courage by Johnna Crider
Courage
by Johnna Crider

Artist's Bio:
When Johnna was ten years old, her mother moved her from their home in Cartersville, Georgia and moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, where they stayed in the homeless shelter, the Providence House. In 1994, they had their first real home two months before Johnna's 12th birthday. Johnna was shy and awkward, being picked on for being homeless, and turned to music—she played the keyboard by ear. In high school (C. E. Byrd!) Johnna rediscoverd writing and fell in love with it. She wrote mostly stories and poetry. She started drawing out the calligraphy letters in the eighth and nineth grade, but it wasn't until she almost lost her mother to appendicitis in 2004 that she discovered her talent for painting.

IN SICKNESS
AND IN HEALTH

by Margot Miller

The short, dark afternoons make it clear winter is here. Chilly nights slip into long weeks of rainy days and then the temperature refuses to climb past freezing. A foggy lethargy seeps into the liminal space between the tides. When I look out I see only a colorless sky over a ledge jutting out between a vast, silent black hole on one side of my soul and a clamoring abyss on the other. If I speak, I hurt you. If I don't, I hurt myself. I search the landscape for a sign of thaw coming, something that will make room for hope in another season after cheerless months of damp gray skies.

You admit you're afraid of anger; mine, your boss's, the anger of strangers in a restaurant. It makes your blood pressure rise. You rarely feel this passionate emotion yourself, but you're uncomfortable with my negativity, you say. You don't want me to be so depressed, you say. This exhausts me.

"Sometimes," I say, twisting a tea-towel, "I'm terrified that this is all we'll ever be, either together or as individuals." What I don't say is, I'm afraid I'll be even less on my own.

"I'm ready to do anything, be anything, anything you want me to be to fix this thing...," you say. You once said before that it was an illness that had come over me, and that we would cure it together, and I took exception to the metaphor.

"When I hear that," I interrupt, "it makes me cross because it sounds to me like you think, if I will just tell you how to fix this-this, this is ME-it will all be okay. That makes it all up to me. It's whatever I want, whatever I decide. It's still me who has to decide, who ends up doing everything and it makes ME the problem." The tea towel is wound around my fist now.

"And you are perfectly happy with who you are, so you're willing to do anything, you say, anything except see who I am." I see you blanch, although not as much as before. It's more like embarrassment than fear now.

"It's just that it's like walking on eggs around you...," you say.

"So break a few! Or step over them...." I release the towel onto the table and search your face, but you look away and I feel my breath brake in my chest.

In the dishwasher we notice a fine black dust, like coffee grounds in the bottom and on the door at the end of a washing cycle. The sink is probably backing up into it. It doesn't seem to be heating properly. Finally, there is standing water in the bottom, and I call a repairman who recommends a new motor. Talk of a kitchen renovation comes up again. We put off a decision, though the dishwasher is not working. We start to do the dishes by hand, using the racks in the machine to let them drip dry. We gently argue over whose turn it is, each one insisting on sparing the other, not wanting to impose, not wanting to say it's time to pick out a new machine or give up, sell the house, and let someone else do it. You wait, as if paralyzed, for me to decide.

My gaze wanders into the chilly landscape beyond the window. Maybe when the tide is out and the weather is warm enough, the swim to a new shore will be shorter, but the currents must be managed just the same. I dream I am idling at a crossroad. The highways go straight ahead across the flat, colorless prairie. I can't tell which one leads into a dead-end labyrinth and which winds through sublime gorges.

***************

It's the end of summer. I've been away on my own for seven weeks, at a writing workshop, and have just driven back into the southern heat and humidity. I arrive refreshed and hopeful, determined not to let myself fall into old patterns.

You slip behind the barbeque, as Claire, who's going to college in the fall, and her boyfriend engage in what looks like an absurd argument. She is trying to get him to see her point about something. I've come out of the kitchen too late to hear what it's about.

"Now, now," you say, "let's not get excited."

"Nah, you're just being childish," the boyfriend says.

"I just think it's not a good idea," Claire says. Then they repeat their lines like a recording stuck in a groove.

You poke the meat and keep your eyes on the coals. I glance from them to you, but you don't look up. You don't seem to hear their rising voices. The boy is laughing now, and Claire is trying to keep calm, controlling her frustration and surprise.

"I think maybe you're the one being childish," I hear myself say to the boy already in his man's body, whose sharp defensive eyes lock onto mine. I retreat into the kitchen. When Claire follows she finds me trembling by the sink.

"I shouldn't have said that," I say, turning toward her for forgiveness. "I just felt someone should say something because he wasn't listening to you, and Dad didn't say anything. I know he's young, but I don't think anyone should speak to you that way. I'm so sorry."

"It's all right." She is gracious, or possibly just embarrassed, but I am furious at myself and at you.

At dinner, the conversation goes on around me, and suddenly the urge to demand attention for myself wells up, a demand that will bring me back into the room, into my body. I focus on the temptation for a moment before putting it aside, knowing it will only be seen as a narcissistic fit of pique, an attack rather than a plea for indulgence or assistance. It will only confuse me further in the space I am trying to negotiate. I would back down because of your pain, the kids' pain, pain I would be responsible for. I would back down because I would not be able to make myself understood. Inside, my screams are heavy and silent.

The next day I have a migraine severe enough to cause vomiting. I've been home three weeks and I've already dropped into an opaque pit of thick, fearful dilemma. My stool turns colorless and pale, and then bright yellow, like an infant with jaundice, and it runs. How much more can I stomach? Will I have to get an ulcer or colon cancer to get my own attention?

I have my gall bladder checked and undergo a colonoscopy. My medical results are negative, although I have pockets of diverticulosis. The doctor suggests that my physical symptoms are emotional in origin and I believe her; everything comes out in the body. You say you only want me to be well but you don't want me to leave. You will adjust to however little of me you can have. This lack of self-respect paralyzes me; my stomach turns over and traps me in inexcusable exhaustion.

Waking heavily, not wanting to get up, I realize I'm considering the possibility of never getting up. I've slept badly, dreamed again of climbing stairs, the same stairs, endlessly. Death seems like the only way to get some rest, the only alternative to the fearful process of crawling back to safety. Divorce would require discussion of what we had once loved and have stopped loving. If I die, no one can be ambivalent about me: I will be forever a Good Mother and Wife, gone too soon, inexplicably. For a long time, I've been getting things organized so I can go. I haven't wanted to admit this, but I know it's true; just look how much clutter I've gotten rid of. When I find the courage to do it, I will leave the house clean and painted, the garden looked after, the dishes and laundry done or provided for, and a dozen dinners in the freezer, as if the untidiness of departure might be overlooked in this way.

Yet there's always one more thing to do, another project that engages me, keeps me going until I bounce back to a level that allows me to imagine myself whole in a space of my own. It only takes a glimmer of hope to stay alive. I wonder if I have the courage for that.

What I dare not choose, however, becomes involuntary. I am sick again, a migraine and the usual gastronomic side effects. If I do nothing, there will be a long and drawn out illness. I will puff up on a cloud of chronic pain, and then slowly deflate into a puddle of patience. It will take years and color everyone's life in a thin cloud of gray. There will be good days, when there are many people around, and bad days, when everyone pretends it isn't happening, wishing it would end, not wanting to let go of the hope for change. There will be cheerful denial and glossed-over silences when I cannot come to dinner or have to rest all day and go to bed early.

Can I let go of the low-maintenance cycle of discouraging, addictive despair and reorient my life, our lives, our life together, towards the vigorous work of integrity and hope? I want to be known, because to be known is to be loved, and I have no other way of knowing or loving. There it is. There's no escaping it now: I don't want to be married to someone who won't show me his soul or look into mine. I hold onto myself as the pain of this sharp blade of truth cuts cleanly through my body, and I survive.

***************

There is always some reason to wait, to carry on, to be strong, some event we were all involved in-an expedition, a block party, an invitation to dinner, a visitor. We take our daughter to college, driving my station wagon and your truck into the city, and then we drive all the way home in our separate cars. I use a parallel access road approaching the bridge tollgate. Should I have waited in the multiple queues narrowing to a few lines? Do alternate route-takers lighten the load on the main thoroughfare bringing everyone closer to a common goal? Or is it cheating for the mere illusion of being in motion?

Neither of us is hungry. It has to be now, because if we slip back into before, I know I'll be sick again, and again, and again.

"My body is eating itself from the inside out. I can't go on like this."

"I know. I was afraid to tell you it might be psychosomatic because I was afraid you'd leave."

"If we keep on the way we've been, I know I'm going to go from one illness to another, until it kills me. I can't make it right and it's not fair to either of us." You see what's coming. Your jaw clenches, anticipating the hit.

"Can we separate and try to remain friends? Even still be married, just not live together?" I am prying myself open one finger at a time, to ease the hurt for both of us. Is that relief I see? I can't stop to examine this idea yet.

"I've found a place, around the corner, not far away, a small apartment I can have until I find something better."

"You already have a place?" you say, surprised.

"I just happened to find it last week. I was looking at the want ads to keep myself busy. Doing something to go forward felt better than doing nothing while I was waiting to be able to talk to you."

"I understand," you say. Then after a moment, "You're not taking the dogs, are you?"

"The dogs?" I'm startled, but I must skip over my surprise and answer the question. "No, of course not. They'll be better off with you in any case. I'll mind them if you go away." You breathe again, relieved-I'm sure of it.

"I'm sorry it's taken me so long to figure this out. I've tried to make it work, but I just keep getting sick. I know I have to go if I want to live, and it's the hardest thing I have ever done. I can't keep begging you for something you don't have." Now I see a mixture of pride, the relief I'd already noticed, and sorrow.

"I guess for me," you sigh, "I was so glad to marry you. It was a relief to have that part of my life settled. I just thought that once it was done it would always be done. It would just be there and go on forever."

"I hope you understand. If you were a wife-beater or an alcoholic, it would be easier for me to go. I have no such excuse, nothing to justify my desire for a different kind of life, except the little voice inside that says I'm not invisible or incapable of loving, and it is possible to learn to trust the world and myself in it. Otherwise, I think I will die."

"I don't want you to be sick. I absolutely don't want that." Your face tightens.

"It's as if there isn't enough wellness for both of us at once in this marriage," I say. "I have to be able to stand this pain until you get through it, so I don't want to rescue you and abandon myself in the process-or ask you to rescue me and let it start all over again. I know you'll be all right in time. I know it."

"I know it's a problem for me," you say. "It's been a problem at work as well. But I definitely don't want you to be sick."

That night I dream I'm shopping in a rural market in Peru, buying a blanket for Claire. I chose a large one with a Mayan calendar. I pay what is asked and walk away with my purchase. The woman who sold me the blanket runs after me. She has a little doll in her hand and she is offering it to me. I think she wants me to buy it and I say I'm out of money. "Un regalo. Para usted, un regalo. Usted." A gift. For you, a gift. You.

For me: a gift. I smile and take it, thanking her. This, too, I will give to my daughter.

Margot Miller earned a mid-life Ph.D. in French literature. She divides her time between the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay and the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia . Her creative work (fiction, non-fiction, poetry) has appeared in or is currently featured/forthcoming in ChickFlicks Ezine, Write Side Up, A Long Story Short, Subtle Tea, LitDispatch, Moonlit Thoughts (dogma publications, UK - print), Static Movement, and BluePrint Journal. She is a submissions editor at Static Movement and at WriteSideUp. Her web page can be found at: http://miller.margot.googlepages.com/home.

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