In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I was living in a dorm on campus. I was a twenty-one-year-old junior. And I was still a virgin. Anne and I had been friends for six months; she lived on the floor above me. We had kissed a couple of times, but nothing more.
The door to my room was old, and the doorknob had a small, push-button lock in the center. When the button was pressed to lock the door, it made a distinctive sound, something like click-rit.
Late one evening Anne appeared in my open doorway. She stayed there for several seconds before stepping inside and quietly closing the door. With her hand still on the doorknob, she paused again: a long moment of stillness and silence. And then I heard the sound: click-rit. I was stunned, thrilled, and quite unnerved. Anne had locked the door.
I knew what that sound meant, why she had locked the door, what was about to happen.
I still occasionally hear the click-rit sound from an old push-button doorknob lock. And I fondly remember that amazing evening forty-five years ago.
When I was thirty-six, my best friend and I went backpacking in California’s Eastern Sierra. We hiked over a twelve-thousand-foot pass and camped in an expansive basin carved out by glaciers and ringed by majestic peaks. We’d grown up together on the ski slopes of Colorado, then taken up rock climbing in our twenties, but in our thirties we’d swapped adrenaline rushes for meditation. We were beginning to experience the world in different ways.
One afternoon, at the end of a meditation practice, I asked my friend, “Who does that peak remind you of?”
“Padmasambhava,” he replied, naming one of the progenitors of Buddhism.
“Me, too! Let’s call it Padmasambhava Peak!”
He agreed, and that night we went to sleep with a great sense of accomplishment, having named a mountain.
At breakfast we decided: Why not name all the peaks? We climbed to a perch and studied each formation. To the left of Padmasambhava was a long, V-shaped ridge that seemed to gather the sky. We called her Vajrayogini. To the right was a peak with four ridgelines descending from a broad summit. We named him after Four-Armed Mahakala, the great protector. Other landforms became the Corpse of Ego, the Crone, and the Lake of Mirror-like Wisdom.
Soon after we’d named them, the mountains began to teach us. The play of light on their slopes throughout the day filled us with a deep sense of communion. Perhaps this was how people had interacted with the land for most of human history, when creation narratives and cosmologies had arisen from the landscape. With time, a name for the basin itself arose: the Universal Ground of Everything.
Over the last fifteen years, on our annual backpacking trips, those mountains have helped us navigate our lives, advising us on numerous challenges, supporting us in our grief, and easing our shame, addictions, and sense of separation.
This year, with fires closing the national forests in California, it seemed I wouldn’t be able to make the annual pilgrimage. But then the forests reopened, and I jumped at the chance.
I brought my newly beloved. She and I were there for only one day. The streams were dry, the lakes noticeably less full, and the air, at times, filled with smoke. But the mountains could still teach.
Austin Hill Shaw
While going through treatment for leukemia at the age of forty, my sister spent months at a time in the hospital. Once a month I’d fly into LAX and camp out on the couch in her room for a long weekend.
We talked a lot, but when our conversation would hit a lull, we’d watch TV — usually a comedy, which we made funnier with our commentary. The television’s speaker was built into her hospital bed, and it was difficult for me to hear with all the hospital noise. So I’d pull a chair over and awkwardly place my head against the back of the speaker.
My sister could see I was uncomfortable in this position. “There’s plenty of space in the bed,” she said, “if you want to snuggle while we watch.” Then she added, “Just like when we were kids.”
I declined at first, because it felt too intimate, but eventually my discomfort outweighed my sense of propriety. We pushed aside the cords and tubes, and I climbed in with her. Sometimes she would fall asleep with her head on my shoulder.
As the year wore on, she got sicker and sicker, and I’d climb into her bed not to watch comedies but to hold her while we struggled with the fact of her imminent death.
In a prison’s open-bay dormitory there are no secrets. I’ve developed strategies to avoid seeing something I cannot unsee. If I must use the restroom at 2:30 AM, I shuffle my feet and make some noise, in case some nefarious activity is in progress when I walk in.
There’s a term in the Department of Corrections: “reckless eyeballing.” Although this originally referred to looking at a female officer or staff member in a predatory fashion, it also describes a situation between inmates, where the penalty is the burden of too much intimate knowledge. Sitting on my bunk and listening, I can learn who washes his hands after using the restroom. I can observe the horrendous hygiene habits of individuals who take only a biweekly shower. I learn everyone’s nervous tics, whether they call home frequently, or if they take the time to pray or brush their teeth.
When I get out, I can decide how much I want to know about a person. I can choose who gets past my walls.
Westley Emerson Steiner
A week after walking across the stage at my college graduation, I sat on the edge of my bathtub holding a positive pregnancy test. My decision to keep the baby, and to raise it with the man to whom I’d recently gotten engaged, was the beginning of a life I’d never envisioned: as a stay-at-home mom and housewife in the suburbs. Over the next decade, while my friends were forging careers and shuffling through boyfriends, I was struggling to see my partner as more than a roommate. On paper we had everything, but we were distant. Childcare took precedence over looking after ourselves and one another.
When our home became more cage than sanctuary, I got a job — my first since graduation — and sought distraction in the form of a coworker. I was captivated by her, and I developed the sort of feelings for her I should have had for my husband. Underneath my excitement was fear — not because I was having these feelings for someone else but because they were for a woman.
One night my coworker and I came home from a dinner that had been more drinks than food, and I wove my fingers through her hair. Both of us shed the titles of mother and wife for a moment. Later I stumbled into my sleeping house like a teenager afraid of getting caught. I woke the next morning not knowing what was worse: that those feelings didn’t disappear when the alcohol wore off, or that they came more naturally for a woman I’d known only a few months than for the man to whom I’d dedicated a decade of my life.
Being of solid British stock, my mother loved a good, scrub-till-the-skin-is-red bath once a week. Sighing with pleasure, she would sink into the hot water and languish there.
If I was home, she’d ask me to grab the scrub brush and go to town on her back. I could never scrub hard enough for her and was dismayed at how red her skin would get, but she insisted it felt marvelous. I’d eventually stop once my arm gave out.
When I moved away from home, my mom lost the one person who gave her that few minutes of joy. (My father never scrubbed her back.) Many years passed before I gave my mother another good scrub, this time under vastly different circumstances. At seventy-six years old, about to shovel the snow off her driveway, she struggled to catch her breath. A trip to the hospital revealed double pulmonary emboli.
I arrived the next morning to escort her home, where the first order of business was to bathe that grimy hospital feeling off. A bath would’ve been her first choice, but ironically the tub in her rental was too big for her, so I ran the shower instead. Then I got the brush out and gave her a scrub, careful to treat her aging body with all the love and tenderness I could. Just like old times, she wanted me to scrub harder. I did my best to oblige, laughing at how some things never change.
It was one of the most intimate moments of my life, beyond anything I’ve ever shared with a lover. Here was the body that had made me, and I had the privilege to bring it comfort and pleasure. I’ll never forget that last good scrub.
As a teen I read a book about a couple who read one another’s favorite childhood books, fell in love, and sailed around the Caribbean until they were as “brown as nuts.” I assumed that was what all marriages were like. When I started dating my first boyfriend in college, I gave him a copy of that book. We’ve now been married for seventeen years.
I have a close friend who is a therapist, and every week she and I empathize with each other and talk about our dreams and what’s troubling us. But we haven’t been friends long enough to have hurt or offended one another. With my husband I’m more careful about what I say. We’re both moody, and my anger and sadness often trigger his, so I hold them close. I protect myself, withdraw.
My daughter is thirteen years old and in love with a boy. On the day she learned he felt the same way about her, I told her that this was as good as it would get. “It only goes downhill from here,” I said. I was half joking. The next evening, at a soccer game, the boy’s friends were teasing him about his crush on another girl. When the friends walked away, he turned to my daughter and said, “You know who I like, right? I like you.” Giddy, she biked home to tell me. I couldn’t sleep that night, jealously picturing that moment.
Each day she comes home with some new story: how they walk through the hallways with their shoulders touching; how he shares Ukrainian candies with her; how he loves that she is never embarrassed.
In marriage, intimacy can feel tapped out. My husband recently told me he’d thought he was marrying someone who’d always be in love with him. I was mystified at his naivete.
I wish I could savor each moment, as my daughter does, without needing it to last forever. I remember when things were new with my husband — when I recited poems to him on a chicken bus in Central America, or when he dragged a mattress outside so we could sleep under the stars in Honduras because it was too hot in our hostel, or when we were stranded for a night on the crowded streets of New York City during a blackout.
In that book I read as a teen, the wife dies. Maybe love that fanciful can only be temporary. Maybe that book wouldn’t have been written if she’d lived long enough for their marriage to mature.
At the storage locker, my sister and I dig through the dusty boxes containing the remains of our parents’ life together. We find our dad’s carefully typed letters, describing our years in Africa, when he brought his young family to work with refugees in a place that couldn’t have been farther from the small Wisconsin towns he and Mom were from. Another folder contains letters he wrote to me when I was traveling around East Africa with a friend. It was baseball season, and he would fill us in on the games, inning by inning.
My sister points to a box in the corner and asks, “What do we do with that?” Our older sister came across it years ago and left it here. Now everything in this storage locker needs to find its way to an antique store, or a Goodwill, or a dumpster.
I open the box, aware of what I’ll find: The black pumps, the stockings, the beautiful red leather handbag. The makeup, the bra, and the “falsies” complete with nipples. A business card to a safe space where a “fantasy consultant” can help you create your authentic self, even set up a photo session if you’d like a reminder of what you look like as that other person, the one who waits patiently inside you. I go through it all and feel so much love and empathy for my dad it hurts.
My heart breaks to imagine how he kept his secret all those years. But I also feel grateful that he eventually grew brave enough to incorporate some of her into his life. He picked out eyeglass frames from the ladies’ section at the optometrist and favored colorful shirts. He grew his hair out and wore it in braids or a bun. After his death at the age of ninety-six, Mom cut off part of a braid as a keepsake before we wrapped him in a magnificently colored shroud. He looked beautiful and at peace.
As a social worker in the busiest emergency room in my state, I see a lot of trauma — not the blood and gunshot wounds you might imagine, but more-mundane horror: Eighty-year-olds covered in bedsores and feces, abandoned by their families. Shoeless, unhoused men who just want a turkey sandwich and someone to care. Alcoholics whose names I know because they come in every month, always swearing this will be the last time. Women with black eyes who are angry at the police for arresting the men who hit them.
Many patients will apologize for their tears, for their smell, for taking my time. I tell them it’s OK; I never see folks at their best — only in crisis. Patients and families tell me things they can’t or won’t tell anyone else.
In graduate school for social work they tell you not to “open the box” of someone’s trauma if you don’t have time to help them safely “pack it back in.” I often feel like I’m just handing out lists of resources and sending patients on their way, but occasionally, on a slow night, I can take the time to listen and really help someone come up with a plan to quit drinking or leave an abusive boyfriend or accept the help they need. Although I don’t tell these people my own story, it’s impossible not to share a piece of myself. Most of the time I never know if I helped or not, because I never see them again.
We met on a northbound red-line train, both twenty-two-year-old, vegetarian, Jewish guitar players. His eyes were big and brown.
Five months later we were in love, but we were not intimate. We had been in the beginning, but I didn’t want to anymore. When I tried to get in the mood, I had flashbacks to the four rapes I’d experienced in college: by a boyfriend, by an ex-boyfriend, by a friend, and by a friend of a friend. In every case I had explicitly said no. In every case I had dissociated from reality in the moment, blamed myself the next day, and tried to forget it.
This relationship felt safe. If I said I was tired, I knew he would be supportive. Still, I decided to test him. If I said no a hundred times, would he stick around? If I withheld all romantic contact, certainly he would leave, right? I didn’t want to do this, but I felt like I had to. We didn’t have sex for several months. I didn’t want or need it; I needed someone to support me while the trauma I thought I had buried came to the surface.
We’ve been married now for three years. Our relationship is full of intimacy in all its forms.
I’m seventy-six years old and live alone. At the height of the pandemic my daughter shopped for me, but, cognizant of the high death rate among elders, she wouldn’t touch me. Masks made it hard for me to understand what people said, even with my hearing aids, deepening my isolation. I missed having people in my home and my exercise days at the YMCA. I yearned to touch a warm, animate body. I remembered studies in which rhesus monkeys deprived of touch stopped eating and died. So I adopted a cat.
“I’m looking for a lap cat,” I explained to the shelter. Everything transpired at a safe distance: The shelter sent me photos of a cat named Bumblebee, for her stripes. I renamed her Ketzeleh — kitten in Yiddish, and a term of endearment for little girls. I ended up calling her Ketzie.
The shelter failed to mention that Ketzie nipped — not hard enough to pierce the skin but enough to cause a flash of pain. Maybe that’s why they called her Bumblebee, I decided. The speed with which she attacked made me leery of touching her. I thought about giving her back, but how could I, just as she was getting used to her new home? I fretted over what Ketzie might have lived through on the street. How often had she had to react with a bite to protect herself?
After months of care and attention, she began to jump onto my lap and stand stiff-legged, her tail switching like a metronome. And she let me pet her — for a minute or two at most before jumping down. Ten months in she started leaping onto my bed in the morning to wake me up. At 7 AM I’d feel her gentle breath on my face. I’d pretend to sleep until I felt a paw gently patting my cheek.
A year into our relationship I decided to meditate while listening to Pachelbel’s Canon in D. When I turned on the music, Ketzie’s ears rotated, honing in on the sound. I closed my eyes and focused on inhaling and exhaling. Suddenly Ketzie jumped onto my lap. When I petted her, she stretched out and purred. I closed my eyes again. We sat like that for a good half hour. We’d become intimates.
Intimacy among men in prison is a touchy subject. A man doesn’t want to be too friendly, lest he be seen as a “punk” or a “sissy.” Unwanted advances can lead to violence. Touch is generally limited to fist bumps and the occasional handshake. Sometimes a man may pat another’s shoulder in passing, usually when the recipient is seated.
I was paroled in 2021 after serving nearly five years of my sentence. Before my release many men offered their congratulations with a handshake and a “bro hug.” I was shocked, as I’d never gotten hugs from guys inside. It was too much human contact.
Even more surprising was the last prayer call I attended, the night before my release. One of the guys wanted to “lift me up”: a mass laying on of hands during the closing prayer, which was especially for me. I almost came to tears as the guys put their hands on me. I had not had such contact for four years and ten months.
After we’d lived together for a year, my friend Megan and I decided to work for the summer on a boat in Alaska: a sixty-five-yard-long, three-story-tall barge with a crew of twenty-three. We ended up on the same eighteen-hour shift, sharing the same tiny room and the same bunk bed.
Every movement I made as I fell asleep, Megan felt. Every time my alarm went off, Megan heard it. Any dirty socks she left lying around would fill our room with their scent. During our shifts we had each other’s backs: catching huge lines from other boats, sweeping floors of fish blood, and lifting heavy metal hoppers that leaned out over the rushing tide. But back in our room after a shift, we knew not to talk much. There was nowhere to be alone except for the timed five-minute showers, and we didn’t want to take up one another’s precious energy. Megan saw me when I’d just woken up and put on the same outfit for the third long day in a row and was uninterested in seeing people. But she would also see me at my strongest — happily suiting up in head-to-toe rain gear to push conveyor belts full of jammed fish.
Although that summer brought us almost too close, we remain roommates to this day.
Mari Jeanne Stusser
San Luis Obispo, California
I had been separated for seven months, after almost thirty years of marriage, when Phillip messaged me through a dating app. His profile picture was of an old man, which surprised me, as I had set an age limit. My ex was much older than I was, and I wanted to date men closer to my own age. I ignored the message.
A few weeks later, out of curiosity, I looked at Phillip’s photos again and read what he’d written about himself. In one picture he was next to a tree, looking younger and wilder. Another showed him tenderly holding a baby with strong hands. I replied to him.
When we met, it was as if we already knew each other. Our friendship began just as we were sent into COVID lockdown. We agreed to walk six feet apart on the trails that remained open. One day, after our walk, we hugged. My head said he was too old, but my heart was opening to him. I went with my heart.
Phillip uncovered a wild side of me that had been dormant for too long. I felt seen, desired. I had married very young, so being with Phillip was like being young again — and stupidly in love. We made out in the woods, in parking lots, along trails and rivers. We got beer from gas stations and drank in his car. We got naked in every sense of the word.
As the 2020 election approached, we realized we stood on opposite sides. It hurt to realize we could be political enemies, but we continued to meet, putting aside our beliefs and focusing on our love of poetry, music, beer, and dogs. Still, we both knew there was no future for us.
Perhaps knowing this made every encounter more meaningful: the way our bodies molded together, the joy we felt reading Mary Oliver first thing in the morning, the laughter that came easily, even in the middle of an argument. Even though we finally let go of each other with much sadness, our time together was a gift.
Nothing could have prepared me for at-home hospice. My wife, Dianne, was dying at the age of eighty-two. When you become a primary caregiver for the one you love, everything changes. As Dianne became weaker and more vulnerable, my fear of doing anything wrong — especially with a medicine, or a needle, or just trying to safely turn her over in bed — became overwhelming. It was she who got me through her hospice experience, not the other way around.
Dianne chose to stop eating, and as her needs diminished, our days together grew quieter, and in some ways more intimate. She would look up from the book she was reading, and we’d both say how grateful we were for our life together.
Before she died — more from starvation than from the cancer ravaging her organs — Dianne gave me some materials she said I might want to read after she was gone: a packet of poetry she loved; some favorite books; and her personal journals, which she had written off and on during our almost forty years together.
It was an incredible privilege to read her journals after her death, but it could sometimes be daunting. Near the end of the last one, she wrote that I was “uncomfortable with intimacy” and not prone to hand-holding or hugging. It was hard seeing my introversion through her eyes. But then she wrote about the closeness we’d shared during her at-home hospice.
My round-the-clock caregiving, she said, had reassured her of the depth of my love. By giving me permission to read her journals, Dianne extended the depths of hers.
Louie and I weren’t best friends, but we liked investigating the new houses going up in the neighborhood and exploring the creek that ran alongside his house. The creek was lined with trees, including some weeping willows, which provided plenty of shelter. We hunted crayfish, played Davy Crockett, and built a “fort” with stray lumber we had found — a hideaway where we could talk about the latest episode of Combat! or The Gallant Men or the difference between a frog and a toad.
The summer after third grade, Louie’s cousin Sheila, who was a year older than I was, came to stay with him and his family for a week. I was always vaguely dissatisfied with what I saw in the mirror, and spent most of my free time reading Hardy Boys mysteries, but something about me caught Sheila’s eye — or maybe she was just bored with Louie and his parents.
Near the end of her stay, Louie said his cousin wanted to meet me at the fort. I didn’t think much of it. I really hadn’t thought much about the willowy Sheila at all, other than the vague impression that she had somehow noticed me.
Down at the fort Sheila got really, really close, kissed me on the cheek, and then kissed my mouth, a sensation unlike anything I’d ever felt. I was stunned — and petrified. Taking my astonished inaction as rejection, Sheila got up and left, glancing back only briefly. The next day she went back home.
I later found out from Louie that she was quite critical of my apparent timidity. This gave me plenty to think about for the rest of the summer. I knew that Frank and Joe Hardy both had girlfriends. Maybe Sheila would be my girlfriend next summer. If so, I would certainly not hesitate to kiss her back.
It was not to be. The spring rains flooded the creek and washed away the fort, and Sheila had moved on to other boys. But that extraordinary moment never left me.
When my husband snored in bed, I’d run my fingers through his short, thick hair, gently rousing him enough to make him stop. We took camping trips, went to concerts, and shared parenting joys and frustrations over our eighteen years together. As the years went on, though, I asked him for more walks in the woods, more deep connection, and he couldn’t give them to me. When I told him I was deeply depressed, he never asked me about it again. Next week we’ll finally be divorced.
When my previous lover messaged me months ago, I froze. I was well into my separation, and he said he was passing through. I’d known him twenty years earlier, when I was more fit and confident. What would he think of me now? But my body craved to be touched, and a frenzy of flirtatious texts resurrected old passions. Our love affair felt new again. I ran my fingers through his long, wild hair. We were vulnerable with each other, exchanging stories of our kids, our partners, our trials. Afterward we went back to our separate lives on opposite coasts, but we continued to share photos, poetry, and a dizzying hunger for each other. Dreams of seeing him again haven’t materialized, and our messages have waned. Still, our interlude remains a gift.
Standing beside my father’s hospital bed, I ask him if he knows who I am. He struggles, then says he doesn’t. I run my fingers through his thin white hair, and his mood shifts, calms briefly before he thrashes and squirms to get comfortable, pulling off his bedclothes and exposing the seventy-year-old penis that shot me into existence when he was eighteen. Covering him up, I notice he’s humming an old Kris Kristofferson tune. His eyes light up when I begin to sing along: “Don’t look so sad / I know it’s over. . . .”
Regarding myself in the mirror, I run my fingers through my own hair, now mixed with long silver strands I see as symbols of my strength. I’m moving forward, ever more aware of nourishment in both love and loss.