In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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In my sophomore year at college my roommates and I decide to take part in little-sister rush. (A “little sister” is an honorary female member of an otherwise all-male fraternity.) Around 10 P.M. we walk to the fraternity house, which is in a converted apartment building. The welcoming committee hands us each a red plastic cup filled to the top with beer. Almost immediately I lose my roommates in the crowd.
As the night goes on, I keep drinking, but my cup never gets more than half empty before a fraternity brother refills it. I’m having trouble keeping track of how much I’ve had, but there’s a brown-eyed boy who’s giving me a lot of attention, and I want to make a good impression. I ask Brown Eyes where the bathroom is, and he tells me I can use the one in his apartment. I have the fleeting thought that it might not be so smart to go into the apartment of a guy I just met, but I’m drunk and have to pee, so I follow him.
The bathroom is off the bedroom. When I come out a few minutes later, the room, which was empty when I entered, has six guys in it. One of them is snorting lines of cocaine off the desk. My head still feels foggy from the beer, but now there’s a sharp edge of fear. I try to smile as I head toward the door, which is closed. (I’m sure it was open when I went into the bathroom.) The guy who’s snorting coke reaches behind me to hold the door shut. He leans close to me and says something I can’t make out, but the sound of his voice sends a chill down my spine. The other guys get up and look at each other, then at me.
Suddenly clearheaded, I mumble an excuse, reach behind my back, and open the door. Then I run out of the apartment, out of the building, and all the way back to my dorm. My roommates are there. They looked for me, they say, but they figured I’d left, so they came home. I tell no one what happened.
Years later I get my master’s degree in counseling. It’s not long before I encounter a client who is a rape survivor. Her story sounds a lot like mine, except she stayed in the room two seconds longer.
Half Moon Bay, California
Karen’s mom, Jan, startled us from sleep: “Wake up, girls! We have to hide!” We shielded our eyes from the overhead light as Jan explained that we needed to go down to the basement: her boyfriend, Rick, was drunk and thought she’d cheated on him, and he was on his way over.
Clothed only in T-shirts and panties, Karen, Jan, and I hurried down the rickety stairs and stood barefoot on the cold concrete. In spite of my fear I couldn’t help but feel a little excited. I was thirteen, and Jan was the coolest of all my friends’ moms. She smoked pot, went to rock concerts, and wore miniskirts and short-shorts. This was as close as I had ever come to being in a movie of the week.
We all jumped when Rick began beating violently on the back door and shouting, “Jan, open the door, God damn it!” Afraid he would break in, we decided to run up the stairs, out the front, and down the street to my house, where my mother was likely fast asleep. Just as Jan reached the top of the stairs, Rick’s fist burst through the back-door window. We stepped over the broken glass and dashed out of the house, looking over our shoulders to see if Rick was following.
In a matter of seconds we were on my porch, banging and yelling for my mom to let us in. It is not often that a thirteen-year-old girl is grateful to see her mother, but when mine appeared wearing a tattered old nightgown, I wanted to kiss her. Just then Rick’s car pulled up to the curb in front of my house. My mom ushered us in, and Jan breathlessly explained.
Rick knocked at the door, quietly this time, and my mom answered while Jan, Karen, and I huddled on the couch. Rick was calm but obviously drunk. “I just want to talk to Jan,” he said. My mom stepped aside and let him in. To this day I’m not sure why she did. I suspect it was her propensity to be polite.
Seeing Jan reignited Rick’s rage. This big, bearded bear of a man traversed the width of the living room in a few steps, grabbed Jan by the legs, and dragged her off the sofa and onto the floor. When my mom began to dial 911, Rick dropped Jan with a thud and put his finger on the button to disconnect the call.
Rick and my mom stood there staring at one another. My mother was a full foot shorter and less than half his weight, but she seemed to grow taller and said, “Get your goddamn hands off my phone, right now!”
Rick looked at my mother, expressionless. Then tears welled up in his eyes.
The police arrived at that moment, sirens blaring. It seemed that Rick had hit a few parked cars as he’d made his way down the street, and someone else had called 911. He walked out and sat down on the top porch step to await his fate.
As I drifted off to sleep that night in my own bed, I dreamed I was a warrior princess, heir to the throne of the warrior queen.
I met Shwe in a noodle shop in central Burma. I was a would-be freelance journalist posing as a tourist. He was a jolly, multilingual hiking guide who had many friends. I had just finished college and was there to write about the struggles of living under a military government — a story I hoped would launch my journalism career. I never told Shwe that I was a reporter, but I think he understood.
After I finished my noodles, I asked Shwe about a rumor I’d heard that the Burmese military was building a small nuclear reactor in the mountains with Russian help. He nodded and said a friend had told him about a secret construction project near his village. Shwe offered to take me there.
We left town the next morning and walked most of the day under the hot sun. Whenever we met someone on the dusty path, Shwe would theatrically explain my presence: “This is a great American traveler come to visit the distant banks of the Dotawaddy River.” Then he’d shake his head and say, “Americans: first to the moon, and now first to your village.”
At dusk we reached the village and stopped at the tea shop. The customers looked nervous to see a foreigner, and when Shwe asked if something was being built on the other side of the mountain, the room grew tense. All Shwe could pry out of the men was that a Burmese general had visited several months earlier and declared that no one was to go to the other side of the mountain or ask any questions. A cordon of soldiers blocked the mountain road, and helicopters landed behind the ridge. One morning the villagers had awakened to a huge explosion that was never explained. The men said no more, except to add that they now had to walk very far for firewood.
When Shwe and I returned to town the next day, two plainclothes policemen were waiting for us. They put us on the backs of their motorbikes and rode us to a police station, where we were interrogated for several hours. Then they took us to a computer shop to download the photos from my digital camera. My mouth went dry: my camera had pictures of people I had interviewed, and talking to a journalist could earn you seven years in jail in Burma.
When I had a moment alone with Shwe, I whispered that I needed some of those pictures to disappear. While the police were waiting, he exchanged a few quick words with the computer-shop owner. Minutes later the shop owner handed the police a CD.
The police put me in a pickup bound for the city of Mandalay. I would leave the country a week later. The last I saw of Shwe was in the rearview mirror: one of the policemen had him by the elbow and was leading him into the darkness.
Wheat Ridge, Colorado
On a warm summer night I had put my baby daughter to sleep in the bedroom upstairs when a muffled sound like firecrackers led me to look out the window, and I saw tracer bullets crisscrossing the night sky. A civil war had just begun.
It was August 1987, and some military officers were staging a coup d’état in the Philippines to topple the new government of President Corazon Aquino, who had deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The dissident officers’ strategy was to attack downtown Manila, the capital, and cripple the financial district. American expatriates like me were particularly vulnerable, for the U.S. was seen to be behind Aquino’s rise to power.
Our walkie-talkie crackled with news of violence and advice to stay indoors. Several civilians had died in the initial firefight, and nobody expected the inexperienced new government to be able to end the insurgency anytime soon. We could not get television news; the station was reportedly under siege. There was no use calling the U.S. embassy, which had already announced that it could do little to assist anyone till morning. I phoned neighbors, who said that insurgents had commandeered some people’s homes to better target key street corners. It was hazardous to stay put, but with the sound of gunfire from three sides, it was just as hazardous to leave.
My wife and I moved the baby to a central room and shuttered all the windows. We also packed two suitcases with essentials, in case there was an opportunity to get out. Then we did the most difficult thing of all: we waited.
Three hours later, as the guns rattled, the official word came that at dawn U.S. civilians were to form a convoy of cars near the school and drive to a hotel in a safe area near the port. If the situation turned worse, we would be evacuated to a U.S. Navy vessel.
As the sun rose, we rushed to our car with our suitcases and drove to the hotel. We lived there for nearly a week before the insurgency collapsed.
When we returned to our home, it was the same as we had left it, with one exception: a bullet had penetrated a window on the first floor, traversed the length of the living room, and lodged itself neatly in a desk, on which stood a framed photograph of our smiling baby.
I was in Maryland, but I’d lived in California for years, so when my bed started shaking at 2 A.M., my first thought was Earthquake. I bolted upright and saw the silhouette of a man, his arms stretched across the foot of my twin bed. In the twilight between dreams and wakefulness I may have smiled.
Then he pounced. I smelled his sweat and felt the weight of his body pressing down on my bare skin. (I was sleeping naked because of a Baltimore heat wave.) He quickly bound my head and mouth with the bedsheet. I struggled against his efforts to pin me on my back, rolling first to one side, then the other. Muscle memory from years of tae kwon do guided my legs to kick out again and again. He may have been surprised at the fight this ninety-eight-pound woman put up, but nothing I did seemed to rattle him.
Through the sheet over my face I told him, “We could do this differently,” and, “I haven’t had sex in a long time.” I asked if he had sisters. I told him I was someone’s sister, someone’s daughter. I confided that I was ill. “If you don’t let up,” I whispered, “you could hurt me.” I said I knew he didn’t really want to hurt me. He said nothing.
My optimism waned. I was still thrashing but realized that I would inevitably get tired and stop. And he could wait. I thought of my parents, my boyfriend. I thought that this might be how I’d die. “Please, please, please, please,” I begged, my voice like the bleating of a sheep. He covered my mouth with a pillow. I continued to kick until my air had almost run out. Then I hit the floor hard on my stomach and went still.
He let go of my limp body to unzip his pants. With my hands suddenly free, I unwrapped my face and shouted for my neighbors to call 911, that I was being raped. My attacker panicked and fled.
I later found out that my neighbors hadn’t been able to hear me over the hum of their air conditioner.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
When I was sixteen, I arranged for my new best friend, Diane, to spend the night at my house. Our parents objected: my mother thought Diane was a bad influence, and Diane’s mother didn’t like “damn Yankees” like me. But we were persistent, and our parents relented.
Diane and I planned to get some marijuana from a friend and sneak out to the local golf course to smoke it while everyone was asleep. We phoned our friend Sam, son of a Southern Baptist minister, and invited him to join us. He declined but told us to knock on his bedroom window afterward, and he’d come out.
That night, still giggling from the pot, we knocked on Sam’s window and sat down on the front porch to wait. We were greeted not by Sam but by his furious parents, who had eavesdropped on our earlier phone conversation. Screaming obscenities, his mother pulled us into the house by our hair and hit us with a phone book when we tried to escape.
Once everyone had calmed down, Sam’s parents said they’d be calling our parents and then the police. Sobbing, Diane begged them not to call her dad, because of what he would do to her. I was stunned. The police were a worse prospect to me. But before I could speak, the minister and his wife became mysteriously cordial in response to Diane’s pleas.
The minister took each of us separately into his office, where he attempted to save our souls. Somehow I just couldn’t accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior under pressure in the middle of the night, but Diane got down on her knees and loudly begged Christ to have mercy on her. (She later claimed it had all been an act, but I suspected otherwise. We’d both been truly scared.)
Then came the oddest turn of all. The minister’s wife announced that because it was after midnight, it was now her birthday, and she’d already gotten the best present she could have: helping a soul return to Jesus. They insisted we stay to eat cake with them, and we did, making polite small talk despite our red faces and swollen eyes. They assured us they would keep the evening just between us and the Lord; no one else needed to know. They let us go before dawn, and we walked the few blocks home.
Diane and I rolled in my yard in hysterics before sneaking back inside to bed. We passed my father on the stairs, but he must have thought we’d just been to the kitchen, because he never said anything.
The minister and his wife kept their word and told no one. I later found out the “marijuana” had actually been dried parsley.
My seven-year-old grandson, Porter, spends every weekend with me. Though I sometimes find it exhausting helping him with homework, playing with him at the park, and picking up after him, I never tire of reading him bedtime stories. One night we read a tale about two curious children who narrowly escaped being kidnapped by pirates. As the story ended, Porter yawned and asked, “What’s the scariest thing you ever did, Grandma?”
I immediately thought of the time I was hitchhiking alone at night and had to jump out of a moving car on an expressway to escape the groping hands of a male driver. Then I remembered how I’d once eluded drug agents at the San Francisco airport and boldly boarded a plane carrying a silver briefcase full of neatly bundled cash.
Attempting to find a more PG-rated memory, I recalled pulling myself up on a rope through a small hole at the top of Joseph’s Cave in Negril, Jamaica. I could still envision the breathtaking Caribbean view from the top — before my male companions and I made the thirty-five-foot jump to the blue ocean below. Next my mind flashed to riding in a taxicab after curfew with two friends in Colombia and being stopped at a military checkpoint by men wearing bandoliers across their chests. They searched both the taxi and us looking for contraband, all the while waving machine guns in the air to terrorize these three Americanos.
Finally I settled on the time I’d gone scuba diving in a shipwreck off the coast of Florida. I told Porter how, as I’d swum through a narrow, dark passageway, an enormous lime green moray eel had stuck his head out, as if to take a bite of me. With my hand I imitated the giant eel’s jaw opening and closing.
“That’s a really scary story, Grandma,” Porter said. Then he closed his eyes, and I gazed at his innocent face, wondering what adventures my grandson would have in his lifetime.
My husband of twenty-seven years not only didn’t object to my plan to contact an old flame; he encouraged it. He’d recently reconnected with a high-school crush of his own and assured me it had been completely innocent.
Unfortunately my experience was not so innocent. It was easy to get started: a simple Google search, and there he was, my long-lost love, now found. I sent him a handwritten letter, and he replied immediately by e-mail. We agreed to meet.
I chose my dress carefully. We rendezvoused in a train station, where I searched for his sweet, familiar face. Then I was in his arms. We walked to the restaurant holding hands. Neither of us could eat. I forgot my dear husband and my grown children. I was a girl again in a middle-aged body. Looking into his face, I thought, What if? and, Is it too late?
He told me that he had never stopped loving me, and all his relationships had failed because of this. I was both flattered and frightened. We agreed to meet once more.
I reminded myself I was happily married and carried pictures of my ideal life in my purse as evidence. But as soon as I saw my old flame again, I was transported.
We corresponded for months. I chastised myself as I sat before the computer and read his forbidden words — words that lifted me from my ordinary life into a more passionate existence; words I had longed for without knowing it.
Then I told my husband — at least, I told him as much as I felt he needed to know to begin to repair our marriage. He listened. He heard me. I stopped writing my lost love. I still wonder, What if? but less and less now.
Santa Barbara, California
I was a struggling model living in New York City when I answered a want ad for a photographer’s assistant. I met the photographer at his apartment, and he introduced himself as Joel Schoenfeld. We sat on a twin bed, which I thought was odd, while he looked at my modeling portfolio. At one point he put his arm around my shoulder and gave me a hug. He told me the assistant’s position was already taken, but I should give him a call later about a modeling job.
When I phoned a few days later, he asked me to stop by that evening to discuss a catalog shoot. I was leery about Joel, but I needed the money, so I jumped on the subway and headed for his apartment. At a stop on my way there, my roommate boarded my train car. Feeling apprehensive about my visit, I asked her to come with me, and she agreed.
When Joel opened the apartment door and saw my roommate, his face went from a grin to a frown. He said she would have to leave if I wanted to talk about the modeling job. I told him she was staying, and he slammed the door in our faces. Though I didn’t entirely understand what had just happened, I knew I had made the right decision.
Five years later I turned on The Phil Donahue Show, and the host was talking about a man who’d allegedly raped a model and had later been shot and killed by the model’s boyfriend. The man’s name was Joel Schoenfeld. Donahue explained that Schoenfeld had lured models to his apartment by placing ads for assistants. He’d been on parole for rape and sexual assault when he was shot. I think I stopped breathing.
It took me a while to comprehend how blessed I’d been that night when, out of all the subway cars in New York, my roommate had boarded the same one as me.
That Sunday morning I strolled about the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, sketching plants and flowers with intriguing names like “weeping hemlock” and “Syringa vulgaris” and thinking, See, I can have a nice, normal day without getting high. By noon I felt so “normal” I decided to have a beer to celebrate. (My wisdom about addiction at age twenty would not have filled a shot glass.) I found a deli, bought a beer, and headed back to the subway station, open can in one hand, cigarette in the other.
“Hey, baby, you got a cigarette for me?” one of four young men hanging out on a corner asked.
“You can have one of these,” I said, indicating my cigarette, “if I can have some of that.” I pointed to his bottle of vodka.
We passed the bottle around for a while, and then I asked, “You guys know where I can find some barbs, or maybe a few benzos?”
My new friends and I piled into a car to go in search of drugs. Passing several boarded-up storefronts, we arrived at an apartment building and walked up several flights. I was introduced to a man named Pete, and then I drank so much that I blacked out for a while. The next thing I knew it was dark outside, a joint was being passed around, and a stereo was playing Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. What was going on, indeed?
Again I mentioned my interest in pills, and my friend from the street corner led me to a room at the end of a hallway, where I saw a bare mattress on the floor. The other three men came in and closed the door. One of them pushed me down on the mattress, another covered my mouth with his hands, and the remaining two began removing my clothing. Instantly sober, I banged the heel of my shoe on the wooden floor to make some noise.
“Yo, get off her now! You know I’m not about this.” It was Pete. There was a heated discussion, and to my amazement the four would-be rapists left.
Pete was cute, in a lost-soul kind of way, which might explain why I found myself in bed with him a little later. Or maybe it was the alcohol and pot, or I just felt I owed him one.
Around 3 A.M. Pete began to open up to me. Every night, he said, the radio on the dresser just came on by itself, and the voices on it told him to do things. Bad things. He tried not to listen, but sometimes he did what they said.
I leaped from the bed and got dressed, mumbling something about an appointment in the morning. Pete was not pleased, and I ran down the stairs with dishes flying past my head, not stopping until I’d reached a subway station.
Though my first twelve-step meeting was still several months away, I believe that night was the beginning of my recovery.
When M. and I met, I was drawn to him immediately. I was a divorced single mother, and though at first he said he was single, the truth gradually emerged: he was married with three children. But he portrayed himself as misunderstood by his wife and kids, and I bought it.
Three months after we’d met, M. left his wife and moved in with me. Soon after that his moods began to fluctuate. He’d go from sulking to angry outbursts about my friends, my co-workers, and my family. Thinking it would help him feel more comfortable in the relationship, I suggested we sell my house and get one that would be ours. The one we chose was on a mountainside and approachable only by a mile-long driveway. We purchased it on my good credit, because M. was paying child support. M. displayed his gun collection — twenty-two rifles and four handguns — in our bedroom.
Our social life evaporated as M. became more and more suspicious anytime I was out of his sight. He would drop me off and pick me up at work, becoming irate when I wasn’t exactly on time. The rare occasions when we got along always ended with his misconstruing my words. If I managed to get to sleep before him, he would poke me in the ribs, shine a flashlight in my face, and pull off the covers. I overlooked all of this in order to keep the peace and avoid unpleasantness.
Multiple attempts at counseling — both couples and individual — brought no improvement. I made calls to the police and my lawyer. A psychiatrist friend helped me finally acknowledge M.’s mental illness, and I moved out for a month, but I came back when M. agreed to try yet another therapist. He had no better results than the previous times. I grew accustomed to his pointing guns at me as he ranted about various injustices. Sometimes his anger turned inward, and he’d place the barrel of a rifle in his mouth and threaten to kill himself. Finally he agreed to call the local crisis clinic and speak with a therapist. While the call was in progress, the clinic sent the police to our home. They removed M. to an acute-care setting, where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
After four weeks as an inpatient — during which he consistently refused medications — M. was released on condition that he get rid of his gun collection. It stayed gone for only a month. His depression and abusive behavior escalated until one night he kicked me down the stairs and tried to choke me. I went limp, and M. backed off, allowing me to retreat to my daughter’s bedroom. The next morning his psychiatrist helped negotiate my departure.
I remained away for ten days. On the morning of M.’s suicide, I found his body. I first called the police and then my psychiatrist friend, who said, “He gave you a gift. Now you’re free.”
During the Vietnam War I was working for a nongovernmental peace organization in Hoi An, Vietnam. On January 30, 1968, my friend and co-worker Barb came north from Saigon to celebrate the Tet holiday with me, and we spent the evening with Vietnamese friends, who shepherded us to festivities around town. I watched young soldiers fire their rifles straight up into the air and wondered why no one worried about the bullets raining back down. About 1 A.M. a commotion erupted in the street. The police threw tear gas, dispersing the crowds and sending us home to bed. Throughout the night we heard shooting and, at one point, loud shouting and banging on my front door, which subsided only when my Vietnamese neighbors yelled at the uninvited guests. We assumed it was all part of the Tet revelry.
The next morning Barb slept in while I arose early to scrounge up some breakfast. Since the local cafe would not be open during Tet, I walked down the street to the U.S. military compound. An eerie quiet reigned, and the guards hustled me inside, where I saw soldiers rushing around. A lieutenant spotted me and said, “Jesus Christ, that’s all we need: a woman on our hands.”
Barb and I had innocently slept through the infamous Tet Offensive, a countrywide coordinated attack by the North Vietnamese Army and the South Vietnamese Viet Cong rebels, or VC. The Hoi An government offices had been overrun. The VC occupied the hospital, and no one knew the fate of the German doctors who worked there. Released prisoners roamed the streets freely, looting and otherwise collaborating with the VC.
I wanted to go back to my house to rescue Barb, but the officers refused to let me leave the compound. I sat stewing in the mess hall for six hours. Eventually an armored personnel carrier rumbled through the streets, gathering international civilians, including the Germans, Barb, and me. Then it lumbered to the airport, where a helicopter from Da Nang was just touching down. The soldiers lined up on both sides to protect us as we ran crouching to the chopper. The instant the last person tumbled in, the helicopter rose amid a hail of gunfire and took off for the relative safety of Da Nang.
Though I’d never felt in much danger, I later found out that my neighbors, at great risk to themselves, had kept Barb and me from harm during the night. Three of our co-workers had been captured elsewhere and were released only after several months of living as prisoners of the VC.
It was an ordinary evening in my senior year of high school. At ten I got off work at the shoe store in the mall, and my boyfriend, Steve, picked me up to get ice cream and drive to a scenic overlook. I had to be home by 10:30, and in my Sicilian family, we always made curfew.
As Steve and I were eating our ice cream, we heard a knock on the car windows and looked out to see two people in ski masks holding double-barreled shotguns. At first I thought it was a joke, our friends fooling around. There was no other logical explanation why this would happen in my safe, quiet hometown.
The men asked for all our money, which amounted to only thirteen dollars. Then they demanded the opal necklace I had on, which my mom had given me. I reluctantly handed it over. The robbers made me get into the back seat, and one of them climbed in beside me while the other got in front with Steve. We were going for a ride, they said. It hit me then that this was no joke. Would my life end like this at seventeen?
As we drove around town, the kidnappers had to remove their masks in order to avoid suspicion. I was surprised to see how young the one in back with me was — not much older than Steve and I. There was confusion in his eyes and maybe a little fear. They wanted some pot, although they appeared already to be high on something. We drove to a shady part of town, and one stayed in the car and held a gun on us while the other went inside several apartments.
After a couple of hours my natural tendency to talk returned. (You cannot keep a Sicilian quiet for long.) I asked the younger kidnapper what had led him to this life. I learned that he had dropped out of school and lived with his alcoholic single father. Innocent that I was, I asked why he didn’t just get a job at the mall. I explained the process of applying and interviewing, and also getting a GED. For a moment we were just two teenagers talking about life. Then the older man returned and told us to shut up.
Around 2 A.M. the kidnappers decided to stop at Dunkin’ Donuts for food and cigarettes. They sent me in with the money, warning me that if I told someone or didn’t come back, they would shoot Steve. The doughnut shop was crowded, and I waited a long time in line. Then, in my panic, I couldn’t work the cigarette machine. The younger kidnapper came in, took the money, and calmly bought the cigarettes. I returned with him to the car, and we all sat and ate doughnuts, none of us saying a word.
Finally the kidnappers told us to drop them off in an isolated spot. This was the scariest moment of the night; I wasn’t sure whether they would let us go alive. They demanded our licenses and informed us that, if we told, they would find us and kill us. As they were leaving, the younger one handed me back the necklace.
At forty-four I am now a guidance counselor, a career that I think started that night, when I tried to help a troubled kid find the right path.
At age two I couldn’t be trusted to stay out of the street. While my mother did chores, she tied me to the barn by a clothesline around my waist. I would dig in the soft dirt or rake the dry grass while our old dog, Bum, kept me company.
My older sister and her friends would gather beyond the reach of the rope and tease me, yelling, “Puh-puh-puh-Porky,” a reference to Porky Pig — I had a round face and chubby arms as a little girl. While the neighborhood kids danced and laughed beyond my reach, I would throw handfuls of dirt and the occasional rock at them. Inevitably the altercation would end with me scoring a hit and some child crying and Mama storming out of the house.
When I was three, Mama untied me, but by then I had a reputation for meanness, and other children were reluctant to play with me.
One warm summer day before I started kindergarten, the neighborhood kids were playing in an abandoned pigpen. While my sister and her friends watched, the boys climbed onto the pigpen roof. The youngest of them, my best friend, challenged me to climb up too, so I did. The climb wasn’t so scary, but the view from the top was. It seemed like a very long way to the ground.
Soon the children started to drift away to the next adventure. The boys jumped or climbed down, but I stood on the tar-paper roof with lips trembling, immobilized by fear. The others encouraged me to follow their lead, but I couldn’t, and their encouragement soon turned to jeers.
My mother, who had been watching from the kitchen window, walked over, wiping her hands on her checked apron as she came. The other mothers in the neighborhood came out too. They all stood with their arms folded, evaluating the situation while I rocked back and forth, begging to be rescued. Mama shook her head in disgust: “You got yourself up there; you’re going to have to get yourself down.” She would throw me a pillow, she said, in case I had to sleep on the roof. The children roared their approval.
The women returned to their homes to finish making supper, and the other children wandered off, leaving me there, humiliated and alone.
It was close to 5:30 when Daddy pulled into the gravel driveway. Noticing the silhouette on the pigpen roof, he put his lunch basket down and walked through the grass toward me. He was tall and lanky, with his shirt sleeves rolled up and dark hair stuck to his sweaty forehead. The smell of the paper mill was always about him. When he reached the pen, he shielded his eyes against the late-afternoon sun to look up at me. Then he stretched out his arms and said softly, “Jump.”
I am living in Boston with my American fiancée when we decide to take a vacation in the UK. Standing in the customs queue at a London airport, my fiancée and I compare passports. Hers is sleek and clean, whereas my Indian passport resembles a small, tattered Bible. My photograph is pasted in, and spelling mistakes are corrected in Wite-Out.
My passport tells the story of my immigrant life: my student and work visas; all the entry and exit stamps as I traveled between India and the U.S. Soon my fiancée and I will be married, and I’ll have a brand-new U.S. passport in which to write the next chapter of my life.
When we reach the British immigration official, she gives my fiancée’s passport a quick look and is done. Then she fingers the worn cardboard cover of mine, sighs, and says, “Would you please step this way for an immigration check.”
The official gestures to a wooden bench where an old Sikh man in a saffron turban and a huddled Bangladeshi family sit.
I’m not like them, I want to say to the official. I live in Boston. But all the official sees is a brown face and an Indian passport. My fiancée tells the official she will sit with me. The official shrugs.
Sitting on the hard wooden bench, I watch each white person clear immigration in seconds and am filled with hopelessness: the British, who ruled my country for decades and taught me the English that I speak, have always had the power to keep me out of their country.
Next to me the old Sikh man is crying silently. He smells of wood smoke and tobacco and reminds me of an uncle. The Bangladeshi family looks like an obscure branch of my own. A wave of solidarity washes through me, and I go from hopelessness to calm resignation. It feels right somehow to be sitting with these people. I belong here.
Then my fiancée tugs at my sleeve. The official is waving my passport at me. “I knew everything would be OK,” my fiancée says, smiling a big, confident American smile.
But I am angry. I don’t want to enter the UK anymore. Let them keep their damn country. My place is here, with my people. I could sit on this bench all day with them.
But of course I don’t. My fiancée is already walking away. I follow her and collect my passport, with its red entry stamp. At the exit doors I glance back at the bench and see the Bangladeshi family, glassy-eyed with fear, and the old Sikh man, still crying.
It was 6 A.M. on a dark, frigid February morning in Cleveland, Ohio. As representatives of the United Farm Workers, Eliseo and I were standing on a picket line in support of the employees of a metalworking factory, who were on a wildcat strike. One of their fellow workers had been killed by faulty machinery, and the company claimed the safety problem was too expensive to correct.
Most of the strikers were at the main gate, where they had erected a barricade of railroad ties and old telephone poles to prevent strikebreakers from entering. Our picket line was at a smaller rear entrance. There were several cars marked LAKEWOOD POLICE and KUNTZ SECURITY SERVICE parked nearby. The Kuntz guards (you can guess what the strikers called them) and the police were huddled together. I overheard one of the guards telling a cop that they were going to bring the “replacements” into the plant on our side. I relayed this information to the picket-line captain, who went to get reinforcements.
Just then a long line of cars came up the street and stopped by our gate. Out of the lead car stepped a man with a revolver. Eliseo and I and a factory worker with a large paving stone in his hand stood in front of the armed man. I could smell the whiskey on his breath.
“Get the fuck out of my way,” the strikebreaker said as he stuck the pistol in my gut.
“We’re not moving,” I said. “You’ll have to come through me.” I was afraid, but my biggest fear was that the strike would fail.
I heard a click but felt nothing. Then the man yelled, “These motherfuckers are crazy,” and he got back into his car, made a U-turn, and left with the other cars trailing behind him.
The company later agreed to straighten out the safety problem. The strike was a success.
Not long after that, Eliseo and I were telling this story to a group of young volunteers. When I told them about the click, Eliseo said, “I didn’t hear any click.”
“That’s because the pistol wasn’t in your gut,” I replied.
Hugh “Hawkeye” Tague
As I enter the laundry room of a California campground, I hear an angry voice shout: “You are so stupid!” A woman is gripping the upper arms of a girl who appears to be no more than eight. “Look at me when I talk to you! I told you to watch the kids for me, and you let Cee-Cee fall and bump her head.” A toddler I presume to be Cee-Cee is nearby, clearly unharmed and squealing with glee, along with three boys, all younger than eight.
The woman releases the girl’s arms, but just when I think she’s going to calm down, she starts up again: “What do I have to do to make you mind me?” Anger splotches the woman’s neck and cheeks red. Beside her on a laundry-folding table lies a miniature baseball bat, about fifteen inches long and made of wood. The woman grabs the bat. The girl becomes as still as the stale air. The only sound is a washer chugging away.
On the woman’s backswing I slam my loaded clothes basket to the floor. The woman drops the bat, which rolls under the table, and she turns to stare me down. When I don’t budge, she says to the girl, voice dripping with artificial sweetness, “Honey, help me get the clothes from the dryer.” She yanks open a dryer that hasn’t stopped yet, pulls the clothes out, and tosses them into a basket. Clothes drop to the floor, and the girl grabs them and puts them into the pile.
Within minutes they’re packed and heading out the door. The girl, carrying Cee-Cee, is the last one out. She glances back at me with a blank expression. Is she grateful to me for thwarting her mother’s attempt to beat her, or does she know that the beating will still occur, perhaps worse due to the mother’s embarrassment?
After they leave, I notice the bat still under the table. I hide it among my dirty clothes, carry it back to my camper, and toss it in the garbage.
I have an adventuresome boyfriend. If there is a path less traveled — or, better yet, no path — that is the one for him.
One January we hiked up a remote mountain. Rather than going back down the same way (boring), Roger suggested that we continue along the ridge and enjoy the sunset. As afternoon turned to evening, we couldn’t find the main trail back to our car. We spent the night at six thousand feet on a bed of pine branches and took turns lying on top of each other to ward off hypothermia. The next day we walked for seven hours more before we could find a place to descend (more like slide) to safety.
Another time, despite an impending tropical storm, Roger put his finger to the wind and declared it a perfect day to sail. Off we went, with only beach towels for provisions, over the mighty sea. Ripping across the waves was great fun — until our attempts to turn back were blocked by ten-foot breakers and high winds. Even Roger looked afraid. As I watched the lighthouse grow smaller, I asked where we would end up if we could not turn around. He said in a week or two we might land in Wales. About the time I made peace with this, we got the boat headed back to shore.
Our third misadventure was a tandem canoe trip along the seldom-traveled Falls River bordering Yellowstone National Park. The guidebook described the seven-mile stretch as a “scenic float” but warned that if it became necessary to carry the canoe along shore, we should proceed with caution, as this was where rangers released “misbehaving grizzlies” from the park. Roger promised me we would stay in the water. I insisted on stopping for a canister of pepper spray, just in case.
The woman we’d hired to bring us to the “put-in” point looked at the water and asked if we knew what we were doing. It was clearly a class-three or -four river that particular day. Roger assured her we did. We floated for about ten minutes before we had to get out to avoid drowning, and we spent a great deal of the journey traversing grizzly-bear habitat carrying a seventy-five-pound canoe. The brief stretches of paddling were difficult, but walking with the canoe required superhuman effort. As Roger navigated a tightrope ledge with the canoe on his shoulders, blood dripping from cuts and insect bites, I asked why he kept getting me into these situations.
He replied, “Why do you keep saying yes?”
Debbie Wren Hill
Asheville, North Carolina