The doors swing open and I choke on deodorant and dust. I am on a quest. To my left: rows of men’s button-down shirts squeezed together on racks separated by size. Pastel blues and plaids and animal stripes and gingam prints scream out from the metal limbs, but each individual piece of clothing is stifled by the ludicrous combination of colors and patterns. I thumb through the fabric and skim over brand names. Every now and then I tug a shirt from the masses. Oh, this one is perfect for him for Date Party!

“I will not wear a pink shirt,” Andrew backs away cautiously when I hold a shirt up for his approval. I giggle and wave the shirt at him.

“Come on, amuse me,” I plead as I try to hold back my laughter. “It’s a great shade for your complexion.”

Andrew winces and reaches for the shirt. It is a light pink Ralph Lauren shirt with white pinstripes.  $12, no stains, only a little wrinkled.

I think about the confidence of the man who owned this shirt. He is probably Andrew’s height, 6’0″, give or take an inch or two. The man has bright eyes that open wider when he grins. He is completing a co-op program at an investment firm where his boss already lined up a permanent position for him post-graduation. He is popular, plays center on the club lacrosse team, and studied abroad in London. He throws his head back and sings Katy Perry songs when he gets too drunk. He has lots of friends. He is ambitious.


He is shy. He bought this shirt on a whim, hoping it might make him feel less like wallflower at the next house party. He pairs the shirt with the nice corduroy pants his mom bought him for Christmas and brown loafers. He is pale. He wonders if the creamy pink makes his skin look jaundiced and bleak. He spends an hour pacing around his apartment, trying to assimilate into the shirt as if it is a skin graft from another body. He finally peels the shirt off and slides a comfortable grey t-shirt over his mess of brown curls. The next morning he sells the pink pin-striped shirt to the consignment store in center city on Chestnut Street. He uses the cash to get a haircut.

I wonder where this shirt has traveled, if it has traveled much of anywhere at all. Andrew tries it on and insists that it is not his color. He returns it to the rack.

To my right: sun hats and belts and scarves and a pair of authentic cowgirl boots. A circular sticker reads $17 in red Sharpie print on the side of the left boot. I lift the boots and examine them under the industrial lighting. Faded brown leather, scuffed soles, tubes that bend and flop over like wilted flower stems, but I love them. I imagine the type of woman that might have worn these boots. She is a creature of habit; she wore her boots everywhere she went, so often that the original color of the bottoms are now completely scraped away. She takes her shots without chasers. She is a loyal friend. She drives a silver Jeep Wrangler and owns a guitar, but doesn’t know how to play anything besides Smoke on the Water. She wants to run for public office someday.

I could be wrong. Maybe she bought a pair of cowgirl boots for a Blake Shelton concert that her friends badgered her into attending even though she doesn’t really like country. Maybe she wore the boots for one night and passed them on to someone else who would wear them through the summer until the leaves hardened and crinkled, until the air grew heavy and cold, until that person decided to trade in the cowgirl boots for a pair of sturdy snow boots.

The only thing I can know for sure about the boots’ owner is that she is a size 7, one size too small for my feet. I reluctantly set the boots back on their shelf and force myself to head to the back of the store.

Don’t forget your quest.

I shimmy in and out of one skirt, one dress, and a pair of high-waisted jean shorts. I shout to Andrew in the dressing room next to mine and ask him how his button-down-shirt-hunt is going. He finally settles on a blue Nordstrom shirt with white pinstripes. I agree that blue suits him best.

On my way out of the dressing room, I stop so abruptly that I nearly trample a little boy chasing his HotWheels car on the tiles. The arm of a chalky blue Levi Strauss denim jacket reaches out toward me from the rack of rejected clothes outside the dressing room. I’ve never found a denim jacket that was comfortable enough to keep. Is this the final destination, the scarlet X on my treasure map?

“Can you drive a car?” my mom always asks when I try on a jacket. I lift my arms up and twist them while I grip an imaginary steering wheel. Too tight. Too stiff. Not enough give.

I’m afraid of getting my hopes up, but my heart starts to skip. I try the jacket on behind the red velvet curtain in the dressing room and look in the mirror. I can lift my arms and pretend to drive a car. I can cuff up the sleeves. I can flex my shoulders, raise my fingertips to the ceiling, stretch to my head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes. I hug myself.

The man or woman who owned this jacket is creative. When that person owned this jacket, he or she was able to dress any outfit down with the light-blue denim or add an edgy flare to a plain white t-shirt. That person must be constant. That person must believe very deeply in something. That person must nurture a talent that has likely gone unappreciated or unnoticed for far too long. That person must have loved too much, kissed too hard, committed to a heart that already belonged to someone else. That person understands survival, taking the next breath, waking up, enduring. That person is worn yet resilient from his or her experiences, just like this jacket. Andrew buys it for me as a gift. I don’t stop smiling after we leave the store and head to the train station to return to campus.

I wear the jacket every chance I get: to class, to the Sweet Greens salad bar, to Andrew’s apartment, to the library, and even in bed while I write a political science paper. I wear the jacket at a barbecue on the lawn next to the university chapel. I leave the jacket on a table while I run off to greet a group of friends that had just arrived. I’m not sure if I brought the jacket home with me or left it in my friend’s car or forgot it at the barbecue, but it’s gone. I’ve turned my closet-upside down. I’ve spent hours digging through bedding and clothes in my room. I’ve crawled under my bed, pushed back the sofa, emptied my hamper, surveilled the laundry room, until I came to the realization that, likely, my jacket is no longer my jacket.

“I could have sworn I had it with me after the barbecue,” I whimper to Andrew on the phone. “That was my favorite piece of clothing!”

He tells me not to be upset. He offers to help me find another jacket. I don’t want another jacket. I want that jacket. I feel foolish and careless. I wore the jacket too much. I took it for granted, and the undertow of my hectic life swept it away.

Or maybe the jacket was destined to move from one body to the next like a river over pebbles.

Perhaps someone else picked up my jacket and decided to hold onto it. I wonder if the jacket fit. I wonder what the person thought of the jacket’s previous owner. I wonder if that description fit too.





At first, I reached for his hand because I was terrified. Every time I heard a rustle in the bushes that lined the dirt trail through the woods, I pressed my hip against his side, my forearm against his elbow, and my left cheek against his soft, red cotton t-shirt. He chuckled and squeezed my hand as I fumbled over tree roots and mounds around the brown swamp. Andrew and I hadn’t started dating yet, and I wasn’t about to admit that I was almost nineteen years old and afraid of the dark. I told him that I had been to Secret Beach (officially David Weld’s Sanctuary) countless times with friends each summer in the day time. Night had transformed one of my favorite places into a black hole of swaying shadows.

When the moon finally peeked up from above the hill, I exhaled and relaxed my grip on his arm. My hands were sweaty. I blushed and let go for a moment to wipe them against my jeans. We broke through the tree line and stood at the top of the hill, gazing down the plummet into the Long Island Sound. Moon beams curled and tangled in the waves. The beach, the dunes, Andrew’s body, my hands, were two shades paler.

I thought I would kiss him there. That was what I had planned during the days leading up to his arrival from Pennsylvania. I was going to take him to the summit of the hill, ask him to close his eyes, and kiss him. But the nervous energy between us and the damp, warm summer air were dizzying. So I pointed down the dune to the beach and told him, “That’s our next stop.”

After Hurricane Sandy, the waves had chiseled away at the steep hill that led to the shore. Gone were the footpaths and gradually declining steps of sand down the dune. We slid most of the way on our heels, clinging to branches that jutted out from the nearly vertical wall of sand. When we finally touched down on the beach, it started to rain. I sighed and shook my head; our first date was ruined. But Andrew grinned and wrapped his arm around my shoulders.

“It’s just a little rain!” He exclaimed.

The dune before the storm, the beach before dark

The dune before the storm, the beach before dark

At first, the rain was a mist. Within minutes, however, the droplets crashed down sideways. Andrew and I giggled and covered our heads with our hands as we sprinted for a boulder nestled a few feet from the shore. We crouched beside the massive rock and listened as the rain drummed against it on the other side.

I buried my face into the niche between his shoulder and his neck, and he buried his fists into the sand, and we buried the moment in the attics of our minds where it would remain safe and warm and dry.

And when I decided to stop being afraid, I kissed him.

Nothing can ruin this.

Our clothes were doused in saltwater and rain. The pockets of our jeans were filled with wet sand. We shivered and brushed flecks of broken seashells off each other’s shirts and decided to head back to my Jeep. We clambered back up the wall of sand, through the dark, serpentine forest trails, and across the small, gravel lot where my car was parked against a wooden barrier. I slammed the driver’s door, turned up the heat, and slowly pulled away from the sanctuary and onto the dimly-lit beach roads in the Village of Nissequogue. The windshield wipers groaned and swung from left to right. As I stared ahead between swipes, I almost didn’t notice the thin, mustard-colored slip of paper suctioned against the glass in the bottom right corner of the windshield.

“Hey, Andrew?” My heart coiled into a fetal position against my ribs.

“Yeah?” Andrew changed the radio station.

“What’s that?” I asked.

I pulled over to the side of the road. Andrew opened his door and peeled the note away from the glass. His eyes squinted and scanned the words.

“It’s from the Village Police,” he began slowly. “A parking violation for the vehicle in the lot after dark. And you owe…let’s see…oh wow, $50.00!”

“This sucks,” I muttered and gripped the wheel.

“You know, I did notice a car following us all the way to Secret Beach. That was probably the cop who wrote this ticket,” Andrew projected as he turned the soggy paper over in his hands.

I bit my lip, flipped my turning signal on, checked my mirrors, and slowly drove back onto the road. I was embarrassed and frustrated: Of all the nights, of all the people I could have been with! For a few minutes neither of us said anything. Then Andrew placed his hand over mine and smiled. My frown cracked and fell away. We still had the boulder, the sheets of rain, and the kiss on the beach. I glanced his way and decided that if $50.00 was the cost for our night together, then I wasn’t paying enough.




30th Street Station is packed with people today, mostly college kids from schools around the area heading home for spring break. I can’t find an inch of space on any of the wooden benches so I stand and switch the weight of my backpack from one shoulder to the other. The sound of suitcases rolling along the smooth, tan tiles echoes up into the ceiling. Every minute I check the Train Information board and wait for the dials to flip back and reveal my number: 650, Keystone to New York from Philadelphia, “ON TIME,” Stairway 9. I grip the handle of my suitcase and brace for the sudden swarm of people rushing to our track like racehorses out of the starting gates. I let the current of travelers pull me along a wall where I eventually hold my place in line.

A young Asian woman wearing tall black boots, black tights, and a long red sweater clutches her toddler’s mittened hand and half-drags him up a stairway. Her dark hair is done up in an elaborate, side-swept bun. Her lipstick is flawless, creaseless, a rich merlot. She places one hand on her son’s shoulder and the other under his chin. He peers up at her and she points a slender, manicured finger at a man with grey hair standing in front of the stairway.

“Look who it is. Go on,” she nudges him forward. The boy blinks several times and takes three teetering steps, bewildered, confused. Who? But as the grey-haired man opens his arms, the boy flashes two rows of tiny, square teeth and runs ahead of his mother.

The man hoists the boy up in the air and holds him close against his chest. The boy wraps his arms around the man’s neck and continues to smile. The young Asian woman awkwardly circles the pair, staring up at her little boy. I wait for the man to kiss her, greet her, acknowledge her, but he continuously turns away. She revolves like a lonely moon around her world. She extends a Spider Man backpack. He takes it from her without breaking eye contact from the giggling child in his arms.

“You all set?” The woman finally asks. Reddish-purple stains her two front teeth as she bites down hard on her lip.

The man nods and glances her way.

“Make sure you take him to the bathroom before you leave,” she instructs anxiously.

“Mommy loves you.” She waves at her son and stands still as the man carries him past an Auntie Anne’s pretzel stand and around a corner, out of sight. When my line starts moving toward the escalator to the platform, the woman is on the phone.

“Yeah, they’re together now. No, he didn’t say a word to me. I’m not surprised or anything…”

I watch a black tear drip from her painted lashes. It traces a thin, dark trail like a shadow along her cheek. She hurries through our row. I smile at her but I don’t think she notices.

My suitcase is heavy. Six days worth of clothes (plus alternative options, just in case) and several textbooks for reading assignments. I try lifting it up to the shelf above my seat on the train. My arms quiver. I drop the suitcase and take a deep breath. A man glances up at me and opens his mouth. But he turns away, licks his thumb, and flips a page in The New York Times. I finally manage to heave the suitcase above my head and thrust it up onto the shelf. I smile at the man. He smiles back sheepishly then quickly averts his eyes back to the paper. I sit down and imagine my mom’s loud, clear voice.

“You’re not gonna be able to deal with that on the train!” She always warns me whenever she sees my suitcase. I tell her I’m used to it, and by now I really am. I’ve got the Philly-New York travel down to a science. Find a SEPTA train that will get into Philly about an hour before the Amtrak train boards – anticipate that SEPTA will be late. Leave ten minutes early from the apartment to get the SEPTA train at Overbrook Station. Arrive at 30th Street Station 45 minutes prior to boarding time. Bathroom, coffee, stare at the board, rush to a stairway, find a window seat on the train so I can plug my phone into an outlet, text my mom “I’m on the train.” 90 minutes later, head for the Long Island Rail Road waiting area in Penn Station. Buy a ticket. Stare at a different board. Wait. When “Ronkonkoma” lights up, run for the track.

And don’t fall down any of the multiple sets of stairs along the way. Hold onto the suitcase for dear life, no matter how heavy it is.

My phone vibrates twice against my knee. Both of my parents inform me, in separate messages, that there is a 3:55 train from Penn Station to Long Island. I giggle. They looked up train times together, then texted me at the same time with the same information. I respond to them both and tell them I will be able to make that train.

“Mommy loves you.” The woman’s voice raps softly against my mind. Each word sounded light and airy. Each word emphasized her solitude: One mommy, one love, one beloved.

Love is a wonderful word. But “we” must be the most precious. “We” is the heaviest word and the hardest to hold on to.


Time Travel: Daddy

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Daddy tugs my laces tight. I am sitting on a bench crowded with other children, their parents kneeling and looping laces in one hole, out another. The ice rink smells of sweaty hockey pads and hot pretzels. I hobble to the glass and grab the wall surrounding the ice.  Daddy helps me stretch. I am four.

Christmas day, Daddy gives me a new ornament: glass ice skate, silver blade, glitter that sticks to my skin as I turn the skate over in my hands.

Eight years later one Saturday morning: “I don’t want to be a figure skater anymore.” Daddy frowns, but I think he still loves me. I hang the glittery ice skate on the Christmas tree every year. It is my favorite ornament.

Nana is sick. I always go with Daddy to visit her in the nursing home. I don’t know what Alzheimer’s is, but I know it makes Nana cry a lot. Sometimes she calls me Doreen, even though Doreen is Daddy’s sister.

One afternoon we take Nana to Friendly’s. We sit in a booth and I watch Nana taste the chocolate-chip ice cream scoop in her cone. She smiles. Daddy is happy. I don’t remember the last time I saw her smile after that day.

At Nana’s funeral I pull out a step under the ambo and climb up, trying not to make too much noise in my black patent leather shoes. I peer over the wood panel and see my family. Daddy’s face is tight and red. I smooth the paper in front of me and read from Revelations. I am nine. I walk down from the alter, bow slightly to the cross, and sit next to Daddy in the pew. He starts to cry.

“Thank you. I’m so proud of you.”

Daddy and James have baseball, breakfast sharing the newspaper, shooting hoops in the driveway, Mike Franseca. Daddy buys me a softball mitt and I quit the team before I ever use it. I run track through middle school and the first two years of high school. Hurdles, the 400, the 800. Daddy drives me to practices in the mornings. He comes to my meets. I never finish first. Daddy doesn’t mind.

Because Daddy and I have Broadway plays, Bruce Springsteen, The History Channel, long car rides.

I am fourteen. My first boyfriend breaks up with me after school next to my locker. Daddy writes me a love letter and leaves a dozen red roses on the kitchen table.

“You will date other guys, some good, some bad (hopefully not too bad!)”

I don’t date the next one, but he is too bad. I can’t tell Daddy or Mommy. The boy is mean to me. I am scared. I write.

In a yellow journal with flowers on the cover.

I pack the yellow journal with flowers on the cover in my suitcase the night before Cheerleading Camp. Mommy finds it.

My lies, secrets – Daddy is hurt.

“What did we do wrong?”

The summer is stagnant. The summer is whispers early morning in the kitchen while I peep behind the staircase. The summer is long stretches of silence followed by sudden throngs of deep conversations. And yet with each passing day the heat slowly fizzles to sweet, autumn air, when all things are fresh and new and forgiven. Leaves wither. Communication blossoms.


Back to school, SAT prep classes, two math tutors, long drives with Daddy to visit colleges. Sometimes I see that boy in the hallway between periods. He punches my arm or sticks his foot out to trip me. He cackles. I try to ignore him. I work harder than ever before to make Daddy proud again.

But I inherited the bad-math gene from Daddy.  Mommy tells me stories of teaching Daddy “The Little Equation” (algebra) at the dining room table when he was taking classes at a local community college. Now I’ve taken the SAT twice and I’m terrified that if my math score doesn’t improve, it will keep me from being successful, that all of my other abilities and crafts won’t matter in comparison. Daddy quietly tells me the results of my second SAT score one morning before school. I run upstairs, collapse onto the floor in my closet, and shiver in the small, dark space.

Daddy understands. He knows what it’s like to look at a page full of numbers and symbols and suddenly forget how to breathe. Daddy opens the door and hugs me and tells me everything will be ok.

And when the thick, colorful envelopes  begin to appear on the counter top, I believe him.


When I’m back on Long Island for breaks from college, Daddy and I are usually the only people home during the afternoon.

He paces around the kitchen in front of the windows. “Wanna go to the diner?”

Daddy orders first: “Two eggs over easy, soft bacon, white toast, no potatahs.”

“Same for me, please” I always say.

We talk about internship applications and Daddy’s car and my brother. I tell him about my professors and my friends and my experiences as a tour guide on campus. I nibble on a piece of bacon and tell Daddy I’m worried about my future. He smiles and mops up yellow egg yolk with a triangle of toast.

“I’m never worried about you.”

Ending Up

“Where do you guys see yourselves after college?”

Andrew and I are leaning against his pillows facing Nick and Don. They are sitting on the edge of Andrew’s roommate’s bed, throwing lacrosse balls at the ceiling. The balls thud to the ground then ricochet back  up to the ceiling.

Dun DUN. Dun DUN. Dun DUN. Dun…

“Like, where do we hope we end up?” Don asks me. I nod. He drops his lacrosse ball and grins.

“Hulburt Field, Florida!” He exclaims.

“What about you, Nick?” I pivot on the bed, turning away from Don.

“Hulburt Field,” he chuckles and high-fives Don.

“If I get pilot slot, we could all potentially end up there together,” Andrew adds.

“You could get sent there, but you could also get sent to one of a bunch of other places for technical training,” Don says to Andrew.

“Do you all hope to end up in the Middle East at some point?” I interject.


And I laugh along with them and watch the lacrosse balls rise and fall and imagine them in combat, flying fighter plans, parachuting down from the sky, and my heart slams up against my ribs and drops into my stomach.

Dun DUN. Dun DUN. Dun DUN. 

Andrew, Don, and Nick are roommates and Air Force ROTC cadets. They wake up together at 3:45AM on Tuesdays and Thursdays for their ROTC classes and physical training. They take many of the same academic classes, cook together and share their meals (as long as the food isn’t labeled in bold, black sharpie with a name), and sometimes physically assault each other while I collapse onto the floor, quivering in a fit of tears and laughter.

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Nick smothering Don, Don resisting, Andrew grinning for the camera

Andrew and I became close at the beginning of freshman year. It wasn’t long before I got to know Nick and Don as well. Now, these nutjobs tease me about living on Long Island (“Come on, it’s not that great”), aim unloaded BB guns at my head just to startle me, and burst into Andrew’s room screaming in German while Andrew and I try to nap. But they are some of the most loyal friends I’ve had.

I can’t imagine them being apart after college when they commission.

One Friday last month, the four of us took a trip to a movie theater off campus to see Lone Survivor. Before we paid for our tickets, I silently promised myself that I wouldn’t cry during the movie. Andrew, Don, and Nick always included me, confided in me, and made me feel like an extension of their trio. I wanted to be a tough guy too, at least for one night. This was my challenge. I hung my coat on the back of my chair in the theater and settled down next to Andrew.

Damn it. I can’t do this anymore.

In the final moments of the film, Mark Wahlberg, who plays Navy SEAL, Marcus Luttrell, reaches out toward Gulab’s son and screams “I’m not leaving without him!”

The tears, tiny wet knuckles, released their hold from my lower lids and rolled down my chin. I didn’t lift my hands to wipe the tears away because I didn’t want Andrew, Nick, or Don to notice. Andrew turned his neck and started to smile. I groaned.

“Oh, come on, I made it this far!” I hissed at him. The credits started rolling as a photo montage of the SEALs’ family members and friends flickered on and off the screen. I thought about the guys and I thought about friendship and I thought about the future, the goals, what we will do after college, where we will end up, where we hope to be.


I always tell Andrew I am proud of him. I remind him that it takes a special kind of person to commit his or her career and possibly most of his or her life to serving in the United States military. He is a special person. Don and Nick are special people. They are special people to each other and to me.

And to Don’s little brother, who is making Confirmation in the spring and asked Don to be his sponsor.

And to Nick’s beautiful girlfriend, Justine, who has been with Nick since high school.

And to Andrew’s dad, or, in Andrew’s own words, his “best friend,” “role model,” and “hero.”

And no matter where we all end up after college, and regardless of where our different career paths send us, I hope that those avenues bend and curve enough to intersect at a point where we can all end up laughing, teasing, sharing, together.


Long Walk Home


Crack. Crack. Crack. 

I watched the clump of green gum slip in and out between her front teeth. She tucked a strand of blonde hair behind her ear, checked her phone, looked ahead, glanced back at her phone (no new messages), and sighed. The old man in front of her heaved a case of water bottles onto the register. The blonde clung to a box of Wheatie’s and a Hershey bar.

“I would feel much safer if there were more streetlights by our apartment. You know?” the blonde’s friend remarked.

“Um hm,” the blonde muttered as she tapped tiny candies on the screen of her phone. Two rows shattered and disappeared beneath the glass.

I was waiting on line at Acme to pay for my carton of strawberries and my bottle of Smucker’s Magic Shell chocolate fudge. Even though Valentine’s day was on Friday, my boyfriend Andrew and I were going home that weekend for my dad’s 50th birthday dinner, so I planned a special dessert for Wednesday. I swung my backpack from one shoulder to the other. The top corner of my anthology book for my night class poked out behind the worn, plastic zipper.

Night class.

I peered down at the face of my watch and shuffled closer to the cash register. I needed to catch the next shuttle if I wanted to get to class on time.

“What do you think?” The blonde’s friend pressed further.

“About what?” She glanced up from the game.

“More streetlights. Don’t you think they would help?”

“With what?” The blonde asked.

“Well, you know, like, with safety,” her friend said.

The old man finished paying for his groceries and lugged his case of water bottles into a shopping cart. The blonde and her friend paid next, and I placed my strawberries and chocolate fudge onto the conveyer belt. The strawberries whirred slowly toward the cashier. I thought about streetlights.

I thought about the time I walked to campus at 10:00 in the morning and a man rolled down his window to scream something about my “ass.” But other students were walking in front of me on the sidewalk and the sun was shining so I stared at concrete and tried to ignore him. The next week, my friend Nicole and I walked to a nearby Chili’s for dinner across the street from a bright and busy shopping center. The traffic light changed, and we began to cross the intersection. A man leaned out of his Honda and flicked his high beams on and off, on and off, and whistled and shouted at us. We scurried out of the crosswalk like ants escaping from the beam of a magnifying glass.

I went running one afternoon in a park a few blocks away from my apartment. On the way back, I heard tires screech behind me. I turned around and saw a red sedan packed with young men. The sedan rolled closer to the sidewalk until it was parallel with the curb. Other cars honked impatiently behind the sedan as it drove along with my jogging pace. I bit my lip and kept my eyes fixated on different points along the path.

Brown fence. Pile of leaves. Bus stop. Blinking streetlight. 


But streaks of red consumed my peripheral vision. Then the shouting started. The profanity. The laughing. The lip-smacking. I remembered telling a friend once never to engage. Keep walking, ignore them, don’t say a word back. I made eye contact with the driver. He grabbed his crotch with one hand and flashed his teeth. My heart slammed against the walls of my chest. In one fluid motion, I whirled around and raised my middle finger to the sedan. The shouting stopped. My heart stopped.

I watched their smiles flatline, their hands grip the doors, the doors fly open, their arms shoot out at me, and I turned on my heels and sprinted the other way down the sidewalk. I cursed under my breath for losing my temper, but I also felt enraged about this unwritten protocol: take the insults and ignore them or something bad might happen to you.

By the time I had left Acme and rode the next shuttle to campus, I was still thinking about streetlights. I thought about streetlights in my night class while I typed responses to different writing exercises on my computer. I thought about streetlights when I left the building at 9:30, said goodbye to a classmate, and began my long walk home. I thought about streetlights as a man in his truck spotted me walking beneath one and and yelled out his window as he drove on. I quickened my pace and turned around every few minutes to validate that the sound behind me was just the wind rushing through the leaves or the murmur of students a block behind me. I felt the strawberries jiggle in their carton as I hurried beneath the ray of each streetlight to get home, home, where I could turn out the lights and finally feel safe in the dark.

Gone the Ashes

If the gravel had a voice, it would have screamed under the heaviness, the weight of the bodies that collapsed over its crunching, granulated surface every morning during roll call. Our tour guide raised his hand toward the open space and explained how the Nazis lined up prisoners at the start of each day and made them count aloud in German, even if the prisoners could not speak German. The Nazis took turns hitting, kicking, or slapping different prisoners to startle them. When a prisoner forgot his or her number, the Nazis made the entire group count from one again. This went on for hours in the rain, the heat, the snow, until many of them dropped dead in their places from exhaustion or starvation.

They died standing. Counting. Branded as a number, choking on a number.

It was July, and barely forty degrees Fahrenheit. Our group stood silently in the field, arms crossed, knees locked. The tour guide was a doctoral student at a local university. He was thin and pale and spoke with an Irish accent. I wondered how many tours he gave each week. I wondered how many years he spent studying information, from the age of the trees that lace the perimeter of the site to the definitions of the colored prisoner tags that differentiated Jews from clergy members from Communists. I wondered how many times he told the same stories, and I wondered if the stories still made him cringe. Or did he become a kind of Ancient Mariner, destined to retell his tale to travelers, his eyes wide yet glazed over with dewy desensitization?

Dachau was the first concentration camp in Germany, initially for Jews and Austrian and German political prisoners. But Dachau soon expanded its iron gates (“Arbeit Macht Frei”) to welcome the other enemies of the state, the gypsies, Catholics, priests, Russians, homosexuals… I had seen “The Pianist” and “Schindler’s List.” I read the textbooks, watched the History Channel documentaries, and even heard stories from a few survivors. But until the summer of 2011, I had never been to a concentration camp, never touched the cool bricks of the furnace that once exhaled the smell of burnt flesh, never wandered alongside the massive watch-guard towers, never, never, never. 

My father and I shivered in the cool, stagnant space as our group passed quietly through the model barracks (the original barracks were destroyed after the war), stopping occasionally to take pictures of the frames of the wooden bunk beds. Our guide stepped aside and let us get closer to the tiny beds. I hesitated every time I snapped a photo. It felt odd, perhaps sacrilegious, to take pictures of a site where so many people suffered.

But this is how generations remember history. We’re on this tour, after all. 

“Around eight people were forced to crowd into each bed,” our guide stated. “When a person became ill with dysentery, the feces would drip down from the upper bunk to the bottom bunk. Many people died from living in these conditions.”

A woman behind me gagged. I quickly shoved my camera into my backpack.

We walked in the rain alongside barbed wire fences until we arrived at the far end of the camp, the crematorium. The Nazis forced prisoners to drag the dead into the building and heave the bodies into the fire. Our guide pointed up at a vertical pole between two ovens that jutted out horizontally at the top. He explained that after these prisoners disposed of the bodies, they were hanged to death on the pole and burned in the ovens along with all of the others. Faces gone. Names gone.

Gone the ashes. Gone the flames. Gone the birthdays. Gone the mothers, husbands, children, siblings, friends. Gone the barracks, the bedding doused with sweat and blood and urine, the sound of numbers in the morning.  Gone, gone, gone.

And after a few days I was gone, too. I left Germany with my father and returned home, taking the memories back with me while leaving a piece of myself back in the gravel. To this day, I’m not sure if I’ll ever get that piece back or understand what it was that I lost.

But I’ll always have the stories. Stories stayed.


The World is a Handkerchief

When I told Morena I was studying English and political science, her brown lips tightened in a thin line across her face. She was expecting medical students.

<<¿Quién puede hablar español?>> She quickly interjected. I blinked through the golden dust orbiting around the tiny room inside the medical center and cleared my throat.

“Ehm…hablo español, señora.>> The response tumbled from my mouth, a broken slinky down a staircase. The rest of the group backed up as I stepped closer to Morena. Each student exhaled, and the glimmering dust around their faces shot off in all directions. Of the five college students in our service group that day, I was the only one who could speak Spanish, enough Spanish, according to the others, to become the unofficial translator for the week at our work sites in El Salvador. But I hesitated and carefully chewed on basic conversational phrases before letting them drool stupidly over my chin, Spanish spittle.

My tongue did not roll my R’s, did not produce a subtle tremor across the wet, fleshy roof of my mouth. I felt a tight tugging in my chest every time Morena addressed me. I strained my senses as she spoke and tried to catch her words as they rushed, a cool and seamless waterfall, over my head.

As the only nurse in Las Delicias, Morena made house visits and cared for everyone from stroke victims to children who were too poor to buy Band-Aids and Neosporin so they needed to wait for Morena to disinfect their cuts. The visits took about three to four hours as she hiked up and down rocky trails through the Apeneca-Ilamatepec mountain range. Her uniform was a clean, white polo and khaki shirt. Her tight, black curls bounced around her shoulders as she effortlessly navigated crags and crevices on the upward climb to visit a malnourished nineteen-year-old boy who broke his leg three weeks ago.

The boy’s family could not afford to replace his cast, so they called for Morena to clean the pus and blood from his skin where the hardened cast had chafed against it. He was sitting in the yard in a green lawn chair. I held the boy’s leg up as Morena slowly peeled the inner layers of white away from his flesh. The boy winced as Morena wiped away red and yellow fluids. I tried talking to him, asking him his name, his age, and how he broke his leg. He ignored me.

Morena frowned at the boy and forced him to answer.

            <<Me caí de mi bicicleta>> he muttered.

I don’t remember his name. Only that he fell from his bike. He turned his bony face away from me and sighed. I stared at the dirt as I continued to support his leg.

Morena turned to the boy’s mother and asked her to go in her house and find a box of toallas sanitarias. I gaped and stuttered but no one else seemed fazed by the request. Why would Morena ask that woman to bring maxi pads outside for her son? But Morena repeated herself again, slowly, deliberately, and I watched as the boy’s mother hurried inside her home. She emerged moments later with a purple and yellow cardboard box. I watched as Morena lined the inside of the boy’s cast with maxi pads before we left.

<<¿De dónde eres?>> Morena suddenly asked me as we hiked back toward flat terrain.

I am from New York, I replied.

The city?

No, Long Island.

Her smile radiated an appreciation of familiarity. She explained that her husband has lived on Long Island for two years. He works as a plumber and electrician and sends money to help support her and their two children.

But you wouldn’t know the town, she continued. It’s a small place called Huntington.

My mother was born in Huntington, I exclaimed. My family lived there. It’s fifteen minutes away from my home now.

Morena burst into tears and held my hands, laughing and asking me if I could take her back with me in my suitcase. She hugged me and thanked God in the middle of the street. My thoughts bounded desperately from one lobe to another, prying open compartments where the perfect reply might be. Then one Spanish aphorism surfaced from an afternoon in high school Spanish class, red notebook, desk carvings, cursive chalkboard words.

I cleared my throat and grinned.

<<El mundo es un pañuelo,>> I saidImage with perfect clarity. The world is a handkerchief.