A Few More Miles

It never gets easier, you just go faster. —Greg LeMond

After my father’s stroke, after months of rehab, after coming to terms with the fact that the blind spot on his right side—his lost peripheral vision—was the new normal, his doctor told him he couldn’t ride his bicycle.

Last fall he had aortic valve replacement surgery to fix a heart condition he was born with, the same condition that ultimately killed his own father. The surgery went according to plan. They didn’t know he’d suffered a stroke until two days later, when he had recovered enough from the anesthesia for someone to notice that he was acting funny. In the aftermath of his surgery and the stroke, my father says his heart is twenty years younger, but I know that twenty percent of his brain is gone forever.

He lost his ability to work his job of twenty-nine years, he lost a good bit of short-term memory, which forced him into an early retirement, and now this: his beloved bicycling. This too was going to be taken away from him.

I have a picture from early September, before the surgery, of my parents at Scooter’s, an ice cream shop they like to ride to together on a black Burley tandem. They celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary with a ride and two giant sugar cones. My mom held hers in the air, as if giving a toast. Dad did the awkward selfie lean, trying to get them both in the picture.

And what now?

Life is a stage race like the tour, not one all-out sprint or time trial. There are days of sun and days of rain; wins and losses; successes, failures, and recoveries.

After a winter of too much TV, daily walks around the neighborhood no matter how cold it was, painstakingly typed comments on my Facebook page because of how slowly his writing skills are returning, I was afraid he would give up. I feared my father—this man who called me on his fifty-eighth birthday and told me he’d set out to ride fifty-eight miles in honor of the occasion, but tired out and only rode fifty; this man who had ridden every single mile of two coast-to-coast bicycle trips, from California to North Carolina—would become a couch potato. I feared he would sit at home and watch Fox News all day.

*     *     *

Greg LeMond was the first American to win the Tour de France. It was 1986. I was two years old. This was before Lance Armstrong became famous, and then infamous; before helmets were required; before all of the doping scandals. Back when hardly anyone in the United States was paying attention to the Tour.

I grew up admiring LeMond. Every summer my dad and I would sit on the couch in our family basement and watch the Tour. I cheered for whomever my dad favored that year, with English journalist Phil Liggett’s voice—synonymous with quality sports commentary—in my mind.

As a child I was carted around the Midwest to bicycle road races. I cheered for my dad from a big orange blanket along the sidelines. There were usually children’s races, too, and when I was old enough I rode my pink tricycle down the short, straight course at one of them. I pushed those black plastic pedals as hard as I could, my chubby little legs pumping up and down. I received a bronze medal strung on red, white, and blue ribbon, and ate pink cotton candy with my family to celebrate.

When I was six, I got a pink two-wheeler for my birthday. It came with training wheels, but soon my dad was teaching me to get along without them. He’d run behind me, holding onto the seat for moral support, and then he would let go. I would fly down the sidewalk, skidding to a stop with the coaster brakes when I reached the corner, waiting for him to help me cross the street and begin again.

The joy that pink bicycle brought to my childhood was not so different from the joy bicycling has continued to bring me throughout my life. There have been many family vacations spent camping and riding, afternoons pedaling around with friends in the neighborhood where I grew up, escapes from campus on warm afternoons in my small college town. There has always been a bicycle in my life.

When I graduated from college and moved to North Carolina, I had never owned a car, or even had a driver’s license. Everyone thought now that I had a college degree in hand surely I would grow up, learn to drive, and buy a vehicle like any self-respecting adult in North America. But I was about to begin graduate school in theology, and the idea of buying a car seemed laughable to me. I didn’t want to drive and never had, which was why I hadn’t gotten a license when I turned sixteen. Instead I sought out an apartment that was within walking distance of campus, the grocery store, and a coffee shop, arguing that those were the only places I was likely to hang out for the next two years. That proved mostly true.

Graduate school didn’t last forever though, and when I finished my master’s degree I took several part-time jobs and no longer had time for walking and waiting at bus stops. When my parents came down for graduation, Dad spent an afternoon on the porch with the old purple commuter bike he and my mom got me when I was fourteen. He overhauled the drivetrain, trued the wheels, and added a rack on the back to which I could attach panniers for carrying my groceries. It was everything I needed in a reliable vehicle. Then he presented me with a Duke-blue tire pump with a big bow on it. My graduation present.

*     *     *

The transition to daily commuting was not entirely smooth; there were obstacles ranging from flat tires to fitness to inclement weather. Few things make me want to stay in bed more than waking to the sound of rain on the rooftop in February. If the temperature is below 40, I may even start wishing that I had a car.

I get up anyway. I make coffee. I check weather.com. I forgo a shower, because it never seems worthwhile when I know I will be doused with rainwater shortly. I put extra socks and shoes in my waterproof courier bag, pour what’s left of my coffee into a thermos, and tuck that in the bag as well.

Donning a navy blue raincoat, black nylon pants with velcro at the ankles, and my oldest sneakers which smell like wet dog from previous soakings, I am out the door into the rain. I swing my leg over the crossbar of my white road bike and push off down the street. The drops fall freely, without concern for the inconvenience they’ve caused me, weighing down my long hair, obscuring my vision. I live near a golf course and the long, flat stretch of road that runs alongside it presents a different view every morning. On bright, chilly winter days I watch the sky turn pink and orange through the tree line as the sun rises. On humid days my eyes pick out benches and sand traps through the dense fog. In summer, I see early risers getting in a quick game before work.

On rainy days the course is abandoned. In the early morning dampness everything looks a brighter shade of green. The air is clean and invigorating as I start to pedal harder, moving toward my destination by the strength of my own legs. I have been dreading this since I woke up, yet it is never as bad in actuality as it seemed from the warmth of my apartment.

Bicycling is hard work and, especially in the summer, that work induces sweat. In four years of bicycle commuting, despite lots of sunscreen, I’ve watched my face become more and more freckled. I’ve chosen to ignore catcalls induced by skimpy clothing, because when the heat index is over a hundred degrees, who really cares what the homeless guy I pass each day on Ninth Street has to say about my legs? I haven’t the energy. I’m focused on movement, labored breaths, the feel of the sun beating down on my back, and the heat radiating from the pavement when I stop at a red light.

I’m picturing Greg LeMond riding into Paris and I am willing myself to keep going, to beat my only competitor, the voices inside my own head:

Grow up and get a driver’s license.

Its unattractive for a woman to be so sweaty all the time.

We live in a car culture; get used to it.

Cycling isnt safe in cities in the United States.

Why arent you in better shape after four years of this?

This last one runs through my head every time I ride up a street with a respectable hill. It never gets easier.

Not long after LeMond’s historic win in 1986, he was injured in a hunting accident on a trip with his uncle. He survived with thirty shotgun pellets inside his body, and spent two years in recovery before his career picked up again. He went on to win the Tour de France twice more, in 1989 and 1990. LeMond was among the best in the world, yet most people in the United States didn’t know who he was. Oh, sure, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated after his comeback in ‘89, but what about all of those years leading up to that? Years when people believed that American cyclists would never be able to compete with Europeans? His victory in ‘86—the first ever for an American cyclist in 85 years of the Tour de France—happened in relative obscurity when compared to the fame that later followed Lance Armstrong. LeMond was never a celebrity in that way.

Most of life is like that. The goals we set, the things we care about, what we hope to accomplish—very few people will see them. Training rides, weightlifting, junior races—LeMond did these things like every other racer, building his career one day at a time. Cycling, even as a commuter, is a mental game as much as any competitive sport I have ever played. When I am sticky with sweat, when my mouth is dry and my muscles burn and I want to quit, I think about LeMond after that accident and the pain of getting back on a bicycle after physical trauma, when people said he was finished. I think about LeMond racing and not winning. And then I think about a poster on my brother’s bedroom wall of LeMond sprinting for the finish line at the 1989 World Championships with two European riders on his wheel, in the rain. His muscles bulge, wet hair is plastered to his forehead, and his mouth hangs open as if releasing a battle cry. His eyes are focused straight ahead on the finish line. He is going to get what he came for.

As I pedal up these modest hills in North Carolina’s Piedmont, I have to fix my eyes on the road ahead and keep pedaling. Life is a stage race like the Tour, not one all-out sprint or time trial. There are days of sun and days of rain; wins and losses; successes, failures, and recoveries.

*     *     *

Someday I will lose him.

That is the thought most present since the stroke. That, and he is still here. We get to keep him for a while.

Death, mortality, finitude—these are not new concepts to me. I have pondered their meanings philosophically. I have experienced the yawning chasm of loss. My uncle, Steve, when I was in 6th grade: heroin overdose. My other uncle, Joe, when I was in 8th grade: liver failure due to alcoholism. My seventeen-year-old friend Ryan: car accident. Gravel, tree, the curve of a road that led not to the endless possibilities of life beyond high school, but to one final ending for him, confusion and grief for the rest of us. But these losses never prepared me for the reality that someday I will lose my own parents.

Since the stroke, my father has been more open. He cries easily now. He simply cannot hold certain emotions in any longer. Home in Kalamazoo for Thanksgiving, I sat in a chair across from him while my sister played the grand piano in the living room. A month after his surgery, the scar across his chest was still pronounced, his heart healing while the rest of his body was in limbo. Tears filled his eyes and I watched him blink them back in what appeared to me a silent denial and quiet sorrow, and also, somehow, gratitude. He could have died. He knows this. Instead he is sitting here, listening to his daughter play piano as he has so many times before.

“I cry more easily since the stroke,” he told me on the phone last week, verbalizing what I had already seen. He says it like it’s a physical side-effect and, though I don’t know much about medicine, I assume this is his way of explaining displays of emotion previously so out of character. Before this, there was only one time I remembered seeing my father cry, and one time when I heard it in his voice over the phone and tried to ignore it.

The first time was after we packed up the Volvo to drive to North Carolina the summer I moved to Durham for graduate school. My clothes and books and a few stray boxes of kitchen stuff were packed tightly into the trunk, my cat was in her pink carrier in the back seat, drugged up for the long drive, and Dad had loaded my bike onto the roof rack. He, my mother, the cat, and I would be road-tripping down, and then they would drive off and leave me in a city and state I had never laid eyes on before, where I didn’t know a single soul.

In the driveway he told me he was proud of me. I politely pretended not to see the tears in his eyes, while more welled up in my own.

And then there was the night before his surgery, when he called me.

It was only in the weeks right before the surgery that its seriousness took hold of me.

They will break his sternum, I thought. They will cut open his heart. They will break him open; will they be able to put him back together?

On the phone that night before the surgery he tried to hold his voice steady, but I could hear everything he wasn’t saying—everything I wasn’t saying—in the tremor of his voice. A friend was picking me up as I said goodbye; she and I were going to our favorite brewery for a drink. I was in a hurry, and I felt guilty about that, but I also think now that it wasn’t just about getting where I was going. It was about my inability to fathom my own fear that this conversation could be the last one I ever had with my father.

It wasn’t. And yet it was the last one I ever had with that version of him. They cut him open, they sewed him up, they gave him back to us—but he will never be the same.

If you spoke with him, you might not know that anything is wrong. His short-term memory was the primary loss; most of the other difficulties have been overcome, gradually, with therapy. So he pauses mid-sentence, dancing around the word he wants but cannot find, his brain trying to form new pathways where the old ones have been erased—trying and sometimes failing, though succeeding more often now than in those first few months. Still, it isn’t enough. The loss of memory and the loss of sight on his right side, led to the loss of his job. He is only fifty-nine and was not ready to retire.

We used to talk about how someday, when he was ready to retire, he would come down to North Carolina and we’d take a bike trip together. Bicycling had become the glue to our relationship, which has been difficult as I’ve become an adult. I don’t see eye-to-eye with my parents on much when it comes to politics and religion and—though they are supportive of my work, my art, my impractical career choices and graduate degrees—there is a breach between us that often seems impossibly wide.

A couple of summers ago I rode on the back of the tandem with him for the first time. It was a strange experience, riding a bicycle and not being the one in control of steering it. I told my mother when we got home that he was the only person I could imagine trusting enough that I would be willing to give up that control. He’s been cycling for decades, and I trust his experience. Also, I am his daughter.

Riding the Blue Ridge Parkway is a dream of mine, and I thought one of these days perhaps we’d do it together. He rode sections years ago on those coast-to-coast trips—another thing I dream of doing with him—though I’ve known for a while that he probably didn’t have a third one in him. But part of the parkway—that, I always thought we could do together.

*     *     *

I guess he couldn’t take it anymore.

He didn’t listen to his doctor. He trusted the fact that he has ridden the same routes in Kalamazoo for decades, that his favorite route is all right turns. He chose to believe that he could learn his new limits and that, even though he’ll never be able to drive again, he could learn to bicycle once more.

In April, on the first day he rode, he posted on Facebook—grammar and spelling only slightly jumbled—that it was the best day since his heart surgery six months before. The best therapy he could ask for, he said. His heart was ready for this.

But his eyes might not be.

Yes, six months after surgery he rode his bike. I did not believe that would ever happen again. But even in my joy I knew that this was not a step on a brilliant recovery narrative. His eyesight is not coming back. These limitations are here to stay. And so he will adapt. He will have to limit himself. And many of our plans will not fit within those limits.

He tells me how he double- and triple-checks before crossing busy streets. How, because of the way his vision was affected by the stroke, cars look closer than they actually are. We take comfort in this: better that they appear closer, making him overly cautious, than the other way around.

He rides with friends, some new, some old. They look out for him. And yet, he tells me, one day a couple weeks ago he started to cross an intersection and stopped at the last minute when he realized there was a car coming he’d missed the first time he scanned. He stopped in time.

But it scared him. It scared me, too.

I would never tell him to stop riding. I cannot. I cannot bear the thought of losing him, but I will lose him either way. The father that I love will waste away if he cannot do this, of that I am sure. And I would rather he take this risk in order to live than that he give up and tumble into despair.

My father worked too hard for many years. He coached my soccer teams, went to all of my figure skating competitions, worked third-shift and overtime so that my siblings and I could have the education and opportunities he did not have.

I wanted him to have the retirement he planned on, and that is gone now.

Today, he will go to occupational therapy. Today, he will check Facebook, and “like” the link to my latest blog post. Today, he will say something political that I disagree with, and I will choose to ignore it because I love him too much to fight anymore. Today, I still have my father and I don’t much care about brilliant recovery narratives, climbing mountains, or triumphant entries into Paris.

I will never get on the back of that tandem with him again. I will never ride the Blue Ridge Parkway with him. But maybe, next time I am at home in Michigan, we will take a spin out to Scooter’s. We will ride together a few more miles.

Meghan FlorianMeghan Florian earned an MTS from Duke University and an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. She is the Creative Writing Editor at The Other Journal. Her work has been published by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Salon, Religion Dispatches, and elsewhere. She lives, writes, and teaches in Durham, North Carolina.

Party of One

Wo shi yi ge ren.”

Chinese for I am alone. Party of one. In English the phrase sounds celebratory: you’re alone, but hey, it’s still a party. Chinese lacks that aura of metaphorical festivity. You just count. One. I contemplate counting as I report my solitary number to the hostess at a restaurant in Suzhou, China’s city of canals.

I’m used to being a party of one. At home in Minnesota, my husband, Will, often sends me on my own to the opera or ballet, offering himself up as a chauffeur if it means I’ll excuse him from actually having to sit through the performance. I’ve traveled alone before, to New York and LA and Europe. I’ve hiked alone in the forests along Lake Superior.

But this trip is different. I’m 56. It’s my first time in China. I studied Chinese almost 40 years ago, before it was easy for Americans to travel and study here. Now I’m speaking more Chinese than I’d anticipated, surprising myself and the occasional Chinese service worker, like this hostess in Suzhou.

I picture what she sees as she looks at me. A middle aged white lady, walking around China alone during the off-season. The light rain has fogged my glasses and frizzed my hair. I am short. I am stout. I am sporting a travel-safe purse, strapped across my chest like a beauty queen’s sash. My sturdy walking shoes and water-resistant winter jacket proclaim neither the crisp sophistication of an international businesswoman nor the one-world panache of a globe-trotting bohemian.

If it proclaims anything, my appearance is screaming, “Help me, I’ve lost my tour bus.”

But when I open my mouth, I speak calmly in Mandarin. The hostess shakes her head, blinks and stares. It’s what most Chinese people do when they hear me. My accent isn’t great, but at least half the time they understand what I’ve said.

*     *     *

Friends were impressed that I decided to travel to China on my own. Being a party of one isn’t usually impressive. More often than not, it’s just embarrassing. I felt embarrassed when I went alone to a Garth Brooks concert about a month before my trip to China. I didn’t tell anyone I was going, and I was nervous about being there alone. What if the audience started singing? Or worse, dancing? Who would help me if someone spilled beer on my head? These perils didn’t typically arise when one went solo to a movie or the opera, but this concert would be different. It was being held in a big arena. Did people even go alone to shows like that? Would the other concert-goers feel sorry for me? Would they think I was a strange, pathetic creature in late-middle age, lacking the social wherewithal to find even one person to accompany her to a major, 11 sold-out performances, entertainment extravaganza?

Going to Garth Brooks was a lot like crossing the streets in Ho Chi Minh City. You just have to step off the curb.   Once I’d bought my ticket and gotten myself downtown, there was no choice but to keep going.

But I really wanted to see Garth Brooks. The country megastar had been the soundtrack I’d used to raise my children. It started when my son, Anthony, was about two. He didn’t talk much. I didn’t know too many other at-home moms. It was before any of my friends had children, before I’d figured out whether and when I’d resurrect my professional life. But Anthony had a cowboy hat and boots, and he loved dancing to the Garth Brooks CDs I’d play on our living room stereo. And in that long stretch of empty between end-of-nap and dinner, I would wait for Will to get home and I would watch my son dance and I would listen to Garth’s fast licks and riffs, the bright major chords, the lyrics that celebrated wild red-haired girls and rodeo riders and all those friends in low places. The thumping tempo was a heartbeat pulsing through my lonely afternoons.

Years later, when the papers announced the concert, I knew I had to go. None of my friends wanted to come with me, and I knew better than to ask Will. A reasonably devoted husband in most ways, Will hates country music almost as much as he hates downtown traffic. He didn’t even offer to give me a ride.

Will did give me a ride to the airport the morning I left for Asia. I was nervous before the trip, like I’d been before the concert. What if I didn’t have the right visas? What if my luggage got lost? What if I was so overwhelmed with loneliness that I became too dispirited to sightsee, and wasted days and nights in my hotel room, a hermit hiding from adventure who’d traveled across the world just to order room service, watch TV, and mark time for nearly four weeks? What if there was no TV?

“You’ll be fine,” Will assured me. Easy for him to say. He couldn’t guess how sad I might feel when I finally stood under the image of Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, but was standing there alone.

Still I knew I had to go. Our daughter, Lydia, was on a yearlong study program in Asia. The college had invited the parents to a banquet in Vietnam. It was too expensive for Will to come with me, but I wanted to see Lydia during her long year away. And Vietnam was just a stone’s throw from China. I’d waited decades. I had the vacation time. I was used to going places on my own. And I knew enough Chinese to be able to request a table for one.

*     *     *

My meager language ability wards off total isolation as I travel through China, but I’m not delusional about my skills. When I ask the Suzhou hostess for a table, I reflexively extend my right index finger upward, pantomiming my solitude in case my pronunciation isn’t clear. When it comes time to order I’m relieved that the menu translates the word for eel, a local specialty that I’m eager to try.

In the end it’s just as well that I’m on my own, because I’m making a mess with my chopsticks. The thin slices of eel keep slipping back to the plate, even when I try to secure them with a strand of fresh ginger from the miniature condiment bowl. A waitress rushes over, holding out a fork, but I smile and wave her away.

Kuaizi hen hao,” I declare, the chopsticks are fine.

I’m hoping she’ll understand from my smile—and the fact that I know the word for “chopsticks”—that I am not the type of traveler who requires culturally inappropriate tableware. Still, the eel is coated in thick, sweet sauce. When the waitress returns with extra napkins, I’m happy to accept them.

*     *     *

And there are times when I’m happy being alone.

Art museums, for example, I like to read the signs and learn the history. Sometimes I just want to sit in front of a painting for a long time without worrying if a companion is getting bored. I’ll stare at the brushwork, marveling at the texture of Van Gogh’s strokes or at how the flecks of gold leaf still adhere after centuries to the surface of a Gothic altarpiece. As much as a book may transport the reader, the author’s pen hasn’t physically touched the pages; the same is not true for paintings. I think of the artist’s hands, the brush on the canvas, the decades or centuries that separate me from the corporeal reality of the work’s creation. Sometimes my heart races. I am a private time traveler, a party of one to my own imaginings.

*     *     *

I become a real time traveler when I cross the International Date Line, a party of one en route to Ho Chi Minh City. It’s almost midnight when I arrive. The streets are mobbed with cars and motorbikes. Lights in every color canopy the way to my hotel. Decorations for Christmas, just a few days away, the hotel driver tells me, and for the Vietnamese New Year, which will follow two months later. I am dazed from almost a full day of flying, and the lights are like a dream.

I have a few days for sightseeing before Lydia’s group arrives. My first morning I walk to the Reunification Palace, the Ben Thanh Market, the Central Post Office. Crossing the streets takes practice. The daytime roads are even more jammed than they’d been the night before, and few of the intersections have signal lights. Traffic never stops.

At first I’m terrified, so I slyly attach myself to groups of other pedestrians when I need to cross a street. Eventually, however, I’m stranded at a big intersection. Individual walkers here and there are getting across, but there’s no one else standing on my side of the curb. I wait. The engine din and stream of motion seem endless, but finally I get a sense of when the traffic will break. I find a focal point across the street. I keep my eyes forward, inhale the diesel-choked air, step off the curb and walk. My steps are even in time and equal in length; I trust the cars and motorbikes to weave around me.

When I reach the other side I look around, wondering if anyone has noticed. I wish I could tell someone how Zen it felt to become one with the chaos of traffic, to let go of my fear and adapt to this wild rhythm. None of the strangers walking past me in Ho Chi Minh care. No one gives me a thumbs up or offers a high five. I have stepped into the maelstrom of Ho Chi Minh traffic and will do so dozens of times over the next few days, but I will never share my triumph. I will coalesce into the swarm, become part of the city’s rumbling, ceaseless energy; but each time I step into the street, I will join the crowd alone.

*     *    *

Going to Garth Brooks was a lot like crossing the streets in Ho Chi Minh City. You just have to step off the curb. Once I’d bought my ticket and gotten myself downtown, there was no choice but to keep going.

It was a long walk in from the parking lot to the arena. I stepped sprightly in my close-toed shoes and “secret-stretch” jeans, keeping my eyes forward until I found my seat. No one around me especially cared that I’d arrived, but I felt ready to celebrate. I hailed a vendor and bought myself an over-sweet, over-priced strawberry daiquiri that was served up in a souvenir plastic container shaped like a long-neck guitar. No one stared. No one spilled beer on my head. And the music was fantastic. When Garth played “Friends in Low Places” I sang like gangbusters, one off-key voice merging with the crowd’s.

*    *   *

Sometimes being alone works out better than expected; sometimes you don’t expect to be alone at all.

After Vietnam, Lydia and I travel together to Shanghai. She’s been here before, but back when we were making our plans she said it would be fun to go to Shanghai together. I’d imagined her showing me the sights, showing off her Chinese, the two of us strolling through Shanghai’s museums and along the Bund. Turns out Lydia is tired after a semester of studying. She has papers to write and friends to see. I am a party of one for most of my sightseeing in Shanghai, and when Lydia goes out with her friends one evening, I decide to stroll the Bund alone.

The Bund is Shanghai’s most famous street, lined with Art Deco and Beaux Arts banks and hotels that were built in the 1920s and ’30s, monuments to commerce and European imperialism and Shanghai’s age of glamour. On the other side of the Bund a raised pedestrian boulevard overlooks the Huangpu River. I cross to the promenade, aided by traffic lights; in China’s big cities, being a pedestrian requires no special skill.

From the promenade I look across the river to Pudong, a new part of Shanghai. It’s a city of tomorrow with skyscrapers created from orbs and angles and open spaces that soar like a fantasy amalgam of outer space, Disneyland, and dystopian cinema. At night the skyscrapers dazzle with bursts and patterns and rhythms of moving light and color, fireworks wrought in architecture. Behind me, along the Bund, the grander, more dignified facades are also illuminated, with stately lights that shine motionless and white. I walk the promenade, as if suspended between the river and the century that separate these two places: the stasis of history on one side, confronting the chimera of an inchoate future on the other.

I’m not nervous, alone at night. There are plenty of people out, but the promenade is not unpleasantly crowded. In just two nights, I will be in Hong Kong and will hear on my hotel television that 35 people were trampled to death on New Year’s Eve at the exact spot where I’m walking now. Someone will throw some money into the air and the far larger crowd gathered for the holiday will go out of control. But tonight I can easily find a space against the wall to stop and look out at Pudong, and I feel comfortable taking my time.

*   *    *

Time has changed how we experience being alone. There are some types of modern solitude that I love, like shopping online. It’s efficient and convenient; it protects my anonymity while eliminating any need to worry about being a party of one at the mall. And internet commerce doesn’t make me feel especially alone. Like most people, I shop online for lots of reasons, not just to protect myself from the embarrassment of public fitting rooms. Moreover, nothing about the items I purchase reveals the solitary process through which I acquired them. I can wear these new goods without being marked a loner.

There are, however, other technologies whose sole function is to promote and celebrate solitude. Those innovations make me uncomfortable.

It’s the difference between selfies and the selfie stick. Selfies, the smartphone’s unintended gift to autobiography, are innocent enough. A cell phone, after all, has many functions; it’s not just a tool for promoting narcissism and isolation. So a traditional selfie can result simply because you happened to find yourself alone at a marvelous place and were so overcome by the moment that you impetuously decided to use your phone to take a picture. There’s no shame in that.

Selfie sticks, on the other hand, destroy any possibility that one’s narcissism was unintended or one’s solitude unanticipated. Indeed, these collapsible rods, designed for the sole purpose of improving the photos one takes of oneself, require considerable forethought. You have to know you’re going somewhere interesting, anticipate the desire to take a picture and acknowledge the fact that you will inevitably want to be featured in the picture. You must also at some point have recognized the difficulty of achieving a flattering composition and angle, and spent the time and money necessary to acquire the photo-enhancing stick. Then you have to remember to pack the stick and carry it along. But the final mortification is that you use the stick in public, revealing to anyone who cares to notice the level of effort you’ve put into ensuring that your party of one photo will be the best picture possible.

I knew I’d be alone for some of the highlights of my trip to China, and I suppose I knew I’d end up taking pictures of myself at places like the Great Wall. Still, in all my planning and shopping, I didn’t think about getting a selfie-stick. I’m not immune from the seemingly insatiable modern desire to consecrate one’s image. But I prefer the illusion of spontaneity. I prefer not to broadcast the fact that I’ve anticipated my vanity photos, or that when those photo-worthy moments occurred, I knew I would be alone.

*    *   *

The Bund is Shanghai’s classic photo op, and I have enough archival drive to want to memorialize my presence here. People all around me are taking selfies. Young men who seem to be here alone photograph themselves with Pudong in the background; clusters of young women photograph themselves individually first, then take group selfies with their friends. I am virtually the only non-Asian around, and it is hard for me to tell if my fellow promenaders are locals or tourists, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Everyone is taking pictures; no one is asking anyone else for help.

I am similarly self-reliant. Phone in hand, I stand with my back to Pudong, extend my arm, and smile brightly. It takes several shots for me to capture a picture in which the lights of Pudong are in focus and I—frizzy hair, blotchy skin, eyes open way too wide—don’t look totally crazed. Finally, I’m satisfied. In part. Truth is, I would have loved a picture of Lydia and me on the Bund.

*   *   *

Before my trip I hadn’t worried about being alone on the Bund, because I thought I’d be with Lydia; but I worried a lot about being alone in Tiananmen Square. Not because of safety or the possibility of getting lost or the legacy of the 1989 government crackdown on the student democracy movement. When most Americans think of Tiananmen I know they picture that grainy news photo of a tank barreling toward a lone student who’s raising his fist in protest.

Not me. My picture of Tiananmen goes back at least a decade earlier, to the beginning of my obsession with China. I was 15. I had been focused on French and German and getting to college where, my parents used to assure me, my “time would come.” Then I met my summer Park and Rec boss, Roy: handsome, blond, seven years my senior. Roy was also studying Chinese. I was interested in foreign languages and cultures and travel. I didn’t have to fake my interest in China, the way I had to fake just happening to run into Roy outside the YMCA on days I knew he’d be driving by on his way to work.

Maybe Roy wished he’d had a little sister. Over the next couple of years he took me on several platonic “dates,” during which we ate dim sum, went to screenings of Chinese revolutionary cinema, or shopped for propaganda posters. One day he bought me a poster of Tiananmen Square. It showed a long view of the square, facing the side with the iconic picture of Mao flanked by revolutionary slogans written in Chinese characters on horizontal banners. The Forbidden City, Roy explained, lay just beyond.

None of it was political—Roy had no agenda with Mao or with me. But I fell crazy in teenage love, not just with Roy, but also with this world of melodrama and rosy-cheeked peasant soldiers, and with this language that was written in tiny pictures and pronounced with tones. It all whirled together in my mind: China, Mao, the fact that a super-cute older guy was routinely spending time with me alone. At the end of our outings Roy would drop me off at home and say goodbye with a wave and a frustratingly appropriate kiss on my cheek. It sparked a fervor that was not purely revolutionary.

*   *   *

When I drop Lydia off at the airport, my heart clutches as I wave and watch her head off to rejoin her classmates. I’m on my own again, traveling in a seemingly magic bubble of sunshine. Beijing is the last city I visit. It is notorious for pollution but when I arrive the sky is blue, the air is crisp. I don’t want to waste the light, so I leave my hotel moments after I check in. I walk to the nearby park and climb the hill to a pagoda that offers a panorama of the Forbidden City, former palace of the emperors. The north gate is just across the street, but the buildings and courtyards that comprise the emperors’ palace stretch south for almost a mile.

I am standing in the hilltop pagoda, looking out at the Forbidden City in the fading winter sun. It’s getting late but I know just where I need to go. I hold my hand up between the sun and the horizon line. I’ve got at least one hand’s width, at least an hour. It will be about a 40 minute walk around to the south gate. I have four nights in Beijing, and it’s already been a long day with a train trip and hectic transfer to my hotel, but Tiananmen, the south gate of the Forbidden City, is the place I’ve most dreamed of seeing. I start walking, fast.

*   *   *

My poster of Tiananmen Square had hung on my dorm room wall all through college. I carried it with me long after I’d let go of my feelings for Roy. That image was the backdrop to my young adult years, like Garth Brooks was the soundtrack to the years I spent at home when my children were small. But truth be told Tiananmen, and China, was more than a backdrop. I studied Chinese in college and in graduate school, which is where I met Will, who was studying chemistry at the same university. A few years later I was married and distracted from thoughts of working or traveling in China. Eventually I rolled up my Chinese posters and stored them away.

But I didn’t forget. I held on to some of the Chinese I’d learned, to my fascination with anything having to do with China, to that image of Tiananmen Square. Over the years I’d drag Will to whatever Chinese movies or dance performances came to town. I took a few Chinese classes. I ate dim sum whenever I could. Meanwhile, by the time Lydia reached junior high, Chinese language study was commonplace. With just a bit of motherly prodding, she chose it as her elective.

By then my Chinese was pretty rusty, and I had learned from Maoist era textbooks. My knowledge wasn’t always useful. I could say “diligently serve the people” but could not ask for a cup of tea. I’d learned the word for “comrade” right away but did not learn the words for “Mr.” or “Mrs.” until my third year. Still, I helped Lydia with her homework, and a lot came back. Not just vocabulary. When Lydia went on a 6-week study trip after her junior year in high school I scrolled each week through the photos her program posted on a blog. When I saw a picture of Lydia with the group, grinning and standing proud in front of Mao and the revolutionary banners in Tiananmen Square, I cried. Happiness for Lydia, pangs of yearning for me.

When my chance came, I knew I had to go. I’d had a picture of Tiananmen Square in my mind since I hung that poster on my wall in college. In the months before the trip, getting to Tiananmen was the moment I’d most anticipated. It would be the most important moment, the moment I thought would be the hardest to experience alone.

*    *   *

When I get to Tiananmen the sun is skimming the tops of the buildings. I am almost but not quite breathless from my walk and from excitement. Although the square itself is a huge open area, the police have somehow funneled access through a security gate and metal detector. I pass through quickly and find there are also stanchions keeping people off the road that runs in front of Mao’s picture.

I’m jammed in with a crowd and can only look from an angle, but after almost 40 years, I’m here. I stare up at the enormous image of Mao, and the banners with their Chinese characters whose shape and meaning I’ve had memorized for decades. I am surprised to see that the “banners,” as I’ve always thought of them, and Mao’s picture, seem to be made of metal. My poster was printed from a black-and-white photograph that had been hand-painted to add color; in it all the edges of Tiananmen seemed soft. But the image I’m staring up at is crisp and hard, like the cold blue sky where the sun is quickly fading.

The crowd at first is more focused on the road in front of the gate than on the gate itself. They seem to be waiting, as if for a parade.

Nimen deng shei?” I ask a stranger. Who is everyone waiting for?

My Chinese is not good enough to understand her reply. It doesn’t matter. After about 15 minutes the police move the stanchions away. I’m able to move to the center, directly in front of the image of Mao.

I stay at Tiananmen long enough for the sky to darken and the picture of Mao and those revolutionary slogans to become illuminated. My poster had an old-fashioned look; I hadn’t imagined that Mao’s picture and the slogans were electrified. I read the familiar characters, mentally pronouncing the Chinese while translating into English: “Long Live the People’s Republic of China,” and “Long Live the Great Unity of the World’s People.” Behind Mao, the entrance, the actual Tiananmen or “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” is also illuminated. Tiny rows of lights outline its Qing dynasty architecture. The atmosphere around me is festive. People are here for the view and to take pictures, as they were that night on the Bund.

I am the lone westerner in a crowd of Chinese people. I am thousands of miles from home. I don’t really speak the language. It is cold and night is falling and I will have to walk two miles back to my hotel. But I feel like I belong here. In so many ways, I’m like everyone else in the crowd. I’m excited. I’m doing what everyone else is doing: walking around, taking pictures, trying to get a better view. I can even read all the Chinese characters; it’s just those two big banners, and I’ve been reading those for decades. I’ve imagined myself at this exact spot for almost 30 years. The place is bigger and sharper and brighter than I’d ever imagined, but it’s also more familiar than I ever dreamed it would be.

This is the moment. I wait for a gap in the crowd and step up to the waist-high metal barrier. I turn my back to the gate, pull out my phone and hold it in front of me. I position Mao in the background centered between the slogans, and I take my picture.

Tracy HarrisTracy Harris is a writer, pro bono political asylum attorney, and art lover living in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her essays have appeared in Lascaux Review and Mason’s Road. She is a frequent participant in the Cracked Walnut series of literary readings throughout the Twin Cities, and a former member of the editorial board of Water-Stone Review.

Counter Intuitive

The cop that wrote me up for trying to use a fake ID at an Ocean City bar was wearing yellow-striped shorts, an embarrassing reality that defused any grand aspirations of mine to spin the tale into one of proud delinquency. Where that cop is today, I do not know, and he does not know where I am, and it’s unlikely that, beyond the hour during which I sat on the curb reciting personal information for his report, our lives will ever cross again. Where those shorts are now is also a mystery—they could still be adorning his skinny, tan legs as he apprehends more underage drinkers; they could have been passed along to another officer; or they could have become undesired, as the yellow fabric faded and the threads loosened at the seams after many long, taxing hours under the Maryland sun. Once undesired, clothing can be interred in a messy closet, tossed out, or, in some cases, given a shot at new life via donation. If given to a thrift shop, those yellow-striped shorts would join the massive ocean of used clothing donations made by Americans every year—4.7 billion pounds, by some estimations.

During busy hours at the 96th Street Housing Works, one in a chain of thrift shops operating in New York City, it can feel like all 4.7 billion of those pounds have arrived in a single afternoon, unloaded unceremoniously at the donations counter for the attendant to sort through. I know this because I am the attendant, serving 40 hours of community service assigned by a Maryland judge as punishment for my use of that fake ID in Ocean City. My options for completing the hours were plentiful—volunteering at a soup kitchen, picking up trash in Central Park, cleaning animal cages for the ASPCA, and so on. I chose Housing Works at 96th Street at the recommendation of a college classmate, who called the labor boring but manageable.

I look down at my own body and imagine myself stripped down, my possessions assessed and passed along.

During the chunks of hours I put in over the weeks following my sentence, the Housing Works manager assigned me a variety of duties. Sometimes I swept the floors and wiped down the furniture. Sometimes I re-racked the clothes to comply with our color ordering scheme—red, pink, orange, yellow, green, blue, gray, brown, beige, black, white. Once, after a rack of blazers was stolen, I was told to act as a security guard and walk around looking for possible thieves. (What they expected me to do with the type of guy that pilfered items from a thrift shop was never explained, nor was how to differentiate a potential criminal from our less-than-polished clientele. I puffed out my chest anyway and stalked around the place, keeping an eye out for suspiciously stuffed pockets or hurried hand movements and fantasizing about foiling getaways with Heisman-worthy tackles.) But most of the time I stood at the gloomy and gray linoleum donations counter, as I do now, waiting for people to come in and drop off their stuff. In five minutes, I will have completed 39 hours. Today will be my last day.

A woman walks up to the counter. She’s wearing a pantsuit and has very straight brown hair and the click-click of her heels turns our hard thrift shop floor into a metronome. She probably just got off work. Along with the lunching hours, the end of the workday is the busiest time for donors to drop off their used clothes at Housing Works. In between are lengthy stretches of inactivity during which I struggle to stay awake. A man, her husband I presume, trails behind her with two black garbage bags.

“Welcome to Housing Works,” I say with a hint of enthusiasm, although she’s definitely not listening—could I have said “Welcome to Hell” without her even flinching? Her husband plops the bags on the counter and I untie the knots. Out spill high-end dresses, designer jeans, and a pile of silk scarves. One of those donations. Along the wide spectrum of quality that encompasses our endless and varying donations, this woman represents the superior end, the end created by Manhattan socialites who need to un-stuff their closets for the new season so they dump their dated collections at Housing Works for us to paw through. These prized contributions aren’t frequent, though. More often donors will leave sartorial flotsam: torn sweaters and stained shorts, frayed hats and scuffed sneakers, undesired uniform shorts and even some underwear every now and then.

At the bottom of the second of the couple’s two bags is a cardboard box with a sewing machine in it. Can this woman have ever even considered repairing something once it ripped? I stack it next to a dusty Cuisinart on one of our appliance shelves. The fact that we take household items in addition to clothing leads to the expected—old plates, spare pillows, video cassettes—and also the unexpected. One woman dropped off a bag of about 300 female condoms, looked me in the eye, and demanded I put them somewhere where they’d be sure to sell. One man deposited a set of wall curtains, each several hundred square feet in size. My manager knew that the few people who shopped for wall curtains probably didn’t do so at a thrift shop, and ordered me to tear them into pieces and throw them out. They proved to be perforated by an army of needles that stuck into my palms as I angrily ripped at the cloth, a bandana across my face to block my inhalation of the colloidal fabric that levitated from the shredded curtains. Another woman donated an unmarked box of assorted clear plastic pieces. A half-hearted attempt at assembly revealed the contraption to be a used breast pump. This too was deemed worthy only of the bottom of a trash can.

The reality is that a sizable portion of donations find their way to the garbage. The donated items are transported from the counter and placed in the storage room several yards behind, separated from the store only by a plastic curtain. The curtain hides us as we choose what to keep and what to discard, an essential barrier since some donors would be appalled if they could see how quickly we decide to throw out their former possessions. Although I don’t think this woman in particular really cares whether we keep her stuff or throw it out or if I put on six of her dresses at once and tap dance on the counter.

The source of our endless garbage is twofold. Sometimes people assume we can make use of items that we actually can’t, such as wall curtains or a used breast pump. More often the owners of these doomed donations had always meant to throw them out and wanted to leave that task to someone else. The thrift store donation counter is a hassle-free alternative to garbage disposal. Donors let us sort through paper, plastic, and glass. They let us decide what to do with their unwanted belongings. They let us feel the guilt of throwing away former favorites. They don’t want to look a teddy bear in the eye before tying the plastic knot above his grave. And best of all, they can shirk this responsibility all in the name of charity.

I scrunch up the garbage bags and the woman swivels on her heels to leave the store.

“Would you like to fill out the tax write-off?” I half-yell at her as she distances herself from the counter, waving the form like I’m bidding her goodbye from the deck of an outgoing ship. But she casually throws up the back of her hand as if lazily batting away a fly: she is like most donors, simply wishing to flee the scene of this hot-potato game of garbage passing. Some leave before I can even identify whatever they’ve left, the retail version of ding-dong-ditch.

Others do accept the chance to claim the deduction. The form asks that donors be thorough and specific about the things that they’ve donated and to determine values of items based on 40% of their original retail price. Most donors, predictably, stretch the limits of this suggestion. They scribble down a loose definition of their donations—“clothing”—and pause for a moment before deciding that they are worth as much or more than they originally cost. Somehow a moth-bitten hat has accrued value in the decade since it was first bought. They snatch up the yellow carbon copy of the form and zip out of the store, having been paid to not deal with their trash.

This is Housing Works. This is how it works. And I have an hour left.

*    *    *

An old couple walks in. The woman is pushing a black cart full of junk, and the man with her holds a stuffed garbage bag in each hand, also, presumably, full of junk. They shuffle their way to my counter. I brace myself for the incoming storm of clutter.

“Welcome to Housing…” I say, trailing off. The man spills out one bag onto the surface while the woman plucks objects one-by-one from her cart and lines them up. The items that emerge are virtually unsellable. Packs of cards with a third of the deck missing. A board game without the top to the cardboard box. Cracked bowls and dirty cups. A stack of withered books interspersed with the couple’s personal papers—are they really donating their own mail? A lamp with a severed power cord. Ragged T-shirts and mismatched socks. A Reagan-era PC that stares apathetically back at me.

I expect them to bolt from this glorified garbage dump, but instead the woman begins recounting a story for almost every item that sits on the counter. The cards and board games were purchased to entertain their grandchildren when they were born, but they have since outgrown such trinkets. One of the sets of bowls came from a vacation to Venice several decades ago. The books have all been read and reread.

“It’s time for someone else to enjoy them,” the woman says. I stack them up.

“He claimed he could fix this,” she says, gesturing toward the lamp. She looks at him and he chuckles. “I guess not…” she says.

The woman puts her hands on the sides of the computer and tilts it up to look at it. “We haven’t turned this thing on in years,” she says, “And my daughter bought me a new one in the spring anyway.”

They don’t explain every T-shirt as I fold them, but they do offer anecdotes for a special few. A University of Wisconsin shirt with a faded badger, the school’s mascot, draws a story of their son’s college days. A Regent Seven Seas shirt is the product of a recent cruise trip, an Obama ’08 shirt an expression of their political affiliation.

Eventually the counter is clear. I mention the tax deduction form but they brush it off.

“The money doesn’t matter,” the woman says. The man compresses the empty garbage bags and tosses them into the cart. I offer the couple my standardized gratitude for their donations. They smile and then weave their way through customers to the store’s exit. The bell above the door jingles as they pass through.

I transport all of their donations into the storage room. They all seem a little bit less shoddy now that a lifetime of stories has been attached to them. My grandmother used to have board games for me. The lamp could be resuscitated by any passable electrician. Was my first computer somewhere in the basement at home?

One of my superiors joins me behind the counter.

“Look at all this shit,” she says, scanning the items that the elderly couple dropped off. She pulls shut the curtain that separates the stock room from the counter, hiding our ruthless sorting of donations from our unsuspecting customers.

“Keep the books, the housewares, and the computer. Everything else is trash,” she says, and leaves me behind the curtain to dispose of the unwanted items. I scoop up the stuff, hugging it against my chest, before unloading it into the dumpster we keep in the storage room. What little order the couple had preserved is undone as I toss away their erstwhile belongings. The board game pieces scatter within the can and nestle in the corners of the bag. The shirts unfold and cardboard royalty slip from the deck of cards and down through crevices in the pile of rubbish.

I tie up the bag and sling it over my shoulder. I walk through the store, a bizarro Santa carrying the world’s rejected possessions. At the curb outside I stack the bag on top of the others from the day, totaling perhaps a dozen. There are homeless people waiting for the drop-off, a daily sight outside of Housing Works. As soon as I turn, they undo my knot and start rifling through the bag. I glance back one more time when I get back into the store. One homeless man has found the jackpot: the stack of old T-shirts. He jams them under his armpit and scoots down the block with his prize. The faded badger peeks out nervously from under his brown jacket.

Back in the storage room, I turn over a milk crate and sit down to start pricing the couple’s books, as directed by my boss. We have instructions on how to assess the value of the many used books that we receive—criteria revolving around the size, condition, and renown of the book, and even the original price tag if it can be found—but the process is somewhat arbitrary. I absentmindedly stick freshly inked 6s and 7s from the pricing gun to books I’ve never heard of.

I begin to think about all of the items that the couple donated. Where they began—toy stores, housewares outlets, clothing shops, onboard cruise ships, and where they ended up—a garbage dump, adorning a homeless man, or sentenced to an idle eternity on a Housing Works shelf. I look down at my own body and imagine myself stripped down, my possessions assessed and passed along. My pants and shirt hung on racks at Housing Works, my shoes pecked at by crows at some lonely landfill, my cell phone disassembled and separated into computer chips, my keys melted down and re-constituted as nuts and bolts. I sit there on the milk crate, naked. Then my skin is ripped from my flesh and fashioned into hide. The meat is torn from my body and molded into burger patties for a fast food joint. My eyeballs are extracted with tooth picks and frozen in glass and modeled in a museum. My hair is shaved off and stuffed into the cushion of a desk chair. My ligaments are tied into rubber bands and used to bind the elderly couple’s piles of mail. My bones are stacked up and tossed into the Housing Works garbage can, where bugs nip at them until nothing remains but a few chalky specks.

At the bottom of the pile of books I find The Moviegoer, a novel by Walker Percy, my namesake. My thoughtless streak of pricing comes to an abrupt stop. I put the gun down and hold the book in my hands. What are the odds that one Walker would find another in the bottom of a stack of forgotten books? How had this title avoided being carried away by a vagrant, left under a bed in an apartment, tossed casually in the garbage, burnt or buried? Surely this passing of men in time and space, this interaction between person and object, this evanescent moment of possession should be recognized! I set the price gun to $61,092, those digits a standard numerical representation of my date of birth. I stick the white rectangle on the cover, flattening it with my thumb. The book will have to be repriced, assuming no one is willing to shell out sixty grand for a shabby paperback from a thrift store. But for the moment it holds my mark and indicates that it once passed through my hands. I take it and the rest to the bookshelves in the store and spread them out. There is room enough that only one line of books needs to be formed, but I nevertheless hide The Moviegoer behind two others, saving its bogus price tag from a quick death for at least another day.

It is 7 P.M. I take off my Housing Works lanyard and leave it on the desk in the back office. I fill out my final shift’s paperwork and make sure the previous ones all add up to forty hours. I thank my boss, put my jacket on, and exit the store, to buy and sell, to collect and dispose, to cherish and forget, to meet the man behind the counter and attempt to explain value.

Walker HarrisonWalker Harrison is a young writer living in New York City. He works for a start-up and writes both fiction and non-fiction in his spare time. He studied applied mathematics and creative writing at Columbia University. His most recent published work can be seen in the Cobalt Review‘s annual baseball issue.

A Box of Chocolates in China

I cling to the back of a motorcycle, my hair wild in the wind, arms clenched around the slim waist in front. I am flying through the night, lights winking as we buzz around bumper-to-bumper traffic in a Chinese city of three million. Have I lost my mind, never having been on a cycle in my life? Am I so immersed in the culture I just don’t give a damn? Or is it love, crazy love?

How did I end up here? I responded to an ad: Volunteer for a month teaching in China. From that point everything careened out of my control.

*     *     *

I am flying through the night, lights winking as we buzz around bumper-to-bumper traffic in a Chinese city of three million. Have I lost my mind, never having been on a cycle in my life? Am I so immersed in the culture I just don’t give a damn? Or is it love, crazy love?

The orientation took place on a tree-covered campus in Virginia. Eleven of us sat through the spiel of The Chinese Lady Professor whose project we had become. She assigned the volunteers: four to elementary kids in summer English Camp, four as high school tutors, and two to a northern university near Russia.

I looked around, perplexed. “You haven’t assigned me.”

You will teach the teachers.”

What!? I wanted little kids, games with flash cards, like cat and dog. Fun. “I work with high school students,” I said, “and I was hoping for something different.” I didn’t say easier, but that’s what I meant. And she knew it.

The Lady Professor paused and looked over her list.

“But you filled out the questionnaire that you would work . . . let me see . . . wherever needed. I need you to teach the teachers. English teachers in China recertify just as you do, every few years. The government requires they be taught by a native speaker with a Masters in English. It’s you. Don’t worry, you’ll be great, trust me.”

Trust you! I should walk out and drive home. Well, I didn’t, but I sulked, and the snit lasted awhile. During break I had a talk with myself in the Ladies Room: Okay, put your money where your mouth is. You talk about teaching in a foreign country, your next great career. Quit talking, get off your ass, and do it.

I smiled at The Chinese Lady Professor. “Okay, I’ll do it. I’m supposed to fill up four hours a day for a month, right? So, where’s the curriculum?”

“You’ll bring it,” she responded, with what looked like a smirk.

*     *     *

August, 2001. Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, China.

I stand in front of my class with the first of my brilliant teaching strategies, The Quotation for the Day.

“Each day we’ll start with a quotation. I’ve brought dozens. We’ll talk about the quotation in English without worrying about grammar. Chat away. It would be fun if you’d bring quotations too. Something meaningful, maybe a family saying.”

No response. They smile.

Twenty-two faces look up at me, nodding. I am Teacher, what they call me on day one and every day afterwards. Not my last name, not my first name, not anything I suggest. Simply, Teacher. Twenty-two Chinese teachers will treat me like royalty, argue over who has lunch with me, who takes me shopping, who gets me for dinner.

Now, however, they just smile.

“In my country when we don’t know the origin of a saying, we claim it’s an Old Chinese Proverb. For instance, here’s my favorite.” I write it on the board: Give me a fish and I eat today. Teach me to fish and I eat for the rest of my life.

They smile. A timid voice from the back, “We don’t know that one. It’s not Chinese.”

“Oh, okay. Do you have one you’ll share?”

No takers.

“Come on. In my country we participate in class. I need a quotation.”

They smile. Silence. Finally a hand in the air. It’s Ivan, twenty-one, the youngest in my class. Ivan’s not his name, or course, but they insist on using the English names they chose in university—Ivan, Leaf, Stream, Moon. I call them whatever they want.

Ivan waves his hand. “I have one, my favorite.”

Everyone smiles, waiting.

‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get.'”

Now no one’s smiling. They’re looking around, nodding, laughing, and the ice is broken. They agree it’s wonderful, and they all know it.

“From my favorite movie, Forrest Gump,” says Ivan. “Forrest’s mother says it. The movie is about surprising things in life, and I agree. Life is about surprises.”

From that moment, the first hour of my first day in a class in China, I find that almost everything I have assumed is wrong. The Chinese I meet are not shy conformists, not unassertive, not out of the global mainstream. They are not immune to capitalism, ignorant of world history, lousy foreign language speakers, or all afraid of their government. Not characters out of a Pearl Buck novel. Not much different from me.

For one month I am enchanted and battered by the kaleidoscope that is China. My students stun me with knowledge, embarrass me with personal questions, frighten me with insights, challenge me with assertions, and humble me with kindness.

*     *     *

A few days after my arrival I walk my neighborhood, forced outside to fight loneliness. The students leave me after lunch, and except for special invitations, I’m on my own until next morning pick-up. The other volunteer Americans live outside the city, teaching kids in English Camp. They have each other, but I’m alone, feeling sorry for myself.

Ridiculous. So you can’t speak the language or read the street signs, just go out and wander. I grab a hotel card with directions in Chinese, pay attention to landmarks, and meander through the neighborhood. I find the river, sit under newly planted trees, and read.

Every day going to the river, I pass an old woman, squatting on her haunches, hawking fruit, glaring at me. Intimidated, I walk across the street to avoid her. One day, though, I look the old woman directly in the eyes and call out, “Ni hao,” the one phrase I know in Chinese—hello.

She jerks around, taken aback. A grin spreads across her face, revealing toothless gums. “Hello,” the old woman shouts in English, cackling like a hen. “Hello, hello, hello.” Every day afterward she waves and calls as I pass.

After the old lady welcomes me to street life, wandering becomes part of my day. I scramble through back streets of the market, swatting flies, my nose assaulted by dried blood, foul water, rotten fruit, and urine. Pigs’ heads, chicken carcasses, ducks’ feet, and unrecognizable innards dangle on iron hooks, but I don’t ask what they are. I adore Chinese food and help myself to most everything on a buffet, but usually I don’t ask what I’m eating. One day with Ivan I had broken my rule. “This is delicious, like corned beef. What is it?”

“Donkey,” Ivan replied, “a specialty of this restaurant. Not cheap.” Since then I’ve not asked. The only thing I refuse is fried scorpion, which looks too much like what it is.

*     *     *

One day in class as we discuss American history—and my students know lots of it—I digress to McCarthyism and the ‘commie scare’ of the 50s. I end by commenting, “It was a dark chapter in American history.”

A few days later Laura, my oldest student, recounts her experiences in the Cultural Revolution. She’d grown up in a house full of books until the Revolution, when she read Western classics secretly from torn-out chapters hidden throughout the house. “I could never get the whole plot because we had only a chapter here and there. Now I read the whole book and say, ‘Oh, so that’s how it ended.’ . . . The Cultural Revolution was a dark chapter in Chinese history.”

I choke, hearing my words echoed verbatim. I am stunned, almost frightened, by the power I have in this classroom. In some ways, my students are sponges, and I wonder if I should be more careful what I say.

The class talks of religion, politics, books, AIDS, postpartum depression, teenagers, and even Falun Gong—which we were told during orientation not to discuss under any circumstances. “Are there forbidden subjects in China?” I finally ask.

My students are indignant. “There are no forbidden topics. What are you talking about?” There’s nothing they don’t want to know, so after a couple of days, I quit worrying, and talk about whatever they request.

One day someone asks me to sing the American national anthem, which I wouldn’t have done earlier. I joke that it’s too hard, I can’t sing, and I don’t know the words, all true. They insist. So instead of The Star Spangled Banner, I belt out, completely off key, My Country ‘Tis of Thee. At least I know all the words.

They love it. After a round of applause, they beg me to write every word on the board so they can copy it. Then suddenly the entire class is singing it with me. A few tears sneak down my cheeks while I sing like a kid about my country in a sterile classroom halfway around the world. I never really thought about the words before.

What’s happening? Something’s getting weird here.

*     *     *

“What do you want to discuss today?” I ask the next morning. No longer hesitant, my students fight to pick the Topic of the Day.

“The One Child policy,” someone answers, and a lively debate ensues with strong opinions on both sides.

“We must keep it. It is the backbone of our strong economy and our new place in the world.”

“No, it’s immoral and should be illegal. A government should not dictate such things. It’s a family decision.”

“The peasants are the problem. They get exemptions that no one else gets. That’s not fair.”

“If we want to increase the standard of living and feed everyone, we need it.”

“Soon there will be no one to take care of the elderly, too few young people, and too many old people.”

“But that wouldn’t happen if young people still had the old values of responsibility. They’re too busy moving to the cities, getting ahead in their jobs, making money, buying clothes, and going to clubs.”

“What happens if you have more than one child?” I interrupt.

“We lose our jobs,” a couple of my students respond simultaneously.

“My mother had an abortion two years after I was born,” says Ivan. “She was sad and didn’t want to have it, but she had to or lose her job. Sometimes I wonder what my sister would have been like.”

I’m excited now. Here’s a topic I’ve wanted to explore since the day I arrived. “During the weekend I went to Pingyao with the other Americans,” I say. A six hundred year old UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pingyao is a village in the country, architecturally and historically significant. “We were walking down the main street when I saw a blackboard in the square with chalked numbers. Our guide thought it had something to do with numbers of children. Anybody know?”

“I know,” says Stream, the only one of my students who lives in the country. Principal of a rural elementary school, he rides his bicycle two hours round-trip each day to come to my class.

“Peasants are allowed more than one child,” explains Stream, “depending on circumstances. They can have two if they are elderly or disabled, or if the first child is a girl—they need boys in the country. But no more than two children are allowed. Sometimes, though, the peasants don’t care about the rules, and they’ll have three, four, or more. If they do, then the village committee fines them for each additional child. What you saw in Pingyao is the name of each peasant who owes a fine. His name will stay on the blackboard until he pays. The fine is huge, and the peasant is poor. Sometimes his name is there until he dies, and the family inherits the debt.”

At this point my students ask me what I think about the One Child policy. Each side wants me to support its conclusion.

“I came to China thinking it was a bad policy, but now I’m not sure. I’ve never seen so many people, and I can only imagine what it was like before the policy. I understand why the government thinks it’s necessary, but I also understand women like Ivan’s mother who grieves for her unborn child.”

I’m thankful not to have such a decision. Keep a child, lose a job; keep a job, lose a child.

*     *     *

We continue the exhausting One Child debate during lunch, and after my students finally leave, I head upstairs for a nap. Strains of The Wedding March waft down the hall next to the elevator—not music I expect in China. I peek around the corner and find a wedding in progress. The band stops, the bride and groom begin their toasts, and they spot me, embarrassed, spying on the gathering. The couple stops in mid-toast, and I prepare to flee. But they leave the table, come to the door, and pull me into their reception.

The bride wears the red dress of the traditional Chinese wedding. A formal ceremony, like this one—in a hotel, red dress, banquet, orchestra, cake, flowers, hundreds of guests—occurs months or even years after the civil ceremony. Couples wait until they, or their families, can afford the huge celebration, and sometimes it never happens. A number of my students have been married for years with no red dress yet.

The bride takes my hand and pulls me to the head table. Suddenly I am an honored guest, and the entire wedding party drinks a toast to me. Traditionally they drink three ‘neat’ cups of alcohol as a toast. I throw one down, and although they cheer, holding up two more fingers, I decline.

I escape as soon as I can, but the wedding makes my day. The entire incident takes place with none of us having the vaguest idea what the other is saying, smiles and gestures the international language we all understand.

I am never lonely again in China.

*     *     *

If I want to be lonely, or even alone, Cherry will not allow it. My most assertive, boisterous student, Cherry becomes my guide to life outside of class.

“Tomorrow we go to the Night Market,” she says one day. “We’ll eat and arrive when it opens at eight, stay a couple hours, not until midnight when it closes. No one comes to Taiyuan without visiting the Night Market. It’s one of the most important parts of our culture, and you won’t believe it.”

“Okay.” I don’t argue with Cherry. No one argues with Cherry.

Born into poverty, she grew up with a disabled widowed mother in a cold water flat on the top floor of a building with no elevators. As a child Cherry trudged to the basement every day, mixed water and coal to make ‘coal cake’ and hauled it up four flights of stairs. After supporting her mother and three younger siblings for years, she married late. Cherry is short, with a ragged, spiky haircut and crooked, brown teeth, but what she lacks in appearance, she makes up for in guts.

A feminist, Cherry takes no guff from men and considers most of them dependent and self-indulgent. “I will quit teaching, get a PhD in international relations, and go into government. If my husband doesn’t like it, I’ll divorce him, and he can stay here.” So much for the stereotype of submissive Chinese women.

I love this woman, but sometimes she’s a little scary. When she bargains, she turns into a harridan. A couple of weeks ago, I made the mistake of telling Cherry I wanted silver zodiac charms, after which she bargained with a street vendor, and it got ugly. Bargaining is serious business in China, elevated to high art, and when Cherry swings into gear, I don’t want to be within an arm’s length of her. She’s formidable, even mean. Maybe it’s my American sensibility, but extreme bargaining embarrasses me, so that day I moved away and pretended not to be with her.

The charms were cheap, and I was willing to give the woman her asking price, but Cherry would not have it. “She’s cheating you because you’re a foreigner, and I won’t allow it.” I suspect her attitude was about more than that, but I said nothing. We stood at the stall for twenty minutes while the arm gestures increased, voices of the two women rose higher until they were shrieking, and a circle surrounded us, like spectators at a boxing match. This was high drama, even for China.

Cherry won, of course. She snatched the money from my wallet, threw it contemptuously on the table and smiled at me, her crooked, gold capped teeth gleaming. I was humiliated and felt like a cheap, unsympathetic foreigner. The woman who lost the duel gave us both a disgusted look, muttered under her breath, and spat on my shoe. An ugly scene.

*     *     *

I dread to think how many conflicts Cherry might instigate in an area as big as The Night Market, which is where she takes me now.

Sales start at eight, but vendors set up when they leave their day jobs. By the hundreds they migrate to their stalls, and the largest Night Market in Northern China unfolds. For blocks along both sides of the street, hawkers sell everything from toilet seats to trashcans, blouses to baby clothes, candy to vinegar, bicycle wheels, pirated CDs, fruit, jewelry, junk. And a unique meat on a stick—donkey penis.

You name it, someone’s got it, and if he doesn’t, he’ll go around the corner and get it. Men, women, and teenagers—everyone’s got something to sell. I’m flabbergasted by the conspicuous consumption, the ingenuity of the entrepreneurs, and the selection of wares. What’s going on? This doesn’t look like communism.

I ask Cherry, the political scientist, who sets me straight.

“In China we are communists in government, not in economics. We are as capitalistic as you Americans, and a person’s income in the marketplace is limited only by how hard he works. Everyone here has a regular salary, but they make a lot more at market than on the job. Someone’s always thinking of something new to sell. Everything in China changed after Mao’s death, when Deng Xiaoping declared a socialist market economy. ‘To make money is good,’ he said. He was a wonderful man. We missed him when he died. With him, we became a nation of entrepreneurs.”

At dinner a few nights before, Ivan had put it more poetically. “Deng Xiaoping said that whether you are a black cat or a white cat doesn’t matter. If you can catch a mouse, you are a good cat.” I had nodded as if I understood.

I don’t understand Deng Xiaoping’s cat, but I do understand that if what I witness here at The Night Market is duplicated in thousands of cities and villages throughout this country, China could become the world power of the twenty-first century.

*     *     *

A few days later Cherry continues to expand my understanding of The New China. “I’m taking you to The English Corner tonight.” She has become the self-appointed director of my social calendar.

“Every Friday night anyone who wants to practice English shows up in the square to chat for a couple of hours with hundreds of others who want to speak English. Everyone from kids to grandmothers. There are no rules, except we cannot speak anything but English the whole time. You’ll love it, you’ll be a big hit.”

And she’s right. I am mobbed like a movie idol, everyone pushing in to chat with me, even a press reporter who’s gotten wind of my presence. This might seem incomprehensible, but Taiyuan is not a city where foreigners drop in every day. I am a sensation. The reporter inundates me with questions, wanting my impression of his city: Do you think Taiyuan is pretty? Polluted? What do you like about the place? Dislike?

The city is horribly polluted, under a gray industrial haze so thick I never see the sun. Everyone knows this, and the reporter does too. I want to answer honestly, particularly about the environment, but I’ve become Chinese enough to put on a good face, so I don’t tell the entire truth. Instead of talking about the filthy air, I compliment the new trees by the river.

One mother elbows the reporter and pushes her son in front of me, commanding, “Speak to the foreigner.” And to me, “Speak to my son. He’s twelve and needs to practice.”

In perfect English, without an accent, the wide-eyed boy asks, “Do you have a Chinese Corner in your city where everyone comes to practice Chinese on Fridays?”

I am too humiliated to answer and pretend not to hear.

*     *     *

After the English Corner I lie awake, thinking about the global impact of language. I feel guilty not having learned any Mandarin. Typically I learn a little language when I travel and I carry a phrase book. Not this time. I had bought books and cassettes, but my attempt to speak lasted two days. Pronouncing ma with four different inflections did me in, to say nothing of thousands of indecipherable written characters.

“Don’t you hear the difference?” asked Li, the Chinese student I recruited to help me before I left home. “These are four different words, pronounced in distinct ways. If you don’t get it right, you could make a terrible mistake. There’s a rising tone, falling tone, even tone, and a lilting tone that combines a fall with a rise.” You’ve got to be kidding! After I called my mother a donkey, I called the whole thing off. My attempt to learn some Mandarin was depressing me to the point where I no longer looked forward to the journey.

The language thing makes me wonder about the role of our country in the twenty-first century. Do we suffer from complacency, arrogantly assuming everyone will speak English? Will we follow Great Britain into history books as the next ‘has been’? China has mandated that beginning in 2002 every first grader will study English. Already, privileged kids compete for spots in weekend and summer English camps, for which their parents pay steep prices. The government has put out an international call for native English speaking teachers for all areas of the country, offering special stipends in the far northwest autonomous region near Tibet.

“You should stay and teach in Urumqi,” urges Cherry. “Five hundred US dollars per month, a free apartment, and transportation costs. You could come to Taiyuan for holidays and visit me.”

Five hundred U.S. dollars a month is a fortune in China. I could live like a Hong Kong ex-pat, even hire a cook and a maid, and I think seriously about this for maybe two minutes. I have obligations at home—family and a full-time job. I’ve barely been able to carve out a month for this adventure, so staying is out of the question. I tuck the idea in the back of my mind and return my attention to my current students.

*     *     *

The month speeds by with invitations to homes and restaurants, and before I know it, I’m packing my bags with a mixture of excitement and despondency.

My last day in class, my last day in Taiyuan, almost my last day in China, I arrive to a class bustling with energy, too excited to keep a secret. “Surprise,” they call out. “We have a party for you.” What am I to do with my careful plans for the last day? I am, after all, American, and a teacher to the core—always evaluations.

“Oh, forget the evaluations,” I concede. “Let’s party.” They’ll never tell me the truth anyway—they like everything I do.

Out comes the food, the dishes I have come to love in this great sprawling buffet of a country. Laura has been up since four a.m., making me moon cakes, time-consuming holiday treats—sweetmeats wrapped in fragile bamboo leaves, tied with delicate ribbons of straw, works of art. I am touched almost beyond words.

“Why would you get up so early to make these?”

“Because,” she responds, “I love you.”

*     *     *

After the party Ivan asks me to go out that night to celebrate his twenty-second birthday in a dumpling restaurant. Not his mom, not his dad, not his friends. Me.

“I will pick you up on my motorcycle, and I swear I will drive as carefully as if you were my mother. I feel as if you are my godmother. So I will take great care.”

After three hours, three dozen dumplings, and a bottle of rice wine, before he takes me home, I extract a promise from Ivan. He will follow his dream, break out of the teaching he never wanted, return to university, and become the journalist he thinks he can be.

I sit on the back of the motorcycle, my hair blowing in the night wind, and chant my mantra: I am in love with this country, I am in love with these people, I will return, I will return.

*     *     *

AFTERWORD

Two weeks after I came home from China, on September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center came down. My college daughter sat on the roof of her dormitory at Columbia University and looked downtown as black smoke billowed into the sky. Emails poured in from my friends in China: Are you okay in Virginia? . . . Do you live close to the Pentagon? . . . Is your daughter safe in New York City? . . . Did you lose friends in the collapse? . . . We are sad for you, for your family, for your country . . . Our hearts are with you . . . China grieves for the U.S. . . . We love you.

In August, 2001, I walked on The Great Wall, marveled at The Forbidden City, wandered in the Temple of Heaven, gaped at the Terracotta Warriors, and cried on the stones of Tiananmen Square. I know this because I have photographs of me in those places; but when I think of China, I don’t visualize Beijing, Xian, or Shanghai. I see twenty-two faces filled with love and friendship in a gray classroom in a gray city that no one visits. When I hear complaints—everything’s made in China, the Chinese poison babies and dog food, China causes the crisis of the dollar, China instigates North Korea—I do not join in.

For me, China is no longer faceless.

Esther JohnsonEsther Whitman Johnson is a former high school counselor and English teacher from Southwest Virginia who now travels the globe doing volunteer gigs on five continents, often writing about her journeys. She has completed a dozen international builds with Habitat for Humanity, the last in Mongolia, the next in Bolivia. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Broad River Review, Main St. Rag, Artemis, Dirty Chai, Colere, Earth’s Daughters, Virginia Literary Journal, among others. She was first runner-up for the 2014 Ron Rash Poetry Award and winner of 2014 Asheville Writers Memoir competition. “A Box of Chocolates in China” is the short version of a chapter in her travel memoir in progress.

Preparing a Place

I am looking for someone. On the subway. At the hospital. Walking the sticky streets of the in-town neighborhood where I live in the shadowy, noirish, lost-dog summer nights. It takes me a long time to realize what I am supposed to be doing. Two years, maybe.

In my self-involved twenty-something way, I consider two years an unbearably long time. I think I’ve already seen enough of life to retreat from it. Enough has already gone wrong, gone past, or one way or another ended up in the “out” basket to give me grounds for resignation. A two-year long marriage, though much of that time was spent living in a “commune” with other people. I was fired twice from teaching jobs and left a few other jobs without waiting to be asked. Cohabiting with a student was a contributing cause in one of these departures. Missing school breakfasts at a residential school for special needs students was the official reason in another—when they work that hard to find a reason, you know they are so looking forward to saying goodbye.

I did my share of saying goodbye as well. I walked away from the hippie house where I lived for two years with the people I “loved,” a verb I was not afraid to use in those days and seldom used afterwards, until (as I wrote then in a poem) “love turned to words.” Sometimes hard words: I specialized in resignation letters, well-reasoned kiss-offs. The home of my youth, a family by choice, best friends, communards, all left behind. A second stab at community ended more quickly and bitterly.

Disillusioned, I filled the hole with “relationships.” One with a teenager with a drug problem, followed by a couple of unequal liaisons. When I found myself on the gives-more-than-receives end I wrote another goodbye-cruel-world letter and followed the wisdom of I Ching: the superior man knows when to retreat. But as seasons passed, my retreat became a surrender, my withdrawal an isolation. One winter night in the last days of February, a friend drove me to a rundown building in a Boston neighborhood city and helped me carry my stuff up a narrow, winding stairwell. He told me to call him if I needed anything, but I didn’t have a phone.

I would dearly have preferred some sort of window treatment to the metaphor of vulnerability, of naked anonymous exposure to an uncaring world, offered by my uncurtained window. But the prospect of doing something about it defeated me. I had no idea how to acquire curtains, or how much they cost.

I chose the path of solitude. I wondered how far that path would go, and whether I would know it when I came to its end.

I lived in that dark old building like an alcoholic who didn’t drink. My life was shabby, unwashed, neglected; hand to mouth; colored with occasional outbursts of irresponsibility. I permitted a cranky old car still registered in my name to rot on a city street, its tires slowly flattening. (This karmic trespass caught up to me a decade later.) The dog I was taking care of for a girl, the remnant of a last entanglement, sometimes crapped in the empty room of my apartment, especially on the nights I neglected to walk her. Sometimes I didn’t bother cleaning it up for days.

No telephone. No shower. I had a job in a hospital that would bore a high school dropout.

My condition cried out for intervention, rescue, a humanitarian mission. I was a failed state in need of a strong injection of external resources.

I needed someone.

And amazingly some part of me realized it. Because I began looking.

*    *    *

In the spring of the year in which I tried to resign from the human race but failed, I found myself wanting people. Female people, mostly. I worked on talking to the girls at my time-killing job in a city hospital. A short, cute blonde dropped by the room where I operated a mimeograph machine to chat, telling me she was engaged to a guy who lived in a different city—yet here she was in my doorway again. I liked her and her message was decidedly mixed, but I couldn’t get over the engagement thing. I was in my second adolescence: shy, insecure, defensive, while given to unexpected bouts of absurd over-confidence. I had a low threshold for complications of any sort. I needed someone to set the bar clearly; then I would leap over it, catch my foot, fall on my face. Another co-worker took me home to meet her father, but the invitation, as she carefully explained, was “not a date.” That made it safe. I changed into my sneakers so I could walk on a beach in Quincy and left my leather shoes at her house in a paper bag.

Back in my colorful, clannish North End neighborhood I frequented a Store 24 where the night clerk, a dark-haired siren, chatted to me about the joys of being Italian. Nothing developed there either because while she was attractive, she wasn’t the one. The talkative young wife out looking for her dog one spooky summer night found me instead. We stood on the sidewalk making tentative sense of the universe while a man stood in a doorway calling her name with growing irritation. No place for me there.

When I began to cross paths with Anne, however, the slender, smart-sounding admissions clerk who worked at the other end of the hospital taking insurance information from the poor souls who stumbled into the emergency room, I was at once struck with worry over what she would think of my life. The gloomy apartment, the bathroom in the hall, the shabby room where I kept the dog who sometimes used it to—well, I covered that point. But did I mention that when I failed to come home at night she would break into my cupboard and eat an entire bag of sugar, for instance, or something equally un-doglike and throw up on the floor?

I knew my living conditions posed some challenges.

I’m not sure who made the first move. Anne’s memory is that she made a point of walking by the little room off the corridor where the distribution clerk (me) pretended to be doing something. She saw me reading a book and flashed me her special smile. Somehow I failed to respond.

What I remember is nearly running her over in the corridor; and then Anne apologizing (though it was as much my fault); and the glow of the physical contact remaining with me for the rest of the day. I took it as a sign.

We had a casual date. The little complications of life make me stumble. The girl at the hospital who took me on outings that were not, we agreed, dates said she would see me for lunch in the cafeteria as usual. But I was not having lunch as usual, I was having lunch with Anne. A social coward, I neglected to mention this fact, and so, an hour later in the noontime hubbub of the cafeteria, two women eyed one another while I stumbled over an introduction. The not-a-date girl took the hint and backed off. The next day she brought me my shoes in their paper bag.

Anne and I went out to a jazz club (definitely a date). Anne only pretended to drink whatever she ordered. I drank only the one-drink minimum, because I couldn’t afford more. We listened to the music and talked between sets, both of us relieved to get past the first date.

Things progressed, but then came the Sunday afternoon when we met for a walk. The day was hot and the North End lethargic. Should I tell you how being “hot” affects Anne, burning her pale blue eyes and wilting her enthusiasm? (Well, I suppose now I have.) We went back to her apartment where she appeared to tire quickly of my company. I was on my way to the door when, apropos of something, I uttered the phrase “when I was married.”

“You were married?”

I told her the tale. It took a long time. I highlighted the more intense events, Penny’s dramatic runaway, the confrontation with the psychiatrist who wanted to lock her and her married partner-in-escapism up in a psych ward. I acknowledged some of my own subsequent (and concurrent) peccadilloes, such as my failure to realize that the girl I was doing a thing with, as we said then, had become addicted to heroin. What “thing” did I believe I was doing if I failed to notice this elephant in the room?

I was wooing Anne, I told myself, like Othello arousing Desdemona’s sympathies with his war stories. Some role model. (I knew Othello, a voice whispered, and you’re not him.)

*    *    *

A couple of weeks later, I waited patiently in a bland administrative corridor far from the crises of Anne’s emergency room or the surgery wards, where I delivered medical orders and prescriptions and picked up gossip.

“What are you doing here?” Anne asked, leaving an unhappy meeting with a supervisor who was unable to find time for her until after her shift. “I told you not to wait.”

I made no answer. My presence was the answer. I was there because I was remembering how to be a human being. And because she was the one.

Though she had told me not to wait, she was happy to see me. We left the hospital together and, for the first time, ended up at my apartment. This was not a moment free of conflict and apprehension for me. I have already mentioned a few of this place’s special qualities, such as the absence of a bathroom or a phone. My apartment was on the fourth floor of a dark, damp, ancient building in an ethnic neighborhood with an Old World feel that was clinging to its clannish black-coated, black-veiled, foreign-film, urban-peasant lifestyle with its desperate, garlic-scented fingertips. The sixties never happened in the North End. A long-haired single male was unlikely to find anyone to rent to him, but for some reason an old building squeezed between banana warehouses was owned by an embittered Polish immigrant with her own hang-ups.

She rented me the place for very little. We got along well enough until Anne showed up in my life.

When Anne came to my place that first afternoon and completed the thirty-second tour the place merited, she offered no judgments though I could almost taste the blood from her bitten tongue. She stood in the doorway of one of the small, dark, unkempt rooms and said, “Is this where you sleep?”

Suddenly I realized that we were going to make love for the first time.

My eccentric bedroom space, however, presented a problem. The bedroom window, as it still embarrasses me to recall, lacked a curtain even though my windows and those of the apartment in the neighboring building were kissing-cousin close. The view from my bedroom window was what you saw in old, black-and-white movies set in atmospherically depressed tenements: another tenement. I lived in a noir.

I would dearly have preferred some sort of window treatment to the metaphor of vulnerability, of naked anonymous exposure to an uncaring world, offered by my uncurtained window. But the prospect of doing something about it defeated me. I had no idea how to acquire curtains, or how much they cost. And nobody in my life I felt I could ask. As the expression goes, you can either light a candle or curse the darkness. I didn’t even bother to curse. I changed in the dark and went to bed.

But now, finally, after a year alone in my dungeon, there was too much on the line.

“But what about the windows?” I asked, desperately. “I have no curtains.”

“We’ll just have to hang something over them.”

My god. A problem solved.

Instead of getting mad at me, throwing up her hands, storming out of the house in disgust at my inadequacy, telling me I was pathetic, or merely leaving in a dignified huff, Anne found some sheets and draped them over the windows so we could take our clothes off and go to bed together without fear of the world watching.

A revelation. An approach to life that challenged my hopeless embrace of misery by making things better. Not a world revolution, maybe, but a personal revelation.

After that we were an item, a relationship that punctured the shell of my obstinate self-defeating singularity. I didn’t get better all at once. I was often distant, grumpy, unresponsive to conversation, sleepless, dream-haunted. Anne’s old friends came to visit, but I withdrew into puerile silence. I didn’t want to share her attention.

But changes happened. Anne talked me into getting a telephone in my apartment, though the poor technician almost fell off the roof trying to find a wire to plug it into while some crazy woman screamed at him. “Oh,” I said, “you’ve met my landlady.” I got the phone so we could discuss plans (your place? my place? nobody’s place?), but it turned out I wasn’t very good at talking on the telephone.

Our relationship was not seamless. I did not realize how much younger than me Anne was because I found in her a maturity and responsibility I lacked. I had thrown away the need for those qualities when I jettisoned the ideas and values (or so I believed) of the conventional, middle-class world and assumed I would find somewhere else to live. Now that I had sunk those illusions and gone down with my ship, I did not find it easy to pick up the useful everyday real-world skills I had shoved somewhere into the back of my brain, like some abandoned needlework project left to get tangled up in a closet. My personality was buried under the old shoes in the back of that closet. Not only was I unable to solve the conundrum of how to cover my bedroom window, I slept without sheets because I did not wash clothes, except in extremis, and sheets were just too big a job. I did not buy anything I literally couldn’t do without, and that narrowed the field to food and cigarettes. I had minimal social skills and couldn’t get on with anyone who required a demonstration of them on my part. When I interviewed for a job, I could not think of any reason to offer why I wanted it except for a pressing need to pay my rent. The hospital personal director hired me while candidly predicting, “You won’t stay.” (Yes, but I hope to be vertical when I leave.) My minimal conversational skills did not include inviting anyone to my place because I was ashamed of it. I couldn’t picture abiding anyone’s company for more than a half an hour without withdrawing into a sullen silence, which limited my circle to those few “old friends” accustomed to my depression and strangeness.

So Anne’s ability to improve my performance in the basic area of sustained companionship, in addition to her demonstrated practical skills in areas such as washing sheets and installing them on my bed, established her in my reckoning as at least a peer. She wasn’t. She was only a year out of college.

Still, she had lived long enough in those youth-oriented days to have her share of relationship history and disappointing conclusions. As I was to discover when the time came, at least in my view, to take the next step.

*    *    *

We met at the end of an evening that we had spent apart in a coffee shop on Cambridge Street, midway between my place in the North End and the apartment she shared with roommates on Beacon Hill. The winds blew; the night was cold. City lights hid most of Orion, but I had seen its brighter stars when I crossed the windy desert of City Hall plaza, because nowhere in the city was the air colder and clearer than that expanse of empty pavement in front of the old town’s modernist city hall. Still, I took that walk gladly because something was on my mind.

“I think we should live together,” I said, sitting across from my salvation. “This figuring out what we want to do every night is getting me down.”

“I’m not sure I’m ready,” she replied at length.

I took a breath and drew on my deep experience of relationships.

“It’s natural. It’s what people do when they’re serious.”

I did have other arguments at hand. My domestic qualifications might not have shone in anyone’s first impression of that dump on North Street, but I was making progress. We now had sheets on my bed. I had given up smoking. The dirty foster-dog had gone back to its owner, an ex-girlfriend. (Anne was always delighted to meet my ex-girlfriends. They hung on the border of things, possibly because I was willing to take care of their dog or paint their apartment. Anne’s approach to ex-lovers was goodbye, good riddance, get out of my life.)

Some of my rusty life-skills, besides dog-walking and painting old apartments, were returning. I could cook well enough (rice and stir-fried vegetables) to keep two people alive. Anne was a vegetarian who did not cook often and at times appeared to subsist solely on bread. Besides, we had good times together. Stir-frying the stuff we bought from sidewalk vendors at Haymarket; going out somewhere inexpensive (such as to someone else’s apartment); walking back to her place; then having a little too much to drink before stumbling into bed together.

“I don’t want to rush things,” she replied.

I persisted, lowering my voice in the emptying cafe, muttering in a wounded, exasperated manner more to salvage my pride than to convince her, now that my bold proposal had apparently been rejected.

But Anne was talking to herself as well.

“All right,” she said abruptly. “But I never want to be in the position of having to divide up our things afterwards.”

I continued talking to myself, somehow having failed to hear the “yes.”

“Smile,” she said, with some exasperation of her own. “We’re going to live together.”

“We are?”

Later, much later, she told me she agreed because she was afraid of losing me.

I should have said, “I’m not like that. I’m faithful: like ice, like fire.”

Besides, I might also have said, “If we break up, you can have my things as well as yours. My ex-wife has already taken the good stuff.”

We left the cafe and separated for the night. She would be getting up early the next morning; I wouldn’t. We kissed goodnight on the sidewalk beneath invisible constellations.

I turned away and took a running step or two in the darkness. My heart leapt up.

*    *    *

It was the decision to live together that brought her parents up from New York City so we could eat together in a traditional Boston restaurant like the Union Oyster House and look at each other. All I could tell her parents was that I wrote poetry; I’d already quit the job at the hospital. The personnel director was right; but so was I, since I left with a lighter heart than I’d arrived with.

Oh and by the way, I’m not Jewish. We were all very cautious and careful and stepped lightly around one another, but I could tell her parents were kind people.

*    *    *

Committed now to cohabitation, we looked for an apartment in the North End, checking into any place with a sign out, and found a pretty spot on Copp’s Hill with the best of neighbors, a cemetery across the street. The landlady showed us the apartment, but then asked if we were married. We knew this could be a sticking point in old-country Catholic North End, but Anne said “no” without hesitation: to live in sin you must be honest. The landlady politely, but decisively, showed us the door.

We hadn’t even talked about marriage. Marriage was a serious step as I knew well, having already taken it once and fallen on my face. Who greased the stairs?

In Cambridge, where community standards were lower, we found a rare affordable apartment, a second story loft looking over a big front yard where the owner parked his enormous black shiny truck.

We lived happily above the truck in Cambridge. I collected unemployment (my favorite job), wrote poetry, connected with a group of other aspiring writers. We started our own “tabloid” lit mag published on newsprint. Liberating herself from the hospital, Anne was temp typing and applying to graduate school. Harvard accepted her, but UMass-Amherst came across with a better fellowship deal. When she took the better offer at an institution a hundred miles from Boston, I was faced with leaving my little poetry scene in Cambridge to follow her to the Pioneer Valley. Each twist in the road is a choice, a decision, a renewal of commitment.

We moved to Amherst and lived in the woods. Almost literally.

A year went by. Living, eating, washing the dishes. Getting excited over the scent of autumn in the air, the first snow, spring, the first flowers, conversations over books, movies, or newspaper stories in which we never precisely agreed but seldom seriously disagreed. Poking fun at one another’s foibles. At our own.

I found part-time work as a research assistant: a low-commitment opportunity that left a lot of time for long walks in the woods, followed by periods of notebook scribbling. Anne drove to the university (after I taught her how) and finished her course work in a year.

Things could have gone on this way. I would not have said anything was missing in my life. Money, opportunity, a career? I lived apart from the goods of the world—except, of course, for food, coffee, sweets, warmth, a roof over my head, books, and a warm body next to mine at the end of the day. Otherwise, I buried myself in words.

When the second autumn of our woodland idyll came, Anne said she had something to tell me. She was pregnant.

“When did we make this choice?” I asked myself. Now we had the conversations we should have had earlier, but they were tough and slow-going. I gave the wrong answer in one of these, or rather was unable to commit to any answer.

“Then I’ll have to get some counseling about my choices,” Anne replied.

The next time I was able to get together with myself, however–I mean with whatever it is inside of us we need to pay attention to and can sometimes hear if our inner ears are working–then the right answer was very clear. Very obvious. And felt good.

Did I want my life to go on just as it was? How long? Forever? Change nothing? Make no marks? Leave no footprints?

“We should get married and have the baby.”

Did I say it just like that? I don’t really remember.

Maybe she said it first and then I came to the same conclusion and thought I was the one who thought it up. Eureka! What an idea.

Life went on. You have made a decision. Your wife is pregnant. She discovers she wants to eat chicken, so you buy it, cook it.

Then one day you wake up before dawn and drive to the hospital. Something inexplicable happens—something totally unbelievable though it happens every day, all around you—and that changes absolutely everything in your life for about twenty-two years. Or, by another accounting, forever.

 

Robert KnoxRobert Knox is a husband, father, rabid backyard gardener, Boston Globe freelance writer, and blogger on nature, books, films, and other subjects. His short stories, poems, and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous literary publications, and he was named a Finalist in the Massachusetts Artist Grant Program in fiction. Recent publications include stories in The Tishman Review3288 Review, and An Earthless Melting Pot. His novel on the origins of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, Suosso’s Lane, was published in October 2015 by Web-e-Books.com.

I’ve Never Touched One

The year was 1993 and I was eight months pregnant and trapped in an elevator with an unstable guy who was rumored to have murdered his wife. I wanted to get out, but thought it would be rude, since I’d already told him I was going to the top floor for something to eat. Mr. Thomas was a large, shy man in his late 60’s and I was his social worker. We were in the Times Square Hotel, a residence for homeless people that my organization had recently converted into the largest supportive housing residence in the world. The place had been a rat-infested mess when we first took it over, with ceilings and walls falling down and crack addicts sleeping in the lobby with their weapons nestled to their faces like security blankets. We’d had to put Vicks Vapo-Rub under our noses when we entered just to stand the smell. 60 Minutes later said it looked like the Waldorf Astoria, when they did a story on it, and we were enormously proud to have created a beautiful home for people who had done with so little for so long. We were willing to do whatever it took to keep them living there for the rest of their lives, safe and stable. If we knocked on a resident’s door and were cursed out or spit upon, we simply went back the next day. And the next, and the next, and however many nexts it took to gain their trust. There was a grand piano in the elegant lobby with a sign “play me” and artists like Cindy Sherman lent their art for exhibitions and hung it alongside that of resident artists. Much like the physical renovations, it was thrilling to watch our residents morph from vulnerable discombobulated shadows into a closer semblance of the person they were meant to be.

I was dizzy with fear, my knees started to feel like they might give out on me and I thought, this is how people die.

The work veered from mundane to high stress, like being on the front lines in a war. Most homeless people aren’t dangerous—they’re just like us except a cruel combination of busted genes, bad luck, and betrayal conspire to derail their lives—but we were filling the place with 650 of them and many had serious chronic mental illness and substance abuse issues; the transition could be profoundly disorienting for those who had lived on the streets for years. Situations arise. In our line of work it was generally assumed to be your own fault if you got hurt by a resident, as most incidents were the result of bad judgment on the part of the worker. I’d had a table thrown at me, a gun pointed in my direction, and dodged a machete, which fell unexpectedly from a dropped ceiling, but I’d never been hurt. I’d been lucky but had a tendency to let my clients be overly familiar with me, which presented risks; starting with my first job as a student teacher I’d been criticized for acting in ways less than professional, when I’d allowed an emotionally disturbed student to braid my hair.

I was a young scrappy girl doing this as a real job, not to ‘give something back’ to anyone for gifts that had been bestowed upon me, which was the case with many of my co-workers who came from more privileged backgrounds. I went home to a tiny studio apartment all too similar to the ones in the Times Square Hotel and my sole income came from the salary.

I’d just come from a meeting where our treatment team had sat around a large conference table discussing Mr. Thomas and brainstorming ideas to help him avoid the impending meltdown he seemed headed for; he’d recently become uncharacteristically agitated, more withdrawn than usual, and was mumbling to himself. We wanted to head off the kind of emergency that brought out dozens of policemen in riot gear to address an EDP, or emotionally disturbed person, as many of our residents were labeled. I mentioned his intense loneliness and how embarrassed he’d been when I’d talked to him about his urinary incontinence. He said he could not discuss such things with a member of the opposite sex and that he was “still a man.” In the meeting, to the horror of my co-workers, I’d suggested we consider buying him a prostitute for a night or two, using our petty cash fund. We were located in the heart of the sex-for-hire-industry after all. I explained that we could coach her not to tell him she was being paid and the whole affair might give Mr. Thomas a boost of masculine confidence and let him know he was still connected in this world. The idea was shot down, not surprisingly.

After the meeting I’d hopped in the elevator to head up to the fifteenth floor garden roof deck when Mr. Thomas happened to enter just before the doors closed. I felt a twinge of claustrophobia and the nauseating smell of cigarettes, grease, and urine was impossible to escape. He began nervously running his left hand through his short hair while his right hand stayed suspiciously inside his bulging pocket. I couldn’t see his hand or get a good look at what was going on over there, because I did not, under any circumstances, want him to see me looking at him down there.

Mr. Thomas alternated his gaze between floor and ceiling, as if an invisible flying insect was trapped with us. We stood side by side in silence, me with my enormous belly sticking out and he with his—then he started cracking his knuckles loudly, as if preparing to throw a punch, and clicking his teeth together while sliding his jaw forward. I was dizzy with fear, my knees started to feel like they might give out on me and I thought, this is how people die. I had fainted once before, early on in my pregnancy, so the idea of passing out in a secluded room with a potentially dangerous man was not out of the question. But, I wanted to eat and was still trying not to be impolite, so I stayed. What’s the worst that could happen in the fifteen seconds we’ll be in here together?

We rose, floor by floor, as if they were centuries. “You going to the roof?” I asked. No reply. “It’s amazing how many plants are up there now, huh? The garden group has done a great job. . . . ” I trailed off as it was clear he didn’t want to talk.

Finally, my protective Mother instincts kicked in and I reached to push eight and get out of there.

“Um. I’ve never touched one before,” he said abruptly and sort of snort-chuckled.

What? Is he talking to me? I had three thoughts, in rapid succession: First, he was hearing voices telling him to touch one or more of my private parts. Second, he said this to his wife right before he killed her. And, third, maybe . . . he’d never touched a pregnant belly.

I was prickly with heat and my breathing was shallow. But, with only two floors to go, I thought, screw it, and took his hand in mine, both our gazes still fixed forward and unwavering, and placed it over my baby bump.

“If you leave it there, you might feel the baby move.” Amazingly, he left his hand in place and after a few seconds we both felt the baby kick. I turned towards him and he looked stunned, and then said, “Oh! Wow!”

“Boy or girl?” he asked. “We won’t know until the baby is born,” I whispered. And just like that, we were in on a surprise together, practically swapping stories and braiding each other’s hair.

The doors opened onto the bustling roof garden and sweeping views of midtown Manhattan. It felt like the elevator had its own time and space dimension and I almost didn’t want to get out. We walked in different directions, he towards the garden, and me, the food. I came out feeling like a better person–more alive, awake, and appreciative of everything around me. Sometimes it’s the smallest gestures that have the biggest impact.

I’d trusted the tiny little voice inside my head that day, the one that told me to connect to the humanness in this man, and it had changed my relationship with him, forever. Whenever I find myself in situations where I’m not sure what to do, I try to amplify that voice and to drown out all the superfluous noise about how will this look, or, what will people think, or, can you REALLY trust your instinct. It has been my experience that you can build your instincts the same as you build any other skills, by practicing.

And, Mr. Thomas was right, it was a boy.

Anne McGrathCommunity organizer and event planner Anne McGrath is devoted to the art and craft of storytelling. She has been featured on NPR’s Listener’s Essays and Speak Up, and lives with her husband, two sons, and two dogs in Rhinebeck, New York.

Taking the Edge Off

 

  1. IT’S BEEN A LOVELY DAY (EVEN IF I DID WANT TO KILL MYSELF)

“I find that being in a family is the most excruciating possible way to be alive.” —Anne Enright, The Gathering

Greetings all,

After a pleasant Thanksgiving with Mom and my siblings where he won all the after-dinner games, my father suffered a massive stroke. He’s currently on life support in the county hospital. Mom was also admitted, so they are on the same floor!

Dad is not expected to live, and Mom is referred to hospice, meaning the final months of her life.

That’s all I know at the moment, receiving hourly reports here in Manhattan, but please send loving thoughts as we all make this transition. 

My parents died exactly one year apart. It was as though a hole opened in the universe and sucked them away.

The upbeat, even cheerful tone reveals the depth of my denial, up to and including the exclamation point. And here’s the weirdest part, and if anyone can explain it by logical means, please let me know. My parents died exactly one year apart. It was as though a hole opened in the universe and sucked them away.

From early childhood, I suffered from depression. At various times, I believed that if I killed myself, I assumed power over pain and death. I tucked suicide into my back pocket, an option and sometimes a threat, to extract as needed. You can’t kill me because I’ll kill myself first.

“Who wanted you dead?” When I finally succumbed to asking for help, that’s what the grief counselor asked.

“Oh!” I said cheerfully. “Everyone!”

 

  1. IT WAS THIS

When your parents die, your molecular structure breaks down and is re-arranged. You literally become a different person. –Mark

The morning after my father died, I woke with energy and enthusiasm. I loved my first espresso in the bright Manhattan morning. I was ready to run out onto Broadway and dance around. Then my mood shifted. Mark, my partner of ten years, was distracted. He had a show coming up. When he is concentrating on his work, he hardly acknowledges me. This makes me crazy. Or it used to. Before I learned how to cry, if anyone ignored me, I felt invisible. Being invisible was akin to being dead.

I thought I can’t stay one more second in this stupid relationship.

“Are you ready to be a pioneer in the middle of nowhere?” I asked for the third time that morning. When Mark failed to respond, I said, “You don’t care about my feelings.”

“I’m tired of your feelings,” Mark said. He danced around in a fierce circle and pounded the air with his fists. “Why would I want to live in the middle of nowhere when I can be in Manhattan?”

I didn’t bother to respond. I could not wait until he left the apartment, and then I could not wait until he returned. As I followed him around the apartment, I felt like one of our dogs, dependent on his attention. That day, across the nation in sunny California, a famous writer hung himself, and I totally got it. At least I thought I did. I was more arrogant then. I thought Now he’s captured everyone’s attention forever. He’s saying: ‘Here is my pain and here its breadth and height and depth, its weight. This is how grief smells.

 

  1. HOW TO CRY

You only become yourself when both your parents are dead. -May Sarton

When Mark and I finally returned to the sea and sky of the Pacific Northwest, my father no longer in it, I was unprepared for the blow. Nearby, in hospice, my mother’s body died more slowly. For the months it took her to die, my universe shrank to the length of trails near our cabin and my mother’s bedside, and, when the only other choice on offer was drugs, the support group.

“Want something to take the edge off?” Sarah, the physician’s assistant, turns her face toward me, and for a moment, I’m bathed in her gaze. I exist.

“Yeah, a lethal injection,” I say. “Of course I want something to take the edge off.” I think I’m hilarious and ironic, but Sarah returns to the laptop she usually taps instead of looking at me. Suicidal ideation. I could be in big trouble for letting that slip out.

“If you refuse medication,” Sarah says, “the hospital offers a bereavement support group.” Crying lessons, I called the sessions I began to attend every week. As my mother shriveled, I hunched into a brown metal folding chair and shared secrets with strangers with whom I had nothing in common. Except, of course, death. We had death in common. That thing, that word you weren’t supposed to say. Just as I wanted all of Mark’s attention devoted to me, in the group I didn’t want to listen to other people’s sorrows. I wanted to writhe on the floor, my fellow mourners tossing tissues at me, or at least kicking the tissue box in my direction.

“Do not hand a tissue to someone,” the counselor said. “That’s an attempt to stop the crying.”

“Isn’t that why we’re here?” I asked. “To make the pain stop?”

Everyone looked at me and smiled. The other group members were always so nicely dressed, and smart, and dignified, yet I sensed that if I rolled around on the floor and sobbed, they’d be fine with it. And very quickly, despite myself, I did become interested in their lives. For one hour every week, I didn’t have to make tidy. I didn’t have to pretend my father passed. I could say my mother is dying. For one hour, I could rage at the dead and dying, or, more likely, at myself, or I could feel nothing at all. At times, I could even laugh.

 

  1. THE SCENIC ROUTE

Addiction to family impacts us on a cellular level, and because of this, escaping is like withdrawing from heroin. –Grief counselor

In Central Park, on my last day before returning West, the witch hazel started to bloom. When I arrived at my cottage in the West, the witch hazel my mother gave me burst with golden stars. I could hear her voice that winter afternoon in Port Townsend when she saw pots of witch hazel for sale on the sidewalk: “Would you like that for your birthday?” And without waiting for my response, she leaned over and swept the heavy pot onto her hip.

Grief became a screen that separated me from those I loved. Although I craved comfort, I forgot the rules of engagement. On some days, I couldn’t even remember how to talk. But worst of all was the exhaustion. My limbs felt heavy. I dragged myself from bed to espresso pot to shower, and then onto the forest paths to walk for miles, so tired I wanted to lie among the mosses and sleep. Several times, tended by my golden retriever and collie, I did. At night, if I finally managed to sleep, I jolted back awake, sometimes filled with terror, the child who has lost its parents and become prey.

Mark stuck it out. He wrapped himself around me like a warm and fragrant blanket, and his touch allowed me to relax in what felt like my own final days.

When we visited my mother, Mark always seemed to know how to be, perhaps because he tended his own mother as she died. He touched her and talked, or just sat quietly with a calm I lacked. My mother had no idea who I was, and without her recognition, it was as if I lacked a self. I dreaded visiting, and then felt guilty for my dread. Once, when ten days passed between visits, the hospice owner, Rosemary, said, “Long time no see,” and I obsessed about it for weeks.

The hospice consisted of two private rooms in the sea-facing home of a couple who grew organic fruits and vegetables. Chickens and dogs rambled around the property. Rosemary prepared meals from scratch and allowed my mother to eat or not eat as she chose. “She’ll eat when she feels like it,” Rosemary said, but I wanted to spoon feed my mother as if she were a baby I could somehow keep alive.

Sometimes, when I returned home, I imagined kayaking toward the horizon, and how it might feel to slide, gently, into the sea. Before my mother was moved into Rosemary’s house, she often kayaked alone, her arms whirling and her body almost invisible in the shallow seat.

“Should you be out there without a life preserver?” I called from the cliffs above the bay.

She shook her head. You really don’t get it, her look said.

 

  1. THE GRIEF-CAVE

In essence, a testimony is always autobiographical: it tells, in the first person, the shareable and unsharable secret of what happened to me, to me alone, the absolute secret of what I was in a position to live, see, hear, touch, sense, and feel. -Jacques Derrida

On that December morning in Manhattan, after my father’s sudden stroke, when I felt almost merry, there must have been some kind of shock to my immune system. Within weeks, I was struck by one cold and flu after another. Then came kidney stones, two or three bouts with trips to the emergency room. A tooth abscessed, requiring multiple surgeries and a gum graft, which then failed.

Being sick served a purpose. I could burrow into my grief-cave. In our Washington Heights sublet, I hung double layers of dark curtains over the windows, and when that wasn’t sufficient, I bought a silk eye cover. I inserted two layers of ear plugs. I had tumbled over some kind of edge, and my internal structure collapsed. I yearned for that merry day when the patriarch died, and I was, at last, free. Now I wanted to take the scenic route, as my mother always called it, and arrive someplace else.

“Is this normal recovery from a bone graft?” I asked the surgeon when the graft failed.

“No,” he said.

After a month in my isolation chamber, I started the walking cure. On my first day out, an airplane crash landed in the Hudson beside me. When everyone survived, I counted that as hope for me, too. I walked Manhattan for miles, up and down, back and forth, and around the length and width of Central Park. I didn’t listen to music or talk on my phone or look at people. I didn’t really even think.

One night while heading home at night, north on Broadway near Columbia University, I passed a brightly lit café. As I glanced inside, a young woman froze in place, swayed slightly, and then collapsed. I looked around for someone to help, but a policeman arrived almost instantly, and then another stood in the street to flag down the ambulance wailing its way through traffic.

I ran through the dark to our sublet. Once inside, I leaned against the wall, started crying, and could not stop. I replayed the image of the young woman’s collapse, an endless reel of a horror film. My heart pounded.

“What happened?” Mark asked.

“I wish that ambulance was for me,” I said.

Gradually, and then suddenly, like electric shock, a memory appeared as stark as that crashing plane in the Hudson. During my first semester at college, I held three jobs and still couldn’t make ends meet. I took on another, as an artist’s model, and was assaulted. The following morning, I showed up for one of my other jobs: serving pancakes and eggs to my peers. As I stood behind the food cart dishing out plates of food, I fainted.

“Get her out of here,” someone said. The food service inspectors were due at any minute, and when I awoke, I was back in my dorm room pounding my head against the wall.

 

  1. COMFORT MEASURES

Social contact constantly rearranges our DNA. -Anna Fels

After my mother could no longer drive, my parents were locked into a six-mile radius around their home. “You need to write your wishes,” I told them, “what you want after your death.” My parents sat in their usual places at the maple table we’d had since I was a kid, their one splurge covered with multiple layers of plastic, so that a lifetime later, the surface remained immaculate.

Obediently, my parents leaned over the bright green Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment Paradigm or POLST. They wrote rapidly, and without consulting each other. They knew exactly what they wanted and what they didn’t want. As if completing an exam, they handed the forms to me.

What about afterwards, I asked. Did they want a funeral? Cremation? What did they want then? They needed to write down their wishes about that, too. They glanced at each other and frowned.

“I want to donate my body to research,” my mother said.

“And then what?” I asked. “Do you want to be buried or cremated?”

“Buried,” my mother said. But when I asked her where, she had no idea.

“I don’t need a grave,” my father said. “Just scatter my ashes on the bay.”

“No scattering,” my mother said. “You’ll be beside me.” When my father shook his head, she looked him straight in the eye. “You’ll see,” she said, in a humorous mock-stern tone she often used with him.

I asked around our little village and learned that my parents qualified for a site in the historical cemetery. I contacted someone on the cemetery commission, an elected office, and secured one of the last available sites. My parents seemed disinterested in my efforts, but one afternoon, my mother asked me to drive her there. Just six miles from their cabin, the cemetery overlooks the bay, and the Olympic Mountains rise directly behind. The plot I’d chosen was beside that of the Native American founder of our village.

“You can have a line of poetry if you want,” I said, “on a stone.” She shook her head. Once again, I wasn’t getting it.

“Daddy,” she said.

Then I understood. She meant the grave was for him. That he would die first. And she was, of course, right.

 

  1. WAKE TO SLEEP

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. / I feel my fate in what I cannot fear. / I learn by going where I have to go. -Theodore Roethke, “The Waking”

I’d been frightened about my mother’s physical death, but with the guidance of the hospice nurse, who’d known my parents for decades, the active dying, as it’s called, was gentle. That first night, two of my sisters and I sang every song we knew, including those she taught us when we were small. The next night, as my sister held our mother in her arms, I read from a book my mother gave me when I was in fifth grade, Words for the Wind. For the thirty minutes or so that it took me to read “Meditations of an Old Woman,” a poem I’d set to music in my teens, my mother stopped her intense dying breath, opened her eyes, and fixed her gaze on mine the way a child does as she’s being read to sleep.

After my mother’s burial, my father’s ashes tucked into her coffin, I felt flattened. Every day, I roamed the trails behind my house. All these decades, my parents lived just through the forest on this land where I grew up, anchoring me to the world. Some of the trails along the shoreline dated from the original people who lived here for ten thousand years. It was my job as a child, and then as an adult, to keep those trails clear.

Once a week, I continued to meet with my fellow mourners. Several of us lost significant amounts of weight, becoming almost skeletal. I could not imagine how I had ever been able to do anything, or that I would ever again function in any kind of normal way. “All responses are correct and normal,” the counselor told us. “You can’t rush grief.”

Most of us focused on regrets. We hadn’t spent enough time. We hadn’t done enough. “She wanted a scarf,” said one widower. He looked down at his hands. “The scarf only cost six dollars, and I wouldn’t let her have it.” One slept in her beloved’s shirt, and another carried her sister’s purse. Yet another tore the clothes from her mother’s closets and flung them into garbage pails, dragging them to a distant shed.

“Don’t rush into any changes if you can help it,” the counselor advised. Yet everyone else pushed the survivors to change. One widow wondered if she should move closer to family, as her sisters were insisting, and abandon the house she loved. The widower’s kids wanted him to shed the too-large family home where he’d spent so many years caretaking. “But then I’d have to pack,” he told us. “I don’t have the energy.” A young woman wondered if it was proper to stay on in her mother-in-law’s house.

“Am I even related to her now that my husband’s dead?” she asked.

One widow suffered none of these pangs. She joined us only once, and she spoke of her husband’s death with glee. “My girlfriends and I are headed for Hawaii,” she said.

“Take us with you,” we murmured. She didn’t need us, and we were glad. But we lacked the will to minister any such kindness to ourselves. In that icy Northwestern winter, our grief seemed frozen into our flesh. We might yearn for bright sun on sandy beaches, but it wasn’t going to happen. Not yet. None of us could even manage hugs. Despite the intimacy of what we shared, we never exchanged numbers. We returned to our warrens like snails to shells, to reappear the following week.

Until we didn’t. When we were done grieving, we simply vanished. Time collapsed and fell forward, moment telescoping out of moment, until I barely remember any of them at all, but for that stretch of time we embraced without touching.

K.C. PedersonK.C. Pedersen lives on a saltwater fjord in Washington State, holds an MA in writing and literature, and blogs at www.kiriepedersen.com.

Boiler Rat

The power plant loomed out of the morning blackness, hulking above the Iowa corn fields like some menacing, malevolent, medieval castle. It was surrounded by trees in soft fall colors, planted there in an attempt to showcase it as environmentally friendly and to soften its sharp square lines; but you can’t hide that much ugly.

I passed the memorial park, a rock with a bronze plaque listing the names of men killed during the plant’s construction and subsequent overhauls with space at the bottom for more names, a reminder that if this plant was on your yellow brick road, your life sucked.

The little park had a sidewalk leading to and around the rock, along with picnic tables and benches nobody used. The families of the dead men had moved on—ol’ ladies remarried, kids grown and scattered, living out their own dramas, looking for their own big rock-candy mountains.

It’s better if you don’t survive an industrial accident. Then you don’t have to watch your family leave, because when the money stops, they leave. When Big Mike got that hook buried in his head and they had to cut pieces of his skull out of his brain, his wife and kids were gone by the time he learned to walk and talk again. It’s better for the company, too, if you don’t survive; it’s cheaper for them to buy your family off than to take care of you the rest of your life. Most families settle out of court, and by the time the lawyers take their cut, there’s not much left.

It was the last overhaul of boiler season. The guys had come in from all over the country with pockets full of money from other jobs; enough money to do whatever it was they did—drugs, booze, road whores. The outfit had pulled all three of its boiler crews in for the job, and it was western.

From the parking lot the boiler was silent, and I wondered if night shift was made up of ghosts caught in some never-ending, boilermaker hell, going about their tasks in quiet agony, forced to serve for eternity the same evil they served in life—the almighty dollar. Only this time they know the payoff—broken homes, failed relationships, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, and industrial carnage. I thought about turning around. I felt like my soul would be damned as soon as I brassed in, but I’d cut that deal long ago. Someday, I will join that ghostly crew and be greeted by their vacant stares, recognized, and welcomed.

A Navajo woman was selling burritos at the gate. They’re tasty, but go off like a five-hundred pounder two hours after you eat one. I passed.

Two of the big 750s were still on line, and as I got closer to the plant the hum of operation—the rumble of the boilers, the rushing sound of I.D. and F.D. fans, the roar of the suck trucks, and the rev of ninety-ton cranes—became a wall of sound that drowned thought.

On big projects, how many men they plan on killing is figured into the price of the job, just like lost, stolen, and broken tools.

By the time I got to the unit we were tearing into, I could hear the big boiler groaning in protest at the violation and pick out the individual sounds of the overhaul in heat—the hiss-crack of the gougers and the pop of molten metal hitting pavement; the angry snarl of nine-inch grinders cutting their way through water walls; the high cymbal clash and deep clunk of light metal and heavy iron being moved; the rhythmic pound, pound, pounding of nine-pound beaters and the thump of separation with its clouds of rust, fly ash, and insulation; the knock, knock, knocking of the air chippers busting out refract, and the piercing, teeth clenching whistles of the suck truck’s big vacuum hoses.

Up on level 8, the nightshift was barely visible through the clouds of fly ash. Their eyes were blank and twelve-hours tired, and their faces were covered in brown dust. They looked at me without seeing. They’d been thinking about cold beer for the last three hours and just wanted the shift to end. They’re tough rock-and-rollers for the most part, getting old before their time, with no way out.

I headed down the catwalk to the back of the boiler where we had our gang-boxes staged and where the crew met for the morning safety meeting. Boom-boxes pounded out AC/DC, Metallica, and Monster Magnet from inside the firebox.

The crew drifted in one at a time. A couple of them looked and smelled like they’d been out all night. A few more were animated and wired for sound—obviously on meth. A lot of them are level-one primates with no recognizable human response mechanisms. Oh, they know when they are hungry, horny, and thirsty, and they do feel pain, but have no sympathy for the pain of others. They aren’t the kind you would want around your daughter. Most of them I’d shoot if I saw them in my front yard—out of common courtesy for my neighbors. On a good day, when they aren’t sick, throwing up, and soiling themselves from the excesses of the night before, they wipe their ass and toss the shit-paper on the floor. You try hard to keep from becoming a product of your primitive environment, and it makes you antisocial in most people’s eyes, but direct in yours. You become blunt, with language that is socially unacceptable, and like the rest, addicted to adrenalin. Still, there are a few good guys in the mix. Lem walked up and we nodded in greeting. I had worked with Lem for ten years. Lem was one of the good guys.

Some of the crew were coughing, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before the whole crew was down with whatever they had. I wondered if I still had any meds left from the last time boiler crud went through the crew.

The safety meeting was the same ole BS from the general foreman, foreman, safety men, and company ass-sucks who couldn’t care less about safety—all trying to justify their existence. On big projects, how many men they plan on killing is figured into the price of the job, just like lost, stolen, and broken tools. The reality is that broken bones and stitches hardly foster comment, and managing the risk is the best that can be hoped for. But management loves the sound of their own voices. Hell, when I got hauled out in the meat-wagon in ’94, they didn’t even pay the doctor bill. If they cared about safety, they would drug test some of their pushers. The general foreman was sweating like a whore in church, and his brother-in-law, a foreman, had a syringe sticking out of the pocket of his coveralls. It’s the same with all these outfits; they load the job up with their non-productive sons, sons-in-laws, and sons-of-bitches, and then demand productivity from the rest of us. The meeting and the paper work they make us sign are just so they can cover their asses when something does happen, and for the company to get a break on its insurance. If you pay attention at the meeting, you can pick up on the political intrigue and power struggles, but I had no time for it. I was there for the paycheck, not the “intelligent” conversation.

They put the word out that they were in a bind for welders again. Welders had been dragging up and going to other jobs. Boiler outfits deserved that though; they call all over the country to get skilled labor to travel into their jobs, and then act like they’re doing them a favor by letting them on the jobsite when they get there. They asked us for phone numbers of any welders we knew who might want to come out. I did know a couple, but I kept my mouth shut. That outfit was too chicken-shit for me to take a chance on losing a friend.

I saw Lem at the gang-box and asked about his kids. He had two boys playing in state finals in football and was thinking about pulling the pin so he could go home and watch them play. The foreman stopped to line us out, with slurred speech and animated motions. I was headed for the water-wall-screen and Lem, for the v-bottom. I grinned at Lem and he rolled his eyes. We made plans to meet on the turbine-deck for lunch.

I slipped into my harness, grabbed my tool bucket, and crawled through the manway into the boiler. Some kid was working next to the hole and sprayed me in the face with his grinder. Pieces of metal imbedded into my skin like thousands of hot needles. I didn’t say anything to him and worked my way to the other side of the boiler where I dug my welding hood out of my bucket and started attaching tube shields.

I had put on six or eight shields and was leaning back on my pelican hooks, fishing in my pocket for a can of chew, when I noticed that the boiler was quiet. I could hear the distant hum of the suck truck but nothing else. I checked my watch to see if it was lunch time, but it was only 10:30. I looked around but didn’t see anybody. I looked over at the manway and saw a foreman from another crew motioning me to come out of the boiler. I crawled through the hole and asked, “What’s up?”

“They want everybody out of the boiler.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Don’t know. I think something happened in the bottom-ash,” he replied.

Ten minutes later they passed the word that they wanted everybody off the unit. When I got to the ground, I saw the head safety man directing everybody to meet in front of the office trailer. I walked up and he tried to ignore me, but I stepped in close to him and asked, “Who is it?” He finally looked at me and said, “Lem.”

I asked him, “How bad?” and he just shook his head.

“What happened?”

“Scaffold collapsed…somebody cut out one of the panels supporting the scaffold.”

We stood around in front of the office trailer for about an hour until the project manager came out and said, “Lem died on the way to the hospital.” We were told to hit the gate and come back in the morning, a routine I was familiar with, having been through it eight times before.

I went back to my travel trailer, showered, put on the best clothes that I had, and walked across the street to a quiet little bar to get good and drunk, think about Lem, and honor him in the only way I knew how.

It was a nice quiet place, and I took a seat alone at the bar and ordered up two shots with two beer chasers. I sat one shot and one beer in front of the empty stool beside me—Lem liked his booze—and proceeded to slowly and quietly get plastered.

A couple of hours later, I sat staring at Lem’s drinks in front of his empty stool. The fluted shot-glass reflected dull amber light through the whiskey, and the sweat from the beer bottle had pooled onto the bar. I tried to remember his face, laugh, and the color of his eyes, but he was already fading. My eyes filled with tears. I slammed down another shot, slid off the barstool and headed for the door, drinking any more would be disrespectful.

The next morning we had a meeting with the corporate damage-control team. They had flown in from California the night before on a private jet to stick their fingers in the dike. They all had brand new company coveralls on—I didn’t know they even had company coveralls—with the fold creases still visible. They all had brand new welding gloves on—the same gloves that they took money out of our checks for—so they could look like one of the guys. They all had brand new company hardhats that they carried under their arms, so as not to mess up their hair. They talked about what a great guy Lem was, but they didn’t know him, had never met him, had never shared their lunch with him or loaned him a few bucks till payday. But you’re always a great guy after you buck out. They looked put out, their tidy corporate lives had been interrupted and they had to look at us, the industrial human rags that had been employee numbers up until now, and it was uncomfortable. They said we needed to put the tragedy behind us, because we had a lot of work left to do to get the unit back on line. We knew they were only worried about busting the bid and losing their Christmas bonuses.

Out on the unit, the thing I noticed most that day was how the hands couldn’t look each other in the eye. They looked down as if ashamed, as if they felt complicit in Lem’s death—and maybe we were. We all knew about the drugs, the lack of supervision in the boiler, and the job-first-people-second attitude. Hell, most of us had participated, or at least accepted all of it as the cost of employment.

After the meeting, I got back in my hole and sat on my bucket for most of the morning, eyes welling up, at times overflowing. I took my welding hood and put it on so I could hide under it when the tears came. I thought about the meeting and how the execs had called Lem Leonard. I realized I had never known Lem’s given name, and he had never known mine. Most of us went by nicknames—Tiny, because he was big; Ladder, because he was tall; Hook, because he hooked up the crane; Eight Ball, because he hooked up the hands; and Fubar, because he was. I wondered if it was some primeval survival instinct that made us do that; if I know your name and speak it, I own your soul. My friend Charlie came and pulled up a bucket. We sat for a long time without saying a word—what could we say? Finally, he stood up, put his hand on my shoulder, turned and started for the hole. I said, “Hey Charlie…what’s your real name?” He looked at me for a moment, smiled and said, “William, William Charles.” I stuck my hand out and said, “Mine’s Robert.” We shook hands and he crawled out through the manway.

I rolled up my bucket highway tight and headed for the parking lot. There was a job in Texas I could get on. The conditions would be the same; the dangers, the drugs, and the systemic nepotism would all be there, but at least I wouldn’t be working for the same shitbirds.

 

Robert RobinsonRobert’s work has appeared in the following publications: The Flyfish Journal, Fly Fisherman Magazine, Fly Rod & Reel, Fur-Fish-Game, and World Unknown Review. He lives, hikes, and fishes in Utah with his dog, Touch. His blog can be found at flyfishingthehighcountry.com.

What Goes Around

“What is this place?” my father asked.

“It’s Seattle, Dad,” I said. “From up high.”

Lunch for two at the Space Needle’s revolving restaurant had seemed like a good idea when I’d wrested him away from his wife, Donna, that clear summer day. I’d hoped he’d be able to point out the marina where he’d docked his boat for years and lived aboard long ago, the places where he’d worked. We looked down at the tiny buildings and bug-sized cars. A ferry pulled out of the dock at Elliott Bay, container ships motored toward the port; sights we’d both seen many times albeit from a different angle. He tried, but the view meant nothing to him. His city, his waters, spread out before him, all just out of his mental reach.

Dad had been a sailor, out on Puget Sound from spring to fall each year. My summer birthday, my milestones, and then my children’s, all celebrated without him. Once he and Donna were back at home for the winter with the boat moored, they went back to their professions—he was a carpenter, she was a schoolteacher. I saw them at Christmas. We spoke on the phone. Donna was a constant presence, finishing his sentences and answering questions I’d intended for him. Seldom were he and I out together, just the two of us.

Before we left his house that morning, Donna handed me a tote bag with an extra pair of slacks inside. “See you in a few hours,” she said.

I’d been working on accepting my father’s frailty—his memory loss and shuffling gait— but extra slacks? The times I’d watched him at his house, he’d always made it to the bathroom. Donna was being overly cautious, but I knew better. I shoved the bag into the back of the car and left it there.

On the drive downtown, I tried to get Dad talking. I asked about his day and he struggled to answer. His memory seemed to have gotten worse in the two weeks since I’d seen him last. He couldn’t remember where we were going, but I hoped as soon as we got to the Seattle Center and he saw the Needle, all would come back to him. He’d remember the year he finished the work on the revolving restaurant; the long-ago day before the elevator was installed when he climbed the stairs to the top.

We pulled into valet parking and I jumped out and ran around to Dad’s side to make sure he had his cane.

“The Space Needle, Dad,” I said. “Remember?”

“Oh?” he said. “I don’t think so.”

Maybe the Center had changed since he saw it last. Surely once we were inside and things looked the same as before, his memory would return. We rode the elevator up and were seated next to the window.

“What do you want to eat, Dad?” I asked him.

“Whatever you’re having,” he said.

He hadn’t even looked at the menu. Was that because he could no longer decipher the words? My stomach twisted. My dad—the prolific reader. The self-taught man, who recited poetry and brought home stacks of books from the library. I took a deep breath and launched into a hopefully foolproof subject. I pointed to the wall moldings. “Dad, you were the carpenter who installed the woodwork in this restaurant back in the sixties,” I said.

He looked up. “Oh?” he said. “Nice.”

I told him how my husband, Gary, used to treat our daughters to lunch at the Needle on their birthdays when they were growing up. How, as each girl’s birthday approached, a dress was chosen, shoes shined, hair bows set out. On the appointed day, I stood on the porch and waved goodbye as they skipped to the car and drove off with their dad. Later, after their trip to town, they bounced in the door clutching the requisite plastic Space Needle—in which a special drink had arrived at the table spouting dry ice vapor—and chirping about the elevator ride, the observation deck. About Daddy.

When night came, I’d tuck that day’s birthday girl into bed, her little body squirming with happiness, and listen to the details of her over-the-top day. I’d listen and be transported to my own childhood with a dad who routinely missed my summer birthday. A dad who—like the bumper sticker says—would rather be sailing.

In the sixties, the court determined the slice of my childhood I was to spend with my father: every other weekend and a week in the summer. But the court hadn’t got the memo: Dad reserved weekends for solo sailing trips. Our visits dwindled to a few hours a month, and no overnights. Once he married Donna, our contact lessened even more.

If he’d been grim or ill-tempered, I’d have been grateful not to see him. But those hours when we were together, when he joked and sang and held my hand, only made me ache for more. I’d spent some years trying to find a replacement dad—a fatherly teacher, an elderly neighbor man—never quite right but sometimes good enough. Now I was with the real guy. He might not be his old self, but he was here.

I didn’t tell him that day how hard I’d worked to bury my resentment. Instead, I chattered at him about the weather. Small talk was my strong suit; I could go on all day about nothing. It was the important things that stuck in my throat.

I demolished my fish and chips. Dad picked at his. He was happy enough. He smiled and told me how much he appreciated our lunch, but he might as well have been at McDonalds. The waiter took away our plates and brought dessert.

“Look, ice cream!” I said. His favorite.

Dad reached for his cane and turned in his seat, trying to get up.

“Where are you going, Dad?” I said.

“I gotta pee,” he said.

I looked for the restroom sign and found it nearby. We’d have to climb a long narrow stairway to reach the men’s. Not only that, we were sitting on the outer rim of a restaurant that was revolving 360 degrees per hour. Our table would soon be in a different place, nowhere near our current landmarks. The chances that Dad could find his way back alone were nil.

“I’ll come with you,” I said, adding, “I have to go, too.”

I followed him. I couldn’t help but hover. I took his elbow and put my hand on his back to guide him. The stairs loomed in front of us. People bustled up and down. The men’s room was off to the right of the steps about halfway up to the women’s room and the entrance to the observation deck. I followed close as he climbed the stairs. I’d have to let him go in by himself, and for the time it took him to finish, I wouldn’t be there to help if he needed something.

What had I done, bringing him to this place without backup? As if I knew what I was doing, thinking I could handle anything that came up. I hadn’t once let myself consider what Dad’s decline meant in real life. This was supposed to be fun, an elevator ride into the sky to look down at his city. But for my dad, the day had been disorienting, meaningless. He’d have been happier at a park. Why had I gotten it so wrong?

The minutes ticked by with no sign of him. Heaven only knew what was happening in there. He could’ve fallen, or worse. I watched the faces of the men leaving the washroom for signs they’d witnessed a disaster. Finally, I stopped a middle-aged man and asked if he’d seen my dad in there.

“Yeah,” he said, “he’s doing okay.” I breathed a little easier.

Soon Dad came out the men’s room door and started back down the steps. As he came closer, I noticed a wet stain on the front of his slacks. Not just a tiny little drip, but a splash that went from his front zipper down his left pant leg. It could’ve been water but… no. For a moment, I wanted to run away. Let someone else take care of this old man who so often couldn’t be bothered with me. But one look at him—confused, weary, and wearing wet pants, I pushed that thought away. I pictured the bag with the extra slacks inside 500 feet below us in the back seat of my car, wherever the valet had parked. Dammit. I didn’t know what made me feel worse, that I’d left behind Dad’s extra pants or that Donna knew him so much better than I did, or ever could.

Just then it struck me, the reason I’d been determined to make this day happen. Why hadn’t I seen it earlier? I’d told myself this lunch was a treat for Dad, a chance for him to enjoy the view. But my mind had played a trick on me. True, I didn’t have a party dress or dry ice or a plastic souvenir. I’d have had to wait until he didn’t have much choice in coming here. But I’d made it happen at last, my own special Space Needle date with Daddy.

I stepped forward to hold my father’s arm, and help him navigate the last few stairs. He brushed the wet spot with his hand as if to make it blend in somehow. I kissed his cheek. Gave him as big a smile as I could muster, and looked around to place myself in the ever-turning dining room. With luck, he’d forget about his soggy slacks by the time we reached our seats. Assuming I could find our table.

Joyce TomlinsonJoyce Tomlinson graduated from Antioch Seattle in Arts & Literature and received her MFA from Pacific University in Oregon. Her work has been published in Gold Man Review, Full Grown People, Crab Creek Review and We Came Back to Say, an anthology of women’s memoir. She is currently at work on a book about her relationship with her father.