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.