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Why We Stay

There is very little good to be said for a city like this. It would be nothing without its people. There is no industry. The weather is less than ideal with long, harsh winters and short, sweltering summers. The midges come in off the lake during July and stick to every surface that doesn’t move. If you’re lucky, it won’t be snowing on Halloween. Downtown is dirty and dangerous as soon as it gets dark. There seem to be more homeless people than professionals. The latter set walk in grey suits with their heads down against the wind. There are only a few tall buildings in the city and these individuals are lucky to have a job in one of them. Maybe the Key building. Maybe Terminal Tower.

There is little good to be said for a city like this, but still people stay. Often times they don’t have a choice. They are stuck here because of their jobs and their financial situations. Often they stay for family. I’m in between the two groups of people. I never made it through my first semester of community college. I got pregnant a week after my first French exam. I don’t have the education I need to have options, and my daughter needs to be with her family. My mother takes care of her while I work at the Rennasaince Hotel downtown. I spend twelve hours a day changing sheets and scrubbing bathtubs. I daydream about a better life elsewhere, but I would never leave. I often worry that the people I am close to will, and who could blame them. For me, the idea of a better life is just that – a daydream.

I eat my sandwich at the RTA stop. It’s November, and the concrete platform I wait on has already been salted. I can feel the cold bench though my wool skirt. My frizzy hair is being blown loose out of the tight bun. I pat down the little hairs around my face. A balding, heavyset man sits down next to me. The bus pulls to a stop in front of us, and he heaves himself up as I gather my bag and wrap my snack back up.

Luckily this is one of the newer buses and has yet to be tainted with years of wear-and-tear. I sit on a plastic seat and reopen my peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

My phone buzzes in my purse. A text message from my fiancé, Killian, appears on the screen, “Should get out of work on time to come with my parents. I have something big to tell you!”

Smiling, I reply, “Can’t wait!”

He’s been telling me for the last couple months that he is being considered for a promotion at work – project manager. Killian has worked for the same construction firm since our junior year of high school, and I feel it’s about time he starts moving up. Plus, the raise would give us financial stability that we haven’t experienced since Fiona was born.

This is the best time of day to take the RTA home. During rush hour it is filled with professionals heading home to their families in the inner-ring suburbs. I guess I am doing the same today, but I would not consider myself a professional and often I have to take the bus that departs at 9:15. I have my hand in my purse and on my pepper spray when I travel at night.

Maybe I am being paranoid. After all, I’m not heading further into the city or towards the East Side. A girl was abducted on her way home from Burger King though, and I am on edge. Today, though, the late afternoon sun beams through the foggy windows. We shuttle down the Shoreway – the elevated highway that is hugged to the south by old warehouses and to the north by the harbor. Whiskey Island sits out in the water, and Canada is out of eyesight past the little piece of land.

The concrete melts back down to street level and we stop often on Lake Avenue. The large houses that have the lake in their backyard are a reminder of the prosperity that was once here. Now, eight bedrooms with a water view goes for about 600,000, but you’ll pay nearly as much at your mortgage in heating and maintenance. The old mini-mansions are beautiful, and often maintained to the extent of curb appeal, but the interiors are drafty due to old windows that shutter from the winds off the lake. The sub-zero temperatures take a toll on the pipes.

The bus stops on the corner of Lake and Clifton. I gather my things and zip my windbreaker up to my chin, tucking my head in like a turtle. Stepping down onto the cracked sidewalk – the roots of centuries old trees have done damage to most of the sidewalks in the city – and check the time. I have about twenty minutes to get home, which should be exactly the amount of time I need to walk several blocks away from the water.

As I trek away from Lake Avenue, the houses get smaller and the yards change from large expanses of grass into little plots between driveways. There are kids out in the tiny yards, and signs of children in the others. A double stroller is parked on one of the porches. Almost every house has a front porch with a swing nailed into the ceiling.

My parents live in the Arlington neighborhood of Lakewood. It is about as far west as you can go before you have to cross the valley to get to the next town over. The houses are like most in the area. There are two-story Colonials, narrow for the style, and a few Victorians with turrets and multi-colored imbrication. The residences are well maintained in this area and the streets wind around. The rest of the city is on a grid, and the houses look more and more bleak after each harsh winter. They say Cleveland is on the verge of a comeback. I’ll believe it when I see it, but I sure hope it happens. My daughter deserves the opportunities a real city can offer; she deserves what I cannot afford to give her elsewhere, and so here we stay.

We also stay because of the voices I can hear coming from the house in front of me. The kitchen window is cracked open, and I can hear my mother yelling at one of my four younger brothers. There are multiple voices shouting back and pots clashing. I cut through the yard. Half the grass is dead after the snow we had last week. Supposedly we are going to get more tonight.

The porch steps creak as I step up them. This is the house I grew up in, and where I drop my daughter off every morning before heading downtown to work. I sit on the top step and dig a cigarette out of my bag. The carton is squished. It’s probably been in there for a while since I don’t smoke often, but I always crave it when it’s cold. Plus, after a couple glasses of wine at Thanksgiving dinner, I’ll probably smoke another few with my older brother. We used to smoke together on our way back from Tri-C, the local community college. That was before Killian got me pregnant.

When I did, my parents were not as disappointed as I thought they would be. I think they knew I wasn’t destined for some fabulous career or adventurous life, but they were sad for the “unnecessary hardships” that Killian and I were bringing on ourselves. Killian’s parents told us we must get married, and we did. I was Mrs. McLaughlin for almost 72 hours before we got it annulled. We knew it wasn’t the right time.

I hold the slightly bent cigarette up to my lips and light it. My breath and the smoke mix into a singular cloud in the air. I have a quarter of a carat on my ring finger. Killian and I are still engaged. We just are going about the whole thing the unconventional way, which is not the way people do things here. Baby, marriage, and then engagement. I don’t know if we’ll ever make it down the aisle, but my daughter and I stay here for him and he stays here for me and Fiona. The door opens behind me. My brother Rory, a junior in high school, sticks his head out, “Mom needs you to come hold your kid. She’s stressing about the McLaughlins comin’ over.”

“Jesus, it’s not like we haven’t known them for decades.”

“Yeah, I know, but please just come in before she makes one of us do it.”

“Alright, alright.” I snuff the cigarette out on the porch and try to brush off the ashes. The paint is peeling so badly there is more exposed wood than light-blue paint at this point, so the ash is barely noticeable. I hoist myself up and head inside.

The living room is warm and bright in a very stereotypical holiday way, and the rest of my brothers and cousins, who live down the street, are sitting around the TV. The room is filled with more couches than what is aesthetically pleasing, and more boys than you’d need to fill a baseball team. I walk in front of them and get shouted at, as if the split second interruption in their vision has made them miss a significant sporty thing on TV.

My mom is in the outdated galley kitchen with Fiona on her hip. My daughter, with her big, curly brown hair and blue eyes, is getting a little too big to be carried around, but her Grammy can never resist.

“It smells amazing,” I tell her as I pull Fiona from my mother’s body. My baby grabs for the hair on the nape of my neck. Her hair is already just like mine – big, mahogany curls that bounce with any slight movement.

The whole house smells of butter and cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. It’s about seven in the evening and my mother has started pouring and scooping everything into the serving bowls. She looks back at me, “Can you take these into the dining room, please?”

I nod, and grab a large ceramic bowl filled with pecan stuffing. Fiona grabs onto my shoulder for stability, but she just feels clingy to me. The door bell chimes and someone opens the front door. I cannot see from the dining room, but I can hear that Killian and his family have arrived, and perhaps I can hear the voice of my uncle behind them. Killian has two brothers, but both of them are married and at  the house of their respective wife’s family. The only reason Killian’s parents are here is that we have the only grandchild. Even though they haven’t fully forgiven us for raising our daughter out of wedlock, they stay with us because that is what families do here in the Midwest. In a city with a cathedral on nearly every street corner, it is no surprise most here are traditionalists.

Fiona wiggles for me to let her down, so I do. She runs off and I can hear Mrs. McLaughlin, “There’s our pretty girl.”

I know there are lots of hugs being exchanged. Our families grew up down the street from each other. Killian and his brothers taught my younger brothers how to throw a football and understand the rules of baseball during our long summers spent playing on the quiet streets of this neighborhood. We would often take our bikes down to the city pool. Once our feet and fingers were so pruned we could no longer stand it, we’d bike home and be vermillion with sunburn by the evening. Our mothers would call each other, and both would apologize for not making the other’s kids wear sunscreen. Both of our parents were born and raised here.

My mother enters the dining room with my baby brothers, twins who are in middle school. They are carrying the rest of the dishes behind her. I leave them to set up and re-enter the living room. It is even more packed than it was before, and it seems that the boys have given up on seeing the TV. They are on their phones or joking with my Uncle Matt.

I smile across the room at Killian’s mom. Fiona has found her way into her other grandmother’s arms. I walk over and tease, “Can you leave either of your grammies alone?”

Fiona just smiles and snuggles in deeper to Mrs. McLaughlin’s neck. Killian is on a first name basis with my parents, but I never feel comfortable doing the same with his. My parents are definitely more relaxed. I think after their fourth boy they just stopped trying to control the madness. Being Fiona’s mother is so overwhelming and crazy, even with all the help, that I have no idea how my mother does it. She does it so well though and we all love her for it.

My mother, with sweat still on her forehead from the hot kitchen, tries to speak over the crowd, “If everyone wants to make their way into the dining room, we can start dinner!”

The youngest boys lead the way, even though I know with certainty that my mother told them earlier in the day to be polite and let the adults go first. The room is loud with conversations about days at work and how even though this season was looking dismal, the Browns would make it to the Super Bowl next year.

“This is our year,” Uncle Matt says every year.

My feet and back hurt as I make myself a plate. Long days at the hotel have given me chronic pain. I look back at my fiancé, who is helping our daughter put a scoop of mashed potatoes into her pink, plastic bowl – the only thing she will eat out of when we are at my parents’ house.

We are all settled into our respective seats; I am between Killian and Fiona as always. As everyone starts eating I place my hand on his leg and ask quietly, “So, that promotion?”

The table is large and the room is loud. I am sure no one can hear us.

He smiles, cutting into his turkey. I glance quickly over to Fiona, I want to make sure she is getting more food in her mouth than on the floor. I hear him respond, but I am sure I did not hear correctly.

I snap my head back towards him and whisper harshly, “Vermont?”

“Yeah,” he responds. “It’s a really incredibly opportunity. I’ll be in charge of the construction team at this new snow lodge the company is building. They’ll pay for us to move and everything.”

At this point, Rory is glancing over at us. I am fairly certain he can’t hear what we were discussing.

I lower my voice even more, “I don’t know Killian. I think we have to talk about this more.”

“I already accepted. I didn’t want to risk them giving the job to someone else.”

I swirl my mashed potatoes around on my plate. I look down at Fiona. She’s clumsily shoveling peas into her mouth with her pink, plastic spoon.

I feel Killian lean over, his breath on my neck, and he whispers, “Listen, I’m sorry I couldn’t ask you first. I really think this is the best thing for us. It’ll give us opportunities we don’t have here. I already looked up the public schools, and I really think this is the right thing to do for Fiona.”

I nod, but I don’t look up from my plate. Fiona is looking at us now, and she offers me a spoonful of cranberry sauce.

“Thank you,” I smile, and take the little spoon.

I make an exaggerated, “Yummmm,” before handing it back to her.

I nod again, this time looking straight into Killian’s hazel eyes, “Okay.”

 

 

It did not go as planned. Six months after moving to the little resort town in Vermont, I moved back to Lakewood with Fiona. Killian was overwhelmed with work and we barely saw him. The plan was for him to come back when his project was completed, but that date keeps on getting delayed. I was lonely, and Fiona was struggling at school. She missed her friends, and I missed my family. I missed the streets I scraped my knees on as a kid, the parks I got drunk in as a teenager, and the apartment I was raising my daughter in as a mother. I missed the place I had always stayed and – despite my best efforts to leave – had stayed in my heart and beckoned me back home.

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