I just wrote a book—a full-on 64,000-plus word book! The process started last September, and it took me five months to finish the first draft. Then, I needed three months to complete two extremely thorough edits. Yesterday, I sent the manuscript out to some trusted folks to give it a read and let me know if I have something worth publishing.
For a person with a history of anxiety and catastrophizing, this is a big leap. Especially since the book is about my self-doubt—how I came to have it, how it held me back, and how I am finally moving past it.
I have much trepidation about the forthcoming responses from my test readers. Amongst my many fears is the sinking feeling that this memoir reveals me to be hopelessly trite. And I don’t think I’m alone in preferring not to be associated with that trait.
Call it what you like—hokey, cheesy, corny, sentimental, earnest—it’s a quality that our society doesn’t typically value, at least not proudly. These words might mean slightly different things, but I think they all imply a certain softness, and being soft marks us as vulnerable.
On the Ten Percent Happier meditation app (which I use faithfully), co-founder and journalist Dan Harris has referred to his aversion to coming across as cheesy. It’s helpful to know that someone as successful as Harris struggles with the connotations of this label.
I’ve come up with some examples from my own life to help illustrate what I’m talking about here. I think you will agree that some of this stuff is pretty embarrassing:
Hokey – Making up a song about our dog, sung to the tune of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy
Cheesy – Clapping along with an audience on TV (I get this from my mom)
Corny – Using sayings like “good golly!” and “holy guacamole!”
Goofy – Dancing down an empty aisle at the grocery store
Sentimental – Crying while watching This Is Us
Treacly – Crying while watching Top Chef’s Restaurant Week (it was soooo good this season)!
Trite – Hanging inspirational quotes, like “enjoy the journey,” on the wall above my desk
Earnest – Believing an “angel” in human form was sent to save me at just the right time
As I typed this list, it occurred to me that these behaviors and emotions are coded (at least partly) as feminine and/or young. Our culture tends to idolize femininity and youth, but we don’t seem to respect them. There is a delicacy that makes femininity and youth special but not dignified.
Dignity, on the other hand, is a characteristic that conveys strength and power, which is coded as masculine and mature. I’m not saying I agree with the associations of these words as being female or male, or that one or the other is necessarily good or bad. I just wish we could get beyond the kinds of simplistic characterizations that hem us in and make us anxious.
Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being soft. We are all fragile sometimes. And if we’re lucky, we feel free to act silly when the mood strikes us. I don’t think anyone is immune to these attributes—it’s just a question of whether we are in touch with them and can embrace them.
If my book, and by extension me, turns out to be sappy, I will wear that badge proudly.
I hoped Jocelyn hadn’t seen any change on my face. If her boyfriend was trying to ditch her, I needed to keep her occupied. That was my first instinct.
“The singing competition?” I asked. “He told you about that?”
“Yeah, he said you tried out after college for that show, and you made it through the auditions.”
Why had my dad told her about that?
“Did he say what happened next?”
“Only that you didn’t make it on TV. But he was proud of you.”
I gulped down some more wine. I could see shadows out in the snow.
“Well, what really happened was…I got there, and everyone else was so talented and ambitious and committed to becoming a star. I chickened out and left after a couple days.”
I had never said that part of the story out loud. Everyone just thought I failed, but I knew it was even worse. My brother was right, I had auditioned because I was trying to win my dad’s approval, and once I got to the next stage, I realized that wasn’t going to be enough.
“What did you sing for your audition?”
Why was Jocelyn so interested in this? Normally, I would have avoided this conversation at all costs, but now I was trying to fill time.
“Midnight by Yaz.”
“I don’t know that song. How does it go?”
I started singing. About halfway through, tears started trickling down my face, and I didn’t care.
Midnight, it’s raining outside, he must be soaking wet Everyone is sleeping tight, God knows I tried my best Darling, you know it looks bad Just lost the best thing that I ever had, well Still I don’t know why I did him wrong, no It’s too late, now, he’s gone to say
Baby, oh, no, can’t leave me now Said, think about it, please ‘Cause I love you, and I need you And I should have thought of that before I did you wrong
Jocelyn stood up suddenly and ran from the dining room. I followed her to the den, where we found the room empty.
“Where the hell are they, Elise?”
“I have no idea. I was in the dining room with you, Jocelyn.” I wiped the tears from my face.
How the hell had Jack snuck everyone out without us hearing? There was a deck attached to the den—maybe they went out that way. Their escape would be a challenge with the kids, so maybe we still had time to catch them.
“Let’s go!” I yelled and ran to the coat closet. We both grabbed our jackets and headed outside.
The snow had piled up as high as the top of my boots. We could see fresh, deep footprints on the steps. I looked to my right to the neighbor’s driveway. The headlights were on, the engine was running, and it looked like Jack was helping the guys clear off the car. In the lights, I could see how fast and heavy the snow was coming down.
“No time for the steps,” I whispered to Jocelyn. “We can cut across the yard, but we have to be careful.”
I reached out and grabbed her hand.
Not only did I want all of them gone, but my mind had shifted, and I could no longer bear the thought of Dean leaving Jocelyn behind. It was a shitty thing for him to do, regardless of her messed up scheme. I could see why Jack was helping Dean, but I didn’t want it to end like this.
The walk from our front step to our neighbor’s driveway included large rocks and tree roots, which were hiding beneath the snow. Had we lived in the house longer, I might have been more familiar with the location of these obstacles. Plus, I was feeling the effects of the wine.
“Maybe he was coming back for me,” Jocelyn said. “He just wanted me to finish up with you.”
We both knew that was a stretch.
I stepped on something and almost fell. “Watch out here, I think there are some stones.”
I wondered if they could see us from the driveway. The car had been backed in, and its headlights were pointed toward the road. With all the snow, I thought there was a chance we might surprise them.
“I need to sit down a minute,” Jocelyn said. She was flushed, like when she first arrived at the house.
“We need to keep going.”
“I can’t.” She was brushing snow away, creating a place to sit on one of the stones.
“Stay right there, I’m heading up to stop them,” I said.
I looked back once at Jocelyn sitting there in the snow. She looked so alone yet peaceful.
As I got closer to the driveway, I shouted, “Hey, you guys forgot someone!”
The three men turned to look at me trudging through the snow. The car was pretty much dug out.
“Elise,” Jack started to say something, but I cut him off.
“Jack, how will Jocelyn get home if they leave her here?”
“She seems pretty capable of handling herself,” he said.
I had reached the car. I could see that the fake mechanic dude was using our shovel to create a path in front of the car.
“How do you guys think you’re going to drive away in all this snow?” I asked.
“Oh, we’re getting out of here, don’t you worry,” said Dean.
“Let me get Jocelyn, she’s right down there,” I pleaded, motioning to the property line between the two houses.
“Look lady, she might have gotten to you, but I’m done. I don’t think she knows whether she’s lying or telling the truth anymore.”
Dean and the other guy jumped in the car. I could see the kids in the back seat. They looked terrified.
I pounded on the driver’s window, “You are putting these kids’ lives at risk!”
Dean rolled down the window a crack, “Don’t you tell me what to do with my kids. Now move the fuck away!”
I stepped back and fell on my ass. I wanted so badly to just lie down in the snow and stay there. As Jack leaned over to help me up, the car started moving forward.
“Jocelyn!” I screamed and ran back the way I came, with Jack behind me.
Jocelyn was gone.
There were footprints leading to our stairs. We followed them and headed up to street level in time to see the car driving slowly in the other direction. There was no sign of Jocelyn.
Jack informed me that he had no interest in looking for Jocelyn. He went in the house, and I walked all over our property, falling several times, calling out Jocelyn’s name.
After I don’t know how long, I finally went inside and told Jack everything, including the parts I had been leaving out for years.
A couple days later I called my dad. I asked him if he had been seeing a young woman who told him she was pregnant. He claimed he had no idea who this woman was—just some scam artist, probably. And then he closed the subject. I resigned myself that I would never know who or what to believe.
Next, I spoke with my mom. She wouldn’t say if she had written a letter to Jocelyn—she said there were some things she might never be able to discuss with me. But when I offered to help her get away from dad and that maybe the two of us could take a break from drinking, she took me up on the offer.
Finally, I called my brother, and we mended our relationship. I didn’t tell him about Jocelyn specifically, but I told him I had seen our dad from a new perspective. I even got him to ease up on Mom.
We never saw or heard from Jocelyn or Dean again. Jack and I lived in that house for 25 years, and I always wondered if she might come back, but she didn’t.
We weathered the pandemic in that house, raised two kids together, and did our best to always tell each other the truth.
But you can only know your own story, right? And that’s a fact you learn to live with, hopefully—sometimes the hard way.
Jocelyn demanded to speak with me, and she refused to do so in front of Dean. Jack did not want to leave me alone with her, but he didn’t want to leave the two men alone, either. Eventually, Jocelyn and I decided to go into the dining room, and the three men headed to the den to sit with the kids.
On the way to the dining room, Jocelyn opened the coat closet, plucked an envelope from her jacket pocket, and carried it with her.
We sat down at either end of the dining room table. I didn’t say a word. Jocelyn was going to have to go first.
She opened the envelope and removed a piece of paper, unfolded it, and smoothed it out on the table.
“This is a letter from your mom,” Jocelyn announced. “Susan, right?”
My stomach dropped like an elevator falling 80 floors.
Jocelyn continued: “Your dad is Greg. We met when he was on a work trip, and we started going out whenever he came to town. He always treated me nice. Then I got this note from your mom telling me to back off.”
“She wouldn’t do that,” I said, trying to keep any hint of emotion from my voice.
Jocelyn held the letter up. “Is this her handwriting?”
I squinted. “I don’t know,” I said, but it was a strong possibility.
“She says here that he’s had girlfriends in towns all up and down the east coast—that there’s nothing special about me. She told me to move on, to find someone who’s not married.”
My wineglass and the open bottle were sitting on the sideboard, hovering at the edge of my vision. I wanted a drink so bad. I needed to stay alert, but my nerves were on fire. Maybe the alcohol would help?
How long had I been thinking about that wine?
“What the heck do you want, Jocelyn?”
“Well, first I want you to tell me that I’m speaking to the right person.”
I took a deep breath. “I don’t think you’re speaking to the right person at all. But if you’re asking if Greg and Susan are my parents, then yes, they are.”
Jocelyn sat back a bit in her chair. She was studying me.
“I don’t think I can help you in this situation. I honestly didn’t know my mother cared enough to send a letter like that.” I reminded myself that there was a chance that the letter was fake—that all or most of this tale was a fabrication.
“Forget your mom. Let’s talk about your dad.” Jocelyn leaned forward again, elbows on the table. “Around the time I got the letter, I found out I was pregnant. I told your dad, and he said he didn’t believe me. He thought I was trying to con him.”
My head was like a busy airport, and my thoughts were a hundred planes getting ready to take off. Which plane should I choose? What was the right path?
Jocelyn turned her palms to the ceiling. “Look, Elise, I really liked your dad. We had some good times. I didn’t expect us to get married or anything, but I couldn’t believe he just blew me off, stopped responding to my texts and calls.”
I rested my chin on my hand and tried to present a calmly quizzical look. “How do I know this isn’t a con? Your plan seems…” I searched for a word that wouldn’t set her off, “…impractical.”
She was offended anyway. “What the hell do you know about my plan?”
Every time Jocelyn’s anger surfaced, my own rose up to meet it.
“I know that you brought two small kids into a stranger’s house. I know you wasted a lot of time while it’s snowing like crazy out there. And I know you’re afraid to talk about this in front of Dean.”
“I’m not afraid of anything, Elise. I just didn’t want him to have to listen to me talk about your dad. He’s already heard enough about Greg.”
I sighed, “Okay…”
Jocelyn took the cue and went on: “When I started showing, I tracked down your dad. Boy, was he pissed off. He told me to get lost. He said I must have gone out and gotten pregnant to try and scam money from him.”
“Did you?” Ugh, that slipped out.
“Jeez. Like father, like daughter. No, Elise. I started dating Dean not long after your dad tossed me aside, but I was already pregnant. Dean doesn’t particularly want to be here, but he agrees with me that a man needs to take responsibility for his kid.”
“So, what do you expect me to do about it, Jocelyn?”
“Tell your dad to be a man and stand up.”
I wondered what would happen if I said no. How far was she going to take this?
“Why should I trust you? How do I know you’re not some grifter trying to hustle my dad or me out of money?”
“Sounds like you watch too much TV, Elise.”
“All right, then tell me, did your car really break down?”
Jocelyn pursed her lips. No answer.
“And who the hell is that mechanic? Seriously, Jocelyn, who is he?”
“He’s a friend of Dean’s. He came along for extra security. I think he must’ve gotten tired of sitting in the cold car.”
“And Dean’s fall on the steps, was that real?”
“I’m fairly sure that was real. I can’t imagine Dean going rogue on me like that.”
I stood up, grabbed that damn wine bottle from the sideboard, poured myself a big glass, and sat back down. I let the glass sit in front of me, untouched for the moment.
“Do you see why I might not trust a word you say?”
“I have a print-out from my doctor. It shows when I got pregnant. It’s in there, too.” She tapped on the envelope, which now that I looked at it, did appear to have another piece of paper in it.
I should ask to see both pages up close, I told myself. She hadn’t handed them to me yet, so she could be bluffing.
Instead, I changed the subject.
“Jocelyn, when we were in the living room you said that maybe you were here to save me. What did you mean by that?”
She smiled, and I immediately regretted asking.
“Maybe this is your opportunity to stop being a daddy’s girl. Maybe I’m here to help you put to rest any lingering illusions you might have about your dad.”
My heart sank. Either Jocelyn was an astute observer of the human condition, or my dad had told her about me. Possibly both.
I could feel my eyes welling up, so I finally lifted the wineglass and took a long swallow.
“You’re just fishing, Jocelyn,” I said in a shaky voice that was not at all convincing.
“Tell me about the singing competition, Elise,” she said, and she leaned back with a smirk.
Before I could burst into tears, something caught my eye in the window behind Jocelyn. Was Dean trying to make a break for it?
Trust is this invisible thing that holds families and societies together. It allows people to count on each other. When you have it, you don’t think too much about it. But when you lose it, you start questioning everything.
Could we trust these strangers in our house?
Could I believe my husband?
And you: Can you trust me? What if I’m one of those unreliable narrators? What if I’ve conjured up one or more of these characters in my head? I promise you I haven’t, but why should you believe me?
When I was a kid, I thought my life was pretty normal. When you feel safe and solid, you don’t think to yourself, I feel safe. You just feel that way. For seventeen years, it never crossed my mind that I might be standing on a rotting foundation.
Sure, I wished my dad were around more. He stayed late at the office a lot and went on frequent work trips. But he consistently showed up for my school choir concerts. He was the one who encouraged me to try out for solos. When I started acting in musicals, too, he was so proud of me and always brought flowers to my performances.
On the day I was leaving for college, my dad was supposed to be there to say good-bye, but he couldn’t get back in time from a conference. My mom sat down next to me on my bed, packed suitcases and boxes at our feet.
“I hate having to tell you this, but I think it’s time you knew,” she said. “Your dad has been having affairs for years. Whenever he’s late or stuck somewhere, it’s usually another woman. He’s probably with the latest one right now.”
“Wait, what?! You’re kidding, right?”
“I should have left him years ago, but I couldn’t. I kept thinking he would come to his senses and stop. But it’s just who he is.”
“How do you know?”
“Oh, Elise, I’m not going to present you with the evidence. But I could. He knows that I know. We’ve fought about it many times.”
How had I missed all this? I felt so stupid. And betrayed.
She went on: “He won’t deny it if you ask him. I told your brother two years ago before he went to college, and your dad came clean to Matt when he asked.”
“You told Matt two years ago?” Suddenly Matt’s emotional distance since going away made sense.
“I didn’t want to tell you then. You had two years of high school left, and it was so important to you when Dad came to your performances. I couldn’t destroy that.”
“So, you just destroyed it in retrospect,” I hissed. Tears were streaming down my face. I was gasping for air and thought I might pass out.
“We both love you, Elise. Nothing can change that. Your dad is still your dad.”
Mom put her arm around my shoulder, and I threw it off.
“You do know that I have friends coming to pick me up for a three-hour drive, right? Great timing, Mom.”
“I think it’s best this way. Now, if you don’t want to talk to me or your dad for however long, we won’t all be under the same roof.”
On the drive to school, I cried and cried to my two best friends. We all shared a dorm room, and they had to deal with me on many a sad, drunken night. I almost flunked out that first year, but eventually I got my act together.
I never really stopped talking to my parents. I refused to confront my dad about it, and he said nothing, either. I did talk with my brother. Matt told me he had decided to cut them both out of his life entirely. He hated Dad and he couldn’t stand that Mom was putting up with this shit, even after we had both left home.
When I was 21, Matt broke off contact with me. He thought I was still trying to win Dad’s approval. He called me pathetic. It’s been a little over ten years since we’ve spoken.
Mom and Dad still live together, but their marriage is over. It’s just a convenience thing, them sharing the house. It’s a miserable place to visit, so I go for a couple days once a year at most. Mom drinks a lot. She often asks about Matt; she can’t believe he’s not talking to me. Dad, on the other hand, seems light and free. I guess he finally has full permission to do as he pleases.
Sometimes I wonder how many half-siblings I might have out there. Is Jocelyn a child of my dad’s, here to check me out? If so, why go to all this trouble? Why not just send me an email, or knock on the door and say, hi there, I think I’m your sister?
When trust has been yanked away from you so unexpectedly, so completely, it makes you suspicious. Anything becomes possible. Everything is on the table.
“Jocelyn, where are the kids?” Dean asked.
“They’re in the den, watching a movie.”
“I’d like to check on them.”
Dean and Jocelyn looked at each other, and after what could have been years, she went over to the bench and helped him get up. He was limping as they shuffled off to the den.
I grabbed my snow boots from the coat closet next to the bench and put them on as quickly as possible.
“I’m going to clear off the steps,” I announced and dashed out the door.
The snow was falling thick, creating an eerie silence. I looked left and right—where was our damn shovel? I gave up and clomped up the stairs as quick as I could. Up at street level I saw one car, maybe an SUV, parked in the driveway of our weekends-only neighbor. The car had a lot of snow on it. Too much snow on the hood for it to have been opened recently, at least in my estimation. And there was no sign of the mechanic’s vehicle.
I had left Jack alone in the house with those people. What if Dean was faking his injury?
I ran back down the steps, almost falling myself.
Jack and the mechanic were still standing there, and Jocelyn and Dean were just coming back into the foyer.
“Elise, did you go for a little walk?” Jocelyn asked.
“I was going to shovel the stairs,” I said, realizing how ridiculous I looked, covered in snow, with boots on, but no hat, coat, or gloves. “But I changed my mind.”
Jocelyn started to say something, and I cut her off.
“I think it’s time for all of you to go,” I said, shaking from the cold and the adrenaline surging through my body. I was afraid to kick them out, and I was afraid to let them stay one minute longer.
“Look, Elise, I can explain,” Jocelyn said.
“Explain what, Jocelyn?”
This time Jack cut her off: “No need to explain, just leave, please.”
“We can’t do that, Jack.”
Dean growled, “Let’s just go, Jocelyn. You’ve messed around here long enough, and now I’m hurt, and there’s a ton of snow on the ground. Let’s get the kids and go.”
“No!” Jocelyn shook her head and scrunched up her face. “We won’t be leaving until I get what I came for.”
I couldn’t breathe. I ran to the bathroom. Jack followed me and closed the door behind him.
“What the hell, Jack? Is that your girlfriend? Did she come here to send us a message?”
“Elise, I swear, that is not Samantha.”
Jack rarely used her name. He knew I didn’t like hearing it.
I was leaning on the vanity taking shallow gulps of air.
“Calm down, Elise. She misspoke because I walked up at that moment.”
“You did tell me that she, Samantha, was having trouble letting go,” I reminded him.
“She’s getting better, and she would never pull a stunt like this anyway. Besides, this woman is freaking pregnant. I told you nothing physical ever happened.”
“She said she was a snake, Jack.”
“She was messing with you because she didn’t want you trying to win over the kids.”
“Was that what I was trying to do?”
“Kinda seemed like it.”
“I was trying to break the tension.”
Jack could see I was holding back tears.
“It’s like, what’s it called, Occam’s Razor? The simplest answer is the one most likely to be true. They’re just a couple that broke down, and they don’t want to be here right now. She didn’t like you getting all cozy with the kids, and then…Wait, she said she shouldn’t have told you anything. What did she tell you?”
I gave Jack a quick summary of the situation according to Jocelyn.
“OK, maybe we better get back out there.”
I glared at him. “So, you see why I might think something’s not right.”
With a big sigh, Jack pulled his phone out of his back pocket. He started scrolling rapidly through it and then stopped. He held the phone out in front of me.
“That’s Samantha,” he said.
It was a picture of a group of people from one of his office happy hours. I recognized his former boss, from before his promotion, standing in the back. In the middle was Jack and a woman, who looked nothing like Jocelyn. They were sitting close, arms draped casually over each other’s shoulders.
“It’s from like six months ago, right before I told you.”
Seeing the photo made it so much more real. I felt nauseous.
“What did your co-workers think, with you guys hanging on each other like that?”
“I don’t know. We were teammates, Elise. We were all celebrating finishing a big project.” Jack put the phone away. “Can we revisit this later? I think we should get out there.”
“OK, but I still think something’s up with these two. And, honestly, I don’t want to hear about Samantha again, as long as you promise me nothing ever happened. And that you’ve convinced her she’s barking up the wrong tree.”
“Yes, yes, of course, Elise.”
And then we both laughed, because where the hell did “barking up the wrong tree” come from?
We found Jocelyn and the kids sitting in the living room. She was looking at her phone.
“Anything from Dean?” I asked.
“No, not yet.” She said, putting her phone down on the coffee table.
“Um, Jack could set the kids up in the den to watch a movie,” I suggested.
The kids perked up. There was a long silence. I wondered if Jocelyn knew that I was trying to maneuver some more one-on-one time with her.
“Okay, sure,” Jocelyn said, throwing her hands in the air.
Jack motioned at the kids, “C’mon you two, let’s go find something fun to watch!”
I sat down on the couch across from Jocelyn and leaned over, my arms folded on my knees.
“Jocelyn, is everything ok? I know I’m a stranger, but you can talk to me.”
She picked up her phone, looked at the screen, and then put it back down.
“I can’t explain. It’s complicated. You must be familiar with complicated.”
I sat back, unsure where she was going with this.
Jocelyn continued, “You don’t fully trust Jack, right? Why do you think that is? Is it more about him or about your own baggage?”
“We all have baggage,” I conceded.
“So, maybe you’re looking at me and Dean through your own baggage.”
I could hear the TV in the other room. Hopefully, Jack would return soon. I didn’t want to get into a battle of wits with Jocelyn—I was clearly outmatched.
Jocelyn’s phone dinged and she grabbed it. “The mechanic is working on the car,” she announced.
I started thinking about the amount of time Jocelyn or Dean had been left unaccompanied in the house. Was it long enough for one of them to steal a checkbook or a credit card? Or were they after more? Was I just being paranoid?
Jocelyn could see the gears turning in my head, I was certain of it. “Elise, my point is, it seems like you want to save me,” she said, “but what if I’m here to save you?”
“What does that mean?” I asked, my heart beating in my throat.
“Tell me why you’re having a tough time getting past Jack’s emotional attachment at work. Do you believe him when he says it’s over?”
“I do. But I have trust issues. I can’t talk about it.”
“Yet you want me to tell you my secrets,” she said slowly. “Isn’t that weird?”
The whole thing was weird. Who was this woman? Why did I want nothing more than to go grab that bottle of wine and tell her everything?
Jack walked back into the room. “They’re watching Toy Story. They seem pretty content. You might have to carry them out of here.”
“The mechanic is up there,” I informed Jack.
“Maybe I should clear off the steps; it’s really starting to stick,” Jack said.
Jocelyn jumped to her feet, “No worries! We’ll be fine.”
As if on cue, we heard a commotion outside. We all ran to the foyer, and Jack flung open the front door. At the foot of our stairs, a man was helping Dean to his feet.
“Dean! What happened?” Jocelyn shouted. As she ran out in the snow, I saw that she had snow boots on. I hadn’t noticed that before.
“I’m ok, I slipped a bit and slid down the last couple steps.”
The man, who I took to be the mechanic, helped Dean get inside. Dean was not putting his full weight on his left ankle.
“Did you twist your ankle?” I asked.
“Do you need some help?” Jack asked.
“I’m fine,” Dean said.
The mechanic helped Dean sit down on the bench in our foyer.
As Jack closed the door, it occurred to me that Jack and I were now outnumbered in our house, three adults to two. I wasn’t sure if the kids would be a help or a hindrance to whatever they might have planned.
“Please be careful as you go back up the stairs,” I said to the mechanic, not too subtly.
“If you don’t mind, ma’am, I’d like to wait here for the tow truck,” he said. “I couldn’t fix the car, and my truck’s not equipped for towin’. Not that I’d want to even try it in this snow. It’s really coming down out there.”
If you haven’t yet, you’ll want to read Part I of this serialized story first.
Our house does not have an open floor plan, so the living room, kitchen, and dining room are chopped up into separate rooms, which I happen to like.
Jocelyn took a quick look around, saw that we were sort of secluded, and then grabbed my arm and leaned in close.
“Ok, so you’re going to tell me the ingredients of the chili, and I’m going to confide in you, all right?” she said in a low, urgent voice. It wasn’t really a question.
In a much louder voice she said, “Elise, you have to tell me what’s in this amazing-smelling chili.”
I started getting out the bowls, and in an equally loud voice, I said, “Well, you start with black beans, white onion, garlic, and brown sugar.”
Jocelyn whispered: “So, Dean and I are not married. At least not yet. I called him my husband because, I don’t know, because it sounded better, I guess.”
Dean! Two names down.
“Um, then we use ground turkey and bacon. But you don’t have to include them if you don’t eat meat.”
“The kids are his. We were picking them up at his ex’s place around here somewhere. We’ve never been out here. She usually meets him halfway.”
“Then you’ve got chopped green and red bell pepper, jalapeños, and sweet onion.”
“We were picking up the kids for the week. I don’t know them very well, so this was supposed to be a chance for us to bond.”
“The spices are chili powder, cumin, oregano, and crushed red pepper.”
We were moving around the kitchen, assembling the spoons, bread plates, and serving utensils. Every couple seconds, we would freeze and look at the doorway. We could hear voices coming from the living room.
“Ever since I started showing, it’s been weird. His ex doesn’t know I’m pregnant. I didn’t go in the house when he got the kids. It’s gotten tense.”
I asked, “Is everything ok? Do you need help?”
Jocelyn did that rolling thing with her hand that means go on…
“And, uh, a jar of salsa, some tomato paste, and some broth,” I practically shouted.
I removed the cornbread from the oven, and Jocelyn’s eyes widened.
“Holy crap, that looks really good. What’s in that?!”
Under her breath and at breakneck speed, she added, “We’re fine, he just has to get used to the fact that he’s having another kid, and he needs to tell his ex about it before too long.”
“It’s the usual cornbread ingredients, and then on top are caramelized apple slices and onions.”
And then I did something I can’t explain.
I said: “Well, Jack has been having an ’emotional affair’ with a woman at work. He says it’s over, and I’m trying to get past it. But…” I stopped myself.
What the hell was I doing? I hadn’t even told my closest friends about this yet because I was worried they would think I was crazy for going forward with buying this house. Why had I disclosed this to a perfect stranger?
It was too late to judge Jocelyn’s reaction because Jack, Dean, and the kids had arrived in the kitchen.
“Are we ready?” Jack asked as he grabbed some glasses from the cabinet.
Talk about an awkward dinner. The kids were still mostly silent. Had Jocelyn and Dean been arguing in the car and the kids got freaked out? Was their home life stressful? At least they weren’t picky eaters, as we discovered. In fact, they were demolishing the cornbread.
Dean kept looking at his phone. He ate maybe two bites of chili.
Jack was drinking one of his fancy craft beers. I was slowly sipping red wine. I was going to skip the wine, but after my confession, I started feeling anxious and wanted to calm down. I promised myself I would not drink too much while these people were still in the house. Our guests had opted for sparkling water.
“This food is delicious,” Jocelyn said. “You guys should open up a restaurant. Seriously.”
This is the point where we might normally start talking about what we all did for work. But I wasn’t sure what direction to go—treat this like two couples getting to know each other or just wait out the discomfort, because how long could it last, honestly?
Through the window I could see the snow was coming down. Jack and I exchanged glances.
Dean’s phone played some tune I recognized but could not place. He jumped up and left the room. I wasn’t thrilled about him wandering through our house, but I couldn’t very well follow him.
“How do you like the food?” I looked at the kids who were sitting side-by-side to my right. “Do you want some more cornbread?”
“No, thank you,” said the older kid.
“Yes, please,” said the younger kid.
As I put another piece of cornbread on the smaller one’s plate, I asked, “Can you tell me your names and how old you are?”
“You don’t have to tell her that,” Jocelyn snapped.
“She’s right,” I said, feeling like I had been slapped.
And then, again, I don’t know what struck me, but I said, “Names are meaningless anyway. Wouldn’t it be so much more fun if people just called us by our favorite animal? I would be named Dolphin. Jack what would you be?”
My husband looked at me like I had sprouted another head. “What the heck are you talking about?”
But the kids loved it.
“I’m Penguin!” said the older one.
“I’m Puppy” said the younger one.
“Jocelyn,” I said, putting emphasis on her name, seeing as how she had never given it to me in the first place, “who would you be?”
She grinned. Was it fake, or had I won her over? I couldn’t tell.
“Well, Elise, I mean Dolphin, I would have to be Snake.”
Touché, dear Jocelyn!
“I’m getting anther beer,” said Jack, and he got up from the table.
Dean returned and reported that a mechanic was on his way. He said he was going to wait at the car. I walked with him to the hall closet to get his coat, and he practically spit at me, “Can you just mind your own damn business until we get out of here?”
How much had he heard earlier?
“Absolutely,” I said, with an implied, Yes, Sir!
Dean rolled his eyes and stomped out the front door. I looked through the window in the top part of the door—the snow was starting to stick. I could not see which direction Dean went when he got to the top of the stairs. The street was barely visible.
Jack appeared next to me. “Maybe you could slow down on the wine for now,” he said, and I noticed that I had carried my glass of wine with me. How many glasses had I had? No more than two, but he was right. I could feel that sense of not giving a shit bubbling up.
Back in the dining room, Jocelyn was clearing the table.
“Hey there, Puppy and Penguin!” I said, and the kids smiled.
I grabbed some bowls and joined Jocelyn in the kitchen.
“Look, I’m sorry I said anything.” She exhaled and shook her head slowly, “You don’t need to be involved in this.”
Jack was now standing beside me, but she kept talking.
“This is between me and Jack—I mean me and Dean. This is between me and Dean.”
My head could not have swiveled fast enough to glare at Jack. What the…?
Note: This is the first installment of a story I plan to serialize on this blog. I haven’t written fiction in ages, and I don’t think I’ve ever tried my hand at suspense/psychological thrillers. Hopefully, it will add something fun to the mix that isn’t too far off topic. How often would you like to see new installments? Share your thoughts in the comments.
The sun had just gone down when we heard a knock at the door. It was mid-November, so it was already dark at 5pm.
Jack and I had just hunkered down under blankets on our respective couches. The first big snowstorm of the season was headed our way, and dinner was cooking in the kitchen.
We looked at each other—who could be knocking at five on a Sunday? We were still relatively new to the community, so maybe it was a neighbor dropping off a plate of cookies or a bottle of wine. Only one grandmotherly woman had welcomed us to the neighborhood so far. I was still holding out hope that a youngish couple would show up and we would all become fast friends.
Jack went to the door. We had no chain and no screen door, so he just opened the front door to whoever was there. The area was secluded and much nicer than the last place we lived, so I wasn’t too concerned that he didn’t ask first who it was.
A woman’s voice said, “Oh, hello. Thank you so much for answering your door.”
I jumped up and joined my husband in the foyer. A woman stood there holding the hand of a small child. The child was all bundled up against the cold, and the woman had on a long puffy coat that was hanging open. She appeared to be pregnant, but I know better than to make assumptions about that. She looked a bit out of breath—flushed and tired.
“I’m so sorry to bother you, but our car just broke down up there.” She motioned behind her. Our house sat at the bottom of a hill, and a flight of wooden stairs led up to the street. In the light of our street post, I could see a taller figure standing at the top of the stairs, carrying something large.
“That’s my husband up there. We are calling around to find a mechanic that can come out, but this little one really needs to use the restroom,” she looked at the child. “And I suppose I do, too.”
“Please, come in,” I said. “Jack, why don’t you go tell her husband to come down.”
The woman and child stepped into the house. I thought it might be easier for her to navigate in our small half-bath without her big coat, so I offered to hang it up. Then I showed them to the bathroom.
“We are so grateful, thank you again so much,” she said as she closed the bathroom door.
On my way back to the foyer, I scooped up the crumpled blankets from the couches and tossed them into the coat closet. When I reached the door, a man was standing there holding another child, about a year younger, on his hip. I guessed to myself that the two children were about three and four, but I wasn’t particularly good with kids’ ages. Maybe four and five?
“Would you like to come in and sit down?” Jack asked.
“We’ll be out of your hair shortly,” the man said, not moving.
“It’s pretty cold out there,” I said. “And it’s supposed to start snowing any minute. Have you reached a tow truck or mechanic yet?”
“Not really. Left a few messages.” He shifted the kid over to the other side.
“Daddy, I need to go to the bathroom,” the child whispered.
“I can show you where it is,” said Jack.
“And I can take your coats,” I said.
“That’s not necessary, we really will be out of your hair in no time.”
“It’s no trouble. What with the kids and your wife’s condition, you are more than welcome to wait here.”
The man gave me a sideways look, and I immediately regretted referring to his wife’s “condition.”
“Do you all live in the area?” I asked to change the subject.
He glanced away for a moment and took a long pause. “No, we were visiting people a couple blocks away.”
Silence. Then the child started tugging on the man’s sleeve.
“Follow me,” Jack said, and the man went off with him.
I started thinking about why this family had come to our house. There was nowhere on our part of the street to pull over their car. Was it sitting in the middle of the road? The neighbor to the right of us only came out on weekends, and he had likely left to go back to the city, so his house would be dark. The neighbor on the other side was older and went to bed early, but not this early.
The woman and child came out of the bathroom, and her husband and the other child took their place. She was holding the child’s coat and hat and scarf.
“I’m Elise, and this is Jack,” I said. “Why don’t we all sit down?”
The woman looked grateful to sit down on the loveseat with the child.
“I can take those from you,” I gestured toward the child’s coat.
“No worries, we shouldn’t be too long. Though it does smell awfully good in here.”
“We have a big pot of chili cooking,” I explained. “Perfect comfort food for a snowstorm. I can’t believe we’re expecting like a foot of snow this early in the season.”
“Oh, my, are we supposed to get that much? I wish we had gotten an earlier start. The roads out here are confusing. We got a little turned around. And then the car…” Her voice trailed off.
“Yes, it’s easy to lose your way here,” Jack said.
The woman still hadn’t offered her name, and I was wondering if it would be rude to ask. The child was remarkably quiet and still.
The husband came out of the bathroom talking on his cell phone. Maybe one of the mechanics had called him back?
The other child hung back, behind his legs. This child still had a coat and hat on.
The man hung up. “Well, they can’t come out for another hour at least.”
“We made plenty of chili if you’d like to stay,” I offered. “It should be ready in about twenty minutes. I have cornbread baking in the oven, too.” Jack gave me a look. I knew he didn’t want these strangers in our house on a cozy Sunday evening, eating dinner with us, but what could we do?
“So, did you folks just move in?” The man asked. He was referring to the boxes stacked here and there, marked “living room” and “den.”
“A couple months ago,” I confessed. “It’s taking a while to get fully unpacked. Don’t you hate packing? I hate packing. But unpacking is usually fun because you get to decide where to put everything in your new home. But this time it’s dragging on for some reason.”
Jack gave me another look, like okay, Chatty Cathy.
Silence again. I decided to pull off the band-aid: “Can I ask your names?”
The woman stood up and walked over to the man, who was hovering on the perimeter of the living room. The child followed her.
“What do you want to do?” she asked him. “These people are being very kind.”
“I guess we could stay until the mechanic gets here,” he said and then looked at us. “But you folks go ahead and eat. We’ll be just fine. We had a big lunch earlier.”
I speculated: Perhaps they don’t eat meat. Or spicy food. Maybe the kids hate chili.
We were all standing at this point, including the two children, and it was getting really awkward.
“Is your car in the road? Do you need us to help you push it off?” I asked. “You can use the neighbor’s parking spot—he’s gone back to the city.”
“It’s fine,” the man said in a tone that said, stop asking questions.
The woman sighed, “You know what, I would love to have some of your chili. Can I help you in the kitchen?”
I could have hugged her. “Absolutely, right this way!” I headed toward the kitchen, not even caring that I was leaving Jack with the man and the two kids.
“Jocelyn,” I heard him call after her, but she ignored him. Jocelyn! One name down, three to go.
The original “Party of Five” television series ended in 2000, when I was 34 years old. In one of the final episodes, the character Julia (played by Neve Campbell) can be seen reading a copy of the National NOW Times, a newspaper that I edited and produced for the National Organization for Women.
Someone from the show had reached out to us for materials, but I had no way of knowing if they were going to use anything. I literally squealed when I saw it. Something I had created had appeared, if only fleetingly, on TV. After years of coveting public acclaim, I was fame-adjacent!
Twenty-one years later, I am 55 and unemployed. A couple days ago I saw a news segment about how women have been leaving the paid workforce in droves during the pandemic, and a sense of sadness washed over me.
March 13 marks one year that I’ve been out of work. Unlike so many others, I did not lose my job due to COVID (though it may have happened eventually, had I stayed). Before the lockdowns started, I made the decision to resign because I was buckling under the pressure of looking after my mother while trying to work a part-time job that could not be done from home.
Thankfully, my husband was willing to see if we could make things work on his salary alone. It’s not like I was making much money, anyway. The bigger sacrifice, financially, had been two years earlier when my mom first went on dialysis and I exited a full-time marketing job that was satisfying and paid pretty well.
So, here I am, having scaled back first to a minimum-wage job and then to nothing. I shouldn’t say nothing. I am a caretaker for my 81-year-old mom, who no longer drives and has multiple health conditions. There is honor in this role. But a large part of my identity was wrapped up in earning pay and accolades for my vocation.
After college, I discovered that working hard and winning promotions could provide much-needed boosts to my self-confidence. Work became the arena where I proved to myself that I was smart and capable and resourceful. I particularly liked producing print publications that I could hold in my hands.
But after 30 years of working in offices, it turns out I was relieved to step off the management track. I no longer hungered for higher titles and increased responsibility. I just wanted to do what I was good at without having to constantly prove I hadn’t grown complacent.
I come here to confess my complicated feelings about paid work—fears and insecurities that others may share. I didn’t appreciate being constantly evaluated, and though I enjoyed collaborating with people, I resented that supervising larger and larger teams and then departments is a necessary means to moving ahead in so many fields.
As a feminist, I find it embarrassing that I like not working right now. With less pressure and expectations, my anxiety has decreased. I have been able to explore other interests and interview my mom for the memoir I’m writing.
And yet, I’m not sure who I am without a regular paycheck for my efforts, without a boss to praise me. I worry that depending on my husband financially betrays my values and makes me uninteresting.
I also fret that the longer I stay out of the workforce at my age, the harder it’s going to be to reenter if and when I need to—this concern has produced some sleepless nights.
Will my personal writing save my dignity? Stay tuned.
Let’s say you are making a big pot of vegetable soup. (Yes, it’s analogy time again.) You find a recipe online but decide to improvise—spending an hour inspecting your spice rack. Once you settle on a mix of herbs and spices, you grab whatever bags of veggies you have in the freezer and dump them into the pot.
Your soup may turn out perfectly fine, but most folks would agree that your emphasis on ingredients was misplaced. Flavor enhancements are important, but this is a vegetable soup. You might want to spend more time choosing and chopping fresh veggies if you want a truly delicious soup.
If you want a truly fulfilling life, you must also choose which ingredients (or actions) to concentrate on. For years, my personal priorities were out of whack. I would spend precious time on busywork rather than creative projects.
If you’re anything like me, this train of thought might sound familiar: I need to write a blog post, but maybe I should put on a load of laundry first. Oh, and now would be the perfect time to rake up those leaves in the front yard. And wouldn’t it be nice to organize that pile of stuff on the coffee table? Laundry’s ready to fold! Ugh, now I’m drained, and I deserve a break. Instead of writing, I’ll just collapse on the couch and watch Netflix.
This was happening over and over again because I was stuck in a loop of focusing on things that were mentally easy to do but still consumed considerable time and energy. It felt good to be crushing it at “adulting”—but this system was leaving me unfulfilled in a larger sense.
Last fall I took a course to help get my life on track and establish a writing practice. In the first phase, we were encouraged to set goals that we could achieve in approximately three months. One of my goals was to write 30,000 words in my book by the end of January.
This goal sounded intimidating, given that I hadn’t written regularly in ages. But if I wrote, on average, five days a week, I only needed to produce 400 words a day over the 15-week period. Totally reasonable!
But to make this happen, I had to stop staring at the spice shelf.
I had to break my habits of:
Making meticulous to-do lists for everyday tasks and striving to check off every item
Jumping on non-urgent things to get them “out of the way”
Turning trivial chores into complicated, time-consuming projects
Insisting on doing everything to my standards, by myself
When I felt the urge to procrastinate with busywork, I had to ask myself:
Will I get to these chores eventually, even if they’re not on a to-do list?
What would happen if I saved this task for later?
Am I being paid to perform this chore at a master level?
Can someone else help with this task or take it over altogether?
Doing the above was the only way I could make time for my writing. I had to suffer the pain of watching the laundry pile up higher than usual, push past the discomfort of seeing those damn leaves every time I walked in the front door, and learn to ignore the clutter on the coffee table.
And by Jan. 31 I had exceeded my writing goal, pounding out a grand total of 40,060 words. Writing was the star ingredient in my plan, and by placing my attention there, I produced the result I desired.
Suppose you have two road trips planned (for once this pandemic is behind us, of course). The first trip will take you only four hours away from home. You haven’t been to this city in forever, and you can’t wait to see some old friends who live there. On the second trip, you will drive for several days to reach your destination. You’ll be setting foot in this state for the first time, and you’re super excited to go.
Would you ever tell yourself that the second trip won’t be worth it because it takes too long to get there? That the first trip will be much more fun because you’re going to arrive sooner? I’m guessing your answer is No.
This is the kind of analogy I create to guide myself through self-doubt and disappointment. I have several big life goals I haven’t yet achieved—goals my younger self thought for sure I would have realized by now. Perhaps it’s just taking me longer to get there, which in no way invalidates the journey or the destination.
Travel as a metaphor appeals to me so much, I’m going to elaborate on it…
Imagine you’ve always dreamed of going to Paris. You thought for sure you would go there in your early 20s, but years have passed and you still haven’t seen Paris.
If you do make it there one day, will Paris be any less spectacular because you’re not in your 20s anymore? The experience might be different because you won’t be the same person you were when you were younger, but what’s wrong with that?
In the meantime, you’ve spent time in lots of great cities in the U.S.—like Boston, New York City, Washington, D.C., Miami, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, plus you’ve been to Mexico a couple times. For years, you’ve been discovering places your younger self didn’t even think to put on the to-see list.
What if you never make it to Paris? Is that ok? Can you find other locales to satisfy your sense of adventure?
You see, I was “supposed” to be a published author by now. I hoped a big publishing house would print my first book while I was still in my 20s, with more to follow. If I am completely honest, I guess I thought I would win a few awards and settle down in middle-age to teach creative writing at a university. These dreams were my Paris.
But none of that happened. What did happen is, I worked at several interesting and fulfilling jobs where I acquired multiple degrees worth of knowledge and met many hilarious, kind, and inspiring people. I am a changed person from the girl who thought she needed to publish her first novel before she hit 25. Those positions I held, the skills and confidence I developed, and the friends I made are like visits to Boston and San Francisco.
I may never be a published author. I am working on a book, and possibly the writing process will be sufficient reward all on its own. Or maybe I will self-publish. Whatever I decide to do, it won’t be any less gratifying because it took longer than planned.
Reevaluating old goals is acceptable, even healthy. You may learn that other goals suit you better now. Whatever you do, be patient with yourself—you may be on a winding road trip that is worth every precious second.