2011 Writing Contest Winners
The Write Words
Poems and stories win annual prizes
(Scroll down to read winners)
8x11 Color Pencil portrait of your pet or person by Lynne Srba from Pet & People Portraits
Madhuri Jarwala of Morrisville, “Tree of Life”
One hour computer repair or tune-up from Tech Wizards
Judith Pine Bobé of Raleigh, “I Danced With a Man”
One-year membership to North Carolina Writer's Network
Diane Pascoe of Raleigh, “Secrets and Marriage”
Gift certificate for laptop case and journal from New Horizons Trading Company
Alice Osborn of Raleigh, “Southern Ice Storm”
Carolina Woman t-shirt
Jmeka Cherrel of Raleigh, "Back in Time"
Tina Batchelor of Zebulon, "Eddie’s Bench"
Betsy Bevan of Greensboro, "God and the Flying Horses"
Melissa Moore of Roxboro, "Granny's Biscuits"
Sheon Little of Durham, "Living Life"
Laine Cunningham of Hillsborough, "The Dance"
Michelle Ong of Raleigh, "Yielding to the Outback”
- Grand Prize
- First Prize
- Second Prize
- Third Prize
- Honorable Mentions
by Madhuri Jarwala of Morrisville
The root reached deep in the dark center of the earth
A pair of parrot green leaves unfurled
and the seedling shot up towards the blazing sky
Fed by the Monsoon rains
in the air perfumed by Jasmine,
Sheltering the singing Myna birds
was the Mango tree
That shaded the courtyard where I played hopscotch
Riding the South China Seas in a stowaway compartment
the sapling was smuggled to the shores of Pacific
It sustained scorching Santa Ana winds,
straddled San Andrea’s fault
Thrived on the Sierra waters of the irrigation canals
and blossomed in the new world
With its exotic beauty and magical fruit
This was the Pomegranate tree under which I tasted my first kiss
Leaving the native land, across the Rockies and the Prairies,
By boats, planes, trains, and tractor trailers,
the tree crossed the Mason Dixon line
It is now surrounded by Black and White, old and new,
At the historic cross roads of Red and Blue
A transplant in midlife, sprouting some aerial roots, some deep down,
Searching for the common ground
This is the magnificent Magnolia that graces my front door
Mango, Pomegranate, and Magnolia, with the same rootthat reached deep in the dark center of the earth, time and continents apart
by Judith Pine Bobé of Raleigh
I danced with a man
In the family room of
My suburban split-level
Where I lived alone
And the music was slow
And our bodies
Moved pelvis to pelvis
And our faces touched
Cheek to cheek
And we moved
No words spoken
As my eyes
Began to close
In the way
That eyes close
Against each other
With no room
For even a breath
To pass through
At the beginning
Of a kiss
And I thought
About the times
Cheek to cheek
Pelvis to pelvis
In this same room
With the man
And I believed
Him and all
Of unending love
Of love burnt
Into eternal time
Of love so
Breathe without it
And I remembered
How he held
My hand in his
And the strength
Of his graceful fingers
Tight against my back
Drawing me closer
Until my eyes closed
In a dance I was
Certain would last forever
And I remembered
The last Sunday
Three years ago
When I became
The Deleted Wife
And took off my
Knowing that I would
Never feel his
Body next to mine
Secrets and Marriage
by Diane Pascoe of Raleigh
Secrets are the foundation to any good marriage, as everyone knows. If I told Honey everything I did, knew or thought, our marriage would crumble from the massive evidence of my disagreeable behavior. And the government and banks aren’t working with me on this either.
Let me explain. One of the requirements of applying for a green card is that you have to have a medical exam done by a civil surgeon who, because he arrives late to our 8 am appointment, is in fact an uncivil civil surgeon in my view. Honey, Braden and I wait patiently until the receptionist hands us each seven forms, saying “tthispartthatpartandsigntherethereandthereblahblah.” I cannot follow so many instructions at one time.“Sharpen your pencils” I grumble to Honey and Braden “Maybe they need proof we can read and write in addition to being disease free”
After weights and heights are taken, we file into the examination room as a team. I have never been in a medical room with so many people except when giving birth when it seemed that most of the hospital came in for a peek and a poke. The uncivil civil surgeon and Nurse Ratchett then checked eyes and ears, gave needles, took blood and applied bandages.
“That will be $900,” says the uncivil civil surgeon. For this we got a receipt and one page of scribbles about each of us which he handed to Honey. And that is where the breach of secrecy began.
The Wife Secrecy Act ensures that weight can be kept secret from a husband if the fat wife so wishes — no means no! Furthermore, a woman doesn’t have to tell her husband her weight even under threat of credit card removal, and she will be found innocent of murder if he persists with this line of questioning. Armed with the uncivil civil surgeon’s notes, my Honey can clearly see in black and white that I am fat in addition to being short, or petite plus as the fashionistas say.
I am devastated. But before I can recover from this blow, there is another major violation of the Wife Secrecy Act. Honey asks me what that $1,500 was for that I just spent an hour earlier. The banks have violated the Wife Secrecy Act by letting him track my spending on-line real-time.
I have no time to formulate my lies and excuses about this expenditure as I am caught by surprise.
“It was only $1499.99. Why must you always exaggerate,” I wailed. What I really needed was an hour to set up my sobbing plea for a new rug because of the poop stains, pulled threads and puppy puke. The bank has thrown me off my game, played the ace, eaten my last cookie.
I mean it won’t be long before Honey can probably see via a secret car camera hidden in the rearview mirror that I have a bag of licorice allsorts stuffed beside the car seat with a moolicious mocha mango smoothie in the cup holder and a Jelly Bellies bag with only the yucky root beer beans left.
I plead for banks and the government to foster mutual respect in a marriage — he must respect my secrets and I will respect his silence about my secrets. We can live happily ever after, me with my credit card and he with our new, clean rug. I only hope the banks and government can stay out of the bathrooms and purses of the nation.
Southern Ice Storm
by Alice Osborn of Raleigh
Freezing rain pinged the skylight
after the late news, thanks to the
the air from New England.
Patti first hears the crack of
the thin Bradford pear
branches, then the
boom of a collapsed
another. She tastes
the silent furnace hum.
radio says power could
return within the hour, but if
not, call someone. A cold
banana and apple must feed
all four North Raleigh residents.
The minivan’s engine runs for 25
minutes, the ice chunks mocking
the contained heat. Both parents
chip and lift the frozen sculpture to
free wipers and headlights, while
inside the eight and three-year-old
overturn tables and etch suns with
Sharpies on the carpet.
Do you really have to go to work
today? she already knows his answer.
At 7:12 am, his recall-free Toyota
attempts to escape their glassy
driveway,swaying and spinning like a
drunk dinosaur until the laws of
For her, there’s only home with no TV,
bored children and the crystal claws
knocking their unwelcome against
the wooden siding.
by Jmeka Cherrel of Raleigh
As I travel back in time
Making change, quarter, nickel, dime
A dollar made out of fifteen cents
Still ain’t nothing going on but the rents
I walk around tall as if nothing new
Hope surrounding me like misty dew
The answer seems so far, not even near
Forcing me to contemplate the thoughts I hold dear
I wake from sleeping because I know it’s a dream
Reality and fallacy torn at the seam
Can’t make sense of it now
Who, what, when, where and how?
Questions asked without rhetoric
My conscious goes tick tock tick
As I travel back in time
My change lessens by one
Quarter, nickel, dime.
by Tina Batchelor of Zebulon
I sat on Eddie’s bench yesterday afternoon. He was there. And it could not have been more perfect.
Shortly after Eddie died, an opportunity came to participate in the creation and building of the Hospice
facility of the greater Raleigh area. Amazingly, this geographical region did not have its own free-
standing Hospice facility. When Eddie became a Hospice patient, since the pain issues associated
with his terminal stage four melanoma could not be successfully managed at home, he needed to be in a
setting where professional medical personnel could administer the medication and the means to ease his
pain. Without an in-patient Hospice facility, that meant a hospital. A completely appropriate place for
getting well and living through life-saving methods and measures, a hospital is not meant to be a place
for living out the end of a life in final comfort, dignity and peace. So, I made a financial pledge to
Hospice of Wake County to help them build their house, and in return, they would give me a bench
outside in a garden area near a water feature, with a small plaque designating it as a gift in memory
of my beloved.
I stepped out of work into a beautiful afternoon, not too humid or hot, sunny and with a slight breeze,
and since I had nothing better to do, I decided to see if I could find . . . Eddie’s bench. I had been
thinking of doing it for a while, driving over to see if it was actually there, and if so, to sit upon it
and think of him. It seemed like as good a time as any.
The new Hospice House building is huge and built, roughly, in the shape of a spread-apart U. It is set
in the midst of a large piece of land; probably at one time it was part of the pasture that surrounds it still,
so by its very setting, it is tranquil and bucolic, filled with the serenity of nature, ideal for finding peace.
One wing houses all the administration offices, the other houses the actual in-patient suites. They are
connected by outside covered breezeways and anchored in the center of the U with a small spiritual
sanctuary, or chapel. The driveway out front is a circular one and has off to one side a garden area with
a fountain in its center space. Since I had requested that Eddie’s bench be near the water, this is where I
expected to find it.
There must have been ten or more benches placed upon the stone pathways ringing that fountain, but
not one of them was marked with Eddie’s name. I paused, disappointed, but then I remembered from
the website architectural drawings I had scrutinized, there were to be at least two water features. His
bench must be at the other one.
Question was, just where was that? I walked past the small sanctuary going toward the left, my steps
would take me behind the administration wing, where the stone pathway led to other benches placed
in pristinely manicured settings….but none of these were Eddie’s either. I wondered for a moment if
perhaps he had been omitted, maybe forgotten, but I pushed that thought away, for there was yet
another side to investigate behind the length of building that housed the individual apartments for
the residents. I walked around the end of the red-bricked building to behold an intimate courtyard,
small and sheltered from the late afternoon sun by the shadow cast over it by the building. It was
cozy, protected and private. Central to this garden area was a half-moon shaped concrete pool
from which sprang three gentle geysers of water plumes, their heights constantly fluctuating,
the droplets falling back into the pool only to be resurrected and live again, accompanied by that
comfortingly hissing sound of water rushing. Two curve-backed, carved ash benches were
placed on the other side of this pool, flanking the private patio doors of the apartments where
people would be living their last days, where families would be gathering to give their last
expressions of love to one another. I paused before the first bench. It was not Eddie’s.
I knew before I got close enough to read the small gray plastic sign on the back of the second
bench that it was his. It was the very last bench I found. And it was the very best. I bent
forward to run my fingers gently over the sparkling white script of the words…words that I
had written for him……
In loving memory of Eddie
Given by his wife
For every life that passes . . . something beautiful remains.
Only a few words could be allowed in such a small space, so they had to be exact and without
embellishment, something so hard for me to accomplish! I can be so wordy! But, there they were,
exactly as I had written, what I had finally chosen to say to the world as his perfect legacy. I had
read the inscriptions on all the other benches, and perhaps that was why I found his at the very last,
so that I could. And these words, I thought, were by far the most meaningful, the most beautiful,
the ones that conveyed so succinctly the essence of the man they were chosen to honor.
I sat down.
Before me was the half-moon pool, rimmed in river rocks, so like the rock wall and the hearth he had
built in the cabin where we lived, of which he was so proud. The sound of the water rushing skyward
in a trinity of plumes was reminiscent of the sound of the beach, and if I closed my eyes I could
pretend that was where I was . . . where we were . . . sitting on our front deck . . . where we had a
bench . . . Eddie’s bench . . . from where he would watch the boats come and go up the canal that
was right in front of our house. He would sit there for hours. Sometimes people would come by
and talk to him, sometimes he would sit quietly, reverently, and gaze in contentment at the water
in front and to the left (the Intracoastal waterway). I thought of him as I looked beyond the spewing
fountain now to the emerald lawn, so green and lush, and just beyond that, in all their blooming
perfection, a long hedge of deep pink roses finished off the scene.
I had no idea they would be there, but I should not have been surprised. I had asked about the
landscaping that might be placed around Eddie’s bench when I pledged the money, but no one
was sure what would be there. So, I had asked if perhaps I could plant a few rose bushes around
his bench and I was told I could.
Roses had become Eddie’s sign to me. Shortly after he died, two months in fact, I had a vision of
him, a re-playing of an event that truly happened, and in my mind’s eye that day I saw him coming
in the back door of the cabin, with a bouquet of roses in his hands for me. The actual day that the
scene took place was a Valentine’s Day a few years before he had been diagnosed and he had
brought me roses. They meant a lot to me on the day he actually gave them to me. What I would
never have suspected is how much they would come to mean when he brought them to me again
after he died. For that day and almost every day since -- yes, until this very one -- Eddie has
brought me roses, one way or another . . . in a picture, in an email, on a woman’s skirt, on a
billboard at an airport, a bouquet sent by a friend to me on a special occasion, on a card. And
now I had only to sit upon his bench and see them, yet again.
Eddie’s bench was perfect.
Someone . . . got it so right . . . for as I sat there, I could so remember all of my wonderful life with
him, how much we had, how much we loved.
I didn’t want to leave. I felt so at home there.
At last, I ran my fingers over the words one final time, stood up, and told him goodbye.
I walked around the side of the building to the parking lot. Odd, as I walked toward my car, I noticed
there were a couple of Corvettes parked nearby. They had not been there when I arrived for surely I
would have noticed. I had the thought that they probably belonged to doctors attending to the
Patients in the Hospice house. I almost dismissed them as coincidence.
But, wait. There were more than a couple here….three….four….I kept counting….bright red ones,
yellow ones, a black one. In all, I counted eight Corvettes in that parking lot. Oh my God! I was
really laughing hard as I pointed my car out of the drive. Eddie’s presence could not have been
clearer, it was almost as if he was putting an exclamation point on the afternoon for me!
Corvettes. He loved them so, loved the one we had, that still sat in my garage. That car was his
pride and joy and forever I will remember the smile it gave him when he drove it.
I didn’t need to see him in a vision to know he was smiling now…smiling at me for thinking of him,
maybe even sitting on his bench nestled among the roses by the water fountain near a parking lot
full of Corvettes!
It won’t be hard to come back, again and again, to this place which already holds so much meaning
for me. I look forward eagerly to the next visit.
And I know I won’t be there alone.
God and the Flying Horses
by Betsy Bevan of Greensboro
She died in the living room, next to the red cotton couch and my funny
chicken painting hung on the wall. I was eating a piece of chocolate, the seventy
percent dark organic kind, as she lay lost in a bucking delirium. I watched her
ride right up to heaven on her painted pony going up and down. She was leaving
to be with God and the flying horses as she’d wished twenty-five years ago.
Only now... it was no longer her wish.
I’d met her six years ago and we’d become best friends. She’d gotten
married last year. Her cartoons were being published in Martha’s Vineyard
Times where she worked full time as a web designer. On lunch breaks she’d
grab her rice, veggies and journal, saunter down the sunny boardwalk, dangle
her feet over the edge and peer into clear salt water to a sandy bottom. Looking
up she’d see the gleaming harbor sailboats against a blue sky and pull out her
ultra fine pen to sketch a miniature of herself and merry friends waving from one
of the bows. With a half smile she’d twist the sketch with quirk some wit, fully
She always managed to be in sight of a large stretch of water. It’s
openness spoke to her, aroused a vast imagination. When I first met her at a
flower festival she was living in a summer house on the rocky shore of Lake
Ontario in upstate New York. She’d told me that from her desk on the second
floor she’d watch the water blossom from blue to pink and orange each evening
as she filled journal after journal.
Turned out the house was haunted. A window banged, another blew
open. She called me late one night. She knew they’d been latched shut.
Over time, she made peace with the ghosts and stayed there each summer
until I moved away one sultry day in August and she decided to go live the rest
of her life on Martha’s Vineyard. Her eyes flashed talking about the ocean and
the special light of the island, how invigorated she’d felt when she first lived
Now, she’d lived on the island for five years. Her Vineyard Haven
cartoon calendar, recently published, was drawing attention. She was
happy, thrilled with life. She told me she had the energy of a teenager and was
delighted her skin had become soft as an olive, courtesy of a macrobiotic diet.
It was the height of tourist season. People flocked to the Red Barn Gallery
across the road from her rented island house. Life was good, so how could
she die? No one dies in August.
At fourteen Karen wrote down that wish of being with God and the flying
horses. I found it written in one of her What Really Happened illuminated
journals. She’d been sure it was God who visited her in visions and dreams
as a child, and she wanted to be with that God and the flying horses so she
could escape her stifling childhood, gallop along broad beaches and ride
magnificent Pegasus to splash poetry wherever they traveled. Most days, in her
youth, you’d find her in the barn behind the house brushing her horse,
dreaming, drawing and writing.
Karen avoided home whenever possible, as Mr. Oswald lived there. She
was seven when he married her mom. He seemed nice enough at first but one
January night convinced her she’d be better off somewhere else. She’d known
for a long time she needed to get away, not taking to the strict rules of her
fundamentalist upbringing, “Only an inch of water for your bath now honey...Only
one quarter cup of milk on your cereal...No worldly music and definitely no
denim skirts as it’s the fabric of Satan...You’d be damned to hell for wearing
that,” her Mom and Grandma would tell her. She knew she wasn’t going
there. Her brown, white-nosed friend taught her that. Horses could never
go to any place bad. After all, she did all the right things: prayed, read her
Bible, attended church.
She heard her Mom and step-Dad hollering like fools one night while
she tried to sleep. The front door slammed. A car engine roared. She jumped
out of bed screaming, “Don’t leave!” Scrambling over snow to get to the beat up
chevy, she grabbed a door handle and jumped in as it screeched away.
They drove around aimlessly, her mother swearing she’d never
go back. Karen pleaded to go home as they had no other place to go.
Besides, she was freezing in her slim nightie, toes numb white up to her
ankles. She couldn’t stop shivering back in bed. An ear infection set in, a
grim reminder of the freezing night.
“Don’t worry, honey, the Lord will take care of you,” her mother said.
As her days grew quieter and pain increased she waited for the Lord
to heal her. Neither he nor the doctor ever showed up. She retreated further
from her family, writing to God and sketching horses while leaning against
the old stall door, praying to fly up to heaven.
Now she was on her way. It was three days before her passing. I looked
over at Karen lying on the narrow hospice bed in her living room, her bone thin
legs outlined by a yellow mohair blanket. A light summer breeze washed over
her and wild flowers bowed at the window. Straight, blonde hair flowed down
her arms like rippling rivers of sand. Her smooth butter skin glowed in sunlight.
Pink, full lips accented an elegant frame. Her guy-stopping looks were out of
place here. Everywhere we’d traveled, horns had honked at stoplights and
photographers asked to snap pictures, which she thought was hilarious. She
had a new boyfriend every six months, all of them wanting her to be somebody
she wasn’t. It didn’t take long for them to figure out she was a tomboy at heart,
most happy in overalls, boy sneakers working on greasy cars, fixing motorbikes
and writing her novels.
I stared at Karen’s limp form on the bed, caught in the reverie of her life.
A waste, I thought. Wheels on gravel stirred me to the door. It was Juliann, her
assigned hospice care worker I’d met yesterday.
“How’s she doing?”
“Restless,” I said, not knowing if the word described Karen or myself.
In the kitchen, her husband and I updated Juliann on how much we
admired Karen’s brilliance. Back and forth Jack and I volleyed remarks.
“Do you know she has a technical degree in writing and a bachelors
in fine arts?”
“Yeah, and she won an award on a team writing project at the Xerox
“Do you realize how smart she is? She has two years under her
belt toward a doctorate in philosophy, a masters in graphic design AND
library science. Figured she could work anywhere with all those.”
“And she’s only in her thirty’s!”
Whispering, we wanted to scream. Do you know who she is? How
amazingly talented? We can’t possibly lose her! Do something!
Juliann broke away before Jack and I realized Karen had been trying to
make herself heard through a muttered babble in the living room.
“ I’m here,” Juliann said as she stroked the back of Karen’s
unresponsive hand. Karen quieted. Jack and I, still in the kitchen, looked at
each other feeling foolish and impotent.
Karen had loved telling the story of how she and Jack met on the island.
They first saw each other at a library conference when Karen was a librarian in
Vineyard Haven and Jack was filling in at the West Tisbury branch. Months later
he spied her again as she was leaving a bookstore. He jumped in his car and
followed. She stopped at a gas station to fill her ‘91 dented honda she’d been
coaxing along for years. He strolled right up and began pumping gas for her.
She looked up, shading her eyes with a mittened hand and blurted,
“You trailed me.”
“Yes,” he said, extending his hand. “I”m Jack”.
She giggled, shook his hand and replied, “I have cancer” as if that was
her name and an explanation for who she was. A few days later he called her.
At ease together, Karen didn’t feel obliged to pretend with Jack. She could
be herself. Having a cancer diagnosis had shaken out any old pattern of trying
to please. She felt stripped down to a bare, honest core and liked that about
herself with Jack.
Last summer, when the lease expired on her rental, they moved down
the road a quarter mile to a place across from Red Barn Gallery. Karen had
complained the bungalow was too small for both of them and as I looked
around me now, beside her hospice bed, I saw she was right. Videos were
strewn across a chipped, green coffee table. A small TV sat on a metal chair
dwarfed by a leafy plant on top. Books and journals oozed from the wall-to-wall
shelves, accompanied by a humming air conditioner perched in the window.
The red couch dominated the rest of the room, which opened to a tiny kitchen.
Boxes of seaweed, brown rice, and bottled penna water filled the open shelf
pantry under wooden stairs. Plants covered a never used black, iron stove
meant for cooking her macrobiotic meals. A donated refrigerator overwhelmed
the space so much you had to maneuver the door and chairs like an IQ puzzle
to eat at the kitchen table. Vanilla ice cream and snicker bars packed the
freezer, a request from Karen last week when she realized her lengthy macro
diet wouldn’t save her. She managed to eat only spoonfuls of the cool
sweetness in her last few difficult days.
I spoke to Karen. She seemed oblivious, swallowed up in a sweaty
incoherence, fighting for life. Here I was in one of the most beautiful places in
the country witnessing one of the most tragic events of my life. I was not at all
prepared to loose my friend. Through tears I walked upstairs to get ready for
bed. Jack said he’d sleep downstairs on the couch by Karen. I felt lost and
acutely aware of surroundings. The loft was crowded. A brick chimney claimed
most of the room with a double bed jammed in on one side. Clothes littered the
floor and exploded from open dresser drawers bulging with sweaters and
wrinkled cotton pants. Layers of paper and mail swamped two tables and
boxes of Karen’s paintings and journals flowed from underneath wooden
eaves. Her cartoons and illustrations covered the walls.
Fortunately, relief came from four windows, cleansing the cluttered
space with ocean air. Bits of memos, quotes and sketches stuck to her
computer. One of her fine-point pen cartoons showed a shark swimming
without teeth. At the bottom of the ocean a cup of water held a pair of shark’s
false teeth. With her usual off beat humor she’d written the caption, Jaws
2050. I’m sure If she had the strength to open her eyes and hold a pen right
now, she would have drawn a cancer joke of herself lying there in the hospice
bed, bones all falling out, lamp in hand, a carousel of colored horses flying
round and round with the words, “Karen 2005, outbound to wonderland.”
by Melissa Moore of Roxboro
How I will never forget
Leaning back in a chair
In my Granny’s kitchen
Staring with eyes wide open
As she fashioned her homemade biscuits,
That the family raved about,
Every time we put a biscuit into our mouth,
As the biscuit so suddenly touched our palates
And left us satisfied in a sense of eager delight
Watching my Granny was a pleasure
Of mouth watering sensation, as she
Carefully gathered the flour, milk and
Lard, into her hands, cupping the mixture
As if it were a precious newborn being held
In her care and nothing could touch that.
As she placed the dough on the board
And Started rolling over the dough with her
Rolling pin, it was her perfect touch that
Kept it from moving, while she patted each
Biscuit to put on the pan into the oven.
I never forgot the aroma after they had
Been taken out of the oven, placed into the
Bread basket so eager to be eaten.
It is a memory that has by far increased
My wondering of how my Granny’s biscuits
Were the ultimate joy to my sense of taste,
That my loving Granny expressed while I
Was sitting in a chair, leaning back against the
Kitchen floor, ordering my stomach to make
Room for scrumptious and enticing
by Sheon Little of Durham
“She doesn’t have much time left.”
The world stopped as I sat there with the phone to my ear. Marsha always beat whatever was thrown at her. She was tough. Nothing could keep her down. What the hell did she mean she didn’t have much time left?
“Sheon, are you there. Are you going to be okay?” I finally snapped back to reality when I heard Pam calling my name. I tried to answer but there was an enormous lump in my throat. My heart pounded uncontrollably as the tears began to flow.
“I’ll be okay. I just want to go to sleep.” I knew that sleep was going to be the only way I was going to escape the pain I was feeling. I was losing Marsha. I wasn’t prepared and I had no idea of how to cope. I hung up the phone, grabbed my teddy bear and cried myself to sleep.
When I woke up the next morning, I thought it had been a dream. When I realized it wasn’t, the tears broke free again. I had to get myself together. It was the last day of school and I needed to be there.
When I got to school, I could tell by the expression on everyone’s face that they knew. I didn’t say anything to anybody because I knew that if I opened my mouth, I was going to start crying. But, I lost that battle. It was impossible for me to be at school, see everyone and not think about her. I knew they were hurting, too, but they were holding up much better than I was. I couldn’t tell you what happened that day. My body was at school but my heart and mind were in a hospital room in Chapel Hill.
By the end of the day, I had stopped crying and could hold a conversation. My principal and friend, Kathy, came up to me in the office. She asked me if I was going to the hospital to see Marsha and I said that I didn’t know if I could see her lying in that hospital bed. Kathy looked me straight in the eyes and said, “It’s not about you. It’s about Marsha and Nancy. They need you there.” I was speechless. In all my grief, I had forgotten about the people who really mattered…who needed the support. Kathy offered to take me and I took her up on the offer. I was on my way to Chapel Hill to see Marsha…possibly for the last time.
It had been a long time since I’d seen the two of them together. It seemed wrong to stand there and watch, but I couldn’t help it. I had never witnessed anything so sweet and beautiful.
Nancy was kneeling beside the bed… Marsha’s hand in hers. Nancy only let go long enough to adjust the oxygen mask.
“Come on, baby. You gotta get that oxygen level up. We’re going home tomorrow.” I stood frozen in place. I felt the tears well up in my eyes as I listened to Nancy speak. This time, we all knew that Marsha wasn’t going home.
I stood in the doorway until Nancy realized I was there.
“Hey. Marsha, Little Dog’s here. Wake up and talk to Sheon.” I walked over and stood next to the bed. I just looked at her. Her thin body was draped in a purple hospital gown. They had told me to talk to her because she could hear everything that was going on, but I didn’t know what to say. I simply reached over and stroked her arm. She had gotten so small… I was sure that I was hurting her. My knees felt wobbly as I eased into the chair next to the bed.
Nancy was on the opposite side. Sitting across from her, I could see the pain on her face and the love in her eyes. She continued to stroke and kiss Marsha’s hand and I took her other hand into mine. My heart broke. She was so tense. I could feel it in her hand and see it on her face. I didn’t know if it was because she was in pain or because she was fighting to hold on. Whatever it was, it was time to be over. As much as I wanted her to open her eyes and hear her call me “Little Dog” again, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. And, the truth was that it was selfish to want her to continue to live a life filled with pain and sickness. So, I closed my eyes and prayed for her to let go…
…twenty-four hours later, she did. And just as she wanted, she was at home surrounded by the people who loved her.
I couldn’t begin to describe the loss I felt. Devastated wasn’t even a strong enough word. I had looked up to her since I was a twenty-two year old student teacher. I wanted to be just like her when I “grew up.” In nine years, she had gone from just being my boss to being my friend.
June 13, 2009, I saw Marsha for the last time. Once again, I was speechless. While everyone else talked, laughed and celebrated her life, I sat alone and cried. The honest truth was that not only was I crying because she was gone, I cried because I felt guilty. I hadn’t called her when she got back from her last trip a few weeks before. I always called to check on her but I didn’t that time. I lost out on a chance to talk to her one more time because I was stressed out at work over test scores. If only I had known. I once heard Kay Yow say “Don’t let the urgent get in the way of the important”. That’s exactly what I had done and, for a while, I couldn’t forgive myself.
Then, one night, I was going through my photo album and I came across pictures from a Christmas party that Marsha had at her house. In every picture, she was smiling, laughing and dancing. She was enjoying the party and LIFE! Through all the medicine, chemo and transfusions, she never for one moment stopped living. I finally figured out that the best way to honor Marsha’s memory was to enjoy life. Our time on this planet was a gift and I needed to not waste one minute.
I never wanted to disappoint Marsha and I’m not going to start now. In honor of my “Big Dog,” I must seize the day. I want her to look down from heaven and see me living a happy, successful life and know that she had a big part in who I am.
She was and always will be my hero and I will celebrate her life by living mine.
The Dance: An Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime Guide to Living With Passion
by Laine Cunningham of Hillsborough
Back in the Dreamtime, a stunning young woman loved to dance. She whirled and twirled for the sheer joy of movement, for the bliss of feeling the wind whisper across her skin. Men and women from every tribe stared. Even the spirits that lived in the sky and the earth and the air watched her.
Despite the endless suitors who visited, she took neither a lover nor a husband. The chores of a wife and mother would leave little time for practice. Many people pressured her to marry because they didn’t think she would dedicate her entire life to her art. They couldn’t imagine making that kind of sacrifice themselves so they were unable to imagine it in anyone else.
One man agreed with the naysayers. He was a bachelor and tried endlessly to woo the dancer. When she would not make a place in her life for him, he decided to steal her away and force her to become his wife. She could still dance…after she gave birth to the babies and gathered the family’s food and captured small game for their daily meals and cooked the meat of the large animals he killed….then she could dance as much as she liked.
When the wind spirits brushed against the bachelor, they discovered his plan. The spirits rushed across the desert to find the dancer. They painted her skin with invisible ochre and whispered magic words. Throwing back her head, she shut her eyes and spun into a trancelike dance. She did not see how her body was changing; she felt only the ecstasy of becoming.
The bachelor arrived and lunged for his prize. Just then, the magic whispers fell silent. The dancer’s arms had become wings and the wind lifted her beyond his reach. She had become the brolga, a steel-blue crane that dances its joyful courtship in Australia’s northern marshland.
True transcendence occurs when passion and creativity lead you to your divine self. No suitor or elder or friend can force you to become that which you are not meant to be. Only you can decide to dance on the winds that support you, only you can connect with the spirits and energies that will shape-shift you into new life.
In this story, a young woman was promised the best marriage and a dedicated husband. But that vision of perfection belonged to people who believed that a satisfying life looked like everyone else’s. The mainstream version of happiness would have suppressed the dancer’s true joy.
People are as individual as river rocks. Not everyone will be happy in the deepest current, the lifestyle defined as normal. If you are one of those unique individuals, you must dedicate yourself to achieving what is best for you. What you sacrifice won’t matter. Passion will bring you back to yourself…and guide you to your true joy.
Even when others disbelieve, even when they talk about you and to you as if your passion could easily be turned to other pursuits, you must hold true to yourself. When people try to saddle you with their own limits, thank them for speaking their truth and recognize that those limits are not your own.
Along the way, avoid the shadows that threatened the dancer. Since no one was courageous or outrageous enough to be her friend or true lover, she was dangerously isolated. Her passion became a dark undertow. Left in human form, she would have danced herself to death.
The bachelor had already been swept away by his own rip current. He adored the young woman yet he did not really love her. No one did. They could not truly love her because they did not believe that her passion was real. If they had, their love would have transcended mainstream expectations.
From cradle to grave, we must recognize that expectations are nothing more than guidelines. They can create pathways for people who are floundering but should never become prisons. Individuals who veer off are our entrepreneurs and our geniuses, our small business owners and our Einsteins. When individuals follow their dreams, they benefit everyone.
This is the message sent to us from the Dreamtime. When we pursue our passion, when we generate our own bliss, we spread our joy to everyone around us. Dance your dream into life and you dance for us all.
Yielding to the Outback
by Michelle Ong of Raleigh
The scorching sun pierced William’s thin cotton blouse. Sweat beading from the top of his head slithered down his temples, onto the curve of his jaw, and pooled and dripped from his chin. He lifted off his hat and wiped off the sweat sticking to his brow before attempting to fan his face with it. The red soil of the outback dusted his clothes, bronzed his skin, and settled into the cracks of his leather boots.
He turned around to check on Harry in time to see him stumble and fall. With his face pressed to the ground, Harry remained still before slowly pushing himself up. The ground stained the front of his pants. Harry lumbered toward William, only briefly wiping his sweaty face with his sleeve and smudging the layer of dirt caked on it.
“Are you all right?” William asked.
Harry shrugged. “Where are we stopping tonight?”
“The last aborigine we passed said there is a river not too far from here.”
“Not too far for them means days for us,” Harry said.
“We can’t stop now,” William said. “We’re running out of water.”
Harry sighed and moved past William. They continued walking toward the mountain range on the horizon that remained distant despite the gradual progression of the sun across the sky. Only low scraggly shrubs surrounded them. Yet despite their debility and fatigue, William’s heart still responded to the beauty of the scene.
He had long since stored the notebook he had been using to map the territory. As the land stretched out before them in eternal blankness, with no distinguishable land formations to mark down, he grew to believe in the uselessness of his task. Mapping the region was insignificant when settlement would be impossible without any water sources, and the houses and the people would wilt and desiccate beneath the sun’s harshness. Only those with a wish to become lost and hopeless should ever enter the land. The unknown lay before them and the great continent did not acknowledge their presence.
Their last horse had collapsed the day before. They feasted on the horse meat that only sharpened their thirst. Stomach pains had tortured Harry that night and he vomited up the day’s meal and a tapeworm. He watched it writhe in all the wasted protein and energy his body needed before he wrenched himself away to collapse by the fire. William shook him awake only a few hours later to set out before the sun rose while the temperatures were still cool.
Harry remained in a daze as he weaved and twisted around the countless shrubs. The horizon shimmered before him and the red soil seemed to reflect the blazing sun. His stomach had finally stopped aching at noon when he accepted a dried biscuit from William. His teeth hurt when he bit into it but he swallowed the tasteless morsels. He imagined them fueling his stamina and entertained thoughts of a cold bath and warm meal before settling into a clean, white bed, inhaling the slight scent of goose feathers as they cushioned his head.
He imagined the river they would soon encounter by sundown as wide and waist-deep. He would fill his empty stomach with the cool sweet-tasting water and then strip off his filthy clothes to wade in. He would float atop the river as it gently carried him down to a bend where he would lap against reeds that whispered in a passing wind and sleep. He would forget the heat, fatigue, and the baffling distance that lay between them and the nearest homestead.
But by sundown they were still in the same featureless plain they had crisscrossed for the last few weeks. The mountains remained unreachable and the shrubs converged in the horizon into a deceptive green blur. Harry spotted a large boulder only a few feet away and trudged toward it. He sat on the ground with his back against the boulder and slowly extended his throbbing legs.
“We’ll get to the river tomorrow morning,” William said, dropping his pack onto the ground next to Harry. They silently set up camp for the evening and fell asleep without dinner or drink.
Harry awoke to red. His hat had slipped off his face during the night and the sun was already high overhead and beating fiercely upon him. He shielded his eyes from the glare and painfully got up. He approached William’s still body and gently touched him on the elbow. William didn’t stir and Harry briefly panicked until he noticed the gentle rise and fall of William’s chest. He shook his arm harder until William opened his eyes, disturbing the flies that had perched on his face.
“I’ll be there in a minute,” William said.
The flies settled back into the hollows of his face. Harry watched one fly slip into a nostril.
“Is the doctor already there?” William asked.
Harry pressed a hand on William’s forehead and started at the burning heat. He noticed the sweat that had soaked through William’s shirt and slowly unbuttoned it. More flies descended onto the exposed clammy skin. William shuddered.
“It’s still cold out,” he said. “Hand me my coat, will you? How do I look?”
Harry reached into William’s rucksack. He pulled out the water bottle and shook it.
“C’mon William, we have to go. We’re out of water.”
“Rosemary,” William said. “I’m here. Don’t give up on me.”
Harry used the handkerchief tied around his neck to mop up William’s sweat. He attempted to disperse the flies but they settled once the air stopped vibrating.
Tears trickled from William’s eyes and spilled into his ears where they glistened and resembled dew drops. Harry swallowed and almost dipped his head to taste them. His throat burned.
“Wake up, Rosemary. Look at our daughter. She’s the splitting image of her mother.”
Harry shook him harder but William continued mumbling. His voice dwindled to a scratchy whisper that drowned out the rest of his words.
Harry carefully lifted him up to snatch the bedding beneath him. He rolled it up and tucked it away in William’s rucksack and fitted William’s arms through the straps. He hoisted William up by his armpits and then slipped an arm underneath his knees. He carefully rose, tightening his hold on William, and plodded toward the horizon. William rested his head against Harry’s chest and continued to mumble to himself. Harry listened to the decipherable snippets to distract his mind from the weight and the heat but his strength began to ebb. His arms trembled beneath William’s weight. He stopped beside a shrub and slowly lowered him to the ground. He rested and glanced at the sun, estimating only about two hours before sundown. He doubted if they could survive another day without water and invoked the image of the river. He could almost feel the coolness of its waters on his burning skin but a sudden sharp pain shot through his leg to remind him of his present existence. He picked William up again and carried him over his right shoulder.
He shuffled forward and almost immediately felt the pain of the weight on his shoulder spread down his back. He continued, struggling to avoid persisting doubts of wandering in circles and following a false horizon. The sweat rolled down his forehead and stung his eyes. The flies continued to buzz loudly in his ears. He used his free hand to wave them off but even that light motion tired him and he finally succumbed to their attention.
Day soon merged into night and the temperature dropped. He continued under the bright light of the moon and realized that his body was finally free of the pain and exhaustion that had plagued it for weeks. He stood up straighter and lifted the hat off of his head, and a cool breeze immediately brushed his forehead. An entire plain of stars twinkled before him.
He continued walking through the scattering of shrubs with his eyes fixed to the stars. The stars gradually fell from the sky and settled onto the plain before him. He approached them and set William gently down by an unfamiliar constellation. He carefully scooped a star up and slipped it into William’s open mouth. He cupped his hand again and gazed at the star floating in the center of his palm before drinking it in.
by Jinny Batterson of Cary
Sister safely aloft on the next leg of her winter off-the-farm vacation.
Tummy full of pancakes and hot chocolate.
No immediate chores.
A welcome window of time to explore
the whiteness that coated our yards and trees overnight.
Not heavy and dense, like the late January storm and chill
that trapped us indoors for days.
Barely noticeable on roads and sidewalks,
But wrapping itself around branches and bushes and
twigs and leaves and pinecones,
Making miniature moguls so insubstantial they’ll be gone
as soon as the sun comes out.
No need just yet for Olympic vistas of snow-majestic peaks —
Enough to have a morning amble in popcorn snow.
by Madhuri Jarwala of Morrisville
It is the summer of 1981. The air is hot and sticky. My shirt is plastered to my back, drenched in sweat. My hair is coiled up in a bun to have some air on my neck. I am wearing pants and closed toed shoes that are stewing my feet. I am riding in a bumpy, old, rickety, company bus belching black diesel fumes that is taking me to my summer job. I am an engineering intern at a factory near Bombay. The job is to design an electric motor that will meet certain specifications. The bus enters through the gates to the factory’s well manicured grounds. Several buses are disembarking and the worker bees are rushing to the spread out buildings. I get out with the other summer trainees and walk through the factory floor to the design department which is on the top floor in a separate wing.
The machines on the factory floor are roaring. The noise is deafening. There are several assembly lines putting together parts of the rotors and motors. There is a pungent smell of engine oil. The overhead fans are swirling full speed trying to keep the workers cool. They are all men, sweating like pigs but continuing to work without stopping. The floors are dirty with metal filings and dribbles of oil. The air is humid, oppressive. I quickly make my way from this blue collar world to the cool air conditioned world of the engineers and designers.
Ingrid, the secretary, says hello. Her nails are long and red. She has a tight fitting dress, high heels, curled big hair and a bright lipstick. She is typing letters on her Remington typewriter and also answers the phone. She is what is called a Receptionist. Ingrid is the face of the executive suite. She has to be young and decorative. She gets a clothing allowance. She is Anglo-Indian but her skin is quite dark.
Somewhere in her ancestral chain is a British soldier who left behind his name and religion. Ingrid is always nice to me as I am the only woman in the group of college interns. Everybody else is afraid of Ingrid. The rumor goes that she is the favorite of the German General Manager of the plant. He promoted her out of the steno-typists pool and made her his personal assistant. She has his ear and so has special powers over the fate of many. Is it true? I wonder. Ingrid is not married and I have not yet seen the German boss. What is he doing in this humid, sweaty, smelly wasteland of industrial Bombay? Is Ingrid providing him the diversion he needs to make this tour of duty bearable? Ingrid likes my calculator. She says she is always envious of the girls in the professional colleges who can learn all the things men do in the design department. She could only go to the secretarial school to learn typing and shorthand. I go to my desk and immerse myself with my papers, specifications and calculations. Mr. Chandra comes to see if I have any questions. I don’t.
I am startled by the big siren. It is lunch time. We file out of the cool air conditioned office into the blazing sun and walk to the mess where food is being served. The factory workers go to the general area. We go to the dining room which is partitioned away for the designers, engineers and the managers. The area is beautified with a few potted plants of Marigolds and Zinnias. The food is oily and hot; but plentiful. I wonder if the other side eats the same food. There is some time to socialize and smoke if you are a man, before the siren will announce the end of the lunch break.
I talk to Sandip who has just started working here. Sandip is a recent graduate and so our senior. He is appropriately friendly and condescending. He wears a starched white shirt and a tie to mark his position. His dark face is well scrubbed, hair parted neatly and combed with a hint of coconut oil. I bet he knows how to use a slide rule and wonder if he carries a protractor in his pocket. He likes his job. He thinks the factory is good to the engineers. He is encouraging all the summer interns to apply for a job here after graduation. He does not care about the dirt on the factory floor or the lack of air conditioning there. He has not noticed that there are no women in the design department. The most attractive features of the job for him are the free bus ride to work, subsidized lunch, and the three year contract which offers him the job security. Three year contract! I am aghast. Why would you tie your future to this place, fresh out of college? Where is the risk? Where is the excitement? Do I want to be designing electrical motors, ride the rickety old bus, and eat oily food day in and day out for the next three years? There was a loud siren signaling that the lunch time was over. I knew there and then that I was going to do something else in my life.
Who Are You? Living with Alzheimer's — and Surviving
by Martha Lee Ellis of Raleigh
When your spouse has Alzheimer’s Disease, there are many things you come to know, to expect, to anticipate, among all those things you don’t. Even though you know that some day your spouse may not know who you are, it is a numbingly painful experience when it happens. My husband had not called me by name for some time, but the day he actually asked me who I was sent me into the most painful reaction I had ever had. It was like having ice water thrown in my face: my throat closed up, my breathing stopped as my heart seemed to dip down into my feet. Our relationship flashed through my mind like I was experiencing some terrible accident. I froze.
There was no pretending that this wasn’t happening. No pretending about anything. No matter how well we think we are adapting to living with Alzheimer’s, somewhere inside us for a very long time is the “where there’s life there’s hope” syndrome. That thread unraveled and broke then and there. No more denial.
As I smiled and told him my name, my heart was breaking into a million pieces. And to be honest, at that moment my own mind asked the question “who was he?” In one instant, we had become strangers. Not strangers you reject, in our case. He was still glad to be there with me, but it was grippingly painful for me to be there with him. Who was he? Who was I?
I need to add to this scenario that we were not at home, and the descriptions you have heard and read about the disorientation and confusion that Alzheimer’s patients experience when out of their familiar environment are indeed true. We were actually in the vacation home we had loved for all our married years, and his not knowing who I was continued the entire several days we were there. I spent a lot of time in the bathroom sobbing and just as much time getting myself together to come out.
Returning home did not bring his memory of who I was back, and somehow I knew it wouldn’t. So began a new phase for me of feeling hopeless again. Resilience is a powerful resource that comes to our aid when we most need it, but it took longer to find mine this time.
Eventually I became used to his not knowing who I was, and this was actually because of the way he continued to act pleased to see me. Still, his constantly asking me if I were just visiting, or if I were married, if I had a family, or where did I live, was one of the most difficult adjustments to living with Alzheimer’s I had had to make.
Poignantly, he asked me several times over the next couple of years if I would consider marrying him. It made me feel proud but was no real solace. I still missed him deeply.
Living with Alzheimer’s is the most difficult thing that I think can happen in a marriage. It’s different from the problems caused by alcohol or disease or financial straits or work stress. There is a loneliness that is so palpable you feel as if it is consuming you. You lose your best friend, or at least the person who shares your home and life in whatever way you have built it. I have heard people who are living with a parent or sibling with Alzheimer’s say the same thing spouses experience: (s)he is here but not here.
Surviving the stressful experience is possible, but mostly for those who learn to take care of themselves, to accept help from others, to ask for help from other family members or friends. Finding a support group, as I did, where you can ask questions of people who have been where you are, is the most valuable thing you probably can do. It is there where you find personal answers to your own situations, where you can learn the best way to deal with questions about driving, managing finances, medications, and behaviors. And about your own feelings, which are many, confusing and painful.
The best advice available is “please don’t try to do it alone”. It is truly the most important time in your life to seek support. It may save your life and your sanity.
If you are living with Alzheimer’s, bless you. Surviving it will leave you with an unbelievable dimension in your spirit, your character and your life experience. That’s what you recognize after you have rested and restored your life’s balance, which will take some time to do. But you can do it. I’m here to tell you it’s true.
by Anuja Acharya of Raleigh
I could not tell you
Where home is.
I suppose everyone must dig through the dirt of their surroundings
Their distant cousins, their aunties and uncles, their teachers and neighbors
like the insects of last spring, decaying caterpillars and crocuses
to find the precise placement
Of their roots.
I know where my roots are
Entrenched in the gravel, in the soggy rice paddies.
I come from the most magnificent country in the world!
Fragrant with spices, fenugreek and saffron
bursting in bright colors, pink and turquoise like so many tropical fish
With an ancient tradition so unspeakably rich
The undeniable shining diamond in the most priceless crown!
I know where my flowers shall fall
When the petals flutter down with the gust of a breeze.
I am a product of the American Dream!
Here, existence is comfortable, lavish at best
An exceptional part of an exceptional entity that stands
Proudly steadfast in virtues of liberty, equality, prosperity
Literally a mine of opportunity!
These are my roots, securely in India.
Here are my flowers, blooming in America.
But where am I growing? And what does that mean?
I dig through the red clay of North Carolina
I dig through the gravel of Maharashtra
A Walk on The Farm Road after Thanksgiving
by Beth Browne of Garner
Sun rust on trees
coin of moon
barest shaving of ivory
off one side
wind hum high
in the pines
shading of sky
mauve to teal
deep in the woods
pines now silent
and the absence of rain
watching over the land
marking my course
the cat streaking past
Officer Nicholson Arrives Homeby Beth Browne of Garner
Slow crunch of gravel outside
the predawn glow of the window.
A soft tug at the door and he’s home
still swaddled in the stretched-tight safety
of the dark blue uniform.
Peeling away the layers of his twelve-hour shift
he drops exhausted but sleepless
on the cool cotton sheet
which is mussed, but vacant.
The alarm clock bleats unheeded
as, coming and going
they ignore the widening breach
where love clings to a gravelly edge
her grip faltering
as dark birds circle, weightless,
waiting, in case she plummets
to the steep sharp floor
of the bottomless canyon.
Yardworkby Elizabeth Wallace
The front yard was divided
into squares and triangles
with red tulips in the square and yellow daffodils staged. Crocuses were carefully sidelined to accent the walk.. The pastel hyacinths were quiet in regal standing.
Winter pansies still held forth in their assigned wooden box.
One day he left a note that he wouldn't be back. He signed it simply "your husband".
Later that season a red-violet iris grew
and was soon joined by bearded varieties in dazzling white. They were crowded and could be seen swaying in unison.
Then day lilies opened of tangerine and mango and melon
and late summer roses with robust thorns started to thrive. Butterfly bushes flowered to attract circles of flight
Nests with unknown twineings formed oval dwellings
while a slender wisteria vine grew through the parch lattice
to stay in the floorboards and walls and ceiling of her house.
Lips and Fingertips
by Kristin Kirkland of Raleigh
The warm April sun kisses my skin,
Like the kisses from you
That start between my shoulder blades
And fan out down my arm,
Gliding over my fingertips,
Pausing in the space between.
by Laura Jensen of Pittsboro
They are in the middle drawer of her dresser. It is an old Victorian dresser, wide and long with a large mirror standing guard over a pink marble top. The top and all the drawers are neat and immaculate. The middle drawer is home to her underwear; soft lacy slips, panties and bras in a variety of colors dominated by pink and peach. They are precisely arranged, slips in one pile, another of petticoats, yet another of underpants, then the bras. Not one is out of place. As a child, I remember gazing in wonder at the treasurers in this drawer but never once touched anything although I can’t recall ever been told not to. Touching seemed like an invasion then and it does today.
If I was nearby when she opened the drawer, I could see the stack of envelopes and would have recognized my father’s script. It is hard to guess how many letters there are but so many that she’d wrapped them with a cord, around several times, and then tied a bow. It was string-like cord, white and green in color and, along with the envelopes I can see, look old and slightly discolored.
Now, here I am, holding the stack of envelopes for the first time. Cleaning up after the dead is such a gruesome task. There isn’t anyone else to do it, my father certainly isn’t up to it so it falls to me and it is heart wrenching. Her underwear, let alone the letters, it is all so personal. I stand for some time gazing at the open drawer. I marvel at the fact that it is still so very orderly even in her absence. In her last days she’d probably not worn underwear and I speculate on when she might have last done laundry, by hand of course, and then placed her personal items carefully in this drawer. It smells of her. She only wore one perfume, Germaine Monteil, and all her clothing and everything else she touched has her distinctive smell. I see empty perfume bottles resting in the corners of each drawer, placed there to scent the drawers like sachet. They emphasize the familiar odor.
I kneel down and begin to touch things. I gently rest my hand on top of each pile. I wish they’d disappear so I wouldn’t have to remove them and the task would be finished without me ever having to make a decision as to what would happen to these delicate intimate items. Satin, silk and lace; pale pink, cream, peach, beige and an occasional black item, peak out as the weight of my hand brushes the piles. Tears sting my eyes as memories flood my head. I don’t need to close my eyes to see her in this slip, that bra, those panties. She prided herself on her appearance even at this level, seen only by a few. Although I know she wore these daily, nothing is tattered, no holes or even torn lace, every piece is in flawless condition. It is as if she might reach over my shoulder at any moment and pluck a slip from the pile and put it on. But she will not; not today, not ever again.
I sit down on the floor in front of the drawer and lean against the bed. I wipe my eyes, blow my nose and unwrap the cord from the stack of letters, my fingers shaking slightly. Tucked under the cord is a single sheet of paper folded three times and yellow with age. The letterhead reads:
H. Healy, Jeweler & Silversmith
522 Fulton St.
It is a handwritten bill of sale dated 12/23/1930 addressed to my father. It describes a “Diamond and platinum fancy solitaire ring, blue white X perfect, weight .42 carat guaranteed. Paid, $165 signed H. Healy.”
I smile. I decide to read her treasured letters and hope the rest of these papers will also bring a smile to my face.
I realize very quickly that here I am, years later, stealing a glance at their unfolding love. By my brief mental calculation, they are nineteen and sixteen when these letters are exchanged. The diamond ring purchased from H. Healy will be presented at Christmas 1930. He will ask and she will say yes. Their wedding will be May 29, 1931. She always said she knew all along she’d marry him; his journals never mention another woman. At her young age dating per se was not permitted particularly in her puritanical family. Many old photos show them together, however, but always with groups of friends. Evidently even then he had a way with words and used his gift to woo her, sometimes from afar.
I open and read the first letter, postmarked Brooklyn August 18, 1927. Dear Little Sweetheart it begins:
“You know dear, I was just about crazy when I got your letter tonight. All the way home in the subway I was hoping and praying there would be one waiting for me. And, when I finally got home (after several years it seemed) there really was one there! Oh, golly Puss, I just tore up the stairs and without even taking off my hat and coat, I devoured your letter.”
He goes on:
“When I got up I went into the parlor and turned on the phonograph. It sounded so nice to hear it I thought. And soon I came to the Merry Widow Waltz you know, and you were sitting over on the sofa so I walked over and held out my pinkie and asked if you cared to dance. And you smiled and said uh huh and took hold of my finger and so we waltzed in and out among the chairs and the sofa; and everything was so nice and your waist felt so nice and soft and delicious like, just as it always is. I could just have danced so forever and you agreed it was nice too. But, the darned record had to run out and I discovered I had only my pajamas on and it was chilly for the window was up and worst of all you were only a pillow! Just when you are enjoying yourself so, all the sweet music stops and cold reality slaps a wet rag in your face.”
He is so in love. I can hardly stand to read his words because it feels like I’m intruding. But, I’m mesmerized. It’s so sweet, so poignant it’s palpable. I read on. In the next paragraph he says,
“Say, you have never kept house all alone for a week. I have eaten all but the wallpaper and we need that. Why do little pigs eat so much? Because they want to make hogs of themselves!”
And then I laugh. I can see his impish grin. It’s the same grin he employed years later to persuade me to eat my peas.
by Lisa Williams Kline of Mooresville
I delivered Caitlin, my first child, via C-section, on a gray January day. When I finally was scheduled to take her home, I woke to see the parking lot outside my hospital room covered in snow so deep the cars were unidentifiable humps, like mattress batting.
“Lisa?” Jeff’s voice on the phone cracked with stress. “Honey, I’m going to try to dig the car out. I’m not optimistic.”
A whole day without him? In my stained nightgown and slippers, I trundled dejectedly down the corridor. I wanted my own bed, my own shower. I wanted to dress Caitlin in the little clothes I had folded so neatly in her new dresser.
As I passed, I glanced into a room two doors down from mine, and saw a guy with an unsettling resemblance to my ex-husband standing next to a bed with a blond woman in it. He was on the phone, and even had a similar insistent, cajoling tone to his voice. “Lydia! You sound fabulous as usual, can you put me through to Jim?”
I took a good look. Good God, it WAS my ex-husband. I dashed past the doorway, instigating a searing pain in my abdomen, then leaned against the wall to catch my breath. I hadn’t seen Reid in almost three years – with no children there had been no reason for contact – and a blast of emotion triggered simultaneous waterfalls of adrenalin, breast milk and cold sweat.
What the hell was he doing here? Did he have a new baby too?
Of course, why should I be surprised to run into Reid in the hospital? After all, Reid was always in the hospital. For some reason, the moment Reid said his vows, he had became an instant hypochondriac. The high-energy marketing major I’d married transformed overnight into a guy who would do anything to get admitted to whatever ward could squeeze him in. Double rooms were better because they provided built-in conversation victims, most of whom were in no shape to run out of the room. Once installed in a narrow bed with its matching narrow closet, Reid would put a shapeless argyle sweater over his cotton gown and pad around the corridors discussing his ailments with anybody he happened to meet.
I limped, dazed, in the direction of the nursery. A rhythmic throbbing began around my incision. Behind the glass window, Caitlin slept, her tiny nearly translucent fingers folded under her chin beneath the edge of the tightly swaddled blanket. After a slight confrontation with a nurse who probably questioned my maternal capabilities with good reason, I retrieved Caitlin and wheeled her by the bundled babies behind the picture window.
I scanned the names printed on the bassinettes. And there it was. “Byer,” the last name that had been mine for four years. Inside, a baby that could have been mine but, by a twist of fate, was not.
Setting my jaw, I headed down the hall, one hand on the bassinette, the other pressed over my now-leaking incision. As I passed, I heard Reid, still on the phone.
“Jim, buddy, I just want to stop in and show you some of the key man plans we can offer.”
I shoved Caitlin’s bassinette, like a cartful of groceries, into my hospital room, skidded in, and slammed the door. I pressed my incision with my palm, which seemed right now to be the only thing preventing my intestines from spilling out onto the floor. I peered over the bassinette’s edge. Caitlin’s eyelids were purplish white, patterned with tiny pink veins.
I shuffled to the mirror. I had on no make-up, and my stomach looked like semi-congealed Jell-O. On the bright side, my hair was thick from the pregnancy, but how careless of me to neglect washing and setting it during labor and delivery. And then there was my stained nightgown, mismatched robe, and grimy slippers.
Stripping down, I turned on the shower. As warm soothing water pummeled my aching sagging body, I reflected that not only had Reid wasted four years of my life, taken our only good car, and Aunt Katherine’s oriental rug, he was now keeping me prisoner in my hospital room with the door closed. And Jeff wasn’t even here, whereas obviously Reid’s new wife, having just given birth, was. He was definitely ahead. If you were keeping score. And, I realized, I was.
Smiling grimly, I rubbed blush on the taut muscles of my cheeks
I had, with idiotic first-time mother optimism, brought a pair of pre-pregnancy black corduroys with me. Just three days ago I’d examined the waistband with hilarity and disbelief. Now I yanked them from my suitcase and tossed them onto the bed like a gauntlet, like a flag before a bull. Dammit, I was wearing those suckers. Just watch me.
I managed to pull the waistband up and over my rear end but with my leaking incision pulling up the zipper was out of the question.
Fortunately, my white maternity sweater now came down to my knees. The phone rang.
“Honey?” Jeff sounded as though he’d just run a 10K. “I can’t get the car out. They’re calling this the blizzard of the century.”
I looked out the window at the glaring white. “Oh.” I heaved what I knew was a very melodramatic and manipulative sigh. As usual, Jeff was being sensible.
Just as we hung up, Sandy, the nurse, bustled in. She plumped my pillows with karate chops. “Ready to try breast-feeding again?”
“If she doesn’t wake up to eat every four hours, you need to wake her up.” Sandy twisted Caitlin’s head and shoved it into my breast as if she were handing off a football. “You need to time each side.” Sandy slid light green liquid resembling anti-freeze within reach, then hurried out.
Caitlin had the most intoxicating smell. Just stroking her miraculously smooth and flawless cheek gave me the most exquisite feeling of well-being. I looked at the clock beside the TV and made a mental note to switch Caitlin to the other breast in ten minutes.
I awoke an hour later with Caitlin asleep at my drained right breast while the left was so turgid it had begun to leak through my sweater. So had my incision. Painfully hoisting myself out of bed, I returned Caitlin to her bassinette.
I saw that Sandy had left the door open and crossed the room to close it.
At that moment Reid stepped into the hall.
Our eyes met for one of those fleeting instants before instinctive social graces kick in.
“Hi!” We both stretched smiles across our faces.
“What an amazing coincidence. “ I smoothed my sweater to make sure it covered my unzipped pants. Maybe he wouldn’t notice the large yellow stain over my left breast or the smaller pink stain below. “I have a baby girl. What about you?”
“A boy,” Reid said. “Laura’s feeding him now. Why don’t I bring them over? Laura would love to meet you.”
Warm colostrum spurted out of my swollen left breast.
“Sounds perfect,” I said. “Give me five minutes.”
I skidded into the bathroom and tried to pump my milk into a baby bottle. After spraying milk on the mirror, the wall, the toilet, and into my own eye, I gave up. There seemed to be no way of telling which way the milk was going. Finally I squirted it into the sink. I’d just finished stuffing a folded piece of toilet paper over the soaked incision bandage when my visitors arrived.
“Hi.” Laura, pushing her baby’s bassinette, had blonde, curly hair, jingly silver earrings, and wore a man’s plaid robe. “What a coincidence, hey?”
“What’s his name?” The baby’s face was still red and, to me, he looked and smelled very unappealing.
“Reid Junior,” Reid boomed. “What else?”
“How much weight did you gain?” Laura settled herself beside Reid on my bed.
I lowered myself into the nursing chair and shifted my weight to one thigh. With both a C-section and an episiotomy, nearly any position was a challenge.
“Laura gained twenty pounds exactly, and she’s already lost all but three pounds,” Reid shouted before I could answer. “Doesn’t she look great?”
“Oh, yes.” So he was keeping score too.
“We went all natural,” Laura announced. “How about you?”
“Oh, the cord was around Caitlin’s neck so I had to have a C-section.”
Two points to the plaid team.
“Well, at least her head doesn’t look smushed,” said I, wincing at my own audacity. Two for the unzipped corduroy team.
“Laura’s labor was eighteen hours and a couple of times she was begging for pain meds but she made me promise not to let her have anything so I didn’t.” Reid squeezed his wife’s shoulder with exaggerated affection.
“Did you know we videotaped Reid Junior’s birth?” Laura said.
“I was right down there with the camera in close-up living color,” Reid chimed in. “Even when Laura was in transition and screaming her fool head off.”
“Goodness,” I said, having completely lost track of the score. Briefly, remembering Reid plodding hospital halls in this shapeless sweater, a lump formed in my throat. I knew, now, why he kept getting sick while we were married, and I was glad he’d found someone to love him.
I wish Jeff had walked in at just that moment, having hailed a passing snowplow, his black hair sparkling with melting snow, his cheeks beet red from the cold. But instead, Laura said “Maybe we’ll run into each other in nursery school orientation,” then pushed her baby’s bassinette out the door. As she passed, I looked down at the baby again. His eyes moved back and forth under his closed, translucent lids, and I wondered what he was watching in there. Then Reid and his family were gone.
“Do you want to meet them?” I said to Jeff the next day when he finally arrived.
“No,” said Jeff. He has never had a desire to revisit the past. “We need to get out of here. It’s supposed to start snowing again. Ready?”
“We just need to put on Caitlin’s snowsuit.”
Her bowed spindly legs reached only an inch or so below the crotch. Her little hands barely reached the suit’s armpits. Jeff leaned over her, his face fatigued, but with an expression of such pure tenderness that I caught my breath.
Sandy, pushing a wheelchair, patted the seat, indicating I was to sit down. “Hospital rules.” I sat. “Now, Dad, why don’t you let Mom carry the baby.”
Jeff was Dad. I was Mom. This was a whole new world.
Working Teen, cir. 1979
by Margie LeMoine of Apex
One summer, I balanced on a barn roof and spread
silver paint on the sheet metal,
scantily clad in a string bikini, suntan oil
and dime store shades.
Late spring, I straddled endless rows of bush beans,
back bent, hands reaching for weeds,
yanking, tossing, and feeling sunburn
on the strip of skin where shirt parted jeans.
Bundled in a pink parka, I hauled a sledgehammer
to the frozen pond and smashed
a hole in the ice for cattle and horses
then dashed to board a steamy school bus.
After high school, traded mortarboard for hardhat,
steel-toe boots and waders, and
knee-deep in foul, brown paper pulp,
I hosed corrugated medium down a factory drain.
At nineteen, I stowed three soft-sided Samsonites
in a Carolina-blue Volkswagen diesel, and drove
five hundred miles with the windows rolled down,
starved for the burden of books.
by Maureen A. Sherbondy of Raleigh
Bernice pats the lump of pocketed black pistol for reassurance as she enters Charlotte Savings & Loan – the same bank where she and her ex-husband, Jack, once had an account.
Five years earlier he’d emptied the account of their life savings: one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. She received that darn postcard a month after Jack disappeared with their money. In the hall mirror, fifty-six-year-old Bernice had looked up to see anger flushing her pale skin fuchsia and even her hair grew angry red when she stared at the postcard. A picture of the sun setting over glossy water in Cabo San Lucas. HOLA! in white loopy print mocking her. More like good-bye forever. Adios.She had torn the slick postcard in an angry fit seconds later; her arthritic hands throbbed now just thinking about it.
One hundred and fifty thousand dollars! She repeats the number over and over with each angry step taken toward the teller line. What she could have done with that money! Paid medical bills, prescriptions, a meal out at McDonalds every once in awhile. When her 1982 Honda Civic died, she’d resorted to walking or taking the bus. Little by little her freedom eroded. There were only so many places the bus could transport her, there was no deviation from the set route; and lately she had trouble walking the half-mile journey to the closest bus stop.
Wiping snow from her Goodwill boots, her toes tingle. The boots are half a size too small, but at least they provide protection from the cold; what could she expect for four dollars anyway? She blows onto her swollen hands to warm them.
Jack’s pistol also feels cold. He purchased the pistol ten years earlier, after Bernice was assaulted at the Piggly Wiggly by a robber who absconded with Twinkies, a Dr. Pepper, and two hundred dollars. Bernice had tried to stop him, by grabbing his hoodie, but after he’d regained his footing, he’d pushed her into the pimple-faced bagger and she had fallen, bruising her hip. At fifty-two Bernice had been a strong woman, robust and tall, standing inches over the robber. But it seemed that day in the Piggly Wiggly, the strength flew out of her.
Bernice was no longer angry with the robber or with Jack. Anger was replaced with fear of becoming a street person – a beggar on the streets of her Mint Hill neighborhood. Women from her former book club, docents at the local museum, cashiers from the grocery store would stare at her with pity and then look away.
Pride. Her mother had instilled a sense of pride in Bernice. One day, when her stomach growled for food, Bernice hopped on a bus to the Social Services office. Inside, she stood on line with the pathetic, down-on-their-luck men and women. There she waited, the completed application for assistance wilting in her hands. Then a vision appeared, her mama, who had raised Bernice on her own without the help of a single person or the government. Her mama’s voice echoed Have some pride, Bernie. Bernice’s hand trembled, and she left the line, tossing her application in a trashcan outside.
Bernice was not angry, but she was broke. At the age of sixty-one, wrinkled beyond her years, with no college degree, her only skill was painting. Unframed abstract works of art adorned her apartment walls. She had talent, but not enough to land a gallery show. Bernice had never owned a computer or even sent an email. After Jack abandoned her she scraped by with her job at Jasper’s Family Grocery Store, where she swept and mopped and stocked the shelves. But, two months ago, without notice, when she showed up early for work one Monday morning, an Out of Business sign glared at her from the locked door. There was no severance pay and because she’d been paid under the table, there was no unemployment compensation either.
After fifty job applications in sixty days and no interviews, she’d run out of steam and hope. Her resume was handwritten; maybe that was part of the problem. Her checking account was overdrawn and even the change jar of pennies and nickels was now empty. Yesterday, she’d sat in a booth at the city diner drinking water and stealing small containers of strawberry jam. When the diners at the next booth left behind two uneaten pancakes and half an egg, she’d switched tables, and shamefully eaten the scraps.
The mere thought of living on the street at the height of winter sent shivers up her spine this morning when snowflakes fell outside her apartment window. Bernice hates the cold and had wanted to Florida years ago, but like so many things, that never happened. Why had she never been to Paris to see the Louvre? Or Rome? Was she afraid? The years blurred together in a gray haze, and here she is, still living ten miles from the hospital where she was born.
There are no relatives, except Cousin Mattie in California who sends Christmas cards but has her own problems: breast cancer, a divorce, two alcoholic sons who keep moving back home and crashing her old car. Bernice doesn’t have the heart to ask Mattie for help.
This morning the eviction notice stared at her from the front door, when she locked up, and she had ripped the yellow notice down, then gone back in her studio apartment and cried for hours. Had her neighbors seen the notice, she wondered as she sat in the faded floral chair, staring at the kitchen counter. Then it hit her. Mixed in with late bills on the counter was an unopened white envelope. Ripping it open a statement drifted out of the envelope from the Social Security Administration, telling her that in ten months she’d begin receiving eight-hundred-and-fifty-dollars a month.
“You’re next,” a young man taps her shoulder and nods, pulling her from her daydream and back to the bank.
“May I help you?” asks a perky middle-aged teller who is wearing too much mascara.
The gun feels like an extension of Bernice’s hip, she presses the handle with her shaking left hand. The painful bruise throbs from that robbery ten years ago.
One year in jail would hold her over. Just the other day on the news she heard about a felon who had received a one-year sentence for robbing a local convenience store. She imagines that the prison will be like the one Martha Stewart stayed at in Connecticut. They showed the prison on television – it didn’t look bad, more like a small community college. Martha probably baked for the inmates and made crafts. Maybe the prison officials would allow Bernice to teach painting to the other women. In a place like that perhaps she’d make some new friends, women down on their luck – at least they’d have that common bond.
A warm cell, a bed, a blanket and pillow. She didn’t need much. Some paper and pastels.
Less than one year and Social Security kicks in, one year and a spot might open up on that waiting list for Royal Oak Terrace – that HUD senior citizen facility two towns over. The one with the window boxes of purple flowers in spring, and patios where the residents sit and read and talk. She could spend her time painting those flowers.
The blonde teller is saying something to her. “Ma’m, are you OK?”
Suddenly the face before Bernice is her ex-husband, Jack. Jack with his wiry black hair tinged with grey, his eyes that always appear as if they are squinting, the eyebrows that come together and look like one thick eyebrow. His thin lips are sipping Mai Tais on that beach in Mexico.
Some blonde woman is rubbing lotion on his shoulders. Green bills are sticking out from his bathing suit.
Bernice pulls the gun from her sweatshirt pocket and raises her voice so it is clear and firm. “This is a stick-up.” She pulls a large Ziploc bag from her other pocket and hands it to the perky teller. “Place some twenties in here. Just a few.”
The teller’s hands are jittery, but she does as she’s told. She slides ten twenties in the bag. “This enough?”
“Yes. Now slowly hand me the Baggie.”
Gasps ring out in the bank.
“Are you for real, Ma’m? Don’t I know you? Don’t you have an account here?”
“No questions. Now, press the alarm. Do it now.”
“What? You want me to push the alarm? Why?”
“Just do it.” Bernice looks around for a uniformed guard, but sees only customers fleeing the bank. She takes her Baggie and walks to the corner where the loan officer’s leather seat welcomes her. For a split second Bernice considers taking off, but her aching hip and her arthritic knees would not allow a speedy departure. So, setting the gun on the flat grey carpet Bernice kicks the pistol towards the door, then raises her hands into the air, as if her hands will touch the stars. She waits this way as sirens grow louder and louder in the distance.
Someone You Don’t Know Who Loves You
by Sarah Simpson of Cary
I’m standing in line to return a Christmas present from my father when I see them there. Just like in the pictures. He is sitting in the child’s seat of the shopping cart and she is gripping the handles of it and making wide-eyed faces so he’ll laugh as their mother hands a receipt to the cashier. Your children. Your wife. Well—ex-wife. I cannot see her face yet and have only seen one photograph of it in which she was wearing dark sunglasses. She was standing between the children as if to claim them as hers alone, one arm around your daughter and another hand reaching down to your son’s chest; he held it, perhaps to keep his balance. Standing up was still relatively new for him then. But now he is three and your daughter is seven. Your wife is forty-two. You are thirty-eight, and I am twenty-five, and we are in love with each other.
It takes me a while to realize that I’m not looking at a photograph. I wait for my heart rate to slow but it doesn’t and I remain disoriented, staring. Your daughter is even prettier in person. In all the pictures she was wearing different expressions; her hair looked mousey brown in some, beachy blond in others. The various angles changed her face completely, as did her smile in this one and her frown in that. But in all of them she had your eyes—blue and heavy-lidded. Maybe her mother has eyes like that, too. I won’t know until she turns around. And when she does, will she have any idea? Will she glance at me and get a feeling?
Your son—you imitate him all the time, slip into his voice without meaning to. On your nights with them I always look forward to what funny quotes you will relay to me. You talk about your daughter first—how she cried when you came to pick them up, and cried again once at your place, and shook her hands in this weird way and said she missed Mommy and wanted to go home even though it had only been a few minutes. You’ve actually taken her home early some nights because you don’t want to force anything. You want to be her ally. Other nights she’s made it through with a phone call to Mom and a project to distract her from what must be the excruciatingly slow passage of time. She sits at your kitchen counter and numbers the blank pages of her notebook, makes lists of anything that comes to her seven-year-old mind, copies down everything you do, every word you say. You wonder if she’s doing this for what she thinks is her mother’s benefit. “Poor thing,” you say, your head drooping. “She’s such a sensitive creature.” And I feel my eyes sting again. You ask if I’m all right. I have a soft spot for father-daughter relationships, but I am not the issue.
Then to lighten the mood you tell me about him: “Little guy was fine. What’d he say tonight?” You’ll look up at the kitchen light to ponder (he says cool instead of school, tote instead of toast, amn’t instead of am not) and while waiting to laugh at your son’s latest I’ll realize that I’m sitting in the same chair your daughter was in just an hour ago. Later, as if reading my mind, you’ll ask if it’s weird for me to be in your house, knowing your kids were just there. You’ll ask if I’m comfortable here. I am. Are you comfortable with me being here? You are. And then you’ll read my mind again. “I wish it could be more…” You’ll lace your fingers in a fist, release them, say, “Some day.”
Yes. Some day. I thought that maybe a year would be adequate time for your kids to accept that you’ve moved on, but it’s already been half a year and I don’t see how another six months will be enough. I’d like to meet them before they grow up too much more, especially the little guy, but if I have to wait three years I will—seems like three years should definitely do it. But you will have to make that call. You’ll decide what’s best for them and I will agree, even if for some reason what’s best for them is what’s worst for me—even if it means I never see you again—I’ll do it, because I love them.
I realized this two months ago while lying with my mother on her bed. We were slightly drunk and glossy-eyed and I was having little revelations, speaking every thought out loud. “I already love his kids,” I said, stunned by the profundity. I don’t fool myself into thinking I even know your kids, but in this case I don’t have to know them to love them—which simply means that I want what’s best for them regardless of how it will affect me. You have unwittingly taught me that this is all love should ever be. It is a liberating paradox, as every truth is in some way or other: love presents us with and simultaneously frees us from ourselves.
I step forward in the line. This area is for returns and exchanges only, and there is a row of four cashiers. Your wife and kids are still at the third one down. There is just one person in front of me, and if your family has not left when my turn comes, my chances of standing right beside them are two out of three. And maybe you wouldn’t think it, but I want to stand beside them. I want to hear your son’s voice. Right now I can only see his little mouth moving but he seems to be talking to himself, maybe just loud enough for his sister to hear. She is still holding onto the shopping cart handles, leaning back and looking up and letting her mouth hang open. Her blond hair hangs down from the back of her head in tangled waves. My hair looked just like that when I was her age, only dark brown. I find myself wishing for seven years old again and your daughter as my best friend. Your son looks up at the ceiling with her but cannot see whatever she sees as she swings her head back and forth.
The man in front of me must have forgotten something because he steps out of line and heads for the exit doors in a huff. I move forward. There is now nothing but air—perhaps fifteen feet of it—between me and your family. I could speak your children’s names and they would hear me. We could make eye contact. I could smile at them. Give them hugs and smell their hair and kiss your son’s sticky cheek. I could tell your daughter that everything is going to be all right and that she needn’t take on the worries of her parents or any adult. She needn’t feel guilty—and I’m not talking about the way people say kids blame themselves for their parents’ divorce. I’m talking about guilt for leaving Mom twice a week to have dinner with Dad. Guilt for not wanting to be with Dad even though she knows (she must know) he loves her. Guilt for crying all the time and not knowing exactly why, which reddens Dad’s eyes with patient concern, which makes her cry even more because he is so patient. But your daughter doesn’t know me and even if she did, you’ve told her all these things again and again in your sincerest of voices. Children just don’t understand how true it is, how many lives we get and how many different kinds of okay there really are.
Your wife shoves an item I cannot see into a white plastic bag and then throws the bag into her cart. I still haven’t seen her face. The cashier’s face is flushed; his eyes strive for apology but don’t quite make it—there is just a hint of smugness, and something close to relief as he watches your wife gather her purse. She is tall (I knew this), thin (she teaches yoga part-time), and her skin is probably tan in summer but is now faded to fair. You must’ve made a handsome couple. A perfect little family, on the outside. I notice her thin wrists and long, slender fingers as she puts a hand on your daughter’s head. I want to see her face, and just as I’m about to glimpse her profile she pulls the sunglasses back over her eyes.
I hear the cashier saying Next person—Ma’am?—Miss? as your family walks away, as your wife lifts your son from the shopping cart and lets him stand beside your daughter, who tickles his belly and says something to which he responds, “No, I amn’t!”
Loud and clear. I am suddenly breathless. I step aside in the line and the person behind me goes ahead without seeming to notice my distress. I watch them recede through the blur of what must be tears, but your kids are hardly real now, because I do not exist. I may as well be a photograph they’ve never seen.