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I don’t know how to write this essay. It’s smarter than me. I’m overthinking every line, every angle. I write it, and I take it apart. I hold a broken piece and try to fit it in somewhere else and stare for a long time and take it out again. Writing about family is complicated. Reading what I write about my family is complicated. Write, delete. Hold back, unleash. Delete, delete. I’m exploring the idea of family because I have some sort of family identity struggle going on because I always have a family identity struggle going on. Is this what happens when your parents get divorced? When your parents break do you break too? Divorce or separation doesn’t equate brokenness—doesn’t have to but usually does. People don’t get divorced because their relationship is going well. Divorce means something is wrong—so wrong the animosity between my parents is still palpable after twenty-five years.

I want to tell you stories about my parents, and I want those stories to reflect me with big psychological terms. I want to contain my identity in a manageable, cohesive space. This essay. I’m starting to think this is impossible.

Stephanie's T-Mobile Phone 120

Do you know that two-thirds of all the divorces that are filed in our country are filed by women?—Michelle Weiner-Davis[1] 

 

Do you know how fast I got married? Less than ten minutes. Six of those minutes involved me standing at the back of the “aisle”—we were married outside, upscale casual—with my dad. When I was younger, I always said I’d walk my own self down the aisle because I was the one who earned the privilege, not my dad.  Too chickenshit to go through with a statement like that so when the time came, I opted for tradition. My dad wore a suit jacket over a nice pair of pants and made a joke he didn’t look this nice for his own wedding. He married my stepmom on a beach in San Diego. She shared the same first name as my mother prompting the family to refer to her as Linda 2. My cousin and I drove to the Linda 2 wedding together, and on our way to California, we stopped off for tattoos. We smoked cigarettes and listened to Madonna and stopped at every rest stop to peek inside our bandages. When we arrived, my soon-to-be stepmother greeted us and suggested we store our suitcases in the closet because her family would be staying at the house, and she didn’t want our things in the way. Linda 2 didn’t have children, and at the rehearsal dinner for their wedding, her sister told me she didn’t like them. I’d just turned 21, so I bought a bunch of booze that weekend—in that gross, blustery way most 21-year-olds on the brink of being out of control do—and drank until I couldn’t walk. My dad’s only response to the tattoo-binge-drinking-too hungover and sick to go out to dinner with them on the last night-attention-seeking behavior was to remind me not to drive when I was fucked up like that. Growing up under the umbrella of alcoholism means eventually those who you enable will come to enable you.  Circle of life.

My dad, six years later and teary at my own wedding, told me he thought I’d make a good wife. This was his way of telling me he thought I looked nice. We side-hugged. He walked me down the aisle and handed me over to my soon-to-be-husband. The ordained minister asked us if we did. We did. It was over.

“May I present Mr. and Mrs., etc., so on,” the minister said.

My husband leaned over to kiss me, and I turned away. Why did I do that? My husband asked the same question. Everyone was looking. My nerves felt like they’d been chewed up. I said I was sorry, and I laughed, and said sorry again. It was hotter than it was supposed to be that day, and I was thirsty.

On the last day of his life, my father bought two scratch-off lottery tickets. We had just finished a lap through the Price Chopper, filling a cart with foods his urologist said he should eat during treatment for the metastasized renal cell cancer wreaking havoc on his body. The cancer was incurable, Dr. Petroski had told us, but not untreatable. I latched onto that word, to the possibility of prolonged life; I married myself to it. Only three days had passed since the terminal diagnosis, so I floated through these tasks with little sense of reality, a bride who keeps forgetting her new surname. Got cancer? Buy frozen veggies and V-8.

0-2Peter Trachtenberg, author of  Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons (DaCapo Press) explores love, marriage, death and longing through his relationships with both cats and people. The narrative begins when his cat Biscuit, the golden kitty, goes missing while his wife is abroad and he is teaching in North Carolina. While Trachtenberg deliberates whether to travel the 1400 miles round-trip to search for her (spoiler alert—he does) he begins to unravel the beginning of the end of his marriage.

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My father’s farm in Virginia is called Oak Hill. When he bought it, not long after he divorced my mother, there was in fact a cluster of enormous oak trees that shaded a white clapboard, nineteenth-century house that stood on the hill in the center of the farm, but the house burned down before my father could move into it. Some of the oaks survived the fire, which occurred on a Halloween night, but despite whispers that the previous owner had torched the house, no charges were ever filed. I remember surveying the charred remains and spotting, not charred even slightly, an old board game called Why, the Alfred Hitchock Mystery Game, which, according to the blurb on the box, involved “real thinking, planning, and memory.” I took the game home with me—I lived a twenty-minute drive from the farm with my mother, brother, and sister—but I never played it, and don’t know what became of it. Maybe my memory wouldn’t be so faulty if I had better developed it by playing Why.

At Makena beach on Maui, seven people are attacked by a shark in nine days.  It could be all different sharks, but that’s not the point.  The point is they have been married three days and now the honeymoon is ruined.  She’s sad about the places they could have gone, but she mourns Paris the most.  Honfleur, Gleyre, she tells him. Entreat, Bougival, The Hotel des Roches-Noires.  He says he’s only heard of the last one.  That night in the disco, she finally admits he’s not a good dancer.  Later when she sleeps he longs for the nasty thrills of old crimes.  Six days later they still haven’t gone in the water.  She watches a rerun of a sitcom from 1982 in Portuguese.  He loses one thousand seventy-three dollars in a shell game to a guy in a hat whose hands move like chopper blades.  In the afternoon they walk around the suite with their backs to each other.  It’s the kind of Sunday afternoon that makes you want to kill someone.  Weeks later, when the shark is finally gone, no one will really know.  There won’t be a meeting or a memo, it will just be a guess, a turn of the instinct that says Now.  After that, it’s hard to say what will happen next.  In the meantime they keep going to restaurants and just sitting there.  At dusk surfers paddle in and dissolve on the beach into sandy coats of bruised reds that strum acoustic guitars before twitching fires.   When it gets dark, couples walk away from each other across parking lots; sharks burst from shipwrecks and start looking.

For Brendon Small, cortex-squashing pressure sort of comes with the territory. Small is the creator of the breakaway hit TV show Metalocalypse, writing the scripts, voicing several characters, and because the show concerns a fictitious death metal band, Small composes all of the ferocious and unbelievably catchy music for each episode. The show is a bona fide cultural phenomenon, first attracting a rabid cult audience (are cult audiences any other way?), then finding seismic popularity in the mainstream.   Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, award-winning documentary producer Warner Herzog and Hall of Fame inductee Slash are a few of the legion of celebrities who have proclaimed their enduring love of Metalocalypse. The show, featured on the Adult Swim cable channel, begins its ravenously-anticipated fourth season on April 29 with more preposterous plots, scorching humor and the show’s most impressive lineup of celebrity voices yet. In fact, both Hamm and Herzog will be appearing in Season Four, along with an astonishingly diverse and talented cast of other actors, comedians and, of course, musicians.

Campus sits west of the Chicago river, at the circle interchange of the Kennedy and Eisenhower expressways.  In the 60s UIC wedged its way into and consumed Chicago’s Little Italy, grew tentacles into the near west and south sides.  At one time called Circle Campus after the knot of concrete ramps where the two arteries bisect, it was built similarly of concrete in a style called Brutalism, emulating Soviet public housing, “riot proof,” with double-layer covered walkways akin to parking garages, an open-air amphitheater and massive concrete wheelchair ramps to 2nd floor entries reiterating the circle motif.  A miniature replica of an Eastern Bloc city, and likewise now with crumbling concrete, permanent scaffolding erected to protect students and faculty milling on (and off) grass lined footpaths under trees that replaced the severe web of covered walkways in the 90s.  The circular quad in front of 24-story University Hall underwent a decade-long project (that should’ve taken about a year) to add grassy knolls, flowered borders, and (perhaps a reminder of Brutalism) tile-lined fountains that rarely run because they’re broken.  But I walk campus without envy for Northwestern, University of Chicago, DePaul, or Loyola.  They have tradition, bigger trees, a vine-covered brick building probably called “Old Main.”  We have Brutalism.  It’s where part of me –  a native Californian – lives, has lived for almost 20 years.

We sit at my grandparents’ long dining room table, the worn green tablecloth unfurled, revealing years of red wine stains. My mother places a cassette recorder in the middle, trying to get it exactly center between the roast beef and the string beans, presses ‘play’ and ‘record’ at the same time. Nobody pays it much mind as the plates are passed, the gravy ladled over lumpy mashed potatoes, the pearl onions in cream sauce we all fight over. Father, we thank thee for this food. Bless it to our use.

The scene is cut from of the movie of our lives, a table full of cameos. There is my great-grandmother, her hair bobbed and dyed its purplish-blue. There is Uncle Bobby next to Aunt Kerri, who cuts his meat into bite-sized pieces. There are my grandparents at the head of the table, my grandfather inspecting a bottle of Cabernet. Beside him is my father, busting Bobby’s balls. “Does she tuck you in at night, too, asshole?”

I am two and my mother asks me if I want to sing. We pick “Frosty the Snowman,” but I can’t remember all the words, so we switch to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Uncle Chuck makes me stop when I start again unprovoked a few minutes later. “No singing at the table,” he says.

Dinner conversation is entirely normal, everyone expecting perfectly well to be exactly where they are. On the tape, my mother is preoccupied with how much I’m eating and when I’ve eaten enough to be excused. My father and grandfather talk about wine.

“Did you know they’re making more wine in California than anywhere in the world?” my grandfather says. He is trying to impress my father. He thinks my father has connections to the mob, or at least knows people with connections to the mob. He assumes that men with connections to the mob know about wine. My father responds politely, says, “Oh yeah? No kidding, Doc.” He knows about wine, but pretends my grandfather knows more. It is a move of deference, an acknowledgment of the thin ice beneath my father’s presence at the table. His voice treads lightly.

At two, I have recently learned a valuable skill. I shove a final spoonful of peas into my mouth, and my mother releases me from the table so that I can show everyone my amazing discovery. “Jump?” I say to my family.

“Jump, Aunt Kerri?”

I circle the chairs. My grandfather, whose sternness occasionally breaks with his affinity for me, says, “Her mind is always at work.”

“Her mouth is always at work,” my great-grandmother says.

“Jump, Uncle Chuck?”

“Jump, Daddy?”

My father laughs, but not at me. “Yeah, right, let me just break my hip,” he says to the rest of the adults. He knows they are watching him. He was away for a while, and now my mother has let him come back.

When I listen to this tape with my mother and my husband two and a half decades later, each of us clutching a glass of wine, I recognize everyone but that tiny voice, my voice. I don’t know how I discovered jumping, or how I really felt about peas, but I’ve heard my grandfather talk about wine my entire life, and I know the sound of that silver on that Corelle ware, that collective, civil laughter periodically breaking up the silence of our eating. I know my uncle’s chiding and my mother’s assessing of my plate. But like my own, my father’s voice startles me, like somebody spliced the tape with a recording from someone else’s house.

“Jump, Grammy?”

My grandmother takes the bait, as she always does. We move into the background and begin our game. “Ready? One, two, three. Jump!” she says.

There are a few indications of the year. The California wine, my father and Uncle Bobby discussing Hill Street Blues. Someone asks my mother what she got for Christmas and I hear her fork clatter onto her plate.

“I got a microwave!” she says, and I picture her arms shooting into the air, her face scrunched with happiness. It’s a gift from my father, something to help around the house, and it’s expensive for 1984, my father writing out his love in a check. I do not mean this cynically. This is how he makes us happy. It is the only way he knows.

I thank my grandmother for jumping with me by making her an imaginary cup of coffee on my imaginary stove. The women prepare Jesus’ birthday cake—a large sheet of ice cream and cookie layers from Pat Mitchell’s. They light the candles and we sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. As the only grandchild, I get to blow out the candles.

While we eat, my father tells a story about Christmas Eve. “So, we’re coming back from church last night,” he says. “Kathy and I are horsing around up in front, teasing, you know. Well, Amy’s in the back, and I don’t know, maybe she’s tired. Anyway, she thinks we’re fighting and gets all upset. We’re up there laughing, and she’s back there going, ‘Mommy, it’s okay, Mommy, don’t cry.’”

Everyone laughs. My mother laughs.

Nobody is rude enough to point out the obvious—that I have barely seen my parents together and can’t recognize the subtle difference between my mother laughing and crying. That this is my first and only Christmas with my father in the house, and I have been told it’s only a trial.

I finish my first piece of Jesus’ cake and ask for a second. “More?” I say. There is a pause while my plate is inspected. “Christ, Amy,” my father says, “are you even chewing?” Everyone laughs again.

The tape is an hour and a half long, and this is as much as my father speaks to me, using me for a little levity around his in-laws, a little lightness to dispel whatever skepticism lingers around the table. Why does my mother record this Christmas and no others? Does she know my father will be gone again before the next? Does she know Aunt Kerri is about to discover that Uncle Bobby fools around? Does she know Alzheimer’s is wending its way down the pathways of my great-grandmother’s brain? What prompts my mother to borrow her friend’s cassette recorder and bring it to Christmas dinner this year?

“I don’t know,” my mother says when we listen to the tape. “I guess I just thought it would be neat to have someday.”

I listen to myself eating a second piece of cake, my mother complaining about the chocolate ice cream dripping down my chin and into the neck of my knitted pink sweater. No matter. I grip my spoon in a fist and shovel. It’s like the cake won’t be there if I look away for even a second.

“Jesus, Amy,” my father says. “What, are you going to jail tomorrow?”

For an explanation of the 30 Stories in 30 Days, start at Day 1.

You guys! I never thought I’d say this, but, I am tired of telling you stories! Are you tired of hearing them? Well here’s the good news: you can stop reading them any time. But not me! I have committed to writing them, so here I go again.

Today’s story is kind of brutal, actually. It’s hard to make jokes about a guy getting beaten bloody. I mean, I’m not above it, I’m just saying it was hard. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Read it below.

The First Rule of Fight Club is: You Must Agree to Be In Fight Club.

I worked the fuel desk at three different truck stops while getting my college degree. I guess you could say that interstate commerce helped fund my education. Well, okay, my parents funded my education, but interstate commerce paid for the alcohol and concert tickets that went with it.

The first truck stop I worked at was located at the junction of two roads in the middle of nowhere, Texas. The large complex included a restaurant, liquor store, Post Office, and bait shop/video rental store/dry cleaner (all in one).

It was at this truck stop that I witnessed the kind of backwoods Texas tragedy that made-for-TV-movies are TV-made-for.

My boss, Bill, was a fairly private, soft-spoken and extremely nice guy. And even though he very much minded his own business, there are no secrets in a small town. One’s private affairs are discussed quite publicly, especially by the regulars who spent hours in the restaurant booths sipping coffee and chit chatting. If any local residents were sleeping around, drinking too much or missing church on Sunday, Bill probably knew about it.

Just before midnight on a random Wednesday, Bill and I were getting ready to close up shop when a man came in to buy a 12-pack of beer. I was putting things away in the kitchen. Bill was working the register. The customer was leaving when a second guy came in.

I hadn’t really noticed much about the first guy, but the second guy got my attention. I saw him walk aggressively toward the first guy, getting right in his face and speaking angrily, though surprisingly quiet. It was clear there was some sort of issue and the first guy stood his ground, but looked terrified.

I should have been minding my own business, but I couldn’t look away as Bill walked over and separated the two guys. In his friendly, calm manner, he explained that there was a time and a place to discuss whatever issue they were having, and that this was neither.

That issue, apparently, was that the second guy’s ex-wife had started dating the first guy? And I guess Ex-Hubs was not cool with New Guy taking his place? I don’t know. But based on what happens next, I assume this ex-wife character was some sort of superhero in the sack. Like, her pussy must have been lined with kitten fur and cocaine, or something, because these two gents were about to get into some serious shit.

Still puffed up, Ex-Hubs backed off and walked out the front door. New Guy apologized to Bill for the trouble, but stuck around making extremely awkward small talk until they both saw Ex-Hubs drive away. A little more small talk and then New Guy left through a side door and Bill and I picked up where we left off, getting ready to go home.

One last car pulled up for some gas and a couple got out and waved for us to activate the pump. I walked over to do so, but then I saw them both walking toward the side of the building, staring curiously at something. Then the guy ran inside and yelled, “He’s killing him! Call an ambulance!”

It is worth noting that even though I recognized that this situation was suuuuper serious, I couldn’t help laughing out loud at the way the guy pronounced it “AM-bah-lance.”

Bill ran outside and I called 9-1-1, even though I had no idea what was going on. I handed the phone to the gas guy and heard him tell the operator that a man was beating another man to death on the sidewalk. He repeatedly requested an “AM-bah-lance” and I assume the operator knew what he meant.

I started walking toward the side door to see if I could help, but Bill ran in and yelled at me, “STAY INSIDE!” It was the first time he had ever raised his voice to me. He then took the phone from the panicked customer, gave information to the 9-1-1 operator, and ran back outside.

I tried (or rather, pretended) to keep busy as the police and AM-bah-lance came and went. It was eerie being all alone inside a truck stop, surrounded by sirens and flashing lights. After everyone was gone, Bill came in and, without a word, started filling a large white bucket with hot water. He emptied a gallon bottle of bleach into it and told me to bring it to the side door when the bucket was full.

“Do NOT open the door,” he said. “Just knock and I’ll come get it.”

I’m not that squeamish, really, but I did as I was told. I brought the bucket to the side door and knocked on it. Bill opened the door just enough to pull the bucket outside and the amount of blood I saw–just through the barely-opened door–made me immediately fall to my knees and vomit.

HOW DO WE HAVE THAT MUCH BLOOD INSIDE US? I almost vomited again, just thinking about it.

I filled another bucket with hot bleach water and cleaned up my barf. Then I filled four more and Bill took each one to clean off the sidewalk. He also had to take my keys and drive my car from the side of the building to the front, so that I could leave the store without seeing more blood.

New Guy lived, but it was a fairly close call. His nose had been kicked off his face. His NOSE had been KICKED OFF his FACE.

That’s a real fucked up way to play “Got your nose.”

Ex-Hubs came to the store a few days later, after being released on bail, to apologize to Bill… for making a mess, I think? He seemed pretty level-headed and not crazy, but, you know, he still had that look of a guy that could kick the nose off of another guy’s face.

He also came over to the register and apologized to me. I don’t remember what he said, or what I said, but we were both pretty uncomfortable during the exchange. I mean, it’s not like he borrowed my jacket without asking. He tried to straight up murder a dude at my job. I’m pretty sure they don’t make a Hallmark card for that.

Anyway, I never saw him again, presumably because he did a good bit of jail time. A few months later I got a job at the mall, where the only crimes I witnessed were the repeated purchase of the most terrible ladies’ blouses. Oh, man were they awful. I almost vomited again, just thinking about it.

Numerology

By James B. Frost

Essay

Not long after my thirtieth birthday I went to see a numerologist. I did so on the whim of my new-age girlfriend, who purchased the session for me as a birthday gift.

Part One in a new series about brothers and sisters I have adopted throughout life as an only child.

I adopted Susan as my sister when we were two years old, in daycare. It wasn’t daycare, really, not in the modern sense. We didn’t have a certified childhood education specialist preempting our literacy development, rudimentary mathematics, and confidence-building socialization. We had Carla, the kind, middle-aged woman from across the street, under whose dining room table we took naps, whispering to each other from opposite sides of the fake Persian rug. It was Rainbow Bright and Spaghetti-Os daycare. Carla, whose bushy brown hair resembled an Elizabethan headpiece, sent us home with vivid orange mouths each weekday to our single, working moms.

Susan was a natural choice for an adopted sister. Her real sister was a decade older than us, already edging into preteen disaffectedness, reading Seventeen cross-legged on her bed, stereo playing, door closed (yes, we secretly worshipped her). Susan and I also shared a birthday. Susan was older by fourteen hours and six minutes, a fact I resented until our twenties. That our parents were both divorced made it irresistible to posit theories of twinhood, one of our mothers having an affair with one of our fathers, producing us, and then splitting us up for cover. Divorce apparently made us numb to things like infidelity and conspiracy. When our mothers put an end to it–“Who the hell do you think we are?” my mother said at dinner, lighting a cigarette–we tried to become stepsisters by setting Susan’s mother up with my father. Seven years old and broke, we picked wildflowers and put them in a vase with a forged note. I couldn’t get my father’s left-handed print to look right, and the ruse never got off the ground.

We looked nothing alike, of course. I was tall, working my way towards plump, with frizzy brown hair and eyes the color of black coffee. Susan was short and spindly, with luscious, dirty blond hair, blue eyes, and a ski slope nose I still think is the prettiest in the world. If we were twins, even in our imaginations, we were undoubtedly fraternal.

It worked to our advantage that our mothers became friends, too. While Susan and I donned costumes and smeared pilfered red lipstick on the mirror in my bedroom, our moms drank boxed white zinfandel and smoked. They talked single-mom talk–bosses who made their daytime lives hell, daughters who made their nighttime lives hell, child support payments, houses in various states of disarray, fatigue, depression, anxiety, anger. My mother’s sense of the dark comedy that was our life was better honed than Susan’s mother’s, so we spent most of our time at my house, where we had more privileges and less yelling. Not wanting to part at the end of the night, we devised a fail-safe system for sleepover requests: we counted our mothers’ glasses of wine. At number three, we struck. We tiptoed into the kitchen and handed our respective parent a note.

Can Susan please spend the night, pretty please with carrots and peas? I’ll take out the garbage and dust and vacuum the whole house. Circle yes or no.

Mommy dearest, can I please please please please spend the night at Amy’s? Pretty please with hot chocolate, whipped cream, and three cherries? Yes No Maybe.

As soon as we got our way, we fought. I was an overly sensitive child who cried easily and couldn’t take a joke, and Susan was a ball-buster. I can’t remember that our fights were about anything more than that. But once feelings were hurt, we were likely to push each other, scream, and swear we hated each other, just like real sisters. My mother’s penchant for doting on any child that wasn’t her own made these fights fraught with extra sensitivity–deep down, I had grown accustomed to not sharing my mother, and nothing could make me feel as unsafe as the thought of her loving anyone more than me. When she took Susan’s side–and she always took Susan’s side–the knot of worry that I would go through life alone tightened inside me.

When I was ten, my mother had a breakdown during Sunday dinner at my grandparents’ house. Wordlessly, she began crying at the table, great, silent sobs that shook her shoulders, her head bent over her plate. My aunt and grandmother led her upstairs, and when they returned, my grandmother told me I would be staying with her and my grandfather for a while. “Your mom needs some time to herself,” she said.

I stayed with my grandparents for a week. Every meal invariably included red meat, something I never ate at home. My grandfather critiqued my table manners. “Elbows off the table,” he said. “Bring the food to your face, not your face to the food.” Each morning when I woke in my grandmother’s sewing room, sunlight weak through the pleated coral-colored curtains, the sinking feeling that my mother wouldn’t return grew stronger. I didn’t know how to deal with this fear except to cry, an act not well tolerated in my grandparents’ reticent house. “You’re not a baby,” my grandmother said, “so stop behaving like one.”

Towards the end of the week, my grandmother took me along while she ran errands. We drove my great-grandmother’s seafoam green Chevy, a car that steered more like a boat and had a clean, minty smell I can still conjure in my dreams. Sitting in the Grand Union parking lot, her long fingers curved around the thin, hard steering wheel, my grandmother told me that I was the reason for my mother’s breakdown. “You’ll have to grow up, Amy Lynne,” she said, using my middle name for emphasis, “if you want people to love you.” I stared out the window at the slushy parking lot and said nothing, even as the air in my gut went straight out of me.

I don’t know if it was this or puberty that kicked my obsession with people liking me into high gear, but around this time I began letting my insecurities run wild. At school, I desperately sought popularity, kissing up to the Lindsays and Lauras that ruled our class. I spent Thursdays with my father and took advantage of his cluelessness, preying on his penchant to show love through money. We took epic trips to the mall and returned with bags of clothes from The Limited and Gap. My mother’s face would fall when I came home, arms loaded with Daddy’s love. She didn’t like watching me get spoiled, especially by the man I had come to worship because he wasn’t around enough to hurt me like she could.

Susan’s mother, on the other hand, gave new meaning to the word “thrifty.” Determined to pay off their house and save for retirement, she took Susan to K-Mart for new clothes. Susan’s father had all but disappeared–he showed up every other year or so for a lavish visit, only to vanish into another chapter of his new life near Lake Placid. If anyone had the right to feel lonely as a kid, it was Susan, not me. While I grew more sociable, hanging on the periphery of cool kids and chasing boys, Susan grew quieter and more detached from the cliques forming at school. She hardly ever raised her hand in class or participated in extracurricular stuff, possibly because she really had no interest, possibly because her mother wouldn’t let her do anything that cost money. A Czech immigrant whose family fled to Germany at the start of the Cold War, Susan’s mother was practiced at living without, and passed minimalism on to her two daughters. Every other year, Susan’s mother would take the family back to Germany to visit Susan’s Oma and Opa, and I complained to my mother that we never took trips like that, all the way to Europe. I’m embarrassed to remember my jealousy when Susan would leave for two weeks in the summer and return with bars of chocolate thick as a book and wrapped in paper with another language written on it. In reality, because she did not speak German, Susan’s trips overseas were hardly more exciting than her life at home.

As our priorities grew more disparate, Susan and I saw less of each other. We still walked to school together during junior high and high school, but we had increasingly shallower conversations as we crossed the railroad tracks over Nanticoke Avenue, cut through the sparse backyards on North Street, crisscrossed the potholed parking lot of Philly Sales. Though I was actually just a patsy for popular girls–I did their homework, wrote their papers, gave them my mother’s stolen beer–I pretended to Susan that I fit in, bragging about parties I went to, guys I flirted with, substances I consumed. Every time I made out with someone, I told her every salivating detail, acting as though I was growing up faster than she was, pitying her for getting left behind. Either because she was kind or because it was easier, Susan said almost nothing during these dish sessions, letting me believe her silence was envy and not indifference. While I was out gathering “friends” and boyfriends, Susan began working part-time at K-Mart when we turned sixteen. That’s where she met Bob.

Bob was twenty. An almost five-year age gap was a huge deal when it came to a junior in high school. Susan’s mother went ballistic over the relationship. She called my mother to report catching Bob in Susan’s bedroom, Susan sneaking out to meet Bob, Susan and Bob continuing what Susan’s mother had strictly forbidden. In addition to learning what she could live without, Susan had also learned from her mother a fierce independence. Her personal rebellion wasn’t expressed with black clothing, body piercings, or tattoos. By the time she met Bob, Susan didn’t care what people thought of her, who she dated, or what was “normal” for a teenage girl, even when it came to how she pissed off her parents. She cared only about being happy. And Bob, a gangly, bespectacled artist who loved heavy metal and black humor, made her happy.

Susan and Bob circa 1999

For a few months, Susan and I had more than our history in common again. She had a boyfriend. And she was thinking of sleeping with him (I had rather notoriously lost my virginity the previous year, one of the first girls in our class to do so). Though we still only shared the occasional walk to and from school–I got rides from boys with cars whenever offered–we were finally having two-way conversations again. Susan’s perma-scowl receded from her clear, makeupless face, replaced with a giddiness I hadn’t seen since we last opened my costume chest and put puffy green wigs on. Then, as suddenly as the onset of her glee, Susan stopped walking to school.

My mother knew before I did. She sat me down at the kitchen table one night when I returned from a party slightly buzzed and sporting swollen lips. “Susan’s mom called,” she said, a full ashtray in front of her. “Susan’s pregnant.”

By the time she began to show, in the middle of our senior year, Susan had become nearly invisible to the rest of our high school’s twelve hundred students. She recently made a crack about how she showed up to Economics in sweatshirts to hide her growing belly, and nobody noticed anything different about her, that her slightness had ballooned underneath those layers of fleece. Only a handful of her closest friends knew she was going to have a baby, and maybe because it was Susan, because our friendship had become something private and compartmentalized from the rest of my social life, I was actually able to keep her secret. She gave birth to her son, Devin, in early spring, finished her coursework from home, and graduated on time. To this day, I bet plenty of people from the Class of 2000 still have no clue there was such a scandal among them.

I visited Susan in the hospital the day after she gave birth. My mother has a picture of me holding Devin, a garish shade of purple adorning my lips. I clearly attempted to straighten my curly hair, which hangs in a bushy ponytail down my back. The red sweater I’m wearing is the cropped style popular that year, a terrible cut for my high waist and hips. In trying to look like everyone else, I just look ridiculous.

It’s funny how people grow apart only to grow closer again. In the years after high school, when I went to college and then graduate school, and Susan and Bob had four more boys together, I shed most of the friends I had back home. I have no idea what those Lindsays and Lauras are doing now, though I bet they think back on high school and scoff at their former selves, too. I don’t know if it’s quite the same for boys, but girls from suburbia have a giant orbit of self-knowledge. It leads them out into the nothingness of identity and only very slowly draws them back into something recognizable, something that feels right again. Few of us escape the pull of that orbit. But Susan did.

Susan and Bob got married by a justice of the peace almost a year after Devin was born. My mother and I both attended. I felt honored to be invited to the small, informal ceremony, to eat cake at Susan’s mother’s house afterward, the house now fully paid off. As her grandsons came into the world–first Devin, and then Cooper, Mason, Jaxon, and newborn Kaiser–Susan’s mother would take the money she scrimped and saved through years of wanting, and help Susan and Bob buy a house in the country where their family could stake a small, but rich claim of the world together.

I now teach freshman writing and learning skills development at a private liberal arts college about an hour from where Susan and I grew up. School, as it always did, continues to structure my life, offering me routine, offering me chances to outshine others and accumulate praise, chances to belong to a group of like-minded people, academics nowadays. Other than my half-identity as a struggling writer, I’m as conventional as they come–educated, ambitious, and now, newly married to an equally educated and ambitious man. If my husband and I have a child before I turn thirty, we’ll positively reek of normalcy. Susan will barf.

For her part, Susan’s Facebook page does the finest job describing where she has landed:

I am who I am and I won’t apologize for it. 😉

I am an against the grain, on the fringe, vegan, breastfeeding, baby wearing, sleep sharing, non vaccinating, unschooling, pagan, hippy mama to 5 awesome boys. I couldn’t have said all that even four years ago. I am always educating myself so that I can make the best choices for my family.

I am married to my partner, my soulmate, my strength, my rock, my best friend. I am one very happy girl.

Susan uses the term “unschooling” for the education her five boys receive at home. It’s unstructured for sure–no lesson plans, no exams, no formalizing of any kind, even in a basement or garage classroom. Her children learn by living, as Susan says, helping their mother total grocery bills, helping their father restore vehicles, helping their grandmother garden. If you subscribe to the rigors of conventional education, like most Americans, you might be unsettled by this learning design, or non-design. As a teacher, I didn’t quite know what to make of it either, though I certainly knew better than to question Susan’s decision. She would have told me to fuck off and mind my own business.

But I’ve spent time with Susan’s family, especially since my husband and I moved back to upstate New York, especially since I’ve realized that the people who love you best are the ones who don’t expect you to be just like them, like Susan, like my mother. Bob had an art show at a local bookstore last summer. I stopped by to show support and say hi to my old friend, my first adopted sibling, my only twin. Susan had her hands full with Jaxon, her two-year-old, who had just discovered that pulling his pants down in public is funny. We stood around hiking up Jaxon’s britches and catching up, when suddenly her oldest, Devin, appeared at her side wearing a deeply familiar look. He had something behind his back, something he was about to ask for. I half-expected him to slip Susan a note.

Susan pointed her upturned nose at whatever Devin was holding. “Whatcha got there?” she said.

Devin showed her. “Mom, do you think we could get these? Please?”

Susan inspected the goods, then smiled and handed them to me. They were floppy, glossy-covered workbooks, just like we used in grade school. Math workbooks, to be exact, fifth grade level. Devin was ten.

If you think Susan’s unconventional schooling methods don’t work, you might have to reconsider. Not only do Devin and his brothers exhibit high intelligence and endless curiosity, but Susan thinks about education constantly. Her Facebook page is packed with links about homeschooling, or unschooling, stuff she devours in her spare time. Strangely, her belief in practical learning–the stuff of life–isn’t all that dissimilar to my interest in experiential learning at the collegiate level. But I’m sure we’ll have that debate the next time we get together, and Susan’s sharp tongue will sting at least once, even if I no longer cry about it.

We celebrated our mutual 29th birthday last week. While I got married last October to a man who, other than the heavy metal, kind of reminds me of Bob, Susan and Bob recently celebrated ten years of marriage and the birth of their fifth son. My twin sister may be fourteen hours and six minutes older than me, but those hours might as well be years, both in experience and in her sense of self. I still agonize over some hallway exchange with a colleague, some email with an indiscernible tone. Not Susan. She knows who loves her, the real her. She knows that a few blessed, precious things are, against all odds, permanent.

The Brown family at Christmas last year.

 

 

 

I was surprised to see he had no front teeth. He smiled thinly while beckoning me to enter his cluttered dining room. Musty and dank, it was a museum of lifetime accumulation. Stacks of yellowed paper, stuffed owls, clocks, a brass American bald eagle affixed to the wall. A worn checkered cloth covered a small square wooden table with spindle legs. Mr. Pulda pulled out a chair and motioned with his beefy hand for me to take a seat. His eyes narrowed. He wasn’t the type of man who entertained guests. He didn’t like outsiders. Not even those who proclaimed they would help him save his farm. Mr. Pulda wanted was to be left alone to feed his cows, to tend his soybeans and corn.

 

He’d managed to live in isolation on a 67-acre farm all his life. He had six siblings but they weren’t interested in perpetuating a way of life his parents and grandparents knew. The 1920s paint-peeled farmhouse was his and his alone. Mr. Pulda never took a wife nor had children. He was 72, still sturdy enough to ride a tractor and nudge a stubborn cow.

 

Nobody in the suburb that grew around Mr. Pulda’s farm paid much attention to the old man. Toothless and grizzled, he scared kids when he occasionally went to the strip mall. That wasn’t too often. Mr. Pulda lived in a world that no longer existed. As long as he had his acreage to demarcate his life, it made sense to him. He was completely shocked when I told him town officials were trying to buy his farm right out from under him, without his permission. The mayor and his cronies were up to mischief. This would make a great newspaper story. My editors agreed. It had the elements editors love: A David and Goliath conflict with the lore of a farmer in suburbia. The intricacies of town law and how it can be exploited to undermine the unsuspecting.

 

Finding the obscure documents at town hall made my cheeks burn hot. I remember rifling through the papers, slowly, then faster and faster, breaking into a cold, sweet sweat as the details were revealed. Like lake lily pads opening to the morning sun, the sordid information fed new life into my deadened soul. I had a place for my anger. How could town officials take Mr. Pulda’s land and convert it into a park without his consent or knowledge? How can my seven-year marriage be collapsing? I will save the day for Mr. Pulda!

 

A light rain subsided. Mr. Pulda whittled a piece of wood with his large, weathered hands. His nails were dirty and chipped. Nobody had ever spent a moment caring for him. I bent down to stroke one of the two dogs coiled around his ankles. “I have a dog like this,” I said. Mr. Pulda shifted in his chair. The sweet smell of burning wood crackling in his cast-iron stove curled through the room. It was chilly for early May.

 

“How did this happen?” I asked, looking straight into the old man’s Dutch-blue eyes. He lowered a hanging copper lamp down over the table as if to illuminate his thoughts.

 

“I told them from the beginning the farm was not for sale. I guess they didn’t hear me.”

 

I assured Mr. Pulda a front-page newspaper story would expose the attempted land-grab, and the good people of this South Jersey town would come out and support him. We spoke for an hour. Then he asked me if I wanted to meet his cows. We walked together through the wet grass to a splintered red barn. We stood in silence. A damp cow hung her head over a wooden fence, offering me her pink nose for rubbing. I obliged her and smiled at Mr. Pulda. He smiled his toothless smile back at me.

 

That day I left the newsroom after dark. Traffic crawled on the turnpike. The windshield wipers beat back and forth hypnotically, like a metronome. I felt dread, first in my chest, rising toward my throat. My temples throbbed. I tried to shake the malaise by thinking about Mr. Pulda’s mustard-yellow acres, how they were getting ready to wake up from a long winter. Nature reminds us how tough it is to come back to life after dormancy. “I’m going to save that man’s farm,” I whispered to myself over the prattle on the radio. When I pulled into the parking lot, I pressed my arms onto the steering wheel and took a deep breath. I summoned whatever strength I had to get out of the car and walk around the corner to my apartment. I knew he wouldn’t be at home. At least there’d be no fighting tonight. The confounding thoughts of how a marriage can go fallow drained me every time I walked through the door. An apartment turns into a gravesite where only ghosts live.

 

Standing in the kitchen spooning cereal from a bowl at 10 pm I peer over at the phone machine. He doesn’t even bother to leave a message anymore when he’s away on business in India. Just as well. I can barely hear him over the crackle. Even on a perfectly clear phone line, we don’t talk anymore. There’s nothing that hasn’t already been said. We’re at an impasse. Too scared to move in one direction or another. Inert. Powerless. A dead thing that needs a burial but it’s too complicated to make the arrangements. We wait. He travels on business. I find meaning in the lives of strangers. I write about them. I change their fate. It offers hope.

 

The relationship started as a transatlantic romance. It was exhilarating to be wooed by a Brit. He convinced me to come and live with him in London, which I did for a few years. Then we returned to New York together and married. Our love was young, hopeful. We shared the desire to travel around the world; we had no ability to settle down. Ten years on, we had the same furniture, no kids and photo albums filled with exotic adventures. We never put down roots. Like Dorian Grey, the relationship never got older, wiser, or deeper. Even our love-making, which had by now stopped, was static.

 

By 10 am the phones in the newsroom were ringing. William Pulda’s story was causing a stir. Town officials knew they had a mess on their hands. Like a bloated turkey seeking female attention, the mayor puffed himself up and made it clear to me he didn’t appreciate the “inaccurate” coverage. I knew I was on firm ground. This made the confrontation all the more intoxicating because Mr. Mayor-a man so accustomed to having his way-held no sway over me. The truth protected me from his harsh words. I told him we were running a follow-up story. “No comment,” he said.

 

The days and weeks that followed were ecstatic. I’d worked on urgent, breaking news stories before but Mr. Pulda’s farm stoked my energy daily. I relished being alive. I was acutely aware of how it contrasted with time spent when I wasn’t busy being a reporter. The story grew legs, as they say in the news business. Citizens mobbed public meetings; they signed petitions expressing outrage at town officials. Local officials did some fancy tap-dancing to proclaim their innocence, saying Mr. Pulda was a willing seller. I felt powerful for orchestrating this combustion. Had the plot not been exposed, town officials would have eventually resorted to the dirty tactic of eminent domain to get his land.

 

Bringing Mr. Pulda to life reminded people that the town was once a patchwork of farms, a way of life most Americans idealize. Readers responded to his purity. He became a symbol to all of us who feel thwarted in our dreams. Bringing Mr. Pulda to life threw me a lifeline, too.

 

Eventually preservation groups stepped in to save his land by offering to put it in a conservation trust. Town officials backed off. Mr. Pulda could go back to tending his soybeans and corn.

 

After the harvest, color disappeared. I’d drive past the farm and smile, hoping to catch a glimpse of the farmer. I never did. Once I stopped at the end of his dirt driveway. A light snow began to fall. I wanted to go inside and sit in his little house again and breathe in that sweet smell of wood burning. I wiped hot tears from my cheeks. Happy tears for saving a man’s life and his dignity.

 

That winter, over the holidays, my husband and I went skiing. The raw beauty of snow-covered mountains and twinkling Christmas lights finally tore my heart in half. At the airport on the way home, we were in a newspaper shop. He pulled out a calendar for the brand new year, and flipped through its pages. I looked at him hard. He was a stranger. I tried to stop myself from trembling. I was afraid I’d open my mouth and nothing would come out. “You have to move out when we get home.” He lowered his eyes and put the calendar back on the rack.

 

 

 

 

 

all these ex-husbands
of mine, instead of dogging me
like old tattoos, distorted

by wrinkles, faded & stretched by obscene
middle-age, humiliating me with my
unfortunate past lapses in taste.

Why do friends keep me posted:
the one who wouldn’t give me a baby
has adopted two; the one who lied & cheated

for years publishes screeds on Virtue
online; the one who told me I ceased to exist
the moment he walked out of the room

charges 500 an hour for Tarot therapy in the Village.
I walked out of that room seventeen
years ago: why does he still exist?

The one who didn’t want the kid
fights for custody, the millionaire
who repossessed my car pleads poverty.

Why does he have to call and poison
my exquisite hours? Why can’t he keep his lousy
karma to himself? Why doesn’t he drive

into a tree the way he threatened,
à la Jackson Pollock, only—please God—
with no innocent floozies in the car.

Before there was Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, Allen’s Husbands and Wives, or even Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, there were two films which attempted to expose the reality behind so-called “perfect” marriages: John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968) and Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973).While Bergman’s film is engagingly complex in its analysis of a marital breakdown, Cassavetes’ film is brilliant in its use of camerawork to isolate various “faces” of dissatisfied men and women. In both movies, there is a lingering dissatisfaction between the main couples that causes them to each seek love elsewhere. Throughout this search for a renewal of both happiness and excitement in one’s life, the couples succeed in doing two things: perfecting their façades and simultaneously evading any heightened level of self-discovery.