© 2012 Amy Wachspress
I remember the day I met Ross in the parking lot at the zoo on the first of many joint family outings. We were four years old. The hot asphalt shimmered in the noonday summer sun. Ross’s baby sister sucked her fingers as she sat in her stroller and his mother offered oatmeal-raisin cookies to us from a turquoise tin. Later, Ross and I stood in front of the exotic bird aviary and watched the colorful creatures flit above while he licked a bright-green popsicle and I licked a bright-orange one. We touched popsicles and smiled conspiratorially, as if we had done something forbidden.
Ross and I started school in the same kindergarten. We sat next to each other at circle-time and we sang “Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” giggling as our fingers crept up our imaginary waterspouts. Throughout elementary school, when asked who was my best friend, I replied without hesitation that it was Ross. Sophie inevitably squealed in horror, “But he’s a boy!”
One of Ross’s family photo albums contains a picture of us “playing wedding.” I am wrapped in a lace tablecloth and a chiffon scarf covers my hair while Ross is dressed in a white shirt with his clip-on bowtie askew beneath his chin. My hand is looped casually through the crook of Ross’s arm and both of us wear surprisingly serious expressions. Ross’s mother won a photo contest advertised on the back of a cereal box with that picture. Her prize was a fancy new camera.
Ross had an uncanny talent for easing difficult situations with his sense of humor. After Grandpa died, our family gathered at Uncle Izzie’s house each day to observe the weeklong formal period of mourning, which we Jews called “sitting shiva.” When his family paid their shiva call, Ross (who was twelve at the time) regaled us with hilarious stories about Grandpa, whom he had known well. Ross had that roomful of people who loved Grandpa dearly, and who would miss him terribly, laughing until it hurt. When the rabbi arrived to lead us in the recitation of the evening Mourner’s Kaddish prayer, he found us holding our sides and gasping to catch our breath. The rabbi patted Ross on the shoulder and commented, “I see someone has already consoled the mourners, without the need for my ministrations.”
When we turned fourteen, Ross and I officially started going steady. In some ways we were an odd pair since I needed a lot of private, contemplative time alone, while Ross thrived in social situations. During our high-school years, we had a tight circle of friends with whom we went to the movies and the pizza parlor, rode bikes and went swimming, and spent time listening to music, playing board games, or simply talking. Ross and I frequently took the train into Manhattan, both with or without our friends.
The issue of sex bubbled to the surface along with our hormones and we dipped our hands in the honeypot together. I took care of the birth control. Our clandestine encounters left me feeling smug, as if I had a delicious secret. Ross was worried that people would find out and our reputations would be sullied.
“How will they find out?” I asked him. “Who will tell?”
One night, during the summer before we left for college, we parked Ross’s father’s car at the municipal park and made love in the back seat until a flashlight cast its beam in the window. A policeman, who was the father of a friend of ours, escorted each of us home. Ross was mortified. I was furious because I had cherished the secrecy of our encounters. Papa was out at one of his meetings that night. Mama was surprisingly amused. The impropriety of the situation irritated her; but the manner in which we had been caught apparently provided her with something to laugh about. “I certainly hope you’re using birth control,” she said, in as stern a voice as she could muster, and clearly expecting a reply.
“Of course, Mama. I’m not foolish,” I assured her. “I’m going to college before I get married and have children.”
“When do you intend to tell your father what’s going on?”
“Do I have to tell him?”
“Do you expect me to keep this a secret?” Mama demanded. “Besides, your father’s buddies at the police department will inform him for us in no time and I think he would prefer to hear his own business at home first.”
“I don’t know what to say to him,” I mumbled, staring at my sandals.
“You should have thought of that beforehand,” Mama pointed out, before relenting. “Alright, I’ll tell him. But don’t go parking out there again.” She waved her hand in a gesture encompassing the wide and dangerous world beyond her four walls. “As long as you’re using birth control then you and Ross might as well sleep together in the house. I’d rather have you safe at home.”
The following evening, I was drawing a still-life of Mama’s red summer roses, which I had arranged in a fluted crystal vase, when Papa knocked gently on my partially open door and entered.
“May I sit down?” he asked. Oh no, here it comes, I thought.
He sat on the edge of my bed, folded his large hands in his lap, and examined his feet until the silence became uncomfortable. He looked at the flower arrangement on my desk. “Your mother just asked me if I had seen that vase.”
“I should have told her I was borrowing it,” I replied.
“Very nice arrangement. You have your mother’s touch.” He paused. “Your mother tells me you’re not a virgin.”
This was an absurd conversation and I wished I could escape it, but it lurched forward flat-footedly with a life of its own. “She’s right,” I confirmed.
“I had hoped you and Ross would wait until you got married,” Papa said.
“I guess we didn’t.”
“I guess not. It was different when I was a young man.” He rubbed his eyes with his fingers. I wondered if he ever wished he had sons rather than daughters.
“I’ll tell your mother that you’re drawing her vase,” Papa said, as he stood abruptly and fled the room. He never mentioned my sex life again, even though Ross frequently spent the night at our house after that.
Ross subscribed more to Papa’s way of thinking than Papa would ever know. He tried to talk me into marrying him throughout our senior year in high school, but I wasn’t ready to get married. He assumed that we would go to the same college together, and when I didn’t cooperate with his plans, he realized that he shouldn’t assume anything about me, even though he knew me so well. I emphatically did not want to get married right out of high school, and I did not want to go to the same college as Ross. I wanted to spend some time on my own, independent of my parents and independent of Ross; and I figured that my college years would be my only opportunity to do so. My parents agreed to pay extra for me to have a private dorm room so Ross and I would have some privacy when he came to visit me.
I never admitted to Ross that I regretted falling in love when I was so young. I often wondered what it felt like to step out into a world of infinite possibility and I wanted a taste of that before settling down with my childhood sweetheart.
On a crisp scarlet-and-gold October day in the heart of apple-picking season, I sat on the front steps of my dormitory at Vassar and waited for Ross, who had taken the bus to come see me. A psychology textbook lay open in my lap, but I couldn’t concentrate. The dorm faced a quadrangle carpeted by a lawn and bordered by well-tended flowerbeds, empty and shut down for the winter. Along one edge of the lawn, flashy maples displayed their fall colors. I had seen the gardener planting bulbs earlier that week and had stopped to chat with him. I looked forward to the display his bulbs would provide in April.
Ross rounded the corner of one of the buildings, a small rucksack on his back and a slip of paper in his hand. He examined the paper and looked up, squinting into the late-afternoon sun as he ran one hand through his sandy hair. I stood and waved. Ross caught sight of me. Like a curtain brushing aside to reveal a breathtaking view, Ross’s face opened into a delighted smile. We had never been apart as long as this before. He caught me in a playful hug and kissed me. I don’t think I knew anyone in the world as well as I knew Ross, not even my own self. We stashed Ross’s rucksack in my room and I took him to an Indian restaurant I had recently discovered. Over dinner, Ross made me laugh with his comic descriptions of his professors and classmates at Princeton.
“I’m glad you’re enjoying Princeton,” I said.
“If only you were there, it would be perfect,” he replied. I had been accepted at Princeton, but I didn’t go because that was where Ross was going.
“I miss you,” he told me.
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” I responded. I hadn’t missed him that much, but there was no reason to hurt his feelings by telling him this. I was enjoying having more time to myself; time not filled up with activities and conversation, time to sit alone in my room and read, draw, or meditate.
After returning to the dorm, we spent a quiet evening talking, playing cards, and making love. Ross held me while we slept in my narrow single bed. I snuggled into his arms. I did miss sleeping with him.
By Sunday, when Ross packed up and prepared to leave, I wondered if maybe I had made the wrong decision after all when I went to school so far away from him. “I don’t want you to go,” I told him regretfully.
“You can always transfer after your freshman year,” Ross suggested hopefully. “You were accepted to Princeton once before.”
“I’ll take it under advisement,” I replied, and I meant it.
I walked him to the bus stop, where he would catch a local bus to the Greyhound terminal. We sat on a bench together and giggled, like a pair of mice in a hole, oblivious to the outside world. When the bus arrived, Ross bent me backward and kissed me like a soldier going off to war. Once he was gone, I walked back to my room, surprisingly eager to return to my solitude. It baffled me that I loved to be with Ross while at the same time I craved the peace of being alone.
During my freshman year, I walked around the campus by myself a lot, enjoying my anonymity. I went on a jag of reading about Buddhism. I visited Ross at Princeton a couple of times, but usually he came to see me at Vassar. When school finished in the spring, I moved back home, where I noticed a subtle change in my parents. They were noticeably more intimate with one another and they seemed to have slowed down.
Mama had converted Rina’s bedroom into a sewing room. She had the room re-papered so that bright-yellow sunflowers and tiny blue forget-me-nots twinkled out of a creamy off-white background on the upper half of the walls and a blue wooden chair rail ran around the middle of the walls. Below the chair rail was wood paneling. With windows facing south, the room was flooded with sunlight. Mama had placed her sewing machine in a spot that afforded her a view of the back yard; and a large, raised work table stood in the center of the room. She stored the materials for her many projects in plastic boxes lined up in neat rows on shelving that Papa had built into the wall for her.
Her projects had recently become a lucrative business. Mama designed and made hats and dresses, which she sold on commission out of a local dress shop. Because of her growing reputation, women approached her to design custom clothing for them. She had constructed gowns, cocktail dresses, and two rather elaborate wedding ensembles. An all-girl rock band out of New York had discovered her and she made all their show costumes. I thought that was pretty funny. It was surprising to realize that Mama had deferred this prolific creativity in order to raise us girls.
I spent that summer working in Aunt Malka’s deli and I saw Ross every day. He had a summer job near home too. We rode our bikes, swam, read books aloud to each other, and made love through the hot summer nights in my little-girl bedroom with the dusty-rose tulip stencils on the walls. I drew flowers, took a yoga class, and played a lot of board games with Ross and my high school friends.
In the fall, when I returned to Vassar, I took a course in childhood development that required me to work two afternoons each week in the toddler room at the campus Early Childhood Development Lab. I adored those little faces that provided a window into the inner activities of those inquisitive toddler minds as they made sense of the world.
I discovered a Zen center and began attending an evening class there. My daily meditation kept me centered.
Meanwhile, Ross declared his major in physics and his courses were challenging. He did not visit me at Vassar as often as he had the previous year, although he called frequently. I looked forward to his calls and missed seeing him. I applied to Princeton as a transfer student, but I didn’t tell anyone. I imagined how pleased and surprised Ross would be if my transfer worked out.
I envied Ross his friends at Princeton, because I had not made any friends at Vassar, which was my own fault. I had acquaintances, but no one I thought of as a friend in the same way that I thought of my high school friends. I decided in my sophomore year that my loner lifestyle was unhealthy, so I made an effort to cultivate friendships with a few of my acquaintances. There was a woman in my childhood development class named Peggy, who always seemed to be the life of the party. I figured that if I befriended her then she would connect me to a lot of other people. For instance, if a group of students from our childhood development class was at the library studying, Peggy might be inclined to drift through, whispering in everyone’s ear, “Let’s go out for a root beer float, we deserve it.” She had a way of getting something started.
Peggy, who planned to become a kindergarten teacher, worked with me at the Child Development Lab. Her contagious upbeat energy transformed even the most subdued children into gleeful playmates. She seemed to have piles of friends already, but she generously managed to fit me into her busy schedule. We went to the International House of Pancakes together once or twice a week and we ordered stacks of golden pancakes with whipped butter and maple syrup. Getting to know Peggy was a new friendship experience for me because my other friends had known me for my whole life. When I told her about my family, I found myself thinking about my family in new ways. Peggy and her eight siblings grew up all over the world, since her father served in the air force. She told the most entertaining stories about her childhood. I wanted to meet her mom so I could see for myself what kind of woman could survive the antics of that exuberant brood of children.
Ross and Peggy took to each other from the moment they met. In fact, when the three of us got together, I could barely squeak a word in edgewise. One weekend in February, Ross brought his softball and mitts with him when he came to visit from Princeton because there was an unusual mid-winter thaw. He, Peggy, and I headed to the park. When a gaggle of children turned up, I swiftly found myself up to my eyeballs in a lively softball game. Afterward, Peggy transformed herself into a growling beast and chased a group of delighted youngsters around the playground while Ross and I sat on a bench and watched.
“She’s something else,” Ross commented affectionately.
As darkness fell, we went back to my dorm room and made blueberry Pop-Tarts in my toaster. Peggy entertained Ross with stories about the children at the Child Development Lab. She told him about the boy who said he wanted to be a dinosaur when he grew up and the girl who had three goldfish, all named Mathew.
“You need some children of your own,” I told Peggy jokingly.
“There will be plenty of time for that after I finish school,” she replied.
“Well you need a husband first,” Ross pointed out, as he grinned that lopsided grin of his that I loved. “You need a strategic plan, Peggy. You’re a catch.”
Peggy stared in awkward silence at the last bite of her Pop-Tart.
Ross looked at me over Peggy’s lowered head and shrugged questioningly, as if to ask “What’d I do?” I quietly put my finger to my lips to prevent Ross from speaking.
When Peggy looked up, she studied us carefully. “There’s something about me that you should know.” A note of fear edged her voice. “I’m a lesbian.”
“Is that all?” Ross blurted in relief. “I thought you had a communicable disease or something.”
“It’s not contagious,” Peggy responded with a dim smile.
“So I guess you need a girlfriend, not a boyfriend,” Ross proposed, a little too gallantly. I knew he was not as comfortable with this revelation as he pretended to be.
“I intend to spend my life teaching. I don’t want anything to get in the way of that. Most people assume that if you’re gay then you like kids because you’re a pervert,” Peggy confided.
Ross nodded and closed his fist over his heart. “Your secret is safe.”
The discussion ended there, but I could not seem to let go of it and continued to mull it over. Later, in bed, Ross said, “It’s not that I’m judging her. It’s just that I don’t get it. I can’t imagine how a woman could feel satisfied having sex with another woman.”
“You don’t like the idea of women satisfying each other sexually without you guys. It leaves you out of the loop,” I replied.
“Not true,” Ross declared. “I just can’t imagine it.”
“It’s not so hard to imagine,” I said.
After Peggy’s disclosure, my relationship with her changed. I had never known a lesbian before. She had piqued my curiosity. I wondered how she went about meeting other lesbians and how she went about going on a date. How did she separate feelings for her women friends from feelings for women she might be interested in romantically? I caught myself wondering if Peggy thought I was attractive. The few times that I plucked up the courage to ask Peggy a question about her sexuality, she answered curtly and with obvious reluctance.
One Saturday evening we went to a concert together and, as we slowly worked our way across the crowded lobby toward the double doors of the auditorium, Peggy placed her hand in the small of my back to keep us from being separated in the crush of people. I was careful not to give any message with my body, but because I knew about Peggy, her hand burned electric through my clothes. I thought about that touch a lot afterward and from then on, I was awkward and clumsy around Peggy. I feared that I might say something stupid so I tried not to say much at all. I avoided her, while thinking about her constantly.
My acceptance to Princeton arrived in the spring. They offered me a tuition scholarship only. At Vassar I had a full scholarship, which included my room and board, but I knew that my parents would support a transfer if I chose to do it and that they would pick up the additional cost. I still hadn’t mentioned to them or to Ross that I had even applied and I held off on telling them that I had been accepted. I couldn’t decide if I actually wanted to transfer to Princeton, and I felt confused about why I couldn’t decided. I sent in the deposit as if I was going, but I didn’t burn my bridges at Vassar.
There was a philosophy course I wanted to take during the summer term, so I decided to stay at Vassar to do that. Peggy planned to stay on campus during the summer to do an intensive Spanish language program, and although I told myself that Peggy’s plans had nothing to do with mine, I couldn’t quite convince myself that was true, even though I hardly saw her anymore.
In June, I went home for a couple of weeks until the summer semester began. Ross and I rode our bikes together and went into the city to visit the art museums. I felt distanced from my life and guilty for keeping the news about Princeton to myself. I could see that my reticence worried Ross, but typical of our relationship, he left me alone until I was ready to share whatever I had on my mind. I never did. The night before I left to spend the summer at Vassar, we made love especially slowly, gently, carefully; and I cried afterward.
“What is it?” Ross asked.
“It’s OK,” I reassured him, sobbing into his shoulder. “Nothing. It’s nothing.”
“I wish you would talk to me.”
“I’m just sad and I don’t know why.”
As soon as I returned to Vassar, a heat wave grabbed the region by the scruff of the neck. The thick, moisture-laden air had a character all its own. Walking felt like cutting through damp towels. I had to buy myself a fan because my room had no air-conditioning. At night I lay naked on top of my sheet and put a cool washcloth on my forehead. The dense air didn’t move. During the day I did as little as possible. I couldn’t eat, and instead drank a lot of water and juice. After three days of unbearable humidity, the sky filled with heavy dark clouds puffed to capacity with moisture. I watched from my window, anticipating the rain that would sweep through at any moment. Thunder boomed like a boastful lion. The lightening made its pitch.
There was a knock at the door and I answered to find Peggy holding a string bag full of purple grapes. Peggy’s straight, thin bangs stuck damply to her forehead even though the rain had not yet begun. Her flame-red hair practically sparked with electricity and her deep-green eyes penetrated my reserve.
“Can you believe this weather?” Peggy asked. “Not even a breeze at night. I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost my ability for logical thought. I hope this storm is the end of it.”
I stood dumbstruck in the doorway.
“May I come in?” Peggy prompted me.
“Of course,” I replied, stepping aside to allow Peggy access.
“I just bought these; they’re cold and seedless,” Peggy said, referring to the grapes. I nodded, wishing I could stop feeling so self-conscious.
Peggy sat down on the edge of my bed. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“The heat,” I said, trailing off as I waved my hand.
Peggy studied me for a long moment. “Have you been avoiding me?”
I blushed with confusion.
A gradual smile slowly spread across Peggy’s face. “You have a crush on me, don’t you?”
I bit back tears and said nothing.
Peggy put the grapes down carefully on the night stand. She walked over and stood in front of me, like a giant question mark in the middle of my room. I took a deep breath and placed my trembling hands on either side of Peggy’s neck and then I kissed her. Peggy kissed me back in a way that I had always wanted to be kissed but hadn’t realized I wanted until it happened. I had imagined this, but never thought it would actually happen. Peggy took me one step further, and then another, giving me time to adjust until, as if caught in a strong undertow, I lost my footing and was swept out to sea. Then I took the lead in our lovemaking with greedy desire.
We made love through the violet evening as the storm energetically unfolded outside with force and clatter, drenching the landscape with wave upon wave. As night fell, the rain withdrew and the air cleared, becoming crisp, fresh, and light after dropping its load of moisture.
The depth of passion that I experienced making love to Peggy surpassed anything I had ever felt when making love to Ross, much as I loved him. Ross had definitely given me pleasure. Our lovemaking had been an extension of our abiding friendship. But with Peggy, I was transported, re-made, and shaken brilliantly awake. I lost control and wandered in a mysterious labyrinth, which I neither could nor cared to escape.
The cool grapes Peggy brought were warm by the time we ate them as we faced each other on the narrow bed, our legs entwined, our breasts touching, wrapped in a golden after-glow.
My peaceful, orderly life exploded into a million tiny pieces that floated down around me, even though I had never felt more alive or happier. How could I begin to explain this to Ross? I couldn’t hurt him like that. I just couldn’t. And in an agonizing flash I wondered, What about my parents? The complexity of the situation paralyzed me and I did nothing. Meanwhile, I couldn’t get enough of Peggy, who seemed both amused and aroused by my confusion. She told me to take the time I needed to sort out my thoughts and feelings.
I officially turned down the scholarship to Princeton, finally confessing to myself that I had dragged my feet about it because of Peggy. I avoided going home to visit all summer, thinking up one excuse after another. Papa called several times to ask why he hadn’t seen his “special girl.” I felt guilty and missed seeing him and Mama, but I didn’t think I could hide the fact that something miraculous had happened, something I couldn’t share with them. I wasn’t sure how Mama would react, but I felt sure from what had happened with Rina that Papa would refuse to tolerate what he would view as deviant behavior, even though I was his beloved baby daughter. I loved him too much to risk losing him. Would I have to spend the rest of my life concealing my truest self from my parents? I didn’t think I could bear that, or successfully pull it off.
Ross called frequently, eager to visit me, and I cooked up creative and convincing excuses for him not to come. He could not be dissuaded indefinitely, however, and eventually he called to say he was on his way.
“What am I going to tell him? I’m ruining his life,” I told Peggy.
“He’s young. He’ll bounce back,” she replied, attempting to reassure me.
“He’s going to want to sleep with me and I’m not into boys anymore.”
“Are you sure about that? This is pretty new to you. Maybe you’re interested in both of us,” Peggy suggested.
“I don’t think so,” I answered woefully.
“Well, consider this an opportunity for you to find out for sure,” Peggy told me, with a Buddha-like smile.
“You don’t mind?” I asked.
“If you sleep with him? Of course not. I don’t own you. I’ll make myself scarce for the weekend. It would not be good for the three of us to get together.”
I was grateful for Peggy’s willingness to give me the space I needed to sort myself out. I wondered if I would have been as magnanimous if Peggy wanted to have an affair with a man. But of course, Ross was not an affair. He was a longstanding relationship going back as far as I could remember. There would be his anger to contend with and that scared me.
The day before Ross’s visit, I was so anxious that I couldn’t eat anything. I wondered if I should tell him as soon as he arrived and get it over with. I tired to imagine giving him a hug and saying, “Thanks for coming. It’s great to see you. I’m a lesbian now.” Forget that scenario.
When Ross finally did arrive, he gave me a hug and a kiss as usual, and proceeded to regale me with his humorous stories. I wished he was simply my best friend and had never been my lover. In a different reality, I would have turned to him for help figuring out how to deal with my present situation. I realized that I had no one to talk to about my relationship with Peggy. I needed lesbian friends.
Ross and I went to a pizza place for dinner. I forced myself to set aside my conundrum so I could enjoy what would perhaps be my last evening with my dearest childhood buddy. I would worry about breaking his heart later. We walked back to the dorm together through the fragrant summer evening. He took my hand.
Back at the dorm room, Ross attempted to kiss me, but I was wooden.
He sat in my desk chair, studying me. “OK, Sarah, what’s going on?”
Sitting on the edge of my bed and wringing my hands with anxiety, I told him I had changed. I said that I had learned something new about myself. “I’ve discovered that I like women. I mean, I’m a lesbian,” I confessed barely audibly.
“Are you sleeping with someone?” he demanded.
“Does that matter?” I replied.
“You are, aren’t you? Do I know her? Of course I know her. It’s Peggy, isn’t it?”
I stared at the floor.
“She seduced you, didn’t she?” He interrogated me with fury.
“I fell in love with her. It was mutual,” I answered softly.
“And you suddenly don’t want to sleep with me anymore? Because I’m a guy? Is that it?”
“I don’t think that I ever wanted to sleep with a guy.” No sooner had I said the words than I wished I could take them back. My thoughts were coming out all wrong.
“So you never wanted to sleep with me? I had the impression that you enjoyed having sex with me.”
“Please don’t be angry. Be hurt. But don’t be angry. I didn’t do this on purpose. It just happened. You’re my best friend in the whole world and the last person I would ever want to hurt. I can’t help it. I grew up. I learned that I’m not who I thought I was. I need my best friend as much as ever.”
“Now I’ve been downgraded to your best friend?”
“This is so hard to explain,” I told him. “But I’ll try. With you, I feel like a forever friend, like you’re my brother or something. Like we grew up together. You know me better than anyone does. When we make love it’s, well, comfortable. Familiar. It feels good. But when I make love to a woman…”
“To Peggy, you mean,” Ross interrupted. “This is not abstract, Sarah. She’s a particular person.”
“OK, to Peggy. When I make love to Peggy, it’s both a sensual experience and a spiritual experience. I’m transported out of my ordinary self. My ordinary self dies and comes back different. Each time, it comes back different. It’s like she’s not a particular person when we make love; she’s all women and I’m all women, and our passion is more than just the two of us.” My description felt so lame. I doubted that I could ever describe in words how I felt about Peggy and the ways in which my relationship with her was more powerful for me than my relationship with Ross.
“And you never experienced that with me?” Ross asked.
I knelt at Ross’s feet and took his hands in mine. “I have loved you. I still do. I have enjoyed having sex with you. I probably still would. My spirit is touched by our friendship. But my spirit is not touched by our lovemaking. My spirit is touched, no, my spirit is moved, when I make love to Peggy.”
“So you and I are? What are we? Over?!” Ross asked incredulously.
“I don’t know what we are,” I answered miserably. “But we’re not lovers.” There, I had said it.
“I suppose this means I’m sleeping on the floor,” Ross responded, with his characteristic humor.
“No. No. I’ll sleep on the floor,” I offered. The guilt I felt was unbearable.
“That was supposed to be a joke,” Ross said.
“Are you OK?” I asked, which was such a stupid question, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“No, I’m not OK. Everything is not OK. But frankly, my opinion is that you’re going through a phase and I’ll just have to deal with it.” I hated his patronizing tone, but I decided to keep my thoughts to myself. I didn’t want to make matters any worse. I would take anything he dished out that could help me get through the weekend with him.
Ross slept in his clothes on top of the blankets next to me. We didn’t actually get much sleep. How could we? We talked, as Ross tried to process the change in our relationship. I didn’t want to lose Ross as my friend and would have done anything to prevent that.
When he left the next day, we had not discussed how to present the situation to our families; although I had been clear about the fact that I didn’t want my parents to know about Peggy. I would later discover that while I thought I had split up with Ross, he didn’t perceive it that way. He believed that when I “got over this lesbian thing” (as he thought of it), he would pick me up and put the pieces back together. He knew Peggy well enough to have a sense about her child-like nature and he thought she would never make a commitment to a relationship with me. He believed that I would want a commitment. But it was the old Sarah who valued the comfort of commitment and I was the new Sarah, the one he didn’t recognize. Commitment had dropped to the bottom of my priority list for the time-being.
Ross called me upon his return home to inform me that he had told his parents and mine that I had asked him for a trial separation. I waited for Ross to go back to Princeton before visiting my parents at the end of the summer. According to Papa, Ross said that I “needed some space.” The paternalistic buddy-buddy attitude of Papa and Ross irritated me, but Ross’s version of what had happened made the situation easier for me to handle with my parents so I chose not to refute it.
By autumn, Peggy and I wanted to move in together, but we had to figure out how to arrange this discreetly because I was determined to hide our relationship from my parents. Just before Thanksgiving, Peggy found the perfect living situation. She answered an ad in the newspaper for house parents at the Mother Goose Children’s Home. The ad said “couple preferred, singles OK.” The director of Mother Goose needed to hire staff to cover certain night and evening shifts during the week and some weekends. It was a live-in situation. Peggy and I, both majoring in elementary education, presented an excellent interview.
While I was home for Thanksgiving, I had to listen to Sophie and Mama complain at length about Rina spending Thanksgiving with her friends instead of our family. I found myself defending Rina and secretly wondering if I would be so welcome in coming years if my secret was discovered. I couldn’t imagine being left out of family celebrations.
On the day before Thanksgiving, I played a wild game of Monopoly with Papa, Sophie, and Max. Sophie was pregnant, and she and Mama wanted to talk endlessly about babies. I felt guilty for being so preoccupied with my own life and not communicating more with my sister during her pregnancy, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to feel her belly and share in her excitement. Papa was adorable in his blatant delight at the prospect of becoming a grandpa. Sophie and I helped Mama with her holiday baking. Aunt Ida, Uncle Izzie, and my cousins joined us for Thanksgiving dinner. It was a relief to participate in all these ordinary activities with my family, far from the frightening complexity of romantic relationships.
I carefully avoided speaking about Ross while I was at home. After the holiday, I returned to Vassar and moved into a large attic room at Mother Goose with Peggy. If someone had told me a year before that I, who cherished my privacy, peace, and quiet, would move into a Children’s Home for a live-in part-time job, I never would have believed them. Mama and Papa were baffled. I was deliriously happy.
I went to class during the day and in the evening I helped youngsters do their homework, then played card games, board games, and Ping-Pong with them. After the children went to bed, I studied for my classes in our attic hide-away. Peggy socialized much more than I did. It was a wonder she ever finished her school work. Peggy was a wonder to me in every way. Sometimes, Peggy and I pretended that the whole children’s home belonged to us alone. I learned so much more at Mother Goose than I would have learned from simply reading child development textbooks. I applied my school learning to my work at Mother Goose, and I learned from watching Peggy in action. Her humor, and her innate ability to help children work through their anger or defiance, defused many a sticky situation. I discovered my own strengths and weaknesses when it came to working with children. I could often intuitively read children’s moods and feelings, and this sixth sense helped me to say or do just the right thing to help children survive their messiest emotions gracefully. Sometimes the right thing was Peggy’s silliness. We made a good team.
In February I went home for a long weekend to see my new nephew. I felt a pang of envy for my sister’s “normal” lifestyle, with her successful doctor husband who supported her and her baby boy. I wondered if I would ever secure a version of that comfortable, happy family life for myself. I wanted it with all my heart, but was not sure it was possible for someone like me.
Over spring break, Peggy decided that the recreation room needed repainting and that this fact afforded an opportunity to give the children an art lesson. Peggy talked a local paint store into donating the paint and a local hardware store into donating the brushes, drop cloths, and other materials. Peggy and I cleared the furniture out and primed the room white. Then Peggy brought the children in, one age-group at a time, and assigned them each a different wall, where they painted murals. I spent my break spotting the youngest children on ladders while they painted exotic birds into the tops of jungle trees and looking through picture books of coral reefs and ocean creatures with teenagers. The north wall dissolved into an alien planet designed by the seven-to-ten-year-olds. The end result was spectacular.
Peggy had blue paint in her hair for nearly a week afterward. She wore it like a badge of honor.
The night before we returned to school to finish the spring term, Peggy and I sat alone in the revitalized recreation room and admired the children’s work. I pointed out that we could actually read the developmental stages of the children in a million ways on the walls. Together we identified different aspects of children’s growth as depicted in the murals. The following year, I would use photographs of the murals as the basis for my honors thesis.
I learned how to make fudge in large quantities. I learned how to make play dough from flour, water, and salt. I saw every imaginable mess that children could make with their food at the dinner table, particularly vegetables. I made buckets of applesauce with the help of many little hands. I made three different kinds of jam and ten kinds of soup. I became addicted to Saturday-morning cartoons, evening sing-a-longs around the piano, and, heaven help me, chocolate-chip cookies made with M&Ms.
I saw what happens to children who have been neglected, abused, or unloved. I learned how to restrain children who were in danger of injuring themselves while having a tantrum. I witnessed how the legal system does and does not provide for the best interests of children from messed up families. I talked a fifteen-year-old girl into surrendering a knife without stabbing anyone. I helped a ten-year-old boy conceal the fact that he still wet the bed in fear the night before his court-mandated visit with his father. I prevented a child who had been raped from molesting another child. I made up my mind at Mother Goose that I would dedicate my life to making a difference in the lives of children. Teaching became more than a profession for me, it became a vocation.
I lived at Mother Goose for half of my junior year and all of my senior year of college and it was one of the happiest times of my life. Peggy and I both planned to stay in school for a fifth year to obtain our teaching credential and I assumed we would continue to live at Mother Goose together. Then, three weeks after graduation, my world imploded.
Peggy announced that she had met another woman and she packed up her things and moved out. Just like that. No discussion. I felt stupid, betrayed, hurt, humiliated, furious, blindsided. Of course there had been warning signs, such as Peggy’s restlessness, reticence, and increasing tendency to go out without me at night. But I had refused to see the signs and missed a million clues because I wanted to miss them. Peggy said that our relationship had become boring and predictable and she needed a change. I liked boring and predictable in a relationship. Perhaps Peggy and I had never been as well-suited to one another as I had thought. “We’re stuck in the same old routine,” Peggy complained. “You’ll be happier with something new also. You gotta shake it up from time to time.” Peggy claimed that she wanted to stay friends, but she left without giving me her new phone number or address, so I could not contact her or find her. I never saw her again.
Right after Peggy left, I was a wreck, and my behavior made it transparent to the director of Mother Goose that she had unwittingly hosted a lesbian couple in her attic for a year and a half. It had apparently not occurred to her before, but the way I came unhinged when Peggy left made it crystal clear. She called me into her office and terminated my employment. “A homosexual has no business around children, particularly around abused children. What in the world makes you think you can work with children while living your perverted lifestyle?” I was too distraught to remind her of all the excellent work that Peggy and I had done and to point out that we had not molested any children.
I wish I had defended myself and showed more spine when I was fired, but I didn’t have the emotional energy necessary for such a battle at that moment. The director of Mother Goose and I had made fudge together with the children, sat up until midnight watching old movies and eating popcorn with the teenagers, run around the yard squirting hoses and tossing water balloons at screeching youngsters in the heat of August. We had been friends, co-workers, allies, and colleagues. I was stunned that the instant she discovered that I was a lesbian, everything changed and she was convinced that I posed a danger to the children. My sexual preference instantly erased over a year of camaraderie.
As I began to pack my things, I called my best friend, Ross, and poured my heart out. I had lost Peggy, my job, my home, and my dear children, whom I had helped raise. I had lost my self-assurance and my bearings. What I didn’t immediately realize was that Ross rejoiced in my losses. He had been waiting for those losses to occur ever since we had separated. He had bided his time and he believed that his moment had arrived.
At first, after we split, Ross didn’t go out with anyone else. But before long, he took advantage of the separation, which he viewed as temporary, to date other women. He didn’t have sex with any of them. Neither one of us was built for casual intimacy. He did, however, enjoy going out with other women and flirting heavily. Some of the women he dated during those two years became good friends of his. He never suffered for lack of companionship. His mother’s friends at the synagogue and his aunts considered him a highly eligible bachelor. These would-be matchmakers, who could not resist that kind of raw material, embarked on a determined campaign to marry him off. They competed for his time, each one hoping to take credit for introducing him to his final chosen bride. For his part, Ross cultivated the art of the blind date. When home with his parents, he went to the matchmakers’ dinner parties and events. He once told me he was trapped in a Jewish Jane Austen novel. He went through the motions more as a form of entertainment than anything else. It never occurred to me during those years that he remained convinced that I would come back to him.
The minute he hung up from my desperate phone call, he jumped into his car, certain that I was about to fall far and fast back into his arms. When I met him at the door to my attic room at Mother Goose, he practically glowed, despite a concerted effort on his part to appear somber. I had acquired very few possessions during my undergraduate years. Ross helped me to pack my belongings into boxes, but I had not arranged to move anywhere with the boxes. Ross was able to fit all of my earthly possessions into his Volkswagen van. We loaded it up and drove the length of the tree-shaded driveway of Mother Goose for the last time, as I sobbed.
Ross suggested that he take me to my parents’ house, where I could regroup. I phoned Mama and told her that I was suffering from a failed romance, that Ross was with me, and that I wanted to move back home for a while. She attempted to console me. It was late in the day by the time we hung up.
Ross and I checked into a roadside dive called the Camelot Motel for the night. A large picture of a ruined castle hung above the bed. The castle looked romantic, picturesque, and melancholy. I tried to imagine how it might have looked when it was built up and I wondered if a picture of it in its heyday hung in a different room of the motel. I soaked for nearly an hour in a hot bath, as if the heat could sweat the pain from my heart.
I emerged from the steamy depths of the bathroom rosy, scented, and wrapped in a white floor-length robe. I lay on my back on the bed, staring at the ceiling. Ross lay down beside me and stroked my damp hair, massaged my head, and rubbed my shoulders. In my distracted state, I did not realize what was happening until Ross leaned over and kissed me. I sat bolt upright.
“I’m sorry,” I fumbled. “I didn’t, I mean, I don’t, I mean, you must still have hopes that you and I, but it’s not. Oh no.” I tapped my chest with my fingertips. “This is a broken heart, not an identity crisis.” Large silent tears rolled down my cheeks. “I’m hopeless. I can’t do anything right.”
As I spoke, Ross sat back cross-legged on the bed and leaned against the headboard. He folded his hands in his lap and stared down at them.
“Imagine that you have a good friend who’s a gay guy. And he has a crush on you,” I tried to explain. “And he begs you to sleep with him. And because you love him, you consider it for a fraction of a second. You think maybe you’ll do it just once. But then you come to your senses and realize that you can’t get into having sex with a guy, no matter how much you care about him. It’s not who you are. I can’t do it Ross. I’m a lesbian. Just because Peggy left me doesn’t change who I am.”
“So what about me? Who am I to you?” Ross asked.
“I thought we resolved that a long time ago,” I answered, as the truth about his continued expectations dawned on me. “But I guess not.”
“Then why do you call me whenever something big happens in your life? Why do you want me to share all your successes and why do you expect me to pick up the pieces when you fall apart?” Ross demanded.
“Because you’re my dearest friend in the whole world. Sometimes, if you love someone very much, you have to love them on their own terms as best you can. Can’t you love me as a friend for who I am? Without the romantic dimension?” I pleaded.
“Not with our history, I can’t. How can you do this to me?”
“I’m sorry if I misled you into thinking that there could be anything more than friendship between us,” I said. I realized that it was not until that moment that Ross finally heard the truth, recognized it, and believed it in his heart. He put his face in his hands and wept. I wrapped him in my arms and wept with him.
That night, we held each other and talked about everything. We remembered our teen years together, recalling many of our adventures. He talked about the changes he had gone through after our separation and the women he had dated. I talked about Peggy and Mother Goose. I wanted to reinforce for Ross the fact that I would never cross back over the line into heterosexuality, but this was not really necessary as he finally understood that he and I had no future together. Eventually, exhausted, we fell into fitful sleep. We slept late, woke up groggy, and had to hurry to check out of the Camelot by noon.
“I feel all beaten up,” Ross complained.
Neither one of us was in the mood for breakfast, so we decided to drive until we got hungry. When we checked out of the Camelot, we closed the door forever on our childhood romance. Ross drove me home and helped me unload at my parents’ house. After we had emptied the van, Mama offered Ross a bowl of homemade soup, but he declined. I walked him out. Before he got into the van, Ross gripped my wrist with a fierceness that frightened me. “I need time. I don’t want to see you for a while. Don’t call me,” he commanded.
I told my parents that I had experienced a romance that had ended badly, that I didn’t want to talk about it, and that I needed time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Papa played endless games of cards with me and Mama cooked gourmet dinners and yummy desserts to entice me to eat.
The teaching credential course at Vassar was still open to me, but I didn’t have the heart to return. After a week mooning around the house, I telephoned Rina and asked if I could stay with her in the city for a few days. She enthusiastically encouraged me to pay a visit.
Standing on the front stoop of Rina’s townhouse in Harlem, I realized that my preoccupation with my own nonsense had distracted me so much that I hadn’t even thought to pick up a gift for Rina, whom I hadn’t seen in months. Then I remembered that I had a couple of cassette tapes in my bag. I could buy them again for myself and give mine away to Rina.
Through the long, slender panels of beveled glass set in the heavy oak door, I could see Arthur’s shape approach. “Hey, little sister,” he greeted in his rumbling bass voice. He gave me a warm hug. “Rina,” he called into the depths of the house, “Sarah’s here.”
Arthur led me through the comfortable chaos of their living room to the studio, where Rina, drawing pen in hand, met me in the doorway with a hug and kisses on both cheeks. Rina wore a paint-spattered faded T-shirt and plaid cotton shorts. Her bare feet sported deep purple toenail polish.
“I love the toenail polish,” I told her.
“Arthur says it looks like I slammed my foot in the car door,” she replied, abandoning her pen on the drawing table and clicking off the high-intensity lamp. “Can I get you anything to eat or drink?”
“A glass of water, please,” I replied.
We went into the kitchen. The windows stood open and the fragrant scent of geraniums and marigolds drifted in from the back yard. I took a deep breath, as if I hadn’t inhaled fresh air in months. I sat across from Rina at the kitchen table while Arthur took a turquoise pitcher out of the refrigerator and poured water into a Mason jar for me.
“You look tired. What’s going on with you?” Rina asked.
“Ah, me; my least favorite subject. Do I really look that tired?” I responded.
“No, not at all,” Arthur said, throwing Rina a reproving glance. “You look terrific.”
I took a drink of water from the Mason jar. “Hey, I brought you something.” I opened my bag and pulled out the cassette tapes, which I passed across the table. “Some music. These are some of my favorites. Have you ever listened to these musicians?”
Rina thanked me as she examined the tapes, reading the names of the songs and the musicians. Then Rina looked up sharply and pinned me in her on-the-mark gaze. “This is women’s music. What’s the deal, Sarah? Are you into women now?”
I nearly choked on my water. I turned crimson and then I laughed so hard that I couldn’t talk. The tapes contained music written and performed by lesbians, and Rina had taken one look and figured it out. It was too funny.
“I’m sorry,” I gasped. They waited for me to catch my breath and when I finally did, I said, “I have successfully hidden the truth about myself from so many people for so long because those people didn’t want to see the truth. And it took so little for you to figure it out. It’s too funny; and a relief, you know, to have someone in the family see me for who I am. I can’t tell Mama and Papa. Papa would hit the roof. And Sophie is so conservative.”
Arthur sat down next to me and, taking my hand in both of his, demanded sternly in a mock preacher’s voice, “Alright, Ms. Sarah, what the heck is going on with you?”
I spilled the beans. I told them about Peggy. I told them about Mother Goose and how much I had loved it there and then about getting fired. And finally I told them about Ross, who, unbeknownst to me, had waited for me for two years until I smashed his heart to bits. It made a big difference to have them know about me. Arthur and Rina made it so easy. They didn’t get hung up on the fact that I was a lesbian. That was a non-issue. They went right past that to the real issues, like my broken heart and confusion about what to do next with my life.
“I agree with you that you can’t go back to Vassar,” Rina said. “Everything there will just remind you of the past and you need to look forward. I think you need a change.”
“What do you suggest?”
“You could teach at a private school for a year or two. You don’t need a credential to do that, do you?” Rina asked.
“Could you see me at a Catholic girls’ school? I don’t think so,” I said.
“Why not?” Rina asked.
“You could still study for your credential,” Arthur pointed out. “You don’t have to go back to Vassar to do that. Do it somewhere else.”
“I like that idea, but I think it’s too late to apply anywhere else for the fall semester,” I told him.
“Don’t be so sure. We have friends in California. I can give them a call and see what might be arranged,” Arthur offered.
“California! That would definitely be a change,” I said with a dry laugh.
The next morning, Arthur called TJ, who had gone to art school with him and Rina, and who lived in Berkeley. By that afternoon, TJ called back with the names and numbers of people who could provide me with more information about the credentialing program at Cal-Berkeley. I spoke to one of them, who was extraordinarily helpful and sympathetic, and after that things moved quickly. TJ had a friend with clout in the education department; a friend who owed him a favor. He offered to call in the favor on my behalf. I had nothing to lose so I decided to pursue this option.
Although Papa complained bitterly about the distance when I announced that I was going to move to Berkeley, he was relieved that I had charted a new course and seemed to be emerging from my funk.
On my last weekend on the East Coast before I departed for California, I accompanied Mama into the city to see an exhibit of Chinese arts and crafts.
As we strolled through the exhibit, I experienced a growing sense of anxiety. I wondered if I was having a “panic attack,” which I had read about in psychology textbooks. After a half an hour of studying cases of women’s personal care possessions, such as jade and wooden hair-sticks, hand-mirrors painted with tiny flowers, and combs carved with birds, I was possessed by a surge of fear. My throat constricted and I became short of breath. I had never had asthma before, but it felt like what I imagined an asthma attack would feel like.
“Sit here,” Mama commanded, putting her arm around me and guiding me toward a bench. Then the strangest thing happened. I physically recoiled from her. I could not bear to have Mama touch me. Her voice, her very proximity made me feel sick to my stomach. I desperately needed to get out of the exhibit. I reached for the wall to steady myself as I stumbled out of the room and collapsed on a bench near the exhibit entrance. I put my head down on my lap. Mama hovered at my elbow and put a hand on my back. I wanted her to take her hand off of me. “Maybe we should go outside,” Mama suggested.
“No, no, I’ll be OK in a minute,” I managed to say as I sat up and shrugged her hand off. “You go back in and enjoy yourself. I’m OK now, really. I’ll just sit here for a while and join you later.”
“Are you sure?” Mama hesitated, worried.
Mama turned in the arched entranceway to the show to reassure herself that I really wanted her to go. She was framed by two gigantic porcelain vases encased in glass that stood sentry at the yawning mouth of the exhibit. The delicate burnt-orange and black painting of tree branches on the vases threaded out into a confusing map to nowhere. My throat tightened. I could never go back in, I couldn’t wait for Mama to disappear, and I couldn’t think of a reasonable explanation for any of it.
After Mama left, I calmed down. I took a novel out of my bag and read. Soon I became drowsy and I leaned back against the wall and closed my eyes. Images drifted into my mind as I floated between sleep and waking. I smelled the scent of flowers, strong as ripe melons. Then I entered a room in which Chinese guards stood at attention. They were clothed in red and gold. It was a humid evening. A slight breeze moved the damp air. There were lush gardens somewhere nearby. I saw a handsome man with a smooth, muscular chest and gentle, work-worn fingers. He had deep eyes that wrinkled at the corners from many years of laughter. The man melted as I startled and woke with a rush of grief. The man’s eyes burned in my memory.
When Mama emerged from the exhibit, I felt a surge of anger toward her. Shaken and drained by the mysterious emotions of the day, I just wanted to go home. Mama’s concern, which was entirely justified, irritated me. I said little on the walk to the train and once seated I avoided conversation by burying myself in my book. I had the feeling that I was looking at something important and not seeing it. The Asian museum pieces. The twilight vision of the man and the gardens. My irrational anger at Mama. I could not make sense of the emotions and images of the day.
The next morning, I moved to California.
I arrived in Berkeley on a bright August afternoon. I took the Airporter from San Francisco International Airport, and TJ’s roommate Lee (another friend of Rina’s) met me at a downtown hotel in a beat-up gray Toyota. I had shipped a few belongings on ahead and carried only one suitcase with me. TJ was still at work when I entered my new home for the first time. I remembered TJ as the sort of person who was the life of the party, and I hoped I wouldn’t bore him to death with my reclusive tendencies. Lee poured me a glass of lemonade and showed me my room, which I liked instantly. It was large with a high ceiling and a walk-in closet. It overlooked the back yard, which was planted with flowers and tomatoes. There was a bed in it, but no other furniture. Lee explained that the landlord stored furniture in the basement and told me to go down there when I was ready to choose a dresser, desk, bookshelf, or anything else I wanted. I opened the window, sprawled across the bed, and promptly fell asleep.
TJ’s booming voice woke me up. “Where’s our little sister?” he called to Lee as he rolled into the living room. A few moments later I heard a gentle tap at my door.
“Come in,” I said.
“Hey, welcome!” TJ greeted me exuberantly. “Are you ready to choose some furniture?”
“I kind of like it this way,” I said.
“No, really. I brought a couple of muscle-bound friends home with me to help carry the stuff up from the basement. Go see what’s down there,” TJ urged.
So I went downstairs and chose a dresser, a desk and chair, a nightstand, a bookshelf, a long narrow mirror with etched decor around the edges, a big overstuffed chair, a standing lamp, and a spindly coat rack. TJ’s friends helped me arrange the furniture in my room, then they retired to the living room to listen to music. As I unpacked, I felt at home for the first time since leaving Mother Goose.
When my classes began, I became completely absorbed in school. I could have made time for a rich social life, but I didn’t want one. At first Lee and TJ tried to include me in everything they did; but, as I repeatedly declined their invitations, they soon realized that I preferred a more solitary lifestyle. So they went about their busy social lives while I remained ensconced in my cozy room. I wrote in my journal, sketched, and painted in watercolors. I attended classes and lectures at the Zen Center. I went above and beyond for my courses in the credentialing program. I had a particular interest in learning more about classroom management philosophies and techniques that sought to empower rather than control children. This seemed to be a new approach and there was not much literature out there about it.
In the spring I began my student teaching assignment, which turned out to be completely different from anything I had anticipated. I worked under the eagle-eye of the teacher to whom I had been assigned. After thirty years in the classroom, she had rigid, old-fashioned ideas about teaching. Getting along with Mrs. Polschak required all the restraint I could muster. She was a strict disciplinarian, who actually made children stand in the corner when she was unhappy with their behavior. She had no tolerance for the noise and chaos of children that I believed was often necessary for real learning. My greatest challenge in working with her was that I felt that children deserved the same respect given to adults whereas Mrs. Polschak viewed children as untamed animals requiring a firm hand. In the end, I resigned myself to making it through the student teaching in one piece to obtain my credential. Next year, I told myself, when I have my own classroom and I can work with my students from the day they cross my threshold, then I will establish my own ground rules and do a better job of teaching.
Living with TJ and Lee provided me with automatic friends, so I didn’t feel the need to look much further than my home for companionship. Although TJ socialized a great deal, he also had a quiet side and he invested time in getting to know me. He would often poke his head into my room in the evening to see if I wanted to talk with him. He was interested in my ideas about teaching and we had good conversations about my studies and my philosophy of education. It was comforting to know that I could rely on TJ in a pinch. I got along with Lee as a roommate, but she had too many things going on in her life to spend much time at home with me or TJ.
My one indulgence (and I had to laugh at myself for even considering it an indulgence) was walking by the bay or the ocean. I frequently went to the Berkeley Marina in the evening to watch the sun descend in a huge orange ball into the rhythmic motion of the water. Watching the sunset over the water reminded me of our family’s summer vacations at the Jersey Shore when my sisters and I were children.
One evening, while sharing a spaghetti dinner we had made together, TJ asked me, “Don’t you want to meet someone? You know, like a relationship sort of someone? A partner?”
“Eventually,” I answered.
“You sort of have to go out to do that. It’s not likely that you’ll meet someone in our driveway,” TJ joked.
“I don’t have the energy for it right now,” I explained. “I have other things on my mind this year. Honestly, I’m partnered-out from the past few years.”
“That bad?” TJ asked.
I flashed him my most enigmatic Mona-Lisa smile. “Let’s just say that my excursions into relationships were discouraging and exhausting and leave it at that. I’m directing my attention elsewhere these days.”
In spite of my determination not to dwell on the past, I could not shake the pain of losing Peggy. Sometimes in my bed at night, I longed for Peggy’s touch with an unbearable hunger. In my mind’s eye I could see Peggy’s vivid green eyes, the way she tossed her hair, and the curve of her wrist. I remembered the sound of her laughter with startling clarity. I could not forget my desire for her and our love-making that had transported me. I ached for a woman to lie next to me at night, to curl into the nest of each other’s arms, where we could leave the cares of the world outside the circle of our embrace. Yet I could not bring myself to make any effort to meet someone new.
In the spring I graduated from my credentialing program. Papa refused to set foot on an airplane so Mama came by herself for my graduation ceremony. We went sight-seeing in San Francisco, hitting all the tourist spots, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, and Fisherman’s Wharf. We spent a day in Golden Gate Park where we visited the Steinhart Aquarium, the Academy of Sciences, the Japanese Tea Garden, and the De Young Museum. We took the ferry to Sausalito one evening for dinner. I returned to the East Coast with Mama at the end of her visit.
Armed with photographs of TJ and Lee and our house and yard in Berkeley, I took the train into the city to see Rina and Arthur. They were expecting a baby and were in the process of reorganizing and repainting a room in preparation for the baby’s arrival. Rina had not informed our parents about the baby herself. Instead, Sophie, who was expecting her second child, had broken the news to them.
While I was visiting, Sophie wanted to talk about the rift in our family ad nauseam. I tried to stay as disengaged from the feud as possible and I advised Sophie to do the same. She claimed that she couldn’t stay disengaged and that she was stuck in the middle. I couldn’t have been more grateful that I lived on the other side of the country from all that family drama. I wondered how I would keep a long-term relationship secret from my parents and Sophie if I ever did have the good fortune to meet someone in the distant future.
Upon my return to Berkeley, I began to apply for teaching jobs for the fall. To tide me over, I picked up a summer job as a camp counselor. I refereed capture-the-flag and kickball, gave swimming lessons, and supervised messy outdoor art projects. The job was easy and fun. By the time the summer ended, I had landed a position teaching a second/third-grade split class. On the day that I received the call from the principal offering me the job, TJ and Lee took me out to eat to celebrate.
In August I attended a weeklong orientation training provided by the school district. A few days before school started, I was assigned to my classroom and I went in to set up. I would be teaching what they called a “Challenge Class,” administrative code words for children with “behavior problems.” Capturing and holding the attention of these children would require every ounce of ingenuity and imagination that I could muster. I thought about Peggy and the things Peggy did that inspired children to love her and respond to her.
On the first day of school I studied with mounting excitement the freshly scrubbed faces of my students as they arrived. I could not wait to get to know these children. I greeted them as they entered and showed them where to put their things in cubbies that I had decorated for them. My plan was to give them a tour of the classroom, to explain the different work areas, and to share with them some of the things I wanted to study with them during the year. But I discovered instantly that my plan was too ambitious. My first task would be to get their attention. Three boys chased each other around the classroom. One girl hid in her cubby and sucked her thumb. She would need to be coaxed out, but I was busy dealing with two other girls who were hitting each other with books. While I attempted to separate them, a large boy with curly hair attached himself to my leg and would not let go, causing me to lose all credibility with the book-beating girls. Meanwhile, a group of children had found the stapler on my desk and they were folding paper airplanes and stapling them together as fast as their little hands could move. The paper airplanes swooping through the air made a bigger dent in my self-confidence than anything else since my mental image of an out-of-control classroom was one in which children were throwing paper airplanes. These children had been under my supervision for all of fifteen minutes and my classroom was in utter chaos.
It was at that juncture that the principal popped his head in the door. I was mortified. He took in the scene and immediately clapped his hands, which elicited silence, and then he announced sternly that anyone who didn’t sit in his or her seat within the next ten seconds would be accompanying him to the front office. The children stared at him blankly while one bold boy piped up, “But we don’t know where our seats are.”
The principal turned to me, a vein in his neck bulging. “I suggest you assign these children to seats as quickly as possible,” he instructed curtly.
I rushed over to my desk and picked up a stack of colorful name tags that I had made the previous day. “If you children would choose a seat, we can put your name on your desk for you,” I announced. The principal looked at me disdainfully and said nothing while the children reluctantly shuffled over to select their desks. Two boys started to argue over a seat. “Pete,” the principal cautioned one of them threateningly. Pete moved to a different seat, muttering under his breath. The principal turned to me and said, loudly, so that everyone could hear, “If Pete gives you any trouble, just send him to me. We’re old friends.” The fact that he would say this publicly seemed rude to me. I could only imagine how Pete must have felt when he heard this comment.
“Ladies and gentlemen, don’t make me come back down here,” the principal warned the children. “You listen to your teacher and do what she tells you. I promise you that anyone who misbehaves will spend the rest of the day in my office.” He turned to me and commanded, “If anyone in here gives you any trouble, you send them directly to me.” He stalked out of the room before I could formulate a reply.
I realized with dismay that I was not going to be able to lecture these children for even a minute because they wouldn’t sit still for that long. They had the collective attention span of a pack of terriers set loose in a bird sanctuary. I would have to begin an activity immediately. I distributed paper and crayons and instructed them to draw sea creatures while I moved among them commenting on their progress, keeping them on task, and asking them questions about their work. Then I formed them into groups of five and gave each group a large piece of butcher paper. Their next assignment was to combine the pictures made by the members of their group by pasting them onto the butcher paper and then to add to the “scene” by drawing on the butcher paper. They were to make an “ocean” with all the sea creatures created by their group. These activities went fairly smoothly with not too many disagreements occurring and, with carefully focused effort, I was able to handle the situations that arose. I was determined to use conflicts as learning opportunities and not merely occasions for discipline.
By lunch time, I desperately needed a break from the children. I lined my class up and took them to the cafeteria. As I was walking back to my classroom, a woman with long, blond hair intercepted me. The woman held out her hand to shake mine as she introduced herself. “I’m Marjorie, pleased to meet you,” she said. I shook her hand and told her my name was Sarah. She continued, “So you got the two/three Challenge Class this year?”
“That’s what they call it,” I responded with a faint smile.
“I’ve been teaching here for years. If you need to talk to someone, I’m in room six. The boss created the Challenge Classes,” she informed me as she gestured her head in the direction of the administrative offices. “What a disaster.”
I kept my face neutral. I had the impression that Marjorie was a chatterbox, so I was pretty sure she would explain what she meant if I didn’t cut her off. I was right about her. She chattered on. “He puts all the extremely emotionally needy children, all the children with real problems, into one class, to keep them out of the other classes. It makes it even harder for them to learn and it makes it impossible to teach them. He does it because of the way the state tracks the success of the school, by classroom achievement. He also does it because it’s easier to teach the other children if the most disruptive ones are removed, of course. His method keeps his school track record for achievement high, which makes him look good. Usually he gives the Challenge Classes to the teachers he doesn’t like. When he runs out of disfavored teachers, he gives them to the new teachers. You got a bad break. If there’s anything I can do to help, just holler.”
I thanked Marjorie for the information and excused myself so that I could eat my lunch in solitude and mull over her words. The “challenge” of the Challenge Class, it seemed, was going to be more mine than the children’s.
I was determined to use a positive approach to maintaining order in my classroom, and I was equally determined to teach my students the content they needed to master at their grade level. I decided that I would have to find a way to provide as much one-on-one time with each child as possible. I would set up a lot of small group activities, train the children to work together cooperatively so that they could learn from one another, and then circulate so that I could interact with individual children. In my mind, I threw out the lesson plans I had prepared for the first three months. I would get to know each and every one of them as quickly as I could. Each of these children needed an individualized learning plan. I knew what had to be done, the question was, Could I do it? Could only one person physically do it?
After lunch, the children went outside for P.E. and they came back to me more subdued. We listed words on the blackboard that described their sea creatures. I wrote the words. They copied them on a piece of lined paper. One boy, desperate for my attention, ate the paper I gave him for his list. A few minutes before the end of the day, the curly-headed boy once again wrapped himself around my leg and wouldn’t let go. Two children got into a fist-fight and then chased each other around the classroom. I couldn’t move to intervene because of the boy on my leg. The class slipped into the same pandemonium with which the day had started, but, mercifully, the bell rang and the children ran screaming out of my room, which they left in a disastrous state. I stood in the doorway and watched the children race across the school yard to the waiting buses. Then I heard sniffles and sobs, which I tracked to their source and I discovered a child on the floor under a table crying. I picked him up and dried his tears with a tissue. “What happened?” I asked.
“Chucky punched me and knocked me down,” he whined.
“We’ll talk to Chucky about that first thing tomorrow,” I informed him grimly. “Now you better hurry or you’ll miss your bus.”
I cleaned the classroom and set up for the next day. Then I took a deep breath and marched determinedly to the principal’s office. He looked up in surprise as I entered and closed the door behind myself.
“What can I do for you?” he asked, casting his gaze up and down my body.
“I need an aide in my classroom,” I announced, struggling to conceal my irritation caused by the “once-over” male scrutiny with which he had just bombarded my body.
He slid his glasses down his nose and peered at me over the top of them condescendingly. “So you’re having difficulty handling your class?” he queried, a touch of mock sympathy in his voice.
I knew it was not a question. He was attempting to demoralize me and I was not buying it. “Anyone would have difficulty handling that class. And you know exactly why. The distribution of emotionally needy students for this peer group is weighted heavily into my classroom.”
He said nothing.
“Since you have made the choice to isolate the difficult students from the rest of the population, you will have to make some provision for at least attempting to teach these youngsters.”
“I don’t have to do anything,” he replied imperiously.
“You have to provide public education,” I snapped. “It’s the law.” We glared at each other. “I need an aide to facilitate more one-on-one for these youngsters. In fact, I need about fifteen aides, but one will have to suffice.” What was the worst he could do? Fire me? So what?
“We only provide aides to assist with severely disabled children,” he responded. “That’s the standard policy.”
“I will spare you my opinion about your standard policy. Listen, you clearly don’t want to deal with the children in my classroom. I am willing to deal with them for you, but I need some support here. I want an aide. Immediately.”
“You’re a feisty one aren’t you?” he said. “I like that.”
He seemed to think he had put me in the proper box and figured out how to handle me. And he most certainly believed I needed to be “handled.” He was getting a kick out of me in that male you’re-so-cute-when-you’re-angry sort of way, and it required all the self-control I could muster to refrain from hurling insults at him.
“I’ll arrange for you to have an aide in your class by the end of the week,” he promised with a paternalistic smile.
“Thank you.” I turned on my heel and exited before he could do something over-the-top infuriating, like patting me on the behind.
That evening I walked in the front door of our house and got as far as the sofa before my legs collapsed. I fell asleep for an hour until Lee came in.
“Rough first day?” Lee asked.
“Challenging,” I answered.
After my nap, I reworked my lesson plans for the rest of the week. I would teach these children how to have an attention span. I would teach them how to learn. I planned to go back to the fundamentals from kindergarten, like socialization skills and good citizenship skills. I was determined to earn their trust and their affection so that they would be intrinsically motivated to please me and to take pride in their accomplishments. The academic curriculum would have to wait whiled I trained these children to be teachable. I did not want to become one of those teachers who “manages” the students. I wanted to discover who the children were and bring out the best in them; rather than imposing something on them from the outside, I wanted to draw something out of them from their inside.
To his credit, the principal did provide me with an aide by the end of the week. My aide, Ginny, was my first and most important stroke of luck. I called her “The Rock” because of her unflappability. Ginny was intuitive and could take my glance or gesture for its exact meaning and noiselessly follow my most subtle direction. I used Ginny to provide one-on-one time to children, directing her throughout the day to activities with individual children, spreading her around, allowing her to develop personal relationships with all the children, but especially with the ones who had the highest emotional need. This had a remarkably calming effect on the class. I also made an effort to conduct outreach to the children’s parents. The result was that I usually had at least one parent helping in the class at any given time, and very often more than one. I allowed parents to bring babies and younger siblings into the class when they came to help. My classroom had a family atmosphere. Ginny and I modeled for parents how to seize teachable moments, how to relate respectfully to children, and how to inspire children to do the right thing because they wanted to and not because they would be punished or rewarded for their actions.
Ginny’s most impressive credentials, in my opinion, were that she had raised four children of her own and she had two grandchildren.
“You should write a book about teaching,” Ginny kept telling me. But I didn’t need to write a book. There were other educators, who thought along the same lines as I, who had already written books. I had read them. I was not particularly original. That first year that I spent in the classroom, I was too busy developing my curriculum to do any further research or reading about cutting-edge practices in education.
Some of my lesson plans worked and others crashed and burned. On some days, Ginny and I wept together in exhaustion and discouragement after the children had gone home. On other days, we counted small successes, and on the occasional really good days we celebrated. One way or another, we made it through the year; and when I stood at the end of it, and surveyed the terrain I had covered, I marveled at how much I had learned.
In June, I put in a request to have Ginny as my aide again the following year. I enrolled in a couple of post-graduate classes at Stanford for the summer and bought a little Volkswagen for the commute. If Lee and TJ thought they would see more of me when the school year ended, they thought wrong. I buried myself in my studies, preparing for my next year of teaching.
I taught that Challenge Class for three years with Ginny by my side and then I resigned. That idiot principal had started to use my class as an example of how well his system for segregating the children with “behavior problems” worked. I wanted no part of it. My children needed to be included in the other classrooms, not lumped together and removed to their own island like lepers. I took a job at a private school for gifted children, where I faced a whole different set of challenges. Meanwhile I had entered a degree program in school administration that accommodated working teachers. I took my classes at night, on weekends, and over the summer. I moved out of TJ and Lee’s house and rented my own apartment not far from them.
During my years in Berkeley, I conscientiously avoided any relationship that might have romantic overtones, refusing to go out on dates and instead spending time with tried-and-true friends, most often Ginny and her husband Herb and their family. I could not seem to stop or change that discouraging “tape” that kept playing in my head, telling me that I had failed at having a relationship with a man and failed at having a relationship with a woman and I was hopeless at relationships. I figured that Peggy had hurt me as my karma for hurting Ross. I threw my love into my students and they gave me enough love in return to satisfy me. As far as romance went, I closed the gates and pulled up the drawbridge to my heart. Occasionally I met someone who would make motions toward swimming the moat and knocking at the door, but I meticulously sent out the crocodiles. The thought of letting someone back in filled me with dread.
On my frequent walks by the water, I watched couples as they meandered hand-in-hand on beaches, piers, and paths. Sometimes I saw lesbian couples and they made me feel jealous and wistful. I wondered how they maintained healthy relationships.
After I completed my master’s degree in school administration, I took a break from teaching in order to return to school full-time to earn a doctorate in education. Papa kept a bulletin board in his den where he posted newspaper clippings that I sent him about my activities, such as the announcement for a series of parenting classes that I taught at the public library, an article about the success of my Challenge Class, and, at last, the local paper’s notice of my graduation from Stanford with my doctorate.
The most exciting aspect of my studies at Stanford was that I connected with other educators who shared my beliefs about the way children should be treated and how to develop the full potential of youngsters. I was at the forefront of work with cooperative learning, parent involvement in the schools, and what we referred to as “character education.” I studied and practiced with other educators who believed in child-centered education and child-centered classrooms. New research confirmed ideas that I had long held true but couldn’t previously prove with hard evidence. I could finally justify many of the choices I had made with the children in my Challenge Class. While attending Stanford, I called Ginny frequently to share a study or report I came across in my research. I read material to her over the phone and Ginny would cluck her tongue and say, “Obviously, ask any grandma and they’ll tell you that’s the case.”
After I completed my doctorate, I decided to return to the East to be closer to the family. My sisters had children and I didn’t want to miss out on watching them grow up. I doubted that I would ever have any children of my own, so my sisters’ children were about as close as I would get. I wanted to be nearby so that I could be a part of their daily lives. Also, my parents were getting older and I wanted to spend more time with them before their health began to fail. Truthfully, I never put down deep roots in California.
During my California years, I heard nothing from Ross. Occasionally I asked Mama about him. She told me when he had gotten married and then, a couple of years later, when he and his wife had a baby. One evening during my last few weeks in California, my phone rang and it was Ross. He had run into Papa in synagogue and heard that I was moving back. He invited me to visit him and his family. It was lovely to hear his voice after so many years of silence. After I hung up the phone, I decided to go for a walk.
I grabbed a sweater and drove up to Point Richmond. The spring air carried the flowery scent of beginnings. Lovers wandered in pairs by the water’s edge. I walked slowly on a path that was a short distance from the water. California has been good to me, I thought. Gold rush country. I found my gold. I would return home triumphant, as an accomplished educator. I turned my back to the wind and looked in the opposite direction from the brilliant sunset. In the tall grass near the road stood a lone egret, balanced on one spindly leg. It looked like a dash of pure white paint against a reedy green-grey backdrop. Its beak was sharp and accurate, the angles well-defined. With clear intention, the egret surveyed his domain for potential dinner. His beauty took my breath away. What was it that made me stand transfixed, watching, until the exquisite creature purposefully spread his prehistoric-type wings, and languidly took to the air?
On my last night in California, I slept over at Ginny’s house. Ginny would drive me to the airport in the morning. Ginny and Herb loved to cook together and they prepared a delicious all-American meal of fried chicken and biscuits for me, complete with apple pie for dessert. Then we retired to the living room where Herb had his after-dinner brandy and Ginny and I drank tea.
I curled up in a large comfy chair, my feet wrapped under me, like a cat.
“That pie was heavenly,” I applauded Herb’s mastery in the kitchen.
“You know,” Herb reminisced, leaning back on the couch, “I remember once when I was onboard a ship in the navy. I was eating blueberry pie, minding my own business, when something rubbery that I couldn’t chew got hung up in my mouth. I pulled it out and opened it flat and would you believe it was the recipe for the pie? We sure teased our cooks about that one!” Herb boomed in his jovial way. Ginny put her arm across the back of the couch and patted Herb on the shoulder. I figured that she had probably heard the recipe-in-the-pie story about a million times.
“I admire you two,” I told them. “You’ve been married for such a long time. How do you make it work?”
Ginny smiled shyly and deferred to Herb, “Why don’t you field that one, sweetie.”
With a bemused glance at Ginny, Herb answered, “We just keep laughing together.”
“I know it’s not that simple. I’m sure you have had your moments, like any couple, but you get past them,” I said, pressing them to give me a more complete answer.
Ginny could see that I was serious and she said, “I think it works because we’re both in it for the long haul, always have been. We just know that we have to find a way to work things out because we don’t give ourselves another choice. It’s kind of like you and that Challenge Class that first year; quitting was not an option.”
Herb added, “Ginny has never held me back. She has adapted to the ways in which I have changed over the years. And I hope,” he patted Ginny on the knee and looked to her for affirmation, “that I have always adjusted to her changes too.”
“I read somewhere that the reason why insects are the most resilient, persistent, and long-lived species on the planet is because of their adaptability. I guess there’s a lesson there for us humans,” I told them.
Ginny leaned forward slightly, confidentially. “Sarah, you need a husband,” she declared.
I blushed and nervously twisted the strings on my sweatshirt hood.
“You do, dear. You’re the kind of homey person who should be married. You won’t be happy on your own forever. I know it’s none of my business. Well, maybe it is, because I’m a friend who wants the best for you. I just wish that you would entertain the possibility of opening your heart to whatever comes your way when you move back East. Give it a chance. I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but I have to say it.”
“It isn’t that easy for me,” I responded.
“Anyone with two eyes can see that something happened to you that made you shut down. ‘Once burned, twice shy,’ they say. But whatever happened is over and done. It’s time to move on, sweetie.”
“Forgive her,” Herb interjected. “You know she can’t help it. She worries about you as much as she does about any of our own.”
“It’s OK,” I said with a weak smile.
“Promise me,” Ginny insisted, “promise me that you will entertain the possibility.”
And I thought, OK, I’m ready to do it, so I made that promise to Ginny.
Later that night, before falling asleep, I remembered my jumbled state of mind when I fled to California, a lifetime ago it seemed. I had figured out who I was and come into my own in California. I had constructed a comfortable, fruitful life, independent from any romantic attachment. But Ginny’s words touched a nerve. I needed to take a risk, to attempt a relationship. And when the right person came along, I would try to build a partnership, not deliberately, like a fact, but intuitively, like an organic process. I would open my heart to possibility, pain, joy, all of it. I would open my heart to love.