Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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I was home on break after my first year at an Ivy League university when my parents called a “family meeting,” the first and last we ever had. My mother explained that she was not in love with my father anymore and they were getting a divorce. Then she packed up and left.
She came back to him briefly that fall. After she left the second time, my father showed up unannounced at my apartment. He was a doctor: stoic, silent, respected in the community. I had never seen him look so gray and broken. I was living with an alcoholic who pissed in potted plants, smashed mirrors, and later tried to hang himself with an extension cord in my kitchen. We sat on my front stoop — my father, my suicidal boyfriend, and I — and stared at the dreary street where I lived. It may have been the worst day of my life.
Five years later, I asked my father for help. I had never asked before, but Thanksgiving was coming up, and I found myself unable to visit him. I had been in a methadone program for almost three years but was still shooting heroin. I couldn’t bring myself to buy a plane ticket and go through the motions, pretending everything was all right while I suffered through withdrawal on the guest-room bed. So on a Sunday morning, instead of calling my dealer, I called my father. “I have to tell you something,” I said.
I feared my father was still so bereft over the divorce that hearing about my problem would be too much for him. Maybe I was afraid he would abandon me, like my mother had.
But he didn’t. He came to see me within a week. At the airport I caught him looking at the track marks on my arms. We were both scared. This wasn’t the way things were supposed to be. But it was the first completely honest moment of my life.
Los Angeles, California
I was planning a cross-country move and determined to do it right this time: to have a job and a place to live before my eleven-year-old daughter and I packed up and left. So I flew out west to search for work. I interviewed for a position as program director at a nonprofit violence-prevention training center. The executive director was an ex-priest with a gentle manner and a lively sense of humor. During the interview I showed him two violence-prevention manuals: one I had coauthored, and one we’d used at my last job. I told him I had written both. He was impressed. I felt certain the job was mine, but he couldn’t notify me for two weeks.
After returning home, I sat on the porch and thought of my father, a charismatic, lovable man, but also a bigamist, a check forger, and a pathological liar who died an alcoholic at the age of fifty-two. There on the porch, I felt his presence so strongly that I almost dropped my coffee cup. I knew then that I had to tell my prospective boss I was a liar, even if it destroyed my chance of getting the job.
First, however, I had to tell my daughter.
She woke up the next morning chattering about the move. Feeling sick but still sure of my decision, I interrupted and explained to her that I had told a lie and taken credit for something I hadn’t done. I told her that I was going to tell the truth, but it probably meant we wouldn’t be moving after all.
My daughter looked at me as if seeing me as fully human for the first time. Then she brightened and said, “Maybe he’ll be so proud of you for telling the truth, he’ll give you the job anyway.”
I almost cried at her belief in happy endings. That would be wonderful, I told her, but it wasn’t likely.
The executive director called that afternoon to offer me the job. I inhaled slowly and told him what I’d done. There was a long moment of silence. He asked if I could start in two weeks.
Late one night, I found the opportunity I’d waited weeks for: a chance to talk to Mom without Dad or my siblings around. Would I be able to say what I had to say? My sins weighed heavily on my seven-year-old heart.
Mom sat on the couch doing a crossword in the dim light, her face wrinkled with concentration. When she saw me out of bed, she frowned. She was about to order me back to my room when she noticed I was shaking. Taking me into her arms, she asked if I was cold.
“No,” I said. “I have something to tell you.”
And so I told her about the twelve-year-old boy next door who’d been convincing me to play doctor with him in his tent for more than a year. “He does stuff like this,” I told her, and I pointed toward my genitals. “Please don’t hate me, please.”
Mom continued to hold me tight. She kissed the top of my sweaty head and said, “I don’t want you ever to act that way again, because I know you’re a wonderful little girl, and I want everyone to think that of you.” Then she added, “I love you very much. Nothing could ever make me not love you, but promise Mommy you’ll be as nice as she thinks you are.”
I vowed to be worthy of all her wonderful, undeserved love.
I wanted to tell her about Dad, too, and I almost did, but I was afraid if I said those words, God would strike me dead.
In the late fifties I had an early-morning paper route, and every morning I rode my bike past my schoolmate Randy’s house. It was the oldest, most rundown house in the neighborhood. His dad was a janitor. They had chickens in their yard. Randy’s forehead was bigger than the other kids’, and his eyes seemed smaller. I never saw him smile.
One morning, as I rode past, I saw Randy’s mother open the side door and come out to sweep the porch. She was bald.
When the school bus stopped in front of the school that morning, I stood up in the aisle and yelled, “Randy’s got a bald-headed momma!”
It was one of those moments when one’s senses are heightened. I remember the close humidity of the bus; the taste of toothpaste in my mouth; the smell of Tide in everyone’s clothes; how the laughter trapped Randy as helplessly as an insect in a quart jar.
If I had been him, I would have curled up and prayed to die. To Randy’s credit, he lurched from his seat and came at me, swinging his lunch sack. I knocked it to the floor and pushed him down. The other kids howled as I stomped on his sandwich.
Until then, I’d been only marginally popular, but that day I became a star.
I’m fifty-five years old. It makes me cry to write this. I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive myself.
My parents were turning my old bedroom into a study for my dad, and they gave me an ultimatum: either I boxed up the artifacts of my childhood, or they’d throw them out. My husband, Jay, sweetly offered to help me sift through the odds and ends and mounds of papers. Every so often, I came upon something that made me stop and smile.
We found several photos of me from my awkward period — more of an era, really. What had possessed me to hold on to these photos? I remembered stealing them from my parents’ private stash for the express purpose of destroying them, lest they fall into the wrong hands. Jay looked at these sad images with fondness and sympathy, however. Thanks to him, I was able to laugh and be thankful that I had made it through adolescence with only minor bumps and bruises to my psyche.
Then we came across a bundle of cards and handwritten notes held together by a weary rubber band that gave up as soon as I touched it. Despite Jay’s impatience, I insisted on reading every one. How else could I possibly decide which to toss? I laughed and sighed over silly, conspiratorial notes from high-school classmates and candy-sweet cards from friends.
At first, I mistook Neal’s card for just another from a school friend. Then I opened it and saw his photo. Neal and I had dated briefly in college. Looking into his eyes in the photo, I heard his voice in my head and couldn’t keep from wondering where he was and whether he was happy.
Then I remembered Jay sitting across from me. I quickly closed the card and went to place it back into the stack. But Jay was looking at me with an inquisitive smile.
“Is that Neal?” he asked.
I briefly considered lying, but knew I had to tell him the truth. “Yes,” I answered sheepishly and handed the card and the photo over to Jay.
“He was a pretty good-looking guy, wasn’t he?” Jay said.
“I thought so.”
He placed the photo and the card on the “keep” pile.
My older husband enjoyed sex but had performance problems that even Viagra couldn’t solve. His fear of impotence became so great that he began avoiding sex altogether. After several celibate years, I finally admitted to myself that the situation was unacceptable. I either had to divorce him or take a lover.
Divorce was out of the question. My husband and I loved each other and were great friends. Though I’d been increasingly angry over our lack of physical intimacy, I still needed him, and he needed me.
But taking a lover was difficult. When I sat down to place my ad on the Internet dating site, I was so nervous I could hardly type. I spent the next five months secretly combing through respondents’ letters — until I met S.
S. and I have been lovers for two years, happily giving each other the physical intimacy that neither of us receives at home. (S.’s wife, a devout Catholic, was raised to believe that sex is sinful, and detests it.)
Having S. in my life has made me feel more fulfilled. Our bimonthly meetings might as well be a prescription from a doctor, they heal me so thoroughly. In turn, my marriage has improved. The anger I felt over the absence of sex has subsided, and my husband no longer feels pressured. We’re more relaxed together now.
No one knows about my lover, and I plan to keep it that way. Coming clean would only hurt my husband, and possibly S. and his wife. When you stop and think about it, who would benefit from such an admission?
When I was seventeen, I worked three menial jobs but couldn’t save any money because of how my old Volkswagen drained my finances. When the engine began to give out, I took it to Foster Neff’s garage.
A widower of about seventy with a blocky torso and a jowly face, Foster had a small shop a couple of blocks off Main Street. He didn’t make much money, but he was content. It took him forever to do any work — an oil change could take three hours — but he let me pay on credit.
Foster gave me an estimate of four hundred dollars, parts and labor, to make the Volkswagen’s engine right. I could pay him a little bit every week, he said.
He started work on the car on a Tuesday morning and called me on Wednesday the following week to say it was finished. He told me to take the car and drive it through the weekend to make sure everything felt right. I offered to pay him fifty dollars up front, but he declined. The bill, neatly written out in pencil, was stuck under the windshield wiper. I put it in the glove box. When I turned the key, the engine sounded strong and eager. I drove away.
That evening, Foster suffered a quiet heart attack during the Wednesday-night service at the Lutheran church. The person who turned off the lights noticed him still sitting in the twelfth row, his eyes closed.
Foster had stuck both copies of the bill beneath my windshield wiper. No one knew he had done the work or that I owed him for it.
I told myself that when I had the money I’d pay the debt to his heirs, but when I finally did have the money, I needed it for something else. The car passed out of my life. There were more cars. And more life.
I never did pay for those repairs. Thanks to the ubiquity of Volkswagens, old and new, I get reminded of it only about once a day.
I grew up in a church that preached hellfire and damnation, and my sole desire as a teenager was to be an instrument of God’s will. At every service and prayer meeting, I listened carefully to the message that God sent through his ministers.
One night the youth minister, who was married with children, told me that he wanted to kiss me. I said no, but I also felt curious. I was sixteen and had never even held hands with anyone. He kept insisting, and I finally agreed. Of course it went beyond a kiss.
The youth minister said that he believed God had a plan for us. He didn’t think God would make him feel this way unless God meant for us to be together. The minister also said that he loved me. I believed every word. I felt special and chosen. Somehow I was going to be a helpmate for God’s own minister. It was not for me to understand how this would come to pass.
After eight months, the minister decided to end the affair. He said that I was the serpent, Satan’s ally, and that he’d been praying for strength against me. I got down on my knees and cried as he prayed to God to cast evil from me and cleanse my soul.
I felt abandoned by the Almighty and contemplated suicide. Despondent, ashamed, and guilt-ridden, I broke down crying during a piano lesson. My piano teacher — who was also my church’s music minister — asked what was wrong, and I confessed everything to him.
Six weeks later the youth minister moved to another church in a larger city. He was given a big send-off, with all manner of praise and potluck casseroles. Before he left, he insisted that I apologize privately to his wife. I did as he asked and begged his wife to forgive me. I was told never to speak of what had happened, and I didn’t. My life went on, but the feeling of God’s presence in it never returned.
In my thirties, through grace and good luck, I met an extraordinary man, an atheist who had the patience and hard-headedness to endure years of my misdirected anger and finally win my trust. Our daughter is now sixteen, the same age that I was then. She has not been raised in any church, but I still worry about her vulnerability, her unquestioning nature, her idealism. I think of my fury should any trusted adult do to her what that youth minister did to me, and I finally understand that what happened to me was predatory, abusive, and profoundly wrong. I can weep now for the young girl I once was.
I recently tracked down my former youth minister and found him still ministering in a different state. I have sent a written account of what he did to me to officials at all levels of the church hierarchy. I have borne this shame for too long. I am returning it to its rightful owner.
I used to tell people that when I went to heaven, I hoped to find the Truth Book, a giant tome with the answers to every imaginable question: Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? Was Anita Hill lying? I was a seeker of the truth, and this was my idea of heaven.
Since becoming an atheist, I don’t think about heaven anymore, even as a fantasy. Instead I’m courting a new idea. Maybe, when I am about to die, I should tell the world my own truths: I faked stomachaches to avoid gym class in fourth grade. (I was embarrassed that I couldn’t throw a softball.) I hooked up with my best friend’s date after the junior dance. (We had sex in his Camaro.) I left a bar one night after a few too many screwdrivers and backed into a parked car. (No, I did not leave my name and insurance information.)
I visualize these truths coming faster: I judge every woman I see based on whether she is thinner or fatter than I am. I used to be bulimic. I’ve been on Prozac for ten years.
But then I think about the truths that would hurt the people I love, or have loved in the past, and that is where the fantasy ends. There are some secrets I can never reveal.
I once spent a few months in a mental hospital. I had taken speed for almost a year straight and had become so paranoid I’d started carrying a knife. I checked myself into the hospital after I almost stabbed a stranger on an elevator, convinced that he was plotting to kill me.
The paranoia disappeared a few weeks after the speed had left my system. I was still in the hospital, though, because the doctors thought I was just pretending to be well. I never told anybody about the pills, and they never asked.
I was in with the catatonics and the mumblers, on a locked ward where shock treatment was freely given and screams rang out in the night. They rationed our cigarettes and lit them for us and collected our spoons after meals. “No sharps” was the mantra.
Now when a form or application asks, “Have you ever been in a mental hospital?” I always answer no. I’m afraid people will ask questions, and I’ll have to explain too much about my past. The truth is a weight I carry. I sometimes consider telling somebody, to lighten the load. Writing it down here is as close as I have gotten.
Sara and I had been dating for a month, but we hadn’t had sex. She asked me to meet her one night at her office, and we sat on the floor surrounded by large pillows, tabletop fountains, and the smell of lavender. (She was a massage therapist.)
“We have to talk,” Sara said.
Uh-oh, I thought.
Sara continued: “I have a problem with my immune system.”
She asked me to hold her, then said, “I’m HIV-positive.” Her voice started to crack. “This just isn’t fair. This shouldn’t have happened to me. Why was I the unlucky one? I let someone do something to me when I was young and stupid.” A couple of years earlier she’d been very sick, she said. She’d had pneumonia and thought she was going to die. Now she was on medication: three different kinds of pills every twelve hours. “But I’m healthy,” she added.
Sara was lithe and muscular. The only people I had ever known with AIDS were gay, and they were dead.
“So you’re not going to die?” I said.
“They don’t really know. There are no elderly HIV survivors. Hopefully I’ll live a long and normal life.”
I told her I needed time to think. I was scared, angry, and confused. I knew virtually nothing about AIDS and HIV. I wished I had never spoken to Sara after that yoga class. Now I had fallen in love with her. I wanted to have children. Would they have AIDS? Would they live if they did? Why was I being presented with this choice?
One week later, on Valentine’s Day, I told Sara I’d stay with her.
It’s been two years. We are married and adopting a baby girl from Peru. Sara’s healthy and strong. Most days, I forget we even had that conversation.
“It must have been Larry,” I overheard my mom’s fiancé say to her. “Who else could it be?”
I knew that my soon-to-be-stepfather had finally checked the envelope full of cash in his nightstand and noticed how much thinner it was. I couldn’t let Larry, our local handyman, take the blame.
Before the third-period bell rang at my middle school that day, I went to see the school counselor. I started out saying that someone I knew had stolen ten dollars. Five minutes later the sum had risen to a hundred. Then it was three hundred, and it was I who had taken it. By the end of the hour, the truth had come out: I had stolen two thousand dollars and spent every penny on department-store shopping sprees with friends.
My mom showed up not long after. “What is it, Gina?” she asked.
I meandered through my story until I was sobbing into my hands.
Mom did not yell. She leaned over, took me in her arms, and told me that everything would be OK.
She said those same words when I confessed to her fiancé over dinner that night, and when I stood before a judge to be sentenced for theft a month later, and at the synagogue before they took their vows.
She was wrong, though. Nothing would be OK for a long time.
I was at work when I got the phone call from my sister. “Jimmy’s dead,” she said. “Mom just found him upstairs.”
I threw the phone down on my desk and cried. Though my brother Jimmy had AIDS, hepatitis C, and cirrhosis of the liver, though he drank and smoked as if each day were his last, it was still a shock. I had hoped and prayed he would get help, but whenever I’d broached the subject of rehab with him, he’d said, in his raspy voice, “If my motorcycle accident didn’t kill me, and this damn AIDS hasn’t killed me, and if all the drugs I’ve taken haven’t killed me, then neither will a little alcohol.”
The paramedics who took Jimmy’s body away told my mother it looked like a heart attack, but an autopsy would have to be done to determine the exact cause of death. The results would be mailed to her in a few weeks.
Three months went by, but no letter arrived. When I went to my mother’s for Thanksgiving, I asked her over dinner if she had gotten any word from the medical examiner’s office.
“No,” she replied.
“Seems strange that it would take this long,” I said.
She just shook her head, indicating that the conversation was over. It was probably too painful for her to talk about. After all, she had found him sitting in his chair, the tv remote still in his hand.
After dinner, I brought up the autopsy report again.
“Leave it alone,” she said. “He’s gone, and there’s not anything anyone can do.” Then she went to her bedroom and closed the door. I could hear the muffled sound of her crying.
I lay on the couch feeling numb. A letter box I had made in high-school wood shop was displayed on her mantel. The things mothers save, I thought, getting up to examine my handiwork. That’s when I saw, among the unpaid bills, the official seal of the New York State Medical Examiner’s Office.
I pulled the letter out and opened it. Next to my brother’s name was the cause of death in big black letters: ACCIDENTAL HEROIN OVERDOSE. I put the letter back in the envelope, sat down on the couch, and let the tears come. I had been in Alcoholics Anonymous for three years. I hadn’t told anyone in my family. It was time to come clean.
When Ken called me in for a second job interview, he was straight with me: my former employer had told him that I’d been sick. My stomach tightened. But Ken only asked if I was ready to go back to work. I answered with an enthusiastic yes.
I may have spoken too quickly. Forty pounds overweight and clinically depressed, I had trouble relating to my co-workers and hid in the bathroom a lot. On the weekends I stayed in bed. Still I believed work would help me get over my depression. I could not bear to be alone.
Ken said I would figure the job out in my own time. He let me be myself, even if that meant never saying good morning or smiling or joining the staff in the lunchroom at noon. Ken was so effusive in his praise for me and my accomplishments that I began to think he must be stupid. At least he should have noticed how often I went to the bathroom.
I felt I owed it to Ken to come clean about my past: the eleven psychiatric hospitalizations; the night the police had broken down my apartment door, handcuffed me, and escorted me into an ambulance; the lithium I took as a mood stabilizer and the shots of Prolixin to ward off psychosis. But what would happen if I did confess? Why did I want to tell him? Why burden him with my problems?
One afternoon Ken and I were talking about previous jobs we’d held, and I discovered he’d been a psychiatric social worker in a hospital where I had been a patient not once, but twice. I had to restrain myself from blurting out everything.
Not only that, we had both lived in the same neighborhood for more than twenty years, at times right around the corner from each other. I worried that he might remember me from when I had gone on rampages in the street. I would steal things from stores, threaten the owners, and then run when they called the cops. But if he did remember me, he said nothing.
Then one day we were talking about mental illness, and he leaned over and asked quietly if it had really been bad for me.
“It was horrific,” I said.
He had, of course, known all along. But he’d told himself that if he didn’t give me a chance, then he wasn’t being true to his mission as a social worker.
After three years, Ken moved to another department, but we are still friends and neighbors. I even baby-sit his children. In fact, Ken boasts that he trusts his kids with only three people in the world: his in-laws, and me.
My best friend Rise and I were born near the start of a seven-year drought in California. Our neighborhood was filled with empty swimming pools, dusty cars, and dry gardens. Lawns were rare, and sprinklers were forbidden. I can remember my mom setting out buckets to collect rain. I had to get irretrievably filthy to justify a shower, and even then my mom would stand outside the door and tell me to hurry. Sometimes Rise and I would bathe together in three inches of water. We’d make beards of soapsuds and spell out messages on each other’s backs.
After the water rationing officially ended, my friend and I continued to shower together occasionally. We washed each other’s long hair and watched with fascination as our bodies changed. Her body became more familiar to me than my own, and I could draw each of her birthmarks from memory: On her lower back was an uneven patch of skin the color of cafe au lait. She had three moles on her back and a scattering of small, teardrop-shaped spots across her rib cage. My favorite was a pink petal-shaped mark above her left breast, like a strawberry. I would make doodles of it in art class. I remember it peeking above the white cotton undershirts we wore as girls, and later above the green of her first bikini.
I was convinced that Rise’s birthmarks were a sign that she had been chosen for some special purpose. I longed for a birthmark of my own, permanent and unchanging.
As Rise grew older, she came to see the marks as disfiguring flaws. She had the strawberry removed after her last year of high school. When I saw the small scar where it had been, I felt desolate. She had the others removed over the next couple of years, each one leaving a faint mark, like a dry riverbed in her flesh. It was the end of her being chosen from birth and the beginning of the sacrifices we would make to be chosen by others.
© Bill Emory
As I prepared to enter first grade, there was talk of busing in my town. My mother didn’t want me riding a bus four hours every day, so she found a private religious school close to our house.
My family wasn’t overly religious. In fact, we went to church only on Easter Sunday. I had made a felt-and-macaroni cross at Sunday school the previous Easter, and I planned to take it with me to first grade to impress the teacher.
When I got to school, however, it was obvious that I wouldn’t impress anyone. My parents weren’t deacons or missionaries. I didn’t have a child-sized Bible with my name embossed in gold on the front. And I was the only child in my class who hadn’t been “saved.”
Each school day began and ended with the Pledge of Allegiance, the pledge to the Christian flag, and four choruses of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Then our teacher, Mrs. Green, would call for any sinners in the class to come forth and be saved. In order to be saved, the child had to confess a list of sins and then drop to his or her knees and pray for forgiveness. After that, Mrs. Green would ask everyone to turn to a verse in their Bibles (I used a loaner Bible from the teacher’s desk), and we would read aloud about redemption and pray for a spot in Jesus’ kingdom.
The emphasis on salvation didn’t end with this twice-daily ritual. My classmates and I pieced together elaborate “sin collages” by cutting out magazine pictures of people engaged in sinful acts — smoking, drinking, dancing, wearing pantyhose — and pasting the pictures onto poster board while reciting, “The wages of sin is death.”
I soon realized that if I was going to be saved, I needed some more impressive sins to confess. At home I back-talked to my parents, refused to eat my vegetables, and spewed profanities. By the end of September, I was ready.
On a Friday afternoon, I stammered through the Pledge of Allegiance and the pledge to the Christian flag. By the time we got to “Onward Christian Soldiers,” I was a nervous wreck. My time was at hand.
When Mrs. Green called for the sinners to come forth, I swallowed hard and ran to the front of the classroom, grabbing the loaner Bible from her desk on the way. I dropped to my knees, shut my eyes hard, and let the sins fly:
“I pulled the legs off a daddy longlegger and I said, ‘God damn you, Grandma,’ and I spit green beans on the floor and I poured red Kool-Aid on my sister’s dress and I kicked my dad in the knee.”
I opened my eyes slowly, hoping to see Mrs. Green, and maybe Jesus himself, welcoming me into the flock.
Mrs. Green was clutching her Bible to her chest. She seemed to be having a hard time breathing. She excused the rest of the students for the day and silently led me out to the circular drive, where my mother waited in the car.
I stood on the sidewalk while Mrs. Green lowered herself into the passenger seat of my mother’s car and closed the door. I saw her wag her Bible at my mother several times, and they took turns pointing at me and shouting. Then Mrs. Green burst out of the car, coughing and fanning away cigarette smoke with her Bible. I scurried into the car and slammed the door.
As we drove away from the school, Mother rolled down her window and flicked her cigarette out at Mrs. Green’s feet. “That goddamn woman is as crazy as a loon!” Mother said, fumbling in her purse for another cigarette. “Why didn’t you tell me they were torturing you in there?” I could see tears in her eyes. I understood that I wouldn’t be going back to the Christian school again.
When Mother stopped yelling, I asked the question that had been gnawing at me since I’d come forward and taken my place in the sinners’ circle: “Did Mrs. Green tell you if I was saved?”
Mother slowed to a stop and looked at me. I was still clutching the loaner Bible in my trembling fingers.
My mother pried the book from my grip and set it on the back seat. “Oh, yes, Linda,” she said, as she checked the rearview mirror and pulled away from the curb. “You are absolutely saved.”
My husband and I lit candles in the living room and brought out sliced pears and chocolate. Our children were on a sleepover, allowing us an evening of uninterrupted privacy. Our plan was to take turns telling each other our entire sexual histories, from first crushes, to lovers and affairs (before and during our marriage), to present-day fantasies and desires.
I went first, since this was my idea, and we both knew I had the longer story to tell. I enjoyed revisiting all my premarital relationships, offering him details that I had left out of previous tellings. He was titillated by the stories of my various girlfriends in college, but not so comfortable hearing about the African-drummer boyfriend or the married guy who used to undress me in his office above the dance club. My biggest challenge was not to skip over parts I imagined might threaten him. The closer my narrative came to the present, the more I struggled with full disclosure.
Could I tell him the truth about my pent-up sexual beast: how she was growing restless and wanted to escape? I felt selfish and guilty, but I couldn’t deny how wonderful I felt whenever I had a mutual attraction with someone. I feared that my husband would interpret my desire for others as a rejection of him. How could I explain that this desire did not grow out of dissatisfaction, but out of an openness to the world? For years I’d been telling myself it was kinder to protect my husband from what was going on inside me. But now it was time to come clean.
When I was done telling stories about my past, my husband laughed and said, “Is that it?” I took a deep breath and said there was one thing more: I wanted to have other sexual partners without hiding it from him. I didn’t want to leave him, but I also didn’t want to sneak around. I wanted to let my beast fully out of her cage while I still could.
He did not crumble, or explode. He thanked me for being honest and agreed to give it a try.
In the three years since that pivotal night, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about myself, and I’ve fallen even more deeply in love with my husband. I’ve enjoyed sexual experiences with other people, and I’ve spent countless hours fretting over the emotional complexities of being intimate with them. My husband has expressed jealousy, resentment, and general grumpiness, especially when I’m taking off for an exciting date. But the talks we have at times like those have helped us clarify what we love about each other, and how we can support each other more fully. I’ve realized that my husband is not my jail-keeper; he is not my father telling me what I can and can’t do; nor is he a poor, unwitting cuckold. He is a thoughtful, loving man who is capable of meeting the real me, if I am brave enough to keep revealing myself.
After fifteen years as a Catholic monk, I decided to return to a secular life. Job interviews were a challenge, but dates were even more formidable. I quickly learned that telling women that I’d been celibate for fifteen years was not a good idea.
I finally got a job in a Fortune 500 company and met a beautiful woman in accounting. Our first few dates went well. As time went on, I began to share selected details of my past with her. I told her I had a graduate degree, but I didn’t tell her it was in theology. I said I’d spent many years teaching, but I failed to mention that it was in a private Catholic school, as a monk. I even showed her some pictures of me with my college “classmates,” but only shots in which we weren’t dressed in our religious garb.
Finally I decided to tell her the whole truth. We met for breakfast, and I said: “I have something I need to tell you.”
Eyes glaring, she snapped, “What is it?”
“Well,” I stammered, “I used to be a priest.”
“And what else?” she asked suspiciously.
I was confused. “What do you mean, ‘What else?’ That’s it. Isn’t that enough?”
With an odd sigh of relief, she whispered, “Well, I guess that’s not too bad.”
A year later, on our honeymoon, she told me the full story: She’d intuited that I wasn’t telling her everything, but she hadn’t known what I was hiding. After seeing the pictures of the other brothers and me, and not a woman in sight, she figured she’d guessed my secret. She thought I was gay.
Totowa, New Jersey
In the summer of 1955, my sister Dana and I had constant sore throats. More than once, our worried mother tucked us into bed, wrapped us in too many blankets, and kept careful watch over us, looking for weakness in our limbs: the first sign of polio. Late one night I awoke with a high fever and couldn’t stand up. The family doctor made a house call before dawn. It wasn’t polio, but I did need to have my tonsils taken out.
Most of the nurses at Saint Joseph’s Catholic Hospital were nuns. Their beatific faces, framed by winged white hats, smiled down at me as I changed into a skimpy hospital gown. Before the surgery, my entire face was covered with a putrid-smelling mask. The reek of ether made me want to gag, and my eyes filled with humiliating tears.
As they held the mask over my face, the nuns instructed me to start praying. Their voices sounded garbled, as if underwater: “Say a Hail Mary. Good, now the Our Father. And another Hail Mary.”
I had to pray out loud so the doctor would know when I lost consciousness, but I didn’t know that at the time. Strapped to that metal table, I was certain they were administering last rites. I feared I would not get into heaven.
In the fog of the ether, I remembered the dime I had found on the playground at parochial school one day. Even after I heard a boy wailing that he had lost his milk money, even with nuns everywhere I looked, I didn’t give it back. I kept that whimpering boy’s dime, thinking of the candy bar — a spectacular, unheard-of luxury — I could buy with it at lunch.
When lunchtime came, though, I couldn’t buy the candy bar. I went straight to the church gift shop, with its rosaries and prayer-book missals, and bought a small statue of Jesus for my mother, who isn’t even Catholic.
As the ether clouded my consciousness, I wished for a chance to give back that dime.
“Looks like I’ve got a renter,” my eighty-two-year-old grandmother told me during our weekly phone call. She had recently finished building an apartment above her garage, a project she’d been talking about ever since my grandfather had passed away ten years earlier. The apartment was meant for a healthcare worker in case my grandmother ever became ill; she had no intention of leaving the family farm, her home for more than sixty years, except in a pine box. But her health was strong, so she had taken out an ad in the paper to find a “nice single gal or fellow.”
Tom showed up the first day, took a look around the one-bedroom place, and handed my grandmother a white envelope with enough fifties and twenties to cover the first month’s rent and the deposit. He was going through a divorce, he told her, and wanted a place close to his kids and work.
“He’s from here,” my grandmother told me, “but I don’t know him.”
I laughed and said I thought she knew everyone. My grandfather had been a dairy farmer his entire life and had always hired local boys during the busy season. Generations of neighboring families had worked for him.
My grandmother had checked up on her renter. “He’s got a good job with the county, and he’s acquainted with some of the folks at the church. You do have to be careful.”
I knew she was thinking of the fire that thirty years before had devastated my grandfather’s farm: Two of his hired hands had gone out joy riding with friends and stopped at the farm to take gas from the pump that my grandfather kept to fill up his tractors. It was the dead of night, and one of the boys foolishly lit a match so he could see. The pump caught fire and nearly blew them up. The fire burned so fast and fierce that by the time my grandfather was out of bed, everything was gone: his barns, his milking equipment, and much of his herd.
My grandfather took the loss hard. The livelihood his father had passed down to him had disappeared in one night. The barns were rebuilt, but he didn’t replace the milking machines. He was too old to start over.
The two boys who’d started the fire never apologized. My grandmother often speculated that their guilt was too deep, their shame too much to bear. Each time we talked about it, her eyes would fill with tears. Her trust in people had been broken.
I worried about my grandmother, living way out in the country by herself. She was still very active in her community, but her closest neighbor was a car ride away. I hoped that this new renter would provide her with some companionship. At the very least, she’d have someone to enjoy her pies.
“Have you taken him a pie yet?” I asked her the next week. No, she said, he hadn’t moved in yet. Nor had he moved in the following week. It became kind of a joke when he still hadn’t been around for two more weeks, except to drop off a couple of suitcases and his second month’s rent.
And then one afternoon, she told me, he came to her door. “I was in the car when the fire started,” he said to her, his head down. “I was one of the boys in the back seat.”
I imagine my grandmother looked at him for a moment, this man whose guilt was so great that he had returned, thirty years later, to the place where he and his friends had caused so much pain. Then she looked around at the changed landscape of the barnyard.
“Well,” she said, opening the screen door wide, “come sit down. Have some pie.”
Providence, Rhode Island
“Coming Clean” [November 2004] was by far the most interesting Readers Write topic you’ve chosen in a long time. I was struck by the level of remorse some contributors felt, but also by their apparent inability to make amends. Tom Carter still feels bad about not paying for repairs to his Volkswagen. Why doesn’t he donate four hundred dollars to a worthy cause in the mechanic’s name? Why doesn’t the fifty-five-year-old man who ridiculed a handicapped boy on the school bus one morning mentor a handicapped child in his community? The beautiful thing about life is that redemption is always possible.
Readers Write is the first section of The Sun I read. I’m always moved by it, even if I am moved to disagree, as I was reading the entry by the anonymous woman who has a lover and does not tell her husband [“Coming Clean,” November 2004]. “When you stop and think about it,” she writes, “who would benefit from such an admission?”
Love would benefit. Love is built on trust, which is built on honesty and respect that the other person can handle the truth.
A secret was kept from me for sixteen years and then hurled at me in anger. The truth always comes out, and misguided secrecy destroys trust in a relationship. I’m grateful for having been told the truth, despite the method of its delivery, and have healed and learned from the experience. The truth hurts, but never as much as the betrayal.