College students packed the bars on East 13th Avenue in Eugene. At closing time they quickly vanished — most likely, I imagined in my loneliness, to consummate their romantic rituals in private. In the rain, Steve and I unlocked our bikes, gloomily expecting a dripping ride home.
Over by the covered bus stop, we heard loud male voices, and in the shadows we saw two men. They were close, chest to chest, and in alarmed, hostile voices they yelled and cursed. We hurried to a better vantage point on the opposite sidewalk, as did a half-dozen other stragglers.
The men looked a bit ragged, in clothes barely adequate for the Oregon winter — heavy flannel shirts, boots, jeans hanging on scrawny hips.
The taller man grabbed his belt buckle and yanked his belt free of his pants as if unsheathing a sword. He swung it around like a weapon, and the heavy metal buckle whistled. The other took his cue and quickly had his belt off. Like banty cocks circling, they moved from the shelter into the light of the street lamps, swinging and feinting in the rain.
Maybe it was cowardice, or panic, or a sudden moment of truth, but the shorter man suddenly screamed, “I just want to be loved. Really, I just want to be loved!” The taller man stopped swinging his belt and answered him, “Yeah, brother, so do I.” They stood panting, then embraced. We, their small, fearful, and forlorn audience, clapped like we’d been watching a play. Steve and I hopped on our bikes and rode home, laughing and talking, not minding the rain.
Standing on the platform, I saw the flash of her white coat in the dim light. The train was moving, her coat was caught, and she was headed for the wheels. I had to be quick. Suddenly I was holding a trembling, grateful woman in my arms.
She gave me a ride home. It was more than a little awkward. In the fifties, and maybe even today, a seventeen-year-old boy didn’t know what to say to a twenty-seven-year-old woman. I thought of inviting her in — my parents were away — but the courage wasn’t there. She was quite pretty and glowing, and flustered in her inability to express enough gratitude. I said good night, immediately regretting that I hadn’t pursued an enticing possibility. Exhausted, I went to bed.
Hours later, thinking I was dreaming, I heard the doorbell. But the ringing persisted and I awakened. At the door, in the same white coat, was this lovely woman saying something about not being able to sleep.
Mill Valley, California
Great Barrier Island, a three-hour jet-boat ride from Auckland, New Zealand, greeted me with birds, barren dirt roads, a handful of low-budget travelers, and the promise of adventure. By day three, I’d already gotten lost while hiking, walked along secluded forest trails, and luxuriously soaked for hours in natural hot springs. I rented a bike to complete my tour of the island.
I’ve ridden the mountain gaps in Vermont, traversed the Adirondaks with forty pounds of gear, ridden a thousand difficult miles in a three-week trek — but never had I encountered a hellish, rocky, severely steep road like this one. I carried the bike across streams, swerved to avoid big rocks and sandy patches, and squeezed the brakes as hard as I could when I flew down hills. Viciously dark skies loomed overhead, promising terrible storms.
Up and up and up the hills I went, straining every part of my body. After many hours, numerous would-be peaks ended in disappointment. Finally I reached the top, where I tossed aside the bike and gear and pumped my clenched fist skyward. I walked to the road’s edge, a cliff overlooking the Pacific. For the first time all day, the clouds parted and sunlight poured down. Suddenly I heard my grunting — deep, primordial grunts, a tribute to the height I’d scaled. I felt worthy of the mountain’s power and pristine air. I had overcome a fierce bout with mono and survived a difficult year in Taiwan. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I was alive!
Breathing deeply and quietly, I soaked in the sun as if for the first time. Then, very slowly, I loaded my gear, resuming my journey.
After a day of cutting back asparagus, pulling thistles, and planting bulbs, I walk down to our small orchard and stop beside the apple tree we planted when our daughter was born. September sun has lowered her dreamy, late-afternoon spell over the rolling foothill pastures beyond our orchard. Leaves on the neighbor’s poplars glow against a faint sky. A breeze stirs the field grass and cools my tired arms. I reach for the last ripe apples and pears, carrying them in the turned-up tail of my blouse.
A few feet away, our German shepherd noses at the hay mulch around our son’s pear tree. As I watch her I realize she has been faithfully nearby for so many years. How have twelve years escaped so quickly? Children’s voices drift down to me from the sandbox where our two play, happily absorbed.
I close my eyes, breathing in the fall air. How intoxicating! How easy, for a precious moment, to be convinced that my husband is cured of his Hodgkin’s disease, that my aging parents will remain healthy, that my children will always play happily nearby.
I opened my arms to him slowly, warily, as the drumbeat ran through our bodies. We swayed slowly together, then more quickly as he held me tightly, my skirt flaring, brushing my skin while his arms moved more tightly around my waist, pulling me closer, closer while the drums beat in my blood, heating the back of my neck, his hand on my dress, his breath on my face. I breathed his breath, he breathed mine, and I beat the drum in my legs, in my arms, in my blood, and the drum beat me, closer to him, and we dissolved into the drumbeat, until we danced as one.
Then the drums stopped. The silence beat in my ears, my legs, my blood. I stopped and he stopped, and we squirmed for an instant, then we pulled apart, separating into four legs and four arms and four sweaty palms. I blinked, the light shifted. I felt suddenly awkward, clumsy, and flaccid, and the silence filled with voices nearby and far, shoes scratching the floor. I pulled away from him. He looked past me with distant, black eyes.
My great-aunt Margaret had never married. She said she “damned them all to hell till there were none left.” She never had children, either. And now she was dying of cancer.
I remember, as a child, searching through her trash basket for scraps of beautiful material to make into doll clothes. She let us watch her color TV when The Wizard Of Oz was on each year. Graham crackers were always waiting inside her oven for us. When I married, she made my headpiece and veil.
She had planned well for herself, moving into a retirement village before she was ill so that she would have the proper care when the time came. She even had all her funeral plans made. I visited her several times at her apartment before her health failed and she was moved to the infirmary for better care. She endured frequent rides to the hospital for treatments and was in pain constantly.
One day I went to visit her, and as I was about to knock on her door, I saw her sitting on her bed, crying. I could have held her and comforted her. I could have told her I loved her and was grateful to have had her in my life and would never forget her. But I didn’t. I hid in the hall till she stopped crying, then went in to visit as if I had never heard her sobs and couldn’t see her red eyes.
She died two days later.
My mother was never a very demonstrative woman. She had been raised by a Protestant New Englander who had regularly directed her husband to close the blinds on Saturday night while he listened to the fights and had a drink, because “the neighbors might see.” But since my mother’s stroke, which left her paralyzed and almost speechless, as helpless as an infant, I had felt a tremendous desire to hold her.
One day, the visiting nurse and I had bathed her, and as she sat naked in the wheelchair while I was patting her dry, she said, “It’s hard to believe that someone as big as you could be so gentle.”
I was startled — and a bit confused. Was she talking to the nurse? I asked, “Mother, who are you talking to?”
She replied, with a hint of motherly frustration, “I’m talking to you, Maggy.” I responded quickly, as one does to an impatient parent, but with a tease, as one might to a child, “Well, my mother taught me to be gentle.”
When she replied, “Oh, so you had a good mother?” I knew this was no game. Yet I couldn’t stop playing; it was as if we were being directed by the words themselves and had to follow their lead. “Yes,” I answered, “I did.”
For the first time in weeks, she rocked forward, focused her one good eye on me, and asked, “But was she good enough?”
I stopped patting, frozen by her look, and before I knew what I was saying answered, “Yes, Mother, she did the best she could.”
I couldn’t hold her as she wept; the wheelchair obstructed our embrace. Perhaps that would have made the moment “perfect.” But as I pressed my cheek to hers I decided that, as moments go, this one had been good enough.
After my children fall asleep, I sometimes go into their room. In the dark, they all look like the same tiny person: the soft-cheeked, scrawny boy who loves twirling in his sister’s tutus; his rounder twin brother, who is much more serious and who makes geometrical patterns with wood blocks; their big sister, who has taught them to count to one hundred, not to eat any vegetables, and that bottom is just about the funniest word in the English language. In the dark they are all one — just my child asleep, safe from all harm.
Later, when I’m in bed, I might imagine someone crawling in their window to steal them, or our house being set on fire by crazy people. I might be woken by a child with a raging fever and meningitis, or by a panicky, croupy child who can’t breathe, and I would have to rush him into the mist of a hot shower or out into the cold night air, or ride in the back of an ambulance with him, gripping his hand. Or the phone might ring, and I’d find out that someone I love has just been seriously hurt in an accident, or that someone is dead. I try so hard to appreciate what I have, but such fears enter my mind at night, when I think about all that I have and love and how none of it is for keeps.
That’s why I watch my kids sleep. They each have different breaths, silences, and snores, and they sleep all splayed out and open, so knocked out that I could turn on the lights or vacuum and they wouldn’t stir. They play hard all day and sleep hard all night. I stand there and breathe with them, slowly, like they do, for a moment without worry or fear.
We have been together for eleven years: married for nine, estranged for most of them, formally separated for two, and back together for four months. We are finally friends, with a fundamental respect that embraces our differences. We are best friends, not lovers. Communication is easy and fulfilling; our two children are more secure than they have ever been. He knows about my lovers during our separation, I know about his.
We do not labor under the burden of our pastor’s or parents’ definition of what being married means. We both have a sense that we will not be married forever; that we limit each other in ways we have not yet been able to face. But we are healing from the last years of pain and lies; we face ourselves and the future as friends, as parents of the most precious people in our lives.
Sometimes, in the dark, in a small and perfect gesture, we hold hands. In the stillness of the children’s breathing, hearing only the occasional bark of the dogs, his hand in mine, I wonder, Is this where we’ve ended, or where we begin?
Central Point, Oregon
We were sitting on the couch in her office. The open window overlooked a small courtyard. The afternoon showers had come and gone, and the breeze moved through the trees and rippled the curtains. Her white summer dress was raised above her knees, and she had draped one leg over the arm of the couch. She knew how much I liked to look at her legs. She was talking softly, and then there was a brief silence. She looked away for a moment. “I think I’m in love with you,” she said. Then she smiled, her eyes as bright as the sky.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
When I started taking karate lessons thirty years ago, my purpose was clear: to stop my father, brother, and anyone else from terrorizing me again. When my father visited the school, he saw me crumple an air force sergeant twice with lucky, uncontrolled groin kicks. From that day on, we achieved a fragile détente that probably saved my life.
One Saturday a month, another karate instructor and his students would visit for a day of fighting matches. At the end of the day, my instructor asked everyone to stand and bow, and then he’d yell, “Hajime! Fight! Everyone fight everyone! Sit down when you get hit!” We were sent into a controlled free-for-all.
I thought it made sense to stay on the sidelines, where I could keep my back protected. But my instructor chose the middle of the crowd and never got hit. Twice, I tried to attack him from behind while he was busy with another challenger. Amazingly, he would turn and pop me, as though he had seen me coming. Each of my attacks was preceded by several bluffs: lunging at him but stopping short, sliding my feet across the floor loudly, shouting. Yet only when I had actually committed myself to an attack did he turn and strike as if he were waiting for me. Later, when I asked how he did it, he answered cryptically, “The safest place is in the middle.”
With all my martial-arts training, running, cycling, and weight lifting, I wanted to be bigger, stronger, faster. But this was only improving the canvas and oils; I needed to find the artist. How? My instructor said, “Find a kata [form] and make it yours. The secret rests in the kata.”
Eight years later, the artist emerged. I was sitting on the bottom steps of the staircase, petting the dog. Just out of view, my stepson stole up beside me and attempted to kick me in the ribs. Without thought, my arm moved down and perfectly blocked his kick. Astonished, he shouted, “How did you do that?”
Randall M. Tillotson
North Vancouver, B.C.
I fed her, clothed her, talked to her, kissed her, but I didn’t feel connected to my first child. When I looked into those blue eyes, I saw a stranger. She was too animated to be a porcelain doll, but I was a porcelain mother. Years later I would realize that my aloofness came from never being nurtured, cuddled, or adored as a child myself.
I once saw a dog give birth to her first litter. As each one was born, she looked at it, puzzled, and got up and walked away, only to find another one coming from her body. In a few hours, however, something deep inside the new mother clicked, and she welcomed the wriggly puppies.
For me, the click took six weeks. I was in the pediatrician’s office with my infant while he prepared to give her that first inoculation. Handling her gingerly, I asked, “Should I lay her on her front or back?”
He looked at me strangely. “Just hug her — she trusts you.”
I held her. I felt something inside me ignite. The doctor gave her the shot. She looked up at me and smiled. The spark turned into a fire that has blazed ever since.
We tumble out of the house: the two cocker spaniels Jenny Wren and Jake, Robbie the collie, and me. We head across the lawn and down to the bay, cutting across the blueberry patches.
Jake is old and has bad hind legs. But he runs as if his aging body weren’t even attached to him. His ears and soul fly above him in the wind. I warn him, “Jake, take it easy. No rush, no rush on this walk.”
I sit by the water and try to decide whether to stay in Maine or move to the city where I’m offered more: bookstores and restaurants, all-night laundries and grocery stores, and big jobs with big salaries. I look out over the water and listen for answers. Jenny Wren walks into the cold water and swims in small circles. Jake sits at the edge, watching. Robbie is off looking for squirrels and foxes.
There’s not a person in sight. After a while we walk down the rocky beach and then head up the old stairs into our neighbor’s field. We cross the field to the neighbor’s pond, where Jenny Wren takes another swim, paddling around in little circles. Jake waits again at the edge. Robbie and I play a game called “run back and forth really fast” until we both tire, then walk down the road toward home.
We pass our neighbor Freddie, who is very old, his shoulders so stooped he must stop and lean back in order to meet my eyes and say hello. It’s a lot of trouble for him, I know, but he does it. It makes me wonder about those city subways where everyone avoids eye contact in order not to attract attention, where we file in and out like zombies. I know there are people who would rather live that way than any other, people who thrive in that anonymous, fast-paced, all-night environment. But I can’t see why, when they could have trees and water and fields.
Jenny Wren and Robbie race down the long road toward the house, and I turn and look for Jake, who is walking slowly toward me. I pretend I’m not waiting for him. I take small steps, and when he catches up, he walks by as if I’m not even there. I wait for him to get ahead of me while studying the small red berries on the bushes. I try to push dirt into the holes in the road with my boot.
Then I hear something: silence.
I don’t even remember the moment when I knew I would stay, because it didn’t come to me as a thought. Sometimes it happens like that; you suddenly know what’s right. You know that in accepting less you will have more. I look down the road and see Jake sitting patiently, waiting for me to head home.
I’m disabled, so I hire attendants to take care of me in my apartment. Jo, a twenty-four-year-old Englishwoman, cooks my suppers and feeds me. One day, she asked whether I had ever visited Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. I hadn’t, although it was just across the bay from Berkeley, where I live. She asked if I’d like her to take me there, and I said yes.
I rented a van, and on a warm March day we set off. When we arrived, Jo pushed me through the park until we came to its Japanese tea garden. I was amazed at how much it looked like pictures of Japan I had seen: bonsai trees, rounded shrubs, and high bridges arching over streams. When Jo pushed me up the steep bridges, I felt nearly upside down, but she took my worry in good humor. Somehow she squeezed my long wheelchair into the little open-air wooden shed where tea and cookie-like confections were sold.
We sat at a table outside to drink our tea. Jo talked about the 1989 earthquake and how it upset an elderly Englishwoman she knew because it reminded her of the London blitz. We discussed World War II, our parents’ war, as hawks spiraled in the warm air and hikers walked the nearby paths. The sky was blue, and as I looked at Jo’s lovely face and her tangled red hair, I wished that we could stay there forever.
During my second pregnancy, I kept thinking, this better be a boy, because I want one of each, and I cannot go through this again, being big as a house, the sickness, the shoes that won’t fit, the headaches, the doctor visits.
When I woke up at five-thirty, I thought, maybe these contractions are real. I thought, this better be a boy, and I said to him, “You better be a boy.” I took a shower and kept breathing through my teeth exactly like they teach you not to in Lamaze, then I walked around cursing under my breath, saying, “Get up, Jerry, get up.” He said, “OK, but I’m going to need breakfast in case you’re in labor a long time,” and I said, “Make your own fucking breakfast,” and I walked around, saying, “You’re a boy, aren’t you? Tell me you’re a boy.” I saw a foldout of Cosmo’s ten hunks of the year, and I kicked it and said, “Hang that thing up so I can throw darts at these guys — each one of them made some woman pregnant, made her suffer like this.” Jerry just scrambled his eggs until I screamed, “Enough already,” and Amy kept asking for a bottle, and Jerry said, “Mommy’s busy,” and I was busy stomping and cursing, God that pain is incredible. They say you forget but I forget nothing.
We made it to the hospital in five minutes. Jerry parked the car and got back in time to hear me yelling for an epidural. He slipped on a blue shirt, and the midwife said, “She’s having this baby right now. Push, honey, quit your talking and push, I can feel the head.” We’d been at the hospital fifteen minutes. Jerry said, “Come on, honey, I can see him. You got your boy.” I looked down and saw his tiny scrotum nestled between his legs, and the pain was nothing because it was over.
Kate Gale Harper
Van Nuys, California
During the summer of 1978, my friend George and I were traveling around Europe for a month. One day, we were on a slow train in southern Italy. Even inside, wearing only my shorts, I found the heat and humidity unbearable, and the wide-open window provided no relief because the air coming in was also hot. Alone in the cabin, we stretched out full length on the two seats, George with his head toward the window, I with my head toward the door. We had long since stopped conversing or even complaining. We lay silently, eyes closed, aware only of the unforgiving heat.
From far down the train I heard the faint bell of the vendor pushing a cart full of cool drinks, snacks, and candy. Listlessly, I tracked the sound of the approaching cart, eventually able to hear the man’s voice as he advertised his wares. I listened with disinterest, knowing I wouldn’t buy anything; a drink or a snack wouldn’t relieve my discomfort, and they were too expensive. Finally, the vendor opened the door to our cabin, speaking in Italian. I said nothing and kept my eyes closed.
The next thing I knew, this Italian man, a perfect stranger, was rubbing a large chunk of ice all over my bare torso — across my belly and chest, through each armpit, up and down my throat, and back to my belly again. All the while I writhed in pleasure, moaned, moved to meet the ice, and yielded to this glorious coldness, this chunk of heaven, this utterly merciful and provident act. I don’t know how long this lasted, but it felt just right. I opened my eyes only after he had left. George was laughing. A little in awe, he said, “You should have seen your face!”
The sweet clover rears shoulder high along the barely visible jeep track. For a week, the sound of grasshoppers in motion has rushed through the tall growth. In the continuous rustling, my dog Taggart and I don’t hear the stray cat, the cat doesn’t hear us, and we all meet suddenly in a clearing and stand immobile with surprise.
I’m the only one past fear — unless I count the warbler who is dead-still in the jaws of the cat. One yellow wing fans out below the cat’s mouth, and the warbler’s underbelly flashes skyward like a sunbeam.
Time has stopped; I feel wildness here. Yellow blossoms of clover, yellow sunshine, yellow bird, yellow eyes of the cat. Nothing moves. The cat, the dog, and I breathe shallowly, the bird not at all.
Abruptly, the cat darts into the clover, its jaws releasing the bird. And the bird flies away! Without dropping to the earth, the warbler veers up, every feather in place, out of the mouth of death into the blue sky.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming