The summer we turned twenty-two, you and I would go to Europe, but at separate times. I would go with my conservative Christian parents and rebellious, aloof sister on a short vacation, and you were to go as an au pair in August, to leave everyone behind: your mother and angry stepfather, your boyfriend Deon, your dog, me. Ten months teaching English to two children six miles outside of Paris, selling your furniture, streamlining your wardrobe—remember you read a blog on how to cut it down to twelve outfits?—learning French. If that doesn’t fix a person, doesn’t force them to find out who they want to be, what can? I went out of the country. Couldn’t find myself within a thousand mile radius. When I know how much of you is here, how many leftovers from high school, from four years of college. I’m here, and I’m part of you.
Of course, this isn’t a letter of anger about your leaving; it’s a letter of change. Our generation is getting married too soon, and we know better. We change better than everyone else. We’ll find ourselves better. As though at the beginning of time God had sorted us into baskets, those with ambition, who have interests like yoga, or photography, or scrapbooking, with the will to order, and those who are careless, who settle for community college, who don’t put away dishes or clean out their inboxes. In one basket, those girls who don’t get married before twenty-two. In the other, those who never leave our hometown. Those who do.
I came down to Austin to drink wine with you and Deon on the fourth of July. I wasn’t supposed to drink, I know that. Two glasses, and I’m dizzy and numb in the heat. Then, a Dos Equis, a cosmo, a gin cocktail. Better not have said anything I regretted. Better not start joking about drinking. When did I start drinking? There was no alcohol in my house until I was fifteen, when Daddy started drinking Heineken to lower his cholesterol. Not like yours, I know. Not like your real father who only sends money and forgets every birthday.
There’s a lot I’d tell you, if I thought you’d listen, if I weren’t hiding behind making fun of myself for being a lightweight, to fit in with other young people. I’d tell you that secretly I am reading books, trying to be the Christian my parents think I am. I’d tell you I cannot be both young and Christian. I’d tell you it might be easier for me once you’ve left for Paris. I’d tell you nothing in this natural world or lifetime is going to make me happy. Not staying here and getting married, not going to Europe. Yes, I will go with my family, take pictures of old doors and stones, pretend with my sister we live in castles on the hills, like we used to with our dolls. In Paris, I will see the future ghost of you, a month ahead of me, strolling by store windows on the weekends, making friends more posh than I was destined to be. If changing locations is the key, most of the world is doomed to live in unhappiness, I’d tell you. I’d tell you, I think you will be lonely, but what do I know about freedom, about rebirth, about fathers?
I badly want rebirth, but my father is in the way of my burgeoning Christianity. I recently wrote him a letter much longer than this, a 137-page memoir about our nuclear family’s chronic conservative Christianity and need to control and his pastorship and my sheltered childhood, about why my rebellious, aloof sister is incorrigible and scared of loving men, about why we don’t speak. You read it. You know that’s what I did with my four-year college degree. I left that long letter in his hands, and if he’s read it, he has not said so. Not so much as a word.
I feel like a kid at the top of a treehouse, calling into a tin can, down a line, and I ring so sure of myself, so clear and so true, but when I press my ear against the can to feel the vibrations of response, I hear nothing. I don’t hear my father, and when I look down, he isn’t there—or maybe he is, but he’s mowing the lawn or kicking the sallow grass at the tree’s base. He waves, walks back inside. He has again confirmed my fears about God. That I will look out one day, and there will be no one who had listened to me.
When the Paris plans fell through and your visa wasn’t accepted, I don’t think you expected that the universe disallowed you the change. You don’t believe in God like I do, no matter how far away and silent he is. When my father and I walked European streets and sampled beers and wines, I expected we could chat, that I could open up and he could open up and we’d heal over the wound of that entire letter I’d written him. He’d say, at least, we could have done some things differently, that I was right about the kind of love we should have shown to others, how we were snotty, near-bigots and could have stood to communicate more. That’s all I wanted. But it’s like I told us. Location changes nothing deep. Not even Paris.
In September, you moved back in with your parents two blocks from my home, where I live with my parents. At twenty-two, who knew? Now, we needed gym memberships, nights out of the house, full-time work or school to maintain our self-esteem, therapists and anxiety workbooks to help us cope with our return to dependence.
At least your neighbors were entertaining. We called them the desperate housewives of Briartree Dr. I should not have been surprised you found a way to be included in it, to involve yourself in others’ lives in ways I cannot. Had wine with Linda when she was kicking out the cheating husband she had just let move back in. When she did it, all of his furniture had already been moved back into the living room, his flat screen hooked up. Their kids were little. I don’t know what to say when you tell me these things. I have no experience with broken homes. All of my feedback sounds like judgment.
“You should let me clean your headlights, ” your angry step-father, Big D, said to me one night. My car had 170, 000 miles on it. A thick fog had caked onto its headlights. When he said this, it was one of his better evenings—the kind of night he tries to be like a neighborhood dad— but it was ruined by Amy’s husband Mike from down the street, who was over at your house, half-drunk on six Miller Lights. He looked at my chest, squinted his eyes behind his glasses, tipped his bottle forward.
“I don’t see anything wrong with her headlights.”
He burst out laughing.
“Mike,” said Amy. She was at your house, too, newly pregnant.
“What?” he said. “I don’t see anything wrong with her headlights.”
He continued laughing, his eyes still pinched, his head rolled back.
“Wow,” I said, and zipped up my jacket, trying to be light-hearted, trying to pretend he hadn’t embarrassed his wife or me, like I didn’t feel guilty or that I had brought it on myself (Was my shirt low cut? Was my skirt too short, like my 6th grade private school teacher would have blamed it on? Like my father on Sundays when I was fourteen?), or how this would have never happened in my home, and how am I ever going to make it in the cruel world if I can’t handle one comment by one half-drunk man?
Big D on his good day did not defend me. Maybe he remembered a conversation we had, in which I called him abrasive, my apparently upper-level 5$ vocabulary word. He asked me what I thought about him and why could I not level with him. Why couldn’t he be my neighborhood dad? And I told him. He is abrasive.
Then, “What happened to the nice little Christian girl who used to come over here in high school? Now you’re calling me abrasive. Fuck you!”
I had to sigh, had to hold my tongue. It hurt me; it scared me. I can only say it simply. I don’t know what to do with that stupid, mocking look on his face, even though I could have told him I could instantly have seven large men, bikers, called the Servants of the Lord, from my church hunt him down and bury his body in a remote corner of Lake Lewisville. I could summon an army. I could have told him how he just proved my point.
You didn’t say anything to defend me, even though you were sitting there each time, with Mike and Big D. You just looked at me, to see how I would react. Had I changed since high school? Was I still meek, still scared? What kind of Christian was still in me? I do not blame you, really. What would I have done? In any case, by this time, you are a mess because you have left Deon, afraid he is not ambitious enough for you, that he does not have enough interests, that you wouldn’t have withstood Paris even if you had gone, afraid you would have to mother him for the rest of your life. That he’d let you.
That fall, there was a war in my body. Christianity was doing it to me. I’d wake up in the morning remembering that all I do should count for the eternal, that in 100 years those living to judge me—including you, including your step-father—would be dead. I would be dead, and what was I doing with my life living at home in order to pay for graduate school, finding the right nook and cranny in the abyss that is professional English to angle my work into, work that 98% of the world would not read or understand—masculinity this, feminism that, ahem, no I am really more of a 19th century Americanist, and yes, in fact, I am familiar with these thirty-seven writers and how their work informs my…, conference papers and schmoozing with more people, some as abrasive as Big D in one way or another, who found ways to angle their work into the right nook and cranny and stand on top. I attributed it to God that I made it in, all while not knowing why. I thought He was trying to kill me again, this time with anxiety and self-doubt. I thought, I should be feeding homeless, giving blood, affecting someone directly every day.
You did things like learn to cook new meals. You still do. You look into the prices of wedding floral arrangements, of good French bistros. You are educated on the best makeup, especially eyeliners. There’s an 18$ one you like from Ulta. I wouldn’t know what to do with that. I’d end up dropping it in the toilet. I don’t know what to do when we’re shopping for nail polish together and you open the bottles to swipe a bit on each finger, deciding which color you want to buy, which looks more peach, more coral, more dazzling beside your tan skin. Loving you does not prevent my cringing. What if they saw you? Don’t you know that’s stealing?
I really wish you’d gone to Paris.
That Christmas, the summer after you and I turned twenty-two, two people died. First, my best friend from middle school, a short and bright Iranian girl with frizzy hair and large lips, Sahra, S-a-h-r-a, so beautifully spelled, was shot by her uncle on Christmas morning in a Grapevine apartment. He came over dressed as Santa, said her final text message to her boyfriend, said the news. While the family began opening presents he gunned Sahra down, along with her mother, and father and aunt, who was divorcing him. Then, he shot himself. He couldn’t live with that shame. The news called it, “Grapevine Christmas Massacre.” A massacre. My friend, who was my friend when no one else would be, was shot in a massacre. All I could think about for days after is how she and I did a project in our 8th grade U.S. history class called, “Look Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Sahra and I made a trifold poster with glued-on pictures of famous people, dead or alive, whom we’d like to invite to dinner.
Michael, my boyfriend’s uncle, was the second death. He was an Aggie, a round man with a shiny, red nose, an infectious smile, and a King of the Hill intonation to his voice. His 8-year-old son, Bobby, was adopted from Kazakhstan a few years ago, and had a Christmas play the night that he died. Uncle Michael suffered from seizures and felt one coming on the night of the play. To not embarrass his son, he stayed home and in bed, but when he got up for the bathroom he seized, fell to the tile floor and against the wall in such a way that his neck was pushed up against his chest. He suffocated before his wife found him.
Rightfully, you wonder about death, about the permanence of life and love. Rightfully, you ask why massacres and seizures happen on Christmas to bright Iranian girls and good men who take in orphans. But why you thought Paris could give you any indication of the meaning of your life, why you chase after nail polish and ambitious men, neglecting that you, too, can die, I don’t know. I do know I could help you understand, if I were only brave enough.
You know that bad things have happened to me, too: at 19, I had a stroke. I can’t feel the right side of my body or hot and cold as well I could before 19. They found an aneurysm behind my left eye and a pocket of blood in my brain that can’t be operated on because it is too deep, too close to the part of my brain that manages language and memory, the only parts of me that matter to me. If the blood spot grows, I am doomed. Sometimes I get nauseous and my speech slurs. I get numbness and tingling down my right arm and leg, in my face. My blood spot is affected by alcohol, stress, and lack of adequate sleep, a graduate student’s dream.
But—I did not die at 19; I had not died of the following depression. I did not take my life, despite the heavy hand of God, forcing me to face him. It had taken me years, but I had turned it around. That’s the part that you know, but you don’t know how I did it: I started reading those Christian books, absorbing the stories of father Abraham and Job, listening to sermon podcasts on my cold knees every morning, rocking back and forth with a cup of coffee. I found a different peace in that. I thought God had finally found me like my father could not, after years of a blind and weak faith. But, I told you it was “quiet time,” some weekly trips to the on-campus counselor, meditation on the fact that “things would be okay” and “everything happens for a reason.”
That Christmas, I knew it was cowardly to not tell you how I had not died.
By February, you were becoming someone I did not know. You started going out all night, to bars in our hometown no less, with a girl from high school that was and is my opposite, wearing shorter things and flirting with drunk men. I won’t pretend I haven’t done this, too, but I was scared at the rapid changes. You found another friend, loud and opinionated, not unlike yourself. Before I knew it, you were calling me “girl” and “boo” and “baby,” neglecting punctuation in your text messages, offering me a collection of essays by women writing on sex you figured I wasn’t getting with my boyfriend to pique my interest in breaking up with him and explore like you did. No, maybe that is not why you did it, but I know you wanted something we could both relate to again.
Now I am being judgmental, cruel, sarcastic—this is not who I am, I am sorry, I am sorry— but I would like to insist this is not who we were. You told me that after Deon, the “domestic” you was over. Staying home was not living. But this was not just the opposite of staying home; this was the opposite of our deep-thinking, our self-control, our sense of commitment to those we love had bonded us. Now my commitment to my boyfriend scares you. You and your new friend tell me five years is the death knell.
When I finally went out to a bar with you, I almost could not show you the ring. You had ordered some white wine, and I had Merlot. As our feet swung down off the barstools, I suddenly grew sleepy, heavy with all of this time you’d spent with others. The televisions roared dully in the background. Now that it was me out with you, I had nothing to say, nothing besides that I couldn’t wait to get married, have a girl and name her Eloise, and I was a Christian, you’re not going to be happy if you’re out searching for happiness with those girls you call boo and baby, and what were you going to do about it?
Why I chose then, I don’t know. I guess I was excited. My mother had offered me my great-grandmother’s wedding band, and I took several pictures on my phone to show my boyfriend.
“Okay, I don’t want to scare you,” I said. I scrolled through to pictures of a tiny diamond, nestled into four squares of silver and mounted on a gold band. I held it down where you could see. “But look.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” you said. “What is this?”
“It’s my great-grandmother’s. Mom said I could have it.”
“Katy, he’s so young. You’re young. We’re young,” you said, as though I didn’t know that.
“But it’s right. I know that it is.”
“Don’t you think he’s the least bit curious about other women?”
“Why should he need to be?”
“I don’t know; it just seems a little early to settle. How do you know what’s going to make you happy?”
“You don’t understand. It’s not right because I’m happy. I’m happy because I know it’s right.”
And you know that I said these things, as our legs swung limply and we drained our glasses. But you do not know how much more I was trying to say.
Later in the spring, you and I stood on my grandparents’ grave. You had come to the First Baptist Church for the service, and instead of mourning my grandfather, I mourned for the moment in high school you told me not to pray for you anymore because it belittled you. You found it condescending that I should worry about your soul. You’d rather go to hell than live with the restraint I do. And when the other girls found out, I was asked pointedly, Doesn’t it bother you she’s not a Christian?, but I said no, that I loved you. That they’d even ask that made them different from you and me. I could not leave you, cannot leave you. You have not left me, knowing where I stand after eight years. Instead of thinking about my grandfather, I watched you take in the sermon, considering there were not the same blessings in your life that would lead you to believe what I believe, and it might as well have been me with the thrice-divorced mother, the plans for Paris, the 18$ Ulta eyeliner.
I pointed out the gravestone to you and how beautiful the inscription was, as far as gravestones go—Bob and Sandi with the hearts inter-locking and connected by a ring. The wedding anniversary date indicated they had been married 41 years. I was sweaty from all the crying. It was hot wearing our black sweaters in Texas spring, uncomfortable with our heels sinking into the ground, but you hugged me closely and spoke through a sob into my hair, “I want someone to love me like that.” We haven’t been serious like this in a long time.
“Someone does,” I said. “Someone will.”
I have been promised that I will find God if I seek Him with all of my heart. What is all of my heart? And where is the courage to tell you so? Is it like how hard I slam down the hammer at a carnival? The bell at the top will ring, and the meter will tell me it is all of my heart. Where is Paris? How old is twenty-two?
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF MARCUS COOPER