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Category Archive for 'Non-Fiction'

On Werewolves and Vampires

One of the last times I saw my dad, we planned to walk a few blocks from my St. Louis apartment to get pizza. It was late May but already sweltering, and I was eight months pregnant. My toddler, Becca, was only one and glued to my side most of the time, weary of my growing belly and new furniture and car seats showing up. I had just landed a job as a professor, so I was fairly happy but also careful as usual around my temperamental father.

He was always quiet around me; I did most of the talking, and that day was no different. When he rang the bell, he already looked exasperated that I didn’t answer within 15 seconds. I still needed to find my keys and my daughter’s shoes, which I knew he wouldn’t like. I started chattering mindlessly about our day at the park, sing-songy in tone, trying to uplift the mood.

When I was a teenager, I listened to The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes,” quite a bit, and felt that the song nailed him:

“No one knows what it’s like
To be the bad man,
to be the sad man,
Behind blue eyes.
No one knows what it’s like
To be hated
To be fated
To telling only lies.”

Growing up, our house was governed by his set of rules, and breaking the rules brought sudden, sharp consequences. One couldn’t open a can of Coke or take a bite of banana without finishing it. One couldn’t leave a pair of shoes out. One could never touch the wallpaper. Spilling milk was a crime, despite the idiom.

Because he never said more than a few sentences to me even though we lived in the same house for 17 years, he had been a mystery to me as a child: What had his parents been like? Why was he an accountant? Did he believe in God? Why was he so strict? Why didn’t he ever talk to his two sisters? I never found answers, and eventually I stopped wanting to know.

The one chance I had to discover something was the time I met one of his sisters when I was 27. I waited for her at a restaurant and finally saw a worried looking woman approach the door and then change her mind, deciding to go back to her car. I ran after her. “Are you Anne?” I asked. She nodded. “Let’s go back to the restaurant,” I said. What was this woman so hesitant about when it came to her brother? I still don’t know, but I realized she cared little about forging a relationship with my brother and me.

Eventually by the time I had a baby, it grew clear that my dad and I were never going to understand each other, but perhaps we could get a slice of pizza together once in a while. The only thing we have in common is that we both run every day, in snow or sleet or ice. Whereas he is a stoic vampire, I am an emoting werewolf, all howl and bark and bite.

That day, though, he bared his vampire fangs at me, and I bared my teeth at him. Once I put my daughter’s shoes on, grabbed my wallet and shut the door, I could feel the heat emanating from him. Finally, it became clear that he thought my one-year old was walking too slow. He grabbed her hand from mine, and started walking quickly with her, forcefully, and she fell. He dragged her on the sidewalk, and her knee began bleeding. My firstborn, also a werewolf, was never one to suffer in stony silence and the entire street could now hear her wails. I caught up to them and picked her up. I stood as tall as I could, even though he still towered over me. I started screaming, and this was never my style with this man. Brooding in silence, jogging until my nipples bled or my toenails fell off, sneaking a cigarette, that was my style. Screaming in public at a man I feared for half my life, not my style. I screamed that I forgave him for being abusive with me, but that I would not allow him to act this way with her. He refrained from speech and movement, his face oddly blank and expressionless, while I winced noticing bystanders turning to stare at us: a weeping child and a very pregnant woman howling at an aging man.

In Judaism, we ponder forgiveness each year, fasting and atoning for our sins. Forgiving is thought to be a mitzvah, a divine command. I wish I was strong enough for all of this, but I still may not be.

A few weeks ago, I used the word “abuse” in a conversation with my mother and she denied the word, saying that it did not apply to her, nor did it apply to me or our fam-ily. I stared her down across the table and understood that this was something she needed to believe.

But I don’t believe it. Abuse is a word that most people don’t want to hear, most people don’t want to think about, but I am going to keep saying it until I don’t need to say it anymore.

All my life I ran after words, and he gave me none of them, but I found them an-yway. In many ways, this is why I am a feminist. So I can use the words. So I can look him in the eye at my brother’s upcoming wedding and introduce him to his grandchildren. It was the words of the women writers, the sisters, the mothers I read for so many years that strengthened me that moment on the sidewalk when I was 32, and I will always thank them for that.

– Jamie Wagman’s work has previously appeared in Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues and The Adirondack Review, among other places. She teaches Gender and Women’s Studies and American History at Saint Mary’s College in South Bend, Indiana.

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Love Story: Witness 87

I fell in love with Jack—as I’ll call him—in February of my junior year at St. George’s, the elite ocean-side boarding school. St. George’s was a long tradition in my family. When in 1977 my parents were assigned to a Foreign Service posting in Laos, they thought it fortunate the school had gone coed several years before. I would be the first Roberts girl to attend.

According to my friend Anne, Jack was weird. He had high cheekbones, straight longish brown hair, and a long straight nose. He exuded broody-literary cool, a sensitive soul but with a sense of humor about it. He loved Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, e.e. cummings, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He played the guitar and listened to jazz. He liked to wear black leather gloves indoors and when we were at meals in the dining hall (chandeliers and wood paneling) liked to wiggle his gloved hands fiendishly at Anne, strangler-style, causing her to shriek and the rest of us to laugh.

Jack used to pay a lot of visits to one of the nurses in the school infirmary. Then in her mid-30s, Nurse G. (as the students called her) had curled blonde hair and wore full nurse regalia: white starched dress, white cap, white nylons, white crepe-soled shoes. She had a youthful yet motherly charm rendered even more appealing by her willingness to bend the rules for her favorites. And all of us in the class of 1980 were her favorites, because, as she explained, she had arrived with us as ninth-graders.

Boys and girls alike were in search of a listening ear and a friendly word, and the infirmary was the place to go when you wanted in from the cold. Nurse G. dispensed tea and sympathy. If you’d missed breakfast, she’d make you toast; if you were a girl with a broken heart, she’d write you a dysmenorrhea excuse slip so you could get out of sports practice.

My girlfriends and I were devotees. “Nursie G.’s on duty, let’s go visit,” someone would say on a Saturday afternoon, and off we’d rush to sit on the counter, weigh ourselves on the medical scale, and tell her everything going on in our lives.

My first connection with Jack happened in the infirmary on a January evening. I had gone after study hours to grouse about an unwanted change to my class schedule. As I stood in the fluorescent-lit hallway complaining tearily, Nurse G. making empathetic noises, Jack walked out of the nurses’ office. He was wearing what looked like a silver-fox-fur jacket, lavishly fluffy, over his blazer and tie. “How do you like my coat?” he asked, striking a pose.

I didn’t realize it was Nurse G.’s coat; I did, however, have a 15-year-old girl’s instinct for flirting. I walked up to him, said, “I love your coat. Can I cry on it ?” and put my face on his shoulder.

I never slept with him, but we had make-out sessions that seemed magically exciting, one on a cold dark train—or was it a bus?—headed to New Hampshire for our class’s ski weekend, lights flickering by outside like the beam of an old movie projector, his coat (an ordinary parka this time) draped over our heads as we sipped from a bottle of Amaretto and kissed.

We talked about T.S. Eliot, Tim Curry, and Ancient Greece. We went down to the beach and sat in the dunes and he played his guitar for me.

Equally good were the cozy evenings we spent with Nurse G. when she had night shift. As juniors, Jack and I were supposed to be in our rooms or the library for study hours, but we would go to the infirmary instead. There in the tiny office from 8 to 11 pm Nurse G. sat at the desk doing paperwork and we sat close by in folding chairs doing our homework or reading books, all three of us silent in the glow of the gooseneck lamp. I remember one evening I was reading The Princess Bride and thinking I would never be so happy again as long as I lived.

On an evening in early April, Jack broke up with me. We were in a classroom, one of the nighttime make-out spots. He sat on the floor with his head in his hands and said, “I guess I want to break up.” There had been no warning of this, so at first I didn’t understand what he was saying. When it sank in I ran out of the classroom, through the corridors back to my dorm, out the external door with the steel-bar handle, and across the grass to the stone bench behind the hedges. I sat down, bent double, and howled in pain.

Nurse G. was on duty a few days later. I went to see her and told her what had happened. She said she knew, and was very angry with Jack for hurting me. She had given him quite a scolding, she said. We both rolled our eyes, commiserating about the perfidy of men.

I took up with another boyfriend and eventually moved on to college, more romances, grad school, husband, career, daughter, life.

***

In the summer of 2015, St. George’s, pressured by several alumni who had been raped or molested during their time there, launched an investigation to uncover the truth about decades of sexual abuse. Dozens of witnesses came forward to speak to the independent investigator. In September 2016, a 390-page report was released to the public. “Faculty and staff members at St. George’s sexually abused at least 51 students during the 1970s and 1980s,” the report states.

The report names six adult perpetrators. We alums already knew about five of them: four teachers and one athletic trainer, all male. The sixth was a surprise: A part-time nurse. Female.

When I saw Nurse G.’s name in the Boston Globe article about the report, my first reaction was: Oh, come on. She was no abuser. That is ridiculous!

I opened the report and found her name in the summary section. Not ridiculous. I knew who the male student was; of course I did. Then again, a lot of boys used to hang around the infirmary. Maybe, I thought, it was one of those other boys.

I turned to the detailed section of the report. “When G______ distanced herself from the student shortly after his graduation, the student attempted suicide by driving his moped into a wall.” He sustained five skull fractures but survived.

So it was Jack. When I’d gone back in 1990 for my tenth reunion, Nurse G. herself had told me about the terrible moped accident. Was anyone in touch with Jack now? she had asked, standing there in the examining room surrounded by reunion-goers, her old devotees. No, we said. How I miss him, she said.

The account provided by Witness 87 (as Jack is labeled in the report) includes many details. He and Nurse G. were lovers for two years, beginning in his junior year. They had sex in the infirmary whenever she had night shift. They had sex in his dorm room and in motels. She would warn him not to talk about being tired the next day. At one point she told him she was pregnant with his child, despite her tubal ligation, and that she wanted to keep it; he was conflicted, but agreed. Later she told him she had miscarried while jogging.

He was 17 and 18, over the age of consent, so none of it was rape, legally speaking. Nevertheless it is clear from the account that she manipulated and took ugly advantage of a child. Of children.

What sort of therapy is in order when you find out, decades on, that your first love left you for your mother figure? Well, Freudian psychoanalysis, obviously, plus viewings of The Graduate.

But can I honestly say this messed me up when I didn’t even know it was happening?

I feel sad for Jack and hope he’s ok, wherever he is. But there is nothing I can do for him now, and there was nothing I could have done for him then. As for Nurse G., there is nothing I want to say to her. It is not my job to produce the remake.

At boarding school, a kind lady made me toast and listened to my troubles. A beautiful boy kissed me passionately and played his guitar for me on the beach.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

– Jocelyn Davis is a writer living in Santa Fe, NM. Her first career was in leadership development, consulting to large companies. In her latest book, The Greats on Leadership, she combines her business expertise with her liberal arts education. She is an alumna of St. George’s School and Swarthmore College.

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Love What You Got

Twice a year, I go to San Francisco to see Jay, my stylist. I never feel guilty about spending a couple hundred dollars because afterwards, eyeing my new ‘do in the sleek storefronts, I am not wife or mother or teacher. I am not anxious or fretful. I stop worrying about my student evals or my limp libido. I am just myself, the one I used to be years ago before the OCD intruded.

Jay works at the tres chic Di Pietro Todd salon, where I can expect cucumber water and head massages, elaborate sectioning and sculpting, the royal blow-out. I go in with half a year’s grown-out hair stuffed into a bun on top of my head and come out looking like a new, refreshed me. I usually fall in love with the cut while it’s still wet.

Until Jay, I hated my frizzy brown hair. As a seventh grader who worried way too much, about things of little consequence (like imperfectly addressed letters or my perfume wearing off), my hair became another fulcrum of obsession. No amount of Sun-In or Finesse conditioner could ever transform it into the straight silky hay-colored locks I coveted. I don’t know where I got my hair from, but I inherited my OCD from my mom, who always understood my quest for perfection. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been anxious. Lately, my worries have blossomed from letters and perfume (which, thanks to some good therapists, I can now confidently mail and wear) to death by earthquake or cancer.

Last January I was completely undone when a routine dental x-ray unveiled a calcification in my neck. One ultra-sound and blood test and excruciating week later, I learned it was likely a salivary stone. No biggie. But I’ve since been haunted by worst-case scenarios, wincing at sirens, victimized by my own mortality. I’ve become tormented by The Big One, imminently expected to shake California apart. Anxiety propels me forward, away from the Now. My mind trips over the future. I sometimes Google salivary stones and cancer and get hot with fear (unlikely, but, it seems, possible).

Anything is possible, people say cheerily. But for me it’s the very unpredictability of life that has become unbearable. When my mom sent me a newspaper clipping about David Adam’s new book, The Man Who Couldn’t Stop, I immediately checked it out of the library. For longtime OCD sufferer Adam it was the possibility that he could contract HIV in absurdly unlikely ways, like scraping his heel on a step that could have been tainted with infected blood. As he writes,, “OCD dissolves perspective. It magnifies small risks, warps probabilities and takes statistical chance as a prediction, not a sign of how unlikely things are.”

*
Jay and I were both 25 when we met, starting our careers, newbies in the fields of hair artistry and teaching. . I’ll never forget my first appointment, when he gasped appreciatively at my natural waves. I’m sure I said something along the lines of “Ugh, I hate all that body,” to which he responded, “You just haven’t learned how to embrace your curl. You gotta love what you got, girl.” When I walked out over an hour later, I actually did.

Two days before my wedding five Septembers ago I managed to sneak in on a cancellation, desperate to have Jay trim up my dried-out summered ends. He’d just gotten back from Massachusetts where he’d wed his long-time partner Patrick. We couldn’t believe the coincidence. Two weeks before my due date, blissed out on baby, I tottered into the salon. “You could literally pop at any moment,” Jay said as soon as he saw my watermelon belly. It’d been so long since my last cut he didn’t even know I was pregnant. He marveled at my thickened hair and told me to bring the baby in next time. “You can nurse right here in the chair if you need to,” he offered.

We’ve come so far. I teach writing to college kids, he schools the apprentices on technique. He makes the music choices (“Don’t get me wrong, I love Whitney—RIP—but we’ve already heard ‘I Will Always Love You’ once today”) and has an assistant fetch him a kale salad for lunch.

I love watching him work my hair, all that pinning and snipping. Every now and then he lapses into silent concentration, gives his glasses a gentle push up his nose, as he expertly contemplates a chunk. I’m vulnerable in the swivel chair in the giant mirror, but I’m also relaxed. I surrender my control; he’s making the decisions, and I’m just along for the ride. I have to trust in the okay-ness of it all.

*
On this most recent trip I was especially unsettled, abuzz with anxiety. When I’d admitted to my husband that our upcoming vacation (our first ever without our three year-old daughter) to Panama had me gripped with fear, he’d suggested I talk to my doctor about trying medication. I was resistant.

But I had to face facts: my mind had become my worst enemy, adamantly spinning narratives of disaster and heartache, dissolving perspective at every turn. As soon as I approached the Golden Gate, I imagined an earthquake striking just then, collapsing the bridge and dashing the cars into the sea. Once safely across, I noticed a plane in the sky and saw us crashing on the way back from Panama—I took a deep breath to steady my quickening heart, but still a flash of our panicked, screaming faces— and my own mom delivering the news to my daughter that her mama was gone. Or what if she had to watch me wither away, ashy-skinned and sunken-eyed, from cancer? Another awful flash: me in bed, can’t even lift my head to look at my little girl.

She would miss me most at bedtime, I thought. She would cry for me to sing “Tomorrow.”

What a relief to make it to the salon chair! I calm down. So much remains reassuringly intact. It smells like product, buzzes with conversation, is at once intimate and public. More gray flecks in each heap of downy hair, yes, but when I bring up coloring, Jay says, “We don’t need to have that conversation yet. Look at my gray,” he says, “I like it.”

This time I want something really different. Even shorter than my usual warm-weather cut. Jay nods, excited. “Something piecey and textured,” he says. “Maybe even cut some side-swept bangs. Really bring your face out for summer.”

If I’ve learned anything: it’s all about the cut. And if I can go from long layered locks to messy hip bob, why not a more profound transformation? Maybe if I accept that my brain chemistry sets me up to have intrusive thoughts, that for whatever reason (parenthood, reaching my mid-30s) my OCD seems to be flaring up again, then I can seek real change. Maybe doing more yoga and reading Thomas Merton aren’t enough; maybe I should give Zoloft a try, just to see if it does, as my mom promises, take the edge off. Maybe acceptance is what makes true transformation possible.

In that chair I exhale and watch the hair accumulate around me. Jay spritzes water and measures my ends. A fresh intern with two-toned hair gushes over my emerging new cut, and then sweeps all that old hair away.

– Jessica Dur Taylor lives in Sonoma County, California, where she teaches English at Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University. She’s penned essays for Cactus Heart, Superstition Review, Prick of the Spindle, Recess Magazine, Brain, Child online, Fractured West, Mutha Magazine, and others.

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Coracle Dreams

1.
A coracle is a one-person boat without a sail or rudder. It is light and small and made of willow rods and animal skins. Think round, like a lily pad, or a Frisbee, or a twenty-five pound walnut shell. Think three-month-old Moses floating in a papyrus laundry hamper until Pharaoh’s daughter fished him out of the Nile. Famously unstable, a coracle floats on the water rather than in it, making it vulnerable to the wind and currents. Centuries ago Irish monks like Brendan and Columba took to the seas in these flimsy vessels, trusting that they would survive the tempestuous waves. A few of the most zealous didn’t even take a paddle. Perhaps that was part of the attraction.

2.
My son is in the Pacific Northwest camping with the woman he used to be in love with. Joel has posted the pictures on Facebook; I check them out more than a mother is supposed to do. Hunched like a giantess over my small laptop, I peer at their curated fun, scrolling through the images. Sky, trees, river. Click. Wood, whiskey, fire. Click, click. Tent, cup, clouds. Click, click, click.

3.
The name Joel means “strong-willed” in Hebrew. There was a moment, helping him pack for the trip, when I realized he was already gone. Loading the musty tent into the trunk, the feather-leaking sleeping bag, the camp stove and coffee pot, I knew he was miles away, already down the road, deep into his own life. We raise our children to be independent. We tell them to get lost, to be brave, to strike out on their own. Then they have the nerve to do just that.

4.
Pharaoh’s daughter isn’t named in the Book of Exodus. Even though she rescued Moses from the bulrushes and raised him as her own child, she barely gets a mention in the Old Testament. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t have a life.

5.
Joel crouches by a frothing river, skipping stones. I can feel the solid rock in his hand, its cool surface spackling his palm. The sky is dark and dense, even though it’s the Fourth of July. The girl turns toward the camera with shining eyes, her fingers curled into claws. Her brown hair flies about her shoulders. Caption: “I’m a bear! Grrr!” Joel mugs too, arms splayed at his sides, mouth puckered. Caption: “I’m a salmon!” This is the girl who broke my son’s heart, who kept him crissing when he should have kept crossing. He holds a spatula in one hand and a beer in the other. Firelight plays over his tanned face. Salut.

6.
I’m the mother back home, pacing in the living room, drinking coffee, stalking her kid on the computer. Seeing the camping pictures on Facebook floods me with a weird rush of envy. I want to skip stones from a riverbank too, wear an oversized wool shirt, drink moonshine by moonlight. Set me adrift, cut my line. I want time, days, nights, years of floating all over again.

7.
Moses’ mother Jochebed put him in a coracle. She let him go. She had to. The Pharaoh, fearing a slave uprising, decreed that all male Hebrew babies should be put to death. Moses was three months old, too big to be hidden anymore. Moses whimpered a little in the basket. Jochebed’s heart gave a little twist. “Shh,” Jochebed said, then bit her lip. “Hush.” She bent down and placed the basket in the Nile and pushed it away with her big toe. Moses frowned up at her from the reeds. Then the wind stirred and he began to drift.

8.
Joel is on the outskirts of Spokane, heading towards Montana. On the phone with his dad and me, he sounds tired. He’s ready to stop driving, to come home, but where is that? To sleep in a basement surrounded by boxes and old high school art projects? Jobless, unbound, his trip will prolong the inevitable.

9.
I’ve never thought about where I was going. I don’t know if I caught the wave or the wave caught me. My life seems to have been a series of accidents, side trips and detours. I strayed, took short cuts, eschewed maps. I live by intuition and feeling. Small animals keep me warm. My hair is silver. I think of death and lighted Christmas trees with equal interest. When the streets flood, I worry about the woodchuck that lives in the culvert at the bottom of my driveway.

10.
Moses was a late bloomer. When he accepted the mission to lead the Hebrews out of bondage, he was an old man—eighty years old. They knocked around lost in the desert for forty years. At the end of his life, atop of Mount Nebo and within sight of the Promised Land, he could gaze into this fabled, long-awaited country, but could not enter it. I would be bitter about this, but then Moses had a complicated relationship with God. To say the least.

11.
I’m not good on the phone, but we talk anyway, my husband, son, and I, lassoed together by satellite. I imagine Joel driving across the monotonous brown plains, the western stars starting to come out, one by one, the sky turning deep navy. One time when he was little and mad at me, he said, “I always knew you’d turn out mean.” I had to leave the room to laugh. Now he’s saying, “I got to figure out a plan. I’ve got to do something.” Me too.

12.
There isn’t a town that I pass through where I don’t wonder, what would it be like to live here? Is that a bad thing? To imagine so many other lives?

13.
On one website, the coracle is described as “a personal boat.” You can carry a coracle on your shoulders like a rucksack and flip it into the water when you’re ready to go. I am not a monk or holy person. I don’t do yoga or meditate or go to church but let’s just say I’m open to the spirit. I would like to go on a pilgrimage, although I’m certainly nobody’s idea of a pilgrim. But leaving is difficult. I have five dogs and three cats. Who will love them while I’m gone? They are rescues, strays, rejects. With them, I’m a mother all over again. They don’t want me to leave. I imagine them lined up on the dock, looking anxious and forlorn. They require an ark, not a coracle.

14.
Coracle comes from Welsh the word cwrwgl. It’s a storm-tossed word, potent, brimming with risk and danger and adventure. Scary things can happen out there on the water in a little Celtic boat. Rogue waves. Exposure. Radical dread. Tempests. Loneliness. Exquisite blackness. There are sharks out there the size of VW buses knifing through the water clean as butter and whistling orcas and temperamental clouds. Also stillness, starlight, sunsets, and songs.

15.
I don’t have a map or a compass. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know what time it is, only that it’s very late. I’ve dropped my cell phone and misplaced my glasses and can’t find my yellow slicker. The weather is shifty and the landmarks keep changing and the sea is running fast. Better to stay put and wave from shore. But I want a coracle, Flying Teacups, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, a sailing suitcase, a portable dream.

16.
I can feel the miles in the pictures Joel has posted. Colorado’s red rocks. Oklahoma’s dusty hills. Dust storms in Arizona, hail in New Mexico. Clouds. Sunlight. Telephone poles. School buses and cafes, tumbleweeds and road kill. All that silence, all that space.

17.
It’s settled. I’m going. Unplug the coffee pot. Pack a life vest. Pack a seat cushion. Pack Dramamine. Unpack drama. Pack heat. Pack light. Pack a black velvet flying carpet that can skirt above the waves. Pack an escape clause. Unpack excuses.

18.
Your own personal boat is waiting on the shore. Drag it the water’s edge. Wade through the bulrushes. Step into it. Settle down. Find your balance. Take a breath. What are you waiting for? Grab a paddle. Push off. Everybody in this story gets a name.

19.
Leaving doesn’t solve the problem of loneliness. It doesn’t make grieving or getting old or losing love any easier. How far to the Promised Land? When do we get there? Measure the distance in heartbeats, wave lengths, paddle strokes. Navigate by starlight, study how it shimmers on the wet backs of the whales. In coracle dreams, we are all going someplace new.

– D’Arcy Fallon teaches journalism and creative writing at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. Her memoir, So Late, So Soon, published by Hawthorne Books, was about living in a remote Christian fundamentalist commune in Northern California. Her essays have been published in a number of venues, including The Sun and North Dakota Quarterly.

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For All We Know
Listen to an Excerpt

I took a picture of my son when he was two years old, blowing a dandelion. His cheeks puckered in the sun, his eyes squinting, his invisible breath just catching the flyaway seeds. He stood in the backyard of the old small house we lived in on Garfield Avenue when he was little. The sun, now, is in the past, like the small boy and the dandelion. Fifteen generations of dandelions have lived and died since then. His father and I have divorced. We’ve moved. He’s just about to graduate from high school. I’m not even sure where that photo ended up. But I remember taking it, that moment, his blonde hair impossibly bright in that light.

Today, he played a Mozart piece in a piano competition in the river town of Marietta, focused and serious, his blonde head bobbing. He rushed through the swirl of notes as if they were the only things in the world. And really, they were. I sat and listened, watched this boy, this man, with his music.

This is what he sends into the world now: notes, as momentary as dandelion seeds, as true.

***

My mom shut the door on my finger thoughtlessly, going to open the gate on our dirt road, the gate between the Maxwells and the Bowens. I had my hand up there on the corner of the door, where she’d told me not to put it so many times before. And this was why: this long, excruciating moment. I cried out. She turned back, looking at my finger bent through the metal crack. She opened the door and gathered me in her arms.

My mom carried me hurriedly up the road, to where a rusty metal pipe leaked fresh creek water onto the sand. She lowered me to the ground and held my throbbing, bleeding hand in the water. Her breath came in heavy, frantic gulps. I gasped at the coldness of the water. But even in the midst of the shattering pain, I lapped up my mother’s attention. The fact that, for the moment, I was everything, the only thing. Me and my finger, there in the creek water. The rusty pipe. My mom’s worried grey eyes watched me, waiting for the pain to pass.

This is what happens, with pain. Swiftly it arrives, as if it had always been there. And maybe it had. Maybe all those pain-free moments of watching ribbons of sagebrush pass out the car window, of lazily taking in sunlit squirrels on the deck through the sliding glass door on a Sunday morning – maybe those moments are a lie. The twist of a vertebrae, the slam of metal: these are a kind of broken bedrock. Reliable. Familiar. True.

***

My son, fourteen. In a raft of his own. On the New River in West Virginia. I’m not sure what possessed me to take my children rafting on the New River, to assent to my son getting his own raft. They called it a “duckie.” A raft like a small kayak. He loved it.

My daughter paddled with me in my double duckie. I didn’t think we’d have any problems. But I worried about my son. As we pushed off, he smiled, gave me a thumbs up. He knew I was worried. He didn’t care.

Most of the section of the river we paddled was calm and uneventful. The late summer heat and dryness had lowered the river to something just above a stream.

When we approached Surprise Rapids, though, I knew we’d be seeing some whitewater. My daughter and I took the rapids first, following our guide’s advice and pointing directly into them, the water splashing and rocking us until we landed in the pool below. I looked back and saw my son cresting the top of the rapids, and then nothing. He’d flipped. I couldn’t see where he went, but I saw his boat floating, forlornly, near us.

“My son!” I screamed. “My son flipped! Someone help him! Where is he?”

Rafters near us smiled.

“It’s OK,” a man called. “He’s right here. We’ll get him.”

I saw my son swimming, the sun and the water lapping on his strong arms. Fourteen, but strong, I saw, maybe for the first time. He clung to the other raft, and they helped him get his paddle and climb back into his own.

“Are you OK?” I called.

He smiled at me, shaking his head and spraying water everywhere like a young dog.

“I’m fine, mom,” he said. “Stop freaking out.”

And so I did. We paddled on.

***

My mom always wanted a plain pine box. So here’s what she got: a smooth, solid pine casket with pine needles etched on the top. Heartbreakingly beautiful, really. And to think we got it at Costco. The guy at the funeral home was a jerk about it.

“You never know what you’re going to get when you buy mass-produced caskets like that,” he said.

What could go wrong? How would they not measure up? I was too muddled from grief to understand his meaning or to think of something to say in response, but not muddled enough to give in to his tactics.

We ordered the casket and had it delivered, and the funeral people laid my mom out in it, because that’s what they do, if you tell them to. They take delivery of mass-produced caskets (which are not at all like, presumably, the hand-carved wonders in their showroom), and they lay mothers out in them, and they arrange things pretty well in the end.

We stood out there in the shade on that August day in the desert. And despite the dusty haze, we could see clearly in the distance the mountains where we had grown up, the mountains my mom loved, the mountains with their granite, their sagebrush, their piñon pines swaying in the late afternoon breeze.

***

This is, perhaps, all we have: parents and children. Children and parents. Now, in my 40s, my mother gone, my son getting ready to leave, I walk in the muddy, March woods behind my house. Red-tailed hawks roost high in the trees, waiting for wary rabbits. The snow beneath my feet crunches, and the cold woods huddle around me, like children watching to see what I’ll do next.  I walk forward through late winter’s fresh air of mystery, looking for cardinals on the branches. Their red feathers always seem bright and out of place in the Ohio forest, as if they got picked up by tropical winds and found themselves here, among foreign maples and oaks. But they live here, as do I.

We’re never truly alone. Molecules, specks we can never see, swirl and embrace us. Oak and maple trees circle us. Birds call out. The whittled wood of branches makes way for our passage. The snow rests before us. And even the rabbits, small and vulnerable, manage to live more than they die.

We nestle, all of us. Even as we think about everything out there, everything still left to discover.

– Vivian Wagner’s work has appeared in The Kenyon Review Online, Zone 3, The Pinch, Willows Wept Review, McSweeney’s, and other publications. She is the author of Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music and teaches English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio.

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An International Incident

“How much?” Rich asked as he flared a handful of assorted Hong Kong Dollar notes, like playing cards, in his right hand. The old woman, hunched raven-like in a weathered black coat, glared and said nothing. By the row of black fringe dangling from the brim of her conical hat I knew she was Hakka—one of the locals displaced when the cove behind us was dammed, forcing residents into the nearby hills.

Rich repeated his question slowly, waving three fingers toward the row of rusty bicycles. “How much for three bikes?”

With gnarled brown fingers the old woman pulled the $20 HKD note from his hand, ignoring the other bills, then fished in her pocket for five one-dollar coins, depositing them in his outstretched palm.

“Of course that woman’s unhappy,” I muttered as we pushed the ‘huffies’ toward the concrete dike that cut through the deep blue water of Plover Cove. “She just rented us the means to ride over the dam that drowned her village and forced her to rent bicycles for a living.”

 

We had hiked at dawn, daypacks bobbing, down the steep grade from our Hong Kong hotel—along twisted streets, through the park where old men, deep in concentration, glided through elegant martial arts forms while their jet-black mynahs and slender yellow finches warbled in wicker cages suspended from the Heung trees.

This was our family’s day to escape the city, to explore the northern, rural New Territories on the mainland. For Rich and me, it was a chance to discover non-caged birds; for fifteen-year-old Jenn, lost in her headphones, it was an adventure. After 100 years of British rule, the territories would soon be ceded back to the People’s Republic. Go now or miss it.

 

“Take the East Rail of the Kowloon Canton Railway,” the English-speaking concierge had said as she swiftly etched the Chinese characters on a scrap of paper. “And this train to Tai Po.” More scratches. “Then look for the bus to Tai Mei Tuk.” I clutched the paper like a scrip for life-saving medication.

A gritty wind filled the station with the sharp smell of steel and the huffing of trains at rest. Not the sleek silver trains that had hurtled us across Japan; these were lumbering, coal-black beasts, harnessed in individual stalls, awaiting release. In the dim light we squinted at signs, searching for New Territories.

For the first half hour, the old train shuddered through the darkened tunnel under Hong Kong harbor, then slowly rumbled up into the urban canyons of Kowloon. It was a dreary day. Throngs of people trudged and cycled, heads down, through the sunless streets. Soon we dropped underground again. I stared at the cave-like walls, the familiar tug of travel-anxiety gripping my stomach. Finally, bursting into the pale daylight, we were in the countryside. Mainland China.

The fog that had followed us from the city lifted briefly to reveal a watery world. We were following a river, its marshy banks spotted with white egrets and pale brown pond-herons. Out the left window a half-dozen sampans bobbed in the shallows of a small lake. Our first rice paddy—its endless rows of green shoots spiking through acres of muddy water—caught my breath. Farmers in straw conical hats bent over the fields against a backdrop of misty mountains I knew I’d seen in an ukiyo-e print.

We stopped in a few small villages, loading local passengers dressed in the loose gray cotton of the countryside. They squeezed three or four to a seat and chatted in lilting voices. Approaching a larger village, above the murmur of the train sounds, we heard: “Tai Po.”

A marketplace surrounded the station. We stepped gingerly onto the platform, caught for a few chaotic minutes in the swirl and smells of incense, people, poultry and dogs. Instinctively, my arms swung wide in both directions, grabbing familiar fabric. We spotted the bus station and scanned the ancient double-deckers for 75K. The only westerners in the crush of humanity clamoring to board, we gripped hands up the rickety steps to the top.

More countryside. We rattled past remote settlements surrounded by high wooden walls and fishing villages—straw-huts built over the bay, water lapping against the spindly supports that surely must bend in any storm. At Plover Cove Reservoir, the end of the line, we stared at verdant mountains drifting into the distance and the South China Sea. It looked like a post card.

 

The dike was as crowded as a Kowloon street. The crowd strolled and cycled, drifting to the constant, but startling, warning of handlebar bells.

“Kingfisher!” Rich said as a stunning blue bird with a chocolate-brown head and splashy white wing patches streaked by. A sharp, high-pitched screech overhead signaled another kingfisher, a smaller species, plunging bright-blue-head-first into the water. Tiny sandpipers bobbed along the rocks, a flock of gray-headed lapwings settled softly into some reeds.

We reached the end of the two-kilometer dike when it started to drizzle.

“What do you want to do,” Rich asked, “push on or head back?”

“Well, I didn’t lug this poncho for nothing,” said Jenn, yanking the see-through sheet from her pack and letting it flutter over her head.

“I’m in,” I said, enveloping myself in flimsy pale-blue plastic.

We chose the rocky path hugging the waterline rather than the grassy trail up the hillside. After an easy half-hour the rain intensified and we slowed our pace. I zoned in to the drip-drip-drip of water from the poncho hood onto my nose.

POP! A single explosion rang out, then a grating scrape like dragging chains. I looked up and saw, for one agonizing slow-motion moment, Rich tumbling right-shoulder-first into the dirt. Brakes screeched. Jenn was off her bike, stumbling toward him.

He was fine. Just pissed.

We stared at the flat tire, not sure how to proceed. A Chinese family pedaled by, oblivious to the rain and us. Even if they stopped, what would we say? What could they do?

Then it poured.

We were a sad parade back along the dike—Rich, shrouded in his dark green poncho, pushing the bike, muttering; me, sullen, thinking about a flat tire in Jamaica when at least it wasn’t raining; Jenn riding slowly, swerving erratically to avoid getting too far ahead, disappointed in the ride cut short.

The bike rental woman was even grumpier than before, and now we were drenched and grumpy too. Rich began the ‘conversation.’ Pulling himself up to his full 6’3” and gesturing, he explained the flat, running his fingers along the old tire’s worn surface.

She spoke. It was the first we’d heard her voice—thin and weary, but firm. Clearly she claimed no responsibility for the accident.

“But I just want a new tire or a different bike,” Rich said, irritation in his voice.

She wagged her head, words tumbling out, wizened hands shuffling as though counting dollar bills. Her pantomime was clear: she wanted money.

“No way,” Rich said, his voice raising. “You rent a bike with a tire this old, it goes flat!”

We were drawing a crowd. The woman was shouting. Our presence had escalated from novelty to intrusion. Rich shifted from foot to foot.

Jenn tugged on his poncho. “Dad. Don’t be an ugly American. Just give her some money and let’s go.”

I tried disappearing into the folds of my rain-gear.

A young man stepped forward, tall for a Chinese man, almost Rich’s height. He wore a Cincinnati Reds baseball cap and smiled shyly.

“She says you were too big for the bike and you broke her tire,” he said softly as though not wanting the woman to hear her words in another language.

“That’s crazy. This is a scam,” Rich said, but his voice was softening in the presence of the young man trying to mediate.

“Of course it is,” our new interpreter said. “She’ll make about fifty cents U. S.”

I watched Rich count out the same five one-dollar coins into the woman’s hand and marveled at how she, twenty miles from the border of Communist China, had the same eyes and cheek bones as the Mayan women who sold us bracelets in the Yucatan.

Jenn was heading toward the bus stop. Rich was shaking hands, chatting with the Chinese man. I thought about how we travel from place to place, collecting passport stamps and stories, carrying with us our impact on the world.

– Cindy Carlson has spent most of her adult life along the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. After a career in youth development, and publishing in numerous professional journals, she has turned, in her retirement, to her first love of creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Birding and The Quotable.

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Three O’ Clock Wedding

There was another island wedding last night, an evening filled with constellations and promises. An old Polaroid camera sat beside a perfect, white guestbook, along with markers so the guests could fasten in their photographs and the newlyweds could remember their own, present moments. Dozens of people crowded about in the old, stone pavilion, raspberries floating in their cocktails.  The band played fiddle tunes while the little ones danced, and the Christmas lights strung up in the trees outside welcomed the guests into an evening of enchantment.

Someone lit a bonfire. I sat down with two friends, only three weeks away from their own wedding. They began to reminisce about my wedding day with Mitchell, my husband of seven years. That day, people danced for hours under an enormous wedding tent, set up on our family property. One guest told us later that the festivities continued long after we’d gone, with the band moving inside, and the later evening consisting of a didgeridoo jam session by my brother and sunrise swimming on the south shore.

I gazed into the fire, lost for a moment in its hazy orange and red glow. I thought to myself, we almost didn’t get married. I almost didn’t show up. Not many people remember that part, though.

Epilepsy is one of the most bitter afflictions of the Duffy family, that with talking too much and overfeeding people, affecting three or four of us in the dozens. Yet somehow I never considered that I would be at risk that wedding day, and should be careful with flashes or cameras because I am photosensitive. At that time, I was still without a driver’s license, and less than a year seizure free.  That day, my mind was filled with the smell of red roses and white lilies, with timelines, and tiny bottles of bubbles on long strings of rainbow yarn.

We had spent almost a year planning the wedding. Because our daughter had just been born and my mom and my dad were wintering in Florida, Mom had hired a wedding planner to help me organize the details. Sue was an extravagant British divorcée who believed in making the wedding day the most stress free day of a bride’s life. Although Mitch and I wanted “something simple,” our wedding plan soon took on a life of its own.

Our meetings had revolved around her little black book full of expensive options: venues, caterers, florists. Jaded by the process, Mitch argued that the wedding had very little to do with us; it was a show for the bride and groom’s parents, a party planned in the interests in the couple’s friends. All attempts to romanticize him through the process failed. “Little girls dream about their weddings their whole lives,” I would say, looking dreamily at him like as if to change his mind. “It’s the most romantic day of a girl’s life.”

Or it’s supposed to be.

Our family and friends flew in from all over the country. My oldest friend and maid of honor, Angela, flew in from her post at Columbia — and arrived at my back door with her polka dot cocktail dress wrapped in plastic and slung over her shoulder like she was a model heading for the runways of Milan.

The morning of June the 9th was bright and beautiful. It is a truly wonderful time of year on Prince Edward Island. Mitch and I had spent the night before the wedding together, and eaten breakfast side by side as we usually did. We were comfortable in our home with our family, consisting of nine-month old Leila, who loved blueberries, pears, and small chunks of orange cheese. In our own minds, I guess we were already married.

Even though the wedding procession and large reception planned for later that day were just formalities, I knew they would be one of the most important of my life. We had looked forward to this day together, stuffed envelopes with invitations, counted programs, hired bands. We had practiced our vows hand in hand, fitted rings and shined shoes. We expected nothing less than the perfect wedding day.

Angela and my five other bridesmaids spent the morning being pampered and groomed at the salon while eating tiny muffins and drinking champagne.

Since our wedding was to be held at St. Dunstan’s Basilica, we felt the honeymoon suite in the hotel across the street would be an appropriate venue for the final touches and photos of my bridal party. The large window of the suite looked out on Great George Street and allowed us a bird’s eye view of the crowd who gathered in front of St. Dunstan’s; girls in brightly colored dresses and flowers in their hair floated around as the groomsmen greeted our guests. Relatives, old friends, and women carrying babies all gathered on the steps of the towering church. The bridesmaids cooed out the window as if the scene was being played out on TV.

The wedding was set for three pm, and due to what Mitch called “my chronic condition of being late,” he had reminded me in the weeks before the wedding that if I was late, he wouldn’t marry me. I had promised him that this was one event I would never be late for, but it had become our running joke.

A photographer arrived for her last few typecast shots: mostly of me with my tearful mother, and a few of Angela lacing up the back of my wedding dress in all of its Victorian splendor. “I always take one of the bride on the bed, surrounded by her flowers,” she said. I crawled onto the bed and the girls lined up with all of their cameras. There may have been ten of them, flashes ready. The clock read two-thirty.

The next thing I remember is the small hotel bathroom, and Angela helping me out of my heavy dress. I could see myself in the mirror, broken, a fragmented woman under pounds of silk. This woman looked confused, her make-up smudged.

“What happened?” I asked Ang. I was shaking, afraid.

“You’re okay, Mo, but you had a seizure,” she said, fixing my hair and wiping the lipstick from the corners of my mouth.

“The wedding’s been postponed,” she said.

When I walked out of the bathroom, the hotel room — only moments before full of laughing ladies, fixing flowers and fruit trays and roses scattered on the bed — was empty. No more bridesmaids fiddling with bobby pins, no more music, no more girls cooing out the window. Emptiness.

Mom appeared through the door of the suite and fixed a curl that had gotten loose from my hair, coaxing me to sit down. “You had a seizure,” she said, repeating Angela’s news. I wouldn’t sit. I walked toward the window. My head was pounding and I wasn’t sure where I was. The crowds were still gathered in front of the church.

There is a loss of time and order that accompanies a grand mal seizure. Often I won’t know if it’s Tuesday or Friday, where I was born, or who the prime minister is. The world somehow seems strange and new. But when I realized it was my wedding day, I became hysterical with tears.

“I can’t be late,” I insisted. “Mitch said he wouldn’t marry me if I was late for my own wedding.”

“No sweetheart. You need to relax,” Mom urged, making another attempt to have me sit down.

We had to go down, I repeated. I had to get married. My father arrived and quietly discussed canceling the wedding with Mom.

“No, no, no, we can’t cancel,” I argued. “Three o’clock wedding.”

I always had to sleep after a seizure as I usually had a wicked headache and the confusion, but somehow after Mom and Dad left, I convinced Angela to lace me back up. She then let me go downstairs to the lobby, where I would be one step closer to the wedding. I sat in a big armchair in the corner as several excuses were made, reasonable rumblings most likely, but somehow a planet away from my own confused state.

Mom came over and asked if I would be okay, Dad called me darling and held my hands. Sue had arrived with information: coincidentally, the organist was late because he got the day wrong. He was being called now, Mom said.

It was after three, and I began to get anxious because I was still under the impression that Mitch said he wouldn’t marry me if I was late for the wedding. It’s funny the things we retain when regaining consciousness; we become only a skeleton of our former psychic selves.  And regardless of the reason, I was determined to proceed. Finally, someone decided I was lucid enough and my wish for a wedding was granted.

I stood at the door of the Inns of Great George and watched. Sue rallied people to go into the church. The bridesmaids were already gathered at the back when I arrived, wondering if we would go ahead with the wedding. Angela fixed my veil. I knew the procession was starting because I heard the pipe organist kick in. Dad put his arm around mine, steadying me, and asked, “Are you ready?”

Soaring marble pillars lined the outer aisles, and the inner aisle was decorated with baskets of flowers. Ahead of me, a sea of people, pews and pews of them, sat smiling, but I could see only Mitch. If I hadn’t been postictal, I might have been nervous.

Dad walked me halfway down the aisle to meet my waiting husband, dapper in his wedding suit and the tie we had chosen together. The rose and lily in his boutonnière matched my blossoming bouquet. Mitch kissed my forehead after Dad passed me over. I breathed in the smell of his cologne, fresh and sweet, and we continued up the long aisle together, arm in arm. He made me feel safe, protected.

The guests never noticed a thing.

Our friend Andrew, a budding videographer at the time, asked us if he could make a film about our wedding day. We said of course, and he was happy to follow us around on the days before the wedding as the wedding tents went up, catching glimpses of Leila’s smiles in her tiny pink hats, boys strumming guitars and singing a cappella in the kitchen, and bridesmaids in curlers giggling over mimosas at the salon. We have these memories too, including many scenes from the church, the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple” fading in as I twirl around during the peace offering, my veil following gracefully behind. Andrew spent most of the wedding reception collecting messages of love and friendship. We have these scenes.

But when I think of our wedding day, flowing into Mitch’s arms, halfway down that aisle, is the only thing I remember; this is my focal point. Maybe it’s because it was the moment I came out of the fog and into his arms, maybe it was the time I became clear.

Other guests will remember the gathering, the food, or the music. But for me, after our seven short years, those things have faded.  With every bride, I become emotional, knowing the power and significance of those few, short steps.  With every walk down the aisle I remember my own.

– Mo Duffy Cobb has an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction. She loves camping, vans, traveling, sand, babies, and toast with strawberry jam. She dreams in essays, and has been published in Red, Arts East, and Reconceiving Loss.

 

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Beauty Off-Scale

My mother and I talk every day about the same thing. Diets. She calls me during a break from helping her patient to the bathroom and cooking meals. I picture her sitting in the corner of a brightly lit kitchen, cell phone pressed to her ear, nose stuck between the pages of a newly acquired diet bible.

“I ordered this one from PBS. This doctor is amazing! His weight loss plan is a sure thing.”

While she talks, I attempt to sound interested with occasional grunts and “uh huh” while I’m surfing the web. Sometimes I put her on speakerphone while I wash dishes or oil my hair.

“It comes on again tonight,” she says. “I’ll call you so you can watch it.”

She goes through a list of things I should know about weight gain, weight loss, exercising, gourmet dressings, the ugly truth about extra virgin olive oil. She talks about this latest doctor like he’s the Messiah, the one who is going to change her life and change the world, one digital scale at a time.

Later, she wants me to check the price of a VitaMix processor, and compare it to Montel Jordan’s Emulsifier and Wolfgang Puck’s Food Processor, and possibly Emeril Lagasse’s and the regular juicer from Jack Lalane. I sigh and agree, as always.

*

When my mother, Esther, was in her twenties, a nursing student in Rio de Janeiro, she was what the Brazilians called a “Morena,” a hot tanned brunette with thick thighs and wide, round, child-bearing hips. These days she shows me pictures of her lying on a beach in Rio with her roommate, Marlie, an overweight girl with a heart of gold and an out-of-control eating disorder.

“Marlie used to eat and cry and curse herself out while eating,” my mother says. “She used to say, ‘Stop it Marlie, you are so stupid! You are so fat and stupid,’ while eating an entire bowl of Fejoadas. No one could stop her.”

Mom could wear what Marlie couldn’t wear, and on that beach she was golden like an Inca princess, strolling down the shore in a cherry-red mono-kini. I am always struck by our resemblance. If I were in my twenties and sun-baked, that’s what I would look like. Mom was hot. She shows me pictures of her perched on cliffs and hills overlooking the beach of Rio, pictures of her on cruise ships crossing the Panama Canal, on campus with her friends, in her dorm with her fellow nursing classmates, drunk and pale from partying. Who was that woman? She was nothing like the woman I know now, who hides her bald spot with scarves, turbans and wigs out of shame, who wears Mom jeans and large shirts she hopes will swallow her gut.

My mother today watches the Home Shopping Network to order facial creams from the leading experts in dermatology, spends nearly hundreds for temporary fixes so she can look younger, ordering lengthening mascaras, root touch-up wands, jeans that will slim her down and make her “comfortable.”

“I’m thinking about ordering those pajama jeans,” she said once, her voice brimming with charisma. “They look so nice and slimming. What do you think?”

“Mom, no! Please, no pajama jeans. You’re one phone call always from ordering a Snuggie. Are you kidding me?”

She steps on the scale every morning, free-falls into a whirlpool of depression when she gains just one extra pound, and heals her wounded heart by eating an entire can of roasted almonds or walnuts and a king size bar of Hershey’s chocolate. She confesses to me what she has done only after she has eaten them, when she calls me at night exhausted from work, and knowing her, I don’t try hard to imagine what really happened. She’s eaten them in her car, right after exiting the supermarket, with her eyes closed with each bite, and on days when she’s really depressed, she probably rocked herself back and forth to comfort herself.

My memory of Mom is laced with images of her prancing through our kitchen in La Plaine, outside of Port-au-Prince in Haiti. It seems everything she did was tied to that space, in this house planted in the middle of nowhere, literally, smack in the midst of overgrown sugarcane and Neem trees. Removed from the city, she felt disconnected, further from her parents and her friends. I was only two years old, and fragile, susceptible to stomach cramps.

“Don’t let her drink any colas or carbonated drinks,” my pediatrician said.

Mom converted me to tisanes, boiling water infused with lettuce leaves, and she occupied her time gluing our family together with food. I can still see her in the kitchen, laying her ingredients out on the blue-tiled counter-top. On the wall, she kept track of time with a clock stuck to the center of a blue frying pan. I watched her strain and preserve her own yogurt in little measured plastic pots with the picture of a cow, and she made her own pikliz in a mason jar and locked away in the garde-manger. Her fingers, like winged birds, would flutter around an egg and delicately remove the top when making me oeuf a la coque for breakfast, and placed them in little silver egg cups with a long-stemmed spoon inside and a salt shaker next to it. On weekends, I propped myself up on the old red vinyl chairs and watched her roll out her pizza-dough before spreading ketchup and mustard on it, and topping it with cheese. If I got out of line, her favorite spanking weapon was a plastic egg spoon that lit my legs and bum on fire. She could cook and parent at the same time without leaving the kitchen.

My mother kept all her recipes in an old black notebook with yellow pages, something she’d acquired from old aunts in the family. As I grew, she let me take a peek and asked if I wanted to learn how to make things. I always said no. As much as I enjoyed watching her, cooking to me was a boring process. What I cared about was having the food on my plate. I didn’t want to sweat making it, and I didn’t want to burn my fingers trying to light the defunct gas stove in the kitchen. Everyone jumped back when the fire actually caught and the blue flames came on.

“You will have to learn some day,” she said.

Someday, I’d have to learn to make my own dressing with chopped shallots and vinegar, my own rice pudding, my own gratin dauphinois, and when I turned seven, she pulled the vinyl chair in front of the stove and waited for me to climb up and cook my first spaghetti dish.

Spaghetti Itala was a product of the Dominican Republic, and I had begged my mother to buy it. I had fallen in love with the commercial. What I loved was the noodles’ odd shape, how they coiled like small tumble-weed or clumps of hay.

“Please, please, can we get that? It must taste so good,” I told her.

I didn’t realize I had to actually cook it, and I cried a little when I approached the steaming pot. The water was boiling hot like magma in a live volcano.

“It’s too hot,” I told her.

“Drop it in there,” she ordered, her voice sharp as it always is when she grows impatient. “Stop whining.”

The vapor burned my little fingers, and for fear of scorching myself, I dropped the first coil into the water from a distance.

“Get closer,” she pressed. “Otherwise you’ll splash water everywhere.”
I decided I hated cooking, and when I was done, I got off the chair and ran. If that was cooking, I wanted nothing to do with it. Later, my father reprimanded her for stressing me out, and those were the days where I was thankful that he stood up for me, and that he told her what I couldn’t say myself.

“She’s just a girl, leave her alone.”

Those were the days when I begged him to get me a different Mommy, because this one was too mean, and my father always nodded yes, okay, we’d get another mother, and Mom would get up and walk away, locking herself in the guest room.

The rest of the time, when she wasn’t mean Mommy, she was a talented fairy, a magician pulling tricks out of an invisible top-hat, quickly turning up cheese platters and deviled eggs, whipping up soups for my father’s unannounced friends.

“You’re a woman, you figure out what to do!” my father would hiss under his breath, sneaking into the kitchen to fill the ice bucket.

“But we have nothing,” my mother would say. “You didn’t tell me you were bringing guests.”

She’d hear the laughter and exaggerated accents rolling off the tongues of strangers, and she’d manage to whip out a vegetable soup, slices of fried sweet plantain rolled into a coil around ground beef, sherberts and fruit salads for dessert. The guests would leave, thanking her for the wonderful dinner, and she would sit there, her chin cupped in her hand as they slammed their doors and drove away. My father would then walk into the bedroom quietly and stay in for the night, oblivious that she had just cooked the last of our food.

*

Now her life is reduced to shedding skins, dieting, to dreams of exercising in a gym, to longing for a personal trainer, and then more diets, cleanses, stretches, fasts. There’s been the Atkins Diet, the Master Cleanse, the Fiber 35 Diet, the Flat Belly diet, the plant-based diet, the Dean Ornish diet, the orange or grapefruit juice fast, the Dr. Fuhrman diet. She’s bought the Nutri-System meals in a BigLots freezer. She pushed herself to hire a personal trainer and lost twenty pounds, then gained it back. She tried working out with DVDs, with images from a book, with my aunt around her Miami Lakes Complex. Everything always fails after a while.

“When I win the Powerball,” she says, “I’ll be able to hire a plastic surgeon. I already bought my tickets for today.”

Her hope is that a surgeon can make her beautiful, that he can nip and force the eternal swelling of her belly down, erase away the surgery scars for her gall bladder removal, tuck in her double chin, reshape her arms weighed by the scarred lymph nodes during her mastectomy, and then laser away the unsightly facial hair she’s battled all her life, reconstruct the breast she once lost to a battle with cancer and replaced with a wobbly flesh-tone piece of silicone that she expertly wraps in old scarves to preserve the prosthetic, because prosthetics run for at least two hundred dollars, and two hundred dollars are hard to come by, when you work as an independent contractor, an at-home nurse for an agency that pimps you hard, seven-days a week for a check that only covers the bills and a twenty-dollar pedicure.

These are sacrifices my mother has made in the United States, kneeling on hard tiles to scrub, a single brush-in-hand, the entire flooring of a million-dollar mansion, iron a banker’s clothes, fix an alcoholic housewife’s dinner, fight off their mentally unstable son and his butcher knife attacks, work herself to the very bone for a measly check. She’s had to walk from one bus stop to the other, work two jobs, room in an efficiency at her relatives, stay up at night eating an entire container of Edy’s ice cream and a fried pork griyo plate from Chez Samson while recording movies and cartoons she thought my brother and I, still little back home in Haiti, would like to watch. I watched indeed, every day of the week of an entire summer before the next, and learned to say all the lines in all the scenes of The Adams Family or Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson, because I had them memorized. I could recite a movie standing up, sitting down, in my sleep, and that is the history of how I learned English. I learned the important stuff first. The movie lines.

One cancer battle and twenty five years of solitude later, she’s on the edge of a chair at a patient’s house, telling me all this, all her scars, all her wrinkles, confessing to me that she feels ugly inside and out. Under the belly, the chin, the arms, the fat rolls on her back, are the tears for a life she realized she’d never have, the weight of my father’s words or lack of words, his constant shots at her weight, his need to remind me, when I was just a girl, that “you’re going to be fat, just like your mother, just look at yourself,” his need to compare me to my skinny friends during gatherings and remind me how pudgy I was. My mother yearns to have said something the first time he told her, “I had wished when I married you that I could have molded you into something decent, into something I’d want,” to have perhaps slapped him, spat in his face when he said, “That’s why I got married, to have someone to take care of me because I had no family.” This weight she carries is really that of silence, of acceptance, of compliance. That’s why she, when looking in the mirror, will never be happy, will never see the beauty of her sacrifice. There will always be the reflection of a sad Esther staring back, an Esther that used to be free like she was in Brazil, when she danced the Samba and ate oranges and shared ice cream with the girls and boys of Rio de Janeiro.

*

Lately, I’ve been developing the signs of my mother’s hereditary obsession with beauty, of an inherited need to crawl out of this shell, shift out of my own shape. Lately, I’ve been stretching the skin of my forehead to erase the wrinkle left behind by worry, but it’s there, when I’m not looking or when I’m thinking too much. I feel its presence, these days, gleaming across my face like the dusty, sparkly trail of the Milky Way up in space. I’ve been talking to my mother about it, and she’s been recommending creams and tricks, but I know the truth is always there in the mirror. I’m getting heavy, I’m getting old, and the proof is in the third pair of jeans I’ve ripped in one year, in my bras that no longer fit and force me to “upgrade” my cup size.

When my mother sees me, she points it out, that I should be careful, that I should exercise more and not give up like she did.

“I just don’t want you to be like me,” she said. “The more you let yourself go, the harder it is to get back in the swing of exercise.”

I know she speaks out of concern, but I wonder, if as a daughter, as the recipient of all her stories and burden of her past, the weight of her self-consciousness and depression, I will not fall into the same trap. I’ve already inherited her insecurities.

So I double up on yoga classes, I try Pilates, I sign up for half marathons, just to force me into being athletic. But, in my mind, I think I do it for her just as much as I do it for myself. Because I too have a need to stroll down a beach with my children, maybe in a mono-kini, maybe in a one piece, but in this dream of mine, I hope I will feel free of self-awareness. I hope that I will always like what I see when glancing in the mirror. And so, I let her talk. I let her go on with her lectures on nutrition, on the shows she’s just watched, on the books she just read, and I won’t interrupt her, I won’t stop her, and because that’s how I tell her I love her. I let her talk.

– Fabienne Josaphat is a writer living in Miami. She recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University. Her previous publications include The Masters Review, The Caribbean Writer, Small Axe Literary Salon, and Mandala Literary Journal.

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The Other Man

I always let them down gently but firmly. A quiet place with a quick exit. Sometimes I have their belongings already boxed up—his blues records, his T-shirt I liked to sleep in, the earrings he bought for me on a business trip—so they don’t have to go through an awkward epilogue. I chalk it all up to It’s not you, it’s me, and use some varying formula of daddy issues plus fear of commitment plus you deserve better. I tell them they will find the perfect woman. I wish them nothing but the best. And once I am home and the door is closed and locked behind me, I pour myself a good drink.

The first question men ask when I break it off : “Is there someone else?”

I pat their shoulders. “No, of course not.” I smile reassuringly.

I want to tell them the truth.

A couple of them have met the other guy in my life. My son, Thaddeus, is seven. He’s sweet as a candy apple when he wants to be and a little jerk on the bad days, but all parents experience a piece of heaven and hell wrapped up in something that can barely peddle a tricycle.

When Thaddeus’ father and I got divorced, Thaddeus was only a year old, and I promised myself I wouldn’t be the “revolving door” house. We split custody, which I assumed would make it easier for me to kill the loneliness. But I immediately plunged myself into finding another partner. I came close once or twice, in the form of intense rebounds.

There was the Musician, a gentle man with the loveliest voice, who tried to get my son to eat salads. We made it almost ten months.

So far, none of them have been the right fit for either of us.

Thaddeus was born without his right hand. He’s different. Special needs. On IEP reports and insurance forms and checks from the state, he’s permanently disabled. A condition that can never be fixed.

Aren’t we all screwed up, said the Water Park Designer.

In the world of single motherhood, there isn’t a lot of time for relationships. It’s like trying to watch two TV shows at once and keep up with each plot. How can I possibly come home after a full day of work, medical appointments, occupational therapy, park playdates, grad school, and cook meals for my kid and for someone else, cuddle with a lover, make meaningful conversations, and have sex?

For dinner tonight: quesadillas, just the two of us. Thaddeus practices holding a cup between his stub and his good arm. He paces the kitchen while I assemble the first quesadilla.

“Only cheese?” He asks.

I nod and flip the tortilla. “Plain and simple, how you like it.”

Thaddeus repeats it in a sing-song voice. “Plain and simple.”

I dated the sure cases of quick implosion. Much older men, men who didn’t want kids (“they impede vacations”), ex-boyfriends passing through town, the newly widowed who bawled in my arms, the separated husbands–still angry and lost–the men who just needed a good preening and a road map to get them back on their way, away from me.

The terms “amelia,” “anomaly,” and even limb “difference” sound much more pleasing than the word “disabled.” But I can’t help use it all the time. It’s like a red light in the intersection of a sentence. It has meaning, it has consequence. People just stop and nod. They don’t need me to explain much more.

There’s a chance it was genetic. I remember how, after Thaddeus’ diagnosis, his father and I held our hands together in the ultrasound office, scooting closer, studying each other’s palms and fingerprints for the first time.

I shuffle spiders out of corners, finish client reports, fold another load of laundry, repaint the flaked white trim long into the night. In the morning, the Spiderman lunchbox sits flap-open on the counter. Jar of peanut butter. Clean knife. At 7:10 am every morning I make his lunches. The man who spent the night is already gone. He didn’t even know there was a second bedroom, door closed. The backpack is stuffed, the prosthesis is carried or worn, and through the car window, I watch my son blow me a big, public kiss as the kids rush around him to beat the class bell. On the weeks when Thaddeus is at his father’s house, I sit on my back stoop alone, overlooking the garden, and watch the cardinals burrow themselves hungrily into sunflower heads. I shower and go to work.

This past autumn, on a five-day romp through Boston, I met a man. Perfect on paper. Handsome and funny, he bought me a beer before a Red Sox game and he fed me oysters afterward. I flew back to North Carolina, but we stayed in touch. Made plans. Direct flights and long weekends. I met his parents for Christmas dinner. We lounged like cats—smart, mature, romantically-compatible—on the sun-drenched couch of his living room. Each time I would come home to Thaddeus, refreshed and focused. The Boston Engineer made me feel beautiful, we texted excitedly about the latest TV episode we watched, and he even laughed at my funny stories about my son’s antics. We didn’t talk about Thaddeus’ disability. We talked about everything else.

He was 900 miles away, which, I figured, would give me plenty of time to fall in love with him and warm up to the idea that I could slowly bring two special men together in my life. After years of flitting away so quickly, this time–I told myself–I would stick around because I could. No pressure to jump just yet. It was going to happen. After I opened my heart to this man, I would finally have a normal triangle family with love and acceptance.

“Will I ever grow a hand?” Thaddeus asks.

He has crawled into my bed again at 5am, shaking off a bad dream. He traces my face with his stump. His eyes are big, the shade of blue that makes you feel like you’re sailing paper boats on an endless day. The first girl to break his heart—what will she look like? Will she let him down easy as she can? Will she have his things already packed?

“You won’t grow a hand,” I tell him, and hold him so he’ll fall back asleep. “But I have extras. I can help you whenever you want.”

One afternoon, I was on the phone with a friend. My relationship with The Engineer had just ended on an amicable yet bittersweet note. The distance is just too much, he said. It’s not fair to either of us. I had cried a lot more than I expected.

After consoling me about The Engineer, my friend and I talked about what it was like to raise our sons. At one point, we started talking about Thaddeus’s disability, what teenage life might be for him. I tried to spin the positive as I always had, going on and on about prom and guitar lessons and driving the car.

“But you can’t know that,” my friend said. “None of can know exactly what Thaddeus is going through. You’ll never be inside his head. No matter how close you are to him, you’re not him. You have all your parts of yourself.”

The first girl to break Thaddeus’ heart probably won’t know what she’s doing. She’ll appear more fragile than him. Maybe it will have nothing to do with the fact that he can’t tie his own shoes or cut a steak, or that she is tired of standing on one side of his body, the only one with the fingers that interlock with hers.

Lowering myself onto the couch, I stared at the coffee table in silence.

“Hey,” my friend said over the line. “You still there?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “Still here.”

We talked a bit more, then hung up. I sat and contemplated my friend’s words. Still here. It dawned on me that not once had I ever used the phrase me time, it was always non-mommy time…a worn groove of a joke among my friends. Not once had I left the word mother out of the description of myself. Resumes, social media, cocktail parties. My identity as the mother of a disabled child floated around everywhere.

When I had found out I was pregnant, my sister had said, “This is the best and longest companion you’ll probably have.”

The way she blurted it out, like it wasn’t coming from her but from somewhere else we couldn’t possibly imagine, and why she was saying that a tiny bean of a something growing inside me was going to be a better person than my husband didn’t make an ounce of sense.

Will I ever fall in love and be able to hold it? I’m scared. I’m scared that the answer may be no in the end, so I guess I should just say, I don’t know.

What I do know is right now we have tee-ball practice.

Thaddeus and I walk a few blocks to the recreation field, I’m lugging the teeball set, he’s skipping along and whistles while I set it up. Try-outs will be here in a month and I want him to have a fighting chance. We practice throwing and catching with a trick of flipping the glove from hand to underarm; we do rolls, pop-ups. Then batting.

My son swings and connects, it’s not the satisfying crack of a wooden bat but a THUMP of two plastic toys, and the ball whizzes past my head with startling ferocity. “Okay, now you run!” I yell. He hesitates. “Run!”

He drops the bat and throws his all into a sprint, rounding first, then second and third, reaching home. But he doesn’t stop. He runs another lap, pumping his fists, his stump and his full hand blurry with speed. He runs another. As he circles, his face is lit up. He’s laughing. I tell him to keep going, heck, we’ve got all day. I stand on the pitcher’s mound, and for a moment I wonder what it would be like to see a third person in this field, someone on the horizon, holding the plastic ball in their hands, and what it would be like if I could wave them infield, my arm moving in a way that already felt warm and familiar, gesturing for them to come closer.

– Catherine Campbell’s stories appear in Arcadia, Atticus Review, [PANK], Fwriction Review, Drunken Boat, Prick of the Spindle, and other journals. She was recently shortlisted for the Masters Review and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. http://www.catherinejcampbell.com

Kyushu

On the shore near the quayside, the water churned. The ferry was no longer running. Inside the car, I studied Sgt. Millspaugh’s face as he fiddled with the radio. One Japanese station after another played “I Want to Hold Your Hand” until finally, a static-distorted FEN broadcaster’s voice reported:

A typhoon passed over Okinawa last night. Torrential rains set off landslides killing 48. Power lines are expected to be down on Kyushu after 2300 hours. All military personnel are on alert and dependents confined to quarters . . . On a wider scope, there are unconfirmed reports that U.S. planes attacked North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin today.

Sgt. Millspaugh let out a deep sigh. “Well, kiddo, looks like we’d better outrun this storm. Don’t worry, I promise to get you back to the base in time for your surprise birthday party.”

I was thirteen. Up until then I had not been afraid of many things. I had been on a swim team since I was nine and was teaching Sgt. Millspaugh’s two kids to swim. I was their favorite babysitter, so when Sgt. Millspaugh’s wife decided to take the children to her parents’ home for Obon, I was invited for the adventure.

Sgt. Millspaugh had driven down a week ago. The plan was to put me on a train back to the base while the family spent another week with the grandparents. And then it began to rain.

***

Using the narrow winding coast highway, we skirted Kinko Bay. The vehicle swayed on its shocks as the typhoon squalled ashore, washing debris up on the pavement. Sgt. Millspaugh navigated around rocks and pot holes. The car jounced and pounded. Then two successive waves engulfed it and the engine died.

“Yoko, take the wheel.”

Sgt. Millspaugh leapt from the car to keep it from backsliding into the sea. I flung open my door and landed in water that took me to my knees. Lightning flashed, and I got a brief glimpse of Sgt. Millspaugh’s hands cupped like a megaphone, but his voice was lost in the storm. He bent forward and began pushing the car. I pushed too. I stumbled over the unstable bottom. I trudged through deep sand, intent on pushing the car onto what was left of the asphalt. Salt water stung my eyes, and I swallowed a gulp as a wave slammed me against the rear bumper.

My heart beating like a kettledrum, I was consumed with a nightmarish fear that the next wave would carry us out to sea. I felt myself being dragged back, and for an instant I was tempted to let it take me. Then the engine started and the car lurched forward, leaving me straddling a large rock and Sgt. Millspaugh gone. A second later he reappeared, eyes wild like a drowning man. Adrenaline surging through my exhausted body, I grabbed one end of a tree limb and extended it to Sgt. Millspaugh. I hung on with more strength than I ever knew I had. Finally, he clambered onto the rock, and we scrambled up an embankment. Crouched before the force of the wind, my hair plastered to my head, the wind shoved me across the pavement. Sgt. Millspaugh opened the car door, and I fell inside shivering. Huddled together with the children in the back seat my teeth chattered until I clenched my jaw.

We had driven for only a few minutes when Sgt. Millspaugh put the car in park and yelled at me.

“Give me your overnight case.”

He rummaged through it until he came up with my bar of Lifebuoy soap. He thrust a flashlight into my hands and once again we were out in the storm. Under the car I aimed the light where he pointed. I smelled gasoline. A moment later, I watched as Sgt. Millspaugh drug the soap across a tiny hole in the gas tank several times. After inspecting it with the flashlight, he gestured to get back in the car.

“That ought to take care of it until we get some fuel tank sealant.”

We rode silently, engulfed in the noise of the storm for another hour. The children fell asleep, but I could not. I kept wondering how long before the gasoline would leak again. It was after midnight before we reached a small village in the mountains. Sgt. Millspaugh parked under a sheet-metal awning that ran alongside a gas station. He rested his head and arms on the steering wheel and began to shake all over. I wanted to thank him for saving our lives, but I couldn’t form the words. A moment later he cleared his throat and turned to look at me. “You know, kiddo . . . I can’t swim.”

He turned forward, leaned his head to one side and fell asleep like I’d seen so many G.I.s do. As he snored, I thought, I’ll never be able to sleep like that. My thoughts turned to the grandparents in their matchstick house in Shinjo. Had they survived? My own family didn’t yet know I had survived.

***

And then it was dawn and a Japanese station attendant was tapping on the windshield. I rubbed my eyes; the lids felt dry and gritty. The sky was turning apricot and smoke gray as light flooded into the world, and I realized I was thirsty. Sgt. Millspaugh looked scruffy with his day’s growth of stubble.

We filled our tank and started up a steep mountain; streaks of pink and saffron-yellow appeared overhead. A white mist rose from the valley below.

For hours the drive was beautiful— steep cliffs, gorges, rushing waterfalls, terraced hillsides of tea bushes. Lordly osprey glided lazily overhead inspecting our progress home.

– Nancy Ryan Keeling is the author of Estrogen Power, a full-length collection of poetry. Her short stories have been published in numerous journals. Her art and photography has been exhibited in Texas museums.

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The Girl Version

Fourteen single women from a half-dozen countries lived together in Kathmandu. We were volunteers with an organization that distributed literature in remote areas, and we trekked in pairs and trios for weeks at a time in the Himalayas. We added a few new members every six months. This time we added three Americans.

I found them on my living room couch when I came home one evening, all lined up and waiting expectantly.

“We just finished the trekking orientation with Timo,” one of them offered in explanation.

“And?”

I had sat through the same trekking orientation. The principles were simple: always carry boots and two litres of water; don’t pack more than you can hold with your arm extended straight out to the side; find a place to sleep before dark.

“And he said to ask you for the girl version.”

The Girl Version was a secret, corporate, need-to-know code. A code of ethics. Standard operating procedures. A survival guide to an activity that we always survived, but sometimes just barely. Something we laughed about later, sometimes much later, over mugs of tea and pans of brownies. The Girl Version was sacred, confidential, classified.

I sat across from the three newbies, their eyes wide with interest in what nuggets of wisdom I might dispense from my accumulated trekking lore. And I had nuggets. After six treks of my own and hundreds of stories from friends, I felt qualified to speak for the group, the International Society of Foreign Trekking Women.

“The Girl Version of trekking orientation,” I began, “is that Caucasian skin glows in the dark, especially areas of skin that we do not typically expose to sunlight. The Girl Version is remembering that Nepal may appear to be wild and undomesticated, but it is also severely overpopulated, and no matter how many days’ walk we are from a road, if we yell, someone will answer. That someone is already watching us.”

There was much more. The Girl Version is about more than privacy, which is a privilege forfeited by those of us who choose to trek in the most rugged mountains in the world. The Girl Version is a new set of norms. A surrender of rights. An acceptance of a standard of living that no one in the world abides by except white women travelling on foot in densely populated third world countries.

My first attempt to wash was at a spring under the direct observation of a water buffalo shepherd. I thought I was very astute to have brought a lungi, a colourful sheet to wrap around me before I removed my clothing. Undressing and bathing were easily done. Redressing my damp skin in clothing made from non-stretch fabric proved far more challenging. I became completely entrapped in my tunic, with one arm extended vertically through the sleeve. The other hand clutched the soaked lungi in which the rest of me was wrapped. The situation proved so dire that I had to be rescued and dressed by a more experienced member of the International Society.

Bathing modestly in public requires cunning, strategy, and self-awareness. When we do not have a lungi, we roll our pant legs up to, but not above, our knees, and scrunch our shirt sleeves up towards our shoulders. We bend double to immerse our hair under water taps or ladle stream water from empty bottles.

Our clothes we knead on rocks and walkways, chafing dirt and soapsuds from the fabric. Sometimes we wade into the river and wash our clothes and our bodies at once, smearing ourselves with one all-purpose bar of soap and squeezing black shampoo from single-use packets like a condiment. As we learn we become more flexible, more adept, and more clean.

We change clothes beneath inquiring gazes and open skies. We learn to always wear shawls as the Nepali women do. We learn to wrap and secure the shawls beneath our shirts so both hands are free to remove our tunics and pull on our clean clothes. We learn to drape the shawls in fashionable and practical ways so the ends do not catch or drag. We learn to gather the ends in our hands to lift cooking pots from open fires, or if our shawls are too thin, we gather leaves from nearby scrub and fold them into organic hot pads.

The Girl Version is walking in places where a single misstep means certain death. We wade barefoot through streams and balance on logs over rapids and trundle in hand-powered cable cars over flood-stage rivers. We climb many hundreds of metres on blistered feet and descend as many hundreds of metres on throbbing knees. We cross landslides that have torn away the mountains. We stop for rest and stare over precipices and into canyons and up at the thinning sky. We spot beehives in the shadows of the cliffs and water buffalo rummaging in narrow pastures. We listen to rumours of tigers and rebels and kidnappers. We pick leeches from our skin with our fingers, or we sprinkle them with salt and watch their skin melt and our blood spill out of their writhing bodies. We are cruel. We are brave. Sometimes we are overcome.

Sometimes we cower in our sleeping bags late into the night, pinching the openings shut over our heads with trembling hands, feeling rodent footsteps on our bodies. Often we refuse to look up, knowing the ceiling is scabbed over with spiders, and that we can’t kill them all, and if we do there will be more insects, so we bury our faces in our arms and dream of bubble baths and mosquito netting.

Sometimes we don’t sleep for days, not really, and we begin to lose our concentration, our language skills, and our nerve. We eat nothing but rice and lentils for weeks and our digestive systems begin to collapse on themselves. Our hands shake from lack of blood sugar. Our muscles quiver from lack of protein. Our immune systems no longer heal scratches and bites. We begin to believe that we can walk no farther. That we can’t even lift our backpacks from where they have fallen by the side of the road. We run out of water, and when we find water, we run out of patience for the purifying iodine, but we convince each other to wait, because we know about giardia and typhoid and cholera.

The Girl Version is knowing that feminism is foolishness in these mountains. We know that girls can’t do anything boys can do, and certainly not better. We don’t have the muscle mass to carry as much up steep hills or over far distances. Some of us can trek harder than some of the boys, but collectively we are weaker, so we become more strategic. We learn to pack lighter, and to catch rides on Jeeps and tractors and pack mule trains.

We trade bulky hairbrushes for plastic combs. We risk bedbugs in village blankets and carry sleeping bag liners instead of the warmer, heavier version. We give up pyjamas. We turn our socks inside out and pretend that they are clean. But we still carry candy, and lip balm, and sometimes our extra set of clothes is pink. We carry cloth headbands to cover our greasy hair because we may be trekkers, but we are still girl trekkers.

The Girl Version is getting credit for showing up. Sometimes we are the first foreigners ever seen in a village, and while we frighten the children, we impress the adults. They assume, always, that it is our first time outside of Kathmandu, and when we begin to name the districts we have trekked, their esteem grows. The women are sympathetic. The men are protective.

“It is not safe for women to travel alone in these hills,” they warn, “not when there are so many dangers.”

“There are kidnappers,” they tell us, “and they will sell you to brothels in India.”

“There are snakes,” they say, “you should not go off the trails. You will stay here for the rest of your time.”

Arguing is useless. They will not listen to women, especially not foreign women, and we do not have the words to argue their logic. They will not allow us to travel alone. They do not respect our plans. They consider us reckless and foolish and weak. We cannot leave unless they show us the trail. And so we do not argue.

But we do not stay. We wait, and we listen to their plans, and we sigh and nod, and we consider their warnings, and we sit by the fire and drink tea and ask about their crops and their children. When the moment is right, and the light is gone, and they are finished speaking, we  thank them for their hospitality and their advice, and we inform them that we are leaving in the morning, at first light.

We do leave, but not at first light. Not until they have killed a chicken and their wives have cooked it along with rice and lentils and we leave the village with bloated stomachs in the heat of the day and already our plans and resolve are wilting. But the men have given in, and they show us the trail. Occassionally they come with us to carry our backpacks because they know the hills are too steep.

We are grateful for the help, since the rice has turned to gravel in our stomachs, so we hand over our backpacks only to watch them disappear up the trail on the shoulders of the men who don’t realize that we walk slowly, not because of the weight of our packs, but because of the thinness of the air. So we straggle behind them, trying to keep our water bottles in sight as they bound ahead over the boulders. The gravel in our stomachs grinds to a heavy paste and our blood sugar crashes and our lungs are being impaled with a thousand burning spikes and we’ve lost sight of our bags completely.

The men wait for us at the top of the mountain, and we feel guilty for taking them from their fields and their families, so we do not stop to rest on the way. We keep climbing as fast as we can, but now there are two thousand burning spikes in our lungs and our hands begin to shake and our knees tremble. We wish that we had stayed in the village. We wonder if they are being helpful or punitive, and we wish they would just leave us gasping on the side of the trail, but they are too considerate for that. They shame us along to our destination village.

When we arrive, we collapse in a scrap of shade and hug our backpacks and gulp water, even though we know it will add to the pain in our stomachs. We are unable to stand or to speak. Our chaperones introduce us to the patriarchs of this next village and explain that we are foreign women traveling alone. They say abrupt goodbyes and return to their homes, passing on the burden of caring for the helpless foreigners.

“It is not safe for women to travel alone in these hills,” our new chaperones warn, “not when there are so many dangers.”

“There are kidnappers,” they tell us, “and they will sell you to brothels in India.”

“There are snakes,” they say, “you should not go off the trails. You will stay here for the rest of your time.”

And we do not argue.

But we do not stay.

The Girl Version is about resilience, not strength. About how fast you can recover, not how much you can survive. It is silent evenings beneath a masterpiece of stars, staring up at heavens that dwarf even these mountains, and the places we came from, and the distance in between. We stare, and we feel small, and we know that our tiredness and our discomfort are also small. In these moments the mountains are not so high, and the rivers are not so cold. We know that what we packed in our thirty, thirty-five, forty litre backpacks is all that we need in the world, for days of climbing and nights of wonder, and it makes us feel safe to need so little and to marvel so much.

When we break off our stargazing we return to the village fires to warm our hands and drink tea. When we are silent in the dimness the villagers sometimes forget that we are here, or that we are foreign. We squat with our feet flat on the ground in rubber sandals and stretch our walking muscles in preparation for another day.

In the mornings we crawl from our sleeping bags to the smells of tea and smoke and poverty. Our muscles have contracted in the night and we crouch from our room and perch like reptiles on flat stones beside the road to soak in the weak morning sun. We are frozen like pale gargoyles until the warmth frees us to stand and lace our boots and heft our packs and walk again.

– Brenda Sallee specializes in contrast. She grew up in Haiti and Russia and enjoys both sappy girl movies and trekking in the Himalayas. She is a graduate of the University of Central Florida’s MFA program, where she worked as an editorial assistant at The Florida Review. She currently lives in Orlando, Florida.

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