As a teenager I liked to pour gas on anthills and set them ablaze, or spray burning charcoal with lighter fluid. I always assured onlookers that I knew what I was doing.
As an adult I owned land where I burned brush. I built one-man bonfires hot enough to melt old glass jars. In the spring I’d pour the “old gas” from my gas can on the fire. I wasn’t being careless, I reasoned: I was just emptying the can.
My first job after nursing school was in a hospital burn unit. I met a lot of patients who supposedly had known what they were doing. They’d smoked cigarettes while stripping wood floors with a flammable chemical, or stuck their head inside a gas grill to see why it wasn’t lighting, or put gasoline in a kerosene heater. I spent many hours scrubbing dead tissue from their excruciating wounds before dressing them again. I administered gallons of morphine. I placed wash basins and blankets beneath their beds to catch the fluids pouring from their bodies. I listened to their screams.
Now I live in the city, where I dispose of old gas by taking it to the recycling facility and neatly pile brush at the curb to be hauled off by city workers. It’s not very convenient, but I don’t mind.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
The same year the serial killer Son of Sam was murdering young women, I ran away from home with a drifter named Kenny. He was heading to Alaska to work the pipeline. The pay was so great, he said, that the dime stores there charged ten bucks for a Hershey bar. I was sixteen.
We hit the road outside of Bayonne, New Jersey, holding our thumbs out to the passing traffic. We caught our first ride with a truck driver whose CB-radio handle was “Midnight Rider.” He winked and hinted that he’d like some time alone with me. The third time he hinted, Kenny cut our ride short.
The trucker left us by the roadside in southern New Jersey late at night. Before long, a swamp-colored sedan pulled up, its muffler threatening to fall off. The female passenger greeted us with a beery, toothless grin. “Where you headed?” she asked. The bearded driver wore a leather vest that showed off his tattooed chest. We climbed into the back seat.
Their names were Sally and Dan, and they offered us a bed for the night in Dan’s trailer. We hesitantly accepted. The trailer’s paneled walls were decorated with paintings of a sad-eyed puppy and a Jesus with a flaming heart. A child of about seven was messily constructing a peanut-butter sandwich at the kitchen table. We watched while Dan cooked up speed in a spoon held over a lighter, a rubber tube tied around his arm and a syringe waiting nearby. Dan barked at Sally to get the kid the hell out. The boy darted out the door. In the morning we left.
Our next ride was in a pickup that stank of wet dog. The cigar-chomping driver told us he needed to make a stop out in the country; then we’d get back on the highway.
We pulled into a patch of dirt, where a beat-up Airstream trailer sat surrounded by lawn chairs, tires, and overgrown grass. A dog lay leashed to a pipe driven into the ground, her tail slowly beating the dust.
“I got something I believe you two’ll be interested in,” the driver said to us. Beyond the trailer a lightly trod path led into the woods. “You’re from New York, right?” the driver asked, running his hands over his bib overalls. “Well, this’ll interest you, I’ll bet.” The dog barked as if in warning as we followed him into the woods.
In a tight clearing stood five or six large cages, raised on posts. Deep reds and flashes of gold stirred behind the wire mesh. Shrieks arose from the cages.
“Meet my fighters!” the driver hooted. “My cocks!”
The agitated roosters snapped their cracked beaks against the wires.
A week later Kenny and I were busted near Denver, Colorado. He was taken away in a cop car while I was ferried to juvenile hall and eventually flown home. Five years after that, I was driving back to college with a load of groceries when I saw Kenny standing beneath a highway overpass, taking shelter from a late-summer rain. I didn’t stop.
Holly W. Manley
New York, New York
His daughter and mine went to preschool together, and he and I talked twice a day as we dropped off and picked up our children. By spring we were planning play dates that started at the park at 10 A.M. and ended over afternoon cocktails before our spouses came home from work. I told myself that he was just a friend. After all, he and my husband went to ballgames together. So why had I suddenly lost ten pounds and started putting on makeup every morning?
One night when his wife and children were away and my husband was on a business trip, he asked if he could come over for dinner. He arrived after my kids had gone to bed. Five hours and two bottles of wine later, we were sitting side by side on the couch, talking but not touching. I went to the kitchen for something and stood gripping the sink and staring out the window. I sent two prayers heavenward: “Please, God, let something happen,” and “Please, God, don’t let anything happen.”
That night I learned I have the will but not the courage to stray.
My midwestern brother-in-law was a charismatic fundamentalist and a Boy Scout troop leader. One summer he brought his troop east to camp out in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Because many of the boys had never seen the ocean, I insisted that they continue on to the coast and camp for two days on the Chesapeake Bay. My daughter Claire and I joined them.
As soon as we arrived, a scout named Jimmy began gathering sticks. A smaller-than-average twelve-year-old, Jimmy didn’t want to go swimming with the other boys. He wanted to build the fire. My brother-in-law offered to stay with Jimmy while Claire and I took the rest of the scouts to the beach.
When we returned to the campsite, the fire was roaring, and Jimmy was running around it in circles, tossing in pine cones while my brother-in-law stood watch. Later that night Jimmy sat with a stick, stirring the embers. He said he’d stay with his fire until it had gone out.
Before we left the next morning, Jimmy asked if I thought he’d made a good fire. I told him I did, but I asked him to promise that he’d make fires only in safe situations, when there were adults around. He nodded. Claire and I talked on the way home about how the scouts provided an outlet for Jimmy to build fires in a controlled environment.
A decade later my brother-in-law was convicted and imprisoned for downloading child pornography from the Internet. “I’ve always had an obsession with young boys,” he admitted.
All these years we’d thought Jimmy had been the only one playing with fire that hot August day.
At my high school, the last day of classes before final exams was known as “Cut Day.” According to tradition, the entire student body left school after third period that day. Anticipating this annual walkout, the school administrators posted guards at all the exits. But I was an accomplished truant. After third period I went through the doors marked FACULTY ONLY and made my way to an unguarded fire exit with a built-in alarm.
I’d pulled false alarms in the past. Afterward I’d wait for the building to be evacuated; then I’d pee in the teachers’ coffee makers, write obscenities on the blackboards, and pilfer office supplies. For ten minutes in the empty school, I was king.
This time I had a bad feeling, but I closed my eyes and pushed open the door anyway. The alarm went off, the students walked out, and I went home, confident I’d gotten away with it.
The next day, a Saturday, I was crossing the street when a minivan pulled up at the corner. The driver was a security guard from school. “You’re in big trouble, bro,” he said. “They caught you on camera. On Monday you’re going down!”
The following Monday hundreds of students stood in front of the school, waiting to be called in for exams. Several security guards and two policemen flanked the entrance, looking for me. I decided to turn myself in.
I took my exam seated between the two police officers. When I’d finished, they handcuffed me and led me out the front door. Students waiting for their next exam applauded as the officers ushered me into a waiting squad car.
My acts of rebellion seemed carefree but were motivated by pain. From grammar school on, I’d sought from authorities the attention and discipline I didn’t get at home. Some kids like me are lucky: a caring teacher or counselor takes them by the hand and steers them in the right direction. I never found anyone to take me by the hand, so I settled for the next best thing: someone to take me away in handcuffs.
Providence, Rhode Island
I met Jeff through my job working with foster children. At fourteen, he had lived in the same residential treatment program for six years. His mother was in jail, and his father’s whereabouts were unknown. The program offered stability in a world where there was little Jeff could count on: agency policies changed, caseworkers left or got promoted, and foster parents retired or threw kids out.
Jeff did well in school. His teachers and house parents liked him. His house father was even teaching him to play golf. Then one day, probably out of boredom or curiosity, Jeff took apart a fan in his room. He reassembled it with a pair of wires crossed, and when he plugged it back in, it started a small fire.
Though there was no significant property damage and no one had gotten hurt, the fire set off a chain of events in the foster-care bureaucracy: The program staff met with Jeff’s caseworker. Jeff was evaluated by a fire marshal and a psychologist. There was disagreement about whether the fire had been intentionally set, but one thing was for sure: no one could guarantee that Jeff would never set a fire again. I argued unsuccessfully for keeping Jeff in the only home he’d known for the past six years, but it was too little, too late.
After weeks of reports and discussion, the program staff concluded that Jeff presented a liability and could not return to the program — not even to pack up his things or to say goodbye to his friends. The staff members who had worked closely with Jeff were saddened, but they couldn’t object; their jobs required them to be team players. Jeff was moved to a rural community where he knew no one and would see his caseworker only every few months.
Jeff’s case reminded me of an experience I’d had growing up in the inner city. My friends and I would gather in a vacant lot to smoke cigarettes and experiment with lighting small brush fires. We’d let the fire go until one of us got nervous and stomped on it to put it out. Then we’d all jump in to help. One time a fire got out of hand, and we couldn’t stamp it out. We ran back home and told a friend’s mother about “a fire we just saw.” She called the fire department, and we rushed back to the scene to watch them put the fire out. Nobody ever discovered that we had started it.
Watching Jeff’s fate unfold, I felt as helpless as I had watching that brush fire roar out of control decades before. In both cases I wished I’d jumped in sooner.
Maceo was part Native American, part African, maybe some Puerto Rican or Mexican or Spanish thrown in. He was a friend of the sandal maker who worked in back of my trendy clothing shop in Berkeley, California. Though I saw Maceo a lot, usually around closing time, I never learned his last name.
“Can you help me move?” he asked one day as I was locking up. He needed a van, and I had one I used for business.
“Sure,” I replied. “Just give me fifteen minutes to close out the books and the register for the day.”
While I added up the invoices and counted the money, Maceo removed a pack of cigarettes from his pocket.
“No smoking in the shop,” I reminded him.
“I’m not going to smoke,” he said. He took a small foil packet from the box, unfolded it, and snorted some of the white powder within. Then he offered some to me.
“I don’t do drugs,” I said.
After I’d finished closing up, we left in my van. As we approached the street Maceo lived on, he noticed two police cars parked at the end of the block.
“Don’t turn,” he said. “Just go on around the block.”
I looked at him in surprise, but he said nothing, so I approached his block from the other end.
“I guess it’s OK,” he said. “Pull up to that house.”
While I loaded boxes, Maceo was inside the house packing. On my third trip to the van, two policemen walked up to me. They mentioned a name I had never heard before and asked me if it belonged to the man inside. I said no. Then they followed me into the house. Maceo was standing on a chair unhooking curtains. The police said the name again and asked if it was his.
“Some people call me that.”
“We have a warrant for your arrest for overdue parking tickets.”
As they walked him outside, I remembered the cocaine in Maceo’s pocket. It would surely be found, and he’d go to jail. I tried to think of a way to get the drugs away from him without arousing suspicion.
When the police went to put Maceo in the police car, I shouted, “Give me back my cigarettes!”
Maceo reached into his pocket, withdrew the pack of cigarettes, and handed them to me right under the officers’ noses. Shaking, I turned on my heel and walked quickly to the van without looking back.
When Maceo reappeared at the store a few days later, he fell to his knees in front of me and said, “Susie, you saved my life.”
But I had not saved his life. Several years later I saw a story in the newspaper about a man who had died of an overdose. His name was not Maceo. It was the name the police had asked me about.
I’d always been faithful to my husband, but I had many sexual fantasies about women, fantasies I’d never acted on.
One night someone kidded my friend Kathryn about how affectionate she and I were with one another. Kathryn replied, “I was just acting on a little crush I have on Allison.” Suddenly it occurred to me that we could become lovers. Our flirting became more daring. We even kissed as we left a bar. I took a day off from work, and we spent the afternoon in bed.
I had told my husband about my attraction to women, and because I loved him, I now confessed my interest in Kathryn. Somehow the conversation led to the idea of a threesome. We tried it a few times, but it felt odd. I didn’t want to share Kathryn, and she felt the same way about me. I was torn between wanting to keep my marriage together and wanting to spend more time with her.
Finally, both Kathryn and my husband told me they couldn’t go on this way. Kathryn didn’t want to be a part-time lover. My husband, understandably, felt threatened. He was trying to let me explore this new side of myself, but it was becoming obvious that Kathryn and I were more than just occasional bed partners.
I had planned to grow old with my husband and loved the life we had together. I was blinded by my feelings for Kathryn, but I knew our relationship was bound to end. Breaking up with her was a long and devastating process. As my exciting new life disappeared, I began the arduous process of repairing my old one.
Over time and with work, my marriage has settled back into its routine, but it will never be the same. Though I try to bury my feelings, the fire still burns.
I was only six when Danny and I burned down three acres of woods in our suburban neighborhood. We had built a labyrinthine fort out of discarded matchstick blinds and camouflaged it with pine straw. It was dark inside the fort, so we filched candles and matches from our homes. The rest was detailed in the incident report.
After the two fire engines and one hook-and-ladder truck had pulled away, my father gave me “a good talking-to,” as he called it. I tried to listen, but was distracted by the sound of Danny’s wails from five houses away.
Danny had once told me how his parents handled “scoldings.” I knew that his father was beating the hell out of him. I was flooded with conflicting feelings: sadness for Danny, relief that I wasn’t in his shoes, and extreme guilt.
I have the same feelings decades later whenever I’m confronted with injustice.
Hendersonville, North Carolina
On Kristallnacht, November 10, 1938, Nazis burst into the small apartment where my parents had been living ever since our house and factory had been confiscated. My two sisters and I were in Holland, at a school for refugee children, but I would hear the story of that night many times in the years to come:
The soldiers throw everything out the windows and arrest my father, who is shoved into an open-bed truck in which many other Jewish men in pajamas huddle together to keep warm. They are not rounding up the women yet.
After my mother watches the truck leave for the concentration camp with her husband inside, she calls my father’s sister, who lives in another town. “I have a terrible toothache,” she tells her. “My cheek is swollen, and I have a fever. Nothing is helping the pain. If I could, I would just run away.” My aunt understands the phone call is a coded message and tells my uncle to flee. When the Nazis arrive, my aunt will tell them her husband is away on a business trip. They will ransack her house, but will not find him. He will be spirited into Holland and then England and thus escape the concentration camp.
My mother also calls her own sister, who isn’t home to receive the warning. The Nazis will be waiting for her and her husband when they return. They will be taken to a concentration camp and killed in the gas chamber.
My mother sends typed postcards to my sisters and me: “Dad has gone on a long business trip. He is working hard and won’t have time to write.” Puzzled by the stiff formality of the message, I show it to my teacher, who gently explains that my father is in Buchenwald.
Because Jews aren’t allowed to drive or own a car, my parents’ car is hidden in a friend’s barn. Late one afternoon, at great risk, my mother takes it out and drives to Hanover. She has a daring plan.
On the way, she is stopped by Nazis, who search the car. My mother, a tall, beautiful woman, tells them that she has an appointment with the obergauleiter — the top Nazi official of the district. She jokes with them and offers them a ride, which they accept. Their presence protects her from being stopped again. When they arrive at the obergauleiter’s office, her two passengers speak to the guards, who allow my mother to enter, believing she has private business with their superior.
My mother knocks on the office door and finds the obergauleiter alone. They exchange pleasantries, and he asks what brings her there.
“I would like my husband released from the concentration camp.”
“Why was he sent there?”
“Because he is Jewish.”
“Surely you are not Jewish, lovely lady?”
“I am, but that has nothing to do with my request.”
The officer takes down my father’s name, address, and birth date but gives no indication whether he will pursue the matter. On impulse, my mother gives him the name of a friend who was also in the truck and requests his release too. Then she leaves.
Back at the apartment, she is racked by doubt and worries that her husband might be killed rather than released.
Three months later the telephone rings. In a quavering voice, my father asks my mother to pick up him and his friend. They wait for her in a public men’s room, where they hope to escape notice. Their shaven heads and concentration-camp tattoos threaten to give them away. My mother finds them there, emaciated and louse-infested, but alive. She takes them home, and with the help of the Dutch underground, they all escape to Holland.
My parents never found out why my father and his friend were released. They speculated that a neighbor, who rose quickly in the Nazi Party, arranged it. On the other hand, it could have been that my mother’s courage impressed the obergauleiter enough that he decided to spare the two men’s lives.
Renate G. Justin
Fort Collins, Colorado
Each summer the fuchsia bushes on the south side of our house would bloom, their pink raindrop buds opening into flowers shaped like tiny, perfect ballerinas. On buggy evenings my older brother Lowen and I would sit on our cracked concrete walkway with lighted candles, and we’d dip the little dancers one by one into the hot, melted wax, making believe we were candy-coating them. We’d lay them in rows to let their shells harden. Then sometimes, for lack of anything better to do, we’d hold them in the flame until they caught fire and shriveled into black corpses. I always felt a little sorry for the flowers, which looked so human. I imagined we were cremating the ballerinas, sending them off to the next world in a flash of fire.
Lowen died of leukemia the summer before his junior year of high school. He was cremated, too. I am grateful now for those fuchsia-burning summer nights: the fire, the flowers, the warm lights of the house — everything.
At seventy I’d never fired a gun, and my friend Kate offered to teach me. I felt nervous as I entered the shooting range tucked away in a strip mall on the edge of the city. A sharp report startled me. I’d never heard real gunfire before.
I had a choice of paper targets: a deer, a bull’s-eye, or the bold black outline of a man. I chose the man.
Kate showed me how to use the two-handed police grip, arms straight in front, elbows locked, feet planted shoulder-width apart. The recoil of the first shot sent a thrilling pain up my shoulder and a sensual rush through my whole body. As the smoke settled, I could see a hole in the paper man’s shoulder.
After a dozen or so rounds, I pulled in the target to inspect it. Bullet holes surrounded the upper body, with a few piercing the chest. I reloaded and continued shooting. The black dots gradually converged around the heart. Flush with power, I pumped round after round into the hapless paper figure.
After a while Kate and I exchanged guns. Her .38 revolver was monstrous. Its size and weight made it difficult to aim. My small fingers strained to pull the trigger, and the first shot sent me lurching backward. I laid the gun down on the booth counter while I summoned the energy to fire it again. As I picked it back up, the revolver suddenly leapt, discharging a bullet somewhere into the vast arena. I glanced around to see if I’d hit something, or if anyone had seen me. No one had noticed.
When it began to sink in that I could have killed someone, I wanted to throw up. Suddenly all the gunfire rattled my nerves. I needed to leave. I pulled in my target and saw that the area around the heart was shredded like confetti. Kate suggested I keep it as a memento, but I stuffed it in the trash.
When Kate dropped me off at my place, I hurried inside, grabbed a beer, and flopped into my favorite chair on the patio, feeling exhausted. As I dozed off, the bottle slipped from my hand and hit the concrete with a loud bang. I leapt to my feet and watched the beer spread across the cement. Then I put my head in my hands and wept.
I was nineteen when I met Rick, a Richard Gere look-alike. He seduced me and convinced me I was the love of his life. Then a friend told me Rick was married. I broke it off, but Rick was persistent, calling, writing, and showing up at my workplace. A year later he left his wife and moved away, but he still called and wrote me every day. Finally I agreed to try again. I moved in with him.
After four years we decided to get married, but on our wedding day I developed doubts. I kept asking my maid of honor if I was doing the right thing. She assured me I was.
After the ceremony I laughed at my prenuptial jitters and wondered why I’d been so nervous. Our wedding photographer positioned my new husband next to me for the traditional picture of our hands on the Bible, displaying our wedding bands. As I backed up slightly, my wedding dress touched a lit candle behind me and caught fire. Though the flame was quickly doused, I wondered aloud to my father if it was a sign.
“I think it means you just got burned,” he said.
Within two years I discovered Rick was having an affair.
Armed with a box of matches, Billy and I tromped through the woods behind his house, looking for something to burn. We were nine. It never occurred to us that the dry autumn woods were a less-than-ideal location to start a fire. We burned leaves, bark, and moss until Billy’s older sister caught us and went to tell. We frantically stamped out the few smoking leaves at our feet and ran after her, but by the time we reached the house, it was too late.
Billy’s mother shouted at us and called my mother. Then she sat us down and had us watch her light a bath towel with a match. The bright red terry cloth instantly turned black. “This could have been your skin!” she yelled. All I could think of was having to face my mother. I assumed I’d be yelled at again, then forced to endure the agonizing wait for my father to come home and yell at me too.
When she got me home, however, my mother did something unexpected: she turned on a gas burner on the stove, grabbed me by the wrist, and tried to put my hand over the flame. I resisted her at first. Then I started to feel guilty for being strong enough to keep her from disciplining me. I imagined that winning the battle might be worse than losing it. So I relaxed.
As painful as it was to have my hand held above the flame, I did not get burned. My mother shouted, “This is what it feels like! Do you understand?”
I am now the father of three boys. As much as I’ve condemned my mother’s judgment over the years, I know that reason and sanity have no power over the desire to keep one’s children safe.
I was outwardly unremarkable: a married professional, a steady worker, and a father. But as far back as I could remember, I’d had a secret preoccupation with pornography. I’d hoped getting married would diminish my fascination, but I still bought pornographic magazines and hid them from my wife. These magazines had ads in the back for even raunchier magazines, and I ordered those, too. I felt guilty, but also somehow entitled to my obsession. Every so often I became disgusted with myself and threw all the magazines away. I’d usually retrieve them within an hour. Sometimes I burned them, but I always bought more.
In the 1980s I discovered peep shows and strip clubs. I’d enter these places excited and leave feeling depressed. While traveling on business I carried a directory of clubs. At the office I spent my lunch hours dashing out to get my fix, and dashing back just in time, trying to look calm and ready for the afternoon.
When VCRs became popular, I switched to adult videos. One day my wife found my stash. She was crushed. I felt like a scolded child, a pervert, a weak-willed failure. I made promises to her, then failed to keep them. I joined a twelve-step program but didn’t attend meetings. On a business trip I met a woman who shared my compulsion, and we started a complicated long-distance affair. Finally the marriage collapsed.
I’ve since remarried. As I type this, Internet pornography is just a few mouse clicks away — a far worse temptation for me than any of my old habits. I sometimes go on long binges, unable to stop myself. My current wife knows about my addiction, and we’re OK as long as I’m honest with her about it. Occasionally, though, I try to make a secret of it again. So far I’ve been burnt every time.
In the midsixties, my husband, Donald, and I became friends with another couple, Cliff and Lucy. They were just like us: idealistic, progressive, and fun-loving. And they also had their squabbles. One weekend we joined them on their boat, and Cliff and I began to flirt a little. Our spouses noticed but seemed not to mind.
The flirtation bloomed into a secret romance. Not wanting to hurt Donald and Lucy or our young children, we limited ourselves to amorous phone calls, furtive touches, and an occasional covert kiss. Eventually my husband confronted me, saying he’d detected a shift in my attitude toward him. After some initial denials, I told him about my unconsummated affair. He insisted that I recite every deception in detail. Then he let Cliff know what he knew. It seemed the end of the friendship.
In the weeks that followed, I worked to regain Donald’s trust. I also thought about Lucy, a woman I truly liked and had betrayed. I worked up my nerve and called her, feeling relieved when she didn’t hang up. I apologized for what had happened, and she told me not to worry about it, that she’d grown used to this sort of thing.
Eventually Donald decided that he missed Cliff and Lucy, and the four of us met to discuss the “transgression.” Donald acknowledged that such attractions were natural and said that we all had too much fun together to let this ruin our friendship.
So we started socializing again: dinners, movies, parties, dancing. Sometimes on the dance floor we’d switch partners. We also had private conversations with each other’s mates. One evening when Cliff and I were dancing, he whispered, “How does swapping spouses sound to you?”
I thought he was joking. He often made remarks intended to shock. Then he told me that he and Donald had already discussed it. And he assured me Lucy would play along.
The next weekend on their boat, Lucy seemed tense though not unhappy. After the kids were asleep below deck, she warned that their marriage might not withstand this. I thought of my own marriage, but I wasn’t scared. This was the first time in years Donald and I were not at odds.
We switched spouses that night, and continued to do so every other week, for an evening or a weekend. The thrill of secrecy added to the excitement as we figured out ways to stay in touch with baby-sitters for emergencies and came up with places to go where we wouldn’t be recognized.
Sordid as it may seem now, Donald and I viewed ourselves as trailblazers, willing to break old-fashioned rules designed to thwart our happiness. The experience strengthened our relationship, both in bed and out.
Lucy and Cliff, however, were having difficulties. We suspended our arrangement whenever they stopped speaking to each other, then resumed after they’d reached a truce. During one such break, Lucy told me about Cliff’s adulterous past with prostitutes and how he’d dragged her into a national swinging scene and published her picture and attributes in a sleazy swingers’ magazine.
One evening when we were all together, Cliff got to talking and, with a salesman’s enthusiasm, described their group-sex experiences. Lucy clearly did not share Cliff’s excitement. I asked her why she’d gone along with it. For her children, she said. If she wanted to stay married and be with her kids, she had to indulge Cliff’s sexual interests. Cliff didn’t correct her. When I argued on her behalf, he laughed, saying he knew her better than I did.
A year after that, Lucy filed for divorce, and Donald and I embraced monogamy. Ten years later, in marriage counseling, he and I talked about our experience with Lucy and Cliff. I still don’t think that double tryst caused our divorce. Not directly, anyway.
I have a terrible habit of always forgetting essential items when I go on vacation. If I am vacationing at the beach, I forget a bathing suit; on a ski trip, gloves; hiking in the mountains, boots. Now here I was on my honeymoon in Ireland, and I’d forgotten my birth control.
I had recently turned forty-two and gone off the pill for health reasons. After a series of unpleasant experiments with other forms of birth control, I’d discovered something called “vaginal contraceptive film,” or VCF. Stephen and I nicknamed it “the film” so we could speak of it in public when necessary.
Leaving the welcome desk at the airport terminal in Shannon, Ireland, I blurted out, “I am so sorry, Stephen, but I forgot the film.”
Perplexed, he said, “It’s OK. Our new camera is digital.”
“No,” I said. “Not that kind of film. The film!”
He became very still and wore an expression I had never seen on his usually kind and gentle face.
“Are you mad?” I asked. “Of course, you’re mad. We’re on our honeymoon, and I’ve ruined everything!”
He took a deep breath and assured me it would be all right. We would just stop at a drugstore on the way to our bed-and-breakfast.
As we drove to Limerick in our tiny rental car, Stephen stopped at every pharmacy — or “chemist,” as they’re called — along the way. But Ireland is a Catholic country that takes Church law seriously. I considered having a friend FedEx me some VCF, but wondered if that was legal. We were either going to have a very chaste honeymoon or risk a late-in-life baby. Having two teenage daughters at home, I wasn’t sure I wanted to take that chance.
We continued to hit every chemist we passed for the next two days, with no luck. At some point, we stopped caring about finding the film and just focused on each other. A tenderness developed between us as if we were a young couple, each in love for the first time. One day, hiking up Brandon’s Mountain on the west coast of Ireland, we saw a female sheep in the process of giving birth. Her sides clenched like a fist as she brought forth her lamb. We wondered if it was a sign.
We drove back to our bed-and-breakfast in a peaceful silence, having abandoned all discussion of birth control. An unspoken decision had been made to accept whatever fate handed us.
At the airport terminal before our flight home, I held the camera at arm’s length and took a picture of Stephen and me waiting for our plane. I remember thinking, Will I look at this picture someday and say, “There you were with Mommy and Daddy, right before we found out we were going to have you”? I expected the thought to fill me with panic, but there was only curiosity, mild expectation, and a newfound comfort with the unknown.
From the window of our home I often saw smoke and flames rising from what used to be cornfields across the road. The farmland had become an empty plot where local residents dumped soil and yard waste. My third-grade son and his friends called it the “dirt hills.”
Whenever I saw a fire I would call the fire department and complain about the delinquents who’d set it, probably seventh- or eighth-graders at the nearby school. I criticized their parents for having no control over their children.
Twenty years later my son died of colon cancer. Looking through his college English papers after his death, I read:
When I was in third grade, my friends and I used to ignite the underbrush surrounding the “dirt hills,” the vacant land across from my house and adjacent to our Catholic school. Sometimes we used lighter fluid, but it was more of a challenge to use only matches. When the mood struck, we’d gather small sticks and dried grass, light the quick-burning kindling, and race around looking for more flammable material in order to keep it going. It was the fire we wanted, not the damage. . . . Our excitement came from controlling the uncontrollable — fire.
In just five years I had gone from a low-paying job at an indie record label in Boston to making more than a hundred thousand dollars a year working for a major label in LA. I bought a BMW and a house in Hollywood.
Through a screenwriter housemate I discovered cocaine, and I began to depend on the drug’s instant motivational effects. It helped me feel better about abandoning my indie roots and taking a superficial job with easy rewards. When I was high, I often went a week without sleep. I followed with empathy the news reports of actor Robert Downey Jr.’s “struggle” with addiction. It seemed to me that his life would have been fine if the police had just left him alone.
When my addiction escalated to the point that I could no longer conceal it, my employer generously sent me to rehab. Upon my release, I started right up again. This time I was fired and given eight months’ salary in severance pay.
There I was, an unemployed Hollywood homeowner with $150,000 in the bank and a weekly paycheck. I decided to become a full-time drug user. (I say “I,” but really the drug made the decision.) I literally chain-smoked crack and Mexican black-tar heroin while hanging out with other drug-friendly musicians, writers, actors, models, and street people. In all I had two years absolutely free of responsibility and regimen. By the end, I’d been shot in the face, arrested, and jailed, and had nearly died twice.
After getting sober, I landed back in the town where I’d gone to college, homeless, forty, and one hundred thousand dollars in debt. I stayed in shelters and was instructed at AA and NA meetings to view the previous two years as a hell from which I had emerged. But the truth was I’d never felt so free and on the knife’s edge of life as I had when I’d been using. Despite the damage I did to myself, I still view that chapter of my life as a gift: I learned how to lose.
Those two years cleared my system of the foolish need to push my limits. Before that experience I’d been afraid of living a “life of quiet desperation.” Now I appreciate every mundane moment.