Smoking in the girls’ room, sneaking a drink, napping
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I am sixteen years old and studying at the Jacob’s Pillow dance school in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. The audition process was hard. Professionals put this place in their bios. I hope to put it in mine one day. But first I have to make it through the program.
We have four classes a day, each two hours long. In Jazz Dance nobody can seem to follow the instructor’s moves. The grand battement (French for “kick”) sequence is usually easy, but his has twelve bars of complex choreography before even one kick appears. I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s struggling.
My poor parents. Whenever I call them, I’m either in tears from fatigue or begging them to let me go to the Ailey Intensive in New York City next summer: “My roommate went last year. She got an apartment and a rice cooker, and she was all set!”
Each dancer has his or her own way of handling the pressure. Some start smoking. I listen to music on my Walkman with the volume way up. One night a group of ten or twelve of us congregate behind the dorm. Someone takes their clothes off; I don’t remember who. And then another, and another. Finally I join them.
It’s not an orgy, just a naked dance under the stars. I feel the cool night air on my skin — all of my skin. Needing more space, we migrate to an outdoor stage and continue to dance: Arabesque. Half-pointe. Pirouette. There’s no music, only the sound of our feet on the boards and the chirping of crickets. In the dark I can’t see my body the way I usually can in the studio’s mirrors. I’m not trying to impress my teachers. I feel beautiful and free, and I remember why I came here in the first place.
But we are disciplined students at heart. Before long we steal back to our narrow dorm beds and curl up alone between the sheets. The reality of classes and bright lights and mirrors awaits us in the morning.
When the other students and I arrive at the studio the next day and begin stretching, I see sly smiles on several faces, and I know we will always remember last night.
Erica L. Steinweg
Shaker Heights, Ohio
When I was growing up, my family owned a chain of supermarkets in the suburbs of Los Angeles. I’d see our last name everywhere, in neon signs and on billboards. I hated this semicelebrity status, and by my last year of high school I’d rejected the family business, my upbringing, other students, teachers, and whatever else the world put in front of me.
At seventeen I had a ten-pill-a-day addiction to barbiturates. I also had a girlfriend who was attracted to my bad-boy reputation. Lyn was sixteen, with waist-length blond hair and blue eyes.
Shortly before Thanksgiving 1970, she and I were driving to the local Bob’s Big Boy after a bad fight. While we were stopped at a red light, I passed out at the wheel, high on pills, and my foot slipped off the brake. The van rolled across the intersection, and a drunk driver doing ninety smashed into us. Because we weren’t wearing seat belts, Lyn was thrown through the windshield. She flew thirty feet and landed on her head.
When I came to, I was unable to comprehend what had happened. I kept asking the growing crowd of onlookers, “Where’s Lyn? What happened to Lyn?”
The steering wheel had broken three of my ribs, and I had cuts and bruises on my face, neck, and arms, but that was it. Lyn never woke up. She died on Thanksgiving morning.
The police arrested me and drove me to a hospital, where I was handcuffed to a bed. My old man showed up and growled, “What have you done now?” I was charged with felony manslaughter and taken to jail in downtown Los Angeles, where I spent a terrified night.
Because I was not yet eighteen, and because the other driver had been speeding and also under the influence, I never did real time behind bars. Instead, for the next seven years, I underwent psychiatric care. After the funeral Lyn’s mom and stepdad won a million-dollar civil suit against my family and left town without putting a marker on their daughter’s grave.
I wish I could say that experience stopped me from taking drugs, but it would be a lie. For the next forty-two years I used, mostly heroin. Three years ago, on my sixtieth birthday, I finally stopped.
It should have been me who died instead of Lyn. Not a Thanksgiving goes by that I don’t sit and wonder who she would have grown up to be.
Last year I was able to save enough money to buy a headstone for Lyn’s grave — not because I want to be forgiven, but because she deserves to be remembered.
Sonoma Valley, California
I clutched the butcher knife with both hands and aimed it at the chest of my sleeping stepfather. I’d spent several weeks planning how I would creep from my bed to the kitchen, take the knife from a drawer, and tiptoe into the dark bedroom where he slept. Now I stood ready to plunge the blade into his chest. I was nine.
My parents had divorced before I was old enough to attend school. Though college educated, my mother had no job skills and was overwhelmed by the responsibility of rearing two young children with no relatives nearby to help. So she quickly got remarried, to a handsome, charming man who would provide for her — and berate, humiliate, and dominate us all.
Even when my stepfather was out of the house, I would fearfully anticipate his return. Sometimes I would crouch behind a clothes hamper in the bathroom closet for safety. After my older sister and I matured, he added sexual abuse to his cruel offenses. When not at work, our mother stayed in her bedroom and drank.
I didn’t stab my stepfather that night. The next day I told my sister what I’d almost done, and she advised me that killing him would only have landed me in jail. Years later, after she left for college, I attempted suicide, and for several months I lived with another family. When I returned home, my mother and stepfather trod carefully around me.
When I left home, I hoped I could put all this behind me, but I couldn’t. I had a career meltdown at twenty-two and a bad first marriage. I spent years going to therapy and taking anti-anxiety drugs. Any minor unkindness from friends or family would lead me to accuse them of betrayal.
I still remember that night vividly. I wish I had killed him.
I was living a double life. To my mom I was a normal, well-behaved high-school student; to my friends I was a pot-smoking hippie like my older sister.
My sister hadn’t always been a rebel, but after she got to college, her attitude and beliefs changed. Meanwhile our single-parent mom was teaching fifth grade during the day and working on a master’s degree at night. My fourteen-year-old brother (another closet pothead) and I saw no need to add to her stress by revealing our illicit activities. We weren’t out to change society; we just wanted to get high and listen to music.
Our strategy was working well. Our exhausted mom didn’t seem to notice our red eyes or the pervasive smell of smoke on our clothes. As long as my brother and I maintained B averages at school, we were free to hang out with our friends whenever we wanted.
Then our sister returned from college for her first visit home. She emerged from her Volkswagen wearing jeans cut off an inch below her fanny and a tie-dyed T-shirt with no bra. Her curly blond hair was held in place by a flowered headband.
After our mom’s initial shock wore off, we sat down to eat. Mom casually asked her oldest daughter about classes, her sorority, and any new friends she had made. Our sister explained that she had quit the sorority — the girls there were too uptight and materialistic — but was loving her classes, especially political science: “The professor really knows where it’s at.” She was making new friends in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a radical civil-rights group that Mom, thank God, wasn’t familiar with and our sister didn’t explain.
After dinner Mom served coffee and took out her pack of menthol cigarettes. My sister pulled a joint from her pocket and leaned over for a light.
“What the hell is that?” Mom asked.
My sister casually replied that it was a marijuana cigarette. “This is who I am now,” she said.
“How can you do that in front of your little sister and brother?” Mom demanded.
“Oh, Mother, please,” our sister replied. “They smoke it, too.”
After I quit drinking and doing drugs, I also swore to give up casual sex. The clarity that had come with sobriety made having sex with someone I barely knew feel wrong.
In my ninth year of sobriety I went to Maui to visit my old friend Jeff and his wife, Dea. The night before I was to fly home, the three of us went dancing at a club called Casanova’s. I was tapping my foot at the edge of the dance floor when a slender man with curly brown hair asked me to dance. “That’s what I’m here for,” I said.
He was a splendid dancer. Soon the DJ took a break, and we found a table. The man’s name was Mark, and I liked him a lot. As the music started up again, Jeff came over and said we had to go. My heart sank. Picking up on my disappointment, Jeff offered to let me take him and Dea home; then I could drive back to Casanova’s by myself.
I looked at Mark, who said, “Go ahead. I’ll wait.”
I drove my friends home and sped back to the club, afraid that if I took too long, Mark would change his mind and leave. He was still there, but the DJ was packing up, and the bar was about to close. We sat in the car to talk. Then we moved beyond talking. I wanted to spend the night with him, but I was leaving the next day, and I had sworn off one-night stands. If I didn’t keep this promise to myself, who knew what other promises I might break.
Between kisses I offered feeble objections until Mark touched my lips with a finger and said, “Shhhh. Don’t think.”
I followed him back to his house, where the louvered windows were open and the ocean breeze blew gently across the room. So what if it is a one-night stand? I thought. I might cherish this memory forever.
Thank God I listened to Mark. He and I have been together for twenty-six years.
Grass Valley, California
Marriage took me by surprise. At eighteen I didn’t have a picture of it in my mind beyond walking down the aisle in my white dress and being the star of the show, like Miss America. It was 1967, and I hadn’t seen my groom in six months: he’d been in Texas with the military, while I’d been home in Georgia.
At the door of the church my father asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
I felt a flutter in my stomach. Was I sure? It was too late for such questions. The three-tier cake was set up in the reception hall. The church was decorated with white irises and candles. “Here Comes the Bride” was playing on the pipe organ.
After the ceremony and reception my groom and I waved goodbye and drove toward Texas, tin cans rattling against the road behind us. When we arrived at a nondescript motel, I went into the bathroom and put on my lingerie — a word I’d learned to pronounce just the week before. I hesitated before I emerged. What now? This man with whom I’d been in love for four years suddenly seemed like a stranger.
We fumbled through the motions of making love. Afterward my new husband fell asleep, and I got up, sat on the floor of the motel room, and ate wedding cake out of a white box. I looked at the telephone on the bedside table and considered calling home but didn’t. It would take me thirty years to make that call.
As a teenager in the 1960s I both hated and feared my father. He was a police officer in our small Boston suburb, as well as a drunk and a bully who fought constantly with my mother.
My goal was to go to college and get a degree in electronics. This required that I transfer from my vocational high school into one with college-prep courses and repeat my sophomore year. I was afraid of failure. Would I get good-enough grades? Would I fit in? My mother said I was too stupid for college, and my father didn’t give a damn what I did.
I worked hard and was beginning to feel more confident when one evening my father stumbled in drunk and looking for a fight. My mother was out shopping, but I was studying at my desk in my bedroom, which was really the dining room. He turned his anger on me, making fun of my attempt to go to college. For the first time, instead of cowering before him, I stood up and punched him square in the nose. He fell on his back. There was blood on his face and shirt. Then he got to his hands and knees and started to crawl toward the front door, and I screamed for him to stand up so I could punch him again.
I graduated from college with a degree in physics. I believe that night saved me many years of therapy.
I woke up feeling fine, dropped my six-year-old daughter off at school, and went to work. It wasn’t until I visited the bathroom later in the morning that I saw the rust-colored discharge — the first and only sign that something was wrong. I did a quick Google search on my phone and found that discharge could be normal at seventeen weeks. I was well beyond the first trimester and presumed there was no reason to worry.
By afternoon a faint cramping had begun. After I picked my daughter up from school, the cramping and discharge grew worse. I left a message for my doctor. A nurse rang me back and advised me to go to the emergency room. The pain was now impossible to ignore. Still clinging to my last strand of denial, I weakly asked if I could just come in to see the doctor in the morning. No, she said. Go.
An hour later my husband got home to find me on all fours, rocking back and forth and moaning.
Friends arrived to take care of our daughter, and we headed to the hospital. I was in so much pain I couldn’t talk. I writhed in the front passenger seat, seeking even the briefest respite from the agony. My eyes locked onto the nearly full moon, shining in the early-December night sky, and it gave me something to focus on outside of myself.
Halfway to the hospital I felt a sudden release of warm liquid running down my legs, and the pain ceased. When I got out of the van and stood up in the hospital parking lot, I felt my baby’s body slide out of me and land in my underwear. I keeled over, sobbing. Just that morning I’d been happy, healthy, and pregnant.
Inside the ER a nurse accompanied my husband and me to the bathroom, where they helped me pull down my pants and awkwardly catch my child in a plastic bin. I saw my son for the first time: His body perfectly formed but so tiny — too small to survive outside the womb. Ten fingers, ten toes, a round belly, a beautiful nose. I could hold him in the palm of one hand.
After moving to a room and delivering the placenta, I looked straight into a male nurse’s compassionate eyes and told him we were taking the body home. I walked out of the hospital with my baby in a blue plastic container.
The ER doctor had told us that miscarriages are often a mystery. I was upset and confused by this statement. Had I had a miscarriage? I was grieving an experience our culture doesn’t quite have a name for. I’d been mentally prepared to accept a miscarriage in the first twelve weeks, but I’d been seventeen weeks along. I felt pretty sure I’d just given birth.
Two days later I was soaping up in the shower when I felt a tingling in my breasts. I pressed against my areola, and milk squirted out of my nipple. My body was affirming my version of the experience: I had delivered a son.
The next day it was as if nothing had happened. When I came downstairs, the green glass ashtray was in its usual place on the coffee table. I looked around for signs of damage but found none. Later, going upstairs to use the bathroom, I noticed an indentation in the wall just above the baseboard.
The ashtray was heavy and translucent. It sometimes caught the light coming through the living-room windows and cast a prism of colors onto the wall. I wonder whether my mother, when she’s crushing a lipstick-stained cigarette butt into that ashtray, remembers throwing it.
My three siblings and I were all in bed that night. I shared a room with my brother; our sisters were upstairs in their attic room; and our parents were outside at a block party. I drifted off to sleep to the sounds of adults laughing and talking over the music.
Dad came home first, waking me when he slammed the front door. I heard him go into the kitchen, open the refrigerator, and pop the top on a can of beer. Then he sat in the living room, muttering to himself. Earlier I’d seen him leave the house in a sombrero with bandoliers across his chest and six-shooters at his side. (It was a costume party, and he was a Mexican bandit.) I pictured him now, downstairs on the couch, still dressed in his costume.
Then I heard my mother knock on the door. Dad didn’t open it. She knocked louder and called for him. He began laughing quietly. When my mother started screaming, he just turned on the TV.
It grew quiet downstairs for a while. Then our neighbor Mr. Renson came to the door and asked my dad to open it. “Be reasonable,” Mr. Renson said. “You can’t leave Kathleen out here.”
“You take her home,” my father replied, “if you’re so worried about her.”
I heard my mother yelling, and Mr. Renson trying to calm her.
Sometime later there was a gentle knock. “John, please open the door. It’s very late.” It was Dad’s father, and Mom was with him.
“Oh, Christ,” Dad mumbled, and he got up and let them in.
After Grandpa left, Mom and Dad began arguing. At first they tried to keep their voices down, but the argument soon escalated into a shouting match. My father kept laughing at my mother’s rage. I heard him stagger up the stairs, stop right outside my bedroom door, and challenge my mother, who was still at the bottom of the stairs: “Come on, Kathleen, you can do it. Show me what you got.”
Something heavy hit the wall and thudded to the floor. Dad picked it up and threw it back down. I realized it was the green glass ashtray. Somehow it hadn’t shattered.
“Let’s see if you can hit me this time,” Dad said.
Mom threw it again. They kept at it like this until both of them were spent.
Years later I asked my mother if she remembered that night.
“Of course I remember,” she said. “I was locked out of my own house, and not one of my four children would come down and let me in.”
John J. Gredler
Tuckahoe, New York
I met Laura ten years ago when the radio station where I worked hired her to sell ads. I was married at the time, with three grown kids, and had never really been tempted by another woman. Laura was married with children, too. She was a natural salesperson and often arranged “remotes” — live broadcasts from an event such as a store opening. We’d stop for coffee or lunch on our way to or from the location. She and I were a good team.
Laura began to touch my arm while we were talking. One day, over coffee, she gave me a finger massage. Nobody else had ever looked twice at my fingers. I wished we’d met twenty years earlier.
Then Laura arranged a two-day remote at a trade fair 250 miles away. Off she and I went to Denver for a two-night stay.
Laura was friendly and happy on the drive. At the show she did some on-air work for the first time, and she was good. She really didn’t need me.
We left the trade show and talked the night away at a quiet restaurant. Then I walked her to her hotel room. She lingered at the door and hinted that I should come in, but I pretended not to hear. I didn’t know what else to do.
The next day was another big success. Again we celebrated with dinner and drinks. Again I walked her to her door. That night she didn’t say a word. She just leaned in and kissed me.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you, too,” I replied. The words had come without a thought.
We made love that night, and it was like nothing I’d ever experienced. On the way home the next morning, I felt a mix of exhilaration and guilt. In the last hour of the drive, we both agreed that this had to stop.
After that, we consciously avoided being alone together. Some days one of us wanted to find a hotel room, but somehow we were able to fight the physical attraction.
We’re both still married. I am not proud of what happened, but I honestly wouldn’t trade that night for anything.
Grand Junction, Colorado
During World War II my mother, my brother, and I lived in a small village in Germany’s Bavarian Alps. We were on the ground floor of a three-story house, and from our veranda we could see a small dairy across a half acre of grass. In the spring I might watch the farmer release a new calf from the stable and the animal make its first acquaintance with the outdoors.
I got to know the farmer, and he let me help him clean the stable, brush the cows, and put hay and oats into their troughs. My favorite cow was Resa. She was very patient with me when the farmer taught me how to milk. After my chores I would do my homework in the stable. It was cozy and private there, unlike home, where my brother and I had to share a room.
I remember resting my book against Resa’s back one evening when the air-raid sirens wailed. Planes were lining up in the sky above our valley. I’d learned the pattern of the attacks: First came the scouts, flying ahead to discover how many anti-aircraft guns were pointed at them — guns often manned by fourteen-year-old boys who sat in trenches at night and attended school during the day. Next came the firebombers to stake out the territory to be bombed. Last came the planes carrying the big explosives. From the direction they flew, I could sometimes tell which city would get hit: Munich, Augsburg, Ulm, Würzburg.
Throwing my schoolbook on the floor, I leaned my head against Resa’s flank and sobbed. I was fourteen years old and knew nothing but war and trying to stay away from the Nazis.
I felt Resa nuzzling the top of my head, and I looked up into her large brown eyes. With her rough tongue she began to lick the tears from my cheeks.
That night I became a vegetarian.
When I was forty-two, I joined a band that combined traditional Irish music with other genres. My wife was the arranger and bass player. Though my main instrument was guitar, I agreed to play the bodhran — an Irish frame drum — because the band already had two guitarists. We performed at bars, community events, private parties, and festivals. Once, we played a dinner for the Irish ambassador. Our members grew as close as family.
After about ten years together we were invited to perform at the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance conference, a weekend event at a resort in the Pennsylvania mountains. The first morning of the conference, while most of the band gathered in the resort dining room for breakfast, the lead guitarist and I sat at the bar in the lounge, drinking whiskey. We never did have any food.
My bandmates had all inherited some degree of musical talent. As the child of alcoholic parents, I had inherited a great love for the juice of the barley and a remarkable tolerance for its effects. As we left the bar, I realized that, despite my tolerance, I was probably in trouble.
I think I attended some workshops in the afternoon. By the time I joined the others for dinner, my condition was obvious, and my bandmates were disappointed and angry. We were scheduled to perform that evening. Ignoring their attempts to reason with me, I got up and left the hotel, stumbling around the woods and stopping frequently to vomit. There was nothing but trees as far as I could see. I got lost and was starting to panic when I saw the lights of the resort and made my way back. I knew the band would be looking for me, so I sat down on the floor in the lobby under a large potted tree to wait.
Our rhythm guitarist found me. He was alone. I’d prepared a nasty, defensive response to any accusations, but he didn’t say a word. He just sat down beside me in silence, and I started sobbing.
By the time the rest of the band came along, I had calmed down. I don’t remember much about my performance that evening, only that there were blinding lights, and I couldn’t hear the rest of the band. My selfish behavior had jeopardized the people and music I loved. It took time and a committed effort on my part to regain everyone’s trust.
If my bandmate had approached me differently that evening, I probably would have said something I’d regret and possibly lost my place in the band, my friends, and maybe my wife. His quiet concern for me made all the difference. I haven’t had a drop of alcohol since.
© Edward Manning
I was friends with a girl in high school and never forgot about her. We had some good times around town, but she dated older boys, so I didn’t think she could be serious about me. While away at college I convinced the first girl I dated that I was the one for her. It didn’t take long for me to realize my mistake, but by then I felt obligated to marry her.
One December, after I’d been in that passionless marriage for eighteen years, I phoned my old high-school friend. We’d previously stayed in touch only by a yearly exchange of Christmas cards that showed off our happy families. I was going to be in her city on business, and we made plans to meet for dinner. It was the first time we’d spoken in fifteen years.
I’d expected her to arrive with her husband, but he was out of town — “as usual,” she said. Our conversation quickly moved to how unhappy we both were in the lives we’d chosen. We wound up back at her place, leafing through our senior yearbook next to a crackling fire. At some point she jumped up and said, “This is too comfortable.” She suggested we end the evening. I suggested otherwise. This friendly debate lasted nearly two hours, and as I left, she invited me to call her when I was ready to start a new life.
I got home late the following night. Feeling slightly guilty, I climbed into bed with my wife and moved close to her. “Give me some space,” she snapped. I got up and told her she could have all the space she needed. That night, I made the call.
I’m told to wait in the car. Gazing out the window, I try to make sense of the unfamiliar sights and scents. The streets and houses are all made of stone, and the smell of fires hangs in the cold night air. It’s nothing like my neighborhood at home in the U.S. I am exhausted from traveling, but nervous and excited, too.
And then there she is: the grandmother I’ve never met. Her strong arms reach in and pull me out of the car. Though I’m seven, she carries me into the darkened house as if I were a toddler. A dim bulb dangles from the ceiling in her kitchen, and a fire glows in the fireplace. She sits me on the edge of the wooden table to get a better look at me.
She is tall, sturdy, and plainly dressed, her graying hair pulled back into a bun. I find her foreign and beguiling. She studies my hair, my eyes; strokes my arms, my face. I don’t understand a word she is saying, but her eyes are kind. She removes her necklace and places it around my neck. The gold medals — a horn and a Madonna and child — bounce against my belly.
And then we are off. She carries me over the cobblestone streets from house to house. Though the neighbors are preparing for bed, she bellows to them through open windows, and they emerge. Nobody seems to mind. These are her people. They share in her joy. By the end of the brief tour, I have learned my first bit of Italian, and I know I am cherished.
That was in 1963. I still have the necklace.
Tina C. Smith
My parents designed the house where I grew up. At the center was a well-stocked bar that opened on all four sides to the living room, dining room, and two patios. My mother was a mean drunk, and as the oldest of four children, I was the primary target of her verbal abuse. After I became an adult, I set clear boundaries with her: we never spoke after 5 PM (cocktail time), and I stopped staying at her house overnight.
When she was sober, though, my mother was a delightful, intelligent, inquisitive companion whose presence my sons and I enjoyed. She was an avid bridge player and perfect party hostess, and she always gave her tennis opponents a good game.
During the final stages of lung cancer — she’d smoked most of her life — my mother took to her bed and prepared to die. Over those last two weeks I got to spend more time with her. She was no longer able to drink excessively, but every night at “cocktail time” her caregiver brought her a small glass of Scotch on the rocks. My mother thanked me for staying by her bedside, where I would knit, read, or simply sit quietly. We spoke very little; nothing needed to be said. I had forgiven her a long time ago, and I understood some of the suffering she’d endured, both as a child (her mother had died when she was seven) and as an adult. My father, who had died a few years earlier, had been an alcoholic, too, though he’d handled it differently: No yelling or abuse. He just went to bed.
Toward the end my mother asked me to sleep in her room, and I gladly agreed. The night before she died, she could no longer speak or even hold a glass, but somehow she let me know that she wanted her cocktail. I held it to her lips while she took one last sip. Her eyes met mine, and in that moment there was no separation between us: no mother or daughter, no past or future, nothing to forgive — only me holding her drink and her accepting it. She fell unconscious soon afterward and died peacefully the next morning.
Asheville, North Carolina
Dad hated snow because even in a storm, his customers needed coal for their furnaces. He had to send his men and trucks crisscrossing Chicago’s whitened streets, making deliveries before the plows were even out. When his trucks got stuck, they would slip behind schedule, coal bins would grow empty, and folks would get cold. He took their plight personally.
Although my father’s mood turned grim at the first sign of flakes, any snowfall thrilled me with the promise of a clean, quiet world. I kept my excitement to myself around Dad, however.
One night, as it began to snow, Dad grew anxious about the next day’s deliveries. Unable to sleep, he drafted my sister and me into his war against winter weather. “Why don’t you kids get suited up,” he said. “Let’s clear the sidewalks. By tomorrow it’s really gonna pile up.” We dutifully put on jackets, gloves, hats, and boots. Dad wore gloves but no jacket. His body was like a furnace.
Wielding shovels, we cleared the front and back walks. Then we started doing the sidewalks in front of our sleeping neighbors’ homes, the only sounds the steady scrape of metal on concrete and the thump of snow on snow. We shoveled the asphalt pad outside our garage and the alley to the streets at both ends, so cars could get out. Snow kept falling, but Dad seemed confident that our efforts would be rewarded come morning.
That night still defines cold for me. By the time I shed my mittens indoors, I’d lost all sensation in my fingers. My mother prescribed a hot shower, but even lukewarm water felt like knives, I was so frozen.
The next morning, when I awoke in my bed, Dad was already long gone, routing his trucks through the city. I got dressed beside a creaking radiator and looked out at a snow-blanketed world. There was no sign of the paths we’d shoveled. I gazed with delight on the stunning, unblemished white of our defeat.
Meg R. Mahoney
In my senior year of high school I went on a first date with James at the local drive-in theater. I wasn’t expecting much. He and I had been close friends for several years, and I had recently gone through a difficult breakup and was in need of a distraction.
He backed his truck into a row and got out with several blankets and pillows. I realized, to my horror, that he’d planned for us to watch the movie lying in the bed of the truck. This would be a disaster. You see, I have always fallen asleep easily. I was the toddler who dozed off into her pasta at a restaurant. Movies and television make it especially hard for me to stay awake. If I am horizontal on a couch past 8 PM, I will awaken to the credits rolling down the screen. I felt sure my date would be ruined within fifteen minutes when I became unresponsive and began to drool.
As the movie began, I lay beside James, filled with worry. Just as I was nodding off, he turned to me and joked that he would ditch me in a minute for the movie’s lead — no offense.
I countered by comparing him unfavorably to actor Zac Efron. “He’s a real man.”
After a few more playful insults, we began talking about music, hobbies, summer activities. I have no recollection of the movie, only that it ended long before we were ready to leave. We sat there staring at each other, not wanting to move. For once, I’d found a reason to stay awake.
Over the months that followed, James and I would sneak out to sleep in each other’s beds. We didn’t have sex, but we found comfort in lying side by side the way we had on our first date.
I have since moved away. James leaves for Naval basic training in two months. I still have trouble falling asleep without him.
San Luis Obispo, California
My father died young, and when I was fifteen, my mother married an abusive alcoholic who soon turned his lascivious attention toward me. I spent a year fending him off and arguing with my mother, who never believed my accusations.
When she finally divorced him, we had no source of income, so she found a part-time job as a waitress. Despite our limited finances (and perhaps to assuage her guilt), Mom had allowed me to keep my horse.
One night my beloved mare broke open a gate and disappeared. My mother was at work, so I was alone when it happened. I called the police, but no one ever came. At midnight I set out walking across the neighboring properties in search of her.
I came across a police officer in the middle of the highway, cleaning up after a collision, and I asked if he’d seen a loose horse. He pointed his flashlight at a puddle on the pavement. “See that?” he asked. “That’s your horse’s blood.” He told me that a car had hit her, breaking her legs, and he had shot her in the head to put her out of her misery. I stumbled home, bereft, and called the boy I had been dating, hoping he might console me. “Bummer,” he replied. Then he asked how soon we could get together because he had “needs” that weren’t being met.
When my mother arrived home from work, I told her about my horse. “That’s too bad” was the most she could muster. I could sense her relief at no longer having to shoulder that particular financial burden.
I learned two lessons that night. The first was that no one was ever going to rescue me; I would have to do that myself. The second was that I should never look to anyone else for comfort. I’m sixty-two now. Both lessons have proven valuable over the course of my life.
S. Kay Murphy
It’s Christmas Eve, my favorite night of the year: the world grown silent, the presents wrapped, the tree glowing, the kids asleep. All is calm. All is bright.
I’m the last one up, enjoying the moment, when I see his e-mail in-box open on the computer. For weeks I’ve been trying to break into it with a variety of possible passwords. Does he want me to find this?
His e-mails confirm what I’ve suspected for months. I stay up into the small hours of Christmas morning reading his emotional messages, his dismissals of our thirty-year relationship, his breezy statements about “trashing” two marriages. I take breaks to go to the garage to scream and rip his favorite flannel shirts into shreds.
I print one page of particularly passionate prose and fold it inside a Christmas card with a handwritten note to him about how we will fake it on Christmas Day, but then he will need to pack up and leave. I print copies of all the e-mails and put them in a manila envelope as evidence.
After drinking a glass of wine, I roll out a sleeping bag and spend the rest of the night on the living-room floor beside our tree, thinking back on all the Christmases when adultery would not have crossed my mind.
Though the divorce was painful, I also somehow welcomed it. Twelve Christmas Eves later, I raise my glass in a toast to that night.
It was a hard time for our family. My father worked in a warehouse and netted barely enough to feed the six of us and pay the rent on our tiny apartment. My parents decided they had no choice: Mom had to get a job. Because Dad worked days, she took an evening shift at an envelope factory; that way one of them would always be around for us kids. She got home each weeknight after 1 AM. Whenever I’d hear her come through the door, I’d feel comforted to know she was back.
Mom resented having to work; her friends were all stay-at-home mothers. To make it up to her, Dad took on all the household chores — cooking, grocery shopping, housecleaning, and homework supervising — while Mom spent the weekends relaxing and tuning out the rest of us. Nevertheless this put a strain on their marriage.
One Friday evening Dad decided to try his hand at making Polish doughnuts, or paczki (pronounced ponch-key). He made way too much dough and ended up deep-frying the paczki late into the night. While my siblings went to bed, he let me stay up and help.
My weary mother trudged in around 1 AM and found the kitchen a mess, with dozens of paczki on the countertops and two giggling pastry chefs, their faces and clothes streaked with flour. Instead of getting mad, she took off her coat, donned an apron, and helped us finish. For an hour or two I had what every child wants: a rollicking good time with Mom and Dad, plenty of sweet treats, and no siblings in sight. My mother and father smeared flour on each other and laughed until tears streamed down their faces. That night I knew they’d be all right.
Mary Jane Janowski