“Field #10” by Benjamin Wessel

An original memoir written in CW 352:  Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Prof. Elizabeth Geoghegan — Summer 2010


“Field #10”

Mom dropped us off.  Have fun, she told us; then, she drove away.

It was a cool evening—not atypical for late May in the Midwest.  No need for water or Gatorade, not that we brought that option with us.  All the kids gathered at Field #10, nowhere near Field #9 or Field #11, but in its own remote section—the far side of the park immediately preceding the sledding hill.  It wasn’t really a field in the sense of what a baseball field customarily comprises, but more so just grass. Random patches of dirt took away from even this simplicity. Pine trees played the role of boundaries more than anything and the short wooden fences seemingly made Field #10 a picnic area.  Cars irreverently rolled onto the grass and chairs were lined up on the edges. Nonetheless, it was where my first ever Little League practice would be conducted.

All the kids wore newly laced, leather gloves and were punching them as if they’d been here before, as if they knew what they were doing.  They were putting these red weights (I would later find out are termed “donuts”) on their bats and taking practice hacks at the air, simultaneously pretending they were Ruth or Aaron.  My brother Mike and I didn’t have a bat and probably for that didn’t know what the red thing was.  I got my glove—one which I had to re-tie after ten or so catches— from our older brother, who bought it at a garage sale down the road from our house.  The same went for Mike.

The other kids had cleats; Mike and I wore raggedy generic brand tennis shoes that we’d gotten half-priced at Payless.  They all wore baseball pants, the kind you can roll up for the high-socks look, looking like real baseball players; we wore hand-me-down sweats.  They chattered; we epitomized silence.  They looked so carefree and at ease, almost like they knew exactly what to expect; we just watched.

We were 9 year-old twins.  Dad had just passed away from the brain tumor that tortured him for a year and a half, and I was still indignant toward that truth.  Essentially, this was the first unknown we had traveled without his presence; at least, without knowing that we could talk about it later.  Today, I feel from situations like this, the unknown is my biggest fear.  I had many as a kid: my dad’s initial seizure; who he became for that year and a half; what we would do after his death; and now, this practice.  You would think I knew how to deal with it, but there is a reason it is fittingly labeled the unknown—there’s never certainty in dealing with it.

The first kid who caught my eye was Marty, the biggest of all the kids.  While all the others were throwing the ball around or talking to each other, he was taking practice swings with his black batting gloves and trotting around the bases, waving his right fist as if he’d just hit a game-winning home-run.  “See ya!” he yelled to the imaginary ball.  “All day, baby! Move over Hank, Marty’s coming through!”  Hot-shot ringleader was my youthful first impression.  Looking back, he was just confident and comfortable.  The other kids loved it.  The parents loved it.  I was confused.  I was uncomfortable.  I was reserved.

“All right, and what’s your name?” a mustached man asked, providing me a momentary respite from the overwhelming blank stares I was exhibiting.

“Ben.  This is my brother Mike.”

“Hey fellas, I’m Coach Greg.  Welcome to the Mariners.  We’re excited to have you guys.”  Everything he said was scripted, told to us for the 10th time within a span of 15 minutes.  We were mere indistinctive property—no different from any of the other guys—to which he could continue to test his opening words.  “Go ahead and throw around with the guys.”

The guys?  I didn’t know any of them.  I knew Mike, and that was it.  This was the first time I’d joined a team (aside from soccer…with my Dad as assistant coach); my “guys” consisted of friends from school and friends from the neighborhood.  These guys were none of them.  Their loud-mouthed clamoring and effortlessly emanated conceit (as I deemed it at the time) were ubiquitous, as if they had known each other for years and Mike and I were raining on their parade.  I felt like the new kid, desperately attempting to acclimate to the unknown.  Whereas they were unabashed to the new team, I was disconcerted.

See, there was a strikingly clear commonality that existed among the other teammates, a commonality that subconsciously elucidated their behavior—every kid’s dad was present.  Every kid’s dad was showing him how to hold the bat or throw the ball, joking with him about the play he just made.  Effectively, every kid was in his comfort zone, a smile illuminating from his face.  It was everyone’s first practice, but only Mike and I seemed to suggest that.  The dads knew what to expect and could relay that to their sons and theirs sons subsequently endured that guidance, exhibiting comfort and poise, knowledge and certainty.  They coalesced into one team, with each dad representing part of the overall lurking variable.

Our dad had been a baseball player.  I recall my aunt telling me a story of Dad when he was our age.  His family had inconveniently scheduled a family vacation at the same time as his Little League championship game.  He was the team’s ace pitcher.  He couldn’t miss it, but his family had already booked his flight.  Knowing how vital my dad was to that team, his coach offered to pay for his plane ticket if his parents let him stay and win that game.  He stayed.  They won.  Coach bought him a plane ticket.

He loved the game with such immense passion, had he been here, that field would have been wholly innocent kids throwing the ball around—excited about his new journey in which they were traveling.  Instead, without speaking for my brother, one was scared.

Coach told me to go play shortstop.  “What’s that?”  “It’s in the infield.  Between 2nd and 3rd base.”   “Oh,” I muttered back.  Dad could have told me that.  Mike was put in the outfield.  Left field.  He started jogging towards right; not that he couldn’t discern right from left, he just didn’t know in which perspective you were supposed to reference the positions (looking as the batter).  Dad could have told him that.

Marty got to pitch.  That looked fun.  But of course I didn’t ask coach if I could pitch.  Asking that question required confidence; confidence came with having Dad.  Dad wasn’t there.

All the other positions were respectively filled, and the remaining players lined up to bat.  I don’t remember who the first batter was, but I remember the way he approached the frightening idea of standing in the box with a baseball targeting you.  He started to stretch, using the bat as a facilitator.  Then he ran up, tapped his bat (actually his bat) around home plate a few times, circled it in the air a few times, and got in his stance, patiently waiting as Marty chucked the ball.  He wasn’t remotely nervous.  He was comfortable.

“What was that?”  a cross-armed man in khakis and loafers innocuously barked, whom I presumed to be Marty’s dad.  “A changeup?”  He proceeded to sway his 6’2 frame, nudging the dad standing next to him, as if he were hinting that his joke was indeed a good one.  It worked.  Everyone laughed, including all the other kids.

Marty laughed and frivolously shook his head.  “No, haha!  That was my fastball.”

Meanwhile, I was lost.  What’s a changeup?  Is that where the ball changes directions mid-air?  Or, maybe it’s when the pitcher pretends like he’s doing something else, gets the batter in a state of lull, and then hurls the ball.  I figured the mid-air direction change was the most plausible explanation, and went with that.  I was in awe that someone could do that.

No.  That’s not what a changeup is.  Dad could have told me that.

See, Marty knew what a changeup was.  He probably watched TV with his dad.  His dad probably explained all the different pitch types to him, told him the names of all the positions and their respective responsibilities.  He probably took him to games to get first-hand experience.  His dad could joke with him and emit from him a sense of confidence and fun.

Dad never did that with me; he never had time to.

It was my turn to bat.  I didn’t know which one to use.  Coach let me borrow his.  Thank God I knew how to hold one.  I blindly stepped to the plate and stood there.  Though I knew how to hold the bat, I didn’t know how to stand, didn’t know how to do the pre-bat ritualistic tapping that the first batter did.  I didn’t know much and, on top of that, I was scared shitless that Marty was going to throw a “changeup” at me, wherein it starts right down the middle, then alters course and clocks me in the head (as my ignorant aforementioned beliefs suggested).  Anyone could tell.

Marty the out-spoken informed me that he was going to give me the ‘heater.’  I didn’t need an explanation for that one.  I was too preoccupied with the potential pain he could inflict on me that I failed to smile at the harmless remark.  Dads were hollering at their sons, telling them to be ready, get in good position and make a play.  Marty wound up.  I quivered.  Before the ball could reach the plate, I had already scurried a foot outside the box in an unnecessary attempt to avoid the ball.  Marty’s dad hollered, “Good pitch!”  Our coach advised me, “OK Ben, just stay in there.”  I got the hang of staying in there, but the recurrence of Marty’s dad guiding him while the coach guided me was overwhelming, disappointing and, frankly, unfair.   Coach shouldn’t have guided me.  Dad should have guided me.

We took a five minute break.  For me, physically it was a break, but mentally it was anything but— my mind raced through so many thoughts.  All the kids went to Dad and got advice; got a hand rubbed on their shoulder; they laughed while sipping their Gatorade that Dad bought; they made plans for after practice to go to McDonald’s, Dad’s treat.  Mike and I just stood stagnant.  I crossed my arms, clenching my glove to my chest, and simply watched.  Aimlessly.  We had nothing to do, nothing to say.  My feeling was a muddle of envy and emptiness.   I was in a whirlwind of perpetual thoughts and wishes.  Everything seemed like a bad dream.  The worst part about it?  Everything was an irreversible reality.

Practice continued without my Dad much like life had.  And it continued.  And continued.  Like a bad date it never seemed to end.  The sky never seemed to get dark.  The other kids never seemed to lose interest.  The dads never seemed to stop encouraging.  I never seemed to fit in.  Cones and bases, whistles and laughs, gloves and bats…they all commingled with the rest of the kids.  Not with me.  The terms and players and rules and fundamentals were clearly understood by my teammates.  Not by me.

I don’t even know that the knowledge of the game is what I needed.  I didn’t need to know—at least, at that point—to keep my glove on the ground, to keep my eye on the ball or what that crazy changeup thing was.  I didn’t need my own bat, my own cleats, or a sufficient glove that wasn’t always falling apart.  But I needed Dad.  I was alone, surrounded by kids who weren’t.

I ended up being the best player for that team.  I became the team’s ace, ironically somewhere around the same time my mom told me another story about my dad.  In high school, he had a perfect game going into the last inning.  A ground ball was hit to his short stop.  He muffed it and my dad lost the perfect game…the one thing that every young pitcher dreams of.

Not only is it from situations like this that I fear the unknown, but it’s from situations like this—the bigger picture, having an indelible void of no father—that I’d matured quicker than most of those kids.  I ended up being the same pretentious, carefree player that they all were, but I was able to do that without that one person constantly by my side.  I was able to do that without that one person who fueled my emanation of the typical nine-year-old baseball player.  I was able to do that without Dad.

—by Benjamin Wessel

“My Life in Color(s)” by Nicholas Paola

An original memoir written in CW 352:  Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Prof. Elizabeth Geoghegan — Summer 2010


“My Life in Color(s)”

WHITE

I can close my eyes and see every moment like I am still there, suspended in time, the bright glare of the sun forcing me to furrow my brow as I hop around the pool in the late morning of a summer day. Beads of sweat much hotter than the glinting water of the pool form on my forehead as, stinging my eyes as they drip down. I chase lizards through the heat. My nimble six-year-old fingers out maneuver any of the little brown reptiles and catch them, heedless of the tails coming off that will soon be placed in my plate as a prank thanks to my Uncle Diego.

As I stand for a moment in the dead humid air I can look up through squinting eyes at the blue sky through the black screen above the pool held up by white supports. Clouds scattered about the sky shy away from the sun as if it could burn them from ninety-eight million miles away. I stop for a moment to wonder why light takes eight minutes to reach the earth (a fact which I had just recently learned). I look across the pool through the screen to the backyard sloping down beyond it, filled with the rough grass that seems to only grow in Florida. At the end of the backyard a short barbed wire fence stands between any hungry passerby and a seemingly endless grove of juicy, sweet Florida Oranges. I remember many a time that my grandmother, still in her fifties, would step down on the fence for me to crouch through so she and I could pilfer some of the delicious fruit.

Walking back to the doors of the house, my bare feet enjoying the rough and rocky pool deck made of pebbles, I feel the shade suddenly sheltering me from the white hot sun which had been baking me alive in my Lion King pajamas. The cool shock of air conditioning and the freezing white tiles immediately begin to lower my body temperature. Inside it is dark after the harsh light of the sun. My grandparents have not yet moved down from New York at this point in my life, but my maternal grandmother spends many weeks at my house and my aunt on my mother’s side lives only an hour away. This particular morning my grandmother is here and so is my aunt. I call my grandmother Mita (she explained “Mita” follows this logic: Grandma, Grandmita, Mita). I call my aunt Titi, as it is common in my family. They sit at the kitchen counter (still too high for me to see over) and chatter in Spanish.

I cannot yet completely understand the language, but something about just listening to them is comforting and when they laugh I laugh. I think of how I can only understand Italian and English. I wish that I had learned both. I feel somehow like I missed an opportunity. I do not know that it’s just because my mom doesn’t speak to me in Spanish as much as my father speaks to me in Italian.

I run and leap onto the green leather couch across the tile and carpet and settle on its smooth surface. I lay down feeling my heart pounding in my ears after finally coming to rest after lizard-chasing and taking that running leap. I try to enjoy the coolness of the leather before my body heat inevitably warms it up and I have to move. As I lay there I look at the green rug on the floor and recall the time I rolled myself in it and nearly panicked at not being able to move my arms and legs.

I look up at my three family members sitting around the kitchen counter. I think back to a time that I now know was at least four years before. I was around two years old and it was winter in West Virginia. I walked in from the bright white world outside into the warm, wooden, and cavernous staircase. At a table at the top I could see my mother, Titi, and Mita. In my hands I held a snowball shaped by my father. It is massive to me. When I carried it upstairs and sat at the table with the three of them one of them-I can’t remember which-told me I could eat it. So I did.

BLUE

I am on the dark burning sands of a beach in Calabria-the land my father says is our real home. Well it doesn’t feel like home, but the superheated summers here are a fantasy to me at nine years of age. My brother and sister, twins, are six and hold hands in the surf under the watchful eye of my mother who holds her People magazine between her thin fingers topped in a French manicure. I can hear my sister scream shrilly with delight as the cold water nearly knocks her over and my brother laughs. He holds her with his left hand and his right is in the air in a fist clenched against the frigid surf.

I look down into the yellow mask. I swish around my mouth to get the gooiest gob of spit I can and then it goes flying onto the inside of the lens. I immediately stick my fingers in it and wipe it all over the lens, making sure to get every inch covered with my saliva.

“Ugh, that is so disgusting!” my mother exclaims.

“But mom!” I try again for the millionth time, “It stops the mask from fogging up!”

“I don’t care. It’s still gross.”

I shrug my shoulders and turn to the water flickering and roaring in front of me. I brace myself with a few deep breaths before the plunge. I run forward ignoring as best as I can the goose bumps rushing up my body. I take the last two steps through the surf before I feel its deep enough and my feet leave the rocks. After my head breaks the surface I am in a different world. Quiet blueness extends forward into nothing. Giant rocks the size of my body litter the bottom that slowly slopes downward for a few yards before dipping down about twenty feet. It is this edge that I swim towards. Once I am there I turn over and move as quickly as I can to the bottom. I grab a hold of a rock that I can carry and use it as a weight to let me walk along instead of floating. It is red and oval shaped. In the cool water I stand for a moment and look at my surroundings. The surface sparkles with sunlight. It is the last barrier between this watery world and the garish one above. In the silence I feel at peace and for as long as my lungs can keep me down here I stay.

I step over the other rocks slowly as I walk through the cool landscape. I can feel the need for air growing slowly in my chest. I have precious few seconds before I must leave the clear water for a breath. I take one last look at the wondrous empty world around me. When I turn my head to the right I discover it is not empty. No more than a foot from my mask, drifting with its lazy attempts to swim, is a jellyfish. It’s a foot and a half across—wider than my head by a lot—and probably two feet long. It’s mostly white except for a dark purple ring around the circumference of its head. I drop the rock and push away. I jet backwards and up, bubbles shooting out of my mouth and nose just before I come back to the breezy sunny air above and take a sharp breath.

I swim as fast as I can towards shore. I pull off my mask when the water is waist high. It is at this point that I fail to see the danger behind me. When I feel the water rushing back against me so hard that I cannot walk it is too late. I turn to see the wave above me. Covered in foam like a great white monster it smashes its front against me and I am plunged into chaos and swirling sands. I try to right myself but am twisted in the tumbling waters and my face is smashed against the hard bottom. My body is pulled up over my head and my neck twists at an odd angle. I wonder, is this breaking your neck? Finally friction gives way to sheer force and my face is wrenched from the sand.

I sense that I am face down for a second and the wave is calming. I push my hands and feet down into the sand and force myself up and forward. I come out into the world, my vision wavy and my ears ringing. I see my mother standing with her eyes wide. I take a few steps out of the water and stagger. I try to breathe in. I can’t. I take one more step, throw my head back and forwards with one great breath out-like a sneeze. Rocks and sand fly out of my nose and I breathe in the sea air with relief. I take a moment to realize that I’ve just shot beach out of my nose and, despite the fear only a few seconds ago, I laugh.

GREEN

I am seven and I stand on the cool stone of a balcony in the early morning. Down below me is the tropical landscape of Puerto Rico. The sun is climbing up between the bright green hills shaped like ovals stood on their sides. The misty morning is slowly giving way to the clarity of day and I can feel the air becoming too hot and humid for the clothes I am wearing. I lean against the cement railing and look down at the field below, across a dirt road leading up to the mint green house.

I think of breakfast, pancakes with syrup, thick juicy pineapple grown right beneath the kitchen window, and the slippery slices of sweet mango so dark orange on the inside with tropical goodness. I haven’t eaten yet and I stand listening to the chickens and the dogs going about their early morning routines. The screen door opens behind me and I can hear my great uncle Diego walk up behind me. He leans against the railing, towering over me. I look over to him. He’s old, his head covered with white hair and his face, dark from the tropical sun, sports a thick grey mustache. His face creases with a smile and I listen as he sings quietly about Davy Crockett in his thick accent in the morning air like he always does.

He may be old, but he’s still so full of life and strength. He reminds me of Captain Quint from Jaws but with the greatest personality any uncle could have. He’s a professional at making funny sounds like cats screeching or roosters crowing. He doesn’t know what I’m thinking, but sure is amazing at guessing. I remember the countless times he would open a Heineken with his bare hands and then fold the cap in half  with two fingers in a second like it was aluminum foil. Then he would tell me to try and unfold it. It would take me forever.

I look down at the fields again. I have just seen The Lost World and recall the scene when the main characters run through tall grass and are attacked by Velociraptors. I want to go run around the field. I ask him if it’s safe or if there are snakes. He tells me it’s safe. Of course he does. If he’s answering me it’s always the answer I want to hear. I think of when I might want to go down to the fields. I don’t think we have any plans today and I am sure my brother or sister would like to come with me. I become lost in thought.

The sun pulls itself over the hills; a blue car passes in the distance on the main road. A little brown dog runs up the dirt driveway. His name is Bobby, but everyone here has Puerto Rican accents. They can only say “Booby,” so that’s what I call him. I shout his name and his ears perk up. He yips and barks with excitement and my great grandmother downstairs yells in Spanish for him to shut up. He still looks as excited as before. I wonder if dogs can learn commands in Spanish as well as English.

My stomach rumbles with hunger and breakfast wanders back into my mind once again. The sounds of my great aunt (I call her Titi Elida) in the kitchen make the morning feel less secluded. I hear her shuffling around in her slippers. Pans and cooking utensils clang as if no one in the house is sleeping. The morning loses its stillness and the day is becoming hot. The sun over to my right is no longer blocked by the strange hills and burns brightly. The wide leaves of banana trees shine in the light and plantains are visible hanging in green clusters. Breadfruits hang like giant green golf balls and mangos swing on their long vines below dark leaves.

Wind rushes through the grass and gusts up to us on the balcony, weak from its trip across the fields, but still enough to bring some relief from the growing heat. I hop off the railing and walk towards the screen door. I don’t make it two steps before Uncle Diego grabs my attention by speaking.

“Nick, do you know what Cackoomachu is?”

“No.”

“Oh good. Me neither.”

He smiles, dark wrinkles around his squinting eyes.

RED

I am between six and ten still. I am on the aged wooden floor of Mita’s house on Long Island. The lights in the house are dark and the only light comes in sideways through the screen covering the open front doorway. It is a summer day, but not like the white hot summers at home in central Florida. I am not sweating. My bare feet are comfortable on the cool smooth surface shining with the pale sunlight. Out the front door I see the sky veiled by a healthy layer of clouds. The white couches, leather, are cool as well. I know because I have spent any afternoons lying on them loving the drop in temperature I could feel as soon as I spread myself across them.

I can hear my friends, siblings, and cousins playing outside in the driveway. I had been outside with them on rollerblades and bicycles, but was inside taking a break. My oldest friend, Lexie, is outside as well. We have known one another since we were two weeks old and on my visits to Long Island we are inseparable. We spend entire days splashing in the pool, racing, and bickering like real siblings.

I turn around and look into the small kitchen. The warm colors of dark wood frame the kitchen in the form of cabinets and counters. The gas stove sits, black and immobile, next to the sliding door to the backyard. Through this door I can see the bright green trees above the silky grass, all waving in a gentle summer breeze. This was nothing like central Florida where the pine trees and palms all looked drained of such a vibrant emerald sheen and the grass is always rough and itchy.

In my hand I hold a piece of lasagna, just the pasta, hard and uncooked. It is a habit I have never shaken to every once in a while wander into the kitchen and grab some raw pasta to begin crunching on-lasagna is my favorite. I bring it up to my mouth and enjoy the deafening crackling noises filling my head. The ruffles on the side crumble satisfyingly between my teeth.

That’s when I hear the scream. I whip my head around to the front door, my mouth still full of cracked lasagna. A shadow blocks the sunlight streaming in the doorway. My Uncle Waldo, a giant barrel of a man-over 300 pounds-bursts into the house. Cradled in his arms like a wailing ragdoll is Lexie, the rollerblades still hanging heavily on her feet. I try to make eye contact, but her eyes are shut while her mouth is open expressing nothing but pain.

Her forehead is shiny with blood. I know immediately she has fallen on the uneven and rocky driveway. It’s seamless from her eyebrows to black hairline and drips down around the outside of her face. My uncle hurries around me and I am left standing there just as I was only a few seconds before, but with so much more on my mind now than raw pasta. He sits her on the counter in the kitchen and in a few moments he has her calm, but I am already out the front door in the cloudy summer sunlight. I walk awkwardly down the rocky driveway on bare feet to where she must have fallen.

I see the driveway is uneven and parts of it are almost sharp. Her older brother, James, points to where she hit her head and takes the blame for her injury. I look down near my feet at the blank driveway. There is nothing; not a mark or spot of blood to show where it happened. I wonder why such a grisly looking injury left no signature. I lift the last bit of lasagna to my mouth and crack it between my teeth.

BLACK

I don’t know how old I am. I walk into my house with my backpack pulling down on my shoulders, heavy with books and homework. I am taller than I was when I went to Puerto Rico because when I walk into the bright house I can see over the counter tops to my mother sitting in a kitchen chair. She holds a phone in her hand, but the screen is dark. I walk over to her. Her normally tan face looks grey despite the late afternoon glow shining off the beige cabinets. The house is quiet except for her breathing and my own because my brother and sister are not home yet.

I ask what is wrong. I don’t even have to guess that she’s feeling unwell. She’s not hiding her grief, which means it is my grief as well. My mother would never share something that bothered only her.

“Uncle Diego is sick,” she says this with the cold whisper of despair she used when she told me that the World Trade Center had been destroyed by terrorists.

I want to ask if he’ll be ok, but I already know he won’t only by the sound of her voice. I cannot yet let go of the innocence of childhood yet and so I ask, “will he be ok?”

“I don’t think so,” I see my mother struggles with the same issue. In this moment is it better to shelter me or tell the truth? She eventually tells me he has cancer. He is dying.

I say nothing. What can be said? My eyes do not feel hot with tears. There is no lump in my throat. I feel nothing, only a feeble attempt to accept that the last time I saw him will stay the last time. I didn’t tell him he was the funniest person I’d ever known or that his nonsense questions were what made life make sense sometimes. I never told him that he was the uncle I wanted to be to my nieces and nephews. I realize that any jokes I remember, any lessons I can recall, are all I have left and I must never forget them because he is gone. These are the things I want to bring to my younger cousins and future generations when I am as old and grey as he is. I still cannot fold a bottle cap in my fingers like aluminum foil, but maybe one day I will be able to.

For now he is gone and I have nothing from him but memories and a few old photographs in my Titi Elida’s house in the hills in tropical Puerto Rico. My mom’s eyes well up with tears and as they drip down her face they catch mascara, pulling long trails of black behind them.

PURPLE & ORANGE

I am eighteen. I hold the purple paper in my hands. After years of saying that I wanted to go to New York University and being met with disbelief and doubt I hold the little envelope. Inside, in black print against an off-white page, is the acceptance letter. As a fourteen year old I would have never guessed that setting such a goal would result in me achieving it. I smile at the bittersweet nature of the moment. I look down at the orange shirt I am wearing. In big blue letters it reads:  “FLORIDA GATORS.”

The state school that I am already enrolled in now feels like a jail. The envelope and its contents are useless now. Five feet down the hallway there is a bathroom with a trashcan, but I do not want to throw it away. Here I hold something I have earned. It is the culmination of a dream and work—physical, tangible, and beautiful. Dreams are so precious because they are not material or visual. One cannot hold a dream or show it to their friends. Here my dream has descended into the dimensions of the human eye and the human touch.

I place it in a cabinet neatly and close it from the world for now. I look up and out my window to the suburban land beyond. The sun is falling into the horizon down between the darkening pines. The sky, thick with clouds, is glowing orange so brightly that it looks like neon paint has been spread in a streak with two fingers across the sky. Above the orange, hanging neatly without the sporadic appearance of hastily applied paint, the sky is a soft shade of purple in all directions away from the sun.


—written by Nicholas Paola

“Daddy’s Mom” by Christopher Beyers

An original profile written in CW 352:  Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Prof. Elizabeth Geoghegan — Summer 2010


“Daddy’s Mom”

Both of my surviving grandparents—my mommy’s dad, and my daddy’s mom—moved south to Arizona within one year of each other. The moves were not coordinated. One can’t expect one’s unrelated relatives to communicate. But it seemed a peculiar turn of events for us, the kids and grandkids they have in common. Because Grandma and Grandpa had long learned to revel in—even to profit from—the cold winters here on the East Coast. They had gotten used to us being within driving distance (albeit a long drive, a painful drive—with lots of poking and bickering in the back seat). They were healthy as racehorses. And they both had the misfortune of getting remarried to partners who proved unhealthy; who didn’t know how to revel at all.

My mom’s mother I wish I could have met. She died when mommy was on the eve of marriage—engaged, I think—to daddy. (So I’m not sure he got to meet her, either.) We were both told she was a kind soul, and had a beautiful voice (which my mother also had, before she lost it to a virus), and meant all the world to everybody, including Grandpa, such that Grandpa was something like a dingo’s kidney when he decided to move on as quickly as he did. The death itself was unexpected, but shouldn’t have been. A heart failure that should have shown up as a murmur, but somehow slipped through the physicals and the check-ups like the four-leafed clover in that song. Genetic, but mommy and her sister and brother are home free. At least, that’s the story I’ve heard.

My dad’s father I may possibly have met, but at best I would have drooled at him as he lay in a hospital bed. He may have held me. He died of cancer in the year 1990, when I was a year and a half young and my sister was smaller than small. It was, “A raging cancer,” as daddy says. A cancer of the everything, as Kurt Vonnegut may have put it. “His was a long drawn-out illness…He was a bit of a raging lunatic in the end.” I was the first grandchild he wouldn’t get to see grow old.

As my father says, his father and his mother had fallen, by this time, into “Irreconcilable differences,” although she still cared for him, still “loved him,” in the final months. The differences, according to my father, had been irreconcilable for longer than Grandma had realized. I’ve gathered that her husband was, shall we say, probably in need of AA for the better part of his life, and “could be” verbally—though not physically—abusive. Grandma was a peacekeeper. She turned daddy into the sort of person who volunteers to be a Resident Advisor when he goes to college. And peace-keeping wasn’t always easy with four boys in the house all vying for position.

Grandma wanted a daughter, and kept trying until she got one.

According to daddy, Grandma was “Always the one to tell us [kids] that everything would be okay.” He used an old adage to describe her, saying, “There is nothing she wouldn’t do for us.” From this I’ve taken the Grandma did most of the parenting, as well as most of the driving of the kids to school and to soccer practice. I didn’t really see this, though; this Grandma of the generous good-will. I saw Grandma of the kind-hearted-from-a-distance, Grandma the grumpy-up-close. She handled the raising of her own kids well, but has had some trouble connecting with the next generation. Not that she didn’t try, or isn’t trying. It’s just, I’ve always sort of been under the impression that she’s tried to buy us off.

I believe the “buying off” is a symptom of having so many kids you have to let be kids, and then have to let no longer be kids, and then, finally, have to part with. It’s the result of conscious efforts to real yourself in, to put an end to the rearing, to let mistakes happen so lessons can be made by them. My parents say that I never take the time to get to know grandma, while I’ve maintained that grandma never takes the time to get to know me. Both are accurate complaints, and could be made about or by any one of my cousins. The fact is, Grandma doesn’t talk much unless probed. She tries to reach us, the grandkids, through our parents. She doesn’t respond to letters or e-mail, because she forgets. She tries to show her love in other ways. In the beginning, it was books.

Grandma was a librarian through to retirement, and got free books by the bagful. She’d leave them in the middle of the living room, and daddy would tell us she’d said we could pick through. She’d be perched by them in an easy chair—herself pretending to read—looking over her reading glasses at the selections we’d make. “Oh, so you like the Hardy Boys?” And my father would say, “Tell your grandma thank-you.” I don’t think our trips were ever frequent enough that I ‘liked’ the same thing twice, but she took note of our choices. And when she retired, and the books disappeared from the living room floor, she chose another tactic to express her love for us: she married a fellow.

Certainly, Grandma always liked Mark. But I’m not convinced that any knots would have happened between them if Grandma had not had grandkids. Mark, to be honest, is a little rambunctious and a little immature. He’s in his fifties to her late sixties: only a half dozen years, or so, older than her oldest child. And the function he serves is the same, I think, as her oldest child’s function, as it relates to her childrens’ children. She liked Mark, but she grew to love him for the way he bridged the gap between us and her. He’s like a medium through which miracles can happen. He’s been great.

Mark always has a “big toy,” and lots of “little toys.” His “big toy”, when Grandma was beginning to realize how great he was with us, was a jet ski. This turned, as mark grew tired of it, into a motorboat that me, all my cousins, he and Grandma could all ride in together, as long as Grandma didn’t think we were going too fast. Gradually, though, Mark’s elusive, indefinable condition, which leaves him exhausted and gasping for breath after showing no signs of fatigue whatsoever, made a doctor of his, somewhere along the line, recommend he move somewhere easier on the organs. Moving meant he’d no longer be a short drive from a lake, so the boat went. So did the hammock and the trampoline. Now I think he has a moped, but I haven’t seen him get to show it off yet.

He and Grandma invited all of us to their wedding reception, after the pact had already been made in a small church in central Maryland. It was strictly a within-family affair, and strictly within-Grandma’s family to boot. I remember it being a happy, quick, kid-friendly event with balloons and music and dancing. I don’t remember if Grandma had a bouquet, or whom she might have thrown it to. Every adult in attendance was already hitched.

Mark did seem to give Grandma new energy in a lot of respects. She got into running for awhile, and continued—completing a few marathons, albeit slowly—before her toes curled over each other like thigmotropic vines. She took a few chances, too, and made a few mistakes. She decided to opt for laser-eye surgery when laser-eye surgery was still a brand new procedure. She had videos, even.

I remember one time when we cousins were over at her old house, her big East Coast house, the one she had bought in the double figures, expanded on, expanded on, and sold, at the peek of the Maryland housing market, for about half a million (though not all of it, I don’t think, was owned on a librarian’s salary), she played that laser-eye surgery video on loop for the company’s enjoyment. As was her custom, she didn’t attend the performance, and in this case didn’t check that it was attended. I think she thought little boys (and all seven of us at the time were little boys except—Thank God!—my sister) would be festinated by all the cutting and peeling away with the focused beams of light. We weren’t. It made us squeamish, with the possible exception of my sister, every time we entered the room. (My sister was the most boy-like of all of us, much to Grandma’s disappointment.)

I bet she sits on those tapes, though. I bet she sits on them, and I bet if she were to show them to a lawyer she could get a hefty settlement out of the doctors that preformed that surgery on her. She would never do it, of course, because she would never admit the surgery didn’t work. Everyone in the extended family knows she can’t see well, but she hasn’t told us, she’s stayed strong, she’s played it cool. Grandma’s biggest weakness is she doesn’t show weakness, which I suspect the bringing up of her four boys may have done to her. “Can you read that sign for me, Chris?”

“Good, I was just making sure you could read it.”

When most of us were old enough not to need spankings, Grandma started offering to take us grandkids for a week at a time while the parents went on outings. About these my dad admits, now, “We were always a little worried, but we didn’t want to hurt your grandma’s feelings.” He was worried, partly, because most of the fun was “unstructured.” Grandma tended to think we’d have the best blast if left to our own devices. And tended to give us plenty of toys to practice our devices on. But primarily the worry was born out of Grandma’s poor eyesight, and of her getting old, and of her ability to lose track of any one of us, at any time, when we went on, say, a long bike-ride, on which it was very possible—at least conceivable—that she might fall and break her hip. At these times, as a kid, I almost certainly misinterpreted my Grandma’s good, honest efforts to make sure we didn’t wander off as “grumpiness”, the same way a kid might misinterpret service for friendship when, say, the man behind the counter flashes a professional smile at you.

One bit of structured fun I remember concernedly was a “river tubing” trip. On the car ride over, Mark kept calling it “white water,” and Grandma kept correcting him. He’d say, “Oh honey, it’s at least a two out there,” or something. She’d turn around at us, generally, and say, “He’s exaggerating. It’s not that bad.” He’d laugh. I, in the back, was privately hoping it was at least “that bad.” I was hoping for a chance to tumble. I was also thinking about the excuses Grandma always made so that Mark would drive, and whether she thought she was fooling us or not. The last time Grandma drove my sister about, when we were at a vacation home and Grandma wasn’t on familiar streets, my sister reports that, “We ended up in the middle of a wheat field. Like, off the road. We were completely lost.”

Grandma denies this story.

When we got to the river, Grandma set up camp. “I’m too old for tubing.” But before we took a shuttle upstream, where we could rent tubes out and drift downriver, Grandma wanted to make sure were all protected from the sun. She got out a can of spray and went to work on my cousins Sammy and Casey. Sammy squirmed away after awhile, the older of the two, beginning to get self-conscious about the process, but she was generous with Casey, who was good-natured about her fussing. Casey has a lot of skin. He is not overweight (although he probably was, a little bit, at the time) – but he had already reached the critical mass that had coaches—of soccer, baseball, basketball, football—what have you, trying to recruit him willy-nilly through elementary and middle school hallways.

After seeing the thoroughness with which she worked on Casey, my sister and declined to be next. “Come on” she said, “you’re gonna burn.”

“I don’t want any,” my sister said.

“How about you,” she said at me, brandishing the spray can like a rolled newspaper.

I felt confident, in light of my sister’s refusal and the lack of repercussions for it. I said, “No thanks.”

“O-K”, she say, letting her voice rise and fall, emphasizing the “K” sound, turning her back to us and throwing the can in the back seat. She wouldn’t hold this over us if we burned, she wouldn’t say “I told you so,” but we’d hear about it from our parents.

The river, once we got to the head of it, was not white water. We made fun of Mark about this, which put him in fits of giggles. The water was brown and slow-moving and wide and shallow. It was probably the safest natural river you can imagine. In fact, it was so safe, I needed to get out a few times to try to push my tube along. I even tried to self-capsize. We took to splashing each other. The river was maybe a meandering mile, mile and a half before it found its way to Grandma’s camp. This took perhaps an hour and a half, during which, floating on our backs with the sun near its zenith, my sister and I had probably burned. But Casey’s skin was red, too. And what’s more, when we took our tubes out of the water, he was screaming.

Grandma hustled to him. “What’s wrong? You’ll be Okay. Oh, you’ll be okay.”

I repeated Grandma’s question, “What’s happening?”

Mark responded. Along the lines of, “I don’t know. Looks like he got into something. A bug bite, or something.”

It didn’t look like a bug bite to me. Poor Casey was probably not in much pain, or he would have started screaming sooner. His skin may have itched. The sight of it, I think, is what got to him. It looked terrible, much of his back and belly dermis raised and red and puffy-looking, a truly frightening thing to find on your own body. To me—and I’m not an expert, but I am a biology guy and now have a Biology degree—it looked like an allergic reaction.

Gradma will never admit to what happened, and maybe she doesn’t know. But my sister and I looked in the back seat after we got back to Grandma’s place. There was spray-on suntan lotion back there, but there was also a can with a skull and crossbones on it, next to some fine print. Still, Grandma shouldn’t have needed reading glasses to know not to methodically rub that stuff into Casey.

She had sprayed him with RAID.

We grandkids still love Grandma, and rightfully, as I’ve said, for all that she does for us behind the scenes. For the last four years or so, she has rented a beach house for us (all her sons and son’s sons, and son’s wives, and son’s daughter) somewhere up north—the finger lakes, or the great lakes, or along the Atlantic Ocean—and pays for the whole, mammoth place herself. She does not have a lot of money, and almost put of this expense a year or a couple of years ago, until she “Came into some money.”

Those are my Gradma’s words. My dad prodded her, though, gradually, slowly, got the truth out of her by degrees. Gradma had come into some money, it’s true. The source: she had taken a second mortgage out on her Arizona house.

And although she doesn’t say much to us, you can tell she is constantly thinking of us all. Every cheesy American holiday, every birthday, every anniversary of something-or-other, Grandma sends all of us a card, which consistently contains a couple of dollars. This tradition started when school started for me, and continues now that I have graduated. The cards are usually silly—Charlie brown, maybe a dog gag or a blond joke (which Gradma has always liked, despite that she is blond)—to which Grandma never adds a personalized message, but always seems to have put deep thought into. The cards are each different (the one I get has never been the same as my Sister’s), and scrawled at the bottom, in her handwriting, is:

XOXO,

Grandma.

—written by Christopher Beyers

“Twin” by Benjamin Wessel

An original memoir written in CW 352:  Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Prof. Elizabeth Geoghegan — Summer 2010


“Twin”

Matt said he was going to run away if the third set of twins didn’t involve boys.  My parents wanted to stop after the first five kids, leaving Matt screwed with four sisters and zero brothers.  Lucky for him, mistakes happen.  Lucky for him, this mistake involved two boys.

Mike and I are the youngest set.  The oldest in our family, Nicki, is the only non-twin.  Matt and Kim followed her as the boy-girl set and Amy and Beth as the girl-girl.  For the most part, the three oldest seemed to get along.  Matt never had anything to fight with the others about because he was the only boy around, and the fact that Nicki and Kim weren’t twins, at least in our family, seemed to preclude any potential conflict.

Amy and Beth fought…all the time.  Beth would steal Amy’s clothes and slyly put them back in her closet as if to suggest that they were there the whole time.  Beth would beat Amy in a game of HORSE and Amy would subsequently start chucking balls at her (as Amy is far and away the most competitive in the family).  Amy’s pink bed sheets would lie throughout the day positioned as they were when morning broke and this would trigger Beth to fury over the cleanliness of their room.  Beth, after a stage of complete social confusion—baggy, black Jinko jeans with a chained wallet dangling from the side pocket, hair intentionally greased to the side like the guys from “Grease”—finally turned pretty, and Amy, being the athlete, thought this contradicted their athletic Wessel image.  So, they argued.

Sometimes these arguments turned ugly.  Doors slammed.  Cheeks burned red and tears emasculated their toughness.  It was hard to watch, this vulnerability at its most sensitive point.  One would think Mike and I learned from the earlier twins.  While we weren’t as bad, we still argued.  We fought.  Over stupid things.  (At least in retrospect.  At the time they seemed monumental.)  But that’s the nature of being a twin.  We argued over girls, over what show to watch, over where Mom would take us to eat, over whose turn it was to vacuum or do the dishes.  People constantly tell us that they would die to have a twin; that they would be best guy friends and would share girls and do crazy shit together.  Ignorantly, they fail to realize that not only would they probably not share girls, but that so much inherent trouble comes with being a twin, as previously shown, and so much conflict ensues.

Mike and I got in trouble and on each other’s nerves.  Curiosity and girls seemed to be the primary reasons.

Kindergarten.  Best grade ever.  We didn’t have to go in until noon and literally played with toys all day.  Downside to starting so late?  Mike and I usually had to get up with our mom and do all the errands:  go to the post office; go to the library; get the car washed; go to the hardware store…seemingly an endless array of monotonous, mind numbing tasks.  Every one of these chores (I feel chore is a qualified label) gave me a headache.

Especially the library.

The library is quiet.  Mike and I were five years old on this specific day, clearly unable to read.  Occasionally we would get a “Where’s Waldo” book, but at this point we had found him everywhere.  Mission accomplished.  So, we tended to robotically follow our mom around while she picked up some books.  The deadness in the library impelled my mind to ring in boredom and ache.  The bookshelves were a dull brown, the carpet a dull gray.  It smelled like old books, as if they had been sitting on the shelves untouched for centuries.  And there were many old people.  All of these added to my state of boredom and my morning headache.

Our mom is a talker.  She knows many people due to her personable demeanor and outward bubblyness.  This fact tended to delay each stop in the mornings.  What should have been no more than a 30 minute stay at the library, on this particular morning, lasted over an hour (it only actually lasted an hour—to us, as bored to death five year olds, it seemed like much longer than that).

She was talking to some old friend:  a lady her age with long black hair and a wardrobe that fit in perfectly with the banality of the library.  Their conversation droned on.  While others were constantly walking through the front doors, clearly understanding the idea of “in-and-out.,” I could hear the lady’s heckling laugh as it stood out in that quiet place like a bright pink bookshelf would have.

I couldn’t stand any longer, so I looked for someplace to sit.  There wasn’t anywhere.  We were in the lobby, somewhat away from the lifelessness that existed in the books area, so I didn’t want to move.  Mike and I were restless.  While I was pacing back and forth he was constantly shifting his posture—body weight on his right foot and right hand on his right hip, then a shift to the left side – as if to suggest that we needed to get a move on.  Mom, seeing this but not wanting to end her conversation quite yet, gave us a toy to play with.

A nickel.

Seriously?  A nickel?  Not even two nickels, but we had to share.   One measly nickel, the same color as those annoying carpets.  I didn’t know any games to play with a nickel.  Neither did Mike.   Throwing it around, or something along those lines, probably would have turned a lot of heads.

Mike saw a payphone.  I assured him that calls cost 35 cents, and we only had five.

“Who cares?  It’s worth a shot.”

I conceded and threw the coin in.  I picked up the phone without any clue as to whom to call and without any faith that a call would actually go through.  I didn’t know anyone’s number except home.  But no one was home.  I dialed the only other number I knew.

9-1-1.

It went through.  I guess emergencies are free of charge.

“911 what’s your emergency?”

I panicked and slammed the phone.  Mike was freaking out, not because he was ecstatic that his idea actually worked, but because he was worried that his idea actually worked.  I surveyed the lobby to see if anyone had found out what I had just done, though no one had as they couldn’t tell who I called.  I saw Mom.  She was still chattering with Mrs. Whatever-her-name-was some 20 yards away with her patented smile and never-ending conversation, and our commotion was inaudible to her.  I wanted to pick the phone back up to assure that the call ended and everything was cool.

“Don’t pick it up!” Mike pleaded.

Curiosity trumped my consideration for Mike and I lifted the receiver.  The operator, to my utter disappointment and embarrassment, was still on the line.

“911 what’s your emergency?”

Again, I panicked.  “My mom’s dead.”  Whoops.

“What’s her name?”

“Patrice Wessel.”

“What’s your name?”

“Ben.”

“Where are you?”

“Library.”

“Which one?”

“I don’t know.”

I hung up and thought my lack of knowledge about what library I was at would compel them to drop the call and move on.  Meanwhile, Mike had already bolted into the bathroom and hid in the second stall, feet above the cracks, scared that the cops were going to know he was a part of the debacle and get him in trouble with Mom or something.

I attempted to be casual and wait.  I was no longer restless due to boredom, but restless because I had just made a huge mistake—Mom wasn’t dead.  Mom shouldn’t have taken so long.  That call wasn’t supposed to go through.   Being a nail-biter, I used this predicament as an avenue to bite away.

Sure enough, 10 minute later a cop stormed in the library.  A real cop.  She was redheaded.  Thin but in shape.   She had the black uniform, the belt, the gun, the badge.  Scary woman.

“Where’s Patrice Wessel?!”

My headache escalated.

My mom obliviously turned her head.  “Right here,” she mumbled.

The rest is a blur.

At this point, Mike had slowly come out of the bathroom suggesting that he had nothing to do with it.  Being only five years old, the cop knelt down and explained the repercussions of my actions.  Because of my call, they had to send cops to all local libraries and take them away from other potential emergencies.  I apologized and left the library with my head down.  I still had a headache.

My mom was livid.  The car ride was awful.  Mike and I just sat and took her heat.

We had plans to go to Chuck E. Cheese.

We went home.

I’m somewhere around 11 years old.  It was another hot, summer day at YMCA Day Camp.  These enrollments always seemed like they lasted the whole summer but I found out we only went for two weeks.  Boys and girls would be mingled into a group with a counselor, the guys sharing one cabin and the girls another.  Countless fields of grass were home to games of soccer, capture the flag and kickball.  The outdoor pool held swimming tests and leisure swim time.  Trails throughout the surrounding woods provided laboring but fun hikes.  And on the way end of the camp grounds was Lake Hastings.

A lot of the girls were cute, too.

Mom packed mine and Mike’s red duffel bags with one Gatorade and many orange Tic Tacs—which she was adamant about sharing with the other kids— and suntan lotion for Mike.  Mike was a pasty white and burned within 30 minutes of being in the sun, whereas within 30 minutes I turned a golden tan.  She also packed us a towel.  Mike and I didn’t like swimming in the Lake, so for that we didn’t tend to use it.  When our group would go there, we tended to isolate ourselves on the sand.  We would dig for treasures (rocks that weren’t gray) or build sand castles or watch the other kids swim in the murky water that apparently was a lake.  It’s not that we weren’t good swimmers.  We were the best in our group.  We just thought the lake water was gross.

Our refusal to go in says a lot about the following.

Because Mike and I were “advanced” swimmers, we had the privilege of using the sailboats.  So did Lauren.  Lauren wasn’t in our group, but she was at the Lake the same time as us and she was cute.  Blonde hair that stopped just short of her shoulders and her neon orange life jacket initially attracted me to her.  Plus, she was a good swimmer.  I already thought we had a lot in common.

Unfortunately, Mike thought they had a lot in common, too.  But she was my girl.  I found her first.  We had more in common.  He probably thought the same thing and for that, we took different routes in attempts to win her over.

The three of us got a 10 minute explanation on how to sail.  Mike was listening intently like he does with everything.  Lauren was, too.  I, however, was too affixed on Lauren’s beauty and our future sailing endeavor that I wasn’t paying attention.  I slouched with my life jacket tight around my chest, seemingly preventing my heart from beating fast like it wanted to.  She asked questions.  I liked that.  Mike asked questions, too.  I didn’t like that.

I figured I could get Lauren just by being present.  I had landed other girls at camp, including the girl whom I kissed underwater at the pool.  I don’t recall Mike having the same success.  I was tan.  He was white.  I had blonde hair.  He had red.  Sure, he was taller, but what girl that age cared about height?  I was the cute camper that she wanted.  He wasn’t.

The next part of the memory picks up while the three of us were alone in the middle of the lake It’s not as adventurous as it sounds.  The lake was all of a quarter mile wide.  A big pond, I guess.  Mike was working hard and Lauren seemed to mirror that with an enamoring smile.  This was his way of getting the girl.  I would mix blank stares at Lauren with little spurts of actual conversation.  I don’t know what we talked about, but I know that she giggled.  I giggled because she giggled.  Mike couldn’t make her giggle.  This was my way.

I couldn’t hear much else around me.  I guess I chose not to.  I would pretend like I was helping out every other minute, but really my focus was on Lauren.  Mike’s focus was on Lauren, too, but he showed this indirectly my manning the ship.

I saw Mike start to frantically pull on some white pole (a tiller—which I would have known had I listened during the lesson).  That made me happy.  He was messing up.  Lauren watched him.  I watched her.  Why was she watching him?  He was ruining the boat.  I was making her laugh.  Mike continued to be hysterical.  I continued to watch Lauren until she got up to help Mike.  That angered me.  In that moment my hearing re-opened to everything around me, and I heard the instructor hollering at us from the shore.

“Turn it left! Turn it left!” and a mix of many other sailing terms that we probably learned about in that 10 minute lesson.

Mike didn’t turn it left either in time or hard enough.  I don’t know.   I lost my footing a couple times and Lauren seemed confused.  Mike was still in a frenzy.  This wasn’t good.  I was about to drown with the love of my life.  Sure, it would have been Mike’s fault, but I needed some more time with Lauren.  We had things we still had to do.  Dates.  Hand holding.  Maybe a kiss?  But no.  We were about to capsize.  I remember thinking Mike probably schemed this.

I was first in.  Then Mike.  Then Lauren.  The nasty water welcomed me with slimy, green seaweed and such a disgusting texture that my hair hardened the moment my head popped out. Embarrassing.  Mike didn’t look much better.  Suits him right.

Lauren looked just as bad.  Her hair was longer, which meant more material to harden.  She wasn’t very pleased with us, but at the same time I didn’t care anymore.  She no longer looked pretty.

I don’t recollect Lauren and me ever talking again.  Same for Mike.

We were in the sixth-grade.  Not to toot our own horns, but girls liked us.  I don’t know if this was because we were actually cute and funny or if it was because we were twins, and dating a twin was cool.  Whatever the case, we reveled in being the ladies’ men.

This led Mike to go for the prettiest girl in our hall, Mai (short for Montida) Fleming.  Many tried but few succeeded.  Her Thai skin seemed to create an impenetrable barrier around her short stature and delicate smile.  The innocence in her voice lured every guy in, but the maturity and confidence rooted inside it proved them all incompatible.  Her intellect alone disqualified most of the hall from standing a chance.   As the cliché goes, Mike was up for the challenge.

Girls liked him, but I didn’t think he stood a chance.  Sure, he dated another very pretty girl (twice) but that’s because they had been best friends before.  It was more so they went out because they felt compelled.  And then did it again.  Mai was different.  She seemed untouchable, even to Mike.  No chance.

But to my surprise, I guess they were hitting it off.  I don’t really know because I was too into some other girl in a different hall; one of those relationships where you hate each other outwardly but deep inside are crazy about each other.  Hayden.  She played that game well.  So, while I was calling her names and taking a few bullets as well, Mike was smoothly winning over Mai.  He had plans to ask her out (in middle school terms, to be his girlfriend) at the dance one Friday night.  Unbeknownst to me.

At the dance, everyone was having a good time.  Guys were lined up against the wall with their baggy khakis and oversized polo shirts while the girls, all with too much make-up on, danced with each other.  One girl would customarily go over to a guy and ask him to dance for another girl because the other girl was too scared to do it herself, and the guy didn’t really care either way.  I wasn’t like most guys at this point though.  I typically wore a short sleeve button up with a pair of the hip cut-off pants (the kind that turn into shorts).  And while they were lined up like inmates, I would go play basketball with the guys, then hit the dance floor and look for Miss Right.

I only did slow dances, however, because those are too hard to screw up.  I danced with Gracie.  Cute, but not my type.  She’s the girl next door, the one who had a crush on me for years and I never reciprocated.   I danced with Hayden.  The love-hate relationship girl.  She knew how to dress.  Her jeans flared right over her feet and into her cheerleading tennis shoes, and her pink top brought attention to her blonde hair and blue eyes.  I liked her, as evidenced by my heart skipping a beat every time any parts of our bodies grazed each other.  Plus, we were actually being nice this night.  But I couldn’t completely focus my attention on her.

Mai was dancing amongst these timid girls and Mike was nowhere to be found (probably playing basketball in the gym next door, being one of the oversized polo and baggy khakis guys).  That’s who I wanted to dance with.  That’s who I wanted to sing the songs to as they played and we effortlessly swayed back and forth, her hands around my neck and mine around her waist.  She’s the one I wanted to think about as I went to bed that night.

So, I did what any twin brother would do.  I went and slow-danced with Mai.

And two slow dances later, I did what any other twin brother would do.  I asked her out.

She said yes.

The dance ended with Mai and I holding hands, and Mike learning of the news from one of her girlfriends.  He was pissed.  My mom had chaperoned that dance, and she recalls that while I was walking out of the school holding hands with the pretty Thai girl, Mike was stomping his feet right behind us, glaring heavily at his crush and the robber that was his brother.

I didn’t talk to Mike at all that night.  For some reason, he was mad.

I woke up the next morning, startled by a bombardment of stuffed animals.  Mike and I had the same bedroom since our toddler years, and we had two nets in the corners of the room piled high with stuffed animals we had accumulated over the years.  Kermit the Frog woke me.  Then the whole Monstars team from Space Jam precluded any further sleep.  Finally I got up to Mike, with my Christmas teddy bear over his head, hollering at me.

“I was supposed to ask her out!  She liked me!  Not you!”

I don’t remember what I said, but I’m sure it was along the lines of ‘Chill out, you had your chance.’  I kind of felt bad, but not really.  He already dated Jenna twice, and she was just a cute as Mai.  He didn’t need a rebound.  Maybe I thought he was being a player and that these girls needed to be grounded in one man, and I truly thought I was that one man.

We broke up two weeks later.  Mike never tried for Mai again.

I started talking to Hayden.

We continued to have girl problems.  There are three girls he dated (or at least was talking to) in high school that I ended up either dating or talking to after he was through.  He did the work, and I got the reward.  I actually feel bad about these ones, because I’m more of the ladies’ man than he is.  I’ve had more success in getting the girl I went for, whereas the girls he goes for label him a nice guy and great friend.  I guess I just couldn’t help myself.

We don’t go on curious escapades much anymore.  We’ve grown out of that.  We didn’t want ourselves getting in as much trouble.  A curious escapade to 21 year olds means flirting with the law or, even worse, death.

We do argue, however.  Out of all the twins, we’re the most alike while being the most different at the same time.  We do the same things at college but do them in such different ways, with such different paths.  Because of this, we inherently have tension that we resolve through yelling.  Our family doesn’t see this, and when they do, they remind us of Amy and Beth, and how awful a thing it was to watch them scream at each other and stampede in opposite directions.

It has to do with living with each other for the past 21 years.  Sure, we’re best friends, but it’s damn near impossible to be with your best friend almost every waking moment and be convinced that no arguments will arise and no shout wars will result.  Those types of things are bound to happen.

For us, it’s a brotherly inevitability.

—written by Benjamin Wessel

“The Short Cut” by Christopher Beyers

An original travel essay written in CW 352:  Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Prof. Elizabeth Geoghegan — Summer 2010


“The Short Cut”

In my first few days as a Cornell University freshman, I stumbled upon a Christian Students’ Association barbeque, in which I had no interest. But before I realized that the veggie burgers were overdone and not the kind I liked, that the soccer ball was flat and the players not really playing, that something might be expected of me I might not want to commit,[1] I had been sucked into the hubbub of the event irresistibly by a real character – not one set to make me Christian, but one intent to change my mind about something, damn it, and well on the path to succeed.

Unless my memory fails me, he was at least 6’ 2” and wore a thick black or dark-brown beard,[2] which appeared to have originated from overgrown sideburns. He wore khaki shorts and sandals (I want to say Birkenstocks) and a shirt fitting for the organization he represented. Most importantly, he was very pleased to discover that myself and my roommate were freshmen, and thus new blood, un-initiated and all that – and was consequently ready and set to bestow upon us a bit of information privy to only himself and certain, privileged, upperclassmen.[3] “Most people,” he said with sincerity, “go by the foot-bridge to campus. But let me tell you! If you walk past Appel and the Obsevatory, there is a short-cut to the Ag Quad…”.

The “Ag Quad”, in this case, meant the Agriculture Quad, where the Science Library (called Mann), the Plant Science Building, and most of the Department of Education buildings on Cornell’s campus reside. As I did not, at that moment, realize that I was to concentrate in plant science, had even less of an inkling that I would decide (my Junior year) to go for a Masters in Arts and Teaching degree, and furthermore was oblivious that I would spend a good deal—in fact, most—of my time, for academic and non-academic reasons alike, on said “Ag Quad”, I stopped listening (where I’ve placed the in-paragraph ellipsis).[4] But as the semester wore on, and as I occasionally ate at the dining facility known as Appel Commons, I decided one day to chance the route the forward Christian senior had recommended.

The short cut didn’t seem to me all that much shorter to me (not even from the Appel Commons dining facility, and not even according to my handy-dandy pull-out campus map), but it did offer a change of pace, and surely enough few if any people ever shared the path with me when I took it. For one thing, an Observatory, by its very nature, must be set in a place from which it is easy to observe. This one (recall:  the first landmark I was told that I needed to pass) was set in a green area atop a hill from the perspective of which Appel Commons was at the bottom. The meandering asphalt path leading up to the Observatory was not too steep to climb, but it would have winded me if the same obstacle had sprung up on one of my cross-county runs in high school (and in fact did wind me on any day that I carried as much—or the equivalent of—a laptop computer and a textbook). And once you breathed deep and crested the thing, the asphalt path led you to a wooden staircase that dropped you like a brick down some 70-80 odd splintery wooden steps (the bottom, due to the tree branches hanging in from either side, being scarcely visible from the top).

By the aforementioned staircase, come January and February, a sign would be erected that read “No Winter Maintenance.” This was a bit silly, because by this logic there should have been more signs, signifying No Spring, Summer, or Fall Maintenance:  the only difference in winter was that there was suddenly more to maintain and the same amount of maintenance being practiced.[5] In lieu of admitting to laziness, however, Cornell erected a back-up sign for the rest of the year. It read “Natural Area, Use Extreme Caution,” which is, all in all, another way of saying “You could get hurt, here.” It was even a touch dishonest, I think, because aside from the Observatory and the pathway leading to and from it, the scarcely mowed meadow (i.e., maybe on Parents’ Weekend) and surrounding wooded area were unarguably also ‘Natural,’ and if any part of the landscape were less natural or unnatural there, it was the man-made aid to the change in elevation.[6]

Now the woods:  which were a pretty site in the fall, as all the chlorophyll in the leaves was being recycled, revealing vibrant under-pigments. For as long as the leaves were retained, the woods were almost dense enough for you to lose your sense of civilization in, except for at one point about halfway down the stairs, at which it was obvious that college students (like myself, and not like myself) had jumped the railing and cut through them. This was a favorite place to diverge, and a path so well trodden path as to look official branched from the staircase here. The path, furthermore, was a true short-cut, because a path from the bottom of the stairs led to the same destination, which happened to be a gorge overlook (at the dirty mouth of Bebe Lake) and a favorite place for college students to break the law, either by climbing down a gently sloping waterfall there and swimming about, or by taking another drastic short-cut to “swimming about,” by which I mean “gorge jumping.”[7]

When the staircase had finished it’s plummeting, it emptied into a dirt path, which in turn looped Bebe Lake. This was a favorite spot for joggers (even for my cross-county team, in high school) as it was almost a mile around, exactly. And straight ahead was a stone bridge that could have fit two lanes of traffic, if it were not designed for pedestrians. It had a stone boarder about knee-high (if you happen to be 5’10”) and foot lengths in diameter (if you happen to wear size 9.5 shoes), was slightly arched in the middle, and was a favorite spot for people slightly bolder than the gorge-jumpers to leap from.[8] What I am trying to say is, this area—through which you had to pass in the course of the friendly Christians private ‘short cut’—was actually somewhat popular. His genius (or his failed genius, or his folly) was that if you crossed the bridge, and climbed up another flight of stairs (stone, this time, and not so many steps), and followed a road that followed the edge of the Lake (and ignored a very tempting diversion to the Cornell Plantations, and a slightly less tempting diversion down to the other side of the lake), another dirt path up another hill would take you about a football field’s length, or so, and spit you out in a very pleasant walk-through garden. From here, you could easily take Warren or Caldwell Hall (two buildings on the perimeter of the “Ag Quad”) by surprise, just in time to beat to class your silly classmates, who had every one of them walked via the Triphammar Foot Bridge across the opposite end of Bebe Lake. Plus, because classes were generally in session as you walked to class, there were never any jumpers and seldom any joggers at that time of day, so the heard-of hang-out spot did indeed become an unheard-of route between places, which was indeed, as our friend had described, lonesome.[9]

Anyway.

You’re going to have to pretend, with me, that some time has passed now, and that this narrative, so far, has been relatively linear. The hectic beginning-of-the-year has morphed into a steady routine, charged with the adrenaline of prelims, and now finals should make for a bang at the finale. Our Christian friend, who we haven’t seen since the barbeque, is probably about fried from school, and is perhaps making B’s when he had been on Dean’s List for the last three semesters.[10] I’m a nervous bundle of energy, penned up in my room by my own design, and mostly watching YouTube videos.

Cornell gives its students a week to study for finals, during which its students don’t change, or shower, or go to the dining halls (save, on occasion, dinner). My roommate studied mostly downstairs, because our dorm (Mary Donlon Hall, in case that rings any bells) had a library on the first floor (while our room was on the third). He had accumulated a regular mountain of crumpled brown baggies from ordering out. For my part, when I do study, it’s mostly in a nearby dorm (Dickson, if that name is familiar) with a good friend of mine (who will remain anonymous). I haven’t been on campus for nearly two weeks, and haven’t gone by our ‘short cut’ in over a month. Study week has passed, I’m on my last exam, and it’s a stinker: Botany, which seems to me a jumble of semi-random things to remember.

My dear roommate Arthur has an exam today too, and presently comes in the room asking if I want to go to dinner. It was about forty-five minutes to the start of our respective exams, which should tell you something about Arthur. His eating habits are the best way to begin to describe him, in fact. Because he often sets a watch for fifteen minutes, and tries to go through the motions of getting a tray, loading it, and emptying it, before the sound of the buzzer. He calls this “efficient.” He is also overly impressed with entrepreneurs, mistakes fame for genius, money for sophistication, sleeplessness for empowerment, and is generally weird and extravagant about self-improvement. I call him “elitist,” and have done so to his face. He finds this funny.[11]

So I go to dinner—in part to humor him, as is my custom—in part because it occurs to me I haven’t eaten any “real food” since breakfast. We eat at the dining facility known as Appel Commons, down the hill from a certain observatory. And I guess you can see where this story is headed from here – at the throat of my love-hate relationship with a certain way less traveled by, known only by certain upperclassmen, our sort-of friend the Christian, and I.

I head for the Observatory. It is the cool part of a mild day. I have a backpack on, for no good reason, and we are at about 15 minutes before the start of my test, counting down.

The asphalt winds as I remember it to, and I get to the stairs. No hitch there. I get the urge to run down the stairs, and my inertia almost does it for me, but I remind myself that half of doing well on a final is staying collected. So no running, and no hitch. I cross the moderately pretty stone bridge, hardly noticing the moderately ugly view off the side of the muddy, bubbly, rumored-to-be sewage-filled mouth of Bebe Lake. No hitch, still.

I climb up the few and far-set stone steps, which I like for how they compliment my stride, and get to the edge of the road (which, for me, has never had a name), the path back to Bebe Lake branching left, and the sign leading to the Cornell Plantations off to the right, and the dirt path I want roughly between them. But there is something else straight-ahead (something that I almost walk headlong into): a fence. In fact, there are two fences, and in the middle of them there is a hole, which takes the whole of the road along with it.

The fence spans the whole length of the road, and also blocks the sidewalk. In fact, to my right there is a stone wall (on its other side, a shear bank edge), and the fence extends all the way to the far edge of this wall (so, completely covering it). The other side of the fence extends past the other side of the road, into and to the other side of the small ditch to the side of the road, and further into a wooded area. Guarding this side of the fence-edge, as if planted on purpose, I identify a line of poison ivy like a turret, and even if I were to tip-toe over the poison, there is a second line of defense: the road branching right (to the Cornell Plantations) is fenced in on the side facing me (the extent of which I cannot tell from where I stand, but expect is quite excessive). Clearly, the set-up was designed to keep something out, or keep something in.

Clearly, I have to turn around. But it’s 10 minutes to 7:00pm.

I am lucky the work-day is over. I am not lucky that graduation is approaching, or I suspect that Cornell would have put off the re-paving of this little section of road. I suspect, also, that Cornell has warned automobile traffic at a fair distance to either end of this obstacle, but I am not an automobile. Who I am is someone too clever to walk by the Triphammer Foot Bridge, which Cornell gave for the express purpose of getting to the Agriculture Quad. Who I am is a student so clever that Cornell could not even imagine the extent of my needs, and so didn’t have the foresight to warn me out of this predicament.[12]

So as to force my own hand, I throw my backpack over the fence. Was there anything valuable in there? I hope not.

‘There you go,’ I thought. ‘It’s like gorge jumping. Once you make the first motion you’re committed – and you want to jump out, away from the ledges you could break a leg on.’ So I climb the fence, and it isn’t that hard, except when I get to the top it starts to wobble. At this I jumped, awkwardly—like how my sister used to look in ballet class, before she discovered soccer—and landed such that my knees gave way weirdly and I ended on my tailbone with my head a head’s hair from the fence behind me.

I didn’t want to do that again.

Of course, at this point I was between fences, with a hole separating me from the woods and a wall separating myself and Bebe Lake. My urge to turn around is, therefore, ridiculous.[13],[14] This in mind, I turn my attention to the remaining fence. I don’t want to teeter again, so for this one I decide to stand on the stone wall to my right (which I am just tall enough to scramble on top of), and hold onto the fence lengthwise as I shimmy around it. This works—but not well (because, even this way, the fence proves unstable)—and so I throw myself forward and into another heap, in an effort not to fall over backwards.

I have no audience for any of this, and no one to tell. I get up, spend a minute dusting myself off, and limp up the dusty path to the garden, to Warren Hall, to Plant Science. When I get there, the TAs, stony-faced, are handing out the test, and there are 90 Minutes on and No Talking. I think, ‘If I had gone back, had circled Bebe Lake, I would have been at least 20-25 late’—just in time, maybe, to be told I hadn’t made it on time. I think, ‘They [the students] have no idea how I got here,’ because they all came by the footbridge, like they were supposed to. Because they never met the friendly senior at the Christian Students’ Association barbeque.

The room is still as death and my knee throbs, the blood finding the broken capillaries underneath my skin and, now that I am sitting, having no interest in any-artery else. Some people are visibly nervous, and have bags under their eyes. Everyone’s focus, but mine, is on this final assessment of how clever we all are.

I laugh, because it’s funny to think about what I was willing to go through to get here, as if this pressure-cooker of a final were Disney Land.

I laugh, because they are oblivious, and there is no way for me to impart this information.


[1] I should, I suppose, be happy that the Barbeque offered veggie burgers and soccer balls at all. But I am always one to make the worst of things when I am Nervous and exposed to something New, which was the case at this time and place in my young, inexperienced lifetime.

[2] I’m always being chastised for confusing black with dark brown, which leads me to believe that the latter is probably correct. I used to describe my hair as black until corrected. In private I still think it’s black, of course.

[3] This, at any rate, is how I picture his thought process – as cavalier, jovial, and sophisticated. Him: in the home stretch here, ready to walk at graduation. Us: at the starting line, asses in the air, reluctant and nervous to walk forth come our first day of classes. His voice was so very loud, so very animated, and so distinctly enunciated, I can find no other way to describe in what way he was “pleased to discover…that…[we] were freshmen.”

[4] In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I also did not listen because I was a budding atheist at the time, and was trying my very darndest not to make eye contact with him as I scoffed his complimentary (and, as I’ve alluded to, underappreciated) Bocca Burger.

[5] Indeed, leaves and branches would fall on the stairs and not be swept, rain would slicken them and not be dried, dogs and deer and small rodents would poop on them and not be shooed, or cleaned up after. Many steps, as I said, were splintered—especially where the railings met the woods and on the several landings—and water, as it is wont, had slipped into the cracks here and there and wrought varying degrees of decay. The staircase, I guess, is an accident waiting to happen. But it will probably take a decade before it does (the “probably” is where Cornell comes in with its signs to dodge potential lawsuits).

[6] Then again I guess it is not completely fair to belittle the sign, because I did observe some nature from the stairs, which I would not have seen otherwise. Mostly boring squirrel nature and white-tailed deer nature, but early that same Fall Semester (again, unless my memory fails me – and it was a different season) I saw and photographed (from a safe vantage point) a coil of snakes. I believe they were in the process of mating, but they could have been emerging (it is difficult to tell the difference between hatching and having sex, you see), and at any rate looked like an undulating ball of yarn within poking distance of the bottommost landing. In point of fact, these snakes gave me reason to keep returning to class by this my not-so-short “short cut.” I found the creatures quite remarkable, and to prove it showed up five or ten minutes late to class on the day in question, for all of my gaping and gawking.

[7]Some interesting asides: when I myself gorge-jumped my freshman year, I believe it was only the third law I had ever broken (the others being one moving and one parking violation). And in my junior year at Cornell, I managed to cut the underside of my foot to shreds on the “gently sloping waterfall”, which was quite the exciting affair.

[8] It is unfortunate, but true, that students at Cornell do occasionally commit suicide by jumping off the bridges here, but this is not one of the bridges used for that purpose. This bridge is maybe two stories and a little bit above the water, and the water is on average probably 10-12’ deep (I don’t know that anyone has touched the bottom, and it certainly cannot be seen bellow the suspended particles). Under the circumstances, it would be difficult to commit suicide unless one tied a lead weight to oneself, and if one’s method were drowning.

[9] But agreeably!

[10] This is, in fact, what happened to me in my last semester of undergrad, and I am extrapolating onto this poor, hapless soul. However, when I say that I was “fried from school,” keep in mind that I am writing this travesty for a Non-Fiction Creative Writing Class as part of a study abroad program based in Rome, Italy, and I am—at this very moment, almost—missing my own graduation to write it. Then you may decide whether or not I am telling the truth.

[11] Arthur is a short and skinny little Asian fellow from Vancouver, and aside from his elitism about nothing of his character is consistent. For instance, he literally roles on the floor laughing hysterically (or used to) at the “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” flash video available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIMGgBLOwfg (that is, when showing it to me after he has already seen it, multiple times), and I cannot, for the life of me, reconcile this with the rest of him.

[12] Don’t even get me started on all the ways I am clever. I’m writing this account from Rome, Italy, where my room in my apartment doesn’t lock. So I decided to hide my wallet and my debit card in different places to trick the pesky robbers, and changed my mind about a hiding place so many times—and hid it so very well—that I woke up one morning fully believing I’d been robbed, and remembered where I’d stowed everything only as I was searching for my phone to tell somebody.

[13] I tend to be a very logical person in times of trepidation, for which the above is not the best example. When I was 11 or 12, I was swimming in a river (at which it was aloud –“at your own risk”—so I wasn’t breaking any laws) with my cousin at my aunt. My cousin, older than me by a few months, went to explore more closely a waterfall. As he did so, he got caught in a whirlpool at its base, and was sucked under. At this point, it did not occur to me that I should try to save him, or that he needed saving – although his mother was of a different opinion, though fully clothed. In a few seconds I saw her shoes sticking up in the air and I thought—of both of them—‘Why fight? Why don’t they let the current take them? If they let the current take them, they’ll be fine.’ Mayhap because we are all related they did, in the end, figure this out, and within twenty seconds were bobbing on the surface a few meters downstream. In the meantime, though, my mother’s heart was all aflutter, and I was calm as a tortoise on his day off.

[14] The retelling of the cousin misunderstanding does remind of a fourth incident (before the act of gorge-jumping my freshman year) during which I broke the law. Once upon a time, with my mother’s permission, I forged her signature on a document. This was a long, long time ago, but I can still remember. It was back when our cursive looked the same.

—written by Christopher Beyers

“Daphne” by Andrew Nelson

An original memoir written in CW 352:  Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Prof. Elizabeth Geoghegan — Summer 2010


“Daphne”

This is the story of how I changed my life by building a rowboat; by accomplishing something that I thought was impossible.

Deceiving

Dad had called me upstairs to his office for the first time since I came back from Slovakia, after Mom found my grades for winter quarter at the community college. I knew that they would not happy. After Fall quarter, I was put on academic probation. After winter quarter, the second consecutive time where my GPA was below a 2.0, I was academically suspended.

“Drew, Mom and I both agreed that I should talk with you,” Dad told me, as he was sitting in the large reading chair inside his office.

I sat still, with my knees close together. My arms folded. Ashamed.

“You have been deliberately deceiving us.”

My heart skipped a beat. Deceiving hit me. It’s a powerful word.

“We feel you have misled us multiple times since you have come back from Slovakia. Most recently about your grades, but you didn’t tell us that you were skipping classes earlier in the term. And you never told us that you were still drinking.”

I shrank. My brain froze. Dad has a way of multiplying the gravity of one mistake by making lists of past mistakes. It’s one of the consequences of having a lawyer for a father.

“We don’t know if we can trust you. We are beginning to wonder how your behavior is going to influence Garrett and Addy. We are thinking about what type of presence you bring into the house. Drew, can we trust you to be honest with us?”

What could I tell Dad? He was right.

Culture Shock

The year leading up to the conversation was the hardest year of my life. I struggled while trying to transition back into life in the United States after living a year in Slovakia. I was not prepared for the hardships that would follow me home. I remember when I first arrived, I would tell people that I had just returned from a year abroad in Slovakia, and they would ask me where I was from, as though I was foreign. I felt like there was a brick wall between me and everybody back home. Nobody seemed to understand me.

The language barrier was just the beginning of my struggles. I still needed to graduate from High School. I tried to complete a Senior Project, which is a requirement for graduation. I planned to work on a project focusing on the struggles involved in transitioning back to life in the United States. I could not compete it. I tried to take a class at the High School I attended before I went abroad. I signed up in English IV to help me complete my Senior Project. I failed. I tried to enroll in running start, a program designed for High School students who want to get a head start on college. Not only did I fail, I lied to my parents about failing and my Dad gave me the talk about trust.

After a year in Slovakia, which I looked back on as the reason for my struggles during my first year back, where I began many of the bad habits that stuck with me, like drinking, smoking, and not studying; and after a year in the United States of exceptional failure, where I felt like I could not do anything right, not even classes at the community college, where I began a trajectory in my life that I envisioned ending in doom; I needed to change my life.

Lesson From Slovakia

I learned in Slovakia that I could suffer through anything. I thought that was the most important lesson that I had learned. I can live anywhere, no matter the hardships. Do anything other expect of me, no matter the consequences. Part of coming back to the United States felt too easy. I could understand everything, life was too predictable; there was nothing for me to suffer through. I remember making myself tortures so that I could relive and relearn the most important lesson I gathered while living in Slovakia. Skipping classes at the community college became one of those tortures, lying to my parents was another. I learned there is a huge difference between being able to suffering through anything, and being able to do anything. The lesson I had drawn from my year abroad was a passive lesson. Let the world beat me up, and watch the fortitude of my indifference. To be able to do anything required action, motivation, and ambition.

Ayn Rand

I wanted to change my life. I started by picking up the writing by an author I used to read while I was in High School, Ayn Rand. My parents gave me a copy of The Ayn Rand Lexicon for Christmas. I kept it downstairs in the library inside my bedroom. I had turned to the book many times before while looking up philosophic or intellectual interests, but I had never gone to the book with such an existential problem. I flipped through many entries searching for the way to change my life. Under the entry about ambition I read, “’Ambition’ means the systematic pursuit of achievement and of constant improvement in respect to one’s goal…A great scientist or a great artist is the most passionately ambitious of men.”

I needed a goal.

Versailles

The surface of the Grand Canal slid underneath the boat, as I pulled the oars through the thick water, looking back at the Palace of Versailles. When Kaitlin, Stephanie, Samantha and myself saw the boats for rent, we knew we wanted experience the gardens of Versailles from the surface of the Grand Canal, during our day at the Palace at the end of our year in Slovakia. We were on an end of the year trip through France, England and Belgium.

The rowboat fascinated me. It was about fourteen feet long and had room for five people; two people could sit on both the front and the back seats, and one person could sit in the middle and row. I enjoyed rowing. It was fun to pull the oars through the water and feel the weight of the boat glide on the surface. It was relaxing, and stress free to be on the water. The water was so calm and tranquil.

At the end of our day at Versailles I joked as I did about other things, that I would have to build a rowboat when I went home to bring a little bit of Europe to Longview.

Lesson From My Dad

Dad was in the garage, buffing the spotless white paint on his Jeep Liberty, when he asked me, “Drew, its been a year since you have come home, how do you think your year in Slovakia has impacted you?”

“I think that a year of being back home has allowed me time to look back and see the lessons that I learned while abroad. For example, I was just thinking about how I learned I could bear any burden while in Slovakia.”

“Did you learn that you could do anything now that you have lived a year in Slovakia”

Then it struck me. If I can bear any burden, then I can suffer through making myself bear any burden. I can flip the passive lesson I learned to an active lesson simply by making myself want to do something.

“Dad, you gave me an idea…”

Thus I learned I could do anything.

The Goal

In the basement of my house, I sat at the desk in my room in a mental torture over how to change my life. I scribbled down ideas onto a legal pad — read more, write more, exercise more frequently — I did not know what goal I wanted to accomplish. I did not know what goal would be life changing. It had to be ambitious – run a marathon, write a book, build something. That’s it. I wanted to build something. That would bring my confidence back. What could I build? I needed to build something that I thought was impossible. I remembered the old idea from Versailles that I had long forgotten and never really thought was possible.

I decided I was going to build a rowboat.

The Fisherman’s Skiff

I googled “How to build a rowboat.” There were some sites that documented other people’s experience building their rowboat. They looked like experts. One site lead me to an instructional book on amazon.com about building rowboats called Instant Boatbuilding. The premise of the book was that these boats could be built in one weekend or about 30 hours of labor, so I knew that it would take me all summer to complete mine. I ordered the book.

When the book arrived, I had to choose which boat to build. I wanted the most stereotypical rowboat, one like we took at Versailles, and one that was easy to build. I decided to build a boat called the Fishman Skiff. The instructions seemed easy enough, it was the style I wanted and it was the right size. Twelve feet long and four feet wide. The Fisherman’s skiff also did not have a stem running along the bottom, it had flat bottom made of one piece of plywood.

Lumberman’s

Dad and I went to buy the wood. I needed a special type of plywood called marine plywood that is waterproof on both sides. I called Lumberman’s, a typical northwestern lumberyard, to see if they carried marine plywood. They did. Dad and I drove his Jeep Liberty, with the trailer that I had built with dad, two years ago, attached on the back. Inside Lumberman’s there was every kind of wood I could imagine. They had sheets of wood in every size, wood for decks, fences, and siding, 2 by 4s, 4 by 4s and every type of treated wood, cedar, oak, pine. I asked the guy at the front desk – located in the middle of lumberyard chaos if he could show me where the Marine plywood was. I took me out back, and told me to wait. He came back with the forklift and asked me how much I needed. I told him 3 plies of 8 by 4. I sounded like I knew what I was talking about. I also bought a piece of Douglas fir to make the frame out of.

I kept the wood in my backyard.

My Dry Dock

I decided I was going to assemble the boat in my backyard. Towards the house there is a patio, with a tent that covers a glass table, where my family had dinner on nice summer days. On one side of my backyard our garage stretches from the patio to the alley. I would use the garage to cut out the wood. On the other side we have grass lawn bordered by an old fence that separates our yard from our neighbors and the alley. I was going to build the boat on our lawn. In the back of the yard there is a wooden gazebo that has wisteria growing around it, with a white wooden swing that my grandpa built.

Buying the Saw

Dad brought me to Lowes and left me alone in the power tool department. I needed to find a circular saw. It was the largest tool I needed to buy to in order to build my boat. Finding the right saw was up to me. I needed the circular saw because it was able to cut curved pieces of wood. The only requirements I had for the saw were that it had an adjustable blade that could be raised and lowered, and that its blade could bevel. The circular saw collection at Lowes was immense. They had a whole wall dedicated to just circular saws.  I immediately went towards the saws under fifty dollars.  I’m usually frugal and I would have bought the cheapest saw available even if it did not fulfill my expectations. But this saw mattered to me. I was going to build my boat with it. I chose to buy an more expensive saw. I bought the saw and a special diamond edged blade that would cut through the fiberglass.

I spent around $120.00 at Lowes

Measure Twice, Cut Once.

My first job was to transform the three pieces of eight foot long plywood into two twelve foot long pieces of plywood. The book said that this would be done by cutting one of the eight footers in half and fiberglassing the two halves to the other eight footers.  You would end up with two twelve foot long, solid, waterproof, pieces of plywood that the rest of boat’s pieces could be cut out from.

I prepared to cut one of the pieces in half by measuring four feet from both sides and drawing a line down the middle in pencil. Then I stuck some spare two by fours underneath the plywood so that when I sawed across my garage floor the blade would not hit the concrete pavement. When I turned the saw on I felt the power of the saw blade spinning, the gyro effect, the jump at the beginning, the acceleration of the saw as it comes up to speed. I heard the roar of the motor echoing in my garage. I lined up the marker on the saw with the line I drew. I gave a prayer. And I made my first cut for my boat.

I was off by a 1/4 inch.

Fiberglass Two Pieces of Plywood Together

I had never fiberglassed before. I could not have told you what fiberglass was before I decided to build a boat. I had to fiberglass the two half pieces of plywood I cut to the ends of the other eight footer pieces of plywood. I read fiberglassing is a complex process.

Basic outline for Fiberglassing

1)    Sand the surface of the plywood where you will be fiberglassing

2)    Place wax paper underneath the area where you will be fiberglassing

3)    Measure the amount of fiberglass mat you will need.

4)    Mix the resin and hardener together. Use bottom of an old coke bottle and refill with resin as needed.

5)    Wet the surface with the resin mixture using a paintbrush. Lay the first fiberglass mat in place, and saturate with resin

6)    Sand the surface

The first time I tried to fiberglass the pieces of plywood together, I used the wrong type of fiberglass matting. I used fiberglass tape. A tape made of a thin grid of fiberglass wire. After going through the process, and waiting for the fiberglass to harden, I woke up the next morning and the pieces of plywood just fell apart.

I realized that I needed fiberglass matting, a thick cloth that was would soak up the fiberglass in order to connect the two pieces. When pouring the fiberglass resin on top of the matting, I saw the matting become transparent. I knew this was the right material to fiberglass with.

The Keystone

After I cut out the rest of the pieces to make the boat, I needed to make the stem in order to make the shape of the boat. The stem was going to be difficult to make. I knew it would be, it had to be perfect. The stem was the piece of wood that was in the front of the boat, where both sides meet to create a bow. In essence the stem is the keystone to whole boat.

The shape of the stem was complicated to make. Made more challenging by my limited supplies. The shape I had to cut out was basically a triangle with a quadrilateral on top of it. The quadrilateral created space where the plywood would fit in order to be glued to the stem. The stem was also a small piece of Douglass fir, no larger than one and half inches wide.  “You have to wait until we go to grandpa’s house to use the saw in his workshop” Dad said. But I just wanted to do it, finish it.

Cutting out the triangle was easy, but how would I remove the rectangles from the both sides in order to form the quadrilateral on top? I had to make two sliver cuts that had to be precise so that the ends of the cuts met each other.

I cut out the stem in a very dangerous way, because I wanted to finish it. I only had limited supplies so I had to slide the triangle piece wood through the saw with my figures, within inches of the blade. Turning on the saw made it jump forward, it created a loud roaring drone. As I fed the wood into the blade of the saw, I could hear the blade crunch against the Douglass fir and the high pitched sound of the blade against the wood. The sawdust flew in my eye. I had to have faith that the stem would not jump in the saw, or that there was not a knot that I could not see, or that the triangular piece of wood would not rotate during the cut, or else I would have lost a finger. I had to repeat this hair rising maneuver four times in order to make the shape of the stem.

Daphne

I’ve been thinking about what I want to call my boat. Everybody know, boats have to have feminine names. Laura came to my mind, not only the name of Petrarch’s unrequited love, but also the name of a girl in Slovakia I used to love. Laura did not do it for me. Dagny came to mind, named after the main character in Ayn Rand’s epic novel Atlas Shrugged. Dagny was not the right name. Daphne. It was perfect. Not only was Bernini’s sculpture one of my favorite, not only is the myth of Daphne found in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, a book dedicated to personal transformations, but Daphne was turned into a laurel tree, a type of wood, the same stuff the boat was made out of. Daphne was the name of my boat.

I decided I was going to design a flag for Daphne. Every boat needs it’s own flag. I decided that my flag would have a laurel wreath – symbolic of Daphne turning into a laurel tree, poetry, and victory. And Cross arrows, the two arrows mentioned Ovid’s version of the myth – one golden, one lead. They have opposite amorous effects on people. Lead makes you reject love, which Daphne was struck with, and Golden makes you fall in love, which Apollo was struck with.

Reflections about completing the stem

I remember looking through the kitchen window one evening before dinner, past the mementos that Mom placed on the window sill that remind her of her childhood, a round rock with the words “Friends are Blessings” carved into it, a glass doll, and a clay model of a house. Through the kitchen window I was able to see the shape of a boat. Just glancing past it, I could have easily mistaken it for a boat. Before it looked like pieces of wood, poorly fastened together, like a cheap dog house under construction, but now it looked like a boat. I had attached two sides of the boat to the stem in order to create the front of the boat. I saw the shape of a bow. It looked like a boat. I had made the shape of a boat. I did it. I did the impossible. It was unbelievable, I made a boat.

Finishing the Boat

After I put the stem together, I felt like had accomplished my goal. I was able to see the shape of a boat and the end of the project. All I had to do was put the bottom of the boat on the sides, and cut it down so that the bottom fits, and fiberglass all the seams, sand the fiberglass and paint the boat. There was a newfound energy inside of me after complete the stem. Finishing the rest of the boat was easy.

Maiden Voyage

I pulled heavy oars that did not fit into the oar rings, though the green, blue water of Lake Sacajawea near my home. I looked around and saw joggers, I imagined them being in awe of the fact that I had made a boat. My mind was rushing with thoughts. I did not know if Daphne was going to float when I put her in the water. And she floated. I had put more fiberglass than necessary on all the seams, twice over, in hopes that it would seal out all possibilities of leaks. There were no leaks. I thought about the buoyancy, maybe the weight would not be right and Daphne would roll over. She was perfectly balanced.

Meaning of Daphne

I decided to build Daphne because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do the impossible. But the boat became symbolic for a new beginning, after a hard journey. Building the boat brought back my confidence and self-esteem. It was both a way for me to bring a little of Europe back home, and also a way for me to move past my hardest times during my year in Slovakia. The process of building Daphne was the most important part, not the final product. Rediscovering my self-motivation and realizing that I can do anything – I don’t just have to suffer through life – were life-changing lessons I learned while building Daphne. By building the boat, I not only completed a life goal, but I learned that I can accomplish any of my life goals.

—by Andrew Nelson

“Regarding the Sanctuary” by Ashley Martin

An original travel essay written in CW 352:  Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Prof. Elizabeth Geoghegan — Spring 2010


“Regarding the Sanctuary”

I wake up crumpled against the door, in the middle of a sod field, and Roland is gone.  It is nearly dawn.  The sky and the sod are the same color—somewhere between sea foam and first frost—and the air is still.  A few hundred meters behind us is the highway, unnoticed, unnoticing.  We motored all through the night hoping to reach Boulder, Colorado by morning, taking turns between driving and sleeping or pretending to sleep.  Still beneath the rank sleeping bag that’s been stored in the back of the truck for years, I have that sensation of having eaten marmalade.  The sticky feeling on the hands and mouth, and under the legs.  Even my thoughts are sticking together.  I contemplate rolling up the sod for miles and miles, and the uniform tedium of the approaching West.

Yesterday, on a brief sojourn at the banks of the Missouri, a brazed rambler named Roger tells us Good-day while we dip our feet.  He spent his life on a farm, serving an old farmer man, who, we gather through the spit and sludge, adopted him after some misgiving with his blood family.  The old man turned the land and served the Lord.  “But then the old man died, and his kids got evil, and the farm disappeared.”  Roland gives him a handful of loose change even though he isn’t that kind of rambler, the kind that expects it.  Other than that, Roland and I have been in the car for two days straight, moving.  And now, the sod field.  These Great Plains must run up against Roger’s god-fearing farm.  The heat of the morning is already on me.  There is almost a breeze to ease the silence.  I give Red Cloud a pat.  “Good old boy,” I tell it.  Red Cloud is Roland’s old pickup.  All of his possessions all have names; the canoe he rowed down the Mississippi is Jim, the oar is Tom, the carjack is Eileen, the wheelbarrow is Sarah.  A clatter comes from behind, and Roland’s intent, bearded face pokes curiously up from the bed of the truck.

“A much needed rest!” he shouts through the window, as if shouting the key to an equation. “How are you doing?”

I dip my head in a “how-do” gesture, to welcome him back to the trip placidly.

“Good!” He shouts, slipping back into the car and clumsily jolting us onto the highway.

Roland and I have been flatmates for six months in Brooklyn. We’re about as interested in each other as fruit flies are interested in John Updike, honest to God, but he’s good company.  He works on films now in the locations department (this means carting around ungrateful extras and picking up trash, and he routinely befriends the least noticeable hired hands).  He wishes that he had more time to work on a number of writing projects that he is wary to divulge to anyone but his word processor.  One day I suppose he will find a benefactor in order to do this full-time.  I was hoping, on our trip, to distill a clear outline of these projects, because, though he puts himself out there in the most comprehensive way he knows how, I think that knowing what someone is writing tells us more than any number of their misadventures.  But it hasn’t happened.  I think the project has burrowed too deeply and sprouted roots places for which even he doesn’t know a means to cultivate.

He’s on this cross-country trip to follow Phish as they tour nationwide, and agreed to take me along for the voyage and didn’t ask for a penny in return (“we’ll just have to teach you to drive stick so that you can get us through the Rockies after the last show at Red Rocks”).  So I hastily gave my two weeks notice at the dress shop on North 6th Street, kissed Brooklyn goodbye, and embarked, not really convinced that I even wanted to go at all.  I made arrangements to meet my father and step-mother at their Army base home in the Mojave Desert, where Roland will drop me before continuing onto Phish shows in San Francisco, Oregon, and Chicago.  Visiting Dad was not motivation for the voyage, but it is convenient that he lives at the other end of the line.  He was pleased and told me heartily, “Come on down, babe!  This is your sanctuary.”  The word makes my throat closes a little.  It is what he always tells me when I make a visit, and his home is always riddled with discomfort.  His wife thinks I am over-privileged because I live (and work to pay the rent) in New York City, and I think she’s something of a child, but we always breadcrumb our conversations with grins, and bear it.

The sod field is located in Kansas, just an hour beyond Boulder, and we make fast time.  It is too early to do anything else once we arrive, so we climb to the top of a bluff to view, from great heights, the sprawl among the verdant swells.  The plain bumping up to the Rockies’ eastern front is the most rapidly growing urban area in the country, and the highways look like scar tissue tightly spread over years between mountains.  A hawk clears a starling from its throat from up above.  The roads in Colorado are steep, and the climbers moan when they walk. Back in the East, people moan when they talk.  Roland distributes bananas and water, and hikes down into the quarry below us while I blind sketch the land.

We spend a week here.  The first few days are in a hostel, and then Roland goes off to four consecutive days of Phish with friends— this is the highlight of his trip.  I stay with a girl who I hastily find on the Web.  Her name is Molly and she offers me stay on her white, velveteen couch.  In her flat are posed half-naked mannequins reading Dische novels.  She works as a barista at one of those gone-corporate coffee shops, collects childhood photos of people she has never met, and for about one sentence in three, employs a mildly fake British accent.  She tells me about her desire to go to art school.  For what?  She can’t decide.  She asks why I’m in Boulder and I tell her that the opportunity cropped up for adventure, but that I also was feeling trapped in my Brooklyn home.  The New-Yorker I’d been seeing loosely (and was crazy about) for two years had moved into my house at the start of July, and a week later told me that I had the wrong idea about our relationship, that it was a part-time gig for him.  I broke it off after that conversation, and he headed out for a month-long job in Massachusetts, not bothering to move out of the house.  Being there was getting to be too much.  Molly is appalled, but not surprised.  “A good man is hard to find,” we mutter, almost simultaneously.  In four months she will move to my neighborhood in Brooklyn, but our friendship will not move past Boulder.

While Molly is at work, I romp around the little city.  There is no shortage of innovation in the rising panhandler demographic.  A number of them, sweltering, wear elaborate costumes and perform unrehearsed acrobatics.  One eight-year-old, with no supervisor in sight, plays the same riff over and over on a hefty glockenspiel and is making a profit.  Many are transient and filthy, but have the softened eyes and angles of their middle-class adolescence, holding signs advertising their dream to make it to Eugene, for want of a dime.  To them, Oregon is the promised land.  It is far from home and obligation and out of sight of discarded, self-conscious ideals.  They put me at odds.  My situation is desirable: I have a surefire free ride to the west coast.  But while these vagrants are turning colorful circles in the concrete square, I all I can imagine is a prolonged silence between me and the road, me and my family, me and the dusty weeks ahead.  The world has become very beautiful, and very lonesome.  The landscape is transcribed into tangled sentences, downgraded into trochees paying tribute to small rains, to milkweed, to flocks and mountains and moors.  I bury myself somewhere between where my imaginary terrarium stops and where the earth begins.

Molly is a fine companion during all this.  At the end, I buy her a copy of The Songs of Innocence and head over to Red Rocks for the last show so that Roland and I can skip town directly.  I must be the only person in the swarm of several thousand stuck outside of Red Rocks who isn’t trying to wiggle into Phish.  Everyone else came equipped with hand drums, muumuus, muddy-faced children, mutts, booze, and a whole laundry list of hallucinogens.  I try to fit into the grooves, but I don’t move naturally among them.  There’s a certain ecstatic squalor to the crowd that I am unable to embrace.  No one wants to have a conversation, so after dark I set up the sleeping bag and some peanut butter sandwiches in Red Cloud and phone an old lover from Detroit that I’ll probably never see again.

“Good news. I am ill,” he greets me in his cattail hush.  “Where are you, Blushing Blue?”

“Colorado,” I say.  “There are more people than pines and I’m alone with no one to talk to.  What’s your temperature?”

“Unmentionably high.  And I’m too old to ask anyone to take care of me.”

He tells me he feels rotten as a fishtail, and I tell him about going West, inevitably towards Dad.  “The one and only time my father visited me in Brooklyn, he noticed all the funeral homes and wanted to know where they planted the bodies.  I hope you recover soon.  Gargle salt water, you seaworthy terror.”  

He coughs a pleased good-bye just as everyone careens out of the amphitheater.

The drive across the Rockies is terrifying.  Earlier I watched Roland down more drugs than I can count on one hand, but I can’t tell the difference, except that he, if possible, is more efficient (and enigmatic) than usual. I expect there to be swerves in the road where there aren’t, anticipate falling rocks that never come.  It’s freezing, but I leave the window open to keep awake.  Again, just before dawn, we pull over and sleep in a field, not of sod this time, but of red, red dust, pimpled with Joshua trees, reaching like so many hands in the strange Utah light.

Utah is everything you want, and refractive.  The desert gives rise to smooth sandstone mountains, marbled rust and cyan, and devolves back again to yucca groves.  I begin for the first time to anticipate nothing but the curves and creases that surround us.   Being so far from billowing water banishes the mind in grottos as unexplored as the terrain.  To ground myself, I study the road signs, and think only of adjusting my speed accordingly as the road shifts beneath us.

“This desert is an exercise in futility, Roland.”

Roland flicks a June bug off the steering wheel.  He tells me that this desert was once the floor of an ocean whose waters were responsible for that peculiar cherubim softness which its mountains suggest.  He tells me that when the pioneers were making their crossing, they would have to lower down their horses and cattle and wagons with pulleys whenever they came upon a cliff, lest they be unable to return to the top.

We make camp just east of Zion National Park.  Camp is a spot Roland has used once before, pointed to him years ago by a group of Zion-bound Spaniards, and he recognizes it by a white derby flag buried amongst the copse.  The grounds run up against the Virgin River, a shallow and narrow, fast-moving tributary that is as pretty as its namesake.  Within five minutes of unloading, we meet a disciple of Saint Germain of the Violet Flame.  He is a man whom my father would doubtlessly dub “a fruitcake.”  He’s a rambler, but not like Roger on the Missouri; the Disciple has money somewhere, probably a credit card, and all of his milky teeth.  He doesn’t look me in the eye when we shake, and directs neither his salutations nor his spiel towards me — it’s not a matter of piety either, but that I look like a child in my checkered bathing suit, next to the capable, broad-faced Roland, and a woman child at that.  He lets neither of us finish a sentence, but preaches Germain’s good name for a good while, ending with an incantation longer than my transcription.

..I am the violet transmuting flame, the cosmic law of forgiveness.  Blaze through me now, transmuting all my miscreation, all my mistakes, and the mistakes of mankind, transmuting all cause, effect, record and memory forever…

I am glad when he finally goes, and insist that Roland lock the car before we spend the evening clumsily carrying kindling from across the river.  When we arrive back at camp, the Disciple has left us a long, heavy branch, and with the dinner I cook over it for us, I swallow my miscreations.

In the morning, we go on to Zion and spelunk into a little-known slot canyon called the Keyhole.  Despite my normal intuitions, I have without thinking entrusted my general wellbeing to Roland on this trip, this most of all in the Keyhole.  We enter with nothing but swimsuits and one long water-safe line, and I feel at ease.  In the rainy season there occasionally will be waves like huge troughs that flood canyons like this, and they are perilous to the warm-blooded.  Mosquitoes will swarm in their midst.  Rule of thumb: if you hear a buzz and smell mud, get out or be drowned.  Now in the narrow passages, which the diver repels down into before landing in millennia-old stagnant water, we meet a group of eight reform school boys and their keeper.  I expected to be soulfully alone down in the canyon, to give up the notion of the swarms above for a hour.  But the boys are geared up and suited for subterranean combat.  After a few words, Roland informs us that he worked at the same reform school for a year (I can’t piece his timeline together anymore).  The boys don’t know whether to leer or embrace, so they ignore us.  We make it out and dry ourselves on the sandstone, where there once was only ocean.

By sunset we come upon the Mojave, which famously surrounds the hottest tract in America.  Off of Interstate 15, on a road that leads to nowhere,  thirty long miles later leads to Fort Irwin, California.  The only inhabitants between the fort and the highway are an occasional terrapin and half-a-dozen glinting doublewides, squatting in the dust.  We arrive at the gate, all cinderblocks and machine guns and heat-weary soldiers.  Roland and I say so-long meters from my destination.  Our parting is not poignant, but unsettling— I hadn’t thought through this far ahead.  My father meets me in his fatigues, and the simple culture clash reminds me that it’s not just aesthetic differences that I’m stepping into, but over a decade of subverted communications.

It turns out that we don’t have much to say to each other, and that we don’t see each other for more than a moment here and there.  Dad has just transferred here to the middle of nowhere, from Texas (another version of the same sentiment, in its own rite), and is flogged with the work of warring nations.  I spend two days making idle talk with my stepmother and helping them organize the moving men and kitchenware, trying to escape the heat of the desert.  Outdoors is beautiful in a way.  There are burnt sienna mountains and bluebell blue skyscapes.  Everyone I come into contact with tells me about the weather, and preaches, “if you sit in the shade, it’s not hot at all.”  During a brief conversation with my father, he asks me to outline my five year plan while the cat looks on lazily.  When I don’t have an adequate answer he chuckles and spouts his stock, “There’s always the Army,” shtick.

On the third day, I’m gone.  I console myself with the thought that they compliantly recognize that now is not the moment to develop our relationship, or that the timing is wrong, or that the desert serves as a mediocre backdrop.  Perhaps it becomes clear again that our lifestyles cleave almost violently, but that doesn’t seem right either.  We are not available to each other yet, and the place in all of its seclusion, gives no comfort.  It seems to me that the anxiety of family comes to light only when the promise of a sanctuary dissolves.


—written by Ashley Martin

“Don’t Bring Your Battle Axe To Class” by Henry Miller

An original memoir written in CW 352:  Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Prof. Elizabeth Geoghegan — Spring 2010

“Don’t Bring Your Battle Axe To Class”

Mr. Linton was a crazy man.

He was a third grade teacher.

He taught at a private school in Portland.

He was an expert at fascinating his students.

He was fired one day in May.

Growing up I wanted quietness. I believed that everybody else spoke too quickly and rarely waited for my opinion. I felt that things were too loud in the world that involved other people, so I spent most of my time thinking of the perfection of My World. At home, I had eighty-eight acres of backyard that I could roam around in, and I thought that such a space could provide enough entertainment for my lifetime. There were no problems in the immense Speaking World that I thought couldn’t be solved in My World. In my eighty-eight acres, I had streams and dells, ponds and pathways, woods and groves, and my endless imagination to play around in.  Everything was just fine for me.

No other child that I knew had such a grand space.

So school was a trouble, because I believed that My World was all that I would ever need. To my teachers’ and parents’ dismay, I didn’t feel interested in anything outside of home, and I didn’t feel the need to impress anybody. I wouldn’t do homework, I wouldn’t finish tests, and I often would disappear if nobody was watching me. I never explained to anybody why I was so happily uninterested in everything outside of My World, and I never thought that there was anything wrong with that, until I met Mr. Linton.

I met him on my first day of third grade, which was three days after everybody else’s first day, due to me tricking my whole family into thinking that I was gravely ill. He was half Indian and half English, and he stressed this fact upon my classmates and me. It was a strategy he used to make himself seem like a bizarre animal to us. His voice was booming and crystal clear, in crowds he was always the one everybody could hear. He was colossal compared to the little old ladies that had taught me before him, he claimed he could cut down a redwood with one mighty swing of his karate chop. He was a superhero to the kids who had already been through his classroom. He used his accent and appearance as tools in a way similar to Roman Emperors bringing exotic beasts from around the world to fight each other for the entertainment of the masses.

Mr. Linton was cunningly honest and seemingly impossible to deceive. These were useful traits when it came to fascinating and controlling rambunctious children. These were also qualities that I had not previously encountered in any of my former teachers. I had thought that no adult could ever hold any sort of power over me and that my methods of avoiding work were unmatched by any human. He slaughtered my belief and found every way possible to get me to do things I loathed. I could not stand him. I replaced daydreams of the perfection of My World with daydreams of pissing in his coffee.

When he assigned book reports, I would read obscure comic books, a strategy I had established the year before, but Mr. Linton knew more about comics than any other person in the whole wide world. He would bust me every time, but instead of forcing me to do a makeup project, he would buy me graphic novels for the next book report. This was one of his methods that were not approved by the school. In fact, most of his teaching habits felt somewhat abnormal. When it rained really hard on a school day, he would turn off all of the classroom lights so we could watch the water fall. Whenever students hurt themselves, which happened often at the age of nine, he would tease them until they stopped making a fuss. He refused to allow our class to celebrate Columbus Day, on account that Christopher screwed up and confused Indians with Native Americans and misnamed an entire race. This loss of a day off made some kids upset and led to parents getting involved, and soon he told us that he was on probation by the school.

Mr. Linton told us that he was losing his patience with the school administrators.

In the classroom Mr. Linton began giving us more strange projects. He assigned kids to sneak into other classrooms and bring back all of the gold and silver pencils they had, and hide them underneath the class sink. He checked out books from the school library and had us take them home, and he told us not to read them until we felt like it, which he figured would happen in highschool. He gave me The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which ended up being one of my favorite books. We figured that all of his odd assignments were just part of a ridiculous game that we were playing, and so nobody said anything about it.

By April my book reports were no longer based on comic books or graphic novels, Mr. Linton had me read The Tell-Tale Heart and other such short stories. I told him my secret about My World, and about why I had such a problem with the Speaking World. I told him that reading had become more important to me than running around in my eighty-eight acres at home, that his trickery convinced me that learning might not be so terrible. He said it was a shame that I was growing up, that I would miss being stupid. I remember thinking that the joke wasn’t funny.

One day he had us all write our own riddles.

They were all pretty awful, seeing as nobody really grasped the concept of a true riddle. Most of them ended up being bad jokes with illfitting punch lines. My riddle was why do hyenas cackle? To which the answer was, because they don’t know how to laugh. Not much of a riddle really, but I thought it was something at the time. He read them all out loud to us so that we could decide which one was the best. I forget which one was picked.

After reading us the riddles he told us stories of growing up in India. He always used his stories to try to get a message across. The one that I remember was a story of him and his brother stealing mangoes from a tree inside the garden of a government building. His brother had convinced him that the best mangoes in India were on this one particular tree, because the government had mutated it into a super-mango tree. His brother told him that these mangoes were as light as dust and that, once picked; they would float in the air like balloons. Believing his brother as any younger sibling would, he hopped the wall of the garden to nab some super-mangoes.

He described to us the terror he felt when he saw a rifle for the first time not on television. A soldier who was guarding the building was holding it. Mr. Linton assumed that the soldier was protecting the super-mangoes. So the young terrified Mr. Linton crept very sneakily around the garden behind the soldier and the mango tree and sat down in a bush. His plan was to wait for the guard to leave and then run to the tree, climb it, pick the best super-mangoes he could reach, and dash out of the garden before anybody could be the wiser.

Hours passed with Mr. Linton hiding in the bush, waiting under a scalding Indian sun for the guard to leave his post. He said that with every minute that passed, the mangoes hanging before him looked sweeter and sweeter and yet less and less obtainable. He started thinking that the soldier would never leave, that he would be stuck in the bush forever. Then there was a noise by the wall that the young Mr. Linton had climbed over. It was his brother coming to look for him. His brother had landed on the ground poorly and knocked over a potted plant. The guard had heard the plant fall over too, and Mr. Linton watched as the guard pointed his rifle to where the noise had come from and began marching towards his brother.

Mr. Linton told my class that making decisions was something that few people liked to do. That people often make the wrong decisions because their desires get in the way of reason. After hours of staring at such delicious fruit on such a hot day, the young Mr. Linton could not help himself. So he ran to the tree and looked back to see what was happening to his brother. His brother was running as fast as he could away from the guard who was chasing him. Mr. Linton decided that his brother would have chosen the super-mangoes over saving him, so he climbed the tree. The super-mangoes were heavier than he had expected, and after grabbing several, the young Mr. Linton was too weak to hold himself in the mango tree, and he fell. He told the class to never be greedy, or they might fall out of their own mango tree.

He repeated that a lot to all of his students.

The guard had heard him fall from the mango tree, and chased him and his brother over the wall and out of the garden. Once safe, he looked down at the one super-mango he had managed to get away with. It was bruised, heavy and had ants all over it. Never had he felt so disappointed. This was the end of his story, him looking at a filthy stolen mango. Class was over and it was time for everybody to go home.

The next morning after my mom dropped me off at school, it was late in the academic year and it was beginning to turn into summer. When I reached the Elementary building, I saw all of my classmates waiting outside on the school steps. They told me that they were told to wait outside by the counselor. I was upset because I had finally finished my first real book report and I was eager to prove myself to Mr. Linton.

As it turned out Mr. Linton had brought a large plastic battle-axe to school that day and threatened the principle with it. Apparently they were planning on moving him to a different grade because of his teaching habits. He was immediately fired and replaced by the fourth grade teacher. It is hard to remember what the rest of the year was like, I remember the replacement being another fragile old hag and I remember how the class always talked about how easy it was to get away with not doing any of her assignments. Thanks to Mr. Linton, My World had taken a backseat in my life, but with him gone I began to return to my old habits.

So Mr. Linton was a crazy man.

He was a third grade teacher.

He taught at a private school in Portland.

He taught me how to enjoy life outside my life.

And he was fired for swinging a plastic toy at the principal’s face.

—written by Henry Miller


“BAM” by Jessica Davies

An original memoir written in CW 352:  Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Prof. Elizabeth Geoghegan — Spring 2010


“BAM”

One muggy day in early July, a month after my fifteenth birthday, I remember playing with the water hose in my best friend Liz’s driveway when I began to notice her neighbor across the street. He was playing basketball outside with Greg, the third member of our trio. Liz yelled at Greg to come over and the anonymous boy came too. He tiptoed across the blazing pavement wearing gym shorts that sat very low on his waist. I could feel my heart beating faster as he approached me and I tried to plan out a conversation starter in my head. His skin was bronzed and his body was more chiseled than any boy in my grade. He was a few inches taller than me and had short blonde hair.

I made the first move and asked him, “How the hell are you walking around barefoot? Aren’t your feet burning?”

“Nope. I don’t believe in wearing shoes during the summer. They just make my feet sweat. I’m more comfortable wearing as little as possible.”

I liked his philosophy. I wanted to know more about him, so the four of us sat in a circle on damp towels and he talked about his favorite things to do, which consisted of skateboarding, snowboarding, shooting birds with BB guns, listening to angry music and doodling during class. The main interest we shared was the art of doodling and the I don’t give a fuck what you think about me attitude.

We spent everyday at Liz’s house that summer. Her mom was always at work so during the day we had the whole house to ourselves. At night she slept like a rock so we snuck out a lot. We would sneak Greg and Brian into her basement and drink her mom’s old Brandy and smoke her Basic cigarettes. Sometimes we would walk to Friday’s and eat dinner together. Brian told us his initials were B-A-M, like the professional skateboarder, Bam Margera, and from that moment on, that’s who he was: Bam.

We spent the month of August playing on Liz’s trampoline, exploring the woods, skateboarding, and swimming. One night the four of us split a bottle of brandy in Liz’s pool area. The night was abnormally cold so I wore jeans and a sweatshirt, but Bam wore a pair of grey gym shorts and a white sleeveless tee. There was only one hazy light that reflected off the water creating a subtle glow on Bam’s face. I was sitting across from him and we couldn’t stop staring at each other as we passed the bottle around. His fidgety hands continuously turned our flashlight on and off. I snatched it from him and pointed it at his face just so I could see his pale blue eyes sparkle.

Suddenly Greg interrupted our intimate silence. “Hey Jess, I think it’s about time for a swim,” he said as he quickly moved toward me.

“Don’t you dare!”

I screamed as he pulled me from my chair and threw me over his shoulder. I looked at Bam before Greg lifted me and he was laughing but I was scared as hell. It was freezing out and I was not prepared for a late night swim.

I remember him dangling me over the pool and thinking he would never actually throw me in. But I was wrong. He let out an evil laugh as he released my squirming body. I shrieked until I hit the water and sank slowly. My limbs went numb and I struggled to swim in such heavy clothes. Suddenly, I felt someone grab my arm and pull me up. I gasped for air once my mouth was above the dark water.

“Jess, come here. Grab onto me.”

Bam was standing on the side of the pool desperately trying to get a good grip on my soggy body. In one swift motion he pulled me up next to him and embraced my body.

“It’s okay, it’s okay, I got you now.”

He sat me far away from Greg and wrapped me in a towel while vigorously rubbing my arms to give me warmth. We were both shivering and his shorts were soaked.

“I’m sorry if I got you wet.”

“Are you kidding me? That is the least of my worries. Your lucky I was here to save you,” he said as he hugged me and smiled wide, showing off his flawless grin.

I was blown away by his kindness and I felt so comfortable in his arms. Our relationship changed after that night. We had our first kiss a few days later when we were walking around the neighborhood at night. It was so peaceful. We stayed out until 5 am just talking, laughing, and kissing.

Bam told me that he was scared to die a virgin. I told him I doubted that would be the case.

On September 23, he turned fifteen. Bam was old for a freshman, which made me justify the age difference to my judgmental friends. He had a party that weekend with all of his punk-rock buddies and he wanted me to be there. I had never hung out with his friends, so I was anxious to see how he acted with me. We celebrated his birthday with a cookout in his yard. He introduced me to everyone and stayed by my side the whole night. He kept putting his arm around me and gently rubbing my back whenever his parents weren’t around. I felt like his girlfriend, and I really liked the feeling. At one point he pulled me aside.

“I really like spending time with you, Jessie. I want you to come over and officially meet my parents and see my house. We could watch a movie together or something.”

“I would love that, Bam.”

He smiled and said, “Yes. It’s a date then.”

My parents were always really strict. I needed to ask permission to do anything, especially to go over to a boy’s house. I explained that Bam was Liz’s neighbor and best friends with Greg (who my parents liked because he went to church with us). I told them we were just friends. When I arrived at his house, he gave me a tour and showed me his bedroom. Our differences were evident. He had posters of glow in the dark mushrooms and some creepy band I didn’t recognize. I had posters of Ashton Kutcher and a kitten calendar. His room smelled like Curve cologne and his clothes were everywhere. My room smelled like Love Spell perfume and my clothes were neatly organized by color. I noticed he had a pull up bar in his doorway and I imagined him furiously doing pull ups in his favorite grey gym shorts.

As our date continued, he brought me down to his basement where we attempted to play pool. I got the white cue ball in the pocket three times and he hysterically laughed at my lack of skill. He celebrated when he beat me and as I leaned on the table and pouted, he slowly walked toward me. My knees were weak as he leaned up against my body. He put his soft hands on my cheeks and kissed my lips. The moment was so perfect that I could barely open my eyes once he stopped.

That was the moment he asked me to be his girlfriend.

Bam and I dated for about two months. He made high school enjoyable. Sometimes we would make out behind the stairs in the junior hallway. We planned out the times to leave class and meet up. The highlight of my day was when I would come back from lunch and open my locker. Sometimes Bam would slip a note in it during his study period. Most of the notes were meaningless for anyone else, but they were special to me. They mainly consisted of doodles, random facts about each other and talking about how boring classes are. In one note, he drew little stick figures off the letters in my name. Another note was actually typed out. My favorite note was the one he wrote in cursive because he really never understood how to do it and his handwriting was amusing.

Problems started about a month after we began dating. My friends hated his friends. They were just different types of people. The term they used to describe Bam was “emo” because he had ear piercings and wore a black sweatshirt at least three times a week. The term he used to describe my friends was “preppy bitches” because they were snobby and wore Abercrombie and Fitch. We liked Britney Spears and they liked Slipknot. They smoked pot and we were against it. We were sophomores and they were freshmen. My friends didn’t try to see into his world like I did. They didn’t know that he sometimes wrote lovely poetry, played the guitar, or that he could sing every word to Tim McGraw’s “Don’t Take the Girl.” So when my friends told me to ditch Bam or ditch them, I started to question who meant more to me. His friends didn’t like me either and no one understood why we were so attracted to each other.

I remember it was at one of the last football games when I asked him to come into the woods with me. I had to drag him up the hill because he said that we looked sketchy walking in there together. We stood in the dark, distracted by the chanting of cheerleaders and fans. We could see the stadium through the entrance of the running path we were in and the neon lights were creeping in through the leaves. We both sat silently on a fallen tree. He looked nervous. His eyebrows were slightly raised, like he was waiting for me to say something important.

We had been fighting a lot lately, mainly about how other people wanted us to break up. In high school, peer pressure is harsh.

“Bam, you know how much I like you. You make me so happy. But I think we may be better as friends.” I didn’t know what else to say. I grabbed his hands to make him feel more comfortable and kissed him on the cheek.

“I mean, I guess if you feel that way, then I don’t want to force any feelings on you. I just don’t know if we can be friends.” I explained that we were before, although I knew things had changed and it could never be the way it had been in the summer.

During the winter, I had gymnastics from 5 to 8 every weeknight. We had our meets on the weekends but Bam only came to one of them. We weren’t allowed to use our phones until after practice, so for those three hours, I was out of reach. I hated that rule. I always questioned our coach saying, “Well, what if something important happens and no one can get in touch with me?” She always responded, “Let’s hope nothing important happens then.”

January 13, 2005 was a Thursday and I had gymnastics after school. Bam and I had had gone about a week without talking. When I went on a water break in the middle of practice I saw a missed call from him. I picked up the phone and contemplated calling him back. I didn’t see him once at school that day; maybe he was calling to apologize for telling all his friends that I am a judgmental bitch. I decided the conversation could wait so I put the phone back in my bag and sprinted back to the balance beam.

I had three missed calls by the end of practice.

My mom came to pick my friend Jamie and me up in her giant black minivan. I sat shotgun and called him back twice but he didn’t answer.

“Bam called me three times during practice Jamie, and now he’s not answering.”

“Wait, so you guys are still talking a lot?”

“No, not really. I mean we talk in school and we text sometimes, but we don’t really call each other. I just don’t get why he would call me when he knows I cant answer.” The second I finished that sentence I got a call from Liz. I answered right away.

“Hey Jess, uh, have you talked to Bam recently?”

“No but he called me, did he call you too?”

“Uh, no he didn’t call me but do you know what’s going on at his house? There’s an ambulance there with two cop cars and I can see Colleen crying outside.” I lost my voice for a minute. I felt like my throat was closing in and I couldn’t swallow. A million thoughts were going through my head and not one of them was good.

“Jess? I don’t know what’s going on but his whole family is outside. And they brought someone out on a stretcher.” She sounded hesitant. Her voice slowed down as she muttered the word stretcher.

“Well is Bam outside? Can you see him?”

“No. Try calling him again.”

He didn’t answer. My vision got blurry. I looked out the window but saw nothing. My world went black and my mind went crazy. Why did he call me so many times? Will I ever know what he had to say?

At first, I kept telling myself it was probably nothing. Maybe he wiped out while skateboarding or burnt himself while attempting to cook. He was such hard ass though. Bam would never wipe out so terribly that he needed to be taken away on a stretcher. If he burnt himself, he would have sucked it up and moved on. He had a very high pain tolerance. Something really horrific must have happened. The taste of salt from a tear awakened me from trance. I was breathing so heavy that my mom could barely understand me when I told her what was going on. She told me everything was going to be fine. I didn’t believe her.

I ran to my room when I got home. I made my friend called the hospital to see if he was admitted. The woman on the phone said she was pretty sure a Brian Moore was admitted about a half hour ago so she went to double check. The voice came back on the phone and said, “I’m sorry he is not at the hospital anymore.” She didn’t know where he was or what happened. I looked at the clock and it was 11:11 pm, time to make a wish.

“I wish to see Bam in school the next day and have everything be okay.”

My face was soaked with tears and my hands were numb from squeezing my comforter so tightly. I cried harder every time the ringing was interrupted by his distant voice, “Hey it’s Brian, I’m not here right now so, uh, leave a message.” I left one last voicemail before giving up. I said, “Bam I hope you didn’t do anything stupid,” and “don’t die on me.” A week later, his mom questioned me about saying those things after listening to his voicemails.

I felt ill when I walked into school that Friday. I immediately went to Bam’s locker, but he wasn’t there. I went into homeroom and sat beside my friend Chris. I told him about the night before and that I was afraid something serious happened. He told me I was overreacting. “I bet it was food poisoning. I puked for days from that shit,” he said. I sat next to Chris all four years in the same classroom. He would die of a heroin overdose soon after graduation.

My homeroom teacher stood in front of the class with a bright yellow piece of paper in his hand. He was sweating and looked tense.

“Can I have your attention? Um, I have some bad news…”

I had to swallow a few times because I thought I was going to vomit. The kids in the class blurred out of my vision. The walls starting closing in and all I could see was that yellow sheet of paper in my teacher’s hands. I clenched my fists so hard that my nails left marks on my palm. My toes curled and my heart sank into my gut.

“Last night, Brian Moore passed away.”

I gasped for air, but had trouble breathing. I felt like someone stabbed me in the chest. I had to grab onto the desk for support. The words echoed in my head. I could feel the color drain from my face as I got struck with a wave of nausea and denial.

“His parents are not ready to talk about how he died yet, but we will keep you updated. Did any of you know him? He was a freshman.”

Everyone’s eyes turned to me but I couldn’t see any of their faces. I couldn’t breathe at all anymore. My eyes swelled up with tears and I started to shake. I got up and ran out of the room. In the hallway, I saw Liz walking toward me and I lost it.

My mind had to escape the chaos, so I transported back to one of my fondest memories of us. Liz was in bed doing a crossword puzzle and I was gazing out the window at Bam’s house. A faded light that snuck out from the darkness of his bedroom window captivated me. I watched the yellow dot glow, then disappear, then glow again. This meant he wanted me to respond. I took my flashlight, directed at his room, and then I spun it around in circles. We continued our flashlight tag for a bit and then he texted me and told me to come to his window. I glanced at my flip-flops, decided not to wear them, and ran outside. I noticed that he turned on his bedside lamp so I ducked down as I walked up to his house. I looked up and measured the distance from the ground to his window and then I picked up a small pebble to throw. It hit the glass with force. I waited for his face to appear and once it did, I motioned for him to come outside. I assumed that he was most likely barefoot because of his philosophy on shoes. Finally, his body emerged from the shadows, shoeless as expected, and he started to laugh when he saw me standing there waving furiously.

“So I’m pretty sure you just dented my window, Jess,” he joked.

“I told you I was going to do it and you know how strong I am.”

His arms embraced me and I nuzzled my head below his. His skin was always smooth and his neck always smelled of delicious cologne. We spent the night in the stiff grass pointing at what we thought were constellations in the sky. I told him that Liz referred to us as Bam-Bam and Pebbles from the Flintstone’s. He liked the nicknames.

“This is perfect right now. Let’s sleep out here tonight, Pebbles,” he said as he turned his head to face mine. We didn’t sleep there, but now I wish we had.

The memory faded and I was inevitably sucked back into reality.

The teachers didn’t know what to do with the devastated kids that day. Bam’s friends were hysterical and my friends cried as if they cared about him when he was alive. They brought us all to the auditorium where we spent the morning talking about all the good times we had with Bam. The cluster of us made a banner that said “We miss you Brian” and we all signed it. I had to leave at lunchtime and I spent three days crying with his friends, who all accepted me at the time. We couldn’t be alone, so we moved from house to house. Our parents didn’t know how to act either. One parent made a cake and gave us icing to write “RIP BAM.” Greg’s parents took a photo of the group and inserted text that said, “We miss you.” One mother bought a balloon that we all signed and sent into the air. My mom got me a puppy. I named her Pebbles.

For a long time after his death I blamed myself. I was the one who broke up with him about three weeks before he died and I was the one who didn’t answer his calls the night he passed away. I questioned God’s existence, fate, and life itself. If there is a God, why did he take the life of a 15-year-old boy? If things are meant to be, was I meant to meet a remarkable boy only to have him die a few months later? All my beliefs seemed like a lie.

To this day, I think about him all the time. Since Bam, I question things that happen to me. I wonder how my life would be if he hadn’t died. I wound up dating Greg, our best friend, a month after Bam’s death and we stayed together until college. I chose to go to University of Tampa because I visited the school on January 13 and the school colors were red and black, which were Bam’s favorite colors, so it must have been a sign.

I find myself looking for signs now. I somehow look at a clock when it’s 11:11 almost every day, no joke. Whenever I’m upset and turn my Ipod on to shuffle, Tim McGraw’s “Don’t Take the Girl” always plays. I thought it was a sign when I started dating a freshman in college when I was a sophomore. When I decided to study abroad in Rome, the departure date was January 13th, 2010. Every time I doodle, I think of him. I still have every note he wrote me kept neatly in a cardboard box that I painted red and black. Whenever I visit his grave, the wind always seems to pick up, regardless of the weather conditions. Although my time with Bam was limited, he changed my life. I like to believe that he is watching over me and is proud of the person I have become.

—written by Jessica Davies

“Welcome Back, Sicilian Style” by Gabriella Crivello

An original travel essay written in CW 352:  Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Prof. Elizabeth Geoghegan — Spring 2010

“Welcome Back, Sicilian Style”

My dad heaved a great sigh as he reread the flyer for the summer study abroad program hosted by my college.  “She has to go.”  And with those words, I began my reconnection with Sicily, the land of my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents, back through thousand of pages of my family’s history.  Though my parents have been in the States for over thirty years now, their hearts remain on that island that floats just off the tip of the mainland’s boot.  Unfortunately, all that most people seem to know about that place is its affiliation with organized crime.  But it has far much more to offer than just that and thus why my father was adamant that I go.  For some reason, he seems to believe that since I refuse to sit and watch the Italian broadcast channel RAI with them constantly, that I do not appreciate my heritage and so any opportunity where I am immersed in it, he will jump at.  And since I had not returned to Sicily since the second grade, he knew, and deep down so did I, that this trip was long overdue.

My Front Yard Is A Castle!

Ortigia is the type of place to which not even a famed film director could do justice.  It must be experienced with every sense, every fiber of your being, until the spell is cast and you are transfixed.  Though it is attached to the bustling port city of Siracusa by a series of bridges, it is somehow able to remain separate from the madness of the city, as though crossing the bridges meant a crossing into a separate world.  Each morning, I awoke to the deep, raspy crooning of a fisherman that daily delivered his wares to the restaurant below us, his voice caressing each word of dialect that emerged from his throat.  His songs were old-timey ballads that paid homage to the simplicity of Sicilian life, songs that I faintly recognized from memories long forgotten.  I would quietly jump from my bed, so as to not wake up my cousin Sarina, who decided to study abroad with me, and throw open my balcony doors that looked out onto Piazza Federico di Svevia, allowing his voice to waft into my room.  Then there was the ocean: not rude enough to interrupt the fisherman’s song but it made its presence known through the constant sound of the flow and ebb of its waves, as they kissed the stones of the lungomare.  We were there early enough in the summer where the Scirocco, the pattern of intense heat and unpredictable weather that blows north from Africa, was not yet an issue.  Just a soft, humid breeze, like the breath of an infant as it sleeps against your chest. The air was permeated with the sweet, tangy scent of the citrus trees that dotted the island, which complemented the lingering but not unpleasant smell of the morning’s catch like a gourmet dish. The buildings’ stone façades were cracked in asymmetrical patterns that appeared almost intentional and the cobble-stoned streets rose and fell with the broken tiles, feeling strange beneath your flip flops.

Ortigia was pure, untouched, unaffected by the trials that plague city life. Everywhere you looked, there was something there to marvel at, some ancient structure that caught your eye each time you passed by.  For me, it was Castello Maniace, a thousand year old Arab palace now military headquarter that was situated in my front yard.  Its majestic presence was visible from anywhere on the island and served as a reminder to me of all the cultural influences of my heritage. Ortigia forces you to stop, to breathe, and to take notice.  I certainly was not used to its speed but I soon came to appreciate it more than I expected to.

One of Them

I had never felt so compelled to walk off on my own as I did in Ortigia.  After my Advanced Italian class each morning, the need to explore and meet people overwhelmed me and bidding my roommates farewell, I’d set out, following one winding street to another, eager to discover what awaited me at the other end.  Not once did I feel unsafe or intimidated by being in a place with which I was unfamiliar–if anything, the more I walked, the more I felt I integrated into the landscape, feeling my status as an American student studying abroad slowly melting away and revealing the native Sicilian underneath.  This was particularly true of my trips to the outdoor mercatino.  Just past Ortigia’s version of the Roman Forum, a tiny, sunk-in patch of Greek ruins left by some settlement or other, sat the daily market, where one could find anything from cheap cosmetics, to giant slabs of crimson swordfish, to unbelievably fresh grapes, fighi d’india, and oranges.  Weatherworn butchers wearing bloodstained aprons hacked away at blocks of meat, cigarettes precariously dangling from their chapped lips, while their sons stood idly by, ogling every young woman that passed in a flowy summer dress.  I approached the various stalls and chatted with the vendors, who all seemed astonished that this blond-haired, blue-eyed Northerner, as they believed me to be, could speak Italian so well.

I miei genitori sono nati a Palermo.” My parents were born in Palermo.

“Ah, sei Siciliana! Brava!”

I haggled and established the prices I was willing to pay and found that a sweet smile and a nice per favore was all it took for things to go my way.  I lugged my bags of groceries home proudly, as though their presence in my hands was the true mark of a resident.

Ortigia fit me like a great pair of shoes—I felt comfortable in this beautiful place and was constantly awed by some building or view of the ocean or hidden piazza.  I was certain I belonged there and thrilled when I was approached by wary tourists who wondered where the best hotels or restaurants on the island were located and could answer confidently.  I started noticing that the more time that passed, the more I blended in, a goal that I hadn’t even known I had set for myself.

Rituinà a Porticeddù

It had been over twelve years since I had returned to the tiny fishing town of Porticello where my father was born and where my nonna, aunts, uncles, and cousins still reside.  The trip would take three and a half hours by bus across the island so I arranged with my professor to meet up with the rest of our group in Palermo, which is a crazy, vibrant city that lies just twenty minutes away from our quiet little town.  Deciding to surprise our grandmother, Sarina decided to come with me and so we told our grandmother that I was to be bringing a “friend” with me.  Just a friend. What Sarina and I hadn’t realized at the time is that this would be our first time visiting Porticello together, a fact that came to mean very much to us by the end of our stay in Sicily.

The ride was pleasant although the departure time wasn’t: we needed to be on the bus by six AM.  But the images that met my eyes as we drove across one side of the island to the other made up for my lack of sleep.  Sicily truly has every landscape: driving out of Ortigia, we followed the main highway along the ocean, our eyes squinting as the rising sun glistened on its surface.  The ocean soon transformed seamlessly into lush green countryside, romantic stone cottages and fields of livestock flying past the bus’ windows as I pressed my forehead against the cool glass.  As we neared Palermo, my heart began picking up its pace and I sighed in silent joy when I saw the one road sign that points to Porticello.

“Sarina, are you as nervous as I am about going back?” I asked my cousin as I leaned over her seat with my arms crossed.

“Yeah, I am.  I don’t know why though.”

“Me either. Maybe it’s because it’s been so long.”

My Zio Stefano and Zia Rosa were to be picking “my friend” and I up at the train station in Palermo and we’d complete the final twenty minutes of our trip by car.  Greeting my relatives, who were ecstatic that both their nieces were at last together in Palermo, we drove on and as we did, my mind raced through stocks of memories of my last visit to this place, trying to recall that mountain, and this beach, and that corner café.  As though reading my mind, my uncle drove the long way, passing by u’ chianu, or the main square in dialect, where I used to buy candy at the outdoor vendors, or get an arancina that was fresh out of the fryer, and visit the jewelry maker’s stand, who was able to twist thin pieces of silver into tiny works of art in seconds.  The fishing boats were bobbing merrily at their docks and the sun was peeking just over the hills that encircled the town.  As we turned on my grandmother’s street, everything began to come back to me and I was surprised at how emotional I was as I ascended the marble stairs to my grandmother’s home.  My footsteps echoed and I paused briefly to say a small word of thanks at the small nook in the wall that held the portrait of La Madonna del Lume, Porticello’s patron saint.  Reaching my nonna’s door, I pushed it open and immediately felt eight years old again. The smell of her house was unmistakable: the faint, lingering smell of that morning’s espresso mixed with the pleasant scent wafting from the potpourri bowl she kept in her foyer.  Her hall was an art gallery of family photos, my own face smiling back at me every few frames.  She was in her usual spot in the kitchen, seated in front of the open balcony door for air, as she refused to ever turn on the air conditioner, despite the heat.  My aunt encouraged us to the kitchen and I called,

Nonna, siamo qui. Dov’e sei?

As soon as my cousin and I walked in to surprise her, we stifled a chuckle and held back tears as my grandmother’s mind worked furiously to distinguish whether the vision before her was true.  Leaping from her chair, she grabbed us both in quite a strong embrace for a little old lady and it was then that I knew I was home.  Her wrinkled hands held our faces softly, as though verifying our presence in her home and I told myself to never leave this place.  I understood immediately why my father was so passionate about the place where he grew up: no one is ever made to feel unwanted and family is the only truly important thing in one’s life.  That night, Sarina and I sat down to our first meal together in our grandmother’s kitchen, eating traditional Sicilian dishes like panelli, arancini, pesce spado, pollo impanato, caponata and for dessert, cassatini, that put all other Italian food to shame.  Perhaps I am a bit biased, but Sicily really does have the best food in all of Italy.  Throughout the night, cousins, friends of our fathers’, and second uncles twice removed all streamed into the tiny kitchen to see us, having heard of our arrival within seconds of our getting there. How this is able to happen remains a mystery to me.

Senti, quando aveva la tua eta, i tuoi padri erano pazzi. Non restavano mai a casa! Una volta…

I reveled in the stories these people told of our fathers as children, particularly enjoying the one of my father accidentally catching his fishing hook on the elbow of one unsuspecting teenager while on his first day working the boats, and of their last memories of us when we were babies, learning to crawl on my grandmother’s marble floor and playing obsessively with the toy router phone she kept on the shelf in the living room.  It still sits there, along with priceless antiques, yellowing photographs, and crystal bowls. It pained me deeply when the weekend ended and we were forced to leave so as to get back to Siracusa in time for class on Monday.  Hugging my grandmother, I promised her that I would return soon, a promise I hope to fulfill within the next few weeks.

As we drove away from Porticello toward the bustling streets of Palermo, my cousin and I held hands and smiled at each other, knowing how fortunate we are to have a family that cares so deeply for us and to have a place to call home thousands of miles away from where I thought I was from.

The month in Sicily drew to a saddening but inevitable close, and we decided to live up the final days with great food, traditional music, and of course, great wine.  In between packing our luggage, we wandered to the tiny beach in Ortigia, eating cartocci and reminiscing already about everything that we’d miss.  As we gazed out at the ocean, the setting sun tinting it the color of orange and raspberry sorbetto, I thought gratefully of my father’s words as he reread the flyer: She has to go.

—written by Gabriella Crivello