Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Looking for an apartment in San Francisco’s East Bay, my boyfriend and I found an upstairs unit in a 1920s duplex with hardwood floors, a clawfoot tub, French doors, and an ornate fireplace. We thought we had scored big, even though we weren’t in the best of neighborhoods.
We spent the first night on a mattress on the floor. At some point I heard paws scamper across the living room and felt the warm breath of a dog on my face. I opened one eye to see a panting Rottweiler standing over me. When I sat up, the dog was gone. My boyfriend laughed it off as a dream, but it had seemed real.
There was some sort of presence in the apartment, and I sensed it more when my boyfriend was out in the evenings: strange creaks and noises, especially while I was taking a bath.
One night I heard a frantic knocking at the door. I trudged down the stairs, turned on the porch light, and peered out through the glass pane. No one was there. I opened the door and looked up and down the street — empty. I was halfway up the stairs when the knocking started again. Same thing: no one was there. I dismissed it as kids playing a prank, double-checked the lock, and went to bed.
Another night, while sleeping alone, I was startled awake by the sound of glass breaking. I grabbed a hammer I kept next to the bed and ran around the apartment, turning on every light. All the windows were intact. Then I went into the kitchen. There, in the middle of the drying dishes, was a single glass shattered into pieces — as if someone had smashed it. All the glasses surrounding it were still whole. I thought it must have cooled too quickly after being washed in hot water. But why did it break three hours later? And why didn’t the other glasses break?
My brother stayed in the apartment sometimes while my boyfriend and I were traveling. One night he woke to go to the bathroom, and as he passed by the living room, he saw someone or something sitting in our big, overstuffed chair. Not knowing what else to do, my brother greeted the ethereal figure with a hearty “What’s up?” When he came back from the bathroom, the figure was gone.
It was a bit spooky, but we learned to coexist with the spirits for about a year. What eventually drove us from the apartment wasn’t the odd occurrences but the neighborhood, which seemed to get progressively worse. The hostile neighbor next door became even more hostile, shouting threats at us through our second-story window. There were crack dealers half a block up. Drivers regularly peeled out at 4 AM. I was hassled almost every morning on my four-block walk to the train. I preferred the entities that lived with us to the humans outside.
El Sobrante, California
You’re going to be perfect, and I’m going to dress you in tiny socks and dresses. I planted a garden in the front yard yesterday, to get it ready in time for your birth. I’ll read to you, meditate with you, and listen to the birds with you.
Anne Marie, my midwife, checks my swollen belly with the fetal ultrasound again, her face and voice tight.
“I can’t find a heartbeat.”
“She must have just changed positions,” I say, smiling. “Or maybe the device isn’t working properly.”
I refuse to believe that after nine and a half months of a healthy pregnancy, anything bad could happen to you. We are just getting started with labor.
Anne Marie tells me to get ready to go to the hospital. I move reluctantly. I don’t want to believe her notion that something is wrong.
Your father and your nana come to the hospital with us. I am laid on a gurney for the sonogram. I hear Anne Marie gasp when the image of your body appears on the screen. Your heart is still.
“There is no fetal heart activity,” the doctor announces. The nurse pats my arm. They both say they’re sorry.
Could this be my fault? Maybe it was all the times I had voiced fear of losing my freedom after having you. Maybe you felt like I didn’t want you enough. Maybe you didn’t want to be a burden.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” your nana and Anne Marie tell me.
They leave the room, and your father collapses onto my belly, sobbing.
I can’t believe I have a dead baby inside of me. I can’t believe I still have to give birth to you.
I go home and am in labor for another twelve hours, but I’m not really dilating. My resolve weakens. I told myself that I wouldn’t need the crutch of an epidural and painkillers; the pain would be worth it. But now the pain isn’t worth it. I ask to be taken back to the hospital. I want this over.
On the hospital bed I slip blissfully into drug-induced numbness while your father paces the room, crying.
Another twelve hours pass before I push you out. I hold your warm bundle of a body in my arms. Your father and I gaze into your face and admire your thick mop of hair, your soft lips. You look like me. You look like your father.
Even after we bury you, I can’t believe you’re gone. I keep imagining what you might be doing had you lived: Would you be asleep or waking up for the umpteenth time, demanding to be fed? Would you latch onto my nipple or refuse it? Would your clothes fit? Would your nana be singing you to sleep?
Fort Collins, Colorado
A few days ago, when I went to answer a knock on our door, I was surprised to see my twenty-two-year-old son already there, speaking with three detectives. They listed all of the illegal activities my son had been involved in for the past nine months and told him he could stay out of trouble by giving them the names of local drug dealers. He denied everything and asked if he was being arrested. They said no and left, visibly angry that their ploy had failed.
I had been aware of my son’s “career” for about three weeks, when another mother called me to tell me he was the major pot distributor in our area.
Tomorrow he is moving to a distant city. I hope he makes it out of town without being arrested, because he faces many years in prison if the police find proof he sells weed.
I can’t believe my beautiful, bright boy is doing this. I can’t believe I am anxiously counting the minutes until he moves far away, even though part of me wants him to stay. I can’t believe that I could be arrested for aiding and abetting, since I’ve known about his activities and haven’t reported them. I can’t believe that cannabis, an herb less harmful than tobacco or alcohol, is still illegal in our conservative state.
My seventy-year-old husband and companion of twenty-six years died alone of a heart attack on a motorcycle trip from New Mexico to Colorado.
Sandy was a Vietnam veteran, a Marine severely affected by PTSD, and a loner with a strong need for solitude. As someone who’d seen warfare in Chile as a photojournalist, I understood. We’d learned in our years together to give each other space.
One of his military buddies, Stan, flew in from South Carolina and saw me through those first dark weeks after Sandy’s death. We had to retrieve Sandy’s bike, which had been impounded by local authorities when his body was discovered. Stan’s daughter, Katy, lived in Colorado, and with her help we devised a plan to transport the bike to the Santa Fe BMW dealership where Sandy had bought it. I’d meet them there.
As I left our house in New Mexico, I pulled onto the highway behind an SUV hauling a flatbed trailer, and I settled in behind it. Then I noticed it was hauling a white motorcycle: Sandy’s BMW.
I rode the whole way behind my late husband’s bike, the two vehicles like a short funeral procession bringing him home.
Ojo Caliente, New Mexico
I’d spent four days with my mother at a wedding in Maine. The weather and the ceremony had been beautiful. Afterward I dropped Mom off at the Bangor airport and continued on to Boston, where I was scheduled to board a late-evening flight back to Los Angeles.
I decided I wanted to spend the night with a dear friend in Boston. So at the airport I walked to the Admiral’s Club counter to ask about changing my flight to the next morning.
“There’s plenty of room on the first morning flight,” the agent said. “Would you like to change your ticket?”
Keep your flight, something told me. Go home tonight.
“Thank you, I’ll keep my flight,” I replied.
I left the lounge shortly thereafter, pulling my suitcase to the gate and boarding the waiting airplane.
That intuition saved my life. The first morning flight out of Boston to LA on September 11, 2001, never made it past New York City.
San Jose, California
I am the product of fairly rational parents — an electrical engineer and a librarian. My father, the engineer, used to say he would believe “anything that is demonstrated through my senses and verified by my reason.” Following his example served me well in my academic career and later as a clinical psychologist. Even coming of age during the sixties (and taking a fair amount of mind-expanding drugs) didn’t eliminate my skepticism about ideas that couldn’t be scientifically proven.
Then one night I had a strange dream: I was riding in a car, and in the back seat a former patient was writhing and crying in despair. She had a tendency to leave lengthy, distraught messages on my answering machine in the middle of the night, but I hadn’t heard from or thought about her for a long time.
The dream woke me, and I looked at the clock. As is my habit with disturbing dreams, I tried to think of any significant associations that might explain it. Was I distressed about something? Had someone reminded me of this patient? No. I filed the dream away and went back to sleep.
When I got to the office the next morning, on my answering machine was an anguished message from that patient, left at the same time I’d awakened from the dream. I could not explain this as a coincidence, as I had often done when someone told me of a supposedly “psychic” event. It seemed more likely that the patient’s emotional experience was so powerful, and directed so specifically toward me, that my mind received her message.
Now if someone tells me that our minds are not receivers, or that energy doesn’t travel, or that extrasensory perception is a myth, I just might say that their argument can’t be verified by my reason.
San Antonio, Texas
Some of my friends were getting into triathlons, and I decided to join them. After a sprint triathlon, which included about a dozen laps in an indoor pool, we started training for an Olympic triathlon, which would involve lake swimming. We would train at a nearby reservoir. Open-water swimming is another level of challenge. There is no bailing out and hanging on to the wall when you are tired.
Before the event, a friend and I left with our girlfriends for one last training session. Toward the end of our drive to the reservoir, storm clouds moved in. Our girlfriends said we should abort the plan, but, being bullheaded men, we dismissed them. The surface of the water was marked only by small ripples, and the storm clouds seemed far enough away to allow us a forty-five-minute swim. We swam out to the middle of the reservoir, the wind rising behind us.
As soon as we turned back toward the beach, the danger became apparent. We were swimming into a strong headwind, against white-capped waves. I had never swum in these conditions, and my breathing grew labored. My friend was twenty or so yards ahead, so I paused to tread water and yell to him, but he couldn’t hear me over the wind and surf.
A few minutes later I was exhausted. Our girlfriends had been right: we had no business swimming in these conditions. This was such a stupid, humiliating way to die.
I gave up. I stopped swimming. And my feet came to rest on the bottom of the reservoir. Several hundred feet from shore, I could easily stand up. The reservoir was so murky, I’d never noticed how shallow it was.
Grand Junction, Colorado
We saw the oncoming motorcycle hit the gravel shoulder and flip end over end, throwing its rider to the ground. My husband turned in to a driveway, and I rushed to the injured rider. She was facedown, contorted, bleeding, and unconscious.
Knowing not to move her, I began speaking words of comfort and encouragement: “You are not alone. I am here. You are going to be all right.” As I spoke, I put my hands over her and felt a surge of energy fill the space between us.
When the EMTs arrived, I was sure she was going to be OK and said as much to the technician. He looked at me with pity and said that was not likely. A stick had penetrated her temple.
The next day I was speaking to a friend who said a friend of hers had miraculously survived a terrible motorcycle accident and was in the ICU of a local hospital. I realized she was talking about the same person. Stranger still, my husband discovered he had met this woman at an industrial show just two days before.
Had we turned onto that road a minute sooner, we would not have seen the accident or been able to help her.
The woman recovered fully. I met her once. She said she didn’t remember the accident but did remember being surrounded by love.
I was dreaming about someone I’d recently killed. We were alone in a casino in Kalispell, Montana, in a large room filled with thick fog. I could barely see her.
Though no words were exchanged, I knew she did not realize she was dead. I had to tell her, but I found it difficult to speak. It was still hard for me to believe I had murdered someone.
Her demeanor was serene and peaceful, not what I’d expected from someone who had experienced a violent death. It pained me to tell her the truth, but I did. The dream ended as she comprehended what I was saying.
When I awoke in my cell, I knew this had been more than a dream. It had been a visitation.
A couple of years later she came to me once again, and she taught me a lesson about anger. I am grateful to this day.
I do not dare share any of this with the prison staff or the parole board. They would never believe me.
In the early nineties, when my son, Kris, was a year old, I was in school and scraping by on government assistance. We lived in the cheapest apartment I could find: a top corner unit that overlooked the yard of a vacant house next door, where a Doberman and a Rottweiler roamed. They barked and threw themselves into the chain-link fence whenever anyone passed by. Every few weeks someone would stop by and toss a twenty-pound bag of food over the fence for them. I told my son every day to stay away from the open window overlooking the yard with the dogs.
I didn’t have a car at the time, so Kris walked with me to the laundromat, the corner store, the bus stop. He loved talking to the dogs as we walked by, but I was terrified of them. I had been around dogs in my youth and knew how dangerous they could be when neglected or mistreated.
One warm evening I was filling the tub and thinking about a school assignment when I heard Kris scream. I knew with certainty that he had fallen out the open window into the dogs’ yard. I didn’t need to check.
As I scrambled down the stairs and outside, I pictured him impaled on the fence, or in the yard with the dogs. I wondered when they’d last eaten. They could rip him to shreds. Tears were pouring down my face as I rounded the corner, expecting blood and gore.
Instead my sweet boy was hanging uninjured from a vine on a big tree on our side of the fence. His feet dangled about two inches off the ground, and the dogs sniffed and licked his outstretched hand through the fence while he laughed.
As a soldier in Vietnam I struggled with the idea of God. I was a heavy doubter. I’d seen that the toughest of us could turn ashen and begin praying as the shells rained down. The closer the explosions, the faster the prayers were said.
No matter how close the firing came, I wouldn’t allow myself to pray unless I could also accept God in times of safety. I’d been brought up Catholic but hadn’t seen a priest since I’d been in Vietnam. I did attend a few Protestant services; they were short on ritual but long on brotherhood, and I liked that.
On a particularly hot day in Quang Tri Province we camped in the hills outside of Ðông Hà. I had only been in country for a month or two. I was eighteen and afraid at times but kept my fear to myself.
The morning began with the dull thumping of a mortar. Shouts of “Incoming!” woke anyone hoping to catch a bit more sleep. It wasn’t a full-scale attack, just a handful of Vietcong.
When the firing stopped, people scurried about, shouting, “Mount up!” After about a mile walk we met a U.S. tank patrol. It was a relief to climb up and ride on top, where there was a better view and a chance to sit still in the exhausting humidity.
There was a crude road, but the tank driver chose to drive just to the left of it. As we crashed through the brush, an enemy machine-gun crew of four or five men sprang up to ambush us. The tank had almost crushed them under its tracks. The Marines on the front of our tank opened fire and killed them all.
They dragged the bodies out of the thicket and laid them on the ground. These were the first dead men I had seen. Some guys kicked the corpses as we passed. I wondered how the dead men’s families would be notified.
We soon stopped for a water-and-food break. I was hot, sweaty, and upset. Realizing I faced ten more months of this, I asked for a sign. “Show me something,” I begged. It wasn’t a prayer, more like a plea directed to the cosmos.
As the thought passed through my head, the tall reeds in front of me began to rattle from a wind that had not blown all day. An unusually cool breeze rushed over me. I felt some small hope rise up.
It all started with a dip in a murky swimming hole. I jumped in after an all-day hike and emerged refreshed. If only I hadn’t inhaled a bit of water.
That night I awoke from sleep choking on thick mucus. I saw a doctor and was referred to two more. It didn’t seem to be an allergy or a common infection, so I was diagnosed as having “idiopathic bronchitis.”
I tried five different medicines. One was so strong I hallucinated, vomited, and tasted metal. Multiple transfusions of gamma globulin barely stalled the progress of the disease for a day or two. I could emit only a breathy squeak when I tried to call my cat. Walking fifty feet wore me out. Mostly I lay on my bed, exhausted. Weeks stretched into a season, two seasons.
When a friend suggested I see a visiting healer, it seemed like too much effort. But my friend showed up and loaded me into her car.
I wasn’t impressed with Bill, the red-faced, huffing healer who ordered me around like the New York City cop he had been: “Stand here. Turn left. Pick up your arms. Bend from your waist.” A stout, barrel-chested guy with a crown of curly white hair, he coughed almost as much as I did. His breathing sounded like a broken accordion.
He said he was trying to align me with my “planetoids,” which only he could sense. They were apparently affecting my “internal meridians.” Bill also let on that he was in the process of growing new lungs, since his were totally shot.
I glared at my friend.
“You’ll be better in three days,” Bill predicted. “You won’t be cured immediately, but your body will have the energy to heal itself by Tuesday.”
I didn’t believe him.
On Tuesday I pulled myself out of bed and noticed that the drained feeling was gone. I was weak, but I actually felt like doing something.
Within a week I was able to shout, hum, and call my cat without gasping. I could walk a half mile and stay upright most of the day. In a month I was back to normal.
By e-mail and through friends, I kept up with Bill, who was offering healing workshops at his home in Florida that winter and no longer traveling. His lungs weren’t regenerating, he said, but his aura was getting bigger.
He died a year later.
I have no idea what my planetoids are, but sometimes I look at the night sky and think of Bill.
I was downtown waiting for a #MeToo rally to begin when I overheard a chatty old man introduce himself to someone, and I recognized the name. It wasn’t a name I could forget. I asked if he had a sister-in-law named Jenny. He cocked his head and said yes. Had he ever camped in Utah? All the time, he replied. I told him I had camped with Jenny’s family in Utah during my sophomore year in high school. I said nothing more.
I was a fifteen-year-old girl on that camping trip in 1968. One night my friend Jenny and I got incredibly drunk, and I lost my virginity to her twenty-nine-year-old brother-in-law, Bill, who’d been sent to find us. I don’t know where Jenny had gone off to, but I ended up alone in the woods with this creep.
He’d confessed the whole thing to his wife the morning after, I guess because he realized I’d been a virgin.
My mother found out and declared me dead to her. But she did confront Jenny’s parents to remind them that I was only fifteen. Jenny stopped talking to me. I never saw her again after sophomore year.
The older Bill now smiled and asked my name so he could remember me to his wife, Jenny’s sister. They were still married after all these years. I gave it to him but said nothing more. I was sure she and Jenny would refresh his memory of that night.
I never blamed him. I always figured I was drunk and deserved it, and he was just a hippie grabbing some free love.
I walked to the rally in disbelief. What were the odds of my running into him fifty years later?
Even harder to believe was that he had forgotten. That dark night had disrupted my life, and he didn’t even remember it.
Thousand Oaks, California
© Michael Galinsky
When I was young, my best friend and I would sit in the dark crawl space under my house and make magic potions. We’d crush leaves, mash berries, and add a slug or a few beetles, then store the potions in glass jars. They gave us a feeling of power, lined up in that damp, musty place.
My belief in magic didn’t get much reinforcement from my parents. They were atheists but sent us to Sunday school so we could learn about religion. I enjoyed Bible stories, but I was also interested in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism. All the faiths had too many rules, though. I wasn’t sure I could believe in any of them.
So I was undecided about religion until my grandmother died. She was someone I’d loved and admired. I’d known she was sick, but I hadn’t really understood that she was about to die.
At school the next week I told my friend Marilyn what had happened, and she offered a soothing remark about my grandma being in a “better place” now.
“She didn’t believe in God,” I told her.
“Well, then she’s burning in hell,” said Marilyn.
Right then I knew I would never believe in Christianity. Any faith that tossed my grandmother into a lake of fire was not for me.
I was working as a secretary in a university English department in the early 1980s when the first computers were brought in. Two male faculty members tried to teach me how to use one, but their fingers flew across the keys too quickly for me to see what they were doing. They talked in fast, excited voices as strange combinations of letters and numbers appeared on the screen.
I was baffled and terrified of making a mistake. I thought the thing might explode.
I also knew that, after I learned how to use the computer, I would have to teach my boss.
On a cold, dark morning in January I trudged through ice-hardened snow to the building where the computer waited. Inside, I took the stairs to the second floor, resigned to my miserable fate.
I was met at the door by the head secretary, who looked unusually solemn. She said she had bad news. I thought one of the faculty must have died, but that wasn’t it.
The computers were gone. Someone had stolen them.
I was saved.
I knew my father was near the end when the doctor asked if I wanted a priest to give him the last rites. I wasn’t sure, and my mother had stepped out of the room.
My father had passed out at home on a Sunday afternoon, and the ambulance had rushed him to the hospital. Over two days his condition had rapidly declined. The doctors had pumped him with morphine to control the pain.
When my mother returned, I apologized for the hovering priest performing the last rites. We had agreed that my dad didn’t want this, but when I’d whispered the question in his ear, I could have sworn he’d nodded.
Throughout the night his body shuddered; his legs seemed to march steadily beneath the clean white sheets, as if he were climbing steps to the afterlife. Abruptly, at three in the morning, my father raised his arms, palms facing outward, and spoke: “Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie, et dimitte nobis debita nostra.”
My brother and I were dumbstruck, but our mother calmly stretched out her tired hand and took hold of my father’s. “It’s the Lord’s Prayer,” she explained. She was old enough to remember when the Catholic Mass had been in Latin.
He slipped back into a deep sleep and didn’t wake for several hours. When his eyes opened again, he glanced at my mother and smiled.
The next day the doctors explained that patients sometimes can rally before they die and instructed us to enjoy our time with him, because it wouldn’t last.
By Saturday my father was walking around and eating food we’d brought from his favorite Italian restaurant. He hadn’t taken any of his medication, and his vitals were all within the normal range. It was incomprehensible. By Sunday my mother had convinced the hospital to discharge him.
His final wish was granted — he would die at home.
It’s October 11, 2018: National Coming Out Day.
She is scared, but she cannot ignore the ache in her heart that says, I can’t live like this. She is seventeen, and no one knows except her parents, who have kept it to themselves.
She takes a deep breath and clicks share before she can talk herself out of it.
“I’m gay,” the post she adds to her social-media profile reads. She squeezes her eyes shut so no tears can sneak out. She will have dinner with her parents in less than twenty minutes. They would see her damp eyes, and they’d know something was the matter. She is afraid of how they will react to her coming out in public.
She peeks at her phone. There’s a notification. A like. Two likes. A comment: “I’m so happy for you!” Another: “Love you so much!”
She tries to calm her racing heart and focus on not crying so her mother won’t ask what’s wrong, so she won’t have to see the look her mother gets when she is disappointed in her. Her father gets a similar look, too. She wipes her tear-streaked cheeks and hops off her bed, prepared to act like nothing’s changed.
But something has changed.
Her mother notices, of course, and the daughter explains, but the mother isn’t mad. She cries as she hugs her daughter and tells her she loves her. And yes, she’s religious, and yes, she has a lot of thinking to do, but, yes, she’s happy for her daughter — because her daughter’s not scared anymore.
She hugs her dad, whose strong arms hold her up, keeping her from falling.
She had been so scared that her friends from church would have terrible thoughts about her, but they liked the post. Her sister says that anyone who doesn’t isn’t worth it.
She goes to school, and no one yells at her or ignores her or tries to push negative opinions on her. Her friends support her and promise to stick up for her, even the ones she wasn’t sure would want to associate with her. She hugs her best friend and tells her how happy she is.
She doesn’t have to lie anymore. She doesn’t have to wonder what people would say if they knew. She doesn’t have to be scared.
San Jose, California