Weird Gelatinous Things

Baby, let’s not go to the place where you and your other lover go. That place is ugly. Let me take you to the reservoir instead. We’ll go in the middle of the week, in the middle of a drought, the worst one in decades. When we get there we will be alone.

The water will be low, and you’ll barely be able to see it, coiled shallowly in the mountains’ crease. From the empty parking lot, we will be able to see the trucks and boat trailers turning around, defeated. A big white man will pass us, going the opposite direction, carrying a tiny red cooler. We will have to walk down the deserted, thunderstruck boat ramp, and in the noon sun it will feel like miles. I will carry the ice chest, fretting it from one hand to the other. It will be so worth it.

The long, high banks of the reservoir will look like a crater, a scar. They will be a quarter mile of dried, deeply cracked clay stretching from the tree line to the water’s edge. We will never have seen anything so fractured, so broken before. Because the reservoir is manmade, the grey skeletons of trees killed during the initial flooding will be visible; will surround us as we walk toward the beach. This drought is no joke, we will say, approving of the dramatic evidence. California is so fucked, we will say, laughing and crazed. You will see how excited we are, you and I, to be surrounded by this place of aftermath, this landscape that we fantasize about, post-apocalyptic, charming, and strange. Like us, like us, we’ll say.

At first we will feel the fears: What if we are found out? What if someone comes and they know we are gay and alone? But in the silence of the mid-afternoon, these fears will fade, I will take off my shirt and you will grow to love the abnormal glamor of the landscape. We will be animals then, wallowing in mud, stretched out, lazy. We will feel beautiful in this forsaken place. I’ll make us a shade structure from branches, and it will delight you. You will pee in the water, and the thought of Californians from Fresno to Monterey unwittingly drinking the piss of transexuals will delight me to no end.

I will notice something that looks like a plastic bag draped over a sunken branch. I won’t mention it to you. When we go swimming, our feet, our legs will be swallowed by twenty inches of wet clay and muck. The water will be perfect and deep enough to swim. It will be an aquamarine color, but slightly off, slightly grey. As we begin to swim you will see the thing too and ask,

“What is that?”

We will tread water beside the half submerged tree, poking gently at a clear mass of solid, gelatinous matter. Jellyfish-like, it will be motionless, something scarcely zoological, arguably botanical, covered in a leopard’s spots. We will begin to notice that the queer gelatinous sacks are everywhere, hanging from trees and rock outcroppings. You will say, that hanging there, they look like lingerie. You will brush against one underwater and ask,

“Was that you?”

We will laugh.

“This would be the perfect opening to a horror movie,” you will say, “But then I guess we would have to die.”

I will be sitting much lower in the water than you, and will have to lift my chin to say,

“Can it turn out that we are the monsters in the end?”

It will seem especially unearthly then, the place, the emptiness, the temperateness against our skin. You’ll want to race me across the water. Lithe and muscled in your flowered suit, you will swim much faster than me.

The breeze will dry us while we eat cold figs, and we’ll see wildlife, an eagle, a heron. We will hear the occasional blip of fishes, and every once in a while an army helicopter will fly by heavily, a sick bee. You will lift an empty Coors can to my ear like a seashell, and I will hear the lisp of wind in pines. I’ll point out the footprints of birds, children, and coyotes hardened into the clay. The grass will be the color of bread and the mud will be the color of ash. We will rub this mud on ourselves because, really, it’s as if we’re at a spa. We will make sculptures. Over and over, we will marvel at being the only two people there, and, secretly, I will relish this more so than you. You will be my scarcity. And I will squirm with the desire to possess, like other Californians, the little that remains.

In the afternoon it will be in the high 90’s but an elephantine cloud will pass overhead and giant droplets will fall for about five minutes. I will practice questions:

   What if this squall

   What if this drought

   What if we

   What if weird gelatinous things

The wind will change direction. The sun will not.

Migueltzinta SolisMigueltzinta Cah Mai Solís Pino was raised in Mexico and California. He has been a woman, a man, and the queer sum of these things. He earned his B.A. from The Evergreen State College in Interdisciplinary Studies. His work has appeared in Midnight Breakfast, PANK, and Apogee, and he is a VONA/Voices 2014 alumnus. He is also a visual/performance artist.

The Water Understands

My eyes adjusted to the Monday morning light peeking through our bedroom curtains and I looked at Jen, my wife, who stood by the side of the bed, the goddess of patience. My checklist started as I prepared to meet my son, our firstborn. Pre-packed bags of baby supplies: already in the car. Car seat: two in the car, just in case. Full tank of gas: the hospital is 5.17 miles from our house.

I noticed Jen’s side of the bed was covered with amniotic fluid. In the birthing classes we attended, nurses told us Hollywood had dramatized this occurrence so much that many women believe they will experience a “gush,” although this was a rarity. Around a gallon of water accumulates in the uterus during human gestation, but most women just leak once the amniotic membrane ruptures. Jen didn’t leak; she gushed, then leaked.

Jen was prepping herself for the ride and stay at the hospital when she stopped in the living room.

“What are you doing?” she wanted to know. I stood at the kitchen sink washing the dishes. I ran water over a plate to get flaky mustard and dried cheesecake off and then loaded it in the dishwasher to be scoured by high temperature water.

“Oh, yeah,” I said, and we got in the car.

On the drive Jen told me, “When my water broke, I just held him. This little guy and I were the only two people in the world who knew he existed.” And it was true. And it was beautiful. And her speech was much more poetic.

I dropped Jen off at the hospital’s front door. I had never seen her looking as gorgeous as she did holding her belly walking into the hospital. Not on the day we first met, not on the day we married. I found a spot in the garage and parked. Looking around the car again for any forgotten supplies, I shouldered the bags we had stashed in the backseat several weeks prior. Then, I noticed the passenger seat covered in water.

*     *     *

Civilization well;

Individual Americans use 176 gallons of water per day; African families, five.

It wets my foot, but prettily,

I met Jen at a University Writing Center where we both served terms as graduate assistants. Lucky for me, I am accident prone. I broke my leg (bone 22% water) after a friend of mine’s beer-fueled wedding reception. Beer ranges from 90-97% water, but that other 3% is what made me get into a fight with one of my best friends at three in the morning. So, I walked back—crutched back—into work at the WC the following Monday. Jen just smiled, shook her head.

Later that week Jen said, “Hey, you want to hang out sometime?” We were both graduate students in English so we used phrases like “hang out.”

She drove over to my house and we ordered some pizza, talked about my disdain for Virginia Woolf and her love of South African literature, typical nerdy English-lover type conversation. We were through three bottles of wine (75-90% water) before the ten o’clock news came on. Tom Smiley told us about the weekend weather forecast as Jen excused herself, stepping onto the front porch. I hobbled to the bathroom and struggled to urinate (95% water) while on crutches.

When I returned to the living room, Jen still wasn’t back inside, so I looked out the screen door to see where she went. I thought she was gone, just left, tired of my ramblings. She was lying in a fetal position on the AstroTurf-covered porch, crimson-tainted pizza crust spewed down the three steps that led up to her mouth. I asked her if she was okay.

“Grebrrrgaba,” she said.

I crutched to the side of my house where I hooked the hose nozzle onto my crutch handle, turned the water on, and then crutched back to the front porch. “Go sit inside,” I told her.

She stumbled in and fell onto the couch. I hosed her vomit into the street using ten gallons of water per minute for about five minutes.

It chills my life, but wittily,

*     *     *

Aristotle dubbed Thales of Miletus the first philosopher. Thales’ cosmology differed from his predecessors because he attempted to explain the universe, the earth, mankind without relying on mythology or religion. He wanted to use sciencey-type stuff, and Thales believed the originating principle, where all beings sprang from, was water. Science today, 2560 years after Thales, proves the majority of organic compounds are carbon based, like you and me, 20% carbon. But, we are predominantly water, over 60%.

It is not disconcerted,

*     *     *

“Oh, sweetheart,” the nurse told Jen, “you’ll keep leaking like that until the baby comes, and then you’ll leak for a while after.”

And she did. She leaked and leaked. After we were admitted in the Women’s Evaluation Unit at the hospital, we were transferred to a labor and delivery room where Jen leaked some more. The doctor told us the baby would be in our arms within twenty-four hours. The next few hours were waiting interspersed with the screaming (5% water vapor), sweating (98% water), and crying (98% water) that precede birth.

“Oh, sweetheart,” the nurse told Jen, “you’ll keep leaking like that until the baby comes, and then you’ll leak for a while after.”

“Do you feel like pushing?”

Nurse one adjusted the bed to the birthing position. A second nurse came in. I knew the baby was getting close if the hospital was sending in reinforcements. Within fifteen minutes, medical professionals were entering the room at the rate of one per minute. Jen was laboring hard. More nurses. Making some progress. Residents. Getting closer. More residents. More leaking. Jen had a cheering squad, and she was working very hard. I love you, Jen…

*     *     *

It is not broken-hearted:

I almost lost Jen. We went on a float trip to a spot where her family had been going for the previous five years, the Niangua River. There were no kids around; this was an adult float. When we arrived at our campsite there was a twenty-foot sailing ship made of cardboard sitting next to the fire: plank, oars, mast, all of it, all cardboard, all built by her family. This campground had a theme contest every year and we were pirates.

I quoted Twain, “Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.”

Everyone “Arrrrred” agreement. The family had placed second the previous three years in the theme contest and this year they were going to win.

We floated down the river the next day after very little sleep, and I got separated from the group. I floated along at the river’s pace, drinking and drinking. I slurred with a few people and had a lot of laughs, not worried about catching up to the group since our float ended at the camp site. When it started getting dark I started getting a bit concerned, because floating down an unknown waterway in the dark is not safe for a drunken accident-prone asshole. Moving water is ruthless. Grand Canyon.

I made it back to camp after dark, a few hours after everybody else, with the help of a boy scout paddling a canoe. I sea-legged up the river bank to the campsite. When I got there everyone stared, then Jen started screaming. She was worried. I scared her. I was a grown man and needed to start behaving as such.

I didn’t want to hear that. I wanted to laugh by the fire and drink, so Jen’s well-meaning concerns got convoluted in my alcohol-addled brain. I picked up our assembled tent and stuffed it into the back of our minivan without removing a tent pole or our supplies. The poles just snapped and what wouldn’t fit, I cut with my pocket knife to make it fit, cutting myself deeply across three fingers. I heard the ice in the cooler slosh out as I pushed, then I heard the air mattress pop.

Security showed up to scatter the other campers who had formed a circle around our campsite to watch. I told Jen I was driving home, but security advised me they had already called the police and they thought I should just sleep. I sat in the front seat of our van and steamed until I passed out. Jen cried the whole time I threw my tantrum, and I am lucky she stayed with me. The majority of my conduct was later relayed to me because I didn’t remember much. I do remember it was the first time I had grilled cabbage (93% water). Jen’s family didn’t win the theme contest that year despite the effort they put into the ship. It was the first time they didn’t place.

*     *     *

Well used, it decketh joy,

The Proposal:

“Hey, you want to go to Shane Co.?” I asked Jen.

“Why?”

“Get a ring. Get married or something?”

Romantic shit.

We decided on a destination wedding: Jamaica.

The water in Jamaica is a blue that makes a person living near the Mississippi River appreciate water for its beauty rather than just its transportation potential. But, it is deadly. Less than one percent of the water on the planet is potable. 98% is saltwater.

Since Jamaicans can’t drink the brine, they drink rum, just like pirates. After our too-long flight from middle-America to paradise, we had a three-hour bus ride to the resort. I remember going up and down sparsely populated hillsides where we saw more goats than people. One-car-wide dirt roads winding through the tropical green of the foliage. Shacks pieced together with scrap metal, each piece a different color, a crumbling rainbow of poverty.

Halfway to the resort we stopped at a seaside store and had a few Red Stripes. Then, when we got to the resort, the bar was free, all-inclusive. I ordered a beer before we checked in. We had to be on the island two days before we could get married, and several of my high-school/college buddies made the trip with us.

I walked with a few of my friends, dubbed the “Brew Crew” in high school, to the bar where the bartender mixed an island specialty in small glasses. As she poured the syrup from a gallon jug into our glasses, I said, “Can you mix me up a gallon of that?”

“Ya, mon.”

Jen cried most of the first night as I carried my gallon jug up and down the beach. I made what should have been the best experience of our lives miserable for Jen. She wanted to relax and have fun; I wanted to keep up with my bachelor friends. I was scared of getting married, of losing my independence, of being responsible to another person, of choosing a life-long partner. So I drank and Jen cried. Somehow, she agreed to marry me two days later.

So I drank and Jen cried. Somehow, she agreed to marry me two days later.

*     *     *

Adorneth, doubleth joy:

Sometimes when a mommy loves a daddy, despite daddy’s shortcomings, flaws, and lack of maturity…

Sperm cells make up 2-5% of human ejaculate, accompanied by citric acid, acid phosphatase, calcium, sodium, zinc, potassium, protein-splitting enzymes, fructose and fibrolysin, but 90% is water. The sperms’ goal, their only goal, is to reach the egg (85% water).

“How long do you think I have to lay here?” Jen asked.

“It’s already done,” I told her. “You’re going to have my son nine months from now.” And she did.

 

Ill used, it will destroy,

In perfect time and measure

I’m a boob man. I love me some boobies. Pregnancy boobies are even better because they not only embiggen, but they also glow the glow I assume angels exude. The fascination men have with breasts is primal. We look for a mate who can nourish our children and for some reason we think bigger is better, like a car’s motor, or a paycheck, or a…although size has no impact on milk production. Milk is sweat; it comes from modified sweat glands called mammary glands. Boob sweat however, contains nutrient proteins, non-protein nitrogen compounds, lipids, oligosaccharides, vitamins, minerals, hormones, enzymes, growth factors, and protective agents. It is 90% water.

I am proud of my wife for numerous reasons. She has great boobs. She is a published writer. She is a respected, tenured professor. She is funny, smart, happy, honest, and a great mother. One of the things I am most proud of her for is breastfeeding my son. I don’t think there is an argument that says breast milk is a bad idea.

So why am I proud of my wife for doing something every woman should be doing? It is hard. It is hard to get a newborn to latch on for the first time and the fiftieth time. It is hard to dedicate hours a day to feeding your child or pumping the milk from your breasts. It is hard to wake up every two hours to feed a crying baby. It is hard to keep breastfeeding when formula can be shaken in a bottle with water. It is hard. But, Jen persevered as her eyes blackened. She breastfed our son for over a year, even after he started growing teeth (4-22% water, depending on part). Baby teeth are hard, and they’re sharp, a nipple in a bear trap.

*     *     *

With a face of golden pleasure

Elegantly destroy.

(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

When Max showed up, he was accompanied by water, and I began my new adventure with water. Max started as a single cell composed of water that joined with another cell composed of water, in water. Then he lived in water for nine months, and escaped his prison with the help of water. Water became more plentiful after Max’s arrival. On the outside, he cried, urinated, defecated, projectile vomited, all water. How many extra loads of laundry do you do with a newborn? Dishes? Baths, pools, sprinklers?

One day when Max asks me where babies come from, I’ll tell him exactly what Thales would have told him. We come from the water.

Ean BevelEan Bevel lives with his wife in St. Louis, but dreams of living on the road. When he is not chasing his toddler or teaching English classes or swinging a hammer, he puts pen to page. His work often contains the grotesque and/or magical realism. He began collecting rejections a few years ago, then completed his MFA in writing, and continues to collect rejections. His fiction has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Literary Orphans, and Bareback Magazine. His CNF has appeared in Lunch Ticket.  

Intention

Pittsburgh Center for Complementary Health and Healing, one Sunday morning in late spring. My feet, immersed in a mineral bath of mint and lavender. Candlelight reflects off the vanilla walls; Native American flute music floats to my ears. Rebekah, the therapist, sits across from me, her chestnut hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. This isn’t the usual spa massage; this involves energy work as well. Our seven major chakras are the energy centers in our bodies; if one or more chakras are blocked, we can feel physical and emotional effects. I’ve been feeling something lately, somehow out-of-sorts, and want to see if this work can help.

“Shauna, do you have an intention for our session?” Rebekah’s voice, liquid like a stream.

Intention. The word slams into me like it’s foreign to my brain. Some days I operate automatically, doing what needs done, not keeping myself open to my intention.

“It’s okay if you don’t. But if you do, I’ll put it with my own.”

*     *     *

intention [in-ten-shuhn] noun 1. an act or instance of determining mentally upon some action or result. 2. the end or object intended; purpose. 3. meaning or significance. 4. the person or thing meant to benefit from a prayer or religious offering.

*     *     *

A framed photo sits on my office desk. It’s from Andy Bloxham’s first exhibit at West Virginia Wesleyan College, soon after he was hired as an art professor. Denise, one of my coworkers, had walked across campus to the Sleeth Art Gallery with me so we could check out his work.

“Shauna. This one’s you,” Denise said. She walked several feet ahead of me. I walked over to her and viewed the piece of art.

The colors: tan, cream, sepia. The greens: green-yellow, tropical rain forest, spring green, sage. Touches of dandelion and apricot, mahogany and maize. Colors of the earth. No electric lime or cotton candy or ultra red or razzmatazz like in a Crayola box.

The right half of the photo captures a female facing away from the camera. A teenaged girl? A woman? We see only her left leg from mid-thigh down. She wears a gauzy dress, soiled with grey-brown mud, not a spot of whiteness left. Her youthful shin and ankle are bare and tanned with random splatters of dried earth. Syrup-thick mud immerses her foot, water pools around it. The grass beyond the puddle bursts bright with a sunburnt yellow tint.

The left half of the photo shows a male’s right hand. The bed of his thumbnail alternates flesh-pink and white from gripping a Polaroid photo of the same scene. It’s panned out, giving us a little more perspective. We see the girl from the shoulder blades down: pale arms, small waist, slight curve of her hips. The grass: darker, softer, lush. And beyond: a thicket of trees, forest green, a hint of sunlight coming forth. In this snapshot, the dress is white, pristine. No specks of mud. Her shins are clean. She is pure.

“Wow.” After a moment, “I think I’ll buy it.” And so I did, and it became mine after a couple of weeks, after the exhibition was dismantled. I could take it home, but I don’t. Most of the time, it blends in with the everydayness of my office, but when I look up and see it, I am moved, just as I was upon first sight.

*     *     *

Most mornings, when the alarm sounds, I lie in bed for a moment. God, thank you for this day. Thank you for keeping us through the night. Help me to treat others with love today, especially when it’s hard. My silent, sleepy meditation upon awakening. My base intention. I manage this one pretty well. I struggle with other intentions: practice temperance and moderation. Be satisfied with what I have. In my mind, this is different than gratefulness. I am grateful for what I have, but often want more. More affection. More joy. More wildness. My intention should be: Be satisfied.

*     *     *

A tattoo decorates the inside of my left wrist. The word “intention,” inked in black typewriter font, nestles between a red outline of a lotus blossom. The lotus is a central image in meditation practice, in chakra work.

*     *     *

Sunday mornings of my childhood: sitting at the kitchen table with a plate of soft-boiled eggs, bacon, buttered toast. Pa-Paw, listening to the Florida Boys singing “Daddy Sang Bass” on television. He sits in his spot on the couch, where he’d sat the night before listening to Roy Clark on Hee Haw. Ma-Maw, telling me to hurry, so she could get my hair brushed. I was the only one who went to church. Usually, Volkswagen Charlie picked me up along with two or three other North Charleston neighborhood kids who needed a ride.

The best part of the morning? Choosing my dress. Most of my them hit a couple of inches above the knee, most had Peter Pan collars, most had some sort of floral pattern in those early elementary school years during the mid-seventies. In the summers, I wore white sandals and bare legs that showed my knees—knobby and usually bruised and skinned up. In the winters, I wore black patent leather Mary Janes and tights. I got to wear pantyhose and felt very grown up on special occasions like Easter.

One thing was for certain: I wasn’t to get my dresses dirty. Volkswagen Charlie dropped me off and I threw open the back kitchen door. “Change into play clothes,” Ma-Maw directed, even before asking me if I’d put my fifty cents in the offering plate or asking about the Sunday School lesson, never turning to face me as she turned the chicken sizzling in the skillet.

As much as I loved dressing up for Sunday School, I couldn’t wait to change into play clothes. I wasn’t allowed to go outside until I did. I could never seem to play—really play, that lost-to-the-joy play—without getting dirty. I loved turning over rocks and finding earthworms and potato bugs. I loved painting dream houses on my easel. I loved climbing into our backyard tree and sitting.

It’s tough to make discoveries without getting dirty.

*     *     *

I look at Andy’s dirty girl/clean girl photograph on my desk and ask myself which image I find most appealing. I know the correct answer, the expected answer. Clean, of course. Pure and pristine. I don’t know that it’s my honest answer, but I also don’t know that it’s not.

Does an artist rely on the viewer to create her own intention, her own interpretation, or does the artist attempt to force his intention upon the viewer? What was Andy’s intention for the photograph?

*     *     *

In the flickering glow of the treatment room, Rebekah and I continue talking. The footbath cools but still soothes. I’m semi-reclined in a billowy cream chair, feeling like I’m snuggled against the chest of a large, loving grandmother.

“Do you have any spiritual practices?” she asks. Her brown eyes scan my face.

“Prayer. Reading and writing. I’ve become more interested in meditation the past few months. I wouldn’t call it a practice yet. I’ve burned incense and have a meditation cushion.”

She smiles. “What do you do for relaxation?”

“Read. Soak in the tub. Drink wine, probably too much. I don’t exercise much.”

“Do you want that to change, or is that where you are right now?” Her hands rest in her lap. I covet her calmness.

“My intention is…to feel more balanced.” The fingers of my left hand stroke the ones on the right. “Relaxation, for sure. But I feel out of sorts and I’m curious to see if energy work can help.”

“Good.” Rebekah leans slightly forward, her knees coming closer to mine. “You have an open mind, which makes a big difference. Everyone’s experience is unique. You may have visions, see lights. I don’t want you to be afraid. Some people feel very little, but either way, enjoy the massage.” She stands up and creaks open the door. “I’ll leave so you can get prepared. I’ll knock before entering.”

As I undress, I say a quick prayer: “Let’s work together on this.” I slide onto the table, pull up the blanket, close my eyes. The warmth of the flute strokes me, encourages me to still myself.

*     *     *

Meditation therapist Yogi Cameron says on his website, “Though it is positive to want to have good intentions over bad ones, the most relevant quality we can assign to an intention when building a spiritual practice is whether or not it is beneficial to us.” He continues, “The final step of setting a beneficial intention is, quite simply, to decide to pursue a practice with the purpose of attaining greater contentment from within instead of seeking gratification from your surroundings.” I struggle with this, impatient, wondering if I will ever attain it, like I wonder about other aspects of my faith, thinking maybe hearing that still, quiet voice is something only certain people get gifted, like a melodious voice or powerful throwing arm or mathematical acuity. What if I can’t still my soul, if I can’t enter within? I know that’s not entirely true—I hear the voice when I’m in water, when I am transported by music, when words lift off the page. Those seem like gifts presented, though. It’s not me setting an intention to find these quick bits of bone-shaking joy; they happen. I am not in control of them. My friend Mary, who leads a “Writing Through the Chakras” retreat deep in the tree-lined soul of a Virginia valley, gets impatient with my impatience. “You’re trying too hard,” she says.

*     *     *

I polled my friends on Facebook one evening. I told them I was meditating on the word “intention” and asked them for meanings and examples.

My friend John referenced, “The road to Hell is paved with good intention.”

“And what do you take that to mean?” I pushed.

“Oh I suppose in terms of that phrase that many of the greatest tragedies, failures, even horrible things people have done in the world could have begun as the best intention,” he typed back. “Things like: I want to be a leader—I want to give glory to God—could have become things like I became a despot, I killed in the name of God—who knows? Intention can probably come from such a pure and honest place. Of course, I guess there can be bad intentions too!”

My brother, Brandon, said it was a determination to take action and used an example about God. Nancy eloquently described her intentional parenting practice, writing that her “end goal in a nut shell, is: ‘love God, love others.’” April said intention was wish, feeling, direction, resolve. Danielle and my Aunt Debbi offered input, and the thread ended with Bob typing, “God bless you and yours” to Nancy, and she responding with “Thank you, and God bless you as well.” Two people who have never met.

Is it a coincidence that the majority of examples mentioned God?

*     *     *

It could have been my imagination, but during our energy session I swear that when Rebekah held her hands over my heart, I saw golden light. An eye mask covered my closed eyes, so I couldn’t see, except that I could. Rebekah wasn’t touching me, but I felt the heat of her hands over my heart, which felt like it wanted to levitate into her hands. My body wanted to float, hover only on energy, Rebekah’s and mine. This lasted just a moment or so.

A couple of minutes later, she held her hands over my womb. I sensed her there, but I didn’t have much of a reaction. I didn’t see color. I meant to ask Rebekah later if this meant my sacral chakra was blocked. The emotional issues related to this energy center include a sense of abundance, well-being, pleasure, sexuality.

The only other spot I had strong sensation was on my forehead where Rebekah placed warmed crystals along my third-eye chakra. I think having my eyes closed intensified the heat. Odd feeling, like the stones were imbedding themselves in my flesh. No. More like melting. Not painful, just not ordinary. Later, Rebekah told me she’d felt the strength of my heart chakra and that I could take the light with me into my private meditations.

If only it were that easy.

I forgot to ask about my sacral chakra.

*     *     *

I sent Andy a Facebook message and asked him the title of the photo and what his intention was.

“The title is…I believe…Polaroid #4. The intention was from my niece wanting to jump in the puddle, so I spent the time with the Polaroid capturing the past, the clean stages, and used the frozen history in the ‘present’ with the digital shots. Just as a way to juxtapose.”

I was a little disappointed in his answer. “Polaroid #4”? I wanted the intention to be deeper, more spiritual. I realize that the artist wasn’t forcing his intention upon me. Instead, I wanted to make his answer conform to my intention. I wanted him to send a big message about dirty girl/clean girl, about sin and redemption. I wanted his art to do something different than what he intended. I wanted him to create an experience for me. An impossible task.

*     *     *

Is one state of being better than the other; is it better to be clean than dirty? Isn’t that what we’re taught, that we need to be washed white as snow? That dirty equals sin? But isn’t it true that some people who portray themselves as clean hide the dirtiest hands? And isn’t it true that Jesus didn’t hang out in the sterilized synagogue, but instead, sought out those who were dirty? And when He showed them warmth and light, that He didn’t expect them to sit still in their Sunday best, that He hoped they would get a little dirty helping others, connecting with others? Wasn’t that his intention? His prayer? His offering?

I think I do okay with my intention of looking out for others, offering up my time, talents, money, prayers, voice. My continuing struggle is settling on an intention for myself, with diving deep into my inner waters.

*     *     *

Am I afraid of the truth that I am both the clean girl and the dirty girl? I don’t want to be pigeonholed into Freud’s Madonna-whore complex, either a saint or a sex object. We like things to be “either/or.” Either I’m Christian or I’m against God. Either I’m straight-laced or I’m loose. Either I’m quiet or I’m a raging storm. Either I write from my body or from my brain. I am not that simple. None of us are. At least we’re not intended to be.

Shauna JonesShauna Hambrick Jones is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s low-residency MFA program. She lives in Buckhannon, WV and respectfully reminds people that WV is its own state, not part of VA any longer. Her favorite spots to read are in or near bodies of water: baths, rivers, lakes, and oceans.

 

 

Wander, Lost

Step

The physical therapist, who comes to evaluate my son, is thrilled with our upstate New York property. A short, steep hill moves from our front porch into a brief, undulating yard and from there to a former cornfield now thick with swamp grass and milkweed. The yard itself is overrun with crabgrass, dandelions, broad-leaf plantains, and mock strawberries dangling tiny yellow flowers. My husband mows a narrow path through the field, which in later years our son and then our daughter will call the “nature trail.” Both the yard and the trail are ungroomed and bumpy, full of hillocks and hidden woodchuck holes and, in spring and early summer, soft with a sucking squishiness that betrays their former existence as wetlands.

“These are great uneven surfaces,” the physical therapist says. My son, who was originally evaluated for speech therapy just before his second birthday, has also qualified for physical therapy through the Early Intervention program due to his low muscle tone and delay in walking. When the program coordinators recite the litany of his delays (at two it was gross motor, fine motor, speech, and sensory issues; they got more specific and somehow less relevant as he got older), I mentally wave them off. He was born seven weeks early, through emergency Caesarean when I came down with HELLP Syndrome and my blood platelet levels crashed below thirty billion per liter, leading my liver close to failure. After his birth he spent a month in the NICU, prone to bradycardia and sleep apnea and struggling to breathe when two pneumothoraxes prevented his lungs from expanding. Whatever delays he had, I figured he’d earned them.

The therapist comes to our house twice a week for half an hour, getting my son to stand at his little table, bend down to pick up small toys, step over objects; she trains him to walk instead of crawl up the stairs, and to alternate left foot-right foot by holding his dominant foot down so he can’t use it every time. She teaches him to use the banister, and to stand on a wobbly pillow while playing at a table.

Most days, though, we go outside. There is nothing better than him staggering over all these little hills and bumps and tufts of grass, which, the therapist tells me enthusiastically, will feed rapidly into his strength and stability.

I have no idea what she’s so excited about, and my ignorance betrays the privilege of having grown up poor in a poor Montana town. My childhood memories are all underpinned by the motion of walking, whether up a mountain or to school or the playground or the ice skating rink or my friends’ houses, walking and running during long summer days or crunching across the frozen sidewalks in winter’s nose-biting cold, zipped into coats that were never quite warm enough. I rarely got a ride even to the far side of town.

The physical therapist mentions other babies she sees, packed into small apartments in dangerous neighborhoods, with families too poor to buy diapers, much less dream of one day living in a house with a yard. She and the occupational therapist mention in passing research linking extensive crawling to later reading skills, or walking on uneven surfaces to complex neurological development, and I still don’t understand why our wild field means so much to her.

I didn’t get it until four years later on my daughter’s first day of preschool at a local nature museum, a place I love because the kids go hiking every day in all kinds of weather and learn to care for animals in a classroom with just the right level of chaotic messiness.

At the parents’ orientation the museum director told us of a school group they’d hosted over the summer, who’d come up from New York City. “We actually had some trouble because some of these kids couldn’t go hiking.” She pointed to the wide lawn that sloped toward the fields and goose pond fronting the nearly two hundred acres of forest and hills owned by the museum. The lawn is more groomed than ours—thicker clover and fewer thistles—but still uneven and hilly. “They had never walked off of pavement before,” she said. “It was really hard for them. For the first hour they had to just get used to walking on the lawn.” Later, the director of the preschool program tells me that this is a problem they’ve had with preschoolers before, who can’t walk on the hills, have to adapt to the paths. Some of them have trouble simply stepping over toys in the classroom. One three-year-old started out the year tackling every hill on his hands and knees, his brain and feet never having developed the coordination to navigate such uncivilized terrain.

This small strange thing, the treading of uneven ground, which has defined human motion for millions of years and is so cognitively intense it’s almost impossible to teach a robot to do it, is suddenly becoming, along with so many other things we used to take for granted like clean air and clean water, the sole province of those who can afford to live in the country or leave the city.

 

*     *     *

Roam

My father’s Russian accent is still thick after over thirty years as an American, and he still forgets his articles—a, an, the, which don’t exist in Russian. “My friend Pyotr—Petya—and I, we walked all canals, all over bridges, talking about art and literature and girls,” he tells me. “We walked for hours, all day.” We’re looking out over the embankment of the wide Neva, toward the four-hundred-foot gold spire of the Peter and Paul Fortress built by Peter the Great. In later years my father will tell me other stories, of hanging out with gypsies by the incongruous blue mosque in his neighborhood, of Stalin’s anti-Jewish paranoia and how the other kids used to tell my father they were sorry he had to die, he seemed decent enough; but when I first get to know his country, his city, his memories are full of walks and friends and standing in ubiquitous lines for sausages or fruit or bread. The Leningrad he grew up in, now revolved back to its original name of St. Petersburg, barely exists anymore, preserved only in private spaces like his brother’s apartment, where my uncle and aunt serve up preserved mushrooms they’d gathered in northern woods the previous summer, and meat in aspic, and skinned potatoes in dill, talking long into the night over tea and dishes of sticky-sweet varenye jam. A Lexus dealership recently opened up next to the building where my father and his siblings were raised in a one-bedroom apartment.

I am in St. Petersburg for a two-week writing conference, a last fling with ambition before my husband and I have children. In the evenings I eat with my relatives and watch the World Cup soccer tournament. Three days a week I attend writing workshops and readings, coming back later in the weird pink midnight light of midsummer to drink vodka with the visiting writers.

But mostly I walk for hours. St. Petersburg is hot in the summer, with inversion-heavy air that makes breathing difficult and seems to press blood vessels against the skin; my feet and hands feel puffy, my entire body swollen, as if the blood itself is straining outward for more oxygen, but still I walk.

My stride extends over canals, across the Neva River, out to the edges of poplar-covered islands carpeted in uncut grass and wild chamomile, where women’s flower-print dresses and jarring piped music remind me of the Soviet Union I barely knew.

Even growing up in my small Montana town I could never walk like this, up and down over rivers and through neighborhoods and parkland for as long as the day lasted. My hometown petered out quickly into a single highway with little shoulder and farmland embraced by miles of barbed wire. In those days, freedom was found in driving, racing west or north, off toward new frontiers. Getting out meant getting in the car.

By the time I leave St. Petersburg, I am addicted to walking. I spent my childhood and teenage years hiking the Rockies, but in this, in being able to step out my own front door and walk for hours, I’ve found a new passion, a new way to be and move through my life that feels real and awake and alert and present. Essays tumble out fully formed and a novel begins to take shape; I pen long letters to my husband and carry index cards to write down ideas that seem to fall on me like snowflakes.

I understand why my father used to lope all over the canals and islands with his friend Petya, discussing girls and art and their latest smuggled Beatles album and the forbidden Solzhenitsyn manuscript their families might have read in secret the night before. Walking makes freedom more than an illusion. During my two weeks in St. Petersburg, thoughts and conversations shift and move as if my mind were thawing, a river constantly breaking up ice jams.

And my back has stopped hurting.

 

*     *     *

Halt

The pain started somewhere in the middle and slightly to the left, between my shoulder blades, when I was thirteen. I told the doctor it felt like one of my muscles was snagged on something, a term I use again over twenty years later to describe similar discomfort near the bottom of my ribcage, decidedly to the right of my spine. Snagged. The sensation reminds me of fishing in my early years, the long days of bored annoyance as my mother cast her endless flies, and the frustration when, invariably, my own worm-strung hook got tangled in a river’s log—also called snags in our peculiar regional lingo—or in the weeds at the bottom of a lake. My chiropractor tells me this pain is a rib slightly out of place and he pops it back. The snagged feeling is lessened but not gone.

The words I use to describe the pain that started long ago in my back, and which spread over the years up and down my spine, into my neck, through my shoulders and around my hips, reaching down to grip my ankles and cause occasional cramping in my fingers, reflect a life in constriction that makes my body something like a foreign country I am always exploring but in which I never attain the comfort of a native: the snags, two, one near my scapula and the other buried in the dorsal muscles; the frozen curve of pinatus, where a heavy diaper bag often hangs, connecting to the tight, locked knot on the right side of my neck. The teres major behind each shoulder smolders, radiating to the bursius and deltoids and partway down the biceps, like the deep, intense heat of a campfire burned down to coals so bright they make you wince, when you know it’s hot enough to tuck the baking potatoes, wrapped in tinfoil and poked with a knife so they won’t explode, under the char-black wood.

The psoas just under my hipbones is beyond pain; tightened and seized like a screw gone into a bolt so tight it’s lost its thread and will never come out without bolt cutters. That pain, more of a bothersome limitation, which I try in vain to alleviate now and then by lying sideways on a small ball of wood, is distinct from the newer stabbing and wrenching that goes on in my lower back. That one makes me think of gleeful little devils illustrating Dante, poking pitchforks into my lumbar vertebrae. The devils become more active when my three-year-old daughter narrows her eyes at me and screeches in protest at some rule or request. Lying down seems like it should help but doesn’t, although sleeping on the floor for a few nights sometimes does.

Some days I wake up and my entire body feels like it’s on fire.

The chiropractor, the best of the three I’ve been to over the years, provides some relief. The rolfer, a specialist in intense, painful massage that goes beyond deep tissue and promises what’s called “structural integration,” puts his considerable strength and all his weight into muscles and connective tissue to attempt digging out deep-seated, long-buried problems both physical and emotional. He’s good at digging. But afterwards the pains start to poke out again, a familiar forest of small animals tentatively shifting their noses to see if winter has gone yet.

I’ve tried several physical therapists, a variety of massages with more practitioners than I can count, a woman in Russia who doesn’t so much massage as beat the body black and blue, years of yoga, which made me more limber but didn’t shift the pain and sometimes inflamed my sciatic nerve; I’ve tried ice packs, heat packs, a variety of anti-inflammatory supplements, stopping drinking, starting drinking, cutting out supposed dietary irritants such as gluten or dairy, and a therapeutic book that promised these types of pains were purely emotional and psychological and I could get rid of them by writing down all my problems.

Nothing provides reprieve except one: being in a place where I can step out the door and walk, unfettered, for as long as I want.

 

*     *     *

Stray

My husband, our two kids, and I are in Montana for my younger sister’s wedding. Being here makes me horribly homesick. I miss the mountains, the air, hiking, huckleberries. My family.

We’re staying at a Super 8 a mile’s walk from downtown. The town, which my parents had moved us to when I was in high school, is a tourist destination with a lake and a ski mountain and miles of sidewalks and cycling trails that make it the poster child for walkable communities. But for the first few days our four-year-old son insists on riding in the apple-green double stroller with his one-year-old sister. Walking makes him tired, he says, and I remember the physical therapist’s diagnosis of low muscle tone.

Where we live in upstate New York the kids can’t walk anywhere, even with an adult. The four acres of former cornfield and uneven yard that the physical therapist once praised stop at a country road with no shoulder. The road is marked as a thirty-mile-per-hour zone but commuters usually drive closer to fifty. My family’s life is defined by a strict set of time-as-distance problems, with our house anchoring a web of physical and educational needs: grocery store, a twenty-minute drive; playground, fifteen; library and preschool, both twenty-one but it’s twelve from one to the other; coffee shop, twenty-two; dentist, thirty-five; pediatrician, seventeen; swimming lessons, thirty, all on roads with little or no shoulder. The bookstore is across the street from the grocery store, but it takes five minutes to drive from one to the other because the street has five busy lanes and no crosswalk.

The post office, a mile down our road, is the only destination I think of in terms of distance instead of minutes. Nothing here is walkable unless you’re an adventurous and nimble adult who has all day and can leap out of the way when a texting driver isn’t paying attention.

Walking as a way to get places, as a form of transport, both an innate human activity and what should be an inalienable right, is foreign to my children. Once they got old enough to move, without being carried, beyond the bounds of our wildflower-rich property, walking, the most basic physical expression of freedom and an activity with a long history as a wellspring of creativity and the ideal exercise was closed to them.

There is this idea that self-help books and guides on creativity and life-hacking often like to promote: that the energy you put into the universe determines what you get back. “The secret,” it’s sometimes called, or “the law of attraction.” Whenever someone mentions it, I get unreasonably angry. I think of a kind vegetarian friend whose house was foreclosed on after she went through several bouts of unemployment, two knee surgeries, and the death of her father. Last year she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I think of my hard-working younger sister, who treats others generously and still strives to achieve her ambitions amid mounting debt contracted through waves of health problems: the gastrointestinal sensitivity that no one has ever been able to explain, but which abates if she avoids all processed foods and any meat that’s been treated with growth hormones; the string of allergies that came on her suddenly after a year of college in California’s Central Valley, where industrial agricultural pollution makes its air some of the worst in the country.

I think of when my son was in preschool, and his asthma inhaler was not the only one tucked into a cubby with a comfort toy, blanket, and nut-free snack.

Invert the word “energy” into something measurable, and my son’s inhaler, prescribed after two terrifying asthma-driven hospital stays, is reflective of exactly that hokey self-help concept. “Energy” encompasses coal plants, mountaintop-removal mining, fracking wastewater, smog-choked cities, all the fossil fuels being burned with almost manic speed and intensity. As we foul the air, our children strain to breathe, reaping what we have sown with the energy we are putting into the universe.

The fact that my son’s lungs struggled when he was born seems almost a footnote. I used to exchange stories with the other parents of sitting upright in bed; our toddlers slumped against our chests all night long while they slept between the coughing that seized their small bodies. The humidifiers, trips to the pulmonologist, shifting dosages of Singulair and Flovent. Trading nebulizer tactics and futile attempts at some magical diet change that removed dairy or gluten or soy.

But we live ten miles from one of New York’s oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants (children living near any fuel-powered plant are already 11% more likely to have asthma), and our entire valley, rolling bucolically green along the Hudson River, is the recipient of significant pollution drift from the Midwest. Our county broadcasts regular air quality warning days throughout the summer, when the elderly and kids like my son are warned not to play outside and even I find breathing laborious.

They also can’t walk anywhere. It’s safer to drive, with air filtration on, setting up an ever-tightening spiral of fossil fuel use, of waste and dirtier air, more closed doors, more driving because fear of a child’s asthma attack will always outweigh concerns over contributions to global warming and smog.

My children are becoming two of billions who might never know how to create a life where walking is a pleasure, an inspiration, a way of life, or even a choice.

 

*     *     *

Rove

After five days in Montana, my son perked up and scorned the stroller. He walked the mile between the hotel and downtown every day, often racing ahead and then back to where my husband and I were ambling, his baby sister sleeping. He complained that we were too slow. He jumped more, learned to swim. The ever-present cast of gray shadows disappeared from under his eyes.

Both the kids whined that car rides were boring, that it made their bottoms tired to sit down and buckle up. I remembered what fractious, intense babies they’d both been, with fierce emotions and easily overloaded senses, and how taking them for a walk on the “nature trail” used to calm them instantly. Now, as we walked through our days, my back pain abated and my neck unfroze and I sympathized with them.

When we came back to New York our first errand was to restock on groceries. It was ninety-six degrees outside. I called the kids to get their shoes on and go to the car. My son sighed before he opened his door. “Can’t we walk there?” After I persuaded him, resisting, into his booster, I folded my spine into my own seat, the position so familiar that the pains inhabiting my body raced out to greet the lumbar support and the head rest like old friends, and I started to cry.

Even growing up under Stalin, assuming they avoided being shot or sent to the gulag, people like my father were free to roam, the mind encouraged in movement by the feet. But my children and I are denied that freedom, like so many Americans living where sidewalks do not exist but busy roads abound.

 

*     *     *

Drift

My back pain responds to rigidity. Its pinches and twinges and twists are a guide to frustrations and anger, repeated litanies in my head, years-old arguments, rotting and yet solidified. The newest pain in the lumbar region stabs ever more vigorously when my kids are driving me crazy. It makes me feel weak, without a core, like I’m a rag doll only capable of responding to their neverending needs and yelling a lot. One of the older pains, at the very top of the spine where my skull is cradled by the atlas bone, tightens and throbs at the mention of any number of phrases that I categorize as doublethink: clean coal, carbon scrubbing, carbon sequestration, safe nuclear waste disposal, energy sector jobs, grow the economy, containment pools.

There is no release for these pains, or the maddening hamster wheel-like thoughts behind them, except when I travel somewhere or drive to a nearby town where I can walk. If I get to walk for long enough, a couple of hours instead of twenty minutes, I realize how unbending my ideas have become, patterns of thought crystallized into firm immobility.

And I wonder now if the inability to walk exacerbates our inability to solve society-wide problems. Many of us, those who don’t live in a small town or compact city with good public transport, exist in this same cramped life and routine, our bodies constantly folded and still, moving only from house to car to work to car to house, to big box store in between, a kid’s outdoor sport if we’re fortunate (if he doesn’t have asthma or the air is acceptable that day). Living in our widespread homes and transporting ourselves via car, we can choose whom to associate with, what opinions we listen to, whom we say hello to, what we believe, exactly how far we’ll go to meet someone coming from the other direction, or how far we won’t.

As our freedom to walk becomes ever more constrained, as air quality and housing developments and busy roads force us to spend more time in our homes and cars, we might lose even the words of movement that reflect every land-tethered animal’s most basic motion. Ramble, meander, rove, roam, wander, deviate, digress—will they slip into disuse, become arcane ideas? As we forget that they ever applied to our physical bodies, to our ability to get from here to there or from here to nowhere in particular, will our minds lose the ability to do the same? What happens to our ideas and bodies when neither can wander aimlessly, get stuck in the mud, backtrack, reconsider, keep moving until we find ourselves in a place beyond our knowledge?

What happens in the mind of a developing child whose feet and brain have never worked in conjunction to traverse uneven ground, or unfamiliar soil?

A chiropractor I used to see mentioned that the problem areas of my back and neck reminded him of wringing a dishrag, and I laughed because I’d used the same description before when complaining of the pains. My back, with its frozen patterns of numbness and pain, feels like a river that’s been straightened and reinforced with concrete, exploding every now and then in an anger of floodwaters but never again allowed to meander. My mind has begun to feel the same.

 

*     *     *

Wander

“Where are you going tomorrow?” asks my Aunt Galya over dinner, before I head back to the city center for a poetry reading followed by vodka or sweet wine at the bar that had become the writing conference’s unofficial hangout.

“Krestovsky Islands.” I’ve been scouring the edges of my Lonely Planet guide to St. Petersburg for more places to walk. The Krestovsky Islands, farther than I’d gone before, are a cluster of three leisure islands tucked behind the Petrograd district and connected to St. Petersburg by footbridges and the metro.

My Uncle Tolya comes with me. We stroll by the statue of Pushkin, erected in the woodland where, supposedly, the poet’s fatal duel took place. After three hours on foot we are looking out toward the Gulf of Finland. Tolya shows me where he and my father used to ice skate and attend soccer matches, and tells stories of teenage escapades with his friends. They, too, used to walk for hours.

Tolya’s pace is brisk and picks up as we near home. Already well into his seventies, he’s spent a lifetime with his feet on these paths, snapping branches on the well-worn route from their apartment building to the metro. We take the route back, past late-blooming Japanese lilacs, busy streets, trash-strewn courtyards, to the tall jasmine bush that’s always grown by the front door of their building. Up six flights of cement stairs, the stairwell smelling—as it seems to in all these Soviet-era apartment blocks—of freshly sliced cucumber.

Galya has prepared bowls of clear bullion, a plate of sliced tomatoes from her garden, and a pot of waxy potatoes with dill. She’s nearly eighty years old and still goes to work every day as an electrical engineer. So does Tolya, a control systems engineer. They both retired once, didn’t see much point in it, and when their offices asked them back they went, walking every day to the metro and off to work at the other end, then past the market in the evening, hoping that day’s potatoes were decent. Usually they cook dinner together and I don’t know where they get all this energy. I’m thirty-one and want a nap; my calf muscles jump around like a nervous cat. Galya ladles small scoops of preserved mushrooms out of a jar and my mouth waters. She knows how much I love them, how my sisters and I would, if our manners allowed us, eat every tiny mushroom in her kitchen like ravening hobbits.

I tell her I wish I could come with them, one summer, when they go up to the forest near the northern sea for a month to fish and garden, eat berries and gather mushrooms.

“Mushrooms?” she says. Gribi? I love how “mushroom” in Russian sounds so earthy.

My cousin Anna, their daughter the mathematician, is there. She tells me they hike for eleven hours to collect these mushrooms. Galya looks at me doubtfully.

“I don’t think you can walk that far,” she says.

 

*     *     *

Lost

On our most recent trip to Montana, I noticed a new bumper sticker everywhere. The popular one when I was in high school and Montana was just being discovered by wealthier Californians looking for vacation homes said, “Welcome to Montana. Now go home.” It was an improvement over my mother’s idea, only half a joke: “Gut shoot ’em at the border.”

This one is shaped like the state, all in forest green, the color evoking pleasantly the sense of space and wilderness, the physical freedom found in places like the million-plus-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness, preserved far away from cars, where you can tramp trails for days or weeks moved by nothing but your own two feet and an erect spine. I wish my kids could grow up knowing that life, but would settle for them knowing they could walk to the library, to the farmers market, to play with a friend, to anywhere at all, that the roads were designed for their roaming bodies and the air always clean enough to safely breathe. Every year I take them from our house where they slump tired in car seats, and watch them perk up like thirsty plants among the hills and paths that my feet know as home. The truth, like all clichés, sounds silly when spoken aloud: we are kinder with one another, more patient, sleep better, hug more, laugh more. My back twitches in unfamiliar ways, but the pain, for the most part, sleeps dormant.

“Get Lost,” says the new bumper sticker. I wish I could. I wish we all could.

Antonia MalchikAntonia Malchik has written about education, parenting, identity, environment, and travel for STIR JournalCreative NonfictionBrain, Child, and the Jabberwock Review, among many other publications, and has essays forthcoming from Orion and The Washington Post. A former IT journalist, she is a regular essay contributor to Full Grown People.

 

 

Wet Glass Plates

Living alone in the city had done something to me. Until occupying a one-bedroom apartment on 18th Street with no one to keep me company except Sydney, a cuddly cat with the loudest meow, I never would have walked down the city’s busy streets without a companion. Now that I think about it, it seems silly, and I wonder, why? What was I afraid of? That people would see me and automatically think I had no friends? Or that people would look at me and mentally criticize me for being alone, or wonder what was wrong with me? That people—strangers—would actually notice me for a change? Even if they did, so what? And what was the worst thing that could happen? A man could pass me and say, “You’re looking beautiful today.”

Which is exactly how I met David John. One sunny Saturday afternoon, I ventured out alone. I wandered along until I found a nail salon and treated myself to a pedicure. Maybe that was it—the pedicure. Something about having my toes painted red always makes me feel pretty, and when I feel pretty it shows.

After my pedicure, iced coffee with a dash of cinnamon in hand, I continued to stroll along, taking in the sun and fresh air, glancing in store windows, and smiling into the breeze. Stopping to admire a boutique display, I quickly dismissed the idea of trying on the yellow and white, fitted, button-up top. That same window reflected a too-large bust and too-wide hips, obviously a good three sizes bigger than the twos, fours, and sixes that the mannequins wear.

The thin girls garnish attention; steal dates and elicit fawning. I wouldn’t know what to do with that kind of attention anyway.

A man approached, holding what appeared to be an antique camera. A photographer? His glasses and white-streaked black hair put him at about sixty years old, and although he was shorter than I am, his tan complexion and straight white teeth showing through his smile gave him a stately attractiveness—kind of an elderly hip-ness. And there was something welcoming about his smile. He reminded me of my Gramps, who always took a liking to younger females in an endearing and non-creepy way. We made eye contact, and he said hello as we passed each other. I was examining the one-eyed lens in his hand, trying to figure out what it was.

“You’re looking beautiful today,” he said without breaking the eye contact.

“Thank you.” I turned around to look at him again, and I’m sure I beamed a smile. It’s not often that men tell me I’m beautiful.

“Have you ever modeled?”

“No.” The response came out with a chuckle, almost as a question. Model. As in model clothes? As in for a magazine? As in standing in front of a camera while a photographer, and probably a hoard of folks—stylists, designers, makeup artists—stared at me? Right. I worked as a magazine editor. I knew the magazine-modeling type, and it wasn’t me.

“I’m serious. You’d make a great model.” He walked back toward me.

“Really?” I glanced down at my haphazard outfit, a black skirt and grey tank top that had come straight out of my laundry basket and my trusty red Old Navy flip flops. The only thing polished about me were my toes.

“Really. You have nice curves, and you’re not a stick like magazine girls.” He looked me up and down, then back to my eyes.

“Well, thanks. I think,” I looked him up and down. Tailored jeans. Collared, fitted, pinstriped shirt. Designer glasses, and long-ish salt-and-pepper hair. Definitely requires maintenance. He had to know at least a little bit about fashion—and modeling—to look as good as he did.

“Would you consider modeling?”

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah, I have a salon and gallery just down the street, and I’m in the middle of doing a bunch of shooting on glass plates. So I’m looking for people.”

“Uh-huh.” Glass plates? Intriguing.

“Why don’t you come by, and I can tell you more about it?”

I glanced down the street, behind his shoulder. Where was this salon/gallery? Maybe I’d been there before, during a Second Saturday art walk. Was he an artist? Maybe I’d seen his work.

“Do you have a card or something?”

His card identified him as David John. Hair stylist/photographer. So, fashion photography? He must shoot his own promotional images.

“What’s your name?”

“Janna.”

“Janna. I’m David, nice to meet you.” We shook hands and he turned to continue on his way.

“Yeah, nice to meet you,” I said, looking at his card and flipping it over to the backside. No website?

Then he turned back again.

“Do you have a card?”

I checked my bag. Pencil. Pen. Sticky notes. Gum. Cell phone. No card. Anyway, do I just give this guy my number? I checked my wallet.

“No, I don’t have any cards with me. But I can call you.”

“Yeah, okay. Give me a call this week. Or just come by and I’ll show you my stuff.”

He walked away, and I thought, am I supposed to just show up at this guy’s salon in the middle of a huge photo shoot? Makeup artists and hair stylists all in a frenzy, and in walks frumpy girl, sporting not-so-stylish ensemble, asking for the photographer. There would probably be an uber-hip chick at the reception counter with short spiky hair dyed black and a long chunk of bangs dyed a funky color, like purple or something, wearing jeggings (which, I argue, are not to be worn as pants) and gold shimmery flats. She would be tossing papers and business cards around on the desk in a frantic effort to find the phone number of the stylist that didn’t show up for the day and she’d be cursing under her breath, right when I walk in, au naturel and eager. Talk about awkward. Still, I gave in to my curiosity.

He walked away, and I thought, am I supposed to just show up at this guy’s salon in the middle of a huge photo shoot?

“Actually, are you going to be back over there today?”

“Oh, yeah. I’ll be back around two. Do you want to come by today? Why don’t you just meet me over there at two?”

I looked at my watch. One o’clock. So, if he knew I was coming, he’d be expecting me. I could say, “I’m here to see David.” No having to explain who I was, or what I was doing there.

“Yeah, sure. I can do that.”

His “stuff” turned out to be some amazing artwork. Frankly, I was stunned. He owned a hair salon. Half salon, half gallery, pristine and decorated with a modern, semi-Asian décor. Black walls exhibited his photo gallery: black and white images of flowers, landscapes and architecture hung in sophisticated silver frames. They emitted a warm vintage hue—a rich glow that results only from experience and years of refining. The photos looked dignified, and I imagined how the black-white-silver combo would pop against the vibrancy of my own coral walls at home.

As I admired the work, David shuffled about the salon, gathering flyers, postcards, and magazines and shoving them at me. One article featured him as an artist and another he had written about his photography, which I found fascinating. He used the original photography process and shot on wet glass plates. He showed me one piece of glass and I could barely see the translucent outline of an image, until he held it up to its black background and a naked woman appeared. She’s stunning. Because of the salon, I had assumed that he wanted me to do some kind of fashion or hair modeling. Nope. Several of his images were nude women and he wanted me to pose for him.

I’m sorry, what?

Me?

My body does not look like hers.

The nudes were overt, yet not obnoxious and certainly not out of place with his florals and landscapes. There was that same vintage glow. But the concept didn’t quite click in my brain until David asked if I was comfortable taking my clothes off.

Naked? In front of a camera?

I don’t think so.

“I think so,” I heard myself say, without processing. “I mean I’ve never done anything like that before, so I really have no idea.”

Mostly I wanted to think about the prospect without him staring at me. Watching me. Waiting for an answer. I could always back out.

We agreed that he would call me, and I headed home wondering what had just happened. I needed to call Sarah—no, couldn’t call Sarah. She had enough of her own issues and didn’t need to worry about mine. Jenn? No, not Jenn either. That was a lecture waiting to happen. Who to call? Wait. What was I thinking? So he showed me a couple of articles written about him in a photography magazine and a post card for one of his gallery shows, but there was no way to be certain that he wasn’t a covert porn-psycho using the artist gig to entice gullible young females (i.e., me). And what was he thinking? Did he just see the same body that looks back at me from the mirror? Maybe I should have explained that I actually wear a size twelve, sometimes even a fourteen. Or if I told him that I weigh almost 180 pounds, then he’d have come to his senses and realized his mistake. Or how about the little bulge that rolls over the top of my pants. (Only sometimes, of course. When it’s that time of the month and I’m completely bloated.) Besides, there are freckles in funny spots that had never seen the light of day—not even in my bathing suit. Who was I kidding? There was no way I could pull this off.

At home, I stripped and stood in front of the full-length mirror. The reflection wasn’t that awful from the side view—if I sucked in the tummy. Suck in. Release. What do I have to do to make it look how it does when it’s sucked in? I wished it would just stay that way. Every time I looked in the mirror, all I could see was a marshmallow where my mid-section should be. But then, did David honestly see me as he saw the other women he’d photographed? His photos were beautiful and tasteful. Artful. Sensual, but not provocative and not fashion models or centerfolds, that’s for sure. One striking photo showed a woman from the waist up, topless. Her eyes were closed and she seemed strangely peaceful and comfortable with herself. She appeared real enough to leave her scent lingering with her image. She made me wonder how I would look in a frame on the wall. And just exactly how does a woman achieve such confidence—the kind that allows the truth of her nakedness, imperfections and all, to be captured so blatantly?

I was surprised when David called. Like I hadn’t expected to hear from him. But he was serious. As we talked, my shoulders relaxed. The talking helped, so I told him that I was still trying to figure out if I wanted to do the shoot or not and asked if we could get together to chat a bit more before setting something up.

“I have time now, if you want to talk,” he said.

Damn. I wanted to have this conversation in person so that I could better gauge him. “Okay, well, I’d like to hear about what you aim to accomplish with your art.”

“Well, what I do is fine art,” he said. “This is not about exploitation, it’s about beauty. You have to understand, I used to hire professional models, but they all looked the same—so stiff and fake, like magazine girls. And I much prefer using every day people with beauty that is natural, not created or forced.”

Good answer. Something about “magazine girls,” always flipped my internal anger switch: the way that Magazine Girl gets portrayed, promoted, and popularized as the ideal; the way that women—of all ages—put said unrealistic Magazine Girl on an unattainable pedestal. The magazine editor inside of me cringed at being a part of perpetuating that damaging cycle. I could never be the next Marilyn Monroe, but maybe I could be something of an Anti-Magazine Girl.

But what about the actual images? If any of them turned up locally, I could just picture someone I know seeing naked photos of me and recognizing them. Then what? There’s me trying to explain to my boss—you probably did see a picture of me naked at that art show, what did you think of my breasts? My stretch marks weren’t noticeable, were they? I shuddered at the thought.

The magazine editor inside of me cringed at being a part of perpetuating that damaging cycle. I could never be the next Marilyn Monroe, but maybe I could be something of an Anti-Magazine Girl.

“Listen,” he said. “I encounter this all the time. Everyone who does this, or thinks about doing this, has different reasons. And they all have to overcome some thing.”

“Exactly.” How did he know this stuff?

“So what is your thing?”

How to speak coherently about the mess inside my head—there was no easy way to make him understand that I’m not the type who does this kind of thing—no striking beauty that turns heads here. This girl had her first legal drink before she had her first kiss. And certainly no promiscuity, either. This girl was also twenty-five before she bought a two-piece bathing suit, and then it was another two or three years before she mustered up the courage to wear it in front of her father. That was a disaster—even after losing almost forty pounds, he still pointed out my little belly-bulge. Girls like me aren’t the modeling kind and we certainly don’t pose nude. I told David that I didn’t want someone I know to see the photos and recognize me, and he said, “So let me guess. You’re the kind of girl who always does what is expected of her?”

Wow. Didn’t think it was that obvious. And the thing is, that’s exactly it. What would Dad say if he knew? Now there’s a conversation I didn’t want to have, even hypothetically. Hey, Dad, I’m thinking about letting a guy who kind of reminds me of Gramps take nude photos of me, what do you think? Most people who know me would be shocked to find out that I was even considering posing nude for a photographer.

David told me to think about it and call him when I was ready. I contemplated calling him to say that I wasn’t interested, but another part of me was tempted to test my limits—to see just how much discomfort I could handle. So I carefully shaved all the right places and showed up at the salon to meet David John for the second time. In his make-shift studio—which was really his apartment with his camera set up in the living room and one of the bedrooms converted to a dark room—he showed me more of his work and where he developed the photos. He actually had a nineteenth century camera—like something out of a history book. The monstrosity was mounted on a four-legged stand, with a light-shielding cape draped over the back. A faded blue director’s chair sat in front of the camera’s huge eye. Lenses of all sizes lined the kitchen counter and photos were propped against the walls along every inch of floor space.

“So do you make a habit of asking women on the street to let you take pictures of them naked?”

“Not usually,” he laughed. “But you seemed friendly and engaging.” He talked while rummaging around the living room. “Plus, I told you, you’re not a magazine girl.”

No kidding. My figure is even thicker and fuller than any of his photos that I’d seen. I could still change my mind. Was he sure about this?

“Okay, you can change in the bedroom and put this on.”

He handed me a green synthetic satin robe. Green robe? It wasn’t even a nice green. If this was going to work, I had to feel pretty (like with the pedicure), and the ratty thing of a robe wasn’t helping in that department. Next time I would bring my own—the pretty black one, real satin, with turquoise polka dots and ruffles. If there was a next time, that is.

Here we go. Either I would take my clothes off and put on the green robe (and I had no idea who else had worn the thing), or back out and leave. I slipped off my shoes and thought, how many other women have done this? I had seen several of their photos on glass plates, but I didn’t know how many of them there were. They all had a reason for doing a shoot like this, and I wished I knew what those reasons were.

Socks.

Other women. If we sat down for a cup of coffee and shared our experiences, maybe we would have something in common. Maybe they would tell me they also wanted to become more comfortable in their own skin. Maybe they would tell me they also wanted to create an alternate—a realistic—portrayal of beauty. Maybe they would tell me they also thought about other women out there who needed an Anti-Magazine Girl.

Pants.

Like my sister. She and I have always struggled with our weight, but I didn’t know if the extra pounds bothered her the same way they bothered me, or if she put pressure on herself, or if she compared herself to her skinny friends the way I did. What would she say if she knew what I was doing?

Shirt.

Friends? Oh, those thin, adorable girls who post selfies all over Facebook. This would definitely be a different kind of selfie. Not the kind you post online. A gift for the next wedding, perhaps?

Bra.

Coworkers? Also thin and adorable. Also more daring than I was and I bet they wouldn’t think this is any big deal. They all lived in happy couple-hood la-la land and didn’t seem to need the validation.

Panties.

Dad? Well he wouldn’t like it, I knew that much. He’d probably even make some comment about my marshmallow belly.

I stood there. Completely naked. Thinking about my sister, my friends, my coworkers. Dad. Why did they matter so much? I’m here and they aren’t, I thought. They don’t have to know. Dad doesn’t have to know and I don’t need his approval. My toes were cold. I felt my hair on my back. I’m not doing this for him anyway.

I put on the green synthetic satin robe.

I stepped into the living room/studio and in front of the camera. David brought a stool over and motioned for me to sit down. He flicked on the lights and I blinked at the brightness. My body temperature started to rise.

“Okay. Are you comfortable?”

I nodded. Heat from the lights made me start to sweat.

“Okay. Are you comfortable?”

“Good. Now just stay there for a minute.” He rummaged again and I tucked the edge of the robe under my arm to hold it in place.

“Ah, here we are.” David picked up something and then pointed it at me. It was the one-eyed lens he had the day we met—a light meter.

“Okay. Just relax. Deep breath. Uh-huh.” He mumbled a bit, talking to himself while he looked with one eye closed, then moved and looked again.

He’d probably change his mind as soon as he saw the faint stretch marks on my hips (yes, sadly, you can get them in your twenties). Sweat trickled down my back.

“Okay, you’re doing fine. Now stand up.” I stood and he continued his routine: pointing the light meter, looking and moving.

What about the triangle of freckles by my navel—how would they show up in the photos? Or that scar on my shin?

“Good.” He moved the light meter away from his face and adjusted his glasses. “Okay, now drop the robe. Just drop it.”

Hesitating, I closed my eyes and swallowed. What about my funky tan lines?

“It’s okay. Take a deep breath and just drop it.”

Deep breath and the green satin fell to the floor.

Eyes still closed. I couldn’t watch him looking at my nakedness. My back stiffened at the thought of him examining my body—how light affected skin tone. I stopped breathing. Did he notice the stretch marks and freckles? In the darkness behind my eyelids, I imagined him trying to figure out a way to politely tell me that he had changed his mind. That this wasn’t going to work after all. At less than three feet away, no doubt he found the blemishes. And if he found them, certainly the camera would too. His back-and-forth movements forced quick bursts of air across my shoulders and stomach. What was he doing?

I kept waiting for him to say something. I was still a virgin. No other man had seen me naked before. I had no idea how he would react.

Opening my eyes, I caught him mid-point with the light meter, looking with one eye closed. He looked and moved just as he had with the robe on. It was almost sterile, he the doctor and me his patient. No show, no performance, nothing provocative. He didn’t stare or gawk or drool or do anything expected from an older man at the sight of a younger naked woman.

It was just me, and my sweat and stretch marks and scars and freckles.

Jenna Marlies MaronJanna Marlies Maron is an independent author, editor, publisher, and writing instructor. She is the publisher of Under the Gum Tree, a creative nonfiction literary magazine, and the co-curatior of TrueStory, a nonfiction reading series and open mic in Sacramento. In her new ebook, How to Manage Depression Without Drugs, she shares her personal journey of struggle and triumph. As a writer she opes to inspire others to action by telling her personal story, and as a publisher she hopes to provide others the opportunity to do the same. She holds an MA in Creative Writing and teaches composition at Sacramento City College and William Jessup University. When she’s not curating stories, you can find Janna tooling around town with her husband Jeremy on their red Vespa or holding down the fort at ThinkHouse Collective, a coworking space in Midtown Sacramento.

All Hallow’s Evening

A few days before Halloween, we drove home from a friend’s church where parishioners had decked out the trunks of their cars with lights, plastic skulls, and spiders, even fog machines, then backed them up into rows in the parking lot so the kids could Trunk or Treat.

“Mom!” Blaine hollered, pointing out the window. “I see the first star.” Six years old, he was wearing a black hood and black costume with a gold skull on the chest. At least this year, I convinced him to wear clothes beneath the thin material so his privates didn’t peek through the seams.

I leaned right and peered into a darkening blue sky where a bright light winked. It was as likely a satellite or a plane but I couldn’t tell for certain.

“Did you make a wish?” I asked.

Brows furrowed, he said, “I’m thinking.”

Beside him, his older brother Tristen was dressed as a zombie in layers of clothes slashed with scissors and muddied. Make-up gave him sunken eyes and cheeks and a bloody gash across his neck and forehead. For trick or treating, he got into character by putting his arms out, cocking his head, and letting his mouth fall open with a moan.

In the rear view, I caught my own visage in white paint with black eye sockets and lines around my cheekbones. At the church, a girl of about thirteen had asked what I was. I’d been folding and putting away chairs to make room for games while the adults finished decorating their trunks. My clothes were every day black so for a moment I’d forgotten the make-up.

“The Grim Reaper,” I said, setting a chair beside another.

“Who is that?” she asked.

“Death,” I said.

I met her quizzical gaze and thought about how to elaborate, what sort of explanation to offer. There was no Grim Reaper in the Bible that I remembered, but there was an Angel of Death, probably carrying off someone’s firstborn though the details are sketchy. To my relief, the girl was pulled away to the cakewalk before I had a chance to say another word.

*     *     *

Just the day before, we went to a memorial service at Sonrise Church for two sisters, a six year-old and an eleven year-old. They were hit by a car while playing in the leaves outside their home. It was a Sunday, dusk. Monday was Leaf Day. Leaves were piled along the curb and gutter to be swept up. The father was taking pictures and then went inside for a moment. In recounting the scene on the news a week ago, a woman who lives two blocks away said she remembered hearing the mother’s wailing even above the sirens.

The church was filled with the girls’ classmates, friends, family, neighbors, uniformed police, and firemen, and members of the small community. My boys had briefly gone to school with the girls before transferring to a public school. My husband and I taught school just a few blocks away from where they lived.

On two enormous screens, there was a picture of the girls wearing knitted hats with one piggy backing the other. After a song and prayer, a video played of each of the girls from infancy onward: working sand at the beach, dancing in their living room, hiking, hiding beneath covers with friends, cuddling in the arms of parents and grandparents. In one clip, the mother walks her youngest daughter to the bathroom to flush a goldfish down the toilet and send him off to heaven. As the water whooshes, they wave and speak, “Bye-bye.”

After the video, the pastor and the father sang, and then, one by one, family members shared stories about the children. Their mother remembered Saturday night dance parties with the music playing loud, the kids ping-ponging room to room, all of them singing along to the words. We had heard the parents had not left the house since the accident the week before, that they had refused visitors and phone calls to all but a few immediate family, but here, supported by several hundred in the community, they managed to give a eulogy, sing, and tell stories about the children that made us laugh and cry and cling to one another. On his father’s lap, my youngest watched with curiosity, asking questions about who the people were, but my oldest, Tristen, was already a puddle in my lap, his head butted up into my armpit. It took real effort for me not to succumb to sobbing.

I spoke with a friend later who agreed it must be their faith that held them up. Neither one of us could imagine speaking coherently to the hundreds of people in the church only a week after losing a child, much less both children. “That’s the appeal of religion,” she whispered sharply under her breath, “I see it. I do. I just don’t believe it.”

“That’s the appeal of religion,” she whispered sharply under her breath, “I see it. I do. I just don’t believe it.”

I didn’t know what I believed any more. Raised Catholic, we left the church when I was young. My parents couldn’t stand the hypocrites. “Love thy neighbor until he votes for the wrong guy,” my father had once said. A hospice nurse, my mother wore a crucifix to work every day but never talked about faith. When pressed, she only said, “I have to believe there’s something beyond this.” What that was or why she had to, I could never work out.

I attended a Catholic grammar school for a few years, but since then I have rarely been to church. In college, I studied Buddhism and Hinduism and visited temples in the Chicago area. On several occasions, at the recommendation of a friend, I met with an Argentinian shaman who gave me explicit instructions for herbal baths and candle lighting to help me find inner peace. During a particularly lonely period in my life, another friend gave me an Ojo de Venado, a deer’s eye shaped with clay to look like an elephant to ward off an evil eye. It had been made by her mother in South Texas and blessed by a priest in Mexico. I wore it without fail for weeks. If there has been anything consistent about my sense of religion or faith, it is my openness and curiosity.

The church my sons and I were visiting for Halloween in our own neighborhood we’d only been to three times, twice for trunk or treats, and once for a proper church service at my friend Meeta’s request. She is an Indian who is both a practicing Christian and a practicing Hindu. “Our pastor is a woman and we have several gay members,” she had said, as if that explained why we should attend. Meeta is only a little less conflicted than I about faith, and just as open. Her husband is a Christian of German descent. Her children are learning Hindi, and celebrating Indian traditions and holidays as well as Christian ones. The last time her parents visited, they attended church with his family. Her mother took communion. Meeta asked how her mother was comfortable with such a thing. Her mother adjusted her sari, threw up both hands, and said, “Oh Meeta, God is god.”

Though I had only attended a handful of church services in many years, I looked forward to the girls’ service, if only to be in the company of others who were grieving, to find some succor in the community and friends, comfort in a place of worship, something to help me recover from the shock of tragedy. The pastor at the girls’ service focused on the story of Adam and Eve in the garden and how they spent their days with God and were given only one order: not to eat from the tree. I listened intently, eager for the story, even as I wondered, Where is he going with this? Soon, it was clear. He reminded the people seated before him that Adam and Eve had chosen to eat from the tree despite God’s admonishment, and so they were responsible for the fall of humanity. Adam and Eve admitted death and suffering into the world with their one transgression, not God. God was not responsible for death. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. Don’t blame God for this? That’s your message? It reminded me of my sons’ reactions in a fight or after an injury: deny fault. One might be bawling and holding his arm tenderly, while the other—a stick still in hand—will swear he had done nothing.

I looked hard at the pastor. His words gave me no comfort, only a growing irritation. He paused at length with his arms out and then urged us to remember where the girls were now: seated at the right hand of God, bathing in the warm light of their savior, Jesus Christ. I looked down at my eldest son’s tear streaked face. His eyes met mine then he leaned his head into my shoulder. My stomach fell to see him distraught. He knew a few Bible songs but we had never talked about Christ. If I’d ever mentioned Jesus, it was likely as a driver swerved into my lane or turned in front of me. What to say now?

*     *     *

The boys had only been to one other memorial service nearly a year before, for my mother, her death from a heart attack at sixty-three, unexpected. For weeks, I could do little but cry with my brother and sister, watch my sons play with their cousins, unable to rouse myself to join them. My mother was the sun I orbited, whose warmth and guidance I depended on. My sister and I joked that we needed our mother to help us grieve her death. No one else could have known what to say or how to help. We held her service in a sprawling park and garden, a place that had always inspired her. As my sister and I grieved, we also struggled with the children’s grief. For weeks, they asked where their grandmother was, where her soul or spirit had gone.

“Some people believe that when you die, you go to heaven,” I had said at one point to my sons. I described heaven as a warm, sunny place where the person gets to be with family and friends who have died.

“Do you come back?” they asked.

“No,” I said.

Can you come back?” they asked.

“Well, your spirit and body are different, and when you die it’s your body that dies. Your spirit lives on, and yes, some folks believe that it can come back in other ways.”

“How? Where does it go? Can you choose where you go? Is the soul the same as a spirit? Is a spirit the same as a ghost? Why?”

“How? Where does it go? Can you choose where you go? Is the soul the same as a spirit? Is a spirit the same as a ghost? Why?”

The whole conversation tumbled down on me like an avalanche. I grasped for responses that made sense. We talked about the beliefs of different faiths. My sister married a Jewish man and was raising their children in the Jewish tradition, so I reminded them of Hanukkah and the Hebrew prayers and candles. They kept returning to the idea of reincarnation, linking it to the trees and flowers that died in the fall but came back every spring. It was a logical connection. The next thing I knew we were imagining my mother as a cloud watching over them, a tree, a stuffed animal they slept with. Then one of my sons asked, “But what if I want to see her for real? By then, my sister had already supplied me with the answer she gave her own children when they were inconsolable, usually right before bedtime. “You can always ask Grandma to visit you in your dreams. That’s what I do,” I said.

In truth, I wanted to give them Jesus, that warm, loving light, that handsome man with his arms out to receive the children, that invitation to heaven’s delights in a body free of pain and age, and returned to everything and everyone we loved here on earth. I wanted that for my children very badly, but between their grandmother’s death and the death of two young girls, I simply could not. I didn’t buy it. I still wasn’t sure what I believed but I had an intuitive sense that if there were an omnipotent creator, the stories likely didn’t have at their outset the damnation of scores of innocents. And those stories would have done little, if anything, to minimize the children’s grief.

My explanations for death felt a little like explaining the Grim Reaper or Halloween, a hodge podge drawn from so many practices and traditions that the actual thing itself sounded a little like Frankenstein. If I wasn’t going to give them Jesus and heaven, what was I teaching them exactly? That their grandmother might be in heaven? Or wandering like a ghost to protect us from evil? Orbiting space like a star? Or reincarnated in a three foot-long plush alligator? And yet, what the pastor had insisted at the girl’s service, that Adam and Eve had brought death on humanity from not listening to their father, was no better an explanation and no less strange.

I wanted the boys to have faith, but in what? In the human capacity for magic and miracles. I wanted them to wield their word swords to fight bullies or rescue an injured animal. I wanted them to see how kindness is a form of worship, compassion a devotion, that prayer and meditation open their bodies to light and wind like the halls of a great castle. I wanted them to remember and respect the dead. I also wanted to ease their grief, though my own experience has shown that one’s joy is only as deep as one’s grief. I felt a sudden kinship with Meeta’s mother: if I believed in any one tradition, I believed in the whole lot of them.

*     *     *

Nearly home after the trunk or treat, the dark closing in, Blaine has had time to consider his wish. “Can I tell you what I wished for Mom? Can I?”

“Sure,” I said.

“I wished that Grandma could come back to life and be with us.”

“Oh sweetie,” I said, “I wish she were here, too.” Then after a moment, I added, “It’s a complicated wish.”

“I know,” he said, and looked out the window. How? I wondered. How do you know? What do you know? But I didn’t ask.

*     *     *

In the year since my mother’s death, I have felt her presence in a tangible way, like someone standing too close in line behind me at the checkout but not close enough to touch. I tell my sons this. We talk about going to Chicago to see Grandpa for Christmas, their cousins and aunts and uncles. We debate whether or not there will be snow. Without hesitation, I think, If my mother has a hand in it, there will be.

Sure enough, on Christmas Day, a two-inch dusting blankets the yard. We press together around the open sliding glass doors and listen to the hollow silence of it surround us like someone cupping our ears. Later, we follow the kids outside as they race to follow animal prints crisscrossing the yard. My father starts a fire in the pit out back. Eventually, we circle it as we lean into one another. We hardly feel the cold.

Darlene PaganDarlene Pagán teaches at Pacific University in Oregon. She has a chapbook, Blue Ghosts (Finishing Line Press), and a full-length collection forthcoming from Airlie Press called Setting the Fires. Her poems have appeared in Field, Calyx, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poet Lore, Hiram Poetry Review, and Hawaii Pacific Review, among others. Her essays have earned national awards and appeared in venues such as Memoir(and), Brevity, The Nebraska Review, and Literal Latté. She is a member of Broads on the Side and enjoys hiking, biking, the beach, the rain, and any play involving her sons.