It was like a scene from the comedy show Portlandia: An expectant couple clumsily tiptoes around piles of organic baby food and attachment-parenting books covering their floor. Birth plans for multiple scenarios have been printed, laminated, and distributed to potential delivery staff. The couple practices prenatal yoga and daily visualizations of the perfect birth.

We were that couple, my husband and I: totally, unequivocally prepared.

Nearly twelve hours after our son’s birth, we stood in disbelief in the neonatal intensive-care unit watching as Henry’s tiny lungs strained to breathe with the help of a ventilator. His skin was blue tinted, his body limp, his prospects grim. We were totally unprepared for this.

We held each other, sobbed, and prayed — to God, to the universe, to anyone who could hear our pleas. Reaching through the maze of tubes and beeping machines, we gently touched Henry’s big toe, his shoulder, and the part of his forehead that peeked between strips of medical tape. The ventilator clicked and hummed. Henry’s chest inflated and fell as we hoped for a miracle.

Half a day later the neonatologist on duty guardedly told us that Henry was making barely detectable progress and would likely live through the night. We were cautioned, however, to be prepared for brain damage, given the length of time he’d spent without oxygen.

Nearly two decades later Henry is savoring his last days as a rural emergency medical technician before starting college, where he’ll pursue his dream of becoming an emergency physician and helping others through unimaginable traumas like the one we experienced when he almost didn’t make it.

Brenda L. Baker
Madison, Wisconsin

In my sophomore year of college, I was lying on the quad with my shirt off after a jazz-dance class when a girl with flowing red hair and freckles sat on the grass beside me. She said she was a dancer, too, and asked if I would like to come up to her dorm room. Sure, I said, and I followed her home like a lost puppy.

She offered me a chair, then retrieved a book from the shelf above her desk and began to read aloud a poem about a woman who took what she wanted sexually without any guilt. Returning the book to the shelf, she straddled me on the chair, draped her arms over my shoulders, and asked what I’d thought of the poem.

Panic started to rise in me. I was a virgin and had been abstaining from sex until I met the right woman. I explained apologetically that I was attracted to her, and that if she gave me time I might come to love her, but I just couldn’t give her what she wanted right then.

I left her room feeling unmanly, and she and I never developed a relationship. It wasn’t love she wanted.

Steven W. Elliott
Orland, California

It’s 9 AM on New Year’s Day. He is in bed snoring, and I am sipping tea at the kitchen table. At the party last night I almost caught them — him and the blond woman with the harsh laugh. His phone rests on the table next to his keys. It would be so easy to pick it up and go through the call history, the texts, the voice mails. He won’t have bothered to cover his tracks at this point.

His phone starts to vibrate. I take another sip of my tea and see the blond woman’s name on the screen. I decide to wait until she has left her message, then listen to it and erase it. The phone stops vibrating. I hear the tone that signals a new voice mail. Just as I pick it up, he walks into the kitchen, hair a mess, lines on his cheek from the pillow.

“What are you doing?” he asks, taking the phone from me.

“I just want to know,” I reply.

He walks back to the bedroom and closes the door.

Two months later he is dead. I’ll never know the truth. It almost doesn’t matter.

Name Withheld

I’ll say it: I was an ugly baby. Nature did not intend for all babies to be cute, and I was proof. In my defense, I was squished by two other embryos in the womb.

People would ask my parents, “Which one is the girl?” causing them to tape pink bows to the peach fuzz on my androgynous head. As I grew up, my grandmother insisted I put on a dress and perm my hair like a proper lady. I wanted to parade around with my brothers, pretending to be Ninja Turtles. I loved to run, climb trees, and swing from branches high in the air like a chimpanzee. Apparently I resembled one as well, because I was handed a pink razor — that timeless tool of femininity.

Public restrooms were a dilemma. Women would walk in, see me, and furrow their brows disapprovingly. My jean shorts, superhero T-shirts, and lack of curves identified me as someone who didn’t belong there.

One day, as an adult, dressed for the ballet in a spiffy suit and tie, I entered the restroom before the show, and a woman sneered, “This is the ladies’ room.”

“I have a vagina, same as you,” I answered. I didn’t hear a rebuttal.

The great feminist Simone de Beauvoir said, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” If gender is on a continuum, then mine is a panoramic view. A little boy recently asked me whether I was a boy or a girl. “Both!” I exclaimed.

Marlana Solebello
Portland, Maine

As a young man in the mid 1970s I worked on shrimp boats out of Galveston, Texas. One day I was approached by a guy looking to hire crew members. Short and muscular, he introduced himself as “the Finn.” (I never learned his real name.)

The boat, a fifty-five-foot trawler, didn’t belong to him; its owner was in poor health and could no longer shrimp, so he’d hired the Finn to take over. He and I spent a week getting the vessel in shape for the trip. The Finn kept reassuring me he’d hire another hand or two, but help never materialized. He also intimated that, if I wanted to make some real money, he could connect me with his friends who smuggled drugs from Cuba or find me work as a mercenary in Africa. I assumed he was making these stories up to impress me. It was impossible to tell what was real and what was hyperbole with him. I declined his offers and continued working to get the boat ready. The Finn had promised me a generous share when we finally got around to catching shrimp.

The day before we were scheduled to leave, the Finn assured me that he’d have two more hands by first light. I went to bed, and he headed out to the bars. Around 2 AM I was awakened by him and two other men, all drunk and still drinking heavily. I got up to make them food and coffee.

As drunks do, the three were trying to one-up one another with tales of their bold adventures. The conversation took a dark turn when the Finn dared the rest of us to take the boat to Louisiana, where we could sell it for big money. All three men had handguns, which made their way onto the table. I tried to protest, but they ignored me and agreed to steal the boat.

The only sober one, I was sent below deck to start the engine. First I went to my bunk and threw my gear into my bag. Then I climbed down the ladder into the engine room and snuck out by way of another ladder onto the back deck. Once off the boat, I started walking toward the Coast Guard substation near the mouth of the channel. Behind me I heard the engine come to life, and I turned and saw the boat pulling away from the dock, running with no lights on and banging into other vessels as it went.

I reported the theft to the Coast Guard and gave a statement to the police. Two days later the boat turned up run aground near Louisiana. The mattresses had been dragged into the engine room, doused with diesel fuel, and set ablaze, but the fire had burned out before much damage had been done. Found along with the charred bedding were the bodies of the Finn’s two drinking buddies, both killed execution style. The Finn had disappeared. The next day I left Texas.

Dave Gariano
Beaver, West Virginia

In 1966 my parents found out I was pregnant, and they put me on a train to New York with five dollars in my pocket. My destination was a Catholic home for unwed mothers. It was not a friendly place. The other girls and I couldn’t use our real names and couldn’t go out alone, only in pairs or groups. People who saw us (and our bellies) knew we were “those girls.” I had no contact with my family, at their insistence.

My daughter was born in late December. She was healthy and looked just like her handsome father. Signing the adoption papers was painful, but I wanted her to have a full life with loving parents who could give her all that she deserved.

Through the years I thought about her often and sometimes searched the faces of girls her age, wondering, Is that her?

I married a wonderful man and became stepmother to his children, but Mother’s Day was still sad for me, as was Christmas. I was longing for the daughter I’d given up rather than treasuring the love I had in my life.

In January 2003 I received an e-mail with my daughter’s birthdate in the subject line. I had registered with several agencies on the off chance she might make contact, and now that day had come.

We exchanged e-mails and pictures, gradually revealing more about ourselves. I was excited at the prospect of meeting her but skeptical when she said we should do it on Oprah.

We agreed to talk on the phone, but the arranged time came and went with no call. That night, after I’d gone to bed, she called and left a brief message, saying she was sorry and perhaps we could try again sometime. She sounded drunk. I played her message over and over.

Shortly thereafter I received an e-mail from her husband, saying that his wife was suffering from postpartum depression (she had given birth to a baby girl a few months earlier) and could not meet me at this time. Subsequently she sent a few e-mails detailing her travels and the difficult decisions of which clothes to pack for vacation or what spa to visit for her next massage. She also added me to an e-mail group to whom she sent breezy, newsy updates. After a few months I told her that I would forever be grateful to her for reaching out to me, and that I still hoped to meet her someday, but in the meantime reading these impersonal e-mails was too painful. I wished her and her family well and asked her to please contact me if she ever changed her mind.

My daughter went on to become a celebrity and flaunted her happiness — or the appearance of it — in the media. She wrote a book about a defining, painful experience in her life, and suddenly she was everywhere: on the radio, on television, in magazines. Seeing her was eerie — she sounded like me, and her gestures and facial expressions resembled mine. I was both morbidly fascinated and miserable. Would I ever get to know her or meet my grandchildren?

Then it occurred to me: I had prayed for years to find my daughter. I had told God that as long as I knew she was alive and well, I would be happy. But in reality that wasn’t enough. I wanted her to get to know me, to forgive me, to understand. I had made a promise to God, but I had been too weak to keep it.

Fremont, New Hampshire

When I let out our dog, Misty, that Friday night, she put her nose to the ground and sniffed. Everything seemed OK.

The frightened wails I heard a few moments later were decidedly not OK. They were the sounds of a wounded animal.

I ran to the bedroom to get my husband, and we flew out the front door, calling for Misty, who dragged herself out of the darkness, clearly hurt. We wrapped her in a towel, and my husband carried her up the porch steps. The only vet open was an emergency clinic twenty minutes away. Misty whimpered softly in my husband’s lap as I drove.

The vet who examined Misty said that, judging by the deep puncture wounds, a coyote had grabbed our dog in its mouth, probably to shake her and break her neck. She had a fractured rib, a possible punctured lung, and spinal-cord trauma. She’d need exploratory surgery, and it would be expensive.

Misty was fourteen. My husband is a compassionate man, but practical. “She’s an old dog, honey,” he said. “We have to be real about this.”

I sobbed and said we couldn’t let her die without trying. “She’s part of the family.”

We settled on a three-thousand-dollar limit.

The initial surgery was successful, but by Saturday evening Misty needed another. Her chest wall was swelling, which meant her lung probably had been nicked. Her back legs were useless, possibly paralyzed. The vet sent us home to decide what to do.

On Sunday morning I was back at the vet’s office, where Misty lay on a metal examining table, shaved and bandaged and glassy-eyed from the drugs. She looked miserable. Even if the swelling went down, there was no way to know if she’d ever regain the use of her back legs. A technician came and took Misty away to change her bandages while the vet answered my questions about euthanasia.

A few minutes later the technician returned to tell us Misty had just stood up.

The vet offered to do the second surgery for free, and it was a success. Misty went home on Monday, but we still faced several months of rehabilitation. She almost died three separate times before she returned, for the most part, to normal.

Misty lived to be almost eighteen and a half years old. Then, after many sleepless nights and hours of conversations, I brought her to the same vet who’d saved her, this time to be euthanized. With my husband next to me, I held Misty as she took her last breath.

Elaine S. Maurer
San Clemente, California

In 1967 I wanted to be like my oldest sister, a self-described hippie who enjoyed getting high and often talked about free love and revolution. At thirteen I emulated her as much as I could, going barefoot and painting flowers on my jeans. My friends Laura and Martha and I hitchhiked after school for fun. When drivers stopped, we would ask if they had any pot, and if they did, we would hop in, smoke with them, and get out in the next town over, flashing peace signs as they drove away.

One afternoon we were hitching near my house in Campbell, California, when two guys in a beige Datsun truck stopped. They said they had pot and knew a great place to smoke it, so we climbed in the back, and they drove out of town, into the Santa Cruz Mountains. Instead of going to one of the many lookout points, the driver pulled onto a narrow fire road and cut the engine. He and his companion stayed in the cab for a long time, talking heatedly, while Laura, Martha, and I made nervous jokes in the back. I could see fear in my friends’ eyes. Finally the driver stepped out and said, “At least one of you girls is going to ball me if you want to get out of here.”

Despite my sister’s talk of free love, I wasn’t sure what “balling” was. I knew only what I had seen in the movies. The three of us tried making excuses, speaking with a bravado none of us felt. The driver kept walking in circles, talking to himself, and yelling that we had better do what he said. The sun went down, and it started to get cold. I began to cry. Then Martha stood up tall in the back of the truck, shaking, and screamed for him to take us home. The driver yelled back that we were sluts and crybabies, but Martha must have scared him, because he started the engine and sped back down the mountain. He dropped us in front of an A&W Root Beer stand in Los Gatos, one town over from ours. It was ten o’clock at night, and we had been gone for hours.

I wish I could say I changed my behavior after that, but it was years before I realized how close I had come to being raped and possibly killed.

Brentwood, California

My fifth-grade teacher was growing frustrated with the handful of slow learners in class. Week after week the “dumb” bunch failed the spelling test, while most of us did well.

Near the end of the school year, our teacher promised that if every single student got a perfect score on that week’s spelling test, we could all throw rotten tomatoes at him after school. This motivated us like never before. He gave us extra study time in class and paired up the especially good spellers with the poor ones.

I was matched with Bobby, a good-natured kid who seemed unworried about his bad grades. This was incomprehensible to me and most of my classmates. Our parents expected us to bring home near-perfect report cards, and there were consequences if we didn’t. I drilled Bobby on the ten words that would be on the quiz. The hardest for him was marine. We went over it again and again.

After the test the teacher graded us on the spot. Everyone got a perfect score except Bobby, who had missed one word: marine. We all groaned and gave him dirty looks. I was especially put out, and after class I scolded Bobby as only a self-righteous ten-year-old could. He started to shrug it off with his typical cheerfulness, but some other kids joined in. We all kept taunting him until he ran home in tears.

I lost touch with Bobby in middle school. Then in high school I heard that he had become seriously ill. He died before graduation.

I feel ashamed that I was so mean to him for having missed one word on the test.

Mary Janet Fowler
Ashland, Oregon

I can almost forgive my father for being in love with my stepsister. She is a grown woman now, after all. I wonder how long he has felt this way. Did he love her when we took that trip in the station wagon to Hearst Castle, and all of us kids got spanked for spilling soda and fighting in the back seat? When we hiked up to Little Jimmy Campground, and my stepsister started her period?

I can almost forgive my stepsister. She was a messed-up kid who wore light-blue eye shadow; had large, swaying breasts; and ruined songs I liked by making up sexy lyrics for them. When I was twelve, she gave me a joint laced with something, and I passed out, and her boyfriend drove me to the ER. She had an absent, alcoholic father, and my father at least didn’t drink as much.

I can almost forgive myself for loving my father still. I’m jealous in a twisted kind of way: She has him, and I don’t. She cooks Thanksgiving dinners for him, and he takes her on trips to Canada. She will probably inherit his house in the mountains.

“Are you sleeping together?” I asked my dad recently.

He looked stricken. “That would be beyond the pale,” he said. “Not until we’re married.”

Name Withheld

My grandmother almost killed herself twice. I don’t know why. My mother would only say, in an offhand way, “She put her head in the oven a couple of times, but someone always came in to save her.”

My grandmother was married at sixteen and gave birth to my mother, her tenth and last child, when she was almost forty. I can only imagine what may have driven her failed suicide attempts: a struggling marriage, postpartum depression, being an immigrant in America in 1929.

In the end, she died cleaning an upper-story window of her home. The frame had been eaten away by termites. As she was reaching for the top corner pane, the window fell out, and she toppled out behind it. Her son, my uncle, was there when the accident happened. Family lore says he grabbed her by the ankle but couldn’t hold on. She fell three stories to the patio below.

My mother, age four, was playing hopscotch and came running when she heard the screams. My grandmother’s last words to her were “It’s all right, Rose. Your sisters will take care of you.”

And they did. By all evidence my mother was a well-loved child, doted on by her elderly father and many siblings.

I am now a mother myself and sometimes struggle with depression. I think of my grandmother often. Did she wonder, like me, if her kids would be better off without her? Did she think, as she lay there on the pavement, “Oh no, this is not what I wanted at all”? When I get mired in sad moments, I find it comforting to clean house. But I never clean windows.

Silverton, Oregon

I started drinking and smoking pot when I was eleven and would often come home drunk or high after hanging out on the beach with my friends. I thought I was fooling my parents with my sober act, but years later, when I had children of my own, I realized that my parents must have intentionally looked away so they wouldn’t have to deal with it.

I used to sneak their vodka into a glass of orange juice and drink it in front of them. Nobody ever said anything about how the level of alcohol in the bottles was going down. When I was fifteen, my mother walked into a room where my friends and I were shooting up speed. She turned around and walked out and never said a word to me about it.

When my daughter was fourteen, I went into her closet one day and found a plastic bucket of vomit on the floor. Suddenly I realized why the ice cream and potato chips I bought were going missing: she was bingeing and purging. Her eyes were often swollen or bloodshot. I had thought she was just tired.

I wanted to shut the closet door and pretend I hadn’t seen it. I almost did. But instead I went to my daughter and hugged her and told her I wanted to help.

Name Withheld

I was born in 1946 to two alcoholic parents in a tiny town in Washington State. I raised myself as best I could, and I didn’t have many friends; most parents wouldn’t let their kids play with me. It was a lonely life.

Every year the local newspaper would have a contest to see which child could find the first buttercups of spring. The lucky winner would get his or her photo on the front page of the newspaper, holding the elusive flowers.

When I was nine, I was that lucky child. How proud I was when I brought my buttercups to the newspaper office. Was I the first? Yes, the woman at the enormous desk said, and she took my flowers back behind a glass partition to show the editor. He glanced over at me and said something to the woman that I couldn’t hear. Then she came out and told me I could go; they knew who I was.

I waited with excitement for the paper to come out the following week. I would be on the front page. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that they’d never taken my picture.

The paper came, and I looked on the front page: nothing. I laid the pages out on the floor and scoured each from top to bottom. (There might have been six, tops.) Finally, between the obituaries and the want ads, I saw one little line: “Judy Ann Felts found the first buttercups of this year.”

Yes, they knew who I was.

Judy A. Brezina
Carlton, Washington

Rain falls on the thin roof of a shabby motel outside Missoula, Montana. Half asleep, I open one eye and look around. My bike, still wet from yesterday’s ride in the rain, stands in the corner near a chipped dresser. Everything is damp and cold.

I left Seattle ten days ago by bicycle, heading to my fiftieth high-school reunion in Cleveland, Ohio, two thousand miles away. Wanting to travel fast and light, I left behind my tent, sleeping bag, and cookware. I’ve been staying in motels and eating in restaurants instead. The trip is the longest I have ever attempted, and so far it has been nothing like I had hoped: a week of dodging dirty water thrown in my face by passing cars and huddling for warmth in tiny cafes. My clothes are moldy, and my bike is rusting from the continuous rain.

I took up cycling when my two young daughters became interested in the sport. The three of us explored Seattle, eventually stretching our rides to forty or fifty miles. Then one of the girls suggested a six-hundred-mile tour to San Francisco. My wife was reluctant — the girls were ten and twelve — but we managed to convince her. We rode back roads and crossed mountain passes, even spending a night in a tepee. On a foggy, windy morning in June we biked across the Golden Gate Bridge and celebrated with dinner at Fisherman’s Wharf.

The next summer we rode to Yellowstone National Park.

Now almost seventy, I am making this cross-country ride alone, hoping to arrive triumphant at the reunion, but I’m beginning to regret my decision. Outside, another wet day is waiting. I don my riding clothes and set off. An hour later, soaked and chilled, I face a two-thousand-foot climb over a mountain pass obscured by mist and rain. I take shelter in an abandoned gas station. Do I really want to do this? I’ve never turned back from a ride, but I’m miserable. Angry and filled with self-loathing, I give up my plan, hurl my maps into a dumpster, and head home.

I don’t make long tours anymore. Whenever I pass cyclists on scenic highways, however, I wonder what it would be like to try again.

Richard Porus
Portland, Oregon

My elderly mother and I were in a pet-store parking lot when I heard a commotion. A large man was leaning into the back seat of a car and beating a crying child strapped into a car seat while a shabbily dressed woman stood nearby. I took out my cellphone to call the police, then paused.

I had worked in child-protective services, so I knew what would likely transpire after that call, if I made it: The child would be placed in an emergency shelter or foster home, which could be a safe place or a hellhole. Court battles over custody and parental rights would ensue. Investigators would interrogate the child. The parents would become more violent toward each other. The child would be shuttled from foster home to foster home or placed with relatives who didn’t really want him.

All this went through my mind as I stood with my cellphone in hand. Was it better to leave the child with an abusive parent than to subject him to an unpredictable child-protection system?

I put my cellphone away.

That was ten years ago. The child would now be entering his teens. I wonder whether I did the right thing by not reporting the abuse. I can still hear his cries.

Name Withheld

I was enjoying a Thanksgiving special starring Dolly Parton when a baby appeared on screen, and I burst into tears. I had been unusually moody and weepy for no reason and remembered having felt this way only once before — when I’d been pregnant with my son in 1970, seventeen years earlier. Could that be it? My periods had been erratic, but I’d chalked it up to recent minor surgery, being forty-one, working fifty to sixty hours a week, and not eating or sleeping properly.

I went to the all-night drugstore and bought a pregnancy test. The stick turned bright blue. Impossible. I had been faithfully taking birth-control pills for years. After the surgery, though, on my doctor’s advice, I had switched to a pill with a lower dosage of hormones.

So much for my doctor’s advice.

Eleven weeks pregnant, and I hadn’t had a clue. I was a single, professional woman with a son who would soon be going off to college. I’d been looking forward to being an empty nester. The father-to-be was no longer in the picture — no longer in the country, in fact. I had no idea what I was going to do. But a decision needed to be made, and soon.

I’d always believed a woman has the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy, but now that I was faced with the decision myself, I found it difficult to make. I weighed the pros and cons and thought about how a baby would change my life. My friends were divided on what I should do. I didn’t dare tell anyone in my family; they never would have understood.

One afternoon I went to my church and sat in a pew, contemplating my dilemma. The pastor sat down beside me and asked what was going on. After telling her everything, I said, “I thought if I came here and was still and quiet, I might receive some sort of sign or message about what to do.”

She laughed gently and said, “That only happens in the movies.”

Finally I decided to have the abortion. As soon as I’d made up my mind, I felt immense relief. The blood work was done, and a date was set. The morning of the appointment I woke early and had a friend drive me to the clinic. I walked in the door, started to sign the paperwork, then stopped.

“I can’t do this,” I said.

And I didn’t.

Bonnie Kin
Atlanta, Georgia

My husband and I grew up together and got married in our early twenties. I love his compassion and humor and the familiarity of his nightly embrace. I enjoy our evenings of philosophizing and the naked games of hide-and-seek after our children are asleep.

But it hasn’t all been good. Eight years ago, after more than a decade of marriage, I became aware that he was seeking other women’s attention. He denied it until I presented him with evidence. For weeks after the confrontation he attempted to atone. He said the indiscretions had occurred only when he’d had too much to drink during a bout of depression, but I couldn’t help suspecting that they revealed his true feelings.

It didn’t end there, and his behavior continues to this day. With each recurrence I weep and tremble, and he promises to change, but the cycle goes on. I expect the next betrayal to come in four or five months.

Over the years I’ve considered having an affair in revenge, but I haven’t done it — mostly because of what we both stand to lose, but also because there have been no potential candidates. Until now. I know a man who is thoughtful and sober; a man who may scarcely realize I exist. I almost wish he would read this and know I wrote it about him.

Name Withheld

My mother was a good parent but very controlling. She insisted that my sister and I be what she considered the “right kind of girl.” As soon as I graduated from high school, I left home for good. After some difficult telephone conversations, I cut off all contact for twenty years.

When my husband and I were thinking of adopting, I began to wish I had better ties with my mother. I started calling and writing, and soon I was flying back to rural California to visit about twice a year. The trip was arduous and expensive, but after our son arrived, I continued to make it because I wanted my mother to know her grandchild. Despite some strained and awkward moments, I kept at it, summer after summer, holiday after holiday. Slowly I was regaining my mother’s love.

My mother died seventeen years later, at the age of ninety-two. My son and I flew out for the memorial service. Outside my hotel room that night, I talked with my sister, who had remained close to my mother and had long been angry at me for leaving. “You know,” she told me, “Mama never did forgive you. She always dreaded your visits.”

St. Louis, Missouri

I almost didn’t leave. I just stood there, pasta pot in one hand, spoon in the other, and glanced around at my children. My daughter’s eyes were glued to her homework; my older son’s, to me. My youngest was looking back and forth between me and his father.

I don’t recall exactly what my husband had said, but I’d heard his tone before, and I knew what was coming.

Earlier that week I’d been catching up with a friend and complaining about how much angrier and more volatile my husband had been lately and how his drinking had become worse. By the time I’d finished, however, I had convinced myself — and, I thought, my friend — that I would be OK. Then my friend told me I needed an “exit strategy.”

I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right. He clarified: an easy-to-remember escape plan.

I scoffed. I was an educated, strong woman. I didn’t need him telling me what to do. But my friend insisted we create a plan on the spot. He drilled me about different scenarios and how to adapt. He made me go over it until I could repeat it as effortlessly as I could the directions to my mother’s house.

He instructed me to hide spare keys near the car. (I’d been sleeping with a set under my pillow, just in case.)

“What about shoes?” I asked. It was winter, and I didn’t want my children’s feet to freeze.

“Distractions,” he replied.

I’d humored him, repeating the plan one last time before we’d said goodbye.

Now here I was, in one of the scenarios we had talked about. The conversation with my friend came back: Know the exit closest to where your car is parked. Know how to get there. Make sure he can’t get between you and your car. Keep your phone in reach. Be deliberate and confident in your movements. Keep yourself between him and the children at all times. Don’t panic; you’ll scare the children and set him off. They will follow your instructions if you are calm. Don’t tell the children where you are going in front of him; he might follow. Get out of the house. Get into your car. Lock the doors. Drive.

I put down the pot and picked up my phone. When my husband moved toward me, I willed myself not to show fear. I think my inexplicable calm caught him off guard. He just watched and laughed as I gathered the children and ushered them out the door.

We left dinner on the stove. We left homework on the table. We left everything we had. But what’s important is that we left.

A few weeks later I almost went back. Almost.

Name Withheld