Recently, I took a walk with a friend who had had cervical cancer in her early thirties. As we walked beneath the live oaks surrounding my house, admiring the swags of Spanish moss and the blooming dogwoods, my friend, to my surprise, began to talk about her regret at not having children. “It’s probably unseemly at my age, but I still want them,” she said. “Oh, I know I shouldn’t get pregnant, but I admit I’ve toyed with the idea. You see, I can already imagine the baby.”
I nodded as if in agreement, though my own mind went dumb with a different anxiety. Although I was also childless, my imagination dug in its heels at the thought of having children. I had no nightmares or dreams about children as if I’d wandered witlessly into female adulthood without any thought to biology. I felt suddenly uneasy as if there were something wrong with me, some failure of the imagination, some narrative block. And I say imagination not body because having a child is surely as much an act of the imagination as it is of the body. And yet with me, no scenarios spun out their fine threads of possibility. When I tried to see the swirling dot that is a beginning cell, it metamorphosed into a period, that all too familiar symbol of punctuation.
After we had finished our walk and my friend left to meet her husband, I sat alone in my living room, saying softly to myself, you’ve got to think about this, you’ve really got to think. I realized I’d never come to terms with this fact of childlessness, had never articulated my own private response to it. It seemed to me that I didn’t so much make a decision to remain childless as that I woke up at age 45 and noticed it. Yet I knew this couldn’t be true, and I was suddenly curious about the underpinnings of my choice, one unacknowledged by me for a long time.
It began, I think, in history. Not just the history of my family but the history of a region, of a period of American life, the 50’s and 60’s where men and women conformed to roles that separated them into neatly ordered camps. For white people, this period was a romanticized version of Eden, where families were generally intact and the economy was bursting at the seams. Every day, middle-class men went out in the world to make a living while their wives stayed home and raised the family, cooking, cleaning, and running errands, reading to children and helping them with their homework. On the surface, it seemed quite clear which group I should align myself with. And yet I might as well confess it: for most of my life I haven’t wanted to be a woman. Or, perhaps, what I feel is much more subversive: I haven’t thought of myself as a woman, though goodness knows I’ve certainly tried all the masks of femininity the market produces. Instead, growing up, I thought of myself as an “it,” a neuter, neither phallic nor fecund, neither girl-child nor boy-child. As a teenager, I dreamed about becoming a woman the way American writers dream of the pastoral. I felt both the need to return to the feminine and the impossibility of the act.
Of course, my gender ambiguity is probably quite natural, given that in my family, my sister and I were brought up as honorary sons, ambitious boys hiding out in dresses, our long hair a mere frill of affectation. “The girls,” we were always called, and I thought this a sly, preposterous trick. We lived our entire childhood and adolescence in a small Southern town, a traditional town in which young girls went off to college, got married, had children, and then settled down to a scheduled domesticity: making costumes for dance recitals, hosting fishfries for the church, attending Little League ballgames, sometimes even catching a foul ball. All of this seemed proper and right for the women in our town, and yet my sister and I knew that we were not meant to repeat such lives.
On Sundays when my dad sat with my sister and me at the kitchen table after Sunday dinner, he often talked about the possibilities of “life” with a capital L. “It’s easy to be a big fish in a small pond,” he’d begin theatrically, raising his eyebrows as he looked at us over his black frame glasses. “The difficult thing is to be a big fish in a big pond.”
“In a city,” my mother would add, turning from the dishes she was rinsing in the sink. “I’ve never wanted to live in a small town,” she’d continue, “but your father. . . .” and she’d start the dishwasher, letting us draw the necessary conclusion.
Thus the big pond was where my sister and I focused our attention, and in our minds this was an idealized image, a romanticized place of glory and applause. It meant living in a dream city with skyscrapers and bright lights, doing something noteworthy, something that made the hustle and bustle come to a sudden, surprising halt. The big pond. It sounded so heady, my sister and I felt harnessed to ambition as if it were an engine carried bug-like on our backs, its motor always running. “Compete, compete, compete,” the motor hummed, little hammers beating against our skulls. Miraculously, we were also expected to present ourselves as girls, to be polite, pretty, and accommodating in the social world while the engine revved privately, internally, gearing up for school and competition.
From an early age, my sister told me constantly what she intended to do when she grew up: at age ten, after she’d seen Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story, she wanted to be a religious savior. “I’m going to India and work with the untouchables,” she said one night while we were getting ready for bed. “Or maybe with the lepers. I’ll put the softest, sweetest smelling Kleenex to the place where their noses used to be.”
I listened to her, partly awed, partly disgusted. “Won’t you be scared?”
“Yes,” she said, her eyes glazing a little with the thought, “but I’ll just have to do it.”
At age 12, after a successful piano performance, the applause convinced her to become a concert pianist. She had strong fingers, an excellent memory, and though she rarely practiced she always did well at recitals, which suggested to her a sure thing. Yet by age 14, she was accompanying my father to the hospital, looking at blood samples, visiting patients, reading X-rays with him, and it seemed clear that she’d follow in my father’s medical footsteps.
Unlike my sister, I was much less successful as an honorary son. I seemed more adept at the feminine pursuits—dance and literature—which in a small town didn’t suggest any career choices at all. Of course, you could be a teacher, but that had little sting. Anybody could be a teacher. “You can be a Dixie Darling,” my mother said one night during halftime at a football game, but immediately, I turned up my nose at that. Being a majorette wouldn’t hold water to my own missionary zeal, for I believed I should dance with the Jeffrey Ballet or the Rockettes at Rockefeller Center. In our family there was no distinction between the two, not even that ballet was high art and the Rockettes mere commercial entertainment. What counted was that they were both public performances in New York City, something you could point to as a decided leap out of the small pond of rural Alabama life. The other alternative was to become Miss America, to win a scholarship and learn what my mother called “poise.” Although this seemed decidedly female, the scholarship made it an attractive, competitive possibility. With a frustrated attention, I watched myself in the mirror as I perfected my routines, trying to see myself as a single spinning dot. I watched and then lost myself in the motion. Yet the mirror was always there, ready to pull me back, to secure me to its fickle gaze. While ambition swam through my bloodstream like a virus, the truth was, I never understood how to direct it, how to get lost to my own curiosity. As a result, I always seemed to be in limbo, starting and stopping, obsessing and then quitting, never knowing where to concentrate my energies. One minute I’d be practicing tour jetes, the next doing stunts on my bike, riding through ditches full of kudzu, my arms waving out to the side, the next listening to vocabulary records, my brain straining towards the abstraction of words. Being less convinced of my talents than my sister, I often felt caught like a fish on a hook, wiggling against an inevitable paradox: how to pursue ambition while retaining feminine beauty and charm.
It all made me very tired.
Even as early as age six, I understood that babies changed a woman’s life forever. In first grade I remember overhearing my mother say casually to a friend about a pregnant girl in our town, “Now her life is over!” which made me think that the young girl and her baby would live the rest of their lives tucked inside a closet or consigned to a cellar with rotting apples, belching furnaces, and old clothes, never to come out for homemade ice cream or for the Lineville Christmas play at the First Methodist Church.
At this time I was enthralled by the lives of older girls, high school girls—particularly those whom my parents indicated would “go somewhere in the world”—hoping, I suppose, to follow the arc of their lives. One of my father’s friends, Ronnie Flanagan, had such a daughter, Margaret, who pranced before us with the sassiness of a woman on the cusp of the world. When we visited their house, I loved to go into Margaret’s room and watch her sitting at her vanity, rolling her hair on twisted plastic rollers, part of a home permanent kit, pictures of Elvis Presley and Teddy Roosevelt pasted side by side on her vanity mirror. I admired everything about her, from her sharp bossiness with her parents—she argued constantly for an extended curfew, for the right to go to the dances in Pell City, for the right to stay up late and read—to the articulate symmetry of her room, the vanity, the desk, the bookcase, and especially the bed with the crocheted doll dead center, its skirt spread out in a perfect circle. Margaret, who was robust and athletic, who made A’s on all her quizzes, who carried the C-D encyclopedia with her to the bathroom, had a tall handsome boyfriend, Mitchell, who was as shy as she was talkative. When he came to pick her up, even his beauty seemed to fade a little before the force of her personality, and yet Margaret always touched his shirt aifectionately and beamed back her trigger-happy smile into his face. Mitchell had a younger brother who was in my class, a boy named Peter who did swashbuckling tricks with a stick to impress the girls. The only unfortunate thing about Peter were his ears which stuck out like paper tabs from the side of his crew-cut head.
Unlike Margaret, Mrs. Flanagan was nervous and jittery, all her attention tied to cleaning up the bathroom and kitchen and sewing Margaret’s next prom dress with tiers of blue ruffles and a flounce at the scooped neck like the dresses on the antebellum girls on the calendars she ordered from J.C. Penney. Margaret was always saying, “Mother, don’t worry about it,” as if she were the adult and her mother the anxious child. At parties, my mother was attentive to Mrs. Flanagan, who often seemed plodding, almost banal in her conversation about linoleum cleansers and sewing patterns, but she always made the distinction that Margaret was the “smart” one, the one with brains in the family.
It happened that in the fall of my first grade year I became enamored with Peter, and it was agreed between us in our carefully worded notes that we would be boyfriend and girlfriend for the year, with occasional heated hand holding in the cloakroom. It pleased me to be chosen, and especially to be chosen by someone who was connected, even incidentally, to Margaret. Peter said she ate dinner with his family every week, that one time he caught her smoking a cigarette in the back yard and when she saw him, she pitched the cigarette across the street into the ditch and asked him if he could throw that far. He said of course he could and threw his mother’s garden trowel into the next field.
Near Thanksgiving, the weather turned slightly cooler so that we had to wear jackets over our dresses and knee socks instead of the short, folded down kind we’d been wearing. I loved the cool weather, the way the heat came up from vents in the floor, ballooning my dress, the red-gold leaves falling suddenly from the trees at each gust, and the delicate patterns of frost on the windows where I could spell out my name. I looked forward to Thanksgiving, not only because I’d be out of school for four days, but also because I’d have two big dinners that day with extra desserts. One at noon with our family— chocolate cake with fudge icing—and the second in the evening with the Flanagans, who always had homemade apple pie.
And yet Thanksgiving morning we woke to a shock: we would not be going to the Flanagans after all. Sixteen year-old Margaret had eloped the night before with the silent, handsome Mitchell! My mother, talking on the phone to Mrs. Flanagan, was distraught, as if Margaret were her very own daughter. Her voice conveyed all the horror and shame of someone dying, someone getting killed in an automobile accident right before your eyes. As she poured coffee for herself and my father, she said sadly, “Well, there goes Margaret’s life!”
Somehow in the midst of the conversations that followed about Margaret, I assumed that she would have a baby. I don’t remember if she actually did have the baby that year, but I remember the edge of concern over the possibility, which women talked about in lowered voices when my sister and I came near. Of course, we heard all the undertones, the worried phrases “she couldn’t be!” and “it would be a tragedy” even in the hushed voices of the women who played bridge with my mother. And we knew that women often had babies once they were married. Mostly I felt mad at Margaret, who still wore pleated skirts and mohair sweaters, who probably continued to give herself home permanents and tack up pictures of heroes on her vanity, because she’d disappointed me, and would now have a life of closets and cellars, or some tawdry equivalent. The arc of her life had suddenly gone flat.
When I went back to school after Thanksgiving, I met Peter in the cloakroom. He smiled at me and held out the candy he’d brought me wrapped up in aluminum foil with an orange ribbon on the top. I took the candy cautiously, not sure if this meant we were tied to each other, and if so exactly what that entailed. It was my earliest concern about relationships, one where gifts often implied more than their surface pleasure. I worried suddenly that he might ask me to elope as his brother Mitchell had done with Margaret, and before we left the cloakroom, I turned to him and said preemptorily, “I’m not having any babies!” and walked briskly out into the room, relieved to have said my piece.
During elementary school, when my sister and I played dolls, we never let them have babies. Perhaps the stories of young girls in trouble, girls like Margaret who would no longer go anywhere in the world had struck home, making us queasy about letting our young dolls become mothers. We loved grown-up Madame Alexander dolls instead of Betsy Wetsys and demanded that they do absurd but interesting things in the world: sing loud, smaltzy songs in nightclubs, have a house with the roof open to the stars, or best of all, live in Greenwich Village and work as a window designer at Bloomingdale’s. Of course, we combed and washed our dolls’ hair, dressed them for exotic dates, but our imaginations never took us into the heated interior of family life. Often we gave our dolls lessons, dancing lessons, clarinet lessons, baton lessons, swimming lessons, mimicing the way we spent most of our time. We’d put them on the end of the couch and say strictly, “Now you have to swim underwater the length of the pool,” then nurse them along the long green couch, mechanically kicking their legs. While I was in elementary and junior high, my mother drove my sister and me 40 miles back and forth four days a week on two-lane blacktop roads to lessons in distant cities. I’d sit in the back seat, one leg tucked under me, the other swinging idly as I stared at the flat, plowed fields the color of old stew meat. As we rode, I could feel the expectations humming from the dashboard of Mother’s car, spinning out over the upholstered seat as we moved towards the four-way stop at County 102. Can you do the front walkover flip, your part of the pas de deux? Can you play the new Bach sonatina? These lessons were to make us “cultured” so that when we moved to the city we would be like the sophisticated natives who understood that an evening spent at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was an evening of pleasure and refinement. Of course, we’d wear fur coats and long dresses, have opera glasses and tiarras. We’d be glamourous as all get out. We’d be girls, but with all the independence of boys.
We knew that my father had always wanted five boys and one girl and must have been surprised at the odds of two girls and one boy. What? Only one boy? Though my sister and I became “honorary sons,” these actual words were never spoken. Instead the idea was intuited in the hallways of our imaginations, in the public life demanded by its applause. And it was applause we wanted, great rolling rounds of applause, like putting a seashell to your ear and hearing only clapping. Standing ovations would be even better! The point of life, I decided, was figuring out just how to get your due. And in some sense how to turn girlhood into boyhood, into the kind of approval that shouted its good news. Almost every week we saw my father’s picture in the local newspaper, and this acknowledgement of status and worth became one of our requirements. “Don’t come home until you get your picture in the paper,” he said to me once when I was in my 20’s. My friends thought he was teasing, that this was mere rhetoric, but I knew he meant it. Hadn’t this been the legacy of my childhood?
Although my mother often lived both roles—having a career as a biology teacher and taking care of house and children—she never taught my sister and me any homemaking skills. “What’s this?” I asked, holding up a sieved bowl. “A collander,” she answered, taking it from me and draining the spaghetti. That was it. End of lesson. We never learned how to cook, sew, or clean house—”this is a dustmop,” my mother-in-law said when I got married, “this is Windex”—and yet despite these absences in our education, our daily lives were intimately connected to the feminine. We knew, for instance, that the female world was divided into mothers and nonmothers and like many children who easily hold a contradictory idea in their heads, we saw there was something eccentric, sad, even peculiar about the childless women who occasionally surrounded us. In my mind, these women were failures not because they didn’t have children, but because they hadn’t gotten out of town, hadn’t done something fabulous.
We often heard hushed conversations in the kitchen between such women and our mother about some aspect of their “difficulty.” Nobody mentioned the word infertility. That would be indelicate, impolite. I imagined my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Peak, leaving school with our stack of spelling words and printing exercises, driving home to a lonely, dark house in Bon Secour where she spent three hours in solitude waiting for her husband to get home from work. Solitude seemed the enemy in a region defined by gregariousness. In my own yard playing on the jungle gym with my friends, I tried to imagine what Mrs. Peak would do with those idle hours. Maybe she soaked her feet in Epson Salts as Mother occasionally did when she’d had a long day, or perhaps she made curtains and bedspreads as Mrs. McTeague sometimes did when her kids were at the swimming pool. She certainly would be relieved of the many tasks of chauffering kids around to dentists and Cub Scouts. Sometimes while I climbed crab-like across the bars, I imagined Mrs. Peak sitting slumped in a chair, her hands hanging limply down the sides, her face numb with the emptiness of her life. More than anything I wondered why she had not gone to live in New York where there were crowds of people moving around at all hours. After school in New York, she could go to the Museum of Natural History and be face to face with dinosaur skeletons or Eskimo dioramas. She could visit the famous public library.
It wasn’t until late adolescence that I saw an escape from my conflict with achievement. It was so close at hand, it was almost a joke, a quick slide into hiding. Although I didn’t feel female, I began to mimic the world of the feminine, knees together, back straight, my mind a cloud of potential fashions. Spaghetti straps or strapless? Bikinis? Pedal Pushers? Spike heels or square-toed flats? There was so much to assess—how to be that perfect object, sweatless, smooth, nipples never pointy, hair neatly brushed. And yet all the time I was secretly practicing for this pastel life, I felt the old ambition deep inside my bones. My sister had been racking up awards, proving herself in the masculine/feminine territory we traversed. Not only was she awarded a National Merit Scholarship and several valedictory prizes, but she was also the Speckled Trout Rodeo Queen, with her picture in the paper, a crown on her head.
I felt pale by comparison, but I didn’t know the route out of envy. Instead I embedded myself in the female world and felt stuck there like jelly in a jar, my psyche taking on the shape of the container. Paradoxically, I turned my ambition to artifice, constructing beauty as my entrance into the world. More than anything, I wanted the ritual “ah-ha!”, my own personal eclipse of the sun. Getting dressed for a school dance was nothing less than a theatrical production. I could have been a character in a play: the face, body, and style transformed from the ordinary to the exotic. First the face had to be contoured, the false eyelashes applied, the eyebrows drawn on, the cheeks sculpted. Then the hairpieces were fixed into place. Each night I rolled the fake bangs on an orange juice can so they would be slightly curled rather than poker straight, ready to be attached to my scalp with bobby pins. Then a headband obscured the bobby pins from the world. For certain dresses, I wore a waist cinch which gave me my Scarlett O’Hara look, the stays splicing my ribs like punishing fingers, spiky and stiff. And always, yes, the padded bra. After my disguise was complete, I stared at myself in the mirror with a furtive surprise and a hint of distrust as I reacquainted myself with the thing created. It was a slow dissolution, this losing of my real self to the charade. I breathed out my transparent, unselfconscious self and inhaled a persona. Ribs tightened. Breathing changed. Shoulders straightened. I blinked rapidly, getting used to the flutter of the lashes, their thickness distorting peripheral vision. I put myself on a cloud and ascended, arms open as if I knew what I was meant to welcome. But I didn’t really know what my transformation meant. I understood only that zeal was what counted, and now I was a dark object palpitating with fierceness.
I took my fierceness like a wrapped secret to college. At age 19, if there was any sleeping core of longing in me, it was a desire to feel female, to make the inside and outside cohere. I didn’t want to be estranged from myself, to live the metaphor of a knot. Of course, I never said a word about this to anyone, for I knew that only crazy people went to see psychiatrists. Instead, I kept my fear inside the locked box of my psyche and waited patiently, like a princess in a fairytale, for something to happen. And sure enough, this longing was awakened one night when my boyfriend Ray pulled me into the packed darkness of his closet, pressing me against the blue workshirts, soft from so many washings, hanging from several hooks. All around me I felt the clutter of clothes, the stuffiness of the closet which was long and narrow like a hallway. We had been dating for four months; love wrapped around me like a glove, protective and warm. I believed I’d found my soul mate, my partner for life. Ray’s lips touched me as he pushed against me, a sleeve of one of the workshirts falling over my shoulder. Through the open closet door strains of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” drifted in, the guitars whining with sexual energy. “I love you,” Ray said, and I was thrilled to the bone. His lips were at my ear, nuzzling my hair, my neck. “I want you to have my babies,” he whispered. I snuggled closer. I had been chosen. “Yes,” I said, ecstatic, convinced. Babies were the ultimate love gift, and Ray’s wanting one with me seemed to cinch my female reality.
Once I had a house and a husband, I wanted that world, the female world of lemon-pine odors and baking bread, of worry over curtain length and where to hang the oval mirror. And yet I stood in the kitchen and did not know what to do. It was a huge room, odd in its regularity, with too much linoleum and chrome, gadgets and wood. I didn’t know how to work the stove, the electric can-opener, the double boiler, the meat thermometer. I had no idea what to cook, how to make a meal so that everything came together at the same time. Once, totally confused by the measurements of cooking, I stood before the butcher at Piggly Wiggly and asked for “a foot of steak.” The butcher gave me a suspicious look—was I playing him for a fool?—while I waited sheepishly in front of the meat counter, fingering the pork chops, suddenly remembering ounces. Eventually Ray’s parents sent over Loretta, their cook, to supervise my learning, to direct me in the meals of their family: chicken and dumplings, hot water cornbread, blackberry cobbler, creamed corn, stuffed tomatoes, hush puppies, sweet potato pie, and last but not least, stewed cabbage. It was the stewed cabbage that stumped me, those hard clumps of roughage turning too quickly to mush on the bright new eyes of the stove.
“Heat too high,” Loretta would say when I passed the pot of limp cabbage to her for approval. She never looked at me when she spoke, but instead focused on an unassuming spot on my neck and locked her eyes into position.
What?” I’d ask, trying to break her gaze, to make her acknowledge that I was there, standing right beside her.
But she pretended not to hear, so I tried again, cutting the cabbage into halves, then quarters, then eights, slicing the fatback into thick awkward fingers of lard, adding just enough water to cover the top. After two days I thought I had the hang of it. When Loretta was there, the cabbage came out tender, soft (but not mushy), and tasted surprisingly sweet to my tongue. (Who could ever think of cabbage as lyrical, as sweet, soft curls that slide down your throat?) But on the days I tried preparing it alone—following her instructions meticulously—it came out soggy as wet bread or else hard and crunchy like raw potato. I spent at least five minutes each day throwing away ruined cabbage. After six months of this, I gave up on domesticity, fixed hamburgers and pizza, and went back to school at Rhodes College in Memphis. My past had risen up to claim me.
And yet the tapestry of my life remains a chaos of unravelling threads. Four years later when the marriage broke up, I was greatly relieved that Ray and I didn’t have children. While married and living in a small town in Tennessee, I told myself at 22 I was too young, still growing up, defining myself and simply not ready to be a mother to someone else. All around me women my age were having babies, but I’d quickly discovered that instead of resolving my gender fears, marriage only amplified them. Although our courtship had been a fury of desire, marriage seemed to temper even the sex drive. Once we’d settled down in Ray’s hometown, he was hell-bent on losing himself to a weekend of music and partying after a 60-hour work week at a job he despised. I know now that Ray and I were both fighting for psychic survival, that when the self is in danger, the desire for sex, and especially any thought of having children, can vanish like steam evaporating in the air. Depressed at being back in his hometown, Ray became remote, self-involved, and likewise, I held myself apart, waiting for something special to happen to me, for my talents to work along a fat vein of certainty. I spent the entire marriage watching for a sign of who to become, still waiting for rescue. Yet no sign appeared. No treasure fell from the sky. No trap door opened.
After the divorce, I still felt like a child in adult garb, a masquerade of a woman who didn’t know who she was. Startled, I realized that the waiting had been for nothing, that the one positive result of the marriage had been its infertility. I was grateful I wouldn’t be a single mother, a child-mother, and settled down to live alone for six years, studying art, taking classes at the university, drawing designs and portraits alone in my room. I was happy in a rebellious sort of way, like a bird gaining its wings and flying directly into a whirlwind.
In my room, I pared everything down to essentials: bed, chair, table, lamp, art supplies, camera. Here, I felt monkish, transfixed, a potential honorary son. From this perspective, my past life looked like a lull in a storm, the dead center of a hurricane. I’d wanted a protective cloak, one that would diminish the effects of the outside world and keep me young and smooth like a wrapped chocolate inside a box. Now I wanted, demanded, high winds. I immersed myself in art, working seven days a week, going to a Rothko exhibit or seeing works by Billy Al Bingston and Acconci, listening to Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass every weekend, trying to fashion a life. During this period I never thought about children, about anything that would divert me from my newly claimed world. I was in my late 20’s without a boyfriend. If anyone had asked me if I wanted children, I’d have shrugged, said flippantly, “Who knows? There’s still plenty of time to worry about that,” and moved into the darkroom, setting up the enlarger, the trays of developer and fix, getting out my film from its plastic sheets.
And there was still time. Yet the imaginative life is a quirky life often tied to the unfinished business of childhood. For me that meant continually straddling the masculine/feminine domain, confronting my ineptitude in both spheres. Although I saw art—and then later, writing—as my salvation, the thing that made me invisible, translucent, a mind and body exploding onto cloth and film and paper, it satisfied only one part of the equation. Ritualistically, the feminine demand for seduction still reared her insistent head, and there would be days when I had a love affair with the mirror or when I lay in the couch obsessed with a recent infatuation, like the one I had with Russell. I met Russell in 1978 when he walked through the art department at UCLA, looking sleepy-eyed and cynical, and stopped beside one of my pieces: two 1950 red Chevrolet doors complete with Expressionist portraits of me in the windows—a dark shadowed girl with the depressive gaze of a Sylvia Plath. He smiled—the corners of his mouth barely turned up—then looked up at me and said, “You should come over.” Well, I came over, I looked at his work—took two paces back and commented on the subtlety of the grey lines, how they counterbalanced all the peeled-looking white space, the rubbed-out salmon edges—all the while reeling with desire. The next morning I stood around in his studio kitchen—a bare cupboard, a coffee pot, a toaster—in my underwear, waiting for the coffee to perk, for Russell to finish sealing a painting, for a reason to go home. I told myself this thing with Russell was nothing, a fling, my god, he was still married to a woman in Baltimore, but I seemed unable to do any work while my body breathed sex. Instead I bounced around his studio, straightening the bedspread, trying on different clothes, washing my hair, cutting off my jeans. It was as if art had never existed and I was once again a teenager, caught in a new and more sophisticated trap. Sex was like a giant rubber band and I kept crawling around its loop, sniffing for clues, looking for a way to move faster, to stop. When would the sex connect with something deeper, more permanent? Did I want it to, or would I keep moving around this circle forever, never getting anything done? One afternoon I walked alone in the astringent California light, squinting at the palms, at the hot-blooming hibiscus, and I sensed, as if it were a smell in the air, that I would not move further around the track with Russell. After three months when the affair ended, I went diligently back to work, my brain refocused like a needle following its path inside a groove.
When I met David a year later at age 30, I’d just finished my MFA in art. I was making collages of cloth, poems, and photographs, assembling these on a long table in the middle of my apartment. Almost immediately we began to argue, bickering like street children, shouting out our opinions about art—the typical battle of aesthetics, old code/old form vs new code/new form and the legitimacy of all combinations in between—while sipping expresso at the Boulangerie or driving on the freeway to Torrance or Long Beach to pick up supplies. With David I didn’t stop working but simply moved my supplies across the room from his in the studio where we lived. It was a huge box of a room—all concrete with eight foot ceilings, no windows, only double garage doors that swung out like wings into a dirty alley bordered by chain link fences and signs which read: BEWARE—ATTACK DOGS. If I stood in the doorway, I could smell Mexican cooking down the alley, the greasy mixture of onions and beans. We were five miles from Venice Beach, where the rollerskaters had taken over the boardwalk and muscle builders pumped up while watching the roar of the ocean. We slept in a loft and cooked on a hotplate. With a refrigerator, a shower, workspace and a darkroom, we considered our lives complete. We stayed up all night working, then slept until mid-afternoon. We thought of ourselves as bold and sacrificial, having nothing to do with bourgeois life. And yet the reality is we were simply poor. We were part of an underclass culture barely able to sustain our current lifestyle, sometimes trading work for rent. Of course, we didn’t have health insurance. We didn’t even have car insurance.
By this time my sister had finished her medical degree, had gone into practice, had borne her first child. “You’d better watch out,” she told me conspiratorally over the phone, “the women in our family are exceptionally fertile. All I have to do is tell my husband I want to get pregnant, and the next month I am.” I laughed with her over the phone, the very idea of me, me, getting pregnant. “I’m a long way from that!” I said, looking across the room at “The Raft of Medusa,” my latest art piece. I wished suddenly that she could see it, the layered collage of dyed cloth, the draped netting, torn and gaping, the reedy bamboo. It would surprise her, stem the tide of her accomplishments. From a distance, her life looked like a perfect performance, one that happily combined the roles I was still trying to sort through. It seemed natural to me that her life should be jammed tight with obsession, with diversity while I was still trying to master one straight line.
During the next three years, my sister often called and asked me when David and I were getting married, and more importantly, when we were going to have children. While she talked, I stared at the concrete slab floor, the raised scratchy surface we hosed down to clean up, the puddles of water drying near the door. There were splotches of dried paint in the tables, the one chair. We hung our clothes on a clothesline that traversed one corner of the room, their spooky shadows shifting with each gust of wind. “Ground control to Major Tooommmm,” floated out the window from a neighbor’s stereo above the clink of dishes, the mumble of voices. My sister had no real sense of our situation, our poverty. And I’d never felt comfortable telling her that we’d chosen this, that we’d consciously given up making money in exchange for time to make art. Of course, we had jobs, but they were simply that, incidental ways to make rent money. Never careers. By this time, my sister had had two more children, had brought a partner into her practice, had added a string of bedrooms on to her house. “My kids need some cousins,” she said, pretending to tease, but I caught the serious note in her voice. “Surely, you don’t want them to grow up without cousins!”
I assured her that I didn’t, then went back inside the darkroom and switched on the enlarger. I knew what my sister was saying. You can be everything. Didn’t she have three children, a full-time profession? Didn’t she race from office to home to grocery store with all the impetuous haste of our childhood? This was the message of the late 70’s, the women’s movement in full swing, women no longer choosing between career and motherhood, but having both. It seemed miraculous, almost a demand.
Yet at night in my dreams, I was always running—in and out of doorways, through fields of weeds, alongside dirt roads, the dust kicking up in a cloud at my heels, through hospital corridors and urban streets. Usually I was running in terror, trying to escape some menace, unseen but real, in pursuit of my body, my soul. I was running, I think now, for two reasons: running away from the expectations of my culture to become a super woman, with both career and children—a woman who accomplishes everything the culture demands—and running toward a potential future, toward a realm I could claim. In my dreams I gave the truthful answer to my sister, the answer Sula Peace gives herself in Toni Morrison’s Sula: “I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”
On some unconscious level I knew that my quest for autonomy was my only chance for survival. And I’m convinced—though others might argue the point—that children change the autonomy of a woman’s life more than any other condition. From my early age, it was clear to me that I needed to live outside the “hive” as Virginia Woolf called the extended family circle. For a person overwhelmed by a crowd of three, this is important knowledge. When I began writing, I couldn’t separate solitude from creativity. I hauled a desk upstairs into the loft where I could be entirely alone. It was hot and stuffy. It smelled like musty sheets and dried apples. Spiders drifted down, each hanging suspended on one silken thread. I admired them. Like me, they worked alone. I needed this atmosphere of silence, of heat, of dust motes swimming in the light. Through writing, my body taught me that my choice of solitude was not selfish but necessary, a blossoming, a way of growing up to a self I could love.
This perspective came clear to me one day recently when I was lying in bed, listening to the early morning sounds of my neighborhood—the hiss of school bus brakes, the banging of car doors, the stutter of cold engines—and I felt for the first time the strength and diversity of my needs. For so long I had felt limited by them, ashamed. But this morning, the decisions in my life were mine. Soon I would get out of bed and work on my novel. I could already feel the pen in my hand, see the cup of hot tea on the table. I thought suddenly of my own early imaginings of Mrs. Peak, about her lonely afternoons, her fearful wait for old age. I couldn’t help but smile at these misperceptions. What if instead of her feet in Epson Salts, her mind slurred by emptiness, she was home dreaming a dream like me: immersed in a manuscript, her mind making its own convoluted web, each word drawing her closer to that internal mystery that is the self unlocking slowly from its knot, like fingers from a fist.