I’m tiptoeing to my dresser to get a pair of socks when I stop to gaze at my husband curled on his right side in our double bed, the white sheets pulled up, covering his head. I notice the sharp angle of his knees, one elbow folded close, the other jutting out. Seeing him like this, I imagine him as a boy in mismatched pajamas, sleeping in a narrow bed with wrinkled sheets and a gray wool blanket, and I think of the stories of boyhood he can’t bear to tell. After opening the dresser for my socks, I finish dressing in another room, wondering if my husband’s secret stories will ever surface, no matter how much he wants them to disappear.
What was he like back then: Small? Freckled? Loose-limbed? Sharp-elbowed? Curious? Impetuous? A pest? I don’t really know. I have only two pictures of him as a boy in Worcester, Massachusetts, and never met his family (now deceased). All I know of his past are the stories he’s let slip over the past thirty years, the few anecdotes about home and school, a phrase or two—“working class thugs!” and “so many beautiful trees in Massachusetts!”—and once, a sarcastic comment when I suggested we visit the city of his childhood: “Would anyone ask to go back to Treblinka?”
I blushed. “Okay, okay,” I said, hoping to fold the matter away, though, in truth, his resistance made me both more cautious and more curious. Why did his past seem so mysterious, so plagued by trauma? Why did the place feel smudged by sadness, shuttered in silence and anger? What had happened so long ago to this man I love? I didn’t know if he’d ever tell me, if I’d ever understand him, ever know him the way he knows me—connected to and conflicted by family and place. Maybe he’d tell me when we were old and gray and sitting side by side in rocking chairs, but I wanted to know now . . . now, when our life together felt fragile but whole, a renewed intimacy since his recovery from cancer.
As I steep my tea in the kitchen, I think about flying alone to Worcester, walking the streets of that city, pushing through the heavy double doors of schools and cathedrals, hanging out in Shrewsbury Street, hoping to catch a glimpse of my husband’s features in the Italian shopkeepers, the butchers and delivery men, the shrewd maître d’s preparing the evening menu. Of course what I really want are the twists and turns of story, the little sidesteps of memory, hints of reckless affection or hidden vulnerability, a boy, perhaps, in dirty sneakers with a ripped elbow seam in his new winter jacket. What was he like back then? The only thing he’s ever talked about is Catholic school: how much he loved daily mass with the liturgy in Latin, like an incantation from another world, and how much he hated the mean-spirited, knuckle-rapping nuns.
Catholic school. The 1950s. I try to remember what he’s told me and to imagine.
• • •
Everything changed that year,” David said about the school he attended in sixth grade, the year trouble gripped him, made him anxious and wary. “I’d never been singled out before. The bad kid, you know. The problem.” Of course, I’ve never seen the school, but because it’s in New England, I imagine an old brick building with brick-and-mortar chimneys and cramped attics, with high-ceilinged classrooms and a dim, silent chapel with kneeling benches and a pale, painted statue of the Virgin Mary. This late-nineteenth-century building would be crumbling in places—perhaps water stains on the ceiling, the bathroom walls streaked with moisture, a cracked concrete step—but still recognizable as a Catholic school with its formidable nuns, its rules and regulations, its discipline based on hierarchy and order, the kind of absolutist authority a misfit kid in a wrinkled uniform and trouble at home would instantly resent. “Sure, I got into trouble at every Catholic school,” he continued, “but that was for fights and truancy.”
Truancy. It’s here that he smiled, his face relaxing as he reminisced about the long hours of playing hooky and sneaking off weekly to the Worcester Art Museum, where he wandered freely, staring at the bas-reliefs of Sumerian battle scenes, fixating on the garnet-painted chariots with their round, wooden wheels and quivers of arrows, flanked by soldiers, their horses garlanded in fluttering red . . . and then the war gods in domed headdresses, their beards shaped like clusters of asparagus, their noses prominent, their wings high and elegant, spreading out in powerful curves. Sometimes the gods had animal heads, the arrogant, hooked beak of an eagle, a falcon, a condor, something so scary and fine, he stared in silence. He loved these stories carved in stone and woven into cloth so much better than learning about dangling participles or the propagation of plants or the death of St. Justin and St. Cecilia, even though the nuns insisted St. Cecilia survived a beheading, which, in itself, was very cool. Still, he came to the museum to stare at the bas-reliefs again and again, hanging out with the men going into battle, soldiers with defiant profiles, silent and stoic.
“I often spent part of the year in one school and then was transferred to another.” This because his family, their finances wobbly, moved almost every six months from flat to flat around the Piedmont area of Worcester. The only constant: in each school, he got into fights. “You had to fight. No choice. It’s an initiation . . . to see where you fit in the pecking order, who you can take and who you can’t. Then you fight the kids in your caste.” Not that the nuns saw it from this point of view. Even before sixth grade, he was branded as a kid who “couldn’t behave,” couldn’t sit still, couldn’t act the good boy. But he knew the score: the inevitable fight on the playground followed by a visit to the principal, then a punishment, a note to his parents, a black mark on his record.
Not that the Sumerian soldiers gave a damn.
He pretended the same.
And yet, that first day in sixth grade, he stiffened, confused and disoriented, when Sister Florence yanked him to the front of the class before he’d had time to size up the bullies, the ones who’d push him, trip him, elbow him in line, who’d wait for him at the bottom of the steps, squint-eyed and ready, bodies bristling with meanness. Sister Florence’s stumpy fingers were clamped around his neck, just above his clean, white collar, touching the bristly edge of his new haircut. Already, she was pronouncing him a problem before the entire class of twenty-six kids he didn’t yet know. “A problem,” she said, tightening her grip, her voice nasal and shrill, “but he’s not going to be a problem here.” He watched her elderly face beneath the black wings of her habit harden into a wrinkled scowl, and then he glanced upward, where a stain on the ceiling looked like a piece of peeled skin. “He’s not going to be a problem in my class, boys and girls,” she continued, “because we don’t allow troublemakers here. They shape up . . . or else.” She might as well have held up a sign: Stay Away From This Kid. He stopped squirming, a dark fury circling his brain as he shifted his gaze to the gaping kids, some with hands over their mouths to keep them from laughing, others zeroing in, sizing up a new target.
Automatically, he pressed his finger into an old bruise, one faded to yellow. It hurt only if he found its center, its secret heat. Touching it, a rough prickling sensation shivered through him, and for a moment, he wasn’t in this classroom but standing in the apartment kitchen beneath the glare of a naked bulb, squirming under his stepfather’s iron grip, a cigarette dangling from the man’s lips, its red tip glowing, ashes drifting across his T-shirt as the man’s big paddle hands clasped tight, then squeezed the soft skin of his neck.
At eleven, he was small for his age but wiry and quick, with a good aim, a sharp tongue, a talent for remembering, and a sixth sense about the other kids. Within ten minutes of seeing a group of boys, he knew who would beat him up, who would jockey for attention, who would brag, gloating over victories, and who would try to fade into the woodwork—boys too small, too smart, too diverted to be anywhere but at the bottom of the pecking order. He’d never be one of those boys. He’d always need to push and shove. And yet, as he’d walked to school this morning, gazing into the soft, gray light, the leaves silvery with dew, dressed in his white shirt, all the buttons intact, his underwear new and tight, he’d imagined this school might be different. He might be different, just a boy with curious blue eyes and a crew cut, sitting somewhere in the middle row, reading about the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War and trying not to stare out the window at the squirrels chasing each other through the elm trees like bored, restless kids.
But, no. Immediately, he was singled out. A problem.
Whose problem? he wondered.
A problem to be solved?
A problem to be punished?
A problem about to become a bigger problem?
Sister Florence’s hand relaxed, actually patted him on the shoulder. He knew it wasn’t friendly. It was merely telling him she’d finished with him and he was to return to his seat, to merge with the rest of the students as if that was possible. The boy in the second row held out a finger to jab him as he passed. Another boy with a straight line of eyebrow above his nose leered at him and held up a drawing of a hangman’s noose. The girl with the freckled face who sat beside him pulled in her skirts as if even touching him might make her a problem too.
He sat very still, seething, though he pretended indifference, only doing what everyone else did, flipping to page 29 and reading to page 35, then opening his arithmetic workbook for exercises one through ten, though he was only waiting, waiting for school to be out, waiting to run clear of its boundaries, waiting to create his own surprise. He’d settled on that.
When the last bell rang, he darted out of class, racing across the street, and then slowed as he came to a nearby neighborhood, where he stopped in Sprags to browse the comics, count how many sodas he saw through the glass door of the fridge, watch the people buying newspapers and cigarettes, teenagers jostling each other, laughing, flirting. He’d been to stores like this all his life, sent out to buy cigs for his mother on Saturday morning. Later, inside Ciani’s Market, he gazed longingly at the gaudy, pink coconut cakes wrapped in plastic, but he had no money. Forfeited at recess.
Only near dusk did he dare walk back toward the school. He wasn’t rushing. He idled, gazing in the windows of stores, at the display of fishing hooks, Monopoly and Sorry! games, sets of jacks and brightly colored hula hoops, and then wandered across the street and stooped close to the bushes that surrounded one side of the school. Squatting down, he thought of his favorite bas-relief, the one of the Sumerian soldiers: their faces fixed in profile, their eyes determined as they marched toward the enemy. He was one of them now, dressed in their armor, the hooded cap, the protective cape, a shiny brass plate pressing hard against his thick chest. Like them, he carried a weapon, though his were merely rocks stuffed in his pocket.
Hidden, he watched the doors. No one had gone in or out since he’d been crouched here. Craning his neck, he could see a group of tall second-story windows, but he wasn’t sure if that was the classroom where Sister Florence had humiliated him. Those windows should have been marked with a large X or maybe the T of the cross, some sacred Catholic sign. Was it the second room from the end? The fourth? He’d only been at this school for one day. Suddenly, his head felt heavy with sadness and disappointment, though he wouldn’t have called it that. He’d have called it bad luck, shitty luck, rotten-first-day luck. To calm himself, he imagined Sister Florence standing at the edge of the woods, shaking with fear as the war gods turned their cold, unblinking gaze on her. He imagined her closing her eyes, her hands folded around a rosary, her lips praying. He liked this moment best, the tension in her face, her body shivering despite her clasped, prayerful hands.
Emboldened, he sensed the other soldiers fanned out behind him, each readying his ax, a few reaching for a spear, the one with the hooked beak giving him a nod. Quickly, he stood, glancing around. The streetlights were about to come on, the air lighter, cooler, the first hint of a breeze, tufts of grass pushing through cracks in the cement near his feet. He sucked in his breath, suddenly dizzy with the thrill of revenge, remembering how her hand, blunt-fingered and rough, the fingernails squarely cut, had grabbed him, surprising him. She’d smelled like dead leaves. Now, stepping forward, he drew his arm back and threw, hurtling an answer, an answer, an answer at each window until, with the shattering and splintering veins of glass, Sister Florence’s grip loosened, releasing him, giving him back to himself.
It was when he picked up the last rock that he saw it, a bright flash, a blinking in the darkness; it was only a firefly darting, flickering just above the shrubbery. And yet, for a moment, he was the early-morning boy again, curious and interested and hopeful, his hand limp, the last rock loose in his palm. He wanted to capture and hold its fluttering light. It would be his to watch over, to take care of before the world narrowed, became riddled with restrictions. He moved quietly, stealthily toward it, his hand cupped tightly, close, then closer, until he heard the slam of a door. As if alerted, the firefly flitted away, toward a cracked window. “Hey,” someone called, and then the suddenness of footsteps.
Instantly, he was back in the shadows, his body startled, still. He waited, surprised at how small he could make himself. His knee itched, but he willed himself not to scratch. When he looked up, the firefly floated just above his head, suspended, as if keeping vigil. The air was so quiet, he imagined he could hear it blink. But alongside that thought came a sharp squeal of brakes in the street and someone yelling, “Go on, you sonofabitch! Get out of the intersection! ” As if given a secret command, he was up and running, his feet barely touching the ground as he raced around the corner, the last rock held tightly in his hand.
• • •
“What are you doing?” my husband calls out from the kitchen. He’s just gotten up, and I hear him rattling around, shaking out the coffee beans, turning on the faucet, making coffee.
“Nothing,” I say through the open door of my study, uncertain why I feel compelled to fill in the gaps in my husband’s life, confused that he doesn’t. He’s always said I can write about anything I like, and yet I feel like a neophyte archeologist, digging up and shifting through his past, trying to assign value to the few artifacts I can find, wanting to assemble a pattern, to piece together a story. Trying to figure me out, huh, he’d say, an eyebrow arched. “Just writing, you know, imagining things.”
The fridge door opens and shuts. “Damn,” he mutters. “No cream. Okay, I’m off to Hy-Vee. Want anything?”
“Some Honeycrisp apples.”
When I hear the door close, I unclench my hand, wondering which of us will be discovered.
• • •
Five months later, we’re driving a rental car around Worcester, Massachusetts, trying to locate all the different schools that my husband attended. “It should be down this street,” David says, leaning forward to see through the fogged windshield as we search for what might or might not be Oxford Street School. His face is flushed, his body wired with a restless energy.
It’s been forty-five years since he’s been back, and we’re cruising around his old neighborhoods—many of them gentrified—in the middle of a freezing December day, stirring up memories, making new ones. I never dreamed he’d return, but two months ago, I told him causally that I might make the trip, “Just to see the place for myself,” I said, “so it’s not such a mystery,” and he surprised me by saying he wanted to come too. “I’ll take photographs,” he said, his face suddenly alive with interest. “I’ll see what’s still there and what’s gone.”
“Okay,” I said. Not quite believing what I’d heard, I glanced quickly at him, but he was already drawing on the back of an envelope the façade of a three-decker where he’d once lived on Main Street, showing me how the brick turrets had looked with their rectangular, many-paned windows and the double brickwork complementing the arched doorway. He kept drawing in other details, the decorative cornices, even the cobblestone walkway and grassy lawn. Perhaps, I realized, the problem wasn’t in seeing the past as an obstacle, an apprehension to be avoided, but in finding a new way to look at it. He didn’t want to go back to Worcester as the boy who’d been humiliated by the nuns and diminished by family poverty, or the man who’d survived that boyhood, but as a photographer, an artist who might just be able to capture what that boy had lost. A double vision.
And perhaps that’s what I wanted too: my husband as a man full of mysteries and secrets, but also a man whose dramatic past revealed his restless longings, his surprising sweetness, a man whose story I could tell. I wanted both: the shadows and the clarity, a haze of smoke and then a clearing. I wanted something real to parse, to manipulate, to understand.
“There!” I point to a small, rectangular street sign. Oxford Street, I notice, is a short, crowded one-way street with cars parked end to end on one side and small frame houses huddled close to the street.
“Was this sixth grade?” I ask, thinking about the boy held tight in Sister Florence’s grasp and those broken windows.
“But it doesn’t sound like a Catholic school.”
“Wait. I thought you always went to Catholic school, well, until Classical High.”
He’s driving slowly, his eyes squinting, scanning the houses and yards as if looking for clues. He ignores my question. And then, at the very end of the block, where this street dead-ends into Pleasant Street, he notices the back of an old, three-story, red-brick building. “That’s it! I can’t believe it. Oxford Street School,” he says excitedly, his face revealing none of the misery I’d expected. “When we moved to Newberry Street,” he says, his gaze fixed on the building, “my stepfather enrolled me in this school, the oldest elementary school in Worcester, and insisted we go to a Protestant church. And I never went back to Catholic school.”
I’m amazed at this flood of information. We’ve been married for over thirty years, and I had no idea. “But wasn’t this the place . . . you know, that you broke all the windows?”
He nods, still staring at the school with an expression of pride. “This is it.”
I stare at the building too, but I gaze at it as if I’ve been mocked. It looks so benign, so ordinary, and there are not nearly as many windows as I’d imagined. I’m trying to place him here, to see him plotting his revenge, an eleven-year-old boy, his mind charged with fury. “Did they ever find out that you broke the windows?”
“Nope. The windows were fixed the next day, and there were”—he pauses, smiling—“‘no suspects’.”
“Whoa. You were lucky.”
“The power in acts of vandalism!” he whispers conspiratorially, leaning close, then immediately tells me that during this time he worried constantly, was tormented by fear. “I used to pull the fire alarms at the fireboxes, and no, I don’t know why I did it, so don’t ask, I just did it, I saw them and got excited, or thought I could get away with it, or did it on impulse, or for fun, I don’t know, maybe it just felt good to do something, but once, a man across the street saw me and tried to blackmail me, said he’d tell my parents and the police if I didn’t stop.”
After we park and step out into the freezing air, the sky already graying, I stare at the three-story, rusted-red brick building embellished with a solitary brick turret, so odd and old-fashioned in the bleakness of winter that it looks absurd. When David points to where his classroom was, the second floor in the L-shaped space near the back of the building, I laugh at how close to the street it is. Really! There are three rows of double windows, tall windows placed close together, the kind I remember from photographs of late-nineteenth-century buildings. What bothers me most is that there are no bushes, no places to hide near this area, not even a dumpster, nothing but an empty parking lot of faded, gray concrete. “There used to be a basketball net right there,” David says, pointing, “for us to shoot baskets.”
“It looks so small,” he says, with surprising tenderness, as he moves toward it. For a moment, I think he’s going to touch the brickwork.
What startles us both is that there’s no sign for Oxford Street School. At first, we think we’ve missed it, but then, near the front, we see a professional white sign that reads RobRoy Academy: Schools of Cosmetology, Barbering, Manicuring, and Aesthetics.
A Cosmetology Learning Instruction Center. We look at each other and laugh. A joke on the past.
“I guess you’ll have to write about this,” he says, smiling.
“Sure. ‘Man Confesses to School Vandalism After Fifty-Four Years.’ Who wouldn’t want to read it?”
After David snaps a few pictures—including one of the sign—we rush back to the rental car, switching the heat on to high before turning right onto Pleasant Street. We ease into the flow of everyday traffic, the SUVs and sedans, sports cars and delivery trucks, checking the street signs like tourists.
“On to the art museum,” David says, moving quickly into the left lane. “Gotta check in with the Sumerians.” I fumble in my purse for the directions, pawing through papers and keys and glasses cases, but what I’m listening to is his voice, the casual ease of it, the sound of ordinary happiness.
PATRICIA FOSTER is the author of All the Lost Girls, which won the PEN/Jerard Fun Award for Women’s Nonfiction; Just beneath My Skin; and the forthcoming Girl from Solider Creek. She is the editor of four anthologies, most recently Understanding the Essay (co-edited with Jeff Porter). She received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD from Florida State University. She is a professor in the Nonfiction Writing Program at The University of Iowa and has taught in France, Australia, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Spain.