A few months later, a big teenager on the subway was jostling for position with a petite girl. I'd thought they were playing, until her face flushed scarlet and she hurried away in tears. The car grew silent, his violence hanging in the air. Again, I thought: I can't let this go by.

"You know," I said, "you're really strong." His chest puffed out with pride. "Maybe you don't know how strong you are?" He looked startled; I had his attention. "You're so strong that everyone in this car is afraid of you." The tension broke, and people started talking again. By the time I got off, the kid was scribbling down the title of my novel—misspelling the word "disturbance"—which he wanted to buy.

But that evening, on the sidewalk outside the grocery story, I faced a large, angry man, not a teenager. Not a good recipe for sticking your two cents in.

Trapped at the light, as I stood listening, I remembered far back, to my father shouting in my sister's face. A picky eater, she had refused to eat an egg our mom had made because, instead of being perfectly flat, it had a bubble. My dad, a motherless boy raised by a poor, mean father, had made it through by joining the Marines. On my eight-year-old sister he was using the best parenting skills he knew.

Trauma is like a door that blows open too easily; strangers drag in pain, or a wild sense of threat, when you least expect it. My instinct, in these situations, is to run. But though no one would hold me responsible for that father and daughter, I couldn't bear to let him shout that girl into my past. And so, instead of crossing on the green, I set down my bags and turned to him.

"I'll give you twenty dollars," I said, "on the condition that you listen to a story." And I described the memory, the scene, he had evoked for me. As I talked I teared up, and then he teared up. I was 48, I said, and didn't have a family partly because I hadn't learned, in time, not to scream the way I'd been screamed at.

He looked down at his daughter and shuddered.

"She will remember every word of this," I said.

"Wow," he said.

I handed him the twenty. His clothes stank a bit, but we hugged. And despite the bags I was carrying, I walked home, lighter.

In telling my shameful truth to a stranger, I didn't reach back and fix my own past. And that man, with his troubles, will probably shout at his daughter again. But despite all I can't fix in the world, in that one moment, I was able to put who I am to use, even if that person is not who I wish I had been.

Responsibility—the word feels so heavy that one wants to back away. But maybe it's just a simple decision to respond, to give what you have to someone who can use it.

Joyce Hackett is the author of Disturbance of the Inner Ear, a novel about healing from childhood trauma. Her novel-in-progress, Reconstruction, is about self-reinvention and -rewriting in the lives of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony.

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