My parents were both in their forties when I was born, and I never had a close relationship with them. Even so, when I was in college I would dutifully come home every other weekend to visit them.
My father was retired. Being a firm believer in hard work, he toiled many hours on an acre of land near the house. There he kept a flock of purebred ducks. His birds won blue ribbons every year at the Wisconsin State Fair, and he would take the best birds to Toronto, to compete in the Canadian National Exhibition.
One year, my father seemed uneasy about the trip. He was seventy, and a hard life was taking its toll. I tried to ignore the obvious signs of his poor health. After all, I had no business telling him what he should or should not do. I was merely coming home twice a month to talk about the weather and how I was doing in school.
As I was leaving to drive back to college, my father lingered by the car window. He had a tiny duckling in his shirt pocket. He told me I should take the duckling back with me; it had hatched late and it was a runt — it would never fit in with the rest of the flock. He asked in such a strange, pleading manner that I agreed. I would put newspapers down in my kitchen and feed it the pellets of duck feed that my father gave me.
One week later my father went to Toronto, and the effort of getting there killed him. His Cuyuga drake received the highest award for waterfowl, best of show, but he didn’t know it. He lay dead in his hotel room.
My roommates and I named the runt duckling Alphonso. We would take him out on the front porch and let him swim in a tub of water. He would dive to the shallow bottom and swim around five or six times before coming up for air. We put layers of newspaper out in the back yard to attract slugs, and Alphonso thought the slimy creatures with no shells were a treasure from heaven.
By October, Alphonso was getting too big to keep in the kitchen. I had to take him home to the flock. At home that weekend, I let Alphonso loose in the yard with the other ducks. He hesitated at the prospect of joining the flock; he wasn’t quite sure he was related to those other creatures. I could imagine how he felt. I was reluctant to come home too, even though, strange as it seemed, it was where I belonged.
First I went to divorce court. When I returned to my car, a policeman was writing out a ticket.
“I just got divorced,” I said, as if that were an excuse for settling in No Parking.
“Great,” he said. “Are you free Friday night?”
Instead of going to work and writing instructions for a computer manual, I went home.
I felt strange, going alone into my house. I couldn’t decide what to do, so I bounced on my bed one hundred times. As I bounced, I heard the echo of my mother, warning about irresponsibility, damaged springs, messed-up sheets, and other evils of having my feet in the air.
When I was out of breath, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and said, “I am divorced.”
I wandered around my house, like a little kid on a rainy day. I couldn’t cry and I couldn’t celebrate. I opened and closed the refrigerator door. I stood on one foot in front of the pantry. When my daughter returned from school, she was surprised to see me. “What are you doing home?” she asked.
I didn’t know how to say that she and this house were the only things I was still married to.
Driving past the shacks and vegetable stands that dot the South Carolina back roads, I begin to hum a Baptist hymn. I am so amazed that I remember the alto line that I keep on singing. I pass a recently tilled field with yellow and blue crosses and an old trailer by the barn, and imagine myself in those scratchy lace underpants, drawing on an offering envelope until the sermon finally ends and we can go to my grandparents’ for dinner. The landscape lulls me back in time, reminds me who I was and who I am.
I don’t want to go home, but I always return. I don’t want to remember Granddaddy chopping the heads off chickens and them running around headless, spouting blood. I don’t want to remember hog-killing time, my father stringing up the legs while my uncle waited, ready with his knife — and Grandmother standing in the kitchen doorway, saying, “Mmm-mmm, those boys are working hard. Make them some tea, honey.”
Sitting in the living room with our cigarettes and coffee, my parents and I will stare at each other until my father gets up to turn on the TV. My father will talk about the niggers and women who deprive him of his overtime, and I will sit silent, once again too suffocated to speak. If I walk in the bathroom, I’ll recall my father shoving my head between the counter and the toilet, asking me why the rim of the toilet isn’t clean. If I look at the wall, I’ll see the patch where my head busted through the sheetrock when he lifted me off the floor and shook me. Each room holds a violence I convince myself I’ve escaped, until I return.
My mother’s tired face will not change as she sits and smokes in her rocker. “Your father says he’ll put a heater in this winter,” she might say. Or, “The preacher’s sister’s son-in-law died in a car wreck last Wednesday.” I won’t ask her why she’s put tinfoil in the windows, why she plastic-wrapped the piano bench. Her blood is on the ceiling, and that’s enough. I make myself look at it. My father left it there, to remind us. There’s also a bullethole in the ceiling above the refrigerator, dried splatters of blood on the cabinets. I don’t need the physical proof to remember, but stare at it anyway, still wringing out the bloody towels in a bucket, wondering how I can kill my father.
Leaving early, I’ll remind myself that I got out, but will know this is inadequate. I’ll see my mother’s nervous hands, moving, always moving, her eyes that won’t look at mine, her sadness. I’ll tell myself that I did stand up to him, but nothing ever changed. Then I’ll think of my sisters and brothers, the miles they’ll have to walk to leave this place.
I arrived in sunny South Florida and fell into my parents’ arms, wanting to be strong for them, wanting to be good, and smart, and alive. As I had asked, they picked me up in my dead brother’s white Mustang convertible. Mom is afraid of the tiny, overpowered car, but I love to lie in the back seat and watch the blue sky, interrupted only by the occasional tops of palm trees or soaring gulls. Dad found the jazz station on the radio for me.
My parents’ neighborhood is quiet and still. The people are mostly older, and they stay inside with their air conditioners and frozen drinks. The beach by my parents’ house is clear and clean. The young people hang out by Howard Johnson’s because there’s a bar there and a volleyball net. The families are up by the pier where they can get ice cream, and souvenirs made from sea shells. The elderly people come down only in the early morning, before it’s too hot. They get all the best shells. But my father beats them to it — he snorkels for shells, gets them before they’ve ever washed up onto the beach. He snorkels for hours, until the fish nibble on his toes, and the people on the beach think he has drowned — a white corpse bobbing in the surf.
That Christmas my parents were in the midst of moving out of the rented house where my brother had died, and into a house they had bought and renovated. My mother kept apologizing for not having a Christmas tree; she didn’t know which house we’d be living in. I told her no one minded. We plugged in the little ceramic tree that Grandmother had made at the senior citizen’s center in Baltimore, where she lives. The little plastic colored lights in the shiny green tree were perfect. The presents were small too, and fit perfectly under the tree — all symbols of what we were supposed to do. But what are you supposed to do for Christmas, barely a month after the funeral of one who died too young, too fast, too unjustly?
The anticipation of Christmas had gnawed at me for months, ever since the doctors said Chris had six months to live. I wanted them to be wrong, but I knew they were right; my brother would die on or just before the holidays.
Mom asked, “What do you want to eat on Christmas Day?” We always had roast beef. My entire life, we had roast beef on Christmas Day. “Shrimp and scallops,” I said, “with white rice.”
It was my first Christmas in Fort Lauderdale. My parents had moved down from Pennsylvania when my brother went into the hospital. They knew without being told that he had AIDS, and they knew that he wouldn’t be getting better. I couldn’t imagine Christmas at the beach, in the subtropics: lizards, parrots, mangoes, palm trees — and Christmas? We drove out to see the tallest Christmas tree in the world at the National Enquirer headquarters. We noted the variety of ways that people string lights on palm trees. We went to the mall to see a church choir and the dedication of the trees for Hospice of Broward County. For ten dollars you could have your loved one’s name inscribed in gold glitter on a red ribbon tied to a tree. For twenty-five dollars they added a pine cone. There were several ribbons and pine cones for my brother. The recently dead always get a better turnout at these things.
Christmas Day the sun shone bright through the branches of the lemon tree. I hated that tree. It went on flourishing, while my brother’s ashes disintegrated in the waters off the coast. My family and I opened our gifts by the little ceramic tree. Chris would have killed us if we hadn’t tried to celebrate. He would never give up the chance for a celebration. His motto was: go big or stay home.
It seemed wrong to go to the beach, but there wasn’t anything else to do. It was a gorgeous, calm day. The ocean lay still as a mirror, reflecting the clear sky. My father said, “You can swim to the reef today. Take my gear.”
“I can’t swim that far.”
“Sure you can. Go ahead.”
“No, you won’t.”
I waded out into the water, gear in hand. When it became deep enough to swim, I put the mask on and started to breath awkwardly through the tube. Cautiously, I stroked the water, taking in the world that lived beneath the surface. It was a dead reef, but still mesmerizing with movement and color. Exotic fish passed by without a glance, green and gray plants swayed gently, far out of reach; the occasional crushed Budweiser can nestled in a rocky crevice. Face down, I floated on the still surface of the sea, watching the silent world below. I kept my ears submerged to block out children’s shouts and passing planes. I felt my brother’s arms around me and I was home.
The rainy afternoon I walked out of a Bogotá travel agency with the last leg of my return trip in hand — Miami to Albuquerque — I longed to come home. I daydreamed about the mountains in snow, blue skies, green chile roasting, the smell of burning pinyon, and the calm of the desert. But when my friend Dan arrived in Bogotá to join me on a final jaunt to Ecuador, the language that rolled off his tongue stopped me dead. I hadn’t spoken English in four months, and I didn’t want to zip myself back inside it, with all the stainless steel organization and frigid winters that went with it. Maybe I shouldn’t go home after all. I’d cleaned out my life back in the States: subcontracted most of my business, left my boyfriend of ten years, sold my house, and pared down my belongings to a few cardboard boxes — all on a hunch that home might be somewhere south of the border. All just to discover I was a gringa at heart.
Or so I thought, until Dan arrived. Hearing one sentence in my native tongue, I turned back into the fence-sitter I’d always been. In January I flew home anyway.
In Miami we park ourselves at the counter of an airport coffee shop, the burger-and-fries aroma all around us. The guy at the grill jokes with the waitress in Spanish. The deep-fry vats crackle below a neon menu board, one side in English, the other in Spanish. I order café negro. As I root through the Colombian coins in my change purse trying to come up with $1.75, I turn to Dan and say, “You got a ten?”
His face lights up and he breaks into his Midwestern chuckle. “We call them dimes here.”
That’s what coming home is like. Everything a little funny, a little off, set in weird light, like I’m the only one not cast in the movie playing around me.
I am home three days. It is a flat, gray winter morning. A friend’s pickup pulls away slowly along the empty boulevard, leaving me with all my possessions scattered across the living-room floor. The phone rings. It rings all day with delectable conversations in English settling in on me again like a warm mitten. And the other things I’d longed for — like washers and dryers — are all right there. But on the phone I sound like I never left Bogotá.
“My neighbor, a toothless, sweet old man,” I say, “drags his prize milk cow down Twenty-second Street every morning like he owns the place. He ignores the horse-drawn carts and cars and taxis and buses that swerve to avoid him. Twenty-second Street can’t decide if it’s Bogotá or still a country lane. It’s part pavement, part mud, and part chuckhole.”
A month goes by and I check the ringer on the phone. It’s been silent for days now. Everyone’s heard from me. Everyone’s content I’m back safe, but I’m not. I’m a foreigner in these streets. No roosters crow at three a.m. No Holsteins with bursting udders bellow behind my apartment building. The landscape is beige and bland and lonely here. You have to try to find a crowd and when you do, say at a baseball game, it’s like a bunch of marbles tossed together. They collide and roll apart, each going its own direction. In Colombia it’s more like a clump of wet rose petals, fragrant and stuck together.
I admit, I’m more like a marble, but I don’t want to think about that when I’m swimming in a pile of rose petals. I miss it. Simple as that.
It’s hard to pinpoint the moment of transition when I stop pretending I’m there and start living here. It’s a gradual slide back into the place. The noise of there gets pushed out by the silence of here. My eyes no longer scour the smooth streets for manhole covers, notoriously missing in Bogotá. At three or four or maybe five months, I know I’m finally home.
But I can’t hide from something I love. I can’t even hide from its memory. Salsa on the radio and I’m back on Seventh Avenue, shop fronts flung open, among businessmen with emeralds and black-market dollars to trade, everyone throbbing like the music, brief lives squeezed between bombs that might explode and a sea of tropical fruit in the marketplace.
Memory seeps down inside, dragging a piece of me with it. The little piece, no doubt, that will buy another ticket south someday. The piece that, homecoming after homecoming, never quite makes it back.
Judy K. Stoft
Albuquerque, New Mexico
I heard his car pull into the driveway. I waited. He slammed the car door hard, drunk hard. I knew I was in for it. I heard the key in the kitchen door. I heard him say, “That bitch.” Was he going to bring his fist down on my face and pound my head and nose, chin and chest with his fist tonight? Was I going to spit up teeth? Was he going to kick my belly till it turned soft and swollen? He said he’d do these things. I heard his feet on the stairs. I pretended to sleep. I pretended to be a child deep in innocent sleep. No one would harm an innocent child as she slept. I heard him open the bedroom door and stumble in. I smelled stale cigarette smoke and stale beer. I worried the blankets were jumping with my heartbeat. I heard him say, “Ugly cunt.” I knew I was in for it. I stopped breathing to hear where he was. I felt the side of the bed sink and heard the frame creak. I felt his hard penis against my back. I tried not to move. I tried to remain frozen and innocent as a child deep in sleep. No one would harm an innocent child as she slept. I felt his hand on my shoulder. That big hand pulled my shoulder down to the mattress and turned my soft white belly up and opened my legs. I felt his grip and smelled the stale cigarette smoke and the warm beer. I felt his coated tongue inside my mouth and his hand squeezing my breast. His tongue tasted like bile. He pushed his big penis inside my dry, tight vagina and ripped me and burned me. I heard him moan and felt his penis soften. He rolled off me. I heard him say, “Frigid bitch.” I heard him snore. I left the bed and took a scalding shower. I tasted hot tears.
He didn’t hit me that night.
I drive through the night to my college homecoming, then sleep a couple of hours off the Ohio Turnpike in a corridor of diesel trucks, their motors running. I can’t afford thirty dollars for a place to sleep.
I miss my exit in Detroit and end up lost in the slums. I want to stop for directions, but I read in the morning paper that the new crime in Detroit is armed auto theft, in which drivers are yanked from their cars at traffic lights and gas stations. Drivers who resist are sometimes shot.
The houses, corner stores, and apartments were shabby when I lived here during my Wayne State days in the mid-sixties, but now they appear uninhabited, many looking as if they had been bombed. There are no businesses left, not even sleazy nightclubs. For miles traveling east, the only establishments still operating are liquor stores with iron grates on the windows. A few alcoholics sit around on the sidewalk, waiting for them to open. Is this the prosperity we destroyed Iraq to preserve?
At the city limits of Grosse Pointe Park, there suddenly appear beautiful homes, quaint little shops, boutiques, theaters, hospitals, schools, groves of tall oaks and maples, the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club, BMWs, Lincoln Continentals, circular drives. Some morning walkers are out with their purebred dogs.
I am staying with my sister and brother-in-law, both public-school teachers in Saint Clair Shores, a few suburbs from Grosse Pointe. On their front door is the biggest yellow ribbon I have yet seen.
My sister isn’t expecting me so early; she was hoping to be out and about before I arrived. Some of my views disturb her, and she senses that I judge her. My brother-in-law is on a golf outing. While she busies herself to leave, I ask if it doesn’t bother her to live so close to such poverty. She says she doesn’t see it, because when she goes downtown she takes the expressway.
We talk about other things, always disagreeing. She thinks the new “how-to” suicide book, currently the number one bestseller, is awful; despondent kids might use it. I see it as a message to an insensitive medical profession that causes horrible suffering with its mindless prolongation of life at all costs. Our own grandmother, now in her late nineties and senile, has been kept alive with surgery and intravenous feedings, her dignity betrayed, impoverished.
My voice elevates. I can see my sister wants to get away. She tells me to make myself at home. I sleep in the cool basement for a couple of hours, then take a jog down to the lake to sweat out the aches and kinks from my all-night drive.
The homecoming dinner is held at the Top of the Flame, overlooking the Detroit River. I find some of my old fraternity brothers to sit with, and we catch up on our laughing, for that’s what we did in our free time as young men at college. Later, walking along the river in the moonlight, I get into a serious discussion with Mort, just as we used to. I tell him it is hard to stay at my sister’s because I feel she hasn’t lived up to her potential. He doesn’t respond.
“You still don’t like to judge people, do you?” I say.
“I try not to.”
“But aren’t there things in life that need to be judged?”
“It doesn’t help,” he says. “It only makes matters worse.”
I suggest that our refusal to judge is willful ignorance which makes such atrocities as the recent slaughter in Iraq possible.
He says he doesn’t want to argue about it. He feels that his path is to love people as they are. “Otherwise,” he says, “you will inevitably take your judgment too seriously. Your judgment will be in the way of seeing the whole person, who is always bigger than your judgment.”
About three in the morning I stumble into my sister’s house. She’s left the back door open for me. I am exhausted, but also wide awake, and I want something to read. I look through the living-room bookcase, but find mostly books on home-decorating or sports, books by Heloise, Bobby Knight, Bishop Sheen, Norman Vincent Peale. In the basement, in a dusty storage room, I find another bookcase against a pile of stored furniture. It contains the books my sister and brother-in-law read in their college courses: Walden, Dickens’s Hard Times, Othello, various classics. Some of them are now stuck together from the sweat of the basement and the long period of disuse. I pry Martin Luther King’s Why We Can’t Wait from Thomas Harris’s I’m OK, You’re OK. As I fall asleep on the basement couch, I am reading the following words from King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:
“I must make an honest confession to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice. . . . Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. . . .”
Petersburg, West Virginia
The newscaster on the six o’clock news is repeating the five o’clock news. Bob sits in a lounger across the room, his cowboy boots off, his hair still creased from his hat. Swirling the ice in his bourbon, he stares at the TV and doesn’t say anything.
Mom sits on this side of the room, making the triangle complete: relaxed in their respective chairs, their feet point to the twenty-six-inch TV encased in an ornate, simulated wood console.
Mom looks over at Bob. “Are you ready for another drink?” She holds up her empty glass with one hand, pulls up her strapless print muumuu with the other. Without a word, Bob gets up, picks up her glass, and goes into the kitchen. “He can be so sweet,” she whispers, turning her head to blow the smoke away from me. “At least I can be myself with him.”
Butterflies hover over this house: on salt and pepper shakers, calendars, porcelain lamps, and blouses; attached to hanging lamps by colored fuzzy wire; as earrings, necklaces, and a tattoo on Mom’s breast. Many hold places of honor upon the wall — next to pictures of her three children and one grandchild, and above the TV.
Mom left us when her youngest child was sixteen, her oldest nineteen. After twenty years in my father’s house, she spent the first twelve months of her freedom in the taverns of our hometown. On one of those blurry nights she met Bob. He was a native Alaskan cowboy; she was a dark-eyed woman with large breasts and a bluntness that made up for his inarticulateness. He had lost his logging job because of an injury, but received a thousand dollars a month disability. She was strong from lifting patients in the nursing home, and financially broke. They needed each other.
In their time together, they have made this house, which they rent but plan to live in forever. They both work (his back is better), and then they come home, where Mom cooks or orders out or serves a leftover nursing-home meal sent by the staff because they like the way Bob mows the lawn. After dinner, Bob watches TV. He likes sports and action; Mom likes sitcoms and musicals. At seven, they have a drink. The time is arbitrary, but necessary: “If we started right after work, where would we be by ten?”
Mom gets out an afghan she’s crocheting, which she’ll sell for forty dollars. She also makes pink and blue baby dresses that she packs away in plastic. She’ll have to resort to selling these, too; with one three-year-old grandson, and no other grandchildren planned, they aren’t likely to be needed soon. She hunts for a crochet hook on the table beside her chair, where she keeps everything she’s likely to need on a particular evening: cigarettes, ashtray, fingernail file and polish, full or empty bourbon glass (with brown lassos painted on it), coupons, contest entries, Lotto stubs, Tic Tacs, catalogs, pills for her arrhythmia, chocolate kisses.
She finds a Fingerhut catalog while rummaging for the crochet hook and holds it out to me, pointing with a long, pink-frosted nail: “What do you think of this pig?” She knows I like pigs.
“It’s OK,” I say, knowing I will get it for Christmas. She does almost all of her shopping through the mail.
She marks the page and starts crocheting. I go to the extra bedroom to put on sweats, closing the door so Bob can’t see me. When he’s drinking, he looks at me; I never stay here when Mom works the graveyard shift. I fumble for the light, which is hidden behind a six-foot latch-hook grandfather clock (a real clock sits in its face, but the battery has been dead for a while). A pink pig clock sits on the green-brown carpet. A huge butterfly, made of orange netting stretched over wire, is suspended above the soft, lumpy bed. The vanity table is covered with dozens of tubes and cases of makeup; there is also an exercise bike, a keyboard, a bookcase full of gothic romances, and the pastel and paisley smock tops she wears to work. It seemed that Mom’s things fit more neatly in my father’s house.
When I go back to the front room, she makes the dog, Touie, do tricks for me. Then she lets him sit on top of her chair, kneading her hair with his nails. Her hair is long and mostly gray, and she is never going to cut or dye it again. “The other day, my heart did its thing again,” she begins, taking a drink. “My friend Norma, actually I’m supposed to call her Jean at work —” She stops to put the dog out, and then starts with another story. “One of the residents told me I’m —” here she begins whispering — “the most beautiful grandmother he’s ever seen, and he’s black.” Whether she is whispering because of the compliment or because the man is black doesn’t really matter. Bob is very jealous and doesn’t like dark-skinned people.
Now she gets out the Scrabble board. My mom, who lives with a man who can’t read or write, loves the challenge of words and numbers. When we lived in the same house, we’d play Scrabble, backgammon, Chinese checkers; all the while, she pretended not to know she would lose me to books, a college education, and a home away from here. But it’s Mom who wins at Scrabble. She finishes her fourth drink, and Bob gets up to stumble to bed. He’s pretty thin, and can’t hold his liquor as well as Mom. “Oh good, now we can talk,” she says after getting up to kiss him in the hallway and close the bedroom door after him. She has some good stories, most of which I’ve heard before. I’ve been hearing about this man at work for a while. “I would never leave Bob, but Sam says such poetic things.” Her brown eyes flash and grow round as she says, “I’m his heartbeat.”
I listen to her a while, and then go to the bed that I spend six nights a year in. I put on a flannel nightgown and socks — the room is always cold. I look at the dusty, smoke-stained butterfly suspended in flight over my head. I turn off the light and think about a cage with an open door, its walls lined with a million butterflies.
I first saw D. sitting on a huge buckskin horse outside the bus that brought me into camp the summer I turned sixteen. He was dressed in white. Beautiful and tan, he had electric smiling eyes and the whitest teeth I had ever seen.
All summer I watched him, and thought about him, and teased with him. I was like a newly weaned calf mouthing grass without knowing quite what to do with it. He was twenty-two, just out of college, and had spent a year training with the head of the U.S. Olympic riding team. I was working at the stables as a junior wrangler; he was my riding instructor and my boss.
My best friend in camp was a tall, sexy girl named Gillian, a year older than I. She was also interested in D., but far ahead of me in knowing what to do about it. One afternoon, I noticed that D. and Gillian hadn’t shown up for lunch. I sneaked back to the stables during the mandatory rest period, and found their horses tied to the hay barn in the back field near the river. I was horrified, jealous, and hurt.
When I came back to camp the second year, D. and I spent a lot of time play-fighting and wrestling. For me, most of the excitement involved breaking out of his holds and getting away. One day, he chased me into the tack room and when he grabbed me, I fell onto the pile of musky, sweaty saddle blankets in the corner. It was the same scenario as so many times before. He’d get me down, I’d fight to get back up. It was just a game. But this time, something inside of me shifted. I simply stopped resisting and felt myself open up to something I couldn’t put words to. He looked at me in a way I’d never seen before, smiled, and got up slowly. From then on, the wrestling matches stopped and we became more careful about physical contact.
The last night of camp, I got drunk for the first time in my life and sneaked off with D. into the field. We made out for what seemed like hours, but nothing happened. I made it through high school a virgin and went off to conquer the University of Oklahoma.
D. enlisted in the Army in March of 1966. We had been writing to each other for a year when he was selected for Special Forces training with the Green Berets at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In August 1967, he was awaiting orders for Vietnam. He invited me to spend ten days with him before he left the country. I was nineteen.
He told me to bring something appropriate to wear to the officers’ club. My mother lent me a sexy turquoise-and-white strapless dress and bought me a strapless brassiere, one of those things with a thousand hooks up the back. When I tried it on, she shook her head and said, “My God, what am I doing? How are you going to get into this by yourself?” What she meant, was “My God, what am I doing? How are you going to get out of this thing?” We both knew what I was getting dressed for. But I never told her D. and I didn’t make it to the officers’ club because that night I lost my virginity. We never got out of bed to get dressed. He made love to me in his bedroom on a white quilted bedspread with a box of plastic explosives in the closet and a .45 in the night-stand drawer.
I cried. It was beautiful and romantic and I cried because I had lost something that I would never have again: innocence. We went to the movies that night. I don’t remember what we saw. But standing in the lobby with him, I could hardly lift my eyes from the popcorn I was stuffing into my mouth. I was sure that people could tell, that they could see what we’d been doing. It was delicious and surreptitious.
He put me on the plane two weeks later. We wrote faithfully. I spent my freshman and sophomore years at the University of Oklahoma and fell in love with Mark, who was on a student deferment along with everyone else on campus. I kept the letters coming and going to D., long letters written on toilet paper, and chocolate chip cookies packaged in popcorn. In the fall, I sent him boxes of autumn leaves. He sent me a photo of himself standing at the edge of a bomb crater, and one taken in the jungle with an enormous snake wrapped around his neck. He looked so serious in those pictures, but he never really talked about what he was doing there. I could hardly make sense of the messages he was sending me. I was smoking dope and drinking wine and screwing my brains out in the tiny room that my boyfriend rented from a group of trusting Jesuits. In 1968, I transferred to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. When Mark and I broke up, I never told D. he had even existed.
Then D.’s regular letters stopped. I went into a panic, afraid to call his parents, afraid to scare them, afraid they would scare me. Then, just as suddenly, I received a letter from a hospital in Saigon. He had been on a patrol and his support team had disappeared in an ambush. He had turned around and come face-to-face with a Viet Cong holding a grenade. D. woke up in the hospital.
He said he was coming home in three weeks. He was OK. He had turned down a promotion as a captain. He would stop by Ann Arbor on his way home.
I was sharing a student apartment with three other women. Conveniently, it was semester break and they had all left for a week. When the doorbell rang, I was shaking. When I opened the door, I saw a tight, constrained man in uniform with medals and ribbons on his jacket. His hair was short and his face was tanned and deeply lined. I was wearing a tie-dyed, diaphanous, bell-bottom pantsuit. He looked me over very slowly. Then he put his arms around me.
It was late, so I showed him into my bedroom and we squeezed into my little twin bed. He told me he had been shot in the groin, but he was OK. He’d been tested for VD twice, and gotten a clean bill of health. Then he got real quiet and would hardly look at me. I tried to hold him and ask what was going on. But he suddenly twisted around and jumped on top of me and in me, pounding me with his body, whispering like a snake: “You want to know what’s wrong little girl, is that what you want little girl?” Over and over until he came. Then he rolled over and went to sleep. I went numb and then quietly cried myself to sleep. He left a few days later. I never saw him again.
I always thought he’d probably have gone back to working with horses, married, had a family, and grown into a secure, middle-class life. But now I think about the reality, the fear, the unknown horrors in Vietnam, and the death of the young man in white with the shining teeth and the happy blue eyes on the big buckskin horse. I wonder if he is alive or dead, if he cries in the night and jumps at rustling in the grass; if he’s in an alley someplace fighting nightmares with a bottle.
He had stepped off a plane and stared into the eyes of a young girl who had only been fighting grade-point averages and Midwest winters. I didn’t have the remotest idea of where he had been when he ate those chocolate chip cookies and what those bomb craters had flattened and what he did with the plastic explosives in his closet and what it must have been like to wake up in a hospital with bandages all over your crotch and not know what was under them.
It started when I lived in Japan for two years studying Zen Buddhism. Meat was expensive. Tofu and rice were cheap. Many Zen Buddhists didn’t eat meat. I became a vegetarian.
When I left Japan, I traveled for eight months through some of the biggest meat-eating countries in the world — the Soviet Union, Denmark, Germany. I didn’t eat meat. It was hard finding good vegetarian restaurants. In southern Europe it got easier. Greece was wonderful — sheep yogurt, honey and butter on thick crusted bread, fried eggplant.
I got tired of traveling and flew home. My mom and dad picked me up at the airport. I was glad to be back. We talked the entire hour-and-a-half drive to the ranch.
My dad was a cattle rancher. On the ranch we ate beef at least once a day, often twice. Once home, he disappeared. I smelled the charcoal starter and the smoke from the barbecue. Animal flesh hadn’t passed my lips for two and a half years.
My dad had that big, satisfied smile he always got when he was ready to sear beef over the coals. I tried to ignore it. We sat at the patio table. He brought out a big platter of sixteen-ounce porterhouse steaks dripping with juice. The smell of burnt flesh filled the air. I looked him straight in the eye and said, “I’m a vegetarian now. I can’t eat the meat.” He said matter-of-factly, without anger, hurt, or malice, “You’re a cattleman’s daughter first.” Something deep inside clicked. I was home. I ate the meat. I was surprised it tasted so good.
Taos, New Mexico