Love on a Leash

The thing I liked most about Small Craft Brewing Company is that when I told friends I was drinking at the Small Craft Brewing Company they’d say, “Oh yeah? What’s it called?” Brian and I waited for his husband to show up. I had a flight in front of me that I drank down in order of color – light to dark – and he had a lager. A young boy walked through the brewery with a tub of candy bars and said he was raising money for his after school programs. 

“How much is it?”

“Six dollars.”

I handed him a ten, told him to keep the change, and split a candy bar with Brian who proceeded to drag me for giving a kid ten dollars for chocolate. “Whatever,” I said, “it’s for his school program. It isn’t a big deal.”

“I don’t know who let kids peddle candy in a bar anyway,” he replied.

The truth of my generosity was that I wanted to do nicer things – let go of control, man. Two months out of my break-up and I just looked for a sense of normalcy. I was so madly in love with my ex when we were together that every red flag looked like a regular flag until I took off the rose-colored glasses and saw a damn minefield of warning signs. I recounted the time I had to remind him to brush his teeth before bed, his unkempt car – the day he gave me back a week-old tupperware container, lined with the chili I hand delivered to his job. I should have broken up with him then; He couldn’t respect my kitchen wares, he couldn’t respect me. Bastard.

It was nice to be with Brian and his husband. I drifted into a nice buzz with only one beer in my flight left, pet a couple of the brewery dogs that hovered around for open hands and fallen snacks, and settled a little further into my single-ness. I was truly alone for the first time in years. My dog died seven months earlier at almost 15 years old and I had him since he was just a puppy. My grandfather died in January and it absolutely ripped my heart out. And then, I guess, my relationship died in February when the man I loved turned out to be a large, red-headed pile of crap. 

“I don’t want you to leave my life,” he said as he recounted the relationship he had on the side for months. I got my house key from him and didn’t look back. There were no second chances. Instead, I started therapy, didn’t eat for a week, ate too much for a week, went to Maine by myself, and sold the concert tickets I bought him and booked a trip to Georgia alone to research my grandfather’s war history at a museum in Savannah. When I wasn’t working or in a brewery I was in bed or wrote from the couch. I wanted to be alone. I wanted isolation. I didn’t want new people in my life.

“I can’t believe no one can take him home,” Brian said as he looked down at his phone.

“Who?”

“This puppy. He was surrendered to my friend in the fire department who works for the Brooklyn police department. His name’s Major. The person who gave him up said he was too nice to put in a shelter. No one can take him though. I accidentally sprayed him with a hose during drill last night and he wasn’t even mad about it.”  

Brian went on to tell me about how this puppy was passed around three or four places, but no one wanted him – or could accommodate him – and he didn’t know where he’d end up. He was a friendly dog, but still very much a puppy. He was a pitbull mix, probably. He was big

“Show me a picture,” I said. 

He took his phone out and showed me a single, head-on, blurry photo of what looked like a baby cow. I saw the eyes, though. He had very sweet-looking eyes. 

Damn.

“I’ll take him home.”

“You don’t know anything about him, though.”
“I don’t care. Where is he?”

“One of the girls has him at her apartment right now but she isn’t allowed to have dogs.”

“Can she bring him to the firehouse?”

“Kate, are you sure?”

“No. Yeah. I’m sure.” 

Maybe it was the flight of beer, or that I unconsciously crossed hairs with alone and lonely – or maybe I couldn’t stand to hear about a life that had no control over who wanted him – but I knew I needed to take the dog home. First, though, I knew he needed a name change. I Googled generic names and settled on Randall. 

“His name is now Randall.”

I slammed the rest of my beer and we piled into our respective vehicles and drove two minutes up the road to the firehouse where Randall would soon meet us. I was terrified, but I’m notorious for commitment so I sucked it up and waited to meet my new puppy. When he arrived he was exactly as I expected – sweet, clumsy, a little stupid, a couple of scars, and incredibly trusting. Honestly, he reminded me a little of myself.

“Hi, Randall.” 

I played with him, fed him treats, and let him drag me around the parking lot for a couple of hours before I loaded him into my car in the rain to drive a half hour back home. My last dog at his heaviest, was 20 pounds – lazy for his entire life; he was more like a house cat. Randall, was already at least 55 pounds and crazy. I truly had no idea what I was in for. He whined for the majority of the ride home so I rolled the window down in the back to give him some fresh air only to watch him squeeze his entire body out of the space and face plant onto the street.

Oh my god I already killed him, I thought. 

I pulled over and he was on the sidewalk, sitting, dazed, and bleeding from his chin.

“What the hell were you thinking?” I stared down at this terrified thing and he just looked up at me, motionless. I opened the car door and he jumped in again and we went home.

Aside from a gigantic dump that he took on the top of my staircase, Randall adjusted quickly to my condo. I muscled through two or three anxiety attacks at the commitment I blindly volunteered for and reassured myself I made the right decision. At the very least I can foster him, I told myself. Part of me was afraid of the life-long committal. I lost so much in such a short period of time that I couldn’t look at him without the fear of what I’d feel to lose him. I knew I already adored Randall, dysfunction and all. Maybe I was a glutton for punishment. Maybe I wanted to sleep next to something again.

 He needed leash training, vaccinations, antibiotics for the skin infection he had; He needed to be neutered; he needed command training (he was actually house trained already and the welcome home present he left me was more nervousness than anything), and I agreed to this – actually 64-pound – project. I knew he deserved love, and ultimately I knew I deserved love. My last dog wasn’t very friendly at all, and Randall was noticeably social. I nervously took him to my local coffee shop to adjust him to the public. 

Suddenly everyone was stopping me to say hi to my dog.

“Oh my god! He’s so cute! Is he friendly? He’s beautiful! Can I say ‘hi?’”

“Oh, uh, yeah, sure.” I was shocked at first but it was always the same. Perfect strangers approached me to greet Randall – who revelled in the attention – I socialized for the first time in months, and we’d be on our way. It was impossible for me to remain in isolation with him on the end of the leash. Sometimes we left the coffee shop and would get caught up in a group of passing people. Slowly but surely, he improved on the leash; he stopped trying to hug everyone he saw. I found myself making excuses to take him out and actively searched for dog-friendly establishments. Suddenly I wanted to meet people again.

Now, six months after he leaped from my vehicle in terror, Randall and I frequent shops and travel around. Together we met at least a hundred new people. He’s become a trail-hiking people greeter who rolls over for Donna the treat lady in Petco. I have to drag him out of the vet’s office because he wants to stay and hang out with all the vet techs. I, the lover of solitude, the hermit, the writer, leave my house with Randall at least twice a day to make sure he at least fills his social quota. I’ve never been so happy to see such happy innocence. He starts his therapy dog classes soon, and once he gets his Canine Good Citizen certification we can volunteer in libraries and hospitals together. He was the best buzzed decision I ever made.     

The boy who Feared Thunder

The young boy sat idly on the backyard swing as the July sun moved lower and lower, seemingly hotter – closer – than it was earlier that day. The chains creaked and popped unevenly as he rocked back and forth – an imperfect assembly done by his father. Dinner would be soon. He wasn’t trying to move, rather, the earth was moving under him. His bare feet dangled, big toes lightly kissing the patch of dirt where he and his sister spent countless summers before kicking off and jumping, trying to reach the sky. 

He observed his own shadow growing and stretching out before him, the sun to his back, as if he was watching his future and how tall he would get in the coming years. A breeze curled under his bangs, dry with salt from where they were once dampened by sweat and play. He kept his eyes on his shadow – longer, longer, until it was nothing more than a black stain across the grass. He thought to himself that he would die someday, but that didn’t frighten him. His mother told him when his grandfather died, that it’s only natural, that it happens to everyone. The young boy asked where he would go – if he would come back again. She said she didn’t know. He didn’t know how to tell his mother that’s how it worked – that he recognized his grandfather in his dreams – that he was afraid of thunder for a reason. 

The summer of 1942 held a large amount of promise and fear for the American people. The United States was already at war with the Axis Powers following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of the previous year. Artie and Harold knew from a young age that they wanted to serve in the military, but the twins weren’t prepared for killing, enemies or otherwise. Being the youngest two in a family of nine children with German immigrant parents, the boys knew that they’d be men of military – at the very least to help support their parents. Their father was a milkman in New York City, trading in his horse-drawn cart and bottles for kegs once Prohibition ended and taking on the role of a brewer; He played guitar at bars and bus terminals for extra money at night. Their mother was a homemaker who made all of the children’s clothes and maintained a home of eight boys and one girl. 

Once the war began, Artie enlisted in the Navy, being a lover of boats and summers on the lake house. His twin chose the Army Air Corps, with his eyes fixed on his second love, the B-17 Flying Fortress. For the first time in their 22 years, the twins parted ways to serve what they both believed to be a higher purpose. Harold learned the ins and outs of repairing a plane engine. Artie mastered gunnery school and prepared to leave for the Pacific. The boys kept in touch through letters; Harold always so poignant and proper. Artie, the jokester of the two, scribbled his way along with quips and poor spelling. They always looked forward to knowing the other one was safe. As twins, they shared everything, including gut feelings – the letters helped. 

Artie sat staring out at the Pacific Ocean, a letter from Harold in his hand. He had just gotten married on leave and only a few days later was called off to England to fight with the 8th Air Force against the Germans. He was proud. He was scared. He had a feeling in the pit of his stomach. Artie didn’t know where to send a return letter, so he instead addressed a note to Harold’s new wife, congratulating the couple and requesting for a way to contact his brother in the future. Once he was finished, Artie returned to the humid, sticky reality that was the Pacific Islands, watching the sun blaze red-orange as it sunk over the horizon, turning the water to fire before him.  

At night he lay awake under the mosquito net, the lamplight moon projected shapes and shadows against the barrack wall. It reminded him of when he was a young boy and his father brought home a Magic Lantern. They turned on the lamp before bed and fell asleep to the images of lions and elephants against the ceiling, a whole world within their crowded Depression home. He missed those days and thought back to them as if they happened a lifetime before, as if they weren’t his to remember. He was worlds away, killing men, and for what? To stop more men from killing more men? 

On the night of November 13th, Artie was operating with a crew on PT-154 off the Shortland islands in the Pacific. It was a nighttime anti-barge mission. Their goal was to cut the fuel sources to the Japanese who occupied the island, eventually allowing Allied forces to take over Tonolei Harbor. No fuel. No planes. No ships. It seemed easy enough, almost childishly simple. The men moved silently with the assistance of PT-155. Artie held his breath as water lapped up against the sides of their boats. They crept along about a mile south of the main Shortland Island, guided only by beach silhouettes and the stars. 

The still, unmoving night was suddenly broken by blinding flashes that came from a mile north of the PT boats. Seconds later was the boom of the artillery the lights belonged to. From the shore, three enemy rounds were fired in succession and came screaming towards the men. The first round missed with a deafening roar as it taunted the crews, bobbling around, maneuvering through the black. The second round hit its mark, tearing through the port side of the Tulagi boat like thunder under Artie’s feet. Direct hit. The third round went unnoticed as he blew towards the sky in an explosion that turned his body around and over, landing on whatever broken part of the boat remained.

The men didn’t even have the time to return fire from their turrets as another shell pierced a readied torpedo. A large flash of fire followed as whatever was left of PT-154 was thrown about the black water, now littered with debris and bodies. Shouts from the shore echoed as the crew struggled to see who was alive, only to be met with blood and cries for help. Artie lay on the deck of the boat, calm and numb in a dream. Water sprayed over his body from the unrelenting rounds against the already-dead crew. He felt the world move below him, agitated water stirring around with the earth. Artie gazed up at the November sky, flecks of magical light dancing along the ceiling of the world. He thought of his brother Harold and closed his eyes. 

The young boy woke up, sweating from the memory. His night light projected images of lions against the ceiling. The dreams never felt the same as when they first happened, and as he got older, he remembered less and less. The sky wasn’t as bright this time, the stars blurred a little more. He sat up and walked to his window where the clouds threatened to wake the world with flashes of heat lightning and the roll of thunder. One, two, three… He counted the time between the crash and the spark, just like his mother taught him – just like his grandmother taught him. He remembered the bombs more than anything else. The last thing he heard in 1943. The young boy felt goosebumps on his arms wake him further. He turned around and jumped back into his bed, eyes fixed on the lions. Soon the storm would be directly overhead. Soon, the war would be back.

The Ferryman

When I moved back into my apartment for my senior year of college, I noticed a large black spot on the ceiling. I called my mom to tell her and ask what she thought I should do about it, but she didn’t answer. When she finally did, she was angry at me, told me, “Figure it out,” and hung up. My move back to school was a couple of weeks ahead of the rest of the population because I worked for the campus. Patricia sat on the kitchen chair, her legs elevated, cigarette limp in her hand. It curled and whined upwards. She looked tired.

“I’m sorry we didn’t get to spend more time together this summer.”

“It’s alright. I was away anyway. I’ll be home for your birthday in October.” I looked at the clock, “I better leave. I love you, Mom.” 

“I love you too.” 

We hugged and I made my way for the ferry. Something felt off. I already decided in my head to come home earlier than her birthday – earlier than October 8th. And as I called her – and she didn’t answer – something felt even worse. She used to make me call her everyday the other three years, so what changed? 

I decided to report the black spot to maintenance, and they sent a crew of guys to come rip out a 2×3 foot chunk of my ceiling to address the black mold. It turned out to be a leak in the emergency sprinkler system, slowly releasing warm water for the entire summer.

“Good thing you caught this in time,” one man said to me. 

My mom still wasn’t answering her phone. Then, one night, my dad called me. 

“Don’t call your mother anymore right now.” He sounded frustrated with me, like I was inconveniencing my family’s life. I asked why the hell not. 

“Just don’t, alright?”

“What’s wrong? Is she sick? Should I come home? Is she mad at me?”

“No, she’s fine. Just call me if you need something from now on.”

I felt powerless and small. Clearly, something wasn’t right and I was purposely kept in the dark. It took only two days for my dad to call me again and tell me I needed to come home. He said she was sick; he didn’t say with what. He said to just come home; she was in the hospital. I knew Patricia and hospital didn’t mix well. My mother almost proudly toted the fact that she had not seen a doctor since I was born in 1990. Once I got off the phone, I collapsed to the floor. My gut – my deepest parts – knew she wasn’t coming home. 

I couldn’t sleep the whole night and by the time I got to the ferry, the sun had barely peaked up over the horizon. It was a chilly September morning, my first week of my senior year of college. I bathed in salt air and drank cheap ferry coffee. It was nearly impossible to sit still, as if I thought somewhere inside of me that I would have been able to swim to Long Island faster. I wanted to yell at the captain and tell him to hurry the fuck up.

From the moment I touched down on the island, every basic human instinct stripped itself away. It’s amazing what the human body does when sent into a literal crisis – a life or death situation. My senses went insane; I kept catching myself biting my fingers, crying silently, shaking my knees around. My dad hugged me – then my grandpa. I remember everything like it was on a hyperrealistic recording in my head. The flowers were still in bloom in my grandpa’s backyard; Nana’s geraniums still lined the driveway. The half hour drive to the hospital took longer than the ferry home. Everything around me pulled like taffy and mentally I couldn’t keep up. I just needed to see Patricia. I needed to see my mommy. 

It was so horrifying and real. It smelled. It was dry and asphyxiated me as I entered the ICU. Uncertainty. How could any of this be happening? I saw her there, yellow. Simpsons yellow. Egg yolk yellow. Yellow eyes. Yellow everything. Stringy, limp, matted hair. No makeup. She always wore makeup. No cigarette. Impossible. It couldn’t be her. I needed to snap back into reality. It spoke.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

Oh God, it was Patricia. I let out a forced laugh, more so of disbelief than anything, that my own mother was so worse for wear. The conversation was minimal as I described her view outside the window. There was a 7-Eleven, KFC, and Pizza Hut.

“I want vanilla ice cream and a fountain Coke.” 

She said her mouth was dry, which I found difficult to believe especially with the insane amount of swelling in her legs and abdomen. She looked like someone who was nine months pregnant with the calves of an Olympic cyclist. I kept looking at the wall. The woman before me, demanding Haagen Dazs and fast food soda, was impossible to place in the same category as the woman who viciously dragged my hair every morning, who took care of all the kids in the neighborhood – who cursed out my principal. She was laying there, unable to move, shitting in a diaper. The person in front of me was the foil of Patricia.   

I quickly noticed that the room she was in had no clocks and it felt appropriate. Time didn’t exist in a place like that. We sat in the room, stale and stagnant; it smelled like chemicals and had a metallic, sticky taste of pending death. There, in the space of crossing over, I watched my mom slowly drift in and out of toxic hallucinations and call out for our family dog, Duffy, who sat home, unsure where she’d gone. By the time I reached the boat at the end of that weekend and gave my ticket to the ferryman I knew it wouldn’t be long before I returned. Everyone gave promising, half-smile reassurance on her condition, but I knew – Patricia had burnt out. 

I was right. It was only four days before I decided to get on the ferry again and see her in the hospital. She deteriorated quickly, and it was clear she wasn’t well because instead of insulting me when I walked into the ICU she told me my hair looked nice. I leaned in to kiss her forehead, bangs matted down to her yellow shell. My dad, brother, and his girlfriend had been there most of the day. They were all puffy and swollen from crying. It was 8:20 PM, and suddenly, time mattered, because the ICU nurse told me I had to leave.

“Can you stay with me tonight, just in case?” She rolled her eyes at me to lighten the overtone that “just in case” meant, “if I die tonight, I don’t want to die by myself.” 

I crumbled in front of her, saying I wasn’t allowed but I loved her, and walked away as her lip quivered and she called out for the dog. 

When they called to say she fell into a coma that evening I felt a bizarre combination of relief and panic. I didn’t have to rush to the hospital, but I felt an obligation to do so. She lay in the same bed, eyes closed, writhing around in pain and I sat next to her and just put my hand on her arm. I told her I wasn’t going anywhere and she moaned and turned her head to the sound of my voice. We were met with a doctor who told us she had a ballpark 12 hours left to live. The finality of that – the time put on life – sent me into a spiral and I had to walk out of the room. What the fuck was happening? Why was this happening to me?

I wrote her eulogy, my head splitting open in a way that I never imagined possible. I thought I was dying too. I hadn’t showered in days, I saw people coming in and out that I barely recognized; my own family seemed like shadows. Someone brought brownies, another sodas, another baby wipes – I was in an alien environment and suddenly needed to be taken care of by everyone around me. I lost function. I became sub-human. There was a point where the only thing I could perform was the writing of Patricia’s eulogy. Talking about who she was made it easier to forget that she was technically no longer there.

We tried to swap funny stories and reminisce of her self-proclaimed title of “real estate slut” as opposed to being a broker. She rarely cried. She had a sick, dark, wonderful sense of humor. She fed everyone. She loved our family dog more than us – I was relatively confident of that. She didn’t deserve to die the way she was. 

A somber tone hit the group at once. There were about ten or so of us sardine-canned into the hospital room, some seated in the window will, a couple tossed onto chairs like old clothes, the rest of us stood, myself included. We looked around uncomfortably, mostly avoiding eye contact although the stench of sadness hung over all of us like a fog. Miraculously, Patricia began to move in her bed. Everyone jumped at the sight of a comatose, technically brain-dead woman rolling around and we all began to collectively panic. We realized quickly that someone, in their awkward, depressed shifting around, leaned on the bed controls and pressed down on a lateral lift, causing my mother’s body to pitch hard to starboard while we all looked on helplessly, trying to figure out which button made it stop.

“Oh my god! Oh my god,” my mom’s friend shouted out as my father threw himself onto her body to prevent her from rolling onto the floor. Hands went over mouths and people began to gasp until one of our family friends, an EMT, stopped the roll and lowered her back to a stable, flat position. It took all of five seconds for me to burst out into laughter after witnessing the dumpster fire that was my family. 

“She would have laughed at that.”

Her death was far less climatic than her accidental resurrection. I actually woke up to a phone call from my best friend asking me how she was coming along. When I rolled over, she took her last two breaths. There weren’t angels to come take her soul away; no soft sound of harps and horns. There was only the buzzing fluorescent tubes above us and the hiss of an oxygen machine. She and I were alone together. It was 12 days before her 52nd birthday. 

Trunk space

I’ve lived with anxiety and depression for the majority of my adult life. Rather than say, “I’ve struggled” with either, I’ll take away any controlling factor and simply state, “I have lived.” They are like annoying roommates who mostly keep to themselves and then one of them clogs the toilet and doesn’t say anything, so it just overflows until I find it and then I’m stuck with the mess. I use the analogy of the toilet because a clogged toilet both makes me anxious and also a little sad. Feel free to insert whatever analogy works for you.

When my anxiety creeps up, I want to impulse eat. I want to yell. I want to run away. When I feel depressed, I want to hug my dog and live in my bed under the covers until dark and never come out. Luckily for my dog, I have extreme issues with guilt and an overwhelmingly responsibility to take care of others so it never lasts long and he inspires me to go outside, or for a trail walk, or to play fetch.

Tonight was a little different, though. I just really wanted to take a nap. I really wanted to drift off for a couple of hours and wake up a little less drowned in my own thoughts. This didn’t happen, though. The universe – and nature – decided a flash flood would be scheduled for 7 PM and I was woken with what sounded like a tornado running down my street. My dog and I both shot up and I heard my phone going off to the emergency alert system. I looked out the window and saw my neighbor Joan’s car parked with the trunk wide open.

Joan is elderly. She’s sweet, the right amount of nosy that any old woman should be, and my dog is her number one fan. She always forgets to close her trunk. Her husband had major surgery recently and she’s been inundated with helping him. There have been nurses and family members in and out of the condo next to mine in order to make sure Joan’s husband has the proper care. It makes me think of my grandpa and how rough the medical care was on the family and him for the last few months of his life. Her husband has improved, though, which makes me happy to hear.

So back to Joan’s damn trunk. I don’t even think about it, just say, “Dammit, Joan!” I throw on some pants and a tee and run outside like a mad woman and slam the trunk before the rain gets too bad. I don’t tell her. I don’t make a scene; just prevent a soggy trunk and run back into the house. When I closed the door it hit me – no matter how stuck I feel, regardless of how fucked up things may seem, I (or you) always have a purpose. There is always a purpose to do even the smallest thing for an unwitting person. I (you) always have a place in this world, even if it’s just closing some old lady’s trunk in a flash flood.

Self Actualizing Shit Show

The phrase, “I really love you,” in American Sign Language is awfully similar to the sign for the Shocker, which is funny because that’s the same phrase my ex kept telling me while we recounted all the ways he fucked me over during the span of a year. He, like other uninformed hearing-abled people who might not understand what a person is signing to them, got the phrase, “I really love you,” confused with fucking me over. It’s the twist in the ASL sign that throws people off, I guess.

The day after the Super Bowl, my boyfriend texted me to tell me that he wanted to hang out before he had work that night. I welcomed it, because he went home early from his brewery job the night before and I didn’t get to spend much time with him. He said he’d felt sick that whole weekend. I felt bad for him. He worked so much we’d barely seen each other – I even wrote down in my journal that most of our time spent together in December was asleep in bed. So, I welcomed his visit. When he showed up he looked like he had two black eyes and like he hadn’t slept. I asked him to tell me what was wrong, but he just held me. 

“I haven’t been honest with you, Kait.” 

Weird, how I almost knew it was coming. Strange how I have a habit of stuffing down bad vibes because I find difficulty trusting myself, even though I knew I should have walked away from him the first time he “lost his phone,” or, “didn’t really use Facebook that much,” or even, “I don’t know why my mom didn’t accept your friend request; maybe she doesn’t remember your last name.” Funny, those rose-colored glasses that make all red flags look like flags. Hindsight being 20/20, I should have broken up with him when he returned one of my Tupperware containers before washing it out. Disrespectful.   

I sat next to him on my bed and found myself unable to cry. As someone who can practically cry on command, I couldn’t understand where this physical response was coming from. His whole explanation felt rehearsed. I realized it when he blindly handed me a tissue.

“I’m not crying.” I handed it back and he looked at me with giant, wet eyes and blew his nose with it. I saw a tinge of disbelief on his face; he knew I was a crier.

Maybe, at the time, my mind simply couldn’t process enough of what was going on in order to make appropriate reactions. Maybe it was shock; maybe I could see through his bullshit and even my subconscious knew he was undeserving of the same tears I shed for my grandfather only three weeks earlier. I truly believe for a while that night that I was just cried-out from all the heartache I endured in January. All the vulnerability – all the trust – I allowed someone to see me in a light that very few people witness, and he accepted it and moved onto others with the same goal of emotional conquest in mind. I felt betrayed, let down, defeated, and foolish. He lied about Pop. In that moment, his deceit held the upper-hand on my self-assurance. And that’s when I cried.

I hate not understanding things, on a whole. People, though, absolutely blow my mind and I am in a constant internal struggle about understanding and trusting them. Back to my extreme frustration in math class; to what motivated my mother to drink herself to death. Not knowing how or why a thing operates always dwelled on me. It took years to accept that I’m just destined to write and not worry about calculus; I still have not fully accepted why people do the things they do. 

Loyalty though; honesty, commitment – should be clean cut. That I understand. If I tell someone they can trust me with something, it’s because they can. If I don’t think I can be trusted, I don’t accept the responsibility. It comes down to morality. With my ex, it made me question my own judgment and how bad I thought I was with trusting who I thought was the right person. Eventually I took my head out of my hands and wiped my face. 

“How am I supposed to trust someone again?” The question was rhetorical. I stared off into space as I said it. He stupidly answered.

“Don’t worry. You’re an amazing person and someday you’ll find -”

“Shut the fuck up.”

His clammy, guilty hand retracted from where he placed it on my knee and he recoiled into himself. Something deep inside me snapped in that moment and I swear to God it’s what a Pokemon must feel like when it’s evolving. I turned into a motherfucking Charizard. I inhaled a room full of hot, gross lies and self-doubt and sadness, and exhaled and absolute hellfire bitch-rage of done with this. He started to sob. I felt the veins in my neck pulse as I screamed and shook the walls and maybe a light bulb blew out I don’t really remember. He kept crying and turning his head away from me. I didn’t care.
“I can’t look at you. I can’t look at what I did to you,” he said through sobs. That made me angrier. This escalated inside of me to something that surpassed just my relationship with him. It was a dissemination of my self-doubt. It was a double barrel, sawed-off shotgun point blank at my past.

“Look me in my fucking face.” I was met with the eyes of a terrified boy. I suddenly felt disgusted. He was scared. He had no idea what he caused but he still caused a whole pile of shit. I didn’t feel bad for him. I pitied him – someone who was almost 30 years old and clearly never had experience in one of the greatest gifts on this earth – a genuine human relationship.  

“Who the fuck are you?”

The evening disintegrated. There was so much crying and him begging me to not leave his life – me foolishly considering taking him back because I still couldn’t entirely believe that he did all the things he did. After he left my house that night he told me he really loved me. I went back upstairs and sat on my bed, alone, with the stench of regret and the death of our relationship hanging in the air. The girl he cheated with reached out to me. He left her a two-minute voicemail on his way back from my house, begging her for a second chance too. I got my house key back three days later; he wouldn’t respond to me for fear or shame – I don’t really know. More tears, more anger – but most of all, confusion, and I was rid of the situation. I never deleted his number. I couldn’t. No one could hate him more than he hated himself, and it felt good to know he knew I was still there, existing in the world. His actions were unforgivable. Then again, even Mark Twain asked, “But who prays for Satan?”  

Break the Wall

I’ve become so accustomed to rejection over the years that now when I see an email reply from a literary agency, I brush it off and dismiss it for lack of getting my hopes up in regards to my writing career. I have been submitting (and getting rejected) to agents for the better part of seven years with my memoirs and essays when all I have been focused on other than making a living is becoming a published author. I want a book deal, I want a book out, I want something published. Since 2012, I’ve been published in magazines and e-books from literary contests and other outlets, but nothing substantial like seeing my name on a shelf at a Barnes and Noble and hearing that someone read about my life story – my life – and felt moved by it in some positive way.

Fast forward to this week. Then rewind to January when my grandfather passed away. He was the oldest surviving prisoner of war in New York and served in Germany in World War 2. He was the most bad-ass, sweetest, understanding human I’ve ever come into contact with and his death has been something I’ve had difficulty coping with since the beginning of this year. Not to mention a particularly nasty break-up in February that derailed me from a proper grief, I’ve felt as if I was shot out of a sling shot this year and lost my footing for a bit.

After Pop died, I revisited a box of old letters exchanged between him and my grandmother during the war – most of them from 1943. There are also miscellaneous letters from my grandfather’s twin brother who died tragically in Japan in November of 1942. That always kills me to know that Pop had to live 75 years without his literal other half; When Arthur died, people said he was lucky for being blown up instead of captured and placed into Japanese prison camps. Pop was already a POW at the time of his brother’s death, and wasn’t informed of it until after he returned from the war in the Fall of 1945 to try and keep his stress levels to a minimum.

Anyway, I digress. With the death, the break-up, an earlier death of my dog of 15 years, and work stress I had what I’d like to call a creative snap where I sat down and pumped out 15,000 words in less than three days based off the letters and stories from Pop. It was a necessary catharsis; it was therapeutic, and in many ways helped more than the therapist I began speaking to in February. I continued on with this story – with his story – and after a couple of months, a trip to Savannah for war research at the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum, some exchanges with the descendants of the 388th Airborne in England, and a lot of tears (and a lot of editing), I produced a book just shy of 300 pages that encapsulated my grandfather’s experiences in life, love, and loss during the war.

Like I said earlier, I’m so adjusted to rejection that I sometimes find myself blindly submitting my work to agent after agent after agent in an attempt to see what sticks like spaghetti on the cabinet that is the saturated literary market. Just this past week I received three (or four?) rejections with reasons ranging from, “Thank you for your query, but I can’t market you,” to, “Thank you for your query, but I’m actually not taking on any projects right now,” to, “Thank you for your query. Your writing is really good but I can’t take on the project.” The last one was kind of a punch to the gut honestly. That one lingered a little, mostly because I so desperately wanted someone to take a chance on my own story for so long and I wholeheartedly believe that my grandfather’s story takes precedence over everything in my immediate world. Especially with the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Pop and his letters belong to a group of forgotten heroes; good men who went through unspeakable horrors and came back home and still got shit done. I was present for his nightmares – I was there for his recounts of terror. His story deserves to be told and now that he isn’t here anymore, I want nothing more than to be a voice to the voiceless.

Yesterday afternoon started with me waking up from an overnight shift to another rejection letter that was emailed to me earlier that morning. “…it’s a subjective market, keep sending out your work.” I respect that. I get it. The literary market it a spiderweb of just finding the right match. Never in the 100 or so agents who rejected me over the years did I take one personally. I just kept thinking to myself that I had to keep writing. Then, a few hours later in the midst of loading my dishwasher I received another email that started like the rest. “Thank you for your query…” My hopes deflated until I see, “The project sounds very interesting, and we’d be pleased to have a look at 50 pages. Please feel free to send it along at your convenience as either a PDF or Word document. We look forward to hearing from you.”

OH MY GOD. OH MY GOD.

I read the same lines over about 46 times. Cue ugly crying. Cue calling my dad in an incoherent, Ron Burgundy in a glass case of emotion sob. Cue my dog not knowing how to deal so he just kept sitting on my foot every time I moved. Cue crying in my kitchen like a Desperate Housewife minus the glass of Pinot. Not even to put all my eggs in one basket because NOTHING is set in stone, but just the mere opportunity to share my work with an agency (who I am yet to name because nothing is set in stone) made my insides melt. After seven years – seven years of no’s, of “thank you, but,” someone is maybe taking a chance on me. All I’ve been doing for seven years is try. And if this opportunity takes off, if I’m able to share the story about my grandfather that he deserves – if I can give justice to men like him – I could seriously die happy.

Keep your eye on the Doughnut

I rang the doorbell three times before a nurse let me in the building, only to meet me in the hallway and tell me I was the first to know, and that my grandfather just died. What immediately followed was something I experienced when I watched my mother – his daughter – die seven years ago: tunnel vision, loss of breath, silent and uncontrolled sobs. My aunt arrived not two minutes after. We said our goodbyes to Harold in his bed, finally at rest and home with Nan, with my mom, with my family dog who died only four months ago in September. He was reunited with his identical twin, Arthur, who died in 1943 on a PT while Harold sat in prison camp in Krems, Austria.

I feel like I’ve become a professional at death and grief; the state of being dead is not what scares me, though. I am not afraid to kiss a recently-departed loved one on the hand or forehead one last time. The process of dying – the suffering, the pain, the uncertainty of whether or not that person will be around for three more days, or two – is what eats at me. Since January 9th my soul has felt heavy while my life has felt emptier. I will miss Thursday morning physical therapy appointments, grocery shopping, holding hands in the car, and singing old songs. I will miss him there in my life. It is something that I know I will get through, but I am not quite sure how yet.

I don’t even really know how to explain my grandpa when people ask. After newspaper interviews and his eulogy I still conclude that that he was – simply put – a good guy, because if I spent the amount of time I wanted to talking about him a whole year would pass before I was done. He died just a week shy of his 99th birthday, born before sliced bread and lived long enough to build the World Trade Centers, watch them fall on television, and watch Tower One be rebuilt. Harold lived long, but he lived. He lived enough for three lifetimes, and I was lucky enough to hear his stories and to commit them to memory – those moments of invaluable tales of war and love and sayings that I will write down and give life to until the day I myself am dead.

He always told my brother, cousin, and me, “As you ramble through life, Brother, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the doughnut, and not upon the hole.” As silly of a quote as it sounds, I finally understood what he meant. Harold wanted us to keep our eyes on the good, not the bad; on love and forgiveness, not hate and grudges; on the sweet stuff, not the void. He was infectiously positive and kind until the day he died, and I always found it difficult to understand especially when our visits were peppered with war stories that – when told – would take him far away, back to 1943 and prison camp. His liberation from camp seemed like his only victory, but even in his stories, there was something positive to shed light on.

One tale in particular – and the one I shared at his wake when delivering his eulogy – has become affectionately known as the “egg story.” In March of 1945, as the war was coming to a foreseeable end, and Russian troops were closing in on Stalag XVII-B in Austria, Harold, along with about a thousand other soldiers, were forced to march along the Danube River with Berlin as the goal, in one of the harshest winters on record in Europe. He spent two years with meals that included hot water, black coffee, boiled cabbage, and sometimes nothing at all. He watched bunk mates’ faces and bodies ravaged by malnutrition, bed bugs, sores, and disease. And still, he along with many others were seen “fit enough” to march, maybe to Berlin, most likely to their deaths. The end of the war was certainly near, but the end of their lives was also looming overhead.

Harold told me one day in June of 2018 that as the men marched through fields and farmland they would pull vegetables out of the ground and eat them without washing them, simply for nutrition. They operated mostly in groups of three – one man to collect firewood, one to guard the food, one to find the food. Harold was the food finder. He would pull carrots, potatoes – anything he could find – to share with his two companions. He told me of older German women who would hide bread in the bosoms of their aprons and break off small pieces to throw at the feet of the soldiers, who scrounged and ate quickly as to not anger the SS that flanked them with guns and vicious dogs. Even in that time of horror and uncertainty, he still encountered kindness and humanity of strangers; he had hope to continue on marching. He had the belief that he would hold his wife again, his childhood sweetheart who he married on June 1, 1943, only to be captured July 30th that same year.

In his search for food, Harold came across what he described to me as “a German-speaking, Polish slave-girl.” She was on a patch of farmland that had animals as well as vegetables. He approached her and put a hand in his pocket, producing a sewing needle that he held onto from a British Red Cross care package he received earlier during his imprisonment when he had scurvy. He extended to her the needle, and told her in broken German, “Ich habe eine nadel,” which translates to, “I have a needle.” The young girl accepted the needle and handed him an egg, the first egg he held in over two years. Harold joyously returned with the egg to his two companions and split it between the three of them, a meal he described to me as “the best meal I had in two years.”

Pain and suffering is relative to each person and situation, this is a given. But tears poured down my face to see how such a simple act, and such a simple meal could bring out hope and humanity in a man who otherwise was stripped of everything. He lost his bomber jacket, teeth, weight, and yet he was so grateful and rejoiced in the tiniest of victories – the egg. He could have easily kept it to himself, but chose to share it with two men he might never see again. He ate that egg as if he knew it wouldn’t be the last time he’d taste one, and I can personally vouch that Harold had an egg almost everyday for the duration of my 28 years. The war and the suffering bore a giant hole in Harold’s future, yet he kept his eye on my grandmother, on freedom, on the doughnut.