PLACEMENT TEST

I remember being horribly anxious the day I had to take my college placement test in Spanish—because I was so afraid of making a bad showing and disappointing both Britte and my Spanish teacher Mr. Washburn. I’d had two years of high school Spanish by then, but they were only the equivalent of one semester of Spanish in college. So my goal was to place in Spanish 2. As it turned out, there were so many words I didn’t know on the test that I had to laboriously study the syntax of each sentence in order to figure out what all those unfamiliar words probably meant before I could essay an answer. So I was one of the very last students to leave the auditorium that day. When we received the results, I found to my astonishment that I’d actually placed in Spanish 4—even though, among other things, I didn’t know the subjunctive tense yet. In the end, I was obliged to go to Prof. Murillo, the chairman of the department, to get his permission to take Spanish 3 instead.

One of the exercises we did in that class—after reading a story in Spanish—was to write one of our own in the same style as the author’s. A story I only vaguely remember now was about a privileged—and spoiled?—girl named Isabelitica. In very few words, I told a tale of how she gave a stranger—a handsome young man passing beneath her window—an invitation to her birthday party that evening. He was a revolutionary, it turned out, who killed her father during the festivities.

That first semester I studied ferociously, earned a 4-point, and won a Regent’s scholarship. To maintain the scholarship throughout my college career, however, I would eventually have to abandon my intention of minoring in English. Most of the final exams in English would involve answering a list of questions in a series of essays—and I was so perfectionistic I couldn’t write fast under pressure.

Meanwhile, I’d settled on Spanish as my major simply because it was the safest choice. Though my dream was to become a singer and I’d done well in art in high school, I didn’t identify as an artist at that point in my life and lacked the confidence to major in either art or music—areas where, in an ideal world, I belonged.

SNEAKER WAVE

I’m thinking of changing the background image on my Desktop. At the moment it pictures the Nicasio Reservoir in spring—an image that I posted in my 4-9-20 blog. Before that, it featured the bougainvillea steps that Ella and I pass on our evening walks on the other side of the block. And even longer ago I had the photo above as my background. In A Patchwork Memoir, I wrote:

It may seem paradoxical that, being as hypochondriacal as I am, I’m liable to risk life and limb when it comes to taking on challenges of nature. If there’s a promontory, I have to walk out to the very edge of it—to Earl’s chagrin; he’s afraid the ground beneath me is going to give way. Or I’m apt to climb up rocks I’m going to have trouble getting down, with no tread on my Reeboks and not a hell of a lot of strength. Or to wade into powerful river currents that could sweep me away. I’d like to think I have a reasonably good sense of what to attempt and what not to, but… As a child I was a tomboy, a rough-and-tumble little girl, and sometimes, despite my physical limitations, she still holds sway.

                                                                              …

On the phone, waiting for Earl to come up from his basement studio, Pippa—his roomer—tells me she loves the snapshot Earl took of me and my Reebok.

“’She has no fear,’ he says about you,” she confides.

“I actually put that photo on the Desktop of my computer,” I admit.

Then I tell her the whole story—how I tried, in my bare feet, to scale a huge rock on the cliffside of Stinson Beach after naively leaving my Reeboks on a ledge about four feet above the sand. I hadn’t clambered very far when a huge sneaker wave (a pun, I just realized) swept in and carried one of my shoes out to sea. “Fifty bucks down the drain!” I’d wailed tragically to Earl. But moments later, a second great wave carried it partway back. So of course I dashed out into the surf, knowing this would be my last chance to recover my investment. Earl snapped me at the moment I turned, white parka soaked to the neck, and triumphantly waved my rescued Reebok.

When Marga— from my Artist’s Way group—heard the story, she cried, “Oh, my God, Callie! You can’t do that! People are killed every year by sneaker waves. Next time, please remember I said I’d buy you another pair of Reeboks.”

OK, OK. I’ll try.

HAIRPIN TURNS

Besides introducing me to the girls who would become my teenage tribe, Linda introduced me to another of the major players in my life that same summer of our double date. She was living with the Steinkes at the time—her family‘s next-door neighbors—who were close friends with Earl and his second wife, Irene. Earl was teaching an adult education painting course in Walnut Creek—something he did for many years—and was looking for models. After Linda had modeled (clothed) a few times for his class, she told Earl about me. And I followed suit. In A Patchwork Memoir I wrote:

Earl was fortyish, handsome, dashing, his hair turned prematurely white. He drove me to his class in Walnut Creek in a red MG, up the wooded roads above Strawberry Canyon, taking the hairpin curves—turns so tight you can see your own license plate, he joked—at breakneck speed and scaring me out of my wits. He was so attractive, it was hard to tell if the fluttering in my stomach afterwards was from the ride or—well, but…he was old enough to be my father.

Earl would become a paternal friend of Linda’s in the years to come, the person she went to when she was in crisis. But it was only decades later that he re-entered my life.

(I love this picture of him in his garden, where he used to grow corn and the best tomatoes I’ve ever tasted!)

POINTING UP

That same summer, I wrote a letter to Nikki, who was in Europe:

“Dear Nik-nak,

“I’m sitting here on my bed among the litter and cursing my gigantic bottom, which refuses to fit into a size 12. It’s too big for the jumper I’m making—and I don’t have enough scraps to make pleats or even insets.

“There’s not much to write about. I can just tell you about the same things I do every week. In my ceramics class I’ve made a number of bowls on the wheel and some coil things. The best one was on a shelf that caved in; it broke, of course—my bowl, I mean. I got the knack of using the wheel right away—it seemed so natural it felt like I’d been there all my life. It’s really fun, but it takes patience. Oh, and I’m gonna end up with muscles in my arms!

“My driving lessons are coming along quite well if you consider three dented fenders a day par. I’m kidding. Seriously, I did almost run over Linda’s brother down by the Oaks Theater. And I did start down a one-way street, going the wrong way. Which reminds me that Larry Birdy drove Linda and me backwards down a one-way street on the way home from church the other day. We were facing the right direction, it’s true, but somehow it still didn’t seem all that legal.

“Yesterday I was walking to school when a driver-training car zipped by and someone whistled. I think it was my driving teacher, which was embarrassing. His name is Mr. Bracelin—he looks like Anthony Quinn and enjoys bellowing along with the car radio, ‘I’m ‘Enery the Eighth I Am!’ in a cracked voice, while ogling all the female legs that pass by. Did I mention there are only only two of us driving students, instead of four, so sometimes we get to drive for half an hour apiece—all over the hills or wherever we want to go?

I’ve got a job for the next two Tuesdays modeling for Earl Pierce’s painting class. Linda was considering nude modeling for him, but she changed her mind at the last minute. Now she’s got a job in a cannery from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., six days a week. Sounds grueling to me.

“Last weekend, we went to see The Childhood of Ivan—a wonderful movie! Also we spent one night in sleeping bags in the Steinkes’ yard, eating marshmallows and discussing sex till all hours of the night. I told Linda how I’d explained to my childhood friend Kathy, when I was ten, that sex was something that happened to your parents when they were fast asleep. Also that when I was older, I couldn’t figure out the mechanics of sex because no one ever told me a guy’s erection pointed up—naturally, considering gravity, I thought it pointed down. We went sailing with the Steinkes one Sunday, and on the 4th of July we watched the Berkeley Marina fireworks from their boat.

“Well, Nik-nak, I hope you’re having a wonderful summer! But don’t wait too long to come back.”

DOUBLE DATE

Because I couldn’t join Britte, Kita, and Alice on their trip to Mexico, I went instead to spend a week with Linda at her grandmother’s in Los Angeles. We went to Disneyland, stayed up till all hours talking, read Darkness at Noon out loud in the evenings, pulled taffy her grandmother made, and visited her boyfriend Bob’s family in Riverside, even though Bob was away. Actually, Linda was in a bit of a dilemma because she didn’t know where she stood with Bob—and confessed to me that she was attracted to his younger brother, as well.

But I was the one to hit it off with John, partly because we both played the guitar—though he was a much better player and wound up teaching me a complicated finger pick—and also, no doubt, because he wasn’t about to step on his older brother’s turf. I wrote:

“That evening we all went to a drive-in movie—Bikini Beach—with his friend Jerry. We folded back the front seat and all lay squished together. When John would rub my arm or take my hand, which he did in a kind of abstracted way, I couldn’t stay focused on the screen.

“When we came back, I wanted to go swimming in the apartment pool. Linda said no—it was against the rules after midnight—but I felt like doing something a little daring, so I asked John if I could borrow one of his T-shirts. The idea seemed to surprise him and please him a little. It was warm, private, beautiful, still. The water made lovely lapping sounds. I felt like a water ballerina—luxuriously happy. John came down to bring me a towel, and later I thought I saw him watching me from the second-floor railing.

“The next morning at breakfast, Mrs. Cliff asked, ‘How’s our little mermaid?’ She pronounced it ‘mirrormaid,’ so I thought she was making a joke about the fact that Linda and I had spent half the morning in the bathroom making ourselves presentable.

“’Which one?’ I asked, before I realized what she was referring to—that she knew about the episode in the pool. I felt a little guilty and embarrassed then, but everybody was nice about it. One of the neighbors had told her he heard something in the pool. A dog had fallen in only a week earlier, so he went to the window expecting to find a struggling puppy and saw me instead. He said I reminded him of a Greek goddess—that he was going to charge out in a draped sheet, but thought better of it, figuring it would scare me to death.

“That morning Tom, another friend of John’s, came over. I liked him right away but figured he’d be Linda’s date. When John told him about the episode in the pool, Tom seemed intrigued, wanting to know what I had worn. John said I was covered adequately. I laughed and asked, ‘How would you know, when most of me was underwater?’ ‘Water magnifies, you know,’ he said, and to Tom, ‘And those T-shirts cling!’

“Later John drove me up into the hills—the site of the first non-sectarian Easter sunrise service in the world, he told me—through hot, rocky desert country that reminded me of lizard hunting with Dad. Linda and Tom followed us on a motorcycle. At one point, John put the canvas top down so we could get a little sun. But who needs sun? I just freckle. I buried my face in his shirt to hide. At first he thought I was just being affectionate, so he put his hand on my neck. But then he asked, ‘Does it really bother you?’ I nodded. ‘OK, boss,’ he said, and put the top back up. ‘OK, boss.’ He said that a couple of times that afternoon—very affectionately, though.

“Next we went boating on a lake, and when we got back we played guitars and sang songs like “Johnny Be Good” and danced rock and roll. At one point Linda whispered to me, ‘Looks like you two are getting pretty cozy.'”

“That evening, before we headed for ‘home,’ Tom kissed Mrs. Cliff good-bye, and John made some comment about kissing that I didn’t quite hear. That’s when I got uneasy. I didn’t want to neck with him—I knew I’d probably like it, but I was still nervous. When the boys stopped to buy soft drinks on the way, Linda and I had a whispered discussion in the car. She: ‘Should we a little?’ Me: ‘No,’ with distress. ‘Well, it’s not like I want to get involved…but are you sure you don’t want to?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘Hmmm…I don’t know what to do. I do like Tom…’ ‘I wish you wouldn’t—don’t you see? John’s going to expect the same thing. If you do and I don’t…’ ‘They’re coming!’ ‘Oh great!’ And we continued towards home.

“For the next five minutes, Linda and Tom were laughing and thrashing around in the back, then suddenly it got quiet. The next thing I heard was the sound of short kisses. Well, what a mess I was in, I thought. I was nervous all the way home. We got temporarily lost. Then, in front of Linda’s grandma’s house, Linda said quickly, ‘Well, let’s get out.’ She was trying to rescue me, I realized. I collected my purse and sweater hurriedly.”

Though I didn’t write about it, the next weekend the four of us went on a double date to Knott’s Berry Farm. In the parking lot afterwards, John tried to kiss me, but I turned my cheek, afraid I’d bungle it so badly, he’d realize I’d never been kissed before. What he did then, as we talked, was draw me very slowly towards him. When he was close enough, he gently began to kiss my neck. I felt a little thrill of pleasure—and I remember feeling embarrassed because my body jerked suddenly in response, my back arching reflexively. Still, I never let him kiss me on the mouth.

BRITTE

My senior year in Spanish class we had a student teacher I’ll call Britte. She was pretty, tall, blond, and big-boned—Juno-esque. She took an interest in me and my friend Alice as the best students in the class and invited us to a charreada a, Mexican rodeo. I developed a crush on her, and thought from early on that if I could befriend her, it would change my life—though given how tongue-tied with shyness I was, that was a long shot.

As a thank-you I made her and her roommate Kita (a nickname) a batch of cookies that I put in a coffee can I covered with patterned paper and some drawings I’d done—and left at their door.

I remember the first time Britte invited me over to her apartment on the northside of campus for lunch, she served me half of a head of iceberg lettuce with Thousand Island dressing, which I ate as much of as I could get down, not wanting to seem ungrateful.

On another occasion she had me over to dinner, making a delicious chicken dish that I later found out involved only a splash of wine and a can of mushroom soup.

Then one evening Britte gave me a Gin Tonic, despite the fact that I was underage, that finally loosened the knot in my tongue. I was talkative, comical, I think—I even sang. Later, she would tell me later that she thought alcohol brought out your true personality.

She and Kita had grown up in an affluent neighborhood in Oakland and had met in high school. Britte had had the kind childhood I could only dream of-—the picture-perfect family in the big house with the white picket fence, a protective older brother, and parents who were still so in love that they often held hands. Britte, herself, was a warm, earth mother, seemingly mature beyond her years.

That year, both Britte and Kita took me under their wing. When Britte found out I loved to sing she began teaching me songs in Spanish like “Las Posadas,” a Mexican Christmas carol that has one of the most beautiful melodies I’ve ever heard and “Guantanamera.” A rough translation of the latter: 

I’m an honest man

From where the palm tree grows

And before I die

I want to pour out the poetry in my soul

 

My verses are a clear green

And a burning carmine

My verse is a wounded deer

Seeking shelter on the mountain.

 I remember making Kita a wind chime out of pipettes and cover slips from my high school chemistry class—another of my completely impractical artistic endeavors because the first blast of wind would have shattered it. For Britte I made gin bottle cover depicting “Ye Olde Liquor Shoppe” out of colored construction paper—with a door and windows that opened onto tiny ink drawings of times we’d spent together, similar to an advent calendar.

Following our graduation, Alice—who also came from an affluent family—joined them on a trip to Mexico. I didn’t go because I couldn’t afford it, but Britte brought me back a beautiful guitar, the most wonderful gift I’ve ever been given. In the meantime, however, she’d become infatuated with a dashing latino—an ex-priest named Salvador de la Mora. Throughout the following year I was worried that she would go back to Mexico and marry him. I remember one evening when she was over at the apartment I shared with my high school friends Nikki and Rianne, I downed too many Gin Tonics—Britte had provided the booze—and I threw up. The resulting hangover was so awful I vowed never to get drunk again. And I never did.

To me, Britte was a surrogate parent, friend, and mentor all in one, but our relationship felt like a roller coaster because it stirred up such deep and conflicted feelings in me. Early on, I sometimes wished she would hold me, even kiss me, but that’s as far as my longings went, though I wondered if this was because anything more was forbidden. What was most was painful to me was being at social gatherings with her. She had a way of wooing other people wherever she went that would leave me feeling completely disregarded. In these situations I would lapse into silence, unable to utter a word I was so jealous and hurt. Later I would anguish over my behavior, convinced that she was going dump me eventually because I was so screwed up.