Inventing Lovers on the Phone

I wrote this piece for a creative nonfiction writing course in 2021.

“At Seventeen” hit the Billboard charts when I was in high school. This haunting bossa nova tune filled the airwaves with a lament that love was made for beauty queens. Like Janis Ian, I was a kid whose name was never called when choosing sides for basketball. Her lyrics drew me in with melancholy observations of the beautiful. The song ultimately reveals that life will not be flawless for hometown queens. Janis Ian gets us there with a samba step, forward and back. We step into predictions that the beautiful will lose love. We step back into cheating ourselves at solitaire.

At seventeen, I stepped away from my own high school lament. Dance clothes shoved into a knapsack, I got off the bus in a very sketchy part of Boston. Did my mother understand my route to the Boston Conservatory? I did not share this information with her at seventeen. I strode, exhilarated by my freedom, from the bus stop to my 1-mile walk down Boylston Street.

Building sign for the Boston Conservatory
The Boston Conservatory merged with Berklee College of Music in 2016.

That summer, I left behind the high school girls with clear skinned smiles. The cheerleaders and the jocks and their Friday night parties that excluded me. I joined strangers in our mutual love of dance. Skinny young women, skinnier and more talented than I, but it didn’t matter. “Have a good class,” they’d call out to me as I leaned over the drinking fountain. We were dripping with sweat in those dance studios.

At seventeen, I donned footless dance tights and leotards with skinny straps. Bobby pins in my mouth, I pulled back my thick, brown hair and secured my bun. Ballet, jazz, modern. The barre work was hard, and the floor work intimidating. Dance teachers adjusted the placement of our arms, lifted our legs higher, and corrected the alignment of our hips. In my heart, I knew that I would never be a professional dancer. Remarkably, at seventeen, it didn’t matter.

Brick building in the city
Boston Conservatory dance studios were in this basement in the 1970s.

I held my head erect. After morning classes, I walked through Boston like a queen. I reveled in anonymity. The spell was not broken by the bus ride to my job. At seventeen, I scooped ice cream for the money to pay for my freedom. I made sundaes with perfect swirls of whipped cream. I mastered the art of ice cream sodas, balancing scoops of ice cream against long spoons. If the ice cream plopped into the soda, the drink would bubble over the glass and onto the countertop.

After work, I clumsily tossed frisbees in the parking lot with the other teens. Some, as Janis Ian would describe, with ravaged faces lacking in the social graces. Work romances developed over the summer, but not for me. I remained alone as socially awkward teens paired up with other socially awkward teens. I could barely listen to “At Seventeen”, a song that cut too close to the bone.

That was long ago and far away. My social life blossomed in college, and I learned the thrill and heartbreak of young love. At seventeen, I filled the bathroom sink with cold water and a capful of Woolite. My hands reddened in the cold water as I washed my leotard and tights. I slung them over the shower curtain and spread a towel on the floor to catch the drips. Consoled myself with invented lovers who called and said, “come dance with me.”

The samba, forward and back.

Some Lines Run Parallel

I wrote this piece in response to prompt on dream sequences.

With my daughters at Lincoln Center

Penn Station. I look for the train to Northampton, Massachusetts. I want to go home, and the woman in front of me is taking forever to get her ticket. I am pressed for time, alone, and anxious. I dig around in my bag for my wallet. I open my wallet, pull out every card—insurance, membership, library—until I find my credit card. I hurriedly purchase my ticket. While I put my wallet back into my bag, the train pulls away. I run to the platform and shout “no” as an amusement park train, bright red with gold lettering, rounds the bend away from the city. The train conductor in his striped overalls is oblivious to my distress. I turn to see my daughters playing stringed instruments and dancing.

This dream stays with me for days. My daughters dance, and I want to go home.

Somehow, just now, I realize that my daughters are adults. Ridiculous, I know. College graduations celebrated a decade ago. Both girls survived graduate school and launched careers. Meghan joined an architectural firm, married, and has two children of her own. Three years ago, Natalie made a big move to New York City, opened an acupuncture practice, and fell in love. My daughters are fully in their own lives. For days after this dream, my emotions tangle up in my throat.  

My throat constricts around these emotions as I tell my husband, not their father, that I miss them. I need to spend time with my girls. I could take the train to New York to visit Natalie. Maybe Meghan would join us. Could she take a weekend away from her young family to spend time with her mother and sister?

Neighborhood in Queens, NY

I rehearse the trip in my mind, but my imagination doesn’t take me far. I have no idea how to get from Penn Station to Queens. I flip through memories of transit systems. Boston. Chicago. Washington, DC. Seattle. Salt Lake City. Atlanta. Paris. All are infinitely easier to understand than New York City Transit, with 472 stations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.

Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (the T): 149 stations.

Chicago: 145.

Washington Metro: 91.

I grew up in the Boston suburbs. As a teen, I learned the T with its Orange, Red, and Green lines. I know the open weave of these color lines and the order of the stations (Sullivan Station, Community College, North Station, Haymarket—please drop the “r”). I know when to make my way toward the doors to exit.

Seattle perplexed me with its the honor system on the Light Rail. Riders purchase tickets from a kiosk but there are no turnstiles, and no one checks your ticket before you board. TRAX in Salt Lake City is similar. Fare inspectors supposedly circulate through the trains, but I never saw this happen.

The Atlanta transit system is clean, safe, and easy. MARTA is the cheapest option to get from airport to hotel, and to local tourist attractions. Rather than Uber or Lyft, I waited on the Peachtree sidewalk for Bus 816 to take me to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Museum.

The Paris Métro is a tighter weave of colored lines that serves 303 stations. Despite jetlag and the limits of high school French, I quickly learned the routes to take me from a rented apartment in Montmartre to destinations all over the City of Lights. I finessed the flick of the wrist necessary to unlock the train door handle before exiting.

My one experience with New York City transit was more harried. There are multiple lines that will theoretically get you to where you want to go. Express trains breeze through your intended stop. Some trains run only on the weekdays. Some trains alter routes in the evening. Some lines run parallel to each other with identical station names, but the stations are not the same.


In my dream, I want to go home. And that conductor in the striped overalls? He commands the Explorer Express at the EcoTarium in Worcester, MA. Those train tracks curve through the museum grounds. I want to climb aboard for an open-air family excursion through forest and meadow. In my dream, the Explorer Express left the station without me, and I turned to see my daughters in their adult lives.

I text my daughters—could we plan a visit? I offer to get tickets to the Nutcracker at the New York City Ballet. Their excited responses fill my heart. Throughout their childhood, we listened to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker on Christmas morning. The aroma of cinnamon and balsam filled our home. The taste of peppermint and chocolate filled our mouths. We decide on a weekend in early December.

I cannot imagine how I will travel from Penn Station to Natalie’s apartment in Queens. Instead, I imagine stringed instruments and dancing, cinnamon and balsam, peppermint and chocolate.

On the train

Walking the Marginal Way

My grandmother told me that I had angel faces in my knees. She gently pressed her finger against the angel’s eye and traced the chin of the angel at the bottom of my kneecap. I looked at her, solemn. The strap of my navy-blue swimsuit inched down my left shoulder. My arms hung loosely at my sides. I trusted her.

All these years later, I trace that angel’s face as I contemplate how to haul myself out of the beach chair. My body not as supple, my joints a bit cranky. I manage to rise gracelessly. “Look,” my husband says. I raise my eyes to see a heron in needle-nosed flight across the dunes towards the marshes. My eyes lower to meet Ed’s. “You ready for lunch?”

We flip the beach chairs onto our blanket and grab our shoes. My feet press into the warm sand. Breathe, I tell myself, take in this moment. We make our way across the pebbly asphalt to the car. Ed lifts the hatch and we perch, brush off our feet and discuss what to leave behind. We will walk the Marginal Way for a late lunch in Perkins Cove.

The Marginal Way is a 1 ¼ mile walkway that threads the coastline between Ogunquit Beach and Perkins Cove in Maine. Seven years ago, walking the Marginal Way was my pilgrimage to a place of deep family memories, a connection to my matrilineage. A place to remember the few summers my sisters and I vacationed with my parents and my grandmother. A pilgrimage to view the icy blue sea with its dark line of horizon. “The Acklantic,” my grandmother chuckled as she told us how her mother declared that the family crossed the Acklantic from Queenstown, Ireland aboard the SS Cymric in 1913.

In this moment, with my husband, I am walking the Marginal Way as a pilgrimage to the rocks.

Rock formations along the Marginal Way, tan-colored quartzite and darker phyllite, are crosscut with basalt. Threads of granite and feldspar, and glints of mica appear in an irregular pattern. Most stunning is the angular basalt. Dark and dense, this volcanic rock is commonly found on oceanic islands.  The ocean waves break upon the sharp edges, and sends skyward a white foam.

As we walk briskly along the Marginal Way towards Perkins Cove, we chat about the rosehips fattening in the autumn sun. The intrusion of bittersweet. The day is warmer that we anticipated, and my mind is distracted by the discomfort of my jeans and dark shirt. I pray for a shady spot to sit, thinking more about patio dining in Perkins Cove than the white foam smashing against the dark basalt. Relief washes over me as we are seated at Barnacle Billy’s, well-shaded by magnificent butternut trees. The lacey leaves gently fan us.

We people-watch, and remark on the bustle of the wait staff. “Claire,” says Ed, and I think he is talking about his sister. No, Claire is our waitress. Ed pays close attention to name tags. After all these years, I should know this. We split an order of fried clams and linger over our brews. A local beer for him, iced tea for me. As we head back to the Marginal Way, I tell my husband, “I promise to slow down.” “You’ve been walking fast all day,” he confirms.

Midway back to Ogunquit Beach, we find an empty bench. I sit.


The wind caresses my face. The waves roar as they approach the basalt. Seawater slaps down on the flat surface. Rhythmic. Again, and again.

Still, my mind is too busy. I am remembering the Paul Simon disc that Ed slipped into the CD player during our drive from Massachusetts. In the first track, Simon sings “I am a Rock, I am an Island. And rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.” Several tracks into the compilation disc, Simon tells us that his mama loves him like a rock. Which is it, Paul Simon? Do rocks have no feelings? Or are rocks our most steadfast friends?

In the second tune, Simon references the Christian hymn “Rock of Ages”.

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.


Below me, the basalt cleaves. The sea water rushes in. My grandmother’s hand presses my head toward her breast. Her nails scratch my scalp. Loves me like a rock.

I breathe steadily. My thoughts rush into the crevices and rush out again. Slap down hard and rise skyward. Glint in the sun before returning to the icy blue sea.


The wind on my face. The roar of the waves. The slap on the basalt.


My mind steadies. I take one more deep breath and stand.

“Ready to head back to the beach for a nap?” I ask Ed. He nods.

He loves me like a rock.