The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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We were wine drunk in a sleigh bed, watching Trollhunter in Norwegian with subtitles. He was my lover and my best friend, and I couldn’t stop laughing. Later we stepped outside to examine the garden by moonlight. The stove flickered, illuminating the warm canvas walls of our yurt. Rain fell softly, and my feet were bare in tall grass. Maybe I wore his jacket. I would have checked the pockets. Not for anything in particular. Remnants of Luke’s life just interested me: Receipts. Spare change. A lighter. Things he’d absentmindedly placed there. Evidence he was real. I don’t remember what was said, only that we were happy; only that I didn’t yet know he was broken.
We discovered snails had devoured everything but our beet greens. Baby lettuce and flowers had wilted, sheared down to damp soil. Most of the snails were gone, but some stragglers still remained, caught in the act. We poked at basil leaves with lacework holes in them. I shivered. Maybe it was the pinot noir or one too many BBC nature documentaries that made me declare we needed to research the migratory habits of the common, thieving garden snail, a ridiculous whimsy to which Luke immediately agreed, pulling his phone out to search “miniature GPS tracking systems” like a good nerd soldier. This solution proved too costly, however, so we found a metallic Sharpie, and he numbered their shells while I marked their approximate locations, which made me feel very sciencey, even though I refused to touch them.
We lost interest at upward of twenty specimens, so I put the notepad back in the kitchen, where it was used again for other, more common lists: eggs and honey, blackberries from the farmers’ market. Salted butter.
Sober by sunrise, we forgot about snails. In the following weeks we occasionally spotted one in the yard, doing whatever it is hermaphroditic gastropods do, but mostly they seemed to disappear, except for Number 6, who stayed and stayed, sleeping in the lilies by our front door, where a family of peaceful wasps built their nest of mud. Number 6 became our favorite, but eventually he/she vanished, too, and we nodded to each other about starlings and slug bait.
I met Luke after my marriage ended. I was twenty-nine by then, with a daughter named Cadence who still believed in magical things like mermaids, and walruses that swam in park fountains, and the pirate king Ratty Tatty, who tangled her hair while she slept, then sometimes cracked raw eggs on the kitchen floor for us to clean up in the mornings, no matter how we tried to reason with him. He was a very unreasonable rat.
I didn’t like the woman I’d become in marriage, combative and isolated, but I didn’t know how to leave until I just walked out the door one day after tipping a couch down the back steps into the garden, where it stopped in the fennel and daffodils. It had blocked the hallway for weeks, though I’d asked for help lifting it.
My ex-husband met a woman in Peru via an online dating site and spent his inheritance to bring her here. We were divorced by 2012. I moved just inland to a quiet mountain town in Humboldt County, California. Our kitchen window looked out on a crumbling graveyard where deer came to browse among tombstones and redwood boughs. It rained and rained that autumn until the river that ran through town swelled gray and the orchard trees shed their leaves. The walls were monarch orange. The heater didn’t work. I put Cadence to bed. There was a pumpkin pie and a bottle of wine in the almost-empty fridge. I’d never felt so alone, or so free.
In the days that followed, I began again to make right our small world in small ways.
I stood on the kitchen table to replace a light bulb but couldn’t reach it. My daughter looked up at me. I looked up at the ceiling. She said, “Maybe Daddy can do it.”
I told her, “Daddy’s not here,” and she cried.
You can belong to yourself, but it’s lonely, and you can belong to others, but there’s loss built into that, in uncountable forms. I tried not to fall in love with Luke, my white-collar hacker from the South who mined cryptocurrency, wore flannel shirts, and sometimes grew the beginnings of a soft, blond beard that I felt when we kissed, his face between my palms.
He lived in a yurt on a mountaintop vineyard hidden by miles of thick redwoods. It took ninety minutes to reach him: there was a thin dirt road where the black bull escaped its fence; a gate with a chain; and the forked curve of the Eel River.
I watched as he fixed things. I watched him lift my small daughter into his arms across the clearing and wondered what they were saying to one another as he pointed into the darkening valley, where twilight fog sank through the forest. She resembled Luke more than she did her own father; strangers must have believed we were a family on afternoons in town when she held our hands to walk between us.
Our life together was woodstoves and lofts, claw-foot tubs and grafted fruit trees. Wild turkeys in the compost. It’s a time I wish I could get back to, like so many; a place that no longer exists, because nothing is the same, and we are not the same. Moss on rough porch steps and the sound of them bending under our weight. Brambles and a shy bobcat in the ferns. Quail. Rain on yurt canvas. Bleached bee boxes in winter sunlight. Rows of grapevines. Sprouted potatoes planted some cold afternoon on our knees. The cellar full of pumpkins and straw bales, where we took the temperature of nascent wine. His yellow cat tiptoeing in fresh snow. My lover chopping wood, or brewing coffee, or waking in the night to add another log to glowing embers.
“Tell me again why I can’t kill the spiders,” he’d say, pulling me into his lap.
“Because they value their lives,” I’d tell him, running my fingertip down the straight line of his nose.
All of these small moving parts invented a larger part where we might belong, invented our own world outside the world: The big, ugly dog we’d adopt. Trips to Iceland we’d take to witness the northern lights. Maybe our own wedding in an orchard someday.
I didn’t know Luke was bipolar, or unmedicated, only that his father had committed suicide. He wore his dad’s wristwatch, even though it didn’t work. When I finally understood what was happening, it was too late.
He began to leave for longer and longer spans of time.
Two weeks. Two months. Four months.
He’d drink and gradually stop answering texts, isolating himself until the depression lifted and the cycle began again. At night, lying awake in that sleigh bed, I listened for the sound of his truck tires on gravel. Each time he returned, he promised to never go again, a thing I wanted to be truer than all others. I wanted to begin once more from the start, to hear his voice again for the first time, to see his face.
I gained thirty pounds and gave myself micro bangs that got shorter and shorter until a friend confiscated my scissors. I thought everything was my fault; that I could mend Luke, or us; that I needed to communicate better, to be more patient, to convince him to see a therapist. It got so that I recognized when he was about to shift but couldn’t stop the transformation, which was sickening.
It would have been easy to walk away if there were other women; if he’d yelled or hit me. I wouldn’t have waited. But it wasn’t like that. It was like trying to keep a man who was sometimes a ghost. It seems stupid now, but I held on for two years, because when it was good, it was so good we believed it would always be that way.
But one evening I came home, and his things weren’t there; he’d left without a word, shoved the key under the mat. There wasn’t even a note. I stood in our kitchen, defeated, and knew I had to go away or we’d rock back and forth forever. I was ashamed. I took the photos off the wall. I fucked a German firefighter who spanked me. For days afterward the sound of sirens evoked images of rough sex. I packed. I was going home.
My younger sister and I were raised on half an acre at the end of a cul-de-sac in a Southern California suburb, next to foreign neighbors we unimaginatively called the “goat people” because they kept meat goats tied to eucalyptus trees; sometimes coyotes whispered down from chaparral hills to eat them alive in broad daylight while we played soap-opera snails in a sandbox full of hose water. I couldn’t relate to the things people valued. I was weird and awkward. I had inexplicable anxiety. I wanted wide-open, rugged landscapes; bareback Appaloosa horses with rope halters; and poems.
Our mother ran a home day care. Our father was a paramedic.
My mother used to say she wanted pretty daughters with boys’ names. She sang to us, ragtime songs her Polish mother had once performed onstage, songs I gave to my own child at bedtime: “Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey? / Won’t you come home? / I cried the whole night long.” But when I looked up the original years later, it was nothing like the way we sang it. It was changed. It was ours.
In one of my favorite memories of my mother, she comes home late from a conference smelling like makeup and smiling. She wakes me just to give me a set of Beatrix Potter books, where the animals talk and go on foolhardy adventures. The books are colorless and all the same. They fit together inside a tiny box, side by side.
Yet the women in my family have subtle, complicated relationships to each other. Before my tenth birthday I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. One afternoon, during a casual lunch conversation a decade later, my mother said, “Your illness interrupted who you were supposed to become.”
I had no idea how to respond, though I’d long sensed maybe I wasn’t the daughter she’d imagined. But who was that other daughter? What did she have that I didn’t?
When you’re a child, they tell you that you can be anything, but they don’t mean a writer, or an astronaut, or an elephant trainer. I think maybe she expected some sporty, Barbie-girl prototype, someone with a ponytail who’d vote for Trump, instead of a tattooed, anarchist, library girl; but I never asked. It’s all unspoken conjecture. Really it was the lack of malice that cut me, because she said it simply, like it was already acknowledged fact.
We were all doing the best we knew how. We were winging it. We still are. To belong anywhere is messy. And she was both right and wrong: I was changed. Sickness taught me about mortality and time, which is a kind of equation balanced by mystery. It gave as much as it took. We are brittle and break, or we deepen to encompass pain; to draw a circle around it, around ourselves; to be more than we were before it came. This is the strange alchemy of loss and love. This is grace.
It didn’t matter that I could intellectualize his brokenness. After Luke I was not OK, not for months. But I’m not sure anyone noticed, which scared me more than anything. He was just a boy. He might as well have been every boy I’d ever had, then lost. It was about more than that. It was about failure and the poverty of single motherhood. It was about what I was supposed to be, in contrast to what I was. How to explain that our wilderness felt like an extension of my own body? But in leaving Luke I’d abandoned pieces of myself: The wet-nosed black bear with her cubs. The marsh and scented redwood fog. His arms around me all night. I ached. It was about sickness, and those reasons I’d first begun writing as a child. It was: What next? After Luke I tried to deconstruct belonging: What it meant. How you got it.
I wanted to not exist.
Cadence and I returned to Southern California in the summer of 2015. It was a somber trip. My father drove a U-Haul down the coastline. I didn’t mention Luke. Because what could I even say?
We moved into my grandparents’ beach house in South Oceanside. Walls don’t breathe like yurt canvas — they’re solid, less intimate — but you could hear the train whistle all night. Once in a while someone steps out onto the tracks because maybe they’ve forgotten there are times we have to live, for the people who need us to exist, if not for ourselves. I reminded myself of this while I sorted laundry, or applied for jobs, or helped Cade with homework at the kitchen table. I reminded myself while I sat in traffic and calmly imagined driving out to the desert with a loaded gun. I wanted to see the sky. I didn’t know how to put myself back together again, how to go backward, how to go home. I wasn’t convinced it was possible. I had tried.
Luke’s leaving was a secret I’d kept from my daughter and almost everyone else, but it still filled me with guilt. Starting over was hard for both of us. She missed rainstorms and refused to swim in the open ocean after seeing a Shark Week marathon.
We were three generations under one roof. Grandmama was born on a farm in Halfway, Missouri: “A little ole town you could spit across.” She was ninety-four and had Alzheimer’s and hid notes around the house for people to find after she was dead: “Marie weighs ninety pounds with shoes on.” She watched the murder channel, Judge Judy, and telenovelas all day with the volume set to a hundred.
I replaced Grandmama’s frozen TV dinners with organic groceries, hippie food she pushed around her plate, then mashed with the tines of a fork while Cadence and I exchanged glances.
My mother, in her wisdom, said, “Let her eat Pop-Tarts.” So we did.
Grandmama got into the laundry and shrank all my clothes. Left faucets running. Set fire to the oven. One morning I woke to her hitting the vacuum with a hammer. It was plugged in and turned on. She wandered off to buy milk in pastel polyester pants; the neighbors sent her home. Sometimes she talked to photographs on the wall, her hair crimped in plastic rollers. She let our lop-eared rabbit in the back door, and he ate phone cords instead of the hot dogs she offered him.
My daughter and I felt shipwrecked among the garage-sale wreckage of blinking dolls with missing limbs, out-of-season Christmas wreaths, lace doilies, and fake plants caked with dust.
Grandmama darkened her eyebrows and wore giant white cotton underwear that covered her belly button but sagged in the crotch. Bifocals magnified her eyes, so they appeared huge. One evening we found her bent under the light, reading my diary, half naked, chocolate on her face. She was fond of setting the thermostat to ninety degrees, and she pounded away on the organ at top volume, always the same hymn. She wound clocks and kicked mushrooms in the yard, which only made them grow in greater numbers; drank decaf instant coffee with powdered creamer; smelled like White Linen body powder; and told stories again and again, because she could remember perfectly events that happened seventy years ago but not what she’d said in the last five minutes. There was the mad dog on the dirt road when they were picking berries, and the time her mother ran out in a tornado to bring their favorite hen into the farmhouse basement.
A year passed. Cadence finished fifth grade and got braces. No one was eaten by sharks. A woman from Africa was hired to keep Grandmama off the roof. Her name was Grace.
Instead of buying a gun, I finished writing a novel and joined a twenty-four-hour bouldering gym, where I learned to climb without ropes despite my fear of heights. I was afraid to let go or stop moving. My heart raced. The shoes hurt. I hated the dry feel of chalk on my hands. But I didn’t think when I climbed. Everything came down to falling or not falling, the next grip, the next toehold. I grew muscles. My palms became so calloused I had to file them down for work as a massage therapist in a historic building on the coast.
I received a message from Luke. He’d finally seen a psychiatrist. He was taking medication. He’d adopted a cat raised by raccoons that ate with its left paw. His life had gone on without us. Sometimes I still imagined him showing up unannounced to say everything would be OK, that he needed us the way we had needed him, that it was just a mistake. I imagined him keeping all his promises. But instead I never saw him again or heard his voice, and three years had passed since we last touched. I resented him for waiting so long to accept help, and I blocked his number. I was angry that it took our leaving for him to reach out, but I was grateful, too, for all of it.
I rented a basement office with frosted-glass walls and covered them in manuscript notes. It was a building by the pier, inhabited by start-ups and lawyers, legitimate adults discussing things like distribution models in the hall while I scribbled about monsters and only sometimes brushed my hair. It still hurt to talk to people. I wasn’t sure I was real anymore. I didn’t know what to do with my face.
But the day I arrived, the owner of the building asked, “Are you the writer?” He was washing dishes.
I put my smaller hand in his. I said, “Yes, I am.”
Sadness was liberating. I found myself stripped of all those things I’d tried but failed to be for other people.
Grandmama was moved to a care facility. She wouldn’t eat. She fell. Honeybees came and built a hive in her shed among the lawn mowers and old Monopoly games. She died softly, from pneumonia or time. She was ninety-six.
I finished writing the last lines of my manuscript at her breakfast table and afterward cried on the kitchen floor, because it was something heavy I’d carried such a long way but hoped was beautiful, too. Then I sat on the back step to watch Mars over the ocean.
After the funeral we found a box of my grandfather’s wartime letters in a closet, sent from Okinawa. No one knew they were there all those years. I dumped them over the bed and slept in his penciled words at night. One was addressed to my father when he was still a child. The last line read, “Be a good boy, and remember I love you.” I sealed it in a new envelope, then quietly mailed it, so he could receive those forgotten passages for the second time. It was one sheet of paper and a stamp. It weighed almost nothing.
The radio played “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. I rolled my car windows down on Coast Highway and understood how all the love we’re ever given can be invoked long after it’s gone.
When I signed up for a new Facebook account, the site’s algorithms suggested Luke as a friend. I saw he’d returned to the South, and there was a distant photograph of his lover on a cloudy beach with her bare legs drawn up, not seeing the camera, lovely in a reticent way.
I thought of time and death and this house while the furniture and spoons were carted off. I thought about my grandfather coming home from war. His tools untouched in the garage and the smell of them. The long years of my grandparents’ marriage. Going to work. Coming home from work. Buying groceries. Feeding each other. My dad with his surfboards and long hair. The swing set and the garden rats we feared after dark. Grandmama baking chocolate pies. The books she read to us under knit blankets in back rooms. The forts we built with clean sheets pilfered from the linen closet. All the times I skinned my knees in the front yard. The sting of antiseptic. My mother, sixteen, in a red halter top. I thought about how the people we need most become an architecture, a framework that shelters our lives, even after they’re gone. Cadence’s first word was spoken here: “Mama.” I was loved here. And I was alone for so many nights. That’s all that was left of this house. Watering the yard. Our rabbits under orange trees. The postcards we wrote. This house was a kind of love story that spanned generations, but soon it would be sold to people who didn’t know what it meant.
A month after Grandmama was buried, I flew to Georgia to visit an old friend. I’d been browsing real-estate listings online for months: hunting cabins in Alaska; vast, run-down farmhouses with acreage in New England. I imagined having a pack of dogs and a rifle. Somewhere to write. Somewhere my daughter could keep a fat pony with a name like Bubbles or Ginny. What I discovered is that it’s alarmingly easy to purchase forty acres, sight unseen, in Wyoming at 2 AM in your underwear, but I still wasn’t sure where we were going.
Lacey picked me up in Atlanta. Nine years had somehow passed, but she was still a slight, redheaded pixie in a short cotton dress, a dream-girl kind of girl. Outside the airport the Southern night was humid and buggy. She cleared the passenger seat to make room.
I met her husband and their four kids from previous marriages. We explored Athens and scribbled lists of all those absurd things we might do if Cadence and I relocated there.
She offered me a job at her gallery, and I fell for the elegant rusticity of its architecture, the wooden floors and hidden spaces, jagged stairs to an unfinished basement that had once housed an underground punk venue. She loaned a room to a songwriter boy who explored things like “pink noise,” restored photographs, and hung sheets of graffiti art. I fell for this idea of inventive community, for the people making strange, devastating, beautiful things.
Our last night together, we drank margaritas, then climbed out onto the roof of the gallery. Reaching the second level required hauling yourself up a wall. Lacey went first, demonstrating proper form and procedure, but I was laugh-crying so hard I got stuck halfway, one leg thrown over, the other dangling in a cowgirl boot. Later I found bruises. It got cold. We ran out of things to say. I pulled my shirt over my knees and listened. It was the place I’d been looking for — at least, for now.
Back in South Oceanside the orange trees had been cut down and the honeybees poisoned. There was no one left to wind the clocks, to pollinate the roses that grew in strange shapes from years of Grandmama’s frivolous pruning.
I found a blue candle I’d given my grandparents two decades ago, unlit in the china cabinet. I let it flicker on the kitchen table.
I’m here, I told them.
Sometimes I think about this line of ancestors who had to survive or we wouldn’t exist at all, not as we are; all those synchronistic moments, the happenstance of being somewhere at a pivotal time that probably seemed ordinary, the accidents that bring us forth or together, our flaws and eccentricities, our failures and wishes and striving. Sometimes I wonder if they were even people I would have liked, what their secret stories were, or if my daughter has their eyes.
Weeks after Luke disappeared, but before we left Humboldt County, Number 6 came home. I’d almost forgotten. The ink was weather-faded. His/her shell was worn. But it was like a message from the ghost of a boy, a snail-shaped love note from a happier time, sent back to remind me: Once there was this.
I loved Piper Vignette’s writing in her essay “The Ghost of a Boy” [December 2018] but was bothered by her characterization of mental illness. A person with a mental illness is not “broken.” It is not correct to say a person “is bipolar.” Would you say a person “is diabetes” or “is cancer”? Rather, a person has bipolar disorder — or, more preferable, “has been diagnosed with.” These labels are flawed, and the stigmas attached to them are persistent.
I agree with John Elliott, even though I do say, “I’m diabetic.” My body destroyed part of itself. Sometimes things just break inside of us.
However we’re labeled, or not labeled, Luke and I both require medication. I’m not a mental-health professional. I can only speak to my experience as a woman in love.