Search Results for: scent,memory

Smell, Memory

Chanel N°5. Illustrations by Tamara Shopsin

By Rachel Syme

Racquet and Longreads | January 2018 | 11 minutes (2,800 words)

Our latest feature is a new story by Rachel Syme and produced in partnership with Racquet magazine.

Tennis, to me, smells like chlorine and white sage and tuna fish. I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the courts always wheeze dust when you walk on them and the dry heat shimmers off the net in the middle of summer. Our family belonged to a tennis club, but not the kind with rolling hills and security gates—instead, our courts were somewhat dumpy and gray, down near the university area filled with tattoo parlors and ratty cafés that seemed progressive in the ’90s for their hummus-forward menus. The club was made mostly of cement and gravel and funnel cakes, and its pro shop featured six-packs of tube socks and fresh cylinders of key-lime-colored balls and not much else. It may very well be fancier now, but my family stopped paying dues two decades ago.

We moved to the base of the mountains when I was 13, and my father now plays tennis every day at High Point, a gym filled primarily with active seniors and women doing Zumba. When he does go downtown to play, he meets my brother at one of the college courts near the hospital, where my brother spends most nights sewing throats back together as a resident in facial surgery. My father, who also cuts people open for a living, started playing a lot more tennis when my brother became a doctor; it is how they communicate wordlessly about what bloody traumas they’ve seen during the day. I imagine hitting something really hard back and forth is useful in this regard. Read more…

How Mary Karr Teaches Her Students About Memory: A Short Excerpt from ‘The Art of Memoir’

Memoirist, essayist and poet Mary Karr is often recognized as being the author with perhaps the single greatest responsibility for the resurgence of memoir in bookstores and on nightstands in recent decades. In her new collection of essays The Art of Memoir, Karr presents readers with a book-length craft talk which, true to her style, ranges from allusive to acerbic to profound, all in the span of a page. In the following excerpt, from the opening of her first chapter, Karr uses a little deception and a judicious ‘fuck’ to make a point. Read more…

Judgement and Epiphany on Pittsburgh’s Number 79 Bus

AP Photo/Walter Stein

Brian Broome | True Story | August 2017 | 26 minutes (7,034 words)

The last bus to the East Hills leaves Wilkinsburg Station at exactly 12:28 a.m. on weeknights, and I am always the last one on it by the time it reaches Park Hill Drive, where I live. The street is midnight dark apart from the headlights of the bus. The ramshackle homes are set a bit back from the road, behind overhanging trees. Anywhere else, this street would be charming. But poor makes everything ugly.

The irritated bus driver and I sit in silence under the flickering fluorescent lights, which blanch everything an odd shade of greenish blue. I am coming off a late shift at work and the both of us, the driver and I, are impatient to be back in our normally lit homes. We can just about taste the freedom. But tonight, our quiet time together is interrupted by a rumbling in the distance. A shouting that grows progressively louder as the bus shuffles slowly up narrow Park Hill Drive. And when the rumbling reaches its peak, we are set upon by a horde of drunken children, unruly and shrieking, who have come out of seemingly nowhere. They shout and bang at the sides of the bus with open hands, fists, bottles, and all their energy. They are trying to rock my coach off its wheels and overturn it with me and my terrified white coachman inside. He leans on the horn and, as is frequently the case with such miscreants, this show of weakness serves only to incite them further, fueling their attack. Bottles are thrown. Some shatter against the windows.

I hold fast to the seat in front of me and wonder where their parents are, as if they could do anything to stop the onslaught. Their failure to properly raise their children is the reason I’m caught in the tide of this ocean of bloodthirsty, cackling hooligans bent on the wreaking of havoc. I can only assume my death is imminent. We are at their mercy. The driver, frantic, fumbles with the radio, which crackles and sputters with truncated, static-ridden words as he tries to explain what’s happening to some incredulous and disembodied voice at the other end. And then, as quickly as it began, it is over. The banging subsides, and the melee disappears into the darkness. The excitement can’t have lasted for more than a minute or so, but it felt like an eternity, and the bus quietly ambles up the road to the stop outside my home, where it heaves a sigh of relief and spits me out under a flickering streetlamp. It speeds away noisily, and I stand there until its engine fades, leaving me to the sound of crickets.

The 79. Your tour bus for the East Hills neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s a bus that exists only to ferry people to the busway that links our little village to the rest of the city. A loop bus that encircles the projects like a noose.

If you look at the area on a map, the loop resembles the Eye of Horus, an ancient Egyptian symbol I once saw in a book about witchcraft. It symbolizes protection, royal power, and good health, and in the East Hills, this is the cruelest of all ironies. I live at the corner of the eye, the very caruncle of the Eye of Horus, but protection and good health are in rare supply here.

Sin, however, is abundant. You can walk around this neighborhood and pick mortal sins off every branch of the overhanging trees. The 79 makes seven stops. I’ve counted them.

***

Sloth
Through sloth the roof sinks in and through indolence, the house leaks.
(Ecclesiastes 10:18)

***

Someone is ringing my doorbell at 8 a.m. on a Sunday, and before I even fully open my eyes I know who it is. He will keep ringing until I get out of bed to answer, so it’s best just to get it over with. My vision is blurry, and my body is heavy with all the sleep I didn’t get. I throw on an old bathrobe and lumber heavy-footed down the stairs, holding on to the railing for dear life. I close one eye to look into the peephole. There’s his face, distorted in the tiny fun-house-mirror glass, which makes his bug eyes bulge all the more comically. They are run through with blood-red spiderwebs. He is sorry again. I can feel his shame even before I open the door and when I do, a frigid blast of stale, sick, sweet liquor smell almost knocks me over.

I am so sorry, sir.

I know these are the words he’ll lead with. My next-door neighbor has never called me anything but sir even though he is easily a decade older than I am. His eyes are leaking, with either the cold or the sting of being cripplingly hung over. Wrapped in dirty clothes and as thin as a chicken bone, he is sorry. Riddled with contrition. But he doesn’t remember fully what happened last night. Only the flashing of police lights in the wee hours and that men in blue uniforms came to his house. As we stand there, both shivering in the winter chill, I take the opportunity to refresh his memory of the previous evening. Because I remember.

I spent most of my evening on my knees in my bed, banging on the wall that separates our bedrooms. The walls around here are like rice paper, and whatever your neighbor does on his side may as well be done right in front of you. But even if the walls were made of Kryptonite, I would still hear my neighbor’s insanity clear as gunshots. Like me, he is a drunk, although a far less responsible one. I work for a living, but he cannot be bothered to take up such intrusions. The bottle requires all his time and energy. I take this opportunity not to invite him in as I have been stupid enough to do in the past. I allow him to shiver on my doorstep while I pull my dirty bathrobe tighter around my neck and recount every detail of his previous evening’s antics. The same antics he’s performed almost every night since I’ve been unfortunate enough to move to this place. He braces for my verbal assault. He bows his head and winces; bows his head, unable to meet my seething gaze. I am furious with lack of sleep and righteousness. He and I have been here so many times before.

Last night, you began your screaming through the walls at ghosts, and as you stand there in clothes that you’ve been wearing for a week, I need to, once again, fill in your memory while you cover your face and feign regret. You are just like every other no-good, do-nothing drunk in this neighborhood, and underneath it all, I can tell that you are perfectly healthy. Able-bodied.

I tell him proudly that I was the one who called the police, and he whimpers with shame. He creaks out another I’m so sorry, sir.

The fact of the matter is that no one visits you and you have no family because you cannot be bothered to get your act together. Your life is one long, comfortable nap on the couch, watching your life fall to pieces around you. I have seen you, day in and day out, sitting and staring into space in the driver’s seat of that stationary junk heap you call a car, getting drunk, and then I have to deal with the fallout. And yes: I called the police. They came again to laugh at you openly, just like the last time I called the police on you due to the constant noise just on the other side of my wall. But this was the first time they’ve had to scoop you up from outside in the snow. This is a new milestone for you. A whole new low.

He still has not met my eyes. When he finally opens his mouth to speak again, I am foolishly waiting to hear something new come from his lips. He just stammers and, in a voice brittle as kindling, stutters out another I’m so sorry, sir. His sick-sweet breath cuts through the cold. I can tell he’s already thinking about how his precious liquor will smooth over the rough edges of my harsh words.

Last night, I watched him fight an invisible assassin in the snow, a ghost that apparently didn’t fight fair. I sat at the window and watched him fight it alone under the lazy overhead light of the courtyard. I watched for a long time. A crazy man in the middle of the night, wrapped up in the kind of silence available to the world only in the wee hours after a snowfall. His ghost must have moved quickly. He never seemed to be able to land a punch. His kicks didn’t connect, and his slaps went wildly airborne. Flailing. The ice and snow didn’t help, putting him on his back frequently, and his shouts were muffled by the snowdrifts and the pane of my window. His apparition didn’t fight fair because it knew no one could see it except him and me at the window with my forehead on the cold glass, doing nothing. We were the only two people to bear witness to its existence, and I was afraid of the kind of contact that would be required to make the pain stop for this man. I was afraid to throw open the window and call to him. And then my fear turned to resentment and my resentment turned to anger and then I made the call, waiting at the window until the courtyard was bathed in red and blue lights.

I am not ashamed of calling the police in this neighborhood even though no one else will. I don’t know why they won’t. The people around here know that I’m the one who calls, and I don’t care. That’s what they’re for, the police. My neighbor drinks himself to the point of dementia and thinks the world owes him something. This is who he screams at every night through the walls. This is who he is fighting. He is fighting the world, and the world doesn’t fight fair. The world will always win if you don’t keep your wits about you. I plan never again to be as pathetic as he is. I was once. But never again. I work for a living.

He continues standing at my door like a cautionary tale. He tells me through foul liquor breath that he’ll never do it again, and vomit hitches in my throat. I know this is a lie. He turns to walk slowly through the snow, not to his apartment but to his hideous purple paperweight of a car. His oasis. I tell him he might want to consider getting a damn job. He gets inside the car, where he’ll sit all day in the cold, trying to change reality by looking at it through the bottom of a bottle. I have work in a few hours. I need some sleep. I won’t get it. In the East Hills of Pittsburgh, there is truly no rest for the weary.

***

Gluttony
For the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags.  (Proverbs 23:21)

***

I used to be my neighbor. I was exactly like him. If you let me take a drink, you’d almost immediately regret it. I can guarantee it. When I imbibed, it was an all-day affair and into the night until my body couldn’t take any more. I wouldn’t stop until someone pried the bottle from my hands and then locked me up. I loved alcohol and would have bathed in it given half a chance. There was a time when I would have bypassed the circuitous route of the mouth if I could have and injected it directly into my bloodstream to perform its magical workings with even more expeditious mercy. In my fantasies, every vending machine was stocked with delicious brown liquors and little plastic baggies full of powdered goodies, and there would be one on every street corner. In short, I am an addict. I am the poor, innocent, blameless victim of an extended adolescence and an arrested development. I have drunk and drugged so much so as not to remember my own name on some nights, and then I would wake up in agonizing pain and do it all over again the next day and the next. I am a glutton for punishment. But, firstly and more importantly, I am a glutton for intoxicants of all kinds. This is why I live in the East Hills. I live here as punishment.

Life on the outside is expensive, and the East Hills falls perfectly within my price range. Cheap. I am here because I have drunk my opportunities in life. I have drunk away a good job. I have drugged away my vacations; I have snorted my future. I have filled myself to bursting with pharmaceutical delusion, and my punishment for having all that fun is to live here surrounded on all sides by sin. I have sacrificed the privilege of living in the nicer neighborhoods in the city. I live where I can afford, and I will tough it out until I make better things happen for myself. I am not a garden-variety Negro. I don’t belong here. I am not like my neighbors, content to live off scraps. I have just temporarily lost my way.

I am clean now and seeing things clearly. I am almost four years clean, and I’ve learned my lesson. The element who live here continue to flounder inside their own endlessly repeated mistakes, convinced they are society’s victims. This is why they don’t talk to me. They ignore me because they know not just that I am unafraid to call the police, but also that I am not one of them. I refuse to be an injured Negro. I have made no friends here and try to keep a low profile. I have tried many times to talk to these people and am met with only blank stares every time. Shunned because I am ill-equipped to talk about doing time in jail the way that most people talk about going to the grocery store. It’s not my fault they continue to snub me. The problem with being a glutton and recognizing it as I do is that you know that there is always a price to pay in the end. Dues. For me, the East Hills is dues, and once I’ve paid my debt, I’ll stand on tiptoe and wait for the wind to lift me off this hill.

***

Pride
Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.
(Proverbs 16:18)

***

I stand at my corner every day waiting for the 79 as it ferries people between low-paying jobs and court dates and the grocery store. The projects are the pupil of the Eye of Horus, and whoever built them made sure to make them colorful this time. The units are painted purple and blue and red and, to me, the end result looks like a dysfunctional Candy Land sitting atop a hill. The 79 circles it all day.

My shoe has a hole in it. It’s raining today and I have no umbrella, and now my sock is dampening from a puddle I stumbled into. I look up in minor annoyance at the sound of a too-loud engine and notice that the woman who always parks her car right in front of my bus stop is wearing red today. Her car shines silver like new sixpence. It positively gleams. I don’t know what kind of car it is, but it doesn’t belong here. It should belong to a celebrity or a doctor or a lawyer—the kind of person I was told I could be if only I had applied myself. The woman stops by to visit my other, younger neighbor a few times a week. Today, the vehicle smells of coconut air freshener and some expensive, flower-based perfume that wafts out when she opens the car door. She emerges from the vehicle, haughty and well-dressed, and the rhythmic thump from rap music that was muffled before booms at top volume from her extravagant carriage. She is in a red dress and high heels. I smile big at her and wave, but no return smile is offered. Instead, she fixes me with elevator eyes that start at the top floor of my nappy hair and end at my now waterlogged basement of a shoe with a sock growing soggier and slimier by the second. She moves past me, wordless and lofty, flipping newly done box braids and throwing an expensive shawl over her shoulder in a grandiose motion, and rushes through the rain to my neighbor’s house. I am in no position to be acknowledged. She and my neighbor greet one another jubilantly, and they proceed with some sort of hushed business inside his home before she emerges a few moments later and struts past me. Then, she climbs back behind the wheel of her brilliant blingwagon and speeds off to park its majesty in the ramshackle driveway of her ramshackle apartment, just a few blocks up the street. She lives here too. I will never cease to be amazed by the great pains people who live in this ghetto will take to try to make it look like they don’t live in this ghetto. The number of dilapidated huts around here with brand-new cars sitting in front of them is confounding, and what people from this neighborhood can spend on clothes and shoes alone could most likely settle the national debt with change left over.

Pride is complicated. And money can buy many things. But here it mostly buys impracticality. Intricate hairdos whose upkeep makes it impossible to pay electric bills on time, for example, and ridiculously expensive bottles of liquor from the conveniently located liquor store. The kind of liquor the rappers drink, though presumably the rappers also have money for groceries. The bill of goods on sale is that you are what you drive and wear and drink, but I, with my soaking-wet sock and rain-dripping forehead, am not buying. I won’t fall prey to the stereotype that society has laid out for me and be trapped here in a state of perpetual adolescence. It’s a modest life that is the key to success, and I won’t forget that. Being bested every day by your own pride will keep you struggling. One must learn to adjust to one’s circumstances, and you’ll get nowhere by trying to show off at the club every weekend. I should tell the woman this, but I won’t. I bite my tongue. She has made her decision, and who am I to judge anybody? I know what my priorities are, and pride comes only after you’ve accomplished something. So I narrow my eyes and assure myself that the Lady in Red’s fancy car will be taken from her one day owing to her irresponsibility. Repossessed. Someday, I imagine, I will see her on the 79, laid low, and I’ll just politely nod in such a way so that she knows that I know. With no words from me, she will know that I’ve recognized her fall from ersatz grace and that she should have taken a lesson from me. She’ll remember this day when I stood steeping in my own shoe and she barely acknowledged my existence. She will be unable to meet my eyes. It is my humility that will one day lift me out of this place. Slow and steady will win the race, I just know it. I go out of my way to be friendly to the people around here, but they’ll have none of it. Too proud to talk to the outsider because he looks poor. Poor is the way you should look when you are. Humble. There is no place for pride in the East Hills.

***

Envy
I have seen the fool taking root, but suddenly I cursed his dwelling.
(Job 5:3)

***

Community Crime Update: 10/4/2015 Burglary/Assault 2400 Block of Bracey Drive, 7:30 a.m.

A 36-year-old female victim reported that a known female suspect of East Pittsburgh broke into her house by forcing open the front door. The suspect stole a frozen chicken, then pulled a knife and began swinging it at the victim like a woman possessed. Officers arrived on the scene and detained the suspect, whom they found shouting obscenities in front of the residence. The frozen chicken was located roosting in the suspect’s purse. The suspect told officers that she and the victim were both romantically involved with the same man. While officers were attempting to get the full story from this ostensibly grown woman, a male, also of East Hills, emerged from the residence and tried to interfere with the arrest. The male shoved one officer and then took a swing at another. Witnessing this, a third officer deployed his Taser, shocking the shit out of the male actor and immediately stopping his assault of the officers. The male was then taken into custody. Both suspects were taken to the Allegheny County Jail. The female was charged with burglary and simple assault while the male was charged with obstructing the administration of law and aggravated assault. When queried, neighbors chalked this incident up to just another instance of supposedly grown women jealous of each other over the attentions of a no-account man. Many people in the neighborhood remain confused, however, as to why a person would express envy toward a romantic rival by breaking into her house and stealing a frozen chicken at 7:30 in the morning. All have dismissed the event as just the latest in a series of ghetto dramas that have made the neighborhood look foolish on the local news. One local resident, standing at the bus stop with a hole in his shoe and suffering from obvious sleep deprivation, who wished to remain anonymous, rolled his eyes at the news of yet another domestic disturbance in the area, saying, “It happens every day because these people have nothing better to do.” At the time of this printing, the whereabouts of the frozen chicken are unknown.

***

Lust
They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.
(Ephesians 4:19)

***

The 79 is an enormous baby stroller. Never in all my days have I seen so many little babies slung over the hips of young girls. Some have two, three, or even four babies in tow, each one smaller than the next, like Russian nesting dolls. Often, the mother is on the phone in an argument with some unseen boyfather. Variations on the word fuck are her favorite way to communicate. The children listen and drink in every obscene word. Her beautiful baby girls with beads in their hair, each one unique as a Tiffany lamp.

The young mother sitting across from me has children crawling all over her. She cannot be more than seventeen, and although the children are vying for her attention, she refuses to put down her cell phone. Her ability to ignore them is remarkable. Today, she is using social media like the teenager she is. Giggling at Facebook and sending messages because no one can just skip adolescence. You have to go through it even if, through your own misdeeds, you find yourself being a parent. Meanwhile, the children, left to their own devices, run around the moving bus, screaming. Not even the sound in my headphones can drown them out. She looks up only occasionally to curse at them, admonishing them for behavior that she will never properly correct. She is weary of them. They bounce around the speeding bus like gumballs free to come back bloody, but she cannot be bothered. When I catch her eye, I take the opportunity to shoot her a scornful look, which she shoots right back. Some may say that I should mind my own business, but I believe in addressing problems at the source. She continues to stare at her phone.

The news that sex can cause children has not reached the East Hills; the housing projects near my home are positively swarming with them. It’s certainly not my place to judge anyone, but they run around loose and hang out on the streets until after dark to get up to all manner of lasciviousness. The boys talk dirty and in harsh words about things they could hardly know about. I blame the rap music. Sex. That adult feeling in the hands of children. They have all the working parts and none of the knowledge, and the knowledge won’t become clear to them until it’s too late. I would never comment on how anyone raises their children, but I see their futures bold as the sunrise. I see the cycle, and if I were their parents, I would impose a strict curfew. I would introduce a comprehensive sexual education program. For their own good. Unbridled lust can never lead to anything positive, and that’s an irrefutable fact.

The girl on the bus is joined by a friend, who also has children in tow. They talk about boys, using dirty language. They talk about nonsense, as girls do. One of their children plops himself down in the seat right next to me. He is sticky with sugar, and I smile down at him. His mother, the one with the cell phone, calls him back to her angrily and shoots me yet another dirty look. I don’t know why. Maybe she knows that I know that her pattern of sex and children will continue. She will find out the ways of the world as she gets older. Her children will steal her youth and her opportunities. And money? That is something that will never come, though it will be slightly less elusive than escape. But this is her life and she can live it the way she wants to. It doesn’t affect me in the slightest, so I don’t care.

They pull the cord and exit the bus in a flurry of confusion. Strollers erected and toys gathered. Baby bottles and diaper bags. Children flying in all directions, holding up the rest of us, who actually have somewhere to be. They continue talking and move slowly as they gather their many belongings. They will make me late for work. They are never in a hurry. They finally exit, off to God knows where.

***

Greed
But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.
(Timothy 6:9)

***

I am standing beneath the bones of industry. Heavy equipment roars and jackhammers all around me, and workmen in fluorescent yellow vests and hard hats shout instructions at each other as they erect beams and walls. The cement-colored sky is littered with progress, and I’m standing underneath it all, noticing for the first time that everything around here is changing. The low-rent bodega is gone, where I bought my cigarettes from the Indian people, where you could buy illegal loosies when your money was low. The nuisance bar up the street is gone, and the complexions of the people all around me have started to dramatically change. Just above my head, just outside my field of vision, they are working on East Liberty, the neighborhood down the street from the East Hills. The club that used to play hip-hop music is gone, and the whole block has been spruced up with gourmet pizza shops. Artisanal cocktail bars are sprouting up, seemingly from nothing. The projects that were once here have been torn down and replaced by a shiny red-and-white Target, and there are white people taking a spin class in the building that used to house the Arabic bodega. I am there soaking it all in as if it all suddenly appeared by magic when a woman approaches and stands beside me.

She says, as if she and I were in the middle of a conversation, You know they gonna move us all outta here, right?

East Liberty is changing faster than anyone can keep up. It’s changing, slow but steady, exactly like Lawrenceville did before it, and the people who live in my neighborhood have definitely noticed.

They gonna move us outta here as soon as they need the space, the woman continues to no one in particular. Far enough out so they can’t see us.

I stand there with this elderly woman I’ve never met before, and we watch the transformation happening right before our eyes. I don’t live here, but I don’t tell her that. She’s looking up at the construction of a newer, shinier place and making frantic plans. I can see her mind working. She’s wondering where she’s going to go when all is said and done, and although I don’t want to believe her, I know she’s right. She is the kind of old, diminutive black lady who is always right. She has seen this kind of “neighborhood rejuvenation” a thousand times before. I pretend not to know what she’s talking about and we both stare up silent at the harbingers of her imminent displacement while newly transplanted white people go about their business all around us. She and I stand close enough to be lovers as her scarf flaps in the wind, and after I’ve steeped in enough of her reality, I turn on my heel and walk away, leaving her standing there looking up and wondering what on earth she’s going to do. I wish I had said something reassuring. I want to tell her that deep down, I don’t know what I’m going to do either. I want the two of us to commiserate together, standing there, looking up at all this progress. But instead, I comfort myself by deciding that I will never be her. I tell myself that she should have planned better. Then she would have options. She would have the kind of options that I will have. Options that are soon to present themselves to me. Soon.

But I can’t ignore the fact that her fear has uncovered my own. As I walk back to the busway, to the beginning of the 79 route, I can’t shake the knowledge that no one can prosper without taking something, and no one can prosper lavishly without taking lavishly. The word on the street in East Hills is that the white people are coming. People talk about it on the 79, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve seen the white men in casual slacks and dress shirts, surveying the neighborhood and measuring things. It’s just a matter of time. It’s never done in a forceful way. It’s always very subtle and always under the guise of progress. But those who live in the neighborhood know that we’re on borrowed time. There are many things that capitalism produces, and noble behavior on either end of the rich/poor spectrum is not one of them. But we admonish only the poor.

I admonish only the poor.

The white people will come and uproot the neighborhood because they want the space, and I will ignore that in favor of looking down my nose at the people who live around me. I am desperately trying to create some fictional line of demarcation to separate myself from my neighbors when I know that I am them in the eyes of the people who will come to take whatever they want from us. I have been confused, but my neighbors haven’t. They are not fooled by my air of superiority. It is remarkable what the powers that be can delude you into thinking without your permission and what they can trick you into ignoring. And they have fooled me into ignoring the obvious. That I bring home and disseminate every judgment that white people want me to make against the people with whom I have the most in common.

Greed is why the East Hills exists the way it does and why we always end up on some hack writer’s “Worst Pittsburgh Neighborhoods” list. Poverty and racism can leave you feeling like less. They skew the priorities and, on some days, make you so angry that you become confused as to where to aim that anger. Late at night, when everything appears to be quiet underneath the flickering streetlamps, there is an angry hum over the East Hills neighborhood. A tension. You can feel it, and you never know when it’s going to erupt.

We all know why we’re here. I’ve heard my neighbors talk about it sometimes. It’s because of greed. It is the greed of those who have decided they need more space, more gourmet coffee, more spin classes. The greed of those whose toilets we scrub and whose security we guard for a pittance and the promise of a better tomorrow that never seems to come. Someone has to do it, and it may as well be us. But the relationship between the haves and have-nots in America is anything but symbiotic. Often, the quiet around here is split wide open by the sound of gunshots. The anger around these parts is electric and alive, and it has to go somewhere. So we aim it at each other. And we rarely ever miss.

The stories of noble, robust, and hardworking poor people are cherry-picked to make the rest of us feel worthless under a system in which it is almost impossible to succeed, and perhaps I have ignored this system in favor of the easier task of judging those around me. I have left this old woman to her hand-wringing, only to begin my own. I reach the busway, where the 79 is waiting to take me back home. It is lit up and idling angrily. Puffing smoke as if it’s annoyed that I am late.

***

Wrath
Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil. For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land.
(Psalm 37:8–9)

***

The couch in my apartment is too close to the window. I don’t want to be sitting here one day and catch a stray bullet while I’m watching something I might be ashamed of on television. It happens. I giggle to myself as I’m moving it, thinking that the police would find me, bullet to the brain, mouth frozen open in a laugh, as reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show crank out canned laughter from my television set. I move the couch because it makes good sense to move the couch. I move the couch because wrath roams this neighborhood freely. It’s less visible in the daytime, but it’s still here. The murders in this neighborhood are no secret. When liquor and anger start to flow, so does blood down the sidewalk. I try not to watch the local news. I don’t really need to, anyway, because I can hear it all on the 79. And I move the couch, giggling at the knowledge that Mary Richards and the whole of the WJM-TV news team would never have to move their couches for such a reason. The next day, I stub my toe on the couch as I’m rushing to catch the bus.

The women sitting behind me didn’t know the woman who was murdered, but they knew of her. They are speaking about the murder casually and not in the hushed tones that one might expect propriety would dictate for a discussion of such matters. They knew he was no good, the man who killed her. He is only twenty years old and she was twenty-eight. She should have known better, they say. I put my headphones on and pretend not to listen, but I am listening intently to their assessment of the situation. They wonder aloud what her children are going to do. She had six of them, they say, and she should have been more focused on them than she was on a twenty-year-old man. They sound like me. And as they speak of the dead in less than respectful terms, my whole body becomes heavy with the weight of it all. Six children left motherless. She was alive and she was loved and I have more than likely looked down upon this woman in passing on this very bus. I have probably watched her struggling with baby carriage, baby bottles, and diaper bags and haughtily decided that it was her poor decisions that landed her here. I turn to look out the window. My reflection in the glass is ugly, so I look down.

The women behind me gossip on. He shot her, they say. They were arguing over money for diapers, something so ridiculous that they are in disbelief, and now I’m thinking of her children and I wonder what I’m going to do besides sit here on the 79 bus judging people every day. How I’m going to cure the disease within myself that makes me so harsh and critical toward my own people. Where did I learn this? I have no answer other than that I will move the couch. Conditioned like a Pavlovian dog, I will move it every time I see red and blue lights. I will wait for the news crews to leave every time someone is killed in the East Hills, and then I will emerge from my apartment like a sultan to cast judgment. It will be my full-time job, as murder and violence are ever present around this Eye of Horus with its hum of anger.

The women behind me shift their babies from knee to knee as they gossip on, but I am no longer listening. Their voices have indistinguishably joined the rattle of the engine of the bus to create a cacophony inside my head as we roll through yesterday’s crime scene.

People from other neighborhoods look to us up here and believe that we somehow deserve to be here. Our bad decisions are what led us to this place. But if everyone made the right decisions all the time, there would be no one for everyone else to look down on, and it is in this way that America works. We live here so that others can convince themselves that the worst of human instincts reside here and here only. They can convince themselves that something like that would never happen where they live. They can convince themselves that there has never been a drunk in dire need of mental health care in their neighborhood. They can convince themselves that, in their neighborhood, a lovers’ quarrel has never led to ridiculous behavior and that people in their part of town never spend beyond their means in order to impress. Their young daughters are virginal and chaste while ours are irresponsible whores. They wonder aloud why our society can’t cast this play in hell and get angels for actors. They feature us on your local news before the blood on the sidewalk even dries. The last stop of the 79 is always Wrath.

There was a time, long before my arrival here, when the building down the street, the one with the enormous pockmarked parking lot, was a shopping center. Now it houses a single church where people go to worship a God who doesn’t ever seem to show himself. He’s never going to come for them. The only ones who are coming are the police.

Sometimes, I wake up in the early morning and find myself missing my neighbor. One night, the red and blue lights came, and I was confused because I hadn’t called the police on him. I heard a lot of men talking outside and then they drove away in an ambulance and everything next door went silent. New people moved in and told me that he died. I guess he finally got out.

But it is at this time of the morning that I know that I won’t sleep any longer. So I go outside and walk up to the enormous parking lot where they say a glorious shopping center used to stand. I go there so early that the sun is barely up and the neighborhood is silent as the grave and cannot dictate to me who I am. I stand here knowing full well who I am and I’m not fooling anyone. I am not special. I am a part of this neighborhood every bit as much as those I enjoy judging so much. I stare out at the empty church parking lot with the sun coming up all around me, and I try to imagine what it must have been like a long time ago, bustling with activity and commerce. I can’t really picture it. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Sometimes, I sit and watch my neighbors out the window and wonder what on earth they could be smiling about. I wonder how the young mothers have the stamina to raise children around here. I wonder how any happiness can exist here at all, and then I remember how flawed my thinking is. I want to talk to them. I don’t deserve to talk to them.

I will be sitting on my hands and moving away from the window on cue until they come to take the East Hills. And they will come to take it when they need more room. This, I believe, is certain. I don’t believe we’ll band together to stop it. I’m as guilty of inaction as anyone else up here and when they come to take it away, I will move just like everyone else. To where, I don’t know. And now, as I stand here feeling the sun’s first morning warmth on my back, I can hear the 79 beginning its first circle of the morning.

***

This essay first appeared under the title “79” in Issue 11 of True Story, a monthly mini-magazine published by the Creative Nonfiction Foundation. Our thanks to Brian Broome and the staff for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.

O, Small-bany!

Illustration by Senne Trip

Elisa Albert | Longreads | May 2018 | 17 minutes (4,229 words)

They poisoned the water in the lake again. It’s actually more of an enormous pond. They poison it a few times a year. I’m not listening to music, for a change. My battery’s at 10%, anyway, and I want to eavesdrop. Washington Park’s full of people. Just like the Seurat painting, minus the class status and pointillism.

There’s a black man fishing with his tiny son crouching beside him. The man’s biceps are impressively built and inked. The boy says, “Tell me when you see a fish.” There’s a middle-aged white couple with a contented aura, walking a mid-sized grey mutt. There’s a very petite brown woman in tight blue athleisure berating a man who is pushing a baby in a stroller. Not a status stroller. Athleisure woman is on this man about something. He hadn’t been on time to pick her up. He is playing it cool (“Well, I came, didn’t I?”) but she is unrelenting (“Not when you said you would! Not til after you…”) and then they are out of earshot. There’s a young white mother from the nearby cult (I’m sorry: Intentional Community), holding a toddler’s hand. The Intentional Community manufactures the kind of old-fashioned wooden toys for which my bored mom friends and I go wild. They live and work in a huge brick mansion near the park. There’s free literature about their intentionality to be had in a little kiosk at the entrance to their driveway. Books about making peace with death and living in accordance with the laws of nature. When I was a new mother, I used to loiter around that kiosk. Should I join? They wear homemade clothing and raise children communally. I yearn deeply for the latter but I have a quasi-sexual weakness for fashion, and ultimately I’m not much of a joiner. The young mother in her homemade ankle-length skirt and bonnet is talking to a black man on a bench by the boathouse. He rests one arm on yet another stroller (not status), in which sits a toddler with a delightful head of tight, ombre ringlets. The man reaches out his hand to me.

“Hello!” he says, like we know each other; I don’t think we know each other.

“How are you?” he wonders.

I smile, nod: fine, fine, thank you, and you? I do this intuitive sort of bow, and continue on my way. The cult woman slightly glares at me from under her bonnet. Her glare (real? imagined?) trips some anxiety about running into people I’m not fond of, by which I mean people not fond of me. There’s this one woman in particular, your standard bad-vibes-in-small-town situation, and my nervous system goes insane every goddamn time.

***

Officially Albany is a city of a hundred thousand, but it feels like a very small town. Which can make it hard to take a walk sometimes. Small-bany, some call it. Shmalbany, I prefer. Albanality, a friend of mine says, but the syllables don’t work out. There’s not that fantastically freeing anonymity of your big exciting status places. State capitals are often kind of weird places. It’s a small goddamn town. So much chit-chat always waiting to be had. Just around that bend? Just over this hill? Just past that tree? I arrange my face in a blank mask and bland smile, practicing. I catch myself doing so, catch my thoughts circling this dumb anxiety; shake it off. You are safe, I tell myself. My whole goddamn sympathetic nervous system gets caught up in small town anxiety. It’s hard trying to be friends with everyone all the time. It’s okay if not everybody likes you. I used to kind of seek out people with bad energy, try to make them like me, but that only makes them like you less. I learn slowly.

You are safe, I tell myself, and it works. I am safe. Relatively speaking. More often now I seek to avoid or minimize encounters with people who don’t like me, people who bring out the ugly. This is progress, according to the meditation teacher.

Isn’t this the kind of inner drama we all share? Useless, banal. Best kept to oneself, only then how are we to take comfort in the knowledge that we’re all the same!?

Read more…

Forgetting the Madeleine

Frances Leech | Longreads | May 2018 | 13 minutes (3,315 words)

 

I have friends in Paris who are now 4 and 6 years old. When I ring the doorbell at their apartment, I hear a clamor of footsteps and shouts of “Frances” and “Frances-madeleine” as they fight to open the latch, just within reach of small arms.

“What did you bring?” asks the boy, searching me for a telltale tin or box.

Tu es une PATISSERIE,” says the girl: you’re a bakery, or a baked good. I do not correct her.

Then they remember: “bonjour,” “bonsoir,” a kiss on the cheek. They pull me away like tugboats to see their room. At one birthday party they kidnapped me so fast that the adults did not find me for half an hour. I was busy being dive-bombed by toddlers and pretending to be the wolf.

They are curious about many things: trains, love, my cat whom they have not yet met, all of the cooking that happens in their narrow kitchen. They know if they ask “what is it?” they will receive un petit bout: a morsel of chocolate or a scrap of herbed fat, something to test for themselves. Or someone tall will hoist the child up to watch bubbling sugar turn to caramel — from a safe distance — before chasing them out. “Go play with your kitchen!” They have a wide selection of plastic fruit, vegetables, pizza, cakes.

“What did you bring?”

This particular afternoon I only brought a pan. I showed it to them.

“Can you guess what we are making today? It begins with an M…”

“MACARONS!” The boy loves them, for their melting sweetness and array of colors. Whenever I make a butterfly or flower in pastel colors, I save one for him.

“No, it begins with an M and it’s also in my name.”

“MARIE!”

“No, that is maman. It looks like a shell but you can eat it.”

I find madeleines are often bland rather than exceptional, whether it’s the spongy ones in supermarket packets or the pâtisserie ones that are prettier than they taste. I’d rather dip a boring digestive biscuit in my tea and know what I am getting. I’d rather be named after an éclair. But I will make madeleines for these two French children. I can’t resist their big eyes and round cheeks, and neither can their local baker’s wife: she always slips them a chouquette or a little cake when their parents pop in to buy bread.

Read more…

Captive Audience

Lucas Mann | Captive Audience: On Love and Reality TV | Vintage | May 2018 | 13 minutes (3,553 words)

Hi (: I am ______, I am a 17 year old with a story.

I want to quit feeling like I am not important. I want to be somebody in my life, I do not want to be remembered as some face in the yearbook, I want to be heard. Currently, I make youtube videos, and I have 317 subscribers. I know it is not a big number, but I am finally being heard by some people and I love it. I just want to make people happy, in any shape or form. Putting a smile on people’s faces is my dream! If I could be casted on this show, my life would be complete. I just want people to know me more than just some girl who likes makeup. I want people to know who I am. My family is not against this, but they do think I should focus on school, which I agree with but this is my dream.

Height: 5 feet 5 inches
Age: 17
Gender: Female
Dream: This.

Please help me reach for the stars, this is my dream and if it comes true, I can’t even imagine my life. Help me out (: Help me be heard.

— from the Casting Call Hub website http://www.castingcallhub.com

I have, for a long time, suggested that we get rid of cable. I have even suggested that we throw out our TV altogether so that we may eat at our actual kitchen table and play more Scrabble. I’d say these suggestions come biannually, on average — they used to be more frequent, then ebbed, and are now increasing again. They have been going on for the better part of a decade. They arise, as most of my impulses toward change do, out of feelings of shame. They arise when we open up our home and visitors see the way we live — by which I mean what we watch and the frequency with which we watch it — and make remarks that I take to be scornful:

I cannot believe you guys have all the channels.

Or: How can someone retain so much information about Bravo?

Or: How do you do it? If I had cable, I think I would forget how to live. It’s just too easy to let your mind get lost in the slush and forget to look up.

It seems crucial that lovers put themselves in scenarios that would otherwise be boring and then very pointedly not feel bored.

The relationship between television and life is loaded. The relationship between television and love is, perhaps, even more so. Life, the way I think the term is most commonly used, is about action. Go out and live is the kind of thing that people say to those they deem flawed — ride something, climb something. Engage. Or it can be used as an insult to those who have nothing valuable to offer: get a life.

Love, the way I think the term is most commonly used, necessitates the same action. Loving passively is as shameful as living that way. When we love fully, we are doing something to make that love valid; it’s a conscious process, it’s active. Two people see each other in a way that elevates the act of sight to a challenge that must be confronted. Two people refuse to take their eyes off one another; that’s the idea. When we love fully, we are meant to engage.

*

For a long time, when you would refuse to give up television, I would pretend to be grudgingly acquiescent, as opposed to relieved. You would placate me and say that our watching was your fault, that I was merely implicated by association, the same way it is when I buy ice cream and offer you some — those aren’t your calories if you didn’t seek them out. We would, as a way to avoid any long-term legislation, briefly turn off the TV and spend the following hours in a sort of mutual meditation, leaning over the table at dinner, sometimes by candlelight, taking in the contours of the face in front of us, as though it had changed from the previous day, and the one before that, and the countless expanse of days that stretched out behind us (nearly every day of our adult lives), making us forget what it felt like to not know that face.

The literature of love, both the bad kind and the good, hinges on this type of sustained gaze. And, though the word boredom rarely comes up, it seems crucial that lovers put themselves in scenarios that would otherwise be boring and then very pointedly not feel bored. I’m thinking of Keats here, in one of those gorgeous poems to Fanny that I once read aloud to you in college, the last time neither of us owned a TV. I read to you of Keats wishing only to be:

. . . gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —
No — yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast. . . .

People used to live at such a slow, sensual pace. This is the kind of thing I still say on the nights when the TV is off. Nostalgia is all wrapped up in slowness. How long we used to linger. The capacity we used to have for sustained care, sustained concentration, sustained quiet.

My favorite book about love is John Berger’s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. Berger wrote it in 1984 — an early–MTV era book — but he wrote with a slowness that implies timelessness, that makes a piece of writing feel resonant, or maybe the word is authentic. He was an aging icon in the French Alps then, describing the way his life had moved, the way he’d seen the world change, but at its core the book is a missive to his lover.

He writes of when he is without her, thinking of her, how she shifts in his imagination:

In the country which is you, I know your gestures, the intonations of your voice, the shape of every part of your body. You are not physically less real there, but you are less free.

How strong a gaze; how long lasting — until his love (who remains unnamed throughout) becomes the image of herself, a creation of his mind and memory as much as the person he knows. There is a bending of reality in this sentiment, and in turn a sort of dehumanizing, but in Berger’s hands it doesn’t feel gross. Instead, it is a way of seeing I aspire to. It’s the elevation of a person to art: to speak to the one I most care for and hopefully witness a grander sentiment (Love! Timeless love!) whisper out from the intimacy of that address. But Berger wrote these words long before anyone ever wrote the word mansplain, and I wonder now if he might ask for a do-over And I wonder, too, if I should try to find a better way to capture and perform my own love. You don’t need me to tell you what’s there, what’s been there, like it’s a show that only I’ve been watching. And yet I do, uncertain, trapped in my own voice, hoping you see at least a sliver of yourself in the portrait, frozen in sustained care.

We went to the Alps once, with your sister and a bunch of other leather-clad Europeans. All that money blown to spend New Year’s partying at high altitudes. Everybody else went skiing, but you knew I couldn’t, so you let me avoid the embarrassment by staying behind in the cabin. I spent a week binge-watching over bad Wi-Fi, and that experience of waiting for the screen to unfreeze while cold rain pecked at the windows of a moldy chalet only ratcheted up the claustrophobia. I watched. Sometimes I walked until I got bored, then returned to the screen again. I waited to hear you come in the door, and we’d put our cheeks together so I could absorb some of the cold from you.

On New Year’s Eve, after a long party, we lay in bed unable to sleep. The shadows of the mountains were maybe visible through our window, framed in moonlight, but we weren’t looking. We watched each other’s faces and waited for the laptop to buffer. Finally, we were able to watch The Real L Word, a show about actual lesbians in LA, developed to capitalize on the success of a show about fictional lesbians in LA that I never had any interest in watching. It’s a program we’ve only ever sought out in transit — in a motel in Pennsylvania, mid-move, U-Haul packed in the parking lot, dog whimpering at the sound of trucks passing outside, or in a semisecluded corner of O’Hare Airport on a night when all connections were grounded for tornadoes.

Sometimes it’s nice to match moods, to decide on that mood matching together. There’s a restlessness to The Real L Word that appeals only in restless moments. There’s a pulsing crassness to the way the most intimately personal is made to feel branded. The women fuck desperately in some scenes, and with the lights on, no pretense that they’re unaware of the cameras. They look up, let us see their faces, and then plunge their heads back between legs. In the nonfucking scenes, every word they say is loaded with as much pressure as sex; anything said about anyone can be taken as a slight. It’s easy to get a sense that they don’t know one another at all, or maybe they really do and this is how shallow knowing someone actually looks when there’s a camera around — another loaded thought.

Reality should not be a performance; a show, if it’s any good, should probably be exaggerating something. The resulting promise of the phrase, then, is an impossibility.

We were on the futon in the dark, in the Alps, listening to the party die down, and there was Whitney on screen, fucking white-dreadlock Whitney, celebrity makeup artist-cum-minor-celebrity, confessing in the confessional room after a pretty graphic tryst with her on-again-off-again.

Lust is easy for me, she said in front of a bright-red curtain, for some reason. Love is hard. Lust is exciting. Love is scary.

We looked at each other, like always. We didn’t say anything, but let Whitney’s cutaway lines hang between us as a question or an invitation. I saw your face, pale, and my face reflected in your dark eyes. It doesn’t take much to approximate profundity. At least not to me.

***

I’ve written about a lot of things, or it seems that way to me, but ultimately they’re all kind of the same thing. I write about loneliness, or dissatisfaction, or incompleteness. I have tried, in different (though not very different) ways, to make sense of the things that hurt. What is harder, and what I have avoided, is trying to honor the truth of everything that doesn’t hurt: that I am not alone; that (although I am reluctant to say the phrase exactly because of Jerry Maguire) I am closer to feeling complete because we are together; that often, in our little house in front of our big TV for hours until my eyes begin to sting, I am satisfied.

This is hard to reread after writing it. It seems an impossibly small statement to make, one meant to be offered only semisincerely, and a bit drunkenly, at special-occasion dinners.

Barthes says that love, as a subject, has been driven to the backwater of the “unreal.” Then, he strives to distinguish between unreal and disreal. The unreal is the fantastical — Tristan and IsoldeIt’s a Wonderful Life, that kind of thing. In its grandness and sincerity and removal, the unreal is easier to explain, always familiar. And so it’s the love story that is easiest to find in any book or movie or TV show, allowing the audience to linger in swelling impossibility.

But the disreal, Barthes argues, is where love belongs. The disreal is lived experience, the flickering, perceived moment, unsayable — if I utter it (if I lunge at it, even with a clumsy or overliterary sentence), I emerge from it.

My problem is that I am immersed in it and because I’m immersed in it, I can’t think of anything else to utter. We are in one place: our home; we see one person: the other. What else is there to say? I want to believe that I’m not interested in fantasy. I am interested in the disreal, not the unreal, both in the art that I seek and the love that I live. But if you look at any life long enough, with enough vested interest, how do you not begin to push toward the fantastical?


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Whenever you catch me looking at you, you say, What are you looking at? Which is a really loaded question. You know what I’m looking at — you, the person in front of me; what else could I be looking at? But what you’re asking for is the difference between image and interpretation — is what I see more interesting than what is really there, or what you think is really there? And all I can ever say is nothing. And then you roll your eyes and we become exactly what the world would expect us to be. And now I’ve gone from Roland Barthes to a sitcom punch line. I turn back to the TV.

***

It’s hard to trace an exact history of the “reality show.” The term is often applied retroactively — roots can be found in The Real World, back in the mid-nineties, or Cops in the late eighties, or in early eighties variety shows like That’s Incredible! or the seminal seventies docudrama An American Family. One thing remains consistent: it’s always been a tortured lineage, a confounding term.

The best parsing of the language I’ve read is this, from a book called Trans-Reality Television: “Reality show” as a phrase is self-confessing.

In proximity, the two words begin to chip away at each other’s meaning. Reality should not be a performance; a show, if it’s any good, should probably be exaggerating something. The resulting promise of the phrase, then, is an impossibility: transforming facts to the level of the spectacular.

I like that the implication isn’t that we who watch so faithfully are being bullshitted, but rather that we are willfully bullshitting ourselves to get what we want. We are promised a dynamic that cannot actually ever exist, and we accept that.

More than accept it. The genre means a lot to us, to me. I’ve never expressed that sentiment with even a gesture toward sincerity because it’s embarrassing. But I think I mean it. Sincerely. At least for now I do.

When you live alongside anything for a long time — any person, any character, any narrative structure, any screen flicker — you become a part of it and it becomes a part of you.

Far more than I’ve read Berger (or Barthes or Sontag, or any of the others on the grad-school syllabus that I claim shaped how I see the world), far more than we have walked through museums together (and really, how many times have I had the patience for more than one wing and the café?), far more than we’ve sat and listened and harmonized to the songs that we so seriously call ours, we have watched and internalized and discussed televised showings of spectacular reality. The Real Housewives of Atlanta (and New Jersey and New York and Beverly Hills and, to a lesser degree, Miami and Orange County), Keeping Up with the Kardashians, The Real World, Road Rules, The Real World/Road Rules Challenge, Love and Hip Hop, Sister Wives, Basketball Wives, Breaking Amish, Storage Wars, My 600-Pound Life, My Big Fat Fabulous Life, Shahs of Sunset, Married to Medicine, Botched, Say Yes to the Dress, Deadliest Catch, Million Dollar Listing, Intervention, The Little Couple, Vanderpump Rules — there are many more that I’m forgetting offhand, and there have been many that came and went and briefly held some importance for us, and there are many more being produced right now that we will soon adopt. These are the narratives that have underpinned our lives. These are the types of stories that we choose to live alongside.

When you live alongside anything for a long time — any person, any character, any narrative structure, any screen flicker — you become a part of it and it becomes a part of you. A part of what — and, more important, how — you remember.

***

We’re on your bed next to the window in your dorm room and we’re nineteen. I’m running my hands along your tattoo, your first one, and you tell me to stop because you don’t like your body, and I tell you that I do. You don’t believe me.

We ask for everything about each other, the kinds of details that other people wouldn’t know, as though that will confirm the importance of our conversations. My first memory was of a red vacuum cleaner on the gray carpet of my mother’s apartment on East Sixth Street. I was scared of the noise it made. It was a cramped basement apartment, and every sound was loud. I was frightened often. This was Alphabet City in the late eighties, and outside our windows I could see and hear the pacing boots of methadone patients waiting for their morning fix.

“Oh, I can picture you,” you say. “Were you blonder? Were you chubby?”

I was, both. And I want you to picture me that way: a cherub in a hard, looming world.

I do remember the vacuum cleaner, and that the carpet was gray. I have heard about the methadone clinic from my mother, mostly cheerful stories about me getting free lollipops. I don’t remember it, but I can picture it now, too.

You are running your fingers through my hair and smiling at what isn’t an outright lie, just an interpretation, the beginning of a character that I would rather you see, another in a quickly building collection — Q: How many partners have you had? A: Plenty. Q: Wait, did you come already? A: {Indecipherable, hopefully erotic grunt}.

You say you remember almost nothing. You didn’t speak as a child, you say, like not ever, because you moved to different countries and had to start learning language all over again. You remember an overall feeling of loneliness, but hardly any images. Oh, here’s one, you say. Coming back from the beach in Italy, drinking peach nectar out of a carton — how sweet and thick and simple it was. Oh, and you had a boy’s haircut. Oh, and you were bullied for your weirdness, and your silence, so you preferred to be alone — most of the memories you have are of that pain. Oh, and one more thing: you were a liar. When you did speak, it was never the truth. And there was one particular lie you told that was too big, too painful, and you’ll never talk about it even still.

This scares me a little but mostly turns me on — a repressed past; an untellable secret; dark, brooding eyes under a strange, little-boy haircut, lonely, sucking nectar out of a carton. It becomes instantly important to know that there is something unknowable about you.

***

I keep thinking of your secrets and the lonely anger, and all those redacted memories for a while, and then I forget about them as other details emerge to pay attention to. But these plot points linger, always, making each new scene a little more enthralling, and then they resurface, brief, overpowering — reminders that we can see so much of each other, know each other as best we can, and yet always, underneath, there is the unknown.

A few years later, at a party in Brooklyn, you’re talking and drinking and laughing, and then suddenly you’re silent and flushed, looking over my shoulder, down a crowded hallway. You’ve seen someone from childhood, from an American camp you were sent to when you knew no English, and your face is the face of a silent girl, alone and enraged. At first you ask me to hide you, but then she comes up and says, “Oh my God, how crazy to see you! Remember camp? Don’t you miss camp?”

I watch you glare at her, silent for a moment, and then you crescendo into emotion. You say that you don’t miss it at all. You tell this girl that she had been so cruel — does she even remember what she did to you? She says, “No, not me,” and you stand closer to her, and say with a new force, “Yes, you.”

There are others around us at the party, turned stiff and awkward, but you don’t see anybody else. The camp girl says she doesn’t remember it the same way, but then she squeaks through an apology. You don’t accept. The crowd watches; I watch, and watch them watch you. I am transfixed — by your tears, by your rage, by this beautiful soap-opera haze that has fallen over the hallway.

On the way home you don’t bring it up. You are silent; you hold your body in what looks to be a performed, anguished seethe, and I keep stealing glances at you as we walk. Years have passed, and I still remember it, a vivid, pleasurable return each time — those mysteries in you, the pain turned to brief power, probably overblown in my mind but always potent.

* * *

Lucas Mann is the author of Captive Audience: On Love and Reality TV, out in May from Vintage Books.  He is also the author of Lord Fear: A Memoir, and Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere.  He teaches creative writing at The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and lives in Providence, RI, with his wife.

From Captive Audience by Lucas Mann.© 2018 by Lucas Mann. Reprinted by permission of Anchor Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House.

 

Walking Through the Past Into New Motherhood

Holger Hollemann/dpa via AP

Jessica Friedmann | Things That Helped | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | April 2018 | 36 minutes (9,972 words)

Every morning, my father goes for an hour’s walk before work. This is the ritual that starts the day. When I come down to the kitchen for breakfast he is just getting home, and the dog precedes him through the door, pattering around, looking for a sunny patch, while my dad dumps the shrink-wrapped tube of the newspaper on the kitchen table. Often it is damp with condensation, but when I peel the wrapping off, the newsprint itself is dry.

Depending on the season, my sisters and I wear identical pale blue knee socks with our school uniforms, or itchy, dark gray tights. Dad’s early-morning outfit is unvaried; tracksuit pants, a T-shirt, sneakers, and a jumper tied around his waist, disguising or reinforcing the back brace he wears on cold mornings. His back injury is one of the reasons for his walking, and for the careful, constant stretches he does. After dinner, he leaves the table and rolls his knees from side to side upon the floor.

As a child, I have no clear idea of what a disk is, or what it means to “slip” one or two or three. In my mind, my father’s spine is like a Jenga tower, with pieces sticking out precipitously, ready to bring the entire structure down. In fact, his spine is not too dissimilar now to a stack of blocks — bone on bone with nothing to cushion each vertebra. He teases his mother about the fact that she is shrinking, but he is not as tall as he was.

***

Every now and then, on a High Holiday or when someone has died, my father gets up early to accompany his father to shul, walking there, of course, because on these occasions you don’t drive. I don’t know what kind of tricky political maneuvering has gotten him to this point, or what strings have been pulled, but these mornings come as a kind of détente in an ongoing tussle over Dad’s lack of faith. He himself disclaimed religion years and years ago, but neither of his parents really accept that he no longer believes in God; or if they do, they believe that his defection is too late; he has already been bar mitzvahed, and that is that.

My dad keeps a few yarmulkes in a drawer in the hallway console, between misplaced golf tees and a set of spare keys. When I accompany my grandmother, Nagyi, to shul myself on odd occasions, I sit with her on the women’s balcony, something that must have been brought over from the old country, because in the early ’90s, who segregates men and women? Only the most conservative, but I don’t have any idea of the fault lines yet between Orthodox and Progressive, Hasidic and Reform. In my grandparents’ neighborhood, girls wear wigs and long black skirts, but Nagyi disdains them for their showiness. There are ways and ways to be a good conservative Jew.

On High Holidays, the main ways are prayer and food. Inevitably we three girls will arrive tetchy from being bundled into our “good” clothes and then sitting around afraid to mark them. We have Peter Pan collars edged with lace, and large velvet headbands holding back our glossy hair. We are keyed up, too, with the awareness of something special happening, but unable to read all the currents of the evening, the ebbs and flows.

Depending on the holiday, Papa’s intonement of Hebrew is either brief or on-and-on-and-on. Dad jokes that all Jewish holidays boil down to “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!” but I scrupulously study the English text in the Haggadah, trying to make sense of it, or at least match the English words to the Hebrew rhythm. Some aspect of me feels that I ought to find this language resonant, or at least imbued with meaning, but it goes over my head, and the meal is reduced to a pantomime. We play a children’s pantomime, too, toward the end, hiding a piece of matzo for my grandfather to studiously not find, and bargaining its release for a net of gold chocolate coins.

At some point I ask Dad why he left the shul, and he tells it very simply: that he went every Saturday until he was 17 years old, when he raised a scriptural question from the day’s sermon with his father; that Papa told him very firmly not to question the rabbi, and since that point my father has had no faith. There is a horror around that quashing of spirit that is too great for my child’s mind to take in, and I put it away, unaware that it has tangled in my mind with a budding supposition — that Jews can get in trouble if they ask too many questions.

***

Questions are my lifeblood; I cannot live without them. As my legs grow longer I like to join Dad in the morning, prowling the suburbs before the sun comes up. It takes me a while to wake up all the way, but I love the feeling of the wind brisking up my cheeks as we cross the bridge into Richmond. As we head over the river we can see rowers out in pairs or single sculls, seagulls perched on the garbage traps, long snaky strands of gold light rippling with the flow of the water.

Often we walk in silence, the dog trotting at my father’s side. The sky turns pink and crisp in the autumn, and balloons go up over the city. When we talk, I bounce my newly forming philosophical quandaries o my father, who enjoys them. “How do I know that the color I see as green is the same color that you see as green?” I ask, and for the next 20 minutes we are down a path that is comprised half of classical philosophies of subjectivity, and half of how the eye actually perceives color as a lens. It amazes me that there are wavelengths of light — all around me and going through me — that I cannot detect at all.

Every term, we carry our school reports to our grandparents’ house, and they read over them and congratulate us, and my grandfather solemnly hands to each of us an envelope of cash. The money embarrasses me, but the pride I enjoy. I know how much it means to him to see us do well; he left school at 14 himself, to help his parents in their shop, in the country town my grandmother would later live in and loathe. He was the second eldest and survived the Holocaust with five of his siblings — six out of nine. They were the largest group of siblings to survive; I think there is a certificate somewhere.

The fact of this is somewhere in the background, also squashed, also repressed. When I come across Jewish children in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit or Number the Stars, I am careful not to invest too much of myself into them. It is easier to be Laura Ingalls Wilder or Emily of New Moon, or Jo March, with her independence and her comically small head. I tear through everything the junior school library has to offer, then get special permission to visit the senior school library for books.

Nagyi and Papa come to our end-of-year assemblies; they are faithful attendees of our recitals and ballet concerts. Dad watches the unbending of his father with astonishment. When I miss a mark in a spelling test, he shakes his head with mock dismay.

“You know when I was your age, if I brought home a test with a mark of ninety-six, my father would say, ‘What happened to the other four points?’”

I laugh, trying not to show how much I mind those few missed marks. I hear the conversations between my teachers, and I know that some of the work I am given is different, harder. The word potential is used cautiously; I begin to realize that I have a great deal of potential. But the thinly veiled excitement behind the phrase is a compliment I haven’t yet earned. I am expected to do something with this potential; I am supposed to live up to it; there is no telling how far I will go.

My parents pick up on and try to assuage my anxiety. “I don’t care if you want to be a garbage collector,” says Dad, “just as long as you are the best garbage collector you can be.”

Later I find that this is a mantra in all migrant households, and one that my friends trot out when we are telling the stories of where we came from. The best you can be echoes around the back of my skull, a lone refrain until I abandon my homework one night as mostly done, good enough. Dad looks at me over the top of his newspaper when I say as much out loud.

“There is no such thing,” he says, “as ‘good enough.’”

My mother is horrified to overhear this, but Dad looks me in the eye, and I know exactly what he means.

***

The school that my sisters and I attend is the junior school sister of a single-sex private institution. It doesn’t occur to me to find a school comprising only women and girls odd; at home Dad often groans jokingly of being outnumbered, though he wanted six girls initially.

We are here in part because of my mother’s hairy legs. As a teenage girl, she tells me later, she deliberately lagged to the back of cross-country running groups so that the older boys would not see her legs. She didn’t want us ever not to be swift; she didn’t want us to sabotage our chances, to feel the shame of exposure. She tells me about the incinerators in the girls’ toilets at her senior school; how girls were required to burn their bulky sanitary pads, and any girl bleeding was identifiable from the plume of smoke emerging above her toilet stall, announcing her like the election of a new pope. Later, on her teaching rounds, she gritted her teeth as boys pushed their way to the new computers at the expense of their female peers, and were rewarded with attention and opportunity for it.

That we can have and be anything we want is borne out by our parents, who, if they are not old money, are migrants or the children of migrants; our mothers and fathers, but mostly our fathers, started out with nothing, and look at them now. In the playground there is no feeling of racial consciousness; though I don’t know the term model minority yet, that is what we are, we migrant daughters of Jewish and Chinese and Indian doctors and lawyers.

My race education is of its place and time, which will make me blush as an adult when I understand what this means. I am sure we do learn about Indigenous Australians, whom we call Aborigines, sometime during primary school; I am sure that I make a poster presentation. I know that at some point we learn about bush tucker, and place tiny native-pepper berries on our tongues, and squirm and giggle at the thought of eating witchetty grubs. We all have enough food at home; we cannot imagine that anyone, by necessity or choice, would eat a bug.

We also learn that Captain Cook “discovered” Australia in 1770, that he and Joseph Banks staked a claim on Botany Bay and then the nation began; that from then on colonies sprang up, and convicts worked through their indenture, and the Gold Rush brought prosperity, and sheep and wheat and opals brought even more. We do not learn about the Frontier Wars, or if we do, they are not named as such, and the losses of life are downplayed. If we learn about the referendum to repeal Section 127 of the Constitution, reading In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted, it is as a footnote to history, not something that I, or anyone else, has ever made a diorama about.

There is also, pervasively, the Holocaust. It seems to permeate the entirety of our classes, later on, in History and in English, as the scale of World War II is pressed upon us again and again. We read Livia Bitton-Jackson’s book Elli, and it doesn’t escape me that Elli’s surname is the same as mine; that we are both fourteen. I read it once, put it down, and move on to other things. I don’t want to dwell on this book, or on the immensity of its subject.

One image sticks with me vividly, though: girls marching naked toward Auschwitz, one of them bleeding freely down her thighs, and Elli’s sudden realization that she might one day be as embarrassed and exposed as that. In a girls’ school, pads and tampons are batted around the bathrooms with nonchalance. They are wrapped in bright colors, and girls read out the trivia printed on their hygiene stickers from behind the stall doors.

The girls who are not the daughters of migrants have long sleek ponytails and suntanned legs. A few years earlier, they passed around a copy of Bridge to Terebithia, highly prized because it made them cry so much. It is not a crime to be sentimental, but when we are given a creative writing exercise — to produce an account of life in Auschwitz and Dachau — I feel my gorge rising on a hot tide of panic. I do not have the language to explain, even to myself, how sick I feel about these girls indulging in the so sad sadness of life within a camp, even in fiction, even for a minute.

I think about writing a letter to my teacher explaining this, but I don’t. It doesn’t occur to me to simply not do the work; I am too much of a Goody Two-shoes, a perfect student, a suck. And I know that I will have to face what happened in Hungary and Germany and Poland at some point, so I tell myself I am being mature and write the piece. And I get full marks, and I do not wallow and I do not inch. But later, when I have learned the language of appropriation and thanatourism and the concept of trauma porn, I will wish that I had not been such a coward, and that instead I had simply told my English teacher to fuck off.

***

More and more I come to value the time spent walking in the morning before school. At 16 I am in my final year of school, and so, unlike my friends, I don’t rush out and get my license straightaway. The thought of learning to drive, on top of the schoolwork that is piling up, feels like too much pressure, too much stress.

I am still intent on following my father, who is a dentist, into some kind of medical field, preferably surgery — from a young age I have been fascinated with the workings of the body — and so I immerse myself in chemistry and mathematical methods, the latter of which I loathe. I like chemistry for its acceptance of ambiguity, its stoichiometric equations that acknowledge that no state of matter is ever truly fixed.

Our early-morning walks take us past a little row of shops, where Dad and I slow our pace to navigate around the café tables that have been placed out for the early rush and shoppers coming out of the bakery clutching loaves of bread. A few years of after-school work at Bakers Delight have inured me to the smell of hot bread in the morning; it is a smell I miss, a comfort smell. At one shop front, I sneak a quick glance at a pair of shoes in the window. They are at sandals with an open back, with metal hoops and disks of black leather arcing over the top of the foot. They look like something Kate Bush would wear.

When I get my results, I let out a whoop, and then sit for a moment, looking at the computer screen. I have slept until noon to safely ignore the phone calls of curious family, and I know that my parents must be dying of tension in the other room, where they are respecting my distance while I find out whether or not I’ve got the marks I need. I have missed out on a place in medicine by one point, but I feel curiously light having had the decision made for me, and deeply content about my impending entry into arts.

I tell my parents my score, and they hug me and ring my grandparents, and later in the day, Dad presents me with a box. In it are the Kate Bush shoes. I know that secretly he would like to mark the occasion by giving me a car, but these shoes are much, much dearer to me. I hadn’t realized that he’d been watching each morning when I paused at the shop window to admire them and say hello.

***

In the first year of my arts degree, uniforms left behind forever, an older girl in my art history class takes me under her wing, and my life opens up in a way I have longed for, inchoately, for as long as I have known. Summer evenings pass in cheap apartments above shops, playing records on a machine bought at Vinnies and smoking on the roof, or in tiny paved back gardens, sitting on upturned milk crates between the back door and the dunny. I go to a fancy-dress party dressed as Annie Hall and fall in love with a lean, dark-haired boy in the corner, his brown eyes glowing over the light of his cigarette. I leave our conversation to go to the loo, unclipping my father’s borrowed suspenders.

“Absolutely not,” my friend hisses while I’m away. “She’s 17 years old.” But a year later I am half living at his house, waking up lazily and putting the stovetop espresso on while his housemates go to Tabet’s for cheese-and-spinach pies. We watch Betty Blue and play backgammon in the morning, clean up haphazardly, take cups of tea out into the backyard with the newspaper or an old copy of Heat. When his Deleuze reading group comes over, I head out the back and read fashion magazines. I already know my position on Deleuze.

It is here that I read Monkey Grip for the first time, and feel a faint marvel of clairsentience at Helen Garner’s prose. So I haven’t dreamed up this life out of whole cloth; it exists, it has existed before me and without me, and was waiting for me to come and inhabit it, to walk the very same streets I am now walking, and argue over ethics and love and sex, and obsessively write. I curl up on Tom’s ratty old couch with my feet in a pair of his socks, the heels coming up past the back of my ankles, and scrawl poems on the backs of old envelopes as my mind flies far above the plum trees and the washing line.

***

As I am growing older, my grandparents grow older, too. For years Nagyi has been abetting Papa as he slowly declines into what will be confirmed, later, as dementia. She is so canny, and her personality so forceful, that if any of us suspect that she is covering for him, we keep it to ourselves. The role of neurotic, fussy Jewish mother — and grandmother — is culturally prevalent; she leans into it hard. Another joke of my father’s: “A Jewish mother gives her son two ties for his birthday. He comes down to breakfast the next day wearing one of them and she says, ‘What, you didn’t like the other one?’”

At Seder we still play out the ritual of hiding the matzo, though in increasingly obvious hiding places, and increasingly it becomes obvious that he genuinely cannot find it. We all love this man: the strength of his back, his too-strong hands, his ability to fold laundry impeccably, a relic of his days in schmatte. I love him achingly, although for a long time now I have understood the undercurrents of earlier years; my mother’s tension headaches; the things that were said when my father married out. When my mother offered to convert, Dad threw a fit; his parents would accept her as she was, or not at all. But it put us, as children, in a precarious situation.

Papa’s memories, long repressed, begin to come to the surface. Nagyi has made an oral history for a friend’s daughter’s PhD, but now I steel myself to interview her, for my first book chapter, a published work; I think, mistakenly, that I can do the work of honoring this chapter of her life in five thousand words, over two afternoons. I want it out of my system, where it has taken up residence like a ghost. It is not my story; but it is in my body, it is in my blood.

Nagyi’s sister Ann joins us, and the two of them prompt each other, speaking rapidly in Magyar. What I learn has already come out in dribs and drabs, in offhand comments over the years. That the bodies were piled so high that after a while these piles began to seem ordinary. That they stitched gold stars to their lapels and slept bone-weary and cold on cots in the “good” ghetto, and were not lined up and shot into the Danube, and were not raped, they stress, not by the Hungarians, not by the Germans, and not by the Americans, who, in their jubilation and recklessness, may have been the cruelest of all.

Papa, though, has never spoken of the war. I only have the barest outlines: a Russian labor camp; the fact that his sister died in Auschwitz, that he has never said her name. He is gentle with our dog, but gets skittish when he hears him growling; I see him cringe almost imperceptibly, a reflex that goes against everything he knows about Alex’s fierce allegiance to all members of our family. A labor camp, dogs, and the fact that there are virtually no Jews left in Kisvárda today; these are the dots I try not to connect.

***

My life out in the world is everything I want it to be, but sometimes my child self catches up to me, anxious, nauseous, wanting so badly to please. I try to ignore this sense of being doubled, being always followed by a sadness I can’t explain. If my childhood was happy, and it so very often was, then how did the sadness get in?

There is no room in the story of a richly nourished and nurtured childhood for this sadness. There is no explaining why, even as a very young child, I am sometimes paralyzed in the night by a wash of loneliness so powerful that by morning I have buried it deep within me. The child psychologists I see, usually for only three or four sessions and only every two or three years, find nothing wrong with me other than a tendency to worry and the usual signs of giftedness. I am enrolled in extension programs, my parents hoping, I think, to burn off some of this anxiety through intellectual stimulation, in the same way puppies exhaust themselves into contentedness at the dog park.

Nobody at this time mentions the concept of intergenerational trauma, much less epigenetic history. Somewhere in California, Mike’s father is working on the supercomputer that will finally map the genome. DNA is an exciting new frontier, but its applications are still thought of as physical, not psychological. It is only as an adult that I encounter the idea of histones — those protective, elegant proteins cushioning the gene — and the research that demonstrates methylation and histone modification altering the behavior and memory of laboratory mice.

There is a famous experiment involving mice that were trained to fear the scent of acetophenone, a compound associated with the smell of cherries, by being given electric shocks. Their pups and even their grandpups were introduced to this smell after they were born, and showed a marked trauma reaction, having never experienced an electric shock or smelled or seen a cherry. I think about this a lot.

In human behavioral studies, the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors — the largest study population easily available to Western researchers — have been found to be demonstrably more resilient or, on the contrary, more vulnerable to stress than others. There is “a chemical coating upon [our] chromosomes, which would represent a kind of biological memory of what the parents experienced,”1 one researcher writes, and I wonder again at this doubling: What makes some become more resilient, some less?

I do not tell any of my child psychologists about the fact that I see ghosts; they disappear in the daytime, and I feel foolish for having believed in them. But sometimes late at night, in the space between waking and sleeping, I am seized with fear, terrified to move my arms or legs; my skin becomes hot, my heart beats erratically, and I become hypervigilant, because I am sure that I can feel a cool breeze on my face, or a presence in the room. It is not sleep paralysis, which I learn about later, because I can move my limbs, I am simply too scared to, and my mouth tastes like bitter almonds as the fear slowly ebbs away.

In my late teens, there are days when I can barely leave the house for thinking about the world; days when I stand paralyzed in the kitchen doorway for half an hour, unable to eat because the choice between toast and muesli is fraught, and something catastrophic will happen if I’m wrong. I no longer open the mail and the electricity to our sharehouse is cut off; the ghosts have become internalized now, they are dybbukim. I can no longer see them, but they still have the terrifying ability to grab me, without warning, and hold me in stasis.

I am 18, 19, 20, and I have still not learned to drive. My grandmother learned at the age of 46, I tell myself, there is no rush, I have plenty of time. On my long legs, I stalk vast swaths of the inner north, trying to exhaust myself on the nights I cannot sleep. The truth is I am petrified of getting behind the wheel; of the strength and power of a ton of metal beneath the touch of my hands and feet, of the compulsion I can feel when I’m only imagining driving to swing the wheel, drive too fast, cause a crash deliberately. I am not safe and I can’t feel safe. And so the soles of my feet get worn and tough, pacing and mapping the suburbs under dim electric lights.

***

To my grandfather, education is a priority above nearly everything else. Part of it, I am sure, comes from the fact that, due to his family’s poverty, he never got to pursue a higher education. Part of the thirst for knowledge undoubtedly comes, too, from the Jewish requirement to study and learn from the Torah; from the long, five-thousand-year-rich Jewish oral-history tradition that kept the faith alive under multiple occupancies, Europe and Africa over.

Knowledge, for the Jew, is spiritual; hunger for knowledge is spiritual. This is as close to any religious tenet that I absolutely believe.

But there is knowledge and there is knowledge. It is true that some things seem permanently etched somewhere inside me, often forgotten for years and then retrieved out of nowhere: the sound of Nina Simone singing “Break Down and Let It All Out”; the fairy tales I absently tell Owen; my father’s shoelaces, looping around each other as Olivia stealthily ties them together at his feet. He is sitting in his spot on the old brown leather couch, its arm worn thin over a deadly wooden block that is ready to catch you on the side of the hip as you fling yourself into the chair. The footy is on and Dad is reading a newspaper—he claims he can read and watch at the same time. At his right is a glass of scotch and an opaque white plastic Tupperware container, a cylinder that is labeled with the word ALMONDS in text that is wearing faint. Olivia ties his shoelaces together and then sneaks off, holding her mirth in, as one of us other girls flops across Dad’s shoulder and reaches for the remote.

I can remember this; it is vivid and clear as day, but my brain is already busy working, dismantling the memory, peopling it with alternating sisters or changing out clothes. Is it the mustard or the red-and-blue-striped jumper he is wearing? Is Alex, our beautiful big schnauzer, flopped at his feet? And what is it he’s shouting at the television? It is probably a variant of “Round the neck!” or “Come on, umpire!” or “That’s gotta be 50!” — phrases of pure ocker that slip out from time to time from a place of deep assimilation.

It always makes me laugh to hear them, though I know he has earned the right to call the umpire a bloody white maggot. When he stands around the barbecue with my mother’s brothers-in-law and says things like “Strewth!” and “Kenoath!” I know he is hamming it up, but it is also a proof of something: an affection and warmth that broaches difference; a shibboleth of belonging.

I do not want to take these things away from him. I can feel my mind always picking away at something, unbuilding and reconstructing it. It is the only way I know. Knowledge for me does not mean facts, and a thing is never done and dusted, and constantly questioning is exhausting, but I cannot turn my mind off. I am as tiny as a quark or an atom; if something appears to be solid, I still slip right through it, and it is hard to settle comfortably into ever staying in one place.

***

It doesn’t escape my attention that everyone in Monkey Grip is white, or that at the parties I go to, few people didn’t go to private school. We may have pissed off away from the values of our parents, but we are still, inescapably, products of our environments.

I settle down to write my thesis and try to come to grips with some of it, the morass of existence, searching the work of four poets for some link between the violence in their work, the fractures of their language, and their attitude to the land for some clue that will prove illuminating, and settle some of my anxieties. I am trying to resolve the settler-colonial problem, by myself, in a poetry thesis that no one will read. The poets I examine are settler-colonial or migrant; including Indigenous poetries will blow out my word limit by three or four times, but I still loathe myself for this exclusion.

When I visit my parents’ house my dad and I resume our conversations, which over the years have become arguments, pitched battles, as I move away from his particular worldview. In moments of quiet, we are still each other’s best friends. Walking together, sitting and reading, there is a current owing between us that comes of a mutual love and understanding of who we are aside from our thoughts.

But neither of us is the kind to bite their tongue, and the arguments, left off, will always be resumed. He thinks I am a Pinko-Commie-Greenie bleeding heart, and I say of course I am, that that is the heart’s function, to pump blood, to power the whole machine through its bleeding. He baits me persistently, and my sisters sink into their chairs as we begin, quietly at first and then with raised voices, to go over and over ground that neither of us will cede.

What infuriates me the most about these debates is that I can never seem to win. My father, with his scientist’s ability to learn by rote, has a vast storehouse of facts that sound extremely dubious but that I can’t refute with analysis, which is my strongest tool; his reach is vast, there are statistics to back up everything. I still cannot memorize a phone number, or quickly add up a bill. I get lost amid a wash of numbers I am sure are being construed wrongly, and cannot seem to right them.

I know, intellectually, that it is better to be stymied at every turn by someone you love and respect than by someone you loathe and fear. There is never any nastiness in these arguments, but still they get beneath my skin.

“Look,” my dad says, “there have always been fluctuations in climate. Look at the Ice Age. When you say ‘the hottest June’ on record, yeah, well, we’ve only been keeping records for a hundred years! It’s hubris to believe that humans can change the climate.”

“Jesus! It’s hubris to believe we haven’t!”

When I get to the point of hollering, my mum steps in. This isn’t rhetorical, I think wildly, this is really happening. I cannot stop thinking about the melting ice caps, or a teenager standing in line in the hot sun on Nauru, waiting for hours for a single tampon while the blood trickles down her leg. My grandparents walking through a field to get to the border, bribing a Russian guard in the dead of night.

One of my father’s mantras is “There are no new jokes, just new audiences.” Another is “Never spoil a good story with the truth.” The two of them, together, seem to form an unassailable fortress. Another favorite saying, when we were children, and blocking the television: “Honey, you’re a pain, but not a pane of glass.” Sometimes at dinner, I do feel like a pane of glass. The things that are so self-evident to me, the things I fight for, believe to be compellingly true, fade away to hazy transparency at his unwillingness to budge.

***

It is not just the climate, it is not just asylum seekers, it is not just gay marriage — for which Dad deploys reasoned arguments based on respecting the official process by which he himself came as a refugee, and for further entrenching a division of church and state. I can hurl ideology at my father as much as I want, but it won’t sway him over, and I cannot resolve the party lines that are drawn within my body, through the fact of my being.

It is the whiteness, precarious and volatile. It is the Jewishness, to which I am officially denied a claim but with which I identify so strongly, in memory and in blood. It is the fact of my dad having married out, having never taught me Magyar, though I pestered him to as a child. It is the fact of an assimilation so rapid and successful that within a generation, for the most part, we have forgotten that Ashkenazi Jews ever were anything but white. In America and Australia and Britain, we have left behind the fact of being “ethnic,” blending so successfully with the general population that we are no more noticeable than flies.

I read about William Cooper in one of Gary Foley’s papers,2 a historical figure I had never heard of before; a Yorta Yorta man who saw Europe’s Jews as kindred:

In November 1938, throughout Germany a major Nazi pogrom was conducted against the Jewish community. This notorious event was dubbed kristallnacht and signalled a dramatic upsurge of violence […] Less than one month later, on December 6th 1938, on the other side of the world, a Victorian Aboriginal man, William Cooper, led a deputation of Kooris from the Australian Aborigines League, in a visit to the German Consulate in Melbourne where they attempted to present a resolution “condemning the persecution of Jews and Christians in Germany.” The Consul-General, Dr. R.W. Drechsler, refused them admittance.

Like the Jews, Indigenous Australians were rounded up, incarcerated, subjected to eugenic experimentation — though the latter came, for Indigenous people, not at the hands of a single demonic figure like Mengele, but through a state-sponsored program of child removal designed to rescue the light-skinned and breed out the rest.

In the way in which you learn about something for the first time, only to have it arise again almost immediately, I hear through a Jewish friend about a playwright, Elise Hearst, who is writing about this incident. It is being co-authored by one of Cooper’s descendants, Andrea James, and swiftly turns from a period piece to a metafiction; the threads are so entangled between James and Hearst, and the relationship so complex, that the two women wind up onstage as actors, re-enacting the fraught lines between them; their bloodlines, the history of their ancestors, the stories they carry in their skin.

When the play is staged, I cannot make it, but I listen to excerpts on the radio thirstily. I have never heard anything like this before, and yet it seems deeply familiar, as though dredged out of my body and my brain. It is comic, it can’t help being comic, as when Andrea, lightly fictionalized, confronts Elise about the fact that a white actor is playing a Tamil ancestor:

ANDREA: First all you white people nearly exterminate us, then when there are virtually no roles left for black people on stage and TV, you want to take our roles, too!

ELISE: I’m not a white person!

ANDREA: Aren’t you?

ELISE: No! I’m Jewish, I didn’t do that stuff to your people. In fact I empathize with your suffering. Didn’t you see me in that last scene getting hurled into a garage, beaten and degraded?3

I’m not a white person. Aren’t you? In Hungary, where István the First declared that to become Catholic was to become part of Europe, and where Jews and pagans were ostracized, uncoupled from national identity by their refusal to convert, we weren’t white; in the beginning decades of the 20th century, where race and ethnicity were entangled in a hundred different ways, we weren’t white. Under Hitler’s fictitious and cynical categorizations of the Jews as a race, bound by eugenic claims that would be “substantiated” in horror, we weren’t Aryan, we weren’t citizens, we weren’t white.

But when the boat carrying my grandparents and my father crossed the equator, and the hemispheres shifted beneath the waves, a transmutation took place, one that rippled like a tide from the banks of Australia’s shores and back toward them again: “not-white” became, in policy and thought, a less pressing category than “not-black.” In this way, we took our assimilation from visible contrast to a much, much darker race, one that did not yet have full recognition under the law, as European émigrés immediately were granted. To be European became geographic, not ideological; almost as soon as we stepped upon the shores, we became cosmopolitan and the persecution ceased.

If white guilt, as Eula Biss writes,4 stems from the same root as white debt, then the debt I think about is not the small one: the debt we owe William Cooper for extending us the recognition of our humanity, when he himself was denied it by government, was not even let into the building to present his petition, in fact. What I think about is the far, far greater indebtedness we bear, as Ashkenazis, to all of those with black and brown and Asian skins. Because whether we think of ourselves as white or not, and whether or not we desire the privileges and protections of that whiteness, we could only have obtained its protections while the nation’s punitive racial agenda was bearing down elsewhere.

The small debt, to an extent, has been repaid. There is a history of Jewish involvement in the fight for Indigenous rights of which we can justly be proud. But I inch when I think of the thousands of years for which the Jews existed successfully as a diaspora, and the ease by which that diaspora has displaced others in order to survive, not heeding, or deliberately repressing, the damage. To open our schmatte factories and to educate our children, to live safely without fear of persecution, we have taken land that is not ours to take, broken spiritual ties, severed connections to country that can never be restored.

And whether or not it was done in innocence, it makes me burn with shame. I carry that shame in my body, next to my father’s stroppy agnosticism and my grandmother’s survivor’s guilt. I feel it when I think of everything I have gained from assimilation, and everything others have lost. It is the question beneath the question, a plea for absolution. I empathize with your suffering. Didn’t you see me suffering, too?

***

That Jews are reputed to be neurotic, possibly epigenetically, that we are paranoid, that we suffer from persecution complexes, is easy to understand. We have always packed up quietly and left in the night, melting away into the darkness before the bread has had a chance to rise.

Buts the paranoia cuts both ways. Because of our rapid assimilation, because of our ability to mimic and impersonate — the Jews in Hollywood, the Jews in comedy — we could be anyone, anywhere. At the root of countless conspiracy theories we are there, secretly, controlling the media or America or the banks. Like a potato creeper taken for jasmine, or a tomato mischaracterized as a vegetable when really it is a fruit; to be Jewish is to be a simulacrum, so near to the thing itself that you are indistinguishable until somebody looks too close.

After Owen is born, and as I sink swiftly into depression, and am no longer fooling anybody, I walk all over Footscray, pushing the baby and narrating my steps, as suggested by the hospital psychologist; it is supposed to ground you to say the things you are doing at the moment that you are doing them, to narrow your scope to the immediacy of voice and breath. What I think about instead is the land as it must have been just a whisper ago, before the boat carrying my father arrived, before the boat carrying my mother’s ancestors arrived. I wonder what songlines I am tracing as I walk around the river, comforting myself with the fact that I am not fit to carry them anyway, and envy the pakeha women at the park, white New Zealanders, for their casual naming of things to their children: paihamu, rakiraki, kikorangi.

I pace the river alone in part because I have no mothers’ group. When Owen is born, I attend fortnightly health checks with the maternal and child health nurse, making sure that he is okay, although increasingly she turns her attention toward me, using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS), a set of screening questions that gives a rudimentary idea of whether a patient is suffering or not.

The nurse apologizes for the fact that there is no mothers’ group currently available, though I have no actual desire to attend one.

“Usually we would be able to put you in touch with some new mums in your suburb,” she says, “but there haven’t been that many Caucasian women giving birth lately . . .”

And seeing my bewildered look: “The Ethiopian women usually organize theirs at church. And the Vietnamese and Chinese women have their own support systems in place.”

These closed systems segregate us into small parcels — mothers and babies coping with fundamentally similar circumstances in sometimes radically different ways. I wonder about these other mothers as I see them walking toward me in the park, most often with their babies covered by screens or light blankets draped over the front of their prams. The Vietnamese mothers in particular seem paranoid about the sun, barely letting it fall on their babies’ skin. I get told off by an old man outside the market for taking Owen for a five-minute walk to the pharmacy in full view of the sky.

Are these women like me, are they swiftly sinking, too? I do not ask and I do not have the language to ask; in my plummeting state I cannot seem to get my voice to reach beyond the surface of my skin.

***

When I later try to figure it out, there is no clear answer to be found. Cross-cultural studies on the subject are only just coming into being, qualitative research admitted into the study of women’s experiences after years of being considered “fringe.” Anthropological findings from the early ’80s seemed to determine that postpartum mental illness is a Western issue only; that the postpartum rituals of other countries, built around succoring and honoring the mother and newborn child, successfully inured them from disease. But more recent studies suggest that these results came from the fact that non-Western women don’t often conceptualize postpartum sadness and fear as being medical rather than cultural.

The EPDS questionnaire I fill in at the maternal and child health nurse’s office seems so far to be the best study tool cross-culturally, with its ten weighted questions of behavior and mood:

I have been able to laugh and see the funny side of things:

  • As much as I always could
  • Not quite as much now
  • Definitely not so much now
  • Not at all

            I have blamed myself unnecessarily when things went wrong; I have felt scared or panicky for no good reason; I have been so unhappy I have had trouble sleeping.

When the questionnaire is translated into other languages, the responses across study populations are remarkably stable; conservatively, at least one woman in ten scores highly enough on this questionnaire to be considered seriously depressed cross-culturally, with the figure rising to about one in seven when self-reporting is conducted in Western nations. I think about all the women I see walking around Footscray, and the women who would have been forcibly removed from this land once, and their descendants, and wonder how they are coping and whether there is a language for their suffering.

I read Dana Jack, on the self-silencing behavior that comes with severe depression. To the nexus of selfhood and social pressure, she brings the brunt of feminist thought to bear:

Self-silencing is prescribed by norms, values, and images dictating what women are “supposed” to be like: pleasing, unselfish, loving. As I listened to the inner dialogues of depressed women, I heard self-monitoring and negative self- evaluation in arguments between the “I” (a voice of the self) and the “Over-Eye” (the cultural, moralistic voice that condemns the self for departing from culturally prescribed “shoulds”). The imperatives of the Over-Eye regarding women’s goodness are strengthened by the social reality of women’s subordination . . . Inwardly, they experienced anger and confusion while outwardly presenting a pleasing, compliant self trying to live up to cultural standards of a good woman in the midst of fraying relationships, violence, and lives that were falling apart.5

In the time that I am sick, nobody tells me that I am a bad mother. Nobody tells me that my history of depression means that I should never have risked having a child, though I overhear friends talking about the fact that they don’t want their children inheriting their genes, their own illnesses, and I wonder what it says about me that I took this risk so blithely.

I am lucky, if wanting to die is lucky, that my illness is culturally sanctioned by the Over-Eye; it is not just that I am culturally, acceptedly neurotic, but that my face is the face of the suffering women’s canon. Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Winona Ryder in Girl Interrupted: the tragic and creative white woman is such a well-known figure that our fragility and need for protection is automatically assumed — I know walking out over a ledge that there will most likely be somebody there to catch me.

I know this isn’t the case for everybody, and I know how few resources there are out there. I know that others need this help as much or more, but I have long ago lost the ability to feel shame about my choices. I have my white skin, my eyes that are green from crying, my polished middle-class vocabulary, and my nice home and healthy white child. My whiteness is a tool in my arsenal and I use it for all that it is worth, because it is one of the things that gets me sympathy and attention, and, ultimately, the means to stay alive.

At the same time, I can’t stop thinking about these other women, the ones who don’t have recourse to benign stereotypes, only harmful ones, who are supposed to be better at suffering, or more accustomed to it, anyway. There are women for whom the Over-Eye is judgmental and pervasive, the result of political, physical, and social marginalization that is very present and very real; women who are rightly wary of doctors, whose families expect their constant strength or whose priests simply ask them for more faith in God. And I wonder how they cope and how their children cope.

When I think of these women, I do not wish to speak for them, or over them. I do not wish to speak on behalf of these women, whose communities close ranks around them protectively, who wander by the river with their heads full of clouds or dreams. It is just that the problem goes so far, it spreads so wide. And I feel that at least part of my life’s work is to bear witness.

***

If I try to unravel what became of my Judaism, I can follow the threads back to adolescence, the time when my parents steer me away from it the most.

“We wanted to keep you away from the poetry of it,” my mother says years later, though I can’t remember in what context. For what she and my father intend, it is smart. We always have a Christmas tree and a menorah, an Easter and Seder, and they tell us tolerantly that we can choose what we want to be when we grow up. But all along there is the Father Christmas problem. If you grow up believing in God and are never disabused, that is one thing; but how can you choose to believe if He has never been in your heart?

My Jewish psychiatrist nearly falls out of his chair laughing when I ask him about this. “You don’t have to believe in God!” he says. “Of course you can be a secular Jew.”

I am in my late 20s, and it is almost the very first time I have heard the term. With all of my busy analyzing and unpicking and deconstructing, it has still never occurred to me that some of the things I learned before I knew what they meant were wrong.

Mostly I long for the consolation of a foundational good act. A bar or bat mitzvah is essentially this — an agreement with the community and God to obey law, which is knowledge, and to be responsible for your actions; to perform mitzvoth — good deeds — in order to enrich the community and prepare the world for a more holy day. It is also your responsibility to atone, on Yom Kippur; without a dedicated day of atonement I find I get wrapped up in grieving, with a sense of furious helplessness, the things my white skin and good education and enough money represent.

There is no such thing as “good enough,” I suspect, because “good enough” is a state of grace. I don’t know if I will ever stop feeling as though I am a double agent. That is the privilege of passing; it makes you invisible. In Australia, far from the rest of the world, it can feel like an academic argument, but I look at the rise of anti-Semitism in Hungary and in Poland, and the voters who rally behind American presidential candidates with white supremacist slogans and tattoos,6 and know that I might not be able to hide in plain sight forever. And I wonder whether the fact that I can and that I do makes me cowardly, or craven, or just pragmatic, and tired of arguing.

***

Today is Rosh Hashanah, and I think of my grandfather, lightly, as I walk through the blossoming backstreets. Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, marks the day Papa died, after a long slow week in which we all gathered around him. Today, front yards are over owing with bloom, little buds trusting that the thin warmth of early September sunshine will strengthen and nourish their transition into flowers.

I have trouble remembering the actual date of Papa’s death; the Jewish holidays oat, they are not stable signifiers. I try to learn the turn of the year by the natural world. Here in Kulin country, Melbourne, the year hinges on the turn of the seven seasons, and the two overlapping seasons of food and fire. Iuk (eel); Waring (wombat); Guling (orchid); Poorneet (tadpole); Buath Gurru (grass-flowering season); kangaroo apple; Biderap (dry season).7 There are life cycles that are closely observed, times of scarcity and of abundance. It seems infinitely more sensible than our imported calendar year, with its public holidays for Christmas and Easter, horse races and football matches.

The law says that any branch overhanging a boundary is a common good; it is the rule of summer harvests in the inner suburbs. For years, Mike thought that I was brazenly stealing lemons and pomegranates from our neighbors, not understanding how the system worked. Now I gather armfuls of the natives that have presaged the blossoms in their confidence. I take a sprig here, a sprig there. By the time I arrive home, my arms are over owing with wax and prickly wattle.

Before my grandparents bought their house, its land had been part of a large, sprawling orchard. Deep root systems connected the earth between their backyard and the neighboring yeshiva. Now my mother is making over the garden in rambling color, overwriting its history, once again, with olive trees, a fig, kitchen herbs, and a jacaranda.

Those growths and overgrowths are a wind blowing a few fragments of sand across the surface of a rock, nothing more. In the long view of history, I know that I am an ant, and this thought is oddly comforting. But of course, it’s just a theory that time travels in one direction, or “travels” at all. It’s funny how linked the language of the passage of time is with the idea of heading elsewhere, journeying, meandering — how shot through with the logics of motion.

I find, too, that to write about walking is to come across all kinds of metaphors involving feet and shoes. A lot of them are to do with independence: to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps, for example, or to stand on your own two feet. Others have to do with empathy: to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, or walk a mile in them. But the one I keep coming back to embodies the ambiguity and ambivalence of my own position, with its undertones of split allegiance. It is that I have a foot in both camps.

When I open my computer after getting home, I find an op-ed an American rabbi, Gil Steinlauf, has written for The Washington Post, adapted from his Rosh Hashanah sermon. In it, he calls on Jews to abandon their whiteness, having gained everything from it, in order to be representative of a God invested in equality and tolerance. I am struck not just by the extreme clarity of the message, but by his positioning of the feeling of living in an existential border territory as being innate to the work of being a Jew:

Through the centuries, our moments of power have been all too fleeting. Mostly, our hope has been to be tolerated. From our place at the periphery, we have responded always with the ability to critique injustice, to adopt the cause of the oppressed, to envision a better and more just world. Even in times when we participated fully in non-Jewish societies, we always knew that we stood with one foot in the mainstream, and one foot outside.8

It is idealistic, but it is the kind of idealism I clutch on to, in order to keep myself and my treacherous body in check. As I get older, I think sometimes about finding a Progressive congregation, perhaps with a radical feminist rabbi, someone to talk to about this feeling of always encompassing division of some kind. I want my son to grow up feeling Jewish, whatever that is; but not the unwavering Orthodoxy of my grandfather, nor Dad’s symmetrical intolerance of its excesses.

I want Owen to grow up with a sense of being something other than male and white, not just for political reasons but because there is something else, innate to me, that I still struggle to express. I want him to sit at a Seder table waiting nervously to stumble his Hebrew and ask the four questions, and to learn that our bread is flat because, fleeing as slaves, there was no time for it to rise; that we eat bitter herbs to remind us of the bitterness of slavery; that we dip our food in salt water, then honey, to symbolize the replacement of our tears with gratitude for the sweetness of our freedom; that we recline on our cushions because we can do so — we are free.

Because Dad is so contrary, he has named himself as a grandfather not Papa, but Opa. “A German name!” says my grandmother in disgust. “It’s what Greeks say as they smash their plates,” he tells her in response. Occasionally we still take walks together, him pushing Owen along briskly to set the pace. Our conversations are more mellow now that I have a child, and now that he has seen me go to a place of sheer helplessness, where I am not equipped with stinging barbs or witty replies. There are still small barbs — things don’t change entirely — but they are little barbs of love that bind me to his side.

On the days I work, I take Owen to my parents’ place, and he and my mum romp and play, and often visit Nagyi in her small flat. After her own fall, she moved out of the house, which my parents are renovating so that she can return when the day comes, with a chair to take her up and down the stairs. Owen learns to walk more or less in the corridors of Sheridan Hall, leaning on Nagyi’s Zimmer frame for support as he stumbles over his feet.

Mum sends me proof-of-life photos during the day. When Dad gets home he sits in his customary place on the couch, and Owen wiggles up beside him. From time to time I receive a photo of them sitting side by side, Dad eating his almonds and reading the paper, Owen “reading” a book of his own. In the background, I know, at a low hum, the footy is on. Owen snuggles into Dad, into the softness of one of his old, ratty jumpers, and I know exactly what scent he will be breathing in, as I know the scent of my son’s milky head. It is the same jumper Dad used to wear in the mornings at least 25 years ago. It is more or less disintegrating into threads now, but no one can convince him to throw it out.

* * *

From The Things That Helped: On Postpartum Depression by Jessica Friedmann, published by FSG Originals on April 10, 2018.  © 2018 by Jessica Friedmann. All rights reserved.

A longer version of this essay appears in Friedmann’s collection, under the title “Walking.”

***

[1] Kellerman NP. “Epigenetic Transmission of Holocaust Trauma: Can Nightmares be Inherited?” Israeli Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences 2013, 50(1):33–9.

[2] Foley, Gary. “Australia and the Holocaust: a Koori Perspective.” The Power of Whiteness and Other Essays. Aboriginal Studies Occasional Paper (1). Melbourne: Centre for Indigenous Education, University of Melbourne, 1999.

[3RN Books and Arts. “New Play explores Aboriginal and Jewish Experience.” Segment presented by Michael Cath- cart, May 11, 2016.

[4] Biss, Eula. “White Debt: Reckoning What Is Owed — and Can Never be Repaid — for Racial Privilege.” New York Times Magazine, December 2, 2015.

[5] Jack, Dana Crowley, and Ali, Alishia (eds). Silencing the Self Across Cultures: Depression and Gender in the Social World. London: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[6] The Australian edition of this book went to print around the time of Trump’s inauguration; I am looking at these words, six months later, in order to make revisions for an American readership, and reading at the same time in the news about synagogue services in Texas that have gone underground for fear of neo-Nazi attack. In fact, we do not say “neo-Nazi” anymore; the armies of Trump-styled white men who have assembled in the streets of Charlottesville are named as Nazis, nothing less. It is Rosh Hashanah today, and I am trying to navigate a world in which White Supremacists chant “Jews will not replace us!” as they attempt to beat the shit out of black bodies in full daylight, aware that there will be no consequences.

While the anti-Semitic rhetoric and hatred has come out of hiding, and while it is almost a relief to put an end to the gaslighting, the feeling of paranoia, it is still overwhelmingly black bodies that are most directly affected by physical and structural violence, even when it is our name that is being invoked. The situation for non-Ashkenazi Jews, black Jews, and the Mizrahi and people of color must be almost unbearable. I don’t want to see what the next month brings, let alone the New Year — but I have baked an apple cake anyway, and let my son lick the spoon — and hope that all of us can have a moment of peace, of rest, before the onslaught begins again. L’shanah tova to anyone reading this endnote, and may the work of our next year be an attempt to disentangle ourselves from a hierarchy that offers us only conditional acceptance, and to throw ourselves into a social justice in which black lives matter.

[7] I learned of these cycles as an adult, and immediately wondered why I hadn’t known about them as a child. Owen will have better knowledge, though: the Bureau of Meteorology has been incorporating Indigenous Weather Knowledge into its forecasts since 2002, and now gives information on a dozen weather systems around the country.

[8] Steinlauf, Gil. “Jews in America Struggled for Decades to Become White. Now We Must Give Up Whiteness to Fight Racism.” The Washington Post, September 22, 2015.

Chasing Drinks with Lies, and Lies with Drinks

Illustration by Courtney Kuebler

Katie MacBride | Longreads | April 2018 | 11 minutes (2,641 words)

 

They found me outside my cubicle, flat on the ground, wearing my winter coat, with my purse slung over my shoulder. I had worked there less than two months. I took the position because, six months after graduating college, I still didn’t have a “real” job, no matter how much I tried to convince myself that sporadic babysitting gigs amounted to what was listed on my resume as “professional nanny.”

The job was in Chicago; before I took it, I was living with my parents in my childhood home in California. I was sleeping in my childhood bedroom, working essentially the same job as I had in high school. My entire existence felt like glaring proof of my failure to become an adult, as if I were trapped in a kind of pre-adulthood purgatory — one I would have done anything to escape. So I took a job I didn’t want, in a city that was cold and unfamiliar and where I knew exactly one person, my sister. With lofty and wildly inaccurate ideas about how fun having me around might be, my sister invited me to live with her until I found a place of my own.

Two months into my time in Chicago, when they found me passed out in front of my cubicle, it wasn’t hard for them to figure out who to call on the way to the hospital. There was still only one number with a Chicago area code in my phone.

***

I don’t remember any of that, of course. I only remember waking up on a gurney in an emergency room that looked like every other one I’d ever found myself in. There had been a lot of them. Two years earlier, I had spent nearly a month in the hospital, after doctors performed two emergency surgeries on my colon. It was a congenital defect, a sleeper cell in my body since birth, waiting to explode.

Was it happening again? I had been having stomach problems;more specifically, I had been shitting blood. I looked around the fluorescent chaos of the ER for a doctor to whom I could tell my medical woes. What I would not tell a doctor — what wouldn’t even occur to me to mention — is that I’d been drinking a fifth of vodka every day for the past six months.

Read more…

Bang and Vanish

Great white heron / Getty Images

Janice Gary | Longreads | April 2018 | 20 minutes (5,587 words)

 

The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap …

— Ted Hughes, “Wind”

 
We had been in Key West only five hours when the shit hit the fan. Six fans. One in the kitchen, two in the living room, one in the bedroom, and the two in the dining room where my dog lay on a red oriental rug panting incessantly, his sleek black-and-white body trembling from head to tail.

I squatted next to Winston and pressed my hand against his chest. His heart beat erratically. “What happened?” I asked my husband.

He ignored the question. “Where the hell were you? I called. I texted.”

“I turned off the phone,” I said. “I’m sick. I didn’t want you to wake me.”

“Well you’re awake now.”

I was awake alright. Awake and alarmed. Winston stared out into space, his eyes glassy and unfocused. It seemed like he didn’t even know I was there. “Are you going to tell me what happened?”

“I don’t know,” Curt said. “One minute he was walking down Duval Street with me and the next thing I know he could hardly move. I had to carry him home the last two blocks.”

Instinctively, my hand moved to Winston’s belly. The first thought was bloat — a twisted gut, always a possibility for large-chested breeds like his boxer–pit bull mix. But his stomach wasn’t distended. I pulled back his lips. Pale gums. Not a good sign. I considered taking him to an emergency clinic but simply walking through the door of one of those places could cost hundreds of dollars.

“Take him now,” my sister screamed over the speakerphone. She said it could be anything — bloat, internal bleeding, a brain hemorrhage. After hanging up, Curt and I looked at each other suspended in a trance of uncertainty. My sister was known for histrionics when it came to health, canine or otherwise. I asked Winston what he wanted to do. Like Jesus rising from the dead, he got up on shaky legs and walked to the front door. “I guess we’re going,” my husband said.

***

We hadn’t even been in town long enough to unpack. This was not a vacation. It was something bigger, a trial run for living and working on the edge — the southernmost edge of the country — a jumping-off point for artists and eccentrics who had one foot on the ground and the other on something much less solid. But the endeavor felt jinxed from the start. Leaving three days before New Year’s Eve, we ran smack into holiday traffic and an accident that had us crawling through the state of South Carolina for hours. In Georgia, we passed a burnt-out carcass of a car frame — a stark reminder that one wrong lane change could end everything. Even worse, for most of the trip my husband was sick with a terrible cold, which, despite my best germ-avoidance techniques, left his body and began to assault mine by the time we reached the Florida state line.

***

Winston’s crisis gave us our first lesson in what it was like to live in the Florida Keys. Outside the ubiquitous convenience/liquor store, all-night resources were far-flung and limited. The only emergency veterinary clinic in the entire island chain was 50 miles away in Marathon. And there was only one way to get there — U.S. 1, the Overseas Highway — heading back in the direction we had come.

Usually, driving on the Overseas Highway thrilled me in a way nothing else could. It was all sea and sky, the waters a liquid kaleidoscope changing from aqua to olive to cerulean to a million shades of turquoise with the slightest shift of light or shading of cloud. I loved that water so much that my last will and testament included a map indicating the exact spot on Bahia Honda where I wanted my ashes scattered. But at 1 in the morning with no moon, an invisible sea, and the threat of rain in the sky, the only thing out there was a black void, and in that void I saw another road, the one we had traveled earlier that day, traversing a sea of grass into a time and place where the confluence of the ordinary and the mythical appeared out of nowhere and disappeared just as quickly.

***

Coming down we had driven from Naples to Homestead on the Tamiami Trail, an old two-lane highway connecting the west coast of Florida to the east at the southernmost tip of the state. The trail, named for its Tampa-to-Miami route, bored straight through the heart of the Everglades as part of the Army Corps of Engineers’ earliest attempts in the 1920s to drain the Big Cypress Swamp.

The asphalt unspooled across a vast expanse of grass, extraordinary in an ordinary way, full of nothing but sun, sky, sedge, and glittering water concentrated in concrete canals, which constricted the rivers that once flowed freely. The only visible wildlife were birds — predators mostly: falcons, egrets, herons, and cranes arcing in wide circles high above the marshes, searching for their next meal.

Somewhere mid-route, a large white heron flew out of a tree and soared across the road in the direction of a drainage ditch on the other side. As the bird made its descent, I turned my attention to my iPhone and some god-knows-what internet headline. Suddenly, my husband yelled out, “Shit! What the hell?” His voice was so startling I immediately looked up from the phone, and there, on the tarmac in front of us, saw what he was screaming about — a mangled white bird body, its twisted white plumage flapping in the breeze.

Then it — and we — were gone.

“It was that van,” my husband said, motioning toward the windshield. Two cars ahead, an old tan minivan slowed and wobbled toward the shoulder.

“The bird was flying across the road, when bang, just like that! It went straight down into the path of the van.”

I turned to the passenger window and studied the landscape of the Glades. Sun glinted silver on a patch of water. Two hawks soared against a blue-white sky. I felt my heart drop into my stomach. “This is not good,” I said.

“What do you mean?” my husband asked.

“A white heron dying like that. It’s a bad sign.” As the words left my lips, I felt a weight pressing on both of us.

***

I come from superstitious people, Eastern European Jews who created elaborate rituals and mythic narratives as a way to elude the dangers of poverty, death, and religious persecution. Safe was never safe. Brides could be raped and killed while traveling to meet their grooms in the next village. Boys sent out for milk might end up with their heads lopped off by drunken Cossacks sweeping through town. The only way to control the uncontrollable was through tricks of the mind, making deals and appeals to the demons, the dybbuks lurking just out of sight.

Growing up, my mother wouldn’t let us pass over open safety pins. Bad luck, she’d say. So was walking back into a house once the door had been locked. But all the closed safety pins and doors in the world didn’t stop me from walking out the door one morning to find my father dead in our driveway, a suicide finally carried out after years of threats. It didn’t protect me from being taken down and raped on a dark street far from home. Still, or maybe because I know bad shit can happen anytime, anywhere, I look for signs.

‘A white heron dying like that. It’s a bad sign.’ As the words left my lips, I felt a weight pressing on both of us.

It’s complicated, this way of seeing the world. My default setting is not logic, but supposition, born of an overactive mind constantly searching for metaphor and meaning. As a student of Zen Buddhism, I’m fully aware that in order to see the true nature of things I must free myself from this web of delusion. “Life as it is,” my sensei says, which means a dead bird on the highway is just a dead bird on the highway. But I struggle with this. Magic and myth are part of my epigenetic inheritance. There is a crazy witch living inside me who constantly fights the clear-seeing samurai warrior on the Noble Eightfold Path. And although I’m embarrassed to admit it, more often than not, it’s the witch who wins.

***

After hitting the bird, the driver of the van pulled over and turned on their emergency blinkers. At first, I thought he had stopped to check on the bird, but no doubt he wanted to see if his car had been damaged. I pulled up Google and entered Great White Heron symbolism. There was some new age bullshit about taking a stand and finding stability. Another site said it represented following intuition. When I found a brief mention that the bird could represent death, I followed my intuition and stopped my search.

“It means death,” I told Curt at the time.

He gave me a puzzled look. “Whose?”

“My Mom. Maybe yours. That’s my guess.” Both of our mothers were in their 90s.

We continued on in silence. A large wooden totem loomed ahead, marking the Miccosukee Visitor’s Center, which advertised gator shows and airboat rides. I must have still been in shock from seeing the shattered bird; I remember how I longed to jump out of the car, hop on an airboat, and glide down that silver water, stopping time and movement to make sense out of what had just happened. But we continued on the Tamiami Trail to its terminus at Homestead where we picked up the Overseas Highway and made our way down the Keys while the cold germs settled into my body and the memory of the white bird fluttered in my head.

***

The emergency clinic was easy to find; it was one of the few places on Marathon that actually looked open for business at 2 a.m. We rung the bell and were buzzed in by a pleasant blonde woman who took us directly to an examining room. Within minutes, a young vet dressed in blue surgery scrubs entered. He bent down, listened to Winston’s heart with his stethoscope, and then stood up and studied him. Winston moved slowly across the tiled floor, wagging his tail half-heartedly when the vet called his name.

“I think your dog is stoned,” he said.

My husband and I looked at each other and shook our heads. “Stoned?” my husband asked. “How could he be stoned?”

Apparently there were many ways a dog could be stoned in Key West. A roach dropped on the sidewalk on top of an errant French fry. A piece of pot brownie discarded on the curb. A bud embedded in a splotch of ice cream, slurped up by a quick tongue. It seemed crazy. But possible.

Our mood lightened for a moment. If it was true, we’d have a great story to tell; our dog would forever be known as the Little Stoner. But even though he looked stoned and acted like it, I couldn’t shake the dread that followed me all the way down the highway to the clinic.

“What about internal bleeding?” Before leaving the house, I had done some quick research on Winston’s symptoms on the internet. It seemed like a possibility.

“Maybe,” he said. “But I’ve never seen a dog with internal bleeding wag their tail.”

That barely moving tail was a faint shadow of Winston’s usual boisterous greeting. The vet suggested my husband drive to the 24-hour Walgreens to buy a drug-testing kit. Who knew you get those things in a drug store? I hoped the test would prove he was stoned. But as I sat on the stool under the harsh fluorescence of the examining room, the white bird sat next to me, his mangled feathers fluttering like the panic in my gut.

“I could do an ultrasound if you want me to,” the vet said.

I wanted him to. He took Winston to the back. When he returned without him, his face told me what I had feared. “He’s bleeding.”

The foggy image on the ultrasound showed a swirl above his spleen. The X-ray that followed was clearer: a huge mass had ruptured and was spreading through his system. He needed to be stabilized immediately, the vet said. Then, the spleen would have to be removed. After that, a biopsy.

“Fifty percent of these masses are benign, fifty percent cancerous,” he explained. Our options were to operate and hope for the best. Or do nothing and have him die that night. There was no hesitation on our part. He was a young 11, puppy-like at an age some would say is old in a boxer. We were not ready to say goodbye.

Is anyone, ever?

***

We left Winston with the vet and drove back into the darkness. On the way home, bridge after bridge, key after key, I mentally dissected the incident of the white heron on the Tamiami Trail and compared it to what just happened. My husband saw the bird hit by the car but I only saw the aftermath. Curt witnessed the moment Winston went into shock; I only saw what happened after. Both events came out of nowhere, the bird doing what a bird does, the dog doing what he does, both taken down suddenly and in mid-movement. The similarities were startling.

My default setting is not logic, but supposition, born of an overactive mind constantly searching for metaphor and meaning.

One small detail gave me solace: We didn’t hit the bird, the van two cars ahead of us did. I clung to that distance of a few hundred feet as it were a lifeline. Maybe this meant Winston would be okay. Maybe this would be a close call and nothing else. Maybe, maybe, derived from the Old English may it be. Later that night, I repeated may it be in the form of a Buddhist metta chant recited over and over: May he dwell in the heart. May he be free from suffering. May he be healed. May he be at peace.

Some people push beads down a string as means of supplication. I pile words on top of words. Beads, prayer, paper, it’s all the same, an attempt to create order out of eternal chaos.

***

The surgery to remove Winston’s ruptured spleen was successful. (Dogs, like people, do not need spleens to survive.) He was sent home after three days at the vet with a cone over his head, a slew of medications, and a biopsy shipped off to a lab to determine whether the mass was cancerous. We picked him up just hours before my first memoir workshop began in Key West, one of three I would be teaching over the month. By the time we got back, I barely had enough time to run to the studio. After introductions, I gave the students a writing exercise and walked the art-filled hallways while they wrote, studying the work of local artists. The walls were covered with paintings of blue seas and tropical flowers. But my favorite piece was a 3-D installation of a baby doll with an eight ball around her neck entitled “Born to Lose.”

I wanted to buy that one.

***

The Friday after we brought Winston home, I sat on the oriental rug in the rental house, painting my toenails with polish while he lay beside me, his blocky black-and-white head ensconced in the plastic cone. Curt was out, making the rounds of the music clubs and I was still nursing the bad cold, sipping tea and watching the news. At one point, I got up to get something, and while looking at my dog or the television or anything but the floor, slammed my third toe against the hard plastic sole of the shoes I had thrown on the rug.

The pain was intense and familiar. I had broken my toes twice before — once right here in the Keys — and it felt a lot like those earlier injuries. Hoping it was just a bad sprain I iced it down and went to bed, leaving Winston to his deep sleep in the living room.

Sometime after midnight, I woke to the sound of Curt’s voice, alarmed and incredulous. Afraid that something was wrong with Winston, I jumped out of bed and stumbled into the living room. The dog was still sleeping on the rug where I left him. Curt was at the dining room table on his cell phone. When he saw me, he held the phone away from his mouth and whispered, “It’s Rob. He’s had a heart attack.”

Rob was Curt’s younger brother. He ate too much meat and worked ridiculous hours, but had no real health problems that we knew of. Now his wife Carmela was on the phone, speaking rapidly in her mixture of Tagalog and English, saying something about him losing oxygen on the way to the hospital. “He had a leg cramp,” she said. “We go to bed. I wake up, and he isn’t moving.”

The fan whirled above my head, still on high from when it was set for the afternoon heat. I stood there, shivering in my camisole and panties. In the dark of the dining room, the cell phone cast a ghoulish reflection on Curt’s face. “How is he?” I asked.

He stared into the phone and shook his head. “I’m not sure.”

***

The next day, I drove to an urgent care facility — a human one — and limped my way into the lobby. They showed me to a small examining room where I sat on a paper-covered table waiting for an X-ray machine to be rolled in. On the wall next to the table was a large print of a white heron standing in a mangrove hammock, its plumage as delicate as dandelion puffs in the wind.

“You again,” I said.

The X-rays came back, showing a break on the third toe of my right foot. The doctor taped it, gave me a couple Advil, and told me to rest and ice the toe. Putting my socks and shoes back on, I thought about how bad things supposedly came in threes. First Winston, then Rob. This toe would make three, wouldn’t it? I stared at the bird, as if it had the answer, but the beady eyes refused to meet mine. Before leaving, I snapped a picture of the heron with my phone camera, knowing I might need to prove — even to myself — that I had actually seen it.

Someone once told me that an aunt of hers was driving down the highway when a vulture flew into her windshield. “Can you imagine?” she asked.

Actually, yes, I can.


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By the time I returned from the clinic with my taped toe, Curt had found out that Rob had already gone into cardiac arrest before he arrived at the hospital. The doctors had induced therapeutic hypothermia, hoping to stem any further damage to his brain by reducing his core temperature. Within 24 hours, they would begin raising his temperature again and monitor his progress. All we could do was wait, which we were already doing for Winston’s prognosis. Both of them — and both of us — were in that limbo borderland between life and death, knowing and not knowing.

That night, I lay in bed half-awake and half-asleep. In this hypnagogic state, part of me was in the bed in the rental house, and part of me was in my closet at home, going through the shelf where I kept the box holding the ashes of Barney, my dog before Winston. In the dream, Winston entered the closet and jumped up, first on me, then as high as the shelf where Barney’s box was. Then he fell from the shelf. When he hit the floor, he was no longer Winston but rather a box — his own cremation box. At that point, I awoke with the dreaded certainty of what the pathology report would reveal.

The following week, the veterinary clinic called. Several times. I kept ignoring it, wanting to wait until our visit later that week to hear the news. Finally I took the call. Just as my half-dream predicted, the tests came back showing the mass was malignant. It was hemangiosarcoma, the aggressive and always fatal canine cancer they had warned me about when we first brought him in. “I’m sorry,” the woman on the other end of the phone said.

Both of them — and both of us — were in that limbo borderland between life and death, knowing and not knowing.

I hung up, refusing to feel anything. Winston lay at my feet, looking the perfect image of a healthy and vibrant dog. “You’re going to have a good couple of months,” I said to him. “I’ll make sure of it.”

Over the next few days, as Rob remained in a coma, both Curt and I began hearing stories about people who had come back from hypothermia-induced comas with varying degrees of success. A lot of them were okay, if not exactly 100% perfect. In a reversal from my usual pessimism, I began to see Rob recovered and back at his farm again. He’d have to retire from work, of course, but he’d come out of this. Finally, he’d be able to take it easy, enjoy his family, slow down some.

It felt good to envision good things. I wanted to imagine a happy ending was possible somewhere in all this mess. But the Gods were in a winter mood, even in Florida.

Unbeknownst to us, when we crossed the Tamiami Trail on our way to the Keys, strong upper-level disturbances were already headed in our direction. Fifty miles to the north, Palm Beach County would be hit a few hours later by a 90-mph tornado; to the east, gale-force winds would end up pounding the coast, ripping up whole sections of shoreline. Nothing appeared on the horizon as we drove, not the toxic blood pouring into the spleen of our sleeping dog, not the time bomb ticking in my brother-in-law’s chest, not the rogue wave of air building enough strength and momentum to slam a bird into the path of a tan minivan and onto the pavement.

The wind is always blowing something our way. We just never notice until it knocks us off our feet. This may be the Buddhist in me talking, but it’s also my experience.

***

Rob did not recover from the coma when his temperature was raised. The doctors told us that if the machines strapped to his chest, nostrils, and veins were removed, he would not be able to function. There was an intense and delicate conference call between Rob’s wife, Curt’s mother, a hospital chaplain, and us in Key West about unplugging life support. The decision was made to let him go. He would have to be moved to hospice where we would wait for nature to take its course. It felt unreal.

Almost immediately after hanging up the phone with Rob’s doctors, we jumped into the car and drove back down the Overseas Highway for Winston’s follow-up visit. While he bounced around the room, covering the vet and her assistant in kisses that were thinly disguised entreaties for the beef-flavored biscuits in the jar on the counter, the vet again explained the aggressiveness of this cancer. Our options were limited. Chemo would only give him a few weeks more — at best. She suggested herbs and supplements. Not to heal the cancer, she emphasized, but to help him live better. We left with the herbs and some hope, a little anyway.

The wind is always blowing something our way. We just never notice until it knocks us off our feet.

Not long after we rescued Winston from a kill shelter in West Virginia, when he was still less than a year old, Curt and I sat in our den and watched a blur of a dog zooming around in circles with a deflated chew toy in his mouth. He was so full of joy and energy, it filled the whole room. Out of nowhere, Curt said, “This one’s a shooting star.”

I remember the dread that flooded my body in that moment. The pronouncement felt like a prophecy, not just an offhand remark. I looked at this pup racing around the house and feared he was indeed a shooting star. And now the star was falling.

***

Rob took his last breath less than 24 hours after being taken off life support. His wife told us that the night before the heart attack, Rob stood in the kitchen and told her he loved her. A few weeks earlier, she said, he had paid off the house. She wondered if he knew. Was it even possible?

***

On New Year’s Eve, the day before Winston’s first bleeding incident, we had stopped in Naples to visit old college friends. Dave and Sally were hippies with brains, an engineer-turned-herbalist and an arts advocate who was using her expertise in fundraising and political networking to save the west coast of Florida from falling into the sea. They were delightful hosts, offering good food and drink and heady conversation. Even Winston had a blast, running around their five-acre property with their dog Bandit, at one point breaking into a giant box of Milk-Bones and grinning wildly when caught in the act, as if this were the greatest party ever.

Twenty-four hours after the great Milk-Bone caper, we’d found ourselves in an emergency veterinary clinic examining X-rays of a burst tumor. Could all that partying with our friend’s dog on New Year’s Eve have caused the rupture?

“It’s possible,” the vet had said when I asked about it. “But it doesn’t matter. It would have happened eventually.”

By this time, I understood the rupture was inevitable. But what about the cancer? Was there something I could have done to stop it from happening?

Now I did what I could do: mixed vitamins into Winston’s food, stuffed Chinese-herb capsules into duck-and-pea-flavored pill pockets, measured out 60 drops of mushroom extract twice a day. I had no idea whether I was really prolonging his life or rubbing a good luck charm in the form of an exotic-medicine bottle.

***

Our remaining time in Key West was spent in a kind of shell shock. We drank lovely cocktails — maybe too many of them — smoked pot, and haunted the streets, taking Winston with us as we walked in the valley of the shadow of death among tourists in Tommy Bahama shirts and drag queens in high heels and homeless men who slept curled up like dogs in their blankets under the covered porticos of closed churches and shops.

One month later, we walked down a hill behind my husband’s family’s church with friends and loved ones to spread Rob’s ashes. After the service, we all went back to Curt’s mother’s house and sat in the living room talking about the things families talk about when they have lost one of their own. We had brought Winston, who waited at home during the funeral and acted as a therapy dog while we talked, offering up kisses and comfort until, bored by the lack of food and action, he wandered over to the fireplace and sat down next to an immense basket of memorial flowers.

It was a striking scene, the black-and-white dog, the red-and-black fireplace, the towering display of white roses and pink-flecked lilies. I took a picture with my phone’s camera. It was so perfect it looked staged. Like in a magazine.

Not long after Winston’s pose, my husband walked him to the car and noticed that he seemed unusually unstable. In the car, Winston was restless, unable to sit down or stay still. By the time we arrived home, we knew for sure something was wrong. We drove to the after-hours vet clinic near our home, where an X-ray confirmed another bleed. “Could a tumor grow that fast in six weeks?” I asked.

“Yes,” the vet said. “That’s what this cancer does.”

She suggested putting him down. Curt and I sat in the bare room with our spacey dog debating whether to end his life. First we said yes. And then no. Then we asked Winston what he wanted to do. The door to the hall was open. Just like in Key West, he got up, walked into the lobby, and proceeded to the exit on the far end of the room, where he waited patiently to be let out.

For two days Winston was fine. Then, one evening, while napping in Curt’s office, he jumped off the couch and stood there glassy-eyed and immobile. This time, there was no discussion about taking him to the emergency clinic because we knew what was happening. As his symptoms worsened, he crept off to my office and curled up under my desk, obviously wanting to be alone.

In the morning, when I walked into the office, I didn’t expect he would still be with us. But he was. Kind of. He was obviously weak and unstable.

With each passing hour, he showed signs of being more alert, but my illusions about his prognosis were stripped away. I knew tumors were lining up inside him, each one with a fuse that varied between short and shorter. I called the animal hospital and scheduled a time later that afternoon for the euthanasia. By the time we arrived at the vet’s office, Winston had recovered enough to jump up on the assistant and give her kisses. It killed me to see it. This time, I didn’t ask him what he wanted to do. I didn’t give him a chance to walk to the door. I let it close, knowing it was shutting on both of us.

If there is anything more painful than this, I don’t know what it is.

***

According to a Mexican proverb, whatever you do on New Year’s Day is what you’ll be doing all year.

What I was doing: traveling, witnessing sudden turns in fortune, facing deaths, fighting a cold. Also: witnessing wonder, beauty, wide blue seas, and infinite night. And this: sitting in a veterinarian’s fluorescent-lit examining room made of tile and metal, looking past the nothingness in the air and seeing molecules filling empty space, watching the dance of the hidden and ever-present — the there, here, the here, there — all of it, revealed.

***

Aside from the pain of losing a loved one, Rob’s death set off a chain of repercussions that forced my husband and me to revisit our wills. As the younger brother of a man with no children, Rob was the next in line to receive most of what we had. Now, the legal mumbo jumbo of “what if” became alarmingly real: What if A is deceased before B, what if B is deceased before A, what if neither Beneficiary E nor F is alive …

In the lawyer’s office with its cherrywood bookcases and soaring windows, I could see my old-world grandmother huddled in the corner, saying Men tracht und Gott lacht. Yiddish for Men plan and God laughs.

Following the charts with their lines of succession, all I could think was, You’re right, grandma.

***

I have three advanced degrees and a healthy aversion to anything that smells like a cult. My religious life is focused on the here and now, or is at least a Buddhist’s attempt at it. Even so, I wear evil eye bracelets to ward off danger. Rings with precious stones that supposedly contain mystical powers. One of my bracelets is a mala made of skulls carved out of wood, a reminder that life is short and death ever-present. I stare at those skulls each morning as I slide them onto my bony wrist. You’d think I’d have gotten the message by now.

But nothing says death like death itself.

A few days before leaving Key West, things seemed to be settling down. Curt and I took a kayaking trip into the dense mangrove islands east of town. In the midst of the hammocks, the water was calm and easy, and I had no trouble paddling through the narrow root-lined passages. But by the time we headed back, a freshening breeze threaded the air and rain clouds hovered on the horizon. As we entered Cow Channel, the water was already churning with small whitecaps. I quickly fell behind. It was a struggle to not be blown off course.

Halfway across the channel, I saw a white heron fishing in the shallows. I called out to Curt, but he was too far ahead and the wind carried my voice away. Was the bird a sign? Did it mean we had finally come full circle?

In the middle of unruly waters with a wind that seemed bent on turning me around, there was no time to dwell on it. Maybe it was a sign, or maybe I was just a woman in a small boat with a big need to believe. Keeping an eye on the sky, I grabbed the double-bladed paddle and pushed against the current, determined to outrun the dark clouds.

The rain began just as I pulled into the dock.

***

One year later, I stood on that same dock. Now, planks of fresh pine outnumbered the weathered wood. Except for those boards and a couple of blue-tarp roofs jutting out above the tree line, it seemed hard to believe that only three months before a monster hurricane named Irma roared into this channel carrying the sea on its back. Boats, buildings, and lives were destroyed. Bang! Just like that.

There is an old Zen saying: Everything changes.

And for now, I’m still here.
 

***

Janice Gary is the author of Short Leash: a Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance, winner of the Eric Hoffer Prize, Nautilus Book Award, and a finalist for the Sarton Award for Memoir. She is on the faculty of the Master of Liberal Studies Program at Arizona State University and conducts memoir workshops throughout the country. Her work has been published in River Teeth, Brevity, The Spring Journal, The Potomac Review, and other publications.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross

The Ladies Who Were Famous for Wanting to Be Left Alone

Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler In Their Library, engraving by Richard James Lane (Creative Commons)

 

Patricia Hampl | Excerpt adapted from The Art of the Wasted Day | Viking | April 2018 | 18 minutes (4,735 words)

 

On the night of Monday, March 30, 1778, an Anglo-Irish lady named Sarah Ponsonby, age twenty-three, the unmarried dependent of well-placed relatives (her parents long dead), slipped out of her guardians’ Georgian mansion in Woodstock, Kilkenny, the rest of the house asleep. She was dressed in men’s clothing, had a pistol on her, and carried her little dog, Frisk.

She made her way to the estate’s barn where Lady Eleanor Butler, a spinster sixteen years her senior, a member of one of the beleaguered old Catholic dynasties of Ireland (the Dukes — later the Earls — of Ormonde), was awaiting her, having decamped from stony Butler Castle twelve miles distant on a borrowed horse. She too was wearing men’s breeches and a topcoat.

Their plan, long schemed, was to ride through the night, the moon a bare sliver, to Waterford, twenty-three miles away on the coast, and from there to embark for England to live together somewhere (they had no exact destination) in “delicious seclusion.” Their goal was “Retirement,” a life of “Sentiment” and “Tenderness.”
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