Karol Nielsen is the author of the memoirs Black Elephants (Bison Books, 2011) and Walking A&P (Mascot Books, 2018) and the chapbooks This Woman I Thought I’d Be (Finishing Line Press, 2012) and Vietnam Made Me Who I Am (Finishing Line Press, 2020). Her first memoir was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing in nonfiction in 2012. Excerpts were honored as notable essays in The Best American Essays in 2010 and 2005. Her full poetry collection was a finalist for the Colorado Prize for Poetry in 2007. Her work has appeared in Epiphany, Guernica, Lumina, North Dakota Quarterly, Permafrost, RiverSedge, and elsewhere. She has taught writing at New York University and New York Writers Workshop.
I fell in love with an Israeli man on the way to Machu Picchu. He was fresh out of the Israeli army with big dreams about peace. He followed me to New York, and soon he asked me to marry him and move to Israel. The Gulf War broke out after I arrived. When the air raid siren went off, we rushed to the sealed room and put on our gas masks. Saddam Hussein still had chemical weapons back then. Scud missiles landed nearby in Haifa.
Our marriage didn’t survive the fallout from that short, surgical war.
After I ran several marathons and I moved on to Ironman triathlons. I was training with a cycling club when I met him on a long ride outside the city. Our first date was at a bike shop in midtown. He was a pilot who lived a few blocks away on the Upper East Side. After meeting so many strangers on the internet, it was refreshing to run into the boy next door. He was a conservative who hunted with his father and he called me a communist when I told him about my urban writers colony. He introduced me to his family and his niece called him to say she really liked his girlfriend. She was a diver, like me in high school. I wasn’t so sure about his mother—a slim, preppy blonde who worshipped her son. We went out with his pilot friends, and one of them said, “When are you going to marry her?” He smiled. I waited for him to say, “I love you.” But he never did.
My poet friend shared a story about a fisherman who hooked up with a woman who was shot and killed on a city street. I had a party and my poet friend brought the man who inspired his story. I didn’t known until he told me on our first date. I. worked as a photojournalist and played the bass in a punk rock band the performed in five bars downtown. He took medicine for his psychotic symptoms and cleaned house when he had trouble sleeping. I lived in a coop on the preppy Upper East Side and he called my neighborhood plain vanilla. I went to his place in Brooklyn and it smelled like his pitbull. He had no sheets on his bed and his dog jumped up and bit me on the back. I broke it off but he called again. I went to his gig and met his band mates. We sat at the bar even though he didn’t drink any more. The young punk rock singer from his band looked me dead in the eyes: “You’re going to break his heart.”
I developed a crush on my journalism professor in graduate school. He had just won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for writing about generations of poverty going back to the Great Depression. He taught a seminar on poverty and powerlessness and I wrote about the homeless. When he critiqued my paper, he said, “I was expecting rock and roll. This is pop.” We stayed in touch and met for dinner sometimes. He told me about the novels he wrote and his frustration that he couldn’t get them published. But he went on to publish many nonfiction books about poverty and homelessness. He complained that he his book sales were a disappointment. I had known him for decades when I finally kissed him. We saw each other until the end of the semester when he left for his off grid cabin in the hills of Northern California. Over the summer, I read his latest book—a memoir about his father’s service in World War Ii and his search to find the men who fought with him. He didn’t call when he got back to the city. I invited him to hear me read from my Gulf War memoir but he politely declined. We stayed in touch and he blurbed my new memoir about my father’s tour in Vietnam and our trip back together. My mentor, still.
I met K.—a poet, playwright, humorist, and writing teacher—at my writers colony in the city. He invited me to his readings and plays. He had a pretty girlfriend who was a hippie like him. Then one day he told me they broke up. He said she brought a bottle if wine to his place, opened it up, and started drinking by herself. I wondered what I would do to offend him. We read our poems, ushered at plays, and went to operas in our Sunday best. He visited me in his converted school bus when I spent a year in upstate New York. He didn’t want to marry me or live with me but he desperately wanted to have a baby with me. I didn’t want children, but he persisted anyway. He gave up on the city and moved to New Orleans. He visited me and said, “You kept me here for a long time.” It didn’t last and I was relieved. I could have ended up as a single mother.