My mother always assured me that unspeakable punishments were bound to befall any child as naughty as I was.
“If I were you,” she’d say, “I’d be afraid to go to sleep at night, for fear God would strike me dead.”
She would speak these words softly, regretfully, as though saddened by her errant daughter’s fate. I thought myself unloved and unlovable — not only by my own mother, but by God himself.
In addition to threatening me with thoughts of eternal damnation, Mother also gave me a fear of strangers, germs, disease, and food poisoning. A precocious and imaginative child, I added to the list some bizarre fears of my own: rare ailments learned from medical dictionaries; falling into the fifth dimension; spontaneous human combustion.
When I was suspended from my private girls’ school at the age of fifteen for a harmless prank, the headmistress referred to my behavior as “damnable.” This was no big news to my mother or me. What was news was that I had the highest IQ and the lowest grades in the entire student body. I took pride in the fact that, although I was a dysfunctional underachiever, at least I wasn’t stupid.
The most devastating words my mother ever spoke to me came when I asked her if she loved me. (I had just been escorted home by the police after one of my many attempts to run away, so it was bad timing on my part.)
She answered, “How could anyone ever love you?”
It took me almost fifty years to heal the damage from all her ugly remarks.
Recently, discussing eating disorders with my dietician, I related a childhood ritual of mine, intending it to be an amusing anecdote to illustrate how far back my eating problems went. I even laughed as I spoke, poking gentle fun at myself. It was only when I noticed that my dietician was watching me with sympathy, rather than amusement, that I became aware of the tears on my own cheeks. This is what I told her:
From the age of five or six until I was well into my teens, whenever I had trouble sleeping, I would slip out from under my covers and steal into the kitchen for a bit of bread or cheese, which I would carry back to bed with me. There, I’d pretend my hands belonged to someone else, a comforting, reassuring being without a name — an angel, perhaps. The right hand would feed me little bites of cheese or bread as the left hand stroked my cheeks and hair. My eyes closed, I would whisper softly to myself, “There, there. Go to sleep. You’re safe now. Everything will be all right. I love you.”
One of my earliest memories is of the annual trip upstate to the bungalow my family rented for the summer. The six of us kids piled into the rusting station wagon, along with three months’ worth of luggage and two tense parents. The trip always began with the rosary or, if we were in a hurry, a single Hail Mary, which ended with “now and at the hour of our death, amen.” In my young mind, I presumed this to mean that I was going to die in the car, if not on this trip, then on the next.
My fear of dying in a car accident never entirely went away. As a newly licensed driver, I was anxious behind the wheel. Tunnels and bridges caused me the most apprehension: I felt trapped, with nowhere to go. Driving to and from Manhattan to work, I had regular bouts of anxiety on the Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge. Then, after I married, I had a severe panic attack on the Triborough Bridge. It’s a miracle I made my way across without killing anyone. After that, I vowed never to drive on a road I couldn’t exit from quickly: no more bridges, tunnels, or even highways, because the exits were often too far apart.
Even when we moved to Long Island several years later, I refused to use the expressway. I knew every back way and side road, and could get anywhere — given enough time. Still, I felt ashamed, like a child who could swim only in the shallow end of the pool.
One gorgeous summer day, I took the kids to visit my husband at work. He had a construction job on the south shore of Long Island, with free access to a number of beaches. We spent the afternoon building sand castles and bodysurfing. When it came time to leave, I considered whether to go back the way I’d come — over an hour on winding side roads — or take the scenic Ocean Parkway and cross a bridge just south of our home: a forty-five-minute, traffic-free, ocean-view ride. I told my husband I was thinking of taking the bridge.
We worked out a plan: he would follow me in his truck, communicating by hand signals and light flashes, and we’d make a final stop just before the bridge. I took my two-year-old daughter in my car, convinced I wouldn’t drive off the bridge with her in the back seat.
On the way, I prayed aloud to a Higher Power for help. (I was thankful my older boys were in the truck with Dad.) As the bridge loomed large, I prayed louder, begging for a sign that I was not alone on this journey: a neon beacon, a bright light — something.
As planned, my husband and I pulled over before the bridge for the final pep talk. He said all the right things and hugged me tightly. In the midst of our embrace, I heard him say, “Uh-oh.” A state trooper had pulled up behind us.
“Everything all right here?” the trooper asked.
My husband explained that I was afraid to drive over the bridge because of an irrational phobia.
“Would you feel better,” the trooper asked, “if you had a police escort, lights and all?”
The lights seemed an answer to my prayer. I gladly agreed.
We crossed that span at a speed of forty miles per hour, with the trooper behind me, his lights flashing, and a line of cars following him, none of them daring to pass this strange convoy.
East Northport, New York
When I was five, I was afraid my mother would leave me somewhere and not come back. I remember one day she was late picking me up from an art class at the local museum. I even remember what I was drawing: a still life of vases, which my five-year-old hands depicted as straight lines. I held the drawing as I waited, fighting back the tears. Those flat vases are forever joined in my mind with the fear of being abandoned.
Now almost forty, I am still afraid of that inevitable day when my mother will leave me on this earth and not come back.
My husband promised me that, if we got divorced, the children and I would be living in a crummy apartment on the wrong side of town, wearing rags and rubber flip-flops. I thought of Dorothea Lange’s famous photograph Migrant Mother: a worn and weary woman with her hand on her cheek, her two children turned away from the camera, leaning for support on their mother’s thin shoulders. The woman’s worry is palpable, spreading out from her like the golden rays around depictions of Catholic saints.
Dread kept me in the marriage until, one day, I went to the library and made twenty photocopies of Migrant Mother. Over the months that followed, I colored the copies with crayons and markers, adding homemade paper-doll hats and clothes and fancy borders of shiny aluminum foil.
By the time I filed for divorce, I had decorated all twenty copies, and the migrant mother and her children glowed with serenity and humor. Whenever my soon-to-be ex threatened us with economic ruin, I was only annoyed.
Paradise Valley, Arizona
It’s just past midnight in a north-woods campground. A full moon climbs high among the lodgepole pines. The night is silent except for the murmur of a wide, fast-moving river. On my way to the bathroom, I take the riverside road rather than walk through the rows of tents. I want to see the moon on the water.
I am dressed in a long T-shirt whose hem nearly touches the tops of my hiking boots, and carrying a camera in one hand and an unlit flashlight in the other. When I hear a noise behind me, I immediately think, Bear.
Then I am caught in a flashlight beam, and drunken male voices boom in the night.
“Is it a bear?” one shouts.
“No, it’s some pussy!”
They laugh. I move on quickly.
“She’s taking pictures.”
I hear the unmistakable sound of a zipper.
“Take a picture of my dick. I’m the Loch Ness Monster.”
I reach the bathroom, with its lone bulb. With my heart pounding and my hand on the handle of the heavy metal door, I turn to the men and say, “I wouldn’t want to waste my film.” I am surprised how loud my words sound in the still night. Then I am inside, leaning my full weight against the heavy door.
I feel a kick at the door. From outside comes a voice again, loud, drunk, and derisive: “I could fuck your brains out, but I wouldn’t want to waste my dick.” They laugh, and I can hear them moving away along the road. I realize that I am crying. I lean against the door until my breathing is even, my heart rate calm.
Returning to my tent, I see the silhouette of a man bending down inside one of the other tents. He is helping a little girl slip into her shoes. I think, Here is a man like my father, my brothers, my lover: a gentle man, a safe man. He opens the tent door, and the girl steps through into the night. She reaches back to take his hand and draw him out after her. They walk hand in hand in the moonlight.
I watch them for as long as possible, because I want, with all my heart, to believe that bears are more dangerous than men.
When I was in eighth grade, my parents split up for good, and my mother, my two siblings, and I moved to a cramped, run-down cottage. It had a large kitchen, a small living room, a bathroom, and a screened alcove that became my brother’s room. My sister and I slept on a fold-out couch in the kitchen, and my mother slept in the living room. The house was set on a debris-strewn lot by a highway, and at night I could hear the sound of tires squealing and girls screaming as cars raced past our house. Our dog was killed by a car right away.
Shortly after we moved there, I began to perform nightly patrols of the house. First I would check to see that the pilot light on the stove was lit and that none of the burners or the oven was on. Then I would check the pilot light on the hot-water heater in the bathroom. My mother kept her beautiful tweed suits and silk blouses on a rack behind the heater, and I always slid her clothes over, to be sure none of them could touch the heater in the night. After that, I would check the shower and the kitchen sink to make sure no water was dripping. (I have forgotten why.) Finally, I checked all the doors and windows.
I did all of this secretively, though obviously in plain sight. I would get up once or twice more during the night to make sure the clothes stayed where I’d slid them, and the pilot lights stayed lit, and the doors and windows stayed locked.
I was desperately worried that my father would come to the house in a drunken rage and try to force his way in. I wasn’t afraid that he would hurt us, just that he would cause a scene, and we would have to turn him away or call the police. I was afraid someone would find out about him. One night, when my best friend slept over, I woke up thinking that I heard my father whispering to me through the window screen near my bed.
Many years later, while hanging out with friends in restaurants or sitting quietly at work, I would conjure the sudden entrance of my father, raving drunk and staggering, claiming me noisily as his own, and I would feel a cold chill run through me, as if it were really happening.
Now that my father is dead, I wonder why it never occurred to me, not even once, that I might have been happy to see him.
It’s 7:30 A.M.: time to go to school. I pull on the blue warm-up jacket I wear every day, no matter what the weather. I care only about how I can hide beneath that loose-fitting blue jacket. I feel wrong. I feel fat. I bounce when I walk. I am afraid to go to school, but this is America: I have no choice.
I don’t use the restroom at school. I don’t answer questions in class. I practically don’t exist. At lunch, I sit by myself and hope no one will try to pick a fight with me. Cynthia asks if she can join me. Everybody calls me a fag, and Cynthia a slut. We are outcasts together: Cynthia in her peasant blouse and too-tight jeans, and I in my Carly Simon tour T-shirt and blue warm-up jacket. She eats my tater tots, grabbing them with her long fingernails, but I don’t care. With her, at least, I am not alone.
People say I have a goofy walk. I am so afraid of looking odd at times that I forget how to walk. There I’ll be, in the breezeway of Burnet Junior High, frozen, unable to remember how to swing my arms or breathe.
Somehow, I get the impression that each arm is supposed to move with the corresponding leg. I practice walking behind the six-foot-high privacy fence in my backyard, making sure my right arm swings forward with my right foot. I practice so much that I make my walk worse. I get a new name: Robot Boy.
San Antonio, Texas
When I was four, my father removed the training wheels from my little pink bike. Without their support, I lost my balance and fell. It hurt so much that I refused to get back on.
When I was seven, I tried riding a neighbor’s bike and fell again. The same thing happened when I was ten, and again when I was thirteen, and when I was seventeen. The result was always the same: the fall stung enough to discourage me for some time thereafter.
By the age of twenty-seven, I had spent much of my life in envy of the bike-riding population. My brother, nine years older than I, was a bicycle racer at the time, and my friend Mila rode her ten-speed down Ocean Parkway to work every single day.
That summer, I made a decision: I would learn to ride a bicycle no matter how scary or embarrassing it might be. (At that point, I was much more afraid of looking like a fool than of falling and hurting myself.) Unfortunately, bicycling is not something you can learn in the privacy of your home. I settled for the relative privacy of the Coney Island boardwalk on a weekday morning.
My friend Mila met me there early on a Friday. I tried not to notice the elderly people sitting on benches all along the boardwalk. And I particularly tried not to imagine what they would think when they saw a not-so-petite woman with wild, curly hair pedaling a bike while another woman ran after her holding the seat.
As the bike began to move, I became afraid my wheels would get stuck in the spaces between the planks of the boardwalk, even though the tires were too big to fit into those small cracks. I begged Mila not to let go and tried to pedal very slowly so that she could keep up.
Despite my begging, Mila eventually did let go without telling me. All of a sudden, she wasn’t there, and I was pedaling by myself. I felt perfectly balanced on the bike. Then I stopped by putting one foot down, just as Mila had taught me, and I heard it: the applause coming from the benches all around. The old people were clapping and smiling. There was nothing left for me to do but take a bow.
That was twelve years, thirty-five thousand miles, eleven states, three countries, and five bicycles ago.
Brooklyn, New York
My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the late 1980s. For a long time before that, my mother claimed his blood-pressure medicine was the culprit. My sister said that extreme stress affected his memory. I simply thought my father intentionally tuned us out.
When the official diagnosis came, I was horrified, but I also felt a small thrill: I had long been on the receiving end of my father’s criticism, and was fascinated by the idea that his bottomless reservoir of disapproval might dry up.
My father’s condition quickly deteriorated, and, as I’d imagined, the relentless badgering went with it. It was peculiar to find the tables turned, my father suddenly the one blundering about, his days full of foibles and mishaps.
Although some in my family complained that he wasn’t himself anymore, I was grateful for this new father. For one thing, he was more affectionate. Sometimes he’d grab my big knob of a nose and then pat his own. “We have the same nose,” he’d say with something like pride. “I like you a lot.” I liked him, too — more, in fact, than I ever had.
I suppose I thought this was how things would remain. I hadn’t anticipated how far down he would go. Toward the end, my father had no short-term memory at all. He would eat a sandwich and, while still licking his fingers, belligerently call out, “Where’s my lunch?” He became paranoid, suspicious, and violent. My hollow-eyed and exhausted mother made the tough decision to move him to a locked ward.
The first few months I visited my father, he carried on rambling conversations that sometimes made sense, but more often didn’t. Eventually, words failed him, and he went silent. He no longer made eye contact. I couldn’t reach him. I was amazed at how much I missed him, and astonished that I felt even worse when he died. I knew what a welcome release death must have been for him, but his dying took away my secret hope that he’d miraculously recover.
He comes to me now in dreams sometimes, and although he seems to be his old self, he never criticizes me. I quiz him to make sure his memory’s intact: “Remember when I fell out of the crib and cracked my head on the radiator? Remember when I started first grade?” And he always does remember.
It seems I’m the one with the faulty memory these days. In my forties, I’m starting to forget. I forget the date. “Doesn’t everybody?” you might ask. But sometimes I forget the year, too. When I look at a calendar, I’m confused. That can’t be the year, can it? Sometimes I don’t even remember what season it is. I tell myself it’s stress.
Last month, I forgot my husband’s work phone number. I paged through my address book and saw the name of a company where he had once worked. Did he still work there? I didn’t think so, but I wasn’t certain. How could I not remember? Frustrated, I began to cry. An hour passed, and then the phone number came to me unbidden.
Are these typical “senior moments” or something more? Watching my father become undone by Alzheimer’s, I thought, What could be worse than seeing him go through this?
Now I know.
Several times during my childhood, I came home from school and found Mama gone. For a few minutes, until she came in the back door, I would be paralyzed with the fear that the rapture had come: Mama had been taken to heaven with Jesus, and I had been left behind on earth, where evil (i.e., communism) would rule until the world was finally destroyed in the terrible battle of Armageddon.
I was supposedly “saved,” but spent many sleepless nights wondering whether I had done everything exactly right. The minister said that, if I was sincere, all I had to do was repent of my sins and ask Jesus into my heart. But how could I be sure I was sincere? What if I just wanted to avoid hell? Was that good enough?
When I was nine years old, we went to church one evening for the screening of a special film. I remember hearing Daddy and some of the other men in church talking about whether or not the movie should be shown to children, because of its graphic nature. They finally decided it would be better for us to see it on-screen and hopefully be saved from witnessing it in real life.
In the movie, the rapture had taken place, and some sinners who’d been left behind had gathered in a church to try to repent and accept Jesus before it was too late. The doors of the little church burst open, and there stood three communist soldiers with red armbands and “666” tattooed on their foreheads. The soldiers burned the hymnals and Bibles, killing the minister when he tried to stop them.
The part I remember most is when a soldier grabbed a little boy by the arm and pulled him up in front of the others. “Now,” the soldier shouted, “deny Jesus, or you, too, will die!” The boy swallowed hard and said, “I will not deny my Savior.” Then one of the soldiers held the boy’s head while another jammed a stick into his ear. The soldier kept screaming, “Deny! Deny!” Blood was pouring from the boy’s ear, and he started to vomit, but he did not deny Christ.
I don’t remember any more of the movie.
Today I have a bumper sticker on my truck that says, Come the rapture, can I have your car?
I am sitting in the car with the kids, waiting for the light to turn green. It is a warm, sunny day. Life is good.
Out of boredom, I casually watch the cars on the other side of the road. In my mind, I picture one careening out of control and heading straight for us. There is no doubt — my children and I are going to die.
I can’t count how many times a day I let my fearful imagination run wild: Will Daniel fall and ram the toothbrush down his throat while brushing his teeth? Will a stranger abduct Jonathan from the schoolyard? I take it a step further and imagine the worst possible outcome: Daniel does fall, and is brain damaged for life. Jonathan is kidnapped, and, fight it as I may, I picture him in a small, dark room, blindfolded. The thought is so horrible I can hardly bear it.
This fear for my children’s safety is relentless. Yes, they made it through today, but what about tomorrow? What happens when they’re sixteen and driving? (They are now three and five.) What if they get some terrible disease? I never knew that fear and love were such intimates.
Secretly, I think I am slightly crazy. It certainly isn’t normal to spend every waking moment thinking such horrible thoughts. With great hesitation, I broach the subject with a friend who also has children.
“Oh, my God,” she says, “I thought I was the only one!”
Encouraged, I try another mother.
“Oh, that,” she says, never turning from the four peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches she is making. “I used to think I was nuts, but every mother I know does the same thing.”
So there it is, like a secret handshake or something. You would never know it to look at us, smiling when our children demonstrate how they can do a flip off the bed (more potential brain damage) and telling them they are OK when the big kid on the other team knocks them down (there go the teeth). We continue on, teaching our children to climb higher and be brave, catching them when they fall, loving them thoroughly and fiercely, and suffering in silence.
Asheville, North Carolina
My best friend in grade school was an eccentric boy named Bobby who lived just up the street. Bobby was obsessed with horror movies. While other kids were playing cowboys and Indians, he and I were playing Frankenstein meets Godzilla.
Several times a year, Bobby would turn his parents’ basement into a “spook house,” complete with black lights, glow-in-the-dark skeletons, jars full of slugs and worms, and cardboard caskets. He recruited kids from the neighborhood to wear costumes and masks, carefully instructing each ghost, werewolf, or mummy on where to hide and when to jump out at unsuspecting visitors.
These elaborate productions stoked my own night fears. From an early age, I would check my closet and under the bed for monsters before going to sleep. Mom and Dad humored me for a while, but when I turned nine, they declared that I was getting too old for such superstitions. I let go of my ritual and simply said my prayers before crawling into bed.
One summer evening when I was ten, my family was relaxing on the porch after dinner when we noticed Bobby’s father cruising up and down the street on his motorcycle, calling for his son to come home. This was not unusual; Bobby was prone to such disappearances, especially at night. We all laughed and wondered aloud what mischief he was up to that evening.
An hour later, I said my prayers, and my mother tucked me into bed. No sooner had she switched off the light than the closet door burst open and a shadowy figure leapt out, screaming, “Boo!” I sat bolt upright. My mother switched on the light, and my father and sister came running. We all stared in shock while Bobby peeled off his werewolf mask to reveal his grinning face. As my father sternly escorted him to the door, Bobby laughed and called out, “I skeered you, didn’t I? I skeered you!”
That was twenty-five years ago. The last I heard of Bobby, he had been hospitalized in a mental ward after attempting to stab his mother. His father had killed himself a decade earlier. I shudder to imagine the very real horrors that Bobby and his family have lived through.
Durham, North Carolina
The last time I called my friend Jenna’s mother, she told me that Jenna had disappeared again. Disappeared might not be exactly the right word. We both knew where Jenna had gone: back to the streets to look for heroin.
“The police will pick her up eventually,” her mother said, “if she doesn’t die first.”
I didn’t know what to say; I knew it was true.
I’d seen my friend just the day before, when I’d agreed to drive her to the welfare office in the city. “Make sure she comes back,” her mother had said when I picked Jenna up.
Jenna directed me to the welfare office and jumped out of the car as soon as it stopped. “I’ll go see if my caseworker is there,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
“No, I’m coming with you!” I called. But she was already off and running, down the street and around the nearest corner. I ran after her, turning the corner just in time to see her slip into a row house. I approached the building and knocked. A man said something in Spanish through the door. I yelled that I was there to pick up Jenna. To my surprise, he let me in.
I found her hiding behind the staircase with a guilty look on her face, snorting heroin out of a little bag. “Come on,” I said. “Let’s go.”
Later, on our way out of town, Jenna begged me to make just one more stop, to pick up some things she’d left somewhere. A look of panic spread over her face as she realized I would not stop the car. She kept her hand on the door handle, looking for an opportunity to jump out. I ran red lights and swerved through traffic. I had promised her mother that I would bring her back.
As soon as we were out of town, Jenna seemed to breathe easy for the first time since we’d left the welfare-office parking lot. “Thank you,” she said. I looked at her in disbelief. Just moments before, she’d been prepared to jump out of a moving car, and now she was thanking me for bringing her home? “Wow,” she said. “You’re not afraid of anything.”
She was wrong. Now I’m afraid to pick up the phone and call to see if she has come home yet.
Several years before I was born, a progressive ear infection left my mother profoundly deaf. She told me once that, when she’d had ear infections as a child, her own mother had stuffed her ears with olive-oil-soaked cotton balls. In Alabama in the 1920s, there weren’t a lot of ear, nose, and throat specialists around.
I cried as a baby, prattled as a little girl, and pleaded for guidance as a teenager, but my mother heard none of it. In my midforties, my therapist asked me how I felt about having no voice, and I answered, “Afraid.” I was afraid of what would happen to me, and, more importantly, of what would happen to my mother if I wasn’t there to stand between her and the world and interpret for her.
My mother was a nurse, a hospital supervisor, and an award-winning craftswoman. Everyone who knew her admired her. But I, her only daughter, remembered just the bad things: the dismissive saleswomen, the rude waiters, my father’s cruel jibes, which only I could hear.
I remembered the time she and I were at a fair, happily eating snow cones, when some teenage girls came up beside her and asked if she wanted to buy raffle tickets. She didn’t respond (she couldn’t hear them), and they walked on, saying, “Snob.”
I remembered her breaking her arm when I was seven. She was crying, “Jackie, help me,” but I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to dial an ambulance or the police or the hospital where she worked. I knew only that my mother was in pain, and that I couldn’t help her, and that if she died, it would be my fault.
My mother wasn’t fearful, so why was I? I think it was because I needed her to be the mother, to take care of me, to protect me. But I was afraid that, if I told her this, I would cease being an intermediary between her and the world.
My mother was in a car accident in 1995 and got cancer the following year. Through her two hospitalizations and final hospice stay, my duty was to alert all her caretakers to the fact that she was deaf and to post Patient reads lips signs over her bed and on her wheelchair.
On the night after she died, I walked her old dog through the streets of Greenwich Village. When I came to Washington Square Park, I unfastened the leash and let him run. It was a spontaneous, messy, somewhat dangerous thing to do. My mother never would have done it. But she was dead, and out of all the emotions that rose up and threatened to choke me, one gave me a guilty sense of pleasure: I wasn’t afraid anymore.
Brick, New Jersey
My brother Billy was diagnosed with AIDS at the age of twenty-four. Before he died two years later, he had to give up his apartment, his cherished cat, his strong dancer’s physique, and his pride. He moved back into our parents’ home, where I lived at the time.
One warm spring night, Billy crept into my bed around 3 A.M., pressed his face hard against mine, and uttered in a fierce whisper, “I love you.”
I suspect there were many nights he lay awake alone in the darkness thinking of death — his death — wondering when it would come for him, whether it would take him swiftly or if it would linger, holding him in its savage embrace. On that night, perhaps, he couldn’t endure the terrifying thoughts alone. I am grateful that I was somehow able to quiet his fears.
There were good times, too. On a summer evening, Billy asked me to take him for a drive in his car. Frank Sinatra was on the radio. I drove slowly as Billy ate strawberry-cream popsicles, and we breathed in the fragrant summer air.
I remember Billy’s wide, mute stare before he died, a pitiful expression that cried out for tender mercy. Perhaps, at that moment, he’d seen beyond the veil of life and into the dark recesses of the unknown. All I could do was stroke his head and utter a similar voiceless plea for mercy. I remember thinking that, after this, nothing could ever frighten me again; nothing in the world could ever be so horrifying.
Five years have passed, and I’m ashamed to say that I am afraid of just about everything.
Jennifer R. Jackson
In first grade, I was excited to learn that the nuns would be teaching catechism to us once a week after school. I was fascinated by their long black robes, with sleeves that hid their hands, and the rosaries they wore around their waists. Their faces had an angelic radiance. I thought these women must be close to God himself.
“Would you like to be a nun someday?” I asked my sister on the way to class. She gave a humble nod, and I giggled at the thought. She had a mean streak that did not fit my perception of holiness.
Before the first catechism class, we were told to line up outside the classroom door and enter in a single file. The others marched into the room, but I skipped happily. A pretty nun grabbed hold of my arm and gave me a good spanking. My bottom burned, and my face flushed with embarrassment.
Some weeks later, we had a substitute nun who was much older and stricter. During class, I rolled a marble back and forth in the pencil slot of my desk to amuse myself. It got away and rolled onto the floor. I looked up in terror and met the hard eyes of the nun, who swept across the room, yanked me out of my seat, and soundly applied the heavy hand of retribution to my behind. I was scared stiff and didn’t make a sound. What was wrong with these women?
When the class ended, the nun asked me to lead the closing prayer. I cleared my throat and said, “Dear God, please don’t let my sister become a nun.”
Last week in school, I learned that invisible substances called bacteria lurk on every surface, waiting to be picked up by a touch. Bacteria give you horrible diseases like TB or leprosy, which Tommy Baldini told us at recess will make your nose snap off like the end of a carrot.
Now I wash my hands very carefully in the restaurant bathroom, careful not to touch a single thing. I turn the crank on the paper-towel dispenser with my elbow, then use the towel as a barrier between my skin and the bathroom faucet. I back out of the bathroom, pushing the door open with my rear end. Hands aloft, I navigate past the restaurant’s other germ-smeared surfaces and scrape my chair away from our table with my foot.
“What took you so long in the bathroom?” my father asks.
“Oh, nothing.” I arrange my face into a mask of calm. My mother, who’s quiet and nervous at home, is braver when we go out. She slips into her purse most of the sesame-seed rolls from the basket in the middle of the table. Seeing my father’s outraged stare, she casually returns a look of sheer hatred.
Now that I’ve thoroughly washed my hands, I can safely eat. I reach for a roll and take a huge, hungry bite. Yum. Then I realize: the bread itself might be contaminated! Think of all the people who’ve touched it — the baker, of course, and the waitress. Maybe it’s been rejected by another customer, who first tasted the golden crust with the tip of his contagion-ridden tongue. I’m sure that, from my single bite of contaminated roll, I’ve just contracted that most horrifying of all afflictions: leprosy.
Meanwhile, my parents are clucking over the new garnet ring they gave me for my birthday, how beautiful the flower-shaped setting looks on my hand. I study the ring, which sparkles prettily. Of course, I’ll no longer be able to wear it once my fingers break off.
The ring is one of the few things I’ve ever known my parents to agree on. Many times, my father has confided to me that he never really loved my mother and wishes he’d married instead the woman whose picture he keeps in a hidden compartment in his wallet. For her part, my mother makes a habit of mentioning that someday she might want to kill herself.
Lunch is over. I slide my hand into my father’s as we walk out to the parking lot. My mother lags behind, working at her teeth with a toothpick. Thinking he’ll tell me to stop being silly, I say to my father, very casually, that I might become a leper.
He looks at me darkly and says, “We’d have to send you to a leper colony, you know.” Then he laughs.
On the ride home, I feel carsick. I imagine not only losing my ears and legs, but being shipped off to die on a faraway island populated entirely by limbless people.
As the months go on, my leprosy obsession winds down, but I still view the world as one vast bacteria jungle, and I continue scrubbing my hands before so much as lifting an Oreo to my lips. I graduate to junior high, then high school. My mother doesn’t kill herself; my father doesn’t leave her for the woman whose picture he carries in his wallet. Even so, I spend the next thirty years trying to wash my hands of their misery.
New Haven, Connecticut
I am a six-foot-three farmer and fisherman. I can shear a sheep, butcher my own meat, and drive a fishing boat through a storm at midnight, but I cannot tolerate tightly enclosed spaces. Elevators are the worst. My mind works up horrid scenarios of crushing suffocation and agonizing death. I feel the urge to defecate, cry, and choke someone all in the same moment.
Several years ago, my beloved brother was diagnosed with a brain tumor and put in the hospital on the sixteenth floor. I stood frozen outside the elevator for a long time as people casually passed in and out. I opted for the stairwell, which turned out to be not much better: a terrifying climb through a dizzying cement honeycomb. By the time I reached the sixteenth floor, I felt drunk and disoriented, my balance shot. Fighting panic, I pushed through the door and into the world of nurses and sadness.
I made that climb many times in the following weeks, with varying degrees of shame and self-pity. Now my fear is forever entwined with memories of my brother’s tragic death.
Friday Harbor, Washington
My boyfriend R. and I live in an apartment on the second floor of an old Boston Victorian. Our previous neighbor on the third floor was a hostile woman my age who despised Massachusetts, and Boston especially. I liked having her above us, mostly because she was never home, but also because R. hated her and thought she looked weird.
Then she moved out, and two girls fifteen years younger than I — and a lot more carefree — moved in. The one-bedroom apartment was too small for them, but the pretty one had her boyfriend over every night, anyway. I didn’t like them and was afraid R. was attracted to the pretty one. I asked him if this was the case, and he said he wasn’t going to lie to me: she was good-looking and “dressed provocatively.” (I couldn’t tell whether this was a criticism or a compliment.)
Now I’m petrified that he will leave me. I know he wouldn’t run off with our neighbor; she’s too young, and I presume her boyfriend wouldn’t go along with the idea. But it scares me that R. wouldn’t lie to me. There are some things men should lie about, and this is one.
Since our new neighbors moved in, I have ordered hundreds of dollars’ worth of clothing from Victoria’s Secret. I have vowed to appear sexier — or, at least, to hold my own around my competitor. But it is all in vain. She is younger and freer, and, most of all, she doesn’t appear threatened by me.
R. doesn’t understand my fear. He responded angrily when I mentioned it to him, and considers it an insult that I would suspect him.
Not long ago, I ran across a videotape taken on a summer afternoon when my daughter was two. In the video, she sits on my bed with her dolls, chattering to them and brushing their hair. I am standing beside her, folding laundry and occasionally asking her a question. The windows are open, and I can hear the drone of my husband’s lawn mower outside. The video confirms my memories of my early years with my daughter: a calm stretch of days spent indoors with finger paints and Play-Doh and a peaceful, content little girl.
And then my two sons were born, just eighteen months apart. The second had colic and cried constantly. He didn’t sleep through the night until he was nine months old. While I nursed him, his older brother would wander angrily around the room, pulling dirty diapers out of hampers and baby clothes out of drawers and flinging them at my feet. I was blanketed by depression but didn’t have time to think about it. I could barely keep up with the diapers, the constant feedings, the crying baby, and the out-of-control toddler. Sometimes I’d lie awake late at night, heart hammering with fear: how would I ever raise two boys?
My sons are now seven and eight years old. They are tall, thin boys with faint freckles across their noses and ball caps on their heads. They have scrapes and bruises and missing front teeth and crew cuts. They have taught me about such fine and wonderful things as one-on-one basketball, silly riddles, pumpkin seeds that sprout and grow, tadpoles, guinea pigs, and the perfect arc of a soccer ball flying toward the goal. My life with them is more seamless, more right, than I ever imagined.
But then I run across a battle photograph from World WarII: a young man in a uniform lying face down in the mud, his limbs splayed. That was someone’s little boy, I think. When my sons grow up, the world might lay claim to them in a way it never will my daughter. I feel a tightness in my chest. I go outside where my boys are playing at their basketball goal, and I stand and watch them, filled with a new terror.
Bonnie Boaz Orzolek