Posted on May 6, 2010
[Note: This "essay" was originally written for a message I gave at my church based on John 13:31-35, the Gospel reading for May 2, 2010. My pastor was away at a continuing education program and asked me to speak to the our congregation during worship. I'm not a preacher, so this is not a sermon. Rather, it is my interpretation and thoughts about the scripture passage. Your feedback is welcome.]
31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
There have been times when I have had to go somewhere and leave my son behind. Kyle is now four years old, so he’s well beyond the separation anxiety of a baby, when tears and screaming can erupt whenever Mommy just disappears into the next room. But even though my son has reached the point where most of the time he couldn’t care less about my departures, leaving him behind is still something I try to prepare him for. For example, if my mother comes to sit with him while I go to an appointment or shopping or whatever, there are several things I might say to Kyle before I leave: “I’ll be back soon. Be a good boy. Don’t forget to say please and thank you. I love you.” For some reason, these brief everyday reminders take on added significance when I know I’m not going to be there with him for a while — for example, if I will be away overnight. So I want to be sure I have his attention as I say my parting words and I want to hear him say, “Okay, Mommy, I will be good,” etc. Because I feel these things I’m telling him are important for him to remember. How successful he is at remembering and behaving accordingly is somewhat of a mystery to me. All his doting grandma ever reports is that he was nothing less than a perfect little angel. I know better. Today’s Gospel reading is the very beginning of a rather long conversation between Jesus and his disciples in the hours immediately preceding Jesus’ arrest — essentially, Jesus is giving them his parting words. Biblical scholars have sort of named these chapters 13-17 of John’s Gospel the “farewell discourse.” It’s Jesus’ last opportunity to teach the disciples before he is taken away to his death. And there are some important things he wants them to understand and remember, things that we as modern-day followers of Jesus also need to give our attention.
Chapter 13 finds Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem, having their last meal together (of course, only Jesus knows this will be the Last Supper). This is the same gathering during which Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. We remembered these events on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week. I think it is worth reviewing and reflecting on some of the events of this pivotal evening so that we can consider Jesus’ parting words in context. After the foot washing, Ch. 13 verse 21 says Jesus was “troubled in spirit” and he announces very directly that one of the disciples is going to betray him. The disciples, especially Peter, are puzzled by this statement and are wondering, “What is Jesus talking about? Who is going to betray him?” In answering Jesus is even more direct and says, in effect, “Okay, I have this piece of bread and I’m going to dip it into this dish and then the person I hand the bread to is the one who is going to betray me.” And then Jesus does exactly that: he dips the bread in the dish and hands it right to Judas Iscariot. And Jesus then tells Judas, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” You might think this would have erased all questions and doubts as to who would be the betrayer, but verse 28, says this: “Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him.” On the one hand, it seems that Jesus is very straightforward and I wondered why none of the disciples picked up on the fact that Jesus revealed Judas as the betrayer. But then I got to thinking more about this scene. I realized that there are at least 13 people (possibly more) gathered in the room and they are finishing a meal. I assume the men are at least a little spread out and, as would be the case with any dinner party or family gathering of this size, I think it is likely that there is more than one conversation taking place around the table. In fact, the scripture says that Peter motions to the disciple sitting next to Jesus to urge the other disciple to find out from Jesus who Jesus is talking about. Maybe Peter was not close enough to pose the question himself. Maybe some of the disciples are still whispering among themselves about the foot washing Jesus did and are trying to figure out what that was all about. Perhaps some of them are still focused on eating and drinking. I can’t know for sure because the passage doesn’t fill in these details.
The disciples did hear Jesus tell Judas to leave, but verse 29 explains that they don’t know why Judas was sent off and that some of them can only speculate that Judas was being sent to buy supplies or to give some money to the poor — which are tasks that Judas as the group’s treasurer of sorts might be expected to carry out. At any rate, Judas leaves immediately and that brings us to verse 31, the beginning of today’s Gospel, which starts “When he had gone out … .” The “he” is Judas who has left to carry out his betrayal of Jesus by leading the soldiers and police to Jesus in the garden so that they can arrest Jesus. At this point, Jesus knows time is running out and he tells his disciples so: “I am with you only a little longer.” Notice that he addresses them rather tenderly as “little children.” To me, this is another reflection of Jesus’ tremendous love for his disciples — he speaks to them like a devoted parent getting ready to go away and trying to gently prepare his beloved little ones for the inevitable and difficult parting. I also think, however, that Jesus may be acknowledging their naivete — like children, the disciples are somewhat innocent and trusting and do not seem to recognize the danger lurking around the corner. Like any small child, they want to keep holding on, to feel safe and loved and secure with him, and Jesus has to tell them that they cannot go with him. They have to stay behind. They really have no idea what is about to happen, yet Jesus knows exactly what is coming and he knows it’s coming soon. These are the events and circumstances that lead up to Jesus’ “farewell discourse.”
Jesus’ first point regards his relationship of complete unity with God the Father — “the Son of Man has been glorified and God has been glorified in him.” I feel this is Jesus’ way of trying to explain to his disciples that what they are about to experience, which is going to be horrible and painful for all of them — namely, Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and death — will ultimately become the perfect expression of God’s love for humanity. That is the glory of it. God loves us and because of His love and His desire for us to be united with Him He sent Jesus. Through Jesus and his suffering, death, and resurrection, we have been given the assurance that we who believe will have eternal life with God. The most famous verse from the Gospel of John, 3:16, arguably the best-known words from the entire New Testament, sums this up: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Of course, whether the disciples were able to grasp this teaching at this point in time is debatable, I think. I’m sure they had different expectations for how the evening would end. That is something I find moving and tragic: despite Jesus’ efforts to prepare his friends for what is to come, these men and also the women who followed Jesus remained unprepared and were somewhat blindsided.
The next point, in verse 33, that Jesus makes is that he is going to be separated from them: “Where I am going, you cannot come.” And that brings in the “new” commandment: “Love one another.” The entirety of Jesus’ ministry has been to love. He loves these disciples and he has shown great love for everyone whose life he has touched, whether by his mercy, his acts of healing, forgiveness of sins, etc. And now that he is getting ready to leave he commands the disciples that he has loved to in turn love one another as a way of continuing his work in his absence. He is leaving them with instructions, an assignment. But notice that he doesn’t “suggest” or “ask” or “recommend” that they love one another — he commands it. The expectation of obedience is there. I did a quick search of the Gospels, using an online searchable Bible, and, based on what I found, this seems to be about the only time Jesus introduces his teaching by directly saying “I command you to do this.” He is framing “Love one another” as a commandment, and its central importance is proven by the fact that Jesus restates this commandment almost word for word in Chapter 15, verse 12: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus knows that in his absence there will be incredible turmoil and the only way the disciples will survive it to carry on is by supporting, nurturing, and caring for one another just as he has always supported, nurtured, and cared for them. This attitude of love is one of the most important things he wants them to remember. But it’s not only for the sake of their survival, it’s ultimately for the sake of the entire mission, as Jesus says in verse 35: “By this [LOVE] everyone will know that you are my disciples … .” Love is to be the defining characteristic of Jesus’ followers. People should be able to look on these disciples and see first and foremost that they love one another. Seeing that obvious and overt love, everyone will recognize that group as representatives of Jesus. His followers. The people he taught. Reflections of him. Missionaries. A New Testament commentary I ran across online put it this way: “[T]heir love for one another is part of God’s missionary strategy, for such love is an essential part of the unity they are to share with one another and with God; it is by this oneness of the disciples in the Father and the Son that the world will believe that the Father sent the Son.” In other words, love is a primary essential element for evangelism.
The implications of this commandment for us, as Jesus’ followers in this age, are critical. We modern Christians are also unified with one another, with Jesus, and through him with God the Father, and we also have been charged with continuing to carry out Jesus’ mission. So we also are commanded to love one another for the sake of that mission so that when others look on us they will first see that love and then conclude that we must be followers of Jesus. And hopefully decide they want to follow Jesus as well. Most of us are familiar with the song that goes, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Unfortunately, despite the lyrics we sing, we often fall short. We so often fail to love. It isn’t always easy. People can be complicated, frustrating, even hateful to us. Personally, I think that’s why Jesus was deliberate in giving this instruction as a commandment. It had to be commanded because it is not automatic. We have to work at it — Jesus never had to work at it.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could send someone out on the street to interview passersby about their impressions of Christians? Imagine that Jay Leno brought his show to downtown Willoughby and he decided to stop some people on their way out of the Arabica coffeehouse and ask them the following questions: “How do you recognize Christians? How can you tell who is a follower of Jesus?” What kinds of answers do you think people would give? It probably would depend on whether the person being interviewed identified himself/herself as a Christian. But what answers would the non-Christians give? How many do you think would answer something like this: “Well, the way I can tell someone is a follower of Jesus is from the obvious way they show love to other people. That’s a dead giveaway!” Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear that answer? Wouldn’t it be awesome to see someone on late night television in front of a camera expressing that to the world? Of course, that would be ideal — and that should be our goal: showing the world how to love. However, I’m afraid there would likely be some less then desirable answers given.
- For example, “Christians are judgmental. They are always telling me that if I don’t live like they live and believe what they believe then I am going straight to hell.”
- Or, “Christians? Christians only care about making money. Every time I see a Christian on TV they’re asking for my money.”
- What about this: “All Christians do is argue among themselves. I mean, they have all these different kinds of churches and even different kinds of Bibles. They can’t even agree what their religion is all about. Each group has different rules and ideas … so who’s right??”
- Think about this one: “My Christian friend tells me all about the people in her church that can’t get along with one another. There’s always some disagreement or personality conflict in that church. Christians pretend they are better than everyone else, but they’re just hypocrites.”
- Here’s one that I’ve heard: “Christians are phony. They pretend to be friendly and interested in me as a person, but I know all they want from me is to become part of their group. Sometimes it seems like they expect to get bonus points with God if I join their church.”
I have been known to shout at my television when Christians appear on the news or a talk show or something like that and behave in a very unloving and, frankly, embarrassing manner. I know no one is perfect — everyone makes mistakes — I certainly do. I fail to be loving toward others the way Jesus loves me. I fail at that a lot. I’m impatient and overly sensitive and I can be very judgmental. I have times when I feel very selfish — I don’t want to be loving. I just want to do my own thing. My way. Someone hurts me and I don’t want to forgive them. I want them to suffer my displeasure for a while. I am a Christian, but I am still a sinner. That’s why I need forgiveness. I need Jesus to heal my soul and continue to teach me how to be his disciple, how to put aside my interests and focus on loving God first and then loving others. That means loving everyone. Even — maybe especially — the people on TV who make me scream. That’s why this Gospel is so important. Christians of all different traditions need to be reminded again and again and again that God loves us, He forgives our sins, and that we have been commanded by Jesus to love and forgive one another. Through that love we can touch others and help them find their own way to Christ. Because love is attractive and contagious. Jesus meant for the world to see something pure and good about his disciples and to be drawn in, to want to have what his followers have. But without that kind of contagious love, we simply cannot be effective in spreading the Good News. Because no one will be interested. They won’t want what we claim to have because it’ll sound like just another empty sales pitch. As the Bible commentary I read states: “The community is to continue to manifest God as Jesus has done, thereby shining as a light that continues to bring salvation … . Without this love their message of what God has done in Christ would be hollow.” [InterVarsity Press NT commentary -- biblegateway.com] I am struck by the use of the word “hollow.” Something that is hollow is just an outside form, or shell, with no substance inside it. That is not how I want to present the very wonderful and substantial message of what God has done in Christ. I don’t want it all to ring hollow. Do you?
Loving others is not always easy. We have struggles with our family members, friends, co-workers. There can be misunderstandings and disagreements with fellow church members. Complete strangers shout filthy insults at us or cut us off in traffic or violently attack us. Someone cheats us or takes advantage or steals from us. People live and behave in ways that we find offensive or disgusting. And yet if we want to be witnesses to the Good News, there will be occasions when we have to hold our tongues, keep our tempers in check, turn the other cheek, and maybe even go a step or two further and be welcoming, helpful, kind, generous, and gracious. Even when we don’t feel like doing that. That is the mark of a Christian — not just someone who claims to belong to a particular church and subscribe to a particular set of beliefs, but a person who, despite their human frailty and imperfection, strives always to love God and follow Jesus’ commandment to love others as he has loved us.
Filed Under: Essay - Comments: Read the First Comment
Posted on February 9, 2010
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.2
It is still well over a week until Valentine’s Day, and I find myself stationed at this laptop in a small, quiet coffee shop conveniently located close to home. I was able to get away tonight after the meatloaf dinner had been eaten and my love assured me he will handle the dishes and our child and everything else for the rest of the evening.
“Go ahead, and don’t rush back,” he said. He knows it’s something I have wanted to do for several days: leave the living room and the toys strewn across the floor and escape to write. Writing is a love of mine as well, and a practice I’ve neglected too long while worrying about so many other things. Like taking care of those I love and trying to serve the church I love. But this evening I have escaped to do this special thing I love. I have coffee and cake and a longing to let something profound come forth.
The owner of this shop is European. I cannot place his accent, my ear is not attuned in that way, but he gave me a friendly welcome. He now recognizes me, as I’ve visited this shop several times. There are always delicious cakes, tortes, and other tempting pastries. Those are what I come here for, although I find nothing unsatisfactory about the coffee. And I like the atmosphere: there are few customers usually so it’s quiet and the light is warm and golden. Tonight the owner recommended a layered cake dessert labeled “Mozart.” I saw the chocolate ganache on top and quickly agreed. The truth is I probably would have accepted it even without the chocolate — Mozart is my favorite composer. It did bode well.
He has told me before that his wife makes some of the pastries. Tonight I overheard him remark to some other customers that his wife is “very good.”
“She cooks very good. She cleans very good. Bakes very good.”
“She’s just a very good wife, huh?” the lady asked in a sweet, but maybe a trifle condescending, tone.
“She is my life.”
This man works hard. The shop is always spotlessly clean, and he is an attentive host to his customers. He doesn’t have employees as far as I can tell (I doubt he could afford any), and I am guessing he spends every evening here. The shop is open until 10:00 weeknights, so I can only guess what time he finally makes it home to his good wife. I am the daughter of an immigrant, and I understand this work ethic because I grew up with it.
When I think of my mother’s long work hours on her feet in factories and restaurants throughout my childhood, I am almost ashamed of myself for not fully appreciating how blessed and easy my life is. She would come home to piles of laundry, meals to cook, too many bills to pay, and a husband and three children in constant need of attention. Of course, she did complain and lose her temper and sometimes just cry. She wouldn’t be human if she hadn’t. Daily life was rarely easy for her. But what I never understood until I became a mother is what her love enabled her to accomplish.
“I don’t know how you did it,” I have told her. “It makes me tired just thinking about it.”
“I don’t know either,” she will say.
What we don’t have to say to one another is what we both already know: women move mountains everyday. Because they love.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 567
Chapter 13 of the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians is a very popular scripture reading at weddings. It was read at my own wedding over thirteen years ago. The funny thing is on that October day I honestly thought I knew about love. Love was what the wedding was all about as far as I was concerned, and this man was the one I had found and fallen in love with. Our family who loved us was all gathered, we were in a church because I loved God (as well as I could then), and I was wearing a white lace dress I loved, carrying roses (the only flower I love), and I had just been escorted down the aisle by my loving father accompanied by my most beloved of melodies, Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major. Because my mother loved me, she had allowed me to wear her emerald earrings, which coordinated with the emerald engagement ring my love had placed on my finger ten months earlier. I love emeralds but not diamonds, which was fortunate because he could afford a small emerald back then and not much else. It was all right — we didn’t need a lot of money because we had love. When you’re 24 and naive, you can tell yourself that you’re ready for the commitment because you feel so much … love.
I am not who I was that day. And he has become someone else, too. Beyond the physical changes of our bodies, there’s the transformation that has happened, subtly, to move us from the naive and reckless lovers we were then to the deliberate partners we now are — who are still not as wise as we ought to be. It’s a maturity we have fought, but it comes unbidden from the struggle: to negotiate our roles and responsibilities, to protect our unique personalities, to recognize and forgive our essential flaws, to accept how fragile the bond between us can seem at times, and to compromise in the daily gap between each of our desires and dreams and the limits imposed by the choices, both wise and foolish, we have made. Together.
But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. … For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
It will be challenged and tested. It already has been many times. Love — like faith — is a journey, not a destination. I can look ahead and imagine our future selves. I can hope for a second child, a bigger house, more travel, perhaps a second career, but what I neglect to anticipate are the moments when we will struggle. There will be more losses to face, more debts to be repaid, more failures and disappointments to move beyond.
Just as I have been pondering the passage from 1st Corinthians the past couple of weeks, a line of poetry by William Shakespeare has glided in and out of my mind like a persistent but gentle draft. A breeze begging me to acknowledge it, like a hungry child. I know it is a verse from a sonnet, but I don’t remember which one, so I do an online search and the first hit is on a question and answer website. Someone has posed this: “What is the meaning of the quote by Shakespeare ‘Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds’ ?” I am almost 38 years old, have been married for over 13 years, and I have a four-year-old son — I think I can be forgiven my reaction: a roll of the eyes and chuckle at the absurdity of asking such a thing in an internet forum. Not to mention expecting a useful answer. I imagine a nineteen-year-old college student frantically typing the query as she rushes to finish a paper she owes to a pretentious and intimidating professor of literature so that she can meet her girlfriends at the bar just off campus. Maybe there’s a chance she’ll hook up with that guy. Again.
Another hit answers my original question: the verse is from Sonnet 116. But before I can continue my research I click another link to yet another question/answer forum on which yet another person of questionable judgment (yes, I am being judgmental) has posed the very same question as my imaginary college co-ed. It is possible the same co-ed, in desperation, has sprinkled this query throughout cyberspace. The answer given at the second site, I can only guess, has been provided by someone who’s been there and done that (sort of like me):
“It means that love doesn’t change when those in love change or encounter change in their lives or each other.
This is actually rubbish since love is always changing. Love relies on each individual’s perception and interpretation of it, and since people change throughout time, then how they view love changes with them, be it slightly or largely. Which is one reason people fall in and out of love.”
I can respect that, despite the arbitrary and rather cryptic grade this respondent has been electronically assigned by the forum: “8% best answer.” Apparently, there is also some point value associated with the question as well as the answer. (It is a confusing system to me.) I can only speculate what that pretentious and intimidating professor will think when he reads this word-for-word in the co-ed’s term paper.
But I have to leave that now and get down to business. Sonnet 116 and love that doesn’t alter. Of course, I wind up at Wikipedia and learn that this verse was first published 301 years ago and that its form and structure are typical of the Shakespearean sonnet. There is further exegesis on each of the three quatrains and the concluding couplet as well as 32 cited references from scholarly research. I am sure this would prove interesting reading for this former literature major, but I just don’t have the time today. I have laundry to finish, the dishwasher to empty, and a child to supervise and encourage in his (and my) ongoing struggle to keep his pants dry. Later this evening there’s a meeting at church. I look forward to relaxing and gaming with our friends later tonight. If the weather doesn’t get too treacherous.
And, anyway, even Wikipedia points out at the top of the page regarding this discussion of Sonnet 116, “This article is in need of attention from an expert on the subject.”
If the subject is love, good luck finding one.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Filed Under: Essay - Comments: Be the First to Comment
Posted on January 13, 2010
DRAFT COMPLETE 1/21/2010
Will and I are the second couple to arrive at the campground this year. Sharon and Pete have their tiny hiker’s tent pitched, and Pete is splitting the firewood. Sharon waves at us and points to the campsite across the way. I remember that we could not get adjoining sites this year because we reserved too late, but it won’t matter. We always get three sites for the three families and then we spend most of the weekend squeezed under the Peersons’ dining canopy eating and playing cards to stay out of the rain. Because it rains every year. The other two sites are inhabited only for a few hours at night when we sleep. Will and Pete have been known to sleep around the fire pit — usually because they were too drunk to stumble to their tents.
Pete drops his ax on the ground and walks over to give Will a hand with our mammoth eight-person tent. They exchange the same old, tired erection jokes as I drag our coolers across the road and set them next to Sharon’s. She already has a fire going in the pit, and I help her chop up potatoes and onions for the foil packets we’ll put on the grill in a while. So far, it’s the familiar summertime camping routine we have enjoyed the past seven years.
“Have you talked to her?” Sharon asks me. “Is she bringing the kids?”
If Caroline makes it this year, I doubt Sam and Amy will be with her. Samantha is fifteen this year and has been miserable the last two annual camping trips. Twelve-year-old Amy was going to music camp this week and probably is still there. “I called Caroline last night around eleven. I thought I’d get her then, but no answer.”
Sharon nods. “Pete sent email, too.”
“I told her before not to bother with the trailer. It’ll be too much for her. There’s plenty of room in our tent for her. And the girls, too.”
“We wondered if maybe she’d sold it.”
“Not yet. The Porsche is still in the garage, too. Will asked me if he could make an offer on it. I hit him.”
Sharon laughs. “My poor abused baby brother!”
“Don’t forget ‘deprived!’”
The guys amble over and ask which cooler has the “ginger ale.” It’s our silly code word for beer, which is technically not allowed in the state park. We are otherwise perfectly dull law-abiding 30-something suburbanites, but we’ve been known to flout the alcohol prohibition for the sake of a relaxing few days out among the nature.
It’s after seven and still no sight of Caroline. Pete, a rail thin, health-obsessed carpenter by trade, is grudgingly roasting marshmallows for my smores. I do not camp unless someone (usually Sharon) supplies me with graham crackers and chocolate frosting. Will insists on putting chocolate bars in his. He will eat at least six and later groan about it to a very unsympathetic Pete.
I study Sharon to see if she’s changed in the last month since we’ve seen each other. I suspect my sister-in-law is pregnant, although no announcement has been made. Pete and Will, being men, don’t elaborate on the details, but my husband sort of mentioned that he heard Sharon had been feeling ill lately. I know she’s had three miscarriages in the past seven years, the first when she was still married to her first husband, but last year she told me Pete was ready to try again. This evening, which has turned chilly, she has on baggy sweats and has declined to drink “grape juice” with me. I will find out for sure before the weekend is over.
Our two-year-old son Michael is spending a few days with my parents while Will and I are camping. Will’s computer sales job keeps him so busy lately that we barely have time just for us. Next year, if we come back, we will bring Mikey and introduce him to one of our favorite summertime traditions. I will go crazy overpacking clothes and toys to keep Mikey comfortable and occupied, and it will be a different experience for me with a toddler to chase around. But this year it is already different, and I know the four of us are being careful, vigilant even, as we guard our routines and work hard at nonchalant conversation. We’re waiting to see.
Near the fire Sharon and Pete cuddle on the two-seat fold-up camping “sofa” Will and I gave them as a wedding gift four years ago. That was our way of bringing Pete into the group, and I remember the tears in Sharon’s eyes when they opened the large gift bag. Sharon and Will grew up camping with their parents, and when Will and I got married eight years ago, he decided we should set aside the last weekend in August every year for a campout with our closest friends. The idea was repugnant to me at first. I’ve never been the outdoorsy type, and all I could imagine was three days of worrying about bad weather and wild animals and smelling like bug spray. After a horrendous first experience, Will gave in to my demands and bought a tent large enough for me to stand up and get dressed, and he settled for relocating to the state park which has flush toilets and decent showers. It was less rustic than he preferred, but everyone enjoyed it better as my husband and I no longer spent the weekend snapping at each other.
The first three years Sharon and her first husband Jake accompanied us along with my best friend Caroline Peerson and her family. Caroline and I sensed the problems in Sharon’s marriage starting with the first trip, but we all adored Jake and it was difficult to accept when Sharon moved out and began seeing Pete before the divorce was finalized. Sharon and Pete didn’t join us for the year between the divorce and their marriage, and I felt bad when Will suggested that maybe we hadn’t made Pete feel very welcome. All these years later it is difficult to imagine what camping trips were like without Pete’s enthusiasm and humor. Well, lesson learned. Next time, if there’s a next time, we’ll be more quick to open our hearts to a new camper. Maybe. It is hard though to let go of some friends.
“Call her again,” Will says to me, reading my mind as he so often does when I’m worried.
“Well, I don’t want to be a pest.”
“Do it. You’re not going to relax and enjoy yourself until you know.” He’s right, of course. But as I get up from my chair to fetch the cellphone, a vehicle turns from the road and slowly pulls up to our campsite.
“There she is,” Pete says. “I’ll back in the trailer for her. It’ll hurt me to sit here on my butt and watch her struggle.”
Caroline’s driving her minivan and has Ryan’s new trailer hitched behind. I don’t know how she managed it by herself. She jumps out of the van, laughing at something Pete has said, and jogs over to the fire. Sharon walks over and hugs Caroline, while I study her carefully.
“Damn construction! I’m so sorry I’m so late.” Caroline’s avoiding my gaze, has her face turned away to watch Pete back the trailer into her campsite next to ours. “And then I had to get some groceries at the campstore because I…”
“Don’t worry about it!” Will insists, putting an end to her excuses. “We’re glad you’re here. Have a ‘ginger ale’ or some ‘grape juice’?” He makes exaggerated quote marks with his fingers.
Caroline laughs in her loud, merry way. “Ginger ale! Thank you, Will!”
“Did you eat? We have burgers and chicken breast left over.” Sharon is already pulling out the food. She’s eager to meet every need, fluttering around like a mother hen. She must be knocked up.
Caroline waves away the offer. “No, no. I stopped on the way, but thanks. Oh, God! I thought I was never going to get off that highway.”
She still hasn’t looked at me. “Where are the girls?” I ask.
“With my brother-in-law. Oh, thanks, Will,” she says accepting the large plastic cup from my husband. “Hey, I remembered the blender this time, so we can make daiquiris–”
“Ah, ah, ah!” My husband interrupts. “Smoothies. We’re calling them ‘smoothies.’”
I roll my eyes. Pete is doing the hookups and leveling the trailer and putting up the awning for Caroline. These guys are jumping right in, filling the gap, and I barely know what to say. My best friend and I have hardly spoken in two months.
“I didn’t bring the dining canopy,” Caroline says. “I figured we could all just go inside the trailer if it rains. There’s plenty of room.”
“What do you mean, ‘if”?” Will asks.
Caroline laughs again and Will chuckles along with her.
“I told you we have plenty of room in the tent, Caroline. All you needed was a sleeping bag and clothes. It would have been much simpler for you.” There’s an edge in my voice that I don’t intend, and I see Sharon look up from the cooler. Will’s mouth opens.
Caroline shrugs. “No big deal. Steven hitched it all up for me when he picked up the girls. They are going to my in-laws’ cabin for a week.”
“It’s nice that the girls can spend some time with Ryan’s family before they have to go back to school.” Sharon has her mother’s way of butting in and steering a conversation into a different direction when she feels uncomfortable. I hate it when my mother-in-law does that to me.
“Yeah,” Caroline agrees, “so this campout I can cut loose a little because I don’t have to set a good example for the girls.”
My husband does a silly dance around the fire. “Party, party, party!” he chants.
“Will! Knock it off. You know the rangers come around in the evening.” I sometimes wish I was married to an actual grownup.
“Hey, lighten up, will ya?” he says to me. “Eat another smore. Or have some more wine.”
I am glaring at him and preparing my retort when Pete rejoins the group and sets up a camp chair for Caroline.
Somehow the talk turns to pre-season football, and I settle back in my camp chair and close my eyes. I know nothing about football, despite Will’s many attempts to explain it. I can’t keep it straight. Will has said, “He needs to get 4 more yards for a first down. It’s third and four.”
“Yes. Third down.”
“I thought you said ‘first down.’ ”
“No! Four yards to get the first down.”
“Well, that doesn’t make sense. The third down comes before the first down?”
It apparently makes perfect sense to Will and Pete and Sharon and Caroline. It means nothing to me. Pete throws some more wood on the fire and refills the drinking cups. I am surprised to see that Caroline has finished her beer so quickly. She was never a drinker, especially not beer. I guess this is what cutting loose is all about for her.
Pete comes over and offers me more grape juice, but I decline. I’m just not in the mood tonight. I think we’re all getting a little too old for the alcohol shenanigans.
After Caroline finishes another beer, which doesn’t take long, it’s my husband who accelerates the decline by asking if anyone thinks smoothies are in order. I reply that I don’t, but Sharon is soon digging around in her cooler for berries and Pete suggests that Caroline’s trailer is probably a better place for smoothies. For a guy who won’t eat red meat, jogs several miles every day, and takes a half cup of vitamin and mineral tablets and a bunch of other hippie health crap, surprisingly my sister-in-law’s husband is not one to pass on the drinks.
“Will, where’s the flashlight?” I ask, standing and folding my camp chair. “I’m going to the showers.”
Will frowns. “Right now? Aren’t we going over to Caroline’s trailer for a while? It’s only nine o’clock.”
“I’ll pass tonight.”
Will obviously disapproves, but says nothing. I say goodnight to everyone. Sharon asks if I’m all right and says I do look tired. Caroline doesn’t even try to coax me to the trailer, and I get it: she’ll have more fun if I’m not around. We were never like this before. As I’m walking with Will back to our campsite, and he’s telling me that he wasn’t the one who packed so he doesn’t know where the hell the flashlights might be … I remember her flowers. Caroline’s wedding bouquet was the most beautiful I had ever seen. Five stargazer lilies nestled among pure white mums. I think they were mums. The lilies were streaked with a deep fuschia that almost perfectly matched my dress. As maid of honor, I was the only one who got to wear that color, the rest of the bridesmaids wore black. Even the style of the dresses set me apart from the others. The other girls, Caroline’s cousins, all skinny and blonde and tanned, had to wear matching strapless gowns, but Caroline let me choose my own dress.
“Get something you’ll feel beautiful in and enjoy the day,” she had said one afternoon. “That’s all I care about.”
“It’s your wedding,” I protested. “It’s about you. And Ryan.”
She hugged me. “Someday when I’m your matron of honor and I’m all fat from having Ryan’s babies … you can return the favor.”
Six months later, their daughter Samantha was born.
I unzip the tent and step in to grab my toiletry bag, and Will follows me inside.
“I just wanted to keep this weekend … simple,” I say as calmly as I can.
“Fine, but this is … has got to be really hard for her. We’re all making an effort.” He doesn’t add, ‘Except you,’ but that’s the implication.
“You know, Will, I was the one who had to book the sites three weeks ago, I did all the laundry, bought all the groceries, packed everything in the van, took Mikey to my parents … trust me, it was an effort. You just had to drive us here. So, go to hell.”
He goes, but to Caroline’s trailer. The thought of washing my hair and scrubbing the day off my face no longer appeals. I would rather defy my habit and live a few more hours in this fury and sweat, campfire smoke, and stale, oily sunscreen. I roll out my sleeping bag, laying it a few feet apart from Will’s, and stretch out. It’s three more hours before I can sleep and for two hours I try counting the raindrops as they slap the top of our tent.
Will’s cell phone beeping wakes me to darkness and chill. It is still very early, and my heart starts pounding. The early morning phone calls are never good news. The phone is a cruel but most effective alarm. I am already reaching for my jeans because these calls always mean you have to get up and hurry someplace you don’t want to be to do something you hoped you’d never have to do. Will sits up and grabs his phone from the little pouch sewn to the wall of the tent. It’s where he always puts the keys and his wallet and the small flashlight.
“Is it my mom? Mikey?” I whisper. A two-year-old can easily spike a fever overnight. Mikey’s cheeks were a little rosy and he threw up after lunch, but I had taken him to my parents anyway because Will had said he was tired of my excuses to cancel the weekend plans.
Will shakes his head quickly. Even in the darkness I can see, or maybe I just feel, him, deflating, as if sinking deeper into his sleeping bag.
“Okay. You need some help? … No, don’t worry about it. I’ll take it down and bring it home for you. Not a problem. Okay … yeah, tell Sharon I’ll be praying. Give us a call, okay? Love you guys. Bye.” He snaps the phone shut and turns to me. “She woke up and went to bathroom and … she’s bleeding.”
“Again. Pete says they’ll be pulling out in about five minutes. She’s a wreck. He’s leaving the tent behind. The rain stopped but it’s pretty wet.”
I lay back and close my eyes. I have no hope or intention of going back to sleep, but it relaxes me to not look at anything, even in the dimness of this temporary shelter. “What time is it?” I mumble. As if it mattered.
“Almost five thirty. … Hey, would you pray with me?”
When my husband tells someone he’ll be praying for them, he doesn’t mean it in the same general, off-hand sense as “I’ll be thinking of you” or “You are in our thoughts and prayers,” which is an empty phrase I have written in a sympathy card or two. No, he means he intends to get on his knees and talk to his God as soon as possible. I usually don’t bother with that stuff, especially not anymore. There are questions I want answered first.
This weekend was supposed to be a getaway. For Will and for me to be alone together without Mikey and having some much-needed fun with our friends. Instead, we are somehow together and yet each alone. Maybe some married people feel this way all the time and that’s why they call it quits. I prop myself up on one elbow and reach out to offer my hand to Will. He told me recently that it may be enough for us that he believes. He is comforted, I guess.
Will squeezes my hand as he finishes his intercessions. In addition to asking for the life of his unborn niece or nephew, he has dutifully remembered to express gratitude for my parents and the “blessing” of their care for us and loving attention to Michael. Then he pauses, too long, before wrapping it up with the typical Christian boilerplate. The pause is for my benefit, as if I would be moved to chime in with my own thoughts or concerns or guilty confessions.
After the prayer, we hear Pete’s car start and pull out of the campsite. I stand up and pull on my jeans and Will’s sweatshirt and look for my sandals.
“You’re getting up?” Will asks me.
“I’m already up. I’m going for a walk.” I lean over and give him a kiss. “You should try to sleep a little longer. Unless you want to come with me?”
He shakes his head. “No, honey. No more sleep for me. I’m going to get my stuff together and go take a shower.”
“I’ll call and check on Mikey in a little while. Mom’s always up at the crack of dawn.”
Will nods and tosses his cell phone to me. I climb out of the tent and walk past the van. Caroline’s lights are out in the trailer, and I know she’s still sound asleep. I never heard Will come into the tent last night, so I don’t know how late they all stayed up. I don’t think Will had much to drink. He is focused and serious this morning, so early. I wonder what they ended up doing. Maybe they played cards. Without me, there was an even number for partner pinochle.
I walk down the road, passing several campsites. Many of them have tents and small pop up trailers. Few have brand-new custom RVs like Ryan bought last year. The Peersons were living well, better than most, but it was not always that way.
Ryan stood in the doorway of my dorm room, shaking a coffee mug. The mug was chipped around the rim, and I noticed the logo of our university’s number one sports rival.
“You have the nerve to come begging here again with a mug like that in your hand?” I said.
Ryan grinned at me. He had one crooked tooth in front. It was all there was to disrupt his beauty. “I have wet socks. Take pity. If it makes you feel any better, I usually piss in this mug.”
“So you’re broke but at least you have a mug to piss in?”
“Can’t afford a pot yet. But I’m saving up.”
I gave him eight quarters for his laundry. “These are for your socks, okay? I don’t buy pot.”
He laughed. “I forgot this was the honors dorm. The smart girls live here, huh?”
“Yes,” I said pushing my hair off my shoulders. “Smart but poor. Panhandlers do better over at Founders Hall. Or at the sorority houses, I’m sure. But you’ve probably tried that angle, huh?”
His eyebrows shot up. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Shelly.” And I felt stupid and hoped my roommate would get back from the bathroom.
I moved to shut the door. There was no point to continuing the conversation. Guys like that did not go for girls like me.
“You’ve rescued my soggy socks three times now. I thought maybe you’d be my friend, seeing how we have so much in common.”
He grinned again, and I glared at him as meanly as I could muster in the aura of his mischievous charm. He had way too much confidence for a college freshman.
“Uh huh, whatever.”
He seemed to lean closer. “We do. We both go to this school, we both do laundry, and we both hate these bastards.” He shook the mug again to illustrate. “I’m Ryan Peerson.”
My roommate Caroline turned the corner then and approached our dorm room, swinging her little bucket of shampoo, soap, and disposable razors. She smiled at Ryan as she slid between us to get into the room, but she was just a few seconds too late.
I walk the ring of campsites and meet Will on his way from the shower. As we’re walking back to our tent, I call my mom and am told that Mikey is having a blast with Grandpa, eating good, and slept like an angel. I don’t even care if she is fibbing to me. Caroline opens her door and waves us over to her trailer.
She has the table set for breakfast with the new dishes and flatware she bought for the trailer. I can smell coffee and fried potatoes.
“I just feel terrible about Sharon,” she says. “She was so happy last night, talking about names and … oh, crap! I forgot the bacon.”
“We don’t need it,” I say. “You didn’t need to do all this.”
“We have sausage links in our cooler. I’ll run and get them,” Will offers.
“They will take too long to cook and everything else will be cold,” I say, sitting down at the table.
“So what?” Will asks. “It’s going to start raining again any time now. We might as well sit in here and stuff our faces all day. It’s not like we’re going fishing…”
He lets in a cool breeze when he leaves us at the table. I am stirring powdered creamer into my coffee when Caroline starts sniffling.
“I can’t believe I forgot bacon!”
“It’s no big deal.” It’s not something to cry over. Not now.
“Ryan would never have …”
“Oh, Caroline, forget it!”
She looks at me for a long time. I sip my coffee and wonder what’s taking Will so long. He probably buried the sausage in the cooler under his “ginger ale” and is now impatiently tossing everything out of the cooler and digging through the ice cold water.
“You remember that morning we all got up too early and there was Ryan was frying bacon on the campfire?”
I can’t do this now, but she will go on.
“And he laughed at us and said he had proven that bacon is the universal camp alarm clock.”
I nod because she’s waiting for me to acknowledge it, the memory.
“Okay, Shell, you let me know when I’m allowed to talk about my own husband.”
“What? Caroline …”
She stands up abruptly and grabs my untouched plate and tosses it in the sink. “Yeah, let me know when it’s okay for me to smile or laugh or just mention his damn name. I want to be sure I grieve appropriately. To your satisfaction.”
“I never meant…”
“Well, what the hell is with you? You’ve barely spoken to me since the funeral. You didn’t even invite us to Michael’s birthday.”
“We just … kept it simple. It was just cake and the grandparents. And Sharon and Pete.”
On the day Michael was born a little over two years ago a nurse stuck her head inside the door of my hospital room and asked if I was okay to receive a visitor. I nodded and wiped my eyes and nose with a tissue. A minute later Ryan was there, his arms filled with a huge blue bouquet. He had driven straight from his law office. In his dark gray wool suit and red silk tie, loosened at the collar, he looked like he’d just walked off the set of a TV courtroom drama.
“It’s a boy!” he said, grinning at me. He never had that one crooked tooth fixed. “I have a godson.”
“Yes,” I croaked, and reached for my water pitcher.
“Next summer I bet he’ll be big enough to hold a fishing rod.”
I bit my bottom lip to keep from crying again. “Ryan, they took him to the children’s hospital for tests.”
“He’ll pass with flying colors. He’s brilliant like his mother.” Will had called Ryan, of course. We never would have expected him to drop everything and be there for us. But he was.
“They won’t release me until tomorrow. I want to be with him. Will went down there, but I … had to stay here.” It was a horrible, cold thing to be left behind, separated from them. The surgery had ripped me open and I would barely get myself back together before the night the call woke us up at three in the morning and it all fell apart again.
Ryan set the flowers at my feet and pulled a chair up to my bedside. “Shelly, listen to me: this is just a temporary stop. Michael will be fine. He’ll go home and get potty trained and play baseball and grow up and attend our alma mater. And I’ll give him an expensive vase for a wedding gift. Soon you’ll think back on this as his first little … campout.”
Somehow I managed a chuckle.
When he left, he kissed me. For the first and only time.
“I didn’t kill Ryan. He did that to himself, Shell.” Caroline is standing over me, as I hunker at the table, grasping my coffee mug so tight my fingernails have gone white.
Will throws open the trailer door and brings in sausage and eggs and another cool breeze that I wish I could drift away on. He knows right away that he’s walked right into something. The way he walked right into Ryan’s backyard barbecue ten years ago. Ryan introduced him to me as the “new computer guru in the office” and then hurried away to slice limes for his favorite Mexican beer. We both thought Ryan and Caroline threw the party as a housewarming, but the real reason they rented a canopy and invited over sixty friends, acquaintances, and business associates for steaks and shrimp kebabs was that it was the sneakiest way to stage a blind date.
“What’s the matter?” Will asks us.
He did it to himself. And to Caroline, my best friend. And to his children. And to his closest friends: Will, Sharon, Pete. And to his godson Michael. And to me. There are questions I want answered, but he’s not here for me to ask. Maybe he didn’t even know.
Caroline sighs. “You guys … I never would have gotten through it if you hadn’t been there for me and the girls.”
I haven’t been there. And I’m not here now. I’m set apart again, left behind with my questions and my anger. And nothing will ever be simple, no matter how hard I try to make it so. I can’t see that this is temporary, that we’ll pack up and go home soon. And that next year will come and we’ll reunite, build another campfire, and huddle together to keep out of the rain.
Filed Under: Fiction - Comments: 2 Comments to Read
Posted on January 7, 2010
[Author's Note: I drafted this in July 2009 but thought I'd post it here because it might interest/entertain some readers. It is quite different from other stories I have written.]
“And so I told that bitch that Evan can’t help it. I mean, he has ADD! I don’t know what we’re going to do. Carl wants to pull him out of that school and put him in private. But not Catholic. Do you know what that costs? Private school? We might need to get a second mortgage or something.”
“Huh,” I say, stirring another packet of artificial sweetener into my mug. I remember that I used the last baby wipe to get the magic marker smears off Ashley’s chin before we left. Do I have baby wipes on my grocery list? God, I don’t want to forget to grab those at the store. Maybe I should pick up another package of training pants, too. Ash stayed dry all day yesterday, the third day in a row. She wants to wear her pretty princess and ponies underpants. Maybe she’s ready. I just don’t know.
“So … what did your doctor say?”
I look up from my mug and meet Serena’s careful expression. She tries so hard to be casual about her curiosity, but I know it’s burning in her. I can see that she’s plucking her eyebrows again. And wearing mascara. There’s a tiny black clump of it sticking to her eyelid. I suck at applying makeup, but Serena, who has never needed to wear any, usually looks flawless.
“Benign.” I shrug. From her booster seat Ashley giggles and drops her spoon of yogurt on the floor next to Serena’s foot.
“Oh, good.” The 1812 Overture beeps out of Serena’s left breast and she reaches inside her linen jacket for her cellphone. I open the bakery bag and take out another orange scone. They don’t have that jacket in a size 14. I know that without having set foot in the store. That’s okay. The color … I don’t own anything to match it.
Serena argues with her husband Carl for eight minutes about where they will meet later for dinner. He’s apparently got a taste for sushi, whereas my sister just wants a “really good salad.” Who goes out for salad? Buy a head of lettuce and some grape tomatoes and stay the hell home once in a while.
“Mommy, I feel the poopy coming out.” My three-year-old daughter touches my arm and gazes at me solemnly. She sees through me once again, knows that I’ve bounced another check, that I hid four baskets of dirty laundry in the garage before her grandma’s visit, and that I’ve lied to her aunt yet again.
“Carl, I’m hanging up! Because I’m busy. I … no, fine. You take him to tee ball.” Serena rolls her eyes and shakes her head. For my benefit.
I point to the alcove at the back of the coffee shop. In the midst of negotiation, Serena nods and hands me the diaper bag from the empty chair next to her. I take Ash into the ladies’ room and yank down her sweatpants and diaper. Okay, it’s not a diaper per se. Ashley doesn’t wear diapers anymore. She knows the ABCs and all the songs from the musical Oklahoma. She and her daddy watch it together. Maybe a little too much. Oh, what a pitiful morning … !
As we’re walking back to Serena’s table, Ashley bends over and picks up something from the floor.
“C’mon, sweetie,” I gently pull her along. “That’s dirty. Leave it.”
She ignores me as usual. “Here, Mommy.” She hands me the tiny orange packet. “Now, what do you say?”
I shove the little packet quickly into the side of my purse. I am horrified at my carelessness. It must have fallen out of my skirt as we were walking into the bathroom. I forgot there was a hole in the pocket. Oh, shit, I can’t lose those … .
“Mommy, what do you say?” Ash is scowling at me. She has my scowl, the same little wrinkles of frustration line her brow.
“Thank you!” I growl as I plunk her back into her seat. Hard.
“Ow! That’s not nice, Mommy.”
Serena has her purse on her shoulder already and is gulping down the last of her decaf. It is a wise choice on her part. She’s hyper enough as it is.
“Are you sure she won’t be too much?” I ask my sister, for the third time this morning.
Serena waves it away, her tiny manicured hand a graceful dove in flight. “Forget it. We’ll have a blast, won’t we, Ashley?”
The baby considers the question for a second. “Aunt She-She, where did your eyebrows go?”
“Ashley!” I fail to be stern. If only I could laugh my ass off right now.
Serena scoops up Ashley, the diaper bag, and the remaining half of her low-fat blueberry muffin and sashays out the door to conquer the day. I say a silent prayer for the landscaper she will chew out when she gets back home. I feel certain he did not intend to mow down her hydrangea. If I could afford it, I would gladly hire him to destroy anything in my yard. He looks a little like the guy on the Discovery Channel. The one who tries out all the filthiest occupations there are. Oh, to be the dirt under his fingernails!
I glance at my watch and there are still forty minutes before I have to be anywhere. So I walk back up to the counter and order a regular coffee. The girl hands me an empty to-go cup and I fill it with whatever is in the first urn I see. It doesn’t matter. Colombian, breakfast blend, house mix … any liquid will do.
A minute or so later I am sitting alone in the van. I am parked near a tree lawn, away from other cars. No one going in or out of that shoe store should be able to see me. I look inside my purse and the orange paper arrests my eyes. I used to put the sweetener from the blue packets in all my beverages. When they started to have the yellow packets in restaurants, I tried that and liked it better. The pink packets are just nasty.
I tear the corner of the orange packet and dump the tiny blue crystals into my paper cup. It reminds me of decorating sugar we used to sprinkle on Christmas cookies when I was little like Ashley. That was so long ago.
I sip and the warm coffee slides easily down my throat, a blessing I have been granted — I don’t know why. The taste holds no bitterness, and really it barely tastes like coffee anymore. The first time I drank, almost a year ago, I thought it seemed like raspberry tea with just a touch of mint. This time, it is like sweet creamy milk with cinnamon. I close my eyes and lean back in the driver’s seat. It doesn’t hurt to go. That makes it so much easier to do. It begins with a churning feeling in my stomach and then pressure builds from inside my chest and then there is only darkness.
I arrive and here it is night. A cool breeze caresses my face and I inhale the scent of flowers and ripe fruit. The stars shine in the sky as my barge is gently swept down the river. I am wearing an emerald green gown of silk and holding a crystal goblet. My attendant steps forward and bows. I hand her the cup.
“Where are my musicians?” I whisper.
“They shall play for you in a moment, as it pleases you.”
I nod and reach down to pet the white kitten that is sleeping on a velvet cushion next to me. “And there will be a feast?”
“Yes, my sweet Allyce, for we are filled with joy that you have returned.”
A sigh escapes my lips as the soft strains of the violins and cellos begin. This is more wonderful than ever before. I cannot wait to taste the wines, rich cheese, and juicy meats they will lay out for me with the cakes and fruit tarts. And later I will swim naked in a pool surrounded by candlelight and scented with rosewater. When I emerge from the water, they will brush my hair and rub my skin with lotions. My bed will be prepared and I will slide into the soft linens.
I am alone in the precious silence of my chamber hours later. It is the largest, most opulent bedroom in my manor. Anything I could possibly need or want is within my reach. Bouquets of fresh flowers rest on tables and bureaus throughout the room. Tapestries line the walls, the woven scenes of nymphs and birds and unicorns delight my eyes.
The door opens and he walks in. He is clad only in a brown silk dressing gown. The color of chocolate and coffee with a hint of cream. He kneels at my bedside until I invite him to lay with me. He holds me close and sings softly to me. The lyrics are taken from a poem I wrote, and it has become the most popular love song in all my realm. When the song is over, I kiss his lips and enjoy the feeling of his strong body. He is beautiful, kind, and gentle, and wants only to please me however he can. I think I will allow him to make love to me again. I know he will do everything perfectly. He even looks a little like the guy on the Discovery Channel.
“I need some more packets,” I whisper to him. “I think I only have one more left.”
He stops kissing my thighs and looks up at me. “That one is your last, my love.”
I sit up. “What do you mean? I need more. You can … you will give them to me.”
I see a hard expression settle on his face. “I cannot.”
My heart is pounding. “Tell me why not!”
My lover closes his eyes. “I told you there is a price.”
“Look around! Surely I can afford anything.”
He shakes his head slowly. “That is not how you will pay. You have one remaining packet. When you drink that solution, you will come here for the last time. And we will say farewell.”
It is impossible for him to lie to me. “Then …then I will just … stay here this time. I won’t go back!” Tears fill my eyes. The flowers were wilting in their vases already.
He searches my eyes and finds my soul. “Will you not?” he whispers.
I will go back. I know my own heart as he does and I have to go. I have to go back to Ashley and to her father. To a cluttered, fifteen-year-old condo with stained carpeting. To credit card bills and crash dieting. To Ashley. To chemotherapy and radiation, a steep price to pay indeed. But I am a mother. So I will go back.
There will not be another journey here. I will keep the last little orange packet safely hidden somewhere. My blessing and my curse. I will put it in a place where no one can ever discover it, yet I will always know it is there. I will not touch it. Ever. Because I know I cannot bear for there to be a final coffee break.
Filed Under: Fiction - Comments: 3 Comments to Read
The Unreal Me is launching today. I thought it would be a good idea to state unequivocally that this blog is not starting because I made a New Year’s resolution. I rarely keep resolutions, so I rarely make them. The blog was conceived last August, a late summer flirtation that was left to simmer on the back burner while I fought my way out of the miserable year that was 2009.
For some time I have recognized that I don’t read or write nearly enough. It really is a shame that I have neglected my former passions for so long. I studied creative writing and literature in college and then worked as an editor in a small publishing company for several years. It was my former profession that did me in. I used to make a living copyediting and proofreading text for law books. It was a demanding job and my career fizzled before it ever really took off. I got burned out and eventually quit, but seven years later I still struggle to put aside my editorial instincts and again take pleasure in the written word.
Now I’m a stay-at-home mom and have all the time in the world to indulge in creative pursuits. When you stop chuckling, feel free to read and comment on my public online writing exercise. I need the encouragement to keep going because it will be no easier for me to be disciplined about my writing than about eating healthier and exercising more — which are my New Year’s resolutions for 2010. Of course.
Filed Under: Discussion - Comments: 6 Comments to Read
Posted on January 6, 2010
Tonight there is ice on the snow
a brittle, colder layer of extra winter
lain atop the driveway drifts
so no more snowball fun or holiday scene
just clear January reality, harsh and transparent
like a new diet.
So box up the tinsel, resolve to wait
for the sunshine to spring, the eventual melt
then another feast you can’t even begin
to smell. Oh, it’s a dangerous
it can chip off and its sharp ends
pierce the spirit if you fall — unless you’re like me
then the ice of January burns
before the absolute zero
that is February.
Filed Under: Poetry - Comments: 2 Comments to Read
Posted on August 15, 2009
“Welcome to WordPress. This is your first post.”
Okay, let me start by telling you that I am in a hotel room. I don’t know how long I’ll stay here. I guess it depends on how long it takes for me to kick this cold or flu thing I seem to have picked up. It was because of my nose running that I finally decided to leave my husband. Well, that’s not exactly accurate: it was because of my nose running that I left our apartment to buy some tissues. Instead of driving around the block to the closest drugstore, for some reason I got on the interstate and began driving east. I remember sniffling and laughing as I glided down the entrance ramp. The gas gauge murmured, “There’s a little over a half tank left. Don’t you wonder how far you can go?”
Yes, yes I did. Nevermind that the Buick is old, that I haven’t had the oil changed in over a year, that it was almost three o’clock in the morning when I walked outside. I wanted to see how far I could go. Without him.
So I drove for three hours, listening to an old cassette tape I found in the glove compartment. It’s a recording I made years ago of a band I used to follow. Friends from college who had more talent than I dreamed of. They called themselves “Impulse Hesitation.” Larry, the lead vocalist, wrote all their music. He would not do covers. I met Larry in a biology lab during our freshman year. He had a way of squeezing my arm to emphasize his interest in me. Even when we met his girlfriend at the Student Union following class, he would reach over and squeeze my forearm. “Maybe we can get together later, huh?” he’d say to me, after kissing her. We did get together eventually, but it wasn’t until sophomore year right before spring break. After I slept with him, Larry wrote Impulse Hesitation’s first and only ballad, “The Girl Next Door.”
The girl next door
Tells herself she’s not pretty
Thinks she has some pounds to lose
Wonders if she’s as smart as she thinks she is
And dreams at night of being someone else
Somewhere else where they don’t know
The girl next door
The song sucked and everyone hated it, especially the other band members. I think Larry’s insistence that Impulse Hesitation perform the song is what eventually led to the group’s demise. Thankfully, “The Girl Next Door” is not one of the songs on the cassette I was listening to as I sped along the highway.
When the sun’s first rays painted the horizon, I decided I was hungry and tired. I stopped at the next rest area and bought some cookies and trail mix from a vending machine. I didn’t have enough cash to get coffee, but it didn’t matter. I ate two of the chocolate cookies and a handful of the trail mix, which didn’t have enough sunflower seeds. Then I yanked on the lever to recline the driver’s seat and closed my eyes.
When I woke up it was past two o’clock in the afternoon. My nose was plugged and my head ached, but I felt triumphant. The police had not knocked on the car’s window and ordered me to leave. That’s what Nick had insisted would happen if you slept in your car at a rest stop along the interstate. After I graduated from college I asked Nick if we could drive cross country to San Francisco. I was born there and had no memory of it, as my parents had soon divorced and moved to Ohio and Nebraska. Nick worried about the cost of the trip. We had no savings.
“Hotels cost too much,” he said
“We don’t have to stay in a hotel. We can just drive and stop when we want and sleep at rest areas.”
Nick shook his head, informed me that police patrol the rest areas, and asked if I really wanted to risk getting arrested. I think that was when I first noticed the gray around his ears. I went ahead and married him a year later.
The closest hotel advertised free continental breakfast and Wi-Fi, and I was pleased by the room’s dark blue drapes and stacks of white towels in the bathroom. I took off my denim shirt and unpacked my laptop. Nick had no idea how much this hotel would cost him.
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