She keeps me in her basement; it is a daylight basement, in her sprawling home on  Queen Anne, Seattle.  Ashley married a doctor shortly after graduating from Cornell, and now she has this huge house overlooking Puget Sound, where she has graciously allowed me to stay for three weeks while I find an apartment, buy a car and furniture and dishes and silverware.

Ashley is pregnant.  She had been pregnant once before, right before her wedding.  She aborted her child because she wanted to be thin, not pregnant, at her wedding.  I implored her to keep the baby.

“But you’re a pro-choice feminist, and you’re the only bridesmaid not supporting me!”

I was pro-choice, but I did not believe in aborting a fetus because it was growing at an inconvenient time.  I was pro-choice because I knew abortions would be performed whether they were legal or not, and I wanted a woman to be able to have them safely when they were too young, or couldn’t afford to support a child.

“Everyone thinks Mike and I are the perfect couple,” Ashley said.  Ashley came from money, old money.  Her parents lived in a mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut.  She had never had to struggle, unlike me.

But it was clear from the next morning that there was trouble in paradise. Ashley said I should pick up the mail when it was delivered before Mike came home at night.  She would take the mail from me, rifle through it, curse, and tear  up the bank statements.

“I can’t let Mike see that I am over drafting each month.  I’m just getting over being a shopaholic.  I go to meetings.  My lowest point was buying a remote control holder.”

Meanwhile Mike and I were getting stoned every night.

“You can never tell anyone that Mike gets high every night.  He’s on call all the time.  No one can ever know, he has a good reputation.”

One of Ashley’s wifely duties was to secure the pot.  We were always going to far away dive bars to meet dealers.  One time Ashley left me alone in the bar, and a drunken biker approached me.

“You are my dream girl from the 70’s,” he said.

“Really?  Because you are my nightmare.” I said.

It was only a matter of time before Mike found out that Ashley was  over drafting and over spending, and, apparently, as I couldn’t help overhearing  the violent fight I cowered from in the basement guest room, that Ashley was dipping into her child’s college fund.

“We could go to jail for this!”  Mike yelled.  Ashley must have been writing bad checks. Mike screamed at her for hours.

The next morning, at breakfast, I couldn’t look at Mike, I didn’t say “good morning.”

Ashley acted like nothing had happened.  She later confessed to me.

“I’m in trouble with my dad about money too.  He’s trying to teach me the value of a dollar.  I borrowed five grand from him, and now he wants it back.  He keeps hounding me.  Where the hell am I going to get five grand?”

She started to cry.

“I wish I could do something.”

I was living in her house rent-free, eating her food.  I felt beholden to her.  I had already caused damage to her house.  She had asked me if I knew how to kill slugs, and I salted them right on the deck.  I forgot to put out a dish with beer in it first, to draw them in.  The salt removed the stain on the deck.

To make up for that, I offered to clean out her jacuzzi.  I spilled the buckets of water from the jacuzzi down the incline of Queen Anne hill, near the house.

Shortly thereafter, long bugs appeared in the shower of my bathroom.  Soon they infested all the bathrooms.  Ashley called the exterminator, and I was to let him in.

“These are water bugs.  Did you have a flood here recently?”  He said.

He talked at length about the bugs, and then took me outside to see where the bugs were coming from.  He took my hand as we walked down the rock path.

When he called Ashley he said, “Beautiful house.  Beautiful girl inside the house.  Is she single?”  Ashley eagerly told him I was available.  Thank God he hadn’t appeared when I was using the jacuzzi naked, which Ashley and Mike found shocking.  “We have neighbors!”  They warned.

“Ashley, I am not dating an exterminator!”  I said.  How desperate did she think I was?  She was always trying to fix me up with ugly guys.  On the first night that I arrived, she had tried to fix me up with Cheese man, which they called him because he didn’t eat cheese.  He was bald with thick, giant glasses.

“Cheese man likes you.  He said you’re the most alive, vibrant woman he’s ever met.”

“Ashley, he’s hideous and old!’

“He’s loaded.”  Cheese man worked at a large software company, and he owned stock in the company.”  Ashley was becoming Jane Austen’s Emma.

And now here she was, needing my help.

“Actually,” she said, “There is something you can do.”


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23. The Vision

I was 24 and I didn’t own one plate,  one fork, or one piece of furniture.   All I owned was a mountain of books on literary criticism.   Tears rolled down my face as I taped up my boxes of books to take with me to Seattle, where I would be studying for my Ph.D.  Why am I doing this on my own?  I thought.  I had never thought of marriage before, I thought only about my career as a professor and playwright, like my mentor, Paula Vogel, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and teach at Yale.  That was my destiny, I was sure of it, my mother was sure of it. My mother had always championed my literary aspirations, despite her suggestion that I should get a job working with computers. But life hadn’t happened to me yet; I hadn’t had to make tough choices.

I’m not sure if I was really crying about leaving the East Coast.  My parents had made it clear that after age 21, I could never again live at home.  And my mother  was so cranky, stressed, and shrewish that I only took jobs during college where I could live somewhere else, and this also made it impossible to live at home on Long Island while searching for a job in Manhattan, or getting an internship.

“You’ve got to come see Jack’s house that he’s building for his son and his new wife!”  My mom urged.  But my face belied that I had just been sobbing, and I couldn’t get it together.  Finally I relented and met the young couple, who were my age, to my chagrin, and toured their beautiful new house.

When I returned home I cried again.  People my age were already married and living in houses.  I would be making $700 per month in Seattle as a teaching assistant.  Was this really what I wanted?  I decided I would rather be married and having my father-in-law build us a house.

On a plane ride to my father’s condo in Bermuda, while I was dreaming up the first monologue that would be published, I realized my own self-worth.  I realized I loved myself, my talent, my sense of humor,  my intelligence, my long thick hair and long legs and big breasts.  I thought anyone would be lucky to love me.  I had taken the first step to finding love:  I realized I loved myself. Or possibly I was a conceited narcissist.

My mom had gone out for a while and she returned with two thoughtful surprises:  a red balloon, because she knew that was my favorite movie, and a book with photos of  Seattle.

The only photo I had seen of Seattle was on a poster displaying tall evergreen trees.  “When I think of Seattle, I think of tall trees and tall men,” I told a friend.

While speeding down a highway from Providence to Chicago to visit a friend with my colleagues from Brown, driving a stick shift when I didn’t know how to use the clutch, before almost flying through the toll booth because I didn’t know how to downshift, I said, “Maybe when I get to Seattle  I’ll have a boyfriend.  Maybe he’ll have a car.  Maybe he’ll have a luxury car!”

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22. “What We Talk about when We Talk about Love”

The summer of 1988 was a terrible one for me.  I worked two jobs, one for Amway, where I was instructed to give minute to minute briefs about what my bosses were doing,  and one working as a telemarketer selling tickets to Broadway shows.  I got to see Broadway shows for free, which is why I took such an annoying, humiliating job.  Once I voiced my opinion to  a co-worker.  “People hate us.  We call their homes, interrupting whatever they’re doing, trying to sell them something they don’t need.”  She looked at me as though I had had a lobotomy.  Obviously, you can’t have too much self awareness to be a telemarketer.

Being a pesky telemarketer was just as bad as my previous job as one of those annoying people who spray perfume on you in Bloomingdale’s.  They dressed me as “Nina Ricci” in a long floral dress that was shapeless, so they actually found a rope and tied it around my waist.  I was wearing too much make-up.  They taught me the correct pronounciation of “Lair du temps” (lair do tom) and sent me to the escalators to spray people like a skunk.  Once they had me sell soap twinkies and whiskey-smelling mouthwash.  I hawked them by hollering,”Wash your kids’ mouths out with soap twinkies!”

“Want to pretend to be drunk at work?  Use our whiskey-smelling mouthwash!”

I was taken off the floor and reprimanded.

I was a terrible Willy Loman.  I was not a positive person, but a cynic.  Once I called a man to sell him tickets and he said, “I’m inside my wife.”  Then why are you answering the phone?  I had a couple of regular lonely sad customers who told me to call again and again, just to chat.  One woman wanted to meet up in Central Park.

The supervisor woman wore sundresses and acted like a drill sargent.  She screamed at us constantly.  “You’re a playwright, huh?  Well you have to sell yourself to be a playwright, and I don’t think you have it in you!”  When I left the wiry boss with a mustache gave me his number and invited me out to dinner.

Raymond Carver’s ” What We Talk About When We Talk about Love”  saved me.  I was down and out, and his tales of broken down poor people gave me comfort.  I had no time to eat a proper dinner between jobs,  so at ten o’clock p.m every night I took the subway and walked home, often in the pouring rain without an umbrella, and ate a Dove Bar for dinner.

Alison, of the couple we met in Paris, had invited me to come live with her in her studio apartment on the Upper East Side.  I slept on a mattress on the floor.  The apartment was on the ground floor with bars over the windows so there was no air conditioner.  Either it was raining or it was 100 degrees that summer.

Alison kept trying to tell me that success in school and an Ivy League education did not determine your success in the job market.  I knew that.  I had read Mary McCarthy’s The Group.

Alison first recommended that I join a temp agency for girls with Ivy League educations.  On the first day of a new job, my new boss called me from his car.

“You’re a @#$% temp? Oh @#$!”  He was screaming bloody murder at me, cursing me out and complaining about everything.  I lasted one day at that job, so the agency sent me to Amway.  I knew nothing about Amway, so I didn’t realize it was a kind of Christian Ponzi Scheme.  All I knew was that I had to call the vendors and get them to submit photos of their cheap, ugly merchandise for the catalogue.  One of the bosses there was a screamer, a woman who screamed at the male co-worker who was nice to me.

At lunch, I would sit in the bosses’ comfortable chair and order pizza.  It was so hot that the delivery man stunk up the whole office when he came in the door with the worst body odor I had ever smelled.

Alison introduced me to her friend Tim, who worked in the theater world.  He told me that that there was a job opening at Playwright’s Horizons theater, selling concessions.  So I applied, mentioning Tim’s name and that I had a master’s degree in playwriting from Brown University.  When I told Alison that I had used Tim’s name, she flew into a rage.  A lot of people were raging at me that summer.

“You don’t know how hard it is to make connections in theater in this city!” She screamed.  “Tim has cultivated his contacts for years.  He didn’t give you permission to use his name!  He doesn’t even know you!”
She wouldn’t let up.  Obviously the real reason she was upset is that she was tired of me living there.  Especially since I never bothered to clean but just watched her and commented on what a drag it was for her to have to clean on the weekend.

To shut her up, I told her I would write a letter to Playwright’s Horizons withdrawing my application.  She regarded me with stony silence until she suggested that I move back in with my mother until it was time for me to move to Seattle to earn my Ph.d.

When I got home, I saw my mother rinsing out my suitcase with a hose. “I wasn’t going to tell you this,” she said, “But your suitcase was filled with cockroaches and cockroach eggs.”  Oh, God, all the time I had been sleeping on the mattress on the floor, cockroaches had probably been crawling over me.

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21. A disastrous wedding

We arrived at the rehearsal at the church just in time.  At one point, I got so angry with my sister that I  said, “You are no longer my Maid of Honor,  Linda is!”  Linda was the best friend from second grade who should have been Maid of Honor in the first place.

We all arrive at a quaint, small restaurant for the rehearsal dinner.  Although we confirmed it, there’s no reservation for us.  They give us free gin and tonics and tell us to go stand outside in the parking lot.  The restaurant is packed.

To the waitress’s chagrin, two friends of mine crash the rehearsal dinner.

We slept at a bed and breakfast and I slipped into my wedding gown, the best thing about the wedding.  It had off the shoulder short sleeves, and was embroidered with beads, with a long train.  I had been working on my Ph.D. while planning the wedding 3,000 miles away, and I had been so frazzled that when I picked up the gown, I left my car running and l9cked myself out of it.

The veil had a headband over the top of my head.  A bridesmaid helped pull half my hair back and curled the rest of my hair.  I wore a single pearl  on a gold neckless from my mom and a garner belt of blue.

In the limo on the way to the wedding, I did shots–not a great idea.  I had written my own vows and was terrified that I would forget them.

When I walked down the aisle alone to Handel’s  water music, holding a large bouquet of lavender and peach flowers, my Brown friends turned and revealed that they were all wearing Groucho Marx noses and eyebrows.  I thought it funny at the time, but now I consider it inappropriate and offensive at a traditional church wedding.

We then headed to the reception which was held at a large shingled colonial inn that overlooked three bodies of water.  “Bolero” was playing loudly as we arrived.

My mother made a speech about her own town hall wedding.  Nothing about how much she loved me, how much she loved Josh, why we were so good together.  The best man, who had come to Seattle to spend a few days getting to know me, did not like me.  He made a brief statement of congratulations, no speech.

My mom then gave the toast–and got my name wrong.  She called me “Catherine,” a name she had on her mind because my freshman roommate Catherine had not bothered to R.S.V.P. and my Mom didn’t know whether to pay for her dinner.

Afterwards. slightly drunk, I went over to my Mother’s table and threw a napkin down, “The least you could do was remember my name!”

Then I started bawling.  Mascara was running down my face and making raccoon circles around my eyes.  “My mom is ruining my wedding” I sobbed.

“It’s your day, ” Linda’s parents told me, “Go have fun and enjoy yourself.”

We danced the first dance to our song, “Darling you send me,” by Sam Cook.

One game we played was tossing the garter belt.  My cousin Billy caught it, and somehow my lesbian Brown friend’s leg was chosen.  Connie hemmed and hawed at the political incorrectness, not realizing Billy’s brain had been damaged in a car accident.  She finally begrudgingly went along with it, and Billy slipped the garter belt on her thigh.  This from a woman who asked me sardonically if I would wear white to my wedding.

The wedding was over too soon, I had barely spoken to everyone during  my rounds.

My mom had read somewhere that each guest should take home a gift, so she chose African violets, which no one really wanted.  She had many left-over violets piled in her car.

“There’s no room in the car for me to take you to the airport,” she said.

I got  a phone book and on the eve of my wedding day I was calling taxis, coaches, and limos trying to get a ride to the airport.  No one would come to the Island.  We were stressed.

That night I excitedly opened the gifts.  There were joke gifts.  Connie and her girlfriend had given us a cardboard cut out of a baby and some cans containing fake snakes that jumped out.  Someone gave us cheap beads that a psychic might hang.  Someone else gave us a picnic basket with an egg in it which I wanted to smash against the wall.  A good friend gave me a wooden rooster.  I had registered china and silver and kitchen ware, all of which we desperately needed, at Bloomingdale’s.  Only my old boss gave me some of the china I wanted.  Again, I was in tears my wedding night.  We did not make love and turned in early.  We left the window open a little resulting in Josh waking up with a cold.

The next morning at breakfast my mom was still adamant that we couldn’t ride in her car.  Her precious violets were more important than us.  My mom’s house was overrun with plants, some cuttings that were scrawny and ugly looking.

Finally I got in the driver’s seat, told Josh and my mom to get in, and demanded the keys.  I was so furious and determined that my mother gave in.  I drove like a bat out of hell, my teeth gritted, to JFK airport.  We boarded a plane back to Seattle: we would spend one night there before flying to Puerta Vallarta.

When we returned to Seattle we were exhausted.  The phone rang and I answered it.  It was the chairman of the theater department.  He said that because I was missing the orientation party, he would dock my pay.  The orientation party was a stupid, unnecessary shindig  where the graduate students met each other.  I hung up on him.

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20. A Nice Day for a White Wedding

My mother wore a long white lace gown for my wedding.  I was only 25, and barely educated in wedding etiquette.  I hadn’t been to many weddings.  So when we shopped together at Nordstrom, I didn’t stop her when she found
“the perfect dress.”

Mom was paying for the wedding, as my alcoholic Dad and I were estranged.  When he heard I was getting married, he said I’d be divorced a year later.  I still hated him for leaving my Mother for his long time mistress, his secretary.  He left the day of my high school graduation, so I “acted out” to put it mildly.

I stood on the honors platform and glared at the audience with scorn, like I was Stephen King’s Carrie.  I was disgusted with the topic of the valedictorian’s speech, which was about the positive effects of nuclear energy.  When we got outside and were throwing our hats into the air, I attacked the school bully, screaming that she was “a nothing, a nobody.”  I was still mad at her for overhearing her in the bathroom saying, “Who invited her to the party?” And other mean things about me.

I made my sister the maid of honor, which was a mistake.  I lived in Seattle, she lived in Chicago, and the wedding  would be held in Shelter Island, New York,  in the church in the green across the street from our summer house.  I had never been close to my sister.  She wasn’t excited about the wedding or eager to perform her duties.  As a result, there was no shower, no engagement party, no bachelorette party.

In fact, no one was excited about my wedding except my best friend from second grade, who oohed and aaaahed and was thrilled for me. I had just graduated with a Masters in creative writing from Brown, and my friends from Brown comprised most of the guests.  I was known for being an outspoken feminist at Brown, so my friends were in shock that I was getting married so young to a man who proposed to me four months after we met.  At a get-together in New York City, my friends interrrogated me.  Why was I doing this?  Why was I being so hasty?  I replied that I was in love.  They treated that as a flimsy excuse.

When we announced our nuptials to Josh’s parents and family, no one said anything.  Finally my soon-to-be sister-in-law piped up and turned to Josh’s brother and said, “When are we getting married?”stealing the focus.  No one congratulated us.  Soon after, Josh’s brother proposed to Jan, and their wedding plans superceded ours.  They were married a week before our wedding.

My mom, who was excited about the wedding, set into full gear, taking courses in calligraphy (she made ink blots on the envelopes) and wedding planning.  But when I visited her with a gay friend of mine, Jay, she flew into a rage.

“Why did Josh move to  Seattle from New York City?  He couldn’t make it in New York?”  She shrieked in front of Jay and me.  She was pacing back and forth, in a rage, railing against my fiance.  “You’re mother’s crazy, completely nuts,” said Jay.  Until he said that, I hadn’t really thought of my mother that way.  It was always my Dad who was the crazy one.  I remembered a saying, “If you think one parent is the problem, the real problem is the other one.”

Shelter Island is about three hours away from my Mom’s house on Long Island.  I was sitting in the salon, my hair highlighted and curled, waiting for my Mother to pick me up for the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner.  And waiting.  And waiting.  Finally, my sister arrived, and said coldly and dryly, “Mom is using Bob Dob’s old station wagon to drive with the dress so it won’t get wrinkled, and the station wagon isn’t working.”

“We have to leave now to make it to the rehearsal!”

“I’ll take you home now.”

When we arrived home, my mother was waving her hands wildly in the air, flagging down the car.

“Have you seen my purse?!!  I’ve lost my purse!   It had ten thousand dollars in it to pay for the wedding!”  My mother was hysterical.  After frantically calling every store she’d been to that day, she tried retracing her steps.  Finally, she found the purse in the back yard, where she had dropped it when taking a photo.

We convinced her to forget about wrinkling the dress and to just put it in her toyota corolla.  We had about one and a half hours to get to the church.  My mother flew down the highway, and we got into a huge fight, with me screaming at her about Bob Dob and the time and losing her purse and carrying that amount of cash.  She said something scornful about “Me and my rich friends.”  At one point I was sure she was going to leave me on the side of the highway with my dress.

(to be continued…)

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19. A Botched Make Over

I returned from Paris two weeks before Dudface and Hayden, and set about finding a new place to live.  A room opened up at Marvin Gardens, a brick Victorian building.  It was a vegetarian co-op with thirteen other people.

I had to cook dinner for us all every two weeks, which I thought would be easy.  I chose to make spinach lasagne from the Moosewood Cookbook, and spent a long time washing each piece of spinach, so that dinner was served at 10 p.m. amidst loud complaints.

In my mind, I was still together with Hayden, although people assumed we had broken up.

It wasn’t until I told my friend Isabella, who had yellow blonde hair and a turned up nose and was very beautiful and plump, that Hayden wouldn’t sleep with me, that I heard myself admit this for the first time and realized how crazy it sounded. Isabella advised me to break up right away.

I saw Hayden coming out of the doorway of the theatre building.  “Karen!” he yelled excitedly, and held out his arms. “‘We’re done.  You won’t sleep with me!”  I said with determination.

Soon Hayden and Dudface became lovers in a master/slave relationship, whereas I had no one.

The first rule of a breakup:  do a complete makeover.

Isabella insisted that my long thick blonde hair was pulling my face down and that I needed a haircut that lifted my hair up, as she put it.

“I know just the place to go.  The Wilhelmina student salon.”  So, on break, I went to the student salon by myself in New York City.  I repeated what Isabella said to the student.

First she did a perm, that didn’t come out very well, and then…she started chopping, everywhere, with  no rhyme or reason to it.  I looked in the mirror and was so horrified that I couldn’t react at all.  My best feature, my crowning mantle, horribly chopped up and ruined.  It was too much to think about.  I wore a cap and hoped my mother wouldn’t notice.

I called my other friend, Rachel, who despised Isabella and all my “flaky” bohemian friends, said, “I knew this would happen,” and got me an appointment with a famous hairdresser the next day.

“What is this?” The hairdresser said, looking at my hair, “This makes no sense.”

He had to shave the back of my head and make the front pieces longer, so it looked like a short bob in front, with the tips of my hair curled on my cheek.  It was sort of 80’s chic, sort of flapper hair, but it wasn’t my style.

When I got back to school I told a friend I was depressed, and he said, “About your hair?”  That was cruel.  It took a year to grow out, and two years to hit my shoulder again.

Isabella got me involved in the divestment protests, demanding that Cornell divest its holdings in South Africa because of apartheid.  We had sit ins, the quad was turned into a campground, we wore armbands.  Some announced they would go on a hunger strike.  I figured I needed to lose weight anyway, so I joined the hunger strike and lived on juice.  The extra weight fell off me quickly (only to return just as quickly).

All the while Hayden and I were wrecked without each other.  Hayden stopped going to classes, afraid to run into me.  I sent him letters I shouldn’t have, and heard that he said I was kicking him when he was down.

One night I got drunk on a bottle of wine and went over to Hayden’s house.  I stormed in and started yelling that he was impotent.  Dudface and Hayden physically pushed me out the door, onto the concrete steps.  I could have fallen on my head, they pushed me so forcefully.  “No one would ever want to fuck you,” Hayden yelled at me.

Another  night I got drunk and thought of overdosing on my asthma pills.  Luckily I knocked on the door next door and told the couple I was thinking of killing myself. They talked me down.  The woman said she was a witch, and had an extra nipple to prove it, which she showed me.  I asked her to put a spell on Hayden.

“You don’t want me to do that.  If I release negative energy, it will eventually come back to you, like karma,” she warned.

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18. Red Light District

18. Red Light District.

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