Her name was Lisa Beth Cobb, and I saw her for the first time on the archery range of Camp Entwine, my first summer away from home. Her blond hair shone in the morning sunlight. She might as well have taken one of those arrows and shot me right through the heart. I gladly would have died for her on the spot. And, in a way, I did.

My best friend that summer also professed to love Lisa, and on the last day of camp, we decided to ask her who she liked better. I remember standing side by side with David while Lisa, she of the dirty-blond hair and perfect little pug nose, carefully appraised us as if we were two finalists in a beauty contest.

I was no beauty, having the slightly rounded shoulders of an eight-year-old boy already laboring under the enormous weight of Self. David, on the other hand, was as light and carefree as air. Even before Lisa spoke, I knew what the answer was going to be.

I never saw her again, but for several years after that, every night at bedtime, I would pray, Dear God, please help me to marry Lisa Beth Cobb.

Al Neipris
Mansfield, Massachusetts

For four years, my life was ruled by an unexplained illness. My heart would not pump properly, and breathing — taking in that elusive, invisible substance air — was incredibly difficult. An oxygen tank was my constant companion for more than a year.

I was eventually allowed to untether myself from the tank for short periods, and I began to walk a little each day. In spite of my progress, I felt like giving up. My heart was heavy from the end of a relationship and the loss of several family members, two dear friends, and my beloved dog within a short span. I could not work, could not play, could hardly think.

One day on my walk, I heard yelping sounds and saw a litter of newborn puppies in a fenced-in yard. I wanted to get closer, but I knew the mother would probably be protective, so I walked on.

The next time I passed the house, the puppies had squeezed through a small hole in the fence and were tumbling about in an overgrown alleyway. The mother was pacing the yard, looking worried. I walked down the alley to round the puppies up, and suddenly they were all over me: untying my shoes and chewing the laces; jumping onto my legs and clamping their little jaws on to my jeans. Laughing, I succumbed to their attack and lay down in a mass of weeds. For the first time in many years, all my worries dropped away.

Then reality set in, and I went to the house to tell the owner that his puppies were loose. He thanked me and invited me back to see them anytime. He even suggested that I might want to adopt a puppy. I had not planned on having another dog in my life, however. I still had no idea if I would be alive in a month, or a week, or a day.

I went to visit the puppies often, and found myself smiling more, mesmerized by these lively little beings. One in particular stood out. He was on the shy side and much furrier than his littermates. He stayed close to his mother and was the only one who ever played by himself. The owner had nicknamed him “the Little Coward,” because he always ran and hid from the man.

I adopted that little puppy and named him Atlas. Thanks to him, I decided to stop living as if I were dying.

J. Nichols
Portland, Oregon

When I was sixteen, I was captivated by Herman Wouk’s novel Marjorie Morningstar. Marjorie, the protagonist, was just like me: passionate, romantic, idealistic, and ambitious. Her fierce aspiration to become an actress led her into the tempestuous world of the theater. And, like me, she expected her life to unfold dramatically: Passion! Love! Fame! Excitement!

Most of the book is spent chronicling Marjorie’s infatuation with a charismatic, talented songwriter-director. But in the end she gives up on him and marries a lawyer. She trades her brilliant-yet-flawed songwriter for the companionship, stability, and integrity of a nice but unexciting man. I didn’t understand it at all. What about the passion? I thought as I turned the last page.

I’m thirty-eight and have never been married. In my early twenties, while my friends were playing house with their partners, I was living in Hollywood, trying to become an actress and having short, turbulent affairs with talented, beautiful men who didn’t bother to get to know the real me. Later, while my friends were marrying and having children, I was traveling around the world and living out of my backpack in a ceaseless search for new adventures and possibilities. I met some fascinating men and developed a few infatuations that consumed me, hollowed me out until I was empty but for one idea: make him love me. Whether he did or he didn’t, the relationship always ended, and I felt tragic but grateful for the experience. My biggest fear was that it wouldn’t happen again.

I see now that it was movement I needed: not the love, but the falling.

I’ve been dating the same man now for a year and two months — a record for me. If I were to compare him to other men I have known, he wouldn’t rate as very exciting. His biggest dream is to build a house in a meadow and have a dog to run around it. He would rather water his garden than travel. His job, though lucrative and steady, has nothing to do with art. He is smart, emotionally healthy, and has a great sense of humor. Though he’s sometimes a little intimidated by my intensity, I think he loves me more than any other man that I have met. It’s easy to be with him.

I have noticed that I can stick out my hand when he’s walking a little bit behind me and know — just know — that he will see it, and grab it, and hold it.

I have never been more afraid.

Michelle Gaudreau
Portland, Oregon

Last year, I met a young artist. He was uncommonly talented, as focused on art as I am on writing — and forty years my junior. Unlike myself at his age (twenty), he didn’t throw his youth away in riotous living. His wisdom stunned me. I found myself looking forward to seeing him each week with an eagerness I’d not known since being widowed.

When we went for coffee one afternoon, I sat across from him, hardly able to breathe for the pounding of my heart. He told one wry, witty story after another, and my palms began to sweat. What was wrong with me? Was I coming down with the flu?

Linda Bulloch
Savannah, Georgia

Our ship, a patrol frigate with a crew of 190 men, leaves San Diego in the last week of January 1944. We are due to arrive in the Pacific theater of war in early March.

I’m a signalman second class. Before our first landfall, I spot Blake, a seaman first class, watching another signalman and me practice semaphore, the naval system of communicating using flags. Blake appears amused by our repartee. When the other signalman lays down his flags to leave, Blake takes his place.

The first message he sends is “Do you have a boyfriend?” Before he’s completed “friend,” he wags the letter “E,” signaling, “Error, erase.” He corrects himself: “Girlfriend.”

I’m nineteen. Blake’s maybe a year younger. His blond hair is like tinted English porcelain, his smile tentative and full of secrets.

Our ship is in a holding pattern until the battle of Leyte Gulf, but we don’t know this. I wouldn’t mind the wait so much were it not for the heat. I manage to sleep by taking my sack — a thin mattress, pillow, and blanket — topside and laying it on the open deck under the stars. Blake does the same, and we begin finding a spot together.

We could be more discreet, but Blake doesn’t give a damn, and, taking my cue from him, neither do I. There may be some who resent our relationship, but for the most part, the crew takes it in stride.

One evening, while we’re topside together, Blake asks me to exchange dog tags with him. Each sailor wears two dog tags around his neck. I give Blake one of my tags, and he gives me one of his. We each attach the other’s alongside our own. (I still have the two tags, his and mine.)

Blake quickly becomes foremost in my mind, but I dare not commit my feelings for him to paper. I barely mention him in my letters, and even then never by name. Instead I write his name on the bark of palm trees whenever we go ashore. When there are no trees, I write it on air. He’s my first love, and I’m hit hard. There’s no separating us . . . until war’s end, that is. In his last letter to me, he writes, “I’m doing it with girls now.”

Name Withheld

What saves me from the tedium of another day is falling hopelessly in love with the people I meet: the curly-haired barista at the coffee shop who hands me my change as if dipping his fingers into holy water; the girl with Down syndrome who talks loudly about vacationing with her grandmother; the elderly couple who grow giant bubble-gum-colored puffs of dahlias at the corner of Twelfth and Chambers; the toddler girl across the street who bleats sweetly, “Mama, come see!”

Sometimes I fall in love with things: a breeze in a heat wave; strawberries and asparagus and blood oranges out of season; the perfect pair of black sandals, with heels four inches tall; the way the four o’clock sun hits the corrugated tin roof of the auto body shop behind my office.

Always I fall in love with the deep timbre of my brother’s laugh; the way my mother says my name; the way my father calls me sweetheart; the way my sweetheart calls me baby.

Bobbie Willis
Eugene, Oregon

It was the fall of 1967. I had just started ninth grade at the local public school. The only child of a four-time-married alcoholic mother, I felt completely alone. I spent most of my time on the street, looking for something to do and avoiding home as much as possible.

One night, I was riding around with a carload of other boys. A new group of Catholic-school girls had just entered public high school, and we were on our way to pick one of them up and take her to the local teen club. We all went to the front door to get her. Her parents were out, and she and her fourteen-year-old sister were baby-sitting their three younger siblings. This was my first exposure to a large Italian American family: eight children in all. The responsibility of looking after another family member was a new concept to me.

The girl we’d come for was anxious and ready to go, but the fourteen-year-old complained that their parents had asked both of them to baby-sit. The girl wasn’t buying it and left to go to the club. As we walked down the driveway to the car, her younger sister slammed the front door in anger.

Everyone started to pile into the car. When it was my turn to get in, I looked at the car, then back at the front door. I told the group that I wasn’t going to the club; I was going back inside to help baby-sit.

The car pulled away, and I walked up the steps and knocked. She was surprised to see me standing there — we had met only minutes before, after all. But she invited me in, and we played games with the kids, exchanging glances over their heads. I felt a warmth come over me that I had never felt before.

When her parents came home, I left and walked back to my house. But something was different about me. I no longer felt so alone.

We recently celebrated thirty-two years of marriage, but I fell in love with her when she first opened that door.

Mark Pirtle
North Olmsted, Ohio

I told myself I was not going to fall in love with Seth. I had just traveled that long and bumpy road with someone else and had sworn not to go back down it for a long time. I was taking a break from men, from commitment, from all of it. Seth was my roommate. Period. I tried not to notice when he climbed trees on the property, or when his pants slid below his hipbones while he swung on the rope swing, or when he rented sensitive movies and called my dog “cutie pants.” We moved awkwardly around each other in the kitchen every morning, both of us fully dressed.

One day I hauled our roommate Jessica’s sewing machine out of storage to alter a green-and-gold sequined dress that I was planning to wear to the Oregon Country Fair that afternoon. I set the sewing machine on the kitchen table and tried to figure out how to thread it. After many failed attempts and several knots in the thread, I was ready to give up.

“You don’t know how to thread a sewing machine, do you?” I asked Seth.

“Actually,” he said, “I might.”

He sat down at the machine and unthreaded my mistakes. Then, with his thick fingers, he looped the thread from the spool through tiny silver openings and into the barely visible grooves. His face was slack, his eyes intent behind his glasses. He even threaded it through the tiny eye of the needle. I felt as if I could watch him all day.

“There. I think that will work,” he said, and he returned to what he had been doing. I fumbled my way through the alterations, suddenly aware of my body and of his presence nearby.

On the way to the fair, I told my friend Jenny what Seth had done.

“He threaded the sewing machine,” I said.

“He threaded the sewing machine?” she asked.

“So I could alter this dress,” I said. “He threaded the sewing machine.”

A few weeks after the fair, Seth and I left behind the awkward mornings in the kitchen and he moved into my room. We just bought a house together.

Jennifer Savage
Arlee, Montana

We met when we were fourteen. I was working at a drugstore after school to make money for ballet lessons. Gene came in to buy cigarettes for his mother. A few days later, the druggist phoned me at home and asked if I would go out with Gene; he was too shy to ask me himself. At first I didn’t know whom the druggist was talking about, but the memory of Gene came back to me, and I agreed to go to the movies with him. It was my first date.

Gene attended boarding school in another city, but we continued to see each other when he was home on vacation or holidays. By the time we graduated, we were in love.

After high school, I went to nursing school, and Gene went to college in Colorado. We sent each other letters, handmade presents, pressed flowers, and little mementos. By the age of twenty, I couldn’t stand the separation any longer. Gene and I were married. Neither of us had ever had a serious relationship with anyone else.

Ten years and five children later, Gene was unfaithful. This revelation was agonizing for us both, but I still loved him, and neither of us wanted a divorce. We struggled through the difficult time.

Gene’s career exacted a high price, both from him and from our marriage. After twenty years, he became clinically depressed. He was also in love with a close friend of mine. He attempted suicide, and we agreed to separate.

The divorce felt like surgery without anesthesia, but was also liberating. I went to college and got a degree while the children were finishing school. Gene remarried. He was never late with an alimony or child-support payment, and never resented making them.

Fifteen years after our divorce, Gene developed a problem with alcohol and prescription drugs. He’d gotten divorced again, and his career was in shambles, but he was as generous and caring as ever toward the children and me. We remained friends.

Gene’s alcohol use and depression continued. When he turned sixty, it became clear that he was having memory problems. He married a third time and shortly thereafter was diagnosed with premature dementia. Gene’s third wife found him a good nursing home, where he has lived for the past five years.

I now live about forty miles from Gene and am able to visit him every other week. I bring our four-year-old granddaughter, who delights everyone on the Alzheimer’s unit, Gene especially. He knows me and is always glad to see both of us.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a gradual change in my feelings for Gene. I look at him and see not just a slow-moving, mentally disabled man who was once my husband, but the handsome, bright, and gifted young man I fell in love with; the hardworking, responsible father who headed our family; the conflicted husband who hung in there for twenty years; and the ex-husband who was always supportive.

As I watch Gene decline, I feel my love for him return. All the old issues of our marriage have disappeared. I express my love by my visits. Gene’s expressions are more subtle — he is almost nonverbal — but he clearly knows how I feel and responds in kind. Falling in love at seventy, given our circumstances, is a great gift. Perhaps it can redeem whatever mistakes we have made.

Joan H.
Zebulon, North Carolina

None of my friends liked him. He was infamous around campus — the boy with the lowest score ever on the “purity test” that every entering college freshman took. He was good-looking, to be sure — tall, with intense hazel eyes and dark, curly hair that I would twine in my fingers when we made love. For the first two weeks, we rarely left the bed. When we did talk, we disagreed on nearly everything. I doubted the relationship would last. Yet after lovemaking, we could hardly look each other in the eyes; the feelings were that strong.

Only two weeks after we started dating, my father called; something was terribly wrong. “It’s your mother,” he said.

They’d found her in the garage, in her car. Carbon-monoxide poisoning. Suicide. I couldn’t listen, couldn’t hear it. Yet I knew it was true; she’d been depressed for so long. I fell apart. Then I hung up with my father and called him.

He came over. He didn’t know what to say, so he just held me. I remember numbness, nausea, tears, rage, laughter. I had to get out of the house. What are you supposed to do between the moment you find out your mother is dead and the time your plane leaves the next morning? He took me to campus and walked with me silently among the giant live oaks, holding my hand. We sat on the empty bleachers at the baseball field, and the words came spilling out: “I love you,” I said. He put his arms around me, but didn’t say a word.

That night he held me as I cried myself to sleep. I was completely devastated and profoundly grateful all at once. Before I fell asleep, he whispered in my ear, “I love you, too.”

Joanna Nelson
San Jose, California

It was a bitter-cold day, and I’d just returned from an early-morning workout at the gym. As I stripped down for my shower, my boyfriend informed me that we didn’t have any hot water. I stared at him, agape. The thought of getting into an ice-cold shower on a wintery day made me want to cry.

Then my boyfriend led me into the bathroom and proceeded to mix a pot of scalding water, which he’d boiled while I was at the gym, with cold water from the tap. He wet my hair and gave me a shampoo, rinsing carefully. The warm water felt exhilarating.

In my youth, I believed that falling in love happened in an instant — the meeting of two gazes in a moment of passion. But the real thing, I discovered, happens imperceptibly over time, through the accumulation of kind, affectionate gestures: the way he cleaned the bathroom, or sent me an e-mail in the middle of the day to remind me of a joke we’d shared the night before, or saved the last piece of a delicious dessert for me. Or gave me a warm, improvised bath on a bitter-cold morning.

Shea Settimi
New York, New York

Valentine’s Day always brought out the cynic in me. It was a time for throwing back tequila shots with my friends and scoffing at the nauseating commercialism of it all. Come to think of it, love was sort of awful then, too. I enjoyed having the power to make men feel it, but I never felt it myself, even when I hoped that I would.

S. and I had met at the wedding of mutual friends three years before and had been pen pals ever since. By e-mail, we’d shared tales of doomed relationships and things no one else understood. We relied on each other for laughter and solidarity. He was my best friend.

One February 13, S. came to visit. We went out with friends to a retro dance bar filled with nostalgic drunks. Somewhere between “Hot Stuff” and “Disco Inferno,” S. reached out and touched my hip. Then we were kissing. A lot.

It wasn’t a lightning bolt or violins. Mostly, I just felt like an idiot. It was like finding that, while your right hand was trying to order pay-per-view, your left hand had been quietly painting a masterpiece.

It wasn’t until later that we realized it was past midnight. It was Valentine’s Day.

Manda Gaffaney
Pflugerville, Texas

Last month I discovered that my husband hasn’t been true to me. It happened twice — first in June of last year, then again less than a week before our new daughter was born, with the same woman both times. We’ve been married almost eleven years now, and the one thing I’ve always felt confident about is that he wouldn’t cheat. Now I wonder: Who is this man I’m married to, this person I own a home with, the father of my children? I don’t really know anymore.

I do know that, had I found out about the affair when it began, I wouldn’t have gotten pregnant. I wouldn’t have endured the longest, queasiest, most uncomfortable nine months of my life. And I wouldn’t have a small, sweet, milk-scented head to nestle against my neck; deep brown eyes that gaze intently into mine; the cooing sounds that she’s just starting to make; and finally, now that she’s almost six weeks old, a smile. I am falling in love, even as I fall out of it.

Name Withheld

After years of living in major metropolitan areas and not finding a man I could really connect with, I moved to a gay-and-lesbian commune in Tennessee. There, among people who cared more about spirituality and nature than bars and looks, I was certain I would find a meaningful relationship.

And I did. We had a deep spiritual, sexual, and emotional connection from the moment we met, though she had moved there because she was attracted to women, and I had moved there because I was attracted to men.

Nathan Long
Richmond, Virginia

We met in college: the wild boy and the quiet girl. I shared a house with some of Rick’s close friends, and he visited often. We cooked meals together, drank beer, and smoked marijuana to excess. When I began to have deeper feelings for him, though, I hid them, afraid that he would disappear.

After college, Rick started a commune up in the redwoods of Sonoma County. I knew communal life was not for me, so I didn’t live there, but I came to visit him. I stayed in a hundred-year-old, two-story log cabin. From the upstairs bathroom, I could see Mill Creek trickling by. During the day the house was full of charm, but at night rats skittered loudly in the walls. I sat at the edge of my bed, frightened and desperate to be with Rick.

I heard a knock, and the door flew open. With comic exaggeration, Rick slid into the room in his socks, wearing underpants and a blanket tied around his neck.

“I don’t think we should sleep alone,” he said.

We made love in the moonlight and the shadows of those magnificent redwoods. After thirty years he is still my superman in socks, and he still makes me laugh.

Nancy McClish
Sebastopol, California

Last year, I, a middle-aged wife and mother, fell in love with a man I met online.

At first we wrote long, heartfelt letters. Wow, I thought. A man who asks questions that cause me to think and is interested in my responses. It was like having a journal that would respond to me in a man’s voice.

Then the letters took a flirtatious turn that I found both disappointing and breathtaking: disappointing because I believed that sex would dramatically change our friendship; breathtaking because I was closing in on my fiftieth birthday, dealing with perimenopause, and suddenly aware of an undeniable thrum deep within me.

I felt like a teenager. I checked my e-mail every time I was alone in the house. I started exercising. I lost weight. I lay awake at night composing dirty stories in my mind. I wore sexy clothes, and every man I passed turned to stare, caught unawares in the thick cloud of pheromones that swirled around me. My husband and I had more sex than we’d had in years, and I began to rethink my earlier attitude about strip clubs. When he would go to these bars with friends and then come home horny, I would be furious. But now I understood.

I was going away on a business trip, and this man and I arranged to meet. I asked him if this would be the end — if it was going to be one of those dates, where the guy is attentive and charming and sincere and then never calls. He assured me that this was different.

When we met, it was awkward and exciting — and a tremendous relief to get it over with. We got to see all of each other, not just pictures on the monitor or carefully crafted words and phrases. The goofy laugh, the sarcasm, the insecurities, the differences between who we want to be and who we are — we got to see it all.

And then he stopped writing.

Falling in love is like doing a back flip into a swimming pool: you can get hurt, but you also get to feel that instant of weightlessness after the world turns around, just before gravity takes hold.

Name Withheld

The first time Nathan and I made love, I took his virginity. We packed a small picnic basket and drove his old, beat-up Mustang to the state park. It was the safest place for us to go. The pond was always a little crowded this close to summer, but we had our own little spot, off the trail in the woods. Hand in hand, we carried a blanket and the basket, stopping for long kisses because we couldn’t wait, yet hurrying because I needed to get back before my husband discovered I was gone. There was never enough time.

One night in bed, I told my husband about Nathan. I remember the anger building in his face, warning me of what was to come. He slammed my body against the paneled wall. Before I could run, he pinned me there and screamed in my face, squeezing my arms so tight he left black-and-blue finger marks on my skin. “I’m telling everyone what a whore you are,” he yelled, “and how you make yourself throw up all the time.” And, “You’re not leaving this fucking house until you tell me his name.” When he asked for my wedding ring, I told him I didn’t have it; I hadn’t worn that slim white-gold band for months, but he’d never noticed.

He threatened to kill me and the guy I was “fucking around with.” I tried to tell him it wasn’t like that. I just needed a friend, someone to talk to. My husband was never home; he was always out with his friends and never let me go anywhere. I wanted to work a second job to make more money, but he wanted me home making dinner, entertaining his friends, and cleaning up after him and his dog.

Now it was over. I didn’t have to clean up after the dog anymore. I didn’t have to make his bologna sandwiches and have pots and pans thrown at me because I forgot to spread mayonnaise on both slices of bread.

Eventually my husband let me get dressed, and I grabbed my keys and ran to the car. It was well after midnight. I was scared he was following me. I didn’t want him to know where I was going. I drove to the nearest pay phone. Trembling, I picked up the receiver and dialed Nathan’s number.

“I left him,” I said. “It’s over.”

“Did he hurt you?”

I said nothing.

“I swear to God, if he —”

“I’m fine, just shaky.”

I went to stay at my Aunt Susie’s house and didn’t go outside for a week. Nathan and I kept our distance for a little while, but it was hard because I loved him so much, and I knew he loved me.

I’m still in love with him, after all these years, and I hate myself for it, because he’s far away, loving someone else.

I’ll always remember that first time, hiding in the woods at the pond, lying on a blanket and hearing him say that he was falling in love with me, that he’d do anything to help me.

Franklin, Massachusetts

It was late summer of 1945. The Americans who had occupied our little German mountain town disappeared in the night, and the next morning the Russian tanks and transports rolled in.

Everyone talked about the raids. The Russian soldiers would come and steal whatever was not fastened down or too heavy for them to carry. The townspeople even told stories of soldiers who had ripped water faucets out of walls, believing they could just stick them in their own walls and make water come out.

My mother learned that the Russian soldiers had even less food than we did, so when the raiders came, she would bring them into the kitchen and feed them whatever she had prepared for our meal. It was better for us to go hungry than for them to do what they had come to do.

One night in early March, I was rudely awakened by my father, who walked into the bedroom with three Russian soldiers. I shrieked and cried like a baby. My father tried to convince them to allow him to bring me downstairs to his office, where everyone else was being kept under guard, but the officer in charge thought it better to leave a young soldier behind to look after me.

After my father and the other soldiers left the room, my shrieks turned into uncontrollable sobs. I had no idea what the word rape meant, but I knew it was something awful the soldiers did, and that they did it only to women. All the females hid from them: in closets, under the dirty laundry, even in the smelly potato boxes in the basement.

The young soldier smiled at me and tried to look friendly, but I knew he was one of the bad people who had destroyed our country and killed some of my uncles and cousins. My father had deserted me, left me there with this dangerous man. “Somebody, please, come and get me!” I screamed.

The soldier picked me up and carried me over to my parents’ bed, speaking softly to me in Russian and gently stroking my hair. I understood quite a bit of what he said. During the war, there had been a prison camp down the mountain from our house, and one of the prisoners had been a Russian boy my own age. We had become friends and had picked up some of each other’s languages. But I did not want this soldier to know I could understand him.

The soldier tried to console me and even spoke some German to me: “Nicht weinen. Ich nicht weh tun.” (Don’t cry. I not hurt you.) But nothing would calm me. He tried making funny faces and putting his cap on backwards. It didn’t work. Finally he sat down on the bed and held me on his lap, resigned to wait there with this hysterical little girl until the others returned. That’s when I stopped crying, snuggled my head against his shoulder, and whispered in Russian, “Sing.”

The prisoners at the camp would always sing in the evenings. After the Americans liberated them, I had a difficult time getting to sleep, because I was so used to their singing every night. They had beautiful, deep, sad voices.

And now this soldier sang all the songs I had missed since the prisoners had left. Sometimes I would hum along, or I would sing and he would hum the deep bass notes. I looked at his sad, dark eyes and wondered why he was so forlorn. Even when his mouth was smiling, his eyes were not.

“Suliko,” I said, so softly I thought he could not hear me. This was the name of my favorite song that the prisoners sang. Later, in school, I would learn that this had been Joseph Stalin’s favorite song, and this knowledge would tarnish its beauty for me. But then it was the most beautiful song I knew, a lament about a man searching for his beloved’s grave. The soldier cried when he sang, “Where are you, my happiness, my love?”

I lifted my hand and touched his face. “Don’t cry,” I said.

I don’t remember how many times he sang that song, but I remember that young man’s face, his sad smile, his mouth as he kissed my hair. I would recognize him now if I saw him walking down the street. I wanted him never to stop singing.

“I had a little girl,” he said in Russian. “Her hair was black and her eyes were like deep pools of water. When I looked into them, I would see my own reflection. I was always smiling then. The bombs killed her.”

After a while, my father and the other soldiers returned, and I was allowed to go downstairs. The soldiers left without harming anyone.

The next day the stories around town were gruesome. Many men had been arrested and deported. Many young girls had been raped. Barns had been burned. It had been a bad night for our town. The grown-ups questioned me repeatedly about the time I had spent alone with the soldier in the bedroom, but I never told them what had happened.

Sigrun Kuefner
Missoula, Montana

My father-in-law has not always been a good man. He drank and smoked and was not immune to other women. (He once brought a woman home from a bar and asked his wife to cook them a meal.) He whipped his son often. He raised hell and ruled the roost. Even after I came to know him, he was still rough as a cob. He held the floor at all gatherings, telling stories at the top of his lungs, uninterested in anyone else. He belched and told dirty jokes that made his wife cry and leave the room, embarrassed.

In the last two years, though, he has gone from being a hardy, rowdy fellow to being an invalid. He has lost his short-term memory, sleeps most of the time, and won’t eat anything but doughnuts, Cream of Wheat, and soup. I have no idea how he continues to exist.

My mother-in-law worries about him. She has a marvelous mind, an excellent memory, and a sunny disposition, though she sits alone most of the time. She bathes and dresses herself every day and makes her thin hair look as nice as she can. She meets every day head-on.

After all their years together, my father-in-law is falling in love. He tells his wife many times a day that he loves her. He says, “I love you so much.” He says, “Who’s my little turtledove?” And she says, “Ah, my poor boy.” She rarely says, “I love you,” but I know she does love him, in spite of his faults. I believe she is the only reason he is still alive. She’s his whole world at last.

Kristin Betsinger
Clinton, Iowa