The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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Rule #1: Always tell us where you are going and when you’ll be back.
One boring Saturday night in the spring of 1964, my friend Janet and I, both seventeen, told our parents we were going to the movies. But we’d already seen the main features in the theaters. So we dressed as much like college girls as we could and headed downtown.
Rule #2: Don’t talk to strangers, especially sailors.
Janet suggested we go to the Puritan restaurant, where the young sailors on shore leave hung out. We went inside and ordered two cups of coffee, hoping someone would come along to buy the second round. Before long two cute Greek naval midshipmen asked if they could sit down and practice their English.
Rule #3: Don’t accept anything from strangers, especially a drink.
Giorgos and Demetri, who were about our age, treated us to three cups of coffee and told us more about Greece than we’d ever learned in history class. At some point a Greek American sailor heard the boys having trouble with their English and began translating.
Rule #4: Never leave town without our permission.
Nick, the Greek American, told us there was a Greek festival that night at the Eastern Orthodox church in Norwich, about twenty miles away. There would be food and dancing, and he had extra tickets. Did we want to go? It sounded like fun, and it must be safe if it was in a church, I thought.
Rule #5: Never get into a car with a stranger.
We all piled into Nick’s Volkswagen van. When we got to the church, the party was in full swing. Janet and I barely had time to taste the gyros, spanakopita, and baklava before some older women grabbed our hands and dragged us onto the dance floor. We wove in and out of the line of men, and everyone shouted, “Opa!” whenever someone executed a particularly impressive move.
Rule #6: Never, ever get into a car driven by someone who has been drinking.
It was nearing midnight, and instead of coffee, the Greek boys were well into the ouzo. (We’d tasted it and found it unpalatable.) Worse, Nick appeared totally wasted. Janet pulled me aside and asked, “Do you think he can even drive?”
Then I remembered my father’s other rule.
Rule #7: Wherever you are, whomever you are with, no matter what the hour, if you need to get out of there, call me. I will come get you, no questions asked.
To make sure I could call, my dad gave me a dime for the pay phone every time I left the house. I fished that dime out of my wallet now, and Janet and I found a phone booth on the street. After many rings, Dad’s sleepy voice answered, and I told him where we were. He started to ask what we were doing there, then said, “Never mind. I know where it is. I’m on my way.”
We rode home in complete silence. I knew Dad had plenty of questions, but the deal was that he wouldn’t ask them.
I never thanked my father for keeping his end of the bargain, but years later I offered the same arrangement to my own kids. It’s the one rule every parent should make, because someday your son or daughter is going to break all the others.
Mary Elizabeth Lang
At my high school, students with signed parental consent could use the on-campus smoking lounge. It seemed the only ones who got this permission were the kids whose parents were glad they showed up for school at all, but others would sometimes sneak into the smoking lounge and try to blend in or stand behind the door where they couldn’t easily be seen.
Good girls like me didn’t go to the lounge. We did our smoking crouched in the bushes. My spot was near the school-bus stop, and I would pause there every morning for a few delicious drags before popping some mint gum into my mouth and heading to homeroom. The only time I didn’t make this detour was if it was raining or if it had snowed recently and my tracks into the bushes could be seen. On those occasions I would feel an aching need for a cigarette all day.
One rainy morning I walked from the school bus directly to the bathroom by the gym, where the pretty, athletic girls were primping at the mirror. Without a glance at them I went into the farthest stall and lit up.
I knew I was in trouble when the room fell silent. I threw the butt into the toilet and hoped the flush would mask the sound of the gum wrapper. I zipped up my smokes in my backpack and swung open the stall door. And there stood the vice-principal.
“Oh, it’s just you,” she said. “I thought someone was smoking in here.”
That’s the day I became another kind of girl: the kind who realizes she can get away with things because no one suspects her; the kind who can open the door to the cops and say, “Is there a problem here, Officers?” with such sweet innocence that they never come inside.
San Francisco, California
“Good night,” I tell my seven-year-old son, firmly taking his Rick Riordan novel from his hands and inserting a bookmark.
“No!” he wails.
“Zachary, it’s late. You need to go to sleep. It’ll be right here in the morning.” I place the book on his nightstand and kiss his forehead. Then I turn on the rechargeable night light he keeps by his bed; it’s shaped like a bear and glows white.
In half an hour I’ll come back to find him lying innocently with his head on the pillow and the book still on the nightstand, but the bear’s snout will be pointing in a different direction, and the bookmark will have moved forward by at least a chapter.
My husband always removes the book from Zach’s room when he puts him to bed, but I prefer to preserve our child’s illusion that I don’t know his secret. I grew up feeling alone and afraid, sometimes without even a bed to sleep in. I like to picture my son hiding underneath the covers with his night light, breathlessly turning the pages.
I was an aide in a large nursing home, working the graveyard shift with my co-worker Judy. Our duties were to go from room to room, turn each patient in bed if needed, and change the sheets if they were soiled.
Most of our patients had severe dementia and little or no awareness of what was around them. They sometimes developed bedsores, because workers on the other shifts hadn’t turned them. Judy and I would put on gloves and massage the spots to restore circulation to the damaged skin, but only nurses were licensed to administer medications, and the doctors rarely prescribed them.
We referred to the head nurse as “Oscar the Grouch,” and one night, while Oscar was away from her desk, Judy called me into the medication closet and pointed to some dusty bottles, aerosol cans, and lotions on the floor — the leftover bedsore prescriptions of patients who had left or died.
Judy and I hid a few of the medications under the sheets on our cart, and as we went from room to room, we gently applied medicine to each sore we found. We did this every night. At the end of our shift, one of us would take the bottles and tubes home in a lunch bag and then bring them back the next day. When we ran out, we snuck into the closet and got more.
As some of the patients’ bedsores healed, the nurses chalked it up to good diet. Then one night I was applying medication to an old woman’s hip when I noticed Judy’s eyes were wide. I looked behind me and saw Oscar the Grouch standing there. She snatched the ointment from my hands.
Fifteen minutes later we were standing in front of Oscar’s desk. We could both lose our jobs, she said. We could even go to jail for practicing medicine without a license. She picked up some ointment tubes and shook them at us. “This is a federal offense. This is serious.” Then she told us to finish our shift. We’d talk about it again the next day.
Scared she might actually make good on her threat, I got to work early the following night, planning to beg for mercy, grovel, do whatever it took. The nursing floor was empty, and the medication-closet door was ajar.
I opened it all the way and saw Oscar the Grouch gulping down a patient’s cold medicine, not even pouring it into a cup first. She quickly put the lid back on the bottle. “I was feeling sick today,” she said, as if nothing were out of the ordinary.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I said, turning and walking away.
Judy and I weren’t fired. We never even got written up.
St. Petersburg, Florida
When I was four, I was sexually abused by a family friend. I was too young to understand what was happening, but I knew it was bad. And, like most victims, I assumed it was my fault.
I came to believe there was an evil force inside me that had to be controlled. If this evil escaped, those horrible things would happen again. I did everything in my power to be the best little girl I could be.
When I was six, I overheard my mother talking to a relative about how well-behaved I was. “I tell her she can have only three cookies for dessert,” my mother said, “and that’s all she ever eats.”
I was stunned. I hadn’t realized there was a choice.
The two of us crept down the hallway of our Catholic high school for girls, the wood floors of the former mansion creaking beneath our penny loafers. We stopped at the foyer, the target of our mission a single rope that hung there. It was connected to a large bell that the nuns used to summon one another. Sister Abigail was one ring, Sister Katherine was two, and so on.
My friend and I were sixteen, and we were good girls. We did well in school, always got home on time, and didn’t smoke or hang out with boys. No one would have any reason to suspect us.
We approached the rope and argued nervously over who would pull it. Finally we decided to pull together. We stood facing each other and took hold. My heart was racing, and my friend began to laugh so hard she accidentally rang the bell. That was one. We whispered a count to three and then rang the bell twice. Another whispered count, and we rang the bell three times. We managed to signal five sisters before we ran down two flights of marble stairs, past the lockers, and into the basement tunnels connecting the mansion to the other school buildings. There we stopped, breathing heavily, and collapsed into one another’s arms.
“We did it!” my friend said into my ear.
“I know,” I said.
We stood apart, still holding hands, our fingers intertwined. She took a step forward and looked at me as if I were suddenly unfamiliar. She seemed different to me too. There was heat between our palms. Then she kissed me.
As the sisters bustled above, responding to the bells, we were tucked away underground, responding to bells of our own.
When I was seventeen years old, I wanted to go to a hip-hop concert with a friend, so I called my mother to ask her permission. She was staying with her sister to be closer to the hospital where she was receiving treatment for colon cancer. It was stage IV, but I still didn’t recognize how sick she was.
Mom forbade me to go to the concert. She had reason to be concerned. There was a huge winter storm coming, and I had never driven in the snow. But I was young and cocksure, and although my mother and I were close, I didn’t respect her authority. I told her I was going, reminding her that she had never successfully forbidden me from doing anything.
The temperature was below zero, and the night was black. I drove twenty miles per hour on the freeway. No one was out on the roads except my friend and me. My mom called me a few hours into the trip and said that if I went through with it, she would stop paying my car insurance, and I wouldn’t have a car for the whole summer. But it was too late. I wasn’t turning back.
It was a great concert, and my friend and I got to stand in the front row. We slept in the car and began the drive home the next morning. My aunt’s house was on the way, and I stopped to visit my mother.
By the time we got there, the sun was out, and the snow was melting. My mom was in a spare bedroom. A sign on her door read, “Chemo-Sabe.” She made me smile, even though she was so skinny it was hard to recognize her. She was still the person I wanted to talk to and hug and share everything with.
After our visit she walked me to my car. My friend and I had a couple of hundred miles to go. It was bright out, and I was wearing sunglasses so no one could see my tears. My mother hadn’t even scolded me. I wished we could go back inside, and I could lay my head in her lap and stay like that forever.
This was one of the last times I would see her. As we hugged goodbye, I started crying. I felt terrible for disobeying her, and I told her I wouldn’t drive my car after this. I’d keep it in the garage, and I’d walk to work, and she could let my insurance expire.
“You know I would never do that,” she said. All she wanted was for me to get home safely, and everything would be forgiven.
Every young physician is taught not to treat family members, because making objective decisions is too difficult. But when my older sister, Eva, calls from New York to tell me that she has tuberculosis, I tell her to come see me right away. “And bring your X-rays.”
One look at the films and I know: she has lung cancer. It is 1970, and my sister is fifty-two years old.
Surgery is scheduled, but Eva refuses any procedure unless I assist. (This is typical of my sister, who has a strong need to be in control.) I tell her that I love her too much to stay professional in the operating room.
“I don’t care,” she says. “I don’t trust anyone else.”
I tremble while I scrub for surgery, but I am composed and focused once we start. It is soon clear that there is nothing we can do: her cancer is inoperable. Once Eva is in the recovery room, I slam my locker door and weep.
In the intensive-care unit Eva asks if she is going to be all right. Suppressing my tears, I shake my head no.
Eva moves in with my family, as do her son and daughter. She is angry and demanding and does not want to die. As I give her an injection for pain, she tells me, “You don’t know what you’re doing. Why don’t you go back to medical school?” Minutes later we hug and cry.
Eva becomes more difficult as she loses control of her bodily functions. She is afraid to die and does not want to be alone. I sit with her during the night, glad that I broke the rule and agreed to take care of my obstinate sister.
Renate G. Justin
Fort Collins, Colorado
My mother’s students had finally left. The accordion was packed in its case and buckled tight, the harp was ceremoniously draped, and the piano was closed. These were my cues to get ready for our journey home. I held the banister with one hand and Mama’s hand with the other as we carefully descended the long flight of stairs from her studio. When we opened the door onto Governor Street in Mobile, Alabama, the hot air smelled of roasted peanuts, tar, and car exhaust.
My mother wore a tailored white dress with blue piping and white high-heeled pumps. Her hair was pinned in a bun, and she had freshened her lipstick. She was originally from New York and determined not to take on “country ways.” I was five years old, and whenever I fell into a Southern dialect, she would patiently correct me: “Not ‘SEE-ment,’ honey, ‘ce-MENT.’ ” I thought she was the smartest, prettiest woman in the world.
While we waited in the shade at the bus stop, my mother smiled at and greeted each person who passed. I hoped nobody would stop to talk; the trip from her studio to our house was my time alone with her. We had to take two buses and then walk two blocks to our house on Linwood Drive. I would hold her hand the entire trip.
On the bus the “colored” people sat at the back and the whites in the front. This was 1953. We were white, but we liked to sit as close to the line between the two as possible, sometimes even crossing it. We also routinely sat at the “colored only” lunch counters and drank from “colored only” drinking fountains. My mother smiled broadly and innocently as she broke these rules, determined to chip away at injustice, but I couldn’t comprehend her motive at the time. It didn’t matter to me where on the bus we sat, as long as I was with Mama.
Some bus drivers liked us, but there was one driver who didn’t. He had a large face, a puckered mouth, and beady eyes, and on this particular day he was at the wheel of our bus. We sat so far back that there were black people not only beside us but in front of us. This was unusual, and everyone stared.
When it was time to change buses, Mama pulled the cord, the bus slowed, and we got up to exit through the “colored only” door in back. Just after I’d passed through it, the door abruptly closed, squeezing my mother in its mechanical grip. I held tight to her hand and screamed, and people on the bus and on the street shouted to the driver as the bus moved forward. Mama’s head was trapped in the door, and I was dangling by one arm.
We heard later that the passengers had forced the driver to stop, but not before he’d traveled a block or two.
An ambulance took us to the hospital, where Mama was diagnosed with a concussion. My arm was OK, though my new shoes were badly scuffed from the dragging. Many witnesses who gave their accounts of the driver’s misconduct noted, in his defense, that the white woman had sat too far back in the bus.
Cedar Key, Florida
A conscientious objector, my father served as a medic during World War II. After the war he entered the Episcopal ministry, aligning himself with liberation theology, and he went on to become a radical advocate of social justice. As his son I felt a need to prove myself worthy of my father’s admiration.
In 1970, at the age of fourteen, I was the youngest member of the Venceremos Brigade, a group of three hundred North Americans who traveled to Cuba in defiance of the U.S. travel ban. My father was vilified in our local paper for letting his son go to Cuba and, the paper alleged, study guerrilla warfare. After my return I became active in the antiwar movement and organized a student walkout in my sophomore year of high school. I never went back.
At the age of sixteen I decided to run off to Italy and work on a farm. On the eve of my departure my father, who had been drinking, accused me of being “bourgeois” for going to a European country. Why not China? Or North Vietnam?
At nineteen I came home to the States and got involved with an anarchist collective that produced guerrilla theater, ran a printing cooperative, and engaged in acts of political subversion. I was finally more radical than my father. He and I would have heated arguments, and I once accused him of being dogmatic in his views on socialism. He responded that “nondogma can also be dogma.”
A year later I decided to return to Italy. I rode my bicycle to New York, flew to London, then biked the rest of the way. For lodging I devised a scam: I would stay in luxury four-star hotels, eat lavish meals in their restaurants, and then leave without paying. I felt justified by my belief that it was all right to steal from wealthy capitalists.
I would write my parents letters on embossed hotel stationery, sharing the details of my escapades. After dozens of successful capers I learned that Interpol was on to me, and I made a rare phone call to my father. He told me he was scared, and if I didn’t stop this “craziness,” he was going to come find me and bring me home. After we hung up, I broke down sobbing. I soon ceased my travels and returned to the U.S. It was a long time before I understood why I’d taken my rebellion so far: I was forcing my dad to act like a father.
I was in seventh grade at a boarding school in northern New Jersey when the film version of the musical West Side Story came out. My divorced parents came to visit me on alternate Sundays, and I convinced each of them to take me to the movie theater to see the dancers bound across the screen, portraying members of two rival gangs, the Sharks and the Jets. I loved their perfect back flips and snapping fingers, the electric excitement before a rumble.
Our school’s headmistress, Miss Simon, had a passion for rules. She rated us each week on a scale of one to ten for honesty, kindness, table manners, neatness, helpfulness, and study habits. We were required to be silent at mealtimes and to be in bed by eight. We were forbidden to tease and spray our hair or to talk about boys and sex. Miss Simon kept a thin bamboo stick at her side, and she would bring it down on our backs and shoulders if we disobeyed. Her goal was to produce “strong, disciplined young women.”
In this climate of harsh authority the Sharks and the Jets became my heroes. The other girls and I adopted their delinquent slang, shouting, “Kick it!” and, “Dig it, Daddy-o!” as we raced across the open field after class. The headmistress expected us to be playing volleyball, but instead we practiced back flips and cartwheels.
One afternoon a girl named Cheryl Anne suggested we stage a mock rumble; she would be Bernardo, and I would be Riff. The other girls could choose to be either Sharks or Jets. We charged into action, jumping and twisting and swinging mock punches at each other. I walked on my hands, sure I had turned the world upside down. I felt wild and free under the open sky.
New York, New York
Thirty-five years ago I performed a mercy killing. Some might call it “euthanasia,” but the fact is, I murdered a man.
He was in the late stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. First comes the muscular degeneration; the patient gets weaker and weaker until he cannot speak, cannot eat, cannot swallow. Then his body becomes shriveled and discolored. And there’s the pain, the terrible pain. But his brain still functions perfectly. He thinks, he reasons.
This patient was one of the lucky ones who are able to use a finger or two to write short messages on a blackboard. He had been a brilliant journalist. I was his nurse. I’ll call him “Al.”
For the first few weeks after his admission to the hospital, Al could sip liquid through a straw from a cup held by his devoted wife, Alice. On the blackboard he would write, “I love you, babe.” He and Alice had been married for thirty-five years. She stayed at his side from early morning until ten at night.
After eight weeks Al began asking me to help end his suffering. He would plead with his blue eyes. I’d been a nurse for only two years and had no experience with euthanasia, but his pain was obvious. He’d write, “Please!” on his blackboard, always with the exclamation point at the end. I’d wipe away his tears, and mine.
One Wednesday I signed up for a double shift. Alice left at 10 PM sharp. Normally I gave Al an intravenous dose of morphine every four hours, as ordered by his physician, but that night I injected the painkiller every two hours. Throughout the evening Al’s breathing gradually grew shallow. His pulse raced, then steadily slowed. His rigid, contorted body relaxed. And his pain was finally over.
Looking for a new church, I took a chance on an Evangelical congregation and was surprised to find a vibrant community of people who wanted to build strong relationships not just with Jesus but with each other. “You can’t be spiritually mature if you’re not emotionally healthy,” the lead pastor said. We learned communication skills and practiced them in small groups. And the music was glorious.
Among my fellow church members was a woman who would become my best friend and then my lover. Though we are both female, we didn’t hide our relationship. (We had each experienced the pain of a secret affair before.) Instead we went to the church leaders and let them know that we had fallen in love.
That’s when I learned that, as progressive as this church seemed to be, it adhered to the conservative interpretation of the Bible as forbidding same-gender love. The leaders begged us to reconsider, and when we did not, we were told to go. They could not find a place for us in their theology.
A few people left that church shortly thereafter, unable to stomach our being ousted. But for the most part our old friends — even those who disagreed with the leaders’ decision — chose their vibrant community over us.
Carrboro, North Carolina
© Mark Townsend
My husband and I had split up. I was financially strapped, and my son had flunked eighth grade and was getting in trouble in the afternoons while I was at work. I was worried that, if he had to repeat the grade, he would just give up on school. But I knew deep down he was sorry about the failure. So I made him a deal:
He and his sister and I were moving from New Mexico to Texas that summer. I would register him for ninth grade in the new school system. It would take weeks, maybe months, before his records got to Texas. If he was doing well when they came, the school officials might leave him in ninth. But if he wasn’t, I felt sure he would get sent back.
So in Texas I registered my daughter at the junior high and my son at the high school, and I held my breath.
More than a month into the school year, my daughter came home with a copy of her New Mexico records and a note saying that they couldn’t release my son’s records because he owed $9.61 for a social-studies book. I told my son I didn’t intend to pay for the book, but if he failed one class, I would.
He didn’t fail. I paid the fine toward the end of the year because he wanted to run track and couldn’t without his records, but by then he’d proven himself.
Today my son is a deputy fire chief and in charge of the emergency-management system for an entire city. Perhaps he could have pulled himself out of the mess he had made in eighth grade, but I am glad I broke the rules rather than find out.
Tuesday morning in my 6:15 AM fitness class, I can feel a roll of fat bulging over my bike shorts. I look around at the other sweaty stationary-bike riders and wonder if anyone can tell I stuffed myself last night. Like me, most of them are participating in the gym’s “big loser” program. They have seen me when I am up and when I am down. We have become comrades in our daily battle against the scale. We talk of egg whites and fat-free cheese, salads with three ounces of salmon and broiled chicken breasts with steamed broccoli. We also sometimes talk, quietly, of stopping for ice cream or gaining weight. I struggle to eat to fuel my body rather than to silence my anger, ease my boredom, or strengthen a familial bond.
Last night, as I do every Monday night, I ate dinner at my mother’s house. She makes chicken, brown rice, and vegetables just for me. Though she tries to accept my decision to eat differently, I feel as if I am abandoning her. When she says, “Have more,” with that loving smile, it’s hard not to.
When I was growing up, my mother worried aloud, while we were ordering Whoppers at Burger King, that we would become known as the “fat family.” But at some point she stopped caring. I once asked her if she ever ate because she felt nervous. “I eat because I am hungry,” she insisted. I didn’t remind her of the time we’d sat in the car having ice cream while she’d told me they had just taken her brother off life support.
My aunt, who is always there on Mondays too, is a self-proclaimed chocoholic whose weight can fluctuate by seventy pounds in a year. She refuses to let anyone serve her. “I’ll do it myself,” she snaps if I try to offer her a spoonful of rice. I imagine this gives her a sense of control. As a kid I felt closer to her than I did to my mother, but now that I’m attempting to change my eating habits, she doesn’t want to sit near me. “I don’t want you to see how much I eat,” she says.
If I refrain from dessert, my aunt says disdainfully, “Oh, you’re so good,” then diverts her attention and talks to everyone else. My cousin recently said that in our family, “once you pass on dessert, you become suspect.” I feel like a stranger in the culture that raised me.
So last night I played along. All eyes were on me as I had a second helping. And when the Hershey’s Nuggets came out during the card game, I ate some. Then came the licorice and M&M’s. My aunt, suddenly friendly, said, “Don’t you love candy?” We talked about the five-dollar chocolate bars we’d once eaten in Florida, and the ricotta pie my other aunt bakes at Easter. And when the card game ended, we had cake and cookies for “dessert.” My aunt and my mother both said, “Oh, this is too much,” as we reveled in the sweetness, and each other.
After surviving an accident that claimed the life of my five-year-old younger sister, I worked hard to be a good girl and follow every rule. But it’s impossible to compete with a sibling whose feet no longer touch the ground. Throughout childhood I felt lonely and longed to escape the pressure to be perfect.
In college I lived with my parents because they couldn’t afford for me to stay in a dorm. One summer, on a whim, I got a job as a maid at a tourist hotel in Colorado, five hundred miles from home. Who would have guessed that cleaning toilet bowls and making beds could feel so glamorous and liberating?
The staff were all college kids, and in their company I found the courage to be myself. I drank beer. I stayed out until 3 AM. I pierced my ears. And when I tossed my hair and my earrings swayed, I felt beautiful.
I fell in love with a fellow staffer, whose fingers glided easily over a piano keyboard. We’d sneak into the bar after closing, and he’d serenade me for hours. On Saturday nights we’d go out and dance the polka with the locals and laugh. Once, we stayed up to watch the sun rise over Pikes Peak, then scurried to be at work on time.
Finally I broke the biggest rule of all and made love with him. Afterward I remember sitting in the bathtub and praying the hot water would wash my guilt down the drain. I feared everyone would be able to tell that I was no longer a virgin.
The next day my parents arrived for a surprise visit. They took me to lunch, where I babbled incessantly and tried to look normal. All seemed to be going well until my mother stared at me and said, “There’s something different about you.”
My stomach dropped.
“I know what it is,” she continued. “You pierced your ears.”
Castle Rock, Colorado
Beginning when I was six years old, my eldest brother badgered me to let him touch and explore my body. As a girl I was starved for love and attention, so I did what he asked, even though he was a bully and often mean to me. As time went on, he no longer had to badger me. I became addicted to the sexual pleasure and to his attention, and I continued to acquiesce even when I felt ill with shame. He’d get me off in his bedroom, in the basement, in the back seat of the car on family road trips. I was thrilled, in a miserable, conflicted way.
When I was twelve, I finally said no, and though he called me uptight, he stopped. Only decades later did I find out that he had similarly molested my sister, five years my junior.
I’m in my fifties now and live three thousand miles from my eldest brother. My sexual response is still somewhat tied to cruel and illicit fantasies, but I’ve consciously cultivated a gentler approach over my twenty-five-year marriage.
My brother and I have both been in therapy. I can’t fully forgive him for abusing my sister, starting when she was just four. While my emotional well-being was compromised, her life was more deeply affected. But I have maintained a relationship with him. I think we were both desperately lonely and sought whatever comfort we could. I try to live with all these conflicting truths, because I still love my brother.
In my midforties I was divorced and working in Chicago as a federal probation-and-parole officer. Most of my clients were men, and I heard many excuses as to why they’d been locked up:
“My wife made out the form; I just signed it.” (Income-tax evasion.)
“It wasn’t my idea. I had to go along with my boss.” (Pollution of public lands.)
“We just ran a business. I never killed anyone.” (Organized crime.)
In my dating life I became attuned to whether a man accepted responsibility for his actions. I listened carefully for clues, and many failed to pass the test.
On our first date Norm and I met for an early-morning racquetball match: the loser had to pay for breakfast. He won, but when he drove up to the restaurant, the parking lot was full. He pulled into a no-parking zone and turned off the engine. I waited to hear his excuse. Would he blame the restaurant for not providing enough spaces?
“I know I shouldn’t park here,” Norm said. “If I get a ticket, I’ll pay it.”
We’ve been together twenty-seven years.
Nap time was the most stressful part of kindergarten for me. The mats were neatly stacked along the wall: blue side up and red side down. Each was labeled with a child’s name on a strip of masking tape. The rules were: Find your mat. Place it in an orderly row on the floor. Lie down. Be still. Be quiet. Keep your eyes shut.
I’d squeeze mine closed and hope for sleep while the teacher patrolled the rows, checking to be sure no one was awake. Sometimes I drifted off, but most days I didn’t, and nap time seemed to last an eternity: Lie down. Be still. Be quiet. Keep your eyes shut.
That last rule was the hardest to follow, especially when I was curious about the sounds and movements all around me: What was that thumping noise in the hallway? Who just coughed? Were any of my friends asleep?
Lying on my side one day, I strained to hear where the teacher was so I could tell if it was safe to open my eyes. I thought I heard the click-click of her heels on the other side of the room, over by the furnace. Quickly I lifted my lids, keeping my head still, and moved my eyeballs from side to side to see what I could see.
Whack! The teacher brought the yardstick down on my backside, hard. It stung right through my dress, and I fought back tears of pain and humiliation. I was ashamed of what I had done. It never occurred to me to question the punishment.
I was born in San Francisco in 1966, near the start of the psychedelic era, but our neighborhood of tree-lined streets and ocean views was safe, solid, and traditional. We children were to be well-groomed and presentable. (A black-and-white photograph shows my older brothers standing on the lawn in matching tweed blazers.) We were not to question authority. We were to do our best in school and work toward an esteemed career. Questioning our parents’ ideas about what we could do, be, or feel was disrespectful, sometimes deserving of corporal punishment.
Being the youngest in the family, I was given more leeway than my siblings. While they were properly dressed and tamed, my theatrical disposition landed me in tap-dancing and drama classes. While everyone else got down to the business of homework and chores, I constructed imaginary universes filled with unicorns and rainbows. I also conducted archaeological digs in Mother’s closet, stayed up past my bedtime, made too much noise, didn’t clean up, and outran Mother when she came after me with her shoe.
I didn’t understand the pressure my mother put on herself to maintain control over her children in that era of social turmoil and change. Beyond the white colonials of our neighborhood, rules were being challenged and norms redefined. My mother hustled me past hippies, radicals, and braless feminists in public, but I was drawn to these exotic men and women. The drab, one-way path my parents wanted me to follow could not compete with a rainbow road decorated with daisy chains and peace signs.
Wrapped in the invincible cloak of youth, I abandoned the pursuit of monetary gain and dated boys who looked like Jesus. My father swore he’d disown me if I married one. I skipped marriage altogether and had a baby with a guy who sold fresh-squeezed orange juice at Grateful Dead shows.
In the years that followed, it became clear that child-rearing duties would fall to me alone. As I struggled to make a stable home for my child, I regretted the whimsical choices I’d made and understood why my parents had tried to steer me in a more secure direction. Being a single mother also tempered me. It gave me strength and grit and endurance. I had to make my own rules, and those are the best kind to follow.
The red button on the phone flashed, signaling that someone in the emergency-room lobby needed me immediately. A patient from a nearby rest home had been unceremoniously dropped off by the driver of the transportation van.
I left my desk in the CAT-scan department and headed to the lobby, where I found a frail woman of eighty in a wheelchair, her white hair pulled back into a bun. She had strikingly dark eyes and clear skin. The requisition said she needed a scan of her brain. She told me her name was Esther, and her expression grew apprehensive as I explained that, because of a backlog, we were currently doing the scans outside the emergency room in a mobile unit. “Don’t worry. This is an easy test,” I assured her.
When it came time for her scan, Esther began shifting restlessly in her chair. I decided to take her myself instead of sending her with an orderly, and we left for the parking lot.
The CAT-scan mobile unit was in the trailer of an eighteen-wheeler, and patients were brought up to its door by a mechanical lift. Esther was silent, but I noticed she was breathing faster, and I reassured her again. When we reached the side of the unit, I pushed the button, and the lift banged its way to the ground. I wheeled Esther onto the platform and pressed the button marked UP.
Esther reached for my hand. Hers was cold and clammy, and her face was ashen. “Please, don’t put me in there,” she said. “I don’t want any tests. I don’t need any tests. I feel fine.” The sleeve of her pink bathrobe slid down her arm, and I saw the deep-indigo numbers tattooed on her skin.
By then she was trying to get out of her wheelchair, and the mobile CAT-scan technologist came to my aid. I told him she was just frightened and I was going to stay with her in the scan room.
“Are you crazy?” he said. “I’m not radiating you.” As a technologist, I had almost reached my maximum allowable monthly exposure, and being in the scan room with her would definitely push me over the acceptable limits.
“I’m staying,” I insisted, quietly bringing his attention to her arm.
He saw the numbers and told the two of us to come inside.
Judy F. Grano
El Prado, New Mexico
For my senior year my parents sent me to an all-girls boarding school in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing to do, and the time crept by. More from boredom than altruism, I volunteered to visit the local nursing home with a group of students.
The nursing-home hallways were the common areas, where the residents spent most of their time. The school chaperones gave us explicit instructions not to enter the residents’ rooms. No problem, I thought.
I met with friendly faces as I made my way down the hall and mingled with the residents. At the very end, however, I saw a woman scowling at me. When I said hello, she just glared. No matter how friendly I tried to be, she was not having it.
The next time we went to the nursing home, I asked about the scowling woman and learned that her name was Mrs. Hayden and that her husband also lived there. I was told that I should steer clear of them. So I immediately went looking for the couple.
Again Mrs. Hayden practically snarled at me.
“I’m just trying to be nice,” I said. “What’s your problem?”
“I don’t want to be here!” she replied.
“Oh, yeah?” I said. I told her I didn’t want to be at boarding school either. At least she had her husband for company. And she could smoke!
Shocked at my outburst, she shook her cigarettes at me and said, “You want to smoke? Here — smoke!”
Her tone was mean, but I recognized a friendly gesture when I saw one. I laughed and said they’d kick me out of school if I did. To my amazement she told me I could smoke in her room; she’d keep watch for me. Even though I’d now be breaking two rules, I took her up on it. I nervously smoked her Pall Mall unfiltereds in the room while Mrs. Hayden peeked out into the hall. Before long both of us were giggling.
For the rest of the school year I went to the nursing home faithfully every Thursday, and the Haydens and I would talk and smoke. Of course it became known that I was going into their room, but the school chaperones made an exception for me, because they were so surprised anyone had made friends with the couple. It turned out I was breaking a nursing-home rule too: no one, including the residents, was supposed to smoke in the rooms. The Haydens did it all the time, however. One day I asked Mrs. Hayden why they smoked in their room rather than in the hall. She looked at me slyly and said, “Because we’re not allowed to.”
Carolina Beach, North Carolina