In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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It is evening, and I am fishing at my favorite spot on the Falls River. Though I catch nothing — I don’t even see a fish — I am content, satisfied with the sound of water finding its way, the fading light in the sky, the birds darting along the banks. When it is too dark to see my line, I head for the car. I open the back hatch and carefully stow my expensive rod and my vest with all its little gadgets. Then I close the hatch and realize my keys are still pinned to the vest I have put away so carefully. The car is locked. My cellphone is in there, too, safe from being dropped in the river.
I consider my options: I could hitchhike, but there aren’t many drivers on this dirt road. I could walk to a friend’s house nearby and call my son to come get me, but I don’t know his cellphone number. (It’s in my phone.) I’ll have to ask my friend for a ride, I decide. But when I get to his house, no one is home. I am going to have to walk.
It is a lovely night: cool, dry, moonlit. Though I am sixty-three, I discover that not only do I have the stamina to walk, but I enjoy it. “This isn’t so bad,” I say out loud. I try to remember the last time I went for a walk at night, but I can’t. I do remember cross-country skiing once under a full moon. Perhaps I should do this more often — not lock myself out of the car, but go for a walk in the dark.
I hear what sounds like a large animal somewhere in the shadows to my left, perhaps twenty or thirty feet away. It is blowing out breaths with flapping lips, the way a horse does. I don’t remember seeing any horses on my way here, or cows. Could it be a moose? I wonder if I should be scared; then I decide not to be. I never find out what made the noise.
On the main road the trees are farther back, so the night seems brighter. I pass the Frenches’ house. They would give me a ride, but I’m so close now I just keep walking.
When I arrive home, the lights are on, and my son is there. I grab a spare key, and he drives me back to my car. It is three and a half miles. After I get home a second time, I run a hot bath with Epsom salts and soak my tired legs. But I don’t feel old tonight. I feel satisfied.
In April 1945 my mother and I left our home in Neupetershain, Germany, fleeing the advancing Russian front, which had begun its final push toward Berlin. A month earlier my father had left with the Volkssturm, a national militia created by Hitler in the last months of World War II. We had no way of knowing if my father was still alive.
After walking twenty kilometers we reached Buchholz, a small village where we found shelter in an old manor house. The coal-company executives who lived there had opened their doors to refugees. The electricity was out, so the nights were pitch-dark. As I lay beneath a wool blanket, my sleepless mind replayed a memory from a few days earlier: My mother had shrugged, held out her hands, and said, “Too young,” to the Russian soldier threatening to rape me. “Just ten. Too young.” She had taken three years off my actual age. Apparently convinced, the soldier had grunted and moved on.
After ten days in Buchholz, my mother made an announcement: “We will walk home today. We have nothing to eat here anymore.”
To build our strength for the journey we drank a cup of mint tea made from leaves one of the men, too old for the Volkssturm, had picked in the meadow. Then we walked home, not knowing if we still had a home to return to.
As we rounded the corner onto our street, we saw the place. The windows were broken and the ground covered with debris and roof tiles. We entered through the gaping front door and gasped at the stench of excrement in our ransacked living room.
My mother hurried out to the garden and returned beaming, arms loaded with dirt-encrusted Mason jars: the goose and rabbit preserves she had rushed to bury just before we’d fled. The precious jars of meat had survived the bombing and looting undamaged. We opened one of them and ate.
We prisoners say, “Man, if they let me go right now, I’d walk home barefoot and butt naked.”
I once knew a man here whose seventy-year-old parents told him during a visit that it was precisely 143.5 miles from their home to the penitentiary. I had never seen this man on the track before, but after his folks’ visit he started walking the pebbled trail that surrounds the recreation yard. I watched him as he passed the tower, the concrete bleachers, the Porta-John, the horseshoe pit. He tracked his progress on a tattered yellow piece of paper: three laps equaled one mile. After several weeks of this, one day he crumbled — dissolved really — onto the path, snot-nosed and blubbering.
“I made it,” he said. “I made it home.”
I live about six miles from my place of employment. One day last April I found myself without a ride home after work. I dreaded the long hike, but, having no other choice, I put on my backpack and set out.
The first mile or two was along a busy road with cars whizzing by. As I neared downtown, I heard my mother’s voice in my head, warning of the horrors of the city: muggers and rapists lying in wait, corner drug deals, drivers who snatch up unsuspecting children, slick ne’er-do-wells with come-on stares. But in this city I saw only residents sweeping their sidewalks, children playing with their dogs, grandparents sitting on porches, and young men dressed in low-waisted pants, loose T-shirts, untied sneakers, and side-facing baseball hats. I smelled doughnuts, fried food, pizza, coffee, and exhaust. I heard many hellos and returned them all.
The only people who seemed to have forgotten their manners were the ones in business attire. They had looks of fatigue on their faces and walked quickly, eager to get back to the safety of their four-thousand-square-foot houses and half-acre yards.
An hour or so into my journey, my heart opened. No longer was the walk a chore. It had become a stroll through the city. My city.
Terry L. Root
From the age of seven until about fifteen I took violin lessons at 7 P.M. every Wednesday from Polly Smart. She lived across town from us, and I walked to her house alone. (It was the 1950s.) In late fall and winter it was dark out both ways.
What I remember best about those walks is the stars. Although our small town did have streetlights, they cast only a modest glow, and I could see the night sky in all its glory. The constellation Orion rose between our house and that of our neighbor, a veterinarian known as “Ol’ Doc Ryan.” When I was seven, I thought the constellation was named “Ol’ Ryan” because it rose over his house.
Years later I saw Orion in Montpellier, France, rising above a statue of a charging steed and its rider. Later that summer I saw it over the Vosges Mountains. At different times I have lived in Japan, Hong Kong, and Vietnam, and in each place I looked up to find Orion presiding over the night sky. To this day, whenever I see that constellation, I feel as if I’m home.
I was both fascinated by and afraid of the man the Jamaican villagers called “Jah Rubal.” They said he had delved too far into “bad science” and had lost his mind. Whenever he appeared in the streets, he would rant and rave in an indecipherable patois. “He is a madman,” they told me. “He thinks he is talking to God.” By his tone, it seemed he had a bone to pick with his Creator.
Jah Rubal was six foot five not including his massive dreadlocks, which he stuffed into a tattered cloth hat. He carried not one, but two, machetes, whose blades reflected the stinging summer sun. His feet had calluses thicker than the soles of mountain boots, his calves were all vein and muscle, and his pants looked as if they had been chewed off at the knee by a Rottweiler.
One afternoon I accompanied Omar, a young boy from the village, on a walk to pick up something at the store for his mother. By the time we got back, it was early evening, and lights were coming on in the houses. I noticed the glow of a fire from a small shack beside the road. It looked like a schoolboy’s fort.
“A madman lives there,” my young friend told me, and then he shouted, “Rubal! Madman! It is I, Omar!”
“Jesus, Omar!” I said, and I grabbed his hand, ready to run.
From the shack came a calm voice: “Yeah, mon, Omar. Good night, youth, and be getting home now. It is dark, and your mother will worry.”
One drab November in my mid-twenties my father took me hitchhiking from southern Vermont to Albany, New York, to visit our recently divorced cousin Freda. My father, an epileptic, had long since given up driving, and I was content to be a hippie hitchhiker with no license.
Freda was getting rid of many belongings and had offered me the pick of her attic, which was filled to the rafters with vintage women’s clothes. I enjoyed square-dancing and was always on the lookout for period outfits.
We got rides with an assortment of amiable characters and arrived in record time. A former Miss Vermont, Freda was as hospitable as ever. She helped me stuff a garbage bag with all manner of Gay Nineties bathing ensembles, flapper dresses, and ball gowns. Early the next morning she dropped us off at the bottom of the entrance ramp to the New York State Thruway.
We proceeded up the shoulder of the ramp, I lugging my bag of loot and my father, who walked with a limp, studying the uneven terrain carefully before taking each step. Because he was looking down he noticed a few coins among the weeds. As he knocked them loose with his cane, even more appeared, and I joined him in picking them up. We were so engrossed in gathering our bounty that we barely noticed that a car had come to a stop nearby.
It was a sheriff. Although technically we were not yet hitchhiking, our unusual behavior made us look suspicious. He asked us for identification. Unable to fit us into his idea of the world, the sheriff examined the garish contents of my bag and became convinced that I was a prostitute out with my pimp. He arrested us, drove us to the station, and booked us, despite the fact that it meant having to rouse a judge on a Sunday morning.
At the impromptu hearing my outraged father refused to stand for the judge, saying he was a cripple. He also refused to bare his head, saying he was an Orthodox Jew. The judge fined us each a hundred dollars for trespassing on the highway and being a nuisance. My father, by then enjoying himself immensely, refused to pay. (I think he was demonstrating to me how to stand up to authority.) In resignation the judge sentenced us both to a week in the county jail.
And that is how I came to spend Thanksgiving Day 1975 behind bars.
The following Sunday we were duly ejected from the criminal-justice system. Upon our release we went down the road from the jailhouse and stuck out our thumbs, our pockets jingling with change.
“The farthest she ever tried to walk home was from New Hampshire,” my old boyfriend used to say about me, to much laughter. I lived in New Jersey, so it would have been quite the trek, but when I was upset about something, I was prepared to walk home no matter how far. I would also walk all around town just for the sheer pleasure of putting one foot in front of the other.
I once walked from Jersey City to my home in Teaneck because I had spent my bus fare on a pack of cigarettes. When I worked at a diner one summer, I had to walk home up a steep mountain with my black waitress uniform sticking to me in the hundred-degree heat.
Another time I was on a crowded bus that got stuck in the snow on a mountain pass. I got up to leave.
“Are you sure, Miss?” the driver asked me.
“It’s OK,” I answered, with a five-mile journey through tall drifts ahead of me. “I’ll walk.”
In kindergarten I walked home a few times in the middle of the day, because I thought you could just get up and go if you felt bored. In high school I walked home from a Halloween party at midnight wearing a giant cardboard box decorated to look like one half of a pair of dice and was pelted with eggs by a carful of teenagers.
When I was a kid, a man once offered me a ride, and I accepted. When he tried to kiss me at a stoplight, I jumped out of the car and walked home and never told my parents, for fear they would not let me go places by myself anymore.
Today I have nerve damage in one of my feet and am stuck in the house most days. I could probably hobble home from a short distance, but I cannot walk far. In my dreams I still walk everywhere.
Vernon, New Jersey
I was an obese girl, and there was no shortage of bullies who would verbally or physically assault me as I walked to and from elementary school. One day near the end of sixth grade I was delayed leaving school, and when I finally began to head home, the playground was deserted. I heard a voice behind me, and something hit the back of my leg. It was Dave, one of my regular tormentors, and what I’d felt hitting my leg was his front bike tire.
I pleaded to be left alone, but Dave wouldn’t stop. In a rage I whirled around, grabbed his handlebars with one hand and his front tire with the other, and turned the bike on its side. Dave was thrown to the ground, and while he was still in shock, I launched myself at him, raining blows on his face, ears, stomach, and arms, which he put up to protect himself. He began to cry and tried to roll away. I stood up and kicked him harder than I’d ever kicked any ball. And the whole time I was yelling. I can’t tell you what I said, but I can tell you what I meant: Never again.
Dave got to his feet and ran, his bike forgotten. I didn’t walk the rest of the way home that day; I floated.
I hadn’t been home five minutes when Dave’s mom called mine. My mother was angry and beat me, berating me for hitting a boy. She forced me to apologize to Dave and his mother for what I’d done, but I wasn’t sorry at all.
Over the next six years of middle and high school Dave became a football hero while I was still a nerdy, unpopular girl, but I always got a polite hello from him in the halls. No one could ever figure that one out.
Pleasant Ridge, Michigan
On summer evenings as a child I’d walk the neighborhood just after dark: late enough for people to have their lights on but too early for them to have drawn the drapes. I’d gaze into their living rooms and see them talking to each other, or tipping back a glass of iced tea, or bending down to turn on the television. I’d think this was what a family was supposed to look like, and I’d begin to feel a little less lonely, a little less lost in the world.
I’d turn those images over in my mind like precious stones whenever Mom beat me or told me she wished I’d never been born. Sometimes she’d wake me up late at night in the room we shared and make me touch her in ways I didn’t want to. Afterward I’d stand at the foot of her bed with tears on my cheeks, remembering those families and clinging to the hope they’d given me.
Mary T. Shannon
New York, New York
There I was, in the middle of the day at junior high school, with enough blood in my panties to soak through onto the back of my dress. I went to the school nurse, who gave me a sanitary pad and suggested I call my mother and ask her to bring me a change of clothes. This sounded reasonable enough but was impossible: my mother had been committed to the state mental hospital nearly all my life. I did not tell the nurse this, however — divulging this information in earlier grades had taught me to keep my mouth shut. Instead I said, “My mother’s not home.” I would have bled to death before I’d have called my father at work. “Can I call my friend’s mother?”
The Davenports’ youngest daughter was a classmate of mine. I knew Mrs. Davenport didn’t drive, but she agreed to come get me, walking five blocks to our junior high school, signing me out, and then accompanying me home.
I had often thought Mrs. Davenport should have joined a religious order; she just might have qualified as a saint. She even looked like the nuns of my imagination: fair complexion, reddish blond hair, and a sprinkling of Irish freckles across her nose. Her hair was always demurely braided and coiled on top of her head, where she pinned a lace covering on Sundays for Mass. Though her husband and four children were loud and quarrelsome, she was calm and soft-spoken.
I hope I thanked her for helping me that day. I know I didn’t tell her how significant her small favor was. As a motherless teen, I unconsciously searched for women — ladies at church, teachers, friends’ mothers — to emulate.
I now teach science to pregnant girls and teen mothers who frequently interrupt class with questions about periods, birth control, sex, pregnancy, and childbirth. I welcome them all and try to let Mrs. Davenport’s example of calm compassion guide me.
Broken Arrow, Oklahoma
When I was seventeen, my parents decided that I should get my driver’s license. An ardent environmentalist even then, I did not want to despoil nature by driving a car. (This was fifty years ago, when you could get anywhere you wanted in the UK using public transport or on foot.) But my parents said driving was a necessary adult skill.
Every day my mother would be waiting at the school gates to hand me the car keys so I could practice. She was patient, as silent as possible, and quite good at disguising her fear as I drove us home with much lurching and swearing.
One day, for some reason, my father came for me. He and I did not get along well. He was domineering, and his impatience quickly turned to anger.
I started off in low gear. After a while my father, annoyed by our slow progress, told me to change up. I tried and failed. He made me try again, but the cogs wouldn’t mesh.
“There’s something wrong with the car,” I said.
“No there isn’t,” my father said, beginning to heat up. “Now change gears.”
I tried and failed again, then said firmly, “There’s something wrong. I can’t do it.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the car. Now do as I say, or you can walk home!”
“OK,” I said, and I switched off the engine, got out, and watched my father drive away.
I was several miles from our house, but it was early summer, and the hedges were full of birds. I enjoyed the walk down the ridge, through the pastures and the village, and over the next hill. I wondered how I would be greeted on my arrival. I knew I would be in trouble for disobeying my father and for causing my mother to have to mediate between us. I had challenged his authority, which was unacceptable.
When I got home, the car was not in the garage. My mother was cooking the evening meal and surprised to see me late and alone. I prepared her for the coming storm and went to do my homework.
Some time later my father appeared on foot, disheveled and tired. The car had broken down, he said. He’d gotten it towed and had to walk home himself. Then my exasperating, impossible father laughed until his eyes were wet with tears.
I was born with cerebral palsy and didn’t learn to walk until I was two, but once I started, I didn’t want to stop. Some of my happiest childhood memories are of walking. I saw my forty-five-minute walk to and from high school as a treat.
I have recurring dreams in which I’m walking home on a road a long distance from town. The air is pungent with dry grasses, and the oak trees are silhouetted against the moon. I’m not sure why, but the dream is always exhilarating.
The most carefree time of my life was when I lived in a tent in Wyoming and walked in the woods a lot. I once ascended to five thousand feet with a fifty-pound pack and walked through a blizzard at the top. Afterward my toenail fell off, and I could not walk for a few days.
I now live in Portland, Oregon. With two young kids and a teaching career, I have no time for walking, but I do ride my bike. Last July I came out of work at 1 A.M. and saw my hacked bike lock on the ground: my bicycle had been stolen. So I walked home. The summer air was filled with the scent of dry grass.
Robert, who showed up in my fourth-grade class in 1957, was the first African American student in our Los Angeles school. I noticed that he and I both walked down Vernon Avenue on our way home. One day I saw him outside the Blue Star Market, where he had just bought a dill pickle. We exchanged smiles, and he broke the pickle in two and gave half to me.
From then on we walked home together, and we usually bought a pickle on the way. Sometimes I had the dime; sometimes he did. I admired Robert’s sunny personality, his long eyelashes, and his dimples when he laughed. We talked nonstop from the moment we left school until I had to turn right to my house while Robert continued down Vernon.
One day as we neared my street, Robert said, “My dog has puppies. Do you want to see them?”
Without hesitation I followed Robert two more blocks to his house. He produced a key and let himself in. We passed through the kitchen to the porch, where a floppy-eared dog lay in a cardboard box with three puppies by her side. Robert picked one up and handed it to me. It was fat and squirmy, with that warm puppy smell.
We were laughing and taking turns holding each of the puppies when I heard a noise and saw Robert’s mother standing over us.
“Robert, who is this?” she asked, her voice sharp, almost angry. He said my name. “Does your mother know where you are?” she asked me.
I shook my head, too scared to speak. I felt awful because I hadn’t asked my mother’s permission, but more so because I would have to put down the puppy.
“You better get walking now, or your mother will be worried about you,” she said. “Robert, you take her back to where she knows how to get home.”
Suddenly all business, Robert returned the puppies to the box. I thanked his mother for letting me see them, took one last look at the mother dog licking her babies, then followed Robert back to my street.
My mother didn’t say anything about my being late, and I never told her about the puppies. In fact, something told me not to say anything to her about Robert.
That summer we moved to a suburban beach town. My parents said the schools were better there, and the neighborhood wasn’t so “rough.” Everyone in my new neighborhood was white.
Santa Rosa, California
When our sons were in elementary school, my husband and I worked different shifts at a county program for people with disabilities. The arrangement was a good one because one of us was always home for the kids. It was also good because we were rarely both home at the same time, which meant we wouldn’t have as many chances to disagree. At that point in our lives we could disagree about anything.
One fall day our car was in the shop, so I walked home from work. The sky was a brilliant blue, the sugar maples just starting to turn. The night before, my husband and I had had one of our arguments that went round and round, and he’d ended up sleeping on the couch. At least he wouldn’t be home when I got there, so we couldn’t start it up again.
A few blocks from our house I saw my husband walking toward me on his way to work. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that this would happen. As we passed each other on the sidewalk, neither of us acknowledged the other’s presence. Our eyes didn’t even meet. It was as if we had erased each other.
Looking back, I see that was the moment our love ended.
Iowa City, Iowa
My sister and I would see them every day on our way home from school, leaning silently against the wall behind the bus stop, their eyes downcast save for occasional glances in our direction. We had been warned to stay as far away as we could from these brown-skinned Arab men. We had been taught to fear their strangeness, their sexuality, their disregard for propriety, their appetite for defenseless white French girls. They were not to be trusted, ever.
A decade after it had ended, the Algerian War still haunted France. We had all heard stories of atrocities — torture, rape, and terrorism — committed in Algeria’s quest for independence. So my sister and I walked as fast as we could past these men. Sometimes we’d see them ride by on the number 9 bus, headed to the immigrant neighborhoods where no sane white person, especially a girl, would go.
I went back to France a few summers ago and followed the route my sister and I used to take from school. The men were still there behind the bus stop, looking down as people hastened by. I saw the weariness on their lined faces, their poverty, their sorrow. As I waited for the bus, a woman walked by carrying groceries. “Sales bougnoules!” — Filthy sand niggers! — she spat at the men, who uttered not a word in return, their faces showing only resignation.
I reached for a pack of cigarettes in my knapsack and offered each of the men a smoke. They accepted with silent nods. When the number 9 bus arrived, I got in with them and took the long way home.
© Robert Meyer
The rain came down fast and hard, the wind whipping it sideways as I walked across a parking lot toward University Drive. My jeans were soaked and my sweater glued to my body. The walk from campus to my apartment would be a long one.
A battered yellow station wagon pulled up beside me, and the driver rolled his window down. “Do you want a ride?” His face was friendly but not overly so.
“Are you a rapist?” I asked, immediately regretting the question.
“No,” he said, laughing. “I’m a corrections officer. I work at the prison.”
He opened the door, and I dropped my wet backpack under the dash and climbed in. The car was old but clean. I noticed the man’s own backpack on the back seat. He wasn’t that much older than I was.
If my grandmother had found out I’d accepted a ride from a strange man — a strange black man, no less — she’d have been furious. I wondered if I should be afraid. I’d always relied on my intuition to judge people, and it hadn’t failed me so far, but eventually I was bound to make a mistake.
The man and I talked about school. He was studying for a criminal-justice degree during the day and working at the prison at night. When we arrived at my building, I thanked him and dashed off through the rain. I never saw the man again.
Twenty-five years later I am the adoptive mother of an African boy. As my son is growing older, I see the fearful way white strangers sometimes look at him, and I find myself wondering why that man stopped to help me. I understand now that he and I both took a leap of faith that day when we trusted each other.
Sharon Van Epps
Los Gatos, California
My father was an alcoholic. Though he rarely missed a day of work, each evening on the way home he would stop at a bar and stay till he was too drunk to make it back to the house. Sometimes he’d try to walk by himself and end up on someone’s lawn. So from the time I was about ten years old, I was assigned the job of going to get him. I was embarrassed by this nightly task. It was a small town, and everyone knew the situation.
After many such nights of walking my father home, I began to have caring feelings for him despite my embarrassment. I was irritated and angry, yes, but I also still loved this man.
One evening at church we had a guest preacher as part of a revival. The evangelist urged everyone with a drinking problem to come forward and accept Christ as his or her personal Savior or else spend eternity in hell. I could not imagine my father burning as punishment for his drunkenness. In fact, I could not believe in hell anymore if he would be condemned to it. The only thing we needed to be saved from, I thought, was ourselves.
The next evening, as I put my arm around my father to help him out of a neighbor’s hedge, I was not just holding him up; I was embracing him.
Decades later, health declining, my father spent his last two years in the county nursing home. Finally the drinking had to stop. When we visited, the nurses told us how my father had appointed himself the official wheelchair pusher for all those who could not wheel themselves; at the end of every day he would take them to their rooms.
Shaker Heights, Ohio
That day in the fall of 1946 most of northern Germany lay under a thick blanket of fog. Frau Blasberg, our next-door neighbor, came rushing into our kitchen, as she had done on many occasions to exchange bits of news with my mother about a new source of firewood or bread. This time, however, her news caused all the color to drain from my mother’s face. Frau Blasberg had seen a soldier on the corner and, despite his emaciated condition, recognized him as my father, who we’d thought was dead.
And then there he was in our kitchen, his uniform too big for his gaunt frame. As soon as I saw him, I hid in a tight space that only I could fit into. I had been told never to go near a soldier, and no amount of coaxing could get me out of hiding. I still remember my father’s desperate voice — “But I am your father” — and my mother’s more consoling one: “Look, Anneliesechen, it’s your papa.” I wanted to ask my older brother whether we had a father, but it wasn’t safe to leave my hiding spot.
My father began to tell his story: During the final days of World War II he and his comrades had been riding on the last vehicle in a convoy heading back into Germany. Just before crossing the border, my father’s truck suffered a broken axle, and they were left behind and taken prisoner. The rest of their convoy later rolled into a minefield, and every other member of his battalion was killed. We’d assumed he was among them.
Now he’d been released from the prison camp and had walked for many days to make it home. He’d expected to find food here, but we’d recently finished the last of our supply.
So, no sooner had my father come back than he had to leave again, joining the hordes of city dwellers heading for the few undamaged areas of the countryside to beg for anything edible. At the end of the rail line somewhere north of Münster, my father found a farm family praying at their dinner table. They provided him with a much-needed hot meal and gave him a sack of potatoes and a side of bacon. The trains back were so crowded that he had to ride on one of the bumpers, clutching his food with one arm and the bumper with the other to keep from falling underneath the train. He made it home a second time and lifted his sack of potatoes and the bacon onto the kitchen table.
Anneliese H. Carber
Our street-hockey game drew to a close as one by one the players headed home for dinner. Most lived nearby, but I had two miles to walk. I was in no hurry. It was Saturday, “fend for yourselves” day at my house, which meant no meal on the table. I’d have to tiptoe in and hope no one would see me. For the moment, though, my mood was light. I felt like skipping, but I was on the sidewalk of a busy street, and sixteen-year-old girls didn’t skip.
I resented the changes my body had undergone in the past year. Even though I was dressed in a baggy T-shirt and jeans, I was accosted by guys honking horns and yelling as they drove by. Plenty of girls wanted this type of attention, but I preferred to walk around unnoticed.
A green Oldsmobile passed me slowly five or six times, and that familiar uneasiness began to creep into my belly. I considered cutting through people’s yards, but I was tired of giving in to my flight instinct. By the time the Oldsmobile’s driver made his move, parking sideways across my path, I was angry. As I approached, I saw a man, maybe forty years old, his arm pumping in his lap. I neither squeezed my way around the car nor stepped into traffic, but instead headed straight for the passenger door and stuck my head in the open window.
“You pathetic piece of shit,” I said. “Did you actually think you were going to intimidate me with that little thing? You’ve got nothing better to do with your life than try to scare young girls?”
The man let go of himself and threw the car into reverse. I stood there for a moment, heart pounding, and then resumed my walk.
When I got to my house, I decided to slam the screen door behind me, letting everyone know that I was home.
St. Agatha, Maine
I entered college a teetotaler and a student athlete, but by the end of freshman year I’d learned to drink and dance with abandon at frat parties. I’d also developed an eating disorder. I kept cutting foods I “didn’t need” from my diet. My weekends went like this: starve, drink, walk home, repeat.
Then I began to get hungry on the way home. Sometimes I had no cash, and after I was thrown out of a convenience store for eating cookies from the bags on the shelves, I began peeking into dumpsters and trash cans for anything edible. It went on like this awhile: I’d party half the night, then slip out on my own — a buzzed, solitary young woman soothing herself with discarded pizza and the last of someone’s Doritos.
One of my male friends, after I’d rejected his many offers to accompany me home, secretly began following me. It makes me ill to think how many times he probably saw me paw through the upper layers of refuse in search of something to binge on. Finally I caught him lurking. There was nothing to say, no lies that might have made my behavior seem rational. There was just shame. And, years later, gratitude.
Fort Defiance, Arizona
The guard at the park entrance regarded my driver’s license with skepticism. “This doesn’t look like you,” he said.
He was right. My weight had nearly doubled in the nine years since the photo had been taken. Most mornings I barely recognized my own face in the mirror.
I drove past the guard and parked at the First Landing Monument. This was the spot where, 402 years before, Captain Christopher Newport and Captain John Smith had first come ashore in North America. It seemed a perfect place to begin my own long journey.
Heaving a thirty-five-pound rucksack onto my shoulders (it felt as if I’d strapped on a tractor engine), I set out on my walk. I’d once been a lean paratrooper in the Eighty-Second Airborne Division, but when I’d left the army for the corporate world, I’d also left behind the ritual of morning exercise. My hours had become filled with television, computer games, and fast food, and my weight had crept up to four hundred pounds. Now I had decided to do something about it: I would walk it off.
That first day I barely had the energy to lace up my sneakers. I walked less than a quarter mile and came back a wreck. The second time was even harder. But I stuck with the regimen, and, by degrees, the walks became easier. The mileage increased, the pounds came off, and I dreamed of other, grander places I could go on foot. I finally made up my mind to walk across Virginia.
The first leg of my journey took me south along the Virginia Beach shore, where bikinied girls and surfer boys gave wide berth to the sweaty man with the pack on his back. When I reached the end of the boardwalk, a band was playing on an outdoor stage, and I flopped down on the lawn to listen, feeling for the first time in a long while as if I was part of life.
I walked the length and breadth of Hampton Roads and trekked up the Middle Peninsula to Virginia’s Northern Neck. I traveled by foot from the blue-collar neighborhoods of Newport News to the cobbled streets of Colonial Williamsburg. I hiked the Colonial Parkway under starry skies and strolled along busy thoroughfares beneath the midday sun. I walked in the rain and in the boiling heat. I walked until my thighs chafed and my heels grew wet from broken blisters. I walked until I recognized the face in the mirror.