Breadcrumb #470


“But when he calls me, I will be able to meet my family at God’s table.”

- Gillian Welch, “Orphan Girl”

Orphan: One Deprived of Some Protection or Advantage

My wispy septuagenarian neighbor Nick paces my block with a bulky camera around his neck. Nearly half a century ago, he was an extra in The Godfather. “I was in that scene where all the Dons sit around the table,” he says. “They were trying to make the peace after Don Corleone’s son, Sonny, was slaughtered by a brigade of hitmen.”  I remember the scene, but he tells me about it anyway.  

I always learn a lot about Nick when we stop to digress, for example, how he used to box at Gleason’s Gym, “back when it was still in the Bronx,” and that the East Village Boy’s Club was his second home because he grew up orphaned. In addition to his camera, he carries around a crinkled newspaper photo of Queen Elizabeth everywhere he goes.  “See her in this picture? She’s giving me a thumb’s up.” I find wonder in this man-child who carries a crinkled newspaper clip of his fantasy Queen Mother from a New York daily.

  Ours is a tight East Village community in New York made up of multiple tenement buildings. When someone dies, a flier is hung in the vestibule on the cork bulletin board with a black and white photograph, a paragraph about their contributions to the community, and information about the wake. I’ve come home to find fliers blowing beneath a single thumbtack with a photo of Marva, who walked with a cane in the rain to my son’s 4th birthday party before skies cleared and everyone else showed up an hour late. I’ve come home to find Maritsa on a flier, who had chirpy lovebirds and a Puerto Rican flag hanging on her fire escape, and leaned from her window to holler down when she saw us walking by. “He’s gonna be a football playa!” In my bones, I know Shirley is next. When she sits in her beach chair on the sidewalk next to her home healthcare aide, she reaches her shaking hand towards me, looking confused. Her fingernails haven’t been cut in a long time. At least she’s not looking for her dead dog Gizmo anymore, who she took over from Hank after he died, the same Hank who took mint care of his Cadillac so he could drive his wife to and from her cancer treatments in style. Both of their faces were also on fliers. I feel orphaned when the elders on my block die.

In addition to his camera, he carries around a crinkled newspaper photo of Queen Elizabeth everywhere he goes.

  There is something ridiculous about my literary-infused idea of what it means to be an orphan: Ragamuffin dresses, calloused feet, and matchstick girls huddle in the cold, furnished with warmth from scraps of tinder. The most rollicking of them have their own soundtracks. Cue up Oliver Twist and Lil’ Orphan Annie, and their Hollywood posses who swell up in choral waves of support, either with extra spoonfuls of porridge or hard-knock broom and mop dances. There is a wide bridge between the orphans created by Dickens, and by Hollywood, and the reality of earth-bound parental abandonment. There’s a primal satisfaction in the fantasy endings when Mr. Brownlow and Daddy Warbucks, respectively, put aside their misgivings to embrace the scrappy but vulnerable children who tumbled into their lives. In these redemptive endings, we can say goodbye to the turned-out child wrangler Fagin, and his literary sister Mrs. Asthma, who ran her orphanage with a cruel streak. There is a distinct and satisfying Before and After with these collective mythologies. Before, there was destitute, abandoned, and empty. After, there was abundance, love, and comfort.

When my husband and I applied for our wedding license in Philadelphia, we were sent to an unassuming room called the Orphan’s Division in an ornate state building downtown. “The word ‘Orphans’ in the name of the Court is derived from the general definition of orphan as one lacking protection,” their website reads, “not the common association of a child deprived by the death of his or her parents.” I’d never considered my future marriage as a thing that would land me in a state of protection, an orphan finding shelter.

Orphan: A Young Animal that Has Lost Its Mother

For three years in a row, the mourning dove on my fire escape has come back to her hard-scrabble nest. She lays two eggs the size of quarters and alternates day and night shifts with her mate until they hatch. The first year they emerged but disappeared.  When I glanced at the landing below I found them tucked into a potted plant, dead. The next year new eggs hatched, and the babies grew from mangy pin feathered creatures to cooing beauties. Within a week, one got stuck in between the slats and died, his neck broken. This spring, one hatched prematurely. Draped in a U-shape over a stick poking from the nest, it was barely the size of my pinky, its downy feathers matted down by rain. Still, its mother sat on the second baby. A few days later mother bird stared into my window. I cracked it open for fresh air, stuck my head out, and offered her a few crumbled Frosted Mini Wheats. Threatened, she raised her left wing in a defensive posture. Sitting in the nest was her other baby, the size of my palm, his beady eyes shining. I closed the window and let them be.

Orphan: A child deprived of one or usually both parents

When I was 24-weeks pregnant I nearly died from the sudden appearance of blood clots that crept from my left foot to my kidneys. An unsuccessful surgery led to a more successful one, and for two weeks I recuperated at the now shuttered St. Vincent’s Hospital in lower Manhattan. Before the surgeries I signed a DNR form and included my unborn son in the waiver. Being a Catholic hospital, an ethics committee came into my room one, two, three, and four times to debate my decision.  

“I want him to come with me if I don’t make it,” I explained, over and over again. I’d heard the risks of babies born at 24 weeks. Undeveloped lungs, cerebral palsy, life-long care. They responded over and over again. “We have a world class NICU. There’s a blue balloon we could put over the fetus’s head to keep him alive in an incubator. If your husband loses you, he could still be a father.” I didn’t want to die, and I also didn’t want to leave my husband with a premature baby with a blue balloon over his head in an incubator. This did not come to pass, but these conversations were stark and unbearable.

Orphan: A first line (as of a paragraph) separated from its related text and appearing at the bottom of a printed page or column

One of my favorite editing tasks is cutting orphans, those pesky one and two-word hangnails that reach beyond their allotted space on the page. Easiest to cut are articles and adverbs, useless adjectives and redundancies. When this is done, the columns align as they are supposed to. There are days when I look around and sense invisible fibers that connect people and birds and balloons and fire escapes and musicals. Eventually they snap, making orphans of us all; or, they fuse, and things fall into place.

• • •

Breadcrumb #469


After the ceremony he takes you out on his boat. His grad students are there too, leaning their beautiful bodies against the rails, wetsuits folded down at the waist. Strapping themselves into equipment like they know how to keep themselves alive under a hundred feet of water.

Luckily you are the only person on this boat who can drink this good champagne because you are the only one not planning to increase the pressure inside your body till your blood wants to bubble in its veins.

He handed you his award to hold while he’s diving. It’s just a ceramic disk on a ribbon striped like the flag. You could have bought it at a party store, or at least a good mimic. The edge of the ribbon is making your wrist itchy where you’ve wrapped it.

It’s just a ceramic disk on a ribbon striped like the flag.

You lean your elbows on the railing. It’s just windy enough to pull bits of the dark surface up into foam. You’d never get into it like he does, like his students. They go under like they’ve been fantasizing about that cold wet on their thighs.

The water looks at you like it expects something from you. You are wondering what he’s been giving it when he goes down and kisses its floor. Why does it think it can keep him?

You have to do this thing to get him back and you don’t need anyone to tell you. He’s not the only one who can know secret things about the ocean.

You set the champagne glass down by your feet and unwind the ribbon from your wrist. It falls fast but there is a moment when the ribbon spreads itself out on the water before the disk pulls it under.

But you have saved him, look, there he is, rising from the water, pulling up his mask, laughing.

• • •

Breadcrumb #468


It is a sunlit Saturday in late September, a block party kind of day.

Meg, Ali and I are seventeen, and certain it’s the last autumn we’ll be together in our hometown. We share an understanding that our lives are just about to bloom, we work our asses off to make sure they do.

It is the last year of the flip phone. Barack Obama is newly president. The jeans are low-rise and skin-tight from hip to ankle. Lady Gaga plays on the radio. When my journalism teacher says that Twitter will someday be used in politics, we do not believe him.

In a neighborhood by the river, Mr. and Mrs. So And So’s are scattered across front yards and sidewalks, catching up with one another, wearing blue jeans and flip-flops, holding red plastic plates of potluck, digging into meatballs with white forks. The leaves on the oak trees have not started turning yet, but they will soon. Friends of Meg’s older sister are at the block party, mostly boys with one-syllable names that begin with the letter C. They would share their beers with us, if we wanted. We’ll kiss them on Halloween in Meg’s parents’ pool shed, but not today. Today we’re going to pick apples and bake them into pies.

Meg’s mother’s black Corvette is parked like a hot prize in the driveway. Meg’s navy blue Volvo station wagon sits subtly beside it, and that boxy car is our mobile home. Meg ducks into the driver’s seat, Ali sits shotgun, I take my spot in the back. “The Volv,” is eclectic and cozy, like Meg’s apartment in New York will be a few years from now. She covered the backseat with colorful pillows and knit throws from thrift shops. In the hatch is a guitar to play while parked at the beach. Fahrenheit 451 is tucked in the pocket behind the passenger seat. Candle wax that has melted and hardened in asymmetrical forms sticks to the cup holders.

We’ll kiss them on Halloween in Meg’s parents’ pool shed, but not today. Today we’re going to pick apples and bake them into pies.

Meg drives and Ali navigates to the apple orchard a half hour up the parkway using a GPS named TomTom. I watch the sunlight glowing on blond and brown windblown hair, and pick the songs, all acoustic. Is it typical of me to forgo a task and enjoy languid contemplation in the backseat. We talk about college, what else? We are high-school overachievers who discuss our futures too much, all on the same brand of birth control pills. Now, Meg predicts she won’t like it because her sister is thriving at university, and for some reason, it makes sense to her that one sister will do well while the other does not.

“Someone has to struggle in college so we can tell our children. ‘Auntie Meg had a terrible time in college,’ someone has to say that,” she explains.

“That’s ridiculous,” I nearly shout from the backseat, above the rush of wind. The windows are open all the way. The three of us laugh. What I do not say is that I feel most likely to be the cautionary tale, but my hopes for my friends are high.


We reach into the branches on tiptoes, plucking apples from all heights, noticing names painted on little wooden signs. Arkansas Blacks, Jonathans, and Winesaps. We coo “that’s a good one” at every pick, rub the dirt onto our shirts, and eat them on the spot, hidden in a grid of trees, wandering through a golden afternoon. The orchard is vibrant and limitless, and we stay too long. We fill six plastic bags, one for each hand. Weighed down by apples, we sit on the ground in a three-point circle to weed out less attractive picks from the bounty.

Feeling the grass in her fingers, Ali picks a white clover. Its thin stem is curved over at the top. It looks like a question mark.


Back at her parents’ house, a colonial with high ceilings and stained glass windows, Meg pops Natalie Merchant’s Tigerlily album into the stereo. We are consuming mostly female folk and alternative rock this autumn. We love listening to songs that our mothers vacuumed the house to when we were little: Bonnie Raitt, Rickie Lee Jones, Natalie Merchant. The opening notes of San Andreas Fault play and we sing-moan along, swaying and bending our knees to the beat. The surround sound echoes off the beige walls.

Meg pours three icy glasses of chardonnay from the big bottle left behind for us in the refrigerator. She opens the red checkered New Cookbook, then gathers bags of flour, salt, sugar, butter, and shortening. Tonight, we will bake a total of eight pies from scratch. Meg starts reading a recipe aloud, apron tied at her waist, hair swept up in a clip picked from a basket on the kitchen counter. Ali and I listen and nod, dangling our legs from high top kitchen stools and sipping our wine, impressions of women it might be nice to become someday.

• • •

Breadcrumb #467


I never was allowed to have a hero
listening to boring teachers in the back of the classroom
returning home and feeling invisible in your eyes
when you were there
I don't remember how many times you were there
I was lost in supplication for love
building plans on canvas and drawing my confusion on paper
hiding my childhood inside of my backpack's pocket
not receiving kisses like the others girls
being the weirdo, but pretending I didn't know
not having the same, helped me to find my creativity
being alone at home producing, watching the fake snow.

I was the messy kid looking for her first shot of vodka
leaning against the wall at the entrance of the bar
thrilled to feel hungover, trying not to throw up
like the ultimate challenge for a triumphant night
but resisting your hands pressing my tights in the dark
almost like the pictures I saw in the hidden erotic books
screaming beneath the bed when I was not around.

I never was allowed to have a hero
so I created my own
a black woman born as a contemporary goddess
she would struck gently my hair
she would never talk about my color skin
she would say that I'm beautiful
but not untouchable
that I can feel lost
that I can completely fail
that I can explore the difference
enjoying the horny sounds of my body.
My hero would play Isaiah Rashad for me
while I make peace with my daily struggle
Wat’s wrong, wat’s wrong, she says quoting
while pimping my butterfly in orange
smoother like a motherfucker
my hero would buy me popcorn as an eternal kid
but afterwards would sit in front of me listening as a calm adult
without any forbid
without any commitment
without any bid
because that's my advice: don't put me a grid
I can go over
I can fall and hurt
I can heal and punch.

I want a hero who doesn't set me a location
who prays the Lord God while holding my ash
who follows me to the midnight tent - fearing
who chases me inside of the car - starting
who is inside of my fast beating heart - maintaining my anesthesia.

I want a hero who sees the sin even in a saint
praising adventures like a secular faint.

• • •

Breadcrumb #466


I woke up at 5:53 a.m. with an insistent bladder. The room was cool and N was snoring softly beside me, his face hidden by a mountain of hotel pillows.   We were on the way to our wedding, halfway between Brooklyn and Detroit, sleeping at the Marriott in Canfield, Ohio.

I threw off the large duvet and stumbled into the bathroom. The room was dark, except for a small nightlight near the mirror. I spotted the pregnancy test in its midnight blue wrapper on top of the toilet tank, where I had left it the night before.

My period was two days late, which wasn’t unusual. I did feel a little off, but I also knew how skilled I was at fueling my anxiety. A potential pregnancy was a great way to give form and language to the chaos that was my current inner world. I was hoping the test would quiet my mind so I could focus my energy on the impending acrobatics of navigating two families coming together.

A potential pregnancy was a great way to give form and language to the chaos that was my current inner world.

I ripped open the wrapper and read the instructions:

Your result will appear within 3 minutes, and some results may be shown in as little as 1 minute. A ‘Pregnant’
(positive) result will remain on the display for up to 6 months. A ‘Not Pregnant’ (negative) result will remain
on the display for approximately 24 hours.

It seemed straight forward enough. I peed on the stick and held it in my hand for a moment before setting it on the tank behind me. In my half-awake state, the test landed too close to the edge and clattered to the ground. I sighed and bent over to retrieve it, results side up.

Even in the dim I could see the pink plus sign. I stared. Only 15 seconds had passed. Maybe they all started out as a plus and then dissolved back into a quiet minus? But six minutes later, the lines remained.  I sat, immobile, until the shock lost its grip, then bolted into the bedroom where my partner was sleeping.

N! Wake up!  He lifted his head from the pillow and squinted at me from behind a curtain of sleep. Impatient, I flipped on the lamp, and waved the damp pregnancy test an inch from his nose. Look at this!

What?  He shook his head and tried to focus. A few seconds later, he succeeded. Whoah. He rose quickly, throwing off the covers. I am up.

My pregnancy changed everything. I predicted the wider hips, softer belly, and weaker pelvic floor. What I hadn’t anticipated, though, became clear just a few days in: I would no longer do anything, ever again, without first considering Baby J. I felt heavy: panicked. Fierce independence had been my survival mechanism from an early age. Who would I be now? In a time where all the external messages were you are supposed to be happy, grief settled in.

N, on the other hand, was excited. At night he would recline in bed, reading parenting blogs and pregnancy articles. I laid in his arms, silent, the screen lighting up my expressionless face.

I resented him: his uncomplicated joy. He would talk about our new journey, his exuberance drawing approval from friends and strangers, already winning society’s rewards for being an engaged father. My half smiles and obtuse comments drew quizzical glances. I would sit next to N, feeling the itchy stretch of my belly across my growing uterus, the sharp pain of sciatica shooting down my right side. It didn’t feel much like we were traveling anywhere together; he was on his path, and I was on mine. It was lonely.

I tried to push the feelings down and deny their existence, but this made it worse. I woke up most mornings in tears, got into fights with those who were closest to me, and overall just felt like shit. I was worried that my anger would be displaced on to Baby J. That the fear, guilt, and grief would soak into her spirit through the amniotic fluid.

I decided to morph my anxiety into doing. I did everything I could to give Baby J the proper materials to grow a body, heart, and mind. I read all the books, went to prenatal yoga, enrolled in comprehensive birth classes, ate/did not eat all the right foods. I researched placenta encapsulation, delayed cord clamping, and natural water birth. I learned Hypbnobabies birthing techniques and listened to positive affirmations on my daily three-mile walk.

That winter, as I waddled through the neighborhood attempting to envision my easy, comfortable birthing timefrom within my bubble of peace, I would get lost in thought. I’m sorry that I am your mother, kid, instead of someone who is more excited to meet you. When the tears came, I turned up my headphones, unzipped my coat, and walked an extra ten blocks before returning to my front door, sweaty, dizzy, and panting.

• • •