A personal essay by Therese White

Train Tracks

by Therese White

It’s not a complete disaster. The house has running water and heat, though in Florida in February, the temps are temperate and heat’s rather unnecessary.

My parents have made it their home for the month and I’ve probably said yes about ninety-two times since yesterday.

Our dialogue: “The owners probably think this is living. Yes. We’re going to eat-in tonight. Yes. Use our shower, it’s nicer. Yes. Don’t forget the sunscreen. Yes.

It’s not unlike work: “We’ve tapped you to facilitate the assembly. Yes. My application requires an English teacher’s recommendation. Yes. Let’s meet during 4th. Yes.”

And at home: “You should visit your sister this summer. Yes. We should powerwash the house this spring. Yes.

I hear statements on a daily basis that require a response. Many I don’t need to hear because I already know the information. It isn’t new. I am aware.

I could offer a true opinion, tell the truth, or answer in the negative, but I don’t. I don’t do that. Doing that would require more oomph.

Shonda Rhimes wrote about her one year of yes. I could write about my years of yes. Affirmative answers abounding. Too many times not speaking my mind.

Shonda Rhimes says yes to the White House. Yes to Dartmouth College. Her affirmative answers keep coming and her successes keep rolling in, like the tide.

Those answers of yes sound so much more…fulfilling. They do not sound like Yes, I’ll cover that class.

Perhaps—for me—saying no would be a positive change of pace, possibly even empowering and fulfilling.

You must know this: I do not want my saying yes to be seen as an act of martyrdom. Sainthood is not my goal.

I say yes because I think it’s what people want to hear, even need to hear. I say yes because I’m afraid to say no, and therein lies the problem.

Fear guides my decisions, my responses. I don’t make decisions out of love or desire, and yet that’s from where they should stem. No?

Yessing my way through life has gotten me into a fair amount of complicated situations. Having to be two places at once, for instance.

My mind has two railroad tracks, both go into the station, both leave for places exotic and pedestrian, naughty and nice.

Problem is they often converge; maybe crash is a better word. A bump, hit, tap or a severe pile-up. I am perpetually circumnavigating collisions of my own making.

I’ve arranged a theater meeting and a physical therapy appointment for the same time. Damn spine. Exit a bear.

A dental visit and the nagging thought that I should get home to see the kids. Gingivitis looms. They’re over 19.

Coffee with a friend and an oil change. Hot chai tea latte, tall, no whip. Synthetic, lube, filter, and top off the fluids.

Many of these “dates” have been should have dates. But they add up. They add up to past due, overdue, late, too late, missed opportunities.

My husband doesn’t have this problem. He keeps multiple trains running smoothly. He has, undoubtedly, won awards for on-time performance and safety.

Instead, I apologize and offer, “I should have, but I forgot…” And I am sorry. Very sorry. Missing the dentist cost me $60, after all.

Saying yes to multiple people and places out of fear has resulted in more than unreasonable fees for missed appointments. I have a lack of agency in my own life.

I’m fifty-one, yet my parents act as if I’m half that. I should be flattered. But I can decide for myself if I want to eschew sunscreen and risk melanoma, thank you.

The child—albeit an adult one—rears her ugly head. Outwardly, I am the picture of filial obedience.

Inside, I am saying No, I do not want more salt on my green beans, loudly, with verve, and possibly some animated hand gestures. On the outside, I smile and nod.

Do I do that to my children, now in their 20s? Coddle them? If anything, I think my parents’ behavior has made my own behavior more laissez-faire.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not indifferent. I care deeply. But I want my children to feel more agency in the direction of their daily lives.

They run their own trains, racing to each new depot, diverting when more intriguing stations announce service.

Owen’s tracks jibe with his AFROTC cadre and his love of biking. My son chugs on in sync to his own wing and wheel, on the ground, in the air.

Air flows over his wings and he speeds up. Air flows under his wings and he slows down. He’s exchanging old-fashioned train travel for the freedom of the skies.

Next week he learns his Air Force fate. His job. His position. He’s chosen pilot. But will it be RPA? Air Battle Manager? Intel instead? He waits.

Hovering mid-air. And balancing on two wheels. Oscillating between air and land. Head in the clouds. Feet on the ground.

I am but an on-looker, waving every other minute, thinking he is leaving, he is leaving, he is leaving. I smile and nod. I say yes, but inside I am saying hell, no.

While Audrey, the daughter, is the little engine that could. Though she be but little, she is fierce. She weighs her options, chooses out of love.

She builds her collegiate life so assured, choosing rugby and digging for anthropology, choosing travel to France, drinking cold French beer and eating baguettes.

But then comes her Aunt’s wedding. The dressing up. The fancy hair and makeup. The meltdown. The admission: “I’m having an existential crisis here, Mom.”

Later, she is full of dance, swirling round, partners a-plenty. There is a slow dance. I smile and nod, saying yes, but inside I am saying no, not yet.

My husband, David, is right about visiting my sister, I’ll admit begrudgingly. And yet, I might not see her. She is far. Hawaii. She will be closer. Colorado.

In Connecticut, I sit and remember being six, riding the monorail with her, the adventurous sister. Her train only travels at top speed.

She is the high speed rail, letting bygones be bygones. Errors whip past in a blur. The DUI. The affair. The tears. All gone. All past.

A recommitment to matrimony. A new house. The Facebook posts. I smile and nod. I say yes, but inside I am saying I’m not sure. That rail line may expire.

I guess hope mixes with my fears when I choose to say yes. I am the optimist and the scaredy-cat. The little kid and the little old lady.

Among coworkers, I share my sister’s post about her evening stand-up paddle, full moon yoga class. If I am the biodiesel locomotive, she is the Acela.

Coworkers do not generate train wrecks like me. Their tracks follow a due North course, traveling a strait so narrow.

To the student, they say, No, I cannot write your recommendation. To the associate principal, they say, No, her grade stands.

On the other hand, I comply, acquiesce. Where is my chutzpah? My nerve to say no? I soften, smile and nod. I say yes, but inside my better judgment says no.

In my yes is the validation of my counterpart: parent, husband, sister, offspring, student, boss. I assume their fear, their desire, and so the empath in me says yes.

But now…at this time in my life, I must say no to others and yes to me. It is difficult. It feels self-serving. But I must have the nerve to say yes to my desires.

Maybe that is my path to a Shonda Rhimes kind of life. To a life filled with yesses that I can live with comfortably, even happily.

Orpheus’ lute was strung with poets’ sinews. I am like a poet in choosing a word, another word, then another. I choose to write. This yes feels different.

In this yes, there’s still hope, but it is to lay more track, write more words, write my way out of the trainwrecks awaiting me in my future.

So maybe no is not the answer. Maybe yes needs to simply come from a place of desire, not fear. What is it that I want? I should say yes to that.

The rail runs on. Collisions will come. Grad-school homework due. High school grades anticipated. But this iron horse has an iron will and will ride on the affirmative. Yes.

Therese White’s work has been published in Caveat Lector, Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Journal, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, River & South Literary Magazine, and the Cottonwood Journal. An MFA candidate from Lindenwood University, St. Charles, Missouri, she teaches high school English in Connecticut, where she makes her home.

One comment

  1. Theresa Wright’s essay about her people-pleasing persona covered territory that i have traveled in my life. I enjoyed hearing her story and glimpsing her inner life. For me, the train track of serving the desires of others hit the switch when i became physically disabled (I’ve read that people-pleasers tend to die an average of ten years earlier than less accommodating types.). Now others serve me, because my limitations are so obvious to both myself and to others.


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