In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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“Take off your clothes,” Chelsea said.
Ever the obedient girl, I kicked off my jelly sandals, shimmied out of my flowered leggings, and removed my T-shirt. I stood, my seven-year-old stomach jutting out, and waited for her next command. Chelsea, a mature girl of eight, was introducing me to a complicated new game.
I walked across the carpet to my bed, where Puffy was waiting for me, his stuffed arms permanently open for a hug. When I reached the bed, I turned back to Chelsea for instruction.
“Kiss him,” she said. “You’re married.”
I leapt on top of my oversized stuffed dog and covered his button nose with my mouth.
“You have to wrestle now,” Chelsea told me.
I wrapped my legs around the dog’s plush body and rolled around, giggling and grunting.
After Chelsea’s mother picked her up, my mother sat me on her lap and asked if I’d had fun. I nodded and told her Chelsea and I had played sex.
My mother swallowed as though she had a bad taste in her mouth. She made me promise never to play sex again.
For nine years I obeyed her.
In 2001 my wife’s father died. Not long afterward I went for a drive with my mother-in-law at the wheel. We’d gone only four blocks from her house when she admitted she didn’t know where she was or how to get back home. On that day my wife and I learned just how much my mother-in-law’s husband had been covering for her forgetfulness.
Several years later my mother-in-law fell and broke her hip, and the doctors gave her a year to live.
That was in 2006. Today my wife’s mother cannot recognize her children or grandchildren or even speak to make her wishes known. She does not walk and sleeps most of the time, waking only to be fed. She appears to feel significant pain whenever she has to move or be moved. She derives no joy from life, as far as we can tell. Her quiet passing would be a mercy.
Alone with her, my wife lovingly tells her mother that it’s OK to let go. Alone with me, my wife worries aloud that she has a hereditary predisposition toward dementia. She works complex word puzzles at night to forestall that possibility. She has made me promise never to let her live like that.
How can I agree? Yet how can I refuse?
At thirty-six I promised myself that when I turned forty-two, if I was single and uninvolved romantically, I would go to a sperm bank and get pregnant. I turned forty-two this May, and I have visited a sperm bank. Well, a sperm-bank website. I guess that’s a start. Reading through a list of donors identified by age, eye color, education, and family illnesses was so unsettling that I ended up calling an ex-boyfriend and spending the night with him.
The third time I went to the website, I discovered that, for a little more money, you could gain access to an essay by each donor listing his hobbies, his dreams, and the reasons why he’d chosen to donate. You could even see baby photos. I found nine engineers and three men who play the sax.
But something is stopping me from fulfilling this eccentric promise I made to myself, never really believing I would still be single in my forties. I know sperm donation has become common. I’ve argued to myself that if I were gay, it would be perfectly logical to go to a sperm bank. But I’m an attractive, educated, successful, heterosexual woman. I shouldn’t have to do this. Friends have encouraged me: “It’s just like online dating — only you don’t get to meet the person.” My sister, who is going through a nasty divorce and has two children, thinks the sperm bank is the best idea ever, because you don’t have to answer to anyone and can raise your kids any way you see fit. But what would I tell my child when she asked who her daddy was? “Well, dear, Mommy couldn’t find a man to impregnate her, so she went to a place where she could buy some sperm.” I know there are many other answers to this question, but this is the one that keeps popping into my head.
So I’m forty-two and still childless, still hoping that I’ll find a man who loves me and wants to have a child. This is one promise that may have to go unkept.
New York, New York
I was twelve years old, and my dad was trying to sell me on moving to some podunk town in Texas. A promotion was in it for him, and he would have a big new office. “What’s in it for me?” I wanted to know.
We were sitting in lawn chairs on our back patio in the hot Texas sun. “How about a pool?” he asked.
The man knew me well.
As we moved into our new ranch-style home, I kept checking out the backyard, imagining a kidney-shaped pool with a diving board. I imagined all the cool friends I would make because everyone would want to flock to my house for a dip. I would have to get a day planner to schedule all their visits. Finally I would be popular.
“Dad, when are we going to start building the pool?”
“Ah, sugar, you’re never gonna believe this. . . .” He told me there was a public pool just a few blocks away. I could ride my bike there. It would be good exercise; I was getting a little pudgy. He chuckled and pinched my waist.
A few days later I rode to see the pool. Behind a cyclone fence was a square concrete hole in the ground surrounded by overgrown grass: no diving board and no water.
A few months ago my husband and I decided to relocate to an island in the Puget Sound. To make my twelve-year-old daughter feel better about the move, I promised her a new puppy, even though we already have two dogs.
Before we even found a house, she had found the perfect dog. Of course I couldn’t say no.
The move didn’t work out. Now school has started, and I’m stuck in Texas, standing in the blazing August sun, waiting for our three-month-old Pomeranian to urinate. But at least I kept my promise.
The South American army base had strict rules against aimless wandering, but I was an intelligence operative and went where I pleased. On one of my strolls I entered a small brick building I had passed many times before without going in. Inside I found a cell with a concrete slab for a bunk. There was no sink or faucet, only a leaking hose attached to a spigot outside the cell. Chained to a heavy iron ring on the wall was a man in his early twenties. He was almost naked and seemed oblivious to the half inch of water covering most of the floor. A blanket was tossed in a corner, wet and dirty. His face was crisscrossed with red stripes of raw skin — the marks left by duct tape being repeatedly yanked off his face during an “interrogation.”
He looked up at me and smiled. I did not smile back. I had seen something I was not supposed to see. I turned to leave before I was found out.
“Ayúdeme, por favor” — help me, please — he said. He asked me to call his family and tell them where he was. Despite my training to ignore such pleas, I let him give me the number. He made me repeat it back to him.
As I reached again for the door, he asked, “Can you promise me that you will call?”
“I promise,” I said and left.
I never saw the man again, nor found out why he was there or what became of him. But I made the call, and that evening his entire family was in the commander’s office pleading on his behalf.
Trenton, New Jersey
When my husband, David, and I met, we were already grandparents from previous relationships. On the day of our wedding we stood before our friends and told them to form a circle around us. Then we passed a silk ribbon from hand to hand to link us all together, and we asked them to promise to support us and our marriage with their loving friendship. In unison they said, “We do.”
We had been happily married for six years when David was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. A decade later the illness has confined him to a wheelchair, forced him to give up his medical license and his driver’s license, robbed him of the ability to read and write, reduced his voice to a whisper, and clouded his thoughts.
In the first few years of the disease our friends easily accommodated his disabilities. When David could no longer climb stairs, the men carried him. When fatigue became an issue, we met them for lunch rather than dinner. Eventually, however, his cognitive decline made socializing impossible because he could not follow conversations. I could read the confusion on his face, and people began to talk over him as if he were not there.
As David’s illness progressed and episodes of dementia became common, his difficulties caused some friends to stop calling us. One woman refused my invitation to lunch, saying it hurt too much to see David in such bad shape. She said she wanted to remember him as he had been.
I wondered why only her feelings and her memory mattered. What about David’s feelings, or mine?
I rarely see those couples anymore, although I continue to see my women friends. When I am out with them, I feel like a strange kind of widow. I have lost my partner, but he is still alive and with me. I look back on our wedding ceremony and wonder: what happened to our friends’ promises?
My therapist covered the book in green paper after I objected to carrying around something emblazoned with the phrase “surviving abuse.” At home I worked through the chapters and studied the guidelines for speaking to a sexual partner about the abuse in my past. (I was single at the time.) The book contained oaths to be taken, including a promise to oneself to stop a partner if flashbacks occurred in the middle of sex.
One year later I was a sophomore in college and was in bed with my first real boyfriend. I jumped when his touch was too similar to that of my abuser. He asked if I was all right, and I struggled with how to handle the awkward moment. We had been dating only a few months. I certainly hadn’t planned on revealing my whole past to him this soon, but I found myself telling him everything. When I’d finished, I waited for a confused or disgusted reaction, but instead he was shaking with anger. He said he couldn’t believe someone could do such a thing to me.
Three years later that boyfriend is now my husband. His touch is familiar and welcome. When he asks if I am all right, I answer with certainty that I am.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
I am standing at the altar yet again, getting ready to make another promise to love someone to the end. And I do love this man, but can I really promise to love him forever?
The music stops, and I ask him in a whisper if we can just promise to do our best and ask for compassion if we can’t; if we can just say there are no guarantees, and that life may come in and interfere; if we can just say, “My God, I love you today,” and hope that we can say it tomorrow and the next day and the next. I intend to love him forever, but what if I am not helping him have the best possible life somewhere down the line? I want to give him the gift of not promising.
He smiles and whispers back, “My God, I love you today.”
Big Sur, California
My eighty-year-old Japanese American mother suffered her first inoperable hemorrhagic stroke in July 2007. Afterward she began having animated conversations with long-dead relatives at the kitchen table. I racked up frequent-flyer miles with Hawaiian Airlines that year, traveling every other month from my home in Seattle to Oahu, Hawaii, where my parents live. My mother needed help to stand, to walk, to feed herself. She wore diapers.
She went on to have two more strokes, each followed by a long, fruitless stint at a rehab facility, where she’d shuffle down the hall with a young therapist holding on to her belt. Both times after rehab she came home instead of going to an assisted-living facility; my dad was adamant that he could care for her himself. Finally Mom could no longer support her own weight, and Dad came to the reluctant conclusion that he, an eighty-five-year-old with heart stents and bad knees, could not give her the care she needed. She was admitted to a well-regarded nursing home not far from Dad’s house.
Dad went there every day at 9:30 AM and stayed until Mom closed her eyes in the evening, usually around seven. He packed a lunch, as he had during his thirty-three years working for the government. He fed her so much that she gained fifteen pounds.
Family and friends tried to tell Dad to take some time for himself — play golf, travel — but he went home only to shower and sleep. The rest of the time he was at the nursing home, jamming food into Mom’s mouth or sitting by her bedside watching Bonanza reruns while she stared at the ceiling.
When Mom began pouching food in her cheeks, Dad yelled at her, “Eat! Swallow!” When she stopped chewing entirely and took only liquids, Dad shoved a straw between her lips, commanding her to “suck harder!”
The nursing-home staff told Dad that since Mom wasn’t swallowing, she was becoming dehydrated. If he wanted to consider gastric-tube feeding, he needed to let them know soon.
Twenty years earlier Mom and Dad both had signed living wills requesting that no invasive procedures be used to keep them alive at the end. They’d made a pact. Nonetheless Dad found a doctor who would perform the gastric-tube procedure, since the staff gerontologist would not.
My sister, my aunt, and I were opposed to the feeding tube, and we had some heated conversations with Dad about it, but we finally had to honor his wishes. I knew my father was doing this out of love, out of fear of letting go, out of fear of being alone.
Mom now has a gastric tube and is hooked up to it twenty-two hours a day. Dad still stays there by her side, even though the job of feeding her is gone. He notices every little nuance of her behavior. Lately he says that Mom looks different, “like she’s angry.”
What do you expect? I think. You broke your promise.
It was always a stormy time in our marriage. If my husband wasn’t angry about what I was wearing, he was angry about my lack of enthusiasm in bed. We already had two children, born thirteen months apart, and I was pregnant with a third.
Because of my Christian upbringing and parochial education, I worked hard at being a good wife and blamed myself for my husband’s unhappiness. To keep the peace and make him happy, I would get up an hour before his alarm went off and do my hair and makeup, feeling it was my duty to look good for him.
At breakfast he would critique my performance in bed the previous evening, always finding it wanting, and then extract a promise that I would be sexually available to him that evening. If I hesitated in my response, he would fall into an angry funk and declare himself too depressed to go to work. Instead he would stay home all day and berate me for my lack of wifely obedience. So I quickly learned to promise whatever he asked.
One evening I was suddenly overwhelmed with nausea brought on by my pregnancy. As I was kneeling at the toilet, feeling miserable, my husband stood over me with his hands on his hips. “You promised,” he said.
It’s been many years since our divorce, which came as a complete surprise to him. “Why did you divorce me?” he asked. “I was so happy.”
I married young and did not see my mother often in the early years of my marriage. Later she relocated to be closer to me and her young grandchildren. I could tell on her first visit that something was wrong. As I spent more time with her, I noticed that she didn’t remember things she had said in previous conversations. She drank orange juice out of a coffee cup in the afternoons. She bought vodka by the half gallon. Her hands trembled.
One night I took my mother’s car keys because she was clearly intoxicated, and she promised me that she would never drink and drive again. In turn I promised her that I would do anything I could to help her stop drinking.
Six months later the coroner called. My mother had lost control of her car and driven into the Eel River. She’d died in the accident. The emergency crew was at the scene, and they needed to know if they should be looking for anyone else.
“No,” I said. “She told me she was traveling alone.”
The autopsy showed that her blood-alcohol level was over the legal limit. I recalled a time months earlier when she’d wanted to take my eight-year-old son on a trip, but I wouldn’t let him go with her. I didn’t trust that she wouldn’t be drinking.
Days before I confessed to molesting an adolescent girl, I did my best to come clean with everybody I knew.
I told my good friend Sue over lunch at a Chinese restaurant. She ate silently for a while, then said she knew I should go to prison, and she didn’t know how she felt about me anymore, but it wasn’t going to be easy not having me around. I promised that, if I didn’t get a natural-life sentence, I would take her out to a Chinese restaurant when I was released.
I was arrested two days later and eventually sentenced to forty years in prison. For the first three years Sue did not visit or write me. Then one day she showed up. We met in the prison’s visiting park, and she bought me popcorn, honey buns, and sodas from the vending machines. She told me it had taken her a while to forgive me for victimizing that girl. “There are a lot of people in this world who have been victimized like that,” she said, “and I’m one of them.”
I cried that day in the visiting park and later in my cell when I was alone.
Sue continued visiting, but her health began to go downhill. She developed diabetes, and her kidneys were failing. Her eyesight deteriorated. When she could no longer drive, she stopped coming to visit.
The next time I saw her, a year later, she was nearly completely blind, and a guard had to help her in. She had a boyfriend now, she told me. His name was Tom. “He’s as big and round as I am, but healthy,” she said. “And he puts up with me.” Tom was taking care of her, and my father and stepmother had met him and approved. My hard-to-impress father even spoke highly of him when I called.
Tom would drop Sue off at the prison gate whenever she visited me. He was afraid of prisons, Sue said, but she promised to introduce me to him when I got out. (My sentence had been whittled down to sixteen years.) “He knows about you,” she said, “but he wants to meet you anyway.”
What other guy was nice enough to drop his girlfriend off to see an inmate?
A couple of years before I got out, Sue’s health worsened. She was going to dialysis twice a week and too ill to travel. I talked to her one last time by phone. “I promise you will meet Tom,” she said. “He is a great, great man.”
She died within a week.
Two years later I was released, and my father came to pick me up. For my first meal, we went out to eat at a Chinese buffet. Remembering my promise to take Sue out for Chinese, I was feeling morose.
As we looked for seats, my father spotted someone he knew: a large older man with three younger men in his care, all of whom had special needs. “Let me introduce you to my son,” my father said to the man. “David, this is Tom — Sue’s Tom.”
We shook hands and hugged and talked for a while. When Tom had to take the young men in his charge back to the assisted-living facility, we exchanged phone numbers. I couldn’t help thinking how odd it was we’d run into Tom at a Chinese restaurant. Maybe I hadn’t kept my promise to Sue, but she’d somehow kept hers to me.
St. Petersburg, Florida
My first-graders’ arms were stained orange up to their elbows as we baked a dozen pumpkin pies for the homeless. While the pies cooled on the windowsill, another teacher popped her head in the room and said in a cheery voice, “Can you believe the forecast is for snow tomorrow? Maybe we’ll have a snow day before Thanksgiving!”
Rather than being excited, my first-graders were worried we wouldn’t get to deliver the pies for the holiday dinner the next day.
I kept a photograph of the Dalai Lama tacked to the classroom bulletin board, and below it his quote “It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act.” I took a deep breath and said, “First-graders are tough! We’re not going to be scared off by a little snow, are we?” People don’t stop being hungry when it snows, I told them. We’d promised to deliver those pies and help set up for that dinner, and we would do just that! My students cheered. I felt like a hero.
The next morning I woke up to a foot of snow on the ground. My phone rang. It was a student’s mother. “I told Jack school was canceled because of the snow, but he insists he has to go to deliver those pies. He keeps saying, ‘First-graders are tough!’ ”
I felt like an idiot, but I didn’t want to let my students down. I called the principal, who agreed to meet us at the school at 10 AM to unlock the doors. The students showed up with parents, siblings, and friends, and we carpooled downtown to the meeting hall where the dinner would be held. We delivered the pies just as we’d promised.
Mom didn’t want to be kept alive when it was her time to go. Neither did Dad. I made them both a promise that I’d minimize their suffering.
I always thought Dad would die before Mom, but her health began to fail first. When I got the call, I came down from the mountains to be her caretaker. I fed her ice chips with vodka and kept her as clean and comfortable as possible, but I could tell she was in pain.
When she finally called for the pills, Dad gave me five to give her. I looked down at the little yellow tablets in my hand and realized that I’d never thought I would actually have to keep my promise. I held her hand and told her I loved her as she swallowed the pills.
Soon afterward Mom grew chatty, telling me how she liked looking at the picture of Jesus that hung by the side of her bed.
Half an hour later I asked Mom, who was a nurse, “When are those pills supposed to kick in?”
Her blue-green eyes went wide with surprise. “Oh, my. I should be gone by now. Give me five more to make sure.” I did. I thought it was the right thing to do, but I never wanted to do it again.
Fifteen minutes later she was making a list of chores for me to take care of: the bank, groceries, gas in the car. I left to go do them, knowing the morning nurse would be there soon.
I took my time with the chores, hoping Mom would be gone when I returned. When I got back, however, the hospice nurse met me in the driveway and told me that another caregiver was giving Mom a shower.
Later that evening I got the pills out to take a closer look at them. I went on the Internet and found a picture of the same pills. They weren’t sedatives. They were Ritalin.
I was eight years old and living with my grandmother, Mamamá, in New Jersey when she first told me her secret: just before she’d fled Cuba in 1961, she had hidden her most precious belongings under the staircase of her home and hired a master carpenter to build a false wall over the space. She listed the treasures, whispering conspiratorially: heirloom jewelry in velvet pouches, family photographs and love letters, the Dresden-china set she’d received as a new bride. She squeezed my hands tightly and said, “If you make it back to Havana, promise me that you will go to my house and get my things.”
After Mamamá died, I began thinking seriously about traveling to Cuba. My situation was complicated, though. I’d been born in Cuba, but both sides of my family had openly opposed Fidel Castro’s rule. As a boy my father had crossed paths with Castro every day in the hallways of their private Jesuit high school. “He was a bully then,” he said, “and he is a paranoid bully now. You might get in, but you might not get out.”
I submitted lengthy applications for entry as a visiting journalist, but I didn’t get very far, and I set aside my dream — until my eldest brother died unexpectedly at fifty-one. We scattered his remains in the Atlantic Ocean, hoping the current would carry them to Cuba. As the dark ashes dissipated in the waves, a longing rose in me. Suddenly nothing seemed more important than returning to Cuba.
I quit my publishing job of twenty-seven years and found a new one that qualified me to conduct research in Havana. Then I paid a well-connected Cuban travel agent to process a thick stack of forms. It was madness, but it worked. Three months later I landed at José Martí Airport in Cuba and joined a state-approved tour. Never far from watchful government eyes, I attended canned lectures, visited designated schools, and interviewed teachers and university professors for my “research project.”
Finally, when we were all supposed to be taking a siesta, I slipped past our guides. It was easy to find my grandmother’s house, but I was dismayed to discover that it sat squarely in Havana’s closely guarded embassy zone. I had fantasized that I might strike up a conversation with the house’s current occupants and be invited inside. No more. It was clear I would need sophisticated espionage to get anywhere near my grandmother’s treasures.
Standing in front of her house, I located the nearest surveillance camera and met its dark eye. I pictured a government official in a remote office leaning in to study my features on a video screen. Too bad you can’t see what I’m thinking, I thought.
“I’ll be back, Mamamá,” I whispered. “I need a little more time, but I’ll be back to get your things.”
Alicia Ramírez de Arellano
St. Louis, Missouri
© Anders Goldfarb
Second grade was a very busy time in my son’s life. He was constantly writing notes and slipping them under my door, messages like “Mom your the best. I woudent give yo up to be the presitent,” or “I love you so much my heart flutter.” Whenever I got one, I’d yell, “Telegraph received, telegraph man. Thank you.” And then I’d hear giggling and footsteps scampering all the way back to his desk.
Later that year he came to me looking very serious and said he’d heard something at school that he wanted to talk to me about. Somebody’s mom had said that when kids grow up to be teenagers, they become evil to their parents. He was near tears. “I’ll never do that to you or Dad. Never, never, ever.”
When my son was in ninth grade, my husband told me he could no longer keep his promise to love and honor me till the day he died. We sat our son down at the kitchen table and told him we were divorcing. His face went blank and still. We assured him that nothing could change our love for him, but he just stared straight ahead with his arms crossed. Finally I asked, “Don’t you have anything you want to say?”
He responded, “I guess we all do what we have to do to make ourselves happy.” And then he got up and went to his room, closing the door behind him.
In the ten years since, my son has had a terrible time. He quit college. He got caught drinking and smoking pot. He floundered and stumbled. A couple of times his dad had to bail him out of jail. I missed him and tried to call him, but he either screamed at me and hung up or just didn’t answer. I would constantly send him text messages to tell him how much I loved him. I imagined him rolling his eyes as he deleted them.
Two years ago my son finally came to visit me in my new house. He looked around and saw his second-grade notes framed and covering most of the living-room wall. He smiled.
Since then he’s started to call me. We only talk for a short while, but it’s enough. He also sends me a text here and there: a quick “How are you?” or “What’s been going on?” And with each one I feel my heart being repaired.
Last week, while I sipped my morning coffee, I got a text from my son that read, “What’s your story, morning glory?” — something I always said to him when he woke up in the morning. The message came out of nowhere. I could almost hear the sound of paper scraping beneath my door.
Somehow I let my sassy little nine-year-old niece, Farren, rope me into promising her that if she made straight A’s on her report card for the whole school year, I would take her on a road trip to Nashville, Tennessee. Farren is an aspiring country-music singer and secured my promise shortly after her first performance at a local restaurant. I had suggested that the best way to understand the music business was to visit Nashville, and the next thing I knew, I was under contract.
Farren called me after each report card to remind me of my promise and add to our trip itinerary. Finally, after nothing but A’s for the whole year, my three sisters and our five daughters and two sons and I piled into two minivans and drove to Music City, USA.
We arrived on a 105-degree day and walked down Honky Tonk Row. The marquees of the cavelike saloons looked tacky in broad daylight, but the country music that pulsated from inside was inviting.
Most of the honky-tonks didn’t allow underage patrons, but we found a bouncer at one who let us slip in and sit at a table in the back by the jukebox. The place was dark and dank and smelled of stale beer. Autographed photos of country-and-western stars lined the walls, and leathery wannabes lined the bar. We listened to a couple of songs sung by a brother-and-sister duo and made friends with Ike, a lounge lizard in a black western shirt with white pearl buttons. He had long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail and deep-set blue eyes hidden behind nests of wrinkles.
“To make it big in country music,” he said to Farren, “you gotta sing it like it is — none of that teeny-bopper stuff. You gotta sing about the true grit of life, no holding back.”
Ike told us about a karaoke bar around the corner that would probably let Farren sing if we contributed to the tip jar. We thanked him and made our way to the Buck Wild Saloon, located in a cellar below a strip club. The bartender reluctantly agreed to let Farren sing, but all her underage cousins had to wait outside.
Farren sang Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “I Feel Lucky.” Her voice — mature beyond her years — confident stage presence, and charisma surprised the patrons at the bar. They whooped and hollered and asked her name, predicting that she would make it big one day. She beamed with pride and assured them that she would.
I wondered if this was how little girls get their hearts broken, misinterpreting well-meaning feedback as unspoken promises.
After a round of high-fives to her new fans, Farren emerged from the dark cellar into the bright sunshine, where her cousins waited, looking bored and ready to move on. I’d placed a ten-dollar bill in the bartender’s tip jar on the way out.
We toured the Country Music Hall of Fame and the famous Studio B. We line-danced at the Wild Horse Saloon and ended the trip with a live concert at the Grand Ole Opry. Before the show we took a backstage tour of the Opry, and Farren asked to sing from the famous wooden circle at the heart of the stage, where so many great country stars had performed. She filled the vacant theater with her strong, confident voice and her little-girl dreams.
Shallotte, North Carolina
My grandmother Esther was a very proper lady. When I was growing up in the fifties and sixties, she was continually making me promise her something: “Now, dear, I want you to promise me that you’ll never . . .” It might have been not to wrinkle my brow. (Apparently I did this when something was bothering me.) “You’ll have those lines between your eyes when you’re older, dear,” Essie warned. Or not to wear heavy eyeliner. “It makes your eyes look smaller, you know.”
But her most memorable appeal came in my midthirties, a couple of years after I’d divorced. I’d taken my kids to visit Essie, who ushered me into a back room while the children were busy.
For some reason I was the grandchild with whom Essie could discuss sexual issues. That day her concern was my sex life. Apparently it was unthinkable to her that I’d even have one — of any kind.
“Dear,” she whispered forcefully, “whatever you do, you must promise me that you’ll never masturbate.”
I resisted the urge to tell her that was none of her business and instead asked, as gently as possible, “Why not?”
“Well, I’ve seen some women who do that, and they look just awful!”
I don’t recall how I ended the conversation, but I know I avoided giving a direct answer. I’d certainly never want to break a promise to my grandmother.
Leslie Hilburn Fabian
I am on the computer in my upstairs office when I realize it’s well past 7 PM. Typically I would be downstairs making dinner right now for the man I love. This time of year we like to eat on the screened porch, the night alive with insects, the silhouettes of the mountains visible in the distance.
I have never before lived with someone who suffers from depression. I don’t know how to do it. Sometimes he can’t answer questions or even acknowledge that he’s heard me.
He’s apologized and said, “You didn’t sign up for this.”
But do we ever sign up for anything? Or maybe we sign up for everything.
I woke one recent morning, and he was not in bed. He was also not in his office, not on the porch, not on the couch in the living room.
“Jack?” I called anxiously.
“In here,” he said from the bathroom.
I realized I had been afraid I would find him hanging. Later that day I asked if he could promise me honestly that he would not do himself in.
After a long pause he said, “Yes.”
Tonight when I go downstairs, I find him in his office and begin to cry from the strain. He stands up and puts his arms around me, his reflex still to protect me somehow. I tell him about my fears. I tell him I can’t bear to sit across the table from him when he can say nothing. We always had something to discuss, at times heatedly. Now conversation is either nonexistent or one-sided. I tell him I know it’s not his fault.
He says, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
It is hot. We have a cool, stream-fed pond on our property. “I was thinking of taking a dip,” I say, wiping my eyes. “Do you want to walk down to the pond with me?”
He assents immediately. Would he have agreed had I not been crying? I ask him.
“Of course I would have. I like to hand you your towel when you get out.”
“You’re more than a towel attendant.”
He stands on the dock while I take off my terry-cloth bathrobe and place my sandals at the top of the wooden ladder. The last pink clouds of sunset are reflected in the water, and fish splash at the surface. I make a shallow dive into that dark, inviting pond. After I have swum a few lengths, I come to the ladder.
Jack asks, “Are you ready to come out?”
I say, “I am a pond mermaid.”
He says, “You don’t see many of those.”
“No,” I tell him. “I have never shown myself to any human being before. Ever.”
“Why did you show yourself to me?”
“I saw you standing on the dock, and you looked so sad I had to swim to you.”
We hear the sound of a car on the road adjacent to our property, where the maple-syrup farmers have their sugaring operation. The headlights pierce the woods as they bump along, and I squeak in fright and dive underwater.
I come up again. “Are they gone?” I ask Jack breathlessly.
“Yes,” he says. “You’re safe.”
“If I keep talking to you, will you promise that you will never, ever tell any other human being that you saw me?”
Without hesitation he says, “I promise.”
I promise to hold off washing dishes and help you draw Darth Vader. I promise to let go of petty arguments about who does more laundry and love your mother fully. I promise to take my rage to the forest and not pass it on to you. I promise to floss my teeth every damn night to be a good role model. I promise to share with you the mysteries of the ferns, lichens, and liverworts that inhabit the woods where I work, but I promise not to shove that appreciation down your throat. In fact, I promise to love you just as much if you become a bond trader or a computer geek. I promise not to let your younger sister’s health problems gobble up all my attention. I promise not to forget about you.
I promise to let you watch some pointless cartoons mixed in with the educational PBS programming. I promise to keep making up those stories about Alaskan fishermen that you love, even though the plots are all pretty much the same: You and some of your pals get hired on as greenhorns to catch crabs. One of your enemies falls off a neighboring boat and is freezing to death. At the very last moment you and your buddies save him, and you all become friends. The crab harvest is great, and you make loads of money, so you can buy all those Lego sets that we can’t afford in real life.
I promise to sneak in a few chocolate treats if you finish those weird-looking buckwheat muffins and cucumber smoothies Mommy serves up. There will be times when I’ll fail you, but I promise I’ll work at making amends. Most of all I promise not to forget that moment I first held you and knew that my previously aimless life would always have meaning.
Morro Bay, California