One afternoon thirty years ago at my school in Fryeburg, Maine, I was seated in study hall when a girl hurriedly entered the room with a note for the monitor. Clearly it was not a tardy slip, for she didn’t watch his eyes for a response as he scanned the note. Instead she stood by his desk and looked mutely at us all. It was probably some sort of general announcement. Such bulletins were common, and I always enjoyed the interruption.
The monitor stood to read it aloud, which he’d never done before. “Everyone’s attention, please,” he said. “President Kennedy was shot and killed today in Dallas, Texas. Mrs. Kennedy escaped uninjured.” He handed the note back to the girl, and she headed for the next classroom.
When we finally resumed the decorum customary to afternoon study hall, everything around me seemed alien; the desks, books, coats, and winter boots were no longer relevant to the world into which we had been thrown. Weren’t we all just dying to get out of the building? How could we continue to sit there? Each minute was interminable as the clock pushed toward two-thirty. That’s when the bell would ring, but the true alarm had already sounded in two sentences.
At last, released from study hall, we all shuffled out, and I speechlessly headed for gym class. Walk, enter, undress, put on sneakers — we moved like cattle at a feedlot. I found myself standing on the varnished court below the net, near a few other boys, none of us saying a word. The cavernous gym was cool; my legs had goose flesh. Suddenly the coach tossed the ball at me. It was hard and cold. We were supposed to warm up, but like a sleepwalker I let go of the ball. I turned and slowly walked toward the exit. The coach yelled, “Thorp! Thorp, come back!”
New Haven, Connecticut
For as long as I could remember, I’d wanted a photograph of my mother. My grandmother once had one but had thrown it away, and if my father ever possessed one, he never told me about it.
My mother moved in prominent circles, and I spent a lot of time searching for her picture in newspapers and magazines. Once I came across a photo of her husband and some of their friends lounging on the floor in the bohemian manner of Greenwich Village in the 1940s. I felt certain my mother was there, too. I could almost make out her face in the background.
Finally I asked others for help. A cousin went to my mother’s high school to photocopy her yearbook picture, but there was no record of her. From the Yellow Pages of a stolen phone book, I chose the detective agency with the biggest ad and wrote to ask them to photograph my mother. The envelope came back marked Unknown at this address. I even hired a photographer to snap a picture of her at the center where she cared for abandoned children. I never heard from him again.
At last a friend located my half-sister, and it was she who sent me the photo I’d waited a lifetime to acquire. It’s a black-and-white studio pose of my mother as a very young girl. Her long hair is braided and coiled around her head. Her face glows. Her chin tilts forward purposefully. Even at that age she looks like what she would become: a woman who mixes with the rich and powerful and does whatever she must to survive.
I wasn’t sure why I’d wanted this picture so badly. But I purchased a Victorian-style double frame with creamy, gold-threaded lace, pink roses, and pale green leaves. On one side I placed the photo of my beautiful mother, on the other a photo of my still young, idealistic, movie-star-handsome father. I keep their photos next to my typewriter and look at them often. Each time, I feel the same childish guilt mixed with cunning satisfaction. There they are, forever forced to be the couple they never were in life.
Shelley V. Ashley
In this room where I sit and wait, there isn’t much space — barely enough for your bed and the IV pole. My chair is too big to fit close to your bed. In order to hold your hand, I must lower the bedrail and sit beside you.
I watch you breathing and try an experiment. I think to you, If you can hear me thinking, move your toes. I take your lack of response as a sign that you can hear me but are just ignoring me.
I open my lunch bag. The paper crackles loudly, but you don’t react. While I eat, I listen to your rapid breathing. I am familiar with your rhythms now, and even when you stop, then take a deep breath and let it out slowly, I am not alarmed.
Today you raise your hands every few minutes, and I take them and comfort you. Sometimes I’m not quick enough, and you settle yourself. Then I feel useless. Can’t you even let me help you? I think. Is this your last breath?
I’ve paid attention to all the instructions from the nurses. We must be careful to use paper tape around the IV because your skin is so soft. I must remember to cut down your straw so that very little suction is needed should you want your juice. Everyone asks, “Is there anything you need?” I want to laugh but instead I just say, “Thank you, we’re fine.”
I rub lotion on your skin, clip your nails, and brush your hair. I swab your mouth with mouthwash and put ChapStick on your lips. I check your sheets. I am tired, but I don’t want to sleep. I think how glad I am that you ate the figs that you love this summer. They’re ripe only for a week or so.
I have used waiting as an instrument of covert torment all my life.
When I was a child, and my father gave me a chore, I had to jump when he said jump and do it his way. No matter how hard I tried it was never good enough. That’s when I developed the “molasses dance”: I waited until the last minute to start a chore and then dragged it out, doing just enough to look like I was working but not actually accomplishing anything. I enjoyed his frustration, watching the veins swell in his reddened face and neck.
My waiting-game tactics let up only momentarily when my father suffered a heart attack during my freshman year at college. I professed sympathy but secretly rejoiced that my behavior may have contributed to his condition.
At college I waited until the last minute to turn in term papers and study for exams, and I flunked out. Later, in various jobs, there was always an initial honeymoon period in which I worked efficiently. But as soon as I felt pressured or unappreciated, I did just enough to get by and made lots of excuses. More red faces led to pink slips and bad references.
With spouses I could do even more damage. There was always an aspect of their personality that was exactly like my father’s, so after the honeymoon was over I played the waiting game with great cunning and cruelty. I waited to pay bills and taxes, waited to make investments, waited so long at night to initiate sex that they fell asleep angry and frustrated. All the while I professed innocence as to the destruction I was causing.
These days, my desire to sabotage others (and myself) is beginning to fade. The pleasure I used to take in my waiting game is diminishing as I discover the anger and pain behind it.
We are twenty minutes into the session, and she has not yet spoken a word. Though we’ve been meeting twice a week for the past eighteen months, I still find myself wondering if I am creating a safe place for her. I spend more time waiting for her to venture toward me than I do listening or responding. Yet I know that if I speak first, she will withdraw further. So I wait.
Sitting on a silence (as one of my mentors called it) can be excruciating. One can rarely judge the distance or closeness implied in a silence, so the risk of a misstep is always high — a misstep that may violate an unknown boundary or be perceived as holding back. So I wait.
Waiting is not something I do easily. I tend to get impatient in long lines or in restaurants with slow service. But the waiting I do in my work is different. It is born of trying to be attuned to another human being, to the dark, silent places that exist in each of us. So I wait.
Jeffrey C. Fracher
I was crazy about him. He was intelligent and open, and the way he looked at me made me feel twenty years younger. It seemed as if he knew my innermost thoughts, and I gave him my trust right away. When I told him how long I had been celibate in my marriage, he was surprised and saddened.
But as we lay in bed after making love for the first time, he asked, “Don’t you feel guilty?”
“Why should I feel guilty?” I said. “I’m having more fun than I’ve had in years.” That was the truth. Our lovemaking was wild and passionate. I felt young and attractive and alive, and guilt was not about to ruin this for me.
A week later he left for Vancouver on vacation, taking my phone number with him. Just mine and his mother’s; I should feel honored, he teased.
Then the waiting began. I didn’t take a shower when I thought he might call. I didn’t vacuum all week. Leaving the house was out of the question. But the phone didn’t ring.
When he got back, however, we had a particularly romantic reunion. Afterward, I confided that I’d been hurt when he didn’t call. I also told him I was afraid my strong feelings for him might scare him away. He assured me he wasn’t going anywhere, but later he admitted that he had met someone in Vancouver. She was tall and blond and had refused to sleep with him. He was proud of her for that, he said. I lay there naked beside him, unable to hide my shame; I had given myself so freely, so easily.
The thought of him loving someone else was more than I could bear. We would just be friends, we decided. So we met for long, wonderful lunches. I was his confidante. I listened, advised, and waited for his relationship with her to end.
Then it ended, and I did make love to him. But he was still hurting for her and feeling sorry for himself. Being with me only reminded him that he had no one waiting for him at home. He wouldn’t see me again.
Now we live in different towns. Occasionally I call his number when I think he won’t be home, just to hear his voice on his answering machine, even though the call is long-distance and will show up on my bill. Sometimes, when I’m thinking of him, I feel his presence so intensely that I imagine he must be thinking of me too, and I wonder if he’ll call.
Waiting — in grocery store lines, at stoplights, for a devoted lover, for something to happen. Meanwhile my cat cleans her coat, stalks a cockroach, stares at me. So much presence. So little waiting.
M. Jennifer Edgar
When I was a fourteen-year-old girl, a thirty-six-year-old woman seduced me. Whenever she could sneak away from her husband and children, she would call and direct me to meet her on a designated corner in my neighborhood. As I stood waiting in the darkness for her to pick me up, I’d be torn by conflicting emotions: the worry that I’d see someone I knew; the terror of being found out by her family or mine; the anxiety that I was late and had missed her; the desire to feel her arms holding me close (because no one ever held me), to feel her lips on mine, to feel the comfort of what I thought was affection for me. Then her car would pull up, and I would get in.
Now, thirty-five years later, my counselor says that no one taught me how to say no and that I should stop berating myself for having waited on that corner all those years ago.
I’m waiting in a lobby for a taxi. The receptionist and I are making small talk when a very pregnant woman walks by.
“Hello, Rita,” the receptionist says. “How are you today?”
“Great,” answers the woman.
“Tell me again, when are you due?”
“Looks like it’s going to be late.”
Rita pauses. Her face is aglow. “No,” she says. “Something happened this morning.”
I smile shyly at her. She smiles back. I watch her leave the building and walk slowly to her car.
When my cab arrives, I sit in the back and think about what she said. “Something happened this morning.” I’m not even sure what she meant, but somehow they’re the simplest, most beautiful words I’ve heard in a long time.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
When I was five, I’d sit in the front window at night, waiting for my mother to come home. I’d pull the curtains around me to block the light from the living room, where my dad sat in his chair, half asleep, half watching television, a toothpick hanging from his lower lip.
I made up games to pass the time. In one of them, I’d fog the window with my breath, then bet that she’d come home before it cleared. I’d draw pictures of her face on the steamy window and watch the headlights of passing cars brighten her eyes. I’d bet that she’d return within the passing of five cars, then ten. I’d whisper, my eyes closed, “Miracle, miracle, please come true. Bring my mother home, please do.”
She always did come home eventually, and I came to believe it was my waiting that brought her back.
Saturday morning, and I’m baking a carrot cake in an oven heated to only 275 degrees. I set the timer for an hour and fifteen minutes. The temperature seems too low and the baking time too long, but I’m holding my suspicion in check even though I fear that the cake will be lost.
I’m a nervous baker. I have an urge to call my mother and ask her what to do, but she will answer like she always does: use your own judgment.
I remember watching her bake bread every Saturday when I was a girl. At age five I knew the ritual. All the ingredients were laid out in advance: flour, a touch of salt and sugar, Crisco, yeast, and tepid water she’d warmed in a little pan. The huge metal bowl that was used only for bread making hung by a string in the pantry. She placed it on a low, white, paint-chipped, wooden chair. The only thing that chair ever supported was the bread bowl; it was too rickety to bear the weight of a person.
First she poured the flour into the bowl and sifted it through her fingers, letting it cascade into a peak. Next came the sugar and salt and glistening mounds of Crisco. All these different shades of white, more than you would think existed until you saw them next to each other. The yeast that smelled so sour and came in light-brown cakes was laid on top.
My job was to pour the water. She would motion for me to bring her the pan, and she’d dip into it her entire floury hand — not just a timid finger — to check the temperature. If it was too hot, we’d wait. She was never impatient, and I knew not to talk. I just watched her.
When it was time to knead, the height of the chair came in handy. She bent over it, her bosom giving in to gravity, balled up her hands, and applied all of her weight to the slippery white mass. The kneading left knuckle marks on the dough and made a sucking sound that was somehow erotic. I held the pan of water, hardly breathing, waiting for her to be still, which was my cue to pour more water.
She told me to watch her and I would learn. She told me that was how she learned from her mother. Her bread tasted exactly the same every week: light and moist and delicious, the yeastiness still detectable if you exhaled through your nose while holding the bread in your closed mouth.
What would happen if the temperature of the water was too warm? How much flour did she use? She wouldn’t answer those questions. I was supposed to learn by watching.
I’m a grown woman now, and people have been telling me all my life there are certain things in this world that you just know. In a movie I once saw, a young girl’s mother tells her, “Honey, when you fall in love you will know it. It will feel like being hit on the head with a sledgehammer.” But I don’t think many things feel that way. Not love and not baking, and I feel lied to.
My friend Maria and I were both four when she died of pneumonia. One day she was my playmate, the next she was dead. The mortician placed her body in a small wood coffin, very plain, and put it on display in the corner bedroom upstairs, where her parents lived in our house.
Her family couldn’t afford a regular funeral, but the nuns at our church decided she would have a proper service, money or no, with a Mass of the Angels. They chose me to be an angel and fitted me with wings — wings! — made of white crinoline and wire. It was to be my first starring role, and the wait for the service seemed an eternity.
When the day finally arrived, I was helped, so as not to bend my wings, into an automobile that would take me to the church; it was my first automobile ride. At the church, I led the procession down the aisle, beaming for everyone to see. Maria’s small coffin was carried behind me. Everyone else wept, but my heart pounded with exhilaration. I minced toward the altar, pretending I was bobbing up and down among clouds.
“This happy memory of a death,” a psychiatrist once told me, “is very healthy for you.” I’m not so sure. I remember how selfishly thrilled I was to be in Maria’s funeral procession, how I couldn’t wait to walk down the aisle with those wings. I remember nothing of Maria before that.
Mary B. Bem
Nassau Bay, Texas
My boyfriend came to the United States on a student visa with ambitious dreams. He was in English-language school when he answered my ad for a roommate. We lived together and became lovers. Then I got pregnant. He told me he was moving out, but changed his mind, dropped out of school, and maintained our apartment while his self-esteem dissolved. For the last two months of my pregnancy I supported him. He cooked our meals and watched cartoons.
We parted two weeks after our daughter was born, the day after Father’s Day. His family had been begging him to return to Korea; they needed his help. He didn’t tell them about me or our baby. He told me they’d disown him if they knew.
Now he is back in Korea, finishing a degree he started years ago. He’s called me every week, and he says that his family now knows he has an American girlfriend. I’ve made him an album of photos of his child, but he doesn’t want me to send it yet.
Meanwhile, I work, leaving my job twice a day to nurse our daughter. And I ask questions: Will I ever see him again? Will he be a father to his child? Should I take off my wedding band? I work every day of the week. But what I am really doing is waiting.
It’s Sunday, 8:30 P.M., and rain or shine he’ll run. While I wait, I pretend to read or write. I imagine his routine: putting his children to bed, tying the laces on his running shoes, kissing his wife goodbye, and heading out into the night. At nine I’ll get anxious and pace the floor, checking yet again that the door is unlocked, that the window shade — our signal — is properly aligned. I’ll worry that something has prevented him from coming.
But sometime in the next half-hour he’ll quietly enter my house. His eyes will be ice blue and clear. His nose will be pink from the chilly October air. When I see him, I won’t quite believe that he’s here. Then I’ll pull him close to feel the tightness and warmth of his body under his sweat shirt. We’ll hold each other; maybe we’ll make love. For a few hours, there’ll be no waiting.
It was a beautiful September day, cooled by the winds from the surrounding West Virginia hills. It was early in my first season as a starter on the Logan Central Junior High football team, and although we had lost our first two games, that afternoon we were leading 12-0. Playing cornerback, I drifted close to our opponents’ receiver, hoping to keep step with him. He charged to back me off, but I saw the throw coming, and before I knew it the ball was squarely in my hands. I dashed frantically toward the end zone, my stubby legs furiously chopping up moist earth. With only their quarterback to beat, I was running for the only glory I would ever know in organized sports. Just as he caught me, I dived into the end zone. Touchdown!
Of course, it was called back because of a penalty — on me.
We won the game anyway, and I got a bunch of good-natured ribbing from my teammates. I was exhilarated as I left the locker room, and that’s when I saw him waiting for me by the bleachers. My father. He wore his navy windbreaker, the collar turned up against the stiff breeze. He was staring down at a cigarette he had stubbed out with his right loafer.
I fought the urge to run. The man I’d believed to be in the state psychiatric hospital in Charleston — the same man who had taught me almost everything I knew about football, and who had beaten me with a baseball bat when I didn’t learn quickly enough — was standing not thirty yards from me.
Dad had been a high school All-American football player. After college he was drafted by the pros, but his knees were gone and so was his promising football career. I had known him only as a tortured, violent man, hospitalized repeatedly for his bizarre outbursts. He was alternately diagnosed as schizophrenic and manic-depressive, and he was medicated, given shock therapy, tied down — whatever doctors could think of to still him until the worst passed.
The worst of his behavior was sexual and violent. Yet he had periods of kindness and clarity, when he emerged from his dungeon of demonic memories and tormenting impulses and acted the decent father to me.
His hospital commitment periods were limited by law to thirty days. I’d lost count or I’d have been on the look-out for him. Now he was out, and he had come to see me do my pathetic best at football — his game.
I stepped back into the shadows. It would be easy enough to find another way home, but he would know that I had ducked him, and there would be hell to pay for that somewhere down the line. There was only one thing to do. I slung my gym bag over my shoulder, tucked my schoolbooks under my arm, and stepped toward him. I would be his son.
“Hi, Dad.” I was a good ten yards away — still enough room to turn tail and run.
He had lit another cigarette, and through a cloud of smoke he answered, “Hey, son.”
He looked up only for a moment, then took another drag on his Pall Mall. “That was one hell of a run you had out there,” he said, smiling. “I didn’t know you had that kind of speed in you.”
“It’s not hard to run fast when you’re scared to death,” I said, and smiled hopefully. I looked into the dark recesses of his eyes and marveled at how handsome a man he was: cleanshaven, broad shouldered, sharp boned.
He laughed. “That’s the God’s truth,” he said. “Surer than shit. That’s the God’s truth. Now how about I buy a burger for the touchdown maker?”
I was about to remind him that it hadn’t counted, but I held it back. I walked to his side. To my disbelief, he put his arm around my shoulders. As we walked to the burger place just up the road, he told me the stories he’d told me a hundred times about his gridiron glories.
It was the last time my father and I would share this mystery of goodness in the midst of the insanity that darkened his life, and mine.
Greensboro, North Carolina
I was hiking in the Sierra mountains along a steep path by a raging river when I came upon a woman sitting on the trail. It was strange to see her sitting there alone, and she looked distraught. A ranger stood on a nearby bridge, staring into the water fifty feet below.
“Hello,” I said to her, “how are you?”
“Not well,” she said. “I can’t find my husband.”
“What do you mean?”
“He fell in the river and I can’t find him.”
“How long ago?”
I sat on the ground beside her and held her. I let my body heat do what it could to comfort her. I didn’t know what else to offer. She began to wail, and I rocked her back and forth. I was afraid of saying something thoughtless, so I said nothing.
After a while she told me that she and her husband had been hiking with their dog. When the dog went into the river at a turbulent spot, her husband grabbed for him, slipped on a rock, and fell in. They both disappeared. She went for help, and the rangers pulled the dog out alive three waterfalls away. Her husband was still missing.
After we’d been waiting together two or three hours, the rescue team came on horseback with ropes, wet suits, and helmets with headlights. They began an extensive search.
As we waited, I looked at the water and thought of the places it was going: past my cabin, through Pinecrest and Miwalk Village, past Twain Harte and Sonora, into the great San Joaquin, where it would fill the calm canals that irrigated fields of corn, asparagus, and tomatoes and orchards of walnuts, almonds, peaches, and cherries. This water, essential to so much life, was holding a man under. Not just any man — this woman’s husband. I thought of the complexity of this as we sat there: two women waiting to learn what we already knew.
Culver City, California