Posted in Audio, hope chest, Nonfiction, Parenting, podcasting

Hope Chest, Ep. 11 – Growing and Going: A Love Story

1.

Even now, I’m not sure why I did it. I’d say it wasn’t like me but that would only be half-true. I’d forgotten what I was like—or perhaps I never quite knew—and by the time we got here, I was becoming something else altogether.

That is often a function of relocating, of looking for new cities in which to settle, new soil to turn and plant roots. When you leave who and where you’ve been, you are hoping for a home, a place to thrive and surprise yourself, a space to make wide, open, and safe enough to mitigate the bigger risks you intend to take. 

I owe you an explanation, for you were the only witness. You were here, not just to see what happened but to be exposed to it. And it was an unexpected exposure, one for which I am solely responsible.

Adult decisions should be durable enough to withstand the inquisition of a child. And more mothers should hold themselves accountable to their children, not only when those children are old enough to articulate the impact of our parenting, but also in the moment, where help and potential harm may be two sides of the same coin. 

Because a child does not wait to feel the weight of their mother’s choices, they should not have to wait to hear why those choices have been made. I know well that you are a child who clings to narratives, who turns them on her tongue and tosses them out like skittering stones on a river. So I have already told you some version of this, a version appropriate for 11-year-old ears. But there is always more to tell, always more it may help an older version of you to hear. 

I did not move with the intention of meeting a man. It is not as if I’d heard fables of fine Black princes growing in North Carolina, alongside their crops of sweet potatoes and collards (I have learned, since arrival, that there is some truth to this, though that is not a part of this story). 

We came here for the reasons I told you, to be at once alone and together, to stop sharing a spare bedroom with my mother in her mother’s apartment, to sleep in ways that weren’t head-to-foot in a twin bed flush with a wall. We’d been living that way nearly all of your life and for just as long, I’d been vowing to change it. 

We moved only when I was sure I could afford to, when the work I procured wasn’t part-time or contractual, when the pay would arrive on a reliable monthly schedule, when the salary was high enough to secure us a home. 

The convergence of those qualifications just happened to fall at the end of February of 20-20, when I found out I would be hired for a full-time job five hours south of Baltimore. 

We moved to Durham in March, as our lives were closing in and a hush fell over all inessential movement in the outside world. In March all we had were our beds and our WiFi, a box of books and toys, our hangerless, dresserless clothes. A masked trip to Target yielded dishes, sets of glasses and silverware, our wash clothes and towels. Slowly, over our first locked down months, we populated our rooms with creature comforts, with couches and pillows, a Fire TV. I finally unpacked the appliances Nana gifted us; they’d been sitting in our trunk: a toaster, a can opener, a hand mixer. 

We ordered our groceries and ate too much takeout. In the absence of in-person hours for school and work, bedtime became an abstraction. Screen time, which I’d never been keen to restrict, was without regulation or boundary. The limit did not exist. 

And as for the separate bedrooms I’d promised you, where I would finally be able to tuck you in, dim the lights and duck apart, you were loath to sleep in yours, much preferring the familiar cozy crowding you got, sleeping right next to me. In those early months, your twin bed went unused and only a sliver of my queen was imprinted with our sleepy weight. 

When we came here, I did not know how to tell you no, did not know how to get you to hear it, did not have time, between acclimating to a new workplace I’d never seen after hire and trying to keep you occupied in a time where you were one of few children enrolled in no school at all, having left third grade in Baltimore just as school in Durham shut down. 

I’d dreamt of the space our own place would afford of us, the sprawling stretch of several rooms rather than half of just one. But in this 1,145-square foot apartment, we were never apart, and the structure I hoped to provide you seemed as nearly as distant as it was back at Nana’s. 

I suppose this provides some explanation. When a long-held dream comes true, you do not always know how to just rest in it. You do not always trust that you belong to it. You believe you’ll wake up to find it disintegrated. No pinch in the world is powerful enough to dispel that worry, especially as daily life within that dream feels warped and unwelcome in practice. 

Living alone with you, being your only mother, after nine years spent living in a three-matriarch household, did not feel liberating as I’d hoped it would. 

Maybe I thought it needed more. Mediation. Distraction. A balance. 

That, I think, may be why I sought the man. 

I met him in May, via Tinder, a dating app I hope will have evolved by the time you’re old enough to use one. I was drawn to the ease of his smile. He was sitting in the sun, on a stoop outdoors, dressed in blue plaid and light jeans. And his smile just… looked like he’d earned it, that he’d fought through something to make it that bright, that he’d learned to laugh just because it felt good to, after years of doing so to keep from crying. 

I know that is hard to believe, that a single photo on a dating profile could convey so much about someone we’d never met. But many months later, as many a minor challenge arose, I drew on the promise of that picture, and more often than not, as tension subsided, he’d smile and that promise was kept. 

After several weeks of texting, both words and voice recordings, along with a few awkward video “dates,” one in particular spent watching a romcom in tandem while stealing glances at one another as the onscreen romance unfolded, we met him in person at the end of May. 

I drove us just a mile to a wine store parking lot. He pulled up in his Black Chrysler 300 and smiled his Tinder profile smile, before masking up and opening his door. He reached into the backseat for two bouquets, and you leaned forward in the passenger seat to get a better look at home. 

Though I tried to keep cool, I questioned the wisdom of the entire exchange. Should you be meeting a potential suitor at the same time I was? Was he trustworthy enough to be near us? 

He was the first person we’d met in person since moving to this city? Was he safe? Sanitized? Unexposed. It would be several months before even the hint of a vaccine. He was risk upon risk upon risk. 

But that had always been the point. After putting my thirties in a jar that protected us both from the precarities of freelance writing life: unstable housing, threat of eviction, mounting debts and loans, after living with relatives who kept you at home while I slipped off on occasion to pursue the one casual relationship I’d started in the nine years since you were born, a connection made only of offsite trysts and the occasional overheard mention of a strange man’s name, one you’d never come to know, I was 40 now. And you were turning 10. 

We’d subsisted long enough on cloistered sips of air. We were ready to catch real wind. We were ready to soar. 

2. 

If moving was our leap from a great height, meeting Quan felt like the moment a parachute opened. I didn’t know it at the time, not in that parking lot, but I was about to embark on my first real romantic relationship as a mother. It would move quickly, pressurized within the parameters of a pandemic. At any moment, it would ask far more of me than I would have, under normal circumstances, been prepared to give. It would ask much of you, too, in the way of maturation. 

Gone would be the days of bursting into my room unannounced or forgoing nights spent in your own bed in order to burrow in mine. No more were the limitless loops of videos, of time ceasing all shape and dimension. 

We would become, without much warning, ensconced in the disruptive rhymes and rhythms onset by the arrival of a man. 

3. 

It is one thing to live in a house full of women, deferring to the tacit rules of age, allowing the elders to set or raise or change your stakes. It is another to strike out on your own and find the experience both freeing and wanting, unable to stabilize a life left, for so long, as unstable. 

It is a different life altogether to meet a stranger, grow enough trust to let him move in and test, every day, the sturdiness of that trust, even as its benefits grow more and more evident by the day. 

Quan helped me homeschool you. He cooked balanced dinners. He walked the aisles of megastores during the grocery buying and budgeting that have always made me miserable. He traveled to your hypothetical worlds with you so often that, at Christmas, he thought it prudent to purchase you a book of Would You Rathers, so we’d all have more concise questions to answer than the ones you came up with on your own. We went for walks together. And raised your reading level by restricting your iPad time. We logged onto family Zoom calls, where he subjected himself to the surveying questions of cousins, aunts and uncles, and my father. 

We intended a kind of future. At least, we did for a time. 

For just as long, just over a year, you saw your mother being loved. You saw me extending love, too, though as the beneficiary of so much of mine, that part was less of a foreign concept. At 10, you had yet to see someone’s heart in their eyes when they looked at me. You’d never heard my voice lift a whole three octaves, under an intoxicant called flirting. You’d never seen me sidle up to someone as he cooked in the kitchen and wrap my arms around his waist, warming my cheek on his back. Even the little pecks hello and goodbye, the random close-lipped kisses we deigned to deliver in front of you… those were all new to you, too. 

It didn’t last. Not all good relationships do. Sometimes they’re meals meant to nourish and serve, first plump and decadent then picked clean till there is only the gristle and bone. 

But there is much to be made of the bones. We are only beginning to figure out what’s left of their purpose. And even if the result of their reading is that only the two of us have made a more stable home, the year we spent as three will have been worth it. 

4.

When we are not careful after taking a risk, regret writhes its tentacles around even our fondest memories. The best laid plans of our better angels are buried under the burden of second guesses. 

I am trying, as ever, to be careful, to teach you that a well-reasoned risk is worth the disappointment of its outcome. We are still wandering together, still working our way through the whys. You have seen my heart swell and then be broken. Some days, that’s left me embarrassed but never ashamed. For even though our home has been altered in his absence, it is no less ours to reshape and reclaim. What I set out to give you remains intact and for whatever our journey has taught you, I hope this is what you retain: when love abounds, it betters and when it recedes, we survive.

Posted in Nonfiction

A Pandemic Romance Post-Mortem.

1.

Anemics are always cold. It’s an affliction of extremities, of icicled fingers and toes, of lightheadedness after standing too long in a chilly concert hall or at a sweltering summer festival, of darkness crowding the corners of the eyes in warning: find a seat, drink cold water, or succumb to blacking out.

Sometimes, when my heartbeat is at its most irregular, I feel like I’ve inadvertently shoulder-checked Mortality and now it’s ready to box me barehanded.

I don’t know how long I’ve been anemic or what caused it. I only discovered it when I visited an ER in October of 2019 and found myself admitted to the stroke ward. The hospital kept me for three days, for a half-dozen blood draws and a series of blood thinners injected into my stomach, a CT scan, an MRI that required the shooting of squid-like ink into my veins beforehand, and a series of sobriety-test-adjacent physical prompts: blink one eye, now both, raise one hand, now the other, touch your knees, now your nose, walk the length of the hall in a straight line. 

The staff ruled out a stroke. They stopped short of calling the drooping right side of my face Bell’s palsy. I knew as little about why my left eye bulged wider and blinked on a second’s delay as I did when I was admitted. 

By discharge, the only new thing I knew about myself was that I was anemic. 

It didn’t come as much of a surprise. The signs had long been there. In my late teens, I started eating less and less, until I trained my body to get by on coffee and a pastry (and sometimes just the coffee, or less often: nothing at all) in the morning and a small dinner 10-12 hours later. I still eat that way, sparingly, only satisfied if my stomach feels concave when I’m lying on my back alone in bed at night, if the rumble and burn of self-denial can be felt under the flat of my palm.

That couldn’t have helped, all those half-starved years. Deprivation never helps. 

2. 

When we were all required to close in on ourselves, for fear of catching a debilitating virus from one another, the world felt anemic, withholding, all the good drawn inward, sequestered and secreted, the pulse of normal life growing faint. 

That was when I knew to look for love. Wherever I could find it. 

3.  

In the stroke ward, the nurses stagger-stepped at the threshold of my room. 

“You’re young,” said the night nurse as well as the one who took over the mornings, though I was sure they saw in my chart that I was one month shy of 40. 

I felt haggard, half my face weakened by a force unseen. Before then, I’d always been in decent health, the kind even a hypochondriac could almost take for granted, but wasn’t landing here evidence that youthful vitality was a breeze blown by? Wasn’t I aging now? Wasn’t this the incarnation of oldness? 

I didn’t understand until those straight-line walks down the hall, where all that could be seen behind the half-drawn curtains in each of the neighboring rooms were heads of white hair, dark veins under mottled skin, parted lips stuttering toward speech. 

Sometimes, a sounded clatter. Other times, a weary yell. 

Those strokes weren’t suspected. Those were real. And as it turned out, I was young. 

4. 

He had a gravitational smile, the only pull in a sea of local profiles, the only grin great enough to stay my swiping hand. I stared at it and instinct suggested it was genuine, as warm and mirthful as it looked, and just as nourishing. 

I needed to be nourished. I swiped right. 

A pandemic is the only time when it makes sense to stake your heart on something as simple, as potentially deceptive, as a smile. Lockdown is the only condition under which that sort of risk pays off.

In a plague, you’re not looking for much, only someone willing to wait with you and listen for a hitch in your breath. Someone whose lips can confirm that you haven’t lost your taste, whose nose would seek your scent with the very last use of its smell. 

He was more than that, refreshingly more. We ate and laughed and nursed something nascent and fragile till it felt hardy, thickened, like blood infused with iron and given room to breathe. 

5.

I spent those three days in the hospital alone. My nana who’d driven me to the emergency room hadn’t returned. My mother, who stopped in before I was admitted to pick up the keys to my car, which she’d borrow until my release, hadn’t been back, either. They took turns caring for my daughter, who at 9, was too young to visit the stroke ward. 

A guy I spent years hooking up with off and on sent a text when he saw a tweet I’d posted in a pique of loneliness. The text read something like, “Everything okay?” Despite our insistence on referring to each other as friends, we didn’t have enough of a relationship for me to feel comfortable reaching out to him in a crisis. It was just as awkward to only be discussing one with him, because he’d chanced upon a tweet I’d posted to no one in particular. 

I may have texted to notify my daughter’s dad or maybe my grandmother did. He called and we chatted in the brief, inconsequential way that we do unless there’s something heavy going on with our child. Surreally, my only visitor was his mother, who stopped by unannounced on her way home from work, the first night of my stay.  She sat with me for an hour and we talked about God and politics, the common ground we find easiest to tread, as we share a religion and a portion of ideology, in addition to the daughter I have with her now-married son. 

I was grateful for her company but more comfortable in the silence that followed her departure. It yawned and stretched its way through the room. It slept far better beside me than I did. 

I may have been young, but here I could see a familiar future: an empty nest, cold bed, no intimates, an affliction of extremes. 

6. 

I moved away from Baltimore for Silence. It had proven itself quite loyal. I’d been living amid the noises of a home that wasn’t mine for the better part of a decade. Silence deserved her own space and so did I.

But even Silence pines for companionship when the world has shut down. We found it in him, this smiling man who learned us fast and laughed so easily, who loosened our inhibitions and made us believe he’d keep us from ever reaching the depths of our discontent again.

We wanted to keep him even after the inoculation, ride next to him through the reopened world, and be as new as our regenerative months inside had made us. 

We wanted that more than we could know until it was clear we wouldn’t have it. 

7. 

It might be foolish to expect that the person who you meet when you think you could die at any moment is the person who’ll suit you best in the long-unfurling years after that imminent threat subsides. 

But other pandemic couples have persisted. Some have gotten engaged. Others have already married. 

It was possible for us. 

Possible, but perhaps too easy for someone like me, who spent her whole life skirting exactly this kind of cliff edge, afraid not of the heights but of the plummet. 

I deserved ease, though, didn’t I? For all these years spent hiding from new heartbreaks, for choosing a partner who loved so freely and who it felt so simple to love?

I’d been living on too little for so long. Too little food, too little affection, too fleeting friendships, even a shortfall of blood cells. And he was feeding me, enfolding me, and being my best friend in a foreign land. Enough, then maybe too much, a ship taking on too much water, a vessel floating away. 

8. 

My daughter still mentions him often. 

“I’m an optimist,”’she deadpans, unaware of how her mispronunciation of the word has made her claim all the more adorable. 

“I know,” I answer, stopping short of confessing that I’m becoming one, too. 

The man I dated for 15 months and lived with for 11 moved out of our apartment 8 weeks ago. He isn’t likely to come back, and I’ve stopped pining for him to. It may have been improbable to find someone I trusted so much, so quickly, and it may have ended in him leaving me to contend with the dozens of deprivations and abandonments I spent the pandemic avoiding. 

But I know myself better for having loved him. I apply the notes I took as I watched him loving me. I eat, sometimes even at midday. I at least look at the iron tablets on the counter now, though I still forget to take them far too often. I try to get a better night’s sleep, be kinder to myself in the mirror. The boundaries I set now are the ones that keep me calm. I gather all my courage and enforce them. 

I am alone but I am without regret, undiminished. He left the air around me electric. It crackles, voracious, just under the silence.