Candice Kelsey :: Relationship Smarts ::


Southern Legitimacy Statement: About nine months ago, I left Los Angeles for Augusta, GA. My back yard pushes up against the Savannah River, and I awake most mornings to the staccato of buck shot aimed at duck or deer. I started my first garden ever, and my new air fryer cannot wait for me to harvest the okra. I may be the only vegan in a 60 mile radius, but I do enjoy a good salad at Zaxby’s.

Relationship Smarts

My cousin snuck Ouzo shots to me. As the blur set in, a man at the bar coerced me into the alley where he put one hand around my neck and pinched my nipple with the other. 

I got away and ended up back inside with my cousin none the wiser. I have no idea who he was nor whom he eventually ended up hurting worse, but I haven’t felt safe since. I will never un-see that cobblestone blur where no one would have heard a scream. I may never un-hear my inner critic bemoaning such lack of street smarts.

I cope by going to imaginary therapy. Tell me more.

After tonight’s pseudo-session, I feel my insides fold like wet origami. Or like another trauma.

I tell my invisible therapist I am not ready to talk about the car accident. I run it through my mind over the next few weeks until I feel ready to tear up the paper of that memory. All week I rehearse the telling:

The text from my oldest daughter read there’s a dober-Dane mix in Beaufort SC and he’s soooo cute. Can we get him today pls?

Two hours later we were on our way. I texted with Titan’s owner as we headed 114 miles southeast. 

Hi, it’s Mari. Titan is ok with cats. I also have 3 cats lol he never chased them or anything, he pretty much ignores them. She sent a picture of him in his camo harness and BEST FRIEND label stitched across the front. His eyes were grey and kind. What I needed most that day was kindness. Passing the Savanna River Site, we played Adam in the garden and contemplated his new name. My inner critic rolled her eyes at the total lack of Petfinder smarts.

When we hit the low country of Port Royal Island, the air became thick with a loneliness only the Southeastern coast offers. The saltwater bluffs, marshes, and inter-coastal iciness revealed cracks from the permeating military presence. The Marine Corps Air Station populated the town with grit, rank, and purpose. And a hint of rage. Somewhere between the U-Haul dealer and the Urgent Care we found a strip mall Mexican restaurant. With time to kill before picking up the dog we decided to christen Boone, Rancho Grande seemed the perfect diversion. Sitting in our Kia Sorento, eating wet burritos, the sky lisped an approaching storm. Marines coming out of Publix in their DCUs, kids in tow, were unfazed. It seemed the prevailing mood of nature this close to Parris Island—as if the air still grieves Vietnam.

I continue rehearsing:

We had just left Los Angeles, where we lived for close to thirty years. The Kia had served us well over a five-day drive from California to Georgia, and here it sat on the opposite coast. We’d been in the South for only two weeks, and it just felt right to christen our move with a new dog. We decided on Boone because it sounded the most Southern.

Tell me more.

My mind wanders to the plates still on the Kia as we sat in that parking lot. The carefree, cursive red script of California—this street smart car shuttled our family from soccer games to schools to the beach and back thousands of times, and now it will shuttle a new dog into the eye of our CA-SC-GA Charybdis.

Titan lived up to the cliché of his name; he was huge. As we pulled up to Mari’s house, three children ran out to tell us He likes to fight other dogs! he bit my brother’s head once! why do you want a mean dog? Washed over with the anticipation from a two-hour drive and the wagging of his tail, we didn’t know how to receive these tiny voices. I felt like a mysterious barn owl emerging from the cavities of an abandoned rural church to slope down toward tiny rodents.  I crouched to hear more. 

Mari interceded and ordered the kids back to the house. Within minutes we were barreling down Route 21 with a hyperactive, ninety-five-pound dober-Dane to the sound of high-pitched squeaks from the toy squirrel lodged between his terrifying jaws. Each squeak seemed to celebrate his transition from Titan to Boone and mock my foolishness.

By this time, the sun had set. The two-lane rural highway offered an occasional Dollar General or Pizza Hut, but mostly we met headlights and train tracks. 

And another driver, street drunk and over the centerline.

The impact threw Boone’s head into mine and the Kia into a pole. The splash of iced tea gripped my arms and face as Boone’s paws slushed the cup holders, leaving a trail of Styrofoam and fur. The twisting of metal harmonized our screams and barks. Like some warped lighthouse beaconing us to safety, the neon lights of the New Hong Kong restaurant blurred with police strobes. We unfolded off the road into the nearest parking lot. Everyone but the Kia was fine.

An elderly woman walking her white poodle approached. Like Tiresias, she appeared out of nowhere, prophesying the other driver would have no insurance. At the sight of her dog, Boone became more agitated, drowning me in his weight. I became a vole burrowing into snowdrifts, field smart to avoid the blood talons of a nocturnal predator.

I was just walking beside the train tracks and heard the crash she spoke through our cracked window, unmoved by the thrashing of an oversized dog. After a long drag on her cigarette, she walked into the fog of night. I imagine her still walking those train tracks, an eternal, flawed witness of late-night accidents. Perhaps like me, she too ascribed to the Joan Didion approach to suffering—if you keep the snake in your eye line, the snake isn’t going to bite you. She believed in confronting pain, knowing where it is. Hers is now the face of my imaginary therapist.

That’s all our time for tonight. I mime the closing of a laptop to the echoes of a train like an iron ghost wedged rail smart in my breast.

Next week I plan to tell her about my father-in-law’s funeral in Albuquerque. I rehearse:

 Craig had been in an assisted living home for years. A hotshot attorney for forty years, he succumbed to that much smarter cosmic trial lawyer, Dementia. The priest officiating his funeral had only heard of Craig by way of parishioners who, on occasion, witnessed an elderly man exit an unmarked car driven by a shadowy figure and stopped at the front door of St. Bartholomew’s. Apparently, my father-in-law had church smarts. He convinced an old lawyer friend of his to perform Sunday drive-thru mass where he would meander into the narthex, scoop his holy water to go, make the sign of the cross with wet fingers, and abscond into the aubergine dawn of the Sandia Mountains. 

Many years ago, when Craig was lucid, I would be his early morning mass accomplice, only we’d have to pick up an elderly, incapacitated nun or two Craig had committed to chauffeur. There we would sit—a retired attorney, two nuns, and me—in an extra-wide bench seat Buick with enough corgi hair on the seats to keep us warm through cold desert mornings. Before we could head toward the church, however, Craig took it upon himself to make a show of grand hospitality. He would take us to the local Courtyard Marriott, where paying customers were enjoying their complimentary breakfast buffet, and where he would make me run in, pretend I was a guest, and load up on four coffees to go. I reminded him this drive-thru coffee heist was not ethical. He reminded me we were on our way to church to ask forgiveness. 

My husband thought it was vital that this priest—officiating at Craig’s funeral the next day—have the goddamn smarts not to fuck it up

Southwest airlines took care of that.  

The funeral was uneventful and even a bit enjoyable for my husband. He heard stories from many people who worked with Craig, mostly stories about how he had believed in them early in their careers. Craig was a self-proclaimed asshole, but his heart was huge for anyone just starting out in law. He had learned the hard way what that struggle can do to a man, a marriage, and a family.

My husband was five, the youngest of three boys, living near the mesas of Albuquerque when his father decided working eighty hours per week wasn’t enough and decided to run for lieutenant governor of New Mexico. No domestic smarts, he kept himself going with coffee, cigarettes, and an increasing amount of alcohol. Not unlike Southwest airlines, he lost all connections. 

Soon my husband and his brothers had a stepdad. Soon that stepdad coerced them into legally changing their last names. Soon they moved to Georgia. Soon they were required to pretend Craig was dead.  

I continue to pretend I have a regular therapist. Tell me more.

He lost both the bid for lieutenant governor and his family. The irony that the most successful family law attorney was embroiled in the bitterest divorce north of the Rio Grande was not lost on anyone nor did it make anything easier.

The news of Craig’s death compounded it all but having to spend a few days in the Land of Enchantment seemed masochistic to me. What a terrible idea. Of course, my husband should be there, but the depths of trauma associated with the place were too much for our kids to enter into, I told him. To no avail. A magnetic pull of Herculean strength was no match for my gentle words of caution.

He texted not getting home tonight / can’t make connections / can’t fly out until tomorrow / until Tuesday / until the weekend / fucked. 

It’s was two weeks of this. Like some bad horror movie, my husband and three kids could not get out of Albuquerque. There were no rental cars available. No flights. The entire department of transportation had conspired to destroy my husband, forcing him to stay in Albuquerque, mired in terrible memories, for as long as possible. I told him to hire a hot air balloon. I can’t get out of this city!

He couldn’t get out of his childhood. None of us can, I attempt to get a laugh from my imaginary therapist with the face of a midnight train-track apparition tossing cigarette butts like untitled poems.

I imagine Craig’s ghost pacing the roof of my husband’s Airbnb at midnight, imploring him to find healing, forgiveness, some semblance of a salvaged childhood. Perhaps Southwest Airlines is a supernatural force for evil, a 21st Century villain that rivals any earth-shattering meteor speeding toward earth. Its CEO, CFO, and air traffic controllers meet on some American version of a Scottish heath to toil and bubble schemes of Byzantine emotional tortures. 

Your card declined for last week’s co-pay.

Perhaps it’s a self-deluding trauma response incapacitating him. A rash of the mind. The tentacles of pain dangling some locket in his face, hypnotizing him into emotional paralysis. Has he become the unsettled midnight ghost, I ask my inner critic. He just might pace the streets of Albuquerque, ride in the back seats of the cars on Interstate 40, and sip coffee with nuns, she responds, mocking our lack of grief smarts.

I wish I could escape my own childhood. 

That’s textbook avoidance, she tells me. I pretend to care about the co-pay while rehearsing next week’s session: 

In the 1930s, Marina del Rey boasted the third most productive oil refinery in California. A crowd of towering derricks populated the peninsula just a few hundred yards from the crowd of tanned bathers enjoying the Pacific Ocean. Like many West Coast dreams, oil fever bubbled over, and production ceased. Six decades later, Los Angeles County deemed it too expensive to clean up the site. Pollutants and a ghost of a concrete barrier remain. The abandoned site has become a talking point for tourists and residents alike. 

I had graduated from tourist to resident in 1997 when my fiancé TJ and I leased a two-bedroom, ground-floor apartment on Voyage Street. As if to season the meat of the peninsula, the streets had nautical names, which read in alphabetical order heading south—Admiral to Catamaran to Lighthouse. We were three from the end, where the barnacled North Jetty guarded the main channel. Sailboats and kayaks splashed through while an array of Korean Air, FedEx, and American Airlines roared salutations and valedictions from nearby LAX. Sand smarts cradled it all. The silver chain-link fence marked the ghost of a bird sanctuary; its glinting patterns echoed the glare and stretch of volleyball netting. 

Known as the Silver Strand, it was a cornucopia of delight rife with three-million-dollar beach homes, salt-decayed studio bungalows, the dreadlocked, the shirtless, the unemployed, and the unhoused—surrounded by water, sun, traffic, an abandoned oil field, and the scent of struggle with underlying hums of leisure. 

On move-in day, I wore my Change is Good t-shirt with a JFK quote on the back. TJ missed the sentiment as we funneled our lives into a one-bathroom-with-shared-front-patio dream. We both knew it was too late to back out. 

Tell me more.

We had built our oil derricks. Now it was time to see what we could extract. I trusted in the pay off, giving us a chance regardless of my belief that no marriage could work, ever

TJ was devoted to his Scottish terrier, Astro. Named after L.A.’s famed burger joint on Melrose, this adorable walking bathmat was settling into an arthritic old age and needed incessant walking. The early morning marine layer brought out the silver in his coat, and the late evening sunset seemed to welcome his watery eyes into some promised eternal rest. The jingling of his silver chain and tags became the soundtrack of 14 Voyage Street, the sidewalk-smart fur-ball its muse.

Where are we going with this?

On one Saturday morning walk, TJ encountered Old Betty. A regular landmark on the corner of Eastwind and Pacific, Old Betty was unhoused, in her late sixties, and always ready for a verbal altercation. Her silver grocery cart seemed a medieval shield, and her mouth a leathery scabbard. She unsheathed her tongue on TJ.  

What an ugly excuse for a dog.

Ignoring her, TJ foisted his fists into his bomber jacket. 

Talk about compatibility.

He was conditioned to weather arrant badinage having grown up on the streets of Brooklyn, but this morning his growing dissatisfaction with a demanding postproduction job woven with a passionless fiancé ignited the wick of his anger. 

Mind your own fucking business.

Like an invocation to mythical forces from beneath the marshy lagoon, his words unlocked a power reminiscent of the Furies. Old Betty became another chthonic goddess of vengeance, her soul-spewing hot tar. The faint suck-and-blow of oil pump jacks whirled.

I curse your mother with cancer, she shrieked. Then, as if completing her life’s task, she reclined against the cement wall between a blue recycling bin and its green yard trimmings twin. Strands of silver seemed to slither over her ears, hissing her to sleep.

I paint my imaginary therapist’s hair gray. Our time is almost up.

Nine months later, I saw a job posting for a private school in West Hollywood; they needed a history teacher as soon as possible. The ad was my portal forward. Giddy with hope, potential, and some semblance of a future, I relied on my interview smarts and growing spite toward TJ, who disapproved. I drove to the interview the next week wiping tears from my face. TJ had forbidden me. I think I wept from nerves or from fear or maybe because I knew the relationship was over. I severed the final strand; he was but a ghost of a bird who never found its sanctuary.

Three years after the divorce, I saw a post from a mutual friend on Facebook. TJ’s mother had died of pancreatic cancer. Her memorial picture was adorned with purple ribbon, her silver hair perfectly coiffed. Not a strand out of place.

Don’t I have relationship smarts, Doc?

I read that barn owls don’t hoot the way most owls do. Males make long, harsh screams that last about two seconds. Females give a longer, softer, more wavering version. It’s termed a wake up call.