Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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When I was eleven, my father flew my brothers, my sister, and me to Philadelphia for a wedding. I can’t remember who was getting married — probably a cousin from his side of the family whom none of us knew. My parents had been divorced since I was six months old, so I didn’t know my father very well. In many ways, we kids had grown to think of him as the enemy. He popped up every few months in a flashy sports car to unfold his wallet, show us pictures of his new wife or baby, and speed off again. He lived hundreds of miles away.
Since my mother never had enough money for us to travel, an offer of a free plane ticket to Philadelphia, no matter what the purpose, was tough to turn down.
My sister and I got to share a room in a posh downtown hotel. During the ceremony, we tried to be on our best behavior, but we nudged each other repeatedly and unstrapped our uncomfortable new shoes. About a year and a half apart in age, we stuck together after the wedding, wandering the halls of the hotel and occasionally returning to the reception for free Cokes at the bar. Finally, when our wandering had bored us silly, we stood at the edge of the room in our best dresses and our mother’s control-top nylons. My father was dancing with one strange woman after another. We watched with mild distaste. Who did this guy think he was? He was supposed to be a father, after all.
Then a song ended and he came over to us. He casually took my sister’s hand and led her out onto the floor. I was flabbergasted. I thought for sure my sister would shake loose and come back so we could go in pursuit of more free Cokes and make fun of him. We hated him together, didn’t we? But she seemed happy dancing with him. I remember thinking, Well, if he’s really going to make an effort, maybe, just maybe, I’ll let him dance with me. When the song ended, he brought my sister back, looked at me for a moment, then turned away to dance with someone else.
Santa Monica, California
I was barely seventeen, but I wanted my baby. I would have found work. I would have loved her enough for two parents. “It’s your decision,” my father said, but he forbade anyone from baby-sitting so I could work or finish school. “It’s your decision,” he said, but then added that if I really loved her I’d give her to parents who could provide everything she needs. (What about me, her mother? I was the one who craved syrupy canned peaches and corn on the cob. I was the one who sang to her and talked to her before she was born.) My father said I could have a family of my own someday (as though she wasn’t really mine). Nineteen years later, she is still my only child.
In the delivery room, I heard the doctor yell, “The head’s coming!” and then, “Mask her!” The last words she heard from her real mother were “No! Please, no!” as they shoved a mask over my face. I woke up in the recovery room and knew a part of me had died. I was emptier than I had ever been. I placed my hand over my vacant womb and wept.
My father said we could “go back to normal,” but nothing in my life has been normal since. Not a single day goes by without my thinking of her. I love her. I still cry for her. The pain never goes away.
I wonder, Is she happy? Is she secure? Is she loved? Or does she feel the emptiness that I do? Does she hate me for betraying her as much as I hate my father?
I didn’t expect to fall in love with Naomi when I slept with her. She was Forrest’s wife, and Forrest was my best friend.
Here’s what I remember about that night I first slept with Naomi: champagne; packing up the books in my office; smoking some shit with Billy Red-Eyes; saying to Forrest, “I wonder if I can get laid tonight.”
When Forrest went away to prison, he asked me to take care of Naomi and the baby that was on the way. I said I would and I meant it. I made sure she got some money when I took care of Forrest’s business for him; I made his land payments for him so he’d have something when he got out; and after the baby was born, I took them both in, kept a roof over their heads and food on the table. I felt good doing all this — keeping my promise.
That night, after I dropped Forrest off at his halfway house, after I said, “I wonder if I can get laid,” I went over to Billy Red-Eyes’ and smoked some shit with him. I thought about calling one of the girls I knew, but instead I decided to go home and use the heroin high to stay up all night packing, because I only had two days left on my lease.
When I got home, Naomi was there. She had champagne and she was packing up her bedroom. She said she’d pack mine up, too, so I could work on my office. The baby was asleep, and we drank champagne as we worked. I turned the stereo up loud and danced around my office, putting my books in boxes and throwing out old magazines.
About first light, Naomi and I took the last of the champagne outside to watch the dawn. We’d never done that before. Out on the lawn by the creek, I put my arm around her to keep her warm, and she moved in a little closer. Not talking to each other anymore, we lay down on her shawl in the dewy grass and began kissing. Then I put it in her. We moved together, still not talking except for her whispering in my ear, her lips feather-soft on my ear lobe, fuckmefuckmefuckme. We went back into the house, to my bed, and she told me not to think, not to worry, just put it in her again. And I shut out everything that wasn’t her and me, wasn’t her body and mine joined together. I shut out the baby asleep in the next room, shut out Forrest asking me to take care of her, shut out tomorrow and waking up and moving — shut it all out so I could have her right then because then was all that mattered.
When we were done I held her, thinking, I don’t feel that different. Naomi and the baby were still going to move into the cabin on Forrest’s land and start over with him while I moved on. She’d go back to her bed, and tomorrow we’d load up the trucks and move out of there, just like we’d planned.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
Doing some research for a novel I’m writing, I wanted to attend a Catholic Mass. I’d barely set foot in a church my whole life, and I was afraid to go alone. Luckily, a lapsed-Catholic friend offered to take me to Christmas Mass. “It’ll be fun,” she said. It wasn’t.
She was happily nostalgic, full of warm childhood memories. The church was huge and glorious, the crucifixion illuminated above the altar. Jesus on the cross gazed ecstatically up at God. Everyone sang Christmas carols, the same ones I had sung without meaning all my life. I closed my eyes and felt an overwhelming wave of infinite, unconditional love roll over me. It was intensely painful.
I pretended nothing had happened, but I started attending Mass.
I learned to take a great deal of Kleenex because I wept through the entire service, even the homily. I would sing Christe eleison and feel an invisible finger slowly rubbing a circle between my eyes, invisible hands smoothing my hair. I was immensely secretive about the whole experience, as if I had a lover whom I could never introduce to my parents. This was not far from the truth.
My rationalist, progressive parents might see the point of going to church for a sense of community, or for its moral virtues — but not this. Not this abject devotion, this groveling, this kissing the cross. My mind was aghast, embarrassed for me. It said, I thought you didn’t believe in the concept of sin.
So I was wrong.
Buddhism is so calm. You really like Buddhism.
Buddha doesn’t make me cry.
How about those anti-abortion postcards in the pews, ready to be filled out and sent to your congressman?
Shut up. Can’t you see I’m busy?
I was busy. I was waking up from a spiritual despair so pervasive I hadn’t been aware I was experiencing it. It was as if someone was opening my bedroom door, flooding my rumpled bed with light; I was rubbing my eyes, noticing that I hadn’t changed the sheets or taken out the garbage in months. With infinite gentleness, a voice was saying, “You know, it could be time to start cleaning up.”
I called up the nun in charge of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults and made my appointment. Then I went out and bought myself a tiny silver cross, hung it around my neck, and kissed my mind goodbye.
Kay Levine Spencer
My first day in the alcohol-rehabilitation center — my first sober day in twelve years — I met Ron.
In his late fifties, eroded by decades of alcoholism, he called me Kid and showed me the ropes. I was in my early thirties, terrified, and green to the whole process — the twelve steps, the recovery lingo, the daily self-examination work sheets. When presented with a problem or a discussion topic in group sessions, Ron quoted from the Big Book like a televangelist citing scripture, at times silencing even the counselors. He was that good.
I immediately placed my trust in this man, because I wanted what he apparently had: a simple, firm grasp of sobriety tools. Whenever the counselors scolded me for “rationalizing,” “justifying,” or “minimizing” my relationship with alcohol, Ron sat me down and told me to “cut the bullshit.” He was quick to counter my attempts at denial and always caught me before I strayed too far from the path to recovery.
Several times I shared my therapy work sheets with him. He was eager to assist me in revising what I thought had been honest and thorough self-searching. As he worked with me, I sat attentively beside him and occasionally nodded in agreement at the insights he revealed. His attitude at these sessions suggested great contemplation and toil, and these were moments of deep reverence for me.
One day, Ron notified me that he was being discharged. He talked about getting back his old job at the turkey plant, living with his daughter and son-in-law, maybe hooking up with a woman he’d met in AA several years before.
We said goodbye at the elevator door. He had fewer belongings than I’d imagined. We embraced awkwardly and, holding back tears, I expressed my gratitude for his guidance and support. He patted me on the back, told me I’d be OK, and hit the first-floor button to freedom. I remember craving something more from him — perhaps a scene in which he cried, or promised to visit.
Two days after Ron’s discharge, I read the obituary in the local paper. They gave him a half-inch paragraph: his name in bold, his age, no address, a date, a funeral home. One of the counselors told me the circumstances of his death: drunk, alone, a hotel room, a shotgun.
That evening I went back to my work sheets to search for clues, to try to sift out what was mine from what was his.
Fergus Falls, Minnesota
On a sweltering summer afternoon in the late fifties, my parents, my two brothers, and I were driving through downtown Birmingham, Alabama. (In those days, the main highways ran through, not around, cities and towns.) Our green Edsel wasn’t air-conditioned, so we kept the windows down for ventilation. We stopped at red lights long enough to read the signs over every water fountain, hear the blues coming out of grocery stores that advertised pigs’ feet and cracklin’, and feel the wavy heat rising from the black pavement.
We were on our way to visit Mother’s family in Meridian, Mississippi. We lived in Valdosta, Georgia, at the time because my father was stationed at the air-force base there. An Ohio native, Father insisted we kids were not Southerners and was at pains to make sure neither our speech nor our ideas ever came to resemble those of our schoolmates. My mother, who offended her hometown by marrying a Yankee pilot, named the family dog Rebel but registered Republican. The Civil War was a tender topic in my family, so we avoided history and concentrated on the future. America was a place, my parents taught, where it didn’t matter where you came from, because everyone had the same chance.
Father grumbled to himself at the slow stop-and-go pace of downtown-Birmingham traffic. Meanwhile, Mother attempted to educate us kids by pointing out the steel mills for which the city was famous. I was eleven; we had television by then, and I had a vague sense that Birmingham was famous for something besides steel mills.
Then I remembered: Birmingham was the place where they sang that song. In my best voice I started teaching “We Shall Overcome” to my younger brothers. Together, Johnny and Andy and I sang loudly and with earnest conviction, “Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe . . .”
Our mother and father panicked and rolled up the car windows, though the temperature was ninety plus. “For Christ’s sake, Candace, are you trying to get us all killed?” my father shouted at me. I had no word then for what I felt.
I don’t remember her name. The Kansas girl. She came to stay the night. We were both fifteen. She asked if I’d ever had an orgasm. “No,” I whispered. She gave me one. When I sought her out at school the next day, she turned away. She told my friends I was queer.
At first, the sight of Sergio, like the sound of a few chords from an old tune, made me sentimental. Once I had loved him with the self-effacing devotion only a seventeen-year-old virgin or a well-trained dog can muster, but I hadn’t seen him since I bolted from our marriage twenty-three years earlier. Now he had come to visit.
Had he come to make peace with me? I wondered. Or had he come nearly two thousand miles just to satisfy some curiosity? I was flattered either way. My husband was out of the country for a year. My daughter, a student at the university, came and went sporadically. A romantic interlude, or at least some kind of resolution with my ex-husband, had a nerve-plucking thrill to it.
He had aged angrily. His hair was gone, except for a fine row circling the back of his head and hanging in long wisps down his neck. His grin was more of a grimace, his teeth in obvious need of dental work. Still, the dimples on either side of his mouth were disarming and amiable.
I prepared food, poured wine, and listened politely for a while to his disjointed ramblings. Since he had last seen me, my living conditions had improved considerably, and he scrutinized my apartment, running his fingers along the frames of paintings. Throughout our marriage he had pursued other women, but now the only sign of his hedonistic sensuality was a gaunt, spent degeneracy. My reasons for leaving him in the first place came back to me.
Deciding he must still have some desire to manipulate me, I asked that he leave the following morning. He shrugged and said, Fine with me. I retreated to my bedroom and closed the door.
Around midnight my daughter came home. I tried to sleep, but as the night wore on, the smoke from the rest of the apartment became dense as wool. I got out of bed to find my daughter and my ex-husband seated at the kitchen table. She appeared agonized as she tapped a burning cigarette into a saucer overflowing with butts. Sergio was beaming, his aspect vibrant as he leaned toward her. His wide, brown eyes were warm and moist, glistening with erotic promise. His long fingers, light as breath, touched her arm. He had found what he had come for.
After six weeks of marriage, my husband left me. We’d fought for two weeks before he escaped.
For days I paced the thin floors of our apartment in a chopped-up row house in Baltimore, on a street overlooking railroad tracks. I talked out loud to his imaginary presence, angry, sobbing, pleading. I was twenty and I’d never been abandoned before.
My downstairs neighbor, Mac, was a recovering alcoholic with bug eyes and a stubbly face. I could hear him flush his toilet; he could hear my anguish.
Mac befriended me, though his life, too, had collapsed. He’d been a banker, had attended the best schools, had lived with a wife and a daughter in the right part of town. Yet he’d ended up literally in the gutter, everything gone. For four years before he’d moved downstairs from me, he’d run a soup kitchen and flophouse for drunks like himself as a kind of penance.
He treated me like a daughter, inviting me to share his tea, his turkey potpies. When he heard me crying, he came to the foot of the stairs and called my name. He never came into my apartment, never imposed, never insisted. And he never refused when I stood, gulping and tearful, at his door. He loved me and I knew it.
After a year I moved to a different apartment, but I came back for visits, even introduced my dates to him. On one of my visits, he led me proudly through his parlor, which was filled with candles of every shape and color. He’d made them himself, and had hopes of selling them, maybe making enough to get off disability. By then, he had emphysema and struggled every day just to breathe.
Over time, my visits tapered off. After a particularly long interval — I’d been in love again — I went back to the house. But now no one lived there at all.
I wanted to believe that his daughter — who he had always hoped would forgive and accept him — had finally come to get him. But I couldn’t escape the fact that I’d abandoned him. Not as abruptly as I’d been abandoned, but just as surely.
I woke to the sound of things breaking in your bedroom, the sound of your voice yelling his name, over and over, and his fist pounding you. I can’t remember how long I stayed in bed listening to him tearing at your clothes. This time, I thought, he was going to kill you. This time I really believed it.
A heroic plan of action, born of desperation, formed in my head. I wanted to save you; I wanted to save me. Slipped out that second-story window at 2:20 A.M., like my favorite comic-book hero. You were still begging him to stop, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” was playing on the radio. Hit the ground wrong and cut my foot on some broken glass, but I didn’t stop to look. I was your brave, first-born son; I was coming to your rescue.
Made it to the white folks’ house next door. Banging and banging to wake the dead, I hardly felt the plastic grass of their welcome mat digging into my torn heel. The whole family huddled at the door to greet me. I must have been a sight with the tears in my eyes, the snot running down my nose, the blood I tracked across their white-shag carpet. I asked to use their phone, and they watched anxiously as I called Granddaddy.
“He’s beating her up again,” I said, blubbering into the phone.
“So what?” was the grouchy, sleep-filled response I got before the line went dead.
I just stood there staring into space, nothing but me and the endless dial tone. I was waiting for him to come back on and tell me he’d got his gun and was comin’ to hold court. I liked to die right then.
I walked out without a word. The white folks loomed larger than life, embarrassed and numbed. They must have thought I was crazy. I can see them now, saying, “Dear, you remember that colored boy who came to our door wanting to use the phone, all that snot dripping down his nose?”
The lights were off in your bedroom window, and I thought he’d killed you. Snuck back in through the dark kitchen and I heard you sobbing in the bathroom. Scared the life right out of me; for a moment I thought it was him. I stood there long enough to bleed a nice-sized puddle on the floor, your crying more painful than my own, our tears becoming one long river of sorrow. “So what?” echoed through my mind, again and again.
On my first day at my new college, I was happy to spot Steve on campus. He was my only real friend from the school I’d previously attended, and, like me, he’d decided to transfer here. Fortunately, his room was just down the hall, and we immediately picked up where we had left off: listening to old Jimi Hendrix records, watching Dobie Gillis reruns, and laughing late into the night. Within days we met Mike; soon the three of us were inseparable.
Mike and I eventually became roommates and shared many of the same classes. Outside class, we’d joke about the philosophers we studied and dream about the future. We had dozens of long conversations about the isolation we had felt growing up, our fears of failing at relationships, and, of course, sex. We talked about God and even prayed together.
Steve and I started a poetry journal, played together in a rock band, and made frequent trips to nearby Ann Arbor in search of art films or obscure jazz albums. One spring break, we ventured off together to the Grand Canyon on a whim.
Parting at graduation was tough. The three of us embraced and promised that we’d stay in touch. The following year, we came together for Mike’s wedding. The night before the ceremony, we bunked together in Mike’s bedroom and stayed awake until 4:00 A.M., laughing and catching up. Mike and Steve brought up something that had been bothering them for a while: why had I often seemed depressed and lonely in college? I told them I had just been anxious about the future, and assured them I felt much better now. Again, we made a pact never to lose touch. Mike even suggested that we meet for one weekend a year with our spouses.
Months later, after considerable thought, I decided to tell Mike and Steve the truth. After all, I reasoned, we’re friends. So I drafted a gut-wrenching letter that explained why I had been so troubled in college: I was coming to terms with being gay. Afraid to tell anyone, afraid I’d be rejected, I had considered taking my life.
Steve called almost immediately. “Well, I don’t understand homosexuality,” he said, “but I still want to be friends.” Mike never acknowledged the letter. Months later, a mutual acquaintance told me that Mike “had not dealt well” with my revelation and that, in the name of Christianity, he would never accept me.
That was six years ago. I haven’t seen Mike or Steve since.
Queens, New York
At fifteen I revered my Uncle Max. He had studied philosophy in college, married my favorite aunt, acquired riches as a lawyer, and become a self-made know-it-all. He had a taste for esoteric sports cars, French wines, classical music, and gourmet food. He designed his own rare-wood furniture, hi-fi speakers (in 1958!), and glass-wrapped, modernistic, Hudson Valley house. From my teenage point of view, he was a man of the world, a genius — and he was related to me!
Then when I was twenty, my brother lost an eye in an auto accident and filed a lawsuit. Though Uncle Max hardly knew the details, his appraisal was blunt: “Bullshit! The case is a waste of time.” His manner was so abrupt and vehement that, without considering his awesome reputation, I blurted out, “But how can you be so sure without looking into the case?”
That was all it took. One innocent question transformed me into a non-person as far as Max was concerned.
Never known for kindness or affection, my uncle became downright rude and hostile toward me. I chewed long and hard on this reversal. Later my aunt reluctantly explained that Max had judged me to be disrespectful.
Uncle Max’s continued resentment showed me the futility of seeking approval from someone like him. Though this realization was a sobering experience, it helped me establish my boundaries and determine who I was.
Now, the pain well over, I’ve come to see betrayals as illusions with delicate timing devices, like land mines primed to explode. Because our faith must be extended to be broken, I consider all betrayals self-betrayals, indications that we reached too far or to the wrong person. Uncle Max was the first of many who taught me not to look outside myself for what isn’t there.
My brother received an eighty-thousand-dollar settlement.
When I was eleven or twelve, we didn’t have a car and I rode home from my ballet lesson on the tram. I loved the big, red, two-storied streetcars with red plastic seats and large windows that opened sideways. The tram rollicked on its rails along Kotze Street, swung wildly around the corner onto Twist, and, swaying ominously, clattered down the hill to Union Square, where I got off.
On the afternoon of Passover, I climbed the tram’s steep circular staircase, holding on to the rail. Upstairs was empty, and I almost went back down. The conductor came up, his feet braced wide against the rocking motion, and collected my fare.
After a couple of stops, he came up again. His pinched nose and dark, narrow eyes unnerved me. I got up to go downstairs, but he stood in my way.
He said something about touching me, then lifted my skirt, pulled my pants partway down, and slid his finger against my vagina. The tram clattered along. I don’t remember how long he stood with his finger moving against me, or what else he said.
Eventually, I must have said something about needing to get off, for he went back downstairs. When I came down, he was on the landing, leaning against the railing. “Don’t tell anyone,” he said, and he gave me two shillings and a sixpence.
I got off two stops early and ran through the streets. I threw away the money; I wanted to throw up.
By the time I got home, I was sobbing. My mother took me into the bathroom (where we held all our serious discussions) and closed the door. I told her what had happened.
What a relief it was to me that she understood instantly. The same thing had happened to her, she said, and she told me the name of the street in Germany where a man had stopped her one evening when she was young and fondled her. As I listened, I could see the broad boulevard lined with trees and the doorway into which he had forced her.
Several weeks later, there was a knock at the front door. My mother answered, and I heard a man’s voice ask for someone we didn’t know. As she closed the door, I caught a glimpse of him — the narrow eyes, the pinched nose. “That was him,” I said to my mother.
One day he came to my school, asking for me. The principal notified my parents, who called the police. I was given a police whistle to wear around my neck. He came to my ballet school, too. Eventually he was arrested.
The day before the trial, my mother was nervous. We convened in the bathroom again. “Nicola,” she said, “are you sure of what happened?”
“Yes,” I answered, “I’m sure. Why?”
“Well, sometimes children make these things up,” she said.
I looked at her. “Did you make up your story?” I asked.
She paused a moment. “Yes,” she said, “I made it up.”
We went to trial and the conductor was found not guilty. The judge decided that there couldn’t have been enough time between tram stops for him to do what he did.
San Diego, California
I wept inside whenever the three of us were together. Hearing my mother primping upstairs before he arrived, smelling her perfume fill the stairway as she ran down to meet him, going to movies and eating ice cream together — I still weep to remember. I recall the time when I first knew what was going on: a summer picnic at Perdinalis State Falls. They were folding the blanket together; the ends met in the middle and they stood gazing at each other long after it was folded.
Then there was the time in the car, coming back from church, when he parked in our driveway and we sat there, me sandwiched between the two of them on the bench seat of her green Buick LeSabre with John Denver on the radio. He slid his arm around my waist and said, “I do love you, but not in the same way I love your mother.” I remember thinking, I’m twelve; he’s eighteen — he’s closer to my age than to hers.
Now, years later, my therapist uses the word betrayal and suggests that my mother should have been more reverent of our relationship. And I realize what pain I endured witnessing an affair between my young mother and the neighbor boy — my first love.
I was twenty-four when I dated Mustafa, a quiet, handsome man with golden brown skin and beautifully pressed clothes. We were both students at Reading University, west of London. He told me right away that he was engaged to a girl back home in Cairo, but added that he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to marry her or not. He invited me to his room for a cup of tea, and we ended up making love. Before long I was living in Mustafa’s room, dropping by my dorm only for fresh clothing.
Mustafa insisted on doing all the cooking. For dinners he made golden curries with rice and raisins. I’d never tasted anything so spicy before; I loved it. I’d sit on a chair and watch his carefully manicured hands methodically chop the vegetables and spices. “Here, taste this,” he’d say, putting something into my mouth with his fingers. “Guess what it is.” And then he’d laugh delightedly at my response. We ate around four or five in the afternoon because later the communal kitchen would be occupied by women — shy, non-English-speaking women who hid in their husbands’ narrow, dark rooms during the day, trying to keep their babies quiet.
In the evenings we studied for exams or listened to tapes of Egyptian music: female singers stretching out sinuous, melodious lines in a single breath. I sat at the desk while Mustafa slouched on the bed in his maroon dressing gown, one bare foot brought up beside him, an arm clasping his knee. Occasionally he would uncurl himself in a single smooth movement and shuffle out of the room like a sleepwalker.
One night he taught me how to pass pieces of soft apricot from his mouth to mine and back, eating some each time but making it last as long as possible. He always liked me to watch him while he cooked or dressed. When his friends came over and they talked together in Arabic, I felt like a child surrounded by a waterfall of foreign words and moods. Mustafa rarely mentioned his fiancée, and then only in a casual, offhand way.
After two companionable months together, Mustafa told me I had to leave immediately, and we couldn’t see each other anymore: his wife was coming for Christmas. “Your wife?” I said. “But you told me —”
Mustafa laughed. “In Muslim law,” he explained with an infuriating nonchalance, “a lie told to a woman doesn’t count as a real lie. Don’t worry, I still like you. My wife and I will have you over some afternoon for a visit.”
Throughout my childhood I was plagued with strep throats and ear infections accompanied by high fevers. The pediatrician suggested ice-water enemas to relieve the fevers, and my mother took his word as law.
On one particular occasion my fever must have been very high, because I remember telling my mother (and believing it) that my stuffed toys had been talking to me. Mom looked worried and took my temperature, clucking nervously over the results. Then she went off to rummage through the medicine chest. When I heard her cracking the ice tray in the freezer, I knew what was in store. I began to scream, “No! No! I don’t want a nemina! No nemina!” And I cried myself into a nosebleed.
At a loss for what to do, my mother sent my father in to comfort me. He rarely displayed affection or spent time with the family, but now he dried my eyes, held a tissue to my nose, and stroked my hair. He told me there would be no enema if I didn’t want one. My crying quieted and the nosebleed stopped.
“Would you like to go downstairs and watch TV?” Dad asked. “I’ll carry you.”
He scooped me up and I rested my head against his shoulder. He carried me into the bathroom, where my mother was waiting with the enema bag filled with ice water, and held me prone across the toilet seat while she inserted the tip.
Catherine D. Costa
In the few days between my father’s suicide attempt and his death, I did my best to cover for him. Once things seemed stable at the hospital, I went back home early in the morning, before the cleaning women were due to arrive, to erase what had happened. The house was cold and absolutely silent, without even the hum of the furnace to break the stillness, though it was January and close to zero outside. Everything downstairs looked just as it always had.
But upstairs — where I willed myself to go — a cloying, sweet smell reached me on the landing. It made my legs suddenly heavy, my feet hesitant. I crept reluctantly down the hall as though I expected to see it all happen again right in front of me, when I knew very well that he lay taped and intubated in the Intensive Care Unit. I flipped on the bathroom light, then the bedroom.
Once I got past the initial look at all that blood, I did what I had to do. I methodically mopped up the bathroom sink, wiped drips of red off the toilet and gummy red fingerprints off the doorjamb. There were dark, perfectly round spots of blood leading from the bathroom into the bedroom. I moved the blue armchair to cover the most obvious spots, pulled the bloody sheets and blankets off the bed. The mattress where he had lain for hours was soaked through with red, but the cleaning women would never see it if I pulled up the quilt and tucked it under the pillow. I stuffed the bedclothes into a green plastic garbage bag and carried the bag out to the can behind the garage. Then I locked the door and went back to the hospital and the delicate web of lies I had just begun to weave.
Laura Smith Porter
My mother and I sat in a snack bar at the Los Angeles International Airport. Her flight home had been delayed due to lightning, high winds, heavy rains. It would be another hour, maybe two. I was ready for her to leave right then. We hadn’t talked much during her visit and the silence was wearing thin.
We sipped coffee at the counter. I wondered, Why doesn’t she ask anything about me? Isn’t she the least bit curious about who I am, who her daughter has become?
Instead she talked about my sisters — how they let their kids run wild, let their boys wear those darn baseball caps in the house. “I don’t know why you girls were never much for housekeeping,” she said. “I don’t know how your sisters expect to keep a man when they’re never home.”
Then she talked about my brothers: good marriages, nice homes, involved in their children’s lives. She said she didn’t have to worry about them.
Finally, I said, “Ma, I’m getting the impression that you like the boys better than the girls in our family.” I smiled at my joke, feeling like Tommy Smothers telling Dick that Mom had always liked him best.
My mother stared out the window. I already knew her answer. Hadn’t I heard it so many times before? I love all of my kids the same and treat them all equally — always have, always will.
She turned away from the glass, her clear blue eyes bright from her reverie, and said, “A mother is always closer to her sons than to her daughters.”
A knot grew in my throat. Outside the window, torrents of rain blurred the view of planes at a standstill. My mother dabbed her fingers nervously at the cumulus cloud of white hair surrounding her head.
“The humidity always makes my hair so frizzy,” she said.
“I’m going to try to pretend you never said that, Mother,” I said, realizing as the words left my mouth that she probably thought I was referring to her hair.
Dried autumn leaves crunched beneath my feet as my nine-year-old legs did double-time to keep pace with my new stepfather’s stride. On a crisp fall day, not yet hunting season, I must have been excited to be doing something so normal as taking a walk in the woods with a father.
For most of my earlier years I had felt far from normal. My parents had divorced before my birth, and by now my few contacts with my biological father were only distant, tension-filled memories. In the 1940s, single-parent households were rarer than they are today, and I remember looking warily, maybe wishfully, at my playmates with their pairs of parents.
My mother’s hopes for this newly created family were almost desperate. I suspect my own were similar: inchoate, inarticulate hopes for some release from the tight triangle of my mother, my sister, and myself, yoked together in our struggle to survive a harsh and impoverished life. Hopes for fresh air, literally and metaphorically. And hopes, perhaps, for normalcy — whatever that was.
My stepfather and I must have walked for a ways, hopping over fallen logs, hearing the scurry of chipmunks, the whisper of leaves in the wind. At some point we stopped and rested on the trunk of a fallen tree. I remember him telling me I was his girl now, then tilting my face toward his and kissing me on the lips, putting his tongue in my mouth. I remember him touching me in a way that, even with my lack of experience with fathers, I knew I did not like. And I remember him telling me, as I squirmed inside with discomfort and confusion, that this is what fathers do with their girls.
That walk in the woods was the prelude to years of abuse. It was also the day that hope became dangerous, and any desire for “normalcy” an invitation to betrayal.
“Gayle,” my mother’s weak voice calls out to me. As I climb the stairs, I hear the now-familiar retching sounds. In the final stages of bone cancer, she has recently left the hospital to die at home, in her own bed, surrounded by the love of family and friends.
“Let me empty the bowl for you, Mom,” I say.
“No, I can do it,” she insists. “You stay out in the hall a minute.”
Not wanting to deny my mother her remaining independence, I wait in the hallway. Soon I can hear her crying quietly. She is so weak she cannot get out of bed.
“Mom, let me do it,” I plead.
“No, I don’t want you to see it.”
“I promise I won’t look at it.”
There is a pause. “Promise?” she says.
As I walk into her room, the smell turns my stomach: the stench of a terminal illness. She is sitting on the edge of the bed, her shoulders slumped, bony knees poking out of her light blue nightgown. The color has left her face. She looks so tired, so small, so spent. “Close your eyes,” she says.
I comply and reach out my hand for the familiar white plastic bowl — the same one I used to hand to her when I was sick as a child.
“Keep them closed. You promised,” she says.
I feel my way along the wall, out into the hallway, and over to the bathroom door. Then I open my eyes. A mixture of blood and mucus and body fluids sloshes in the bowl. I swallow hard and hold my breath to keep from gagging, pour the contents into the toilet, and flush. I stand there watching my mother’s life swirl around and around the cold, white, porcelain bowl.
Funny, I thought you would be with me forever. Together in wedded bliss we would travel down the bumpy gravel road of alcoholic splendor. You made me feel like such a fucking genius. You were my closest, dearest friend, my stormy-Monday confidant, my Wednesday-afternoon pick-me-up, my Friday-evening revelry, my weekend soul pleasure.
You promised you would always be there for me, and I believed you. Even when you started to rough me up now and then. You said it was for my own good, and I believed that too.
So where did you go?
Now I’m in this fucking rehab and you haven’t come to visit me once since I got here. Well, fuck you, too. Liar.
Cheryl M. Morgan
Brother Bob was what you’d call a pillar of our tiny, white, clapboard church, there every time the doors were open. He taught Sunday school, ushered, visited the shut-ins, and prayed the most beautiful prayers this side of heaven. Whenever something needed to be done, the preacher could always count on Brother Bob.
And Brother Bob seemed to love kids. One day, when my brother and I were digging a tunnel to China in the churchyard, he put down his paintbrush and came over to where we’d managed to make a sizable hole. Diverting our attention just long enough to drop some nickels and pennies into the freshly dug dirt, he seemed as surprised as we were to find that we’d unearthed treasure.
And on Sunday mornings when the sermon was long and our childish bodies restless, Brother Bob would slip us a couple of sticks of Juicy Fruit gum from the pew behind. He’d acknowledge our thanks with a wide grin and a cheerful nod of the head.
One afternoon in late August, when the tomatoes were bursting ripe and the locusts were in full chorus, I returned from a bike ride all hot and sweaty, my hair hanging limp and my face streaked with dirt. Dropping my bike near the front steps, I ran across the porch and threw open the screen door. There in my path stood Mrs. Green, my Sunday-school teacher. Brother Bob, I heard her say, had just passed away.
I went to the kitchen sink and let the cool water run through my fingers for a long time.
It wasn’t until late that night, as I lay on the horsehair davenport half-asleep, that I learned the truth: Brother Bob had blown his brains out with a shotgun.