My Fairytale Story

First photo together. We both look like babies.

First photo together. We both look like babies.

There are eight days left until I’m no longer single, unattached, free to roam the world. Eight days until I will never be alone again, except by choice, until I get to tell everyone I know that I’m sure this is what I want. Short of either of us developing a brain tumor that changes our personalities dramatically, I’m not getting divorced. People may think that I’m naïve or delusional, but I’ve spent my entire life studying other people and trying to understand them. That comes with being a writer. I follow all kinds of blogs and all kinds of wives, from the former teen mom who got married to her childhood sweetheart after dating for 18 days to the young Mormon student who got married and had two kids before graduating college. I believe that, as long as you have a good understanding of who you are and who your spouse is, you can predict the success of your marriage. With a certain degree of compatibility, you can make a marriage work with anyone. Staying married becomes a choice. It’s been a while since I had real doubts about my relationship, which is an actual miracle, if you know me at all. Once I’m married, though, I won’t allow myself to even consider the alternative. This is what I’ve chosen.

Though I’ve struggled with commitment issues all my life, I hope I can still say that I take commitment extremely seriously. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always taken commitment so seriously that it scared me. I want to be able to live up to my word; I hate letting people down. In fact, I was so adamant that things wouldn’t work out between Dan and me before we started dating that I kept telling him not to date me. Well, it was a bit more subtle than that, but I’d had four out of five relationships end because I couldn’t love my ex back the way he loved me. When I first heard this song on the radio, I laughed so hard — it was the soundtrack to my life. The one ex that escaped the unfortunate fate of my other exes, I couldn’t get over because I was so afraid that I’d never be able to love anyone else the way I’d loved him. He was the only living proof that I could fall in love. So yes, I warned Dan that I was 99% sure I’d break up with him and I’d ruin him for other girls because I was that perfect combination of emotional and crazy that guys often mistook for true love.

A happier moment in Chongqing.

A happier moment in Chongqing.

Not only was I sure I’d break his heart, I was sure that he couldn’t handle being with me. I tried to warn him what loving me would entail. I told him that I could say I loved him, cook him dinner every night, knit fuzzy socks for his newborn nephew, and then wake up one day six months later and realize that I’d never been in love with him. I told him that any day, I could wake up and want to leave. I told him that, if I wasn’t actively deluded by my desire to be in love, I might never be able to articulate what he meant to me. That I might never be able to admit, even to myself, that I cared about him. I told him that when things got overwhelming for me, I would run. That he might have to go searching for me in the middle of the woods. I told him that loving me would require giving me every ounce of love, patience, and life he had, leaving him nothing for himself, and the rest of his life would gradually burn out. I really knew how to sell myself, huh? A lot of my prophesies came true. There was the time I asked him why he couldn’t be more like my ex. There was the time we flew across the world and were eating ramen noodles in a mall in Chongqing and I told him I didn’t know if I loved him enough to do the rest of the trip with him. There was the time I told him that I would rather die than continue long distance with him.

But a lot of my prophesies didn’t come true. I only came close to breaking up with him once, and I took it back after five minutes. I’ve run away from him, but never to somewhere he couldn’t find me. Though it’s still hard for me to tell him what he means to me, in the first few months of our relationship, I wrote him poetry, something I’ve never done for anyone else. The poems spoke of the way he made me feel, the way he opened me up and brought out the child inside me and touched me and erased all of the pain. They painted a future that I envisioned for us, one with creaky floors and a drippy sink and a dog running in the front door. The poems told him more about how I felt than I ever could. I’m sure that, all the times I looked him in the eye and told him I didn’t love him enough, those poems were what he held on to. There was a lot more, too, that I hadn’t imagined were possible before we started dating. A month into long distance, I asked him to move across the country to be with me. A few months after that, I invited him into my childhood home for our first Christmas together. Then, I drove out to Norwalk by myself one weekend and found a house for us.

Our one-year anniversary.

Our one-year anniversary.

Our story didn’t end there. We said goodbye to long distance after a grueling year. Not wanting to give ourselves a breather, we decided to get married and adopted a 14-year-old. We even have a puppy on the way. Tonight, we are going to our kid’s choir concert. I plan to take many photos and videos and embarrass her for the rest of her life. That’s good parenting, right? The biggest problems in our lives these days are making sure Billy Bob grows up a happy, healthy individual and feeding my stupid stomach, which has decided it no longer tolerates wheat or soy. This isn’t exactly the creaky house I imagined; it’s even better, and soon we’ll have our puppy to complete the picture.

In eight days, I will get up in front of my family and friends and tell them that I’ve found what I was looking for. In eight days, I will show them my home in the hope that they recognize how much I’ve changed in the past two years. In eight days, I will share my life with them in the hope that they can be proud of me, knowing how hard I’ve worked for this. This may not be everyone’s fairytale, but it is mine.

I Broke Up with My Agent

And God, it hurts. Like any relationship, ours started with fireworks, hope, expectation. It was almost exactly two years ago, on January 13, 2013, that everything began with a phone call. She’d read my entire manuscript over the weekend, and … Continue reading

The Things That Matter

Street at NightLast night, somewhere around 1 am, I lay down in the middle of an empty street and listened to the silence of the pavement. The sky was blank. It wasn’t clear enough to see the stars, and light pollution had turned the black into grey. My hair was pressed against the gravel, but I didn’t think about what had been there before me and what would come after me. I gambled my life. The first time a car passed, I stared at my illuminated feet and waited for the light to pass. The second time a car passed, I sat up and looked into the headlights, wondering if perhaps I should be afraid.

I was not afraid.

There are so many things that can go wrong. You can avoid cigarettes, except that one puff when peer pressure overcame your sense of self-preservation, and die in your 30s of lung cancer. You can strip and go skinny-dipping in a pool of water so clear you can count the guppies at the bottom and contract an amoeba that snacks on your brain. You can follow your friend down a snowbank, steeper than you would like, and tumble as your skis snap and mark a trail of death behind you. What is the difference between me and a skydiver or a Nascar driver or a free solo climber? The fact that their pursuit requires a degree of skill, and therefore nobility? I don’t think we’re all that different. In the end, we’re all looking for momentary solace in a world that strips humans of the very thing that defines us.

The heartbeat. The pulse. The multiplication and division of cells. We’re the only species in this world that has long forgotten what it feels like to fear for our lives a dozen times between breakfast and dinner. We’ve forgotten what it means to be alive, because we’ve forgotten what it is to face death. The domestication of humans goes far beyond that of cats and dogs. Did you know that, upon successful intercourse, a female cat writhes and thrashes like an eel out of water? It’s instinctual. Somehow, it helps the sperm meet the egg. Can you imagine what would happen if a woman did that every time post coitus? It would be weird, terrifying even. But they’re not the weird ones; we are. We, who’ve lost the instinct to be human, except perhaps for the Duggars.

These are the things that matter.

No, I don’t mean birthing 19 children, either out of desire to please your lord or manipulate natural selection. I mean maintaining some sort of connection with the most basic human urges, emotions, sensations. We’re not designed for today’s society, one that defines us by our LSAT score, GPA, and salary. In the context of life and death, who the hell cares about what you do for a living? Who cares if you’re Ivy League-smart or Victoria’s Secret-beautiful? Who cares about your idealistic and ultimately selfish passion to change the world? Who, besides your mother, cares that you have three novels in the drawer and you’re the next Virginia Woolf? I know that, if I saw the dark at the end of the tunnel, I would care about what I’d done. I would care if I had felt everything the human experience has to offer. The light and the heavy. The pure and the despicable. The ice and the fire. I would want to have suffered great lost. I would want to have lost great love. I would want to have hated, as evidence that I had loved. I would want to have cried, as evidence that I once laughed.

These are the things that matter.

Last night, as I looked that oncoming mass of metal in the eye, and saw the light that could take me to dark, I knew that I hadn’t lived enough. I wasn’t ready to die. I hadn’t done enough, felt enough, loved enough. I would have been sad to be taken. But you know what? Almost. I’ve almost had enough, if enough even exists. I could have left yesterday without what-ifs and do-overs.

These are the things that matter.

You Can Have It All

Bride at the Bean

Do you think she has it all?

Sometimes, I think that the proverbial American dream has fucked us all in the head. In every advertisement of well-dressed, attractive white people, the message is clear: if you buy our car/underwear/laundry detergent, you will be Happy. Not only Happy, but Successful. Every little girl grows up dreaming of Prince Charming, a Tiffany diamond, a destination wedding, and a white picket fence. Unless you’re me, in which case you grow up dreaming of Mr. Tortured Artistic Soul, a vintage ring, a backyard wedding, and a library full of books. In this country, every stage of life is defined for you. If you dare to step outside the box, you become the person everyone scorns, partially due to their hidden jealousy of you.

College is supposed to be the time of your life, but hey don’t forget to keep up your GPA and land a six-figure salary when you graduate. Boys, sleep with as many girls as you possibly can, or else you will regret it forever. Girls, have a little fun here and there, but don’t forget that if you don’t find a husband by the time you graduate, you never will. Everyone, develop an alcohol problem, because it won’t be socially acceptable in the future. Your 20s are all about moving to New York City, climbing the corporate ladder, and making babies. If you’re a woman and you wait until you’re 29 and 11 months to have your first child, wow you’re so progressive. Wait until you’re 30 and you’ll have people asking if you know the statistics for older mother complications. If you’re a man and you have a child at 29 11/12 years, you’ll have people giving you weird looks. What are you doing to yourselfDo you know how much you’re missing out? When will you go to Vegas and steal Mike Tyson’s tiger?!

The Hangover

Our school system operates on the assumption that each child has a stay-at-home parent mother. Daycare costs as most as an Ivy league education. Feminists are going to war with each other over whether or not a woman can chose to stay at home. It’s not a choice, say those who vehemently oppose choice feminism, if a woman quits her job out of necessity because her husband refuses to quit his. Lean in, say some. Lean out, say others. Women can have it all, say some. Women can’t have it all, say others. As the middle class continues to disappear, it seems that the only people who can have it all are the 1%.

This is what I have to say to you, and especially to my fellow second-semester seniors who are terrified to fall into the abyss of uncertainty that awaits them upon graduation:

You can have it all.

Not only that, but you do have it all. It All isn’t some intangible, distant reward that you will only receive if you do everything right. It All isn’t what your family and friends have defined for you. It All isn’t what society, religion, or evolutionary biology tells you is important. It All is whatever you make it out to be. It All is yours, and nobody can ever take it away from you. It All is right here, right now.

I know that because I have it all. I don’t mean that in a my-life-is-perfect-look-at-my-successes way. I’ve written three books, but have yet to publish anything. I was recently denied both a Fulbright and a Princeton in Asia scholarship. Every day, I’m reminded of how much of a struggle life can be. Sometimes, I think I should enter a therapist’s office and never come out. Sometimes, I think that nobody should experience the inconvenience of loving me. Every day, I fail myself and those I love. But I am not a failure. I fight so that tomorrow, and the day after that, I can say that I have it all. And I do. I have the luxury of sleeping 10 hours a night, I have a horse I can ride whenever I want, I have a roof over my head I don’t have to pay for. I have friends to eat with, skate with, laugh with. I am getting paid to do what I’d willingly do for free: teach languages. On Monday, I am interviewing for a position I never thought I’d have a chance at. I have a boyfriend who isn’t perfect, but is perfect for me.

I have this blog, and the support of my wonderful readers. I have so much, and I am thankful. I have it all; I couldn’t ask for anything more.

What is It All to you? Do you think you’ve found it?

À la prochaine,

R

Springtime Feels

Spring BlossomsThere have been countless poems written about the spring. My favorite is the last line of “Juegas todos los días” by Pablo Neruda.

Quiero hacer contigo

lo que la primavera hace con los cerezos.

I want to do with you what the spring does with the cherry trees. Still wonderful in English, but allow me and my linguist self to rant about the beauty of gendered languages. Los cerezos in the masculine means cherry trees, while las cerezas in the feminine means cherries. Los manzanos are apple trees, whereas las manzanas are apples. And so on and so forth. How efficient, concise, beautiful! I’ve been tutoring Spanish lately, and my student is currently studying adverbial clauses and the use of the subjunctive. This morning, I woke up dreaming about the subjunctive tense. Hans knows all about my passion for the subjunctive — it might be the greatest loss of the English language. Like WTF English, you came from German (which has subjunctive) and were influenced by the Romance Languages (which have subjunctive) and then you got lazy? Unacceptable.

Oh, this is for Hans. Last time, I couldn’t explain to you how the placement of adjectives can get you into trouble. I found an example. If you’re asking your girlfriend’s father for her hand in marriage, and you say, “Me gustaría casarme con tu hija bellísima” with bellísima (beautiful) coming after hija (daughter), then you’re saying, “I would like to marry your beautiful daughter”. If you say, “Me gustaría casarme con tu bellísima hija” with bellísima coming before hija, you’re saying, “I would like to marry your one beautiful daughter”. This is not a problem if your girlfriend is an only child. This becomes a problem if your girlfriend has sisters, because then you’re implying that she’s the only beautiful one…

Okay, that was a really long tangent. What I really wanted to say is that, while humankind (yes Neruda speaks for humanity) adores the spring, I’ve never fancied it. It’s always been my least favorite season, to the disbelief of others. I used to explain myself, saying that spring in Ann Arbor is all melting snow, potholes, and cold rain. Although I still believe in my explanation, I must admit that it’s not a complete one. The real reason that spring bothers me is because it overstimulates me. I smell the air and I’m immediately restless. On good days, I want to skip my classes and visit the farmer’s market. On bad days, I want to jump off a roof or hitchhike to Alaska. It requires so much goddamn effort to maintain my sanity in the spring. When I was younger, I’d have to leave town at least once a week. I didn’t have to go anywhere fancy. Sometimes, I’d spend a day in Ikea. Sometimes, I’d drive down US-23 and take a random exit. I’d end up walking around in farmland, where everyone who passed by would wave and smile.

The real reason I don’t like spring is because, at times, it’s like I’m feeling every single emotion I’ve ever experienced in my life, all at once. Emotions that don’t even have names. Emotions that I haven’t felt in years. Emotions that I only knew secondhand, through the writing of others.

Writing. That’s what it comes back to, always. As much as I complain about the burden of spring, this season has always been a productive time for me. I wrote the better part of my second novel last spring. The spring before that, I wrote a short story and bad poetry. The spring of 2011, I started this blog. As a writer, you must take advantage of your emotions. Every time you feel something new or particularly strong, you must record it, bookmark it, to be used the next time you write. When you experience an especially emotional time, you must channel your feelings into your art. The ability to use your work as an outlet is both a responsibility and a gift.

Rebecca Paints

Being productive in the studio.

This spring, I’m committing to do more of writing and novel-editing and less of wasting gas on the highway. Anyone else have springtime resolutions?

Au revoir,

R

A Love Letter

Dear small-town Michigan America,

For years, I didn’t know you
For years, I ignored you
I thought you were comparable to Ann Arbor
when you were always in a class of your own
I thought that you were no good for me
and I no good for you
I thought you would suffocate me
the lack of human energy piercing my painfully extroverted heart
Forgive me
I didn’t know you
I didn’t know that the air you exhale is the gift of living forms high and low
I didn’t know the feeling of being cradled in your rolling meadows
of contemplating the heavens above as if nothing separated us
of wading through the serenity that is utter darkness.

I am sad for those who do not know you
Whose only contact with you are the fleeting minutes of their daily drive
leaving behind an unceremonious trail of roadkill
Who have long lost the innate love for you
slowly breeding it out of their blood
Who fear you so much that they resort to destroying you.

One does not know you by studying your creatures
by identifying family, genus, species
One does not know you by wintering in a log cabin by the seashore
overlooking the lighthouse
One knows you by sharing a life with you
by caring for you as you have cared for us
by giving back as you’ve given to us
By looking at you and whispering Alhamdulillah, thanks be to God.

There is nothing religious about you.

Short Story: Swan Song

Hey guys! I don’t have much time to blog these days, but I wanted to share something with y’all in honor of reaching 900 followers. As the weather is cooling off, I thought it was a nice time to revisit this short story that I wrote two winters ago. Enjoy. 

Mackinac Island Lighthouse

Swan Song

The Cygnus olor, commonly known as the Mute Swan, has captured the sentiments of romantics for millennia with her pure-white plumage and reticent nature. In ancient Greece, the Athenians believed that the Mute Swan was utterly silent during her lifetime. According to tradition, only upon the brink of death would she sing a single haunting melody. The great poet Aeschylus ingeniously crafted one of literature’s classic metaphors when he compared the dying Cassandra’s final lament to a swan’s last call. Over 2000 years later, weaving its way from German to English, the phrase emerged as we know it today: the swan song.

On days like this, I can’t shake the agonizing thought that the winter of ’96 was my swan song. I was freshly 20, still straddling the fence between girlhood and womanhood, and completely unaware that I was about to plummet into the latter territory.

•••

“Emily,” my mother states, as if announcing the menu for dinner. She pauses for effect and twists around to make sure she has the attention of the backseat passenger—namely, moi. “Emily has news for us.”

As this is news to me too, it takes a few moments to find my thoughts, which have been floating somewhere between the rabbit-shaped cloud and the tallest pine tree out my window. We make eye contact. This always makes me feel like my darkest secrets are brazenly tattooed across my forehead and she’s reading them in sadistic pleasure. For a moment, I sense that she knows. As if goaded by her presence in my mind, I briefly recall the last night I spent in Eric’s dormitory room, tracing the curves of his spine and memorizing the lines of his laughter. Emily Fein, he vowed in his sexy French accent, I’m going to marry you and I won’t let you refuse. Je te promets, ma chérie. And I laughed and opened up my heart, my body, for him to fill. The thought of his touch heats my cheeks.

Realizing at last what my mother prompted me for, I clear my throat and collect myself. “Yeah, Dad, I don’t know if Mom mentioned it yet, but I was accepted for an internship at the University of Michigan hospital this summer.”

Through the rearview mirror, I watch my father’s eyebrows rise. “Wow, Em, that’s fantastic. What are you studying again?”

There’s the usual sting—that I’m not important enough for him to remember my concentration whereas he knows the resumes of his law firm’s partners by heart. I swallow the disappointment and reply without missing a beat, “Archeology.”

This time, I don’t want to see the expression of false admiration on his face and I predict the next words out of his mouth before he even vocalizes them. “Are you sure that’s going to get you into med school? Aren’t you supposed to be studying biology or something like that?”

Before I can defend myself, my mother snaps up the conversation like a pit bull with a bone. “Emily’s only a sophomore. She has plenty of time to change her major, especially since she’s already taken all the core pre-med classes…”

As she winds up to lecture full-throttle, I’m not sure who tunes out her voice first, my father or me. Like a croissant tucking into itself in preparation for baking, I fold into the tranquility of my innermost thoughts. The prospect of the new year is both exciting and terrifying. 1997. It feels so novel and abundant with possibility, that much closer to the turn of the millennium. I’m looking forward to both the internship and the milestones in my relationship with Eric—he’s hinted at plans for our six-month anniversary in March. I’m worried about the summer, though. Eric plans to work at his father’s real-estate company in Paris, a great opportunity for him to gain leverage with his fellow business students. My concern is that we’ve never been apart for more than a few weeks and now we’re going to be an Atlantic away for four months. At the moment, though, nothing feels impossible to overcome for our steadfast relationship.

By the time I return from my interlude, my mother has given up and resumed her position gazing out the front passenger window. In the driver’s seat, my father sighs and stretches his left leg across the dashboard. Before our trusty GMC Yukon, only acres of green rolling hills and forests of red pine trees lay ahead. Like we have done every other Christmas of my 20 years, we cross the border into Maine.

•••

We’ve had our seaside cottage in York since my grandparents bought it in the 50s and we kept it even when they moved south to Boca Raton a decade ago. Tucked away on the north end of the popular tourist beach, the two-story edifice overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and the famed Nubble Lighthouse in the distance. Grandpa nicknamed the cottage “the Blue Jay” after its baby-blue wooden panels and the unusual number of blue jays that flock to Maine in the winter months.

As I tiptoe down the hallway, the hardwood floor chills my bare feet and I hug my cotton nightgown closer to my skin. I know it’s early and I’m not quite sure why I’m awake, but as soon as the sun began its ascent I leapt out of bed like a grasshopper. Everything is just as I remembered it—the wedding photo of Grandpa and Grandma at the end of the hall, the family Christmas card from my sophomore year of high school, my framed watercolor catastrophe that only my grandparents would call art. I scurry by the master bedroom to the sound of my parents’ snoring and feel a tinge of melancholy. This was the first year Grandpa and Grandma hadn’t been able to join us at the Blue Jay. They usually occupied the master bedroom while my parents and I shared the room I had to myself now. I guess it never made much sense for them to fly up to Maine from Florida in December, but I always thought of the Blue Jay as their house and now it’s disconcerting to be here without them. It almost feels like we’re renting out the cottage from its usual owners, like we’re the intruders.

Shaking off the thought, I gradually make my way down the spiral staircase, running my hand along the handrail that used to give me dreadful splinters. I cross the living room and head to the kitchen for a glass of water. I’m about to pick up the phone to dial Eric back in Ann Arbor, but then I realize the hour and think better of it. Instead, I sling a coat across my shoulders, slip on rain boots, and let myself out the front door.

The cool air is refreshing, the humidity hitting my face like a misty cloud. I gauge the temperature to be in the high 30s, and the overhead clouds forecast rain later in the day. At first, I start to walk down the beach to the more populous area, where elderly couples take an early-morning stroll and other vacationers jog with their dogs. Then, as if drawn by an invisible hand, I retrace the path to the water my dad used to take me down when I was a little girl. Cautiously, I climb down the rocks and finally reach sand. The wind carries the salty scent of the ocean to my nose and whips my shoulder-length hair across my face. I take a seat just short of the crashing waves and kick off my boots, savoring the cold, damp sand around my toes. Taking in the beauty of the great Atlantic before me, I don’t notice him until he’s nearly beside me.

He clears his throat, prompting me to leap to my feet from my serene, yoga-like pose. The first thing that I notice are his eyes and I am staring so intently into them that I couldn’t describe anything else about him. They are a soft brown, but tinged with the hardness of someone who has witnessed indescribable sorrows. The wrinkles around his eyes hint at tales of laughter and date his age in the mid-30s. His curly, dark hair falls just above his eyes like the strings of a mop. He could really use a haircut. He’s dressed like I am—someone who didn’t expect to be seen—and as if on cue, we both pull at our jacket sleeves self-consciously.

“I’m so sorry,” he says with a sheepish smile, which confirms those laugh lines and makes his eyes twinkle. “I thought it’d be more suspicious if I sneaked around you without saying hello.”

As if the wind had stolen my breath, it takes me a moment to respond. “Oh, it’s no problem. It’s just that I didn’t think anybody would be up at this time and…well, not many people come down to this end of the beach anyway.”

“Yeah, I, uh, couldn’t sleep in.” He runs a hand through his hair and I follow the movement like a raccoon chases silver, my stomach aflutter. His gaze lifts from my general direction to the sunrise behind me, whistling appreciation. “That’s beautiful.”

I look out into the horizon with him, wondering if he’ll keep walking down the beach. I can’t just let him go—there’s something about those eyes that makes me feel like I have to know him. Awkwardly, I turn and stick out my right hand. “Oh, I’m Emily, by the way. I live right up there, in the blue cottage. I mean, it’s my grandparents’ house.”

“Hello, Emily,” he says, with that same unintelligible grin. “Nice to meet you. My name is Robert. Robert Harrison. I’m actually renting out the place two doors down.”

“Oh?” I chirp a little too eagerly.  “I didn’t realize anyone lived there. I did notice that it was fixed up a bit since last year.”

He nods and continues to admire the scenery, which apparently doesn’t include me. Before I can think of something further to say, he picks up again. “Well, Emily, I’ll see you around.”

With a dip of his head that makes me think that he would have tipped his hat had he been wearing one, he is gone. As he strolls away from me without glancing back, I sink back down to the sand. When I close my eyes, the only thing I see is the way he looked at me when he said my name for the last time. As if he could read me, and he liked what he saw.

•••

Feeling guilty for a reason I can’t pinpoint, I last a few more minutes at the beach and dash back home. Since I figure my parents are still sleeping, I quietly slip back into the house. Surprised to hear a hushed conversation, I follow the sound of my parents’ voices to the back porch. They’re probably sipping cups of coffee, debating my career options, waiting for the house to awaken. As I approach, though, the tension in my father’s tone stops me dead in my tracks.

“Elizabeth,” he hisses, clearly restraining himself. “I can’t fucking do this anymore. I’m done.”

“John, please,” my mother whispers, her voice breaking. “You’re never here. You leave me in the house all day and now that Emily is gone…”

I know that I’m eavesdropping, trespassing, but I can’t help myself. I can’t seem to shift my feet, either forward or backward.

There is a loud bang, as if Dad pounded his fist against the wall. “I have to work! How do you think we can afford Emily’s tuition and your painting or whatever the hell it is you do?”

“This isn’t what I wanted!” Mom is sobbing now.

“Fuck.” He draws in a breath sharply. When he speaks again, his voice is softer but resolute. “I want a divor—.”

Before he utters the last syllable, I hear someone emit a sound that is on the spectrum between a gasp and a choke. Thinking that another intruder stumbled upon this private exchange, I search the room for him. Only when I look up and see that both of my parents are standing in front of me with stricken faces do I realize that the noise came from me. My father shakes his head. “Emily, I’m so…”

What? Sorry? I tremble, “What the hell is going on?”

“Why don’t you ask your mother?” he says bitterly, and brushes past me on his way out the Blue Jay.

Mom’s slouched shoulders and hand on her forehead signal that she expects me to comfort her, but I stay rooted to the ground. I pin her down with accusing eyes. “Mother?”

“Emily,” she croaks. “I don’t expect you to understand or to forgive me.”

Suddenly, the dam breaks and I’m inundated with violent desires. “Oh, please. Stop making excuses for yourself and tell the goddamned truth for once.”

She winces, but continues as if I said nothing. “I’ve fallen in love. I love a man who isn’t your father.”

“Splendid,” I seethe. “Did you fuck him, Mom?”

My mother sniffles, appearing to shrink before me. “Yes, I slept with him.”

“I hope you rot in hell with him,” I spit. “Because god knows you won’t see any of us again. Daddy is right to leave you.”

At this, I am ready to run as far as I can away from that self-righteous, sick woman, but the words keep ejecting from my mouth. “How could you have lectured me every fucking day on having dignity, not compromising myself with Eric? I know why you hate him now, mother. Because you will never have what I have with him!”

Now, I race outside and am met with a sheet of penetrating water pellets. Without my coat, I’m soaked to the bone within seconds and the cold is painful, but I don’t care. It’s raining so hard I can barely see where I’m going. I hear my father call my name from somewhere, probably the car, but I don’t stop. I keep running until I’m at the door of the only person I know in this town.

I knock thrice on the door of Robert Harrison.

Before I know it, I’m face to face with him and I have no idea what to say. Thankfully, he takes one look at me and lets me in without a word. He leads me into the kitchen and tells me to sit at the counter. After a few minutes, he comes back with a towel, which he drapes gently over my shoulders. It’s still damp and smells of him—clean and crisp with a woody undertone. Comprehending that I’m still not able to speak, he fumbles through a few cabinets and finds a teapot, which he fills with water and sets on the stove.

After it boils, he fills a cracked mug and presents it to me. “Sorry, I don’t think there’s any tea or coffee in here that’s not prehistoric.”

I take a sip. “It’s okay.”

He pours himself a cup and pulls up a stool next to mine, just far enough so that our knees aren’t touching. I warm my hands along the ceramic of the mug and the chattering of my teeth eases.

We sit together in silence until I ask, “Do you think I could use your phone?”

He motions towards the wall near the pantry. “Help yourself.”

I slide down from the stool and drip my way over to the phone. With a slight hesitation, I pick up the receiver and dial. The first call goes to voicemail. Embarrassed, I glance over at Robert, but he doesn’t seem to notice. I dial again, praying for a response. Finally, he picks up.

Allô?” he answers groggily. I have to smile—you know he’s tired when he forgets to use English.

“Eric? It’s me.”

“Babe? What is the hour?” I hear him rolling in bed and reaching for his glasses. “Mon dieu, why are you up so early? I was planning to sleep late. Got the worst headache, merde.”

“You went out last night?” I try to keep the concern and anger out of my voice, noting Robert’s presence a few feet away. As if reading my mind, he gets up and retreats to the living room. I prompt more harshly, “How much did you have to drink?”

“Oh, don’t worry, Em. I only had one or two beers at the bar. I’m fine. I have a headache just because I slept too late last night.” He sounds convincing. Then again, he’s always been that.

“Okay,” I concede. “Eric, I need to talk. Something horrible has happened.”

“What?” More rustles. “What is the matter?”

“My parents…” I begin, and then dissolve into tears. Step by step, I explain to him what I overheard this morning and what I ended up saying to my mother.

“Shit.” He sighs. “Emily, you can’t say those things to your mom. You don’t know everything. There are two sides to every story.”

I can’t be hearing things right. “What did you just say? Did you understand anything I told you? My mother’s a fucking cheater! She’s a fucking piece of shit.”

“Emily, be calm. Okay? Think about this. Think with ration.” He is struggling to find the right words.

I’m really losing it. The image of my mother, all holier-than-thou, on top of another man sears my memory. “Stop! Stop it. How can you defend her? Do you think it’s okay what she did? You would do that to me?”

“Baby, chérie, come on. I’m only trying to help. I do my best. Look, everything will be okay. You cannot do anything, so just think rationally. You’re at home now, no?”

“Um, not really.” I don’t know how I’m going to explain this.

“Oh? Then where are you?” He sounds worried. “Are you safe?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I went over to a neighbor’s house,” I murmur uncomfortably.

He pauses. “I didn’t realize you knew anyone there. A girlfriend?”

“No,” I say. I’m so sick of lying I don’t even try to make this sound better. “I’m at Robert’s place. I met him on the beach this morning.”

I know I’ve hurt him, or at least surprised him. He recoils. “What? You met this man and now you’re at his home? Wow, you are trying to be your mother now?”

His words are a slap in the face and it stings even more because of the previous guilt I felt. He’s not entirely wrong, and that’s what hurts the most. And so I do what I always do when I feel pain—I flee.

“Fuck you,” I say through my teeth and hang up.

Sliding down to the tile floor, I hug my knees to my chest and begin to cry. I don’t notice him beside me until he places a firm hand on my shoulder. Subconsciously, I lean in towards him and allow him to take me into his arms. I breathe him in and notice that it’s familiar—not familiar because I smelled it on his towel before, but familiar like I always knew his scent.  As my heaves decrease in intensity, he takes a finger and brushes the hair out of my eyes. With his palm, he wipes the tears from my cheeks and ends up using the sleeves of his shirt too. I tip my chin up to meet his gaze and notice that his eyes are also wet. Once again, I am shocked and chilled to the bone by the implicit understanding the passes through our mutual stare. Never before, with anyone have I felt so completely known. We lean in closer to each other, eventually closing our eyes as our lips meet and the sensation burns through our skin.

We kiss passionately and hungrily like we could never have enough, as if we were mutes speaking for the first time. By the time we break away, we are both gasping for air and he has my back pinned against a cupboard. Realizing what he’s done, he drops his hands from my face and draws back. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have.”

To this, I reply, “You’ve said sorry to me before. I’m so sick of people apologizing to me.”

And I find his lips with mine again, running my hands through his coarse hair and letting him search the contours of my body with his. With a powerful grasp, he lifts me and carries me in his arms up the stairs and to his bedroom. We fall onto the mattress together, clawing at each other’s clothes. His come off more easily than mine, as my nightgown and undergarments are still wet. He doesn’t mind, though, and takes the time to undo the buttons of my gown. Lifting it over my head, he then sets it over the back of a chair to dry. He does the same with my bra and panties. Both of us now stark naked, I lie down on my back and wait for him to come to me. Even in the dim lighting, I can see the outline of his abdominal muscles, the broadness of his shoulders, the calluses of his hands.

He arches over me and caresses the right side of my face. “God, you’re beautiful. Anyone ever tell you that?”

When I try to answer him, he places a finger over my lips to hush me. Then he shifts his hand down to the curve of my breast. As his hand slides further down, he kisses me full on the mouth and lights a flame within me. I moan in anticipation, but he makes me wait, choosing to cover my collarbone and stomach with his kisses. At long last, he pulls me close to him and enters me. As he makes love to me, I am in awe and wonder that he can make me feel so absolutely whole, so completely right. All I know is that no matter what happens after this moment, this stolen time belonging solely to me and him, this will have been worth it because I will never again know such bliss.

•••

In the 16 years since then, I’ve never again seen or heard from Robert Harrison. In a way, I’m glad because sometimes I feel like that day was unique, magical, the stars had aligned, whichever cliché and overused term one can conjure. And all other days, if I ran into Robert Harrison again, it wouldn’t be the same. After all, there is nothing more heartbreaking than attempting to board a ship that has sailed.

Sometimes, what happened that morning feels like a dream. It couldn’t possibly have happened, could it? Every now and then, when prompted by a certain cologne, I can remember his smell and his taste. Most days, I can barely recall Robert’s face as I saw it then. I’m married to Eric now, with three beautiful children whom I wouldn’t trade for anything. Although I’ve never told my husband about Robert, I have been faithful to Eric since, barely tempted to wander from his loving arms.

On days like today, though, when I put the kids to bed and then make love to my husband, I am filled with an emptiness so raw and painful I am sick to my stomach. It is the emptiness of someone who has seen light only to live in darkness evermore.

Tonight, I am convinced that the winter of ’96 was my swan song, the zenith of my life, of which heights my later years will always fall short. Tonight, I believe that after Robert, the part of me that sang for him ceased to exist. Like the Mute Swan who gave the most beautiful part of herself upon death, I gave the most essential cornerstone of my being to one Robert Harrison. If what’s left of me is worth the label of alive, that is not for me to decide.

•••

© 2013 Rebecca Cao. All rights reserved.

•••

Life in 10 Years

In a decade, this painting will have launched my long and illustrious artistic career.

In a decade, this painting will have launched my long and illustrious artistic career.

Preface

The universe seems to be telling me something. First, I went and wrote this blog post about all the things I want before I’m 30 years old. Then, when I sat down with my Tall Iced Caramel Macchiato at Barnes and Noble this morning, the first book I happened to read was titled Adulting. I’ll admit I was a little skeptical when I opened it, expecting a lot of flowery bullshit like “Find your inner peace through mindfulness”, “You are in charge of your own happiness”, and “Don’t be afraid to take risks”. Instead, through Kelly Williams Brown’s no-nonsense voice, I discovered very practical advice that I never knew I needed. Apparently, sinks need to be bleached, I’ve been washing my dishes wrong, and I don’t launder my sheets nearly as often as I should. I shudder to think of what else I’m doing wrong.

After flipping through the book, I started wondering how I could ever achieve adulthood, if that meant doing all 468 steps that the book suggested. Good God, it would be a miracle if I could just start flossing. But then…a lot of things change in 10 years, right? Ten years ago from today, I was an 11-year-old eagerly awaiting the first day of middle school. Clearly, I didn’t know shit then. The only thing I could cook was, what, scrambled eggs? So, maybe (just maybe), I could be a full-grown adult in 10 years. If everything goes really, really well, this might be my life in a decade.

Fast Forward 3650 Days

I’m awake an instant before he paws my right jaw and lands a lick somewhere between my eye and my nose. I know it’s Blitz, our five-year-old Husky, because of his weight. The summertime heat in Pennsylvania has kept Blitz mostly indoors and he’s gained a pound too many off his high-protein, fresh meals I cooked daily. On the other hand, our six-year-old rescue greyhound Quinn seemed to never gain weight no matter what I did. Rolling out of bed, I try not to wake Phineas. After four years of marriage, I’ve realized that it’s better to let him sleep in. Tiptoeing past the nursery (there will be even more hell if I wake the youngsters), I grab Blitz and Quinn’s leashes and head out the front door.

By the time I’m back, Papa Phineas has not-so-gracefully roused Sebastian and Clementine, who are three and two respectively. While I take over breakfast duty, which consists of me insisting that they feed themselves, Phineas goes to take a shower and get dressed for work. When he finishes, he offers to drop off the kids at daycare, since I’m running late anyway. In the shower, I rinse off the run from my fit body, the result of daily workout sessions with my personal trainer. I take note that I need to pay the daycare bill soon, which always takes a chunk out of my paycheck. The damn place is a money sucker, but it’s worth every penny, since they are teaching my children the Mandarin I cannot.

With that, I hop in my BMW X1 (which runs on hydrogen) and drive myself to the station. A half-hour on the cross-continental high-speed train later, I’ve arrived in New York City. The Big Apple. I flash my badge and enter the United Nations building. My secretary greets me before I get to my desk and informs me that the Secretary-General would like to see me immediately. That’s fantastic. I head to the Secretary-General’s office and tell him again that there are no legal loopholes in the UN charter that will allow us to “nuke the hell out of Pyongyang”. Instead, he should focus his efforts on getting China on board with military action. These days, anything has to be approved by the Chinese.

In the afternoon, I take the rail again to Washington DC and head straight to the Department of State. I demand to see Huma Abedin, who is now Secretary of State and has long since abandoned her Weiner of an ex-husband. I need to know by the end of the day if the US is going to vote for military action against North Korea at the next security council meeting. She hems and haws like a good diplomat and tells me she will call again before the day is over. I know that means around 3:00 am. There goes my good night’s sleep.

After leaving the Hill, I return to New York to sit in on the executive council meeting, which nearly bores me to tears. I finish up some paperwork and get out of the office by 6:00 pm. Taking one of the UN vehicles, I swing by my agent’s office on W. 24 Street. She informs me that I’ve topped the New York Times bestsellers list with my newest novel, a thriller about a diplomat who is torn between her country and her lover. I tell her that I’m weeks from finishing up the sequel — just need to add some finishing touches.

Another half-hour later, I’m home and our personal chef has prepared an all-natural, organic, GMO-free, and gluten-free meal for us. My intellectually precocious children tell us about everything they learned in school. Apparently, they know every province and capital of China by heart. I guess that’s…important? After dinner, they start their homework without being told. I peek over their shoulder, awed that they are more literate in Chinese than me.

Flipping open my laptop, I check my online Etsy store. My paintings have not been selling as well as I would like, and I’m considering doing another exhibition or getting my best friend Ainsley’s gallery to show my works. On cue, she calls me to ask if Phineas and I are free to attend a gala for painters in the New York area this upcoming weekend. She insists that I come, since many famous faces are rumored to attend. Laughing, I agree, knowing that Phineas will happily oblige for access to free wine and cheese. Ainsley suggests that I wear white, since Labor Day is just around the corner.

At last, I’ve finished my work for the day. After putting the kids to bed, Phineas and I head to the dark room, the one from which all others are forbidden. We call it the Forbidden City. It’s 9:00 pm and three others are other waiting for us. Together, we form the PGC, the Prehistoric Gamers’ Coalition, a professional League of Legends team that has held the World Championship title for three consecutive years. We practice nightly when it’s championship season — regionals are being held the following weekend and we will be ready. After winning two games and recording a live Q&A with our millions of fans, we retire from the Forbidden City.

At exactly 10:30 pm, I fall asleep, exhausted and satisfied. Phineas will join me in an hour or two.

Back to Present

Why does this life sound so terrible? God, I want to be a kid for eternity now.

Letter to the Boyfriend

Us two years ago.

Us two years ago, on the way to Chicago.

My very dear and cherished Phineas,

Throughout this blog, I haven’t written much on our relationship. Partially because I didn’t want to be that girl who talks incessantly about her perfect relationship with her knight in shining armor. Partially because I respected your privacy and the fact that you didn’t want me to start this blog in the first place. Mostly because I had no idea what to write. You see, when I met you, I thought I had the girlfriend thing down. I’d already sustained a previous long term relationship in which I knit him sweater vests, baked him cookies, and wrote him snail mail. By the time we broke up, I thought I knew all about love and pain. Boy, was I wrong.

It’s been two and a half years and I’m just learning how to love someone. How to love you. I don’t think humans are born knowing how to love. They are born with an immense capacity for love, but someone still has to teach them. Most babies learn from their parents how to love unconditionally, fearlessly, hopelessly. Though my parents have shown me an incredible amount of love, I grew up not feeling loved. I grew up full of fear and dashed hopes. I learned to love conditionally, because those that are closest to you can use your love in the most twisted ways. I learned that someone I was supposed to trust could betray me in the blink of an eye. In short, I didn’t learn how to love properly.

So, of course, I was really bad at loving you. I lay out conditions, figuratively and literally. I ran away from you when I couldn’t stand losing you. I tried to destroy myself instead of letting my love for you destroy me. When I told you point blank that I didn’t love you, you were the one who believed I did. When I didn’t love myself, you were the one who stepped in. When I told you horrible things and did horrible things to you in order to push you away, you always came back for me. Many would say that I was unfair to you, that you should have left me long ago, that you didn’t deserve my bullshit. And they would be right. But this is love we’re talking about — all is fair in love and war. In love, you can’t keep score. Nobody really deserves anyone else’s love. Because we’re all fucked up and anytime we can find someone who will take us, it’s a damn miracle.

You’ve loved me, so wholly and unconditionally, that I am ashamed for the times I disrespected you. The times I left you. The times I hated you. You’re the first person to show me that I could love myself unconditionally. That I could fail my classes, never publish a book, be rejected from law school, etc. and that wouldn’t diminish my worth one bit. What a novel concept. You’re the first person to teach me that life is about more than success, wealth, achievement. That none of that matters without happiness. You’re the first person to worry that I might be the saddest person on earth.

Us this past weekend, on a getaway to Mackinac Island.

Us this past weekend, on a getaway to Mackinac Island.

Thank you for every day we’ve spent together. Even now, well past our “honeymoon” phase, seeing you makes my day. We always joke about how I act like a puppy, and it’s true. I wait for you to come home to me, and I never fail to jump up and down out of excitement. A dog is a man’s best friend, but a man is a dog’s best friend as well. Just as long as you’re around, I feel that I might be able to conquer this thing called life. Life ain’t pretty, but somehow when life gets the ugliest, our love seems the most beautiful.

Here’s cheers to this roller coaster relationship. I swear to god that I don’t intentionally cause so much drama. But maybe I subconsciously feel the need to make up for the fact that I can’t ride real roller coasters. Though you might have a full head of white hair (sexy silver fox!) by the time you hit 30, at least you’ll be entertained well into your 80s. Well, maybe 60s if you don’t cut down on your salt and sugar intake. Oh, are you flossing your teeth now? You know how it gives you three years more life, right? Anyway, getting off topic. I truly hope we have many more years of happiness to come. Even if life tears us apart — can’t fight fate — I’ll never forget our time together. Nobody will ever know me like you have. Maybe that’s a fortunate thing.

Until tomorrow,

R