I liked Eric right away. He stood at the edge of our group during the campus tour for incoming freshmen and kept making witty remarks that only I could hear. He wore wacky clothes and came from a town in Washington with a charming name. It seems naive to me now, but I assumed we would fall in love.
Eric and I became buddies. We talked about Plato and math, and sometimes sat together at lunch. Then, one auspicious evening, he invited me to go roller-skating. I imagined we would look back on it as our first date.
I remember our wide, interlocking arcs as we skated closer together and farther apart. I remember being impressed that he could skate down the stairs in front of the post office. Afterward we decided to split a piece of cheesecake at the coffeehouse. He wanted to talk.
He told me stories of the year he’d taken off between high school and college. He had worked in the theater. Slowly, gently, kindly, Eric let me know that he was gay.
I felt foolish, trusted, shocked, and disappointed all at once. And immediately I committed myself to being his friend.
Over the next few weeks, Eric shared the secret code with me: pinky rings, muscle shirts, single earrings, well-trimmed facial hair, a certain trick with a bandanna that I didn’t understand. Once he had shown me what to look for, it seemed obvious who was gay, that he was gay. I had been so clueless.
After that year, I saw him only once more, four years later. He looked pale, grim. The AIDS epidemic had just broken out and some of Eric’s friends had already died. I listened, but we didn’t pretend that I could know what it was like.
Now I’m back in my hometown, but it feels very different from before. I see young men all over who have those haircuts and those clothes and those rings. Do other people see? I could almost swear they don’t. Some of these young men are my patients. As I write their prescriptions — Bactrim, AZT, Nystatin swish-and-swallow, Gancyclovir — I sometimes think, It’s been eight years. I wonder if Eric is still alive.
As a harried young mother of a five-year-old and an infant, I kept busy with the mundane tasks of housekeeping and child care. One day, the work had piled up and I was frantically running around scrubbing and dusting, trying to appease the clean-house gods, while my son pestered me to play with him.“Not now. I’m busy,” I said throughout the day.
Finally, my son sauntered into the kitchen, head hung low, and asked me to play one last time in his most forlorn voice. I pulled my sudsy hands out of the dishwater and wrestled him to the kitchen floor, tickling and laughing. When we settled down to catch our breaths, he looked up at me and calmly said, “Mom, you should play with me more, because when I’m ten, I’m not going to want to play with you.”
Carson City, Nevada
Four months shy of my sixteenth birthday, my family moved from Long Island to a quaint, well-to-do suburban town in southern California. Suddenly, all my friends were three thousand miles away.
I was drawn to G. right away. She knew everyone, had a slightly foreign accent, and laughed sincerely. Guys buzzed around her constantly. She claimed to be Hawaiian, but later she told me she was Iranian and didn’t want anyone to know. We started hanging out together after school and on weekends. We even shared clothes, though she was a good four inches shorter and I was flat and shapeless while she had boobs and hips.
It surprised me that G. wanted to hang out with me rather than with all the other people she knew. The only thing that bothered me was the double dates. I’d never had a boyfriend before and California, where it seemed everyone had cars, alcohol, pot, coke, and sex on their minds, made my sophomore year of high school in New York look in retrospect like fourth grade. Weekend nights G. and a couple of guys would pick me up and we’d try to get some beers, go to a party, park the car somewhere, or jump the fence of some condo Jacuzzi. G. would go to second base, third base, and maybe more with one boy while the other would try to do the same with me. I was scared — I didn’t even know these guys.
I went to New York for Christmas vacation, and, when I came back, I made a new friend. One day, she asked me a question that landed like a brick to the forehead: “So why do you hang out with the biggest slut in school?”
Terry Martin Austin
My mother ran from everything: jobs, relationships, family. She even ran from town whenever things became too difficult. I was her only consistent friend and confidante.
I was relieved when, during my eighth-grade year, she married a cowboy paving contractor, and my role as “most intimate companion” was transferred to him. I was finally free to be like any other junior-high student and enjoy secrets, phone conversations, and crushes, without the burden of my mother’s problems.
Then one day, two years into the marriage, I found my mother sitting on the stairs in her pink bathrobe, her short hair matted to her head, legs unshaven, an overflowing ashtray on the step next to her.
“We have to leave,” she said, sucking on her cigarette. She was no longer crying, but her face was still moist.
I knew that they fought, but I’d avoided the conflicts by going on long runs or locking myself in my room to do homework. I was also half conscious that their fights were becoming louder and more frequent, but I wanted them to stay together. I didn’t want her loneliness to be my loneliness again.
“But maybe you should try and talk,” I said.
“M. T., look at me.” Her face was puffy and blotched. Blue smudges ringed her eyes. She touched the right side of her jaw tenderly.
Then I saw: her cheek puffed out with purple marks in the shape of fingers, green around the edges.
“You want me to stay in this?” she asked. “He could kill me. He could kill you, too.”
I was silent, rocking back and forth, holding my knees.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t know.” She looked at me with incredulity.
I began to cry.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know. I didn’t.”
I was thirty-six before I could really talk about my mother in therapy. Up until then, I would say a few things about my life with her, start trembling, and then hear from the therapist the familiar words about how I was not adjusting to society, how I was exaggerating. Every therapist I saw and all the books I read insisted that if I kept working at my feelings, eventually I would get down to the center of them all — love for my mother. I wasn’t so sure.
Until the age of nine, I had been loved and cared for by my aunt, uncle, and grandmother. But then my mother married and wanted me with her. The next nine years were, in the words of one therapist, “the stuff of a Gothic novel.”
I barely held on to my sanity. My new stepfather sexually assaulted me at least twice a day, and he and my mother could find no good in me. They repeatedly refused me medical care when I was severely ill. And later on, when I was nineteen, I called my mother for help after my boss had tried to rape and murder me, and she hung up.
I could understand how she might hate to care for me and defend me; after all, no one had done it for her when she was a child. Her father had assaulted her for years, and her mother had abandoned her when she was twelve. Then she had gotten pregnant by a man who, too, had rejected her.
But ten years ago, it hit me like a thunderclap: Why should I ever love this woman, even if she was my biological mother? I had barely known her before I went to live with her. She was like an acquaintance of the family who became a brutal foster parent. That was all she had been to me. I no longer needed to keep looking for my love for her: none had ever been there.
It was Autumn, 1964, and I had just turned nineteen. Six months earlier I’d dropped out of college. I thought of myself as worldly and experienced, and had numerous women friends, but when it came to romance and physical intimacy I was woefully naive, ignorant, and frightened. If the sexual revolution had begun, it had done so without me.
With all of my friends away at college, I was acutely lonely for the first time in many years. Looking for something to do one warm Saturday night, I decided to check out a public dance at a local school. Meandering among the dancers, I caught sight of Pat. She’d been one class behind me in high school, and she was alone, too.
We danced and talked for a while, then went out for pizza. Afterward I drove her back to her car. As we sat talking, I lit a cigarette, one of the many I smoked that evening. She asked me about that particular habit, and I told her about it and other vices I enjoyed.
Pat said she had only one vice and invited me to guess its nature. Over the next several minutes I proposed every form of behavior that I thought might be considered a vice, but she answered no to each one. She sat casually with her back against the door, facing me, her left leg up on the seat. She was smiling broadly, looking radiantly beautiful.
The last half-hour of that evening still replays itself in my mind. I can see her sitting there beaming at me as if it were yesterday.
When I ran out of guesses, we said good night and went our separate ways.
When I was twenty-one, my father began an affair with a married woman. When my mother found out, she became anorexic and depressed. Dad announced he was moving out and wanted a divorce, and Mom shot herself in the head. My father married his lover eight months later.
Nine years after that, my brother decided to spend a summer at home exploring his relationship with Dad. One night, sorting through things in the attic, Brad brought up the past. My father said, “I don’t know why you kids have such a hard time with our marriage. Her kids don’t.”
Born and bred in upstate New York, I sat in the barber’s chair in Oxford, Mississippi, trying to keep my accent from betraying me. None of the men waiting their turn looked as if they needed a haircut. The barber had white hair and, despite the heat, wore a long-sleeved shirt buttoned at the collar. I asked if he had ever known William Faulkner, and he told me that he used to go out to Faulkner’s house once a week to cut his hair. He said Faulkner never let him use the electric shears — only scissors and a comb.
“You must have seen a lot of changes during your life,” I remarked. “Which do you prefer, the past or the present?”
“The past,” he answered immediately.
He proceeded to talk with such emotion about the past that I could not resist asking what it was that made life now seem so much worse to him.
“It’s the nigger,” he said finally. “I’m talking about the nigger.”
“What about the nigger?” I asked, the word sticking in my throat.
“He knew how to stay in his place.”
“What do you mean ‘stay in his place’?” I asked.
Clearly exasperated, he said, “I mean he didn’t try to act like a white man!” The other men in the shop were staring at me. The barber looked me hard in the eyes for what seemed a long time. Then he smiled. “Say,” he said. “You’re not from around here, are you, boy?”
Phillip J. Barton
Elmira, New York
As small children, my cousin Jimmie and I fought often. He was three years older, and I always let him win so as not to provoke his wild fits of temper.
Jimmie had problems. Deep down, we all knew he needed help. “Get counseling for him,” his teachers urged, but in the late forties people kept such problems hidden to shield family members from the public shame of a “crazy” relation.
When Jimmie reached his teenage years, his volatile personality became focused on rock-and-roll and fast cars. And girls. Since I had friends, I became Jimmie’s main source of possible dates.
Jimmie would drive his father’s red-and-white Ford Crown Victoria with me in the passenger seat and a girlfriend between us, our heads snapping back from the acceleration as the traffic light turned green. We’d sing along with Little Richard on the radio and challenge anyone we could to a drag race as we cruised the main street of our town.
But when we weren’t drag-racing, Jimmie was still the same unhappy, angry boy who had thrown his crayons at the teacher in first grade, and eventually had tossed a typewriter out the window of his tenth-grade typing class because he couldn’t pass a test.
The summer I turned fifteen, Jimmie married a girl he had been dating for many months. She was pregnant. I was their maid of honor. It was the end of our joyful, reckless youth together.
We drifted apart as we both raised families, occasionally getting together and reminiscing about those wild days as our spouses listened with detached amazement.
But Jimmie’s bouts with depression and rage went on, along with his uncontrollable fits of exuberance. Finally, he realized that he needed help. During his first stay at the state mental hospital he was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. Neither counseling nor shock therapy did him any good, but medication seemed to make his life bearable — if not for himself, then for those close to him.
As the years passed we saw each other only at an occasional family function, or on the rare visits he made to my home. Then, much to my surprise and delight, he showed up at my fortieth birthday party. He had never, in our adult life, attended any of my birthday parties.
My aunt, Jimmie’s mother, spoke to us in hushed tones of how Jimmie was a changed man. He had been staying with her for the past few weeks, fixing things all around her house. He’d painted, wallpapered, puttied, varnished, planted, rewired, or repaired just about everything. Then he’d escorted her on visits to friends and family members he hadn’t seen in years.
“He’s so much better,” she said to us that evening. “I don’t know what happened, but he’s happy now.”
Jimmie and I talked a little that night, not about anything serious, but about music, our families, and mutual friends.
“Did you see the movie The Rose with Bette Midler playing Janis Joplin?” he asked as he got ready to leave.
I said I had. It was a tragic story. He said he had the soundtrack on cassette, then went to his car to get the tape for me. I thanked him and said I would get it back to him soon. We stood on my porch and said good night. Then he began to say something else, but shrugged instead and walked away. After a few steps, he stopped, an uncertain look on his face.
“Don’t worry!” I said. “I’ll take good care of the tape.”
“It’s not that. You can keep it.” And he turned and walked away.
Two days later I received the call at work: he had hanged himself.
A few weeks after that I finally listened to the cassette he had given me. I saw at once the parallels between Janis Joplin’s life of excess and Jimmie’s. If only I had listened to the tape earlier, I thought, I might have known he had been there that night, on my birthday, to say goodbye.
Why hadn’t I realized that he had been putting his affairs in order? His whole demeanor was so out of character, we all should have suspected something was wrong. But no one did.
I drank. And drank, and drank. I’d admit to being a “pseudoalcoholic” (whatever that meant) and then drink some more. When I was fifty-one, I walked into my first AA meeting and heard people talk about choosing not to drink. Until that moment, I hadn’t known the choice was mine.
A friend of mine likes to tell about the time he lit a fire in the wood stove of the room where I was reading. He left to answer the phone and returned to find the room blazing hot, the flames leaping out of the stove and licking at the woodpile. “The whole place was about to go up,” he’ll say, “and he” — meaning me — “was just sitting there, reading.”
The story is funny, and I play along with the jokes about what it was in the book that so engrossed me. Still, I can’t help feeling chagrined that I could be so out of it.
When I think about it, however, I realize that nothing is obvious to everyone at once. The world is full of interesting things, each one worthy of attention. Why should I see what you see, feel what you feel? The fire that, according to my friend, was melting the soles of my shoes wasn’t so obvious a threat to me. I was reading a good book, and I was nice and warm.
I’m struck by how easily I forget this truth. When my son spills his milk at dinner, I scold, “Why don’t you look before you reach?” He is looking, of course — just not at the milk.
This is why we need each other: to remind ourselves that the world is a great deal bigger than what you or I individually may see.
Rock Springs, Wyoming
I grew up knowing I was supposed to have been a son. My sisters and I all had androgynous names, signifying Dad’s disappointment in our sex. We tried our best to be the boys our father wanted, begging for sports equipment for our birthdays and crying when we got dolls. We were better than the guys at free throws, faster in the forty-yard dash. I was almost menopausal before I could wear pink without gagging.
When my parents got a divorce, we girls believed it was because we hadn’t lived up to our father’s expectations. Soon after, I became pregnant and gave birth, at seventeen, to a son.
My father came to the hospital to visit me the day after I delivered. I’ll never forget the words with which he greeted me: “Good job, honey. You know I prefer boys.”
Santa Cruz, California
When I was fifteen, I told my Irish Catholic mother that I didn’t believe in God anymore. She pointed her finger at me and said, “You’d better go to confession right away, young lady!”
I was getting ready to put on my Sunday best when Mom and Dad knocked on my door. It was unusual for them to have a talk with me on a Sunday morning; but, given my drug-filled bacchanal the previous night, it was not entirely unexpected. I figured I must have finally lost the ability to slide by with a quick “ ’Night, Mom” or “Really beat, Dad” while vibrant waves of light taunted my bloodshot eyes. This time I had blown it, and now I had to pay the price. Worse yet, they were going to do it together. Their tone was solemn rather than angry; clearly, I had let them down.
My relief lasted only an instant before it was replaced by a violent shaking. Divorce? Wait a minute. I thought we were a “happy family.” Not perfect, not without conflict, but at least destined to stay a family. Then it all came clear. All the emotional wrestling, disappointment, and rejection; it had been there all along, asking to be seen. The cloudy haze of psychedelics had just made it easy to overlook. Maybe I had been reprimanded after all for my drug use, for my inability to see; it just came in a wholly unexpected form.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
I was sixteen, I’d just gotten my driver’s license, and I was definitely cool. Which was much more than I could say for my younger brothers and sister. It had always amazed me that there was such a tremendous chasm of maturity and brilliance between me and the three of them. And now, being a legal driver, I could hardly make them out in my rearview mirror.
Though I hated spending time with any of them, my parents often lumped us together. And since I still didn’t have my own car, it was my parents who were in the driver’s seat. They had perfected the art of giving with one hand while taking with the other: “Yes, you can take the VistaCruiser to the mall, but take Wizzer with you and get her some new sneakers.”
So Wizzer and I headed for the mall. This was the first time I’d actually driven there without my mom in the car, but I didn’t let Wizzer know this. Instead, I made it clear that she was unworthy to be with me and that if she cared to continue breathing, her job would be to sit in the passenger seat, not make a sound, and cause me no embarrassment.
When we arrived at the mall, the parking lot was swarming. My palms began to sweat. For Wizzer’s sake, however, I pretended I’d done this a million times and was bored with the routine.
As I’d seen my mother do, I targeted some people walking across the lot and slowly and patiently trailed behind them, waiting for them to find their car and leave me their space. I was proud of myself for remembering this technique amid the chaos of cars and people. As the family got nearer the mall entrance, I congratulated myself on picking those who had parked closest.
“What are you doing?” Wizzer asked as I inched along.
“I’m following these people to their car so I can get their parking space,” I said with all the scorn a teenage girl can convey to her younger sister.
There was the briefest pause, then Wizzer said, “Yeah, but you’re following people who are going into the mall.”
My father’s death from cancer in late summer weighed heavily on my mother throughout the fall. She had nursed him through his slow, seven-month decline, but rarely had she shown weakness or self-pity. That was the way of my family: tight-lipped and stoic in the face of loss.
Now that my father was gone, there was relief, and a different pain. With the holiday season approaching, I discussed with my three brothers what we all knew: that Mom would ask us to gather for Christmas. I could hardly bear the thought of it; none of us could.
When she called, she said that having Christmas at the family home might be too difficult, so she’d rented a cabin by a lake in the San Gabriel Mountains outside Los Angeles. I agreed to come with my wife and our two young children. I felt it was my duty to go, to grieve silently with my brothers and mother.
We sustained that silent grief through the whole week as we played board games, walked along the lake shore, went skiing and sledding, and drank Irish coffee beside the fire. We talked of other things. We tried to focus on Christmas. Do it for the children, my mother said. But on Christmas Eve, as we sat down to dinner, it all came apart.
We crowded around the small table — six adults and two children — but despite the cramped space there was still a hole where he should have been. I felt it right next to me, and I sensed that everyone else felt it as well. My mother served the meal, and after a pause I looked up at my oldest brother and saw that his eyes, like mine, had begun to tear.
We began to talk, all of us, saying things that perhaps should have been said before. The food grew cold as we remembered him in better days, hitting plastic golf balls in the back yard, snoring on the living-room couch after dinner, singing his ridiculous little songs in the morning as he shaved and dressed for work.
I had always loved my father, but because he was so much a fixture in my life, so obviously there, I had not felt the love. I could recall only a few times I had ever given it voice or gesture. After his death, I understood that I, too, was vulnerable, as he had been. I looked at my own children — would they come to understand me in time?
It was nearly dusk in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and the central bus depot was teeming with buses and slightly built, swarthy Sinhalese people. I was twenty-two, relaxed, eager, and confident after six months of traveling in India. I was on my way to a Buddhist meditation center located somewhere in the jungle; my bus wasn’t scheduled to leave for an hour. Beyond the nearby rooftops, the sky was beginning to take on a rosy hue.
Suddenly a Western woman came up to me, looking distraught. She said she was grateful to see me, and obviously considered me a refuge as there were no other Westerners in sight. Setting her suitcases down, she asked if I’d allow her to wait with me. I consented and she told me her situation: an unplanned separation from her husband, who would arrive on a later bus; her feeling of near panic at being alone among the Sinhalese, whose language she could not speak; and her thankfulness at having come upon me. She said she was “at my mercy” to protect and comfort her during her ordeal.
I stood there and said, “Uh-huh . . . uh-huh,” not believing a word she said. I kept glancing at a nearby hotel, thinking, OK, now she’s going to suggest we get a room in there and fuck our brains out. I was so certain of this that I was aroused in anticipation. I was so excited I could hardly stand it. I wished she would bring up the idea already.
But she never did. In the meantime, her husband arrived on a bus and she spied him right away, even in the dusk. Her joy at seeing him was nearly matched by her gratitude toward me. For thirty minutes or so, I had been her valiant knight, her stalwart companion, her guardian angel. After she introduced us, they left together.
I caught my bus to the meditation center, riding alone on the roof under the full moon. I was full of recrimination: How could I have made such assumptions about that woman? But not only did I think I was wrong; I felt dirty. I longed for the seclusion of the meditation center, where I could nurture my fantasy of purity not tainted by sexual desire.
It took me years to fully accept my sexuality and realize what should have been obvious to me that evening in Colombo: that I can be a sexual, even lustful, person at the same time that I am kind, generous, and charitable. There’s room in me for it all.
He looked perfect to me, but I guess all mothers feel that way about their children. Although Keenan’s defect was cleverly concealed, he could not hide it from the ultrasound machine and the doctors. His walnut-sized heart had a hole, which the doctors told us needed to be fixed. Being anxious first-time parents, we dutifully followed the experts’ advice, and when Keenan was not quite six weeks old, we handed him over to the doctors’ care. I remember thinking, as I held him before the surgery, how much I wished I could bundle him up and run. I wanted to protect him from what promised to be a monumental physical assault. He had just been given to us, and now we were giving him to strangers. It felt unreal.
The surgery was a success, which is why no one can explain his death four hours later. An autopsy, more meetings with medical people, and still no answers. The subsequent months gave us plenty of time to turn the questions over in our minds: Why him? Why us? Why?
One night I sat in the nursery we had lovingly assembled, looking for answers among the hand-painted sail boat border, the brightly colored blankets, and the friendly-looking stuffed animals. When my husband came to check on me, I let loose a string of angry laments: “I didn’t need this to know how much he meant to me. I didn’t need this to become a stronger person. Why did this have to happen to us?”
Bewildered, Michael tried to find words to douse the firestorm of my bitterness. “Maybe it wasn’t about what we needed,” he said. “Maybe it was about what Keenan needed. Maybe his soul got just what it needed from his short visit here.”
His words gave me pause. In all my ruminations I had regarded Keenan’s life as a valuable gift and his death as just some cruel mistake. Could I have been missing something?
J. B. Carew
When I was five, I begged my mother for weeks for permission to ride my bike to school. Finally, she gave in, with the stipulation that my big brother Theron had to ride with me.
Halfway there, Theron and I stopped at the traffic light on Main Street and straddled our bikes. I imitated Theron’s worldly bike-riding technique, his grip and glance.
The light turned green and Theron bolted across the street, calling back to me to wait until he gave orders to cross. I obeyed. When he had reached the far curb, he yelled, “OK, c’mon! Go now!” I took off.
Five seconds later I was on my back looking up at the underside of a chrome bumper, terrified.
A teenage couple sprang from the car that had hit me. The young woman grabbed my bike and threw it onto the sidewalk, and the young man picked me up and put me between them in the front seat of their car. We were off to the hospital.
Suddenly I wondered, Where’s Theron? I turned to look out the driver’s-side window and glimpsed him — my big brother; my mentor, idol, and protector — half a block away, riding off to school, glancing back only once.
Twenty-eight years later, three generations of my family gathered for Thanksgiving dinner. Theron sat directly across from me. As the feasting began to wind down and reminiscing was in full swing, I blurted out the question I’d kept inside for nearly three decades.
“Theron! Why did you leave me lying in the middle of Main Street after I got hit by that car when I was five years old?”
I waited, speechless, for his answer, my eyes burning with held-back tears.
“Leisa!” he said. “For God’s sake, I was only six!”