Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I watch my mother apply makeup in her mirror, her blond hair swept back in a scarf. Even in her dressing gown she has an air of elegance and glamour. “Should I marry William,” she asks me, “or go back to your father?”
I am eight. William, who my mother met in a supermarket after she and my father separated, is a doctor and likes to go to the racetrack. My father can ride a horse like a cowboy, speaks French, and knows the capital of every state.
“I don’t know,” I say to her.
My mother taps rouge onto her sharp cheekbones. “I don’t think I love your father anymore,” she says. “He doesn’t like grilled cheese sandwiches the way we do.”
In her tiny kitchen my mother makes grilled cheese sandwiches that are so crispy and delicious I want to shout with happiness. But my father can do things my mother can’t, like plant flowers and climb a tree. If my mother stops loving him, does that mean that I have to stop, too?
My father comes by later to take me roller skating. He is wearing scuffed brown shoes with frayed laces — shoes my mother hates. They nod to each other like strangers.
Outside, on a bench in front of Central Park, my father helps me put on my skates. Then he walks beside me while I roll along the bumpy, slanted path. I keep tripping.
“Pick up your feet,” my father says. “That’s it. One foot and then another. Very good.”
He tries to smile, but his voice is sad, the way it has been since he moved to a small hotel room on the West Side. When I visit him there, I find half-eaten 3 Musketeers bars on his dresser.
“All your mother cares about is her rich boyfriend,” he says. “She doesn’t love us anymore.”
I pick up speed. I hear thunder under my feet. Around me I see blue sky, brown buildings, and tall trees. The world is blurry and fast, and for a moment my parents aren’t in it.
New York, New York
I am a Buddhist, lesbian, politically left-leaning physical therapist, and I live in the country.
As a young adult I felt safer in San Francisco, with its large gay community and generally progressive outlook. But something was missing. I wanted to ride horses and be around fruit trees and farm animals. When I was forty-two, my partner and I moved to a ranch in rural Contra Costa County, California. As an openly lesbian couple, we stuck out there. Most of the gay people we met were deeply closeted.
I regularly found myself in conversations with people who assumed I was a heterosexual, married, conservative, churchgoing Christian like them. At work I dodged patients’ inquiries about which church I attended and what my “husband” did for a living. Many of my co-workers, neighbors, and acquaintances had been raised to believe that all gays were either promiscuous, amoral reprobates or chronically depressed, miserable people whose lives ended in drug addiction or suicide. Coming out to them, I felt like a tour guide in their queer house of horrors.
After more than twenty years here, my wife and I have many friends who share our interests in tractors, egg production, olive curing, and how to keep a horse free from colic. I am also still close to my city friends, who like to hear about life on the farm, but I have become somewhat of an oddity to them.
In San Francisco last week I had dinner with friends at a new Peruvian restaurant overlooking the bay. At home this morning I can smell our closest neighbors cooking eggs from our hens. If I wanted to, I could walk over and sit down with them for breakfast. If we were in trouble, they would come to our aid, and vice versa. In spite of this, there is much my partner and I do not share with them about our beliefs. I am comfortable in both worlds, rural and urban, but I don’t belong completely in either. I am someplace in the middle.
Tim and I met in photography class, one of the last courses I was taking to complete my college degree at night. Divorced just over a year, I was eager to have some of the experiences I’d missed by marrying young. So when Tim invited me to go spelunking with him and some friends, I said sure. We’d been hiking several times, and exploring caves was just hiking downhill, right?
The plan, Tim said, was to visit a remote, unmapped cave in Tennessee. Unmapped? I had been imagining a fully mapped, well-lit cave with guides leading the way. But Tim and his friends had done this before. I pushed down my fear and went.
Tim’s friend and his girlfriend came with us, along with her college-professor dad. We each wore a headband with a battery-powered lamp on the front. As we entered the cave, they told me to be careful where I stepped and not to wander off — we all had to stick together.
The professor led, followed by his daughter and her boyfriend, then me, and finally Tim. We had to crawl quite a distance on our hands and knees before we came to a huge cavern, at least fifty feet high. Tim’s buddy had brought a lantern and shone it on the beautiful rock formations.
Next we took a passage that grew narrower as we progressed. Then we stopped. We’d come to a spot where the floor of the cave disappeared except for a barely discernible ledge along each wall.
Well, I thought, too bad. I’m sure the caverns beyond would have been incredible.
Then the professor announced that we would go one at a time, spreading our legs to reach the two ledges.
Feeling physically sick, I pointed out that I was at least five inches shorter than everyone else. I wasn’t sure I could straddle the gap. They could go ahead, and I would wait there.
Nothing doing, they all said. We had to stick together. Everyone, including Tim, assured me I could do it. They would be there for me. I reluctantly agreed — but only if I could be in the middle, with two of them ahead and two at my back.
The professor and his daughter went first and made inching along the ledges look easy. Then it was my turn. I knew enough not to look down, and Tim’s encouraging words from behind kept me going. When I finally stepped on solid rock on the other side, I couldn’t decide whether to throw up or dance with joy.
It wasn’t until half an hour later that I understood there was no exit at the other end: we would have to turn around and go back the way we’d come.
I made it out, but now I wonder: Why did they bring me, a neophyte, to an unmapped cave? Why didn’t they use safety ropes of some kind? And why did I think being in the middle was somehow safer? It was one of the most exhilarating — and stupidest — things I’ve ever done.
I was born in 1949, just eighteen months after my older brother, Mike. In postwar, pre-Pill America, booming families were the norm, but after a couple of miscarriages our parents figured they were done having children.
A decade later we were startled when Mom got pregnant again. Along came son number three, Jonathan, and suddenly, at the age of eleven, I became a middle child. Being a big brother was a new role I relished.
Fast-forward a few years to when I drove off in my beat-up station wagon to a university four hundred miles away, convinced I’d never go back to my hometown. I promptly made a mess of my freshman year, drinking too much, smoking too much weed, and spending more time protesting than studying. I returned home deflated that summer to work a dismal job unloading boxes in a warehouse.
The only saving grace was being around my little brother. We spent a lot of time together given our eleven-year age difference. I’d drive him to Sara’s Burritos, and we’d eat and talk. He was funny and thoughtful beyond his years, with a freckle-strewn face and a quick laugh. Though I didn’t feel much like a role model, Jon looked up to me: the big brother who’d gone off to a big college. It dawned on me that I’d better act like someone worthy of his regard. If I got tossed out of college or busted for drugs, I could probably deal with my parents’ disappointment, but I wasn’t sure I could face Jon’s.
So I resolved not to disillusion my little brother. Slowly I got my educational career back on track.
The summer after I graduated, Jon died in a bicycle accident. He was eleven.
On Jon’s birthday last year I got out a couple of the letters he wrote to me when I was away at college. One note, sent with a dyed Easter egg, said, “Be a good egg!” I called my mom (she’s ninety-four now), and we talked about Jon and shed some tears together.
I’m still trying to make my little brother proud.
Yreka, California, is an old mining town on I-5, halfway between my home in Oregon and my father’s house in California. For twenty-one years I have been stopping there on my way back and forth, sleeping at the Miner’s Inn and walking the streets at dusk. This small town ringed by mountains has become a refuge for me, an equal distance from my crises to the north and my father’s crises to the south.
In the north a massive pine recently fell against my house, ripping off my gutters and splintering my fence. My husband is dead, so I had to deal with it by myself. A new boss at work has made weekdays miserable. My old dog just had a four-thousand-dollar knee surgery. I’m not sure how much longer I can stand living alone.
To the south, where I’m heading, my ninety-five-year-old father has shattered his leg, the latest in a series of mishaps that have sent him to hospitals and nursing homes and have required a family member (me) to be there. When I arrive, I will have to handle my father’s anger and increasing confusion, communicate with unfeeling doctors and nursing-home staff, pay Dad’s bills, mow his lawn, and argue with my brother, who is ready to clean out Dad’s house and sell it. (I contend that we don’t have the right to do that — at least, not yet.)
But for now there’s Yreka. I stopped here when my mother was dying, when her brother was dying, and after another uncle hanged himself. I have slept here on my way to weddings, birthdays, funerals, and holiday dinners. The hotel has evolved over the years: the furniture is fancier, the breakfasts more elaborate, the prices double what they used to be. But I always breathe a sigh of relief when I turn off I-5, pass the brass statue of a miner panning for gold, and get out after seven hours of driving.
I toss my suitcase on the bed and collapse into a chair by the window. I’m 350 miles from home and 350 miles from Dad, and there’s nothing I can do about either one tonight.
South Beach, Oregon
I worked in the service department of a large manufactured-housing plant, where the manager and I disagreed on just about everything. Co-workers often said that Rick and I fought like an old married couple.
Our department handled complaints. Maintaining good relationships with the dealers and homeowners was important to me, but Rick was interested only in the facts behind each complaint. The one thing we had in common was a respect for one another’s experience and a desire to do the right thing. We agreed always to hear one another out before deciding how to handle a difficult situation.
One day, in the midst of an argument, Rick stopped and said, “Between the two of us, we make one normal person.”
Our conflicting approaches paid off: our department consistently had the lowest service costs and highest customer satisfaction in the company. Even now, more than twenty years later, when faced with a dilemma, I pause to consider what Rick would have done and look for a solution in the middle.
During my teenage years I became friends with a married father of four. Both our families lived and worked on the same ranch, where he was the mechanic. I knew his wife and children and would hang out in his shop while he repaired tractors and other farm equipment. We went hunting together from time to time. As the eldest boy in my family, I considered him a surrogate older brother.
When I was nineteen, he confided that he was having an affair with a young woman I knew. To me sex was still an all-consuming mystery, and I found the mechanic’s talk of his dalliance exciting. That he would share such an intimate secret seemed confirmation of our friendship.
I was fairly certain his wife was unaware of his infidelity. Being complicit in my friend’s affair weighed on my conscience, but I couldn’t see a solution. I didn’t want to break that male bond of loyalty, and sharing my friend’s secret with his wife certainly would have devastated their marriage.
One day in late November the mechanic had an errand to run in a nearby town — the same town in which his girlfriend lived. They had planned a tryst that afternoon. Did I want to come along to town for the ride? Sure, I said.
Every November 22 I recall that afternoon: while my friend spent more than an hour with his mistress — acting out my teenage fantasies, I was sure — I waited in his pickup outside her house and listened to the radio coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
My parents were at war in my senior year of high school. My younger brother and I never knew what the mood would be when we arrived at the dinner table. Weekday meals were usually tolerable because my parents’ store was open, and we lived over it: my mother and father were intensely private and wouldn’t yell when customers might hear. Sunday, however, was different. Once we arrived home after Mass, the drinking would start. By dinner they would both be either weepy and maudlin or cold and angry.
My brother coped by hiding in his room and listening to the Beach Boys. I longed to escape to college, but my parents had explained that, since I was the least intelligent of their children, they didn’t want to waste money on my schooling. Whatever they had saved for tuition would go to my brother. I could stay home and help them in the store.
I decided to pay for college myself by baby-sitting and working at my cousin’s drugstore. When I applied to school and was accepted, I was jubilant, but my mother wasn’t pleased. “College ruined my children,” she said to me. “Your sisters were good Catholic girls until they went to college, and Paul —” She stopped. He was her favorite, but after going to college, he extolled the value of sex before marriage and other ideas that horrified my mother.
Despite my savings and a small scholarship, I would need a loan to pay for school, and that meant filling out paperwork about my family’s finances. My mother refused to give me any information. It was nobody’s business how much money she and Dad made, she said. As the financial-aid deadline approached, the blank application sat on the dining-room table. The day it had to be postmarked, a Saturday, I timidly asked her about it, and she turned away without a word.
I was going to have to live at home and smell my parents’ dirty ashtrays and listen to my father rant about “stupid” customers. My mother would monitor my reading materials and take away the books she deemed “too racy.” I would be caught between them forever.
I was dusting the shelves at the drugstore that day when I started sniffling and wiping my eyes and finally full-on crying. My cousin pulled me to the rear of the store to ask what was going on. After I told him, he sent me to the bathroom and said to come back when I could work without getting tears on everything.
In the bathroom I realized that by telling my cousin the situation, I had broken my father’s rule: “What goes on in this house stays in this house.” I went to ask my cousin never to tell my parents what I had said, but he was gone. The other clerk said he’d walked up the street to my father’s store.
That was it. My father would kill me, and my mother would help. I was so afraid I couldn’t even cry. I just wandered the aisles, flicking the dust rag over merchandise without seeing it.
My cousin returned with an envelope. Inside was the financial-aid application, all filled out. He put a stamp on it and told me to use the store’s delivery car to take it to the post office — and make sure it was postmarked that day.
I still don’t know what my cousin said to get my mother to fill out the form. My parents never mentioned his visit, and I never said a word. But I got the loan. I went to school. I was the first person in my family to get a master’s degree.
Oak Park, Illinois
I was born in the early nineties to lesbian mothers and a donor father. My mothers split when I was four, and I was left with three disparate but loving families. I moved back and forth between my moms’ homes and spent occasional weekends with my father. At one mom’s house my things were often packed away; at the other my belongings simply got hidden under piles of junk. I had trouble keeping track of my possessions and always felt a step behind.
College was liberating for me, but not in the usual way. I’d never felt constrained by my upbringing. What liberated me was having a single place to call my own and knowing where everything was.
On my first trip home, my moms asked me to pick which nights I would be staying with each of them. I put it off, and they grew impatient. It wasn’t that I couldn’t make a decision; I just didn’t want the burden of solving any conflicts that arose. I was right back where I’d been: stuck in the middle, torn between the two of them.
As part of a group of students from the Evergreen State College, I had just spent a week doing service work in Mount Rainier National Park. Now we were having an “adventure day”: crossing a narrow canyon by pulling ourselves along a horizontal rope anchored to either rim.
Our instructor was Willi Unsoeld, who had made history by being one of the first climbers to ascend the West Ridge of Mount Everest in 1963; in the process Willi had lost nine of his toes to frostbite. I had grown up dreaming of climbing Everest myself someday. Now here I was about to learn a mountaineering technique from the legend himself.
The “Tyrolean traverse,” as the technique is called, was designed for crossing breaks in glacial ice called crevasses. For our group it was simply an opportunity to face a challenge with a high level of perceived risk — we were ninety feet up — and a low level of actual risk, because each of us was outfitted with a climbing harness and secured to the rope with a thick metal clip called a carabiner. This rig was designed to hold the weight of a Volkswagen, Willi said.
When my turn came, I clipped my carabiner onto the rope and eased myself off the cliff edge. Lying on top of the rope, with one foot hooked over it for stability, I pulled myself hand over hand toward the far side of the canyon, where Willi waited.
After we had all made the trip once, Willi invited anyone who wanted to go a second time to line up. A half dozen of us did. Again he went first and waited on the other side. I climbed onto the rope with less fear this time. In the middle of the crossing I let go with my hands, knowing that my carabiner would keep me safe if my foot slipped off. I considered just letting myself dangle by my carabiner but decided against it. As I neared the far side, Willi started swinging the rope — to simulate a windstorm, he said.
Just as I reached safety, I realized that I had forgotten to clip my carabiner to the rope. Willi saw it, too, and we looked at each other in disbelief. I had just crossed a nine-story drop on a half-inch rope with no safety harness to keep me from falling to my death.
After my husband moved out, I slept on the far edge of the bed, curled around a pillow and wrapped tight in the blanket. I don’t think I could have made myself any smaller.
Over time I let my arms flop over onto what had been his side. I kicked off the blankets. I reveled in this newfound space and freedom and awoke with legs and arms splayed out like a starfish, happily claiming as much of that bed as I could.
Now, after being single for a long time, I have someone new in my life. Twice in the middle of the night he’s been startled awake by my hand slamming into his face. I apologize and tell him I’m not used to sharing. To be honest, I don’t even know if I want to get used to it. “That’s OK,” he says. “We’re trying.” Then we come together in the middle.
Santa Cruz, California
A retired middle-school principal, I enjoyed my career working with kids between the ages of eleven and fourteen — old enough to grasp advanced material but not too old to show enthusiasm for learning. The job was sometimes frustrating but never boring. Over the years I dressed up as Tigger, danced the Macarena, led discussions about bullying, and disciplined a group of eighth-graders for bringing vodka to school in water bottles. I was proud to come in second in the county for Principal of the Year.
Sadly, I was never Parent of the Year, nor even a close second. While my own children were between the ages of eleven and fourteen, I was consumed with work. My oldest hated middle school, and the pressure I placed on him to get good grades produced only rebellion. Other people’s children, I could inspire; my own son quickly became disaffected and went to live with his father.
My middle child was a model student. I was too proud of her success to notice when she grew distant. At the end of her eighth-grade year, I discovered that she had been cutting herself. We both went into counseling.
There were no extremes for my youngest: middling grades, middling success at the violin, a midsized circle of friends. When she had a problem, she confided in her grandmother while I attended meetings or conferences.
I’ve been retired for years now, but occasionally a former student or parent will approach me in public to talk about the difference my guidance made for them in those middle years. I’m proud of what I accomplished. I only wish my own children had not had to pay such a high price.
© Meredith Abenaim
My parents came here from India with nothing but luggage and a dream about a land of endless possibilities. They have tried to pass their Indian culture on to me, because it’s all they have left from their homeland, but I’ve often resisted. When, as a preteen, I talked back to my mom, she would tell me, “We are not an American family. We are an Indian family.” But when I told her I didn’t feel “American” enough — because I wasn’t blond-haired and blue-eyed — she would tell me, “You are indeed an American. Don’t you ever forget that.”
In our traditional Indian family, dating, or even talking to someone of the opposite sex, is taboo. At twelve I would pretend to read a book while secretly admiring boys who walked by. My mama soon noticed my infatuations, but instead of giving me “the talk,” she took me aside, looked at me with her piercing brown eyes, and told me: “Don’t talk to boys.” I began to believe that if I ever kissed a boy’s lips, I would become pregnant. After I learned from other girls how you really got pregnant, I was furious with my mother for leaving me in the dark.
As my friends began going on dates, I could still barely hold a conversation with a boy. My mom told me I should focus on my studies instead. She had already planned out my life: get an education, graduate from college, and then marry a nice Indian man at the age of twenty-five. I thought, but didn’t say: What if I find a man with all the qualities you are looking for, but he isn’t Indian?
While other teens went out on Friday nights, I stayed home and watched Bollywood movies, binge eating barbecue chips and daydreaming about Indian heartthrob Shah Rukh Khan. When my friends discussed kissing and how “amazing” it was, I pretended to be happy for them, but secretly I was envious.
Now, at the age of nineteen, I am somehow still “extra-virgin olive oil” — never even been kissed. I feel as if I’m caught in the middle of a feud between two friends: one American and the other Indian. I want to remain close to both, but I have to choose.
El Dorado Hills, California
The genocide of my tribe began in the 1860s along the Klamath River in Northern California. I am a member of the fourth generation since then.
Indigenous tribal people have long memories of place. Before the Europeans arrived, we started small fires, burning the forests around us to reduce pests and brush and promote the growth of oaks, mushrooms, huckleberries, and too many other foods and medicines to list.
In the past the salmon runs were so large that, as the fish swam upriver to spawn, it seemed the river ran backward. This was before seven dams were built on the Klamath. I don’t expect to eat any fresh salmon this fall. Our spring runs of fish have been gone for years.
Where water was once abundant and pure, now we are told not to swim or let our pets drink. Warming weather and droughts produce toxic algae blooms and fish die-offs.
European immigrants arrived here and called our home a “wilderness” or “virgin territory.” Yet for many generations we had faithfully tended our environment. They fought wars against us for their “right” to poison, mine, clear-cut, and dam with impunity.
When the Parks Service criminalized our use of fire to keep the forests healthy, dead brush and fallen trees began to build up. Now our country’s great national forests are a tinderbox, and we are forced to flee wildfires with regularity. Brush fifty feet high or more is ignited by lightning, causing fires so big they create their own weather systems. We are helpless to do anything but witness this and pray for rain.
It would be hypocritical to claim the moral high ground. Ancient tribal memories tell us that our tribe was once so foolish, so destructive, that at last we were left with only wild oats to eat. For our own sake we learned humility and gratitude toward nature. It became part of our culture to use resources wisely and not abuse them.
I grieve our losses, and I fear for the world my great-grandchildren will inherit. We are in the middle of the planet’s sixth great extinction. Earth will survive, but will we?
“There’s a list?” I asked.
Mike nodded and took a sip of tequila, his wedding ring glinting in the firelight.
He and his wife, Janet, had each confided to me that they hadn’t slept together in years. According to her, they were perfectly happy as “householders,” just not romantically inclined. According to him, this arrangement couldn’t continue much longer. Now he’d just revealed to me that she had made a list of potential sex partners for him.
It sounded like a risky proposition, but I wasn’t exactly an expert in marital harmony. My own marriage had dissolved a few months earlier. In the wake of the divorce, Mike had shown up at my house one Saturday with lumber to build my kids a sandbox. When we went hiking together, he carried my young daughter on his back. Sometimes Janet would come along, but increasingly she was absent — like tonight.
“You guys are playing with fire,” I said. “It’s never ‘just sex.’ Intimacy opens something up between two people. You can’t predict what will happen.”
Mike and I looked at each other for a long time.
“Am I on the list?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Unfortunately, no. Too close to home, I guess.” He laughed nervously. “You’re practically family.”
We slept together a month later.
Predictably we fell in love.
Predictably he did not leave her.
When I saw him six months after our affair had ended, he wouldn’t meet my eye. He and Janet were in love again, he told me. He said they’d needed something like this to rekindle their marriage.
When Mike and I had sat by the fire that night, I had known this would happen. But I’d been unable to stop myself from getting in the middle.
I was born in a body whose anatomy matched the designation “female,” but I pushed against any gender identity from the start. When I was young, I insisted on wearing pants and T-shirts in an era when girls were required to wear dresses. I often wouldn’t wear a shirt in summer until my mother finally insisted. When other children asked, “Are you a boy or a girl?” I answered, “Yes,” or sometimes, “I haven’t decided yet.” As a teen I changed my reply to “What does it matter to you? Do you want to make it with me?”
At fourteen I fantasized about a world that had no gender-specific pronouns, where everyone wore loose robes and you couldn’t know someone’s gender until you had gotten to know them as a person.
Today I am almost equally likely to be addressed as “sir” or “ma’am.” When I enter a women’s restroom, its occupants often look at me as if I don’t belong and occasionally direct me to the men’s room. Recently a six-year-old patient in my medical practice asked whether I was a man or a woman — a question many children have put to me, including my own grandson. Before I could answer, her mother reminded her that I was a grandmother. I added, “It’s confusing; some people aren’t all the way one way or the other.”
I treasure this body and feel fine about its physical form, but when asked to state my preferred pronoun, I find myself unable to do so. I am neither wholly female nor wholly male. I guess you might say I am a “pronoun-unhappy person.”
But I am grateful to be in an intimate relationship with a woman who loves me, and to have lived long enough to witness an era with fifty different terms for gender identity.
Santa Rosa, California
My mother and father both grew up in single-parent households during the Depression. My father joined the military at the age of seventeen, and he met my mother in a small town where he was stationed. They married the weekend after my mother’s high-school graduation. A year later they were the parents of twins: a boy and a girl. Barely adults themselves, they began raising two children, setting up a house, and trying to manage their finances. They bought a used Oldsmobile coupe from a friend and called it the “Oldsmo-bubble,” on account of its domed roof. It had roomy bench seats in front and back.
Ten years later I came along, and by the time I was five, my parents were ready for the quintessential American consumer purchase: a brand-new car. The midnight-blue 1963 Pontiac Grand Prix conveyed confidence, elegance, and their arrival in the upper-middle class. But the shiny car failed to solve the problems in my parents’ marriage, and their resentments simmered.
My teenage brother and sister were thrilled with the Grand Prix’s classy looks and powerful engine, but I was dismayed by the back seat: the leather upholstery was stitched to form two regular-sized seats with about eight inches of plain leather between them. With glee my brother said to me, “You can sit in the middle!”
My mother could tell I felt short-changed by this arrangement. I was the youngest, sometimes the precocious darling of the family but other times the one who got less and had to compromise more. She promised to buy me a red satin pillow (my favorite color) to sit on whenever we traveled in the Grand Prix. “Your brother and sister won’t be allowed to touch it,” she said.
That year we made a cross-country trip to visit relatives. I remember long hours in the back seat: my brother with his wool Army blanket on my left; my sister with her transistor radio on my right; and I with my red satin pillow between them. My brother invited me under his blanket and told me spooky stories of a witch he called Old Gram, who was always vanquished by the clever children she had captured. My sister crooned along to Beatles hits like “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” Sometimes, though, my siblings would torment me, poking me from opposite sides and scolding, “Stay in your eight inches!”
In the front seat, years of frustration and disappointment boiled up on that cross-country trip. Our parents screamed accusations and insults. At one point my father smashed his fist into the dashboard, leaving a permanent dent. During these battles my brother and sister leaned against their respective windows and feigned sleep. I made myself as small as I could in the middle, clutching my red satin pillow and willing myself to disappear.
L.’s family had recently moved to town. She was the oldest daughter of our church minister; I was a shy teenager who’d gone to a rural elementary school and now rode the bus to the high school in town. I’d made few friends, so I was excited when L. invited me to her house for an evening.
I arrived to find L.’s boyfriend, R., was there. We all went to the basement to play games. After a while the minister and his wife left for the evening.
L. turned on the TV for me, and she and R. grabbed a large blanket and got beneath it on the floor. The blanket did little to muffle their giggles, moans, and loud kisses.
I sat on the couch watching TV, feeling trapped and ashamed. Home was thirteen miles away, and I couldn’t call my parents to explain why I wanted them to come get me. Raised to be polite and submissive, I didn’t know how to stand up for myself.
Occasionally L. and R. would emerge, hair tousled and faces flushed, to get some air and check that I was still in the room. Sometimes they would just call my name to see if I’d answer.
Eventually L. confessed that she’d invited me only because her parents insisted she have a friend at the house whenever her boyfriend came over. I was being used. But I continued to go to her house every time she asked.
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
My working-class parents had me in 1943, just ahead of the baby boom. The road from working class to middle class was more easily traveled back then. I paid my college tuition by working twenty-five hours a week as a cashier in a supermarket. I bought a ’55 Chevy for five hundred dollars.
As a new college graduate, I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Maracaibo, Venezuela, where I got to see how the very poorest people in that country lived. It was eye-opening.
After the Peace Corps, I did a stint in the Army, then got married and started a family. Fourteen years later I went back to Latin America with my wife and three small children to work for the International Labour Organization in Lima, Peru. I visited the most poverty-stricken parts of Peru, Colombia, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
When I returned to the U.S., it seemed everyone I knew paid little attention to the tremendous injustice in the world. It took me years to realize that my anger at their seeming indifference was driven by my own unacknowledged feelings of guilt. I was as complicit as anyone else.
Gradually I learned to do my best and accept that others were doing the same. But I still felt conflicted about living comfortably in the U.S. while there was so much needless suffering elsewhere in the world.
One year, for Valentine’s Day, my wife and I went to see the musical Jersey Boys. We had plans for dinner afterward. In all, we would spend about four hundred dollars. Sitting in the theater, waiting for the curtain to rise, I read a fundraising letter from Operation Smile. For four hundred dollars, it said, a physician could mend a child’s cleft lip. I got a sick feeling in my stomach.
That feeling would arise again as I wrote checks for college tuition, the mortgage, retirement savings, and so on. I couldn’t order in a restaurant without thinking that ten dollars could restore sight to a person blinded by cataracts.
Nowadays, to help keep my heart open, I go to Haiti once a year and feed sick children in Port-au-Prince. Most come from Cité Soleil, a slum reputed to be the poorest place on earth. One day I visited a woman there whose job it was to gather mud, mix it with sugar and spices, and make mud pies, which she baked in the sun on her roof. She sold them for three-quarters of a penny. Children eating mud pies, only a ninety-minute flight from Miami.
It used to be difficult for me to return from Haiti and see the crowds in the Miami airport: college students coming back from spring break and people arriving home from Caribbean vacations, unaware of those children in Haiti eating mud pies. But now, without missing a beat, I slip right back into the middle of it all.