozens of golf-ball-sized lumps of hail clinked together at the bottom.

“Aren’t they awesome?” Finn asked.

Ellie could only nod, her throat tight with tears now. She looked up, saw John and Michael coming towards them, Zoë drowsing in her father’s arms.

John cast his gaze over the mess of vegetation. “Sorry about the garden, Ellie.”

Ellie met his eyes for the first time in months. She heard the sincerity in his voice and knew that he truly was sorry for the garden and maybe for everything else as well. But the apology could not change what had happened. The disaster could not undo itself. Little by little, Ellie knew she would let go of what was lost in the storm and the tranquility of the morning would return. In the meantime, she couldn’t stand to be in the garden nor John’s presence a minute longer. She turned on her heel and went back to the house alone.

*Names have been changed.

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Jessica Upper is an elementary school teacher-librarian in southwestern Ontario. Spending her days surrounded by books is a dream, and so is the thought of writing one. Perhaps she will some day, but for now a few thousand words will have to do. Like the main character in her story “The Hardest Part,” Jessica believes that summers are for growing gardens. Email: jessicaupper[at]gmail.com

Drive

Beaver’s Pick
Laurel Doud


Black-and-white image of a winding two-lane highway stretching into the distance. There is a car in the oncoming lane in the midground and one in the right-hand lane in the distance. Utility poles line the right side of the road. Low fences line both sides of the road. The landscape is rolling fields with no distinguishing features. The road curves and disappears over a hill at the horizon. There is a hazy mistiness to the photograph which gives it a dreamy quality.

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

My stepdaughter was a freshman at an all-girls Catholic high school when she asked me for a song recommendation.

I had only been in her life for a year, but I knew how important this assignment was. The lyrics should embody something about herself, something, perhaps, she was striving or hoping for.

Farrah was painfully shy and socially awkward, though smart, sensitive, and good in school. She figured the other girls would choose songs by Britney Spears and Kelly Clarkson, Backstreet Boys and NSYNC. She wanted something different, perhaps even something shocking.

The song “Drive”* by the alternative funk band, Incubus, came to mind. It would be surprising for someone like Farrah to choose this song and the lyrics were worthy, especially for her age group.

Sometimes I feel the fear of uncertainty stinging clear
And I, I can’t help but ask myself
How much I’ll let the fear take the wheel and steer…

But lately I’m
Beginning to find that I should be the one behind the wheel.

From that freshman year on, Farrah took those lyrics to heart and drove her own life.

She pushed herself into the most challenging experiences and grew to be this marvelously self-confident young woman with wonderful friends and a wonderful heart. In college, she studied abroad in Cairo, Egypt. After college, she spent two years teaching English in the Peace Corps on an island in Micronesia that was two-and-a-half miles long and a half-mile wide. She graduated from an accelerated nursing program at Johns Hopkins and did her labor and delivery internship in Uganda. After working in the largest labor and delivery hospital in the United States, she moved from Virginia back to California to be closer to family.

A year ago I put the Incubus CD on and when the track “Drive” came through the speakers, it made me nostalgic. I called Farrah and we laughed about it, but I told her how inspiring it was that she took control of the wheel of her life for these past eighteen years.

I’m beginning to find that when I drive myself, my light is found.

Then Farrah decided it was time to have a baby regardless of her relationship status. She picked a donor—for one reason he looked Egyptian—and got pregnant.

Last month I watched Farrah deliver her daughter, Samira, who was four months premature. Samira was well formed, but too small for the NICU. She was a fighter, though, and lived for seventy minutes before dying in her mother’s arms. Farrah compressed a lifetime of love into those seventy minutes.

It was the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever witnessed.

In the hospital the next day, we talked about many things, practical and philosophical. We talked about what people were going to say, what we were saying ourselves. All those well-intentioned platitudes that would still sting. You’re young. You can try again. Maybe it was meant to be.

We also talked about how there are just some things we can’t drive in life; they’re out of our control. This was one of them.

When I recently finished a first draft of this essay, I asked Farrah whether she would like to read it.

Already? she texted.

Such an innocuous word, already, but it meant something profound. My ready was far different than her ready and I realized we were processing our grief on different timelines. While I was writing this to process mine, she was immersed in hers, and her Already? was a glimpse into her surprise that time was going faster for me than for her. It made me ashamed to realize I hadn’t thought about that.

The ending is weak, I texted back.

Yeah. Well, the ending in real life kinda sucks right now too. Can’t help you with that. Can I read it tomorrow?

Another word that resonated in my head. Tomorrow. I knew she was having a bad day and it would be tomorrow, or the tomorrow after that, before she might feel strong enough to read this. Just not today.

It also made me realize that tomorrow means so much more than the concept of future time. Tomorrow is a declaration of hope. What we didn’t get done today, what we failed at, what was too overwhelming for us to complete, we can find tomorrow.

Farrah may not be able to fathom this yet, so while she grieves at her own pace on her own level, there’s not so much that I can do but continue on mine and be there for her when tomorrow comes.

Whatever tomorrow brings I’ll be there
With open arms and open eyes, yeah
Whatever tomorrow brings I’ll be there
I’ll be there.

 

*“Drive” by Brandon Boyd, Alex Katunich, Michael Einziger, Jose Pasillas, Chris Kilmore

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Laurel Doud’s novel, This Body, was published by Little Brown, translated into German as Wie Das Leben So Spielt, and optioned to Hollywood where it disappeared into development hell. Bummer. Her short stories and creative non-fiction essays have been published in various online magazines and literary journals such as Air/Light, Into The Void, Goat’s Milk Magazine, Blue Mountain Center Commons and others. She lives in the Sierra Foothills of California and is an academic librarian at a local community college. Email: ldoud555[at]aol.com

Blood Always Wins

Creative Nonfiction
Layla Sabourian


Photo Credit: Charanjit Chana/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

We all come from somewhere, and that place sets the mold of who we will be. I say “mold” because we can fill ourselves with so many things that make up who we are, but we can’t undo the product of that mold whether we like it or not.

When our daughter Delarai turned three years old, we decided to adopt a second child. Because we already had our beautiful baby girl, we—and by ‘we’ I mean myself and my husband, Antoine—were hoping for a boy. Given Antoine’s Belgian looks and my Iranian appearance, we wished for a new baby that would fit this genetic description. We wanted our new baby to look like he could have been our own. I cannot deny it; it felt incredible to look at our sweet Delarai and be able to pick out which features came from whom. It was so much fun to watch her quirks and pick which personality traits she had of his or mine. When she drew beautifully, I would say with great pride that she must have taken after my great aunt, Khaleh Mahi, artist and art teacher to no less than the Pahlavi Prince and Princesses. When she would sing, my husband would proudly say how her voice sounded like his mother when she sang to him.

Even though we were committed to adopting, I would be lying if I said we did not each feel a bit of sadness in giving up the idea of having a son that could look like us and carry on our ancestors’ heritage and legacies. Having grown up without parents myself, adopting felt like saving a child from enduring a childhood like mine. Fear also played a part in my decision. We’d gone through several painful ectopic pregnancies, and I didn’t want to risk one happening again.

“Why not have one of your own?” “Do you not want to ruin your body?” “Are you worried you’ll get a girl again?” “How will you raise a child that doesn’t look like you?” So many people asked us why we wanted to adopt a child; they wondered (among other things) why we wanted a child that did not carry our genes. An insensitive question, to say the least, filled with assumptions about our ability and even attempts to have more biological children.

The questions might have added to my sadness on the matter until I thought about our family history. Like my mother, Antoine’s mother had schizophrenia. Every family member on my dad’s side suffered from extreme anxiety. In addition to my mother’s condition, two of her siblings also suffered from severe mental health issues. Would those genes really be that much of a gift to give to our future child? No thanks. I was willing to take a risk and leap into the unknown.

Hand in hand, Antoine and I began our adoption journey. In the USA, you have several options. You can go through the public system, first fostering and then adopting, which can cause a lot of uncertainties and stress. Many people shy away from this option because they are not willing to put up with the ambiguities. The alternate domestic routes are either going through a private domestic agency or an attorney with private adoptions; these have a price tag ranging from $40,000 to $50,000. There is also the option of adopting through a foreign agency, but even if you look to adopt from an impoverished country, the bill for these services can exceed $70,000.

After much consideration, we started our journey with private agencies. What a matchmaking adventure we were rolling into! In order to compete with other parents, we were told we had to dress very nicely. Our profiles had to be super exciting. Agencies advised us to hire professional hairdressers, make-up artists, and photographers to take shots of us at our best doing various activities. It was like creating a magazine spread of our life to prove our worth as parents. Some people were on bicycles and strolling in a park, some on a yacht showing their wealth. Our neighbors even hired someone to film them doing extreme sports. We were constantly being pushed to impress birth mothers by paying for rent, offering to pick up all their hospital bills, or whatever else the agency could dream up. It felt ridiculous to me, more like an elaborate dating competition than the chance to change a life.

“Oh, make sure Antoine does most of the talking. His French accent will surely charm the birth mom over the other couples she is considering.” These were the type of suggestions thrown our way. I felt like I was partaking in some kind of couple’s swinging adventure: there was so much pressure to look better than the rest of the adoptive families, to portray the perfect family life, to hide anything and everything that would basically show we were human and anything less than a faux Facebook-perfect image.

“Are we here to help a child, or show off to a bunch of childless families how much better we could be at the superficial race? I want to help a child in need, not take away the chance from other families who desperately wanted a baby.” Spoken words of concern rushed through my conversations with my husband. “If these babies are in such high demand, then my little efforts towards improving the world could certainly come in another form.” These words came with such sadness that a glance of concern crossed Antoine’s face. For me, adopting a perfectly beautiful and healthy blue-eyed white baby just did not feel like the best I could do. At the same time, I also recognized that I lacked the courage to adopt a child with special needs. During my time at SAP, I had taken part in a meaningful project, where I had worked on a solution for families with children who had special needs. I had fully immersed myself in their lives and feared I would not be able to summon up the strength I had seen in those mothers.

Sick of the domestic adoption agencies’ games, we then tried international adoption. Bulgaria’s agency told us we could not adopt a white Bulgarian baby, but if we wanted a “gypsy” child, that would be no problem. “Gypsy,” of course, was the name colloquially, and often insultingly, given to the Roma people, a semi-nomadic ethnic group spread around Europe and the Americans, with origins in the northern Indian subcontinent. The distinct Roma culture, coupled with Roma people’s tendency to live on the outskirts of cities, has led to their facing a great deal of stigma and additional hardship due to racist discrimination. Part of this could be seen in the apparent ready availability of Roma children for adoption, who were often unfairly stereotyped as ‘conflictive’ or less intelligent than their white counterparts.

After a day of thought, I asked the question: “What shall we do?” I worried about the answer I might receive, for Antoine wanted a boy… one that would look like him. But my husband’s reply surprised me.

“Well, it will be an uphill battle, but at least we don’t have to pretend to be people we are not. I’m sick of the fake portfolios as if to be parents we have to play the part of the perfect person,” he said with frustration in his voice. “I just want to have the opportunity of being a dad to another child, and bring more joy to our home.” After this remarkable comment, Antoine and I agreed to adopt a Roma child and informed the agency. Then, we waited. We waited for two whole years before finally accepting that there was just no news coming. Deciding to reach out to our agent, we asked if she could put us in touch with other families who had successfully adopted from Bulgaria.

Her answer nearly sent me overboard. “Oh, no one has ever succeeded so far,” she stated as if our two years waiting for a child with no news or communication meant nothing at all.

“Oh, really?” I replied sharply, trying, and failing to bite my tongue. “I wish you would have told us this before taking our deposit.”

We felt ridiculous not to have checked the reputation of the agency before paying the deposit. Only then, after two years of being dragged around aimlessly, did we think of it. We had originally picked Bulgaria because we thought the child would end up looking like us. Bulgarians often look like Iranians but with more European features. It seemed we would have to start looking elsewhere.

Adoption from Iran was not an option because we would have had to move there for six months and buy a house to put in the name of the child. We could barely afford the first requirement. My husband was not Iranian, so we were not even sure if it was a legal possibility.

Next, we tried Ukraine and took a trip there. The Ukrainian agency told us that they would only let Americans adopt a child that was older than eight and had severe mental or developmental issues. Again, I was not feeling competent enough for that challenge.

With these challenges, we shifted our thoughts to adopting from the foster-to-adopt system in the USA, but many people steered us away from that option. Some claimed that the kids would arrive with all sorts of baggage, that they would be victims of abuse, negligence, and rape. People told us that getting a “messed-up” kid, as they called them, would, in turn, deeply complicate our lives and only lead to regret. It’s absolutely baffling, the number of people who warned that adoptable American children would endanger our daughter’s well-being and safety.

It felt like we had traveled the globe to fulfill our dreams of completing our family. Determined, we chose the lawyer route and sat down with our representative. He looked more like someone who wanted to sell me a used car than an adoption agent. It was such a contrast to our first adoption experience where we had to dress like a family of rich models, and now we were in front of someone who used the same oil to slick his hair into a ponytail as he did to lubricate his engine. He explained the hierarchy of adoption. If you wanted a blue-eyed, blonde-haired baby girl, you had to pay the most amount of money. He explained that the next tier was a white boy; downward from there came the Latinos, followed by African Americans and mixed races, and at the very bottom were Middle Easterners.

“It’s best to take a baby and not an older child,” he went on to say. “The older children are already damaged beyond hope.”

Is this man serious?

He continued. “You see, you don’t want to go to a state or foster care system to adopt, as most of the kids won’t be babies or white. You will want to choose a child with healthy blood. One that can easily fit in your family and surroundings. If you pick a Middle Eastern child, chances are you won’t have any positive role models around for them to look up to, and of course, there is a higher risk of them becoming violent. You choose a white baby girl with good blood, and you’re set.”

Whoa. Higher risk of becoming violent? Really?

I looked him in the eyes, wondering if he was so stupid as to not even know that Iran was part of the Middle East. My husband, knowing exactly what I was thinking, and scared I was going to interrupt the guy, held my hands firmly, telling me with his touch how sorry he was. Did the lawyer know, but simply not care?

“Yeah… thanks,” I started, “but I think we’ll go through the state after all.”

Antoine, grateful I was not going to cause a scene, as he hated conflict even more than me, helped me up and shot the smarmy lawyer with a disgusted look. What he was pitching us felt a lot like white supremacist propaganda. We left.

It was hard not to think back to myself as a child—how I wished to be adopted one day, despite constantly being told by those around me that I was “damaged goods,” and filled with dirty blood. I thought those comments only came from old-fashioned, ignorant Iranians. Yet here I was in America, in the country with the world’s best universities, hearing the same ignorant nonsense. Was it possible that people here held the same obtuse beliefs about the purity of blood? In the end, I did not want to compete with anyone else to adopt a baby that hundreds of other adoptive parents wanted; I wanted to help a child that was feeling left out and unwanted, as I had been my whole life.

Another two years passed, and we had already given up on adoption. Out of the blue, I got a call from a state-run adoption agency to see if I could take a newborn baby girl. I reminded the agent that we wanted an older boy, a child that no one wanted, and that she should give the baby girl to people who were obsessed with having a baby. There was a slight hesitation on her end.

“Layla, I really want you to have this baby.”

“Why?” I asked.

Another brief pause.

“Her… urgh… mother is mentally ill, a substance abuser, homeless. She used coke during the past nine months and drank heavily. Most folks are worried about the baby’s health and wellness, bad blood… due to the chemicals inside her system, no one is fighting to get this baby.”

She had me at “bad blood.”

“When does she need to be picked up?”

“The next twenty minutes would be ideal.”

“Give me an hour,” I replied.

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Layla Sabourian is a mother, an author, and an entrepreneur with a fierce passion for inclusivity, tolerance, and empowerment from youth, and the stories she writes are an extension of that goal. She grew up in Iran and has since lived in the United States, Central America, and Europe. Email: support[at]chefkoochooloo.com

Toasting Helen

Creative Nonfiction
Mark Liebenow


Photo Credit: William Clifford/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Four of us slide into a booth at Ulrich’s Rebellion Room late on Friday afternoon. We haven’t been together in a while, but our friend Helen died this week. In the pall of death’s aftershock, we gather to reassure each other, make sense of what has happened, and drink.

Ulrich’s is a dark, wooden Irish pub in Peoria that serves imports and microbrews. On the walls there are posters for Guinness, Bushmills, Jamison whiskey, a framed photo of John F. Kennedy, and the front page of The Irish Times from 1916. Today is also Good Friday, the day when the hope of the first Christians died on another Friday afternoon, and Jesus’ followers scattered in fear and despair.

It’s a fitting place to remember Helen because she had Irish connections, and she’d appreciate the timeliness of dying during Holy Week when death and sorrow would soon be replaced by the rising on Easter. She liked being on time. She also liked work done right, and would tell you if you weren’t doing it the way she wanted, even at church where idealism often debates practicality to a standstill. For two years, she battled a rare blood disease, and we thought she was getting better, then pneumonia set in, and she was gone. During her last days, when doubts about heaven surfaced, she held on to her faith in faith. We raise a glass in her: Not lost, just gone on before us.

We talk about frustrations with our jobs, the paperwork that takes us away from teaching, and grouse about having to work so hard to build our programs up when we know they’ll fall apart when we leave. We do not share where our lives have broken. We do not mention the unsettling shadows that move through our hearts, nor speak of the doubts that erode the edges of our confidence. We do not push each other to say more, but we listen for the misplaced word to catch a glimpse of the turmoil underneath so we can offer encouragement. We raise a glass to each other.

We draw back, being men, having touched our emotions was enough, and go to refill our plates with happy hour’s fried finger food—mozzarella sticks, onion rings, cheese fries. Back at the table, I stare into my Smithwick Ale and wonder how I will react when I am dying. Will I have accomplished everything I set out to do? Will I be satisfied that I did enough to help others who were struggling? I started out life excited by endless possibilities, but now believe there are few truths that haven’t been compromised. Battle-weary, we limp towards death, tired of holding the status quo together, and wanting to do one last thing that is memorable.

The late afternoon sun shines through the skylight and lights up the stained-glass window hanging below it that has a cross. From an old Irish church, I guess. Light salvaged from the ruins. The only light we ever truly see comes through the darkness of our struggles.

A century ago was the Easter Rising when Catholics and Protestants, the Irish and the English, fought each other for control of Ireland. That’s what’s on the newspaper on the wall. Neither the Rising nor the crucifixion were comforting when they happened, although we romanticize them now. What we see is the nobility of a cause and ignore the sacrifice and death. We no longer feel the sear of their sorrow, or their dreams being torn apart. But there was courage and torture. There was crucifixion and execution. And there was blood in the streets and on front porches. It was moving past words flush with pride, and putting your body on the line to right a wrong as you tried to protect your people. It was standing up for honesty and freedom, and renewing the flames of hope by doing something, although even around this table we wouldn’t agree on how to wage the fight.

Battles once fought, return to be fought again. Brokered truces unravel. Each generation forgets the past, and repeats the struggles. We rearrange our memories to divide people into us and them, leaving little space in between to discuss conflicting visions and find a way through together.

Grandparents stir the embers of injustices done decades ago with nostalgia for a past that they didn’t think was so great then. Parents smudge the soot of ancient prejudices on the foreheads of their children, although they no longer remember why. We try to honor what is praiseworthy in our heritage and ignore the unsavory, but pride in our clan’s mythology is strong, and we often follow the old ways so we don’t upset the family.

In the tired faces of people hunched over at the bar, I see the need to believe that there is more than a cold beer at the end of a long week. We want to know that despite our differences, there is enough compassion in each of us to find common ground.

The Irish poet Yeats wrote of that day in Ireland and the other day that a “terrible beauty” had been born out of sacrifice and death. Heaven had its part to do, he wrote, and so do we. I raise a glass to this.

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Mark Liebenow writes about nature, grief, and the wisdom of fools. The author of four books, his essays, poems, and critical reviews have been published in numerous literary journals. He has won the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Award, and the Chautauqua and Literal Latte’s essay prizes. His work has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and named a notable by Best American Essays. He studied creative nonfiction at Bradley University. Email: muirman1[at]gmail.com

The Not-Boy

Creative Nonfiction
Kolton Knapp


Photo Credit: Angela C./Flickr (CC-by-sa)

A regular boyhood is defined by cuts and scrapes and bruises. The sound of my boyhood was my mother’s anxious screams—my father’s hand clasping my shoulder and saying “you’ll be a man someday.” I remember my father’s hands: coaxing, soothing. They guided me vaguely—shadows of instructions that gave me small parcels of help. For the most part, boyhood was about being left in the woods to discover what being a man truly means.

While my boyhood had its fair share of leaping and bleeding, I didn’t bruise the way most boys did. They bruised in black and blue, and I, in rouge and pink. My bruises grew on my skin like wildflowers, but the bruises of other boys were placed on them like war medals.

 

The trampoline in the backyard of my childhood home sat in the shade of a tree. I loved climbing above the leaves, using my body weight to sway the branches. I’d watch as the leaves danced and crinkled with the movements of the wind. I’d hoist myself backward violently, bringing the bending branches to a horizontal position before throwing myself from the tree. I’d catapult in the wind, falling abruptly on the stretchy surface of the trampoline.

In other words, I was a ‘typical boy’ in that respect: a curious child with an eye for danger. I loved scavenging the woods, and late nights by a campfire with the smoke burning my eyes.

There were other things I enjoyed, however, that were unexpected.

For my fifth birthday, I was given a Spider-Man wallet. I remember the confusion I felt when I opened the gift. I was familiar with the character—how could I not be?

What confused me, was the fact that it was given to me.

“You like Spider-Man, right?” my grandmother asked eagerly. Without waiting for an answer, she turned away and began another conversation. Of course I liked Spider-Man, she had assumed. All little boys love superheroes.

I hated the picture. It was clunky with different shades of blacks and reds—my two least favorite colors. Spider-Man extended his arm, a string of web flying towards me from behind the two-dimensional fabric. The web looked sticky, with silver goo dripping from its thick strands. It seemingly yearned to break the fabric open and latch onto me.

I let the wallet slip from my palm to my fingertips and imagined it was something else.

I could see the vivid purples and pinks. The wallet was bigger than palm sized—it was a purse. Like the one Daphne wore in the Scooby-Doo movie.

So I stole my mother’s scarlet Halloween wig and put on a pair of rain boots. I walked around the house clutching the wallet as though it were a purse. Flipping my red hair about, I would utter Daphne’s catchphrases. “Creepers,” I’d gasp, feigning exasperation. I’d pretend to be a damsel in distress—the pretty girl everyone wanted to save. I was the face without a blemish, the dress without the body.

My impersonation of Daphne confused everyone. I should do boyish things—like wrestling (which I did) or disobeying the rules (which I also did often). My mother frequently found me in places I shouldn’t be—the sewers, the roof, or hiding in the tops of trees.

But I wasn’t regular. I played with dolls. I liked Disney princess movies. When my father forced me to join baseball I would sit in the outfield picking the heads off dandelions. The ball would roll past me, and I’d be busy sewing together a daisy chain.

The other boys hated me for this. In school they told me I was gay—I never corrected them; I had no idea what it meant. They told me I was a sissy who liked dresses and dolls.

 

I wanted to play with the boys, but something separated us. The web that stretched out from the wallet seemed to stretch between me and my peers. I couldn’t cut through it—the other boys held the knives. I would sit on the other side of it, shaking it with balled up fists, begging them to let me in. I realized they never would and began spending my recesses walking around the playground—singing to myself.

I knew the boys hated me. They hated me for being ‘gay’—whatever that meant. They hated the daisy chains I made, jewelry from the outfield.

And then, suddenly, it all made sense to me.

I’m not a boy. Not to them. To them, I was no better than a little girl.

So, I befriended the girls.

But there was still something holding me back from them. I could come for the birthday party, but I had to leave when the sleepover began. The girls I was friends with developed deeper relationships with each other—and without me. When night fell they would spill secrets they’d never tell in the daylight. Secrets my ears wanted to hear, but never would.

The fathers of my friends refused to smile at me. They would lay a heavy hand on my shoulder, hands that felt nothing like my father’s, and their eyes would fill with the rage of a storm. The hands of these men were firm, as though they were holding me back from something.

“Now, you may think I don’t know what you’re up to, son.” Their father’s voices were all deep, dragging across the floorboards the way horror villains drag their axes. “But I know what you want. I know what all of the boys want.”

It took me longer than it should have to realize what these strange old men were saying to me.

What do I want? I’d wonder as I braided my girlfriends’ hair.

 

I realized what they meant when the other boys went through puberty. I’d listen to them with disgust as they talked about a girl’s breasts or the shape of her curves.

“It’s all I notice,” my male cousin told me when we were about twelve.

I began to wonder if there was something wrong with me.

I saw none of what the other boys saw—just the bright red lipstick, their diamond-like faces. I could see the pretty dress, but I was blind to the body beneath it. My silence in these conversations damned me. It reinforced what I had been trying to run from my entire life.

I am not a boy.

I don’t belong in the boys’ club. I don’t have the same ‘wants’ that the fathers of my friends believed I should have.

When I was thirteen, I told a youth pastor my favorite color was pink and he ‘took’ my figurative man-card from me.

So now I don’t even have that, either.

 

I was a foreign species. Everyone saw it. Even the girls could see I was different. I remember hearing my friend scream at her brother: “No boys are allowed in my room!” I was sitting on her bedroom floor, cross-legged. It was a birthday party, and there must have been at least ten other people in the room. I was the only boy.

My presence was noted by a girl I didn’t know. “Why is he here, then?” She gestured at me. My friend laughed at her like she had just said the dumbest thing she had ever heard. “That’s just Kolton, he’s not a boy. No offense, Kolton.”

And I said it didn’t bother me. I laughed because it didn’t bother me. Her words felt like a form of endearment, as though she could see the web spreading out before me that kept me from being a boy.

There was something that settled over me after that, and the feeling lingered like a bad aftertaste.

It did bother me. I hated myself for it, but her words crawled under my skin—embedding themselves into me. I wanted to embrace what she said like the intimate words I believed them to be, but something stopped me. There was a part of me that wished the words weren’t true.

I wanted to be a boy.

And I knew I couldn’t be a girl.

So, if I couldn’t be a girl, and I couldn’t be a boy—what was I?

 

I was a child made of glass, transparent. Everyone could see what was inside me, before I could see it myself. My femininity couldn’t hide behind my skin, it glimmered in the sunlight. I might as well have it etched into my forehead: ‘Not-a-boy.’

I thought I could hide the things that made people see me this way. I could walk differently. I could speak in a deep, monotone voice. I could restrict my hands, which move like the wind when I talk. No matter what I’ve done, everyone seems to know the truth.

When I turned sixteen and got a job, people seemed to identify me with my feminine behaviors. I was called a faggot long before I came out as a homosexual man. Angry slurs were uttered in whispers by pissed off servers at the restaurant I worked at. Sissy was often used by managers.

“All the girls are jealous of you,” a man who washed the dishes said to me once.

“Why?” I asked, confused.

One of my friends, who served alongside me, laughed at his comment. “We were just talking about the way you walk—we wish we walked like you.”

“You don’t walk,” another server corrected. “You strut everywhere you go.”

I was completely flattered—I felt my cheeks flush. Part of me swelled with pride, beaming at the compliment. But the pride faded quickly. The flush in my cheeks turned into burning shame. Just like when my friend had called me a “not-boy,” I wanted to feel only elation.

Yet, it was a feminine trait of mine. It was the girls who were jealous of my walk. The boys held no envy for me—the child trapped in the spider’s web. I’ve tried to strangle my femininity for years, but it has proven to be unstoppable. The sway in my step, the voice like wind chimes, the bruises made of wildflowers—no matter what I try to smother these traits with, they survive. In fact, I can never seem to get these parts of me to leave.

 

“You’ve got something on your eyes,” my father said to me sarcastically the other day.

“It’s called eyeliner,” my stepmother—a goddess—corrected him. “And he looks amazing.”

I smiled at her compliment, but my father’s passive voice lingered in the back of my mind. He had never been the aggressive type—always saying vague statements that could be misunderstood or misconstrued. Sitting at his dining room table, it reminded me of another time, years ago.

I was eleven when I wore a dress for the first time. I had snuck into one of my older sisters’ room and rummaged through her closet. I found what I was looking for—her golden sparkly Easter dress with a tulle skirt. I rushed into the bathroom with excitement churning in my stomach. I slipped the dress on over my head and looked at myself in the mirror. It wasn’t me that stared back. A beautiful princess stood in my place.

I smiled at myself before taking a deep breath. Keeping the dress around my shoulders, I stepped out of the bathroom. I walked into the dining room where all eight of my siblings and both of my parents were eating lunch.

My mother and sisters burst into laughter immediately. I laughed too, spinning in my gold sparkly dress. I felt gorgeous. I never wanted to take it off—and I didn’t care if they were laughing at me or with me.

But then my father’s deep voice broke through the noise. “Go take the dress off,” he said blandly. He wasn’t angry; his voice never rose. I looked into his eyes and all my emotions shifted. His blue eyes froze over like a crystallized swamp. He wasn’t mad; that wasn’t the feeling that pierced my soul. He was disgusted.

I turned quickly and ran up the stairs. I slammed the bathroom door shut. Turning to the mirror, I no longer felt pretty. I watched tears well up in my eyes as I realized the princess had vanished. A little boy stood in front of me, wearing a dress that hung limply from his body—a dress he could never hope to fit into.

And then I felt disgusted with myself, too.

When will you learn? My father’s eyes seemed to shout at me—almost begging me. When will you learn to be a man?

 

Only one person knew how confused I was—how lost and lonely I grew up. She was the only one who knew that I had no idea what being a man was. She knew because she felt the same way.

My sister, Keisia, was my solace. As children we’d climb beneath blankets like they were a cave. The darkness would hover around us as we whispered.

“I hate being a girl,” she told me. “I hate going to tea parties with mom, and I hate playing with dolls.”

I told her she was ridiculous. She was the one with the perfect childhood and I was the one who was forced into a mold I knew I would never fit into.

She disagreed. “I want to go hiking with you and dad,” she whined. “I want to be a boy, like you.”

I shook my head. “I want to be a girl. I don’t like how the other boys make fun of me.”

My sister put her arms around me. “They only make fun of you because you’re smarter than them. They wish they could be like you.”

I didn’t believe her then, and I don’t believe her now.

We continued holding each other, even without the blankets to hide us. She was forced to be the perfect little girl, and I, the perfect little boy.

Yet every Christmas, when I got the Nerf guns and she received the Bratz dolls, we would trade them in secret. We knew we saw each other for who we were.

She was a little girl. I was a little boy.

She liked getting dirty. She wanted to go hiking, to play in the forest. She wanted to get bucked off of horses while riding them too fast.

I wanted to play dress up or read a good book.

Everyone hated that we wanted these things—they hated that I’d put wildflowers behind my ears. They couldn’t see her, placing the petals in delicate rows along my blonde hair. They couldn’t see me, running along muddy creaks with my sister who should’ve been inside sipping tea. I realized then that we both stood behind the same web, trapped from being who we felt we were—ostracized from the other kids.

We grew up with the childhoods the other wanted, just centimeters apart.

Yet, we stood on opposite sides of the world.

 

The pain and confusion I felt as a child has subsided. The pressure to conform to the standards of masculinity, however, has not.

Around a year ago, I started seeing a therapist. I knew I had wounds that needed healing, but I was certain I could not cure them myself. Her voice is soothing, like a salve on the fear of vulnerability that nearly crippled me the first few meetings. Eventually, I began to truly speak—not just about traumas, but emotions that I was confused by, worries that lurked in the corner of my mind. I told her I didn’t know who I was. I knew I could never find him—because, maybe I didn’t want to find him.

My therapist told me in order to truly know myself, I must find a way to look in the mirror and see who I am. Then, I must accept what I see.

She asked me, “What is the first thing that comes to mind when I ask you what your personality is like?”

I knew the answer immediately. I’m feminine.

It was the only definition I could think of at the time, as I was completely lost to myself in the fray of life.

My tongue held me back. I’m not feminine, I had always told myself. I had known from my time as a femme boy that being girly meant I was weak. The internalized misogyny that hovered over me wouldn’t let me admit the truth to my reflection. Even though that reflection only seemed to show me dainty trinkets and glass skin. I can be feminine at times but that’s not who I am, I would insist to myself.

In that moment, with the excuses running through my head, I realized something I should have learned a long time ago. If I deny myself who I am, I will never learn who this creature is that I am forced to spend the entirety of my life with.

I denied myself—because I was still disgusted with myself.

Flashes of who I am in other’s eyes flickered before me like an old fashioned film reel. I saw me the way the other boys saw me, a weak and shriveled flower. I saw me the way grown-up macho men saw me. I could only see the things I was not—masculine—and so I hated myself for who I was.

I didn’t blame the boys for holding me at arm’s length. If I was in their place, I would segregate myself as well—as if femininity in a man was a disease.

My therapist’s office was dimly lit. There was a faint scent of lavender and mangoes that coupled with her soothing voice made me feel like I could speak.

So I told her everything. Spider-Man with his web, shooting towards me, reaching for me—though I never asked for it. The boys and their knives, and the web that held me back. I told her about my father telling me that I’ll be a man someday. I told her I had no idea what that meant.

I told her about the fathers of my friends, with their angry hands and rough voices.

“Those boys aren’t here anymore,” my therapist said. “Their knives are dulled, the web needs only to be swatted away.”

But it could never work that way. The web seemed to stretch over the entire earth—and if I dare even touch it my flesh would get stuck. It would wrap around me and feed off of me until all my femininity was gone. But I knew what she meant.

 

Every day, my femininity sparkles on the surface of my skin. I’ve spent my entire life trying to hide it behind baggy clothes or crumpled in the palms of my hands, tucked deep in my pants pockets. I’ve grown tired of hiding it. It’s become too exhausting. Forcing myself to see my own face when I look in the mirror has all but cured me of my want to be masculine.

I wear eyeliner on my eyes, a choker clasped tightly to my neck, and a crop top that vanishes around my abdomen. I’ll go out in the city—to the bars, to the lake, or to parties—and I get the same reaction every time I step out in the light of day. Old white men will gawk at me shamelessly. People whisper as I pass by, as if they’ve never seen a man with a sense of fashion. They tuck their faces behind their hands—afraid I’ll read their lips—as if I care enough about what they have to say.

With all the eyes on me, I throw my shoulders back. I strut like I own the sidewalk, the city. In the clubs, I dance with reckless abandon. I tell myself to ignore the stares. My body naturally moves in a feminine way, even when it’s the music that moves through me.

There’s always at least one comment. Without fail, someone’s tongue lashes out at me like that web from Spider-Man’s outstretched arm.

“What is that?” A man will cringe in disgust, pointing at me obnoxiously.

“I love your confidence.” A talkative girl will offer this as a compliment, but I know that it’s not. You’re not supposed to wear that, she says with her eyes. Yet here you are, bare skin under a belly shirt.

“Are you asking for a hate crime?” a friend will ask me, concern sewn delicately into their voice.

Pretending to be masculine was exhausting, but this… this is exhausting.

I go home every night and I wash off the eye liner. I hold back tears, symptoms of hurt that I despise to feel. Something heavy congeals in my chest, turning my strut into a slouch. What was I thinking? I ask my reflection.

I feel the web as it closes in around me. It ties me up, longing to suck the rouge itself out of my cheeks.

I’m never doing that again. I will never go out wearing something like that again. I vow to myself to burn all my clothes.

I curl up in bed and force myself not to cry. These words mean nothing to me—but if that’s true, why is the eyeliner washed away?

These nights, once I’m safely inside, I think of all the femme boys who are forced to pay a steep price for their femininity. Boys get beat up; they get murdered—crimes inspired by the same anger I see in the eyes of men who look at me and decide immediately that they hate me for what I am wearing.

In the morning, I’ll have to try again to be less feminine, I think to myself. It’s a dangerous world to be a not-boy in. It’s for the best—for my own safety.

But in the morning, I wake up, and with shaky hands, I’m lining the edges of my eyes again.

Nobody knows if I’m worth the potential price. Perhaps one day I’ll live to regret letting my femininity be so obvious.

But until then, I will let myself live.

 

I have found myself turning away from the web. I’ve stopped seeing myself in the eyes of others, at least in this one respect. Spider-Man’s web still reaches for me, but it will never have me.

I am feminine. I like dainty things—like quiet conversations on busy streets and lemon in my iced tea on warm afternoons. I like my hair long, soft, and wavy. I blare Britney Spears from my car’s stereo. I crop way too many of my T-shirts and wear them any chance I get.

I dress up as Marilyn Monroe for Halloween. I go to parties in her white dress. I wear my rouge on my face along with red lipstick and a fake beauty mark placed directly above the corner of my lips. I go into public as her and nobody sees me. They see her—the image of femininity.

It’s what I want them to see. I want them to see the not-boy: free of the webs and expectations I can’t hope to learn to live up to.

And I tell myself that I can shatter the mold of what a man is capable of being.

So, I wear my high-pitched voice like a necklace. I strut with a sway set low in my hips.

I wear makeup. I’ll wear a dress.

Because, damn it, my ass looks good in a dress.

pencilKolton Knapp was raised in Des Moines, Iowa in a family of 11. Currently enrolled at Drake University, he intends to graduate in the Spring of 2022 and pursue a career in writing. Email: koltonknapp202[at]gmail.com

The Charm of Novelty

Creative Nonfiction
Elizabeth Bernays


Photo Credit: Linda, Fortuna future/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

In the small, shabby living room of an old house in downtown Tucson a dozen women sat waiting. We were at a lesbian support group run by Wingspan—a non-profit center for the LGBTQ community. The large facilitator came in, plonked down on a dilapidated armchair, and greeted the group as she passed around a sheet of paper for names and email addresses to be shared. She then asked each woman to speak about herself and what brought her to the group.

It was a motley gathering and each woman had a different concern.

“How’m I going to talk to my husband about being gay?”

“What’ll happen to my children when I tell them I’m a lesbian?”

“It’s so lonely being a lesbian. I got no friends.”

Most extraordinary was the small, swarthy woman with a strong London accent, who ranted and raved about a guy who kept trying to kill her. There were other stories of loss and despair. Several women expressed real hatred of men. After having had a wonderful husband for thirty-seven years and still mourning his death, I found them annoying, but did wonder what experiences had caused such powerful aversion.

Across from me a darkly tanned woman in shorts cried uncontrollably, but she finally managed to explain. “I’s married to a man who knows I’s gay, and I had this lover, but she’s just dumped me.”

This was Linda, whom I noticed in particular as I sat diffidently, amazed at the story. Did he really tolerate a wife who had affairs with women? And what was that rough-sounding accent?

There was no way I could tell the whole story of how close my husband, Reg, and I had been, how perfectly woven together our passions for research, classical music, reading and theater. Our marriage had been one of true soulmates, and we worked together on biological problems in different countries all around the world. Quietly, I simply spoke about misery since the death of an adored partner, and the emergence of an intense physical attraction to women.

I sat in subdued clothes with my hands awkwardly clutched. Later, Linda told me that she thought I was a timid housewife type. When the session ended I took note of the three emails belonging to women who had mentioned the complication of a man in their lives. I thought we might have something in common. Then we scattered and each of us went off alone.

At home, I emailed the three women who had husbands, but it was only Linda who replied. She sent the cursory message: “See ya next time.”

As the same old stories were recounted two weeks later at the next group meeting, I looked across the room to Linda and our eyes met. I felt there was a mutual recognition that this was going to be tedious, but a connection had definitely been established between us. At the end of the session we left together.

Linda said, “Did ya hear that girl whose been going for six years? Fuck, that’s not for me.”

I replied, “If people need it for so long, it can’t be all that useful.”

I looked at Linda. I was strangely attracted to this boyish woman, with unfamiliar mannerisms and speech. “Let’s not go back.”

We were silent for a while, and I desperately wondered how to prolong our walk back to the parking area. I said, “Want to go and get a drink?”

“I guess.”

Not much enthusiasm I thought, and then it turned out Linda didn’t drink wine or beer; didn’t want tea, coffee, fruit juice or soda. I was perplexed, but we went to a small café where we sat at bare wooden tables and drank plain water. I thought, this is weird—I got her in here but what the hell do we talk about? We sat in silence and the minutes got longer. So I began.

“Where are you from?”

“Dallas, and you? I don’t recognize your accent.”

“Oh well, I am Australian really but lived in England for twenty years. Been in the States since 1983—hybrid.”

We looked each other over. We were of similar height but that was where the similarity ended. Linda’s fine tanned skin, very bright dark eyes, and black hair in a buzz cut somehow made her look younger than her 49 years. By contrast, I had wavy hair, fair skin and a distinctly female figure. At 62, I too looked somewhat younger.

Linda gulped down her water. “Whatcha do for work?”

“Retired from teaching. And you?”

Linda looked away and after a long pause replied, “Freelance photojournalist. Where’d ya teach?”

“I was at the University of Arizona.”

“Gees, you a professor or something?”

“Yes.”

“I never met a professor.”

I took a sip of water, wishing it was something alcoholic as I desperately tried to think of something else to say. During the long minutes of silence, her face grew serious, and I felt the evident ache she suffered. Seeing her sadness made me feel my own deep ache, made me feel closer to her. The short hair made her seem vulnerable and I decided that for sure she was very attractive.

Eventually Linda leaned over to me. “I dropped outta school in eighth grade, but you gone ta college!”

“Yes, I went to University in Australia, and also in England.”

“God.”

I laughed and went on, “I studied insects and got a PhD in entomology.”

“Well! I thought you never been anywhere the way you sat there all prim and proper.”

She smiled at me and it was a smile that lit up her tanned face so her eyes seemed brighter than ever. This sassy boyish woman was unlike anyone I had ever met.

“What else?” I said.

I took in the Texan accent as Linda proceeded. “I dropped out, like I said, and didn’t want to work a regular job, and guess what, I was stoned outta my mind for years and years.”

Everything we each said made it plain that no two women could have backgrounds that were so different. I had had what my mother called a “proper” upbringing in Australia, and then, after a period of going a bit wild and drinking in every pub in London, became a scientist and then a university professor. But I was attracted to a new side of life. Linda seemed doubtful about a weirdo from a world she couldn’t even imagine. Later she told me that she did think to herself, At least she don’t seem uppity.

We left the café and wandered to our parked cars. I found her so physically attractive and fascinating that I turned to her and suddenly said, “I love you.”

“Oh no you don’t,” she replied with surprise and impatience, upon which we parted with awkward goodbyes.

I was quite excited by the very idea of a possible relationship with someone so different from everything and everybody I had ever really known. It satisfied another part of me—delight at bucking convention. I was careful, though, not to reveal how much I was physically attracted to her in case it was not reciprocated. It was such a new feeling to be attracted to a woman after a relationship with a man I had loved for so long. Reg had been a lover and best friend. We shared everything. Our tastes were so similar and our communications often required no words, even as he lay dying in our desert home. It was after eighteen months of loss and desperation, that I discovered Wingspan, and a support group that concerned friends had been pressing me to find.

Linda and I emailed each another, and a week or so later she agreed to visit me at my ranch house in the Tucson foothills. We ambled around in the pristine Sonoran Desert landscape looking at cottontail rabbits, lizards, and quail. Look at that tarny bunny, and that big o’fat lizard, he’s a football! Linda was always fearful of snakes and when she saw a stick: Wot’s that thang? Whoa, looks like a snake. In spite of the possible dangers she seemed to enjoy our walk and my sharing occasional bits of natural history. Until, I’m wore out, and we went in.

Inside, Linda gazed around at the large old ranch house with huge beams, red cement floors, and picture windows looking out to desert views of saguaros and prickly pear with the Santa Catalina Mountains beyond. She took in the oil paintings and watercolors on the walls and was fascinated by a picture of African village life created in bas-relief on beaten aluminum.

“What’s that?”

“Reg and I bought that when we were working in Nigeria. The artist is Asiru Olatunde, and he worked with just a hammer and nails. We got it for just a few dollars back then, but it is worth thousands now.”

“Cool.”

She looked around the Arizona room with its metal stove, old TV, and glass sliding doors leading out to a big patio and the desert beyond. Finally, she looked at all the shelves of books.

“You read all these?”

“Mostly.”

Then she saw my old Bible among the poetry books.

“Your religious or something?”

“Not at all, but I had a religious phase when I was a teenager, and I never throw out a book.”

“Yeah, well I knew I as an atheist when I got to about ten and just stopped going to the church with my parents.”

“What did they say to that?”

“They never said nothin’ against what I did.”

After a short silence she smiled. “Well, we got something in common, eh?”

Conversation stalled and Linda took to organizing the books on one of the shelves so that the titles all went one way. “Gotta have them straight.”

“I only need to know where things are,” I replied.

At last we both relaxed a bit and Linda went on in her Texas dialect and drawl. “I guess I like reading. I got a list of 100 top books from the New York Times, bought them second hand at Bookman’s. I’s reading them one by one.”

Clearly, this attractive unschooled woman was not just smart and funny. She read books.

“Would you like tea?” I offered.

“Nah, just water.”

“What about some dinner?”

“I gotta go home.”

She was sitting on the old leather sofa as I stood in front of her. We looked at one another for several minutes. I saw that round smiling face with dimpled cheeks and badly wanted to kiss her. Perhaps Linda saw that because she quickly left with scarcely a goodbye.

A couple of weeks later we agreed to meet at a Wingspan social. Linda mixed with dozens of others, chatting and laughing, making me feel my awkwardness, but I eventually struck up a conversation with a woman of about my own age who was interested in conservation. We discussed places to visit for bird-watching, and the woman recommended a new book about birding in Arizona. I took out my ever-present notebook to write down the title and author.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Linda was there kissing me on the mouth.

“She’s mine,” Linda shouted.

I laughed with surprise and pleasure. “Look, she’s told me about a great book on birding.”

Linda exclaimed, “I was over there talking and thought you was getting her phone number and Brenda said, Watch out that lady is taking your new friend, so I come over to get you. Well, nothing but a stupid book—let’s see.”

She looked at the notebook and then at me. We gazed at one another for a time that seemed endless but was probably no more than a few seconds before Linda broke the silence with a loud laugh. She was excited now, too.

Later, Linda said Brenda told her that scientists in lab coats were the most exciting for sex. “Not that I care what Brenda thinks, but it is pretty funny—do you wear a lab coat?”

That evening, as I sat looking out at the desert scene I had come to love, I thought about the social. I had met a very diverse group and what a new experience it was to meet a lot of lesbians. In the normal course of events in my life there was no way that Linda and I would ever have met. If we had somehow been brought into contact, neither of us would have recognized the other as someone to know or befriend.

Next time we met it was on a date. Linda picked me up in her old Toyota truck on a warm, summer Saturday evening, and we drove to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. It is a place and time for great sunsets, stars, night-blooming cereus and evening primroses, bats and raccoons coming out from their daytime sleep. That evening we were tense and awkward, each aware of the other’s attraction. We were also exhilarated by a storm over the valley, with dramatic clouds and intermittent thunder and lightning. It presaged an exciting chemistry between us, but I wondered if Linda might be hesitant about being involved with a professor type. We made occasional awkward comments as we walked along the paths.

I wondered, Will I ever get to know this curious Texan?

I know now that Linda wondered, What the hell am I doing with a fucking professor?

On the way home Linda drove into a lonely picnic area surrounded by Palo Verde trees and cactus where we kissed seriously for the first time. I wanted to linger, but before I could say anything Linda started the engine and drove back to my place. She left immediately, almost without a goodbye.

It wasn’t long before she came to visit again when I proposed cooking dinner. By this time I knew that Linda had a very limited diet—nothing fancy or spicy or unusual. I served steak, potatoes, and beans, which met with her approval.

Linda was at ease and affectionate while making fun of me or others. On the other hand, I needed wine to relax and make talking easier. I felt, though, that we were gradually learning to understand each other. We each had a bath and we kissed, then Linda suddenly left me to sleep in the spare room. I was mystified.

The following week Linda offered to cook the meat on the barbecue. I could see her in baggy plaid shorts, T-shirt, and sneakers out on the patio through the sliding glass doors. No bra, shapely brown legs, confident walk, happily wielding tongs by my old Kettle barbecue grill. I watched her with pleasure and desire as I drank my wine.

“When did you leave Australia?” she asked as we ate.

“When I was 22, I left Sydney by ship with my friend Lucy. We disembarked in Gibraltar and hitchhiked all around Europe.”

“Then what?”

“Well, we had a bit of a wild time, then I taught high school, and eventually I did a PhD at the University of London. After that I was a British Government Scientist and worked in places like India and Nigeria and Mali.”

Linda kept sipping her water, then, finally putting down her glass said, “Well, I don’t know whatcha want with a dropout who did nothing.”

“You were a photojournalist, so that’s something.”

“I guess. I did sell stuff to the Dallas Fort Worth Times Herald and the AP; mostly I worked with the Fire Department.”

It wasn’t until a lot later that I discovered she was a pro when it came to any photographic work involving quick decisions. Linda was friends with the local fire chief in Dallas and began by taking photographs of fires and first responders. She said she enjoyed the adrenaline rush and always got to the scene fast. I knew she was quick so it made sense that she would be the one with the best shots. Not until a year had passed did she show me the papers nominating her for a Pulitzer.

Linda turned to questions that I had no quick answer for: What do you do for fun? What do you watch on TV? But she didn’t really seem to need answers. She spread out on the sofa, seemingly relaxed.

I said, “Would you like a massage?”

“No.”

“Well then, here I come,” and I leaned over to kiss her.

“No, you don’t,” she said, jumping up.

Later, she would say, “You pounced on me that night.”

On other occasions she left quite suddenly and without explanation. It was not until much later that Linda confessed she had sometimes left because she was nervous about me and nervous about anything physical. Alone, I was left wondering. What made this woman tick? What kind of relationship did she have with her husband, John? Is she interested in me really?

One summer day she suggested that I come to a bowling alley where she and John would be bowling and I would meet him. It turned out that the date, August 13th, was their wedding anniversary so it felt terribly awkward. Still, nothing was going to stop me from going to see her bowl. Only later did I find out they had not been intimate for years.

I watched them; they were both good bowlers. They had their own balls and they often made strikes. My eyes were mostly on Linda, so alive and so limber, joking with all and sundry. Her tall husband with scruffy hair and beard was quietly friendly. How was it possible that John accepted me, knowing that Linda and I were already close? In any case he apparently became aware of electricity in the air.

“Lin, do you and Liz want to take off?”

That’s all it took. The two of us went to my house and we sat in the Arizona room, watching Gambel’s quail marching around outside.

“Does John really not mind your having an affair?”

“Oh, he got used to it when I went with Kim. John and me’s friends, and we got Trooper. He’s a yellow lab and the best dog we ever had.”

“Did you always have dogs? I’m more of a cat person, but we couldn’t really have a dog with Reg and me working long days.”

“We got Wookie too. You would love him. He’s a Yorkie and such a character. When it’s raining, he can open the doggie door and pee through it without going outside and getting wet. He’s got a million tricks.”

I thought back to my teenage years when we had Australian terriers that are very like Yorkies, but Linda had moved on from dogs. Another time.

We ate dinner on the patio just outside the open sliding glass doors where a breeze from the swamp cooler bathed us in cool, damp air. It was the usual—steak, potato, and beans, while Linda drank water and I had my favorite red wine. Bats flew by and stole sugar water from the hummingbird feeder, javelina trotted past the patio, and a coyote howled in the distance.

Later, I was in bed when she came into the bedroom and announced, “I am going to make love to you tonight.”

I found this amusing. I lay there warm and excited from alcohol and pondered this strange relationship as she showered. There had been a time, perhaps twenty-five years earlier, when I began to fall for tall, handsome Sandy, an imposing woman who reminded me of Miss McCallum, the math teacher I had a crush on in high school. It was Miss McCallum who taught me I was actually good at math and not the hopeless student I believed myself to be. Well, nothing was going to interfere with my relationship with Reg. He was everything, so I stopped seeing Sandy, who anyway had her own partner. The short lesbian flash faded completely.

I was still musing on the past when a warm damp Linda jumped in beside me and we kissed. Slowly then, we explored one another’s bodies. And so began the affair and the most unlikely partnership, with each of us unsure if it would lead anywhere in the long term.

Linda joked, “Anniversary of our first night gonna be the same date as me and John’s wedding anniversary!”

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Elizabeth grew up in Australia, became a British Government Scientist in London, and then a Professor of Entomology at the University of California Berkeley. From there she was appointed Regents’ Professor at the University of Arizona where she also obtained an MFA in Creative Writing. She has published forty nonfiction stories in literary magazines and last year, her memoir, Six Legs Walking, won the 2020 Arizona/New Mexico Book Award for memoir. Email: eabernays[at]gmail.com

Death at a Distance

Creative Nonfiction
David Sapp


Photo Credit: Tim Pierce/Flickr (CC-by)

Somehow, I navigated my mother’s death from a desk. Actually, I wasn’t that far away—only eighty miles or so from everyone and everything, but there was a distance between us. I got a call at the office from Rosemary. Aunt Rosemary and Uncle Perry, my mother’s phlegmatic older brother, lived on the edge of Cincinnati amidst cul-de-sacs, in a tidy, ordinary raised ranch with avocado green siding. Even at eighty-something, her thick German accent came clipped and efficient over the telephone wires.

Perry brought Rosemary back from Germany after he was stationed there in the army not long after WWII when her country was still hungry and ruined—love among mounds of bones and brick. The last time I’d seen them I was fourteen, when I stayed a couple of weeks after Mom returned from the psych ward—when Mom and Dad pretended to sort out their marriage. I rode roller coasters at Kings Island with cousins Clara, Carl, and Kevin. I never really liked them very much and never really knew why. Still don’t. I gathered the details from Rosemary, politely asked after her family, and braced myself for the funerary routine.

Apparently, funeral homes, in turns, receive the indigent or corpses with inadequate instructions. Over the phone with the undertaker, overall a nice-enough-man, I got right to it as I’d been through the checklist with Dad: forms, prices, pick-up and delivery. (Was grief on the agenda?) No, I wouldn’t be buying a casket or urn. Very cordially but evenly I said, “Waive the surcharge or I’ll walk away.” With striking alacrity, he took my credit card numbers. I never saw Dad dead. I’d taken a day off from the hospital vigil and missed the end. To comfort me, the hospice volunteer said, “Sometimes they wait.” And, oddly, “When the toes curl, it’s time.” But there on the computer screen was my mother’s digital face required for identification. I was compelled to claim her after all. (What if I didn’t?) Her image fixed and final, I wouldn’t know how she aged or what about her remained the same. Was there a gesture or expression I’d recall? I typed, “That’s her,” and I envisioned her being wheeled to the furnace. My newly re-discovered cousin Candy picked up Mom’s ashes packed in a non-descript bag and box (I wondered at the lack of advertisement printed on the cardboard to boost sales: Bob’s Funerals: Caskets for Corpses and More.) and returned her to our hometown where she sat, still flummoxing us all.

I never traveled to the Nazareth Apartments, the Catholic-run assisted living facility in Columbus (coincidentally, just around the corner from Grant Hospital where, for a short while, Dad was pumped for-no-damn-good-reason with chemo). Was it a home? Was it a good or bad place? Were her keepers kind or incompetent? The first person I talked with when I called confused Mom with another, I’m sure, much more pleasant resident. There were two deaths that day. When I explained who my mother was, the nice lady seemed to be unaware of my mother’s absence. And when the identity finally dawned on her, her condolences thinned, her voice strained—distant. Either, oh, I was the son who never visited, or she was also the recipient of Mom’s mania. I didn’t know. Didn’t ask. Didn’t care.

The second seemed to be a little more with it, an administrator in charge of something or other. From her voice I imagined a thoughtful but naïve young woman. After Mom’s body was discovered and removed, her room was surveyed and inventoried. I asked knowingly, “And what did you find?” Clearly astonished, she described a hoard of wide-eyed baby dolls glad to be rescued, precarious towers of paperbacks, and ten grand in small bills rubber-banded in rolls, some of the cash stacked in a cigar box wrapped and padlocked with a rusty dog chain—likely my dog, Smokey’s, who would not be tied and who’d died forty years before. The reliquary rattled her a bit. She sealed the room and I wished her good luck and “Do whatever needs done.”

Before the cremation, I sent an email to the Diocese of Columbus asking for a priest and last rites. I thought this would be what she wanted and what a dutiful son might do. Hopefully, they’d forgotten about how she’d sent the bishop a fetching Playboy centerfold with hard candy glued to the nipples. I was informed that no priest was available (Couldn’t they rustle up an altar boy at least?) and that last rites were reserved for those still breathing—thus, the qualifier, “last.” Maybe there was simply a shortage of holy water at the time and they were too embarrassed to confess. I dispatched a fiery email to the Vatican, I’m sure, handled by the Swiss Guard with asbestos gloves, and a cardinal’s secretary assured me that Mom was with God. I thought, so what’s with all the fuss over these rituals? What’s the point of the essential oils? I should have reminded them of Luther, his 95 Theses and the public relations disaster of indulgences. Instead, I pretended to be a good Catholic boy, felt guilty, and let it all go. There remained a distance between us.

My mother’s remains languished with Uncle Wayne—Mom in Limbo, what-to-do-with-her Purgatory. Her three brothers, a blind, morose lot, insisted on this and that: “Your mother would have wanted…” I asked how much they’d like to chip in for what she “would have wanted,” thousands to bury her grit beside their mother: hole, crypt, plaque, fees and commissions. I suggested scattering her in a field near the farm where they all grew up. To be fair, this probably resurrected memories of a hard life with their cruel, abusive father. When I offered, “How about I dump her in a ditch?” abruptly the letters, emails, and phones fell silent. How were these uncles, themselves victims, unaware of the violence she brought to our home—the flying jelly jars and coffee cups, garbage neatly tucked in shoes, Dad’s torn shirts?

After writing the obituary for the local news, I’d had enough. (I included her high school senior picture, a portrait when all was black and white, when she smiled with genuine Eisenhower-era optimism—before divorce, custody battles, the years of rage, and three decades of exile.)

For a while, the decisions and details were all mine. When my sister finally returned my calls, our first conversation in ten years, her voice was more shrill than I remembered: the ignorance, prejudice, and purposeful poor grammar more pronounced. When she commented tangentially on Obama, “that half-breed in the White House,” I nearly hung up. I could hear our mother. We wouldn’t be meeting for a nice quiet lunch. The distance remained between us. Still, thankfully, my sister took over: probate, checks, the sorting of possessions. When I spoke with the lawyer, our tone was conspiratorial. I pointedly treated him kindly knowing he was required to work for the ghost of our dead mother. There was a service. A priest blessed Mom after all. I wasn’t there.

I showed up in person a few months later. My sister found a plot in St. Luke’s Cemetery, a nice, cheap spot overlooking the blue-hazed Ohio hills. Dad was there. Mom would be a few slots down and to the right. But that was a guess as the headstone wasn’t planted yet and there were two fresh graves from which to choose. To weep, I’d need to return, but either little mound of earth was, equally, a complete stranger. Despite the popular and over-rated notion of closure, a distance remained between us.

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David Sapp, writer, artist and professor, lives along the southern shore of Lake Erie in North America. A Pushcart nominee, he was awarded an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence grant and an Akron Soul Train fellowship for poetry. His poems appear widely in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. His publications include articles in the Journal of Creative Behavior; chapbooks Close to Home and Two Buddha; and a novel, Flying Over Erie. Email: danieldavidart[at]gmail.com

Write As If Your Parents Were Dead

Creative Nonfiction
Kimberly Cullen


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

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. My friend Dan, a writer himself, recommended it to me many years ago when I first started posting my writing. I bought the book and then held onto it until this summer. I have read it at a snail’s pace, a few pages at a time, giving myself the chance to absorb her advice and sit on the thoughts for a while.

When I announced at work over a year ago that I would take a sabbatical beginning this fall in order to focus on my writing, I spoke with honesty and openness. I also unknowingly set myself up for failure. Because I created an expectation that I have not met. People honestly don’t really care what I’m doing on my sabbatical, but by committing to writing publicly, I created this expectation in myself to produce. And so as I slid into the start of the sabbatical, I frantically and frenetically created this website where I moved all of my blog posts over and told myself and others that I would write. I wrote a piece, one that came from the heart, highlighting one of the many silver linings from the COVID confinement we all experienced last spring. I did a little marketing campaign on social media: get ready, coming soon, just a few days left, launching tomorrow. And I published. I had tons of readers, lots of support. I even got an email from my son’s high school English teacher saying he loved the piece and would be following my work.

And then I froze. I tried to write, and couldn’t think of one thing to say that was worth a damn. I wrote fragments, and realized that the only thing I wanted to write about was stuff that I wasn’t sure people should have to read (I mean, really, why would they put themselves through that?). I started rereading things I’ve written in the past — other unpublished work: thoughts that I had, feelings that I processed, events that happened.

I read through the account of my brother’s funeral, and that horrific night — when my dad lost his shit and my mom wanted to leave, and everyone was drunk, and I walked into the screaming match and stayed most of the night. And I realized that I wanted to write about those things, to wrestle with the demons that my optimism tries to stifle. I realized that I want to write about the times when my dad was drunk and horrible, the abuse he dished out to my mom, and the shitty parent he evolved into as we got older. I wanted to write about my brother —the one that is left — and the disintegration of what was once an idyllic mother–son love story. And I sat there in front of my computer screen, unable to write any of it because all I could focus on was the hurt those words might cause.

I have felt so responsible for my mom since my dad and oldest brother died that I couldn’t even begin to imagine causing her to revisit so much of the pain that she has tried to overcome. And I cried. I cried at frustration for her that she has experienced so much pain and had to work so hard to redefine who she is in this world. And I cried at my own pain, this sense of impotence washing over me. If I can’t write about this stuff, how the fuck will I ever deal with it? And if I can’t deal with it, how am I supposed to connect with others who may have experienced similar things? And how will my life have served any purpose if my growth doesn’t help others? And this sense of frustration threw me into a dark writer’s hole… a space where I have all of the ability, but none of the motivation.

Write for what? became my mantra. I continued to journal, relying on that to feed my daily need to write. But the journal was more of a homework assignment as I was dutifully following Julia Cameron’s instructions from The Artist’s Way. I found that I would pour out a few thoughts on those pages, and then would go about my day without writing anything more. I continued to work on a much more straightforward writing project that I’m collaborating with a friend on, and what little creativity might have been sitting under the surface came out in those pages. But the real stuff — the raw and bloody emotions that are deeper down —they stayed where they were, safely hidden away from the eyes and judgements of others —most of all those of my mom.

And then yesterday, I was sitting on the sofa, reading a few pages of Bird by Bird. I was tired from having slept very little the night before. I am in Florida with my mom —making up for some lost time since we hadn’t seen one another since December last year. We were prepared for a tropical storm, but not quite the roaring and howling that came with the unexpected Cat 2 Hurricane Sally. So after a night of craziness, and as the winds began to die down, I sat there on the sofa —in my pajamas because there is kind of no place to go on the day after a hurricane —reading Anne Lamott.

My mind was alert enough to consider what I was reading, and my body tired enough to not pull me away to the usual distractions. And I read this: “Write as if your parents were dead.” I stopped cold. I looked out the window, watching the palm trees moving in the wind, and then read it again, slowly. I highlighted the sentence and those around it. I took pictures and sent them to my husband.

Write as if your parents were dead. I realized that that is the only way for me to do this. To write with the honesty that would exist if they weren’t there to read it. And so this morning, I woke up with a new perspective. Write for what? For me. Maybe I don’t need to publish everything. But I can’t publish anything if I write nothing. Writer’s block be damned. I am going to face those demons one by one. Writing for me will not be an act of betrayal. It is an act of hope and at its core, an expression of love, and it’s time for me to get back to the joy that comes with wading through a whole lot of muddy shit to find that single solitary flower that might otherwise not have been noticed.

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Kimberly Cullen is a thinker and learner, writer and storyteller, counselor and coach. After almost of quarter of a century in k12 education, she is now on sabbatical, taking some time to breathe, reflect, dream, explore life’s many gifts, and write. When she was around 8 years old, she starting writing down my dreams and these turned into stories. She has been blogging about life since 2010, and has published several articles about the need for change in how and what young people learn. Hope and gratitude are common themes in her writing, her work, and in her life in general. Email: cullen_km[at]hotmail.com

Shelley Hack Black

Creative Nonfiction
Celestine Woo


Photo Credit: rocor/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

1979

My bangs are now sophisticated and asymmetrical, ready for entering junior high: they swoop down over my right eye, baring the left part of my forehead. My shoulder-length hair bounces slightly if I have managed to fluff it. I get body waves maybe twice a year, and have discovered mousse, which my mom is willing to buy for me, unlike hair spray. In eighth grade, I get one of the best compliments of my life (to this day): someone tells me with my hairdo, I look like Shelley Hack, who was then the newest of Charlie’s Angels. My hair is really black, and I wish it were brown like my mom and sister. I try to imagine an Asian Angel, or any Asian in a prominent, positive TV or movie role, and laugh at the absurdity.

Here is a picture of that Shelley Hack hairdo.

 

1981

My hair is feathered like Farrah Fawcett in her iconic pinup poster, and like every single other teenage girl in existence, except for the OBCs who are hopelessly ugly with their straight limp lifeless hair. Mine’s cut in layers, shoulder-length. One of the rare periods of my life when it wasn’t constantly permed. Every morning I spend twenty minutes with the curling iron making layers of curls. Mine never turn out in piles and piles of puffy perfectly shaped curls like Ada has, like a Chinese afro—she’s the beauty queen of our church, and in the Golden Age of Big Hair, a ‘do like hers is way out of my league. Nor do my curls look like Shannon’s waves that are wide flicks, like the Sprint logo, that really earn the name of feathers. Nor do they look like most of the girls in church, who have curls like little sausages either just framing their face, or adorning their whole head, including the back. Nope, my hair is way too thick, heavy, and coarse to behave right, so at best, I get really great sausage curls on my left side (since I’ve kept the asymmetrical shaping and have less hair on that side), and a few limp curls on the right that fall into my eye but not fetchingly. I curl the back, because I have this great mirrored bathroom cabinet and can actually view the back of my head fairly easily; it semi works, so I figure I look good from the left and the back.

If there’s any fog or even the faintest hint of humidity, the instant I walk out of the house, my hair falls completely flat, stick straight, even if it’s moussed and gelled to death, and I look horrible and feel humiliated, and there’s nothing I can do. (In my twenties, a hairdresser tells me he’s surprised but I really truly don’t look good with straight hair, and I bless him for his honesty.) Plus, that fall, the first PE rotation assigns me swimming first period, which means forget any hair styling because it’s a waste once you’re in the pool. After, we have only ten minutes to get dressed, do our hair (ha ha), and get to our second period class. That is nowhere near long enough to get my thick hair even semi-dry, let alone curled while still damp. So for weeks, my ninth-grade peers only see me as this girl with straight hair, like black pick-up sticks or dried spaghetti all over my head. Squid ink pasta won’t become trendy for decades yet, and even had it existed, I am utterly incapable of joking about my appearance.

 

1982

I begin paying attention to hair on other parts of my body. My mother has no razors or deodorant, and I notice with chagrin, peering clandestinely whenever I get the chance, that she seems to have zero hair on her legs, arms, or armpits. She’s also whiter than most white people. I doubt she even knows that girls shave their legs, and I despair because I have no idea how to learn.

I eavesdrop at church in the women’s restroom. This is how I’ve learned all sorts of things about periods and stuff, so I also learn that you’re supposed to shave your legs in the shower. That sounds clever, I think, and feel sorry for Danielle, who is being ridiculed because she was stupid enough to shave her legs dry, outside the shower (as I have). Some girl in some TV sitcom jokes about not knowing how high to shave, and thus having bangs on her knees. I get the joke, but am worried because I didn’t know there was a rule about how high.

I peek secretly at other girls’ bodies. I am greatly perturbed to notice that Kim, a super cute popular girl, seems to have no hair at all on either her thighs or forearms, or even on the backs of her knuckles. Is she just born that way, or does she shave those places? It’s hard to be sure, since her skin is dark. I look with alarm at the tiny hairs on my knuckles, forearms, and thighs. I don’t mind them, but does this make me ugly and noticeable?

My friend Jennifer at school provides me some relief. I overhear her tell someone she doesn’t bother to shave her legs, because her hairs are fine and nearly invisible, and if she shaves, they’ll grow back thicker and then she’ll be stuck in this vicious cycle. Jennifer is a wonder: Vietnamese, but perfect American English, confident, smart, popular, outgoing, beautiful, unapologetically Catholic, and surrounded by popular white friends. She’s the only one like that in our entire school of nearly 3,000. She’s the first Vietnamese kid to be elected to Student Council. After she takes office, the mutterings begin: the Vietnamese grumble that she only made nice to get their vote, and now she ignores them. The whites grouse that the only reason she won was she got all the Vietnamese to vote for her, except they use a slur instead of “Vietnamese,” by which they designate all Asians except the Japanese, who are cool.

 

1990

The first time I call up a hair salon in my new town, Altadena—99% black and also the place where Rodney King lives, immediately before the infamous traffic stop and riots happen—the receptionist inquires whether I have “white or black hair.” I know what she’s asking, but I’m tempted to reply “black,” since that is in fact the color of my hair. I tell her I’m Asian. Does that mean my hair is yellow? Wouldn’t that be the irony…

I get my first spiral perm and love it. I am now a working adult, earning a whopping $13,000 per year, and so am rich enough to spend the extra money to get the spirals, not just the regular perm. My hair is past my shoulders, almost to my breasts. It takes an hour to roll my hair, and I am fascinated by the hairdresser winding it round each white plastic and then bending it into a big circle, like a giant hoop earring, rather than the purple and pink rollers I always get for perms.

As usual, my hair won’t perm. They check it after fifteen minutes, then five more, then five more. Eventually, the spiral perm turns out beautiful and I am proud of my elegant tresses and preen and toss them around at every opportunity. The next perm, though, they mess up and cut my bangs too short, so I look like a startled poodle, with long wavy hair and too pert little curly bangs. I resign myself to it, but my housemate Ron clearly finds my hairdo embarrassing, because all he says is, “It’ll grow back!” with an uneasy little chuckle.

 

1995

For the first time, I cut my hair all one length, just at the bottom of my ear. The opposite of layering: now the outer layers are the longest, and the underlayers close to my head are short. The perm gives me waves that look professional and sassy. It’s my mom’s longtime hairdo, but I try not to think about that: no woman nearing thirty wishes to feel like she’s turning into her mom, especially when you have a horrible relationship like I have. I get a new driver’s license photo, and am luckier than most: I’ve always had good license photos.

Since I no longer wear bangs, every time I see my mom, she sweeps my hair over my forehead, because she thinks my forehead is ugly. Because she thinks her forehead is ugly, and I look like her.

 

2000

I get lowlights. I learn that logically enough, lowlights are the opposite of highlights: instead of streaks of color lighter than your natural hair, lowlights are streaks that are darker than your natural hue. Except with black hair, I still don’t understand the notion of lowlights, but that’s what the hairdresser calls it, when she streaks a half-head of reddish brown into my hair. My base color has by now turned dark chestnut brown-black, since I’ve been perming it for decades, and I like it, although since the grass is always greener, or the hair always blacker, part of me misses the darkness it used to have.

I wonder if this terminology is yet another sign that it’s white folks who have invented all the terms: if you add brownish or dark red hues into your hair, those colors are assumed to be darker than your natural shade, and thus termed lowlights.

I buy “hair mascara” from my favorite beauty company (CCB Paris), and am sorrowful when they close all their US business branches. Hair mascara is a bottle with a bristly brush, just like eye mascara, only bigger and coarser, and you paint color into your hair, and it washes out. I choose copper, and love streaking the metallic color into my hair. I use it whenever I’m onstage for a dance performance.

 

2015

I have grown out my color, and grown it long and straight. Now that I’m older, my hair is thinner, which is somewhat sad, but the great thing is that after all these years of perming it into submission, it has finally become pliable and even has a tiny amount of wave. I am delighted when I start going grey; I like salt-and-pepper. It’s very subtle as yet: just a tiny hint in gentle waves behind each ear, in a tendril by my chin, in highlights at my crown. My “pepper” is now a faded dark walnut brown, the lightest it’s ever been, which I don’t mind although ironically now I do distinctly miss the blackness of my youth. Most white people, I surmise, have never thought about black hair having a wide range of shades, so it is a delight when I meet with my student, an Italian man who is a passionate hairdresser, and he brings his display board of hair swatches, and locates me instantly in the light-brown section of black.

Nowadays when I visit my mother, she always tells me earnestly that if I eat and drink things with black sesame, it will restore the blackness to my hair. I nod gamely, and try it once or twice, but I don’t like black sesame nearly enough to constantly guzzle it in order to take effect. Mom also tells me about the greatest sign of my Auntie Sophie’s love for her husband, my Uncle Monte: Sophie would mung baak tou faat—pull out his white hairs.

I notice all the popups I’m now getting on Facebook about grey-haired models, models over sixty, and so forth, and I roll my eyes at micro-targeted advertising, since I’m old and literate enough to know what Big Brother is, and I don’t mean the reality TV. I actually like that my grey helps me look almost my age, so my colleagues in their twenties and thirties will believe me when I talk like someone a generation older than they. I go on a date, and am told that my grey is really hot. My colleague-=-five years younger than me, but frankly, she looks ten years older—remarks that she wishes her grey (hidden under bright red dye) looked as graceful and elegant as mine. I’ve now had several years of hairdressers inquiring whether I want to cover up my grey, and I always tell them no. With some gusto.

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Celestine Woo is an English teacher, poet, and modern dancer. She has recently published her first short memoir, as well as her first short story. Email: celestwoo[at]gmail.com