When Harry finally finished his Ph.D. dissertation, he was commended for a brilliant piece of work. But there was only one job opening in his field in the world—in New Zealand. He applied for it, of course, and he and Arlen waited hopefully.

That Friday I dropped by their place right after Beth closed her office door on me, and Harry tried to comfort me, awkwardly patting me on the shoulder as I tearfully told him what had happened. But when Arlen got home from work, she lambasted him for not cleaning up the house as she’d asked—they were expecting Jeff and some of his college friends for dinner. Harry explained that I’d needed to talk, but that only made her so mad she lashed out at me, too, for sitting around and not helping out. I heard him telling her quietly in the kitchen that if she treated her friends this way, she was going to lose them. She’d already had a falling out with my mother after announcing that she could discard her “as easily as an old coat.”

On this occasion, I walked out. When Arlen and I talked on the phone a week later, I told her I couldn’t deal with her relentless anger. I met Harry over hamburgers at a fast food restaurant once after this—and he said he understood why I needed to distance myself. When I asked why he stayed, he said simply, “I love her.”



Looking back on it now, perhaps I should have known that Arlen’s ex would continue to cast a shadow over her second marriage. Harry was a considerate and attentive partner, eminently reasonable and understanding even when Arlen was at her most strident and irrational. But he didn’t have the dash or swagger that her first husband did—the aggressiveness and machismo that Arlen admired in a man. In the end, I believe, Harry came to know that in Arlen’s regard he would never be more than second-best.

­What’s more, he hadn’t been able to finish his Ph.D. with dispatch, as he’d hoped, but was forced to start over when his advisor found some problem in his work. So Arlen went on slogging away at a job she loathed while Harry continued to be supported by his parents. Also, he gained weight—and Arlen had a violent prejudice against “fat” people (as well as “retarded” people—her word—and gays) and used to call him a “fat slob” to his face, once even when his parents were visiting.

Angrily, I wrote:



She is exasperating.

A surrealistic portrait would depict her

with a cube of concrete for a head.

She walks into every experience with a bias—

often outrageous—

to which she is so tenaciously affixed

that experience cannot pry her loose.

She is a slave to her prejudices,

like the hapless owner of a big, brutish dog

that drags its mistress around forever on a calamitous run.

And there was another incompatibility: Arlen wanted a companion to go places with, but Harry was more comfortable living a hermitic life amid his books and his music. He was a night owl, while she was a day person, so they ended up in separate bedrooms. As she became more and more dissatisfied that her life was not working out the way she’d imagined, Harry bore the brunt of her anger with patient stoicism. Eventually he went into therapy with Helen. I’ll always remember him confiding in me how troubled he was by several things she’d said to him, among them, that bad thoughts were as reprehensible as bad deeds—and I’m saddened for him that he took her opinion to heart.

As for my relationship with Arlen, her need for emotional support was constant, and though she might be appreciative of any sympathy or advice I offered, she never seemed able to remember anything I’d said, so that I kept having the same conversations with her over and over again until I wound up feeling utterly depleted from the effort.



Adam and I are reading a picture book. ‘Hunh?’ I say, turning to the previous page. “I don’t get this.”

Adam instructs me.

“What would I do without you to explain these things to me?” I ask him affectionately.

“I don’t know what you would do!” he answers importantly.

I’ve told him I’m going to South America. He keeps thinking it’s Africa because he remembers about the jungle—and keeps telling me plaintively that he wants to go with me.


Over the years my father had done extensive reading related to his medical condition and had become convinced that he didn’t have arthritis after all, but a chemical imbalance that affected his neuroreceptors. He was prescribed the anti-depressant Elavil, which increases serotonin levels in the brain—the same drug I used to take for sleep—and, after seventeen years as a semi-invalid, he made a complete recovery virtually overnight.

When he asked himself what he most wanted to do, he told me, he decided it was to hunt for rare butterflies in the jungles of South America. A couple of years later Doug and I visited him in Tucson, and he showed us slides of his thatched hut on the Amazon River, a short distance from a tiny Indian village, where he spent summers with a parrot, spider monkey, and coatimundi.

He wrote me that a friend of his down there, George Salikas, had a boat service that ferried tourists down-river; because I knew Spanish, he was prepared to hire me as a guide. So I quit my housekeeping/babysitting job, ready to dash off on a grand adventure.



This is a journal entry from the time that I only discovered recently because it never made it into A Patchwork Memoir.

I follow Beth into her office, note the water-spotted, mildewing patch of rug behind my chair, and sit down with a sigh. Beginnings are almost as hard as endings. I’m going to try to say it all—I’m not going to let that old cat abscond with my tongue this time. We have already greeted each other formally in the waiting room, but once seated, I salute her “Hello” again. She answers “Hello” warily, without returning a smile. I try to orient myself, search for an opening. I’m quiet, remembering the drive to San Pablo. I was thinking about the Big Bang. How if they can’t find enough dark matter, the universe may prove be a one-shot deal—which made me ache with wonder at its terrible beauty.

I begin by telling Beth about my own view of therapy. “I can’t bear the kind of uprooting you’re trying to do—I’m not ready,” I say. I tell her I think the work of therapy for me, at this point anyway, is self-disclosure—and that I need to feel safe, need to feel I can trust her before I begin. “Don’t you think you’ve already begun?” she asks. I don’t know how to answer.

Later I ask her why she finds it necessary to use negative reinforcement—because criticizing me mobilizes so much pain and self-doubt I feel completely demoralized.

“You put me in a bind,” she says. “You try to set up all this space for yourself, but giving anyone else any space threatens your autonomy.” “It’s not like that!” I hear myself cry out. I say I need help, but it feels like no help is forthcoming. She tells me I’d better reconsider my requirements—they’re too stringent. That if I could loosen them, I could get help—from her and elsewhere. I say, “I have considered my requirements—the conscious ones; but the unconscious ones I have no control over. I feel like you’re telling me to come back when I’m well, then you can help me.” In barely more than a whisper, she says, “We have to stop.” She has been speaking more and more quietly and emphatically. I feel the hostility behind her words.


Nevertheless, this effort, however misguided, was necessary for me. I had to try to find words for the pain and anger I’ve been feeling; I had to make a bid for what I longed for—understanding, caring, acceptance. I had thought if I could put some of these feelings into words, I might evoke the desired response. I was wrong. Still, the process of explaining, the effort to get things clear in my own head, has a value, whether I’ve alienated Beth or not. I value these things, even if she doesn’t. If I am such a “heavy” that in time I will alienate every therapist I see, then perhaps I will have to accept that I can work only a limited time with each and may have to go through a few more than I would like to before I reach the end—I can’t simply give up.



Dale was newly married at the time of her encounter with the bear—to another geologist, whose name was Charlie. When I visited their new home some months later, she made me a peanut butter sandwich with her toes, using a special knife with little pegs on the sides. Though I had to help her undress to get in her bathing suit, when we went swimming in a neighbor’s pool, she was able to propel herself through the water using just her legs. She told me she didn’t know how she would have gotten through it all without Charlie, who had had to do everything for her, from wiping her bottom when she went to the bathroom to inserting her tampons when she had her period—at least until she finally got a pair of prostheses—hooks—that she could work reasonably well.

The power of love, indeed.



“I’m telling Beth about Adam and wonder at her slight smile. She was thinking, she says, ‘the power of love!’ Strange to say, I’ve apparently domesticated that balking, braying, little crosspatch of a mule. I guess he does love me. But something he did the other day stung me, although I saw how absurd I was being. He absconded with a quarter that fell from my wallet, displaying it with a flourish and announcing he was a magician who could make money appear out of thin air. Thinking about it now, I should have suggested he conjure up some more. Instead I asked for it back, but he persisted in saying it was his. One quarter—a few carrots, a potato, or an orange. I was so poor it mattered. I felt half-aggravated, anticipating a prolonged contest, half-tearful, as I explained that I needed all my quarters. He offered to give it back to me when we got home—and magnanimously proposed to lend me some money from his piggy bank, as well.”



“One morning last week I accidentally locked myself out of the house before my therapy session with Beth, and, in no mood for hassles, I smashed in the back door with my shoulder, tearing the latch out of the doorframe and ripping off the six-foot strip of molding that held the chain lock.

“Friday night I’d laundered some money—well, a check, actually—in the pocket of a pair of jeans; it came out as lint all over the wash. When my bank statement arrived, I balanced my checkbook, only to find I was $20 overdrawn. Which meant I had to take a trip to Danville to get my employer, Adam’s dad, to write me a new check. My gas tank was empty, however, and I only had a dime in my wallet. Then a stroke of inspiration—I remembered that in a basket I had accumulated a mess of pennies. I stacked them in piles of ten, bound them with masking tape, and headed for Jiffy to buy a dollar of premium.

“When I got home many hours later, Meredith told me, breathless and bug-eyed, that she’d called out the police—that the apartment had been broken into. ‘I would have left you a note,’ I winced, ‘but I didn’t have time.’”



From time to time I flew down to L.A. to visit Ella too, who was working for a translation agency.

“A gardener is trimming a lozenge-shaped hedge in the grassy courtyard between the wings of Ella’s apartment building. His rake scrapes the sidewalk as he clears away his prunings. There’s a bush that reaches up one story to just under her window—it has large, pale pink, five-petaled blossoms with hot pink stamens that I can reach out and touch.

“I camped out on the living room floor last night in a sleeping bag on two huge pillows. I slept on my back, with my bottom in the crevice between the two cushions, so that, jackknifed all night long, I couldn’t straighten up in the morning. At breakfast I hobbled between toaster and table with an octogenarian stoop.

“Walking with Ella toward the beach where I once lived, I couldn’t see the surf at first—the coarse sand formed a ridge that fell abruptly away to the waterline. As we came over the rise, I beheld the water, seething and spitting its foamy fury upon the steep shore to no avail—it was making little headway.

“The sight of that vast fluctuating kingdom—its dazzling wavelets extending out beyond apprehension, the clash of its body against the body of the land like a love struggle—made me fierce with joy. I wanted to live seaside again—to lose myself in that endless surf sound, to be ground down to something as simple and elemental as a polished stone.”



My friend John from the language lab had moved down to L.A., where he was a gaffer—a lighting technician—for TV and film.

“Another day John and I went antiquing—he was supposed to buy a stained glass window for a cathedral movie set. All we found were some windows depicting polo players—and I couldn’t talk him into those. I gave him a piggyback ride at the beach in Marina Del Rey, and when I stubbed my toe, we toppled together higgly-piggly onto the sand. We watched the antics of a lone sea bird who hustled down to the water’s edge at each wave’s ebb, pecked a couple of times, then skittered back up, trying not to get his feet wet, chased by the tide. Says John, ‘What a way to make a living.’ Then we played hangman’s noose in the sand.

“Later, John and I had crepes, Mexican and Genovese respectively, in a cozy restaurant under pendant bicycles suspended from the ceiling. I kissed him repeatedly in the street at leave-taking, and he responded with nervously tremulous lips. ‘Are you trying to start something?’ he asked. Then said, ‘You’re a sweet lady.’”



I find a journal entry about an impulsive trip to visit high-school friend Meryl in Chico—how the Bomb broke down after dark, just outside of a tiny town called Winters, and I wound up spending the night in the trailer of the clerk who worked the night shift at the neighboring 7-11.


“I’m sitting in my swimsuit at a window across from Cervantes’ Automotive Shop. A wiry old Chicano and half a dozen of his offspring are climbing around on the roof, laying tar paper. The air is abuzz with insect racket, the heat a heavy sedative. This is Chapman Town—parched, weedy plots and ramshackle huts…

“I arrived in Chico in the late afternoon yesterday. There was no ‘Ramby,’ Meryl’s geriatric station wagon, parked alongside her hovel, but I decided to knock anyway, my jeans ripping stickily from the seat as I climbed out of my car. On the highway I had pulled the pop-top off a Coke I had braced between my thighs. It fizzed over and ran down the seat. Sitting in my soft drink, I remembered the old Coke ad. ‘Well, there’s more than one way to take the pause that refreshes,’ I mused.

“When no one answered my knock, I rattled the front and back doors, excavated in the dust on the stoop for a hidden key, and howled ‘Meryl!’ in complaint. She was supposed to be home by 4:00, and it was 4:33. Not knowing what else to do, I scrawled a message on a paper towel from my car, left it in her mailbox, then drove back uptown to wile away some time.

“Though it was Saturday, the stores along the main street were closed, to my surprise, and the sidewalk so deserted, it might have been a ghost town. I saw a temperature display outside a bank—94 degrees. About this time my cockpit was feeling more like a barbecue pit, my steering wheel grilling my hands, so I parked and staggered up the smoldering sidewalk like the last survivor on a Sahara dune.

“When at last I found an open hardware store, I stripped off my sweatshirt in the restroom and swabbed myself with sopping paper towels. Still dripping, I left in search of air conditioning and anything potable with ice.”


“Meryl’s’s homestead is two tiny rooms. The door and window frames, painted a peeling, unappealing turquoise, are all skewed at improbable angles to the floor. The corners are inhabited by colonies of spiders taking siestas in their cobweb hammocks.

“‘Meryl, why is there a scummy ring in the bottom of my glass of lemonade?’ She’s asking me whether she should take along her whoopee cushion to ingratiate herself with the Eskimos. She’s going to Alaska to do research for a botany paper on the ways they use plants. She wants me to help her wrap her Christmas gifts for her sister’s family (it’s June)—in birthday paper, since that’s all she has.

“Now she’s wondering whether to bring a couple of recorders to teach the subjects of her thesis how to play ‘The Sailor’s Hornpipe.’

“Her odd, unfinished projects are scattered everywhere—assorted tool handles she turned on a lathe but never attached to blades, a smelly old sheepskin she cured, drying on a beam, and the aforementioned, overdue gifts she made herself: a gnomish spice rack, a chicken-shaped cutting board and accompanying egg-shaped one, and a brass fig leaf paperweight.”



On the way home from Meryl’s, I happened upon an isolated highway:

“On dusty back roads, I zigzagged across miles of farmland—flooded fields with needles of green poking out, new-furrowed plots looking at a distance like patches of umber corduroy, orchards planted in neat rows which appeared to march in formation like ranks of soldiers as I sped past. At last I came to a steep, solitary blacktop that ascended heavenward, cushioned on either side by plushy hills. Up I sped, the single sentient thing on the landscape. The world and I seemed to belong exclusively to each other for that hour. Even in the heat, I felt transported by that voluptuously private communion. My back adhered to the seat with a sticky suction. Drops of sweat ran down my belly. Without slowing, I pulled off my shirt and bra and felt the hot wind rushing over my breasts. Still driving, I wriggled out of my jeans and panties. Momentarily naked, I felt as voluptuously reckless as Eve in the primal garden, having just tasted the apple and wanting urgently and without preliminaries to fit her body around the warm firmness of the first man.”



“Adam. Towhead. We speed down 680 toward Danville. He presses his mouth against the back of his seat and contemplates abstractedly the junk piled in the back of my car.

“I press his nub of a nose with a fingertip. ‘I just pressed your talk button. Now you have to tell me something.’

“’No, I don’t!’ he retorts. ‘It’s my bellybutton you have to press.’

“I tell him a true tale. He tells me a tall one.

“’Look! The llamas are out!’ I cry.

“’The llamas!’ he enthuses, adding spuriously, ‘I saw them first.’

“We pass a dirt slope on the right, surrounded by a chain link fence—within are the llamas, a fuzzy brunette burro, and assorted goats.

“’Have they put the big balloons in cars yet?’ he asks querulously, as though running out of patience with the auto industry.


“His parents are punishing him for hitting a classmate with a toy shovel—no snack after school. So he snatches a stale bun from last night’s dirty dinner plate by the sink and gnaws it with a challenge in his eye. I put him in his room—but two minutes later when I go to clean the toilet, he ambushes me from behind the shower curtain with a chocolate–coated spoon and befudged grin.”



“’Callie! Max has got something!’ Adam shrieks from the next room. I chase Max the mutt down the hall and wrestle a stuffed animal from his jaws for the dozenth time that day. He drags the ten-foot hall runner into the living room, leaves masticated morsels of stereo earphones littered in the bedroom, pulls folded sheets and pillowcases off the top of the drier and tramples them, chomps the leaves off house plants.

“No sooner has Adam set up his ranks of plastic cowboys and Indians for a mock battle than Max scampers through, scattering them for yards around. Adam howls, in hot pursuit, beating him with a Batman doll.

“I’m in the kitchen, slaving over the dishpan. In an unguarded moment I turn, and Max leaps on my hands, slaking his thirst for dishwater with a great lolling tongue. When I try to load the dishwasher, he strains his head through my legs, slurping last night’s gravy from the dinner plates I’ve just stacked.

“Another mad dash and he knocks down Adam, who bumps his nose, which I have to kiss in order for it to mend properly.

“I drag Max to the door by the collar and deposit him in the back yard, where he sets himself to digging trenches, flowers flying. My patience spent, I corral him into his cage, but he leaps up on the sliding glass doors, dirtying the panes and rattling them with a thunder that reverberates throughout the house—another no-win day in the life of a dogsitter.”