My wife and I prepared as well as we could for the arrival of our first child. We bought a crib and changing table at a yard sale. We stripped the wallpaper in the nursery and painted the room a bright yellow. We stockpiled diapers and filled drawers with baby clothes.

But nothing really prepares you for the moment you leave the hospital with this tiny human being in your care. We agonized over whether the car seat was properly strapped in. On the way home my wife sat in back beside the baby, afraid to look away from him.

When we brought our son into the house, he was crying, and we decided, based on our vast parenting experience, that he needed his diaper changed. But the changing table was still piled high with gifts from our baby shower. Panicking — he’s crying! — I laid him down on our bed.

As soon as I peeled away the hospital diaper (dry, of course), my son urinated straight into the air. It got all over me, the bedspread, and him. It was my first parenting lesson: cover his penis with a washcloth.

I managed to get the hang of changing diapers and the many other tasks of fatherhood, but I never escaped the feeling that I was making it up as I went along.

My son turns eighteen this month. I’m still trying to prepare myself for each new challenge, and I’m still unprepared when it arrives: an F on a report card, a fender bender, girl trouble. “Father” is an improvised role that lasts a lifetime. I often feel the same sense of disbelief I felt leaving the hospital with him after his birth: You mean I can just take him home? But what will I do with him once I get there?

He leaves for college in the fall.

What will I do?

Name Withheld

I was twenty-seven and studying to become a priest. I’d decided to enter the seminary because I wanted to be of service to others, but also because I’d never been interested in marriage. As soon as I found myself surrounded by sensitive, spiritual men, I had an epiphany: I’m gay! I left the seminary and joined the Peace Corps.

I met my first lover several years later while stationed on a tiny subtropical island. If I’d been unsure about how to navigate a same-sex relationship in my own country, I was completely clueless about how to go about it in this Caribbean culture. I asked my lover what we might do if we went out on a date.

“We’d go out to a bar,” he said. “I’d do my thing. You’d do yours. Later we’d fuck.”

This was an affront to my romantic sensibilities, but I didn’t question it.

For about five years we had a “relationship,” by which I mean that we occasionally related. Sometimes I would go months without seeing him or hearing from him. After one such absence, he happened to spot me hitchhiking and gave me a lift. There was a woman in the passenger seat, and he introduced her as his girlfriend. He later explained to me that he had to maintain his cover and that this so-called girlfriend was aware of his “activities.” Though my heart broke, I reasoned that I was the visitor there: what choice did I have but to accept this explanation?

My period of service in the Peace Corps eventually ended, and three years later I planned a return trip to visit my old lover. The political and cultural landscape of gay life was changing, not only in the States but in other parts of the world too. I found my former lover pursuing an open relationship with a man. He was in love, he said. Though my heart broke again, I told him I was proud of him.

Now I’m back in the States and ready to have an American gay relationship, whatever that means. I’ll figure it out as I go.

Tom J.
Manitou Springs, Colorado

In my senior year of high school I was the lighting director for a YMCA student musical production. I knew nothing about theater lighting — I was more an expert on beer and pot — but my mother was friends with the producer, so I got the job.

For my lighting crew and me the musical was an excuse to get wasted. We smuggled coolers of beer — in cardboard boxes cleverly labeled “Light Bulbs” and “Wires” — into the lighting loft above the stage, and we sat up there and drank and laughed at the clueless cast members below.

Eventually one of us spilled beer through the rafters. The adults searched our nest. We managed to hide the stash, but they found a few empty cans in Aaron’s soccer bag. Aaron was the only African American kid in our group.

My mother’s friend the producer approached me and said she knew I wasn’t involved, but she needed to know who else besides Aaron had been drinking.

I told her that I couldn’t name names as a matter of principle (the principle being that I didn’t want to get caught). The adults were apparently impressed with my integrity, because their solution was for me to speak to the entire cast and crew about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. Delighted not to be in trouble, I agreed.

It wasn’t until I got onstage that I remembered I was stoned. A hundred people stared expectantly. The chorus members stood on the risers to get a better view. Someone on the lighting team turned a spotlight on me. I couldn’t move my lips or draw air into my lungs to make a sound. A few kids started to jeer and whistle. I was finished.

Then somehow I found my voice. I raised my hands and shouted, “This is not a joke!” The auditorium went silent. I threw together a few grave lines about taking the play seriously and staying sober. Some cheers followed, most of them sarcastic, but the adults were satisfied. They praised my courage and leadership.

Aaron was expelled from the program.

For many years I told this story as an example of how I could talk my way out of a tight spot and fool hapless authority figures. Now I see it as a lesson in the power of privilege and lies.

Kevin Y. Riley
Corvallis, Oregon

The temp agency called me, frantic. Their biggest client — a large electronics-research-and-development firm — needed an expert in a particular scheduling software program, and the agency couldn’t find anyone who’d even heard of it. I told them I’d be their “expert.” This was how I had learned most of the programs I knew — by taking a temp job and winging it. I’d spend a couple of hours exploring the software in the morning and do the actual work in the afternoon. It had always turned out fine. No one expected much productivity from a temp anyway.

When I got to the firm, a secretary escorted me into a packed conference room. “We set you up with a laptop, right there,” she said, and she left. A dozen or so senior managers and research scientists were settling in to plan a three-year, multimillion-dollar development contract. I was to record the schedule into the software as they talked.

I introduced myself, then ignored the meeting as I tried to figure out the program. I’d copy everything from the white board after I got up to speed.

Suddenly everyone was looking at me. “Did you get all that?” the director asked.

“Not yet,” I said, “but go ahead. I’ll catch up.”

They were going pretty fast, he told me. He’d rather wait until I was ready.

Everyone paused as I sweated. I hadn’t even figured out how to open a new file. I was about to tell the truth, apologize, and leave in disgrace when a senior scientist said, “Well, I’m going to get some coffee. Anyone else want some?”

They all took a break, and after ten blessed minutes I had a file set up and had copied everything from the white board.

The meeting went on all day, and I recorded a complex schedule of research steps, supply streams, administrative tasks, and reporting.

Afterward the senior scientist confided to me that they weren’t even sure the technology they’d promised their client was scientifically possible. But that’s what they did: come up with an idea that had never been done before and act confident in order to sell it to the client. “If it doesn’t work, we’re screwed,” she said, laughing.

Then she offered me a job.

Marilyn Yohe
Cambridge, Massachusetts

I grew up in an abusive and violent environment. Sometimes, on my way home from school, I’d squeeze my eyes shut and pray the bus would leave me at a beautiful house with a smiling mother who was glad to see me. Instead it came to a halt every day at the two-bedroom trailer inhabited by my mentally ill mother, who was ready to attack me as soon as the front door swung open.

School was my only escape. I received praise from my teachers and could speak my mind without being made fun of or criticized. At home I hid in my room and hoped to be forgotten — or, at least, to be the target of fewer blows and obscenities.

I am now the mother of two happy, healthy boys. I have no example from my childhood that I can look back on for guidance on how to be a good parent. I just have to follow my instincts and trust that God will lead me in the right direction. Even though I’m sometimes forced to wing it, I think my children feel loved and wanted. It’s one of many experiences I hope to give them that I didn’t have as a child.

Dover, Kentucky

My supervisor removes the padlock from the sliding gate to the warehouse where I work. This is a big part of living in prison — waiting for someone to unlock something. As I go inside, I see a lizard stuck to a glue trap meant for the mice that roam the place.

I kneel and slide the glue board out of the corner and into the light. Its captive is several inches long, his scales blue and green, with bright iridescent accents. He’s not moving, but his abdomen is expanding and contracting with each breath. I run a finger lightly down his back. I’ve seen my co-workers stomp the life out of trapped mice before tossing them into the garbage, but I’m not about to do that to this lizard.

“Hang in there, little guy,” I say. “I’ll get you loose.”

I carry the board to the loading dock, where I’ll have better light and relative privacy. I’m not sure what to do. The lizard looks so delicate, and the glue is so strong. I fear any attempt to remove him will tear him apart. I pull out my pen and work the tip under his foot. I can lift it up, but as soon as I remove the pen, it will be stuck again. I take my ID and lay it underneath the foot. Now the card is stuck fast, but the lizard’s foot is no longer trapped.

“How’s it going?”

I jump when my boss speaks. He’s a stickler for regulations, and we both know that “pets” are contraband, but he seems genuinely interested and not at all upset that I’m not at my desk doing paperwork.

“All right so far,” I say, “but I’m not sure the patient will survive the procedure.”

He offers a couple of suggestions, as if I were a guy working on his car in the driveway. To avoid having to reject his ideas, I pretend to have a plan. I ask him to watch the lizard while I run inside for supplies.

An actual idea starts to form as I dash to my desk to grab a couple of sheets of paper and a pencil. Then I race back to the dock. The pencil is even better for slipping under the lizard’s foot, and a stamp-sized bit of paper keeps it unstuck. My boss assists by tearing off squares and handing them to me as needed. Suddenly I’m an authority on removing small reptiles from glue traps.

It takes nearly twenty minutes of methodical work to completely free the creature, who scampers down a wall and into the grass. Only one toe and the very tip of his tail remain stuck in the glue. A smile flashes at the corner of my boss’s mouth. Then it disappears, and he tells me the invoices are waiting on my desk.

William Bickley
Jarratt, Virginia

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso, I found myself working mostly with girls and women on reproductive health and family planning. Local customs dictated that, as a woman, I couldn’t talk to boys about these topics. So when I went to schools to discuss puberty with the students, I’d bring along a male volunteer, and we’d split the class up by gender.

Worried that the girls would ask me a question I wasn’t prepared to answer, I never went into one of these sessions without notes, an outline, props, and illustrations.

Though I wasn’t allowed to, I’d wanted for some time to talk privately to the boys in my village about safe sex, because in the Mossi culture it’s the males who make the decisions regarding contraception. All my talk with girls would be for naught if their boyfriends said no.

One night I was sitting in my courtyard after sunset, chatting with some of the teenage boys. The conversation turned to romance and crushes, and they poked fun at each other for failed attempts to win the girls’ affection. Then one of the younger boys asked me exactly how sex works. The others all laughed at first but quickly quieted down. I knew they were waiting for me to answer.

This was my chance. I’d had no time to prepare, but I scurried into my hut and grabbed some condoms, a wooden penis, and a flip chart with all the parts labeled. I came back outside and, by headlamp, showed them how girls get pregnant and how to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

This improvised lesson was probably the most effective one I’d taught in two years.

Kailey Anber
San Bruno, California

By the age of thirteen I had a growing girdle collection. The girdles hugged all of my roundness tight, so that my flesh would no longer jiggle. My young tummy was large and saggy and needed to be controlled — or so I was taught.

The first time I ever masturbated, I was wearing a girdle. I was girdled for all special occasions. I wore a girdle to my uncle’s wedding, and again to my aunt’s wedding two months later. Confirmation and junior-high-school prom: both girdled.

When I was eighteen, I flew to Miami with my grandma, my grandpa, and my girdle to attend my cousin Anthony’s wedding. Do you know what it’s like to wear a girdle in the Miami heat? It involves an obscene amount of sweating and chafing. I arrived at the wedding hot, itchy, and uncomfortable. While my family members enjoyed cocktail hour, I found the nearest restroom.

In a stall I removed my dress and hung it on the hook. I stood there silently, thighs touching. Then I wriggled the girdle down my torso and legs and onto the floor. I sat on the toilet naked, rolled up my girdle, and placed it in my purse. Then I put my dress back on, opened the stall door, and took a long look in the mirror. Braless and without underwear, I rejoined my family.

That night I danced. My body moved freely. I didn’t mind how it jiggled. In fact, I welcomed it.

One month later I attended my high-school prom with a date and no girdle. I haven’t worn one since.

Tina Corrado
Astoria, New York

I was sitting in a small room with a counselor. My three young children were just outside the door with a friend of mine. In a few moments I had to tell them that their father had killed himself. I wasn’t ready.

The children came in, and I came up with a sugarcoated explanation: their father had a sickness in his head and in his heart, I said, and it had made him think it was his time to die, even though it wasn’t.

The kids have all asked questions since, and I’ve had no choice but to build on what I told them first. It’s hard, because I never know when these conversations will happen.

In the car on the way to the store one day, my daughter asked how her father had died. I responded that he’d done something to prevent himself from breathing. I thought that was good enough. Why would she want to know more?

Then, a couple of weeks ago, my older son said his friends were teasing him, saying his father had hanged himself with a rope. This conversation took place moments before I dropped him off at another boy’s house. It was hardly the time to tell him that his friends were correct.

I am done winging it. I am going to have a conversation with all my children together and give them the whole truth.

Name Withheld

In the summer of 1971 I signed a contract for my first teaching position. The New Mexico high school where I would work had been built for students from the Mescalero Apache Reservation and for the sons and daughters of the valley’s farmworkers.

Before the fall semester began, I arranged the desks in a welcoming semi-circle, tacked posters to the bulletin boards, and completed a month’s worth of lesson plans for each of my classes. This last part was done in the misguided hope that we would soon receive funding for books.

On my first day I stood at my desk, a skinny, freckled twenty-one-year-old who could easily have been mistaken for one of the students. As my senior English class slouched into their seats with sullen teenage glares, I felt my knees tremble. Two tough-looking girls with teased hair and black leather jackets pulled their desks out of the circle and turned them so their backs were facing me. The other students giggled and whispered.

My face felt hot, and I knew that telltale red splotches would soon be forming on my neck for all to see. I had planned a get-to-know-you session and a short writing assignment. Instinctively I knew that this would turn into chaos, but what else could I do? Then I remembered something an experienced teacher had told me when I was in training: “Don’t be afraid to surprise them.” The only thing that came to mind was John Lennon. I’d been listening to “Imagine” that morning before the students arrived.

I took a deep breath, introduced myself, and passed out paper and pencils. The sounds of more whispers and bodies shifting made me want to run. Was I a real teacher or just a scared young woman pretending to be one? Wasn’t I going to make the defiant girls turn around and send them to the principal?

I pushed the button on the cassette player. “Listen carefully to these lyrics,” I said. I told them to take notes on what they heard and then write one or two paragraphs explaining what they thought John Lennon was trying to tell us.

The students grew silent while the song’s opening piano riff filled the room. Some listened with pencils poised, and as Lennon began to sing, they began to write.

The two girls with their backs to me shrugged in unison and made a noisy production of turning their desks around. The other students, trying to listen to the lyrics, hushed them.

“I couldn’t hear that last part,” a boy in a football jersey said to me. “Would you play it again?”

Jan Harrow
Santa Fe, New Mexico

At the age of thirty-two I decided to become a doctor and was admitted to the University of Virginia School of Medicine, my first choice. I celebrated for weeks.

Soon after the start of classes I realized that medical school is ridiculously hard. All my life I’d been a good student, but suddenly I was a middling one, and I sometimes had unfounded fears about being last in the class. I was somewhat comforted that many others felt the same way.

In my third and fourth years the endless testing fell away, replaced by residency on the wards, where I masqueraded as a doctor. “Have you done this before?” a patient asked as I drove a long needle into his lungs to collect a specimen. “Oh, yes,” I replied, thinking, Twice. I was more unsure of myself than I could possibly let on, but eventually I learned how to practice medicine.

Many years later I’m still sometimes uncertain. Am I sure that rash is not a cancer? I’m pretty sure. And I can’t biopsy everything; the scars would make my patients look like smallpox cases.

Am I certain that I need to start a twenty-four-year-old on what is likely to be a lifetime of blood-pressure medicine with any number of potential side effects? I’m as certain as I can be.

I acknowledge my limitations and the guesswork inherent in being a doctor, but the decisions must be made:

“No, I don’t think your wife needs to be admitted to the psych floor. Take her home. She won’t kill herself tonight.”

“Yes, you need eye surgery right away — not next week when you have some time off.”

How do I do this year after year? I wing it. But I love medicine and have confidence that I can stay aloft for a long time.

Robert L. Lazo
Galax, Virginia

In 1941 my mother moved her mother, her younger sister, and me into a brand-new brick bungalow in Takoma Park, Maryland — part of a housing development so recent that shaggy rolls of sod lay stacked by the curb, waiting for workmen to unroll them into front yards.

Ours was a two-bedroom home in a row of identical houses, all facing an unpaved street, beyond which lay the several acres of woods that had miraculously escaped the bulldozers. Our neighbors were mostly women and children — the men were away at war — so for a few years no one noticed that I didn’t have a father.

My grandmother was my confidante and protector. I’d come in from a hard morning’s play in the woods to sit with her in the kitchen while she ironed and listened to The Romance of Helen Trent and Young Widder Brown on the radio.

I slept with my mother and sometimes had dreams or nightmares that caused me to kick in my sleep. In the morning she’d awake blurry-eyed and cranky, and I would know better than to share my dreams with her.

There was one dream I had many times. In it I could fly. The experience was always the same: I would awake in bed, perfectly alert, as though someone had called my name. I would leave my sleeping mother’s side and slip barefoot across the hall to the attic stairs. My feet would barely touch the wooden steps as I climbed. Soon I’d be perched on the sill of the attic window, where I’d pause to take in the scent of the sleeping woods and the song of the crickets. Then I would spread my arms and fall forward, floating to the ground and landing as light as mist on the white blossoms of the clover in the side yard by the fence.

I never considered this flying a trivial matter. It was no carnival ride or mere amusement. It was a profound and beautiful experience.

One day a group of older boys invaded our woods, causing the other neighborhood children and me to play inside. My aunt was out grocery shopping, and my grandmother was scrubbing the kitchen floor. Bored, I decided it was time to take a day flight, something I had never tried before.

At once I was filled with misgiving. My feet felt heavy on the attic stairs, and when I stepped onto the windowsill, the glare of the afternoon sunlight made me wince. The corners of the house next door seemed sharply sinister; the clover swept back and forth in the wind like the tail of an unfriendly cat. Our neighbor Mrs. McIntyre, hanging sheets in her backyard, gazed up and saw me.

“Don’t!” she yelled. And she called for my grandmother.

Moments later a hand grabbed me from behind. My grandmother turned me upside down and beat my bottom all the way down the stairs. Her face was chalk white, and she was weeping behind her glasses.

I considered telling her about my dreams, but I knew she would think I was lying, which would have upset her even more. So we sat on the couch and drank ice water while the kitchen floor dried. Then we turned on the radio and listened to Helen Trent’s latest troubles. I had frightened my champion, my ally, and she had spanked me. But, worst of all, I had ruined my beautiful nighttime adventure. I hadn’t been invited. I had tried to force my way into someplace I didn’t belong.

I continued to have many wonderful and frightening dreams, but never again did I awake in the darkness, completely alert, as though someone had called my name.

Sandra Demarest
Tucson, Arizona

My adult son David is homeless. He camps in the woods a few blocks from my house. When he comes around asking for food or water, I give it to him sadly.

Today he calls me from jail. An old warrant has caught up with him. I visit, I listen, and I give him my unconditional love.

When I look at my grown son, I see his boyish gentleness and beauty, still there at the age of forty-five. I struggle to balance my needs with his. Heroin grabs not only its victims but also those who love the addict. I can do little but go to Al-Anon meetings and try to make the best decisions I can.

When David gets out of jail, I bring him home, and he tries unsuccessfully not to use. Finally I ask him to leave. He goes without complaint. I pay for methadone from the privately run clinic. He is soon asked to leave there too.

Seven treatment centers later, David is not on the top of anyone’s list — except mine. The rest of our family are no longer willing to invest their time in him, and I understand this. I treasure every lucid moment he spends with me. I hold on to hope and wonder what will become of him and of the child he recently fathered.

Name Withheld

I’ve always thrived on intense conversation. In my previous career as a high-school English teacher, I would get into deep emotional discussions with students and colleagues. But I would always hit a wall when someone revealed a personal problem. I didn’t know how to respond. I went back to graduate school to become a mental-health counselor, expecting it would unlock the secret of forming the perfect response.

One of my first clients — let’s call him “Joe” — was a nontraditional college student who had been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. He came to counseling to learn how to do better in school and overcome feelings of shame about his diagnosis. We quickly built a rapport, but I sometimes wasn’t sure our sessions were therapeutic. Unlike teaching, where I could orchestrate every minute of a class, counseling forced me to remain open to my client’s immediate needs, which varied from week to week. I often didn’t know whether to express empathy, ask a probing question, suggest a strategy, offer a resource, or say nothing at all.

One day, toward the end of a session, Joe said he was ready to move forward on his own. He was doing well in school and feeling good about himself. As he left the office, he gave me an essay he had written about how my counseling had allowed him to come to terms with his disorder. Reading it, I felt both surprised and satisfied: I’d actually helped someone.

Carrie Thiel
Kalispell, Montana

When our daughter Sylvia was three, my wife and I went shopping for a new home. Sylvia enjoyed going to look at houses with us, mostly because she liked to open cabinets and check out the seller’s furnishings. After she nearly knocked a lamp over, we told her she would be allowed inside the houses only if she promised not to touch anything. She did, but that’s a tough promise for a three-year-old to keep. The next place we went, Sylvia reached out to grab some knickknack, and my wife scooped her up and carried her screaming to the front porch.

I raced through the rest of the house, then went to sit with my daughter while my wife looked around. In the midst of her wailing Sylvia managed to ask why she couldn’t go back inside. The first answer that came to me was “Why don’t you ask the fairies about that?”

To my surprise, she immediately calmed down and said, “I can do that?”

Sure, I said. When we got home, I’d help her make a fairy mailbox, and she could send them a letter.

That afternoon we got an old shoe box and decorated it with tissue paper and attached a pipe cleaner to act as the flag. We wrote “Fairy Mailbox” on the outside, and Sylvia dictated her first letter to the fairies.

For a few years the Fairy Mailbox helped Sylvia interact with the mysteries of the world. She got answers to many of her questions, and she developed friendships with the fairies, sending them gifts. When her mom committed suicide shortly after Sylvia started kindergarten, the fairies comforted her.

Eventually my daughter began asking me if the fairies were real. I avoided answering until one day she grabbed me by the shoulder, looked me in the eye, and asked, “Do you write the letters?”

I confessed that I did, and we had a good laugh.

About a month later, in the same serious tone, Sylvia asked if there was really a Santa Claus or if I brought the presents. Again I admitted it was me. She thought for a few seconds, then said, “Good. Now I don’t have to write him a letter. Dad, I want a camera.”

Joshua Weiner
Portland, Oregon

Though I am a father of three and have taught public school for decades, the needs of the children in my classroom can overwhelm me. Just this year alone I have one student who is living with her family in a motel room, another who has a brother doing time in Arizona, a third with a mother in rehab, and a fourth whose parents are both out of work. And those are just the ones I know about.

Much of what happens in my sixth-grade classroom is scripted. Detailed curriculum maps tell me what to teach each week. My academic goals and objectives are supposed to be posted every day. Everything is geared toward getting students to do well on the state-mandated test administered each spring. I have all the help and instruction I need on preparing them to take this test, but I’ve received little training on how to respond to a child who struggles with his or her everyday existence.

When my students tell me their stories, I listen, nod, and ask if they’d like to see the guidance counselor. I tell them that their parents love them; that people make mistakes; that jobs are hard to come by; that things will improve. In other words, I make something up.

Dennis Donoghue
Rowley, Massachusetts

Several years ago my wife and I led a group of Americans to an English church-music festival. A distinguished art historian showed us around Peterborough Cathedral. She called our attention to the organ, then announced that I, the organist in the group, would demonstrate it.

As I made my way toward the choir, I wondered what the hell I was going to play. (I had no music with me.) Could I make it through an entire organ piece from memory? I didn’t know this particular instrument, and there was no time to get acquainted with it.

In the organ gallery I took my place on the bench, still unsure just what sounds my fingers were going to bring forth from this mighty instrument, with its four keyboards and about a hundred stop knobs, each controlling a different section of the thousands of pipes.

When I saw the numbered pistons below each keyboard, a solution dawned on me: Usually they are arranged in ascending volume, from pianissimo to fortissimo. I pushed the first piston and began playing a sequence of notes off the top of my head. Not too bad, I thought. I introduced more notes, pushing one piston after the other, gradually building up the volume. As the intensity increased, my spirit soared.

After I reached “full organ” — the moment everyone waits for — I began to taper off slowly, pressing each piston in reverse order, decreasing the sound to a celestial whisper as I finished. Sliding off the bench and making my way down the narrow stairway, I wondered what on earth I had played and if it had made any musical sense.

When I rejoined my group in the nave, one of them asked, in an admiring tone, who’d written the piece I’d just played. Was it English?

I wish I had thought to record it, but, like the proverbial “lost chord,” it had “trembled away into silence.”

Robert N. Roth
Oberlin, Ohio

Just before graduating from college with a teaching degree, I began to send out job applications. There was a glut of teachers in 1969, and I was squeaking by with a C-plus average. So I managed only one interview in several months. My friend Rick mentioned my situation to his father, who had a doctorate in psychology and worked at a state-run mental-health facility. Rick’s dad told me they were hiring teachers, and within a week he had set up an interview for me. Despite my lack of experience they offered me a job.

I knew right away that I was in over my head. The residential facility treated both adults and juveniles, many of whom were on psychotropic drugs and struggling with visual or auditory hallucinations. On my first day of teaching, as I exited the men’s room, another teacher was trying to convince a female patient to come out of the women’s restroom. “Claire is talking to the toilet again,” he told me. “She just loves toilets.”

Then I sat down with my first student, who was schizophrenic and threw chairs and desks and punches until he was given another shot of Thorazine. I wondered what was next.

I did my best, but I couldn’t always help. One morning I saw a patient standing before the swinging double doors at the end of the hall, and I asked if I could be of some assistance.

He responded, “I don’t know what to do.”

I looked at the doors and saw that one read, “Keep closed at all times,” while the other stated, “Use other door.”

Tom M. Turos
Tucson, Arizona

When I got married, I was eighteen years old and three months pregnant. My husband was eighteen too, and we were in love. My parents let us live in their summer cabin at the lake, but we had to pay for the utilities. The heating bill alone was ninety dollars a month. We both worked downtown at retail stores, making about three dollars an hour. We didn’t have a car, but my husband had a small motorcycle, and he drove me and my increasingly large belly to work and back on it each day.

We eventually moved into an apartment in town and spent nine hundred dollars I had saved on a sky-blue VW hatchback. We also spent eight hundred dollars on a stereo because we believed that listening to the Talking Heads and David Bowie would get us through this ordeal.

When our daughter Elisabeth finally arrived, she shared our room. I didn’t know anything about how to be a parent, but I nursed her on demand and pushed her all over town in a stroller. One night I was so exhausted and frustrated that I laid her down hard in her crib. Fortunately her dad was there to take over.

My husband and I had three more children relatively close together, and, despite never having enough money, we managed to send all of them to the most prestigious preschool in town. We stayed married for eighteen years, and in that time none of our kids got pregnant, or fathered any children, or went to jail or rehab. I consider this gold-star parenting for a couple who were just making it up as they went along.

Shannon Montoure
Bellingham, Washington

I lost my virginity to Nolan less than twelve hours after we met. We were in his parents’ guest bedroom, where a cartoon caricature of his mother hung on the wall, along with some photographs of Nolan as a chubby toddler. When we were finished, he asked if he could play the song “I Just Had Sex,” by the Lonely Island. I said no and wondered if this kind of question was what drove my friends to date college guys. Despite his immaturity — and the one toddler-in-the-bathtub photo that really threatened to kill the mood — I liked this affable boy. I was surprised, when I got home, to find that I didn’t feel shame or regret.

It was unlike me to make an important decision so spontaneously. Anxious and shy, I would mull over situations until two or three in the morning but rarely act. Why had I decided to get in bed with Nolan so soon? There were most likely several reasons: I wanted to move past a messy relationship that had just ended. Nolan was cute and friendly. I was falling behind my friends, most of whom had already lost their virginity. And a part of me just felt like I could handle it.

I began seeing Nolan regularly. We went out for burritos with extra guacamole. At the movies we’d share Icees that dyed our tongues blue. Neither of us worried too much about impressing the other. What was the point, considering that we’d already slept together?

Three weeks after we met, we were at a friend’s new apartment when Nolan casually asked if I would like to start dating officially. Sitting on a ratty beige carpet stained with beer and food, I casually said yes.

It’s been more than a year since then. I don’t think either of us knows where the relationship is going or how long it will last. I still agonize over decisions. But at least I’m aware that not every choice I make on impulse will leave me wallowing in regret. I’m grateful for the day I sat in a darkened guest bedroom and for once just said, Why not?

Name Withheld