When I was a girl, in Brooklyn—when I was just about the age
my daughter is now—I had a friend who was willing to have sex with any
boy who asked her to. Who was willing to have sex, it was said, with whole
groups of boys. With strangers. With much older boys. With much older boys
(men, really) who were in the Hell’s Angels. Once, someone told me, she
had been persuaded by a couple of those Hell’s Angels to have sex with
a dog. “Why would she do that?” I asked the boy who told me, and first
he said, “I don’t know,” and he seemed irritated. (Evidently I was supposed
to be impressed—or horrified—but not, as I sounded, skeptical.) He added,
“Because she wanted to, probably.” I told him I doubted that. So then he
said, “Because she wanted to know what it would be like. Because she was
curious.” I didn’t even have to respond before he turned belligerent: “You
don’t think people are ever curious? You know, like ‘I Am Curious (Yellow)’?”
I snorted. Everybody knew the name of that movie, everybody knew it
was a pornographic movie, but nobody I knew had actually seen it. We weren’t
old enough to see it. We were fifteen, sixteen years old.
“Maybe she just couldn’t think of a reason not to,” the boy said then,
and finally he got the reaction he must have wanted in the first place,
because that was what upset me. It made me feel like crying and
it made me angry—both at once—and I don’t remember what I said next, but
whatever it was got him to dig in his heels and insist that he was right
about this, because as a matter of fact someone who had been there had
him this was what she’d said. That she’d just said, “Okay—why not?”
A Hell’s Angel had told him this? I asked him furiously. He was friends
with Hell’s Angels? Why hadn’t he said that to begin with, then?
I didn’t often allow myself to get angry when I was in high school.
I don’t mean that I didn’t often raise my voice—although I didn’t. I mean
that I didn’t often allow myself to be angry. I was careful, always, to
present myself in a certain way, and not just to other people, either.
I didn’t want to seem like the sort of person who took things too seriously,
and I also didn’t want to be that person (as I feared I was—and of course
I was right about that).
What puzzles me now—one of the many things that puzzle me now—is how
I came to the conclusion that not caring very much was an attractive trait.
I can only guess that it must have been because I believed that this was
what attracted me to other people. The boy I was in love with didn’t seem
to care about anything or anyone, and I was wild about him. The girls I
most admired, the girls from whom I most desperately longed for attention,
were all so detached—so cool, both in the sense of maintaining a
low emotional temperature and in the passé sense of “in fashion”
(which, come to think of it, are probably inextricable from each other—since
dispassion, or at least the appearance of it, never seems to go out
fashion)—it was as if they were on a drug that zapped all emotion from
them (it’s possible, I suppose, that they were). It’s curious that I never
stopped to think that what appealed to me might not be what appealed to
other people, that there was not in fact some generally agreed-upon ideal
It seems to me now that my determination to be the kind of person who
didn’t care very much, except about one or two things I believed were acceptable
(or even essential) to care about very much (that one particular boy, certain
music)—was based on any number of false assumptions: for one, my certainty
that this low (or lack of) boiling point really was what attracted me to
the people I was attracted to (isn’t it possible that I was drawn to Jonathan,
the boy in question, and to Felice and Roxanne and Maria—to name just three
of the girls I admired from a distance—despite the chill with which
they regarded everything around them? This never even crossed my mind.
And yet now, from a distance of nearly forty years, I find myself wondering
if I might have been responding to something deeply buried in each of these—so
it seems to me now—unhappy, lonely children. For they were children; we
And why did I imagine that it would be possible to turn down the boiling
point on bad feelings without turning it down—or off—on all of them?
And why was I so sure that this, of all things, was what was required
in order to be the kind of person people wanted to be around?
Indeed, as I look back, it strikes me that almost everything I thought
or felt—or did—when I was in high school was based on one piece of flawed
logic or another. Perhaps this is true of most people—how would I
know?—but whether it is or isn’t, I know this much: the wish to be cool
is as much a commonplace of adolescence as wanting to be liked. Never mind
that these seem to be contradictory desires (if you don’t care about anything,
how is it possible that you would care about being liked?) or that conflating
the desire to be liked with the desire to appear to have (or to actually
have) no desires at all seems self-defeating. Adolescence is all about
contradictions and self-defeat.
I wanted to be cool and I wanted to be liked—I wanted to be loved—even
if it meant twisting myself into knots in an effort to pretend to be something
I wasn’t, someone I wasn’t. Even if it meant hiding things about
myself. Even if it meant hiding things about myself from myself.
The girl who was willing to have sex with anyone was named Diana Mahler.
I don’t remember the name of the boy who told me about the dog—that is,
I don’t remember which boy it was that time (it was always a boy, telling
me things about Diana)—and I don’t remember how the conversation ended,
whether he admitted that it hadn’t been Hell’s Angels after all, or that
he’d heard it from someone who’d heard it from someone else, or that he’d
made the whole thing up (I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have owned
up to that, and in fact I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have made it up, which
doesn’t mean it wasn’t made up by someone; I’m almost sure he would have
it somewhere—that this story, like all the stories about Diana, had been
passed along and passed along until it got to me, where it stopped. Or
to some other girl, where I hope—but I have no way of knowing—it stopped,
For all I know—for all I can remember—he might have said, straight-faced,
that some of his best friends were Hell’s Angels. He might have been angry
with me for suggesting that he didn’t know any Hell’s Angels.
I’m surprised that I remember as much as I do about this conversation.
It took place in 1970 or ’71, after all, and there’s a lot about that time
that I don’t remember. It doesn’t even make sense—the things I can remember
versus the things I can’t. I remember, for example, the first time I talked
to Diana, how she complimented me on my shoes, and also what shoes they
were (dark rose-colored suede that laced up, with a thin platform and a
thick, squarish high heel), and how I got the money to buy those
shoes (my parents bought me one pair of shoes at the beginning of the new
school year and one pair of sandals at the beginning of each summer, and
anything else was a luxury, an extra—so I had a part-time job after school,
gluing strawberry or butterfly or cartoon character appliqués onto
cheap, tissue-thin knit sleeveless shirts at a hippie shirt “factory” on
Coney Island Avenue). I remember that Diana and I were sitting on a carpeted
staircase in someone’s house—a girl named Sheryl Litwak. I remember that
I didn’t really know Sheryl, that she was a year or two younger than I
was, and stoned on downers (a drug that made the girls who took them—and
they took them by the handful—the antithesis of detached: they became sloppily
affectionate, melodramatically emotional—at least until they fell down,
and passed out).
I remember, of course, that for a while Sheryl Litwak had dated (“dated”
is a euphemism: she had been having sex with) Jonathan Cutter, the boy
I was in love with. I remember that Jonathan wasn’t “dating” her anymore
by the time her parents went away and she had the party where Diana and
I sat on the stairs talking; he was “dating” Diana by then.
Jonathan was my ex-boyfriend at this point—we had gone out (a euphemism
again; I don’t remember our ever going anywhere) during our sophomore year
and the summer after it, and then he’d broken up with me—but I still considered
him mine, the way girls that age sometimes will under those circumstances.
The way girls of any age sometimes will, under those circumstances—under
any circumstances. It was more than five years after my divorce before
I could begin to think of my ex-husband as not belonging to me. Even now,
just over eleven years since we first separated, I still have the odd bad
Diana was one of the many girls who passed through Jonathan’s life after
we broke up, and before we got back together—a period of not quite a year,
during which I never, not for a day (not for an hour) stopped pursuing
him. At the time of Sheryl Litwak’s party, six months or so had passed
since our breakup, which was a peculiar kind of breakup (though a kind
with which I would become quite familiar—too familiar—as the years passed):
we were officially, publicly, formally no longer “together”—that is, I
wasn’t his girlfriend, as I had been all through tenth grade—but we continued
to sleep together on the sly. It was at his behest, not by mutual agreement,
that it was on the sly. I kept it a secret grudgingly, only because I was
given to understand that if I broke this rule the deal would be off. Why
it seemed like a good deal—why it didn’t seem like the raw deal it was—I
can’t say. At the time I would have said: I am hopelessly, irretrievably
in love. What choice do I have?
At the time it did not occur to me that my willingness to sleep with
Jonathan whenever he called—when he was between girlfriends, or when his
current girlfriend was unavailable (when she was babysitting, say, or out
of town with her parents)—had anything whatsoever in common with Diana’s
(supposed) willingness to sleep with anyone who asked. I was fascinated
by her sex life—what I thought I knew of her sex life—which mystified and
provoked me. I didn’t believe what that boy told me about the dog, but
I believed most of what I heard, and I thought she was adventurous, brave,
worldly. I thought she was beyond love.
I—I would have said—was a slave to love. I would take what I could get.
Diana, it seemed to me, took what she wanted.
When I first met her, at Sheryl’s party, she had been with Jonathan
for no more than a week or two. Jonathan had told me he was seeing her;
I knew she’d be coming to the party with him. I was there all by myself—I
didn’t even have any of my friends with me. I was there to keep an eye
on him, that was all. And to see what I was up against, this time. I had
no intention of speaking to Diana; she spoke to me. I was sitting on the
stairs, taking a break from watching Jonathan, having caught the glimpse
of his new girlfriend that I felt I so needed, and I was tired, I was sad,
I was feeling bad (not bad enough to stop doing what I was doing where
Jonathan was concerned, but bad enough to quit for the evening: I was thinking
about going home). Suddenly Diana appeared at the top of the stairs. She
smiled at me. Then she came halfway down and sat, a few steps above where
I was sitting, and remarked on my shoes, and we sat there talking for a
few minutes—I remember thinking that she was nice, and how despairing
this made me feel; I remember the way her hair fell over her face as she
talked, and the way she kept brushing it away with her hand—not dramatically,
but awkwardly, shyly, in a way that made me like her—before Jonathan came
and reached out his hand for her and she stood up and went to him. He shook
his head at me—he disapproved of my talking to his latest girlfriend, disapproved
of my being at a party given by his most recent ex-girlfriend, disapproved
(as he often told me, even as I lay beside him on the mattress in his basement
room) of my continued interest in him, disapproved of me—and they
vanished into the crowd of kids I mostly didn’t know.
Later Diana would tell me that she’d liked me immediately, liked me
a lot more than she liked him, and that when she saw how it was between
him and me, she broke things off with him as quickly as she could manage.
That, given a choice, she chose me.
Diana didn’t go to our school or live in the neighborhood. Not in my
neighborhood, that is, which was called Homecrest, and not in Jonathan’s
neighborhood, Mill Basin, either. Also not in Midwood or Marine Park, where
most of my friends from school lived. She didn’t, in fact, live in any
neighborhood I knew—not in Sheepshead Bay, where I was born, or in Borough
Park, where my mother was born, or in Brighton Beach, where my father was
born, and where his parents still had a candy store. Not even in Canarsie,
which my other grandmother, my mother’s mother, who lived with us, was
always evoking as a faraway place—a bad faraway place, as in, “Fine,
why don’t you go to Canarsie, then!”—when I didn’t do as she said.
I had the idea, growing up, that Brooklyn was made up of hundreds of
neighborhoods. Tens is more like it (depending on how you count, as many
as eighty-eight), but by any reckoning, Diana’s neighborhood was distant
from mine. It was another world. Jonathan had met her through my
friend Valerie’s boyfriend, Stan, who was two years older than we were
and rode a motorcycle and had biker friends who were either Hell’s Angels
or pretended they were. Another older boy, Clint, who didn’t go to school
with Diana or with us (he didn’t go to school at all; perhaps he’d graduated,
perhaps he was that much older) had introduced Stan to Diana. (It’s
funny how I remember Clint’s name, when I never even really knew him—funny
how I remember what I remember and have forgotten the things I’ve forgotten;
there doesn’t seem to be rhyme or reason to it.) Clint was one of Stan’s
biker friends. It was Stan who introduced Diana to Jonathan. That was how
it went—Clint to Stan to Jonathan—but by the time Jonathan was dating her,
it seemed like all the boys I knew, the whole crowd of boys who played
in bands and went in packs to concerts and smoked pot first thing in the
morning, knew her.
I don’t remember whether I heard those things about her before I got
to know her or after. Or both. Probably both. The boys who told me these
things wouldn’t necessarily have known (and even if they’d known they would
not have cared) that she and I were friends.
What I do remember is that I never asked her about any of it. Not even
about the dog—especially not about the dog.
Because the thing was, I liked her. I had liked her right from the start—liked
her despite myself—and I liked her even more after she broke up with Jonathan,
and even more than that after she told me that she’d broken up with him
because of me. So that was part of it, part of why I didn’t ask her any
questions. I didn’t want to tell her that people—boys—were talking this
way about her. I couldn’t stop the talk, but I had the idea that I could
keep her from knowing about it, keep her from being hurt by it. Particularly
if the things they were saying—or even some of the things they were saying—weren’t
true. And if what they said, or some of what they said, was true, then
it wasn’t any of my business to ask about it, I thought. Asking might have
sounded like an accusation, and that would have hurt her. I’m sure
that this was how I thought about it. Or that this was one of the ways
I thought about it. Because there was something else, too, something that’s
harder to explain.
It has to do with happiness and unhappiness, confidence and self-doubt,
and also the way I thought about other people, the way I imagined what
it felt like to be them—the way I misunderstood them. I was terrifically
unhappy at that age, myself. I was unhappy about Jonathan, yes, but I’d
been unhappy before Jonathan: my unhappiness was vast, it seemed to me
(and even when I was happy, I was unhappy: I contained multitudes). I’m
reasonably confident now, looking back, that it was my very unhappiness—my
loneliness, yes, but also my sense that nothing was going to turn out all
right, that I had already gotten off on the wrong track and it was already
too late to change things—that had drawn me to Jonathan to begin with,
and then kept me there, no matter how he treated me (for even after we
“got back together”—officially, publicly, the summer after our junior year—even
after he came to the conclusion that he loved me “after all,” he was very
often rough with me, and very often cruel). I have not forgotten, after
nearly four decades, the night when a group of us had gathered, as we regularly
did, in his basement room, and he asked me to leave early, because a girl
had shown up whom he wanted to sleep with, “and I think I’ve got a good
chance with her, too” he told me. I have not forgotten that I left without
a word, without making a fuss. Nor have I forgotten the times I didn’t
want to have sex, after we were officially dating again, and I was brave
enough to say no—thinking I had earned the right to—and he ignored my protests.
I have not forgotten that each time, after he forced me to have sex with
him, I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t even tell myself the truth about what
had happened, again and again.
The truth, as I told it to myself—the “truth” I always told myself—was
that I loved him, which made everything all right. How unhappy I must have
been, to have believed that.
And yet—unhappy as I was—I somehow had no eye for the unhappiness around
me. I never paused to wonder if Diana, or any of my other friends, might
be unhappy, too. It wasn’t that I imagined that other people had no problems.
I knew they did. My friend Liza, for instance—I knew that her father was
a drunk, that her mother was neglectful, that the little house they lived
in was crammed full of too many people and too much junk in a way that
spelled real trouble. I knew there was something wrong with that house,
wrong with her family, wrong with her life. I knew that she hid in her
tiny attic room, a room in which one couldn’t even stand up, most of the
time; I knew that no one in her family ever seemed to speak to one another
except by screaming. I knew that by comparison I had it very easy—I had
it good. Still, what I believed was that she was coping better with
what she had to cope with—that even though she had more to cope with than
I did, she was more capable than I of coping. I believed that she was more
capable by nature—more capable, and wiser, and stronger.
I believed that everyone had a better handle on things than I
did, that everyone was in better shape, even when there were plenty of
reasons—so it seems to me now—to doubt this. When friends complained about
their boyfriends or their families or their other friends—or people they
thought of as their enemies—or expressed doubts about the future, or talked
about how little school mattered to them, or offered up some ugly piece
of their past for my contemplation, I had the idea that they were basically
all right despite whatever they had just told me. And, of course, many
of them didn’t tell me anything. All I knew about my friend Valerie, really,
was that she was daring in ways I would never even have thought to be:
she shoplifted makeup and costume jewelry and sunglasses and shoes and
dresses, casually stuffing everything into the big tapestry purse she carried
everywhere; she told elaborate, preposterous lies—about school, about Stan,
even about me—to her credulous parents; she skipped whole days—weeks—of
school when she felt like it, to go off with Stan; and, once, she had sex
with Stan in school, under a table in the cafeteria.
What I told myself about Valerie was that she knew what she was doing.
Which was what I told myself about Diana, too.
If the stories about her were true, I thought—if even half of them,
even a quarter of them, were true—then she had decided to do the
things she was said to do. She’d made choices. She was doing what she wanted
to do, for her own reasons, and she must (such was my logic, though it
was contradicted by everything I understood about myself) be enjoying what
she was doing.
And if she wanted to tell me anything about any of it, I told myself,
she would. If she felt like it. If she chose to. She did only what
she chose to—that was what I told myself about Diana.
It’s funny how you tell yourself stories about the people you grow up
with. This one is the ethereal, angelic one (Liza); this one is the tough
cookie, the daredevil, the girl who’s afraid of nothing and nobody (Valerie).
Then there’s the one who isn’t smart, who’s neither good nor fearless,
but is beautiful, and everyone adores her (Elyse); the one who’s jolly,
good-natured, and competent (Bonnie); the one who’s earthy, who eschews
the superficial trappings of ordinary teenage life (Dana); the ones—Felice
and Roxanne and Maria and Carole and Barbara—who are above the fray, enviably
remote, utterly imperturbable. And then there is Diana, the girl who sleeps
around because she wants to—because it suits her. And there is Jonathan,
of course: the boy whom any girl would want to be with, the boy whom the
other boys wished they were—the boy who is supremely confident, free of
self-doubt, a boy at home in the world.
In the versions of the stories that I told myself about the people I
knew, I edited out whatever didn’t fit. Whatever I didn’t want to
fit. All the things I didn’t want to think about, couldn’t think about.
I never asked myself, for example, why Jonathan behaved the way he did
toward me, never wondered why someone who was at home in the world, at
home (as I imagined) in his own skin, would be cruel to someone who loved
him. I never wondered what I meant when I told myself, and him—and my friends
and disapproving family—that I “loved” him.
Looking back, I can see that the story I told myself about Jonathan
was full of missing information, misinformation. He was not a bit at home—not
in the world, not in his skin, not even in his own home, where there
was never anything to eat in the refrigerator (there was nothing but wine
and beer and Coca Cola, mustard and ketchup and pickles—I remember this,
because I was always opening the refrigerator, hoping that for once there
would be something in it) and his mother was always stoned out of her head.
My sharpest memory of Amanda Cutter is of her standing at the top of the
stairs that led from just outside the kitchen to just outside her bedroom,
wearing a transparent nightgown in the middle of the day, and screaming—ranting—at
Jonathan, but not making any sense (and Jonathan shrugging, telling me—in
a perfectly ordinary tone of voice, even sounding a little bored, as he
often did—“Just ignore it. She’ll run out of gas soon enough”). His father,
an ophthalmologist who wore blue-tinted eyeglasses and bellbottoms, used
to beg us to let him smoke pot with us, to let him “hang out and just groove
for a while” with us, and Jonathan was forever kicking him out of his basement
room. He didn’t seem angry when he did it, either. “Get out of here, Dad,
will you?” he’d say—without expression, without feeling.
There was no one taking care of him. Perhaps there had never been. I
could see, even then, that he was left entirely to his own devices, his
own resources. Of which—although this didn’t even cross my mind, then—he
Just as it never crossed my mind that Diana might not be doing what
she wanted to do. That her story might be much more complicated than that.
What I told myself about Diana, without thinking about it—it was a kind
of found idea about her, I suppose—was that she was beyond love,
beyond the ordinary sorts of needs and desires I knew about. That she was
entirely unconventional. That she had made up a way to live and didn’t
care what other people did—that she did exactly as she pleased.
That she was proud of it.
Diana told me very little about her life, and—as I say—I didn’t ask.
She did tell me that from time to time she had sex with Clint, the older
boy, the biker. She told me that she wasn’t interested in him romantically—or
even attracted to him—but that she liked him, he was her friend, and she
felt sorry for him because he was so ugly. “Clint,” she said, and sighed
(she often sighed; it was a sort of signature gesture of hers, like the
way she brushed her soft blond hair off her face), “isn’t he just the homeliest
boy you’ve ever seen?”
I wasn’t sure this was true, but he was the scariest, in his
battered black leather jacket and heavy black boots, his stringy unwashed
hair. And he was so old. I didn’t say any of that, though. All I
did was nod.
And once, when Seals & Crofts (“Diamond Girl,” “Summer Breeze”—you’d
have to have been a teenager in the early seventies for this to mean anything
to you) came to play at my school, Diana came with me to see them, then
disappeared afterwards. I looked for her in the crowd for a long time before
finally giving up, and the boys all laughed at me and said knowingly that
she was a groupie—obviously she was, of course she was!—and had
gone off with Seals, or Crofts (or their bass player, whatever his name
was; there had been just the three of them up there on the stage, or the
boys would have listed other possibilities—a drummer, a keyboardist). But
the next day Diana herself told me—offering up the information without
my asking—that it had been a roadie for the band, that she’d spent the
whole night with him. “Why did you?” I wanted to ask her, but it
seemed to me the kind of question that if you didn’t know the answer to,
you had no business asking—that you had no business even being in a conversation
that would result in such a question. But then she told me anyway. She
was in a surprisingly talkative mood. She said—I remember this perfectly—“I
don’t even know why I did it.” She shrugged and shook her head and pushed
her hair off her face. Her hair was always falling over one eye, because
she parted it so far over to the side. “He asked me, you know?”
I should have said I didn’t know. I should have asked her questions—that
is what I think now.
I should have asked myself questions.
Diana and I never spoke of sex—not directly (we only alluded, or referred,
to it—as in the conversation about the roadie, or about Clint). Certainly
I never told her—I never told anyone—how ambivalent I was about it. (Ambivalent
almost certainly not the right word. Ambivalent would mean that there was
anything I liked about it other than the way it offered proof that Jonathan—the
only boy I’d ever slept with or imagined I ever would sleep with—was interested
in me, or the opportunity it provided for me to be in his arms, where it
seemed to me I belonged.)
The first time I had sex with Jonathan—the first time, that is, I had
sex with anyone—it was because he’d made it clear that if I didn’t, he’d
move on. I would never have told that to Diana, and I would never have
told her that I didn’t understand why anyone would have sex with someone
she didn’t love. What would be the point of it? I wondered. But that was
another question that could not be asked.
It’s possible I told myself that I was exercising delicacy, never asking
Diana any questions about her sex life. I suspect I had the vague idea
that she would be embarrassed if I asked her anything—that there was some
question of etiquette—although I have no idea now why I would have thought
of it this way. No more than I know now whether I believed it was my questioning
her or the answers she would have had to give that would have made her
uncomfortable. It’s possible, too, that I was only protecting myself
embarrassment. Perhaps I hoped that if I didn’t ask her any questions,
I could keep her from knowing how innocent I was by comparison.
And there is also this: that although I believed—or at least a part
of me believed—that she didn’t think of her behavior as extraordinary (what
is there to say about it? she might have thought), it occurs to me
now that she too might have felt that to mention her sexual adventures
would have been a breach of etiquette, that she might have known exactly
innocent I was and didn’t want to embarrass me.
It’s hard to know, now, who was protecting whom.
Ambivalent became the right word later on, I suppose—once I was
old enough to appreciate sex on its own terms, once I was truly a willing
participant, as I wasn’t in those early years, not really (even when I
was saying “yes,” it was only because I didn’t believe I could say “no”).
But even later—in my twenties and thirties—sex was a sort of commerce more
often than it was an expression of closeness. Even when it began as the
physical manifestation of a real emotion (I love you, I want to be as close
to you as possible, what is closer than this?), it often turned
into something else. Perhaps it always turned into something else. A way
of holding on to someone who was already half-gone. A way to bring someone
back, temporarily. A way of reasserting the hold once had over somebody
who imagined himself well rid of one.
And in my marriage—my failed marriage—I always had the sense that my
husband and I approached sex from perspectives so different, we might as
well have been in separate beds, in separate rooms, in separate relationships.
So: a life misspent, sexually. My former husband claimed that I was
cold, but it wasn’t true. Like so many men (so I have heard), he expected
sex to be a stand-in for everything else (true friendship, affection, communication)
as well as a simply lusty exercise; like so many women (it would seem),
I expected sex to be an extension of everything else, and never an exercise.
I wonder sometimes if Daniel’s new “partner”—they have never married—is
more accommodating than I was, or is simply on the same track (rather than
a parallel one) that he is on, sexually. Of course I do not ask. It is
none of my business.
I wonder sometimes if my teenaged relationship with Jonathan Cutter—that
miserable relationship, with a damaged, narcissistic, downright mean boy—is
the cause of my mostly unhappy adult sexual life, or if it was only the
first sign of what was ahead, if I was already a lost cause before I knew
him, before I loved him.
Diana and I never spoke of love, either. Talking about love, for me,
would have meant talking about Jonathan, and I could not bring myself to
do that when I was with Diana. There had been that brief period when she
had been with him, which I couldn’t bear to think about (I didn’t want
her thinking about it, either). So I mentioned him only when it would have
been too awkward not to, when I would have had to go out of my way to avoid
it. And when he and I got back together—when suddenly he switched gears,
the summer before senior year, and decided that he did love me, that he
wanted us “to be boyfriend and girlfriend again”—I didn’t make a big deal
out of it to Diana. I told her as if it were nothing, not news at all—oh,
by the way, I said.
It never once crossed my mind that her nonchalance on the rare
occasions when she spoke of having slept with someone (because she felt
sorry for him, because he’d asked her, because he was there) might
have been a pretense, too.
There was so much we didn’t talk about, so much we didn’t understand
about each other. And yet—despite what would seem to have been great obstacles
to a friendship between us—we were friends. I remember long afternoons
in her room, in her faraway neighborhood, the two of us sitting together
on the floor of her room. It gets darker—afternoon slips toward evening,
evening melts down to night, and I have to go, I have to get home, my parents
will be furious. I remember this so well—but I cannot recall a single thing
we talked about during all those hours together. Something other than sex,
other than boys, other than love.
This might have been a relief to me, since so much of my conversation
with other friends revolved around boys, around love, around the difficulties
of love, the push and pull of our feelings, the maddening details of the
unpredictable, unreasonable behavior of the boys we loved. Even a tough,
daring girl like Valerie talked endlessly, speculatively, worriedly, angrily,
about Stan, her boyfriend, who was forever doing things and saying things
that hurt her.
Somehow—despite all the things we didn’t talk about—Diana and I managed
to talk for hours. There was music in the background, always. Just as I
did with all my friends, Diana and I listened to music—we played record
after record, mostly Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro—the same music I listened
to when I was alone, not the music I listened to with Jonathan and his
friends. With the boys, I listened to Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk Railroad
and Ten Years After and Jethro Tull. (There was very little overlap, I
realize now; the music I listened to depended entirely on who I was with.
With Valerie, it was Dylan, The Band, The Grateful Dead; with Bonnie, it
was The Beatles, just as it had been since junior high; with Liza, it was
Peter, Paul and Mary, Tom Rush, Judy Collins.)
Diana and I would listen to albums, and we would carefully examine the
liner notes. We must have talked about them—must have talked about the
music we were listening to. In those days, certainly, it seemed possible
to talk for many hours about nothing but music.
But also, during the hours we spent together in her room, I listened
to Diana play music. She had taught herself to play the guitar.
More than that: she had invented her own way of playing the guitar. Someone
had given her the guitar, she told me—she didn’t say who, but the way she
said it, the way she pronounced “someone,” made me think it wasn’t anyone
in her family, that it was an older boy, a man, someone old enough to have
money of his own to spend on something like this—and she didn’t know anything
about how to play a guitar, or even how to tune a guitar. But then instead
of getting a book, as I would have done, or asking her parents if she could
take lessons, as almost anyone would have done, she had decided to invent
her own tuning, her own system of chords, her own scales. She made up songs
and played them that way, and they were beautiful—I remember that, too,
although not what they sounded like, not what the system was or how it
worked, even though I know she explained it to me, patiently, more than
once—and I never got tired of listening to her play. She’d even made up
names for all her chords and for “her” notes.
Once I asked her if she wasn’t even a little bit curious about the chords
and notes that everyone else used, the ordinary way of playing the guitar;
I asked her if she didn’t want to learn how to read music (I knew how to
read music: I had been playing the piano since I was five—my parents insisted
on the lessons—though I never got to be any good at it, and I would quit,
finally, as soon as they let me). She looked baffled. “Why would I?” she
said. “Why would I want to, when this works perfectly well?”
When I think about it now, it seems to me that my high school years
were all topsy-turvy. Things that were important—my education, for instance—were
of no interest to me at all (I might not have been daring enough to skip
school for a week, like Valerie, but I didn’t think twice about cutting
out of French, or math, to do nothing more pressing than stand around outside
in front of the school, smoking cigarettes and talking, or walk
up to the corner candy store). I didn’t study; I don’t remember ever even
about school, except as something to get around.
What I thought about, of course, was Jonathan. Everything was about
Jonathan. And what was not about Jonathan (music, especially the music
I listened to alone in my room, or in my friends’ rooms—music he dismissed
as “for chicks”; the girls themselves, my friends and the ones I wished
were my friends; the poetry I wrote whenever I was feeling particularly
sad) was also, somehow, about him: the music made me think about him—either
because it was about love (all the chick-music) or because it was music
I listened to with him, or because it was music I felt foolish for loving,
because he disapproved of it—and the poems I wrote were all about him.
Even my friendships had too much to do with him, either because I talked
so much about him or because I’d met the girl because she was dating one
of his friends (or, in Diana’s singular case, because she’d been dating
or because the girl was the kind of girl I imagined he’d prefer, the kind
of girl I wished I were (or even—I sometimes fleetingly thought—the kind
of girl who would be immune to him, another kind of girl I wished, however
passingly, to be).
When I think about my daughter—the way she lives, the way she is: how
hard she works, how much pleasure and interest she takes in her schoolwork,
how seriously she takes it; how seriously she takes her friendships,
how devoted she is to her friends and how much time she spends thinking
about them—I am baffled by my own youth. Why did I have it all so backwards?
Why did it never strike me that it was all backwards?
I have been a college professor for many years now, an English professor
teaching Shakespeare and early modern drama—and among my colleagues, I
often feel that I’m a step behind. Or (perhaps a more accurate metaphor)
that I am an edifice missing its foundation: an edifice that
to be sturdy enough, but because it is built on nothing, no matter
how carefully made it may be, no matter how fine it looks, its walls could
collapse at any moment. The structure lacks integrity because nothing is
holding it up.
I was always bright enough, I imagine, but I didn’t begin to think of
school as important or even necessary until I thought of applying to graduate
school, a decade after my graduation from Brooklyn College, an indifferent
student who took the very minimum of courses required to complete the English
major and spent most of her time writing gloomy free verse poems, smoking
unfiltered cigarettes, and falling in and out of love. When I went back
to school to take the kind of serious courses I should have taken the first
time around—when I finally began paying attention—it was a revelation to
me. Here were things worth knowing, things worth thinking about! Here was
something to occupy the mind that had been so foolishly, trivially occupied
for so long.
To this day, it seems to me a miracle that any university admitted me
for graduate studies, and an extraordinarily happy, mysterious accident
that I landed a teaching position, on the strength of an impassioned doctoral
dissertation (having given up hope of—having lost interest in—being a person
of dispassion). I wrote that dissertation (on women’s friendships
in Shakespeare’s plays) under the spell of my then-boyfriend, Daniel, soon
to become my husband and eventually my daughter’s father. Daniel was—he
still is—a stage actor. We met when he was playing the role of Bertram
in “All’s Well That Ends Well” during my second year of graduate school,
and I am fairly sure that my studies would not have taken the direction
they did—away from the sonnets and toward the plays—if not for his influence.
This was, I will freely admit, one good thing he did for me. (There were
in fact several. In addition to his inadvertently supplying my dissertation
topic one evening when we’d been arguing about Hermia and Helena—a friendship
that did not end up in the dissertation, as it, and for that matter the
play itself, with all of its fairies and slapstick, has always been less
interesting to me than it is to Daniel—he managed to get me to quit smoking,
and, best of all, sixteen years ago, he provided me with our daughter,
But this—Daniel, my marriage, its failure—is another story, for another
What I mean to be talking about is Diana.
Lately I have been thinking about her a lot. I wonder if she too might
have a daughter who is the age we were when we were friends. Or even a
granddaughter, for if either of us had had a daughter at eighteen or nineteen,
not so long after we lost touch with each other, and she—that daughter
born too early—had had a daughter of her own by the time she was twenty,
the granddaughter would now be the age we were then.
And if Diana had had a daughter at eighteen, and the daughter had had
her own daughter at eighteen—and that child too had had a child by eighteen,
it is even possible that by now Diana could be a great-grandmother.
But I don’t know why I should be speculating this way—why it should
matter, what good it does. It’s nothing but counterfactual thinking. (I
can thank an old boyfriend, a graduate student in philosophy—the last of
my boyfriends before I met Daniel—for supplying me with this useful term.
Indeed, he supplied me with numerous names for ideas for which I’d never
had names before—in this case, the one that describes contrary-to-historical-fact
conditional statements—before he broke up with me. After which, I feel
honor-bound to confess, I continued to pursue him. It seems that as a grown
woman, an “intellectual,” a graduate student at an excellent university
devoting herself to the study of Shakespeare’s work—someone who had finally
found a purpose in life—I wasn’t nearly as different from the way I’d been
as a junior in high school as I liked to believe.)
Throughout my junior year, and particularly during the period when Diana
and I were closest, I thought very often about what Jonathan had said when
we’d broken up. What he’d told me was that he was breaking things off with
me because I was too needy, too demanding. I remembered that I’d wanted
to say, Who isn’t?—and that I hadn’t said it not only because I
really wanted to know (and who isn’t didn’t sound like a true question
but a belligerent, rhetorical one), but also because I didn’t want him
to know that I wanted to know—I didn’t want him to know that it seemed
to me improbable, even impossible, that anyone wasn’t, and the rhetorical
question would have made that clear. But perhaps most of all I didn’t ask
him because I figured he had someone, at least one person, in mind (perhaps
he even had a list, and could tick names off on his fingers: girls he knew
of who didn’t cling, didn’t need, didn’t want anything—didn’t insist that
they had to have something) and I didn’t want to hear who that might be.
When he said this, he did not yet know Diana; I did not yet know Diana.
But if he had known her, I thought after she and I became friends, she
would have been on his list.
It would have been a falsehood, but he would not have known that. Nor,
all those years ago, would I. I had been right in the first place. Who
isn’t? I know that now. I didn’t know it then.
There was so much I didn’t know then—so much I thought I knew, and got
It seems remarkable to me, now that I am middle-aged (more than middle-aged,
I frequently remind myself; I passed the midpoint of my life some time
ago) and have a daughter whose life is so different from mine at her age—who
lives in another time, it’s true, but also has had a childhood and adolescence
so different from my own that we might have been raised in different parts
of the world, places with customs and rules and day-to-day happenings that
are so disconnected it is hard to believe, really, that we are only mother
and daughter, not three or five or seven generations removed, and that
she has grown up only five hundred miles from where I did, and not on a
separate continent—it seems remarkable, as I say, that I had such a friend
as Diana, and also that this did not seem remarkable to me at all at the
But then nothing seemed remarkable to me then. I took it all in stride—or,
when I couldn’t take it “in stride,” I believed I should, and I
tried to. Or I pretended to.
I was forever pretending, forever trying to be what I was not.
Rosalind, my daughter (the child I had at thirty-eight, instead of at
eighteen or even twenty-eight), never pretends to be what she is not. At
sixteen, she hides nothing of herself, either from herself or from
I would be glad to give myself credit for how much wiser my daughter
is than I was—would be glad to say she has learned from my mistakes, or
that I learned from my mistakes and passed the lessons on—but if
I can claim any credit at all, it can be only through the accident of example.
Rosalind knows almost nothing of the sort of girl I was at her age; she
knows me only as I am now, as I have been all of her life, and it seems
that I have been a reasonably good model for her. No doubt, had her father
and I not divorced, I would be a better model yet, for I would like her
to know that it is possible to love someone and remain with him for good.
(Of course, if it had been up to me, Daniel and I would have stayed married—and
Rosalind knows this—so perhaps I have set half an example in this way.)
She was a very little girl when her father moved out, but she remembers.
She remembers how sad I was, she says, as well as the effort I made—despite
myself, because I was so angry and so hurt, in the beginning—to help her
remain close to her father. And they are close; they have always been close.
It may be that he is responsible for her good sense in certain areas
of her life—when it comes to boys, I mean (and I do not mean because of
any example he has set in his own romantic life—he has bounced from one
young woman to another—but because of her relationship with him).
Rosalind is not foolish; she is not—to use the term that was in such
vogue in my youth (and which I imagined, until I looked it up just now
and discovered that it has been in use since the seventeenth century, was
a coinage of the 1960s or 70s)—self-destructive. But even so—even if she
makes, as they say, “better choices” than I did—she is still often unhappy.
It may be that unhappiness is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition
of adolescence. (Invoking necessary and sufficient conditions makes me
think again of my old boyfriend the philosopher, to whom I have decided
to be grateful. A vocabulary of phrases is infinitely more valuable than
the handful of jewelry I still have tucked away in a little silver box—which,
like everything in it, was a present from an old boyfriend: puzzle rings
and nothing bracelets from the seventies, lockets, silver chains, a few
pairs of earrings.) But Rosalind’s unhappiness, when it comes, has nothing
to do with some people not liking her, either because they know who she
“really” is and don’t like her for it—which is what I must have feared
would happen if anyone knew “the truth” about me—or for reasons having
nothing to do with her at all (disliking whatever they’ve constructed about
her while not paying attention to what she’s revealing about herself).
That the latter was even a possibility never crossed my mind at her age.
I seem to have believed that I could control everything: that if I figured
out what it took to be someone people liked, and tried to be that, all
that could go wrong would be my failure to achieve it.
And Rosalind’s unhappiness is also not the result of being treated badly
by the boy with whom she is in love—because there is no such boy. Her unhappiness
is not even about not being in love, in the way I thought mine was before
I met the boy who treated me badly. And yet it would never cross her mind
that dispassion might be, at any time, in any way, a virtue. She feels
what she feels, she does not pretend not to feel, but there is no
one on the horizon worthy of her romantic attentions, and she seems to
have made peace with that. As noted, Rosalind is a sensible girl. (I should
perhaps pause here to say that, yes, she was named after that Rosalind,
Shakespeare’s Rosalind, who figured largely in my dissertation—although
in fact naming our daughter for her was her father’s idea. Daniel considers
Rosalind one of Shakespeare’s most interesting, one of the few “fully realized,”
female characters. When our Rosalind was five, and Daniel and I were in
the process of separating—or rather, he was in the process of leaving me
for the young woman who had been Hero to his Claudio in a run of “Much
Ado About Nothing” in our city’s well-regarded Shakespeare in the Park
series—I came across this sentence in Harold Bloom’s then-brand-new book,
The Invention of the Human: “Rosalind is unique in Shakespeare, perhaps
indeed in Western drama, because it is so difficult to achieve a perspective
upon her that she herself does not anticipate and share.” I read it aloud
to Daniel, when he stopped by to pick up our Rosalind for an outing—perhaps
I was trying to remind him that the young actress was not likely to have
read Harold Bloom or even heard of Harold Bloom, was not a person of intellectual
distinction, as his abandoned wife was. Daniel was casually cheerful about
it, as he was infuriatingly casually cheerful—or infuriatingly cheerfully
casual—about everything at that time. He lifted his daughter up and swung
her around, kissed the top her head, laughed, and said, “Yes, exactly.
That was exactly what I had in mind.”
Curiously enough, Daniel never calls Rosalind by the name he chose for
her. From the very moment of her birth, he has called her by one nickname
or another: Rosie, or Roz, or Lindy, or Rozza, or—most recently—Zazza,
none of which she seems to mind.)
Rosalind at sixteen is sensible, yes, and she is indulgent (of her father,
at least) and she is kind. And like the Rosalind for whom she was named,
she is in possession of a thorough understanding of herself, just as her
father intended. She knows exactly who she is, and—here, obviously, the
namesake differs from the model—the people she knows know who she is, too.
(Or rather, I should say, they have the opportunity to know who
she is, because it is right there in front of them. This doesn’t mean that
everybody—or even anybody—is paying attention.)
And although my Rosalind yearns for romance, she satisfies her yearning
with romantic novels, movies, music. She would rather live without it “in
real life,” she says, than settle for something resembling but not true
love with an imperfect real-life teenaged boy—or, worse, for nothing resembling
love at all but generally accepted to be “good enough for now” and better
than nothing at all, the way so many of her friends do. It is inconceivable
to her that she would fall in love with someone who would mistreat her—that
she would find it appealing to be ignored or bullied or otherwise ill-used—or
that she would allow herself to be mistreated after she had fallen
in love, as I did.
“I can wait, Mom,” she tells me, when I ask her, anxiously, if she feels
left out (two of her closest friends are dating) or lonely; when I assure
her, though she hasn’t asked for my assurance, that she’ll meet someone
when she goes away to college. “Don’t worry so much,” she tells me. “I’ll
live. I’m fine.”
And yet—she is often unhappy. She comes home from school in a black
mood about one or more of her friends—about a lack of perfect understanding
between them and herself, and the despair that she will ever be perfectly
understood by anyone—or about her fear (her periodic certainty) that she
loves the people she loves more than she is loved by them. Or she will
fall into a gloom about how friends have disappointed her or changed beyond
recognition (sometimes quite suddenly—another commonplace, I suppose, of
adolescence), or about how she has disappointed them, or fears she
has disappointed them or fears she may seem to them to have changed (suddenly,
beyond recognition) or fears that she has changed (unwillingly, unwittingly).
Or that she will. Or that anything will.
Sometimes her unhappiness is simply about how uncertain and difficult
is. And sometimes it is about nothing at all, or nothing she can name.
Something for which even my old boyfriend the philosopher might not have
been able to supply a name.
And to see her unhappy, and to be able to do nothing about it—for there
seems to be nothing I can do about it—breaks my heart. How can I
make things right for her? I ask myself. How can there be nothing I can
do to make things right?
I listen, I sigh, I nod in sympathy. On the rare occasions when there
is something I can suggest that might improve the situation at hand (when
there is a situation at hand), I make a suggestion (“Why don’t you call
Rebecca and ask her if that was what she meant? Perhaps it was only
a misunderstanding, a miscommunication”). But most of the time what I can
offer by way of comfort is the reminder that her misery will pass—that
the troubles themselves, whatever they are, as well as her experience of
them (that is, the way it feels as if no one but oneself has ever felt
this bad, or bad in this particular way), really are a function of her
age. I tell her that adolescence seems to be defined by unhappiness, and
that I wouldn’t go back in time and re-live my own for a million dollars.
I have no idea if this makes her feel any better. Honestly, I can’t
imagine why it would.
Still, I say it—I’m afraid I say it time and again—because even though
it sounds like a tired old joke, I mean it literally. And at the very least,
it seems to me—even when there’s nothing else to say—I can tell her something
I would like to see Diana again. I would like to know where she is,
how she is, what she is doing. I would be careful not to ask her questions
that sounded like counterfactuals—just as careful as I’d been back then
not to ask her if some of the things I’d heard about her were true, or
about how she was able to separate sex from love, or why sex played the
role in her life that it did—but I would want to. I would want to ask her:
If you could be a teenager again, would you say no to some of those boys?
To any of them? To all of them? If you knew what they said about you, would
you confront them? Would you have wanted me to?
Would you have learned to read music, to tune a guitar the way everyone
else did, to play chord progressions like the ones played by the band whose
roadie you slept with that night in 1971?
Do you ever wish you could undo some of the things you did?
Would you have been a different sort of girl, lived a different sort
of life, if you could do it all again?
Would you still have been my friend?
Every one of the friendships I had during high school came to an end.
They didn’t end by fiat, the way my relationship with Jonathan finally
did, after he left home for college and fell in love, and I stayed home
for college and also fell in love (and after a certain amount of negotiation
and a few desperate, ill-conceived reunions), but like clouds moving: a
slow drift, a sort of wandering away. I have tried to explain to Rosalind
how this could have happened, but the truth is that I don’t understand
it myself. “That won’t happen to me and ___________”—and she names one
of her many friends: Kat or Kristie or Rebecca or Martine—“I’m almost sure
of it,” she’ll say, not sounding sure at all. “You’re right,” I tell her,
“it won’t.” And I hope I’m right. I hope she won’t be left wondering, forty
years from now, about these girls, how they had turned out, whether they’re
In fact, some of my friends from high school have been turning up of
late on the internet—on Facebook, which my students coaxed me to sign up
for and which, on the whole, I have been enjoying (though Rosalind teases
me about it). I study the photographs my old friends post of themselves
and their families, I ponder the elliptic “personal information” on their
profiles (single, three children—or married, no children—or no marital
status listed; I learn where they’d gone to college, which I’d either never
known or had forgotten, and what direction their lives have taken: they
are judges, astrologers, boat captains, nurses, dentists) and I marvel
And we exchange messages, or “wall posts.” Some of them remember me
better than I remember them—and some of them hardly remember me at all,
when I remember them so well I can call up whole conversations, clothes
they wore, diets we went on together, their birthdays, their favorites
songs, which boys they loved.
Diana has not emerged on Facebook. Of if she has, it is under a different
name and I will never find her there unless I somehow find out what it
is. I am guessing she has changed her name—or else she has lived
a very quiet life, since there is no trace of her to be found through a
Google search, either. I would like to find her. I am not sure what I would
say to her—if I were to remain resolute in not asking the questions I would
most like to ask—but, as we did all those years ago, I am sure we would
find something to talk about.
And so I ask about her, casually, whenever someone turns up whom I think
might have known her. No one knows. No one, in fact, remembers her at all.
I would have thought that everyone would remember.
And for me, it’s so easy to see her in my mind, even after so many years.
The way she looked—for she was such an unusual looking girl, with a long
face and very blond, absurdly soft (soft as a baby’s, but thick, and long)
hair, always falling over one eye. She had sensual features, big features.
I remember how sweet she was, too, in her way, how she never said anything
unkind, never gossiped, never speculated about other people, never asked
me questions I would have felt uncomfortable answering. Indeed, she was
so gentle, so soft-spoken—her voice was almost as soft as a whisper—that
I felt compelled to speak softly, to be gentler than I ever was otherwise,
She moved slowly and carefully. She behaved, it seems to me now, the
way people do when they’re dealing with a wild animal—but she did it all
the time, or all the time I was around her. As if any sudden movement or
loud noise would startle me, would make me run, or turn on her.
I would never have run. I would never have turned on her.
How is it that I know that? But I do know that.
I talk about wanting to find Diana, but here is what I really wish,
I wish I could find the girl I’d been then. Not to ask her any
questions. There’s nothing I want to ask her. I don’t need to know, now,
what I was thinking then—why I was doing what I was doing. Whether I had
any idea how stupid I was being. It doesn’t matter.
What I want to do is put my arms around her and tell her a few
things. Tell her how it all worked out. Tell her not to worry. Tell her
everything was going to be all right. It’s a miracle, I know, I’d
tell her, but it’s true. We’re fine.
I’d like to be able to tell Diana the same thing. I’d like it to be
I’d like it to be true for all of us—all those girls who were my friends,
who I didn’t think mattered to me as much as Jonathan did. Bonnie, Valerie,
Liza, Elyse, Dana—there were so many girls I was close to then, as close
to as Rosalind is to her friends now. Lori, Leslie, Kathie, Rhonda, Sandi,
Marsha—I can’t even remember all of their names. I’d never had so many
friends before. I’ve never since.
I’d like to believe—I’d like to know—that we are all fine, that
we all grew up, grew into middle age, and ended up all right. That we are
all safe. And even—what are the odds?—happy.