Author Archives: Anna Hiatt

Inside Out

I face the first of what will turn out to be many ethical dilemmas on the subway on my first day of work. I had moved to New York less than twelve hours before and would not sleep in a real bed for another four weeks. I leave two hours before I have to report to work, not out of necessity but of nervousness. I am so early that the train is not crowded, a rare phenomenon I should appreciate in the moment. I do not. Instead, I alternate between reassuring myself that they will not fire me on the first day and trying to determine how many different shades of black I am wearing.

A girl steps onto the train. She is not particularly remarkable in any way, and I am struck by the similarities. She could be me. She doesn’t quite look like she belongs in New York either. She wears leggings, a nondescript t-shirt, her hair tossed up in a ponytail. A sweater hangs on her frame at an odd angle, half off one shoulder—the same look I often catch on myself and hate for its sloppy effect. The sweater is this shade of green that I would call moss. My sister has a sweater this color. This girl could be me, I think again. Then, I notice.

Her sweater is inside out. You have to tell her, something inside of me urges. I feel a familiar anxiety creeping up, this phantom paralysis of my vocal cords. The once sleepy silence of the early morning train is cut with escalating sound, this inescapable, maddening rushing in my ears that always envelops me when I stay quiet instead of speaking up. The longer I say nothing, the louder it becomes and the dumber I feel. Just say something, you idiot, the voice implores, but I can’t do anything. I know that I cannot beat whatever this force is, the one that all too often leaves me mute when I most want to speak. As always, the words seem stuck somewhere in my larynx.

The silence on the train is growing louder and it feels as if I’ve been debating this for hours. It’s really just been a few stops, but I can’t stand it any longer. I take a sweaty palm off the pole, ready to extend a finger to tap her on the shoulder when a terrifying thought runs through my head. What if she meant to put her sweater on that way? What if she consciously decided to wear it like that? This possibility—ridiculous, ridiculous, ridiculous as it is—stops me dead in my tracks. My hand is slightly outstretched, awkward, still in the air. The tag on the sweater—LOFT—hangs out in plain sight, mocking me.

A computer-generated voice jolts me back onto the subway. Where did she say the next stop was? I’m panicking now, rushing off the train in fear of accidentally going to Brooklyn. I squint into the sunlight as I exit, knowing both that I am lost and that I still have enough time to get to where I am supposed to be.

It is not until later that I realize I never did tell the girl about her sweater, and that I will never know what happened to her. I will never know if she found out, if some braver person told her, or if she took off her sweater at the end of the day and felt that mild embarrassment that comes occasionally with being human and fallible. I’ve come to know that feeling well in the moments of my life that have involved sweaters and subways and standing struck with silence, each with its varying degree of consequence. But on this first day in New York, it is comforting to know that I can fix a sweater or walk the few extra blocks easily enough, and that as far as the rest goes, I still have enough time to get to where I am supposed to be. I do not know what happened to this girl who could be me, but I hope she feels the same.

Coming Out in Boot Camp

“So you are a lady who stepped into the men’s bathhouse,” shouted a psychological examiner who worked for the South Korean army to Private Kim, a 19-year-old freshly drafted conscript. Private Kim had just declared to the examiner that he was a gay person.

The examiner’s reaction was crude, but any objection or complaint by Kim was unimaginable. His head shaved, Kim was one of those conscripts who, like every other South Korean male, was sent to a South Korean draft camp located 25 miles from the North Korean border. In two days, the privates were to be assigned to one of several boot camps along the border.

“Why are you here then?” asked the examiner, breaking the awkward silence between the two. The examiner seemed to be bothered by and skeptical of this homosexual private. As a psychological examiner working for the South Korean army, his job was to filter out any possible troublemakers who craved an exemption.

“Why am I here?” Private Kim asked himself when he was woken up 6 AM in the in his barracks by a trumpet blowing reveille. Kim was sharing the room with other 20 other young men lying on the floor wrapped in their sleeping bags.

A month before his conscription, Kim had finished his first college year in Tokyo. His new friends gathered and drank beer to say their farewells. Kim returned to Korea few days after Valentine’s Day in 2009 for the conscription. His father registered him six months earlier when the Japanese Yen skyrocketed due to the subprime mortgage crisis in Wall Street. The family had to wait until the price of the Yen dropped down to pay his college tuition.

On the afternoon of the third day, the conscripts were l gathered and seated in the camp’s outdoor amphitheater. Down on the stage were signs for the conscripts who need specialized medical checkups for such problems as dentistry, orthopedics and ophthalmology.

While virtually all young Korean men are subject to two years of military, fewer then eight percent of them are granted an alternative choice called “Public Service Personnel,” such as working in a local governmental office, if their physical condition makes them unfit to serve in the army. Fewer than two percent with serious deficits or illnesses receive exemptions.

All Korean males, including Private Kim, are required to get a basic medical check-up at the age of 18 at the local draft office. Private Kim was judged physically fit to serve his country for two years. Kim did not reveal then that he was a gay person, which would have required psychological examinations at a big hospital.

Now, as they gathered in the amphitheater, the conscripts were told there would be additional medical check-ups for those needed one. Kim thought this could be the last opportunity to save his youth and freedom from being sucked into a black hole and wasted.

In front of other hundreds of his healthy peers, Kim and 40 others stepped down to the stage. Kim and four others sat in front of the sign “psychology.” They were brought to the medical office building.

“So you like men, heh?” continued the examiner, a middle aged man wearing glasses and an old military uniform. “So why are you telling this to me? Are you sure you are a homosexual?”

“While I was in my high school, I fell in love with a guy who was my best friend,” replied the private, “and I want to ask you what will happen if I fall in love with a soldier here.”

The initial conversation did not last long; the examiner seemed rather irritated. Kim was ordered to sit in the corridor and consider whether this would be his final answer, which would mean going through the army’s legal processes. He was given 20 minutes to make up his mind.

Kim stepped out to the corridor and sat on the cold cement floor. He had to calculate all the factors and risks he would carry for the rest of his life.

Declaring oneself as a gay person in the Korean army was a risky thing. Since the details would be documented in official military records, future employers or governmental agencies would find out that Private Kim was a “sexually challenged person.” Gay or not, a nail that stands out will be hammered down in Korea.

The bigger yet imminent challenge for Kim was how to explain what had happened in the draft camp to his parents. While his close friends knew, Kim had not told his parents that he was a gay person. His parents had never said a word about homosexuality while raising Kim. They did not even teach Kim and his brother how men and women conceive children.

Kim raised his head and saw three young men sitting before him. One was a thin man who seemed to be depressed. Another man talked to himself and then spoke rudely to another shy man sitting between him and Kim.

“So I am like one of them?” thought Kim. “What is so special about me? Who am I to ask for medical check-ups while my other friends and peers go into the army without any complaints?”

When Kim realized that he was the only person left waiting in the row, he knew that he did not have much time left. He was still sitting on the cold floor, figuring what kind of hardships and humiliations he would face for the rest of his life. He decided that if he received an exemption, he would go back to Japan and leave his country forever.

He reflected on his life as if he were watching a short collage film. He remembered when he made a first friend in college and learned basic Japanese by drinking beer with his colleagues. Kim also remembered how he was forced by his parents to undergo facial plastic surgery a few months before he graduated from high school to enhance his appearance before entering college to survive any competition.

He also recalled his suicidal thoughts immediately after taking a TOEFL test when he was writing university applications. Finally, he remembered the pain when he fell in love with his best friend in high school, a heterosexual guy; the friendship ended when Private Kim failed to reveal his sexuality to his friend and started pretending as if they had never been friends.

As memories became more vivid, Kim felt determined and ready. He realized that this was the moment when he was given a chance to decide his future by himself, and not a future dictated by his parents. He did not want to waste this opportunity.

“I have to tell my parents anyway,” thought Private Kim, rather amused how the army and prompted his dramatic coming-out. “My own happiness is the ultimate filial piety.”

“To be free, one must sacrifice give up a little part of oneself,” was the phrase Private Kim tried to remember as justification for his decision. The phrase was from the musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” by a fictional transgender character who castrated himself to escape from East Berlin. Kim realized that he had nothing to lose.

When his number was called again, Kim walked into the office and sat on the chair in front of the examiner’s desk. Kim declared that he was a homosexual person. This was to be recorded in official papers. The officer silently and slowly filled out the document and scheduled the next appointment in a hospital, where Kim’s “mental illness” would be confirmed.

When Kim and his peers marched back to their barracks, the drill master ordered the conscripts to sing marching songs like “Torches of Red Hunt,” a song urging soldiers to seek revenge against North Korean Communists.

It was only his third day in boot camp, but Kim was craving music so much. He tried to image Beethoven’s string quartet Opus 135, for he never heard the music before. He remembered the music from Milán Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” one of his favorite novels that he had read in high school student.

“Muss es sein? Es muss sein! (Must it be? It must be!)” Kim whispered to himself.
As Kim returned to the barracks, his 20 peers surrounded him and asked what had happened.

“I actually have a brain tumor. I was dropped on my head when I was a toddler,” explained Kim. His peers stared at Private Kim with both sympathy and envy.

Even though it was his first day as an official gay person in the eyes of his nation, Private Kim still had to make up some lies to get by.

Unpacked and Alone, In Botswana

As I walked through the pre-dawn darkness past the mongooses dotting the fields of my new home, I remember thinking that it was cold. In my imagination Africa was not supposed to be this cold.

Forty-eight hours earlier I had been in New York, sweating through the late-June heat, packing up as much of my life as I could fit into three suitcases. The city had been home for four years, and though it and I were not quite done with each other, I felt that we needed a break. On the plane ride across the Atlantic I read Joan Didion, which was a terrible idea, and lamented the life and city I was leaving behind. Like her, I could remember, with a clarity that still makes something in my chest constrict, the moment New York began for me, but couldn’t figure out when exactly it ended. Like her, I fell in love with the city in summer and decided to leave several Aprils later to decamp for a warmer locale.

Looking back now, over three years filled with friendships and familiarities in a sleepy city that never offered the extremes of New York love and depression but did provide stability and a sense of belonging, I struggle to find the person that I was in those early days. Unsure of myself, dazed by my surroundings, desperately longing for the life I left, chilly mornings and dusty afternoons blend together leaving me mostly with snapshot memories: sitting on a bench beneath an acacia tree at 3 AM, staring up at the southern sky while talking to a girl eight thousand miles away; hiking a rocky trail to the top of a mountain on the outskirts of town and returning to the car parked in a nearby supermarket parking lot to find our phones stolen; standing in front of a classroom of students and feeling very out of place.

I wasn’t sure what I expected Africa to provide; it was enough at first that it was simply not New York. My first full day in Botswana was also my first day of work, teaching history at a high school in the middle of Gaborone, the country’s capital city. Arriving the afternoon before, while the students were away on holiday, meant that my first hours were solitary ones. I wandered the dirt paths of the campus, overwhelmed by trees I didn’t recognize and trying to adjust to air lighter, dryer, and dustier than what I was used to. I lay awake late into the night, unsettled by the time shift and the silence outside my window.

As I struggled through my transition and spent too much time alone, solace came, as I expect it does for many teachers, in the form of students. The great and terrible thing about teaching is that no matter what happens in your own life, the kids will always be there waiting for you. This was true for me in New York, and I found it true again in Botswana.

I had expected some sort of orientation period, a chance to get acclimated to the school and perhaps a slow handover of classes from the previous teacher. Upon arriving for my first morning staff meeting, however, I was handed a schedule and pointed in the direction of my first period class. I hesitated and asked what I was supposed to teach. “Didn’t you get the package we sent?” asked Abdul, the gregarious South African head of the history department. The blank look on my face must have been answer enough because he quickly continued, “Eish, damn BotswanaPost. It’s okay, we’ll get you caught up this afternoon. Don’t worry, hey? The kids are great.”

On the last point he was absolutely correct. As I stumbled through the first few days trying to get caught up, they were understanding, accommodating, and – as I came to know over the next three years – hilarious.

When I recently asked several of those students what they remembered about the beginning of my time in Botswana, I received a variety of answers with one common thread: my apparently hyper-American appearance. “The first couple of days you really looked like a tourist when you walked around campus. The wide-brimmed hat and the backpack and the red sunburnt skin didn’t help you fit in very much,” Nicole said. Onalenna went even further: “Ask every African about the American starter pack and they will give you the exact same answer. It involves a 1.5-liter water bottle, sun glasses, a pair of shorts, an old sports team shirt, and takkies (sneakers). They always look like they are going to go on some wilderness survival hike for twelve days. That’s how you dressed every time you weren’t working. So my initial impression was: Oh no, another one.”

In hindsight, their impressions cut deeper than they probably knew. For a long while, I did feel like a visitor there, and apparently didn’t hide it as well as I thought I had. One of the students I came to know the best said, “Your first few weeks I could tell that you really missed home. You often talked about how you couldn’t wait to go back.” Perhaps she was especially perceptive, but she was right. I had left New York, but hadn’t yet given up the idea of the city as home. It would take several lonely months for me to accept the decision I had already made.

Botswana does not compel immediate reaction. My love for the country began far more subtly than my experience with New York. The early days were rougher, slower, dimmer, than that first summer in the city. The beginning of my time in Botswana is filled with memories of dark, lonely evenings, balanced by brief moments of light in the classroom. At the end of one of my lessons that first day, three girls came up at the end of class as I was packing my things. “We just wanted to say welcome,” Saira said as her friends nodded. “We’re happy to have you here.” They seemed so gratuitously kind that I glanced around to see if they were being sent up by other students to sarcastically mess with the new teacher. But they were sincere. And, for a moment, I was happy to be there, too.

Day 73

We left on day 73. The familiar hallway, quiet and sterile was lined with nurses, doctors, social workers, other families. I felt a pang of guilt when I saw some of the other mothers and fathers clinging to their children, hooked up to the pumps that ran IV lines to their chests.

Still, a feeling of triumph filled the place that for the 72 preceding days had been serene, hushed, and respectful of the delicate state of all its patients. Unit 5200 at Duke University Medical Center – sixteen bedrooms total, each with children undergoing stem cell transplants. Everyone at the hospital knew it by number. The mention of those four numbers elicited a look of sympathy reminiscent of one extended at a funeral home.

She had survived this part. I looked around her room, 5205, and the walls were bare. The hundreds of cards that had been plastered across them just the day before were now neatly organized in a bag. The IV pump was turned off and the toys packed in a small suitcase. The sign on the door, drawn by my sister “shhh…Caterina is sleeping” was folded and tucked away.

I turned to look once last time. Part of me wanted to bolt out the double doors back into normalcy. Part of me was paralyzed with fear. My feet felt too heavy to move forward. We had been waiting for this day since July. It was now October. The seasons had changed but we had lost sight of all that. The large square window next to the caregiver’s bed I had slept in for most of these 72 nights was the only trace of connection to the outside world.

I had sat for days staring out at the one large tree visible from the window. I read “Siddharta,” “The Power of Now,” “The Gnostic Gospels,” “When Things Fall Apart,” some CS Lewis, and a dozen other books on adversity, suffering, and grief. I meditated, I called psychics. I had an energy healer come to our room. I drowned my grief in the sounds of merengue and salsa, Celia Cruz chanting “no, no hay que llorar, que la vida es un carnival, y las penas se van cantando!” You don’t have to cry. Life is a carnival. Singing will drown our pains.

We did not know whether she would survive the stem cell transplant she needed to save her life from the disease that would otherwise kill her most likely by age 10, Hurler Syndrome.

We checked into the hospital on July 27th, 2004. Caterina, my daughter, was 14 months old. Two months earlier she had been given a diagnosis that would alter the course of all of our lives. Ten days of chemotherapy would destroy her entire immune system in preparation for the infusion of stem cells from an unknown donor’s umbilical cord blood.

The transplant took place on what was coined “Day Zero,” August 6th. A small bag, the size of a Ziploc, containing the equivalent of half a cup of blood, held the key to her future, and mine. We then waited for 21 days to see whether her body had accepted the donor’s cells, a process known as engraftment. It was a waiting game to see whether she would she start making her own blood cells, whether her immune system would recover.

She would need to start making the enzyme I had never imagined I would need to know about: alpha-L-iduronidase. Chemistry had been my least favorite science class. I loved biology. I could comprehend red and white blood cells. This mysterious missing enzyme, I could not. She would die without it. Her organs would slowly shut down. Her eyesight would begin to fail, her liver would enlarge, her cognitive abilities would decrease over time. Her bones were abnormally shaped. There was some fluid surrounding her heart. The lack of the enzyme made her body slowly screech to a halt. The only hope was a stem cell transplant.

Who was there on that day? Who was with me? I went back to my journals. My mother was there. So was my aunt. This was all too close for my mom, who had lost a 31-month old son to cancer.

Now, I adjusted the small blue mask around Caterina’s face. Her round face had grown fuller from the steroids. Her hair had fallen out, but she was beginning to grow some hair on her face, a side effect of the anti-rejection medication. Her body seemed sturdy. She was quiet, calm, happy. I grabbed the bag with her belongings. We had dressed her in cheerful clothes: striped leggings and a bright top.

“We’re leaving now,” my mom said.

“Ready,” I replied.

I looked at Andre, Caterina’s head nurse, the only male nurse on the unit. We had grown close over the past two months. He gave each of us a huge hug. How would I survive without him and all the other nurses?

Out there, in the rental unit where we would live for the next few months it would just be me filling syringes, administering intravenous medication, drawing blood. Daunting as it was, it was better than being in the hospital.

My aunt stepped behind my mother and me.

“Let’s do it, ” someone said.

We stopped by the door to the room to take a picture. And then we heard the cheering, and the clapping, accompanied by a rain of confetti. The entire unit marched up to us to bid us farewell. It felt like a victory parade. Everyone was crying. I clung to Caterina as the double doors to the main hallway flung open. The world was waiting.

“Please, I prayed as I held my daughter’s hand, “let us never have to come back.”

Cross Country

My family moved from Mankato, Minnesota to New York City in the summer of 1989. The four of us drove in a gray Pontiac 6000 station wagon that my parents had bought used. My dad had picked the neighborhood, Bayside, because it was considered safe, at a time when New York City wasn’t the safest place to be. In Mankato, we had never locked the house or car doors. In New York, we had to form new habits.

The house we moved into was the standard Queens immigrant apartment. But it had three bedrooms, which meant for the first time in my life, I had my own room! We lived on the top floor with two apartments on the 2nd floor, and a washer and dryer in the basement. At the time, it felt luxurious. Our living room was large, with a row of windows facing the street. My mom would peek out the window to keep an eye on us when we played outside.

In Mankato, we would wander around the apartment complex, dashing into the wooded backyard and down to the ravine, where my sister and I would spend hours playing by ourselves. In New York City, the new rule was: stay in front of the house and stay in sight at all times. New York City was not Mankato, my mom would remind us, here people went missing, got attacked and killed, on the regular.

A few months after we moved in, my mother’s mother, came to visit. Gran spent six months with us. That spring we went to see the Statue of Liberty. We parked the Pontiac 6000 at a lot in Flushing, and took the train into the city.

After a day in the city, we returned to Flushing exhausted and ready to go home. But the gray Pontiac 6000 was gone.

My father had picked Queens because it was considered safe. And it was safe, for people, just not for cars. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Queens boasted the highest rates of car theft in the country. Bayside in particular was a preferred hunting ground for car thieves, given its proximity to the Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridge, leading out of the city, and the wasteland of chop shops in Willets Point.

My parents filed a report with the police, who let them know that it was unlikely their car would be found, and even if it was, was likely to be squashed for recycling, or in pieces to be sold. So, with the same determined spirit that brought my parents from India to the United States, they went out in search of their car. My parents employed the help of their friend Kalelkar, a father of two, who, like them had immigrated to Queens from India. Having lived in NYC a few years longer than my family, Kalelkar knew the lay of the land and where to begin the search.

They spent several hours patrolling different neighborhoods Kalelkar had suggested. Finally, they spotted the gray Pontiac 6000 station wagon parked outside an auto body shop in Willets Point. After finding an appropriate vantage point, my dad called the police from a payphone. My parents and Kalelkar waited. After fifteen to twenty minutes, the thieves started to make a move. My father and Kalelkar decided to follow them. My mother waited at the payphone in case the police showed up. Every twenty minutes or so, my mother called home to give us an update. My Gran would jump up and grab the receiver each time, “What’s happening Seraphine?” she’d ask. An hour and a half passed, no police officer showed.

The gray Pontiac 6000 pulled out of the scrap yard with two passengers inside, down some back roads and onto the Grand Central Parkway. My dad and Kalelkar followed a safe distance behind, leaving two or three cars between them and the thieves.

After tailing the thieves for awhile, they hit heavy traffic on the off ramp to the Long Island Expressway. My dad seeing his opportunity, jumped out of Kalelkar’s car, and ran up past the Pontiac 6000. Waving frantically, he informed the drivers of the cars in front that the car behind them was his, and had been stolen. He asked them not to move. They agreed.

As traffic started to move, the thieves realized they were stuck and panicked. They tried to drive up the embankment on the side of the highway, but the car couldn’t make the climb. The thieves jumped out of the car, and scrambled up the embankment, leaving the keys in the ignition, along with a copper pen knife they’d clipped to the ring.

My dad got in his car, and drove home, triumphantly. My dad had always been my hero, this solidified that.

Only years later, would I realize how dangerous my father’s escapade had been, and how badly it could have played out. But for him, it wasn’t just about getting his car back, it was about conquering a place.

An Afternoon at the Aquarium

The beluga whale show was so good that this man had traveled all the way from Singapore here, to Harbin, a desolate and frost-bitten city in the Northeastern-most corner of China, to see it. He convinced us that we couldn’t leave the city without catching the show, a beautiful encounter with nature. We were there to be marveled—our itinerary so far included massive snow sculptures, ice palaces, underground Russian clubs, and a tiger sanctuary with a literal herd of tigers (and one liger)—we felt it should be worked in, if possible.

We were a group of five friends, Allen, Mark, Sofia, Prerna, and me. We’d come from various parts of China, besides Prerna who lived in the U.S., and convened in this winter city, which hovers about 470 miles north of Pyongyang, to attend the Harbin Ice Festival. The festival runs for two months each winter and draws huge numbers of tourists, mostly from China and Russia.

On our last full day in town, we looked up the beluga show times before we left our apartment and then set out by cab. We could see the aquarium long before we were anywhere close to it. It rose off a stretch of flat, undeveloped land on the city limits, looking like an igloo mansion: several large white, circular structures with sloping roofs combined into one structure. As we joined the stream of taxis delivering visitors to the aquarium, we saw that the outside walls were covered with huge murals of killer whales and harp seals and penguins.

Large speakers flooded the parking lot and ticket area with ear-grinding, upbeat electro-pop. Allen, Prerna and Mark went over to the ticket stand that looked like some port of call ticketing booth. When they met Sofia and me by the entrance, they had news: the next beluga show wasn’t for an hour.

“So we’re seeing the sea-lions now,” said Allen, “and then the belugas!”

Inside there was no aquatic life in sight besides the stuffed dolphins and whales being sold by salesgirls with overdone make-up. Huge cartoony arrows led us through a maze of food we could buy, from fruit smoothies in plastic dolphin cups with crazy straws to meat dumplings or fish sticks.

We were ushered by the general flow of the crowd toward the auditorium where the show was about to start. I dipped out of the line to get a juice at the stand. “Oh, uh, I’ll wait with you,” said Sofia, stopping too. I mangled some Chinese fruit words and waited as the blender sounded off behind the counter. “Do you think this is going to be like Sea World shows?” she asked. I shrugged. I’d never been to Sea World.

By the time we got inside the auditorium, the host was already center stage, dressed in a toy soldier’s uniform, with oversized gold buttons and exaggerated epaulets. He was speaking emphatically into a headset, using sweeping hand gestures. The room was low-ceiled and packed, with people seated on tiered steps that surrounded the stage and the small in-ground pool that stretched in front of it. The whole place smelled like dank pool water.

By the time, Sofia and I had found our friends and sat, a tall, slender girl with a long blonde braid had also appeared onstage, and the ringleader was pointing the crowd’s attention over to her. She was wearing a girl-version of the cartoony soldier outfit and spoke a few words in Russian into her headset and waved to the audience.

Trumpets blared from somewhere off-stage and out of a back pool six black, leathery seals came bounding onto stage, one after the other. Techno-carnival music started and a wet-suited trainer came out from the wings and began tossing rings at the seals, who each caught them on their snouts and then dove into the front pool, becoming a black streak for a moment before peaking out of the water again, ready to catch another ring or bounce an inflatable beach ball. The ringleader didn’t seem to take a breath as he continued to talk and clap and wave his hands wildly. Mark, who was seated to my left was cheering loudly with the rest of the audience. Allen was laughing and grabbing swigs of the baijiu liquor that Mark had pulled out of his coat pocket.

I clapped for the seals, but found myself distracted by the pretty Russian girl, who stood watching the seals off to the side with a stiff smile. We’d met a lot of Russians the night before at a club. Like us, they’d left their country to soak up some of China’s excess. But this girl, getting lightly splattered by smelly aquarium water kicked up by seal flippers— Who had she been in Russia that this was better?

The seals were making their final lap, their black heads raised in synchrony out of the water. They hopped back up onto the stage with grace and slid back into the other pool. More trumpets sounded; the ringleader was practically screaming in excitement.

From the wings, the sea lion appeared, his blubber rippling as he shimmed his massive body across to center stage. The ringleader went over to him and they high-fived. The crowd burst with applause and laughter. Then, in a moment of surprising agility, the animal pulled himself upright, so nearly his entire body was erect, and his fleshy pink penis poked out from his blubber. “Oh my god, look at its cock,” Mark said loudly into my ear, laughing.

The ringleader let out a long groan into the microphone and then began shaking his head at the sea lion and pointing to the exposed organ. The lion bent his head down, like he was looking at his body and then raised his flippers up to cover his face in embarrassment. Waves of laughter were shaking the crowd.

Sofia made a slight movement next to me, and I looked over at her. There were tears streaming down her face. “Sofia?” I touched her arm. She shook me off and said she’d wait outside. She turned around and grabbed her jacket, stood up and walked out.

Mark was still cheering next to me. I sat there, unsure if I should follow her or just let her be. The rest of them hadn’t really noticed. The sea lion was in the pool now, doing a swim routine to a new track of pounding music.

Finally the intermission came. “Where’d Sofia go?” asked Allen. “She left,” I said. “I think she’s upset.” Nobody wondered why.

Outside we found her sitting in the closest seat to the exit. When she saw us coming she gave us a little, weak smile and stood up. We all walked out together, silent. Nobody mentioned the tickets in our pockets to the beluga show.

The New Year Solution

New Years Eve, 2014 I was lying in my bed. I could hear the street laughter, the “Happy New Year!” shouts and horns as if they were marching through the window.

Earplugs did nothing. My hearing had amplified, what felt like ten times the normal.

After the festivities ended I listened the rest of the night as my mom snored next to me.

Instead of a resolution I came up with a solution.

I had laid there shaking. Every day for 3 weeks.  It’s not even right to call it shaking, it was more like convulsing. I slept an hour a night. I woke up every morning tasting my gums juicing blood into my mouth. My hair fell out in clumps in the shower which I would place on the tiles in a pile.

Everyday, I couldn’t do anything.

My mind raced with thoughts: my parents were going to die within the next 10 to 20 years, or even sooner. They are older than most parents and I am an only child. Would they see me married? Would they be grandparents? They would be great grandparents. Then I realized I was afraid of their deaths when all those fears didn’t even matter since I would probably die before them.

I hadn’t and couldn’t even cry.

Focusing on anything else was impossible. I couldn’t eat. I had lost 30 pounds. I became agoraphobic. I had multiple sweaty panic attacks a day.

It was the same thing every day.

When the clock hit 5 PM, I knew I had made it one more day. I would wait for the one hour of sleep and the next day to come, even though it would be all the same, again.

My mom was preparing to retire and was working during the day. My dad sat by my side throughout each day and my mom slept in my bed at night.

They had their shifts.

It had become our everyday.

I kept my new bamboo lamp from Ikea on, as if the light would keep me alive throughout the night.

New Year’s morning, 2015 wrapped in multiples of blankets I sat with my parents in the kitchen. My mom and dad would periodically yell at me to “stop shaking.” I tried, but I couldn’t.  I would attempt to hold my legs down with my elbows with the little strength I had.

“Lay on the floor,” said my dad, who thought the yoga “corpse pose” would cure me. Sit-ups became the only way to stop my muscles, for just one second, a moment of steady peace.

They, my parents, bundled me in layers and took me for a walk around the block. Every person we passed only made me wonder how people were “so normal.” I was not even close to normal anymore.

The three of us had stopped talking to friends and family.

I was sure this was my last New Years.  I didn’t know what was wrong but I knew I was dying and this is how it felt. I told my parents.  I told the doctors. I knew this is how it felt to die, and I had accepted it and was ready.  Any past fear of death didn’t seem so scary anymore.

I lay in bed and watched multiple TEDTalks.  I watched one where Sam Berns sat on stage deformed, surviving a disease called Progeria. He discussed his “Philosophy for a happy life.” Till H. Grob discussed “How to become more confident,” explaining the benefits, relief and freedom after laying down in the street for 30 seconds. Nick Vujicic, with no arms or legs, paced, discussing his suicide attempts and how to “Give up or keep going.” He learned to keep going.  I watched as Karina Hollekim talked about “Life beyond fear,” after her near death experience ski jumping and being told she could never walk again. She stood on the stage pregnant and strong.

But they were able to control their fates.  I wanted to govern mine.

I had planned my suicide a few days before the New Year.  I didn’t want to die rather in the one hour I slept a night.   The Ted Talks helped, but none of the speakers were about to die. They were living. They had found ways to live. They were inspiring but they weren’t me.

I was deteriorating before my own eyes.  I didn’t want to wait to die. I had accepted my coming demise, I wasn’t scared and I was ready.

I hoped my parents could be as strong as the Ted Talk speakers after I was gone.  I hoped they would even look through my chrome history. I told my parents my plan. They made me call the suicide hotline. No one answered the phone.  I was put on hold and a half hour later hung up. My parents were the angriest I had ever seen them. They yelled but they didn’t understand; nothing they said made sense. Their voices were amplified even filtered through the ear plugs I had been wearing.  I felt sorry, apologized, yet I made my decision.

I wanted to leave notes on my hard drive on how to finish my documentary, write letters of love and appreciation and say good bye.  I wanted to control my own death.

I realized how alone I had become. For the first time in my life I was okay with that feeling. No matter how many days my dad sat next to me in bed or my mom slept with me at night, I had never been so alone. I was the only one who understood I was dying. I was the only one who could feel it and could handle it as a plain fact.

After the end of an toxic two year relationship I had been put on a high dose of Klonopin, a benzodiazepine, 4 milligrams a day. It was “just to take the edge off.”  I was diagnosed with being bi-polar, anxious and depressed. Three months later, I was taken off of the Klonopin and put on two other antidepressants, again “just to take the edge off.” That’s when the shaking began. But I didn’t realize this is why I was dying.

I would later find out I had been expiring from a benzodiazepine withdrawal.

My Mom now says, “I didn’t know if it was psychological, I didn’t know. But I never thought it was what it was, a withdrawal. I think, I kept thinking you would wake up the next day and it would just be over.”

My dad remembers me only being sick for one week. He also blames my ex for all of it.

They were surviving.

“In retrospect, it all seems clear,” says my mom. “But when something like that is happening, you just try to figure out each moment, in the moment.”

My dad says, “The doctors should have known. They should have known even just by looking at you, the mistake they had made.”

On the last visit the doctor’s supervisor tried to justify the treatment and why they called him a doctor when he was really a, P.A, a physician’s assistant.  They knew nothing about me.  My files had not been monitored. They appeared nervous and threw out excuses, ones I can’t even remember since their voices were blurred and my shaking was overwhelming. My dad told them he had experience with malpractice but that we weren’t there about malpractice. He just wanted me fixed.

Two days after New Years I saw a new psychiatrist who put me back on the Klonopin.  She couldn’t believe I was still alive. “You maybe had two to four more days,” she said.

She saved my life.

A year and a half later I still take Klonopin only because my body needs it. I still can’t sleep without the help of five pills at night and two to wake me up in the morning.

The Ikea lamp is soothing but I sleep in the dark. I “corpse pose” at yoga classes. I feel content instead of confused when I take a moment to people watch.

I still get billed for the $35 copay for my last office visit at that clinic.

; – “The semicolon symbolizes that the difficulties people face are not the end but a new begging.” (semicolon project)

If you are worried that you or someone you know may be at risk for suicide, please call your local authorities (911), contact a mental health professional, or call and talk to someone at The Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK(8255).

If you would like to contact the author about the memory please use the form below or via:
Twitter: daniellerosebk
Instagram: daniellerosebk

After the Crash

“The two assholes were racing each other,” said L. “I heard they were on drugs or something.”

He was standing in the non-Euclidian circle we had created, incessantly tapping his right thumb on the filter end of the cigarette. L. was one of P.’s closest friends. I had to like him because he was dating one of my closest friends.

“I heard he was still alive when the ambulances arrived,” said F. “They were all still alive, but the ambulances took too long to get there.”

F. came to be known as “the one who hadn’t cried.” He was always the confident, borderline cocky one, with his blond hair and angel voice. He was fervently texting when he spoke those words. In that field of stones and graves, it seemed that P.’s death had left F. unmoved.

I, on the other hand, was shaking. My legs trembled. My fists clenched. My body was fighting the urge to pour out my lunch – if there was any. I wanted them to stop talking about it. I couldn’t understand why they were even talking about it, why they were looking for a culprit, for someone to blame.

“Who the fuck cares?” I whispered. “It’s not like it’s going to change anything.”

I stood up and began to walk away. When I realized what I had said, it was too late. Things were not going to change. There wasn’t any magic time-turner or machine in a police box.

P. was dead. He died. He is dead. A collision, a moment, an instant and, then, boom – gone.

Police disabused us of what we thought had happened. The drivers weren’t racing. Of the three cars involved in the accident, only one was speeding.

In the Alfa Romeo 147, there were two friends, both in their 20s.

In the other Alfa Romeo 147, there was a couple of newly wedded Swiss tourists, driving down the coast.

In the red Renault Clio, there was a family of four.

When the driver of the first Alfa Romeo decided to pass the honeymooners just to prove that he could, he probably wasn’t thinking about how a family of four could turn into a family of two in a split second. Or could stop being a family at all.

“What can I do? It’s not like I can bring them back from the dead,” the guy said when he woke up from a coma in the ICU of a small town hospital.

And he was right. What could he do? What could we do? What could I do?

On August 19, 2013, the day we were gathered in the cemetery, I thought about a lot of things. I remember thinking about the last time I had seen P., a day before the accident. I remember thinking about the sound of his voice and the way he would call my name loudly in the street. I remember thinking about our first kiss and our last one. I remember thinking about all his talents and his potential. I remember thinking about the promises we had made to each other and the ones we had broken. I remember thinking about how alone he must have felt, lying down in that field of olive trees, his blood rusting under the afternoon sun.

On August 19, 2013, I don’t remember ever asking myself how it had happened. I don’t remember ever wondering the technicalities of it all – when the cars had crashed, why the cars had crashed, who had made the cars crash. I don’t remember feeling angry at whoever was responsible for it – that came later. I don’t remember even caring about the person responsible for it. Because what could he do now? What could we do? What could I do?

On August 19, 2013, I walked toward the exit of the cemetery with cold sweat dripping fast down my forehead.

It was the first day of the rest of my life.

Irrational Thinking

When I left the hotel bathroom, the welts on my arm were redder than blood. I sat down on crumpled sheets of my bed and quietly pulled on the elastic waistband of my boxers.

“Shit,” I mumbled as I looked down. There were red bumps on my dick.

For the past five months, I convinced myself the two reddened oblongs on my shaft were the result of me having some rough unprotected sex. But they were still here. They continued to stare at me angrily every time I looked down. There were bright scabs scattered across my arms and legs, my back, feet, hands—pretty much everywhere on my body. And they were getting worse.

This wasn’t necessarily something I wanted to come to terms with during a spring break trip in Spain with my mother, Debra, my high-strung, slightly overbearing travel companion. She was lying on the other bed during my self-examination, flicking through the TV station and pestering me about those damn bumps on my arms.

“I remember that we thought you had bed bugs and you called the school and they said you didn’t have bed bugs,” she told me over the phone a few days ago, reminding me that this event had been a growing development.

Debra reminded me prior to that night we had taken a few pictures of the bumps on the arm, legs, and the shaft of my penis. “We were sending pictures to Howie [the family dermatologist back in Texas] and he wrote back, ‘It’s bed bugs.’ Except the school checked and said you didn’t have any.”

I thought I was a giant walking cesspool running around Spain with some unidentifiable disease.

“They got worse and then they got worse, and then they were covering large portions of your body in certain areas,” she said. “And so you were getting a little hyper sensitive.”

Wait, I was hypersensitive? I remember Debra bat shit hysterical, screaming, “You could have AIDS! Herpes! Syphilis! Ebola! HIV! Cancer!” along with 10 other possible life-altering diseases, interrogating me on “just what the hell [had I] been doing all this time in New York,” and dogging me with questions about my social life and making me confess about having “a lot of unprotected sex” with my girlfriend and that “I had been ‘experimenting’ with drugs aside from weed.”

We quickly hopped in the cab, and sped down the empty Ramblas to the hospital. I thought it was her idea, but apparently, it was mine since I was more sensitive and the freaked out one in this sit-com-esque narrative—go figure considering there were red scabs literally all over my body).

“Before we were going, I said ‘If you have any disease or something, name it. They could throw us out of the country,’ ” Debra later told me over the phone. “I said ‘Just remember we might have to leave tomorrow,’ so we agreed and said ‘Okay, but we’d feel better going.’”

At the hospital, Debra and I were taken to the less crowded front desk of the lobby and filled out paperwork, struggling to describe my condition in Spanish. Suddenly we were whisked into a room with three young doctors who I attempted to communicate through my broken college-level Spanish what had happened.

“That’s when I flipped out, in front the doctor,” Debra told me, admitting she was actually trying to help by listing off possible diseases that could have explained my immaculate venereal conception.

Guttate,” the lead doctor said to me, trying to stifle his laughter at my mother and I going back and forth about my condition while my pants and boxers were around my ankles. I couldn’t make out what he was trying to say, although he was gesturing a teardrop-shape. A quick Google search of the keywords “guttate” and “teardrop” on my mother’s iPhone translated the doctor’s symbolism: I was essentially suffering from a mild case of a genetic skin rash: psoriasis guttate. Not at all like the string of life-altering and death-affiliated diseases Debra had suggested. Although she was spot on that my condition wasn’t curable, I had the glimmer of hope that my disease could enter remission. And that I wouldn’t die from it.

“Well, this is better than AIDS,” I jabbed cheekily at Debra.

Pulling up my pants, I shook the lead resident’s hand with my free arm, laughing at the absurdity of the night. We left with a prescription and without paying—I still have no idea how free healthcare works in Europe—and took the cab to the nearest open pharmacy. Within six months, the psoriasis receded thanks to cream and UV light treatment. But to this day, I check every morning to make sure there are no red bumps on my dick.

Matthew Sedacca is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and a freelance writer. Originally from Houston, Texas, he has written for publications like Eater, VICE, and the Diplomat.

Between Tottenham and We

My Team Plays Across the Ocean. Doesn’t Matter

We are watching Tottenham play West Ham. We are in a bar on 14th street in Manhattan. We are drinking and we are singing. We watch as Dele Alli presses a West Ham defender into an errant pass to the feet of Tottenham midfielder Christian Eriksen, who quickly finds Harry Kane, who scores.

We who were sitting are now jumping. We are high-fiving. We are hugging. Together, we sing “Harry Kane, hes one of our own.” It is just after noon on a Sunday in New York, which makes it just after five at White Hart Lane, in North London, where Tottenham has just extended its lead and the same song is pouring down from the stands.

This appears strange. We are 3,500 miles from our home team. The chances are for most of us that distance will never be closed. We come to this bar, Flannery’s, every weekend, sometimes as early as 7 a.m. to be together for Tottenham. There are, on any given Saturday or Sunday, hundreds of us, dressed in Tottenham jerseys, t-shirts, scarves, or just in the team’s colors, white and navy blue. We are mostly guys and most of us are American. Most of us have never been to White Hart Lane. I hope to go to White Hart Lane. The team is building a new stadium and I would love to go to the Lane, just once.

I didn’t grow up watching or even playing soccer. My dad pushed me toward basketball and football, the American kind. But when I was five, I played one season of youth soccer. The coach quit halfway through the season and, with no other parents willing to step up, my dad took over the team. His first task as coach? He went to the library and got a book explaining the soccer rules. I don’t think we won a game that season.

I fell in love with soccer during the 2006 World Cup and was desperate for more of the game long after Zinedine Zidane head-butted France out of the 2006 Final. To help get my fix, I began playing the video game FIFA. I chose to play with clubs in the English Premier League, since it is widely considered the best league in the world and, more importantly for me, it was on television. But I needed a team. I quickly shunned the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea as too good. Not enough of a challenge. I also moved on from teams like Newcastle. While I had heard of the club, it wasn’t good enough to compete with other FIFA players surely playing with Man United, Chelsea or Liverpool.

Then, there was Tottenham, the lovable band of footballers good enough to be competitive, but not so good they didn’t present a challenge. There was all 5 feet 5 inches of Aaron Lennon speeding down the right flank, Jermaine Jenas showing glimpses of his never-quite-realized potential in the midfield, and the languid brilliance of Dimitar Berbatov. I was hooked on this team.

It didn’t happen that way for all of us. We came to love Tottenham in different ways and at different times. Some came for a single player, some, like me, randomly found the club, and some say they didn’t find Tottenham at all, but just the opposite. We are all in love with the same thing and we are all cool with that. In fact, it makes it better.

Back at Flannery’s, a deep and dark, wood-paneled Irish pub, it was halftime and Spurs were up 2-0. Spirits in the bar were as high as they had been all season. An Englishman named Andy Smith came and sat across from me. He had noticed me writing in my notebook and he wanted to talk about the match. And so we talked. The conversation started at the surface. Nice goal by Kane. Defense is playing well. Good start to the season. But it wasn’t long before we were reliving Tottenham’s lone foray in the Champions League. Gareth Bale single-handedly destroying Maicon, then considered among the top defenders in world football. The glory, glory European nights at White Hart Lane. The fact that Spurs haven’t been back in that competition since 2011.

During our conversation, a slightly inebriated fan heard Smith’s North London accent and said, “How do you like it here?”

Anywhere else in the city, this question might have meant, “How do you like it in New York, as opposed to London?” or “Are you having fun at this particular bar?” But at Flannery’s, among the Lilywhite Tottenham jerseys, the question unmistakably meant, “Does it feel like home?”

Nearly 200 fans were packed into Flannery’s at this point, almost all wearing Tottenham apparel and holding beers. But did Flannery’s approximate what it’s like to watch a Spurs game in a London pub?

“It’s close enough,” Smith said.

He’s supported Spurs since 1986, though it wasn’t always clear he’d be a Tottenham fan. His dad supported Spurs, but his school was closer to Upton Park, West Ham’s stadium, and most of his friends supported the Hammers. Smith went to a match between Spurs and West Ham at Upton Park with his uncle in 1986, his fanhood wide open. But two goals from Clive Allen and a 4-0 Tottenham win moved Smith’s loyalty to North London.

For the last 12 years, Smith has had season tickets at White Hart Lane, even though he’s lived in New York for the past two. If Smith gives up his seat, he says there are some 30,000 people on the list waiting to take it. Any of the fans inside Flannery’s would take one of those tickets in a second. We are dying to go to a match at White Hart Lane.

Many conversations inside Flannery’s and contain the word “we,” a word the reveals a deep psychological connection to Tottenham.

In a Washington Post article last year, Eric Simons wrote, “a sports team is an expression of a fan’s sense of self.” Simons is the author a book titled “The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession.” He goes on to write in the Post, “it is not obnoxious affectation when a devotee uses the word ‘we’; it’s a literal confusion in the brain about what is ‘me’ and what is ‘the team.’ In all kinds of unconscious ways, a fan mirrors the feelings, action and even hormones of the players. Self-esteem rides on the outcome of the game and the image of the franchise.”

When I talk to other Tottenham fans, the use of “we” flows naturally. When I talk to fans of other teams, I use “we” when talking about Tottenham and “you” or “they” or “them” when talking about the other team. That’s the way our brains default when talking about the teams we love. We regard ourselves as part of the team, or at least part of a larger organization around the team.

It’s why we wake up with the sun on weekends and go to Flannery’s to watch Spurs, even though many of us could watch at home. It’s why we feel that Harry Kane really is one of our own.

Over his Guinness and my IPA, Smith and I watched the second half of the Spurs-West Ham match, which ended 4-1 to Tottenham, one of the team’s best performances of the season. Toward the end of the game, I asked Smith if it was strange to see so much support for Spurs from those with no obvious ties to the team. “I think it’s great. It’s clear that Tottenham have made the U.S. a priority and it’s obviously working. The mood is great.”

As Smith was leaving Flannery’s after Spurs beat West Ham, he told me he’d be back soon. Next time with his mates.

I Play. You Play. We All Play.

Music as the bond between struggling children

Max was the first to arrive. He was swinging an imaginary light saber as the other boys stepped off the elevator and into the waiting room. Soon there were four of them — Sam, Peter, Luke, Max – all of them eight, all joining the imaginary battle, each of them struggling to connect with other children.

Max was loud, energetic and easily distracted. Then there was Sam, who sat next to his mother, and was reluctant to leave her side. Luke, quiet and gentle, moved in and out of the duel. Peter was loud, too, but unlike Max was aware of it.

Their therapist, Jenny, knew her cue. She knew these boys. She walked into the music room and sat at the piano. When the boys heard the music they followed it into the room.

The idea was simple. For the next 30 minutes, the boys – whose names have been changed to protect their privacy — were to be transported by the music, and through it, become a band.

First, Jenny gave each boy an instrument – a cymbal, a ukulele, a melodion, and a xylophone. For 10 minutes she let them make whatever sounds they wanted. She wanted to give them the opportunity to express their emotions and gradually transition into a shared musical experience. That way, they could find common ground. The boys created a cacophony of clashing sounds and uneven tempos. Tears, at first, then smiles, then laughter.

Sam is sensitive to loud sounds. “It’s too loud,” he said anxiously with a lump in his throat. “Please do it softly,” he said again, welling up.

Before he came to Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Foundation, he had a hard time expressing himself. Teary-eyed, he would curl up and hide away to face the corners of the walls. Now, he can communicate.

Max, meanwhile, looked concerned. Without being told, he knew. He knew he was responsible for the noise. With his eyes on Sam, he continued playing, softer now.

Then Jenny began to play chords. The boys listened. And as they did the noise lessened. But when Jenny asked them to swap instruments, something happened. They all agreed on the one they wanted, except one.

Sam’s melodion was broken. He tried to fix it but couldn’t and began to cry. Jenny tried to help him put the pieces back together. He was frustrated. He refused to give his friend, Peter, the broken instrument. He wanted to fix it first.

The others were concerned about it for a minute, and then they got distracted. They stood up from their seats and moved to the corner of the room, where they could take a nap. But Jenny was quick to react. She fastened the loose pieces of the broken instrument and guided them back into their seats as she began to play again.

Then, she gave them a melody to play and assigned parts to each of them.

Could these boys play as one?

Peter went first and, one at a time, they played. But Max didn’t quite understand the timing of his cue. So they had to start again… and again… and again. The boys were patient. Their attempts were repetitive, but they were also constructive. It wasn’t long before everything became leveled and the group was in sync. They finally managed to get through the entire song, and rejoiced. Max smiled brightly. Luke and Sam grinned and Peter laughed, swinging his long blonde hair back in excitement.

Harmony, at last.

As the session came to an end and the boys sang “goodbye and thank you for your music, goodbye, bye, bye, thank you for your music,” they were all smiles, all cheers to greet their parents. And, like a weight had been lifted from their shoulders, they decided it was time to take a short nap on the carpet floor.

Nowhere Man

Author André Aciman is at home everyplace. Sort of.

The first night of Ramadan wasn’t much different from the rest of the winter nights on the Alexandrian Corniche. The air was cool and salty, overwhelmed by the crashes of water. Apart from the rare, white headlights passing by with recurring intermittence, the stones of the wall that separated the land from the sea were only lit by the feeble rays of night stars.

A 14-year-old boy walked along the coastline. He was a French-speaking boy, born into a Turkish family who spoke Ladino, living in Alexandria, and attending a British school where they were trying to teach him Arabic. The boy held a sheet of newspaper hiding a soggy pancake, a delicacy with which one of the street vendors had just granted him. The boy sat on the wall facing the sea. Behind him the city he never loved spread far and wide. It was the boy’s last night on the Corniche.

This time tomorrow his Turkish and Jewish family would be escaping Nasser’s anti-Semitic Egypt. They would be headed to Rome, Italy.

It was 1965.

Rome was the first stop for the boy’s family. Locked up in his room in an apartment in working-class Via Clelia, the boy spent three years hiding behind the pages of the novels that he wished his world resembled. There was no television in the house, no money, no friends, no relatives – there was only the #85 bus, from Via Clelia to the city center. On Saturday mornings, it took the boy 22 stops to get to Piazza San Silvestro, where he would get off and start wandering, stumbling into one bookstore after another. Via del Babuino, Via Frattina, Campo Marzio, Piazza Rotonda, Campo de’ Fiori – anywhere that would take him away from Via Clelia, where the boy hid his shame and his yearning for the worlds of Ovid and Dostoyevsky.

It was as if the boy was cursed to hate all the places, all the cities, all the streets. Rue Delta in Alexandria was first, Via Clelia in Rome then. But there was one city the boy thought he loved. It was a city he had only read about but never seen. It was Balzac’s labyrinthine city and Baudelaire’s splenetic metropolis. It was a place full of stores where the boy could buy Pelikan pens and cigarettes without questions asked. It was a city where the Seine would run adrift “scarcely seven minutes away” from the boy’s great-aunt’s apartment.

It was Paris.

When his family was still living in Alexandria, his Uncle Isaac teased him about his longing for Paris. “Wants to be a petit monsieur,” he used to say. “All he needs is a monocle, a top hat, and off goes our jeune flâneur through the grands boulevards de Paris.” His haggard, aging uncle asked him what he wanted to become when he grew up.

“An ambassador,” the boy said.

Uncle Isaac asked him of which country – “Which country are you a citizen of?”

“France, of course,” the boy said.

France, of course.

France was where his father, Henri, had taken a temporary job before losing his knitting factory and leaving Alexandria. So every Christmas, Easter and sometimes twice in the summer, the boy, now 15, would be boarding the 3:30 direttissimo at Stazione Termini and was off to Paris with his mother and brother. Each time, it took a lot of convincing to board the train back from Paris to Rome. As he said goodbye to the city he thought he loved, the boy was already missing it.

Aunt Flora knew it. Years later, long after the boy became a man, he would recall his asking her to play the Shubert again while they sat in the kitchen where she cooked, ate, wrote letters, read, watched television, corrected homework. In the other room of her ground floor apartment, two grand pianos sat side by side, making it hard for anyone to squeeze behind the first piano and reach the second one. The small window in the room was closed. Outside, the Venetian Grand Canal lay surmounted by bridges and crossed by gondole.

Aunt Flora would ask him if he really wanted to hear the Shubert. Shubert was what she played while the Germans stood outside Alexandria, and the whole family thought the end was near. Shubert was what she played when she did not want to think about what they were about to lose.

But Aunt Flora would play the Shubert for him, even if with all the music recalled.

“We let it happen, as Jews always let these things happen,” she would tell him. “Because, deep inside, we know we’ll lose everything we own at least twice in our lives.”

The boy’s family would lose everything they owned at least another time.

Three years after moving to Rome, the boy was headed to New York.

It was 1968.

Now 17, the boy was growing into a young man. In New York, he looked for a job. Two weeks after his arrival, he got one as a mailboy at Lincoln Center. Thirty streets below his parents’ house on 96th Street, the boy fell in love (if “love” is the word for it) with the city of art and culture which the place he worked for represented. In the mailroom, everyone liked him, and he liked everyone. In apparenza, he would later say using the Italian word, apparently, he had found a place where he belonged.

But this realization only came to him later, during his first few weeks of college. At Lehman College in the Bronx, the boy studied English and comparative literature. He had only gone there because it was a free college, though he was sure he wouldn’t like it. Then, it happened. The first snow came to dust over the city, and, while he walked across campus, the boy heard someone say loudly, “Fucking snow.” For the first time in forever, he felt comfortable in a place where people expressed themselves in a way that riveted him. For the first time in forever, he felt like he belonged.

Maybe he was a New Yorker after all.

In New York, the boy didn’t have to fake being a Christian. In New York, people were nice in the same way he was. In New York, people weren’t touchy in the same way he wasn’t. In New York, the traffic between possibilities and impossibilities and the constant shuffling of the city became the boy’s home.

That is, until he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

It was 1973.

Oxford Street, Ware Street, Concord Avenue, Prescott Street and Lowell House are all the places the boy lived in while earning his doctorate in comparative literature at Harvard.

During summers in an empty Cambridge, the boy divided his days between Houghton Library and the roof terrace of the Lowell House building where he was a resident tutor, armed with a folding chair, a bathing suit, cigarettes, music, a bit of booze and, of course, books. Right there on the fourth floor of a college dorm overlooking Cambridge, the young man from Alexandria, who felt unable to fit into the strange New World, imagined paradoxically to be lying by some beach on the Mediterranean.

Paradoxically because he didn’t just hate Alexandria, he also hated the beach. Back in Egypt, he would get paralyzing migraines from being in the sun for too long. On that terrace, with an equal amount of books and Tom Collins, the boy realized he wasn’t longing for the beach – he was longing for the sea, for those “quiet beach-day Sundays” right before the crowds headed out to the beaches in early summer. And, yet, he had never thought about those beach-days before. They had come to him, as memories, only once they stopped existing, during a stroll on Riverside Drive in New York City or during conversations with friends on the terraces in Cambridge.

Because every place in the boy’s life was nothing more than a throwback to Egypt, to a life he sometimes missed, mostly just remembered. Lawrence Durrell once wrote about Alexandria, the “capital of memory,” that “the city, half-imagined (yet wholly real), begins and ends in us, roots lodged in our memory.” The boy didn’t even love the city or the things he remembered about the city – he simply loved remembering. It was within his memory that Alexandria had started existing again.

And, on the terrace of his college dorm, the boy remembered the sea that had followed him from the tip of North Africa all the way to Italy, France and the United States. He remembered how the water looked, glimpsed through the trees on the direttissimo from Rome to Paris. He remembered how he grew to love the sun in New York. He remembered how he caught his old aunt staring at the Mediterranean in Alexandria, longing for the Seine. He remembered the summers spent in the town beaches on the Italian Riviera. He remembered the view of the Lido from Aunt Flora’s house in Venice.

It was Aunt Flora who had taught him to swim.

Suddenly, Harvard became too much for him and not quite enough. The boy moved back to New York and there, away from anything academic and completely immersed in the metropolis, he wrote his dissertation in six months and fell back in love (again, if “love” is the word for it) with a city he hasn’t left since.

It was 1980.

The boy is now 65. The body of a small, French child has turned into the short but slim body of a grown man. With thinning ivory hair, André Aciman has his mother’s eyes. Like Gigi’s eyes, his are almond-shaped, dark and Mediterranean in color. Like Gigi, he carries himself with a combination of elegance, grace and utter boldness.

His eyes have the confidence of a man who has spent his youth flirting with girls in bars, exploiting his French accent. But his eyes also seem doomed by the knowledge that that same accent has prevented him from fitting in his whole life.

Apart from the years, seven books have also gone by. The first one was Out of Egypt, an account of his last days in Alexandria, published 30 years after his exile, in 1995.

There was False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory in 2000, a collection of essays on cities, memory, Marcel Proust and exile. False Papers is also the book that narrates his return to Alexandria, the capital of memory. “This, I realize, is what happens when one finally comes home: one hardly notices, and it doesn’t feel odd at all,” he wrote. In Alexandria, the boy realized the city was dead, Egypt was dead and even he was not alive anymore. He vowed never to return. But he forgot to kiss his grandfather’s grave.

“Maybe next time,” he wrote.

Then, in 2004, The Proust Project was published. It was a collection of essays he had edited from 28 writers about their favorite passages from In Search of Lost Time. The year of his first novel, Call Me by Your Name, was 2007. Even this work of fiction was created because of the boy’s longing for a place he couldn’t have – Italy. He fantasized about the country, the Riviera, the town beaches, the villas and the days by the sea. So, Elio, a slightly younger version of the Alexandrian intellectual educated in those bookstores in Rome, was born.

The protagonist of Harvard Square (2013) was also another version of himself, if not simply himself as a graduate student at Harvard. In Cambridge, at his favorite hangout spot, Café Algiers, the boy met a Tunisian cabdriver called Kalaj, short for Kalashnikov. Kalaj reminded the boy of Henri, his father. Like Henri, Kalaj was a misogynistic womanizer with North African values but also with an earthy love for France and anything French.

But there is only one book Aciman is proud of. It’s the work that “every author wishes to be able to write at least once in his life.” Eight White Nights was published in 2010. The novel was a journey through an asexual romance between two upper-middle-classers in New York City.

Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere came in 2011. A collection of travel essays and trips down memory lane, Alibis was also where he wrote,

“I am an exile from Alexandria, Egypt.

Like the nomad, an exile is someone who has no home to go back to. He has lost his home; it’s no longer there; there is no going back – Odysseus just got wind that Ithaca was entirely destroyed by an earthquake and that every person he knew there is gone. Unlike the nomad, though, an exile is not resigned to homelessness; perpetual transience feels as unnatural to him as it would to any tourist who’s lost his return ticket. An exile wants a home, not a provisional rest stop. But having lost his home, he hasn’t the foggiest notion how to go about finding a new one. He is even wary of having to ‘choose’ a new home. Can one choose one’s home any more than one can choose the color of one’s skin? Anyone can build a house – but is it ever a home?”

New York should be his home. Sometimes, it’s not. Because, sometimes, André Aciman dreams of being in Italy, sunbathing on the poolside of a beautiful Mediterranean mansion, or in France, strolling in a narrow cobble lane street, or in Egypt, longing to be out of there. But New York should be his home. That’s where he’s a professor at CUNY. That’s where he lives with his wife Susan, also a Harvard graduate he met at a former student’s party. That’s where his firstborn, Alexander, and the twins, Michael and Philip, were born. That’s where Gigi and Henri are buried.

Sometimes, though, the boy had to flee New York. Paris, Barcelona, St. Petersburg, Jerusalem, his return to Alexandria. Intermittently over the years, he left New York, longing for other places.

It happened in 2000 in Paris. During his stay in Place des Vosges, the boy sat in his hotel room, thinking about every corner of the square he had experienced. The grocery stores, the bookstores, the art galleries, the tiny synagogue and the nursery school underneath the arcades – after a few days, everything had grown more and more familiar, including the faces. He thought he was ready to write about it. But he didn’t. He wanted to be back in New York. He knew that, only once he was no longer in Paris, he could begin to remember it, pretend to be there still, long for it.

It happened again in 2003, this time in Tuscany. At Il Leccio, one of many timeless villas in central Italy, the boy realized that the way he traveled was also the way he lived. It wasn’t about being in a place, it was about planning the itinerary for the next trip. Wherever he wasn’t, that’s where he was. That’s where they all were, David Ostwald said. A lawyer with an optimistic attitude, Ostwald didn’t even know how he had ended up becoming Aciman’s best friend. He just knew he was, probably because they were so different. Ostwald saw the glass half full. Mr. Quicksand saw it half empty. That was Ostwald’s nickname for him. Sometimes he called him Mr. Somewhere-I’m-Not. Sometimes, Mr. On-the-One-Hand. Other times, Mr. On-the-Other-Hand.

In Volpaia, the wine village in the Chianti region that Aciman adored, walking with Ostwald and their wives, Mr. Quicksand thought he was there, but he really wasn’t. In reality, he was already longing to be back in New York. He ran from one place to the other, one street corner to the next.

“Why don’t you just slow down?” Ostwald urged him.

His friend stopped and said, “I can’t, I want to see this whole town.” But he wasn’t seeing it. He knew that the only way he could see it was to be back in New York, remembering it.

So he went back to New York.

On a freezing Saturday afternoon, André Aciman left his apartment on the Upper West Side and biked to the intersection of Broadway, West End Avenue and 106th Street. It was a route he had known since his college days, when he would ride his way to and from the Bronx.

The sun tried desperately to heat up the hazy laziness of the after-lunch hours in empty Straus Park, shining weakly on the back of Mnemosyne, mother of all muses, whose bronze body lay before an inscription, “In memory of Isidor and Ida Straus / who were lost at sea in the Titanic disaster April 15, 1912 / Lovely and pleasant were they in their lives and in / Their death they were not divided.”

In memory of. Mnemosyne. The personification of Memory.

Aciman was drawn to this place. He used to walk here when he needed a break from writing his dissertation in the somber stacks of Columbia University’s Butler Library. Every day for a summer, at noon, he would come down Broadway. He did it mostly for the statue of the muse because she, like him, was doomed to be stuck in a place halfway between places, on an island in the middle of another island, in the accidental quietness among the traffic. Mnemosyne didn’t really have a home address. She lived at the intersection of four different addresses. Just like he always had. That was why, in Straus Park, he felt at home.

He grew so fond of the place that, in 2007, unaware of the restoration the park was undergoing, he panicked at the thought of its imminent demolition, believing that a part of him, imprinted in that oasis in the middle of a city, would have died with it. Aciman held tight to his affection for the park for years, to the point where his friends and family made fun of him each time he told them he was going there.

“Are you sure you’re where you are?” David Ostwald asked him.

“Not Straus Park again,” the twins said.

But it was Straus Park, again.

He secured his bike to a bench to the right of Mnemosyne. He took off his bright green helmet and sat down on the edge of the bench, elbows on knees, fingers intertwined. This time, he had gone there almost reluctantly. Then he started looking around, and he saw it again. Home.

He fixed his eyes on the intersection between West End Avenue and 107th Street but didn’t see West End and 107th. Instead, André Aciman saw townhouses, coffee shops and old lampposts along the canal. He saw Amsterdam. His gaze followed the Dutch canal south, to West End Avenue and 106th Street. And there it was, London.

He stood up impatiently. He turned around and faced the bench. Narrowing his eyes to block out the sight of the Manhattan traffic, he fixed his gaze on 106th Street as it continued east toward Central Park. His imagination traveled faster than the blink of the streetlight. The paved road of a town on the Italian Riviera lay before him. He saw the row of Mediterranean poplars, the colors of the beach ombrelloni, the pavement slowly turning into sand and then, finally, he saw the blue of the sea.

He sat back down. Suddenly, he felt Paris on his skin. It seemed that, if he followed the crisp breeze passing through the park all the way west on 106th Street, it would lead him to the bank of the Seine, flowing quietly behind Riverside Park.

Just sitting there, on that bench, trapped in a transitional place of remembrance, would make him think of all those nearly abandoned but unexplainably snug parks in Rome, where he used to rest his feet on his Saturday morning walks.

But it was just Straus Park, again.

It was just New York, the city he didn’t love – the one he preferred to others.

He thought about leaving New York.

But where would he go? Paris? Too many tourists. Rome? God, no. He laughed. New York was his home, a place where he could be everywhere – Amsterdam, London, Paris, Rome, St. Petersburg – in all of his shadow cities.

Of course, Aciman knew he was going to leave New York someday. There’s a small cemetery in Rome in the shadow of the Egyptian-style pyramid that Gaius Cestius forced his heirs to build for him in 330 days. Officially, it’s called Cimitero Acattolico, but the locals know it as cimitero degli artisti e dei poeti. The hill-like greenery is the final resting place of Percy Shelley, John Keats, William Story, Antonio Gramsci.

It will also be home to André Aciman.

Or, at least, to one part of him. The rest remains a mystery.

The Lives She Saved

 A Stranger Saves a Woman and Her Child from the Nazis. Why Did She Do It?


She was supposed to die.

Emily Kessler was the mouse. The Nazis were the cats. The chase went on for two years. The mouse was scared and starving. The cat was agile and ferocious. But the cat didn’t know there were other players in the game. This is their story.

When the sun blinked through the winter skies of Khmelnik, Ukraine on Jan. 9, 1942, Emily Kessler didn’t know it would be the last day she would ever be home. The war had taken her husband the year before and she was living with her parents and her brother Sasha, along with her two-year-old son.

The town was swarming with SS death squads and Wehrmacht combat units whose mission was the liquidation of Jews, day after day, without restraint or compromise, with the help of local collaborators. Since the Nazis had marched in, Jews were all made to wear the yellow Star of David, first on their sleeves, then on their chests and on backs. The Jews were all assigned backbreaking and humiliating work, which was the least bad thing they had to do. They were not allowed on the sidewalks of their hometown. They were not allowed to buy food. They were not allowed to see a doctor. They were beaten or killed on the whims of the Nazis.

At 6:00 a.m. on that frigid January morning, several Nazis burst in into Kessler’s home and started beating her. One of them pointed his gun at Kessler’s brother Sasha. During Stalin’s homegrown famine in the 1930s, Sasha had fainted on the road from hunger, was hit by a bus and had lost both his legs in the accident.

Nazis were not known for their kindness to the physically challenged.

Kessler stood between the gun and her brother but the soldier pushed her away and killed Sasha in front of her eyes. Too numb to process what she had just seen, she forgot to put clothes on her two-year-old son, Valeriy, when she was pushed and prodded out on the cold street. There were more Jews lined outside and Nazis on horses herding them towards the nearby forest. When they entered the forest Kessler saw a large pit.

Quickly enough, Nazi horsemen started screaming at people to strip naked and then shot and pushed them into the pit. Kessler saw them throwing down babies in the pit over their dead parents. She saw them breaking the babies into two on their knees. She saw a friend walking towards the pit with dead eyes and no will to fight.

Kessler wanted to live for three reasons. She didn’t want to die young, she didn’t want her son to die and she wanted to bear witness to what she had seen. She started darting from one line of captives to another on the frosty forest floor in her summer dress, undeterred by the guards who were beating her.

When her turn at the edge of the pit came, a strange thing happened. A German officer looked at her and decided she was not a Jew. He told her to run away. She ran but was caught and brought back to the pit by the local policemen. Again, the German officer looked at her and told her to run away.

Kessler later heard that thousands of Jews – men, women and children – were killed in the mass shooting that she had escaped. Those alive, like Kessler, were rounded up and marched to the prison where they were kept for four days without food or water.

She fed her hungry baby boy the snow frozen on the windowsill of her cell. Kessler saw her parents through the prison window once and they saw her. Only once in those four days, a local policeman tore off a piece of bread and threw it at the prisoners. A hundred fifty pairs of hands rushed to catch the bread. Kessler caught a tiny piece.

The Jews were soon ordered to move into a ghetto where 200 of them were crammed together on cold floors. A week after she saw her brother’s death, Kessler witnessed rows and rows of Jews sentenced to death. Among them were her parents, embracing each other, dawdling to their death. Some of the Jews, unhinged or truly happy, were dancing while they moved to the grave.

In the ghetto, those “fit” were made to work. Like many, Kessler washed the lavatories used by Nazis with bare hands, carried bricks for construction and ploughed the snow from the roads. Her hands, tiny and delicate, that once strummed the mandolin were always busy scraping and scrubbing dirt. She grew weaker and weaker and knew she wouldn’t pass the medical test that sent the unfit Jews to the graves. It was forbidden to treat sick Jews or even those dying of starvation. The labor camp was a factory for making people sick and then dead. Then she heard whispers in the camp that all the children were to be killed the next night. She did the unthinkable. She slipped out of the ghetto in the dark of night.

Kessler roamed the town for days, looking for places to spend the nights. She hid in abandoned buildings and cellars while avoiding the soldiers and their search dogs. One night, she knocked on the door of a woman named Vera Shchupova. She was the sister one of a Ukrainian policemen in the ghetto. She was also Kessler’s classmate when they were children.


It was a rainy night when Vera Shchupova opened her doors and found Emily Kessler with Valeriy at her step, barefoot and drenched. Her brother’s position meant Shchupova had the freedom to go inside the fenced area without restrictions. Her brother didn’t know that she had been going to the ghetto to slip food to Kessler and few others. She told Kessler that, as she feared, the Nazis had carried off the children’s Aktion — mass killings of sick, disabled and children “unworthy of life” started by Hitler in 1939. She let Kessler in and hid her in the basement for a month. During the time Kessler was hiding in Shchupova’s basement, her brother often visited her sister’s home with his fellow officers.

American cartoonist Art Spiegelman once asked his psychiatrist Pavel, a Czech Jew and survivor of Terezin and Auschwitz, how it felt to be in the camp, to live under the shadows of Nazis and SS officers.

“What Auschwitz felt like?” Pavel said, “How can I explain?”

“BOO!” He startled Spiegelman with the loud sound.

“It felt a little like THAT,” Pavel said. “But ALWAYS. From the moment you got to the gate until the very end.”

Kessler lived in Shchupova’s basement hearing the Nazi collaborators and policemen coming and going. Frightened of her own baby’s cries, she finally asked Shchupova if there was a way she could leave the town. Shchupova thought of Yekaterina (Katya) Surovova.


Yekaterina (Katya) Surovova was a Gentile woman who had been widowed at a young age, much like Emily Kessler. She was raising a daughter and a son on her own with her job in a coat factory in Khmelnik. She saw the Nazis march into her town, where most of the non-Jewish population was very pro-German. It was no surprise that they had found so many collaborators so quickly. In these times, there was a thin line between collaborators and bystanders. Surovova fell in neither of these comfortable categories. When her friend Shchupova sought Surovova and asked her if she would give her passport to help Kessler flee, she thought of Kessler and her baby boy. She thought of her own children. The passport had her face, her name, her address on it. Kessler’s arrest would have meant death, not just for her but for her children too. All she had to do was lower her head and carry on with her life like many around her were doing. Why risk her life, the life of her children for a Jew with SS guards on her heels? She had all the reasons not to help Kessler. She decided to help her.

With her new passport, Kessler was now Katya Surovova. She left town with her son and another Aktion survivor, 13-year-old Fira Milkis whom Kessler had found hiding in a cellar. They walked through the day, and slept in the shade of haystacks when the night fell. After days of walking and they came upon the border zone, patrolled by frontier-guards who killed anyone trying to cross the line. Kessler waded through a river that was running up to her neck, carrying her son over her head and Milkis in tow. Somehow the frontier-guards missed them. She eventually came to the town of Zhmerinka in Central Ukraine, which was under Romanian control. But she was still was not safe, not if anyone took too close a look at her passport. So she kept running and running until the country was liberated in March of 1944.


While Kessler was still in the labor camp, the local policemen had allowed a few people to bring bedding from their now abandoned houses. When Kessler had made her way back to her home, she had found all the windows and doors broken. The house stood silent and plundered, covered with blood and feathers. And in the middle lay the frozen corpse of her brother. Kessler had just stood there, staring at her brother. She couldn’t cry, for fear her cries might be heard. In the end, she couldn’t bring herself to take anything from the house, not even her baby’s clothes.

Instead of returning home to Ukraine after the war, Kessler decided instead to go to Moscow and that was where she remained for another 30 years. Every October, however, she returned to Khmelnik for the memorial service of those perished in Holocaust. She also visited her saviors, Shchupova and Surovova. Finally, in 1977, she and her grown son left the Soviet Union for America. But life in New York was difficult for Kessler. She knew no one and spoke little English.

It wasn’t until 1985 that she caught a glimpse of home. She was walking past a music shop window in Manhattan when she spotted a mandolin, an instrument whose song was the song of home. She had somehow forgotten in the midst of all the noisy, bloody memories that she knew how to play mandolin. The lyrics of all the Ukrainian songs she had once sung came rushing back to her.

Now, Emily Kessler has a map of wrinkles on her face and eyes that still twinkle with intelligence. She won’t talk without clasping her pearl necklace around her neck. She most probably will comment about the lack of grey in her chestnut hair. And she is always translating English to Russian and Russian to English with the help of an old withering dictionary. She has battled depression and memories her whole life.

But she’s home when she plays her mandolin.

Post Script

Through Emily Kessler’s story I wanted to know the answer to one question – why do people show remarkable courage in extremely difficult times when they have a choice to look the other way?

I knew the story was all about memories – reliving them, corroborating them and looking at one remembrance from different vantage points. When I went to meet 98-year-old Emily Kessler in her Upper West Side apartment, she had forgotten that we had an appointment but then she scrubbed her face clean, creamed it, clasped her pearl necklace around her neck and sat down on her sofa to talk to me. She told me as much as she could. We spoke about her life after the liberation, her days in the camp, her rescuers and their family. She told me she still sends three hundred dollars, every three months, to Kolya Surovova – the grandson of her rescuer Katya Surovova. She told me how she had even helped and was in touch with another inmate of the same labor camp Sophia Karpovich, now living in New York.

So, I contacted Sophia Karpovich, now 77-years-old, to know her side of the story. Her memories (including what she had heard from her elder brother, also an inmate in the camp) matched Kessler’s.

The next step was to contact the Surovovas in Ukraine. They were pleased to corroborate Kessler’s story. Kolya said something to the effect that their grandmother’s one good deed was now rescuing his family with the money Kessler sends them. The economic conditions of Ukraine are at their worst and the only earning member in Kolya’s family of four is his wife Tatiana.

Then I asked him – why did she do it? Why did Katya help Kessler?

She was a mother too, Kolya said. They must have connected, she saw the baby. But the answer really was this – she just did.

I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact someone could risk her own life and that of their family to save someone she hardly knew. I myself have witnessed how easy it is to do otherwise, and it had been to a question that has been haunting me since childhood. I had witnessed sectarian riots in my native India. I had seen my own neighbors turn into bystanders; I had seen people who were kind to those utterly helpless and at the mercy of the mob. I had always wanted to know the difference between those who acted well, and those who did not.

So I contacted Kristen Renwick Monroe, Director of University of California Irvine’s Ethics Center. She has written three books analyzing altruism and ethics in the age of terror. She gave me the psychological answers to my question based on her extensive research and years of interviews with people who fell in three categories: rescuers, silent bystanders and the tormentors.

She told me that altruists see the world as one and believe they have no choice but to save other people. Bystanders, by contrast, see themselves as weak and unable to change the fate of anyone, so they remain uninvolved – looking the other way. Tormentors (in Kessler’s case, the Nazis) believe they are under attack, and so have a rationale for inflicting pain.

Her research suggested a thin line between those who rescued Jews and those who didn’t. It is clear from the quotes of those Monroe interviewed and included in her book “Ethics in the Age of Terror:”

“But what else could I do? They were human beings like you and me.” ~ Rescuers of Jews during Holocaust

But what could I do? I was one person, alone against the Nazis.” ~ Bystanders, World War II.

I then contacted Yad Vashem – an organization that was established in 1953 as the world center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust. They sent me links to the records and accounts of these two women – Vera and Katya – who had saved Kessler and Valeriy’s life. Yad Vashem also honors those non-Jews who had aided Jews during World War II. Since 1960s, the title of “Righteous Amongst the Nations” has been awarded to 24,355 people from over 47 countries. Vera and Katya are among them.

I went on the website of Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. to find any references of Kessler and got a hit. Apparently in 1993, with the help of someone in New York Public Library, Kessler had written a memoir of her ordeals in Khmelnik under German occupation. That is how I came to find Kessler’s memoir.

Now, I had the pieces of Kessler’s story, from many sources including her own words, written when she was young.

During the interview Kessler said something that made me think about the masks we all wear over our scars everyday.

“I smile,” Kessler. “People know me only smiling. People find me beautiful. How can I be beautiful after what I have seen?”