M.J. Fievre’s memoir A Sky the Color of Chaos (Beating Windward Press, 2015) chronicles Fievre’s childhood during the turbulent rise and fall of Haiti’s President-Priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide—a time of nightly shootings, home invasions, robberies, and the burning of former regime members in neighborhood streets. During the late 1980s and 90s, from when Fievre was eight-years-old to 18, Haiti’s government changed forms eight times; the Haitian people endured fraudulent elections, three military coups, a crippling embargo, and a United Nations occupation. A Sky the Color of Chaos will be featured at the Miami Book Fair International on Nov. 21.

In connection to the release of the book, Fievre had a conversation with writer Jan Becker. They addressed some of the themes explored in the book, including domestic violence, father-daughter relationship, and PTSD.

michaell098300Michael Landweber’s debut novel, We, which will be released on September 1 by Seattle-based Coffeetown Press, has already gotten wonderful blurbs from writers such as Jessica Anya Blau (“a family story…wrapped in a suspenseful, gripping, and totally original sci-fi narrative”), Dave Housley (“a captivating, genre-bending psychological mystery”), and Jen Michalski (“a suspenseful and emotionally engaging novel”). We follow 40-year-old Ben Arnold as he regains consciousness following an accident, only to discover that he is inside his seven-year-old self—and his younger self, whom everyone calls Binky, is not happy about it. Ben would just as soon not be there either, until he realizes he is three days away from the worst day of his childhood—the day his sister Sara was raped, setting into motion the slow, painful unraveling of his family. Somehow, he has to figure out how to get Binky to save Sara.

glasseslennon

I was what — two years old.  It was a nightmare.  I was running.  Somehow I was near a giant hole.  And I fell.  It was a death dream.  My earliest memory.  But was it actually a death dream and did I actually know what death was at that age.  And do I now.

lizro234

The first time I had a full-blown episode of depression I was seven years old. I knew that this was odd, but I was used to oddity. My sister had taught me to read when I was two, so I had become a parlor trick prodigy, marched in and out of rooms at my elementary school and made to read aloud to the “big boys and girls.”  I had the vague uncomfortable sense that I was being used to shame these kids, so I tried to underplay my performance. In return I was petted, praised, invited to eat my lunch with the huge sixth graders and generally protected.

Gravity

By Mag Gabbert

Essay

When I was nine years old my Gran and I took a cruise to Norway. We stayed in the Presidential Suite, which was the biggest suite on board. It was bigger than my Mom’s house. It had fountains, and mirrors, and balconies spread out over five different rooms. It had Tiffany blue carpet and thick, cream-colored down comforters. Gran said she didn’t want us to stop traveling just because Granddad was gone. Gran had survived a brain tumor that year, and her mother and husband had died within just a week of each other—Granddad was only sixty-four. I’d lived through a life-threatening heart virus that year, and watched my dog get run over.

We called it the barrel; it was basically a hamster wheel for human children. Five feet in diameter and constructed of wood, it was already gray and weathered by the time we got it. During recess, most of us would ignore the swings and monkey bars and head right to the barrel. About five of us could fit inside at once. The rest of us would stand on the outside and use our hands to speed the barrel up. Those of us inside had to be fast runners. If we weren’t, the price we paid was bruised knees and splinters in the fleshy parts of our palms. If one of us fell, the rest would soon go tumbling, too, those of us inside yelling for the others to stop pushing.

Passage

I write across distances, from the gray waves of the Irish Sea to the blue-green waters of California’s Pacific coastline. More than this, I write across the elapsed seconds, minutes, hours, and years of my life. Only the other day I looked at the sweeping second hand of my watch and thought, how many times in my life has this perfect circle turned its course and marked time’s passage? In that time I’ve lived on two different continents, been married twice, have two children, three college degrees, and fallen in and out of love more times than I can admit. early evening, and across the tops of avocado trees, the spiraling of a red tailed hawk, the scent of the plumeria, grafted from an ancestor’s garden. A new world unfolds.

DeWitt Henry is the author of the novel The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts (winner of the inaugural Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel), and a mid-life memoir-in-essays, Safe Suicide: Narratives, Essays, and Meditations.  Both are sequels to his latest memoir, Sweet Dreams, about growing up on Philadelphia’s Main Line.  The founding editor of Ploughshares literary magazine, he is a Professor at Emerson College in Boston.  (For more details, please visit www.dewitthenry.com.)

We sit at my grandparents’ long dining room table, the worn green tablecloth unfurled, revealing years of red wine stains. My mother places a cassette recorder in the middle, trying to get it exactly center between the roast beef and the string beans, presses ‘play’ and ‘record’ at the same time. Nobody pays it much mind as the plates are passed, the gravy ladled over lumpy mashed potatoes, the pearl onions in cream sauce we all fight over. Father, we thank thee for this food. Bless it to our use.

The scene is cut from of the movie of our lives, a table full of cameos. There is my great-grandmother, her hair bobbed and dyed its purplish-blue. There is Uncle Bobby next to Aunt Kerri, who cuts his meat into bite-sized pieces. There are my grandparents at the head of the table, my grandfather inspecting a bottle of Cabernet. Beside him is my father, busting Bobby’s balls. “Does she tuck you in at night, too, asshole?”

I am two and my mother asks me if I want to sing. We pick “Frosty the Snowman,” but I can’t remember all the words, so we switch to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Uncle Chuck makes me stop when I start again unprovoked a few minutes later. “No singing at the table,” he says.

Dinner conversation is entirely normal, everyone expecting perfectly well to be exactly where they are. On the tape, my mother is preoccupied with how much I’m eating and when I’ve eaten enough to be excused. My father and grandfather talk about wine.

“Did you know they’re making more wine in California than anywhere in the world?” my grandfather says. He is trying to impress my father. He thinks my father has connections to the mob, or at least knows people with connections to the mob. He assumes that men with connections to the mob know about wine. My father responds politely, says, “Oh yeah? No kidding, Doc.” He knows about wine, but pretends my grandfather knows more. It is a move of deference, an acknowledgment of the thin ice beneath my father’s presence at the table. His voice treads lightly.

At two, I have recently learned a valuable skill. I shove a final spoonful of peas into my mouth, and my mother releases me from the table so that I can show everyone my amazing discovery. “Jump?” I say to my family.

“Jump, Aunt Kerri?”

I circle the chairs. My grandfather, whose sternness occasionally breaks with his affinity for me, says, “Her mind is always at work.”

“Her mouth is always at work,” my great-grandmother says.

“Jump, Uncle Chuck?”

“Jump, Daddy?”

My father laughs, but not at me. “Yeah, right, let me just break my hip,” he says to the rest of the adults. He knows they are watching him. He was away for a while, and now my mother has let him come back.

When I listen to this tape with my mother and my husband two and a half decades later, each of us clutching a glass of wine, I recognize everyone but that tiny voice, my voice. I don’t know how I discovered jumping, or how I really felt about peas, but I’ve heard my grandfather talk about wine my entire life, and I know the sound of that silver on that Corelle ware, that collective, civil laughter periodically breaking up the silence of our eating. I know my uncle’s chiding and my mother’s assessing of my plate. But like my own, my father’s voice startles me, like somebody spliced the tape with a recording from someone else’s house.

“Jump, Grammy?”

My grandmother takes the bait, as she always does. We move into the background and begin our game. “Ready? One, two, three. Jump!” she says.

There are a few indications of the year. The California wine, my father and Uncle Bobby discussing Hill Street Blues. Someone asks my mother what she got for Christmas and I hear her fork clatter onto her plate.

“I got a microwave!” she says, and I picture her arms shooting into the air, her face scrunched with happiness. It’s a gift from my father, something to help around the house, and it’s expensive for 1984, my father writing out his love in a check. I do not mean this cynically. This is how he makes us happy. It is the only way he knows.

I thank my grandmother for jumping with me by making her an imaginary cup of coffee on my imaginary stove. The women prepare Jesus’ birthday cake—a large sheet of ice cream and cookie layers from Pat Mitchell’s. They light the candles and we sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. As the only grandchild, I get to blow out the candles.

While we eat, my father tells a story about Christmas Eve. “So, we’re coming back from church last night,” he says. “Kathy and I are horsing around up in front, teasing, you know. Well, Amy’s in the back, and I don’t know, maybe she’s tired. Anyway, she thinks we’re fighting and gets all upset. We’re up there laughing, and she’s back there going, ‘Mommy, it’s okay, Mommy, don’t cry.’”

Everyone laughs. My mother laughs.

Nobody is rude enough to point out the obvious—that I have barely seen my parents together and can’t recognize the subtle difference between my mother laughing and crying. That this is my first and only Christmas with my father in the house, and I have been told it’s only a trial.

I finish my first piece of Jesus’ cake and ask for a second. “More?” I say. There is a pause while my plate is inspected. “Christ, Amy,” my father says, “are you even chewing?” Everyone laughs again.

The tape is an hour and a half long, and this is as much as my father speaks to me, using me for a little levity around his in-laws, a little lightness to dispel whatever skepticism lingers around the table. Why does my mother record this Christmas and no others? Does she know my father will be gone again before the next? Does she know Aunt Kerri is about to discover that Uncle Bobby fools around? Does she know Alzheimer’s is wending its way down the pathways of my great-grandmother’s brain? What prompts my mother to borrow her friend’s cassette recorder and bring it to Christmas dinner this year?

“I don’t know,” my mother says when we listen to the tape. “I guess I just thought it would be neat to have someday.”

I listen to myself eating a second piece of cake, my mother complaining about the chocolate ice cream dripping down my chin and into the neck of my knitted pink sweater. No matter. I grip my spoon in a fist and shovel. It’s like the cake won’t be there if I look away for even a second.

“Jesus, Amy,” my father says. “What, are you going to jail tomorrow?”

First Contact

By Rob Williams

Essay

Her name was Nedelia. She was a skinny, shy Hispanic girl, with enormous glasses (just like me) and a faint mustache whispering across her upper lip (very much unlike me—but more about that in a second). In my memory, she is always wearing a light blue skirt, knee-high white socks and a white blouse. She looks lovely, although I never would have said that about her at the time.

We live on a small avenue, thirty-two houses in a U-shape; all with perfectly square front gardens and identical red-bricked facades. We know everyone who lives on our cul-de-sac, and they know us. Living next-door to us at number ten are Tom Cahill and his wife, Dotty.

It would pain us, years ago, not to touch one another. In Key West, maybe a couple months after we met, Louisa and I celebrated an early-love sort of holiday—you know, the eight-week anniversary of the first French kiss, or something blissful like that—with a dinner at the now-defunct Cafe des Artistes on Duval St. Atypical for me, I remember little about the actual food, though snapshots of warm foie gras, port wine reductions, diver scallops and saffron decorate the memory, accurate or not. More than anything, I remember the size of the table, a massive dark wooden number, way too big for a two-top, Louisa and I perched at opposite ends. It took our full wingspans to reach one another across that expanse, surely dodging fresh flower, the vase that held it, and burning candle. All for a mere brushing of the fingertips, an actual, if chemical, recharging of our batteries, our blind feet searching in vain in the gulf beneath the white linen tablecloth.

It was a window table, and I remember looking through it at her standing in streetlight on the sidewalk, enjoying her mid-meal cigarette, her blonde hair glowing orange in the night. Somehow, even though it was Key West, and probably at least 70-degrees, I impose, in memory, snowfall on this scene—some dramatic anomaly, some fictional meteorological introspection, the kind of nostalgia that, for a Midwestern boy, can only reside in light ice falling beneath the orange pool of a streetlamp, smoke pouring from the lips of an early lover in the dark, through a restaurant window, at a too-big table pushing flutes of hazel champagne into the air.

Often, it’s still like this—how we’re driven by the need to touch, how our memories are inflamed sometimes by this lack, the distance we must breach. Here, on the other side of the Zócalo tracks, there is no distance at all to breach; we are wallpaper-glued together and we cling to one another not out of need, but incidentally. Actually, we cling to a whole bunch of people, the streets jammed with the chaos of familiarity—the kind that represents a close-knit neighborhood. Really close—like someone’s-knee-in-another’s-tailbone close. I think of my ancestors in the Jewish ghettoes of Poland, the wild social structures and hierarchies within. Here, in Mexico, land of living ghosts, I commune with them. Some apparitional great-aunt with ham-hock arms juggles pierogies, catching them in her mouth before they fall. Her smile bears the sheen of sour cream, bridging Poland and Mexico with a single ingredient. I want to wrap my arm around this burly ghost, sway, gather the streets into a frenzied We Are the World.

But all we can do is succumb to the rhythm, decide not to fight the current. My great-aunt’s ghost fades into the multitude. In these streets, the Cafe des Artistes two-top would be ground to sand. The undertow carries us into Tamale Alley, literally an entire street lined with outdoor food-stalls, each of them peddling their unique takes on the corn-husked delight, not a single one stuffed with huitlacoche. When we ask for it, utter those four corn-smutty syllables, we are, each time without fail, greeted with wrinkled foreheads and dismissive waves. We are obviously absurd foreigners, belted with occasional bursts of tamale steam as the vendors lift the tin lids of their water baths. Crowds of mid-day eaters huddle six-deep, eating together in front of the stand from which they bought their food, pulling bits of golden cornmeal stuffed with mole negro chicken, carnitas in salsa verde, whitefish in mole amarillo, from the corn husks wrapped in greasy crinkling waxpaper, laughing, arguing, working things out. One portion of the alley prepares only mole negro, another the amarillo, another the verde. Tamale Alley has cliques, cornmeal turf wars.

Cars, bikes, mopeds, garbage trucks, skinny shirtless guys hauling cardboard boxes on dollies cascade around the standing diners, swinging wide to avoid them, snaking sidewalk and street, wherever there’s a breathe-hole, a crack of space through which to push. No table gulfs here. No place to put your elbows except against your ribcage, your wrists doing the all the work, fingers pulling strings of meat from the husk, dripping with psychedelic sauces. The smells of garlic and diesel commingle overhead.

Commingling beneath, Louisa and I push to the front of a tamale stand, dare not ask for huitlacoche. Deep in her handbag, our stone knife is surely twitching, longing to halve some brave foodstuff. From a fat old woman we purchase two mole negro tamales. An old sinewy man in a dirty Chicago Cubs baseball cap begs two pesos from us for a tamale of his own. And we dine together silently, the three of us wrapped in crowd on the street. Louisa croons. The old man smacks his lips. I save my energy for the unwrapping of the corn husk, wet with a tawny grease that runs along my wrists as I lift the pillow of cornmeal to my mouth. It gives easily to my teeth, bursts with an outer earthiness—the smells of the Midwest, drives along the farm roads of Central Illinois, Indiana, the sun reflecting from armies of silos. But inside, it’s all Mexico, the molasses sap of the mole negro, penetrating as fresh oil, tar, all sweet burn and toast, the threads of chicken soaked with the charred sauce, lingering flavors of grassy chile, sesame, almond, raisin, cinnamon, chocolate. This is a tamale to span the length of all meals—it is amuse bouche and appetizer and entree and dessert. It is a four-hour meal at a giant table, and your lover pulling the last drag from her last cigarette beneath some final moon. In this tamale, the swings of Buffalo Grove’s Tartan Park regress, go squeakless again, and the tornado slide cleans itself of the old purple of all childhood blood. In this firecracker mole negro parents live forever.

With one hand, I snake Louisa’s thigh. With the other, I raise the tamale to my mouth for a second bite, wondering what this one will evoke. Louisa, nearly finished already, throws her head backward and knocks the old man’s Cubs hat to the asphalt.

Back in February, Justin Bieber was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best New Artist category. Since North America’s youth was in the throes of “Bieber Fever,” he was the odds-on favorite, though it’s worth pointing out the publicity machine behind the curtain, which timed the release of his 3-D film, “Never Say Never,” for the same weekend as the Grammies.

But something happened on the way to Bieber’s supposed Grammy coronation—he didn’t win. Instead the award went to Esperanza Spalding, a relatively unknown jazz singer and bassist.

In the hormone-addled hearts and minds of teenagers, Bieber and his $750 haircut can do no wrong. Within hours of the Grammies, an angry mob of “Bieliebers” chose Spalding’s Wikipedia page as the target of their outrage. They changed her middle name to “Quesadilla,” and added comments such as, “She now has the 2011 Grammy for being the Best new Artist! Even though no one has ever heard of her! Yay!” One even used all caps:  “JUSTIN BIEBER DESERVED IT GO DIE IN A HOLE. WHO THE HECK ARE YOU ANYWAY?”

Part One in a new series about brothers and sisters I have adopted throughout life as an only child.

I adopted Susan as my sister when we were two years old, in daycare. It wasn’t daycare, really, not in the modern sense. We didn’t have a certified childhood education specialist preempting our literacy development, rudimentary mathematics, and confidence-building socialization. We had Carla, the kind, middle-aged woman from across the street, under whose dining room table we took naps, whispering to each other from opposite sides of the fake Persian rug. It was Rainbow Bright and Spaghetti-Os daycare. Carla, whose bushy brown hair resembled an Elizabethan headpiece, sent us home with vivid orange mouths each weekday to our single, working moms.

Susan was a natural choice for an adopted sister. Her real sister was a decade older than us, already edging into preteen disaffectedness, reading Seventeen cross-legged on her bed, stereo playing, door closed (yes, we secretly worshipped her). Susan and I also shared a birthday. Susan was older by fourteen hours and six minutes, a fact I resented until our twenties. That our parents were both divorced made it irresistible to posit theories of twinhood, one of our mothers having an affair with one of our fathers, producing us, and then splitting us up for cover. Divorce apparently made us numb to things like infidelity and conspiracy. When our mothers put an end to it–“Who the hell do you think we are?” my mother said at dinner, lighting a cigarette–we tried to become stepsisters by setting Susan’s mother up with my father. Seven years old and broke, we picked wildflowers and put them in a vase with a forged note. I couldn’t get my father’s left-handed print to look right, and the ruse never got off the ground.

We looked nothing alike, of course. I was tall, working my way towards plump, with frizzy brown hair and eyes the color of black coffee. Susan was short and spindly, with luscious, dirty blond hair, blue eyes, and a ski slope nose I still think is the prettiest in the world. If we were twins, even in our imaginations, we were undoubtedly fraternal.

It worked to our advantage that our mothers became friends, too. While Susan and I donned costumes and smeared pilfered red lipstick on the mirror in my bedroom, our moms drank boxed white zinfandel and smoked. They talked single-mom talk–bosses who made their daytime lives hell, daughters who made their nighttime lives hell, child support payments, houses in various states of disarray, fatigue, depression, anxiety, anger. My mother’s sense of the dark comedy that was our life was better honed than Susan’s mother’s, so we spent most of our time at my house, where we had more privileges and less yelling. Not wanting to part at the end of the night, we devised a fail-safe system for sleepover requests: we counted our mothers’ glasses of wine. At number three, we struck. We tiptoed into the kitchen and handed our respective parent a note.

Can Susan please spend the night, pretty please with carrots and peas? I’ll take out the garbage and dust and vacuum the whole house. Circle yes or no.

Mommy dearest, can I please please please please spend the night at Amy’s? Pretty please with hot chocolate, whipped cream, and three cherries? Yes No Maybe.

As soon as we got our way, we fought. I was an overly sensitive child who cried easily and couldn’t take a joke, and Susan was a ball-buster. I can’t remember that our fights were about anything more than that. But once feelings were hurt, we were likely to push each other, scream, and swear we hated each other, just like real sisters. My mother’s penchant for doting on any child that wasn’t her own made these fights fraught with extra sensitivity–deep down, I had grown accustomed to not sharing my mother, and nothing could make me feel as unsafe as the thought of her loving anyone more than me. When she took Susan’s side–and she always took Susan’s side–the knot of worry that I would go through life alone tightened inside me.

When I was ten, my mother had a breakdown during Sunday dinner at my grandparents’ house. Wordlessly, she began crying at the table, great, silent sobs that shook her shoulders, her head bent over her plate. My aunt and grandmother led her upstairs, and when they returned, my grandmother told me I would be staying with her and my grandfather for a while. “Your mom needs some time to herself,” she said.

I stayed with my grandparents for a week. Every meal invariably included red meat, something I never ate at home. My grandfather critiqued my table manners. “Elbows off the table,” he said. “Bring the food to your face, not your face to the food.” Each morning when I woke in my grandmother’s sewing room, sunlight weak through the pleated coral-colored curtains, the sinking feeling that my mother wouldn’t return grew stronger. I didn’t know how to deal with this fear except to cry, an act not well tolerated in my grandparents’ reticent house. “You’re not a baby,” my grandmother said, “so stop behaving like one.”

Towards the end of the week, my grandmother took me along while she ran errands. We drove my great-grandmother’s seafoam green Chevy, a car that steered more like a boat and had a clean, minty smell I can still conjure in my dreams. Sitting in the Grand Union parking lot, her long fingers curved around the thin, hard steering wheel, my grandmother told me that I was the reason for my mother’s breakdown. “You’ll have to grow up, Amy Lynne,” she said, using my middle name for emphasis, “if you want people to love you.” I stared out the window at the slushy parking lot and said nothing, even as the air in my gut went straight out of me.

I don’t know if it was this or puberty that kicked my obsession with people liking me into high gear, but around this time I began letting my insecurities run wild. At school, I desperately sought popularity, kissing up to the Lindsays and Lauras that ruled our class. I spent Thursdays with my father and took advantage of his cluelessness, preying on his penchant to show love through money. We took epic trips to the mall and returned with bags of clothes from The Limited and Gap. My mother’s face would fall when I came home, arms loaded with Daddy’s love. She didn’t like watching me get spoiled, especially by the man I had come to worship because he wasn’t around enough to hurt me like she could.

Susan’s mother, on the other hand, gave new meaning to the word “thrifty.” Determined to pay off their house and save for retirement, she took Susan to K-Mart for new clothes. Susan’s father had all but disappeared–he showed up every other year or so for a lavish visit, only to vanish into another chapter of his new life near Lake Placid. If anyone had the right to feel lonely as a kid, it was Susan, not me. While I grew more sociable, hanging on the periphery of cool kids and chasing boys, Susan grew quieter and more detached from the cliques forming at school. She hardly ever raised her hand in class or participated in extracurricular stuff, possibly because she really had no interest, possibly because her mother wouldn’t let her do anything that cost money. A Czech immigrant whose family fled to Germany at the start of the Cold War, Susan’s mother was practiced at living without, and passed minimalism on to her two daughters. Every other year, Susan’s mother would take the family back to Germany to visit Susan’s Oma and Opa, and I complained to my mother that we never took trips like that, all the way to Europe. I’m embarrassed to remember my jealousy when Susan would leave for two weeks in the summer and return with bars of chocolate thick as a book and wrapped in paper with another language written on it. In reality, because she did not speak German, Susan’s trips overseas were hardly more exciting than her life at home.

As our priorities grew more disparate, Susan and I saw less of each other. We still walked to school together during junior high and high school, but we had increasingly shallower conversations as we crossed the railroad tracks over Nanticoke Avenue, cut through the sparse backyards on North Street, crisscrossed the potholed parking lot of Philly Sales. Though I was actually just a patsy for popular girls–I did their homework, wrote their papers, gave them my mother’s stolen beer–I pretended to Susan that I fit in, bragging about parties I went to, guys I flirted with, substances I consumed. Every time I made out with someone, I told her every salivating detail, acting as though I was growing up faster than she was, pitying her for getting left behind. Either because she was kind or because it was easier, Susan said almost nothing during these dish sessions, letting me believe her silence was envy and not indifference. While I was out gathering “friends” and boyfriends, Susan began working part-time at K-Mart when we turned sixteen. That’s where she met Bob.

Bob was twenty. An almost five-year age gap was a huge deal when it came to a junior in high school. Susan’s mother went ballistic over the relationship. She called my mother to report catching Bob in Susan’s bedroom, Susan sneaking out to meet Bob, Susan and Bob continuing what Susan’s mother had strictly forbidden. In addition to learning what she could live without, Susan had also learned from her mother a fierce independence. Her personal rebellion wasn’t expressed with black clothing, body piercings, or tattoos. By the time she met Bob, Susan didn’t care what people thought of her, who she dated, or what was “normal” for a teenage girl, even when it came to how she pissed off her parents. She cared only about being happy. And Bob, a gangly, bespectacled artist who loved heavy metal and black humor, made her happy.

Susan and Bob circa 1999

For a few months, Susan and I had more than our history in common again. She had a boyfriend. And she was thinking of sleeping with him (I had rather notoriously lost my virginity the previous year, one of the first girls in our class to do so). Though we still only shared the occasional walk to and from school–I got rides from boys with cars whenever offered–we were finally having two-way conversations again. Susan’s perma-scowl receded from her clear, makeupless face, replaced with a giddiness I hadn’t seen since we last opened my costume chest and put puffy green wigs on. Then, as suddenly as the onset of her glee, Susan stopped walking to school.

My mother knew before I did. She sat me down at the kitchen table one night when I returned from a party slightly buzzed and sporting swollen lips. “Susan’s mom called,” she said, a full ashtray in front of her. “Susan’s pregnant.”

By the time she began to show, in the middle of our senior year, Susan had become nearly invisible to the rest of our high school’s twelve hundred students. She recently made a crack about how she showed up to Economics in sweatshirts to hide her growing belly, and nobody noticed anything different about her, that her slightness had ballooned underneath those layers of fleece. Only a handful of her closest friends knew she was going to have a baby, and maybe because it was Susan, because our friendship had become something private and compartmentalized from the rest of my social life, I was actually able to keep her secret. She gave birth to her son, Devin, in early spring, finished her coursework from home, and graduated on time. To this day, I bet plenty of people from the Class of 2000 still have no clue there was such a scandal among them.

I visited Susan in the hospital the day after she gave birth. My mother has a picture of me holding Devin, a garish shade of purple adorning my lips. I clearly attempted to straighten my curly hair, which hangs in a bushy ponytail down my back. The red sweater I’m wearing is the cropped style popular that year, a terrible cut for my high waist and hips. In trying to look like everyone else, I just look ridiculous.

It’s funny how people grow apart only to grow closer again. In the years after high school, when I went to college and then graduate school, and Susan and Bob had four more boys together, I shed most of the friends I had back home. I have no idea what those Lindsays and Lauras are doing now, though I bet they think back on high school and scoff at their former selves, too. I don’t know if it’s quite the same for boys, but girls from suburbia have a giant orbit of self-knowledge. It leads them out into the nothingness of identity and only very slowly draws them back into something recognizable, something that feels right again. Few of us escape the pull of that orbit. But Susan did.

Susan and Bob got married by a justice of the peace almost a year after Devin was born. My mother and I both attended. I felt honored to be invited to the small, informal ceremony, to eat cake at Susan’s mother’s house afterward, the house now fully paid off. As her grandsons came into the world–first Devin, and then Cooper, Mason, Jaxon, and newborn Kaiser–Susan’s mother would take the money she scrimped and saved through years of wanting, and help Susan and Bob buy a house in the country where their family could stake a small, but rich claim of the world together.

I now teach freshman writing and learning skills development at a private liberal arts college about an hour from where Susan and I grew up. School, as it always did, continues to structure my life, offering me routine, offering me chances to outshine others and accumulate praise, chances to belong to a group of like-minded people, academics nowadays. Other than my half-identity as a struggling writer, I’m as conventional as they come–educated, ambitious, and now, newly married to an equally educated and ambitious man. If my husband and I have a child before I turn thirty, we’ll positively reek of normalcy. Susan will barf.

For her part, Susan’s Facebook page does the finest job describing where she has landed:

I am who I am and I won’t apologize for it. 😉

I am an against the grain, on the fringe, vegan, breastfeeding, baby wearing, sleep sharing, non vaccinating, unschooling, pagan, hippy mama to 5 awesome boys. I couldn’t have said all that even four years ago. I am always educating myself so that I can make the best choices for my family.

I am married to my partner, my soulmate, my strength, my rock, my best friend. I am one very happy girl.

Susan uses the term “unschooling” for the education her five boys receive at home. It’s unstructured for sure–no lesson plans, no exams, no formalizing of any kind, even in a basement or garage classroom. Her children learn by living, as Susan says, helping their mother total grocery bills, helping their father restore vehicles, helping their grandmother garden. If you subscribe to the rigors of conventional education, like most Americans, you might be unsettled by this learning design, or non-design. As a teacher, I didn’t quite know what to make of it either, though I certainly knew better than to question Susan’s decision. She would have told me to fuck off and mind my own business.

But I’ve spent time with Susan’s family, especially since my husband and I moved back to upstate New York, especially since I’ve realized that the people who love you best are the ones who don’t expect you to be just like them, like Susan, like my mother. Bob had an art show at a local bookstore last summer. I stopped by to show support and say hi to my old friend, my first adopted sibling, my only twin. Susan had her hands full with Jaxon, her two-year-old, who had just discovered that pulling his pants down in public is funny. We stood around hiking up Jaxon’s britches and catching up, when suddenly her oldest, Devin, appeared at her side wearing a deeply familiar look. He had something behind his back, something he was about to ask for. I half-expected him to slip Susan a note.

Susan pointed her upturned nose at whatever Devin was holding. “Whatcha got there?” she said.

Devin showed her. “Mom, do you think we could get these? Please?”

Susan inspected the goods, then smiled and handed them to me. They were floppy, glossy-covered workbooks, just like we used in grade school. Math workbooks, to be exact, fifth grade level. Devin was ten.

If you think Susan’s unconventional schooling methods don’t work, you might have to reconsider. Not only do Devin and his brothers exhibit high intelligence and endless curiosity, but Susan thinks about education constantly. Her Facebook page is packed with links about homeschooling, or unschooling, stuff she devours in her spare time. Strangely, her belief in practical learning–the stuff of life–isn’t all that dissimilar to my interest in experiential learning at the collegiate level. But I’m sure we’ll have that debate the next time we get together, and Susan’s sharp tongue will sting at least once, even if I no longer cry about it.

We celebrated our mutual 29th birthday last week. While I got married last October to a man who, other than the heavy metal, kind of reminds me of Bob, Susan and Bob recently celebrated ten years of marriage and the birth of their fifth son. My twin sister may be fourteen hours and six minutes older than me, but those hours might as well be years, both in experience and in her sense of self. I still agonize over some hallway exchange with a colleague, some email with an indiscernible tone. Not Susan. She knows who loves her, the real her. She knows that a few blessed, precious things are, against all odds, permanent.

The Brown family at Christmas last year.

 

 

 

“Bullies”

 

The Director of The Landings — the independent retirement “village” where my mother lives — is a bully, pure and simple. Residents’ requests are ignored, cooks quit every week, and occasionally some poor old person will find his lease is not renewed for no discernible reason. This woman has an alarming resemblance to Glenn Close with a rabbit boiling on the stove. She’s reportedly got the owner of the place wrapped around her perfectly manicured finger. She cruises into work in her Cadillac and hurries off to lunch with her slightly smaller but no less blond assistant. They are always hurrying somewhere, blowing by in a hurricane of perfume.

Fortunately we don’t have much truck with them.

In her little apartment, Mom is claustrophobic and lonely. To combat both issues, she keeps her door open and plays piano, hoping to lure in admirers. She’s pretty effective at it. People wander by, hear Bach or Debussy, and stick their head in the door, curious. Slowly, but surely, she makes a few friends.

One of them is a woman named Carol, a retired art teacher. My mother’s hobby for many years has been watercolors. Some of them are pretty good. Emmy still has the  painting of a clown walking a chicken on a leash that my mother painted when Emmy was just a baby. So Carol and my mother decide to paint together. The Landings has an art studio. We saw it when they took us on a tour of the place. What we hadn’t noticed is that no one was actually using it. Like so many of the amenities at The Landings, it is only there for show. The tables aren’t placed at a convenient height for painting, and my mom, being handicapped, has great difficulty in there. But no adjustments will be made. Still somehow my mother and Carol manage to paint together.

Carol has a daughter my age, and like me her daughter is constantly stopping by to help her mother with one thing or another. Mom gets confused and calls the daughter “Carol’s mother.”

“Carol’s daughter,” I correct her.

“Oh, yes. Of course,” she replies, but next time she does it again, mentioning something about “Carol’s mother.” And that’s what we are: mothers to our own mothers. I am constantly wiping my mother’s face, washing her hair for her, and exhorting her to get out and do things with friends.

My daughter Emmy is also trying to find a way to fit in at her new high school — a private school where the kids have all known each other since kindergarten. She’s been pestering me to try to get her into the other private school where some of her friends are, but it’s not doable. We’ve already gotten a scholarship at this place, and it would be way too late to get one anywhere else. She’s despondent, but one day she comes eagerly over to the car when I pull up.

“There’s auditions for a play,” she says, her eyes bright. I can’t help but remember the three-year-old Emmy who stood on a five-inch curb and exclaimed, “It’s a stage!”

“Do you want me to come with you?” I ask.

“Would you?”

So I find a seat in the back of the auditorium to watch the auditions. The kids are good, but Emmy’s cold reading is brilliant. She’s funny and quick. The woman who will be directing the show is not actually a teacher. She’s been hired from a community acting group. After the auditions, she bounces back to where Emmy and I are sitting together. Her eyebrows leap to her hairline when she sees me. I’m the only mother there, but she seems friendly and enthusiastic about Emmy.

“You’ve got a real instinct for theater,” she says to Emmy. Then still smiling, “I’m not going to cast you in this show, but I hope you’ll audition for one of the shows I’m doing in the community. You’re really good.”

Emmy and I are confused. If she’s so good, why isn’t the woman going to put her in the show?

“It’s probably because you’re a freshman,” I tell her as we’re driving away. But later we find out that another freshman was put in the show. It’s baffling.

Over the next few years Emmy will have her share of successes and crushing disappointments. For the disappointments, I usually trot out the old story about being a finalist in a screenwriting competition and being sure that I was going to Hollywood and then not making it and feeling like the air had been sucked from the planet, or the sun had suddenly expired. And then a couple of weeks later my friend Mikey died and I had to take over his classes and be there with my friends to help them as they grieved and suddenly not getting that award and that new life in Hollywood didn’t matter so much. I don’t think this story helps, but I tell it anyway.


Although Emmy’s audition didn’t land her a role in that show, it did garner attention from the school’s young theatrical genius — a senior.

“Your audition rocked my socks,” he told her in the hallway the next day. And as the director of the student-directed play that year, he took her under his wing. Emmy found herself ensconced with the nicest, smartest, most intellectually adventurous group of kids in the school. Hallelujah.


But there are still a few bumps in the road.

One day I pull up to the school to pick up Emmy. She lands in the passenger seat like a wounded bird.

“What’s wrong?” I ask her.

Immediately she begins to sob, heart-wrenching, wheezing, mucus-manufacturing, chest-heaving sobs. The story emerges in fits and starts.

“There were these boys . . .in one of the classrooms . . . and I had to go in there to get a . . .book I’d forgotten.”

Blood begins pounding in my head like African drums.

“They saw me and they started laughing. One of them said . . . ‘it’s that girl . . .Emmy . . . she’s so weird.’ . . . and they kept laughing at me.”

“What did you do, honey?”

“I turned and ran!” she screams at me.

So there are a lot of things worse than being laughed at, but at that moment with my child sobbing in my car, I’m wanting to go kick some juvenile ass. Rage seethes through me like red hot lava. I’m pissed off at these unknown boys but even more pissed off with myself for letting her come to this school full of rich assholes. (I know. Many of the parents turn out to be incredibly kind and some of these kids will become her lifelong friends, but none of that is registering in the moment.) I can’t do anything except try to stifle a terrible memory that suddenly surfaces.


Our paths only crossed once. She was on a blue bike riding across the newly built wooden bridge that spanned the Willow Branch Creek. She didn’t have a “cool” bike with a banana seat like we did. She was not cool. She was blond and pale and plump. She wore the plaid skirt and plain white shirt of the Catholic School. My friend Carmen and I spied her. There were two of us and one of her.

“Fatty Patty,” we taunted. She tried to ride past us, but as soon as she crossed the bridge and was on the concrete walkway, we closed in. “Fat bitch,” we called her. One of us grabbed her bike and the other pushed her and she fell to the ground. Perhaps she skinned her leg or the palms of her hands as she fell. But there she was on the ground while we stood above her. Tears streamed down her face in helpless impotent rage. She screamed at us to leave her alone as she stood and lifted up her bike. Tears streaked her red face. Even as she rode off on her blue bike, pedaling furiously to escape our insults, I knew she was — at that moment — far superior to us. My throat constricted. I wanted to call out, “I’m sorry. Please . . .” I doubt I could have articulated what was in my heart. But if I could have, it would have been “forgive me” — anything to erase the sudden shame I felt. I was a kid with a heart full of pain and she was my mirror.

I guess I figured that I’d see her again somewhere and I could make it up to her. But I never did see her again. She was probably afraid to come through the park after that — that beautiful city park with its old oaks, its thick carpet of grass and the playground and basketball court just past the azalea bushes.

My karma wasn’t exactly instant, but it came. In December Carmen and I and the park boys rode our banana-seat bicycles on a mission. We were headed to the barbershop that belonged to Harold’s grandfather, located in what we then called “colored town.” This was in the late 1960s, and the good folks who divvied up the tax dollars neglected to fix the roads in this area of town. When the front tire of the bike I was riding hit a pothole, I flew face first over the handlebars, grinding my lips on the gravel road.

Hours of plastic surgery restored my lips but left me looking freakish with oversized lips on my small face and a scar running down my chin.

“You’ll grow into the lips and the scar will fade,” the plastic surgeon assured us.

It didn’t matter what the future held. I became a pariah among the park kids with Carmen as their ring leader. They called me names. They laughed at me. They told me I was ugly. I had not yet read The Metamorphosis but I knew how it felt to wake up one day as a cockroach. Unlike the girl on the blue bike, I did not lash out angrily. I suppose I thought they were right. I was hideous to look at and not worthy of their company.

Eventually I found a new friend. She also earned the disapproval of the park kids. She was a “rich kid,” they accused. But they kept their taunts in check because already she possessed something, some aura of redneck aristocracy, that alarmed the boys and cowed the girls.

Soon Carmen concocted an excuse for a fight. She claimed I was after a boy that she liked. I had no interest in the boy and I didn’t want to fight Carmen though if it came down to it, I thought I could win. Carmen was soft and plump, and though I was small, I was wiry and came equipped with a gut full of rage.

It came down to it. My new friend and I were playing tetherball, the one game I was really good at it because I could smack the hell out of that ball, when Carmen showed up, like a gunslinger in a Western, and issued her challenge. I reluctantly followed her to a grassy spot behind the azalea bushes. The other kids circled around us, all but one of them rooting for Carmen. I felt like a fool standing in the circle. I wasn’t mad at Carmen. I didn’t hate her. But I was supposed to beat her up or get beaten up.

My new friend stood in the crowd of park kids, arms crossed, green eyes narrowed, waiting to see what I would do. So when Carmen came after me, I balled my fist as if I were getting ready to smack the tetherball, and I hit her. Soon all was a confusion of yells, slaps and punches. Then Carmen began crying, her face turned red, and the tears made a snotty mess of her face. She yelled that I had hurt her.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You go to hell!” she screamed.

There was nothing I could do. My green-eyed friend and I walked away.

That was a long time ago, and yet I still have pockets of shame and guilt. The girl on the blue bike is one of them.