“Intro to Nursing” by Jessica Watson
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. “Intro to Nursing” by Jessica Watson was the runner-up in TMR‘s 2021 Perkoff Prize competition. In this reflective essay, part confession, part elucidation of process, Watson gives the reader an inside view of the challenges faced by an early career nurse.
Intro to Nursing
Author note: All reports included in this essay are recreations; in the interest of protecting identity, they are not actual patient reports.
The first rule of diagnosis I learned in nursing school: a diagnosis must be stated in terms of a problem, not a need. In our simulation labs on the third floor of the School of Nursing and Health Studies at the University of Miami, we’re clad in hunter green scrubs, our school color, representing the leaves of the Florida orange tree. Our school’s mascot is the ibis: elegant, white, gangly wading bird—the last animal to take cover before a hurricane and the first to reappear afterward. We live in the most hurricane-prone state in the country: hurricane alley lies just offshore on a path that ends in our living rooms. Green amid swarms of white lab coats and blue scrubs, we nursing students are easily recognizable in the local hospitals: Jackson Memorial, the University of Miami Hospital, and Holtz Children’s Hospital.
As students, we learn to identify problems while thinking on our feet through encounters with simulated patients like the SimMan® 3G. Laerdal, a medical supply company, makes several lines of manikins for emergency, trauma, military, and nursing scenarios. There’s Crash Kelly, MegaCode Kelly™, and Extri Kelly, who I can only imagine needs to be extricated somehow. For peds, PICU, NICU, neonatal, and labor and delivery nurses: Premature Anne™, SimBaby™, and MegaCode Kid. Patient-care manikins like Nursing Anne, Nursing Kelly, and Next Generation Harvey®-the Cardiopulmonary Patient Simulator, prepare student nurses for the fundamentals. For complete disasters, there’s The Ultimate Hurt.
In crews of three or four nursing students, we enter the bay to greet our manikin reclining on a gurney. The sim lab educational team debriefs us with a few sparse details about Harvey Sims in advance: thirty-five-year-old man, came in with shortness of breath, history of peripheral vascular disease. The rest of the scenario plays out during our visit. Our visits are called encounters, and this distinction ups the ante. We’re not just visiting the manikin; we’re encountering him; we’re unexpectedly faced with something difficult or hostile. In the first few simulations, I’m paralyzed by the sight of Mr. Sims. He’s stiff as the diaphragm of my stethoscope, rubber skin pulled taut on his plastic frame, eyes and mouth in perpetual surprise. His face unnerves me, and the metal springs inside his ribcage squeak with every chest compression during CPR.
In sim lab, we fail the simulation if we don’t fake sanitize our hands. I train myself over and over to remember to reach for the pretend sanitizer pump on the pretend wall, mimic rubbing my hands together with sanitizer made of air. I exaggerate the performance, exclaiming how clean my hands feel. “I’m rubbing a golf-ball sized dollop of sanitizer for no less than twenty seconds until my hands are dry. I’m rubbing my palms, back of hands, fingers, and wrists. Now I’m letting it air-dry completely before moving on,” I say to the instructors observing us.
We rehearse the moves with our manikin Harvey before we use them on real people. “Hello, Mr. Sims. My name is Jessica, and I’ll be your nurse today.” I put my stethoscope on his stiff chest to listen for lung sounds. I take his pulse by putting my fingers on his wrist, where his thumb juts out rigidly. I shine the penlight in his eyes and pretend that his pupils have reacted. My encounter with Harvey involves so much playacting that I’m not sure where to look or what to think. Do I pretend he has a pulse? Do I maintain direct eye contact with his painted-on, permanently surprised eyes? Do I wait for the voice on the overhead speaker to shout out that his lung sounds are diminished?
The first step to solving a problem is being able to describe the human body as succinctly as possible. We distill the myriad components of what keeps everyone alive and healthy into systems, hemispheres, quadrants, markers, and metrics, which are compared to a baseline or “normal” standard—a mountainous task made more attainable through the use of shorthand.
The first time I see a nurse’s patient report in its entirety, I’m overtaken by anxiety. If I was the type to faint or hyperventilate into a full-blown panic attack, this would be the moment. Instead, I’m the type to hold the spring of boiling, frothing water in my throat so that my own volatility blisters my insides. I spend several months learning to decipher these reports. My anxiety is made more severe by the realization that soon my job will involve assuming responsibility for the safety, health, and well-being of each person under my care.
Even so, I can’t help but marvel at the ingenuity of the nurse’s report.
Patient 1 Report
|Patient Hx:||HIV, ESRD w/ HD, pericardial effusions|
|Neuro:||opens eyes, – commands, pupils sluggish|
|Respiratory:||desats to 70’s during suction; CPAP* 5/5/40% (*vent setting)|
|GU:||HD Tu, Th, Sa; anuric|
|GI:||1 liquid brown BM; OG @ 50 – osmolite 1.5 @ 35 ml/hr|
|Peripheral:||RUA fistula +/+, R foot amput.; RLQ blake drain; 4 lap sites|
|Labs:||BG 168/185; Na+ 134; all else WNL|
|Lines:||L SC CVC, L fem a-line, L AC #20|
|Drips:||vaso @ 0.04, neo/levo standby; precedex @ 0.4|
|To Do:||CT Head; Check CXR; T&S|
|Ask MD:||Na+ 134|
|Notes:||rec’d 1 unit PRBC’s à Tmax 100.2|
So much of what we learn is passed down from nurse to nurse, and this is also true of shorthand, which for the most part I learn on the unit. I study the way more senior nurses write their own reports and orders on the order sheets. Sometimes I’m given someone’s report in its entirety at shift change. RUA is right upper arm and RLQ is right lower quadrant. The shorthand for lines tells us whether it’s in a vein or artery and where on the body. The first time we lay eyes on a patient, even before, during report, we begin a critical thought process.
Peripheral refers to extremities, or limbs, as well as peripheral vascular findings. Peripheral is where I document assessment findings such as surgical drains, dressings, and wounds, fistulas for hemodialysis, and amputations. Peripheral also means skin. Skin tells a story. Patient 1’s Report tells us about hemodialysis three times a week and a fistula on the right upper arm where machine lines connect with blood vessels for cleaning. I put my finger on the fistula and feel a buzz like the throat of a purring cat. My fingers tickle. Using the small diaphragm of my stethoscope, I listen for a woosh, a bruit. If both are present, it’s patent, +/+ on the patient report. If neither are present, I have a problem.
The doctor diagnoses Patient 1 with HIV, End Stage Renal Disease, and pericardial effusions. The nurse might diagnose the patient with something related to fluid volume or risk for infection, given that the patient receives hemodialysis. A nursing diagnosis can change minute by minute, depending on the patient’s vitals and response to treatments. In practice, a nurse responds to the patient’s needs faster than the time it takes to formulate a nursing diagnosis, but nursing school emphasizes these diagnoses and care plans in an effort to train the student nurse to adopt a certain critical thought process. As a nurse gains more experience, nursing care begins to arise from something more akin to instinct. Like the night I leaned in the doorway of my patient’s room, number two on the liver transplant list, watching him try to sleep, sensing that something was off. First a simple question: “Do you know where you are?” Then drawing a blood gas, alerting the team, rolling a ventilator to his doorway to keep on standby.
My first job taking care of real patients is critical care nurse in a multisystem intensive care unit in Orlando. The streets here don’t flood like they do in the city of my alma mater, but we find ourselves inside the cone of probability enough to adopt the ritual of annual hurricane prep. I’m on the hurricane team my first two years on the unit. Team A for Hurricane Michael, which means I sleep over and work the two day shifts on either side of my sleepover. Team B for Hurricane Irma, which means I work the day after the hurricane, when the power is out across most of the city and downed trees still line the roads.
The nurses on the unit range from fresh out of nursing school to veterans of twenty or thirty years. Every new nurse goes through a rigorous sixteen-week training program with an assigned mentor, which includes additional study outside of work. Our patients are the sickest of the sick, except for some in CVICU or lung transplant. We get our share of liver and kidney failure, transplants fresh from surgery, end-stage diseases, respiratory failure, sepsis, complicated GI surgeries, and chronic care patients. We wrap our code cool patients in Arctic Suns, affix pads to their skin which circulate cold water that drops core temps to 32-34°C: therapeutic hypothermia. We have a fair number of transfers to hospice or palliative care, plus withdrawal of life. Sometimes we get laterals from neuro or a patient with heart failure awaiting transfer to CVICU.
I’m assigned the color royal blue for my unit. My scrubs are Cherokee, Grey’s Anatomy, and Healing Hands. I buy a pair of New Balance memory foam sneakers and compression socks with rainbow stripes and polka dots. The socks compress at 15-20 mmHg and imprint ridges on my calves. It’s a 10-percent discount if I show my hospital badge.
I buy scrub pants with as many pockets as possible: two on the seat, two in front, with a pocket or two nested inside each, and the occasional added thigh pocket. On the loop of my thigh pocket, I clip a hemostat, ready to go. Hemostats resemble scissors but grip like needle-nose pliers. Of all my tools, this tool has most often bailed me out of a bedside situation, elbow deep in a “clean” procedure I can’t step away from. The grippers on the nose loosen any tubing wrenched too tight, needed in a pinch when changing and troubleshooting lines.
My EKG calipers ride my pockets next to the pens, ready to measure the distances on a heart-rhythm strip. Each patient has a unique heart rate and rhythm. The peaks, troughs, and distances between them, each accentuation, tells us where in the heart the beat originates and how long it takes the chambers to fill with blood and squeeze. All the heart songs are printed on scrolls every four hours and glued to paper. I unclamp each patient’s three-ring binder, put the strips in their rightful place. Scanning morning labs, I rub the critical labs bright with yellow highlighter, make them pop with alarm. Orders must be written with a black pen, so I carry several.
Before I enter the patient’s room to assess them and determine problems, I sanitize my hands. Then again after I touch anything in the room, again before touching the patient, and again after touching the patient, and once more outside the room. In nursing lingo, this is known as “the five moments of hand hygiene.” I’ve abbreviated “the moments” because they specify “after body fluid exposure/risk, and before clean/aseptic procedures,” as well.
Usually, I think of a “moment” as being a more intimate occasion. Perhaps even a momentous one. That might be the intention of calling them “moments”: to transform hand hygiene into an inviting self-care experience—a sort of rebranding of infection prevention as a self-indulgence. At the least it’s a helpful mnemonic device. Here, take a moment for yourself while pausing in the hall just outside your patient’s room. Drop a glob of sanitizer in your palm and rub your palms together as you breathe in and out. Take this moment, and every other moment of hand hygiene, just for you.
A single piece of paper determines my plan of care for the day. It’s the nurse’s patient report, given at 0650 then again at 1850, plus any notes, labs, meds, or other details I’ve scribbled onto the sheet. Sometimes I forget the sheets in my pocket when I wash my scrubs. In the drum of the washer, the paper disintegrates into a million pieces that coat my pant legs and sleeves like a light dusting of snow. I wash and rewash the scrubs, then pick the remainders of white pulp off the valleys of my pocket seams. By the end of day, the paper will be softened like butter by folding and unfolding, moved in and out of my scrub pockets a hundred times. Sometimes I check my pockets just to make sure it’s still there.
Patient 2 Report
|Patient Hx:||DM, substance abuse|
|Labs:||BG 600’s on admit|
|Lines:||L AC #18|
|To Do:||BG checks Q1H|
|Ask MD:||Pt requests morphine|
On a bad day, bed management sends us the difficult patients: according to report from the emergency department, a patient with a history of substance abuse who let his blood sugar go to get access to opiates. He claws at his hospital gown in bed and flails his arms and legs, disheveled locks of dirty blond hair partly covering his face. After I receive the Patient 2 Report from the outgoing nurse and respond to his first several call bells, the nurse manager of our unit tells me that in a previous admission, he was caught rubbing his central line on the toilet to get an infection in order to lengthen his stay. Technically, he’ll need to be on an insulin drip, which requires blood-sugar checks every half to one-hour. Technically, that falls under ICU jurisdiction. He’ll be on the call bell every ten minutes asking for morphine. As soon as I administer the morphine, he asks for more.
The secretary, the one answering his calls with her push-button speaker, will ask me for a plan, as in, “How are we going to handle this?”
The way I handle this problem, which is also the secretary’s problem, creates more problems. In addition to answering my patient’s call bell every ten minutes, I have to figure out how to get the patient to stop using it every ten minutes.
Nursing Diagnosis: Powerlessness related to institutional environment and unsatisfactory interpersonal interaction as evidenced by secretary asking, “How are we going to handle this?” and reports of frustration over inability to perform previous activities.
Here, the problem is powerlessness.
In response to the secretary, I stop at her desk on my way to the med room and stare at her a minute before responding. I’m tired. It’s around 7:00 in the morning, and I am not yet ready to be bombarded with call bells and needs and problems. “What can I do?” I say, then get back to work.
My response makes her cry. I only find out because the charge nurse that day, there to offer assistance and supervise the nursing staff, pulls me into the break room. She wants to ask me my version of what transpired with the secretary. She emphasizes that the secretary is a tough lady, and it’s extremely rare for her to cry.
A new problem arises, one I didn’t intend to create, one with origins I don’t entirely understand.
A nursing diagnosis is different from a doctor’s diagnosis. Because of the differences between doctor and nurse in scope of training and treatment, nursing diagnoses can focus on spiritual and psychosocial concerns. It wasn’t until 1980 that the American Nurses Association defined nursing as “the diagnosis and treatment of human responses to actual or potential health problems.” Emphasis here is on human, while medicine (what doctors practice) is thought of as prevention and treatment of disease. In essence, nursing treats the human, and medicine treats the disease. The spiritual realm is one area that nurses are permitted to diagnose and treat. For instance, we don’t need an order to call a rabbi to bedside. We don’t need to ask a doctor if the chaplain can pay a visit or if we can hold hands at the bedside and bow our heads in prayer.
As a nurse, I can diagnose patients with impaired religiosity, impaired individual resilience, disturbed personal identity, spiritual distress, powerlessness, situational low self-esteem, risk for compromised human dignity, risk for loneliness, risk for chronic low self-esteem. My favorite diagnosis of all is perhaps the “imbalanced energy field” because of the way it flirts with the metaphysical and territories wholly unknown.
For care of the patient with an imbalanced energy field, nurses ‘evaluate energy fields’ and perform ‘therapeutic touch.’ In a step called “the unruffling process,” therapeutic touch resembles Reiki as an intervention, wherein nurses lay hands two to six inches away from the patient’s body to “dissipate impediments to free flow of energy within the system and between the nurse and client.” The last part always gives me pause—the exchange of energy between nurse and patient. Suffering is painful to observe and engage, but there’s no avoiding it at the bedside. I believe empathy works in part by absorption of another person’s energy when in close proximity, and this can be an overwhelming and painful sensation felt within the body. How does the story our body tells change through that exchange?
Patient 3 Report
|Patient Hx:||Liver transplant, Etoh|
|Neuro:||opens eyes, + commands, agitated/paranoid|
|Lines:||R FA #20|
|Ask MD:||Pt delusions|
I remember well most of those encounters with patients when a powerful energy was exchanged. One of my youngest patients with liver failure was a twenty-something with stringy black hair and piercing, mistrustful eyes. On the second day I cared for her, she became convinced I was trying to kill her. Most nurses learn how to develop a sense of humor when it comes to these things, but I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable. My patient scrutinized my every move and action. A self-consciousness overtook me, and guilt bloomed within me like an open wound. I started to feel raw and vulnerable, my emotions just at the surface of my skin so that an air current might set them off. All my efforts to convince her that I was here to ensure her protection and safety failed.
She watched me unwrap syringes and draw up medications. As I explained to her what the medications were and reached for her IV, I knew she was thinking about what she might do to my hands and how to turn the medicines on me.
Patient 3 Diagnosis
Nursing Diagnosis: Patient has risk for other-directed violence related to paranoid delusions.
Subjective Data: The patient states, “The nurse is trying to kill me.”
Objective Data: The patient has clenched fists and jaw. The patient eyes me suspiciously.
Plan for Care: Continue reassuring the patient. Continue reorienting the patient to time and place. Continue to explain the purpose of the liver failure medications. Continue to reassure that you’re administering medications for liver failure and not a lethal dose. Ask the patient if she wants family present. Ask the patient if she wants to speak to the chaplain. Continue to pretend that you’re not deeply, irrevocably uncomfortable, that you won’t remember this for the rest of your life, that you don’t begin to wonder if you are trying to kill the patient, because the patient is so convincing, because there is one reality outside the patient’s room and another reality inside the patient’s room. Pretend that when the hepatologist visits the patient, that you and the patient aren’t both crying for help with every sinew and muscle in your bodies.
Originally, ‘imbalanced energy field’ was called ‘disturbed energy field.’ The diagnosis of “disturbed energy field” was removed from the tenth edition of Nursing Diagnoses: Definitions & Classification 2015-2017. The editors explained their decision thus: “all literature support currently provided for this diagnosis is regarding intervention rather than for the nursing diagnosis itself.” The diagnosis returned in the eleventh edition of Nursing Diagnoses: Definitions & Classification 2018-2020 as “imbalanced energy field.” The difference between the two diagnoses, although a difference of one word (imbalanced rather than disturbed), embodies one of the goals of nursing: to be nonjudgmental. The word disturbed itself casts judgment on the diagnosis (and person); it tinges the diagnosis (and person) with something undesirable.
The ideal nurse is first and foremost nonjudgmental, perhaps so much so that they have one foot in the realm of the kind of implicit acceptance of anything human we’ve come to expect from our spiritual and religious communities. The ideal nurse wouldn’t use the word disturbed to describe anything about their patients. The ideal nurse legitimizes their patients through acceptance and listening. Imbalance within the body connotes more legitimacy than if something in the body is disturbed. An imbalance can be restored through care and attention, while a disturbance, like a colony of wasps getting knocked out of their nest, is not likely to be put back together into anything resembling its former self.
What is the difference between a problem and a need? For some reason, I often think of needs as being unmet, and problems as getting solved. You solve a problem; you have needs. When needs aren’t met, do they create problems? Are problems needs that can be met? Can a person have needs that aren’t problems requiring correction? The more I think about it, the cycle between need and problem seems like a hungry beast that can never be content. Do we feed it? Does medicine feed it?
Then again, why must our needs be problematized? Why can’t we state our needs – loudly, declaratively. Why can’t we make grandiose proclamations of need to the person next to us in the cafeteria sandwich line?
A problem can be physical, psychosocial, spiritual—so why is nursing tasked with the job of addressing all of them?
I need to breathe versus “patient has impaired gas exchange” or “ineffective airway clearance” or “anxiety.” I need to be closer to God versus “patient has impaired religiosity” or “spiritual distress” or “moral distress.” Outside the hospital, we have needs. Inside the hospital, our needs are transformed into entities with actionable plans and interventions executed by nurses for measurable outcomes.
“A nursing diagnosis is defined by NANDA International (2013) as a clinical judgment concerning a human response to health conditions/life processes, or vulnerability for that response, by an individual, family, group, or community.” It’s interesting that the diagnosis concerns the “human response.” Why human? Is there any other type of response? It’s interesting too that the diagnosis doesn’t just pertain to the patient, the “individual,” but can also extend outward to family or even an entire community. And it’s interesting that nurses’ responses can extend to ”vulnerabilities” as well as health conditions.
As nurses, we know that when the patient has experienced brain death and there’s nothing that can be done to reverse this condition, that sometimes the most vulnerable person is the closest family member. My first brain-dead patient was a woman who attempted suicide by an overdose of blood pressure medicine when five weeks pregnant. She starved her body of oxygen long enough that only a ventilator and continuous medication could keep her alive. Her husband was adamant that she was going to make a miraculous recovery and “walk right out of this hospital.” The family of my patient viewed me with suspicion whenever I entered the room to change a bag of medication or reposition her. The health care team was keeping her indefinitely in a steady state that couldn’t last forever, while the family pushed back and fought about prognosis.
Taking care of the husband was as important as taking care of his wife:
Patient 4 Diagnosis
Patient Hx: wife admit s/p suicide attempt, anoxic brain injury, five weeks pregnant
Nursing Diagnosis 1: Husband has complicated grieving related to his wife’s brain death as evidenced by lack of acceptance of the death, persistent painful memories, self-blame, distressful feelings about the deceased, and mistrust of the health care team and translife representatives.
Nursing Diagnosis 2: Husband has ineffective denial related to his wife’s brain death as evidenced by husband states, “a miracle is going to happen, and she will walk out of this hospital” and husband also states, “they just want her to die so they can harvest her organs.”
There are five stages of grief, more or less. We don’t necessarily move through all of them in sequential order. The husband embodied the first two: denial and anger. Sometimes he transitioned into bargaining, when I could hear him begging God for help. I felt stinging anger in his eyes when he looked at me; it was my natural instinct to look away. Before acceptance, the grieving might lapse into a depression—what the body does when it feels powerless.
Patient 5 Report
|Patient Hx||lung CA w/ mets, malignant pleural effusions; pt RRT to ICU for respiratory distress|
|Neuro||opens eyes, – commands|
|Cardiac||ST 110’s; systolic 90’s|
|Respiratory||Bipap 12/4/80%; sats low 90’s, tachypnic; use of accessory muscles|
|Code Status||Ltd to Bipap|
Because I can’t remember anything about the weather, or time of year, I don’t know when exactly this patient came to me. I know it wasn’t long after I got off my sixteen-week orientation with my preceptors sometime in February. Less than a year earlier, I’d passed my nursing license exam. Let’s say that it was late spring in central Florida, when the heat was beginning to build by midday and you could feel it pressing down on your face like a wet xanthosoma leaf.
I remember her as having long white hair that flowed over her pillow. Inside our perfectly climate-controlled hospital, there still wasn’t enough oxygen in the air for her. There would never be enough oxygen. The Rapid Response Team rolled her into my empty room on a BiPap, bilevel positive airway pressure, accompanied by her husband and daughter, who reminded me of New England, my home: modest in manners and appearance, forthright in speech, and stoic in their grief.
Since her code status was Limited to Bipap and she was already on Bipap, I had the sinking realization that there was nothing else we could do. No intubation, no CPR, no medications to restart her heart. Unless she miraculously recovered from her respiratory distress, she was going to die. I knew what it was like to try to assuage a family member begging for a miracle, but her husband looked to me for guidance. I had never had a patient in this state who was Limited to Bipap, had never gone through the motions before of caring for someone this way.
Her face was engulfed in the machine, a transparent breathing mask with a flexible cushion sealant that molds to the contours of the face. Straps go around the head and the mouthpiece connects by accordion tubing to a machine on wheels that houses the oxygen supply and control panel. The triangular shape fits over the nose and mouth for maximum gas exchange, but she looked so uncomfortable, head tilted away as if repulsed, back arched reflexively, that the BiPap appeared to be parasitizing her.
Her husband, a mild-mannered man in trousers and a button-down, sat dutifully in the bedside chair as if awaiting instruction from me. As his wife labored to breathe through the BiPap, he turned toward me, outside the room, and asked, “Is this it?”
Before instinct comes paralysis. But this wasn’t simulation paralysis; this was the real world.
There was an innocence and bravery in his voice, but what really unnerved me was how much faith he placed in my ability to answer this question. As though I knew exactly what was happening and what to do:
Patient 5 Diagnosis
Nursing diagnosis: Ineffective role performance related to despair as evidenced by me sitting in my chair looking despondent while her husband turns his head toward me and asks, “Is this it?”
Related Factors: Inadequate role preparation, skill rehearsal, and validation; unrealistic role expectations as evidenced by the fact that I never knew what it would feel like to let my patients die; inadequate support system because at the end of the day I couldn’t tell anyone what I did at work, I moved to a new city for this job and didn’t know anyone; stress; lack of role model
Subjective Data: Altered role perceptions; change in self-perception of role; change in usual patterns of responsibility or capacity to resume role; role overload; powerlessness
Objective Data: Inadequate adaptation to change; inadequate confidence; ineffective role performance; inadequate external support for role enactment; role strain, confusion, or ambivalence; uncertainty; anxiety; depression
The problem: I had never rehearsed this scenario before, didn’t know the protocols. I never thought of nursing before as the absence of action, as the opposite of saving a life.
The need: I needed support, backup from one of my colleagues. I needed to feel less alone.
Protocols exist as a way to continue the choreography of care despite any emotions. They tell the body what to do.
A senior nurse working the rooms next to me stepped in. I had met her in the lunchroom before. She was the nicest of the nice. Management often paired green nurses with senior nurses for these occasions.
She spoke in a hushed tone: “Your patient’s dying, right. Let’s make sure this is what they want, then write the orders.”
I followed her into the room to speak with the family. She answered the husband for me, “Yes, this is it. Is this what you want?”
Jessica Watson is a writer from New England who calls Florida home. She recently finished an MFA in nonfiction and became a nurse after dropping out of a PhD program in oceanography at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. She’s currently at work on a collection of essays blending research, personal narrative, embodiment, and cultural criticism. “Intro to Nursing” is her second essay published from that work in progress. Growing up, she never wanted to become a nurse, but now she considers nursing one of the most profound professions.
“The Ride” by Robert Stewart
BLAST, TMR‘s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Robert Stewart’s “The Ride” recounts the story of his wife’s determination in completing a month-long cross-state journey on horseback and the role he played as a semi-silent supporter.
We touch these stars above.
Fresh distances. Rider and Horse are one.
—Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus
I am trying to track down my wife. She rode off by horseback two days ago, not to the crests of Montana or shores of Morocco but into rural Kansas and Missouri, along reaches available to me by truck in a few hours—the subtle gravel roads of four miles per hour, among sunflowers, wood bees, ticks, and barns, sagging into history. This is beautiful country. It is flat, dry country with half-completed homesteads and suburban ranch homes among acres of fescue and foxtail or soybeans laid in along creeks. Most houses sit back off the road a ways, and for Lisa to get permission to water her horse or pitch a tent, she gambles twenty minutes or so, three or four times a day, to ride up a stranger’s gravel drive toward the front door, dismount, remove her wide straw hat, fix her hair, execute a smile, and hope someone’s home.
She got started at 11:15 AM on Wednesday, mid-May, two days ago, on a solo horseback trip of three weeks or three months, however it goes. By instinct, it seems, given my profession as an editor, I seek order in the patterns of roads and stories that I imagine we both might discover in the weeks ahead, albeit me in support only. She headed out from her horse’s rented pasture, near Edgerton, in east-central Kansas, south on Crescent Hill Township Road in the direction of Osawatomie, once home to John Brown, his Jayhawker, antislavery forces, at least two massacres, and configurations of “bleeding Kansas,” which my mind has begun to conjure.
Sparky, the dog, and I kept up with her (he on foot, me by car) for a while, until she seemed to settle in and find her pace. Then, at a curve where the gravel road turns dead south, I stood beside the car and watched her ride about a mile until she and Chief, her Missouri Fox Trotter gelding, disappeared behind a hill.
Have you ever watched your wife of five years vanish into a horizon line? Two years ago, Lisa started her own consulting business, took every job, worked nights, weekends, holidays. She banked her earnings, and this summer, as boss, owner, and sole proprietor, gave herself time off to travel. By horse. That first day, Chief’s shimmering red coat and bulk made for easy tracking from a rise on the prairie. The horse spooks easily: at a rusted tractor, a windmill, a cow and its calf; so if you were to watch the horse and rider, your wife—if you are lucky enough to have a wife you admire—you would see them shift in the road from right edge to left, to shy from monsters of all sorts, monsters under a bright sky. A trash can is a monster. A single hay bale. A highway overpass could be an opening into hell, and Chief no Orpheus to lead her out. She must walk him through and reward him with a prune on the other side.
Earlier today, she was “separated from her horse,” as the expression goes, on a chipped-rock road where a horned cow charged the fence, sending Chief into a swirl and Lisa down on the rocks. The horse paused and looked back at her from a hundred yards off, then took up a trot, as Lisa called it, “heading for home.” It turned out that a young man driving to his boss’s house about two miles down that same dusty road stopped his pickup to gather Chief by the reins and drove on, holding his arm out the driver-side window, which is how he came to lead the horse into his boss’s front yard to wait for its owner. “I didn’t figure she needed to walk farther than necessary,” he would say. Kindness.
I sped immediately southward sixty miles, when she called, to find her sitting on her poncho under a tree and the horse tied to the grille of the truck. Her left sleeve and half her white shirt blazed with blood. She had gotten a ride from a lady after the “wreck” and would later get five stitches at the county medical center, along with two hours of advice from the doc: “Call off this ride,” he said. She won’t. I have faith in my wife’s faith.
She will go on, and I will wait each evening at home for her to call and confirm that she has settled in somewhere, putting us both motionless in time, as poet Archibald MacLeish says cryptically, as the moon climbs. Acquaintances want to know of her, Why do it? She has dreamed of going off alone on horseback since girlhood, and she has in mind writing projects that later will leaf out from the trip. All good, all beside the point. A woman riding by horseback alone on these back roads helps even me with this distant aesthetic—as MacLeish has said of poetry, so it is with her—that she should not mean but be. She wants to be a dreaming girl again, the girl who rode bareback in the red-shale gullies of Oklahoma and, later, over the wooded hills of her parents’ farm in Missouri.
You should have seen the collection of bulls and cows, all horned, in the pasture we walked Chief past the day after Lisa’s abrupt dismount—some Brahman bulls, some Highland and Lowline or Zebu, for all we knew—maybe fifteen head collected under a wide shade tree, lying or standing in such tight congress and with such fierce eyes, you would understand whose law passes on life and whose on death in these parts. The law of power, the law of speed, the law of standing with one’s kind. One cow of that group had charged Chief the day before, sending Lisa’s body onto the jaw-rock road.
A public garden in Paris, France, has a Greek marble sculpture of Theseus appearing to get the best of the Minotaur, a confrontation I take, now, as factual and real. I will drive these gravel roads every week or two during Lisa’s ride, delivering supplies to her in the territory of many-shaped creatures, in a Kansas or Missouri county of dust and ditches bordered by wire fence and hedges of mulberry and sage. Our GPS-enabled phones don’t always match maps ripped from atlases, and sometimes I want simply to hand Lisa a spool of string that will lead her through the labyrinth.
The time has come, five days in, for me to once again track down my wife. I have beside me in the truck the checklist of supplies she has dictated in several calls during the week. Before leaving Kansas City, I stop at Starbuck’s for 24-packs of VIA Instant, at CVS Pharmacy for bug repellent and sunscreen, at Sutherland’s Lumber for forty feet of nylon rope to replace the length she lost, then at the Hy-Vee Party and Liquor for Budweiser and ice, which I put into the cooler, and which, after this ninety-five-degree day, I darn well better not show up without.
Farther south, I stop by Backwoods Outfitters to replace a ripped rainfly for her tent and pick up heavy-duty twist ties, on impulse. I stop at the Flying J truck stop in Peculiar for gas. I stop in Rich Hill at the Amish café for sandwiches we will share on the tailgate of the truck once Chief settles into pasture or on the new picket rope I am bringing. I have more vitamins, nutrition bars, vacuum packs of salmon and tuna, small cans of beef, and a canister of individually wrapped prunes, Chief’s favorite snack. I always forget something. I always run late. The list lying on the truck seat has directions to her vicinity, scribbled landmarks, town names, likely roads she will be traveling, all of which insinuate into my thinking a kind of purposefulness, a belief that I am a participant on this trip. I am not. Not even close.
These are roads I did not know existed. 1700 Road. 2300 Road. All dust and gravel. North of Drexel, where Lisa crossed into western Missouri, gravel roads have names; south, they have numbers. A girl about eighteen tells me this outside a Drexel Casey’s, as she and two younger sisters, all with the same round, freckled faces and Fudgesicles, open the enormously long doors of their Camaro. She laughs about the road names. I had been north of Drexel, looking for Sharon Cemetery Road, and missed it, which was a good thing. My wife was south of there already, riding down what I knew—from her—only as the first gravel road east of Drexel off of 18 Highway. When I ask about finding 18, the girl at the Casey’s describes it as a “sixty-five-mile-an-hour highway,” which means blacktopped. The gravel road my wife said to look for turned out to be 1800 road, but the girl at Casey’s told me people there just call it “Old Ballpark Road,” if they call it anything.
The afternoon has gotten on; I am hoping my wife has found a place to stop for the day. I turn onto 18 Highway and then right on what seems to be the first gravel county road, unmarked, though I pass field roads, farm roads, driveways, gravel trailing into some expanse or another. After I drive two miles or so, blowing a plume of white dust, an older gentleman working on a tractor beside his house looks up and waves me into his driveway. “She’s back there,” he says and points. “Drive on back through the yard. It won’t hurt nothing.”
My wife is down the slope a ways, in a grove of black walnut trees. How did that gentleman know who I was? I am starting to love everyone. I can’t explain it. It’s just to say, they are sweet. Human beings in the best sense. It is not my nature to drive across someone’s yard, invited or not, forty acres in size or not. I park near his truck and introduce myself. He’s Jerry, and his wife is in the house with vertigo. We talk, and I thank him for helping out my wife. “Nothing to it,” he says. “She won’t take up much room.” That’s all. When I walk down the slope to where my wife is grazing the horse, Jerry goes back to work on the tractor.
Each day of her trip now, I follow in my mind the roads she might be on, with fences behind which curious donkeys, bulls, llamas, and horses would be tracking her progress, or beside a paved road, where a fellow on a riding mower would wave and stop to give directions. This second Sunday, I seek relief at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, near my office in Kansas City. On what can I concentrate but the pale dust of country roads or satellite views of where, in my perpetual speculation, she might be now? The Gospel has Yeshua rising into heaven, and two men in white, called, in Willis Barnstone’s translation, “informing angels,” saying to the crowd that watched Yeshua rise up, “People of Galilee, why do you stand there gazing into the sky?” The sky has come to a little screen, and I spend too much time gazing into it, or down from its satellite. What kind of spiritual vision is this, in my life, that I have become unsettled by the unknown? Relief comes in seeing myself in the company of those people in the Gospel, likewise unsettled.
“We can’t be kind or courageous in the abstract,” the priest said this morning, “but only in a given place and situation.” I teach this to my writing students, or try to. Theory comforts, and comfort gets us nowhere, is how I take that message. Lisa and I like to assume the world’s general beneficence, and I wonder how much hope I can claim against how much faith. Here at home, my bed—our bed—feels embarrassingly comfortable, the coffee maker an abomination of efficiency, the cast-iron skillet wearily weighty as I carry it four steps to the stove top. These things I know, and I am their witness. I tell my students, Write what can be known. I do not say, Write what you know but what can be known; in that difference lie the world’s offerings. The phone rings, and Lisa relays the number of a particular gravel road to orient me to her location; then the phone empties itself of sound, flat and dark as cured iron.
I am often consoled by others that I can talk to her daily for progress and hear the comforting punctuation of hoofbeats among our words. Such power of connection, however, lives for me, now more than ever, within the equal power and certainty of her separateness. Spouses, parents, friends, once saw their people off on ship or train or wagon and let them go. Had to. The tantalization of satellite and cellular communication reinvents for us, in the way of technology, a new kind of separation.
A Zen monk once asked his teacher, “Both speaking and silence belong to the relative world: How can we escape these two errors?”
The teacher replied, “Partridges chirp among the scented blossoms.”
I am not so smart as to understand the range of that response, or why Lisa and I decided not to install in our phones an app called “Find My Friends.” In promise, that app would locate her at every moment, clop by clop, the sky dropping its pin like the tail on a donkey. We thought about the illusion of separateness and how each day has as its finest moment the moment of revelation. We travel, have maps, phones; and Lisa calls to say a coyote loped across the road with a rabbit in its mouth. I detect in her words a stillness. Her voice comes out of nothing, or perhaps out of the wind. We have this connection, the satellite and cell phones chosen, the loping coyote, which looked, as it ran, neither left nor right, and her on horseback mere feet away.
Is it within me, then, as for the great teachers, to neither speak nor stay silent? My mind shuttles among signs of the material good. The more she moves through the physical universe, the more transcendent she seems. “When the holy spirit moves in you,” Yeshua says to his people, “You will receive the power, and you will be / My witnesses.”
The sky early this summer burns blue—not the blue of a distant glacier but the whitish, torchy blue of an acetylene cone. This will be a summer of drought.
Before Lisa ends her ride for good, cornstalks now green will expose roots baked and shut down. Later, while she is still riding, a friend in northwest Kansas will write to say, “One hundred fourteen degrees, and wind.” We all will take this heat together, suburb to spread, as one weather wag would say on radio. The country Lisa rides through now has known all that in past years, as well. An older gentleman Lisa once knew in Vernon County, Missouri, remembers dust so thick in the 1930s, he said, “All the babies had to leave town.” These very counties on each side of the Missouri-Kansas line carried on horseback Kansas irregulars and Missouri bushwhackers in the 1860s, burning barns and homes at will, sometimes to crusade for a cause, sometimes just for meanness. Lisa rides the same land where Jake, the narrator in the border-war novel Woe to Live On by Missourian Daniel Woodrell, would flee in panic after attacking a farmstead in Missouri. “Hog paths became our highways,” Jake would relay across time. The land spreads and rolls in gullies and sections, as it did then. The people, especially the people Lisa meets on farms and ranches, however, do not hide in the barn when a stranger rides up their road. These days, they open their doors. They bring water.
Each afternoon, not too late, if possible, Lisa rides up on a house, hoping for hospitality. In my telephone earpiece or sometimes in person, I hear her detail the scenes—an extended family having a birthday party for one of the nieces in their side yard looks down their driveway at this woman riding up on a horse. She does not ride past and wave, as would a neighbor in a pickup. She turns in, like a dream delivery. My earpiece relays her stories each evening or day, sometimes vivid, extended stories, sometimes sketchy; and my earpiece does a good job relaying the ritual. But it can do nothing to relay the experience itself.
Because of Lisa’s experience, however, I have the honor of meeting a gentleman in the early stages of dementia named Harold Gene Spain, who owns and now has started to give away to members of his extended family large sections of Dade County, Missouri, western edge of the Ozarks. He’s not tall, wears a black, smallish cowboy-style hat, and repeats his stories. When he insists on feeding Lisa’s horse himself so she can go on with me into Golden City to the café, Lisa, of course, objects. But Harold Gene’s wife, Joanne—a trim, elegant woman of the farm, in complete possession of herself—whispers to Lisa, “It’ll be good for him.” Harold Gene walks off with a bucket of feed, as if the horse belonged to his own daughter.
Lisa had ridden onto their property earlier than normal in the afternoon and asked for a place to pasture her horse. It was hot. While I drove after work for my weekly run to bring her supplies, she spent a couple of hours visiting with the Spains and had met their grown daughter still at home, with Down syndrome, and the daughter from about half a mile east on County Road 182. “You know,” Harold Gene said to me when I drove into his drive and stepped out of my truck, “We’re adopting her,” meaning Lisa. His voice said it as a joke, I think. “After you two go to dinner,” he says again, “she can just stay here with us.”
“She’d probably like that,” I say.
“She’ll be staying here,” he says.
This night, Lisa wants to rest up in a nearby motel, while Chief is safe in his pen at the Spains. When we return in the morning, I attend while Lisa retrieves her saddle from the cab of Harold Gene’s pickup, parked in the pole barn, and saddles Chief. Chief stands at the hitching pole, calm, as Lisa has come to say, as a good Amish horse. We all visit into late morning, and Lisa tells me to take a photo of her hosts. “Let’s get daughter in here with us,” Harold Gene says, meaning Lisa, geared up in her wide hat and spurs. I touch the screen for its electronic click and set in time Joanne Spain, Harold Gene Spain, and my wife, all standing bravely together. Less than twenty-four hours ago, no heartbreak existed. Now, they prepare to say goodbye.
County Road 182 runs east and west, and Lisa on her horse heads west, back in the direction of flatter farmland. This will turn out to be the final week of four weeks and one day. The road swells between cool dips where creeks move, and on a rise every half mile or so, some kind of house or barn. I creep along ahead of her, keeping sight in the mirror, stopping now and then to watch how Chief reacts to a congregation of cows and bulls or a farm dog that had charged my truck and trotted back to its yard. She turns her horse directly at those dogs, faces them, while edging away. I see from the rise ahead, she handles that dog easily. Textbook: the one about horse handling she could write. Today, more than usual, I stick with her a while, not ready to drive home. In the distance ahead, I see the crossing where she will turn north; behind me, I know, she will pass a farm soon with three dogs, at least. The speck of her wide straw hat appears over a rise, then the stately bounce of her horse, approaching that yard, and out pour the three dogs, silently from this distance, like the flickering of an old film. They swarm her horse, and I see two more dogs, at least five total, and Lisa turning Chief in circles to keep them from biting his legs.
Five furious dogs swirling one horse is entirely unreasonable, so I prepare to crash through what seems to me an invisible yet palpable barrier between my life in support—an outsider, observer—and Lisa’s life alone on the actual ride. I turn back toward her, windows up, and drive my four-by-four half-ton air-conditioned Silverado through the pack of farm dogs, dispersing its fury, muffling its menace. Two of the bigger dogs persist along the road, even after the others run off, but those two she faces down and soon regains the four-beat gait of her Missouri Fox Trotter, the get-along amble of the long ride.
Days earlier, she told me, two German shepherds came up behind her horse, snarling and nipping, until she felt Chief make a jerk with his body, whichwas, in fact, Chief kicking one dog in the head, enough dissuasion to convince both dogs to go lie down a while, up on their own lawn. “Lions cannot daunt him,” says Cervantes of the knight errant, “nor demons affright nor dragons, for to seek, assault, and overcome such is the whole business of his life, and true office.” We have, here, however, not Quixote but Dulcinea, undaunted. She insists on hauling the saddle in her arms morning and evening; she cinches, halters, grazes, or grains her own horse and, at end of day, hoses him down if her host has a hydrant handy. One day, just one, she digs to the bottom of her pommel bag for the Ruger .380 she carries, which holds six plus one rounds, the “plus one” being the round she now chambers after some over-friendly farmhand stopped his truck and stood way too close, pressing his arm on her thigh, on a low section of farm road. She knew he then went up ahead to his work, where she would soon pass. This, she told me later, after she had moved through, her arm still wrapped to cover the wound from her earlier fall, her horse calmer now and used to what the road brings, hulking hay bales and wild turkeys. All went well as she passed the man. A nod. A “See ya.” A little legal silver salute lying at the top of the open pommel, never raised.
Lisa offered no animosity toward those dogs or toward the horned cow, the aggressive farmhand, or the panther yet unseen in the grass. No sentimentality, either. The dogs, she said later to a friend, were doing their jobs. Their jobs, to be dogs. “Yield to the willow,” wrote Japanese poet Basho to his pupil, “all the loathing, / all the desire of your heart.” When I now read that little poem, I imagine the willowy legs of the horse kicking out and back under its huge body. Wind then enters the image, and I begin to lose my serenity entirely; I realize that I have taken the poem wrong. That first day, when I stood on a rise and watched Lisa ride out of view, I wanted to learn to adapt to the new reality we faced, each on our own. I had my own projects to return to. I had my rationalizations, that this separation could be put to good, productive use. I did not want to be poor in spirit, as, I think, Basho suggests; I did not want to consider the willows or, for that matter, the lilies.
Instead, I had burdened that little poem with an argument for analogies—comparisons between the lilt of horse and limbs of a tree, the contrast between brute and beauty—as if Basho were asking for an appraisal. I had yet (have yet, most likely) to understand how to neither speak nor be silent. How to avoid those two errors. If Lisa needs water, she asks for water. She does not ask, How deep is the well? I speculate, but perhaps that speaks to why she has found so many welcoming folks. She needs a place to camp and graze her horse, and, in that simple sincerity, she makes good company. No one could have told me this on the first day of Lisa’s trip, that she, Lisa, would become the landscape and I a trespasser.
At about 1:30 p.m. on a Thursday, the final day of her trip, I am in my office, unraveling a failure of subject-verb agreement in a written report submitted to me. I become momentarily lost, forced to trek backward through the meandering trace of a sentence—from its grammatical subject, the rocky shore, to an errant participial verb looking (over the edge), as if the rocky shore were looking over the edge of itself. Road maps, even grammatical ones, take on added significance lately; so when I find syntax disconnected from its message, I imagine a telegraph line must be down, somewhere, in high winds.
The phone rings. Lisa says, “Call around and rent a horse trailer. I need you to come get us.” How much more direct can a statement be? I need you to come get us. The Buddhists would call her statement perfect sincerity. I jot it down on a ruled pad. Call around. Come get us. No shift in point of view; no ambiguity. For her sake, I had hoped that the ride would have gone a few more days and returned her by horse to Chief’s rented pasture, where she started out. I am, however, unaccountably relieved that we—and yes, my presumptuous participation shows up again in that plural pronoun—have made it through: horse, rider, me.
I have a project. I find a sixteen-foot stock trailer for rent near Harrisonville, Missouri, and that will do. Lisa had ridden—actually, alternately walked and ridden—beside a four-lane highway that June day in ninety-eight-degree heat and horse-high weeds for two miles in the wrong direction, and I am to find her in the shade of a cabin undergoing renovation off Highway E, south of Archie, her horse unsaddled in the same shade. That’s it.
When I pull onto the gravel side road, about an eighth of a mile off the four-lane and its pickups flinging themselves north at seventy-five miles per hour, I believe I will be arriving at a moment of stillness. I am wrong. Lisa seems more energized than ever, roused by drought and sun and contentment that she has arrived at her time to end the ride.
She had thought she might ride longer. She had thought she might ride shorter. The Zen scholar R. H. Blyth has written that there is a Sun Buddha and a Moon Buddha. The Sun Buddha lives 1,800 years; the Moon Buddha lives one day and one night. Says Blyth, “Wherever life is, it is life.” When I arrive, pulling the rust-scoured stock trailer, I prepare myself for any kind of emotion. I find no particular drama discernible in Lisa, just contentment in being at this place and time. She is a woman in action who tends to stay in action, and she leads her big, trusting, muscular horse up a steep hill from the cabin to the road and lets him stare a moment into the trailer. If Chief has a memory of his past, as a trail horse working in the Missouri Ozarks, he will sense that this trailer signals the end of the workday. We don’t know what he thinks, but we know that old training allows him to step with little shyness onto the trailer deck and in.
I will ride on her adventure, now. At dinner parties and receptions, wherever one person perks up enough to ask about this ride, I will find a soft seat from which to gaze again over the pieces and scraps of landscape I myself saw through barn slats and below the sun visor of a truck window. I suspect those people will be rare, and that the telling of this story will best be realized privately, in Lisa’s own writing. There, she will turn her experiences and her terms in directions that will guide us over these and other roads. One of my wife’s favorite living poets, Marie Ponsot, reportedly said while recovering from a stroke, “Syntax is a tool more important to human existence than the wheel.” More important, maybe, than the horse. So it is, now, that our rig rattles westward along Kansas Highway 52 on its way to 69 North, then 152 farther west toward Edgerton, piecing together the right roads in the right pattern.
Robert Stewart’s books include Working Class: Poems (Stephen F. Austin State Univ. Press, 2018), The Narrow Gate: Writing, Art, & Values (essays, Serving House Books, 2014); Outside Language (essays, Helicon Nine Editions, finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Awards 2004, and winner of the Thorpe Menn Award); Plumbers (poems, BkMk Press 1988, revised second edition 2017). He won the 2008 National Magazine Award for editing from the American Society of Magazine Editors, the magazine industry’s highest honor; he was editor of New Letters magazine for eighteen years, until March 2020, and managing editor for over two decades previously. Essays on travel and language have appeared in North American Review, Borderline, and elsewhere. He directed the Midwest Poets Series at Rockhurst University in Kansas City for thirty-six years, until 2018.
“At 54, Lisa Stewart set out to regain the fearless girl she had once been, riding her horse, Chief, 500 miles home. Hot, homeless, and horseback, she snapped back into every original cell. On an extraordinary homegoing from Kansas City to Bates and Vernon Counties in Missouri, Lisa exhausted herself, faced her past, trusted strangers, and stayed in the middle of her high-strung horse to document modern rural America, the people, animals, and land.”
2020 Miller Audio Prize in Audio Documentary: “Climb When Ready” by Arlie Adlington
Arlie Adlington’s “Climb When Ready” was selected by 2020 Miller Audio Prize Guest Judge Alex Sujong Laughlin as the winner of this year’s Miller Audio Prize in Audio Documentary. We’re so excited to feature Adlington’s winning submission in its entirety below.
Arlie Adlington is an audio producer based in London. He has worked on documentaries and podcasts for people like BBC Sounds,VICE, Tate, BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio4, Scottee and The Dig. He says, “I’m especially passionate about making queer radio, working with young people and trying to help the audio industry become more diverse and accessible to everyone. A couple of my favourite projects have been co-producing the podcast series ‘NB’ (which aimed to ‘dismantle the gender binary, one big question at a time’), and making podcasts with 16-20 year olds from Brent as part of the London Borough of Culture programme for 2020.”
Here is Adlington’s winning submission, “Climb When Ready”:
This piece is about climbing and being trans, and how I think those two things go together in a unique and special way. It features my friends Cass Adair and Martha Bennett.
When I made this, I’d been thinking a lot about how stories about trans people – when they’re made by people who aren’t trans themselves – are often very reductive, and sometimes quite objectifying. I think when trans people talk about our lives in our own words, what we have to say is usually much more interesting, and not necessarily what cis people are expecting us to say. So I wanted to make a piece about some stuff that had been on my mind at the time, so there’d be a tiny bit more trans radio in the world.
The piece first aired on the “Sports” episode of Short Cuts, on BBC Radio 4 in November 2019.
“From Kafka’s Window” by Jeffrey Condran
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. When writer and editor Jeffrey Condran found his novel research on Franz Kafka colliding with the need to shelter in place, the result was this delightful literary reflection on how Kafka would have fared during a pandemic.
From Kafka’s Window
An Essay of the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Jeffrey Condran
Catching myself daydreaming recently, it struck me that there are many reasons to believe the Czech author Franz Kafka would have known just how to handle himself during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kafka could fairly have been described as a hypochondriac long before he actually became chronically ill with tuberculosis, from which he died in June 1924 at the age of forty, and he had perfected the routines of a professional invalid, often visiting sanatoriums during his vacations from the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute to take faddish cures. My favorite among these is Herr Doktor Hartungen’s institute in Riva del Garda, where there were constructed several Lufthütten—little shacks with no glass in their windows so that the fierce winds coming off Lake Garda would storm through, the fresh air theoretically invigorating the health of patients with respiratory ailments.
More to the point, Kafka contracted and survived influenza during the 1918 pandemic, taking to his bed in October and not rising again until more than three weeks later, his temperature at one point recorded as 105.8 degrees. He endured long days in which he could barely breathe and soaked his bed through with sweat. For much of this time, his family believed he would die.
To be honest, though, these experiences aren’t really what I have in mind. Kafka’s potential pandemic “success,” let’s call it, has more to do with temperament. Sheltering in place, living in quarantine, and becoming acclimated to the idea of illness over an extended period take their toll. The Internet is awash with stories of people dealing with the sudden change in their lives, struggling to adapt to new responsibilities at work, in child-rearing, and in the care of the sick or elderly.
Everyone I know or talk to feels a kind of fatigue. Many are not getting enough sleep or eating well; they’re drinking too much, and even if their hours are being shared with family members, compared to pre-pandemic days, people often feel alone—cut off from the idea they had of themselves before the disease struck. Our Zoom meetings and teleconferences only bring into stark relief how much we miss our friends and coworkers or, if you’re an educator like me, our students. What’s ensued is a new sustained level of anxiety, yes, but also an ennui that develops when we are alone for too long in our minds, a condition that has us seeing the world in ways both claustrophobic and kaleidoscopic.
Isolation, insomnia, claustrophobia: a world still recognizable but steeped in incomprehensible, anxiety-inducing change? All these circumstances are immediately familiar to anyone interested in the life and work of Franz Kafka. So often in his diaries and letters, Kafka describes himself standing alone by the
window of his father’s house in Prague and bearing silent witness to a society he either couldn’t participate in or, just as often, simply chose not to. It must be remembered that he organized his life around quiet and isolation in order to dedicate his time spent away from the Insurance Institute to reading and writing.
Kafka biographer Ronald Hayman believes this was, for the young writer, “an alternative to suicide.” And there’s absolutely no doubt that Kafka was most at ease with his own company, dreaming even as a child of ways to remove himself from social situations that made him uncomfortable. In many ways he fits wonderfully the stereotype of the bookish introvert: the undersized boy who is chosen last for every team and hates mathematics, whose “Terror at his inadequacy led straight to daydreams of escape. What if he could get up invisibly from the school bench, slip like a ghost past the teacher, and through the door and out into the undemanding air?” It was a path that would eventually lead him to the safety of the family home, the familiar confines of his bedroom, where the only way he had to talk to potentially difficult people was through the voice he used in his letters.
Kafka was a deeply invested letter writer, partly due to the control he could exercise over the persona that came through on the page. Letters also offered a way to test out ideas that might eventually find their way into his fiction; and they were a method of procrastination from the creative writing on which so much of his self-esteem rested. Hayman says of him, “Kafka could better overcome his nervous reserve when writing a letter than when looking into another human face,” and he was “also writing to the people (and especially to the women) who looked at him with an indifference he found intolerable.”
Arguably most famous among his correspondents was his first fiancée, Felice Bauer—Kafka was engaged four times, but never managed to marry. His side of the correspondence was voluminous: in all, he wrote more than a quarter million words to Felice, telling her how much he missed her, how marriage and rearing children were among the greatest things a human being could achieve, how if they were bold they might run off together and visit Jerusalem and see the growing Zionist project for themselves.
This bold, enthusiastic Franz Kafka, however, is mostly literary invention. When it came time to visit his fiancée in person or make tangible plans for a wedding, suddenly a new Kafka appeared—the real Kafka, perhaps—who found so many obstacles to action in the real world: there were complications at work, ruffled feathers to be smoothed over with his parents, and, most important of all, the concern that these pedestrian, middle-class aspirations would take him away from his one true calling, literature. Oh, yes, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Kafka would have been wonderfully free to let his pen take him wherever it would. Why not be a letter-writing Cyrano de Bergerac when the virus would prevent any flesh-and-blood lover from climbing Felice’s balcony and making love to her? In the safety of medical isolation, Kafka the literary lover could thrive.
I’m teasing Kafka here a little bit, possibly because it’s so easy to do. His romantic failures are a broad target, and his writing is filled with characters who are dithering and ineffectual, especially against the largely invisible tidal influences of social institutions—or maybe simply against fate, against the world. I often dwell, for example, on those people in 2020 whose pandemic thoughts turn to ideas of crime and punishment. This disease, some suggest, comes to us not by chance, not even from some geopolitical adversary, but from the hand of an unknown power. We are like the victims in Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony,” who have the law they have ignorantly broken tattooed onto their bodies. We’ve clearly done something terrible, and we’re being punished for it—we simply don’t know what “it” is.
Even if your mind doesn’t turn to cosmic powers to understand COVID-19, there’s no denying that people are desperate to understand themselves and the world within the context of the disease. When I had to stop seeing my students in March and rethink how we’d finish the semester, one of my assignments asked them to keep a “Plague Diary”—the name my attempt at levity, even though I knew what they wrote in the diary might be some of the most significant work they did all term. My hope for the assignment was simple: I wanted a mountain of words to act as a shield against the unknowable. Even if those words offered no solutions to the writer, I suspected they’d eventually take on an unexpected power. My decision was partly influenced by the diary Kafka had started in 1910. It was a place that “gave him a pretext and a medium for talking to himself.” And, as the years went by, he came to rely on the sounding board those pages represented. “I won’t give up the diary . . . I must hold onto myself here, for it’s only here that I can.”
Many of us will emerge from sheltering in place changed in unexpected ways. Before COVID-19, I’d thought of myself as an introvert who, through professional obligations, had compelled himself to pass as an extrovert, expending a tremendous amount of emotional energy to keep up the performance. What have the online personality quizzes taken to calling it? The extroverted introvert? That was me. Except as the months of quarantine ticked by, I went from feeling like a caged animal inside my apartment, desperate to get a drink with my friends, to someone who had legitimately lost all desire to speak to anyone. I dropped out of a Zoom book club, I answered messages two weeks after they were sent—if I answered them at all. Even showering felt optional. Deodorant still is. The only person I wanted to hear from anymore was myself.
And, of course, in a pandemic all that troubles you rises to the surface. In the normal course of our lives, the daily routine is filled with obligations that distract us from our troubles. So many people simply don’t have time to examine their lives and deal with whatever emotions develop. Not so, now that isolation has created an echo chamber from which it is impossible to escape. Maybe this is simply a long-overdue reckoning, but for many people, the process is painful and, at least for the moment, unrelenting. Alone with ourselves, we must face down what Kafka called “the swampy viscosity of time.”
There is no better example of this than in Kafka’s most famous work, “The Metamorphosis.” From the moment Gregor Samsa changes into a beetle, he is kept confined to his bedroom, largely visited only by his sister, Grete, who brings him food and sometimes tidies the room. In his isolation, his only pastime outside of acclimating himself to his new insect body is to eavesdrop on the conversations of his family. What he discovers is that his transformation, which has clearly made any kind of employment impossible, has threatened the family with economic ruin. His elderly father must take work as a bank messenger, his mother earns money sewing undergarments, and his sister, whose musical talent might have seen her studying the violin at the Conservatorium the following year, has taken a job as a clerk. Gregor is distraught at the way he’s let down his family, feeling “hot with shame and grief.”
It’s impossible for me to read this section of the story without immediately thinking of Americans whose lives have been transformed by the loss of their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic and who must rely on the inconsistent help of government stimulus and unemployment payments. Who, like Gregor when assailed by the chief clerk’s admonition that a season of the year to do no business at all “does not exist . . . must not exist,” must despair when they hear Ivanka Trump suggest that the unemployed should simply “find something new.” Aggravating this financial need is the historical relationship of Americans to their employment; it is, for many, the mainstay of their personal identities. To be so suddenly unmade by this invisible virus, to live in fear of your life and to no longer know yourself so easily as you once did, is a catastrophe that has many, again like Gregor Samsa, literally climbing the walls in despair. And when exhaustion comes over us, as it eventually must, what’s there to do except lie wherever it is we’ve found ourselves and wait for something to change:
Often he just lay there the long nights through without sleeping at all. . . . Or he nerved himself to the great effort of pushing an armchair to the window, then crawled up over the windowsill and, braced against the chair, leaned against the windowpanes, obviously in some recollection of the sense of freedom that looking out a window always used to give him. For in reality day by day things that were even a little way off were growing dimmer to his sight; the hospital across the street, which he used to execrate for being all too often before his eyes, was now quite beyond his range of vision, and if he had not known that he lived in Charlotte Street, a quiet street but still a city street, he might have believed that his window gave on a desert waste where gray sky and gray land blended indistinguishably into each other.
His vision dimmed by the new reality of his transformation, Gregor’s inner eye, the one governed by his tormented brain, sees only the gray haze of the unknown. Through the frames of our windows, what do most people see today? Often now, the view is the even crueler irony of clear, blue summer skies, the sunlight dappling the green leaves on the trees, our personal prisons verdant with a possibility that, until a vaccine is created—or peoples’ behaviors change—will continue to taunt and elude us.
Those who choose not to follow CDC guidelines for wearing masks to cover the nose and mouth and who refuse to abide by any of the recommended procedures for social distancing are, to be blunt, reprehensible. Anyone even vaguely familiar with ideas regarding freedom versus responsibility in a democracy will know what to do. Kafka might have been terrified by the anti-maskers; at the very least his hypochondria would have been piqued. Yet I can’t help but believe he also would have understood them. Those who have grown weary after months of isolation, who fear for their financial well-being, or who are desperate for the company of others, are simply all too human. To check my frustration, I often think of what it would have been like to have fallen in love during, say, the second week of March. To have been kept apart by the threat of the disease. As I say, even Franz Kafka, notorious introvert, would sympathize. For him there would have been moments when, like so many of us this summer, he was almost bursting with the desire to get out into the world and see people. Even for the man whose life has been described as “a series of hesitations” that left him full of self-loathing and who professed that “because reality is so terrifying, the only refuge is in the pretense that everything is happening to someone else, an alter ego,” Kafka still hated the idea of being completely excluded from the world. To save himself, he relied on what so many of us rely on, and which is now in such short supply: happy accident.
One such moment well known to Kafka biographers occurred during his law school years. Studying for an exam on Roman law, Kafka paced back and forth in front of his window that looked out on Zeltnergasse. A dress shop was across the street, and the young woman who worked there often stood outside its door. Through what Kafka describes as a series of “signs”—one is left to imagine exactly what those signs might have been—they agreed to meet at eight o’clock. When Kafka appeared on time, to his surprise another man was there as well. The woman took this man’s arm and had begun to walk away when she discreetly signaled that Kafka should follow. They went to a place on Schützen Island and drank beer, Kafka setting himself up at the table next to the couple. When they left, the other man walked the woman home, said good night, and then Kafka watched her disappear inside the house. She reappeared a few moments later, and at her suggestion they went together to a hotel on the west side of the river. Kafka described the night he spent with the shop girl as “charming, exciting,” and wrote that he finally had some “peace from the constant whining of the body.”
It being Kafka, however, he looked back on his unexpected night of passion with tremendous ambivalence, even describing it as having been “vile and filthy,” though that didn’t stop him from spending a second night with the shop girl in the hotel before the Kafka family left the city for a long summer vacation. Eventually, time lent a different perspective. Recollecting the incident seventeen years later, he described his lover as “a good-hearted, friendly girl.” Maybe this is what quarantine makes us desire most, the possibility that fate has something remarkable in store for us, some happy accident that will transport us in unexpected ways—if only it were safe to go outside. If I’m going mad, if all the world is crumbling around me, let me die in the arms of someone good-hearted and friendly. Looking down on us from his window, Kafka would have understood.
Begley, Louis. The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head. Atlas & Co., 2008.
Brod, Max, ed. The Diaries of Franz Kafka. Schocken Books, 1965.
Brod, Max. Franz Kafka. Da Capo, 1995.
Kafka, Franz. The Complete Stories. Schocken Books, 1971.
Hayman, Ronald. Kafka: A Biography. Oxford University Press, 1982.
Pawel, Ernst. The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1984.
Jeffrey Condran is the author of two story collections, A Fingerprint Repeated and Claire, Wading Into the Danube By Night. His debut novel, Prague Summer, received a 2015 Independent Publisher Book Award’s Silver Medal. His fiction has appeared in journals such as Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, and Epoch, and has been awarded the 2010 William Peden Prize from the Missouri Review. He is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and co-founder/publisher of the independent literary press, Braddock Avenue Books.
“Chromie Thief” by Terrance Manning Jr.
Growing up poor is the subject of our new featured prose selection, Terrance Manning Jr.’s “Chromie Thief,” a nostalgic essay that delves into how we find strength through the things we hold on to. The essay first appeared in the winter 2019 issue of TMR.
Terrance Manning Jr.
We’d only just moved to our new house on Summit Street when Dad moved out. He left his toolbox in the basement—some faded Craftsman box filled with wrenches and crowbars. My brothers and I scrambled to claim it for ourselves, but my older brother, Chris, took it over, staking ownership by decorating it with the stickers he’d gotten from the vending machine at the movie theatre: Freak. Big Attitude. And, of course, the way he often did with my younger brother Jonny and me, proclaiming proudly, “This is mine; don’t fucking touch it.”
At the hobby shop on Lincoln Way, she pushed my treasure across the counter. “We found them,” she told the owner, this slinky-looking old man with tiny glasses. “Buried in the attic of our house.” She kept saying “we,” though it was I who had found the coins, which was frustrating. I wanted to speak up, explain to the owner that—of course—I would be the one receiving any payment. But before I could, he slid the book back.
“You got about a buck’s worth, kid. Want the money or the book?”
I chose the book.
On the way home, Mom walked slowly behind, as if more disappointed than I was. I kept fast-walking ahead and having to wait at the corners for her to catch up. Even disappointed, I still felt the excitement of filling the thing, adding to its value, stuffing a coin per year in every pre-cut slot. It was—along with my lucky, quarter-machine rabbit’s foot, my tin-toy Rusty Wallace car, and a yellow marble I’d found by the Monongahela—one of only a few items I kept in a shoebox by my bed. A box of worthless treasure that I was determined to make valuable, despite Mom’s moping.
Though later, as we got used to Dad’s absence, there was a certain lightheartedness about her. She didn’t have a driver’s license or a car; she just liked to walk. She walked all over our neighborhood, across Faucet and Lincoln Way. On sunny days, she’d come home with big overflowing Rite Aid bags weighed down to her knees. Because she, too, loved her things: her lipsticks and perfumes; her blow-dryers and sandy face soaps; her on-sale Point Break VHS and Richard Marx cassettes. She’d play music in the dining room, singing along with Marx and belting “Should’ve Known Better” and “Don’t Mean Nothing” so loud you could hear her from the front porch.
At night, she made spaghetti and we ate it for days, until the microwave couldn’t warm it without transforming the noodles into slushy piles of sauce and water. On special occasions, she made us sloppy joes, ham barbeque, macaroni and cheese. She bought groceries from the Schwan’s man—a guy who drove around the neighborhood in a military-looking truck, selling frozen food from side compartments. He’d stop by once a week, knock at the door, and my mother bought something every time—until, eventually, we ran out of money. Then, she’d close the blinds, too embarrassed to turn him away, say, “Shut your mouths,” and we’d hide behind the couch so he’d think no one was home.
I thought everyone ordered from the Schwan’s man. “Got them fish sticks from the Schwan’s man,” I’d tell my friends. “Got some French toast sticks, too!”
“French toast sticks?” they’d laugh.
The last thing left from the freezer was a triple box of frozen garlic bread. Mom called it “ice-box surprise,” and we ate every slice, stuffing more in our mouths before we were finished chewing. I was up all night puking garlic, the smell of it in the snot dripping from my nose, the taste of if it in my mouth for days—cursing my mother.
But she was twenty-nine and separated and single in a new house. On good days, she was energetic, even funny. I just never understood why she slept so much or why one day she’d be smiling, laughing, and the next screaming that we were starving little pigs. I remember how beautiful she looked happy—a transformation. She had the bluest eyes. A smile full of gray teeth from some pills she’d taken as a kid for her heart condition. I wonder now, older than she was then, what she dreamed of, if she imagined a different future or a different reality, one where she was a writer or a poet-millionaire, where she’d gone to college and never married. Though none of those dreams would have distracted her for long, not when money dwindled and food did too, and she was reminded suddenly of her sons—hungry, growing, uncontrollable boys.
She’d retreat into her bedroom, sleeping late with the blinds pulled shut, the only light the glimmering blue of her midafternoon television while she watched soap operas alone under a heat-rimmed blanket. And my brothers and I would crowd the stove, reaching our forks over the flame, burning hotdogs and salami and ham until we’d smoked out the house and eaten all that was left. Then we’d sneak out to find what we could at our friends’ or in the dim, unattended aisles of the Co Go’s or Jimmy Mart.
My brothers and I still shared the street-side bedroom, but we had an open basement and a garage. We cranked Dad’s wrenches to tighten wheels or change bars on our bikes. Then we rode wheelies up and down Summit Street. We built jumps behind St. Angela’s Church, the tanning salon, synagogue, and Taylor Neilson’s front yard. We bought twenty-five-cent donuts from Feig’s Bakery and ate them on the curb out front. It was ’94, when everyone’s biggest joke (or threat) was to “Lorena Bobbitt” you; when everyone, it seemed, rode a GT or a Diamondback; and everyone—really—had suddenly always loved and listened to Nirvana, using Kurt Cobain as a fill-in for those moments when they were feeling these complicated, unexplainable emotions: did-bad-in-school anger, lost-my-dog sadness, or fear of getting old. They’d cast their eyes to the street, assume a certain pensive look, and say, “Fuckin’ Kurt Cobain, man,” an act of which I am, unfortunately, many-times guilty.
My best friend was Dave Sheerer. He was blond-haired, blue-eyed, and chubby in the cheeks. He was quiet but prone to turning red and screaming, “Fuck you, dude” when pushed too far. I met him after he rode his bike into an open sewer grate. The next day he pedaled back up the street like it hadn’t happened, eleven stitches hanging from his face like a goatee. We were the same age, same grade, and he was, like us, an outcast. Kids called him “Dave Queer” because he was shy and wore glasses and the name rhymed. But after he split his chin, my brothers and I accepted him, told the story over and over, how the skin sagged, how he climbed out and didn’t even cry. Because that was how we measured toughness—if you cried or not.
When we weren’t riding bikes or marching through the woods to swing on the vines behind my mother’s house, I was helping Dave with his paper route. People used to invite us into their homes, offer us sandwiches. They paid Dave with thin envelopes and offers of Pepsi or milk. Here and there, he’d throw me a few bucks for helping out. But the real perk came with the trust of Dave’s customers.
I was happy at Dave’s.
I used to think his family was rich. Not in the size of their house, but in the things they had: two cars, a van, a fully packed refrigerator, snacks in the cabinets; a computer, two La-Z-Boy recliners, televisions in four different rooms; and unlike ours, their walls were decorated with family and school pictures. Anything we’d had hanging on our walls had burned up when the first house burned down. We didn’t have stuff stored in spare rooms, boxes filled with memories. We had a television, a radio; we had a glass-door chest where my mother carefully placed plastic plates; she called it the “china cabinet.”
Stuff, no matter how random, equaled class. I wouldn’t have said that then, or even thought it, but I must’ve felt it—that invisible connection between things and a better life, one with consistency, even happiness. That powerful feeling of claiming: This is mine; don’t fucking touch it.
I remember Dave’s dad had this penny jar at the top of their steps. It was a giant five-gallon jug spilling pennies from the mouth. The thing drove me crazy. I imagined them finding out that I was a coin collector and giving it to me.
“Well, T-bone,” they’d smile, “you’re a collector now. It’s time for you to take this jug and call it your own.”
This was the year my brothers and I, along with our friends from the neighborhood, became enchanted by the mesmerizing power of chromies.
All of us believed that with shiny things came big rewards. Like Vinny G’s thick, silver rope chain slapping off his chest as he boxed with his brother in their front yard, or the twenty-four-inch rims on Henry P’s eighteen-wheeler that he used to let us buff at five dollars apiece, paying always, when we finished, from this thick, unfolding wad of cash. We all wanted wads like that. We wanted chains and bracelets. So we scratched and scrambled for anything with value.
That summer, we were after “chromies”—chrome-plated valve-stem caps for tires.
We didn’t buy them; we “jacked” them; we wore them on our bikes. Some kids wore classic ones—shiny hexagons. Some had polished black aluminum ones. Some had dice or eight-balls or skulls with red-pin eyes. One kid glued nine-millimeter bullet shells over plastic stems and rode around as if untouchable as they flashed and glimmered between his spokes.
Like any collectibles, the more diverse and unique they were, the more valuable. There were brand-name chromies, for instance—Mercedes, BMW, Ford—that came with high trading value. This kid Ryan “the Weirdo” Turner had every set. He kept them in a giant pickle jar to show them off: the silver-winged, the gold-crowned, the half-moons and diamonds. We’d avoided him since the time he pulled his dad’s pistol out and held it to his head threatening to pull the trigger, but all of us knew he’d trade brand names for war chromies—guns, bullets, skulls, and grenades. He was so bent on building a war collection, you could get a couple pair from him for a single set of red-and-silver storm-trooper heads.
But we weren’t satisfied with stem caps. We started snapping hood ornaments, too. Same logic: the shinier, the more unique and expensive, the better. My brother Chris was the first to do it, and we followed in step. We stole them from the vehicles parked up and down our street.
Not every vehicle had them, only nice ones, the occasional Lincoln or Buick. “Dude,” we’d shout, cruising down some street. “Some sick-ass chromies back there.” We’d drop our bikes, sneak up, and take them before anyone could catch us. Then later, we’d sit around my garage comparing, trading, even exchanging them—sometimes—for money or food.
When we stripped all the streets, we moved to parking lots. Small ones in front of Big Ed’s or National City. Then church lots, where there were always nice cars, always a variety of brand names to take. We’d ride in on sunny days and scour the lot for any blinking signal of chrome. When we spotted them, we’d twist them free as church bells rang and the steeple glistened in the midafternoon sunlight, because, like a trip to the Weirdo’s, it was worth it. A few sets of caps might get a buck or two from guys who paid cash—older guys or guys too afraid to walk up and steal shit themselves. Here and there, someone might pay five or ten bucks for a hood ornament—a Pontiac or Mercedes—and that was free dinner.
I used to imagine extending my reach as my collection grew, taking the search into new neighborhoods, making bigger money in bigger cities. Just my brothers and me, “the boys.” Maybe friends we could trust. Chris would be our leader, since he stole without fear or hesitation. We’d become the most powerful chromie thieves in Pittsburgh, rich with every brand and design. People respected stealing because stealing was a kind of control—and we were all seeking that wonderful, maddening feeling of it.
I was so obsessed that one day, standing on the corner of Lincoln and Guise, I watched hungrily as a Corvette slowed for a red light, engine rattling and purring, with (not real) diamond-topped chromies shimmering from its tires.
I couldn’t help myself. I slipped around the back, started stripping them in the street. This old woman behind us started honking, and the Corvette driver opened his door, shouting. But I’d just stripped one cap, and chromies were only valuable in pairs. Nobody wanted one.
I went for the other—nearly had it, too—but the light turned and the driver slammed the gas and drove off, pulling my hand in a snapping turn that flung me off balance, sending me rolling in the road. My arms were brush-burned and bleeding from the tumble, and I yelled, “Fuck you” to the woman as she honked past.
“You all right?” Dave asked as he ran over, laughing.
“I’m fine,” I said. I dusted my knees.
“You got the one,” he said, grabbing my shoulder. But I shuddered him off and whipped the chromie as far as I could throw it.
Dave chuckled and shook his head, the way he always would when he figured whatever he had to say wasn’t worth saying anyway.
“Fuckin’ Kurt Cobain.”
My mother had a hole in her heart, and when she was nine, she’d had open-heart surgery to repair it. After the operation, the doctor told her there was a chance she wouldn’t live past twenty. The way my mother tells it, the doctor was less encouraging, an asshole, had made her cry: he said she’d be lucky to live to twenty. She says in high school, people teased her about the scar the surgery had left. Guys at the bus stop called her “worm chest.” She says my dad came down to the bus stop and beat them up—no words, no shouting. He just started fighting.
The story makes me laugh—picturing Dad in his early twenties, hair still long and black, thin dark mustache, walking to her bus stop, that face he makes when he’s mad.
My mom says, “Your father was crazy—always beating people up. He’s a violent man. He’s an abuser.” In that way they differed. He hardly talked about her. If he did, it was dismissively, some sarcastic comment about stealing his credit cards. But she took every opportunity to trash him. It made us uncomfortable—not the lengthy, teary-eyed proclamations of guilt, but the spotlight she was always shining, illuminating all the worst parts of us. We felt as anyone might feel: embarrassed, angry. Like all she had was the bad; the only memories she kept were her worst.
As a child, she’d had three fathers. All “abusers.” All “animals.” Her own father had been hard to live with. He used to beat her always, and my grandma, too.
Once, he beat Mom so bad she wet her pants. He dragged her up the steps by her hair and threw her in the tub with her clothes on, calling her a dirty pig. She was twelve. I was well into my teens, maybe sixteen, when Mom told me this story, and I felt an overwhelming anger, hate, and helplessness. I told her that if I ever met the guy, I’d punch his throat in, make him shit his pants, calling him a dirty fucking pig the whole time.
She said I was like my father. I told her, “Damn right I am,” but she shook her head. She wasn’t giving me a compliment.
The last year my brothers and I lived with her full-time, I was still a kid; I was eight. We didn’t know about her childhood. We only knew that she was either in the darkness of her room or somewhere alone, and that when it came time to eat and there was nothing in the fridge, she’d get overwhelmed and find reasons to scream or slam her bedroom door, or—early on—shell out half-hearted beatings to try to control us. But they only ever left us laughing.
Then, when we were down to a cabinet full of green beans and tomato sauce, my mother handed us food stamps and sent us to the gas station for frozen dinners and root beer. We loaded bags—filling them with candy, with Butterfingers and peach rings and Skittles—and bowed our heads at the counter as we handed over those big paper ones and fives. Getting outside was a victory, and we swallowed down the candy before we got back home.
I hated those trips. I used to linger around the magazine aisle pretending to read until that perfect time when the store went suddenly empty. I’d slide up to the register, quickly pay, and be out the door.
But one day, Mom gave me a twenty-dollar stamp and sent me for a gallon of milk and a carton of eggs. “And bring me all my change,” she said, because we liked to snag a buck or two of the real cash you’d get back.
I waited outside the front doors with my hands in my pockets, whistling. I was waiting for the rush to pass.
When the parking lot was empty, I whipped inside, grabbed the milk, the eggs, a Reese’s cup, and a Coke, but as I darted to the counter, this tiny old lady tied me to it. We shared a glance, one that asked who would get the courtesy of checking out first, but cars were unloading in the parking lot, people already pumping gas, others walking in.
“Sorry,” I said, and pushed my stuff onto the counter.
The clerk wasn’t happy with this choice. He was a tall, skinny man with a fully gray ponytail. He was known for watching kids like a hawk, proclaiming often, “Two students at a time,” as it was printed on the glass. We called him “Ponytail.”
“Ladies first,” he said to me, scolding. He handed back my items. Then, as if to dismiss my childish decision, he said, “Anything else, ma’am?”
“Yes,” she said. “The lottery.”
People spilled into the store as the woman enunciated numbers, slowly. “Seven. Eight. Eight. Four. Five straight. The rest boxed.”
The bell on the door rang, and a girl from my school walked in with her mother. I saw her recognize me. I turned back to the counter. The little old woman had shimmied away, and in her place was Ponytail, glaring.
“Wake up,” he said. “Got a line behind you, Hoss.”
I put the milk and eggs on the counter. He rang them up. I handed him the bill. He stared at it a moment, then he held it above his head, high in the air, and examined it against the light in front of everyone. He shouted into the back room, to a guy reading papers and making marks in a log, “Jim? We give cash back for food stamps?”
“Yeah, Bob,” the guy said without looking. But I suspect Bob knew. He was teaching me a lesson. My body was so stiff, I could hardly collect the change. After that, when I needed something from the store, I didn’t pay for it; I stole it.
Though she’d never admit it, my mom was a thief, too. She wasn’t as blunt or reckless as we were, but she could scheme. Number one on her list of schemes was returning: taking things back after using them halfway.
She was the returning queen—a pair of shoes, a half-melted candle. She always had an explanation: it didn’t fit, or it smelled like shit. She even took lipstick back and claimed she was allergic. Then, when there was nothing left to take back, she bought dollar items with twenty-dollar food stamps and pocketed the cash.
She was brilliant at making small money last, which I didn’t think about then—how we’d be out of food, eating diced tomatoes and garlic bread, and she’d be buying lipsticks and George Michael cassettes. She had to know that my brothers and I were stealing. We’d bring home throwaway cameras or G. I. Joes or cap guns with extra caps. How could we have paid for these? She didn’t ask; she ignored. Chris used to keep cash in his wallet, money he got for chromies or for bike parts from a bike he might have taken, and my mother would sometimes find it on the dresser. She wouldn’t ask questions. Instead, she’d pluck a five from it. If he complained, she’d cry and say we took advantage of her, that she did our laundry and made us vanilla milkshakes and provided a heated house for us to sleep in, and by the way, Your piece-of-shit father hasn’t sent us money.
That was the only argument she needed. We’d go back outside to roam the neighborhood, and she’d go back to her bedroom with impunity, because, I think, we must’ve thought she understood what it meant to take, since so much had been taken from her. Besides, the more my mother ignored, the less she tried to control us, and were free because of it. Though I would’ve taken the warm bedrooms, video-game dens, and family dinners of my friends over the kind of freedom my brothers and I shared.
Over time, we kept getting into trouble, kept stealing. We were the first to be blamed for every crime in the neighborhood. A porch set fire, a house egged, a tire slashed, a windshield bricked, and the police showed up on Mom’s doorstep. She’d apologize. Then, later, she’d chase us through the house calling us “rotten,” screaming that we’d end up in prison. She’d break us off, catching us in a corner with a wooden spoon, a book. If it hurt, we refused to cry. Though mostly we laughed, like the time she chased Jonny through the house smacking his naked, pre-bath body with a belt, leaving welts all over him, and Chris and I laughed so hard it hurt, even when she started whipping us, too.
I don’t remember what was funny, except that Dad’s beatings were worse—a fist, a steel-toed boot. Maybe that’s why we laughed, like there was something funny in the difference, the innocence of my mom’s punishments compared to the brutality of my dad’s.
But there was resentment, too—growing since Dad had left. Mom didn’t work; she “rested.” She said Dad wouldn’t pay child support. He said he paid every month, that she was spending it on herself. She called him a deadbeat, a drunk. He called her lazy, a victim. She’d say he was lying, that he’d beaten her, was a monster. He’d tell us she’d taken money from him, called his work to threaten him; she was a schemer, a thief.
It wasn’t easy choosing which one to trust. It was easier to react, and we reacted to the shift in power at Mom’s.
Chris was the first to harden, to become bold. He was only nine when he started smoking weed, breaking into places, vandalizing. When confronted, he was vicious. He’d tell Mom to leave him the fuck alone, and though I wanted him to shut up, he was our leader. Jonny and I backed him. Mom’s innocent beatings started losing innocence. She’d use anything in reach to hit with, screaming so loud we couldn’t hear each other laughing anymore.
We didn’t know a family night, or domestic games, or dinners and prayers and smiles at the kitchen table like at Dave’s. We knew Mom’s bad days, her screaming, her blaming us for being like our father. We rarely saw her leave her room. Between Mom and Chris, the choice was easy. Chris took care of us. He stole sandwiches from the deli. He went out on his bike and came back with beef jerky and Pepsi. He stuck up for us. He fought for and protected us. Like those nights Dad used to come home smelling like whiskey and ground steel beneath his welding coat. He might wake us up and make us march into the kitchen, make us call him sir, stand about-face against the wall. Or he might play Mellencamp and Springsteen and lift us up to dance while he slurred the words to “Ain’t Even Done with the Night” and “Born to Run” and Mom shouted over the music to turn it down, to let us sleep, that he was drunk. But as the music switched, his mood tended to switch with it. When that happened, it was Chris who stole us away to our room and locked the door, so we could lie in bed and pretend to sleep, no matter how late the music blared in the kitchen.
Now, on Summit, Mom treated us like enemies—as if we were the dark, grizzly shadows of our dad, left behind to torture her, to taunt and remind her of a life she didn’t or couldn’t have.
“Your father is a violent man,” she was always saying.
She held—like no one I’ve ever known—deep, scarred grudges. I could hear it in her voice when she spoke to us. It was the darkness she returned to, in her bedroom, in her heart, where she was a woman filled with hatred and regret. Maybe there, she felt alive, even powerful in her anger. Or maybe it was simpler than that. Maybe she thought that if she hid away and slept, her life might be different when she woke.
By the end of summer, my shoebox overflowed with chromies and hood ornaments. I’d lock my bedroom door and dump it on the floor. I’d spread everything out neatly, looking over it, counting, logging. I had skulls and crosses, chrome and gold. I had arrowheads, spades, and bullets. A hundred hexagons, fifty rounds. I had ornaments wrapped in bandannas: jaguars, eagles, a Mercedes three-point star. Wrapped carefully in a white bandanna was a chrome angel with thin, sleek wings and a spine arched as if melting in the wind—my prized piece.
I’d open the blinds and let sunlight pour over everything, walking slowly around as it glimmered there.
I had my pennies—as many years as I’d pulled from wallet change or the give-a-penny at the BP. I had a 1909 VDB and an 1857 eagle’s head, rarer and more valuable than the others. I had all I’d taken from Dave’s customers (except the candy): fluffy pens, staplers, paperweights, and glass figurines. I still had the porcelain baby’s head, my favorite, with its tiny, pinpoint eyes and grinning lips.
I could stay for hours, drunk on value as I ran my fingers over all I’d collected, all I’d stolen. All mine. All me. All glowing in the middle of the floor, as if I’d opened up my chest and let my chromie soul melt onto the hardwood.
Down the hall, Mom’s television would play softly through the walls, a murmur. The muffled sound of soap-opera voices. Or a movie. Or, sometimes, only music—the sound of Restless Heart spilling through the house as I examined my treasure.
When autumn came, it stripped the neighborhood to a bare, windblown brown. It was chilly. The vines behind the house swung into the air and back again, as if the ghosts of ourselves were swinging without us.
I fist-fought Dave after school one day for a reason I don’t remember. He’d made fun of me or challenged me or wouldn’t let me come over for dinner—and we fought. I choked him. He pulled my hair. Neither of us wanted to punch, so we didn’t. I just called him a pussy and he turned red and told me “Fuck you,” before he stormed up Faucet Street.
At home, my brothers and I were in trouble. Chris had stayed home from school again. Jonny was mouthing off. I was leaving things around the house. Mom was tired, she told us, had a headache, and wasn’t in the mood for bullshit. No dinner. Get the fuck to bed. So we marched to our room.
“Can’t wait to live with Daddy,” Chris said loud enough for her to hear. “Least he feeds us there.” Then he threw his fist to his lips, smiling.
“Debbie cooks,” I said, because this is what we did. Partly to test my mom. Partly to pretend, among each other, that we didn’t care. I knew that mentioning Dad’s girlfriend, overtly comparing the two, might change our circumstances.
Mom hated Debbie. She hated her so much, in fact, that she refused to call our pajamas “pj’s” (which is what Debbie called them), and insisted on “jammies,” despite how ridiculous it sounded. Sometimes when we talked about Debbie, Mom attempted to be better, nicer, in a kind of competition.
“Wish we lived with Debbie,” I said. Those walls were paper thin.
We lay around making fart noises under our armpits, laughing, shelling out comments to the walls, until, finally, Mom burst into the bedroom with a belt and started whipping us with it, shouting again to go to sleep.
When we finally turned out the lights and Mom left, slamming the door, we lay in the darkness, breathing heavily.
It was impossible not to laugh.
Jonny farted, and we lost it again. I fell off the bed with a thump, holding my stomach. I don’t even know what was funny. But we were boys, each a year apart and hungry and used to sleepless nights.
When Mom came back in, she charged at Chris, who until then had been making more comments than any of us. She grabbed him by his hair and dragged him into the hall, smacking him in the mouth.
At first we laughed at him, but she wasn’t easing up. Jonny and I followed them out. We called lightly for her to stop, to let him go.
Chris had this long, dark hair that fell equally down the sides of his head into an early ’90s bowl cut. He used to stand in front of the mirror for so long soaking it with hairspray and mousse, combing it into perfect swoops in the front. In the hall now, my mother had handfuls of it. Her face was a terrible, screaming red. She smacked ceaselessly at him. Jonny and I pulled her wrists, tried peeling her fingers from his hair.
“Let him go,” we said, shoving. But she was strong—much stronger than we’d ever known her to be.
At the old house, she hadn’t punished us; my father did. When he came home, she’d tell on us for mouthing off or leaving the yard or breaking a dish, and he’d pull out a paddle, line us up in the kitchen, and beat us individually while she begged him, eventually, to stop. But Summit Street was a training period for my mother. She had figured out, I think, that we responded to pain—and it had to hurt. Unlike my father, she hadn’t learned to stop.
Jonny punched her first. He was seven. He hit her in the stomach. I shoved her. Chris stood up. She kept his hair but grabbed me, too. She threw her weight into me, smashing my head and shoulder through the hallway wall, stunning me. She dragged Chris through the living room to the front door and pushed him onto the porch.
“Stay the fuck outside,” she screamed.
She jammed the ironing board between the handle and the baseboard, told Jonny and me that she’d call the cops and have him arrested if we let him in. She said they’d come and take him away; we’d never see him again. She said to shut our fucking mouths. This time we listened. This time we went to bed. This time, we lay quietly in the dark.
That night, Chris slept on the front porch. It was cold, and he didn’t have anywhere to go, so he curled up inside his shirt and slept with his head on the stoop.
In the bedroom, I ached to go outside. My face was scratched; it burned a little where it was cut. I stared out the window, where streetlight shadows played off the side of the neighbors’ house. I kept looking for Chris, waiting for him to run down on the road and goof around or flip us the finger, but he never came. I could hear Jonny breathing in the dark. I knew he was awake, too, by the way he breathed, but neither of us was willing to make a sound.
I could’ve opened the bedroom window and called for Chris, but I was too scared that he’d be taken away. So I lay instead, imagining Chris outside—a rock—and feeling sad for him.
I tried thinking good things: of eating a giant bowl of pasta or ice cream; of rollerblading down Henderson Street or riding bikes behind the church; of Chris and his old guitar; how he’d gone to a few lessons, had learned some chords, how he stood on my uncle’s table once, in front of my family, and sang all of Garth Brooks’s “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” and everyone clapped and cheered. When he finished, he smiled for them.
I remembered how, at night, Chris would strum the guitar to make Jonny and me jealous. We’d ask to play and he’d say no. Until, one night, Jonny tried grabbing at it and Chris knocked him over the head with it. It wasn’t even hard, a thump. But Jonny started crying. So Dad came in, took the guitar outside, and smashed it to pieces against a porch post.
I can see it still, the look on Chris’s face when he heard the guitar rattle and break outside the window.
Dad dragged the broken neck of the thing into the kitchen, whipped it against the wall, called us ungrateful assholes, and dealt his beatings. Mom begged him to settle down, but when Dad drank, he was either the most passionate man, whiskey-voiced and full of brokenhearted love, proclaiming always his deep loyalty and debt to us—“I love you boys,” he’d say. “My sons. I’d die for you”—or he was angry, with a darkness covering him, and he’d become a different man.
Mom taunted him the night he busted up the guitar, called him “Tough Guy” to draw him from us. She challenged him, pushed him. Then he smacked her. And she ran from him. And he chased her down the hall, punching her in the back.
My brothers and I lined up in the kitchen—about-face—the way Dad preferred, to show him that we had surrendered, that he had nothing to prove; we feared him.
The night Chris slept on the porch, I imagined him strumming his guitar again, singing Garth Brooks the way he used to sing it—reluctant and willing all at once, voice cracking at the end of the lines. It’s one of a few peaceful images I still have of him. I wanted so badly to be bigger then, to give him that at least—my braver self—and walk into the living room and open the door. But he didn’t need it. He understood having things taken from him. Besides, Mom didn’t hold anger the way Dad did. She fizzled out, felt sorry. I expected her to fold that night and let Chris in. But she didn’t.
I had underestimated her; we all had.
My only offer to my brother was to stay awake all night for him. I could rescue him that way. I imagined running away, emptying my treasure box, my coins and chromies and marbles and G. I. Joes, and selling it all for a hundred bucks. My brothers and I could live on our own, be chromie kings. We’d twist and snap every blinking speck of chrome from everywhere we went. We’d become rich. Maybe even famous—or feared. We’d be powerful then.
But at some point in the night, the quiet black sky turned to blue, only slightly, and I fell asleep. In the morning, Chris was gone. At first light, he’d walked a few blocks to a friend’s house and called my dad to come and get him.
After that, despite months of arguments, court battles, and the Allegheny Family Division maintaining Mom’s custody, all three of us went to live with Dad in Bethel Park.
We never became chromie kings, as I had wished for that night, but we continued to steal chromies from every back alley and driveway of the neighborhood until the summer ended and we went back to school, or eventually lost interest.
How could I let go? These things that meant so much. That I worked so hard to take. These small pieces of those older than me, those wealthier, those happier, those who had enough that they didn’t have to take from others. Those flickering, sharp-edged chromies that I chased down the street as I would a dream. That I chased as if to steal a better version of myself. Things that—as the good always did—ran forever from me, back to a nicer neighborhood with nicer people living a nicer life. A place I didn’t know how to get to, other than try and steal it.
Chromie thief: desperate and chasing.
My mother, too. Woman lost. Woman on her own and living with rage and haunted by her memories. I won’t say that we were too young or that she was struggling with depression, because it’s more than that. I realize now that I don’t know her. Not then. Not ever. She’s become a mother in glimpses: her dark hair piled in a bun; her face smiling. Her striking, sad blue eyes. On sunny days, walking back from the store, shifting grocery bags between her hands. Trying to cook and failing. Singing Marx in the kitchen. And I feel sorry for her. I wonder what she thought of us then. That we’d stolen from her? That we’d given? We could be beasts—starving, angry, and wishing we were better than we were.
I regret that.
But maybe everyone should be allowed to cling to those things that strengthen them—even if it hurts, or makes them worse. At least, for a moment, they can pretend to have fixed themselves.
Even now, when I pass a car in a parking lot or a church or walking into the bank, I glance down at the tires and look for chromies. I don’t even know why, or what I’d do with them. It’s a habit, a reflex, my eyes always seeking that flutter of light from something small and fleeting. Or maybe I’m waiting to kneel down on the road, knees bending in the sunlight, to strip away all the chromie caps from all the black tires, so I might breathe again that stagnant air—the same brutal smell it’s been for twenty years.
Meet the Author
This essay was the first thing I wrote out of graduate school, without the trusted eyes of an MFA workshop or thesis advisor—which was both frightening and freeing.
Originally, I had this memory of chromies, of stealing and collecting them as a kid, that I’d been playing with, trying to figure out why it had stuck with me so long. As I was writing into it, reliving the sight of a pair of chromies or their smell or the feeling of them in my hands, I found myself interested in the value we assign things, especially insignificant things, and the way that empowers us. Mostly, I wanted to know why. I knew I wouldn’t stop until I answered that question or at least came close to it. What I didn’t know was that this essay would become my mother’s as much as my own. Or that I’d save the document as “Mom’s Chap” for a year before finding a title that represents us both, for different reasons.
I still don’t know, fully, what this essay is about. Maybe dreams, or pain, or disappointment. Maybe it’s about escaping. But it’s also about holding on to things—whether valve stem caps or memories—to try and find strength from them. It’s also about my mother, who, despite our differences, was tougher and more complicated than I ever gave her credit for. I hope others can find connection here, a little bit of his or her own story. I’m just happy that someone (other than my wife) actually read this and enjoyed it. And I’m happy, now, to let it go.
Terrance Manning, Jr. is a graduate from Purdue’s MFA program in creative writing. Recent work has won the Narrative Spring Story Contest, the Iowa Review Award for Fiction and Nonfiction, and the Crazyhorse Prize in Nonfiction. Other work has appeared in Witness, Boulevard, Southwest Review, Ninth Letter, River Teeth, and the Normal School, among other magazines, and his fiction and nonfiction have received special mentions in the Best American Essays and Best American Short Stories. He lives and writes in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“Helpline” by John Hales
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Our staff here at TMR hope that you all are well and staying sane. Today’s essay by John Hales won the 2010 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in nonfiction. In his essay, Hales writes about the challenge of keeping one’s sanity and stability in the face of stressful circumstances–a subject that’s especially relevant to readers today.
By John Hale
Although we weren’t exactly drug-dependent, at least in terms of how drug dependency had been defined in the mimeographed packet we’d been handed while undergoing volunteer Helpline training, and we weren’t stoners compared to some of our friends who toked even more than we did, most of us who worked shifts at the university’s telephone crisis line smoked a lot of marijuana. We joked that it was an occupational hazard. All that stress. All those panicked calls from people not right at that moment enjoying the effects of their own drugs of choice, or telling us at great length the ways their lives truly and deeply sucked. We lit up the second our shifts were over, often on the way to our cars in the union building parking lot, sharing a joint and, if someone had thought ahead, a bottle of something, anything, alcoholic. And then, weather permitting, adjournment to a nearby city park to smoke and drink some more. All that drug talk on the phone; all that human misery we couldn’t avoid ingesting a fair amount of as it cascaded over the phone: fears of where bad trips were heading, thoughts of suicide, more mundane yet really depressing narratives of loneliness—I’m so ugly, I’m so alone, I’m so pathetic I’m calling you.
Adding to the stress was our twenty-four-hour stretch of professional sobriety, begun (like airline pilots) no later than midnight the night before, a Helpline rule we took seriously. Even though most of us didn’t spend the week stoned anyway—our drug abuse mostly began the moment we were off the phones for the night and for us with Friday shifts continued only through the weekend—we understood that we needed to arrive for work straight and sober because in contrast to our relatively inconsequential daily lives, our work here had real consequences, and we didn’t want to fuck up. I was only twenty; I needed all the focus I could muster. But the second we were off the clock, we found release in weed.
We probably would have benefited more from prescription pills for anxiety or depression—pharmaceuticals that targeted the symptoms we’d caught from our callers. But marijuana, the opiate of the Helpline people, had to do, combined with nature in the form of the nearby park we’d head for. Or maybe it would be straight home for sex with a loved one, or somebody at least willing—once almost with a really nice volunteer I’d shared a shift with, she as stressed and stoned as I was.
My most anxious shifts were Friday nights, four P.M. to midnight—shifts I was assigned routinely for reasons probably having to do with the fact that I seldom had plans for the weekend anyway—spent enclosed in the tiny too-bright windowless union building office Helpline had been allotted, just big enough for two small desks, three volunteers and four telephones. One phone was kept available for reality-check calls to Poison Control, or, scariest of all, last-ditch calls to the Salt Lake City Police Department when it looked like our efforts were failing to keep folks from offing themselves or falling off some horrible edge only they could see. We were amateurs, after all, volunteers trained during a frantic pre-semester week of day-long orientations, and so we basically just took in what callers had to say, our responses limited to what the professionals who’d oriented us called “reflective listening.” As in:
“I’m so depressed. I have no earthly reason to keep living.”
“I hear you saying that you feel depressed and that it’s difficult for you to find reasons to continue living.”
Sometimes we were allowed to ask questions that might lead to useful answers: “What did you take? Do you know how many? Can you find the pill bottle and read what the label says?” Sometimes we’d offer referrals, phone numbers of helpful organizations we read off a ragged Rolodex. Sometimes we’d offer sympathy or even suggestions, both of which we’d been told in no uncertain terms not to provide but did anyway. Sympathy was unprofessional, suggestions beyond our competence, and both were beside the point for the average caller. Even so, we couldn’t help reaching out in more personal ways—it was called Helpline, after all, not Reflectline. And because our orientation hadn’t given us much instruction in maintaining professional distance, we were touched more often than you might think, which made our work harder, the dope smoking more necessary. We wanted to help. We cared.
Sometimes we did help, a little. It was easy to mock reflective listening, but I learned that being listened to was not something people experience much, and even our idiotic line-by-line rephrasings occasionally nudged people’s spirits to lift so they finally hung up with a nice “Thank you, I feel a little better.” But too often our clumsy efforts simply weren’t up to the task. When the hallucinations were literally overwhelming—a voice speaking from a really bad trip, saying that the walls were closing in and the caller’s heart was actually stopping (I can feel it! It’s stopping! )—saying, as we were authorized in these cases to do, “Listen to me. Your heart isn’t really stopping. It’s just the drug” was the answer to a question the caller had tripped far beyond asking. And when I heard myself saying into the handset something like, “I hear you saying that you’re holding a gun to your head,” I knew I was way in over my own head. And then the dropped phone, the ominous silence: far worse than the dial tone of a hang-up. By then we’d called the cops, our last resort, which we hated to do.
Most late spring nights, after shifts both harrowing and ho-hum, after the first joint or two, those of us not heading home for the comfort of sex could be found inhaling more quantities of illegal substances, well past the legal hours of one of Salt Lake City’s smallest parks, just off campus and built around a reservoir paved over for tennis, with swing sets and picnic tables and trees that shadowed the streetlights. We talked shop, alas, but only in the brief fragments of attention good marijuana allows, and then gradually switched to subjects not tethered to human tragedy. I wonder today why those of us without love lives wanted to keep hanging out with the same folks we’d just spent eight hours with in what was basically a bunker, and a not very well-defended bunker at that. Maybe that’s why marijuana was our drug of choice. It offered the perfect balance of community and isolation; you share a joint, you sit in a circle, you try to carry on a conversation, but weed carries you deeply into yourself. And after all those strangled connections over telephone lines, and a room that closes in with stress and anxiety and sweat that trickles down your neck during the worst calls, it’s by yourself you finally want to be. Marijuana allowed us to withdraw into ourselves communally, in the proximity of people who understood.
Maybe that’s why my one post-shift assignation was a failure. Either too much smoke, or not enough, the joke went, and we hardly knew each other. But earlier that night Nicole and I had worked through a really bad call, didn’t know the outcome, and so along with being stoned, we’d done way too many straight shots of callers’ despair, and we desperately, and impossibly, needed both connection and withdrawal from human need of any kind. So we—kind of—connected, but I felt somewhere else, and I think she did too. We joked about it later, were less awkward with each other with time, but never tried again.
By late April that year, the first and only year I’d grapple with mental health challenges other than my own, finally it was warm enough at two A.M. to allow hours of outdoor dope smoking, although even during the winter, we’d sometimes huddle in the snow, so anxious were we to get as far as possible from the room’s four close walls echoing with human pain and need. But in the deepest winter we’d more often circle up in someone’s small apartment, and when well stoned and hungry, brave the bright neon lights of Bill and Nada’s, an all-night diner that somehow, in the polarized early seventies, catered to both heads and cowboys, who’d seat themselves according to their outfits in booths on opposite sides of the long room: a United Nations of otherwise mutually antagonistic types seeking late-night comfort without the complication of eye contact or conversation. Outside was best, though—smoking herb in nature, sprawled on the park’s new-grown grass.
One night that spring, the park wasn’t nature enough, so we headed south toward Moab. Apparently we needed sandstone. We’d finished our shift on time. Some nights calls would continue beyond midnight (we tried hard to not think about crises that undoubtedly occurred after hours: phone calls met with a soothing but unhelpful recorded message), and because we cared about the person on the other end of the line, we kept talking until we could hang up gracefully and politely, albeit without solving any problems. But that night, all was quiet at midnight, and we headed out, lighting up as we locked the union building door behind us.
“I want the desert,” Kenny said. “I just need to fucking get out of Salt Lake.”
“So do I,” I said, not having felt any such need until Kenny mentioned it, but immediately recognizing how right he was.
“Let’s get Sal. He’s gonna want to go too.” Sal was Kenny’s roommate, a political science major heading for law school, once he got his grades up. Kenny was a psych major, and Helpline credits actually counted toward graduation. Nice guys—not good friends, but easy to hang with and funny, and Kenny and I had been through some tough shifts. I was an English major. I wasn’t sure why I was volunteering. I kept forgetting to register for the class, so I never got the units.
“Plus, we need his car,” Kenny said. We knew that my piece-of-shit Fiat gave us a place to do a number and might get us back to our apartments but probably wouldn’t make it to Moab. Kenny had a Jeep, but with a ratty, leaky top, and it was a four-hour drive through some mountain passes, and cold, high desert at the end. Also, we needed Sal’s stash, something that went without saying.
Sal was watching TV, half asleep, but he too thought Moab was a great idea. As we knew he would, he volunteered his car, a ten-year-old Plymouth Valiant that he called the Blue Val. It had long since faded beyond something you might have been able to call blue, but it was dependable, and Sal and his car were inseparable.
We stopped at my apartment long enough for me to grab my sleeping bag and a coat. And a war-surplus poncho I’m pretty sure had done a tour in Vietnam, and a bag of cookies and a couple of cans of chili. We chipped in to fill up the Blue Val at an all-night gas station, launched ourselves on I-15 and headed south, lighting up a thick joint for the road. Sal—there was never a question of who would drive—reclined against the angled back of the driver’s seat, inhaled deeply and manipulated the column shift with dignified slow-motion ease.
I passed out before we hit Provo, too often the first to go under, finding in unconsciousness the best escape I seemed able to make that year. I woke in Price a couple of hours later, stirred by bright service station lights and more demands for cash, and stayed happily awake while we sped south. The Blue Val would hit maybe ninety, and with no traffic and the Utah Highway Patrol apparently home in bed, we made it in a couple more hours to the Arches turnoff, a mile or two before Moab, past the dimly lit but unmanned National Park pay station. We drove the curvy road until we turned off on a short dirt track, then motored far enough away from the pavement to keep the Park Service from noticing that we were where we shouldn’t be: far from the official campground, beyond the law in so many ways.
This is the part of the trip I remember, the last leg from Price, the narrow dirt road, our illegal, makeshift camp. Whatever the night sky looked like had been lost in the headlamps, the tunnel of yellow light the Blue Val barreled through, but when Sal switched off the lights, the sky just pounded us with dark. Our eyes slowly adjusted to blackness, then stars, the broad, moonless expanse of what would become in a month or two the summer Milky Way, stars from horizon to horizon, those famous sandstone national-park formations now simply looming black cutouts against all those points of light, each star a cold piercing distance from the others. I remember the eastern horizon, just a little pale, the barest beginning of sunrise, the sun still hours from finally putting those stars away.
We threw down our sleeping bags on the sand and watched the sky as we lay limp, taking it all in.
“Oh, wow,” someone said.
“I hear you saying, ‘Oh, wow,’” somebody answered.
But finally we didn’t anything, just passed one more joint from hand to hand. It was completely quiet, no wind at all, no traffic, no harsh campground Coleman lights. Although Arches had long since ceased being the anonymous outpost presided over unevenly by Edward Abbey in the ’50s, it was a long way from the busy recreational destination it is today, and that night in 1972 it felt like we had the place to ourselves.
I surprised myself by not immediately falling asleep—in spite of the long drive, the stressful shift and my habit of never staying awake long enough to truly enjoy the drug I’d ingested. And by not thinking very much. I lay there on my sleeping bag for a long time watching the sky, feeling the sand shift beneath my neck and shoulders as I made myself completely comfortable.
I remember one thought coming to me that night, at that moment: I don’t care. I just don’t care. I’m not sure I even cared about the beauty we’d driven hours to behold. Other than being somehow beyond caring, I’m not sure what I was actually thinking that night. But I’m pretty certain I’d stopped thinking by then about the dropped phone, the deadly silence on the other end, the long, detailed narratives of abandonment and betrayal and aloneness.
Although I don’t remember exactly how my shift had gone that night, the one I wasn’t thinking about just then, I’m tempted to remember it as a hard one. Today, I recall all too clearly the details of some really bad shifts, when the voice at the other end stopped being merely sad and self-pitying, stopped giving me helpful answers to questions that we were allowed by training and policy to ask, and started sounding at once both matter of fact and slurred, with longer pauses between short, monotone fragments of just giving up.
We hated to call the authorities, but we’d be genuinely scared about what might be happening to the person we’d been listening to for an hour, who’d finally stopped talking, standing beside the open window, we’d imagine, or collapsed beside the phone. We knew the police dispatcher would trace the call, cops would race to the address (or, alternatively and unpredictably, take their own sweet time), break down the door, and assess the situation, calling an ambulance or the coroner. Or possibly they’d just search the place for drugs, having been given probable cause. By us. This was bad enough—the jackbooted-thug approach to mental health services, the drug bust we’d so helpfully narked. But also this: once we’d made the call, we were completely out of the loop. We’d never know what they found. Policy prevented the authorities from telling us, so we consistently imagined the worst. Either way, there were consequences to the decisions we were too young, and not wise or experienced enough, to make.
More likely that night it had been the usual: voices telling stories of simple, awful loneliness, ten o’clock Friday night completely alone. The suicide calls made me crazy with worry, but the routine calls, all those voices connected to all-too-ordinary lives of meaninglessness and just simple profound sadness, in some ways took the heaviest toll.
Tomorrow, like it or not, we’d be up with the midmorning sun, too bright to ignore. There would be a drive to a place with picnic tables, the realization that other than a bag of chocolate chip cookies, we had nothing to eat—no can opener for the chili, let alone anything to cook it with. We’d drive into Moab for supplies, mostly beer, and pay the uniformed ranger on our way back in and find a legal campsite for the night, which we’d pay the Man for too. A nice beer buzz, maybe some more weed, then the afternoon hike to Delicate Arch, that hard, dry sandstone horseshoe, graceful and fragile and literally above everything, above the complexity of green, the danger of drowning. It’s simple up there—just rock and sky.
Maybe that’s it, about that night: it was simple. Nothing to untangle, no bodies to pull from the depths, no frustration with the routine insufficiency of mirroring human tragedy, hours operating on the failed theory that understanding one’s place in the great scheme of human desire and disappointment is the first step toward happiness. Many years later, I can say I wished it worked that way, but I’m still pretty sure it doesn’t. I’m not sure I believed even then the theory, having observed its routine irrelevance in Friday-night practice. So maybe a fleeting sense of one’s place amid all that unfeeling, uncomplicated landscape is possible, when stoned enough, literally miles from what troubles the world you’d been having a professional one-way conversation with, in the company of a couple of guys you liked okay, each in your own stoned fog.
About the sandstone, though, and nature—the all-night drive that still makes all kinds of sense to me. When somebody—probably Kenny—said, “Oh, wow,” I wish the person who’d reflected humorously (okay, probably me) had said something smarter, less smartass, more true, or at least useful.
“I hear you saying that being in this landscape, stoned, at four in the morning, feeling the chill desert air, smelling sagebrush, watching the eastern sky pale behind distant desert mountains, satisfies a deep need, provides clarity, supports the best kind of spirituality, answers at least a few of the hardest questions and makes us all happy.”
Of course, nature isn’t any simpler than anything else humans negotiate their way through. Trust me on that—I’ve read Emerson. And as I think about it, maybe it wasn’t nature at all, or even the drug that helped disengage my frontal lobes. That night, it was partly where I wasn’t. It wasn’t the place I had done time in and driven miles away from. Space, for sure, the open black sky, stars bright pinpricks, the distant mountains—no sweaty armpits in a tight, floodlit room. Responsible only for my own pathetic self. Not much in the way of consequences, no complicated connections with despairing strangers or even good friends.
I was happy, I think. Or, as I keep thinking about that night, maybe I wasn’t thinking. Or for that matter exactly happy. For example, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t thinking about my own sense of not knowing who I was—at all—and where I was going, and come to think about it (which I didn’t right then) my own low-grade loneliness, my anonymous student life, my having no one to go home to, not even the meager hope of some future, less strained hookup with Nicole, the kind and beautiful Helpline volunteer. But I knew this much: I’d put real time-and-space distance between myself and that windowless room of phones and white walls, connected by telephone lines to other bare rooms of despair and heartbreak, the bright, cold city, everything I was running away from that night. It wasn’t exactly that I didn’t care. Care was simply not required. Morning was coming, neither called for nor begrudged, but with creeping slowness all its own that may have been just what I needed.
He has published essays in Georgia Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Southern Review, Hudson Review, Ascent, and in the anthology On Nature: Great Writers on the Great Outdoors. His work has been cited numerous times in Best American Essays and in Best American Science and Nature Writing, and has been a finalist twice for the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize. He has also earned a Pushcart Prize, and he has been profiled as one of Twenty-Five Nonfiction Writers to Watch in Writer’s Digest.
“Rachel’s Wedding” by Rose Smith
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. “Rachel’s Wedding” by Rose Smith won the 2017 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for essay. Through recounting her longtime friendship with the titular Rachel, Rose Smith examines female friendship, as well growing past societal labels such as “outcast” or “misfit.”
by Rose Smith
The early September light on the lake is unreliable. It’s late afternoon; clouds race on the wind and the water laps the shore. Flashes of sunlight glint off restless waves in quick succession. The surface of the water changes from gray to bright blue as the clouds pass over the sun. I am looking out the window over one of the small lakes near our home in upstate New York. This is after I get married but before I get pregnant. I’ve spent the summer waiting for a baby to quicken: a baby I know is close but elusive. Beyond the lake is a cornfield, stretched out across the hills. The tips are turning brown. The corn gathers sweetness, waiting to be cut.
Standing here in the “Perla Suite” of the Glass Lake Inn, I feel a cool breeze coming off the water. I am wearing a white strapless top with boning in the bodice. My white pants stretch snug across my hips. Draped over it all is a sheer white sheath that I made yesterday. My friend Rachel is wearing a white wedding gown with a train and bell sleeves. The cut of the bodice shows off her long, straight neck and pale shoulders. Her golden hair is swept up into an elaborate twist. Behind me, gathered around the bride, are the two Megs and Rachel’s college roommate, Nazeera, who flew in from Prague to be here. I took the train up from the city, where I had been working. Rachel wanted us all to wear white: something breezy, flowing, and all white at her wedding. Nazeera is wearing an ankle-length peasant dress. It’s perfect.
One of the Megs calls me back from the window. “Did you design your dress?” she asks me.
“Yes,” I tell her, even though it’s really just two rectangles of fabric sewn together. “But it’s pretty simple.”
“I wish I could sew.” Her name is Meg. Her best friend since first grade is named Meg too. We are almost thirty, and the two Megs still look alike: short and pear-shaped; blond, close-cropped wavy hair; intelligent glasses. In fact, they both look just like they did in high school. Rachel and I, on the other hand, are unrecognizable from our teenage selves.
Rachel’s mom comes into the room, and a jolt of electricity runs through our little group. It’s time. We follow her out of the inn and onto the lawn leading down to the shore. The groom, fifteen or so years older than we are and born and raised in the city, waits for us on the other side of the lake. Rachel’s mom hands each of us a large silk scarf. The Megs get royal blue and emerald green, Nazeera a deep gold; mine is peach. We drape them over our shoulders so they hang long in the back, flapping in the wind behind us as we walk. Rachel’s mom kisses her on the lips and hurries off to her car. She’s driving around the lake to the other side, where the wedding tent is set up. The “gaggle of girls,” as Rachel calls us, will be traveling by barge, called like sirens across the water by the groom’s saxophone. Rachel is marrying a Jewish jazz musician named Saul. She even converted for him. A chupa and a glass to break and a rabbi all wait for her in her new life on the other side of this water.
I am sure we are a beautiful sight from the shore, but the wind is rough, and the barge is really just a raft with a motor that some teenage boy is steering from a crouch behind us. My hair stands straight up, and my eyes water from the cold. Our scarves whip frantically as the raft motors through the water. I watch as a long ribbon of golden silk lifts high into the air. It hangs suspended, almost still, in the chaos of wind and mist. The setting sun rests in its folds, a kind of floating origami light box. I think of my husband, standing near the shore with the other guests. I can’t make him out yet in the distant crowd. The scarf lands on the surface of the lake and is subsumed in an instant. Nazeera turns and lunges as it disappears. She almost falls overboard, and we scream and cling to each other, laughing and holding each other up, until Rachel’s dignity gets the best of her; she straightens up and faces the music.
I can see Saul standing on the shore now. He stands erect in his black suit, blowing on his horn. Snatches of the music carry on the wind, and the disjointed song is haunting and sad to me. Rachel’s jaw is set, and her back is straight, as always. Her eyes are wide with her smile, and her beautiful hairdo is a mess.
I’m in my new bedroom, with the new yellow bedroom set we bought when we first moved here. Two twin beds, for if I have a sleepover, and a matching dresser and vanity. I lie in my bed, reading Little Women again. Lots of the pages I already know by heart. The other yellow bed sits there all made up. There haven’t been any sleepovers. No one has even sat there. I’ve thought about messing up the covers just so I won’t feel so bad when I see it.
My mom pokes her head around the doorway. “Go outside,” she orders me.
“Quit reading and go outside. Enough is enough.”
“I don’t want to go outside.”
I look at her.
I put my book down and pull on my shoes. This new town couldn’t be more different than home. First of all, it’s mostly forests here, and so quiet. At home there were sidewalks and streetlights and always, at night, the noise from the go-go bar on the corner. Our new house is at the top of a steep hill, on a curving street lined with wooden houses. It’s the summer before I start sixth grade at a new school. I’ve been here almost two months, and I still don’t know a soul. I’m getting pretty nervous.
I walk down the impossible hill, feeling the rubber soles of my running shoes grip the slanted asphalt. There are no sidewalks here. A few miles down the highway are the 4 Corners Market and a post office and a dance school. At the bottom of the hill is another cornfield. Viewed from above, it looks like a giant patchwork quilt. The corn is so tall it is like a forever forest of waxy green stalks, millions of them, standing in a row. There’s a patch of grass before the first rows of corn and a big shade tree. I sit under the tree and lean my back against the trunk. I’m feeling pretty sorry for myself. I imagine I am Jo in Little Women, when Amy sets off for Europe. I don’t have any hope at all of going to Europe. Two girls come out of the house across the street and start toward me. I stand up when they step on the grass.
“You moved into my grandma’s house at the top of the hill,” says one of the girls.
“The blue one?” I ask.
“Yep. That’s my grandma’s. You didn’t buy it, you’re just renting.” She’s a pretty girl with blond hair that curls around her shoulders. She has boobs, too. I can see the outline of her bra under her T-shirt.
“OK,” I say. The other girl is hanging back. Her hair is long and straight like mine, but hers is golden and shines like silk. She has a straight nose that makes her face look as though it belongs to a woman, not a girl. Her body is like mine: skinny and childish.
“I’m Kristie,” says the pretty girl. “And this is Rachel.”
The room is mostly dark, our faces pale and luminous in the moonlight. Rachel’s house is far from town, an old farmhouse at the end of a long lane, and the stars out here are always the brightest they’ll ever be on earth. The Megs are here, and me and Rachel. We’re sprawled out on pillows and blankets in the downstairs living room. Her parents are asleep upstairs.
“Have you seen Kristie since graduation?” Rachel asks me.
“No. Not a word. She doesn’t call back or write. I even stopped by yesterday, and her mom told me she wasn’t home yet. But I think she was there.”
“I never understood why you were friends with her,” says Meg.
“She was so mean,” says the other Meg.
“She was my fiercest defender.” I say it with bravado, to make everyone laugh, but really I feel bereft and confused.
“Well, maybe she’s disappeared because you don’t need her anymore.” Rachel says it in her mom voice, but her tone is also kind of sad for me. I look at her white hands as she gestures in the faint light. She stretches her neck back and forth, popping the bones into place, crack-crack-crack. Rachel’s hair is cut. After we graduated from high school, she cut all her hair off, short like a boy’s. I can’t stop reaching over to touch the back of her neck. As ever, Rachel sits erect, back rod-straight, among the rest of us with our slumping, curled frames wrapped around pillows. She has grown into her woman’s face, and she is beautiful like a runway model, gaunt and rare.
“Ok . . . boyfriends,” I say. We are home for the holidays after our first semester of college. I still don’t recognize myself in the mirror, but my confidence is growing.
“I have important information for you girls,” Rachel starts. I am alarmed by her instructive tone. She definitely did not know anything about boyfriends three months ago. She went to school in Montreal. We visited the college together during the fall of our senior year. We wandered around that campus with her dad all day, and I left feeling inadequate and out of place, but Rachel seemed galvanized. In the car, I sat in the back, leaned my head against the seat, and stared out the side window while Rachel and her dad talked all the way home.
“I’m telling you right now not to do anal.”
“What?” squeaks Meg, sitting up.
“You know, sex in the butt.”
Oh, my god, I didn’t even know that was an option. “I thought only gays did that.”
“No,” says Rachel. “My roommate and her boyfriend decided to try it, and she started bleeding everywhere and I had to take her to the emergency room and she had to get stitches. Stitches. Up there!”
I breathe a small sigh of relief that she is only talking about her roommate. As far as I know, Rachel has never even had a boyfriend. She went to the prom with the Flemish foreign exchange student who was like twenty or something. Of course I didn’t go at all.
“Oh, my god, Rachel. That sounds horrible.”
“Consider yourself warned.”
“OK. OK.” We all look horrified for a few moments, and then I start to laugh. And then we are all shrieking and laughing and falling in a pile and clutching at each other to keep from rolling off the mountain of pillows.
When we can breathe again, I say, “Chip and I never even thought of that.”
“Oh, maybe Chip did,” Rachel suggests. She raises her eyebrows at me. We have a suspicion that the nice boyfriend I got at the end of our senior year is really gay.
“Oh, shut up,” I tell her. “And anyway, it was enough for us the regular way.”
“You and Chip had sex?” Rachel.
“Oh.” Other Meg.
“Yeah,” I answer. I surprise even myself that I admit this.
Everyone is silent for a moment. I feel intensely embarrassed.
“Oh, honey. I didn’t realize that you were going through that back then.” It’s her mom voice again, and she’s so full of love for me, and caring, that she suddenly even looks like my mom. I hate it when she does that.
We want to ride down the impossible hill. We go through the options, eliminating the ones that seem too dangerous or dumb. Bikes? Too out of control. Tire? No one wants to be upside down. Roller-skates? Only Kristie has them. I have a red wagon that belongs to my brother. The pinstriping is peeling up in places, and there is a dent in the front corner, but if we put a blanket in the bottom to make it soft and cushiony and hold the handle so we can steer, it seems like the best choice.
Rachel and I climb into the wagon at the top of the hill and stare down the asphalt incline. I’m in front, and she’s wedged in behind me. The cornfield below is brown and dry; the stalks have all been chopped low to the ground, and the rows of brown dirt make stripes in the land that stretch far into the distance. The air is cold, but it hasn’t started snowing yet. Soon, the snow will cover everything, as far as I can see. Soon, this will be the best sledding hill in town, and everyone will be here on snow days. We’ll have to wait our turn to slide down our own hill. For now, though, Rachel and I are about to drop. This is when Rachel still thought of her body as reliable and strong. Before she had to be careful.
Rachel steps off the barge and gingerly places her satin shoes on the wet, sandy bank. The Megs hold her train up away from the water. Nazeera and I climb gracelessly down into the spongy grass. I hold her arm as she hops down, and I realize: Nazeera is the roommate. With the stitches. I am wearing my new heels, a fancy designer pair that I bought in London when I was working there. They look more like art than shoes. The photographer snaps, snaps, snaps.
Once we are away from the water, the evening feels calm and familiar. Early fall in upstate New York. The sky goes from a cool blue to a pale pink and settles finally into a charcoal. I keep getting the sensation that there is someone nearby, watchful and waiting to join me. The stand of weeping willows by the shore is black in silhouette, a group of old women bent over their work: veiled, gnarled, intent, immobile. It’s a waxing moon; the stars are stealing the show, and it feels like home.
I move through the crowd, looking for my husband. He’s a big, gregarious type, tall and broad shouldered, with a heavy brow and dark eyes. I spot him talking to Rachel’s dad. He’s gesturing wildly, telling a story. Rachel’s dad is jumping up and down, switching feet, bobbing his head. He’s a lanky man with a long beard and graying hair that curls around his ears. He’s wearing a tie and a vest. When her dad sees me, he puts his arms around me in a big bear hug. As he lets me go, he pokes me in the ribs and says, “Quite a man you’ve got here.”
My husband winks at me. Rachel’s dad is pleasantly stoned. The three of us stand peacefully, looking out over the party.
The guests are a mix of old hippies (Rachel’s parents’ friends), hip jazz cats and intellectuals (Saul’s friends), a few upstate farmer types (neighbors), old Jewish New Yorkers (Saul’s family), and us (Rachel’s high school friends). Rachel’s Aunt Helen walks over to us. She’s wearing a pillbox hat trimmed with pearls. She looks smaller than the last time I saw her and so frail my breath catches as I say her name. She pulls me in and puts her palm on my cheek. “Oh, look at you,” she says. “You take my breath away.”
“This is my husband,” I tell her. She laughs as she pats his arm and gives me a told-you-so look. In a way, I love her like she’s my own.
Rachel’s mom comes by to tell us to find our seats for dinner. My husband pulls me to him as we walk, his hand firm around my waist. He fits his fingers into the shape of my rib cage. He likes the sharpness of my bones. How close to the surface my frame is. He likes to feel the elemental structure that holds me together. Once we find our table, I tell him I’m going to find the bathroom. “Be careful in those shoes,” he tells me, his lips close to my ear.
Near the bathrooms, I run into two guys from high school. Jonathan is about five foot three, and Sev must reach six foot five. They were the tallest guy in the school and the shortest. And they were inseparable. Jonathan married one of the Megs last year. I’m happy to see them.
“He looks like a guy you would marry,” says Jonathan.
“Your husband. He looks like a guy you would marry.” An awkward moment ticks by while I try to figure out what he means by that, and what I should say.
Sev steps in, “You look beautiful. You really do.”
“Thanks, Sev. I’ll see you guys after dinner.”
Rachel put us at a table with some of Saul’s friends from the city. The guy on my right is telling us about his job as a puppeteer on Sesame Street. I start to tell him about the dream I’ve had a thousand times, where Big Bird takes me flying over the red cliffs of southern Utah, but someone is beginning a toast, and we all turn in our seats.
It’s one of the hip jazz cats, and he speaks almost as if he is singing:
“O Saul, you lucky, lucky man.
O Rachel, you happy, happy girl.”
The school nurse opens her door again to let the next kid into her office. Rachel’s last name begins with G and mine with H, so we are always next to each other. Lines, lockers, assigned seats. The Heffner twins are making fart noises, and Kelly Ferraro is giggling stupidly at them. I roll my eyes, and Rachel tosses back her hair. We thought about wearing makeup today, but I decided against it. I don’t like to draw attention to my face. Makeup certainly won’t make it better. I told Rachel on the phone last night that she doesn’t need it anyway. She said maybe we’ll try it for the seventh grade dance on Friday.
The door opens, and Kelly goes in. We are all wearing undershirts today, so the nurse can do her tests and not embarrass anyone who doesn’t need a bra. Like me. Like Rachel. Kelly definitely wears a bra. The Heffners stop farting when the door closes. The lights on the ceiling of the hallway drone like summer insects. When Kelly comes out and Rachel goes in, I stand alone and try to appear disinterested. The twins lean against the wall, yawning and blowing spit bubbles. Rachel comes out with her hair shining and her shirt all rumpled. I want to smooth it for her as she passes, but the nurse is calling me in. The nurse’s office is small with beige walls and a metal desk. There are a couple of cots and some curtains for when you have a headache during class. I pull off my shirt. I’ve been through this before. I fold at the waist and put my forehead against my knees. The nurse puts her hands on my back and feels up and down my spine. I know why they do this in ballet auditions, but I can’t imagine what this has to do with school. She tells me to put my shirt on and go back to class. The Heffner twins look bored as I walk by.
The first day Rachel wears her back brace to school I am surprised. Not by the fact of it. I knew it was coming. It’s the metal and hard plastic that throw me. There are metal rods on the front and back of her body rising up her spine, straight and cold and ending in a plastic rest to hold her chin up, to pull her neck long and erect. The molded plastic that encases her waist and hips is vaguely pelvis-shaped. She is wearing her sister’s clothes because they are a size larger and button over the brace.
We stand at the mirror in the girls’ bathroom. It’s time for PE, and we are hiding out. Not for the whole class. Just to get our bearings. I look at Rachel. She’s brushing her hair, letting it hang like a waterfall down her back. From behind, with her hair down, you can’t tell she is wearing a brace. I catch a glimpse of my own face. It’s getting worse as I grow. I was only three when we had our car accident. Riding along the dusty road, windows down, dry air blowing our hair, sitting in my mother’s lap: that is the moment I am thinking of when I look in the mirror. The moment before. Next came the moment after.
Here’s what happened in the space between: My mother’s arm slammed into my ribs as she pulled me tight to her body. We were both hurled forward. Her face hit the glass of the windshield. Shattered. Shards finding purchase in her left cheek. Body arced into a grotesque shape. No arm thrown up in fear, hands still firmly wrapped around me. Below, as the shards fell, was my face. Smashed. Between the metal dash, and her stomach: blouse, skin, muscle ribs tendons uterus placenta amniotic, my brother, his beating heart.
There was blood everywhere. My mother lifted me out of the seat and set me beside her on the road beside the truck. The car in front of us was folded in on itself. The driver stood by, her tongue worrying at a cut on her lip. Her hands were at her sides like caught fish.
My mother was wailing. What she was saying didn’t make sense but it got under my skin and into my flesh and stayed there like a warning.
“Just live, she screamed. Just live!”
At the hospital her cheek was sewn up, a five-inch seam from jaw to temple. I was taken into surgery. The bones in my face were broken. Shattered. The university surgeon contemplated mending the bridge of my nose, my destroyed cheekbones, my broken jaw, my caved in sinuses. He had the skin pulled back to assess the damage. Defeated, he carefully sewed up my flesh, covering the chaotic mess with neat, loving stitches. That night, speaking softly to my mother, he attempted to explain: complex craniomaxillofacial trauma . . . soft-tissue injuries as well as multiple fractures to the underlying skeleton . . . growth will lead to secondary deformities needing surgical intervention. “You’ll have to wait until she’s grown,” he said.
“For what?” she asked.
“To fix her face.”
From behind, with my hair down, I just look like a little kid. In art club I am learning to make stop-motion animations after school. Rachel and the Megs are working on self-portraits. They sit at tables with mirrors in front of them and sketch in the lines of their features. Mrs. Reed tries to get me to start on a self-portrait, but I won’t relinquish the 8mm camera. I love the world it contains inside its glass lens.
After months of phone calls with the insurance company, my mom has made an appointment with a surgeon in the city. She says it is time we find our doctor. The operation to fix my face is still many years away, but the process is beginning. The long wait until I am “done growing” is almost over. Looking at myself in the bathroom mirror—the concave center where it was smashed in the accident, the flat nose, the hollow cheeks—I suddenly feel close to Rachel. We are like sisters now. Odd. Separate. Undesirable. Then, as she spins around to go change out for gym, I realize that she may not want to stay friends with me now. Before, we just ignored the fact of my face and instead complained about our flat chests and skinny legs. With me as a friend, she becomes half of a pair of misfits. I’m not even sure I should stay friends with her.
She walks through the door ahead of me, stiff and erect, her neck pulled long by the silver rods. I think of her like that while I am in dance class in the afternoon. My own neck is long and straight, but free. As I step out onto my new toe shoes, I balance there: my back arches, my leg rises in a high arabesque behind my head. I no longer take for granted the way my body curves and bends at will.
It is a May weekend, and we are in my mom’s baby-blue Bonneville. I’m at the wheel. Rachel is shotgun. The Megs are in the back. They are singing the harmonies of some show tune. One of the Megs is the lead in the high school play. I roll the window down all the way and look over at Rachel. Her hair whips around her face until she catches it in her hand and twists it all into a golden knot on top of her head. The seat belt stretches across the metal bars of her brace. I wish for her straight nose and fine high cheekbones, her perfect jaw. The sounds of the wind and road drown out the warblers in the backseat. I am wearing a white button-down shirt and black pants. So is Rachel. The Megs have their clothes with them. They’ll change when we get there. Where we are going is Aunt Helen’s wedding. She has asked us to be the waiters at her “dinner under the stars.”
“My Aunt Helen is getting married,” Rachel says to no one in particular. We are all a little shocked by this fact. Aunt Helen always seemed like one of us. A grown-up version, but still one of us: a woman too strange for anyone to love.
When we get to Rachel’s house, her mom puts us straight to work setting the long wooden tables out in the garden. There are lanterns hanging from tree branches. Cut flowers stand in canning jars. They’ve rented folding chairs, and someone has already placed them at the tables. Meg and I lay the plates out while Rachel and the other Meg arrange silverware.
“Fork on the left,” calls her mom. Rachel rolls her eyes. I pretend to stab myself in the chest with a butter knife. Rachel holds up a fork and pretends to throw it at her mom’s back. “Stop laughing and get back to work, girls! The guests will be here any minute.”
I need to pee, so I sneak inside the house. It’s a farmhouse like ours. At least a hundred years old, two stories, wood siding, steep eaves. Everyone enters through the mudroom on the side of the house. I don’t even know where the front door is. The downstairs bathroom is occupied, so I go upstairs. Helen is standing on the landing. Her ivory dress is trimmed with antique lace at the collar, cuffs, and hem. It’s fitted at the waist, and the narrow skirt falls just below the knee. Her ivory leather shoes button across the instep. Her hair is gold, like Rachel’s, but short and shaped into finger waves around her head. A small piece curls in front of her ear into a spiral on her cheek. She takes my face in her hands and cups my cheeks in her palms. Her hands are warm and dry. “I hear from Rachel that you’re having your operation this summer,” she says.
I feel the heat and color rise under her palms. No one else ever mentions this to me. Other than my mom, only Helen is willing to talk about it directly.
“What will they do?” she asks.
I move her hands so I can show her. I hold my finger up to my lower jaw, “They’ll cut bone out of here,” I move my finger to point at my upper jaw, “and then insert bone up here. Then they’ll put in cheekbones carved from my hip. They’re still deciding what to use for the bridge of my nose. Maybe a rib,” I tell her.
“Oh, it is amazing what doctors can do, isn’t it? I can’t wait to see how beautiful you are. And just when Rachel gets to take off her brace. What a pair you will be then!” She’s feeling romantic. I’m starting to get embarrassed. She looks around us at the narrow wooden staircase and runs her hand over the smooth, dark banister. She’s just remembered what we are doing here.
“It is my wedding,” she says. “I better put on some lipstick.” She has Rachel’s face, just thinner and older. Her skin is so white, it is almost translucent. Her trademark red lipstick always seems too much to me on her pale lips.
“I’m so happy for you, Aunt Helen,” I tell her. “Congratulations.”
My husband holds me close on the dance floor. Rachel and her new husband dance by. I do a little hop to avoid stepping on her train. Our eyes meet, and she raises her eyebrows at me. I know she’s as surprised as I am that we are here. With husbands. Rachel’s parents dance up and grin at us. They are happy. Soon they will fade into the dark outside the tent’s glow to get high, but for now they are present and accounted for, dancing the first dance. The next run around the dance floor, Saul is dancing with Rachel’s mom and Rachel’s dad has Rachel spinning and laughing.
The band, full of famous jazz musicians I’ve never heard of but that my husband is impressed by, ends the song with a bang. There’s an expectant pause, and then I see Aunt Helen walk slowly across the riser. Her husband has his hand on her arm as she takes her place at the microphone. She’s thin; her dress drapes over bony shoulders, blade-like forearms, jutting clavicles. Her bald head is pale in the twinkling lights of the tent. She has left the pillbox hat behind. Earlier she told me, “I just don’t have the energy for wigs anymore.” She moves carefully, and she is so fragile that I expect her to whisper.
We breathe a collective sigh as she begins to sing, a cappella. Her voice is strong and clear, “Like a bird, on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried, in my way, to be free.” At that, the band strikes up, and she swings the tune, just a bit, while we all smile up at her. In her hands, the song loses its ponderous tone and skips lightly, hopefully, toward freedom. She has been in remission before, but the news about her lately has been pretty bad.
My husband gets called to shoulder the chairs, and as the Hava Nagila builds, Rachel and Saul are lifted above the crowd. Rachel’s mom grabs my hand and pulls me into the circle. Her sister fits in on my other side, and we begin the spinning, circling dance that gets wilder and more frantic as it goes on. We are singing and stomping and kicking our legs in the air. Rachel is laughing. Saul has his hand on her arm across the gap between their chairs. My husband is holding the leg of her chair high in the air, but his other hand is on her waist, holding her firmly in place. I feel the heel of my shoe clip off the back of the dance floor, and the whole scene tips backward. And then I am on my back in the grass, just outside the reach of the tent’s light. Rachel’s mom and sister clasp hands to close the gap I’ve left behind, and I watch them spin away.
I try to stand, but my foot gives way in a burst of sharp pain and heat. I crawl over to a chair nearby and pull myself into it. The tent is glowing and pulsing with energy. The song is reaching its crescendo, and Rachel’s cheeks are flushed bright pink as she drifts past, lifted high above the crowd of dancers. The band transitions smoothly, and it doesn’t take long for my husband to find me sitting on a folding chair with my bare foot propped up on a table. “Do you have a broken wing, tender bird?” he asks me. He calls for a doctor. Two psychiatrists and an ophthalmologist tell me that my foot is definitely not broken. Their wives all disagree. My husband says we are going to the hospital for an x-ray.
“Just let me sit a moment,” I tell him. Out here on the lawn, it is dark and peaceful. Inside the tent, children slide across the floor in their socks, and old aunts dance arm in arm. We sit together watching Rachel’s dad: his tie is loose, his waistcoat unbuttoned. He’s got both of his daughters, one in each hand, dancing with him. He’s grinning like mad and hopping from foot to foot, waving his arms in the air. The girls are laughing as he spins them away from him and back in again.
“Look how happy he is,” my husband says. “So happy with his daughters. So much joy he can’t stop dancing and smiling. It’s utterly goofy. Totally free. That’s me out there someday,” he says. “That’s me, so happy.”
The lake sends a breeze over the lawn. A cloud moves, and moonlight flashes over us, illuminating the trees all around. There it is again. That feeling that someone is watching, waiting. We’re ready, I think. Come on.
Rose Smith was born in Utah and raised in Arizona and upstate New York. She is the winner of The Missouri Review’s 27th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. Her story, Idaho, was named a finalist for Narrative Magazine’s 2018 Story Contest. Rose lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and their two children. She is currently at work on a novel.
“What I Should Consider before Weeping in Frustration at Airline Customer Service after a Six-Hour Delay on My Honeymoon” by Caroline Crew
BLAST, TMR‘s new online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a journal. Just in time for the holidays, Caroline Crew reflects on her “unfeminine” and possibly British habit of NOT crying in the face of adversity.
What I Should Consider before Weeping in Frustration at Airline Customer Service after a Six-Hour Delay on My Honeymoon
by Caroline Crew
- I don’t cry. No, really, I don’t. At least not identifiably—not outside, not in the world where someone might see or, worse, remember.
- Of course, there are tears of a kind. Basal tears are the fundamental lubricant of the eye; reflex tears react to irritants—I remember getting my nose pierced at sixteen in a tent in a muddy music-festival field and being so indignant that my eyes sprang tears without my feeling pain. I’ve recognized that same look on the faces of amateur boxers getting punched in the ring, not the safety of the gym, for the first time. A bodily betrayal.
- The third and final tear type, the most mysterious, are those we sob.
- The infamous British “stiff upper lip” is a peculiarity of late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century Britain. We were a weepy nation before and would be again— but the emergence of empire in the Victorian era hardened the delicate sensibilities of Britain. The young Queen at her coronation wept. With tears of joy or fear, sorrow or bewilderment? But big empires don’t cry. As the new century dawned, Britain dried her eyes and stoically marched on.
- The mystery of emotional tears is a miracle to some: the act of weeping is often associated with Aristotle’s idea of catharsis. Catharsis proposes an alchemy of sorts, with Oedipus Rex or your own choice of tearjerker as the catalyst: Let art transform you. Spectating tragic art purges negative feelings— or, more plainly, “better out than in.” Such a cliché holds a quieter threat: What will happen if you don’t let it out? You’ll curdle and rot.
- The term “stiff upper lip” is actually an Americanism. The expression was treated with the suspicion of scare quotes throughout the nineteenth century.
- My favourite mystic, Margery Kempe, never became a saint. I like to think that even for the Catholic Church, her endless tears—a gift from God— were too much. One travelling preacher went so far as to ban the tearful Margery from his services because he could not stand the disruption. What to do with a woman who won’t shut up?
- Historian of emotion Thomas Dixon situates Britain’s suspicion of crying in a cat’s cradle of paradoxes: the actor’s paradox and the witch’s paradox. For the actor—and we are all performers when we begin to weep— the contradiction lies in conveying authenticity as a professional faker. For the witch, it’s a classic question of femininity: to weep is weak or manipulative, to remain dry-eyed is hard-hearted, unfeminine, bitchy.
- “Modern girls don’t cry, even if they feel like it”—actress and World War I performer Dorothy Brunton.
- I was deluged by Margery Kempe’s tears in order to avoid the cathartic extremity of tragedy. As an undergraduate, I wanted to avoid the popular Shakespeare and Tragedy class, choosing instead the poker-faced sounding Literature and Law in Early Modern England. Beyond my discomfort at the prospect of three whole months of Elizabethan tearjerkers, an entire semester of Shakespeare at my medieval, top-tier university threatened to reveal my shameful lack of learning. A first-generation student, I would require another degree or two to shake the feeling of not belonging, of intruding in someone else’s sacred space— and so I would be as silent and small as I could in seminars. I forsook catharsis, focusing instead on the melding of English common law and social norms and literature’s role in scripting both.
- A much-cited 2011 study in Science found that women’s tears contain chemical signals that decrease testosterone and sexual arousal in men. One of the study’s authors, Noam Sobel, lamented “I won’t pretend to be surprised that it generated all the wrong headlines.”
- One of my oldest friends, Kit, can remember almost anything. They are the keeper of our archive. Kit remembers what I’ve worn for every Halloween since college. They recall the nasty specifics of fights with boyfriends I’ve long since forgotten. They remember that one-shouldered bronze dress I donated to Goodwill five years ago, which, according to them, was a mistake. But they do not remember ever having seen me cry. In over a decade of friendship, the most Kit can recall is me sniffling on the phone and denying it.
- Winston Churchill, that epitome of dry-eyed, bulldog Britishness, wept publicly during his tenure as Prime Minister—in the Blitzed streets of London, in the House of Commons.
- I used to think this was my fascination with Margery Kempe: a woman so loud in her life that she wrote the first autobiography in English so she could echo down centuries. But now I wonder if my fascination comes down to the bafflement of opposites attracting. I’m stubbornly terrified of tears—at least tears that might be witnessed by another soul, but not Margery. Margery’s tears stopped for no one, no matter how uncomfortable her audience.
- News of weeping statues is a fairly frequent reported miracle. While condensation is often the culprit, there are weeping-Madonna craft tutorials for all ages available online.
- A smattering of smirking headlines stretching from 2013 to the present report the establishment of “crying clubs.” Human-interest articles from Japan, England, and India describe communal gatherings from ironic goth club nights to faceless conference-room meetings all chasing the cathartic release of crying—but without the misery of loneliness. These gatherings, such as the Minnade Nako Kai in Kyoto and the Lachrymal Gland Club in Sendai, seem particularly popular in Japan, ranked in the International Study on Adult Crying as among the most reserved nations in terms of public weeping.
- The Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney once described his relationship to Catholicism as less a religious practice and more tradition: “the specifically Irish Catholic blueprint that was laid down when I was growing up has been laid there forever. I think of the distrust of the world, if you like, the distrust of happiness, the deep pleasure there is in a mournful litany, the sense that there’s some kind of feminine intercession that you turn to for comfort.” I believe, too, that despite having lived in the US for almost a decade, somewhere under the layers of my twisted transatlantic accent, adoption of Southernisms such as “y’all” but refusal to drop the “u” from colour is a Church of England blueprint etched in my soul— work hard, be polite, don’t cry, and certainly don’t let that lip wobble if someone can see you. The private vault of Protestant practice.
- Why are Roy Lichtenstein’s women crying? His crying girls are the most iconic faces of Pop Art. I still see their faces most days, repurposed in Atlanta street artist Chris Veal’s murals across the city. The gesture remains static—cartoonishly beautiful women weep. In Lichtenstein’s originals blondes cry waiting for an absent man, sob out apologies, or bawl rather than ask for help, as in his famous Drowning Girl. In the Atlanta re-imaginings, the telltale speech bubbles express similarly vapid stimuli for the women’s tears: traffic, a dead iPhone battery, Instagram likes. The appeal of Pop Art is its immediacy of subject— we recognize the can of soup, the cartoon—and get to smugly nod in agreement with the ham-fisted critique of mass production, of low culture. That feeling of superiority buoys us for a brief moment. Lichtenstein’s weeping women puff us up—we would never be so insipid as to cry over unworthy subjects.
- My year of public crying: Oxford, 2011 to 2012. Angry at my own misery, I didn’t care who saw me. I cried after classes. I cried on the Bridge of Sighs, I cried on Turl Street while walking past undergraduates throwing water balloons for a medieval rivalry, I cried on the bus to Oxford and away from it. I cried in tourist pictures. I cried in libraries full of priceless artifacts. I cried in the famous pubs and I cried in the student dives. I cried until I unceremoniously left—no graduation day, just a diploma in the mail. And then I stopped. In that medieval city, I was, briefly, Margery Kempe’s daughter—weeping my ceaseless stream—a personal miracle of public emoting.
- Tears lurk in the liminal spaces. The dark cinema is a British favourite in-between—the shadows obscuring both our tears and the line between fact and fiction, whether we are crying for the sentimental story onscreen, or for ourselves.
- On why so many weeping women in his work, Roy Lichtenstein shrugs: “Crying women are just the cliché. That’s what you used to see in comics books—women who were like that, women were always in trouble.”
- Maudlin, meaning excessively sentimental or mawkish or foolishly emotional comes from Magdalene, as in Mary Magdalene weeping, that most Catholic of icons.
- Empire and anti-weeping sentiment are a classic English pair. The dry-eyed English reserve is built on a misguided and murderous belief in the “better-than.” Better than those primitive, emotional “savages.” Better than those Catholics crying in church. Better than those crying for their dead, the dead her majesty’s men have made.
- Weeping can be a weapon. The tears of white women, especially, are wont to be weaponized and brandished in defence of white supremacy. The tears of white women have summoned the cops, have made false accusations, have murdered people of colour and all the while maintained the sympathetic subject position.
- The question of who gets to cry, rather than who wants to cry, weights our tears with the gravity the world affords us.
- Letty Eisenhauer, Roy Lichtenstein’s ex-lover with whom he lived when he first developed his mature style, after separating from his first wife, Isabel: “The crying girls are what he wanted women to be. He wanted to make you cry, and he did—he made me cry.”
- In his 2008 study on gender and affective behaviors, psychologist Jacob M. Vigil expressed surprise at the result that only 2 percent of American men reportedly believed they were likely to cry out of anger, as opposed to 51 percent of women. Vigil postulated this difference was linked to the social permissibility of men’s, but not women’s, aggression.
- For all the reasons Margery Kempe and her spiritual advisors ever assigned her holy tears—experiencing the suffering of Christ on the cross, seeing a wedding that reminded her of Mary and Joseph, seeing children and so imagining Christ as a child, recalling all of these spiritual insights for a scribe—anger was not one of them. She was mocked, accused of demonic possession, and endured the birth of fourteen children (not counting stillbirths) without modern pain medicine. Perhaps Margery wailed because it was her only outlet for rage.
- After the Trump administration’s brutal policy of family separation that saw infants incarcerated in an old Walmart building, protesters gathered outside the home of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson. Instead of protest chants, those gathered played audio recordings of the weeping migrant children.
- My father repeatedly told me, “Don’t marry a man you haven’t seen cry.”
- Less than a year after I first met my husband in Atlanta, my visa expired and I moved back to England, so we broke up. It was not a surprising end; we weren’t to know we had a decent shot at a sequel. What was surprising was the intensity of our bodies in our final week together, so much that paths came together and blurred, and my tears prompted his erections. The joke that the reason I don’t cry is because it arouses him has never died.
- “Emotional incontinence” was and is the charge levelled at public outpourings of tears in Britain. This indictment leaks into the opinion pages whether the tears come after the death of Princess Diana or following an underdog victory in the Premier League.
- Scottish crime-fiction writer Ian Rankin positions his famous Detective John Rebus, mourning the death of his mentor, as paragon of national paradox: “Typical Scot, he couldn’t cry about it. Crying was for football defeats, animal bravery stories, ‘Flower of Scotland’ after closing time.”
- In 2016, a farmer in rural China took to the media to complain that the medical system refused to believe his wife’s condition: she had been crying stones for seven years.
- Many of the more contemporary weeping miracles have been quickly demystified. Case in point: in 1996 a twelve-year-old Lebanese girl wept crystal tears. The sparkling tears were, in fact, quartz—as many as seven stones a day, for several months. With their sharpness, these tears brought blood, too—and with the media attention, scepticism. It was quickly revealed the crystalline tears were a scam, not a sacrament—a scheme of this poor girl’s mother.
- It is only after I turn thirty that I tell anyone my most embarrassing secret: My mother has never said, “I love you.” I have seen her cry, though, just once, when her dog was stuck underneath a hay bale.
- Crying, like laughter, is one of the curious behaviours that separates us from animals— but does it elevate us?
- The same year I start letting slip my secret, I finally get fitted for contact lenses—as if I can avoid charges of vanity now that my twenties are behind me. Secreting until my eyes are red with the practice of scooping the circle of plastic in and out, I ask my optometrist if he thinks it is beneficial to cry. “You aren’t crying,” he says, “your body is just protecting you from yourself.”
Caroline Crew is the author of Pink Museum (Big Lucks), as well as several chapbooks. Her poetry and essays appear in the Kenyon Review, DIAGRAM, and Gulf Coast, among others. Currently she is pursuing a PhD at Georgia State University, after earning an MA at the University of Oxford and an MFA at UMass–Amherst. She’s online here: caroline-crew.com.
Last Call for Submissions to the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize
The LASY DAY to enter TMR‘s Editors’ Prize has arrived
And with it, the last call. The 29th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize Contest closes tonight! You have the rest of this Tuesday to go, so don’t fret. Let fly your poems, your stories, your essays. How many poems in a parliament of owls? How many stories in a skulk of foxes, or essays in a shrewdness of apes? How much soaring or falling in none of those things? Only you can tell us. We can’t wait to hear you.
Best of luck, and with gratitude for your art,
“Two Kitchens” by Camille Jacobson
BLAST, TMR‘s new online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a journal. In this fourth selection, Camille Jacobson combines heartfelt memories and authentic recipes to evoke a character as complex and flavorful as foie gras. That character is her mother.
By Camille Jacobson
My mother is making crepes. She pulls a large metal bowl from underneath the sink and places it alongside bursting bags of flour and sugar and a sweating quart of milk. The butter has been sitting out, and it’s reached room temperature, soft enough to cut into easily with a spoon. She wears a slightly wrinkled black linen shirt and pants, no apron. There’s a dab of flour on her collar, nearly iridescent against the dark fabric. Her lightened hair piles high on her head, secured with a barrette so that her hoop earrings show. The space between her eyebrows creases as she works through each step of the recipe from memory. Nearly every surface of the kitchen is covered. Frosted bottles of various oils and balsamic vinegar line the countertop next to jars of spice and little pots of coarse salt and pink peppercorns. Avocados, tomatoes, and onions spill out of a wooden bowl near the gas stove, and a pile of oranges sits near the sink, the fruits’ thick flesh puckered and glistening as the afternoon melts into evening.
Édith Piaf blares from a nearby speaker. My mother cracks two eggs into the bowl with one hand, whisking them together with the flour and sugar before adding in milk, the warm butter, and a splash of water. She doesn’t measure anything, assuredly pouring ingredients like a seasoned chemist. She sings along loudly to each song and sways to the rhythm, her slippered feet keeping time on the linoleum floor. She mixes aggressively, one arm clutching the bowl, the other moving briskly along to the melody at double speed. Flour billows out in big clouds, and flecks of batter jump onto her shirt. You must get rid of the grumeaux, she explains. She lifts the whisk and lets the thick batter drip down, examining the strand for any lingering lumps of flour. Once it’s smooth, she covers the bowl, places it in the fridge to rest, and sets the table for dinner. After we eat, she’ll take the bowl out of the fridge and spoon the mixture onto a hot buttered pan, waiting several minutes before flipping the circle easily with a flick. Cover with lemon and dust with sugar. Roll and eat while it’s still warm.
My mother remodeled this kitchen after I left home for college, transforming it into something unrecognizable. Everything I had known about it—the lopsided wooden cabinets, leaky faucet, wilted basil plant—had been replaced with stainless steel appliances and sleek teak cabinetry. The inelegant island and mismatched bar stools were gone, leaving instead a massive marble slab and modern benches. A touch-screen stove top lit up like a vessel ready for launch, and an espresso machine was built directly into the wall, buzzing and ready to serve at a moment’s notice. I could hear the freezer drawer coughing up ice into its container in the expansive refrigerator—a button on the front could be pressed to eject chilled, filtered water into a glass, and a melodic tune played as a reminder to shut the door. A twelve-speed blender stood solemnly in a corner next to a spiralizer, looking more like a sort of torture device than an unused kitchen accessory. Every countertop gleamed as if in a Clorox commercial, not so much as a single fingerprint visible on any shining surface.
My mother is French, Parisian to be exact; I had always thought of her as an incredible cook, and she always thought of the kitchen as her home. (My father could only make mediocre tuna melts, an atrocity to the French. He was often banned from the kitchen.) My mother’s knack for this domestic art was most awe-inspiring in the ease with which she managed to throw together random ingredients from the fridge or pantry or garden, and come up with impressive meals on the fly, every day. She had enormous flair, and when she didn’t feel like paying attention to an elaborate recipe, which was most of the time, she threw in a lot of butter and a touch of maniacal passion, never beginning to cook until the last possible second.
Simple things were what my mother loved to make the most—and what she was famous for. Her most common dinner concoction? Sunny-side-up eggs and tomato salad. That’s the sort of food she loved to serve, something that looked boring, just some fried eggs and a few tomatoes, but when paired together turned out to have the most exquisite flavors up its unremarkable sleeve. Anyway, here’s how you make it:
Eggs: In a nonstick skillet, heat a generous amount of butter over medium heat. Crack eggs into bowls and pour into pan one at a time. Reduce heat and use a spoon to baste the butter onto the eggs. Season with salt and pepper, and when the whites have cooked, shake the pan to loosen eggs from the bottom. Tilt pan, slide onto plate, serve.
Tomatoes: Chop a few heirloom tomatoes into fourths and place into serving bowl. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Grab a fistful of fresh basil, chop messily, throw into bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Mix well. Add in pieces of fresh mozzarella if it’s on hand.
Straightforward, but in her hands, invariably perfect.
Which is why the elaborate kitchen upgrade didn’t seem to make sense, especially if I told you that my mother had not actually cooked so much as a single crepe or egg since the renovation—that those modern cabinets and complex gadgets reflected a role she no longer desired.
Certainly, no one had touched the new kitchen since it was built. I’d tried during summers home from college, but the new appliances were too hard to use, the touch screens on the stoves glitching, the coffee machine burning the beans. We’d tiptoe around it, order takeout, pretend it was not there. The irony of the great renovation debacle of that year was obvious to me: expensive, state-of-the-art machinery for a cook who no longer cooked. That was when it became clear that my mother had walked out of the kitchen for good, leaving behind the role it had provided her for years.
My mother’s instructions for her famous roast chicken: Preheat oven to 350–400 °F. Make sure the chicken is empty, rub with vegetable oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Put rosemary, thyme, and bay leaves inside the cavity. Place in a foil-covered baking sheet on the lower level of the oven. Roast for about an hour at 375°F. Check and make sure it doesn’t burn on top, and about halfway through, put some foil loosely over the chicken. You can’t mess it up.
When I was young, my parents would host a big dinner party once a month. Their friends would come over and discuss the midcentury modern furniture market and argue about politics and gossip about their other friends, and my mother would serve her famous roast chicken and potatoes with green beans, which of course she’d begin nearly halfway through the party, when everyone—including she—was good and drunk. I’d help her, rinsing and cutting the ends off each string bean while she gutted the chicken and lathered it in oil and herbs. She’d pour herself another glass of wine and toss sautéed onions into a pan with a big glob of butter before adding the beans and cooking them lightly, finishing them off with the potatoes in the oven, underneath the chicken so they’d absorb the drippings. After about an hour, when the roasted potatoes were saturated and the smell from the oven filled the house, she’d announce, Voilà, c’est fini, tout le monde! Venez manger! Our own Julia Child.
These were the glory days of both my childhood and my parent’s marriage—family meals and dinner parties carried out like clockwork. It was then that my mother taught me about the art of French cooking, and cliché as it may be, we often cooked through the easy bits of Larousse Gastronomique together; she would give me small tasks in the kitchen to make me feel important. It was around this time, and after I’d watched enough Emeril Lagasse on the Food Network, that I announced I too wanted to be a “cooker.” It is clear to me now that I simply wanted nothing more than to be my mother, whirling about the stove tops and throwing together perfect meals at a moment’s notice.
My parents divorced when I began high school, and throughout that complicated year, my mother never left the kitchen. A woman who had spent years cooking her own mother’s recipes and sticking to the easy portions of her Larousse, she now made at least one weekly trip to the nearby Barnes & Noble to browse the cookbook section. Later she would get into the navy 1989 Jeep Grand Wagoneer my dad had left her and set off for a day in the market aisles with her lists of ingredients. She developed passionate and brief attachments to new dishes. One week she fell in love with Nigella Lawson’s stuffed heirloom tomatoes. Another week it was Rachael Ray’s mini meatloaves. The next it was Mario Batali’s salmon burgers. I would return home after school, and each day without fail, she’d already be in the kitchen poaching and grilling, chopping and mincing. I’d shut my bedroom door and begin my homework, and sooner or later she’d call for dinner like nothing had changed. But of course everything had, and we’d sit and ignore the empty chair and eat Jamie Oliver’s fish tacos.
Her desperate attempts at these new recipes seem to me now like my mother’s stab at self-reinvention of some sort, her attempt to figure out out how to be a single parent and, in a lot of ways, manage the new role. Her exploits in this type of cooking, though not always successful (see: Christmas Eve Braised Short Rib Disaster), maintained a sort of familiarity—the stable image of her in the kitchen with her glass of wine and gobs of butter, running about and cooking for us.
By the time my mother remodeled her kitchen, she had met someone. Francois is a foie gras salesman. (Fatten, by force, the liver of a duck or goose, twice a day. Slaughter at 100 days. Now you have the bloated liver considered a delicacy by all of France.)
My mother’s boyfriend is also a vegan—the only French vegan I know—which my mother and I both learned during the last Thanksgiving he spent with us. To be clear, my mother loves foie gras because she is French, and all French people love foie gras. I have often wondered which she fell in love with first: François’s foie gras or François. In any case, my mother, in preparation for his arrival, had broken out our last reserves of the stuff and neatly sliced and arranged the circles of paté onto a plate as an appetizer for an otherwise American meal. We sat down to dinner, and as I reached for a dense slice to press onto my toast, François solemnly announced: Je ne mange pas cela. My mother promptly whisked the platter into the kitchen and tossed the remains of those poor geese into the trash. “Me neither,” she muttered.
The rest of the meal, the potatoes and green beans, turkey and stuffing, came from the hot-food bar of the local supermarket. I had watched as she reheated each of the items, dumping containers of congealed sides onto plates and putting them into the microwave. I sat across the table from my mother and François, watching them hold hands. My mother exclaimed that she had forgotten to add butter to the stuffing.
The thing about my mother is that she does not take anything all that seriously. This transition out of the kitchen was not a grand, premeditated statement. It was not a rejection of my father or my childhood or even her own love of cooking. It seems to me that more than anything, this was her figuring out how to stretch beyond a place she had created for herself, the one that had formed our family—and that perhaps reconstructing a part of the house we had all lived in was a way for her to reclaim ownership of the home. But maybe building the modern kitchen, with its stainless steel and glimmering marble, helped her realize that the role it implied was one she no longer desired.
Perhaps my mother gave up cooking to free herself from her position as wife, but that renunciation in many ways also forced her out of her position as mother. One day I asked her what was for dinner, and without explanation she said “takeout,” and since then I have known that she no longer wants to see herself as a woman who cooks. The kitchen is sparklingly new, but she has barely seen it, content to travel with François and spend the summers in Paris. When I come home to visit, it’s to an empty house and pristine kitchen.
It has also become clear that my mother knows all this and that she renovated the kitchen because she felt she had to—a kind of perverse acknowledgement or pallid attempt to salvage a piece of the past. The ease and style with which my mother once took command of the kitchen made her a glamorous figure in my eyes. But these days I no longer want to be in the kitchen like she once was—perhaps we have both grown out of that. It may very well be that growing up forces us to see our parents in a light that makes our desire to emulate them appear increasingly absurd—we are driven to search for something else to which we can anchor ourselves. Yet they’re always with us too, ceaselessly, uncontrollably tied to us in our ordinary moments—in the way we toss the salad with our hands or carefully flip the steaks or set the table for dinner.
Even in the old days, my mother was a washout at hard-core mothering; what she was good at was roasting chickens and mixing cocktails, all the while spewing witty comments and quick remarks that made me feel immensely grown-up. Now that I have grown up and her spot in the kitchen is empty, I often wonder what, if anything, is left.
If I were to say any of this to her, she’d probably say something biting but true, like “You’re an adult now, you can fry your own eggs.” Then she would go into the kitchen and throw together a beautiful cheese plate. The key is to choose a good variety— something soft like Saint-André or Camembert, paired with hard cheeses like Comté or Etorki. Serve with the proper knife and a few stuffed olives and baguette on the side. “You don’t need me anymore,” she would say as she lifted her glass.
“White or red?”