There are some things I never told my mother: When I first tried smoking pot, that time I stole a one dollar plug adapter from the hardware store. And I never told her about the unique digestive effect her bolognese sauce had on my lower intestine. It was one of the few kitchen creations she made with pride and I couldn’t burst her bubble.
Admitting this, even now two years after her death, gives me a profound measure of passive-aggressive guilt my mother so inimitably instilled in me.
Because there was a time when I told her everything.
She was a single mother to my older sister and me. I was raised with respect and autonomy, given credit when I deserved it and allowed to make my own decisions. When my sister moved out, Mom and I relied on each other for surrogate intimacy. I had no reason to withhold information about my ambitions, my feelings, my sex life. She was gently maternal, a sounding board and my go-to guru.
But the shift in our relationship coincided, not surprisingly, with the onset of my marriage. My mother had been, if not literally then symbolically, replaced by a woman with whom I’d become more eager to share my thoughts. A woman who helped me to view my mother more objectively. A woman whose own bolognese sauce didn’t routinely result in my disappearance into the bathroom for fifteen minutes immediately after consuming it.
Through my twenties and thirties I shared less and less with my mother. In those rare moments when my marriage faltered, I didn’t bother her with any of the distressing ordeals in which my wife and I indulged. She didn’t need to know. Besides, she would only take my side in a struggle that sensibly didn’t have any sides to take.
I’d started to view my mother as more of an inconvenience than the wise soul she was. Although I was grateful she didn’t disappear altogether, I rarely went out of my way to include her. To her credit, she elbowed enough of herself into my life to ensure she always had some stake in it. She deserved that, but she did that all on her own.
We’d established a new precedent that included regular telephone updates but not, despite her questions, intimate play-by-plays of my every thought. After many years she recognised the pattern but owed it to my own maturity rather than any significant modification to our exchanges.
“I’ve just realized,” she said, “you’re a really private person.”
“Mm-hmm,” I said. I wasn’t necessarily a private person. Only with her.
During my wife’s illness I relied on Mom for support and babysitting, but little else changed. By the time I’d become a widowed single dad, the new paradigm with my mother remained. Even as I acquiesced to the weekly favors she called me in for—mowing the lawn, moving a piece of furniture—poorly disguised, in her passive-aggressive way, as an excuse to have my son Myles and me all to herself. And to feed me.
“Just come this afternoon,” she said after requesting help to trim the branches of the honey locust tree behind her house. “And then stay for some supper.”
We’d become a formidable twosome, my son and me. A pairing both indivisible and desperately lacking a third person. Complete yet only two-thirds whole. I accepted my mother’s help; once a week Myles slept over at her house so I could have a night to myself, which typically involved taking myself out to dinner and a movie. I was okay keeping my own company if there was something to do.
The sun was already high before noon on this early summer morning; the type of sun that would blister the pavement by mid-afternoon. I loaded the boy and his diaper bag into the Toyota and drove to Mom’s house on the other side of the city. Most of the journey was spent on the Gardiner Expressway, a convenient east-west artery pumping across the Toronto lakeshore but otherwise a blight on the urban tableau. A twenty-minute drive in good traffic.
“I think I’d like to move to London,” I said, picking up the fallen tree branches. About a year and half after my wife died, I started seeing Deborah, an old school friend who’d moved to the UK ten years earlier. Mom knew about Deborah but until then, like me, she wasn’t sure where the trans-Atlantic relationship was heading.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’m telling you now.”
“But … it would be nice if you kept me in the loop,” she said. Passive. Aggressive.
“Yes, I know,” I said. “Which is why I’m telling you now. I’ve only just figured it out myself.”
This was partly true. I’d known that I was falling in love but it had been unexpected. The decision to leave my homeland was easier than I’d imagined—I could make a fresh start. What’s keeping me here?—but I recognized that it came at the expense of my family. Still, if there was one thing I’d learned from my mother: Love conquers all.
“Well … I think it’s wonderful,” she said. Mom always came around in the end.
I finished bagging up the trimmed tree bits and carried them out to the curb while Mom entertained her grandson with rice crackers and extemporaneous songs. I wished I was already in London.
Inside, the pots were boiling on the stove. I sat at the table, indulging my mother’s need to wait on me. Conversation was sparse. In his high chair to my left, Myles enjoyed some fresh plain noodles. Then Mom brought me my plate. Spaghetti. Bolognese.
I’d grown up on this sauce so any reminder of it, at least its flavor, brought some particularly welcome comfort. Typically bolognese is made with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and seasoning. My mother always added a unique touch of mushrooms and peppers. Her distinct flavor never seemed overstated nor was it ever bland enough to threaten my gastronomic pleasure. It tasted like home.
That’s all I know. I can’t attest to the kind of beef she used or which spices gave it that characteristic tang or her method of preparation. It was distinctly hers.
I wanted to have Myles in bed by his usual time so I’d have the rest of the evening quietly to myself as I normally did. I thanked Mom for the food, packed Myles and his bag into the car, and was scaling the westbound Gardiner Expressway on-ramp as the sun began to set in front of me, the orange glow in watercolor ribbons across downtown.
Then without warning, two events, one predictable one not, developed simultaneously as if the vengeful god of inevitability waved his hand over me and chuckled with malevolent satisfaction.
First, a traffic jam forced us to a standstill.
Second, the bolognese backlash.
I should have known. I should have stayed at my mother’s house until this inexorable episode had passed and then I would be free to travel home comfortably, traffic jam be damned, and ensure Myles was in bed slightly later than usual. But I had insisted, as young parents do, to keep with routine lest any lifetime scarring should result from keeping him up past eight o’clock. Now I couldn’t keep still in my seat as my bowels played full-contact Twister with my abdomen.
What did she put in there? What was the secret ingredient that had mocked me and my digestive system during a lifetime of spaghettis? More importantly, was my intestinal fortitude going to hold out until I got home? It was bumper to bumper and my exit, so to speak, was five miles away. The Gardiner is an elevated expressway without a paved shoulder. There was no escape.
I held my breath. I shifted. I clenched. I was grateful Myles had begun to drift off in the back seat and that he was too young to offer any comments on the odors emanating from the front. For fifteen minutes we’d barely moved and I broke out in a cold sweat as I drew perilously close to the proverbial edge.
That’s when I took great interest in the diaper bag sitting on the passenger seat.
“What if …?” I wondered.
As the car inched forward I reached into the bag with one hand and withdrew a crisp, pristine diaper decorated with pictures of Dory and Nemo. It smelled enticingly fresh like an orange blossom and a clean baby. I wanted to smell like a clean baby.
What followed was a procedure never printed in any how-to book, from parenting guides to the Boy Scout manual. It involved some stealthy unbuttoning followed by strategic placement of a baby’s diaper beneath an adult undercarriage. I didn’t have time to worry about the insufficient size of the absorbent equipment; the wheels were now in motion and I simply had to proceed.
After some careful buttock shuffling, everything was in place. I checked my blind spots to make sure no high-riding vehicle drivers were peering down through my window and when I recognised the all-clear …
… I relaxed.
Is this what I get for trying to look after myself, I wondered? Is this what happens when I withhold information from my mother? What had she done to deserve my cold shoulder? Are these the consequences for taking my son far across the sea where his grandparents, aunts, and cousins will only watch him grow up on Skype and annual visits? How could I reconcile a purge that was at once liberating and profoundly emblematic of my relationship with my mother?
If I was going to soil myself every time I considered these questions, then my adventure abroad was about to turn into exile.
I’d never felt so unclean.
Naturally, as soon as I’d employed the emergency apparatus the traffic cleared and within ten minutes I’d pulled into the parking spot behind my house. I managed to squelch inside without befouling my son, cleaned myself up, put Myles to bed and began to enjoy my quiet evening as anticipated.
That was the last time I ate my mother’s bolognese. She didn’t need to know about this or any other less dramatic consequence of her cooking. Maybe it was an effort to maintain familial cohesiveness. Perhaps embarrassment. Or else I’d simply become too overwhelmed by my mother’s passive aggressive communication and too stubborn to keep her in a larger loop than I was prepared to allow her into.
It was too late then. And it’s too late now. I’ll have to live with that until I’m an old man in diapers.
JON MAGIDSOHN, originally from Toronto, is the author of the memoir Immortal Highway and is a memoir writing teacher and facilitator. His work has been featured in The Guardian, National Geographic Traveller, The Bangalore Mirror,Hippocampus Magazine, and Today’s Parent. He and his family live in London where Jon received an MA in Creative Nonfiction from City University. www.jonmagidsohn.com
Oh my god … what is that smell? My boss and I had just crossed the threshold of his house. Dark, shades drawn. Bikes and skateboards in the corner and hanging from the wall. A couch converted into a bed in the living room. He had a greasy brown ponytail and pale blue eyes, one of which would twitch unpredictably. The second you thought it was done, it started up again. Mostly he kept his eyes on the floor.
“So, yeah. It’s been a while. I lost my last cleaner a couple weeks ago.”
An orange cat with matted hair strolled across the back of the sofa to me. I reached my hand out to pet it. It sniffed and backed away.
“Yeah, they’re shy,” he said to the floor.
“I like cats,” I said.
“Oh!” My boss looked around. “You have more!”
Across the living room, two were lolling around on the couch atop what looked like a baby blanket of cat fur. Polluted cream clouds against navy blue cushions. In the slants of daylight I could see wisps of hair floating. It had to be at least a year since any other human had been in this place. My eyes watered. I’m not even allergic. By the time my day was over I would count six cats, but there may have been more.
“Well, give us a tour!” my boss said.
I started cleaning houses in 2011 a couple months after I graduated from college. I had moved to the Bay Area with my older boyfriend, and I—along with my degree in Dramatic Literature—couldn’t get a job anywhere. The recession and the boom in Silicon Valley were chewing up San Francisco and even the coffee shop baristas were really out-of-work professionals in their thirties and forties making latte art. The hipster cafe (we still called them hipsters then) was getting into full swing. I’d only worked in shitty coffee shops earlier in the 2000s when they were grungier, less sleek, with more couches and board games and plants, java vibes held over from the nineties.
I didn’t want a job but I needed one. I mostly wanted to be left alone. It was a relief to clean. My dad had just died two years earlier from cancer and I saw his face all day long. Sometimes he was healthy and laughing, and sometimes his face was gray like cement and his hair was growing back in mousy patches after the chemo.
My motivation to begin a post-college life was unpredictable. I kept making to-do lists to start an acting career or to write a novel, but the lists just made me feel like a failure. I’d set up auditions then wouldn’t show up, unable to imagine how I could ever speak in front of people again. I had panic attacks where it felt like my blood was carbonated and I was afraid I might start screaming any moment.
A funny thing that happens when you’re in deep grief: you forget why you’re depressed. I spent years waking up and reminding myself that my dad was dead. Later in the day I would forget and try to remember why I wasn’t able to drag myself to the dentist or wash the dishes. And then I would have to tell myself: Your dad’s dead, he died from cancer, he was white and skeletal the last time you saw him, he looked down at his hands when the hospice nurse spoke, he was embarrassed when he knocked his coffee over at Christmas because he was less than a month away from dying and he was weaker than anyone knew or could understand.
And I would think, Oh, that’s right. I would then collapse and crawl into bed and click around on health websites or read books on how not to get cancer.
I didn’t have any friends in the Bay Area and, while I wanted them desperately, I couldn’t handle people my own age, their happiness, their bored wit. I had nothing but emptiness; even my laugh sounded false and far away to me. I had studied acting in school and I wanted nothing more than to be invisible.
My boss—I’ll call her Dani—was a springy soccer mom with wiry hair, zero body fat, and the best, chipperest, can-do attitude I’ve ever seen. She wore sweatshirts with the neck cut out like in Flashdance, leggings, and white Reebok sneakers. She once injured her back in yoga class because she wanted to be the best. We found each other on Craigslist and I started cleaning the day after she hired me.
Sometimes Dani would meet me on the road in front of the house and we’d tour it together, but other times I’d be on my own. People showed me their cleaning supplies and told me how they liked certain things done. One woman had a typed up list for every single surface of her home and a specific cleaner required for each item, including faucets and light fixtures. In a Berkeley apartment an old cat swatted at me and meowed sourly like it was sick. It stalked me around the apartment and couldn’t be deterred even when I threatened to hit it with a chair. I got it behind a bathtub and had to call my boyfriend. He came and chased it out with a broom and it screamed its way into the guest room I’d already cleaned. We locked it in and, when I left, I opened that door and ran. One house had two heavy metal musicians that had gargoyles for knobs on their kitchen cabinets. In their bathroom they had essential oils and Chanel products and in their basement they had a thousand dollar sauna.
My boyfriend and I were living in an in-law apartment in the hills of El Cerrito—the cheapest place we could find with some of the biggest spiders I’ve ever seen and an incredible view of San Francisco. We didn’t have a couch so we hung out on the futon mattress on the floor or on a blanket on the carpet by the TV. At night we’d look across the bay at the city we couldn’t afford.
Our landlord, who I’ll call Jim, was a skinny Carradine brother–lookalike in his sixties with a gray bushy mustache and wild eyes. He liked to chitchat and once caught me for two hours by describing at least five different episodes of Ancient Aliens and bringing down a photo album with photos of his old girlfriends and his fiancée who had been a model and had died tragically from cancer. Once I had to go up into his home to deal with the WiFi, and he had Playboy covers from the eighties in frames on his wood panel walls.
Another time he wanted to show me an option for a refrigerator he had in his garage. The garage was filled to the ceiling, three quarters of it full, with boxes stacked haphazardly on top of one another. They looked like they hadn’t been moved in a long time and the cardboard had softened over years of fog rolling in across the bay. He pointed at the boxes. “My mother’s wedding dress is in there. I can’t bear to go through her things.” His mother had died the same week as his fiancée. Almost twenty years ago.
My boss and I toured the rest of his home, a bungalow on a dead end street in Oakland. The cats scattered as we walked the rooms and then softly tiptoed behind us. The kitchen at the back was surprisingly neat, just a couple crumbs on the counter. The bedroom seemed all right although the air was suffocating. As it turned out later, there was solid mass of white and gray cat hair under the bed an inch thick, like a secret rug.
He brought us to his office, a long narrow room running the length of his living room on the opposite side of the house. There was an enormous desktop computer setup with speakers and a soundboard where he would later sit almost the entire time I was cleaning. The smell was pervasive in here, sharp and unwell. In the corner was a closet without a door, a bright light overhead. He nodded toward it. “So the real part that needs to be cleaned is over here.” We walked over and hit a wall of ammonia and stench I’d never experienced before nor since.
Twenty-five square feet of cat piss. The two boxes of kitty litter were overloaded and the cats had taken to going on the floor where he’d spread newspapers. It was clear he’d waited maybe a year, maybe more to clean this closet other than a quick scoop of the kitty litter and another layer of newspaper which was now about one to two inches thick. I could see cat urine shining on some of the rotting floorboards where there were holes in the paper. A cat hopped out and ran past us, leaving wet paw prints through the office.
“Wow! Oh! Okay!” Dani clapped her hands and turned away. She smiled wildly, blinking hard, her knuckles whitening in front of her chest. I kept my face neutral and held my breath. We looked at each other a second. The room was silent as her mind ticked. She’s getting me out of this, I thought. This is not part of the job description.
“Well!” she said finally. “She’s gonna need some gloves!” She pointed a finger at the sky, triumphant.
“Yeah, I got some,” he said from the other side of the room. He’d never even come with us to the closet but instead watched us from afar, testing the waters.
“Well, how about she leaves that”—she stepped delicately away from the closet and I followed—“to the end, cause that’s a big job!” I’m from the Midwest and I can tell you that there was practically a “dontcha know” at the end of that chipperest of statements. It was all well and good. We’d take care of it—meaning me.
“Yeah, well, that’s the main thing I need done.” His eye twitched as he looked around at his walls, his fingernails, anything but us.
“Well, it’s a whole house cleaning we agreed on, so that will wait to the end.” Dani pinched her lips, firm, and he agreed as he walked her to the door.
A few minutes later she was gone and I was cleaning, sucking the hair carpet and kitty litter crumbs off his couch, dusting tables and shelves that hadn’t been cleaned in a year. He barely had enough rags for the job. I eventually resorted to vacuuming his shelves of cat hair and dust before using a cloth. He worked at his computer, some unknown alt-rock playing on his speakers. Every once in a while he’d laugh asthmatically at something online. He sat five feet away from the cat closet. I had to step out to his backyard regularly just to breathe.
Recently, back in Wisconsin, my mom had had to put down our dog Hans. Hans was a huge, fluffy Golden Retriever that would lie on the bed with her when she cried for my dad. The dog would rest his squishy face by hers and let her release her tears in a torrent and wait patiently for her to let it go. His legs had always been weak and one day they stopped working and he couldn’t carry himself any longer. She was on her own in our family home and I was in California, cleaning houses. When she told me Hans was gone, I fell to the floor in my kitchen and sobbed uncontrollably until my neighbor knocked softly on the wall to please stop.
It occurred to me once that cleaning people’s houses felt as if I were helping to prevent their homes from rotting. The moisture on the bathroom ceiling, the dust on the bookshelves. Dead skin cells everywhere. I cleaned and thought about how we were all trying so hard not to die. Stainless steel in the kitchens. Everyone wanted it and yet the stains were sometimes impossible to remove. It reminded me of fingerprints on iPhones, but permanent. A polished lifestyle that had no room for human dirt and oil. Touchscreens that aren’t meant to be touched.
I once wrote a script for a short film about this experience. I wrote the Cleaning Girl working her way through his home with one eye on the guy the whole time. Petting the cats when she could for comfort. Avoiding turning her back on him for too long because sometimes she could feel his twitching eye on her body. Texting her boyfriend out on the back stoop so someone knew where she was. The Cat Guy passive aggressively bringing up the closet two, three, four times as a reminder that “that had to get done,” while she insisted every time that she had to clean everything else first. Only in this version the Cleaning Girl found her courage and stood up to the Cat Guy, called him “disgusting,” and threatened to call Animal Services, eventually storming out. She even gave a cupcake to a homeless guy on the way to the freeway at the end because what the hell, why not.
I never made that short film.
This story is not like that one. This is the story of how I did the job.
I had the gloves. I should have had goggles. The air was thick with dander and urine. Stinging, acidic, ammonic in my lungs, I imagined them raw and red like the back of your throat when you’re sick, though really I have no idea what lungs look like other than drawings from textbooks. My entire chest hurt and my eyes watered and my nose burned all the way up through my forehead. I closed my mouth and worked as long as I could without breathing but then I realized I had to and breathed under my shirt which kept slipping as I carefully picked up flat, inch-thick pads of newspaper, soaked in cat urine and shoved them into plastic garbage bags.
The cats watched me from around the corner, eyes wide in that pointed, appalled way that cats have, glancing down at their soggy, rotting bathroom and back up at me.
I drove home without the radio on. Rush hour from Oakland to the Berkeley Hills. My head throbbed all the way to the back of my skull. I didn’t know if I could tell my boyfriend or my mom or anyone. I had taken my shoes off and put them on a newspaper I’d found on the floor in the back. Soles sticky with cat piss.
I got home and scrubbed myself raw in the shower and crawled into bed. It was six o’clock on a Friday and I would spend the entire weekend sick in bed with head and body aches. I clicked around on my computer and found a movie on Netflix and waited for my boyfriend to come home. I was sick and I hated myself but I really didn’t mind. I was grateful for a reason to fall apart. My dad had been dead for over two years and my mom was alone and I was doing the wrong thing in the wrong place and it felt exactly, exactly right.
REBECCA WEAVER is a writer/director/actor raised in Wisconsin and living in Los Angeles. Her first feature film, June Falling Down, is currently playing at film festivals around the country. Visit JuneFallingDown.com and SilverLeafFilms.net to learn more about her work.
I’m fortunate to have a child who shares my aptitude for schoolwork. Before my Yale cohort and I had children, we probably assumed they would all resemble us in that regard. After all, it was our defining characteristic, our common denominator, the reason our disparate selves had been gathered at Yale from across the country and the economic spectrum. But I don’t recall that we thought about children for a nanosecond during our “bright college years” in the mid-seventies, caught up in our studies and each other—not to mention feminism, gay rights, all the rapidly changing social mores and dwindling turmoil of the sixties. Also we expected, as Dylan nasally wished for us from every turntable, that we would stay forever young.
Well, we didn’t, and for most of us, children eventually took center stage in our lives. And in the way of children, they exploded our assumptions and insisted on becoming their own unique selves. By now, three decades later, many are interesting grown-ups, making contributions, passionate about their work, etc., but not all are scholars. I’m guessing from anecdotal evidence that the regular percentage has coped with learning disabilities. But some of us—those who somehow passed down the gene that enabled us to fill in the right circles on the SATs and forgo the dubious thrills of teen social life to stay up late perfecting a proof—open a new chapter in our relationship with Yale: Parent of Prospective Applicant. So we return with the precious offspring in tow and set out on the Admissions Tour. As we revisit the scenes of our youth, compulsively checking for similarities and differences (Did frosh still streak? Was that an actual Women’s Center?), we wonder if the scholarly child would flourish among them as we had. Or had we? Had I?
We all know of alums who center their lifelong identity on their Alma Mater. I’m on the other end of the spectrum, one of those too occupied with family and house and work, work, work to dwell on college memories and youthful folly (the bad boyfriends, the risky behaviors, the squandered time). But on the tour with my son last April, it all came flooding back: I could have navigated blindfolded and backward from Commons to the Sterling Library Periodicals Room, had such a stunt been required. Yet the campus key that I’d illegally preserved as a quasi-religious relic would, in these days of magnetic strips, no longer unlock the quads’ wrought iron gates. I was no longer a native but a visiting ex-pat, anonymous in a mob of photo-snapping tourists and non-alum parents escorting their own high-achieving offspring, who, in the way of teens, were pretending not to know us.
New Haven’s blocks surrounding Yale were all spiffed up. The corner where I remember being pelted with bottles by local youth expressing their sentiments about town-gown relations was now thick with cappuccino bars. But the campus itself seemed unchanged; like the Grand Canyon, the cathedrals of Europe, or The Rolling Stones, it had maintained its aura of timeless magnificence. Here still was the carved, buttressed, and gargoyled no-expense-spared beauty that had long ago promised me, like some shimmering Emerald City, a richer world than the flimsy ranch houses and malls in which I’d spent my childhood. The maze of courtyards, the gargoyles and crenellations, looked genuine, not one of those camp imitations in theme parks and Vegas; one didn’t question what Oxford-and-Cambridge was doing here off I-95. Perhaps that’s because these stately gothic buildings evoked Learning, stood as a solid tribute to an enduring intellectual tradition that bridged the pond. And like Daisy’s voice in Gatsby that sounded like money, their class credentials were solid gold.
However, partway through the tour the skies opened and drenched us, despite the garbage-bag ponchos the Admissions rep passed around, as if enacting a pathetic fallacy of dampened and disposable hopes: So few of those touring would actually “get in.” The residential colleges seemed to turn their spiny, mullioned backs as we trudged the grid of puddled streets to dutifully ogle the next tourist destination—from outside, or at most, the lobby.
Our student guide—more poised and polished in boots and beret than I remember any of us ever being, given our slavish devotion to tees and jeans, which to us warded off Caulfield’s phoniness—kept tossing off astonishing statements: We’re standing over the underground recording studio. If you’d like funding to go count birds in Guatemala, just ask. After your seminar with the former PM of England, you’ll head off to your poetry workshop with the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. The buildings might look much the same, but in inner sanctums inaccessible to us hoi polloi, apparently, Yale glittered more than ever. It was the court of the Medici, Versailles under the Sun King, the Manhattan Project, and the Brill Building all in one, an astonishing concentration of talent, resources, and power. The endowment, now a staggering nineteen billion, had mushroomed until it dwarfed the budgets of many countries. All to be expended on an select few, if any, of these ordinary, gawky, blank-faced youths withdrawing into their cell phones. It was unjust. It was obscene. Someone had said callously of the community colleges, of urban high schools, Let them eat cake. But what good to refuse to participate on principle? No sense in making an ineffectual one-person social statement on the back of my fledgling son.
Yale had been rich in my day—but not this rich. Still, even then, Yale with its regal formality had the power to make you feel self-conscious about being ordinary. Somehow a bowl of cornflakes had felt like an insult to the carved beams and proud banners of the magnificent dining hall. How could the mind wander off Plato or Rousseau onto a roommate’s rebuff while you were ensconced in a leather armchair in Sterling Library’s towering cathedral? And of course there was that omnipresent nagging doubt confided in late-night bull sessions: Had the Admissions Office made a mistake? I suspect that insecurity still haunts many of us who have gone on to an unglamorous middle age, who bend double to clean our own bathtub. Have we been worthy of the privilege once heaped upon us? Done enough? We’ve been tattooed on the forehead with a blue Y in invisible ink; it shows only in certain lights. At times it gives us entry into not-so-secret societies of privilege, but at times it’s a mark of difference that we hide, like Harry Potter’s scar, under our forelocks, when we fear accusations of being “elite intellectual snobs” or pointy-headed, Parsel-tongued double agents. Yale’s legacy is a mix of buoying self-confidence and corrosive self-doubt: It’s as if at the end of our lives, instead of having to account for ourselves to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, we’ll face the Dean of Admissions. Did I want Yale’s curious combination of boost and burden for my child?
And what was Yale really like these days? After the tour, when we paused for lunch, Commons, with its lofty ceiling disappearing into shadows illumined by constellations of winking chandeliers, seemed like the Great Hall at Hogwarts. Mounds of food catering to every preference, ethnicity, and allergy appeared as if prepared by invisible house elves. The Hogwarts analogies (as on any Gothic campus) kept accumulating. The place was magically rich. Training the young wizards in the spells that would release power and wealth and happiness. Lumos et Veritas. For wands, they had their smart phones. But there is a Voldemort lurking, and his name is Stress. As I watched the young Hermiones, and doubtless a few Dracos, nourish their corporeal selves, memory supplied a reality check.
A former student of mine, now attending, had emailed that he lives on “coffee-drip life support.” His homework tends to be on the order of, read all of Karl Marx for tomorrow, then War and Peace for the day after. And that’s for just one of his five courses. But how to fit it in? He rushes from tea with The Tiger Mother to a seminar with Gaddis. He churns out articles for the prestigious Yale Daily News, known as “The Shark Tank” and a career pipeline to the New York Times. He added that elsewhere everyone’s very nice, down-to-earth—even if they just bought weed with a celebrity’s namesake or “weekended” with the son of an international playboy…but of course my young friend seldom has time to write at all. Voldemort has him and his cohort fully occupied with training for life on the Dark Side, the high-speed, eighty-hour-week rat race that passes for success.
Was it so different when we were there? The tales of the workload sound familiar—stressful and stimulating in the extreme. I too would have described my friends as down-to-earth, but I felt I’d lucked into an extraordinary sub-group—confident, ethical, funny, accomplished yet unpretentious people—for me, they formed a more enduring and valuable legacy than whatever I absorbed in the lecture halls. (Not that there weren’t pompous pricks around, and, more surprisingly, colorless blobs my parents would have dismissed as “nebbishes,” but these could be circumvented.) During my child’s “application process,” as I compared notes with my friends, I was surprised when one volunteered, “I didn’t take advantage”; another mused, “A smaller school would have helped me personally and professionally”; and, “I should have gone where a professor cared to know my name.”
To the extent it was impersonal like that—is it still? I was bamboozled by the morés of Yale’s predominant upper-class WASPs, whose academic skills, social graces, and stiff upper lips, not to mention sportsmanship and social drinking, had been shaped in private academies with weird secret-lingo names I was apparently supposed to revere but couldn’t pronounce or spell. (Choate?) I still remember my queasy disequilibrium at a reception for incoming students, when I first encountered people with last names for first names, ski-jump noses and lank light hair, smiling fixedly and exchanging banalities around a punchbowl of a yellowish fluid that fumed like Lestoil, but which apparently, unlike the students imbibing it, had a proper name: Tom Collins.
But no one at Yale cared to meet me where I was; no one felt any responsibility for helping a kid like me to adjust, academically or culturally—learn to write an essay, for example, much less eat an artichoke or cross-country-ski. (I would eventually flounder to competence in these vital life skills; by now I bet I could perform them simultaneously.) Yale had an Outward Bound approach, abandoning you in the woods and letting you find your own way, whether or not you’d brought your own internal compass. Maybe that toughens you, teaches self-reliance, but now that I’ve been a teacher for a long time, I’ve come to believe that those charged with adolescents’ development should calibrate the independence dose. I’d like to imagine that Yale’s teaching and advising have evolved in keeping with more nurturing modern values, but again and again, current students, their parents, and college counselors tell me, today’s Yale still works best for students assertive enough to take advantage of it. Otherwise, it can be now as it was for those of us who were unprepared then: overwhelming—and lonely. I recently heard stories of two students who retreated to their rooms for the first year or so, because they just couldn’t figure how to navigate.
Did I want all this for my child? He had the schoolwork gene, yes, but I wouldn’t say drive and initiative were his strong points. Would acceptance at Yale for him be a mixed blessing, a poisoned chalice, the gift of a white elephant, too much of a good thing? Wouldn’t he thrive in a smaller school, where his professors might not be ex-prime ministers but might care to know his name?
The prospective-student tours tout the school and woo applicants to boost the US News and World Report rankings, to earn that coveted acceptance rate of below 7%. One Yale friend’s teen loves to needle his father, You’d never get in now. And it’s probably true for most of my cohort; I’m surprised I “got in” then, and that was before high schools required what for me would have been impossible stunts of physics and calculus, and admissions competition came from round the world. The acceptance rate in my day—not that we were much aware of it, in contrast to today’s applicants—was one in ten, not one in thirteen, and those ten were a much more local crew. Another Yale friend tries to tell people, going there back in our day was normal. You were a smart kid in high school, you got A’s, you applied, you got in. That matches my experience.
You filled out your application in ballpoint pen at the kitchen table. Maybe you doodled through a few questions in an SAT practice booklet—until you got bored and wandered off to watch I Dream of Jeannie or Get Smart. Once there, you studied and you played Frisbee. That contradicts what I wrote above, I know—but both were true. It was a Big Deal—and it wasn’t, not from moment to ordinary moment, and certainly not relative to today. And of course for my father-in-law’s generation of Old Bluesfrom the 1930s, it was entirely different—before the democratization of the student body in my era, you went to a feeder prep school and then—if you weren’t unlucky enough to be Jewish or female, not to mention being labeled, like a paint can, with a color—you went. My father-in-law reports that once there, a lot of studying wasn’t strictly necessary; he enjoyed many a gentlemanly game of dorm-room floor hockey between sailing excursions and cocktails at Mory’s.
On the rare occasions nowadays that I must divulge that long ago I went to Yale, people who are only aware of current admissions standards tend to do a double-take: I don’t look like some combination of Einstein and Bill Clinton. I suspect they conclude I’m like a former child star who has lost her dimples. So how are the current students affected by knowing they are, in this golden moment of their youth, the Chosen, the Select, the less-than-seven-percent solution? Does it make them feel arrogant—or humble? Talented or unworthy? Lucky or intimidated? Does it distort them, like fame did Michael Jackson and Elvis? Do they know how ridiculous it is to measure the worth of a person by high school grades and test scores? How crucial emotional intelligence is—not to mention kindness? And luck?
At first the Admissions Office courts you, plying you with colorful brochures. In the lobby, as you wait for the info session to begin, a dazzling Bollywood-style video plays in an endless loop: happy, beautiful, multiethnic undergrads cavort in unison on a verdant hilltop and harmonize over swelling chords, “And that’s why we cho-o-ose Ya-a-ale!” On tours the guides flaunt the magnolia-hung cloisters, the “cloud-cap’d towers,” of the gorgeous campus. And then the tables turn. They solicit your application so they can reject you. We all know it’s bait-and-switch, seduce-and-abandon. But still, would a rejection of my son from my Alma Mater hurt—or rather, how much? Exacerbate my own lifelong sense of inadequacy over having once, long ago, been invited, for not very evident reasons, to the ball? Even worse, would my son be rejected not for his own credentials, but for mine—because I hadn’t been a “good enough” alum? Hadn’t donated a bell tower or a gym, hadn’t accrued enough accolades that redound to Mother Yale’s glory? That double-edged legacy of security/insecurity, that sick game of ranking self and others, lived on.
Well, rejection was what my son and I expected, given that’s the fate these days of over 93% of the twenty-seven thousand applicants. Of these, Yale accepts two thousand to fill fifteen hundred freshman seats. The odds seem better of going from cardinal to Pope. The Dean of Admissions claims he could fill a second class, and even a third, without a drop in academic “quality.” Although that’s not entirely what it’s all about. You don’t get in just because you are smart. For all the talk of the best and the brightest, the actual selection, for better and worse, as we all know, is controlled by multiple competing factors: athletics, geography, interests, gender, legacies, parental fame, affirmative action: “balancing the class.” Admissions can’t risk ending up with two dozen male bassoonists from North Dakota and no goalie for women’s lacrosse. A friend who is an Ivy professor reports a surprising range of academic ability in her classes, explicable in part by athletes with 550s on their SATS having unseated applicants with scores of 800. I myself interview applicants from among the one-hundred-twenty-five or so hopefuls spawned annually in my small city, of whom maybe one or two are selected. Many of my interviewees impress the hell out of me, having volunteered in senators’ offices, won science prizes, founded Ultimate teams, mastered microeconomics on their own, etc., but Yale doesn’t want to overstock from our outpost, and none of mine has ever made the cut. From them I have a small sense of how impossible the Admissions officers’ task is, making micro-distinctions among these superabundant deserving. Among these meritorious rejected could well be my son.
Fine. But the next step gets complicated. The Admissions Office might or might not choose my bright child to balance out the class in some mysterious way, but should he choose them? Would I even want my son to be tattooed with that blue Y?
Well, of course. Yale is fabulous. Incomparable. If the glass slipper fits, you marry the prince. You don’t look the gift horse in the mouth.
But what if it’s a Trojan horse? What if the prince is a jerk?
Why “choose Yale”? I recall only the Bollywood-style dancers’ conclusion in the chorus but not the supporting detail in the verse. In retrospect, I’m not sure I “chose” it at all; rather, I stumbled into it by dumb luck. My immigrant family had barely heard of it; my suburban public high school, as intellectually barren as the malls surrounding it, offered no college counseling. In a way that seems impossible to imagine now, I was entirely unaware of Yale’s cultural cachet: perhaps I offered Admissions a chance to fill out its ignorance quotient. I picked Yale from the Barron’s catalogue because the SAT scores matched mine, I didn’t need to take a plane, and—this was the clincher—I wouldn’t have to take math. And when I visited, I saw that the campus was pretty. And I was so fed up with being ostracized at school and belittled at home for being a smart girl, that I was pumped to prove that dammit I really was just as smart as boys—so Yale’s newly coed status appealed.
But once admitted, and somehow lasting through to graduation, did I end up reaping benefits from my accidental good fortune? For me as for some of my friends, going to Yale actually held us back professionally. For example, no professor would sponsor my thesis on contemporary women’s poetry, and no campus organization would support my summer research into the effects of The Hyde Amendment. My “women’s interests” put me outside the fold. And when I contacted the famous professor tasked with advising about grad school in English, in a phone call that lasted under a minute, she didn’t feel obligated to find out anything about me, including my name, but just delivered a boilerplate “Don’t.” Well, I tunneled under those roadblocks—found a grad student to supervise my thesis, for example, and had a grand time in grad school anyway—which perhaps was character-building. But it wasn’t optimal— it wasn’t “just ask” or the Old Boys Network or the door-opening letter from a Big Name—wasn’t the one-way ticket to opportunity that a Yale acceptance implies.
Subsequently, has the prestige factor affected my career? “Yale” on the CV has served as a handy shorthand for “smart” and “competent” when needed—maybe when applying to grad school or jobs, or needing acceptance from future in-laws, themselves Ivy grads and skeptical of my “Joisey” background. But it has also been interpreted as meaning “over-qualified” and “snooty.”
Every place I’ve worked—and granted my career had been spent in the un-prestigious, woman-heavy, underpaid lower levels of publishing, academia, and education—my colleagues have gone to a variety of colleges. How well or poorly we do our jobs doesn’t correlate with where we received our diploma. The “Ivy Effect” seems to wear off minutes after graduation—or at least with the subsequent credential of grad school or first job. A savvy friend, however, tells me that if you want to work at Goldman, you must go to Harvard—that certain schools and frats are still feeders for certain firms. So maybe if my son were to undertake a career in such a field, where he went to college might make more of a difference in his work-life than it has in mine. But among his cohort, anybody in the biz knows there aren’t enough chairs in the Ivies for those who on paper deserve them—and that plenty have spilled over into other institutions. Paradoxically, the absurdly competitive admissions rates should make the label mean less and less, since to a certain extent it’s obtained not by merit alone, but by chance.
And yet…you spend formative years with all those bright people, among all that sculpted stone and old leather and leaded glass, with ready access to Old Masters and the Gutenberg Bible; you get fed lines in every speech about how you are a future leader—and without realizing it, you imbibe the brew from the punchbowl—or at least inhale the fumes. A voice you are ashamed of starts whispering poisonous things you want to ignore; on some level you start to believe Yalies really are the smartest. The snobbery has infected you, but you struggle to turn a deaf ear and let the child find his own way.
The Admissions Office’s noncommittal response to his carefully crafted application? Waitlisted. The limbo between the alleged heaven of acceptance and hell of rejection. In which 1001 lost souls are condemned to languish, possibly until the last trump shall sound, in far-off August.
If you’re waitlisted and you want to “get in,” you are supposed to demonstrate your “passion,” your undying yearning for admission. Should he? Should he continue to struggle to find the magic formula, the Open Sesame, that would open the door to the treasure cave? Should I prove I was a loyal alum by walking blindfolded and backwards from Commons to the Periodicals Room, penitently holding my ancient key aloft, since I couldn’t come up with a bell tower? Is this a case of beware-what-of-you-wish-for? On the tour, the windowless Secret Society buildings had looked like tombs. What kind of crazy world even needs Secret Societies? Especially with ghoulish names like Skull and Bones? Should we turn and run screaming?
Yale, I’d wait-list you too; I’m not sure about you, either. Not sure I want to leave my first-born on your temple steps, to be brainwashed into worshipping your narcissistic god.
Given my own experiences, that is. From this great distance, peering back through the thickening fog of years: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was wonderful; it was awful. I felt connected for the first time in my life, at last among fellow geeks, dorks, grinds, and nerds—a whole tribe of my gung-ho people: student council presidents, editors in chief, musical leads, team captains, teachers’ pets, Most Likely to Succeeds.
I also felt miserably alone, as a lower-middle-class Jewish girl in an upper-class WASP and historically-male institution. As an artsy-intellectual dreamer, in a sea of pragmatic, goal-oriented future doctors (forty percent), lawyers (forty percent), and businesspeople (ten percent). I was thrilled, I was entranced; I was anxious and alienated, but in the throes of adolescence, I might have felt that way anywhere. Even if a professor had wanted to know my name, I might not have wanted to tell it; on some days, I might not have been able to summon it up. Even if I’d gone someplace where the professors cared more to teach than profess, where a woman writer or two had been deemed worthy of a place in the English Department intro syllabus.
Elitist, sexist, snobby, cold. On a rainy day like that of our tour, the campus’s stone walls can look like an impregnable fortress, a prison.
On the other hand, when I am with my Yale friends, I feel lit up along all my synapses. How much they love to talk, learn, joke, explore. To extract all possible information out of every conversation, every situation. How much they do, how fully they live. Not that other people don’t, of course—my own non-Yalie husband, for example—but the concentration is high in this particular group. And even in circles beyond them. When I volunteer at the local food bank on the annual Day of Service with teams of Yalies of all ages, the clients benefit from the food, but I’m fed by the talk. While we’re bagging lumpy yams rejected by supermarkets, or stacking sacks of almost-outdated frozen chicken, the talk ranges from local linguistics to firehouse norms to recent biographies to civil liberties to critiques of the flawed food-bank system in which we’re participating. Talk that bespeaks passionate engagement with wide worlds beyond the immediate and personal.
I’d grown up with talk that turned on venting personal grievances, so I’d quickly had to pick up two foreign languages at Yale. I don’t mean the French and Italian I mangled in class: I mean Small Talk and Big Talk. If I’d at first recoiled from punchbowl Small Talk—which I came to understand as the art of revealing nothing while jockeying for dominance—I’d immediately thrilled to Big Talk. I had first basked in Big Talk from the professors, those distant stars shining on their lecture platforms. How I’d thrilled to their precise, informed, wide-ranging eloquence. I took notes as fast as I could, eager to have their brilliant locutions pass through my hand, as if doing so would incorporate even a spark of their energizing fire, their blazing intellectual vitality, into my forming, nebulous self.
But as for what I’d call teaching, there hadn’t been much. It was rather like watching a TED Talk online.
My son’s fortunate facility with schoolwork earned him acceptance at several outstanding liberal arts colleges, where the focus is on teaching undergrads as well as research. I know he could get a fine education and meet wonderful friends at any one of them. We do elite private colleges well in this allegedly meritocratic country; those fantastical, top-heavy, unfair endowments ensure both fabulous resources and financial aid for the fortunate few. From where I sit deep in middle age, it all sounds idyllic: Four years of not having to mow your own lawn or clean your own toilet or even make your own lunch, much less earn your own living. Four years of learning for learning’s sake. Four years of dancing along the Brownian zigzag of your own evolving interests, contemplating big ideas, exploring impractical subjects. Of imagining that the future is bright, that you’ll live forever, that you matter—if being young or some more random catastrophe doesn’t get in the way. (For now I’m averting my eyes from the dark underside—the hook-ups, the frat-party assaults, the beer pong, those toxic side effects of competition and stress, of worries about the future in a warming, overcrowded, debt-ridden, terrorist-haunted planet. On top of dislocation and that state of temporary insanity called youth.)
But despite—or perhaps because of—his mother’s poorly-concealed preference (formed not because of my own irrelevant experience, I keep hoping, but because of who he is) for him to attend one of these smaller, allegedly more nurturing schools, my son has decided not to withdraw from Yale’s waiting list.
“Mom,” he says, “when I visited, I felt like I fit in.” He assures me that he is accustomed from his rigorous prep school to managing a stressful workload and taking initiative. He applied because he was attracted by Yale’s emphasis on service, which my student confirms, writing that “Yale consciously grooms public servants, so that to those whom much is given, much is expected”—which, to whatever extent it’s true, is surely a far better reason than mere prestige, not to mention pretty architecture and the lack of a math requirement. So while we wait, I try to remember that whom you marry, who your children turn out to be, how everybody’s health holds up, how the economy fares, whether history leaves you alone…are all far more important to your happiness, to shaping your life, than your Alma Mater is.
And yet…although I still suspect high-powered Yale would be wrong for my son, despite his assurances and sound reasoning, part of me can’t let go of the idea that if he is lucky enough to get in, he just can’t refuse.
Do graduates of other colleges have this problem—or rather, do they have it this bad? While seeing all the flaws, the occasions on which the emperor has no clothes, can they too still not let go of the brand loyalty, the fatal attraction, the blind patriotism that defies every avowed principle? While it’s hard not to be blinded by Yale’s glitter, I have to wipe the stardust from my eyes. In the grand scheme, it doesn’t matter so much which of these great schools he attends. It’s really all about match, not prestige—about where he can flourish, where he can most readily locate those nutrients that will help him become himself.
I know that, and yet…
Yale’s a smart place, but it makes you stupid about one thing. The worst of its complex legacy, I realize, is snobbery about itself.
I don’t know if my son will get in, or if he does, what he’ll decide to do. This story ends with a cliffhanger.
JUDITH SANDERS, a writer and former English teacher, lives in Pittsburgh. An update on how it all went down: “In June, my son received a letter from Yale informing him that the incoming class was now full, so his application was no longer being considered. As we discussed this outcome, I mused that it was ironic that he, more academically talented and better prepared than I had been, couldn’t go while I could. ‘Well, Mom,’ he said, ‘different times.’ Wise kid. He’ll be fine.”
If you’re anything like me, you’ve been making your phone calls, being kinder to strangers in public, and shutting down people who don’t show you respect. (It’s really not the week to mansplain to me. Ask a couple guys on Facebook.) I’m not running a new essay today because I know you have other things on your minds.
My own mind keeps coming back to courage and fear, and the inequalities in the U.S. that gives too many people extra helpings of fear—and will require the courage of all of us to change it.
I believe in the power of truthful story-telling. Today, I want to revisit some of the essays that had an impact on me.
New York, 2007. My hand pulls at the plastic ring attaching me to the subway rail. My wrist grows sore with each tug as the train lurches, burping noisily, without rhythm or apology. It couldn’t be more disinterested in us, this mass of bodies, compacted and caught, willingly. My palm and fingers slide along the grimy ring, the plastic soiled by countless hands, each leaving their oily imprint. I curse myself for forgetting my gloves, necessary not for warmth but for cleanliness and peace of mind. I’m from Bangladesh, and I loathe the cold. But as much as I dread winter, I welcome the layered protection of the season’s attire.
The man standing behind me pushes his crotch against my lower back. I’m grateful for my thick coat. Among all the clubs, predators have the most inclusive membership. They come in all forms: businessmen, lawyers, students, electricians, construction workers, old, young, white, black, brown, and everything in between. This one burrows his hard nub into me. The pressure makes me recede far as possible, which is scant given our cramped quarters. He knows this. He revels in this, sucking it like juice spilt from a ripe bite. I turn to glare at him. He feigns nonchalance.
The doors open. A mouthful of us spit onto the platform. We scurry, spread, each person in a different stage of gritty swift. It’s rare to find a born-and-raised New Yorker. Most of us have come here with a fervent purpose, arriving on the wings of a wish. We plunge into the flow, weave our narrative with each other’s, and move as one pulsing organism.
I emerge from underground. The crisp evening envelops me in a gulp. I don’t need to check my bearings. My pace matches the quickest foot. A few loiter, drag their feet, second-guess their direction. Not us, the urgent ones.
I make it home, now in my fifth sublet, and on the good nights (and tonight counts as a good night, as the man on the subway decided not to follow me and is now of the past), I exhale with relief. Another day closed, and thankfully, safely. I hang my coat.
The months fly like pages thumbed by an uncaring examiner. Then, one mundane Monday, I stumble into an old colleague. An actor like myself. A friend.
“What a great surprise!” he says. “We have so much to catch up on. Dinner? Friday?”
“Sure,” I reply.
We met a few years ago in the summer between my sophomore and junior year, while working at Williamstown, a renowned theater festival. He was a bit older than me, in graduate school at Brown. We became quick, close friends the way everyone does in a community of artists.
In the performance arts, we cultivate closeness through specific practices. For weeks or months, we do exercises crafted to foster trust and loyalty. We divulge achingly personal stories. We spend long hours rehearsing, suspended from reality, in the studio, onstage, and on the road. Therefore, by the time we perform, the audience believes we are family, siblings, lovers, or best friends. It’s our job to communicate intimacy. Once two artists have worked together, we’re allied for life. We’re part of a larger, loving tribe, generations deep. It is understood that we don’t dishonor this.
Now, years later, he and I have run into each other in the city, the way most of us do and will. We caught sight of one another in the waiting room of a studio, the way most of us do and will. We hug with the easy affection all actors who have worked together do and will.
Dinner is wonderful. He’s wearing a button-down shirt and jeans. I’m wearing a short sundress and ballet flats. We share stories and laugh. My apartment is around the corner. I invite him up for tea. We talk and feel the attraction. He kisses me. I kiss him back. It’s all delightfully harmless.
It’s getting late. I walk him to the front door, adjacent to my bedroom.
“Good night. Thanks for a great time.”
He wants more.
He kisses me again, harder. He pushes me against the wall, my five-foot-four, one-hundred-five pounds feeling pitiful to his five-foot-eleven, one-hundred-eighty pounds.
“You have to leave now.” I keep my voice light but persuasive. He tries to push me onto the bed, forcefully, not remotely playfully. I hold my ground.
“No. You have to go.”
“No,” he says, grinning, his teeth glowing in the darkness. “I’m not going anywhere.”
The air has thickened like blood clotting. Dread curls around the edges of the room, like the scent of rain before the sky slits open. He comes towards me. I back away. I breathe slowly through my nose to calm my lungs and pace my heart. My mind sifts through every case study and self-defense lesson I’ve memorized over the years. I bolster myself with tactics, ready to use them: Place one hand on each side of his head, poke hard into his eyes with my thumbs. Knee him in the groin. Bite, kick, scream. Urinate. The shock and disgust might unsettle him, letting me run.
He grabs me again. I steel my body against his. I try to take his hands off me, twisting my arms and torso the way I was taught to do with assaulters. My teeth and hands tingle, eager to bite, to claw, to obey my orders.
The vile truth, as bitter as bile: He is much too strong.
I fight with all my might, flaying like a fish caught on a hook. He keeps his hold on me, and the tussle flings us onto the bed. My left cheek is pressed against his shoulder and turned towards the wall.
My room is pink. I painted it this way, pink with a daisy-yellow trim. Growing up, I always wanted a pink room. There’s a Benjamin Moore a block down from my acting agent’s office. The day I signed with him, I gave myself a pink room. I’ve been trying to create something soft for myself within the black and gray bruise that is New York.
Life is surprising. Just as crayons fail to taste like their names, paint on a wall will be much brighter than paint in a can. I envisioned a light, blush pink but ended up with pink as vivid as flesh, sliced open.
Now, I’m inside a mouth.
Lining the flesh-pink walls are stacks of books, arranged in a way I think is pretty. My bedframe is lovely too, black wrought-iron in a delicate pattern of leaves and flowers, much like the tattoo on my ribcage, tucked into the small spot between my breasts. I chose that area for its sweet privacy, believing no one would see it unless invited. I found the bedframe on Craigslist. It didn’t come with a bedspring so I balance it on plywood boards.
I haven’t stopped fighting. I am still trying to wiggle out from beneath him. He’s pinned my wrists above my head, first with both his hands and then, only one hand to hold my wrists down. With the other hand he’s undone his jeans and hiked up my dress. Now, he knees apart my legs, and enters. As he jams in, I order myself to imagine what I’m feeling is an inanimate instrument, like those in a gynecologist’s office which, at twenty-three, I’ve been to only thrice. Now, he grunts, and grunts, his upper lip, forehead, palms, and torso growing clammy with sweat, saturating the room with his scent, musky, male, yet acutely his own. Cracking like lightning, the wooden boards beneath my mattress break from our combined weight and exertion. The mattress tilts down like a split bone. It juts into the air at an awkward angle, shaking with each thrust. The broken boards scratch my flesh-pink walls.
“You’re just too beautiful,” he hisses between groans. Astonishing, the power of the human word. Through a meager handful of sound and suggestion, I feel guilt for being myself and fury for having it used against me. I wish to be anyone but myself, to be anything but attractive, to disappear and remain hidden, indefinitely. I wish these things and hate him for it.
I’ve looked left, right, down, so now, I look into him. His sounds, scent, and desire have filled the room full of him, yet he’s completely left. His pupils have dilated so deeply, his entire eyes look black, dulled of light, dead of any humanity. I’m still repeating, “You have to go, you have to go, you have to go,” though I don’t know whom I’m referring to anymore, him or myself. I’d be grateful for either one of us to vanish. I switch to saying loudly, “No, no, no!” spitting the words like seeds that won’t take.
Here we are. This. Is. Happening.
The horrifying certainty hits me like raw steak slamming a chopping board. Maybe because he too believes this is a secured success, his hold on my wrists slackens. His moment of sloth is all I need. I slip my wrists out from his hand, press the heels of my palms on his shoulders and push with all my might.
“No,” I yell. The sudden volume and physical force are enough to shock him backwards. He comes at the same time he falls. If this weren’t rape, if I weren’t terrified, if my voice weren’t hoarse from being ignored, I’d be embarrassed for him.
I scoot back until I’m against the headboard, hugging my legs to my chest. My throat is chapped. I taste blood. I must’ve bitten my tongue. It’ll hurt tomorrow. He puts on his clothes, swiftly, silently. I say it once more:
He does. After his sentence—“You’re just too beautiful”—he hasn’t said a word.
I don’t call anyone for help. I sit in the dark for fifteen minutes, listing my options and weighing the costs of each. To negotiate any legal retribution for rape is a brutal ordeal. I’m here on my OPT visa, my agents will sponsor my next visa, and if I accrue enough professional credits, I can obtain a green card. I devote every minute and penny to the next meal, audition, job, and rent check.
I’m working so hard to live here. I’m concerned that if I press charges against him, the legal process will be even more grueling than if I were a citizen. The fine print of my immigrant status claims I’m not to be treated any differently than an American woman but often the fine print fails to inform reality. Similarly, the minutiae behind immigration include nothing to suggest pressing charges against a rapist would compromise my status here, or when I file for a green card. But all it takes for is for my case to land in the hands of that one immigration officer who finds pleasure in turning the innocuous into injury.
I cannot harm my chances at staying here. I love America beyond words. I haven’t a place in Bangladesh. But here, I’m allowed to pursue the life I want, to be a voice for those without one. The irony is acutely painful. I won’t press charges. I have to be quiet now to be a voice for others later. The hardest fact to reconcile is that my silence allows him the wicked freedom to do this to other women. This thought of hypothetical others brands me with guilt.
Get him off you.
I take a shower. Scrolling down and along the walls like the stock exchange are statistics and stories I’ve learned and lived as a girl and student. What a twisted joke. I feel the inertia of tears build and with them, my heartbeat, sounding like the decisive march of soldiers, resolute and incoming. So immense grows my panic that it drowns the sound of water and sucks in my breath. I begin to choke.
I breathe. This is anger and self-pity, two faces of fear. Fear, another luxury I cannot afford.
My story. He is but one page. One character. It doesn’t occur to me for a second to feel small, dirty, or somehow damaged. This wasn’t sex; this was assault. He is neither a man nor all men combined; he is one predator. He is a scab and Momma taught me not to pick scabs. Especially if they are human.
Under my makeshift waterfall, I speak these words. They bloom then distill into one sentence: Only I author my life.
I step out of the water.
Now the wrecked bed. I return the wooden slats to their precarious balance, angling them on the thin lip of metal, making sure they don’t succumb to gravity. I lift the mattress. I smile, not from the strength of my arms but from the lack of trembling in my hands.
The next day I have an audition for Gossip Girl. Gossip Girl is presently the most coveted job for women my age. More often than not, I’m asked to read for the exotic vixen. I don the requisite tight black dress and five-inch heels and negotiate my mouth around the vapid script. No one in their right mind will believe me in these roles.
“Be less intelligent,” says the casting director.
I’m certain there are brilliant actresses who can achieve such feats. But I’m a mediocre pretender. Some things I cannot act.
I take the subway to my hostessing job, clock in a few hours. I mute my brain, play pretty, let everyone believe what they need to believe. Afterwards, I babysit for a family I met a few weeks ago. The Mama is a Broadway star and Daddy a tennis icon. He is as steadfast in person as he is on court. She sears through life, blazing with the audacious confidence of an enduring flame. The family resembles idyllic American characters I have read about, never believing they might actually exist. The first time I enter their apartment, a wondrous warmth spreads through me like ink spilling into water. So this is what it feels like. Home.
I balance the baby on my hip and look into her eyes, blue as the skies in sonnets. We are safe in one another. All she wants is for me to be present. I fill with a love so authentic it arrests my breath.
Mama and Daddy return home, I to my pink room. Another day arrives, followed by another. The days form into months, months into years. I don’t hear from him but I will run into him. I will run into him over the years because we are both actors, and our world is tiny, and because life has a harsh, wise way of doing what she does. She will give us things as provocation to die quicker, or, grow. I will read about him in the Times. I will see him at auditions. One time, I will sit across from him on the subway.
“How are you?” I’ll ask, looking him in the eye. In response, he’ll move through every shade of pale and burn. He will sputter and shake. I will refuse to break eye contact. I will smile. I will wonder, Have you become more than your past self?
Is that possible? For all our sake, I have to believe it is.
Over time, I will meet an uncanny number of men like him. With each person, I grow better at sensing the volatility beneath the sheen. I feel it like incoming rain: he holds the dormant capability to inflict pain. Tally the encounters and I run out of fingers and toes.
The idiom Everything happens for a reason, has never sat well with me. One cannot blurt Everything happens for a reason to a person who’s just lost a loved one, been raped, or been diagnosed with cancer.
I assign my experiences their reasons.
I choose to believe the reason for this one evening wasn’t to lose my faith in men, life, or my instincts. The purpose behind this night was it proved my resilience. My beauty and youth will fade. People and money will come and go. But my ferocious passion to live is mine evermore.
Startling. Realizing this lights something within me. For the first time in my life, I like myself.
My father visits the city for a conference. Time has softened him like butter left on a table. He says the city terrifies him. The pace, scale, crowds, remarks. A terrain dotted with magic unlike anywhere else, but otherwise cacophonic, putrid, and obstinately gray.
“Don’t you get scared?” he asks.
Life is masterful at being fearsome. But listen and receive, the landscape will provide every wisdom. Like the days, each train arrives only to make way for the next. I stand on the platform with my fellow travelers. The doors open. I step into the maw.
REEMA ZAMAN is from Bangladesh and was raised in Hawaii and Thailand. She holds a BA in Women’s Studies, a BS in Theater, and a minor in Religion from Skidmore College. She worked as an actress and model in New York for a decade. Now, she writes memoir and personal essays, residing in Oregon. She is represented by Lisa DiMona of Writers House and Reema’s first memoir, I Am Yours, is presently being circulated to different publishers. She also writes for Dear Reema, where she responds to letters sent in by readers. Her work has been published in The Huffington Post, Shape, and Nailed. Reema is the creator of You Are the Voice, a talk on resilience, self-ownership, and empowerment that she performs in colleges and other venues nationwide. This piece, The Pink Room, is an excerpt from her memoir I Am Yours. For more, www.reemazaman.com.
It starts with a song. Maybe it’s on the radio, maybe on TV. It could even be the artwork on the cover of an album. Or it could be an interview.
Initially I’d not even liked the band, and the first time I saw them play, I left the all-ages music hall early—it was a sparsely attended weeknight lobby show—and fled with a friend to a scuzzy bar a few blocks away. I’d moved to Sonoma County because I wanted to be a wine writer, but that all went out the door when I discovered the area’s extensive indie band scene, complete with its own tabloid-sized free magazine published cheaply on newsprint with ink that left telltale smudges all over readers’ hands. Something about it all resonated with me, this hidden but vital world of scrappy bands thriving among the vineyards and bucolic golden hills.
Later, I shoehorned myself into working as the magazine’s managing editor for free. The editor gave me a copy of the band’s demo and after listening to it once out of duty, I was surprised to find I couldn’t stop. I played it every morning, usually twice in a row. The songs were soundscapes, heavy with blissed-out distortion, and I liked how they set the tone of the day I wanted to have. At one of the magazine’s weekly editorial meetings at a mediocre coffeehouse that also served beer and sandwiches, we decided to run a short profile of the band in the next issue, and they dispatched me to interview them.
The house where the band rehearsed was on a poorly lit rural road, easy to miss. Like many dumpy rental houses that play host to various band members over the years, it had a name: The 116 House. Inside, it was dim and there were about five old couches in the living room. They guys welcomed me in and we all sat on the couches and did the interview. I recall little else about it, though I still have the microcassette recording.
It was the night I met my husband. Joe was the band’s drummer, and he’d said just a few words that evening. He still has a drummer’s predilection for staying in the background.
We liked a lot of the same bands, as it turned out. Joe and each I had Ride CDs separately before we coupled, and our devotion to Ride is still such that we can’t bear to part with the duplicates. I shelve our CDs alphabetically by artist, and the Rs—I also love The Ramones—are disproportionately gnarly. In its purest sense music does not take a tactile from, but in a practical sense I adore the plastic and vinyl flotsam of albums and their colorful sleeves and inserts. Even if the music isn’t on the stereo, I like knowing it’s there twice.
Some of the guys in Ride were still teenagers when (to deploy a trite phrase of music journalism) their band exploded onto the British music scene. It’s almost criminal how fully realized their sound was at such a young age. Listen to Nowhere, their first album proper, and it’s still fresh and epic. Their music was noisy and angelic and gorgeous but always had a solid pop sensibility at its core. Unimportant to Joe but very notable to me, they were also really fit. That, my friend, is arty chick bait. I was an easy mark.
Even so, there was little evidence of Ride’s physical deliciousness on Nowhere, the cover of which is a blurry image of a cresting ice-blue wave, so the songs themselves had to be the heartthrobs. I got into Nowhere my freshman year of college, hijacking my roommate’s copy and eventually listening to it every single morning twice in a row, blissfully existing inside of it the same way I would with Joe’s band’s demo years later. On an opposite coast, a world away, Joe was nowhere, too.
Music was everything to me in my teens and early adulthood. School, jobs, responsibility: these things made no sense. Music did, and by first channeling a real-life situation through the glorious prism of a band, it came out as something I got.
I saw a lot of rock bands back then. They spiritually realigned me, helping me function the rest of the week. Everything else was planned around their shows. At a release show for a compilation CD Joe’s band was on, I got drunk and gave Joe my business card. A few days later he actually called me, instantly distinguishing himself from all of the other guys I kept tabs on at shows. We had our first date. And then we kept on dating.
I liked Joe because he was sincere, and I liked his friends and the other guys in the band because they were fun and not mopey, self-obsessed weirdos. Joe and I liked a lot of the same bands, too. We saw bands together, plus I tagged along to almost every one of his shows. For a four-piece, they had an insane amount of gear: a Farfisa, a Moog, two drum kits, assorted amps and amp heads, a few suitcases full of pedals and cables, and a film projector (I know, I know). It took a long time for them to load in, but it took forever for them to load out. Joe may be sincere, but he had no hustle. I grew adept at lugging bursting-at-the-seams drum hardware bags up and down narrow club steps and onto filthy San Francisco curbs. All those dingy clubs, all those pints of Lagunitas IPA, the residue of the stamp on the back of my hand giving away the cause of my next-day grogginess at work. I lived for it.
One of the most disappointing things about being married to a drummer is that, no matter how mind-blowing their playing might be, it gets to a point where the person practicing on the kit in the garage is just making an unbearably loud racket. At least I appreciate Joe’s drum kit. It’s a set of vintage Ludwigs in a coppery sparkle wrap called Champagne. I see them glimmer every time I bring in the groceries. Those drums have traveled quite a bit, in the backs of vans and then in moving trucks. They’ve spent years in their drum bags, and then in the basements of friends, and then, finally, in our basement. Now that we have space for them, Joe does not have anyone nearby who jives on the kind of music he’d most like to play, and at best he sometimes does shuffle beats at casual jam sessions with friends. But he never gets to really wail.
We have a Ride poster that’s the cover of their 1991 EP, Today Forever. The poster was Joe’s initially, and for some reason he got it laminated when he bought it, and that’s probably why it’s still around now. I love that EP; the cover is a photo of a shark baring its teeth and RIDE is superimposed in capital letters and it’s cryptic and badass. I tried to put the poster up in the basement to remind me that we used to be cool, but no matter what kind of tape I used, the combination of cinder block walls and humidity conspired to make the poster fall down. It bummed me out. I think I was hoping it would spur Joe to play his drums more often.
I’m still plotting ways to hang that poster. Loving a band is like having a crush. Simply saying their name out loud feels gratifying, almost illicit. This is perhaps why music journalism has decayed into an endless stream of lists: assembling and deconstructing them allows you to handle the names, the bands, to build them up into a gigantic consolidated tower, an epic hypothetical luxury condo of rock and roll exclusivity that’s just to your liking. Even just typing certain band names now gives me a rush: The Charlatans. Sonic Youth. Dinosaur Jr. The people from these bands are officially old dudes now but not to me. Rock music is commonly thought of the music of youth, perhaps because only in youth do we have such an abundance of potent feelings in need of a vessel.
You’d think music would take energy from you, but that’s not how it works at all. It only gives. What a privilege to have that in your life, a special thing that’s all yours to obsess over.
When my appetite for new bands took a nose dive about a decade ago, it disarmed me. Who was I if I didn’t care about current music? I wound up getting into really square stuff like Henri Mancini and Dionne Warwick and Johnny Mathis—the kind of music I used to make fun of. The albums were plentiful and affordable; I could get a whole box of crappy vinyl at the Goodwill for a dollar, pick out the good stuff, and turn right back to re-donate the rejects.
I missed leaving a club feeling both spent and entirely filled up. Live shows stopped doing it for me. I was tired of standing in a crowd on dirty floors in my impractical rocker-girl black vinyl boots, tired of sitting at a cocktail table in a sparsely populated club, tired of scoping out a spot to pee in an alley off San Pablo Avenue because the toilet got clogged at the artists’ loft party. The toilets at loft shows always got clogged.
Going musically frigid changed me, or I changed and then I went frigid. To care so much seems petty, but the emotional significance of a single song can run so deep, like a fissure in the ocean floor. Some people find God. Others find bands, and their music fills a void. Listening to a song is at once completely universal and profoundly individual, and the people who made that song you come to carry in your heart because they created something that lifts up your life and articulates this roiling feeling you either have or yearn to have.
“Ride’s getting back together!” Joe said right when he came home from work. “They’re touring and will be in Cleveland.”
This was huge. “When?” I asked. “Did you get tickets? This will sell out. We need tickets.”
“But what if your mom can’t watch Frances?”
“THIS IS RIDE. Get the tickets.”
He got the tickets. I arranged for Mom to watch Frances, and we booked a hotel not far from the venue, because Cleveland is a bit of a trip for us, and I’d done enough drowsy post-show drives in my life to know how stupid it is to get in a car with your ears ringing and a body full of adrenaline and blood tinged with alcohol, only to later doze off going 75 on the interstate with still over an hour left to go, thinking, “Crap, am I going to make it home alive?”
Neither of had ever seen Ride, who broke up in the mid-1990s. They hadn’t played together formally in over twenty years. Joe and I left for Cleveland in the afternoon, and when we got downtown, the traffic was outrageous and Joe nearly had a panic attack. It turns out there was an Indians game that night, and our hotel was blocks from the stadium, so by the time we checked into our room, we’d weathered a nightmarish hour of gridlocked rerouting and impossible parking.
Key cards in hand, we got in the elevator. Joe was surly, swearing under his breath, and I had to give him the kind of wifely “get your shit together, man” look reserved for public situations.
But something quickly drew my attention away from my irate husband. Right before the elevator doors closed, a man rushed in and stared intently at his black rolly suitcase. In the understated dark clothing of a traveler, he didn’t look like any of the garishly dressed Indians fans we’d just seen by the bucketload, and he was giving off a powerful vibe I recognized but couldn’t quite place. The doors slid closed, and the typical awkwardness of a crowded elevator ensued. I thought about asking the intense guy which floor he needed—he was cute, a good excuse to be polite—but opted not to because he was actually closer to the buttons than I was.
I spent the following impossibly long elevator seconds mulling this over, and then bing! the doors opened to our floor. The intense dude quickly scooted out before us to the opposite wing. Once we got down our end hallway, Joe turned to me. “I think that was Loz.”
“What?” I said. Loz is Ride’s drummer. It’s short for Lawrence. I think there’s a rule that all British rock band percussionists need to have nicknames with a Z. Joe’s always admired Loz musically. He’s not the kind to idolize people, but he’s told me a few times how the song “Leave Them All Behind,” which is crazy-full of drum fills, had been one of the things that motivated him to start playing drums in the first place.
“Yeah—in the elevator. His suitcase had a luggage tag that said OXF.” Ride is from Oxford.
I was dubious, because Ride was a distant thing from a mythical realm, one that did not include blasé, overpriced rooms at the Radisson. “Let’s just figure out where we’re having dinner and relax a bit,” I said. But I was not relaxed. I’d suddenly slipped back into the old Sara, a person who was impulsive and excitable. We headed out and kept our eyes peeled.
Dinner was awful. Ride was fantastic. The reunion was not at all a pandering or opportunistic. I always wonder about this, the motivation bands have to reunite. Every person has events that define their lives, but for a band who achieves renown in their youth, that becomes—to the public, at least—the defining thing in their lives. Joe had certainly not spent the ten years of our marriage being nothing but the former drummer for his band, though they never exploded onto any music scene.
We go through the years, and ideally become more sorted-out and mature. There are jobs that don’t involve musical instruments or amp heads or tour vans that stink of farts and t-shirts in bad need of laundering. There are relationships and families and prosaic things of incredible, meaningful depth: homework on the refrigerator, walks with the dog, lopsided birthday cakes spattered with droplets of pink and blue wax. But there are also the lingering fumes of four guys who were on a stage together and did this incredible, transformative thing, and while other life events can eclipse that in significance, nothing can duplicate it.
Pop culture holds such a mighty sway over our society that we tend to define ourselves by what we like, not what we do. Those filters—favorite bands, favorite books, favorite movies—are handy, but they’re not airtight. I might meet a person who agrees with me that Ejector Seat Reservation is Swervedriver’s best album start to finish, because duh, it is. But you can love Swervedriver and be an asshole. Joe and I can relate to each other over somewhat obscure music, but that’s not what makes a relationship endure. I’m not sure what does, actually. Maybe not knowing is the key.
After the concert, Joe and I agreed it was for sure Loz in our elevator that night. While the show itself had been the main attraction, this one fleeting non-encounter gave the whole weekend a symbolic significance. The Pope had just concluded his North American junket, but screw that. Loz stayed on the same floor of our hotel.
That following week I spent electrified, floating in a heady altered state. Joe and I dug up a documentary about Creation, Ride’s record label, and it included this offhand home move footage of Ride from back in the day—they couldn’t have been any older than twenty-one—and they were just these totally hot little shoegaze babies peering out from a lost window of time that held so much promise. What was I doing when that was filmed? What was Joe? I couldn’t even fathom it. I wanted to go back and re-watch that snippet about fifty times, which is exactly what I would have done in 1991.
My body surged with my own teenage fervor, churning with pheromones long unused. The intimacy and immediacy of all the music I’d ever loved came rushing back, and my ears were receptive in a way they hadn’t been in years. I daydreamed a lot and was not terribly productive with work, instead going on runs more frequently, the pace brisker and the route longer. Joe sat at his drum kit in the basement and played it hard, like he used to before we learned to automatically default to common respect for our neighbors.
The world nostalgia comes from the Greek words nostos and algos—“pain” and “return home,” respectively. The pain isn’t from the past itself, but the impossibility of fully experiencing that home again. I was afraid I’d feel pained from what I’d see up there onstage, that the reality of a middle-aged Ride today would maybe squelch a vision of the past I cherished, a time of dewy skin and dreamy faces. But I didn’t. (It certainly helped that the band’s members have aged well—hiya, Loz!)
I could listen to the interview I recorded at the 116 House in 2001, but do I even need to? Part of the 116 House lives here. Home is dynamic. At its kernel is the eternal awe of youth, embers that you can’t let die. We move artlessly though time, as dumb today as the day we were born, and the day we skipped class to go flip through the bargain bin at the record store, and the day we drunkenly handed a drummer a business card after that show at Bottom of the Hill, and they day we put our kid to bed for the thousandth time. Every morning we wake up again, and it is today forever.
SARA BIR is a chef and writer living in Ohio. Her book Foraged, Forgotten, Found: Rediscovering America’s Abundant Wild and Unusual Fruits is forthcoming from Chelsea Green Publishing.
My daughter has begun to do this thing where she tucks both of her little thumbs inward and then clenches her four fingers around the thumbs into tight fists held in front of her, all while tensing the muscles seemingly in her entire body. She doesn’t breathe for a few seconds as her face grows from a porcelain white to pork pink and finally to bullfighter-cape red. A few veins stick out in various places and she shakes slightly from the effort, as if her thirty-two inch body were lifting some invisible too-heavy weight. Then she abruptly stops, unclenches her hands and releases everything she had previously tensed. The red leaves her face and she goes about whatever she was doing before.
She did this the first few times in the same afternoon. We asked her what was wrong, why she did that—as if she could respond—and then finally we told her, “No! Don’t do that!” She understands surprisingly much for a one-year-old, but she kept doing the clenching and tensing no matter how many times we admonished her in Spanish first, then English although she understands it less. My wife began to cry and I was at a loss for words to console her. We called the pediatrician, not sure what was happening with our daughter. The pediatrician asked us a few questions: Did she have a far-off look in her eyes after the “episode”? Did the actions seem involuntary? No and no, we said. Another string of questions led the pediatrician to rule out seizures and thus he saw no need for us to take her to the emergency room. Because we had the one-year visit scheduled already in two days, the pediatrician told us not to worry—he would look at it then.
Those two days, of course, were agonizing. Any new parent that hears the word seizure in reference to their child, even if it’s to say that they don’t suffer from seizures, is incapable of ignoring possible symptoms. We looked for a far-off look in our daughter’s eyes at every turn and analyzed every movement to make sure it was voluntary.
Two long days later we were in the pediatrician’s office, with our daughter receiving the necessary vaccines, her height and weight being checked, blood drawn to check iron levels and so on—all the standard one-year visit formalities. At some point, between vaccines, our daughter tucked her thumbs inward, clenched her fists as tightly as she could, and tensed her entire body. She turned red and visibly shook from the effort, this time looking more as if she were ferociously constipated than if she were lifting an invisible weight. The pediatrician pulled the needle back and asked us if this was what we had called about. Yes, we said, this is exactly what she’s been doing that has us so worried. That, the pediatrician responded, is your daughter’s way of expressing her frustration or anger at something. Because she can’t speak yet, she has to show or let out her frustration in other ways. It’s perfectly normal, he concluded, and in fact, from the age of one up until eighteen or twenty months, she will have moments of intense rage, with outbursts of tears and screaming that could last several minutes. We should ignore these moments and not try everything in our power to console her—the outbursts will pass with time.
My wife left the appointment satisfied with the pediatrician’s explanation—seizures left her mind—and ready to ignore our daughter’s future fist clenching scenes and moments of rage when they should start to appear. I, on the other hand, was distraught; I knew that the pediatrician didn’t have the full story and neither did my wife.
During my days, I represent immigrant youth from Central America who can’t afford an attorney and are being deported—many of them will be slaughtered by gangs in their home countries if they’re returned. What my wife and the pediatrician had not taken into account was my daughter’s time alone with me following those days when the world seems to have you in its teeth and won’t soften the bite. The times when I would come home from work destroyed from my interactions with the Department of Homeland Security and she would cry deep and uncontrollably into my face while I tried to put her to sleep. Or a fifteen-year-old Salvadorian girl would share the rapes she had suffered on her journey to the United States, and then my daughter wouldn’t eat the food I had prepared for her that night. Or a young woman, an undocumented college graduate, would beg me to find some form of immigration relief that she could possibly qualify for so that she can live out just a slice of the American Dream she was told existed for everyone, and there would be nothing I could do for her, and then my daughter would thrash around while I was changing her diaper and everything on the changing table would be a mess, dripping to the floor. All of these moments would intertwine inextricably with the 2016 presidential race, the ominous cloud hanging over everything and all of us.
In those moments, where my thoughts would seem profoundly dark although the sun had just set and rays of light still broke through the Brooklyn townhouses visible from my daughter’s bedroom, I would clench my teeth and tense my whole body, not breathe for a few seconds and if there had been a mirror nearby, I likely would’ve seen my face turning red as well. I would shake slightly from the invisible but actual weight and if I was holding my daughter in my arms, I would hold her a bit tighter and sometimes even jump up and down a few times, begging her through gritted teeth to stop crying and go to sleep, eat her food, or be still while I changed her diaper. The throbbing at my temples would become less dull and unrelated frustrations would blend together. My daughter had undoubtedly picked up her fist-clenching, body-tensing behavior from those moments—I know it and no explanation from the pediatrician can change this. The frustrations of my days representing immigrant youth in an unfair system, interspersed with the twenty-four-hour news cycle on the general decline of American policy and politics—including a man that wants to deport everyone, all of the young men and women who have become more than clients to me—are bleeding into my nights with a rapidly developing baby, who soaks up every emotion and stimuli her father gives her. These are the cracks on the hardened shell of a man who keeps everything in.
In one of my rare escapes from the house after work, I met up with a friend at a bar not far from the Nostrand stop I get off at the other day. As with any conversation for the last six months, we talk about the presidential race and it feels as if we are summarizing an episode of Jerry Springer more than the intricacies of the highest office. I try to share some of the things I see and hear at work, but as often happens, not much comes out. I say the government is unfair and that President Obama, a man I love, is complicated when it comes to immigrants and immigration. Complicated indeed, replies my friend. He brings up the basics: the two million deportations carried out under President Obama that have torn apart families versus the Executive Orders signed by him to protect young immigrants and the undocumented parents of US citizens.
We change the subject. This friend of mine has a more hands-on job than mine: he works at a butcher shop in Park Slope. I prefer to hear about his job, since he’s always creating new sausage recipes and so on. He mentions a Banh Mi flavored sausage he is tinkering with.
After we clink glasses on our second beer, he tells me something he’s never told me before about his job, and it sticks with me. He tells me that he has no problem advising each person that enters the shop which cut of meat is the freshest that day, which would make a great dinner and the best way to cook the meat; that he derives pleasure from imagining the customers enjoying their meat products; that he even enjoys slicing the meats and arranging them on display. But, in order to do all of this, he said it is vital that he cannot think about the lambs being slaughtered.
I thought about this a lot on the walk home. Every immigrant youth that has come into my office has the same question, the question that has forced itself into every legal intake I’ve recently done, every application I’ve completed, every court appearance, as if none of these painful and tortured migrant lives really matter in the end. It is the question everyone working with immigrants—and maybe all of us in general—cannot escape: What if he wins the presidency?
Eleven million people will be deported, he says. No Muslims will enter the country and Mexico will pay for a wall to keep everyone out of the U.S.
My friend’s comment came into my mind again tonight on the way home from work.
Now it’s one a.m.
I have sat at this couch since eight p.m. watching a map of the United States of America slowly and incomprehensibly turn more red than blue. I listened half-heartedly to analysis and prophecy—teetering between falsities and doomsday—finally turning the television off when the end was all but assured. I didn’t wait for the final call or hear either candidate speak; I held a slim hope that I was already asleep and the morning would reveal the actual reality. My eyes have been closing for some time and there is no one awake to talk with me. This could all not be happening.
Asleep or awake, I get off the couch. I pour myself a glass of water and go into my daughter’s room, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dark, to the new world. Once they have, I look into her crib and see her lying on her back, arms and legs in a peaceful outstretched X with her chest slowly rising and falling in the middle. I reach into the crib and pick her up. She murmurs slightly and moves a bit as I put her on my shoulder and carry her to our bed. My wife is sleeping just as peacefully—she has an early day tomorrow and was convinced enough by the confident and uniform predictions that tonight held no surprises. She watched the first states being called, shaking her head when I tried to explain what little I understand of electoral college. Then she went to bed and I thought I would follow soon after. My wife, the immigrant. America has just slit her wrists.
Looking at my wife and holding our daughter in my arms, I become more aware, somehow more at ease than at any moment in the last year—as if all of it has been a daze of too many deadlines and deportations played to the soundtrack of bigotry and racism. I know what is happening now: the dull fear, the this-will-never-happen, is reality. I am awake. I feel my daughter in my arms and shiver at the thought that my days had been transferred to her in some way, that her bright eyes and developing mind are soured by emotions I have let overrun me. How do you help others without destroying yourself, your family? How do you keep a belligerent world from seeping into your daughter’s bedroom? My fatherhood has been enveloped by a dark blanket which I just now—ironically—feel that I am shaking off. This is the moment we have most feared coming true. And I find that we are ready for it.
I lay our daughter next to my wife and crawl into bed next to them. My daughter has kept on sleeping just as peacefully as before, like her mother. I roll onto my left shoulder so that they fill my view. It doesn’t seem so dark now; I can make out all of their features. I think to myself that every day will be okay if this is how it ends. I breathe deeply and instead of tensing muscles and clenching teeth—symptoms of the anger and frustration I’d felt so much in the last year—I discover love and comfort where it has always been. The world away from our mattress matters as much as an itch on a toe as you fall asleep: you leave the doorstep of sweet dreams if you scratch it. These women next to me are my lifeline. I see this as if a blanket has been lifted.
My eyes are too heavy now but I steal one last glance at them, then I quietly fall asleep. Tomorrow the world will be different, but this and us will not. We were part of a tussle; now comes the war. Tomorrow the fight erupts: the butcher is coming for every lamb.
J. J. MULLIGAN is a non-profit immigration attorney representing immigrant youth who cannot afford an attorney in New York City. He is a new father, former college basketball player, and a diehard San Francisco Giants fan. His writings and translations have appeared in his mother’s native Chile and in various publications here in the U.S.