My best friend lived in a building that had once housed an old water tower. He was working on his doctorate in physics. I had just finished my bachelor’s and was preparing to move away. I gave him a bookshelf I wasn’t taking with me, and one evening I went to visit him under the pretense of seeing how he’d set up the shelf. I had once asked him to marry me, but he’d turned me down because of his girlfriend (whom he hadn’t seen in years and who had no interest in marrying him).
It was spring, but still chilly and damp. He was wearing a navy blue parka indoors. Examining his books, I asked if he’d read The Catcher in the Rye. He said he had, and had liked it. We stayed up late talking and then making love on the couch next to the bookshelf.
I asked if I could sleep with him in his loft. There were spider webs around his bed, and the sheets were covered with grit. He told me he ate boiled, unseasoned soybeans or stew every day. Looking out the window at the lush fields below, I felt more at home than I had anywhere else before.
Sixteen years and two beautiful children later, we fondly remember that first night.
Mary Bronstein Cantoral
I am fifty, a teacher with a family. My husband and I are not doing well lately, and I feel an impossible love for a colleague twenty-four years my junior. I want to run away. I want to die.
When I come home from work at four in the afternoon, I go straight to the bedroom, shove aside the laundry, magazines, and books covering the bed, pull off my clothes, and climb under the sheets. Curled on my left side with the blanket up around my neck, I close my eyes and rock myself, making small sounds like a cat. I take the sheet in my mouth and bite it. It feels good between my teeth.
I hear our dog barking outside, my daughter playing catch with the neighbor, someone across the ravine using a chain saw. I must get up. I still have to make dinner, grade papers, take my daughter to her piano lesson. But I promise myself I will go to bed early tonight; I will come back to this place, to this position, no matter what is left undone or what my family thinks.
In the summer of 1968, I went a whole week without washing my right hand. I suppose any teenager lucky enough to have actually touched her rock-star idol would have done the same. I made every effort to keep that hand from coming in contact with any object that might rub away the remnants of his skin cells. I was sure my hand would never be the same.
Now I’m in my forties, and in that same spirit I refuse to wash my sheets. The once-crisp lace edging is worn to softness from night after night of being wrapped snugly around my shoulders. I can feel the stiff places where his semen has turned the white cotton pale yellow. The strong smell of his body, my gentle perfume, and the faint odor of our lovemaking are all woven into the fibers.
I used to like the way my bed looked before his arrival: always fresh smelling, soft, clean, and white, with neatly tucked hospital corners and overstuffed pillows fluffed and straight. Now my sheets have lost their starchy perfection, like a Sunday handkerchief gone limp from too many washings. And oh, how I love them.
Karen K. Conant
Glen Gardner, New Jersey
“What are you dreaming about?” my older sister would ask. That would be the beginning. She’d pry her way into my sleep first with questions, then with her fingers, trailing them down my sleepy little-girl back.
“Where are you?” she’d ask, and I’d answer, still clinging to sleep as a savior, yet knowing my dreams would never be enough for her.
“Do you want to play Mr. Walking Fingers?” She’d learned the game from a friend, but now that friend was two states away, and there was only me, lying there beside her, young and easy to manipulate.
“Come on, let’s play. Just for a while,” she’d say and lie back, unbuttoning her long white nightgown from neck to navel, ready to slip back into it should Mom come to the door.
“Just a little, right across here,” she’d coax, tracing a line across her bare breasts and belly for me to follow with my fingers, staring straight at the ceiling, not seeing my wet eyes.
“Now here, just to here,” she’d instruct, and I’d have to obey. She was my sister and I loved her — and, besides, she’d told me there was an alligator under the bed that could snap off my legs before I made it to the door.
When it was over I would pull the covers up around my ears while my sister turned to face the wall on her side of the bed. The game never seemed to make her happy.
My friend Jim had been battling AIDS for at least three years when his partner, Fred, called to say he’d taken a turn for the worse. “If you want to see him,” Fred said, “you’d better come soon.” I hadn’t even unpacked from my vacation, but the next morning I was on a plane again.
Soon after I arrived, Jim’s house began to fill with family and friends. I stood quietly in the hallway outside the closed door to Jim’s room, listening to the muted voices inside. Fred and the home-health aide were bathing him, dressing him, preparing him for visitors. I knocked and cautiously entered the room.
Jim’s waterbed was empty. He lay instead in a hospital bed, his breathing thick and congested. Only his shoulders and head were exposed. He wore a white T-shirt and was clean-shaven, his beautiful salt-and-pepper hair now thin and wet, and combed neatly across his broad forehead. His cheeks were sunken, his mouth hung open, and his eyes stared straight up, unblinking. I stood and stroked his hair and talked about our good times together.
When Fred left the room, I carefully lifted the crisp white sheet from Jim’s chest and peeked underneath. His arms were at his sides, still and straight. Below the diaper he was wearing, his legs were bare and thin, but his skin was still beautifully brown and unblemished. I reached under the sheet and lightly ran my hand up and down his leg, reminding him of his first Los Angeles Marathon, how when it was over we drank wine and I massaged his aching legs with menthol oil. He was tall, handsome, athletic, and stately. He turned heads — and I loved him. I threaded my fingers between his, but they did not move.
When it came time for me to leave, I carefully tucked the covers back across his chest and whispered that he was not really leaving me, that we would always be a part of each other, because death is not the end. His breathing softened and his eyelids fluttered. I felt he understood.
On the way to the airport, I suddenly thought, He’s gone.
Later that night, Fred called and said, “Jimmy died about fifteen minutes after you left.”
Sierra Madre, California
On the plane from London to New York, Robert and I talked and joked as if we had known each other for years, rather than the few short weeks we had spent traveling across Europe in the U.S. Collegiate Wind Ensemble. We kept the conversation light, avoiding the awkward topic of the day before, when I had denied that I was gay. Soon, the flight attendant’s voice came over the speakers, instructing passengers to pull down their window shades in preparation for the inflight movie. As the lights dimmed, Robert and I plugged in our headsets, folded back the armrest separating us, and spread a blanket across both our bodies.
I wanted to touch him, but I was scared. Watching Robert from the corner of my eye, I let my hand fall from my lap into the narrow space between our legs. Then, almost imperceptibly, I slid it toward him. The movie was nearly half over by the time the outside edge of my pinkie finally reached Robert’s thigh. He did not move away, but pressed back, and I exhaled and closed my eyes. Under the blanket, Robert slid his hand over mine, and we each explored every ridge, line, crack, and callus of the other’s hand.
Three-quarters of the way through the movie, my hand moved atop Robert’s thigh, then to the crease at his hip, and finally, just before the credits rolled, over to his crotch. He followed my lead, and, for the first time, I felt the touch of another man. I turned to look at him. As his brown eyes met mine, a secret I had hidden for years beneath layers of shame was released. A feeling of weightlessness stayed with me until the plane landed, and Robert and I went our separate ways. When I got home the first thing I unpacked was the airplane blanket, which I had stuffed into my carry-on bag.
Jeffery A. Moore
Grandmother was ninety-six and close to death when my mother and I visited the nursing home on Mother’s Day. I knew it might be the last time our three generations would sit together.
Grandmother looked dignified, with her stark white hair and sharp, bony profile. She and I had never been close, and her waning energy made conversation difficult. I ventured a few questions about her life, but talk of the past made her fiercely defensive. So I turned to more immediate topics: the nursing-home staff, her recent hip surgery.
I asked how her leg was feeling now that the cast had been removed.
“Good,” she said. “Want to see it?”
“Sure,” I replied.
As she pulled down the sheet to reveal her shriveled, alabaster legs, my mother’s hand swept down, grabbed Grandmother’s hospital gown, and yanked it to a more modest position.
That one swift gesture released in me a series of childhood memories: that same hand tugging at a disobedient hemline; the scowling command to “keep your legs together” any time I was caught tumbling around in typical child’s play; the grave instructions for scrubbing myself clean “down there.” Reflexively, I crossed my legs and stared off at the other side of the room.
At that moment, I saw Grandmother, Mother, and myself as inheritors of some female legacy of shame. In one snap motion, my mother’s hand had demonstrated the power to hide the source of all creation.
Sometimes depression gets the better of me, despite the medication and therapy. When it does, I spend several days in bed with the covers up over my head. I cry, sleep, wake, and cry some more, wishing I had the courage to kill myself. At such moments, it’s often hard to remember that a chemical imbalance causes this.
Once, it got so bad I decided to end my life. I had the whole thing planned out: I wrote a personal letter to each of my closest friends, giving a detailed account of who was to get which of my belongings. Then I wrote a long letter to my mother, apologizing for leaving her and expressing my hope that she would understand and forgive me. I put these letters in a neat pile on my desk, along with my insurance policies, the title and keys to my car, my will, the folder of rejection letters from publishers, the last letter I’d received from my ex-lover (“Annie and I were married two weeks ago”), and a list of songs I wanted played at my memorial service.
I tidied up my bedroom, washed the dishes, and fed the cat. I even covered my bed with plastic trash bags and old towels to protect it from the excrement and urine I knew would leave my body once the overdose of pills had killed me. I didn’t want whoever found me to have to handle too much of a mess.
While I was cleaning out the refrigerator, the phone rang. It was Mom; she’d fallen in the bathtub and had hurt her hip. She was weeping and needed me to take her to the emergency room.
I went to her aid and stayed with her at the hospital throughout the tedious process of waiting, filling out forms, waiting, being examined, waiting, and being examined again. The diagnosis: bad bruises, nothing broken. I took her home, filled ice packs, fetched aspirins and water, and helped her into bed. I stayed overnight on her sofa in case she needed help, but she slept through the night.
The next morning, I returned to my apartment to find my hungry cat yowling his greetings, a message on my machine from my best friend saying she loved me, and a refund check from the IRS in my mailbox. I threw out the letters I’d written, cleaned up the trash bags, put the pills back in the medicine cabinet, and called my best friend to invite her out for an expensive night on the town, on me.
My brother and I are only eighteen months apart. Growing up, we were inseparable. I was the older sister, bigger and stronger than he was, responsible for seeing that no harm came to him. “Watch your brother,” my mother would always say. She treated us as a pair. We shared the same bedroom, and took baths and naps together.
When we were seven and eight, we discovered our sexuality together during those naps. We would take turns, one pretending to be asleep while the other explored. I had my first orgasm as he pressed a mother-of-pearl shoehorn against me. I remember pressing the same tool against his genitals, following directions uttered in his “sleep.” (I think my mother was aware of these encounters, but she never took steps to separate us. To this day, I don’t know why she tolerated such intimacy between her children.)
At night, looking at the shadows cast on the ceiling by the street light, my brother and I would confide our deepest secrets to each other. Before going to sleep in our adjacent twin beds, we would share fears about our father’s anger and our parents’ frequent loud arguments.
We remained close through our adolescence and into young adulthood — so much so a friend observed that, if he did not know we were brother and sister, he would be convinced we were lovers. I was stunned, and certainly unaware of any sexual feelings for my brother.
One evening, however, my brother’s usual teasing turned seductive. I playfully pushed him away, but he pursued me. When I realized he had an erection, I searched frantically for a way to stop him without hurting his feelings. I loved having his arms around me, though, and knowing that he wanted me. More than that, I wanted him to love me. So, with my back to him, I allowed it to happen. I enjoyed his gentle, loving touch, but was unable to respond sexually.
We didn’t speak of that incident until many years later, when he dismissed it as a purely physical act. I was hurt. I had submitted to his advances only out of my need for his love.
My brother and I lost touch for many years, and resumed contact only after I became aware, in therapy, of how much I needed him back in my life again. He is married now and has a nine-month-old. I see him every week, but the wonderful intimacy we once had is gone. I miss his bantering, teasing, affectionate way with me. Though he sometimes lapses back into his old self, he always quickly withdraws and becomes guarded.
Although I am trying to find a man who makes me feel appreciated, safe, and protected, I fear I am destined to reenact the drama of reaching for an impossible love.
“I haven’t looked at the scar,” I confessed to my husband as we lay in bed.
“Really?” He hadn’t asked about the scar. We’d avoided even talking about the operation.
“I will when I’m ready,” I said.
“I know you will.”
“And you?” I hardly dared to ask. Would he refuse to look at my changed body? Would it turn him off?
“We’ll look at it together, when we’re ready,” he said.
He took me in his arms, and we made love under the covers, but he avoided touching the scar. He was too gentle, and it made me feel frail. I missed his hands lovingly cupping my breasts.
Was this how it would be from now on — under the covers, as though nothing had ever happened? “I love you,” he told me every day, as if to reassure me. (And himself?) Bare breasts seemed to be everywhere. Newspapers and magazines were full of brassiere ads, and nearly every movie we saw had a nude love scene. I felt bereft, a freak.
Months passed, and the night before my birthday he gave me a diamond pendant in the shape of a heart. He fastened it around my neck, where it shimmered against my black velvet robe. Then he untied the belt and the robe slipped from my shoulders. The diamond heart hung in the cleft between my lost breasts. He turned me to him and kissed the scars.
We made love on top of the covers, and I felt strong and whole.
Los Angeles, California
When the telephone rang at 4 A.M. I knew it had to be a wrong number, or trouble. I jumped out of bed, reached for the phone, and heard my father’s raspy, croaking voice.
“R-R-Rozzie, I’m s-s-so cold. The . . . the . . . the blanket f-f-fell off and I c-c-can’t cover myself.” He started to cry.
“I’ll take care of it, Dad.”
I hung up and dialed the main number of Dad’s retirement home. “Luis,” I said, “this is Frank’s daughter. Would you please do me a favor and go to my dad’s room and cover him? He just called and said he’s cold and can’t reach the blanket.”
“Sorry, ma’am. I’m the only one on tonight and I can’t leave the front desk.”
“Luis, I’ll take care of you in the morning. Can’t you take just a minute and do this?”
“Sorry. I can’t risk losing my job.”
“Damn it,” I muttered, and slammed down the phone. Thank God, Dad was only five minutes away; we’d selected the home in part so that I could respond quickly to any emergency.
Luis was sleeping when I buzzed the front door. He let me in, and I glared at him. I didn’t want to make him my enemy, but I couldn’t resist letting him see my annoyance.
I opened the door to Dad’s room. There he lay, a bundle of bones on a small twin bed, covered only by his boxer shorts and torn undershirt. I pulled two blankets over him and touched his fragile shoulder. Then I sat in the chair, the moon at my back, and watched my father sleep, saddened by what had become of this once robust man, and angered that I had the responsibility of caring for him.
When I awoke, the sun was coming up, illuminating the stubble on Dad’s cheeks, the drool around his mouth. I had to get home, shower, and be at work in an hour. I smoothed the blankets over his thin frame, kissed his cheek, and quietly closed the door behind me.
Los Angeles, California
My husband’s snoring has been a problem for the past nine years. When it wakes me, I stumble down the hall to the couch in the den, or to the empty room of one of our grown children. Occasionally, I sleep in Brian’s room.
Brian was killed by an accidental gunshot several months ago. His comforter still smells like him. Many mornings he would arrive at the kitchen table wrapped in it, looking haggard yet cozy. It matched the Southwestern wallpaper border that used to decorate his room.
Last night, I took his blanket back to my room and slept head to toe with my husband. It felt appropriate; my life was turned upside down the moment I heard Brian had accidentally shot himself and was lying in intensive care. When my husband and I arrived at the hospital, we were surprised to find Brian looking so peaceful. Other than the small band-aid on his cheek, he appeared perfectly normal. He never regained consciousness.
Now my own consciousness is altered. I am caught between past and present, in a world where every waking moment is alive with memories of my son’s short life — especially tonight, as I curl up under his blanket, head to toe with my snoring husband, and try to find a way to sleep.
When I was still too young to read, I grasped the meaning of Presbyterianism from hymns and prayers. As I heard it, my family’s denomination was obsessed with life under the covers. During the Lord’s Prayer, for example, we frankly pleaded, “Give us this day our day in bed,” and I thought of lying with my parents in their big, warm, squeaky bed on Sunday mornings, frolicking in their rumpled bedclothes, and playing in between the sheets.
When my mother hung the sheets out to dry, I ran between them, feeling their cool dampness against my cheeks. When the sun and wind had done their work, my mother would get the stand-up laundry bag on wheels, and I would ride in it across the yard to the clothesline, where I would receive the sun-warmed sheets in big armfuls from my mother.
So when the congregation sang, “Bringing in the sheets! Bringing in the sheets! We will come rejoicing, bringing in the sheets!” I knew just what they were rejoicing about.
My father was cursed with a grim skin disease that infected his sweat glands one by one. The only treatment was to remove each gland surgically.
At first, the operations were performed in a rural hospital two and a half hours from home. My father would be away a week to ten days, and come home with a fresh scar on his face or neck, to a meal of steak and mushrooms — a rare treat. My parents hardly ever hugged or kissed, so a special meal was how my mother showed affection. Even today, the smell of mushrooms frying means to me a loved one is home.
My father seemed untroubled by his scars. He used to say they were good for business, because people never forgot his face. But in time the surgeries became more drastic. The major glands under his arms became infected, and he was referred to a plastic surgeon in Winnipeg, who deeply excavated the problem area and repaired the damage with skin grafts from my father’s thighs. The underarms were done one at a time, three months apart. After each, the affected arm was strapped to a bar above my father’s bed for six weeks, until the graft had taken. Later, physical therapy was required to rebuild the arm muscles that had withered from lack of use.
His case was a medical novelty. He made appearances at the med school where my sister studied. When she married a physician’s son, my father was the center of attention at the wedding. He thought nothing of stripping to the waist so the enormous scars under his arms could be poked and admired by doctors in tuxedos and chiffon.
Over the years, my father had additional surgery on his back and chest. Then, when I was in college, infection erupted in the sweat glands of his groin. I went to visit him a few days after his surgery. His lower body was covered by a cage to keep his blankets from touching him there. As I rested my hands on his bedrails, my mother offered to go get coffee.
“Wait,” he said to her in a soft voice. “I looked when they changed the dressings today; I’ll understand if you never want me again.”
My mother blinked back tears and pressed her lips together. “Never mind that,” she said, and left the room.
Victoria, British Columbia
In my seven-year-old eyes, she was a bland old lady who stationed herself in the corner of the living room and made idle conversation about the taxes on her lake home, the problem of finding someone to mow her lawn, or the time the neighbors stopped by unexpectedly and all she had to serve was cold pickled herring and boiled potatoes. She was my father’s Aunt Hattie, a widow who had been married to the overweight man featured prominently in every photograph in the family album.
Perhaps to alleviate some of her loneliness, my father began inviting Aunt Hattie over on all the major holidays. Once, rather than drive her the forty miles back to her house, he decided she would bunk with me.
That night, I lay in bed and waited uncomfortably for Aunt Hattie to finish in the bathroom. What if she slept in the middle of the bed and tossed and turned all night? What if she talked in her sleep?
Aunt Hattie emerged draped in a long, flowered nightgown, and perched on the edge of my double bed, where she let loose the long coil of hair at the nape of her neck. A silver stream fell and flowed over her shoulders. In the dim light, she looked entirely made of silver: from her wire-rimmed glasses, to the moons of her nails, to her toes wrapped in cotton gauze.
Once she was under the covers, her cold feet brushed my leg and we broke out in giggles. She told me that, when she was a girl, she’d shared a bed with my grandmother. One time they’d used it for a trampoline and broken it, but had secretly fixed it before their parents discovered the mischief. She told me about her husband, Art, and how as sheriff he had planned a surprise parade for them after their wedding; everyone had gathered on Main Street and thrown rice and candy.
“I blushed cranberry red,” Aunt Hattie said. “There were all my neighbors, all the townspeople — and some of them knew what a hellion Art had been in his younger days.”
My tongue played with the word hellion. Though I’d never heard it before, I knew immediately what it meant. Suddenly, Art, the overweight man in every photograph, seemed glamorous. And that night, Aunt Hattie became one of my favorite people.
Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin
I was sleeping soundly, warmly snuggled beneath my comforter, when I was awakened at 6 A.M. by a very loud, very foul-mouthed woman angrily berating someone directly below my bedroom window. “Get over here, you little shit! Shut up, or I’ll slap you again. Hold still and stand here next to me. Don’t you cry, God damn it, or I’ll give you something to cry about! Don’t you look at me like that, you goddamn brat. Get back here, you son of a bitch! You listen to me when I talk to you! Who the fuck do you think you are? Get over here and sit still or I’m really going to give it to you good, you hear me?”
Heart racing, I put on my glasses and peered out the window. A tall, fat woman with arms like ham hocks, her face twisted in anger, was sitting at the bus stop yelling at a boy of about four or five, who fidgeted and stared at the sidewalk.
Rage welled up inside me: how dare she talk to a child like that? This woman was ignorant, evil — and unfortunately a lot bigger than I was. Should I throw open the window and start yelling at her? Should I call 911? Should I wake the neighbors so we could go down as a group to confront her? She kept up the verbal assault, as if purposely trying to destroy the child’s spirit. “Mother-fucking little bastard, get back here! Hold still! You better listen to me or I’ll smack you good, you hear me? Get back here!”
Realizing I couldn’t listen to another moment of this, I threw on a bathrobe, grabbed a sturdy wooden cane from the umbrella rack, and ran out the front door into the street.
I arrived outside just in time to see her slap the child on the side of the head and yank him violently up the steps of the bus, which then drove off down the street. The pigeons on the ledges above and an old man walking his dog were the only witnesses to my tirade: “You goddamn, crazy, evil woman, if you ever talk to a child like that again I’ll beat your ass good!”
Panting, my rage spent, I went back into the house, knowing that I had failed, having hesitated out of fear. I went back to bed, determined not to make the same mistake next time. But in my guts I knew I might.
Mark A. Hetts
San Francisco, California
He was my first lover, we lived in a West Texas oil town and did it for the first time in the back seat of his ’57 Chevy. After that, we did it in his bed beneath a quilt his grandmother had made. He told me our love was sacred. I was fourteen; he was sixteen.
When he turned eighteen, we climbed the town water tower. He was leaving for Nevada the next day. I was afraid of heights, and that I would cry forever without him. I told him I hated him for leaving me. He tried to make it OK, but it wasn’t. I said, “I’ll always love you, even when I’m old. When I’m forty-five, I’ll still love you.”
Now I’m forty-seven. I’ve been married and divorced twice, and have two teenage children. Last weekend, I went to see him.
After driving five and a half hours to Reno, I pulled up in front of a run-down white house. A little black dog barked and snarled at me as I opened the gate. I went inside, called his name, and looked around: a TV, a full ashtray, a Bible, the smell of West Texas.
I went back outside and looked at the mountains. A small, bald man walked up to the gate.
“Is that you?” I called to him.
“You look great,” he said.
“I brought us some beer.”
“Good. I just went to the store for milk, but beer sounds better.”
We laughed and hugged and drank and talked of old friends — who had gotten married, and divorced; who was dead. We went to a casino, where I played the twenty-five-cent slots. He introduced me to his friends. A cocktail waitress asked how long we’d been married.
“Thirty years,” I said.
“It’s wonderful to see people married that long and still together having fun.”
He wanted to go dancing, but I could barely walk, much less dance, and suggested we go home. We made love all night. All these years, I’d thought my memories of him must be full of exaggerations, but they weren’t.
Early the next morning, he said, “Honey, while you’re up, get that quilt out of the closet and throw it over us, will you?” We slept a few more hours after that, snuggled under the quilt his grandmother had made.
Willow Creek, California