Tessa Jeffers – The Angel in the Wine Bar

Here’s Tenx9 newcomer Tessa Jeffers with a heartbreaking story about meeting a stranger. She told this at August 2016’s theme “Strangers.”

The Angel in the Wine Bar

I met Jackie at a coworker’s birthday party in Mount Vernon, Iowa, about 5 years ago. It was in a quaint, unassuming wine bar, and she was drinking out of a large bottle from a paper bag. “Is that wine?” I asked her after we’d been introduced. No, she said, it’s Sutliff Cider—a locally brewed hard apple cider. She was so friendly, blonde and beautiful, and 6 foot tall just like me. She was one of the first people I ever saw wearing an infinity scarf, and she looked damn cool doing it.

We did the “where are you from/what do you do kinda thing,” and I was shocked to learn she was only 23 years old at the time. Her wisdom and calmness with life was beyond her38-Strangers years. She had charisma in spades. I asked her how old she thought I was (I was 29 then), and she said, “23 … 24?” We hit it off immediately.

In the spring she took me to the namesake, Sutliff Cider, a renovated barn in “God’s Country-side” where cider flowed like champagne in pitchers, guitars were played in the sunlight, peanuts were eaten, toddlers danced, and grandpas in overalls flirted with Jackie. I remember her telling me that her mom was worried she might be obsessed with old men. As a 3rd grade teacher and kid magnet, Jackie didn’t discriminate spreading her joy to any age demographic: She fell in love with everyone and everything around her. She was funny as hell too, sending Snapchats of her adventures in teaching: bad kids in time out, impromptu classroom dance parties, and my personal favorite: crab races in the name of science.

A year or so later we were at another friend’s birthday party in an Irish pub, and a girl started trouble because Jackie accidentally stepped on her foot. I was so protective; I whispered in the enemy’s ear. “I’m sorry you’re ugly on the inside,” I told this stranger, “but we’re having a good time so please leave my friend alone.” Next thing I knew, I was being tackled and punched by the enemy. “You’re a stallion,” Jackie remarked in awe after the fight had been broken up. She’d never been in a fight. But she also said something that’s stuck with me to this day: “Talk shit. Get hit.”

Jackie had a surprise dinner for me when I moved away and she gave me a framed map of Iowa that said “You can go your own way.”  She visited Nashville last Fourth of July; met my nieces and new friends. We ate Edley’s BBQ and went to a psychic for fun. I remember one of the questions she asked the psychic was if everyone in her family would stay healthy. We had private sessions so I don’t know what the response was.

But in the first week of January of this year I got the news from Jackie that she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She had a full hysterectomy within a week. They’d caught it early, it was stage three, a rare form, especially for someone 27 years young, but she was expected to recover after surgery and six sessions of chemo.

Jackie had her last (sixth) session of chemo in late May of this year. In a completely shocking, devastating turn of events, she suddenly caught pneumonia and unexpectedly passed away on June 22, 2016.

At the visitation, I saw our mutual friend Aaron from a distance. We locked eyes from afar but the line of visitors was so long, we didn’t get a chance to talk. I really wanted to connect with him, to acknowledge that someone great that we both knew had left us and this world, but I didn’t see him again at the funeral.

Before the long drive back to Tennessee, I decided to drive by Jackie’s apartment. I have no idea why. As I was driving past, her mother was leaving and locking the door. I could only imagine what she’d been doing in there. And then I remembered the 16-year-old me, going through a box of my dad’s things after his death and finding a razor with his hair still in the blades. I will never forget how it felt to have a physical piece of someone who is so definitely gone.

I didn’t realize how much Jackie had made an impact on me in the years I knew her. I also didn’t anticipate her dying, or how hard it would shake me, but I’m continually amazed at the little glimpses of her revealing themselves. I honestly feel like it’s her doing magic, and I cried when I read a Facebook post from her sister that said it feels like Jackie is everywhere and that her little niece Lily said: “It just doesn’t feel right anymore without Aunt Jackie.”

So many conversations with Jackie are fresh in my mind. This girl was so incredibly GOOD. We went Christmas shopping a few years ago and she told me her mom had a health scare with a mammogram and she was so worried but so relieved that the growth was benign. I cherish everything she ever gave me or said to me. My favorite pair of Free People socks are ones she gave me for my birthday. I have a 2015 calendar still on my desk from her, the theme: “The Imagined Desks of Historical Women.” When I opened it, I was so touched because she said it reminded her of me, and that I inspired her. It really tickled me because SHE was so inspiring to me, and I do have one regret that I didn’t get to tell her that in person or pick up the phone and call her when she needed it the most. I tried to give her the space she needed for the hardest thing she ever did in her life. And throughout it all, she still made others feel at ease when she was going through the depths of it.

After I drove by her apartment, the next stop was a coffee shop where Jackie worked while in college, just down the block from the wine bar we first met at. When I opened the door, Aaron was sitting there reading the paper. It was like fate. I was able to get that hug I needed from someone who knew. We didn’t even talk directly about her, we tried but then teared up and just kind of looked at each other for a really long pause and then Aaron had the good sense to start talking about his chef career. Then he left, and I got my coffee and looked around at the trinkets and antiques for sale. My eyes fell on a small black box with a sacred heart on it: just like the tattoo Jackie had on her back. I bought it and then drove over to the cemetery to say goodbye.

Someone had left two colored paper birds on her grave next to the flowers, and it made me smile to think that it was probably her niece Lily who made them, to fly up to heaven with Aunt Jackie. Something clicked and I went to my car to retrieve a blue stone I’d randomly picked up at a spiritual expo a few months ago at the Nashville Fairgrounds. It was Angelite. The definition:

Angelite is a blue stone with a peaceful energy that is calming and soothing. It has a vibration that is very helpful to aid contact with beings in the higher realms and in particular with members of the angelic kingdom. Many people choose to use it because it both aids you to connect with angels, and is also helpful to assist you to make contact with spirit guides. It is a strong communication stone, and an extremely helpful healing crystal.

Next to the paper birds, the stone looked like blue sky for them to soar over. I got in my car and the GPS told me that the highway from that cemetery went straight south through Illinois, to St. Louis, then Nashville. I had a weird sense of peace driving home and every single sunset I’ve seen since then has been more beautiful than the next and all I can think of is Jackie, every time I see something that feels like a familiar miracle.

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Jennifer Chesak – Teetering the Line

Here is Porch writer and Tenx9 first-timer Jennifer Chesak’s story from August 2016’s theme “Strangers.” 

Teetering the Line

A teenager lives kitty-corner from me, and we’ve teetered this line between being strangers and friends. Are we friends? Me, a late thirty-something woman who hoards mulch bags from the garden center, and he, a young man navigating the years where you get your first job and your driver’s license—and, for him, some tough experiences that I’ve laid witness to…

I was in my home one afternoon when I heard a thud followed by howling. Brakes squealed, and a car jammed in reverse. Before I’d even looked out my window, I knew what 38-Strangershad happened and ran outside. Tony’s puppy was lying in the ditch, bleeding from the mouth. A woman stood outside her car, yelling. “It was like hitting a rock,” she said. She shook her head at Tony. “Why didn’t you have him on a leash?”

Before this moment, Tony and I had never spoken; I actually didn’t even know his name. We were essentially strangers. But we’d waved to each other in passing as neighbors tend to do. Over the years, his wide smile had caught my eye, and in recent weeks, I couldn’t help but notice the affection this teen, all arms and legs, doled out on this pup, who was still yet all paws. Now he stood on the lawn, shaking and with tears clouding his usually bright eyes. Words trapped in his throat as he tried to respond to this woman. All he could do was throw his hands in the air. Then he dropped them to his side in defeat.

I looked at the little yellow dog quivering on the ground and back at Tony. I learned that he was home alone and that his dad couldn’t be reached because their only cell had been shut off. “I’m gonna grab my keys; we’ll take him to the vet,” I said. I also told the woman who had hit the dog—she was still yelling—to write down her name and number and get going.

By this time another neighbor had come out to the street. She’d been listening to the commotion. “You can’t just take that boy without his dad’s permission.”

I turned back to Tony. “I can take your dog, but I think you should come.”

We eased little Sunny, the puppy, onto a blanket I had grabbed, and then Tony slid into the passenger seat with her on his lap.

Tony took quick and shallow breaths in the car. I tried to reassure him—and myself—that Sunny would be okay, that she was likely just in shock. I also told Tony I would cover the charges with my credit card.

“I’ll pay you back,” he said. “I applied for a job at Pizza Hut.” He told me he’d just turned 16 and could now work.

“Don’t worry,” I said. I reached over and lightly touched Sunny. “We’ll figure something out.”

On the short drive down Gallatin Road to the vet, I learned that Tony and his friend had found two puppies in an old tire left out near Cornelia Fort Airpark in Shelby Bottoms. They’d rescued them and each kept one. The pups had just received their first shots.

The vet assessed the situation quickly in a room separate from us. At first, it appeared that Sunny might just have a broken leg, but after further evaluation, I learned that she had extensive internal bleeding. Yes, there was a chance she’d make it, but surgery would cost a few thousand, and it was not a guarantee. The vet leveled with me in the hallway. Putting Sunny down was probably the unfortunate but best choice for the dog. She wanted me to get ahold of Tony’s parents, but I explained that wasn’t possible.

I went back into the exam room, got down on my knees in front of Tony sitting in the chair, and although I was a stranger to him, I took his hands in mine and told him the news. He cried in my arms, and he didn’t know it, but my tears fell into his hair.

“Do you want to say goodbye to Sunny?” I asked. He nodded. The vet brought her in, still wrapped in the blanket, and placed her on Tony’s lap.

He cried into her fur and said his goodbyes. “I’m so sorry, girl. I’m so sorry. I couldn’t protect you.” He lifted his head and shook with sobs. He repeated his apologies to this pup who had clearly received a lot of love from him in a short time.

On the drive home, Tony told me about the accident. He’d been filling Sunny’s water bowl with the outside spigot when she slipped out of his arms. Just then the woman came speeding down the road. “This isn’t your fault,” I said. But he wasn’t ready to hear those words.

His father’s truck wasn’t in the drive yet when we returned to our block. I invited Tony to my house, but he said he’d be fine and just wanted to be alone. I understood. We exchanged a hug and went our separate ways. Inside, I curled up with my dog and sobbed.

When Tony walked by with a friend a few days later, I wondered how he was, but I didn’t want to embarrass him by asking. I didn’t want to out him as being pals with the neighbor lady. I gave a discreet wave. He returned the gesture much more animatedly, and then he stopped and asked me how I was. A few weeks later, he came over while I was gardening, and he asked me about getting a rescue dog from a shelter. He continued to wave every time he walked by.

We were no longer strangers; we were friends, and seeing him always made me smile. Then one day, about a year later, I feared I’d ruined everything. I feared I’d teetered us back across the line to a place of unfamiliarity—one we wouldn’t be able to come back from.

I was sitting on my back deck with my husband and some friends. Our house borders South Inglewood Park in East Nashville. Tony and another young man, who was older and of bigger build, were walking on the path. Suddenly, the other guy grabbed Tony and began to hit and punch him. I jumped up and yelled for him to stop. With his grip still on Tony, he came to the chain-link fence and threatened to jump it if I didn’t “shut the fuck up.”

I grabbed my phone and called the cops. The whole time, Tony never fought back; he only ducked the punches when he could. The altercation broke up before the police arrived, and the other guy took off in his car, tires screeching. I later heard Tony’s dad yelling at him in their driveway.

I didn’t regret sticking up for Tony, but I worried that he would be mad at me for getting involved.

The next day I was unloading groceries, and Tony and a friend came walking by. I had this moment of panic. I almost considered hiding my head back in my SUV to pretend I didn’t see him. If he was embarrassed to be associated with the cop-calling, busybody neighbor lady, he’d have an out.

But that’s not Tony’s style. He made it a point to catch my eye, even though I’d positioned myself half behind a porch pillar. And he flashed me his big Tony smile. “Hey, how’s it going?” he said. I gave a goofy wave and an even bigger goofy grin. I stepped into the open and asked how he was.

I’d just been schooled by a teenager. You see, on Tony’s part, there was never any teetering. We were decidedly well past the line of being strangers. We are officially friends.

Laura Cockman – Beginnings

At January 2015’s “Beginnings”, Laura Cockman shares about the beginning of a longtime friendship. 

They say friendship isn’t something you learn in school, but I’ll tell you where you can learn it: on the school bus.

I was born cautious, and by cautious I mean generally fearful of everything. I was also born screaming, and so you’d think that I would have grown into a loud child, but it really seemed like I exhausted all of my energy before I left the hospital, and by the time I climbed aboard my first school bus, I was mostly interested in keeping to myself.

The bus was an early one, and since I was lucky enough to live so far away from school that the proverbial walking-up-hill-to-school-both-ways would have been more like wheezing through a marathon, the bus driver compensated for how early we had to wake up by consistently arriving to each stop ten minutes earlier than she needed to. This meant that she arrived at school ten minutes before we were allowed into the building. An eternity in the pre-cellphone era.

Most mornings while I waiting for the teachers to escort us off the bus and into the school building, I would sit quietly with my girlfriends. We were a real exciting bunch. Our number-one morning activity was what we’d refer to as a “chapstick party.” Even though we were allowed to stand up once the bus stopped being in motion, we remained in our seats and passed chapsticks in circles, sniffing them. Yeah, we were scintillating.

But nobody else ever stood up on the bus either. And so everybody was confused the day the bus floor began rumbling. It happened once, twice, then stopped. Glancing around the edge of the bus seat, nothing appeared out of order, so I turned my attention back to someone’s brand new key lime Lipsmacker. But it tumbled out of my hand when the floor rumbled again, this time more violently, sending tremors up the entire back of my seat.

The bus driver seemed too busy glancing out the window at the scenic squares of concrete she parked by every morning to be concerned with things that could actually have been happening on her bus, so I resolved not to worry about the rumblings. Remember, this was my first bus-riding experience, so I was still a couple of years away from the bus driver who would crash into another bus when she forgot to brake, the bus driver who hosted gambling games for cash prizes on the way home (I still regret telling my parents about that one before I could make some cash), and the bus driver who forced certain children to sing karaoke to earn passage onto the bus. In short, I still (naively) trusted bus drivers.

And eventually the rumbling stopped, so I told myself to stop worrying. Like I said, I was naïve. I should have known that the ceasing of the rumbling should have been a cause for concern.

Suddenly, a tentacle lashed out from the seat above me, scattering the remaining chapstick tubes everywhere. No, not a tentacle…an arm.

“Rrrrrr,” growled the creature attached to the arm.

And there, squatting on the top of a bus seat, arms waving frenetically about, was Jonathan, my soon-to-be best friend.

But I wouldn’t know this yet.

“I. Am. A dinosaur!” yelled the creature as it flung itself down from its perch on the bus seat. I recoiled as its arms lashed out wildly in my direction.

“Run,”  he screeched, “Or I will eat you!”

Not having had much contact with boys or dinosaurs (and what’s the difference, really?) hurdling from the sky directly at me in my short existence, I did the exact opposite. Curled into the fetal position, I peeked out as my friends sprinted up and down the bus aisle, and Jonathan chased them.

You might wonder where the bus driver, that responsible adult, was at this point, while children shrieked and ping-ponged from seat to seat for ten solid minutes, but I promise I can explain this to you. Her inaction in this situation can be completely rationalized by acknowledging that there is no song more perfectly captivating that Faith Hill’s “This Kiss,” and that such a true musical treasure can only be fully appreciated when on repeat and when all other senses are completely tuned out.

So I lay safely curled in the bus seat when the tapping began on the back of my skull. Prepared for another aerial assault, I swatted the air above me. Nothing. Rawwwr, purred-the dinosaur-boy from above me. I waited. Prepared.

A hand shot out from underneath the seat, latching around my ankle and dragging me onto the floor.

“I’m a dinosaur,” he confirmed, “And I’m going to eat you.” If this were Jurassic Park, he was the raptor hiding in the bushes when I’d thought I was finally safe. Clever girl, ha.

I may have never been as excited to see teachers as the moment when they came to let me off the bus. And I may have never been less excited to board the school bus as I was during the next few days as the primordial beast waited to awaken for ten minutes of hunting each morning when the bus stopped. Thank goodness for the end of the school day, when my neighbors would knock on my front door and ask me to play.

So my heart was beating fast with post-school-day, post-bus-ride adrenaline when I went to open the door this particular day.

“Helloooo-oh,” I said. Jonathan stood there.

“I’m a dinosaur,” he informed me.

My mom walked out from the kitchen.

“Who’s this?” She asked, “A new friend?” Or course, you can probably guess by now how Jonathan introduced himself.

“I’m her boyfriend.”

“How sweet,” Mom smiled, and Jonathan walked into the house.

One exhausting hour later of oh-how-cute-they’re-playing-tag and would-it-be-too-much-to-pray-for-another-asteroid-to-strike-Earth-now, Jonathan’s mother called asking to send him home.

“Hit the road, Jack,” Mom told him.

Jonathan marched out the door, down the driveway, into the cul-de-sac, and, well, hit the road. With his fist.

“You can’t call me, Jack, though,” he called out as he ran off, “Next time, it’s hit the road, Jon.”

Giggling maniacally, I suddenly knew there would be a next time.

Now, nearly twenty years later, reflecting back on the moment when I knew Jonathan and I would become best friends, I can’t help but think of the saying that friendship is like peeing your pants: everybody can see it, but only you can really feel it. And when I think of this statement, I have to agree that friendship truly is like peeing your pants, because the first time I met Jonathan, I kind of did.