An Excerpt from The Love Children, an unpublished novel
One rainy Saturday Steve and I were alone at a place called the gallery. We were sitting against the wall, smoking and drinking cokes, and listening to music, when Steve said, “Want to try something weird?”
He pulled a little plastic bag with something brown in it out of his pocket. It looked like chopped up mushrooms.
“It looks like chopped-up mushrooms,” I said.
“That’s what it is. Magical mushrooms,” he grinned. “Take a handful. Eat them.” He washed them down with coke. I imitated him, chewing the tasteless things.
“Now just wait.” He fiddled with his big portable radio, what they used to call a boom box, or a ghetto blaster, until he found a station playing the Beatles. You could always find one, eventually: the Beatles were constantly on. They were playing “Strawberry Fields.”
We sat close to each other, our legs jiggling in time to the music, letting the mushrooms settle in.
After a little while, I could see the strawberry fields. I was wandering in sunlight, delighted at the tiny red berries nestled in the deep green leaves all around me. All my pores were open to the sun, and inside I was a cauldron of fire.
“I am fire and air!” I cried. “I have immortal longings on me!”
We were reading Antony and Cleopatra in Junior English.
“I am open to the universe!” I cried. Steve tried to hush me. He hugged me lightly, told me to calm down.
But I pulled away from him and ran outside. I was burning up. I threw open my coat, I put my face up to the rain and tried to drink it. It was amazing how hard it was to get the drops to fall in your mouth.
“Jess! Jessamin! Stop!” Steve urged from the door. “Suppose a cop sees you!”
I stopped. That remark had penetrated my haze. I turned to him proudly. “I am open to everything!” I announced, holding my wrists out in front of me for the cuffs.
Over that winter and spring, we regularly experimented – that’s how we thought about it, as experimenting, like Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley and those guys. We took mescaline and acid, Black Beauties that made you soar. And until the cops kicked us out of the gallery, what a time we had! We’d lie around on the floor, in states of benign passivity. We felt we were experimenting with altered moods, and that our experiments made us broader, more tolerant, more generous people. That was what it meant to be part of the new generation; that was what love children were. A love child had a purpose in life. We were against the Vietnamese war, yes, but also against racism and all war, all violence.
We were incredulous that anyone on earth would deny the truth of our ideas. We spoke in wonder of people who did, the over-thirty generation. We couldn’t grasp their mentality. I personally was a little uncomfortable with these terms. My mother was over thirty, but she thought war was used by elites to maintain their power over the rest of us. But you couldn’t really say that out loud in those days. My father supported the war, but not because he thought war was wonderful. He thought it was inevitable. He bragged about Leightons fighting in all this country’s wars because he felt they had sacrificed themselves. But I didn’t see him signing up for Vietnam, and Mom said he hadn’t wanted to fight in Korea either.
A lot of people didn’t like our ideas. Now when I look back on those days, I see how naïve we were, how simple-minded. People today talk about the sixties as a crazy time, and say we were foolish, deluded, off our heads. They think my generation was wasted, drugged-out, a generation of losers. But our experiments with drugs were part of our sensibility, one aspect of our enlightenment. We were open to discovering our inner being instead of cracking up cars driving drunk, or fighting each other with fists in the streets like earlier generations, or metaphorically killing each other on the floor of the stock exchange. We really were the beginning of the brave new world.
We thought that we were a miracle generation born to create a new way of seeing and feeling, a different morality. We had the sense that for generations, for eons, maybe, people had thought war was a great thing, killing was heroic, and domination noble. But we knew that killing was awful, domination miserable for dominated and dominator, and war a horror. What mattered was connection: getting in touch with your feelings and with other people, seeing the beauty in other people, loving them. Relatedness.
Of course, some of us got lost along the way.
Steve and I often cut school. One day that spring Steve found me in the hall on my way to French class, and we darted out a side door just before the bell rang. We stood across the street, having a smoke in front of some lady’s house that didn’t like us (she’d chased us away before), when we saw a squad of police with riot shields and helmets charging down the street. We looked at each other: Were they coming for us? Had the lady called the police on us like she said she would? We started to walk quickly, trying not to look like we were running. But even after we were a hundred yards from the mean lady’s house, the police kept running in our direction, batons in their right hands, shields in their left. They looked absolutely terrifying, like robot medieval knights. We finally stopped dead on the sidewalk, but they went on running past us and into the school.
Steve had earned enough at his job at Monaghan’s to buy himself a red and white Chevy, a couple of years old but shiny and nice. He said, “Let’s go get my car. Then we can take off if we need to.”
We ran toward Bow Street. The car was parked in the lot behind Monaghan’s. We got in it and crouched down in the backseat. We were both panting from running, and were very thirsty, so Steve jumped out and went in the back door of Monaghan’s and came back with some water and a little bag of weed. We sat on the floor of the backseat and gulped water, and Steve rolled a joint. He lit it and passed it to me. I inhaled deeply. Oh, it was good.
Soon we were both laughing so hard we had to pee, and we ran into Monaghan’s. I knew we were both laughing off our nervousness from seeing the cops. We had another joint and calmed down, and then we started to make out, and I, well, we’d made out before, and I loved Steve, I really loved him, but before that day I hadn’t felt quite so, well, something was new, something was squirming inside me, it was like the time I ate the mushroom, I was painfully open, hungrily open, and I let him touch me and I touched him and he came in my hand. He’d never done that before, and I was kind of overwhelmed, it was a little disgusting, I didn’t know it’d be like that. I cried out and sat up. And he turned away and wiped himself off and said he was sorry but he couldn’t help it. I kissed him and tried to pretend I didn’t mind, but I felt a little sick.
I went home after that. Mom was home although it was only a little after four and she was surprised that I had skipped work. I didn’t tell her I’d also skipped French and math. The minute Mom laid eyes on me she could tell something was wrong, so I told her about the cops. I said I didn’t feel well.
She looked at me the way she did when I didn’t feel well, looked at my eyes, and felt my forehead. I could still taste the pot in my mouth, and wondered if she could smell it, but she didn’t say anything. She told me to lie down and she’d bring me some chamomile tea. In a little while, I drifted off to sleep. But after that, I thought she acted just a little bit odd. Something was bothering her. I could tell by the set of her neck. And a few days after that, she told me she thought I should spend the summer with Dad. She decided this all on her own! She called him late one night, I didn’t even hear the conversation. She asked him to get me a job, and he called a couple of nights later to say there was a job for me waitressing at some café a friend of his owned.
I admit it was heading to be a lonely summer anyway with most of my friends gone. Steve was going to be working full time but he’d be around nights and I could see him weekends. So I didn’t want to go to Vermont, and protested vociferously. It did me no good. Mom was determined to get rid of me. Steve thought she knew what we’d done in the car and wanted to separate us. I didn’t see how she could know about that, but then I didn’t see how she could know about the drugs, either. That she knew something seemed clear.
Or maybe Dad had been right all these years and she did have a lover and wanted to get me out of the way. The idea had crossed my mind before. Not that I didn’t trust her – although Daddy certainly didn’t. Or maybe it was because she was trying to find a new job. Ever since Daddy left after Christmas, I’d been hearing her phone her friends to ask if they knew of anything. She had made up a CV and had it Xeroxed in the square, and sent it to a hundred colleges. She did most of this in her cubicle in Holyoke Center, where she kept another electric typewriter so Daddy wouldn’t know what she was doing. We never knew when he might appear, and whenever he was home, he searched her desk and her trash basket. He wasn’t the least bit embarrassed by that, even if I saw him doing it.
And that summer she did fly to Ohio and Florida and South Carolina for job interviews. This worried me awfully. What if she got a job in some horrible place! We’d have to move there! Like Wisconsin!
But Mom found a job late in June, right before I was to leave for Vermont. She was hired at Moseley in Boston, thank goodness, starting in the fall. The night they called to offer her the job, we were in the kitchen together, peeling vegetables. She dried her hands and took the phone.
She didn’t say much and when she hung up, she stood there for a while with her head bowed, as if she was praying. Then she said, “I got a job, Jess.”
“Right here,” she was almost crying. “In Boston. Moseley.”
“Terrific!” I meant it.
She took off her apron – I didn’t know why. She poured a scotch. She sat down at the table. “Sit with me, Jess.”
I put down the leek.
“You know I wanted to get a full-time job, a tenure-track job, so I could earn enough to support us.”
“I’m going to be paid $13,000,” she said. “We can live on that.”
“That means I can divorce Daddy.”
“No!” I cried.
She sat there in silence as I crouched over into my arms, crying. “It will kill him. Do you have to?
Do you have to?”
“It won’t kill him. I have to. You know why. His constant rage. It makes me hate him. And living with someone you hate is unhealthy. It makes me hate myself. It’s bad for my health. And it’s bad for you. And I want a happy life. I’m thirty-eight years old. I still have a chance for a happy life.”
“It will kill him!”
“No, it won’t. He’ll think it will, but it won’t. He’ll find someone else to rage at, fast enough.”
“I won’t ever see him!” I yelled.
“We’ll try to fix it so you do,” she said.
But I was inconsolable, and she had to finish making dinner all by herself. I went up to my room and lay on my bed. But in the end, I came down. I was hungry, and we were having veal chops with a puree invented by Alice Waters, a great chef in California, of leeks, potatoes, celeriac and white turnips, something I really loved. And stewed tomatoes.
She made the divorce another reason for me to go up to Vermont. She said I should be with him while I could. He didn’t know she was divorcing him. I sure wasn’t going to tell him: I didn’t want to pay for her sins.
Actually, that summer in Vermont wasn’t so bad. Dad was easier when Mom wasn’t around. He stayed out in his studio from about ten in the morning until nighttime. His housekeeper Mrs. Thacker would carry out a sandwich and a beer and some cookies around one, and she left food on the stove when she went home later. Dad would hump in around nine, and pour a stiff drink and sit in a chair. He’d just sit there, staring into space for a while, drinking fast, pouring drink after drink. After a while, his soul would come back into his eyes, and he’d get up and grab a fork, and sink into a kitchen chair and eat the food lukewarm right out of the pot. After he ate, he’d pour a fresh drink. I’d hear the ice cubes tinkling in the glass when he came into the living room, and I’d look up from my book or the TV and say “Hi, Dad,” and he’d say “Hi, Jess,” and sink into his armchair, and after a while he’d fall asleep. I’d awaken him before I went to bed, and tell him to go to bed. He either did or he didn’t. I couldn’t stand the way he lived, but he always spoke gently to me, always seemed a little surprised that I was there.
Working at the café, which I had dreaded, was fun. It drew college kids from New York, who spent summers in Vermont. I made some friends, and was pals with a girl called Gail, who lived in Manhattan and went to Brearley. She came in every day for a cappuccino, and smoked pot right out in public. Mom called me every week. At first I wouldn’t talk to her; I was so mad at her for sending me up there. But after a while I relented: I knew she missed me, and was sad without me. I never told Dad she’d gotten a job, or said anything about her wanting a divorce. Some things you just didn’t mention to my father, it would be like lighting dynamite.
At the end of August, Mom called to say she was flying to Mexico in a few days to get a divorce. I asked if Dad knew and she said, no. I didn’t understand how she could get a divorce without his knowing, and it turned out he’d signed a power of attorney. She said that when he was home at Christmas, he was in a rational state of mind for a few days and she could talk to him about separation without his having a tantrum. She even got him to go with her to see a lawyer. He had signed a separation agreement, but judging from how he acted later, he must never have believed she’d go through with it.
He was always a paradox: he regularly blew up at her or me, shrieking absolutely hateful things in tantrums that lasted whole weekends, but when she mentioned divorce, he would laugh. He would say how happy they were together, and that he never loved anybody but her. He constantly suspected her of infidelity, but even when he was in a rage, he assumed she was utterly bound to him and would not leave him no matter how horribly he behaved. Anyway, he had gone to the meeting with the lawyer and promised to give her generous child support. She and her lawyer had urged him to get someone to represent him; he refused. He signed the papers, and stormed out of the office.
Somehow, though, she knew he’d never pay it. That was why she knew she had to get a better job before she divorced him. And afterwards, he sent her almost nothing to take care of me. It’s odd to think of yourself and your parents in terms of money, odd to think about money being love.
Someone told me that Freud said money was shit, but that’s crazy. It’s love, doled out or withheld. But it made me wonder how my father felt about me that he wouldn’t send Mom enough money to even feed me. Like it was me who divorced him.
At the end of that summer, my mother flew down to El Paso and crossed the border in a van to get a Mexican divorce. The night before she did it, she called my father long distance from El Paso to tell him what she was doing. I was asleep when the phone rang and I went to the top of the stairs, preparing to run down and answer it, but Dad picked it up first. Maybe he was asleep too, maybe that’s why he acted the way he did. He exploded in curses, calling her all those horrible names. I ran back to my room, I didn’t want to hear. He stayed a while on the phone; I could hear his voice even after he stopped yelling. Then I heard loud noises: Dad was clattering and clanking around, throwing things, it sounded like. Suddenly my door was thrust open and light poured into the doorway.
“Did you know about this?”
I sat upright in bed. “What?”
“Shit!” he cried, and went out again, slamming my door so hard it bounced open again.
The next morning, as I got ready to go to work, he threw some things in a bag and tore out of the house, yelling at me not to burn the place down. He got in his truck and drove away, real fast.
When I was sure he was gone, I called Mom to see if she knew what had happened, but there was no answer.
That night as I was sitting down at the table to eat the dinner Mrs. Thacker had left, my father stormed in through the back door.
He took one look at me and shouted, “Did she tell you?”
“What?” I asked, hating the tremor in my voice.
“The divorce, bitch!” he screamed.
He stomped on past me and went to the pantry and opened a fresh bottle of Canadian Club, poured a glassful, and sank down at the table.
“She divorced you?” I asked timorously.
“She tried,” he muttered. “But I fixed her.”
I waited. I didn’t dare ask. But he couldn’t contain himself.
“She thinks I’m a dummy. She thinks she can use my power of attorney. But I fixed her: I sent a telegram to Mexico, revoking it. Hah!”
“How did you know where to send it? How did you know the address?”
“Americans get divorced in Juarez,” he said. “They stay in El Paso and cross the border in a van. That’s the cheapo way to do it. That’s what she’d do. I know your mother. Oh, yes! I called the court there.”
“So what does that mean?”
“Means she thinks she’s divorced, but she ain’t!” he grinned. “And then I met her at Logan and told her so! Fixed her wagon. That bitch!”
“You met her at Logan? How did you know what flight she’d be on.”
“There’s only one flight from El Paso to Logan a day. Had to be on it.” He smiled that sick grin again and poured whiskey down his throat.
I hadn’t realized my father was that resourceful, that smart. I knew he was intelligent, maybe even brilliant, but not in an everyday useful way. I always thought of him as an innocent, an artist with his head in the clouds, who just couldn’t help being sort of inadequate in daily life. That was why he drank; everybody knew artists and writers drank because art was so hard.
“What did she do?”
“Nothing,” he shrugged, “what could she do? It’s a fait accompli!” He smiled.
Somehow I couldn’t picture my mother standing there silent for this. “She must have done something,” I insisted.
“Bitch,” he swore.
“Are you calling me a bitch?”
“You act just like her sometimes.”
That did it. I stood up.
“What’s the matter with you?” he cried.
I didn’t know myself. I ran up to my room and packed my stuff in my duffel, counted my money. I’d been saving my wages over the summer, and with tips and no expenses for living, I’d accumulated a few hundred dollars. I’d never had that much money in my possession before and it made me feel very strong, I have to say. Since my friends and I looked down on materialism and were sure we weren’t materialists, I knew I’d have to think about this, but later, not now. At least I was sure I had enough for a bus ticket to Cambridge. When I got downstairs, the kitchen was empty. My father had disappeared, along with the bottle of Canadian Club. I refused to look for him, refused to ask him to drive me into town, not after the way he’d spoken to me: I was too angry. I was too angry to leave him a note. Let him worry. If he even noticed I was gone.
I walked to the road and hitched into town. I had to sit in the bus station for a couple of hours, but I had a paperback of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook with me. It was near midnight when I finally got home, but Mom was sitting in the kitchen over a drink. I groaned, but she wasn’t drunk. She looked ravaged. I went over and hugged her and she held me for a while. We didn’t talk at all. I wanted to yell at her for what she’d done, but she looked too wasted. It would have to wait.
The next day, she looked okay. We were both home: it was the very end of August, and neither of us had work to go to. So we dawdled in the way we both like to in the morning. I like to drink coffee and sprawl on the old armchair we keep in the kitchen and read. I was loving The Golden Notebook. Mom liked to make coffee and read her newspapers – the New York Times and the Boston Globe. It took her hours to get going in the morning.
So, we were lolling there in the kitchen, reading, and I decided to start.
“Dad was very upset yesterday.”
She looked up. “I hope he didn’t take it out on you.”
“Of course he did. You know he would!”
She laid her newspaper down and looked at me. “I’m sorry, Jess.”
“Yeah. He said he met you at Logan.”
She grimaced. “Yes.”
“What did you do?”
She shrugged. “It was so stupid. He said…” she sighed and stopped. “I don’t know how to explain….”
“I know what he said. He told me.”
“Oh. Well, it was so stupid. The chances are his telegram didn’t go to the right place, and in Mexico…Things are so confused there anyway….there’s little chance that he did actually cancel the power of attorney. Anyway, I think I am really divorced. I have papers. But even if I’m not, it doesn’t matter. I mean, he understands that we’re not together anymore, not husband and wife anymore. That’s all that matters to me. That we are legally divorced matters only if one of us wanted to marry again, and I won’t, I wouldn’t put myself in that situation again, ever. For me, marriage was too horrible. But not for him, so he will marry again. So if he did mess things up, it’s himself he messed up, not me. I told him that. He’ll be the bigamist, not me.”
“What makes you think Dad will marry again?”
“He was happy being married; he wasn’t unhappy being married to me.”
“But you were?” I couldn’t help sounding a little accusing.
“Of course. You know what his tantrums were like. He went into such rages….even before he started drinking so much. I was thinking about divorce long before he went to Vermont. His living up there probably kept the marriage alive for a few more years.”
“How can you be sure you won’t marry again?”
She smiled. “I’m sure, honey. Very sure.”
She was right, Dad did marry again, twice. His second wife divorced him too. He married a third time, but died just a few years later, at fifty-nine, from lung cancer. And she was right about herself, too. She never married again. She had this recurring dream, she told me long afterwards, that she had somehow married Daddy again. She would discover this and cry out in grief and rage, “How could I do that? I was free of him, how could I let myself marry him again?” In the dream, she was frustrated to tears that she had blown her chance at freedom. I like to think that if she had lived long enough, she would have gotten over her fear of marriage and let herself have a companion again, but she died at sixty-two, of cancer, too. You’d think I would have given up smoking, but I didn’t.
The whole event – Mom sending me up to Vermont and then secretly getting a divorce, my father’s dreary way of life and the way he acted to me at the end – all of it did something to me. It didn’t turn me against my parents, exactly, but it changed where I stood in regard to them, as if a giant hand had picked me up and set me down again at a different place on the globe, further away from my family, my friends, my country. I began to see them as if they were not my parents, but just people. I didn’t feel good about that; it felt disloyal, I guess. But it also gave me a sense of – freedom. They weren’t me, I wasn’t bound by them, I wasn’t like them and didn’t want to be.
Mostly, it made me decide that no matter what, I wouldn’t live like them. I would be careful who I married and I would do whatever I had to do to have a happy marriage. I would never drink too much. I would live right.