“There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.” –Leonard Cohen
This is the header of my new website, which is password protected, just so you know. In it is the story of everything that happened during the summer before my junior year up until now, including the locations of Luis and his cousin, so not just everyone can have access.
Here’s the thing: I never inserted that quote that appears at the top of this page–or the photo, taken from inside our car. I didn’t even know who Leonard Cohen was before I looked him up. Header photo and quote–both just appeared. Lenna swears she never put that on the site, and she’s never lied to me. No reason to.
I realize that someone or something could have hacked the site, but I’ve left everything exactly as altered because it’s part of the story, a story with mysteries you might find hard to believe, but all of this happened, starting with my website during sophomore year. Below is a screenshot of what it looked like then, and still does. But that site’s a decoy.
Only a few people have the password to the new postings–like Lenna, Maya, Everett–and well, you. It’s on the back cover of this book. Almost everyone else, including my dad, has no idea the the Leonard Cohen website exists; they think I still have the old one, which I used to revisit occasionally to throw them off-track.
Ben Starr and I have known each other since our parents met when we were in elementary school. He’s incredibly smart, so not many people understand him or know the real Bennett Starr. They think he’s just a funny, quirky physics kid, but he’s the kind of person you can be honest with, and that kind of friend is rare. Over the past year, as I grew close to Ben and his mom, I began align the pieces from all sides. Most of this I took from Ben’s website, and some I learned from what he or his mom told me. The final pieces emerged from a notebook I found in the car–the infamous yellow VW–right before I left for college. Ella, Ben’s mom, said I could take the notes with me…and I have.
Ms. Starr (now Alton) never crossed any boundaries to make me feel burdened by what I’d come to know about the family. She’s like a second mom–with a good sense of what’s appropriate, and I respect her for that. But anyway, the story does come together; three perspectives form the whole. I admit up front that I’ve taken a few liberties with quotes and all, but most of this happened exactly as it falls together on the page.
Last Wednesday I lost my son–William Barrett Starr, who was stillborn. I am a 40-year-old who is terrified now of losing everything, especially my other child, Ben.
I am fragile, like parchment. I grow more introverted and alone as my husband moves into a mental space where I cannot follow, even if I wanted to. And I do not.
“Elle,” he says, “we’ve been here before, and we survived. You will move on.”
But I am broken, and I don’t know where to go.
I dread the holidays. I am clear that I need to be there for Ben, who is my heart, who is still with me, but I sink lower and lower as others gear up for celebrations that seem empty.
After a miscarriage a dozen years ago, I went to this palm reader and mystic in Florida who said, ‘Your purpose is clear: You will be a mother to many, a teacher and creator. Be open to what the universe is telling you.’ I wrote it down, exactly as she said it, and I almost believed her because the counselor I had been seeing had convinced me that mysteries abound and saints and mystics are often one and the same. Even my father, a retired Episcopal priest, believes that.
But I don’t believe anything with any clarity. I continue to try to make something out of nothing and find myself teaching people I rarely meet, instructing online, carrying the grading everywhere I go like a burden I can never set down.
I am a wife whose name, Elle Starr, doesn’t even sound like who I am.
I am mother to one especially gifted son. Only one. Not a mother to many.
A little background: By the time my hair was long enough to cut at the barbershop, it was orange as a tangerine Jelly Belly, and Bennett had morphed into Ben and then Bean, so my fate was set, my net was cast, and all the other trite expressions you can name that meant I wasn’t going to get out from under the nickname, at least as far as my mother was concerned. Bean it was.
By middle school, my orange-red hair spiked out all over my head, and I wore thickish glasses…a result, I imagine, of years of reading everything in sight—books, comics, monitors of all shapes and sizes—probably, as my mom said, “in inadequate lighting.”
I remain forever in debt to my FBF, former best friend, Sam, who saw to it that everybody at Claycreek Middle knew me simply as Ben, not Bean, and I owe something to my superficial sense of humor, which usually saved me, despite my quirky appearance. I still thought I had a shot, if not at fame, at least at normalcy.
Let me admit up front that my tragic flaw is, underneath it all, I’m way too serious. I’ve tried to correct my academic curiosity and weird demeanor by developing an off-hand attitude that sometimes passes for clever, but it’s mostly a ruse. For example, my first website in eighth grade was a “cosmic quest,” and kids could answer questions and advance to different levels on the site, but, overall, I was just showing off a technological skill that I don’t value much anymore.
By the time we entered high school, Sam kept saying, “You’re the man, Bennett Starr” in this wacky, Saturday Night Live voice, and “You’re the smartest kid in class. Lenna McNair waits every Sunday for posts on your website. No kidding. If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’.”
True, Lenna McNair is inspiring. She’s two years older than I am. At first, when she would text me, I’d take blurry screen shots and save them in a folder marked Chemistry Formulas so no one would mess with them. I keep everything important on my phone or my computer, but my filing system’s a mess.
I never advertised the site, Posts to the Universe, but some kids read the craziness anyway. Usually I wrote about cosmic mysteries or physics theories, with jokes and gossip interspersed, and I admit, some things were pretty funny. “High-larious” Sam said. My mom turned the praise-volume down to “quite entertaining”…but all of that was before William.
After William, I quit posting on my old website and wrote posts mostly for myself on the hidden site. Things I didn’t understand became a lot more personal, and believe me, not much was funny anymore.
First Post to the Universe, after William:
Jan. 1, 2017
Dear Whatever’s Out There:
Just so you know, if you don’t already, my mother is like some over-the-top fictional character, and she was like that even before William was born—or not born, depending on how you look at it.
She’d float around the house in maxi-dresses that let her “breathe,” as she put it, wearing some variation of big hoop earrings. During the long autumn afternoons of my sophomore year in high school, I remember her compulsively writing in her study or on the sunporch, wrapped in layers to conceal her William weight, until everyone in the house, which at that time included my dad and me, was starving. Here she is during the worst of times when she didn’t care how she looked and didn’t even notice I was taking this photo.
Usually, during that time, we’d pack up our books and computers and head to Starbucks or somewhere we could eat and finish our work. For my dad, that was some incomprehensible spread sheet, and for mom it was an article for a local magazine–or responses for the online course she perpetually taught: English for Science Majors.
I don’t imagine it occurred to her that lemon pound cake and sausage and egg croissants were inadequate for dinner, but there you have it.
After William Barrett Starr was stillborn sometime right before Halloween, even this puny effort at routine fell away. More and more my dad and mother argued about whose grief was legitimate, and the arguments trailed away into tears. I ate peanut butter sandwiches and drank coffee in my room and studied math and chemistry during the worst Thanksgiving vacation on record. I have this big blackboard on my bedroom wall, and I invented a tripod and remote for my phone and took selfies like the one below to entertain myself.
The thing is, William’s absence haunted me too, but no one seemed to think of that.
Since you’re supposedly All That, tell me: Why would a middle-aged couple like my parents keep trying for a second child when their only son (that would be me) is almost sixteen. Am I not enough?
Signing off, B.A. Starr
The last day of school before summer vacation 2017, I summoned the courage to go into Ben’s room, which was a mess of coffee cups and mathematical formulas everywhere–in notebooks, on his walls, on the floor. I sat on the edge of his bed wearing this nightgown with the solar system circling the weight I hadn’t lost since William was or wasn’t born.
I had tried not to interfere, but I wasn’t blind. I knew he was as confused and upset about William as the rest of us. We had all waited so long, and then this. Who could make sense of it?
“It’s like we’re all walking around with huge rocks on our chests. We can hardly move,” I told him.
“We need a road trip.”
Finally he asked what a road trip would solve, and I said that answers are usually found in three places, only one of which is anywhere near this condominium in the middle of Indiana. “A road trip would mean miles of bookstores and nature, two great sources of info,” I said, as if that explained everything. I was trying to sound upbeat.
“And the third source of eternal wisdom?” He was getting that sarcastic, edgy tone, even though I didn’t think I was the one who deserved it.
“Well, answers come from inside yourself, and you’re always near yourself, even in this place.” I looked around and probably sighed, an semi-conscious habit. This neighborhood was never my choice; Ben’s dad had found and purchased the place before we moved down from Chicago.
I was giving my best effort to rise out of depression and pay attention to the most important person in my life. And for once, something worked.
I survived my parents’ failed attempts at a Russian adoption and other disappointments in the childbearing department, and I grew up mostly alone except for my mother’s exuberant companionship, especially when I was younger. “Bean, let’s bake a cake with yard violets on top!” “Bean, what if we rent a pony for Halloween? You have that cowboy hat! We could trick-or-treat out in the country!” My dad rarely joined in, except for an occasional movie or something more mundane than the creative hatcheries of my mom’s unconventional, albeit quite gifted, brain.
Once there was this: Bean-man, what if your birthday party included recycling electronics or working on a Habitat House?” And an entire Saturday was spent canvasing the neighborhood for ink cartridges, batteries, and trashed computers with myself as the only participant. But in all fairness, that was the birthday I came home to my new computer, waiting for me as a sweet surprise.
Last year was different. Mom gained weight, lost energy, and focused mostly on the baby that never came home. I mean, she wasn’t huge, but I missed her thin bohemian look that had embarrassed, but at the same time made me smile to myself when she picked me up from soccer. Sam said she was hot. I sort of punched him for that, but I was secretly proud that she didn’t look like some Midwestern moms who worship television and buffets.
In, fact, she never watched TV. We didn’t even have a television downstairs. Instead, she listened constantly to NPR and all those commentators with weird names—not a Jones or a Smith in the whole bunch. I have to admit, I liked “Science Fridays” and “Snap Judgement” and a few other programs, but mostly I went upstairs and listened to my own playlist.
The day after school was out last year, she followed me to my room/office/hide-out.
“Bean,” she said…it was May 29 (I remember the date exactly), “you spend a lot of time upstairs with these earbuds. Will you please take them out?” I held the right one out in my hand and kept the left plugged into my ear. She waited. I did as she asked, and my podcast leaked out of the earbuds onto the bed.
“Please turn that off,” she said. “I have something important to say. How would you like to go on a road trip?”
“During vacation?” I asked, slightly interested. Anything to get out of a house of sadness and arguments, and lately on Dad’s part, drinking.
“Well, yes, that,” she said. “But for the entire summer. We could visit national parks and monuments and independent bookstores and places like that.” She was trying to be casual.
“The entire summer?” I asked. “Is that crazy?”
“Maybe.” Neither of us said anything, but I could tell she needed to get away, too, even if she was trying not to push me.
“He doesn’t want to go. He can’t leave work.”
“So be it,” I said, closing off again because of his totally predictable excuses. After a moment of sullen silence I asked, “When do we leave?”
“May 30th seems like a good beginning,” she said. “Let’s start tomorrow.”
When I found out that Ben and his mom were taking a road trip, I told him he should stop by Maya’s condo in Destin if he ended up anywhere nearby. Well, it’s not Maya’s condo; it’s her stepdad’s, but we go there every year when school is out. Maya’s mom is a nurse, and she takes that week off, too.
At first Maya didn’t know Ben that well, but I told her he was trustworthy and she should ignore the tripe in those sophomore blog posts and give him a chance.
“A good man is hard to find,” I reminded her, and we laughed because that was the title of a story we’d read in English last semester, which almost nobody understood. Ben, of course, told me that the story was about grace and clear-sightedness. That’s the kind of smart he is. The short story didn’t turn out so well, but I had confidence that our story would have a better ending…and so far it has.
There were a few mystical things that happened to all of us that summer, and I intend to tell you about that, but I don’t want to step on Ben’s story. Or his mom’s. Suffice it to say, mysteries bonded us. If he leaves a few things out, I’ll add them back in.
The first strange occurrence of that summer was this: Just as I was packing up my books and laptop, sometime around 6:30 a.m. on the morning of May 30th, the rain stopped and a pale sun appeared. Through my window I could see a faint rainbow over the skyline, and it ended right on top of the yellow Volkswagen bug. I took that as a good sign.
When mom and I climbed in around the boxes and books, I synced my phone to the audio so my music would be playing and not my mom’s. I mean, I like Journey and the Eagles and all, but I wanted us to start out with music from this century.
I’d pulled a list from the internet of independent bookstores, and we decided to use that as a navigation tool. We could head south to Parnassus Books in Nashville or north to Unabridged in Chicago.
“Let’s go south first,” mom said, and we headed toward 65-South to the sound of “Don’t Wanna Know.” That was pretty catchy, and I began to feel optimistic. I told my mom about an article I’d read about two particles that reacted with the same response, even though they had been separated by five hundred kilometers. Stuff like that interests us both.
“Is that like photons that have been separated?” she asked, and I said there had been experiments with photons that had been separated, but both parts still had the same responses–“mirrored, duplicated,” I said.
“You know, Bean, I’m proud of your science acumen,” (she knew I’d have to look up that word), “but I think on this trip you should expand your paradigm.” (P.S. Translation: Look that up, too.)
“Whadda ya mean?”
“Well consider this: If there is a field of energy that connects everything, if energy is constant and can’t be destroyed, is it possible that physics and metaphysics are connected?”
“What is metaphysics?”
“Is anything above physics?” I laughed.
“What I mean is this: Is science the basis of everything?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I don’t either,” she answered. And we were quiet then, listening to Maroon 5, and I couldn’t help but think how ironic it was that the song was “I Don’t Wanna Know” when there were so many things both of us did want to know.
On the outskirts of Nashville, I quit thinking about whether Lenna McNair would even realize I was gone because the skyline was riveting. It really was, wonky as that sounds. There was this huge building that looked like Batman, and it was framed in the middle of flashing lights and twisting interstates that merged with no warning.
The billboards were perplexing: “Stand by your man at Ryman Auditorium,” and “Luckenbach Texas got nothin’ on Nashville,” and “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights Start Here!” and (well, I got this last one) “Hattie B’s! Best Chicken in the Music City.” We whizzed by all these signs with big-haired girls and guitars, but since I never listened to country music, I didn’t know the allusions.
The allusion I did know was Parnassus Books. I’d looked up the website. “In Greek mythology,” it said, “Mount Parnassus was the home of literature, learning, and music.” I’d already planned to find books by Dominic Walliman about Astro Cat science just for old-time’s sake (I’d read them in elementary school) and pursue my interest in particle/wave duality and quantum entanglement.
Please don’t judge me. I own my nerdiness; I really do.
All of a sudden, following this long silence that had lasted the whole time we were both trying to concentrate on the traffic, my mom threw me for a loop.
“Since William and I were once connected,” she said, “Is it possible that his energy and and mine remain inseparable?” She stared out the window at the exit signs and spoke in a voice that broke my heart.
All I could say is, “Distance, space, and energy are difficult to understand.”
When we got to Parnassus, I forgot about Astro Cats and started reading Carlo Rovelli. Mom was across the store in PERSONAL GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT. This one paragraph in Rovelli caught my attention: “When his great Italian friend Michele Best died, Einstein wrote a moving letter to Michele’s sister: ‘Michele has left this strange world a little before me. This means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction made between past, present, and future is nothing more than a persistent, stubborn illusion’.”
Time is no easy concept either.
While we were in the bookstore, I got this itch to text Sam since I hadn’t heard from him in a week, and he didn’t even know I was gone. He wrote me back right away.
I definitely saved that text, but after leaving the bookstore, I didn’t write Sam back immediately, and here’s why: Two distracting things happened at once.
Today, driving out of Nashville, I got a call from my sister Julie in Chicago, who was crying so much I had to ask her to breathe. To slow down.
Ben and I had taken the back roads over to I-65 so we could see the horse farms, but as soon as I found out what Julie wanted, I took the phone off bluetooth and swerved around a horse trailer and almost lost it on Franklin Road.
Once I took the phone off speaker, Ben was immediately on guard.
“What now?” he asked, and I said something like, “Don’t be so insensitive, Bennett.” I wasn’t really mad; I was scared. Anyway, I didn’t call him Bean, so he knew this was serious.
After the phone call, he asked if I wanted to talk about it.
“Not yet,” I said. “But we need to go to Chicago.”
“Right now?!” He looked up from his phone. “Aren’t we going to Florida?”
I said I didn’t know, that Julie needed me, and he said,”Can’t she need you after Florida? This is our first day on the road.”
That was the moment it became clear to me that Ben needed me more than Julie, that we were at a crucial point and I could completely lose him. I considered this for a long time, only half keeping my concentration on the road.
I’ll never forget what he said: “This is the first thing we’ve done together since William. Sometimes I wonder if you and Dad even know I’m alive, that I’m the one who is still here. I’m not enough for you, and I’m sick of it.”
We cut off through Brentwood and got onto the interstate before either of us said anything again.
“There are some things you don’t know.” I offered. “The whole picture is so much bigger, and your dad carries a lot of guilt.”
“So you’re defending him.”
“No, Bean, I’m not defending anybody. Even myself. I just want to tell you a few things about your dad. It’s time I filled you in.”
“Don’t fill me in if we’re not going to Florida,” he sulked. And our little yellow VW kept buzzing down I-65.
That’s Lenna on the left.
Mom and I had planned to head to Seaside to this bookstore called Sundog’s about 30 minutes east of Destin, and so I was understandably pumped after Lenna’s message and photo.
That whole North Florida coast is a regular vacation spot for us, and we’ve stayed all along 30A in everything from run-down cottages to nice places right on the water. I knew Destin pretty well.
When my mom got off the phone with her younger sister, her face was red and her eyes watery. I know how this routine goes.
Mom’s sister is about ten years her junior and is always making bad decisions. She’s an interior designer in Chicago, and she makes a good bit of money, but it costs megabucks to live there, and, as I said, she makes disastrous decisions. It’s a habit.
The call put me in a funk that led me to what started out as another vent to the universe. The funny thing is, by the time I composed and posted it on the limited access site, the funk had morphed into euphoria.
May 31, 2017
Listen Up, Universe.
Last night after dusk we were somewhere on I-65 looking for a motel following the worst conversation of my life. Tonight, at the exact time, I was on the beach in Destin after the best conversation of my life. How can life on earth be so fickle? I’m not writing you with the hope you’ll be answering; I’m writing you to make some sense of all this on my own.
First of all, after we left Nashville, my mom told me the whole story of my dad and Bepa, the daughter from Russia we never had. Long story (all the way through Tennessee to the Alabama line) made short, this is the recap (all of which was news to me): When the Russian government started cracking down on American access to adoption, Mom and Dad were told that for $10,000 the “officials” could speed up the adoption that was in progress and get the Russian toddler out of the country faster. Since my Dad had already paid at least twice that much and would be facing health bills when Bepa arrived, he said he couldn’t be bribed like that. We’d wait the full wait. The full wait pushed us past the time that Russia’s president, Putin, allowed adoptions, and Bepa was trapped in the orphanage waiting for a heart procedure that she never got.
“She died, Bean,” my mom told me. “Your dad was wracked with guilt.”
I said nothing because this is the kind of conversation that gets me into trouble. First of all, he should feel guilty, and second of all, back to the original question, what was wrong with me that we needed a sibling to fill out the family?
I listened to the entire story without saying much more than “Hum,” or “Interesting; I didn’t know that” until we pulled into a motel somewhere in Alabama. I could clearly see the direction that this trip into bust-land, into “when-can-we-go-home?” was headed. The only hope was that Lenna McNair was waiting in Florida–if we ever made it.
And I guess if you’re an attentive universe at all, you know how THAT went.
Wednesday, May 31, 2017, has been the best day of my life.
Thanks for that, I guess.
May 31, 2017, was a magical day. Here’s a photo some stranger took with my phone right before it got dunked into the water. I have a LifeProof case, so photo, phone and memory all survive intact, though I’m not sure it’s as perfect a phone as it once was. No matter. The phone’s the least valuable thing about all of this.
Guess who this is? You might not get it right because we don’t look like ourselves. Ben has on two shirts, swim trunks AND shorts AND long socks and I was soaking wet because Maya had pushed me into the ocean, but I didn’t care. This was the best sunset of my life heretofore, and the day will–no doubt–never be duplicated.
Ben’s mom had driven into Destin to take care of some business connected to her “crazy sister in Chicago” (Ben’s words). Later he told me that he had been so excited about meeting up with us that he hadn’t really asked what business she might have, contacting a lawyer in a strange city, but we all forgot about that when we started having fun.
Ben and his mom had already dropped their bags and books off in Seaside, and Ben packed a gym bag for the day because we didn’t know what we’d run into. We ate a late lunch before lying around on the beach and taking out a YOLO board right before sunset.
Ben’s mom had said he could hang with us until about 8:30 p.m., which was as long as she was willing to go. I don’t really know what she did for all that time, but what the three of US did was laugh and tell stories about weird family members until Maya got this idea about walking down the beach and playing this version of Truth or Dare that is a variation on strip poker, except instead of taking clothes off, players have to put clothes on. I already had a hoodie and some capri cargo pants in my beach bag, but Maya had to go up to the condo and get extra shirts and pants in case she had to use them.
Here’s how the game worked. We were walking along the beach, and Maya would ask me a question, and I would have to tell the truth. Or Maya could demand a dare. But if I didn’t want to tell the truth or take the dare, I had to put on an article of clothing, be pushed into the water, and keep walking. It might sound stupid, but, as I’ve said before, it was the best sunset of all time.
First, I asked Maya to tell the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to her. After a pause, she said mother hadn’t been married when she was born–that this was a deep embarrassment to her. She said she loved her stepdad and all, but…yikes; I never knew that, and that was definitely not the answer I was expecting.
I wanted to know more, but since it was Maya’s turn, I had to let it go. Maya dared Ben to take off his shirt, but he said he didn’t want to expose his skeletal chest, so he opted to put on another shirt and got dunked into the ocean.
Then Ben asked me to tell the truth about why I chose Zion International School. That’s the school that we just graduated from in May. AND that’s exactly the kind of nerdy question I’d expect from him, since he spends a lot of time thinking about school and all, but as I’ve explained before, his nerdiness is kind of cute to me. I like him no matter what.
I paused for a long time, and then I told the truth. “Everybody in our entire school is a good kind of different. Some are black, some are brown, some are Chinese…whatever…so the idea that I’m half black and half white doesn’t matter to anyone. It’s all a spectrum.”
Maya surprised us both then by admitting, even though no one even said Truth or Dare, “That’s the reason I came to ZIS! My grandmother is Chinese. I don’t think anyone is going to comment on my eyes or anything.”
“You eyes are amazing,” Ben said, and in what was left of the light, I could see Maya blush.
I could feel my face heat up, too. Could this be a little jealousy? I was totally surprised, since Ben is so young and everything, and then Ben said, “You’re both amazing,” because that’s the kind of guy he is. Even when he’s being funny, he doesn’t like to leave anybody out or hurt anyone. I guess he knows how it feels, but then again, don’t we all…
Then Maya asked Ben to tell the truth about this: “How long have you had a crush on Lenna McNair? Without saying a word, he put on a sock.
There were plenty of rounds when the three of us didn’t answer, but there were rounds when we did, and those were the best.
“Tell me about your dad,” I asked Maya.
“I don’t know anything about my biological dad,” she said. “When my mom got pregnant, my grandmother told her to leave home and never come back. She was a disgrace to my grandmother, who was fully Chinese. My granddad, who was white, died when my mother was three, and my grandmother raised her alone in a traditional way that stifled my mom.” Her voice trailed off, but I took one of her hands, and Bennett took the other, and it was the most perfect moment–like we were saying everyone has something embarrassing or hurtful or shameful.
I couldn’t fathom why I had started the whole game off on such a serious note, but I’m glad I did. I don’t really like superficial if I have a choice.
“So is Maya a Chinese name?” Ben asked.
“My real name is Mai Yuan,” Maya said. “Maya’s a bit Americanized. Like me.” She laughed, and I realized that one of the things I love about Maya is that she doesn’t have a pretentious or depressed bone in her body. She’s very lighthearted and easy to be around.
But here’s the best part: Two mystical things happened right about dusk. While we were all standing on the beach, looking out toward the ocean, three baby sand dollars rolled up at our feet. It’s incredibly hard to find even one of those on the beach. Maya and I saw them at the same time, and we scooped them up–one for each of us. Then, out of the west clouds, there was this one–only one–roll of thunder. It was like a clap of approval coming out of the heavens for this friendship. At least that’s how I took it; that’s what it meant to me.
At 8:30 p.m. we met Ben’s mom at the Back Porch Restaurant where she had dropped him off, and Ben introduced Maya. To Ms. Starr’s credit, she didn’t ask Ben why he had on gym socks and two pairs of pants. She just acted like three kids in bathing suits and wet cargo pants were old news. You have to love that.
I like Ben’s friends. As any parent knows, you always worry about whether your child’s friends are loyal, are grounded, are good people. If they are kind to your child, you hold a special place in your heart for them. Of course, I knew Lenna as she was growing up, and she’s always been special–sensitive and smart. She and Ben were never especially close because she’s older than he is, but I trust her character. She makes a reliable friend, and I hope the relationship sticks.
I feel better here along the coast. I can find myself again. The moment we turned onto 30-A and I could see the pastel houses and coastal restaurants, I felt like the person I can be when I’m at my best–stronger and more optimistic.
The funny thing was, when mom and I got to Sundog Books, which was the reason we were in Seaside in the first place, or I thought it was, another sort of magical thing happened–like the rainbow over our VW. I was headed to what I thought might be the physics section, when a book fell on my head! Now, if you saw inside the bookstore, you might not think anything about that was odd. The store has books stacked horizontally and vertically, some with covers to the front, some with the spines showing, tables of books, shelves of books, hand-lettered signs, postcards, maps, reading glasses, t-shirts, cards, etc. But there was no reason for this red book to disengage itself from the top of the third shelf from the door and land on my head with no bump or jolt to the shelf. The book was entitled TRADITIONS ALONG THE YANGTZE, and I recognized the name immediately because Maya had said her ancestors had lived near the Yangtze River. All of a sudden, the book seemed far more interesting than Carlo Rovelli, and I took it as a sign.
I read for hours on the porch of Sundog Books while my mother sketched. By the time I finished, I understood the One Child Policy, the severe penalty for giving birth outside of marriage, and the shame and ostracism associated with children outside of marriage in China. Maya’s mom was not alone in being disinherited and disowned and stuff, but I came to the conclusion that some social rules can be a special kind of abuse not only for the adult children, but for the grandchildren who are left floating free. Haters gonna hate, as they say. The thing is, most haters don’t know they’re haters.
We returned to the bookstore every day for three or four days, and my mother drew while I read. She said art was a great salve. I had to look up “salve” in this big dictionary in the reference section. I should have known it, but I didn’t. For all the hype that I get almost daily about being so dorkily smart, there’s quite a lot I have no idea about. Actually, I looked up a variety of things in Sundog’s, including a few selections in this one poetic book by Kahlil Gibran called THE PROPHET. I was trying, as mom had said, to change my paradigm. (I looked that up, too.)
At night there were rock and country bands in the Seaside Center, and I made this one friend, Everett Spellman from Muncie, Indiana, of all places. Everett, who went to this math and science school connected to the university there, lived only a couple of hours away from where I lived, so we said we’d keep in touch. The odd thing was that I had this feeling we actually would.
We rode motorbikes and ate junk for several nights until mom said it was time to move on toward our next stop, which was supposed to be this quirky bookstore on Sanibel Island that has this expansive mystery section with authors from all over the world.
I texted Sam and Lenna about Sanibel and told them I’d find something for them there, and after all, I did have $950.00 left out of my original $1000.
I’m very frugal.
While Everett and I rode scooters all over Seaside, while I texted and thought about stuff, my mom walked along the beach or stayed back in the condo and painted. She was uber-reflective during this entire time. When our little yellow bug pulled out onto 30-A several days later, it was stuffed with one more item: a painting my mother had done of the Sundog Books.
She’s sort of amazing, my mom, but weird as heck sometimes.
When we left Seaside, I had one more stop before heading south. There’s this side road north of 98, and at the very end of it lies a little cemetery that I both did and did not want to visit. Before arriving at the cemetery, there’s this little wooden house belonging to the only psychic I’d ever gone to in my life. “Madam Vivienne. Palm Reader” is the only identifying information on the mailbox.
I had always been afraid of what mystics might tell me–afraid I’d believe them subconsciously if not consciously–but seven years ago I gave in and braved my fears because I was desperate. Madam Vivienne was the psychic that told me I’d be a mother to many, and we all know how that turned out.
Anyway, in the cemetery about seven gravestones were lined across from this little love seat that was sinking on the left because the sand was uneven. The back of the iron love seat was ornamental, like little curls or galaxy drawings, flecked and chipped all along the curves of the rusted iron. The seat of the bench faced a mossy Buddha with only five teeth. I counted them a seven years ago, and I counted them again today.
A young girl with a bicycle leaning against the base of the bench stared out at the Buddha and didn’t even move when our car drove up. She could have been pretty, but she was definitely too thin.
“Who are you here for?” the girl finally asked, and I pointed to a little headstone that said, “Infant Starr.” The girl didn’t say anything, but she pointed to a stone that said “Baby Ariel, June 5, 2016-June 5, 2016.” The young girl had this ethereal air, and she seemed like someone I knew, but, of course there was no way I could know her. We talked for a while before it occurred to me who she was.
When she told me where she lived, I recognized her as the daughter of the psychic, no longer 12 or 13, now closer to 20 or so. I didn’t verbalize the connection, but she did. I don’t really know if she recognized me or not (how could she?), but she looked straight at me and said, “Your children are not your children. They come through you but not from you,” and then, “You misunderstand cosmic timing.”
June 6, 2017
You’re playing with my psyche. Let me recount this simply to stabilize my brain.
When we turned onto Highway 30A, we tracked about ten or twelve miles before merging with Highway 98. Then, just past this water inlet, we took a left onto a gravel road lined with waxy-looking bushes. I was a little freaked out and asked my mom where the hell we were, and she said, “Don’t say hell. I’ve got one more thing I want to do here.”
At the end of the road, she got out of the car and started talking to this rail-thin girl who was sitting on the only bench out there among the gravestones. I couldn’t hear much of what they were saying, but I did hear the girl tell my mom, “Your children are not your children. They come through you but not from you,” which I immediately recognized as a quote from Kahlil Gibran. I’d just read it!
Everything seemed eerie all around me, and I headed back to the car. It was one of those days in Florida when squalls blow up out of nowhere and the wind rises and clouds come in from the ocean. When it started raining full on, my mom hurried back to the car and we just sat there in silence until my mom said, “I needed to come by here. This is a memorial. From 2010.”
I would have been about eight years old. I remember nothing about what I now assumed was a miscarriage. I was fully creeped out. I felt like calling my grandfather, who’s a retired Episcopal priest, or lighting a candle or something.
“It’s all right, Bean,” my mother told me. “I have a peace about William and about this baby. I don’t think spirit can be destroyed.” I had no idea what she was getting at, so I didn’t say anything for a long time. After a while, she said she was sorry she’d stopped here, that maybe all this was too much for me. That made me feel immature–like she was trusting me with adult information, and I couldn’t step up to the plate.
“Everything just feels off-balance,” I finally admitted, sort of under my breath. What I was thinking is, “I need to pull myself together.” She reached out and squeezed my hand, and that made me feel even worse.
So, again, I’m writing you. Why do I feel I owe everybody something, especially my mom, but I never know what it is?
The most freakish thing was that when we got the heck out of there and pulled on to Highway 98, my grandfather called US.
Bewildered and funked out,
The calls from my dad this week have grounded me. I continually realize how much I respect and love this man. He is, of course, worried about Julie and says it’s “imperative” (his exact word) that I check on Julie. What that means in practical terms is that this vacation will be abbreviated.
I promised him I’d be back in Indiana in two weeks and we could all head up to Chicago. I knew as far as Ben was concerned, dad would be a definite draw, so I asked him to join us; he agreed, but said we had to leave our iPads and computers at home because he wasn’t going on “another excursion with both of you glued to a screen and not experiencing the trip.”
So Ben and I mapped out what we could see in Sanibel and on down into the Everglades (and maybe the Keys) in the two weeks we had until we had to turn back north.
I wrote one more Post to the Universe when we stopped in Tampa. It was about this dead bird I tripped over in the hotel parking lot. It’s kind of relevant, so I’m posting it here, despite its embarrassing and immature tone.
June 7, 2017
What’s with the dead seagull in the parking lot, miles from water? That bird put me in a worse mood than I’d already been plunged into since the infamous call on Highway 98 when mom said we’d have to cut our trip short. How can people believe that some divine being has his eye on the sparrow if survival of the fittest reigns? Birds eat fish and cars knock off birds on a regular basis in random parking lots and, in general, tragedy abounds. I mean, a dead sea gull is not exactly a tragedy, but you know what I mean. Consider William and Bepa, not to mention victims of war and ridiculous politics, and the universe seems to have no protective eyes on anything. Nothing makes sense to me, and I don’t think I’m writing you anymore.
P.S. And why do some kids get dads who never understand them–or ignore them–or in the case of Pat Murphy at my school, beat them? It’s like some of us get dropped down into families who are aliens. Or we’re aliens; we don’t fit. I am seriously requesting some kind of reliable Global Positioning System. Is that too much to ask?
Sometime during the second week in June, I received this French mystery in the mail from Ben from a bookstore in Sanibel, Florida. Ben had already described the quirky store that he and his mom had planned to visit, primarily because it had mysteries from around the world, but I didn’t know he’d send something in the mail! I owe him one.
He’s one friend that never criticizes my book-wormishness. I guess he understands that it is what it is. It’s not going to change.
He also enclosed a note that said he felt like laying off the reading for a while because he had other things on his mind, including a few family matters, and I could relate. My brother and mom kept arguing constantly because Micah wanted to play football, and mom wanted his brain to stay intact. On top of that, the summer of 2017 was a very low point in American politics, and I won’t even go in to that, but I do read the newspapers online and intend to major in English and government and make some kind of a difference as a writer or activist. I texted Ben a thanks and told him we’d have a party at my house when everyone got home. I was very touched by the gift and began thinking about what I could do to return the favor.
After we left Sanibel, we headed toward Everglades National Park, and everything changed about my heretofore junky mood. I saw the first and only manatee I’d ever seen and learned the biological differences between an alligator and a crocodile. Later, we drove down to Grassy Key to the Dolphin Research Center where I had this interaction with a dolphin that began to alter my worldview; I’m not kidding you. It was this minuscule shift, but it was a shift.
I’ll explain what happened.
As I was walking out along this boardwalk that edges the water, a dolphin sidled up and swam alongside me. It kept making these noises like it was laughing at me–like we had some connection. Call me crazy, but I got the message he was telling me to lighten up. I totally got it. I mean, it wasn’t in words, but it was a communication.
The dolphin’s trainer told me she worked with this particular dolphin daily, that it was a female bottlenose dolphin with a distinctive scar near her right eye, probably caused by a boat propeller.
So for all the time my mom was in the gift shop, I talked with the trainer. She didn’t seem to mind my questions or anything, and I liked her right away. I mean she was pretty and all, but that wasn’t the main thing. I can’t put my finger on what made her so charismatic, but anyway, after a while I admitted to her something I probably would have kept to myself if she’d been someone else. I told her I thought the dolphin was trying to communicate with me, and she laughed, but not at me.
“Oh, that dolphin tells me things all the time,” she said in this voice with just a perfect tinge of an accent. “Her name is Lucie; it means light. She’s very wise. My name is Anne-Marie, and I’m not always so wise.” She laughed again and said she was here from France for the summer, working on a college research project.
The way she smiled was very genuine, and she wasn’t self-conscious or condescending, even though she was quite a bit older, and, of course, she didn’t have to hang around and talk with me, but we chatted for quite some time. I couldn’t help but notice that I was having a real chat and not a Snapchat.
“By the way, is that your yellow Volkswagen bug?” she asked. “With that big box on the top and all those books in the backseat?” It was parked outside the entrance to the research center.
She laughed again, this light, floating laughter, and I smiled back and told her that yes, it was. “Very cool car,” she said. And then she added this incredible observation–incredible as in you won’t believe it. She said, “Maybe you should lighten up a bit and quit carrying so much stuff around.”
As Sam says, “If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin'”–total truth. That’s what she said. Right after I’d gotten the same feeling from the dolphin.
“What makes you say that?” I asked her, and she just smiled and said sometimes she just knew things. Like psychically. “I just felt I should say that to you. Nothing else.” And then she gave me a little slap on the back and jumped up from where we were sitting on the pier and waved good-bye to me.
When my mom and I left two hours later, Anne-Marie was waiting for us by the office door with her mysterious smile, and she held out this paper. “Hey,” she said, “this is for you.” Then she handed me this stylized painting of our VW bug with boxes and books and a blue carrying case on top, all balanced precariously.
She’d painted it while we’d been walking around with another guide, Louis or something.
“Maybe this will help you remember Lucie,” Anne-Marie said, handing the drawing to me, and then she kissed me on the cheek. Something happened in my brain and in the middle of my chest, and I thought I might melt. It was my first sort-of kiss from an older woman…if you don’t count my mom, and, of course, you wouldn’t.
Mom wanted to know the whole story, and as we drove back through Key Largo, headed north, and I weighed in my mind whether or not I wanted to tell her. After all, a person has to keep some territory to himself. The sun was setting and the sky was curved in colors, and for a while we just sat looking out, not talking. In the end, I decided not to tell her about the drawing. In fact, I turned it over in the car and put it on my side of the dashboard.
By the time we left the Keys, it was getting dark, and mom turned on the parking lights. Suddenly this white-tailed deer stopped in the middle of the road. There weren’t any other cars, so I didn’t think the deer was in danger, but the thing was, it was staring STRAIGHT at us and not moving AT ALL.
Together we stared back at the deer, and the animal didn’t look away or run. The windows began to fog up a little, and there seemed to be some kind of energy all around us. Mom flicked on the defrost for a few seconds so we could see the deer better. Now this is the freakiest part: On the back of the drawing, facedown and rolled up a little to fit against the windshield, I noticed a small map in dark blue ink that covered the upper right hand corner of the paper. The map appeared and then seemed to be shrinking. I don’t know how to explain it.
I pointed out the disappearing ink to my mom. It was a coastal map of A-1A heading north out of Key Largo up toward Homestead, Florida. There was only one sideroad marked on it. We were perfectly quiet for a full minute as what had been dark ink continued to disappear. The deer waited in the headlights–staring. It finally turned away and walked off into the woods.
When we checked into our hotel that night, I looked some things up on my laptop and found several articles about white-tailed deer, some of them scientific and some mystical. This is what I discovered:
- The Florida Key deer, O. virginianus clavium, is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
- A deer is often considered a symbol of life regeneration and heart energy.
- Should a deer come into your life, look for new perceptions and degrees of perceptions to grow and expand.
I didn’t look up “disappearing blue ink,” but before I went to bed, I checked on the drawing out in the car, and there was nothing on the back of the VW painting. Nothing at all.
I am writing because I can’t sleep. I’ve gotten pretty intuitive during the last several months, but I have no clue what happened when the deer stopped us on A1A and the deep indigo ink drained away from the page lying on the dashboard–right before my eyes. I mean, there wasn’t much light, but I could see. There was a inked-in map one minute, and the next there was half a map.
As the ink was draining off the page, I tried to read what was left of the map. There was a road marked, Liberty Road, and an X about halfway down the road. Above the X was 333. Then it was gone. I have some clarity that I need to retrace my route to get back to find the address. I need to do this while Ben is asleep because I think it’s too dangerous and unsettling to carry him along.
I never did show my mom the drawing Anne-Marie made, and mom didn’t ask about the drawing or the map again. Overall, I’d say the whole excursion to the Keys was next-to-perfect with the only drawback being that the dolphin, the deer, and the map left me a little unsettled. So really, nothing new.
As I look back on it, the entire second leg of our trip–and, in fact, the last half of June into July–was like the Comments section on social media. By that I mean everything that had seemed so pressing to me in Posts to the Universe for the previous six months got a nod from somewhere in the great beyond, and I have to remind you that I’d never believed in the Great Beyond–capital G, capital B–so I stayed off-center for fairly significant stretches of time.
The Keys were great and everything, but by the time we were heading back home, I was ready to go. There were things that still bothered me, like the weird graveyard experience in North Florida and what now seemed like coincidences in the Keys, but I was ready to get in touch with Lenna and to see my granddad. I thought for a little while that I might like to see my dad, too, but that thought was extremely short-lived.
First thing when we arrived in Indiana, we stopped at our condo. I was unloading stuff when I heard my parents get into this shouting match, so I stayed up in my room for a while and called Lenna. She was working at her dad’s drugstore (McNair’s Pharmacy), so she had a little leeway to talk. Her dad wasn’t very strict with her–I mean, he was the kind of dad that was just the right amount of strict mixed with generous.
I cannot get the mystery of the map out of my mind. At about midnight on June 10, I got back into the yellow bug and turned south onto A1A and down into Key Largo. I found Liberty Road with no trouble, and when I pulled up in front of 333, I discovered a mobile home with all the lights burning. For some reason, I wasn’t scared, just curious.
When I walked up onto the front porch stoop, all the windows were open, and I could see the guide we’d had at the Dolphin Research Center, pacing the floor with a baby on his shoulder. The baby, who looked to be a few months old, but probably not a year, was crying, and when the boy (maybe a few years older than Ben?) looked out to see my car lights, his face registered fear and then relief. He seemed to recognize me.
When Ben was a freshman, he used to hang out at my dad’s drugstore. My dad’s one of those quiet guys in wire-rimmed glasses who keeps up with journal articles and is kind to customers, always dispensing advice and pharmaceuticals, trying to help out in a very understated way.
For the first two years of high school, my dad knew Ben better than I did because he went over to Dad’s drugstore most afternoons and read the magazines. Ben and my dad both know a lot about science and have these rambling discussions. The thing about Ben is, he’s the kind of guy who might bloom a little later than most, but he’ll eventually shine brighter, too. Oh, and here’s a photo of my dad that I keep in my wallet. I’m super proud of him.
I have the photo on my phone, too, but there’s something special about a photo you can touch and run your finger across before you put it back into that plastic holder next to your license or credit card–if you have one. I mean, a physical photo seems more permanent.
Anyway, Ben called me when he got back from Florida and said he was leaving for Chicago, but would be back in about a week. I still planned to have my party when everybody got home, and, of course, my parents were all for it. They usually like my friends, though they have a sort of sanitized view of some of them.
When we first returned to the condo, I had tried to concentrate on the fact that Lenna was having a party sometime around the first of July rather than on the eerie silence that had replaced the shouting downstairs.
I survived the shouting match unscathed, I changed out some of the dirty clothes in my suitcase for clean ones, and we got out of the house. I didn’t see Dad’s car, so I assumed he was gone without giving me the time of day. I didn’t need his time of day. I had my Apple Watch with my own time of day.
We picked Grands up about thirty minutes after we left our condo, and he helped immensely. From the moment he got into our little yellow car that had been cleared of all electronics except for my watch and phone, not to mention most of the artistic and academic paraphernalia littering the seats, I breathed easier. He led off with “Put that phone up, Bean. Don’t you want to be present? Be mindful, my man,” and I didn’t even care that he was pushing my buttons; I just hugged him. Of all the adults in my world, next to my mom, he is the rock. The thing I realized at the exact moment he got into the car was sort of a revelation: Even my mom has periods of shakiness, but Grands never wavers.
I asked them both if they wanted to let me in on what was happening with Aunt Julie. No dice. No answer.
“Let’s get a frappuccino,” my mom offered in this sing-song voice that I knew meant false bravado, so I let it go. I kept my eyes focused on the boring landscape between Indiana and Illinois and didn’t talk too much along the way.
I was pretty familiar with Chicago, especially along the shoreline, because we’d lived there before moving to Indiana, and even though I was very young when we moved, we’d visited a million times. The traffic coming in is unnerving, but once I spot North Michigan Avenue, every time, I relax and then get excited. Julie’s apartment is this very small but swanky place on Rush Street, and you can walk almost anywhere–at least anywhere I usually go.
Once we parked in the garage and went up to Julie’s, I planned to change into my walking shoes. Julie wasn’t there, and when I asked where she was, my mom shocked the socks off me–or she would have, but I didn’t have any on yet.
“She’s in the hospital,” my mom said. “I’m going up to check on her, and you two wander around and see what’s up.” As an afterthought, she added, primarily for my benefit, “Don’t worry. She’s fine. We’ll all go up to the hospital after dinner.”
Granddad seemed to know the whole story and didn’t blink. I followed him out to get a newspaper, though I could have told him we’d find anything we were interested in online. Mom parted ways with us at the corner and turned off toward Northwestern Memorial. Grands and I took the paper into this little coffee shop, and I stared him down. “What’s going on?” I demanded.
He had this gentle wave in his voice that made me feel as if everything would be o.k. He just said in a whisper, leaning in, “You’ll find out soon enough, Bean. Tonight. It’s going to be all right, but you need to hear this from your mom and Julie.” He has this thing about “mystery” and thinks the universe is full of it in this super weird sort of way. He’s always urging me to just “ride the ride” and enjoy the “winks from the eternal.” I always tell him that I don’t believe in anything eternal, and he always responds, “You will.” His love affair with mystery obviously includes a few pressing family matters.
I hate to admit it, but I wasn’t totally close to Aunt Julie, and though I was concerned, I wasn’t preoccupied the way my mom was.
“Hey, look,” Grands shouted, and I jumped because he had been speaking so softly just a minute before. I think he’s a little hard of hearing, so sometimes he talks louder in public places, but this was like a megaphone. “There’s a lecture at Loyola’s Water Tower campus by a neuropsychiatrist at 2:00 this afternoon. Let’s check it out. It’s free,” he yelled. The people beside us moved their table more toward the wall, away from us. I thought that was vaguely entertaining, so I shouted, too.
“Free’s my favorite word,” I barked, though, as I’ve mentioned before, I had plenty of cash left. I had the feeling Grands was trying to get my mind off why we were here, and it made me feel childish in a way I didn’t like. Still, I could never stay mad at him because he was doing the exact thing I love about him. Right then. Right that minute. Even though he’s a retired Episcopal priest and all, he’s very into science and adventure. He’s not stuffy or prudish, and when he suggests something, it seems like exactly the thing to do. He could probably say, “Let’s go have an adventure covering a war zone,” and I’d go along.
When we left the coffee shop, we passed this street festival with flowers and food and handmade musical instruments–with plants and incense–and it felt great to be back in Chicago, even though I had no idea what was up. We got to the lecture, which was totally filled, just in time to take seats in the back row, and we listened to the college-professor-type (who seemed a bit puffed up about himself) talk about the brain vs. the mind.
He’d written some book about experiences of the dying, including research that shows when a person is clinically dead, some consciousness remains that can be verified. His experiences were interesting as heck, and Grands had no problem with the validity of his research, probably since he’s a priest and deals in abstracts, but I had plenty of questions and was quite skeptical. When we left the lecture hall, I asked him if he thought William ever had a consciousness, even though he never lived on earth. He looked at me sort of funny and didn’t answer right away. Finally, after a long silence, he said that he thought spirits choose where they will be born and actually only enter a body a few days before birth. “Haven’t you ever read Wordsworth?” he laughed. “By the way, that’s not an original idea. Poets and philosophers through the ages have had a similar take on eternal life.”
I had to admit I only had a passing acquaintance with Wordsworth and the Romantics since I skipped straight from American lit to world lit and knew next to nothing about British writers.
“Well, at least you know he’s British,” Grands said, and then he got really serious.
“I think William decided not to come this time,” he said. He was quiet for about ten seconds. “I mean William Starr. Not William Wordsworth.”
“You’re freaking me out,” I told him, and I was as serious as the Zika virus.
All he said was this: “Bean, sometimes you just have to let go of what you think you know.”
Luis was the boy with the baby, but it wasn’t his. The baby’s name, Esperanza Benevides, is listed in no records I can find. Luis is a Deferred Action kid, a Dreamer, who stands to lose his status if he doesn’t renew in October. He told me that he came to America with his father, but I have no idea what happened to the dad or to the rest of his family. We didn’t get into all of that.
Why did he talk to me? I have no idea. He was desperate, and I tried to put him at ease.
“I’m scared to renew, and I’m scared not to,” he told me. “The political situation, you know.”
Don’t get me started.
It seems Esperanza’s mother was deported when she showed up one night at the Research Center to clean. Luis and she had an agreement that he would protect the baby if anything happened to Ria, the mother.
This is the story Luis told me, though I knew then it was quite abbreviated. Of course it would be; Luis was talking to a stranger, and he was taking quite a chance. “The thing is,” he said, “Ria did not have papers, true. She had applied for asylum because if sent back to Mexico, her husband had threatened to kill her and the baby. And he would do it, no doubt.” Here Luis got this look in his eye that I have seen in animals and people who are trapped. My heart went out to him. Here was this kid with beautiful English, working in a research center, who hardly had a chance in the world. Not to mention Esperanza.
“No one knows about this baby except for people at the Center and a few people who live around here in the neighborhood.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked him.
“I need help. If the DACA people find me with this baby, it’s over for me. You can’t just adopt a baby brought here illegally. It doesn’t work that way. And it really doesn’t work that way for people like me.”
I gave Luis money to find a caregiver he could pay. I got all of the information I could about Ria Benevides and promised I would try to help. I did know an immigration lawyer in Chicago, but I knew nothing about the status of DACA, of illegal immigrants, or the law. I promised to send money every week or so to 333 Liberty Road in Key Largo and to tell no one. And I intend to keep those promises.
I took this photo after the lecture as we walked along the Chicago River to an early dinner.
I call it my pre-awakening photo because I was like the kayaker in the shadowed part of the picture, just about to enter the blinding light. That dinner was like going from innocence to stark awareness, and there was no going back. If the universe was trying to comment on questions in my previous posts, I think it could have been more subtle.
First thing after Mom joined us and we were seated, Grands asked how Julie was.
“The same,” mom said. “No baby.”
“Whaaat?” I dragged out this guttural gasp.
“O.K., Ben,” she said.
No “Bean.” Maybe a bad sign.
“Julie’s having a baby.”
Grands looked way across the water and didn’t say anything, but, of course, he wasn’t surprised because he’d been in on all of this since the end May. It was now sometime around the 23rd of June, so I calculated that they both had a month headstart on me.
“Whose?” I grimaced.
“Well, that’s the thing,” Mom said. “There’s this Ethiopian musician possibility and this Indian doctor possibility.”
You cannot make this stuff up. I could not even comment.
“She says she can’t keep this baby,” my mom said.
I totally agreed for the baby’s sake. Ye gods. “American Indian?” was all I could muster.
“Nooo,” she sighed, slightly irritated, but not too much. “This guy from India. So, I’ve contacted lawyers about what we could do if we choose to adopt it.”
The waiter interrupted and asked if we wanted drinks, and mom ordered a bottle of wine. I knew right then and there I was going to have some to calm my nerves. She didn’t care if I had a glass since she knew I was hardly a drinker; I’d had champagne once at a wedding and one glass of wine on my birthday because we’d made this agreement that during high school I could drink at home if I didn’t drink outside of home–like with friends. I couldn’t have cared less about signing off on that because people as serious as I am about studying and grades can’t throw themselves off-track. There’s this whole group of big drinkers at school and those that smoke dope and all, but I don’t hang around with too many of them. Anyway, that’s not the point.
“What does Dad say about all this?” I stammered.
“He doesn’t want the baby,” she said, and she matched Grand’s faraway gaze and neither of them looked at me.
“Well, that’s just great,” I said. “I spend my whole childhood in the shadow of nameless and named infants that you and Dad both just can’t wait to have–because I’m not enough–and all of a sudden, Dad changes his mind?”
This time, Grands did speak up in his restaurant-loud voice. “Ben, that’s ridiculous. You’ve always been enough. More than enough. Sometimes adults make choices that children personalize when the choices have nothing to do with them. Adults can be immature that way.”
Then everyone at the table got quiet–thank god with a small “g”–as the waiter poured the wine for my mom to taste. She asked for two more wine glasses, and the waiter didn’t blink.
“Ben, the thing is,” my mom said, “your dad and I have been drifting apart for many years. I guess we thought a baby could save us.”
“You were never happy?” My face felt as if it were all screwed up, and I thought I might cry.
“When you were very little, we were,” she answered. “I guess that’s part of the reason we kept looking backward and trying to recapture a time that was never coming back.”
Just then I thought of Lenna and my high school and the neighborhood and all the things I’d lose if Mom and Dad split up. I knew my mom could never keep that condo.
It seemed that everything was slipping away from under my feet. Even the concrete floor of the restaurant seemed like Silly Putty, this stuff I used to play with when I was a kid. My feet were sliding like goo out from under my chair. The funny thing was, of all the weird fears and potential losses, losing Dad was nowhere to be felt. Either it hurt too much to face, or maybe I’d just come to terms with the reality that I’d lost him a long time ago.
I sat up straight in my chair to keep from slipping under the table, both literally and figuratively. (I learned that in sophomore English.)
“Grands, say something here,” I demanded.
“Well, let’s meet this baby and make decisions,” he said.
28~ Ben Again
“This baby” was born while we were having dinner. As I say, you can’t make this stuff up. Here’s the first photo I took of Grands holding Baby Girl:
She was in the nursery by the time we got to Northwestern Memorial. She had this bracelet on her right arm that said Baby Alton (that’s Grands’ last name, and Julie’s, of course), but she didn’t have a given name yet. It was too soon. I took one look at her beautiful skin, the color of coffee with cream, and her head of hair and her perfect eyelids, and I was in love.
We had lots to figure out–like where we were going to live and what role Julie would play in the baby’s life. But before we left on Sunday, we’d made some decisions. She was definitely going home with us. Grands wanted to name her Celeste, after my mother’s mom, who had passed away before I was born, and we all liked that, even Julie, who didn’t seem overly invested in all that had to be done.
I called the little one Ceci from the very first, and it was just my name for her, like Bean was my mom’s name for me. Ceci and Bean; it had a very nice rhythm if you said it in the right cadence and everything.
We’d changed the backseat of the Volkswagen into a miniature nursery with a daisy-looking carseat, and I sat in back with Ceci. Grands sat in front with Mom. Besides the electronics and books we’d left at home before coming to Chicago, we had to unload some other temporarily unnecessary items, like a small blue foot locker of sketches and art supplies that Mom said she’d get from Julie some other time.
“I won’t have much time for creating and “doing” for a while,” she said, “because I’ll be too busy “being.” You can be too reflective, you know,” she laughed. She was happier than I’d seen her in a long time.
True to his word, Dad opted out of the Celest-ial experience. I had a feeling he had someone new, and Mom and Celeste were the furthest thing from his mind. Not to mention me. After three days of agonizing discussion, mom and I decided to move in with Grands, and that plan was A-OK because he lived in this neat white wood farmhouse, trimmed in sage green. (I knew this minute detail because I’d painted the trim summer before last, and I knew that color like the back of my hand. Again, literally. My hands were sage green for a month.) He had a few acres of land and this great barn, all of which held wonderful memories for me, and I guess for mom, too, because she seemed relieved to be getting out of the condo.
I thought that maybe if we stayed with Grands for a while, I could have a dog, something that the condo wouldn’t allow. I already had a name picked out for the pup, too, but I didn’t talk to anyone about this fantasyland and sometimes I barely admitted to myself that things might go my way. Is there a way to jinx happiness?
I found out soon enough: Yes there is. Mom told me after we made the decision to move out that unless Dad would let me use the condo as my home address, I’d be out of my school district, actually out of the county, and would have to change schools. I began to hatch plans to save my spot in the IB program, which was very rigorous and prestigious curriculum, and return to my friends. One thing I realized even then was that I cared more about prestigious than rigorous, and that gnawed at me more than I wanted to admit.
Another thing I noticed was that even though we were in Chicago for several days until Julie and Celeste could be released from the hospital, and even though my mom spent several hours at attorneys’ offices signing papers and all, Grands and I never made it to Unabridged or any other bookstore while we were in the city. It’s like mom said, sometimes you can be too reflective. Or at least, sometimes you might need to take a break from adding new info to your brain and make sense of what’s already there.
After Ben got home from Chicago, I didn’t see him right away. The last days of June and the first of July were occupied with taking care of Ceci, his new sister/cousin, and moving boxes out of the condo. I talked to him on the phone almost every day about the party, and things seemed really good for all of us–if you ignored Sam, who was finally back from Mexico. Like the rest of us, he seemed somehow changed in the month we’d been out of school–like we were all on some accelerated emotional growth spurt. Except Sam’s growth spurt seemed more like a nosedive. He kept talking about bringing booze and stuff to the party until Ben actually quit talking to him by text or Snapchat, not to mention in person. It wasn’t that either Ben or I were that judgmental; it’s just that we both could picture my dad being so disappointed that a party at his house turned out the way I knew it would if Sam brought loads of alcohol and some of the kids he’d been hanging with since vacation.
When we brought Celeste home from Chicago and got everything settled in at Dad’s, I can say I was almost perfectly happy. I had left the information about Ria Benevides with the attorney in Chicago, and he said he would find out her status, but he gave little hope that the baby herself had a positive path ahead. She could not be adopted legally under existing laws and actually was in the same situation as Luis–a baby brought illegally into the U.S. under laws Congress was bungling, avoiding, mismanaging.
I tried not to think of that, but rather to turn my attention to Ben and Celeste, to Dad, and for once, to myself. Ben seemed happier, too–out from under the shadow of a father who seemed only to disappoint. In low moments, I blamed myself for choosing Ben Sr. in the first place, for being so immature and insecure that I had made bad choices. But most of the time I worked on forgiving myself and, actually forgiving Ben Sr., too. I felt grateful for new beginnings.
Eventually, after wrestling with the possibilities, Lenna and I decided to move the party out to Grands’ house in the country and un-invite Sam. I mean, what would you have done?
She’d contact Maya and a bunch of other kids, and I’d invite Everett to come down from Muncie. Mom and Grands were pretty happy that I was branching out and promised to make only brief appearances for the cookout part and to leave the barn open for dancing and stuff after dinner. The best part was that Grands said he’d open the attic and air it out in case anyone wanted to spend the night instead of driving home after dark. Life can be good.
We decided on July 4 as the date for the party, which left us only a few days to notify everybody and switch the party from Lenna’s to Grands’. Mom was super busy with Celeste and working things out with Dad, but she didn’t seem depressed at all. She seemed quite energized. She even put out a few decorations on the front of the house for the party. I emailed this photo to Lenna in case she wanted to send e-vites with the corrected address. I was pretty proud of how everything looked.
Lest this sounds too nearly perfect, I have to tell you that on July 3, I had it out with both Sam and my dad. Sam said he wouldn’t come to any party in the sticks whether he was invited or not and that I’d been an immature jerk about the tequila. He said if he never talked to me again it would be too soon and that he was going to sabotage my website. I told him that website hadn’t been updated or functional for quite a while, which let me know how often he read anything on it, and he ended with this: “Bean-boy…the only reason you have anyone to read or to listen to anything you say is because of me. Consider yourself un-friended.”
That hurt. I just had to keep my eye on the fact that Lenna, Maya, and about a dozen other kids were coming out the next day, as well as Everett and this one other junior from his school in Muncie. Only Everett and his friend were staying over, but from about 2:00 to 8:00 p.m., at least a dozen people I have some respect for would be swimming in the creek, having the run of the barn, and cooking out on the patio.
I’d let the farm speak for itself. If everyone walked away thinking I lived in the sticks, so be it.
While I was still shaky from my phone conversation with Sam, my dad called. He said mom had told him that I still wanted to use the condo address so I could stay in my school district. He could go along with that, he said, if I’d spend one night a week there and have at least one meal out with him every week.
“You’re a changed man,” I snipped. “I don’t remember any interest in eating out with me any other time over the past year or two.”
He didn’t answer for a while, and then he finally said, “That’s the deal; take it or leave it.”
Three important things happened on July 4th that I will remember for a very long time. The first was that Lenna gave me a photo she and Maya had taken in Destin and told me I could put it on my desk and take that bathing-suity Snapchat photo off my phone. I have Sam to thank for telling her about that. So I have this real photo, not electronic or anything.
Then, Everett brought this other guy from his school and we hit it off and talked all night after everybody left–about girls and physics and other ideas that interest the heck out of me–and I even told them about the dolphin and the deer, and they didn’t blink. Everett’s friend, Jamie Steinkuhl, who is super interested in biology, told me that mammals like that are quite advanced and that’s why he’s a vegetarian. Everett said that I was exactly the kind of student who would love The Academy, and I should consider going there. That was a lot more up gratifying than hearing Sam say he was the only reason I had any traction whatsoever at ZIS, and though I didn’t want to leave Ceci or Mom and Grands to go to a residential school, at least I considered Muncie to be a viable option if Dad pulled the rug out from under me.
The third thing I’ll remember for a very long time is everything about the whole day. Of course, nobody actually danced after the cookout, despite my killer sound system that took me an entire afternoon to set up outside, but we did go into the barn and sit around and talk about what it might be like to have horses in the stalls and to have another party in the fall after school started. Maya said this was one great place–especially since it was only about thirty minutes out of town.
We talked about what it would be like next year as full International Baccalaureate candidates, and I admitted to Lenna something I could finally articulate: If I had my way, I wouldn’t be in IB. I’d take a part-time job someplace like her dad’s pharmacy and spend weekends with Ceci and get a dog and maybe a horse and branch out. I mean, I’d take AP and all, but I’d like to be on the paper staff and try some other stuff, too. I admitted that I’d chosen IB for the status and not the substance. I felt a sense of relief for admitting that out loud, though it didn’t change too much about the struggles I have in the self-confidence department. Still, even one good friend makes a person look at himself in a better light, and I was beginning to see that I had that–and more.
Ben’s party was fun. We talked until past dark, when most of us had to get on the road. We talked about how high school was nothing but choices and how we should learn to listen to ourselves. I told Ben I wanted to stay on the golf team when I got to college, and Ben said he wasn’t sure where he wanted to commit his time. Then I told Ben something I’d learned from reading Joseph Campbell: “Follow your bliss, B.A. Starr. Follow your bliss.” It’s funny how sometimes I remember the exact words I say to Ben, and the exact words he says back to me. Sometimes we’re just in sync, like we’ve known each other for a very long time–much longer than this lifetime.
And he never makes fun of me for reading things like Joseph Campbell. That’s worth a lot.
After July 4th, there was no way I could imagine Ben at another school and not Zion International, so I told him to just call his dad and agree to spend Friday nights with him. Ben reasoned that at least he’d have his blackboard and desktop computer, not to mention a very short drive from school at the end of the week. He finally admitted he could survive one night with his dad. I was hoping he’d apply for my Saturday job at my dad’s since I’d be off in Bloomington.
Sundays, Ben said, would definitely be for Ceci and walks in the woods with his dog, which I thought was pretty funny, since he doesn’t have a dog. I know a lot of people think the things Ben is interested in aren’t very macho, but that’s what I like most about him; he doesn’t even know that being who he is makes him totally unqualified for machismo (I learned that in Spanish class); none of that ever enters his mind.
I can’t let go of this image of Ben and his mom, who is super cool in my opinion, walking up the gravel drive last Tuesday when I drove out for the party. Ben had Ceci strapped to his chest in a baby carrier, and his mom was fidgeting and worrying about whether he was holding Celeste’s head up right and all.
Ben has a nice family.
Lyin’, I’m dyin’.
The month of July has been hard. Despite my happiness with many things here in the country, I received a letter early in July from the lawyer in Chicago indicating that he had found records for a Maria Benevides, age 24, who had been deported toward the end of May and sent to Nuevo Laredo. Two days after reentering, she had been abducted by a cartel and murdered, probably by a relative. I cannot even fully process that right now. And I certainly can’t confide in Ben, who still knows none of this. Since the first of July, he’s been happier than I’ve seen him in a long time.
I learned from the bank that the money order I sent to Liberty Road on 7/15 has not yet been cashed, and though my heart tells me to return and find Luis and the baby, reality prevents that. It’s not only about Ceci (Ben’s name, which I like); it’s about Ben himself. I’ve spent the last half of July taking him into Indianapolis because of Sam. Also, we have a farm full of animals and I’m fixing up the attic room “just in case.” More on all that later.
I knew from the moment I got home on July 14 after golf practice that something was wrong. I could just feel it. Within the hour, I got a call from Maya saying that Sam Anchors had been in a car accident. He was already sixteen and had his license. I immediately called Ben, who said he had a bit of a conflict about coming into town because he and Sam were not on very good terms, plus Ben couldn’t drive yet. None of us knew how bad the accident was, so I agreed to go to the hospital and keep Ben posted.
Maya went with me, and that was the only reason we found out how serious the accident was because her mom was on duty in the emergency room. No one was allowed in except Sam’s parents, so Maya’s mom came out to the reception area to to talk with us.
Sam had been driving alone, had hit a tree, and was currently stabilized, but in critical condition. His legs were at least temporarily paralyzed, he had a spinal injury, and that was all she could tell us.
Isn’t it unbelievable how everything can change in an afternoon? All of a sudden, being unfriended meant nothing, school alliances meant nothing, even divorce and jobs and money had no relevance.
We called Ben and a few other kids from school and all of us waited in the hospital lobby until Maya’s mom came out at midnight and told us we needed to go home, that Sam was breathing on his own, and that she thought he would be upgraded to serious condition. The funny thing was, none of Sam’s wild hotshot friends were the ones in the waiting room. It was Ben, his mom, Maya and I, Pat Murphy, Ann Herrera (Sam’s old girlfriend from middle school), and this good friend of Sam’s family, Zahra Kahn. We looked like a sad, scaled-down version of the United Nations…just waiting.
For the rest of July we spent almost every afternoon at St. Michael Memorial Hospital. At first, Sam couldn’t see us, and we spent hours just talking with each other. Most of the time there was some combination of Ben, Maya and I, and occasionally Pat, Ann, or Zahra.
We talked about everything from school to the recent report in the newspaper that Sam had been driving under the influence, which most of us had already guessed. When the conversations trickled away from people and events, we talked about books we’d read, Ben’s party, and even that quote from Joseph Campbell about following your bliss. All young people aren’t air-headed; we can be quite thoughtful, even when our brains are darting all over the place.
Maya was entertaining the idea of taking a “gap year” away from school for travel, even though she had been accepted to IU (and five other schools) and had paid her deposit to hold her place in Bloomington. Sam’s wreck had changed a lot for all of us, made us begin to think of what was important.
I personally liked the conversations best when Ben’s mom joined us, which she usually did when she drove Ben in. I remember this one conversation in the waiting room the day before they finally let us see Sam. Only Ben, his mom, and I were there at the time. Ms. Starr was a big fan of Joseph Campbell, too, and she said she believed what he had said about finding the track you are supposed to be on–that it’s there all the time waiting for you.
“I think it’s true,” she said, “Absolutely true. Some light in the universe steers us. Especially if we lose our way.” She’s very other-worldly like that. Plus I think she wanted to help us think about our real values–and give us ideas about how to do the right thing as far as Sam was concerned.
She added a lot to our discussions, trying to make sense of the accident and talking about how we’d all come to this particular place together. In a way she was like a guide for us. I think the conversations did something for her, too. She said she’d been thinking for a long time about giving up teaching her online classes. “Grading is not my bliss,” she said.
“So what is?” Ben asked her.
“I think children. You and Celeste…and William, too, and other children here and gone.” She was very quiet then. Finally she said, “I’d really like to run a country daycare when Celeste is little, and then graduate to a preschool and maybe even a Montessori primary school. You know, follow her as she grows up. Help her and help other children.”
I told her she’d be perfect for that. Ben asked if enough people would be willing to drive out to a country school or daycare thirty minutes from town.
“I do think so. I really do,” she said. “Your granddad says he’d love to see some life breathed into those empty rooms in the house. There’s plenty of space. And I believe in doors that open.” As I said, I think she said all of those things, not only to work out her own ideas, but to help us think.
The certified check to Luis from 7/15 has never been cashed, and that gives me an ominous feeling. I’ll wait to send another when this one is cashed, and maybe in the fall we can take the bug back down to Key Largo. I have to tell you that late at night I am haunted by the vision of that baby on Luis’s shoulder. Maybe I should have taken her home with me, but the legality of that is mind-boggling. My inaction there has taken the place of the torment over my inaction over Bepa–though the $10,000 to save her wouldn’t have been accessible to me.
I remember this one scene from the movie Gandhi when a man who had killed a baby, I think a Muslim infant, asked Gandhi how he could atone. If I am remembering this correctly, the man was a Hindu, and Gandhi told him to find an orphan, a Muslim, and raise him in his own religious tradition. A Hindu raising a Muslim child. The clarity of that scene fades for me, but not the message: All children are our children.
I need financial independence, and I could get that, maybe, with a school or daycare of my own. I need to set about doing the things I feel called to do.
After Sam left intensive care, I spent a lot of time walking with Lucy in the woods, thinking about the accident and friendships overall, including my relationship with Sam, which was slightly on the mend. I thought about where we’d all been a year ago.
Speaking only for myself, I am definitely a different person from the kid that stayed holed up in a room writing blog posts.
Sometimes mom and Ceci walked with me, too, and by the first of August I was clear I needed to be at ZIS to help Sam and to try to get along with dad, though I knew that would never be a perfect relationship. I told mom that Sam had actually been happy to see all of us, even me, and that we’d agreed to tutor him while he was in rehab to recover the use of his legs. I’d tutor in calculus and AP Physics, Zahra would help in global econ. Of course, Lenna would be off at school. I hated to lose her and Maya both, and secretly, I was hoping for the gap year idea.
Early in August on this one day when we came in from our walk and were passing the barn, Ceci got super fussy and mom took her inside. I turned back and went into the barn to see what Grands had been doing to fix up the place for Paxton and Lucy. That’s when I saw it. Above the first stall, a bronze plaque had been nailed to the wall.
Bennett Starr’s PAXTON AND LUCY LOU
Having my name on a bronze plaque in Grands’ old barn was better than seeing my name on any website anywhere.
Maybe there is a Grand Scheme. If there might be, and I still wasn’t sure, I was grateful at that moment to be in it.
Lucy and Paxton had grown quite attached to me, and the feeling was mutual, like we were meant to end up in this barn and on this farm. I don’t know how to explain it. I remembered my mom’s theory about finding what we need to find. She’d said, less than three months ago, that nature and books helped, of course, but that we had something inside ourselves that hooked up to the truths that swirled outside of us. At least now I believed in that possibility–that there might be some truths we can understand if we pay attention.
I bent down to scratch behind Lucy’s ears, and I told her that when things fall apart around us and we lose our way, we both should remember this moment of perfect peace. She just licked my face.
August 18, 2017
I was cleaning up Ben’s room yesterday (yes, I know it’s his responsibility, but he was in town at a newspaper staff meeting, and I couldn’t stand it any longer). I found this painting of our yellow bug under his bed, and it was signed Anne-Marie with an email address. When I turned the painting over, there it was, the indigo ink. Just a smear of the tint, but I knew it. The disappearing ink!
At first I just slid the painting back under the bed, but my uncertainty about Luis and Esperanza got the better of me, and I emailed the address on the front of the painting. God, forgive me for so many things, including boundary violations, but I have to know about the mystery of the ink and 333 Liberty Road. Maybe this will lessen my anxiety about Luis.
August 21, 2017
It’s for certain that I will be in school at Zion International, and I’m be junior editor of the online newspaper. I have a job at McNair’s Pharmacy on Saturdays, and I’ve enrolled in four Advanced Placement classes and un-enrolled in IB. I mean, I respect IB like crazy, but I can’t do it justice since I have a much longer to drive to school and have new responsibilities to Ceci and the gang (by gang I mean Lucy, Paxton, Mom, and Grands). Oh, and to Sam.
I’ll miss Lenna (and probably Maya), and I’ll even miss the dream of dating an older woman (Lenna McNair), but that never would have worked. Some things just feel right the way they are. Anyway, Lenna’s been a big part of what I consider the new and improved me, and I expect we’ll be friends for a long time.
I’ve had two “dinners” with Dad, AND get this, Miss Reinhart, my fifth grade teacher! Dad’s dating her! I guess you know that, though, since you’re the universe and all. It’s a little awkward, but OK overall. I must say that since the divorce, Dad’s been a slightly softer person, though he’s still not melted into the squishy category–nowhere near it.
Neither has Sam. He has an ego the size of the tenderloin sandwiches down at the Bar-B-Q Shack (huuge), but still, he’s changed, too.
Because of our afternoons at the hospital and the summer staff meetings, I’ve become good friends with Pat Murphy, the ZIS newspaper editor. (Actually, it’s not technically a paper, since it’s online. I don’t know how I feel about that.) Anyway, Pat has a distressing home life, but he’s smart and he studies; he’ll get a scholarship and get the heck out of here. In the meantime, I think our friendship is good for him. I know it’s good for me. He’s a very genuine person. And mom fixed up the attic room for him so that if things get too bad at home, he has a place to go. All my friends have sort of adopted my mom, and that’s o.k. with me.
I have several other new buddies on staff, and I’ve given up on labeling people by IB and AP or any other extraneous status. It doesn’t matter.
Also, I guess you know, I have my own column in every issue of the online paper, so I won’t have much time, if any, for my website. What I mean is, I might not be writing you for awhile, but I’ll keep my ear out for anything you have to comment.
On the financial front, I still have more than three quarters of my $1000 summer money, and when I get my license, Grands said I could drive the truck if I put in the gas and pay part of the insurance. Heck, that truck’s so old, insurance doesn’t amount to much, even for me. Plus, I’ll have my job. I might get to drive the yellow bug sometimes, but I’m not pushing my luck.
Overall, I don’t feel so much like an alien anymore. It’s like my wheel’s in the track and my car’s on the road–at least for now. As a matter of fact, I’m looking forward to being back in school, especially in AP Government, since politics this year reminds me of the Twilight Zone. (Grands turned me on to that show, though we only have this one small-screen TV up in the attic, so we rarely watch anything.)
Julie’s been to our house only once, and she just acts like she’s Celeste’s aunt or something. She doesn’t come around too often since she says the house she grew up in is not her idea of a desirable destination.
It’s my idea of one. I feel as if I’ve found my way home.
From the outside, it might seem that I lost a lot: a fancy condo, our old family, William, a good bit of security that came from dad’s money–not to mention that mom’s given up her job to start a daycare. The old, uncomplicated relationship with Sam is definitely gone, but we’re threading our way through some kind of new pattern. He’s not always the strong one now.
But all of us, family and friends included, have found some pretty important things, too. If you count all we’ve lost in the last year and stack it up beside all we’ve found, I think it’s clear to see which side wins.
I don’t really miss my desktop computer and all my electronics back at the condo since I have my laptop and don’t hang around inside day after day, the way I used to. And, BTW… I no longer keep everything important on my phone or my computer. I’m not ashamed to say that I keep most of it in that part of my mind that must be my heart.
P.S. Oh, and Universe…one more thing:
There’s this line in Hamlet, a play we studied sophomore year. Hamlet says, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Horatio was Hamlet’s best friend and all.)
I always pegged Horatio’s philosophy as purely science…what he could touch and prove and see. He was my favorite character in the play. But now I think Hamlet might have been on to something.
There is a lot of mystery, including this vision that Sam said he experienced when he was unconscious after the accident.
But that’s a strange story for another time, though I do promise to tell you about it.
Lenna, today I got an email from France. From Anne-Marie Delapointe. I reprint it here for you–to complete the circle of the story.
Dear Ms. Alton,
Yes, I do remember your visit to the Dolphin Center in June, and, yes, I did draw the map for Ben. On the back, in invisible ink, I drew the map to Luis’s house. If you hold the drawing over heat, the image will re-emerge.
Of course, the invisible ink was so that no one could trace the route if you lost the paper.
Yes, I was interfering, but I felt the two of you might offer hope for Luis. After his aunt was deported, his family, including his cousin, Esperanza, was in danger. For the last few weeks that he and I worked at the Research Center, your checks were life-savers. In the end, because of the uncertainty of the political climate, Luis made a plan to take Esperanza back to Mexico City, avoiding the border cities.
I believe that he and Esperanza are with his mother, Ria’s sister, and if the U.S. makes progress on the DACA kids’ status, he will probably try to come back and finish college…if he can. Who knows. I can’t say more than this in an email, but I think we both can feel good about what we did in June and July. The world is our village, n’est pas?
Once Lenna left for college, she showed me the compilation of all she had put together from my mom’s notes and the experiences from her senior year. She had it all on a Word document, and I’ve copied most of it to this website.
She said she wouldn’t be adding to the pages, but I could keep it all together and add anything I wanted. “And I hope you will,” she said, with that definitive tone that meant, “Do it.”
I was stunned by quite a lot of what she’d written, and for the sake of truth, I did change a few things and add my perspective here and there. I worked on her pieces and my own for all of first semester.
My journalism teacher, Ms. K, is the most trustworthy person I know, outside of my mom, Grands, and maybe Lenna, and I interested her in this website project for the school year 2017-2018. I didn’t let her read the first part, in order not to muddy the water, but I asked her to comment once a week on what I was writing during first semester–from her perspective. “Maybe we’ll have a book,” I suggested. “A little extra money.”
“Maybe we’ll just chronicle the year and practice your, I mean ‘our’ journalistic writing,” she laughed.
She liked the idea.
I wrote my electronic journal entries exactly the opposite way from Lenna’s collection. Lenna had all the notes and website entries and tied them together with her own memories–looking backward. I kept the entries from September of 2017 and wrote forward. I included Ms. K’s insights and also emails and letters from Maya and Lenna. So here you have the totally improbable way the story came full circle.
Friday, September 1, 2017
We agreed on the plan right after Pat Murphy got beat up by his dad for asking about a signature on his college financial aid form.
“I’ll sign the damn paper when you learn a few everyday skills and get your nose out of them books,” he said to Pat. That was the week Mr. Murphy got laid off at the Carrier Plant, and it probably wasn’t the best time to ask, but there are senior deadlines on all that stuff.
Anyway, Pat’s dad is known for alcohol and violence, and that’s why my mom got temporary custody about a month ago and Pat started staying up in our attic room instead of going home. I mean, he goes home every once in a while to see his mom, but he mostly sleeps at our house.
We live about 30 minutes outside of Indy, and Pat likes it out there with us, though he isn’t“home”very much. He has a job at a local restaurant and takes the hardest classes at school, plus he’s the newspaper editor, and we have this high-powered journalism program that’s always winning awards and everything. That’s mainly because of Ms. K, our advisor, who’s super cool, even though she’s in her 60s; she knows a lot about journalism and kids and just about everything.
My mom got temporary custody of Pat after spending part of the summer with all of us at the hospital when Sam wrecked his car and was paralyzed for a while. He’s better now, in every possible way—including ego issues—but he still walks with an uncertain gait, and we have to tutor him for all the days he missed the first two weeks of school.
One night in August when we were waiting to get in to see Sam after his accident, Pat arrived at the hospital with a bad burn from his dad’s cigarette and my mom said, “Enough. You’re going home with us.” It wasn’t the first time Pat had to put up with stuff like that. Momgot a lawyer, and Pat’s dad has a restraining order.
Anyway, Pat gets a kick (not literally, thank god) out of our neighbors like Mr. Garrett and Tessa Albritton, and that’s where he got the idea that changed our entire year upside down—in a good way. We were sitting around trying to decide on an editorial focus for the year for our school newspaper, The First Amendment. As I said, we’ve won some awards, and the whole group of kids is like a team. Anyway, Pat said we should run columns with common sense solutions and common vocabulary.
“Take serious issues and insert a little humor,” Pat said, “and use a voice like the time Mr. Garrett saidhe wished Donald Trump would make America un-embarrassing again.”
“Your column could be like a white paper,” Ann Herrera said, “you know, where a problem is exposedand a solution is proposed.”
“But make it funny, like you used to do on your old website. Those posts were the best,” Micahsaid. That’s when Ms. K chimed in: “It could be like a Red Neck White Paper, funny, but respectful.”
“Yeah,”Ann said, “Your tone could be like What the heck happened to America?”
“I’ve got it!” Pat said. “We could have a series: ‘The Red Neck White Paper Blues’.”
And that’s where the winning column got its name. All the rest came later.
Some graduating classes are magical—like they’re packed for the journey with laughing gas and gifted granules before they enter the world. Pat Murphy’s class was like that–like diversity dust rained down on a whole group of kids who were meant to come together, like some strong hand gathered them up and said, “You’ll be the ones to shine; you’ll be our best hope.”
That was the whole class of 2018 at Indiana International School: Pat Murphy, Zahra Kahn, Ann Herrera and the juniors they mentored—Ben Starr and Micah McNair, to name a few. And I got to share the two best years of my teaching career with all of them, laugh at all the late-night craziness when we were putting the online paper to bed. Eventually, after solving the mystery of the missing FAFSA form, we all traveled halfway across the globe together. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We were like two ships passing, those kids on the way to challenge the status quo and I myself heading in the opposite direction on my way to retire. The two years we traveled alongside one another made bearable (almost) the heartache of their leaving to colleges across the country.
The core of all that happened began in a September newspaper meeting right after the school year began. Pat Murphy, the editor, was late to the meeting—very uncharacteristic of Pat—and we’d been talking about what editorial focuswe could come up with. About ten minutes in, Pat entered the room through the open classroom door, but sat in the back. None of the other staffers heard him come in, and since they were facing me, no one else could see his bruised face. I didn’t say anything, just watched his eye puff bigger and bigger until it was almost closed. The look on his face said “Don’t say anything. Just don’t say anything.” So I waited.
Quite a dilemma, since teachers are required to report violence or abuse, and no doubt he needed attention. But for the first few minutes I stayed quiet as the kids kept throwing around ideas about legalizing marijuana and school choice–topics no one would even read except the person who wrote the articles. If I weren’t so alarmed about Pat, I would have yawned to give them the hint that they were way off the mark if they wanted to make a difference.
Finally Pat spoke from the back of the room. “What about focusing on things that affect us every day, things in our own circles.” The entire room turned to face Pat, and Ben Starr got up to get ice from the staff refrigerator without saying a word.
I kept thinking, “I have to report this…” but heard myself saying instead, “How can I help here?”
“Don’t worry, Ms. K.” Ben’s voice was calm. “Just call my mom. Pat’s going home with me. We have a room ready forhim upstairs, and my mom is listed as temporary guardian. Social Services already knows about this.”
All of that was true, and everyone in the room clearly knew the history, except for me. I realized I had a lot to learn.
The staff meeting didn’t end then. Quite the opposite. The group came up with the best editorial idea I’ve ever supervised, and when Ben’s mom arrived at the door to take Ben and Pat home, we were in the middle of a discussion right out of the 60s. These kids were going to spend the year looking for America.
And I was lucky enough to tag along.
I heard about your plan to run a series on America, and I just wanted you to know that in this so-called “gap year” I’m taking, I plan to visit every state in this so-called “union.” HA! Disunion is more like it, but maybe I can be a force for good somehow…you know, Make America Relate Again!
Oops—off the topic. Anyway, as a proud alumna of The First Amendment, I’d be glad to contribute to the editorial series by sending in reflections as I travel.
My first stop was to visit your old flame Lenna (HA! again) in Bloomington on my way to Ohio. She’s loving IU, but you probably already know that. Anyway, after Ohio, it’s on to Pennsylvania to see my aunt and then on to New Jersey and New York; I’m really glad to have Bloomberg with me because the road can be a lonely though fascinating place between friend-stops. I’m writing everything down in the journal you gave me for graduation and I miss you all!
Maya, the Rover
(not the dog, the girl)
Bloomberg is Maya’s cat, named after a fat cat in Franny and Zooey, this Salinger novel we read in Academic Olympics last year. I wrote Maya back and told her I’d love something for the paper from New York–or from anywhere else.
My task now, I wrote her, is to get Mr. Garrett to agree to be a part of our little Red Neck White Paper project. Here’s how that went down:
The first Sunday in October, just after sunrise, I took my dog Lucy out in the pick-up, cruising down the highway listening to some vintage Mellencamp. Lucy sat in the passenger seat smiling like a person out for an early drive at the beginning of fall. We turned the music up, and I watched the gold and pink bands in the rearview mirror as we drove west. I couldn’t help but recall that three months ago I made this same trip in search of a dog and some degree of security and happiness during a family break-up (that I didn’t totally mind), hoping that a change—moving to the country to live with my granddad, my mom, my cousin/sister Ceci (another story for another day) and a dog—might turn around the luck in the Starr family.
So far, so good. My mom loves it out here in the country, and so do I. I don’t think either one of us misses dad. I hate to say it, but my dog Lucy is way more company.
I turned onto Gramercy Lane and when I saw Mr. Garrett’s barn ahead, I knew immediately he was already up working because the lights were on in the first out-building.
I visit Mr. Garrett fairly often since moving out here because I like him, and also, he lives alone, and, I don’t know, it just seems like the thing to do. He’s a big guy, a little soft around the middle, but not soft at all in the thinking department. He’s sharp and he knows a lot. He used to be a Marine, but not many people know that.
“Ben!” he boomed when he saw me. He seemed happy that I surprised him, and even happier to see Lucy, who used to be his dog. “What brings you here at this time of the morning?” He rubbed his hands through Lucy’s ears and she ran up and down the center aisle between the stalls.
“I have a favor to ask,” I said. “I want your good thinking on a few things, and I want to be able to quote you in our school paper.”
“You’re kidding me, kid,” he said.
“No, no, I’m serious. There’s just one catch, Mr. Garrett. I want to use exactly your words without editing because I want to, well, sort of hear the voice of middle America.”
“Are you makin’ fun?” he asked, first thing.
“No. No…nothing like that. We’re actually looking to honor a moderate voice, but I want to make the pieces funny, too, and you’re not going to like the name of the column.”
He drew his eyes together, but he didn’t ask me what we were going to call the project. He stood there with his hands in his parka, circling his wide stomach and rocked forward toward where I was standing. “What subjects?”
I looked into his wide face, his gray eyes, and gathered my courage. “Politics. Social issues.” We talked a few more minutes before he took his big paw-like hands out of his pockets and offered wide calloused fingers for a handshake. He said he’d give it a try because he actually had a few things to say on those issues, but I had to let him read what I wrote before publication. That’s strictly against good journalistic practice, but I gave in just to get the thing moving. My first column was due in less than 24 hours.
He drew up an old wooden feed box and told me to sit, and he rested his foot on the edge. It sort of gave him a psychological advantage, towering over me, but if he’d talk, so be it. “Shoot,” he said.
“I want to know what you think about the current political situation in general.”
He rubbed his eyes and waited for a few seconds before speaking. “Ben, when I was about your age we had a Simon and Garfunkel song called, ‘America,’ and in it this girl and guy were on a bus, pessimistic, driving across the country, ‘all come to look for America.’ That’s what it feels like now, all these years later. Serious business that hasn’t changed in fifty years: greed, racism, stupidity. Folks voting for wrestlers and reality TV stars that don’t read.”
I interrupted, “But I thought you were a conservative, Mr. Garrett.”
“I am, Ben, but I ain’t a traitor. This thing with Russia is serious. I don’t know how you’re gonna make that funny in your newspaper.”
“Well, I might lighten it up some,” I said.
“I’m just a country redneck Vietnam vet that loves the USA. I’m just an old farmer who had enough sense to know Iraq was a mistake and the Syria’s just a proxy war. I get some things wrong, but, you know, when I was a boy in grade school, we used to have fallout drills. Nuclear disaster drills. Don’t nobody with a sense of history trust Russia.”
“So what do you think is our biggest problem in all this mess?”
What Mr. Garrett said next really surprised me. “Education,” he said. “Thomas Jefferson warned us we couldn’t have a democracy with uneducated people. This country needs to learn the difference between entertainment and serious business.”
We spent a while talking about everything from George Bush to Oprah Winfrey to the Constitution, and I got quite a lot for my piece. It was nearing 8 am when I got up to go.
“One more thing,” I said. My story was already taking shape in my head, and I’d kept him way too long from his chores. “What about the Dreamers? The DACA kids?”
“Well, I’ll tell you Ben. Two of ‘em worked for me this past summer, and their status is up for renewal next month. What the hell are they going to do now? Good kids. Great kids.”
“What do you think we should do?” I kept thinking about the idea that a “white paper” introduced solutions.
“Follow the money, Ben. Everything that’s wrong with the way America’s acting right now, at home and all across the globe can be figured out if you follow the money.”
“Thanks, Mr. Garrett.” I was getting excited. “Hold that thought for column two. I’ll bring this article over to you tonight. It’s writing itself right now in my mind.”
“Don’t come all the way back over here, boy.” He was rubbing Lucy’s head and smiling at me like I’d be surprised by what was coming next. “Just text me. Copy and paste. Your granddad has my number.”
“Got it!” I said. “Thanks a lot.”
And this is what he got 12 hours later. We were both pretty proud of it.
Alex Garrett, by his own admission is “just a country redneck Vietnam vet that loves the USA.”
On a recent Sunday morning, with the sun rising out the east window of his barn in north Hamilton County (he has three barns, five horses, two dogs and a peacock or two) he told me that education could save this country–and young people.
He said he’d given up on Congress and old white men, and that surprised the heck out of me because he is one. No offense to Mr. Garrett, but he said it himself: “I’m just an old farmer who had enough sense to know Iraq was a mistake and the Syria’s just a proxy war. I get some things wrong, but, you know, when I was a boy in grade school, we used to have fallout drills. Nuclear disaster drills. Don’t nobody with a sense of history trust Russia.”
I’d gone out almost to the county line to ask Mr. Garrett about some perplexing issues, like Russian interference in our elections, DACA kids, gun violence, and other divisive American crises. His answer to untangling all of it and setting things right: “Follow the money.”
But one thing at a time; Russia first.
Alex Garrett is a Marine who fought in Vietnam, and he says Putin’s goal is to destabilize all democracies, whether through Brexit or Facebook (yes, he has an account) and to Make Russia Great Again.
“You have no idea what we’re up against,” he told me as the sun rose higher and the October maple out the barn window turned from shadow to light.
“What’s the answer, in detailed steps?” I asked him.
“Every kid in America, no matter how poor the school, technical or academic, should be takin’ Advanced History 101, 102 and beyond. Pay good teachers to link the smallest rural or inner-city school—even those with the lowest expectations—to the rest of the world through an understandin’ of history. They’ll wake up, I guarantee you, and they’ll take it from there.”
“That’s a long-haul plan,” I reminded him. “What do we do now about election meddling and leaders who turn a blind eye to Putin?”
Here Mr. Garrett got cryptic on me. “Believe me, Ben Starr; by a year or so from now, this administration will fall at the hands of your generation, at the hands of those kids who already have a good education in American and European history. You best beware; you best be on the move. Mark my words.
“You know,” he continued, “I’ve never told anyone this before, but when I was seriously injured in VietNam, I had a near-death experience. There was this vision I had that I’ve never lost, and in it, young people your age were being born all at one time, rising up, lifting into light. Since that time, I’ve never doubted that right wins eventually and that the arc of history bends toward justice. Sometimes it takes a long time.”
I don’t know if he’s psychic or what, but I’m reporting that this the year we at The First Amendment are going to look for America and for answers to the identity and maybe the salvation of this nation in a turbulent international time, and we plan to uncover answers.
Alex Garrett was the first stop on our figurative trip across America, and he predicts we won’t come up empty-handed.
Follow this column.
OMG, Ben…you should see the text I got from Lenna about your column. She’s going to ask you to a party at IU, and she wants do cover a joint assignment with you on the DACA kids and turn it in for her Journalism 101 class. I had to tell you before she contacts you to remind you who gets the real scoops! Me!
I arrived in New York on October 15, and it’s the most beautiful, electric city in the universe. My gap year tour might end right here.
When I read your column on Mr. Garrett, I fell in love with you for real. I’m serious!
…to be continued
Julia H. Gregg
Julia Hightower Gregg has been a columnist for the Evansville Courier and Press, a teacher, writer, and consultant. She is a founding member of Signature School, where she taught Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate English for 16 years. Wild Sweet Orange Ride is her first book, published by Vineyard Stories, and Threads, a children’s story, is her second book, published in 2016. On this site, window 6, is the electronic version of her young adult novel, A Coastal Map in Indigo Ink.
THREADS, a children’s book, and WILD SWEET ORANGE RIDE, nonfiction, can be ordered for $19.95 plus $3.05 for postage. Indiana residents include $1.40 sales tax. Mail to 13486 E. 131st St., Fishers, IN 46037.