Watching the Windows go By

“You’re just watching the windows go by,” he points to me with a crusted finger. He’s got beady eyes, hair mussed and graying but his clothes are pressed and clean and the laces on his shoes shine bright white. He has a beard that’s been trimmed down to thick stubble and though he smells faintly of sick liquor, the scent is modest and kept to his end of the train.

“You’re just watching the windows go by, watching the windows go by I see you.” His voice is scragged and menacing and I can’t seem to will myself to look away like all the others have because I was raised to be polite and it’s rude to look away when someone is talking to you.

“You think I don’t know, you all think I don’t know but I see you.” Our eyes are locked now and I’m trying to smile without pity. I wonder what he was like as a child. If he was well-liked by his second grade class or if he just fell back into the shadows. Did he chase the girls around on the playground and try to kiss them on top of the monkey bars, or was he the one who made lunch into a spectacle and squeezed out all of the condiments onto his square of discolored cheese pizza? Maybe both.

“Hey,” He rises and twitches his way towards our row of seats. “Hey you, do you hear me?”

The boy next to me who I don’t know but who is probably a lot like me points inward and says, “me?” His shirt is seafoam green and his shorts are light gray and he’s handsome–charmingly handsome. The kind of guy whose smile you’d rarely have to imagine because he wears it so willingly. “Me,” he says again, now with a little more conviction, “I’m just watching the windows go by.”

The people on the train giggle, careless enough to be heard but shamed enough to keep their laughter light. There’s about ten of us on the back end of this car, and from the moment this man started talking, most other conversations ceased. Some look uncomfortable and some look entertained and some got up and switched cars. Most of us are white and young and clean-cut and suburban, slightly tanned from summer sun. I am reaching the end of my nineteenth year and my friend Taylor is in the midst of his twenty-first and he bought me a couple of beers at the Funk concert we went to earlier tonight because I’ve never seen the point in investing in a fake ID. It’s two in the morning, and this is the last outbound el train for the night.

This is Chicago in the summertime—sticky and humid and late and desperate. Middle America. Friendly but humble. Harsh but forgiving. Trains worn down with time. Seat cushions stained and splotched; gum embedded into the fibers and turned black; rings of spilled coffee or whiskey or urine or just good ol’ unidentified wetness. Signs scraped away by keys and lighters and whatever could be found by those who felt their voices were too important to be lost. Alcoholics and homeless veterans and large families with many children and few mothers. This is Chicago in the summertime.

He’s grumbling now. I can’t remember when he got on the train or when he turned tonight’s ride into a pageant, but it’s clear he’s not getting off anytime soon. His momentum is gone, caught off-guard by a snarky kid and blown back to his seat. Things don’t seem to be going according to plan and I wonder what his middle-school girlfriend would have to say about him now, if he had one in the first place (not all of us do). Is this his life, or just an off night coated in binge drinking and a message to preach?

Hard to imagine anyone out of context: clouded by predetermined expectations, I am limited by what little I’ve been exposed to. I can hear Taylor whisper to himself. “Just watching the windows go by, watching the windows go by” and smiling that incredulous smile that comes every time he hears one of us do something loud. Taylor is sweet, mild-mannered and quiet in his judgments. He’s realistic and tame but surrounds himself with loud and brash and momentous people. He reminds me a lot of my father and I wonder if that’s why we can spend so much time together saying very little. He’s both quick to criticize and quick to apologize and he was quick to become a very close friend. He calls me “Carrie” and I call him “Tay” or “Teyler,” depending on my mood.

We’re not sitting too far from the shouting man, and if I were alone maybe I’d act a bit differently but because Taylor is here I feel more secure. Not to say Taylor is strong or angry or that he’d even think to defend me if anything were to happen. I’ve never seen him throw a punch or even pretend to; Taylor is cautious. If I can count on him for anything, it would probably be knowing the right time to cut and run, drag open the back exit and leap into the next train car; a practice I am accustomed to from years of reckless teenage-dom and marijuana-induced bravery.

I mostly feel secure because this man’s show is not a unique experience. There are a lot of loud people on the Chicago trains on late summer nights and I think it might be because they’re looking for new places to go. I like to imagine that they don’t have any particular place in mind but I can appreciate how it might be small-minded of me to assume that just because someone is on a different mental plane than the rest of us that they would go about their lives with no destination. Sometimes I’d like to just ride around aimlessly but it’s hard to shake the fear of ending up in the wrong place. I prefer walking, anyway.

He starts up again. “Watching the windows go by,” he’s shouting now. “YOU THINK I DON’T—“ when a voice booms from the other end of the car, the end I’d been ignoring until now. Another man has entered through the doors I’d just imagined escaping through. He’s with a woman who’s round, but not wide: plum-shaped. She’s behind him and she doesn’t look shaken by the exchange in front of her. The sounds and shouts and commotion I can’t decipher into English sounds or the sounds of any other language. She doesn’t seem proud or upset or disturbed or like she’s even listening at all. She’s just standing. She could be standing anywhere, but instead she’s here, on this train, next to two men whose voices have filled this train car to the brim with din.

The white suburban kids have jumped from slouching to the perfect posture their parents probably spent years trying to instill. Their eyes are wide and wild, flashing back and forth between our two heroes like this is some sort of rehearsed symphony that’s just reached its climax. Eager, they’re eager and fearsome and pleased to know that when they go home, they’ll never have to think about these men or their stories again. That when these men leave and the sounds dull to just the clang and screech of the el train, they can go back to watching the windows go by.

Risk Aversion

I’ve never thought about whether or not I’ve had to face discomfort. And I think that statement says a lot about who I am and how I’ve lived my life for the past twenty-two years. I’ve never thought about whether or not I’ve had to face discomfort because I’ve never had to think about whether or not I’ve had to face discomfort. Sure, I see risks. But the risks I’ve seen are safety-netted, cocooned in the security of a financially and emotionally stable family that is ready to catch me just in case I fall. Now, that’s not to say the fall itself isn’t invigorating: anxiety-inducing adrenaline-rushing caffeine-straight-to-the-heart pleasurable. But the panic that should come with it somehow never shows. The fear that I’ll hear a crunch, feel a split in my bones never penetrates my brain, still cushioned in the bliss of precipice.

Because when I do take a risk—move to a new city or confess my adoration to a lover—there’s always somewhere to go home to, always someone who will still accept me. I can pick myself right back up and try again and again until that risk becomes fruitful. I am young, and nothing is life-or-death yet. I run through woods near neighborhoods and I explore cities without traipsing through the ganglands. I see myself as one of the many average Americans who have learned to channel our adventurous selves into books and films. Consider how many people reveled in movies like “127 Hours” and “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Winter’s Bone” and “Precious”. It’s almost like we get off on learning that other people risk more than we do—find reassurance in the fact that we, comparatively, are a low-risk group.

Because it’s not as if the average life is void of risk. While I’ve never faced death or prejudice or had to prove my strength, it could be said that I face risks every day. They come when the morning starts; when I decide whether or not to wake up and go to work at eight am or listen to my body and sleep until eleven. They come when I dress myself, figure out who I want to be, and they come when I pack my lunch, figure out who I want to become. They’re definitely there the second I start my car—that’s a huge risk, isn’t it? Controlling a massive fuel-ignited turbo-horse-powered hunk of metal and death? And they’re there every time I open my mouth and say something honest about how I’m feeling.

The risks I take are palpable, but not interesting. They’re certainly not Oscar-worthy, but they’re real, and they’re human. The significance of small risks is that every person faces them. They are a uniting factor in a world that right now seems hell bent on nit-picking every detail that sets people apart from one another. The lives we lead and the paths we follow may be different, but the risks we take are the same. Will I eat today? Will I breathe today? Will I change something today? Or will it all have to wait until tomorrow.

I need to focus on these small risks because otherwise, life becomes wasted. Because I have been taught that risk is what shapes me; is what makes my life a unique experience as opposed to an average, everyday trajectory; is what makes me different. Because without risk, I am destined for a life of tedium and that, to me, is one of the scariest things I’ll ever have to come to terms with. The fact that I will not take a risk until I’m ready—that I am so averse and unaccustomed to discomfort that I will put my dreams on hold in order to avoid any sort of serious hardship, because I can—feels far more disappointing than actually taking that risk and falling flat on my face.

Eminent Fall.

 

There is a certain sweetness to the softness of your sway. Songs we sang along to while you cupped your hands around my hips and I hugged my body close for fear you’d run away. We sat in the ampitheater where the grass could’ve been wet but we failed to notice. The music forced tears to follow the curves of my cheeks, swollen from humble, embarrassed smiles. I couldn’t look at you.

 

Fall is coming: the time when we are most ghostly. When the wind slices and we pray to be spooked. Fall is when I feel teenage, vulnerable, small. Fall is when we find the loose threads and the love unravels. Fall is when the faith dies down.

 

Fall is when I used to ride my bike past the childhood home of the boy I first loved. Puppy-loved. Cant-get-you-out-of-my-head fill-in-the-blanks-to-get-to-know-you loved. We went to different middle schools, brought together by the sanctity of a summer tennis club. I held him in the fantastic; funny and freckled, outgoing and clever. We had more conversations in my head than in real life. And as I rode past his house far more often than I could ever justify, I’d imagine myself doing gymnastics on my bike. Flips and twists and handsprings that’d impress even the coldest of judges. Three years later, I realized it had been the wrong house all along.

 

The reason it didn’t matter was because he didn’t matter. He was a vessel through which I could imagine every bout of tween-dream love I wanted. It seems we often forget how magnificent a middle school crush can be—not that we do so intentionally, but the innocent lust just seems to fall by the wayside. The ways we love mature along with us. But there is a serene pleasure to the naivety with which we once connected. The teasing and the taunting, the attention-seeking denial. And the flitter—the flip flap wings that fluttered in our hearts every time we passed them in the hallways. This kind of love does not recognize the real. It is quick, it is harsh, and it is easy to recover from. On to the next one.

 

But adult love hasn’t offered such pleasure. How horrible is it of me to wish that I could go back to shallow crushes; light loves that come and go, care based purely in the way their hair tufts golden at the front or their t-shirt rests across their shoulders. How selfish would it be to wish love didn’t hit? Because for as nice as love’s saccharine moments can be, there is always a time when the fruit rots. When the sweet becomes bitter and sour and mushy to the taste and I begin to spend my days wondering all the things I’ve done wrong, what do we do then?

 

In a recent conversation with a friend, it was decided that neither of us could have love for fear it would break us. That we were destined to be alone and stay married to our art but why? Why this resistance? Why this intentional self-hurt? Why deprive ourselves of the thing we’ve always found to matter most? Why stay hungry?

 

To love love: to love the chase, the hunger, the contest. To love love, that is my tweendom I won’t let go of. My teen tween love. To love love for the sake of loving. To hold different loves differently. To act as if deprived when such a wealth of love stands before me. That is what I do.

 

Because to not care is to be blessed. To stay ignorant, arrogant, cynical is to stay unscathed. Because I’ve always been good at risking my body, but never my brain. Because life only happens once, but hearbreak pounds into us repeatedly, relentlessly, cold harsh stone until we’re done. Because these things are hard to bring up, harder to confess, and even harder to come to terms with. Because in the end none of this really means anything until it does, blissful and beautiful.

Because maybe the loose threads aren’t in love, maybe they’re in us. And maybe there’s no need to pull at them, to inflict destruction. Maybe we could just as easily peel them off; the layers of sweaters that shield us, insulate the lonely. Maybe once bare, this would all be a bit simpler.

Poetry Excerpts from Earlier this Summer

I have a piece I’m working on now, but it’s not ready and I haven’t posted anything yet this week so I figured it might be good to post some excerpts from a very long stream of diary-like poems I’ve been keeping this summer. I can’t say I’d ever post the whole thing on here, but here are some snips that I thought were most savory (sorry this is so disjointed–these obviously do not run in sequence and there’s obviously a lot cut out)

 

“Most of my fears are hypothetical”

 

1.

“Anne Carson is beautiful because

the lines don’t have more than three

or four words so you really savor

them you take your time and tip

toe over the uneven shards tightrope

across each piece

 

One day I’d like to write a book like

hers but I just don’t think I could don’t

think I have it in me to be so careful,

ice fingers choosing each letter

each letter chosen with grace.

 

I feel like, if she could, she’d change

the letters maybe ‘grase’ instead of

‘grace’ so you linger on the ’s’ forced

phonetics you may think it’s rude

but how else does stripped sound become

art.”

 

 

2.

“…Because right now, to be a mess it’s

‘trendy’ and I liked things better when my mess was

teenage and everyone wanted me to be cleaner

wonder what’d I’d look like cleaner

wonder if the paint on my nails wouldn’t chip

wonder if my clothes would unstain

wonder if I’d still smile.

 

wonder if I could eat an olive without smearing my lipstick

blue lipstick.

just because I’m clean doesn’t mean I’m any more

conventional clean doesn’t have to be

conventional clean can just be clean.”

 

 

3. 

“We spent winter crafting lists of accomplishments to send to men in suits to look over to toss in a pile to never look at again but I never sent them. My name, blazed across the top in pink, never introduced itself. All I want is to send a letter. “let me write a book for you, please, and maybe you’ll like it. It can just be yours. Just promise you’ll read it.” Tossed into the pile.

All of it, tossed into the pile.

in the pile

in the pile

an eye roll can hurt more than anything.”

 

 

4. 

“…but tears can’t compensate coming to terms.

We act.

We do.

We move.

We confuse

the ways others work

not too different

from ourselves.”

 

 

5.

And then, like that, she was gone.

All this time, here I was, wrapped in cocoons of everyday worry. Fears unreal while you sat there with yours looming, long and worn and waited.

 

I wish I could sit

next to you and not talk.

I wish I could sit and not talk and just stare

next to you.

 

I wish I could sit next to you

and think about hugging you but not

and just sit and stare and not talk.

and just sit and stare and and breathe.

and just sit and stare and wonder.

 

I wish we could shrink to tiny and

climb in through her ear, pale and freckled

though I’m not sure about the spots.

 

I wish, tiny

we could climb

a blade of grass taller than our fathers taller

than our expectations but still shorter than trees.

 

On christmas, I’ll hold on

to the tips of your fingers as if they are bouquet stems

and you are the petaled tips that so many have sought after.

 

 

Nothing feels real,

but one day we’ll be old so

don’t forget.”

 

6. 

“…and I’m sorry.

But this morning I woke with what felt like

a quarter caught in the middle of my spine, where the air grows through.

sometimes I feel things in my body and imagine what it looks like in there and if I go by what I’m feeling it never looks like the skeletons we saw in science class. My imaginary body. I’ve never been good at remember

ing maps I always just kind of made it up

as I went. Figured I was somewhere in

the area of ‘accurate’ but in truth I am all

ways a little off.”

 

This isn’t necessarily what you had hoped for.

I’ve been stuck. Just having a little trouble finding what should go here next. It’s not that I’m missing the words, the threads and needles that sew them together. It’s not that I’m missing the heart or the will. Time’s stretched thin but the thrill of the love of writing is that it’s always placed first. Always writing, always pouring words into work. But sometimes it’s not so easy to be truthful to what’s going on in my mind. No matter how hard I try to avoid, to stick to narrative pleasantries sometimes feelings cloud too thick. My heart sinks into my stomach and my limbs shiver harsh tremors and I wonder what have become the qualifications for being human.

Because while I think I am a writer, I know I am a feminist: but people don’t want to read about feminism. People don’t want to read about the ways people are hurt or put down or made unhuman. People don’t want to read about the wrongness: no. Because instead, people want to read about teenagers lost in their own sick. They want to read about the exceptions; the girl who cried rape out of desperation; the low-income kid who defeated all odds; the white-girl victim at the black man’s hand. People want proof that what is, is right: justified injustice. People want sweet dreams and celebrity, a good night’s sleep free from fear for their fellow neighbor. People want peace.

But right now, just as always, there is no peace. There is danger and cruelty and harm. Because just as a seventeen year old posted a photo of herself holding a bottle of Svedka onto instagram, Darren Wilson denied the maleficence of holding Michael Brown’s life by the hand of his gun. Just as #notallmen rape, #manymen do, and just as Jordan Johnson gained his innocence in court, those who cheered for the defendant forgot that his accuser lost hers one year prior. Because though the news stories change, though the media moves on and tells us to consider bucket hats and online billionaires and computer cars and great escapes, it is important to remember that, more often than not, these are not just stories. These are not works of fiction. These are lives, human lives, that continue after the crowd settles back into their seats. Sybrina Fulton still weeps while George Zimmerman shakes hands at the New Orlando Gun Show.

We have made lives and loss into spectacle, indulged and moved on. We have lost the connection, the commonalities. We have forgotten how to be equal, forgot that maybe we never even knew. We have settled into disparity.

And this is not to say that I am any better or that I am even any good. At times like these, it seems, none of us are. We take up space that doesn’t belong to us. We speak when we should lift up and amplify. We hide behind pluralized pronouns, ‘we,’ and ‘us,’ when, in truth, I can only recognize my own failures. I can’t say my voice is worth any more than the junk you’d find at a dime store, but it is a voice, one voice, my voice, and it feels the need to speak. I can’t ignore injustice; I can’t sit by silent. But it is important to recognize that my voice is hardly as beautiful as the voices it listens to. My voice is observation.

Right now we live in a world where voices are silenced. Maligned and abused and made out to be wrong. Right now we live in a culture where the voices of the abused are ignored and dishonored. Slicked back like a hair that’s strayed from the gelled formation on a corporate official’s thickly adorned head. And what’s worse, right now there is crime; crime far from the kind of crime they describe in legal books and detective shows. Right now there is crime against the human, self-inflicted destruction. There is cannibalism. There are crushed skulls and shot hearts. There are torn children, beaten spirits. There is no peace.

Right now, we have forgotten what it is to be human. We have forgotten that a uniform is just a jumble of cloth and thread; that a uniform holds no divinity much like low melanin much like high testosterone much like limitless money. We hold these things above the spirit, the life, the human. We have forgotten that divine is untouchable—that it beams from the ways we smile, the laughter we sew, the sunlight that streams through our mornings. And while I can’t make any closed claims of where the holy truly lies, I can say where it doesn’t. And that is in the hands of our entitlement.

Now, more than anything, we need the humble. We, the beneficiaries of injustice, need the admittance that we can be wrong, that we can wrong, and that others can be right. We need to know that a gun is not power—this jumble of metal and gunpowder and fire and fear. We need to see the strength in voice. We need to learn to listen.

We are privileged enough to live in an age of eloquence. An age of different dialects and personhoods and experiences. We are blessed by the voices that surround us; blessed by our willingness to share. Even the most harmful of opinions are important—we are blessed by the opportunity to know, to understand one another, to teach and to learn. I often hear that I belong to a generation of oversharers: that our connections have become too intimate, too public. That our information is best kept bottled. And while I can respect and appreciate how overwhelming this influx of information can be, I also feel the need to defend this generation’s comfort with one another. Because it is through this comfort, this communication, we are able to remember the commonality of fault. This comfort allows us to rehuman: but part of becoming rehumaned is listening, sharing, discussing, living, acting as a community. Part of becoming rehumaned is respecting, reexamining where the equal lies and where the equal has left and where the equal never was. Part of becoming rehumaned is realizing that, while we can’t say everything, we can at least say something.

Mind Vs. Body (Ill)

On Sunday, I sleep until eleven AM for what feels like the first time since I was eighteen. I read a book of short stories and eat some of the pork stew Nate prepared for me on Thursday, because he doesn’t think “forgetting” is a good excuse for skipping meals. I spent the past week eating fruit-blended popsicles and taking intermittent cheetos puffs breaks throughout the day, so the stew is a vast improvement. After pouring a bowl of it down my throat I text at least six people in the hopes they’ll want me to elaborate on Nate’s fabulous cooking. Some do, but I think mainly to appease me. I had a rough week last week, and their genuine concern has started to get a little annoying. I’m ill, not incompetent. But, then again, who am I to scoff at kindness.

            I spend a lot of the day looking at things. I look at the moat of dirty laundry around my bed, the crumpled scraps of paper that lie just beyond. Dirty dishes line the walls and I think there’s a lollipop melted into the carpet next to my nightstand. The tapestry that typically curtains my closet was removed days before (to be fashioned into a Toga) and now serves as a makeshift tablecloth for the piano bench parked on the wall opposite the bed. I’m going to have to wash it. Tiny crumbs of weed have weasled their way into the loose threads of the fabric. How sloppy would a mushroom tapestry covered in marijuana look?

            I washed my sheets on Friday, so I figure laundry isn’t eminent, yet. I definitely have a clean pair of underwear for tomorrow, maybe another for Tuesday. I have time; it’ll get done when it gets done.

            I make a list of all the things I’m behind on: my poetry project, my other poetry project, my weekly poem for the same class. Theoretically, I should have sent out my thesis workshop on Friday, then Saturday, then this morning. I should also have the book I was reading this morning finished by nine AM tomorrow. Registration is on Tuesday, and I haven’t met with my advisor yet, but it’s fine. All this is manageable. It’ll get done. It’ll get done when it gets done.

            I finish the daylight dressed in very comfortable pajamas and reading on the couch. Around seven, I get too stoned to retain the text and decide to clean the living room. I’m home alone and can’t hear anything over the roar of the vacuum, so I start to hallucinate that there’s someone behind my reflection, watching me from the other side of our sliding glass door. Then, upon further investigation, my mind convinces me that the person I see isn’t a person, but a reflection. Then I imagine that there’s someone else in the house. I simultaneously try to convince myself it’s nothing while also prepping myself to be a good homicide victim, whatever that entails. Ultimately, I decide that, if I die, there should be heavy media coverage of the murder: then everyone will see how clean our carpets are.

 

On Monday I decide I am sick. Not tired, not stuffed up, not worn out. I’m officially sick. I wake up cold and hungry and exhausted, and convince myself that my alarm clock is two hours fast when in reality it’s just the regular one hour and seventeen minutes ahead.

            I get to class fifteen minutes late, wearing sweatpants. I plug my phone into the outlet behind my chair, and spend the first hour and a half jabbering on about women’s rights. After break, there’s a cheese plate resting on the table directly opposite where I’m sitting. I gesture towards the silent girl who sits in the corner, and she nods, ‘yes, you can eat it.’ I throw my arms up in voiceless celebration and trot over to the other side of the room. The crackers are stale. It’s not that big of a deal.

            I’m so tired that, when I return home, ignoring the wasteland of my room has become easier and easier. All I want to do is sleep. Apprehensions fail to remain in my head because every thought is forgotten within seconds of its conception. What did I have to do for my poetry class? Who was I supposed to text back about newsletters?

 

On Tuesday, I wake up fearsome. The clamoring voices I’d so easily ignored the day before have gained momentum, and my inbox is crowded with new assignments and old requests. So I decide it’s time to do. No time for courtesy, no time for notes. I put on some mesh shorts and head to the house on University Street. It’s been routine for moths: I run with a dog twice a week, and in return I receive sloppy puppy kisses as payment. We go for fifty minutes, taking intermittent breaks to sniff trees and piss in the neighbor’s lawn. I feel lucid, but there’s no time to indulge.

            I go to work at the ceramics studio and break one of the bowls I’m supposed to be glazing. Sleepy hands let it slip right through the fingers. I apologize when it shatters, fill the room with “I’m sorry”s, but no one cares. They tell me not to worry about it and it makes me wonder, why have I been so damn careful with all the other ones?

 

On Wednesday, I sleep through the first hour of class. My body trades between cold sweats and shivers, and the sun bakes in a mind-melting heat. I twitch out of bed and put on an oversized t-shirt; decide that’ll be enough to cover me as I mount my bike. I left my car parked in the on-campus garage two weeks ago, figuring the exercise would do me good. My face grows red and lined with sweat as I bike both miles towards campus.

            In class, I pass out while washing my hands at the bathroom sink. This hasn’t happened in years, and I don’t know how to proceed. I sit back down at our seminar table and sip from my tall iced Nalgene bottle. During the break I tell the professor I vomited in the bathroom. He says I can leave so I drive my car home—take the long way—because I feel like I deserve it. Now my bike is locked up on campus, exposed to the rain, and my car rests in the driveway, safe as it would’ve been anywhere else.

 

On Thursday, I eat. I’d like to say I eat with conviction, but I’m really just cramming the food into my gaping mouth and hoping for satiation, or asphyxiation: I’m feeling pretty apathetic. I forgot to take my pills this morning: the ones that suppress my appetite and focus my attention. Consequently, their absence causes me to pound food like I’ve just been rescued from surviving alone in the desert for a year. Bingeing, it’s called bingeing, and it’s something recovering anorexics do, so I’m just going to roll with it. I figure the immense amount of food filling my gullet will rejuvenate me, even though junk food really is just a slave to the taste buds: no nutritional value whatsoever. But my lightheadedness is gone, my vision clear, so I can’t complain.

            I drive my clogged body up to the mountain and walk, slowly, up the path. My feet plant into the ground and propel me forward, trading energy between the crusted gravel, this grand lump of earth I am climbing, and myself. My hands start to swell and my tongue sucks the moisture from my throat like a fresh-squeezed sponge. My nose feels pinched so I climb up to the closest peak, sit, cross-legged, and watch. Tonight, the sun decided to paint the world orange. I look to my hands and my arms and watch as the warmth envelops me. I balance my spine and sip breaths of clean air; wait until it’s cool and dark before I go back down.

 

On Friday, I take a bath and end my two-year relationship with Jeffrey Eugenide’s The Virgin Suicides. It’s lovely, amazing even, and I float through my house with the eerie, ethereal sensation that I resemble one of the Lisbon girls. Pure, lithe, mysterious, desired: my ideal is quickly tarnished when I take a good look in the mirror for the first time in days. Late nights have left my face unwashed and speckled with red. There’s a large blemish on my nose that shows no sign of softening, and my eyes are plugged up with dark, swollen circles. My hair is curling funny. My teeth are nearing yellow.

            Lying in my bed, I feel banal, blank, tarnished. I laugh out explosions and crumple into my own towelled body. I hold my hands and arms tight like a mouse. An hour since I’ve been cleaned and there’s blood dried on the chapped knuckle of my right pinky. My whole hand looks like a paper: dried and white, thin and weak save for the red speckles where the bonds have weakened. Diamond canyons in my skin, the words make them feel more beautiful than they actually are.

            I never dress; just sleep, long and hard. Because though there are emails unattended, assignments unfinished, mountains to climb and houses to clean and moats of laundry to sort and soil, I am tired. Because though it’s easy to stay clouded in my mind, it’s important to stay grounded in my body.

Character Portrait: Christian

Christian couldn’t cry. Like a toddler who had just fallen face-first to the ground, he was still oblivious from the shock of it all.

“Christian?” Nathan’s voice rang through the phone, passed empty echoes through his ears. “Christian? Are you there?”

He pulled the phone from his ear and faced the screen, lifted an eyebrow as if Nathan could see him. The numbers across the top read 12:45 pm. He flipped the phone shut and let it thud onto the mattress. Feet planted, he rose and stretched until he heard his knees, hips, back crack. He reached his elbows in, arms up. He wove his fingers as the pieces of his body slowly unclasped.

Drawing up the zipper, he wondered why his jeans were so loose. He had always been skinny—‘scrawny’ was the term used most often—but still, the waist seemed to drag a bit more than usual. He kicked his foot up and checked the hem of his pant leg. At the base of the hem, the letter “N” was embroidered with thick red string. These were Nathan’s pants.

He exhaled, grimaced, shrugged. Let his foot drop down and looked back at the bed where Nathan had sat in these jeans. Ankle rested across the opposite knee, he sewed the thread through the pant leg. Though the denim was thick, Nathan wove the letter in with little effort. He’d ease the needle into the top layer and maneuver it through the rest of the fabric until it sailed out, navigated by gentle fingers. Christian loved the slow intent with which Nathan moved. His body was graceful, kind. He received Christian with the sort of physical reassurance that seems to slip away with age. Nurturing, sweet. Patient.

Christian had never been so patient. He hated lines. If the line at the grocery store was too long he would walk around, absentmindedly piling things into his cart until it died down: water crackers, butter. Two days before Thanksgiving, the lines were so long that he’d purchased ten rolls of tinfoil. He and Nathan spent the holiday making aluminum suits and telling their parents that yes, they were eating turkey and yes, each would try to visit home for Christmas. But they never would. Nathan’s family lived in Minnesota and Christian’s, Vancouver. Even if Christian could scrape together enough money for the airfare, neither he nor Nathan had maintained a tolerance for the cold nature of their homes. San Francisco was balmy compared to those winters.

Christian looked out the window. The sky glowed bright white—sun battling a thick layer of clouds—just as it had for the past four days. Nathan had always complained about what he had “sacrificed,” coming to California. He’d say it with a half-hearted complacency. Christian hated the way he’d say it, sitting in a cafe drinking an overpriced cappuccino as Christian typed out an article he’d hope to receive over seventy-five dollars for.

“It’s cloudy again.” Nathan would roll his eyes toward the window and sip foam from his mug. Christian would shrug, fingers clacking letters onto the page, and Nathan would exhale a loud sigh until Christian looked up at him.

“It’s not that I hate living here, it’s just.” Nathan would look out the window and suck in a long breath. “It’s just that I didn’t realize the sacrifices I’d have to make when I decided to move to California.”

Christian would raise his eyebrows, mmmhmmmm, allowing Nathan to continue.

“It’s just that Minnesota is so much…” Another pause, as if Nathan hadn’t come to this realization dozens of times before. Christian could predict every line, every complaint that sat perched on Nathan’s pouting lips. It would start with the sunshine—the daylight that “embodies the spirit of Minneapolis. Not just the weather, though. The people there have a spirit—a Midwestern spirit that just doesn’t exist in California.

“And the distance,” He’d say, “No one bothers to tell you how far California really is from Minnesota, no way.”

Christian would return with a nod, indifferent. “Wow, that must be so hard for you.” or, “I can’t imagine how that would feel.”

Nathan would squeeze Christian’s hand over the table as his eyes creased into a smile. “Thanks.” He’d say. Then he’d tell Christian about how his new secretary had fucked up his schedule for the week again or his business lunch yesterday that went “so, so well” or something else that served to do nothing but distract Christian from his looming deadlines. The conversation had happened so many times, it almost felt scripted. Like a scene from the show that Nathan fancied his life to be—some climactic moment when the audience learns it’s not all sunshine and daisies, that twenty-five year old financial analysts with five-figure salaries have problems, too.

Christian wagged his head and remembered where he was. Took yet another deep breath and tried to push Nathan out of his mind. He turned from the clouded window and maneuvered his way to the door, hopping through piles of dirty clothes and notebooks, loose papers and dishes crusted with last week’s dinners. He reached into his closet with a passive hand, latched onto a t-shirt and draped it over his head. His phone remained where he’d thrown it, set atop a bundled lump of covers. It buzzed, with lights flashing green and blue. He spared one glance, saw Nathan’s name blaze over the screen, and continued out the door.

Walking down the hall to the bathroom, he ran a hand through his greasy brown hair. Turned to the toilet and peed without lifting the seat. He thought about whether or not he wanted to brush his teeth today—whether or not he cared enough. Smacking his tongue, his mouth tasted like the coffee he’d drank that morning while filling in the blanks of his roommate’s abandoned crossword puzzle. He washed his hands in cool water and splashed his face three times before moving on.

In the kitchen, Christian pulled a box of plain cheerios from the cabinet and a half-full jug of skim milk from the refrigerator door. He poured both into a deep bowl and sat back down with the unfinished newspaper puzzle. Most days, Christian and Nathan would complete the puzzle together over the phone, during Nathan’s lunch break. But surely Christian could do it on his own—probably faster without having to defend his answers to Nathan.

He read through the clues without absorbing any of the words. Letters looked foreign and blurred into lazy shapes. He shut his eyes tight and rubbed over them, hard with his fingers. Once reopened, he focused his eyes on eighteen across, five letters. ‘Handle wrongly’, the clue said. Nineteen across: five letters, ‘antagonize’. The clues read more bitter than they had before. Twenty-four across, ‘bring down’. Twenty-seven across, ‘nasty smelling’. Even arbitrary clues like ‘German automaker’ felt sour. He put away the paper and spooned a dense pile of cereal into his mouth. He had to get away from Nathan.

Christian lived with a woman named Lorie who worked as an assistant at some PR firm Christian had never, in their three years living together, bothered to learn the name of. She woke up every day at eight and brought the New York Times, which she paid to have delivered, in from the front stoop. To Christian, it seemed like a lot of effort considering he’d never seen her actually read any of the words inside. He couldn’t complain, though, considering such unnecessary efforts allowed him a free crossword puzzle every morning.

Lorie was a creature of habit, much like Christian. She was a single white female with a Bachelor of Arts’ degree from some private school in suburban New York—another detail he hadn’t cared enough to remember. She was twenty-four, also like Christian, and spent her weekend nights going on dates with men she’d met on Tindr, an iPhone app intended for “the sexually active and socially inept,” as Nathan had so generously phrased it. They met through Craigslist.

Christian and Lorie didn’t talk much outside of the niceties roommates are required to offer one another. “How was your day,” or “We’re out of coffee again.” They did things together, sure, but they were silent activities. She’d read a book while he edited old drafts of poems. They’d watch movies together on special occasions. Some mornings, when he woke up early and she woke up late, they’d cross paths and have painful conversations at the breakfast table. It didn’t get much more intimate than that.

Some days, today in particular, Christian hated Lorie. He hated the way she wasted her money on newspapers and how she left her dirty dishes in the sink before she left for work. He hated her for stupid reasons. He hated her because he could—because she’d never know. Because if he ever wanted to get away from Lorie, he could just go into his room and close the door. Lorie didn’t need to be listened to, and Lorie didn’t beg him for information when he seemed upset.

Lorie paid about as much attention to the intimate details of Christian’s life as he did to hers. About a year after Christian had started dating Nathan, she tried to set him up with one of her girlfriends. Christian choked on his Cheerios. “I’m gay.” he told her. And all Lorie could do was laugh—both at her own obliviousness and at the state of their relationship. They’d been living together for two years at the time, and she’d never considered that Christian could be gay. Never noticed the men that traipsed in and out of his room, or when traffic had died down and Nathan began spending most weeknights in their second-floor apartment. But Christian liked that about Lorie. To her, he could be whoever he wanted—her impression of him rested in the information he chose to share. All he had to do was get the rent check to her before the end of the month, and she pretty much refrained from instigating any sort of interrogation.

Christian looked down at his empty cereal bowl and slid it to the opposite side of the table. He thought about calling Nathan—whether or not it would make him feel better. Instead, he rose from his chair and walked over to the kitchen counter, where he’d left the cereal box open and the milk out to sweat. He replaced the box in the cabinet and made his way to the fridge. The shelves were crowded with containers—yogurt, butter, bread. So much food and yet, nothing edible. Three months into his first year in the apartment, Christian realized that if he left food in the refrigerator for long enough, it would start to grow mold. Lorie was never around enough to notice—even if she had, she never bothered to mention it.

He’d take pictures of the mold with his camera and show them to Nathan. The first time he did this, Nathan gagged. The second time, Nathan reacted with feigned enthusiasm and sent him an article about poisonous airborne molds and the parasites they attract. The third time, Nathan snuck into Christian and Lorie’s kitchen at six in the morning and cleared out all of Christian’s expired food. Nathan told him he was “only trying to help”. That he didn’t think it would be such a big deal and that maybe Christian should “grow up and stop harboring science experiments in an eight year old icebox”.

And as much as Nathan’s blunt remarks had broken his heart, Christian needed them. He needed Nathan to show him how to be an adult—to help him grow up. He needed someone to remind him what was appropriate, to teach him how to behave. Christian had moved out of his parents’ house when he was nineteen, drove below the border to the U.S. in a rusted red hatchback. He had no money; sold his car and spent two years working short-term manual jobs in Montana until he’d saved enough to pay for a bus route to San Francisco. He’d never learned how to act in an interview, how to dress or sit up straight or what to order at a lunch meeting. Thankfully, freelance journalism had spared him from such formalities.

But Nathan knew. Nathan, with a degree in finance and cream-colored business cards knew all of these things, and Christian was impressed. They had met in a dive bar near Christian’s apartment. Nathan said he had first liked Christian because he was so different than all the men he was used to seeing. Because he was cute and fun, and unapologetic. But much like a puppy or a toddler, cute can only last for so long before the patience begins to wane. One grows tired of wiping spit up off the messy child’s chin, chasing after them as they run with no destination in mind. Christian needed to start cleaning up after himself, to figure out where he was going—something he hadn’t been asked to consider until this morning, when a conversation about crossword puzzles grew into an adult discussion about compatibility.

Christian heard the door slam as the thick heels of Lorie’s boots beat echoes over the wood floor. He swung his head towards the cabinet and took in the time. Six-seventeen. He sat back, tracing the hours. When did he wake up today? What had he done since? He pushed back his hair with both hands and sat slouched in his chair. So caught in his mind, in recounting his lost relationship that he had lost the day, too.

Lorie walked into the kitchen and heaved her messenger bag onto the counter. Christian hated that bag. He hated the stupid pink scarf she’d tied around the strap, as if it would distract from the tattered black fabric. He hated the papers that poured out. The letters that spelled out contracts and the numbers that added up to bills. He hated the adult life that her bag carried, and how very different it was from his own.

She tugged at her ponytail, sliding the hair tie off and letting her blonde waves fall around her face. “How was your day?” she said, and began sifting through the pile of sealed envelopes that had been crowding their mailbox for the past week.

“Nathan dumped with me this morning.” The words stung Christian’s lips as he said them for the first time. Dumped. Threw away. Left for a newer model. For someone more reliable. Someone who woke up before noon and worked a steady job in an office and wore a suit. Someone who sat down to do a crossword puzzle and actually finished it without getting distracted. Someone who didn’t accidentally spend thirty dollars on tinfoil or intentionally leave food to expire in the refrigerator just so they could marvel at the mold that would grow. Christian was a novelty, a cartoon character that people grew bored of. Most days he was happy, but some days he wondered if his happiness was alright—if he should seek out the stability Nathan had said he lacked. Get a suit made of fabric instead of aluminum and learn about stocks and projections and other boring things. Grow up.

“Hm.” Lorie dropped the envelopes onto the kitchen counter and looked up. “I’m sorry you guys broke up.”

Christian exhaled and drew his mouth into a grimace. He gave a slow nod, “yep.”

“But.” Lorie paused. “Didn’t you sort of,” her eyes poked around in her head as she sought the right words, “Wasn’t he kind of an ass?”

Christian’s eyebrows crumpled towards the center. He drew in a breath, packing black powder into the cannon before he shot out his defense, but his back slouched down further and his mouth closed, waving surrender.

Because what would he miss, really? Afternoons spent walking along the bay, tip-toeing through sunset-splashed waters. Collarbone kisses and mornings that ran so late they’d have to cover their eyes with blankets to simulate the comforting darkness of night. He’d miss having someone, sure. He’d missed being touched and being treated, words of reassurance and shallow compliments. He’d miss all these things, but he wasn’t sure he’d miss Nathan.

Christian heaved out a defeated laugh. “He said I was too immature. He said I was going nowhere and he needed someone more,” the last word caused him to choke: “professional.”

“Right,” Lorie said. She handed Christian three envelopes that revealed paychecks from his last three articles. “So he was an ass.”

Christian laughed, remembering the reasons he and Lorie had continued to live together for so many years. The silent observation they shared had fostered a bond more meaningful than the one he and Nathan had build on weak secrets and strained words.

“So,” Lorie said, without batting an eye, “are you free tonight? Or are you planning on a post-break up pub crawl?”

Christian stretched once more, cracking through his spine like he had hours before in his bedroom. His lips grew a smile. “Nope.” He said, holding his arms out as far as they could reach before collapsing back into his chair. “Do you have a date with another one of the fine gentlemen of Tindr?”

Lorie pulled her phone from her pants pocket and swiped a thumb over the glass. “Nope,” she didn’t make eye contact. “Want to watch a movie?”

“Yep.”

On the way out of the kitchen, Christian dropped the unfinished crossword into the recycling bin, figuring tomorrow’s puzzle might serve him better.

For my Father

After neglecting the countless photographs mom would sneak into my dorm room every time you both came to visit me at college, I’ve finally conceded to her silent pleas and put up pictures of you, her, and Elizabeth in my bedroom. The neglect was not done with malice, it’s just that the stilted family portraits she positioned on my cluttered desk and nightstand failed to present the father, mother, and sister that I preferred to remember. My chubby twelve-year-old figure didn’t do much to convince me, either.

The pictures now posted around my room are indicative of the family I love—the family that raised me. Taped onto the wall is one from this summer of Elizabeth smiling earnestly across the dinner table. Two photos above there’s you, sitting at the green iron-wrought table on our back deck with mom’s arms wrapped lovingly around your neck and a humble grin on her face. Framed, dispersed on the bookshelves is a photo of my one-year-old smile on mom’s lap and one of Molly howling at the beach with a tennis ball at her feet and her golden fur clumped with lake water. On my bedside table, squared in a simple red frame, is a photograph of you and I. I must be three years old; I can tell by my long blond bangs and the fact that you’re still willing to carry me. My stubby index finger is pointing lazily at something outside the frame, and you’ve matched my pompous expression with one of sincere delight. In this photograph, you’re listening, genuinely listening to me. I can tell by your eyes, kind and sheepish, and the way your shoulders are sloped down. You look comfortable, you look happy.

 

Do you remember when I was four, and I’d run to the door every night at six o’clock when you came home? I would crash into you, my socks slipping like puppy paws on the hardwood floor. Your arms were always ready to envelop me, even though it sometimes felt like I’d caught you by surprise. I’m not sure when that ritual stopped; maybe it was when your train started arriving home later and later, or maybe it was around the time I started calling you ‘Dad,’instead of ‘Daddy.’Somewhere between you taking me to CVS on weekday nights to buy tubes of lip gloss, and me denouncing all the Barbie Dolls you fed to my greedy little fingers, the extra ‘dy’became a symbol of the childhood I was vehemently rejecting. I miss that, calling you daddy. Maybe not the name, but what came with it. It makes me feel more like your daughter, more like the girl who had no one to share her life with but you.

You were gone on the weekdays, so weekends were ours. On Saturdays I would wake up and sit on one of the big green couches in our playroom, watching cartoons and waiting until ten o’clock, when you’d shuffle down the stairs with Molly close behind. You’d go to the kitchen and cook us breakfast; homemade chocolate chip pancakes or scrambled eggs doused in parmesan cheese.

Sometimes Elizabeth and I would get impatient, beg mom to let us wake you but she was relentless—refused to let us break the sanctity of the hours that came before ten. She, the only one who truly understood how dedicated you have always been to providing for our family, the only one who knew you well enough to appreciate how precious you’ve always held simple pleasures like sleeping in on a weekend. She’d offer to cook for us, probably in an effort to ease your load, but we weren’t so easily swayed. There was a lightness to your breakfasts. You made the pancakes thick and fluffy, but not filling and there was never a dry or flavorless flake in your scrambled eggs. It was all a product of your patience, your willingness to whisk the ingredients together with a fork instead of an electric beater that made such foods so soft to the taste.

Once fed, you’d urge Elizabeth and I to get dressed. You never liked to see us so young and lethargic, wasting the crisp fall breeze or thick summer air. Some days we had soccer games or play practice, ice-skating lessons or birthday parties, and some days we had nothing to do but spend time with you, gardening or running errands, jumping in fresh-raked leaf piles or coercing you into taking us to Toys R Us.

You would take me on trips to town and we’d walk through shops in the idyllic market square Howard Van Doren Shaw designed for our luxurious suburb. You’d lead the way and I’d scuttle behind, grasping your large fingers with my tired hands, patiently awaiting the inevitable bag of gummy worms and sour candies that would conclude our outing. One day, when I must have been five or six years old, we stopped in a store I had seen but never entered called “Emporium Luggage”—probably so you could buy a purse or suitcase, another gift to spoil mom with. In retrospect, it seems unlikely that this would’ve been where we first saw the painting. Such an item seems better suited for a store full of decorative knick-knacks or a gallery, or that pawn shop across the street from Starbucks. But Emporium Luggage is where I remember seeing it: a section of William Holbrooks’‘Dancing Bears.’A wide black frame carried four bears; two of them lazing in the background beneath the shade of a tree and the other two dancing in the sunshine before them. You told me the dancing bears were us: held the pose of the bear on the right until I caught on and matched you, emulating the bear on the left.

A couple weeks later, on a night when you got home late from work and I was already in bed listening to mom read from a Laura Ingalls Wilder book, you appeared in my room with a rectangular package covered in thick brown paper. I ripped apart the wrapping to find the dancing bears, our dancing bears, and glanced back up to see you poised the same way you were the first time we saw it. I like to think we did this as a bedtime ritual from then on—surely some nights, at least. The picture still hangs in my room, left of my bed. I’d bring it out here to California, but I fear that removing it from its stoic position might break the magic spell it cast on us when we first saw it at the store. That painting belongs to both of us, to our house and to our family.

 

Familial relationships are interesting: within the context of unconditional love, they are simultaneously the most intense and the most obligational. Genetics allow us to assume we should care for one another—blood triumphing over compatibility. There is an expectation that one will love their mother, their father, sisters and brothers, sure, because we are gifted with these people. We are born into the world and placed in their hands, and all we can do is hope their fingertips will hold strong enough to keep us up, but not so strong that they squeeze into our tender infant skulls. A parent who has cared is hard to deny, even if they aren’t as present as they’d like to be or as articulate about their love as we sometimes need.

In reviewing our relationship, there are certain things I can’t ignore. There were things you missed, like elementary school recitals and gymnasium Halloween parties, college tours and move-in day, but there was never a time when your absences felt deliberate: you would have been there if you could have been there. I hear horror stories from my peers, stories I deem dramatic and exaggerated of parents with well-paying jobs who worked long hours and missed presentations and didn’t know their child’s favorite color or food or other trivial things. But to typecast you like that would be too easy, and far too arrogant.

Your love wasn’t measured in family dinners or school-sponsored events. Instead, it could be found in nights spent decorating big cardboard boxes to look like a piece of bazooka bubblegum or a pack of baseball cards, because you and mom couldn’t stand the sheen of store-bought Halloween costumes. It was in the evenings you’d take me to the ice skating rink and teach me how to slap-shot a puck into the net, bike rides through neighborhoods during the final hours of summer’s unhurried twilight. Your absence made moments shared all the more valuable.

But it would be foolish to say your absence has had no impact. I became very possessive over you, my dad, especially in the moments that I was forced to share. Days when we’d go swimming at the club and some kid I’d never seen before would ask us to join in a game of catch. When you’d let someone else latch their skinny fingers around your neck and manatee dive around the pool. Much like you, I am prone to stay quiet in times of upset and work to adjust my attitude instead of the situation, which is why I can remember being six at the pool and feeling a lump in my throat. The same lump I feel now when I’m considering whether or not to ask my roommate to fix the dent she made on the side of my car. It’s as if the words are sitting there, bundled up in a sweet little package and they just can’t make it through my mouth and off my tongue. I’d hold the lump there, unsure of what to say or how to say it or whether or not it was even worth explaining why I wanted you to play with only Elizabeth and I on those precious pool-filled afternoons. You were my dad, and I hated the way you laughed with other kids as if you were theirs, too.

My jealousy, as it so often does, cultivated into a lack of faith altogether. As I grew from a child to a teenager and my mind became more and more wrought by hormones and doubt, I began to lack the confidence necessary to compensate for the feelings you didn’t express and the time you couldn’t spare.

My freshman year of high school was a hard one. There was the initial reevaluation of my identity. My wardrobe shifted from ripped jeans and t-shirts to tighter clothes: velour Juicy Couture zip-ups and cheap silk dresses that made me look like a cased sausage. I went to football games and wore blue and gold on spirit days, tried out for field hockey and didn’t make the team—did the things I thought would make me feel more accepted and well-liked by my peers but, as it so often goes, I was wrong. I was unhappy. I was confused about where I fit in. The only thing that remained consistent about me was the fact that I wasn’t doing my homework, failing to turn in massive assignments with no excuse and no effort to explain.

I’m often reminded of the reassurance a family holds—that each member will love you no matter what you do or how thoroughly you crumble. I think this idealistic view holds true for the mere fact that no matter how much I misbehaved or how shamed I felt, my family still went to bed and woke up with me. After a night of fighting, Elizabeth would still rely on me to wake her up before school. Mom would still have breakfast on the table. But you, you’d be on your way work in the city by six am and gone until after the sun sank below the horizon. When I woke up, I had no way to know whether or not you’d forgiven me, and Freshman year of high school those mornings seemed to come in waves.

I was depressed and you just didn’t get it. No one did, I think, not even me. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone how I felt, and we were all, myself included, too disappointed in my academic and overall performance to take any of it seriously. Mom only realized when she saw the skin beneath my thickly stacked bracelets: the blood-stained lines I’d impressed with a razor in the shower. She told you, but we never talked about it. I think we were neither interested in facing the fact that I was self-mutilating, nor loaded with the appropriate words to discuss what it all meant. We didn’t talk about it, but you and mom did find someone to talk about it with me. Someone outside the family. Someone more qualified to listen to me talk about how I felt.

When I started seeing a therapist is when I started to withdraw from you and mom. I needed to assert my independence, to escape from your embrace and figure out who I was and how I wanted to spend my time. Mom would respond with a tighter grasp and angry resistance. I’d yell, and she’d just yell louder. I’d cry and she’d tell me to stop. But you weren’t there to see all of that. You came home from work, informed by mom’s report, and I welcomed you at the door except unlike when I was four, there was no hug, no excitement. The anticipation was the only thing that remained, but it was pitted in my stomach, much darker and heavier than it had been all those years ago.

You never yelled. You’d sit there, still dressed in your suit, and speak to me with the same conviction I assume you used when speaking to a client. Slow and logical, you spoke like a lawyer to me instead of like a father. Safe to say, you’re good at your job. You knew every way of making me feel guilty, every word necessary to get the response you needed. You were never angry, just disappointed. Because I just didn’t “get it”, whether I was sneaking out of the house or ditching class, ignoring my homework or smuggling handles of Smirnoff into my closet. There was always something I just didn’t get—something that separated the two of us, emphasized the maturity I lacked. Something that stopped us from being friends and kept us bound to the roles of parent and child. You just wanted me to grow up, to stop acting so stupid and realize why my behavior was stopping me from gaining the autonomy I felt I deserved. I think you were tired of raising sixteen year old girls—first Elizabeth, then me two years later. Tired of having the same conversations over and over again, tired of your words slipping out of my mind as quickly as they’d entered.

I never let up. The more you guys pointed out my flaws and chastised my behavior the more I withdrew. Mom thought my friends were bad influences and tried to limit my access and whether I liked it or not, the two of you were stronger as a united front. So I’d lie about where I was going and who I was going there with and one of you would catch me. You’d ground me for weeks at a time, confiscate my phone or ban me from the computer, I’d complete my punishment and the cycle would continue, all of us dedicated to our respective roles of authoritative parent and rebellious child. One weekend, when mom and Elizabeth flew out to West Virginia for cousin Jack’s graduation, we were left home alone. Sixteen and selfish, the thought of spending the quality time that you and I hadn’t enjoyed in years was traded for a train ride to Evanston with plastic water bottles full of vodka and three of my friends. Parental supervision sliced in half, it was the most opportune moment for me to indulge in the excitement that came with underage drinking. I told you I was going to see a movie—which I did, or at least tried to do. My friend vomited about five minutes into the previews.

Vomit is a difficult thing to hide. Sure enough, someone told security and sure enough, security knew exactly what we were doing. They called the police. My vomiting friend went to the hospital and the other two ran out the backdoor of the theatre bathroom. I was arrested; underage drinking, public intoxication, whatever else they could slap on to the police report. They called you ten minutes before I was supposed to arrive home for curfew and you drove the thirty minutes to come pick me up.

In the car on the way home I don’t remember much. All I know is that I cried and you stayed quiet. Through my tears, you let me fill in the blanks and realize what I’d done wrong without feeding me the answers. I don’t know why that instance of me screwing up and getting caught was so different from all the others. Maybe because mom wasn’t there, because you were in charge and we were both a little scared of what she would’ve done if she had found out what we’d both let happen. Maybe you realized how ineffective my punishments had been. But you gave me the benefit of the doubt, made us into a team and I think that was around the time I started realizing the ways in which we could resolve our roles as a warring parent and child and maybe reach some sort of friendship.

I finished my junior year of high school a week later and the year after that, things went a bit differently. You and mom were more lenient, probably because there wasn’t much trouble I could reasonably get into beyond a police record. I was more honest—more willing to connect with both of you. I was done lying about what I was doing and you were done telling me who I could and couldn’t spend time with. I was the youngest, the last one to leave home and none of us wanted to waste our last year together.

That year, you made a point of keeping up with me. Weekends now crowded by babysitting jobs and plans with friends, we made time during the week to see each other. We both had demanding schedules, mine more social than business-oriented, so our appointments were not regular. Much like in childhood, though, this irregularity made the time we spent together all the more valuable. It was intentional, sought after on both ends. We’d go to dinner at the Lantern, my favorite restaurant in town when I was younger, and order the same things we always did: a burger for you, chicken fingers for me, onion rings to share. We’d invite each other into our lives: you’d tell me about your overwhelming work schedule, delusional clients or difficult attorneys you had to work with, and I’d tell you about my friends and whatever petty thing was distracting me at the time. We’d talk about the kind of person you were at my age and the kind of person I would become. We took the time to get to know each other and found ways to keep each other going. I remember one night, after I’d turned in all thirteen of my college applications and started receiving acceptance letters from the safety schools I dreaded attending, I expressed my anxiety over being rejected from every school I liked. I told you I’d be happy just getting into one school I wanted to go to and you told me that rather than no choices, my problem would be too many choices. So confident in my qualifications, you asserted that I’d get accepted to not just one, but several of my dream schools and sure enough, you were right.

 

You were the only one to have such confidence in me. Unlike everyone else who’d made sure to instill their realistic albeit cynical expectations—teachers, peers, tutors and counselors—you indulged in the optimism that I had vowed to abstain from. You didn’t need an impressive resume or stellar grades to convince you of my potential; just being your daughter seemed to be enough.

When I think of that year, I am taken back to moments in my childhood. A feeling starts to grow in my gut and rise up through my chest; it’s the same feeling that came when I’d see the note you left in my desk during parent-teacher walk throughs in elementary school, or when we’d win father-daughter relay races at swim club events. Almost like helium caught in my lungs, it is the sensation that comes when I feel most like your daughter.

Since graduating high school, that feeling has become less and less present. I had spent the entire year hell-bent on distance. I wanted to explore new places outside the droll average of the Midwest. It wasn’t until I actually got there—flew the five hours between O’Hare and LAX—that I realized how far I had gone. So many miles spanned between Claremont, California and Lake Forest, Illinois that the weekends home my friends enjoyed, the home-cooked meals and sweet parental hugs, were never as available for me.

It was important to me to be so uncomfortable and so alone. In these four years and the years that will surely follow, I’ve learned a lot about who I am and how to grow into the person I’d like to be. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, I needed to learn how to assimilate myself to a new place. But it took me until now to realize what I gave up in achieving such independence: in a sense, I feel capable and ready to take on the world, but in gaining such confidence it feels like I’ve sacrificed the precious beauty that comes with childhood. Even worse is the realization that no matter how sad I get at the irreversibility of time, every second still ticks and the memories just get more and more crowded.

I don’t call as much as I should. I don’t call, and I don’t video chat. I don’t write or email or send you guys pictures, and I definitely don’t visit home as much as you and I would like. I’m not good at maintaining long-distance relationships, too busy with schoolwork and housework and lazy afternoons filled with soft grass and good books. I’m sorry if my total lack of communication has ever made you feel like you aren’t on my mind, because that impression is so far from reality. I see you everywhere I go, in every dog’s panting breath and every flower garden, every baseball clip and briefcase. Last spring break, after driving for four hours in the bland and barren desert, I asked my exhausted friends to backtrack half an hour just so we could go to a diner I’d heard you mention once: Peggy Sue’s, with the life-size dinosaurs and 50’s motif. I see you everywhere, so often, these things will always be ingrained with memories of you.

 

I’m sure there will be times when I need your advice, your reassurance or just your calming presence, and you’ll be there, ready with a shoulder for my head to fall on. I just fear that it won’t be the same: that I’ll never feel the intrinsic, physical weightlessness that comes with feeling like your daughter. In learning to be independent, it seems I’ve forgotten how let myself be naïve and vulnerable. Time alone has been wonderful for me, but it’s time I learn how to be your daughter again.

This year, I read a story by Anne Lamott about her deceased father. Her writing is beautiful, full of imagery and understated wisdom. One line that struck me was on the fifth page, when she says, “It’s so different having a living father who loves you, even someone complex and imperfect…there are setbacks and heartbreak, but you’re still the apple of someone’s eye.”I think that with this notion that I need to relearn how to be your daughter, it’s important to remember that to you, I never stopped knowing how. Similar to your unwavering presence in my life, it would be foolish to think I don’t maintain such a place in yours. You are, always will be, my father and I, always will be, your daughter.

 

Yours, truly.

Caroline