BREAKING FREE

BREAKING FREE

I don’t have much writing from the year I was in Spain because, after the first month or two, I got too busy to keep a diary. I didn’t take the time to write rough drafts of my letters or copy them, either—so I don’t have much to jog my memory except for a few letters to Jane, which I seem to have taken some pains with. I know I wrote Britte assiduously for many months and depended on her two or three letters a week as a kind of lifeline.

In my “diary” I wrote:

“Last night Wendy told me I had a beautiful, beautiful voice—that I didn’t know how much it meant to other people to hear me sing, that it made her happy. I’ve been feeling, more than ever, that I was born to sing—that I have the voice and the determination, just no training or composure. I think to myself—when I get back to the States, I’ll find the best voice teacher I can and use my $500 scholarship for lessons. I’ll sing everywhere—on campus benches, street corners, at gatherings of friends—make it part of my everyday life. And when I open my mouth, all my feelings will flow out effortlessly. Now, with too little knowledge and confidence, my voice is mostly too cumbersome for me to express myself very well. But on days it’s freer, it means so much to me to be able to sing. It gives me a kind of control over my emotions—I can draw them out of some deep place inside and through the music give them shape. Sometimes I even get goose bumps or get shaky from the intensity of the experience.

“This morning I was thinking: we all die, the end of act three—so the only way to live is to the fullest, which means slashing all the ropes with which society ensnares you. Break free, think new, do what you really WANT and need to do—to hell with college if you are unhappy studying. You can sing, you can draw—these are what you live for—so why aren’t you throwing all your energy and soul into them. Why?”

MAN-HANDLED

MAN-HANDLED

On the Aurelia I’d befriended Ella and Dale in a T-group—an encounter group for the students in our program—led by the ship’s recreation director, Jane. The idea was to give us an opportunity to share our feelings about the adventure we were embarked on. The experience was eye-opening for me from the outset because I was astonished that what I could do easily seemed so hard for others–that is, talk about your feelings. (As I’ve said, I’ve always been better at big talk than small talk.) In the group dynamic that developed, Dale and I emerged as the leaders among the participants—and she slapped me on the fanny after the first session. Dale was lanky and tan, with frosted streaks in her hair, Ella a pear-shaped bleached blond. While Dale was charismatic, comical, and had an air of easy confidence, Ella was droll, companionable, and accommodating to a fault. They lived with a widowed senora until Dale decided she wanted to move into a dorm with Spanish girls—then Ella moved into the “residencia” where I lived.

At the end of a letter to Jane, I wrote about one of my first outings with Ella and Dale:

“It’s 2:00 in the morning, and I’ve GOT to go to bed. But first I have to tell you about our adventure of the weekend. Dale and Ella and I went to the Parque del Retiro to spend a peaceful (?) afternoon rowing on the lake. We had been out about thirty seconds when some guys, sixteen to eighteen years old, collided with our boat. We didn’t pay much attention to them until they started to follow us around the lake. Soon another boat joined in hot pursuit—and another. Before long we were surrounded by six or seven boats and we couldn’t budge. The boys yelled and tried to climb into our boat—we yelled back and shoved them away. There was some splashing—we got drenched; then they stole our oars. Finally one or two guys started manhandling us—pinching and sticking their hands up our dresses. At this point I got mad and slugged one of them. In the midst of all this, a boat pulled up with a girl and three very handsome older boys who helped us into their boat as quickly as possible and rowed us to shore. Our heroes! Well, I’m going to stick this letter in an envelope right now, and if it isn’t coherent—to hell with it. I miss you.

“P.S. I’m rich—a $500 check arrived in the mail—some kind of scholarship.”

GAMBIT

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.

SPLIT

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 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.

When Britte, Meryl, and I reached New York, we stayed with her psychologist friend Jim, and one morning while he and Meryl 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. (I also began to pun, for the first time in my life, because I was no longer afraid of appearing foolish.)

This transition 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.

JOKE

JOKE

By the time we crossed the Canadian border into Minnesota, intending to drive the rest of the way to the east coast through the states, I was completely recovered.

But as we sped south through the wilderness, I was suddenly seized by the notion that I wanted to visit one of the lakes I’d fished at with my father as a child. I no longer remembered their names, but began to comb the upper quarter of a Minnesota map, anyway, hoping that if I saw one of them again, I would. Land of 10,000 lakes—and they were all on that map, I concluded after a couple of hours. It was only when I finally threw it down in frustration, feeling utterly defeated, that Meryl picked it up. Of the first three names she reeled off, I recognized two!

Soon we were bouncing along a dirt road headed deep into the woods. Eventually we came to a fork in the road with a sign that pointed one way to Lake Owen, the other to Lake Radison. For no particular reason, at least none I can explain, I chose the left-hand road. I’d known all along that it was unlikely there would be a vacancy—fishermen reserved the cabins as early as February.

Incredibly, when we got to the lodge, the keeper announced they’d just had a cancellation—and pointed to a cabin on the hill. The first thing I did when I went inside was grab a bucket and trot down the hill toward the water pump. Walking toward me on the road was a red-haired man. As I approached, he stared at me without recognition. “Dad?” I said incredulously.

Back at the cabin with my pail of water, I found my knees wobbling and couldn’t get over the notion that Someone up there was laughing at us, enjoying a little joke at our expense. My father and I had arrived within five minutes of one another, had adjacent cabins—and this was the only weekend of the entire summer he had planned to be there. We were estranged at the time, not having exchanged letters in…well, I don’t remember how long.

He had two male friends with him—and we all spent the next couple of days getting acquainted—and reacquainted.

TURNING POINT

TURNING POINT

At the end of my sophomore year, Britte, Meryl, 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.

DESOLATION

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 Toni 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, beginning with the fact that my relationship with Britte had become a rollercoaster, it stirred up such deep and conflicted feelings in me. To me, she was a surrogate parent, friend, and mentor all it one. Early on, I’d 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 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 to dump me eventually because I was so screwed up. And then there was the fact 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,’ and 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.”

MEXICO CITY

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—her words—the night before and she’d had to fight him off.

MY FIRST BOYFRIEND

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.”

GUADALAHARA

GUADALAHARA

The summer after my freshman year of college, I went on a study program to Mexico. I’m including the photo above, remembering this was one of the dresses I packed in my suitcase.

“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!”