Commitment

Katie Powers

I

At Tony and Kelli’s wedding I cry because I always cry but also because they both cry. It is September in Vermont but it is humid as August, and the sun is beating down on us like we are tuna melts in a broiler, and we are all fanning ourselves frantically with our programs. We remark at the scenery. We talk to other guests and stare at the sweat on each other’s upper lips and think we’re getting away with it from behind dark sunglasses. “What did you guys do for yours?” someone asks, meaning our wedding, and we laugh because we haven’t had ours.

*

At Katie and Michelle’s wedding I cry because I always cry, but also because we put the dog down the day before and I don’t want to be at a wedding and wearing a pretty dress and getting drunk and dancing. The wedding takes place at a Swiss chalet-themed hotel, which smells outdated and makes me feel even sadder. I wander through the hallways alone and stare at bad oil paintings. I wonder if it would be inappropriate to strip down and soak in the hot tub, which happens to be beside the bar. I opt instead for the sauna. I sit in my pretty dress and lean back, my head against hot wood, and listen to the muffled sound of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

*

Jacob and I have been living together for seven years. We are twenty-nine years old. We are going to a lot of weddings these days: our friends and siblings and cousins are getting married because that is what people do. I look at Jacob differently when we’re at a wedding; for one thing, we’re dressed up. He looks good in his khaki pants and blue Brooks Brothers shirt. He is socially graceful, confident, and alluring. I like his hand on my waist, his arm around my shoulders. I like to hear the way he describes our life—the farm, the gardens, the cows and pigs—to people we haven’t seen in a long time.

*

Matt and Rachel get married at the Underhill United Church. We are late, of course, and we sit in the very back on the only non-pew. There are two hours between the wedding and the reception, so we get in a fight because I am hot and cranky. I cry. We meet friends in the air-conditioned bar of a strip-mall hotel and drink gin and tonics.

*

At Kim and Brian’s wedding I cry because I always cry, but also because Kim is Jacob’s sister, and to see Jacob and his brother walk their mother down the aisle gets me going. It is August 4th and it is over ninety degrees. The church fills with people and someone closes the doors and it is nearly too hot to pay attention. By the end of the ceremony Jacob’s white shirt is transparent. Kim’s bridesmaids dab at her shoulders with Kleenexes.

*

Jacob and I don’t talk about getting married. Sometimes we talk about what we will and won’t feed our children, the floorplan of the house we’ll build, where we’ll go for vacation when we’re middle-aged.

*

When Adam and Steph finally get married I cry because I always cry, but also because he is my brother. It’s the first wedding I’m in and they ask me to read an Emily Dickinson poem and of course I am flattered but I don’t practice beforehand and when I get to the last line I burst into tears, not sniffling but bursting, ugly-cry-face, show-stopping sobs.

*

My best friend April never used to like the idea of marriage. I don’t blame her: she grew up in a household in which her mother and father didn’t speak to each other. Almost as though their hatred and apathy were beyond violence. They didn’t separate until April and her sister had gone, which seems to April like a disservice, to say the least.

But when I visit her, we walk around the loop that makes her neighborhood and we talk about weddings as though we are in middle school: we imagine food and dresses and bridesmaids. We let ourselves do this because it feels like something you can get away with with your best friend, like bingeing on junk food.

*

At Neil and Rachel’s wedding I cry because I always cry, but this is more a slow inward suffering, because I’ve spent $160 on a dress, $480 for the cabin on the lake for the weekend, $50 toward the Kitchen-Aid mixer for her bridal shower, and $60 on fruit and champagne for the cabin on the lake. I skip the bachelorette party because I have to work. I don’t spend any money on heels, which I borrow from a friend of my mother’s, and which have to be gray and not silver.

*

At Quinn and Frank’s wedding I cry because I always cry, but also because I am drunk and happy. I wear a short, tight dress and tall boots. They get married at the Kenilworth Club north of Chicago. They serve ice cream sandwiches in the middle of the dance party. We take a bus back to the Hilton and someone we don’t know vomits on the floor and it slides forward when the driver brakes. Back in our room, we make melted cheese sandwiches in the microwave and watch cartoons.

*

The weddings don’t matter. They are fleeting moments. Expensive parties. But I want a party too, a beautiful dress and everyone fussing.

 

II

There are moments, here on the farm, when I want to throw up my hands and quit. It might be on a Friday morning, when I’ve been up late waiting tables the night before and Jacob won’t get out of bed and we have everything to harvest for the farmers’ market and it has to happen now, before it gets hot. It might be on a Tuesday night when Jacob isn’t home from work until after eight and the cow has yet to be milked and the pigs are out and the carrots need watering and I’ve accomplished exactly nothing at my writing desk for days.

To what life am I comparing mine when I think, this isn’t how I want things to be, this isn’t normal? My childhood, in the country but not on a farm, very quaint, actually, compared to this life of raw milk and pig shit and well-worn barn clothes? The life I may have once imagined for my twenties, of traveling and skiing and climbing mountains, of being so-called carefree? The lives of many of our peers, which take place indoors, hooked to screens, and which consist of nothing grounded in the real? Maybe all of these.

What is normal, in the twenty-first century, for a woman approaching thirty? A commute to a job. A house. Maybe a dog or a cat. A constant string of social events, dinner parties, weddings – pretty dresses, tall boots, clean hair, a man’s hand on her waist.

Normal means no chicken poop in the driveway, no smell of pigs in the truck, no having to be home because there are animals who need us; normal means a forty-hour work week, food in flashy plastic packages, Saturday mornings waking up to ask each other what should we do this weekend?

 

III

I grew up homesick.

At age ten, I didn’t want to go to school. I refuse to use the phrase eating disorder, because that would pervert the truth, but I threw up every morning. It wasn’t intentional. I had best friends, Hannah and Berta and Rachel, and I had cute clothes and I got 100s on my Mad Minutes. I read fast and won games of Four Square at recess. I begged my parents for homeschool. My father used the voice that makes “pumpkin” sound like “punkin.” My mother told me, “you’re not missing anything here,” which is what she kept saying to me all the way through (including, yes, my first years of college), by which she meant, “suck it up,” and which was such a shock coming from her that it felt like a slap.

*

At sixteen, when I found out that my father had been sleeping with his paralegal, I did not let it get to me. My mother and I were away on vacation. She found out before we left and thought she’d be able to keep it from me. Time away would be good for both of them, so she thought. Her name was Christa. Dark hair. Pale skin. Overweight. Not my mother, which was precisely the point.

In the hotel room of the resort at which my mother and I were pretending to vacation, we switched places. I became the mother and she the child. She performed perfectly.

I didn’t let my disappointment in my father get to me because I was preoccupied with mothering. My performance was not as good as hers, but I tried my best: I told her that it wasn’t possible, he’d never do that. I sat beside her at breakfast, was patient while she pushed cantaloupe around her plate. I held her, in the sand, when she stopped mid-sentence to curl up and grieve.

I didn’t let it get to me because when we got back home there was so little said. She made a half-hearted attempt at packing her things. He stood in the doorway of my bedroom and we shared some silence, which I took to be his apology. My brothers were angry. And then the whole thing evaporated. Gone. A momentary indiscretion, out of character. Which was good enough for then.

*

At nineteen, I spent a month in Costa Rica. During this phase of my life I was bold. I was no longer homesick, at least I didn’t think of it that way, but more likely my homesickness had just taken on a new look. I wanted to be someplace new and work on my Spanish, so my friend and I signed up for four weeks of language school.

At some point I called home from a payphone to check in. I don’t remember doing this very often: this month in Costa Rica was like a proving ground. It was nothing against my mother and father, or if it was I didn’t know it. But I do remember this one phone call, for some reason I know the day was a Thursday, and the memory has the feeling and lighting of evening.

I called collect. I waited. My mother picked up and her voice was like a burst of sunlight, like it always is when she answers the phone. I was simultaneously miserable and strong. What was I doing in Costa Rica, so far from her? I was scared, I was lonely, I was homesick. But in the same beat my tone was casual. We exchanged weather and news.

My mother reported that the dog had just died. Cassie. Our dog, our golden retriever, our family dog, who’d been around since I was six. My mother’s tone was both miserable and strong. We felt it at the same time, reaching through the mouthpieces of our phones, across the Gulf of Mexico and half of the North American continent: my childhood was over. In a way that my father’s affair hadn’t finished it. And then the moment was gone, replaced by something else. My mother home alone, my father away for a few days (work? Mistress?) I worried more about her than myself or Cassie, imagined her in the empty house with the dead dog on the living room floor.

“She’s fine, honey. She looks so peaceful.” By which, of course, my mother meant, I’m fine, honey. I didn’t believe her.

*

It would be too easy to blame my father, so I don’t. Just like that, he’s off the hook. I don’t blame him for anything. He is still the man who called me “punkin,” who sometimes still does. I am bitterly angry, but I don’t tell him this.

It would be too easy to blame my mother, who blanketed, swaddled, smothered me in love. So I don’t. Blame her for what? Making me homesick? Not leaving my father? Her decision was the hardest, and she sacrificed her dignity for her children. She was pre-occupied with mothering.

 

*

What is the connection between the homesickness and the fear of commitment? Is the commitment to a person or a place?

 

*

What makes me fearful of the long-term? Is it the human world in which I live, fast-paced, promiscuous, self-conscious? Or is it something inside of me, a gift from my mother and father? Nurture or nature? Does it matter? What I’ve learned is that people change. What I’ve learned is to fear that it will happen to me, all of it.

 

IV

Do I really want to be living this way, these long days of solitude, in the barnyard and the garden and the woods crowded with pines? Do I want this, in February when icy air seems to come straight through the walls unhindered, or on an October morning when I’m feeding sour milk to ten pigs who nearly grind me into the mud?

I would be lying if I told you I didn’t feel regret. Regret might not be just right, but it’s close: anxiety, frustration, desire to escape, take it back, run away. Let’s be honest: it’s 2016 and I grew up in an affluent household and I am an educated millennial and I can leave the farm anytime I want. But I don’t want.

Since coming here, we’ve left: spent weekends with my family, visited friends in Idaho, driven to a wedding in Chicago, gone on vacations in Maine, left for work, left for school. We’ve also left behind: the idea of living abroad, the idea of hiking the Long Trail, the idea of mobility. We’ve left behind the freedom to plan only for ourselves, to imagine ourselves as independent.

By now I’ve spent most of my twenties on this farm; or, I’ve spent more of my twenties here than anywhere else. I don’t say this to compare myself to my neighbors – the sixth-generation dairy farmers; the people who’ve spent their lives, and their parents’ and grandparents’ lives, in one place; the people for whom there hasn’t been a choice. I say it because for me there has been a choice, and there continues to be one.

There are moments when I see myself doing things that I think must be absurd: shaking a jar of cream to make butter; talking to pigs; carrying eighty pounds of potatoes; digging deep into a pile of straw and cow manure to find a long-ago buried extension cord; milking a cow by hand; dragging a chicken coop through mud- and shit-slicked grass, hair in my eyes and sweat trickling down my butt crack; sorting through piles of rusted tin; holding a screaming piglet by his hind legs while Jacob castrates him.

But there is also pure joy here, unfettered, unabashed, palpable, potable, real. Here is what I’m talking about, and it’s not all too different from the gifts of any other natural setting, except for the fact that here we aren’t bystanders but a part of it, and it’s not pretending to be wild but is only partly so, which is what makes it scary, grueling, damning, and beautiful:

There is watching the dogs play on snowbanks, one rolling on her back downhill and the other crouching low, waiting to pounce.

There is the heat of March sun, fierce, on winter’s heels.

There is the ripping sound of grazing cows, flat teeth touching the earth.

There is skiing in the woods, snow falling down through tree branches, light bouncing off of every surface, three simple colors: brown trees, white snow, blue sky.

There is the neatness of the weeded garden, the satisfaction of momentary, pretend control: satisfying for its neatness, but more so because it is momentary.

There is the stone wall in the back pasture: old.

There is the sow who stretches out long on her belly and groans because it feels that good to have her chin scratched.

There is the curve of the neighbor’s pasture behind the row of maple trees, the way it looks in winter: a gentle line of white, with the navy blue mountains as backdrop.

There are spring’s first red-winged blackbirds, who guarantee.

There is the cream skimmed from the cow’s milk, making my coffee just right.

There is the front stoop, the big cold stone to sit on and watch the sun come up over Laraway Mountain.

There are the three streams crossing through our woods that run so hard and fast in spring that we can hear them, half a mile away, from the back door.

There is the sight of the cows chewing their cud in summer sun, eyes closed.

Do I really want to be living this way? Of course. Of course I do.

 

V

At Emily and Joel’s wedding we are bundled in coats and hats and winter boots because it is the end of February. We eat and drink and dance inside a rustic timber-frame barn they built just for this night. At 11:00 they play “The Roof is on Fire” and everyone scurries around cleaning out the place and then they light it on fire. It goes up fast, and we stand around watching the tall orange flames eat up the timbers, the saplings, the roof piled thick with straw. All around us, snow is glowing with the pulse of heat. That night I have strange dreams. In the morning I wake up more in love with Jacob. I feel like crying, but I don’t.

 

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Katie Powers holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, where she was chosen by judge Mark Slouka to receive the Sven Birkerts Prize for Non-Fiction. She was recently awarded an artist’s residency at the Vermont Studio Center. She lives on a small farm with her partner, two dogs, seven cows, five pigs and a flock of chickens.

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