The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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Partway through college I transferred to UCLA and moved into a studio apartment near campus. When I introduced myself to my new neighbors, many of them were hesitant to open their doors. “I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness,” I said. “I’m not selling anything. I’m just moving into Unit 3.”
I loved my simple life with one room, no TV, and only my uncle’s hand-me-down record player, some good books, and my new friends to occupy my time. Working out at the health club was part of my daily ritual. I’d park in a large garage, and as I left after my workout, I’d speak to the man in the ticket booth. He was from Mexico and knew little English. Since I wanted to learn Spanish, we began to trade words: I’d teach him an English word, and he’d teach me the same word in Spanish, all in less than a minute.
After graduation I moved away, but I returned two years later to visit my sister, who belonged to the same health club. Leaving the club with her, I discovered that the Mexican man was still working in the ticket booth. When he saw me, his eyes lit up, and he said, “Where have you been?” I told him I’d moved to Seattle. Looking as if he was going to cry, he said, “You are the only person who ever spoke to me.”
Los Altos, California
I was nineteen when my roommate asked if I wanted to drive with her from Minnesota to Mexico. It was 1972, and I’d never seen the ocean or a palm tree. My impressions of Mexico had been shaped entirely by Zorro stories.
I planned to stay for two weeks, but remained for two months. We spent the night in mountain villages, washed our clothes in stone basins, and ate tamales in people’s kitchens. I also saw crippled people begging on the streets.
Coming home was a shock. The houses looked like castles, the lawns like golf courses. There were Cadillacs everywhere. My neat, orderly neighborhood was free of peddlers, beggars, and germs, but also free of music, dancing, color, life. I saw who I was for the first time: rich, secure, naive, American.
Nancy Bee Zhao
At twenty-one, I took a road trip to New Orleans with my eighteen-year-old sister. Everything I knew about New Orleans came from National Geographic and a Janis Joplin song.
It was January, and as we traveled along the Gulf Coast, away from our parents and the little town where we’d grown up, my sister seemed different, more confident. She held the wheel in one hand and a cigarette in the other. She’d recently started smoking, and it made her shyness seem cool.
In Tallahassee, Florida, a rear power window of our old Buick got stuck in the down position during a rainstorm. The first garage we went to told us it would cost three hundred dollars to fix. We kept looking until we found a kindly mechanic who said he’d put it back up for twenty bucks. It would be fine as long as nobody pushed the Down button again.
While he fixed the window, we told him about our big trip to New Orleans. He finished up, and we tried to pay him, but he shook his head. If we really wanted to do him a favor, he told us, we should turn the car around and go back home. Two beautiful, naive girls like us, he said, alone in the “City of Sin,” were a disaster waiting to happen.
That evening we checked into a New Orleans youth hostel. We stayed up all night, drank too much, and cavorted with European tourists. A funny American boy named David was staying at the hostel, too. Though he had bad skin and his clothes didn’t fit quite right, my sister and I took an immediate liking to him. When the three of us went places, he would walk with one of us on each arm while men stared in amazement at his luck. Sometimes David would run ahead and climb lampposts to impress us. In the evenings he played Leonard Cohen songs on his guitar.
He flirted recklessly with both of us, whispering in my sister’s ear while he squeezed my knee under the table. Why did we let him get away with it? We were smitten. It was New Orleans. We were drunk. Maybe if he’d been more handsome, we would have been more suspicious. We even forgave him for accidentally rolling down the back window of our Buick.
Secretly, I imagined that David preferred my sister. The thought of the two of them together made me jealous, so when my sister said, “I don’t think either of us should kiss him,” I agreed. We made a pact.
A few nights later my sister went out on a date with a Swedish boy from the hostel, leaving me alone with David. We sat for a while on a pier, looking at the Mississippi. We drank coffee at Café du Monde. We lay on park benches in Jackson Square. We drank mysterious drinks at a bar on Royal Street. David held my hand, and we wandered through the French Quarter. People who passed us said, “Oh, you look so good together!” At three in the morning, as we passed my parked car on the way back to the hostel, David opened the door to the back seat. I mentioned my pact with my sister. He laughed and started kissing me. We made out until the sun came up.
That night I told my sister to pack her things: we were going home. I waited until we were just over the border into Mississippi before I told her that I’d broken the pact. She cried an awful, convulsing cry. “I’m sorry,” I said, but she didn’t respond. She didn’t look cool anymore; she looked like my little sister.
When I told the story recently to a friend, he thought it was hilarious.
“You don’t understand,” I said. “We made a pact.”
“Those kinds of pacts don’t count,” he said.
But when I think of my little sister crying in a Mississippi hotel parking lot, I know they do.
When I was in high school, my mother worked at Newberry’s department store. I walked there after school every day and did my homework in the “ladies’ lunchroom.” But first I would go to the menswear department in the basement to visit Mom. I always paused on the landing of the basement steps and looked for her in the maze of aisles. As soon as she saw me, her face lit up.
Mom died years ago. I recently returned to my hometown on a business trip. The downtown had declined, and many of the stores were abandoned. The Newberry’s building was now an antique mall. I hadn’t set foot in it for more than thirty years. As I started down the stairs to the basement, I felt an impossible hope that Mom would be there, waiting. I wanted nothing more than to stand on the landing and see her loving face looking up at me.
For the first time in six months I am back at work. I haven’t been to work since Leo died. Leo was our baby boy.
It is strange to be here. Everyone is being oddly kind, as if they don’t quite know what to do with me. When my office mate asks me how I am, I’m not sure what to say. I managed to get out of bed today, dress myself, and get to work. My husband and I have continued to go to the grocery store and feed ourselves. I haven’t moved back to my hometown. I haven’t killed myself.
“I’m doing OK,” I say.
I was sixteen when I completed my confirmation into the Presbyterian Church and was asked to make a financial pledge. Since I didn’t have any money, I pledged my time.
I was given the job of duplicating audiocassette tapes of Sunday sermons for members who were unable to attend church. Then I was asked to deliver one to Mrs. B., who was blind and lived alone. My teenage mind quickly rehearsed the scenario: drive to shut-in’s house, put tape in mailbox, and leave.
But she did not have a mailbox. I was forced to knock, and Mrs. B. invited me in and offered me a Coke in a small glass bottle. Her apartment was cluttered but clean and smelled of burnt toast and baby powder. I settled into a chair and listened to her story about being “turned out” at the age of eight to work in a coal mine in Colorado. She told me she’d been born prematurely and had spent her first two months of life in a shoe box.
I came back week after week to drop off the tapes, and our visits became longer. I learned Mrs. B. had once been an artist. Her oil paintings of desert scenes were stacked along a wall.
At the beginning of summer, the church took a break from sermons, and my visits with Mrs. B. ended. As I left her that last day, we embraced.
“I hope you have a nice life,” she whispered.
“Oh, Mrs. B., I’ll come back!” I promised.
But Mrs. B. knew what teens were like. That September I signed up to fold the weekly bulletins for Sunday worship. I never saw her again.
My daughter Paula comes into my bedroom to tell me she has fed the cat and the bird and is about to leave for school. I ask her to get a couple of cans of tomatoes down from the shelf before she goes. I want to make spaghetti today.
“Sure,” she says.
Paraplegia is hard for an eight-year-old to understand. One day a man came to the door and asked to speak to her mother. Paula told him I couldn’t come to the door because I was a “paramedic.”
Now I hear her rinsing her cereal bowl, then brushing her teeth in the bathroom. “Bye, Mom,” she calls.
It has been six months since the accident. The cast digs deep into my groin and legs, but it allows me to be up in my wheelchair. Some nights, if I lie still, I can sleep without it on.
I’m excited about making spaghetti. We’ve been having a lot of soup and sandwiches and TV dinners that Paula prepares as I yell instructions down the hall. We usually eat together on my bed watching TV.
I put on my cast, lift myself into the wheelchair, and roll into the kitchen. No cans of tomatoes on the table or the counter. I check the pantry, and there they are, high on a shelf. I use the broom to knock the cans onto the floor, where I can get them.
Sitting sideways to the stove, I manage to brown the meat and onions, and I am stirring spaghetti sauce when Paula bursts through the door yelling her apologies for having forgotten to get the cans down. When she sees me cooking, her eyes widen, and she asks, “Do you walk when I’m not home?”
For the first time since the accident, we sit together at our kitchen table and eat. I say to myself, I’m back.
Karen L. Perecz
Fort Smith, Arkansas
My brother comes home from prison a different man. He has a new Muslim name. His body, once thin and wiry, is muscular and massive. His son, now four, helps him unwrap the gifts we’ve bought him over the two and a half years he’s been in prison. My brother puts on the T-shirt I gave him. It has an outline of Africa on it with the word Home in the middle.
Now he is free. Except for visits with his parole officer. And his ankle bracelet. And the curfew. Except for the three days a week he spends at the rehabilitation center, where he sits with other freed men watching television for five hours at a time. No counseling. No training. No healing.
My brother gets letters from his friends in prison. He keeps pictures of them. He is home, and he is still there.
My brother looks for a job, but without success. He tries to get to know his son, but the boy still clings to our mother. My brother stops working out, or reading, or writing letters. He turns to drugs. He makes bad decisions. He goes back to prison. This time it will be even longer before he comes home.
Brooklyn, New York
I was living in the south of France, working as an au pair. The couple were difficult employers, but I was determined to experience France and speak French fluently by the time I left.
I missed my boyfriend in the States. We wrote each other, called every week, and planned to live together when I returned. One night I dreamed that he’d fallen in love with someone else. I called him the next day. My dream turned out to have been prophetic. We broke up, and I decided it was time to go home.
I took a taxi to the airport in Nice. The driver had kind eyes and white hair. As he drove, we began to talk. The French just flowed out of me, easily and beautifully. He said, “Surely you must have a love where you are from,” and I told him the sad story of my breakup. “This story is not over,” he said. “Let me tell you my story.”
When he was young, he fell madly in love with a girl who lived far away, in Lille. They saw each other as much as they could, and missed each other during the long stretches when they were apart. Then, to his surprise, he developed feelings for a woman with whom he worked. It caused him great pain, but he broke up with the girl from Lille. His relationship with the other woman didn’t last. Years later he saw the girl from Lille and regretted terribly what he had done.
“Please don’t misunderstand me,” he said. “I have married; I love my wife very much. But I wonder sometimes what would have happened if I had stayed with the girl from Lille. Your story is not over.”
At the airport I told him my name and asked his. “You must promise not to laugh,” he said. “It’s Casanova.”
My beautiful, brown-eyed daughter was gone for three years, even though she slept in the bedroom next to mine the entire time. I could measure the distance between us by the cuts on her arms, shoulders, and legs. She sliced herself with blades — to release the pain, she says. I could not stop her. She could not stop herself.
I felt terrified and angry at my inability to protect my daughter. I made rules to keep her near me: no sleepovers, no late nights out, no time with friends. When that didn’t work, I tried giving her the freedom to stay out late and spend unlimited time with her boyfriend. Desperate to make her happy, I spent money I didn’t have buying her everything she wanted. But the problems continued. My smart, kind, beautiful daughter was killing herself.
Finally she asked to go away to seek help from strangers. I was shattered, but we both knew that it was her last hope.
The doctors helped her. She now has scars, but no fresh cuts. As each day passes, I hear more laughter in her voice. My daughter is coming back.
When I was six, my father and I spent a weekend at his parents’ farm. He was trying to escape the tension and loneliness at home, as my mother turned more and more of her attention to her college courses. On Sunday we returned to a quiet apartment. When I saw the large area rug in the living room was missing, I said, “She’s gone, isn’t she, Daddy?”
My parents divorced, and each took one child. I went with Dad. My sister, who was two, went with Mom. After that Mom seemed happier. Our new life was good, until she took my sister with her to Mexico for a semester-long art class and decided to stay.
Around that time I came home from school to find Dad on the bathroom floor, surrounded by vomited blood. They didn’t expect him to survive the bleeding ulcer, but he did. We moved to the farm, and Grandma and Grandpa nursed our broken hearts. In June I flew to Mexico City to visit Mom and my sister. A month later, my sister flew back home with me to visit the farm. When her month was up, Dad just didn’t take her to the airport.
We lived carefree for a while. My sister rode the school bus with me and made new friends. Then one night at supper, Mom walked into the house, picked up my sister from her chair at the kitchen table, and drove away. It would be four years before we saw each other again.
Mom says she still feels guilty for what she put me through, remembering how I held her leg, sobbing and begging her not to take my sister, and how hard it was for her to pry me off and walk away.
I was born loving horses and started riding at a friend’s farm when I was five, on a large white horse named Pinky. Being on horseback felt natural to me. I took riding lessons on and off as a girl, and as an adult I leased a horse for a short while. Then I had a child and didn’t have the time or the money to ride anymore.
But recently I started riding a friend’s horse. Some people at the stable where my friend boards her horse encouraged me to spend time with another horse they housed, who had been neglected for years. The little mare’s owner never came to see her. She was a beautiful dun with zebralike stripes on her legs, but her mane was a terrible snarl, and her eyes were dull. I reached through the fence to pet her and give her a carrot.
After working up the courage, I called the horse’s owner and explained to him that I wanted to exercise his horse for him. I wouldn’t expect to be paid; I’d do it just because I love horses so much. He consented. I was ecstatic. I bought grooming brushes, a hoof pick, and a small mane comb, and I borrowed a halter and lead rope. I worked for two hours to untangle her mane, then led her out to rejoin the world.
I’ve discovered she loves being scratched along the top of her neck. When I scratch there, she gently closes her eyes, and I wonder what she’s thinking. Every weekend I take her out and feed her carrots and apples. Nothing can keep us apart. One weekend this past winter, she was the only horse who had a visitor.
My husband always referred to Ethiopia as “back home,” but on his first visit to that country in ten years he was shocked by the changes he saw. Even the people appeared different. “Everyone has gotten darker,” he whispered to me. “They didn’t use to be so black.”
“No,” I said. “I think you have just gotten used to seeing only white people.”
He felt both happy and sad on that trip: Happy to feel the touch of his mother’s hand; sad to see how she’d aged. Happy to swim in the river of his childhood; sad to see the girls carrying large pots of water back to the village, their frail bodies bending under the weight. Happy to see the face of an old friend; sad to hear of his friend’s hardships. My husband began to recognize that he would never again quite fit in among people in his homeland. Men who used to beat him now begged him for money. Many old friends had died, victims of war or poverty, and their younger brothers didn’t remember him, or knew him only as “the one who flew away to America.”
When my husband spoke again of “back home,” he meant our home. Not America, where the police stop him as he bikes to work; where he is followed in the grocery store, suspected of shoplifting; where he is approached on the street, even while holding the hand of our young daughter, and asked for drugs. No, not our country, but our small house, where black and white come together to make a family. That is the only place we are truly home.
© J’Aimee Cronin
I sat alone on the porch with two bottles of fast-acting insulin and a syringe on the table next to my wheelchair. Since gangrene had developed in my legs, the weeds had taken over the lawn and our children’s old sandbox. The swing and wagons and tricycles were gone. Kudzu grew over the fence. The gangrene, too, was spreading. Pain medications weren’t working. My legs would soon have to be amputated.
I’d decided to inject the fatal dose of insulin in the master bedroom, before my wife came home from her exercise class. She would think I was napping and not try to wake me. Taking a deep breath, I cradled the insulin and needle on my lap and rolled into the bedroom. On the way I glanced at three pictures of our children when they were small. None of the happy photos hinted at the hard times to come: the three heart surgeries and years of diabetes complications.
I placed the syringe and insulin on the bedside table, then lifted myself onto the edge of the bed and pushed away the wheelchair. When I opened the bottles, the caps fell on the floor. I chuckled. The discarded caps would infuriate my wife, but I was already in the bed and couldn’t retrieve them. I tried to shut down my mind in preparation for the end. It was getting late.
Two hours later my wife stuck her head into the bedroom. “Are you OK?” she asked.
“I was going to take a nap,” I said.
“Why didn’t you?”
“I just couldn’t do it.”
When my grandson was five, he talked of his many experiences with his other grandfather and grandmother, the ones he’d lived with in a past life, before choosing to “come back” as the child of my son and daughter-in-law. He calmly related how he’d died of a broken back at age eleven after falling from a stone wall. He now has an extraordinary fear of heights, often reacting with alarm when he finds himself even a foot off the floor.
Recently, during a weekend trip to a nearby lake in the dead of winter, he asked his mother for permission to swim. When she told him that the water was too cold, he immediately recalled that in the science classes his other grandfather had taught, he’d learned about the effects of hypothermia. He gave a near-perfect definition of the word.
He also informed his mother of her impending pregnancy — “Mommy, you have a baby brother in your tummy” — weeks before her doctor confirmed it.
Our grandchild has given us a new sense of discovery and adventure about the mystery of life and death. Our eyes are now open to the possibility that we will come back.
I began plotting my escape from my hometown of Sacramento, California, at the age of ten. At sixteen I used my baby-sitting earnings to take a trip to Europe. After college I joined the Peace Corps and lived on a tiny island in Micronesia. I was free!
I explored five continents before moving back to the U.S., finally ending up in New York City, where I completed graduate school. Since then I’ve moved so much I sometimes have trouble remembering my current address and phone number.
Throughout my travels, I’ve managed to go home twice a year, but when I do, I feel like an outsider. My insatiable wanderlust has caused me to miss weddings, funerals, births, graduations, divorces — all the life events that keep people connected.
On a recent visit I tried to help heal an old family feud by offering advice, thinking my more objective perspective would bring clarity to the warring parties.
“Sweetie, you’ve been gone a long time,” said my aunt. “You don’t really know what’s going on.”
Part of me wanted to tell her she was wrong, but another part of me knew she was right.
Serena M. Collins
Every night when I was a teenager, after the supper dishes had been done, my mother would tell me stories of her childhood, like how a cousin had died from drinking the “jake-leg” whiskey that her uncle had made during Prohibition, or how her beloved aunt had raised her from a baby after her own mother had died. Eventually the conversation would come around to her and my father.
My mother had fallen in love at seventeen and married a man who could not show his love in return — at least, not in ways that were meaningful to her. She and my father had worked as tenant farmers. After having three children, she’d become too ill to bear more for six years. Then she’d given birth to me and my two younger brothers. My father still expected her to do her share of the field work even when she was heavy with child or nursing a newborn.
I can’t remember my reaction to all this information. I think I felt shame for my father and pity for my mother. I later came to question the wisdom of her decision to tell me so much about my father, and wondered how this might have influenced my own poor choices in men. I also felt sad that my mother had no one besides me to confide in.
I married for the first time at nineteen. My mother stood by the car as I left and told me, “You be good to him, now.” She did not say to my new husband, “You be good to my daughter, now.” It was some time before I questioned the belief behind that remark: that women were ultimately responsible for the success of the marriage.
Now, when I came home to visit, I did all the talking: about my jobs, my friends, my experiences as a college student. I was living a life that my mother could hardly imagine, never having left the farm or gotten much education. I didn’t mention the many ways I’d strayed from being a good Southern Baptist.
After my dad died, I came home more often, but my mother and I talked less, content to sit and read or watch TV. Our lives had changed: She was facing her remaining years alone and was afraid. I was divorced and, after many years of celibacy, had become involved with someone whom I’d later marry. When my mother guessed correctly that I was sharing a home with my new lover, she was immediately worried what her neighbors would say. I assured her that no one in the community would care about my living arrangement. Besides, I said, times had changed — and, after all, I was fifty-three years old! She looked at me with a sad and knowing expression. In the rural, small-town environment I’d left behind, people’s intimate lives were always open for discussion and censure.
I remembered how, when a high-school friend of mine had married a divorcée, my mother had repeated what others in the community had said: that it was a shame he hadn’t married a virgin. I was horrified and pointed out to her that she had two daughters who were divorced. Did she feel that we weren’t worthy of marriage because we were no longer virgins? She wouldn’t answer my question, and I later convinced myself that she hadn’t truly believed what she’d said.
Now it seemed that I was wrong. She and I had disappointed each other, and our relationship was changed. Even after I married for the second time, with an announcement in the local papers (in case anyone thought I was still “living in sin”), it never felt the same between us.
I’d always imagined that when she died, the heartbreak would be unbearable; we’d been so close. Instead, as my mother lay dying several years later, I felt only superficial emotions. Each of my siblings told her how much they loved her, but I held back. My only consolation was that I’d written her a long letter after she’d become ill, telling her in great detail how much she meant to me.
For many months after she died, I felt an anguish I could not express, nor easily comprehend. Even now, when I recall something I said to make her cry, I can hardly get my breath. With time, I am beginning to accept the brutal truth: that nothing I do now can change the relationship I had with my mother. All I can do is try to find some sort of understanding, which may or may not be the same as forgiveness. But oh, what I’d give to be able to go back home just once more and sit with her again and talk. She could talk about anything she wished; I wouldn’t say a word.
I spent my girlhood in East Germany under Soviet rule. My mother and I escaped in 1957, when I was seventeen, and I eventually became an American citizen.
In 1991, my two sons spent a year studying in Germany and Austria, and I brought them to the town where I’d grown up. We visited places where I’d hiked, sledded, and biked. Then we went to see my old home.
The shutters had been painted, and there was a new fence, a new mailbox, and an attractive iron gate in front. A woman was hoeing the garden. I said, “Hello. I used to live here many years ago. My mother and I left in 1957. We —”
“It’s our house now,” she said. “We bought it legally, and I have documents to prove it.”
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “I haven’t come to take it away.” A new law entitled people to reclaim property expropriated by the state after they’d escaped from East Germany. I assured her that I wanted only to see my childhood home again and to show it to my sons. I had secretly hoped to be invited in.
We talked about how she had bought the house. When I learned that it had been sold with all its contents, I asked if she’d come across a white teddy bear.
“Oh, yes, I still have it; I have a collection of bears. I sewed some pants and a shirt for it; it sits with all the others.”
I told her that the bear had been mine. My father had rescued it from a burning house in Berlin after an air raid. “It was my only toy for many years,” I said.
She stared at me for a moment, then continued her yardwork. I waited for her to say something else, but she didn’t. My sons and I walked away slowly, in silence.
Santa Cruz, California
When my husband and I divorced, I had two small children, a high-school education, and little work experience. For my kids’ sake and mine, I decided to get an education so that I would never again be dependent on a man for support. Not wanting to uproot my kids from school and friends, I left them with their dad and stepmom while I went to college in a nearby city.
The separation was gut-wrenching. My son, age ten, would call me late at night crying and begging to come live with me. Finally his dad would take the phone and say goodbye. I would hang up and cry too.
My children visited me every other weekend, and my daughter would cling to me as we made the trip back to her dad’s. She didn’t want to be away from either of us. I’d hold her and wipe her tears, staring out the window at the mountains, the river, and the sky, trying to numb my pain with nature’s beauty. Was an education worth this separation? What kind of mother am I, I thought, leaving my children?
Finally I earned my degree in English, moved back, and became a teacher. I struggled to fit into my kids’ lives. My now-teenage son struggled with depression, and my daughter with an eating disorder. When they finally were ready to talk about the hurt they felt, I gave them the freedom to let it all out. They are now strong young adults making their way in the world, and I have the financial security I wanted, but I often feel ashamed for having left them when they were young.
I grew up along Chicago’s “north coast,” where all the blocks end at public beaches on the shore of Lake Michigan. In warm weather my friends and I would spend the entire day on the beach, swimming and listening to transistor radios. In winter I would wander along the broken sea walls and rocks that littered the shoreline. Though my mother, my sister, and I lived in a shabby old apartment with peeling radiators and scuffed wooden floors, we had broad windows to let in lake breezes, and when it got too hot at night, my sister and I would run down to the beach barefoot in our nightgowns to take a dip before bed.
After graduating from high school, I left home and ended up in California, where I rented a cheap place near Venice Beach. My mom moved from our old apartment after gentrification drove up the rent. When I came back to the city a decade later, she was in a suburban nursing home. I rarely returned to the old neighborhood.
After our mother died, my sister and I poured her ashes into the lake. Mom had spent every summer of our childhood sitting by the water on a cloth fold-up chair, wearing her Jackie O. sunglasses and reading a thick novel. She padded into the water only when her deep brown skin got too hot.
Now my sister and I live seventy miles apart, but we meet on the shore of Lake Michigan every year to remember Mom. One year we walked past our old apartment and saw a For Rent sign. We rang the bell, and a young man answered and offered to show us the empty apartment. We didn’t tell him that we’d grown up in those rooms. He thought we were apartment hunting.
In my old bedroom, the wood floor was discolored where I’d spilled a bottle of Burgundy as a teenager. The bathroom sink was still cracked where I’d dropped my cassette player in it. The stain and the crack were the only evidence that our family had ever lived there.
After months of hiding in other people’s houses, my daughter and I returned home. Nothing was as it had been. We lived in a state of readiness in case he came back and attacked me again. My daughter, just ten, had to learn to live with a mother too traumatized to cook macaroni and cheese, or celebrate her birthday, or admire her painting of a budding cherry tree.
My daughter couldn’t sleep alone. We dragged our comforters to the sun porch, the least-secure room in the house, but one that offered us an easy exit if we saw him coming. We slept there until winter’s chill forced us back inside, where we camped in the family room.
Slowly we stopped watching for his car. The phone stopped ringing. We drifted, two small stars spinning in an isolated corner of a dark universe.
Finally we moved, leaving behind everything his hands may have touched.
Last week, my friend N. invited me and three other women to her house for a ritual of letting-go. When I got there, she’d built a fire in the fireplace, which she said was for burning our goodbyes. In my pocket was the tiny clay figure I’d made of a woman on her back, her arm raised to protect her face.
I wrote on a piece of paper: “Fear, I give thee thy freedom.”
N. summoned the goddesses of the east, north, south, and west. Each of us came forward and spoke about the part of her life she was releasing. Into the fire went a journal, an amber pendant, the remnants of a love affair. Then it was my turn.
“I let go of fear.” I threw the paper on the fire. It smoked lightly, then was gone.
I held the clay woman in my hand. I kissed her and told her that I loved her; I told her that it wasn’t her fault. Then I let her go.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Bill and I started out as best friends in high school, but somewhere along the line, we discovered sex. When my mother found out, she insisted we get married. I was sixteen, and Bill was seventeen.
Too young for marriage, Bill and I soon drifted apart. It was the late sixties, and after the divorce, I moved to the West Coast to pursue the dreams — and illusions — of the times and got pulled in by the undertow of drugs and alcohol. My new lover, an abusive alcoholic, shot me in a drunken rage. My head wrapped in bandages, I fled to Hawaii to live with my older brother, whom I worshiped, but he got drunk and attempted to seduce me.
Wounded and disgusted, I moved back to the Bay Area, where my old hippie friends turned their backs on me. For a couple of years I found comfort in a needle and a spoon. One cold morning I was on a damp houseboat when two men there got into an argument over drugs. One fatally shot the other, and I was arrested as an accomplice to murder and went to prison for twenty-five years.
After I was released, I returned to the Midwest to visit my family. While I was there, I decided to see if Bill still lived in town. He did. He was a single parent, raising two children and doing a remarkable job of it.
The moment we saw each other, thirty years dissolved. We had a lot less hair and fewer teeth, but the essence of what had brought us together many years earlier was still there. He was still my best friend.
I had come to Managua, Nicaragua, to visit a friend. We were at the post office picking up mail when a group of children approached and asked if we could help their family. My friend, incapable of saying no to kids, agreed.
The children led us to a small house on a nearby street. When we stepped inside, we saw the floors and walls were charred black, as if there had been a fire. “You live here?” my friend asked the children. They urged us on to where a baby boy lay still on the floor.
“How long has he been dead?” my friend asked.
A day, they said. They couldn’t bury him because the cemetery charged ten dollars.
I snuck another look at the baby, waxy and unreal. He reminded me of a doll I’d once had.
Soon the adults began to appear — an aunt, then the mother and the dad, all looking to us for help. We went to the cemetery with them and paid the ten dollars.
The next day I flew back to Boston. On the way home I stopped to have a burger. It cost ten bucks.
Rochester, New Hampshire
After graduating from an all-girls, Catholic high school in San Francisco, I felt adrift. All my friends were busy with boyfriends or babies or college, but I had nothing to occupy me. I decided to adopt a mutt from the pound, put on my backpack, and hitchhike east. My goal was to see snow for the first time and to earn enough money to fly to Europe. I’d never been on a plane before.
My new dog Sam and I headed across the country, stopping in Salt Lake City, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton. When people found out we were hitchhiking away from San Francisco, they thought we were crazy.
On September 1, Sam and I arrived in Vermont and spent the first night at a campground. The next morning we walked into Stowe, and I got a job as a waitress and rented a room in a boarding house. Every day Sam and I walked the mile between our room and the restaurant. During my shift I tied him to a tree behind the building, and on break I brought him scraps of bacon from breakfast and prime rib from dinner.
One morning, as we walked our familiar route, Sam chased after a dog across the road, ran in front of a car, and was struck and killed.
The speed with which the news traveled the small-town grapevine astonished me. In the grocery store, on the sidewalk, and in the restaurant, strangers expressed their sympathy. When two roomers at the boarding house asked if there was anything they could do, I told them I needed a ride to the airport. My first airplane ride was not to Europe, but home to San Francisco.
Two weeks after I returned to the West Coast, I received a postcard from the restaurant’s bartender describing the winter’s first snowfall.
San Francisco, California
I was sitting on the bed at the Glass Slipper Motel, dialing my grandmother’s phone number. The guy with me sat at the other end of the bed, shaking his head. We’d just smoked crack out of a Coke can (meth had gotten too expensive), and he’d told me not to call her. As I listened to the ring at the other end, I was beginning to think maybe he was right. Too late.
“Grandma? It’s me.” I began to cry.
“Honey, we miss you so much. Please come home.”
That was all it took. I’d had a hundred reasons to leave home, but when it came right down to it, I needed only one reason to go back: I needed to be asked.