In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I don’t want her to go. Not by car. Not with her best friend from college. Two young women traveling in Mexico.
“You can camp just about anywhere,” Mara assures me. She read this in a guidebook. I’ve read a few things, too: about dysentery and cholera, about naive travelers who run afoul of harsh drug laws, about the restless machismo of Mexican men. But what can I say? My daughter is twenty, nearly twenty-one.
I remember hiking with her when she was five. We were balancing on a fallen tree, inching our way across a stream. I peered down uncertainly, told her not to go any farther. “Why?” she asked. “It’s too scary,” I said. She looked straight at me. “I’m not afraid,” she said. “You’re afraid. Don’t tell me it’s scary just because you’re afraid.”
She still gets annoyed when I try to steer her away from harm. As if I could. As if a father’s advice were a bridge one could walk across. She wants to be adventurous, spontaneous. When life knocks on the door, she wants to yell, “It’s open; come in.”
I stare dumbly. The door is unlocked?
You’d think I’d understand the call of the open road. I lived the gypsy life once, traveling for more than a year in a van around Europe and North Africa, then hitchhiking through Canada and the United States. I know that travel can be the best and cheapest education in the world. But I also know what can happen when the Third World and the First World scrape against each other. “It’s important to learn about where you’re going,” I tell Mara. “Read more than one guidebook. Be spontaneous, but be prepared.”
She rolls her eyes. I’ve been pushing her to read more all her life.
“This is different,” I insist. “This isn’t about improving your mind; it’s about staying alive.”
Across the room, my wife, Norma, shakes her head. Wrong approach, her expression says. She’s not a child anymore.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I forget you’re not a child anymore.”
My daughter nods. Well, there’s something we agree on.
Actually, when I’m not trying to save her, Mara and I enjoy each other’s company immensely. If our conversations sometimes have the choreographed feel of a formal dance — the studied movements of a father and daughter careful not to trip each other with too much candor — at other times we leap, we soar. She’s perceptive, creative, opinionated — even more opinionated than I am (though she’d remind me that’s just my opinion). Any father would feel grateful for the kind of closeness we share, but under the circumstances I feel especially fortunate: Mara’s mother and I split up when Mara was two years old, and I saw Mara mainly on weekends until she came to live with me when she was twelve. If I wasn’t much of a husband, at least I’ve tried to be a devoted father. For more than two decades, my love for Mara and my younger daughter, Sara, has been a constant in my life, through time spent together and time spent apart, through divorce and remarriage, through money and no money, through every ridiculous battle I’ve fought with myself. Through my thirties and forties and now my fifties: their father. As long as I breathe, and even after I stop breathing: their father.
Mara is a college junior now, Sara a sophomore. Both are home for a brief holiday visit before they leave for separate road trips. If I’m marginally less anxious about Sara’s itinerary, it’s only because she’s not leaving the country. She’ll be camping with a friend in the Southwest, where she’s been before.
But Mara has never been to Mexico. She doesn’t speak Spanish. She and her friend Mary plan to find a deserted spot on Mexico’s Pacific Coast where they can draw and paint. I’m supposed to picture them on a high bluff overlooking a quiet fishing village with cobblestone streets and whitewashed buildings — not sitting inside a broken-down car on some unpaved road; not abandoning the car and trying to find the nearest village; not being helped by police with a reputation for harassing women travelers. Then again, Mara says, maybe she and Mary won’t stay on the coast at all. Maybe they’ll visit friends from college who are studying in central Mexico. Maybe they’ll head for the ruins in Yucatan.
I ask her to jot down the license-plate number of her friend’s ten-year-old car — just in case. She looks at me tenderly, if impatiently, and assures me they’ll be careful. I hand her my long-distance calling card. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I’ll call. If you don’t hear from me at least once a week, then you can worry.”
I know she’ll keep her promise. When she was in high school, she always called if she was going to be home late. Sara, too, has promised to call regularly. They both know that I’m a worrier; that I’ve worried about them all their lives; that my worry and my love are like sisters, too, and sometimes hard to tell apart. They know I worry lavishly, indiscriminately, a great openhearted worry that embraces every possible catastrophe: the bogeyman, the funnel cloud, the birthday bottle of champagne that explodes in your face. I know most of my worrying is senseless, that all worrying is senseless — but I don’t live on that enlightened peak.
Don’t worry, Dad.
Sara calls. She’s run into bad weather on her way to the Grand Canyon. She’s disappointed, but she has friends in Prescott, Arizona, where she can sit out the storm. I run down my checklist: Yes, she says, the car is fine. Yes, she’s warm. Yes, she laughs, she’s safe.
When Mara calls from Mexico, I can barely hear her, as if her voice is being bounced off a satellite and hitting the earth at a bad angle; I run after it, like a kid chasing a ball. “IS EVERYTHING OK?” I shout. She assures me she’s fine. She and Mary crossed the border at El Paso, Texas; they’re now in Durango, on their way to the Pacific Coast. “DURANGO?” I say, reaching for my atlas. “WHERE’S DURANGO?” Mara isn’t sure; they’ve been driving all day on a narrow, busy highway, and everything is a blur. She says she’s tried to phone several times, but hasn’t been able to figure out how to use my calling card, or how to call collect. To make this call, she had to buy a prepaid phone card, and she doesn’t know how much time is left on it. She starts to say something else, but gets cut off.
“MARA?” I’m startled by the abrupt end to our conversation, but relieved to know she’s all right. I locate El Paso on the map, then run my finger south along the winding highway to Durango, as if tracing a vein on the back of a loved one’s hand. I think about what a big step Mara has taken, crossing a border that separates the First World from the Third World, crossing a border within herself. For a moment, along with fatherly concern, I feel a hint of fatherly pride. After all, haven’t I encouraged my daughters to be independent, to think for themselves, to travel — at least intellectually — the less-traveled road? On Mara’s shoestring budget, there will be no luxury hotel rooms, no fancy restaurants, none of the comforts that insulate so many tourists. I worry, but I admire her sense of adventure. I’m glad she’s brave enough to undertake this journey — or foolish enough. Who’s to say they’re not the same?
Sara calls again: she’s still held up by bad weather. But nearly a week has gone by without a second call from Mara. I remind myself I don’t need to worry. I remind myself that calling from Mexico is difficult; that most travelers to Mexico don’t run into any trouble; that the majority of Mexicans are kind and peaceful, like the majority of people everywhere.
On Friday night the phone rings; it’s Mary’s mother, Annette. She asks if I’ve heard from Mara.
Yes, I say, she called last Friday from Durango.
Annette says that Mary called last Friday, too. But she had promised to call twice a week, and Annette hasn’t heard from her since.
Twice a week? My mouth is suddenly dry.
“Does Mary usually call when she says she will?”
“Always,” Annette says.
I try to reassure Annette that everything is probably all right, but I sound like a flight attendant insisting that the abrupt and dizzying loss of altitude is nothing to worry about.
I phone Mara’s mother. Like me, Priscilla wasn’t happy about Mara’s making this trip; unlike me, Priscilla usually radiates a sense of calm and command. She hasn’t heard from Mara since last Friday either, but she’s not worried. She tells me everything is probably all right — in the same measured tones I used with Annette.
That night, though I don’t take God for an errand boy (or girl), I pray. I pray to a mysterious God, a God without form, who sometimes — go figure — mysteriously assumes the form of a God who answers prayers. I pray for a phone call.
The next morning, Norma and I hang around the house waiting for Mara to call. Finally, we go into town. For weeks, I’ve been shopping for a used car, having at last decided to replace my rusty, fifteen-year-old Toyota with something safer and more reliable. This is the day I make my decision: a well-maintained Volvo with only forty thousand miles, a car so sturdily constructed that I won’t have to haggle with a used-car salesman for perhaps another fifteen years. After shaking hands on the deal, I call home to see if there’s a message on the answering machine, reflecting on the irony of buying one of the safest cars on the road — a car that has not only air bags but side air bags — on a day I’m feeling so vulnerable about my daughter’s safety.
When we get home that afternoon, I stare glumly at the answering machine. I call Mary’s mother. I call Mara’s mother. No one has heard anything. We all agree that our daughters are probably fine, only we wish they would call. They’ll probably call tomorrow, we agree. To tell us they’re fine.
Did I imagine, when my daughters were younger, that I would worry less when they could cross the street themselves? Foolish man! I try to picture a friendly Mexico — a Mexico of village fiestas and colorful crafts, a Mexico rich in history. Instead, I picture a Mexico rich in oppression; a Mexico where American tourists may be targets for resentment; a Mexico where young American women are often assumed to be promiscuous; a Mexico where, in the province of Chiapas, gangs of young men — some dressed in colorful native attire, others in ill-fitting uniforms — shoot at each other in the name of social justice.
Relax, I tell myself: Mara and Mary aren’t going anywhere near Chiapas. Besides, I sound like the kind of arrogant gringo who condemns Mexico for not being more affluent, more accommodating, more like a Mexico theme park. I don’t want to forget that Mexico’s poverty and unrest are vivid realities for millions of people, not merely a stage set for my overheated imagination.
Later that evening, Sara calls. The bad weather isn’t letting up, so she’s heading further south tomorrow.
To Mexico? I ask in alarm.
No, she says, she doesn’t have time to go that far.
That’s good, I say.
But what’s the difference whether she’s north or south of the border in a world where violence is universal? I think of Sara camping in the Arizona desert, this young woman who adores nature nearly as much as I adore her. We hiked together in the Southwest a couple of years ago; I know she’s probably safer under those piercingly blue skies than she would be in almost any city in the world. Still, I’d like to reach through the phone and reel her home, back across the dangerous miles.
I can buy a damned Volvo, I think, but not a safe life for the daughters I love.
By Sunday, I start to wonder whether Mara hasn’t called because she can’t call. Maybe there’s been a strike by telephone workers. Or a power failure. Or an earthquake. I search the Internet, but the only information I come across is either irrelevant or disconcerting. (“The northern part of Mexico is the area where most of the ‘disappearing gringo’ stories originate,” one travel guide says, without indicating whether the stories are true.) I call the United States embassy in Mexico City. Since it’s Sunday, the embassy offices are closed, but the receptionist patches me through to the officer-on-call, who is clearly less than thrilled to be disturbed at home. There’s been no strike by telephone workers, she informs me. No power failure. No earthquake. She can’t think of any reason my daughter should be having difficulty calling. Perhaps she forgot?
I consider the different ways a twenty-year-old might interpret “once a week.” But this is my twenty-year-old, who knows how I interpret it. I may be a lover of metaphor, but when I’m waiting for a phone call from one of my daughters I’m as literal-minded as a fundamentalist reading scripture, as precise as an IRS agent examining a tax return. Mara knows that when it comes to her I’m a train that runs on time: a huge, smoke-belching locomotive that rolls into the station, stops on a dime. She didn’t forget.
I pace the living room, then pick up a book I was reading last week: another of those lofty spiritual texts I can never seem to get my fill of — hungry me, needing to be reminded (again) by (yet another) Indian holy man that separateness is an illusion, that who I am is neither a body nor a mind, that the real me is timeless and beyond birth and death. I know that what the holy man says is true — even though, when I look in the mirror, all I see is six feet of meat. No, I’m not who I think I am, nor is Mara who I think she is. She’s beyond birth and death, neither a body nor a mind. True, true, I think, tossing down the book. I’d trade it all for a phone call.
Priscilla calls to say she’s worried now, too: a bad sign. Before we met, she reminds me, she’d been to Mexico’s Pacific Coast. The ocean can get rough there. There are huge waves. She pauses. There are sharks.
Please, I say, let’s not talk about sharks.
I sit in the living room with a map of Mexico on my lap, anxiety spinning into every part of my body. I study the map closely, as if I expect to find Mara waving back at me. I imagine myself driving down dusty two-lane roads from village to village, past crowing roosters and barking dogs and crying children, searching hundreds of miles of coastline for two American college girls: Lovely girls, have you seen them? They were standing at their easels, painting, high on a hillside overlooking the blue-green sea. I’m stupid, stupid, stupid, I tell myself, for not trying to keep Mara from leaving. For not threatening. For not begging.
I remember something John Irving wrote: “If Garp could have been granted one vast and naive wish, it would have been that he could make the world safe. For children and grownups. The world struck Garp as unnecessarily perilous for both.”
Guilt bounds into the room, a big, slobbering dog with muddy paws and terrible breath: Maybe Mara is in trouble because she’s run out of money! In order to afford this trip, she asked for cash in lieu of Christmas and birthday gifts. Norma and I wrote out a check we thought was generous. But was it enough? Is anything ever enough when it comes to your children? Now that Mara is in college, I’m torn between trying to make life easier for her and encouraging her to be more self-reliant. I’d like her to become a resourceful, responsible woman who won’t have to depend on a man to support her. But she’s only twenty, I remind myself; she still needs my support. Let’s face it, we could have given her more. I’m driving a nice car now — air bags, side air bags. Guilt cocks his head, wags his tail.
The afternoon drags on — a big bouquet of hours, and me with no vase to put them in. The hours have thorns.
As the light outside starts to fade, Norma puts down the book she’s reading and, her brow furrowed, admits that she’s worried, too. Because I know that Norma doesn’t get rattled easily — I make a point of marrying women who are calmer than I am — I find even this modest admission unnerving. So I do the only logical thing: I straighten up the house. Bringing a little more order into my little world is my time-honored way of trying to make life less messy. (It’s never worked, but my home is very neat.) As I tidy up my stacks of magazines and put the compact discs away in strict alphabetical order, I try to convince myself that Mara is fine. But I know that, even if she is, someone somewhere is going through unspeakable agony right now — a political prisoner in a blood-splattered cell, a kidnapping victim in an airless back room, a woman held down on a soiled mattress and raped by two men while their friends cheer.
We all know this, but we don’t know what to do about it. So we tidy up, and lock our doors, and pray for those we love. And, if our hearts are big enough, and broken enough, maybe we pray, too, for the rapists and the torturers.
Love is always the answer, I think, even when we don’t know the question. I try to beam out love to Mara the way I did when she was an infant, and she’d wake up at night crying, and I’d get up from bed to rock her in my arms. And sometimes, when the night was quiet, and my thoughts were still, I could feel a wave of energy join us. I could feel my heart resonate with hers, as if our hearts were two tuning forks. It was a tangible, physical sensation, something I’d never experienced with anyone before.
If she’s in trouble, I think, love is what she needs. If she’s not in trouble, love is still what she needs.
That night, I lie awake, staring at the ceiling. Mara will call in the morning: I know it. She’ll call to say the phones didn’t work, the car didn’t work, something didn’t work, but she’s working fine. She’s not in a hospital. She’s not lying with her throat slashed in a weed-choked ditch on the outskirts of some lovely Mexican fishing village, dying alone under a beautiful sunset as the colors bleed across the sky.
On Monday morning, before going for my run, I stare at the phone as if I could will it to ring. I visualize picking up the receiver and saying hello to my daughter. I praise the wobbly satellite ready to bounce her back into my arms. It’s a matter of positive thinking, I tell myself, of focusing my mental energies, of aligning myself with the infinite power of the universe: Just one phone call, please. Then I’ll lace up my running shoes and race through the neighborhood like a convict who’s been pardoned. Grace will pour down like thick, golden syrup from God’s own breakfast table. Yes, I’ll be one happy little pancake, finally off the griddle.
I spend the day at the office, but it’s hard to concentrate on other people’s words when all I want to hear are Mara’s, assuring me that she’s still in her body, illusory though it may be. I call the college she attends. I explain the situation to an administrator, who listens sympathetically. It’s a long shot, I tell her, but Mara and Mary might have decided to visit friends in central Mexico who are there as part of the college’s study-abroad program. The administrator says she’ll contact the faculty and let me know if anyone has seen them. I tell her that my anxiety will probably seem foolish in retrospect. She says I’m not being foolish. This only makes me worry more.
I call the State Department in Washington. An official assures me that trying to call the United States from Mexico can be frustrating. “Nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand,” she says, “there’s nothing to worry about in cases like this.” But she’ll check with the Mexican authorities to see if Mary’s car has been involved in an accident.
Maybe it’s time to call in the psychics and the witch doctors, I think. Maybe it’s time to sacrifice an animal or two. I consider the kind and peaceful Aztecs, who inhabited Mexico five hundred years ago. Their priests ritually sacrificed men and women by ripping their hearts out. They had their reasons, I’m sure.
That evening I stand in Mara’s room. Nearly everything is gone now: the books, the posters, the desk, the dresser — all moved to her college apartment seven hundred miles away. I sit on her bed, think of the claim Mara has made on me from the moment she was born; of how fatherhood has been more instructive for me than any spiritual text. Called upon to change a diaper, a man must descend to love’s home in the valley; for a dreamer like me, enamored of peak experiences, the valley was a long way down. I remember cringing the first time I ventured there, as if being forced to handle radioactive waste. And I remember how practiced I soon became at it, like an old farmhand unfazed by nature’s odd demands. I remember the first time Mara realized she could grasp a toy in her tiny hand, and how I stared awestruck, as if seeing human history unfold before my eyes. And I remember feeding her, and reading aloud her favorite stories again and again, and pushing her on a playground swing, by turns exhilarated to be with her and bored out of my mind. I remember how she cried the first time she saw me mow the lawn. (“You’re killing the grass,” she wept.) Yes, I remember the long morning of her childhood, and I remember how time, that thief, turned her into a teenager who suddenly found her father’s sentimentality embarrassing; who couldn’t understand why he worried so much, this man of so much faith and so much doubt. I remember all the incantations I’ve muttered over her and Sara: the spells to ward off pregnancy and AIDS and bulimia and depression and alcohol and drugs and suicide. Who knows? Maybe some of my clumsy magic worked. Freud said there’s no need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection. But what shall I protect my daughters from now? God’s mysterious plans for them? The squeaky turning of the karmic wheel?
In the middle of dinner, the phone rings. It’s a woman selling something. Sell me some peace of mind, I want to say. But I’m polite. This woman is only doing her job, I remind myself; this woman is someone’s daughter.
Ten minutes later, the phone rings again. Who will it be this time? I wonder. Another telemarketer? A policeman struggling to pronounce my last name?
My breath catches in my chest. I feel the blood pounding in my head.
They’ve cut their trip short, Mara says. She’s heading home. Yes, she’s all right. But everything went wrong.
They met a couple of Mexican men. One of the men had a brother who owned a bar, so drinks were on the house. A few hours later, woozy from too much sun and too much tequila, Mara and Mary returned to their campsite to take a nap. They were robbed while they were sleeping. The thief left behind their traveler’s checks, but took all their cash. They went to the police, who promised to get their money back but really seemed more interested in flirting. After that, they were apprehensive about going to sleep at night for fear of being robbed again, or worse. Then their cookstove ran out of gas. Then they ran out of food. It was, Mara says ruefully, a learning experience. She’ll tell me the rest of the story when she gets back to North Carolina.
When I ask why she didn’t call sooner, she sounds surprised. When she called from Durango, she says, she intended to tell me she wasn’t going to call again from Mexico because it was nearly impossible to find a phone that worked. But we got cut off before she had a chance. So she sent me a letter the next day. It said not to expect another call until she arrived back in the United States — and not to worry. Hadn’t I received it?
Two days later, Mara phones me at the office to say she’s finally arrived in Chapel Hill. I drop what I’m doing and drive home to see her. When she hears me come in, she yells from upstairs that she’s just taken a shower and is getting dressed; she’ll be down soon.
I wait. What’s a few more minutes?
I put up a pot of coffee, rummage through my pockets, glance at my list of things to get done this week. I’m always making lists, ambitious lists, each one a little lie about the future. When will I learn that the future isn’t in my control; that the next hour, the next day, the next year don’t belong to me? I fold the list neatly, put it away.
Mara comes down. She’s never been so grateful for a hot shower, she says. I’ve never been so grateful to see her, I think, my arms opening wide.
Then, to my surprise, hugging my daughter in the middle of my kitchen, I start to cry. I didn’t know I was going to cry, but those are fat tears running down my cheeks.
“I was so worried about you,” I say, hugging her more tightly.
“I knew you were worried,” she says. She’s crying now, too.
I pull away and look at her from arm’s length, this grown woman with wet hair. I’ll never know what part of my soul swept through my body when her mother and I conceived her; I’ll never understand the mysterious bond between a parent and a child. I know I can’t keep life from pouncing on her, from tossing her dreams around like a cat playing with a mouse: deadly play, here on this deadly planet. But she’s safe now, here in my kitchen, on this sunny afternoon that can’t last. I hug her again. Absurdly, I wish I could hold her forever — as if I could stand between her and danger, my aging body some kind of shield; as if I could be her school crossing guard, her guardian angel, instead of merely her fool of a father, her flesh and blood.
I could relate to the experience Sy Safransky describes in “Safety” [August 1997], although I was sorry to hear the outcome of his daughter’s trip to Mexico; those things happen.
My husband and I spent six weeks in Mexico this year, doing most of our traveling by bus. Along the way, we received the following advice: “Never, ever fall asleep on the bus at the same time, because you will be robbed.” Nothing unusual happened, however, and we had a great trip.
Like Safransky, my father worried the whole time we were in Mexico. I spent a fortune on telephone calls, but it didn’t help. Fathers never change. I am forty-five and married, but still his “little girl.”
I was about to drop a thousand dollars in the mail for a lifetime subscription when I read editor Sy Safransky’s “Safety” [August 1997]. I finished it with tears streaming down my face. But then I realized that either his neurotic tendencies (probably the reason The Sun has been so successful) or his age would get him before I got my money’s worth.
I read Sy Safransky’s incredible essay “Safety” [August 1997] the day after my husband and I brought our daughter to college. It moved me to tears.
Simply put, there is no publication like The Sun. For more than twelve years my husband and I have devoured, discussed, loved, and disagreed with it. He reads more political material, and I read more spiritual. Somehow, yours is the only magazine that speaks to us both.
I read Sy Safransky’s essay “Safety” [August 1997] — about waiting for his missing daughter Mara’s phone call — the way an anorexic reads a cookbook, hungrily imagining the tastes and the sensation of feeling full. My father has no emotional attachment to me whatsoever. My desire for the sort of concern and love that Safransky feels for his daughter has at times caused me to fantasize being raped, thinking that perhaps such a violation might stir some kind of paternal response, some kind of outrage, if not simply a hug.
What I envy Mara the most is that, whether she is home in bed or staring down a tequila-crazed rapist on a remote Mexican road, she knows her father loves her. Somehow having The Sun on my bedside table has allowed me to feel, if only vicariously, what it must be like to know that.