My name is Patricia, I am 25 years old, and I am obese.
There are many things wrong with the above sentence, though in all practicality they fall into the second two-thirds of it. (While my first name is not the most perfect, I've grown into it). Obese at 25? Obese at all? These are both truths, and - sad to say - it's taken me a long time to come to terms with this.
I've eaten my feelings most of my life from puberty on, but while my classmates shed the baby weight they packed on in their pre-adolescent years, mine never did go away. My mother gave birth to my sister when I was almost ten years old, and I went from spending most days at my grandparents' house running around and eating whole, clean foods to staying at home with "the baby," taking care of her and eating whatever prepackaged crap was in the pantry.
Then of course you go to school, notice how much bigger than all the other kids you are, feel poorly, and go home where there is a big box of macaroni and cheese with your name on it. Food becomes a source of comfort, and a surrogate parent. Carbohydrates and sodium make you feel warm and sleepy, safe. It's easy to keep shoveling food in your mouth when it's a constant, and a reward: good report card, birthday - society celebrates it all with a meal out, a cake or with treats and sweets.
Going away to college, most students pack on the Freshman 15. However, my nutrition habits from high school were not what everyone else's were, and so I put on the Freshman 15 and kept adding the pounds on. The allure of a college cafeteria with a buffet full of pizza and burgers was simply too much for someone with no self control and depression, and it started to show. I'm not sure how much weight I put on in college, but I know it was at least 50-80 pounds between 2007 and 2011. Then my fiance and I broke up and I packed on some more weight, living alone. See, no matter how many good nutritional options you're shown as a twenty-something, what's imprinted on you from your youth is going to be what sticks out when you're in the grocery store and not thinking, blindly shopping.
Bad day at work? Bag of chips. A typical drive-through order? 2 double cheeseburgers, an apple pie, a medium fry and some Diet Coke. (my father has diabetes, so the one thing I've got going for me is an ingrained dislike of regular soda). And that was a late night snack, not even a meal. I'd become disgusted quickly as if awakening from a trance and realizing what I had just eaten, like a spooked horse, and rebel against the emotions welling in me by stuffing them down with more food. Let's go get a Taco Bell box as an appetizer, eat an entire medium pizza for dinner.
And then, after graduate school, little things began to pop up in my day-to-day life as I began a career at 23.
Can't quite fit into the booth at the restaurant?
Have a child ask you about the baby in your tummy?
Dry wood chips.
Notice that you can't see your feet any more, even if you kind of lean back?
Being nothing but ashamed and chastened that you can only wear this bedazzled, sequin-encrusted cardigan from Wal-Mart because it's all that will fit over your breasts?
Flint and steel.
And then people in my life started to move, to change: friends online and off began to diet, to calorie count - Weight Watchers, pilates, Zumba, P90X. It's vogue now to work out and post about it on your Instagram account. And then one day last week, my father emailed me an offer, clearly wanting so badly for me to not wind up in the same shape as himself and my mother: $5 per pound lost by Christmas.
A heaping gallon of lighter fluid.
At the end of the day, you can walk down the road, parallel to the store window displays and avoid looking at your reflection, too caught up in other things. At some point, though, there is going to be a crosswalk where you can either stop and look down at yourself, or you can keep walking into traffic and wonder why the cars continue to ram you.
I have chosen to finally stop walking into traffic.
I know this is not an easy undertaking, and in fact I've stopped and started diets so many times it's unreal. However what I've noticed, what I've read and seen and felt and somehow managed to innately grasp, is that this is not a diet - it's a lifestyle change. It's less about kale smoothies and yoga and more about being aware of what my body wants and needs, knowing that it is hungry or thirsty and probably not in the mood for another damn cheeseburger. It's about finding things to do that aren't stuffing your face in order to find peace, and I think that's the hardest thing for me. Alone at night in bed, all you want sometimes is comfort and if you can't get that from another person ... well, you can get it from your friends Ben & Jerry.
But here's the thing: cottage cheese and blueberries are delicious. An entire sweet potato? Negligible calories compared to a salty, fried mound of french fries. Bananas and yogurt? Way more filling than two sausage biscuits (my usual breakfast order). My body craves salads, craves big bottles of water and a rainbow of fruits. I packed it so full of things that, for so long, were comforting that I had forgotten a cardinal rule: food can be addictive, too. But I can change - we all can change.
My name is Patricia, I am 25 years old, I am obese, and I am on fire.
(I have a MyFitnessPal account and a Tumblr I am chronicling my weight loss with if anyone would like to be friends! Thank you for reading, this is probably the hardest LJ Idol entry I've ever had to write.)
His name was Russell, all of the televisions said. Well, maybe it had been, once.
Rebecca tucked one leg underneath her on the sofa and adjusted her weight, gnawing on her bottom lip as the news came back from commercial. Anxiously, she twisted her wedding band around her finger and let her gaze flit around her living room: warm cinnamon scents drifting from the wax burner across the room, soft lights of the Christmas tree glittered behind the sofa. Her husband rustled through the adjoining kitchen, trying to find a snack to eat before they went to bed.
"Tim, it's starting again," she said, her voice so hoarse she had to clear her throat and say it again. "The news, Tim, it'll be back soon."
His name had been Russell, still was Russell, and he was Up To No Good.
"I'm coming, hold on. Where are the pickles?" Rebecca wrinkled her nose, knowing he was referring to bread and butter pickles, the scourge of the earth. A commercial of a dancing mattress left the screen, and the news was back. She felt fear begin to snake its way in through her gaping mouth, twisting its tendrils around her heart. "Tim!" she screeched. "Come on!"
Russell Langston was A Bad Man, and he was coming.
"Honey," Tim said softly, exasperation evident in his voice. "He's not coming here. They're going to catch him soon, tomorrow's Christmas. Look, let me make you a drink." He sat his sandwich down on the TV tray in front of Rebecca and turned to look at her. "What do you want, vodka cranberry? I can make you a martini?" Rebecca shook her head and turned the volume on the television up, utterly engrossed.
Russell Langston came into your house, came down your chimney, through your window, your front door, and slew your children as they slept, slipping out into the night with nary a trace.
"Authorities report no sighting of the Bethesda Santa so far today, and as we move into the night, we urge you to remain cautiously optimistic. Please close your chimney flues, ensure that all doors and windows are locked tight, and have a merry Christmas, folks." The newscast faded out and Tim settled into his recliner beside the sofa, bridging the gap between their seats with his hand and giving Rebecca's fingers a squeeze.
"He's not coming, baby, I promise. Do you want to get the presents for Bethany out? I'll go get my tool kit. Come on." He took a bite of his sandwich and winced a little, the tone of his words was too bright under the circumstances. Nevertheless, he took a swig of his beer and wandered off down the hallway, triple-checking the doors (locked) and going on to be sure that their daughter was still asleep, snug in her bed (she was).
"We've got that ride-on pony," Rebecca said faintly, standing up and stretching out her back. She had been glued to the television since getting home from work at 6 pm, and really didn't want to move at all. She would not feel safe until dawn came and Bethany jumped on their bed at 5:30 in the morning, a redheaded firecracker in the dark bedroom. A ray of light. Rebecca smiled to herself, and went to get the gifts out of the closet.
Russell Langston didn't have time for small potatoes - he had to go out with a bang, he sensed he did not have much time left.
Forty five minutes later, Rebecca felt more relaxed, having been coaxed into a drink by her watchful husband. She downed her third vodka cranberry and roared with laughter at a lewd joke Tim had made, throwing her head back as she unscrewed a plastic piece from the back of a princess castle to insert the batteries. She wiped tears from her eyes and was breathing so hard that she didn't hear the scuffling on the roof.
But Tim did.
Russell Langston was A Bad Man, and he was here.
Tim stumbled to stand up on numb feed, brushing the doll hair from his knees. "I'm gonna go check on Bethy one more time." he said quickly. "I've gotta pee, too." Rebecca nodded absently, beginning to artfully arrange the princess castle and its contents underneath the tree to achieve the most dramatic Christmas morning effect. Tim eased open his daughter's bedroom door and felt his breath catch: she was sitting bolt-upright in bed, clutching a doll from that Frozen movie - Layla or something - to her chest, eyes dewy with sleep.
"What's that?" she said softly, eyes searching the roof overhead. She squinted at the clock beside her bed and looked back at her father. "It's eleven-firty, it's not time to get up yet!" Tim nodded and crossed to his daughter's side, holding her tightly to his chest and reaching into his pocket with his free hand, extracting his phone. He dialed 911 - at least, what he hoped was 911, it was hard to know for certain on these newfangled smart phones, and waited. He heard a faint "911, what's your emergency?" and felt his chest constrict.
"What's on the roof, daddy?" Bethany asked again, persistent. I don't know, I don't want to know, Tim wanted to say. He held the phone to his free ear and murmured pointedly, "I think it's Santa Claus on our roof."
Russell Langston looked nothing like Santa Claus.
"On our way, sir," the dispatcher said. "I'll stay on the line until they arrive." Tim nodded - didn't know why he was nodding at a phone - and set the telephone down beside the bed, holding his little girl to him with two hands now.
"It's just Santa Claus," he repeated, trying in vain to laugh or smile. "That's all! He's waiting to come down our chimney, but he can't until you're asleep, silly." Bethany liked that, giggling and holding her doll tighter as her father let her go. "So you'd better go to sleep!" his threat was empty, but nevertheless, Bethany laid back down, grinning from ear to ear.
"I love you, daddy," she murmured into her pillow.
"I love you too," Tim said softly, smoothing her hair away from her face and standing, scooping up the cell phone. The clambering on the roof had faded moments ago, and that meant either there was nothing there, it was too late, or Russell Langston was biding his time.
Russell Langston never bode his time. He crouched on the roof of the single-story house, precariously watching the street below and the skyline for signs of movement. These people had a child, he could tell - the lawn was absolutely littered with the detritus of having a child and a yard to put it in. He felt his lips curling in protest. Children were filthy - it was best to be rid of them altogether.
Tim walked back into the living room, trying to remain calm. Rebecca peered up at him through a curtain of hair, grinning, and Tim felt his news catch in his throat - he couldn't tell her about the noises now, especially that he wasn't hearing them. It was better for the police to come, scare off the mutant squirrel or whatever was on their roof. Fuck, maybe it was a reindeer after all. He knelt in the packaging and began to undo twist ties on a package of make-believe food.
A police car crept down the road toward Tim and Rebecca's home, and Russell Langston froze in place, flattening himself against the roof.
"What was that?" Rebecca heard the solid thump on top of their house and looked up again, not for the first time today, to see where the chimney was. Tim shrugged noncommittally, reaching up to eat a bite of his long-forgotten sandwich from the TV tray.
"Probably some snow," he said. "You know it falls off those trees in those big ol' chunks."
Rebecca accepted that, nodded, and went back to putting the princess's dress clothes on so she could look beautiful for the ball.
The police car stopped outside, its lights off. It waited. Russell Langston cursed under his breath, made his way flat-bellied across the roof to the other side, began his descent into the backyard. He'd have to lay low tonight. The officer got out of the car and began to move to circle the house.
"I'm gonna go to bed," Rebecca stood and stretched, cracking her knuckles. "You should too, Santa Claus." she winked at her husband and reached for his hand. He accepted it and let her tug him to a standing position. Rebecca went off to the bathroom to wash her face, and Tim brushed back the curtains in the living room, a big ball of packaging and tape wrapped up under his arm. The police car drifted past in the night, and Tim sighed with relief he didn't know he'd had welled up inside of him.
"Alone" is a word that, by itself, is not necessarily scary. I have seen people gutted at the thought of spending a week without their partner, absolutely aimless, while others sigh with relief and think of bubble baths and bottles of wine in front of their televisions. To a great many, "alone" is just as terrifying as "shark attack" and "tornado watch," and I suppose that this - in and of itself - is its own kind of scare quote.
There is something prevalent in our society that pushes against being alone. Alone is sad, it says. Alone is pathetic, alone is you and your knitting and 50 cats. (which isn't really alone, is it? but I digress). Nobody should want to be alone, the hivemind thinks - alone is desperation and reeks of depression, takeout containers and pizza boxes. We see "alone," and we think "unattached." We think, "singular. free. unadorned, unburdened." This could be true, and this could also be as far from the truth as you can muster. Either way, "alone" has responsibility: superheroes stand alone in the face of terror and evil, one doctor can make the difference for countless lives. Alone has such power - and maybe that's what is so jarring.
In an undergraduate rhetoric class, we were introduced to the concepts of "god terms" and "devil terms." These are words and phrases that - no matter how much we struggle against them - will always be associated either overwhelmingly positively or negatively in our society. Even the term "rhetoric," for instance, is a devil term - we hear it and automatically assume that politician is sleezy: "he's spewing this rhetoric ..." Is "rhetoric" a damning word? Not at all, it's simply an art of finding the means of persuasion in any situation - something everyone should be at least slightly practiced in doing.
"Alone" and its cousin "lonely" are devil terms - rarely does someone say "I live alone" without someone saying something pitying. "Doesn't it ever get lonely?" or even jokes about where your cat might be, if you're going to ever get another one. We can't seem to accept as a society that some people are alone and deftly, adoringly proud of it. For some reason it bothers us that we can't pigeonhole everyone into a shiny box, partner everyone off and send them on their way. The reality is that relationships falter every day, that there will never be a society where everyone has a "someone," but that is okay. And as much as we might not like to think about it or admit it, we're all alone for those last few steps anyway.
I challenge us as a society to reclaim "alone." Let "alone" depict a vista, a place where it's just you and nature and at that moment there is not another soul in the world. Let "alone" be the freeing light of 4:59 pm on a Friday after a busy work day, when you're in your car driving home and ecstatic about the free time ahead for the weekend. Let's make "alone" the apex, the vista - let "alone" represent freedom of expression, of choice - we might not all choose to be alone, but we can all choose what to do when alone. Let's make "alone" a time of peace and quiet, of reflection and freedom.
The colorful picture books they showed us in preschool depicted a friendly, cherubic worm - huge in stature and size - orbiting vivid planets and grinning from what we guessed were his ears.
"This is the space worm!" the teacher, our mother, our father, would say. "His name is Fafnir, and he's a very helpful worm!"
We grew worms in the dirt outside, watched them grow and develop and wriggle out their little lives. We vivisected them, drew them, made stuffed ones from our fathers' tube socks.
"See how he lives up in space?" here they would gesture to the ceiling, to the sky, to the telescope. "He is like a biiiiiiiig bus that will move us from planet to planet! But he is not big enough yet, he is still growing. Science made him so that he will grow up big and strong! And then one day there will be all kinds of space worms!"
We drew orbits on construction paper with glitter glue, in the playground sand with sticks, in the steamy warmth of our soup bowls with our spoons.
"This is an orbit, and this is what Fafnir uses as his race track. See how things move in this big ol' smooshed circle all on their own?" (we'd trace the elliptical orbit shape dutifully in the air with our index fingers, following along). "That's an orbit, and there are lots and lots of them! He uses this orbit right now, around and around the sun, but someday we might have more worms like Fafnir, and they'll go all around the galaxy!"
I was told that one day, a long time ago, people did not believe in Science, but gods and deities.
"What's that, mom?" I asked one day in my parents' bedroom, sitting at the foot of their bed and eating pretzel sticks while my mother brushed my hair out of my face and struggled to bind it in a ponytail. On the television, there was a man kneeling in front of a big wooden T, and he seemed really upset about it. I felt concerned, and dropped my pretzel back into its bowl. "Why is that man so sad at that letter T?"
My father grunted a laugh and stood up from the bed, shuffling into the bathroom and stretching, his bones creaking their familiar dad-symphony. I felt my mother hiss in a short breath, her hands stilling in my hair ever so briefly before she resumed brushing it.
"Well, one time, many years ago, people didn't think Science was real. They thought that once upon a time, there was an old, old man called God who created everything we have here on Earth, and then he went away. He came back as a baby named Jesus, and Jesus lived for a long time before the people who did not like him very much killed him. A lot of people thought that Jesus was a god-"
"Like Science?" My brow wrinkled, and my mother smoothed it out with the side of her hand.
"Yes, like Science. They worshiped Jesus because they thought that Jesus was a god, and when the people killed him, they stuck him to this big ol' cross - sort of like a T, you're right."
"Like a cork board?" That was a funny picture. I bit my pretzel stick.
"Yes, Reagan, like a cork board. So for a long, long time after he died, people would carry around these big crosses, and they made them into jewelry and clothing and sometimes they all got together in a big building that was dedicated to Jesus and to crosses, and they would sing songs and worship him."
"But mom, that doesn't help him. What helps Science is research and math and exploring!"
"I know, baby, but they didn't know that then. Look how far we've come now!" she pointed at the magazine on the side table, the worm Fafnir being prepared for orbit on the front cover. "Soon we'll be able to go wherever we want to go because of Science and because of great worms like Fafnir. Just you wait."
So we waited.
And one day, suddenly, Fafnir was not such a cute cartoon image any more.
"He could come out of the toilet and eat your ass!" exclaimed Thomas Duvall in tenth grade math class one day. Brittany Welsh squealed in protest and threw her pen at him, and I continued to covertly draw an image of Fafnir on my desk with a pencil (pencils were banned - there were no mistakes in Science, so there was no reason to erase anything), but they were the best instruments to use to draw, and I loved to draw. I was going to go to college to be an engineer, I'd decided years before, so I needed all the practice I could get. But drawing was not Science - it had rounded edges and gentle slopes, it was not sharp and edgy like Science, not at all. So I continued to draw in silence, biding my time until graduation.
"He cannot do that, Mr. Duvall," Dr. Fern chided from the front of the room where he was writing trigonometry equations out. "He is too large now, remember? No matter how unstable Fafnir has gotten, he is far too large to fit in your - or anyone's - toilet." A slew of giggles flew through the room at the word "toilet," and it was quickly silenced by a stern glance from Dr. Fern. "What we need to do, class, is help Science to discover a way to tame Fafnir, not make everyone afraid of him."
"I thought we were going to train him," Brittany Welsh said to her lap, her fingers twined together, teeth clamped down on her lip with anxiety. "I thought he was going to be trained and then he'd do what we wanted."
"Well, Ms. Welsh," said Dr. Fern slowly. "sometimes Science is overeager, but Science is never wrong. Don't you imply that, do you understand?"
Badmouthing Science was a fate worse than death, and Brittany seemed to understand that as she nodded grimly and went back to picking at her cuticles.
One day, they couldn't find Fafnir any more. He wasn't where he was supposed to be, wasn't circling the earth and eating space debris. He had to be somewhere, people cried - we can't just lose a giant space worm. But it looks like he outgrew even Science's plans for him, and once they found him again, they couldn't keep him there. Nothing, not even our orbit, could contain Fafnir.
He could be anywhere now, I realize, sitting at my drafting table and picking pieces of pretzel out of the bag beside me. I squinted out my window into the inky night sky, as if I could see the silhouette of a massive, angry worm cross my path.
We dissuade our children from pursuing space travel now, we caution them against ever wanting to go into orbit or be an astronaut. Because Fafnir the worm is still out there, and he is unhappy. But we can't find him, and we can't stop him. I bow my head as I remember my mother, who was sent to capture Fafnir years ago. She never came home. I still remember that warm summer night sitting on her bed, talking about how wonderful Fafnir was, how he would save us all. Maybe he didn't - maybe he did, in a weird way. There's more of a sense of community now than ever before.
I rub out a spot on my schematics with my pencil eraser, still hiding it in my lap as if it's contraband, a secret treasure. Maybe Fafnir was not right at all - a great, wonderful, terrible worm in space doesn't seem very natural. But it had to be right, because it was created by Science.
You’ve probably seen one in more thrift stores than you can care to remember, looking appropriately stained and worn down by the grating sands of time: an old padded recliner, resting unassumingly in a corner, not taking up very much attention at all.
This particular recliner doesn’t sit in a Goodwill or Salvation Army, collecting dust particles as a hobby. It rests in an old one-story house in the suburbs of Georgia, taking its place as the crowning member of the family, sitting closest to the television and the telephone with extraordinarily large buttons. Its faded blue exterior attempts to hide stains well, but as all furniture eventually does, it has caved with time to the pressures of everyday living.
Thoughts of a recliner and who ought to own one spring forth often as you see it, alive with the glory of stereotypes: an old man in a worn-out shirt and blue jeans, a beer in one hand and the television remote control in the other. While beauty and truth are in the eye of the beholder, you would not be too far off the mark if your mind conjured this image up.
Its owner would settle down, gratefully, into its comfortable embrace. The chair welcomed this, stretching around his body, feeling a sigh ripple out across the room. The television would come on, the woman would sit nearby, knitting a blanket for someone, wind chimes would ring out in the distance, rain would patter against the old tin roof and the world would sigh as one, as if the chair and its occupants were the single most important thing the universe had to offer.
The old man and the chair, not too dissimilar from each other at the end of the day. They both sit stooped over a bit, and shake when pushed too hard. Their inner workings creak under pressure, and sometimes they both just wish everything would stop for a minute. Their home is made under a blanket of stars near Stone Mountain, where nightly fireworks ring out across the hills in the summertime. The man doesn’t enjoy these noises, though – too many memories of his old home in Hawaii, age sixteen, standing outside as the planes roared overhead the day of Pearl Harbor. He insisted for the longest time that he could make out the face of a Japanese pilot as he flew overhead. Most believe he did.
He went to war as they all did, moved to Georgia. The days of returning home, sinking into bed with bone-deep exhaustion have been replaced with shuffling from the bedroom to the living room. It’s much easier to let John Wayne do the fighting for you on the television after a while. Budweiser doesn’t shoot back when you break its top off, either. But one day, he stood up and shuffled off, and never came back.
His chair lies, waiting, not asking for much. A sliver of sunlight from the back porch, some reading light from the side table, the rare slip of a drop of someone’s misguided beverage. There had been a time when its life had been so packed full, busy. Children clambering all over it, laughing, fiddling with its faux-wood lever, pumping the footrest up and down. The metallic clang of guns from a television western, the music of rain falling on the tin roof, a cacophony of sound.
Now, there’s not much laughter. The chair waits for the light to come back, and sometimes it does, but it passes away fairly quickly again. It has settled itself into the ground, creating pleasing grooves to settle down and pass the time, waiting, always waiting as the shadows creep across the floor.
A place suspended in time, a moment, frozen over in a midwinter sheen. One day, things will change again. And until then it sits in the living room, just as it always has. Waiting, a thread or two of grey hair clinging to its exterior, shimmering in the low light.
"Don't go in that lake!" my mother had warned as my cousins ran out the back door of my grandmother's house and down to the dock, shedding articles of clothing and whooping and hollering in true Southern summer fashion. I paused at the screen door and cast a look back at her over my shoulder: I was six, I was practically grown, I didn't need her help. I fingered the ties of my new shirt, blue with splotchy white flowers that tied at the front, some new nice, pristine white shorts. I set my jaw and followed my cousins, basking in their shadow: they were loud, rough and tumble boys and like a new puppy I was desperate to fall in line, to be one of them, be accepted.
They bounded down to the side of the river and waded in, my oldest cousin at age nine beginning to pretend to do a newscast about the weather conditions. My aunt hovered nearby in a grove of pine trees, talking and laughing with us as the boys frolicked in the gentle ripples. I slowly kicked off my tennis shoes and peeled off my socks, placing them reverently beside a tree and picking my way across the pine nettles that cascaded over the forest floor, careful not to let on that it hurt my feet. My aunt Amy paused what she was doing and looked over to me, a frown creasing her brow.
"You sure about that, Tricia?" I didn't hear her, didn't want to. I needlessly rolled up my shorts and picked my way out into the water, tongue poking out of the side of my mouth, so pleased with myself: my mother would never, ever know that I was here! This was genius. I took a few more tentative steps and shouted out at one cousin or another when the icy fingers of the lake reached out and traced themselves down my spine - I tripped over a rock, stumbled, and fell into the water, blubbering.
I stood up immediately, drenched and absolutely humiliated. Peals of laughter rang from the dock and the water as my cousins laughed at my misfortune, and I could feel my lower lip wobbling. My aunt stood nearby, aghast but shellshocked, unsure how to react. I folded my arms across my flat chest and attempted to stomp out of the water, made my way across the pine nettles and scooped up my socks and shoes, carrying them in my limp arms to my grandmother's back screen door.
I wrung my shirt out and tried to bite back tears, fingering the tie on my lovely new short set that was now absolutely ruined. My four year old cousin was inside playing a tea party with Gran, and for a moment I wished I'd stayed inside and played a baby game with her instead. Slowly, tentatively, I eased open the screen door and let it clatter behind me. I could feel my mother's eyes from across the house, and as I shuffled my way off the carpet into the tiled kitchen, I wished I could melt into it.
"Patricia!" I heard my mother's screen before I saw her, like a supersonic bat, and I cringed: it was never good when she said my name that way. She went to fetch a towel and I felt myself burst into tears as she threw it at me, too angry to even form words. Tears dripped down my face, intermingling with the briny lake water, and I saw my grandmother's figure from behind my dripping wet eyelashes. She clucked her tongue and reached out to me, pulling me close despite being wetter than after a bath.
"Hey now," she said, smoothing my hair back off my forehead and planting a kiss on the crown of my head. "It's okay, there's no crying at Gran's house." she toweled off my hair and held me until the tears subsided. When my mother went out back to talk to my aunt, my Gran made me a big glass of chocolate milk in one of my favorite grown-up Libby drinking glasses, and I didn't have to share a drop with my cousins. She rubbed at her arthritic wrists and did a Polly Pocket knock-off of Where's Waldo with me, curled up on the sofa like two peas in a pod.
My grandmother passed away last month, and I remember a lot of things about her: her distaste for my rejection of dresses, bows and ruffles, her distrust for people who were not Christian, her inability to see that I didn't need to be married at 22 like my cousin to feel fulfilled. But as big as our differences were, are, after I found out she had passed and I fell sobbing into my boyfriend's arms, the darts we'd been playing clattering uselessly to the floor, I felt her smoothing my hair back all over again, the siren song of those words following me like the Pied Piper: "it's okay, there's no crying at Gran's house."
No matter where I go or what I do, if I feel defeated or beaten down, if I goof up a job at work or I fail in my duties as a colleague, a daughter, a girlfriend, I can hear her in my mind clear as the day she said it 19 years ago: "it's okay, there's no crying at Gran's house." And I know that somewhere, wherever she is, my Gran is free of her arthritis and dancing jubilantly with her God, pleased in me even if the words never fell from her lips.
It had happened so fast he'd nearly missed it: just a blink, that was all it took, to go from the top of the steps to here.
Where was here, anyway?
Nathan couldn't recognize anything, and he reached up to rub the back of his head, frowning. He'd been going down the icy front steps, the dog's leash clutched in his left hand and a fistful of bills to mail in the right. His mother always gave him grief about not getting with the times and just doing them all online, but he liked the feel of sending something in the mail, it made him feel important, somehow. The wind was blustering and whipping his scarf around his face, and he set his jaw stubbornly and tried to grapple for it ... and that was the last he remembered. He opened and closed the hand that had been holding his water bill, but there was nothing there.
The sky was a dingy grey, like someone had slung a bucket of mop water across the sky. Fog rolled across the area as far as the eye could see. As he focused on his surroundings, Nathan found himself feeling strange, almost ethereal. He blinked up at the sky and slowly moved each limb, but he felt foolishly weightless. It was, by far, the strangest sensation he'd ever experienced. He thought he could make out the shape of a figure far off in the fog, but when he blinked to bring it into focus, it seemed to fade into the sidelines.
"Hello?" he called out, his normally clear voice ragged and tattered on the cold, harsh air. He pulled his arms in closer and wished he'd worn another layer of clothing when the figure in the darkness moved, shuffling closer. It made no sound on the ground and he felt fear creep across his skull, the hairs on the nape of his neck rising.
"Hello?" he said again, his voice wobbling. The figure became more pronounced and suddenly, Nathan could make out its shape: a robe, rolling fog at its feet. If he didn't know any better, he'd have said it was the grim reaper itself. But that was just a childrens' story anyway, there was no grim reaper. Right? He swallowed a gulp of cold air and watched the figure come ever closer before coming to a stop a yard away. Nathan could not see a face, just a hood with shadows underneath, deep-set and stark.
"Am I in Hell?" he mumbled, more to himself than to anyone else: it wasn't like he expected the hooded figure to answer. He was surprised when a hand came sweeping out of the folds of the robe, solemnly gripping his wrist and then pulling it back toward him. The figure's head swam back and forth in front of Nathan's eyes: no.
"Then where am I? This isn't Heaven!" He had almost said "sure as Hell isn't Heaven," but this was no time for jokes. A small smile played on his lips, though: he was pretty funny, he had to admit. His brother would have laughed at that joke. The figure shook its head again, and even though no words were exchanged, Nathan felt the answer solemn as a vow in his mind: no.
"I give up, then," Nathan murmured, hugging himself even closer. "just do whatever you're going to do with me and let's get on with it." The figure's hand opened, revealing in its palm a set of pristine, marble dice. He glanced up at the figure, but of course nothing glanced back. Unnerved, he reached out and took the dice and closed his eyes, wishing with everything in him as he let the dice roll out of his palm and onto the ground. They came to a rest somewhere a yard or two away - Nathan couldn't see where - and the figure turned to look at them - nodded approvingly. Nathan gulped.
The figure crept closer still to Nathan and reached back into the folds of its robe, extracting a small plastic object. Nathan squinted into the fog but could not quite make out what was cupped in the figure's hands as he brought it closer to Nathan's face and held it up toward him, a student passing back a sheaf of papers.
"Is that ... a barrel?" Nathan asked, incredulity creeping into his voice. The figure said nothing, but placed the barrel into Nathan's palm and unscrewed the lid, tossing it to the side and revealing a hollow toy, full of what looked like ... "Where did you get a barrel of monkeys?" As ridiculous as the situation was, Nathan couldn't help feeling like he was being pranked, but it wasn't like he could see the camera in all of this fog even if there was one. And then he heard the voice, so faint it was like it hadn't happened at all: around.
"You have a mouth?"
The figure reached into the barrel and extracted a monkey, hooking it onto another monkey and held the chain out to Nathan. He was sure that if the figure had a face, it would be quirking an eyebrow at him right now. Slowly, he reached out and took the monkey chain from the figure, dipping it into the barrel and pulling it out with three attached. The figure wordlessly took it from Nathan and added a fourth monkey, immediately passing the chain back to Nathan, who struggled to hold the barrel and the chain at the same time. This is unfair, he wanted to protest. You should have to hold it when I go. Then he realized it was absurd to try to complain to hooded figures that the games they were playing with you were unfair, and the whole thing was just utterly ridiculous, so he kept his mouth shut and kept playing.
It was at the end of the barrel that Nathan made a critical error. The hand that held the barrel wavered and wobbled, and in that one moment, the chain broke against the side of the barrel. Monkeys cascaded to the ground on either side of him, and Nathan looked up frantically. He could have sworn he saw the figure shrug, but that was impossible. In an instant, the game vanished from his hand and the figure reached out a hand to him. Unsure of what to do, but feeling the pull, Nathan let the figure clasp his hand in his and found it to be warm and gentle, not cold and harsh.
"That wasn't fair," Nathan stuttered as the figure began to lead him away, somewhere dark and cold. "I could never have won."
That is how life worked. he swore he heard the figure say. What makes you think death is any different?
"Bethany," her father said one night over their spaghetti dinner. "what would you say if I told you that one day soon you might have a baby brother or sister?"
Bethany frowned hard at that, her hand frozen over the slice of garlic bread on the side of her plate. She had classmates who had one day gone from only children to kids with brothers or sisters, and it sounded absolutely awful. She had always said she wanted a baby sister, but now she was six, and she was practically grown. She was too old for a baby brother or sister! Her parents had had their chance, and they'd lost it.
She shook her head emphatically before taking a giant bite out of her garlic bread. "No thank you, daddy," she said through a mouthful, spraying a delicate shower of crumbs across the table. "I'm too old now, I am an only child." Satisfied in her response, Bethany began to twist spaghetti around her fork, tongue poking out of the side of her mouth in thought. On the other side of the room where she was pouring water into her cup, her mother ran her hand over her decidedly swollen belly and frowned in a way eerily similar to her daughter.
One day, when Bethany got off the school bus, her father wasn't there waiting for her, but someone else was.
"Grammy!" she shrieked, pinwheeling her arms and legs and launching herself into her grandmother's arms, clinging to her, a barnacle that had finally found a place to call home. Her grandmother patted her hair and back, grinning into her granddaughter's hair and waited.
"Let's go inside, Bethie - it sure is hot!" her grandmother said. Bethany nodded emphatically and grabbed for her grandmother's hand, leading her to the house. She twisted a lock of hair around her finger, lost in thought.
"Grammy, where's daddy?" she asked, sticking the tip of her hair into her mouth.
"Well, Bethie, he's at the hospital with your mommy. She just had your baby brother." Grammy seemed unsure about how Bethany would take this, and apparently it was as her entire family had feared: not well.
"She had a baby anyway? I told her not to!" The smile on Bethany's face absolutely shattered, and her grandmother could feel her granddaughter's heart break. "It's just supposed to be me, only me!" She stomped her foot on the pavement, cheeks reddening.
"Let's go inside and talk about it, okay?" Her grandmother fumbled with the front door key while Bethany stood on the porch, gleefully scuffing up her Mary Janes and trying not to cry because only babies cried.
"There's nothing to talk about." Bethany said simply, having swallowed her disappointment and anger. "The baby will be gone soon. Want some lemonade?" she shuffled through the front door and down the hall, depositing her backpack on the steps upstairs and trying (badly) to whistle. Her grandmother swallowed - it was like she'd already forgotten about the baby. Was it too good to be true?
"This is Bo," Daddy said, taking Bethany's wrist and offering her finger to the infant who clung to it like a limpet. "and he's your baby brother." Bethany squinted down at the baby, perched precariously on her lap in a Boppy pillow and swinging his fists at the air, a miniature pugilist.
"No thank you." Bethany said softly, turning to look at her father. "You can take him back. I don't want him." Her father's lips fit into a grim line.
"Well, baby, I can't just take him back. He is part of our family now."
"Can't we just return him? The hospital gave you a receipt, right? Like Target? We just take him back to the hospital. Let's go." she jostled the baby in her lap and peered up at her father through a curtain of hair.
"I'm afraid there's not a return policy on babies, Bethie."
Bethany ripped her finger out of the baby's fist, and Bo started to squall in protest. Bethany threw the Boppy pillow to the side and her father barely managed to catch it in time as Bethany stormed upstairs.
"You'll be sorry!" she called over her shoulder before she slammed the door to her bedroom. Her father cuddled Bo close to his chest and closed his eyes: just once couldn't Bethany make things easy?
The next morning, her father went to get baby Bo from his crib, but upon peering inside found his son to be gone. Nowhere to be seen. He ran downstairs, sure Bethany was the culprit, but she was sitting calmly at the kitchen table, legs swinging as she watched TV from her perch and ate a cereal bar.
"Where is the baby?" her father asked her, trying to be as nonchalant as possible. Bethany shrugged.
"I don't know, Daddy." She turned back around to face the television. Her father was beginning to think maybe Bo had been in the crib the whole time and he was just losing it when he thought he heard a baby's cry. He turned back around.
"Bethie?" he called. No answer, his daughter was engrossed in Yo Gabba Gabba. Walking into the kitchen, the cries grew louder. He stopped in front of the refrigerator and opened it with trepidation, but thankfully his son was not in the crisper drawer. He took a step deeper into the kitchen, and had a sudden revelation as to where Bo might be.
His infant son was lying in the bottom rack of the dishwasher, blue in the face and screaming so loudly he'd gone hoarse. He scooped up the baby and wheeled around to confront Bethany, but discovered she'd soundlessly made her way into the kitchen and stood next to him, hands clasped behind her back.
"I told you you'd be sorry." she said simply, turning and skipping off. Her father was unsure if either Bo or Bethany would live to see their next birthday, and he clutched his heaving son to his chest and went to find his wife.