When I was sixteen I had loved Frank in a foolish and innocent way, based solely on the fact that he made me feel beautiful. He was the first man to call me beautiful, to teach me to dance, and to kiss me. He never promised me anything or threatened me in any way. We never made love. We never even had an argument. We dated one summer, he left town in the fall, and for him that was it. I cried and looked at his picture and wrote his name and dreamed about him. I wrote him letters and told him that I loved him. He never responded.

Over the next ten years, I found a different kind of love and a different kind of beauty. I married a man after knowing him six years. He and I fought and screamed and hurt each other, but we also read the paper over breakfast every morning, went grocery shopping together, planned trips and saw movies together. He wasn’t the first man to kiss me, but he was the man who kissed my eyelids as I fell asleep after we made love.

I saw Frank again at a wedding of mutual friends of ours. We were both in the wedding party and ended up paired to walk down the aisle together. He was thinner than I remembered. I found his nervous laugh irritating. I cringed when he said he liked the wedding service (she had promised to obey him). We ate dinner next to each other, drank champagne, danced together, and once again he called me beautiful. As he held me, for one fleeting and foolish moment I was sixteen again, and I believed that feeling beautiful was enough.

Name Withheld

The waves curl toward me again and again, my feet dodging their soft, foamy edges — a childhood catch-me game that my body can’t forget, a game I never lose. I step over multicolored seaweed, edgeless stones that always look prettier when they’re wet, ratty gull feathers, solitary shoes, soda bottles, chunks of wood, and broken shells. Little holes in the sand pucker open when the waves recede, the secret life of tiny crabs made visible but still incomprehensible.

A decade ago I walked this beach for the first time with a lover who became a husband who became a father who took his life and left his sons and wife with less than nothing. My dreams are gone, replaced by the hard knowledge of days that require me to get through them, nothing more. This is the life of the female animal: bear your young, keep them fed and dry, teach them both to be and to avoid predators.

And sometimes I go to the beach and try not to dream, try not to think of anything at all.

Karen S. Bard
Pomfret Center, Connecticut

I lived my life like I was driving down a highway, the landscape disappearing forever behind me. I lived it like a collection of short stories by different writers. There was no common thread that wound through the things I did. I left everything behind and never looked back.

All that changed when I met Chuck. He had lived his whole childhood in one town, in the same brick house, with the same neighbors. When he made a friendship, it stuck. When he cared about a thing, he never tossed it out.

One of the first things we did together was to return to all the places I’d lived, driving a 1960 green Chevrolet. We rode through the red clay of South Carolina. We got a visitor’s pass and drove through the air base in Charleston. We rented a house on Folly Beach; the boardwalk was gone, but the beach was still there. We did acid outside of Plains, Georgia, in honor of Jimmy Carter and my childhood.

We drove all the way to California and went to the orchard where I’d picked fruit with a bunch of hippies from Key West one summer. We parked the car on a dirt road, just outside of Winters, and sat on the hood, eating peaches. We went to the Sierra Nevadas. We drove to Nevada City, and all the hippies were gone. We went to San Francisco.

We drove all the way to Manhattan, in a Rambler this time, and stopped in front of my old tenement house on 4th Street. It was a Sunday morning, and the Puerto Rican kids were the only ones awake.

We drove to Beardstown, Illinois and went to an old hangout. I had left ten years before, but I still knew most of the people and they were still drunk. My parents had moved to Beardstown when I was fifteen, thinking it would do me good, but this is where I had ended up, in a sleazy little bar by the river that served minors and had pin-ups of naked women on the wall. There were fights almost every night back then. I liked the bartender. I got to be a pretty hot pool player, and I could outdrink most of the farm boys in there, for what that was worth.

Chuck and I sat on bar stools. Almost everyone in the place was a woman, which Chuck noticed right away. Lucky for us, the male regulars were at the bikers’ clubhouse that night. These men had gone through the redneck era and into the Midwestern small-town version of the hippie era — which consisted of growing their hair long and using drugs — and finally they’d bought Harleys and joined a motorcycle club. While we drank, they were probably watching poor-quality films of women engaged in sex acts with animals.

I had sat in this bar almost every night when I was a teenager. I’d had countless meaningless conversations, forged numerous superficial and short-term relationships, overlooked innumerable danger signals, and generally had lots of fun. But it was all over: I would never do it again, never even set foot in this place after that night, and I knew it. After all that driving around and remembering, I was finished with it.

Chuck and I played Hank Williams on the jukebox and drank Budweiser for a while. Then I ordered a shot of Wild Turkey, for old times’ sake, and drank it down. “Let’s get out of here,” I said.

Alison Clement
Yachats, Oregon

In retrospect I would perhaps describe the commune where I lived for seven years in the 1970s as a cult; but in those days I was so deeply committed to the people and the lifestyle and the spiritual practice that I considered it my family.

I was part of a singing group within the commune called A Few Good Friends. We cut a record and were hired for a professional gig or two. For about five years, even though some of us got married, had babies, and began to outgrow the communal experience, the group continued to write songs and sing together. We didn’t put a lot of stock in psychology in those days; we were into the transcendental and thought we could bypass all the sticky stuff of being human. Of course, that very stuff caught up with us, and one by one we left the commune and ventured our various ways, ending up in California, Georgia, New York. Over the years we kept in touch only through the grapevine or infrequent letters.

Ten years later, I got a call from the wife of one of the Few Good Friends. Her husband’s fortieth birthday was approaching, and she wanted to convene the group secretly for a weekend surprise party. And so we all came together in the autumn to a beautiful cottage in the Catskill mountains, where the leaves were ablaze with color and change. Three of us met the night before the party, to dust off some songs and memories. Our friend and his wife settled into their weekend retreat, supposedly to spend some time together alone, away from the children. The next morning, we drove to their cabin and quietly assembled on the porch. All was quiet in the house as we began to sing a song written by the man asleep inside, now ten years older and wiser.

Thinking his wife had put on a tape, he stumbled downstairs and then out onto the porch. That moment, when he joined in, right on cue, erased an entire decade and immortalized the love we felt for each other. We had not aged, no time had passed, nor was there much to talk about; there was only music, friendship, and the falling leaves.

Elizabeth Lesser
Woodstock, New York

“I gave up driving two years ago,” she said to me, leaning on her cane as she walked across the floor. Looking up, I smiled tamely and humored her with an oh. Bracing herself, she nestled down into her corner chair and fixed her gaze upon me as I continued to work. I knew then that I was going to be her complete home entertainment system for the hour and a half it would take me to clean her apartment.

“So I don’t go out anymore. It’s too much of a bother,” she said. Again I said oh, but this time kept my smile to myself.

“I used to drive everywhere when I was your age. How old are you, dear?”

“Twenty-three,” I answered, reaching for the vacuum.

“I’ll bet you . . .”

Cutting her off in mid-sentence, I flicked on the switch. From the corner of my eye, I could see her lips moving as she carried on, seeming completely content to keep talking to no one. I rounded the corner to another room. Once or twice, the vacuum still roaring, I peeked in at her and laughed to myself as I watched her chattering.

When I was done, I put the cleaning tools away in the hall closet and headed back to her to say goodbye.

“. . . and ten years later, he died,” she said, a tear rolling down her cheek. As if hit by a brick, I sat down at her feet and cried with her.

Pamela Milko
Sutton, Massachusetts

Ten years ago, after eight months of his phone calls and pleas to see me again, I decided I was ready. When he came to town again, I called to invite him to go for a walk. He said he’d come over right away. I said, No, I’ll meet you.

We met in the middle of the street; that was important to me, and he went along with it. We hugged each other, and he said, “Your heart is beating as fast as mine.” There was a full moon, and it was very light outside and drizzling.

We walked through the rain for what felt like most of the night. I told him I was trying to understand what had happened between us, how the abusive cycle had escalated, why I’d let it happen, why I’d stayed so long. I was aware as we talked that my resolve was faltering, that there were subtleties between us rather than the “good” and “evil” I had held on to so tightly for the past eight months. He said he really wanted to try again. I told myself to breathe. I told him I was falling in love with someone else.

Last month I was in the city he lives in; I called him. “Let me change phones,” he said. “My girlfriend is trying to sleep.” We talked for a long time, my heart pumping quickly, my body hot. He said he was very happy with his life. I raved about mine. He said he’d love to see pictures of my kids. When we hung up I felt an incredible thud in my chest. He hadn’t asked if he could see me.

More than ten years since the end of our passionate, horrible relationship, it is still alive for me. Will it take the rest of my life, I wonder, to settle into the one I’ve chosen, to make peace with the choices I’ve made? I have spent a decade learning to value myself, assert my needs, treat my partner kindly, give up some control and be more spontaneous, trust that I will be treated well. There’s less intensity but more consistency. It’s safe now.

You’d think I’d look back on my years with him and shudder, be pleased that I finally stood up for myself and left him, feel glad he is far away. But here it is: thinking of him gives me a charge, shimmers with temptation, like a mirage in the desert promising to quench my searing thirst. It hums like heat in my ears: maybe we could have worked it out, maybe he would have changed, if I had given him one more chance.

Name Withheld

I expected Dad to die in 1983. During a ten-month period, three operations were scheduled for him. Before the first one, he opened his will so that my brother and I, as executors, would understand his last wishes. I lived in anticipation and panic. Then, just before the third operation, my brother was killed.

The death of my brother when I expected the death of my father was a twist so incomprehensible that I felt tricked. I was not ready for my brother to die. All of a sudden life became more uncertain. My months of preparation had been useless. I felt stung but couldn’t find the stinger; my body ached but I couldn’t find the bruise.

The night of my brother’s death, I watched the setting sun and realized the same sun would rise the next morning, and the same sun would set in the evening, and the same sun would rise and set day after day after day. For the first time in a long while, I’d found something absolutely dependable, that nothing on earth could take away.

I never thought in a million years my brother’s death would give me something to hold on to.

Judith Wiley
Ontario, Canada

When I was forty-one, I saw for the first time in a dressing-room mirror the beginning of an aging jawline. I was startled. Who was this looking back at me? In the months that followed I watched with despair as the lines deepened.

A former boyfriend appeared in a dream, young and virile. I hid my face from him because I didn’t want him to see me old. Looking across the breakfast nook at my husband, the morning sun in my face, I read anguish in his eyes as I imagined him watching my lips pucker, my neck loosen, my jowls steadily drop. It was too painful to talk about with anyone.

I studied the women who had passed over to “old” — some resigned to being “little old ladies,” some obviously working hard at camouflage. Was it harder for those of us who had once been beautiful, who knew the power of turning heads? I alternated between avoiding the mirror and scrutinizing myself in it, assessing the damage, experimenting with makeup and moisturizers, and struggling to find the confidence to face people. My physical beauty was leaving me. I wasn’t sure who I would become.

Now, ten years later, I like my face. I can already see the hint of how I’ll look at sixty or seventy, and it suits me well. Occasionally I stretch my skin back to see how a face-lift would look, but I always decide I like what nature has given me. My hair has thinned, my waist has thickened, my hands and arms are freckled, but I have deepened. I’m often surprised at how men, even younger ones, are drawn to me in a way they weren’t before, when much of what I had to offer was lovely but only a carefully created image. I have been forced to go inside. I have less artifice now. I laugh more easily. My heart is more open. I feel more generous. Aging has brought me many gifts of the spirit for which I am grateful.

Name Withheld

Ten years ago, I snuck into the Ritz and saw the first rock videos. They were huge and eerie, somehow recalling the Elvis Presley movies that mystified me in my youth. Everyone in them was constantly in motion, of course, and the colors were gory and deep. None of us disco-goers knew that these videos would soon take over a TV channel, and make us all feel old.

Sparrow
New York, New York

I was completely distraught. In two weeks I would graduate from college and take a seemingly useless degree to do God-knows-what. I kept shying away from looking toward my future. All I could feel was the gut-sense of doom I conjured to meet it. My past offered no solace and no encouragement to move forward. Strangely, in the midst of all this turmoil, I had managed to find ways — some of them self-destructive, but effective nonetheless — to live in the present.

Yet all that was about to end, and I was preparing to embark on a new journey, completely unprepared, suspicious of every open hand, every assured smile.

Worst of all, I was still a virgin. Not because of religious convictions or some clearly defined ethic; I was simply terrified at the thought of having sex. It was my secret, my secret shame. The only person who had ever done anything sexual with me was my father, who suffered from schizophrenia and alcoholism throughout his short life and who had found a way to share his suffering with his family.

 

When I first met her, she was the live-in girlfriend of a good friend. She had been kind to me, with a manic edge I found dangerous and alluring. I wanted her from the moment I met her — without really knowing what I wanted. A year later, by the time of my impending graduation, she and my friend had parted company, and I had lost touch with her.

I ran into her again at a party. She wore a casual dress of a post- World War II vintage, perfectly suited to her small frame and gentle curves. As I leaned against a wall, sucked back from the crowd and into the music (a familiar, comforting place), she approached me suddenly, beaming a wanton smile and talking animatedly. She offered me a ride home — I had no car then — and as we rode toward my place, happily listening to the radio, she suggested we go to hers instead. She wanted to talk some more, she explained. Everything in my blood howled yes! in response.

Inside her house, she placed her arms around me and said, “Now. finally.” I was transfixed. Now. Finally. I should have been so happy. And yet I could not remember having been more terrified in my life.

She led me by the hand to her bedroom, where she pulled me onto the mattress. My face drew toward her, my mouth opened, and everything within me went absolutely blank.

Two weeks later I graduated, and the next day I left for Maine with a friend, for absolutely no good reason. For the next three years, I was sexually active; yet now I have no memory of it beyond a vague awareness that it happened — it must have. I am just beginning to trace all the way back through ten years, hoping to regain all I lost then.

 

About a month ago I met a woman to whom I’ve become very attracted. We share many interests, difficult pasts, and a certain understanding of things. We are becoming friends, yet even now I fight my swarming emotions, all demanding coupling — physical, emotional, spiritual. But it has been more than six years since I have had sex with anyone, and my celibacy has become a comforting prison in which I can continue to nurture all my time-honed generalizations about the pain and — terror of sex.

I can feel something within me shifting. Recently, I’ve become physically aware of my pelvis and the conduit of energy it seems to contain. I have learned to rely on it when I run and lift weights, and I sense its power as I write, sit, stand, walk, breathe; indeed, my body has begun to open its wonders to my awareness, and I have come not just to accept it but to celebrate its movement.

For ten years I cursed the nether region of my sex into obscurity, suffering from poor circulation and pain in my legs and ankles, while continually warning my waking consciousness of the beast lying subdued in the malevolent throb of my groin. Now I’m beginning to long for a greater union: for the furious bond of sex, yes, and for the blanket of warmth and sanctuary that companionship can provide, but also for my own union with the necessary sexual maleness I never quite found.

I want her. I want me. And in moving toward us both, I want to learn what we means.

Sam Gaines
Greensboro, North Carolina

In the summer of 1983 I fell in love with a difficult man. The qualities that made me fall in love with him are of course the same qualities that made him difficult. We laughed so hard that summer that I would nearly drive my car off the road, gulping big lungfuls of air, wiping tears from my eyes.

I saw his temper, saw how ungrateful he was. My mother, who had married an alcoholic, drilled into me that you can’t change a man no matter how much you love him. I believed her, so I planned to accept this man as he was, to be mute and understanding in the face of his monumental anger. He knows now he can’t direct it at me or the children, but he’s allowed to throw things, get out of the car and disappear, yell obscenities.

Yet when he invents stories every night to our daughters’ delight and dances around the living room with our son beaming away, when he brings me yellow anemones, I think I might be doing the right thing. He never looks at another woman, he understands the meaning of commitment, he has a MENSA-level IQ and a fabulous butt.

But the black cloud he lives under inevitably rains on my daily parade. It seems too cynical to say that all I’ve learned in ten years is that my mother was right, because even though I believed her, I must have had a secret little hope that love would make a difference. And who knows — maybe he’d be in much worse shape without me. I wonder where I would be.

Name Withheld

Ten years ago, on my thirty-second birthday, I sat with a gun in one hand and a bottle of tranquilizers in the other, debating which to use to end my suffering. After five years of failed experimental treatments, reconstructive surgeries that resulted in more scar tissue than improvement, a secondary disease that kept me bedridden for more than a year, and unending debilitating pain, the combination of agony, desperation, and guilt had finally overwhelmed me.

Five years earlier, only days after Brendan and I were married, a brutal rapist had left me with a devastated body. When we should have been decorating our new home, we were bouncing between surgeons, psychiatrists, and detectives; while we should have been giddy with happiness, we were mourning the loss of what I now call “the old me.”

Since then, Brendan had tried to keep daily life for me and our two children as normal as possible in a living nightmare. He worked long hours of overtime to compensate for the sudden loss of half our income and did all the errands and housework — shopping, laundry, cooking, and cleaning. He did the ordinary things for me that “normal” people do for themselves without a second thought, like washing my hair and lifting me in and out of the tub.

My whole body had suffered injuries in the attack, but everything else paled in comparison to the destruction of my jaw — joint capsules ruptured, bones splintered, tendons and ligaments ripped apart. I needed new joints, but specialists advised against plastic or metal replacements because the skull rejects materials that other parts of the body accept. But a fantastic young surgeon was determined to help me.

He offered an experimental procedure using unproven materials, but at that point I couldn’t eat or talk (we’d learned sign language), so Brendan and I agreed it was my only hope. The Air Force surgeon who had invented the equipment, material, and procedure offered to do it, but I wasn’t stable enough to go to the Texas research center that authorized his work. So my surgeon went to Texas to learn the procedure.

To prepare for the surgery, I endured difficult sessions of physical therapy. Doctors emphasized that communication between me and Brendan was vital, explaining that 97 percent of marriages of severe-pain patients fail. Frail and deeply depressed, I fit another profile they had warned only Brendan about: 95 percent of people living with debilitating pain eventually commit suicide.

So why didn’t I use the gun or swallow the pills? While I thought about Brendan, I knew he would be OK without me. I chose life that day because of my kids. I convinced myself that nobody would raise them as well as I would and that nobody could love them as much as I did.

I emptied the gun, flushed fifty pills down the toilet, then wrote a promissory note to myself saying I would never try suicide again and I would find a way to be a good mother. That decision forced me to face the incredible challenge of creating and accepting a meticulously choreographed lifestyle designed to let me function while coping with constant pain.

I have done more than survive these last ten years. I now counsel people in pain and amaze my doctors with the life Brendan and I enjoy. Our children, Ty and Allison, have grown into happy, productive adults, and they often thank me for being a “great mom.” Every time they do, I feel as if I should be thanking them.

Catherine Savoy McCormack
Midlothian, Virginia

In 1933, my parents were happy teenagers who did not know each other, did not know World War II was marching toward them, did not know of me.

Ten years later on a cold winter night, I was conceived in the midst of a war. I became a roly-poly, happy little boy, whose gleeful giggles could make everyone on a Ferris wheel laugh — even my mother, who was scared of heights.

Ten years later, watching 1953 cartoons on the old Hoffman TV, I laughed at Donald Duck playing a World War II cartoon soldier, quacking and squabbling under fire at the front. I didn’t know that boys not ten years older than I were dying in a war in a place called Korea.

Ten years later I was a happy high school graduate with a job, a 1956 Ford Victoria, a girlfriend who allowed heavenly intimacy in the front seat, and a vague notion of another war in a place called Vietnam. I entered college, but soon afterward my country turned me into an involuntary soldier and I understood the helpless anguish of that delirious Donald Duck.

Ten years later I had graduated from college and become a welfare caseworker. I fought for the rights of my clients during the day and fled the crazy city at night with my lover, to a bucolic island in Puget Sound. It was 1973, and children and women and men were still dying in Vietnam.

Ten years later I was still living on the island, but alone in a silver Airstream trailer. Many lovers had come and gone. I lost my mother and, for a time, my mind. But I also got a new job and built a new house and started a new life.

Now, in 1993, my father too has died, and I am older than the President of the United States. I was laid off my job a year ago and am still unemployed. Small wars rage here and there on the planet, and I have just extricated myself from a messy relationship with a woman for whom I briefly left this island.

I am back home now. There are white clouds in a baby blue sky. It’s high tide and small waves ripple across the water in the harbor. I go out on the deck to toss pieces of old bread to squawking sea gulls and cawing crows. My neighbor’s cat comes to visit me every day. I do not want another job. I would welcome another lover with open but cautious arms. I have no idea what might happen next.

Ten years from now it will be 2003.

Samuel Wilson III
Vashon, Washington

I met them all around the same time. Fred was an herbalist and a chef who could sculpt a delicious meal out of colors, textures, shapes, and tastes from every part of the planet. Randy, with the compact body of an ancient Greek athlete, was a gymnast in training for the Olympics. Joseph, with his Southern drawl, was the finest natural-born storyteller any of us had ever known. Mark, a dancer, had brilliant hands and was studying to be a healer. John was a staid British composer and writer, whose words had the same exquisite perfection as the veins in an oak leaf.

Ten years later: no dinners to savor, no medals to show off, no intoxicating stories, no healing hands, no tracery of words laid out across the table. AIDS.

Andrew Ramer
Brooklyn, New York