How Prostitution Saved My Life

The Paradise

 

On a Saturday morning in the fall of 1981, I was eating breakfast and reading a letter from my surprisingly patient landlord when Stella, barefoot and wiping sleep from her eyes, dropped into her chair. She poured cereal into a bowl and, perusing a glossy catalog addressed to the prior tenant, said solemnly, “I’ll take the bra and panty set.” Stella was 9 and wore undershirts.

I frowned, feigning offense. “You can’t get both. It’s only one thing a page.”

“It’s a set, Mom,” she explained, making a delicate smudge with her finger around the disputed items. “It only counts as one thing.”

The phone rang and I lifted the receiver. I recognized the voice on the other end of the line and dragged the phone into the hall. A minute later, the receiver clattered as I returned it to its cradle. My arm had turned to water. Stella shot me a questioning glance. Casually, I tucked a curl behind my ear and asked if she’d mind spending the day at Nicole’s. “But it’s Saturday.” I was quiet—what could I say? “Yeah, okay.” She scowled.

I telephoned Maren, the mother of Stella’s best friend. Maren was a nurse at San Francisco General and, like me, a mom who’d left her husband and moved to the city. We often took turns watching each other’s child and had similar parenting concerns—one of our first conversations had been about whether Barbie dolls gave our girls the wrong idea about women’s bodies. When I asked if Stella could spend the day at their house, Maren said they’d be happy to have her.

While Stella dressed, I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror. How had I—raised in a comfortable Minneapolis neighborhood by a father who bought a new car every two years and a mother who prided herself on not working outside the home—become engaged in such a depraved venture? Never especially adventurous, I’d married and had a child young instead of striking out on my own for a career. What I was doing now was my wildest move ever, and it was one that could wipe me out or make me.  

Even then I wondered about my motives. I remembered hearing that hookers had daddy issues, and I thought about my father standing me on his shoes and dancing 5-year-old me around the kitchen. When I was 10 or 11, I’d put on shows for him, imitating my mother’s tight-lipped jerks and physical clumsiness, characteristics that were exaggerated when she was angry, which was often. My father laughed at my antics, but when things got hot, he’d urge me to stop and not rile her up.

He and I had remained close until one night in my sophomore year when my parents came home and found me making out on the living room couch with Vince Green. Things between my father and me were never the same after that and, a year later, he accepted a job offer in Texas and explained that a clean break would be best for everyone. My mom later learned that a woman my dad worked with had followed him and they got married when my parents’ divorce became final. I didn’t see him after that. But was that a reason to become a hooker?

Staring into the mirror, the decision I’d made less than a week before now felt alien, as though I’d had no part in its making. I tried to recall the sense of possibility I’d enjoyed when I’d gotten up the nerve to call the parlor and to plunge myself into this wild enterprise, but all my bravado was eclipsed by dread.

I pulled the bristles through my stubborn curls, and shook my head until my dark hair billowed. How was I supposed to look? How would the other women look? I steadied my hands against the sink and recorded what I saw: a big-boned woman who’d been through a long rough patch and it showed. I pinched my cheeks to make them rosy, imagined that they made me look cheerful and hoped that might be enough. Sitting on the edge of the tub, I soaped my legs and ran a razor up them. Marco, my soon-to-be ex-husband, had liked me natural, so it’d been a long time since I’d shaved.

My heart raced thinking about Marco and what he’d think of what I was about to do. I’d been madly in love with him, enough that when I’d gotten pregnant unexpectedly and he asked me to marry him, for the sake of our child, I was delighted. He was the One for me. But he’d been consistently unfaithful and consistently lied about it. A year ago, after years of tears and arguments and pleading, I’d finally left him.  But even then, we’d gotten back together a few times—until I found out about some new girl. Six weeks ago, I’d moved to San Francisco to get my degree from San Francisco State and to finally be free of him.  

I’d promised to arrive within the hour, so I hurriedly changed into my best skirt and blouse and ran the brush through Stella’s hair. I found my purse on the drain board next to a half-eaten bowl of cereal. Spooning a bite into my mouth, the words last meal came to mind, but I dismissed the thought as melodramatic. Though my heart was pounding and my mouth was dry, I couldn’t afford to listen to the fearful voices. I shoved them aside as I slung my purse over my shoulder and the front door clicked decisively behind us. Outside Maren’s apartment, Stella offered her cool, pale cheek for a parting kiss and we waved goodbye with exaggerated mournfulness. I pulled open the door of our ’74 Olds, revved the engine and headed up a boulevard with a grassy median planted with a procession of grand palms. Cresting the nearly perpendicular hill, I might have been skirting the edge of the world and, a moment later, the shimmering city floated up.

The Powell Street cable car’s bell clanged as it passed limousine-lined Union Square, where befurred women shopped at I. Magnin’s and Saks. I turned onto O’Farrell, the main drag of the grimy Tenderloin District, whose bars and massage parlors were convenient for the businessmen booked at the downtown hotels.

I parked in front of a sign flashing GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! and walked down the street past a single-room occupancy hotel, a pawnshop and a laundromat where an old couple played cards. The neighborhood’s sleepy, nobody’s-home look was disturbed only by a bar, in front of which loitered a pack of sharply-dressed guys and a couple of tall street-hookers, who’d apparently been up all night. I yielded the sidewalk to the swaggering bunch, hoping to pass without notice, but one guy cupped his crotch, clicked his tongue and shouted, “Baby, mama!” I clutched my purse to my chest and hurriedly searched for my destination. Next door to Terminal Liquors and under a flickering sign, I found it: PARADISE MASSAGE.

At the top of a steep, tiled stairwell, I knocked on a solidly-made door. A tall, fine-boned Asian woman named Kim let me in. She wore a bright-white jumpsuit with an oversized zipper and her long hair was drawn up in a braid laced with red and gold ribbons. The colors matched a pair of startlingly high-heeled shoes. I immediately felt small and poorly dressed. My pink camisole blouse, sweetly sexy when I’d put it on, was obviously dowdy, as was my black wool skirt and worn-down shoes. When I get some money, I silently vowed, I’m getting new clothes. “What a beautiful outfit,” I exclaimed.

“You like?” Kim smoothed down an imaginary wrinkle on her pant leg and dropped her eyes, though they immediately shot back up as she appraised me with unconcealed interest. “You have big,” she declared, lightly grazing my bosom with her hand. “Men like big.”

I followed Kim down a hall toward a ringing phone and into a large, light-filled room where a transistor radio blared in competition with a console TV. The air smelled of hairspray and nail polish. Kim introduced me to a white woman, Beth, who was collapsed in a beanbag chair and rummaging in her purse. Without glancing up, Beth asked where I’d been working and I answered, “I haven’t really. . . See, I’m not even sure if. . .”

An Asian woman, Lili, lounged on a sofa peeling a grapefruit. She threw her head back. “You scared!” she exclaimed, wagging a finger and snorting. “My first time, I was 14-year-old, my uncle took me on bus, got me job as hostess at bar in Saigon. I was farm girl! I no speak English! The first week, customer raped me, cut me with knife, stole my money!” The peel she was working fell away in a delicate ribbon and she laughed. Whatever I might have said in reply to her terrible story went out of me like a match in the wind of her inexplicable cheer.

In the manner of a tour guide, Kim tipped her palms up to indicate the high-ceilinged room with two walls of windows, one overlooking the street, the other overseeing a patchwork of tarred roofs.

“Oh, yes, it’s wonderful.” Bravado made my voice shrill. “What a big television!”

I followed Kim down the long hall, past a sauna and the men’s and women’s bathrooms, to the laundry room. I’d arrived expecting questions about my age and experience, but it occurred to me that I might already have been hired—thanks doubtless to my white skin and big breasts. I had a few questions of my own, however, and ventured, “Do you really think they’ll pay me?”

Instead of responding, Kim explained fine points of the laundry, which I was surprised to learn was part of my duties. We moved down the hall past several open doors with the numbers one through five on them. Each small room was furnished with an unpainted bedside chest, a ladder-backed chair, and a narrow massage table draped with a white sheet and two thin towels. Leaning toward me confidentially, Kim whispered that they needed a new girl because Beth was a junkie. Kim pantomimed a syringe poking my arm. “That’s too bad,” I said lamely and then tried again, this time asking how much I should charge. Kim simply tossed her head, threw her ribboned braid forward and caressed it.

I was in the living room looking for a place to sit when Kim jabbed a pencil in my direction and hissed, “Laundry, laundry!” I was surprised to be singled out for chores so soon after arriving, but frankly I felt more comfortable tackling the wash than attempting further conversation. Plus I didn’t get the impression that the competition for Miss Congeniality was particularly intense, so I wanted to show that I was eager and willing. I piled sheets into the washer and returned with a load fresh from the dryer, which I let tumble onto a glass-topped coffee table already strewn with fashion magazines. As I folded, Lili leaned toward me and asked in a low voice if I had a license. “You go to school, get license. Otherwise, if police come, you go jail.” Between her rapid broken English and unlikely assertion, I wasn’t sure that I understood, but Lili winked and promised to help me. I smiled, but was mystified. Wasn’t I in a house of prostitution? And wasn’t that illegal? So how could there be a school or a license for it?

Beth, the white girl in the beanbag chair, scratched her neck and said, “I used to make good money, but I’m seriously hurting. The thing is, a new girl just means less for the rest of us.” She shot a grudging look at Kim, who was deep into Vogue. As Beth continued, her junkie whine picked up momentum and, by the end, she was hissing that maybe some people didn’t care, but she knew when there was trouble.  She could smell it and I was it! Alarmed by Beth’s menacing tone, I wondered if she’d overheard Kim’s comment about me replacing her. I adopted an innocent look and eventually Beth’s head lolled back. The room went quiet and I resumed folding.

Lili slipped a grapefruit section into her mouth and announced jovially that she’d had two tourists who’d given her big tips, and another customer, who was a regular and a cheapskate. Sensing an opening, I slid across the couch and asked Lili how much we were supposed to charge. She turned her back. Another one who wouldn’t answer a simple question!

Beth, who’d appeared to be dozing, suddenly became agitated. “What are you, a cop or something? Damon, he says to watch out for people who want to know everything.” Looking up, Kim eyed Beth and admonished her that I was a nice girl with a big smile and, if she didn’t like it, she could leave.

And then the doorbell rang. Lili gulped the remainder of her fruit and rose to answer it. Moments later she returned, leading a tall, shuffling man in a business suit, and called out, “Customer choice.” Kim didn’t look up from her magazine while Beth drew a languorous hand up her calf and cooed, “Hey man.” I placed a towel over my lap. Without looking up from the carpet, the man pointed toward Beth, who crawled up and out of the beanbag chair. “You live in San Francisco?” she inquired in a surprisingly pert voice, as the two strolled arm-in-arm out of the room.

~

In the following hour, the women took turns answering the door while I felt myself being drawn down, sinking, a sensation that, along with the headache (and the sprung sofa cushions?), made me feel like I was drowning. Close to mortifying tears, I silently crafted a speech in which I explained that I was so sorry, but I’d made a terrible mistake and had to go home. Then the doorbell rang and when Kim answered it, I overheard her say something about “a white girl.” When she returned, she slipped two 10’s into the desk drawer and said that the man was a regular and I should go see him in room 2. My panic must have been obvious because she moved toward me and murmured encouragingly that I should just rub him all over and that if I was nice to him, he’d be nice to me. She lifted my arm to prod me off the sofa and pressed a condom into my hand. With a gentle push, she propelled me in the direction of the hall.

I walked, burdened with the sure knowledge that I was a 29-year-old, overweight, plain-faced woman. I entered the dimly-lit little room, where a man was lying face down on a wooden massage table, naked except for a towel draped over his buttocks. Gasping for a full breath, my voice quavered, “Would you like a massage?”

Using lotion from a bedside bottle, I rubbed his shoulders. “You must get sick of men’s bodies,” he said. I stammered, summoning myself to explain the situation, but then thought better of it. He might not want an amateur. He said that he wanted to have sex and turned his head enough that I saw that he was a pink-cheeked Asian. Things were moving along, but what about the money? He said he could pay 50 and I said that I thought I was supposed to get more. He said he only had 60. He was sorry, but it was all he had. When he reached for his trousers and fumbled through the pockets, a wave of relief poured over me—he was as inept and uncertain as me. I took a lungful of air and he undid my bra and felt my breasts from behind. I turned and we kissed and touched each other. For the first time since getting Kim’s call that morning, I was in familiar territory. Sex was one thing at the parlor that I was at least familiar with and knew how to do.

I wish you were my wife,” he whispered fervidly.

It was the last thing I expected him to say and it made something shift in me. No longer preoccupied by my inadequacies, I felt suddenly capable, even generous and full of largesse. I handed him the foil-wrapped rubber Kim had pressed into my hand and we knelt and leaned back. He had a hard time finding the right place, so I guided him inside.  

Afterward, after we waved goodbye, I flung a clean sheet over the massage table, rearranged bottles on the side table and rubbed lotion up my arms. The apricot smell reminded me, fondly already, of my customer, and that got me wondering when I’d last had sex. It had been an afternoon, maybe four months before, when Marco and I’d had a fight but ended up in bed. After I’d essentially ended things with Marco, I had a hard time staying away and, even now, I worried that I’d end up going back to him. Marco had said that he’d take me back. Not that it would be easy, he’d explained, but he was “open to it.” That phrase contained within it the warning that I needed to be open too. Open to his rules, which meant accepting his affairs with other women. Well, I’d put significant distance between us now! He’d never forgive this!

~

Grinning, I threw myself into the beanbag chair that Beth, now curled on the sofa, had vacated. Lili, crouched by a hot plate, cracked an egg and asked how my customer had been. I told them about the 60 dollars, hoping the amount wasn’t shameful. Lili stirred the egg into a steaming broth that swam with tiny silver fish. She said that I’d done all right, but that I should charge much more. A lot of guys like cheap girls, she said, casting a disparaging glance toward Beth, who made a face showing that she didn’t like the smell of Lili’s food.

Beth was suddenly full of advice too, purring, “Say, Oh you want to have a good time? He’ll think, you know, you’ll make love. But then do him with your hand, like this.” She gestured like a bartender shaking a drink. Beth tapped out a Salem, lit up and, looking at me, said, “You’ll do okay. You got a good body.” I said that I wished that I was slim like her. Exhaling, Beth placed a hand on her ribs, feeling them up and down.

Lili moved into an overstuffed chair, leveled her gaze at me and said, “When a guy want to make love, say it’s 200.” I frowned, wondering if those were real prices or if she was just boasting when Lili shot back, “Later he call you whore, tramp. Maybe you go to jail, ruin everything in your life. And you can’t ask 200 dollar? You got be smart. You got to know what you worth.” After a brief pause for emphasis, she continued: “And make him say, I’m not a cop. Cops supposed to tell the truth, but they tricky.”

Before long Lili and Beth were with customers while beauteous Kim finished off a plate of barbeque brought by a besotted customer. I marveled at the flood of advice I’d just received, in contrast to how tight-lipped everyone had been earlier. Clearly seeing a customer was passing a test, and I was no longer a questionable outsider. Not to say that I was one of them. I was white, a college student, a native English speaker and not a junkie, so I was different from them. Or so I told myself. Anyway, I’d passed a hurdle and felt welcomed.

When the doorbell rang, Kim told me to answer it and I was heartened to see a slightly-built, round-faced man, prosperous in a gray linen suit. I sent him to take a shower and took the 20 dollar upfront money to Kim. When I turned to go, she raised a slim hand and told me to wait. “Show him who’s boss. You tame tiger, you wait him long enough,” she said.  I laughed, giddy at being so colorfully instructed.

Kim gave me a long look and asked how old I was. “Twenty-six,” I lied. Kim said it was best if I told customers that I was 20. I asked Kim if she lied about her age, and she smiled demurely and said that she lied about everything. Feeling warm toward her, I ventured softly, “I don’t know what I’m doing. Like, how do I ask for the money?”

Kim spoke in a whisper, though we were alone. “Say you’re a country girl who’s come to the city to help your sister. They feel sorry for you and be generous.” I nodded, but was dubious that anyone but lovely Kim could get away with such a preposterous line.

Back in the little room, my customer was undressed and lying face down on the massage table. When he asked if he could get sex, my head was swimming with the advice I’d received that afternoon. I was about to say that I was a country girl when the guy said he wanted a hand job and could pay 50. Later, as he dressed, he asked, “You know why I come here?” I shook my head. “My wife and I got nothing in common. She reads romances, see, and I read pornography.”

~

After Kim and I agreed on a weekly schedule, I was ready to go home. As I reached out to embrace and thank her for giving me a chance, Kim stiffened, but allowed herself to be briefly enfolded. She smelled like roses. As I closed the door, she was straightening out a wrinkle in her white jumpsuit.

Driving home, I probed my motives for going to work at a massage parlor. I wondered, was I insane? Things hadn’t been easy with my family growing up, or with Marco, who I was divorcing, but still I didn’t think I wasn’t crazier than anybody else.

I wondered where was the remorse, the self-reproach? What I’d done was universally considered wrong, but my immediate and pressing need for money won out easily over moral precepts. If I had lax ethics, I hoped only that might work for me. Maybe I could stand things that other people couldn’t. And if so, lucky me! I’d use whatever I had to get an advantage in the world.

What about danger though? Might one of those guys harm me? Lili had been raped and knifed—but that was in Saigon, not downtown San Francisco. I didn’t have the impression that the women I’d met that day were afraid of the men who, from what little I’d seen, seemed nice enough, even deferential.

I glanced at my purse, thick with cash. If I could earn enough money, I wouldn’t have to return, defeated, to Marco. Money was tuition for life in the city and I congratulated myself on the discovery of a means for making it. I’d made my decision, though it was hard to identify myself with the word that went with it: prostitute was beyond the realm of any self-definition I’d ever imagined.

I felt celebratory, but kept my swelling spirits in check as I approached Stella and Nicole, who sat cross-legged on the stoop in front of Maren’s apartment. Kneeing aside Nicole’s golden retriever, I made a place for myself on the uneven steps and watched Stella snatch three jacks with each bounce of the small red ball. “Foursies,” she announced, tossing the tiny ball a foot in the air. I exclaimed at her skill and asked how their day had been. Stella smiled mischievously and pulled a lint-laden Tootsie Roll Pop from her pants pocket. She offered a lick to the dog, who lapped it greedily, and then popped the candy into her own mouth and murmured, “Yum!”

Nicole called Stella a lunatic. Stella patted the dog’s head and said cheerfully that the dog’s mouth was cleaner than ours. Amidst their snorting guffaws, Maren’s voice, calling the girls inside, came through the metal screen door behind us.

Maren’s apartment was decorated floor to ceiling in shades of yellow. A butter-colored sofa was piled with creamy pillows in front of an apricot-hued rag rug. I leaned against a saffron-colored club chair as Maren pushed a lock of blond hair off her lovely face and looked at me expectantly. Clearly she wanted to talk as we often did, enjoying long conversations in which we discussed our children or joked and commiserated about the long odds of finding an unattached heterosexual man in San Francisco.

I was brimming with what I’d done that day and bursting to tell the story, but never considered doing so. Maren was kindhearted and open-minded, but I didn’t think she’d approve of illegal depravity on the part of the mother of her child’s good friend. Desperate to be out of there, I thanked her for taking care of Stella and promised to be in touch.  

Outside, I proposed Chinese food and Stella said she was starved. Our neighborhood was a hillside village of small businesses, low-rise apartment buildings, and single-family houses. We walked past a Sufi bookstore and a hardware store to the Pagoda, where a blonde in a kimono showed us to our booth. Stella poured tea from a ceramic pot and we ordered sweet and sour pork and Happy Family. We used chopsticks, even though they slowed us down.

Throughout dinner Stella lobbied me, as she’d done since we’d left Marco in Chico and arrived in the city six weeks before, to let her adopt a pet. “It doesn’t even have to be a dog,” she said, attempting negotiation. I nodded noncommittally, even though I thought a pet was a good idea. She exhaled soberly and leveled her eyes at me. And then, lucky me, the cookies arrived on a dragon-decorated tray. Stella’s fortune promised that she’d achieve her dreams and mine foretold that I’d travel on business and pleasure. While Stella attempted to balance a chopstick on her index finger, I paid for supper with one of the pink-cheeked Asian’s 20s. Within the civil confines of the booth, fulfilling the roles of mother and restaurant patron, the very existence of the Paradise massage parlor seemed farfetched. I put an extra five on the little dragon tray. The tip was an investment: an offering to the gods, a payoff. I’d crossed over, stepped into unknown, forbidden territory, the rewards of which were obvious, the dangers less so. Night fell as we walked home and the globed street lamps began to glow.

At bedtime, Stella and I took turns reading aloud alternating pages from Treasure Island.  When it was my turn, Stella was quiet and, with her slim arms folded across her chest, her gaze remained concentrated on a drawing of a three-masted ship. I asked if she was okay and she glanced at me warily and said she missed Daddy. Tears pooled in her eyes. I murmured that I knew it was hard. Neither of us said anything after that. Like every parent, I wanted my child to be happy and healthy, to thrive and grow, but there was something else, too. Stella’s well-being was a verdict on my life. When she was happy it felt like a blessing, and likewise her distress seemed like an indictment of me and of my choices. I’d been the one who’d insisted on leaving our home in Chico. It was because of me that Stella had to adjust to a new school and city, and life away from her father. Because it was her nature, she was usually sunny and bright, but seeing her unhappy, I knew that the consequences of my decisions came down hardest on her.

After a while, I kissed her head, went into the kitchen and sat at the table, where I wrote a check and letter to the landlord, imploring him for a little more time and promising that there’d be more on the way soon. I picked up my coffee mug and, in a habitual gesture, rubbed the soft spot on my finger where my wedding ring used to be. I thought back to the first time I’d met Marco when he was teaching a music appreciation class to freshmen at Chico State, where I’d gone to school to get away from the Midwest deep freeze.  Like every other girl in the class, I was smitten with the teacher, his brown eyes and leonine mane of shoulder-length hair. My seatmate, who liked him too, whispered, “Can you believe it? Doesn’t he look just like James Dean?”  

The following year, my father died of a heart attack and, after that, there was no more money for school. I was at a loss, in shock and grief, but I didn’t want to go back to Minneapolis, so I got a job at a Chico grocery store. And then, one day, when I was stocking the deli case, I saw the music teacher, leonine-maned Marco, putting wine into a cart.  Feeling bold, I inquired teasingly, “Going to a party?”  He looked me straight on and asked, “Do I know you?” I explained that I’d taken his class, and then he asked, “You want to come?”

After the party, Marco invited me back to his place, where he had a lot of records and art made by people he knew. He talked about interesting things: food, movies, music, politics. I’d thought that we’d have a one night stand, but for months after we spent hours on a mattress on the floor, covered by a Mexican blanket, talking, listening to music, having sex and smoking pot. We hiked in the Sierra foothills and he knew about plants and geology. Marco cooked delicious food, foreign dishes like moussaka that I’d never tasted before, and taught me about music and books, orgasms and garlic. I was a goner, completely in his thrall.

And full of all those memories of falling in love with Marco, I buckled. I understood in a moment that what I’d done that day was terrible, irrevocable and unforgivable. How could I ever return to him after what I’d done?  I must never tell him! How stupid I’d been to come here, to cut myself adrift without a clue about the direction I was headed or where I might end up. Perhaps I’d lost my mind. I certainly couldn’t trust my judgment. How could I have been so stupid? No one must ever know.  It would be a secret forever, revealed not even on my death bed.

Eventually I went to bed and, lying there, my mind then turned to other thoughts, more recent, of grievances, of being hurt and humiliated by Marco, of being lied to again and again. And then I thought about the day I’d just had and about the parlor.  I’m different than I was this morning. I’m ready to be part of something. Whatever awaits, I’ll give myself over to it. Be smart, Emma, be smart.

 

I Receive an Ultimatum and an Offer of Help,

Am Witness to Violence and Consider My Options.

 

For almost a month, I’d been attending school three days a week and working two at the parlor when I arrived one morning to find Beth pacing, complaining that her bones hurt and saying that she needed a fix. She took a hard glance at Kim, who was using a pumice stone to remove stray hairs from her underarm. When Beth picked up the phone, Kim cast her a frank, disapproving look. “I’m not doing nothing,” Beth said, feigning an innocent laugh. Into the phone, she said, “It’s me, where you at?” When Beth put down the phone, Lili asked if that was her husband on the phone and Beth said, “Yeah, and he’s bringing me steak and fries.” Lili said why don’t you go out yourself, and Beth said that Damon would bring her anything she needed, adding proudly that he’d kill her if she left the parlor. Lili stuck a fork inside a jar and took a bite of something green.

Kim motioned me over and explained that the parlor owner, Yoko, said I had to get my license by the end of next week. Since Lili had mentioned it my first day, I’d discovered that parlor masseuses were, incredibly, licensed by the San Francisco Police Department. And getting a license required enrolling at a legitimate massage school (which cost three hundred dollars) and registering, with my full name and identification, with the city police. I didn’t want to do any of that, but without my job at the parlor my life in San Francisco was over. I said I’d take care of it.

I was still fretting about what to do about the license when I agreed to take a customer nobody else wanted: a small, smiley Asian named Billy, who washed dishes at a Chinese restaurant and paid me sixty dollars in small, greasy bills. He wanted to hold my hands behind my back and asked me to say things like, “No, no, I beg you, don’t make me” and “I’m a virgin, please no.” Despite his dominant fantasies, Billy didn’t frighten me because he was so slightly built that I could have taken him, if necessary, and moreover, he spoke such poor English that I knew he wasn’t a cop—the second of the twin threats. Billy turned out to be extraordinarily accommodating and even jerked himself off—to spare me the trouble, he said. Before escorting him to the door, he gave me an extra twenty and asked what days I worked because he wanted to come back and see me.

In the living room Kim was talking to a slim man, about thirty, who sat legs apart, one hand balled into a fist. The guy gave me an obvious once-over as Kim complained to him about Beth’s drug habit and stoned-out behavior. I figured he was Damon, Beth’s husband or pimp or whatever. He licked his fingers and smoothed his hair as he assured Kim that he’d straighten Beth out. Then she walked in, smiling and glassy-eyed. Inching herself close, she touched Damon’s arm and called him “Honey.” Without a glance at her, Damon stood and walked toward the door. Beth followed, pleading for him to take her with him. Damon hissed that she should get to work and Beth let out a sickening giggle and slumped into a chair. Turning to me, she said that she’d seen me giving Damon the eye.

“What?” I said.

“I saw that look,” Beth said.

“No!”

“You trying to make time with him?” she demanded. I shook my head. “Are you?” She grabbed my arm.

“Let go her,” Kim said evenly.

After a long silence, Beth pointed at her chest and said to the room at large, “You think I’m nothing, but I’m not happy. Anybody says they’re happy doing this shit, they’re lying. But what can I do?” The place seemed momentarily suffocating, as though all of Beth’s misery had sucked the air out of the room. Kim picked up a magazine and I sat quietly, wishing that Beth and her problems would disappear. I had my own problem—the damned massage license— to figure out.

~

That afternoon I did a guy who, though seventy years old and nothing special, got me sexually aroused. The fantasy dissolved as quickly as it had come over me, but I was left with a measure of affection toward him for having stirred something in me. I watched him dress, admired the pale softness of his body and, as I let him out the front door, let him kiss me on the cheek.  

I settled into one of the big chairs and was intending to pump Lili for advice about the massage license when she said, “You like that ol’ man.” I thought, What? How could she know? She couldn’t!  She dropped her jaw and sucked her cheeks, imitating someone decrepit, then leveled her eyes on me and said that I let the men kiss me lot. Lili had radar for detecting everyone’s weaknesses and blunders. I said that I’d felt sorry for him and Lili responded with a “Phht.” In Lili’s world, everybody had one characteristic and hopeless stupidity was mine. Maybe she was right, but she was no genius either. A week before, I’d found her sitting at the desk, turning over a bunch of stacked coins. She’d explained, as though stating a law of nature, “Head to tail, turn bad luck good.”

I’d asked, “You believe that juju?” And she said that we all need luck to survive and I’d find out soon enough that she was right.

Beth, suddenly wakened, lurched forward but, stumbling on a high heel, fell back. A moment later, as if the earlier events had never happened, she extended her slim arm to display a gold bracelet and bragged about how Damon said that nothing was too good for her and that working girls should live like queens. Lili looked up from a plate of barbecued ribs and asked sharply what Damon did for a living. Beth shifted in the low-spread chair and said that she’d told Lili before, that Damon was a businessman who worked real hard and spoiled her. Lili’s face indicated disbelief.

~

Later that afternoon, Lili got a client and then Kim came back, looking tired. Hoping to keep the mood light and forestall any wild accusations from Beth, I asked Kim who’d given her the bouquet of flowers that morning. Instead of answering, she said in a clipped tone that Beth and I should go clean the sauna. Out of Kim’s view, Beth stubbed her cigarette out on the threadbare carpet. Alarmed, I stood and headed toward the hall. As I left the room, I heard Beth ask, “What’s her name?”

“Emma. Her name’s Emma,” Kim said, sounding like the exasperated mother of a small child.

I was scrubbing tile and grousing to myself about how unfair it was that I was the only one who ever did any work when Lili strolled in, drumming her red nails on the tiled wall. She said that she could get me a license for a hundred dollars and I wouldn’t have to go to school or register with the police. I said that that would be great and fished out some bills, which Lili stuffed into the toe of her shoe. When I thanked her effusively, her expression, typically brash and sure of herself, lit up with a tentative, proud smile as she explained that it was her husband who’d get it for me and that he could get other things, like airline tickets, too.  

It was approaching five o’clock and the end of my shift. When I went to the living room to gather my stuff, Kim shot me a keep-quiet look and Lili looked oddly impassive. I wondered if somebody had done something wrong, and hoped it wasn’t me. Abruptly I heard a thud from the hall and saw Damon twisting Beth’s arm behind her back. Beth looked beseechingly toward Kim and let out a wail. I put my fist in my mouth and Kim stepped forward and demanded that they leave, now! Damon brushed past us, spinning Beth around and pushing her backward out the front door. Kim bolted the door while Lili and I ran to the front window and watched Damon shove Beth into a double-parked Monte Carlo. Moments later, the car peeled out, passing within inches of pedestrians who leapt to get out of its way.

It occurred to me that, as a native-born American and the most educated of our group, I should advise them about our criminal justice system. I explained that we needed to call the police. Lili let out a whoop and a derive laugh. She said that Beth was a drug addict with a pimp and deserved whatever she got. Then, changing tack unconvincingly, she said that Beth needed to be with her family and friends.

I said that we should send police to Beth’s house. To my own ears, the plan sounded unlikely, but we had to do something.  Kim said that Beth had problems and, if we called the police, it would only make more trouble for her. Leaning close, Kim smiled confidentially and asked if I knew of any other girls who wanted jobs, especially American girls with big breasts who weren’t junkies. I nodded noncommittally. At that moment, I decided that I wasn’t coming back. No way was I working at a place where a woman got beat up and nobody did anything about it. I glanced around for Lili, thinking to retrieve the hundred dollars I’d given her for the license, but she’d suddenly disappeared, which made me wonder if I shouldn’t get out of there, too.

Riding home on the J-Church, I replayed the day’s events against the buzz of trolley wires. The assault had been like a scene from a movie, and not a feature in which I’d ever imagined myself playing a part. And though I hadn’t planned it, my role wasn’t innocent. It was no coincidence that Kim was recruiting non-junkie, big-breasted white girls like me just minutes after Beth was hauled off. I wished that I knew where Beth lived but, even if I did, what could I do? Was I willing to go find her and face Damon? Was I willing to offer Beth safe refuge? The answers were no.

I had a hard time getting to sleep that night thinking about what I should do, which was call the police, and what I was willing to do, which was nothing. I thanked god I didn’t know where Beth lived. When I closed my eyes, I felt as though I was spinning and falling and, when I finally slept, I dreamed that Beth was grabbing at me and calling for help. Some hours later, I awoke overcome with panic. Looking around the dim room, everything looked shattered, fragmented by shadows. The corners of the room did not appear to meet.

I’d crossed some awful threshold, beyond normal life and into something sickening. Is this me? I thought. I pictured Beth’s frightened face and felt ashamed of what I’d witnessed that day. It was all part of what I’d become. Is this my life? I sat up and peered into the dresser mirror. “You’re a prostitute,” I whispered accusingly. The word evoked an image of something subhuman, monstrous. What I’d mistaken for a viable means to stay on in San Francisco was in fact something irrevocable and unforgivable. How could I ever go back to Marco or to my former life? How stupid I’d been to come here, to cut myself adrift without a clue about the direction I was headed or where I might end up. Perhaps I’d lost my mind. I certainly couldn’t trust my judgment. I was stupid! No one must ever know. It seemed as if one minute I was a normal person and the next I was something else entirely. A criminal. A what? That word again, with the queer, foreign sound. Glancing in the mirror, I didn’t look like one, my hair sticking out at odd angles, childlike, my torso ensnared by the pale sheet I’d battled in troubled sleep.  

I turned my eyes away from the mirror and remembered with relief that I’d already decided to quit. I’ll never tell! I’m the same person I was before and no one will ever know. I imagined the territory ahead, where there was light, order and common ground. I pictured Marco and me in our old house, a sun-drenched bungalow, me in the kitchen and him in his study, books piled around. I imagined Stella with her friends, playing in the overgrown backyard.

I savored the scene, but eventually I had another realization. Leaving the parlor meant returning home, in defeat and for good. My new life and any possibilities it might offer would be lost. I pictured Marco’s smile when he heard that I was returning. He’d be happy, but he wouldn’t make it easy. I’d have to pay for having left and for taking Stella with me. I remembered one of our arguments over his infidelities and how he’d smiled and said softly that he could tell by my tears how much I loved him.   

I imagined calling Kim and telling her that I wouldn’t be back. I pictured her telling the others. Lili would gnaw a piece of barbecue and gloat, “More for us.” I pictured Beth, drowsy in her chair, mumbling, “Who’s Emma?”  Kim, who took nothing personally, would telephone the owner, Yoko, who I hadn’t met and who’d be the only one disappointed, losing her big-breasted white girl. I thought of the insignificance of the impression I’d made, of my short, unimportant passage in the city. Really, I told myself, I can always quit. If I work a bit longer, I can save enough to get us through a few more months at least. And anyway, it was Beth’s pimp husband, not a customer, who caused trouble, and my situation had nothing to do with hers. The attack had been horrifying, but wouldn’t the parlor be more wholesome without Beth’s doped-up presence? I snuck a final look at myself in the mirror and hazarded a smile.  

The following morning I opened my eyes, a shipwreck survivor surveying her surroundings. I smoothed the coverlet on my bed and warily eyed my milk-blue dresser. The eggshell pastels of morning illuminated the wall opposite the windows. Columns of dust played in the sunlight. The hum of bustling street life one floor below penetrated the window’s thin glass. Horns, voices and the screech of truck gears sang out. The tumult of the previous day and night was over. Maybe there was somewhere else I could work, somewhere better than the down-market Paradise. I’d check out the possibilities, look at other parlors, see what opportunities there might be.

~

That Saturday Stella and I went to a neighborhood garage sale, where she picked out a Nancy Drew mystery and I found a treasure: an architectural detail—a wooden angel with a three-foot wingspan and a serene smile. The guy selling stuff said he’d found her in the rubble of a demolished building. At home, I hung my prize on a big nail on the wall over my dresser so that I could see her as I lay in bed and, inspired by her ecclesiastical appearance, lit candles underneath her as though I were a Catholic. I needed help and promised, in return, to exercise whatever virtues I could: thrift, caution, modesty. I’d lay low and turn my homework in on time. If my good fortune at finding a way to stay on in the city would only continue, I promised never to flaunt it or take it for granted. Like Lili with her juju coins, I’d cultivate luck.

Baker’s Dozen

13

The masked embryologist stands at a hatch door in a room beside the operating theater. The window blinds are pulled closed against the bright spring day and the sounds of Hong Kong—taxi horns and bus engines and vast drills boring into ground-rock—are neutered by two panes of glass. I’m anesthetized, naked from the waist down, my legs pulled apart and tied into stirrups. My left arm is stretched out straight and taped to a plinth. I have a breathing tube in my throat and an IV in my arm that is looped to a hanging bag full of saline. I have been hormonally amended, my ovaries leavened by synthetic hormones to grow more eggs within tiny, plump sacs. A wide bore needle is pushed through my vaginal wall and into these follicles by my gynecologist, Dr. Chan, in full scrubs, from his frilled cotton cap down to his rubber boots, sits on a wheeled stool within the gape of my legs. Fingers on the needle, eyes on an ultrasound screen, he’s looking for eggs to lure out of my body with the gentlest of suctions. Eggs far smaller than the dot of an i.

Dr. Chan withdraws his needle and stands up, the stool rolls away from the backs of his legs. He shouts something in Cantonese. The embryologist readies his hands, smooth in white latex gloves. Dr. Chan walks with a squeaking tread towards the hatch and passes through it the vial containing my follicular fluid. The embryologist disappears into his room, where he tips the fluid into a petri dish, applies his eye to a microscope and counts the eggs. ‘Yat, yih,’ he cries. ‘Sam, sei.’ He counts the rest silently and pulls down his facemask, lets it hang loose against his chin. He walks back to the hatch and calls into the surgery. ‘Sap sam,’ he says. Then, for my anesthetized, non-Chinese speaking benefit, he calls it out in English.

‘Thirteen.’

 

12

I come to in the ward. There’s a green blanket tucked tight under my chin, floral-print curtains around my bed are pulled closed, boxing me in. The woman hemmed into the bed within the cloth cubicle beside mine is vomiting and crying, post-anesthesia. She’s soothed over by a nurse. We are the ‘Infertility Patients.’ We are not sick, but we are in hospital. We have had surgery but we have not been cut.  Here for different and varied reasons, we are each linked by some failing or quirk of the body: polyps or fibroids or tumors; cysts or scars or adhesions; slow sperm or age or, as for my husband and me, ‘unexplained.’ For all of us to get here, lying in these beds, we have pretended and lied, bartered and bargained, lost hope. Eventually, we have each given up on Mother Nature—with her old wives’ tales of full and half and slithered moons, of the perils of tight trousers and nylon underpants—and we have come instead to cold, unemotive science.

Here, there are egg harvests, retrievals and transfers; sperm is a ‘deposit.’ Here, that flare of fertilization, of life, begins not in the gloom of the womb

but in a spot-lit dish, witnessed not by God but by a masked embryologist.

Tim walks into the ward, I listen to his voice: ‘My wife is here?’ The staccato response of the nurses, the sound of his feet. He’s been in a room that is familiar to me only in my imagination, with a lock on the door, a wipe-down, faux-leather sofa, boxes of Kleenex and tubes of hand cream. A scattering of pornography on the coffee table. Tim steps through a gap in the floral curtains. ‘Feel okay?’ he asks, touching my feet through the blanket.

Infertility has hoisted a shortness upon my husband and I; we talk in truncated sentences. Adverbs and adjectives and verbs sometimes, have all become a waste of time. Like sex.

‘Did you?’ I say.

‘Yes,’ Tim says, sitting down in the visitor chair. He pushes his glasses up his nose. ‘Horny Babysitters.’

Sperm successfully delivered.  Good. Title of pornographic magazine, if I believe him. Also good. I would not have accepted stage fight. Soft, limp, flaccid, that will not do. It—dick, cock, prick—must be hard, bone, stiff. I realize in some closed-off, distant recess of my mind that this thought process is not normal. But what is normal? Fertility treatment has taken Tim and I far, far from the world of candle-lit procreation. Here, on the IVF ward, there are beds and leg restraints, probes encased in condoms and smeared with KY Jelly. Take your knickers off, open your legs, go to sleep. Wank, spunk, jizz. Dirty magazines, dirty movies. There’s an approximate erotica in IVF, involving a lot of other people. She’s nude beneath a backless gown and penetrated by a latexed finger. In the small, windowless room he sees only one other, a woman dressed as a nurse. He knows that she wants him to touch himself.

Maybe this month, porn will bring us a baby. I try to smile at Tim, who’s blowing his nose on his cotton handkerchief. Tim would make a great dad. The thought is upon me before I’ve had a chance to squash it. It’s dangerous for me to story-tell a possible future; hope does not help hormones. The days when I do think about babies—fat wrists and wobbly tummies, gummed, milky smiles—are the days when I can’t get out of bed. My life has split into two, neat as a trouser seam. There’s the ‘possible’ half of the menstrual month that triggers a trilling, excitable mindscape and a puritanical abstinence from alcohol, caffeine, second-hand cigarette smoke. Life is bleak but gluttonous during the ‘crushed’ half of the month: listeria-oozing blue cheese, lightly sautéed scallops, goblets of red wine.  

Tim and I have kept this a secret, this thing about us.  Marriage has not brought a baby, but a sequence of procedures.

First came love.

Then came marriage.

And then came the creation of zygotes in petri dishes.

Infertility within a partnership must be like alcoholism or drug addiction. Both force secrets, hidden facts. The same denial of reality. The ‘we are fine, we are fabulous’ façade that is publicly insisted upon masks the late-night door slamming, the rage, the sorrow. Next morning’s bafflement. Different, though, is the response to outcomes. Recovery from addiction requires vigilance, a never-forgetting, but a baby born from infertility procedures might never know its provenance. The doors of truth can slam shut on infertility and never be prised open; the success of the treatment never celebrated but kept secret, like shame.

It’s only on the IVF ward, that there’s no denying the truth. All of us in the beds here are somehow broken.

I find it rather relaxing. It’s the only place in my life where I’m not pretending To Be Fine.  

 

11

The floral curtains are yanked apart and there, at the foot of my bed, buckled back into his business suit, stands Dr. Chan. He attends the women in the hospitals on Hong Kong Island in the mornings, those who have just given birth. He runs his pregnancy and infertility clinic in Central from ten to two. After two p.m. he performs the IVF procedures here in The Sanatorium Hospital in Happy Valley. Frequently, he is called to a woman in labor. You would think his schedule would fall apart given the unpredictable nature of harvested eggs and at-term babies, but Dr. Chan is an acrobat, spinning through the air on the point of a needle.

‘You feel well enough to read?’ he asks me.

I’m reading an Anne Enright novel, the one she won the Man Booker Prize for, with the Irish Catholic family of twelve siblings, just like my mum’s. ‘I’m okay,’ I say, but what I mean is: How many eggs? How many eggs? How many eggs? I look at Dr. Chan and think, twelve? He puts his hand on my leg.

‘Thirteen eggs. That’s about right for your age.’ He looks at Tim. ‘Thanks for the deposit. It’s in the embryologist’s hands now.’

Dr. Chan doesn’t thank me for my eggs. Instead, he goes to the woman in the bed beside mine. I listen for his voice, muffled inside the curtains.

She got twenty-two.

Numbers are auspicious for the Chinese, they matter. Here, two is a very lucky number, two twos doubly so. Unlucky four, because it sounds like the word for death, is a floor that is often skipped in buildings, flats with four bedrooms are rare. But thirteen? My maternal grandmother reared twelve children in rural Ireland, but she had thirteen babies if you count the stillborn buried in the field at the back of the farmyard.

I whisper to Tim: ‘Thirteen does not seem like a good number.’

‘Stop thinking like that,’ he says.

I lie back against the pillow. Thirteen: a baker’s dozen. An extra loaf baked in case one goes wrong.

Thirteen witches in a coven; thirteen guests at the Last Supper.

Friday the thirteenth.

Thirteen letters in a name brings the devil’s luck. Theodore Bundy, Charles Manson, Jack the Ripper.

Thirteen is an all round unlucky number.

Except here, where it’s an auspicious number. Lucky.

 

10

Once I’ve gone to the bathroom, I’m discharged. Tim holds my elbow as we cross the Hospital concourse, like I’m an old lady, unsteady on my feet. It’s March, the start of the rainy season, humid and misty. The air is Irish to look at, but hot and deadly on the hair. The smell of damp concrete rising from the sidewalks is the same as London’s rain-wet streets, which reminds me of my mother, but it’s still too early to call home and tell her how the egg retrieval went. We moved to Asia two years ago, left behind my job, my friends, my family, but I’m not sure I will ever stop thinking in terms of prime ministers, pound sterling and Greenwich Mean Time.

A red taxicab glides to a halt and an exhausted-looking mother climbs out, toting her tiny baby in a complicated, portable car-seat. I cannot look at the pair of them, focus instead on clambering into the taxi. When I sit down I can feel through the cotton of my skirt the indent of the baby’s car-seat, and I can’t help it, I think: why does that woman get to have a baby and not me?

I’m a midwife’s daughter, does that fact not offer some advantage? I grew up amidst the paraphernalia of late-stage pregnancy and childbirth: boxes of latex gloves and blood-test results strewn across the back seat of my mother’s car. I used to play with the little doll she used for her pre-natal classes, with a soft canvas body and hard, plastic extremities. From a young age, I knew that babies were screamed into life by their mothers, heard all about the exhaustion, the putting of the butter in the laundry basket and the nappies in the fridge. If the phone rang in the middle of the night when I was a child, it did not signal a sick relative, but a baby’s imminence: Come now, come quickly. ‘Say a prayer for the baby,’ my mother would say, as she stepped from the house into the darkness, birth-bag in hand. I knew too that, before heart rate monitors and ultrasound scans, childbirth was the thing most likely to kill a woman. Breech baby, cord around the neck, blood loss, septic shock, all of this is what a hospitalized birth is designed to discover. Death still strolls through the maternity wards, hands in pockets, whistling and relaxed. Death is fast there, unexpected. Gone in a heartbeat, poor darling. All the times when Mum drove back from the hospital, parked outside the house and sat in her car for a long, long time.

Is that why there’s no baby?

 

The stories that we tell ourselves. In a future, not too far away, doors will defeat her. She will stand outside them, with the baby in his hooded pram and not know how to get to the other side of that door, into the shopping mall on the western fringes of Hong Kong Island, with the tiny Starbucks and single ATM. The brass door handle, the heavy glass, the pram and the baby, the scar in her belly still hidden behind a wide plaster.

‘I used to be on top of all of this,’ she will say to her mother, the retired midwife, who stands beside her.

Her mother will hold the door open and mother and pram and grandmother will glide through into the wall of icy, recycled air. The fuss about the air-conditioning upon newborn skin. Is the cap over his ears? Is he cold? Always inside the daughter-mother that thrum, that hiccup of the heart: is he breathing? Is he okay? The grandmother-midwife has seen this first-time-mother-anxiety a thousand times before. But this is her first grandchild. She’s slipped a prayer card beneath the mattress of the pram. The daughter doesn’t know it, but her baby sleeps upon the words: Lord Jesus, I trust in you.

 

9

March, 2008. The afternoon of the egg retrieval. Nurse Kelly calls from Dr. Chan’s office, with an update from the embryologist. ‘Twelve eggs fertilized,’ she says.  

‘Not thirteen?’ I say.

‘Twelve is a good number.’

‘Twelve is auspicious, you mean?’ I say.

‘No, twelve is very good for aged thirty-six,’ says Nurse Kelly. ‘You are lucky.’

We get luckier. The cells multiply.

Day two.

Day three.

Day four.

All of the embryos make it to day five and are given a new name: ‘blastocysts.’ In the scan that Dr. Chan gives me, they look like tiny cabbages.

‘We’ll see if they all make it to tomorrow and if they do, we’ll freeze nine and transfer three tomorrow afternoon,’ he says. There’s a plastic pelvis on the desk between us, with a pop-out, malleable red ball for the uterus.

‘This is all good news, right?’ I say. My eyes are glued to the wall behind Dr. Chan, papered with thank-you cards and photographs of nature-defying newborns and their awe-struck parents.

‘A lot will depend on the egg quality,’ he says.

I snatch my eyes away from the thank you cards.

 

Eggs. It was the most basic question that was asked of me, back in London, at the beginning.

‘Do you ovulate, Saffron?’

I was sitting in my general doctor’s office, holding up my hair so she could inspect the eczema patches on the back of my neck. On the wall was a faded poster, of a tufty-headed baby, tucked under its mother’s chin, with the slogan Breast is Best.

‘How would I know if I do?’ I’d asked.

‘Vaginal mucus,’ my doctor had said. ‘Yoghurty, sometimes lumpy. But when it’s clear and in strings—’ the doctor had snapped her fingers apart, a scissoring gesture between thumb and forefinger—‘then you are ovulating.’ 

   I had only been dimly aware of the mucus, and had no idea what it meant. Pregnancy, that had so long been an item scrawled on a checklist between ‘write a novel’ and ‘start Pilates,’ was now neatly printed at the top of the list, followed by a tentative question mark.

‘Listen, you haven’t been trying for a baby that long,’ said the doctor. ‘Nothing to worry about there. But I can’t prescribe a steroid emollient for your neck if you might be pregnant.’ She gestured to my Blackberry, which I clutched to my chest in a white-knuckled fist. ‘Work very stressful?’

‘Boris is my closest companion,’ I said.  

The doctor frowned. ‘You’ve given it a name?’ She wrote this down in my notes.

My job as a finance lawyer had recently changed. I was now assigned complex deals that I couldn’t make head nor tail of, a world apart from the bond transactions that I always worked on, deals that financed roads or railways in Tunisia or Morocco or Turkey. I’d been told that my promotion to partner hinged upon my spreading my wings and abandoning the vanilla and the safe for the cutting edge and risky. I couldn’t tell if I was dim or just that my attention had dimmed—biological clock trumped career ambitions—but I couldn’t get excited about innovations and insane timetables, any more than I could figure out how these transactions worked. When I started my training contract in 1997, women lawyers had only within the last ten years been permitted to wear trousers to the office. Women were still expected to work like men, men whose family life was dominated by the law firm and abandoned to their wives.

What happened if you were the wife?  The fast-burgeoning sense of pointlessness was borne out by the eczema.

Borne. Those ‘b’ words got in to everything.

Barren, belly, baby, bump.

Blackberry.

Bastards.

Burn-out.

As the rattle from my handbag of failed pregnancy tests grew louder, we moved from general doctor to specialist and the questions grew more complex and the tests more rigorous. Instead of urine to test for ovulation, they needed blood to test for rising estrogen levels. A cold hand pressed against my abdomen was replaced by an internal examination, and then with an ultrasound. My ovaries flickered in the television static of the ultrasound screen. Egg reserve confirmed. Ovulation imminent. ‘See how that follicle is bigger than the others?’ the fertility doctor had said. I stared at the ultrasound.

What the fuck was a follicle?

 

8

The Sanatorium Hospital, Happy Valley. The day of the embryo transfer. Tim and I hand over our Hong Kong ID cards, our British passports and—because the archaic system in Hong Kong requires IVF patients to be married—our wedding certificate. A nurse slides the consent forms towards Tim.

‘What will we do with any surplus embryos?’ he reads.

‘Surplus?’ I parrot. ‘If we have the embryos, why would we stop?’

‘We’re not having twelve children, Saffron.’

‘Why would you go through this,’ I point at my stomach, ‘and stop at one?’

‘Do we need to discuss how many children we’re having?’

‘It’s an absurd question to put to a couple who can’t get pregnant.’

‘Choice number one,’ says Tim. ‘We can give the remainder to another infertile couple.’

No, I think automatically. Mine, mine, mine. I can’t imagine myself post- Happy Ending, my story neatly arced, able to give away possible babies. I see that the nurse is listening so I say: ‘I guess that’s the morally correct thing to do.’ The nurse walks away from the front desk.  ‘Absolutely not,’ I whisper to Tim.  ‘In a hypothetically absurd situation, where we go from having no children to potentially too many.’

Tim nods his head vigorously. ‘We can’t have some kid turning up in twenty years time, calling us Mum and Dad and demanding that we pay for its University education.’

He ticks the box to give our remaining embryos to science.

 

I put on the surgery uniform: disposable knickers, a checked gown that is open at the back, white knee-length socks and plastic slippers. My essential information is typed onto a waterproof label that is clipped around my wrist.

‘Please drink lots of water.  Your bladder must be full so that Dr. Chan can see the womb on the ultrasound,’ says the nurse.

We wait on the IVF Ward. Tim sits beside my bed. His thumbs move across the buttons on his Blackberry. He looks up at me: ‘What?’ I ask him to re-fill my water bottle. He leaves the Blackberry on my table, skew-whiff, like a taunt from my  law firm. I think about smashing it on the floor or chucking it in the bin or hiding it in the bedclothes but I decide not to. We’re a single-income family now and Tim needs to work to pay for the treatment.

The operating theatre nurses march into the IVF ward, surround my bed and bark questions from behind their facemasks.

‘Is this you, Saffron Gretta Marchant?’

‘What is your date of birth?’

‘What is your Hong Kong I.D. number?’

One of them places a portable step beside my bed, which I stand upon as another firmly grips my elbow.

I peer at the label that wraps my wrist. ‘How many embryos do we have?’ I ask. My bladder is so full that my stomach is a hard, uncomfortable dome. ‘I think I may have drunk too much water.’ I am ignored.

‘Is this your birth date?’

‘How many embryos do we have?’ I ask again.

Tim and I are escorted through several doors until we are in an office at the center of which is a computer. Dr. Chan is sitting at the desk wearing scrubs, his feet tucked into rubber boots. ‘Here is your embryo, Saffron and Tim.’

There is one brain-textured circle on the computer screen. ‘Did the others all die?’ I say, shrinking within my cotton gown.

‘No you have, let me see,’ Dr, Chan rustles through his notes,  ‘twelve embryos. We’ll put three in—’

‘Not four?’ I say. I want unlucky number four; I don’t care about auspiciousness.

Dr. Chan laughs. ‘No, we won’t put you through that. Too high a chance of multiples! We don’t want you going through a reduction procedure. We’ll put three in and freeze the remaining nine.’

My mind snags on the notion of a ‘reduction procedure’—the abortion of the smallest multiple—but then I finally hear the message that all twelve embryos survived. My elastic mood bounces skywards. ‘I have a really good feeling about this, Dr. Chan.’ Tim and the doctor exchange glances.

‘One step at a time, Saffron,’ says Dr. Chan. ‘Let’s do the transfer and then let’s see if we can get to implantation.’

‘Tim’s coming in with me?’ I ask. The blue in Tim’s tie matches his eyes.

‘He’s not scrubbed up.’ Dr. Chan shakes his head. ‘This will only take a few minutes. You won’t be able to see much on the ultrasound anyway.’

The nurses file in, shouting more questions about my wristband. Tim kisses me as my head is squashed into a cotton cap.  

Three blastocysts are loaded into a catheter and put back inside me. I watch them on the ultrasound screen. They sail into my womb like tiny, oar-less rowing boats.  

 

7

Twelve long days of waiting. The hormones. Whore moans. The false-gamete one to make more eggs grow, the false-pregnancy one to make the eggs pop out from their follicles, and now the false-progesterone to make any pregnancy stick. I feel so sick. My chest aches, I have a headache. The hormones are cruel, they mimic early pregnancy: sensitive breasts, tears on the bus, a slouched, fat gut. I look pregnant,  three months gone. In Central, I get so cross that I want to bite the office-workers slow-walking in their impassable packs; punch the mini-bus-goading taxi driver; push the smug pregnant woman down the escalator. I attend an Anne Enright lecture at Hong Kong University. She is witty, charming, clever. I bite her too.

 

6

Day 12. The day of the pregnancy blood test. An unsmiling nurse wraps a latex strap around my bicep and tells me to make a fist.

‘Will this hurt?’ I ask her, to break the silence. I am in a giggling, amped-up mood.

‘Yes,’ she says, and jams in the needle.

I walk back into our apartment on the western tip of Hong Kong Island, built into the sky on land reclaimed from the sea. The bruise sits beneath the small, circular plaster in the crook of my arm. I pull out some rosary beads and light candles, a small request for help from my mother’s god. There are many gods here in Hong Kong: of the sea and the kitchen, monkey gods, earth gods, gods of mercy and affluence, happiness, justice, long life. Incense purifies the air on street corners and rice and fruit and tubs of fire are offered outside the temples. Joss sticks burn on the ground in small red shrines for the ancestors and at annual festivals great feasts are eaten at gravesides so that the whole family—the dead and the living—can dine together. Cars or microwaves or cigarette boxes made out of paper are burnt so that the deceased can enjoy them in the afterlife.  

I have a new god.

My old God was wrathful. He punished me for my sins, He made me barren. Now I believe in the god of the embryo, of the welcoming womb, the Gonal F god. I believe in Dr. Chan and in the alchemy of feng shui, or wind and water, the correct orientation of domestic items to bring the best of luck. In my home, I use pot plants to ward off the barren god, the period god, the god of the miscarriage and the cold uterus. I move the mirror out of our bedroom because it’s bad feng shui for glass to reflect a marital bed.

The afternoon. I sit on the sofa and wait for the phone call from Dr. Chan’s clinic.

My body, like a maiden who will not yield, keeps its secrets, and tells me nothing. No cramps. No twinges. But I do know this: if I am pregnant I will have got to the other side. I will have mounted the hump of infertility and in nine months I will be in the state of Happy Ending. Just an ordinary mother toting an ordinary newborn. I will be frazzled and un-showered and borderline catatonic, with baby phlegm on my coat, like the women who used to ring our doorbell, looking for my mum their midwife. I resolve that I will never forget any of this; never pretend to another woman that my babies just popped out.

I try not to have the story erupt within me: the ‘I first knew I was pregnant with you when—’

But I can’t help it, the hormones that make me soft. I story-tell my Happy Ending.

A bald-headed baby with bright blue eyes eatseast his lunch in a high chair in his home in a Hong Kong skyscraper. Chubby fists slam onto the plastic tray. Bam! The baby startles at an arc of peas. His mother walks in from the kitchen proffering a bowl of home-made organic sweet potato puree softened with freshly-squeezed orange juice, pips and pith sieved. In her other hand is a spoon she just plucked out of a saucepan of fast-boiling water. Her fingertips thrum. She presses the spoon against the inside of her wrist, testing it for heat. It’s still too hot. Behind the baby, the view of the South China Sea has been wiped out by a bank of fog.

This is what I wanted, the mother will realize with a jolt. Never-forget-ever-forget-never, she sings to her baby, scooping up his strings of drool. He grins at her. There’s a slither of white in the pink of his gum.

Your first tooth, she will shriek, and then broadcast it on Facebook.

 

I startle at the ringing phone. ‘You’re not pregnant.’ Nurse Kelly says. ‘Your blood is bad, there’s no HGC.’

HGC: Human chorionic gonadotropin. This synthetic hormone is the one they use to trigger ovulation in IVF. The real hormone shows a pregnancy.

‘Your period should come now. If it doesn’t by next week, you need to come for more blood tests.’  

‘Because if it does not come I might be pregnant?’ I say, clawing for hope.

‘No.  It means that the baby is in the tubes.  Ectopic.’

‘But I could still be pregnant—’

‘There is no way that you can be pregnant because your blood is so bad,’ Nurse Kelly repeats. ‘I’m sorry. IVF often doesn’t work first time. The body doesn’t know what to do.’

I call Tim and tell him.

‘Shit,’ he says softly. I listen to him breathe. I shouldn’t have called him at work, he is surrounded by people. ‘I really thought this might be it.’

I nod. Tears slide down my face and neck.

My mother and sister send texts of commiseration and positivity. You’ll get there! Nine embryos left! Then my dad calls from his cushion shop in London. Dad never calls me; he leaves it up to Mum. He’s had a fall outside a customer’s factory and broken his glasses. He has cuts on his face. I ask him to repeat the name of the customer: Dad has unwittingly been making cushions for an up-market Knightsbridge sex shop. I spend an hour on the phone with my sister, describing to her the types of products available on the sex shop’s web site. The bestsellers are jade cock rings, brass anal plugs and long, tasseled whips.

I laugh hard.   

How far we have all come from candle-lit procreation.

 

5

April. May. June. Cysts bloom on my ovaries like flowers, a side product of the hormonal hyper-stimulation. Dr. Chan prescribes rest cycles. The embryologist’s office sends a bill for our embryos’ space in their deep freeze. I lurk on the Internet, glued to the infertility chat rooms, but not contributing, a cyber ghost. In that rain-lashed July, we try for a second time a frozen embryo transplant. That night, instead of the bed rest prescribed by Dr. Chan, I try to trick my body. This is business as usual, I tell it, and go to my life-writing class. I write a tentative first line: ‘I have never knowingly been pregnant.’

The fizz of tears in my nose. I get up and go to the bathroom, run cold water across over my wrists. All this God-playing, all this science. They noodle around with a woman’s ovaries, pumping ink into tubes as thin as a human hair, or fill the tummy with gas and send a telescope in through a cut in the belly button to look at the uterus, the ovaries, the curled fallopians. In IVF they put women into a chemical menopause to ‘silence’ the body in preparation for a baby, the way a farmer leaves a field fallow. They make you barren to get a baby. Nobody knows the risks of any of this, not really. Am I making myself sick?  Sicker?

None of it—the body-trickery, the faux-indifference, the embryo transplants, the life-writing—works.

There are six embryos left.

 

August, 2008. The third embryo transfer. Due to some linguistic confusion as to the timing of Dr. Chan’s arrival at the Hospital, I don’t drink enough water. My bladder is not full enough for him to perform the procedure.  I lie back in the stirrups as the doctor and nurses rattle away at each other in urgent, angry-sounding Cantonese.

Dr. Chan puts a hand on one of my splayed knees. ‘Listen, let’s not waste these embryos, I’ll put a catheter into your urethra and we’ll fill the bladder with saline water. It might hurt.’

It really hurts. ‘Can you relax, Saffron?’ calls out Dr. Chan. My legs are shaking, tears slide across my cheeks into the whorls of my ears.

I try to unclench.

I will myself to let go.

Afterwards, I call my mother. ‘That’s terrible, darling, but it’s a good sign you had it done today. It’s your uncle Gerard’s birthday. Your grandmother had a terrible time of it, giving birth to Gerard, her worst labor, she always said. So she named him after St Gerard of Majella. He’s the patron saint of childbirth.’

Three frozen embryos remain. The embryologist’s clinic sends us another bill for the freezer space.

 

4

London, September, 2008. With three embryos inside me, I’m in the state of pregnant-until-proven-otherwise. Tim’s here in London on a business trip; I’m a trailing wife. I stand in the windowless, white-tiled bathroom of a serviced apartment close to the River Thames and my old law firm. Whir of an extractor fan. Strong smell of pizza from the Dominos downstairs. A lone coil of long, black hair in the sink. Not mine. Not Tim’s. Pregnancy test stick, with its sodden absorbent tip and portentous, plastic ‘result’ window, balanced on the side of the bath.

The mirror above the sink is smudged with the circular smear of a cleaning cloth. In the reflection is the kitchen counter upon which sits a slice of oozing blue cheese, a bottle of wine, a box of tampons. I look at myself, through the smear: my big-featured, barren face with its soft, malleable chin. My edges have blurred.

I am the goose that cannot lay a golden egg.

I am a voodoo doll, punctured by needles.  

I am a Virgin Mary, awaiting her miracle of conception.

I am so not going to be pregnant.

I pad out of the bathroom back to the news on the television, lodged within its Armageddon loop. The BBC has a new fright logo: ‘Financial Crisis,’ with the first ‘I’ in crisis expressed as a down-arrow. Lehman Brothers is in ‘crunch-talks’ with Bank of America, like Woolworths buying Harrods. Depression. Recession. Global apocalypse. Decimation. Devastation. Annihilation. Images of bankers leaving Lehman’s New York office toting pot plants and cardboard boxes. The same images of bank-workers at Lehman’s London office. The news anchors talk of ‘cutting edge’ and ‘innovative’ and ‘unraveling’ and ‘high risk.’ They talk of the same structured finance transactions that I left behind at my law firm when I got sick.

I switch off the television. If the banks collapse, what will become of all of us? Riots and traffic jams? I pad into the bathroom. If I hadn’t quit my job, I would be in the thick of this, trying to explain to my bosses how to unravel a mess I could not describe—

In the window of the pregnancy test, is a thin blue horizontal line, crossing the vertical.

Pregnant.

False-positive-false-positive-false-positive.

The trigger shot they give to women to induce ovulation prior to egg retrieval is the same as a pregnancy hormone. But I didn’t have a trigger shot; I had a blood test to confirm ovulation.

My hands shake as I open another test, the metallic packet sharp against my teeth.  The line on this one is thinner, vaguer, as if the possibility of a pregnancy is already fading.

By the time Tim walks into the serviced apartment, the lines are like ghosts in the plastic windows. He frowns at the crosses as though suspecting a hysterical positive pregnancy result.  

‘The lines were stronger when I first did the tests,’ I tell him.  

He stares at me skeptically. ‘Let’s not get excited here.  Didn’t Dr. Chan say not to do the urine pregnancy tests? Let’s go for a walk and then Wagamamas.’   

Tim is almost as obsessed with the Japanese-lite food at Wagamamas as I am with getting pregnant. We walk along the South Bank. The tide is out and the riverbanks are muddy. Chucked into a mud-bank is a lever arch file with ‘Lehman’s Graduate Scheme 2008,’ written on the cover.

‘Everyone at work is panicking,’ says Tim, who is in banking IT.  ‘It feels like it could all go tits up.’

‘Do you think I’m pregnant?’ I say.

Tim puts an arm across my shoulder.  ‘Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.’

Strings of tiny lights come on along the River, ropes of yellow twinkle in the dusk. I allow myself a spasm of hope. I count the months on my fingers and grin at Tim: ‘April’s child is full of grace.’

‘That’s Sunday’s child, you idiot.’

 

3

The next morning, I am up early and buy several brands of pregnancy tests and four liters of water. Each test is positive. I keep going, chugging down the water and squeezing it out. Six, seven, eight, nine.

Eventually I stop and lie on the bed surrounded by positive pregnancy tests. For the first time in my life, I am knowingly pregnant. Even though this could be a false reading, the false-hormones have magicked this result into being, the fact of the positive result is the objective to all of this needling. I allow myself to story-tell. A late May baby, born into a barefoot birthday, celebrated in the garden with friends and family who are tipsy on white wine and wear sunglasses in all of the photos.  

Then I get off the bed, thrust all the pregnancy tests into my handbag and get on a train to see my mum and dad, on the wintry outskirts of London.

Lunch, a restaurant packed, elbow to elbow, with grey-helmeted old-age pensioners and the occasional carrot-brandishing toddler tottering in and out. At least fifty per cent of the room is unsteady on its feet. My parents, though, are sprightly. Mum orders a Chablis; Dad a pint of Stella Artois and they both peer at all my pregnancy tests, popped on the table beside the salt and pepper grinders.

‘Is that hygienic?’ says my father, catching the curled lips at the neighboring table. The elderly couple beside us don’t even pretend not to listen in.

‘You couldn’t be pregnant with all three embryos, could you?’ says Mum. ‘The veins I got with you singleton babies. If you have triplets your legs are going to explode with varicose veins. It will be trousers for you for the rest of your life, young lady.’

‘What will you call it?’ says Dad, slicing himself a slab of butter and laying it on his bread roll like cheese. ‘Any names in mind?’

‘Jesus, Johnny, we’re getting way ahead of ourselves,’ says Mum, who has unleashed her frank-talking, inner midwife. ‘This is probably a false positive after all the hormones she took.’

The woman at the table beside us puts down her soup-spoon.

My father, famed for Getting Things Wrong, takes a swig of lager and points his finger at me. ‘If you’d been born a girl, we’d have called you Harvey.’

‘I was born a girl, Dad,’ I say, to the couple at the next table.

 

My London fertility clinic is closed over the weekend. I can’t wait until Monday to know for sure, so I call a clinic on Harley Street who tell me to come along within the hour. An Australian nurse takes my blood. She asks me to make the familiar fist and we chat about my life in Hong Kong. Then we meet Tim’s brother at a pub. He doesn’t know we are mid-IVF; he doesn’t even know we are trying for a baby. He thinks Tim and I ‘Prefer It, Just Us.’ The secrets we keep, the lies we tell. If I am pregnant, I think, spearing a fork with oily rocket and cucumber, I will speak loud my secrets.

But only if I am pregnant, of course.

Throughout lunch I keep checking my watch, waiting until 2:00 p.m. when I can call for the results. I have never felt so neutral in my life; I am in such a low gear I can feel my hair growing. At two p.m., I cite the bathroom, squeeze Tim’s shoulder and push through the lunchtime throng to the street. Over the phone I hear the sound of rustled papers.  I’m-not-pregnant-I’m-not-pregnant-I’m-not-pregnant—

The nurse comes back on the line. ‘Hello, Miss Hong Kong? Let me be the first to congratulate you!’

 

2

Seven weeks pregnant. I have shooting pains down my upper thighs. I foolishly consult Doctor Google on my lap-top, read ‘miscarriage imminent’ and prepare for the worst. My Dad calls. He never calls. ‘Bad news, love’ he says. My mum’s sister, Chrissy, the eldest of the six sisters, has died in her sleep.

Tim comes back from the office to check on me. ‘I’m so sorry, sweetheart.’

‘I’m pregnant and she died.’   

  ‘This is the weirdest day ever,’ says Tim. ‘Merrills is gone. Lehmans.

If AIG goes the world will go tits up.’

It’s a surge, a force, a demand for attention. So what, that the world is unraveling. Forget the fire sale of Merrill Lynch and the narrowly avoided billion-dollar bankruptcy of AIG. Ignore the pale faces of Paulson and Bernanke, begging Congress for funds, predicting a collapse of the global financial systems.

The bile surfaces in my throat. I race to the bathroom and spew.

 

‘Just throw up darling, get it all out, vomit, vomit, vomit,’ says my mother, beside me on the back seat of Dad’s Honda. ‘Look, I’ve brought you some grapes. It always helps if you have something sweet to throw up.’ She’s also bought a large framed photograph of my aunt Chrissy, whose funeral is tomorrow.  

Mum grabs a wad of tissues from the box on her lap and begins to cry again. ‘I just can’t believe she’s gone.’

I pitch my head forward and retch. My mother leans across her seat. ‘Look at that gorgeous pregnant bile,’ she says peering still closer into my bowl. ‘Yellow, frothy, a touch of grease. You don’t need to have an ultrasound, you’re definitely pregnant!’

‘I know I’m pregnant, Mum. I’ve done thirteen pregnancy tests.’

‘How does anyone have enough urine for so many tests?’ says Mum. ‘You know, I’ll put calla lilies on Chrissy’s coffin, she’d like that.’

I vomit again.  

Mum says, ‘Isn’t it strange.  Chrissy dies and you get pregnant after all this time.’

Dad erupts from the driver’s seat. ‘To our left, Saffron, is the Loughton Reservoir. It got bombed in the War—’

‘Jesus Christ, Johnny, shut up!’ says Mum. ‘She’s back here puking her lungs up.’

In the car park outside the clinic my mother prizes the plastic bowl from my hands. ‘You can’t walk around with a bucket of vomit,’ she says and throws the bile into a tall shrub, where it hangs in glossy yellow strings.

‘We can’t just leave it there, Mum.’

‘This is an infertility clinic they have seen everything here.’ She wipes her hands on her skirt. ‘And the sight of some pregnancy vomit might give another woman hope.’

Dr. William sits behind his desk at the Essex Fertility Clinic and beams at my sick bowl. ‘Are they miracle workers over there in Hong Kong? You look terrible!’ He throws back his head and laughs. ‘What a good sign!’

‘Wonderful isn’t, Dr. William?’ says Mother, who sits beside me, representing Tim who’s stuck at the office. ‘But too early to count our chickens,’ she says with authority.

Dr. William looks up from my notes, his smile fading. ‘Your HGC results are very high.’

‘They put three embryos in,’ blurts Mum. ‘Such a risk,’ she adds, which she hasn’t said to me before.

My doctor and my mother-the-midwife stare at each other across the glossy desk. Dr. William says, ‘Let’s see what’s going on in there.’

I get into the stirrups. The blank ultrasound screen cackles into life.

‘Oh my goodness, there! There!’ cries Mum grabbing my hand.

On the screen, for a moment, a flicker, a rapidly blinking eye. ‘Where?’ I say. ‘Where?’

Dr. William looks at my mother. ‘One heartbeat. But there was a second baby,’ says Dr. William. ‘Look, there’s the sac. That’s why the bloods are so high, why she’s so sick too.’

‘Where,’ I say again. ‘Where?’

The screen goes blank, the scan is over. The experts have spoken: one empty sac, one heart beat.

‘Such great news!’ repeats my mother, brushing at her eyes. ‘What happens to the second one, Doctor?’

‘The cervix is sealed shut now. Her body will just absorb it.’ Dr. William turns and pats my knee. ‘Multiples are tricky, Saffron. Nature took the right course.’

I close my eyes against a fresh wave of nausea. I don’t like this, the swiftness of the fact of the second baby. I want the lost twin to be noted, I want it witnessed. The empty sac in the corner of the screen looked like a broken star or a tiny, cloud-edged shadow. As I scramble back into my knickers, I think about my aunt Chrissy, who never woke up, and me, storing vials of baby-inducing hormones in my fridge and sliding needles into the fat of my belly. All those times when the science didn’t work and I couldn’t get out of bed.

In the waiting room, Dad is reading a home furnishing magazine.

‘One baby, Johnny,’ says my mother, pushing her rosary beads back into her coat pocket. ‘What a relief. Triplets! Imagine! She’d have been like the old woman who lived in her shoe.’

‘Due in May,’ I say, which is three seasons away, an impossible, unquantifiable period of time to feel this sick for, longer than real time, like dog years. I re-position my head over my sick bowl and try to see through the nausea and cheer myself up. A heartbeat, for fuck’s sake. A heartbeat! Whatever happens next, whatever nature has in mind, right now, the science worked.

‘We saw it on the scan, Dad,’ I say. ‘It looks just like you.’

Dad, smiles. He gets bigger and taller, broader around the shoulders.  ‘Does it?’ he grins. ‘Does it really?’

My mother rolls her eyes. ‘Oh, for God’s sake, Johnny! She’s seven weeks pregnant. There’s nothing to see.’

 

1

Here is a story that I tell.

In April, 2010 Saffron and Tim host a first birthday party for their little boy in  a plush Hong Kong hotel. She makes the guests sing Happy Birthday twice. There are no embryos left: Saffron-Mummy already has a secret in her belly, the flickering heart of a girl-baby. They have been lucky again.

When Hong Kong succumbs to its leaf-withering summer heat, they announce this second pregnancy at a leaving party (expatriates are always attending leaving parties).   

‘What the fuck’, says one of their friends, gesturing to the boy-child, busy with a fistful full of cars. ‘The first one’s only just started walking.’

A woman with a tough, fake smile adhered to her face and a very familiar set to her jaw, says: ‘You two must be extremely fertile.’

‘We had to have some help,’ Saffron says to the woman who cannot look at her son. ‘Our fertility doctor, Dr. Chan, is a magician.’

 

I do not forget. I yield my secrets.

 

 

Remembering Ethel

Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada

Light rain lingers. Whiffs of a distinct and almost palpable freshness mingle with the smell of brackish seawater. Wet weather has cleansed the pavement, washing away dirt and even oil. As we stroll past a pub’s open doorway, the odor of a rag damp with beer resurrects a memory of my father.

When he was a young man and I was a small child, he owned a similar establishment in northern Wisconsin. The juniper smell of gin or the sound of clinking glass can instantly transport me back to that place where songs on the jukebox cost a nickel. Pat’s Tavern was just a hole in the wall, barely wider than a corridor. I remember the linoleum patterned white against maroon, and the way it got scuffed and tracked in winter when the drinkers came in from the snow with mud and sand on their boots. Sometimes, during afternoons when there were few customers, I was allowed to sit on a barstool sipping orange soda.

Saint John is a New Brunswick port city on the Bay of Fundy in the Canadian Maritimes. Industrial, multicultural, and a little chic, it is also somewhat seedy. Though there are signs of former prosperity and respectability, many old buildings have been usurped for alien functions. Heavy wooden doors from another era grace the tattoo artist’s studio down the street, and a former bank has been turned into a bar. Facades are a pastiche of boarded-up windows and very weathered brick walls interspersed with signage and posters advertising last month’s or even last year’s concerts. In this crumbling town, geometry remains a hedge against nature. Everywhere straight lines challenge the slump and slope of elemental wear.

Because I am a painter, the seen world around me is always fodder for composition. Flat surfaces rise to the picture plane I’m creating in my mind. Objects such as chairs and tables offer themselves as sculptures with air and space moving freely around them. As my husband and I walk these streets, I visualize figures in each doorway with their torsos framed by the architecture. Imaginary and ghostly faces stare at me head-on, like portraits formalized by carefully defined rectangles. Perhaps, in some clairvoyant way, I see the dead framed in the spaces where they used to live.

At a restaurant, we’re seated at an exceedingly simple wooden table. I peer out the rain-streaked window at the sharp angle of the precipitous street. Enhanced by yellow electric lights, the brick buildings cut through by narrow alleys yield a scene reminiscent of a detective novel set in the 1940s. I try to imagine a story that would convey this ambience.

But that is a story I will never write.

The stories I know are like certain types of stone. They’re formed far below the surface of earth under conditions of intense heat and great pressure. As the mix slowly cools, the complex crystalline structure of some lovely pink or gray granite comes into being. Mostly, I find that all the stories I have to tell issue from a place where there is no light. Even my own narrative is born in darkness.

Later, back in our rented room, we are sleeping, or rather I am not sleeping. This doesn’t really matter. During these hours of insomnia, I offer myself up to a dimension where I learn by receiving whatever comes to me. During the fluid wee hours of the morning, vivid moments surface from the watery past to haunt and instruct. I lie awake remembering the girl and the young woman I used to be. For whatever reason, likely having to do with Saint John and the memories triggered of my childhood, I recall the white hospital floors radiating light upward…and I know I am remembering Ethel.

When I went to see her for the last time, my grandmother’s appearance shocked me. Although she was sixty-two, the cancer had aged her beyond recognition. Fine gray hair framed her sallow, sunken cheeks. Her attempted smile failed to hide the pain she was experiencing. At that late stage of her illness, any showing of her teeth resembled a grin from a skull.

When a white-uniformed nurse came to help her to the bathroom, we could see her exposed back marked by the knobs of vertebrae curving treacherously above skeletal legs. She was nearly helpless, without modesty and with no modicum of self-determination or control. I found myself picturing the stream of urine or fecal matter issuing from her wasted frame while the attendant held her poised over the toilet like a baby. After she was returned to her bed, we only stayed a short while longer. I never saw her again.

At the time, it seemed as if Ethel was just finding her way home. The cemetery where we buried her body was simply a part of her, and by extension, it was a part of me too. Her husband, Lloyd, the man who was ostensibly my grandfather, worked for the city as caretaker. Upkeep of the cemetery kept him busy. In summer, there was grass to be mowed. In winter, roads needed plowing. And from time to time, graves had to be dug.

Ethel and Lloyd were always the first to know when anyone in the local area died. From her kitchen window, Ethel bore witness to a seemingly unending vista of granite markers. These marched in succession over the nearby hills as a constant reminder that our earthly days are numbered.

My uncle Tim was only three years older than I. We played in the cemetery for hours, hiding behind gravestones and leaping from monuments. The dead didn’t scare us, but we knew to keep our distance when the funeral corteges arrived. I remember seeing the smeared faces through windows of cars crawling along behind the black hearse.

After the memorials, lots of floral arrangements were discarded. Ethel used to save the ribbons for me.

“Maybe you can use them with your dolls,” she would suggest. The long strips of satin were smooth and cool to the touch. Sometimes we ironed them to make them look brand new.

I was too old to want ribbons when Ethel died. And I don’t think Lloyd dug her grave. He was probably too busy drinking and weeping to care whether she got buried or not.

The fact is as a child that intimate knowledge of the cemetery began for me a kind of obsession with death. I was curious about it. I wondered what it would be like to be dead.

~

It seems to me now that Ethel always smoked Marlboro cigarettes. At that time, many smokers preferred unfiltered Camels. Ethel was very fond of smoking. Tobacco was central to her sense of wellbeing. Still, as she inhaled and exhaled, the tars and particulates cooled and collected in her lungs, eventually precipitating her cancer.

The parameters of Ethel’s life seemed to dictate an early death from poor health. Eleven pregnancies, an inadequate diet, and excessive use of alcohol undoubtedly compromised her immune system. Then too, her factory work exposed her to glues and solvents on a daily basis. Inhaling these fumes over a long period of time must have been unsafe. Maybe things could have been different for Ethel, but they were just this way.

From seven to two each weekday, Ethel worked in a factory that manufactured fiberglass fishing rods. Women employed by the small firm assembled and glued the fittings on these high-end pieces of equipment destined for discerning anglers. In northern Wisconsin, fishing was something of a religion, so there was a local as well as a national market for the product. Their task involved a great deal of patience and manual dexterity. Still, although they had to concentrate on the job at hand, the women were able to talk and gossip while they put in their time. Ethel loved this camaraderie with her co-workers. The job provided her with both an income and a social life.

Ethel never learned to drive. At quitting time, either Lloyd or Tim would pick her up. Then, she would come home to scrub floors and watch her soap operas on their fuzzy black-and-white television that barely had a picture.

Nothing in Ethel’s daily routine was anything like a promise fulfilled. She drank a lot, and Lloyd was a drinker too. They mostly drank beer. I would watch Ethel drink two, three, and even four bottles. How did she stay so slim? She didn’t eat much. The beer and the nicotine kept her going.

Squashed cigarette packages and half-empty matchbooks were always strewn across the square Formica tabletop in their kitchen. A relic from some burned down diner, the table was never completely level—or maybe that was the floor. In the living room, warped boards bowed up in front of the oil burner. Walking over them was like navigating a sea swell, and sitting down on the frayed couch in front of the window was like sinking alongside the Titanic.

I’m not sure Ethel ever expected anything to change or get better for her. I don’t think she thought of anything as having gone wrong. For most of the year, laundry hung limply on the glassed-in but unheated front porch. Blue work shirts of Lloyd’s swayed silently next to her own torn underwear. In winter, wet trousers froze stiff and had to be stretched out over a makeshift rack next to the oil burner to finish drying. In summer, Ethel could hang the clean clothing outside, and then it seemed almost cheerful. The hard-won whiteness of mended sheets related with massive cumulus clouds that swept across those blue skies like seaborne ships.

In the midst of her less-than-fortuitous circumstances, Ethel seemed to harbor some unfathomable optimism. She had good-looking, slender legs. Sometimes, while walking down the street with Lloyd, she would reach for his hand and their fingers would intertwine. She colored her hair to hide the gray, and sewed a leopard-skin coat for herself out of fake, plush fur. During my childhood, I never saw her get angry or look sad.

“Let’s get those puppies out from the round house,” she would say. Then we’d carry the whole stinking, squirming, blinking mass out to shit on the mown grass underneath the clothesline while the mother dog—Queenie or whichever bitch it was at the time—stood by looking nervous and exhausted.

Ethel’s dogs always got hit on the road in front of the house, but it didn’t matter. There were plenty of dogs to be had. Strays came all the time, and she took them in, tossing them table scraps and feeding them on crusts of white bread soaked in partly sour milk. They must have had fleas, but what could she do about that? Lloyd pulled the fat ticks from them, first sorting the bloated insects from their fur, then touching these with hot tip of an extinguished match because that made the tick’s head withdraw.

By the time I knew them, Lloyd had a steady job, and, in spite of his ongoing drinking problem, they had a roof over their heads. The house consisted of four rooms—a kitchen, a living room, and two bedrooms, one for Lloyd and Ethel and one for the kids. The kitchen faucet provided the only running water. Until the late 1960s, their bathroom was a privy located at the end of the drive.

Ethel’s refrigerator usually contained the following items: a carton of milk, white bread, Oscar Mayer bologna, and a jar of that pimento cheese spread Lloyd liked. If they weren’t drinking beer, instant coffee was their mainstay. Her dishes were chipped and mismatched. Mugs and ashtrays sported advertisements for local businesses. Salvaged jelly jars were used as glasses.

In the living room, sequined plaster cats and huge stuffed animals won at the carnival were used as decoration. I coveted these and imagined myself tossing wooden rings over the Coke bottles to walk away with a big white teddy bear or a shiny rhinestone tiara. In summer, when the carnival came to town, hawkers on the midway would always convince me to part with my quarters to try for a prize, but I never won anything.

Later, I began to hope for a boyfriend with a good arm for knocking down the kewpie dolls with a softball pitch. That never came to me either. My dates bought cotton candy to share, and we went on a few rides. Then came the exploratory kisses in the shadows near the fairground. Sometimes they hoped for more. At one time, Ethel too must have had an ardent, would-be lover. But I never made her choice. I never gave in before I was ready.

~

Ethel had her first child out of wedlock at eighteen. Who knows where or how my father was conceived? Maybe in the back seat of a car or in some hunter’s shack out in the woods. Perhaps under the influence of some bootleg hooch.

I don’t know what Ethel’s experience was, but here’s how I think it might have been:

At first the baby swam freely inside Ethel’s belly and his presence didn’t matter so much. She didn’t know she was about to give birth to my father. In the beginning, she may have believed that she could contain the baby there inside her. Maybe she thought that if she waited quietly, she would bleed this unknown being out of her. When the boy partially responsible for that unborn creature asked for her hand in marriage, Ethel refused him.

Why? That’s a question no one has ever been able to answer, not even her sister who was with her at the time. He was a good boy from a well-respected family. Somewhere, I have his name written on a piece of paper. My husband has even researched him on the Internet. The young man was a solid citizen with a family business and a potentially good income. Perhaps he’d been in love with Ethel, because he didn’t actually marry until he was in his 50s. Why didn’t Ethel accept him? Was there an issue of date rape? Maybe she was already in love with Lloyd, but I’m not sure she had even met him yet.

No, I think it possible that Ethel was involved in magical thinking.

There is no baby, she may have thought. The baby will not come.

But then it did come. The year was 1928. There must have been a stigma attached to Ethel’s status. She had the dubious distinction of being an unwed mother. In that world of small-town snobbery and moral indignation, any dream she harbored for respectability would have been gone.

A few years after the birth of my father, Ethel married Lloyd and went on to have ten more children, two of whom did not survive infancy. Later, the family suffered further losses. One son died while serving a stint in the army. Cause of death was listed as suffocation while sleeping. Was it really a drug overdose or alcohol poisoning? If Ethel knew the truth, she never said. Another son landed in prison. Later, he escaped from a minimum-security work project for prisoners and became a fugitive.

Meanwhile, her oldest daughter desperately tried to feed and clothe a large family with little help from a husband who was mostly away doing time. Sometimes, on a rare visit to their house, I would open the refrigerator and only find a single carton of milk inside. I remember how the kids’ feet were crusted with sores from running barefoot.

Ethel’s youngest daughter married just out of high school. While her husband Frankie did his army time in Vietnam, Penny lived at home. Hoping and praying that Frankie would survive the war, she worked to save money for the appliances they’d need to start their married life. A few weeks after his discharge, they finally set out to pick up their new refrigerator. Faulty brakes on the borrowed truck caused an accident. Penny was killed instantly at a railroad crossing as the oncoming train crushed the passenger side of the hapless vehicle. Though critically injured and hospitalized, Frankie survived. But he wasn’t able to attend the memorial for his young wife.

At Penny’s funeral, Lloyd grew more and more hysterical. He tried to take the body from the casket. He fell on the floor weeping, and had to be helped away and medicated. They buried her near the house so that Ethel could see the grave from her kitchen window.

Tim soon left home to marry his high school sweetheart. After training to be a plumber, he bought a nice house and settled himself nearby. But Ethel seemed to begin breaking down. She missed Penny so much. They had been as much like sisters as like mother and daughter.

Suddenly and finally Ethel was sad. The sorrow over Penny never really left her eyes. The cancer that started in her lungs spread to her liver and other organs. She lasted about nine months on chemotherapy. Lloyd couldn’t take being left alone. A year or so later, he blew out his brains with a pistol.

~

The day before Ethel’s funeral, we decided to run the river that flowed through that town in northern Wisconsin. It’s different now, but at that time, the Flambeau Flowage meandered through undeveloped tracts of evergreen forest. Periodically, its smooth, dark surface gave way to short stretches of whitewater. Like all wild and untamed streams, the Flambeau demanded attention and even obedience. It was all too easy to capsize.

In anticipation of each rapid, my father would lift the boat’s motor up out of the water. We’d aim for the deepest channel and hope for the best as we swayed and bobbed on the strong current that roared between threatening rocks. Cold spray lashed over the gunnels, but we managed to stay afloat through all the rough stretches.

Once, when we were momentarily hung up, I looked down to spot a cooler and some other gear wedged on the riverbed below us. It was ominous. The lost possessions of that previous expedition seemed to be a warning. But we pushed ourselves off the perch and floated free. Passing the tall pines that lined the banks, we rode that surface of glassy, blue-black clarity toward the end of the ride and our waiting car.

The next day, we put Ethel in the ground.

~

I do not forget her or that place where she’s buried. It’s still easy for me to relive the way it felt to run my fingertips over the hewn granite grave markers. I recall sunlight on the green grass—so much green—and then dissolution—a kind of letting go into non-being, a shattering of the moment. I’d close my eyes and wait for the world to compose itself once again. I can also reinvent the odors of raw alcohol and cigarette smoke on the breath and in clothing. I remember sinking my fingers into some dog’s fur as if holding on for dear life.

In death, the mutual body spreads like a thin film of oil on water with each successive color imprisoned in an iridescent band. Perhaps in life, we learn almost nothing. When we think we have an answer, it gradually slips away. Ethel must have felt this when she kissed each of her baby’s heads.

~

Now in Saint John, I awaken with a headache that causes my vision to waver. The world, viewed through this pain, does not seem to be organized into any coherent whole. I see patterns and energy, but the concepts don’t follow these.  Finding solace in concrete objects, I locate myself on this bed, here in Canada, at a place where we have come to rest. I take some medication that will help. It has stopped raining during the night.

The doorway from this room to the next leads to a window that frames a view of the land jutting out into the sea. What is there beyond the trajectory of cliffs? Only water, fluid and deep.

Gazing from our window overlooking the port, I see that the white cruise ship moored there yesterday has vanished during the night. If we had been watching, we might have seen it go. From a distance, there would have been no sound, just the slow departure of an ocean creature moving toward some other berth or home.

Perhaps as a result of the waning headache, I’m acutely aware of light and color. Juice goblets form a composition beside our folded white napkins at breakfast, and I feel curiously distanced from the conversations going on around me. After muffins, eggs, and coffee, we rise to return to our room. I start down the hallway, feeling somewhat disoriented.

We are here, but where is this?

In deep time, the continents shift. My insignificant mass slowly shifts with them. High windows in the reception area yawn with a ghostly yellow radiance. When we return to our room, my husband turns on the television and, somewhat absently, begins watching a show being delivered in Inuit. The program is obviously about hunting because a man is pointing to some kind of animal scat in the snow. Hearing this foreign tongue makes us both feel that we have truly entered another country, a place where we understand little or nothing and where the meanings we’ve gathered simply don’t apply. Such things can happen. Somehow, though unintelligible to us, this documentary suits our mood.

Later, as we stroll through the streets of Saint John in sun, I find that I want the sensation of churches anchored with angularity against the blue sky. Narrow streets and alleys fall sharply, showing us the way to the sea. From the dock, we gaze toward the indistinct horizon. Tomorrow we will continue our journey. Most momentary details of vision or experience will be lost as we drive on.

For now, the nights will be short-lived and transitory, and dawn will illuminate my meandering discourse with the darkness.  For me, this is a season of acceptance and assemblage. Periodically, I begin to have news of my own upcoming demise. Though I hope to have many more years on this blue planet, the idea of my death no longer seems incomprehensible to me. Still, my current task is simply to be here on this sun-drenched arc of land overlooking the Bay of Fundy. For some time yet, the light will always come, and I’ll still remember Ethel.

I think of Ethel most often at dusk. Ethel was not educated enough to know that the night sky harbors galaxies, pulsars, quasars, and black holes. She couldn’t have guessed about the radiant energy generated millions of years ago that finally reaches us from burned out stars which are no longer there. On clear nights, the encrypted and elemental messages of those distant beacons bear down on me, and I struggle with their undecipherable meanings. At the edges of sleep, when I reach out for Ethel, she comes. As I move towards my own oblivion, my grandmother helps me to enter the darkness without fear.

Animals Saved Me

1994, Indiana

My aged Labrador Retriever is dying, and I’ve come into the garage this Saturday morning to check on her. Tess has been declining for some time—I can admit that now. She’s been sleeping more and moving stiffly. When she quit eating and took to bed, I couldn’t deny her aging any longer because, undeniably, her time itself had come. She’s not even whimpering, but animals don’t dwell: they deal. And so, intentionally or in effect, they hide their pain. Anyway, I can’t let her slowly starve or die of dehydration. It’s on my shoulders to call an end to Tess’s suffering, and I have. Our veterinarian will euthanize Tess on Monday.

Tess retreated a few days ago to her thick cushion out here in our quiet attached garage; her nest is beneath the wooden stairs into the house. “Hey, Tess,” I say, squatting to pet her. She raises her head an inch from her green canvas pillow, and tries to thrust her snout forward; her tail stirs but doesn’t thump. Flies lift from her rusty black coat. Flies have found her—though it’s still spring, barely May, not even June, and cool. Our vet thinks she has extensive, advanced cancer. She’s thirteen years and four months old, a good age for a Lab. But too early, of course, for me.

I hear a car crunching up our gravel driveway, and I raise the garage door to see my wife’s coworker Rebecca approaching in her soccer-mom van. She parks in the driveway and waves, and we walk together to our front door. Halfway up the gentle paved incline, she stops and says, “Oh! How’s Tess doing? Kathy said she’s sick.”

“Not good. She’s not even drinking now. She’s staying in the garage.” I gesture to the open bay.

“Is she going to be okay?”

“No. I mean, she’s dying, Beck. Tess is an old dog. Old for a big dog, anyway.” A sound stops me—Tess barking from the garage. Hearing my voice, she’s barking. She’s calling me even though I just left her—maybe because I said her name—and it’s a gut punch. She hears me and needs me.

“It’s okay, Tess! I’m right here.”

“So what are you going to do? Have her put down?” Rebecca’s tone and the intent way she’s peering at me make me uneasy. She’s searching my eyes, her own eyes bright and intense, her head tilted solicitously to one side, her expression pert and greedy as a monkey’s. Her avid curiosity feels unseemly.

“Yes. Monday. I want to spend some time with her today and tomorrow. Then that last trip to the vet’s—”

“I may have to do that with Glad,” Rebecca says, referring to her family’s Rottweiler.

Glad? What’s wrong with her?” I picture Glad: thick, doggy, strong as an ox—if not in the prime of her life, not far past its midpoint. She seems gentle with Rebecca’s three young children, and beloved by her oldest, Melissa. I’d never liked the looks of Rottweilers, probably influenced by their fierce roles in movies, but she’s like a big nonchalant hound and won me over.

“Yeah, she’s getting impatient with the kids. She could bite someone.”

“I guess you know your dog. But I’m surprised.”

“Anyway,” she continues, glancing across our flowerbed, the late daffodil varieties still blooming, “we need a smaller dog. Missy and I have been studying breeds. We really like the Cavalier King Charles spaniel.”

Rebecca once mentioned her childhood obsession with dogs and how she’d memorized every breed. I also recall her saying she’d had to euthanize their previous dog, just before they got Glad six or seven years ago; how she’d carefully researched a replacement, or maybe said she’d always wanted a Rottweiler, a breed on her childhood list. Something about her story had sounded odd then. Now I know.

I’ve loved an array of animals since boyhood and aspire to become a farmer—I keep laying hens, supply eggs to an organic store, raise and butcher broiler chickens, and sell some of the meat to neighbors; I’m trying to act professionally in my new realm, not overly sentimental even about pets. But I love dogs, and dogs, like horses, are essentially sacred animals in our culture. Dogs are also possessions, though: short of inflicting outrageous public cruelty on them, owners hold their lives in their hands. I know some animal rights activists might view me as equally callous, since they consider animal agriculture mass murder and liken pets to slaves. My contrary sense stems partly from humans’ coevolution with dogs, cats, chickens, and livestock. But it’s not history or logic that tells me in my bones they’re wrong—it’s love.

I hand off Rebecca to Kathy and walk down the sidewalk in the mild sunshine and into the dim garage where Tess waits. We’ve had a good run together, and sometime this weekend I plan to tell her so. I’ll thank her. The span of Tess’s life, I’m surprised to see, has taken me from late youth into early middle age. I recall what Mom said last Thanksgiving, watching Tess jerk herself across the family room: “Tess has gotten old. She doesn’t have much time.”

“Oh, she’s okay,” I’d said. “She has arthritis in her shoulders from playing Frisbee. I probably need to get her on an anti-inflammatory.”

Mom didn’t argue—she saw what I couldn’t see. As on one of her previous visits when she’d told me, “You’ll never put your heart into another place like you have this one,” and I’d just looked at her. I wonder now if she sensed that the passion Kathy and I were expressing in and around our home, in an outpouring of projects and purchases, carried a seed of restlessness.

~

I’ll learn, in the decades ahead, it will be easy enough to remember my happiest days: the six years we’ll live here in the white colonial-style faux farmhouse Kathy and I built on eight-and-a-half acres just over a mile from the cute downtown square of Bloomington, Indiana. A fortuitous alignment of hard work and lucky timing has taken us far. Not just materially but emotionally.

Our two kids, Claire and Tom, need me. I’m busy at the publishing house where I work, and I write a popular gardening column for the local newspaper, where once I’d been a star reporter. Kathy is ascending at Indiana University, already promoted from professor to department chair. The kids attend a new elementary school built on our road. I take them camping on our land, and we fish and swim in our own pond, an acre of blue water behind our dream house. (Tess, already eight years old when we moved here, in 1989, swims too, snorting with effort as she circles us as we wade, tread water, or glide in a canoe, and the kids laugh as I yell, “Look at that big old black water rat!”) Kathy and I have busy weeks and we race around, working and running errands; we discuss squeezing in a vacation; we’ve lost ourselves in our busy lives. In landscaping that echoes our starter house, I’ve placed a pin oak in front of our manse, to shade it from the western sun. A windbreak of pines we planted as seedlings now stands twelve feet tall in rows across our homestead’s western and northern borders, a green embrace.

We’d owned the land for several years before building, and we’d planted and planned. We had the pond dug. One day soon after our house was finished, I ordered Tess to sit before my orange tractor outside the garage and I took a photo, which I tucked into a thickening album labeled “The Farm.” Now every summer I grow a patch of vegetables, and, all around us, flowers. During our first summers here, two moments—of grace? consciousness?—sink into my soul. Holding Tom in a wooden rocking chair, I sing him bedtime lullabies, his warm heft in blue footie jammies soft against my chest, and I gaze out his window at the neighbor’s two horses grazing in the long Indiana dusk. Another night, on my way to my own bed, I step into Claire’s room beside her sleeping form and am riveted by the sight of the pond glowing in her double windows: lit silver by a full moon, the crescent of water shimmers as bursts of light flash across its luminescent surface.

Mom’s visits can turn tense, since she yearns to discipline Claire, our oldest child, whom she views as needing to be taken down a notch. A sore point with me, since I feel she was destructively harsh to me as a boy; her strategy of breaking her children, through whippings and shaming, seems at best superfluous when insecurity is already the human lot. Once, shortly after she’d arrived here from her home in Florida, I found her staring at Claire, who was prattling before her on a couch—Mom looked, with her coldly fixed green eyes and still pose, like a snake about to strike a clueless mouse—and I intervened with some distraction. In another decade, I’ll overhear Mom begin to analyze her mother with one of her siblings. How, when they were growing up in backwater Atoka, Oklahoma, during the Depression, she showed affection only to one of her ten children, the first, a cherished son. How she treated the others indifferently. And probably, based on how Mom raised me, disapprovingly. My clearest memory of Grandmother is of her examining me with her dark eyes as I sulked.

Our harmonics still clash—Mom gets huffy, I get prickly—but we possess affinities, too. I’m the only one of her four children who shares her affection for books and chickens. And a few years ago, as we drove in Bloomington, she bestowed a surprising blessing. “You’re a good father,” she told me. “All you boys are. You didn’t have a good example. Your Daddy wasn’t—he didn’t take the time. But you’re good fathers.” Mom, so tough, actually marveled.

Because I’m happy, her sketchy performance as a grandmother rolls off my back. I see now, so many years later, that my happiness is why I didn’t become angry at her in that incident with Claire. (Mom saw my happiness then, of course.) In another life, when I was unhappy but didn’t know that, either, Mom gave me Tess. When she remarked on Tess’s decline, I wonder if she remembered that bright spring day, thirteen years before. I wonder at my blindness—Tess was on her last legs. Mom had handed me a cue to see and affirm that simple truth. We might have lingered, and I might’ve told her all that Tess had meant to me. Except Tess’s story wasn’t over yet, not to me; I couldn’t even imagine it would end. When Mom comes, once or twice a year, it’s celebratory, and maybe I don’t want reality to intervene.

Cooking is how Mom expresses love. This phase of life and of my relationship with her becomes crystallized in one memory. I’m with her and my little family around our antique oak table, where we’d eaten her standing rib roast, Yorkshire pudding, asparagus, garlic mashed potatoes. On this mild evening, overlooking our pond from our bay-windowed breakfast nook, Tess gnawing a bone nearby on the family room rug, our bellies full after Mom’s feast, we’re playing cards and laughing.

~

That Monday I drove to our veterinarian’s, looking blankly at trees, lawns, strip malls. Our vet walked out to the parking lot and I opened the rear door of our Mazda van. Tess lay in the luggage compartment where I’d placed her on a blanket. Her muzzle was white; her black coat was dull; her expression, always kind, was weary. The vet gave her a shot in a foreleg and the light fled her brown eyes. She went so fast.

I buried her on the far side of the pond in a grove of river birch, and planted a clump of daffodils in the raw dirt. Later, standing there, Claire, age eight, cries and Tom, five, looks pained. “Let’s make a cross,” I say, and we do. I assemble it in the basement, and there we paint it in rainbow colors: aqua sky, green trees, yellow flowers. I wonder about our Methodist church’s position on using this sacred symbol to honor a dog, and decide I don’t care. I must do something for the kids, from whom I hid Tess’s death and burial, thinking those would be too wrenching. (A mistake, in retrospect—Claire, as an adult, feels I cheated her out of a chance to say goodbye, which makes me realize I’d probably been trying to shield myself from her emotion.) Our graveside commemoration feels necessary, even profound, in honoring our feelings of gratitude and loss. As long as we live here, which I don’t know will be for only two more years, this colorful cross, screwed together from scrap boards, marks Tess’s grave.

With her death, for the first time in years I think of our first days together. I see myself as a young reporter in Florida, a skinny guy with hair like Elvis, cuddling his new puppy and beaming. When she’d run to me to give and receive love, Tess didn’t know to stop—I’d squat and call her, and get knocked on my butt, laughing, with Tess suddenly in my arms, licking my chin. Sometimes, at bedtime, I’d forget to put Tess in her crate before turning out the light and climbing into my own bed, and in the sudden darkness, the black puppy was like an iron cannonball streaking invisibly at my shins, coming hard and fast and low across my bedroom floor.

I regret my last photograph of her, in our family room here. Aiming the camera at Tom, I caught only her hindquarters in the background, accidentally, as she moved unnoticed out of the frame. As our children grew, Tess had moved to my periphery. She’d stood front and center with me for but a few years, finally shuffling to the edge of a stage grown larger than I’d dreamed possible. Increasingly, she’d lived more in Claire and Tom’s world than in mine. Their gentle panting overweight buddy. Seventy-two pounds of love. She was their first animal friend, and their first incomprehensible loss. My own stunned realization at Tess’s graveside: how fast not just canine but human lives pass. I’ll struggle to remember that insight, but what I know forever is that when you encounter an aged dog, you regard a walking vestige of someone’s former life. You see an old dream. Explaining to others the nature of that dream, let alone grasping it yourself, isn’t simple. I had a dog and then she died. There’s the basic plot, which lacks explanatory power. Knowing anything worthwhile about that event sequence takes knowing the meaning of “I” and “had” and “then.”

A dog’s death, like a human’s, throws you into the past’s jumbled narratives. Into considering a story’s beginning, middle, and end. You flash through phases, arriving at last where you stand. I was a young 26 when Tess entered my life, changing it; I was 39, a different man in different shoes, when she exited. Standing there beside Claire and Tom at Tess’s grave, I felt chastened and soberly aware, stilled for an instant in the onrush of time.

 

1983, Indiana

Kathy and I bought our first house, a tidy limestone ranch, 1,100 square feet, in an old development beside Bloomington’s bypass at the point where you could see, across the way, the football stadium. We’d briefly rented a log cabin on the edge of town, but this house felt permanent. A widow who’d built it with her husband had lived there alone once he passed, and then she’d died. Dusty spirea shrubs stood in a row along its back wall; the house’s picture window framed a lofty pin oak out front; hoary spinach-colored junipers sprawled along the blacktopped driveway.

Almost an acre of lawn sloped to the road, and I’d walk out past the oak with Tess, her tail raised and thrashing, and hurl a blue Frisbee toward a quince bush on our lot’s far corner. Tess ran flat-out away from me and caught the disk over her shoulder in a flying leap, like a wide receiver snagging a Hail Mary pass downfield. Somehow we’d worked out our timing. With the Frisbee captured in a decisive snap, she’d let her momentum carry her into an easy circling lope, her head nodding like a horse’s as she returned.

Every afternoon I drove my tan Mazda pickup an hour north to my job, on the night copy desk of the Indianapolis Star. A red and white Igloo lunch bucket jiggled on the seat beside me. I was learning the names of northern trees and shrubs. Weekends were for projects. Kathy and I rented a machine and blew shredded newspaper insulation into the house’s cramped attic. We rolled milky white paint onto its dry plaster walls—the bitter smell of latex paint still brings me back to that low ranch on Saville Street. The weather was clear and arid that August, autumnal; the baked clay soil cracked an inch wide in spots. Our first cat, Natalie, a gray tabby runaway who had adopted us, hunted the chipmunks that overran the yard. Inside, under the widow’s thick green wall-to-wall carpeting and its crumbling red waffled backing, we found hardwood floors; we staggered under the heavy rolls of carpet and padding, aiming for the bed of my truck. Everything was new each timeless sun-struck hour. Lingering in bed on a weekend, we felt the morning’s cool breath die in the hot blue windless afternoon.

If I want to see the face of young love, I have only to review photographs of us then. In almost every one, we’re embracing and grinning, or kissing. In our wedding picture that fall, taken by a friend of Kathy’s, we kneel in lush ryegrass I’d planted in the garden plot behind our house to enrich the soil. I’m between my wife and my dog, one arm around Kathy’s waist, over her red sweater, and the other draped over Tess’s glossy black shoulders. We’re smiling, and Tess, in this odd situation—summoned into the garden, told to sit with us facing a stranger—appears meek, abashed, lovable.

With Tess, we’d felt instantly like a family. I liked Kathy having her own relationship with Tess. It pleased me to see her kind interactions with my dog; though more reserved than I was, with my Frisbee, my commands, my jokey exhortations, Kathy had also become Tess’s master. In her brisk maternal way, it felt as if Kathy had adopted my child from a previous marriage. Which, in a sense, she had.

~

How well humans remember beginnings and endings. We can bookend an era easily, but middles blur, not shiny new, not dramatically or at least unmistakably over. I was 28 and Tess was two when we moved with Kathy to Bloomington. It felt as if my life had at last begun. Driving a U-Haul into that busy, prosperous town, I recall thinking The spinning threads of my being can wrap and hold fast here. That grandiose metaphor turned out to be true. But I struggled and failed to grasp the chasm between then and now—an eye blink before, I’d been a footloose journalist in Georgia and Florida, jumping to a bigger newspaper every year.

What I couldn’t see in this glorious new start, on an otherwise forgotten day in June 1983, was that Tess and I had entered our Middle Period. Which quickly became subsumed in a succession of momentous firsts with Kathy. When we bought the faded house on Saville Street, my only asset to contribute to its purchase was my name. Tess had already made her contribution, as my companion in courting this tall brunette with the big smile. Kathy took it from there. It being me. She took me from there. And if that sounds passive, I had gambled my future on her. Instead of returning to my good job on the Orlando Sentinel, after a fellowship year at Ohio State University where we’d met, here I stood beside her, with Tess. I’d followed her first to Carbondale, Illinois, where I’d worked for eight months on a little newspaper and bought my little truck, and then on to Bloomington. And though we hadn’t yet married, and I was broke, Kathy expressed her faith in me by having me co-sign our deed. I’m awed by this now, though it seemed only natural, if magnanimous, then. A sense of my humility lingers, part of my larger wonder that we’d become a couple. In my recollection, I left this unspoken. Maybe the past burns away such connective tissue from memory, like a dream that starts without preamble. But if I could go back in time, I’d order my younger self to take Kathy by the hands, look into her brown eyes, and pour out his love. She’d plucked me from oblivion. Maybe I knew then, as now, I’d end up bawling. I had written her letters and poems. Anyway, I possess photographic evidence of my devotion: all those hugs and kisses.

When I’d taken Kathy home from Carbondale to meet my parents for the first time, I’d gotten embarrassed in front of my mother by my constant displays of affection toward Kathy. I wasn’t just holding her hand—if my arm wasn’t gripping her waist, I was squeezing her shoulder or rubbing her back. “I can’t stop touching her,” I actually said to Mom in a shy mumble. “I know,” she said. “I’m afraid you’re going to grab me by mistake.” The story I prefer to tell about that historic visit involves Dad dragging out his prep-school yearbooks to show Kathy, and Mom sitting her down at the breakfast table to inquire about her family. Such major endorsements—they’d basically ignored, as politely as possible, previous women. During Mom’s friendly grilling of Kathy, I could see she identified with Kathy’s large, hard-working family, prominent in their farm town. Mom sat leaning forward and smiling, her compact frame and frosted blonde hairdo contrasting with Kathy’s height and loose brown hair. With Kathy nervous in the spotlight, I kept handing her bits of Mom’s famous oven toast, bread coated with butter and crisped to an explosive crunch. For years I joked that I’d fed Kathy eight pieces during her interrogation, until my exaggeration became our remembered truth.

Maybe astonishment at one’s unremarkable past is a facet of adulthood best left unremarked. Yet it does seem remarkable to me that the following year, now over thirty summers gone, we drove my subcompact pickup truck to Florida from Indiana to see my parents again. Visiting them, apparently, was what we’d do each summer. (No need to board Tess this time: she came with us, in the bed of my truck, under an aluminum topper.) Kathy’s parents had died young, and while I had no sense mine would ever pass away, I craved their knowing Kathy. I wanted to share our romance, I suppose, and to receive their blessing. Besides, though we had little free time, we had even less money, and visiting was cheap. So we left our limestone ranch on its rise and headed south. Upon reaching Georgia, we took back roads through the state’s western side, which eventually brought us to my favorite uncle’s home. After our overnight there, as we departed on the last leg of our trip, a drive of eight hours, my aunt handed us a dozen sandwiches, mostly meatloaf. Another endorsement of Kathy—an effusive one, though perishable.

As we followed our scenic route, we shared our bounty with Tess, handing her sandwiches, moist with mayonnaise and fragrant with onion, through the matching pair of sliding-glass windows in the truck’s cab and its topper.

~

Two years later, in May 1986, we drove home from the hospital with our newborn daughter. We got Claire inside just ahead of a violent thunderstorm. My five-foot-two mother, commanding our tiny kitchen, whipped up a late breakfast. Amid the aroma of buttermilk biscuits, Mom stirred spicy sausage gravy with a wooden spoon; our lunch of pinto beans with smoked ham hocks was already simmering. Tess stood below, hoping for spills.

Having left the Indianapolis Star’s night copy desk for more regular hours as a reporter in Bloomington, that winter I had time to hunt grouse with Tess. Cradling a heavy shotgun, I slogged through rough terrain for hour after hour, walking until my feet and hips burned, watching Tess quarter. During two hunting seasons, the only grouse we ever saw flushed out of range because I didn’t trust Tess’s nose—it had been too long since we’d chased birds. Head down, her snout buried in weeds, she sniffed frantically and her tense body ponged, her tail blurring in a furious lateral arc. She was making game! She was almost atop a bird! That became clear as a grouse rocketed away at 70 miles an hour, borne upon its own startling noise, the sound of a giant shuffling his deck of stiff cards.

I’d trained Tess to hunt, when she was a pup in Florida, by triggering and encouraging her instincts. First, I’d thrown training bumpers, tubes of white plastic, encouraging her to fetch, and later I tucked live homing pigeons in the grass to teach her to find birds. I taught her to swim in the brackish Indian River a block from where I was living, and started throwing her bumper into the water. I’d make her sit beside me as it splashed down, and then I’d thrust out a rigid hand and yell “Back!” The code in her DNA for hunting and retrieving exploded—how thrilling to see Tess hit the water in flying leaps after our plastic prey.

Four years before that grouse—ancient history—I’d shot a pheasant cock over Tess at my professor’s farm in Michigan; I’d packed him in ice and driven to Carbondale to cook him for Kathy. Even then, with my outdoorsy dream manifest, I suspected I’d rather raise and tend birds than thrash through freezing bogs trying to kill them. But there was the appeal of a working dog as a special sort of friend, a sentiment perhaps stemming from my most basic affinity, for animals themselves. This love dawned with my memory, on a farm in Georgia, and continued after my family moved to Florida. There I stood one night, at age nine, weeping and pleading for a dog before Dad. And after his assent, Mom found us one, a sullen beagle named Dolly, who refused to obey or learn tricks and who wouldn’t even lick me. Atop the dressers in my bedroom stood bubbling aquariums full of fish or pressed into silent service as terrariums for snakes I’d caught. “You’re really tuned in to animals,” Kathy once remarked, when I was raising a batch of ducklings for our pond. “You see what’s going on with them, what they need.”

“Animals,” she added, “were how you related to your parents. They were your bond. Animals saved you.” She referred to the affection Dad and I shared for his cattle in Georgia; to my blue parakeet Hattie, surely a gift from Mom, chattering in our farmhouse kitchen; to his and my laughter in Florida, years later, when Dolly’s grudging pleasure over getting belly rubs embarrassed her; to my adolescence when he got me some ducks. And how, after I hatched their eggs in an incubator in my bedroom, Mom taught me to supplement their mash with hard-boiled egg and bits of dry oatmeal.

Good memories, the usual, and then something earlier surfaced. Once, a flock of birds flew into the big windows of the Grants discount store in our Space Coast boomtown, Satellite Beach. They were sparrows or finches, dusky olive-brown with a slash of clear yellow on their upper breasts. Anyway that’s how I picture them, the scads of slight birds dotting the green concrete sidewalk. Maybe a storm had blown them in from the sea, just across Highway A1A from the store, and they’d veered into the lighted glass. Many were stunned, not dead. Mom saw that, darted into Grants, and bought a birdcage. We stuffed woozy birds inside, and took them home as pets. Soon we turned them loose, as they never settled down and, in our greed, we’d collected too many, but the incident amuses me. So earthy, so Mom. In front of Grants, a store selling parakeets and canaries, free birds!

~

Kathy delivered Tom on a blue and gold October morning in 1988. By then, photos of Claire often included Tess, who stood patiently as Claire stuck hats on her head or wrestled dresses over her hindquarters. A year after Tom’s arrival, we began building our dream house on the remnant of a forty-acre farm. Our little limestone ranch sold surprisingly fast, and the new owners wanted immediate possession. Kathy found a rental on the other side of the university, a board-and-batten cracker box with a fringe of brick façade below its picture window. Our temporary neighborhood was thick with other houses hard-used by generations of graduate students.

As we moved in, our nearest neighbors, two guys who had added onto their own modest house and heavily landscaped their yard, stared and turned away. Another messy family with bratty kids and a crazy dog, I imagined them thinking. Later, I saw one of them standing at the curb in front of our trash and recyclables, hands on hips, furiously shaking his head—apparently I’d placed our refuse on the wrong side of our driveway, too close to their property line. They favored Labradors themselves and owned two yellow males, the chunky show type. “Is she spayed?” one of them demanded over the fence about Tess. Their dogs were neutered, so the issue wasn’t relevant, just a judgment about our trashy dog and, by extension, our low-rent lives. They hustled their dogs inside whenever Tess entered our backyard.

Having a dog exposes you in the way having a child does. Or having a mate. Or relatives. Or anyone, really. You want your beloved to escape wobbles like the ones that shaped your own trajectory. You try to teach a pup or a kid; to support your partner; to get along with family members. But your bond makes you see others’ judgments about this entity orbiting you so closely. Vulnerability can hit with a pang. That’s just the fine print you hadn’t noticed about love.

In storage with most of our possessions was a painting of Tess, which today hangs on a walnut-paneled wall of our TV room in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. My older sister, Meg, commissioned the portrait from an artist and got Kathy to sneak some of my photographs. So many years later, I look up at Tess looking out, wearing her red nylon adolescent collar, her eyes alert and calmly concerned, her ears cocked to hear my wish. Under her painted gaze, I prepare to weatherproof her leash, a strap of brown leather, now 35 years old, with shallow scars and thin cracks in its dark surface. Only half an inch wide and a quarter-inch thick, its edges tapered and beveled round, the leash feels good to hold. I squeeze it lying limp and velvety in my palm. That first winter in Carbondale with Kathy, I pored over a small glossy catalog, debating lengths, widths, colors. I picked this six-footer made from a single piece of cowhide; instead of using steel pins to secure loops for a human hand at one end and for the collar snap at the other, its maker cut slits and cinched it back on itself and, above the snap, formed neat braids. I selected a matching leather collar, to replace the red one Tess had outgrown, and although the collar is long gone, her leash has served three successor dogs. Along its length I massage Montana Pitch Blend, a mellow amber goop of pine resin, mink oil, and beeswax, working extra into the slits and braids, which are stiffening. These strong, handsome links appear simple, yet defy my understanding—I’d never get it back together if I pulled apart its tight connections.

A few nights after treating Tess’s leash, I dreamed pit bulldogs circled me while I was out walking her. We were back in Indiana. But then Tess was gone, and alone on a muddy unpaved road, I struggled toward our white house, which in the distance appeared smaller, shaped differently, not quite in the same place. No pond glimmered behind it. I stood trembling on the dark wet road, unsure how to make my way home.

 

1981, Florida

“What about your choice of a retrieving breed? You didn’t ask me when you picked your wife. If you’re satisfied with that choice, you ought to be able to pick out a dog. If you didn’t do well in that choice, you should have learned something.”—Richard Wolters, Water Dog

 

You’re in an early, short, mistaken marriage. So is your wife. Not that you fight. Instead, you’re like two passive kids, equally burdened and blocked, who can’t help each other. Yet it surprises you that she can ignore such an adorable puppy that you, her husband, adore. You think a loving wife should embrace your dog and, ideally, also cut your hair. You don’t wonder if you’d embrace her cat, if she had one, which, thank God, she doesn’t. Does she?

Soon it’s time for you to leave for your fellowship year at Ohio State. You aren’t sure what your wife will do, but she comes too. You hadn’t imagined the challenge of renting a decent apartment near campus with a dog. You were a newspaper reporter, gainfully employed, but you’ve become a student with a dog. You visit squalid apartments and duplexes in scary neighborhoods. In a student ghetto, you find a decent two-bedroom, the end unit in a tired 1920s townhouse, its sooty bricks sucking light from the somber Yankee sky. Look, there’s a place on the corner to sell your blood plasma. You pay extra rent each month for Tess, and keep the place spotless.

Your wife leaves, returning once for a quick uncontested divorce in a downtown courtroom. Before ice narrows the Olentangy River, a few blocks from your apartment, you take Tess every afternoon to swim and fetch her Frisbee. The winter is long for a Florida boy, but you’re cozy, reading inside with Tess lying nearby on the stiff gray carpet. You aren’t just a broke divorced graduate student, his thick hair starting to thin, living in a threadbare apartment: you’re a guy with a great young dog who loves and needs you. Once, she growls at you when you take away her juicy steak bone, and you throw her down and yell into her face—teaching her humans have rights. Once, you playfully blow air at her with your new hair dryer, and when you’re at school she chews it apart—teaching you dogs have rights too.

In spring, you want to date a woman who is lecturing in your department while she writes her doctoral dissertation for the University of Michigan. You teach different sections of the same class, and trade handouts and ideas. But asking out Kathy scares you witless. You’re bad. She’s the first good woman, as you think of it, you haven’t run from—going all the way back to high school—though you won’t connect those dots for years. Having Tess, heedless of human shame, helps. Kathy pets her, though intimidated at first by her size—she’s a big dog, in Kathy’s eyes—and by Tess’s intense focus. After the first time you leave them alone together, Kathy admits her fear: “Sometimes Tess looks like she wants to eat me.”

“No,” you reply. “That’s love.”

Kathy plans to return to Ann Arbor before relocating, somewhere, for her first job as a professor; you plan to camp in your history professor’s farmhouse, south of Ann Arbor, and write freelance articles. And really, it’ll turn out, to see where Kathy goes. Meantime you’ll hunt pheasants with Tess, write a letter to Orvis asking to attend their wingshooting school for free so you can write about it (No thanks, comes the reply), read your professor’s old New Yorkers, and think about Kathy. She’ll accept a job, in southern Illinois. On the way to Carbondale, she’ll visit you at the farm and you’ll wander alfalfa fields together and watch Tess try to catch voles. You’ll laugh at Tess’s frantic, comically fruitless pursuit of the puny rodents. And you’ll laugh at her again that night when, smelling the bread Kathy bakes, she drools. Tess, at once goofy and comely, will seem to you the earthly embodiment of your deepening celestial love.

But first, to get you out of Columbus, your friend Bailey sells you a white Chevy Bel Air, a 1969 muscle car, and you cram its wide, gas-hungry body with your possessions. As you prepare to drive to Michigan, leaving your sedan idling at the curb, Tess prancing on its front seat, you walk into your landlord’s office. “Thank you for your tenancy,” he says. He promises to mail your damage deposit after he inspects. But he keeps the money, because he’s sleazy and because he can. That $300 constitutes most of your net worth; its loss stings far worse than your divorce—already hard to recall. In time, though, it will be as if he gave you a gift by stealing your nest egg because you’ll never forget the exact sum, which, like anyone’s remembered past, accrues interest.

~

I saw the film Tess in the Cineplex on Merritt Island, Florida, probably alone, late in the winter of 1981. That sense of flying solo strikes me today, as I was newly married, as does my naming a puppy after a young woman destroyed by male lust. While there’s precedent for men naming boats and horses and the like after women they find desirable, I recall feeling embarrassed when I told Mom, who’d just given me the puppy, where I got her name. To Mom’s credit, she merely nodded.

A year before, I’d given Mom and Dad a puppy. I hadn’t learned you should never surprise someone with an animal. I knew that in theory—a college girlfriend having once impulsively gotten me a puppy I made her return—but I hadn’t yet learned it. Or I believed in exceptions to the rule that you shouldn’t gift someone with an animal they hadn’t even asked for. Especially a puppy, whose housebreaking and socializing take time and effort, aside from any formal training. Yet I did it, did what my girlfriend had done to me. In 1980, newly returned to my home county in Florida from a newspaper in Georgia—back really because I was eager to share in Dad and Mom’s creation of their retirement home and nursery business—I enlisted the help of my siblings in purchasing for them a costly registered chocolate Labrador puppy from an unusually handsome field strain. Shortly afterward, Mom backed her car out of the garage and fatally squashed the pup as it ran up behind her.

But that’s not when I learned giving them a puppy had been a mistake. I learned that in spring 1981, just after my twenty-sixth birthday, when Mom gave me Tess. Awful timing. As a reporter, I put in long days. I’d applied for a year-long fellowship for journalists—way up north, at Ohio State—which the previous year I’d won but declined, and how would I go with a puppy if I got it again? I didn’t even know what I’d do with my wife if I got it. But Mom saw how desperately I wanted a Labrador—obviously why I’d given her and Dad one. So she made my dream come true by contacting a courtly family friend, George Moreland, who owned a quail-hunting plantation in southern Georgia near our old farm. She must’ve told him she needed help getting me a Lab from working stock. He drove Tess to their nursery in West Melbourne, and she called me that April morning. I drove down there fast from Cocoa Village. I recall how black the puppy looked on the emerald grass, and my and everyone’s joy.

Mister George raised pointers, not retrievers, although at big events he used Labs for fetching dead quail. I imagine a buddy owned, or helped him locate, Tess’s litter. Overwhelmed with getting a puppy, I asked no questions and got no information about the little female’s origins. No kennel name, no purebred’s registration papers, no date of birth. I started training her from books, a library with three books by Richard Wolters, who, breaking with tradition, advocated that their training start early in puppyhood. My yard was minuscule, so I walked her down to a park along the river. Our hazard there was fried chicken—bony scraps thrown into the grass by picnickers—and I had to run and take them from Tess. After four months, she was fetching trussed pigeons, unhappy but unharmed, from where I’d hidden them around Mom and Dad’s acreage. Finally, when Tess was barely five months old, I mailed in our entry fee for a field trial near Tallahassee. Such events reflect waterfowl hunters’ need for dogs that can mark fallen birds and retrieve them over long distances, while obeying hand signals if necessary, even while swimming, to find multiple birds or birds moved by currents. I had no idea how Tess would fare, never having seen another working retriever outside of my books, and I got worried. What most people want from a dog, I realized, was what I’d always enjoyed, a lovable couch slug.

What I was doing with Tess was different. Much harder, more absorbing, and electrifying when Tess took me with her on her jubilant retrieves. Together we were having new experiences, growing. “You needed to love something without constraint or fear,” my sister recalled when I asked her, years later, what she’d been trying to memorialize by giving me the painting of Tess. “No matter where you went or what you did with your life,” Meg added, “Tess didn’t demand explanations or make any real or veiled critique.” Meg’s carefully chosen words felt compassionate toward me but ripe with implication, themselves a veiled critique. I thought of our mother, who, when we were growing up, gave piercing looks and stinging whippings, spoke insults that stuck. You’re bad. Or at least that was my experience as her moody middle child, her difficult one, the kid who resisted her. Then, in late middle age and into old age, Mom stopped trying to dominate us and even started kissing us. She’d changed herself into someone much more loving. This wasn’t my mother of memory—unless, provoked, when she returned. After Kathy and I moved our family from Bloomington, amidst the initial wreckage of our new life in Ohio, I must’ve sounded too plaintive on the phone one evening. “You’re needy,” Mom said—a contemptuous slap. You’re bad. If I’m honest, my tone was pleading, for sympathy over what we’d done to ourselves. Years later, a therapist said, responding to this story, “People have needs.”

What is love? Acceptance, friendship’s bedrock—the degree of acceptance sets the depth of the relationship—also seems an essential element in love’s molten core. Acceptance affirms and encourages, and I crave it, the deeper the better. Dogs, of course, offer it totally. And part of that is they forgive your shortcomings. It’s not lack of awareness—they remember how you’ve hurt them accidentally in a stumble, and know if you’re the type who lashes out. All the same, offering their endless affection, they bestow bottomless acceptance. You’re good.

~

Stepping up Tess’s training underscored my inadequacies as an outdoorsman. I’d never even shot at a duck, let alone possessed the accessories of waterfowling’s ancient craft—the camouflage-netted green boat, the hardwood duck calls, the corded decoys, the long-barreled shotguns—but maybe I’d have to become a hunter—for Tess. Or maybe field trials would become our substitute for actual hunting. Imagine, then, Tess on her first retrieve before the field trial’s watching gallery, gathered at the edge of a cow pasture. Tess dashed out and grabbed the bumper. She spun and returned, her ears flying. Halfway to me, she stopped. Lowered her head. Dropped the bumper. Tucked a shoulder and flipped onto her back. And began rolling ecstatically atop the first manure patty she’d ever smelled. Laughter all around. Even I laughed—what could I do?—but my face burned. I’d warned Tess off Kentucky Fried Chicken, not cow flops.

“Your first retriever?” someone asked.

Many of the field trial Labs grew huge, the muscular males often exceeding 100 pounds—rangy, powerful dogs built to traverse North America’s big landscapes. They towered over Tess, one of the few puppies run that day, but I didn’t mind that she was little, growing toward an adult weight of maybe sixty pounds. It bugged me, however, that Tess wasn’t as pretty as the other dogs. I noticed her black coat’s brown cast, her sharp face. I imagined this was the price of being bred by quail-crazy Georgians more focused on their elite setters and pointers.

Tess did better that day retrieving from a big pond. She hit the water hard and swam fast toward the bumper. She went straight out, grabbed it, and paddled back. “She’s a game little thing,” an older man said. She was—Tess was game. Whatever else she was or wasn’t, from her unknown lineage in backwoods Georgia to my inept training in suburban Florida, I took those words as truth. Some people were criticizing trial dogs for having such high energy and strong prey drive that they lacked an “off switch”—too hyper and hard-headed. Tess seemed okay—my love for her prevented my fretting much on that score—though she’d whip around excitedly, examining faces for clues a fetch session was in the offing. Even inside, she ran instead of ambled; trained not to jump on people, she’d ram them when enthused. “Purebred dogs are hyper like that,” David Bailey, my friend and coworker at the Cocoa newspaper, observed one evening about Tess. She’s not, I almost cried. She’s a field trial dog! I felt a lonely, confusing distress, especially since a cruel consensus had apparently formed: my wife gasped out in response, leaning forward while shaking her head and waving her hands in helpless mirth, “She’s dumb.”

Later, preparing to leave together for my fellowship in Ohio, my wife and I were also clearly breaking up. “Maybe we should have a baby,” she said. In a confused last-ditch way, she’d been trying harder to connect. “God no,” I said. “That’d be a disaster.” I’d married her only because she’d wanted to, the first woman who had wanted me permanently. I didn’t ask myself whether I wanted her forever. Or, honestly, at all. Looking back, I never knew her. A middle child too, she didn’t speak of her childhood either—except to mention that, as an infant, she’d stared silently for so long at her parents they’d had a doctor examine her. Her parents had come to our house shortly before our wedding, traveling from Texas to meet me and my parents. Her father, a corporate executive with a beet-red face from high blood pressure, told me that a reporter from the Wall Street Journal had showed up to cover a colleague’s retirement unshaven and wearing a tee shirt. I could hear Tess breathing hard against the door of our bedroom, where I’d sequestered her, and I thought, At least they covered his damn retirement. Her mother said almost nothing but—wordlessly staring herself—seemed both distant and overbearing. “She’s a real bitch,” Mom said later, giving me a piercing look. After they left, my wife told me they’d vetoed our notion of getting married outdoors at my parents’ nursery.

I have no photographs of that long-ago wife, but I possess one she probably took of me and Tess at the field trial, sitting beside each other on the pond’s bank, waiting our turn. Just before I sent her on her scored water retrieve, we’re intently focused. She’s on my left and sitting staunchly. Just in case, I’m holding her red collar. Her chest juts forward and her entire bowed body radiates energy. So does mine. We look out as one, our heads thrust toward the water, thick as thieves, tight as ticks, a team. Buddies. Partners.

~

Before she died, Mom let it slip that my first wife used to filch cash from Dad’s wallet. When she told me, my father long dead, I felt shame for what she and Dad had discovered—shame compounded by my assumption Mom had informed my sister back then. She hadn’t, Meg told me. Thankfully I’d usually gone to their nursery just with Tess. I’d trained her to find birds there with homing pigeons I’d borrowed from their neighbor, my friend Joe.

Mom loved Joe too, and Dad was jealous of our relationship with him. One evening before I left for Ohio, Dad frowned when I defended Joe’s dog he’d accused of chasing his ducks. Joe also kept ducks and chickens, so I considered it unlikely his dog killed poultry. I’ve since revised my opinion, having learned how situational a dog’s behavior can be. Anyway, Dad’s dismissive response addressed something else. Apparently repeating a saying, which I’d never heard but instantly got—and just as instantly resented—he said, apropos of my defense of my friend’s dog, “Love me, love my dog.”

Isn’t that really the issue here? Isn’t it always? Isn’t any story, told long enough, about love or a cry for love? Kathy was right, animals saved me. They gave beauty, emotional comfort, and a bridge into human relationships long before I realized the depth of my shame or blamed it on Mom. Before I realized that she’d been repeating her own mother’s example. Before I factored in my distant father’s effect on both of us. Before I’d made some of Mom’s mistakes as a parent myself, and added my own. Before I’d learned that I cannot separate my insecurity from my intrinsic nature. So lately, when I recall their silence, when I grieve what now seems my loneliness within that lonely family around the TV—surely not as forlorn as in my memory, but  awfully quiet—I try to see that my parents were doing the best they could amidst their own suffering. “They talk about ‘dysfunctional’ families,” Mom once protested, out of the blue, during the go-big 1980s. “Every family is dysfunctional.” Which goes too far, unless Mom meant that no one gets exactly what she needs. But it’s true we existed in the broad flood plain between Happy Hills and Raging River. You hiked out early, if you had sense.

At the late start of my expedition, Mom gave me a dog. Tess, the best birthday gift a mother ever gave her son, was love.

All the Pieces Came Together

I’ve always been a turtle behind the wheel, slow and steady. I didn’t get a license until I was twenty-four and I totaled two cars by the age of forty-eight, uncertain of where I was in space. I routinely drove off steep curbs. Somehow missed the dip that signified a driveway entrance or exit. Could never tell how far my own car was from the one just ahead. On mountainous roads I’d ask someone else to take the wheel, lie down on the back seat or crouch on the floorboards. Edges terrified me. I rode the brake, gulped fear, heart pounding. Never looked out the window with pleasure, even on planes. Didn’t care about seeing a carpet of clouds. I slid the porthole cover shut as soon as I sat down. Turned the overhead reading light on and zoned out.

Distance. Heights. Crowds. I couldn’t deal with everyday space and time. Scooped out just looking at a clock. Immediately convinced I was late, I’d grab my purse, eyeglasses and keys, and head for the door. I was the woman who always showed up too early and waited out front in her car, the woman who claimed a seat closest to the plane gate two hours ahead of the flight.

Transitions were hard.

“Read the letters on the chart for me, please.”

They looked like Celtic runes or the Cherokee syllabary. E was easy, the top letter on the chart and one I knew well. E was the initial of my son’s first and last names. Also the first initial of my adopted last name, and the official surname on my birth certificate, not the name I was born with but the name of StepDad. S — my initial from Real Dad — was long gone.

My biological father left when I was three years old, and didn’t come around again until I was ten. Looked at me wary. Looked at me weird. Told me I was like him. Told me I was like her. Took me for a ride in the country and spewed scary stories. “Never forget what I’m going to tell you,” he said. “Opposites attract. They attract all right. Then they fucking kill each other.”

“Were you ever hit in the head?” my ophthalmologist asked.

Fingernails in my arms hang on hang on. Head bounced against the wall. Run. Run. Run, you little idiot. Get out of here. Slip out the door and out of her way. Move. Two years old on my trike, twenty blocks gone.

I’m leaving. I’m leaving. I’m out of here.

Not enough to go around. Not welcome, not wanted, no room for any of us.

Not in her.

Born to a woman who had to parcel out love to her nine children.

  1. Me
  2. Moody Sister
  3. Baby Brother
  4. Tomboy Twin
  5. Platinum Twin
  6. Meanie Lee
  7. Lawyer’s Son
  8. Last Girl
  9. Last Boy

Only the twins had the same father: a man my StepDad tried to kill one night with a bottle opener.

Tore him apart and set Mama rambling.

After that night, she never lived in the same place for more than a year or so. She took off to avoid questions she didn’t want to answer from people paid to ask those kinds of questions: social workers, doctors, school counselors and law enforcement officers.

She distrusted authority and instilled that distrust in all of her children.

Mile-high moxie, ruthless disregard of authority, and freedom of a kind I left behind, left behind and sometimes longed for.

Afraid. And ashamed of my fear and my weakness, ashamed I wasn’t strong enough to carry my siblings away with me when I left. Afraid of being run over, demolished and obliterated by the hate and disregard that had lived in Mama and lived on in them. That didn’t die with her. That would never die.

“Here’s the thing,” the doctor said. “There isn’t a prism insert big enough to correct this. I’m going to have to send you to a strabismus expert.”

Strabismus? As soon as I got home, I looked up the term.

Strabismus, sometimes described as: crossed eyes, walleyed, lazy eye, wandering eye, or deviating eyes, an imbalance in the muscles responsible for the positioning of the eyes, preventing the eyes from tracking together in a coordinated way.

Psychological difficulties included: social inhibitions, anxiety, and often, emotional disorders from the loss of normal eye contact with others.

Traitor is what my half-sisters called me, and worse.

When the twins were three, Mama had Meanie Lee, the parting gift of some stranger in the night, and I knew that once again I would have to love her as my own. And I did. I loved her so hard and so strong, she called me mommy. She toddled toward me, arms wide open and trusting.

I held on to her the way I needed someone to hold on to me.

And then Mama had another baby, this time a boy. The kind she hated, the kind she never even tried to like. Born seventh in line, with a full head of black hair and dark inquisitive eyes. Eyes that took it all in from the get-go. I could tell. And I couldn’t take it. I had to get out of there, couldn’t try to love one more loveless baby one more time. The last I saw him he was fourteen months old, standing in his crib, watching and silent. And I was off to live with Real Dad and his new family.

Broken family, wrecked finances, for years involved with men who didn’t want me, harsh judgmental pricks, not tender or kind at all. The people in my life fluctuating, more acquaintances than friends, not as important as the ones I had left behind—never as important as the kids in the car.

In many ways I was still in that car.

Cramped legs, clenched fists, and squinting eyes.

Stubborn. For as much as I moved forward I also stood still. Afraid of what would resurface, I kept my life fragmented: these people here and those people there. Friends never met family. Family never met friends. I lived my life on the edge of every family system: biological, adopted, step, foster and married in.

Compartmentalized.

The only way I could deal. The only way I could keep it together. Then I fell in love with R, the first letter of relief, and the initial of my current last name, surname of the man I kissed under a bright light in the sky. “What is that?” I asked him that first night, because I’d never seen the moon so high, the world so bright.

In the first photo taken of me with my second husband and his two children, I stand apart from them, arms crossed, head cocked to the right, squinting eyes aimed left. Body contorted. Inward. Hidden away. Protected.

The way you look at us, friends would say.

Lighten up. Don’t sit so far away. Don’t look like that.

See it this way.

Ten percent of the general population has strabismus; four percent of children have strabismus. Age of onset for naturally occurring strabismus: two to three months or two to three years. The condition might be congenital, acquired or pathological. As for a fix, the odds were not good. The chance of achieving stereoscopy in adult life was slight to none. I examined photographs from childhood. I studied my gaze in infancy, in early childhood, and found a level gaze at two and four. Sad eyes, yes, but eyes able to look directly into the camera, until age six and then not so much.

At six, I remember looking across the room at a favorite toy, a gyroscope. I remember seeing it split apart and become two. One gyroscope levitated, the other stayed on the bed. I was in awe. Transfixed by the magic I had made. I thought everyone looked so hard they made the objects in the world split and float apart.

The wonder didn’t last long.

By age eight, I avoided eye contact. Shied away from the camera. Looked down, to the side. Covered my face with a book. Adopted a stubborn stance of defense and resistance. Sat as close as I could to the TV and squeezed my eyes together. Pressed in on my temples as hard as I could. Struggled to bring the doubled images on the screen together in my head. Couldn’t see to catch softballs lobbed my way, failed to judge the distance between my bike’s fender and a friend’s and crashed. I stayed inside more and more with my Moody Sister. Upside down, we flopped backwards into the canyon between our twin beds. And watched our lips move, striking and odd and so comforting. I became obsessed with viewing the world that way. Wondered why all doorframes weren’t inverted, allowing you to step up and into a room instead of mindlessly gliding through portals.

“Look at the world and paint a picture,” my fourth grade teacher said. “Make it look the way you see it.”

I chose the bloom of a blue iris, stuck in a water glass on her desk. I mushed the wet end of a watercolor brush into a cake of violet and transferred the flat world I saw onto the flat world of the paper with deceptive ease.

Transcribed the world of my vision onto the world of the picture plane.

The code for depth already buried in the back of my brain, disconnected.

Unplugged.

To “put” something in perspective is to place it within a contiguous space, in sequence, with clear boundaries and borders, in context. Seamless.

Art blows that map apart. Has to.

Life never stays the same, in sequence with clear boundaries and borders. 

In my twenties I made a special trip to The Museum of Modern Art in New York City to see Picasso’s Guernica before it was returned to Spain. I sat on the floor in front of that monotone mural and took it all in, transfixed by the light and the lack, by my recognition of the fractured world depicted: horrific conflict, child in the center, torch lighting the way. Cubistic. Drawn as much from what we know to be true as what we see in the world.

All art an abstraction, all vision an interpretation. The brain was an organ of interpretation.

“They’re not finished,” observers would say about my drawings and paintings. “Why don’t you ever finish them?”

“They are finished,” I would answer.

I was so sure I knew what I was leaving out. So sure composition was a choice I made, that what I left out was purposeful.

Drawing was my skill, my knowledge, and my way to get attention.

Life was so hard.

I made the meaning I could.

Adapted.

I was so adept at adapting; I was eleven years old before someone in my life noticed something off with my vision. Grandma Iola watched me struggle to see the TV and took me to an eye doctor. After the examination, she let me pick out a pair of cat-eyed frames, along with a silver chain to hang them around my neck. So I would never lose them. There’s one photograph of me wearing those eyeglasses, a black and white Kodak of a solitary girl standing on a gravel driveway in front of an old Chevrolet. A nerd girl in peg leg jeans, a button-down white Oxford shirt, and a corduroy jacket lined with fake shearling. Suede loafers with white socks on her feet, hair in a ponytail, stray bangs hung over and into the brand-new eyeglasses on her solemn face.

I didn’t even make it into Mama’s house with those cat-eyed frames. The instant she saw me, she ripped them off my face and threw them back into my grandmother’s car.

“Ugly four eyes. No kid of mine will ever wear glasses.”

Mama didn’t like doctors. She only took us to one when we needed shots for school attendance. Doctors were nosy. She didn’t trust them. She hadn’t gone to them when she was a kid and she didn’t want their questioning eyes on any of her children.

“Mercy,” my grandmother said.

Mercy was the word she used whenever she had cause to wonder. She said it in surprise or disbelief or whenever she needed time to think. I would hear her say that word whenever I was afraid. Petrified that day, I adopted her invisible faith, hoisted myself up from the curb where I had fallen and followed Mama into the house.

The next time I wore eyeglasses, I was forty-two years old, working as a photo researcher in the Los Angeles Times editorial library, with so much eyestrain I could barely think. For hours a day I looked through magnifying loupes, searched through Lektriever files for the best negative frame, browsed through online databases for this or that particular image, eyes in a squint, head throbbing. Queasy and disoriented, prone to double vision when I was tired, unable to pull my lazy right eye into alignment, make it cooperate with my overworked left.

A body holds a head to suit the senses. I held my head askew. Turned my face to the right and looked at the world crossways, eyes aimed in the opposite direction. I trained myself to look at the world sideways. Shot the people around me endless side-eye like some kind of perpetual doubter.

Torso twisted to support my misaligned vision.

Head rotated to reposition my wandering right eye.

Neck and shoulders torqued to the right to accommodate my head.

Right hip rotated.

Right leg followed and right foot splayed.

Spine curved.

I had some support to go to college from my foster parents but all the loans and work-study jobs were on me. It took me eight years to finish my BA because I married young, too young, and had my son when I was twenty-three.

I do not recommend that—going from unsupported child to raising one.

The waiting room of the Jules Stein Eye Institute in Los Angeles was full of parents with young children. Most of the kids were under three. Some were still in strollers; many wore eye patches like little pirates. I wondered how they could test pre-verbal kids with an eye chart.

Strabismus, if not detected and treated early, contributes to loss or lack of development of central vision. Early diagnosis increases the chance for complete recovery.

In the examination room, I took a seat in the exam chair and laughed. Across the room, shadow boxes held a menagerie of stuffed animals.

Above that was the Snellon eye chart.

The nurse came in and gave me a preliminary exam.

She showed me a card of geometric designs: nine rounded squares, and within each of them, a set of four concentric circles. “Point to the three-dimensional circles in each set,” the nurse said. “The circles that seem to rise off the page.”

As usual, I simply guessed. I did not know.

The world was a flat road stretching into the distance, parallel lines seldom converging, with objects and people popping into my field of vision as if from nowhere.

Twenty percent of murders take place within families. Reactive and regressive people respond with violence to upsetting or provoking stimuli. I’d read all about the makeup of criminals; I couldn’t get enough of the subject. I’d searched myself body and soul for the marks of Cain: odd lines in the palm, strange spaces between toes, creases on the tongue, and ears too low on the head.

Eyes unfocused.

The nurse left but told me to wait; the doctor would be in soon.

While I waited, I checked my phone for messages. I took a photo of the room and posted it online.

I’m here. Right here in this place.

We are animals with forward facing eyes. Eyes that converge to see close up and diverge to see into the distance; eyes that scan the world as we move through it.

Stereo and peripheral vision helps us do that.

I didn’t have either.

I was stereo blind. Stereo is the Greek word for solid. Real. Objects seen in three dimensions look solid, in and of the world. Located in space.

From early on, Mama wasn’t real and solid to me. For as long as I could remember, she was split into two people in my mind’s eye: the loving Mama who I imagined had been taken away and the mean version left in her place.

Get a grip, we say. Meaning: hold it together.

A couple of months before I found out Moody Sister had died Last Girl — the sister born after I left — called my landline. I didn’t recognize her number on the display but I answered anyway, uneasy and unprepared for what I was about to hear.

“Another one of our sisters is dead.”

Platinum Twin, seventeen the last time I had seen her, in the Tulsa Juvenile Detention Center, staring at me with dread, a truer blonde than her full-blood sibling, with spooky blue-green eyes strangely tuned out like Mama’s.

“They found her in her bed. Pretty as she always was but not breathing.”

“How? How did she die?” I asked. Wishing I had taken all of them with me when I left Mama and then the Midwest.

“She’s in heaven now, at peace with her savior,” Last Girl responded.

Still I pressed, needing to know. “What exactly happened?”

“I haven’t seen the death certificate. They won’t give it to me.”

Jesus! Couldn’t any of them answer a simple question? “Okay. Forget about the death certificate. Don’t you think it’s strange she died so young?”

She was only forty.

“What do you mean?”

“Do you remember who our mother was? What she was like?”

“Look, I haven’t ever met you,” Last Girl said. “I was a baby in the front seat of the car when you ran away. So, you know what, you don’t know anything about me and I really don’t know anything about you. But I’ll tell you what. I have faith and I do like my faith tells me to do. I forgive. What about you? Do you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior? Do you even believe in God?”

The earth, the ancients said, is a great island floating in a sea of water, hanging down from a solid rock sky suspended on all four sides by tenuous cords. Someday those cords will break and our only earth will fall. That’s what I believed. But I didn’t know how to explain any of that to someone I’d never had to keep quiet in the backseat of a speeding car, a baby I was never around to protect, never took care of through a dark wandering night. So I got off the phone as fast as I could, and sat down on the kitchen floor quaking.

Couldn’t keep it together.

Mama couldn’t keep it together. She died in her car in a hospital parking lot. All she owned was in a cardboard box stashed in an unpaid storage unit. Dead, but never gone, not for me, and not for all seven of her surviving children, and their children and their children and their children. She was still alive in them and in those to come, and in me, her oldest girl, the one not included in her obituary, the one who ran, the girl who got away.

Two of Mama’s six girls were already dead by the time she died. Two of her three sons left before they were grown, before they had reached the age of accountability.

Mama had nothing. Moody Sister’s real father paid for Mama’s grave and I paid for her headstone.

Daughter. Mother. Sister. Mother. Daughter.

When the nurse came back, she was with a portly man in a white lab coat. Finger puppets were stuffed in both his pockets. He introduced himself and sat down on a stool to read my chart. Then he handed the chart to the nurse and swung the phoropter over my face, a whirl of lenses, knobs, and prisms.

“Look across the room,” the doctor said. “And tell me what you see.”

“A pink pig, a blue elephant and, I think, a raccoon.”

He smiled. “No. I mean the letters on the chart. Start at the top.”

While I read as well as I could, he measured the distance my eyes roamed as I moved them from side to side, trying to recognize every letter, to prove to him and myself that I was okay.

“You should have had this done a long time ago,” the doctor said. He slid the phoropter off my face and told me what he planned to do.

Operate. Once, twice, maybe three times. Whatever it took to correct the misalignment of my eyes. It had to be done. The difference between my left eye view and my right eye view were too great for my brain to combine into one contiguous picture. So my brain suppressed the information from my right eye and only used the information from my left eye.

I stared at the doctor’s toupee and tried to absorb what he was saying.

He was going to fix me. Put his hands inside my head. Cut the translucent white skin over the surface of my eyes. Roll my eyeballs in the bony cradle of their sockets. Find the faulty muscle and alter it. Clip the loose muscle and tighten it. Cut the too-tight muscles off the surface of my eyeballs and move them down a notch or two. Stitch it all back down and call it done for now.

Who knew if the operations would work or not? The code for depth was buried in the back of my brain, disconnected all these years.

Unplugged.

“That’s deep,” Grandma Iola would say.

Depth a measure of seriousness, of sadness, a measure of how far down into the space of our psyche we are willing to go, to integrate, to pick up the pieces and come out whole on the other side.  

After Mama died, I tried to reconnect with my three surviving sisters with varying success: one called only to ask for money, another to save my soul, and the third routinely launched all-cap midnight attacks through social media. 

 

TO YOU WHO DON’T LOVE OUR MOTHER THOUGH I DON’T KNOW WHY!!!

 

A virtual barrage of vicious messages designed to convince me everything that had happened was my fault entirely. I was the Big Sister. If I had stayed, their lives might have turned out better.

 

What do we care what you think? Who are you anyway?

 

After the first operation, I was shattered. In. Pieces.

Eyes a kaleidoscope.

Brain cells and electrical circuitry were reactivated and scrambling to make sense.

The eye drops burned going in. “Look up. There,” my husband said. “At the fixture in the center of the ceiling.”

I focused on that light. Every morning I trained my eyes upward. And focused. Took charge of my vision.

What we make of what we see is our story. What we are able to see is our truth.

At fifty-eight I had to learn how to see again.

The monocular cues developed over decades to help me decipher the world were useless to me now. Now those cues were scrambled and I had to live with the reality of my actual vision while I retrained my eyes to work together. I was betting that if my eyes were not misaligned at birth or in early infancy — and I knew from photographs that they were not — my optic box had all the information I needed, and it was not too late to regain stereo and peripheral vision.

But it would take a lot of work.

Every morning as soon as I opened my eyes, I looked at that light fixture in the center of the bedroom ceiling and pulled the two images of that light fixture back together into one solid object.

I was determined to awaken my visual cortex, remind it, persuade it to reconnect to my realigned eyes. I was determined to see what I had never seen before. I wore a pirate patch on my left eye to coax my stray right eye back to center. I binge-watched Six Feet Under on my iPad, a shallow box of light placed six inches from my face. I focused on those tiny scenes and pulled their doubled images back together in my head. Forced everything to come together: my eyes, thoughts, words, and life.

I stopped driving on the freeways.

I clung to daily habits: walked the dog through the streets of our tree-lined neighborhood, sorted the mail: the pieces that fell through the slot in the door and the pieces I scrolled through on my iPhone inbox. Everything was fractured and flat: my sight, my mood, and the weather. Fractured and flat and sequential, it all rolled by, day after day. Day after day I used the same silver spoon, the same cereal in the same yellow-green Bauer bowl, the same uncertainty gathering, and the same debilitating doubt. A year passed that way, unsure of what I thought, felt, saw. Unable to correct badly placed commas, drive freeways or read for very long, I stared out the living room window, watching birds land on a water bowl and promising myself that after this was over, I would get a tattoo on my left shoulder, my dominant side, my weakened side, the side of my body which had held my left eye steady while the right side twisted away in confusion. I would get a tattoo of the first initial of all my last names. Mama on the brain, in my head, in my flesh and blood and bones, in spirals of DNA, undetectable to the human eye, fractured bits of information and promise, of fate and possibility.

We put the world together the only way we can, with our senses. We place what we know in context, and that context gives us a defined location in space.

What we are able to see is our truth, our reality.

Mama had two more babies after I left: number eight, another girl to ignore, and number nine, her last, another boy to hate. Born when I was twenty, five years gone and at last in college.

I had never met either of them when I got the call Mama had died.

Her story over and done, mine just beginning.

A being captive, yet in her heart evolate, flying outward like the ancients, as if springing into being from an embryonic state. Like the ancients I was determined to defeat the cowardice in my heart, the silence in my head and the trouble in my life.

I, eye, aye, this is what I give you, what I see, what I have seen, what I know to be true. Some people will never love you. They will clobber you with their minds and hold you down.

Do not let them.

“Don’t stop painting,” E, my first husband said. “Whatever happens with us? This is your thing. This is what you need to do.” As if he knew.

It was uncomfortable to realize the role my faulty vision had played in my decision to leave our son in Oklahoma with his father when I left to go to art school in California. I wasn’t stupid. I saw the power I gave my ex by leaving. The moral high ground he ascended to when I left my son behind. Loaded up my Datsun and took off with my drunken boyfriend.

My identity as fractured as my vision, I erected walls around me. Hard walls. Flat walls. Walls I made and maintained. Walls consciously and unconsciously made to give me space, to give me time, time and space to pull my vision together. Scarred with profound anxieties, I had already cordoned off my most painful experiences. I’d already accepted my fate.

In art school, the instructors pushed me to pick up a video camera. Put down the brush. Be like us or you can go home, hick girl. Pick up the tools of mass media. Use a video camera and deconstruct the dominant hierarchy. I tried. Put my right eye against the aperture and could not see. Went blind up against that machine. Literally could not see. Aesthetic production, they called it. Not art. Video flickers from expensive machines. A mechanical process meant to circumvent the body. Amend the body. Extend the body. MAGNIFY the body politic. They looked at my paintings of bodies, stacked and layered like history, like communal graves, like the back seat of a car, looked at my efforts and said: “Can you do without this obsession with the body? I mean. Does this say all you need to say?”

Then came the second surgery.

As I was going under the anesthesia, the baby in the bed next to me cried and I let myself be comforted by her mother’s voice. “Everything is okay,” she said. “It’s okay. I am right here.”

I hadn’t seen my son in twenty years.

“You will never see me again,” he told me when he left. “Never.”

Knocked out with his voice in my head, I came back to consciousness propped up. The doctor was asking questions.

“Tell me which is sharpest? Clearest?” Click. Click. “Is it this one or that one?”

The doctor wanted to make sure my eyes were not over- or under-corrected. He wanted to make sure my eyes were coordinated, able to move together like the front wheels of a car.

Not misaligned, continuing to pull me off course.

On the way home, my husband stopped at a Peet’s Coffee to get us each a cup. I waited in the car while he went in. There were bandages over my eyes, the smell of disinfectant on my skin, stinging, and I was so curious. But I waited until we got home, until I got out of the car, to lift the bandages and open my eyes.

And bam! Binocular neurons fired and the world unfurled in front of me.

Distant hills curved into the sky. Every leaf on every Chinese elm, which all grew in a row along our street, spiraled around me, one after the other. Plants grown out of the depths, rooted and round and three-dimensional, like me.

I walked through our front door as if into a new world. A sixty-year-old woman, who saw, finally saw what she had to do to take her place in the story.

One day I danced in the living room to Janis Joplin.

Oh yeah, take it. Take another little piece of my heart, yeah, baby.

No longer staring at the light in the middle of the ceiling, optic box busy unscrambling the chaos, pulling the doubled back together, no longer trapped in that space of powerless cowering, saying: I can’t, you can.

No longer an imposition, in the way and taking up more space than I should.

No longer adapting to the damage done, my center of gravity shifted.

My back swayed. My shoulders shimmied, my butt aligned and my two feet followed.

The pain in my neck went away and new pains moved in.

If this had happened to me, what had happened to them, my siblings? The baby in the crib the day I left, the day I finally got away?

And my son, the child I was too afraid to love. The being I brought into this world and the being I was most responsible for.

I, eye, aye, a blind spot exists before the physical possibility of perception, a blind spot not darkness, but the absence of light. Fifteen degrees from the center of the retina, right where the optic nerve takes off for the rest of the brain. Right where the nerve leaves the retina for the brain. Right in that spot, there are no light-sensing cells. Right in that spot, there is darkness. No contrast, or illusion.

Empty.

And in that place of emptiness all the pieces come together.

S

E

E

R

The entire world was my blind spot, self in the dark center, unable to see until I could.

Like the terrapin in the old Cherokee tale, thrown into the stream by wolves: the terrapin dove deep under water into darkness and came up on the other side into light, escaping the wolves, alive but broken. His back fractured against a river rock, the terrapin sat on the opposite bank and sang: I have sewed myself together, I have sewed myself together.

Gudayewu.

Goo-dah-yay-woo.

The pieces came together, but the scars remained.
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