Manila, California, lies along the state’s last fifty miles of unspoiled beach. The shore there is studded with jade fragments from China and redwood burls from upriver logging camps. The continually shifting sand dunes often bury coastal trees, leaving their topmost branches at eye level.
On a perfect day in 1972, I crossed those dunes to the beach by myself and tripped on LSD. After seven hours, the sun turned a magnificent orange over the ocean, and I started to head home, still experiencing some retinal display. But the path through the dunes had disappeared, blown away by the wind. I got turned around and wandered past the same clumps of weeds again and again. Soon the sky was black, and I was exhausted, stumbling into branches, scratching my face, scolding myself, and crying.
Then I heard laughter. Seeing a distant glow, I trudged over a dune. A dozen men were drinking beer around a sheltered campfire, their Jeeps and dune buggies parked haphazardly in the sand. They turned to look at me: a lone, shivering, wild-haired girl emerging from the darkness with a blood- and tear-stained face.
For a moment we regarded each other like members of two different prehistoric tribes. Then I broke the silence.
“I’m lost,” I said. “Can you help me get out of here?”
To my surprise, they burst out laughing. Then one man quietly came forward. He had a wide, jagged scar running from his temple to his lip. He smiled warily, as if he expected me to be repulsed by the sight of him, and offered me a ride. To my dazzled eyes, the scar was insignificant. He was my rescuer. He was beautiful.
He took the long way over the dunes, happily showing off in his Jeep. When we finally stopped outside my place, he turned the engine off, and we sat in silence. Hesitantly, he asked if I would go out with him sometime.
As gently as I could, I said, “I don’t think it would work out.”
He must have realized this, too, because he threw his head back and laughed. Then he gave me the broadest smile.
Thousand Oaks, California
A man with broken front teeth and a sad face stands in front of the drugstore as if waiting there, a little boy beside him. The store is closed. I’ve come all the way out here for nothing. Big drops of rain fall on my new dress as I run back to my car.
“Ma’am?” the man calls. “Can you give us a lift to Madeira? We been waitin’ for the bus for a long time. I don’t know when it’s gonna come.”
Why is he asking me? I have neither the time nor the inclination to help him.
“I’ll pay you, ma’am.”
“No, I can’t. Sorry.”
“That’s OK, ma’am.”
Feeling lousy, I rush to my daughter’s house, and the two of us hurry to the synagogue. It’s Yom Kippur. All through the service, I mouth the words about kindness to strangers and think of the man with the broken teeth and the little boy.
The worst part of it is, I know that if he were to ask me again, I would still say no.
It was a hot August in New York City, 1977. I was renovating a loft in Soho and had to move out of my old apartment by the end of the month. My days were filled with packing crates and construction headaches. I was feeling overwhelmed. Then, in the course of one week, my mother’s nursing home in Pittsburgh called to say that her health was failing; my sister, who also lived in Pittsburgh, suffered a cardiac arrest; and my gynecologist discovered a huge fibroid tumor on my uterus.
Because the tumor had developed so quickly, my doctor thought it might be malignant and wanted to remove it as soon as possible, even though the operation might damage my uterus. The thought of a future without children was unbearable to me.
Meanwhile, my thirty-six-year-old sister was unconscious and on life support. Her husband said the prognosis was not good. Her heart had been stopped for as long as ten minutes before they managed to resuscitate her.
I could hardly comprehend these crises, much less determine which to attend to first. I had lost my father just four years before. Now I might lose the rest of my family, too.
I called my friend Suzi, hoping that she could help me make some decisions. Her boyfriend, Mick, answered. Suzi was away for the weekend, but Mick knew about the turmoil in my life. He was also a psychiatrist.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
“Not very well,” I replied.
“How about a cup of coffee and a walk?” he offered.
Mick and I walked all over Greenwich Village that afternoon.
“How do you feel?” he asked after I had been quiet for a block.
“I feel like God hates me,” I said. “And I hate him. He’s taking everything!”
We were standing on lower Fifth Avenue in front of an Episcopal church. A Vespers service was in progress.
“Let’s go in,” Mick said. “Confront him!”
We caught the last few prayers. The familiar liturgy made me weep instantly. As everyone was leaving, Mick approached the young priest and asked him to talk to me.
This has to be the low point of my life, I thought. A psychiatrist is turning me over to a priest. I looked at the priest’s sweet, boyish face and wondered what on earth he could possibly say that would help me.
He listened attentively to my story. “Maybe my sister will die,” I sobbed. “Maybe my mother will die. Maybe my tumor is cancerous and I’ll never have children. I have to move in two weeks. I don’t know what to do first, and I despise God for heaping all this pain and terror on me.”
I paused, hiccuped, and blew my nose. I knew this was pointless. There was no answer he could give that would be useful.
“You know,” the priest said, “God can take your anger.”
I was astonished. All my life, nobody had been able to withstand the force of my anger. It had ended several relationships. Friends and family had advised me to control it. It scared everybody.
“Everybody but God,” the priest assured me.
I don’t know why this soothed me, but it did. Perhaps I thought that, if God could accept my anger, he would not abandon me.
My head cleared, and I decided the first thing to do was to get the buyer of the apartment to give me a month’s extension. The second thing was to have the surgery. Everything else I would leave to God.
My surgery was a success. The tumor was not cancerous, and the doctor removed it without damaging my uterus. My sister died within the week, having never regained consciousness. I moved into my loft. My mother lived for four more years, long enough to attend my wedding and to see one of her two grandchildren.
Princeton, New Jersey
My father was a large man — six-foot-four and muscular. He radiated such authority that, as a child, I was petrified of displeasing him. You simply did not cross this man and get away with it.
My mother was the opposite — petite and outgoing, just the woman to complement my hardworking, dignified father. Together, they threw card parties with friends, hosted large family gatherings, and went dancing till the wee hours. I thought they were perfect for each other.
So, at the age of twenty-five, I had trouble dealing with the fact that my parents were divorcing.
My dad moved into a sparsely furnished efficiency, and I went to visit him the following weekend. He seemed out of place in the tiny, cramped space and looked miserable, though he was too proud to admit it.
“I’ll take care of your mother,” he told me, “and make sure she has everything she needs.” His eyes slid away from mine, embarrassed.
“What about you?” I asked. “Are you OK?”
“I’ll be fine.”
I fought back the tears and stood up. “Well, I’d better get going. I have to drive back to the city tonight.”
I could see he was debating whether or not to speak. Finally, he asked, “Joyce, would you do something for me before you go?”
“Of course, Dad. What?”
He walked to the tiny kitchenette, opened the fridge, and took something out. “Would you show me how to make a hamburger?” he asked sheepishly.
My father’s idea of a meal when my mother wasn’t home had been a bowl of bread and milk. I pushed away my sadness and smiled at him. My big, strong father needed my help.
I grew up in a log cabin, but my family’s back-to-the-land life was anything but idyllic. My father, a religious zealot with no reliable source of income, was moody and prone to lash out at us. We lived in near-constant fear of his beatings. Food was meager; sometimes we even ran out of wheat to grind to make flour for bread. The low point was when my mother harvested day lilies. (I don’t remember which part of the plant was said to be edible.)
Thanks to our “voluntary poverty,” we were the constant recipients of charity. Neighbors and acquaintances would show up with bags of groceries or offer to drive us wherever we needed to go. I think our constant asking for help was ultimately more damaging than my father’s hate-filled zealotry. I never felt worthy of anyone’s respect. It took me a long time to stop asking people for things.
Now I hate to ask for help. When my husband asks a friend to give us a hand with something, I cringe. Some people would call that neurotic, but to me it feels like progress.
My two brothers, Laine and Bryce, could not be less alike, but as teenagers they were both skilled mechanics. Our garage always had a car or motorcycle in some stage of repair.
At the age of thirty-nine, Bryce, the hard-drinking, Harley-riding black sheep of my conservative Mormon family, was diagnosed with a degenerative nerve disease and given three to five years to live. Five years later he was still very much alive but had lost the use of his arms. They hung limp at his sides, his once-massive chest caved in. He refused all help, however, and ingeniously figured out ways to dress and feed himself. Once somebody started doing things for him, he said, it would be “all over.”
Laine, a dentist and self-sacrificing Christian, volunteered to convert Bryce’s Jeep to a foot-operated steering system so that Bryce could drive. The goal was to have the job finished for a big off-road rally in three weeks. It was all that Bryce could talk about, and the slow rate of progress tested his patience.
Laine was about halfway done when he was diagnosed with a melanoma on the arch of his foot. The surgery left him in a wheelchair for six weeks. He called on our dad and all our brothers-in-law to help with the Jeep. None of these men was an experienced mechanic, so Laine directed them from his wheelchair, step by step, through the complex conversion project.
The day before the rally, the foot- steering system still wasn’t working, and we had a family prayer over the Jeep. At ten o’clock that night, the system finally checked out. Laine and Bryce loaded the Jeep onto a truck and drove with a friend all night. They just made it to the rally.
Bryce is still driving that shiny black Jeep, still making his bed with his feet, still refusing anyone’s help.
Salt Lake City, Utah
I’m not a people person. Just having to talk to someone makes me anxious. It’s a wonder I have any friends at all, but, strangely, some people have found room in their hearts for me. Every now and again I have to ask one of these people for help — for example, to move a large piece of furniture up the stairs to my apartment.
Deciding whom to ask is more complicated than you might think. First I think of Al. Al is strong and funny, and if he weren’t gay and I weren’t lesbian, I would marry him tomorrow. Al doesn’t like people either, so as we lugged the large piece of furniture up the stairs, we could talk about everybody we hate. But you don’t want to catch Al in a bitchy mood. And he moves furniture all day at his job as a set designer, so would he really be happy to see me and my large piece of furniture on the weekend?
Next I consider the Jacobs twins, my two other male friends. They are both trying to become television writers, and they talk incessantly. Only a professional talker or someone with something very important to say can get a word in with them, and I am neither. Perhaps they could talk to each other as they lifted the large piece of furniture up the stairs without me. But, alas, after the lifting, they would talk to me; really, they would talk over me, not listening to a word I said. By that time, I’d be making a mental note never to rent an apartment above the ground floor.
So much for my male friends, and my only straight female friend can’t do any heavy lifting. So, as always, I’m stuck with the lesbians.
Despite being a lesbian myself, I don’t particularly like my lesbian friends. They have a propensity to want to beat you up if you don’t root for the Packers, their favorite football team. They all feel sorry for me because I don’t talk, don’t have a lover, and don’t like football.
To their credit, though, they are loyal to the end. All I have to do is call one of them, and five will show up ready to do some serious lifting. After they heft the large piece of furniture up the stairs, they will give each other high fives and have a few beers and talk about lifting with their legs. Before long, they’ll realize that I don’t have a satellite dish and can’t get the football game on television. Then they’ll go, leaving me alone with my large piece of furniture, finally up the stairs and in its proper place.
Dale Mimi Gordon
Los Angeles, California
When I was sixteen, I dropped out of high school and took a job at McDonald’s. Other than the free meal I got during my shift, the only thing I liked about working there was the manager, a lanky guy with twinkling blue eyes and a head full of tousled blond hair. He didn’t look a day over twelve, though he must have been in his midtwenties. He greeted every customer — especially the elderly ones — with a warmth and sincerity that boggled my moody teenage mind. He was always kind and fair to the other employees, who were generally short on manners and long on attitude. I normally distrusted perpetually cheery people, but the manager won me over in spite of myself.
When he asked me if I would have dinner with him sometime, I casually said, “Sure,” but I had no intention of following through. Though I liked him very much, I wasn’t the least bit attracted to him and would’ve been embarrassed to be seen with him in public.
A few days later, to my horror, he showed up at the trailer I was renting with a girlfriend. He had attempted to dress up and had brought me flowers, clearly under the impression that we were going on a date. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but I wasn’t going anywhere with him. I can’t remember exactly what I said. It must have embarrassed him, because he left quietly.
I quit my job shortly thereafter. A few weeks later, I saw my former manager’s beaming face on the front page of the local newspaper. He had put the barrel of a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. The body had to be identified by his fingerprints.
He had tried to reach out to me, to ask for human contact in what must have been, for him, a world bereft of real closeness. I wish I hadn’t turned him down.
It was about ten o’clock at night when the doorbell rang, followed by heavy pounding. I was home alone. I knew where my children were, and my husband was out of town. I flipped on the porch light and opened the door a crack.
It was the boy from down the street, one of my son’s friends. He held a hand over his face, which was covered in blood. Could he use my phone, he asked.
I led him into the kitchen and gave him some ice wrapped in a towel. He tried to hold the phone between his shoulder and his bruised face, but couldn’t. I took the receiver and dialed for him and held it to his ear while he gave a friend directions to come and pick him up.
One of his eyes was black and blue, and he held the ice on it as he sat in a kitchen chair. I asked if he was in trouble and if he wanted me to call his father. He whirled around and begged me not to. I could see it hurt him to raise his voice. I wondered if his teeth were broken.
The boy went to the sink, dabbed at his face with a wet towel, and looked at his reflection in the darkened window. I went to my son’s room to get a clean T-shirt. It hurt the boy to pull his bloody one off, so I cut it up the middle and threw it in the trash can. Then I cut the neck of my son’s shirt so it would slide easily over his head. A car honked out front.
I watched the boy limp to the front door. He turned to hand me the towel, but I told him to keep it. He nodded his thanks, grabbed the porch rail to support himself, and hobbled down the steps.
As the car pulled out of my driveway, I looked and saw the red burning end of a cigarette in front of the boy’s house, three doors away. His father watched the car speed off down the street.
I was living in Malawi as a Peace Corps volunteer when the World Trade Center was attacked. The news came slowly to our village, since only the very rich — relatively speaking — had electricity and phone service.
I heard about the tragedy over the BBC World Service while drifting off to sleep. I immediately remembered the business card my brother had handed to me before I left, with an address in the World Trade Center.
I shot up out of bed and ran through the house, determined to find that business card and prove myself wrong. Panic began to cloud my vision. The more I searched, the less I actually saw. I was five thousand miles from home, in the middle of a remote African village where only a few people spoke English. What would I do?
My best friend in Malawi lived next door, but he wasn’t home. His wife answered. Her English was poor. I didn’t know how to explain to her that my brother might be dead. I just stood there, lip quivering and eyes watering.
“Tandizani,” I told her. Please help me.
She snapped into action, grabbing a knit shawl in one hand and her house keys in the other. “We will need to run,” she told me.
I didn’t know where we were going. I just knew that, in the great tradition of African women, she was going to take me wherever I needed to go. As we ran through the bush, I told her broken pieces of the story — whatever my limited language would allow. She didn’t understand. She didn’t need to.
After more than a mile of running, we reached a mud hut, dark and silent. She pounded on the walls, asking as politely as possible that the man of the house awaken. A kerosene lamp flickered. An old man I knew only in passing greeted us. They exchanged words, and he stood aside to reveal a bright red phone.
I cried and reached nervously for the receiver. The man was taking a huge risk: the phone company could callously charge him for this call even if I reversed the charges. He gently guided me to a seat, and I dialed the number, still crying.
From the back room came a young boy I knew well. The only albino in the village, he had latched onto me because of our similar skin. The phone continued to ring. As he watched me cry, the boy came closer, placed his hand on my leg, and spoke the one word of English he knew: “Smile.”
South Amboy, New Jersey
I spent my first year in Tacoma, Washington, sleeping on a church pew and being taught the Bible by a black pastor who invited the homeless in to fill the pews. He’d been abandoned by most of his congregation after being caught sleeping with parishioners.
I was raised by an abusive, alcoholic stepfather and a complacent, complicit mother: a normal, white, middle-class, suburban upbringing. After quitting school at fourteen, I lived in reformatories, friends’ apartments, and juvenile detention homes. At twenty-one I served a year in jail for forgery. When I got out, I just traveled, keeping a job only long enough to purchase a bus ticket out of town.
When I first arrived in Tacoma, before coming to the church, I dug ditches, camped out in bookstores, and slept on a futon in my truck bed, determined to save up enough to get to Alaska and make big money working on a fishing boat (an absurd plan for someone who’d once puked on a boat on Lake Ontario). One day, I heard about a church where you could get a meal and a shower. Uncomfortably in need of both, I sought it out.
Letting myself in that first time, I followed the sound of voices along a deserted hallway and down a flight of stairs to a basement room where a crowd of men were gathered in front of a television. They were mostly black. I left unnoticed.
Parked in a deserted lot a few streets away, I read the Bible by flashlight. It was raining. My thoughts returned to that room in the church. I needed some assistance, sure, but I wasn’t homeless. I was a wanderer, a gypsy, an artist. Only as I was climbing into my truck bed to sleep did I realize that I was as lost and homeless as those men at the church. Sometimes the heavy hand of God — and the hard mark it imprints upon you — finally makes you recognize your own kind.
Minutes later, I was standing under a hot shower for the first time in a week. The pastor was sitting in the stall opposite, taking a shit. I was barely aware of him when suddenly I heard his voice: “What do you do when you can’t run anymore?”
I immediately thought of all the places I had been: devouring the highway miles in my failing Chevy, jumping out of windows to escape the cops, fleeing every relationship just ahead of intimacy. What do you do when you can’t run anymore? I didn’t know: Tremble? Call out? Humble yourself? I couldn’t answer his question, because I’d always been running.
At the time, I’d never heard of a Zen koan. I didn’t know the Buddha, or even Christ. I just had the sound of the pastor’s voice, echoing across the tiles. I stood there naked beneath the pounding water, having asked only for a place to shower, a chance to wash up.
Rochester, New York
The movie Psycho was released in 1960, when I was eighteen. I took my girlfriend to see it. The film didn’t just scare me; it terrified me down to the bone.
After I dropped my girlfriend off at her house, I drove home. My brother and mother were both away. My father was asleep downstairs in the master bedroom. I entered the house quietly and started to go upstairs to my room, but as I mounted the first step, I was sweating and could barely swallow. I couldn’t climb even one more stair.
In the film, the actor Martin Balsam had walked slowly up such a staircase, only to be attacked by Anthony Perkins dressed as an old woman and wielding a knife. The violins shrieked, and the knife kept coming.
Unable to climb the stairs, I went to my father’s bedroom and stood in the doorway. He and I weren’t very close. I knew he loved me, but he wasn’t comfortable saying it. He never played with his children. We never had a heart-to-heart talk. He was a serious, volatile man. I stepped into the room and stood beside his bed. He awoke and asked what was wrong. I almost told him, “Nothing,” but I couldn’t face those stairs.
“I don’t feel so good,” I said. “Can I sleep with you tonight?”
He looked confused, only half awake. But then he moved over to make room for me. “Thanks,” I whispered, and I got in beside him.
At first I was ashamed to be so afraid, but another feeling came over me as I lay there. With a gesture of his tired, heavy body, my father had offered me comfort and acceptance. Listening to his heavy breathing, I felt protected for a moment against not just the terrors of the imagination, but the fears of growing up.
Santa Ynez, California
The first few times we were together, I was drunk, and we had sex in back alleys and motels. The fourth time, we sat in my car, both sober, and I laid my head in his lap and wept.
On the surface, I had my act together: I was a young lawyer with a house and an expensive car. But I was tired. I was tired of the jerks I worked for, tired of my melodramatic parents and my so-called friends, tired of life in Los Angeles. Most of all, I was tired of taking care of myself.
He was a simple guy, streetwise and fun. I barely knew him, but I didn’t care. I was broken.
“I am so, so tired,” I sobbed. “Will you take care of me?”
He sat there, frozen. He probably thought I was just good for some easy sex.
Reluctantly, he put his hand on my head and said, “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll give you what I can, OK?”
He didn’t know I would ask him to draw me baths in the evening, rub my head before bed, and wrap his warm body around mine in the morning. He didn’t know I would ask him to be my private jester, remodel my house, baby-sit my dog, cook me soup, take me to the hospital at 2 A.M., and endure my betrayal twice. He didn’t know I would beg him to stay with me after I’d slapped him and called him a loser. He didn’t know I was asking him to fill a well of emptiness inside me. How could he? Even I didn’t know what I was asking for. I would take whatever I could get.
What I got was a kindness that erased my fears, a patience that untangled my confusion, and a love that could see the beauty inside me, despite my complicated attempts to deny it.
Sometimes when you ask, the universe simply answers, Yes.
When I was twenty-three, I entered a month-long meditation course in northern Thailand. I had been meditating on my own for months and had always been a stoic sort, so the thought of meditating twelve hours a day without a cushion and eating no food after noon actually excited me. I was thirsty for wisdom and had firm control over my body and mind.
When I started, I met a German woman who was on her twelfth day of meditation. She said the second week was harder than she had imagined, and she wasn’t sure she would get through it. I thought to myself that whatever came up, I would deal with it. After all, it was just a matter of sitting still and bearing pain and discomfort.
The sitting was painful at times and mentally trying, but I quickly excelled. A few days in, I noted that the German woman had made it past her hump, and I was confident that I would, too.
But around my twelfth day, I started to experience an incredible sense of evil. I told myself it was just my mind trying to distract me from my meditation, but it was hard to shake the feeling. Late one night, I began questioning who I was; I felt my ego dissolving too quickly. I held myself in bed and whispered my name over and over.
The next day I told a friendly British monk that I had decided to leave. He suggested I talk to the head monk, who was Thai. The head monk scared me, but the British monk swore that, underneath his gruff attitude, the head monk was a good teacher.
So I made an appointment, did my prostrations before the head monk, explained my situation, and pleaded for guidance.
“It’s the way of the course,” he said, not looking at me.
“But I feel as though I’m going insane,” I said.
“It’s the way of the course,” he repeated.
I couldn’t think of anything else to say. The next day, I left.
When her pain became unbearable, my mother asked if I would be angry if she killed herself. I told her that I would not, as long as she didn’t make a mess. We laughed, then cried.
My brother and I took care of her, though she felt humiliated and closed her eyes when we bathed her and changed her diapers. We knew she wanted to die but couldn’t.
Then came the coma: no more talking, no more eating; just silence and occasional twitching. To keep her alive, we fed her water by the teaspoonful through her parched, cracked lips.
One night as I sat in the darkness next to her bed, she placed her birdlike hand on my arm and spoke for the first time in weeks: “Julie, is that you?”
“Yes, Mom, it’s me.”
“Repeat after me,” she said. “I, Julie Laura Taiclet Donovan, promise from this day forward I will not give my mother anything to drink.”
I repeated every word.
Two days later she was dead.
Julie T. Donovan
Kingston, New York
For fifteen years my father sent me money on a monthly basis, making my stay in prison a little less miserable. But then, in a volley of angry letters, our shaky relationship came to an end. And so did the money.
A couple of days later, my watch died. It was the watch my father had sent me years ago when I could still receive packages from outside. The prison canteen didn’t sell watch batteries. A few inmates had the right kind of batteries, but they charged too much. I retired my watch to the nether reaches of my locker.
My friend Dean noticed I didn’t have my watch on. “What?” he said. “You don’t need to tell time anymore?”
“Watch battery died,” I told him.
“Where is it? Let me see it.”
Dean was a miracle worker when it came to radio and watch repairs, but a battery was another matter. Besides, I had no way of paying him back. Still he asked to see my watch.
“All right,” I said. “But don’t do anything that’ll cost money.”
“Not to worry,” he said, smiling.
The next day Dean handed me back my watch, now running. “What did you do?” I asked. “Recharge the battery?”
“I just happened to have a battery like that,” Dean said.
“Thanks,” I said, already thinking where I might borrow some money. “So how much do I owe you?”
“Nothing,” Dean said. “The battery was just sitting in my locker. Someone gave it to me weeks ago. No big deal.”
“Look,” I said. “I’ll pay you back one way or another.”
“You want to pay?” Dean said. “Find someone who really needs something and pay it to him instead.”
That night, while my cellmate was in the day room watching TV, I sat on my rack and looked at my watch. I watched the numbers change, thinking of how Dean could have sold that battery for three packs of tobacco, and I broke down and cried.
Bowling Green, Florida
In high school, I took all honors courses, was a member of the National Honor Society, and never made a grade lower than an A-minus — until I took a typing elective.
The class had nearly thirty students, instructed by a diminutive, stuttering man who walked with a limp. He was an inconsequential presence, his lectures drowned out by the constant talking and the noise of the IBM Selectrics. The class was chaos.
I sat in the last row of that huge, disorderly classroom, next to a boy I’d known since eighth grade. He wasn’t in any of my honors classes, but I thought he was smart and funny and, above all, gorgeous. I was fat and frizzy-haired, with Coke-bottle glasses. All the same, he and I laughed and even flirted at the back table. I fantasized that I was special to him, although I knew in my heart that he was way out of my league.
One day, he asked if he could touch my breasts, right there in class. He pleaded, joked, and cajoled. He promised that no one would ever know. He just wanted to touch them, just once. I figured there was no harm in it. Feeling silly, and a little thrilled by the attention, I let him.
The next day, he asked to do it again. This time I refused. I was embarrassed and afraid someone would see. No way, I said. Then, in the middle of our daily timed test, he ripped the page from my machine.
I loaded another sheet, and he ripped that one out, too. By my third attempt, I realized that he had me. I couldn’t say no. Every crumpled sheet of paper represented a fissure in my grade-point average. Feeling powerless, I let him fondle me.
And so the semester went. Every Tuesday and Thursday, he would charm, ask, beg, and implore. I would say no, and he would reach over and rip up my work.
I tried changing tables, but the boy would follow me. Afraid he would continue molesting me in plain view of the other students, I slunk back to “our” corner desk like a whipped dog.
As humiliated as I felt, I still liked him and was attracted to him. We goofed around and talked about TV shows and movies and parents.
By the end of the year, he was slipping his fingers into my vagina. I was reduced to telling him when I was menstruating so he wouldn’t get his hands dirty.
I passed typing with a C and can type sixty words per minute on a good day. In the years following our typing class, the boy and I became good friends, and the groping stopped altogether. But the feeling of indignity remained.
It never occurred to me to ask the teacher for help. It would have been my word against the boy’s, and, as far as I was concerned, the teacher was contributing to my misery by his inability to control his class. I considered going to the principal’s office, but who would believe it? This guy was an athlete; I was a geek. Why would he even want to touch me? Besides, I wasn’t good at asking for help. I couldn’t afford to make myself that vulnerable.
The summer my marriage ended, I knew I needed help. What I wanted was not sympathy but clarity and wisdom — a sage to put me back on the right path.
I sat in my Jeep in front of the parish house for about an hour before I went in and told the church secretary I was hoping to see Father Tom.
Since we’d met several years back, I’d grown fond of Father Tom and sensed that, like me, he was continually questioning Church doctrine and trying to find the right way to live.
When he bounded in that day, however, wearing hiking shorts and a faded green T-shirt, he didn’t look at all contemplative. He was flushed, even exhilarated. He’d just finished coaching basketball and was leaving in an hour for a week of fishing and hiking at a cabin in the Adirondacks. He went on and on about how great it would be, how he really needed the rest. Then he asked what was up.
What could I say? I told him that I had some extra time off and was wondering if there was anything I could do to help out.
A few minutes later, I was back in my car with a bronze box of Communion wafers to distribute at the Green River Nursing Home.
I tried my best to forget that I wasn’t particularly suited for working with the elderly. I’d always been uncomfortable around old people and found it hard to adjust to their slower pace. After ten minutes, I was wild to slug down martinis, drive fast, sky-dive — anything. Yet this was where I’d ended up. There must be a reason for it, I told myself.
By the time I arrived at the nursing home, I’d somehow assumed the confident, dutiful demeanor of a church volunteer. I walked down the corridor, knocking on doors, my list of Catholics in hand. I was there from Saint Bridget’s, I told the residents. Would they like to take Communion?
A few did, but most just wanted to talk. So, somewhat dimmed by depression and still aware of the precious summer days slipping away outside, I sat in their small pastel rooms and learned about the progress of children and grandchildren and flipped through worn photographs that looked remarkably the same from one room to the next.
A few people weren’t particularly social, and I was glad for the variety. One shriveled old man who reminded me of my Uncle Louie told me without ceremony to “just get the fuck out.” To my mind, this seemed a totally understandable response.
I went back on a regular basis over the next few weeks, as if it were my job. “The Body of Christ,” I’d say, and they’d say, “Amen,” and I’d give them the wafer. I waited for some change to occur in me, perhaps some vision brought on by this strange new occupation: giving out the Host, working with the elderly. But the only vision I saw was of a loneliness even more tangible than my own. When the wafers ran out, I returned the bronze box to the rectory and left for the city without seeing Father Tom again.
I asked for help in various ways over the next couple of years. My doctor had me try several antidepressants. (They made me feel even less in control.) Acquaintances offered the phone numbers of divorce lawyers or practical advice. (“Have a crowd over for brunch; you’ll be glad to be alone when they leave.” ) Books on forgiveness piled up next to my bed. (After a page or two, I’d put them aside in favor of tales of Arctic survival.) My true friends showed me tenderness and patience, and I give them much of the credit (or blame) for my endurance.
But oddly, most important to my recovery was unexpected kindness from strangers who never even realized that they made my days bearable. On one particularly hard day, a smiling bank teller brought tears of gratitude to my eyes.
What saves us, I realize, is just simple kindness, getting it and giving it. That’s the real communion.
New York, New York