As a sixth-grade teacher in a struggling seaside town with a drug problem, a high rate of domestic abuse, a seasonal housing crisis, and more than its share of strip clubs, pawn shops, and beer joints, I consider it part of my job to eavesdrop on my students. Oddly, they’re often relieved when I pull them aside and confess what I’ve heard. “Did you say you’ve been staying alone for two days?” I’ll ask. Or, “Tell me again what your mother’s boyfriend did to her.”
The problem with my eavesdropping is that I hear too much and can do too little. We have one guidance counselor for every four hundred students and a social-service network that’s exploding at the seams. All I can do is listen, offer suggestions, and make referrals. There are times when I’ll shoo kids away from my desk, out of earshot, because I don’t want to hear any more.
These days, I’m so busy force-feeding my students the statewide curriculum to ensure they pass the mandatory assessment tests that I have little time for eavesdropping. After twenty-one years of teaching, I sometimes have to let things go in one ear and out the other.
Late at night, after the lights went off, I would listen through the air vent to my twin brothers’ nighttime gossip. They were eighteen and enjoyed cigarettes and the occasional romance. At twelve, I was beginning to take an interest in those things, but really I saw eavesdropping as an opportunity to learn about the male psyche. I would listen for as long as I could keep my eyes open, often waking up with my head at the foot of the bed, next to the vent.
One night, I was listening as usual to my brothers’ chatter, punctuated by deep drags from a shared cigarette, when a silence came over them that hung uncomfortably long in the air. Had they somehow discovered that I could hear them? Finally, one of my brothers asked the other what he thought of my developing figure: my ass, my breasts.
I felt the blood rush to my face. I was embarrassed and repulsed, but also proud and flattered to be deemed beautiful, attractive, and feminine, regardless of who’d made the assessment.
Six months later, that brother raped me.
The only encouragement my father ever gave his daughters was for us to become good housewives. Nevertheless, after I married, I began taking art classes at the local university and considered going for a degree. I even imagined that my father, a man with a doctorate himself, would be excited by this news.
When my father announced that he was coming for a visit, my heart raced at the prospect of showing him my drawings and paintings. Perhaps they would prove I wasn’t as stupid as he had always said.
When the proper moment came during his visit, I brought in paintings and drawings one by one: works in charcoal, conté, watercolor, and ink. My father met each piece with nothing but an occasional nod or grunt. I kept up the stream of work, persevering until the end.
When I’d finished, the silence stretched into every spotless corner of the room. Then my father made a comment about the weather, and I rediscovered my old talent for smiling and ignoring the ache in my throat. Fumbling with my stack of buckling, bending art projects, I slipped mouselike out of the room, grateful for the privacy of the hall, where I could regain my composure. I stood there for several moments, feeling a familiar shame and swallowing hard. As I adjusted my pearls in preparation for a return to the living room, I overheard my father say in a hushed voice to my husband, “Don’t encourage her.”
As a single mother, I went to great lengths to strengthen my daughter’s sense of self-confidence and self-worth. People often commented on how wonderfully open she and I were with each other. My daughter thought I was a cool mom, and, frankly, so did I.
So I was floored when she reached adolescence and became as deceptive and secretive as most teens — and I, in turn, became a nosy, controlling parent. Some of the change may have been the result of my remarriage, but that certainly couldn’t explain it all.
Once, after an especially nasty confrontation, I walked past my daughter’s room and heard her complaining about me to a friend on the phone. I stopped in my tracks and brazenly eavesdropped. I had become one of those mothers.
Then I heard my daughter say, “Imagine what she’d say if she found out about my tattoo!”
That night, I mentioned the tattoo to my husband, but neither of us wasted much time worrying about it. After all, if I had heard correctly, she’d already gotten it. Over the years, I kept a sharp eye out for the tattoo, but even when my daughter wore a bathing suit, I never spotted anything.
My daughter grew up to be a fine young woman. When she was twenty-one, she and her husband came to visit. At one point in our conversation, my husband blurted out, “What I want to know is: where is Stevie’s tattoo?”
My daughter looked at me, her eyes wide and her mouth agape, as if to say, How did you know, and for how long, and why didn’t you say something? I confessed to having eavesdropped five years earlier, and before she showed us the small, faded sun on her lower belly, I glimpsed something in my daughter’s expression besides shock. She must have realized that, though I had discovered her secret at a time when I was, by her reckoning, the meanest mother on earth, I hadn’t embarrassed her with a confrontation. I could tell that, once again, my daughter thought I was a cool mom.
As a teen, I would eavesdrop nightly on my parents’ bedroom conversations, which consisted mainly of my mother bad-mouthing me to my father and predicting my inevitable failure. There was no parental concern or worry in her voice. Her tone was sarcastic and gossipy.
At the time, I was determined to be a professional violinist. This was no idle teenage daydream. I had more than my fair share of raw talent and had worked hard to develop it. Yet, although my parents gave me private lessons and attended all my concerts and recitals, I knew from my eavesdropping that my mother thought my professional aspirations ludicrous. As far as she was concerned, I was fooling myself and everyone else — except her.
It was through my eavesdropping that I learned I would not be going to Europe with the rest of my youth orchestra, nor would my parents be paying for my applications to college, since no respectable music school would ever consider a loser like me. Occasionally, teachers called to plead my case, but my mother would politely brush them off.
I didn’t tell anyone about this until I was in therapy in my midtwenties. Since then, I’ve tried to see my mother as the insecure, jealous, emotionally needy woman that she is, but it’s difficult to let go of the hurt.
Though I did end up becoming a professional musician, I spend far more time in nightclubs and recording studios than in concert halls, and I have to wait tables to make ends meet. I wonder whether my mother thinks she’s been proven right. I wonder whether she derives satisfaction from my lack of “success.” And when I do speak to her, which is rare, I wonder what she will say to my father that night in bed.
Thirty years ago, I decided to travel to Cuba with four hundred other activists as part of the Venceremos Brigade. FBI agents followed the bus we took to Canada, where we were to board a converted cattle boat to Cuba. When we stopped at Howard Johnson’s, the agents stood in line with us to use the bathroom and order food.
While in Cuba, I engaged in such subversive activities as picking lemons, planting trees, and drinking a lot of rum. After I returned to the Midwest, where I lived with several others who had been on the trip, local FBI agents began visiting, phoning, and following us on a regular basis. One day, they followed me to the bank, the grocery store, and the laundromat.
The local police had an “intelligence” unit known as the Red Squad, whose members also became familiar to us. We knew their names, and they knew ours. They photographed us, and we photographed them. When one of my co-workers at a progressive bookstore became a father, they appeared in the store the next morning to congratulate him. They showed up at demonstrations wearing trench coats, no matter what the weather. At some demonstrations, there were more agents than participants.
My friends and I took it for granted that our phones were being tapped. Whenever one of us slipped up and made a remark such as “I’d like to kill Nixon,” he or she quickly added, “That was just a joke,” or, “That’s only a figure of speech.” If there was something we really didn’t want the FBI to hear, we discussed it in a car with the radio playing so loud that we could barely hear each other. It consoled me to know that the agents had to endure my lengthy conversations with my mother. I imagined them taking notes: “Mother warned suspect not to ride on motorcycles.”
When I later requested and received my FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act, most of the text was blacked out, and the parts left visible were full of errors. I was appalled to think that such misinformation could have been used against me in court, where its accuracy would have been presumed. After all, it would have been my word against the FBI’s.
San Francisco, California
I was serving a twenty-three-year sentence at Folsom State Prison. One Saturday morning, while exercising and listening to music on the yard, I noticed another inmate standing next to my cassette player, staring off into space. Rather than lie down on the weight bench, I stood and did curls so I could keep an eye on him.
When the song ended, the inmate broke out of his trance and went back to what he’d been doing. As an experiment, I rewound the tape to the song I’d been playing. Right on cue, the inmate stopped what he was doing, walked over, and stood by my cassette player, gazing into the distance.
My curiosity got the better of me. When the yard closed down for the day, I went up to the fifth tier, where this inmate lived, and stood one door away from his cell to listen in on his conversation with his cellmate. I wanted to know this inmate’s intentions, in case he might be a threat to me.
I listened for a while before my name was mentioned, and I heard the man’s cellie tell him, “Cosey doesn’t really mess with too many people. But he’s approachable if you’d like to talk to him about your situation.” The inmate was just about to explain why he wanted to talk to me when an officer came on the tier to release everyone for showers.
The next day, I was back out on the yard exercising, and waiting. Finally, the inmate came over and introduced himself. He told me that the song I’d been playing was his and his wife’s favorite song. When I asked if they were still together, he said, “I wish we were. You see, I killed my wife fifteen years ago.” Then he pulled out a picture of a beautiful woman and said, “But that’s still our favorite song.”
I stood there dumbfounded for a moment. Not knowing what else to say, I confessed to eavesdropping on him. He said he knew what I’d done because he’d later come down to my tier and eavesdropped on me while I was telling my cellie about him.
Then I did something that surprised even me: I asked if he would like to have the tape with that special song on it. He just smiled.
Every now and then, I would hear the song blaring from the fifth tier, and a smile would creep across my face — until I remembered the man’s dead wife.
I was eleven when my father was killed in action in 1945, just days before the war in Europe ended. That winter, his parents came from Canada to stay with my mother and me for three months.
During their visit, my grandmother caused a terrible scene with my mother, and the next day, the atmosphere in the house was tense. I was washing the dinner dishes when my grandfather joined my mother in the breakfast room, just outside the kitchen. I could see him standing behind her, leaning forward, one hand on the table, almost embracing her. He was softly consoling her and telling her my grandmother had been wrong.
Then, unbelievably, my grandfather began to unroll the story of his marriage. He said my grandmother had never loved him, nor even pretended to. She had married him solely to have children, and she’d never let him forget that. Then she had turned the children against him by making him administer punishments and afterward comforting the children herself and telling them what an ogre their father was. For years, my grandparents had slept in separate bedrooms. A redhead with snapping black eyes, my grandmother had controlled the family with her temper and manipulation, and now, unable to manipulate my mother, she had resorted to melodramatic confrontation.
My grandfather encouraged my mother to make a new life for herself and her children, and to remarry if she chose. If my grandmother could not accept that, he said, it would be her own loss, but my mother could count on him to stand behind her, whatever she decided to do.
I was stunned. I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t figure out how to get away without being seen through the open doorway. All I could do was go on washing the dishes, trying to keep the noise to a minimum.
Afterward, when my mother asked if I had heard their conversation, I confessed that I had. To my surprise, she said she was glad, because she wanted me to understand my family. I felt relieved and amazed that she trusted me so. It was my admission into the adult world.
Alece B. Egan
Belen, New Mexico
As a child, I loved to listen in on my mother’s telephone conversations, especially when she whispered into the receiver and twisted the cord round and round her arm, like curly black bracelets. She’d talk and drink coffee and smoke while I hovered near the kitchen door, imagining what the other person was saying. I longed to crack their grown-up code.
“Oh, my God,” Mom said one afternoon, “do you suppose she has another one in the oven?” I knew by her tone of voice and the way she playfully blew a smoke ring that she didn’t mean a cake or a loaf of bread. “That’s what you get for being a good Catholic,” Mom said. (We were Presbyterians.) I knew “another one in the oven” and “Catholic” went together, but how? Then Mom saw me standing there and shooed me away. “Go play,” she said. “Get out of here.” She went on with her conversation, watching me with no-kidding eyes until I shut the door behind me.
Outside, I squeezed in behind the lilac bush under the dining-room window, where I could still hear her talking. My hiding place smelled of dirt and old shingles, and spider webs caught against my face, but it was worth it.
One day, from my vantage point beneath the window, I heard Mom talking about my brother, Jody, who was cross-eyed. “We’ve scheduled the operation for his eyes,” she said.
Operation? Jody didn’t know about any operation. They couldn’t even take him to the doctor for a sore throat without his pitching a fit. I pressed closer to the window, careful that the top of my head didn’t peek over and give me away.
“They take the eyes out of the head,” Mom said, then paused. “No, I don’t know how. Spoon ’em out, I guess. Then, while they’re dangling by that cord, they snip where the eyes are crossed.”
I felt sick. I wanted to rush from my hiding place and stop her from saying any more.
Later that day, when we sat down for lunch, I stared at Jody. I couldn’t eat, thinking of those doctors spooning out his eyes. Oh, Jody, if only you knew, I thought, you would run like a deer and hide in the woods.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I kept imagining my own eyes dangling down my cheeks and getting snipped.
When the day of the operation came, my parents lied to Jody, saying they were taking him “on a drive.” I wanted to warn him, but I couldn’t. I was afraid they might grab me, too, and have a doctor cut a muscle on my tongue so I’d never speak again.
The next time my mother began talking on the phone in hushed tones, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
Las Vegas, New Mexico
When I was fifteen, I worked part time as a cashier in a large factory-outlet store on Long Island. One Saturday, when I could find nothing appropriate to wear to work, my mother offered me a hand-knit sweater that a friend had given her. Its loose weave was slightly see-through, but since my very proper mother had suggested I wear it, I figured it wasn’t too revealing.
That afternoon, two Spanish-speaking women checked out at my register. Seeing my fair skin and blond hair, they must have presumed — wrongly — that I spoke no Spanish, because one said loudly to the other, “Look at that sweater. It’s completely see-through!” Then she made a derogatory comment about the state of my soul. Being fifteen, I felt more shame than anger.
Since then I’ve had many opportunities to eavesdrop on the Spanish conversations of people who assume Hispanics come in only one color. If the same thing happened today, I would tell those two women where to go.
Astoria, New York
It was dark when we arrived at the police station. The parking-lot lamps cast a dim orange glow over everything. I wanted to come in, but my father told me to stay in the car. He said he had to handle this on his own. He probably thought I would be too upset. I was only five.
“Dad,” I said, “did Mom do something wrong?”
His face went blank. “Just wait. It could be a mistake. Let Dad work it out.”
I don’t know how long I waited: an hour, maybe two. I imagined the inside of the cavernous police station, the enormous officers in their pressed blue uniforms sitting behind heavy wooden desks. I imagined my diminutive mother, her black hair in a long ponytail, sobbing quietly on a hard wooden chair while my steely-faced father tersely answered the officers’ questions.
By the time my parents came out to the car, I was half asleep. My mother tousled my hair, her hand still wet with tears. I moved to the back and feigned sleep on the long ride home, watching my mother through half-closed eyes, waiting to hear what she’d done.
Finally, my father broke the silence with a harsh whisper: “I won’t have my son raised by a thief,” he said. “I won’t. If that’s what you want to do, we can get a divorce, and you can find a way to live on your own.”
My mother buried her face in her hands and cried. Then she blurted out, “You wouldn’t let me have the child. I would have had the child.”
“Stop!” my father said. “We won’t talk about this now.”
Afterward, I imagined that my mother had been in the supermarket and had decided to steal expensive food for us — delicious, sweet, fatty food, unlike the rice and porridge that we ate day in and day out. But the truth proved to be less glamorous and altruistic, and altogether more human.
“I was stealing clothes,” my mother told me years later, still crying in shame at the memory. “I wanted to look pretty, but I could never buy anything for myself. Always, we were saving money for food. And I wanted something expensive, something beautiful. It was stupid.”
And the other child?
“I couldn’t have her. We had no money. I didn’t want to get the abortion, but we had no choice. With you, I was lucky; we were in the old country and they wouldn’t allow it, or else maybe we wouldn’t have had you.”
My hope now is that my parents will one day forgive themselves and each other for crimes that weren’t crimes, for desiring more than they could have, for being human.
When I was nine years old, I was a guest on Groucho Marx’s game show You Bet Your Life. The high point of each show was when a contestant unwittingly uttered that night’s “secret word.” The audience knew what the word was, but the contestants did not. At the sound of the secret word, a papier-mâché duck with a Groucho mustache and glasses dropped from the ceiling on wires and gave the lucky contestant a hundred dollars. The audience loved it.
The night that I appeared on the show, I was told to wait alone in the makeup room until someone came for me. I was sitting there, fidgeting and making faces at myself in the mirror, when I heard two men walk by in the hall, talking loudly.
“Hey,” one said, “you know the secret word tonight?”
“Yeah,” the other replied, “it’s coat!”
Once I was in front of the cameras, Groucho tried his best to tease that word past my lips. He asked me what I wore to school on a cold day. “A sweater,” I said. He asked me what I wore when it was really cold, and I said, “A jacket.” The duck stayed put.
Afterward, when I told my parents what had happened, my mother praised my sense of fair play, but my father just sighed.
I frequently meet friends at an English tea room run by a middle-aged British woman with straight hair and harshly cut bangs. If you are a party of two, she instructs you to take a table for two even if the entire restaurant is empty. Then she takes your order and brings the tea in small individual pots covered by hand-knit tea cozies. The scones are served with a small amount of jam and an even smaller amount of clotted cream. The teapots hold a meager two cups of tea. But the food and the atmosphere are authentic.
One Saturday night, my husband and I went to a Chinese restaurant. As we were being seated, I caught sight of the tea-room proprietor in the booth directly behind ours. She was having dinner with an attractive, gray-haired man.
While we looked at our menus, I could clearly hear the woman’s high-pitched British accent over the voices of the other diners. She was complaining about the yuppies who were buying up all the cottages outside London and gentrifying the neighborhoods. “Money is not a measure of success,” she said. “I own my own business and work very hard, but I don’t make much money.” Before the arrival of our steamed dumplings, we learned that her former husband had been bad at business and declared bankruptcy.
The gentleman with whom she was having dinner said very little, and when he did speak, his voice was low and difficult to hear. Trying to draw him out, she fired questions at him: “How long have you been a policeman?” “What made you become a policeman?” “Did you admire a policeman when you were a child?” “Was your father or uncle a policeman?” “Do you consider yourself a success?” The louder her voice became, the more inaudible were his responses.
Our moo shu pork arrived. “First date,” I said to my husband, smearing plum sauce onto the pancake.
“Last date,” he said, biting into his plump roll of pork.
In one of my childhood homes, the second story was heated by grates in the floor, which brought warm air up from downstairs. Shortly after we’d been put to bed, my sisters and I would gather around the largest grate to listen to the noise from the family room, where our parents sat talking with the radio playing softly in the background.
At that time — the early forties — the accepted wisdom was that parents should avoid praising their children. According to the experts, praise would make us think too much of ourselves. Self-esteem was thought to be the natural outcome of growing up in a normal, two-parent family in which the mother stayed home to take care of the kids and the father went out to earn the daily bread. Our parents fit this description and followed the experts’ advice.
Listening at the grate, however, we often heard ourselves praised and were surprised to learn how highly our parents thought of us.
Thank God for those grates.
Long Beach, California
Christmas always made my father happy and my mother sad. One December, I was lingering in the bathroom, thumbing through the latest Look, when I heard my mother come into the kitchen with Aunt Sis.
“I wanted to have another baby,” my mother said in a low voice, “but Bill didn’t want to. ‘Two’s enough,’ he said.” Then she started to cry. Aunt Sis, who couldn’t get pregnant, began to cry, too. (My mother and her sisters were never more than a kleenex away from a good cry.)
From the living room, where the men were watching the football game, I heard my father roar with laughter.
After Mom and Aunt Sis had gone back into the dining room, where the other women were playing cards, I came out and stood in the darkened kitchen. The air still smelled of gravy and pumpkin pies. I poured myself a juice glass of Uncle Karl’s Scotch, opened the back door, and stood shivering on the stoop, under the stars. I sipped the liquor down, wanting to know what power it had that made adults spill their secrets, like water over a dam, never to be sealed up inside them again.
I was serving a life sentence when I pushed a guard who had shoved me. The ensuing scuffle landed me in solitary confinement. My solitary cell had brick walls and a metal door with a food slot that opened and closed. We called the slot the “bean hole.” It was my only connection to the outside world, and if I didn’t create any further disturbances, the guards sometimes left it open so I could get some air or look out.
One day, I was sitting on the floor of my cell so I could look out the bean hole. It was church-house quiet, and down the hall, at the guards’ duty station, I could hear two officers talking. One was telling the other about having just gone to his father’s funeral, and how the loss had devastated him. The other guard was compassionately consoling his partner. I could hear the sincerity in their voices, and I remembered how I’d felt at the age of six when my dad was killed.
Over the years, I had taught myself to hate as a form of self-preservation. The angrier I got, the more I hated the people I blamed for my problems: cops, DAs, judges, guards. But that day, I began to see cops and guards as human beings. When I allowed myself to recognize their humanity, I became more human myself — less fearful and more loving. Who would have thought that a bean hole could be a window to the soul?
When I was pregnant with my son, I took my three-year-old daughter with me to a secondhand clothes shop to look for maternity items. While I searched the racks, Miranda spied a pair of pointy-toed white leather boots with stiletto heels and put them on. They came up almost to her knees. As she paraded around the shop, the salesgirl commented on how cute she looked in them. “I’ll give them to you for half price,” she offered. I declined, but when I brought my purchases to the counter, the salesgirl threw in the boots for free.
That was the beginning of Miranda’s love affair with her white high-heeled boots. She wore them everywhere and with everything. She wore them so much that her father and I became concerned about her developing feet and posture — not to mention the embarrassment of having friends and neighbors see our daughter dressed like a Barbie doll.
After numerous arguments with Miranda about the boots, I decided that a little deception wouldn’t hurt: I hid them and told her that they’d been lost. She asked me about them several times after that, but I stuck to my story, and she eventually stopped asking.
Months later, we visited a friend who had a daughter Miranda’s age, and I overheard the two girls talking. “My life is so horrible,” Miranda said, sounding genuinely forlorn. “I used to have these beautiful white high-heeled boots. They were my favorite boots, but my mother lost them.” She let out a deep sigh of resignation. I slipped away quietly, filled with shame.
After we got home, to Miranda’s great delight, her boots mysteriously reappeared.
Spring Lake, Michigan
I am twenty-four years old, just out of college, and visiting home to eat dinner with my parents and my younger siblings. I assume a mask of self-confidence bordering on arrogance, desperate to break free of my role as their oldest child. I yearn for my parents to see me as an adult.
My mom is preparing dinner. She recently turned sixty. I remember when she told me that forty was her most depressing birthday, because with it came the realization that her life was half over.
My dad sips from a glass of Chablis. He was diagnosed with diabetes a few years ago. Last year, he endured a heart attack and triple-bypass surgery. His failing health is an annoyance to him, a nuisance, something to be denied. Every day, he tests his urine and injects his thigh with a hypodermic full of insulin, but he doesn’t let this stop him from drinking a bottle of wine every night.
I slump on the couch in the front room, reading the Sunday paper, my feet on the old maple coffee table. My parents talk quietly in the kitchen. Nothing in their voices indicates that trouble is brewing until my mom says loudly, “I am sick of you treating me like a sex object!”
“Oh, Louise, stop it!” my dad says, his words slurred from too much wine. “That’s not true!”
I pull the newspaper up in front of my face and pretend I haven’t heard them. My eyes no longer take in the words on the page. My grasp on adult self-assuredness is weakening.
The back door opens and shuts loudly. I peek over the newspaper. Through the window, I can see my dad dragging the trash cans to the street. My mom walks down the hall to the bathroom and closes the door behind her. I fold the newspaper, place it on the coffee table, and walk upstairs to my old room, where I lie on my bed and wait to be called for dinner.
The letters, written on heavy vellum stationery, pop up all over the place: in the glove compartment of his car, marking his page in a magazine, tossed on the kitchen table, folded in the back pocket of his jeans. She must write to him at least once a week. He says she’s “just a friend,” that she’s practically his sister, and that they’ve “never even kissed,” but the letters make me nervous. When he’s not around, I read them.
After I’m done reading, I carefully refold the paper and replace the envelope exactly as I found it. Then I immediately feel guilty and ashamed. I’ve betrayed a pact, peeked at something I wasn’t invited to see. And still I’ve uncovered no secret love affair.
Sometimes I feel as if he’s teasing me, daring me to do it by leaving the letters lying so carelessly about. Sometimes I pretend I have been invited. Sometimes I imagine he does the same to me: thumbs through my diary, left out on the bedside table, or peruses the older volumes lined up on the bookshelf, scanning the pages for his name — or someone else’s. I imagine that he, too, is looking for answers to questions he lacks the courage to ask. I imagine this betrayal is some measure of our love.
Bar Harbor, Maine