GAMBIT

Going to Spain to study my junior year, as glamorous as it might sound, was for me a desperate gambit. For one thing, my mother was violently opposed the idea and screamed at me in arguments about it that I couldn’t go because we didn’t have the money. For another, after my summer in Mexico, I didn’t have any illusions about how hard it was going to be for me in Madrid. I’d had to drop out of the study program in Guadalahara because it was too advanced for me—I’d had three fewer years of Spanish than the other Americans—and I would be in the same situation in Spain. Also, I knew just how prone I was to introversion, anxiety, and depression. But my major was Spanish, and, because I was too shy to really use the language, I wasn’t becoming fluent. If I was going to be a Spanish teacher like Britte, I knew I had to do something radical to remedy the situation. The only thing I could think of was to cannonball into the water so I would have to either sink or swim.

We sailed to Le Havre in France on a small Italian ship called the Aurelia. Most of the passengers were high school students returning to their native countries after a year in the U. S. as exchange students—but sixty of us were bound for Madrid from all the various branches of the University of California. Spain was still a fascist country at the time, under the heel of the dictator Franco. The previous year, two Americans students had gotten into political trouble, jeopardizing the program—so it was decided that future students should have an “orientation” on a cruise ship to prepare them for what lay ahead.

Spain was an old world country back then, its customs from an earlier age. Life in a large city like Madrid was still like life in a village. You walked down street arm-in-arm with your girlfriends, met the eyes of the people you passed, smiled, and nodded a greeting. Whole families, as well as couples, went strolling in the evening. You stopped in open, stand-up “bars” where they served wine and “tapas”—appetizers like spicy potatoes and mussels, the floors littered with shells—or went to the “mesones,” cave-like cantinas where everyone clapped and sang to the rhythms of flamenco guitars. Every activity, whether standing in line in the post office or buying a pair of shoes, was a social event—a chance to visit and get to know people.

I lived in a boarding house that occupied two floors of an old apartment building—with thirty other women, all of them Spanish except for my American friends Ella and Wendy. I slept on a rickety bed that folded out of a cabinet in a narrow room I shared with two Spanish roommates. We ate in the communal dining room, daintily cutting up all our fruit, including bananas, with a knife and fork. Our meat was rationed, so we had to count our “albondigas”—the meatballs we helped ourselves to from serving platters. After the “comida” at 2:00, it was siesta time—all the shops, even the banks, closed—but rather than nap, the Spanish girls piled onto each other’s beds for a talk fest. There were only two bathrooms, with no tubs, just showers, and since water was rationed too, we had to make our ablutions brief.

When we came back after an evening out, we had to clap for the “sereno,” an elderly night watchman—there was one for every few city blocks—to raise him from the nearest bar; he let us into our apartment building with a huge ring of keys and accompanied us up to our floor in a precarious glass elevator. Lovers had a hard time finding a place to make out; they’d soon be sent on their way by the serenos.

I remember: the blue, non-absorbent toilet paper and the flurry of cockroaches scrambling for the corners whenever I snapped on the bathroom light; the tiny creampuffs with souring cream that Ella and I bought, anyway, from the pastry shop on the corner; the café a half a mile away where they served “tortillitas” (pancakes), the only place in the city that did; the bar across the street where I habitually downed a jigger of cognac before exams.

Weekends we took side trips to historic towns, like Toledo, Segovia, and Salamanca. When I think of Spain, I think of waking up in a pension, leaning over a wrought-iron balcony above a courtyard full of sunlight and flowers…walking out at dawn up narrow cobbled streets past vendors with their burros and carts.

A WEEDY SWIM

Yesterday I went swimming at the little beach beyond the tunnel in Point Richmond—the first time I’ve swum in seven months. And I have to say, it felt like a fool’s errand when I set out. The day before, cars had been parked bumper to bumper alongside Miller-Knox Park for as far as I could see, so where was I going to plant my car? Besides that, the water was liable to be freezing in October, I fretted. Under my clothes, I wore an ugly swimsuit that after seven months of disuse still smelled of chlorine. Why would I wear something ugly? you ask. Well, here’s the thing: it’s indestructible. I bought it online—and though I was dismayed when I took it out of the package that it didn’t look anything like the picture, I felt obliged to wear it to get my money’s worth. Now, I’m accustomed to my swimsuits lasting about six months before they become baggy and faded to colorlessness. But four years have come and gone since then, and I’m finally resigned to the fact that this ugly suit of mine is never going to succumb to the ravages of chlorine —and I’ll be wearing it into my advanced old age.

Anyway, miracle of miracles, I did find a parking place near the path to the beach—but noticed, as I descended the steep embankment, an unpleasant stench wafting up from below. It was low tide, I saw—a great expanse of wet sand, littered with piles of seaweed, stretching far out into the bay. There were a handful of adults on the small crescent of dry sand and a dozen kids in the water, all of whom I gave a wide berth as I strode out towards the deeps—though I never got there. As far as I went the water never came up higher than my chest. The good news: it wasn’t any colder than Lake Anza or the Russian River; the bad news: the ground felt ickily squishy and spongy under my feet, and I had to fight my way through long tangles of seaweed—all of which made me nostalgic for my swims at Lake Anza, which has remained closed throughout the pandemic:

FREE

I didn’t know till I stepped out on the deck after 3:00 this afternoon whether the heat wave had ebbed. Nope. So I grabbed my swim gear and hustled out. When I got to Anza, I saw there were no lifeguards. Yay! I thought. The season’s officially over!

Sunday, when Ella and I arrived close to 5:00, both parking lots were full, and people were still arriving! “The sun is going to drop behind those eucalyptus trees on the ridge,” I told her, “and the whole left side of the beach will be in shade.” So we settled on our towels on the far right. As I reeled towards shore after my swim—water in my ears throws me off-balance so I can’t help staggering like a drunk—I saw that the sun and trees had neatly divided the beach in half; the dark side was now completely uninhabited, the bright side mobbed because its population had just doubled.

Today I swam under the rope of the first set of buoys, the second, the third—and then I was free. I can’t describe the rush I feel when I pass beyond those flimsy barriers and feel myself loosed into wildness. Two years ago, with no lifeguard to admonish me with his bullhorn, I promptly swam two lengths of the lake. Today I only swam the width, which was as much as I could manage. On the far side I approached a boulder—cautiously because my one fear is that my legs could get entangled in seaweed—and saw a turtle sunning himself. He let me swim right up to him. I guess a turtle’s reaction time is slow, because it took him maybe five seconds to rouse himself enough to high-dive it into the water. He poked up his head from time to time to see what I was up to, but thankfully chose to stay as clear of me as I did of him.

For a while I swam along the reeds, the cattails still sleek and small. (Oops, we just had a little earthquake…) As I was saying…I swam along the reeds on the far bank, where there were pockets of warm water, hoping to ward off hypothermia before my swim back and feeling deliciously comfortable and—perhaps, foolishly—safe in the water, despite my debility. The other day I noticed that I could actually stay afloat vertically, provided I kept air in my lungs. Well, sort of. Now that my behind has gotten so big, it does tend to rise to the surface and tip me forward, but other than that…

My body looked a greenish gold beneath the water. I know what Igor means about experiencing your body as integrated. Sometimes I float on my back to relax, with my elbows out and my fingers locked behind my head, as though I were lying in grass, looking up at the sky. This releases something in my neck and shoulders, and when I roll over to do the breaststroke, I can feel the water streaming over my body, caressing it like soft veils, as though every nerve cell in my skin just woke up, and for a while swimming feels utterly effortless.

I remember a day I felt so peaceful floating out on the lake that it felt OK to die right then and there, to simply dissolve back into nature—perhaps the way Frost felt when he stopped by the woods on a snowy evening and heard the Mystery calling him to itself.

SPLIT

I loved finding out from my mother that my first word was “light,” it seems so apt—because so much of my life has felt like a journey from the darkness into the light. And though it had never occurred to me until now, even the names I chose for myself reflect this aspiration. “Sunny” was the nickname I chose for myself before I left Minnesota for California. And “Selena”—moon—was the alter ego I chose for myself in my writing many years before I knew what my first word was. When I came across this old drawing of a sun with a dark side, it seemed to me the perfect symbol of myself.

                                                                        …

At the end of that academic year, Britte, Alice, and I traveled across the country together. Our destination was New York, where they would see me off to Spain on a student ship, the Aurelia, for my junior year abroad. We went north to Seattle first, then headed east through Canada, where we camped until I came down with tonsillitis. Foolishly, I asked the doctor I saw to give me pills, not a shot, because I remembered from my childhood that the injections in my bottom were painful. Day after day, as we traveled, my condition worsened. My fever soared and my throat became hugely swollen, until swallowing was so excruciating it brought tears to my eyes. I took the maximum dose of aspirin every four hours, but that only provided relief for an hour or two. Eventually I became so nauseous from all the aspirin that I couldn’t always keep it down. By evening I was so hysterical with pain, I asked Britte to take me to the nearest hospital. She called one and talked to a doctor, who said to get some aspirin with codeine, which was sold over the counter in Canada, and if my fever didn’t break by morning to bring me to the emergency room.

Instead of camping, we stayed in a motel, and Britte and I shared a double bed. All through a long night I woke up repeatedly, and every time I did, I found her awake, as though keeping vigil over me. She was so solicitous, so devoted that I felt cared for in a deeper way than I’d ever experienced before. By morning the penicillin had kicked in and my fever had broken.

This was a turning point in our relationship. When we reached New York, we stayed with her psychologist friend Jim, and one morning while he and Alice were still sleeping, as we quietly talked, Britte admitted to me that she’d been having an affair with another teacher at the high school but that she felt even more for me than she did for him. She loved me, she said. Realizing for the first time in my life that my love for someone was reciprocated worked an almost miraculous change in me. The way I conceptualized it at the time, I seemed to split cleanly into two disparate selves—a dark and a light self—and I found I could transition from one to the other.

It first happened one afternoon when we went into a little theater in a museum—I was smarting over something I thought I’d heard Britte say to Jim—and as I sat in the darkness I decided, with an act of will, to “halt” my insecurity, anger, and sense of grievance. The effort it took felt Herculean, like braking a locomotive with my bare hands, but I left the theater feeling light-hearted. It seems to me now that in that struggle, I finally gave myself over to trusting another human being.

DESOLATION

When I moved out of my mom’s house as a sophomore in college—and rented an apartment with Nikki and Rianne a block from campus—I became deeply depressed. I’d always imagined that when I was able leave home, I would feel liberated, but, as Annee tells me, this isn’t unusual for people from very dysfunctional families. Years later, I wrote about this time:

“I’m remembering the desperation that used to send me running out into the night in that first apartment—the loneliness of being barely adult and not ready, of needing there to be some place to go, and knowing, when I faced the street, there was no place. The sense of void was unendurable, and I walked or ran until the sharpness of my desolation was blunted…somehow.”

I also wrote about a dream I had at the time:

“I had a dream

And the grief and panic I felt in it were so awful

That I cried in my sleep

Waking before the anguish had faded from my mind

I knew with alarm that these feelings churned

Beneath my carefully constructed and maintained composure

Somewhere in my mind

Half exposed to the eye of my consciousness

Were overwhelming fear and sorrow

Responses of a child’s wounded heart”

“I went to the student hospital to ask to see a therapist, but when I heard a couple of staff members laughing and joking in the front office, I walked out. I suppose the darkness of what I was feeling inside and their levity made me feel too vulnerable in that moment.

“When I look for the sources of what I was experiencing, I still can’t gauge how much was ‘intrapsychic’—that is, related to my childhood—and how much was situational: the fact that my relationship with Britte continued to be a rollercoaster, that I still had turbulent feelings about Steve and couldn’t avoid him at the language lab, that my Spanish professor was called, in the Slate Supplement, ‘a vicious tyrant to be avoided at all cost,’ that Nikki and Rianne, who both were in sexual relationships, were forming a deep bond and once again I felt excluded.

“By spring I was so depressed I felt like I’d died. I lost the capacity to feel anything positive so absolutely that I wasn’t able to experience even the faintest or most fleeting satisfaction in things I would normally have enjoyed—rocky road ice cream, a good movie or book, the company of a friend. Nothing, it seemed, could touch me. I remember getting drunk one night on gin and tonics when Britte was over (I threw up—the only time I ever did) and feeling like I was something that had been flayed, that there was nothing left of me but bloody pulp.”

I don’t know how many months passed before I went back to the student hospital, but I did—partly because I had a terrible secret to tell. I knew that therapy wasn’t going to help me unless I was prepared to be completely honest, yet the weight of my shame was so crushing it felt impossible to reveal this particular truth: that sometimes I lay beneath the flow of water from the tap during my bath. Many years later I would learn that I wasn’t the first to do this, but at the time, I thought it was a perversion.

Dr. Camarer, the psychiatrist I began seeing at the student hospital, was a middle-aged man with a rather fierce expression who listened intently and didn’t say much. When I finally made my excruciating confession, he suggested—quite matter-of-factly—that I should get some birth control before I went to Spain. In a single stroke he undid much of the anguish and conflict I’d been feeling about my sexuality.

Because from the time my mother first told me about sex—when my period started—she issued an absolute prohibition against sex before marriage. Much later she would tell me that she’d embraced a theory in psychology at the time which held that to help teenagers deal with their burgeoning libidos, parents should take a hard line against sex. But what she communicated to me was a reality in which females didn’t have sex drives, which made me feel grotesquely abnormal. And part of the reason she was so convincing was that she lied about herself. Actually, she kept on lying to me all the way into my middle age. From the beginning, she insisted that she was a virgin when she married my father. It was only after he told me the truth—decades later—that she finally owned up to it. What she’d been hiding all those years was the fact that she’d slept with her fiancé, Jimmy—the one who had all but left her at the altar—and she’d been date raped as well.

Why, oh why, I’ve often asked myself, do parents think the truth isn’t good enough? Because for the most part, the platitude is apt: The truth will set you free—and often, others as well.

Little did I know then that the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco and the start of the sexual revolution were right around the corner—and that my childhood best friend, Kathy, who’d grown up in a conservative family, would visit me in the Language Lab stoned—a new convert to psychedelics and free love.

 

MEXICO CITY

When the study program was over, two of my American roommates and I went to Mexico City:

“Dear Britte,

“Right now I’m lying down, there’s a girl I’ve never met in the opposite bed, no one’s up yet, and I’ve just discovered that my left eye is swollen half-way shut.

“I got back to Guadalajara from Mexico City yesterday morning by Pullman, and there were mariachis singing everywhere—a celebration for someone who was arriving, I suppose—and everyone was laughing and hugging each other. It was beautiful!

“Later that evening on a dark, crowded bus, some creep stuck his hand in my purse and lifted my wallet. I felt something and jerked away, thinking that whoever it was hadn’t succeeded in getting into my purse. But no, the dastardly deed had already been done. Later that night Jose made arrangements with Dona Veva, a friend of his family, for me to stay with her. (Carmen was going to charge me twice as much to stay on with her, which still smarts.) Anyway, that’s where I am now.

“Ay! There’s so much to tell. I feel like faces and experiences are beginning to blur as my mind gets more and more crowded. Patty, her dad, April, and I had a wonderful trip to Mexico City. We traveled about nine hours each day, but the countryside was beautiful and we stopped in many small towns to wander through the markets. After arriving in Mexico City in the rain, April and I set off to find La Casa de la Proteccion de la Joven. The woman who was supposed to introduce us to the nuns there wasn’t at home, so we just prayed that they would accept us. And they did.

“There were some hundred girls there who worked away from home or had problems with their families or were orphans. The place had a tennis court and a swimming pool (which April and I couldn’t use because we hadn’t had a physical). It was cheap—about $2 a day, room and board. And the nuns were gracious and even affectionate towards us. Lo malo era…well, there were four malos. The location—the cab drivers meandered around for hours trying to find Calle Pople. The curfew—we had to be in at 9:30 every night. Obligatory mass—a nun came through the halls, ringing the loudest, most ghastly bell at 6:30 on Friday morning! And last, but not least, the regulation of meal times. When April and I didn’t make it home in time for cena one night, Silvia, my roommate, smuggled some bread and fruit to our room for us to eat later.”

The last paragraph of the letter, which I won’t include, was about meeting Salvador de la Mora, the man Britte had been so taken with the previous summer. One evening April went out with him alone. The next morning at breakfast she told me that he’d really gone after her the night before and she’d had to fight him off.

MY FIRST BOYFRIEND

I was the first American to arrive at the senora’s, but shortly three more girls joined me. I wrote:

“Dear Linda,

“This afternoon nothing’s going on for a change. My American roommates and I have been going like mad—to the movies, shopping, to dinner. Last weekend the four of us went on our own to a little resort town, Manzanillo, about six hours away from Guadalajara. We stayed in a big old run-down hotel with peeling paint and rickety beds that was once a really posh place. We wiled away the hours sunbathing on the beach, drinking pina coladas that waiters serve you in pineapples, and floating in inner tubes. I got scared when I got too near some huge rocks jutting out of the ocean and the current started to carry me out, but except for that I don’t think I’ve ever felt so peaceful in my life.

“I’ve missed a couple of days of class—dysentery. Actually, I was sick for a week and a half, but it wasn’t really bad until the last couple of days. Jose had me taking three kinds of medicine for “turista” at once. Other than that, I’ve been having a great time—I’m just awfully tired today. Jose doesn’t get off work at the hospital till between 8:30 and 10:00 every night, so wherever we go, we get a late start. This weekend we went boating. He’s promised to take me to a town in the mountains that’s supposed to be beautiful and to the seashore.

“Meanwhile Carmen can’t understand why he’s interested in me—she thinks it’s because I’m giving him something Mexican girls won’t. And she’s right. We have been doing some necking, even a little petting. It bugs me, though, that he doesn’t like my freckles; he even suggested I buy some make-up to put on my arms to cover them up! One thing that makes me sad is that he calls himself ‘feo’—he thinks he’s ugly because he’s dark-skinned and looks Indian. The truth is he’s nice-looking (even if he is a little paunchy around the middle). Down here, the more Caucasian you look, the more attractive you’re considered and the more status you have. His beautiful sister Cristina thinks she’s lucky to have a fair-skinned boyfriend, even though he isn’t half as good-looking as she is.

“Another eye-opener that happened when I first arrived—Carmen took me to a sort of shantytown to find Chulo, a young woman she hires as a maid from time to time. That night, there were Carmen, who’s a wealthy widow—her husband owned a plastics factory—and Chulo, her maid, kneeling at the foot of her bed, praying together. Lovely!

“Well, I’m starting to hear sounds of people getting up and around, so I guess siesta is over.”