In 1969 I was a social-work student living on a budget in New York City. To save money, I walked through Central Park to and from school each day. One afternoon, I was followed by a smiling young man who persisted in asking me directions. I walked faster, hoping someone else would appear on the path. Before I could run, I felt a knife against my back and an arm around my throat. “Don’t scream,” he hissed.
I used my only available defense: “You want money, right?”
“Yeah, and hurry up,” he said nervously.
He released me and I quickly retrieved my last eight dollars from my purse. He looked incredulous. “That’s all you got?”
The words started pouring out of me. “Here, take this ring. It doesn’t look like much but it’s a genuine antique, a priceless family heirloom. Here’s this watch, seventeen jewels, in perfect running order. You’ll get a lot for it.” I continued to catalog all my earthly possessions, including my fourteen-karat gold stud earrings given to me on my confirmation, all the while praying for someone to show up.
He shoved me behind a large rock. I kept right on talking about the possibilities open to him, until he looked at me disgustedly and said, “Shut the hell up.” He ran off into the bushes, leaving me talking to myself.
Brewster, New York
The neighbors found her. She was down by the creek and couldn’t get up. Adam brought her home in a wheelbarrow. I should have known by the look in her eye that she had gone there to die. I’ve heard that animals know when it’s their time. But we thought we knew better. We fixed her a bed out back and fed her and hugged her.
The back legs had started giving out the previous summer. She’d follow me out to the mailbox, tail wagging, but give up by the pond and wait to catch up with me on my way back. I didn’t want to notice.
She had been a puppy when we moved out to the country fifteen years earlier. She grew along with the small evergreens we’d planted that were now towering over the walk. Opossums, feet-up in the driveway, were her trademark, along with an occasional skunk. She was proud of her catches and never understood my alarm. She loved the skunk cabbage that grew by the creek. When a new crop arrived in the spring, she’d walk me down there for a look in the damp morning air.
When the first litter arrived, her labor was long and slow. The whelping box in the kitchen was just the right size, but she preferred the spot next to our bed, so I laid a blanket there. I remember her panting through the night, and how I reached down to pet her in my sleep. We had an understanding after that. It was a look we had, as if we both knew a secret. I could hardly part with the pups, but gave them to good homes. She was happier to get rid of them than I was.
I didn’t know how I was going to face that last call to the vet. She was slipping fast. When the weather got too cold for her to stay outside, we moved her to a tarp in the basement. When I went down there to feed her at night, she didn’t want to look at me. I lay next to her and asked what she wanted. She got the same faraway look that I saw in my father’s eyes during his last days.
I realized that I hadn’t held up my part of the bargain. If she had been a wolf, she’d have died down by the creek. The trip home in the wheelbarrow had been our fault. We’d saved her from her own choice. We’d taken away her freedom.
Once I decided, there was no time to waste. I made the call on a Monday morning.
Adam and I held her as the vet put her to sleep. Facing death seemed easier for her than for us. We humans complicate things. We had brought her home to die in a dark basement where she’d spent little time while alive. She’d chosen the ferns and the red sumac along the creek bed for a burial ground, and that is where we spread the ashes.
The doctor told me that I needed surgery immediately. He put my chances of surviving at fifty-fifty. Paul was with me when the doctor came in with his report. As the nurses prepared me for surgery, I called my sisters and my old lover to tell them I loved them. Then I began to sing two songs over and over, my brave songs. One of them is an Incredible String Band tune whose name I never knew:
. . . seasons they change but with gaze unchanging oh bright-eyed sisters, is it you I see. . . . scattered we were while the long night was raging but in bright morning converge again.
The other is a traditional Southern folk song:
The lone wild bird in lofty flight, is still with thee nor leaves thy sight. And I am thine, I rest in thee, great spirit come and rest in me. . . .
I continued singing as the orderlies rolled my gurney to the operating room. I had grown calmer but Paul was fuming. “How can you sing when you may die?”
I replied, “Style is everything.” They closed the doors, took me to the basement, and parked me in the hall with all the other patients waiting on stretchers. A group of nurses and doctors gathered at the end of the hallway to stare. One asked crossly, “Are you singing?” When I asked if there was some rule against singing, she said there wasn’t. I sang as they took me inside and put me on the table. The anesthesiologist said he’d turn on the Muzak for me. By then I was so calm it didn’t matter.
Now I always suggest brave songs before surgery. I think it’s why I survived.
When I was sixteen, my father managed a hotel in the Catskill Mountains.
Very late one night, I was invited to go for a ride on a motorcycle by a leather-jacketed employee. I loved the wind in my hair, the exhilarating feeling of my arms around his waist. We moved up and down the hilly mountain road as if it were a midnight roller-coaster ride. My heart beat faster.
We rode for a while, feeling alone and powerful. The police finally stopped us as we entered a small village; they wanted to know who we were and where we were going. I pleaded with them not to call my parents; if my father knew I was out so late on a motorcycle, he would kill me.
My friend was let go but the police insisted on driving me back to the hotel. I begged them to turn off the flashing lights and sirens — it was three a.m. — and to let me out in front of the hotel, which they did.
I ran across the dewy lawn, then raced up the stairs — carefully avoiding the sixth and squeakiest one — and slowly opened the noisy screen door. I inched my way through the darkness so as not to awaken my father. I reached my bed and finally fell asleep. Nothing was ever mentioned.
Years later, before my father died, I told him the story.
“I know,” he said. “The police called and asked what to do with you. I told them to give you a good scare and to bring you home. I figured you’d never do it again.”
New York, New York
When I was seven, my family moved to England. I had a terrible time adjusting to the school. I was too undisciplined, too different, too American. The teacher’s name was Miss Smith. First thing in the morning, she would read off the roll. As she raced through our names, we replied, “Yesmissmith!” “Yesmissmith!” “Yesmissmith!”
I was dying to please her, but I couldn’t. More than once I wet my pants rather than ask if I could go to the lavatory. Shame was her weapon, and she used it without mercy.
One of my worst subjects was sewing. My embroidery was soiled, tortured, and twisted. I couldn’t keep track of my needles and thread.
One day the principal came to our class during the sewing period. I had a needle that day, but no thread. It was one of those mysterious, uncorrectable situations that filled my life at that time. And now I would be found out.
The classroom was silent as the principal leisurely walked up and down the aisles, stopping occasionally to examine someone’s work. Miss Smith watched from the front of the room. I felt utter, hopeless panic.
I stuck the needle through a flower in my embroidery, hiding my lack of thread beneath the cloth. As he approached my desk, I looked up at him and smiled coyly. Inside I was dying. I don’t believe I really fooled him; I think he simply took pity. Whatever the reason, he smiled, said, “Very nice,” and passed on. I sat watching his back, engulfed in self-hatred and relief.
New York, New York
On my sixteenth birthday, I took my driver’s test and wrecked my first car. Needless to say, I failed. My mother and my eight-year-old brother Cass were watching. Cass told me that he didn’t want me to drive anymore; he didn’t want me to be killed. I told him not to worry, that “only the good die young.” We all laughed.
I got my driver’s license three months later, and began a series of accidents that my family and friends came to term “Karen’s annual car crash.” The most spectacular of these, the seventh, occurred late one evening. I had been drinking, and the road was slick. I took a curve too fast, and flipped my car twice before hitting a chain-link fence. As always, I walked away unscathed, though the car was a total loss.
My family, particularly Cass, was deeply distressed by this accident. They were afraid that my luck would run out, that I would, sooner rather than later, kill myself in an automobile. Cass was learning to drive by this time, but he never rode in a car with me, because he didn’t believe I was a safe driver. He was right. I wasn’t.
Cass got a perfect score on his driving test. My parents gave him an old AMC Pacer, and he took meticulous care of it. He insisted that everyone in the car wear a seat belt. He never drank, so he always drove when he and his friends went out. They all agreed that level-headed, responsible Cass was the safest driver in the group. He had learned from my mistakes.
But he didn’t have my luck. On New Year’s Eve, 1984, Cass died when a drunk driver in a monster truck hit his car head-on.
My family lived then in a small Alabama town, where my father was the only doctor. The state troopers who summoned him didn’t know that his son was the driver, so my father was completely unprepared for what he found. He was able to revive Cass, but lost him again in the ambulance on the way to the trauma center in Mobile. My father still has nightmares.
I have tried to find some meaning in his death. I wish I could say that I haven’t been in any more accidents, but I can’t. My guilt at surviving eight major accidents, only to lose my brother in one, is something I still cannot resolve. I feel I robbed him of the luck he should have had; I used up the chances that should have been his.
Karen Potter Morrione
Snow had fallen that day. It was dark and I was weary when I reached the steep dirt road to my cabin. When I came to the old tree, the halfway point, the tires spun over the ice, and then the weight of the car started pulling me downhill. I tried to brake the car; then the engine cut out. I found myself racing backward with no lights. I guided the car by watching the old tree, veering away from where I thought the drop-off was. Suddenly, the car spun and came to rest at a right angle in the middle of the road, only a few feet from the drop-off. I waited for a minute, then stepped out into the quiet darkness.
Since that night I have walked that road many times and thought of how the car spun around in such a small space. The Celts would have thanked the tree spirit. My mother would have offered a prayer to Jesus Christ. I wonder about the awareness we all have that can judge distances, in the dark, as we roll downhill.
As a teen, I took a job as the cashier in a hospital cafeteria. I used to give free food to Bernard, a clerk in the pharmacy, in return for drugs. One cold February day, he came in with a joint, saying, “Try this. It’s good stuff.” I drove out to the lake after work with T. We drank in the car, radio and heater running.
We finished two six-packs before I remembered Bernard’s joint. We sat out on the rocks to smoke it. When I tried to stand I fell into the lake. T. dragged me out and we both stared into the darkness separating us from her car. The flat dirt road was now a roller coaster.
We had to drive the thirty miles back to town, twenty of which were on a busy four-lane highway. The first ten-mile stretch consisted of red clay banks that seemed to knock together, bounce apart, come close to the car, then slide away. T. kept slamming on the brakes, sending the car into spasms. “Why’d you stop?” I’d ask. “There’s a Stop sign.” “No, there isn’t.” We knocked down a mailbox, sideswiped a parked car, and stopped too many times to count. “Just stay cool,” I kept repeating.
On the highway, I realized I was going to be sick. I opened the door and stepped out of the moving car. T. swerved into the left lane and I slid on my back down the right lane, then off the road. She says I did all this laughing.
The next morning, I awoke to a terrible headache and scrapes on my face and hands. My clothes were ruined, but I had somehow managed to sneak in without waking my grandparents.
That afternoon, Bernard walked into the cafeteria, grinning. “Angel dust,” he told me. “I should be able to get some ludes tomorrow.”
Durham, North Carolina
When I was four, I almost drowned in the neighbor’s swimming pool. I can still see the black inner tube floating above me. I couldn’t get to it. I wasn’t afraid, only uncomfortable. Then, nothing.
My neighbors had hired a man to build a brick barbecue pit. As my mother later told the story, he jumped into the water “without even taking off his watch,” pulled me out, and performed CPR. My father bought the man a new watch.
Later, when I was sixteen, I spent one summer day in my parents’ car trying to kill myself by driving in the path of trucks on the Fort Worth freeway. I finally drove into a telephone pole. It broke the pole in half and totaled the Buick station wagon. I required two stitches on my lower lip. My mother never asked why I did it.
I think of all the drunk drivers who didn’t run a red light or swerve into the wrong lane and hit me; all the sex partners I had in the eighties without contracting AIDS; all the arteries in my brain that didn’t burst; all the wars that had been fought elsewhere while I, so safe here, merely fretted about it. All the mutated cells my immune system destroyed. All the risks, big and small, unconscious, stupid, or unknowing, that I took.
Oh, God, let me live up to this grace, this luck, this accident of birth. Is this just fate, the luck of the draw? Or have I somehow done something to deserve this — and if so, how can it ever possibly be enough?
Our oldest daughter was born four years ago with a rare chromosomal abnormality. When she was diagnosed, there were only nine case studies worldwide. Her doctors told us she would be severely retarded and physically handicapped the rest of her life.
But Alex has grown and developed at levels almost appropriate for her age. Of course, there are some problems. Most troublesome is her self-abusive behavior. Alex is a hand-biter and a head-banger, particularly when she’s having a tantrum. During these episodes, she likes to scratch, claw, and kick. She refuses to be comforted in these situations, and is better off left alone, in a safe place, to calm herself down again.
This behavior makes me anxious and frightened. What’s going to happen to her as she gets older and stronger? Will she outgrow this condition? Will we ultimately lose our child, whom we love so dearly?
Not too long ago, she burst into one of her fits. I’d had a long day and was tired. This was the last thing I needed.
Her eyes filled with rage, with terror, as her body kicked violently and uncontrollably. Her fingers searched for something to claw. I tried the usual method of restraining her — a bearhug to keep her from hurting herself. It didn’t work.
Alex was still free to butt her head against my chest, causing me great pain. Every once in a while, she’d wriggle loose from my grip to bite deeply into her wrist, drawing blood.
Over time, I’d discovered that these fits could be meditative experiences. In spite of the fury of the moment, I’d close my eyes and quiet my mind. I’d imagine delicate moments; I’d imagine children laughing; I’d imagine Alex healed.
But not tonight.
I wasn’t in the mood for a transformative experience. I shut my eyes, and all I heard was her screaming. My intolerance and my hopelessness grew. Like Alex, I, too, was out of control.
I found myself screaming, “Can’t you stop it?” I shook her. “Haven’t you had enough?” My yelling upset her even more.
I put her in a cold bath. I’d heard that this was effective shock treatment, and would sometimes jar children out of a tantrum. I turned her upside down to try to shake the demons out of her.
Then I almost hit her. But I didn’t. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t.
Alex eventually quieted down in my arms and went to sleep.
That night, I lay in my bed crying — at my own inadequacies; at my impatience; at Alex’s pain.
When I was ten and my sister Jody was thirteen, we listened to “Magic Man.” We held our fists like microphones, danced around our bedroom, and jumped on the beds until the springs snapped. Every time I got a cold or the flu, Jody wanted to stay home “sick” with me and play crazy eights. Jody was there in the dark night to rescue me from monsters under the sheets.
Then something changed. Jody moved into her own room, became a cheerleader, got a job, became involved with a boy named Joe, and found herself the target of my mother’s criticism. I waited for her to come home after school and play another game of gin, maybe tell me about her wet kisses in the parking lot. She grew silent, cloaked in sarcasm and bitter remarks.
Sometimes I imagine her standing on the other side of a long bridge. I can’t hear her. I can’t see if she’s calling. My feet feel heavy, pulling against the pavement as I try to meet her. When I reach the other side, she’s gone.
But I remember the time Daddy called me into the bathroom. He said he had flushed Jody down the toilet. I looked deeply into the bowl. I didn’t see her face. I cried and punched him in the stomach. Suddenly she popped out from behind the shower curtain. She hugged me until I stopped crying.
The wind was picking up as I left the summer sunshine of the flowered meadow. But once I was in the forest the trail grew quiet, becoming a winding, indistinct path.
The slender peninsula I call home is known as Deishu, which means either “end of the trail” or “beginning of the trail,” depending on your attitude.
It was a time of great loss: my father and my wife had been taken suddenly, and on this day it appeared as if my last solid connection to faith and hope — my dream of building a home in Alaska — was leaving too.
The path narrowed and alternated between the shadowed forest and the sunshine of a wind-whipped beach. I was walking to lose my torment. The wilds usually soothed me but today was different. I felt as if I were walking toward my death. It occurred to me that I did not care.
The silence of the forest pushed me down the trail. I could see light ahead. It was the end of the Deishu Peninsula. The trail, it is said, leads down to a crescent beach.
I stumbled forward, parting the brush with the back of my hands. The image is burned in me still: the seas roaring before a spectacular mountain range; the debris and foam-strewn beach; the carcass of the dead sea lion not more than ten yards in front of me; the golden brown fur, backlit and rippling in the wind, of a grizzly bear hovering over the carcass.
Suddenly, I found myself twenty feet up a spruce tree. From my roost I watched as she shook her head at the brush, and then slowly ambled down the beach and out of sight. I was terrified, and overcome with gratitude. I ran laughing back up the trail.
It was a summer of enervating heat that daily drove my sisters and me out of the house and down to the river, seeking coolness. We waded in the swimming hole behind the dam we’d spent weeks building, or tubed down the rapids under the old railroad bridge. We ate whole watermelons in one sitting, spitting seeds at each other and making ourselves sick. We fed mother otters stale bread, and collected fossils up and down the banks.
The only bad part was the long walk back, a good three miles uphill. We’d arrive home worn-out and cranky, too hot to nap.
Usually we ran most of the way on the hot pavement, popping tar bubbles with our toes. On this day there were no games. It was too hot to play, even to complain. There was none of my sisters’ usual jostling or shouts of “me first!” We walked toward home, hugging the side of the cliff that rose above us.
We topped the steepest hill, passed the abandoned lumber mill, and turned onto a cool strip of shade. The worst of the walk was over. We were half a mile from ice water and lying on lawn chairs under the sprinkler.
Suddenly, I felt an impulse that made me say, “Cross over.” My sisters followed me to the other side of the road, onto the sticky tar. We watched as a boulder fell silently out of the trees, off the cliff, and landed where we would have been.
As we stood looking at the boulder, I heard laughter. I looked up into the dry, dark trees. “Did you hear something?” I asked my sisters. They hadn’t. I became frightened. I turned and ran, my sisters screaming behind me. It was at this moment that I learned I was vulnerable, that there were those who could hurt me and be amused by it. It was then that I discovered I was not an entirely protected being.
Jaida n’ha Sandra
Sunday I went to a nightclub — Sweet Basil’s — and walked home at one-thirty in the morning. It was a cold night, and the streets were bare.
I heard laughter on Bond Street and sped off. On Broadway, I ran into a deli because someone was staring at me. We were the only two on the street.
I walked up Lafayette Street, whirling to avoid attack.
At home, my wife was nursing Sylvia. “How was it?” she asked.
“McCoy was superb,” I said. Then I went searching for the dental floss.
I couldn’t speak of my fear. It seemed shameful now that I was home.
New York, New York