Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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My husband and I have been together almost four years now. We have a new baby girl with wispy blond hair and big, steely blue eyes. Everyone tells me how much she looks like her father.
Four years together, and little of that time with him sober. He is not a mean drunk but a reckless one. What was fun in college has become tedious in adulthood. I can no longer count the number of times I have threatened to leave if he doesn’t sober up. He has committed to the twelve-step program so frequently that it’s a running joke.
He hit rock bottom so hard one winter that he landed in rehab. He stayed sober for almost a year that time, but then he became cocky, certain that a few drinks here and there couldn’t hurt.
Last year I was proud of him. I felt sure he had finally beaten his addiction — only to find out this year that much of that success was a lie. He can control his urges for a few months, swearing that this time it will be for good, but it never is.
And here I am, still in love with the sober man he occasionally is, still defending his character, still believing in his potential.
He relapsed again a few weeks after our daughter was born. I had thought that perhaps having a child would inspire sobriety, that he would not want her to grow up with an inebriated father, the way he had. But tonight, less than a week after he received his umpteenth thirty-days token, he came home from buying us ice cream with that certain dismissive tone, that careless sway to his walk. He denies it, of course, but I know he’s drunk. I used to ignore the warning signs. I became a pro at pretending, at making up excuses for his erratic behavior. But now, with my baby sleeping in the other room and him lying in bed in a stupor, my question to myself is: What am I going to do about it this time?
He avoided sex when we were dating, saying he wanted to wait until we were married.
He and my mother planned our wedding.
As his wife, I felt his affection and love, but never his passion.
He was fastidious about his perfectly ironed shirts, tailored suits, and Italian shoes.
He was critical of any woman who flirted with him in any way.
He was comfortable being friends with much older women.
When we entertained at home, he arranged the flowers, set the table beautifully, and played the host with élan.
His frequent business trips were usually followed by withdrawal and depression.
He often brought home single men from his office for dinner, saying he wanted to give them an experience of “family” with our daughter and me.
Separately, each of these signs might be seen as insignificant. Taken together, however, they reveal that I married a gay man.
After twenty-three years, still having no idea that he was struggling with his sexuality, I was so unhappy that I initiated a divorce. Even after the marriage had ended, he was unable to live openly as who he was. It was only after he died that I discovered he was gay and that he’d had a secret male partner for many of the years we’d been married and after the divorce.
He would be seventy-two today. In the society in which he grew up and got married and lived his life, “coming out” was not accepted. He must have feared being ostracized or losing his job. Even more, I believe he truly loved the family we had created and simply could not bear the thought of losing it.
It’s a tragedy that he could not share all of who he was with the world.
She was born in the middle of a snowstorm at Queen Mary’s in a suburb of London, England. Upon her arrival the nurse said to my husband, “Go on, love. Tell her what it is.” My husband turned to me and blurted, “It’s a baby!” He eventually recovered from his shock and told me we had a girl.
Our daughter was pink, rosy, and healthy. She took my finger in her tiny hand and wouldn’t let go. I’d have to peel her grip from my pinkie to change and feed her, and when I did, she wailed to the heavens.
Now it’s her turn to peel my fingers from her hand, and it is me doing the wailing. My daughter has graduated from high school, and we will soon drop her off at college. I must have had some warning somewhere along the way that this day would come, but I missed the signs. Was it when she stopped crawling and took to running? Was it when she begged me to let her wear shoes with a heel? Was it when she hit the gas pedal instead of the brake and plowed down the fence in the front yard? Was it when we had the talk about sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll? How did I miss the moment when she stopped holding my finger?
Walnut Creek, California
Six years ago I thought I had found the love of my life online. In the second month of our relationship, at our first social outing together, he became angry at me for some reason and would not talk to me or look at me for hours. I was confused and hurt. He got over it, but I thought it was strange and asked a co-worker if I should move on.
My co-worker said, “Give him enough love, and he will learn to trust you.”
So I set about the task of loving him.
By the third date we’d decided not to date other people. (A domestic abuser will ask you to make a big commitment early in the relationship.) After a few months we had decided to move to another town together. (An abuser will isolate you from your friends and family.) Six months in I was pregnant. (An abuser will find a way to control you.) For most of our relationship I felt caught between trying to make things better and finding a way out. (An abuser is most dangerous when the victim tries to leave the relationship.)
One night after I left him, he snuck into my apartment and crawled into my bed with a butcher knife. I am lucky I survived. I just wish I hadn’t ignored the warnings.
I’d known Sue since college. She was ten years older than me, frustrated with life, and fat. Back then I was thin, youthful, and active. I did not care how she looked, and we went to movies and other places together. Over the years her health deteriorated. She got a scratch on her foot that became infected and landed her in the hospital, where she discovered she had diabetes. In time she lost her sight, and she finally died at the age of fifty. I should have seen it coming.
Tina and I had been friends for just a few months. She talked often of her suicidal feelings and her addiction to prescription medications. I listened patiently and shared my usual platitudes about the importance of living. Then her finances took a hit, and the doctors stopped prescribing her pain pills. I took her out to lunch every day and talked to her, but I wouldn’t let her move in with me. I’d gone down that road before and knew I needed to keep my distance from anyone who was struggling the way she was. She killed herself soon after, took every pill she had left. I should have seen it coming.
A year ago, worried about my health, I quit smoking. As expected, I began eating more. Today I weigh almost three hundred pounds. I get winded easily. When I talk on the phone, the other person can hear me breathing. My feet are sore in the morning. I look at myself naked in the mirror, amazed. I can see it coming.
St. Petersburg, Florida
I’d just finished grad school and started my first year of teaching at a local community college. I was in a perpetual state of grading, planning, catnapping, and rushing in and out of my parents’ house, where I was living to save on rent.
On a crisp September morning I was running late for class, and my father was preparing to leave for a trip east for his final round of interviews to become a federal judge. As I gathered my papers, books, and coffee, he said, “ ’Bye, sweetheart,” and stood as if waiting for a hug.
I flew past him down the stairs, calling, “ ’Bye, Dad! Love you!” without stopping.
When I shut the door behind me, I had an intense urge to go back and hug my dad, but I didn’t.
A week later I was holding his hand as he lay in a coma from which he’d never recover.
I’ll never again ignore the urge to hug someone goodbye.
Germantown Hills, Illinois
My sister Em had a long, uphill walk home from high school. One hot day she bought a cold soda for the journey. When she got home, she put the half-empty bottle in the fridge. Knowing that anything in there would be considered fair game by the rest of us seven kids, she left a note saying, I spit in this. Em.
I was in the kitchen later when she went to retrieve her soda. She reached for the bottle, then stopped to look at the note. Beneath her message our brother had written a new one: So did I. Ben.
Richard R. Gilbert
San Diego, California
In his second year of college my brilliant brother was hired to program computers. At the age of nineteen he had an office and a secretary. He lost his job, however, when he came to work one day in bare feet and a suit slashed to shreds with razor blades.
Three years later, in 1984, my brother told his girlfriend she had to walk on water or she wasn’t a real Christian. He gave away everything he owned, then got arrested for stopping traffic and telling people they were going to hell. I brought him home to live with me. He seemed fine.
He went on and got married, but before long I got a call from his wife, who believed he was plotting to kill her. I flew to California from Texas and found not my brother but a maniac. He was going to call down Jesus to kill us both, he said. We got him to a hospital, where he sweet-talked the doctors into thinking we were crazy. It was at that point that I acquired a book on schizophrenia.
My family insisted there was nothing wrong with my brother except for his divorce and his newly acquired marijuana habit. Then one day he tried methamphetamines. He lost touch with reality and has since been diagnosed as schizophrenic. Despite all of this, my other siblings still believe his brief drug use caused his madness. My mother believes her son’s terrible condition is punishment for his sins.
It was the fall of my son’s senior year in high school when our cat Cinnamon first walked over to a mound of my husband’s dirty clothes, circled it once, looked me straight in the eye, and defecated right on the pile. The litter box was just six feet away. I chased her out of the house, yelling obscenities.
Cinnamon’s aggravating behavior continued off and on for weeks. I’d find my husband’s gym clothes soiled one day, his favorite sweater the next. We were all too busy to give the cat’s behavior much attention. I was focused on budget cuts at work, volunteer activities, my son’s college applications, and my aging parents. So I dutifully cleaned the garments if possible or threw them away if I couldn’t. Periodically I’d make feeble attempts at researching why cats might avoid the litter box. New cat food didn’t help. The veterinarian ruled out a bladder infection. Maybe Cinnamon sensed my son’s upcoming departure for college? But, no, her behavior continued for months after he left.
Then, abruptly, Cinnamon stopped leaving messes on my husband’s laundry. That same month I discovered that the man I’d married was having an affair — an affair that had started in the fall of my son’s senior year in high school, around the time Cinnamon had begun trying to tell me something.
When I was very young, my parents would ignore my siblings and me at family get-togethers as they drank and laughed and told jokes. My older brother would disappear with our cousins, and my younger sister would fall asleep on a couch, but I would sit there feeling neglected and forgotten, asking my parents in tears if we could please go home. They would tell me to “go play” until past midnight, when we would finally leave. Sometimes, on the way home, my father ended up in a fight with someone at a convenience store or had to pull over to the side of the road to vomit.
When I was in middle school, my parents divorced, and my mother would drink herself into sloppy crying fits while I lay in bed, feeling guilty because I couldn’t help her. My brother canceled nights out with his friends to stay home and comfort her. Then in high school he became a drinker, coming home from parties in the early hours of the morning and throwing up with my mom by his side.
Through my own high-school years I never drank, and I cut ties with any friend who started. But at twenty-one I was going through a crisis and began using alcohol to cope. At first I drank to let loose and have fun, then for comfort, then to forget. I was living at home and hid my habit from my family, drinking until four or five o’clock in the morning, when I’d finally fall asleep.
One night my little sister found me sitting in the darkened kitchen with my forehead flat on the table. She was still in high school and looked up to me. Now here I was, drunk and mumbling. She pretended it wasn’t a big deal and went back to bed, but I knew I had let her down. I cried myself to sleep and called a therapist the next morning.
When I stop shaving.
When I start projects and never finish them.
When I spend evenings sitting on the lakeshore trying to find the comfort that the vastness of the water used to give me, and it never comes.
When I find myself questioning the sincerity of anyone who’s nice to me.
When I dread being around people.
When I fear work on Monday but fear the weekend more, because two days with nothing to look forward to is more unpleasant than five days in the office.
When I can’t find the words to let the people who care about me know that something is wrong.
When I stand on the subway platform and don’t trust myself not to jump in front of the train.
But I always stop myself because I remember how it was when she died, how devastated everyone who knew her was, and I think maybe it should have been me: I was always the depressed one, and she played counselor to all of us in college. Maybe if I had gone first, she would have seen how suicide scars the people who are left behind. Maybe if I had gone first, it would have stopped her the way her death is stopping me now.
“Oh, thank you, Maxine!” Kenny said as he tore open his birthday gift and removed the bottle of Polo cologne. “Miss Marla just loves it!”
Kenny always referred to himself as “Miss Marla Clone” and had christened me, his fellow waiter and co-worker, “Maxine Maxwell House.” It was the summer of 1981.
“Girlfriend, have you heard of that new gay cancer?” he asked, dousing himself in the powerfully sweet cologne.
I laughed at the absurdity of what he had just said. Cancer couldn’t discriminate between straight and gay, I told him.
“Honey, it does now!” he replied with a hint of indignation. “You know Miss David, over on MacDill Avenue?” he said, referring to another waiter we knew. “She just died from it! She woke up one morning with a purple spot on the end of her nose. Later that night she rubbed some CoverGirl on it and went out disco dancing. And now she’s dead!” He snapped his fingers.
I laughed even harder this time.
About a month later I was working my day job as an orderly in a large, urban teaching hospital. A lesbian I knew was in for surgical removal of a kidney stone. I stopped by her room to say hello, and she asked if I’d heard about “that new gay cancer.”
I felt my stomach drop and the blood rush from my head. Oh, my God, I thought. This is real. God is punishing us.
Earlier that summer I’d met and fallen in love with John, the first great love of my life. We moved in together in January 1982. One night, as we watched Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein on television, cuddled up against the winter cold, I turned to kiss John on his ear and noticed an enlarged lymph node on the side of his neck. I gently pressed on it. “You’re getting lumpy,” I said.
A few days later I read in a local gay-community paper that the name of the new disease that had killed a couple of hundred homosexuals was being changed from GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) to AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) after it had been identified in hemophiliacs and IV-drug users. For some reason I felt relieved: we weren’t being singled out.
John died at home on February 20, 1986, from AIDS. Two years before his death, we were heading home after a romantic dinner when I suggested that we stop at a neighborhood piano bar for a nightcap. A community fundraiser was being held that night to support AIDS-related research at a local university. Miss Charlotte, a local drag queen, promenaded around the room collecting donations and singing a sultry ballad. As she approached our table, John offered her a handful of cash.
“Give her more,” I whispered, grabbing his arm. “Someone we know could get sick someday.”
Barry L. Adams
I had a lot of luggage on the sidewalk, so I was glad to get a big Checker cab to stop for me. I was leaving grad school at New York University and moving back to Michigan to marry my boyfriend of six months. The cabdriver, who was overweight and had a pasty complexion, sighed at the sight of my bags. I told him I was going to LaGuardia Airport and mentioned the upcoming marriage.
“You’re making a mistake,” he said in a thick Brooklyn accent as he loaded the trunk.
“You heard me, a mistake.”
No, I explained. I loved my boyfriend, and we were going to have an exciting life together. He was a musician in a punk band.
“Oy, a mistake!” the cabby howled.
As he started to drive, I told him we were moving to Texas.
“Texas? Why do you want to leave New York? You’re making a mistake.” I did love New York and was giving up an internship with an entertainment company to get married. But my boyfriend’s band would make it, and we’d be back in New York soon enough.
“We’ll head over the Williamsburg Bridge,” the cabby said. “That way you won’t have to pay a toll — that is, if you still want to go. One last chance to change your mind, ’cause you’re making a mistake.”
I did want to go, I replied, and I gazed out at the gray December sky as we made our way across the bridge. Then I felt a jolt, followed by the clop-clop-clop of a flat tire. The cabby pulled off to the side, shaking his head. “Right on the bridge,” he said. “I tell you, it’s a sign.” Traffic whooshed past as he changed the tire. “It’s a sign,” he repeated when he was done. “I can still turn around and take you back.”
Nope, I wanted to go.
My boyfriend and I got married. We moved to Texas. Three months later I quit my job and flew home to Michigan alone. A year later the marriage was over. I’d made a mistake.
Traverse City, Michigan
“Do your parents beat you?”
I don’t remember what I’d expected to hear when I was sent to the school counselor in seventh grade, but it wasn’t this.
“No,” I answered honestly.
“Are you suicidal?” he asked, as if running through a checklist of conditions I could have.
I again said, “No.”
“So, tell me about those scratches on your arm.”
I looked down at my forearm, which showed parallel cuts running from wrist to elbow. Quite a nice pattern, I thought.
“Your language-arts teacher tells me you did this during class.”
I was momentarily angry at my teacher for giving me up, but then I realized she was probably worried and didn’t know what else to do. But if she was really worried, why hadn’t she stopped me at the time? I’d made no attempt to be discreet, taking out a piece of glass and running it repeatedly over my skin, enjoying the light pressure and gentle scratching. There was no blood, just a row of neat little lines, a brief distraction from a lecture I felt too dumb to follow anyway.
The thing is, I have unusually sensitive skin, and, instead of fading away, the neat little lines turned into swollen scabs. I told all of this to the counselor, hoping he’d be reassured and let me leave.
“You know this isn’t a good sign,” he said.
Summoning the contrition I thought he wanted to hear, I said, “Yes, I know. It was stupid. I wish I hadn’t done it. I won’t do it again.”
What I learned from that meeting was to turn my future self-abuse inward, where no one would see it.
Scott F. Parker
On a bright spring day when my daughter was ten years old, she came home agitated and close to tears. She’d seen a movie called House of Cards at a friend’s house and insisted we go to the video store and rent it right away. Then she waited impatiently for her father to get home so we could watch the movie together. After dinner she sat us down on the sofa and said, “You have to watch this.”
The movie was about a child her age who suddenly becomes autistic after the death of her father. She withdraws into her own world and begins building an elaborate house out of playing cards. Desperate to get through to her daughter, the mother builds a wooden structure modeled after the one the child has made. The daughter climbs into the life-size card house, and the mother follows and brings her back. It was a powerful movie, not something a ten-year-old would normally watch. I was disturbed by my daughter’s reaction to it. That night, alone, I watched the movie again, feeling there was a message in it I needed to hear.
Two years later, after her father and I divorced, my daughter descended into madness. She went from being a cheerleader and top student to a girl who locked herself in her closet because she thought she was a witch and might accidentally kill someone with her “bad thoughts.” By the time she was finally diagnosed as having mania with psychotic features, she had lost all her friends, and her counselors had advised me to take her out of school. I home-schooled her, then sent her to a series of private schools while we tried every possible drug combination. At night I lay awake in a house stripped of anything sharp or toxic, knowing that if she really wanted to commit suicide, she would find a way. At work I waited for the call I feared would come. And it came, many times. But she never succeeded in killing herself.
Throughout all this, I had only one certainty: no matter how bad my daughter got, I’d never let her go. I’d follow her wherever her madness led, stay with her, love her, hold her close, and bring her back.
Today she is a competent, successful, happy young woman.
I believe my daughter warned me, with uncanny prescience, at the age of ten what would happen to her. Don’t let me go, she was saying with that movie. Stay with me. Bring me back.
© R.A. McBride
Why is my boyfriend of sixteen years stuttering? He fixed this malady in elementary school twenty-five years ago. Worried about the return of this problem, I suggest some possible causes: Is something happening at work? “No, everything is f-f-f-fine.” Is he worried about coming up with the money to fix the garage roof? “No, I-I-I’m going to ask a friend to h-h-h-h-help me with it.” Is he feeling OK? “Yup. P-p-p-perfect.” So what gives?
As the days progress, his stuttering becomes more pronounced. Our friends start to notice and whisper to me. I consider calling a doctor for a professional opinion. I talk to his mom, my parents, and my closest friends, hoping that someone can give me some insight. His frustration is increasing each time he opens his mouth, and my annoyance, previously well hidden, is coming out.
By Thanksgiving my boyfriend has been stuttering for months, and I’ve come to accept it. There are no other ailments, and he keeps insisting that nothing is wrong. After spending Friday fighting other bargain hunters, we head to a friend’s house to play some cards. During a break in the action our friend pulls me aside and tells me he thinks something is going on between my newly stuttering boyfriend and the female half of the couple with whom we have been spending most of our free time. I am horrified but calmly confront my boyfriend later. He lies several times before I discover the truth.
My mother’s hair was the only part of her body she didn’t hate. She once described herself as feeling “lower than a snake’s belly.” I never understood what she meant. To me she was beautiful, angelic.
She was always hiding herself, her fatness, the body she loathed. I have a picture of her in a long red coat, one of the few photos in which she is not standing behind someone. She was a size 16. Her friends were stick-thin Depression-era women who wore dresses with belts, pleated skirts, and tight cotton blouses. Most days my mother wore a faded pink chenille housecoat, threadbare in places, that smelled like an unmade bed: natural, female, but slightly repugnant.
In happier moments she stuffed her torso into a tight girdle, as if punching down bread dough. Smelling of oatmeal soap, Noxzema, and hair spray, she’d brush her hair, put on bright-red lipstick and a dab of rouge, and give her eyebrows a tweeze.
No one could convince her she was beautiful, though we all tried. My dad would buy her a new dress, but she would toss it on the floor and tell him she would get dressed up after she lost some goddamned weight. Then she would slam the door so hard the frame would jump.
She died by her own hand. The people at church couldn’t believe it. She was always so happy, so cheerful, so willing to help. They knew only her radiance, her strength, her clean house. We’d all gone along with the charade, ignored the signs. I’d convinced myself that no mom with silky, wavy brown hair, as soft as goose down, could be so sad.
Carmel Valley, California
My boyfriend, R., was handsome and successful, and he doted on me. He lived in another city but would arrive for weekend visits bearing groceries, wine, and flowers. Then he’d run a bath for me while he made dinner — after first scrubbing the bathtub.
My friends were charmed by him, but I wasn’t sure. The strangest thoughts would go through my mind. For example, the first time I saw him with his shirt off, I thought, He got that body in prison. Then I shook my head and wondered where that had come from. What was my problem?
Once, while he was traveling for work, I couldn’t reach R. for about a day and a half — unusual for him. When he did turn up, he said he’d had food poisoning and had been to the emergency room. I told my best friend, “It just doesn’t feel true to me.” She said I was being paranoid.
As the relationship became more serious, my anxiety intensified. When I was working at my computer, I felt as if R. were literally looking over my shoulder — even though he was two hours away. During one of R.’s weekend stays I had an appointment, but I was afraid to leave him alone in my house. It made no sense. We’d been a couple for close to eight months; why wouldn’t I want him there alone? My strange, nagging fear was that he would find my Social Security card.
Finally I decided to end the relationship. Before telling R., I e-mailed a close friend and told her everything: how paranoid I’d been feeling; how I didn’t like that he drank so much; how I’d met a new guy and wanted time to get to know him. I told her I planned to end it when I saw R. in a few days.
Two hours later he pounded on my door. I let him in and immediately regretted it. His eyes were wild, and his voice shook. This was going to be his last night on earth, he said, and he wanted me to see what I’d done to him.
I tried to stay calm while mentally calculating whether I could grab my keys and make it to the car without him catching me. I had no idea what he was capable of doing. My house was in the country with no neighbors for a half mile on either side, so it would have been pointless to scream. I thought about using the cast-iron skillet to defend myself.
“Are you planning to take me with you?” I asked as calmly as I could.
After a pause he said, “No.” Then he dialed his cellphone, put it on speaker, and I heard the voice of the man I’d recently met. I stood frozen as R. threatened him and told him he had people on the way to his house at that moment. He also told him that I was a liar and a whore.
R. ended the call, walked out the door, and drove away. I left immediately for a friend’s house and called the police from there.
As the truth emerged in the weeks that followed, I felt strangely validated. R. had set up remote access to my computer and had been watching my screen in real time. He was an accomplished identity thief and had been released from prison just a few weeks before we’d met.
A police detective told me how my boyfriend had stolen the identities of roommates, co-workers, and girlfriends. He was surprised R. had never done it to me. I agreed; after all, he’d had access to everything.
“You got lucky,” the cop said. “He must’ve really loved you.”
Los Angeles, California
I worked hard all day and took classes at night. Feeling the strain, I would drink a few beers in the car on the way home to help me unwind. My wife would get angry if she saw me drink more than a six-pack, so I tried to get as much as I could in me before I got there.
The first few beers went down smoothly, and I tossed the empties on the floor. The alcohol got my blood flowing and my spirits high. I had been anticipating this moment all day. The radio volume went up, and the windows went down. I never worried about getting caught — until the night I almost ran over a cop.
I saw a car pulled over to the side of the road with a couple of police cars behind it. I was so intent on rubbernecking that I almost didn’t notice the officer in the road. I swerved around him at the last second.
Holy shit. I’d been drinking, and my truck wasn’t even insured or registered. So I did what any responsible driver would have done: I floored it.
About two miles down the road, figuring I was out of danger, I popped open another beer. The adrenaline rush subsided, and a smile spread across my face. That was close!
Then lights flashed red and blue behind me. Panicking, I spilled my beer while trying to stash it under my backpack. I pulled over, resigned to the fact that I would be going to jail.
The officer walked up to my window and asked for my driver’s license, but not proof of insurance and registration.
“Why didn’t you stop for the officer in the road?” he asked coldly.
“I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t see him there,” I replied, trying to hide the shakiness in my voice.
“Yeah, I don’t know why he was standing in the middle of the road.” He handed my license back. “I just wanted to make sure you weren’t drunk.”
He drove off, leaving me to collect my thoughts.
I wish I could say that I thought about changing my habits; that I realized I wouldn’t always be so lucky. Instead I thought I was charmed and could get away with anything.
Two weeks later I awoke on a hard concrete bench in a cell with five other farting, coughing men. I was led before a judge, who read the charges against me: driving under the influence, open container, and reckless driving. I thought back to the night that I’d gotten away with it, and I realized that I hadn’t gotten away with anything.
Mark A. Johnson
I remember instances on the playing fields in school when my eyes would shudder and my visual field would become a series of frames for a few seconds, like a slide show. Then there was the way I constantly caught my left toe on shag carpets or grassy surfaces, and my occasional difficulty swallowing. In my late twenties, for about a month, I could produce the sensation of hot liquid running down the back of my leg if I dropped my chin to my chest. It went away but returned over and over throughout my thirties and forties. But every time I became worried enough to see a doctor, my symptoms would disappear.
Then one cold, snowy night I was awakened by a knife blade of pain just behind my left ear. I writhed in agony and could hear myself screaming in the dark. What followed is a blur in my memory: emergency room, CT scans, EEGs, MRIs, angiograms, morphine, and then home to bed in a drug-induced reverie.
When I awoke the next morning, my left hand was rigidly curled into my wrist, my wrist into my elbow, and my arm contracted across my chest. My chest, arm, and face were totally numb. When I walked, I veered off to the left no matter how hard I tried to stay straight. I crashed into furniture and doorways. My brain was sparkling with electricity. Lights and loud sounds made me nauseous and dizzy. I felt as if I were dying.
It took three weeks and another excruciating attack before an ER doctor did a spinal tap. I have a vivid memory of him bending over my gurney, his hands on the railings, and asking me, “Did anyone in your family have multiple sclerosis?”
I immediately said, “No.” Days later, home from the hospital, it came back to me: Grandma Rose, my father’s mother. She’d been in a wheelchair in her fifties when she was loaded onto a boxcar to Auschwitz. When I’d asked my father why, he’d had no idea. All the family members ever said was that Rose had a “weakness.” In the 1930s they wouldn’t have known it was multiple sclerosis. But after my diagnosis we all knew.
I now have a very special and personal relationship with my deceased grandmother. I feel connected, beyond time and place, to this woman I never met.
It was my wedding day, and I was marrying my college boyfriend, the hottest guy on campus.
Since we were thousands of miles from our families and had no close friends nearby, we decided to have a simple ceremony: just us and a minister.
It was a cold, foggy day in San Francisco. En route to the chapel I shivered in my plain white dress with spaghetti straps. Excited and nervous, I fiddled with the camera on my lap and noticed there was only one shot left. I asked my fiancé to please stop at the drugstore so I could get more film.
He exploded with rage: How could I be so disorganized? Why did I always have to make a fuss over things? I’d have to make do with one picture.
Stunned, I tried to protest, but he cut me off and gunned the accelerator.
When we arrived at the chapel, my stomach was in knots, and my face felt flushed. A small voice inside me said, Run! He held the chapel door open, his face a mask of stone. I stalked in past him.
I barely heard a word of the ceremony, but I murmured a tepid “I do” and raised my lips to his on cue. Once outside, I held back the tears until we were inside the car. He never apologized.
When we finally split up eight years later, one thing we didn’t have to divide up was wedding pictures. I never even took the one shot I had left in the camera.
Redwood City, California
“I don’t know what to do with your mom,” my father said over the phone. I’d never heard such uncertainty in his voice. Retired military, he was always stoic, a rock.
“What’s wrong, Dad?”
He described my mother’s increasingly anxious, agitated, obsessive behavior. As her daughter — and a newly licensed psychologist — I thought it was just my neurotic mom being more neurotic than usual.
A few months later my parents made the trek to California to visit me and their two-year-old grandson, and I saw what my dad was talking about. Mom had no tolerance for typical toddler behavior and cried at the drop of a hat. For all her neuroses, my mom had always been good-natured and jovial. This was different.
A few months after that visit, she suffered a heart attack and went into a coma. Doctors found a tumor that had been growing for years in her brain.
She underwent surgery and radiation, but Mom was never the same. Dad cared for her as long as he could. It broke his heart when he had to place her in a nursing home before she died.
A few years after her death, I visited my dad to throw him an eightieth birthday party. He looked impossibly old, bent from arthritis in his spine and easily fatigued. As I drove away, I cried, but I told myself there’d be other visits.
Some time later, on the phone, Dad asked if I was upset with him, because weeks had gone by since we’d talked. I apologized and assured him everything was all right. Then he asked, sounding frail and possibly a little afraid, “When do you think you might get home for a visit?” We talked about Thanksgiving.
He died just after Labor Day.
An only child, I was bereft as I traveled home for the last time to attend the funeral. He was buried next to my mother, with full military honors.
I’m ashamed that I did not heed the warning signs. If they were here today, I feel sure my parents would forgive me, but I still haven’t forgiven myself.
I was driving my red Fiat with the bad clutch down the Pacific Coast Highway, as I often did, but on that winter Sunday evening in 1986 everything felt different. I was twenty-two years old, and for the first time in my life I was going by myself to a gay bar.
I parked and went inside. It was a casual neighborhood joint. I stood next to a post for a while, trying to be invisible, then sat down on an empty stool and ordered a Long Island iced tea. I drank it quickly, aware of the men all around me. Even though I was sitting, I held on to my glass tightly as if for balance. When my drink was empty, I ordered another one.
At some point I fell into a conversation with a man sitting next to me. He was short, with a light brown mustache and friendly eyes. He told me he was a police officer. When he suggested that I follow him in my car to his apartment in Santa Monica, I said yes.
I had never gotten behind the wheel with so much liquor in me before, but I was determined to see this through. I drove the red Fiat up the winding road through the canyon, following the red lights of the man’s car in front of me, aware that my senses and judgment were impaired. Out of the chaotic swirl of intoxicated thoughts I heard a whisper: I am not driving safely. I should stop. I should pull over. Instead my foot pressed down on the gas pedal, and I raced through the tunnel of trees to my destination.
A quarter century has passed since that night. Recently I have been grieving for gay teens who have killed themselves after being relentlessly teased and bullied at school. I have thought back to my own childhood and wondered what it was that kept me alive when I experienced similar treatment. Though the idea of suicide never occurred to me, I know now that there is more than one way to erase yourself. Is that what I was trying to do late that Sunday night in Santa Monica when I was twenty-two years old?
At the man’s apartment I fell into his bed, and we had unprotected sex. The next day I awoke with an epic hangover, fears of viral infection, and a determination never to do anything so self-destructive again. Something inside me had snapped, but I reassembled the broken pieces and carried on.
Today when I remember that night, I feel sorrow for that suffering twenty-two-year-old, gratitude that no lasting harm came of his poor judgment, and wonder at what sometimes causes us to throw ourselves into the darkness, as if our greatest desire were to crash.
C. Kevin Smith
Big Sur, California