I was a teenage beatnik wannabe
“You had friends in high school??” —my therapist J, sounding just a bit too incredulous
At the end of a 5-day painting intensive, a woman who was fairly new to the group said she had been nervous about coming. “I thought it would be like high school,” she said. “A clique running the ‘school’ and me on the outside like always.” I knew what she meant—you’re never too old to feel like a dorky freshman in a new group—but I wanted to say, “Honey, if this were like high school, I wouldn’t be hanging out with the popular kids—don’t worry about it.”
Back in ’61-’64, my friends Jerry and Gordy and I were on the cutting edge (in our own little small-town way) of the coming countercultural heyday that came to be known as “the sixties.” But the cutting edge is not always the place to be, when you see yourself as potentially infinitely cool for listening to Bob Dylan records, reading J.D. Salinger and the Saturday Review of Literature, and longing to have your own “pad” in New York City—while the rest of your little world sees you as three dorky musketeers, twerps in sheep’s clothing. The literary magazine we started as seniors—we called it Review IV because it was our fourth year of high school—hardly made a ripple on the local scene, but the aspiring poets who read our bulletin board notice at City Lights Bookstore in the magical city of San Francisco sent us their earnest young compositions, never the wiser about who we actually were. I still have the original submissions in a box somewhere, but unfortunately I haven’t unearthed any hidden gems from now-famous poets. Most of the poems we got from that ad were along the lines of “Here are a few of my favorite things/puppy dogs and sunshine…” (the women) or else raw cries of existential angst (the men).
I shouldn’t talk—I was writing truly terrible poetry at the time. One poem started, “All life comes in a-sordid colors.” I was so proud of that pun, I couldn’t really get past it. Unbeknownst to me, I actually made a start in the right direction when I wrote a long, free verse poem for senior English about going for a walk and finding a dead bird. Of course it was hokey, but it was at least from my heart and in my own voice. But pre-1965, the literary world was the ultimate boys’ club, and the boys were still caught up in the postwar heroic despair of looking for meaning in a meaningless universe. And believe me, dead birds were not the way to go. Jerry made such fun of the poem that I stopped writing poetry then and there. Not that he ever wrote anything, but he was a born connoisseur of literary excellence, just ask him.
Long before the days when student rebellion was as de rigueur as sock hops and football games, Gordy and I staged little defiant acts that centered, in those more innocent times, on dress codes. Being the girl, I played the supporting role. Boys were required to wear belts to school, and we all had to stand for the pledge of allegiance every morning. So Gordy rebelled against two birds with one stone. As the rest of us heaved ourselves out of our chairs for the obligatory nationalistic display, he ostentatiously removed his belt and handed it off to me. Then he slouched smugly in his seat while I stood there with my right hand over my heart and my left hand clutching this symbol of (Gordy’s) chains of oppression, feeling like a doofus in my mother-enforced frizzy hairdo, pink-rimmed glasses, and unredeemably dorky Montgomery Wards rust-colored skirt and blouse. As a teenager, the distance between how I felt and how I was allowed to present myself was infinitely large. I was primed for “the sixties” like you wouldn’t believe.
Jerry turned out to be gay. He’d had season tickets to the civic symphony since he was 12, which definitely made him “queer” in the general sense, but no one around there knew what “gay” was, least of all me. So all through high school I waged a pointless battle for his romantic attention. He was every bit the ugly duckling I was—painfully thin, unruly hair, glasses; his father worked in a print shop, and they didn’t even own a car—but Jerry was way, way above such considerations. He was my mentor in all things cool because he was so sure of himself, for no reason any of us could figure out. He was a terrible student but saw himself destined for great things. He moved to Indonesia right after college; he was a misfit here, but he lives like a king surrounded by nubile houseboys over there.
I spent so much time with Jerry—hatching our literary aspirations (I was going to be the William Faulkner of the U.P.), listening to classical records he got from the library to educate me—that my mother said to me bitterly when she came to pick me up one day, “Why don’t you just marry the guy?” I didn’t get it then, and I don’t get it now. I knew she was jealous of my crush on my English teacher, Ruth, but I know of no reason why she wouldn’t want me to be friends with this perfectly harmless boy.
Gordy, on the other hand, had a motorcycle and would take me riding while my mother fretted at home. This at least made more sense than her disdain for Jerry, but for someone who supposedly wanted me to have a social life—she’d counsel me before school dances (to which I went alone, of course), “Just walk up to a boy and say, “Hi! I’m Mary McKenney!”—she had a funny way of showing it.
Gordy was not gay but was so shy that it took me a good 15 years to realize that he had been waging a small battle for my romantic attention all through junior high and high school. Once again, my life takes on the aura of an O. Henry story. By the tenth grade, I bore the scars of years of being the ugly girl—boys making fun of me, snickering to one another when they had to dance with me during a “ladies’ choice,” Vernon Lemke holding me at arm’s length, one hand in my armpit to stave off any closer contact. So when Gordy became part of Jerry’s and my bohemian clique, I still saw him as the squirrelly kid who had pulled my hair and grabbed my purse in junior high. He had beautiful straight black hair, cut like the Beatles’, but he was short and swarthy (I realize now that he looked a little like Prince, but that look was way ahead of its time) and terribly insecure. We were both Jerry’s intellectual protégés, so in going after Jerry, I was, in effect, choosing the “alpha male,” such as he was.
I was so far from being able to imagine any boy being interested in me that I completely ignored the clues—that Gordy and I would lie on my bed in the dark, at his insistence (where was my intrusive mother?), listening to Bob Dylan or Peter, Paul and Mary records; that he gave me a wagon wheel he had burnt half-black with a torch and attached a rusty chain to (he was the artistic one of the trio—his bedroom had a fishnet draped from the ceiling, black walls, and lots of Chianti bottles with candles dripping multicolored wax all over them); that he once pulled his jacket over his head and threw a ring at me, in an apparent bid to make me his “girl.” I laughed it off, not having even the faintest idea that he could be serious. In my rare moments of feeling empathy for teenage boys in their quest for female acceptance, I think of Gordy. And even now, I wonder if I could be imagining the whole thing.
After high school, Gordy disappeared somewhere and later surfaced in Maui, where he lives to this day, as far as I know. Jerry and I both went to Michigan State; we saw each other on campus occasionally, but he had bigger fish to fry. He collected a series of beautiful, emotionally unstable gay men he took home to Menominee for visits, his mother glad he had so many “friends.” I learned about lesbianism from the first joke I heard in college. One roommate says to the other, “I want to be frank with you.” The other says, “No, I want to be Frank.” (I had to have this explained to me.) In my sophomore year, there were two lesbians in my creative writing class. I would see them walking on campus while surreptitiously holding hands behind their backs. I was totally creeped out and said contemptuously to Jerry that I had seen some queers. He was so deeply closeted that he didn’t say a word.
… she might well have wondered what there could be but a future of pain for a woman who cannot be a part of conventional society. Poor Elvira! Think of the anguish, being on the fringes of real life, not having a family, not producing roly-poly grandchildren, going from spiky-haired woman to spiky-haired woman, marching in so many parades, spending vast sums of money on therapy, keeping a houseful of cats. —Jane Hamilton, Disobedience
Then I fell in love with my roommate. BR (her name was Barb, but I don’t want you to confuse her with my sister) was a beautiful, voluptuous girl from Detroit who was acting out like crazy, in retaliation (I surmised) against her psychologist mother. She would sleep with men on the first date and then come back to the dorm and get in bed with me and weep on my chest. Unfortunately, we were total closet cases. We joked about “being Frank” all the time; we held hands, I sat on her lap, and she gave me excruciatingly so-near-and-yet-so-far backrubs, but neither of us had the nerve to go any further. When I realized what I was feeling, I looked up “lesbianism” in the library and was not put off in the least by all the declarations of “perversion.” (Remember, in 1965 no other interpretation was available, at least in mainstream sources. We have indeed come a long way.) I was already in counterculture mode and was relieved to find out why I had always felt “different.” Now I know that there’s a whole slew of reasons for my feeling of differentness, but at the time it was a liberating discovery.
My desire for BR was stronger than anything I had ever felt. My pursuit of Jerry and my crush on my English teacher were nothing in comparison. I can still see her creamy white breasts gleaming in the moonlight as she swept into my room, robe flying apart, but I could no more have touched her or spoken about my feelings than I could have flown to the moon—which we also didn’t know was possible in those days. All I could do was watch her and suffer in silence, letting Peter & Gordon’s song—“Woman, do you love me?”—express the unsayable.
BR and I planned to drop out of college after our sophomore year and move to New York City, where her autoworker stepfather could get us secretarial jobs in the union office. But in the meantime she acquired a boyfriend, Jim, whom she tried to get me to sleep with (Freudian much?), and went to the college counseling office for help in making her choice. The counselor told her to choose the man, and she did. She married and quickly divorced him, then married another guy. In one of her later letters to me, she revealingly said, “He’s fun, but he’s not you.” I’ll always wonder what would have happened if I had declared my interest. But something tells me I would have been just as unsuccessful with her as Gordy was with me. If you’re not ready for something, you can’t see it even when it’s standing right in front of you, its jacket over its head, tossing you a ring.
As it turned out, I dropped out of college anyway, but I didn’t run off to New York, I just hung around East Lansing with my remaining roommates, getting stoned out of my mind and celebrating—ironically—the Summer of Love.
If you come to a fork in the road, take it. —Yogi Berra
When I was in the tenth grade, a few of us nerdy types started a literature & philosophy club called PhiLi. We met in the popular kids’ hangout, a funky little restaurant at the intersection of Highways 41 and 35 that everyone called “The Pit.” We did not meet at the same times that the popular kids did. (Once, I was invited to The Pit by the popular kids after a rehearsal of the school play—I was a makeup girl, believe it or not—and I remember just sitting there frozen, speechless, having not the faintest idea of what to say to people who had it in them to be homecoming kings and queens.) In PhiLi, we read William James and debated some of the eternal questions, such as: If you’re walking around a tree on which a squirrel is scrambling around the trunk, are you also walking around the squirrel?… and … (of somewhat more immediate interest): Are we governed by fate, or do we have free will? i.e., did we each make a free decision to come to The Pit tonight, and what if we had come halfway and then turned around and gone home, would that mean it was fate that we didn’t come, or that we had exercised our free will?
The club didn’t last very long.
But the question about fate vs. free will is, of course, always with us, and I still wonder if the forks in the road we come upon really represent choices or if there’s some inner compass that causes us to forge ahead on our One True Path regardless of other so-called possibilities. Is my present life merely a consequence of not becoming lovers with BR, of not going to New York? Is it only because these things didn’t happen that I became a librarian, that I met Peggy in my first (and last) library job, that I moved to the Bay Area and started an editing career, that I was led to a fulfilling, creative life through painting….? To this day, I’ve never even been to New York. Is there a Mary in a parallel universe who lives in the Village, who became an editor in a publishing company instead of a university, who rides the subway instead of the ferry? Or was I destined to come to the Left Coast, to ply my trade and write my little ‘zine (far, far from the literary pretensions of Review IV)? It’s not as if these questions keep me awake at night, but when I’m between work assignments and have spent the afternoon napping and reading the latest John Grisham novel, and the sun is setting pinkishly through the window above my computer, and I have pan-fried filet of sole to look forward to for dinner (pan-fried for me by the chefs at Woodlands Market)… what the hell?
Lately, I’m continually bombarded with images from random moments of my past, as if I’m flipping through a photo album of my life, or spinning a wheel of fortune that lands briefly on this or that person or scene. I’m beginning to see why old people spend so much time thinking about the past. You spend your 20s and 30s building your life, having relationships and making a career—thinking you’ve escaped whatever gruesome childhood and adolescence you endured—and then when you turn 50 or so, there it is, staring you in the face again, demanding to be acknowledged, like a slo-mo version of your life flashing in front of your eyes. It seems as if the past doesn’t get more and more distant, as logic would dictate. It curves, maybe, like space, coming back around again, feeling like yesterday. Maybe when you die, your life is revealed to have been lived all in one “day,” all as accessible to you as what you had for breakfast this morning.
I was sitting at my desk the other day, editing a book about all the horrible things that bacteria can do to cheese, milk, meat, vegetables, grains, i.e., every food item we hold dear—there’s even a “cocoa and chocolate” chapter—and I had a visceral kind of insight, an undeniable sense that we think in terms of horizontal, i.e., time “going by,” linear, us floating in it—when actually our experience is vertical—nothing moves, we are like pillars standing in time, and what “happens” to us is all happening at the same “time,” like when the laser printer messes up and all the letters of your sentence pile on top of one another. We think our lives are like sentences, paragraphs, like we’re volumes in a great library of never-ending rows of shelves. But actually it’s as if there’s a plumb line going from God, down through our center into the earth and beyond. Everything’s happening on this line. All our experience is equally present (if a bit compacted), there’s no such thing as “movement.” Which is why, I suppose, we’re exhorted by the Buddhists to “live in the moment,” because there’s nowhere else to be.
I know this is abstract, but when I had this insight, I was thinking about our December painting intensive and of some of the wonderful moments I had with people there, and I realized that those moments are still alive—even the moments we had last year, or 3 years ago—they are not “lost in time,” any more than loving someone who lives 3,000 miles away is diluted because of the space between you. The profound experiences I’ve had are all here now; all the people I’ve ever loved (or not) are here, patiently waiting their turn in the line at the memory bank, ready to make a deposit or a withdrawal, nobody’s going nowhere.
It’s like nothing is ever lost. And maybe the body itself is the memory bank—the bricks&mortar/flesh&bone institution that organizes the experience. So maybe it’s not about choosing roads more or less traveled by but about simply being. I don’t think I missed out on my “real life” by not recognizing Gordy’s interest, or by BR not recognizing (or acting on) mine. I did finally meet someone, we recognized each other’s interest, and the laughs and tears ensued. Maybe it always looks “meant to be” when you look back on your life, but I can’t help thinking it’s a true perception. You start out as an acorn, end up as an oak tree; where does “choice” come in?
I don’t know if anyone else is interested in these crackpot theories, these half-baked intuitive fantasies of what the world is really like. I suppose I could take a poll of my readers and see what percentage wants to read about: (1) cats, (2) travel, (3) food, (4) “physics,” or (5) sex (eek!), but don’t fence me in, you know? Sometimes I feel like a kitten chasing a ball of yarn, I just like to see it all unravel.