My dad’s dresser was always littered with shiny odds and ends. As a little girl, I’d stretch my arm to the almost-out-of-reach top and sift my sticky paw through the pile of smooth, cool debris, imagining how he sounded walking around with all those coins in his pockets. My little fingers would shuffle through the pen caps, receipts, and lint to find the treasures. I knew he toted silver sleeves of breath mints wherever he went, the wrapping torn and tucked around the speckled stacks. So I’d take the quarters (not all of them, not so greedy) and the crumpled stubs that only held one or two breath mints. The quarters would get me one of those oversized chocolate chip cookies at school that melted sweet and buttery in my mouth. And the breath mints would go into the secret pocket of my purse so I could crunch mints at church like him.
A couple of weeks before my eleventh birthday, Pastor and his wife were sitting in our Illinois living room saying that my dad had left. They suggested that my mom and us girls leave the church and the associated school and the house we lived in, which was church-owned, and return to New England with my maternal grandmother who was visiting us at the time. We flew away the next day. I don’t remember packing or what I wore or how I felt. The events of that day and of the years to follow seem thickly blurred, and I have to consult the collective family memories to get the details right. I’ve never been back to that state, that house, that life. I never found out if my dad had taken his quarters and breath mints with him.
I don’t know what items litter my dad’s dresser top these days—maybe bottle caps, reading glasses, a compass, a comb, lighters, keys, pens, maybe an inhaler, or pill boxes. I wonder if he still carries breath mints. I wonder who will sift through the treasures and pocket his quarters for cookies now.
My dad is back in my life, though the blurred years between his leaving and now confuse more than clarify. There was a failed attempt at reconciliation, and my parents divorced. Because of the church leadership’s hard stance on divorce, my mom and us girls left the church in Vermont we had known for decades. Gone were my dad, my familiar life and home, my church, and any god I’d believed was looking out for me.
Today, our family, a blend of parents and sisters related by blood or second marriage, exists amicably enough at assorted holidays, but our learned self-sufficiency keeps us mostly at a distance otherwise. At Christmas and birthdays, my dad’s pocket always contains the same thing. He hands each of his daughters a card containing the treasure of a crisp bill or two that seems altogether too much and yet not enough. Maybe he’s making up for all the quarters we couldn’t take from him in the years he was gone.
A month and a half into the fully residential MFA creative writing program, and I was already looking for an escape—to focus on my essay in a moment of peace. Campus was unusually crowded with another program’s week-long residency, and I found it impossible to find a quiet corner. My spot in the library basement was compromised by an electric drill, the cafe was abuzz with over-caffeinated creatives, and even my dorm room was polluted by animated hallway conversations and a lawnmower roaring across the green. I itched to get away.
So despite how unusual it felt at first, I found a motel about an hour away from school in Quechee, Vermont, and I got myself there. By myself. For myself. Yet I still paused, expecting some adult man to tell me which room was the best deal. Waited for a man to find the directions to the hotel, to drive, to decide where to park. To check in at the desk and to ask for a restaurant recommendation. A man like my dad, a friend’s dad, a coach, my boyfriend. I waited, instinctively, but only a moment. Just a hesitation, really—a constant hesitation inside me. I hesitated again before ordering a cocktail at the restaurant. I hesitated before asking the inattentive bartender to please take my dinner order. I hesitated when another solo bar patron, in walking back to his stool from the bathroom, passed by and told me to turn my frown upside down. I hesitated. And said nothing. But my face hugged its frown closer.
Then the weight of my aloneness descended onto my shoulders and settled into the pit of my gut. It would be easy for someone to follow me to my car after dinner, to my motel up the road. Easy to wait until I was unlocking my door on the ground floor in the silent lonely night and overpower me. I didn’t allow my thoughts any further.
The summer I turned twenty-one, my sister and her husband learned they were having a baby and chose to move home to Vermont from Virginia. My dad surprised everyone by offering to drive a trailer down to help them move. I surprised myself by volunteering to join him; I figured I’d go along for the ride, the chance to help my sister, and maybe to get to know my dad. The first ten hours spent in the car together had been mostly silent except for filler music on the radio and enough conversation to want to keep quiet. It was a stiffly casual atmosphere between father and daughter. We stopped for gas about two hours away from reaching the destination, and I grabbed a tallboy of Shock Top from the cooler, hoping it would take the edge off. I downed the beer.
Oh no, I thought, about an hour later. That beer went right through me. God, that was a lot! I bet we’re almost there. I can hold it.
Ten minutes later, I concealed the urgency in my voice and casually asked my dad how close we were to arriving. Forty-five minutes. No way in hell am I holding almost a liter of beer in my bladder for that long!
But, shit, there’s no reason to stop now we’re this close. Why in the world did I chug all that? He’s gonna be so pissed if I ask to stop. I’ll just hold it.
Five minutes more, and I timidly asked if we could stop for the bathroom. Looking around, I saw we were on an empty stretch of road with no sign of relief in the immediate future. I sat on my hands, crossed my legs, sat on my knees, hugged my knees to my chest, looked out the window, checked my phone, tracked the minutes passing on the clock. I was a child again, feeling ashamed for not having used the bathroom before we left. A child again, silenced by the bark from my father to “cool it!” when my sisters and I giggled or bickered too loudly on a family road trip.
The morning after my solo dinner, I did think further—counting the different retorts I could have shot back at the man who told me to smile.
1) You’re really going to stand there and tell a woman—a perfect stranger—what to do with her own body?!
2) Why… would I be prettier if I just smiled more?
3) Turn your entitled self around and get the fuck away from me.
I could have simply said No. One single word raised like a stiff palm between my face and his suggestion. One protest.
How do other people do it? Stop hesitating before speaking and acting? How can I live my life in defiance of the fear and self-doubt that have shadowed me all this time?
We arrived at my sister’s Virginia home, made a plan for loading the truck and trailer in the morning, and then my dad and I drove to the hotel. We checked in and wearily, quietly turned in. I woke in the night, restless in a strange place. Light from the parking lot soaked through the chintzy window covering and drenched the room blue. I rose and padded to the bathroom, then to the window, then to the dresser where my father’s cluster of belongings waited. Keys, glasses, gas receipt, Mountain Dew bottle caps, phone and charger, wallet, aspirin, coins, and breath mints. I pocketed the two quarters and placed a breath mint on my tongue, savoring the familiar icy tingle. A pen lay next to his wallet which sat on top of a folded paper. A check made out to my sister and her husband—that same amount that was altogether too much and yet not enough. I noticed a tattered corner peeking out from one of the wallet pockets and slid out a picture, one I knew well. Four fuzzy pigtailed heads were just visible over the top of a picnic table, all turned away from the camera, lined in a row from biggest to smallest, looking out at the view from the top of Vermont’s Mount Philo.
After a lavender latte and runny egg sandwich took my mind off of the events at the bar the night before, I decided to delay my return home a little longer by exploring an antique mall in the town of Quechee. The store stretched on, labyrinthine for miles, and then presented the stairs to its second floor. Had I ever wandered aisles of other people’s things alone? Ascending painted stairs that advertised a wealth to be discovered above, I remembered weekends of my childhood spent traipsing through the Salvation Army in Illinois, where the radio always played smooth R&B that confounded me as a naïve little Christian. I found the thrift shop to be another world—no, hundreds of worlds; the sloughed off evidence of living. In Quechee, I tread lightly on groaning floorboards between city blocks of locked-away jewelry and knick knacks, cigar boxes full of sepia postcards, oxidized metal toys and lunch boxes, vintage furs and lingerie. Who am I in this world? Who do I want to be?
When I checked out with three hefty coffee table books on home design and decorating, the woman behind the counter with silver hair to match her flashing rings asked me if I’m a designer. No, I’m not. I hesitate. My mom always had books like these that I loved looking through as a kid. I miss that. So now I’m on my own, I’m starting a collection.
Ah, she said. You know, I think we’re all designers in our own right.
To me, home is a nest I return to after flight. It’s the image I carry with me of what home seemed to be before everything changed. It’s safety. I’ve been thinking about what kind of nest I want to create for myself. The idea of building a home—literally constructing the walls and windows and roof of a home—appeals to me now more than ever. If I could decide where my walls sit, what my windows face, how high or low my roof is, maybe I can create just the kind of home I’ve always wanted. And if I can create that home, maybe I could design just the kind of life I’ve come to crave. One that no one can take away from me.
I think about what I pocketed from my parents. More than quarters or an eye for design, I carry with me their conceptions of home and family and right or wrong and hard or easy. I carry with me the impulse to escape. And the hesitation.
Is it a sacrifice for me to let go of what is poisonous to me? Or does a sacrifice have to leave me with something less—less of what I want, less than I had before? Growing up in the church, I was taught that my life should be a sacrifice, a gift to the god who gave his life for me. Everything I did with my life should be worthy of laying at the altar before the god to whom I owed it all. But I didn’t ask for that. And I don’t want a god to whom my life is my debt. I willingly gave that up, because I want a life that is more than an existence of indebtedness. I want ownership of my life.
Over a chicken sandwich lunch at the diner across from the antique mall, I thought of Kate Julian’s 2018 Atlantic article on why young people in America are having less sex these days. Ever since I stumbled across the fascinating read on a friend’s Facebook page, I’d wondered where I fit into the equation. I didn’t think I had any hangups about sex; in fact, I felt like I’d been dating more than many of my friends. Did that mean I was doing something wrong? Kate’s research returned significantly more reasons for me and my peers to abstain from sex than reasons to go for it, and apparently inhibition plays a huge role in young people’s abstinence. Essentially, America’s youth is not having sex (and not partnering up and not buying homes and not starting families) because we are instead looking for ways to cope with anxiety and depression, underdeveloped social-emotional skills, and a loss of economic agency. In a nod to older generations who might question why Millennials struggle so deeply, Kate acknowledges the context that, yes, in many ways we do have it better than any generation before us. “We live in unprecedented physical safety, and yet something about modern life, very recent modern life, has triggered in many of us autonomic responses associated with danger—anxiety, constant scanning of our surroundings, fitful sleep. Under these circumstances, survival trumps desire.”
As I sat chewing on my sandwich, all the noise I had tried to escape caught up with me and thundered between my ears. I’m certainly familiar with inhibition and strategies for coping. But how am I actually taking ownership of my life? Escaping to a motel for a night is not building a home. Avoiding my unresolved family issues is not a healthy path forward. Jumping in and out of short-term relationships is not the antidote for fear of rejection or abandonment. But in spite of this fitful survival, I am still filled with desire. I want a lot: I desire a big, deep life. One that expands in tandem with another and doesn’t collapse with the weight of what I continue to carry from my past. However, I still hesitate. With leftovers in hand, I exited the diner to begin my quiet drive home accompanied only by my thoughts.
It’s easy to blame my sense of unease while alone in the hotel room on the man who told me to smile or on the men who have historically booked hotel rooms for me. It’s easy to say that I stayed up, lay unsleeping that night out of fear that someone might force his way into my room. Easy to blame my dysfunctional relationships on the god or the dad who abandoned me. Simple to say I can’t because I was never allowed, I never learned. It’s harder to admit that I was uncomfortable alone because, as far as I had driven from home, I had not outrun my own inner noise, my own fear and self-doubt. Harder to say that I was restless, recognizing that I have constantly and willingly given up my agency in acquiescence to another. Not so simple to confess that I’ve abandoned myself by not taking responsibility for the design of my path forward.
I want a life devoid of scarcity, inhibition, hesitation. I want to fill this earthly home with giving and receiving, loving: a truly sacred endeavor. It hurts to be vulnerable to the little storms that other people whip in and out of my life. It takes courage to worship the ugly in human nature as much as the breathtaking.
To what end do any of us make sacrifices? I think that in giving up one thing, we hope to gain something better, more fulfilling. Maybe this isn’t about sacrifice as much as it is about acceptance. My family was changed by an abandonment, but in accepting that, we found freedom, even when the freedom of divorce took more away from us. In accepting that we were not welcome at the church, we began to live more fully realized lives away from its dogma. I was changed by forces outside of my control, but in accepting that, I can heal. I can choose something else, I can step into ownership of my life. So I choose courage, meaning, exhilarating journeys, and companionship. Instead of taking the spare change and mints from the dresser, I choose to carry the image of what home looks like to me. Instead of acting on fear and self-doubt, I choose to take up space, get comfortable even, while building a life that is more satisfying—a bigger life.
About the Author:
Sara Stancliffe is an MFA candidate in the Writing & Publishing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts whose writing blends elements of poetry, creative nonfiction, literary collage, and memoir. Sara gets most excited about the intersections of creative writing, social activism, embodied healing, and pleasure/joy. Her work has been published in Hunger Mountain Literary Journal.