In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
I told my parents I was going to basketball practice, then sped down the dark rural road in my Gremlin, one of my dad’s condoms in my wallet. Gina’s mom and dad were out of town, and we’d decided this was the night we’d both lose our virginity. I was seventeen; she was eighteen.
Gina’s bedroom walls were covered in Duran Duran posters. We removed the teddy bears from her bed and started kissing, grabbing, and giggling. It was awkward but fun. We didn’t realize the condom had broken until we were done.
I drove home in a panic, snuck into my dad’s bar, and took several shots of his Scotch. Having been raised in a strict Catholic family, I felt my dreams of college and travel slipping away.
The next week I woke every day with a weight on my chest, sleepwalked through school, and barely ate. In a haze I listened over and over to Bruce Springsteen’s “The River,” a song about a teenager who impregnates his girlfriend and abandons all his dreams: “And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat.” Gina and I talked, but we didn’t know what to say to each other.
One evening my parents said they were worried about me. Dad had noticed a condom was missing. Relieved to finally unburden myself, I confessed. The next morning Mom took me to church, where I mumbled my confession to a priest while staring at my shoes. Dad had threatened to sell my Gremlin to pay for Gina’s hospital bills if she had a baby.
For the next few days dinners were silent, conversations strained, and phone calls cut short. Then one afternoon Gina called, elated. She’d gotten her period. I set the phone down and yelled, “Gina got her period!”
Mom was not a particularly effusive or warm parent, but that afternoon she threw her arms around me and laughed like the happiest mother alive.
Some people are type A personalities. I must be type AA, like the batteries: I never run out of energy. When I was growing up, my five siblings and I spent most weekends sweeping warehouses and packing shipping boxes at our father’s company. By high school we prided ourselves on our ability to work fourteen-hour days. During the summer we did yard work until it was too dark to see, and then we’d turn on outdoor lights to play kickball. Years later, when we spoke on the phone, we never asked, “How are you?” It was always “What are you doing?”
After I started dating Matt, I would stop by his apartment and often find him sitting on his couch. Since he didn’t have a TV and there was no book or project nearby, I’d ask what he was doing. “Just sitting here,” he’d reply. Bewildered, I’d persist: “Yes, but what are you doing?” He’d insist he was just sitting there.
This happened so many times he became defensive: “Why do I always have to be doing something?” he asked. Finally he declared he would no longer respond to the question What are you doing?
Matt and I married while I was immersed in a grueling PhD program at an Ivy League university. I often worked six to seven days a week. A few months into our marriage we adopted two kittens. One Saturday Matt went out to do errands, and I dozed off on our futon while studying for an exam, the kittens asleep on my chest.
I woke to Matt staring at me, an affectionate smile on his face. Panicked, I searched for an excuse. “The kittens were having trouble sleeping, so I lay down with them.”
Matt began laughing. “It’s OK,” he said. “You’re allowed to take a nap.”
One day, when I was in sixth grade, my dad walked in on me with my hands down my pants. I wasn’t masturbating — just feeling around, curious. A few days later my parents sat me down and asked what I needed to confess. I stammered and tried to think what my latest sins had been. My mom and dad vaguely referred to the day my dad had walked in on me, but they didn’t explain what I’d done wrong. I was homeschooled and didn’t even know what masturbation was.
In eighth grade I would sit on the couch and “do homework” on my iPad. Really I spent hours playing a Minecraft rip-off I’d convinced my parents to let me download. I’d become an expert at switching to my work whenever they checked on me. One time I didn’t hear my dad in time, and they took away the tablet for six months. I was relegated to the kitchen computer, where my mom kept a constant eye on me.
In my sophomore year of high school I had my first relationship. Dating was unacceptable for a born-again Christian, but courtship was condoned. This meant a girl from my homeschool group and I could hang out at one another’s homes. At my house we’d sit on the couch holding hands. Whenever my parents walked past, I’d let go of her hand and scoot away. They told me not to kiss her, because things would go downhill from there. I kissed her anyway, and we broke up a few months after that. I learned to hate physical affection.
When I was a senior, my parents still tucked me in at night. Sometimes I’d watch TV shows on my phone after they’d left, but I’d pause the show if I thought I heard footsteps. I was caught anyway and forced to leave my phone in my parents’ bedroom every night.
Now a senior in college, I struggle to continue watching a show when my roommate walks into the room. I have a laser-like focus when I do schoolwork. I can’t relax. I still live in fear of my most innocent behaviors being found out.
When I was nine years old, my best friend, Jean, and I would play with Barbies for hours. Almost all the dolls, houses, and vehicles belonged to Jean. I had just one barefoot Barbie, who wore a dress of faded denim, and a straggly-haired Barbie lookalike with paler skin and rounded limbs — not even a real Barbie.
I wanted to live in the perfect, sunset-colored world we created in Jean’s bedroom, with a townhouse, camper, and Mustang. My mother was mentally ill, and one advantage of this was that it was easy for me to get away with things around her. One day, when my mother was on the phone, I slipped into her closet and took a crisp twenty from her purse. Heart thumping, I stuffed the bill in my pocket and walked up the street to Pay-N-Save, where I purchased a Barbie motor home. I thrilled at the orange and yellow stickers, the splashy lines. It was mine!
When Mother saw me playing with it, I explained it was a present from Jean. She nodded and went back to her phone call. I couldn’t wait to show the motor home off to Jean.
A couple of days later Mother was on the phone again, this time frantic, telling my grandmother she couldn’t find the rent money. “I know it was in my purse,” she said. “I’m twenty dollars short!” Her voice was shaking, bordering on tears.
My stomach clenched. I knew my grandmother, who never believed anything Mother said, was berating her for being stupid and careless. I couldn’t admit what I’d done, but I promised myself I would never steal from my mother again.
In 1979 I was an intern at Detroit General Hospital, a dilapidated facility destined for replacement in the near future. One of my responsibilities was tending to the men in the jail ward on the third floor. The patients, shackled to their beds, were watched over by armed guards. Flimsy curtains on overhead tracks afforded minimal privacy.
One morning, exhausted after a night on call, I watched the senior resident scrutinize the patient census in a dingy hallway illuminated by a bare bulb. “Robert J. was supposed to be discharged yesterday,” he said. “Why is he still here?”
Robert was a diabetic who required insulin shots twice a day. “His blood sugar was over five hundred again,” I said. I had drawn Robert’s blood myself the afternoon before.
The senior resident and I trooped into the ward, nodding at the guard by the door. We found Robert reclined in bed with a cuff around his ankle, watching the TV bolted to the mottled green wall. He seemed perfectly calm and lucid, not exhibiting any signs of uncontrolled diabetes. His breakfast tray held coffee, skim milk, dry-looking eggs, canned peaches, toast.
“Better than what we get in jail,” Robert said, grinning.
The senior resident’s eyes widened. “Better than jail, eh?” He pulled Robert’s pillow from behind his back and shook out the case. Dozens of empty sugar packets slid out. The other prisoners laughed. Robert had persuaded or bribed them to toss him the sugar from their trays so he could ingest a few hundred grams before his blood was drawn.
We had to admire his ingenuity. This bedraggled old hospital, as rundown as it was, was still better than jail.
Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan
I was having a cigarette in a bathroom stall before first bell when Mrs. Huntington, the PE teacher, opened the stall door. “Come with me,” she said.
After my mom arrived at the principal’s office, I put on such a show that I convinced her the teacher was lying. Or maybe I didn’t convince her. Maybe she was just tired of fighting with three unruly teens and a drunk husband. Either way, the tactic became a way of life for me.
When I got pregnant at twenty, my boyfriend wanted assurance the baby was his. I gave him my absolute word. We got married and, no surprise, divorced a few years later. Our child was eight when my ex found out he was sterile and demanded a paternity test, which proved he was not the father.
The fact that I had cast this dark shadow over the life of my son led me to therapy and, eventually, to sobriety through a 12-step program that demanded “honesty in all our affairs.” Tall order, but I accepted the challenge.
Getting caught in a lie was the best thing that ever happened to me — and to my son, who got to grow up with a mom he could trust.
My cousin and I were playing hide-and-seek when I discovered a Playboy hidden under my brother’s mattress. My cousin found me slowly paging through it, and we sat mesmerized by what we saw. We were seven. Was this what our bodies would look like someday? Would I grow hair down there? I was curious and slightly horrified.
When my mom walked in, we ran down the stairs and out of the house.
Mom didn’t mention it again, but a few days later in the kitchen she told my aunt — right in front of me. Mom’s tone sounded serious, but they both giggled. I was so ashamed that I crawled under the table and could not be convinced to come out.
I wish my mom, instead of laughing, had used the opportunity to talk to me about how my body would grow and change. That feeling was the seed of years of hating how my body looked.
A charismatic Pentecostal preacher from the Bronx bought a crumbling hotel in the Catskills village where I lived. This was 1963, and almost everyone in the village was Jewish. In the middle of town stood the preacher’s hotel, renamed “Damascus.” The preacher saw Jesus as the cure for heroin addiction. Men would detox in the Bronx and then be brought to Damascus, where they would be reborn in Christ.
My cousin Beth and I, both seventeen, thought this was the best thing that had ever happened: all those non-Jewish outlaws as potential boyfriends. Beth and I positioned ourselves on her grandparents’ porch to check out the men as they walked by. Within a few months Hector, thirty-six, became my secret love. Beth’s flame was Eddie, who was in his early twenties. Seeing them required a lot of scheming; my father was a policeman, and the townspeople were dying to report anything untoward to him, especially when it came to Damascus.
When Beth’s grandparents went to New Jersey for the weekend, we hatched a plan with Hector and Eddie: Beth and I would each tell our parents we were going to the other’s house, then wait for our boyfriends at her grandparents’. We kept the lights off and excitedly watched the street for their arrival.
Instead my father’s cop car pulled up. As he walked toward the unlocked front door, Beth and I bolted out the back and hid behind separate bushes. The back door opened and closed. My father came so close to my hiding spot that I was tempted to jump out and say hi.
He and I had done this dance before. I had been caught multiple times with illicit boyfriends. My parents had sent me to shrinks and an expensive private school, but my determination to break the rules remained unchecked.
My father was standing directly in front of me when he struck a match to light a cigar. I tried to still my racing heart. I thought for sure he had seen me, but he returned to the house.
Maybe he did see me but just couldn’t face another showdown with his once-obedient daughter. Maybe my two years of rebellion had exhausted him. I never found out. He died when I was eighteen. I still don’t know what he saw when he lit that cigar.
My best friend and I drive to Montgomery Ward to kill time. It’s 1958 and summer, so we’re off from school. We wind up in the sporting-goods department, and, after eyeing many things we want and can’t afford, we each pocket two golf balls and head for the exit.
A few steps from our car we’re halted by a large man who barks, “What’s that in your back pockets, boys?”
It’s not a question.
The man marches us back to the store and up some creaky stairs to an office with MANAGER on the door. We sit on a hard wooden bench, neither speaking nor looking at each other. Finally the door flies open, and the stone-faced manager enters.
He lays down the four golf balls. “What do you have to say for yourselves?” he asks.
Neither of us can come up with an answer.
“Here’s what’s going to happen,” the manager says. “I’m going to make a police report. Meantime, you two go home. And I mean straight home. Expect a policeman to come to each of your houses in a day or two to talk to your parents.”
My head feels light.
He advises us to tell our parents about this as soon as we get home so they won’t be surprised when the policeman arrives. “Now get going, and don’t ever come back to this store.”
We do go straight home, but neither of us confesses to our parents. For weeks we wait for a police car to pull up.
It never does. Of course.
I’ve never shoplifted again in sixty-plus years, but a part of me still feels as if that cop will come knocking.
When my seven-year-old walked in on my husband and me, we weren’t fumbling in the dark under the covers; I was riding him like a cowgirl, lights on, moaning. I noticed my daughter at our bedside, eyes huge, and shouted, “There’s a child in here!” — as if I didn’t know she was mine. She burst into tears and ran.
On the one hand, I felt guilty that we hadn’t locked the door. On the other, we were only two human beings fulfilling a natural need to love and touch.
I put on my bathrobe and found my daughter sitting on the stairs. She hadn’t done anything wrong, I said, and I apologized for frightening her. Then I carried her to her bedroom.
Back in our bed, my husband, sheets pulled to his chest, was consulting the Internet to see if she was now psychologically scarred. “ ‘For much of history,’ ” he read, “ ‘living in proximity to family members or in rural settings with animals, children would be frequently exposed to sex.’ ”
Although my husband had done the research, the conversation with my daughter was left to me alone. I fumbled through it. “It’s what you do with someone you love,” I explained. “We were having fun.” I didn’t want my daughter to think sex was shameful, but I was embarrassed and haven’t mentioned the incident to her again.
My daughter is now twelve. I have no idea if she remembers seeing my husband and me having sex, but she always knocks on our bedroom door.
Natasha de Carvalho
Rumson, New Jersey
When my parents left for the casino, I knew I had at least eight hours. I placed my tools on the kitchen table: two stainless-steel razor blades wrapped in tissue paper, two kitchen knives, carpenter’s scissors from my dad’s toolbox, and a pair of pruning shears.
I removed the gauze bandages from the week before, when I’d made the amateur mistake of cutting horizontally with a dull knife, making a mess without the intended result. But tonight I was prepared. I wasn’t going to be cliché or dramatic and do it by candlelight in the bathtub with a glass of wine. And leave a note? Please.
My existence had long been beyond my comprehension. I didn’t know what awaited me in death, but anything would be better than the never-ending nightmare of the past twelve years.
I unwrapped a razor and, being right-handed, started with the blade in my left; I thought I should use the weaker hand first. Funny what you think of at such times.
As soon as I buried a corner of the razor into my wrist, the front door opened. My parents had been gone less than ten minutes. My father headed to the bathroom, and my mother, without looking at me, came into the kitchen explaining that she had forgotten her casino-rewards card. She turned and saw my arm dripping blood.
“Jesus, not again,” she said. My father joined us in time to hear my mother say, “Would you do us all a favor and just get it over with?” And with that, they turned and left.
I was right; they stayed gone eight hours. I never found out if they were upset or relieved that I was alive when they returned. I’m here today for one reason: spite. I’d be damned if my death would be their reward.
“You have the wrong house,” I said to the man in the FBI cap.
My husband of thirty-eight years was in our home office and didn’t hear them order me out the door, hands cuffed behind my back. He didn’t see them handcuff our two adult daughters. Barefoot and shaking, the three of us huddled on the flagstone walkway in front of our suburban home, surrounded by a dozen armed agents. When my husband appeared, handcuffed and escorted, I asked him, “What is this?”
He put his finger to his lips.
For thirty minutes we all stood outside while dog-walkers gawked and cars passed. Then we were allowed back in. They seated and uncuffed us, and an agent handed my husband a search warrant. “You’re not under arrest. You can leave anytime, but we’ll be conducting the search with or without you present.”
My husband told them we’d stay. I was too afraid to ask what they were looking for. We waited in silence, my daughters and I exchanging frightened looks. My husband avoided eye contact.
An agent brought me to my bedroom, where he grilled me: How many computers did we have? Who used them? Did children ever come to our home?
Though I had nothing to hide, I began to hyperventilate.
“Have you heard of peer-to-peer sharing?”
“You mean . . . Facebook?”
“It’s not social media, ma’am. We’re talking sites on the dark web. This is some of the worst we’ve seen.” The images and videos they had downloaded remotely from my husband’s computer were graphic. Some portrayed children younger than five. “Did you know about this?”
I shook my head and, trembling, was helped back to the dining room. Before I could confront my husband, the head agent took him to another room for questioning.
While they were gone, I skimmed the search warrant, which referenced pornography, chatroom conversations, and children being abused and photographed. My heart in my throat, I set the document down. When my husband returned, I stared into his vacant eyes and hissed, “What the fuck?”
“I’m ruined,” he whispered. “I did this.”
Los Angeles, California
My mother grew up on a farm in the Deep South during the Great Depression. She left home when she married my dad, but my family went back to the farm for extended summer visits, and these produced some of my most vivid childhood memories. It was a place of constant, grueling work to the adults but a place of wonder and mystery to me.
My mother’s younger brother, Frank, still lived on the farm with my grandparents. Years later I learned he’d had a high fever as a child, and it had caused learning difficulties. In that time and place the solution was for him simply to stop going to school.
Frank was a favorite of his nieces and nephews. A big man with kind eyes and a ready laugh, he seemed invincible. His forearms were tanned a deep reddish brown, and his face was ruddy and lined, except when he took off his hat — he wore a pith helmet in summer — and exposed his broad white forehead. We took it for granted that he would always be there to give us rides on the tractor, teach us to milk a cow, or help us crank the corn-shelling machine.
On one visit, when I was about nine, Frank came out of the shed with a mule hitched to the sledge: a wooden platform with runners, used to haul loads where a tractor couldn’t go. I asked where he was going, and he said he was headed to the lower field, where I had seldom explored.
I asked if I could go with him, and he told me to ask my mom. I was pretty sure her answer would be no: it wasn’t an appropriate thing for a girl, or it was too far, or there was a chore to do. So I ran toward the house, waited a moment, then circled back.
“OK, let’s go!”
“Did she say yes?” Frank asked, looking me right in the eye.
“Yes,” I said.
I jumped on the sledge, and just as it started to move, my mother came around the corner calling my name. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Frank looked at me. “You told me a lie,” he said, his usual smile gone.
The look on Frank’s face as he clucked to the mule was one of deep disappointment. I got off the sledge, ashamed. I had bruised his trust. I did not know what to do.
Having suffered through a tedious seder dinner the night before, I wasn’t looking forward to the stuffy Sunday-school Passover ritual at the synagogue. On such a promising spring afternoon I could have been outside blowing stuff up, but Mom claimed the shindig would be fun. At the age of nine, I didn’t buy it.
White-haired Rabbi Kohn blabbed on and on about God knows what, but I perked up when he announced that we kids could win a fabulous prize by finding the half-broken matzo known as the afikomen. I figured the prize would be a toy. I had plenty but could always find room for one more.
First Rabbi Kohn repeated, at length, the story of how the Jews left Egypt. Mercifully it ended, and the rabbi told us to cover our eyes. I did what any budding scofflaw would do: I peeked and saw Rabbi Kohn hide the afikomen behind the upright piano, wrapped in his wrinkled old handkerchief.
When Rabbi Kohn said, “Go,” the competition wandered around like the lost tribes of Israel, but I made a beeline for the piano, grabbed the holy cracker, and held it above my head. A warm glow spread through my belly, mixed with something I wasn’t prepared for: the queasy feeling that it had been too easy.
The rabbi returned from his vestibule with a neatly wrapped package. I tore off the paper and discovered a book titled Right and Wrong. I smelled adult propaganda and swore on the spot I would never read it.
My parents gave Right and Wrong an honored place on the coffee table, where I had to pass by it every day. It hit me: Rabbi Kohn may have been craftier than I’d thought. He probably had a whole stack of wrapped packages stashed in his vestibule and gave the book to the bad kids, saving the chemistry set for someone who really deserved it.
I made a firm resolution: Next year, no beeline.
The first time I got drunk was at my parents’ New Year’s Eve party. I was seven years old. They’d given me a glass of champagne, and I helped myself to a few more. As my parents and their friends rang in 1999, I stumbled upstairs, slightly panicked by how funny I felt, and put myself to bed.
By the end of high school I often went to bed drunk. The only trouble I ever ran into was when my parents were out of vodka. I learned which creaky doors to avoid, how to navigate from my room to the liquor cabinet in darkness, and how to avoid the bottles I’d refilled with water and food dye.
I never got caught, but part of me wanted to — to have my parents ask me why I was drinking, to have them help me stop.
Years later I had a conversation with my mom about raising kids. I wondered aloud how I would handle it if I found my future children drinking. My mom sighed and said, “Darling, as a parent, don’t acknowledge behavior if you don’t want to deal with it.”
I’d been wrong. It wasn’t that I never got caught. My parents just didn’t care.
Los Angeles, California
I dropped by my parents’ house one afternoon at four, just to say hi. The truth is I wanted something to eat. I wasn’t a kid, hungry after a day of attending school. I was an adult, hungry after a day of teaching school.
No one was home, so I rummaged through the pantry. Nothing. The fridge. Nothing. The freezer . . . jackpot: a white bakery box with a cake inside — a chocolate cake, to be exact, ornately decorated in fudge frosting. I grabbed a fork and began chiseling away a frozen bite. Tiny triangles of frosting fell off. An entire frosting rose broke away, petals intact. It was delicious. Fueled by the refined sugar, I kept chiseling, hoping to hit a vein that would yield larger bites.
Five minutes later Mom came home. Her smile disappeared as soon as she saw me. “What are you doing?”
“Eating cake,” I said.
My mother’s voice rose. “That’s the top of your sister’s wedding cake!”
I kept digging, ignoring her glare of maternal disapproval.
“Your sister is saving that for her first anniversary!” She stamped her foot this time, as if that would cause me to stop.
Another rose broke off the cake. I held it out to her as an offering.
“Well, it’s too late now,” she said, and grabbed a fork.
Mom and I were well into our conspiratorial snack when Betsy walked in. Her face turned red. “Is that my wedding cake?”
The youngest of four, Betsy constantly felt overlooked or left out and held everyone in the family responsible for it. Seeing us devour her cake only reinforced her belief.
I held up a hefty slice; the cake was beginning to soften at this point. “It’s pretty tasty.”
For a moment none of us moved. It seemed I’d crossed a line.
Betsy walked to the silverware drawer and grabbed a fork. “I’m gonna kill you,” she told me. But one bite in, her eyes rolled upward. “Oh, my God, this is good,” she said.
At Alice’s sleepover, after her parents had gone to bed, someone suggested we go papering — a prank where you fling toilet paper over someone’s house and yard. As high-school freshmen, we all agreed it was a brilliant idea.
The three of us screamed with delight as Alice brought out rolls of white, fluffy ammunition. We put on robes and slippers, grabbed as many rolls as we could carry, and tiptoed through the living room.
Since none of us had a driver’s license, we huddled on the front porch and considered the options on her block. “There’s a cranky old lady down the way,” Alice said. “She’s always yelling at us to stop playing football in the street.”
Agreeing that this sort of attitude deserved to be punished, we made our way stealthily down the block, unaware of the neighbors peering out between their curtains.
We had no sooner flung our first roll when someone said, “Oh, shit, it’s a cop car! Hide!”
I immediately dropped into some low-lying shrubbery. Seconds later I saw the flashing lights and heard the car door open. My coconspirators were not so quick. I peered through the shrub to see a light shining in a friend’s face.
A gruff, but not unkind, voice said, “Good evening, girls. Kind of late for you to be out in your pajamas, don’t you think?”
My cohorts mumbled that it was.
“Where do you girls live?”
“I live just down the street,” Alice confessed. “I’m having a sleepover,” she added quietly.
“I don’t see a lot of sleeping going on,” the officer said. “Why don’t you ladies pick up your paper and get in the car. I’ll drive you home.”
When Alice pleaded that she didn’t need a ride, the cop said he might want to have a chat with her folks.
From my hiding place I could hear my friends scooping up the paper, and their slippers shuffling along the sidewalk to the car. I examined my options: Should I stay hidden and try to sneak into my friend’s house later, or announce myself and risk adding evading arrest to the charges? The engine started.
I leapt out of the bushes. “Don’t forget me!” I cried.
The policeman looked out his window with a bemused expression, then opened his door.
My husband and I hadn’t had the time or money for a honeymoon when we married, but after five years we decided to spend a month in Italy. In Rome our top-floor room had a curved ceiling and a window whose wooden shutters opened to a view of balconies covered with ivy and impatiens.
One afternoon, while we sat on the Spanish Steps eating lemon ice, a surge of desire drove us back to our room, where we tumbled into bed. It was a noteworthy sexual experience for both of us — more energetic and acrobatic than usual. We rolled over and lay side by side in the warm light coming in through the window.
Then we spotted him. Across the street and a floor above us, a man in his fifties stood on a balcony, looking at us. He was handsome and well dressed, with a sweater tied in a knot over his shoulders.
We giggled and waved. Realizing he’d been found out, he took an espresso from the table next to him and raised the cup toward us, a toast.