Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I grew up in a conservative Christian home in Middle America and generally did not question my parents or their church. But after I left home for college, I learned the world was much more complex than the sheltered version of it in which I’d been raised, and my positions on social and political issues began to change. When I hinted in a conversation with my mother that I was pro-choice, she turned to me in shock and said, “You don’t support abortion!” It was a statement, not a question. To keep the peace, I avoided the subject.
Years later, while in graduate school on the other side of the country, I learned that I was pregnant. I’d just broken up with my boyfriend, with whom I’d had a turbulent relationship. I had no money, was far from family and friends, and needed desperately to make a clean break with my ex. So I made the difficult decision to have an abortion.
I didn’t regret ending the pregnancy, but I decided it was best never to tell my mother and father about it, because it would have hurt them too much. In other ways, however, I continued asserting my independence in the face of my parents’ sometimes painful disapproval. To their credit, they never let our differences get in the way of their love and support for me.
I’m now in my forties with a family of my own, and it recently came to my attention that my mother had talked to my young daughters about her antiabortion stance. I was upset because she knows that my husband and I are pro-choice. When I asked her to please leave this sensitive discussion to us, she seemed to acquiesce but still said emphatically, “Abortion is murder.”
I have committed murder in my parents’ view. I wonder what it would do to our relationship if they knew?
It was a magnificent September evening in Mendocino County, California. I was finishing a wonderful meal with old friends when I saw on my cellphone that I had missed a call from my best friend in Colorado. She had just undergone a mastectomy, and we were all awaiting the results of her lab work. I excused myself and walked outside to return her call.
The news was devastating. The cancer had reached her lymph nodes. Faced with the possibility of losing a friend for the first time, I fell back on how my pragmatic mother, a registered nurse, always approached the subject of mortality: I told my friend that I would be there for her and would do anything I could to make her “passage” easier. She was shocked and quickly hung up.
The next day my friend’s daughter called and angrily demanded to know how I could have said such a thing. Her mom wasn’t going to die, she insisted. A team of oncologists had devised a treatment plan to defeat her cancer. She also said that her mother had been so upset after my phone call that she had refilled her prescription for antianxiety meds.
My straight-from-the-heart attempt to comfort my friend of thirty years had done the exact opposite. It was one of the worst blunders of my life. I would have given anything to take back my words.
Over the coming months, as my friend underwent chemotherapy and radiation, I never again mentioned death to her. She died a little more than a year after that September phone call.
Walnut Creek, California
I was raised to tell the truth, and mostly I did. I didn’t lie to my teachers or friends or parents. As an adult I lost a sales job because I wouldn’t lie to customers.
Then, at the age of fifty, I fell passionately in love. He was married, and so was I. For the next ten-plus years I lied to my husband to conceal the affair, using menopause and becoming an empty nester as excuses for my mood swings at home.
Of course there were times when I thought I should tell my husband the truth: that I still loved him, but my lover made me feel special as a person and — more important at the time — as a woman, whereas my spouse seemed completely uninterested in me sexually.
My husband and I went to a marriage counselor after I discovered that he’d been lying to me. It was his addiction to pornography that had all but put an end to our sex life years before my infidelity. I still didn’t confess to the affair, but I ended it, and my husband and I worked out our problems.
After thirty-four years together we are happier and more loving than ever. I am grateful I decided that, in this case, honesty wasn’t the best policy. It may have relieved my guilt, but it would have hurt my husband, and in spite of our problems and my misguided passions, I could not do that to him.
I cannot stand a liar. I will also think less of you for not telling the whole truth or being insincere or even evasive. But when I do volunteer work in Haiti, I need to let go of my notions about honesty.
A Haitian mother who’s giving me her child’s health history says that her son has had a fever every night for the last four years. Sure that he has malaria, I send him for tests. Over the next two days I discover that almost every mother will tell me this, hoping, I presume, to receive medicine and vitamins and maybe even a little food.
When we distribute reusable sanitary kits for newly menstruating girls, each of them wanders quietly back to the sign-up sheet to add her name again, or the name of a sister, a cousin, a friend.
It would be easy to say that the warm smiles I get from locals are genuine, but I have no idea. I don’t know what it is like to be hungry every day, and for my children to be hungry, and then to see a truck full of well-meaning Americans driving by with their sunglasses and cameras. Perhaps I would simply be glad to see them, or maybe my friendly greeting would be a show put on in hope of receiving something in return. I’m starting to think honesty is a privilege enjoyed by the comfortable.
After our team eats a breakfast of eggs and fruit and coffee, I wander back to the buffet and steal every last slice of bread for peanut-butter sandwiches. I will give the sandwiches to the mothers who tell me their children have fevers or toothaches or invisible rashes. I will not ask them for the truth, and they will not tell me. And I think with a smile that Haiti has made a thief and a liar out of me.
As a crack addict in the early 2000s I spent most of my free time using on the streets or in the seedy motels of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Amazingly I was able to keep my job during this period. A close friend would often ask me to call him when I got home from work in the evening, to assure him I had made it there safely. One time, when I didn’t call, he came looking for me and rescued me from a dangerous situation.
Just days before this friend was to leave the country, he asked me to stay at his home and dog-sit. He couldn’t find anyone else and was desperate. Even though I knew I would likely use at his house, I said yes.
Sure enough, a couple of days prior to my friend’s return, I invited two addicts I’d met on the street back to his home in search of a warm, dry place to use. We smoked until the drugs were gone. Then, while one of the men distracted me, the other walked out with my friend’s computer.
My friend is a teacher, and his computer contained many years’ worth of lesson plans and tests he had created. He had not backed up any files.
Physically ill at the thought of what I had allowed to happen, I spent that night and all the next day trying to think of a lie to tell my friend. The following afternoon, as I waited for him to get home, I contemplated just disappearing, leaving only a note explaining what had happened. But I didn’t, and when he finally walked through the door, I told him the truth.
After a moment of disbelief, he did something I will never forget: he asked if I was OK, and if I was going to get help with my addiction now. He was more worried about me than he was about his computer. He didn’t reject me. He didn’t even get angry.
Even though I didn’t immediately kick my habit, my friend’s concern moved me much closer to seeking help. I have since been able to repay him for his computer, and I have been drug-free for many years. Though we don’t see each other as often as either of us would like, every year I call my friend on the anniversary of my sobriety to say thanks.
My father had always been a private man, polite and formal to a fault, but in his late eighties he suddenly became brutally honest.
“You’re a terrible gossip,” he told my stepmother’s best friend. “I wish you would stop coming to this house.” His only response to my stepmother’s outrage was to inform her that she needed to find nicer friends.
As Dad continued offending people, he became more and more isolated. He refused to see a doctor, so we never did discover the underlying cause of his change in personality: Senile dementia? Alzheimer’s? A stroke? Plaque in the cerebral arteries? There were other changes as well, like his staying in his pajamas all day, wandering off and getting lost, neglecting to pay bills, and losing track of time. But his honesty was the most radical transformation. It eventually took the form of confession.
“I was a terrible father,” he told me, no longer realizing who I was. “I was an even worse husband to the mother of my daughters.”
I reminded him that I was his youngest daughter, and I told him he hadn’t been a bad father. As a social worker, I’d been forced to confront parents who made him look like a saint.
I said nothing about the fact that he had been repeatedly unfaithful to my mother.
Another time, as I helped him dress, my father mentioned that he’d had poor luck with marriage. His first wife had insisted she was pregnant to convince him to marry her, but no child had been born until more than a year after the wedding. He shook his head, as if remembering all over again how tricked he’d felt. It made no difference that fifty years had passed, or that my mother was dead.
His second wife was a disappointment, too, Dad said. He was never able to have a serious conversation with her in all the years they were married. “She wasn’t very smart.”
My loyal, patient stepmother sat in the next room, saying her rosary. I believe she heard him.
“How about you?” my father asked. “I’ve forgotten your name, but you seem very nice. Have you had any luck with marriage?”
“My husband and I are very happy,” I assured him.
I didn’t have my father’s honesty. I wasn’t about to admit that I’d married a man just like him — smart and handsome and unfaithful. Dad had enough regrets. He didn’t need to know that his daughters had all chosen unwisely, and that all were divorced.
Santa Rosa, California
I had just arrived in the United Arab Emirates for work, and I went for a long walk along the seaside in the capital city of Abu Dhabi. Hungry, I stopped for a meal at a large boat that had been converted into a restaurant.
I’d hardly taken a seat when an elderly waiter came to my table with a check on a tray. Seeing me, he asked if I was with the Indian gentleman who’d been sitting there earlier. I explained that, though I’m from India, I did not know the previous diner. Visibly perturbed, the waiter stated the obvious: that the man had left an unpaid bill. I suggested that he leave it on the table; maybe the diner would come back.
After I’d finished my meal, however, the bill remained. When the waiter came with my tab, I paid it, tipped, and added another sixty dollars to cover the earlier customer’s meal. The waiter pointed out that I didn’t even know the man. True, I responded, “but I wouldn’t like you to think poorly of Indians.”
The waiter was appreciative, and I told him I was staying at the nearest hotel and expected to eat at the restaurant again.
The next day, my first at work, I stayed late at the office, and when I returned to my hotel, the receptionist at the front desk handed me an envelope. Inside I found sixty dollars and a note: “Thank you for your kindness. The Indian gentleman came back today and paid his check. I wouldn’t like you to think poorly of Arabs.”
When my husband proposed to me, I thought, Now he’s gone and done it. Either we have to get married or we have to break up. Why did he have to go and ruin everything?
But I agreed to marry him, because he was my best friend, and I was afraid to be alone.
During our four-year engagement my husband continued to drink, as we’d both done in college. But what had been fun in my early twenties was starting to wear thin. He would drink until he got sick, passing out and then getting up in the middle of the night and urinating in inappropriate places. When I’d describe his behavior to him the next day, he would be ashamed and apologize, but the apologies always felt hollow, as he couldn’t recall what he’d done. This happened about once or twice a month. We tried different schemes to get him to drink less, but we made no effort to stop him from drinking altogether. It didn’t occur to either of us that he was an alcoholic.
Over the next ten years I was always monitoring how many drinks he’d had. Sometimes I succeeded in stopping him before it was too late; sometimes not. After we had children, I worried that he might stumble into their bedroom drunk and scare them in the middle of the night. Eventually it got to where I could not stand my husband after he’d had even one drink. A subtle change came over him that others didn’t notice. By then I’d lost interest in having sex with him, but I thought that was normal in a long relationship.
Even after I began having affairs, I still told myself that nothing was wrong. It was only when I fell in love that I realized the truth: I didn’t love my husband. One night I told him so, but I said I wanted to try to stay together for the sake of our children and because it would make me too sad to split up. I couldn’t imagine life without my best friend.
Surprised and hurt, he said, “I’ve got forty years left. I don’t want to spend them with someone who doesn’t love me.”
I realized later that I’d robbed him of twenty years of his life. If we’d been honest with ourselves about his alcoholism, maybe we could have saved our marriage. But if I’d been honest with myself long before, we wouldn’t have gotten married in the first place.
It was just after five, and the grocery store was teeming with people trying to find something for dinner. My five-year-old son was with me. I didn’t mind taking him on errands. He was always well-behaved and never whined for candy or junk food.
My son and I had recently moved back to the States from London following the breakup of my marriage, and we were living with my mother. That evening I was in a hurry because I had a class to teach later at the local university. We quickly finished our shopping and returned to the car. As I was strapping my son into his booster seat, I noticed he was holding something tightly in one hand. I recognized the multicolored paper with shiny foil at either end. It was a roll of Life Savers.
“Where did you get those?” I asked.
Instantly my son began wailing.
“Did you steal them?”
“Nooooooo, Mom. Nooooooo!”
Had I not been under so much pressure, his denial of the obvious might have seemed comical. But I was frazzled and suddenly terrified at the prospect of raising my son alone. I glanced at the heavy traffic on the road. If we didn’t leave right away, I’d be late for my class.
For a second I considered driving off and letting the matter go. Or maybe we could return the Life Savers the next day, when I wouldn’t be in such a hurry. No, I had a chance to teach my son the importance of honesty. Though I hated the idea of being late, something told me this was a test I couldn’t afford to fail.
I didn’t get upset or lecture or threaten. I just unbuckled my son from his seat and told him we were going back inside, where he would return the candy.
In the grocery store he reluctantly held out the Life Savers to the cashier and confessed. “Are you going to send me to jail?” he asked in a quavering voice.
The cashier laughed and said no, he’d done the right thing, and that was enough.
Back in the car I sat behind the wheel for a moment, listening to my son whimper in the backseat. Taking the candy had been so unlike him. Obviously he was having more trouble adjusting to being back in the States than I’d realized. Perhaps it was because I hadn’t been honest with him. The day we’d gotten on the plane, I hadn’t told him that we were leaving London forever.
I have been overweight since third grade and have often struggled with a poor self-image. When I became a mother, I vowed that my kids would not share my experience. I read every book I could find on raising healthy children and did my best to follow the rules: I stocked the kitchen with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables; I made sure the kids were active; I taught them to see food as fuel, not as an emotional elixir. I am proud to say I now have three physically fit teenagers who are not obsessed with their weight.
In the process of guiding my children, I have improved my own health. I eventually tired of just watching them play sports, so I bought an exercise bike and joined a tennis league. I am still too fat, but now, rather than focusing on how unattractive my tomato face must look on the court, I enjoy feeling strong and capable as I run to score a point.
One obstacle I have not overcome, however, is my embarrassment over my actual weight in pounds. Despite everything I’ve taught my kids about body image, that number shames me into silence, the same way it did in seventh grade when the petite girls laughed at a girl whose weight was 117. Mine was even higher, and I guarded that secret carefully. Although I was tall and should have weighed more than they did, in my mind the small, skinny girls were better than I was — more disciplined, more deserving, more desirable.
Now that my daughter is a seventh-grader, she is one of the thin girls. I stress with her the importance of being kind and share how awful I felt at her age. Weight is just a number, I tell her, nothing more. But when she asks how much I weigh now, I panic and try to redirect the conversation. I know it’s stupid and immature and goes against everything I believe, but there is no way I am telling her that number.
Kim R. Livingston
I’d fallen in love with a man I thought I might marry, and after three months of dating we began sleeping together. Being Catholic, I didn’t use birth control, and I soon missed my period. Over the phone I told him I was late. What would we do if I was pregnant?
“Don’t worry,” my boyfriend replied. “You’ll get it.”
A few days later, still late, I asked him again. He said he’d always thought he’d marry a girl if he got her pregnant, but now he wasn’t sure.
Another week went by, and I asked him for the third time what we would do if my period didn’t come.
“I don’t know,” he said.
He called me that night before we both went to bed. Sitting on the floor, holding the phone close, I shut my eyes and told him my period had finally come; everything was fine.
It hadn’t come, and everything wasn’t fine, but I wasn’t going to make him marry me. I had seen how such marriages played out. I told no one about my abortion except a priest, who sounded very sad as he absolved me.
Eventually my boyfriend was ready to start a family, and we got married and had a little boy. Looking back, I don’t regret lying to him that night.
After I moved to Wisconsin, I signed up to volunteer with an organization that helped people deal with grief. My mother had died when I was ten, and I wanted to work with children who had experienced the death of a parent or sibling. Instead I was assigned to lead a support group for adults who’d lost spouses.
One evening in group, a widow began talking about how guilty she felt that she hadn’t revealed to her children that their dad was dying. As she told her story, I felt my pulse quicken. My dad had lied to me for the two years that my mom had battled ovarian cancer. In 1964 most hospitals had rules against children under fifteen visiting patients, and home hospice care didn’t exist, so I couldn’t see for myself how sick my mother was. Every morning I would ask my dad how she was doing, and each time I would get a standard response: she was getting better and would be home soon.
I was blindsided when my mother died and furious to learn later that all my older siblings had known her illness was terminal. I was angriest at myself for never questioning their paper-thin stories about our mother’s condition.
As I sat in group and listened to this parent talk about keeping the same information from her children, I had to remind myself that this story was not about me; that I needed to be kind, to let her talk. She spoke about her guilt over depriving her children of the opportunity to say their goodbyes. She’d found herself helpless in the face of their rage and sadness. She didn’t know how to make it up to them.
I didn’t know how she was going to make it up to them either. It had been more than thirty years since my mother’s death, and I was still angry.
Then the woman spoke of growing up Catholic and how she believed in miracles. Through sobs she told us that it was her faith that had kept her going. If she had told her children that their father was dying, she would have lost her own belief that providence might still save the love of her life.
In that moment I realized that my father had not lied to me. He, too, had been holding on to hope for the one thing that could have saved my mother: a miracle.
Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin
I have a scar on the inside of my left wrist — just a tiny bit of missing flesh. It’s been there since the day in fifth grade when Ricky wanted to race me to the top of the monkey bars.
Once we were at the top, he grabbed my wrist and pinned my hand to a bar.
“I love you,” he said. “Do you love me?”
Now, Ricky was cute enough — bowl-cut hair, deep dimples, and soulful brown eyes — but he was no Tony. And though I’d expended considerable effort to conceal my true feelings for Tony, he owned my ten-year-old heart. In top-secret declaration of my undying love, I had even carved his initials high on the trunk of the maple tree at my house. I didn’t want to hurt Ricky’s feelings, but neither did I want to betray my beloved Tony. So I said, “I don’t know.”
Ricky squeezed my wrist tighter and asked again, “Do you love me or not?”
I squirmed, as much from emotional discomfort as from physical pain, and said I’d tell him the next day.
Unsatisfied, Ricky pressed the nail of his index finger into my skin, a menacing glint in his eyes. “Say you love me.”
He clearly did not know me at all. I was not the sort of girl to cower and squeal at bugs or snakes or fingernails against my flesh. Not only was I not that kind of girl, I was always looking for the opportunity to prove that I wasn’t. I refused, in effect daring him to carry through with his implied threat.
“Last chance,” he said.
I shook my head, lips pressed together to indicate my resolve.
I felt my skin give way beneath Ricky’s nail. When this failed to elicit either tears or a proclamation of love, he dug his nail in deeper and twisted, carving away a little piece of me. I pushed him hard then, pulled my arm free, and climbed down from the monkey bars without looking back.
That was the first scar I got in the name of love. It would not be the last.
Wellsville, New York
© Anna Kaufman Moon
When I was growing up, my parents’ behavior often didn’t match what they said. I could never discern when they were telling the truth about their feelings, or even the facts.
When I was in high school, my chemist father told my sisters and me that he’d invented the rubber coating on baby spoons. I wondered why I hadn’t heard about it before, and also why we weren’t rich; all parents owned at least one of those spoons, it seemed. The subject was dropped, however, and didn’t come up again until after I had graduated from college and was home for a visit. I asked my father about the spoon story. “What are you talking about?” he replied, annoyed. Later my sisters confirmed my memory. I’m still not sure what to believe.
My parents were both first-generation U.S. citizens and didn’t tell us much about how our grandparents had come to this country, and even less about the lives they’d left behind. I was curious. So one day I created a list of questions about our family history, and I asked my parents to speak their answers into a tape recorder and send me the tape. My father expressed resistance, and I expected never to hear another word about it, but a year later a small package came in the mail from him with a cassette inside. I played it and listened as he went through the list question by question. It soon became clear that his own knowledge was incredibly sketchy. “I don’t know much about that” was his tired refrain.
I was about to click off the tape player when he said there was something else. First he told me he loved me. Then he said that he had been sexually abused by his mother, who had died of leukemia when he was nine years old. He and my mother had “dealt with this” in couples counseling, and he had put it behind him. With that, the tape went silent.
After sitting stunned for a moment, tears streaming down my cheeks, I called my father and asked why he’d felt the need to tell me in this way. He seemed surprised by my reaction and had little to say.
That weekend I was on the phone with my mother and questioned her about it. She claimed to have no idea what I was referring to, but when pressed she said maybe she did recall something like that. She seemed glad when I dropped the subject.
These days my parents are both in their mideighties. I call them every week, but my father hates to talk on the phone, and my mother has dementia and gives me the same news over and over. I wouldn’t dream of asking them about baby spoons or sexual abuse or anything that might upset them, but there is one thing I would still love to know, and that is why I was named for my father’s mother.
I was standing in the downstairs bathroom, looking in the mirror and talking on the phone with my good friend Tina about my bad boyfriend, Chad. I was trying to figure out what to say to him to get him to change his plans for St. Patrick’s Day and spend it with me and my children.
I tested several possible approaches on Tina to see if she thought they might work: Wouldn’t he rather go to the kids’ school play with me than to that stupid party he’d been to hundreds of times before? (Invalidate his interests.) Going to the play would be a way to show the children he really likes them. (Instill insecurity.) He’s not working anyway. What else does he have to do? (Shame him.)
Tina listened patiently, then asked a simple question: “Why don’t you just tell him that you’d like him to come to the kids’ play and let him decide?”
It had never occurred to me to be honest. Straightforward communication was not something I’d been taught growing up. I stared at my reflection in the mirror and suddenly saw a different person: someone who could say exactly what she thought and felt and wanted.
As a young woman my grandmother had been a teacher, but marriage had ended her career. Now she was in a nursing home, her once-sharp mind diminished, her memory failing.
I visited one afternoon, and we spoke of family. She asked me if she had any children. Yes, I replied, four, and I gave their names.
After pondering my reply, she said, “Well, then, I must have been married.”
“Yes, for over fifty years,” I told her brightly. “You were married to Joe Wilson.”
She appeared to think, then looked at me in disbelief. “Oh, no!” she said. “Not him!”
When I was a sophomore in high school, I started to work weekends at a Chinese restaurant. I was responsible for answering the phone and packing to-go orders with fortune cookies and soy sauce. When we were busy, the bags would take up the entire counter. Sometimes eighty orders needed to be readied for takeout in a two-hour period. The pressure gave me headaches.
The majority of the employees were adults who spoke little or no English. The only one even close to my age was the delivery driver. One day he noticed I was in a bad mood and asked if I was OK. Startled, I didn’t know how to reply. I’d never before had someone at work ask how I was feeling.
After that, I started to notice the delivery driver more: his scent, like fresh cucumbers and vanilla; his plain white T-shirts that he somehow always kept clean at work; his funny hairstyle that made him look like an anime cartoon character. I began smiling at him. Whenever he smiled back, my cheeks would grow hot, and I’d turn away. I looked forward to work instead of dreading it, and one night I came in even though I was sick with a sore throat. I asked the delivery driver to buy me cough drops, and when he asked, “What flavor?” I told him honey-lemon, my heart thumping because it felt like I was calling him “honey.”
The delivery driver still doesn’t know how I feel about him, because I am too scared to say.
I don’t care that I am four years younger than he is or that he isn’t in college. I don’t care about our differences in family background. I only care what he thinks of me. I hope he sees this, so he will know what I’ve always wanted to say to him: I love you.
My parents were divorced when I was little, and my father and I soon grew distant. This distance widened dramatically following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He flew planes for a living, and after that date the job market for pilots with Arabic names like his dried up. He moved back to Jordan to live with his family.
When I was thirteen, my parents and I decided that I should go to Jordan to live with my father for a year, because a boy my age needed a good relationship with his dad.
Unfortunately I did not fit in with his relatives, who saw me as an outsider. But not every moment was bad. I enjoyed many aspects of Arabic and Islamic culture. During Ramadan I fasted with everyone else, and I was amazed how much better food tasted after a day of not eating.
One night during Ramadan an uncle asked me to go buy bread at the store down the street for the next day’s predawn breakfast. It was late, but if I hurried, the bakery might still be open when I got there.
It wasn’t. Rather than go back empty-handed, I went to look for a bakery in al-Wihdat, the old Palestinian refugee camp a few blocks away. Many Palestinians, including my grandfather, had fled to Jordan during the Arab-Israeli War. Most had since moved out of al-Wihdat, but many poor families still lived there.
As darkness fell, I got lost in the labyrinthine streets of the camp. The lights strung overhead were mostly out. To my relief I crossed paths with two teenage boys, and I tried to explain to them, in my pitiful Arabic, that I was lost and looking for a bakery. They told me they knew one that was open.
Confidently navigating the twists and turns of the alleys, they brought me to a bakery, as promised, and I bought the bread. But I was still lost. I gave the boys the name of my street.
One of them asked where I was from. A little nervous, I replied, “Emrika.”
“Ahhh, America!” he said in English. He was curious to know how I’d come to be in Jordan, and I told him I was visiting my father. The teenager said he thought he knew where my street was, and his friend and I followed him. As we walked, he questioned me about my devotion to Islam. Growing anxious, I tried to give the right answers.
The boy had navigated much more directly and purposefully to the bakery. Now it was as if he were taking turns at random. Finally he stopped in a dark, secluded market. Without warning he pushed me face-first against a merchant’s table, pinning me to it.
“What are you doing?” I screamed. His previously silent friend was suddenly speaking very fast. I heard him say the word haram, meaning “forbidden by Islam.” He looked scared, and I was, too.
Disregarding his friend, the first boy dragged me farther into the darkness. Shoving my stomach hard against another table, he began pulling on the back of my jeans, trying to yank them down without even attempting to unbutton them.
His grip slipped, and I was able to elbow him in the stomach and run off as fast as I could. I screamed, “Nasr! Nasr!” thinking it was the Arabic word for “help.” I later found out it actually means “divine help.” And perhaps I got what I asked for, because the boys didn’t follow, and I made it out of the camp and onto a familiar, brightly lit street, where I saw one of my uncles desperately searching for me.
When I got back, my father and his other brothers asked where I had run off to. I told them everything as I remembered it, but they seemed skeptical. One uncle expressed doubt that the boy would have been unable to take off my pants. My father started picking holes in my story, but he stopped when I got upset. We should go find the teenagers right away, he said. I didn’t want to, but I knew what it would look like if I said no.
Entering al-Wihdat, we searched until we came across some teens kicking a soccer ball around an abandoned lot. My father and his brothers asked me if I recognized any of them. I wasn’t sure. It was dark, and the only light was from a trash-can fire. I thought I recognized the one who had tried to attack me, and I pointed him out.
One of my uncles briskly walked over and grabbed him by the front of his shirt. The boy looked scared and confused. I screamed for my uncle to stop, that this wasn’t the right one, and he let the boy go and apologized. I begged my dad just to take me home, saying I wasn’t certain I would recognize the guilty boy if I saw him.
I knew what my father and his brothers were thinking: that this had all been just another of my American lies.
In ninth grade I was in love with David, but I didn’t dare tell him. Every day after lunch I’d wait on a balcony above the quad to watch him walk below. I always prayed he’d look up and see me. Most of the time he did. He’d return my wave, and I’d feel happy for the rest of the day.
I’d met David in PE class because his locker was near mine. I knew what my attraction to him meant: that I was what my friends would call a “disgusting pervert” and one family member would call a “high-stepping, drum-major faggot.” But I was safe as long as nobody knew.
Anthony was the only obvious homosexual in our high school of 4,500 students. In the locker room the other boys made fun of him, pushed him around, and snapped him with towels. After his shower Anthony would dress in his platform heels and tight bell-bottom pants (this was 1973), and he’d storm out with his chin held high and tears in his eyes.
I wasn’t honest like Anthony. I forced myself to talk about sports and whistled at girls and called other boys “queer bait” to fit in. I was just one of the guys, except between bells after lunch when I waited on that balcony for David.
One day David stopped walking under my balcony. He began avoiding me and even switched gym lockers. I was heartbroken. Just waving had revealed too much. I would have to become better at hiding.
By the age of forty-five I was an expert. I met men in dark, secret places outside of town where nobody I knew would ever go. I did not allow myself to love anyone; worse, I did not trust anyone who said they loved me. How could they?
In my midthirties, after a divorce and another breakup, I moved to a tiny rural town. Though it was a good move for me in many ways, I sometimes felt lonely and depressed.
A grocery-store clerk named Karen was friendly to me. One day she asked me how I was doing.
“Fine,” I answered out of habit. Then I suddenly felt like being honest. “Actually I’m terrible.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Karen said. “Will it pass?”
Startled by her question, I had to think for a moment. When I knew my answer, my mood brightened.
“Yes,” I replied. “Yes, it will.”
San Anselmo, California