Summer Essays: A Moment of Betrayal

Her heart hammered against her rib cage as she slid to the ground.


Katarzyna Bialasiewicz

Editor's Note: Summer essayists contemplate personal moments of disloyalty, sharing their stories that range from a failing body and objection to war to peer pressure and loss of faith.

An act of betrayal can cause hopelessness and despair. But people show amazing resilience and often overcome the temporary setbacks disloyalty leaves in its disastrous wake.

The East Bay Monthly asked East Bay writers to consider a moment of betrayal in the summer essay contest. The theme seemed to resonate well with the wordsmiths, and essayists responded by turning in moving prose about infidelity, loss, abusive relationships, inside jokes, bullying, and other topics.

The essays chosen to present in print address betrayal in wide-ranging ways, touching on the strains of a weakening body, standing up to the U.S. Marines, and making a gut decision that puts a group of friends at odds. They explore a loss of faith in a trusted adult and a careless act in wartime. They are poignant, dramatic, exciting, heartwarming, and humorous tales, and they are well-written.

Congratulations to the winning essayists, Naneen Karraker, Robert Menzimer, Stacy Appel, Patricia Young, Anna Rabkin, Flossie Lewis, and Bobbie Stein. Thanks to all the many Bay Area writers for submitting such wonderful prose—it was truly great reading. Look for our next essay contest in the winter.

This is the first of the seven winning essays:


My heart is pounding, a thundering fills my head, and I can't catch my breath as I reach the top of the Philadelphia subway station stairs. This isn't me. I'm healthy. At 66, I am strong and brave enough to do handstands several times a week. I travel a lot, too. These days I fly east several times a year for meetings. Today, I'm on my way to a two-day advisory board meeting at the Quaker Center.

Through the pouring rain, I see a smudge of lights. If I squint and concentrate really hard, they look enough like the drugstore I'm trying to find. I need an umbrella. It's six long blocks to my meeting. As blurry as they are, the lights become a beacon, a goal, helping me move ahead instead of lying down right where I am.

"I've got to get an umbrella." I say it again and again as I fight against the growing weakness in my legs. I can barely put one foot ahead of the other, inching toward the half-dozen people waiting for the light to change.

The light changes. I step off the curb, dragging my new rolling carry-on with one hand and clutching in the other a bag of crisp red apples I'd picked yesterday at my cousin's Hudson Valley farm. The drugstore lights are just ahead. But when I reach them, I can't find a door. Just the cold, hard side of a city building interrupted by a ribbon of faintly lit windows. Above them, a Walgreens sign shines a bright red into the dark, autumn evening. I'm imagining a friendly space where I can sit and finally catch my breath. But now what?

I know I need to get out of the rain. I spot an opening in the side of the building, another subway exit, to my left. I push myself to take the dozen or so steps to reach it. Just inside, there's a narrow landing, maybe 4 feet wide, before stairs leading down to the tracks. I park my suitcase against the wall just inside the opening and lean against it, fighting to suck in one long breath after another. A young man is perched on a ledge about 6 feet across the opening from me. He's dressed casually, wearing earphones, swaying slightly to his music, eyes closed, waiting for the rain to let up. People rush in and out of the subway and along the sidewalk. My heart hammers against my ribs. My legs give way. I slide slowly down the wall, hoping my new suitcase can hold me. I remember something about how women can experience a heart attack without chest pains or shooting pains down the left arm. Fear spurs me to reach for my cellphone. I dial 911.

A woman finally answers. Somehow I find the words to tell her I think I'm having a heart attack. "Where are you?" she asks. "Near the Walgreens on Broad and Chestnut," I mumble, praying I've accurately named my location. Philadelphia is a new city for me.

"We'll send an ambulance right away."

I can barely focus through the fog that is now settling across my eyes. The steady flow of people becomes a blur. No one stops to help as my legs give way and I curl slowly to the damp sidewalk, knees bent, my back against the suitcase. Still grasping for air, I begin to tremble, afraid that the ambulance will come too late to find me. Then desperate, I lean toward the young man perched on the ledge across from me, struggling to make my voice heard.

"Help me, I think I'm dying."

He looks up, hops off the ledge, and kneels beside me.

"Ma'am, I'm here. What's going on?"

"I called 911, but I don't hear any sirens."

"Don't worry," he assures me. "I hear them. They're coming."

I strain to hear and struggle against the weight that's making me feel like stretching out on the wet pavement. To hell with the pedestrians! So what if they have to step around me!

He puts his arm around my shoulders, holding me close. Finally I can hear the sirens through the rain and traffic and pedestrian noise. Closer and closer. He then pulls away, gently propping me against my suitcase.

"They're across the street," he announces. He jumps up, racing toward the blur of flashing lights. I crumble sideways, stretching out on the wet sidewalk.

Moments later he is beside me, carefully lifting me so I'm sitting again. "They're here," he assures me. I can vaguely make out two EMTs, dragging their gurney, heading toward us. One of them guides me onto the gurney. He attaches an oxygen mask over my nose and mouth. As I focus on sucking in one breath after another, I can feel the young man moving around, making sure the EMTs have not only me, but also my suitcase and the bag of apples. Then he is gone.

I'm still here, still here and beginning to breathe more easily, even though my body is not the body I've trusted for so many years.

Over the past 46 years, Naneen Karraker honed her writing skills by passionately arguing for reducing overreliance on incarcerating people in the United States through letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, pamphlets, grant applications, and speeches. She and her late husband, a criminal defense attorney, raised two sons in Berkeley.

Editor's Note: This story appears in the July edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

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