I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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One Christmas Eve, my mother and I got on a New York City bus outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was our first visit to the museum, and to the city, and my head was spinning from trying to take in thousands of years of artwork in only two hours. I was no longer captivated by New York’s speed and energy, but drained from the cold, the walking, and the endless choices. The city seemed like a speeding locomotive, chugging along, indifferent to those who had, in some way or another, fallen onto the tracks.
A bulky, disheveled woman hobbled onto the bus and dropped into a seat for the elderly and handicapped. Her plastic shopping bags took up two seats of their own. She was well bundled, but none of her coats had buttons. She paid no attention to my stares as she settled down for a nice, warm ride.
When the bus began to move again, she pulled out a slightly rusted tin compact and carefully applied some subtle, rose-colored lipstick. Her hand was steady, her application precise. With her fingertip, she blotted the corners of her mouth. She was around sixty and had a sweet, unsuspecting face. I thought maybe she was on her way to a church or a shelter for a holiday dinner. I was comforted by the thought she had somewhere to go.
The woman rode for only a short while before the bus driver stopped and asked her to get out. “No more free rides, lady,” he said. “I’m tired of giving free rides. Out you go.”
She meekly offered to pay the money; she knew she had it somewhere, in one of her pockets. But the bus driver ordered her out, and she acquiesced, close to tears.
“Take a shower, lady,” the driver muttered as she climbed slowly down the steps. She smiled and nodded, as if she’d known he would say that. “Merry Christmas,” she called to him before the doors closed with a wheeze behind her.
I buried my face in my mother’s shoulder and cried all the way to our stop. I cried because it was Christmas Eve and everyone deserved a break during the holidays. I cried because I worried the woman would miss dinner if she didn’t get to the shelter on time. But mostly I cried out of shame, because neither I nor anyone else on that bus had offered to pay for her ride.
At sixteen, I fell in love with a twelve-year-old boy named Brad. It was the only same-sex relationship I’ve ever had. Two years later, I developed a strong and abiding interest in women, which has remained with me to this day. But in the summer of 1957, my first love was a boy.
The relationship wasn’t especially physical. Brad and I hugged in the privacy of the woods behind our houses, and at times we walked with our arms around one another. My brothers teased me about how close I was to Brad, but I paid no attention to them. I was remarkably unsophisticated about the consequences of such behavior back then.
One night in August, my father called me into his room, where he sat at his desk, illuminated by a small fluorescent lamp. I had a horrible premonition of what was to come.
“Dave,” my father said nervously, “do you know what a homosexual is?”
I told him I did and that I wasn’t one. Apparently, this wasn’t enough for him. He told me not to see Brad anymore. I bolted from the room and fled into the summer night.
Two weeks later, Brad’s family moved to another state, and at summer’s end, I returned to boarding school. I never saw Brad again. Eventually, the pain subsided, but the rift that opened between my father and me that night never closed.
Some say you’re not really crazy until you start talking to yourself. Maybe I have finally gone over the edge, then, because the conversations I’ve been having with the voice inside my head are getting pretty regular. But then, it’s the only company I have.
I live in a cold, dark concrete box with barely enough room to stand up in. The iron door has no window. Along one wall rests a threadbare, inch-thick mattress, stinking of the last occupant’s urine and sweat. For my waste, there is a hole in the middle of the concrete floor, which I have learned to locate in the darkness.
I lie here naked and cold, praying that I will soon awaken from this nightmare. I’ve been placed in solitary confinement, a prison inside a prison, for defending myself against an overzealous guard. Occasionally, I hear the faint screams of another prisoner, and I imagine that he lives in a hole similar to my own. A few times, I have allowed my own screams to escape. Afterward, I’ve wondered if he heard me.
Twice a day, footsteps and the jingle of keys approach my concrete cage. A key scrapes against the lock, and a slot opens in the metal door. Hands take away the trash from my last meal and shove another cardboard tray back at me. I speak, hoping to hear a human voice, but my jailer is silent. I take the tray, and the slot closes. In the darkness, I listen to the departing footsteps.
I sit on the mattress and eat hungrily with my fingers. My sense of taste has long since departed; I eat simply because I must. The voice inside my head waits for me to finish, hoping we will discuss politics today. I try to ignore him, but he persists, reminding me that my sanity depends on my acknowledging him.
Finally, I give in, and the conversation begins again. I am walking the thin line that separates the sane from the insane. I pray that the end of that line does not mean the end of my sanity.
Patrick F. Demery
Pelican Bay State Prison
Crescent City, California
I came to Alaska healthy and happy. Within a week, I met Rob, a strong fisherman who I thought could protect me and guide me into the heart of the wilderness.
I ventured into the wilderness, all right, but it was the one within, and Rob offered no protection. Instead, month after month, his cruelty grew.
One year, one depression, and one abortion later, I changed jobs and left town, but I still depended on Rob. His weekly visits eased my loneliness and isolation in that new, unfriendly place. So I found a way to accept it when he told me he had started dating a stripper in Anchorage but still wanted to see me. And when he called one December night and begged me to fly to Anchorage, I did.
The next day, while arguing on the phone with his girlfriend, Rob had a heart attack and died. He was thirty-four. The girlfriend and I jockeyed for position at the funeral. Afterward, I sat alone in my double-wide trailer beneath the black Alaskan night. I had no place left to go.
My brother Jack grew up around earthmovers and dump trucks, and road construction was the only kind of work he ever wanted to do. In 1958, just out of engineering school, Jack set out to borrow money and start his own road-building company. Bank after bank turned him down, and the rejections gradually began to take their toll. After almost four months, he told me that on the following day he was meeting with a banker who was his last chance. “This is it,” he said. “I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Late the next day, I got a call telling me that Jack had been in an auto accident. I rushed to the hospital and found him laid up with several broken bones and numerous lesser injuries. But he was more concerned that his plea for a loan had been denied.
I went home worried about Jack’s spirits. When I returned two days later, however, he was engaged in an enthusiastic conversation with his roommate, a gray-haired man named Charlie who had only about four or five tobacco-stained teeth remaining in his mouth. Jack talked about his ambitions, and Charlie talked about his cows, horses, and pigs. I would have expected Jack to request another room, but he seemed to enjoy his garrulous roommate’s company.
The day Charlie went home, his wife came to pick him up. As she packed his few belongings into a brown paper bag, Charlie came over to Jack’s bed, shook his hand, and said, “Son, when you get out of here, you come to see me, and we’ll talk about getting together that money you need to get started.”
Three months later, with the help of Charlie’s $150,000, Jack started his own company, which he still owns today.
Rock Hill, South Carolina
I’m on the Bay Bridge, driving back to Berkeley from San Francisco. It’s 2:15 P.M., and there is no traffic. The air is sweet. It’s springtime.
Coming out of the tunnel, I see four or five cars backed up in my lane: I figure somebody’s having car trouble. A red Toyota truck has pulled over close to the railing, and the other cars are slowly going around it. A man dressed in a flannel shirt, faded jeans, and work boots is walking in front of the truck, toward the railing. Good, I think, he’s gotten out of his truck. It’s dangerous to stay in a stalled car. Maybe he’s going to a call box to summon help. When he climbs to the top of the railing, I think perhaps his dog has jumped out of the truck bed, or a piece of equipment has flown out, or he’s a contractor working on the bridge. I watch as the man straightens up to a full standing position, squats and looks down, then stands once more. Raising his arms above his head like a diver at a swimming pool, he leans forward and pushes off. He is gone.
I look around at the faces in the other cars to see if anyone else has witnessed what just happened. I feel as if I have seen an apparition. I want to stop my car and look over the side to make sure he was real. Instead, I drive on and pull into the parking lot of the toll-plaza offices. At the counter, I tell someone that I just saw a man jump off the bridge. Then the weight of what has happened settles on me, and I feel the tears coming, washing away the disbelief.
That night, I watch the news and search all the local papers, but there is no mention of anyone jumping from the bridge. The next day, needing to be sure of what I saw, I call the highway patrol, but get the predictable bureaucratic runaround. With each call I have to take another deep breath. Finally, an officer checks his computer and tells me that, yes, he did jump and, no, he didn’t make it. I grab my coat and the dozen red roses that I’ve bought and run out the door. I have to go back there, to get as close as I can to where the man died.
I drive down the winding roads of Yerba Buena Island and park my car by the bay. Warily, I walk along a stretch of beach occupied by the Coast Guard. I look back, waiting for someone to tell me to stop, but no one does. At the part of the island that lies directly under the bridge, I climb down the rocks to the water’s edge. Once there, I squat down and close my eyes for a while; then I cry and talk to him. When I’m through, I throw the roses into the bay and watch them float off with the current.
I start making calls again in the morning. I have to know who he was. I eventually reach someone at the coroner’s office who can help me. “All I can give you is his name,” he says.
I still have that name on my message pad. It’s all I’ll ever know about him.
Only last year, my mother revealed to me that my father’s mother had taken her own life. And my mother used to threaten suicide herself. It was not uncommon to hear her say, “Oh, I should just kill myself,” or, “I wish I were dead.” More recently, her tack has become: “One day I might just wrap my car around a tree.” In my opinion, that is an ineffective way to kill oneself, not nearly as good as a bullet to the temple, or wrists slit longways in a warm bath, or an overdose of belladonna, or gassing oneself in the oven.
These are some of the methods that I once imagined would bring about my own end — until that day I cried by the water and made a promise to myself and to the man who jumped that I would never entertain those thoughts again.
I can’t remember exactly how we met. I just remember him coming into my office now and then to talk about placing his paintings in our building. We also spoke many times about the struggle to make a living while simultaneously working on your art.
At his house one day, we sat and talked over mugs of hot green tea about what mattered most to us. His painting mattered greatly to him, he said, but nothing was more important than his daughter. Her drawings were taped to his wall, and he spoke of her and his ex-wife as if they had both come and gone just that morning through the swinging door to his kitchen. But I knew they hadn’t.
I saw him again at the grocery store just before I completed my graduate thesis. It was December, and we were both in a hurry. We waved but didn’t speak. Then, several minutes later, he found me in one of the aisles, and we talked for half an hour about an inexpensive method of framing he had developed. He looked vulnerable and disheveled, as usual, and his hand quivered slightly as he brushed a strand of hair from his face. We agreed to trade art with each other after the holidays. Something inside urged me to hug him before we parted, but I didn’t.
In April, I heard people whispering of his suicide. The news hit me like a punch in the chest. Within three short days, while I’d been coming and going no more than a few blocks from his house, he’d died, been cremated, and had a funeral. Now, in my office building, I stand in front of his art and wish I had hugged him one more time.
Jeff and I were returning home from visiting our fifteen-year-old son in jail when we stopped at a gas station. My car had been in a minor wreck, breaking out a back-seat window. While I was checking for other damage, Jeff went to fill the tank, unaware that the last person to use the pump hadn’t clicked it off all the way; when he pulled the nozzle out, it began spraying gasoline all over my jeans. “Sorry,” he said. “I know you don’t like the smell of gas.”
I ran into the station to wash it off, but water didn’t get rid of the smell. Returning to the car, I took off my jeans, threw them in the back seat, and continued to drive home in a shirt, a seat belt, and not much else. A few miles down the road, I finished a cigarette and pitched the butt out the window. When I didn’t see it hit the ground, I wondered for a moment if it might have gotten sucked back into the car through the broken window. So I asked Jeff, “If, say, a cigarette got sucked in the window onto my gas-soaked jeans, would it ignite immediately, or would it smolder for a while and then blow up?”
“Jesus Christ!” Jeff yelled. “Pull over!”
I did, and Jeff jumped out and ran into the ditch, leaving me half naked and seat-belted into a potential fire ball.
I guess that’s when I realized our relationship was on its way out.
My father was a career bus driver — “a professional,” he liked to say. He started out driving a trolley, riding the rails of the city to the clang of bells and the screech of metal against metal. Then he drove the so-called trackless trolleys — electric buses with long booms that picked up power from overhead wires. But when I think of my father on the job, I think of him in the late forties. By that time, the overhead wires had been torn down, the tracks had been pulled up, and the buses were all diesel powered.
When I was about ten years old, I often had lunch with my dad. I had a workman’s lunch pail just like his. Since I was a junior, even the names on the side were the same. At lunch time, I’d carry our matching pails to the bus stop. When his bus pulled up to the curb, I’d climb in with the other passengers and drop my coins in the slot. My dad would smile and say, “Hi, Butch,” as I passed. I’d just wave and take the nearest open seat, lunch pails at my feet. I’d sit there in awe of the skill with which my father maneuvered this big machine through the city streets. Almost every passenger said hello to him, and most called him by name.
Soon we’d reach the turnaround, the end of the route, and my father would have twenty minutes of freedom before he was back on the clock. When he closed the door behind the last departing passenger, I’d bolt to the front of the bus and give him a big hug. Then we’d walk to the back, open our lunch pails, and eat together. Every now and then, my father would pull out his big railroad watch to check the time. We’d talk about the Red Sox or fishing. Sometimes we’d just sit quietly, my skinny little thigh resting against his muscular leg.
I was the eldest of seven. At home, my siblings and I all vied for my father’s attention the second he walked in the door. At these lunches, however, he was all mine, and I considered myself the luckiest boy on earth.
The last day I worked on the psychiatric unit, I spent hours telling Almighty Lord to get off the phone and threatening to put him in the seclusion room if he didn’t comply. Almighty Lord — who had gone to court to have his name legally changed — had been admitted to the hospital after threatening to kill his landlord, which, he believed, it would have been his right to do as “sheriff of heaven.” He insisted that we address him by his full name, though in a benevolent mood he might respond to Al.
The psychiatric center had cut back on “nonessential” staff like security guards and occupational and recreational therapists. As a result, four people — I, another nurse (who was eight months pregnant), a licensed psychiatric technician from a temp agency, and a psychiatric assistant — were charged with caring for twenty-two deeply disturbed human beings, all of whom had been judged a danger to themselves or others, in a locked building that no one could enter unless one of us was available to open the door from the inside. (We’d agreed that, if serious violence erupted, we would lock ourselves in the medication room and let the police break in.) Our job was to keep the patients safe, administer their medications, monitor them for side effects, and “conduct activities,” which meant making sure there were no fights over control of the TV.
One large and paranoid patient was convinced that homosexuals were taking over his mind. Each time he appeared at the nursing station to mention his fear, which grew more profound by the hour, a manic drag queen would flutter by with impeccable timing, chattering loudly about his plans to board a bus to Baltimore. As the day wore on, two women became engaged in a war of mutual accusations — each convinced the other had stolen her makeup. When the drag queen came into the day room wearing a profuse amount of newly applied eye shadow, the women converged on him.
Meanwhile, Al had decided to find out his bank balance. Due to the side effects of his medication, his speech was somewhat slurred, but everyone on the unit could hear him yelling into the phone, “I said this is Almighty Lord, and I want to know my bank balance!” Patients were limited to one phone call per hour, so as Al continued to monopolize the phone, other patients grew irritated, especially the drag queen, who wanted to call Greyhound. Al, however, did not consider his unsatisfactory dealings with the bank, which had hung up on him, a complete phone call, and he grew increasingly agitated.
Luckily, Al had received enough medicine to keep him from hitting anyone that day. Though I had often railed against the use of medication for social control, I spent the afternoon handing out drugs as though my life depended on it — and perhaps it did.
As I walked out the door for what would be the last time, I passed the empty desk where the security guard had once sat, and I thought, This is not why I became a nurse.
San Francisco, California
Jeff, my partner of sixteen years, died of AIDS last November. The day he died, after I’d dealt with the funeral home and made a hundred phone calls and cried until my eyes were sore, I poured myself a drink and went into the bathroom to throw away Jeff’s medications.
It was an astonishing stash — pills of every shape, size, and color, in bottles and boxes and little foil wrappers. Some he’d been taking just a few days before; others were several years out of date, squirreled away for some hypothetical future need. Looking at them brought back years of failed hopes. “Try this,” the doctor would say. “It’s new. Maybe it’ll work better than the others.” And sometimes it did, for a while, but eventually it would stop working, so Jeff would stop taking it and put away the leftover pills. Now he was dead, and the pills were all that was left.
At first, I dumped them straight into the toilet, but there were so many that I began to worry about clogging the pipes. So I poured the rest into a dishpan of warm water and left them to dissolve into a cloudy, scummy brew before flushing them. Then I went to the refrigerator and started on the IV medications, slicing open the chilled plastic bags of gancyclovir and milky white TPN and letting their contents gurgle into the sink, where they quickly drained away. I was reminded how slowly they used to drip into his veins.
It was very late when I finished. When I finally got into bed, all I could think was This is just the first night. He’ll be gone forever. What will I do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next?
Dwight L. Young
I was traveling from Germany to Greece with an international group of hippies, vagabonds, and wanderers. We walked, hitched rides, and even bought a cheap van and drove it for a while before rolling it over an embankment in Yugoslavia.
Along the way, members of our loose band dropped out here and there until I found myself on a bus with the last of my fellow travelers. He and I hadn’t spoken much previously, but I was enjoying his company. Now, with my stop approaching, I realized that we were about to part. Just as he asked for my name and phone number, the bus driver told me impatiently to get off the bus. Under pressure, I blanked on my phone number, so I gave him a piece of paper with only my name scribbled on it.
I disembarked into a soft rain and walked over to a stone wall to get my bearings. I felt lost. All I could think was that my companion had seemed so kind and how we could have continued on together and gotten better acquainted, but now I was alone. I opened my pack to find some plastic cover from the rain. I was digging around in it and crying when I looked up and saw him walking toward me.
Asheville, North Carolina
My mother died on November 7, 1996, after a two-year battle with cancer. It had started in her lung, brought on by a lifetime of cigarette smoking, and soon spread to her spine, pelvic bone, sacrum, and pancreas. By August that same year, she was walking with the aid of a cane, and her pain had become intense.
One late-summer evening, I went over to my parents’ house to visit. After dinner, when her pain was usually at its worst, my mother summoned me into the kitchen. There on the table was the JC Penney catalog. She opened it to a particular page, pointed to a cappuccino machine, and asked, “Is that the one you want for Christmas?”
I was stunned and touched that she could think far enough beyond her own excruciating pain to be concerned with what I might want for Christmas. Despite my emotion, I managed to smile and say yes. It wasn’t until I got into my car to drive home that the tears came.
Four months later, my father and I sat together on Christmas morning, and I wept again as I opened my mother’s last gift.
South Lake Tahoe, California
As a young full-time Zen student, I often meditated on death, but I had never seen a dead person until Gregory. All the Zen students were taking turns sitting vigil for three days and three nights while his spirit took leave of his deceased body.
Entering the candle-lit room, I placed my meditation cushion in the farthest possible corner. I could not keep from glancing at his body. I wanted to touch his eyelids, to feel the dead weight of his limbs. Being in the presence of death that day began to strip away the veil I had worn thus far in life. The effect didn’t last long, though, and I soon began to sleepwalk through my days once more, as if I would live forever.
Now here I am feeling nauseated at the news that my dear friend and ex-lover Will is likely to die within three years of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. My hand on the phone is shaking, my stomach is lurching, and I am flooded with memories: Will stopping during a hike to watch a circling hawk. Will refusing chopsticks and eating sushi with his fingers. Will softly touching the moss growing on a stone.
Will says he may live as if dead for months prior to the end. ALS is unpredictable, leaving one person with a voice but no motor function, another able to walk but unable to speak. Will also lists all the gifts this diagnosis has brought him: old friends returning; old angers laid to rest; jealousies and betrayals resolved; a life more vivid and precious for its brevity. Sometimes, he says, he wakes at 3 A.M. in a cold sweat, terrified of what is to come. Then, in the morning, he is so overcome by the beauty of the sunrise that he finds himself weeping.
John was the regular evening bus driver on my commute from work, and one night, on a whim, I gave him some chocolate I’d received as a Christmas gift from my employer. After that, he’d sometimes invite me to take the first seat so we could talk as he drove. Occasionally I’d be bold enough to sit there uninvited. We’d have to speak loudly to be heard above the rumble and clatter of the engine, and I’m sure the other passengers heard every word.
One evening, as I rose to get off at my stop, John cautiously asked, “Don’t you want to ride around?” — meaning to the end of the line and back. I said yes, and after that I began to “ride around” frequently. Often I’d catch his bus with no other destination in mind than the end-of-the-line layover when we could finally enjoy a private and uninterrupted conversation.
I planned my travel times around John’s schedule. On holidays, when he had to work and I had nothing to do, I’d ride back and forth with him for hours. Sometimes, if he had a shift break and I was free, we’d have lunch together. Once, we met for lunch on his day off. It was the first time I’d seen him out of uniform; by then, we’d known each other for seven years.
I eventually moved out west, but wrote to John when I planned a visit home. He sent me his schedule, and in between visits with family and friends I managed to sneak away and ride around with him almost every day. The new handicapped-accessible buses had no seats directly behind the driver. I tried standing in the aisle to talk to him, but that inconvenienced the other passengers, so I often sat alone near the back. As someone who usually guards her time, I can’t explain why I’d ride nearly an hour each way just to spend five minutes with John at the end of the line.
Over the course of several weeks, I’d become more and more depressed and even considered suicide. In desperation, I picked up the Manhattan phone book and called the number of a crisis line — which, to my bleak amusement, gave me a busy signal. So I phoned a therapist for an appointment, instead.
At the therapist’s office, I settled into a chair and began talking. I told Mary about my unsuccessful career as a singer-songwriter, about days spent alone in strange cities, plucking guitar chords in cheap hotel rooms. I told her about the lovely woman who wanted to marry me, but whom I wasn’t sure I loved. I told her about the recent murder of a musical hero of mine, and how this had taken away my interest in songwriting. In short, I told her that I’d dug myself into a hole and now felt alone, miserable, and stuck.
Mary listened to my lackluster story with real concern, which made me feel better right away. She laughed when I made a joke, and I felt lucky — and relieved — to have found such an empathetic soul. “Tell me about your father,” she said, with a musical accent (Welsh, I later found out).
My father. I groped for a response as more than a minute of uneasy silence ticked by. I felt foolish. Finally, I told her that I didn’t think my parents had much to do with anything. Music was the issue. And my girlfriend.
As I returned for more sessions, though, I spent increasingly little time on those two subjects, and more on my parents, my brother, and the emotional climate of my childhood home. It wasn’t until ten years later, when I was a father myself and married to someone I did love, that I finally left treatment.
Mary’s office was, for me, the end of the line I had stubbornly traveled for twenty-six years. There, I acknowledge defeat in the battle against unseen forces and gave in to a process of self-disclosure that I had doubted at first. This final, desperate act of surrender was the wisest decision I’ve ever made.
New Rochelle, New York
My older brother Tuff was a larger-than-life character, an alcoholic ex-cop who could be sweet when he wanted to, but who also broke things. He’d drop by to say hello and leave fifteen thousand dollars’ worth of damage.
I was the hippie little brother and, ironically, the only person besides our mother who could sometimes keep Tuff under control. Even though he’d tell me I was “all smoked up,” he clearly loved me, and I was able to cajole him.
Eventually, however, Tuff caved in to drugs and alcohol and turned on everyone close to him but Mom. He even threatened my wife and children. On one occasion, he held his girlfriend at gunpoint and gave her ten seconds to answer a question. When she declined, he dropped her where she stood. As she lay bleeding on the floor, she begged him to call an ambulance. “Why should I?” he asked. “Because you were always such a kind man,” she replied. He called the ambulance, then held off a SWAT team.
He did time for this, but it would never be enough time to heal all the wounds. He claimed to remember very little of what he’d done, though he seemed never to forget the slightest wrong done to him. We remained estranged for more than a decade.
Several years ago, Tuff’s health took a turn for the worse, and his anger gave way to docility and finally an inner peace he had never had before. He ceased blaming the world for his problems and took to puttering around our mother’s yard with his sheltie named Lucy, clipping hedges and stopping for long stretches to admire his handiwork. This made Mom very happy.
Toward the end of his illness, while in line for a liver transplant, Tuff fell outside his apartment walking his dog. He came inside and fell again, breaking a solid cherry coffee table in half.
I brought him to the hospital that night and stayed with him until the next day. He crossed back and forth between lucidity and confusion. At one point, he sat up from sleep and started gulping water from an imaginary glass, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down.
Around 3 P.M., I had to get going to attend a rare family outing, but Tuff didn’t want me to go; he said he didn’t trust one of the nurses. Finally, at the point where I had to leave, my brother asked me to get him a drink of water. I hesitated, thinking of all the hours I’d been with him, the drinks I had brought him, the bedpans I’d helped empty. Then I thought of my family, whom I hadn’t seen enough of lately. And I thought of the violent, self-centered Tuff of ten years ago. “I gotta go, Tuff,” I said. “Ask the nurse. She’ll get it for you.”
“No, she won’t,” he said, even though she was standing right there.
“Sure she will,” I said, smiling, and I backed out of the room.
Tuff went to sleep that night and never regained consciousness. I’ll always wonder whether he got that drink of water. At his funeral, when the priest read, “When I was hungry, you gave me to eat. And when I was thirsty, you gave me to drink,” I thought about his last request. It was such a little thing. It only meant the world.
Silver Spring, Maryland
For our honeymoon, my husband and I took a four-week rail trip through Europe. Prior to that, we spent two weeks in Israel, visiting my sister-in-law and her family. While in Jerusalem, we toured the Yad Vashem Museum, which houses the archives of those lost in the Holocaust. There, we discovered that more than thirty people bearing my husband’s unusual last name had perished at Auschwitz, all of them from the town of Miskolz, Hungary.
Three weeks later, while visiting friends in Switzerland, we were looking over our Eurail map and saw that one of the train lines ended at the town of Miskolz. Taking a detour from our route, we traveled to Hungary and rented a run-down room in a family’s apartment in Budapest. From there, we boarded a train for Miskolz.
We found the small city sterile and bland. The statues of Communist leaders had only recently been removed from their pedestals. There were no longer any Jews there. Feeling empty, we returned to Budapest.
In our room, we looked up my husband’s last name in the phone book and found two listings. While dining that evening in a kosher restaurant, we met a Jewish woman who spoke English, and she agreed to phone the two people listed. When she reached them, however, neither was interested in speaking with a Jewish relative. The woman who’d placed the calls for us explained that, due to the combined influences of Nazism and communism, most Jews in Hungary now hid their Judaism. My husband’s relatives had reached the end of the line years before our arrival.
That night, in the well-used room of that courtyard apartment in Budapest, our first son was conceived: the beginning of a new line.
Elizabeth Hancock Ungerleider
The last stop for the New York City subway’s A train is a place called Far Rockaway. If you take the train there from Manhattan, you will eventually rise up out of the dark underground and find yourself traveling in the bright sunlight over Jamaica Bay, clanking and rolling along a ribbon of metal just above the water — so close that, in the summer, you can look down and see the schools of killies flashing about.
My family and I used to go out that way each summer to visit my cousins and swim in the ocean. I would have made the trip every day just for the pleasure of rattling atop the salt water and watching the sea gulls glide along outside the windows. But we went only once a year, and only as far as Rockaway Beach — never all the way to Far Rockaway, which remained mysterious and, I thought, probably wonderful.
The other great mystery of my childhood was my sister Linda, who was nineteen, ten years older than I. Every morning, carefully dressed and made up like a movie star, she straightened her shoulders and walked across town to Third Avenue, where she worked on the fourth floor of the FBI building. The FBI had hired her straight out of high school because she looked good and could type fast and keep secrets. That’s what she told me, anyway.
That year, Linda fell in love with Joe, a former Golden Gloves boxer whose best friend was a murderer. My parents didn’t know about Joe’s fighting or his friends, but they hated him anyway, because he drank, had a tattoo, and earned his living as an iron-worker. He would sometimes show up at our apartment door half lit, but other times he would be cold sober and charming. Joe’s charm didn’t work on my father and mother, though. They made Linda’s life miserable, alternately nagging and turning a cold shoulder to her. But she would not give Joe up.
Then, in the spring, Linda stopped talking about Joe, and he stopped calling. He was gone: where, we didn’t know. “Probably to jail,” my mother said when Linda wasn’t around.
Early in May, we learned that Linda was leaving, too. She said she was being transferred to the FBI’s Los Angeles office. Everything was top secret; she would call us when she got there and tell us what she could. And so Linda packed up all her clothes, her enormous stash of makeup and perfume, and her hair dryer, and she left, looking glamorous and grown-up. I wished I could have gone with her.
For the next few months, Linda called regularly, usually in the afternoon. We could never call her, though; her assignment was so secret, she said, that she had to stay undercover, even to her family. My parents were thrilled by all this intrigue, and even more thrilled that the move had permanently split up Linda and Joe. Perhaps she would meet a nice guy out in California and forget all about that loser, if she hadn’t already. That summer was a peaceful and happy one, except that I missed Linda terribly and wished I could call her every day. And for some reason, we never made it out to Rockaway that year.
In October, Linda called early one morning and asked my mother if she could come home: she had something important to tell us. In fact, she said, she was already in New York.
In Linda’s voice, my mother heard the unmistakable tone that indicated things were not right. “We’ll come and get you,” she said. Linda gave my mother a street address in Far Rockaway and said she would be outside the building, waiting for us.
So my mother and I boarded the A train at Columbus Circle and settled in for the long ride. My mother looked worried, but I was full of anticipation at the thought of seeing my sister and my beloved killies and sea gulls again — and I was finally going to Far Rockaway, which seemed even more mysterious and enchanting now that Linda was there, probably on a secret assignment.
After an hour’s ride, the train chugged up and out, and we were rolling along atop the water. I looked eagerly out the window, but could see no gulls. Finally, I spotted just one, perched high up on an electric wire, looking cold and bothered in the wind that blew across the bay. It was late fall, and the water was murky, so there were no fish to be seen, either. I was briefly disappointed. This was not the trip I had daydreamed about on those summer days when the sun shone and the sea and sky were full of life.
But my spirits rose again as we approached the last stop. We got out at Far Rockaway and walked into the village. After asking directions three times, we located the street Linda had named. It was just an ordinary street in a neighborhood like so many others in Queens: small shops, old frame houses, brick apartment buildings. It was not as prosperous or as lively as the Manhattan neighborhood where we lived. But it had to harbor some sort of intrigue, I thought, because Linda was there on assignment.
When I finally saw Linda, I didn’t recognize her at first. Then she waved to us and called out, “Hi!” in a too-loud voice. Her belly blossomed out in front of her as if she had stuffed a bulky couch pillow under her corduroy top. She rushed into my mother’s open arms.
As they both started crying, I noticed that, besides being pregnant, Linda was not the same sister who had left home five months before. Her clothes were worn and dirty — nothing like the rayon blouses and wool suits she had maintained so carefully. This outfit was thin and cheap and looked as if she had been living in it for days. Her hair was pulled back in an uneven ponytail, and for the first time I saw her face in full sunlight with no makeup. It was just as well that she had none, for the tears from her swollen eyes would certainly have made a mess of it.
At the diner around the corner, between fits of crying, Linda managed to tell us her story: She had never gone to California. She’d been here in Far Rockaway the entire time, living with Joe in a two-room flat above a shoe store. They’d gotten married back in April, after she’d found out she was pregnant. Everything had been fine until September, when Joe had started drinking again. (“As if he’d ever quit,” my mother interjected.) He’d become abusive, hit Linda, and threatened the unborn baby, saying it wasn’t his. And then last week he’d packed up and left: just like that. He was gone.
I listened in amazement, unbelieving. So this was why we could never call Linda on the phone. But what about her job at the FBI?
She couldn’t keep it, she said, living as far away as she did. And besides, one of us might have seen her on Third Avenue. Now she planned to give up the baby, move back home, and make a new start, as if none of this had ever happened.
“He’ll come back,” my mother said with a sigh, and she reached over and patted my sister’s hand. “He’ll come back, and you’ll find a way.”
Joe did indeed come back. The baby was born, and then a second, and a third. I got to travel to Far Rockaway on a regular basis, to baby-sit and to help my sister. My parents visited a lot, too, and if they never exactly grew to love Joe, they at least tolerated him for Linda’s sake. In the summers, the killies and sea gulls returned to Jamaica Bay, as they naturally would, but Linda never looked the same again. Her makeup and her high heels and her work clothes were gone for good, and in their place came wrinkles and stained jeans and too many cigarettes. And Far Rockaway took on a different meaning for me — no longer mysterious, or wonderful, or beautiful, from then on, it was just the end of the line.
Garden City, New York