A few years ago (several years ago, likely – the years and practice bleed) I started note drafting my narrative pieces. This is a way for me to pull my daydream drafts to a page, sketch a story while the ideas are in my head. Character names, places, motivations, situations or plot points, whole sentences, dialogue, whatever elements I can see in the moment I put on the page for later use. Sometimes my story notes weave through a few notebooks before I commit much to a draft.
Yesterday I thought about that line
I don’t take the heat like I used to
and what story I might make from it. We’re up in northern Wisconsin, on a lake with my husband’s parents for the week. I imagine any vacation as a potentially prolific time for my writing, and most aren’t, but here I’ve taken an hour or two each day to journal and draft. Last night, citing spotty wi-fi in the cabin, the kids and I headed to the camp lodge where they connected to play Minecraft and I thought about not taking the heat like I used to.
Today I headed into town for a coffee and drafted the first paragraphs of the story. I like to draft longhand, at least to get the piece started, before I begin typing, and I usually return to my notebook to draft scenes or think about a story further. Again, this can run through a few notebooks. Thirty-Nine Stories is supposed to cut the space between thinking and making so today I quit journaling (I have little new to say anyway) and started the draft. Then, with fifteen minutes until closing (at 2pm!) I began typing.
Maggie called Lynn on Monday night. Mom, she said, I have an interview in the Cities tomorrow morning. Maggie’s usual sitter caught a bug or had food poisoning, something gastric, and couldn’t watch Cheyenne. Can you? Maggie paused. Please? Within the hour Maggie pulled into the drive, popped the trunk of her old Honda to retrieve a duffel bag. Come on! she called over her shoulder and Cheyenne unbuckled, opened the car door and followed her mom up the walk. Maggie knocked but pulled the screen door open before Lynn moved from her view at the kitchen window. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Maggie said, I didn’t want to leave early and still hit traffic. She met Lynn in a tight hug. Third interview, she said, They actually booked a hotel for me. I think this is when – . She stepped back, shook her head.
Honey, that’s great! Lynn smiled. She sounded and looked like this was great news, and it was. Maggie caught the effort but didn’t know if it was Lynn, hurt by the surprise, or Lynn, still unmoored by widowhood.
I’m sorry, Maggie said, I should have told you sooner. But it’s like, a little too good. I didn’t want to say anything. Behind her, Cheyenne scuffed the floor with her shoe. Could be fun, right, Chey? Maggie reached an arm around to pull her daughter into a side hug. Cheyenne shrugged. Maggie dipped to kiss the part in Cheyenne’s hair, then looked up at Lynn, made a face that said please help. Lynn was out of practice helping, though she’d been great help during her granddaughter’s first years as Maggie finished a degree and found work. Tether distance, Maggie said after landing her first job, echoing Lynn’s own joke about which colleges Maggie could apply to, when Lynn couldn’t imagine not seeing her daughter each day. But Maggie flung a wide net and moved to the ocean, returning with a baby, staying tether distance in the decade since.
Lynn looked at her granddaughter, reached a hand to touch Cheyenne’s shoulder. I’ve missed you, she said, We should do all the things. Cheyenne smiled then, ducked her head at that, an old exchange that once opened their time together. What should we do? Lynn would ask. Everything! Cheyenne would open her arms wide. You mean, all the things? Lynn would lift Cheyenne to rest on a hip and they would begin listing: lunch first, then a safari, a walk to the playground, a trip in a hot air balloon, ice cream for dinner. Cheyenne became the small voice of reason. Grams, she would say, We can’t go to Paris. It’s a hundred million miles away!
Thank you, Maggie mouthed. She hugged Cheyenne and whispered something. Cheyenne nodded. Then Maggie was out the door, backing the Honda down the drive. Lynn asked, So what should we do? and Cheyenne sighed, picked up her duffel and retreated down the hall to her mom’s old bedroom.
Nineteen of thirty-nine started. 496 words so far.
This summer I join Justin on his morning bike ride. Country road, bike path, side streets, giant hill to a coffee shop that opens at five. We don’t arrive at five. We get there around seven, seven-thirty, stay an hour or so. Justin orders a latte. I drink green tea, not because I’m a tea fanatic but because I intermittent fast. I am not fanatic about intermittent fasting either, but it’s what works for my body/ mind now.
All spring I put together an MFA application portfolio and a week ago submitted the work to two programs. Then I fretted about one of the fiction pieces because it needs more revision before I’d call it really done. (I like to revise for months or years though, so). Then I found a small typo in an essay. So this morning I sat with my green tea and an open notebook, thinking whether to email program directors to ask permission to resend an essay (the errant s removed) and the latest revision of a piece I titled but think of by its protagonist, Eugene. As in: I’ve got to work on Eugene or I keep picking at Eugene. I will get to those emails. But first.
I opened my notebook to write some calm. When the kids were little and squabbling I’d say, I want peace in the house. They picked up on this and the phrase still comes as a reminder to ourselves or a prayer, that we want peace in our house, minds, bodies. Sometimes I write my way to steady. This morning I just wanted to remind myself again that
will be okay. I was a sentence into fear that everything will not be okay when the table next to me started talking about hotel stays. A couple in their sixties, another woman in her fifties or sixties. Last month the couple showed up at a hotel and at check-in were asked to please check the room and if it didn’t meet their standard the hotel would provide a different room. We had a couple of farmers in last night, the clerk told the couple, And we’ve changed all the bedding but the scent lingers.
So at that point I just start transcribing the lines I catch. The couple couldn’t sniff out farmer in their hotel room but their friend remembered working at Farm & Fleet, following men’s muddy footprints around with a mop and bucket. No way their wives would put up with that! she said, At least kick your boots!
Maybe it was the cadence of their voices, or volume, but I could not not listen. The range of conversation! A house on fire, or thought to be on fire. The temperature yesterday, ninety-six degrees. An elderly mother who refuses to eat more than two bites of supper. Orange-y sweaters. Waiting in line to be served. A man with gout who might have quit drinking except the pain was too great. Desire to be a homebody. An angry man who never meant to hurt her. He was creative too. One of the women said, A lot of creative people are troubled. They think too much. The man said, Sometimes creative people are angry. The other woman said, Look at Hemingway. He shot himself.
I have salvaged one line and will start a story with: I don’t take the heat like I used to. Give me a week.
Sometimes I start with a character. Sometimes I start with a situation. I like to write a first draft quickly, within two or three hours or two or three days. Pin that butterfly to the paper, as per Ann Patchett. When I am mired by the details (smudging the delicate wing) I quit the story for a week or fifty-two, or steamroll ahead for the sake of finishing a draft. But if I decide I want the story to be a story, not its first nebulous idea – beautiful and blurred from a distance – I begin my revision in note form.
First I reread the draft, or give the piece to a friend or editor to read. Now I am revising a story whose first thought was lifted from a few places. I want to write more about the places I’ve lived or traveled. I also explore questions in fiction, for the fun or empathy of knowing that life. So this story is about a Korean man marrying an American woman after meeting in college, somewhere in the midwest. At one point in the story, they visit Seoul with their son, and the father is out of place in this city so different from the one he knew as a boy and adolescent.
When I first drafted this story at the end of last summer I was frantic to make it work. There were claws at my shoulders. I am not a Korean man but I wrote myself into his character. He is initially afraid of fatherhood. He carries guilt about a wish. He goes home to Korea and knows he cannot be at home in Korea again. Yet he is also not at home in the States. He worries for how his son fits in a small white suburb. He is afraid his guilt is manifested in the disease his body suffers. I really thought I might write this story and be delivered from my own fear and shame, that my body might let go its injury too. So I wrote the draft quickly to make it end. And at the end I thought I made something worth revising.
Now I revise. I am glad for the help of an editor who asks good questions. After our conversation, I reread the draft and notes from our conversation. That afternoon and again today I sat with a coffee and my notebook and thought about who this Korean man is, who this American wife is. I should know the scene of their meeting, the weeks after, the attraction, marriage and sex, the optimism of meeting neighbors who later bring a card to wish a happy Chinese new year. I should know the work of this man and woman, their parsing of household chores and bills. I should know the son and his hobbies and his response to that trip to Seoul. Before Seoul, the son only heard his father speak Korean while on the phone with a grandmother the son did not know for the distance of geography and language.
Now I know my characters. I understand their motives. When I revise, “because I say so” is not a reason to the reader. “Because I say so” is not a reason for me, the writer, either. There is no satisfaction in because. But also there is no satisfaction in a deluge of detail. In one of my first college workshops the professor (a poet who loved Florida and wore cowboy boots in all weather) assigned a character exercise from the first edition of What If? We answered approximately thirty-four hundred questions about our character. Picking a favorite song or food or giving a character a superstition was supposed to help us write details into the story but I only ended up bored of my character. Since then I’ve been wary of dating my characters. There is so much I don’t care to know. Yet.
What a balance, to spend time shaping who this Korean man is, who this American woman is, who this son is, to then decide what a reader must also know, and how to show or tell them these details that will answer motive or emotion or dynamic. I have not yet returned to the draft to revise. I want to keep my notes another day or two. Before I begin adding whole scenes, sentences, or clauses, I will reread the piece again with my notes (new knowledge) in mind to see what I might need to cut or move to enmesh this better understanding of my characters, to tell a fuller story.
Just this afternoon, on the way home from a cafe, I saw an English teacher friend. She is glad for me to apply to MFA programs, and offered to read my work. I said it’s a little weird to tell people I’m working on a story. I write a story, but I also work on a story. Most people don’t know what that means but she understands. For a moment it was good to stand on a corner appreciating how unmagical writing is, and to know that sometime this week I’ll revise the draft, share it with my friend who will recognize the hours but still critique the gaps so that on the third or fourth revision, the story will stand. And not just because I say so.
Eighteen of thirty-nine. My baby can drink soju in Korea. 892 words.
I am waiting for the early rains and the late rains. Years ago I read that verse in James: See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Today is a beautiful day. Cool, breezy, bright sun. The kids and I were out earlier, returning at lunch, and I went to bed for the afternoon. I laid in bed thinking some, but mostly just sensing the tick and hum of being alive. I am near the end of a difficult year. Remember I count by school calendar years, and this is our second in Korea.
Last year was good and tough. This year was mostly tough. Last year I thought I might make a place for myself at the school by writing for the school, and I continue to do that, but it isn’t my paid role. I am a substitute teacher and this year reckoned with anxiety as I have little control over my daily work schedule and am often in classrooms and situations that are new. Last year I was energized by the novelty of stepping into a junior kindergarten class or guiding a psychology class discussion. This year I am mostly just tired. I do my work, and well or well enough, but knowing I am in this role for at least one more school year (likely two), I struggle to surrender to being uncomfortable. Also, how to let go the pride that nags me: I applied for a teaching job and was not hired, and I miss the arc of a school year in my own room, the rapport I have with a single group of students.
I do not have eyes to see why I am here, except that here is a good place for my husband and our kids. And here can be a good place for me too, but this year brought me low and I was hoping spring might be more than metaphor, that the change of season might lift me.
Now I am like fallow ground. I am waiting and learning the work of waiting again. I am waiting for my knee to heal so I can run in the mornings as I like. I am waiting to know which MFA program will accept me, to begin study next year. I am waiting for the slips of ideas I have about pieces and books to write to weave together, hold tight, and show up on paper. I am waiting for my husband to know rest too, after his year carrying so much in our house. I am waiting for my kids to forget for a time, how slow they had to walk so I could keep up.
I was made slow this year. I was made weak this year. There were things I wanted to do that I could not. And there were days when I did not want to rise but got up and went on, but really, I don’t know that I am better for getting up and going on with a day that only challenged my mind to keep the face, voice and body on pace when the mind wanted to let my face, voice and body return to bed or lay in a quiet room and not move for a long time.
So much was not terrible! So much was lovely. But also, so much was a choice. Such effort to walk into a classroom and say good morning, or into church to greet a brother or sister. Such effort to make a day pleasant for the kids or to join my husband for a breakfast out. Such effort to continue the physical therapy knowing the incremental progress of making a strong arch ankle knee hip.
In January, I thought the year was going to be okay. I was running again. I was in counseling to address anxiety and what I might do professionally or personally to mediate the fear. Later in January my body broke again, my mind stuttered. The few months since have been about truth and patience. Telling myself the truth, including that this light momentary affliction is preparing me for an eternal weight of glory. Or framing my suffering as pruning, to bear fruit. Or repeating snippets of verses: do not be anxious, in everything give thanks, rejoice always, pray without ceasing, do not be afraid. I walk around moving my lips. I take halting deep breaths. There is nothing to do but live each day. There must be freedom in this ability to be patient with today, unhurried for tomorrow. This is not my first go at being present: the lesson is hard, frequently revisited. Laying in bed helps.
Waiting is difficult. It is like the early morning on the river path when I walk though my body wants to run and still I continue to walk, hoping healing is soon made complete. Or it is the ground left to enrich. I look at this year and see harvested stalks tilled under. This year will compost. I will turn it over, feed air to the beetles and worms. There is a crop, grasses or wildflowers that will root in this soil. I have to believe that this empty field is not empty and the soil is good, will not waste an early rain, and will be ready for the late rain.
The day we went to Notre-Dame it was raining. We were in Paris for a week and I arrived as I usually arrive to a new place, without expectation but glad to be there. On the train from Frankfurt, I drank the green we passed: fields, trees. And in Paris, our children ran through the thick grass lawns of important buildings and parks. The day we went to Notre-Dame I followed Justin from our ground level apartment along narrow streets and wider streets, over a bridge. We walked quickly because the sky was heavy, gray clouds first silvered by the sun and then only a dark, mottled sky. We stood in front of Notre-Dame, Grant in his pack on Justin’s back, Claire at my side, looking up at the wild, swooping, spikey features of the cathedral.
I go many places because my husband has the idea to go, and I follow. He plans, books tickets, runs Airbnb choices by me, reads about the city, country, region to list what we should visit, talks with other travelers about their experiences. I pack the bags and airplane snacks, my thoughts of Paris abstract until I am walking the low architecture of the city to stand now before Notre-Dame. We go inside.
My mother told me she stepped inside Notre-Dame and wept, as she had years before when she stood under the dome at Saint Peter’s Basilica. I imagined being so moved. I wanted that, really, to sense the spiritual heft or lift (I would take either) to be in a space occupied by generations of worshippers and seekers before. How many prayers sent to the arched ceiling, tracing up the spire. Of petition, thanksgiving and reverence, perhaps most of petition. I stood for a moment but no shimmer of heaven.
We moved to one side, to begin walking the perimeter of pews, pausing at alcoves of candles, statuary. The saints, saints martyred. Windows so high up. Intricate edges and stonework. Justin and the children went ahead. I stared up at faces made of marble, the cold folds of linen. The small cuts of colored glass. The shadows deeper for a sky that cracked lightning and thunder. I took pictures and most have a grainy quality – no flash photography. I glanced through a brochure about the Friends Of Notre Dame, forever rescuing the crumbling structure, washing away the soot, bolstering its bones, sautering the gaps. Look what we make with our own hands. Look what we make! The architects, artists, engineers who designed pieces of Notre-Dame, and the craftsmen and workers who built pieces of Notre-Dame, creating and building for decades, hundreds not seeing the finished work of their hands, what would stand for centuries as refuge, symbol, heart in a city, cathedral in turn revered, celebrated, neglected, found again.
No shimmer of heaven, no span of the Spirit (or perhaps, yes), but an understanding: how finite we are and how we build to stay a little longer than our breath. Look what we make with our own hands! The innate desire to create. A few years after this week in Paris a student asked me what I wanted to leave behind, after I am dead and I answered, A body of work. Writing like art. I paused before answering, but didn’t need the moment to think. I paused to decide which answer to give. I pour into my children. I am near my friends and family. I love my husband. I want a tracing of my lived love on the lives of my children and their children, yes. But I write and will leave that too, and I want what I leave to be art. Look what I make. Remember the men and women who made a cathedral to God, for us to see God anew.
I woke one morning that week in Paris, sunk deep in a soft mattress, and cried, wanting anything but what I had in that moment but rising to join my family at breakfast. I do not like this part of my story – early ambivalence toward motherhood, still occasional hatred of marriage, selfishness crowding simple joy. We had a beautiful week in Paris but I was still there too. What I forget to remember is that over my own war, I got out of bed, dressed, held my daughter’s hand, kissed my son’s cheek, took my husband’s arm and walked through the day, summer streets, one park and pastry to the next. There are landmarks of my early motherhood where I might have set a stone to remember here I yielded more, here I surrendered to present, here I loved again as best I could, here, knowing more is asked tomorrow.
Outside Notre-Dame again we crossed a street for lunch at a small counter. We shared croque monsieur, standing under a narrow awning and looking at the stained stone, the pointy details, the gargoyles and spire, the rain funneling off the roof. I did not think we would go back, not for some time at least. I had a stomach urge to touch the cathedral once more – wet, rough rock – but I stayed on the stoop feeding bites of bread and cheese to my children. The rain did not let up. We walked away to find our next warm, dry place, two to an umbrella, Justin carrying Grant, Claire and me matching small steps.
Another piece from my time in Williamson, West Virginia. Small talk is great. I want draft an essay about how our students eased (or bumped) into small talk as they stepped from a reticent culture into a place where trust is built on personableness. But here I highlight a few of my own small talk conversations, the ones that helped me understand the town better. I left people unnamed.
One late afternoon in Williamson I walked up and down the main streets hoping to find a cafe. I’d order a tea and pastry, sit at a table near a window of spring light, open my notebook. My head was full from being in this small town, reading its history, meeting its residents – the ones impassioned to save, the ones wanting or not wanting salvation (all of us). I walked by an eatery open four or five hours a day, closed now, and a bakery that might have served coffee, also closed now, and I wandered into the Mountaineer Hotel with its deep circular booths at the reception desk and an invitation to ring a bell for service. Instead I looked at the glass cases displayed in the lobby, a photo of President Kennedy greeting West Virginians in Williamson, and a plastic sleeved copy of the speech he delivered, reminding Americans the poor are people in our country. I left having not said hello to anyone at the hotel and at the next crossing raised a hand at a stopped police car.
Is there a cafe here? A place to sit? Tea? The officer rubbed his chin for a moment, named the short-houred eatery. Or the 7Eleven just up there, they’ve got coffee. I can’t think of another place. There used to be a coffee shop but it closed.
(Seven dollar gourmet coffees, I learned from the man who served a three dollar pie on the house, a man you’ll meet in a moment, in a town where you can by a whole breakfast for six dollars).
I walked in the direction of the 7Eleven, bought a pack of M&Ms because I’d walked in (a pack I brought all the way back to Korea), and decided it was the Track’s End, then, a restaurant and hotel that did good business with the ATVers riding the Hatfield and McCoy trail system. The breakfasts were good, I heard, and you could order a dinner for eight dollars. The dining room was black and white squares on the floor, formica tables and booths, fluorescent lighting and view to the kitchen with its prep counter, grill, fryer and Hobart. There was one man keeping the evening there. I looked at the menu. Two desserts offered. Pistachio pie or hot fudge brownie. The man wrote my order and asked for a minute. I’m the only one here, he said, and I took a seat in the middle booth. There couple sat to my front, a single man to my back.
I took out my notebook. The server cook brought out two baskets and plates for the couple. I watched without staring. I caught snips of conversation. I opened my notebook to write when the man behind me asked where I was from. Turns out this man behind me – I twisted in the booth to talk over my shoulder – travels to Williamson for work every week or so, but I cannot remember what the work is, and stays at Track’s End which he tells me isn’t bad, is clean, has good food. This man has phone he spools through to show me a picture of his granddaughter who has him wrapped around his pinky, he says. This girl is his light. His face is happy to talk about this four year old with a little sass. This man has no wife anymore, but wants to be around for his daughter and granddaughter.
When I talk with people in Williamson I say that I grew up in Wisconsin but that my father is from North Carolina and I remember summer trips to the region, driving through West Virginia on the way to or from my great-grandma Davis’s home in Virginia. What I remember as a kid is marveling at the towns notched up hills or holding tight at a stream bed, and how each little town had a baseball diamond, a near miraculous flat of land with scuffed baselines and a scoreboard on stilts. My talk slows. I do not drawl, but want to, because the accent is patient and rich.
The server cook brings me a small plate with a slice of pistachio pie: graham cracker crust filled with pastel green pudding, a smooth whipped cream and a sprinkle of brown pistachio nuts. It is not a pie I would think to make or order any other time, but this time, at this booth, it is just the right taste of sweet and salt and I eat all of it. The server cook brings out the traveling man’s takeaway and he scoots out of his booth, tells me it was nice to meet me, and walks down a hallway I hadn’t noticed before to his room upstairs. It was nice to meet him too.
The couple in front of me finish their baskets of dinner. The woman is missing teeth so her lips go thin and suck in a little. I see a lot of missing teeth that week and think of my own inheritance of poor enamel, the two crowns I could afford last summer and the more coming, sure, no matter the brushing. The couple stands and the server cook buses their table and three others. Then he is back at the counter with the register and I am bent over my notebook which is a useless task. There’s a television mounted to the wall, tuned to an old Charlie’s Angels episode and the drama is a missing actress, a shady stage manager or agent, the sobbing mother who knew something was wrong when her daughter – I give up. I turn sideways in my booth and talk across the ten feet of space, thank the man for a good pie. He asks where I’m from, what brings me here. He tells me that usually he’s not on his own at the restaurant but one of the gals got sick so he’s here, but that’s okay because he took culinary classes and can cook anything on the menu, but what’s hard is keeping up if it’s busy.
Now the Track’s End is quiet though. All the crumbs wiped off the tables. Seats pushed in. I must have asked how long he worked there, or how he got started cooking. It just doesn’t take much to get a conversation but listening takes practice. Maybe because I want to write better, I make myself listen first, quiet my internal voice nipping with an echoed story of my own so I can first hear who you are, what your story is. (Sometimes I listen well. Sometimes I have something smart to say, or something I think is smart. Because I want to write better, and tell true stories, I really am trying to practice good questions and good listening. It helps to remember I’m not as interesting as I might think I am). This server cook is small but sturdy, thinning hair. I guess about fifty but when conversation turns to the flooding I recalculate.
What happened in Williamson is a few things. First, coal, and jobs promised at the mine as soon as a young man graduated high school, or before, and enough money to buy a house or start a kid at college (if that kid resisted the starting wage call of the mines). Then in 1977 the Tug River flooded the town, cresting at fifty feet and leaving downtown Williamson under a dozen feet of water which drained to the damage of many homes. Sludge. River mud in the sewers, a mess to clean, dry out, rebuild. Many families returned though. I wasn’t around for the ‘77, but I was around for the ‘84, the server cook said. Another woman (my age) I met days later showed me the side of a downtown building painted with floodlines and told me she remembered climbing the rooftop of house with her grandfather to survey the flooded downtown after the ‘84 flood. After the ‘84 flood, the man told me, fewer families moved back. It was hard enough to rebuild once. In two decades’ time, Williamson’s population declined from a peak of ten thousand to its present three thousand, or just under. In 2015, coal mines took a hit under Obama’s EPA, and now the state and region are reckoning what comes next. Lumber, if harvested sustainably, or tourism, or maybe tech – always tech. Before the server cook was a server cook, he was a firefighter who retired after twenty-two years, a job he started as a paramedic while still in high school. If I’d started a job out of high school, the right kind of job with benefits and a pension, I might be retired now too.
I have the habit of making parallel lives for myself. The woman who showed me the flood markers on a brick downtown building is my age, with a junior in high school. I learned about the junior first because she talked about wanting to move to Tennessee which gives free instate tuition the first two years of college, but her son would need to be living there two years first, and now the peach orchard they had their eye on got bought by someone else. I was surprised she thought of moving. She is a champion of community in Williamson and in the week there I saw her a couple of times at work to teach wellness, involved in the elementary school and with a sober living house. But we think about our own kids too. Tennessee is a lot like West Virginia with better roads, she said, a joke I heard about Kentucky’s good roads too, They get us there. People there are like us.
For a couple of days that week in Williamson I thought about what it’d be like to move my family to that small town, to dig into the shared work of raising up a healthy community, to serve in a new way. I get zealous for want of purpose, forgetting where I am is purpose and charge enough. But the growth of Williamson must be born of her own first. But her own leave. There are empty houses on each street. Empty houses collapsing, buckling. I met a contractor and asked about the foundations of homes built into hills, can a house just fall off the mountain? And he told me about going into homes and wondering how no one noticed the slope, the whole house tipped with ground washing out under. I walked all over town that week, in the dark mornings, and out to the edge of town along a mountain and the mountains in West Virginia leak, drips tracing their way from hundreds of feet up to the rock foot carved to make way for a road, the rock slick with wet from old rain. The mountains shift. Foundations slip. But the empty houses, this is something the town sits with, tied by property owners who are gone, or inheritances not yet claimed, the expense of legally razing the abandoned buildings too much for the town. I peeked into a couple of empty buildings. The bottles and fabric of squatters, stripped walls.
There is one house abandoned years ago when one of the pill mill doctors in Williamson left. This is another story of Williamson. The hard work of mining breaks bodies, and bodies in pain want pills, and bodies without work are bored, and bored bodies want pills, and two or three doctors and pharmacies in this tiny, struggling town upended the place with an opioid epidemic. (Every family affected I heard again, again). This abandoned house, right off downtown and next door to one of two bed and breakfasts in town, is federally seized property, its owner fined but never jailed for the chaos of her medical malpractice, and now living between different states. She left two midsize luxury cars, a Mercedes and a BMW, parked in the drive. The house is yellow brick but the white siding accent near the roof is warped and peeled away. Another five years of rain and sun, the siding will fall to the house’s poured concrete porch – white columns, big front door, lots of windows all around the house, one of the nicest in town with no one to loot it good.
The wellness woman is bothered by the abandoned houses and buildings. Some are taken back by the hills, vines and grasses wrapping the wood frames so that when the spring green is full the structures disappear entirely. But most gape, tilt, fall. Dark windows, a danger to explore, narrow streets and alleys and precarious stairs connecting neighbors who aren’t there anymore. Whispers of what the town was when you could get a job out of high school or just before, when the buildings downtown could keep a shop open for more than a year or two, before the hold of tiny pills, before empty churches (churches every third corner, the smallest congregations), before kids moved away for good. I made a history of this town on small talk.
Fifteen of thirty-nine. 2182 words. I really need to get reckless if I’m going to make it to ThirtyNine Stories.
On our first full day in North Carolina, I am sitting with a group of sophomore and junior high school students around a conference room table on the Duke campus. The windows looking out are gothic with heavy leaded panes, new made to look old, like other features of the grounds and academic buildings such as chimneys without fireplaces and stone steps sloped to intimate hundreds of years of scholars’ feet smoothing the stones on their heady walks to and from chapel. We are sitting with the leftovers of lunch in front of our places, picking at kettle fried chips while we listen to one other share expectations for the trip ahead. Tomorrow we will go to a small town in West Virginia to learn about a region grappling with what comes after coal. All school year our students have learned about the most pressing health issues of a people without access to affordable, regular medical care, and how lifestyle and diet can balloon routine concerns to life threatening conditions like COPD and diabetes. Now we have traveled nearly twenty hours to work alongside community health workers at a clinic or on home visits, for our students to observe what public health looks like, and to practice talking with clients about their choices and needs, but first we are in a conference room on the Duke campus. Dr. Robert Malkin, founder of the program we are part of, Global Public Service Academies (GPSA), asks each of us to share what we will contribute to the people of Williamson, and what challenges we anticipate.
Our students are each part of the program because they are interested in pursuing medical careers, but they don’t know what that might look like yet, or the range of studies and positions that support medical practice. Just that morning we listened to a biomedical engineer share about her work in Uganda, helping to problem solve how to ensure neurosurgery can be safe and accessible to head trauma patients. I am proud of our students as they speak. They are self-aware and thoughtful as Dr. Malkin presses to understand more. I believe they are learning their own vulnerability as they answer. They expect to contribute by talking with clients about healthy choices and taking blood pressure and pulse measurements, by learning what they might do in their own careers one day. One student wonders how he can apply the tenets of GPSA to his home in Seoul. They are nervous about making eye contact or taking an inaccurate blood pressure reading. They will be challenged by the unfamiliarity of the culture, how to bridge their experiences with the clients’ lives. One student shares why she is afraid her shyness will get in the way of her service. By the end of our week together, I will know each student better but the hour at the conference room table first cracks an opening for me to see these kids as they are.
And then it is my turn. I will contribute by listening and observing, to tell the stories. At the end of our experience, each student will remember a moment from our week in West Virginia and craft a narrative to share with a middle school audience. I will help workshop the stories. But also I will write my own stories, because I do. And I will contribute encouragement because it is really hard to be uncomfortable in an unfamiliar place and press on – but we won’t know that until we’re in the middle of an overheated house that smells of cigarette smoke, talking with a man whose poor physical health draws the small circle he can travel. My challenge will be to remain present with people, even in a dim house that smells of cigarette smoke, because the man in front of me once had a dream to see Alaska in the summer. Most days he goes as far as the porch door but I won’t know any of that if I drop our conversation for the worry my hair holds smoke. After I learn this man once hoped to see Alaska in the summer, that detail will matter to me for months, though I won’t understand why, and I will be glad I asked if he ever traveled away from West Virginia, and glad he answered, and glad he will be more in my mind after.
Karl, one of our GPSA team leaders, shares next. He echoes my challenge of remaining present in a situation or conversation. The way his mind works is to sift interactions and observations for abstract conclusions: how does this woman’s health compare with other women’s health and what can that say about the state of women’s healthcare in West Virginia? This kind of thinking is a gift for the public health PhD program he is set to begin. But because his mind snags a detail to mull abstracts, Karl pulls away from the conversation in front of him, rushing to discover or conclude a thesis instead of simply talking with a person who wants to tell something about her day or breathing difficulty or what she wishes. I think in abstracts, he says. As Karl talks, I look around and see a few students nod in recognition. When Karl finishes speaking, someone else says, I think in equations. And as we’re preparing to leave the conference room I say to Karl, I think in stories.
Just that morning we attended a talk with a woman named Brittany, a biomedical engineer who spent two months in Uganda answering the question of what it takes to allow a neurosurgeon to operate in a hospital there. As she talked about overcrowded wards, understaffed ICUs, hospital systems and infrastructure I imagined her standing in a tall ceilinged ward making notes about how many nurses were attending how many patients, and what that could mean to patient recovery statistics. I imagined her interviewing surgeons in an underfunded hospital, learning how they improvise by using a power drill instead of a bone drill, sterilizing the bits between patients. I imagined her respect at the improvisation, and her frustration because these men and women should not have to improvise medical treatments like that and if – if – if. She talked about service contracts that medical equipment companies like Siemens and Phillips sell to hospitals, to guarantee the upkeep of CT scanners or X-ray machines, contracts as expensive as the millions of dollars the equipment itself costs, contracts that underfunded hospitals cannot afford so that when the very necessary CT scanner breaks it sits useless and throws doctors and surgeons to waiting for clinical symptoms to indicate what is happening in the body.
So as Brittany talked, I thought of two ways I might tell this story. I could ask for an interview and write a creative nonfiction piece, supplementing with additional interviews and research about the lucrative business of service contracts (already studied and, presumably, reported elsewhere). And I could learn all the language of biomedical engineering, the names of Ugandan cities, towns, roads. The cultural challenges she encountered traveling alone, the shifts in her mindset as she spoke with medical professionals working around the poor infrastructure of their hospitals. I could ask about the food she ate, the ailments she endured, what she wants for the places she visited, who she hopes to see again. So I could write all of this as a creative nonfiction piece. Or I could shape what I learn into fiction. Lift and modify elements of Brittany’s two months to tell a similar story. I would keep the service contracts, a detail so sinister I’d want people to wonder why we allow medical equipment companies to abandon their machines to inevitable disrepair in countries struggling to care for patients when the electricity might blink off after a rain.
I like that I think in stories. Sometimes I wonder why I want to tell stories, fiction or nonfiction. Always I’ve worked my imagination. Such a gift. But for two decades I’ve also practiced craft in the middle of my present. A line from a conversation or detail of the room or a question about an interaction comes to me highlighted and underlined: this is a story. And then I am thinking how to pull disparate elements of a scene into narrative: what to cut, how to order. Much of my story thinking lands in my notebook to stay in cursive because most momentary sparks don’t light a story for want of time or tension. (The man who wishes he’d seen Alaska years ago will land in my notebook, and so will Brittany, but one may be anecdote and the other a story). But still I draft in the middle. I think in stories so when I write stories I know a little more how to show you what I see.
Oh, this piece is beautiful. This story came as a whole while I laid on my bed with a fever today, listening to a piano playlist and drifting. I am glad this story is here now.
Everything in the city was thin. The walls of their apartment were thin, and the young men wore thin suits. The floors and ceilings of the apartment were thin, and the women were thin. Pants cropped at the ankle revealed thin ankles. The glass of their drying room was thin, the caulk at the pane was just thinly separated to allow wisps of polluted air into their home. In the center of the bedroom an air purifier whirred, and another sat whirring in the hall at the door of the children’s room. On the seventh day of bad air, the view of high rises and mountains obscured, the view as a dense fog she might see on a summer country road when the early morning land and air couldn’t find hot or cold, Norah went out for packing tape and ran that around each window frame. On the eighth day she was ill. Ethan took the children to school, and Norah shivered in bed. Her body ached, her skin was warm, her feet cold. At the side of her bed she set a glass of water to drink when she woke.
Norah drifted but did not sleep. She thought of the young mothers with infants snug at their chests, or balanced on hip carriers. She thought of her own two children, boys who were now four and six, and the conversation she and Ethan opened occasionally, about conceiving a third child or adopting a third child and her reasons why – because it was her reasons why a third child might round out the family. Norah rose and turned on the bluetooth speaker, put on a piano playlist to drift to. Ethan was wanted a third child for the delight of holding a baby again, the fun of toddling and first words, the marvel of watching a son or daughter become more who they are one day to the next. He was just thirty-eight, and Norah thirty-seven so it was possible they might conceive. The first two were a thought and then conception. Ethan felt lucky at that, to duck out of wringing fertility issues, and lucky at Norah’s easy carriage of both pregnancies, and lucky at simple births and infants who gained on the percentile. He wasn’t certain luck would hold for a third pregnancy, third delivery, third baby.
Just under the piano music Norah could hear rustling like fabric. She thought is was her ears being louder because she was ill, the way her eyes sometimes went glassy and sharp with tears so she could see clearly without squinting. She thought it was an auditory trick of her duvet when she shifted slightly. She drifted. She remembered the birth of her firstborn, the warm gush of her last push to bring her son to light and air, the way he did not cry but only looked at her like he had waited to meet this mother whose voice sang in the car, whose hips swayed a dance down the halls. The rustling was not her ears. There was something wrong with the bluetooth. Thin ceilings and floors. It was connected to another device, under her own piano music.
She recognized the sounds then. A baby monitor. Norah lay still to listen better to the soft rustle of blankets or kicking feet, waving arms. A tiny infant voice trailed just over a measure of steady notes. Norah held her body through its shiver to not move at all.
They had a third baby. Ethan and Norah met spring of their sophomore year of college and both stayed on campus through the summer to run freshman orientation programs. By Christmas of their junior year they introduced one another to parents, siblings, best friends from hometowns. A year after they met, she was pregnant. They were only sporadically careful about sex, as sporadic as Norah’s periods were. Norah felt the tiniest shift in her person, the making of a second person, but she didn’t say anything for a week because it seemed too early to know for sure. She felt that same identifying shift in her womb at each of her sons’ conceptions. A clear signal to her breasts and brain that a baby was now alive in secret. When Norah told Ethan on a walk from the dining hall to the dorm where they worked as residential advisors, Ethan was silent and then said he didn’t think that was really possible. Don’t I usually pull out? he asked. Sure, but not all the time, she said, Listen, I just think something is different. He asked was she going to take a test.
When Norah remembers her first baby she counts how old this baby would be. Now, wrapped in a down duvet, her whole body aching, she whispers, Sixteen. What an amazing thought, to be raising a teenager in a tiny Seoul apartment, to likely have one or two more older children because it would have made sense to give the first a close sibling. She might not know the four year old or six year old. They might be gone from her life. Or Ethan might be gone from her, and from the first child they made. She might be on her own in Guatemala or Kenya or Hungary with a teenager learning a second and third languages. Ethan might fly to meet them a couple of weeks at a time, or their son or daughter (she thinks daughter) might fly to join his family for the summers, a lovely illustration of errant college decisions.
The infant sounds continue. The baby is not distressed, only murmuring or sighing to soothe him or herself. Norah sighs. She imagines a third infant at her breast, her breast full again. She imagines tucking a baby into a stretchy wrap at her torso, kissing the fontanelle. Norah’s whole body burns and shivers. For the rest of her years this first infant will come to her as the third following the two boys, as though she might again conceive the very baby implanted on her twenty-one year old uterus. Or this first infant will come to her as an entirely different life because she would be a mother to a teenager now instead of practicing single digit addition or cutting crusts off sandwiches.
Ethan was relieved when Norah got her period. She told him only that, and he said, I didn’t think you were pregnant. But she was. For three days she cramped and bled as she hadn’t before, and worried if she should make an appointment with student health. She had a low fever, like the fever she had now in bed, and she knew her body was letting go a tiny person who would now be sixteen years old. Norah was relieved and sad then, and at the start of her second pregnancy she recognized that quiet signal her invisible fertilized egg zigged up her belly to her heart, and told Ethan, I was pregnant before.
What? When? Me? Yes, you. Remember junior year, second semester when my period was late, really late? I was pregnant. Did you take a test? No. I was going to and then my period came. I miscarried. It was a lot of blood.
Ethan was quiet for a time at this revelation. He tried to remember did Norah say anything at the time, was there a clue he’d missed? He only remembered their first year of dating as fun. They didn’t fight or argue even silly matters. Norah was quick to laugh, he remembered, and go along with his ideas for a date or weekend. Ethan didn’t talk with Norah about this first, miscarried baby he could not remember until one afternoon when Norah’s uterus cramped and she began crying. They called the doctor, took a cab to the hospital and had an ultrasound, listened to the whoosh of the baby’s rapid heartbeat. The uterus expands like cramps, the doctor said, and Norah confessed to Ethan on the cab ride home that was what it felt like when she miscarried.
He didn’t want her to miscarry. He didn’t want her to have miscarried his child. He didn’t understand why this event wasn’t also burned on his mind. I told you I thought I was, Norah said, And you said I probably wasn’t. To herself then and now, Norah supposes Ethan did not want to put a potential baby into words when they were still in college, unmarried, when he was raised Catholic and she Evangelical, when everyone would know their shared life began out of order. Probably it was okay that she miscarried, Norah decided. A baby might have rushed their marriage which was not vowed for another seven years. A baby might have broken them apart. A baby might have curbed his business career, or cut her education short.
Yet after the first boy was born, Norah thought what she missed too. She looked at girls who where at the edge of adolescence and wondered how she would raise a girl. And at the second pregnancy she pleaded to carry, healthy, because she was afraid what she might lose, knowing how precious the first son was to hold and nurse and nurture. All of this was private wondering and grief.
Norah’s brain is just warm enough to give the sense the thin wail of the infant from the monitor is her own child and she turns to the other side as she did cosleeping with her sons, and keeping her eyes closed, unbuttons the four buttons of her nightgown to give way to her deflated breast and soft nipple. She shushes her first third infant and feels the sensation of let down at her nipples, up her neck, and it is the fever gift to nurse the baby she lost.
Story thirteen of thirty-nine. About two hours to draft these 1634 words.
That Saturday mid morning I am propped in my bed, my left knee again elevated. I once diligently tracked my miles, injuries, twinges. Now I cannot say how many times this knee has waylaid a day’s plans. Enough. The night before I prayed because I still believe there are miracles even for those of us whose needs are comparatively small. When I ask for my own healing, I also plead provision for Syrians, Yemenis, North Koreans, and when I wake with my knee to swollen to walk, I wonder if there was a choice at the front desk and it just made sense to nourish a child instead. For an hour or so, I think and write about the distribution of miracles, the needs of our world, the fear I have that I am blind to the good I have, the fear I have that I cannot hear what I must, in my heart, to live. And then I use crutches to go from one room of our apartment to the next, to see the children who are just fine, and perhaps glad, at not having to rise and dress for the day, or do anything at all.
The children are sunk in beanbag chairs with their little screens close to their little faces. I ask my girl to help make egg for breakfast. Egg and avocado. Egg and hash browns. Egg and ketchup. Scrambled or fried. Orange juice or milk. Their little faces look up, my girl gets up and she is helpful in the kitchen. My kids know I am broken today but my girl is tender in a way that surprises me, asking can she get this for me, or that, do I need anything, am I okay? My boy remains slouched in his beanbag chair. Unless I say otherwise, he will stay in underwear the entire weekend. My girl too. I look at them both, with their plates balanced on pale legs, screens blinking and singing, and return to my bed.
I make a heat pack from my husband’s sock and two cups of dry rice. I microwave the sock for four or five minutes. Ice does nothing for my knee. The heat feels so good. I arrange pillows to elevate my knee again. I have water within reach. I have a chocolate bar. I have my laptop and earbuds and a ranked list of the Oscar nominated movies.
For three days we eat rice and seaweed for dinner. There is a little restaurant on the block that sells bap for a thousand won and I send the kids to get three bowls. We sit in a line on our sofa and watch Isle Of Dogs, Apollo 13, Castaway. I send them to bed with kisses and lopsided snuggles, and heat my rice sock, prop my knee and watch another movie in bed. The pattern works in a way I don’t like.
That Saturday I was supposed to rise and run, return and make breakfast. Perhaps bacon and eggs, or crepes with whipped cream and strawberries. I was supposed to bike to a French cafe for lunch, a monte cristo or mushroom risotto. I was supposed to return home and make a coffee, write at the table while my children play outside or build a fort inside. That Saturday mid morning I think what is the point of being extra miserable when I am already miserable, and I eat two chocolate bars fast, and a lot of popcorn while watching Can You Ever Forgive Me, which is a truly terrific movie. Then I watch The Wife (Glenn Close is great, but the book is better). I read Moo by Jane Smiley. I write. I read Ephesians. I start a series I heard was good. Before the weekend is over I finish eight hours of an HBO series and one more movie. I cannot remember a more concentrated time of television watching. The last time I might have consumed so much of a screen was thirteen years ago when Justin and I bought the first two seasons of The Office, binged on a hot day with the curtains closed and ac cranked. Then we took a break to pick up pizza. Now I break to rewarm my rice sock.
On Sunday I sit on the couch and look at the smog. The air purifiers are both running high and the apartment hovers at an AQI of forty-seven. I hobble to the door of our drying room and feel a tiny slip of air at the jamb, find packing tape and tape the door sealed. Our AQI drops thirty points. I think about taking a picture of the smog. I cannot. For the same reason I cannot take a photo of my grossly swollen knee. I can remember both well enough, without proof. Years ago I read a blog post by a woman recounting her car accident while on vacation in Costa Rica. She included a photo of herself sobbing on the roadside. The equivalent for me is staring at the middle distance of our view, a forested hill made invisible by smog, and wondering how to write a sentence to explain the fear knotting my belly at the thought of staying in Korea for another two years of bad air, and all the tangential thoughts that follow: the utter selfishness of corporations banking their dirty, under(or un)regulated industry on China’s east coast, the impotence of regional governments to cut coal in favor of renewable or nuclear power energy options, my own careless use of plastic.
I briefly consider another fast, for the sense of control. To show I am doing something to heal my body, in petition. I tell the children we need to tidy the apartment. The girl helps. The boy helps, but grumbles. I say to him, I would like to be able to do all of this by myself but I need your help. That is it, that I need your help. My husband is away, my body is broken, my mind is tired. When my husband messages me from Cuba I hate him just a little.
A friend and her son visit and for an hour or so we talk about the air and our fortune (we can monitor and control the air we breathe, while much of the world cannot), and about books or movies. Our boys play nicely. I tell her I’ve decided to quit drinking coffee and alcohol. I read that both cause inflammation. What I will miss is the ritual of an afternoon latte and open notebook, a glass of wine while I cook, or two glasses with a friend. I can do anything for a time. I can quit caffeine and alcohol. My body will heal. I cannot be inflamed forever.
Can I. There is a flame in my body. If I might have some oxygen to burn. When I do fast, I feel my body burn. I go warm at night, wake with sweat. It’s delicious to be warm of my own burning body.
I want to run. This thought is not far from any other thought. Between that Saturday and this the swelling leaves my knee and I learn to walk again. I watch my ankle and foot through the motion. Heel roll up outside ball big toe heel roll up outside ball big toe. I watch to keep my knee over my ankle. I watch to keep my ankle steady. I watch to keep my toes awake. My foot is tired after one day. Between that Saturday and this my husband returns from travel, marvels at the smog, unpacks souvenirs from Cuba. I want to run. He turns forty and I promise to celebrate better when the air is clean and we can go for an afternoon bike ride along the river, and we will. But also, this year I did not I want to run have the energy I want to run to go out with the kids to let them I want to run choose a gift or decorate the apartment for his birthday with I want to run a banner or balloons. I bake a cake, make a promise and the next morning he is sick.
This Saturday my husband lays on the couch, unmoving. Drink water, I say, and he does. He takes medicine. He sleeps. I take the kids on a bike ride, what we might have done last Saturday if, and I go slow behind my boy and girl, watch my knee when I drive the pedal down, watch my ankle when I drive the pedal down, watch my knee and ankle through the motion to keep the joints aligned. And it is perhaps too much work to heal at all. I am mildly annoyed my husband traveled to clean air and warm climate with health and returned to be sick so that my run of solo parenting extends to the small interventions of a Saturday afternoon. The children squabble while we are out. I speak loudly so they can hear all the way down their bodies that love is a choice. And you cannot control the other. Love between two is never equal. Sometimes you give more. Sometimes your brother or sister gives more. You love without supposing to earn anything. Be nice even if you don’t have to be nice. Be kind. Generous. I am loud enough I see a woman turn to look at me. I am loud enough to hear all the way down my body.
The kids apologize to one another, and to me, and I say what I say, that I love them very much. My girl is put in her own thoughts on our ride home, hopping off her bike to walk for a stretch before resuming at racing speed. My boy asks if his sister is okay when she stops again to walk and we continue on, and I say, She knows the way home.
Sometimes I am afraid I am too honest about how much work it is to be a person, to love at all, to follow Jesus. I am afraid I discourage my children. Or I am afraid that what they might take on as natural and easy, I turn to a hard way because for me being a person, loving, following Jesus is hard.
When I am home again I balance on one leg, and then the other. I do this because I want to run. Yet this Saturday I am made to be slow. We eat two dozen strawberries. I finish reading a book. My boy kicks a soccer ball with a friend. My girl rearranges her room again. My husband rests his body on the couch. I feel how my belly and thighs go soft now. I see the middle distance return to our view. Before the children go to bed they come to me to snuggle and we lay together in my bed. I am glad for my children. They are lights. They tell little jokes they have between themselves or the three of us. We tickle and nuzzle. We sigh because sleep is near, and they leave to their separate rooms to dream. I stay awake a little longer to do this, to remember that Saturday and this Saturday at the smoggy end of winter.
To borrow from Sharon Olds, I go back. I go back to my last night in Colombia and think what I would do again, or differently. That night remains such a sorrow to me because when brought right against the hour I had to leave, I knew it was wrong to leave, that we made a mistake in going away from Cali, and I still believe we left too soon. But I cannot go back. I have written about this night many times in a decade of journaling since, and yesterday this night came to me again when I was having coffee with friends and we were talking about why we are here in Korea, what for, what can we see, what can we not see.
There are decisions I would change but then I would not be here. Or I would be here, but differently. This is a tricky, useless regret, but I sat at the edge of my bed and felt that last night in Colombia again. And then I wrote.
We went for dinner with friends, my last night in Colombia. All of us sat at a long table outside at Las Palmas in Ciudad Jardin. Justin and I were the first to leave, and after I said goodbyes the length of the table and turned to walk to our waiting cab, I did not look back. I remember thinking to not look back. I remember walking like I was learning to walk, having to consider the movement of first one leg, then the other. The weeks before that last day were full of the logistics of moving from one country to another: closing accounts, selling or giving away goods, ticking through our favorites in Cali. And then the last day in Colombia was that day, the last night that night. Leaving our dinner, my body moved toward something I did not want.
I would go back to that year and decide to stay another, even if we would choose to move the following year. I would stay for the green on green, mountains, insect noise, the language and music, empanadas, rain that made our street a river. I would tell the desert to wait one more year.
At our apartment the cab waited while we went inside to tell Patricia, our daughter’s nanny, and her two daughters goodbye. Claire was asleep in her crib. Early in the morning she and I would fly out and Justin would stay another week for paperwork, and to help Patricia organize and clean the apartment we were leaving. Patricia and her girls stood when we entered and we helped them carry the things I’d set aside to give them. Kitchen items, a throw rug, couch pillows, a lamp. We carried these to the cab whose driver popped the trunk and helped. Then Patricia and I said goodbye.
I would go back to this moment too because when we parted from our hug, her crying was so distraught I understood again how she cared for my baby, and that her day would look so different tomorrow without a snuggle from Claire, or a walk around the big yard, or time sitting together on the swing. Patricia took two steps toward our apartment. I thought she would run and wake the baby. I should have told her to run and wake the baby, to hold Claire close once more, kiss those fat cheeks and breathe her and lay her down again. I didn’t have the Spanish and Patricia didn’t have the English so we were left with our faces and tears. Patricia pushed against whatever kept her from running up the driveway, but then turned to her daughters who took her hands and helped her into the cab.
That night I did not sleep. For the first part I held Patricia’s parting in my body. I wanted then to go back and give her Claire to hold one more last time.
I replayed when Patricia and her daughters arrived that last night, as they had arrived one or two other nights that spring when Justin and I went for dinner together, and Patricia said to me, Que linda! and I smiled, a little embarrassed. Her daughters showed me what they brought for Claire. A book, inscribed with a note from them to Claire, and a small pink My Little Pony in its plastic packaging with a 3+ label. I set the My Little Pony aside, in a suitcase in the bedroom, imagining gifting the tiny horse with its shiny tail to Claire when she turned three and telling her it was from her first nanny, Patricia, and her daughters. I would go back and not take the My Little Pony from the daughters. I must have seemed ridiculous to those daughters then, dumb about what baby girls like to play with, dumb about the daughters who played with my daughter. Because why in the moment we were about to walk out the door was I suddenly concerned about age appropriate toys? Or worried what Claire would put in her mouth? Why, when we let her jam a capped Pony Malta bottle in her mouth to gnaw relief for her swollen gums. I was hot and weak that I’d spoiled a gift.
For the second part I held Colombia in my body and wept.
This was the country I moved to first, after years of wanting far away. I was relieved when the plane departed from Miami. My breath caught when the plane banked to descend and I saw Cali, her lights like gold glitter flung in the valley, over the foothills. I learned this country, and not as well as I would have liked. But I learned the words I needed, and the roads up and down to the places I went, the fruits and flowers. I hiked to ruins. I hiked through Tayrona. I saw blocks of plastic wrapped cocaine. I saw a man shot dead, slouched in the front seat of his car, the door open, on my walk to La14. I cut plantain, staining my hands, and fried the plantain, flattened the softened disks with a rock before refrying. I ate the best eggs with orange yolks. I ate pan de bono if it was offered. I took a bus to Salento, a bus to Medellin, a bus to Barricharra, a bus to Villa de Leyva. I stood under a small waterfall. I took outdoor showers. I ignored the cockroaches in my bookshelf. I obeyed soldiers with guns who asked to see my cedula. I walked rows of coffee plants and leaned back to see the top of wax palms. I got chased by dogs when I ran. I jumped in a pool after a long, hot run, or bought an ice cold Coke to guzzle. I biked up a long hill. I sweat my days and nights. I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the English daily papers. I learned stories of Colombia. The scars on the land and people taught me to hope for a place that was mine only for a time. I reckoned my way to motherhood in the perpetual autumn/spring of winter in Cali. I slept the afternoon rains that brought a curtain of quiet. I gave birth in this country, and did not know much but enough to delight in our infant, and wonder. I supposed we would return.
Our marriage became more our own in Colombia, but I walked through the desert to know it.
While I did not sleep that last night, my daughter slept. My husband slept. I touched the mosquito netting. I got up to drink water and look at the dark rooms of our apartment. I begged for sleep but my body held its grief awake.
At the last part of night when it was near time I would dress and dress Claire, and go to the airport, I cried because we did not know anything. We thought we were doing right, to leave. I cried because in front of leaving I knew it was not right. I would go back for one more year, or two. I would go back but that would undo the desert time. Maybe I would undo the desert time to keep the green on green, but then I might undo my son, or my marriage. I might undo my breath. I cried so my body was worn at the start of its journey away.