In honor of The Sun’s fiftieth year in print, we’re revisiting topics that have appeared in past issues and reprinting some of the original responses. “Privacy” first ran in our July 1999 issue.
As a working mother of two young children I get little time to myself. My kids need me for everything from showering to tying their shoelaces. Then there are the afternoon activities, transportation, and homework. And sometimes they just want a hug or to show me their art project. My husband is a wonderful father, but they still call, “Mom!” a hundred times for every one time they call, “Dad!” Bedtime offers no respite; I’m frequently awakened in the night by one of them seeking comfort from a bad dream.
My husband, too, wants my attention. So does the dog, who apparently can’t stand to be in a room where I am not. If I don’t latch the bathroom door before I sit on the toilet, she’ll push it open so she can lie at my feet.
To maintain my sanity I find escapes where I can. I’ve taken up ocean swimming, which puts me hundreds of meters from shore for a few precious moments each week. Looking back at the faraway coastline, with all its busyness, is exhilarating. At night I sometimes put on headphones and tell my husband I’m watching a movie that wouldn’t interest him, when really I’m shopping online or losing myself in a racy romance novel. And when I travel for my job, I recharge by eating takeout in the silence of my hotel room and washing it down with half a bottle of wine and a pint of ice cream, then falling asleep in a bed by myself, knowing that no one will wake me.
I know there will come a day when I’ll genuinely miss the commotion of our busy household, but right now that’s hard to imagine.
When I was in sixth grade, I had a friend who was curious about her parents’ liquor cabinet. One day in class she tried to pass me a note inviting me over to sample their booze while they were out, but our teacher intercepted it. Concerned about the delinquent behavior my friend described, she immediately contacted our parents; my dad was on his way to the school, she told me. I didn’t even know what the note said, but I knew I was in big trouble.
When my dad got to my classroom, he asked my teacher to step out into the hall. I was trembling in my seat. A few minutes later the teacher returned and continued our lesson. My dad left without saying a word to me. My thoughts raced. What had happened?
That evening, when he got home from work, my dad pulled me aside for a talk. He told me what the note had said, but the message was not his primary concern. He explained that the note was a private correspondence between my friend and me. The teacher had invaded my privacy, and that was unacceptable.
Until that moment I’d had no idea that I had a right to privacy.
Jenny Bradley Vent
The Peace Corps leadership told our Cambodian host families that we American volunteers needed “alone time” — a difficult concept to explain to members of a collective society. Although I had a walled-off corner to myself in my host family’s house, it was in the main room, which was also a well-traveled corridor. Just outside my door the grandparents slept on rice mats with the babies, whom they soothed throughout the night. When the family’s oldest daughter came home on holiday with her boyfriend, the couple cozied up alongside the grandparents and babies to sleep.
This behavior was new to me, the daughter of a taciturn American father and an emotionally reserved British mother. My family didn’t even hug.
One afternoon on my day off I rolled out my yoga mat for some me time. As I slid into a headstand, I saw three little pairs of bare feet approach. My host family’s young daughters watched me without speaking. This was unusual, because the children thought most of what we barangs did was quite laughable. I gestured for them to join me and demonstrated a series of poses. The girls found the plow pose, with our legs over our heads, especially funny, so we did that one several times. Then we managed about two minutes in a sitting meditation before the boys arrived to make fun of us.
As I rolled up my mat, one girl said in Khmer, “We want to know English. Will you please teach us?” My co-teacher was on his way to the house, and when he arrived, we improvised a lesson for the girls, singing along to a silly song on his phone.
After he left, the kids drifted away into the torpid afternoon. I thought I might steal a few more minutes of meditation but found I didn’t have the focus. Instead I just sat with my thoughts. Those, at least, were still private.
When #MeToo started trending, most of the women I know posted the hashtag on their social media. I did not. I was uncomfortable even alluding to what had happened to me in high school.
I’d willingly gone to the party. I’d willingly drunk what everyone later referred to as the “red drink.” I’d willingly gone to the bedroom, even though I was so drunk he had to half carry me up the stairs. Once we were on the bed, I did say no, but it was the eighties, and what he was doing didn’t even seem wrong to me. It was expected that guys would force themselves on girls. Only many years later did I realize that I hadn’t wanted to have sex.
Four years after the #MeToo movement exploded, I was invited to a birthday party my assailant would be attending. Though I was anxious about seeing him, I went. The party was small enough that there was no way to avoid crossing his path, and we said hello. A few hours later he approached and said that he and a mutual friend were looking over some old photos and had come across one of the three of us at his house. He said I was holding the red drink and looked super drunk.
Here was my moment — but I said nothing, except to acknowledge that I remembered that night. More than thirty years had passed, and I still couldn’t bring myself to confront him or my private shame.
Brick, New Jersey
My parents kept their romantic relationship private. I never even saw them kiss until I was nine. I was dumbstruck. There they stood, arms wrapped around one another, bodies touching, lips pressed together. Silently, I backed out of the room, my face hot, heart pounding.
The next time I saw them kiss was ten years later, on Christmas. Mom had developed arthritis in her late thirties, and her knuckles had become so swollen that she’d been forced to have her wedding and engagement rings cut from her fingers. That year, for Christmas, Dad gave Mom an engagement ring to replace the one that had been cut off. Her face, though tired from being up late wrapping presents, lit up with joy when she opened the small black velvet box. Then she reached over, gently drew Dad’s face to hers, and kissed him on the mouth. It was a light peck, but a monumental display for them.
The third time I saw my parents show their affection for one another was when I was recuperating from a spinal injury. Mom had traveled eight hundred miles to care for me at my home. When Dad came to visit, they sat on the love seat opposite my rented hospital bed, and he put his arm around her and sang “Two Sleepy People”: “Here we are, out of cigarettes / Holding hands and yawning, look how late it gets / Two sleepy people, by dawn’s early light / And too much in love to say good night.” I feel lucky to have heard this and wish now they’d been less private about their loving relationship.
The last time I saw that side of them was during Mom’s final two weeks of life, when she had to be lifted from bed to wheelchair. Dad murmured gently to her, “OK, pretty lady, put your arms around my neck. I’ve got you. I won’t let you fall.” His nearly eighty-year-old body strained to hold her, but she was safe in his hands.
Ruthanne M. DeMirjyn
My mom was a devout Catholic and often prayed alone in her bedroom. One day, as I walked past her closed door, I heard a deep voice speaking a language I could not identify, and I became frightened. I debated opening the door to see if my mom was OK, but I sensed that maybe it was her making those sounds, and I was afraid to see whatever she was doing. After a few minutes the voice ceased, and I quietly went into my bedroom. This happened about a half dozen times.
Years later, when I was thirteen, I asked my mom about the noises I’d heard coming from her room during my childhood. She told me that some people are given the gift of speaking in tongues, and that was how she prayed. Though I understood this was important to her, I was still pretty creeped out by it.
Today I sit in meditation behind the closed door of my own bedroom and chant the chakras. I am sometimes overwhelmed by the power of the vocalizations coming from my mouth. Though they’re quite different from my mom’s prayers, I feel connected to her experience.
Remembering my childhood fear of the sounds she made, I spoke to my twenty-something son about my chanting practice, so he would be aware of what he might hear behind my bedroom door. He listened respectfully, smiled, and gave me a raised eyebrow as if to say, Sure, Mom, whatever makes you happy. Then he turned up the music in his earbuds and closed the door to his bedroom, retreating into his own private world.
Ithaca, New York
My boyfriend and I recently babysat his two younger sisters. As I watched the girls playfully wrestle on the bed, I was struck by a memory: I was in my childhood bedroom. My brother ran in, and I immediately knew I was in for it. I tried to hide, but in no time he was straddling me on the floor, holding down my arms with his knees and yelling, “Admit it, or I’ll tickle you until you pee your pants!”
Between cries of laughter I shouted, “Truce, truce, truce!”
I’m not sure what I was being forced to admit, but I still remember the weight of him, the smile on his face, how tall he was.
While the girls played and screamed, I began to quietly sob and ran to the bathroom. My boyfriend knocked on the door and asked if I was OK.
“Yeah!” I said. “I’ll be out in a second!” I took a few deep breaths and splashed cold water on my cheeks, then stepped out.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I just need a hug.” I needed more than that; why couldn’t I admit it? I looked up at the ceiling in a desperate attempt to keep more tears from falling.
Since my brother took his own life, emotions that I once kept private have come springing out of me like a jack-in-the-box. Every time I catch myself feeling embarrassed by my emotions, I am riddled with guilt. My brother, too, felt he was expected to hide his sadness. I wish he hadn’t hidden it from me. I wish I had known, so that I could have given him the help he needed.
“This is a call from Jorge Vargas, an inmate at a Minnesota correctional facility. This call is subject to monitoring and recording.”
I hear this whenever my boyfriend calls me. As Jorge and I share the intimate details of our lives by phone, there is always someone listening to us. These invasions of our privacy extend to video and in-person visits as well. Once, during a video call on an unusually hot October day, I was wearing a sundress without undergarments beneath it, and I gave him a glimpse of my ass as I did a dance. This resulted in a six-month suspension of video visits.
When we were next permitted to visit each other in person, it was spring, and I wore a beautiful blue-and-green dress. I wanted to look like the ocean. During the two-hour visit I felt waves of desire wash over my body. When Jorge and I embraced at the end — you get a hug at the beginning and again when you say goodbye — I kissed his neck. Then, as we pulled apart, we instinctively kissed on the lips.
“Did you kiss on the mouth?” the guard asked me.
This, too, was a punishable offense. For three months Jorge was banned from all contact with visitors, and I was banned from entering any Minnesota correctional facility. I had to reapply for visitation privileges after the ban ended.
There is no privacy when you love someone who is incarcerated, but there is still attraction. It can’t be suspended.
I was ten years old when I got my first period. It took me a whole day to figure out what was happening, then another to work up the guts to tell my mother. She seemed even more embarrassed than I was, but she took me into the bathroom and explained what to do. That was the last time we talked about it.
My mother brought home lumpy, off-brand pads from the discount grocery store. They fell apart after a few hours of use. Knowing money was tight, I never asked for anything better. Anyway, the quality of the pads wasn’t the source of my monthly anxiety. The problem was they were kept in a cupboard outside the bathroom, in plain view of the living room, where a parent or one of my many siblings was always present. I would have died rather than take a pad from the cupboard with my dad or one of my brothers watching. Instead I’d wait until the rest of the family went out, then grab a stack of pads and hide them in the room I shared with my sisters. When I needed one, I’d smuggle it under my shirt to the bathroom.
If I have daughters, I thought, I will not put them through this. I will keep the pads in the bathroom, where they can take what they need in private.
As it turns out, I have only sons, but someday they may have partners or children who menstruate. So I’ve talked to them about periods, the things women’s bodies need, and the incredible things they can do. I keep my own period supplies in the bathroom, but I don’t hide them away. What I really want is for my children not to view their bodies as a source of shame.
As a writer, I need a quiet space where I can work without interruption. A couple of years ago my husband and a friend converted a backyard shed into a small writing studio for me.
Around the same time, I gave an old iPad to our next-door neighbor, Sam. It would be an understatement to describe Sam as a Luddite. He has a rotary phone and no Internet service. I set him up with an email address and signed him into my Wi-Fi, which reaches his house.
A slight, spry man in his late seventies, Sam has lived alone since graduating college. He’s kind and gentle but somewhat lacking in social skills. I often see him walking the neighborhood while brushing his teeth. To thank us for the iPad and the Wi-Fi access, Sam would bring us gifts he’d bought on sale at the discount grocery: beer, coffee beans, frozen pizza. He left them on the front porch and each time attached a note signed with his full name and address, even though he’d lived next door to us since 2009.
Whenever he had a question or problem with the iPad, which was often, Sam would knock on our door, whether it was 6 AM or 10 PM. I was usually in my writing studio, so my husband would answer. Sam’s first question was always “Where’s your wife?”
After being unable to find me in the house enough times, Sam figured out to look for me in the studio. He now comes in without knocking, sits down in the extra chair, and starts in on whatever issue he’s having. No one else I know would dream of disturbing me without texting first. The studio is my hidey-hole where I can write away the hours or play fifteen games of solitaire without embarrassment. Sam’s incursions are disruptions to my process, but I don’t have the heart to ask him to stop.
He’s now on his second iPad, thanks to me. I guess I am to blame for my own loss of privacy.
Parkinson’s disease has stolen my brother’s ability to care for himself. After a twelve-year battle with the progressive nervous-system disorder, his legs can’t carry him to the bathroom across the hall, so his wife and a parade of undertrained, well-intentioned health aides must assist him. I recently stayed at his home for a week to help out. My big brother had to let his little sister pull down his Depend underwear and wrestle his flaccid penis into the plastic urinal six times each night. Though his disease has impaired his cognitive function, he often knew it was me.
His dementia has since progressed, and he has retreated into an interior world where no one else can go. While others lift his legs, pop pills into his mouth, and command him to drink and swallow, he closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to discern which of the people in the room are real and which are hallucinations.
Upon waking from sleep, he sometimes asks me about boats or trains from which he says we have just disembarked. In his dreams he can still travel, and I like it when he takes me with him on these journeys. One night we walked along railroad tracks and bought bratwurst from a Mr. Swenson.
But many days and nights he is confused by a hallway of doors that I can’t see. There are bad people behind some of them, people whose names he dares not speak. Phantoms lurk around the edges of the room, belittling and threatening him. He wants them to go away. I wave my arms and yell at these beings I can’t see. I watch him try to brush something off his arm that isn’t there. He drifts back into a fitful sleep, and I hope if he dreams of the hallway, he finds the door with the calico cat and the black Labrador retriever behind it. I sometimes see his hand move on the bed as if he is petting them.
My oldest daughters are fourteen and seventeen. The hardest part of their growing up is knowing that their lives are no longer my business. I have adored parenting them and don’t want to let them go. Also, because I was raised in a devout, evangelical family, I never got to experience the freedom they enjoy. It makes me jealous, and I want to be part of it. I’m surprised when they choose to do homework or chill out at home on weekends when they could be out with friends.
I used to fantasize about going to Mexico on spring break and dancing on tables in short dresses. It was the most sinful thing I could imagine, just pure debauchery. If my daughters go on spring break, they might text or call to give me updates, but I know they’ll never share all the details. And their trips might be nothing like my risqué fantasies.
When my fourteen-year-old got a boyfriend, it was an opportunity for me to practice respecting her privacy — a test I failed abysmally when I discovered I could monitor their make-out sessions by looking in the basement window at night. I would tell her siblings and my husband I had to give the chickens fresh water, then spy from the shadows outside.
One time they suddenly stopped kissing and seemed to look directly at me. I was convinced my daughter would confront me later, disgusted and horrified. But she acted completely normal. They must have been looking toward the staircase near the window, thinking they’d heard someone descending. I’d been invisible in the dark outside.
I watched them on multiple occasions, never for long. I told myself I just wanted to know what was happening: How far were they going? Should I be concerned? But the truth is I wanted to be part of my daughter’s relationship.
In junior high almost everything I learned about sex came from my friend Justin and his older twin brothers, who had discovered strange things in their parents’ bedroom: a double-headed dildo, a vibrator, porn mags, and a collection of triple-X videos. When their parents were out, we would watch those videos, and I’d feel a tingling sensation in my pants. During sleepovers at their house it wasn’t uncommon for strange sounds to emanate from their parents’ room. Afterward I’d see their mom tiptoeing naked down the hallway to the bathroom.
I now have a nine-year-old son and think a lot about both what we are teaching him as parents and also the lessons he will learn on his own. I used to think that learning about sex the way I had was unfortunate and even dangerous, and perhaps in some ways it was. But more often I am glad I had a childhood full of intrigue and adventure and the sort of close calls that freedom entails. It’s unclear if such a childhood exists today, but part of me hopes for even a fraction of the same for my son.
Growing up, I had a beloved uncle who gave me the best Christmas presents — next to my parents, of course. But every holiday, we never knew whether he would show up until he walked in the door. I found it amazing — and wonderful — that he could be so noncommittal, so free.
While most of my family lived in the Northeast, my uncle lived in Texas. I imagined it would be an exciting place to visit, with cactuses, cowboys, and wide-open spaces, but we never did. “He likes his privacy,” my mother would say, explaining that he was a bachelor and probably had a messy apartment that wasn’t suitable for visitors. On the rare occasions that some relatives did visit him in Texas, he would arrange hotel reservations for them and meet them in restaurants. His mysterious life made him all the more intriguing to me.
Not having children of his own, my uncle gave his affection freely to his nieces and nephews. He always told me how pretty I was and how beautiful my eyes were, and he shook his head in disapproval when I wore my glasses instead of my contact lenses. As I became a young woman, he complimented my shoes, my clothing, and how I wore my hair. Around that time, my mother told me that he had once been engaged to a European countess, but the countess’s family had put a stop to the marriage because they disapproved of him. He’d been so upset by the breakup, my mother said, that he never became serious about another woman.
When my uncle was in his late fifties, he told my parents he had some important news. First, he announced that he had been married for thirteen years to a woman from South America. She was the sister of one of his best friends, and the marriage had been arranged so that she could live in the United States. Next, he told them that he was gay and had been in a long relationship with a man who had recently died of AIDS. Lastly, he told them that he, too, had AIDS.
Everyone in my family was stunned. I wondered how we could love someone so dearly and yet be so completely unaware of who he really was. I realized how much of his life we had all missed out on because my uncle hadn’t felt we could handle it.
And maybe he was right. My grandfather refused to let anyone outside the family know about his son’s homosexuality or his illness. He did, however, readily tell people that his son was married.
Chappaqua, New York
My mom often babysat my kids when they were young. One night she was helping my three-year-old change into pajamas when my daughter said, “Halmoni, I need some privacy,” and she motioned for her grandmother to turn around. Watching from the doorway, I tried not to laugh.
“Privacy?” Mom sputtered. “What do you need privacy for? You are a child. Never in my whole life have I heard something so funny.” To my Korean mother, a toddler demanding privacy — from an elder, no less — was ridiculous. Born in the forties, Mom had lived through the Korean War with her whole family huddled in one room. Later she’d shared a bedroom with her younger sister until she got married. There had been no privacy in her family when she was young.
Yet Mom fiercely protected her privacy as an adult. She was constantly marveling at the way Americans broadcast the personal details of their lives to complete strangers. Her eyes would widen while our seatmate on a plane regaled us with the saga of her ugly divorce. Though a friendly and open-hearted person, Mom never talked about her failed marriage with anyone outside the immediate family. Longtime acquaintances didn’t know that she was estranged from her husband of fifty years, who had stayed behind in Korea. She didn’t want the gossips of her Korean American community passing judgment on her or her children.
Two decades later Mom passed away suddenly. I was cleaning out her house when I came across a box of letters from family and friends. Grief-stricken, I was eager to peruse them for glimpses of Mom as a sister and friend. But I stopped. What right did I have to pry into these intimate correspondences if she hadn’t wanted to share them with me when she was alive? I dropped the letters in a pile destined for the dump.
Several months later I learned that the reason my dad hadn’t followed my mother to the U.S. wasn’t his job, as I’d been told, but because he had another family in Korea. This was devastating. How could Dad do this to Mom? To my brother and me? Why had Mom never told us? But with Mom gone and Dad suffering from dementia, our questions went unanswered. I wished then that I had kept the box of letters, which could have shed some light on this part of our parents’ lives.
If only Mom had been more like that woman on the plane, oversharing the most sordid details of her marriage. Then at least I would have been able to bear witness to her pain.
Onstage in high-school plays I acted out the personal, private moments of the characters I portrayed, but backstage in the dressing room I faced the corner, trying to hide my body as I took off my costume. The girls were all comfortable with their nudity, laughing and joking as they changed. My stomach churned when I looked at myself in the floor-length mirrors and saw someone I didn’t recognize. The sight of how feminine my body appeared made me want to rip the skin from my bones.
After one play I asked my mother what she’d thought of the show.
“I think it’s odd they made you play a male role,” she said. “Do they think that just because you’ve got short hair, you’re a boy? My girl deserves better.”
I did deserve better. Just not in the way my mother meant.
After that show closed, the pandemic hit, and I found myself alone with my thoughts: my hips were too wide, my chest too large. I couldn’t tell my family how I felt. I was the only granddaughter, and so many dreams rode on my ability to bear children, a responsibility the women in my family were expected to fulfill.
That Christmas a friend sent me a chest binder. I took a deep breath as I pulled the tight compression fabric over my ribs. I tiptoed across the hall to the bathroom mirror.
I let out a gasp when I saw myself: a boy in an oversize anime shirt with his hair pulled back into a bun. I had thought it would feel like the costumes I wore when I was acting. Instead I felt the way I did when the curtain closed. I could drop the character. I could relax. I was a boy. I am a boy.
When I was growing up, my parents conveyed how important it was to follow the rules and not stray from the narrow path that led to eternity in heaven. They watched over my sisters and me at all times and decided everything we did, from which books were acceptable to which birthday parties we were allowed to attend. (None with boys.) They demanded obedience above all else, and questioning their judgment brought harsh punishment. My father once slapped my sister across the face in front of a room full of people because he’d told her it was time to go home and she’d said she wanted to finish a game first.
As I got older, I grew angry that my parents knew every little thing about me. I learned to keep many of my thoughts to myself, because if I spoke them out loud, they could be used against me.
Needing to share those thoughts with someone, I invented a French woman to whom I would write letters, asking all the questions I had. (I thought that the French were experts in sexual and relationship matters — or, at least, open-minded.) I also started keeping a diary with a little lock on the front. I was so afraid my mother would read it that I would take it to school with me. Then I feared that if I got sick or died, the school would open my locker and give the diary to my parents. So I started writing in a code that I’d devised. I made it more complicated over time, hoping to prevent anyone from cracking it.
I left my parents’ beliefs behind when I went to university. After finishing my degree, while living on my own, I found my old diary. I tried to read it, to revisit the feelings that had been so important to me, but I’d forgotten how to crack the code. My teenage self had protected her privacy too completely.
My sisters and I were recipients of a generous genetic endowment: voluptuous breasts that frequently caused men to stare. Uncomfortable with that sort of attention, I shied away from revealing clothes, hiding my “assets” beneath fluffy sweaters and bulky coats.
In my fifties cancer came calling. A steady stream of medical providers examined my chest, and my breasts were meticulously photographed for research. I soon lost count of how many people had seen me without a shirt on. Once, while I was in the emergency department awaiting an urgent scan, I took off my top before the nurse even had time to close the curtain. She whipped the drape around my bed, embarrassed for me.
Now, after four surgeries, seventy-five rounds of radiation, and six years of scanners snapping images through the openings of flimsy gowns, I’ve lost all inhibition. If anyone wants to see my scars, I’m happy to pull up my shirt. Curious about the length of an incision from a radical mastectomy? I’ll show you. Want to check out a radiation burn? Be my guest. Care to take a look at a reconstructed belly button? I’m on my third one and would be delighted to let you see it.
When I was a kid, I longed to be alone with my imagination. My father was an introvert like me, and he described perfectly what I needed: to “let my soul catch up with me.”
I remember the relief of getting off the school bus in the afternoon, the tension of the day evaporating during my walk up our long driveway. In our house, though, privacy was scarce. My parents, siblings, and I lived in two small rooms: a kitchen/dining room/family room downstairs and a bedroom upstairs. We didn’t have indoor plumbing and all shared an outhouse and a chamber pot in the bedroom.
My father had a workshop he could escape to. I wish I’d found a similar way to carve out time for myself. It would have done me a world of good.
Today I live and work in a secluded, peaceful location, surrounded by fences and gates. My husband values his solitude as much as I do, and we’ve chosen friends who don’t ask for much from us. Several days a week we provide care to my husband’s disabled parents. Apart from those visits, I’m alone most of the time, but I’m rarely lonely. I feel like I’ve been given what I’ve craved my whole life. My soul is finally catching up with me.
My grandmother used to hand me a washcloth and tell me to “wash as far as possible and then wash possible.” If I spent too long washing my “possible,” she’d pull my hand away and instruct me not to linger down there. She made sure I knew that no one should ever touch or see that place, including me outside the tub.
When I was seven, my ten-year-old brother and his friend Danny invited me to play in Danny’s attic. I worshipped my brother and tagged along after him every chance I got. It thrilled me down to my saddle shoes to be asked to join them.
The attic was stuffy and hot. Danny closed the door, then pressed his ear to it.
“He’s making sure his mom didn’t follow us,” my brother told me.
The two boys stared at me, and I felt a flicker of misgiving. I knew it wasn’t right to be in a room with a boy with the door closed.
“Hey,” Danny said, “want to play Show Me?”
I wanted Danny to like me, and I wanted my brother to think I was a good sister. So I said OK and asked how to play.
Danny pointed to me. “Girls always start first. You pull up your skirt.”
I knew this was wrong, but I did it anyway. I was wearing underwear and figured it would keep the boys from seeing down there.
Danny licked his lips. “Now you pull down your knickers, and we count to ten.”
I looked at my brother.
“You have to do it,” he said. “That’s the game.”
So I did. The boys counted to ten, then exploded out of the room, yelling and hollering, their bottled-up excitement echoing down the stairs.
Abandoned, I pulled up my underwear and listened to the sound of the boys still shouting outside. I knew I had been used. Yet I was also secretly excited that I had the power to make the boys so uncomfortable they couldn’t even stay in the room with me. It had been so easy. All I had to do was give up my privacy.
After I graduated from college in the summer of 1976, my girlfriend, Shelly, and I hitchhiked from Seattle to Oakland and then traveled to New Orleans. Pooling our meager resources, we moved into one of four apartment units in the servants’ quarters behind a faded mansion. We were in unit 2, which shared a bathroom with unit 3.
The bearded loner in 3 seemed mostly nocturnal. We became friends with the guys in unit 4: Tommy, a flamboyant teen dancer with a beautiful smile and a wavy Afro, and his “uncle” Don. Tommy copped matchboxes of Mexican weed for me, and we’d get loaded during my breaks at work.
Late one night Shelly came back from the bathroom whispering, “Dave, there’s a gun in there.” Sure enough, on a shelf near the sink was a large revolver. Alarmed, we wondered: Was this some kind of threat?
We fretted until dawn, then crept down to Don and Tommy’s to ask what we should do. Don smiled and said we should tell our neighbor.
I sucked it up and knocked on the door of unit 3. It opened a crack.
“Uh, I think you left something valuable in the bathroom,” I said.
He stared hard at me and said, “I’ll check it out.”
Later he passed us in the courtyard wearing a security guard’s uniform. “Thanks, man,” he said.
On a sunny afternoon in 2018 I picked up fifteen-year-old Hannah from the Division of Family & Children Services. She carried nothing but a torn backpack and had no idea where she was going to live. My husband and I had been foster parents for a few years, so we were used to making up a bed when DFCS called. That day my family happened to be leaving for a vacation at Myrtle Beach. On the way there, Hannah had a chance to get to know our other foster and biological teenagers.
When we got to the shore, the girls bounded to the sand and ran into the waves. It was a perfect photo opportunity, and posting the picture on social media would have been a great way to introduce Hannah to our friends and family. But privacy rules do not allow us to post photographs online in which our foster children are recognizable. I waited until the kids were turned away from me to take a picture, then shared a shot of three girls facing away, toward the horizon.
Most of the other foster parents I know take in babies. When they post pictures online, they cover the children’s faces with emojis. But Hannah had been torn away from the home she knew and the people she shared a name with. She didn’t want her face stamped with a digital sticker. We did what we could. At Halloween she picked out a pumpkin to carve for the first time in her life and proudly held it high, in front of her face, for the picture. On Christmas morning she held up the dog. In the spring I captured her and the other girls in kayaks on the lake, far in the distance, and at Easter we took a family photo on the porch, our foster girls leaning against the rail, looking away from the camera.
In the summer of 2020 Hannah decided she wanted to stay in our home for good. After the adoption I posted a picture on social media of us standing together, arms entwined, for everyone to see.