By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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The story of you is starting in me again. When I think of you, I see a road, a long gray stretch of lonely two-lane highway, a yellow stripe painted down its middle, a road in the middle of nowhere. You and I are standing by the side of the road hitchhiking, but no cars come. It is some obscure place in Canada: Thunder Bay. We are on our way cross-country, headed for the Canadian Rockies. And after that? Who knows.
Cold, overcast day, even though it’s July. You wear a wool cap pulled down around your ears, a fisherman’s sweater, blue jeans on your skinny legs. Under the cap, round, saucerlike brown eyes, uptilted nose, shiny brown hair. If it weren’t for the astrologer’s beard, you’d look like the little Dutch boy.
You’re doing tricks to amuse me. Handstands. Now you juggle potatoes and onions. You learned these tricks from a circus acrobat who taught a course at the university where you went for one semester. I say I could never learn to walk on my hands. You say of course I could. “There was a man of forty in my class, and he learned.” It’s never possible to argue with you.
No cars come, the clouds grow darker and lower. We haven’t been caught in the rain at night — yet. It’s my worst fear. We shoulder our backpacks and walk a mile back down the road to an all-night truck-stop diner. All night the big diesel rigs pull into the parking lot like dinosaurs at a watering trough.
We sit and order coffee, taking advantage of the free refills, tanking up on sugar and cream. We’ve been buying food at supermarkets and cooking it over makeshift campfires — a can of beans, an onion roasted on a peeled green stick.
This place smells deliciously of frying potatoes and meat. Men, alone or in twos or threes, sit quietly over coffee and food or wait blankly, their cigarettes burning away between their fingers. Except for the waitress, I’m the only woman. I can’t escape the eyes that assess me as I walk to the ladies’ room carrying my backpack. I’m wearing jeans, a T-shirt, a sweater. My hair is wild and bright. I’m twenty-two years old. I have years to go until I’m safe.
In the ladies’ room I take off my sweater and T-shirt and wash myself. My dark eyes in the mirror leap out of a sunburned face. I look like a little wild animal — a raccoon, or a ferret. Since the bathroom is empty, I strip off my pants, climb onto the sink counter, and wash my crotch. I have my period, I’m tired of feeling sticky. I put on a limp pair of clean underwear from my pack, pull on my pants, walk back out. The men look at me again with their cold eyes. I think they think I’m a dirty hippie, a slut.
At the table you are drawing with a purple crayon all over the menu. You are making it into a letter to send to your younger brother in France. He has never seen the world, he doesn’t even know it’s out there. You didn’t either, until you moved from your father’s sheep farm in the provinces to Paris. Even then, you thought that was all there was, your working-class enclave where all night long you could hear Arab music blasting from the windows of Tunisian and Algerian seasonal workers, who endured with you the loneliness and snobbery of the most beautiful city in the world.
You didn’t know about the world until you met Sylvie. She was nineteen. She had escaped her own family, out in the country where they could remember starving through several wars, to come to Paris and marry a Tunisian so he could get his papers. She lived in one room with him and worked in a home for old people. She liked old people; they were gentle. At home, she and Beshir had horrible fights. He raged against the racism in Paris, then against Parisians, then against the French in general. He hit her a couple of times and she left.
I knew her too; I loved her too. Who wouldn’t? She had soft brown hair and laughter like bells. She was hungry to see everything and know everything. She had befriended me, a gawky American college student thumbing my way through France with my backpack and purple socks. We slept together on gray beaches. She tried to organize me, scolded me about losing my washcloth, and I let her. She was the link that connected you and me.
“We’re both dogs,” you said to me during our first week in Canada, when we were still rapturously discovering all we had in common, “and Sylvie is a cat.” That was true. She could sleep anywhere, all curled up, and wake with a stretch, looking and smelling fresh and perfectly content with herself. She liked eating little slivers of food — salade niçoise, the tip of an ice-cream cone. She was effortlessly tidy and self-contained and hated to be confined in any way. She swore she would never marry again. She said, “In friendship I’m as faithful as the moon, but not in love,” and that was true too. While you and I were trailing across Canada, arguing about who knew her better, whom she loved more, she had already pursued and left two American men, Boston Charles and Chicago John, and gone back to Paris for further adventures.
You look up from your menu-letter finally, and your eyes are soft and sad. But your letter is full of excitement, enthusiasm: we are having a wonderful time — “plein d’aventures”; he should come, he should do this, too, you lecture Paul. Older brother, advice giver.
I read it and think, I’m not having a good time anymore. I don’t know when I stopped.
We drink coffee in silence. I look around the room speculatively. You are already hissing at me, “Try that one! He has an open face. For a Canadian.” I hate this part, I hate that it’s me who has to do it.
I have to pick a trucker to approach, preferably a man traveling alone, and ask him if he’s heading west; if he’s got room for two hitchhikers. I have to do this in such a low-key, unobtrusive way that the waitress won’t kick us out for soliciting rides. I try to pick a man who is not too large, whom the two of us together might overpower if we had to, but almost all these truckers, even the short ones, seem to bulge with muscles and meat-eating bulk. You and I are scrawny from sleeping by roadsides and living on bread and cheese and coffee.
I go up to the one you pointed out and ask if he’s heading west, if he’d like to take us. He shakes his head no and turns back to his plate while his companions look me up and down and my face burns. I go around the booths and try the other side of the restaurant. My voice is low, my manner polite and as reassuringly middle-class as I can make it. Will they somehow see beyond my filthy jeans and uncombed hair, see that I graduated summa cum laude, that I speak three languages; that I am a teacher? No, why should they? What does it matter?
I’m stripped of those things out here, and it’s good. I wanted to shed them, I wanted to shed everything. What I hadn’t counted on was that shedding those things would still leave me with the one thing I can never shed: being a woman, and a young one. Their eyes reduce me to that — I reduce myself to that.
The third or fourth man I ask says he’ll take us. Relieved, we follow him out to the parking lot with our packs. It’s pelting an icy rain, and the sky is dark. The trucker’s name is Doug. He’s not too big; he’s young, with dark hair and blue eyes, an Anglo. We’re two or three days’ travel past Montreal. The more Anglo the terrain gets the more I take over the task of communicating with the outside world, since your English consists mostly of epithets and private plays on words.
Doug hoists our packs into the back of his truck. You scramble up into the back seat of the big semi, and he offers me a hand as I clamber up. The smallest of warning bells goes off: is he just being helpful, or trying to touch me? Our safety depends on these warning bells. Without them I wouldn’t choose our rides so carefully or know when to cut them short. But I also have to override them constantly in order to keep traveling this way. I will sit up with Doug most of the night, assessing him, monitoring his every word and gesture as I listen to him talk about his wife or the girlfriend who just left him, constantly on the alert, constantly reassuring myself, while you whistle or sleep or write letters. It’s my responsibility to worry about how safe we are with these strangers we depend on for rides, just as it’s my job to pay for the rides by keeping them entertained, keeping them talking — everyone understands this. You climb into the little bed in back and immediately fall asleep while Doug tells me his life story.
It’s a good story, though I can’t remember it now. All the truckers’ stories were good — and sad, too. I got to hear about a kind of life I never would have known otherwise, the quietness of hundreds of gray and blue miles unrolling in front of a high steering wheel, and all the time in the world for a man to remember the details of his child’s face when he last walked through the door, or his girlfriend’s back when she walked out.
At about two in the morning, my contact lenses are sticking to my eyes, and my chin is falling forward onto my chest. I tell Doug I’m going to climb in back and get some sleep, and he nods assent. You’re waiting for me on the narrow mattress. One hard-muscled arm encircles my breasts, the other pulls my hips toward you. Softly, going with the motion of the truck, you push your penis against my backside. I can feel your stomach against me, your ribs, your hungry pelvis, your breath in my ear. I can tell the idea of doing it while we’re in motion, two feet away from the driver, turns you on, but I don’t like it. It seems rude, and Doug has turned out to be a nice guy after all. Also, I’m exhausted, so exhausted I manage to fall asleep squashed against you, but I’m woken an hour later when Doug pulls the truck over and climbs in back with us. I lie there, sandwiched between the two of you, Doug gently snoring from his all-night drive. When daylight finally comes, the rain has stopped and we slide out, handing our backpacks to each other in the bright, cold dawn.
You sling your pack over your shoulder and lead on, head down, thumb stuck out, not even bothering to look at me, or the road, or the few cars whizzing by. You’re retreating more and more into yourself; your stories are becoming forced, didactic, the moral being always how one should really live life — not like the petite bourgeoisie, who stay protected within their locks and walls, but completely open, completely free. When did I become the example in your stories of how not to be? When did you start to use your knowledge of me against me?
I remember our first few weeks together, in the provinces of Quebec, picking strawberries in the chill June rains and in the hot sun, moving along the rows on aching, green-stained knees. You got the runs from eating too much half-ripe fruit. The farmers who hired us watched us with suspicion; they didn’t like you, and with good reason. The first day I made only fifteen dollars for hours of back-breaking work. You made twenty-three dollars, because you’d filled your baskets with green berries, with just a layer of red ones across the top. I think they knew no one could pick that much if they were doing it properly, but of course you chalked my misgivings up to my bourgeois mentality. The farmers were all exploiters, you said scornfully, waving your arm at the women with kerchiefs on their heads who were picking steadily and patiently.
We slept in an abandoned school bus, in the rain, on a mildewing mattress, our arms wrapped around each other. We slept in an old shack belonging to a farmer in the next town, a wooden structure with a tin roof that heated up like an oven in the middle of the day. I have a photo of myself in that shack, perched on a loft where we had wedged our sleeping bags. I’m wearing a halter top and rolling a cigarette of dried mint and tobacco, with a big grin on my face and my hair flying around like an electric halo.
I think those were happy times. It was new to me to feel so free. For six weeks I didn’t call my parents, just sent them airy postcards from obscure small towns in Canada. I called Sylvie in France from pay phones, using the credit-card numbers of the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party, and the Moral Majority. We had long, luxurious, hundred-dollar transatlantic conversations, sometimes lasting up to two hours.
“Don’t let him push you around,” Sylvie advised me. “I worry about you. You are too . . .” She couldn’t think of the right word. It might have been boundaryless, it might have been naive, it might have been American.
I called my friends and told them I was thinking of marrying you so you could get your papers. You had been refused a visa in the United States because you were a Communist. We’d almost gotten married in Montreal, but one had to establish a six-week residency first. I’d even sent away for my birth certificate. We thought maybe we’d do it when we reached Vancouver.
My friends all warned against it, especially John, a lawyer. “It’s perjury,” he said. “Immigration will separate you and ask you all kinds of slimy questions like what was your first date and what’s his mother’s maiden name? You could get in big trouble.”
I wasn’t sure how I felt about marrying you. I never even felt like your girlfriend. At night we slept together, and during the day we hitchhiked or rode the buses, singing Jacques Brel songs off-key, sharing chocolate bars and cigarettes. I learned about your childhood, the stone-cold silence of growing up among people with no language for feelings, only for hard work and poverty.
“A child must have someone to love,” you told me. “And if there is no person around for a child to love, he will love an animal, and if there are no animals, he will find some thing. I loved my toolbox.” An uncle taught you to lay tile; by the time you were seventeen you had quit school and moved to Paris, where you worked as a plumber, “up to my elbows in other people’s shit.” By the time you were twenty you had gotten enough money together to buy your own apartment. You could do anything, you boasted. Lay tile, fix plumbing, even build houses. One should be able to do a little bit of anything. Not like me: I was brought up with books, only books. It was true, my education had been pretty useless, except for the languages; I couldn’t even change a tire — but inside myself I knew I would be able to stand these incessant judgments for a limited time only. You talked on and on. You were passionate about children, about every aspect of their education and upbringing. A child should be exposed to the world, the whole world. A child should never be thwarted or told there is anything he cannot do. A child should be taught whatever he wants to learn, useful things, not what you get in school.
In Vancouver you insisted on swimming nude at a family beach. I sat fully clothed on the sand. The lifeguard came up to me and said you had to wear a suit. “I can’t make him do anything,” I said. You saw us talking and came leaping out of the salt spray, nude, elegant, coltlike, your penis flopping out of its dark bush, oblivious to all hostile stares. The lifeguard repeated his message. You pretended you didn’t speak English and stared at me for assistance. I slid my underpants off beneath my skirt and gave them to you. You gleefully put them on — bikinis with red and blue sailboats — and went running and shouting back to the water. Another coup scored for life, against repression. It was all losing its charm for me.
In Vancouver my period was late, and I started to worry. You told me your girlfriend in Paris — not Sylvie — had gotten pregnant by you just to see if she could, and then she’d had an abortion. I never knew which of your stories to believe. One day, you put me on your shoulders and tried to demonstrate an acrobatic trick. I was unprepared to be thrown and landed heavily. A few hours later the bleeding started, intense and painful. I crawled into bed, moaning and rocking with pain, for two days.
I left you to save my life. I remember whispering that I hated you in a coffee shop in Vancouver, and you said bitterly that you knew I did, that your mother had said the same thing to you. I cried that I had come to this point, telling somebody I hated him. My mother had said you could only hate Hitler.
After we decided to split up something changed, and you became gentle again, almost the way you’d been in the beginning. We were staying at the home of a woman I’d met in France two years before, a Canadian named Alex. She’d become a lesbian in the interim and was angry and disappointed when I showed up on her doorstep with an obnoxious Frenchman. She took me aside and told me that even if I insisted on sleeping with men, she was sure I could do better if only I valued myself more. After a few days, she took off for her retreat up in the woods, where she was studying fish for a master’s degree in biology. She was trying to prove that female fish are more cooperative and less competitive than male fish. We had the house in Vancouver to ourselves.
One night I lay tensely on my back in our hot, sweltering room. Our entire sex life had involved a lot of arguing, me trying to get you to do what I wanted, and you saying I shouldn’t want those things. Your girlfriend in Paris had orgasms effortlessly. She could come if you just stroked her hair. American women were not really sensual. I was joyless, frigid, probably lesbian.
But this night, for a change, you were quiet. You lay on your side and with your fingertips gently stroked and touched my belly. I breathed deeply and let you do it. It was an effort for me to lie still, to just take it in. It was a gift you were giving me, your last, a goodbye gift to seal all we had been through together. You gave me an eternity of gentle touching, and when you were done you rolled over and went to sleep, all without a word. The next day you left to go pick fruit in the Okanogan Valley, and I never saw you again.
It was strange being without you. I was so used to your voice at my side. I had acquired strange habits, thinking in two languages, beginning an idea in English and completing it in French. Often when I talked, I groped for words or felt I should be translating. I had been translating everything constantly for you. Now there was a strange silence in me. I still had conversations in my head with you in French. I argued my case over and over, and then I argued your side. Neither of us ever won.
I no longer recognized myself in the mirror. I looked like a waif and felt transparent. You had cut off all my hair with fingernail scissors when it became tangled with burrs. I reeked with the bitterness of tobacco in my fingernails, under my arms, in my gums. I didn’t flirt with the men around me. It was such a great relief not to have to defend myself anymore.
Two years later, I was with two of my best friends on the grounds of DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts. It was a beautiful, clear September day, mild and sweet as a McCoon apple. We had just seen an outdoor concert and were taking a walk by the edge of a pond.
“Hang on, you guys, I have to pee,” I said. I looked around for a spot where I wouldn’t be seen and headed for a thicket of trees. It seemed like I had to pee every five minutes. My period was late and my breasts were tender. I had scheduled a pregnancy test for later that week. I had met a man named Michael just a few weeks before, and we’d had sex on our first date, though I hadn’t planned to. Still, after so many years of false pregnancy scares, I couldn’t believe that I could really be pregnant.
When I came galloping back, Helen and Debbie were poking thoughtfully at the water with sticks. They looked at each other, and then Helen said, “We have to tell you something.” Something in her face or voice made me sink down, and all three of us sat on the sand. Debbie said, “Maxim killed himself nine months ago. Almut told me. She heard it from Sylvie. Sylvie says she wanted to tell you but couldn’t.”
At home, I called Sylvie in Paris. She told me that for the last year and a half she hadn’t seen much of you; you were hanging out with a group of friends she didn’t like, doing drugs, and criticizing her when she tried to talk to you about it. Then, in January, in the coldest, darkest month of the year, you went up to a remote corner of your father’s sheep farm, cut your wrists, and bled and froze to death out there. You had left no note. It was a month before anyone found what was left of your body, after the animals had been at it. It was hard to make myself picture that, so that finally I could cry for you, the way you should be cried over.
Two days later, my pregnancy test came up positive. I lay stunned on the table while the doctor scraped and dug the baby out of me with long, silver spoons. I welcomed the pain and the bleeding. At least something hurt the way it was supposed to.
There followed an incredible sadness of the body. I lay in bed and listened to music and let thoughts drift in and out. Sometimes I thought of you and the incredible, fierce drive with which you had approached life on the road — you didn’t really approach it, you assaulted it, you wanted to seize it by the throat, squeeze it, make it give you something, wring it dry. I remembered you walking on your hands and juggling fruit, your harsh, insistent laugh, your rare moments of softness, sadness, or tenderness. I remembered your body, the long, elegant, narrow chest dented with muscles, the narrow waist, the small, tight butt. I remembered you laughing to cover your embarrassment the first time you undressed in front of me.
I remembered how desperate you were to escape, but you didn’t know how and I didn’t know either. Always you were haunted by the specter of your mother, abandoned by her husband and worn out by work to a nub of complaints. You dreamed of becoming a great singer-songwriter like Brel; you dreamed of being a world-famous juggler, juggling knives, juggling fire on the streets of every fabulous city in the world. You wanted a life, and you were so scared you wouldn’t get one that you killed yourself.
Writing this a dozen years later, when your bones are dust and the girl who shared those adventures with you has also disappeared, I get out your photograph to remember how you looked. I’m shocked at how beautiful you were. Roguish, angelic, your face twinkles beneath the jaunty Irish fisherman’s cap, and there’s nothing to pity, nothing to rescue, nothing to hate. The future darkness is entirely unwritten there.
This makes me wonder about our faces now, how they shine with happiness or darken with doubt; I wonder which of these is real. Since you left, I’ve had times of such sweetness I could hardly take it all in, and times of overwhelming sadness, fear, and bitterness. I’ve worried about money, had headaches and birthday parties, noticed sunsets, cooked soup, and paid bills — all the ordinary things you rejected, all the details that have nailed me so securely to this life that I can fool myself daily into believing it will somehow never end.
Too late to talk to you now. I’m talking to myself in this moment. Things turned out better for me than I ever believed they would. I found someone who knows how to love, who has loved me steadfastly through many dark nights for seven years now. I made a decision lying there on the abortion table, right after I learned of your death. I decided that somehow I would change my life, change this senseless drifting from one desperate man to another. The face of my baby appeared to me then, and I said goodbye. I was trading a life for a life — mine. I have gone on. And things did get better. I made them so, not knowing how to do it, stumbling and cursing in the dark, falling down many times, getting up again. I did what you failed to do. I walked forward with my life.
It still seems like an amazing miracle to me that things I’ve written here in Oakland are traveling around the country and reaching people I’ve never met. I’ve been getting an incredible response to “Letter to Maxim” [August 1993]. Half a dozen people have looked up my phone number and called. One guy from Austin, Texas, left a message on my answering machine saying he’d read the piece and cried all afternoon. I feel very blessed to be part of this passionate, eccentric, far-flung circle of Sun-aficionados. Thank you for working so hard to create and sustain this nourishing network.