When It Comes Easy
All these miles, I’ve been thinking about family. What it means to be a part of one. What it takes to create one.
I haven’t been to South Dakota in a long time. I was born there, in Sturgis, and I lived in the Black Hills for the first 21 years of my life, but I’ve only been back a handful of times since I moved away. My first taste of the homeland, after years, came today when I reached I-90 at Worthington, Minnesota.
“346 miles to Wall Drug.” It was painted on a billboard by the highway.
No, let me correct that. “ONLY 346 miles.” The “only” is important.
I left Sara’s house in Saint Paul around 8 o’clock this morning. She and I polished off a last pastry and a last cup of coffee together at the kitchen counter. I took two more hugs from her daughters. In the rental car, I cursed for a few minutes, fiddling with the cables until my navigation worked, before merging into Minneapolis traffic.
The snarl of the city and the outer rings of big box stores. After a while, I hit open country. Grain silos and dried corn stalks and sunflower fields, under a light drizzle, on the diagonal highway toward the state line. I’m heading home. Or something like that. Home is almost, but not quite, the word. After four hours of driving, the first sign I was getting closer was the one for Wall Drug.
Which made me wonder, you know, if those Wall Drug signs are still planted in the Sahara Desert or Antartica or wherever else we left them over the years, or if they’re all gone by now. The locals probably got sick of them at some point and took them down. I would have. All that schlocky stuff is less cute when you live next door to it.
I’m not going to Wall Drug, so it doesn’t matter. I’m headed toward my sister and her family in Sturgis. And the state line isn’t even halfway into this 700-mile day of driving. I have plenty of time to spend thinking about my visit with Sara, my oldest friend.
Sara and I have known each other for almost twenty years now. We have been a lot of different selves with each other. Our language is an old one. When we talk to each other, we aren’t just the adults we pretend to be when we go out the door in the morning. I can still speak to Sara with the voice of a sixteen-year-old talking to her seventeen-year-old best friend. (Though, yes, that phrase “best friend” sounds embarrassing from an older mouth.) That’s when we met—in high school. AP English class with Mr. Schulz; AP European History with Mr. Abrahamson. We were brainy teenage girls with broken hearts together. One night, we made up an elaborate FM Radio divination game and we played it incessantly, driving along the highways south of Rapid City. We’d skip ahead five stations if we landed on a news station. Seven for a Praise-Jesus station. We both still remember all the rules.
And I can still talk to her as a 21-year-old to my 22-year-old roommate, from the time when we were aimless together after college in our beautiful, too-expensive New Haven apartment. We baked three-tier cakes in the galley kitchen and we rented movies from the indie movie rental place. We were insomniacs together at Mamoun’s Falafel after the bars closed. We couldn’t quite handle the ‘party girl’ lifestyle, but we tried it out for a while. Her parties were classy—crystal glassware and placemats and music in the background. The parties I went to weren’t like that. We each had a hard time in New Haven, in our own way.
What happened to us? Life sped ahead quickly. Suddenly I was across the country, living in Kansas with my future husband. I wasn’t around anymore. We’ve only seen each other twice in the intervening decade. The last time I visited was in early 2016, when she was pregnant with her first daughter. Now, somehow, she’s the mother of two little girls. A six-year-old and a nearly-three-year-old. For her daughters, I have been “Auntie Tonya” on the cards that come with their birthday and Christmas presents. I have been the voice, once a month or so, on their mother’s phone.
I remember when Sara called to tell me she was pregnant with her older daughter. This was in February of 2016. After the phone call, I began to bookmark baby gift ideas on my computer. I took a flight to Minneapolis to see her.
The week I visited, Sara’s abdomen took on the visible Madonna-with-child curve. We went to baby stores and evaluated car seats. And I was with her for the house tour with the realtor when she and her husband Troy found their home in Saint Paul. Granted, there was a kind of silly pirate-ship vinyl flooring in the dining room back then and bright orange countertops in the kitchen. But it was a good-sized kitchen, and there were enough bedrooms, and the backyard was big and shaded under a tall ash tree. There were garden beds and room for a large patio. Off the dining room, a three-season porch looked out to the yard. It was a house for a young family. A house to grow in. It was serendipitous that I had been there when they found it.
I doubt I told her I was trying to get pregnant. By that winter, I had already been through a series of bad test results, biopsies, and indeterminate answers, so that some dark voice in my head had already told me that a baby wasn’t in the cards. And if I said anything to her about it, I probably said that we “weren’t trying not to get pregnant anymore,” which is how I tended to phrase it to myself. Like, oh, we’ll just see what happens. Like it didn’t matter either way. But I was trying. I did everything I was supposed to do. I stopped taking hot baths. I took vitamins and ate spinach all the time. Each morning, before I got out of bed, I recorded my temperature in one of those cycle-tracking apps.
I used to fantasize about decorating a nursery in our spare bedroom, with a rocking chair in the corner. When I was a baby, my mom rocked me and sang to me for hours each evening in the rocking chair in my bedroom. I remember how she would sit behind me on my bed and brush my thick, tangled hair until it was all smooth. I was loved. I was delighted over by both of my parents. And now that I was married, with a home, and with as much love and delight in me as a mother is meant to have, I thought I was ready. I had, at least, the rudimentary knowledge. More than anything, I had a deep loneliness. A profound loneliness, coupled with a feeling that my life was just frittering away at nothing. I wanted a child. I never said it that clearly to anyone. I always couched it in caveats. But it’s the truth. I wanted to be a mother.
How long did I keep trying? By the time Sara’s little girl was born, in the summer of 2016, I had deleted the app I was using. I still took my temperature, and I knew what its predictable rise and fall meant. I was taking hot baths again. I was giving up on the idea. Moreover, my marriage was plagued by an aura of continual crisis and I was regularly lying to a therapist about how bad it was, in hopes that, with enough limited information, she would tell me how to hold it all together. I spent a certain amount of time each day staring out my kitchen window, thinking about how I could find an apartment in Kansas City and a job. It’d probably be waitressing again. But maybe I could be somebody’s secretary.
One afternoon in the early fall, just a couple months after Sara’s baby was born, I was sitting in a chair in the backyard, watching the leaves fall from the elm tree. My husband hadn’t spoken to me so far that day. I didn’t know if he would, or if I had another day, or multiple days, before a tenuous feeling of ‘normal’ reasserted itself. I brought my legs up on the chair and hugged them to my chest and finally let myself think something I hadn’t wanted to think.
“This isn’t the kind of life I want to bring a child into.”
I thought of my parents. They were consistently kind and patient with each other. I thought of other parents I had admired. I knew how they were. My life wasn’t like theirs. Once I had said it, even silently, I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t the truth.
I look back now and wish I had taken those thoughts further. I wish I had told Sara how it felt to have that fantasy of motherhood, and how it felt to cut it loose. I wish I had told anybody. But time is what it is.
That was the end of trying. Within the next year, the spare bedroom became my office and I began to focus more intently on my writing. I began to write, in stolen hours of the day, just for myself. I have hundreds of pages of writing from the last five years of that marriage that were written in order for me to hear my own voice on the page.
Sara and I were sitting in her back yard the other night. It was one of those cool high-latitude late-summer evenings where the ground and all the surfaces of the house and patio were still giving off the day’s heat. Troy started a fire in the fire pit. She and I were talking, inevitably, about the last decade and our respective relationships.
“I wish I had realized earlier,” Sara said, “that it could be easy.” She kept pulling at the hem of her sweatpants, waving away the mosquito that was flying around her ankles. “Somehow, I had myself convinced that relationships were supposed to be dramatic. All of those awful relationships in my early twenties. They were all so hard. But when I got involved with Troy…”
Troy had already wandered back into the house to let us talk. “Once you find a relationship that’s easy,” she said, “you just realize, ‘Oh, this is what it can be like.’” She looked toward the glass door he had passed through a few minutes earlier.
I was so nervous for this visit—all the time after I booked the flight, and while I was traveling to get there, and even at the moment I arrived in Sara’s driveway in my rental car. For more than a decade, she and I had communicated almost entirely over the phone. On a lot of those calls, we just talked about the past. Were we just memories to each other now? She was the other one who knew the same names from high school. I was the other one who knew the stories from New Haven. But we had barely been around each other since 2010.
And even if we could fall back into closeness again, I nursed another fear. What if I drove up to that warm house under the trees, with its garden beds and all the porch windows open to the backyard, and discovered that Sara was unhappy? For the past decade, I had only skimmed the story of her life. It’s so easy to tell a happy story at a distance. It’s what I had done for her, given her the happy stories, in the years I was married. I never answered my phone on the bad days.
But I saw her face the other night when she exhaled the word “easy” and glanced along the path her husband had just taken back into the house. Yesterday, I watched her laughing out of the corners of her mouth while she and I fake-nibbled the plastic food her daughter had set out on a blanket for us.
“You have such a good family,” I said to her the other day. “It’s a happy family.” We were sitting together on the floor, gathering dolls. Her husband Troy had their little three-year-old under one arm, and the six-year-old was splayed out next to them on the couch. He was reading to them, “One Fish Two Fish…”
Sara smiled quietly, looking over at all of them, and nodded.
I had spent the whole day as Auntie Tonya, wheeling the littler one on her tricycle to the park and pushing her on the swings and scooping her up at the bottom of the slide. Once the older daughter was home from school, we all colored in coloring books together at the kitchen counter. We moved the dolls around in their doll house. It was like being a mom—or at least a little bit, just for a few days. I had let go of those cravings a long time ago, but it still felt sweet. I had this little period of time inside this happy family. I felt some reverence for all their daily rituals. It softened me each time the girls called “Auntie Tonya” to catch my attention.
At one point yesterday, the older daughter brought a book over to me on the carpet. “Auntie Tonya!” she said, and she began to show me how she could read it. She leaned against my side, turning the pages and pointing at the words as she carefully pronounced each letter. I nodded along and laughed when her little sister came over and sat to listen with us. I looked over at Sara while her daughter read to me. I felt so proud of my oldest friend. It turns out that she’s a natural mom. Would I have guessed it, back in our apartment in New Haven? We were such amateurs in our early twenties. Emotionally strung out and confused, chasing any exhilaration that passed by. But now, just look at her. She has so much patience. She sings along with her daughters’ songs. She listens when they talk.
I hit the state line a while back, which means I’m in South Dakota now. The morning drizzle turned into a downpour on I-90 and there was construction all the way into Sioux Falls. I still have hours to go before I see my sister. At some point, I’m hoping to drag my purse across the passenger seat and wrestle out the muffin I stashed in there last night. All these miles, I’ve been thinking about family. What it means to be a part of one. What it takes to create one.
One day, Sara’s two daughters will be like my sister and me. The daughters of loving families are all like this—hugging and laughing and talking over each other to remember something the other one said or did decades ago. No one worthwhile could ever dislike my big sister. No one on earth can ever be what she is to me: certain to take my side in an argument; certain to deny any of my faults. Our parents created us this way, just by raising two girls in that house in the forest, and by talking and laughing with us, and taking us to roller rinks and bowling alleys, and carrying us in from the car when we fell asleep. Just through little actions and choices, they created a loving family. It’s a miracle to me that such a dire thing as a happy family can be easy.
“You’re different now,” I said to Sara the other day. “Or not exactly different. The same, in a lot of ways. But you seem…” I struggled to think of the words. “Calmer. You seem calmer than I remember.”
We were drinking tea on the three-season porch. She had been teaching me how to play chess while her younger girl was napping.
She paused. Then she said, “I think I’m less cynical than I used to be.” She and I had been talking about Covid and the Supreme Court and everything else that seems to be running haywire. “Yeah, the world can be crazy,” she said, “but I have this world to think about.” She nodded toward the rest of the house.
I drank my tea and thought about that.
I watched her make another move on the chessboard. I was just improvising my way through the chess game. And losing, of course, but I figured I got points for being graceful while I lost.
“I’m trying to decide,” I admitted, “whether I’m more or less cynical than I used to be.” I moved a knight to take one of her pawns.
She moved her bishop and put my king into check. I nodded and took a drink of my tea while I shifted the piece temporarily out of danger.
“Honestly,” she laughed, “you’re the same.”
I feel the same. I feel like I went across oceans, up and down a few mountains, only to fall down repeatedly, get scuffed and bruised and coated in the dirt of the whole damn world. I know I aged more than twenty years in the process. But somehow, after all of it, I’m back to myself. Back in my life where I left it. With Sara and the family she’s built. With my sister and all the people who have always known me. Back on the highway to Sturgis, after years of wishing I could make this drive.
Maybe it isn’t home. And maybe nowhere is home quite yet. But I’m on my way.
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