Later I would write a short story—my first—that was a hodgepodge of fact and fiction:

It was the end of the school year, and she felt utterly oppressed by her situation at work—a class full of four-turning-five-year-olds, who seemed to become more heedless and willful as the last weeks wore themselves out. One little boy who had been relatively well-behaved at the beginning of the year was now insufferable—would strike out for any offense, however small or unintentional. She looked in her bag of tricks and found it gapingly empty. She didn’t know what to do anymore and was tired of trying. She wrote:

“A rutted road winds down behind the school, and a small bridge carries it over a canal to its end. No one uses the road, for the acres to the right have been leveled, the eventual floor to some construction, and to the left there is only a field of wild mustard flowers, as stridently, dizzily yellow as can be imagined. It was there I took refuge in the middle of one workday last week and ate my lunch in the company of the bugs. I remembered seeing such a field—all yellow—from above, last year, and now I realized that this was the same one. I gazed up at the school on the hill and thought about what it meant to me—the only reason I’ve had for living for a number of blank years. Then I tried to forget. For a brief moment I beheld the flowers at sea, eddying and blowing in the wind, and I wanted to laugh. They appeared loosed from their stems, all flitting their own ways, like a fairy swarm.”

That same morning she took a little girl’s face in her hands and said tiredly, “Sweetheart, I like you very much…I just wish you wouldn’t act so rowdy.”

The child looked back at her plaintively awhile and asked, “Why do you like me?”

And she felt, as she looked into that face, with its pathos and uncertainty, that it was her own reflection that she saw.

She was surprised by the phone call and couldn’t imagine later why she had accepted his invitation. She had told her girlfriend she wasn’t interested in going out with anyone, but her friend had gone ahead and given him her phone number anyway.

He was a pleasant-looking man, as it turned out—hefty, with lightly freckled skin and bushy bleached-out eyebrows. He reminded her of someone…or maybe of several people, she thought. His manner was easy and hearty, and she felt much more comfortable with him than she had expected to.

After buying some exotic cheeses in a specialty shop, they sat in lawn chairs under a willow tree, a flurry of ducks at their feet.

“When I was a little girl,“ she mused, “my father drove me home from school one day and stopped in a shop. He came out with a pink cardboard box, tied with a string. He told me it was a cake and put it in the shade in the back seat of the car…so the frosting wouldn’t melt, he said. He stuck to his cake story even when I insisted I heard peeping sounds coming from the box. He had bought me a duckling, a downy little yellow thing…”

One thing she liked about him, she decided as they drove on towards Bolinas, was his sense of timing. Just when she felt a length of silence pulling taut between them, when she began anxiously casting about in her mind for something worth saying, he would speak up, easily, naturally. She was grateful that he was good at both—quiet and conversation.

They took an army blanket and their bag of food into a scruffy field by an estuary and snacked on crackers and brie and wine. He told her about his recent adventures abroad.

“I hitchhiked across Castilla to the Costa Brava,” he said, “and lived for a while in the hills behind a little fishing village. They were terraced in stone a thousand years ago for growing olive trees—but desolate now. I camped out in an ancient stone shelter—square on the outside, dome-shaped on the inside, like an igloo.” He reconstructed it in the air with his hands. “It had a hole in the roof to let out smoke from the fire. I worried the first night it rained that it would leak…but in the morning I discovered that the cobwebs covering the hole had caught all the raindrops.”

“I’ve never been to Europe,” she said wistfully. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

They gathered up the blanket and food and walked down to a dilapidated pier.

“Would you like to fish?” he asked.

She shook her head. She didn’t like the idea of catching and killing things, but she didn’t want to say so—she didn’t want him to feel she was criticizing him. As she watched him, bent over his tackle box, she noticed how his sandy hair spiraled from a small bald patch at the top of his head. It lit up in her—that bald spot—a glow of tenderness, small and brief as a match flame. She noticed too how fair his skin was at his lower back where his T-shirt gaped above his jeans. Suddenly, standing out on the blustery end of the pier, she started back as though struck a blow by the wind. Only it wasn’t the wind, she knew. It was fear. For she was feeling a swell of physical longing for this man, and it was the last thing she wanted to feel.

She moved behind a barricade of weathered wood built on one side of the pier. When he stood up and saw her shivering, he started to put an arm around her, with a look of concern, but she turned deftly away, pretending she hadn’t read his intention.

“I think I’ll take a walk down to the beach,” she said. “Maybe collect some rocks…” She made herself smile.

All the rocks she found looked more or less the same—gold-brown and coarse—and she threw down as many as she picked up.

I wish I’d married a childhood sweetheart and lived…any way whatever…ever after, she thought almost bitterly. She couldn’t deal with contemporary courtship, she told herself—the precipitate advances and retreats. He would try to embrace her or kiss her soon, and she would have to let him or explain herself. Either way would feel like a violation—to be touched before she was ready to be touched or to have to explain before she felt ready to explain.

He stood beyond the wind-block at the end of the pier, his baggy T-shirt flapping in the wind. As she approached he turned his palms up to show her he was empty-handed—he hadn’t caught anything.

On the way back to the car, he started up a narrow path at the foot of a low cliff. She shied back, seeing the thickets of poison oak that bordered the path.

“I’d rather not go that way,” she said.

When he looked at her quizzically, she flushed. “Poison oak,” she said lamely. ’’It seems all I have to do is look at it and I break out.”

So they took the road instead.

Driving back to town he told her about his plans. He had been living out of his truck since his return from Spain, but at the end of the month he was moving into a small ranch house in the country outside of Danville. He was going to plant a vegetable garden and build a shop for cabinetmaking.

When they found that the restaurant didn’t open until 5:00, he asked if she would mind if he fished until then. She said no. So he walked down the road to the beach with his fishing pole while she sat in the car, where it was warm, with her notebook and pencil. She tried to write, but couldn’t. She had wanted him to stay with her, she realized. She should have told him so. Only she hadn’t known what she wanted then. In fact, she never seemed to discover what it was that she wanted until it was too late. And feeling unaccountably forlorn, she began to cry. She laid her head down on the seat and wept. After a while she dried her face, itchy from tears, and began to write.

She had the odd sensation that he was being careful with her—or of her—after that. Maybe her nose had been red or her eyes over-bright when he got back to the car, and he guessed that she had been crying.

They sat in a corner of the restaurant, the fronds of hanging plants trailing almost to their shoulders. They talked about their parents.

“My father was extravagant,” she said, shaking her head. “Every year at Christmas he brought home a magnificent tree, so tall he had to lop off the top to stand it upright in the living room. He and I used to decorate it together. One year my mother told me my father would be away for Christmas. And I knew with a child’s logic that because there was no tree there, my father wasn’t coming home…” She paused. “He never did. He left my mother for someone else.”

“My father died two years ago,” he said. “He was in a coma when I went to visit him in the hospital. He lay straining forward in the bed, gasping for breath. With his hair so disheveled and his jaw sunken in, I would never have recognized him—they’d taken out his dentures. It was strange… For the first time in my life, I could feel compassion for him—the compassion I’d feel for a stranger because he looked like a stranger. I never expected to feel anything but relief when he died, though the relief was mostly for my mother’s sake. He was always so hard on her, and she was so…gentle. She couldn’t stand up to him.”

He was looking down at his hands, thick-fingered, strong hands, splayed out on either side of his plate.

“My greatest fear growing up was that I would turn out like him,” he said. “I half-believed that becoming a man meant becoming a brute.”

They continued to talk as they ate, and there was suddenly a moment when she knew who he reminded her of—a lively little freckle-faced boy she’d known in kindergarten. She remembered now that she had invited him over to her house after school one day, showed him every acrobatic trick she knew on her backyard swing set…but the following afternoon he had gone to play with her next-door neighbor, and older girl who had stuck out her tongue over the back fence.

That night as they were driving home, they stopped along a cliff, and she got out despite the cold and stood beside him—a little ways away, looking at the stars. She kept her arms folded, hands tucked inside the opposite cuffs. She was afraid that if she let one hand drop, he would take it. She felt herself becoming overstrained with the effort of maintaining a separateness from him—like the effort it took to hold two magnets close, but apart. Yet the very strength of her attraction made it necessary to resist it. He didn’t make any move towards her, and she thought, with relief, maybe he will give me time, after all.

At her door he said good-bye gently and a little awkwardly, one corner of his mouth pulling into a half-smile. She had the impulse to reach out to him then but stopped herself. There would be another time, she told herself.

That night she dreamed she was a child again. Her father had rigged up a wonderful swing from the great oak branch in the backyard. Instead of merely swinging back and forth, she could swoop around and over the top of the branch, dropping down as smoothly and gracefully as on a ferris wheel ride. A man stood below her—it was supposed to be her father, but it didn’t look like him—and watched protectively, watched and waited while she swung, until the sun set and the stars came out.

The next morning she woke up scratching. She had poison oak on her bottom. At school the children tittered as she gingerly let herself down onto chairs, and she laughed too, half-enjoying the preposterousness of her affliction. By late afternoon, though, she felt her skirt alternately sticking to, then tearing from her skin. The sores were weeping and drying the way they did. The next day she stayed in bed, on her stomach, reading and writing. Silly as it was, she realized that she was glad she could tell him she had come down with poison oak. She was afraid he had thought her skittish—now she felt vindicated.

The week passed, and she didn’t hear from him. Only then did it occur to her that she couldn’t get in touch with him, since he was living out of his truck. She would have to wait until he called her. The fact of his inaccessibility made her suddenly anxious. She waited. The next week she told herself that he would be busy moving, probably too busy to think of anything else. The week after that, she didn’t know what to tell herself. One Friday afternoon she sat by the phone, thinking she would call her girlfriend and ask if she knew where to find him. She sat immobile for a half hour. Then she wrote a poem:

“A mind littered with broken inventions

Hands too tired to touch or tend

Where is…?

Yellow hills in smoky tableau

Look like a backdrop to me

Children fight and tumbling

Crush my rainbow tissue paper

Don’t call me

I’ll call you when…”






An orange Italian cup I held at breakfast

made me happy—it was so fanciful—

and remembering how my own voice adorned me.

Selyna, now I do know I’ve got to go.

Maybe it was seeing a forgotten name on a notepad

that reminded me of that old metamorphosis by the piano,

when my voice became warm as coffee

and singing made me believe I was beautiful.


Selyna was an opera singer and teacher at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music whom I studied with briefly after Mrs. Unruh’s stroke.

I have no memories of the work we did together, beyond a few words of a German lieder—and the fact that I felt at my lessons that I was straining. Concerned, I recorded myself singing on a little tape recorder I had—and was reassured because, though the fidelity wasn’t great, my voice sounded sweet.

When I played my recording for Selyna, however, she exclaimed, “That’s not what you sound like!” and promptly made a recording of me on her superior equipment. In it I heard all the strain and tension that I’d been experiencing all along—and realized that I if I continued, I was going to destroy my voice.

Years later I would read in the Contra Costa Times about an aspiring singer whose voice became so damaged during training that she now could hardly speak—and she’d had to turn to painting as a creative outlet instead. Like her, I finally accepted that I was going to have to find myself another dream.




“Somewhere beyond gaze

myriad lilies are spinning beneath the sun

One flesh presses another

both shivering with forgetfulness

My white room is hot and bright

my body abuzz

cell and germ contending

Somewhere beyond hearing

a perpetual waterfall rains on a solitary pool

so deep in gloom

I reach it only on a waking rush of time

the instant when consciousness flies up

and captures images of the nocturnal mind

There the tigers and antelope gather

on a sand as fine as gold dust

and sagaciously discuss

the legends of my life

There I bathe in dream-deep water

where fish like marine butterflies flash


There I succumb to the muscular shadows

yielding, concave, to convexities—

and am seeded with intangibles”




“A long faculty meeting. I was going to add ‘boring,’ but that goes without saying. I feel like a clod of dirt. Karl looked at his watch and made restless movements, saying it was four o’clock and he had to get to the stores before they closed. Louise, meeting chairman and his wife, retorted testily that he had taken up more time talking than anyone else. They continued to snipe at each other while the rest of us sat with carefully crossed legs and more carefully composed expressions. We’re all hack artists, designing our exteriors to meet conventional expectations.”




“Dear Ella,

“I’m so sorry I missed seeing you and Dale in Healdsburg. I hope you’ll pardon my not getting back to you. That week was the end of a brief—traumatic—affair with a man named Bob. It was also a big, traumatic week for therapy—I wound up leaving Dr. G soon after. I guess I should tell you the whole story—about Bob, I mean.

“He’s a young doctor, just out of med school, who had worked with my mother at Herrick Hospital a couple of years ago, saw my photograph on her desk, and wanted to take me out. Mom had mentioned this to me back then, but I wasn’t interested. He’d left Berkeley for a time and then showed up at Herrick one day with an emergency case of appendicitis—one of his patients, that is.

“He told Mom he now worked at a Chicano clinic in Oakland and that if I was looking for volunteer work, I might help out at the clinic. Then he called me up for a date. That’s how I met him—actually, it’s the only way I could have met him. I was too depressed to go out looking for a man.

“He was short, stocky, bearded—virile-looking, with a twinkly kind of smile. As I got to know him, I discovered he had a wacky sense of humor that delighted me, that he was very bright and knowledgeable (he graduated from Stanford) and versatile too. He loved music, played the piano a bit, enjoyed literature and poetry, dabbled in photography, sailed, skied, and water skied, etc. He’d even been president of Berkeley High, where I went to school!

“What’s more, he was friendly, gregarious, sensitive, and psychologically astute—and we had such fun together! We hiked, swam, sailed at Lake Tahoe, and had barbecues with his friends. In Mendocino we rented a little motel cabin on the 4th of July weekend, roamed the woods and the beaches, perused the little art galleries, and finished off the evenings with cocktails and dinner at fancy restaurants. In a few short weeks, he told me he felt closer to me than any woman he’d ever been with. For the first time in my life I thought, I could marry this man!

“Then one day we talked about attitudes towards marriage, and he announced that he wasn’t particularly committed to the idea of marital fidelity, nor was he willing to be monogamous with me—a deal-breaker…” Of course, he told me this after we became lovers. 

The letter goes on, but not with the whole story. What I failed to mention is that the night Bob told me this—at his apartment—once again I felt sucked down into a dark vortex of pain. When I went to my car to drive home, I thought of the relief a scream had brought me before and wondered if I could muster the determination to do it again. And though I worried that I would alarm the neighbors, who might think I was being assaulted, I did scream. But this time I felt no relief whatsoever. Still, I didn’t break up with Bob immediately, telling myself that maybe, if I just hung in there, he might have a change of heart. So when he invited me back up to his family’s cabin at Lake Tahoe, I accepted.

We drove up with a couple of his close friends—and just as I had with Steve years before, I felt shut out of the conversation. On arrival, we hiked over to another friend’s cabin, where more of his friends, including a couple of pretty girls, were gathered. Soon it was decided that we’d all go sailing. After we got back and everyone was lounging around, I asked Bob if he would go for a walk with me, but he refused. Hurt, I set off by myself, intending to make my way back to his cabin—but somehow I got lost. Eventually he came looking for me because I’d been gone so long. But at that point, even before he found me, I knew it was over.

That night he slept on the cabin sofa and allowed me to sleep in the bed. But I couldn’t sleep. Instead I spent the night grappling with the impulse to commit suicide. Again, I was in such pain, I felt the only way I could communicate it was by taking, or attempting to take, my own life. Since I’d been silenced by my family, never allowed to tell the truth about my despair, it seemed to me that killing myself would be the most honest, the most courageous and eloquent thing I could do—a last act to reclaim my own integrity, the consummate act of self-expression. Beyond this, I felt a sort of mortal exhaustion that I couldn’t go on trying anymore. I was ready to relinquish control and place myself in the hands of “fate.” It would be dishonest to make an unserious attempt, I thought, so, throughout the night, I wrestled with indecision. Then towards dawn I found my resolve—I would slit my wrists, I decided, but make no sound or cry for help. Whether I would be discovered in time to save my life or not I would leave to chance.

I went into the bathroom—but couldn’t get the blade out of Bob’s disposable razor. Afraid that unless I did, I wouldn’t be able to cut deep enough, I struggled with it for a time—until I realized it was hopeless and gave up.

Years later I talked to a neighbor friend of Arlen’s, Lois, who had attempted suicide and survived—and felt a powerful envy, wishing it had been me. But a few more years passed, and I heard from Arlen that Lois had tried again. This time she’d succeeded.

Some time later, my mother mentioned she’d run into Bob. He’d told her he was in therapy and that I was the angriest person he’d ever met, adding but maybe it was his own anger that he’d been afraid of.

For my part, I never saw Bob again—and he would never know how close he’d come to finding corpse in his bedroom the next morning.



ROOM OF GRAY RAIN (song lyrics)


There’s an empty room that needs a chair

A photo with no frame

A fireplace that’s cold and bare

A mailbox with no name

No one comes to visit there

To her it’s all the same

She sits and wiles away the hours

In a room full of gray rain


If someone asks, just say she’s fine

Just say she says hello

It’s no one’s fault these days and nights

She finds she’s going so slow

Of course she thinks of him sometimes

And wonders if he’s changed

But it’s so hard to think at all

In a room full of gray rain


A strange thing happened yesterday

It cleared before the dawn

And in the mirror she paused to see

Her own reflection gone



“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.



In a brown grocery bag at the back of a closet behind the vacuum cleaner, I find a folder of poems dating back to this time.




There is a tree

with a gnarled root

that I embraced in summer.

Close against its breast

I heard the miniature sounds of life,

the tread of ants,

the rustling caterpillars…

And the sunshine seeped into my skin.

Gazing on my bare body,

I saw golden hairs glinting

on the fair swelling hills,

in the gentle valleys.

And I lay down among the leaves

while the wind blew over.

But time passed

and the day grew cold.

Then I saw how the secretive dark earth

had crept around me,

how the leaves lay decaying between my limbs.

I heard the worms whisper

in passing beneath me,

where I lay shivering in the shadows

while the wind blew over.





Sunny days and breezy nights

on a windswept deck

of faded white

and the taste of sand.


Flying fishes and the crash of waves,

the shadowy beach

so smooth and bare,

like a girl’s cool belly

where the wandering tide has been


When nights are warm

I stroll along the sea

among the looming caverns

and sound and spray.


One evening I’ll dissolve

unseen into the shadows,

leaving only moonlight

and the incurious stars.




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.”