Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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I was living in a studio apartment near the beach. My front door was protected by a secure gate, but my back door opened onto a narrow path connected to an alley. I rarely used the back door, except when I went running.
Coming back from a run one early-December morning, I saw what looked like a half-rolled-up blue sleeping bag on the pavement between my back step and the neighbor’s. When I got closer, I was alarmed to find a bearded man wrapped up inside. Although accustomed to seeing a few scattered homeless people around, I’d never found one sleeping just fifteen feet from my bed.
As the weeks went by, I discovered scattered junk in that spot, but I didn’t see the homeless man again. Then on Christmas morning, as I dressed to go to a friend’s house, I suddenly wondered if he was there. I hoped not, wishing for his sake that he had some place to go for the holiday. Although I feared finding him, I quietly opened my back door to look, and there he was, asleep against the wall, his bag and tarp alongside him: Christmas morning, and he was all alone on the cold, hard cement.
I gathered up all the food I had — bread, fruit, the chocolate toffee my mother had given me — and put it in a clear bag with a note reading, “Merry Christmas.” Then, heart pounding, I stepped outside and placed the bag next to his head. The plastic made a rustling noise, and I leapt back inside, afraid he would open his eyes and see me.
The next morning, having spent the night at my friend’s house, I returned to my apartment to find the man gone. His corner, once cluttered with pencil stubs, batteries, and shoes, was completely clean, as if swept. All that remained, face down on the ground, was a small sheet of paper torn from a notebook. I turned it over and read: “Thank you for the gift this morning. I also want to thank you for restoring my faith in mankind. Merry Christmas, and God bless you and yours.”
I never saw him again.
Lisa J. McCarthy
Long Beach, California
When I was drinking, I expected the consequences of the morning after: the aching head, the fire in my gut, the intense pressure behind my eyes that made the notion of plucking them out sound reasonable. I developed a handful of methods to get me through my hangovers: I got up early and started moving. I took the hottest shower I could stand, trying to scrub the stink of whiskey from my pores. I abstained from coffee to avoid becoming more dehydrated. Finally, I grew to accept, even welcome, the morning’s pain and sickness as penance for the night before.
The worst part of those mornings wasn’t the physical pain; it was the fear and shame as I struggled to piece together the previous night’s events from the fragments I could remember. Some nights I hadn’t driven myself home, and in the morning I couldn’t remember where I’d been. When I looked out at the empty driveway where my truck normally was, the stomach-tightening panic was enough to make me vomit.
“I’ve got to watch my drinking,” I’d say to my wife. “I need to slow down.”
Today is the forty-ninth day of my sobriety, but I continue to wake up full of regret and guilt. On occasion, the woman who was my wife calls me on the phone, and I tell her how much I want those years back.
Klamath Falls, Oregon
My friend Jamal and I were driving up the California coast to visit a Christian commune he had heard about. As we got farther from Oakland, the towns grew smaller and smaller, and the scenery wilder and more beautiful.
At the commune, the people were sweet and loving, but very intense. A little red-haired boy, probably six years old, asked us if we had been “saved” and assured us that we would burn in hell if we didn’t accept Jesus as our savior. It was too much even for Jamal, who did regard Jesus as his savior. After an hour, we left to go to the beach.
On a spectacular stretch of sand bordered by windswept pines and rock outcroppings, we built a fire, ate dinner, and smoked a joint. As we sat looking at the calm ocean, out of nowhere appeared a beautiful, naked woman on a white horse, cantering at the water’s edge. Jamal and I looked at each other, then at the joint we’d been smoking, but she was real, and she soon joined us by the fire. When she spoke with wonderment of her apocalyptic visions, we realized she was a little crazy.
She said she had no home — she and her horse lived in the hills — and that she was cold. Night was approaching, so we offered her one of our sleeping bags. We decided to take turns keeping watch over her to make sure she didn’t hurt herself.
That night, she pleaded with us both in turn to get in the bag and hold her. It was easy enough for Jamal, who was gay, to resist her, but I was torn between trying to keep her calm and trying to calm my own passions. Finally, I got in with her, but my irrational midnight fears of demons disguised as beautiful, naked women kept me from doing anything, and we fell asleep in each other’s arms. When I woke in the morning, she and her horse were gone.
Jamal and I gathered our belongings and headed into the nearby town for some breakfast, wondering what had become of our crazy Godiva. Afterward, we saw one of the commune members, who told us the girl had come to them that morning, and they had cast out her demons and taken her into their community. She had been “saved.” I was actually kind of glad.
When I was eleven, my parents sat my brother and me down in the kitchen to give us “the talk” — the “Mommy and Daddy don’t love each other anymore” talk. My brother crawled into Mom’s lap, I climbed into Dad’s, and, just like that, it was over. Dad moved out the next day, back to New York City, the place my mother and I had never wanted to leave. Without him, we were stuck in New Jersey, the land of manicured lawns and backyard barbecues — my mother’s worst nightmare. I hated it so much I used to write, “Jersey Sucks!” in magic marker on my arm.
Kip, the dog I had begged and screamed for, was the only good thing that came from living in New Jersey. He was half Lab, half terrier, his black fur accented by a white diamond on his chest. His ears were rounded and bent, his eyes dark and pleading, and his nature playful and affectionate.
Caring for Kip was the one thing my family did well together. My mother had actually saved his life. He was so sickly when we got him that the vet gave him only a couple of months to live, but Mom fed him rice and chocolate pudding and eggs by hand until he was well enough to eat on his own. She cleaned up after him and held him to her breast like a baby. Dad even bought Kip a puppy yarmulke, and, more than once, I overheard him talking to Kip about football or the office. Maybe nobody else would listen, but Kip would sit, ears cocked, eyes intent, until Dad trailed off in midsentence, the way he always did. My brother and I, for our part, played with Kip and took him for walks. My favorite game was letting Kip pull me along on my skateboard.
But Kip had one habit that drove us all crazy, even though it was something each of us secretly understood: whenever he got a chance, he ran away.
One night, about two weeks after Dad had left, Mom couldn’t sleep and was up cleaning, which had become her habit. Kip followed her as she puttered around the house. Then, when she took out the garbage, he escaped.
In her nylon nightie and vinyl slippers, Mom chased Kip across our dying lawn and the perfect green one next door. She called to him, first sternly, and then pleadingly. Perhaps Kip took pity on her, because he turned around and ran back across the street toward her, his tongue hanging out. Neither of them saw the car. In an instant, the one thing that had worked in all our lives was killed on a quiet Jersey street between two neatly mown lawns.
When I woke up the following morning, I was surprised to find Dad in Mom’s bed. A small hope fluttered inside me. Then Mom said, “Kip is dead.”
I ran back to my room and lay face down on my bed crying. Dad came in and mumbled something. Then he lay down beside me and cried, too. His sobs were loud and deep and shook my bed. We kept on like that for an hour. Then Dad got up and went back to his new home.
It took me six more years to get the hell out of New Jersey.
Palo Alto, California
My fiancé was a working man: rough hands, rough talk. After three years, I broke off our engagement when I fell for a guy at my office. This new man’s hands were soft, his words sweet. I thought I’d finally found the type of man I was supposed to marry.
My new love invited me to spend the weekend at his parents’ lake-front home in New Hampshire. All day Saturday, we made love and ate cherries in front of a roaring fire in the upstairs bedroom.
That evening, as the fire burned low, I reluctantly got out of bed to take a shower. On my way to the bathroom, I heard him say, “How long have you had those saddlebags?”
I stopped in my tracks, swallowed hard, then continued on.
On Sunday morning, I lay alone on my side of the bed, staring at the ceiling in the dim gray light. A chill breeze off the lake came through the open balcony door, bringing with it the cry of a loon. I tearfully turned toward the wall, missing the rough hands that had always loved my saddlebags.
Judith E. Smith
I lie on your futon beneath the quilts, listening to your heavy, rhythmic breathing. The early-morning light creeps in the windows the way consciousness permeates dreams.
Outside the sliding glass door, the huge expanse of sky that I never get to see in town is turning ever so slowly from black, to violet, to lavender, to pale rose. A thin silver wall of mist runs the length of your field. I can see the piles of lumber for the addition you’re building, and the garden beds you’ve begun to till, waiting to be planted. You built the red-clay walls around us, painstakingly packing the mud and straw. In places, I think I can almost see your hand print. Above us is your unfinished ceiling; below us, the wide pine boards of your floor.
The orange glow of the propane heater dims, and the stars dissolve as the sky turns pale blue. Soon your children will clamber down from the loft, leap onto the bed, and ask for French toast, kissing the sleep from your eyes.
I marvel at the beauty of the world you have created here, so completely your own. And I am overwhelmed that you now want to call it ours.
It is the morning after you told me you want me to be your wife.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
I woke up early, around 6 A.M., and I just knew. My body told me what my mind refused to admit. A trip to the drugstore confirmed it: I was pregnant.
The night I’d conceived was the first sex I’d had in eight months. It was supposed to be just sex. But then, I was never very good at living the hip, no-strings-attached life of LA. I wasn’t sure whether to tell Joe that he was a father. After the sex, we hadn’t spoken for almost a month. He and I had a deep, complicated, somewhat hostile relationship. We approached each other cautiously, respectfully, like two scarred warriors meeting in battle. In an odd way, that battleground was a place of great love.
The day after I scheduled the abortion, Joe called. As we talked about what was new, he jokingly said, “Let me guess: you’re pregnant.” I couldn’t lie. I told him he didn’t have to come with me for the abortion, but he said he wanted to be there.
On Friday morning, I went by myself for the preliminary visit. The doctor inserted a stick of seaweed into my cervix to dilate the uterus and facilitate the “extraction of the pregnancy” later that day. (All I knew was it made me double over from nausea and cramping.) My doctor never used the word baby. Even when the sonogram showed a picture of the tiny sac, she spoke of it with scientific detachment. I, on the other hand, was hardly detached. An hour before I was to return to her office, I fell apart at the drugstore, sobbing as the pharmacist gently handed me my antibiotics. He thought I was afraid of going to the dentist.
As I walked into the doctor’s office, Joe was standing at the door to the waiting room. He had that look that has always moved me and is particular to men: a desire to do something and yet complete uncertainty as to exactly what should be done. I guess neither of us knew. But I was glad he had come.
Joe fell asleep in the waiting room while I was inside. When I came out, I was drugged, but not enough to completely block the pain. Not knowing what to do next, I went with Joe while he ran errands. We drove around Beverly Hills holding hands. In between stops at the post office and the bank, he asked if I was OK. I said I was.
The next morning, though I never sleep in, the drugs kept me knocked out till eleven or so. When I awoke, I felt incredibly alone. That particular Saturday morning, LA was bright and empty, like a big house that everyone had left.
It’s the first weekend of spring, but here in New Rochelle the snow is coming down in golf-ball-sized clumps mixed with dangerously sharp sleet that blows diagonally past the sliding glass doors of our motel room. I lie in the double bed waiting for Nat to return with coffee and doughnuts for me, cigarettes and a six-pack for him.
This motel room is cheaper than the last one we had. I don’t mind the fake blond paneling or the unmatched furniture, but I’d prefer a real blanket to this polyester bedspread. I’d call this place a dump, really, though Nat would disagree. When we checked in last night, he couldn’t get over how clean the room was. “This place is clean with a capital C,” he said while I waited for him in bed, trying to warm up. “You see this lamp here, the hard-to-reach crevices on the base? Not a speck of dust.” When he went in the bathroom to shave, he yelled over the running water, “I mean, this place is spotless!”
This morning, I can see plenty of spots, but maybe they’re ones we made. We certainly had a wild night, full of acrobatic sex and moments of actual (though alcohol-induced) intimacy. Now I’m lying naked, but finally warm, staring out at icy branches, feeling neither regret nor comfort. The gray light — a particular kind of snowstorm light that always makes me nostalgic — fights its way through the curtains and pours over me like cream.
I hear Nat at the door, struggling with the key. He enters hugging a brown paper bag. “Damn, it’s cold out there,” he says. “Look what I brought you.” He holds out a big styrofoam cup.
“A large coffee!” I say.
“No,” he says, “a giant coffee! And a doughnut.”
As I sip the coffee, Nat opens a Budweiser, turns on the TV, and lights a cigarette. He is content and beautiful.
I am not content, and certainly not beautiful at 9:05 A.M. Nat laughs at the couples on Donahue, who are stuck at impasses in their relationships. They struggle and squirm, obviously nervous, but just as obviously in love. With my clear morning head, I think Nat looks just like this motel room. And yet — this is the magic of him — I find him more beautiful than ever.
I suddenly feel panicky. The polyester coverlet is chafing my legs. I search for the sheets and find them in a wad at the bottom of the bed, clammy and smelling of disinfectant. I reach for the brown paper bag.
There is one doughnut: chocolate. Nat and I have been together for a couple of years, off and on, and he has never seen me eat a chocolate doughnut. “What’s with the chocolate doughnut?” I ask. Nat doesn’t answer right away; Phil Donahue is saying something profound. Then, sensing a potential crisis in the air, Nat looks over and sees me puzzling over the doughnut. “I thought you’d like it,” he says sincerely, cracking open another beer. He settles his strong back against the chair, puts his feet on the desk, and reimmerses himself in the plight of the couples on TV.
I half sit up, sip my giant coffee, and try to join in his fun, but the gray light shines relentlessly through the window and across my body, so obviously growing older. My mind races to make sense of this puzzle: I am a woman in a cheap motel room with a drunk. Worse still, I am a woman in love with a drunk. I am a still-married woman, in the prime of her life, spending weekends with a drunk in cheap motel rooms. My stomach feels empty, and I begin to eat the chocolate doughnut.
Newport, Rhode Island
My first “morning after” wasn’t a morning at all, but an early evening. I couldn’t linger in his dorm room because his roommate was due back from class. So I pulled my clothes on, kissed him again, and walked — a bit gingerly — down the hall. I couldn’t wait to tell Sherri. She had lost her virginity just two months before, and we’d stayed up until 2 A.M. discussing every detail.
Sherri’s roommate was there, so I pulled Sherri out into the hall and whispered, “Guess what. . . . We did it!”
We high-fived and hugged. “Tell me everything,” she said, grabbing two beers from her minifridge so we could drink to womanhood. We sat outside her door on the beer- and puke-stained carpet, and I told her in a low voice how it had happened:
My boyfriend of two weeks had announced that our relationship “couldn’t grow” unless we had sex. At first, I said I wasn’t ready, but after we started making out, I changed my mind. Instead of a condom, he produced a contraceptive sponge, and my desire waned as I read the three-page instruction booklet. It took us five minutes to figure out how to cram the sponge in. To turn me on again, he hummed Beethoven’s Appassionata while playing his pianist’s fingers over my shoulders. It was a little difficult for me to let him in, but I focused on the importance of the moment and made encouraging noises. I wasn’t sure whether I came or not.
Sherri and I talked some more about how incredible sex was, the deepest connection. When our bottles were empty, we said good night.
Six hours later, it was time for the sponge to come out. I sat on a toilet in the women’s room and searched for the string. It was nowhere to be found. I tried to grasp the sponge by its fabric, but succeeded only in picking away flecks of material. Ten minutes passed, then twenty. It was in upside down. A chemical smell filled the stall, and I started to whimper.
The bathroom door opened, and I recognized Sherri’s shoes. “Is that you?” she asked. “Are you OK?”
“I can’t get it out!” I said, and I started to cry much harder than a stuck sponge warranted.
In old movies, lovers used to smoke after sex. Mata does not smoke after we make love: she vacuums. Well, first she washes her hands and face, scrubbing away the lingering smell of our lovemaking. Then she vacuums, or dusts, or sweeps cobwebs from the ceiling.
I try not to be offended. I know she’s not implying that sex with me is dirty. Mata is a slave to a compulsive disorder that makes her clean obsessively and sometimes pull out her hair strand by strand. While Mata cleans, I remain bathed in her scent, which I will blatantly wear in public.
Later today, company is coming. Our guests will be greeted at the door with a request to “please remove your shoes.” Throughout their visit, they will be pursued by my lover and her Dustbuster. Sock lint on the pearl white carpet is unacceptable. Mata cannot concentrate on conversation and cocktails if there is sock lint on the carpet. If there is lint, she cannot concentrate on love.
“I’m gonna pull the trigger, Maggie,” he said.
My sisters and I strained to hear through the wall that separated our parents’ room from ours. I pictured my father holding the gun to my mother’s head, and I realized with dismay that it was up to me to stop him. My sisters, though older than I, were frozen in fear. I went out in the hall and cautiously pressed my ear to my parents’ bedroom door.
“I’m not gonna put up with this goddamn shit anymore,” he said, his voice thick and slurred.
Then I heard a click — the sound of the hammer being cocked.
“This is it, Maggie.”
I stood tall outside their bedroom door, controlled the tremor in my voice, and bellowed, “If you don’t open this door on the count of three, I’m calling the cops! One! . . . Two! . . . Three!”
I walked to the black rotary phone in the living room, picked up the receiver, and dialed 0. “Get me the police,” I told the operator.
Just then, my parents’ bedroom door opened, and my father lumbered out. I hung up the phone. “Who’s the smartass who’s calling the cops?” he said, and he kicked me in the butt. It wasn’t a hard kick — he was off balance — but it felt demeaning. Then he sat down heavily on the couch, and I stayed awake, as usual, until I was sure he had passed out.
The next morning, my sisters and I put on our starched white blouses and maroon jumpers with the gold SJG insignia — for “Saint John of God” — and walked to school. I carried my breakfast in a brown paper bag; I was “fasting” from midnight until morning Mass so that I could receive Communion.
Sitting silently at my desk after Mass, I unwrapped my cinnamon toast from its waxed paper and drank the lukewarm hot chocolate from a glass jar that still smelled faintly of pickles. I wondered why I never felt a deep, sacred presence in my belly after Communion, as I imagined really devout people did. After all, I had just ingested the body of Christ.
Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico
In 1940, when my fourteen-year-old brother contracted a mild case of tuberculosis, my family moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, which was known then for its healthy climate. He spent the year in bed in a porchlike upstairs room that was screened on two sides to allow the dry air to work its magic on his lungs. When pronounced well and finally allowed out of bed, he found himself with no friends and nothing to do until school started in the fall.
Being a girl and five years younger, I had never been remotely close to my brother, so I was surprised and pleased when he started showing an interest in me. We played “battleships” on the living-room rug and ping-pong in the attic. Best of all, we would go on clandestine grocery-shopping trips to buy all sorts of forbidden cakes and pastries, which we would hide in the secret built-in cupboard in his room in preparation for a “midnight feast.” At the stroke of midnight, my brother would wake me, and we would tiptoe back to his room to unearth our cache. Then we’d sit on his bed and eat the goodies, whispering about how much fun we were having. My favorites were the round pink cakes covered in shiny sprinkles, which came two to a cellophane package.
The morning after one of our feasts, my brother suggested we take a walk. I agreed, though I was puzzled to see him carrying a gray blanket. We walked until we came to an old abandoned house. My brother boldly strolled in the front door and up the creaking stairs, and I meekly followed. He led me into a large sun room, where the morning sun streamed through the dirty windows, casting patterns of light on the dusty wooden floor. My brother spread out the gray blanket and matter-of-factly asked me to take off my clothes, which I did. We then proceeded to “play doctor” — only this doctor was naked, too, and had a penis many times larger than the one I had once innocently glimpsed on my father.
Our midnight feasts, with their inevitable mornings after, stopped abruptly when school started in the fall. My brother and I also stopped speaking to each other then and, for much of our adult lives, had no contact at all. Ironically, he became a physician.
I went through a long period of hating and resenting my brother, but sometimes I think it was worth it to have had a few months of closeness with him.
The morning after Joan died, I stood on the porch next to her casket as we prepared to leave for the funeral home. It was November, and the soft morning light mirrored the color of the autumn leaves. We’d had the casket — her “journey box,” we called it — built in a local cabinet shop ten days earlier, and had brought it home to make ready for her. Friends and family painted the outside with a bright design she had chosen, and I made a bed of down pillows and a liner from a favorite quilt. We papered the interior with hand prints and messages from loved ones all over the country. We made it as full of love as we could, and now she was in it.
For nineteen years, Joan and I had been sweethearts, business partners, and parents together. Then she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and there followed seventeen months of chemo and surgeries, accompanied by the slow realization that, one day soon, she would be gone. Yesterday was that day.
Now I eased up the lid to see her one more time. She lay there, scented with citrus and frankincense, her arm curled around her little toy dog. Her skin was nearly translucent, her lashes inky dark. I felt her cool cheek, placed my hand over her heart.
Our path together over those last few months had been as sacred as any we are allowed on this earth. In the presence of impending death, we’d learned to live in each precious moment and love each other deeply. Joan had healed all the broken places in her life; she had sung until there was no breath left. She was ready to move on.
I let the lid close. To the wailing of bagpipes, we carried her down the steps and slid the box onto a pickup truck, where we covered it with a bouquet of sunflowers and prairie grass and blew puffs of milkweed down over it. We drove past the vivid yellow gingkos and red and brown oaks to the funeral home where she would be cremated. There, we sang last songs, said last prayers, and let her body go. I signed the papers and came out into the morning sun, where my loved ones waited. Together, we went home and ate omelets and chocolate cake. And that was the first morning after Joan died.
Kansas City, Missouri
I lost my virginity the summer after I graduated from high school. He was thirty-two, a bowling instructor for the high-school girls’ sports club. He had perfect white teeth, wavy black hair, and big thighs that rippled under his tight khaki pants. Even now, whenever I smell Old Spice, I think of him.
I was the last of my group of friends to have sex, and I wanted my first time to be special. This man and I had only stolen a few kisses at the bowling alley, but his conversation was full of promises to love me forever. I fantasized about the perfect deflowering experience: We would go to the Dairy Queen for chili dogs, then to the drive-in, and finally to a nice motel room. He would be gentle and afterward hold me in his arms. And in the morning, he would call and tell me how wonderful I was and how much he loved me.
On the chosen date, he picked me up around the corner from a friend’s house, where I was spending the night. (Her parents had gone out to a party.) I was surprised to find three other men in the car with him, all drunk. “I’m dropping them off first,” he whispered in my ear, “and then it’ll be just you and me.” I could smell the beer on his breath.
He didn’t drop the men off. Instead, it was me he told to get out after he turned into the driveway of a big, run-down house. With a wink, he handed something to the man who answered the door. I knew then what was happening, but I was afraid, so I said nothing.
When we got into the room, I started to cry. He pushed me down on the dirty sheets, covered my mouth with foul kisses, and forced himself inside me. It hurt, but somehow I did not bleed.
“Bitch, you ain’t no virgin!” he shouted. “And look how your titties hang. You done had a baby!”
No words would come from my mouth. I mutely followed him back to the car, where his buddies were waiting. He gave them the news that I was no virgin and told them about my “titties.” They all laughed. I wanted to die. He said nothing more to me as he drove me back to my friend’s house.
Despite what had happened, I still hoped he would call me the morning after.
The same week that my beloved father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I found out I was pregnant again. Even the stifling sorrow at my father’s plight could not push away the joy and wonder I felt in anticipation of another child.
Our lives rolled on like two parallel trains going in opposite directions: Dad’s toward the end of the line, mine toward the beginning. He was sick and getting sicker; I was sick but would soon get better. We commiserated, threw up together and laughed about it, slept through shiftless afternoons, and stayed up late playing cards. When no one else was around, we even smoked cigarettes together, and the rest of the family pretended not to notice the smell. My father promised me that he would hang on until the baby was born. I didn’t hold out much hope for this, but told him that I knew he would.
Dad was still alive when I was brought to the hospital to deliver, but he was too weak to come to the phone to congratulate me when my baby boy was born. Early the next day, my husband told me that my father had died during the night.
I went directly from the hospital to the funeral parlor to make arrangements for his burial. At the services a few days later, I could barely stand; childbirth and the months of caring for my dying father had taken more out of me than I’d thought. For the first time in my life, I was overwhelmed with depression. Drugged up, I went home to bed and fell into a magical sleep.
I dreamed of my father as a young man, still vital and laughing, with his smokes and his newspapers rustling in the dark. There was no one else in my dreams, only my father and me, and for one last night he was still alive inside my head: not half alive, but fully alive, with a smile and a joke and a future.
The next morning, I awoke slowly. I did not want to shake free of my dream just yet. Dimly, in a twilight between sleep and waking, I heard noises from downstairs: the familiar early-morning sounds of the children clamoring for their breakfast and the dog yelping and my husband’s TV news show blaring and my mother-in-law’s soft voice shushing everyone. . . . Wait a second: what was my mother-in-law doing in my house this early in the morning?
And at that moment, the new baby’s high-pitched wail pierced the air and climbed the stairs and traveled into my ears. My breasts swelled and flooded with milk, aching to be relieved, and I remembered.
Garden City, New York
I am at my usual coffee shop, having coffee and a croissant and reading the morning paper, when a young couple comes in. He has on jeans with busted-out knees; she wears khaki shorts and a blue tube top. They both wear sandals. They find a booth and sit down, not opposite each other, but side by side. He keeps his right arm around her shoulder and tries to eat left-handed. She leans against him, her left hand never leaving his thigh. I fondly recognize the signs of a morning after.
I’m not having a bad morning myself. I went to bed at 10 P.M., my mind abuzz with the challenge of finishing a writing project, and I awakened at four, my imagination going full throttle, the problems working themselves out, dialogue writing itself in my head. I knew that, when I sat down at the computer later, I would have that lovely, out-of-mind, egoless writing experience that feels like taking dictation from the gods. For an unattractive, sick old man, such mornings are not to be sneezed at.
Nevertheless, I would give it all up for a morning after like the one this young couple is enjoying. I imagine everyone in the place standing and cheering them and wishing them such sleepy, stretchy, afterglow mornings all the days of their lives.
Richard Paul Haight
Before we had Lea, I had a romanticized image of fatherhood. My dad and I were very close, and I knew that, when I became a father, I wanted to be as loving and patient as he had been.
But Lea was a fussy baby. Very, very fussy. She cried and cried and cried. Suddenly, being a father was like having a mirror held up just two inches from my true being — not the kind, serene being I had imagined, but the real one. Some days, that mirror revealed an incredibly impatient daddy, a daddy with a short fuse who wanted to be able to control his little baby girl.
There were nights when Carole would go to the Y for a swim, and Lea would cry for two hours straight. Once in a while, after trying everything to soothe her, I would just about lose my mind. Finally, Carole would come home and rescue Lea and take her upstairs for a feeding and bed. I would stay downstairs and lie on the floor and stare at that mirror and see, not my warm and imperturbable father, but a father who had held his baby up over his head, screaming, “What do you want?”
Often, I would fall asleep on the floor or in the dog’s bed for several hours, then creep upstairs to join my wife. In the morning, I would wake up with a sorrow hangover. It felt like when someone you loved has died, and you wake up and remember: it really happened; it wasn’t a dream.
Lea is six months old now, and I’m finding fatherhood much easier. When she gets upset, I have no trouble cuddling and reassuring her. And I’ve come to realize that maybe my dad wasn’t born with all that patience.
When I was ten, my beautiful mother took me with her to Vero Beach in her old Cadillac convertible. She was going to meet her married boyfriend, who was in spring training for the Dodgers. I was a precocious child, and since my father had died, I had learned, out of necessity, to drive a car, fix martinis, prepare a meal, and conduct myself like an adult. It was 1955.
Next to us in the parking lot of the Windswept Hotel sat an old man in a new Lincoln who appeared to be spitting at the steering wheel. My mother and I laughed about him as we went inside to register. I spent the afternoon swimming in the pool while my mother sat in the sun drinking gin with some people she had just met. Later, she took me to the hotel bar to wait for her boyfriend, who would take us to dinner. She drank Rob Roys while I nursed a Shirley Temple.
We had been waiting a long time — too long — when the spitting man appeared and asked to join us. He didn’t mean to spit; he had some sort of tic. Though clearly uncomfortable, my mother exchanged pleasantries with him. Then he leaned over and whispered something in her ear. “You son of a bitch!” she roared. “You go straight to hell!” As she tried to get up, she fell off her chair, and her silk dress parted to reveal red panties underneath. I helped her up and held her arm as she walked back to the room, staggering badly. When we got there, I said, “Mother, you’re so drunk.”
“You little turncoat,” she whispered, and she began chopping at me with the sides of her hands. I lay face down on the bed while she beat me with her fists and palms. The more I cried, the more she hit, screaming, “You little turncoat!” Finally, the hitting stopped, and I heard the door slam behind her. I hadn’t had any dinner. I lay awake all night worrying she was either dead, like my father, or had run away with the Dodgers forever.
Around dawn, when she still hadn’t come back, I decided I would drive the 150 miles home to live with my grandparents. I was nervous about running out of gas or being stopped by the police, but I had no choice. I had packed my bag and just grabbed the keys when there was a knock at the door. It was a waitress from the bar across the street: my mother had sent me a turkey sandwich. I immediately felt guilty for having planned to leave her, and I wept with shame that my darling mother had been so kind to such a bad boy.
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
Unable to nudge my husband of eighteen years out of our married routine, I went to work as a secretary to relieve my boredom, but I didn’t fit into the corporate world. My homemade polyester clothes and my short, cropped hair screamed misplaced homemaker. I owned three pairs of dress shoes — black, navy, and beige — all with practical low heels. Neutral in appearance, opinions, and feelings, I blended into the background of life.
One afternoon, some friends from work invited me to join them for happy hour. I’d never been in a bar or even tasted alcohol, other than Communion wine.
“Come on,” they said. “It’ll be fun. You can order a Coke.”
Fun: I tried to conjure up the concept from deep in my memory. I must have had some adult fun during my thirty-eight years, but I couldn’t remember it. I decided to go with the group, at least until my 6:30 class at the nearby community college.
The Peppermint Lounge at the Holiday Inn had a fifties theme. Hula hoops hung from the ceiling, and pictures of Elvis, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe covered the walls. The wait staff wore red-and-white cheerleader outfits complete with bobby socks and saddle shoes. Loud oldies tunes and smoke filled the air.
My friends suggested I try a Seven and Seven, so I ordered one, then another, and another. By six o’clock, I was feeling lightheaded and asked one of my friends to drop me off at the college. I made it to class without falling down, although I did weave from side to side in the hallway. (Thank goodness for those low-heeled shoes.) By the end of class, I had sobered up enough to drive home, but my car was back at the hotel parking lot. Carl, an older student, but still younger than I by several years, offered to take me to it.
When we located my car outside the Holiday Inn, Carl told me it was just like his mother’s. How nice, I thought. His mother is probably sixty-five years old.
As we stood in the parking lot between his car and mine, Carl said, “I knew you had been with smokers tonight because you don’t usually smell like cigarette smoke.”
“Oh?” I said, surprised. “What do I usually smell like?”
“Watermelon candy,” he replied without hesitation.
A man I hardly knew remembered my smell. At first, I felt violated; my smell was an intimate part of me. But then I found it flattering that someone could remember my smell.
“Must be my shampoo,” I said.
That night, curled comfortably on my side of the bed, I asked my husband to describe my smell.
“You don’t stink, if that’s what you mean.”
“That’s not what I mean. If you had to describe my smell, my usual smell, how would you describe it?”
“What is this — twenty questions? I’m trying to read.”
The next morning, I went shopping and bought a bottle of Estée Lauder and a bag of watermelon candy. My husband was angry that I had spent fifty dollars on a bottle of cologne. He said it wasn’t necessary. Oh, I thought, but it was.
Susan Price Harvey
Charlotte, North Carolina
For some years, I could not (or would not) have sex with a guy unless I was drunk or high. But I drank a lot, so I had plenty of lovers.
One night, I was out with a guy who was smart and funny and seemed to like me. I drank my usual three or four margaritas, maybe a Cointreau to top it off, and we went back to my place. Once on the couch, I went straight for his jeans. “You’re pretty aggressive,” he said, but he wouldn’t let me undress him. So I put on one of my slinky nightgowns, and we crawled into my king-size waterbed. When he made it obvious that he wasn’t going to play my game, I gave up and fell asleep — or passed out.
Morning came bright through the jalousie windows, and I could smell the salt of Biscayne Bay just down the street. Awake, he pulled me on top of him, sliding the turquoise nightgown above my hips. It wasn’t great sex, but it wasn’t drunk sex either. The next time, it was great. It’s been that way mostly for the past sixteen years.
Charlotte, North Carolina