At 5 A.M. the Amtrak lounge car was deserted except for Leo the attendant, who was wiping glasses and preparing for the day shift, and me, scribbling in my journal because I was too excited to sleep. I was moving across the country with a man I had fallen in love with only a few weeks before.
Leo noticed my notebook and asked, “You a writer?”
I said I was.
“You write poetry?”
He needed assistance writing a poem for his church newsletter: an acrostic tribute to a deacon in his church. As I helped him compose a few lines, he asked where I was going. I told him I was heading for Oregon with my “fiancé” — I didn’t feel quite right telling this churchgoing man that Fritz was my lover.
A few hours later I was back in my seat next to my dozing boyfriend when Leo appeared at the head of the car, a line of teenagers following him, each carrying a cupcake adorned with one flickering candle. (They belonged to a traveling 4-H club, I found out later, and had agreed to help Leo with his surprise.) “Folks,” Leo announced, “we need more young couples like Fritz and Devon here, ready to commit to a life together and to the responsibilities of matrimony.” The other passengers craned their necks to see us. My lover of four weeks looked over at me as if startled from a dream. Then, with only a slight hint of panic in his voice, he asked, “Will you marry me?”
“You don’t have to . . . ,” I whispered.
“No, I mean it,” he replied.
I said yes, and the other passengers burst into applause.
Weeks later, after our impromptu wedding ceremony, a box arrived in the mail from an address in Chicago. It was from Leo. Inside were our names engraved in balsa wood, a collection of Amtrak souvenirs, and the church newsletter containing the poem I’d helped him write.
Thirteen years later Fritz and I are still married, with three beautiful children, and I still use my battered Amtrak key chain, a gift from our personal Cupid.
Right from the start I found it all too easy to accommodate my only son. He was well-behaved, got good grades, and smiled easily. I wanted him to be happy, no matter what it took. Even his potential pain was more than I could bear. (They really should come with instruction manuals.)
Over the years I said yes a lot — to speed skates, BMX bikes, the latest shoes, and the smelly hair product that rendered his beautiful curly hair straight so it would match everyone else’s at school. When he asked for a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle birthday cake, I got out the green food coloring and used white Chiclets for the turtle’s teeth.
That little boy with the easy smile is all grown up now. Every Wednesday I wait for my phone to ring. The calls come from a state correctional facility surrounded by tall fences topped with razor wire. When the automated operator asks if I will accept the collect call, I press 1 to say yes.
My neighbor was ten and a half and I was eleven the first time he kissed me — full on the mouth with a little too much tongue. We lived in the suburbs and spent afternoons at each other’s houses while our parents were at work. We soon progressed from French-kissing to getting naked and exploring one another’s bodies. We were too young to want sex, but the sneaking around and fear of getting caught were powerful draws.
Two years after that first kiss my now twelve-year-old neighbor was ready. We’d already been having oral sex for a year, and he saw intercourse as the next step. On a hot summer day I finally said yes.
I continued to say yes for several years, though I felt tremendous guilt and confusion. For him, though, it was simple: he loved me in his adolescent way.
We were always “just friends” to everyone else and never acted as if we were dating. We stopped having sex only after we became enrolled in the same high school. While everyone else in school was telling exaggerated tales about their sex lives, I lied about mine and wanted nothing more than to be a virgin again. But as my high-school friends lost their virginity at keg parties or in the back seats of cars, I began to feel less regret.
Now that neighbor boy and I both have families of our own. We are still friends and see each other several times a year. I believe our innocent exploration helped make me the confident, sexually fulfilled woman I am today.
San Diego, California
My husband and I have come to visit our son and his family. Before breakfast I watch as our daughter-in-law begins the process of getting our son out of bed, showered, dressed, and into his wheelchair. He is forty-two and has battled MS for twenty-seven years. We have seen him go from running cross-country to using a cane, then a walker, then a power chair. This morning he is stiffer and weaker than usual because he’s recovering from pneumonia, but he’s determined to go to work, as a physician at a medical clinic.
My husband could simply lift our son and place him in his chair, but our son and his wife want to do it their way, which involves a series of lifts, pivots, holds, pushes, pulls, and hugs. Engaged in what they’re doing, they seem unaware of my presence. Their six-year-old twins get ready for school as they would on any other day. Our son stands and holds on to a bar while our daughter-in-law pulls up his pants. Then she maneuvers him into the power chair, puts on his socks and shoes, and struggles to place his feet on the footrests. Finally she pulls his shirt over his head and brushes his hair.
When they have completed their morning routine, our son lifts his hand for a high-five. Our daughter-in-law slaps her palm against his, and they say in unison, “Yes!”
At about two in the morning I got a collect call from my friend Lucy, who was in the county jail. She was weeping and hysterical and begging me to come bail her out.
She had been in jail once already, for shoplifting, but that was before I’d known her. This time her offense was more complicated: She’d had a fight with her girlfriend, Brenda, and then had left for the hospital to get her medication. (Lucy is borderline and bipolar.) When she got back to her apartment, the police and an ambulance were there. Brenda had cut her wrists, and a neighbor had heard her screaming and called the police. Lucy was distraught. The police had to drag her back three times to keep her from throwing herself on Brenda in tears. Finally they handcuffed Lucy to a table and arrested her for obstruction.
Brenda and Lucy’s relationship was turbulent, but I knew that Lucy loved this woman and would never leave her. I told Lucy to let me know when they set her bail.
“But I want to go home now!” she said. “Brenda needs me!”
“I can’t get you out until I know how much your bail is,” I said. “Just stay put and try to relax.”
The next morning I found out that her bail was $250. If I bailed her out, I would be short on rent and unable to pay bills. Neither Lucy nor Brenda was currently working. Over the years I’d loaned Lucy money several times, and she’d always paid me back, but it had been only ten or twenty dollars. I told Lucy I couldn’t do it.
“But I have nobody else to help me!” she said.
“Let’s wait and see what happens,” I said.
Lucy called again that night. I could tell she was depressed. She couldn’t get her medication in the jail, and they were talking about putting her on suicide watch. “Please,” she said.
The next day, at work, I had lunch with Rosie. She had good sense, and I expected her to tell me how I would never get my money back from Lucy. Instead she looked me in the eye and said, “That girl’s crazy, but she makes you smile. You’re like family to her.” Sure, I would regret spending the money, she said, but I’d regret it even more if I didn’t.
The next day I went to the county jail and paid Lucy’s bail. She never said thank you; she just asked for a cigarette. I drove her to see Brenda at the hospital, then took her home. Two weeks later she paid me back in full. I never figured out how she did it.
In 1963, when I was fifteen years old, I told my parents I was a homosexual. My father said he would get me help. “Help” turned out to be a psychotherapist who insisted that if I had sex with enough women, I would be cured.
I did as the doctor suggested. In high school and college I had sex with many women and felt confident that I was turning straight.
One year, while the college was closed for break, my friend Steve and I were the only ones left in the dorm. I was writing a poem when Steve poked his head in my room and asked if he could sleep in my upper bunk; he was feeling lonely. I said sure.
He went to take a shower, and when he came back, he put his hands on my shoulders and massaged them. Then he reached under my arms and pulled me up. I felt his wet chest through my T-shirt. I heard his towel fall.
“No,” I said. “No. No.”
He turned me around and kissed me.
I sighed and said yes.
I was five when I came to live with the Espositos, who were taking me in as a foster child. Their apartment was on the first floor of a two-family home, the last house on a dead-end street, next to a vacant field.
I was a quiet, watchful girl. All my life I’d been moved from one temporary “home” to another, beginning with my birth mother’s rooming house in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, and passing through various orphanages and foster homes. Time after time I’d assumed my bad behavior was the reason I’d been sent away.
The Espositos had a boy named Stevie, about nine, a wiry kid with black-brown hair and sharp blue eyes. I assumed that Stevie was their biological child, since they always trusted his word over mine, but today I wonder if he might have been a foster kid like me.
One day Mrs. Esposito had to go out, and she asked Stevie to baby-sit me. He and a friend were sprawled on the living-room rug drawing horses and cowboys. The dark drapes were drawn, and the only light was a floor lamp with a chipped milk-glass shade. Before she left, Mrs. Esposito said, “Remember, Lucy, do as Stevie says. He is in charge, OK?”
“Yes, Mrs. Esposito,” I said. I was already afraid of Stevie and had been blamed for several of his pranks.
After she was gone, Stevie saw me gazing at his toy dashboard, with its plastic windshield and working steering wheel. “You want to play with that?” he asked. “Go ahead — but don’t break it!”
Surprised by his sudden generosity, I carried the toy to a spot on the other side of the room, turned my back to them so that I wouldn’t be watched, and spun the steering wheel from side to side, pretending to drive a carload of kids to the ice-cream shop.
“Hey, Lucy, we’re bored drawing cowboys,” Stevie said. “How about we draw you instead?” I looked over and saw a wicked expression on Stevie’s face. He told me to take off my panties and hold up my skirt: they wanted to draw what a girl looks like “down there.”
I stayed put and held on to the toy steering wheel.
“If you don’t do it, I’ll tell Ma that you took my toy and broke it, and you’ll be in big trouble!” And he came over and kicked the windshield of his own toy, cracking it.
I slowly stood up.
“Come on! Take off your panties!”
As tears streamed down my cheeks, I pulled my panties down around my ankles.
“Pull up your dress,” Stevie ordered.
I pulled it up, my legs tight together.
“Now stand with your feet apart so we can see better down there.”
I complied and stood there while the boys drew pictures, ribbed each other, and laughed. I wished that Mrs. Esposito would walk through the door, but she didn’t.
When they were done, Stevie brought his sketchbook over to me and shoved it in my face, saying, “I’m good, huh, Lucy?” He poked my shoulder and looked back at his friend. “Say, ‘Yes,’ Lucy! Say, ‘Yes, you are good, Stevie.’ ”
“Yes,” I mumbled. “Yes, you are good, Stevie.”
There were only twenty minutes left before my son and I needed to walk out the door for school and work. My tears welled up as he refused to put his shoes on and struggled to get free of my grasp. I was physically exhausted and also tired of pretending to be happy. I could hear my husband in the kitchen making himself breakfast. The night before, he and I had talked about separating. It was an enticing idea, but we could barely afford to live together, much less apart. Not to mention that neither of us would be able to give up custody of our son. Four years earlier our older son had died, and neither of us could ever walk away from the child who remained.
I set a bowl of oatmeal on the table in front of my son, who screamed, “No!” and climbed down from his chair and ran off. Instead of following him, I headed straight out the front door, not even putting on my shoes, and I sat down on the steps to cry. I glanced at my watch; I’d give myself two minutes. My eyes trailed down the street toward the highway beyond. I could hear planes taking off from the airport. If I’d had any shoes on, I might have walked down that street and kept going. I tried to imagine what that would feel like — just to walk away.
I heard the door open behind me and glanced at my watch again. Three minutes had gone by. We would be late.
“I think he wants something else for breakfast,” my husband said. “Are you coming back inside? Is everything OK?”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I’m fine.” I stood up, wiped my eyes, and wondered how fast I could heat up waffles.
San Antonio, Texas
Jim, my colleague at a U.S. Embassy in Central America, was the toughest consular officer when it came to granting visas to local citizens. Their pleas to visit relatives or to study in an American college, he told the other officers, were spurious; all these “brown people” really wanted was to get into the U.S. and stay there to make money.
Jim enjoyed his reputation as a difficult officer to get by, and he reveled in rejecting the majority of the applicants he interviewed. Over coffee he’d recount how he had uncovered their scams and saved our country from intruders. Once, he told me of the local surgeon who’d fed him an unconvincing story of wanting to travel to the U.S. to learn a new surgical procedure. What he really wanted, Jim said, was to earn an American surgeon’s large salary. He had denied the man a visa.
One night the next week Jim’s three-year-old son developed a respiratory problem. By morning he was in a critical state. The nurse practitioner at the embassy’s medical center began calling local doctors, who suggested that the child be taken to a nearby teaching hospital, where a surgeon had treated similar cases. Desperate, Jim and his wife rushed their son to the hospital. The specialist was the same young surgeon to whom Jim had denied a visa the previous week. The hurried surgery was a success, and Jim was able to bring his son home after a few days.
A week after the surgery, Jim reversed his decision to deny the surgeon a visa.
I was in southwest Iowa on the ninety-ninth day of my six-month bicycle tour of the United States. My original plan had been to ride from the West Coast to the East and back, but I’d abandoned that itinerary after having met a woman named Carol in Birmingham, Alabama. I’d stayed with her too long, and instead of continuing to the coast when I’d left, I’d headed north to Indiana, then turned west to start back toward California.
As I slipped back onto the highway that morning, I got a whiff of home: the smell of wild Western grasses on the wind. It was spring on the Great Plains. The sun rose, and I stopped to remove my windbreaker and stow it in my pack, and I thought of Carol. I’d ridden a thousand miles since I’d left her door. Suddenly I wanted to turn back.
I was recently divorced and enjoying the freedom to do all the biking, hiking, and mountain climbing I wanted. Did I really want to get into another relationship so soon? There were highways to explore, trails to follow, and sheer rock faces to climb. On the other hand, did I want to spend the rest of my life alone? To my surprise, I realized I was thinking about getting married again. It made no sense.
I stuffed the jacket into my pack, climbed aboard my bike, and turned east. I rode a hundred yards, then turned back west. Finally I stopped. It was a Friday, and Carol would be out of town for the weekend. If I didn’t call that day, I wouldn’t be able to speak to her until Monday. I felt I had to propose marriage right then, or I would regret it for the rest of my life. It didn’t matter that I had known her exactly thirty days. It almost didn’t matter that she would probably say no. What mattered was making that call.
I pedaled into the next town, found a pay phone, and dialed her number. She didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no either.
I rode the rest of the way home to California, and the following September Carol moved to San Jose to be with me. We were married the summer after that. We recently celebrated our thirtieth wedding anniversary.
David F. Harvey
While Leslie plunges into the waves, I walk slowly to the edge of the water, stalling for time. I liked Leslie from the moment I saw him in his army fatigues. When I picked him up tonight for our date, it was the first time I’d seen him in civilian clothes. Now he’s naked, his pants and shirt and underwear lying on the sand.
He’s twenty. I’m just sixteen. I got chills when he asked me out. But I’m not going to skinny-dip in the ocean at night with a guy I barely know, even if he is cute and is shipping out in a few weeks.
“Come on!” he yells. “What are you waiting for? Are you scared?”
It’s so dark I can’t see him, though I glimpsed his white bottom as he dove in. “A little,” I call into the darkness. “I’ve never gone swimming in the ocean at night. Do sharks come in this far?”
He doesn’t answer.
Why did I agree to drive down to the beach on a school night with a guy from the base? I’m an hour from home.
“Hey, are you coming in or not?” Leslie shouts.
“I have to get home. It’s been fun, but I’m going to be in big trouble.”
I lied to my mother and told her I had a rehearsal at school and had to borrow her car. She’ll need it back to get to work in the morning. It is morning: 12:20 A.M.
Leslie gets out of the water and grabs me around the waist.
“Stop,” I say. “You’re soaking wet.”
“You get wet when you go swimming. You wouldn’t know that, though, since you don’t seem to be joining me.”
“I have to get home.”
“You’re not as much fun as I thought you would be.” His voice sounds different, and he tightens his grip on my waist. I can feel his body pressed against mine.
“Well,” he says, “what are you waiting for? Are you going to take off your clothes . . . ?”
I hear myself say, “Yes,” when I should be saying no.
My mother was a harsh critic who taught me to be a people pleaser. I would work inconvenient shifts, go to movies that I didn’t want to see, and date men who didn’t interest me — all because I couldn’t say no. If I simply had to get out of something, I would feign illness or invent an excuse and cancel at the last minute.
One summer I received a call from Bob, the boyfriend of an old acquaintance. Bob was visiting my city on business and asked me to join him for dinner. I agreed, even though I had to borrow a car and endure two hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic to meet him. The dinner was pleasant but dull. Bob apparently enjoyed it, though, because he wanted to extend his stay for a few days so that I could show him around the city. Of course I agreed.
On the long drive home, I decided to cancel. I phoned Bob’s hotel the next morning and left a message that I wouldn’t be able to keep our arrangement because my boyfriend had been injured in a minor car accident. Since neither Bob nor my old acquaintance knew my boyfriend, my lie seemed safe. I returned to work, relieved that I had resolved the situation — or so I thought.
After he got my message, Bob called my acquaintance, who called my mother, who phoned my boyfriend’s parents to ask whether he had been released from intensive care yet. They were calling the police and local hospitals when my boyfriend arrived at their home in good health and asked what all the commotion was about.
Now I say yes only when I mean it.
Monica S. Staaf
The last I heard, he’d shaved his gray-flecked beard, dyed his hair strawberry blond, and gone on the lam. The last time we spoke, he informed me that our relationship was over. So I’m a little surprised when I answer the phone and hear his voice on the other end: “Hi, Liz. It’s your daddy!”
He’s an addict who never hits bottom, no matter how low he sinks. He’s like the multiheaded Hydra: no matter how many heads get cut off, another one always appears in its place, speaking in my father’s voice.
Everything is fine, he tells me. He’s in a new relationship. “Bashert,” he says. “I’m more bashert than I’ve ever been.” He asks if I know what the Yiddish word means, then tells me: “Destiny, it’s destiny.”
“How’s your health?” I ask.
“Great, just great,” he says. Later, when I ask again, he says cheerfully, “Just great. A little heart attack, a stroke, a coma . . .” He laughs. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . .”
Conversations with my father aren’t easy. Neither of us mentions that he recently spent a night in jail in another state. I’m guessing he doesn’t plan to return to that state for his hearing, but I don’t ask. In fact, there’s a long list of questions I don’t ask, and my father deftly avoids answering those few I do.
“I’ve been thinking of you,” he says. “Every day. Every single day I’m thinking of you, wishing you well, so I figured it was time to call. Otherwise it’s just thinking. Oh, here’s your grandmother.” He takes the phone away from his mouth to talk to her: “Would you like to say hello? It’s Lizbeth, your eldest granddaughter!”
“Laurie?” my ancient and confused grandmother asks in the background. She is my father’s weary advocate and financier.
“No, it’s Lizbeth. Your eldest granddaughter.”
“Lizzie?” my grandmother says into the phone.
“Yes, Grandma, it’s me.”
“We used to be so close.” She sounds as if she’s about to cry. “When I said the name ‘Lizzie,’ it used to make me so happy. Tell me, do you still care for me?”
“Yes, Bea, I love you. I always will.”
“Oh, that’s good. I’m glad to hear it.” And then, carefully, she says, “My son is . . . your brother?”
“Her father!” my father shouts in the background. He takes the phone again. “She’s always a little confused when she first wakes up. She’ll be fine in an hour or two. I’m picking up feathers,” he says. “Do you know the story about the rabbi and the feathers?”
Later I’ll Google “rabbi, feathers” and find that there are many versions of this story, all of which involve a man or woman who has committed wrongs that cannot be undone. The man goes to a rabbi for help, and the rabbi tells him, “Take this feather pillow to the top of a mountain, cut it open, and scatter the feathers.” So he does, and then the rabbi says, “Now go and gather up all the feathers.”
“So that’s what I’m doing,” my father says. “Just gathering feathers.”
For years now I’ve expected each conversation with him to be the last. I’ve prepared myself over and over for my father’s death by overdose, suicide, or massive organ failure. Flesh of his flesh that I am, I’ve tried to save him. I’ve lent him money, talked tough to him, researched drug-treatment programs, given him phone numbers to call. I’ve called social services and the cops. I’ve cried and raged, judged and condemned. Still, I’m glad to hear from him. Perhaps this will be the last call, and my final memory of him will be his cheerful voice saying, “I think of you every single day.”
“Thanks for calling, Dad,” I say. “Yes, I love you, too.”
Alice, my father’s elderly cousin, was in her eighties and lived in a walk-up on West 80th Street in New York City with her younger brother Tom. The summer before my junior year of college, Alice asked if I would come live with them and help out around the house. Without hesitation I said yes, quitting my summer job and making plans to postpone finishing college, if necessary.
Soon after I’d arrived in New York, my elderly cousins brought me to dinner at the home of a friend of theirs. We drank champagne during the meal, and by the end of the night Alice was inebriated. “I am going to die soon,” she told her brother loudly as they staggered upstairs to their apartment, holding each other up. “And then it will be you, and then it will be Lenna” — their younger sister.
Later Tom told me privately, in his faint Irish accent, “You had quite a bit to drink tonight, but you held it like a lady.” It was one of the best compliments I’d ever received.
I may have been a good drinker, but I didn’t turn out to be a good helper. I was horrified almost to tears when Alice and Tom insisted that I wear Alice’s ancient housedresses. I blurted out rudely that plucking the hairs from Alice’s chin with a tweezers must have been “one of the most unpleasant things I’ve ever had to do in my life.” And when Alice complained of having been shortchanged after I’d returned from a trip to the grocery store, I said testily, “I didn’t take it.”
Some of my failures were understandable. I was too young — or too immature — for the job. At that point life offered me a multitude of exciting possibilities that seemed too good to pass up. And, in the end, I couldn’t bear to take time off from college. It wasn’t the first big undertaking I’d abandoned, and it wouldn’t be the last, but it’s among those I regret the most.
I’d been living with Alice and Tom only two weeks when my parents took me camping. After the trip was over, they brought me back to their house in Pennsylvania, not back to New York. I don’t remember if I even said goodbye to Tom and Alice. I never found out whether anyone else ended up helping them.
That winter at college I got a mimeographed letter from Tom informing me of Alice’s death, and of his inconsolable grief. At the bottom, in his elegant, looping handwriting, he asked me to visit and to take the clothes his sister had left behind. I didn’t go. I’m sorry about that, too.
Though I interned in New York City the following summer and attended graduate school there, I never saw Tom again.
In November I left a waitressing job in Akron, Ohio, and moved to Florida with my boyfriend, Eddie. We’d been together a year, and I wanted to get married, but Eddie hadn’t gotten around to asking me yet. I was hired to work nights at a Steak and Ale. Eddie had a day job, and when he got home, I was just leaving. By the time I returned, he’d been asleep for hours.
At work I noticed Mickey for his pale skin, dark hair, and brooding eyes. He rarely joined in the banter with the waitstaff and seemed difficult to know, but he was sweet to me, and I was polite but aloof in return, which he seemed to like. I remember telling myself, You already have one of those at home.
That spring Mickey and I began to hang out after work. At my apartment complex we jumped the fence to the pool — the gate was locked after hours — and sat in plastic lounge chairs and drank dark beer. Mickey knew I was living with Eddie, but we never mentioned it. We drank and looked at the water and barely spoke, but somehow I felt connected to him.
Mickey didn’t know me the way Eddie did: I’d dropped out of college; broken two previous engagements; and given birth to a baby girl, who was living with her father. I was looking for someplace where I wouldn’t see my sins reflected back at me in a man’s eyes. Maybe in Florida I could start over and forget the past; no one here knew or cared what I had done. No one asked questions. Sitting by the pool with Mickey, I felt the possibility of a new life open up.
On the last Saturday night in April, Mickey and I stood by the coffee machines in the kitchen. As I hit the button to start the coffee brewing, Mickey said, “I want to ask you something.”
“Will you marry me?” Mickey was smiling. There was no bended knee or ring. I thought he must be joking.
“You’re just saying that.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because I posted my wedding invitation on the bulletin board a minute ago,” I said. Eddie had finally asked me to marry him.
Mickey’s smile faltered. “You’re kidding.”
“Come on, Mickey. Stop teasing. . . . You are teasing, right?”
The second I said this, his face changed, and he said, “Yeah, you’re right.”
Then he walked over to the bulletin board and, with his back to me, stared at the invitation.
A few months later I got a sales job, and Eddie asked me to stop taking Mickey’s calls, so I did. A year later I ran into a former co-worker, who told me Mickey had been in a terrible car accident and totaled his car. He’d also gotten married, but three months later they’d divorced.
For twenty-three years I’ve wondered, What if I had said yes?
I grew up a scrawny kid on the bleak moors of Yorkshire, England, where the cold wind was relentless, and rain fell horizontally. In a good summer we would shed our outerwear for one or two weeks. My favorite book was The Story of Jack Cornwell. Sixteen-year-old Jack had been posthumously awarded Britain’s highest military honor, the Victoria Cross. During World War I he’d served in the Battle of Jutland onboard the HMS Chester. The official report said he’d been “mortally wounded early in the action but nevertheless remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders till the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded around him.”
Cornwell, who I now realize had probably been suffering shock and not displaying bravery, had received a large public funeral, and his example had inspired many young people to seek military service. As a boy I believed that it was better to die for my God, my country, and my parents than to live for myself. When anyone in authority asked me to do something, I said yes.
Since then I have learned to question authority and sometimes oppose it, but I still understand why people say yes to martyrdom. I know what it is to be convinced that to die a martyr is the epitome of heroism. When I mention this in a friendly debate about terrorism, I am met with looks of incomprehension. My middle-class American acquaintances are perplexed by the idea that a young Muslim, say, would die for his belief in a heavenly reward. They have no understanding of what motivates someone to make the ultimate self-sacrifice.
I live and volunteer at a Catholic Worker house, where we offer hospitality to people facing poverty. Our community includes many homeless adults who drop by for food, clothing, and human contact. It’s our policy to say yes to their requests:
“Yes, you can look through the clothes closet for some pants.”
“Yes, I’ll get you some groceries.”
“Yes, we can talk. What’s up?”
I’ve also ended up tacitly saying yes in many situations that no one had prepared me for:
“Yes, you can talk to me nonstop for three hours about your sexual liaisons.”
“Yes, you can get high in our bathroom.”
“Yes, I’ll get up at 3 A.M. to answer the door because you called 911 when you thought the crumpled banner on the floor was a dead body.”
“Yes, you can smoke the Frosted Mini-Wheats.”
I’m learning how to remain hospitable in such situations and how to say yes to tolerance, patience, and forgiveness.
A couple of months after I’d moved into an apartment with my first love, my period stopped. I didn’t worry too much; there were lots of reasons for a girl to miss her period. Then one night after a poetry reading, I had a sip of wine and had to charge to the toilet to vomit. A blood test at the free clinic the next morning confirmed it: I was three months pregnant.
My boyfriend, who was about to take his play on an international tour, was not pleased. Never one for surprises, he refused to deal with the pregnancy until he got home in three weeks. While he was gone, I felt nauseous every moment of every day. The only foods I could keep down were saltine crackers, boiled eggs, and grilled chicken. I had to avoid walking past the window of the butcher shop below our apartment.
When my boyfriend returned, we discussed the situation, but he couldn’t get past the obstacles. We were not financially secure, he reminded me, and this pregnancy hadn’t been planned. I began to cry. It was a baby, I told him, a miracle! It would be a great adventure. He wasn’t convinced.
One night I made dinner reservations at a restaurant so exclusive there was no sign out front, and you had to enter through an alley. We sat self-consciously at our table, a matchbook on the tablecloth between us. I picked it up and said, “I am going to rip this matchbook in two. Each of us will write either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ inside.”
I trembled as I wrote “Yes.” I was quite sure Daniel would put “No.” He scribbled his answer quickly, folded his matchbook half to hide what was on the inside, and tossed it onto the table. I reluctantly did the same. He picked up my matchbook half, and I his. I unfolded it with a sense of dread in my stomach. To my astonishment, he had written “Yes!” — with an exclamation point.
Our baby girl was born in that apartment above the butcher shop. Daniel and I stayed together for a decade before amicably separating. We said no to marriage, but we still say yes to our daughter.
My brother Mike never quite measured up to our parents’ high standards. Mom and Dad sent him away to a boarding school to be chiseled into a young man worthy of our family’s New England heritage. Teachers said he was an underachiever. Dad thought he wasted too much time playing his ukulele and talking on the phone to girls.
In his senior year Mike was home on spring break when his third college rejection letter arrived. Mom, fed up with his “slovenly” attitude and poor academic performance, shouted, “Maybe you should just go into the service and grow up!”
Furious, my brother grabbed his jacket and left, slamming the door behind him.
Hours later, as Mom and I enjoyed a game of Scrabble before dinnertime, we heard Mike enter the vestibule. “Hello!” he called in a confident voice.
“Hi, Dearie. Where have you been?” asked Mom. A fire crackled in the fireplace, and my tall, handsome brother came in, the collar of his sport coat turned up against the cold and a defiant smirk on his face.
“Well, Mom,” he said, “I thought I’d go into the service and grow up.” He flipped his lapel down and held his jacket close enough for us to see a small gold pin with the U.S. Marine Corps insignia on it.
That was March 1966. Mike returned from Vietnam in 1968, attended Harvard University for four years, got married, and had three children. He rarely spoke of the war, and we did not find out about his horrific experiences until decades later, when his war memories returned.
Now sixty years old, Mike still wears his dog tags around his neck and displays his battle-worn combat boots by the front door. He’s been diagnosed with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder. He struggles with alcohol addiction and spends his days alone in a tiny apartment, ruminating on the war and writing his story.
Forty-two years ago the marines asked Mike whether he had what it takes to be one of them.
And he answered yes.
Leon and I had a turbulent marriage. He would often accuse me of failing him in some way and then stay with his brother’s family an hour away. In the middle of one such separation I drove out to his brother’s house with our daughter. My sister-in-law was happy to see me and hoped I’d get Leon to come back home. At one point he and I were arguing in their guest bedroom. He said the idea that he might have to change made him feel “castrated.” I had already changed so much to please him that I barely recognized myself.
Before long Leon wanted sex, which had always been our cure-all. Exhausted from crying for several hours, I wasn’t in the mood, but Leon couldn’t understand my fatigue. He needed sex, or a pill, to counteract every inconvenient feeling.
“I am really, really tired, Leon,” I said. “Wouldn’t it be better if I were more awake — like maybe in the morning?”
“You don’t love me. Do you know all the women who would love to be in your place?”
I found myself wishing that one of them could fill in for me right about then.
The argument continued as I tried to take a stand without damaging his fragile ego. “If I’m not free to say no,” I asked, “then what does saying yes really mean?”
He wouldn’t listen and just kept hammering away about his needs and my “coldness.” The argument went on well into the night. Finally he wore me down. The yes he extracted from me that night awakened me to my increasing hatred of him and of what I had become.
The next time Leon complained, “You don’t show me the appreciation I deserve,” I agreed with him. He seemed surprised and switched to another well-worn tactic: “You’ll never find anyone like me again.”
I hope not, I thought.
He threatened to leave, and I said nothing to try to stop him. Finally he had no choice but to go. I locked the door behind him, sat down, and wept with relief.
In 1970 I’d been married for fourteen years, had four kids to take care of, and worked forty hours a week. My husband was hardly home, and, because I’d been brought up a good Catholic who believed masturbation was a sin, I had no sexual outlet. Then I read the bestseller Human Sexual Response, by Masters and Johnson. The authors said it was OK to give myself pleasure: masturbation would even relieve headaches and menstrual cramps. I was so excited I thought I would give it a try — for clinical purposes, you understand.
I waited until my kids were at school, then locked the doors, feeling like a criminal. It took me a long time to decide how to do it, as I’d never in my life touched myself there. The minute I did, I had the most amazing climax of my life. Yes, yes, yes! I thought. So this is what everyone is talking about!