I lived through most of the Great Depression and the scarcity of World War II, so I received a good education in how to make things last. By the time I was eight years old, for example, I was an expert at patching. When I got big enough to inherit a much-worn pair of Pop’s jeans, they already had thirteen patches.
When my father’s 1929 Buick was past its use as a family car, he cut down the body to make a pickup truck. When it finally didn’t run anymore, he took out the engine and used it to power the pump on a well.
We didn’t throw away our shoes when there were holes in the soles. Instead we went to the dime store and bought new soles and glued them on. We would wear shoes until the uppers came apart and then maybe use the leather to make a slingshot. Men’s shirts weren’t thrown away when the collars and cuffs became frayed: we cut them out with a razor blade, turned them over, and sewed them back into place. We used feed sacks for pillowcases and underwear, and the more colorful ones became children’s dresses and aprons.
If there was a hole in a pail, we fixed it with a nut and bolt, which we tightened until it was waterproof. When bedsheets wore out in the middle, we simply split them lengthwise, sewed the outer edges together, and hemmed the frayed portion to make it smooth. (Having a seam in the center of the sheet was a minor inconvenience.)
Meanwhile the keys of this fifty-year-old typewriter on which I’m writing seem to be sticking. I guess I’ll put it aside and bring out the spare, which is older.
San Simon, Arizona
The fight breaks out at the beginning of yard time, as they always seem to do. Four inmates exchange blows on the dirt walking track where it passes behind the softball backstop. It is over as quickly as it begins and would probably have gone unnoticed if one of the inmates hadn’t grunted loudly. That familiar guttural sound got everyone’s attention.
A two-way radio crackles, and we inmates who aren’t fighting instinctively take our places on the ground. Most of us are cursing, knowing what’s sure to come: a facility lockdown, all inmates confined to their cells, no outside time.
The security officers jog onto the yard, hands on mace canisters and frowns on sweaty faces. Within minutes the culprits are cuffed and taken away. The yard is now still. The cold of the ground seeps into my bones as I listen to my breath and wait. The few guards left to watch us seem bored. Maybe yard time will continue.
One by one we stand and quietly resume our pace, walking the track, hoping not to hear the address system explode with that dreaded word, Lockdown! I make one lap, then two. This unexpected time is so precious: the memorized ruts, the pebbles I’ve kicked every day for over a year, the patches of grass and weeds. I walk slowly, savoring each moment.
Three years after we were married, my husband and I moved to the island of Trinidad in the West Indies, where he was born. Island life was very different from our former existence in New York. My husband played soccer, hockey, or cricket after work and spent a lot of time at the club. Our family grew to seven, but we had servants to help with the house and the children, and I soon became bored. I took a job with a local manufacturing company and made new friends. My husband and I grew apart, and, after much thought, we decided to divorce. I would return to the States with the children, who would visit him from time to time in Trinidad.
I called my mom to tell her the news and ask if the kids and I could stay with her and Dad for about six months until I got a job in New York. I’d expected her to be thrilled, because she’d been wanting to see her grandchildren more, but there was not a sound on the other end of the line.
“Mom, did you hear me?” I asked. “I’ll be back home in about two weeks, and you and the kids can really get to know each other.”
Again, silence. Then, in a very soft voice, she asked, “My child, do you by any chance remember the promise you and your husband made at your wedding?”
I was astonished, then angry. “Mom, please be serious. I’ve booked our flight and will explain everything when I get home.”
She whispered, “ ‘For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, till death do us part.’ ” When I tried to protest, she said, “I know you and your husband will do what is right. Just make it last. I love you both. Bye now.”
I couldn’t believe it. How could she not want me and the children close to her? I did not speak to her for two years.
Three of the kids and I went to stay with a cousin in Florida. At the end of a year my husband brought the other two. He planned to stay just long enough to help us get settled and then return to the island, but he kept postponing his departure. Somehow we got back together again.
I lost my husband last year. We made it to our fifty-fifth anniversary, and we thanked God many times that we ended up following my mom’s advice.
North Palm Beach, Florida
It was 3 A.M., and there was a pile of tissues on the floor next to me. I had no idea how long I had been sitting in the freshly painted nursery, alone and crying. I would wake sometimes in the middle of the night, convinced I was still pregnant, thinking I could feel him moving around, perhaps a heel crammed into my rib cage, and I would enjoy a few moments of believing he was still with us before the truth hit me.
In my hand was a photograph of his sleeping face, his tiny fingers curled around a stuffed blue bear, his perfect round head covered by a hand-knit cap that was now sitting in a box along with the quilt in the picture — a box that had remained unopened since we’d arrived home from his memorial service.
I stood up now and went to the closet to find the box. I wanted proof that he was real; that he had once lived; and that I was, in fact, a mother. I spread the quilt out next to the mountain of tissues and examined the photo until I could determine the exact squares upon which his head had lain. I picked up the quilt at that spot, held the soft blue cap in my other hand, and carefully brought them both to my face, closing my eyes and breathing in as deeply as I could.
There he was! I could smell his precious scent, captured in the fabric. I was simultaneously flooded with joy and frantic to preserve that smell. How long could I make it last?
San Antonio, Texas
When my parents split up in 1979, my junk-food-loving father departed with his girlfriend to Australia, and my mother was free to raise her two kids on a health-food diet. Pretty soon my sister and I were juicing carrots, going on fruit fasts, and drinking spirulina shakes. Our “treats” were raisins and spoonfuls of honey. Mom referred to all of this as “cleaning out,” and she periodically checked the irises of our eyes for signs that the detoxification plan was working.
Under Mom’s new regimen our Easter baskets were filled with carob bunnies, our Christmas stockings stuffed with tamari-roasted almonds. The one holiday she couldn’t control was Halloween, when neighbors handed out the treats. Determined to lessen the holiday’s impact on our system, Mom allowed my sister and me to eat as much candy as we wanted on Halloween night, but we couldn’t save any of it for later. At the end of the evening, Mom scooped up the loot we hadn’t been able to stuff in our mouths or hide in our underpants, and she tossed it.
One spring day I was in the basement looking for my soccer cleats when I came across a lumpy paper bag tucked inside a cardboard box. Inside were dozens of snack-sized chocolate bars. I quickly realized that I was looking at the remnants of our Halloween candy from the previous year. Our health-food-crazed mother had kept the sugar stash for herself.
I could have just taken the chocolate and eaten it and said nothing, but I wanted justice. I went and got my little sister, and we confronted our mother, who apologized for lying to us and explained that she used the candy to fuel her late-night studying sessions for nursing school.
The next Halloween we kept our candy, every sweet morsel of it. It lasted for weeks.
Brooklyn, New York
When I was a child, one of my favorite Hanukkah rituals was to watch the candles in the menorah burn down until they were gone. The candles were lit each night before dinner, and, while we ate, my parents, my sisters, and I would make bets on which would last the longest. The candles came from Israel and burned quickly, the wicks taking their final licks of wax near the end of the meal before sputtering out.
Sometimes Dad and I were the only ones sitting at the table to watch the last wisp of smoke rise up into the air. We didn’t speak at those moments, but I felt a deeper connection to him in the silence than during any conversation we’d had.
Seven years ago Dad and I shared our last Hanukkah together. Earlier that December my father had received radiation in an attempt to shrink the tumors in his brain, and the treatment had aged him from a vibrant sixty-seven-year-old to a man who appeared to be in his nineties. We’d been hoping for a remission, but it was clear he would need a miracle.
On the eighth and final night of Hanukkah, Dad and I sat together in the glow of the burning candles. We no longer made bets on which would last the longest. I just wished those dancing flames would never go out.
She was my best friend in middle school, but in high school she found new friends — and angel dust. She dropped out of college, picked oranges on a kibbutz in Israel, then returned to New York City, where she learned to bake and play the piano but walked off her only paying job, as a supermarket cashier. She also spent time in a psychiatric hospital.
Meanwhile I graduated from college and began working in another city, but I visited my friend whenever I came home to see my parents. Bloated from Thorazine, she sat in an armchair in her old bedroom as we caught up.
Years went by in which we didn’t see each other at all, but after my divorce, while I was raising two children alone and struggling to reinvent myself, I’d dial my friend’s number on lonely Saturday nights, and we’d talk for hours. Even over the phone she sensed my sadness. She knew me so well.
It’s been more than forty years since middle school. I still send cards, letters, books, birthday presents, my old clothes. My friend lives a quiet life on disability and has visited me only once; her hypersensitivity to odors and sounds and her anxiety in unfamiliar environments overwhelmed us both. We call each other on birthdays, but rarely in between. When we do speak, mostly I listen. This friendship isn’t always easy, but I want it to last.
Loudonville, New York
Three years ago I lost seventy pounds. While losing all that weight, I had nightmares in which I walked into the bathroom and saw my old, fatter self reflected in the mirror. I was so afraid of failure that one night I climbed out of bed, put all my too-big clothes in boxes, and drove them to Goodwill in the middle of a downpour. Without these clothes, I thought, I can’t gain back the weight. After I’d kept it off more than a year, I got a tattoo in honor of the overweight woman I’d been, because she’d taught me a lot about strength and beauty.
I have not kept all the weight off, however. Six months ago, after a romantic disappointment, I turned to food, the one relationship in my life that’s always been consistent: consistently comforting, consistently satisfying, consistently sweet. I regained eighteen pounds.
Today I’m eating a bowl of warm quinoa topped with vegetables and a spicy, aromatic marinara sauce. I’m trying to hear my body when it says, That’s enough. You’ve eaten all you need. I’m trying to ignore the voice that says, Eat it quick! It’s getting cold! It tastes so good! It will calm you down! I want to be free from obsessing about my next meal. I want to make this meal last.
Santa Cruz, California
Born in Germany in 1938, I lived through the privation of World War II, and my childhood fantasies were related to survival and food. Hunger was a constant companion. The pain of it made the satisfaction of eating even sweeter.
In the morning my family gathered in the kitchen for breakfast, and one precious slice of bread was carefully meted out to each of us. Bread was the foundation of our diet, the first thing I thought of when imagining food. We spread artificial honey on it, and my sister Helga and I developed the habit of pushing the sweet stickiness ahead of our bites using our front teeth like snowplows. At the very end, when the “honey” almost dripped over the edge, we would have the pleasure of a rich mouthful of it. And all the way up to this final delight, the smell was just under our noses. We competed to see who could wait longer to swallow the last bit.
Shanti E. Bannwart
Santa Fe, New Mexico
On Friday evenings I put my small, cluttered apartment in order, remove all the books, papers, and medicines from my bed, smooth out the sheets and pillows, and await David, my seventy-five-year-old partner. He will arrive after dinner, and we’ll sit and talk and exchange whatever little gifts we’ve bought for each other. Then he will follow me to my bedroom.
He always starts by slowly helping me off with my clothes. It’s clumsy, but there’s a certain amount of fun involved. He likes it when I wear bras that hook in the front. “Front loaders,” he calls them. They’re easier for his shaky fingers to manage. I take off my glasses but leave my hearing aid in; I want to catch his every word. The flesh may have grown wrinkled, but the desire is still there, and we enjoy our time of intimacy, albeit with the lights out.
David and I met at the local public library when we were both in our early forties and quickly realized we had much in common. I moved in with him, and we lived together until escalating disagreements revealed that we had different habits, ate different foods, and — most difficult of all — slept poorly when we shared the same bed. I reluctantly agreed to separate bedrooms, then separate apartments.
I felt sure this was the beginning of the end, but David convinced me otherwise. After I realized that he was not breaking up with me, I put aside my old expectations and settled into a new set of rituals: We speak on the phone twice a day. We argue often about trivia and then leave it behind. We enjoy the same movies, theater, and music, but not the same literature. He comes over whenever I need help with the unending home maintenance that my arthritic knees are not up to.
And, of course, David is here every Friday. We move in the direction of the bedroom slower than we used to, more like an old married couple than like the hippies we once were. No soft music, no candlelight, no incense. But after a while we are ready. He has brought a bag of items that will ensure his pleasure, and I gather by my bedside anything I need to enhance mine. We have tried all kinds of positions and toys and games and have learned what works best for us. The sensitive parts of our bodies, treated correctly, still work well.
Afterward David goes home to his own bed, and I turn out the light beside mine. We may not sleep together or live together anymore, but we’re doing just fine.
When I’m seven, I come home from trick-or-treating with my bag full of candy. My sister, who is five, immediately starts to devour her sweets, but I have decided that I will eat only one piece a day until the bag is gone. I sort through the contents, make my choice, and eat it slowly. When my sister throws up in the bathroom, I revel in my superiority.
For the next month I stick to my plan: one piece of candy per day, no exceptions. To make sure my sister won’t take any, I keep my stash between my mattress and the bed frame, and each night I fall asleep to the smells of artificial flavors.
Looking back, I see in this early feat of willpower the first signs of a debilitating eating disorder that I developed in my teens. By then the self-discipline had become an end in itself. I set daily goals to eat ever smaller amounts of food and felt proud when I consumed only four rice cakes from the time my parents left the house in the morning until they returned in the evening. I would eat chocolate with my friends — who thought I was naturally skinny — then eat almost nothing the next day to make up for it. Sometimes I’d consume only water for five days and call it a “fast.” Each goal I set was more difficult than the last, and meeting them all became critical to my sense of self-worth.
I have had a healthy body weight for twelve years now. Even after I began eating again, it took me a long time to uncover the sadness and fear that fueled my self-punishment. I can still hear the slave-driver voice inside me, but I don’t obey it. And I have made it a regular practice to stand in front of the mirror naked and really look at my reflection, tracing my fingers over the curves of my hips and thanking God for allowing me, finally, to see my beauty.
Durham, North Carolina
The blanket was white and soft with a satiny pink edge and pictures of a scarecrow, a chicken, a duck, and a lamb on it. My mother gave it to me after my first baby blanket disappeared. (I was sure my sister had thrown it away.) I carried that blanket everywhere for years, the pink sateen border wrapped around my middle finger while I sucked my thumb. When I broke my elbow in a horseback-riding accident at the age of seven, my blanket was there in the hospital. Throughout my childhood I slept with it tucked under my chin. The pink border came off, but my mother replaced it.
In college the blanket was my secret. By then even the replacement border was gone, and the scarecrow and the lamb were so pale you had to study the fabric closely to make out their shapes, which I did often. The blanket was so fragile and threadbare that I washed it in the dorm sink when no one was watching and hung it to dry. I eventually stopped washing it at all, to extend its life.
When my boyfriend and I moved in together, he knew I had to sleep with this shredded piece of blanket tucked under my cheek, but he never said a word. We split up when I was twenty-five, and a few years later, at the start of a new relationship, I tucked the blanket safely into a dresser rather than have to admit I still slept with it.
Twenty years have passed since then. Recently I found a satin lingerie envelope in the back of my underwear drawer. I already knew what was in it, but I had to look. I took out the soft, graying piece of fabric, the faded outlines of a lamb and a scarecrow still visible in the see-through cotton, and I pressed it to my cheek, remembering.
When our daughter Rachel was getting ready to attend college in southern California, I made her sort through everything she had accumulated in her eighteen years and decide whether to pack, store, or give away each item. I did not want her to leave me with a bunch of possessions she didn’t need or care about.
Her last night at home, Rachel wanted to visit her boyfriend and his dad, but I refused to let her go until she had finished packing, which wasn’t until 11 P.M. While she was gone, I went into her room to inspect it and found a few odds and ends lying about. Furious, I made her deal with the remaining items when she returned. Rachel shed tears of irritation. I’m sure she thought I was the bitchiest mother a girl could ever have, but I felt victorious: everything had been cleared out of her room.
That night would be the last night our daughter spent under our roof. Eight months later Rachel was killed by a drunk driver.
I pray now that I’ll come across some of my daughter’s belongings in the house: a scrap of paper with her handwriting, a bobby pin — anything to prove that she once lived here. I’m using all of Rachel’s lotions and makeup, because they make me feel close to her. When one runs out, I keep the container in her tattered purse (salvaged from the wrecked car). I’m nearly at the bottom of her mineral bronzer now. I am desperately trying to make it last.
My daughter and I like to share dessert: one slice of cake, two forks. When we get to the last bite, one of us will say, “Yours.” The other will cut that piece in two, eat half, and say, “Yours.” That piece gets cut in half, and the process is repeated until someone gives up. We have done this since she was small. Occasionally observers will point out that, while we struggle to divide this tiny piece, we are ignoring other, larger crumbs on the plate, but they just don’t get it. The point is to make the dessert last, so we can talk.
When my daughter was little, we talked about her likes, her dislikes, her classmates, her favorite animals, and how the world works. When she got to be a teen, we talked about boys, teachers, classes, and how the world works. Now she is in college, and our conversations are about professors, her plans for the next term, her career goals, her philosophy of life, boys, and how the world works. She is all grown up, but the conversations go on, cut by cut.
Wilmington, North Carolina
I never thought my parents would live this long. No one in our family has ever made it to ninety. After my father’s first cancer diagnosis eighteen years ago, I began treating each holiday as if it were our last together. One year, when he and my mother called to sing me “Happy Birthday,” I asked them to sing it again so I could record it — for future, parentless birthdays, though I couldn’t tell them that. I frequently reminded myself I had to start letting them go.
As the years passed and each new health crisis was resolved, it began to seem absurd to be constantly awaiting my parents’ deaths. Time buffed away the rough edges of our relationship, and I learned that I truly enjoy their company. When I visit now, they’ll prop their feet up on twin recliners, and I’ll stretch out on the couch, and we’ll talk about bank bailouts, or the best way to cut a mango, or why we left New York for Michigan in 1957, or what’s wrong with their lawn, or gay marriage — or even, yes, their funeral plans.
Sometimes, when I’m by myself, I cry, knowing what’s ahead. But “let them go”? First I had to let them in.
Patricia Carino Pasick
Ann Arbor, Michigan
I have an eleven-year-old daughter named Siri whose biological mother has been mostly absent from her life. My mother and sister have sometimes played surrogate mother to Siri, but mainly it has been just the two of us. In a twisted form of “luck,” I’ve been on disability, which has allowed my daughter and me to be together much of the time, and we’ve formed a close relationship. I constantly remind her that she’s “Dad’s girl” and that “I love my beautiful girl the most.”
When Siri began to develop breasts, she secretly asked my mother to take her shopping for sports bras. I found these new underthings in the laundry soon thereafter and asked Siri if they were hers. She admitted they were, and I asked why she had kept them a secret from me.
In a trembling voice she said, “Because I didn’t think you would love me as much.”
I hugged her and reassured her that my love for her would never diminish. She revealed she had taken my professions of love for my “girl” in a literal sense and worried that, as she moved toward becoming a woman, my feelings for her might fade. She was hiding her puberty from me, hoping to make my love last.
Another Peace Corps volunteer, who had been in country over a year, picked me up at the training center in Thiese, the second-largest city in Senegal. He was taking me to a village for a weekend immersion in the back country as part of my training, but first he had to buy a gift for his “father,” the head of the family that housed and fed him. He chose a large bar of Belgian chocolate.
We traveled for many hours, first by bus, then in a bush taxi that seated ten, and finally in a mule-drawn wagon. As soon as we arrived, my companion went to his family’s hut and gave his father the chocolate bar. Clearly the gift pleased the older man tremendously. Instead of immediately tearing off the wrapper, he examined it and admired its colorful design. Careful not to rip the paper or the silver foil beneath, he uncovered a corner of the dark bar. With his long, delicate fingers he broke off a small piece and put it in his mouth, then closed his eyes. His entire being seemed concentrated on that melting candy as he savored it as long as possible.
When I find myself living a fast-paced existence and not appreciating the moment, I think about my Senegalese host in his remote rural village and the complete satisfaction he found in a candy bar. He took hours to eat it.
I know how to make something last: I have a lavender-blue silk jacket that I have owned for five years and worn only three times. In the bathroom are lipstick tubes in discontinued colors, each with a half inch of lipstick left, that I hope will last me many more years. I own some really good walking shoes that I keep on a top shelf in my closet, thinking that I will want them if I ever go back to Europe. Tucked away somewhere in my underwear drawer is a half-ounce bottle of perfume that my husband, Tom, bought me for my birthday at least ten years ago, perhaps my fiftieth. Occasionally I will dab a dot on the inside of my elbow as I am getting ready for bed, so I can fall asleep to the flowery scent.
Tom died two years ago at the age of sixty-one, and he had a similar penchant for holding on to items, using them sparingly, and keeping them safe. He left behind a twenty-year-old Miata with a mere sixty-five thousand miles on it. He had envisioned himself as a young retiree, cruising to the hardware store in his vintage red convertible.
Every December Tom used to ceremoniously descend the stairs with the Christmas clock that chimes a noisy carol each hour, and every January he would lovingly tuck it away, removing the batteries and storing the clock in its original packaging. I should be able to enjoy it for decades to come. I hope it will amuse our grandchildren someday.
We were always careful to treat our possessions well and make them last. What we couldn’t make last was Tom’s body. It never occurred to us that he would go so young; we had always been so careful with our treasures.
Nancy L. Gibbons
La Grange, Illinois
I was five years old and shopping in a drugstore with my mother when I picked up a thick coloring book and asked if I could get it.
“Are you sure you will really use it?” my mother asked.
Would I? I couldn’t wait to get home and color in it. “Yes, yes,” I said.
She looked dubiously at me. “Well, all right. But it’s fifty cents, so be sure you make it last.”
“Make it last”? Did she mean I couldn’t color as much as I wanted? That I had to hold back, conserve these pages? Now it wasn’t a coloring book anymore; it was a heavy burden. I didn’t know how much fifty cents was, and I felt that I was holding my parents’ financial well-being in my hands.
At home I decided I must not, under any circumstances, finish the coloring book. I was so nervous that each time I tried to color in it, I put the book away before completing a single page.
A few months later my mother found the book on my shelf with only a few pictures half colored.
“See?” she said. “I knew you wouldn’t use it.”
While I was in college, I got a summer job as a naturalist at a national park. One of the guys I bunked with mentioned that a good-looking girl had been hired to work at the entrance gate. I didn’t give it much thought, because I had a girlfriend waiting for me back at college.
The next day I needed to run into town to pick up food and supplies. When I got to the gate, I stopped to see if anyone there needed something from the store, which was more than an hour away. The new girl, Gwen, was just getting off work and asked if she could come along. “Of course,” I said.
My bunkmate had been right; she was beautiful. A Norwegian from the Midwest, she was everything that I — an Italian from New Jersey — expected a Midwestern woman to be: healthy and fit, with perfect skin and clear, shining eyes.
On the drive to the store Gwen began asking probing questions about my feelings, my spirituality, and all manner of subjects that I had never talked about to anyone, not even my girlfriend. I answered honestly, and by the time we returned to the park four hours later, Gwen was lying on the seat of my pickup with her head on my lap as I drove.
The rest of the summer, whenever we both had free time, we spent it together. We went hiking on the mountain and took starlit walks in a high meadow called “Paradise.” Some nights we would go to a nearby inn and get a hot drink and sit by the fireplace to talk. She rode her bike seven miles to my housing unit to attend the campfire lectures that I gave.
But the summer went by fast, and Gwen and I soon both had a decision to make. She had a boyfriend back home, and I had a girlfriend, whom I’d been trying not to think about all summer. At the end of the season I said to Gwen that we should go back to our lives. If what had transpired between us at the park still felt real after that, then we would end our other relationships.
I stayed with my girlfriend for two more years before we split up. Gwen split up with her boyfriend, too, but at a different time. I moved to another state to teach school, and she went on a mission in Central America, where she met the man she eventually married. She now has two children with him. I’ve been married and divorced and am currently living with someone.
Over the past twenty years Gwen and I have never lost touch. When I get to work in the morning, the first thing I do is check to see if I have an e-mail from her. She writes once or twice a week to tell me about her children and what she has been doing and thinking about. On birthdays and special occasions we send each other cards at work. She won’t meet me in person because she says it’s too dangerous. We don’t discuss my girlfriend or her husband. I can tell that there is trouble in their relationship, but I don’t pry. She still asks me those penetrating questions, and I still answer more honestly than I would with anyone else. I still love her.
In a recent e-mail, after mentioning our summer together and our decision to split up, I jokingly wrote, “What was I thinking? :)”
“Yeah,” she replied, “what were you thinking? :(”
I’m serving a five-year federal prison sentence five hundred miles from my home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I left behind friends, family, and the love of my life.
During my trial, Jim and I avoided the topic of what would happen if I were sent to prison, instead choosing to savor the time we had together. But after my sentencing we had to face reality. Assuming he wanted to break up, I offered to move my belongings out of his place and into my parents’ house. He looked at me in shock and made it clear that he intended not only to wait for me but to remain as much a part of my life as he could.
I am allowed three hundred minutes of phone time a month, and I spend most of it on calls to Jim. We write each other every week, sometimes twice. I try not to think about what he is doing on Saturday nights, or who he is talking to. We have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to that. Honestly, I am so ecstatic that he is still by my side that I will forgive him any indiscretion.
It’s hard for Jim to visit, with the ten-hour drive and the expense of lodging and all the junk food he feels obligated to buy me from the vending machines in the visiting room. When he does come, we have two days together, about seven hours each day. There is no glass partition between us, and hand-holding and other minor displays of affection are allowed, but I am serving time in a conservative environment, and it simply isn’t a good idea for two men to flaunt their love. Jim and I content ourselves with small touches: a hand on a knee, the brush of an arm. Our embraces at the end of our visits, though, are long and fierce.
I left my home country of Japan after I graduated from high school in 1979, and since then I have lived in the U.S. When my father passed away in the summer of 2004, I started to notice a decline in my mother’s mental faculties. I thought at first that she was overcome by grief; she’d been married to my father for forty-five years. But when I visited her in Japan a year later, she was worse, and I took her to various doctors looking for an answer. The verdict was Alzheimer’s.
Now my mother doesn’t know who I am, or who she is. She lives in a psychiatric hospital because she became violent toward my sister-in-law, who had been taking care of her.
My mother used to make pickled plums every summer with shiso leaves, which dye the green plums a gorgeous wine red color. She had learned the recipe from my grandmother, who’d learned it from her mother, and so on. But she never had a chance to teach it to me. It takes weeks to soak the plums in shiso-leaf liquid with lots of salt, and weeks more to dry them in the sun. My mother would meticulously turn each fruit so that all sides dried equally. When they were finally done in late July, I could taste the sun in every plum.
My mother made her last batch of pickled plums two years before my father died, and she brought me a couple of big containers full of them. I have eaten them infrequently over the years. When I do eat one, I keep the seeds in my mouth long after I finish, so that I can suck out every last bit of the sour, salty taste.
December: I notice it when I get home from a weekend business trip — the neon yellow Post-it pressed to the bathroom mirror on my fiancé’s side. I put it there the day I left, and he hasn’t taken it down. Perhaps he missed me while I was away.
January: The steam from the shower has caused the note’s edges to curl inward, like the petals of the lilies in the lake where we summer. Why is he saving it? The message on the Post-it is nothing special, just generic wishes from me for a good weekend, signed, “With love.”
March: I’m doing Sunday chores. The note clings tenuously to the slick mirror, and a strong gust of spring air from the open window threatens its grip. I sprinkle the marble sinks with cleanser and wonder once more why he hasn’t taken it down.
April: Again I’m scrubbing the bathroom counter, but this time I’m angry over a fight we’re having. Why doesn’t he help? Why must I ask for help? Isn’t this our life together? The note taunts me, a reminder of his lack of sensitivity.
May: It’s still there. What’s keeping it up?
June: One month away from our wedding, I look at the note with renewed appreciation: the beaten paper, the bleached writing. Yesterday I saw my fiancé exit the shower wrapped in a towel, stand before the mirror, and furrow his brow. Then he did something peculiar: he leaned in and pressed the curled edges of my note flat against the glass.
It has been more than a year since our wedding, and the note remains.