“Jack—kooky, comical face, all chin and jaw and nose, hair like an unpruned bush—said last night that he was crazy about me and could hardly sit apart from me in the same room for frustration, that I was incredibly beautiful, and that it appeared to be hopeless, although he didn’t understand why, that when I left, he would need to smoke himself into the oblivion of earphone rock.”

At the high school where I worked as a noon supervisor, I became friends with my male counterpart, a New Yorker and former Spanish teacher named Jack, a seemingly happy-go-lucky guy who couldn’t understand why I took life so seriously. He sent me funny postcards and called me “Punchy” because I got antic whenever I so much as tasted anything alcoholic. When my roommates and I were evicted, I moved to Seal Beach, the small town just to the north. My apartment was dark and gloomy because all the windows faced the neighboring apartment building—which blocked out the light—and it had, horror of horrors, a green shag carpet. (I don’t know who ever came up with the notion that green was a good color for a carpet. It doesn’t go with anything except house plants.) When there was a vacancy in the building next door, Jack moved in.

Reflecting back on this time, I know I must have found Jack’s passionate declaration enormously flattering. Though I didn’t feel the same way about him, I thought about how, in other cultures, parents arranged marriages for their children and couples came to love each other, an outcome that seemed logical to me at the time. I was so dejected about my recent experiences—about not being able to sing or sell my dress designs or create in painting class or perform at my guitar lessons or find a way to make a decent living—that I was desperate to make something in my life work. Feeling so bad about myself, I was grateful to know there was something I could give that somebody wanted, even if it was only myself. So Jack and I became lovers.



“They had told her it wouldn’t hurt much; they told her to breathe normally. But when they started vacuuming out the fetus, she was so crazed with pain she gasped like a creature being gutted alive. Then they honed their voices with exasperation, wounding her. And they clamped their fingers tight with impatience, shackling her. And when they wheeled her out on the gurney, as her head fell sideways on the pillow, she felt a tear slip out the side of her eye. In the recovery room they asked her questions, but they got no answers; all she had left of words were petrified on her tongue.”

This is all I ever wrote about my abortion. I didn’t know until later that it was so painful because the doctor failed to give me a successful anesthetic block.




“I’m having a hard time with my memoir,” I tell Toni. “And it’s not just grief that’s hanging me up; it’s shame too. Every time I start a new vignette, I think, no, I’d better leave this out. But then I feel the same way about the next experience I try to write about…and the next.”

“What are you ashamed of?” she asks.

“That I just kept walking into one situation after another in which I got victimized,” I say. “I can’t imagine why anyone reading my memoir would have any sympathy for me, I was so hapless.”

“And why do you think you kept getting victimized?”

“It’s complicated,” I muse. “I suppose one problem was I didn’t have the ability to discriminate between safe and unsafe people.”

“Well, when you’ve had such narcissistic parents, you’re not going to be able to recognize narcissism in other people,” she says quietly.

“And to the extent that I was able to discriminate, I didn’t trust my own judgment and perceptions.”

“How could you?” she asks. “Who in your life ever validated them?”

“I know I was afraid of hurting other people. I think feeling responsible for my brother’s burn made me hyper-conscientious about that. I’d feel guilty if I thought I hurt someone, no matter what the circumstances or what they might have done to me; I often didn’t protect or defend myself out of fear of doing harm; my childhood experience was that hurting someone else had the potential to be hugely consequential, while my being hurt didn’t—or so I imagined.”

Later in the day I write down more reasons that occur to me. At my next session with Toni I read them out loud:

“Another difficulty was that my feelings were so intense a lot of the time I didn’t think it would be appropriate to express them because I knew they were an over-reaction. And then there was the fact that it was easy for me to empathize with other people and to understand why they did what they did, which, even if it didn’t assuage my hurt feelings, made me feel less justified in having them.

“At the same time, I was reluctant to risk alienating anyone. I already felt so desolated that I couldn’t tolerate any more loss. Besides, my experience was that one loss was likely to precipitate another—and another—like toppling dominos, until I wound up with nothing left, including a sense of self. This happened after my parents’ divorce, after I left Spain, and again years later when I lost my job at Tiburon College. I’m still liable to panic after any significant loss, terrified that it’s going to snowball.

“Which reminds me of something Pia Mellody wrote,” I say, “that some people’s abandonment issues are so crippling it actually may be better for them to stay in a bad relationship than leave it. I appreciated her acknowledging this because, though it goes against the conventional wisdom, in my own experience it’s been true.”

“So,” says Toni, “your writing about the many times you wound up getting victimized just demonstrates what happens to people when they’ve suffered a lot of emotional abuse—they can’t recognize when they’re putting themselves in harm’s way.”

“And it’s not just that you don’t know that you deserve better,” I say. “You don’t know there is better.”

“Exactly,” Toni nods.

I feel tears start in my eyes. “That reminds me of when I was in therapy with Dr. A., the psychiatrist I went to when I got back from L.A.,” I say. “One day after I’d been seeing him for almost a year, I told him about a heart-to-heart I’d had with Ella when she was visiting—and how good I felt about it. He said he didn’t believe it had happened the way I’d described it. When I asked him why not, he said it didn’t fit in his picture of me—he didn’t think I was capable of intimacy. I’ve always wondered if he reached this conclusion partly because I never asked him any questions about himself. I felt so fragile back then, I was afraid if he were to tell me that he was divorced, for example, it would be the final proof to me that love was just a four-letter word, that it didn’t really exist. I was hanging onto the hope that it did by the most tenuous thread, and I felt if it were to break, I would too.”




The two years I lived in L.A. felt like a series of failures to me, a demoralizing period when I discovered how straight-jacketed by my emotional problems I really was. I’d waited so many years to develop my creative abilities, only to find myself hamstrung by fears and insecurities so deeply rooted I didn’t know how to even begin to address them.

All I could think to do was try to work around them. I was so overcome with “performance fright” at my lessons with Charlie, for example, that my hands shook and I couldn’t play the assigned piece. So instead I had him show me how to do the fingering of my assignment for the following week—and went home and learned it without any further guidance.

When I tried to sell my dress designs, I was told I needed samples to show, so I borrowed a dress form from Arlen on a visit to the Bay Area, found an outlet that sold suede—lamb skins—in bright colors, bought a sewing machine that could handle lightweight leathers, and made up several vests and boleros with fanciful suede-on-suede appliques, the advantage of leather being that it didn’t ravel. But this, too, I found harrowing because I couldn’t afford to make mistakes—if I had to take out a seam, the punctures from the needle remained.

For a while, I had high hopes of earning a modest living as a substitute teacher at the elementary level—in Orange County you could get a provisional credential that didn’t require a fifth year of college—but then I found I couldn’t control the kids. My parents had disciplined me by intimidation and shaming, as I’ve said, methods I wasn’t willing to use, but, because I had no other models, I didn’t have any other tools at my disposal.

All these experiences weighed heavily on me, and once again I began to slide into depression. I seemed unable to take care of myself in certain ways; for one thing, I couldn’t manage to keep my gas tank filled and so would run out of gas and wind up stranded all over the place.

At the same time, I became zealous about my physical health and put myself on a strict health food diet, hoping that better nutrition would improve my emotional well-being too. Working my way towards becoming a vegetarian, I bought organic fruits and vegetables exclusively and ate only small amounts of poultry or fish. I wouldn’t even take an aspirin for a headache because I thought medication impaired the body’s natural functioning.

The only bright spots in my life were my visits with Ella. Some Saturdays I’d drive up to Santa Monica, where she shared an apartment with two roommates, and spend the weekend. My depression would lift spontaneously then, and I’d start feeling like a human being again. Ella was the one person in my life who reflected back to me a positive image of myself, who allowed me to see myself as attractive, smart, even funny. In her company I’d feel so normal that I couldn’t imagine ever becoming depressed again. But within an hour or two of my arrival back home, I’d feel a darkness descending over my spirit like a smothering blanket.

Above and below are two of the suede tops I made, the first without sleeves, and the second with a simpler border.



“Last Thursday I thought I’d go over to Charlie’s studio in the evening—yes, no, yes, no. I wanted to ask if he had a girlfriend. Maybe I’d find her sitting near the wall, listening while he gave his last lesson. What excuse would I come up with then? I walked up the alley, my stomach gone queasy with anxiety, and found him alone, loafing on the sofa with a magazine, waiting for his last pupil…who never came.

“Feeling shy and nervous, I told him about the run-in with my voice teacher. He invited me for a ride on his motorcycle. I clasped my arms around his waist—to my surprise it was soft—and we sped down to the Belmont inlet, full of yachts and lights and fancy restaurants, the smooth water reflecting all that lovely evening circus. Tears from the wind dried at the corners of my eyes, and I quivered with the cold—and happiness.

“Later, we had tea in a little restaurant; I asked what he did when he wasn’t playing the guitar. He asked me the same. I told him truths about myself, the best I could. When we walked out to his bike, I asked, suddenly feeling sorrowful, ‘Charlie, why does being with you make me sad?’

“He faltered, ‘Maybe it’s because I have a really good girlfriend.’ Then he leaned forward awkwardly and embraced me, hugging me tightly for a moment. I threw back my head with a rueful laugh but never took my hands out of my back pockets.”

Later I would write a wistful love song inspired by Charlie:




When Charlie plays guitar, his sad eyes seem blind—

And he holds it as though he has a woman in mind.

Biting his lip, oh, his hands are so kind.

Tonight she dreams of Charlie-o.


She was a girl who’d never been found,

And he came on a late night boat to her town,

Singing his songs with a sad-whistle sound.

Tonight she dreams of Charlie-o.


Nights when he played in a beachside café,

She would listen a while—and then slip away.

So he sang just for her, hoping she’d stay.

Tonight she dreams of Charlie-o.


He gave her lessons, when time would allow.

They would speak of their lives—the then and the now.

And her stories stayed lodged in his heart, somehow.

Tonight she dreams of Charlie-o.


Time and again, he thought she would yield.

She would lay herself down by his ear and appeal,

And all her reserve would break like a seal.

Tonight she dreams of Charlie-o.


On a warm night she flew like a dare,

Like a moth to a flame up his back-alley stair.

But now he was gone. One bare light burned there.

Tonight she dreams of Charlie-o.


Down on the pier she searched after 9:00,

And she ran like the tide past the fishermen’s lines,

Deaf to the murmurs of bathers below.

Tonight she dreams of Charlie-o.


He’s bound for new towns

So he’ll never know

Tonight she dreams of Charlie-o.




“Charlie has long, undulating fingers, supple and strong; thin, taut cheeks; and a flash of softness for a mouth. His eyes are clear, intelligent, and drooping, and they look past you when he talks to a thought just behind the door. I’d kept him out of my mind because I couldn’t tell who he was, but as I listened to him last time, I was fascinated by the way he drew his mouth in, thoughtfully, in a funny gesture of concentration, then released it with a sudden pop. How many times have I sought him out as a friend, agitated, full to bursting—for confession or shared thoughts or only to listen—because he was odd, and quiet, because his lyrical music moved me, and then a part of him stayed with me after I left, keeping me company?”



“Charlie, in a blue woolen cap, roars up behind me as I stroll across the street towards the movie theater, hands clasped behind my back. Five minutes before, I’d stolen down the narrow corridor between the houses to the alley, just in time to see him reach his motorcycle, guitar in hand. That’s what I’d been hoping for, but I hadn’t expected my timing to be so perfect and, suddenly embarrassed—I hadn’t figured out what to say—I turned and hurried back the other way. I’ll arrange for him to run into me, I thought, and I began to race down the block toward the theater, where I expected his motorcycle to emerge. Minutes passed—I thought he must have gone another way. Feeling a sudden ache of disappointment, I watched the lights of passing cars and began to wander aimlessly. Then, to my surprise, he was there beside me.

“’Hi! What are you doing?’ he asked.

“’Taking a walk.’

“’I’m off to an all-night poker jam.’

“’Well, don’t lose your shirt!’

“Laughing, ‘I probably will.’

“And with that he was gone.”