In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I was a good little girl, scrupulously honest. Ask me a question and I’d tell the truth every time.
When I grew up and moved to California, I encountered some new ideas. My best friend regularly took two Sunday papers out of the machine after paying for just one. (The second was for me.) My husband scolded me roundly for even thinking about going back to the grocery store to return the extra change the clerk had mistakenly given me.
One day, divorced and broke, I went to buy fish. I pointed to what I wanted, and the man behind the counter mentioned a lower price than the one on the sticker, asking me if his memory was correct. A faint “yeah” slid out. Then he took another look, noticed the higher price, and glared at me. “You’d say anything, wouldn’t you?”
Redwood City, California
It was the summer of 1964. Charlie and I were still young enough that we had to be driven on dates by our parents; privacy was not easily obtained. Once, I caught his father’s amused eye in the rearview mirror during a back-seat kiss. My mother was not so benevolent. She scolded me for holding hands with Charlie while crossing the street; such displays of affection did not befit a proper young lady. Trouble was, Charlie made me feel anything but proper.
Late one afternoon, Charlie and his parents came to call. While the adults had cocktails in the living room, Charlie and I excused ourselves to go for a walk. We followed a path down by the water to the guest cottage, where we enjoyed ourselves for a long while, rolling around on the couch, and the floor.
Eventually, we straightened our clothes, combed our hair, and headed back. To our surprise, every head turned as we stepped through the door. “Where have you been?” my mother asked.
“I was showing Charlie Tender Care,” I replied, referring to my father’s new boat. The room remained silent. Somewhere a fly began to buzz. Charlie looked worried. Then my brother cleared his throat. “I took Tender Care over to the boat yard this afternoon,” he said.
I couldn’t even look at Charlie. The fly grew louder, circling above our heads. My tongue was wadded up in my throat and my feet were stone. I waited, head bowed, for lightning to strike.
Ages later, the conversation resumed. I peeked up through my bangs. No one took any notice of Charlie and me. We slunk to the card table at the back of the room. Swoosh, slap! A savage swipe of the fly swatter ended the buzzing. My mother delicately picked the fly up by its wings and dropped it into the ashtray.
Mercer Island, Washington
It was near Christmas. Rain had been falling for nearly four days straight, and I was camped out at the mall, dodging the crush of last-minute shoppers as I escaped the downpour.
For almost a year I’d been living on the street. Though I had a secret haunt I called home, the rains had turned it into a bog, and I refused to spend another night there. Tonight, I was going to sleep warm and dry.
I loitered around J. C. Penney until half an hour before the store closed, then slipped inside. There were lots of rent-a-cops milling around, so I pretended to browse, hoping my unkempt appearance wouldn’t arouse suspicion. My ragged jacket bulged with my holiday dinner — salami and day-old rolls from the dumpster. Would they think I was a shoplifter?
At last the maintenance people started locking the doors. I ducked behind a table of dress slacks, slid open the door of the supply cabinet, and wedged myself inside. Then I waited, holding my breath, afraid every sound was the rattle of handcuffs.
Somehow, I dozed off. When I finally crawled out, the store was dark and eerily quiet. My plan had worked. But suddenly I realized I’d made a terrible mistake. I’d forgotten that it was Christmas Eve. I would be trapped there more than twenty-four hours, until the after-Christmas sale.
In a panic, I rattled the exit doors, but they were deadbolted. Then red lights started blinking above the doorway.
I sat dejectedly and pondered my fate. I already had two misdemeanors — would they go hard on me? Before long, security guards pulled up outside and shone a spotlight through the glass. I felt like a deer in the middle of the road, but I also felt strangely relieved. After all, a bunk at the county’s expense didn’t seem so terrible. They would probably dish out turkey and dressing, and at least I wouldn’t be spending the holiday alone.
So, with that in mind, I slapped together a greasy sandwich from the food in my jacket and waited for them to find the right key.
Santa Cruz, California
David and I became roommates during my third year of college. Because there were so many Daves living in the dorm that year, I took to calling him by his initials, D. C., which he liked.
Neither of us studied particularly seriously. We spent most nights running or weight lifting or battling it out on the racquetball court. Later, we’d retire to our room with a six-pack of beer and shout to each other over the music of Pink Floyd about who had the better backhand, or whether his digital-system-design class was harder than my thermodynamics.
Gradually, I developed a fascination for D. C. unlike any I had ever experienced. I couldn’t begin to define my feelings — I only knew I wanted to be with him more than I dared express. It became difficult to endure his overly familiar presence.
One morning, D. C. and I rose very late; most everyone had already left the dorm for the day. Donning a towel, D. C. carried his soap and shampoo down the hall to the shower. On this particular morning, my longing for him was inexplicably acute; I crept into the dim bathroom and watched him massage lather into his short, dark hair. He was less than an arm’s length away, yet utterly untouchable. Then D. C. pushed the curtain aside to put down his shampoo bottle. He looked at me, stunned. That was the first time I got caught.
Later that same semester, I remember locking the door to our room, walking up to D. C. as he studied at his desk, and sliding in behind his back; he willingly shifted forward. A knock at the door jolted us both to our feet. Paranoid and ashamed, I answered the door. That was the second time.
After graduation, D. C. and I met maybe four times before losing touch. One of our last encounters was a group outing: a night of straight club life, after which we rode home at 2 A.M., three of us in the back seat, D. C. in the middle. Halfway home, I broke into inconsolable sobs. D. C. kept his hand firmly on my knee, while his new girlfriend studied the opposite window, as if to memorize the night slipping by. That was the last time.
I was twenty-one and had just broken up with my boyfriend of eight years. Feeling sorry for me, my younger sister suggested a backpacking trip.
Early one morning, she, her boyfriend, and I drove to King’s Canyon National Park. Our destination was a remote crater lake, one long day’s hike from the trail head. We reached the campsite at dusk. There were a few other campers around, but it felt remote nonetheless.
As we set up camp, a middle-aged man and a boy of about twelve stepped out of the trees and introduced themselves, a father and son. They pointed out their campsite, just across from ours. I could feel the man watching me, but I ignored him.
The next morning we got up early, and the man soon walked over again. He said his son was off fishing and asked if we would like to go join him. He looked me up and down as he spoke. We said we had other plans.
In the evening, we were sitting by our campfire when the man came over and sat down next to me. I was uncomfortable and still particularly raw from my recent breakup. I disliked his oily tone of voice and the way his eyes followed me.
The following day, as my sister and I were walking around the lake, I got a stomachache and had to hurry behind some boulders. It wasn’t a very private spot, but I really needed to go. As I pulled down my jeans and squatted, I looked around nervously. My sister had walked on ahead and I was alone — or so I thought. Then I heard a voice and the man appeared from behind a boulder. Not batting an eye at the sight of my bare ass or pained expression, he said, “Hello. Want to go for a walk?”
During my sister Jeanne’s final visit to Arizona, we drove to Prescott together. I had an audition for a television commercial there and thought the ride from Phoenix would give us a chance to get reacquainted. She had jumped from a bridge two years before, and I didn’t know exactly how the experience had changed her. Another family member had confided, “Jeanne is really all right. She has a flair for drama, always has. She jumped to get attention.” I wanted to believe this was true.
In the car, Jeanne seemed guarded. Her eyes were fearful and deerlike.
“Hey, Jeanne, remember how it was your job to wash me when I was little? You’d stand me on the toilet and scrub me down.”
“How about the time we went to see Richard III in Toronto?”
“No. Can’t remember.”
The electroshock therapy she’d received had left frustrating gaps in her memory.
As we approached Prescott, the weather started to turn bad. Snow whipped across the twisty roads. Jeanne gripped the dashboard each time the Blazer skidded across an ice patch. Her survival instincts are strong, I thought. She must want to live.
“Let’s pull over for some coffee,” I said.
The coffee shop was decorated for Christmas. We sat in a wood-grained plastic booth and ordered peach pie. Jeanne lit up a cigarette.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“I’m not sure yet. I want my kids. I can only see them at supervised visits since . . .”
“Since your accident?”
Jeanne looked troubled and took a drag off her cigarette.
“I suppose you did it for more than just attention,” I said, remembering what the family member had told me.
“What are you talking about?”
“You know you’ve always had a dramatic side.” Jeanne’s eyes met mine. The pain behind them was vast.
“Please don’t say that. Please don’t think of me that way.”
I reached across the table and touched her hand. “I’m sorry,” I said, beginning to cry. “I love you. I’m just trying to understand.”
I felt insignificant in the presence of such agony. I’d gotten caught using words that weren’t my own because I yearned for a simple answer.
My parents hired my boyfriend, Randy, to paint our house one summer. He and I were both home from college and looking forward to being together after many months apart.
Randy worked for weeks, leaving ladders, dropcloths, and other painting equipment around the yard at the end of each day. He would go home to clean up, and then we would go out each evening, returning to my house around midnight, when we knew my parents would be asleep. We would quietly make our way to the family room, alert to every rattle and creak. Our fear of getting caught only added to the excitement of our secret trysts. Afterward, Randy would slip into the adjacent bathroom and flush away the evidence.
One Saturday morning, I found my father in the kitchen reading a magazine at the breakfast table. I said, “Good morning,” and he vaguely returned the greeting. Where was his usual cheeriness? After a few minutes, he said, not looking up from the page, “Could you please make sure that Randy puts his equipment away properly?”
“But he’s planning on coming back this afternoon,” I replied.
My father’s face flushed red. Was it anger? No, embarrassment. He took a deep breath and said, “I meant in the toilet near the family room.”
“Oh. OK.” I was surprised at how casual my voice sounded. He managed to leave while my back was turned.
My father and I have never spoken of that day. But at my wedding, when he walked me down the aisle and gave my arm to Randy, I thought I heard a sigh of relief.
Katherine C. Cates
Chappaqua, New York
We concluded our business transaction over bourbon and cocaine in the back room of a bar on the Northwest Side of Chicago. I gave my brother a nod, and he left to retrieve the money from the trunk of the car, a late-model Cadillac we had stolen earlier that evening.
This was the deal: twelve hundred dollars cash for sixteen grams of potent, 97 percent-pure cocaine and two ounces of Mexican sinsemilla. With careful cutting of the drugs, I would undoubtedly more than double my investment.
My brother returned with the briefcase, and I counted out the money in wrinkled ones, fives, and tens. The dealer didn’t even bother to recount the bills before stowing them in a bulging duffel bag. For an instant, I toyed with the idea of snatching the loaded .45 automatic out of my briefcase and relieving him of his bag. Instead, I counted the sixteen one-gram seals of cocaine twice before putting them in a zip-lock bag, which went into the briefcase with the gun. We shook hands and parted company.
My brother and I had almost reached the Caddy when a no-frills, tan, four-door Chevy Caprice with black-wall tires and plain hubcaps screeched to a stop alongside the curb: cops.
We were searched at gunpoint. My brother was clean, so they told him to take a walk. He looked at me helplessly, then took off. The cops made me account for each individual gram of coke; we went through “what’s this?” and “coke” sixteen times. If it hadn’t been for the .45 with ground-off serial numbers, they would have kept the drugs and let me walk, too.
The county baseball playoffs were being held at the high-school gym, and my friend and I were cruising the parking lot. It was packed, but there was no one around, so she and I decided to steal hubcaps. (It was what the boys we hung around with did for fun.)
My friend pulled up to a black Mercury with silver-moon hubcaps. “Get out,” she said, handing me a screwdriver.
I hopped out and squatted behind the cover of her old, rusted pickup truck. The first hubcap fell to the blacktop. Two, three, four hubcaps off, each ringing and clanging in turn.
“Hurry. Someone’s watching,” my friend said.
I put the hubcaps in the middle of the front seat and climbed into the truck. We coasted down the street with headlights off. By the time we reached downtown, four police cars were following us.
“When I turn at the next road,” my friend said, “toss the hubcaps out the window.”
“I can’t,” I said. “They’ll see for sure.”
As the flashing red lights pulled us over, I stashed the hubcaps under the seat. My heart was racing.
An officer walked up to the truck, and my friend rolled the window down. The cop leaned in and shone his flashlight across our faces.
“Hey,” he yelled back to his partners, “it’s not the thieves. It’s just a couple of girls.”
Sedro Woolley, Washington
I was a teenager in the late fifties. My parents were very watchful and imposed strict guidelines for my dates: 10:30 curfew, no drive-in movies, a truthful itinerary of where we were going and when, and, at the end of the evening, a thorough review of any movie we’d seen or food we’d eaten.
I broke every rule, and many they never thought to make. Usually I got grounded for two weeks, which I came to accept as the price for doing what I wanted. I was once grounded an entire summer for going to a dance with one boy and coming home with another. My mother told me my reputation was the only thing no one could take from me, and she was afraid that this time I’d lost it.
When school started again, I met Bobby. He stood up when my parents entered the room, looked my dad in the eye when they shook hands, asked my mother about her craft projects, and always had me home on time.
After a few months, my mom and dad grew to trust Bobby; they didn’t even ask if his parents would be home the night we told them we were going to his house to watch Bonanza on the color TV. His parents were going to a show that night, and we would be alone for at least four hours.
After Bobby’s parents left, we went upstairs to their room. We’d barely slipped between the sheets on their king-sized bed when we heard Bobby’s dad call our names. I couldn’t find my underwear, but Bobby saw it and stuffed it hurriedly in the back of his jeans. We smoothed the bed and casually walked downstairs to greet his parents in the den.
While we were talking, Bobby turned around and his mom and dad saw my panties blooming over his belt. I begged them not to call my parents. Bobby’s dad just smiled and said we hadn’t done anything wrong. They ended up telling us stories from when they were our age, and it wasn’t long before I was laughing with them. Bobby’s mom fixed us popcorn and Cokes, and we all watched Bonanza. Later, we had a little talk about birth control, pregnancy, and other subjects my parents didn’t discuss. As we got ready to leave, Bobby’s mother put her arms around me and told me to remember I wasn’t a bad girl. “I like your spirit, and I’d be happy if I had a daughter like you,” she said.
“Take off your clothes,” she said. I stared at her, thinking I should run.
“C’mon, let’s play strip!” Her faded underwear was already on the floor, and her pale dress was swallowing her head. Caroline’s body was like a fish’s belly: white and blue, and so thin I could see her veins and bones. (In my family we were all big-boned and olive-skinned.)
I peeled off my shirt and stepped gingerly out of my shorts, as though into cold water. “What if your mom comes home?”
“She won’t.” Caroline was all business. “You be the slave girl and I’ll be the Roman king.”
“OK. I’m tied to a board, and you can drag me around.”
“Yes.” Caroline held her thin nose up. “You’ve been bad.”
I saw myself as a busty brunette with a short, ragged dress barely covering my gorgeous Hollywood body. I was tied to a piece of wood, and a white stallion was dragging me through the dusty Roman streets. The king wore a hooded mask and whipped me. Old women and men threw stones and called me “harlot” and “whore.” I was both innocent and guilty. The king was my lord and master, and I had betrayed him with the stable boy.
We took turns being the tragic whore. Then we were both bad women, which was the best part, until Caroline’s mom jiggled the doorknob, yelling, “Why is this door locked? Open this door!”
I tore around the room, picking up my clothes.
“What are you girls doing? Open this door this instant, Caroline!”
“I’m coming, Ma.”
My foot just wouldn’t go into the stupid leg hole of my underwear. I couldn’t get it all on: undershirt, T-shirt, shorts, socks, shoes. The door opened and I ran out under Caroline’s mother’s arm.
At home, I went straight up to my room, where I nervously sang along with the radio commercials while waiting for dinner. Then Mom called me down.
All she said was “I don’t want you going over to Caroline’s anymore.” That was it. She was looking down at her coral-colored nails. I tried to will her to look at me. I felt like a leper, a pig. We stood there forever, the tic by her right eye flinching at the perverse disappointment I was and always would be.
On March 9, 1994, I was caught with a stolen truck and two stolen bicycles.
At first, the judge set my bail at five thousand dollars. But soon afterward I was called back into the courtroom, and he raised it to half a million. I was sure there was some mistake, but the public defender informed me that I was the first person in the Bay Area to be charged under California’s new three-strikes-and-you’re-out law. I had been arrested only hours after the bill had been pushed through the legislature.
Later, the defender told me that a conviction under the new law would mean a sentence of twenty-five years to life. But I had only stolen a couple of bicycles and a beat-up truck — I hadn’t hurt anyone. I wasn’t a violent person. He said it didn’t matter; any felony could be a third strike.
Today, March 22, 1995, I was convicted. During the trial it was never mentioned that I am a three-strikes defendant, because the jury might have had sympathy for me. Now I must receive a minimum sentence of twenty-five years to life.
My seventy-two-year-old mother was the only person in the audience during the trial. She wept silently as the jury filed past her, out of the courtroom. Even though we weren’t allowed to touch or speak to one another, the bailiff was kind enough to let me give her a hug before I was taken away.
Jed “Shorty” Miller
San Jose, California
Help! I’m sixteen and I steal money from my mother’s purse every day before I leave for school.
I started by taking five-dollar bills, then worked my way up to tens. Now I’m at twenty dollars a day, and she hasn’t noticed yet. I don’t like stealing, but I can’t help myself.
Maybe she knows and is just torturing me by not mentioning it, seeing how long this can go on before I break. I watch her all through dinner, searching for clues, but she just stares at my father’s empty place, her eyes glassy and red, while my brother talks non-stop about football practice. I can’t take much more of this. I’m dying to get caught.
Hoboken, New Jersey
It started with my cousin Bill when I was about five years old. Bill was ten years older and already an experienced child molester. He easily manipulated me: “If anyone finds out,” he warned, “we won’t be able to have fun together anymore. If your mother finds out, she will hate you.”
I enjoyed it at first — the attention, the fondling, the nastiness and secrecy of it all. But as I grew older and realized there was something wrong with our encounters, the anger and guilt began to build.
I was eleven when Mom asked, “Has Bill been fooling with you?” She didn’t know exactly how to ask the question, or what to do if I said yes.
I had never lied to my mother, but I was in a bind: if I told the truth, she would hate me forever; if I lied, I would no longer be the good child, her favorite.
“No,” I finally said.
She was visibly relieved. She didn’t want to face the truth, and now she was off the hook. We never spoke of it again: she never asked and I never volunteered. How could I? I was now a liar.
I’ve since discovered Bill’s reputation was well known in the family — a secret that no one would talk about. I had caught my mother in her lie of silence: of course she knew about Bill, or she wouldn’t have asked.
I’m not sure why I ran. The psychiatric ward was a comfortable place: good food, nice rooms, friendly people. I can’t remember what I was thinking. I had just turned seventeen.
I was caught almost immediately. What I’d thought was a stairwell turned out to be a dead end. Several uniformed men grabbed me and carried me back, not to my regular room, but to a special room with a little window in the door, where I was strapped into a bed: one restraint for each limb and a belt across my middle. I fought the straps furiously, moving the bed around the room, banging it into the walls. I remember the first shot of phenobarbital did nothing to quell my anger. The second injection about an hour later did as it was intended. The last thing I remember, dogs were running around the room, and, to my great surprise, I was chasing them.
When I awoke I was still firmly secured to the bed. Filled with a consuming need to move my body, I tried to distract myself by counting holes in the ceiling tiles or thinking of climbing mountains, but nothing worked. The longer I went without moving, the greater the need to move became.
I’d never imagined that being caught doing anything, no matter how awful, could lead to such suffering.
As a teen in the seventies, I yearned to wear the more daring fashions of the day. As soon as I grew noticeable breasts, I bought a number of flimsy halter tops, which my mother found suggestive and cheap. Explaining to her that everyone else wore them didn’t help my cause.
“They show your nipples!” she protested. “As long as you’re living under my roof, you won’t be allowed to wear them!”
I took off the offending garment and didn’t wear it again until a week later, when I came up with a brilliant solution to my mother’s objection. Wearing my halter top again, I passed her in the hallway.
“Didn’t I tell you not to wear that again?” she said.
But I was ready. “Just a minute, Mother. You had only one problem with this top: that it showed my nipples.”
With that, I lifted the top to expose my breasts, their nipples covered with two little, round band-aids.
“Let me have a look at those,” she said, and leaned in for a closer inspection.
Triumphantly, I raised my arms above my head, turning from side to side to display my handiwork. Without warning, my mother yanked both band-aids off.
It’s hard to believe we never got caught. The first time was on a squeaky couch on her back porch; her parents were asleep inside. Later, we did it at a lookout on the Appalachian Trail — in broad daylight. And later still, on a smooth boulder in the Potomac River, the water licking our toes and the lights of Harpers Ferry shining down on us.
Yet here we are, years later, caught forever in the mystery of each other’s embrace.
It’s New Year’s Eve and you do it for the first time on your grandmother’s worn living-room carpet, panties hooked around your ankles, skirt hiked up on your belly. A door opens down the hall and your grandfather shuffles off toward the bathroom. Your heart pounds and you hold back giggles in the dark. Happy New Year.
You’re at a frat party and the two of you sneak off to a bedroom when no one’s looking. Sometime later, a few brothers bang on the locked door. When you don’t respond, they proceed to break it down. You scramble into your clothes just before ten wide-eyed college boys burst into the room.
You’re invited to your boyfriend’s house for Sunday dinner, and you slip into his room for a quickie. There’s a knock at the door and you pull stockings up, skirt down, and sit demurely on the edge of the bed as his little sister dashes in and plops herself down next to you.
You and he drive out to the country one hot August night, seeking the privacy of a dusty back road. Once there, you tear off your clothes and dive into the back seat, where you hump and grind, oblivious to the night noises. Suddenly, a beam of light blinds your eyes. You scream, then hear an authoritative voice asking for identification. You sit up, holding your dress over your body like a shield, and hand your license through the open window. The cop waves his flashlight around for another look, then says, “Get dressed and get out of here.” On the way home, come trickles down your thigh and you talk about getting married.
S. Dianne Moritz
Southampton, New York
In 1971, I was traveling in Europe with a friend. After a long, hot, dusty train ride, we arrived in Belgrade and went looking for a cool drink and something to eat. We wandered into an older part of the city with stately houses shuttered against the heat and streets lined with large, quiet trees. Smelling grilled meat, we turned a corner and stumbled upon an outdoor dining patio.
Although it was early for dinner, the patio was full of people, many of whom seemed to know each other. The diners were considerably better dressed than we, but that was of little concern to us. After all, we were twenty-year-old, middle-class, American college students trying to look like Haight-Ashbury refugees.
A waiter motioned for us to sit at a table that was partially occupied. Once seated, we were served from large platters already on the table. Our dining companions smiled at us, the wine flowed, and no one seemed to mind that we didn’t speak the language.
We were well into the meal when we noticed a commotion near the front door: a bride and groom had appeared, and everyone on the patio stood, clapped, and cheered. Musicians played, people danced, and the bride and groom paraded from table to table, hugging and kissing everyone in their path. My friend and I looked at each other and, in an instant, realized that we had walked into the middle of a wedding reception at someone’s home. Just then, the bride and groom reached our table.
Denise Marie Aubuchon
I was married with small children, young, confused, and deeply unhappy. I had been having an affair with a colleague at work for more than a year. Rationally, I knew I had to end both the marriage and the affair and spend some time alone, and with my children.
Instead, I chose to deal with the mess by adding yet another complication. A man I had recently met, a decent and loving person who lived far away, started calling me on the phone. We were in similar predicaments, though he was handling his more honestly, and we found solace in our cross-continental, hour-long discussions. I told no one about him, or my lover, or my disintegrating marriage. I was alone in a crowded drama, miserable and frightened.
I played with the idea of inviting this man to meet with me, to save me. One day at work, I called an old friend and asked her if I could use her apartment some weekend.
“I thought you were married,” she said.
“I am,” I said, laughing, slightly out of control.
“Oh, a secret rendezvous, eh?”
“Yes, a secret rendezvous,” I said, and told her about the man I had met.
“Sure, any weekend is fine, just let me know when you decide,” she said.
As I hung up the phone I looked up from my desk and found my lover standing there. He had already been suspecting me, and had heard enough. He picked up the phone, called my husband, and told him a year’s worth of our brilliantly guarded secrets. In two phone calls both deeds had been done: I was caught and I was freed.
New York, New York
I can’t remember if my grandmother had died of cancer yet, or if my mother was in the middle of her nervous breakdown, or whether the rumors had begun to spread through the school that my best friend, Jeff, and I were actually gay lovers. I only know that I was around sixteen, and our high-school marching band was invited to Disney World to perform in the Magic Kingdom parade.
The hotel where we stayed was a vast, densely landscaped complex of tile-roofed buildings. You could walk for hours, past hot tubs and palms and man-made creeks and poolside bars like little thatched huts, and never take the same path twice. I would probably find it unbelievably cheesy now, but back then it was paradise.
Jeff was barely acting like a friend to me on that trip, but as long as we moved in a group I could ignore his stinging jokes. Our boisterous lot explored the hotel and browsed the gift shop, where Ted stole a copy of Hustler — a mystery, since Ted was gay.
Later that night, Ted and I had unsatisfying sex in the hotel room while Jeff slept, or pretended to, in the next bed. Ted really wasn’t into me; he was hoping for a threesome. At one point he stopped and said, “This isn’t doing a thing for me.” I tried not to think it was because I was too fat.
The next day we marched under the sweltering Florida sun in our black-and-orange, military-style wool uniforms. I held my head high and used what little breath I had to coax notes from my alto sax.
Later I prowled the shops and found myself dropping a souvenir almost by accident into the shopping bag I carried. Soon I was adding other things: peanut brittle, a zodiac key chain, a necklace, a huge Mickey Mouse back scratcher.
When I left the last shop, a man approached and told me to follow him so that we could discuss some items in my bag. I felt as if my life were over in that moment. The man spoke into a walkie-talkie and led me through a hidden doorway to the “backstage” warren of offices.
After waiting for what seemed like hours, I endured a why-did-you-do-this? speech from some authority figure and was released into the custody of a somber band-parent chaperon, who led me wordlessly back to the bus. Jeff had seen me get caught and had wasted no time in making my troubles known; I could see it on the other kids’ faces. I was suspended for three days.
Worst of all was telling Mom. No major or minor mischief I had gotten into had ever broken her heart as this did. She cried and cried. I wondered if she thought I was a lost cause now, that I would surely end up in jail someday, that all my supposed talent and intellect were a tragic waste. I even wondered if she might be right.
Now I wonder sometimes, as I achieve more success in life, if she continues to doubt me, if she is still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Every afternoon of summer vacation, my grandmother took me to bingo at the Catholic church. She’d taught me how to play twenty cards at once, and I had luck: at least once a week, I’d win around fifty bucks. I was too shy to yell, “Bingo!” so I’d tap her in the ribs instead, and she’d cry out, “The child says, ‘Bingo!’ ”
A few people didn’t like it. I could see the envy on their faces. But I knew someday I’d become a poet and support myself by playing bingo.
One afternoon, someone new was selling tickets. “What happened to Mrs. Brand?” I asked him.
“Heart attack,” he said. “Too much stress here for women.” He winked at Granny. Then he asked me, “How old are you, kid?”
I was twelve, but Granny had coached me. (“Not every eighteen-year-old girl has a bust,” she’d said.) “I’m eighteen,” I told the man.
“Get outta here,” he said, rolling his eyes.
Granny grinned. “Don’t give me your malarkey,” she said. “She’s headed for college, first in her class, reads philosophy as well as the cardinals at the Vatican.”
“Oh yeah?” He liked her, I could tell. “Hey, kid, what’s it called when the priest blesses the host at Mass?”
“What’s the capital of Maine?”
“What’s the symbol for sodium in chemistry?”
“OK, May, the kid’s a genius.” He tapped my forearm. “And your so-called grandmother is one gorgeous-looking woman.”
“Go on,” she said, “you and your coin changer and your stack of bills.”
He wrote something on a tiny piece of paper and handed it to me, then wrote another note and handed it to her. “Read these when you get home, girls,” he said.
I won a hundred bucks that day. I read his message after dinner. It said, “Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever.” I showed it to Granny.
“Bad advice,” she said, frowning.
“What did he write to you?”
She looked embarrassed. “I’ll tell you when you turn thirty,” she said.
“In twelve years?” I said, joking, but she didn’t smile, which made me wonder: had the man somehow caught her, too?
“See, what did I tell you? He looks like a bowling ball.” Dina points to the bald man behind the counter at Gresky’s Five-and-Ten. “Look at his head.”
“Shh, he heard us,” I say.
Dina shrugs and raises her voice. “Some people should wear hats.”
Dina pushes me down the cosmetics aisle. She throws a bag of cotton balls in the air. She puts her thumb print on a pocket mirror. She opens a lipstick and draws a smile across her hand. “Which color do you like best?” She adds eyes and a nose with shades of pink and red.
“We’re going to get caught,” I say and point to the sign hanging above the cosmetics. “You can’t open them up.”
Dina takes an eyebrow pencil and changes the sign to read, “Please open.” She asks me if I have any pockets.
“I have money,” I say.
“I’m asking if you have pockets.”
I get a panicky feeling in my stomach like the time when Dina caught butterflies in a jar and made me watch them beat their heads and flutter until they died.
This isn’t how we play the game. Dina is the one who steals; my job is to bother the cashier about batteries or toothpaste or something on the highest shelf in the store. After Dina slips by the register, I tell the clerk I’ve changed my mind.
But now she’s changed the rules. I’ll get caught. I know I will. I’m clumsy; I trip; I have a guilty face. My mother says my face is an open book.
“Take it.” Dina hands me a lipstick. “Pink Paradise is a good color for us.”
Dina is the brave one. She unscrewed the bathroom mirrors at school and put a condom over the faucet. She reversed her mother’s right and left contact lenses in their case. Dina doesn’t mumble. She looks people in the eye. She is everything I am not.
“Don’t be a baby,” Dina says. “What are you going to do when I’m gone? Who’s going to watch out for you?” Dina pats her chest. Her grandmother died of breast cancer. Dina has stolen some of her ashes and hidden them in her old ballet slippers. “One day soon it will be my turn.”
“Oh, come on,” I say. Dina says her grandmother didn’t have any eyebrows or eyelashes when she died, that the chemotherapy had zapped them right off.
Dina hands me the matching nail polish. “I’ll be waiting outside. Do it.” Her face turns hard. Dina says that cancer in your breast is like the lumps of butter that haven’t melted in your oatmeal.
“Girls,” a voice says, “are you looking for something?” The man with the bowling-ball head stands behind us.
Dina widens her eyes and cups her ear. “No English,” she says. Then she rapidly runs through all the Spanish curses I have taught her. As the man rubs his shiny head and frowns, Dina walks out of the store. Slowly. Without looking back.
The man takes the lipstick and polish from my hands. “Should I ring this up for you?” Several shoppers turn around. “Where are these people coming from?” he says to one of them, and she smiles and nods.
From someplace far away, I think, where pink paradise doesn’t come in a tube.
The man taps his foot. “Well?”
“I’ll take two of each,” I say, looking at the space between his eyes.
Outside the store, Dina sits on the sidewalk, filing her nails. The sky looks like gray cotton you could stuff in a box. “Here,” I say.
Dina throws the polish and lipstick in the street, under the wheels of passing cars. “It doesn’t count. When you buy it, it doesn’t count.”
Merrick, New York
I’ve lived with a lot of grief the past five years; The Sun, much as I like it, was often no solace. In fact, I could hardly open it without reading some sad story or letter that would only remind me of my own sadness. The back issues piled up.
Well, I’m doing better now, and have finally caught up on my reading. Is it just me, or is The Sun doing better, too? It seems the last two issues have left me feeling more empowered than paralyzed. If this is a conscious editorial shift, I applaud it. After all, shouldn’t a “magazine of ideas” have as many good ideas as bad?
The September issue was wonderful through and through. But what really got me was the Readers Write from Chris Comles: “As we got ready to leave, Bobby’s mother put her arms around me and told me to remember I wasn’t a bad girl.” I swear, I burst into tears when I read that. To learn of parents in the fifties (or any decade, for that matter) who could bestow on a young girl such a spirit-lifting, confidence-building note made me feel that the world is good, and full of hope.