Nonfiction

A Woman of Rare Appeal, collage by Carolyn Schlam

Thirty-four Years to Graduation

Colorado State College, Fall 1965 Fall 1968

 

When “Johnny” starts singing on a Colorado mountaintop in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, I decide that Colorado is where I will go to college.  Before that, I didn’t much care as long as college was away from Florida, where I grew up.  When I arrive at school I discover that Colorado looks just like it did in the movie.

 

The Beatles / The Lovin’ Spoonful / The Mamas and Papas / Simon and Garfunkel.

Short skirts, Twiggy tights, poor-boy sweaters, Patty Duke flip hairdo.

Mrs. K, dorm mother:  widow, mid-sixties, substantial, all bosom. Gray/blue tightly crimped hair, dowdy dresses—usually black, sometimes navy blue. Thick stockings, black sensible shoes. Silver-framed cat’s-eye glasses on a gold chain. Rhinestone clip-on earrings. We are her first girls’ dorm—before, she always had boys. Something happened the previous year, and we are her last chance. I don’t know how we know this. We try on her flapper dresses one night. It’s ridiculous how much fun we have playing dress-up with her.

Smuggle beer into the dorm for ice-cream beer floats.

Sneak out after curfew.

Sunbathe at the lake with Liz at the end of our freshman year. Scratchy towels. Hot.  Iodine and baby oil. Beer in McDonald’s paper cups. That year I am raped in a yellow room on yellow sheets and get four cracked ribs. Liz has been stalked by an old boyfriend. We won’t tell each other these things until we are in our thirties. At the lake we just think about our tans.

Attempt suicide with a bottle of tranquilizers. I don’t even know why exactly.

Vietnam War.

A boyfriend strangles me until I pass out. When I come to, I apologize for the argument he says I started.

Attempt suicide again. While the boyfriend is in class, I swallow all the pills in his medicine cabinet. He gets home early and shoves his fingers down my throat and makes me throw up.

Baggy jeans and over-size shirts, hair so short it doesn’t need combing.

Gin and Schweppes Bitter Lemon and a squeeze of lime. Vodka.

Mrs. K asks me to drive to Rocky Mountain National Park with her. It’s her wedding anniversary and she doesn’t want to be alone. I want to go, but don’t know how to take care of an old lady grieving her dead husband. I tell her no. I will always regret this.

A girl jumps out of her sixth-floor dorm window and kills herself.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated.

Suspended for drinking in the dorm.

After the deans deliver their verdict, I leave campus and don’t return until hours after curfew. Mrs. K is waiting up for me. I say something hateful, and she opens her arms and pulls me into her bosomy embrace. In that moment I understand how much I love her, and that makes me cry. We stand there in the darkened dorm lobby, both crying. She says she’s always known I drink in the dorm, she just hoped she’d never catch me. But Cheryl Beaman saw me too, and she would have reported it if Mrs. K hadn’t. Mrs. K would have lost her job for keeping quiet, and it is all she has left. We hug for a long while.

When I’m allowed back in school the next quarter, I drop all but one economics course after two weeks and drive to Mexico with some guy.

Bobby Kennedy is assassinated.

Mrs. K is “taken away.” I never find out what, exactly, this means. Only that they take her forcibly in a medical vehicle. One girl says she was in a straitjacket, but I don’t know if that’s true.

My friend David, beautiful David, ODs on heroin. The last time I see him he is walking down the middle of Eighth Avenue in the pouring rain, carrying an umbrella so broken only the ribs are left. He’s staring straight up at the sky through those ribs, laughing. Man, he is really out of it, I think. Now he’s dead.

Get pregnant.

Marry the guy I drove to Mexico with. On my wedding day my mother says, “Smile.  This is supposed to be the happiest day of your life, and it’s going to be.”

Morning sickness keeps me from the first two months of the quarter, and I don’t register again.

***
Oregon State University, Fall 1979 and Winter 1980

 

Dire Straits / Leon Redbone / Andrés Segovia / Linda Ronstadt.

Levi’s, turtlenecks, blazers, frizzed-out Gilda Radner hair, Gloria Steinem oversize tinted eyeglasses.

My sociology professor, who is female, lectures about how women have “made it” and the feminist movement is no longer necessary. This infuriates me. It seems I am always angry since I left my violent husband. I don’t have enough words yet to explain how horribly wrong she is, so I walk out and never go back to her class.

My ex-husband calls every night to tell me how stupid I am, that I should come back home to Denver.

I thought geology would be like the introduction to Michener’s Hawaii—with volcanos building up mounds of rock in the middle of the ocean and seabirds pooping seeds onto the new islands and plants growing from those seeds—but it’s just chemistry crap. During the lab portion of the geology final, the professor passes around rocks for us to identify. The ones I’m not sure about I pass on to the next person, thinking I’ll come back to them. By the time all the rocks have gone by, I have only one answer out of twenty written down: talc. I skip the written final.

When my grades come in the mail, I toss them unopened into the trash. I don’t bother registering for another quarter.

***
Road Trip to Colorado, Summer 1995

 

I’m meeting my son for a backpacking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park. This is the first road trip I’ve made to Colorado since I left my husband in 1978.

Heart / Waylon Jennings / The Beatles / Linda Ronstadt.

Jeans, 10K race T-shirts, gray ponytail, old running shoes.

I decide to stay the night in Greeley and walk around the Colorado State College campus, which is now the University of Northern Colorado. As I approach the gym, my heart starts pounding like it’s trying to break out of my chest. I remember that the football player who raped me hung around there and he’d smirk at me. It suddenly dawns on me that I must have felt scared every time I walked past the gym, which would have been every day because it was right in the middle of campus.

Telephone Dr. Trainer, who had been head of the economics department and my advisor.  I tell him I had been a student of his. It’s been almost thirty years; I seriously doubt he’ll remember me. He was well known for never remembering anybody, even if you were currently in one of his classes. But he immediately rattles off all these facts about me: I grew up in Coral Gables, Florida; my father was a pilot for Eastern; I was suspended for drinking in the dorm, which was a damn shame because the very next year the school reduced it to a minor infraction; I forged his signature on all my school forms (I thought I had gotten away with that). He says he rarely remembers any of his students, but I had a “spark.” He invites me to his house.

Dr. Trainer is in his seventies now. He looks at me with genuine fondness—and with a start, I realize he always had. It had been my experience in my college days that, with very few exceptions, men either looked right through you or forced you into sex. Dr. Trainer didn’t do either.

We sit in his formal living room, and his wife serves tea and cake on the good china with sterling silverware and linen napkins. I’m like a visiting dignitary. I talk about my work at the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence and tell Dr. Trainer that I am going back to college in the fall at a school that caters to older, returning students. He laughs and says it’s hard to think of me as an older student—I still look like I’m nineteen.

Mrs. K says she can’t wait to see me when I telephone, and when I arrive flings her door open before the doorbell finishes ringing. She is well into her nineties and shorter than I am now, with little hollow-bone bird arms and legs. Her hug is still strong. China figurines and framed photographs clutter her apartment. Probably it’s all the same stuff she had in the dorm, but it’s hard to say.

We laugh about the olden days, and Mrs. K fills me in on the gossip she’s heard about the other girls. We don’t mention my eviction from the dorm, other than her saying, “I know you won’t want to talk about Cheryl Beaman, but she still lives in town and she does look in on me regularly.”

Mrs. K directs me in the making of our baloney sandwiches for lunch: one slice baloney on white bread with mayonnaise and an iceberg lettuce leaf. Lay’s potato chips on the side. After we eat, we sit on her couch and, holding hands, watch a video she wants me to see about a polar-bear cub at the Denver Zoo.

***
Marylhurst College, Fall 1995 – Spring 1999

 

Stand in line at the college bookstore, loaded down with textbooks and a Marylhurst T-shirt and mug. The woman in front of me is also loaded down with textbooks and a Marylhurst T-shirt and mug. We grin at each other—two gray-haired women going back to college.

Bakra Bata / Sweet Honey in the Rock / Linda Ronstadt / Squirrel Nut Zippers.

Marylhurst, eighty miles away in Portland, is generous with crediting prior learning from other institutions. Even so, all my electives are immediately used up with forty-some hours of economics and the rest of my “prior learning.” My two quarters at Oregon State University are not mentioned.

Most of my classes are on weekends. Read one or two assigned books and write a paper before class starts, attend class Friday evening through Sunday, read another book or two and write a paper during the week, attend class over the weekend, write final paper the next week. Occasionally a weekly night class, which means driving an hour and a half to Portland after work and then back again. A weekly day class one quarter requires taking vacation days.

Every quarter when the new catalogue arrives, I struggle to narrow the list of classes I want to take down to the few for which I actually have time.

Four years fly by this way, with only an occasional weekend off.

Black graduation gown over jeans, silky T-shirt, gray ponytail, kick-ass boots.

 

Old Stranger: Poems
by Joan Larkin
Poem after poem, Old Stranger unearths moments that shape a woman's life. The poet's eye is unflinching as she sees the past folded into the present. Her body is the ground of deep soul hunger. Her language is music.
“To discover the ‘old stranger’ is a knife, not quite, it’s an old piano. No, it’s a book about mortality and the debt of flesh, about love, rot, relationship, smiles that cut like knives through every seeing moment. It’s about painting. It’s a beaut. There’s so much masterpiece here. I mean, wow, this is why one is a poet all their life. To make this.” — Eileen Myles, author of a "Working Life"   “Joan Larkin’s much-awaited Old Stranger: Poems is a miracle of compression, mystery, and innuendo. Here is a poet for whom craft is an extension of wisdom. Whether revealing the archetype secreted within an object, or the elemental, persistent grief within a memory, Larkin expertly hones the edges of poems like a luthier shapes a violin.” — Diane Seuss, author of Modern Poetry   "Engaging with curiosity and often startled affection, this poet tells of how it feels to be both enamored and shaken with what connections reveal. Quiet and absorbed, one reads this most graceful of books until pow and one is alerted!" — Jody Stewart, author of This Momentary World: Selected Poems
    More about Joan Larkin: www.alicejamesbooks.org/bookstore/old-stranger Available from Alice James Books, Bookshop, and Amazon.

Bios

Mary Zelinka lives in Albany, Oregon, and has worked at the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence for nearly 34 years. Every day she has the privilege of witnessing the remarkable strength and resilience of survivors of sexual and domestic violence. Her writing has appeared in Persimmon Tree, Brevity, The Sun Magazine, Multiplicity, and others.







Carolyn Schlam is a figurative artist and published author of four books on art. Her work has been shown in many museums, art galleries and publications, and is in the collections of several institutions including The Smithsonian Museum. She resides in southern California.

6 Comments

  1. Oh, Mary, I am so moved by your story. It’s beautifully told. Thank you for sharing this and congratulations on your graduation.

  2. This story is a shared gift. The format pulls the reader into the speaker’s life. With poetic-like phrases one returns to her youth and travels quickly and successfully to the writer’s future accomplishments. Bravo.

  3. I love the short-sentence format. It gives your piece the immediacy it needs to tell your much-needed story.

  4. She draws unforgettable characters that I will remember. And all with a couple of words, as she does with setting descriptions, clothes of each era. How does she evoke such piercing longing, pain, mystery, fulfillment? “Grey ponytail”…1love it.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *