Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I have $8,600 in not-so-crisp bills packed away in my canvas overnight bag, along with two pairs of shorts, two shirts, four socks, two pairs of underwear, and, for some reason, a small penlight. I am a forty-eight-year-old man, and tomorrow morning I’m running away.
I’ve become nothing more than a provider of excess and extravagance, working to pay for Izod shirts, plasma TVs, Ugg boots, and sushi binges. I am giving up my most valuable asset, my time, to provide baubles for uncaring, spoiled offspring who refuse to earn money for themselves. I have spawned an ungrateful five-car, nine-phone-line family joined to me solely by finances. I can no longer put up with kids who despise and use me, sick parents, chemically dependent siblings, a therapist who thinks I’m an ass, and, most hurtful of all, a spouse who is totally indifferent.
Running away is like a living suicide: everything in your life ends, only you get to keep going. I hope to find a new, cellphoneless existence with more experiences and less clutter. I know my departure will be seen as selfish, but there is no alternative. Tomorrow morning I’m going to get into my car, drive to the traffic light, and make a left turn instead of a right.
I’m going west. It’s too cold up north, and I know too many people down south. If I go east I’ll be in the ocean, and I decided against that last year. So it’s west. I am resolute: I will make that left turn tomorrow morning at exactly 8:50. I will.
When my five-year-old son died unexpectedly, just seven years after my daughter was stillborn, I found myself on the brink of despair, reminded of my loss wherever I went. While grocery shopping, I would freeze in place as I came to my son’s favorite treats. It was easier to stay home and go hungry. A simple evening out could turn into a disaster because of a well-intentioned comment or a line in a play. Once, at the movies, I found myself gasping for breath after an unexpected scene involving a child’s death.
I rarely ate and slept no more than a couple of hours a night. To keep the pain at bay, I remained in a constant state of busyness, from crack-of-dawn runs to late-night meetings. If I stopped, I was swallowed up by grief.
My doctor and my therapist encouraged me to take antidepressants. I refused. I had to learn to live as a childless mother. In my darkest moments, though, I swallowed alcohol and sleeping pills, aware that the combination might provide the desired exit from this life.
Nine years after my son’s death, I began to wonder what those intervening years might have been like had I not been flirting with suicide all the time. What would happen if I gave up this longing for death? What would fill the empty spaces? Could I find my way back to a healthy life that included the possibility of happiness?
I made a commitment to try to live a full life rather than one overshadowed by death. How long was I committing to? The rest of my life? No, that was too long a span. One day? Still too much. How about one moment at a time? OK.
It has been sixteen years since my son died, and twenty-three since I lost my daughter. I will always miss my children and what my life might have become with them. Yet my heart has a fullness to it now. It is the small, everyday things that bring contentment. I must allow each moment to give me satisfaction, or I will forever live with sadness. In a world where so many suffer, I am grateful for what I have rather than angry over what I’ve lost.
Since my partner has been stationed in the Middle East, I’ve felt drugged. I can’t work, clean house, or have a conversation. Some days are better than others. I recently had a productive morning, but then, just before lunch, it hit me, and I couldn’t stand it one more minute. I ate cookies in the rain, then M&M’s in the dark of my office, willing people to go away.
It hurts to know I have less status than I would if I were his wife. If he dies, I won’t be given the chance to refuse the flag they hand to widows. It doesn’t matter that we share a house and have been together longer than many married couples. It’s funny: If he dies, I’ll wish we had gotten married. If he lives, it won’t matter.
I think about the days when he was around, and I felt I could get nothing done. Now I have all the time in the world, and our house is still a mess. Today I pass people holding signs that say, “Support our troops.” I do, I think, but not this war.
When my brother was drafted into the army in 1942, I volunteered to serve in his place. It seemed like the right thing to do: he was married; I was a bachelor. Besides, I’d heard that if I signed up with the Army Corps of Engineers, they would teach me cartography and put me to work drawing maps. I’d always had artistic tendencies, and I was eager to get out of Baltimore and explore the unknown.
As it turned out, the army needed typists, not mapmakers, but it did send me across the Pacific to Oro Bay, New Guinea, where we lived with deafening air-raid sirens, humidity the rains never relieved, and rats the size of small dogs. I was depressed for three months.
We were given daily doses of Atabrine to keep us from catching malaria, but I came down with a case of it anyway and spent a week in an open-air hospital listening to the kookaburra birds and guzzling quinine while Frank Sinatra sang “That Old Black Magic” in the background over and over.
When I was released from the hospital, I went from depression into a manic episode. I couldn’t stop talking. It was clear to me that the war had to be stopped and all the top brass fired, and I was on my own private lecture tour to spread the word.
Finally I snapped from lack of sleep and took off on foot for the island airport. I hitched a ride with a major, who drove me straight to the station hospital. Halfway there, I turned to him and said, “I know what I’d like to do: I’d like to screw you.”
That did it. I was pronounced insane and transferred to a larger facility in Port Moresby, where they greeted me with a straitjacket. I wriggled out of it three times, and when they buckled me back in for the fourth time, I started to cry as I’d never cried before. They submerged me in a tub of ice water to make me stop, then strapped me onto a shelf in a plane bound for Brisbane.
At the hospital in Brisbane I met a fellow patient named Harry who confided that he hated the army and had figured out that if he downed a whole bottle of Atabrine, it would put him temporarily out of his mind. Maybe I wasn’t crazy after all.
As the effects of the malaria medicine began to wear off, I was more able to keep my mouth shut, which is crucial when you’re a psychiatric patient. One night, while I was drinking from a water fountain, I stuck my head under the trickle of water to relieve a headache. The nurse on duty read this as a suicide attempt, and I wound up in a solitary cell. I decided to entertain myself by tearing up my sheets to make a dress. That was read as another suicide attempt and doomed me to sitting naked in a cell with a bare mattress.
I was finally sent to a hospital in Kentucky. As my spirit wilted in defeat, the doctors pronounced me “improved.” By the time I was completely depressed, I was released to my family.
It took me at least two years to feel a part of humanity again. Yet surviving that ordeal gave me the courage to accept who I am and stick up for myself, which I have been doing for the past sixty years.
Silver Spring, Maryland
My estranged husband and I sat across the conference table from each other, accompanied by lawyers who take apart marriages for a living.
My husband and his attorney were discussing how to offset what money might be owed me by increasing the estimated value of the noncash assets I’d received: the house, possibly even the furniture, which held more memories than value. At that moment I felt like a piece of chipped pottery myself: twenty-five years of marriage had not increased my worth but diminished it. Our children were in college; my “job” was complete, and my husband’s new playmate needed toys.
We didn’t reach a settlement that morning. I drove home on the interstate, crying so hard I could barely see. Feeling soul-weary, I pulled into the garage and closed the garage door behind me. I didn’t turn off the engine. I thought about the past twenty-five years and the low value my husband placed on them and me. Sleep looked really, really good.
Then I remembered the painter who was upstairs, painting my bathroom sunshine yellow, a color I’d picked out just days before.
I’m not sure whether I turned off the engine so the painter wouldn’t be traumatized by finding my body, or because the idea of a sunshine yellow bathroom made me happy. He did a good job, and it’s a glorious color.
Millville, New Jersey
I was just a teenage girl, a runaway. When it became clear the driver who’d picked me up was going to rape me, I jumped out of the moving pickup truck, got up, and ran toward the woods, looking back over my shoulder to see what he’d do. He turned his pickup around in the middle of the highway, but then drove past me. I made for an embankment, where I lay still.
He came back, driving slowly with the window down, looking intently at the side of the road. I prayed he would get tired of looking or remember he had someplace else to be. If he found me, he would most likely kill me.
After a while he gunned the engine and drove away. I didn’t trust him though. Maybe it was a trick to get me to come out of hiding. I waited.
I was in rural Texas on a two-lane road. I had run away from a juvenile institution. If he caught me, no one would ever know what had happened to me, and my last hours would be filled with pain.
I decided I’d better get moving. I’d stay a safe distance from the road for a few miles, just in case. Hunched down, I started heading north, keeping one eye on the road. I couldn’t shake that skin-creeping feeling that someone was watching me. What a shitty night: I was crawling in a ditch, I possibly had broken my collarbone, and a would-be rapist was looking for me.
I was lying in the tall grass, out of breath from fear and exertion, blinded by the pain in my right shoulder, when I heard a sound behind me. Oh well, if I had to die, I might as well turn and face it. Maybe I’d get eaten by wolves. Anything would be better than getting fucked by a drunk cowboy.
I turned and looked in the direction of the noise. At least forty eyes were calmly gazing at me from the other side of a fence.
When I started crawling again, they moved along with me. When I stopped, they stopped. “Go away!” I whispered. “He’ll know I’m here if you keep following me like this.” But they were determined to keep me company. They chewed aimlessly and meditated on the small human female crawling along.
When I reached the end of the fence, they had to stop. They piled up into the corner, watching my retreating back. I sat down to rest. I was alone in the world except for those cows.
I lay down on the ground and went to sleep. In the morning they were gone.
Leslie Blackshear Smith
New Orleans, Louisiana
“When someone says he’s God and tells you to kill somebody,” my brother Walter counsels me, “don’t listen to him.” He says this as if he were giving me an insider stock tip.
Diagnosed thirty years ago with schizophrenia, my brother spent years in mental hospitals and halfway houses. Now he lives on his own in a residential hotel in Baltimore, supported by our father. Walter likes to hang out in the hotel bar, chain-smoking and nursing a Coke. He calls me once or twice a week because, unlike our other siblings, who are busy raising children, I make time to talk to him.
Before his illness, my brother had everything going for him: he was bright, popular, a successful entrepreneur. Then, inexplicably, he wandered off. He called from Santa Fe and didn’t know how he’d gotten there. Our father had to go and bring him home. When it happened again, Walter was hospitalized.
Walter yearns for a normal life. He wants to find a regular job, get married, and have children. But at some level he understands that he couldn’t sustain a long-term relationship. He operates three small businesses that share a single answering machine. The most profitable — supplying promotional items like printed caps and water bottles — brings in a few thousand dollars a year. He has a girlfriend but knows they could never have children. “She’s crazy too,” he says.
Walter stays on his meds mostly, and if you met him you’d probably think he was just eccentric. But when he skips a dose, he rants about the people who are trying to kill him or ruin his business: usually “the blacks” or “the Germans” or sometimes Max Fisher, the automobile magnate from Detroit, where Walter and I grew up.
“Why would Max Fisher want to put you out of business?” I ask. But reasoning with him doesn’t work, so most of the time I just listen and hope the episode will pass without a crisis. Still, I worry that Walter’s psychotic breaks are getting more frequent.
“Don’t tell Dad what I told you,” Walter says before we hang up. “You’re the only one I can tell.”
Years ago, a bad car wreck left me with my jaw wired shut. After a month, my doctor told me that my jaw hadn’t healed properly and would probably have to be rebroken and wired together again. Then my live-in girlfriend informed me that she was leaving me for a lover with a working tongue. At the end of the day, taking the long dirt road home, I found my dog dead in the ditch — victim of a hit-and-run. I’d loved that dog.
After burying him, I was exhausted and dejected. I felt like getting high but discovered that my small patch of pot plants had been ripped out of the ground. Getting drunk was out of the question: if I were to get sick with my mouth wired shut, my lungs would quickly fill with vomit.
Thinking that some comfort food might ease the pain, I liquefied a can of Campbell’s Chunky soup in the blender. I put the straw up to the gap between my teeth and began to suck furiously. No soup entered my mouth. I discovered that the clear plastic top of the blender had fallen into the soup and been ground into tiny fragments of plastic, which plugged up my straw. I sat down and began to laugh. Suddenly I knew that everything was going to turn out all right.
Nogal, New Mexico
In the summer of 2004, two devastating hurricanes — first Charley, then Frances — hit central Florida within three weeks. Charley’s fierce winds upended hundred-year-old trees and destroyed homes and businesses. Frances dropped rain for three days, leaving behind flooding, more downed trees and power lines, blocked roads, and debris piled high at every curb. (A third hurricane, Jean, was yet to come.)
As the damages were being assessed, neighbors offered each other hot coffee from their propane cooker or an extension cord from their generator. But after a few days, the adrenaline rush wore off, and tempers started to wear thin. We were hot without air conditioning, dirty from the lack of hot water for bathing, hungry from food going rotten. We had to hunt for ice and chain saws (to clear fallen trees). The neighborly veneer cracked, and people became angry, depressed, on edge.
Phones, faxes, TV, computers, e-mail: these have all become necessities. Stripped of our easy comforts and conveniences, we were bereft. With the immediate crisis past, we returned to “me first” mode. I grieved the loss of the easy neighborliness, the willingness to go the extra mile for someone else.
Louise Franklin Sheehy
The Saturday morning before my eighth birthday, I was eating a bowl of cereal at the kitchen table. My mother informed me it had been a lean year for our family, and tuition at Saint Thomas Catholic School had gone up.
“Anyway,” she said, “a good education is worth more than presents.”
Just then my father ambled in unshaven, reached into the refrigerator, and came out with a can of beer for breakfast. He sat down at the table and motioned to me with the can.
“Come over here and tell me what you want for your birthday.”
I stole a glance at my mother’s back, hunched over the sink.
“Come on,” he urged. “You must want something.”
I sat on his lap, but couldn’t find the words.
My mother loudly threw several plastic cups into the sink and added liquid detergent.
“Did she say we couldn’t afford presents?” my father asked.
“A birthday is no reason to go into debt,” my mother announced to the faucets, steam crawling up over her arms.
A vein bulged in my dad’s neck. “So, old tightwad wants to spoil everything again.”
“Easy for you to say,” my mother muttered under her breath. “You’re always out of town when the bills are due.”
My father dumped me off his lap, and I hit the floor with a hard smack, sending a painful jolt from my tailbone to my head. I wanted to be picked up and hugged. Instead my father strode across the room, grabbed my mother’s throat with his huge hands, and squeezed.
“Ask the goddamn pope for money if we are so goddamn poor!” he shouted.
After a final shake, he released her. My mother’s neck had red marks on it. She coughed and cried softly, in raspy sobs.
I pulled myself up off the floor and stood between them. I wanted to hate them, but I couldn’t. They had been fighting ever since I could remember; I just wanted the war to be over. I prayed for this every day at school, but my prayers were never answered.
I could tell that round two was just minutes away. My dad was crushing his beer can with his fist, and my mother was sighing again. I was going to be eight years old in a few days, and I didn’t care. I screamed at the sky outside the kitchen window, “I hate my birthday! I don’t want anything! I hate it! I hate it!”
I visit Lisa at her small apartment in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where she is working on her MFA. She is broke, as usual, and even more overweight than when I last saw her three years ago. Her skin is pasty, her eyes red-rimmed. She tells me she has panic attacks, and I notice a blood-pressure monitor on the coffee table. I also spy a handwritten list of foods with numbers next to them that I imagine has something to do with diabetes, but I don’t ask.
In the morning, while Lisa is still asleep, I walk around her living room, looking at the stacks of papers and books on every surface, wondering how she can possibly find what she needs. In the kitchen, so many pots and dirty dishes are stacked on the stove that I can barely make a cup of tea. I sit on the couch and wait for the feeling of superiority to come over me, so I can drive away from here knowing that I am living right, and Lisa is living wrong.
But the feeling doesn’t come. Instead, I think about the piles of books. I realize Lisa has read them all and is incorporating what she learns into her fiction and teaching. Her shaky finances have not kept her from taking chances with her work. I think about how my mountain of cash never seems big enough for me to take any chances. I’m still waiting to adopt a child, to move to the country, to write something I care about.
I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I recently quit a fairly secure job to pursue getting a book of poetry published. Since then I’ve been living off my savings and a credit card and a little help from my friends, something I’ve never done before. I am also fucking a good friend’s fiancé. He and I may have some bohemian ideas about love, but my friend does not. I know that this will likely end badly, and I’m not sure what to do about it. Yet, for the first time in a long while, I feel free.
“Today’s the day, Mom. The doctors say you should be able to wake up. Try to open your eyes.”
Luke, my oldest brother, squeezes Mom’s hand while he talks to her. The doctors say it’s likely she can hear us.
After several devastating strokes, some still bleeding into her brain, Mom lies motionless, unconscious, gray. A naso-gastric tube snakes into her nose under a tab of adhesive tape. The machine makes a quiet groan every now and then as it pumps chalky liquid down her throat and into her stomach. The doctors say her body will tolerate the tube only about a week more before abscesses form in her throat and esophagus. Her living will clearly states that no more tubes are to be put in. After the tube feedings stop, Mom will live only a few days.
Luke is lying to her. What the doctors really said is that she will never wake up. I want to tell Luke to be quiet and let her rest. But a couple of times a day he is able to rouse her. Her eyes open and focus on us. After two or three minutes, they close again. Those minutes fill us with hope, but the doctors say she never regains consciousness; she’s still in a coma. Luke needs to believe Mom will wake up so he can postpone grieving; I need to believe the doctors so that my grieving can begin.
Luke is nine years older than I am and will always see me as his kid brother, despite my turning forty-three last week. We’ve had a difficult relationship and get together once a year at most, always at Mom’s. Although I’ve seldom stood up to him before, I want to tell him to stop badgering Mom. Maybe she gets scared when she hears him say she should be able to wake up, and she can’t. Maybe he should be giving her permission to stop struggling and leave this world.
I test these words in my head for kindness. My wooden chair creaks; the feeding machine groans. I wonder what reason Luke and I could possibly have to get together after Mom dies. Then I realize what it will be: we will share an indescribable sadness, and he will give in to it at his own pace.
One summer, I watched my uncle Gates bury himself in a coffin filled with poisonous snakes. It was a publicity stunt for a reptile zoo in Ocala, Florida. Later, lying in a hospital bed, he told me that the bite of the eastern diamondback rattler had made him feel like he was on a motorcycle going a hundred miles an hour.
My uncle died last October, having been bitten eighteen times in his life by poisonous snakes. It was a green-mamba bite that finally did him in. At the memorial service, I listened to his snake-hunting buddies tell story after story about the legendary Gates: how he’d caught the biggest eastern diamondback and the biggest eastern cottonmouth on record; how he’d subsisted mainly on unfiltered cigarettes, cheap beer, and canned beans; how he’d believed in the power of Listerine and Clorox to cure anything from a minor snakebite to a gunshot wound; and how he’d frequently landed himself in jail with his contempt for authority.
I stood up and told them about the time Uncle Gates and I had gone iguana hunting on a river that ran alongside a state penitentiary. When a guard on the wall yelled for us to get lost, Uncle Gates nonchalantly finished slipping a noose around the head of a brown iguana, then turned toward the guard and said, “I’ve been in there before, and I’ll probably be in there again someday. When I am, you can tell me what to do. But as long as I’m out here, I’ll do whatever the hell I want.”
In the early years of my parents’ marriage, my father worked nights and either slept or drank during the day. Even as a child, I could see how lonely my mother was. I believe it was this that drove her mad.
First came an endless parade of mysterious pains that her doctors diagnosed as psychosomatic. Then she became depressed. One night when I was twelve, I stayed up all night with her and watched her disappear into a place where I could not follow. She was so scared she counted out loud to steady herself.
My mother was intermittently committed to a psychiatric hospital for electro-convulsive therapy. She had hundreds of these shock treatments. My father says he truly hoped they would help my mother, but I think he was also trying to punish her. In his most desperate and drunken moments, he would threaten to lock her up in the “snake pit” (his name for the state hospital) and throw away the key.
Oddly enough, each time she had a treatment, my mother would primp for the occasion and even have her hair done. We all went to the hospital together, and I would wait downstairs with my father while her memories were being shaken out of her like cereal from a box.
After I became a teenager, I often drove her to her treatments myself because my father was drinking. Everyone at the hospital was kind to me: Nurse Louise with her paper cups of water; Alice at the switchboard, who showed me where the bathroom was; the orderlies who walked my mother down the stairs after her treatment and helped her to remember my name.
We could never tell whether my mother’s memory lapses and bizarre behavior were caused by the mental illness or by its treatment. One time she tried to write Christmas cards but became confused when the stamps would not stick to the envelopes. (She had not licked them.) She forgot how to prepare meals and where her father lived. She became agoraphobic, rarely going out except to have her hair done. Fearful of bathing, she cleaned herself with massive amounts of cold cream, wiped off with Kleenex. Once, I drew a bath for her and ordered her to get in the tub. Then I left the room. An hour later, the bath water had not been touched.
My mother’s standard answer to questions about the past was “Oh, I can’t remember that. They shocked it out of me.” For years I tried to draw her out, get her to talk about her unhappiness, but she never spoke about her suffering: not to her family, and not to the professionals. She believed in privacy and was a product of a Catholic upbringing that encouraged believers to emulate the saints, who gladly suffered in this life to be rewarded in heaven. I remained loyal to her for many years, seeing her as a victim, though I greatly feared becoming like her.
By the time I was in my thirties, shock treatments had been replaced by psychiatric drugs. My mother tried them all, with little success. I found myself growing angry at her. Her passivity seemed to contribute to her victimization. For a while I believed that her failures were her own fault. When she sent my son Sean a birthday card addressed to Eric, I did not pity her: I was furious.
In my mother’s eighty-fourth year, she broke her hip and went by ambulance to the hospital. In spite of everything, she always felt safe in hospitals. That night my father, who’d achieved lasting sobriety late in life, dropped dead. Two weeks later, my mother climbed over the guardrail of her hospital bed, fell, and broke her other hip.
Over the next couple of weeks I spent many hours by her side, hoping my presence would be a comfort — and perhaps also hoping to hear the words “I love you,” or maybe “thanks” or “goodbye.” But she remained silent, and after a while, I fell silent too.
As I sat with her, I remembered how as a child I’d wished that my mother would let me feed her. Even stranger, I’d fantasized that I could be the food she ate, the nourishment she swallowed. If I could be her food, I thought, then maybe she would get better, and maybe I, too, would be given another life to live, flesh of her flesh.
Kathleen M. Kelley
© Gypsy Ray
I peel an orange and split it a bit unevenly into segments in a bowl. I feel frightened doing this. I have to think what to do next. I pick up a fork and take my first bite. I’m surprised how tough the white pulp is, and I sometimes have to spit it out. I must have forgotten this. But I remember the taste, the juiciness, the orangeness.
I have not eaten an orange in twenty-three years. I was not allowed to have citrus. He said it was a migraine trigger for him — just the smell of it. I could not even suck orange throat lozenges. It would have been a sign of supreme disrespect. Perhaps I could have eaten oranges away from home, but I couldn’t find a way to get the smell off my hands or breath, and I didn’t want him to corner me and question me for hours, to shove his face into mine and rage on and on, eyes glazed and saliva dripping from his mouth. I really tried to prove that I understood his problems. Things were much better when I “understood” him.
Now that I am out of that relationship, I can have sunlight streaming through windows again. I can go to bed, get up, and eat when I want. I can have friends and listen to music again. I can grow plants, open windows, walk outside whenever I please.
I am learning not to be afraid anymore. For twelve months I’ve eaten an orange almost every night.
We were a small group: Gordon, a regular at the gym where I work; his brother John; a young engineer named Chris; and me, the only female in the bunch, and the oldest. We had come to Mexico to do some hiking, rappelling, cliff jumping, and caving. Gordon and the others did this every year, but it was my first time.
I had a biopsy scheduled the following month, and my fortieth birthday was the month after that. I’m not a morbid person, but I’d come because I wanted to face my fears and really live, just in case my days were numbered.
The guys had a great sense of humor and were very accepting of me. The countryside around the Cola de Caballo Mountains was stunningly beautiful. We arrived just as the sun was coming up, and I was awed and grateful for the beautiful morning and the opportunity to embark on an adventure.
Before we began, Gordon explained to me how crucial safety was. “There isn’t any helicopter to fly you out, no paramedics, no medical attention at all for at least a two-hour drive. And once you start the course, the only way out is down the river for twelve miles. A screw-up can kill you. And we won’t be able to carry your body out. If you die here, you stay here.”
I was suddenly tempted to back out. But wasn’t this what I’d come for? Didn’t I want to reaffirm my will to persevere in the face of danger, my trust in the universe? Yes, I would do this. And if I died trying, at least it would be on my terms.
We put on our wet suits, got our gear together, and took a long, steep hike up the mountain through steamy vegetation. All of a sudden, Gordon said, “This is it.”
“Here?” I squeaked.
We’d emerged at the top of a thundering eighty-foot waterfall. This was where we would begin our descent of the river, following it over cliffs, cascades, and boulders until we emerged at the road twelve miles down.
“Yep,” said Gordon. “Put your harness on.” With a gleeful chuckle he added, “Don’t make any mistakes going down, ’cause you won’t get a second chance!”
When my turn came, I threaded the rope into my harness, buckled my helmet, and took a deep, trembling breath. I was standing on more than just the lip of a tall waterfall. It was also the border between youth and middle age, between fear and acceptance, between struggle and surrender. I took a long look at the blue sky above and the emerald pool of water far, far below.
I can do this, I told myself.
And then I stepped over the edge.
At forty-one I have the sort of life I’ve always wanted: I am happily married with a nice home and a well-paying job. My husband and I eat out, travel, and have good friends. We drink too much and work too much, but we are steadily ticktocking toward early retirement.
Then a couple of origami lilies are left on my desk at work by a secret admirer. It takes me several months to figure out who left them: a twenty-eight-year-old co-worker and aspiring writer. He and I have similar taste in books, so we begin sharing occasional lunches, and I critique his recent work. It is all innocent fun, I tell myself. His harmless crush will soon pass.
Normally I have little patience for people who enter into perilous situations without thinking about the possible outcome. A grown-up should know that if you put yourself in harm’s way, you will get hurt.
So why am I contemplating making up an excuse to get out of the house to see this man?
My greatest fear is that I am falling in love. My co-worker says this is what he wants, but I know that love is not enough, that it fades over time. What once was fun becomes day-to-day monotony; what we once found charming becomes irritating. Besides, how long could I hold the interest of a man thirteen years my junior? I feel pathetic, like an aging beauty queen. Pull yourself together, I tell myself. It is not too late: nothing has been consummated. Put the tiger back into the cage.
It’s three months later. The affair has been revealed, but my husband still wants to make the marriage work. I do too. I am pregnant for the first time, and although we never wanted children, we are strangely happy, and closer than we have been in a long while.
Still, something inside me died when the affair ended — at least, I hope it died. I don’t know what I’ll do if it reawakens.
I was the resident writer at an artists’ studio in Oakland, California. All of my artistic aspirations had dried up several years earlier, flattened by the demands of day jobs and making ends meet. Now I was pursuing one final attempt to align my life with art, and I was blowing it.
The studio was in a working-class neighborhood of wood-sided bungalows with brown yards hemmed in by concrete and asphalt. The freeway was less than a hundred yards away, and I was convinced the car exhaust was giving me lung cancer. (The pack of cigarettes I smoked a day wasn’t helping.) Sometimes I’d walk up the block to the freeway overpass and stare past the lanes of traffic and across the bay to San Francisco and the life I felt I was due.
Then I landed a job in the city, at a press-clipping agency. Even though it paid only ten dollars an hour and I was still living in Oakland, it seemed as if things were looking up.
I knew only one person who lived in the city: Donna, a friend from a few years back. She and I would get together every six months or so to have a couple of beers. Despite having no more money than I, she never seemed to have a problem finding a place to live in San Francisco. The year before, I’d found her living down in the Tenderloin, in a residential hotel called the Edgeworth. The manager wouldn’t let me go down the hall to knock on her door unless I paid a ten-dollar “visitor’s fee.”
Now Donna was living in a mansion-turned-hostel in Lower Pacific Heights. I met her in the mahogany-paneled lobby after work one day, and the two of us went down the block to a bar. She told me she still didn’t have any health insurance, and her car had been repossessed. When she asked if I had any money I could lend her, I laughed and said I’d been living check to check for seven years.
Later we went back to her room and chatted for a while. When I looked at my watch, I was startled by the time: 11:30. It was a twenty-minute walk to the nearest BART station, and the last train left at midnight. Staying over and sleeping on the floor was out of the question for reasons I can no longer recall. So, dressed in work clothes and wearing a jacket too light for the foggy chill, I set out walking.
After a couple of blocks, I realized I was headed the wrong way. I turned around and began to run, but it was too late. When I got to the station, the last train had left for the East Bay; the next train wouldn’t leave until six in the morning. I was stranded in the city for the night with ten dollars and a maxed-out credit card.
I ended up walking through the abandoned Financial District up to North Beach, where I sat at an all-night doughnut place for a couple of hours, nursing a cup of coffee and reading the free weeklies. From there I walked the deserted streets of Chinatown and the edge of the Tenderloin. I found an all-night porno theater near the BART station. Admission was five dollars. The man behind the counter held a large reel of film in one hand and took my money with the other. He looked like he’d run out of patience with humanity a long time ago.
Inside the theater, a haze of smoke was illuminated by the bluish light of the projector. Nobody seemed to be watching the decades-old porn on the screen. They were all either smoking crack or dealing it. The guy behind me was laden with pagers and cellphones, and something on his person was always ringing. For two hours I sat on the rock-hard wooden seat, watching the spark of lighters all around me like fireflies at the twilight of civilization.
At one point the dealer behind me got up, stood at the front of the theater, and surveyed the lost souls in front of him. “Greetings, fellow human beings!” he said in a comic tone.
At 5:30 I walked to the Civic Center BART station. The gate at the mouth of the entrance was shut, so I sat on the steps, watching a guy who had spent the night on a sheet of cardboard and waiting for the station attendant to raise the gate. I thought about the money I’d spent that night and panicked: would I have enough left to get back home? I checked the amount left on my ticket and the change in my pocket. I could just cover the fare.
Mt. Vernon, Washington
My son looks like a typical fourteen-year-old, dressed in baggy pants that show the top of his underwear, a few pimples budding on his otherwise handsome face. He’s not typical, though. I keep waiting for the teen surliness, but it hasn’t appeared yet. He attends Scout meetings and is active in his church youth group. He does his household chores mostly without complaint, and he still insists that I come up each night and read to him before bed.
My son also has serious academic problems. He is at least three grade levels behind in math and even more in language arts and reading. Because of his learning difficulties, it has been hard for him to make friends. At school, kids call him names. He holds back the tears until he gets home. He seems fragile and ill-equipped to handle the pressures of being a teen, let alone an adult.
Recently, my son took a battery of intelligence tests. The final report told me what I already knew but didn’t want to admit. “He’s on the edge,” the psychologist said, “educable, not really retarded.”
As my son and I drove home from the meeting, I was feeling quite sorry for myself: all that time and energy I had spent trying to overcome his learning problems, and he was barely educable.
Then we passed a neighborhood construction site, and my son said, “You know, Mom, I’d like to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. I’m strong, and I’d like to help needy people by building their houses.”
How could I have thought that I’d failed?
To the anonymous Readers Write contributor who was running away from his family because he could no longer tolerate their life of excess, his unloving wife, and his ungrateful offspring [“On the Edge,” May 2005]: I know I should not condone your behavior, but I do. I hope you did turn left instead of right at the light, and that you kept going.