In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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After my marriage had ended, I went to stay with my grandmother at her new home in Virginia. She encouraged me to wake early and watch the sun rise over the rolling hills; fed me green beans, cornbread, and coleslaw; and told me about her life in Louisiana.
Her stories rekindled my hunger for big sky and open spaces. I asked former colleagues for advice on cross-country job searching. One sent a few good ideas and suggested we get together the next time he was in the area.
We met in a parking lot on a Saturday morning. I climbed into his truck, and we went to parks and old battlegrounds, then had lunch and dinner. Bobby was kind, funny, and thoughtful. When he dropped me off that night, I realized we hadn’t even talked about work.
I mailed my résumé to Alaska, Idaho, California, and New Mexico. Bobby sent me encouraging e-mails and told me to call him anytime. Questions about jobs turned into all-night conversations, and I woke up every morning to a different song from him in my inbox: Rilo Kiley’s “Silver Lining,” Elliott Smith’s “Let’s Get Lost,” Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place.”
When an employer in California called, I packed my bags, loaded my car, hugged my grandmother, and said goodbye. But I drove south, not west, to a small college town most people pass through on their way to bigger and better things. I knocked on Bobby’s door and couldn’t help but laugh: I’d let the love of a good man interrupt all my plans.
Kara Gold Hollandsworth
Clemson, South Carolina
A devoted introvert, I keep my social interactions brief. Chitchat — even with neighbors — tuckers me out.
One May afternoon I was happily at work on our front porch, on a quiet residential street in Saint Paul, Minnesota, when a disheveled woman shuffled past in flip-flops, engaged in an animated conversation with someone who wasn’t there. She was not a neighbor, and her energy seemed a threat to my inner calm.
After she’d passed, I took a sip of water from my thermos. Hearing the ice clink, she whirled around, on edge. She wanted to talk.
She wasn’t incoherent, but every sentence had detours and side streets to it. Our worlds were so different that we barely shared a language. She owed money to her dope dealer, she said, and he wanted it now. She’d just started a job but was still living in a tent in a park. At forty-three she looked a decade older. She had three grown children and a grandchild, too. Her caseworker was trying to find her treatment and housing.
Her anxiety was palpable, but she was also hungry for human interaction. We’d talked more than ten minutes when I finally asked how much her debt was. She said forty dollars. I’d expected it to be more. I was an out-of-work religion professor, and money was tight, I told her as I pulled the bills from my wallet. Her eyes widened. “The forty dollars is to clear your debt, so you don’t need to be afraid,” I said. “The other ten dollars is for the bus and a bit of food.” She was jittery with joy and gave me a perfumed and heartfelt embrace.
“I’m going to send you on your way now with a blessing,” I said, meaning, OK, let’s say goodbye, but she assumed I wanted to pray, bowing her head and clasping my hands. What could I do except say a few words to invite God into her life? She left smiling.
Was I foolish to place fifty dollars in her hands? Maybe. But even if she didn’t turn her life around, on that afternoon it seemed like a good deal for both of us.
Saint Paul, Minnesota
My father was an insecure narcissist, a judgmental and sometimes cruel father-in-law, and a dreadful grandfather to my three children. He was the head of a dysfunctional household that left me with emotional scars. But he was also funny and charming in a self-deprecating way. From the moment I was born, the only girl after three boys, he loved me almost unconditionally. All I had to do was love him back.
When he fell and broke his neck at nearly ninety, I dropped everything — work, marriage, kids — even though the timing was terrible. My husband was about to leave for a bike trip he had been planning for years; my oldest was starting her senior year of high school and hadn’t looked at a single college; my middle child was using marijuana; and my youngest was being evaluated for learning disabilities.
But I bought yarn to knit my father a sweater and then drove three hundred miles to sit day after day by his hospital bed. When I brought him back to his farmhouse in Maine, I oversaw a steady stream of nurses, aides, and physical therapists.
We watched a lot of DVDs. He liked the foreign films because his hearing was going but he could read the subtitles. He thought they were a higher art form than American movies, except for the ones with Julia Roberts, whom I think he loved more than he did me. Her movies he watched without needing any sound.
I knitted furiously, as if finishing the sweater would ensure that he would live. I cooked him salmon each night and oatmeal in the morning and kissed the top of his head every time I passed him. He would reach up and pat my head as I pressed my face into what was left of his wild swirl of white. We laughed all the time and never argued. He was close to death, but he was happy.
I was finally able to leave after we found a group of anarchist farmers to move in: free rent in exchange for taking care of my father. They came with their chickens and goats, planted a big garden, and made dandelion wine. He was comfortable knowing someone would always be around.
The two months I was there altered the trajectory of my life like a meteor hitting a planet. My daughter hated the only college that had accepted her, and she transferred to a school that would be closer to home; my middle son got deeper into drug use; and my youngest struggled academically. (He would later drop out of college in his freshman year.) My marriage became rocky and never had the ease I had found in those weeks with my dad.
But I would not change a thing. I finally finished the sweater. My father lived another three years. He took that sweater off only to shower and for me to add an extra five inches to its length for his ninety-second birthday. When he died, one of the anarchist farmers came to the service and asked for the sweater, a request that brought tears to my eyes. I sent it to him but never found out whether it arrived or not. Perhaps it is a metaphor: We control nothing. But when love comes calling, we don’t question. We answer with love.
My children tell me they don’t remember me being gone for that long. What they do know is that their mom left at a lousy time because she loved her crazy dad. I think they’ll do the same for me.
Forget about sleeping in prison. It’s not because of the 10 percent chance someone is getting stabbed in the cell next door, or the 40 percent chance people are having sex in that cell, or the 99.9 percent chance the man in the bunk above you is masturbating. It’s that, sometime between 10:30 PM and 1:30 AM every night, an officer will wake you up and, usually in the rudest way possible, demand to see your ID at the door.
Some officers start screaming as soon as they get on the wing: “Roster count!” As they walk to each cell, they bang a flashlight on the door, each bar clanging so loud that you can taste the metal. This continues for all eighty or so cells on any given wing.
In newer prisons the lights in all the cells come on, bright enough that you can count the veins in your hands. The only way to escape it is to stuff a sock inside another sock, tie it around your head, and cover your face with a sheet, which the officer will yell at you to remove for roster count.
When you finally bring your heart rate back down and fall asleep again, the cell door pops open at 3 AM. It’s time for breakfast.
The summer I was fifteen, I tried to lose weight. My mother had always said I was too heavy, and she bought me a calorie guide, which I memorized. I planned my eating to meet a goal of eight hundred calories a day.
One Saturday I made a lunch of two open-faced cheese melts: no-calorie iceberg lettuce as bread, a fifty-calorie smear of no-fat cottage cheese (instead of tuna), and a fifty-calorie half slice of American cheese. My father sat nearby, eating his actual tuna sandwich and staring. As I opened the oven, he said, “I think this has gone far enough.”
His words surrounded me like an embrace. They told me I was fine as I was. Why was I punishing myself? My father wanted me to love myself as much as he did.
Now, when I notice my college students getting thin and looking distant in class, I ask them to come to my office. I breach the teacher-student divide and ask them what’s up. One former student, a successful writer and journalist, says I saved her life. I know my father saved mine.
Saint Paul, Minnesota
I was building an addition to my cabin when I got a phone call that my eighty-nine-year-old father had been killed in a hit-and-run accident. My life was suddenly put on hold.
His hearing aid was still on the bedroom vanity, so when he crossed the highway at first light to buy the morning paper, he didn’t hear the oncoming car. After grabbing the newspaper and turning around, he stepped directly into its path and was dragged nearly two hundred feet before being left in the middle of the highway. Two more cars, following in the dense fog, ran over his body.
He had peeled apples a few minutes before he was killed, intending to make a batch of applesauce. Later that morning he was supposed to meet someone to plan a banquet the following week, where he was to give a short talk about the tourism industry in the region. A draft of his speech was on the dining-room table.
He’d left a cheerful message on my answering machine a few days earlier: “The tests showed I’ve got the bone marrow of a forty-five-year-old. I won’t die of cancer.”
One weekend, a little over forty years ago, I had a host of things to catch up on: washing, cleaning, changing sheets, grocery shopping, cooking. The weekly chores were like a second job.
When I was home, I thought about work, and when I was at work, I wished I was home.
I’d been staring out the kitchen window, grappling with a work problem, while my toddler daughter chatted up a storm. Then I felt an insistent tug on my pant leg.
“Mommy,” she said, looking up at me, “listen to me with your eyes.”
I thought I carried enough guilt for all the working moms everywhere, but those seven words made room for even more.
I’m retired now, with all the time in the world to be present, to live in the moment. We don’t get a do-over in life, but if we did, I would go back and try to listen more.
Orange Beach, Alabama
I was an eighteen-year-old girl on my first foreign trip alone when a beautiful young woman approached me outside the airport in Apia, Samoa, and asked if I was looking for a cab. She led me across the parking lot to a car where the driver was waiting, and off we went. It was three o’clock in the morning. The streets were deserted except for packs of wild dogs and an occasional group of men playing cards by kerosene lamp. I told the driver to drop me off at the Talofa Hotel, where I had a reservation.
“How much you pay Talofa Hotel?” he asked.
“Forty talas,” I said — about fifteen U.S. dollars.
His expression was incredulous.
“For one week or one night?”
I squirmed. “One night.”
“You no stay Talofa Hotel, pay forty tala,” he said. “You come home with us for free.”
I didn’t like his pushy, unsmiling manner. “No thanks,” I said. “Please take me to the Talofa Hotel.”
A few minutes later I saw the sign for the hotel on the side of the road.
“That’s it,” I squeaked. “Right there.”
The woman turned around in her seat. “Is OK,” she said soothingly. “You stay with us tonight. Tomorrow you go Talofa Hotel.”
We drove through the darkness on country roads. By the time we arrived at a compound of small cinder-block houses and chicken coops, I was mute with anxiety. I followed them into a house, and the woman showed me to a room with a narrow bed.
“You mind I share with you?” she said. “He sleep on the floor.”
I got into bed fully clothed, and she turned off the light and lay down beside me.
It’s OK, I told myself. You are having a cultural experience.
Then the taxi driver peeled off his dirty undershirt and climbed into bed beside us. My whole body went rigid. I could hear them murmuring to one another, the mattress shifting under their weight.
I will just lie here until morning, I told myself, and then I will leave.
I was finally beginning to calm down when the taxi driver spoke in the darkness: “You are our friend now.”
At the first hint of light I grabbed my backpack, left the house, and started walking. To this day I’m not sure whether the episode was merely a bewildering “cultural experience” or something creepier, but I learned that my fear of causing offense was more powerful than my instinct for self-preservation.
“How do you add a row in Excel?”
“How do I cut and paste?”
“Can you make this a PDF?”
“This Word document is acting weird — can you take a look over my shoulder?”
“Can you help me find where I saved that file? You don’t mind, right?”
After twelve years at my job, I understand that a significant portion of my workday will be spent doing things that my boss doesn’t want to learn how to do. When he encounters a task or software quirk that is unfamiliar, he will send it to me rather than try to figure it out or google it (which is often what I have to do). I write reports and e-mails for him because he still struggles to compose coherent sentences. And he will frame these requests as if he is praising my abilities.
Even after I bring it to his attention, he does not seem to realize that his constant interruptions take me away from my own work. I have to remind him frequently not to talk over me or finish my sentences.
Some days I can roll with this. Other days are harder. Recently I took a brief walk to clear my head. A coworker with whom I share a cubicle wall approached me carrying a piece of paper. She’d been tallying the number of times my boss had interrupted me that day: forty-seven. It was only 2 PM.
Durham, North Carolina
I found the priest’s number in the back pages of The Village Voice, in an ad that read: “Are you in trouble? Need help?” I was, so I called.
On a cold November afternoon in 1967, I met him in the rear of Riverside Church in Manhattan. He was more than six feet tall, wearing a clerical collar and the earnest expression of someone trying to do the right thing.
“This must be kept secret,” he said. “Extremely secret. No one must know, except —” he paused “— your fiancé.”
I smiled faintly.
“If it is discovered that I am helping women this way, I could lose everything,” he whispered. “My name, my family — everything. You understand?”
“I understand,” I said.
There were two doctors he could send me to. One was in Washington, D.C., and the other was in Mexico. I wanted this to happen as far from home as possible, so I chose Mexico.
I walked back out into the frigid air, feeling both sad and relieved. I was only nineteen, and my “fiancé,” Sam, was twenty-three. We both had dreams and ambitions. I wanted to act, and he played the saxophone. He’d been landing gigs with some of the best jazz players around, and I’d been making the rounds at auditions. He would serenade me with his sax, notes bouncing off walls and echoing up and down Perry Street. We spent nearly every moment together: Sundays in Washington Square, Monday nights at the Village Vanguard, parties in Harlem with young musicians who would become famous. Women came and went, but I was with him.
“I think I’m pregnant,” I’d told him a few days earlier. “I missed my period.”
He was standing by the window in a white T-shirt. A minute before, he’d been blowing into his horn, preparing for that night’s gig.
“What do you want to do?” he asked. “I’ll do anything you want. We can get married.”
But what did he want? Why didn’t he tell me that?
The next day we went to see a doctor on Bleecker Street, who called several days later to tell me what I already knew. This brought me to the cathedral on Riverside Drive.
“Are you sure that’s what you want to do?” Sam asked.
“Do you want me to go with you?”
He still wouldn’t say what he wanted to do. He never said, I’ll stand by you. I want this baby, too. Had I been deceiving myself? Did he love me the way I loved him?
“No,” I told him. “I can go by myself.”
He held me, kissed me, said he loved me, then gave me a thousand dollars to do what I had to do.
As I boarded that flight to Mexico, I never thought about the danger of getting an abortion in a country where I didn’t speak the language. I was too overwhelmed. The Negro Ensemble Company was waiting for my headshot. I had been thinking of going back to NYU to study acting. I couldn’t have a baby now.
On a crowded street in Mexico City I entered an old building and was taken to a room with a bed and a window. A nurse entered and gave me an injection, and it all went black.
I awoke to find two nurses standing above me, my legs parted, and blood-soaked gauze being pulled from between my thighs. My heart dropped.
On the second day, they walked me down the corridor of the hospital. I could see into the rooms as I passed, and in each one was an American girl. One sat weeping on the side of her bed. She briefly looked up at me.
In years to come Sam would be gone from my life, but not really. The baby we’d created would be gone, but not really. They would both be like apparitions inhabiting a world parallel to mine.
Sharon Lawrence Harper
Los Angeles, California
© Benjamin Littler
I enjoy being a science illustrator for an educational publishing company. My job involves strange, interesting projects that require research and thought. One day I paused in my research to post on Facebook: “As stressful as my job can sometimes be, I’m grateful to work in a field that requires me to google ‘hagfish nostril.’ ”
My husband called me that afternoon to tell me that his mother was upset about the post. My mother-in-law is sweet and well-intentioned, but we don’t always see eye to eye. She was sure I would get in trouble for “bashing my workplace,” and she told my husband that I’d better take the post down before my employer saw it. Annoyed, I got back to my task.
My phone rang again. I saw my mother-in-law’s number and didn’t answer. Five minutes later she called back, and still I didn’t pick up. Then I came up with a prank to play on her: when she called a third time, I would answer and pretend to get caught taking a personal call during work hours while she was on the line. (This would never actually happen in my laid-back office.) I got a colleague to play the part of the Angry Boss.
When my mother-in-law dialed me once more, it went exactly as I’d planned: “I’m sorry, can you hold on a sec?” I told her. “My boss just stopped by.”
I held the phone out toward my colleague, who launched into his tirade: “How many times do I have to tell you: NO PERSONAL CALLS! Who is that on the phone? This is the last straw! This has happened TOO MANY TIMES!” His voice got louder as he ranted, thoroughly enjoying the role. Finally, realizing the cruelty of the joke, I gave him the signal to stop.
I put the phone back to my ear, prepared to explain and apologize, but all I heard was my mother-in-law listing the many reasons why my Facebook post had been ill-advised. She had been talking the entire time.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
I met him while I was working in Madrid. He was a Spanish drummer who put me under a spell at one of his shows.
On my winter break I took him home to the States for a blues-themed road trip. New Orleans was our last stop. We were still infatuated with each other, and at one bar we mostly ignored the band as we held hands, cracked jokes, and stared into each other’s eyes.
A middle-aged man at the end of the bar was eating dinner with his teenage son. I noticed him eyeing us but didn’t make much of it until he tapped my boyfriend on the shoulder. I braced myself for what he might say. Was he offended by our public display of affection? Would he scold us for speaking Spanish? Would he remind us that this was America?
The man looked my boyfriend in the eye and said, “You’re one lucky motherfucker.” And with a nod to me, he walked off.
I wasn’t sure whether he was telling my boyfriend he was lucky to be in love, or that he was lucky to be with me. The latter seemed impossible; I felt like the lucky one.
“Lucky motherfucker” became our inside joke, lasting into our marriage — a special term of endearment that made us smile and laugh at the end of a fight: “Don’t forget what a lucky motherfucker you are!”
Most of the time I’m grateful for the things I have: health, happiness, a roof over my head, family, friends, a wonderful partner, a full-time job. But sometimes I wake in the middle of the night and contemplate what I don’t have: a car, my own house (or even a decent-sized apartment), a healthy savings account, a debt-free life.
At twenty I went to a private art school. I didn’t receive financial aid or scholarships, so I took out student loans. It’s been ten years since I graduated, and I still pay more each month for my student-loan debt than I pay for rent in Los Angeles. Paying for my education not only interrupts my sleep; it’s interrupted my life.
Los Angeles, California
I was about eight years old when I noticed a habit of my mother’s that made me embarrassed for her: We were at a pool, and I was playing near the water while she chatted with — more like “at” — the stranger next to us. The woman would start to say something, and my mom would interrupt her halfway through the first sentence. Finally the woman gave up and just sat there. Soon after, I realized that my grandfather was the same way, and my grandmother had learned to cope by not saying much of anything.
Since then, I’ve watched my mom yearn for the connection and friendship she lacked because she never learned how to listen. I often catch myself falling into the only way of conversing that I learned growing up, in which a conversation has to have a winner and a loser. I’d like to think that I have moved past this, but sometimes I see the expressions on people’s faces and wonder if I am as bad a listener as my mother.
The summer after my sophomore year of college, I was working as a waitress when I got a call from my father’s elderly cousins, a brother and sister who lived in New York City: the sister could no longer be alone, and they wanted me to come live with them and help take care of her. Impulsively I quit my waitressing job and got on a bus to New York.
It wasn’t long before I realized that I hadn’t thought this through. Putting college on hold began to seem like a bad idea.
When my family was passing through New York, they offered to pick me up and take me with them to Watertown to look at a farm they wanted to buy. I was so desperate to get my old life back, I didn’t think about leaving my relatives in the lurch. So I went with my family to Watertown, then home with them after the trip. I returned to college in the fall.
I have no memory of how I explained my sudden departure to my father’s cousins, or whether I said goodbye, or what my parents thought of my bailing on the brother and sister I’d agreed to help.
That winter I got a letter from the brother that his sister had died. He was overcome with grief.
It is hard to live with the thought of what I put them through or how they managed after I left. At the time I felt like I couldn’t bear to interrupt my life.
Snow falls from a gray, twenty-degree sky onto our house in the northern-Colorado mountains while I tinker with some manuscripts at our kitchen table. The phone rings: a friend inviting Amanda, our youngest daughter, to dinner in Fort Collins. Amanda looks with some concern at the papers spread in front of me as she asks if “someone” can drive her the forty-seven miles. I am our household’s most experienced driver in snowstorms.
Our daughters are homeschooled, so we stay on the lookout for cultural and social opportunities for them. Amanda’s friend’s parents will happily keep her if this storm makes the roads unsafe for us to pick her up tomorrow. I agree to take her. Writing will simmer in the back of my mind without direct attention for a while.
Snow keeps falling. Dusk settles on the whitened mountain as we pull onto the highway. As usual, I have packed food, warm clothing, boots, sleeping bags, and paper and wood for a fire, in case the car breaks down or the storm strands us.
I drop Amanda off, and I drive slowly up the mountain on the way back home. Halfway there, six deer walk across the road with snow on their backs. I stop to let them cross, then continue. In the beam of my headlights a large owl rises from beside the road and flies into the deeper darkness, its prey in its talons. Though I am far behind on my work, I find myself enjoying this slow ascent.
By most estimations this day has been full of interruptions, but I prefer to think those interruptions make up the actual substance of the day. Without them — without my daughter’s needs, the deer crossing the highway, the great horned owl flying into darkness — I would have nothing to write about.