I was meant to be the middle child. A boy came first, or so my mother believed.

She met my father at the L.A. radio station where he wrote some jingles, and she typed the scripts. He was moonlighting from teaching. Trying new things. He rode a bicycle up the boardwalk in a dashing white suit—like Faulkner, she said. She was twenty-three and he was thirty, his divorce not yet final.

Who found the abortionist? My dad, or the liberal aunt? If she’d bled any more there would be no me. That middle one. The girl child who came second. Meant to follow, not blaze the trail.

I learned to lead anyway. It’s not so hard. We all have to go somewhere. It’s what people do.

My parents were midwestern strivers doubling as Angeleno bohemians. I look through old photos, imagining my way in. I hope he made her feel beautiful, more real to herself than the psychiatrist who seduced her when she was his teenage patient and refused to call it rape. In a picture from my parents’ courtship, she poses in black lingerie, eyes bright as her lit cigarette. He dangled a honeymoon in Mexico, where he’d once roasted snakes on a campfire reading Under the Volcano, but foreign travel was in a future they could only dream. A life that would buck against the McCarthy hearings, nuclear tests, the Presbyterian rules of his Indiana chicken farmer parents, the immigrant funerals in her childhood Cleveland, her tyrannical dad spilling whiskey and insults. It goes without saying that his dreams were also fueled by drink, hers by her Aunt Toda reading the Turkish coffee grounds to see my mother—fluent in French, first in her class, Joan of Arc in the school play—claiming a concert stage, her baby grand and that big bully, Mozart, demanding scales day after day.

Santa Ana winds demolished the afternoons they now spent in bed. Cactus plants withstood neglect like her coffee-stained sheet music. Iguanas and distant mountains peered in from the window ledge. Then one day they entered a courthouse where only the groom wore white.

I’ve known all my life that their story isn’t mine to tell, but that doesn’t stop me from visiting it like the ruins of a dead civilization, the Parthenon and a Roman circus, Teotihuacan and the Pyramid to the Sun, which I climbed in a cold sweat after recovering from dysentery—not from eating reptiles, oh no, but gorgeous red berries, so domestic and tame! I’ve known all my life that although their story isn’t mine, I would still have to do some of what they dreamed.

Once, when I wasn’t planning to, I did taste snake, not in Mexico but hunched over a lazy susan in Hangzhou, a glittering city of hospitals, lakes, and Buddhist carvings. Nothing happened to me, but one bite gave my colleague a parasite so crippling she carried it into her future, into the year she left academia to teach yoga, and I would wonder anew what it means to be free.

(That age-old quest shows up in every story doesn’t it? The sleek coyote we hunt through cactus-spiked deserts. Its carcass covered in flies.)

Transplanted back to the Midwest, they became a family of four. When her breakdowns resumed, he renewed his passport, alone. Before alcohol stopped his heart at age sixty, did he think he was free? When our mother chose a life on the streets over medication and a group home, did she think she was free as well?

One night I dreamed the morning of my birth. Mid-century Midwest. A cold cold cold cold day. I, the girl who was meant to come second, whose mother met our father in the cafeteria and chose egg salad on rye, never wishing for strangeness, wanting only to love and be loved and, in the forever now of my imagination, is still playing those scales and dreaming herself into this story, to be carried on a gust of wind away from wildness to safety and tenderness.

In her late life when she lived at the shelter, my mother’s thin legs ached in Cleveland cold. If only I could I would bring her here now where I write these fragments of her story and entwine them with mine—on a North Carolina beach, a spring break of mild rebellions—and bury those limbs in hot sand, letting the sun, that clarifying blaze, do the rest.

Natalia Rachel Singer is the author of a political memoir, Scraping by in the Big Eighties. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Speculative Nonfiction, Creative NonfictionHarper’sMs.O: The Oprah MagazineThe NationThe New Flash Fiction ReviewAlternet.org, The Iowa ReviewRedbookThe American ScholarThe Chronicle of Higher Education, and many others. Her work has been short-listed for The Best American Travel Essays and the Pushcart, and anthologized widely. She is completing a new essay collection, Stubborn Roots, and is at work on a novel. She lives in Upstate New York, where she teaches creative writing and environmental literature at St. Lawrence University.

Photo by Mike McKniff