GUADALAHARA

The summer after my freshman year of college, I went on a study program to Mexico:

“Dear Britte,

“Hola! I’m sitting here on my bed again because it’s siesta time—a welcome relief because I get so exhausted trying to speak Spanish, trying to understand, and blundering through a million new situations. The first afternoon and night here I slept (calculate, calculate) eighteen hours!

“Benita, who works with my mom, and her husband drove me to Mexicali, where we all boarded the bus for Guadalajara. The air conditioning conked out, the bus broke down in the middle of the night, I hardly slept in two days, and my period started. Oh, it was a delightful trip.

“I’m living with a widow, Carmen, who’s terribly gracious and concerned and kind. She putters around the house, whistling and singing, but she tries a little too hard—I mean, it bothers me because I don’t want to be a burden to her. She’s never had Americans in her house before, and she’s so anxious to please. Her daughter Lolita lives downstairs—she’s married and has four little kids, though she’s only twenty-three. She has to spend all day in bed because she’s pregnant again and could lose the baby if she’s up and around. Then there are a couple of maids and millions of relatives who call or visit all day long. Something that amuses me is all the yelling; Lolita is always calling, ‘Mama! Mama!’ from downstairs, and Mama is hollering something back, and the kids are crying, and Lolita is scolding, ‘Callate, nino!’

“Yesterday one of Carmen’s nephews, Jose, came over; he’s an intern, young and unmarried—and of course there I was alone, having to converse with him. By the way, it isn’t talking that‘s so hard. If something pops into my mind, I make myself do a rapid hurdle over my inhibition and just blurt it out. Even then I don’t talk much, but the problem is understanding. It’s a trial to deal with each new acquaintance because at first they refuse to slow down, and I have to say, ‘No comprendo, no comprendo’ till I’m blue in the face. If they talk at normal speed, 99% of the time I am completely lost! Anyway, he told me he had seventy to eighty cousins. That’s what I mean about a million relatives—his mother, Carmen’s sister, had seventeen children, but three died.

“In the two days I’ve been here, in spite of the fact I’ve been sleeping so much, I’ve been to the market, to dinner with all the older generation, and to a movie—that was particularly strange. Carmen and I went with Cristina, Jose’s nineteen-year-old sister, and her fiance, and my God, the two of them were so constrained and formal with each other! Cristina is exquisite, with a funny high-pitched voice. She is very shy with me, which hardly anyone else is, but demonstrative—she warmly took my hand to say goodbye to me. Apparently she’s gone with this guy for a year, but the most they can do is hold hands, since they’re always chaperoned. One time she was biting her fingernail and he took her hand away from her mouth—that was the most intimate gesture I saw between them.

“Well, the house is stirring again, so I’ll sign off!”

UNSOPHISICATED

From A Patchwork Memoir:

“Now, suppose a mind of the latter of our two classes, whose imagination is pent in consequently, and who take its facts “hard;” suppose it, moreover, to feel strongly the craving for communion, and yet to realize how desperately difficult it is to construe the scientific order of nature either theologically or poetically—and what result can there be but inner discord and contradiction? Now, this inner discord (merely as discord) can be relieved in either of two ways: The longing to read the facts religiously may cease, and leave the bare facts by themselves; or supplementary facts may be discovered or believed in, which permit the religious reading to go on. William James, Varieties of Religious Experience

In English 1B at Cal, one of our first assignments was to write a paper on Hamlet answering the question, “Does he change in the course of the play?” My instructor, Mrs. Griffith, was impressed enough with my brief essay that she offered to suspend all my other assignments for the semester to give me the chance to develop it.

Maybe I became as engrossed in the project as I did because I identified with Hamlet’s struggle. Eventually it took over my imagination to such an extent I would leap out of bed with an inspiration after just having turned out the lights—and start pounding away on my typewriter—or stumble to my desk in the middle of the night. Sometimes I got so excited I found myself sitting, not in my chair but perched atop the back of it, hunching over the keys.

In my paper I described how Hamlet starts out by feeling “put upon, confounded by forces outside himself, by ‘fate,’” at the same time believing that the most courageous defy her. “’And blest are those whose blood and judgement are so well commedled that they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger to sound what stop she please.’”

But by the end of the play, I argue, he has come to believe in a Grand Design of which he is a part—he has, in fact, found faith. “On his return from England, Hamlet relates to Horatio how, driven by strange anxiety and foreboding, he sought out the commission of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz and found it to be his death warrant.”

“’Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well

When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,

Rough-hew them how we will.’ (V, ii)

“Because he was carrying his father’ s signet ring, Hamlet was then able to draw up another commission ordering them to be executed. ‘Even in that was heaven’s ordinant,’ he says. He is now convinced of a directing force, a supreme influence, which he chooses to call heaven, that guides the universe. He is not “subject to” natural law but its expression. His will cannot work in opposition to Divine Plan, because Divine Plan includes his will and all else. He has come to believe that there is ‘Providence in the fall of a sparrow.’”

As the semester drew to a close, Mrs. Griffith, apparently beginning to doubt that I was really working on my essay—since I didn’t have anything ready to show her—changed her mind and directed me to start doing the weekly assignments again.

I finished my paper a few days before the individual oral final each student had to take in her office. After my oral test, she opened her grade book and pointed out my grade. “I’m giving you the only A+ I’ve given in ten years of teaching,” she said quietly.   “I know it won’t be reflected on your report card, but I wanted you to know.” She told me she tried to enter my essay in the freshman writing contest—that parts of it were brilliant—but the deadline had already passed. She then suggested I give some thought to becoming a writer.

I sent my paper proudly off to my father, hoping that at last I’d done something worthy of his respect, but he dismissed it contemptuously in a telephone call, saying in so many words that I was too intellectually and emotionally unsophisticated to appreciate the complexities of Hamlet’s state of mind.

HONESTY

As we leaned on the kitchen counter after the meal and drank wine, Steve sometimes turned his shoulder to me instead of backing off slightly and including me in the conversation—and I wondered if it was deliberate. When he made an appreciative comment about Claire “not being badly built,” she cupped her hands under her breasts and said, “Grow! Grow!”

Eventually we left—for a party in San Francisco. While the others went ahead to the car, I was feeling a vague desperation, wondering how to break the silence as Steve and I trailed behind. He was looking at me. I heard myself saying, “What can I say?”

“What can you say?”

“That I feel a little lost—that this world is different from mine—these people…” I stopped. “But I like them.”

Huskily, “Sure, you can’t help it.”

That was all he said. Finally with a heroic effort, I blurted out, “Steve, you don’t even meet me halfway.”

“I know.”

“Why?”

“Listen… I have something to tell you…but I don’t know how.”

I waited and continued watching him.

“I don’t know how…just a minute…let me think.” He put his hand to his eyebrow and rubbed it. He was visibly agitated.

I laughed and put my hand around his neck. “Don’t make it so hard.” Inside, though, I was quivering. We were almost to the car.

“Let me say it this way…” He stopped again. “If…I mean, when you’re living away from home…next fall…then maybe we can meet on equal terms. Do you know what I mean?” he asked right before we climbed into the back seat of the car. Things were so crowded with the six of us I had to sit on his lap.

“No, I don’t,” I finally said. And the only thing that crossed my mind was that maybe he imagined we couldn’t have a sexual relationship as long as I was under my mother’s roof. But if that was it, he would have to tell me in plainer terms.

“You don’t know what I mean?”

I shook my head, glad that my hair was now hiding my face, because I was genuinely bewildered—and a little angry.

“How else can I say it?” He seemed absorbed in the problem for a few moments, getting nowhere. Feeling frustrated, I surprised myself, asking suddenly, “Steve, how do you see me?”

I was even more surprised when he was ready to answer that. I don’t know why that seemed so unusual except…except that most people can’t or won’t tell you. But he seemed to have been waiting to tell me. He’d mentioned to Norm that he was going to take me out, he admitted—and Norm had said, “But she’s so naïve!” And he’d answered, “But I like her.” That was when he kissed me. He watched me after that, but I didn’t look at him. He touched my cheeks and neck with his fingertips and finally my mouth. When I didn’t respond, he settled back against the seat.

With the radio blaring, Claire, in the front seat, shifted her shoulders in time to the music, her hands moving through complicated patterns. When a song came on that she liked, she would break off mid-sentence and look transfixed as she “danced.” When she reached for Baxter’s smoke ring, it occurred to me how theatrical she appeared. She was talking about all the “beautiful” people she knew, then Baxter’s health—how she had put him on a diet and bought him pills.

At the party it was so noisy that I suggested to Steve that we go out for a walk. Maybe because he was a little drunk, he finally began to open up, saying that he’d liked me from the beginning and that my hair was “a thing” with him—but it wasn’t just that I was a cute girl. “You know you’re cute, don’t you?” he asked. I nodded because it was the easiest thing to do. (I wasn’t about to bring up how self-conscious I was about having acne and my painstaking efforts to hide it with make-up.) He went on to say that he liked the talks we used to have in B-5 when I would come and see him—but I always rushed off from work now, since my mother picked me up. This astonished me because I’d imagined he wasn’t even listening to me. He told me he thought we were alike in some ways—that we both said what was on our minds.

I admitted then that I had gone through a period of disliking him. I’d decided he wasn’t for real—that he was just playing games. (I didn’t tell him that I’d also felt resentment that he’d flirt with me, then go off with another girl. Or that he was sometimes almost brutal in his insensitivity—he would comment on the attractiveness of the girls we passed as he walked me down the hall). But I did tell him, and this was true, that I finally decided that he just liked people and was being honest in his own way.

Still, he seemed stung by the fact that I’d ever considered him a phony. ­He wanted to be thought of as a person without pretense, he said, someone who was always truthful in what he said and did. He thought I was like that too.

Then he told me that he’d lived in Austria, where he’d been a ski-instructor—and that he’d had a lot of girls, but he always lost interest in them. It wasn’t anything they did—he didn’t know why. But they gave themselves to him, and eventually he got tired of them. It didn’t work if a girl gave him everything, he said. She should save something.

Then what was his objection to dating me while I was living at home? I wondered.

Over Christmas vacation, he’d been with a German girl that he’d lived with in Austria, he confessed. She was older than he was—thirty. And in the past they’d talked about marriage, but it wouldn’t have worked. She wanted to do everything with him, while sometimes he wanted to be free to, say, go out to play pool with the guys. With her, it had lasted longer than with the others, he said. But he wasn’t ready to get married.

And all that time, it seemed so strange to be there with him…to be so frank that it was exhausting—to talk about everything so calmly. Days later, that night would seem extraordinarily intimate to me, and I couldn’t help but feel that we were bound together by what we’d said to each other. When you share private things about yourself, it means something…a lot, doesn’t it? I even wondered whether later he would regret or be embarrassed about having opened up to me. I can’t believe he did that with every girl. But maybe I have to think that.

That was as much as I wrote at the time, but I remember that Steve apologized repeatedly for the way he’d treated me earlier in the evening, though I kept telling him it was all right. And I felt it was, once the walls between us had come down. At one point on the drive home, Claire asked something in French about a trip to the beach they were all planning for the next day, apparently assuming I didn’t speak French—so I told Steve I’d understood. He said he was glad because he wanted to take me. When I told him truthfully that I couldn’t go—I had too much studying to do—he said that he would take another girl, but it wouldn’t mean anything.

All of which left me profoundly confused after our date.

I also never wrote about what happened in the wake of that evening. I’d been so absorbed in my conversation with Steve that I was hardly aware of how cold I got on our long walk. Two days later, I came down with a bug and missed a week of work and classes. Steve called once during this time to see how I was. Despite his double messages—and the red flags his history raised—I foolishly began to hope during my illness that there was a chance for us. But in subsequent weeks back in the lab, Steve acted as though there was nothing between us—as though that night had never happened—and continued to flirt with other girls. I was so crushed I threw up a wall that never came down again. Forever after that, I would wonder why he couldn’t have left well enough alone and never asked me out. Because I was much more deeply hurt after our date than I had been before.

I remember talking to him only once after that. One afternoon many months later, he said he wanted to talk to me after work—and walked me over to Bancroft Ave., where my mother would pick me up. He was telling me about how his new girlfriend appreciated his honesty, saying that she only asked that he always be truthful with her.

“Honesty isn’t just about what you say,” I retorted hotly. “You hide everything you feel!” And as I turned to get into my mother’s car, I thought I saw the glisten of tears in his eyes.

PRELUDE

Throughout my college years, except for my junior year in Spain, I worked part-time in the language lab, where I ran tapes for various classes—and throughout the fall of my freshman year, I carried a torch for one of my coworkers, Steve. It started when he came up behind me one day as I was sitting at a console and kissed me on the neck. He was blond, with a cute smile and weak chin, and his shift was right after mine. From then on he would flirt with me before I went off-duty. He’s going to ask me out soon, I thought giddily. All through the years I’d had crushes—from the time I was six years old—but he was the first boy who seemed as attracted to me as I was to him.

Week after week after week, I waited—and waited—and waited—anticipating the moment he would arrive each afternoon, hearing his voice in the hallway or the office nearby. More than once in my off-hours I walked down to the big lab—where I knew he would be and where there was a private booth for the operator—and talked to him about what was going on in my life, hoping to take things to a deeper emotional level, I suppose, but on these occasions he just went on with his work, seemingly uninterested in what I sharing.

When I finally gave up on “us,” I was angry, feeling he’d just been toying with me the whole time. I began to avoid him as much as I could—and when I couldn’t, I gave him the cold shoulder. After Christmas vacation, however, I had a change of heart. I saw my former behavior as childish—and settled into a new normal. I simply accepted the situation, had no expectations, and found I could be civil, even cordial to him. It was then that he finally asked me out.

FIRST KISS

I keep reliving, and catch my breath when I do, that one moment—what his mouth felt like, that it was larger and more enveloping than I thought it could be when it was on mine. It was dark in the car, except for the lights that darted by as we sped along the highway. I was snuggled in his lap in the back seat, my face near his neck. That’s what a kiss is like, I thought—I didn’t know. His mouth covered all of mine and I felt his teeth. I didn’t even have time to respond, it happened so suddenly, and I felt momentarily so helpless and overwhelmed. Then his lips were gone and he was telling me, ”I’ve been wanting to do that all evening—to kiss you, just to kiss you.”

The whole evening had been crazy—the awkwardness between us when his friend drove us from the lab to his house and when we were alone before his roommates got there with their dates. We chatted pleasantly, said all the right things, but we were so far away from each other. I didn’t touch him, and he didn’t touch me. I felt strained and straining—even the smile on my face I fixed or unfixed there, and my hands were suddenly appendages unrelated to the rest of me—I didn’t know what to do with them. Every stance I tried to relax into seemed unfamiliar, so I would try another one.

Finally Baxter and Claire arrived. Claire was diminutive, with even little teeth, bobbed hair, and tiny pearls in her ears. She moved her hands with affected grace, as though she were doing some exotic dance while she talked. When she came through the door, she made a rush for Steve and tucked a camellia into his buttonhole. From then on he seemed more her date than mine, in spite of Baxter. When Steve blew smoke rings she would reach for them with a look of childlike enchantment and those artistic hands. She was delighted with the living room, the fireplace, everything. And when she discovered the large green El Camino Real road sign that one of the roommates had absconded with, she decided they should make a table top out of it. Everyone got caught up in her enthusiasm as they tried to figure out how it could be made.

At dinner she and Steve talked about the East, where he had gone to Exeter. They discovered they had many common acquaintances. Steve ate heartily, drank, talked with his cheek full of food, was expansive. In the long intervals between his glances, I felt myself getting more and more lost.

“SEASONS” REVISITED

Almost a year ago (10-15-19 to be exact), I posted the following:

For my first English 1A assignment in college, inspired by Thoreau’s dense, poetic prose in Walden Pond, I made my first creative writing attempt.

“Two summers ago, I went back to Minnesota, and one morning I walked up Doswell Street to see my old home. The house had aged—the ivy vines had been ripped from the stucco walls, showing them cracked and discolored. Last winter’s leaves were brown and decaying where they lay tangled among the stems of the lilac bushes. I pushed aside the brush and looked where there had been lilies-of-the-valley when I was a child, but I didn’t see them now. A little girl came to stare at me over a hedge, and, feeling uncomfortable, I strolled around to the back of the house.

“I followed the dirt alley that sloped down to Scudder Street between rows of blackened wire incinerators. It reminded me of spring. When I was young, spring was brought by robins. Brisk and billowy clouds were reflected everywhere in a world of sidewalk puddles. In knee-high boots, we scampered from one to the next, and, gazing down, each splashing leap seemed to shatter the sky. We sought out the last muddy patches of snow that shrank against the shadowed corners of the houses, and, letting our mittens dangle from clips at our cuffs, we crunched the snow into hard little balls that dripped water when you squeezed them tightly. We crumbled them down each other’s necks or filled our pockets with them and forgot. And when the glacier melted off the back alley, we went out in corduroy pants that got soaked at the knees to comb the alley for the agates that sprang up each year with the first aggressive weeds. Sometimes, just as miraculously, there were marbles, coins, or a gumball machine toy. There was suppressed joy in all the twittering and sprouting—joy in the trickling of a melted winter, along the gutters of the city.

“Then quite suddenly, as though the sewers had swallowed up with the water the freshness of the world, it grew hot. Children lived on cherry popsicles until mid-July, when the banana-flavored ones arrived at the corner market. The night breathed mosquitoes, and sleepers threw off their damp sheets in drowsy anguish. Summers were slow, made of sweat, bug-repellent, and torpor. Down at the end of the alley was the Triangle, a block-long wilderness of bugs, nettles, and ragweed. My brother and I went there every day to thrash among the waist-high weeds with our butterfly nets. On the way down, it gave us great satisfaction to level all the ant hills between the cracks in the sidewalk, a ravaging army of two, just because it was so annoying to have to rouse yourself in the heat and go to catch an insect supper for your lizards.

“At last, the fall. Wolfy’s maple was scarlet glory with green spinners that twirled everywhere when squirrels scrambled through the topmost branches. Behind Alvin’s house was a shack, where Kilroy had been. From its roof we used to jump into mountains of crackling oak leaves that danced when we plunged into them, the crushed fragments tickling and scratching as they caught in our collars and trickled up our pant(s) legs/and even our socks. From the top of the shack you could see the Cow Pasture fence and a row of poplars with yellow-lacquered leaves that twinkled in the breeze. After sneaking some sweet, wormy apples from the Old Troll’s yard, we escaped down the block, cheeks full of apple, across Knapp Street, to take refuge in the pasture. Then we were off to explore the marsh, or, armed with plump, brown cattail spears, to hunt each other in a forest of brittle cattail stalks until the air was thick with their down. Autumn was flannel-lined jackets, morning frost ferns on the windowpanes, and the incessant dry whisper of leaf-swept streets.

“Then one night, winter would come, soundlessly. By noon the next morning the white yards along Raymond Avenue were tablets of snow angels. In front of many homes, watchmen were erected with carrot noses and brooms to sweep away trespassers. Saturdays the whole community of children lumbered, fur-lined and waterproofed, through the streets to College Park, sleds trailing behind. The ropes jerked with every step, and the sleds leapt forward on the icy walks and bumped us about the legs. Then winter’s mood darkened. Chapped hands cracked and bled, and foreheads ached where woolen scarves didn’t cover. Nights were made of frozen silence. In the dim yellow light of old street lamps, the snow shimmered relentlessly through a season so long, it seemed eternal.

“Now I stopped, for I had reached the end of the alley. Before me, where there had been the brambles of the Triangle, there was a fresh lawn with spiraling water sprinklers and a light brick building. I waited for the red light to change at Como Avenue, on my way back to Dad’s apartment. ‘Eternal,’ I thought, ‘until April.’”

At the end I added:

Actually, this was my second creative writing attempt, which I didn’t know until recently because I hadn’t yet found “Myth” among my high school papers.