Self Portrait in Apologies
Apology to an Ethically-Inconsistent Friend
I'm sorry for picking the chicken out of the soup and telling you it was vegetarian. I was broke and there wasn't anything else in the house to offer you. Besides, the last time I saw you, you were eating a cheeseburger and smoking a Marlboro.
Apology to Three Lovers from My Youth
I'm sorry for telling you I was a virgin that night in the back of your car. In your parents' basement. In my dorm room. As you may have guessed years ago, I wasn't.
Apology to the Boy Who Wasn't Quite Right
Even in the comparatively egalitarian world of first grade, it was social suicide to be seen with you on the playground. Until third grade, you were The Boy Our Parents Made Us Be Nice To, the one who was invited to birthday parties and sat in a corner, alone except when our mothers dragged you out of your chair to play some game they rigged so you could win.
It wasn't until we were almost ready for Junior High that we realized you'd started to disappear. Your skin became translucent, like the skin of the dead goldfish floating at the top of a tank. You stopped talking and it seemed your parents kept you home more days than they allowed you to come to school. If we hadn't stopped noticing you years before, maybe it would have occurred to us that something was wrong, but I doubt it. We were safe children whose understanding of danger didn't extend beyond the laughing, swinging-too-high, running-too-fast sort.
At some point, you disappeared all together. I vaguely remember thinking you were away at a boarding school for frighteningly smart children, but that may have been someone else.
It wasn't until years later that we learned your scoutmaster had raped you almost daily. You weren't the only boy, of course, but for almost a decade you were his favorite. I like to believe that, had we known, we'd have rallied behind you and launched some sort of children's crusade to protect you. But, really, I'm certain we would have seen it as just one more reason to avoid you. I'm sorry.
Apology to a Friend with a Difficult Love Life
There wasn't someone at the door; it's just that you had gone on and on about what a jerk your new boyfriend had turned out to be and I had better things to do. Had I listened to you for one more minute, I would have said, "Look, you're only dating him. If he's such a jerk, move on. You do this every time." Instead, I rang my own doorbell. I'm sorry.
The First Ghost Who Lingers, Waiting for an Apology
An old woman I didn't know—the grandmother of a friend—reached up toward the sound of my cough and muttered who are you and where am I as I witnessed the spectacle of her death. I'm sorry for intruding on a moment I had no right to attend.
Apology to a Man I No Longer Love
I'm sorry for hiding your favorite Leonard Cohen CD in the bottom of a box of tampons when we were dividing up our stuff after the break-up. I still have it, all these years later, and sometimes forget it wasn't a gift from you.
Apology to a Well-Meaning History Teacher
We were as cruel as thirteen-year-olds always are, and didn't care that you'd escaped a World War by hiding in the dank basement of a strange family's house. We laughed at your accent but didn't listen to your stories about surviving on rotting apples and hard, brown bread. We hid your glasses when you stepped out of the classroom, as you often did, to hike up the pants of your ill-fitting suits that shone at elbow, knee, and seat. We rearranged ourselves with utter disregard for your seating chart, knowing you could not tell if we had moved or if you had simply grown confused. We laughed at everything except your small jokes meant to show that you, too, knew you'd grown a little pathetic and befuddled. Instead, we whispered "creepy old man" to one another behind our pink, uncalloused hands on which we'd inscribed the names of Renaissance artists, just in case there was a quiz.
Apology to Everyone in The Dress Row at the Metropolitan Opera, Seats 114-120, on October 13, 1995
When I woke up with a hacking cough and runny nose, I thought only, "These tickets cost a fortune" and "I'll never get another chance to see Plácido Domingo sing Otello." I didn't think of how my constant sniffling and wheezing would ruin your evening. And, to the lady in seat 118, my particular apology for sneezing so emphatically that I caused you to drop your opera glasses onto a gentleman in the Grand Tier. I hope no one was hurt, and that you were able to retrieve them after the curtain fell. They looked expensive and heavy enough to raise a good-sized lump.
Apology to the Man I Hit With My "Peace in the Middle East" Protest Sign at the Anti-War Rally in DC on March 26, 1991
I didn't see you until after I felt your hand on my arm, pulling me out of the phalanx of marchers armed with placards and chanting our way down Pennsylvania Avenue. The people, united, will never be defeated and What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now! I was hopped up on adrenaline, a sense of moral certainty, and the bourbon Paula and I were passing between us to fight off the cold. I was marching, and then out of nowhere you were pulling me out of the ranks and shouting at me that I was to blame for every one of our soldiers who died because I was a God-damned bleeding-heart liberal. It scared me, and before I knew what I was doing I felt the thud of your skull against the two-by-four to which I'd stapled my peace sign. I am sorry for the bloody gash across your forehead, and for making you think you'd been proven right.
In This Story, Christmas Past is the Second Ghost
The Peters boy died on Christmas Eve in 1977, his head in our yard, his body still in his brand new convertible; the top down in spite of the snow. The drunk who hit him was yelling "You cut me off, you little shit" at the dead boy. I watched for a while from my bedroom, the scene strobing off and on with the blinking Christmas lights that framed my window, and then went back to bed.
What I remember most about that Christmas is the Major League Baseball pinball machine from my father, with real bumpers and a slot for the quarters it no longer needed. My brothers and I loved that pinball machine, and all the younger kids in the neighborhood spent Christmas day at our house, trying for the high score and looking out the window at the torn up patch of lawn and the blood in the snow.
I'm sorry for being part of the crowd that stood away from your younger brother at the bus stop when school started again, shuffling my feet and looking down whenever he glanced at me from his lonely post by the stop sign.
Apology to a Great Aunt, Who Got Just What She Expected From Me
I didn't really want the shoes; I had a little trunk full of Barbie shoes at home in my bedroom. I wouldn't have thought to steal them if you hadn't said to me, "You can play with these, but only as long as I am in the room. They belong to my daughter, and I wouldn't want anything to go missing." What else could I do, really, but pocket a pair of pink rubber mules and then insist I was too old for Barbie dolls, anyway?
Apology to the Armless Guy Who Used to Steal Panties from the Laundromat in Tuscaloosa
After the second time, Putt and I started washing our panties and bras in the sinks of the dorm bathroom. We should have told you, when you rushed for our dryers, that all you'd find were t-shirts and socks, but we were afraid that if we spoke to you, you'd speak back to us, and then we would have to know you. And we were too young and too skittish to know an armless man who stole panties from the Laundromat. I don't regret foiling your theft, but for thinking of you as less than a person, I'm sorry.
Apology to the Man Whose Woods We Burned Down
We were fourteen years old and brave in that stupid teenage way, learning to smoke and flicking lit matches into a wet pile of leaves in the woods behind your house. Fifteen minutes later, we were back in Donna's room, pretending to only then be getting up for the day, and heard sirens wailing closer and closer until they dopplered past her house. The street was a dead end; they could only be going to the woods. We yawned in our little-girl pajamas and asked her mother what was going on. "Oh, some vagrants caught the woods on fire," she said. We asked for pancakes and plopped down in front of the television, laughing in that stoned teenage way as we watched Scooby-Doo, worried about getting caught but not about whether or not we had done something wrong.
Both you and Donna are dead, so maybe there isn't any point in apologizing. Still, I wish you could see the hillside now. With the pine all burned away, it has become a Georgia O'Keeffe explosion of pastel mountain laurel; in the spring, it stands out among the scraggly evergreens like a swath of virgin-pink lipstick.
The Third Ghost, Because in Literature There Are Always Three Ghosts
I met Great Aunt Bethel, with her shriveled hands and sunken cheeks, in a nursing home when I was ten. She held my arm with surprising strength and begged, over and over again, "Please get me out of here." Finally, a nurse pried Bethel's fingers from around my wrist and took me outside to the horse they had stabled in the backyard. When Bethel died, a year later, my father said, "Well, it's not like anyone is going to cry over her grave," and we laughed. I'm sorry for not understanding that it wasn't a joke, and for laughing as if it were.
Apology to the Girls in Cabin Eight, From the Girls in Cabin Nine
I don't, of course, have the authority to speak for everybody else, but it was my idea to steal our counselor's Kotex and decorate your cabin door with them the night Heather got her period for the first time. We were jealous, which shows just how young we were. But we did not know that you'd invited the boys to sneak over after lights out, or that you'd have to explain the Kotex to them in a way that ensured they would stay on their side of the camp for the whole rest of the summer. We didn't even realize boys were that squeamish, or fully understand why you cared so much that they stopped calling you names or tossing you into the pool. On behalf of all the girls in Cabin Nine, I'd like to say, "I'm sorry."
Apology to the Spider I Killed in the Bathtub, Even Though I Tell People I Don't Kill Spiders
I was already naked, and you were bigger and more menacing than the simple brown house spiders that usually crawl down from the attic. I should have cupped you into a water glass and carried you safely to the garden, but you looked poisonous and I needed to get into the shower. You died because I overslept.
Apology to an Accidental Cannibal
We were docked for every sandwich we wasted, and it was only a minimum wage job. So when I noticed that I had sliced off a thin layer of skin along the backhand edge of my right hand, and that the flesh and fatty tissue had fallen into your roast beef sandwich, I just slapped some American cheese over it and served it to you anyway. I am sorry for not telling you, and also for telling the other girls at the counter once you were safely seated and chomping away and I had a rag tied around my hand. You must have wondered why we kept looking at you, laughing, and then doing the stiff-legged zombie walk up and down the service area. "Brains," we said, "must eat brains. Or hand sandwiches."
Apology to the Birds We No Longer Feed
After you ate the sweet inside of the nuts and seeds, the rats gathered for the bitter husks.
Apology to My Martyred Forebears
When Christmas time rolls around, someone always says to me, "You know, you had family that died in the holocaust because of their faith. How do you think they'd feel if they saw you in this Mennonite church of yours? Don't you ever think of them?"
And I say, "Which holocaust was that? There are so many."
But, in truth, I think of you all the time. I picture you miserable in some version of the Hereafter that fits neither my old nor my new religion, but looks something like a bus station in Poland in the late nineteen-thirties. You are dressed in drab, damp coats and eating greasy food from rolled-up newspapers. Your eyes are tired, your bodies lumpen and dirty. You are the miserable dead, and I am your misery. I am sorry for my thousand betrayals. Forgive me.
-Sarah Einstein (from Fringe Magazine)