Ingrid Hughes was born in London in 1945. She grew up in Greece, Saigon, and Singapore, as well as the United States. Since she was twenty she has lived in New York, where she brought up two children and now teaches English to immigrants and native New Yorkers at the City University of New York. Her poems and stories have appeared in magazines like Lilith, West Branch, and the Massachusetts Review.

Ingrid Hughes

Losing Aaron, Chapter one

My daughter got the call.  It was a Saturday in April of 1999 and I was just getting out of the shower, looking forward to a quiet day to myself with no student essays to read and the prospect of a full week of spring break. Toweling my hair, reaching for my clothes, I heard footsteps running down the stairs.  Stasha was crying, yelling.
"Mom, Mom, Mom."  Why is she so histrionic? I thought, striding through the bedroom to throw the door open.
“A woman from the embassy in Paris called. They found Aaron’s body hanging from a tree.” She's so irritating, I thought, and at the same time, No, it can’t be, we’ll talk to him and explain he doesn’t have to do this. I tried to picture Aaron in a tree.  But I couldn't.
Taking the number from Stasha's hand, I was half-aware of a familiar tension in my spine, a burden of fear and anxiety. We sat on the bed and I punched out the long number.
"American Embassy."
"This is Ingrid Hughes.  Someone called me about my son, Aaron Hughes," I said.
"One moment, please.  I'll patch you through."  Of course, the duty officer Stasha had spoken to was home today-- it was the weekend. I sat on the edge of the bed, my arm around Stasha, crying a little, staring at the brick hearth of the defunct fireplace a few feet away.  The bricks had black scorch marks from long ago, but they were scraped naked now, the fireplace painfully barren and empty.
The duty officer came on.  "Mrs. Hughes?"  
"Your daughter told you?"
"The police found your son hanging from a big tree in a park about noon." Now I could see it.   The big tree.  Aaron's long, narrow body hanging.
"His body is at the city morgue."
"At the morgue," I repeated stupidly.
"I'm sorry it took so long to let you know," she said.  So long?  How could it have taken long, I thought, forgetting the time difference.  It was still Saturday morning.
"If you want to get him back I think you'll have to wait to get hold of an undertaker.  Easter Monday is a holiday here, nothing will be open till Tuesday." What does she mean, get him back? I wondered.
"Are you sure it was Aaron?" I asked.
"Yes.   The police were sure there was no mistake," she said. "He had his passport with him. They wanted to know if he was depressed."
"He had a mental illness," I said. "What's the name of the park where they found him?" I needed to know where he had died.
"Parc Buttes Chaumont." Automatically, I wrote down the unfamiliar words to look up later.
"I'm so sorry," she said.  "I'm so very sorry."
Stasha and I sat on the bed for another moment in the quiet of the large white room, its tall windows looking out on two skeletal ailanthus trees. Two days earlier Aaron had been with us. Active and functioning in his crazy way-- tall, handsome, hostile, competent, articulate, nasty at times, convinced he was being poisoned and lied to, but in the last few days a bit more relaxed, and certainly not sick or weakened at all.  I held on to my sense of his warm body, his living, breathing presence.  It would fade over time, I thought.  But for now I had it. He had been here.  He had been with us.
Then he had set off for Paris in a blaze of fury, making what I thought was another of his many round trips across the ocean or across the continent since his illness struck.
And now he had hanged himself.   Even years later writing those words shakes me. He was gone. Gone irrevocably.  Gone by his own choice. He lay in the Paris morgue, lifeless-- a body, no longer a person.
Yet I had seen daily the pain he lived with, the disappointment, his continual anger, bitterness, anguish, the effects of an illness that had battered us all. I knew why he had ended his life.

I first realized Aaron had lost his mind on a spring night seven year earlier.  I was living in Brooklyn, in the studio I had taken when I left Arthur.   Left him despite love and respect, despite our long history together, going back to our time at boarding school in Colorado.  Our youthful marriage had been the ground we grew up on; our familial foursome had been the greatest satisfaction of my life. But Stasha and Aaron were grown now. My love for Arthur seemed to me like one of those rivers of the canyon lands, a river that had worn away rock over the ages and flowed in a narrow channel now through layers of ancient history. The passion that carried me away from Arthur was a spring flood, a deluge of water and snow melt, dislocating ruthlessly anything in its path.
A flood does not provide an easy transition. I often felt insecurely rooted in my new life, though my plan was clear. Days I was tutoring at the Reading and Writing Lab of Baruch College, my first job since college. Evenings I was pursuing a degree in teaching English as a second language at Hunter. Once I had my master's a better job would follow.

Aaron was in Boston, in graduate school at MIT.  Physics had been his passion, his preference since high school.  He had always enjoyed it and excelled at it, with an ease that was characteristic.  In high school and college he had been remarkable for his striking competence, his even keel, his humor and good sense. But on the phone that night, as often lately, he seemed disturbed and discouraged.  
"You sound upset," I said.
"I am upset."
"I'd like to help."
"You want to help," he said dubiously.
"Yes, I do."
But he didn't see how I could.  We said good-bye.
On one recent visit Aaron had dissolved into tears, crying inconsolably as he sat across from me at the tiny table where I had served our breakfast.  The ostensible cause of his outburst was an embarrassing episode in his first year at Swarthmore, four years earlier.  But his misery was so great I thought there must be more to it.
I persuaded him to see a family therapist with me, Ellen Wachtel, the person Arthur and I had talked with during our last months together.  She had met Stasha and Aaron too.
I sat in Ellen's office, across from Aaron, as he told her a little of what he was feeling.
"Ingrid and Arthur didn't prepare me for what I want to do," he said.  "They were never successful."  This hurt.  How could it not?  It also puzzled me. I knew that his education had been excellent.  He had begun at private schools, where he had the freedom to study math and science in his own omnivorous way, spent a summer at math camp, attended Stuyvesant, where he took advanced physics and calculus. He had enjoyed small classes at Swarthmore, graduated with distinction, and been accepted by every doctoral program he applied to.  He had always had friends among his peers, and with his teachers had the same respectful assumption of equality he had always had with us. Yet now he felt painfully lacking, felt Arthur and I hadn't provided what he needed. Though I could see his distress, I couldn't make sense of it.  
Later, I saw Ellen again on my own.  She made it clear she considered Aaron shaky.  "Help him hold himself together," she said.
None of this, not Aaron's tears, not Ellen's assessment, prepared me for what came next. A few minutes after we hung up, he called me back.
"Maybe you do want to help," he said.  "And maybe you know that when I walk on the street people are making fun of me -- in an organized and systematic way."  
I was so frightened by his words. So shocked. With that one sentence I knew he had crossed the line into madness-- into paranoia, into a world of his imaginings, a world far from ours, where what was real to him was plainly impossible.
"Aaron, it seems that way to you.  These perceptions aren't accurate.  That's not happening," I said.  "We'll get help."  I don't remember what else I said, just the deep fear that landed on me, the pressure along my spine.
I called Arthur, and was glad he was at home, in the apartment on East 9th Street. His companion, Lanie, was an old friend, but I didn't want to call him at her place right now. I repeated Aaron's words to him.  He was upset, of course. But he left it to me what to do next.  That had been the pattern of our marriage, and especially of the decisions we made as parents.
In the morning I called Ellen Wachtel. She gave me the name of a psychiatrist in Boston. She encouraged me to go to Aaron for a few days.
"What if he won't let me?  He's been so distant and angry."
"Tell him firmly that you're coming," she said. Her support helped. I needed to be with him. And when I called him and announced I would visit over the weekend, he made no objection at all.
I checked in with Arthur several times over the course of the week, reporting my plans.

During the days till I could leave for Boston, I walked around in an odd state of shocked languor, as if I'd been gutted and lost my core.  My spectacular son had been struck by mental illness-- my generous, confident, brilliantly able son. I felt like I was coasting along on empty at work.   After tutoring I went uptown for my classes at Hunter. Like my tutoring, they were a distraction from Aaron, though he was always in the back of my mind, and in my body, sapping my energy.
At work the other tutors were talking about some news they found disturbing, assuming I knew about it.  
"I just expected more," a young Trinidadian woman said, as we sat together during our break.  
"Uhhuh," I said vaguely.  Finally, I realized that the verdict had come down in the Rodney King case, and the ensuing outbreak in Los Angeles was part of the background of the next few days, a headline in a paper on a newsstand, a radio report I caught in passing, or a scrap of conversation.
When I spoke to Jay, who was the reason I had left Arthur, I told him about Aaron.  Tuesday evening he came to see me after his teaching.
He sat quietly looking at me as I talked, his brown eyes serious, his large forehead furrowed. Meeting his eyes I was conscious of my fear and a sense of inadequacy in the face of Aaron's illness.  Through the lens of my anxiety, I saw Jay too as lacking. He knew how proud I was of Aaron, he had a sense of him from me-- but he had met Aaron only once, very much in passing.  How could he understand what I was feeling?
"So you're leaving Thursday morning?"
"Yes. I'll be back Sunday."
"I'll give you Jan's number.  Maybe you can stay with her." Jay had friends in Boston, where he had lived until our relationship pulled him to New York.
Before my trip, I called Stasha at her apartment in Brooklyn.  "I'm going to Boston. Aaron has had a breakdown," I told her.  No more. She was two years older than Aaron, but it wasn't her job to help him now, but mine and Arthur's.
As my train pulled into Boston's South Station, I reminded myself of Ellen Wachtel's advice to be matter-of-fact, not to probe, or to make it harder for Aaron by acting distressed. I stepped onto the platform, my daypack on my back. Aaron was standing at the front of the train, tall and straight in a tweed jacket and dark jeans.  He turned away, rather than watch me approach him, rather than meet my gaze. I reached up to hug him, and he gave me a wisp of a hug. His jaw bulged because he was clenching it, changing the shape of his face and he was so thin the sturdy muscles of his shoulders and neck had shrunk.
"Hi, Aaron."
"Hi, Ingrid.  How was your trip?"
From the station we walked to Boston Common along sunny streets crowded with lunchtime strollers.
"I've been to this place," he said, and leaned against the wall of a restaurant, while I gradually realized he was suggesting that we eat there.  So we did. As we sat at the table, his features were often contorted, angry, uncomfortable, even crafty. When he wasn't grimacing there were tension lines around his mouth, though he was only twenty-four. He had been remarkable for his relaxed poise.  It was entirely erased now.
The visible signs of his illness were disturbing, like his delusions, which he didn't bring up. We had an unspoken agreement that I was here to keep him company in this crisis, not talk about people mocking him.
"I got the name of a psychiatrist who's supposed to be very good," I said.
"Arthur gave me a name too. Do you think it matters which one I call?"  
"I'm sure they're both good."
After lunch, we wandered around the Common, watching the people in paddleboats on the pond, and sat on a bench under the trees. It was a pleasant day, and the trees were in leaf already.
"How is your teaching?" I asked.  He had a teaching fellowship, and a lab section that he taught.
"It's ok.  The students are very worried about their grades.  They're always bringing their quizzes to me to complain when I take points off for mistakes."
"They say, 'but it's just a little mistake.'"
"What do you say?"
"I just took off a few points."
He was nice, even tender with me for the first time in a long, long time. He said, "Now, Ingrid, don’t get depressed," when he saw me looking sad.  
Although he had always liked small children and been good with them, when a child asked him to return a ball that had rolled under our bench, he reached down for it and handed it over without a friendly word.  
Next morning, after a night at Jay's friend's house in Cambridge, I was happy to pass a deli on the way to the train, so I could get good bread and curried chicken salad to take to Aaron. He had one large room on the top floor of a small building in Beacon Hill, with stove, sink and refrigerator at one end, and a table and chairs; at the other end was his bed and the good oak desk he had bought himself.
It was sweet to have time with him. He let me put my hand on his warm head, now and then, or his thin back. "What are you thinking?  You look sad," he said. This was the Aaron I had been missing, the dear, caring son I had brought up.
That night there was a spring rainstorm. "It's going to be a good storm.  It's going to clear the air," he said.  
Riding back to New York on the train, I felt better.  Being with Aaron for two days had restored some of my strength.  Talking with him and touching him meant so much after the months when he had kept us at a distance, repeatedly telling us not to call him, barely responding to our questions on the rare occasions when he was willing to talk to us. He had agreed to see a psychiatrist, so I was a little optimistic. Yet I knew the crisis was far from over. His words on the phone--"making fun of me systematically and in an organized way" were seared into me. His bulging jaw, his contorted face, his loss of flesh and muscle all indicated that he was seriously ill.  But maybe not permanently.  I had little knowledge of mental illness, but I knew that some young people recovered.

Around noon

Glorious clear air and Mount Dessert crisp across the water
from Newbury Neck. Around noon the wind whips in
great cold gusts. We close windows,
batten down and wait -- but it passes without rain,
leaving the air even clearer. Night skies crystalline,
the constellations and the Milky Way luminous,
and this morning I see the ledges on Great Pond Moutain
plainly from our pond.

Another way

At the graveyard I kneel by the reddish granite
of Aaron's footstone. How we struggled
to decide what it should say. In the end
we chose the words of Elizabeth Bishop
describing the sea: "dark, salt, clear, cold and utterly
free…" The stone is dark and grimy now,
fixed over the grave, utterly immobile,
except for the movement of the earth in space.
Scrubbing with a pine cone
and water Jay fetches from an urn
I scour away the grime. We rinse it
and I dry it with a handkerchief
and as we take turns reading I watch the polished
surface reflect the leaves shifting over my head,
satisfied that ten years later
I have found another way to take care of Aaron.

Nour Bayyoumi

Nour Bayyoumi
is the name of a Palestinian girl who died
at the hands of the Israelis. That's all I know.
At the protest against the Israeli assault
on Gaza someone puts her name,
printed large, into my hands.
I hold it up. We are far from the desert of Gaza,
where bombs crush buildings and people.
Aging leftists and Palestinians in black, chanting
against Israel's attack, we stand safely in Times Square,
packed into two lanes as the traffic roars by.
Nour slips to the asphalt
and I bend down among the legs
to snatch her up before any one can step on her.

Does her family live to mourn her? Did they
all die together? Even so there must be
aunts and cousins who miss Nour, who miss
them all, as they live on in their shattered world.

Listen to her name again.
Nour Bayyoumi. Say it aloud.
You must help me.
She is ours now.
We must remember her.

The Veselka

I was waiting for my order with Arthur
and Curtis, my house painter cousin,
at our Nouvelle Ukrainian coffee shop,
when a young woman in tights and a jacket bumbled
conspicuously to the rest room, dragging a huge pocketbook
grabbed from another customer, it turned out.
The manager followed her. He took the bag.
She threw herself on the drafty floor.
She has a mental illness, Arthur said, his favorite diagnosis.
She’s drunk, I said, because of how she was throwing herself around.
Curtis noticed how her belly was exposed
under her light jacket as the manager tried to left her up.
She was good at flopping uncooperatively from his hold.
Call the police, Arthur said, to avoid a struggle.
The manager let her lie on the floor in the draft and phoned,
and Curtis left, then came back with a drop cloth to cover her.
A young cop followed him in.
Oh, it’s you, the cop greeted her. What’s going on?
I feel like killing myself, she said cheerfully.
I can send you to Bellevue.
I want to go to Beth Israel.
So that was what she wanted, a private hospital bed.
She wasn’t drunk, and I wasn’t sure she had a mental illness.
But she seemed to be able to take care of herself.
Bellevue, the cop said.
It’s a city hospital, they can’t turn people away.
So she went off with him, our spinach and cheese pirogi came,
and another customer stopped to ask the story.
I told him, She grabbed somebody’s pocketbook.
She wanted to go to Beth Israel.
Israel? he said, bewildered.

Reading Malcolm X in English Class

He was so smart, the Chinese girls said.
The best student in class.
They get upset when he’s into drugs and pimping in Harlem.
A gorgeous young Russian with glossy black curls objects:
We are not supposed to read this kind of book at college.
I say, finish the book. Then you can judge.
Pay attention to the turning points in his life.
Malcolm goes to jail and copies out the dictionary
and corresponds with Elijah Mohammed.
He sees that the white man is the devil.
The Chinese students accept this.
The Russians are upset again.
Even the police are scared to go to Harlem,
says one young Russian, a boy of seventeen.
I explain that’s the opposite of true:
It’s Harlem that terrorized, not the police.
Malcolm breaks with Elijah Mohammed and goes to Mecca.
He becomes world-famous for talking back.
Before he’s killed he sees the white man as part of a system.
Are you afraid? reporters ask, when his house is firebombed.
No, he said. I know I’m going to die a violent death.
The unlikeliest student, Ilia Milouchkine,
the mild, fair son of a preacher,
sitting in back in a wool overcoat, has a revelation.
I realize you must do what you want and not
what other people want. What
made Ilia understand that? I doubt
it was Malcolm’s understanding of racism. Was it
his lack of fear? His determination? How he stood up
without fail to answer back?

Seeking My Country

Last night I paced in a colonial mansion,
the wood floors echoing vacantly.
Of course, my parents were there,
though it wasn’t clear who was in power.
Then in another country I was in bed,
someone was holding out a map,
like a fancy flag or a decorated cake.
Probably it held the answers to all my questions.

But I woke to a messy kitchen and no coffee.
My husband went out for it.
My daughter called; she says she’s Nicaragua,
going forward despite obstacles. I’d go
for Haiti, I said, now that Duvalier’s gone.
Mom, I have my reasons, she said.

My parents are coming, I’ll have to make dinner,
though I’ll be inscrutable as the cake.

You would think you could tell your parents
who you are after forty years, two grown children,
and a fortune in psychotherapy. But they come to visit,
upholstered in their assumptions, drab raincoats
that last forever, and what do you do?
Serve the blandest food you can
and sit it out irritably. What if you said,
Look, I have sex at night.

Instead I dwindle on the couch, muttering dumb responses.
They get bigger and bigger.
My father resembles Captain Hook,
my mother a sad, Victorian Mrs. Grimsby.
I can’t wait to get back into bed,
and holding on to my husband’s warm ribs,
drop back into the dark underground.


My husband- I haven’t learned to call him
my former husband, but I correct myself-
has made more progress putting our marriage behind
him than I have. He calls the bed
where we slept and made love,
where I nursed our children,
where we squabbled and dreamed ourselves
from youth to middle age,
our ex-bed.

Sex and Wanting to Know

My mother is the lovely women at the party.
I lurch among them dazzled.
One leans down to greet me, offering
two moons of flesh. Mine,
I say, wanting to suckle.
She picks me up and laughs, her lips a gleaming ribbon,
like the one you pull to close a pouch,
her mouth full of moving pink and little teeth.
I can see she is bigger and more real than I am,
and I want to be her—beautiful long legs,
slippery with nylon, dangling earrings, and nimble hands.

To her my babiness—words and teeth just made—
was most wonderful of her selves.
Her own she barely glanced at in the mirror
when she put on the sexy dress and mouth.
Cheek to cheek with her newest granddaughter
she still talks of my infant charms,
for I was the first darling of my first love.

At thirteen I want her to explain how I came
from her rich depths. My mother is the sitting room
with nothing out of place where you can’t understand
the stillness. The carpet is thick, everything upholstered,
your footsteps silent. There’s no mirror.
You can’t see yourself.

The Present Absence

When his face became hostile his mouth
tightened against his teeth.
As whose wouldn’t if his parents tried to poison him,
had him spied on, then lied to him?
He didn’t even believe we were his parents—
that was a fiction we maintained,
for vague powers who paid us to trick him.
Are you willing to go for genetic testing? he asked.
Yes, I said. But he didn’t want that once he knew
I’d do it. It always triumphed,
that terrible perversity of his crazed mind.

If Aaron were alive now, I think,
alive and himself, as he was before he lost his mind,
he’d make planning his sister’s wedding easier.
He’d keep her from freaking out
every time there was a hitch.
He had that gift of lightness, of balance,
the confidence that things would work out
that comes with great ability.
He’d join the circle dances at the wedding,
tall and straight, with his broad shoulders.

It was like having a grand piano,
beautifully tuned, then finding it destroyed one day,
though it looked almost the same. Finding
that someone had installed a mechanism
that made it crank out the same mad tunes
over and again on its distorted scales.
Until it was gone. Then you’d concentrate
on how it had been when it was whole.

Crazy Baby

She calls me at my sister’s house in Washington to say
she found my wallet on the train she was cleaning.
“In a red pouch. It’s a wine color. Is it eel skin? The cash is gone,
but your credit cards, your license, your library card,
one for Red Apple, and the one for the bank machine all there.”
Is she trying to sell it back to me?
The credit cards I cancelled, but I don’t tell her.
“Yer family’s real good-lookin'.”
She’s even taking out the pictures; there’s no reserve possible.
I’m embarrassed to have her finger through my things.

Next morning, red daypack on my back, I ask Station Services for Track 8.
“Gate A. Why you want to go there?”
I explain and she nods her corn rows to give permission.
Under the high gray roof of the train shed I find
Tracks 8 and 9, 10 and 11, 12 and 13, but no Cassandra,
who I’m to know by her hard hat.
“Cassandra?” I ask someone with the yellow dome on her curlers.
No, but she leads me to Track 13.
I don’t mind that I’m going to miss my train. This is fun.
Five cars along the empty train two women say Cassandra is
back where I started. Walking there they ask for Crazy Baby.
Crazy Baby is right. I consider reducing the reward I promised.
“How’d she find you?” they ask.
She called my home in New York, I say.
“That was nice.” “Yes,” I say, restoring the amount she’ll get.

We’re almost at the gates when they yell, “Cassandra,
Crazy Baby,” at a tall, skinny kid, maybe twenty-two, hatless.
“I been lookin’ for you,” she says. “I’ve been looking for you,” I say.
“Walk with me,” she says.
She doesn’t want the whole station to see our transaction.
I don’t tell her, it’s too late, you should have been at Track 8
to start with, they’ll hit you up for sure.
She flourishes my wallet in its pouch; I pull three tens from my pocket.
Folded, it look like more.
“What train you takin'?” “The 9:20 but it’s 9:18 now.” “Come on” she says,
takes me a back way, asks, and asks again for number 86,
races two at a time down a steep double flight.
She had my license, she knows damn well I’m 43 and 5 foot 2,
I think, as she waves me on.
“Wait, wait, wait,” she yells at the conductor on the platform.
I can tell I’m going to make the train.
While I trot along, she shrieks, gleeful as an eighth grader
getting to boss the teacher, “Hurry up, hurry up.”

Women’s Action

The night before she died my grandmother hoped for a new world.
In it everyone would have what they needed,
and give what they could.
I would have liked to leave you that, she said.
This squabbling and gangsterism can’t go on.

We dispute who will get her pearls. I end up
with her father’s silver Seder goblet and her stories.
How she took money from the pushka
to buy her mother a beautiful belt of blue medallions.
How did you pay? her mother asked.
She had to give her daily penny into the box for months.

When she brought her father his noon meal one sweltering day
he was lying on a table to fan himself.
The girls were pulling irons from a fireplace,
dunking them in buckets that exhaled steam, to press the vests.
Don’t you see that workers are people like you? she asked.
She wanted him to cut his beard.
Later she was in love with the minister at St Mark’s in the Bowery.
It was like a sickness, she told me.
She took the streetcar from Avenue D
to hear him preach about socialism.
He too had a beard.
Where do you go on Sunday morning? her father used to ask.