In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I taught freshman composition in a large Midwestern university for about ten years until, frustrated with the low pay and apathetic students, I decided to leave. After working in an accountant’s office for a year, I realized I missed the classroom, so I signed up to teach in the Indiana prison system.
Having come from a middle-class background, I was nervous about entering a maximum-security prison and working with students I knew nothing about. On my first day I passed uneasily through five locked, barred doors, each guarded by armed correctional officers. The final door opened to the prison yard. From there I was accompanied by a large, genial man who was in charge of the classrooms. He made small talk and tried to calm my obvious anxiety, but I was beginning to think I’d made a mistake.
I was wrong. The prison students were, with some glaring exceptions, engaged and intelligent. They were interested in the course material and worked hard in class, unlike many of my college students, who had seemed to think their education should be handed to them.
For the next eighteen years I taught almost exclusively in that prison program, and my students probably helped me as much as I helped them. The journey behind those five barred doors awakened me to the inequities in our country, especially in the criminal-justice system. I also became powerfully aware of how fortunate I was to have had parents who so capably molded my sense of right and wrong.
My years of teaching in prison weren’t trouble-free, but they rejuvenated me and made me not only a better teacher but a better person.
My father fashioned the basement of our two-story brick colonial into his private sanctuary. He painted the concrete walls, put down vinyl flooring, installed a bar with leather stools, and filled shelves with artifacts from around the world.
He kept the door to this room locked, but once in a while my four siblings and I were allowed to join him in there. He had three shiny slot machines, and we would play them using nickels and quarters from a jar. Sometimes my father would reminisce about Rio de Janeiro, where he had been stationed during the Second World War — far from the fighting — and show us photos from that time, or pictures from his childhood. I once asked him about the leather-bound photo albums on the top shelf, which I’d never seen him take down. He just said they were private, which only made me more curious.
One Saturday morning when nobody else was home, I studied the locked basement door and noticed that the hinges were on the outside. It took only a few minutes to remove the hinge pins with a screwdriver and a hammer, and the door swung open.
I switched on the light and pulled one of those photo albums from the top shelf. The first ten pages or so held pictures of my father and other soldiers in Rio, hugging and kissing women and having a grand time. Then I turned a page and saw a glossy black-and-white photo of a scantily clad woman in a sexy posture. As I leafed through fifteen pages of similar photos, I began to see my upright Midwestern father in a different light.
My father had been thirty-eight when he’d married my mother. In the album there were many pictures of him in his mid-twenties with his arms around a gorgeous woman — not my mother. They were outside my uncle’s farmhouse, on a beach, in a nightclub. Then I turned a page and saw a photo of Dad wearing a white tuxedo jacket beside the same woman, who was wearing a wedding gown. Two more pictures followed: one of them cutting the cake and the other of Dad on his knees, removing the garter belt from his bride’s leg.
I closed the book and sat in silence, feeling guilty about what I’d just seen. When I heard a noise upstairs, I quickly left the room, pushed the door back into the frame, and tapped the hinge pins into place.
I took that door off its hinges maybe a dozen more times over the next four years, always looking through another photo album from the top shelf. I saw some gruesome war pictures, but nothing as shocking as the old wedding photos.
My father lived to be ninety-four, and neither he nor I ever spoke of his secret.
North Miami, Florida
In 1980 I was the first woman to be offered a sales job in the New York City regional office of a major insurance company. Months after I had begun working there, I was talking with Jack, a seasoned sales representative twenty years my senior. “Do you know why you were hired?” he asked. I didn’t. Was it my prior work experience? My education? An affirmative-action quota?
Without waiting for my answer, Jack said, “Because you got up and shut the door.”
I recalled the day of my job interview: I’d sat in an office with three men. The door was open, and we could hear other conversations in the hall. I excused myself, got up and shut the door, then returned to my seat.
Evidently my career hinged on this one moment. To finally get my foot in the door, I first had to shut it.
Palm Beach Gardens, Florida
My alcoholic mother rarely hid her despair. She’d sometimes take a sharp knife from the kitchen, walk down the hallway to her bedroom, and quietly shut the door behind her. My older sister and I were just kids and didn’t know where to turn for help. I had a hard enough time fitting in with classmates whose moms led Girl Scout troops and didn’t stash whiskey in their purses. Telling even my closest friends about my home life didn’t seem like an option.
When our stepfather got home from his job as a car mechanic, he would expect a hot meal on the table, or he’d aim a fist at my mother. So I sat outside my mom’s bedroom door, telling her I loved her and promising her hugs and kisses if she would come out. I apologized for the tiniest of wrongs I’d committed. I said I would make dinner. Eventually she’d emerge and embrace me, and then we’d go to the kitchen and cut potatoes with the same knife she’d probably been holding to her wrist behind her bedroom door.
In the late 1960s I belonged to a radical left-wing student movement in West Berlin. We protested against the Establishment, but over time we began to question whether we were making any meaningful progress. So we decided to get jobs within powerful institutions and dismantle them from the inside. I focused on my academic career and became a teacher at a university. The other young, progressive teachers elected me to represent them in faculty meetings.
The first meeting I attended took place at an institute led by the most right-wing professor in our department. I happened to walk beside him as we approached the building’s double doors. The door on his side, the left, opened smoothly, but the door on my side was locked, so I followed him through the left door. With a cold smile he said to me, “That’s how it works at my institute: left in and right out.” My face flushed with anger, and a bitter taste arose in my mouth.
And yet, as the professor had predicted, years later I was working on a simulation model for a missile. I had gotten lost within the institutions of power and become what I’d once fought against.
As a little girl I once got stuck in the stall of a grocery-store restroom. I tried and tried but couldn’t unlock the door. In a panic I called for help. A woman’s voice asked what was the matter.
“I can’t open the door!” I shouted.
The woman calmly said, “Well, honey, just crawl out underneath.”
It was a vital life lesson that I try to remember when difficulties appear worse than they really are. I’ve mentioned it to friends who also have a tendency to feel anxious. Occasionally we’ll keep one another in check by asking, “Honey, are you sure you can’t just crawl out underneath the door?”
My dad worked thirty-one years for the fire department in Vancouver, Washington, retiring with the rank of battalion chief. Our house was well equipped with smoke detectors, and our family had an emergency-evacuation plan. Dad also had a strict set of fire-safety rules: always triple-check that the stove, coffee maker, iron, and dryer are turned off before leaving the house; shut bedroom doors at night while you’re sleeping (to keep the fire out as long as possible); and, finally, if you hear the smoke alarm, feel the closed door for heat before opening it. If it was hot, we were to climb out the bedroom window and head to the neighbors’ house. If it wasn’t, we were supposed to say, loud enough for him to hear, “I’m feeling the door, and it’s not hot.”
Dad would conduct random fire drills, sneaking downstairs and pressing the test button on the smoke alarm while we were in bed at night. One time I failed to call out to him, and he told me that I was “dead,” burned by the flames. After that, whenever I heard the alarm, I would rise in a stupor, run my hand over the door’s surface, and say, “I’m feeling the door, Dad. It’s not hot. Can I go back to bed?”
At the junior high where I taught, the administration created a policy to reduce student tardiness. It was called “sweeping.” As soon as the bell rang for class, teachers were to shut their doors and not let in any more students. Administrators would then walk the halls to “sweep” the remaining students to the main office and give them pink tardy slips. The irony that this made the students even later to class seemed lost on those in charge.
Some teachers relished the new policy, slamming their doors in hapless students’ faces. Others, like me, found the practice distasteful and refused to follow it. I considered the many legitimate reasons a student might be late: using the bathroom, dealing with a surprise menstrual period, becoming ill, changing clothes after PE. I also remembered myself in junior high. Shy and rule-conscious, I would have been a nervous wreck at the thought of getting “swept.” The junior-high years provide plenty of opportunities for a kid to feel shut out. I would not provide another.
It was already dark by the time I began the 250-mile drive to visit my friend Barb and her newborn. Gusts of wind pummeled my car, and rain spattered the windshield. After driving for more than two hours, I pulled into a rest area off I-75.
I entered the building, but as I approached the bathroom door, I felt inexplicably afraid. Something didn’t seem right. Heart pounding, I ran out of the building, hopped into my car, and sped out of the parking lot. I drove the remaining 125 miles without stopping.
At Barb’s house later that night, she gave her baby a feeding while I described my experience at the rest area. Barb asked what I thought had caused me to panic, but I had no good answers. Maybe the gloomy night had simply played games with my imagination. I put the incident out of my mind.
A couple of days later Barb’s husband was bringing groceries and a newspaper into the kitchen when Barb and I caught sight of the headline on the front page: “Woman Murdered in I-75 Rest Area.”
I read the article. “The same rest area?” Barb asked. I nodded. I wondered: Should I contact the police? What would I say? I had neither seen nor heard anything. I’d only felt something I couldn’t explain.
By the time I got home, a suspect had been arrested.
I have driven that same route to visit Barb many times over the years. Whenever I pass that rest area, I wonder how I sensed the danger.
I grew up in a tiny house with two bedrooms. My sister and I shared one with our parents, and our two brothers slept in the other. When our youngest brother was born, he was given the older boys’ room, and they were relegated to a sleeper sofa in the living room.
The only interior door in the house was the one to the bathroom. When we were small, privacy wasn’t much of an issue, but as we got older, I was painfully aware that there was no place I could be alone, no place I could change clothes without someone seeing me. I prayed my father would get a raise so he could add a room for me up in the attic. I’d daydream about that room. It would have a bed with a chenille spread and a cozy chair. There would be lots of light. And it would have a door with a lock, so no one could come in without my permission.
The room never materialized. Instead my father added a formal parlor that was used only on Sundays. It had a door and was right next to the living room, where my older brothers still had to sleep on that broken-down sofa.
Life in our house was chaotic and noisy. Sometimes I’d retreat to the basement, a damp, poorly lit room accessible only from the outside. Other times I’d hole up in the walk-in closet adjacent to the parlor.
After I left home, I lived with several other young women in a small apartment. Finally, tired of the noise and lack of privacy, I decided to strike out on my own, taking refuge in a studio apartment several blocks away.
When the last box had been unpacked, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. I was alone at last, with all the room I wanted.
I was so lonely I burst into tears.
My boyfriend of ten years and I were in the process of getting back together after a breakup when I started a new job. Through work I met a man named Connor, who was recovering from a recent breakup of his own. I enjoyed Connor’s company and began spending time with him. When Connor questioned my devotion to my struggling relationship, I became uncomfortable and defensive. I also wondered if he was right.
One day I was in Connor’s living room, and he was giving me a hard time, as usual, about staying with my boyfriend. Then he asked, “Why don’t we try kissing? Just to see what it’s like?” I had always been faithful to my boyfriend, and I was certain that kissing Connor would lead to something more, which I didn’t want. Flustered, I left.
The sound of Connor’s front door closing behind me remains vivid in my mind. I’m still in that same flawed relationship, and I think about Connor nearly every day. I wish I had tried that kiss.
The spring before I started kindergarten, my parents bought a hundred-year-old house in need of repair and spent their spare time trying to improve it. The bathroom didn’t even have a door. Often two or more family members would be in there together, one using the toilet and the other taking a bath or combing his or her hair. From an early age I saw both my parents in various stages of undress.
Our neighbors’ kid, David, was my age and became my close companion. Each evening my mom would call me in for a bath before bedtime, and David would follow me into the bathroom to keep me company. It was not unusual for David to use the toilet while I bathed.
One day at school, my kindergarten teacher sternly ordered me to go stand in the cloakroom as punishment for misbehavior. I didn’t understand why I had gotten into trouble. What had I done that was so naughty?
When I got home from school, I gave my mother the note from my teacher. It said I’d been punished for walking in on David while he was in the bathroom. I had gone to wash my hands while he was using the toilet. That was the day I learned the rule about closed bathroom doors.
I’m an old lady now, and still I often don’t close the bathroom door.
For the last twenty-four years I have worked behind a closed door. In psychotherapy privacy is crucial. I must create a secure, secluded place where healing can occur.
I have sixty minutes to connect with a patient before our session is over. An hour can fly by, or it can seem to last forever. Sometimes a patient’s breakthrough leaves me full of awe at what we humans are capable of. Sometimes I don’t know if anything helpful has happened until much later. Sometimes I never know. I have learned to live with that uncertainty and to trust the process.
At the end of my day I straighten my desk and head for the door. Occasionally I pause and look back into the space where my life’s work is contained. I often want to share what I have experienced, but, for legal and ethical reasons, whatever has passed between my clients and me in that quiet room must stay there.
My father was a hoarder, and I grew up in a house filled with stacks of magazines and newspapers and tools. For a long time there was a car engine on top of an oil barrel in the middle of the kitchen. One day, angry at my mother and the rest of us for our complaints about the clutter, my father pushed the oil barrel and engine in front of the kitchen door, wedging it closed.
After my seven siblings and I had grown up and moved out, my father became increasingly abusive, but my mother stayed with him out of a sense of duty. Then he attacked her, knocking her into a kerosene heater, and she walked out and never went back. My father remained in the house alone.
I returned to visit him with my son when I was thirty-two, forcing the front door open against a pile of junk and squeezing through the crack. “How come in Grandpa’s house we walk on newspapers?” my son asked. Narrow trails snaked among all the accumulated garbage. Rats inhabited the basement, and squirrels lived in the attic. The ceilings had fallen in several rooms, covering everything with plaster dust. Whenever my father needed to use the bathroom, he walked to a nearby gas station.
The Department of Health eventually condemned the house. My father threatened to “go out in a blaze of glory,” but when the bulldozers finally came, he left peacefully, and what was left of my childhood home was turned to rubble.
After moving to a different state to start a job, I began taking my car to a new auto shop. Every time I dropped it off for service, I got a ride to work in the shop’s van. The driver was always entertaining. He worked weekends as a professional clown for children’s birthday parties, and he would have me laughing at his stories about uncooperative ponies and other mishaps.
One Saturday morning I was canvassing for a gubernatorial candidate when I knocked on a door, and the van driver answered. I was too surprised to speak, but my canvassing partner launched right into the campaign pitch. Without looking directly at either of us, the man shouted, “I wouldn’t vote for him for all the tea in China!” and he slammed the door in our faces.
A few weeks later my car was back at the shop for an oil change. When I got into the van, the driver began telling me about his latest birthday-party performance, but I had a hard time listening. The difference between his friendly work persona and that unguarded moment on his porch was jarring. I thought about telling him I’d been one of the people at his door that day, but I never did.
At the end of my marine-biology class’s snorkeling session, everyone boarded the boat. Exhausted from hours of kicking in our flippers, some people had already begun napping by the time the engine started.
Before I could sleep, I needed to pee, so I walked to the small bathroom and shut the thick metal door behind me. After I was done, I washed and dried my hands, then gave the steel doorknob a twist, but it wouldn’t turn. I pushed, pulled, and pounded on the door, all to no avail. Meanwhile the boat began moving.
I banged again and shouted, “Hello?”
As if in response, the boat lurched to one side, causing me to crash into the wall.
Beginning to panic, I frantically looked for a tool to pry the door open with or for some kind of escape hatch, but there was no way out. I sat there, sick to my stomach, for what seemed like forever.
Suddenly the door slid open. It was a sliding door. In my fatigue I had forgotten how it worked.
One of my classmates stood in the doorway. “Sorry,” the guy said. “I thought it was empty.”
When I got back to my seat, almost everyone was asleep. I checked the time. I had been in the bathroom only fifteen minutes.
North Aurora, Illinois
The first thing I did after buying a condo in Seattle was remove the dated, dingy doors from the kitchen cabinets. Intending to paint them, I set the doors against the dining-room wall, where they sat untouched for months.
I had been trying to break up with my girlfriend for about a year. It was my first relationship with another woman, and it confused and frightened me. I had previously identified as straight and was reluctant to make a commitment. Unwilling to wait any longer for me to make up my mind, my girlfriend had moved to Portland, Oregon, but we continued to speak on the phone every day and met up every other weekend.
In the meantime I tried dating men. One evening, after an awkward phone conversation with a guy, I was feeling especially alone. At that moment I had a clear vision of myself in a family with children — and my girlfriend was the person beside me.
If I was going to relocate to Portland to be with her, I needed to get my condo in shape to put on the market. I grabbed my toolbox and was up until dawn rehanging those awful cabinet doors.
I proposed the following weekend. We’ve been married for nine years and are now expecting our second child.
After the funeral service for my twenty-two-year-old son, his friends came over to our house, but they didn’t know what to say. Eventually they drifted upstairs, and I heard their low murmurs and muted laughs. I guessed that they were standing in front of my son’s bedroom door, which was covered with graffiti: scribblings of adolescent jokes, angst, and declarations of love. Every friend of his who had ever entered his room had signed his door in marker or lipstick. Their messages were funny, innocent, raunchy, and poignant.
I sat quietly in the living room and listened to them tell stories about my son’s ironic sense of humor, his compassion for others, his reckless search for adventure, and the outrageous stunts he had pulled. I heard that, behind that closed door, he would escape through the window late at night to join his friends in the woods, or the streets, or wherever they could score drugs — including the heroin that had caused his death.
Sometimes I go in his bedroom to sit and think about him or cry. When I do, the words on his door whisper to me. I never close that door now.
Lyssa Black Fassett
One evening, when my older sister was thirteen and I was a boy of almost twelve, we convinced our parents to let us and our four younger siblings stay at home by ourselves, without a baby sitter, while they went out. I think they agreed in part because it was so hard to find a sitter for us — their notoriously rambunctious kids. I was a particularly challenging child to discipline. I got the sense that I was too much for them.
It was a hot night, so our parents assembled us in their bedroom — the only room in the house with an air conditioner. They laid mattresses on the floor and informed the four youngest that my older sister and I were in charge.
“But,” my father said, “you are not to hit your sisters, no matter what they do. Do you understand?”
After our parents left, I saw a look of delight on my younger sisters’ faces. For the next couple of hours they teased me continuously, chanting, “You can’t hit us, you can’t hit us.”
When I started to get angry, my sisters ran down the hall to their bedroom and locked the door behind them. Seething, I grabbed the knob and shook the door ferociously. At first I could hear them laughing, but they went quiet at the sound of wood splitting: I had pulled the door off its hinges, and my sisters were cowering in their room. My fury immediately drained from me, and I began to cry. I had become too much for myself.
© Rene Bechard
The door to the eighty-year-old log cabin was warped from rainwater. The carvings in the wood — a prancing pony in the center and a crowing rooster at the top — were still in good condition, but the deep-red background had faded to pale pink. My parents, my brothers, and I had carefully repainted this door many times and even tried patching the cracks and rotten spots, but now it was in sad shape. I had to push with my shoulder to open it.
The cabin, built by homesteaders shortly after the Civil War, always smelled of wood smoke and something feral. I had been coming to it all my life to stay for a weekend or part of a summer, but now I was here for good. I had quit my job and left my friends to live in the cabin, on an island where I knew almost no one. I wanted to restore the place, but I was no carpenter. What if I had been deluding myself? Even if I could manage the restoration, I worried I would be condemned here to a lonely and destitute old age.
The cabin had been renovated once before, by Earnest Norling, an out-of-work craftsman, during the Depression. He’d raised painted beams to the ceiling and carved a newel post at the bottom of the staircase into the shape of a horse’s head. He’d predicted at the time that the log stairs wouldn’t last. Eighty years later they were still strong, but as I moved in, I could see the hopelessness of ever being able to save the carved front door.
I drove into town for groceries and picked up a hitchhiker, a woman my age who was returning home from a wood-carving class. She urged me to check the class out myself, and the next week I did.
The teacher, Walter, taught in a garage. I took my place on a bench, among a dozen other carvers of all ages and skill levels, and started to work on my first project.
I was surprised to learn that Walter had studied Norling’s style and reproduced it for some customers. I brought him a photograph of my door, and he agreed to try to fix it.
A week later Walter had repaired the door beautifully, managing to leave the carved parts intact. He had also turned the door around so that the carvings faced the inside of the house, to preserve them.
I continued going to Walter’s classes and got to know the regulars who frequented his shop. Now I am in contact with one classmate or another almost every day. I tutor some of the kids I met there in reading and writing. I occasionally go to town with my new friends to shop or have lunch. We know one another’s joys and troubles. I have found my community.
Deer Harbor, Washington
My younger brother was my buddy when we were small, always ready to play whenever I asked. But by 1974, when he was twelve and I was fourteen, we saw each other mostly at the dinner table. He wore his hair long and had a peach-fuzz mustache that I teased him about. I spent the majority of my time in my bedroom with my headphones on, listening to Pink Floyd and David Bowie.
That summer we both went to a month-long camp in the Trinity Alps in Northern California. I was selected to stay at a remote outpost with a few other kids, far from the main buildings. I rarely saw the rest of the campers, including my brother. Meanwhile the trees, sky, and mountains lifted my spirits.
On the last night of camp, during the outdoor Sunday ceremony, I looked up to see my brother making his way toward me through the crowd, his arms out and tears in his eyes. I held him tight while he cried, “What are we going to do?”
I knew immediately what he meant. After thirty days in paradise, we were going home to the suburbs of Los Angeles, to a dreary house filled with our mother’s cigarette smoke. She would sit day and night on the living-room couch, her mind numbed by antipsychotics. Our father had left years earlier, and our older sister was in a private mental hospital for reasons I didn’t quite understand: Was she mentally ill, too, or did she just need to get away from our mother? As I embraced my brother, I told him that everything would be all right. I would make sure of it.
Back home, having learned at camp that there was something better in the world, I told my therapist I wanted to leave my mother’s house. He suggested an informal foster-care arrangement until a more permanent situation could be found. My mother agreed. The day I moved out, I went to say goodbye to my brother. He wouldn’t even look at me.
My brother stayed for four more years and became captain of his high school’s cross-country-running team. One Sunday afternoon he came home from a run to find a note taped to our mother’s bedroom door. “Don’t open the door,” it said. “Call your father.”
He opened it. There was blood everywhere.
As a young anthropology student I spent two weeks in the Southwest with some fellow students and our professor. The highlight of the trip was an archaeological dig at an ancient village site. It was my first time getting my hands dirty in the field.
The lead archaeologist on the site assigned me to work on a long, crumbling wall. I was to remove the loose stones, revealing more of the structure — but carefully. Another student had once yanked on a tree root and pulled out a human-skull fragment. I promised to use caution.
For several days I meticulously moved one stone at a time. The work was tedious and slow, and I cursed the wall but also felt a thrill to be communing with an ancient stonemason through his work. In the evenings the other students shared stories about interesting artifacts they had discovered. I had been daydreaming of making a significant find, but my wall was plain and dull, so I kept quiet.
By the last day I’d exposed a good-sized section, and the lead archaeologist came to look at my work. Bedraggled and sweaty, I gestured to the wall and said, “That’s about as far as I got.”
The archaeologist moved closer and motioned for me to examine one section with him. He pointed to a long slab and some stones that were stacked differently than the rest. “Karen,” he said, “you’ve uncovered a door. Good job.”
The opening in the rock wall had been filled in centuries before, but it was clearly a door. I had been so focused on the individual rocks, I hadn’t seen what was right in front of me.
Sober for a little more than a year, I felt scared that I might never make order out of the chaos I’d created with my drinking. My twelve- and fourteen-year-old sons were resisting the new, improved way of life I’d implemented, which included homework, curfews, chores, and bedtimes. Sometimes they got angry and shouted that they liked me better when I drank. I was starting to wonder whether recovery was worth it.
I had long wanted to replace our home’s flimsy, hollow-core front door. Dented and banged up, it barely kept out drafts and had become for me a symbol of how empty I felt inside, as if a cold wind were blowing through me, too. So I saved up the money to buy a new door and decided to install it myself. I read how-to books, purchased tools, and carefully measured for the hinges. Everything was going smoothly until I went to set the door in place and lost my grip. Its substantial weight fell back against me, trapping me in a corner of the alcove at the entrance to our home. Unhurt, I crouched behind the heavy door and wondered how I would get out of this mess.
Just then I heard my older son and his friend Ricky coming up the drive. I was about to call out to them for help when Ricky asked my son, “What’s going on with the door?”
“My mom is putting in a new one,” my son replied.
“No way,” said Ricky. “That’s too hard.”
“Not for my mom,” my son told him. “She can do anything.”
They retrieved a forgotten catcher’s mitt and went on their way.
Getting out of my predicament was a slow, difficult process, but I managed. For as long as we were in that home, the new door did a fine job of keeping the cold winds from blowing through.
Stoddard, New Hampshire
When I was eight, my parents let a seventeen-year-old neighborhood boy baby-sit my sister and me. Once, he convinced me to play hide-and-seek with him. While he counted with his eyes closed, I snuck into the kitchen and squeezed under the sink, closing the cabinet doors behind me. After a few minutes I heard the boy walk past. I held my breath so he wouldn’t hear me. Then he rattled the doors and said, “I got you!”
I pushed against the doors to surrender, but they wouldn’t open. Panicked, I began crying and banging with all my might. The boy just laughed. My sister yelled at him to let me out, but he ran her off.
Eventually my hysterics subsided, and the boy lost interest and left the kitchen. My sister returned and removed the broomstick he had stuck through the handles of the cabinet doors. I was free.
The memory of being trapped beneath that sink comes back to me now as I step into my cell and the door shuts behind me. But instead of feeling terror, I feel relief. Prison is a place where violence can erupt at any moment. At least inside my cell I feel safe.
My favorite aunt and uncle lived in an old coastal town just north of New York City. Their large lawn was surrounded by a tall hedge. In the center of the hedge was a door that led to a metal pier with steps descending to Long Island Sound. Only four years old, I was forbidden to pass through that door unless accompanied by a grown-up.
Late one summer night my mother woke me and told me to come with her. I sleepily took her hand and walked with her across the yard and through the unlatched door in the hedge. On the other side, small groups of people stood chatting. My mother guided me to the pier and down the metal steps. She slipped into the chilly seawater up to her chest and held out her hands to me. I joined her, amazed that we were taking a swim in the middle of the night.
Holding me in her arms, she instructed me to hit the water with my hand. I did, and a spray of glittering specks fanned out in all directions. Astonished and delighted, I hit the water again and again and was rewarded each time with a display of silvery light, like cold, wet fireworks. The word phosphorescence meant nothing to me at the time, and I needed no scientific explanation. The experience was one of pure joy. The door in the hedge had become the entry to an enchanted world full of mystery and beauty.
Grass Valley, California