Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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When my husband of twenty-three years asks what I remember about the first time I saw him, I recall how I had just become a Christian and had resigned myself to dating safe, boring, Bible-thumping men. Then he came tearing down a hill on his bike at a Christian camp, his long hair flying, tie-dye shirt bright in the sun. He threw free ice-cream-sundae tickets to the other campers and me before riding right into the pool. I felt hope and excitement, as if I’d just been given a big, fat “get out of jail free” card — and, yes, I found him attractive.
When I ask what he remembers about the first time he saw me, he replies, “Your very small blue bikini.”
We had recently moved into the foothills of Oregon and wanted a garden, but the deer had other ideas. They even grazed on the potted plants on our deck while we pounded on the window to scare them away. If we were going to have plants, we would need a dog — a large dog, since the neighbors had lost smaller dogs to the coyotes that roamed the hills. We were also tired of training puppies and wanted an older animal.
At the rescue agency we met several “settled” dogs who stood there as if to say, Take me or don’t; it makes no difference. One entered, glanced at us, lifted his leg, peed, and walked away. The agency worker suggested Grover, a skinny six-month-old puppy, half Smooth Collie, half German Shepherd. He came straight over to us and accepted our petting with enthusiasm. But he was too small. We said no.
Grover refused to leave, despite the worker pulling on his collar.
We thought it over. He had so many characteristics we were trying to avoid: He would have to be trained. He was no match for a pack of hungry coyotes. He had a thick coat and would shed all over our house. But Grover wanted us, whether or not we wanted him. So we paid the adoption fee and took him home.
After a few weeks we realized that Grover would not stay puny and skinny. He grew to more than ninety pounds of mostly muscle in the first year. His coat was so thick that he could live outside and sleep in the snow, so shedding indoors was not a problem. Our garden grew unmolested by deer, rabbits, birds, and voles, which Grover would chase down and eat whole. When we decided to raise sheep, he patrolled outside the fence, too, and we never lost a lamb to a coyote.
We had misjudged him. Grover was the ideal country dog.
Ithaca, New York
In old family photos I am the blue-green-eyed, blond girl in a sea of brown-eyed, brown-haired cousins. My Mexican American mother had bravely married a white man in the sixties, when being part of a mixed-race couple could have landed her in jail or worse in her home state of Texas. I owed my hair and eye color to my father, who’d left when I was young, and to my maternal grandfather, an Englishman who had married into a Mexican family in the late nineteenth century.
I grew up surrounded by my mother’s large extended family, and I fully identify as a Mexican American. When strangers meet me, though, they often see a white woman. Maybe they are put off by my too-loud voice and strange accent, but still they assume I am white like them. And so some have said things around me they would never have said had my skin been a little less white and my hair a little more brown. Rude, racist, cruel things. Too often I am so taken aback by their casual hatred that I can’t find the words to respond. Mostly I greet their ignorance with shocked silence, which they probably mistake for agreement.
East Lansing, Michigan
My husband and I settled into the ultrasound room at a major Seattle hospital. We were expecting our first child and were excited to learn the baby’s gender. The radiology technician moved the ultrasound probe over my belly, pointed out our child’s heartbeat, and announced, “It’s a girl!” Then she went quiet and excused herself.
An older technician entered without explanation, probed some more, and left. We were getting worried. After an uncomfortably long wait, the radiologist finally came in and got right to the point: Our baby had cysts in her left lung that had pushed her heart into the right side of the chest cavity. They also saw abdominal edema, which likely indicated the beginning of heart failure. “I’m sorry,” he said.
Stunned, we went upstairs to see our midwife. As we sat waiting, the room began to shake violently: the 2001 Nisqually earthquake was adding a poignant exclamation mark to our devastating news. After the shaking had subsided, our midwife put us on the phone with a perinatologist, who confirmed that, given the radiology report, the prognosis was not good. Another perinatologist would see us in person the following day.
We had a sleepless night, then slogged through traffic to our appointment. I was given another ultrasound, and after reviewing the new images, the perinatologist said: (1) our daughter’s cysts were the least worrisome type; (2) the first hospital had mistakenly reversed the images, so her heart was actually on the left, where it should be; and (3) there didn’t seem to be any edema.
We were stunned again. How could the staff at the first hospital have been so wrong? However it had happened, we fiercely embraced this new story.
Our daughter is now a bright and healthy teenager. When I look back at that twenty-week ultrasound, I am reminded not to give too much credence to first impressions.
In 1971 I was a foreign exchange student in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, living with a couple who insisted I call them Momma and Tata and treated me like a member of the family. My “brother,” Slobodin, and his friends let me run in their group, and that’s how I met Nadia. I was smitten, and I think maybe she was, too — a little. Slobodin and his friends told me if I wanted to make an impression on Nadia, I should say to her, “Ja jelem pitchku” — I love your eyes. So I did. She slapped my face and walked away while Slobodin and his friends doubled over with laughter. I later learned I had said, “I love pussy.”
Nadia understood that the boys had put me up to it, and one night she and I went walking apart from the group. I carried a small bottle of Binaca, a powerful breath freshener. When we stopped under a tree to chat, I got my Binaca out and sprayed some on my tongue, hoping for a kiss. Playfully I offered her some, but my finger slipped, and the caustic liquid went right into her eye. Nadia fell to her knees screaming.
She and I were not to be.
Studio City, California
In the spring of 1992 I was in the midst of a midlife crisis. With at least a dozen failed relationships behind me, I believed I was a man who had no idea how to pick partners successfully. Alone and unsure of myself, I decided to visit a lifelong friend in New England.
On the first day of my visit he told me that he’d found the writings of May Sarton uplifting and calming. At a used-book store in rural Connecticut I bought a tattered copy of Sarton’s Plant Dreaming Deep, and I quickly finished it. Her thoughts about home and solitude inspired me. Back in California I sought out and read her novels and journals. I felt such a kinship with the author that, had she lived nearby, I might have plucked up my courage and invited her over for coffee. Instead I composed a letter, thanking her for helping me to figure out who I was. I included a bookmark for her to sign and a self-addressed, stamped envelope for its return.
Weeks later my envelope came back. Inside was a copy of Sarton’s poem “Salt Lick,” which she’d typed out on a manual typewriter. The poem is a scathing rebuke to admirers who take up a writer’s time with their demands. On the back of the envelope she had scrawled: “You should not ask an eighty-year-old sick woman for anything but her work! No fair. Multiply this request [and] I have no time for myself.” It was not the kind and caring response I’d expected. My impression of her was dashed.
She did, however, autograph my bookmark.
Menlo Park, California
The men who came to my office with their wives to look into becoming foster parents usually sat with their arms folded and eyes narrowed, suspicious of this venture into which their softhearted spouses were dragging them. But this man had no such reservations. He was ready to start immediately. It was his wife who seemed to be along for the ride, there just to please her husband.
“We have so much to offer these poor kids,” he insisted, listing a good-sized house with a pool, a desirable school district, and a stable family life in a God-fearing Christian home. His wife nodded solemnly.
Married only a year with no children of their own, they expressed interest in fostering boys between the ages of five and eight. The man loved to coach sports and longed to provide a strong male role model to the kids.
After the interview I gathered up their completed forms and proposed that we move to another office, where I had my fingerprinting system set up.
The man asked if that was absolutely necessary, saying he’d already given prints for his work as a school volunteer.
I said we still had to do it. “Can’t be too careful.”
He hesitantly gave his prints. As he and his wife were cleaning their hands, he asked casually if I would be sending their prints to the state offices in Sacramento. I said I would, and also to the federal system (though in practice we usually limited our search to California). His enthusiasm disappeared, and I walked them to the exit.
Half an hour later the man’s wife telephoned and asked me to withdraw their application. Her husband was having second thoughts, she explained. He had decided the timing was wrong, and that they had some home projects to finish first; there was no need to send in their prints just yet. I thanked her and hung up. Then I retrieved their fingerprints from my pending file and put a rush on processing them, requesting that the results also go to my agency’s liaison at the police department.
It turned out the man had a record of molesting children in three adjacent states. The police acted immediately to prevent him from volunteering further in the schools.
“I never would have believed it,” the school volunteer coordinator said to me later: The kids had all loved him, and so had the parents and teachers. He was so charming.
Santa Rosa, California
The first time I saw Derek was in a farmyard full of cow dung and rusting rebar. My cousin Eva and I were looking at a house for rent in a Mexican village. She was starting art school at the nearby University of the Americas, and I’d quit my job to come along with her and experience life in another country. The “house” was a cinder-block work-in-progress surrounded by open sewers. I was tugging at Eva’s sleeve to get her to go when Derek appeared, dressed in a spotless white shirt and khaki pants, a halo of light illuminating his blond curls.
“If you move in here,” he said, “I’ll be your neighbor.” Eva took one look at my love-struck face and closed the deal with the landlord.
Derek had a girlfriend at the university who seemed to share none of his love of adventure. He and I climbed volcanoes, biked to ruins, and stargazed on dark nights.
After a while my mother, mystified by my love affair with Mexico, came to visit, and we took a bus to a market with Derek as our guide. Later I asked what she’d thought of him. She said he was well-mannered and bright — and what a command of the Spanish language. Frustrated by her cluelessness, I confessed my feelings for him. Mom looked at me, puzzled, and said, “But he’s gay.”
Apart from the absurdity of this rugged guy with a girlfriend being gay, I was appalled that my widowed Jewish mother, who worked for a painting contractor, thought she had some preternatural sense about gay men. I was the one who’d majored in theater.
When Derek and I eventually married, I felt I’d been proven right. He was an angel (mostly) during our twenty years together. Then I realized he was in love with someone else, and that someone was a man. We had a sad but amicable divorce.
Shortly before she died, my mother told me she loved Derek, and she acknowledged what a beautiful partnership he and I had shared.
In a way both our first impressions had been right.
Something about him put me off. He was tall, thin, and unkempt, even for a college student. His shirt always seemed to need ironing, and his hair combing. He had an impudent air, as if he didn’t care what the world thought of him. In class he didn’t participate, sharing witty remarks with those sitting near him instead.
I was a social guy, involved in student politics, who talked with everybody — except him. I was certain I wouldn’t like him. Though we were in the same class, we never exchanged a word. I did find out that his name was Bose.
In the fourth month of the semester, I helped lead a public discussion of an issue that the student union wanted to take up with the administration. It was a noisy and acrimonious debate until one person changed the tenor by posing three simple questions. That person was Bose. His questions were pertinent and incisive, but he tossed them out as if he were not interested in the answers.
After the meeting had ended, I complimented Bose on his contribution and asked if he wanted to get coffee at the cafeteria. We talked for at least three hours. By the end of the conversation I wanted to stay in touch with him. We remained friends throughout college.
I found a job immediately after graduation, while Bose survived by tutoring. His great love was mathematics, and I was delighted when, after four years, he met the chief researcher of a mathematical-analytics company and joined their staff as an intern. He rose steadily until he was the principal researcher for the group.
Bose’s new affluence had little effect on him. He continued to live a modest life in a middling apartment and spend time with friends. He dressed better, though.
One of the directors of the company was a friend of mine, and he told me Bose was a brilliant, inventive man who could easily have been at the head of the company, but Bose didn’t seem to want that.
When I mentioned the remark to Bose, he replied, “I’m already the head of an enterprise: my life.”
When I was twelve, my parents left me home alone during spring break. Early one morning I was riding my bike on the street when my favorite neighbor, L., asked me to help her move a TV.
I had a huge crush on L., who lived a couple of houses down with her husband, T. He’d give me rides in his Corvette, and she’d sometimes feed me lunch. So it wasn’t unusual for L. to ask me for help.
That day she was wearing just panties and a T-shirt. She was so beautiful I didn’t know how to act. L. explained that she had dropped her wallet behind the TV, and I quickly pulled the set away from the wall and found it. She gave me a five-dollar bill for my trouble. That’s when I noticed some white lines on her coffee table and asked what they were.
“Crystal meth,” she said. “Do you want to try some?”
I remember thinking that if L. did it, it must be fine. I also didn’t want to look like a dumb kid. I watched her bend over and sniff a line using a rolled-up bill. Taking the bill from her, I did exactly as she had done.
My head felt as if it would explode. Pure energy rushed through my body, making me smarter, cooler, almost superhuman. I sat there talking to L. for hours, amazed that this beautiful woman was paying so much attention to me.
That was my first impression of methamphetamine. Within two years L. would be a prostitute, T. would be a dope dealer, and I’d be in juvenile hall.
There was fear on board the ship as we passed through the English Channel in November 1939. Mines were floating in the water, and there were not enough lifeboats or vests for the many war refugees crowded onto the decks — not that the equipment would have helped much: only a week earlier another refugee boat, the Simon Bolivar, had hit a mine and sunk. There had been no survivors.
Thankfully our ship didn’t suffer the same fate, and after two weeks on the rough waters of the Atlantic, we finally approached the United States coastline. The engines slowed, and the passengers came on deck with excitement to watch for the Statue of Liberty, that symbol of this new nation’s promise. I never did see her as we passed, though, because she was shrouded in smog. What I did see was a large, blinking neon sign on the Jersey shore: WRIGLEY’S HERE, WRIGLEY’S THERE, WRIGLEY’S EVERYWHERE.
What was Wrigley’s? It was one of many mysteries awaiting me in my new home.
Renate G. Justin
Fort Collins, Colorado
I have been told that I project a conservative image by my manner of speech and dress. I seem not to have had much trouble in life, nor to have done anything out of the ordinary. People who meet me for the first time assume they might offend me if they shared a dirty joke. They see the responsible wife of a local businessman, a parent volunteer at the elementary school, a member of a book club, and an adoring mother of two.
What they don’t know is that I ran away from home for the first time before I turned twelve; that I began dating a man six years my senior when I was fourteen; that I had an abortion the week after Roe v. Wade was settled; that I barely graduated from high school; that when I turned twenty-one, I moved to California with my Alaskan malamute and sixty-five dollars to escape a serious cocaine habit and a rich boyfriend. Surely they can’t imagine that while pregnant with my first child I picked up trash by the roadside because of a DUI conviction. They probably wouldn’t even guess that I am a closet smoker.
I had been mourning the loss of my mother for a year and a half when a friend brought me to a ten-day silent retreat with Stephen and Ondrea Levine, Buddhist practitioners who dealt with death and dying. Part of the retreat would be spent in sitting meditation and the rest doing exercises to instill trust. One day Stephen told us to pair up with the person to our right. I was sitting next to a young woman I’d decided was self-absorbed and too sure of herself. I just knew she was unkind, and I disliked her. She would be my partner.
The exercise was to allow the other person to get your lunch and feed you while your hands were tied behind your back. I got her lunch first, which went OK. Then we changed places.
The woman faced me and smiled. She pointed to the carrots. Would I like those? How about the chicken? As she literally spoon-fed me like a baby, I started to cry, then sob. She found a napkin and wiped my snotty nose and tear-streaked cheeks. I felt as if no one else had ever been so loving or caring toward me. I had disliked this woman for absolutely no reason, because of a story I had made up about her in my head.
How often do we all do that?
New York, New York
As a young priest I attended an antiwar planning workshop for clergy and laity in the early 1970s. Toward the end of the day a Baptist minister suggested we all meet at the pancake house after the last session. I turned to the young nun next to me and said, “Pancake house? Let’s go have a drink.”
She agreed, and we went to the nearest tavern, where she ordered a martini. After I’d finished my beer, I asked if she wanted another cocktail. “Sure,” she said.
Wow, I thought, this nun can drink.
After forty-one years of marriage we still have two martinis every evening.
Joe C. Schillmoeller
Quincey was a young man I met in college. The fall after we graduated, he would be leaving for a job in New York, and I would move to the Midwest to start graduate school. When he rang my parents’ doorbell that summer and asked to speak to me, my father saw only one thing about Quincey: that he was black.
I hurriedly suggested to Quincey that we take a walk. I needed to tell him what he meant to me, and I could not do that under my father’s roof. We walked for a while, then sat down on the curb to talk about the different directions our lives were taking. Night approached, and we fell quiet, unwilling to say goodbye. I wanted to tell him how much I would miss him, but I lacked the courage.
Finally we stood to embrace, and that’s when my father’s headlights lit up our entwined bodies. My father threw open the passenger door and demanded that I get in. Once we were home, he shouted, “He only wanted one thing, and you were going to give it to him, too!”
“Dad,” I said, “you don’t know anything about him, and you don’t know me.”
More than a decade later I would adopt an African American infant. My son, Alex, is now eighteen. His first girlfriend was a Latina cheerleader whose mother was a cop. That relationship consisted largely of long phone calls and occasional group dates to the movies, because the girl wasn’t allowed to go anywhere with Alex alone. After a few months my son ended it because they rarely saw each other. He had never been to his girlfriend’s house, he said, and on the few occasions when her mother had picked her up from the movie theater, the woman hadn’t even made eye contact with him. His girlfriend had told him that her mother believed Alex was a “player” and wanted only one thing.
After that, Alex went out with other girls. Each relationship lasted until he could no longer endure her parents’ disapproval and how it made him feel about himself.
Now my son protects himself against heartbreak by dating more than one girl at a time. That way, when one yields to parental pressure, he still has the others. I am watching him become the “player” his first girlfriend’s mother accused him of being, all because these parents don’t bother to look past his skin.
Six years ago I was hit by a truck while riding my bicycle to work, and I had to have my leg amputated. At the rehabilitation hospital I was assigned a peer mentor. Rob was the first amputee I’d ever met. When he offered to answer my questions, I had none. I was riddled with pain from a limb that wasn’t there and overwhelmed by the change to my body. Though I felt obligated to listen to Rob, really I just wanted him to leave.
The one thing I remember about that meeting is that Rob had come by on his way home from the gym, where he went in the evenings after work. Rob went to the gym. Rob went to work. Rob was an amputee. This information gave me hope.
Over the next year I learned to walk with a prosthetic leg. The second year brought more independence, and I went back to work and to the gym.
That summer a man waved me down on a city sidewalk. “Can I ask you a question?” he said, eyes fixed on my prosthesis. Sure, I replied. His voice got quiet. “Were you born that way? Were you born without your leg?”
I told him no, that I’d had my leg amputated after an accident. I wondered why he was asking: he had all four limbs.
The man pointed to a nearby hospital and explained that his wife had just had a baby boy born without part of his arm. “The doctor said he’ll never know the difference,” he told me. “Do you think that’s true? Do you think he’ll never know?”
What could I say? I had no idea. We talked a bit more, and I asked if the baby was healthy. The man said yes.
“Congratulations,” I said. “What’s his name?”
He told me, and for the first time since we’d begun talking, I saw a proud dad.
After we’d parted, I realized that I was probably the first amputee he’d ever met. Walking away, I stood tall and confident, just in case he was watching.
© Clemens Kalischer
Back in the eighties I rode the Long Island Railroad to my job Monday through Friday. The train schedule left me with an hour to spare before work, and I would grab a cup of coffee to pass the time.
The coffee shop was next to an off-track-betting site, and the gamblers would come in after placing their bets. That’s how I met John. He was disheveled, with thin gray hair poking out from under his black cap. He walked with a limp (which I later learned was from having had polio as a boy), and his eyes were bright blue and smiling.
John and I struck up a friendship, and for two years I routinely met him for coffee. I was in my mid-twenties, and he was approaching eighty, but our age difference didn’t seem to matter. We discussed politics, religion, and current events. We talked about his life and mine. John self-published a little newspaper called The Happy World, filled with inspirational quotes, Bible Scriptures, and stories about missionaries — all of it positive.
One day John asked if I was happy, and I said no, even though I thought I should be: I was married to a good man, and we had just bought our first home. I had my health, a loving family, and many friends. John listened while my eyes filled with tears. I realized that I’d never shared my true feelings with anyone before. I desperately needed a listening ear, and John had given me just that, without judgment.
When I initially encountered John, I saw an old man with a limp who placed a morning bet on the horses. That was just a shallow first impression. The real impression he made on my life has been deep and lasting.
Deb A. Hunt
In 1975 I was a fresh college graduate working as a substitute teacher, part-time bartender, and middle-school athletic coach. One typical Michigan winter afternoon I was holding final tryouts for the basketball team. Forty-two seventh- and eighth-grade boys were competing for eighteen spots. We had practiced all week, and today was judgment day. I’d made my decisions. All I had left to do was write out the list and post it in the locker room. I told the boys to jog laps around the gym while I wrote.
At one point I looked up and saw a couple of players walking, not jogging, and I gave them the obligatory command to hustle. One, a physically gifted seventh-grader, continued walking. “Yo, Devin, stop walking and hustle,” I said. He ran a few steps and then started dragging again. Some of the eighth-graders shouted at him to get going.
Devin was on my list; he had made the team. But after I’d posted the names in the locker room, I returned to find him walking again — or was it still? I went back, crossed off his name, and replaced him with Pryor, who was mostly devoid of basketball skills but worked hard. Then I declared tryouts over.
The boys bolted into the locker room. I heard victorious cries and saw a few tears. Devin came to my office to plead his case. “C’mon,” he said. “I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”
“Yes, you will,” I replied.
“But I’m better than Pryor, and you know that.”
I admitted he was worlds better, but he’d lost his place on the team with his poor attitude.
He stormed out.
Thirty years later I was exercising at my fitness club and spotted a new instructor who looked familiar. It was Devin. He’d grown a lot and was built like a two-car garage. Our eyes met, and I thought he might have recognized me. I certainly recognized his smugness.
Over the next few months I saw Devin occasionally teaching classes. When I noticed he wasn’t around anymore, I asked the fitness director, Stan, about it.
Stan replied that Devin was gone: “Bad attitude. We can’t have that at this club.”
Going out for a night on the town, my husband and I dropped our two young sons off with my parents, handing over the usual toys, pajamas, and diaper bag. After quick hugs all around, we were out the door.
On the busy street that led downtown, we stopped at a red light. From my passenger-side window I saw a car pull up beside us filled with African American teenage boys. They all turned and began pointing at us, their mouths open as if yelling. “Just look straight ahead,” my husband said. I brought my hand up surreptitiously to lock the door and waited for the light to turn green.
At last it did, and they drove away, continuing to point wildly and yell something I could not hear.
The twenty-minute drive downtown erased the tension. We parked on the street and got out, and that’s when I saw it on the roof, nestled against the luggage rack: the stack of children’s books I’d set there while getting the kids out of the car.
All these years later I still feel ashamed.
I lay on the operating table, feeling anxious. This was not how I’d imagined childbirth would be.
Even after I’d found out I was carrying twins, I’d figured I could handle a natural birth. My mom and sister had each managed four unmedicated vaginal deliveries, despite a history of large babies in our family. I was sort of relieved when I found out I was having twins, because they usually have lower birth weights. These tiny babies would just fly out of my vagina.
But no. My son planted himself breech — feet first. He was propping up his sister, who was a “transverse breech,” jammed up under my ribs, squeezing my lungs.
I tried everything to turn them: leaning upside down over the edge of the couch; headstands and somersaults in the pool; acupuncture needles inserted everywhere in my body, including my toes; hot packs and ice packs on my tummy; expensive visits to an out-of-network chiropractor who attempted to “open” my pelvis. None of it worked. There would be no natural birth with two breech babies and a first-time mom.
And so here I was on the operating table.
As the kind anesthesiologist inserted the needle full of anesthetic into my spine, tears of fear rolled down my cheeks and my partner’s. I was just over thirty-seven weeks. Would the babies be OK? Would I be OK?
A curtain kept me from seeing anything. I strained to hear the chatter of the doctors and nurses doing their jobs. Then all other sound was obscured by infants’ screams.
“You’ve got a son and a daughter, thirty seconds apart,” my doctor announced. The nurses held up a long-limbed baby boy with dark hair and a thinner baby girl with blond hair. (Her brother had hogged the nutrients toward the end of the pregnancy.)
I’d thought I would bawl with emotion when I saw them, but I didn’t. Maybe it was the ordeal or the anesthesia, but I felt like a disinterested observer. What could I do for two crying babies? Then the nurses brought them to me, opened my gown, and laid them on my chest. They stopped crying, and in an instant I was no longer an observer. I was their mother.
Sara J. Schultz
As a teaching assistant at acupuncture school, I was in charge of attendance. While the teacher lectured, I went quietly from person to person, asking their names and checking them off the list. One young man, instead of simply giving his name, said, “You should know my name by now.”
He was about my age (late twenties), cleanshaven, with short hair and an oxford shirt. Only four male names on my list were still unchecked: two Johns, a Brian, and a Murphy.
“John?” I said.
“Which one?” he replied.
Why was he being so troublesome? I looked back at my sheet: John Biel and John Mott.
“Very good!” he answered, his tone either pleased or condescending; it was hard to tell which.
I moved on, annoyed. Why was there always someone in every group who made ordinary interactions uncomfortable?
Later that day I was walking up the stairs with coffee in hand and heard a sneering voice: “Coffee? Is that healthy?”
Him again. John Biel — yes, I knew his name now. Some people just get under your skin.
He certainly got under mine, because I married him.
Chole lived alone on the opposite corner of the square in the Mexican village where I grew up. The other children and I were unsure whether she was a widow or had simply never married. All we knew was that one of her legs had been maimed, and local lore said that maimed people brought bad luck. If you happened to have close contact with such a person, you were supposed to spit on the ground to ward off the curse. It was rumored that Chole had received some money from the accident — enough to afford a water heater — but she lived a lonely, isolated life because of this superstition.
Though Chole and I never spoke and kept our distance, we often smiled at each other across the square. She was one of the few adults who acknowledged me. After checking to make sure there were no other children around, she would leave the peelings from an apple in a container outside her door for me to eat. I didn’t see why everyone disliked and feared her. Surely no bad luck could come from our encounters.
One day, while on an errand for my family, I was approaching a narrow bridge and saw Chole coming from the other direction, walking with her cane and carrying her groceries in one arm. Crossing the bridge, we would come face to face. I had never been so close to her before.
I remembered the others’ warnings. Did I really have to spit? Wouldn’t San Ramon protect me if I simply ran home to the picture of his face and stuck a centavo on it with a wad of chewing gum? I knew that the act of spitting was an insult, and I didn’t want to do that to Chole, but if my foster mother somehow found out that I hadn’t done as I’d been told, I would get in trouble.
As Chole and I passed each other, I looked down and pretended that I didn’t see her. Then I spit quickly and discreetly, hoping she wouldn’t notice.
But she did, and she shook her head sadly.
Paula Emma Pidgeon
Santa Cruz, California
I worked as a secretary at a private school where students talked about vacation homes, overseas trips, and shopping excursions. The parents were very involved, and we strove to attract the “right” kind of families. The man standing across from me certainly didn’t fit the bill. He had bad teeth, was unshaven, and wore a stained shirt with holes in it.
“Can I help you?” I asked, thinking he had wandered in off the street by mistake.
He said he was the new custodian. And then he smiled, and that smile overrode any misgivings I had. “Let me show you around,” I said.
The custodian and I soon began to meet for coffee after work. He had a strong intellect, a compassionate nature, and a great sense of humor. In addition to our coffee dates, we went for long walks by the lake near his apartment and sometimes strolled around town together on Sunday mornings, peering in the windows of the closed shops. We became best friends.
Two years later I fell ill and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The ultrasound revealed a grapefruit-sized tumor, and my surgery was scheduled for right before Christmas. I called my friend and told him the diagnosis, and the next day at work he embraced me. “I don’t ever want to let you go,” he said.
The good news is that I was misdiagnosed and the tumor was benign. But while I still feared the worst, my friend checked up on me with almost daily coffee deliveries and nightly texts. He made sure I had a happy early Christmas and was a frequent visitor at my home. He helped me through many bad days.
Maria C. Kuntz
On November 7, 1970, I was ten years old and standing with my three sisters before the altar of Saint James Church. My mother was marrying Joe, a man she’d met the year before. After the honeymoon we would be leaving our childhood home in the citrus groves of rural San Diego County to live on our new stepfather’s ranch. Our mother was excited about the move. Our father had been dead seven years, and she was tired of tending to four children alone — and sleeping alone.
My sisters and I had our suitcases already packed when she returned from the honeymoon. Mom loaded us into our Pontiac station wagon and headed north toward the ranch, where Joe was waiting. On the way she filled our heads with images out of Gunsmoke and Bonanza. We imagined lush pastures, big red barns, and horses — lots of horses. There would be one for each of us, we were sure.
We kept up these fantasies even as the landscape beside the road turned barren and desolate. Yucca and Joshua trees replaced the live oaks. Tumbleweeds skittered across the highway, and the car became covered with a fine layer of dust. We drove on, anticipating at each bend of the road that the wonderful ranch would emerge from the desert like an oasis.
Finally Mom acknowledged that we were lost. My sisters and I hoped we had made a wrong turn where the air was cooler and there were still trees and grass. Mom found a pay phone and got us back on the right road — which eventually narrowed to a dirt path. We followed a barbed-wire fence to a low mud-brick building with peeling paint and shutters flapping in the wind. Farm dogs lolled in the scant shade, and their droppings littered the path to the front door. The wind blew grit against our faces as we got out and stared at Mom’s paradise.
The front door swung open at our knock, and smoky air rolled out. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness of the interior, I made out the figures of three teenage girls, one visibly pregnant, all clad in halter tops and cutoff jeans, cigarettes hidden behind their backs. “Dad’s at the little house,” one of them said, pointing farther down the road.
We returned to the broiling car and continued past a creaking water pump, a tractor abandoned in a field, and an old Ford truck with the hood up. We parked in front of a smaller mud house surrounded by what appeared to be the skeletons of every car the family had ever owned. Joe sat chain-smoking in a torn vinyl dinette chair under a lone elm tree. He was shirtless and wore a faded red-felt beret and greasy Levi’s. Flies buzzed, and the wind raised clouds of dirt. As we got out and approached the welcoming shade, Joe rose and grunted a word of greeting. He gave our mother a peck on the cheek and gestured toward the house, where a rusty refrigerator was visible just inside the open door. “There’s Cokes in there,” he said to my sisters and me.
Things were looking up.
Lenore Pimental’s name appears often in Readers Write, most recently in “First Impressions” [November 2016]. Her insightful, tightly written narratives reveal a woman who appears to be doing good for this world. Her contributions solidify what I love so much about that section: through a small window, I view a shocking bit of reality that brings shivers, tears, or joy.
In the photograph of a man and woman at a cocktail party [Readers Write on “First Impressions,” November 2016], the woman is wearing white gloves, so I assume the photo is from the 1950s or 1960s. If so, then my first impression is that she was no lady. A lady did not smoke in mixed company at that time. She smoked with her women friends or in her own home when no one else was around. Nor did she hold her gloves with the fingers flapping. She held them discreetly in the palm of her hand. It also appears that she was not wearing a girdle. No lady let her backside wobble freely in those days.
I know these things because I was raised to be a Southern lady during that era. It’s startling how long these judgments persist, even after we have rejected their validity.