The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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In the summer of 1993, I was one of a group of college students who studied abroad in Saratov, Russia. Although two years had passed since the fall of the Soviet Union, life there was still relatively free of Western influence.
Most of the other students and I hailed from Wyoming, where wide-open spaces are abundant and people are in short supply. In Saratov we lived in cramped rooms in crowded apartment buildings. We stood in long lines to wait for the bus and, once onboard, were forced to stand intimately close to our fellow passengers, enveloped in their body odors and heavy perfumes.
The other students had difficulty adjusting to our new environs, but I drank in the crowds, people, and noise. What I appreciated most was the Russians’ near-nonexistent sense of personal space. Whether exchanging pleasantries or discussing matters of great import, they stood toe to toe and eye to eye with one another. Locked in conversations with locals, I could see the tiny pockmarks and pores in their faces, examine their carefully applied makeup, and make an educated guess as to what they’d eaten for lunch. With their humanity — and mine — so exposed, there didn’t seem to be any room for artificiality. I felt connected to people in a way I never had at home.
Culture shock came when I returned to America, where we keep even people we know at arm’s length. I longed for the sense of connection I’d felt in Russia. I wanted someone — anyone — to stand toe to toe with me and tell me of his life.
Susannah R. Conn
San Diego, California
Exhausted from a long week at work, I was trying to transplant some perennials in my flower garden on Saturday, but my two-and-a-half-year-old had other plans. She demanded my full attention and would cry and whine whenever I tried to get her to play by herself or work with me in the garden. With each tug on my arm and complaint in my ear, I felt my jaw tighten. Finally I yelled at her and told her to go play with her daddy in the backyard. Then I took a deep breath and returned to digging up a day lily that was crowding an iris.
When I heard my husband start the truck, I dropped my shovel and ran to the backyard. I could see the truck backing up and my daughter behind it, retreating into a row of bushes on one side, looking confused. Her expression seemed to ask, Why was I supposed to come back here? I couldn’t breathe. Then my husband saw her and shut off the engine.
I felt relief and shame. My inability to manage my frustration had nearly cost us our daughter’s life. I didn’t deserve to be a mother.
Parenting forces you to see who you really are. In that moment, I reminded myself of my own mother, who’d always made me feel as if I were in her way. I’d hated that. Now I had become just like her.
For most of my adult life I had difficulty distinguishing sexual touch from merely affectionate gestures, like hugs and hand-holding. Perhaps I’d received too little physical affection from my parents in childhood. (I cannot recall ever kissing or hugging my mother.) I was a bookish, depressed, and withdrawn teenager, socially insecure and conflicted over touching and being touched. At age twenty-one I married the first woman I’d ever slept with. Even after marriage, I didn’t know how to appreciate nonsexual touch as pleasurable in its own right.
In my late thirties I began practicing yoga to get more acquainted with my body. It occurred to me that this might help me freely enjoy the touch of others. When I discovered there was a therapist in my area who combined talk therapy with assisted yoga poses, I mustered my courage and signed up for a series of one-on-one sessions.
The therapist was encouraging and skillful, and my levels of trust and comfort increased. At the sixth session, however, there was trouble. The therapist manipulated my leg in a way that caused sudden sexual arousal. Guilty and embarrassed, I told her what had happened. In subsequent sessions we simply talked about my problems without touching. Finally she referred me to a male colleague.
My new therapist seemed convinced that massage therapy could play a key role in my healing, but I resisted mightily. The very idea of receiving a massage was tangled up with sexual fantasy for me, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself again.
Five more years passed before the wisdom of his recommendation hit home. A few days before my forty-eighth birthday, I made an appointment for a full-body massage with a female therapist.
As the massage therapist’s hands gently cradled my head, I felt my anxiety subside. Her touch was sensuous, strong, and affirming, yet entirely nonerotic.
I didn’t cry during the massage, but I wept profusely later that afternoon, and the next day, whenever I thought of how wondrously different I felt. After four decades, my body had been given back to me.
The worst thing about prison for me is the lack of personal space. I hate contact with other inmates. If someone is standing within a few feet, I will move away — if I can. A friendly arm thrown around my shoulders is quickly thrown off. And I refuse to shake hands. I don’t like to think of where that other man’s hand might have been — or what it was doing while it was there. Besides, I want both my hands free, just in case.
Even simple questions — “Where are you from?”, “How old are you?”, “Any kids?” — make my gut clench. I am suspicious of men who show an interest in me. At best they’re striking up a conversation for the sole purpose of turning it to their favorite topic: themselves. At worst, their questions are a lead-in to a sleazy come-on, the offer of a relationship in which they are the dominator. Most interrogators are looking for a weakness, some personal bit of information that can be used against me. I would no more reach out to forge a bond of humanity with them than the lord of a castle would lower the drawbridge during a siege. They want to hurt and humiliate me for their own entertainment.
There are a couple of people to whom I talk, to satisfy my need for human contact, but suspicion and alienation define even those relationships. I don’t share personal information with them. The only reason I’ve chosen to speak to them at all is because I fear them less than I do the others. We will never be close. Nobody will ever be close to me. I am safe behind these bars and concrete walls and coils of razor wire. I can’t get out of this prison, but at least no one can get in.
Tennessee Colony, Texas
For my six-year-old autistic grandson, a hug can feel like an assault. A haircut can be torture. Even someone sharing a room with him can be too much. He often says to me, “Get away of my face,” even when I’m on the other side of the room. If he leaves, he will point his finger at me and say, “You stay here. Don’t follow me.” He wears only red shirts turned inside out so that the seams and tags do not irritate his skin. He will sit quietly, wrapped in the frayed baby blanket he calls “friend,” and stare out the window for hours.
I know it’s the chaos in his mind that makes him avoid people, or any sensory input. I’m grateful for those times when his mind is calm, and he can risk a short dip in the pool of sensation. Then he will muss my hair, wrestle with me, chase me around the house, and hug me tight. When he comes to visit, he jumps from the car, runs across the lawn, and leaps into my arms yelling, “Papaw, you found me!” He is a constant reminder that, in this life, there is nothing so wonderful as to be found.
In spring and summer I hike into the vast and barren Chugach Mountains of Alaska, where I can be alone. I meet no people, but among the ridgelines and small valleys I have many encounters with wildlife: ptarmigans, ground squirrels, Dahl sheep, bald eagles. Moose greet me on the path to the mountains; ravens squawk from branches; rabbits scatter into bushes.
Today I have just begun to climb my second mountain when a loud snort, like that of a horse, erupts behind me. How could a rider get up here? I think. Then I turn to see a grizzly bear galloping at me.
He is faster than I would have thought, his loose black lips wobbling from side to side. I scramble upward but realize that I will not reach the sheltering rocks above me in time. I will die today, I think. The idea quite surprises me.
When I glance back, however, I see that the bear has turned. Its huge flanks roll rhythmically as it charges off down into the valley. It’s the most wonderful sight I have ever seen.
Joel R. Dennstedt
La Mesa, California
One day when I was eleven, I was walking to my grandmother’s house after school. Autumn leaves crunched under my feet, and I swung my shiny new black purse back and forth as I went.
Suddenly a young man appeared and began walking right beside me, far too close. He asked how old I was, where I went to school, if I liked boys, and if I had ever been kissed. I gave one-word answers and stared straight ahead.
As we came to Grandma’s block I turned into the alley, hoping to reach her house faster that way. Alarmed by my abrupt change of course, the man asked where I was going. I told him I was going to my grandmother’s. He asked which house was hers, but I didn’t answer.
Suddenly he grabbed me and spun me around to face him. He said he really liked little girls and asked if I’d give him a kiss. He had me by my arms, and when he leaned in toward me, I turned my face. At that moment his grip loosened, and I jerked my right arm free and began hitting him with my little purse as hard as I could. He cursed and let go of my other arm to cover his face. Seizing the opportunity, I ran as fast as I could to my grandmother’s house.
My aunt was there, and she and my grandmother listened intently as I explained through tears what had happened. They hugged me and assured me that I had done the right thing.
When Mom came to pick me up, I told her the whole story, still tearful and upset. She listened calmly, made sure I was OK physically, and then explained that I was not to tell anyone what had happened, especially not my dad. If he found out, he’d want to kill the man, and since I was unhurt, she said, it didn’t really matter if Dad knew or not.
I was so stunned I stopped crying. I hadn’t expected her to be this unemotional about it, nor to ask me to keep it a secret, as if it were shameful. Though I couldn’t name what I felt then, I can now: betrayal.
For some reason — I was never given any specifics — my father left shortly after I was born. Mother was attending college and working long hours as a nurse, so the burden of caring for me fell mostly on my grandparents, who lived next door.
Grandfather prided himself on being a good Catholic and raised me to be one as well. This meant attending not just Mass, but also Sunday school, Catholic school, altar-boy classes, and other church activities. I remember spending many a Saturday morning with my grandfather’s old shoeshine box, shining my Sunday shoes to his exacting specifications while the neighborhood kids were outside playing.
Grandfather spent much of his time seated at the head of the kitchen table with his ever-present cup of coffee, giving me lectures. Grandmother would meekly assume her spot alongside him, chain-smoking, sipping a glass of beer, and nodding her approval at everything Grandfather said. On and on he would drone, repeating the same handful of antiquated platitudes with a solemn air of authority. Since he was always right, I knew that disagreeing would only prolong the speeches. It was like church: I didn’t like it or see the point in it, but I had to sit through it, at least until my mother got home from work.
Summers were the worst. Every morning, after my chores, Grandfather would give me a reading assignment from the Hardy Boys books, which I quickly came to despise. If I could answer Grandfather’s questions about the book he’d assigned, I would be allowed to watch TV or ride my bike for an hour. Once in a while my aunt would bail me out, and I’d spend the day at her place. (She had a swimming pool!) Or, if I was really lucky, Mother would have a day off work. Those days spent out of Grandfather’s reach were the best. Yet, as liberating as they were, they were tainted by the knowledge that I would soon have to return next door.
When I was thirteen, I visited Mexico City and rode an overcrowded subway car on which passengers were squeezed too tight to move. I found myself pressed against a stranger. He had average looks: not too heavy or too old. We were face to face, our torsos and hips touching, with no possibility of adjusting our position to a more decorous one. I didn’t mind, exactly, though I pretended to. The amused look on the man’s face told me he surely didn’t.
Just as I was trying to figure out whether the man had an erection under his jeans, I met the vigilant gaze of my father, pinned two thick feet of humanity away. The moment was insufferable. It was exquisite.
I don’t remember how long I had to ride like that, only that I was both relieved and sad when the man’s body and mine were no longer touching.
I met him while working in a busy casino kitchen where he was a chef. Like me, he was a musician and lover of the outdoors. We spent a summer day canoeing on the river, drinking vodka and beer. On the way home, our car ended up in a swamp. I crawled away from the accident with seven broken bones and a dislocated spine. He died before my eyes.
Now I work for a suburban ambulance service. People say I’ve recovered miraculously well: I no longer need medication to get out of bed in the morning, and my disability hardly bothers me anymore. I’ve learned that a lot of love, and a little bit of faith, can pull me through unrelenting grief.
But then there are nights like tonight. First a desperate, bloodied patient asks me if she’s going to die, searching my face for the truth as my partner and I load her into the helicopter. I know her terror more intimately than she could imagine. Next I sit with a patient who has tried to commit suicide. She tells me of her overwhelming tragedies, the antidepressants that don’t work, the numerous doctors and therapists who haven’t helped her. Again my seemingly stable foundation is shaken. What separates us? How am I qualified to care for her?
Thanks to my own gifted clinicians, I’m able to control the intrusive memories of that fatal day. But alone at home, I stand naked in front of the mirror, inspecting my many scars, and wonder if my recovery is only a fragile illusion.
Earlier this year my husband and I had our second baby, sold our house, and moved to a new city. Then my husband lost his job. He sat at home and spent his time surfing the Internet on my laptop — the one he’d said would be “all mine” when he’d bought it for me after my old one died.
We competed for time on my computer, both of us longing to disappear into a virtual world that had nothing to do with our stressful lives. As soon as I was pulled away from the screen to play with the kids or make a meal, he would pounce on it and disappear for hours. I monitored his trail of websites: technical patents, fan sites for late-night cartoon shows, videos of obscure bands from the sixties. These virtual traces of him felt like an invasion into my own Internet world of writing projects, trashy celebrity gossip, and recipes I was never going to make. I seethed quietly and eventually pulled rank and kicked him off.
My husband bought his own laptop. Now we lie in bed at night, our respective screens illuminating the darkened room with an eerie blue light.
My ex and I have been divorced for almost two years now, but we still live in the same small apartment complex. Our buildings are right across from each other because we want our eleven-year-old son to be able to see both of us anytime he wants.
My ex is a good father to our son and a good friend to me, but sometimes it’s a little too much, having him so close. He watches out the window, waiting for me to get home from work. A few seconds after my lights go on, the phone rings. He comes over to watch TV, talk politics, and share the occasional bottle of wine.
I’m praying he’ll find a girlfriend soon.
As the full-time mother of infant twins and a four-year-old, I was facing the end of my professional career while my husband disappeared further into his own work. Sleep-deprived and exhausted, I found myself sobbing at the thought of spending another day performing the endless chores of child care while my husband went out into the world. More than anything, I wanted to walk away — or at least find someplace where I could rest long enough to stop my eye from twitching.
That winter I enjoyed a rare moment of solitude as I drove home from a late-afternoon doctor’s appointment. Traveling the dark roads outside Albany, New York, I realized that I didn’t want to go home — that home, in fact, was the last place I wanted to be. This thought terrified me. What kind of mother am I? I wondered. I knew I wasn’t the kind of person who could abandon her children and husband, but apparently I was the kind of person who could fantasize about it.
In retrospect, it’s hardly surprising that I fantasized about having an unencumbered life. I was stretched too thin by family demands. But you can’t say, “Leave me alone,” to a hungry eight-month-old, or, “I need some peace and quiet,” to a gregarious four-year-old. Small children shouldn’t have to worry about a parent’s needs. They should be able to take a mother’s constant care for granted.
Since that evening when I faced the truth of my deepest desires, I have held two disparate feelings in my heart: the fulfillment of being completely necessary to someone else’s life, and the loss that comes with it.
Carla J. McDonough
When I went to live in South Korea, I expected to find Buddhist serenity there. I’d seen paintings of peaceful Korean countrysides filled with woods and mountains. Perhaps I’d go for long walks in them.
When I got to those mountains, however, I walked in a line behind other chatting tourists. And there weren’t many woods in Hongsong, where I lived. But there were people everywhere.
I was used to solitude at home in the U.S., where each morning I’d stared out the kitchen window, cherishing the calm and quiet as my coffee dripped. In Hongsong, when I looked out my kitchen window at 6 A.M., I saw buses, trucks, and rushing students. When I stepped outside, Korean pop music blared out of storefronts. I felt as if the people — the bus drivers, the vendor who set up her cart near my apartment, the boys playing basketball — were in my space, when, of course, I was the intruder, the foreigner.
I e-mailed my college-age daughter and told her of my plight. She e-mailed back with a story about her freshman year, when she’d been rejected by her glamorous socialite roommate. “Sometimes you just have to find a place where you can cry,” she said.
After a few weeks, I discovered a park bench on a hill where I could sit and stare at the blue mountains that circled the city. I’d found my place.
My sister Vivien was born a scant thirteen months after I was, so it seemed we were always together. She was impetuous and spontaneous, while I was shy and hesitant. When our father would come home from work, Vivien would run to him yelling, “My daddy’s home!” as if he weren’t my daddy, too. When people would ask us what our favorite colors were, she’d always answer first so that I had to pick a different color, even though I wanted the one she had picked.
In order to cut down on the bickering, my parents decided to buy us both the same gifts every year for Christmas. So there were two toy phones and two Betsy Wetsy dolls. But this just made me resent Vivien even more.
At least when we got to school, Vivien was in a different grade. But then my parents enrolled us in parochial school, and since I hadn’t yet made my first Holy Communion, I had to take instruction with my sister’s class. When we practiced our procession into the church, I was at the back of the line, the big goof in the rear, a head taller than anyone else.
It wasn’t until we got to high school that Vivien and I finally became friends. We joined glee club and played volleyball together. We both were crazy about the Beatles and pooled our money to buy their albums.
Finally I went away to college, more than a thousand miles from my kid sister and my strict parents. I felt free for the first time. I learned to drink and studied just enough to get by.
When my sister announced that she wanted to go to the same university, I quickly forgot how close we had been in high school. Why couldn’t she pick her own college? Did she have to follow me everywhere? Though we lived in the same dorm, I kept my distance and didn’t offer any help or advice. There had been no one there to help me my freshman year, I reasoned.
But soon all my wild friends had flunked out, and Vivien and I decided to room together. I hated to admit it, but I liked having her around, and we grew even closer than we had been in high school.
Late one February night the year after I graduated, I got a call from my father telling me that my sister had been killed in a car accident.
I would give anything to have Vivien a little too close to me once again.
I was a college sophomore leading my first group outing as the new youth minister for a small church near Birmingham, Alabama. My 1970 olive green Duster served as church bus for the evening, transporting seven kids to a concert at another church.
Candy was the last one to be picked up. Her father, a truck driver whose Mack tractor was parked under a pecan tree in the yard, had a shock of white hair, piercing blue eyes, and wind-burned, tattooed forearms. As Candy climbed into the Duster, he came around to my window and grabbed my arm in a death grip. “Boy,” he said, “you bring my Candy back home safely. You hear?”
“Yes, sir,” I responded weakly, making a mental note never to cross this man.
Candy not only sat by my side on the ride to the church, she slid in next to me in the pew when we got there. During the concert, she leaned in close and whispered in my ear that she wanted to be dropped off last on the way home.
Keenly aware that this was a pivotal moment in my career, I whispered as firmly as a nineteen-year-old minister-in-training can, “Candy, I am the youth minister, and you are a youth. I will take you home first.”
The concert was great, the kids had a ball, and the return trip went according to the Scripture: the first to be picked up were the last ones home, and the last was the first, returned safely to the massive forearms of her loving father.
Not one woman looks up when I walk into the breast-cancer clinic and sit down. We are invisible to one another as we anxiously anticipate placing our bare breasts between the cold metal plates of the mammogram machine.
Before leaving home, I placed a rosary in my pocket. Now I secretly move my thumb and forefinger from one royal blue bead to the next. Some of the women appear to be reading magazines, but I can tell by the way they turn the pages that it is only to give the impression of doing something. Next to me, a pretty, thirtyish woman talks nonstop on her cellphone, her body turned away to muffle her conversation.
When it’s my turn, I enter the dressing room as instructed, take off my clothes from the waist up, remove my deodorant with the wipe provided, and put on a pink gown. Then I wait in a second holding area until I am called behind door number two.
I always wonder if the technician (who says little and smiles even less) ever tires of looking at breasts. She expertly takes four frames, two of the right breast and two of the left, then tells me to return to the waiting room and not to get dressed until I am given permission. If some abnormality is discovered, more pictures will have to be taken. All of us waiting women long to hear the same five words: You may get dressed now.
After I am finally given permission to leave, I exit past the young woman on the cellphone, who is the last one still waiting at 6:30. She rocks forward and back, cupping her forehead in the palm of her hand, taking no notice of me. As I rush past her, relieved to be cleared for another year, my hand slips into my pocket and closes around the rosary. My fingers trace the cross, and I ask the Lord to have mercy on this woman.
Back on the street, I feel hungry. At the bottom of my purse I find a small dark chocolate that I packed this morning — in case of an “emergency.”
I hurry back to the waiting room, tap the woman on the shoulder, and hand her the chocolate. Her cheeks are wet, but she smiles.
© William Carter
An only child, I grew up with no one but Mother in my life. She was totally invasive, and her wishes and judgments instantly became mine, as if I existed only as an appendage to her. I had little idea who I was or what I wanted.
This bonding — or, rather, bondage — caused problems for me during puberty, and even worse problems later, during my first marriage. Soon after the wedding Mother announced that she had cancer and needed care, so she moved into our living room. But it turned out there was no cancer. She had imagined it. Later she had a kidney operation that also revealed nothing wrong. But she wouldn’t leave and treated my husband and me like children, entering our bedroom without knocking at any time, day or night. Our marriage ended in divorce.
I should have known better, but at the beginning of my second marriage, I gave in to my mother’s urging and bought the house next to hers. Of course she was interfering and dominating, and I did not have the courage to defy her. She planted our garden and “advised” us on how to remodel. After my first son was born, she took over raising him because she knew “how to bring up children.” Soon he had a bed in her house and more clothes and toys there than he did at home. He was spending more time with her than with me. Still I gave in to her arguments and swallowed my resentment. My anger grew into rage that I was unable to express.
By the time my second son was born two years later, the situation had become unbearable. I was torn up by rage, guilt, and confusion about who I was and what rights I had as an adult. My husband promised to support me, whatever I did, but he wouldn’t help me make the decision. “Your mother is your problem,” he said, “not mine.”
I vacillated between suicide and the desire to physically hurt her. Finally I thought of a third option: moving.
My second marriage also ended in divorce. But the most painful aftermath of my unresolved codependence is my damaged relationship with my oldest son. We never really bonded. Now I live with profound regret that I lacked the self-confidence to endure my mother’s rejection.
My relationship with my next-door neighbor Jimmy started out innocently enough last spring, when he offered to cut the mistletoe out of my biggest cat’s-claw tree. I am a fair-skinned grandmother who doesn’t heal quickly from scrapes and scratches, so I welcomed his help. As he climbed with his slim torso bared, I stifled my motherly concern and admired his handsome body.
Now I wonder if he, too, felt back then the attraction we’ve only recently acted upon. Jimmy has a girlfriend, and I have a boyfriend, but, as my ex told me when confessing his infidelity a decade ago, one thing leads to another.
Jimmy and I have found a variety of excuses to get together over the past few months. We’ve also found that our nineteen-year age difference doesn’t matter much in bed — or on the living-room floor. Will the return of my boyfriend this winter matter? Or will Jimmy’s girlfriend guess that when he’s been over here to lend me a hand, I’ve been handling him?
I can’t get out of my mind something else my ex-husband said: “Never have an affair with a co-worker or a neighbor — they’re too hard to get away from.” He is now married to a former co-worker.
When I was a Catholic priest, I would visit families with terminally ill children. After the inevitable end, I would offer spiritual support and conduct the funeral Mass. Though these were tragic occasions, I refrained from showing emotion and tried to be a source of strength to the families.
I’ve since left the clergy and started a family of my own. The transition from priesthood to parenthood has brought children’s mortality too close for comfort. Now merely watching a movie about a dying child causes me to break down in tears. I can’t bring myself to imagine the death of my own children, much less support someone who is going through such a loss.
Totowa, New Jersey
The eleven-year relationship I had moved to Germany for had ended. John had found someone else, but my denial was so great that I couldn’t acknowledge it was over.
John offered — out of guilt, I suppose — to pay for a rental car until I could buy a car of my own. Still wanting to be taken care of and longing for a connection to him, I accepted.
The car was a four-door gunmetal gray Mercedes. As I maneuvered it into an underground parking space at work, I felt privileged: No waiting for the commuter train. No walking in the rain from the rail stop. I could simply glide into a parking space.
Coming home from work one cold, rainy evening, feeling entitled in the warmth of my car, I crawled along my street looking for a parking spot. (They are hard to find in German cities; I had seen cars parked on the sidewalks.) Finally I found one that looked tight but worth a try. As I backed in, I felt a jolt and heard a crunch. It was dark and rainy; maybe no one had seen me. I pulled out and continued my quest.
After a long search, all I could find was a spot in a no-parking zone in front of a construction site. I told myself I would get up early and move the car before any of the workers arrived.
Of course the next morning I overslept. I ran downstairs to find angry construction workers standing around the car. The tow truck was already there. Somehow I managed to get in and drive off, but not before agreeing to pay for their lost work time. I was beginning to wonder if the car was worth the trouble.
The next evening, as I was driving home on the autobahn, a van cut me off, and I nearly collided with a concrete divider. I pulled over to the side of the road, my heart pounding and hands shaking. The passenger-side mirror had been sheared off.
That was it. I could take the hint. The car — and any other ties I had to John — had to go.
As it turned out, the car was the easiest connection to break.
My Uncle Jeff never missed any of our family gatherings. Whether it was a Christmas celebration, a graduation ceremony, or a pizza-and-beer party, Jeff was there — and still there the following morning, snoring on the couch.
Jeff made a persistent effort to win the hearts of my sister and me. For example, he’d give us each a fifty-dollar bill every Christmas. I used to think he did it out of pity: our mother was always distraught and distant, our father completely absent, and our guardian grandparents had a Depression-era approach to money. After I caught Jeff exploring between my little sister’s legs, however, I knew he had other motives.
My sister made a secret pact with Jeff never to expose his “weakness.” I never had a formal agreement with him (he didn’t touch me), but I managed to convince myself that I needed the money he gave us each December.
Thirteen years later, I was living at poverty level when I received a phone call: Jeff had died suddenly of a heart attack. My sister and I were named in his will as beneficiaries of half his estate. Again, I rationalized that I needed and deserved his money. Maybe it would make my sister and me happier and more secure.
My husband and I now sleep in Jeff’s old house. His essence still permeates the place. I don’t feel I can ever call it my own.
Fort Wayne, Indiana
I have fallen out of love with my lover, but I haven’t told him yet. Maybe I never was in love with him. All I know is that, when he comes over, I dread the going-to-bed part. I won’t be able to sleep next to him, because it means sleeping next to the truth: that I don’t love him.
Many nights I sneak out of bed and lie on my couch and think, Tomorrow I’ll tell him. But sometimes he catches me and says, “Where are you going?”
“To get some water,” I say. And then I get the water and return to bed.
This morning we woke up together. When we hugged goodbye, his fingers lingered at my waist. I avoided eye contact. Leaning in, he whispered, “I love you,” and I couldn’t help but tremble. When he asked if I was cold, I said it was the caffeine and pulled away.
I grew up in Fargo, North Dakota. Standing in my parents’ driveway, I could watch thunderheads roll out of the west hours before a storm hit town. I could drive across the entire state without giving the steering wheel more than a quarter turn. Biking back roads with my dad, I could tell how far the next town was by the grain elevator or church steeple on the horizon.
Now I live in Mountain View, California. There are no mountains in sight, just populated hills overlooking the lives of millions of scurrying people. When I get the urge to pick up and go someplace, I’m trapped by the snarl of traffic on every road. There are more brake lights on Highway 101 than there are people in the whole state of North Dakota. I have given up on having a night out in the city because of the futility of finding a parking space.
I do sometimes feed on the humming energy of this place — the diversity, the opportunities — but more often all I want is peace: no sound of traffic, no upstairs neighbor creaking through his apartment, no muffled conversations of people passing by my window. I want the enveloping calm of crystalline snow and limitless sky, the stillness of the night after the crickets have gone to sleep and you have only your breath to remind you that you are even there at all.
Mountain View, California
I was sixteen when my daughter Cynthia was born. Years later I was pleased when people said we looked like sisters, but it seemed to rankle Cynthia, who wanted a mom, not a sibling.
In spite of my immaturity, Cynthia grew up quite well adjusted. Sometimes she took on the parenting role, mildly disapproving of my choices. I was pleasantly surprised when, in her teens, my daughter didn’t seem interested in dating. She went to the movies and the beach with groups of friends, but she never had a boyfriend. Then, when she was in community college, she fell for an older student who worked on the school newspaper with her, and she asked him to a Sadie Hawkins dance.
Shortly after Cynthia told me about the invitation, she and I were standing in line at the grocery store. Our eyes fell simultaneously on a tabloid headline: “Mom Elopes With Daughter’s Prom Date.” My daughter looked me directly in the eye and breathed, “Don’t even think about it.”
Los Angeles, California
Adam and I shared a house with three other performers, all actors and dancers. We each had our quirks, but Adam was the most intense.
When the news about Adam’s illness came, it wasn’t entirely a shock. After all, he was openly gay and promiscuous — although he desperately wanted a monogamous relationship. The doctors tried AZT and chemotherapy. His body didn’t respond well to the treatments, but he was a stellar patient: focused, positive, creative.
One night, after we no longer lived together, Adam wrapped yellow caution tape around his naked body and walked the streets of Washington, D.C., as an act of protest. The police eventually stopped him, but it had been a brave performance. By then his body was thin, his skin had lesions, and his movements were slow.
I went to visit Adam in D.C., and we demonstrated with many others in front of the White House, demanding that AIDS patients be allowed to travel in and out of the country. Adam was quite sick during my visit and coughing a lot, with open sores and pneumonia. On the night before I returned home, he asked me for a favor: he asked me to share his bed. He just wanted someone to hold him, he said.
I loved Adam, but I was pregnant and scared — I still knew so little about the disease. I couldn’t summon the courage to sleep next to him, so I slept on the sofa and listened to his coughing all night long.
Adam died shortly after that. He’d called AIDS “a gift” and lived life as bravely and as fully as he could. I was a coward. I’m sorry, Adam.
Laguna Beach, California
The two other intensive-care nurses and I stood around the bed, stunned. The resuscitation effort had been unsuccessful. It fell to me, as the charge nurse, to turn off the heart monitor in such situations, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The patient was so young. Her husband and kids were in the waiting room on the other side of the wall.
The other nurses and I speculated about what had caused the bleeding in her lungs. We wondered how, after walking into the hospital only the day before, she could have deteriorated so fast. Because of the certainty of an autopsy, we discussed how to cap her tubes and lines to keep them in place. We hoped the family hadn’t been able to hear our frantic attempts to save her. We talked at length about who would go with the doctor to tell them the news.
We had been talking for several minutes at least when there was a blip on her monitor. We all looked at each other and, in unison, took a step back from the bed. A few seconds went by; then there was another blip . . . and another, and another. When her heart rate hit fifty and she had a measurable blood pressure, I went and told the doctor, who had nearly finished filling out the death certificate.
Had I shut off the monitor when the patient appeared lost, we would have tagged her toe, wrapped her in a white sheet, and had her wheeled to the stainless-steel room in the basement. Instead she was transferred to a regular hospital room and discharged a few days later. She resumed her normal life knowing only that she’d had a rough night in the ICU.