Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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How would I kill her? She would be at the cemetery where her mother lies. She would have to wear black. She would have to wear a short skirt, because she hates her legs. She would have to stand on a granite pillar, because she hates being tall. A lot of people would be there. They would watch her and judge her and their conclusions would all be unfavorable, because she is such a cold, mean person. The people would all wear masks, and the masks would change each time she looked at them. She would never know where she stood, because she could not trust these masks.
She would be condemned to read, over and over and over again, the vicious, ugly, hateful, tearing, grasping, needy piece she wrote about her mother. People would listen to her read. They would jeer and spit; some of them would go into convulsions and throw up.
Her mother, dead and six feet under, wouldn’t hear the anger and the hatred in her voice, even though she was screaming, spitting, shouting. She would scream louder and louder until her raw and inarticulate shrieks of hatred strangled her.
That’s how she would die — strangled by her words.
Hillsdale, New York
If an enemy is the opposite of a friend, then how passionate do one’s friendships need to be? The slow and circling dance of friendship cannot match the intensity of an enemy.
Are enemies made or born? I met someone a year ago and said, “I cannot tolerate this man another moment.” I did not like his hair, or that he had a fancy, custom-made bicycle he wanted to talk about. We are friends now. Was he an enemy before? Is J. an enemy? We once laughed together over the grade-school-style reprimand we received for talking so long at work one day — the day that we first discovered each other. It took time for us to stop talking, and then to pretend not to notice each other. Now, if I speak to her, she looks startled, as if a dog curled at my feet had spoken. Do we hate each other?
It used to be so easy to have enemies. There was the luxury of taking sides in the gym or in line at the back of the classroom. “Did you see what Marsha brought for lunch today? I hate her.” There were days — weeks — my sister was my enemy, complete with kicking and punching and biting, screaming high in our scratchy throats, mouths opened wide, heads flung back and eyes scrunched tight. The next day, we’d be playing jacks on the front porch.
It was easy to choose obvious things to hate, to hate fiercely and truly. To know, with our childhood intuition, exactly how to hurt and when to hurt; to wonder at the mix of pleasure and guilt in watching the little girl run home from the bus stop in tears. We wondered even then why we did it. Now I wonder, was it something we did in order to outgrow it? Or was it a practice in passion that we later learned to use in love?
Memphis, 1948: Five years old, I waited in the back seat of the Buick while my daddy went up to the porch of the black woman’s house. Daddy was there to deliver the toys she’d bought: a shiny rocking horse and a pink baby buggy.
A little girl my age appeared, her hair in braids like mine. She smiled at me and I smiled back. She came closer and looked through the window. I had my doll Betsy curled into my stomach.
“Hello,” the girl said. “Hello,” I said back. “Can I see your dolly?” she asked. I handed Betsy out the car window by her leg. The girl cradled her delicately, swayed back and forth, and said, “I hope I get one just like this from the Toy Man.” I nodded, knowing the Toy Man had the power to do anything because he was my daddy and the next best thing to Santa Claus.
I looked up and saw him cross the porch to the car in three swift steps. He grabbed Betsy and jerked her away. Sticking his angry face close to mine, he said, “Don’t you ever let colored girls play with your things.”
I never saw Betsy again. Sometimes at night I wondered if Daddy had thrown her away and the black girl had tiptoed into our neighborhood on silent magic feet, found our street in the darkness, reached into our trash can with moonlight streaking, and found her.
Memphis, 1991: “They’re the biggest problem this city has.” My father’s fingers remove the straw hat. He circles his mostly bald head with a white handkerchief that has seen better days. “You should be glad you don’t live here anymore,” he goes on. “You just don’t know how lucky you are. The schools aren’t worth a damn. Can’t get a decent public education anymore. Can’t walk down the streets at night, have to lock your car and your house, too. Crime rate’s so high it’s outta sight and all they talk about is equal rights. Well, I gotta right to live where I want to and by God nobody takes that away. I mean, look at the mess they got us all into.”
My father looks at me. He likes to remind me that I left the South, that I don’t belong here anymore. I have driven through the city on this return visit, more than twenty years after King’s death, through its black and white neighborhoods, Beale Street a slicked-up tourist attraction in the midst of a dying downtown.
Now I look outside at broad streets and landscaped lawns. All I see are white faces still intent on covering up the black and the brown and the yellow and the different. I say goodbye, get in my car. A garbage can sits in the carport, right in front of me. I shift into gear and ram it into the wall. Then I shift into reverse and drive away.
I encountered my first enemy the summer I was eight. There were a dozen or so of us who were so young and inept that we were excluded from the regular baseball games. We played among ourselves, regrouping each day to make balanced teams. Each game was a battle. Our allegiance would be to the side that circumstances threw together, while our enmity poured forth upon the other.
Rules carried less weight than vigorous assertion. If the pitcher said you had struck out and everybody on his side came in from the field, well, the inning was over. If a runner insisted that he hadn’t felt the baseman tag him, then he was safe. If the other team erased half your score while you had your back turned, your best recourse was to chant, “Cheater! Cheater! Cheater!” While the loudest screams might not prevail, it was a sure thing that restraint wouldn’t. Often the game ended with both teams going home to dinner yelling, “We won!”
My parents, dismayed at what they saw as anarchy, suggested an umpire. Fortunately, they did not pursue that bizarre idea. The meaning behind our apparent turmoil was as obscure to an adult as the action on the floor of the stock exchange is to a first-time viewer. Who would guess that the howls expressed psychic rather than physical pain? An opponent might move first base as you approached it, but nobody would trip you. If you missed an easy grounder, your teammates might threaten your life but you would never be benched.
I would have been very lonely that summer without my enemies.
Kansas City, Missouri
Astra and I went for a walk, connected by her black nylon leash. Our walk was tortured and slow. Astra has two lame hind legs. She had trouble climbing up on the curb. She stopped to rest. Her skinny back legs caved in and she abruptly sat. Then she noticed the black cat sitting in the driveway next to us. The cat’s back went up. Astra’s large pink ears perked up. She became more tense. This went on for some minutes. Then I pulled on her leash and said, “Let’s get going, please.” I think they would have stayed like that for a long, long time.
Once, she chased a cat up a huge avocado tree in the back of the lot. I went outside and there stood Astra, looking a little startled herself, high in the crotch of the old tree, locked in a staring contest with the cat on a higher branch.
She kind of looks like a cat herself. But she is all dog; she still recognizes her great enemy, the cat, even if she no longer has the power to go after one, except in her dreams.
I am ashamed to admit that I have an enemy. She is my husband’s ex-wife, Trudy, the mother of my stepdaughter. We send her bitter-flavored child support every month. We must pay for the child’s day care while Trudy sits at home, half a block from the center. She sends the child to us in old, stained clothing in hopes that we will return her in new clothes.
She is large inside me, my enemy. Sometimes I cannot sleep at night as I plot how to force this rigid woman to be fair: to let us have as much time with the child as we are supposed to have; to spend time with her daughter, whom she fought to keep, rather than sticking the child in that hideous day-care center.
Who has she become inside of me? Who is the rigid one here? How can I ever begin to face what she shows me of myself? If I stop holding her thus within me, what will I do with all the space that remains?
After I’d been working in the operating room for three months, she came over and asked me what I was reading. “The Odd Woman,” I told her, “by Gail Godwin.” She said she couldn’t believe there was someone reading something besides romance novels. Later, she borrowed the book.
She, too, was an R.N., about my age. Slowly, we began to talk. We went out to lunch. We went to the theater, the symphony. It was like a courtship.
Over the next couple of years, we made a point of taking call together. I trusted her. We did good work. We called ourselves the “A team.” We knew we were good.
I saw her go through changes. She saw me through a lousy marriage. When I needed a therapist, she gave me the name of hers. When I needed a place to sleep because my husband was out of control, she ran her boyfriend off and had hot coffee waiting for me when I got there.
After we’d talked about it, and finally decided we might really be able to do it, we bought a house together. One mild Arkansas night just before Christmas, we sat on the hardwood floor of the empty house and toasted our new home. We had good champagne and a radio. We listened to the Brandenburg Concertos and decided where to put the furniture.
We lived together less than a year. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t her fault. There isn’t any blame to it. We just got our identities confused.
She put henna on her thick, chestnut hair to turn it red like mine. She got it cut and permed. She stopped wearing overalls and bought big skirts and pleated crop pants. She started wearing lipstick, and earrings made of little festive fruits. At work, people accidentally called her by my name. She felt she was losing her identity.
I confused her with my mother, the woman I could never please. I felt she was always judging me. I felt I wasn’t good enough at anything. I became defensive. And then I moved my boyfriend in with me.
At the end of Thanksgiving weekend, she asked me to move out. It was like a divorce. It was also the end of our friendship.
The last time I talked to her, it was about signing papers on the house. We were nice enough on the phone. She asked about my mother. I asked about her lover. I was about to go to New Orleans to live with mine.
I’ve lost track of her. Sometimes I’ll dream about her, and things will be so natural between us, so easy. I know there won’t be a reconciliation. There won’t ever be a chance for it. And now, after all this time, I wonder if she ever forgave me.
They were both people I loved, H. as a friend and T. as a lover. They were both people who wanted me to be something I was not — in H.’s case, her lover; in T.’s case, his perfect lover. I could not change my sexual preference for H., and for T. I could never do enough sit-ups or learn to make the bed right or be funny or successful enough.
Both of them threw me out of their lives. When I left, I didn’t want anything more to do with them, but both wanted me back. I came back a few times, until I gave up. The two times I have received letters from people telling me how evil I am, they came from H. and T. The one from H. was sent anonymously, the one from T. was not.
Now, H. and T. are both dead — H. from pills and T. from AIDS. There was a certain relief when they were gone. No more T. telling me how immature I am, or walking right by me as if I weren’t there. No more walking down the street and finding H. in her car, clenching the wheel, seeing in her steely eyes the desire to plow into me.
It’s not that I want them back. The part of them that I loved was as inaccessible to me when they were here as it is now that they’re gone. And it’s not that I want another enemy. I do not. But there was something good about having them in my life. They kept me on my toes. Because there was part of me that always said, “What if they’re right? What if I am all the evil and terrible things they say I am?”
It’s harder now. I have to be my own best enemy.
Brooklyn, New York
I watch K. walking into work, a scarf on her head. I thought women stopped wearing scarves in the sixties. Trench coat, umbrella, and designer bag in hand, she walks crisply to the ladies’ room to repair any damage the humidity may have done to her gold-frosted hair. The tiny muscles around her mouth twitch when I say good morning. She says, “Hi,” and it sounds clipped, like a military salute. At her cubicle, she pulls out an aerosol can and sprays her pantyhose so they won’t cling to her silk skirt. She sits at her computer and types an electronic memo, all in uppercase. She sends a follow-up memo twenty minutes later explaining an error in her earlier memo. My enemy is my fear that deep inside I’m as scared as K.
Joan Locascio Torok
The summer I was nine, the apple wars broke out. My family was living on twenty-five acres of undeveloped Indiana grassland owned by the Christian Reformed church where my father pastored. On that land, my brothers and I and our friend next door dug holes modeled after the foxholes on “Combat.” Each hole had its own secret cache of ammo supplied by a few straggler apple trees, remnants of an orchard that had fallen into neglect. The apples grew wild and green. They were small, plentiful, and worm-eaten. They gave you a stomachache.
No one really knew how the apple wars began. Nor could we tell you why they were being fought. It was just a summer occupation where no one won or lost ground, where we could act out what we thought were adult games. Our “enemies” were the Puerto Ricans who lived in the housing project adjacent to the church property. Besides winging apples at each other from the foxholes we dug, we sprang surprise attacks and ambushes. The apples stung when they hit but they didn’t cause as much harm as rocks, or so we believed. We moved in bands and carried pouches that held a steady supply of ammunition. We were cool and grown-up, emulating TV soldiers in fatigues and helmets.
Pepe never played in our apple-war games. I had seen him in the back yard of the small yellow bungalow that stood alone between the housing project and church property. His playground was made up of a swing set that screeched, a tire-tractor sandbox, and a ramshackle hut put together from weathered boards someone had dumped in the field.
Pepe was relentlessly busy. He was frequently alone, but when he played with others, it was with the same fervor. Once, when my sister and I had picked several quarts of blackberries from the bushes back of the church, we sold them door-to-door in the housing project. When we stopped at the yellow bungalow with our last quart, Pepe came bounding to the door, his eyes glistening black, then called to his mother in the rear of the house, “Blackberries, Mama! Only fifty cents!”
One evening at twilight, my brother and I were headed home after fishing at a nearby lagoon. As we neared “enemy territory,” we saw flashlights and a crowd gathered around one of the foxholes. Edging up uneasily to the lip of the hole, we peered in and saw Pepe motionless on the bottom. He had fallen in the hole as it grew dark. His mother knelt near him, soothing him, waiting for the ambulance whose sirens we could hear in the distance. He had broken both legs, we learned later, and it would be months before he walked again. The next day a posse of neighbors with a tractor and shovels filled in the holes, putting an end to our apple wars.
The Puerto Ricans were our enemies in the apple wars not because they had done us harm or declared themselves against us — but neither were they arbitrarily chosen. While we hadn’t reasoned out why, and while we had no quarrels with them, we knew they just weren’t like us. They didn’t go to our church; they didn’t go to our private Christian school. Sometimes, they didn’t even speak our language. To play at war properly in a childhood game, we needed enemies, and they fit the bill. We’d learned to view war not only as a way of resolving differences but as a natural way of relating. Pepe, who had never shown an interest in the apple wars, was caught up in the consequences of our actions simply because his headlong rush into life had carried him over the edge of a hole not of his making. As children playing apple-war games that seemed sanctioned by every cultural influence around us, we perhaps could not have known better. Now, as mature beings, we have to know better, and we have to question.
During the Gulf War, I couldn’t help thinking of Pepe. It seemed to me that not much had changed, that we were still fighting the same fabricated enemies for hidden reasons.
Kurt de Boer
I do not know how I became his enemy, I do not know why. Yet overnight I went from being his wife, with shared interests, beliefs, and values, to a “frightening black train” that “violated” him if I entered his space.
Even in the worst moments of our marriage, I always knew he was my best friend, and that new growth and great closeness would soon follow; yet now he was gone. One day we held hands and made love, the next day he sneaked his belongings out of our apartment.
When my friends predicted the worst — other women, hidden funds, rejection of our children — I defended him. I knew he was a man of integrity and ethics. Then I learned of the “other woman,” a massage therapist, an old acquaintance whose business card I found in his abandoned desk drawer.
With hurt and betrayal and all the information I needed, I planned a showdown. While this scene fit a standard tawdry script in many ways — she denying all, he admitting most — what didn’t fit was the woman. Imagine my surprise to find my handsome thirty-seven-year-old husband with an unattractive woman some fifteen years his senior!
This was a turning point.
He announced at our final therapy session that it was lawyers we needed, not therapists. He had already hired his, and I was to do the same. He said, “I love you, but I don’t want you.” He claimed he wanted our young son halftime, although one day a week had been sufficient up until then. If I didn’t agree, he was going to engage me in a custody battle. He bragged to others that he would prove me unfit.
I had certainly become his enemy; he had to become mine. But my feelings would not always cooperate. I could not remain in the angry place one has to be in order to regard someone as an enemy. I longed for him still.
It became easy, though, to hate him for what he was doing to my children. The year that I signed our joint tax return for more than a quarter of a million dollars, he whined that, even though he had promised, he didn’t want to be responsible for sending my older son — his stepson — to college. I had to sign a document saying that all tuition would come from my portion of the future settlement.
Most of our friends found it easy to choose sides. Even as they spoke of “neutrality,” they chose. Some did so with civility and diplomacy, while others did so with dishonesty, deceit, and hostility. A few behaved ambivalently, proclaiming their loyalty to me, yet seeking him out to socialize, for financial advice, and one even for romance! As far as I was concerned, you did not fraternize with the enemy.
This has been going on for more than a year and a half, and he remains my enemy. I view him now with a mixture of repulsion, disgust, hurt, hatred, and disappointment. It is a view born of self-respect.
I do not believe in hating the enemy, yet I must. I do not believe in fighting a war, yet I do. Forgiveness seems so much grander, yet I cannot.