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.
This idea came a few years ago and I love the idea (which is why I returned to this story a couple of times over the last year) but I do not like the story draft here. Parts, yes. Ideas, yes. But the idea deserves a better draft. Before posting I read through to think what I wanted to share about the process. Instead of front-loading my thoughts here, my responses are italicized. I recommend reading a third or half of the piece if you want, but don’t bother doing more than skim the rest. Friends, I promised drafts.
I am the only one awake now. Two days ago Mom said she was tired and that she was sorry. We were at the kitchen table. She was paying bills online and I was doing homework, physics. She closed her laptop and asked me to look at her. There was a tiny moment before I looked up from my notebook when I tried to guess what I was supposed to look like now, when I met her eye and said it’d be okay, I’d be okay. Really, I didn’t know what to feel when she said she was tired. I don’t know what my face looked like. Hers was crinkly and wet. This was harder for her. So we sat holding hands across the table and I absorbed what she had to say. I didn’t hear anything so I hope her words are hiding somewhere in my body, in a muscle or tooth, and I hope her words come to me when I need them because I will need them now that I’m the only one awake.
There are other families like ours, everyone but one sleeping. You’re supposed to report to county health or a hospital when you’re the last one awake but I haven’t done that yet. When I do, if I do, I’ll get a sticker to place on our front door or window so police and social services know to periodically knock, find out if the last one’s down too. I really don’t know what happens then. I think we get moved to a care facility. Our city won a state contract to build and staff a sleep center but it’s only a giant rectangular cut in land right now, ready for its concrete foundation pour.
I saw pictures in National Geographic of sleep centers around the country. Church basements, American legions, empty classrooms. One picture was of a triple stacked bunks, all you could see where the tops of heads resting on pillows and iv lines dropped from the ceiling. Another picture was of twin girls turned on their sides to face one another, their hands touching but maybe not feeling, feeding tubes running through their nostrils. I really don’t want to end up like that.
Mom went upstairs to wash her face and brush her teeth. She came back wearing a nightgown, carrying a sleep kit. She’d ordered one for each of us after Josh went to sleep. Mine is under my bed. I closed my physics text and notebook, slid both into my backpack. Mom opened the box. She found the catheter with its tiny accordion of instructions. I think it’s better if I do this now, she said, I don’t want you to have to do it later. I followed her to the living room where we surveyed the floor space and guessed what might work best. Dad, Josh and Bud were on the queen sized mattress Mom and I brought down from her room after Bud fell asleep too. Then Taylor went to sleep and we put her on the futon mattress. Mom could lay next to Taylor. She’d fit. Or she could lay next to Dad and we’d move Bud to share the futon. I guess the question is how you’d roll us, Mom said. She looked at me. You pick, she said.
I feel like you should be next to Dad, I said. So we moved Bud to the futon.
Looks good, Mom said. She unfolded the absorbent blue sheet from the sleep kit and laid it next to Dad. While she went to the bathroom with the catheter in hand, I sat on the couch and thought how I should check fluids or ports or turn everyone to the other side. I didn’t get up from the couch though. When people first started falling asleep, there were all these PSAs about staying awake. Exercise, eat healthy, get eight hours a night. It’s always that and it never quite works. Mom quit buying Cheetos after Josh fell asleep. She cooked again. We didn’t order pizza for three months until Bud knocked off and Taylor asked what was the point, really? Mom was running seven or eight miles a day, making Taylor and me bike to school while three bodies occupied a mattress between the couch and television. I was looking at that television when Mom came back downstairs.
Honey, you think you’re going to fall asleep, go to Mrs. Johnson, Mom said. Mrs. Johnson is a woman Mom knows from church. She’s a nurse. Mom laughed. She said, Don’t try this at home.
I smiled a little. Taylor and Mom would fight but Mom and I didn’t fight much. She opened her arms to me. I got up for the hug. We held on for a little while. She was warm. Tomorrow her body would feel cooler. She kissed my forehead, my cheeks. She touched her nose to mine. I love you, Chelsea, she said. I love you too, Mom, I said. She laid down in the space between Dad and Josh. She turned on her side to face Dad and sighed. This feels good in a funny way, she said, I’ve missed laying next to your father. She propped up on an elbow, leaned forward to kiss his dry, parted lips. He didn’t move.
Alright, she said, I guess this is it. They’ll figure it out, honey. Keep going to school.
I watched Mom fall asleep. When Josh fell asleep we all thought he was just being lazy one morning. Then Dad took a nap in his recliner, watching the game, and didn’t get up. Bud said he felt weird at dinner one night. I think Mom knew what was going to happen because she gathered him in her arms and snuggled while reading the last four chapters of Mouse And The Motorcycle. Taylor asked for privacy while she fell asleep. But Mom doesn’t mind if I watch. She rolls her head to look at me, upside down. She looks like when I was little kid and she’d pull a face to make me laugh. I smile, she smiles. She shuts her eyes, relaxes her face and breathing. I watch her whole body go soft before I turn on the television.
I went to school the next day. At lunch, Ezra asked how the home fires burned. I shrugged and ate his potato chips. There are posters all over school that say Stay Awake! Find A Friend! A support group meets after school in the choir room. The bike rack is out front of the classroom. I unlocked my bike. I saw the kids arriving to the support group, taking places in a circle of chairs. I’d never gone but Taylor used to. She said it helped. It made a living room of sleeping family seem okay. A living room of sleeping family is not okay. A girl in the choir room saw me looking. She raised a hand. I got on my bike and pedaled away.
At the end of that first day, I sat cross legged on the couch watching television. On the futon, Taylor and Bud were still. I thought Taylor should be where I was now, she’d be better at this, she’d go to county health and get a stock of ivs and supplements, she’d check our temperatures and measure our waste and calculate just how much to adjust our fluid intake. She’d go to the support group and take tissues by twos and threes, lean on a friend’s shoulder while saying she missed tossing popcorn at Bud during family movie night.
For two weeks I only roll Dad, Mom, Josh, Taylor and Bud. I check the iv lines, swap empty bags for full, regulate the drips. I avoid checking the catheters, instead only unclipping the urine bags and taking them to the hall toilet for a flush. I know I’m supposed to check the catheters for irritation or infection. I know I’m supposed to wash the genitals but I don’t want to. I think about calling the number listed on all the Stay Awake! posters and asking county health to send someone to the house but I’m afraid that might result in everyone going to one of those quiet shelf spaces I saw in National Geographic.
Before Mom and Taylor fell asleep, they’d talk to Josh, Dad and Bud. Mom was on a lot of message boards. She’d forward articles to Taylor and me and Taylor would bring home pamphlets from the support group. Your voice and presence may have power to remind your sleeping loved one(s) that he or she is important to you. Talk to your sleeping loved one(s) as you would speak to him or her at the dinner table. You may want to pause as if waiting for an answer from your sleeping loved one(s). This may give your sleeping loved one(s) an opportunity to form a response in his or her brain. That sense of connection may be an important part of waking.
But no one was waking yet.
The longest sleepers were child refugees from Syria and Iraq. Three years ago BBC and CNN posted short articles, video links of kids temporarily resettled in Scandinavia who were running up and down sidewalks, eating unfamiliar food at a school cafeteria while their siblings were laid out on cots in small bedrooms. There was a photo of a mother sitting at the feet of her sleeping son, trimming his toenails. I don’t think anyone paid much attention until later, when people who hadn’t just barely escaped war fell asleep too. Then we all went to archives to read about these first sleepers who still hadn’t woken up, whose parents were learning Swedish or Norwegian now because how do you move a family who is half asleep? The mother clipping her sleeping son’s toenails, the entire time she was talking to him in Arabic. What are you saying, the reporter asked. She looked up, answered. The translation read, I am telling him about making his favorite food when he wakes. I am telling him about his sister learning to walk.
I tried talking to them. My voice sounded funny. A little too loud, bright. It has this shine on it like when Mom would wake us up early to load the car for a summer road trip and you could hear her tone trying to say this was going to be an adventure, a great fun day in the car, you could hear that in her voice. That’s how I am talking about eating lunch with Ezra. He shared chips! We studied for Spanish! After a month it’s easier to be quiet. How’s the ashram? Ezra asks at lunch one day. I glare at him but think it’s funny too. I can’t help but laugh. And after that, the name sticks. We call my house the ashram.
I like the story to this point. I like the idea of sleepers. I can picture the news coverage, the think pieces, the curated photo spreads. I can also imagine the panic, the screaming stupid. And I can imagine pretending this isn’t really happening.
I like Chelsea and I am glad Ezra is sticking around. I do not want to get bogged down in the medical stuff as the writer, so I let Chelsea skip over it too, for now.
Most afternoons, Ezra walks me home from school even though it’s out of his way. Sometimes he comes in to say hi to the family, make microwave popcorn, help me with physics. He asks if I want to go to the homecoming dance and I close the front door, turn the deadbolt, and watch him go back the way we came, hands in his pocket. I stand at the living room window and watch him walk down the block, halfway down the next until he’s out of the frame. He walks on the balls of his feet as if he might skip or run at the next step. When I can’t see him anymore, I cry. This is the first time I feel how alone I am, thinking that if I went to the homecoming dance I’d have to find a dress and do my own hair and take a selfie. Later that night the phone rings and I jump. It’s Ezra’s mom. Lisa.
One of my go-to fiction writing exercises is to write from a PostSecret prompt. Most weeks I read PostSecret but I only mine the site for a story idea when I want to write a story but don’t want to commit. So: lightly edited flash fiction. Extend this exercise by choosing a parameter(s) – POV, tense, word count, sentence/ paragraph length, syllables per word – for the piece. This week PostSecret included a video of spiritual secrets and I wrote down a few, including the prompt for the following:
I’m not religious anymore but listening to the Christmas story I grew up with is the only thing that stops my panic attacks.
A fuller piece I want to write is about where the church camp kids are, twenty years on, after we sang all the songs and cried about Jesus loving us, and shared inside jokes, wrote as penpals one summer to the next. I’m interested in why some of us keep the faith of our childhood, and others of us do not, and to consider where parental belief or church doctrine ends, and our own understanding and faith begins.
As I wrote this piece (maybe five or six hours, over four days) I reread the Christmas story account from Luke, the one read before opening gifts at my grandparents’ on Christmas Eve. There is assurance, peace and wonder, and I can easily imagine the words soothing a panic.
On the morning commute to Itaewon Julie could feel the clamping. She got off two stops early just to be out of the subway car, the smell of kimchi and garlic on skin. This happened sometimes, though it wasn’t the close space or the body smells of fellow commuters that bothered her. When it happened – the clamping, as she started calling her attacks when she was a child, before she knew there was a name for drowning in air and feeling her body go numb – Julie had a plan, and the plan had evolved as she did, from a childhood chanting in far bathroom stalls, to an adolescence resting in the spoken words of her mother, to an adult whose three years of therapy was helpful to understanding her panic attacks but did not offer an end to them. That had been a disappointment. Julie stood on the platform. She put her hands in her pant pockets and pinched the flesh of her thighs because this minor physical pain was often enough to shake the clamp loose. She pressed her fingernails into her soft flesh. Anyone looking wouldn’t know the tiny, perfect pain that spiked her brain. It was enough for this minute. Keeping one hand in a pocket she left the platform, walked up the stairs, through the turnstiles, up more stairs to the street, the fingers in her pocket playing with nubs of flesh to give short, bright pain, enough to regain her breath.
When she was in the middle of a clamping, she could not think to take exit four instead of seven, so on the street she turned around slowly to orient herself, and then began walking to work. Autumn in Seoul was gorgeous. The trees went red, gold. Platter sized leaves littered the sidewalks, dropping from shade trees cultured by the Japanese. The air was clean for a last month before winter smog settled the region. Julie pulled deep breaths through her nose, exhaled fully. She was feeling steady again. Julie took out her phone and earbuds.
What worked best was for someone to read to her. Something about the unrehearsed speech quieted her. When Julie was in middle school, home midday after throwing up in PE or dissolving in tears in the counselor’s office, her mom would tuck her into bed, bring her hot cocoa, and read, first from the Bible and then from whatever book Julie had dogeared on her bedside table. The words – and the pauses, mispronunciations and corrections, coughs, throat clearings, water sips – were just the cadence that brought Julie’s mind and body to rest. Her mom seemed to recognize this too, and began to read with Julie each evening before bed. When Julie went to college, her mom sent a box of audiobook cds along, and a couple of years after when Julie started therapy hoping to solve the clamping forever, she realized her mom understood a way to help even if she hadn’t understood a better way to help. And it had worked, hadn’t it, better than a gym membership or therapy or keeping a gratitude journal or praying fervently.
The audiobooks were not the same. The first months of freshman year were a disaster. Julie went home at Thanksgiving and spent two days in bed listening to her mom read Psalms and Harry Potter for an hour or so at a stretch, listening to her family cooking, eating, playing board games downstairs. Julie’s older sibling, Matthew, brought his girlfriend to meet the family, a biology major named Taylor who, when Julie joined the family on Friday, said quietly that student services offered counseling and that might help. Julie nodded and thought to call when she returned to campus. She didn’t call until her junior year. And then, sitting in a tiny campus counseling office with platitude posters on the walls, she wondered why no one saw what Taylor had seen, that Julie needed. But at age nineteen or twenty, Julie couldn’t have said what she needed. For a decade the clamping had been a part of her life and sometimes it was okay, and sometimes it was not.
Julie found the album she liked. Last Christmas she flew home from Korea to surprise her family. She moved to Korea a year after graduating college, at the end of her third year of therapy. The college therapist recommended a woman Julie might continue her work with, and so Julie stayed in her college town, kept her job at Starbucks and picked up more shifts, and talked her way to deciding to move to Korea to teach English. This was an apt fit for Julie. The move itself was a series of clampings but once in a rotation of lessons, Julie was surrounded by such beautifully unrehearsed speech as her elementary students read from slim books about sport games, trips to the zoo, and eating at a restaurant. She often left the brightly lit hagwon feeling relaxed. She went home that first Christmas because while she liked teaching the elementary students to read and write English, she was lonely. Her workday began at two in the afternoon, and finished at nine in the evening. Five of the other teachers had arrived together the previous term and there was no breaking into that group, and the rest of the teachers had been living in Korea too long to care about meeting a new expat. Everyone was nice, but no one was kind. When she went home at Christmas, she wasn’t wholly certain she would return to Korea.
The first Sunday home she went to church. Since leaving for college, she’d only gone to church on the weekends home. Julie thought she still believe in God. But she had prayed for the clamping to go away. Beginning as a girl in elementary school when her prayer was as uncomplicated as, Please, God, make me feel okay. And Julie prayed in middle school and high school, with her mom, or alone, praying for this sensation and the fears to leave her alone.
Julie pressed the arrow and adjusted the volume to hear her mother’s voice. At church that first Sunday home, she listened to the advent reading, watched the candle flame waver. She almost prayed, or prayed in a way she didn’t know was prayer. Her parents wanted to know about Korea and Julie made the move sound like the right choice. It was as right as another. They were happy she was happy, and she was happy, but also lonely and the thought of returning to lonely kept her in bed for a day, which she passed off as jetlag. She made her whole body tense, and then let go. She tracked her breath. She pinched her inner thighs, she burrowed under the heavy quilts. On Christmas Eve, Julie sat with her parents in the living room. The tree lights were on, and Christmas music, and they drank hot cocoa or eggnog and briefly Skyped with Matthew and Taylor who were in South Dakota where her family lived. Her dad took his Bible from a shelf and opened to the book of Luke. He began to read and Julie felt her chest open for a full breath. Wait, Dad, she said and found her phone charging in the kitchen. She opened a recording app and pressed start. He began again. In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
After her dad read through the angels and shepherds, Julie asked her mom to read the same passage and she did, continuing to tell of Simeon and Anna the prophetess, and the holy family’s return to Nazareth. Julie began to cry a little. She could return to Korea and she could make a friend. Julie saved the recordings and pulled one up when she needed to listen to someone read: on the plane returning to Incheon, during break her first day back at the hagwon, through the smoggy spring and humid summer. She walked more now and that was helping too, to be outside with sky and trees, the rivers and hills. The clamping was less frequent now and Julie thought of the recordings as her talisman.
Now she stood on a residential street, a short cut to work, and listened to her mom read. Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Julie took her hand from the pant pocket. She tucked her hands instead into her jacket, closed her eyes and continued drawing steady breaths. When she was a girl she thought the Holy Spirit was like wisps of fog on country roads and when her pastor prayed that the Holy Spirit be present here, now, she peeked to see if the aisles of church were misty here, now. Someone bumped by her, and then another someone. Julie listened again to the story. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. Julie’s phone rang, pausing the reading. She answered. She’d lost track of time. She was coming in, yes. Julie removed her earbuds. One day she thought she might understand Simeon, his certainty at seeing the Christ child because of a whispered promise, but she could not now imagine carrying such hope for so many years. She walked along, scuffing leaves, thinking, like a child.
When I moved to Kuwait I had a plan to stay home with my daughter and write while she napped. I supposed after a year or two I would have a book and be on my way to an enviable writing life. During those first years in Kuwait I did not write a book but I did learn to finish stories, at their expense, and to no reader’s pleasure. I spent forty pages on a jewelry store clerk and another forty pages on a young soldier. The clerk wept and the soldier died, but it took forever to move them to their ends. My son was born and the year after I continued to peck at fiction though the richer work was my journal.
And then, while both of my children were little, there was a stretch of bruising and blooming. There was a man I wanted, and he wasn’t my husband. I indulged the fantasy briefly, as I’d indulged any other fantasy since understanding the belly pull of sex, with guilt. But this time, with sorrow too, that I could not be content in the confines of my marriage, and anger that I could not just once and go have a fuck to have a fuck. So during this time I wrote stories about married women with young children who were attracted to men they were not married to. I wrote an essay about wanting an affair and not having an affair. When I showed my husband the essay he asked if it was fiction. I wish. Even my fiction wives could not betray their fiction husbands. None of us got to take a trip to Dubai or smash against a body in an elevator. We all just stayed married and true. And glad for it. As I journaled and drafted the thinnest veil of fiction over my own experiences, vulnerability gained traction. Even now I am uncertain at the literary integrity of those stories about wives wanting and not having, but I am certain that the practice of writing plainly the beautiful ugly complicated parts of being a person allowed me to grow compassion, extend grace to myself and others wrestling spirit and flesh.
An unexpected mercy during this time was reading George Saunders. Years earlier someone suggested I read him. Civilwarland In Bad Decline, this someone said, was awesome. I probably nodded, thought what a stupid title that was, and went back to reading Jane Smiley or Anne Tyler. But then I bought the book and read it on Kindle while powering through elliptical workouts each morning. And I read In Persuasion Nation and his then latest, The Tenth Of December. I overdosed on Saunders’s short fiction. Yet I still wanted to read more of the similar, fiction on a tilt, so at the suggestion of a writer and editor I read I Want To Show You More by Jamie Quatro. It was odd timing that I was then writing about searing lust in journal and essay, playing out scenarios in fiction, when here was another woman writer who’d published a collection of overlapping stories with characters who loved God, loved spouses, and still craved sin. I Want To Show You More gave an answer to how I might also write about my faith.
My fear was/ is I misrepresent the Christian faith because I don’t have the theological training to satisfy debate, but I live it with wrestle and doubt, peace and rest, and during my years in Kuwait I got comfortable talking simply about how faith works in my life. I am totally aware conversations about sin or repentance or grace sound ridiculous to a lot of people. I am also totally aware that a segment of my brothers and sisters are offended by confession of sin, confession of doubt, because sin and doubt seem a failure of faith in some way. But when I was in the middle of wanting to fuck a man I wasn’t married to I was so glad another woman wrote plainly about faith and lust, the flesh and spirit. I read Quatro and thought how I might follow her and Saunders. Why not write the gritty mess of loving Jesus as is. Why not trust readers to be along for the story, to accept unpolished faith.
Growing up I read a lot of Christian fiction. There was a series set in the northwoods of Wisconsin. The settlers logged, and the children carried lunch pails to their one room schoolhouse, and each book centered on a mystery that also revealed a spiritual truth to the protagonists, about pride or caring for the poor. I read This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti and sometimes the idea of invisible angels and evil at work around us flashes up and I look over my shoulder. I read Brock and Bodie Thoene whose historical fiction was well researched and characters round enough to suffer flaws too. I also read a lot of Janette Oke whose pioneer heroines always, always found love at an unexpected time/ in an unexpected place/ with an unexpected person. I didn’t read the popular Christy series by Robin Jones Gunn, who wrote books she wanted the girls of her church youth group to read, because Mom thought they were too old for me when I asked and I didn’t ask again, and by the time I was making my own book choices at the public library, I really didn’t care to read how a good Christian girl likes a good Christian boy who likes her back and is willing to stay pure until a blissful nondescript wedding night. At that point in my adolescence there were no good Christian boys who liked me and if I was going to read about a life that wasn’t mine, I preferred Kurt Vonnegut (why, why!).
I still read an occasional Christian fiction book. I remember reading a book about a church singles group that goes the beach for a weekend. A light read. Just fun. There is chaste flirting. There is a date or two. There is wondering about the will of God. But there is no masturbation in the tiny, shared bathroom while the roommates are fetching hamburger to grill, no gossip about which church lady would be a beast of a mother-in-law. No matter the crisis, no matter the longing or fear, Christian lit takes a didactic turn. So for years when I wrote anything complicated, in essay especially, I wound down to an ending that patted the reader’s hand, even if my own hands were fists. Finally I was in a workshop with a woman who encouraged me to be a little less tidy about the endings, and that’s reflective of my faith, really. If I write about my faith plainly, I can trust you will see how I work it out over the years. And if I commit to write about my faith plainly, I am free to include the wobbly bits too, without shame, because those add to my body of work and a fuller understanding of my faith.
Shortly after Saunders and Quatro, I found an anthologized story about a woman in the middle end of a stalled marriage, who is worried about how her son is doing at preschool. In that piece, the woman slowly lifts from the ground, a gentle defiance of gravity. All of that work turned over this idea that I too might write a wild story. I was writing about women whose script was essentially mine. But I was reading all these stories that asked me to accept slight (not-so slight) variations on reality. In the middle of this mix I took a fiction workshop, generated a lot of work that had nothing to do with straying wives, relieved to welcome new characters and situations. Writing fiction was just fun again. Work to make it work, but more fun than drawing too much from my own lost wants.
One afternoon I was at a stoplight listening to the BBC when an interview came on about someone doing something amazing in the middle of devastation. Are you a hero? I remember the question being direct, and the quick demur from the guest. I remember rolling my eyes. I remember thinking no one is allowed to call themselves a hero. They would be crucified in the comments. That blip of a thought started an improbable story.
From there, I set off on a number of reckless, wild drafts, most never written to completion, for the practice of writing fiction on a tilt, of placing stretched imagination on the page, to play with storytelling and style. I extended permission to my personal essay: forsake the tidy end, write the first thought (to later revise, or not) because there isn’t a safe way to write about anything personal, and trust the reader to at least momentarily accept the world I share: of motherhood, marriage, faith, want, hope.
But how to share with readers, and who are my readers? Last summer I googled book agents. A lot of agents aren’t interested in representing “religious” writing. I stalled there because I don’t know what to call my writing except narrative. I write about faith because it is. I write about marriage because it is. I set pieces in Kuwait because it is. I let my imagination run. I give chase. Now I am writing to compile a body of narrative work honest to my experience, questions and stories, pieces that speak of God, frailty, fear, peace, place. I write the body, I write the spirit. I write the fun, the pain, the whatever in between, because how else.
Eight of thirty-nine, a natural follow to seven of thirty-nine. 1610 words.
Today I watched freshmen play variations of handball and thought about this story I wrote five years ago. I remember the idea taking bones on a commute in Kuwait. I was at a stoplight waiting to merge onto the Thirty, heading home, and the BBC was on (I listened to a lot of BBC while driving around Kuwait) and I heard this interview in which someone (man? woman? I don’t recall because what sticks is what s/he said) answered that no, no s/he was not a hero. I remember rolling my eyes because this person was a hero, really. Probably saved dozens of souls, but was too humble to admit heroic action. I just did what any person would do blah blah. So I thought, what if someone in one of these interviews just said, Yeah, I am a hero. I carried eight kids out of a burning building! I got kneecapped for telling the truth! I assassinated a terrorist! Yeah, I’m a hero! Yeah! I thought a person would be crucified in the comments if they said such a thing. And then I had a place to start.
Part of the challenge of Thirty-Nine Stories is to generate new work. But some of my new work feels a little too raw to share yet. There’s a reason why we revise before publishing, and most of what I’ve been writing is more a slog through self-doubt and fear interrupted with pep and prayer for peace, contentment. A few pieces are taking shape (Deo volente might be my first tattoo) but nothing is okay to post here yet. So today when I remembered that weird story I wrote – well, here you are. Never before posted. I actually workshopped this with an editor who had reservations about the ending.
I like the ending. I like the whole piece. Once the BBC interview sparked a what if? all I had to do was find a situation calling for heroic acts, and make a character admit that, yes, he or she is a hero.
Now. A peek behind the curtain. I found my character one day while I ordered a coffee. Behind me was a crew of five or six painters contracted to paint the new shops at the Avenues mall in Kuwait. The one man was broad and muscled and sex just rolled off him. How does that happen? How do some people vibe potency like that? Here is the thing, friends. If you write, you talk with all kinds of people, even the ones that make your insides quiver, and when you talk you learn all kinds of things like that this broad, muscled man from LA paints stores for Victoria’s Secret, and that he’s dying for a drink in a dry land. Also behind the curtain is a podcast host I followed through his move from LA to Seattle. Also behind the curtain is the fear I had while living in Kuwait where security seemed a little loose for the region, that I might die the victim of a spectacular, poorly planned but well executed terrorist attack.
This piece is about as final as you’ll read on this blog. I drafted extra scenes as I wrote, revised two or three times before sharing with an editor, cut a lot, and today I line edited a few things but kept the piece largely same. Before I call this piece finished finished I’ll take a close look the dialogue (structure, tags and interspersed action), and (maybe) the last lines. I like the ending, but. Hm. Oh, as with other pieces, please stop if you must.
The worst part came after the bombing, when Jake was home in LA. He said yes, he was a hero, and talk radio, Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere lit up. “Don’t look at it,” Krissy said, closing her laptop, “Don’t.” She looked like she might be sick. He took the computer and opened it to a CNN blurb about the quote Jake gave. There were hundreds of comments, mostly angry. Jake didn’t need to hear the clip on repeat. It was in his head. “People you rescued call you their guardian angel or their hero. Are you a guardian angel?” Jake had laughed a little, “No.” The reporter followed up, with a laugh of his own, “Then are you a hero?” And Jake said, “Yeah, yes. I think I am a hero.” The aired interview and the blurbs cut the quote there. It didn’t matter that Jake said he was a hero alongside other heroes of the day. What mattered was that he owned the title. There was a website selling tee shirts and shot glasses with the quote, “Yeah, yes. I think I am a hero.”
He was dying for a drink but Krissy tossed even the miniature Baileys she kept for her Saturday morning coffee. He didn’t think she had any other bottles hidden. Jake scrolled through a dozen comments and handed the laptop back to Krissy. “Baby,” she said, but he was already on his way to the bedroom, pulling the blackout curtains, closing the door.
He was in Kuwait to paint murals in the Victoria’s Secret store opening in the Grand Avenue mall. The job was slated to take two weeks, ten hour days. A week into the job, the boss called LA and said they needed another week. The other guys bitched about having to stay another week in a dry country – someone had gotten ahold of date rum, but two bottles between five guys lasted only a few nights. Jake didn’t mind not having booze easily available. A year ago he’d gone to Dubai to touch up The Rainforest Café and the guys got wasted nightly. That’d been hard, at the start of his sobriety.
Painting Victoria’s Secrets was one of his favorites. It was hard to mess up cream bows and pink swirls, gold accents. He listened to music and painted his panel. It wasn’t like painting a patterned grid. Bows didn’t have to be equally pleated.
All the guys had something they added to their panels, nearly invisible signatures. Jake liked to put a circle somewhere in the panel. Once, on the checkered wall of an expensive boutique, Jake painted a circle small as a thumbprint. At Victoria’s Secret, he added a tiny circle at the end of a curlicue. Laura called that cheating. She’d joined their crew a few months before. “Curlicues already have circles,” she said. He shrugged. Laura hid her initials in the panels. They weren’t supposed to be artists with names. “One day I’ll have a show and sell a ton of shit and these crappy bows will be worth something,” Laura said, nose close to a corner of her panel, using the tiniest brush she owned to make nearly invisible cursive letters: LPA. Laura was a few years out of art school and leased studio space with four other artists, took this job as a muralist to pay bills. Two of the other guys had gone that route too: art school, small shows, maxed out credit cards, job as a muralist.
One thing Jake missed about drinking with the crew were the stories. He still ate dinner with the group but when one of them suggested a bar or nightcaps at the hotel, he left. He missed the bullshitting and storytelling and laughing. He missed hearing about cut up credit cards and girlfriends’ cats and the one painting that sold for seven hundred dollars. He didn’t get the jokes told the next day.
The morning of the bombing, before there was a bombing, Krissy called. Jake was drinking his second cup of coffee and had ten minutes before the van took the crew to the Grand Avenue. He could hear a late show on the TV, during the pauses. “I gotta go,” Jake finally said and Krissy murmured something he didn’t catch. “Love you too,” he said. He stood and finished the last of the coffee, patted his back pocket for his wallet, and left.
He was jetlagged. When he got to the mall, he stopped at Starbucks for a latte. He’d order another on his morning break, another in the afternoon. By the end of the day his arms felt tingly from the reach and precision of painting, but also from the caffeine.
It didn’t happen until eleven that morning. By then, they’d been painting for nearly four hours. The boom was thunderous but distant. Jake muted his music and held still, listening. Laura climbed down from her ladder and walked toward the store entrance, opened a door cut into the drywall and turned back toward the guys. That’s when the second bomb went off, at their end of the mall. Jake heard a sharp crack and shattering, then a deafening explosion in his body, in his teeth. He jumped from the platform before he fell. Laura staggered back. Jake ran toward her and shut the door. The wide palm lined path was already rolling with dust and smoke. They stood, uncertain, in the middle of the store. A siren went off with a whoop, interrupted by evacuation instructions in Arabic and English. Jake felt his pockets for his phone and wallet. His heart was wild.
“I don’t think we should go out yet,” Scott said, “What if there’s a third?”
“Give it five minutes, then we leave,” Laura said. They waited, ears ringing. Laura got on her phone to check Twitter. A few witnesses had already uploaded pictures. “Oh my God,” she said. There were numerous routes out of the mall. They decided to run for it: open the door and take the clearest exit.
At first, Jake just saw the structural catastrophe. Mounds of concrete and metal. The few standing palms had no leaves. Plate glass windows blown out. Café chairs and tables scattered and twisted. Where the blast occurred, the high domed ceiling of metal triangles and thick glass was blown open to show sky. The air was gritty. Jake coughed, pulled his tee shirt over his nose and mouth. The broadcast warnings continued, a calm female voice urging exit. Scott pointed at the short staircase where they entered each day. They could go down to the parking area, cut through the cars to outside. Others were already moving in that direction. Some walked or shuffled. A few ran. More hesitated.
Laura saw the first body, a woman slumped against the giant gold brick of Harvey Nichols. Laura went to the body, knelt. Jake followed. Dust settled like snow on the woman. Jake hadn’t seen anyone dead before, like this. He made a slow circle. There were more, bodies thrown like the café chairs and display tables. The surfaces were hard and sharp. Jake was strong, muscled, but the edges and jags of damage made him feel soft.
“She’s alive. Hey.” Laura looked up at Jake. The woman took the shallowest of breaths. Her forehead was broken open. “We can’t leave her,” Laura said. Scott was at the stairs. Jake waved him on, but he shook his head and came toward them.
Now other bodies were waking. Jake heard whimpers and moans, crying. Jake and Scott left Laura holding the woman’s hand. They walked zigzag from body to body to see who was alive. Further down, a store ceiling collapsed; they dropped to the ground, cutting their knees and palms on glass. For another minute it was quiet again. Jake could hear rescuers shouting. He got up and walked toward Starbucks where another hall opened to more stores and more halls: the blast destroyed that section entirely.
Later, Jake showed Krissy where he’d been, pointing on the mall blueprint everyone saw in the days after the attack. “I went here on breaks.” He traced his finger from Victoria’s Secret to Starbucks. “But that morning, I wanted to finish my panel first.” He shivered. His memory was smaller than the casualty and costs numbers reported.