With fists, with words, with kindness
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“Just put your pencil right here. It’s simple,” my friend’s mom said.
I doubted it. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to write the number 8.
I was six years old and visiting my friend’s house. She lived down the street and around the corner from me in a nice apartment.
“Give it a try, honey,” her mom whispered in my ear.
Could I really do it? I put my pencil on the page, held my breath, and started to move my hand. The number 8 appeared!
“It’s magic,” I said. I didn’t believe for one second that I had written the number. My friend’s house must have been magic. It was full of crayons and dolls and games — all the things that you couldn’t find in my home. At our apartment there were loud voices and scary men and drugs being passed around.
Though it’s been nearly thirty years since I learned how to write my numbers, I still feel that mom’s whispered breath tickling my ear.
In the 1950s I attended Saint Mary’s Academy, a New Orleans school for colored girls run by the only order of black nuns in the United States, the Order of the Holy Family. The school was located on the corner of Orleans and Bourbon Streets, in the heart of the French Quarter, and the building had originally been a ballroom where the notorious pirate Jean Lafitte had come to court the beautiful octoroons — women with one-eighth African ancestry. Each day I climbed a mahogany staircase underneath crystal chandeliers on my way to chapel or to Latin class.
The nuns gave us strict instructions not to walk up Bourbon Street on our way home from school; we were told to go a few blocks up to Dauphine and catch our buses in front of the A&P. Of course my friends and I — a bunch of twelve-year-old Catholic schoolgirls in blue-and-white uniforms — made a mad dash around the corner onto Bourbon at least once a week. From 8 A.M. to 3 P.M. we learned about the Virgin Mary, but after three we entered the world of Mary Magdalene, the whore.
Even in the early afternoon Bourbon Street was alive. The hawkers outside the strip clubs would open the doors to give us peeks. By the time we got to Canal Street, we had seen the equivalent of an entire striptease. I’ll never forget the window display for a stripper named Alouette. The tassles on her pasties lit up and twirled electronically. The French song “Alouette” was never the same for me after that.
We passed stores that reminded me of toy stores, because they displayed pink plastic and rubber things in their windows. Once, we went inside one, and I got a queasy feeling in my stomach. One girl picked up a pencil with a little pink penis eraser on top, and we all ran out of the store in a burst of giggles.
When we arrived at Canal, we stopped at the newsstand to buy candy bars and browse through Mademoiselle magazine. Swapping bites of Milky Way and Baby Ruth, we became innocent Catholic schoolgirls again, ready to go home to our parents and their usual question: “What did you learn today?”
Los Angeles, California
One quiet winter afternoon my mother showed me how she applied her makeup. As she pulled each item from her kit, she explained where she’d bought it and how it should be used. She had done this fifteen years earlier, when I was in high school and just learning to wear makeup myself. But the purpose of today’s lesson was different: now she wanted me to know how to apply her makeup for her after she was no longer able to. My mother was battling cancer, and the doctors thought she may live only six more months. I didn’t think makeup was a high priority when one is facing death, but I listened patiently to her instructions.
I also went with her to make arrangements for her funeral service. The funeral director ushered us into a room decorated in colonial style and gave us some books of sample programs and thank-you notes to review. My mother asked which thank-you note I liked best. Of course my favorite was different from hers, and an odd discussion ensued over who should get to choose: I would be sending them, so shouldn’t I pick them? But it was her funeral, so shouldn’t she have the final word? In the end I let her decide. It was always easier that way.
Then we went into a room full of caskets, where Mom selected a moderately priced model with a light blue interior that she thought would match the dress she planned to wear. As she peered into the casket, I could tell she was imagining herself lying in this box, wearing her dark blue velvet dress, her makeup perfectly applied.
After Mom passed away, I had no decisions to make. She had left me explicit instructions on whom to call, what the pastor should say, what gifts to give the ladies who helped at the church, and how her hands should be laid across her Bible in the casket. On her desk I discovered a recording she had made for me. I put it in the player, curious to hear what she’d needed to say. And there she was, slowly telling me, step by step, how to apply her makeup for the funeral; she was afraid she’d left some details out of the earlier lesson.
My mother was not one for warm sentiment, but her trusting me with the intimate details of her beauty regimen, so that I could instruct the funeral director, was a sign of her love. I’m glad she made the tape. It is the only recording I have of her voice.
Amy Knife Gould
As my mom led me down the dingy school hallway toward the kindergarten room, I squeezed her hand and pulled in the other direction. She signed, “Let go. Hurting me.” I could hear, but she couldn’t.
I shook my head no. All I knew about kindergarten was that she wouldn’t be staying.
We stood at the swinging doors to the classroom until the teacher noticed us: “And who do we have here?”
I signed to Mom, “Who you?”
Mom signed, “Tell.”
“I’m Allyne,” I said. “This is my mommy.”
“Doesn’t your mommy talk, sweetie?”
“Can you talk?” I signed to Mom.
“Deaf!” Mom signed, that one word charged with years of pent-up frustration over inconsiderate people who could hear.
I responded, “She’s deaf,” leaving out her intonation.
The teacher leaned down to look into my face and said, “Oh, you poor little thing.”
Mom tapped my shoulder: “What?”
Reluctantly, hating this teacher and this room I would be left alone in and the burden that had been placed upon me, I signed, “She says I’m poor.”
Mom had had enough. Before turning to leave, she shot the teacher a glare. I cried and watched her go.
“Class, pay attention,” the teacher said, continuing with her lesson. She proceeded to give us instructions on how to color a scarecrow drawing, describing what color to use in each part of the body. “When you are finished coloring, you may go outside to play.”
The other kids picked up their crayons and rushed to fill in their scarecrows. One by one they finished and went to play outside, but I didn’t know how to start on mine. When I tried to look at their papers, the teacher scolded me for copying and sent me to a table by myself. I sat alone, looking from the blank scarecrow to the kids playing outside.
I had learned everything I knew from my deaf parents either through signing or demonstration. It took me years to understand that my brain does not process verbal instructions without visual support. That was the first of many assignments I would not understand, and my kindergarten teacher was the first of many professionals who would scold me for being “uncooperative,” “defiant,” and “stupid.”
In the summer before I entered ninth grade, I had a chance to travel to Puerto Rico with my Spanish class. While I waited to board the flight, my mother pulled me aside and said to me, “Whatever you do, never let a boy stick his tongue in your mouth.”
I could not get on that plane fast enough. I’d already been reduced to tears that morning by my father, because he thought my dress was too short. The only reason I was going on the trip at all was that my teacher had pulled some strings and gotten me a scholarship to pay for my plane ticket, and my father never could pass up a bargain.
Once my class reached the island, we were introduced to twenty Puerto Rican students with whom we’d be sharing a dormitory. In the mornings we attended language-immersion classes at the university, and in the afternoons we went to the beach, or a historic fort, or a lush rain forest. At night, under the watchful eye of our formidable chaperone Señora Toro, we danced the twist to Latin-flavored rock music.
One night the band played a merengue, and a boy named Juan asked me to dance. He was fifteen and tall, with brown eyes and toffee-colored skin. He taught me the merengue with an air of expertise, clasping my hand, placing his other hand on my hip, and moving his pelvis to the left and right. “Sígueme,” he instructed, coaxing me to follow him. Our hips, just inches apart, began moving in unison. My heart pounded.
When the dance ended, Juan led me to a blooming frangipani bush at the edge of the patio. He put his hands on my waist and drew me close. His smooth face exuded a sweet aroma of cologne, and his lips touched mine. I had just received my first kiss — and then my second, and my third. Shockingly, his tongue insinuated its way into my mouth.
“No!” I cried and pushed him back. “Basta!” — enough!
“Qué?” he asked.
“La lengua!” I said — the tongue! “La lengua es prohibida!”
He was baffled. What could I tell him: My mother said no?
Then I remembered where I was — hundreds of miles from my parents. I smiled at the confused boy, wrapped my arms around his warm neck, and invited him to kiss me again.
Sue Z. Smith
Los Angeles, California
I was eight years old and living in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. In the 1950s the street was our playground. Three older boys — two big Irish brothers and an Italian kid — seemed always to be waiting to taunt me when I came out to play. They called me “camel jockey” and took turns rapping their knuckles on top of my head. More often than not, I would cry and go back into the house.
One Saturday my dad, who wasn’t known for his patience, told me just to stay away from them.
“They’re always there,” I said, crying. “I just want them to leave me alone.”
“If you want them to leave you alone,” he said, “I’ll tell you what to do.” The next time they came near me, he said, I was to keep my head down and my eyes on their crotches. Once I got an open look, I should kick one of them in the balls and run as fast as I could. “Believe me,” my dad said, “if you do that, they’ll leave you alone.”
The next time I went outside, I did exactly as he’d said. I don’t even know which boy I kicked, but I can still feel his tender parts give beneath the force of my foot and hear his cries of pain as I ran down the street. It was thrilling.
A couple of weeks later I did the same thing to another big kid who was trying to horn in on a game of touch football. A great, pent-up anger had been released in me by then, and I became somewhat of a bully myself. My bullying came to an abrupt halt, though, after I knocked a boy unconscious by pounding his head into the sidewalk.
I’d learned not only to fear other boys, but also to fear myself.
At the age of ten I became my mom’s sous-chef. She would tell me what vegetables to cut up and always criticize me for doing it wrong. Then, after she heated her wok till the oil was smoking and flames shot up toward the ceiling, she would start to shout: “Garlic! . . . Now the onions! . . . Bring me the carrots and bamboo! . . . Where’s the cabbage? . . . Hurry with the broccoli! Now!”
Ma taught me that if food is seasoned properly before you serve it, there is no need to add soy sauce at the table. As I entered my teens, though, I started to question her excessive use of oil, salt, sugar, and something she called “ajinomoto” — all of which she kept by her stove in open bowls.
“Ma, what is that? It looks like sugar and tastes so weird.”
“That’s ajinomoto. It’s good for vegetables.”
“Why do you add so much?”
“Finish chopping the vegetables!”
After dinner I tried to read the label on the ajinomoto container, but it was in Japanese. It would be a couple of years before I found out what it was: monosodium glutamate, or MSG.
When I learned about the health problems associated with MSG, I tried to talk to my mother about it.
“Ma, I’ve read that it’s really bad for you.”
“You’re crazy. I’ve eaten it all my life.”
“It’s this inert chemical that just sits in your stomach.”
“You think you know so much ’cause you read!”
“But it makes it so nothing tastes good without it.”
“If it’s so bad, how come everybody in Taiwan eat it? Everyone in Japan eat it. Now add water, or the vegetables will burn!”
As much as I complained about the seasoning, Ma’s cooking always tasted good. Too good.
When I left home and got my own apartment, I vowed to stay away from salt, sugar, and MSG when I cooked vegetables, and I used only a tablespoon or so of oil. My dishes were beautiful and healthy, but they just didn’t taste as good as my mom’s food.
Ma battled cancer successfully once, but then it came back, and she was bedridden. I stayed at her house for three or four days at a time to help out. She was too sick to cook for herself, so I made her rice porridge and brought it to her on a tray with a flower and a cup of green tea. Even with her energy depleted she managed to criticize the porridge for being not hot enough, or too hot, or too soupy.
We went on like this for a year and a half as she shrank to eighty pounds. On our last day together she asked me to make her a dessert of boiled peanuts. I used Spanish peanuts she had in the cupboard, and we sat in her bed and peeled the skins off one by one and watched an old All in the Family episode on TV. It was funny, till one of the characters went to sleep and didn’t wake up.
Ma turned to me. “Did she just die?”
“Yes. I think so.”
We were quiet for a time, and I finally gave up on skinning the peanuts. I ended up throwing them away. But she was happy because we were trying to cook together. The next night she died.
“Go left,” says my guide.
“This is left,” I say with calm assurance.
Pause. “Oh, my left.”
I move accordingly.
“There’s a . . . thing in front of you, and you have to go through it.”
My guide lets go of my arm, apparently manages this mystery before us, and then says, “OK, come on.”
“What sort of thing?” I ask, extending my cane.
“It’s a . . . turntable.”
I move closer and hear the clicking of a turnstile.
“There are six stairs,” the guide says after we’ve passed the turnstile. “I counted.”
I am suspicious. Usually guides count the risers but not the floor, which is actually a final step down. I am fairly sure there will be seven steps. But who knows? There may be eight or only five.
“I’ll just stay a step behind you and hold your arm,” I say. “I can feel you moving down the steps.”
Finally we get on the bus.
“Where are we going to sit?” I ask.
“Over there,” my guide says.
“Over where?” I ask, wondering how long it will be before I can stop giving sighted people instructions on how to give instructions.
My friend Mary got the instructions from her cousin, who knew someone who’d tried it and said it had worked. I was sixteen and didn’t want to be pregnant anymore, but abortion was illegal in 1969. Mary told me you just had to drink a whole bottle of castor oil and then take a hot bath — as hot as you could stand it.
It wasn’t hard to get a bottle of castor oil. After that it was just a matter of waiting for a time when I had the apartment to myself. One Saturday my father went to watch a basketball game at the local bar. I knew he would be gone for hours and in no shape to notice anything when he got home.
I filled the tub until the bathroom mirror was steamy, and then I opened the bottle and took a sip. I’d never tasted castor oil before. The slimy texture and fishy taste made me gag — and Mary had told me I needed to empty the bottle. It’s better than morning sickness, I thought.
I slid into the hot bath slowly, letting each limb become accustomed to the scalding temperature. My feet and legs turned bright pink, but I was determined to erase my stupid mistake. I managed to get my whole body into the water, and I drank more of the greasy liquid, my heart racing.
All of a sudden my insides threatened to explode. I lifted myself out of the water and sat on the toilet just in time. So that’s what castor oil was for. I felt as if I’d lost ten pounds through my intestines.
I eased myself back into the bathtub, drank another tablespoonful, and a few minutes later had to repeat the journey from tub to toilet, leaving puddles of bath water along the way.
I must have done this ten times that afternoon, with less and less coming out of me each time. I developed nausea and vertigo, and by the end of the day I simply gave up and lay on the cool tile floor in the dark.
When my father got home, long past dinnertime, I was asleep — and still pregnant.
“It didn’t work,” I told Mary at school on Monday.
“That’s funny,” she said. “What about when you lifted the furniture?”
She had left that part out. But by then I was resigned to the pregnancy. This life force inside me was stronger than I was, and there was nothing I could do about it.
© Mark Chester
As a certified nurse-midwife working in a hospital-based clinic, I give lots of instructions: “Eat more protein.” “Don’t lie flat on your back.” “Walk twenty minutes a day.” Then there is the long list of symptoms that should spur a patient to call me: contractions, bleeding, pain, headaches, blurred vision.
When Melissa, eight months pregnant with her first baby, called to report that she hadn’t felt any movement in two days, my heart dropped. I tell everyone who is past twenty-eight weeks to call me after twelve hours of no fetal movement. Two days is a bad sign. But, in a reassuring voice, I listed all the benign reasons for the baby not to move, and I told her I’d meet her at the hospital to listen to the heartbeat.
Melissa arrived before I did. The moment I walked in, the nurses’ faces told me that there was no heartbeat to hear. I felt an unexpected fury toward Melissa. If she had just called after twelve hours of no movement, as I’d instructed, we probably could have done something. Did she think that I talked merely to fill the time at prenatal visits? Why had she even bothered to come to them if she wasn’t going to listen to my instructions? Because of her irresponsible choice, I was now going to sit at her bedside in a silent room, press the ultrasound probe against her motionless belly, and peer at a still heart. “Two days,” I said to the nurses. “Two days, and she didn’t call me. What was she thinking?”
I sat at the nurse’s station, letting Melissa and her husband cling to their hopes for a few minutes more. As I calmed down, I began to feel ashamed of my anger. Many women who came to me for prenatal care chose to ignore what I told them and took control over their bodies, their pregnancies, their lives. I gave them as much information as I had, but ultimately the choice was theirs.
The real cause of my anger was my feelings of failure and loss. I’d failed to keep this baby alive; I’d lost control over the process; and now I could not protect Melissa from the devastating grief she would endure. And I’d experienced a loss of compassion as well. Over the years my heart had hardened to the point where anger and blame had replaced my willingness to share in the greatest anguish that a human being can feel — that of losing a child.
When I did place the ultrasound probe on Melissa’s belly and confirm the fetus had died, the room was not silent. It was filled with the sound of all of us crying together.
The summer I was nineteen I decided to use my two-week vacation to visit my grandparents and learn from them the old ways of doing things. I had seen Grandpa make dandelion wine, sauerkraut, and wooden birds whose wings were carved out of one piece of wood. My grandmother painted prizewinning watercolors, made mouthwatering baked goods, and knitted beautiful sweaters and mittens. I wanted to know all their secrets, starting in the kitchen.
“Grandma,” I asked, “how do you make jam?”
“First go out and pick the berries. You’ll need about two quarts.”
Off I went into the long grass with my bucket, swatting mosquitoes and searching for pea-size wild strawberries. Hundreds of berries later, I proudly presented them to Grandma, who told me the next step was to wash and mash the berries.
Soon the bowl was a seedy, runny, bright red mess that smelled of summer.
“What’s next?” I asked, ready to receive the recipe that had been passed down for generations.
“See that box of pectin?” Grandma said.
“You open the box and read the instructions.”
When I taught high-school English, I strove to develop clear, detailed instructions for every paper or project I assigned, so my students would know that my grading was objective and I did not play favorites. It helped me too, because the clearer my instructions, the easier it was to grade papers.
It wasn’t always simple to come up with instructions, though. At first I struggled to break the mysterious art of poetry writing into measurable units for evaluation. When I asked students to write, say, a free-verse poem on a childhood memory, I’d hear: “How many lines should it be?” “How many words in each line?” “Does it have to have a title?” “How many points is it worth?” “Can I write about something else?” I wanted to tell them, “Just forget about the grade and write something that’s true,” but I couldn’t do that. I had to grade each poem, and I had to be fair about it. The kids deserved that much.
So I carefully composed instructions that anticipated all their concerns. I got pretty good at it, so good that there was no room for misunderstanding — or for veering off the instructions and still getting a high grade.
Over the years my poetry-writing instructions helped many kids who didn’t otherwise know how to write a poem, but many more students likely hid what was in their hearts and kept their creativity in check because it didn’t fit the instructions. How much was I helping them? When I realized this, I knew it was time to leave teaching.
As a boy I worshiped the Purple People Eaters: Alan Page and Carl Eller, the nasty defensive linemen for the Minnesota Vikings. One wall of my bedroom was covered in pictures of them. When I was eight, all I wanted for Christmas was NFL gear. My Quaker pacifist parents indulged me, and Santa brought full pads and a real football. Grandpa took me to the playing fields across the street and threw me a bomb. The ball knocked the wind out of me, but I held on.
On Sunday I’d watch NFL football and then go into the backyard to reenact critical plays, slow-motion music filling my head. I yearned to play in a league, but in our town leagues started at age eleven. I counted down the days until I was eligible.
A few months before I was assigned to a team, I learned that the league had a maximum weight limit of 145 pounds. I was approaching six feet and already well over 160. So all summer I had to trim down like an Olympic wrestler. My mom thought I was crazy, but her parenting philosophy didn’t allow her to say no to anything, even football.
My first day of practice was a rude awakening. After the quarterback fumbled the snap, our coach screamed at him, “You can touch the center’s family jewels; just don’t caress them like a fucking girl!” I was playing defensive end, like my idol Alan Page, but I soon realized I had no idea how to contain the offense on a sweep to the outside. That day the coach slapped me on the helmet so many times he got fed up and made me run laps.
Our first game was even worse. I was the largest kid on the field, but the opposing coach sensed my weakness, and they ran sweep after sweep at me. Each time, the running back cut behind me for a long gain. Coach pulled me out of the game, grabbed my face mask, and told me, “Your only job is to contain the run and keep the ball inside, and you can’t fucking do it!”
I sat on the bench and thought about the Purple People Eaters. There never was a second game for me.
“Here are the rules,” I write: “One hour only, not much kissing, no cuddling afterward.”
“I’m good with that,” my friend texts back. “See you at nine sharp.”
I know he will step through the door right on time with expensive whiskey in his bag, and I will call my husband precisely at ten to tell him we are done. This friend and I have had sex before, but only with my husband there. This is our first time without him. Though my husband was anxious earlier, he has since texted our friend, “Have a great time!”
The candles are flickering, the red blanket is thrown over the futon on the floor, and the mood-music CD is on shuffle. Two empty glasses sit on the mantel. Per my friend’s instructions, I have left the door unlocked and am wearing a tank top and tiny black panties.
At ten, when we’re done, my friend and I each down a shot of whiskey, he puts on his clothes, and we hug goodbye. This no-strings-attached sex works for him. He owes me nothing.
After he’s gone, I call my husband. “Tell me everything,” he says. He has not only overcome his anxiety but discovered that this is a rush for him. He has always been a fantasizer, and I give him every detail.
Most of our friends think we’re crazy, but we know this is far more common than any of them realize — some of their other friends are secret swingers. Besides, it works for my husband and me. It spices up our sex life and allows us to sleep with other people without leaving each other. All we have to do is follow the rules, and no one gets hurt.
Rule number one: Don’t get attached.
I was fifteen, and he was four years older: shy, soft-spoken, funny, handsome. Within a month of the day we met, we were confessing our love for each other. Our physical relationship had been innocent thus far: making out in the back of his car or at his house while his parents were out. One day he casually asked, “Have you ever had sex with anyone?”
“No,” I answered. “Have you?”
I think I caught him off guard. He answered with a cautious yes.
“Who?” I asked.
He said Linda, a friend of his older sister. I was glad it was her, because I liked her. And she was too tall for him.
A few weeks later I found myself lying with the boy on his bed in the glow of a black light, Styx playing softly in the background. “Do you want to?” he asked gently, and I nodded, scared and happy at the same time. He reached into the drawer of his bedside table and took out a box of condoms. Then he brought the box close to his face and peered at it for several minutes. I realized that he was reading the instructions.
Afterward, as we lay in each other’s arms, he said, “I didn’t really have sex with Linda.”
I smiled into the darkness and said, “I know.”
Crawford Bay, British Columbia
I’ve been arrested sixty-three times in my adult life. The procedure at the jail never changes:
Take off all your clothes and place them on the table. Run your fingers through your hair. Lift up your breasts. Run your fingers over your gums. Swab your navel. Wiggle your toes. Now grab the edge of the table, squat down, and cough. Come back up and down again. One more time. Bend over at the waist, spread your cheeks, and cough.
There are two possible responses to this traumatizing treatment: recognize their authority, show humility, and get out; or act erratic and get thrown into the “safety cell,” which comes with its own set of instructions.
Get down on your knees. . . . Now! Interlock your fingers in back of your head. Place one leg over the other. Face the wall and shut up!
You’re stripped of all your clothing and placed in a rubber room, where you’re fed through a door; given a germ-infested, ruglike dress to put on; and have to squat over a hole in the floor to defecate. You stay there until a psychologist is available to assess you. If you seem stable enough, you get put in a dorm with forty-seven others, where you eat in public, sleep in public, snore in public, go to the bathroom in public, do your hair in public, wash your body in public, and must follow instructions twenty-four hours a day.
Tameika Renee Smith
San Francisco, California
When I took driver’s ed, I discovered I had spent less time behind the wheel than anyone else in the class, because I’d been afraid to ask my father to take me driving. Finally, in desperation, I asked him.
My dad and I had never gotten along, and from the time we got into the car, he yelled at me: I was stupid, ugly, had no brains, and couldn’t do anything right. He yelled until I couldn’t see straight, yelled until I could no longer hear his words. After we’d circled two-thirds of the block, I gave up and pulled over to the curb. Still my father kept screaming at me.
Suddenly he stopped. When I looked over, another man had gripped my father’s arm through the window. “Buddy,” the man said, “you don’t talk to anyone the way you are talking to that kid. You should be ashamed of yourself. What’s wrong with you? It’s easy to bully a kid. Does that make you feel like a big man?”
My father mumbled some excuse and motioned for me to put the car in drive. The rest of the way around the block, he didn’t say a word. After I’d parked in our driveway, he got out and walked silently back into the house.
“Leave your front door unlocked and be waiting in your bed,” instructed the ad in the “Casual Encounters” section of Craigslist. It further directed the reader to lie on her stomach naked with her feet peeking out from under the sheets and to pretend to be napping when the man who’d placed the ad arrived. It detailed how he would ravish her body, beginning, of course, with her feet.
At midnight I replied to the ad. I had never done anything like this before: allowing a stranger to enter my home, and my body. An hour later, after e-mailing back and forth with the man who’d placed the ad, I gave him my street address. Signing off, I wrote, “Bring condoms.”
Exhilarated and antsy, I slipped downstairs to unlock the gate to my apartment building. Back upstairs in bed, I began to fret. Was it too late to call it off? I fidgeted, striving for just the right pose. How much of my feet should stick out from under the covers? How closely must I adhere to the letter of the ad? Then I heard heavy footsteps ascending the stairs. Oh, my, I thought. He’s going to be a big man.
My front door creaked open, and there was an interminable pause before it shut. I heard him take off his pants and drop them to the floor. The bottom corner of my mattress dipped under his weight. His fingers caressed my feet and ankles, then drifted up to my calves. I felt the covers being folded back and his lips kissing the backs of my knees. I exhaled. Yes. I could do this, and I was going to like it.
Then his voice interrupted: “Uh, I have to tell you something.”
“I left the condoms in my car,” he said. “I realized it when I opened your door, but I wasn’t sure whether I should go back to get them. I was afraid you would think I’m an ass if I just walked out. Look, I’ll be right back.”
The fantasy ruined, I turned over and faced him, pulling the covers to my chin.
“Hey, you’re much prettier than your picture,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t go through with this now.”
Not knowing what else to say to this naked stranger in my bed, I made polite conversation. It turned out he had been posting that same ad for years without a serious response — until mine.
We never met again. “Casual encounters” are not for me, I’ve decided. If another woman ever does respond to his ad, and she tells him to bring condoms, I feel sure he will follow her instructions to the letter.
San Francisco, California
On a warm day in August 1981, my grandmother sat on my father’s childhood bed. His room was the same as he had left it more than twenty years earlier. She sat there smiling sadly beneath a painting of a sailboat in a storm. Our skin was still salty from the beach. She had on her tennis shoes and socks with blue pompoms at the back, and she wore a towel over her bathing suit.
I twirled about the room. I was six years old and had golden hair and already knew my eyes were extraordinarily green. “Show me a plié,” she said, and I complied. I made up ballet positions. I sang. I curtsied. I’d recently seen Gone with the Wind, and I kissed the wood-paneled walls, whispering, “Oh, Rhett Butler.” My grandmother laughed loudly, a hand over her mouth.
“It’s time to get out of these suits,” she said. Downstairs there were live lobsters in the refrigerator. Tomatoes would soon be plucked and eaten with mayonnaise and salt. From the window I could see the top of my brother’s head as he ran by and made machine-gun sounds with his mouth.
“Do you mind if I watch you change?” my grandmother asked.
“Out of your suit.”
“No,” I said, peeling the red-and-blue Wonder Woman tank top from my sunburned shoulders. I slowly rolled the suit down to my feet and danced out of it. We stared at the shiny material on the floor. Then my grandmother looked at my tiny body and held out her hand to pull me closer. All long limbs and big belly, I stood between her knees while she caressed my shoulder. I pretended I was Marilyn Monroe and put my hands in my hair and tilted my hips. My grandmother let out a giggle, and then her head dropped. When she spoke, her voice sounded different.
“My dear, dear Stephanie,” she said, “whatever you do, don’t ever, ever get old.”
Stephanie Jean Baker
New York, New York
The doctor was matter-of-fact with my grandmother: “Mrs. Ortega, your kidneys are failing, and dialysis is no longer a viable option. There is little we can do for you at this point; I suggest you tidy up your affairs and make final arrangements. Is there a Mr. Ortega?”
Grandma Della laughed. “There hasn’t been a mister for quite some time, but there have been several SOB’s since he left.”
My half-Apache, half-Gypsy grandmother was not someone to mess with. She continued to dye her hair orange-red to hide the gray until she died, and she often told me, “Go out dressed to the nines and with your boots on, baby girl.” I wasn’t exactly a baby at twenty-five, but I was the first in the family to graduate from college, and my grandmother worried that I was too bookish. So she schooled me in subjects not found in books.
After we’d left the doctor’s office, we went to a local bar and had cold-cut sandwiches with ice-cold Budweiser. Then I called Della’s eight kids — my mom and her siblings — to tell them the news. In a matter of days they had all arrived and were underfoot in Della’s one-bedroom, government-subsidized apartment.
Though she was dying, Della forged ahead with managing her affairs and, where necessary, her children’s lives. Each of them had sent money to Della over the years, and she had saved a small fortune, all of it crammed into jam jars or rolled into socks and stuffed under her mattress. She had no will and said nothing about who was to get the money after she was gone, but she did say everything else — the plastic-covered sofa and matching chairs, the hutch and dining table, the china and silverware — was to be given to “the black lady next door.”
“Now get out of here, all of you!” Della yelled. It had been a long day, she said, and she wanted to be alone for a while.
We began to file out one by one, shoulders hunched. Uncle Teddy, a Vietnam vet with two Purple Hearts, was sobbing inconsolably. A shoe crashed to the floor: Della’s way of saying, Stop it, or else. Teddy straightened up.
“Brenda, stay here,” Della said to me.
I crawled into her bed, and she pulled me in tight. Her Estée Lauder perfume wasn’t strong enough to mask the scent of impending death. We lay intertwined for a long while. Then she perked up and proceeded to instruct me on the fine art of making green-chili stew. She listed the ingredients one by one: “Pork shoulder, chopped tomatoes, fresh roasted green chilies . . .” She told me how to brown the pork and add flour to the drippings and brown that too. She was quite specific about everything — except the measurements. “Remember, hijita,” she said, “life is not something you can measure in cups and teaspoons.”
Walnut Creek, California