Secret Ingredients

Turkish Coffee

Mama tilts the cup to the side, rolls it around, examines each line, dot, drop. They look like black, crusty Jackson Pollock paintings. She doesn’t take it too seriously.

“Ah, habibti, it’s a man in a hat. You’ll meet him soon, and he will be very important to you,” she says to my friend Danielle.

I ask my mom to read my cup next, and she shakes her head, says no because I actually believe in it.

She says, “We’re Christians. We don’t believe in this stuff,” as she peers into the cup.

She doesn’t trust that my faith is strong enough and worries about my intrigue with the unknown. She’s suspicious of my love of astrology, tarot, and ghosts. Once, in eighth grade, she discovered that my friends and I bought a Ouija board, and she stormed into my room in the middle of the night to find it. She took it to her room and covered it with two bibles.

When we arrive at the psychic’s house, it’s tiny, and a swarm of feral cats are wandering in and around her doorway. She’s very poor –the kind of place people imagine when they see documentaries about the Middle East.

“You’ve cursed this house! You’ve cursed this family!” she shouted.

More than suspicious, she prays for my soul daily. Mama just does it for fun. Everyone in Jordan does it—a party trick. They believe it’s forbidden, harram, but they’ll excuse it for its lightheartedness. Something the girls do when they come over in the morning for coffee, where they’ll serve it with something sweet, a date cookie, perhaps fruit too. This man in a hat turns out to be Danielle’s first fiancé.

*     *     *

I believe it because my cousin Christine’s aunt says she does it for fun but really doesn’t. Seven years ago, she read Christine’s mom’s cup and predicted that Christine’s mom would get sick, Christine would find love, and there would be two deaths in the family; one an older man, and one would be a young girl. That year, Christine’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Christine fell in love with a man who’d cheat on her two years into their relationship. He would later become a born-again Christian and meet his wife in church. It was also the year Dounia died. She was eight. George and I were the last ones to leave her grave; we just stared as they dumped gravel on the small, white, casket, while her mother kept praying for her daughter to find peace.

Allah yerhamek, Mama,” she said, until all you could see was dirt.

I can’t remember the old man.

*     *     *

My cousin Riham and I visit a psychic named Um Ahmad during my last visit to Jordan. Um Ahmad meaning “mother of Ahmad,” her first-born son. All mothers go by the name of their first-born son, unless, of course, they have no son at all. We drive to the outer edges of Amman. Riham’s mom’s friend gives Aunty directions and raves about how accurate Um Ahmad is and how she’s been seeing her for over a year now. She predicted her new job, and if all goes according to plan, this year (this very year) will be when she meets her future husband. She’s just had her lips done and they’re swollen and bruised. Riham and I can’t stop giggling at her. When we arrive at the psychic’s house, it’s tiny, and a swarm of feral cats are wandering in and around her doorway. She’s very poor—the kind of place people imagine when they see documentaries about the Middle East.

“If she’s so good, why can’t she afford a better place?” my brother whispers.

I tell him that sometimes the gift is the price. She uses the masbahah to focus, moving the beads one and then two at a time with her thumb, and prays to Muhammad. She tells my brother, Aunty, and her friend to drink their coffee and she’ll read it afterwards. They all decline. They don’t trust the cleanliness of the cup.

*     *     *

Orange Blossom

Anytime I had a stomach ache, I’d be doubled over in a praying position because it was the only position that would alleviate the pain. I’d moan and wail in fits of seven-year-old theatrics. My mom humored me and allowed me to be dramatic, babying me all the way through with back rubs and sympathetic “I know, habibti.” Eventually, she would bring the orange blossom water, the mazahir, and pour a tablespoon.

“Drink this, and you’ll feel better,” she’d coo.

I’d slurp the spoonful and within twenty minutes I’d be in the toilet (or the sink, or the trash, or on the floor, or the wall, once even on the ceiling) throwing up everything.

Teary-eyed, I’d shout, “I’m never listening to you again!”

Even though I knew what was to come, I didn’t actually stop listening to her about the mazahir until years later.

Habibti, now that you threw up, you’re going to feel so much better. Just wait, shoofee.”

I did always feel better. But, even now, I always associate the smell with sweaty pajamas and vomit.

*     *     *

My friend is Palestinian, and she said instead of the orange blossom water, her dad would rub arak on her stomach. Arak is a powerful Levantine stronger-than-vodka-proof alcohol that smells like licorice. Just the smell would be enough to elicit the same reaction the orange blossom did. I can bet this is exactly why it was so effective. My grandfather liked to have some to sip on when there was company over, or when he ate fish. The elders of the family especially enjoyed it on Easter. At church, everyone would break their Lent fast after liturgy with meat, chocolate, pies, cigarettes, booze, or anything else they abstained from for God. He also loved whiskey. Sometimes when we went out in Jordan, he’d bring a flask. He’d call it his “honey.” We visited Um Qais, the lake where Jesus walked on water, and Jido would sip from his flask, and say, “Thanks, Jesus, for honey! I can walk on water too!”

He also took it with him when we went on picnics. Occasionally, my brother, mom, aunt, grandparents, and my dad, if he happened to be in Jordan at the time, would drive and hike up the mountains for a picnic. Teta made black tea in a kettle over the fire, while Jido drank his “honey.” During one of our picnics, another boy, most likely a poor orphan, was also wandering the mountains. He began to sing an old folk song in Arabic. I didn’t know what his words meant, but his voice was velvety and rich with nostalgia. My grandfather’s eyes watered.

“Don’t stop, young one. Keep going,” he urged.

Jido wept. Velvet voice? No. The boy’s voice was honey.

*     *    *

Mint

It grew like weeds, straight through the cracks in our patio, right at the door. It was our own personal jungle of mint in our backyard. On summer nights, we’d invite my mom’s sister and my cousins, who lived next door, for tea. We would turn on the Christmas lights we’d draped around the patio and gather outside while we played Umm Kalthoum. Umm Kalthoum was an iconic Egyptian singer whose songs would famously last an hour each. My uncle told us that when she was having a concert, the shops would close early, and everyone would go home to watch her perform on TV. Umm Kalthoum was reserved for the night time, while Fairouz’s voice was one to rise to. My mom would have me pluck the mint for the tea that we all enjoyed outside. It was our way of replicating Jordanian nights in the Midwest.

*     *     *

Teta had mint leaves growing in her yard too. And parsley, cilantro, tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, mloukheya, oregano, boysenberries, pears, lemons, and a whole collection of herbs, fruits, and vegetables. She had a green thumb unlike any other. For her, life was about nature, herself, and God. My grandmother’s faith was strong enough to refuse locking her doors for four decades. People say I resemble her in the way that we act boldly and abruptly with the unwavering belief that God favors us. We would make tea and sit at the table with the deep purple table cloth, beneath the tree in her front yard. During the spring and summer months, she would close her eyes and enjoy the breeze as she held the cup to her lips.

I don’t know how to cook, so I make sure to add plenty of garlic, because it fixes anything. The chicken was dry. I’m paranoid about salmonella. I scrub everything down with bleach three times and my hands smell like it for the next two days.

When I told her I’d met a boy I really liked, she said, “Mmm, be careful. All men in the military have hepatitis.”

And that was that. She had been widowed over forty years. Teta tells me that after Jido died, she ran the grocery store/butchery alone. A man would come every so often to buy cigarettes and asked my uncle if he could take my grandma on a date.

“Ask her yourself,” my uncle responded.

Teta told the man to bring her a bible, which he did on his following visit to the store.

“Let me keep this for a couple days,” she told him.

The next time he came, she had his bible ready for him. She highlighted some verses for him and denied him a date. She asked him not to ask again, and to shop elsewhere.

“A few months later, he came back. He said that he was a recovering alcoholic and the verses inspired him to stop drinking. He said I was a good woman. Then I never saw him again,” she says solemnly.

Teta came to America with nothing, yet she did everything. She sipped her tea. Teta didn’t need anyone but God.

*     *     *

Apricots

Jido, my grandfather, would always get my brother and I apricots and chocolate and strawberry milk on his way back from work in Irbid. We’d visit Jordan some summers and he always made sure to have them stashed for us.

“Did you see the mish mish and haleeb? Make sure you finish it, so I can get more for you tomorrow,” he’d say.

We’d drink the milk through the straw and inhale it in forty seconds, then we’d split the apricots in half, throw away the seeds, and devour them.

Teta told us we could plant the seeds in the backyard.

“Bring everything outside. Let’s sit on the veranda,” she said.

In the back was a cement path with rose bushes and flowers on either side, and beyond the gate was a dust road that resembled nothing of the small desert paradise within their yard. We’d migrate beneath the grape leaves, and the grapes hanging would always be too tart and sour. I never had a ripe one any summer I went.

*     *     *

In Indiana, I’d sit outside on summer mornings where I didn’t have to go to work until the afternoon. The sun wouldn’t be as hot yet, and there was refuge beneath the leaves of the tree in the backyard. I’d make a cup of Nescafé, and bring a fresh plate of fruit with me, as I read Women Who Run with the Wolves and journaled. My brother might come down before I had to get ready for work to tan. I was with him in Barcelona when we had an apricot stuffed with cheese (Was it Manchego?) and honey. Revolutionary. He loved not living in Indiana. He even loved his host family more. I can’t remember a time when my brother has told me he loves me first. I know he does though because I got lost at the movie theater when we were kids seeing Madagascar for the second time. I moved to the front of the theater and, eventually, I turned around and saw the empty row my family was sitting in and then I headed towards the exit. When I opened the door, my brother was there with an employee, his face red and contorted, “Nicole, where were you? Mama called the police!” he cried.

He moved to California a couple years later during his gap year after college; all he does now is tan, work at Ross, and hurt my parents’ feelings.

*     *     *

Garlic

Teta sends Baba home with a box of garlic, and when I visit her the next day, I see there are still two other baskets filled with garlic. I comment on how much she has.

“I know. I’m planning to start growing them. I just peeled some and gave it to your dad.”

She serves me a cup of cinnamon tea with walnuts, as I sit in the fluffy chair next to her usual spot. The chair looks out of place, but then again, so does much of her decor that she buys from Goodwill. I tell her about having to go to court in Chicago for driving with an expired license plate and not having my proof of insurance. She asks who I went to Chicago with when I got in trouble, and I tell her I went to a show with my boyfriend Rico. She turns it into a sermon about how one decision can change your life forever. She alludes to my dad’s estranged first daughter. She never says it. I let her talk.

“Thank you for telling me things. It means so much to me. Don’t stop. I only say things because I love you,” she says.

“If I didn’t tell you, I’d be putting a Band-Aid on an injury, and it would be infected. My words are the rubbing alcohol that stings but cleans.”

She begins talking about her fraudulent lawyers and everyone else who’s out to swindle her. One of her tenants called the cops on her for pushing his daughter, but I pretend I don’t know. I let her talk and explain the soap opera she’s watching. There’s always someone out to get my grandmother.

*     *     *

I don’t know how to cook, so I make sure to add plenty of garlic, because it fixes anything. The chicken is dry. I’m paranoid about salmonella. I scrub everything down with bleach three times and my hands smell like it for the next two days. My mom and my grandmas are all excellent cooks, and they all somehow instinctively know how much seasoning to put in. They never use measuring cups as if it’s God that tells them when to cool it with the cardamom.

My mom is listening to Joel Osteen as she cooks. We were all baptized Orthodox, but we stopped going to the church that all the other Christian Arabs go to when I was still a kid. We quit it because my parents felt it was too much about the ritual of faith rather than the god of the faith. I agree, but I also hate Joel Osteen. I’m watching her, and she tells me to grab the garlic from the pantry.

“Put it in Tupperware and shake it,” she instructs me.

I shake it like a maraca, and it peels itself. My dad gets home from work and he’s already eaten. Junk. His diabetes is through the roof. Teta blames my mom, as if it’s just my dad, and not all her kids who have it. Mama warns me to marry someone who loves me more than he loves his mother.

*     *     *

Cinnamon

Whenever a baby has their first teething, Arabs throw a huge party and invite everyone over. This gathering is called the Snowneeya, meant to celebrate that first tooth, and everyone gathers to eat berbara. It has a consistency almost like pudding and is made with spices like anise, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and it is topped with things like coconut, walnuts, and candy-coated fennel seeds, then more cinnamon on the top. When the first boy is born, there’s another huge party to celebrate that the family now has someone to carry the name. Not just the last name. Every child would carry their dad’s first name as their middle name, so you could trace their lineage to the very beginning through the name of the father, just like when the Bible introduces Jesus for the first time. Yes, boys are a big deal.

*     *     *

A dash of cinnamon goes into nearly every dish. Nutmeg and allspice too. I ask my mom what they season the meat in grape leaves with.

Arabic spices,” she answers.

“That’s vague, can you be more specific?”

She buys the seasoning pre-made in Jordan, or my grandma sends it with my grandpa or my aunt when they visit us in America from overseas. I went with her to the spice shop in Jordan once, where it smelled of cloves and was lined with wooden barrels filled with nuts and a museum of spices that encompassed every color of the color wheel.

My cousins and I help roll the grape leaves. There’s a technique to it, and I don’t nail it until I’m almost out of grape leaves to roll. My uncle tells us how he’s so proud of us and snaps a picture to send to the family group chat. That’s one of the only times my dad says it too—as I’m learning how to cook. He glows.

Habibet albi! Love of my heart! Learning how to cook!” he says.

He sees it as me growing into my womanhood, and he beams.

When I first got my period, my mom made a big deal out of it. She sent me with my older cousin, and we got our nails done and went to dinner. She sees it as me growing into my womanhood, and she beams. My dad looks disappointed. He’s afraid of what happens when a girl grows into her womanhood. But are either of these things what make me a woman?

*     *     *

Rose

Roses and oud. Staples of every perfume I’ve smelled between my aunts, my mom, and my grandmother. My grandmother is more of a rose and jasmine type of woman. I feel like a stereotypical Arab woman when I wear some fragrances and I chock it up to something in our chemistry. Maybe something that reminds us of home. Perhaps the pink roses in my grandmothers’ gardens. Both of them. My mother’s pashminas smell of rose and their soft smell lingers on them through the winter. It is my favorite perfume, and when I wear her scarf, my boyfriend says it smells like me. I must be my mother’s daughter.

*     *     *

Knafeh, warbat, awamat, qatayif—all sweets that wouldn’t be sweet without either a drizzle or a drowning of rose water syrup. We rarely have sweets at the house because they take too long to make and because my father is diabetic with no self-control. When I visit Detroit with Rico, my mother sends me a grocery list and a hefty request of items from the famous Middle Eastern bakery in Dearborn, Shatila. Rico waits in the car while I go inside. The place is buzzing with people; it reminds me of Wall Street, the way everyone is lined at the cases of sweets and shouting what they want at the employees. Another customer, about the age of my father, asks me where I’m from in Arabic, and introduces himself; I forget his name. He asks about my tattoo that’s written in Arabic script. He lives in either Columbus or near Chicago and asks where I live.

“I am always there to help if you ever need anything,” he says to me.

Sometimes Arabs are especially nice to other Arabs. He doesn’t talk to anyone else inside the bakery except his son and the employee taking his order. My midriff is showing, amidst women dressed conservatively. I doubt it’s because we’re both Arab.

*     *     *

My maternal grandmother is a beauty queen. She’s barely aged and hasn’t seen the sun in over thirty years. She’s the type to carry around an umbrella to block the sun and wear floppy hats, but I suspect the expensive eye creams that line her vanity help. She is much different than my dad’s mom, who was raised humbly in a small village in Jordan. That Teta talks to herself, doesn’t wear shoes, and hasn’t slept in a bed since the eighties. This Teta is a diva who wanted to major in English and always keeps a coral lipstick handy. Teta tells me that rose oil is good for my skin, and luckily, I can afford rose oil. At home, I boil the rosebuds in water, and put them in a mesh holder as if I were making a tea. I strain and refrigerate it—add it to the beauty regiment as a toner and use rosehip oil as my moisturizer. I’ll learn how to age gracefully like my grandmother, but I’ll never insist on dodging the sun. I let the oil seep into my skin, while I read Rumi. He writes, “What was said to the rose to make it open was said here in my heart.” I open. I write this. I write without a responsibility to anyone but myself and God. I create, and I see this as my growing into my womanhood. Somehow, it feels lighter.

 

Special Guest Judge, Terry Wolverton:

“Secret Ingredients” uses an inventive structure to explore themes of culture, diaspora, family and gender expectations. By focusing on traditional foods, the author brings us into the intimate customs and rituals of this Jordanian family living in the U.S., what is preserved of the homeland and what shifts, morphs, or is left behind altogether. The essayist makes her larger points without ever growing didactic; rather, she allows the reader to discover them in the tastes and smells, the activities within the family kitchen.

—Terry Wolverton is author of eleven books of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, including Embers, a novel in poems, and Insurgent Muse: art and life at the Woman’s Building, a memoir. Her most recent poetry collection is Ruin Porn. She has edited fourteen literary compilations, including the Lambda Literary Award winning His: brilliant new fiction by gay men and Hers: brilliant new fiction by lesbians. Terry also collaborated with composer David Ornette Cherry to adapt Embers as a jazz opera.
Terry has received a COLA Fellowship from the City of Los Angeles, a Fellowship in Poetry from the California Arts Council, and the Judy Grahn Award from the Publishing Triangle, among other honors. She is the founder of Writers At Work, a creative writing studio in Los Angeles, and affiliate faculty in the MFA Writing Program at Antioch University Los Angeles. http://terrywolverton.com

 

Nicole Nimri is a Jordanian-American writer hailing from the Midwest. She received her bachelors in creative writing from IUPUI. This is her first published essay.

Memento Meninges

1.

Despite my protests, neither my mother nor my father will concede the point. I was not, according to them, in my right mind when I called from a hospital bed at Ajou University Hospital. They detected something. An aberrance. Like an incoherence of speech, or a delirious register of voice. It’s only natural they would conclude that my memory of the episode is suspect. I was admitted to the hospital at Ajou University, a few blocks from my apartment in Suwon, with a preliminary diagnosis of viral meningitis. I spoke to my parents several times from my hospital bed, sounding—distressed; unglued? I was in a lot of pain. But I’m certain I was lucid. The pain no doubt hindered my capacity to speak in plain, clear sentences. The memories nonetheless are as clear as day—as clear as the taxi ride from Incheon International Airport; or the wide expanse of the Han River; or the heavy, stinging prick of the anesthetic needle in the Operating Room of Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital a few months prior.

In his book Stumbling on Happiness, the psychologist Daniel Gilbert expounds on the shortcomings of memory. The brain doesn’t preserve every bit of palpable information that comes to it through the senses. Memory isn’t stored in its entirety as neuro-electrical equivalents of the sights and tastes and so on of our past experiences. So why does it seem like it’s all there? Gilbert explains that memory has a way of filling in the gaps of experience. This is less a glitch than a practical adaptation, one that allows human beings to remember the past with remarkable coherence, if not complete accuracy. Without this basic mechanism, memory would be too patchy and muddled to be useful. The artifice makes the act of remembering relatively smooth and efficient, an important function in the spontaneous, sometimes dangerous contexts of human life. For the same reason, however, the details of memory are often flawed. This is especially true of remembered feelings—details related to emotions and subjective experiences. It is the basic predicament of memory that its coherence goes hand in hand with its unreliability.

Much later, when I recall this scene in writing, I will want to sympathize with her. I will want to write—the nursing profession seems taxing and thankless and I genuinely admire the dedication of anyone who undertakes it. But here, in the crowded space behind the ER, my sympathy finds no channel to pass through.

The predicament of memory makes the writing of memoir especially hazardous. If your life is a story you tell yourself about yourself, then it is not a reliable one. There are plenty of things that can be recalled with accuracy: names; dates; even some dialogue. But experience is another matter. What does it mean to remember something that was felt vividly at the time, in a condition of sound mind, if not sound body? To recall it as if it were happening once more? Memoir isn’t reportage. The writer doesn’t take notes or speak into a voice recorder for playback later. It is remembered. And the past can never be made whole again. As Gilbert notes, to remember an experience with absolute accuracy would mean having to replay it in your head in real time, which would effectively paralyze us. We’d be stuck endlessly replaying memories and never attending to the present. Instead, we remember the gist, the essence, the bullet points, the threads that help us survive better. Memoir, wherein the past is distilled in language, is as much a process of deformation as revelation. It can only ever recall a past that is out of focus and extinct, and meditate in the present (that other perilous zone) where time slows down and hardens into some willful meaning. Therefore, it must be conceded in advance and without evasion that, as memory goes, the course of memoir will be more than a little—dishonest.

2.

I’m certain of at least one thing—all of the events will unfold and come close to being resolved within the span of seven days. It was Friday when I first noticed a dull pain in the node of my left armpit. Saturday, the fever picked up steam and dehydration set in. Sunday, I began to notice a deep ache in my right abdomen. Monday night, I was admitted to Ajou University Hospital. It will be Friday again when the headache finally subsides.

It’s late Monday night. It’s early Tuesday morning. It feels like Monday night. There are no vacant beds upstairs. I will remain in the ER ward tonight, or rather this morning. It’s just past midnight. I drift into a fitful half-sleep. When I wake, I’m lying crumpled on my left side. It can’t have been more than an hour. A nurse must have started an IV drip. And I changed into hospital clothes at some point. When I look down at the IV, I can see red running through the line. The blood is backing up. I don’t know for how long. When I roll onto my back, a red stain is revealed to cover most of the left side of my shirt. The sight of the large red smear startles me. I lift the gown to check my torso—no apparent rips or slits in the flesh—then carefully wheel the IV pole to the nurses’ station. I wave to one of them and direct her attention to the dark red seeping into the fabric of the shirt. She draws a small, quick breath. I point to the IV in my arm. She seems to register what has happened. In fact, she seems a little irritated, as if to suggest that the ruined shirt was the result of my carelessness. Her impatience irks me, and I in turn become irritated. I shake my head and hold up both hands, indicating something like—how’s this my fault? We talk over each other in our respective languages. I unbutton my top, and she hands me a new one. Much later, when I recall this scene in writing, I will want to sympathize with her. I will want to write—the nursing profession seems taxing and thankless and I genuinely admire the dedication of anyone who undertakes it. But here, in the crowded space behind the ER, my sympathy finds no channel to pass through. I don’t see the nurse standing in front of me holding a bloody shirt. I only see an obstacle frustrating my expectations—I’m the patient; this isn’t my fault; it’s your job to help me and so on. I can’t know what she sees standing in front of her—a frightened patient; an inconsiderate lout; one more in an endless series of interruptions; or someone in distress. I don’t know enough Korean to ask her what she’s feeling. I can only guess. And she wouldn’t be able to answer me in English. And anyways there’s no time and a million other things to do. It really is an admirable profession. I shuffle back to my bed buttoning the smear-less shirt as I go.

3.

It’s Tuesday morning. The headache, which will continue unbroken for the next three days, wakes me up. A man is leaning over my bed—a specialist from Infectious Diseases. He informs me that the most recent blood work indicates a serious illness. My head pounds up and down like a parabola. I ask him for something to ease the pain. I mistakenly assume that, lying inert on a hospital bed behind the ER, the drugs will come straightaway. They do not. In the days to follow I will make numerous requests for pain medication. My requests will be rebuffed with halting English and untranslated Korean. By degrees I will become paranoid and desperate. I’ll convince myself that the nurses and doctors are spitefully withholding the drugs that could otherwise mute this damn racket in my head like a damned TV that lands on static with the volume maxed out. Their repeated instructions to take Extra Strength Tylenol will be met with exasperation and impatience and more than a few sniveling protests meant to indicate something like—are you goddamn kidding me? What I will repeatedly fail to consider is the possibility that no medication can assuage the headache caused by meningitis.

Meningitis is an infection of the membranes, called meninges, that surround the brain and spinal cord. There are different types of meningitis, each defined by its underlying cause. Bacterial meningitis is extremely serious. Even with treatment, the mortality rate in adults is 19-37%. Viral meningitis, on the other hand, rarely causes death and typically resolves on its own. It will be weeks before I read about this on Wikipedia. For now, I’m mostly in the dark. My doctor seems confident that I have viral meningitis. I trust him. The aggressive, infectious agents in which he specializes do not bespeak his manner, which is one of unaffected regard. But he won’t be able to make a definitive diagnosis until my spinal fluid is examined. In two days, a young resident will extract the fluid with a spinal needle, a procedure known as a lumbar puncture or, more commonly, a spinal tap. The specialist says the lumbar puncture will involve “some amount of pain.” Something to look forward to, eh? No one responds to my mocking, rhetorical question because I’m speaking only to myself inside my pounding head.

A single-occupancy room is open on the eighth floor. No other rooms will be available for two days. A single room is not covered by insurance, but there’s no room in my head to worry about that now. Despite my very private and very expensive room, I won’t be able to sleep because of the headache. They say severe to describe the pain; they say the pain associated with the headache as if it were a business partnership. These descriptors are stupidly inert. They impart a technical designation. The classic 1-10 pain scale, another impotent gauge, is replaced with oblique words like mild, moderate, and severe. In the face of a real, honest-to-god pain that you never would have imagined (because no person in their right mind would), the numbers and words lose whatever substance they might have had in ordinary life. Perhaps someday far removed from this moment I’ll feel grateful. The ordeal will prove to be a test of character, and I’ll come out the other side stronger—or something like that. In the midst of its unfolding, however, I am not grateful. I’m ill-tempered, defensive, misanthropic. I recoil from words of consolation. And who gives a damn about personal growth anyway? Or the condition of my liver and kidneys, which could be damaged by the overuse of certain medications that nonetheless reduce the fever and diminish, by just a hair, the headache, and I’ll take a hair. I’ll take anything. My liver and kidneys can shrivel and rot as far as I’m concerned. I’ll get new kidneys. And my liver will grow back. But I swear to god this throbbing is going to blow my cranium wide open, and goddammit if the gooey insides won’t make a perfect mess of my very expensive room. When a doctor or nurse drops in and asks me to indicate my level of pain, I have no recourse to any meaningful response. Just grab hold of the sheets and make a fist as tight as you can and ride it out. They look puzzled standing over me unable to quantify what they’ve observed. For a second, I take comfort in the thought of them standing at the foot of my bed, covered from head to waist in the clumps and shards of brain matter and skull.

4.

I am sitting upright in bed. The door has been left open a crack. The opening forms a cleft through which the hallway light cuts down my face in a vertical dash. The light falls over one or the other of my eyes. I could close the door, but that would mean getting up. Getting up is a problem. The headache falls loud and heavy like a factory machine; its pounding coincides with the blood propelled by the pounding of my heart. If my heart stopped beating then my head would stop beating. The beating feels like what a heart attack might feel like—too much blood trying to squeeze through too small a vessel. I press my fingers to my temples. Trying to open something up in there. Nothing opens. But it’s better to keep pressing because the movement of my fingers is a diversion, a way of forgetting, if only for a second or two. I keep pressing and the pressing is a rhythm and I sigh after every seventh or eighth beat and the sighing is a rhythm and soon there’s a whole chorus of noiseless effects. These details—the door and the rhythms and the light—will one day seem like a sterile cloud, devoid of that potent agony of the present moment.

I will continue to not eat, save for some homemade yogurt one of the teachers from my school brings me. They will eventually have to start a nutrition IV and weigh me every few hours. And that’s how it will go for the next few days. Everyone will continue urging me to eat. But they don’t get it. And I don’t get how they don’t get it. And none of us will get it.

Movement, at the moment, presents a dilemma. It amplifies the pounding. But it is necessary—to avoid getting sore; to go to the bathroom; to change the cold wet rag against my forehead. The pounding arouses a keen awareness of movement. Not movement in a hypothetical sense, but the singularity of each and every movement. The pounding thus encourages a kind of kinesthetic efficiency. Even a few inches registers like forty dump trucks driving off a four-mile cliff, hitting the ground and getting reduced to a fine metallic dust. The relationship between pounding and movement is exponential—if movement were graphed horizontally and pounding graphed vertically, then a point less than one horizontal value would shoot straight up. Walking to the bathroom involves the longest and most dramatic movement. It’s so big and sustained that the pounding registers beyond any threshold of pain. For a second, it actually ebbs. And, so, going to the bathroom offers a tiny respite, a relief more acute than that of emptying the bladder. The insane pounding nullifies itself on the way to the bathroom. But because movement halts at the toilet, the pounding slows just enough to register below that neutralizing point as a sustained, concrete pain. Urinate with eyes closed. Walk back to bed. The pounding is neutered again. Get into bed. The worst of it comes when getting into bed. Unspeakable really. The pounding will slow in the morning. It’s morning now because it’s past midnight. It will slow when the sun comes up in seven hours. An hour of sleep, at most, will offer the only real break. Then it will be time to wake up and get looked over by all the people who mean to take care of me.

5.

It’s Wednesday morning. Presently a young doctor will enter my room. She will sit in the chair next to my bed and ask me questions—about my pain; my symptoms; my condition in general. Finally, she will ask about the quality of my sleep:

– Did you sleep well?

– I didn’t sleep.

– How long did you sleep?

– Not at all.

– Really?

– Maybe one hour.

– Are you sure?

– Not more than an hour and a half.

– I think you slept more than that.

– No.

– How can you be sure?

– I didn’t sleep.

It will go on like this for a few minutes until I fall silent. I won’t have an answer that satisfies her. I’ll even start to second guess myself. Wouldn’t the inflamed tissue surrounding my brain and spine affect my ability to accurately report the previous night’s sleep after all? Maybe the young doctor checked up on me during the night. Maybe she really does know better than I do.

Later, a hospital administrator will come to my room to inquire about my meals. Besides the headache, the other major symptom has been a persistent nausea—a weight on my abdomen that kills all appetite, gastric or otherwise. The headache and nausea of meningitis don’t amount to a cleansing sort of pain. They don’t clarify anything, like quitting coffee or fasting for a day might. They only blunt vitality and magnify every awful feeling, physical and mental, until any trace of cheerful confidence is scraped clean. The spirit, irradiated.

When lunch arrives, I’ll lift the metal lid from the tray to find a pile of pasta drenched in cream sauce. I’ll immediately cover the tray and put a hand to my mouth, heaving several times until nothing comes up. The administrator will arrive after lunch, the covered tray of food still sitting on a cart behind her as she addresses me:

– Do you not like the food here?

– I can’t eat.

– I will talk to the chef.

– I’m too sick to eat.

– We can change the menu.

– I’m throwing up an empty stomach all day.

– Would you like to try some Korean food?

– I can’t eat.

It will go on like this until a half-formed feeling fizzles inside me. A feeling of wanting to grab her and make her understand how I feel and shake her until she knows exactly how it is. Like I want to do to everyone who comes to see me. The empty stomach and the pounding head will preclude any action, or even quibbling, on my part. I will continue to not eat, save for some homemade yogurt one of the teachers from my school brings me. They will eventually have to start a nutrition IV and weigh me every few hours. And that’s how it will go for the next few days. Everyone will continue urging me to eat. But they don’t get it. And I don’t get how they don’t get it. And none of us will get it.

6.

It’s late Wednesday night. It’s early Thursday morning. Mrs. H has come to stay with me for a few hours. She retrieves a small cloth from the wardrobe and soaks it in cold water under the bathroom faucet and leans on the edge of the bed to press it against my forehead. She stretches out on the short sofa against the far wall and falls asleep. I remain awake trying not to move. She wakes up and asks me if I’ve slept. When I tell her no, I haven’t, she takes the cloth from my forehead and goes into the bathroom to soak it in cold water again.

Mrs. H is a teacher at the elementary school where I work as an ESL instructor. We didn’t meet for the first time until almost a year after I had arrived in Korea. She’s in her early thirties and seems to be filled at all times with a vibrant and persuasive enthusiasm.

There’s a reason I didn’t meet Mrs. H until many months after arriving in Korea. During that time, she herself was a patient at Ajou University Hospital. I picked up the details of her illness in bits and pieces after she returned to work. I was never able to assemble a complete picture of what had happened to her. But I’m reasonably confident about the following: Mrs. H had an operation at Ajou University Hospital; there were post-op complications; the exact nature of the complications remains unclear, just that they were very serious; Mrs. H spent several months recovering, both in the hospital and at home. After I’m discharged, Mrs. H will describe her experience to me in some detail. She will tell me about the medication she was given every day, several times a day, to relieve her pain. She will describe the stabbing sensations that afflicted her whole abdomen day and night, as if her organs were simultaneously riven from the inside. She will convey the sense of the pain by miming the gnarled contortions to which her body succumbed. She will note how the effects of the medication disappeared after only a short while, leaving her in a fit of panicked anguish. She will tell me how she thought she was going to die and received visitors in a fog of misery and occasionally asked them will I die? in Korean. She will not mention how, or if, they responded.

I will wonder, many months after leaving the hospital, if it is useful, or even possible, to remember my experience of meningitis in any faithful way. Why would I even want to reconstruct so rigorously a painful memory like that?

It seems obvious to say that imagery is the most vivid form of memory. I can recall so many indefinite images—the AUH Emergency Room; the red-soaked shirt; the spinal needle; Mrs. H’s evanescent face—that collectively suggest an entire world. The other senses can usually be inferred from the images—the low hum of the fluorescent lights; the cold of the cotton bed sheets; the needle’s sting. For this same reason, imagery is also the most hazardous form of memory. Imagery seduces us into a facile belief that we have found a clear and definite route to the past. It makes the act of remembering accessible and, therefore, prone to error. Perhaps the more compelling provocateur of memory is smell. Smell perplexes because it cannot be conjured so freely and confidently as imagery. A forgotten smell has to be located again in a real encounter with the world, where it hits the individual unawares and throws him into a strange oblivion between past and present. And it evaporates in equally swift and furtive form—a whiff that rebuffs any attempt at expression. Smell does not seduce. It confronts the individual with a nagging suspicion that the past is only ever ephemeral and cannot be known again exactly as it was.

I straighten my legs and neck but do not sit up. The resident tells me I must remain horizontal for the next six hours. It’s not clear why. Perhaps I am liable to lose my balance and fall. A nurse places the call button in my hand. My head is pointed towards the foot of the bed. Other than the clock on the far wall, there is almost nothing to observe.

According to my parents I was a blue baby—an unnatural blue tinge colored most of my little newborn body. The cause was a congenital heart defect called Tetralogy of Fallot that would eventually require open-heart surgery. The surgery was performed just before my first birthday. It was the only other time before moving to Korea that I had been hospitalized. Not a single trace of the surgery or recovery remains in my memory. I know it happened because there are other traces—the accounts of my mother and father and other relatives who were present at the time; the long scar running the length of my sternum and the two smaller scars just below it; the scar on the underside of my right wrist and the one above my right clavicle running over the carotid artery; a handful of photographs. There is ample evidence for me to consult, but no memories. Perhaps the past is so bewildering because it suggests a paradox. In one sense, the past is always with us; there is no way to completely separate oneself from what came before. In another sense, the past has nothing to do with us; it is, by definition, never present. Always gone. There is no perfect analogy for the past, no unadulterated version. Memory provides a connection, but a tenuous one and always flirting with oblivion. Even the same experience repeated—like another case of meningitis, perish the thought—would be different. The context, the surroundings, will have changed at the very least. The present feels like this. But the past was that—that open wound; that inflamed tissue; that pounding under the cheek or inside the skull in the membranes around the brain; that pain and anger. That and no other.

7.

It’s Thursday morning. A resident will arrive shortly toting a bag of tools. He will insert a spinal needle into the middle of my back and extract fluid from my spine. The entire procedure will last about twenty minutes. Despite the unnerving image of a large needle puncturing my spine, I am looking forward to the procedure. It was something the specialist said to me not long after I was admitted: because a spinal tap draws fluid from around the inflamed tissue, the procedure can potentially relieve some of the pressure on the brain and diminish the headache.

At ten o’clock, the resident enters my room. He instructs me to lie down on my right side, pull my knees up to my chest, and scrunch my body into a ball. The position, appropriately fetal- like, helps to spread apart the vertebrae and make room for the insertion of the needle. He says it’s important to keep still throughout the procedure. It’s okay to yell if it hurts, just don’t move. The part about the yelling isn’t reassuring. When the needle goes in, a sudden sharp pain is followed by numbness. The needle stops at a precise spot, then continues, then stops again when it reaches the fluid that surrounds the spinal cord.

The fluid, which will be tested to confirm the initial diagnosis, is called cerebrospinal fluid. No one ever says lumbar puncture or spinal tap. They all just keep referring to CSF in that peculiar language, partial to acronyms, of hospital-speak. Once the resident has collected enough CSF, he places a bandage over the spot where the needle went in. I straighten my legs and neck but do not sit up. The resident tells me I must remain horizontal for the next six hours. It’s not clear why. Perhaps I am liable to lose my balance and fall. A nurse places the call button in my hand. My head is pointed towards the foot of the bed. Other than the clock on the far wall, there is almost nothing to observe.

8.

Friday morning—one week has passed since I first felt the dull pain in my armpit. The headache has retreated. My appetite has returned. A couple of teachers from my school escort me to the basement floor where the food court is located. We pass a Burger King and end up at a little cafe called SANDRICH where one of them buys me a sandwich.

I have been in the hospital for four days and will remain for another three. Mrs. H’s sister, who works as a doctor here, has come to check on me every day and will continue to do so until I leave. We were introduced on Monday evening a few hours before I was admitted. On Wednesday, she came to my room to discuss something that she said had been weighing on her. It was her opinion that I should be transferred to the Neurology department so that I could be under the direct care of a neurologist. My doctor, the specialist of Infectious Diseases, seemed confident that I would recover on my own without complications. As far as I could tell, he saw no reason to move me to another department. Mrs. H’s sister never explicitly contradicted his judgment. But her concern for me suggested that she did not entirely agree with him. The situation is more delicate than it might seem. My doctor is technically her boss. And in Korea there is an unspoken, but rigid, protocol when it comes to the chain of command. In coming to me directly, Mrs. H’s sister had potentially subverted that protocol. She was taking a risk in going over the head of her superior. She did what she thought was right at the time. After I recover and am discharged, she will apologize to me for, as she put it, letting her emotions get the better of her. She seemed to feel that her personal connection to me, however thin, had clouded her judgment. After the apology, I will think to myself how unnecessary it is. Her actions were not unseemly but admirable.

The truth is Mrs. H’s sister had a good reason to be emotional at the time. It’s the same reason Mrs. H was at the hospital the night she slept on the couch in my room. Their father is a patient at Ajou University Hospital. That night he lay in the Oncology ward, just a few floors below my room, dying of cancer. I was aware of this fact at the time and insisted more than once that she go back to his room. But she declined. Perhaps she was glad to have an excuse to leave his room and forget the weight of her feelings, if only for an hour or two. Their father will pass away not long after I am discharged from AUH. I will attend the funeral with the principal and a handful of teachers from my school. In a large rented van, we will drive to Mrs. H’s hometown more than two hours from Suwon. It’s spring, so the air will be clear and cool. We’ll drive straight through the evening as the sun goes down. The light will strike the hills at shallow angles, and the steep hills of ash and pine and the road ahead of us and the tunnels, one after the next, propelling the van like a spring-loaded toy, will be washed in the pallid light of a nascent blossoming. At the service, I will want to offer Mrs. H and her sister some condolence, a word or an embrace to repay their generosity. I will want to say the right thing. Why is there always a trace of self-indulgence in sympathy? You almost feel more sorry for the sad guests, searching desperately for something meaningful to say, than the bereaved family. But why should anything be said? Nothing can fix the condition of death or the ruins it leaves behind. It’s as if the act of consoling, apparently directed at the grieving individual, reverses course and returns to the actor. Finally, it is himself he consoles, his own anxiety over the fact of death, so nakedly on display, a fact to which he and everyone else are obliged to witness. Blessed are those who have already passed. When the moment arrives, no words will come. I will stand with the other teachers facing the funeral display—the wreaths of flowers; the burning sticks of incense; the photo of the dead man—and offer my sympathy in silence.

 

Tyler Arndt was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. He graduated from the University of Washington, Seattle in 2005 with a bachelor’s in English literature. Since 2012, he has been working on a memoir of the years he spent teaching ESL in South Korea. In September 2015 Tyler stayed at the Vermont Studio Center as a resident in nonfiction writing. His writing has appeared in the Rappahannock Review. He lives in Seattle with his books.

In the Zone

Folks, it’s a beautiful, clear day here on the Florida coast. We have just been given a go for today’s space shuttle launch.

*     *     *

I grew up in south Florida not too far from Cape Canaveral when the shuttle program was active in the eighties. The heady days of the space race were not yet a distant memory, and Reagan wanted to beat the Russians at star wars. I remember watching morning shuttle launches from my front yard, and I once saw a night launch from a friend’s back patio. It looked like a shooting star momentarily blazing with light, before disappearing into the clouds beyond human sight.

I rode with my parents to Columbia, South Carolina, the day before the competition. After arriving, we got a surprising call in our hotel room: my English teacher was there to attend the contest. I was mortified, but I tried to put her out of my mind. By getting to state, I had already proven that my speech “would fly.”

There was a buzz at my elementary school about the Challenger mission in 1986. It was to be a late morning launch, and everyone in my grade was going outside to view it from our playground field. Even more exciting was the plan for us to take science classes (from outer space!) with Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to join a shuttle mission. Sadly, those lessons never occurred. Seventy-three seconds after liftoff, Challenger did something no one had ever seen. There was a look of shock and confusion on my classmates’ faces when we witnessed that disastrous launch. Everyone was oddly silent and I—usually a very quiet kid—blurted out: “It’s just the rocket boosters dropping off.” I glanced at my teacher for confirmation. The concern in her eyes told a different story.

*     *     *

T minus nine minutes and counting. Start automatic ground launch sequencer.

*     *     *

My family moved to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1990. One day in tenth grade English class, my teacher announced that we could enter an annual speech contest sponsored by the Optimist Club. My ears perked up. The winner, if one made it to the state competition, would receive a college scholarship. The theme that year was: “I can make a difference.” I felt immediately that I wanted to enter the contest. I went home and talked to my Pop. He was a preacher and had recently helped me prepare an oral book report on The Red Badge of Courage. It had been so well received that the students spontaneously clapped when I stepped from the podium. I wondered aloud to Pop, “What could I do that would be unique for this speech competition?” We came up with the idea of doing something on Christa McAuliffe because I had been inspired by her bravery and the story of the Challenger was close to my heart.

Excitedly, the next day I told my teacher about the idea. She thought it was far too unconventional that I wanted to weave together the shuttle liftoff within the narrative of the speech. Her words, “It will never fly,” echoed in my ears. I cried silently at my seat in class that day as we discussed Shakespeare. My aspirations crushed, I told Pop that night how my teacher had responded. “Write the speech the way you want to,” Pop counseled me. Even if I lost, I would enjoy the process of writing about something meaningful to me.

*     *     *

T minus two minutes. Crew members close and lock their visors.

*     *     *

I soon girded myself for the school-wide contest. Clutching my speech on the podium and reading it word for word, I was constantly aware of my teacher’s glare from the back of the room. She was one of the judges. Because he was a preacher and active in the local Toastmaster’s club, Pop had also been recruited as a judge. It was comforting to see a friendly face in the crowd.

I paced outside the classroom where the judges convened after I delivered that first speech. All of the students were gone for the day and the hallway was unusually quiet and dim. Suddenly one of the judges came out. Putting on her sunglasses to go home, she called out as she briskly strode toward the door: “You won, Lindsey.” My heart raced. I knew I had a lot of work to do on the speech. And I knew my teacher was not going to help me because I had defied her. That night, Pop told me he would be my coach for the rest of the competition.

*     *     *

T minus fifty seconds. Orbiter transfers from ground to internal power.

*     *     *

Pop and I only had a couple of weeks to revise the speech for the city contest. On a road trip to one of his church lectures, I pulled out the speech and we chopped it up. Pop called it: “Cutting the dead wood.” We were relentless. Every word had to convey something vital. Nothing extraneous was left on the page. We started going to his church at night when it was empty. I rehearsed from the stage and he patiently directed me. Timing was crucial: a few seconds over time and I would be immediately disqualified.

The city contest was held in the banquet hall of a local restaurant. There were about fifteen kids in the contest and I was pretty tense. Only the top male and female competitors would advance to the next round. Pop was busy that night and could not attend the event, but my English teacher had come which only heightened my consternation. I stared at my shrimp and baked potato as they got cold because I was far too anxious about hearing the results to enjoy the free dinner. Winning that round was more of a relief than anything else. I felt that my speech had been vindicated and my teacher proven incorrect (in person).

*     *     *

T minus thirty-one seconds. Ground launch sequencer is go for auto sequence start.

*     *     *

The county contest was held at The Citadel, the storied military university. That location was more than a little intimidating to me. There were armed security checkpoints at every entrance. Cadets in uniform looked stern as they marched across campus. The local Optimist Club leaders were at the event to arrange travel for the winners to the state capital for the final round. The stakes were high. However, I was feeling more comfortable with the speech. Pop had continued to coach me, and I was heartened to learn that there were only a few competitors in this round. Thankfully, my teacher decided to stay home. As I delivered the speech, I felt like my speech might be going against the grain. I could not read the judges’ faces as I meandered through each phrase. Standing stiffly as the winners were named, I was exceedingly proud to make my way to the finals. My whole family had attended this round, and the Optimist Club was going to pay for our hotel stay in Columbia, South Carolina. It felt significant that I was representing my school and my city in the upstate.

*     *     *

T minus sixteen seconds and counting. Activate launch pad sound suppression system.

*     *     *

As the state competition neared, Pop and I were in full rehearsal mode. Every night that it was available, we went to the church to practice. The speech narrative was trimmed and honed. Only a single page of notes could be carried onstage during the seven-minute speech. I could not fit the entire speech on a single page, so I made sure the speech was totally committed to memory. Using scotch tape, I affixed a picture of the Challenger that I had cut from a magazine to my page of notes for inspiration. Pop directed me to move from behind the lectern at two pivotal moments in the speech. He advised, “You should only move for emphasis of specific words. Don’t move around just for the sake of it.” We timed the speech relentlessly and plugged in moments of pause to underscore important phrases. Christa McAuliffe’s quote, “I touch the future, I teach,” was the idea I wanted to leave with the audience.

When the shuttle Challenger exploded, the elevated expectations for NASA were temporarily grounded. The shuttle program would never again invoke the kind of hopeful anticipation that it did in its heyday.

As we worked, Pop and I became like a single entity. In between recitations, he told me stories about speeches of his that won trophies and times when he was “in the zone.” “What does that mean?” I asked. “You want to be so familiar with your speech that it becomes part of you,” he clarified. “It’s like watching Dan Marino on the football field. It’s fourth down and the Dolphins must score to win. He knows precisely where to throw the ball before Mark Duper even gets there.” Sports metaphors were a favorite of his. “Watch Marino drop back. Those seconds right before he heaves the ball are crucial. The nights when he can’t miss: he’s in the zone. Everything—the ball, the receiver, the timing—flows together flawlessly,” Pop explained. “Could I ever achieve that?” I wondered. Could I be like Dan Marino in the Orange Bowl: oblivious to the noise, moving through time and space in a harmonious energy?

*     *     *

T minus ten seconds. Activate main engine hydrogen burn off system.

*     *     *

I rode with my parents to Columbia, South Carolina, the day before the competition. After arriving, we got a surprising call in our hotel room: my English teacher was there to attend the contest. I was mortified, but I tried to put her out of my mind. By getting to state, I had already proven that my speech “would fly.” She had never had a student get this far in the competition, and she was being suspiciously friendly. She tried slyly to praise the speech even though she had not initially supported it.

The morning of the competition, I woke up early to shower and dress. I was wearing a suit with pumps for the first time. Too anxious to eat breakfast, I walked down to the main ballroom after only a cup of coffee. Shockingly, there were hundreds of people gathering, and I saw that there were ten women and ten men competing. The room was much larger than I had anticipated. Most of the seats were filling quickly, and the trophies were prominently placed on a table in the front of the room. The stage was set. My eyes were wide as I left Pop’s side to join the other speakers.

We drew from a bowl for our speaking order. I would compete last! A rush of excitement surged in my chest. Pop had told me that going last was a gift because you got to see the other competitors, and the judges would remember your speech when they convened. I turned around and scanned the crowd for Pop. We locked eyes and I mouthed the words: “I go last.” He nodded and gave me a thumbs-up. I watched the other speakers carefully and calmly. When my name was called, I approached the stage unhurriedly, with confidence. My heart was full and ready to breathe life into this story.

*     *     *

T minus six seconds. Main engines start. 5-4-3-2-1-0. Solid rocket booster ignition. We have liftoff!

*     *     *

When I placed my page of notes onto the podium, I breathed in deeply and looked at the photo of the Challenger taking off. When I began to speak, it was as if time stopped. Immediately, I gained the full attention of the audience. They were visibly moved by the story I was telling! My speech was different from everyone else’s and they were hungry to hear each word. Every time I paused, it was calculated. Each word was stressed with precision. The crowd was like clay in my hands. I moved around the stage with complete ease. No phrase fell flat. Every pass I hurled was caught. I was Dan Marino throwing perfect spirals to Mark Duper and Mark Clayton on a Monday night in the Orange Bowl. I couldn’t miss. The energy inside of me was electric and I was in perfect sync with the universe. My conviction was powerful: I was doing what I was born to do.

*     *     *

When the shuttle Challenger exploded, the elevated expectations for NASA were temporarily grounded. The shuttle program would never again invoke the kind of hopeful anticipation that it did in its heyday. But a little girl in south Florida had been inspired to become an educator and to “make a difference” the way Christa McAuliffe did for her students and school children around the country.

I have long since spent that college scholarship money, and the trophy was lost in a move years ago. But this is what was eternal from that day: When I stepped down off that stage, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I had won the competition. And yet, strangely, the contest did not matter at all to me anymore. I had been in the zone, and it was the most exhilarating moment of my life. The huge crowd was standing, applauding loudly, and everyone seemed to be surging toward the front of the room. I was searching in the commotion for one person. There was only one person who would understand what I had just experienced. I pushed through the shaking hands and pats on the back. Then my Pop’s face appeared above the people in the aisle. There were tears streaming down from his eyes and a huge smile on his face. He knew. We embraced but said nothing. We just held that moment and laughed joyfully. I had been Marino. The words had flowed and I had been in complete harmony with the story, the audience, the moment. There was nothing more to say.

 

Lindsey R. Swindall, PhD teaches US history and the freshman colloquium at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. She has written numerous books and articles in the field of African American history. Working with actor Grant Cooper, she has developed a dramatization of her biography of Paul Robeson for middle and high school students. She also co-facilitates public discussions about race and US history through the New Jersey Council for the Humanities Public Scholars Project.