My father always thought that I needed money. No matter how well I told him I was doing, no matter how many times I picked up a check (or tried to), no matter how expensive a gift I gave him for his birthday or Christmas, he still felt the need to take care of me financially.
After every visit to my home, an hour or so later he’d call to say that my toothbrush holder was dirty, or that I was almost out of trash bags, or that I should get new hand towels for the bathroom. These were not criticisms but clues, telling me where to search for the money he’d left behind. I’d find it in the strangest places: a five-dollar bill under the soap dish, or a ten in the tea canister. Once, he left fifteen one-dollar bills in a shoe.
We all knew my father’s heart wouldn’t hold out for too much longer. It had been severely damaged by a virus, and the doctor had given him six months to live. Three years after that grim prognosis, my father and I sat at my house, laughing and talking over tea. When we said goodbye, we made sure to add, “I love you,” as we did every time we parted.
Two hours or so after he left, the phone rang, and I smiled, wondering where the money would be hidden this time and how much there would be.
“Kate,” my mother said when I answered the phone, “you’d better come to the hospital. I think this is it.”
I arrived at the hospital too late. Daddy had died about thirty minutes before. I fled to a hospital stairwell, where my sobs echoed off the bare walls.
Later, at home, I got ready for bed, feeling sad and angry and empty. I went to use the toilet, and as I unrolled the toilet paper, out fell a twenty-dollar bill. I laughed till it hurt.
Castleton, New York
My new husband and I arrived in Vietnam in September 1969. Both recent college graduates, we had volunteered for service with a civilian relief organization and been assigned jobs in a children’s hospital located on an American military base north of Da Nang, a place nicknamed “Rocket Alley,” due to the frequent shelling by the North Vietnamese. Our American hosts seemed edgy, the political situation unstable. On a daily basis, I vacillated between my desire to ease the suffering caused by the war and my fear — instilled during my Cold War childhood — of being captured by “communist aggressors.”
About six months after our arrival, we visited friends in the ancient imperial city of Hue. They took us on a driving tour of the lush countryside and showed us the shelled remains of the old city. We drove along the Perfume River, where fishing boats floated amid lotus pads, and our friends pointed out where hundreds of American and Vietnamese civilians had been massacred during the Tet Offensive the year before. Then the road narrowed down to a dirt path, and it quickly became apparent that we were lost.
Stopping to get our bearings, we heard lilting voices chanting in Vietnamese. Out of the dense forest emerged three Buddhist monks, one of whom spoke English. We asked him for directions back to Hue, but he just smiled and invited us to be their guests at a holiday feast, explaining that, since we had appeared out of nowhere on a sacred Buddhist holiday, we were destined to join in their celebration.
As the English-speaking monk ushered us down a trail to the monastery (or so he said), the dark forest brought out my worst fears. I imagined our defenseless little group of conscientious objectors being blindfolded and led across the border into North Vietnam, where, I surmised, we would be tortured for any military secrets we might possess and then thrown into a POW camp until the war ended or we died of malnutrition.
My fears did not entirely subside when we came to the monks’ compound: a temple in a clearing with a few humble buildings scattered around. For one thing, the place was disturbingly quiet. The monks, with their unnerving, ever-present smiles, escorted us into a dining room and motioned for us to sit down at a long banquet table. Soon we were surrounded by nuns — all wearing the same Mona Lisa half smile — who proceeded to serve us a seven-course feast.
Though I had been eating Vietnamese food regularly for months, the only dish I recognized was the rice. I ate slowly and suspiciously. The food kept coming, our bowls replenished by the hovering nuns. I gagged on a piece of dry meat that I imagined had come from a dog, or worse, thinking it odd that none of the monks were eating with us; after all, this was their holiday.
Later, after returning through the forest to our abandoned jeep (which one of the monks had guarded in our absence), we set off with our hosts’ directions and blessings. Still, I had a lingering fear that we had all been poisoned and would become violently ill before daybreak.
The next morning, I surveyed the group at breakfast but found no diarrhea, vomiting, or other signs of illness. Despite my friends’ assurances that the Buddhists were politically neutral and had simply been bestowing their unique kindness on us, I secretly believed that I’d had a close call with the enemy.
Now, some thirty years later, I practice Buddhist meditation myself, and I wonder how much I might have learned from those monks and nuns that day if my heart had been open.
San Rafael, California
Where I am going there is no air to breathe that is not toxic, that is not superheated, that will not kill me if I take it into my lungs. I have to trust that all the elements of my self-contained breathing apparatus are intact: that the hoses linking the tank to my face mask are secure; that the mask itself is sealed tightly around my face; that the straps will hold; that the gauge is accurate; that the cylinder on my back really does contain twenty-two thousand pounds of pressure per square inch; that it will give me twenty minutes of life-sustaining air while I am inside this burning house.
It is only a “practice burn,” just a simulation as part of our training to be rural volunteer firefighters. But the fire itself is the real thing, and no less deadly than any other. I am a forty-two-year-old woman, and my crew mates are just boys. They are excited, charged up. I keep checking the bypass valve on my regulator with my bulky leather glove, worrying that each breath I take might be my last.
My crew mates and I have checked each other’s gear — air packs squared away, helmets secured, jackets clipped up to the neck. There must be no flesh showing; bare skin would sustain instant burns. I worry that somehow my wrists might become exposed between the cuffs of my sleeves and the cowls of my leather gloves. I worry that there might be some spot on my neck or ear that the boys have overlooked.
Down on my knees, I head in. The heat overwhelms me. It is an effort to crawl on my belly with a thirty-pound pack on my back, my body swathed in thick protective clothing, the mask and helmet covering my face and head. I drag the charged hose along, inch by inch, with both hands. The sounds are deafening and surreal: my own heightened breathing, the click and swoosh of the regulator on my air pack.
We try to shout to one another through our rubber masks. The captain is saying something to me, but I can’t understand his words. Is he saying, “Come on,” or, “Get out”? I can scarcely see his outline through the smoke. I feel as though I am suffocating. I begin to panic and am overcome by the urge to rip off my face mask, to scream, to run. I begin to back down the hose line toward the door, then stop myself: Breathe, Susan. Stay calm.
Suddenly, the fire breaks loose into a free burn. The couch explodes into an orange fireball with flames that lick up the wall and light the room. “Come on!” I hear the captain’s words clearly now and see him waving me forward. I inch along with the nozzle in both hands, moving myself forward with my elbows, scooting along on my belly. The heat has increased tenfold. I try to look up, but the rear bill of my helmet bangs against the back of my air bottle. I roll to the side with the nozzle in my hands and turn my face toward the ceiling.
The flames have consumed the hot gases at the highest point in the room, where the very air appears to be on fire: a solid foot of roiling flame. The vinyl wallpaper liquefies and drips from the ceiling, falling onto my helmet and coat like splats of bird shit. The captain gives me the signal, and I open the bail and set the nozzle for a thirty-degree fog. We are thrust into darkness as the spray hits the hot gases and cools the room. The steam descends on us like a suffocating shroud.
Finally, exhausted, we are motioned outside. Time for the next crew to enter this strange place.
The scene in the doctor’s waiting room was surreal, because everyone there was dressed like me: white cotton masks and chemical-free clothing. I leaned over to my worried mother, who was seated next to me in a sterile-looking chair, and whispered, “Mom, I think I’ve landed on my home planet.”
I was admitted to the Dallas hospital’s environmental unit — one of the few in the country. There were air purifiers everywhere, and the entire wing was air-locked from the outside world. Other patients walked by attached by tubes to IV bottles. Some wore masks; others just wore a look of suffering. We were all there for the same reason: we had become allergic to the outside world — to the twentieth century.
I spent the next three weeks hooked up to an IV that delivered nonallergenic nutrients to my starving body. Meanwhile, I got to know the other patients on the floor. There was Jay from New York, whose immune system had become impaired following exposure to pesticides. Then there was Steve, whose body had been poisoned by chemical weapons during the Gulf War. My roommate, Jennie, had become ill after an industrial spill near her home. As for me, I was there because of an allergic reaction to anesthesia and pesticides.
Most of the time, I looked out through the thick, tightly sealed window beside my bed at the blue Texas sky. I could see the heat rising from the black pavement and people getting in and out of their cars in the parking lot. I envied them. I wanted to touch the burning asphalt and stand under the blue, cloud-strewn sky. It looked like heaven. It looked like life.
Scarsdale, New York
For five years, my husband and I lived in a ten-by-twelve-foot strawbale house with no electricity or running water, under the ever changing drama of Pike’s Peak. Skies here are so blue they look fake. At times, temperatures have been so cold that icicles have hung above our beds. We’ve melted snow to drink and chipped food from cans frozen solid. Yet we count ourselves among the most blessed people on earth.
Now the solar home of our dreams is nearly finished. Yet we worry: when this difficult time is over — the hauling of water, the candles, the oil lamps, the camp stove, the outhouse — how will we fill our new home with the same truthful life?
Lori H. Beckstrom
I descended into the New York City subway, not knowing or caring where I would come out. I just wanted to get away from the hospital, where my three-year-old son, Nathan — my sweet baby — was lying on an operating table.
I had stayed with him as long as I could. I was by his side as they hooked him up to the monitors and put the IV in his tiny arm. I listened as he counted for the anesthesiologist, whispering, “Se-ven,” but no eight. Then they wheeled him into the operating room, where I couldn’t go. But I didn’t want to go there; I didn’t want to see what they were going to do. What I wanted was to rip out all those tubes and wires, grab Nathan from the table, and run. Instead I let them take him, and now they were cutting through his skull, pushing his brain aside in search of the tumor. I could not sit in the waiting room for eight hours. I could not trust myself just to wait.
I picked a stop, got off the train, and surfaced in the middle of a huge street fair. I had come a long way from the hospital, but I had brought the anxiety with me. I wondered if it would explode right through my skin for everyone to see.
I walked around and stared blankly at the tables of crafts for sale. One table was covered with tiny red metal bicycles, and I bought one for Nathan. Maybe when he woke up — if he woke up — it would make him smile. I clutched that little red bicycle all the way back to the hospital.
Years later, when Nathan was ten, he was cleaning his room and found the red bicycle. I had told him that he should give any toys he didn’t want to Goodwill, because they would make other kids happy.
“I don’t want this anymore,” he said.
“Do you know where you got it?” I asked.
He studied it seriously. “No, I can’t remember.”
So into the Goodwill box it went.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
As a college theater major, I needed black-and-white photographs of myself, known as “head shots,” to send out with my résumé in an attempt to land a job in regional or summer-stock theater.
On a school trip to New York City, I pored over photographers’ ads, settling on one who promised reasonable prices and specialized in head shots. (I conveniently overlooked the fact that his studio was in the heart of the red-light district.)
The dingy walls of the studio were covered with actors’ portraits. As I posed for the pictures, the photographer — a fat, olive-skinned man with oily black hair — told me my lips weren’t red and wet enough. Then, to my utter shock and revulsion, he came over and sucked forcibly on them.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he pleaded when he saw my face.
The pictures turned out well. I got a job.
While my mother took me to church and instilled “traditional values” in me, my father owned a tavern and liked to raise hell. My older brothers seemed to be following in my father’s footsteps: one had just returned from Vietnam and drank and cursed, and the other was in military prison for desertion. At fourteen, I’d cry myself to sleep every night, praying fervently that these people I loved so much wouldn’t go to hell.
The morning after one such crying spell, while getting ready for school, I had a strange vision. One minute I was standing in the middle of my room getting dressed, and the next I was hurrying up a grassy hill toward a man who was waiting for me. As I approached him, I was surrounded by a brilliant green light and a feeling of overwhelming love. I could no longer see the man, but I clearly heard his words: Don’t worry so much. Instantly, I knew that no one was going to hell, and I didn’t need to concern myself with saving their souls.
Then I was back in my room, infused with a sensation of joy and lightness. Since that day, I have had an abiding sense of being cared for in a loving universe, and I’ve never felt the need to convert anyone to my beliefs.
West Lafayette, Indiana
The Friday-night drive to pick up my daughters is all too familiar. Turning onto the cul-de-sac, I see the spot where my oldest daughter fell off her bike and skinned half her face on the asphalt. By the driveway is where I nearly came to blows with a con artist who had talked my wife into purchasing on-the-spot bodywork for our VW bus. Over there is where our cat got his collar stuck in his mouth, and when I yelled to my wife for a knife to cut it free, my daughter screamed in horror, thinking I was somehow going to use the knife on the cat.
I pull my car in close — maybe a bit too close — to Steve’s motorcycle. (Steve is my wife’s boyfriend.) At the front doors that I installed not too long ago, a piece of cardboard covers a broken windowpane. I’m told Steve broke it one night in a drunken fury. Ringing the doorbell, I notice a new potted plant on the ceramic tile floor in the foyer. I spent evenings and weekends mortaring and grouting that tile into place, then chipping it out and starting over when the color didn’t match.
She lets me in, and I wait in the living room for my daughters. Glancing into the kitchen — which I remodeled after the separation as a guilty gesture of reconciliation — I see an unfamiliar stack of mail atop the butcher block. On the kitchen table that I made sits a bouquet of fresh flowers — probably to make up for the broken pane. Looking out the sliding glass doors onto the redwood deck I built, I remember how the whole house shook as I knocked out the old concrete stoop with a sledgehammer. And I ponder how quickly the familiar can become strange.
Driving down Route 7 between Falls Church and Leesburg, Virginia, I pass mile after mile of new single-family houses “starting in the low 260s.” A sign stands against a backdrop of endless rolling hills: COMING SOON: KING’S POINT FARM, A NEW TRADITIONAL COMMUNITY. I pass a country fruit stand surrounded by rows of identical homes built last week, then exit onto a long, smooth offramp that winds toward a scattering of glistening town homes in the distance.
Turning right onto Paradise Drive, I enter a downtown so clean and sanitized it looks as if, until yesterday, the buildings were sitting wrapped in plastic on an immense shelf in some vast Santa’s workshop, waiting for a huge hand to unwrap them one by one and place them just so. The streets are a spotless, velvety gray, with street lamps marching down both sides at perfect intervals. The names on the brick stores give the scene a disturbing familiarity: The Gap, Pottery Barn, Starbucks. Across the street is a giant mural depicting little white children playing around a fountain, their yellow ball forever poised high above their blond heads. Next to the mural, in pink and blue neon, is the familiar logo “Hallmark.” Above it all stands an ersatz clock tower with “Marketplace” inscribed on the clock face.
Near the brick gates at the edge of the downtown, I spot the inevitable McDonald’s. Inside it are the first visible human inhabitants of this odd municipality: two rows of women and men in identical black slacks and white shirts, seated at a long row of tables. As I cruise by, several pairs of eyes follow me, then snap back to the man holding a clipboard. Ahead, through the gates, I see row upon row of beige town houses, separated by the occasional empty lot. IF YOU LIVED HERE, a sign says, YOU’D BE HOME RIGHT NOW.
I stop the car and get out. Silence. No bird songs, no human voices, not even any Muzak — just single-family homes all around, spinning off in every direction like the spokes of a wheel. Utopia.
Hastings, New York
There were all sorts of men in the county jail: some you’d arrest yourself if you could, and some you just felt sorry for. While being processed into the system, I was required to expose all my body cavities, down to wriggling my fingers and toes. Then a beautiful county worker gripped my hand in her soft fingers and instructed me to let the muscles go limp so that she could roll my fingertips onto the ink, then the paper. How can she be so sweet and calm about putting me away? I thought.
The guards appeared to have been shipped in from Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama just to put the fear of God into suspected criminals like me. The nurse was an odd woman with a mustache and sideburns. When I told her that I was a vegetarian, she became irritated and referred me to the psychiatrist, a bloated pink man with wispy white hair, bad breath, and chapped lips. He peered over his glasses at me and asked in an offhanded way, “Have you ever attempted suicide?” with his monogrammed pen poised to record my answer. I said no to all of his questions, just to be on the safe side.
Next I entered a brightly lit, warehouse-like dormitory, where I would stay until assigned a cell. I shuffled to an empty bunk to rest. The previous forty-eight hours had been a nonstop nightmare of prodding and probing and waiting in cells crammed with dirty, tired men. I remembered one guy with matted hair and old cowboy boots who had lain curled underneath the urinal, asleep, as others stood over him to relieve themselves.
Somewhere around the sixth day, I heard a number code crackle over the intercom, then saw a blur of uniformed guards run past me. Apparently, somebody had been caught spitting on the mural of John Wayne. The offender was beaten bloody and dragged off into the bowels of the jail. I never saw him again. I wondered what made John Wayne so important. I must have missed that lesson in school.
The eighth night, I awakened from a bad dream in a cold sweat. As I lay there, unable to get back to sleep, I heard scuffling and the sound of flesh pounding flesh coming from the next cell. Then quiet. Then more flesh meeting flesh, but this time the smacking sound followed a certain rhythm that hollowed out my stomach. The air was filled with heavy breathing, followed by a still silence. I lay awake listening to the lights hum overhead.
The morning of the ninth day, as I ate my breakfast of grainy powdered eggs, dry soy patty, and spoiled milk, I suddenly felt the full weight of where I was. I could feel the energy leaving my body. My throat grew scratchy, and my mouth tasted of metal. The overhead lights hummed continuously, and the artificial air hung heavy with fear. This was a strange place.
Los Angeles, California
I had just returned from ten months of backpacking in Africa and was staying with a friend while I looked for a new job and a place to live. My friend, noticing that I was struggling with even the simplest decisions — such as what to do with myself — invited me along to the grocery store for her weekly shopping trip.
It was the same supermarket I had gone to all my life. WE PROVIDE ALL YOUR NEEDS! a sign at the entrance advertised. Inside, everything was clean, fresh, and orderly, a drastic change from the chaotic markets where I’d shopped in Africa. Had I been blindfolded, I wouldn’t have known we were in a grocery store, for I couldn’t smell any food — not even in the produce section.
Then we came to the deodorant aisle — an entire aisle, top to bottom, of deodorants. I stopped in my tracks, dumbfounded. I had just come from countries where store shelves were empty or else stocked with such random items as English gossip magazines and day-old bread. I had certainly visited my share of unusual sights in my travels, but this, an aisle full of deodorant choices, seemed the oddest and saddest of them all.
Having divorced my wife of many years and abandoned a life that no longer fulfilled me, I left Los Angeles in search of a new beginning. I was no longer a young man and knew I would face problems finding work, so I grabbed the first job that came my way: selling retail carpeting and tiles.
One morning a few weeks later, I was talking with a customer when my stomach began churning like a cement mixer. Indigestion, I thought, and tried to shrug it off, but it kept nagging at me. I excused myself and made my way to the warehouse in back of the store.
I knew there was something wrong, but I couldn’t tell what. I loosened my tie and lay down on a rolled-up carpet. By now, the discomfort had turned into racking pain. I started gasping for air, as if a relentless vise gripped my upper chest.
What happened next was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before: I found myself on the ceiling of the warehouse, watching my body down below twitching and writhing. The sudden disappearance of pain was exhilarating. I was free, unencumbered by the demands of my worn-out body, and in place of my usual myopic vision, I could now see in all directions. I was floating in a brilliant space without color, time, or geometry.
My mom in South America came to mind, and, like lightning, I was there next to her. I desperately wanted to communicate with her, but couldn’t. (A year later, I was able to describe for her what she’d been doing and wearing at the time.) Then I thought of some friends in New York City and, once again, was there instantly, yet unable to make my presence known.
Though I didn’t want to be anywhere near my body, I felt myself drawn to the rushing ambulance where it lay. I floated near the roof of the vehicle, becoming one with the lights and the screaming siren, thoroughly enjoying the experience. Then, in the emergency room, a doctor injected something into my body, and I was slammed back into flesh-and-blood existence. Without a doubt, it was the lowest point of my life.
Many years later, the splendor of my emancipation from the body is still with me, and I am afraid no more.
When my husband and I first noticed a shadowy figure lying in a rear doorway of the office building next door to our house, we thought it was just a passing transient. Now, nearly a year later, the sleeping person has become our neighbor.
She sleeps there almost every night. Outside our kitchen window is a strange place to see a homeless person, but I can understand why she chose the spot. Our neighborhood is fairly safe. The doorway, an unused entrance, is sheltered from the wind and has an overhang. We unobtrusively observe her through the miniblinds as she rises each morning, sitting up to smooth and fasten her brown hair into place. Then she meticulously folds her bedding, puts it into a couple of plastic bags, tucks them under the steps, and heads toward Tenth Avenue, looking like any other woman walking down the street, neat and clean, sometimes even fashionable. The three times I’ve heard her speak, her voice was pleasant and educated.
She covers much of the town on foot. My daughter has seen her across the river at a shopping center. I have seen her at local malls and trudging along the sidewalk downtown. I once met her crossing the college parking lot before sunrise, and she has stood next to me in line at the post office.
During the cold, wet spring and summer, we worried about her, and I contacted three agencies. Two of them informed me that, if a person chooses to live that way, there is nothing that can be done about it. The third man said he would come and talk to her. She disappeared for a couple of days after that, but then came back. Once, I rescued her bedding when the owners of the office building were cleaning out the debris that blows against the steps. After hearing her story, they decided she was no bother. So now she lives there with their implied consent.
Over Thanksgiving, the temperature dropped to well below zero, and the woman disappeared for two days. We were relieved that she finally had a roof over her head. She came back, however, and hasn’t missed a day since, including Christmas and one night when the temperature fell to fifteen below. During the winter, the number of blankets piled atop her grew.
These days, Tom and I begin our daily conversations with “Was she there last night?” or “Is she up yet?” Our consciences bother us a good deal. There is something wrenching about living in comfort while looking out at someone sleeping on cold cement. When we talk it over, however, we are concerned she might be humiliated by offers of help. There is also the chance she may prefer this life. So we go on as we have, with an unwritten pact between her and us: Tom and I pretend she isn’t there, and she pretends not to see the movement of our blinds.
Great Falls, Montana
Years ago, before the owners began to charge admission and the place lost its charm, the Cowboy Bar in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, was a strange and wonderful establishment. There was a dance floor where the pool tables are now, and a band made up of townsfolk played every Friday and Saturday night.
An elderly couple used to dance there on Fridays, seemingly oblivious to the other dancers. The woman wore a long black dress, stout shoes, and a Spanish shawl that flowed around her knees, her white hair held in place by a tortoise-shell comb. Her partner wore a dark suit, a white shirt, and cowboy boots. Their favorite song was “Blue Spanish Eyes.” They danced to it every time, and the band played slower to match their step. They danced close, and when the music stopped, she touched her cheek to his shoulder.
I had a fantasy about dancing with the woman, but couldn’t get up the courage to ask. Then, the last time I saw her, she was sitting alone — a widow, I was told. I didn’t want to disturb her, but something booted me upright. I walked slowly to her table, took off my hat, and asked her to honor me. Seeing what was happening, the band started to play “Blue Spanish Eyes.”
We danced slowly, with long steps and gentle turns, never saying a word. My body felt as if it belonged to someone else. The band played the song twice. When the music finally stopped, she touched her cheek to my shoulder.
Salt Lake City, Utah
When I first met Jack at the soup kitchen where I worked, he scared me. It wasn’t his bulk or his greasy, wild hair that I found frightening, but his response to my friendly offer of more food: “I have women chained in my basement,” he said. Though I knew he had no basement, no dwelling at all, I took this as a signal to back off.
One snowy day, few volunteers showed up, and out of desperation I asked Jack if he would set up the chairs and tables in exchange for a cup of coffee. He did the work without comment and began coming in early each morning to help out, first with the chairs and tables, then putting out the salt and pepper, and eventually washing the floors after meals. He also started to talk with me.
Sometimes Jack shared his delusions of queens who would someday come to rescue him and who wanted him never to cut or wash his hair. Other times he handed me sheets of notebook paper covered with his writings about the queens and spaceships and evil forces, accompanied by the occasional perceptive comment on the soup-kitchen staff. He gradually leaked bits of his story: He’d grown up on a farm and planned to be a veterinarian, but got in trouble with the law and joined the Marines instead. He’d been sent to Vietnam and nearly died there. He’d been married once, but his wife had left him. I can’t say that Jack’s thinking was ever really clear, but it did seem that the more he talked, the more sense he made.
Eventually, Jack took over other jobs in the kitchen. Once, when we were short on cooks, he washed his grimy hands with cleanser and made some fine fried chicken. Jack told me that, after being wounded in the war, he’d studied ballet as part of his rehabilitation. I might have doubted his story if not for the day when, right in the middle of the kitchen, by the huge soup pot and the chopping tables, he offered to lift me up as though I were a tiny ballerina. I giggled and tried to resist, but at last I let him hoist me aloft amidst the onions, potatoes, and steam. I swear I could hear the orchestra.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
While in college, I was hired to act in a staged reading of a Neil Simon play for a private dinner party. The performance would take place in the living room, for approximately fifty guests, and dessert would be served during intermission. My fellow actors and I felt a bit intimidated by the scale of this “party,” but we figured it was what “rich people” did.
The day of the performance, the director went to the house early to set up the lights and microphones. When he came back, he told us what to expect. Even so, in person it took my breath away. I’d seen mansions on TV and in movies, but I’d never believed such places actually existed until that night. This was a mansion, complete with crystal chandelier, billiards room, marble tile, elevator in the library, personal movie theater, pool with waterfall, artwork everywhere, two-bedroom guest house, and a phone in every bathroom. Guests in tuxedos and evening gowns smiled as we walked by.
I wanted to throw up. All of that opulence and wealth, all for one man and his wife. I have never felt as out of place and uncomfortable as I did in that beautiful home.
It wasn’t until the age of eight that I began to realize my home was a little strange. That was the year I started to avoid having friends over on Sunday, my mother’s tofu-making day. Every Sunday, soybean steam would billow through the house, fogging up the windows and luring the chickens into the kitchen, where they efficiently pecked up the curd that spilled over the top of the wheelbarrow; my mother called this a “biodynamic relationship.” And there was plenty of curd to be had, for she made enough tofu in our little kitchen to supply the health-food store in the nearest town, two hours away.
Though I spared my friends the Sunday tofu ritual, there was always something in our household to cause astonishment. Perhaps most shocking was my father’s painting Icarus, which took up a whole wall of our tiny living room. It portrayed a naked figure falling from the sky with the horrified expression one would expect of a man plunging to his death. And this Icarus was no young boy; his giant, purple, veiny penis always made my girlfriends titter nervously. Unlike me, they did not have Greek myths read to them at bedtime. I doubt they took communal family baths either.
In the reusable cloth lunch bag I carried to school, I brought my mother’s homemade brown-bread sandwiches, loaded with goat cheese, strawberries, raisins, peanut butter, and lettuce, all falling out because my mother’s bread didn’t have the magic cohesion that store-bought bread did. (How I lusted after some of that store-bought white bread.) Even my apple juice was strange. “What is that?” my friends would ask. I’d look down at my bottle of brown juice with the “floaties” (my favorite part) lurking at the bottom and say defiantly, “Apple juice! Haven’t you ever seen what it really looks like?”
One month, my parents weren’t around the house much after school, because my dad was in his studio working on a new painting, and my mother was his nude model. She posed upside down, held in place by ankle straps, and my dad painted her as a green woman-planet with little fields and rivers and forests covering her body. (You can guess where the forests were located.) When it was done, you could bet the new painting was coming home with them.
I longed to be “normal.” I wanted clothes from Sears and pointy-toed boots from K-Mart. I wanted a Barbie doll and a father who stuck to nice landscape paintings. Amazingly, my parents respected this conservative streak in me. We even came to some agreements, such as no more grass smoking among the adults at my birthday parties, for which my mother would make tuna sandwiches on store-bought bread.
Ironically, I now beg my mother to make her famous bread, but she says it is too much trouble. My parents are divorced, and neither of them has larger-than-life genitals on the wall anymore. But inside, they are still a little different from the flock. And when my friends come to visit me at either parent’s house, they inevitably tell me my mom or dad “must be cool.” I am inclined to agree.