The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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My parents divorced a few years ago, after thirty-eight years of marriage. When my mother called to give me the news, I was sure my father had cheated on her. He’d always struck me as a ladies’ man. Had he slept with a woman Mom knew, I asked — or, worse, a friend of hers?
“Oh, Sara,” Mom said. “No, honey. He had an affair with a man.”
So my dad was gay, after having pretended for almost forty years to be straight. That sure explained his grumpiness.
Dad, however, insisted that he was not gay; he’d only been “experimenting.” Mom and I worried that he would quickly remarry and keep “experimenting” on the side. We worried that he would start drinking heavily again. We worried that he would have no friends without Mom.
But Dad soon started talking about his friend Frank: “My friend Frank and I went . . .” “My friend Frank said . . .” We learned all about Frank: He was a retired elementary-school teacher and principal. He told hilarious stories about his mother, a bossy old woman with whom he had lived until her death. He liked to garden, and when he transplanted some hostas at Dad’s, he patted the earth around each one and assured the plant, “You’ll be just fine right here.” When a stray cat showed up at the retirement community where Frank lived, he took it in and named it Snooks. When Snooks had a run-in with a raccoon, Frank paid the four hundred-dollar vet bill.
I liked Frank already.
Mom met Frank when he volunteered at the community foundation where she works. “He’s very jolly and friendly,” she said. “And sort of rumpled-looking. Not at all what I expected.”
Dad, the snappy dresser, with a sloppy guy? Dad, who had been known to grouse when a checkout clerk asked if he wanted a bag (“Of course I want a bag! Why would he ask me that? I paid for that bag, you know”) — this crabby man was with someone jolly?
A few months later, I met Dad and Frank for dinner at a restaurant. My husband was out of town, so I brought my five-year-old daughter Susanna with me. (There was no way I was going alone to meet my dad’s gay lover.) I sat across from Frank and obsessively licked my teeth to remove the flecks of lipstick I was afraid were stuck to them. Frank was utterly charmed by Susanna — and, apparently, by me. My dad guffawed at everything anyone said, and the evening passed merrily.
In April, Frank had a heart attack. (Dad referred to it as a “cardiac event.”) The doctors put in a stent, and Frank and Dad were soon back to their routine of “high tea” (i.e., cocktails) with friends every afternoon and dinner out every night. They zipped around town in Dad’s convertible, wearing baseball caps to protect their bald spots from the sun.
Then, in June, Dad had his own cardiac event. When he was released from the hospital a few days later, I took him by Frank’s place to pick up his keys. We arrived during high tea, taking everyone by surprise. Frank forgot himself and hurried to Dad, grabbing him in a firm embrace.
And, yeah, Dad hugged him back.
North Manchester, Indiana
In the midseventies I spent a year interviewing and observing patients at two psychiatric hospitals in the Andes as part of my fieldwork for my PhD in medical anthropology. The patients’ stories, particularly the women’s, were filled with such pathos that I often wept as I typed up my notes.
When I got back to Seattle, I spent a year doing anything I could to avoid working on my dissertation. I felt overwhelmed by the somber weight of my experience and unable to produce an outline from my mountain of notes. One day the chairman of my dissertation committee called. “We really should have a meeting,” he said. “We need to know how you’re doing.”
The night before the meeting, I sat up late, agonizing over what to say. I would have been the first person in my family to earn a PhD, but I had lost track of the goal. The whole process had become a bizarre, blind rush to avoid failure. And now I had failed.
In the morning I met with the committee of three: John, the committee chairman; Noel, a medical anthropologist; and Gene, a Latin America specialist. These were men I respected. Now I had to disappoint them — and myself.
“The truth is that I haven’t written anything,” I began, glancing guiltily at them. “I didn’t find out anything original.” My voice wavered. “I can’t write a dissertation. I’ll just have to give up the PhD.” I started to cry.
Gene pushed a kleenex box across the desk to me. “Here,” he said. “Go ahead and cry. We don’t care.”
John said he was no stranger to writer’s block. In fact, he was known for it. What if I just started writing? If I gave them some pages to read, anything at all, they would promise not to criticize it. “You’re doing a pretty good job of that yourself,” he added.
With that promise, I went home and began to write. Paragraphs came pouring out, and then pages. I skipped from subject to subject: a reflection on a patient; the difference between Catholic and Protestant versions of guilt; a short essay comparing two films. Soon I had forty pages.
In that stack of paper, those kind men and I found the skeleton of the dissertation I would finally write — a respectable contribution, full of the lives I had striven to understand. Without their help in disarming my implacable inner critic, I would never even have started it.
One afternoon in June, for reasons that I can no longer remember, I chose to catch the crowded 5:13 bus home, rather than wait for the half-empty 5:23. After I’d found a seat — the last one — I heard music. It was not the buzz of some fellow passenger’s headphones, but a live voice. A man was singing a few seats ahead of me, just loud enough that I could hear. The words he sang were in an African language, and although I couldn’t understand them, his song sounded to me like a ballad of longing for someone far away.
When he stopped, I wanted to thank the man and let him know how much I’d enjoyed his music, but the aisle was packed with standing commuters. I hoped that he would still be on the bus when it came to my stop, but he exited at Thomas Street, long before I got off. I cursed my slow-wittedness: I should have hopped off when he did, talked to him, and then taken the next bus home.
On a hot afternoon in August, I left work early and caught the 4:37. My favorite seat, above the center wheels, was vacant. Sitting directly ahead of this seat, however, was a homeless-looking man in filthy pants and a flannel shirt with several missing buttons. For a brief moment, I considered choosing a seat farther away. Then he began to sing. It was the same man.
I sat down behind him and listened while I wondered how I would make my move. (Approaching strangers is not easy for me.) At the red light before Thomas Street, the singer pulled the cord for his stop and fell silent. I took a deep breath and said, “I’ve really enjoyed your music. Thank you.”
The man turned around, smiled shyly, and extended his hand, which I shook. His name was Solomon, he said, and he was from South Africa. He talked about growing up under apartheid, but his accent was so thick I wasn’t always sure what he was saying. I did learn that his deceased mother had been the director of their church choir. He honored her memory by singing the songs she’d taught him when he was a child.
Solomon said he wasn’t sure he sang his mother’s songs correctly. I told him they sounded wonderful to me. The woman in the seat ahead of him turned and said, “Yes, they were lovely.” The girl across the aisle thanked him as well.
At Thomas Street, Solomon exited the bus. The doors closed, and as the bus pulled away, I saw him standing on the sidewalk, bowing to us like a maestro.
Caroline and I dated in college. We planned to get married, but at the end of our junior year we had a big argument and called it off. When I returned after summer vacation, I wanted to patch things up, but she was engaged to someone else. Six months later she was married.
Two years after that, I traveled from Oregon to Pennsylvania by bus to attend my brother’s wedding. Along the way I made a detour to New York City to see Janice, a woman I had dated briefly after Caroline. I invited Janice to the wedding, and for two weeks she stayed at my mother’s house, helping with the preparations. After the wedding, Janice and I were engaged with astounding speed. I accepted my role of future husband like a high-school actor accepting a minor role in the school play.
Janice returned to New York, and I took a Greyhound to Florida to visit my father. While there, I ran into Caroline’s brother, who told me that Caroline had separated from her husband. I felt something shift within me. She was up at Harvard, working on her law degree, her brother said. I asked him if he thought she might like to see me.
“Actually,” he said, “she was wondering if she would ever run into you.”
After a few beers, I convinced the brother to call Caroline. She seemed surprised when I got on the phone. “I could drop by for a visit,” I said. “It’s on my way home.” I was heading back to Oregon. Only the South Pole would have been a bigger detour, and we both knew it. She said that a visit would be all right with her.
Two days later, the Greyhound dropped me off near Harvard, and I walked the streets at midnight, looking for her address. She’d said she could spare only one day, but I would have been happy with five minutes.
I found the house and knocked on the door. Caroline answered in her bathrobe and invited me in. It was late, but we stayed up talking. I told her about my fiancée, and she told me about her studies. At some point she began crying. Then I began to cry.
Twenty-four hours later I was back on the Greyhound for Oregon, now engaged to two women and wondering what to do about it.
St. Petersburg, Florida
In the chilly hills of northwestern Pennsylvania, where I grew up, toads were not common. My mother’s sweet exclamations upon sighting one led me to think of them as special creatures to be admired and protected. Even today I regard the appearance of a toad in my garden as a gift.
A few years ago on a fall day, I was furiously digging in the compost bin while giving my four-year-old daughter an ecology lesson. There are always a multitude of worms and insects in the compost, so when I saw some movement, I ignored it and continued jabbing with the shovel. Out of the bin rolled a toad, bleeding from the stump of its amputated front leg.
To say that I was distraught wouldn’t come close. My daughter’s exclamation of “Mommy, look what you did!” exacerbated my guilt. I picked up the poor little creature, who was in such shock that he made no attempt to get away, and placed him in a warm part of the compost bin, thinking he might be more comfortable there in his final moments.
That night at the dinner table, my daughter announced, “Mommy killed a toad today.” So much for my being an ecological role model.
The following spring, I was digging compost, this time with great trepidation, when I saw a sudden motion. I stopped digging, and out hopped a three-legged toad, alive and looking well-fed!
I took him in my hands and ran to show my kids, anxious to share this minor miracle with them — and also to put an end to my status as “toad killer.” After they had expressed their wonderment, I placed him in a soft, muddy part of my garden, far from the compost bin.
Mary Anne Pontzer
My father crashed his bicycle on a mountain road near his home in New Mexico. He was airlifted to the trauma center in Albuquerque with a fractured skull, broken ribs, a deflated lung, and, most worrisome of all, a brain injury. Two days later, after arranging care for my own young children, I boarded a plane.
My father was not a warm and nurturing parent. He was demanding, impatient, critical, a perfectionist. My brother and I had responded to his criticism in different ways: I strove for perfection, becoming valedictorian of my high-school class. My brother muddled through at three different high schools and dabbled in drugs and petty crime. Neither of us got what we were after: our father’s loving attention.
I’d always wondered how I would respond if my father became sick and needed me to care for him. Now I was about to find out.
The man lying in the hospital bed looked nothing like the imposing father of my youth. The booming, opinionated voice was gone, and moans and confused gibberish had taken its place. Then he saw me, and his eyes brightened. “Hello, sweetheart,” he said.
He repeated this dozens of times a day. His short-term memory was impaired, and each time he opened his eyes and saw me, it was as if I had just arrived. And each time I was his “sweetheart,” his “darling,” his “little girl.”
Over the next three days I sat by his bed, held his hand, bathed him, brushed his teeth, massaged his legs, and stimulated his memory. I also basked in his love. Finally, my simple presence was enough to delight him.
Matthew Welwolie was a fish farmer in the village of Belefanai in Liberia, West Africa. Despite his diminutive stature, he was a “big man” in the community, with several wives and at least four homes. He had a big heart, too. I rented one of his homes, and we became friends, sharing conversations about America, palm wine, Nelson Mandela, and our families. He called me his “American son.”
I had joined the Peace Corps right out of college and been sent to Liberia to help build fishponds. I worked with “Mr. Matthew,” as people called him, and several other farmers in the village. I was also a regular guest on a local radio show, where I promoted fish farming. My girlfriend, Jill, a Peace Corps volunteer from Michigan, moved into Mr. Matthew’s house with me. Our dog Sid ran with the children of the village while I played guitar. Life was good.
Then rebels invaded the country from the east and began fighting their way toward the capital. The government emptied the villages with calls for fresh troops. Many never returned.
One afternoon Peace Corps officials arrived in a blue pickup and gave us two hours to pack. They told us not to tell our Liberian friends about the evacuation, for fear it would panic them.
So we lied. We left our radios and our clothes behind, and I looked Mr. Matthew in the eye and told him we would be back soon. I never even thanked him for all he had done for me.
The war lasted thirteen years, and more than two hundred thousand people were killed. Rebel leader Charles Taylor became president and helped fuel a brutal regional war. Taylor’s soldiers cut off the limbs of women and children, raped girls, and looted nearly every village.
Jill and I had gotten married soon after returning to the States, and we planned to go back to Liberia someday, to find out if any of our neighbors had lived, maybe bring them some medicine and money. As the fighting continued, however, and we began to raise children, we realized that we would never go back.
Last year I was stunned to get a letter from Mr. Matthew. He had escaped the war and was living in Allentown, Pennsylvania, with one of his sons.
On a sparkling spring day, I stuffed an envelope full of cash, grabbed my photo albums, and drove the three hours to his home. I parked the car and looked up at the porch, where a frail, gray old man sat staring at traffic. He looked lost and confused. I gripped the steering wheel and cried, thinking about what Mr. Matthew had been through, how he must have struggled to stay alive. What could I possibly say to him? Then I opened the door and got out. When he saw me, he broke into a wide grin.
On the verge of turning thirty, I made some changes in my life. I switched from pursuing a PhD in film studies to working on an MFA in creative writing. I left a joyless marriage and bought a little white house in Iowa City, Iowa, just big enough for my dog and me. I had no idea what to expect: Would I fail in the new program? Would my friends shun me after the divorce? Would I spend the rest of my life alone?
A few times each summer, enterprising shrimpers from Galveston, Texas, would arrive in town and sell their catch from the back of a truck in the Dairy Queen parking lot. Midwesterners starved for fresh seafood eagerly anticipated the coming of the shrimp truck.
One day in May, about a year after I’d bought my house, my friend Sarah and I saw the truck and spontaneously decided to host a “shrimp feed.” We bought several pounds and made some calls. Later that afternoon, twelve people sat around plastic tables in my backyard, drinking beer, eating grilled shrimp, and watching the sun go down. My peony bushes were in bloom. I felt happier than I remembered having felt in a long while.
I fell in love with one of the guests at that party. He brought a new playfulness to my life. When we were together, we giggled a lot. Both of us had spent our twenties lingering in relationships that we should have left long before. After sharing the reason for his years of ambivalence, he asked me why I had stayed in my marriage.
“I thought that, at the age of twenty-six, I was too old to start over,” I said.
We both burst out laughing.
Iowa City, Iowa
Four days before my twenty-eighth wedding anniversary, my husband informed me that he was involved with another woman — younger, of course. He planned to move into the tiny cabin below our house and continue to see her while he decided whether or not to leave me for good. I told him not to bother. I had already made the decision for him.
We were legally separated, and I bought him out of our home of twenty-five years. The life we’d had together vanished in less than three months.
I was scared. I’d never lived alone, having gone straight from my parents’ house to living with my husband. Now, at almost fifty, I was officially on my own for the first time.
For a few months, I threw up on a daily basis and ate peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for dinner every night. One day I came home to find I’d been robbed, and all my jewelry was gone. Another time I awoke to a leaking pipe that turned into a plumbing disaster of monumental proportions. As winter approached, my wood stove brought me much comfort — until the creosote fire. I considered moving, or dying.
The good news was I owned my own home, and I had a successful career and many friends. But what dreams did I have? What goals? Where was my passion? And did I really think I could become a fully independent woman?
The fearful voices in my head constantly brought me down. I sent those voices away. I told them I was the boss and would be making all the decisions from now on. I didn’t have to deal with anyone else’s agenda. I was growing into this new role.
Now, one year later, I am traveling, making new friends, and going to the theater more. I have a housemate who cooks and cleans and takes care of things while I’m away. I’ve negotiated a four-day workweek with my employer. I’ve refurbished and rented the tiny cabin, and with the money from my two tenants, I have enough to pay the expenses of running a home.
I feel as though I’ve been given a second chance to become my own person. And I’m doing it.
Asheville, North Carolina
I had just returned from a year of teaching English in Japan when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. I was twenty-four. The prognosis was good, but full recovery would require chemotherapy.
I spent the next six months unemployed. While my friends were out building careers, I was living with my parents. Taking a class at the local community college did not begin to fill the void.
Every two weeks I went to the oncology clinic for a treatment. Situated in a recliner, I would concentrate on the TV and try to ignore the metallic taste in my mouth and the searing pain in my veins. The chemotherapy made me weak and nauseated. My eating and sleeping habits were irregular. I rarely left the house, and when I did I could last only an hour or two before becoming fatigued.
When I lost my hair, Kristen, a close friend from college, went with me to pick out a wig. We drove to a downtown shop, where we had to be let in through a security door. The wigs were of the worst quality, but they were inexpensive. I selected a chin-length auburn bob. It looked good in the store, but when I got home I realized I looked like a hooker — a sickly hooker.
My cancer “peers” were all senior citizens. My friends were busy and rarely visited. My boyfriend was emotionally unavailable. I had never known such isolation. My only comfort was the conviction that I would soon be well.
After six months of chemotherapy, ten weeks of radiology, and a few months of recuperation, I was cured. What did I do with my second chance at life? I took an unremarkable office job, moved in with friends, and found satisfaction in eating, riding the bus, and going out on weekends. For me, a second chance to live an average life was enough.
I woke feeling reckless, in what I used to call my “Keith Richards mood.” Walking out the door, I grabbed a pack of cigarettes from the table and the Jägermeister from the freezer. On the interstate, I took a few hits off the icy bottle.
I had arranged to meet a friend at an apartment in the city. We sat on the living-room rug, drinking red wine, smoking cigarettes, and eating pizza. After a few drinks, my thoughts predictably turned to drugs. The craving was like a tapping inside my head that would build until I couldn’t ignore it. Tentatively, I floated the idea of getting some heroin. My friend agreed. We made some phone calls, left numeric pages. Finally the phone rang. The drugs were on the way.
The acrid smell of heroin cooking filled the kitchen. I knew as I looked down at the spoon and watched the cotton soak up the brown liquid that I was doing too much. Still I drew the liquid up into the syringe and tapped the side to get the air bubbles out. Because I was drunk and not as practiced as some, I had trouble hitting my vein. My friend volunteered to help. When he’d finished, I floated up from the kitchen table and went to lie down on the couch in the living room. The last thing I remember was John Coltrane on the stereo and my friend calling my name.
My friend later told me what happened next: I became unconscious, and my breathing grew shallow, then stopped. He carried me to the bathtub and alternately sprayed me with cold water and performed CPR for several minutes. My lips became bluer and bluer against my pale skin. Just as he was about to give up and call an ambulance, I sputtered back to life.
I woke up shivering, with no idea how I’d gotten wet. As my friend related what had happened, the reality of it settled heavily on me. We climbed the stairs to bed and lay there in the darkness, holding hands until I fell asleep.
Several years have passed since that night. I would like to say that I never did heroin again, but quitting was a slow process. Eventually my desire to live overcame my desire to self-destruct. Sometimes I whistle the tune I heard as I lost consciousness that night: “Naima,” a song John Coltrane wrote for his wife. The melody is slow and plaintive, but at the end it lifts from a minor to a major key, and there is hope for transformation.
My father, an Irish lapsed Catholic, married my mother in a Friends meetinghouse. He didn’t want to have children, but once they were married, he returned to the Catholic Church, and the local priest told him two things: one, that he and my mother weren’t really married until they were married in a Catholic church (which they later were); and two, that it was wrong to resist having children. “Take what the Lord sends” were the priest’s exact words.
The Lord sent me, and then my younger brother. My father was none too pleased about this. His attitude was “The Lord sent you kids — now make yourselves useful!” At one point he actually admitted that he hated us.
Our father was both a deeply religious and a deeply unhappy man. He literally pursued sainthood, but in trying to be such an inhumanly good person, he neglected simple kindness. We lived in fear of his capricious temper.
After my high-school graduation, my father wanted me to stay home and work for a year. In secret, my mother helped me — and later my younger brother — fill out applications for student loans. After I had escaped to college, I avoided my father almost entirely.
When I was in my late twenties, my father, then in his sixties, came alone to visit me in the city where I lived. We went to a pub, where I smoked in front of him, and we both drank pint after pint of Guinness. It was not unpleasant. At one point he talked about Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and how, late in life, the character of Ebenezer Scrooge underwent a radical change.
Many people try unsuccessfully to change, but my father really did. He stopped pursuing sainthood, and a wry sense of humor eventually emerged. He became one of my best friends. My husband and I moved next door to my parents, and our time together was characterized by laughter and celebration.
My father died of cancer a few years ago. I still miss him.
© Lynne Jamneck
For the past several years, I have volunteered at the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley, giving orphaned and injured wildlife a second chance. We once returned a great horned owl to the location where she’d been found hurt, and her mate was there to greet her. We reunited a fawn with his mother. We brought a young western gray squirrel back to the tree that he had fallen from when only weeks old.
It is demanding work — both physically and emotionally. Many animals do not make it. They come in too injured, too emaciated, already dying. Most of the time these animals are hurt because of human beings: our cars, our encroachment on their habitat, our cats and dogs, our trimming of trees.
I used to tell myself I do this because I love animals. After a few years of working here, however, I see that my motives are not solely altruistic. Acts of service are good for the soul. The life I am trying to save is my own.
Patricia W. Abreu
San Jose, California
My husband and I spent many months trying to decide whether we should have children. We enjoyed visiting exotic places around the world, and a child might restrict our travels. An only child seemed the perfect compromise. Traveling with one child appeared doable, and the thought of raising a little world traveler pleased me.
Then I had her.
She wasn’t difficult by any means. But the transformation I had to undergo to become a mother was. I had to be ready, and happy, to give of myself at all times. I was exhausted.
My daughter is two now, and I am head over heels in love with her. As my passion for her continues to grow, bits of my former life are returning, and my old self is merging with this new mother-person who has taken over.
Now I want another.
I want another so that I can be a real mother to my baby during its first six months. With my daughter, it was a matter of transformation and survival — hers and mine. I want to appreciate and enjoy that early, helpless stage. I want to mother without fear. I want a second chance.
My husband, too, wants a second chance: a second chance to travel, to be friends, and to have leisure time while we’re (relatively) young.
How do we decide which one of us gets a second chance?
The summer after my sophomore year of college, my friend Mark and I bicycled from Florida to Manhattan. We scrounged a living as bike messengers, checked out the jazz scene, and wore out our welcome in a communal flat on the Upper West Side. My bicycle was stolen from in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mark packed up and headed south, and I hitchhiked north.
I made my way across the border and traveled around Canada until I was down to my last quarter, which I threw into the Saint Lawrence River. I’d never been completely penniless before. It was oddly exhilarating.
I got a ride from a man in a small Japanese car. His girlfriend had just dumped him, and he was despondent. The back seat was full of gardening equipment. He’d been helping his mother with her garden, he explained.
The figure of a young female hitchhiker appeared on the horizon. As we got closer we could see she was beautiful, with a radiant smile and long brown hair, her legs planted confidently on the asphalt.
“Crap,” the driver said. “If I hadn’t picked you up, I could have given her a ride!”
I offered to get out.
“Nah, I couldn’t do that to you. Forget it.”
For fifteen minutes we drove through the spare New Brunswick landscape. My host’s sour mood was rubbing off on me. What was I doing out here with no money and no destination?
Suddenly, there she was again on the side of the road, the same woman, hand on hip and thumb out. “Pull over,” I said. “We can’t pass up a chance like this twice. We’ll do something with the rakes.”
Kicking and swearing at a hoe jammed lengthwise between the seats, I made room for her to sit. Her name was Juliana. She was from British Columbia and had hitched alone across Canada.
After we’d passed her the first time, she’d gotten a ride from a young man in a sports car, who had promptly passed us. She’d clung to the dashboard for ten minutes before yelling for him to let her out. That’s when we’d passed her a second time.
When our driver had to leave the main highway, Juliana and I got out together, and she bought me lunch in a small New Brunswick town. I ate fried oysters off her plate after I’d finished my own meal.
We lived and traveled together for two years, hitchhiking across the U.S. and Canada several times, wandering Europe, and finally settling down in London, where she still lives. Twenty years later, we talk on the phone from time to time, and I still feel a tingle of recognition when I hear her voice.
Asheville, North Carolina
We bought the big house (with the big mortgage) and the best cars. We had one child and were planning to make more, because we are Americans, and that is what we do: make more children, more money, more purchases. But at the end of every year, we had nothing to show for it except things we’d once thought we needed, but which now seemed useless.
A year ago my husband was laid off, and our frenzied spending came to an end. Bewildered, we realized that this life had never been our plan. It had simply been drilled into our heads since we were children: work, consume, have children (even if you don’t want to), and hope your retirement covers everything when you are old.
It dawned on us that we didn’t want the big house and the best cars. We didn’t want to raise our son to have this self-indulgent philosophy of taking and never giving back.
In the fall, my husband and I are both going to college to get our master’s degrees in education. We want to be teachers. We have sold our big house, given away most of our possessions, and abandoned our old dream of a six-figure income.
Our friends and family see our decision as a sad attempt to deny our impending financial ruin. When they look at us with pity in their eyes, we just smile.
We are going to be poor, eat college-cafeteria food, and drive a car that has seen better days. We are going to shop in secondhand stores, live in off-campus housing, and become the people we always wanted to be.
Sheryl A. Piercy
I was eleven when my grandmother pulled off her wedding ring and handed it to me, saying, with a hint of sadness, “Here, I want you to have this. Being as dark as you are, who knows who will marry you.” The matrimonial ads in the local Indian papers always asked for “tall, slim, fair” brides. I, with my short, dark figure, need not apply.
When I came to America to go to college, however, my body garnered some appreciative looks, which I could hardly believe were for me. After several brief affairs, I dated a man for three years. I cried when he asked me to marry him. If only my grandmother could have lived to see it. The irony was that he was Caucasian, far fairer than any man I could have married at home.
Less than a year later, my husband informed me that he wanted to practice polygamy. His precise words were: “I want to have children with you and with my ex-wife.” I had already tolerated four years of his weekly “friendship” lunches with her. I could take no more. I got a divorce.
Going back to India and facing my relatives was incredibly difficult. Divorce is not easily forgiven in that culture, where most women are trained to be pious, compliant wives.
I eventually returned to the States, despite my parents’ entreaties, and embarked on three years of wild promiscuity as I searched for the right man. Just as I had resigned myself to a life of solitude, he appeared — an African American at that, even darker than I am. We’ve been married five years and have two children. Thank God for second chances.
La Habra, California
As an aspiring but not terribly confident clarinetist in high school, I was both thrilled and astonished when my clarinet teacher offered me the chance to take his first chair in the regional symphony for two consecutive performances of Ravel’s “Bolero.” My teacher had convinced the conductor that, although I was young, I could handle the lead clarinet part, including the winding solo that opens the piece, with only a single drum in the background. My teacher would sit next to me and play the second part.
It would be my first opportunity to play in a real orchestra, and my first performance under the baton of a professional conductor, whose standards were above and beyond anything I had previously experienced. My part was not technically hard, just dramatically exposed. On the evening of our first concert, I sat on the edge of my chair, clarinet to my lips, my eyes trained on the conductor. The drummer began from the back of the orchestra. The conductor’s eyes bore deeply into my own.
In the split second before I began my solo, I forgot whether I was to come in on the baton’s upswing or downswing. I missed my cue. To my horror, the first measure of my solo passed in silence with only the drum in the background. The conductor grimaced angrily. I hastily drew a breath and jumped in two measures late.
The rest of the piece went off without a hitch, but the conductor’s brow never did uncrease, and immediately after the concert, he called my teacher to the side for a terse exchange. I swabbed my clarinet and left as quickly as I could.
Later my teacher told me that the conductor had forbidden me to play the solo in the following night’s concert. I could play the lead part for the rest of the piece, he’d said, but the opening solo was to be played by my teacher. End of discussion.
My teacher, however, had another idea. I was to spend the entire next day practicing my entrance. At the beginning of the piece, my teacher would raise his clarinet as if to play, but on the conductor’s cue, I would be the one to play the solo.
I’m not sure which made me more nervous: the challenge of coming in on a cue I’d already missed once, or defying the conductor, whose every word and gesture communicated the desire for control. Several times, I called my teacher and begged him to play the solo himself, but he refused.
That evening I could hardly keep my hands from shaking as the conductor raised his baton and nodded at my teacher. No one noticed that I, too, raised my instrument to my lips. When the baton went up, I came in exactly on cue, building volume in the first long note of the solo. The conductor looked from my teacher to me with anger and surprise. Then, realizing he had no choice, he offered me the slightest of nods. I snaked my way successfully through the rest of the solo.
The conductor scolded me at the end of the concert, but he also smiled.
I was surprised when an old boyfriend and I made telephone contact after almost fifteen years. David lived in Mexico, and I lived in Hawaii. After many months of long-distance calls, we decided to meet in La Paz, at the southern end of the Baja Peninsula.
David was coming by car; I was flying in from Honolulu. To add to the excitement, David missed the ferry from the mainland and had to catch a last-minute flight. We were unaware that the ferry he’d missed sank shortly after leaving port — fortunately without casualties.
At first David and I were delighted to be together again, but within two days the bitterness and recriminations of our former relationship had resurfaced. We could not stand another hour in each other’s company. We headed to the nearest travel agent — walking about ten feet apart — to reschedule our return flights. The only flight back to Honolulu had already left that day, however. There were no more flights out for David, either.
“Then I will take the ferry,” he said.
“I am sorry, sir,” said the agent. “The ferry sank.”
David and I spent many happy years together.
I recently wondered whether I should renew my subscription. Times are hard. I’m not working. We just had a baby. Can I really afford to keep getting this magazine that I barely have time to read anyway? Yesterday I became so depressed thinking about the killing of Nicholas Berg, the abused Iraqi prisoners, and the state of our brutal, unrelenting world that I began to cry. I was so tired: tired of nursing a baby day and night; tired of being broke; tired of caring that I was broke; and tired of our screwed-up society.
That evening, I picked up the May issue and turned to the Readers Write section. I found companionship in the honest and sincere voices of others. I saw community, love, and even a glimmer of hope. This morning I cut out my favorite stories of “Second Chances.” Then I wrote a check for another six-month subscription and put it in the mail.