Unbeknownst to me at the time, the summer of 1970, the last one I’d live in Chicago, was the beginning of a nadir in my young life. I’d just turned nineteen years old. I was working for my third year at the Cook County Credit Bureau which had moved from a building on Wabash Avenue in the Loop, to a new location off Michigan Avenue, close to the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. The location was the best part of the job. I could walk to Kroch’s and Brentano’s bookstore and shop on the Magnificent Mile at store’s like Saks’ Fifth Avenue and Joseph’s Shoes. For a kid who grew up without many frills, I felt lucky that my parents allowed me to spend some of my earnings on myself although, in truth, material goods were becoming less important to me by the day. In those days of the Vietnam War, my rapidly evolving radical politics far outweighed my catching up with what I’d been unable to acquire before becoming employed. I had an hour and a half commute each way to and from work on the Lincoln number 11 bus. At least I could read during that time. But I was alienated and uninterested in my job. Mostly I was obsessed with Albert, with whom I’d fallen madly in love as my sophomore year progressed. I’d been so strong at the beginning of that year, ready to expand my range of experiences, grow my understanding of the world and lead a deeper, richer life. And I was doing it.
Then came Al. I’d met him as a freshman but nothing about him resonated with me at that point. In November of 1969, that changed. We had mutual friends and after an initial talk on the steps of the Union, we hung out with a group of friends one weekend night. Never much of a drinker, I got pretty soused that evening and felt remarkably unwell. We all blearily walked to the all-night Chuck Wagon diner for an early breakfast. I remember being unsteady and Al holding onto me. I can still feel his tan wool pea coat as I looped my arm through his for stability when we walked under a viaduct. Also an undeniable spark. In the beginning, I was fairly even-keeled as this love process unfolded. But about 6 months in, I began to drown in my feelings. Aside from my political engagement in the combustible demonstrations enveloping campus, I was utterly, single-mindedly focused on my relationship. For a time, that was a two-way street.
There were the requisite greeting cards and notes that went along with the sweet beginnings of love. But once I was fully committed, I felt Al’s immediate recoiling from that level of involvement. That was tantamount to his attempting to stop a runaway train. From my earliest years I was a person who was all in once I cared about anything, from an author to a hobby and most certainly, to people. I was loyal and willing to work through anything in the way of sustaining a relationship. I believe relentless would be an appropriate adjective for my behavior. In high school, my intensity and strength was a deterrent to romantic relationships. I also was very direct and unwilling to act stupid to please a boy and make him feel stronger than me. Being a good friend was a better fit for someone like me during those years. I enjoyed the friendship but longed to be loved, to be a real girlfriend. Initially when I was still somewhat aloof, Al was clearly enjoying the chase. Once I was fully engaged, he began to backpedal at a rapid clip. I understood his discomfort. I knew we were too young for what I wanted which was “forever.” But I’d decided that I wasn’t suited for all the free love business going on around me. I wanted a partner for life, whether it made sense or not.
Soon the sweet notes from him were replaced by tongue-in-cheek creative documents like an imaginary psychology experiment describing a love-hate relationship between a young couple in which they both spontaneously combusted. Another long fable about a hero named Little Chicken and a magical fiery horse named Stormy came my way. Mostly there was a lot of arguing. I knew this guy loved me and was innocent enough to believe that the certainty of that was enough to get us through anything. In Chicago for that last summer the two of us alternated between powerful closeness and his sudden withdrawals. He wanted to be free while I wanted only to be with him. That’s when he told me that I operated on the “all or none hypothesis.” Indeed I did. I realized that he operated on the “have your cake and eat it too,” hypothesis. Basically he wanted what on today’s terms would be called an open relationship. Our opposite viewpoints made for frequent breakups and reconciliations. By the time we headed back to school for junior year, we were separated. At least temporarily.
I was out of the dorm and living in my first apartment. An inexpensive dump in a converted house, I walked through the front door on my first day, accompanied by my parents and a gray kitten named Passion. My roommate and I, an old friend from high school, rented it quickly during a day trip to school in the summer, when it was dark and occupied. When I walked in with my family, within minutes we had fleas hopping all over us. Some of the walls were painted black. My family was stunned and appalled, worried and sorry. They left quickly with the poor itchy kitten in tow. I was alone that first day, my roommate off with her boyfriend. To avoid the fleas, I sat outside until a nice guy named Steve who lived across the street invited me in for some milk and cheese, providing temporary respite from the infestation. Eventually the landlords showed up, the twins Earl and Pearl Kelsey, with bug spray and cans of white paint, promising to make things right. An altogether inauspicious start to the year. When I read through my journals, I barely recognize myself. The pages are an endless litany of my misery about the off and on, up and back relationship with Al. After 10 months together, I was still a virgin, holding out for the dream of “always” before crossing that line. He wanted to move forward sexually and I wrestled with myself, feeling out of step with seemingly everyone already into adult intimacy, knowing that as ready as he was for that, he was not likely to feel what I did. Commitment. I was an abject failure academically, barely able to concentrate on my classes. Somehow, I scraped by, at least remaining politically active and becoming involved with creating a left-wing bookstore called Dragon’s Eye, which specialized in history and philosophy books aimed at supporting a counterculture based on real substance. But most of my journals from that time are filled repetitive internal dialogue, struggling to decide who I wanted to be in my private personal life.
Looking back, I realize that I had spent my life shielded behind a self-devised armor. No one, not even my family, would have recognized the agonizing growing pains which consumed me. My older brother and sister had put my parents through some tough times. My mom who suffered from ulcerative colitis and had been through her first cancer bout, appreciated my seemingly always sunny disposition. The first time I’d cried at home about Al, my dad said in wonder,”this is the first time you’ve ever cried.” So it was like that with my family. I was figuring things out on my own, like lots of young people. I wasn’t religious but I was moral. I also didn’t want to look back on my actions with regret. I’d been privy to plenty of those types of conversations in my house since I was about ten. So I writhed around inside my tough exterior, obsessed with what to do. This sex stuff certainly didn’t seem as complicated for my friends as it was for me. I came up with a plan. I decided to flee. I headed up to Ann Arbor, hoping to get this business resolved by getting together with the guy I’d adored through elementary and high school, and with whom there was always an undercurrent of attraction that we danced around for years. He was my friend and I knew he loved me. A seemingly obvious solution to my dilemma.
When I boarded that plane for Ann Arbor, I was excited and determined. My first flight and my first grownup sexual experience. Landmark events. The flight was wonderful. The journey to womanhood? Not so much. Although there still was that undeniable attraction, transitioning casually from friendship to what would now be called “friends with benefits” was not to be. After a fumbling attempt to cross that old boundary, we both realized we were who we were, and who we were supposed to be with each other. We had a nice, friendly weekend and I returned to school, pure as the proverbial driven snow. Meanwhile, Al was trying to convince me that we could stay together and participate in an open relationship. Finally, desperate for resolution, at the end of the first semester of my junior year, I slept with this guy who mesmerized me, who I didn’t trust and who I hoped would realize that young or not, we belonged together for life. Alas. I knew that what I did was an act of desperation. The emotional risks I took were due to my certainty that if I could coax Al out of his fears, what we had would survive and flourish. I was wrong. The ratcheting up of our intimacy did nothing to sustain our torturous daily relationship. The arguing and combustible dynamics continued and within a few weeks we were apart for the umpteenth time.
I continued to limp through school. I was much more interested in politics, and ignored what I thought were minor considerations like PE requirements which ultimately would threaten my status as a student. I was also interested to note in my journals, that I was interacting with some guy named Terry and another named Mark. I have no memory of either one except for a vague conversation at the student union. Evidently they weren’t significant enough to be stored in my brain. Nothing beyond conversation ever happened with either of them. My writing continued with the same Al droning, he loves me, he loves me not, how can I get this fixed, I can never fix this. I was somewhat of a stalker back then, haunting our haunts, writhing in pain whenever I saw Al with any other female. I was sad and jealous all the time. But then a surprise happened.
This guy started showing up wherever I was, plopping himself down in front of me and engaging me in endless conversation. He was a year behind me academically but that was because I’d skipped a year of grade school. He’d grown up one neighborhood south of mine in Chicago, his social world bumping along the fringes of mine. He was handsome with the reputation of a womanizer. I wasn’t about to be dragged into a new drama, becoming one of his adoring harem. But after a few months, it was clear that he was looking for something different, something with substance. I decided to take a risk and try to start something new.
Dennis was the proverbial breath of fresh air. He emitted lightness, warmth and innocence. Like anyone else, he had dark spaces, but being with him was soothing and easy. I remember listening to Carole King’s Tapestry album during the first night we spent together. He was trying to distance himself from a toxic relationship with a woman named Janet that was similar to the on and off syndrome I had with Al. We were good for each other which made for a healthier second semester during my junior year. The only problem was, I loved him like a friend. I was still trapped emotionally with Albert. Eventually my involvement with another male became too much for my erstwhile life love. He came charging back into my life in April and I found him impossible to resist, despite being certain nothing had really changed.
In May of 1971, Albert and I drove to Washington DC to participate in a huge days-long anti-war demonstration coupled with a rock concert. We camped in Potomac Park, participated in marches and listened to music with massive crowds. We managed to get out of town right before about 12,000 people were scooped up, arrested and held in what was then RFK stadium. We were going back school to finish off the year. Within a week of our return, I was arrested with a large group of protestors at a sit-in at the student Union in front of a Marine recruiting station. While sitting on the bus to be taken to jail, Al showed up, as someone told him what had happened to me. Through the window, he shouted,”I can’t leave you alone for 5 minutes without you getting yourself in trouble.” This comment didn’t sit well with me at all. That incident set off a looming school disciplinary hearing in addition to a civil case. Al and Dennis, with whom I was still trying to be friends, went home for the summer. I stayed in town, working part-time, taking a class and focusing on trying to stay in school for my senior year while enjoying the slower pace of life, so different from working in Chicago.
That summer was good for me. No pressure of romantic entanglements. I was still in touch with those two guys, but I was spending time by myself or with friends which was a relief. I made plans with my roommate and another friend to travel to Europe in February, 1972. I had my passport photo taken. I hoped that my problems with the university would be resolved in my favor. I would be two classes short of my degree but I didn’t care. My friends were finishing at the end of the fall semester. My desire to get away, to push a re-set button, outweighed those two classes. My Icelandic Air round-trip ticket cost $165.
My parents weren’t thrilled but I had some money of my own. They wouldn’t have to help much. In addition, my older sister was living with her husband in Germany and was pregnant with her first child. They were glad someone would be there for her. I didn’t inform “the boys” of my plans. The more time I spent with myself, the more my self-esteem improved. In August, I attended a raucous, psychedelic wedding during which everyone, from the newlyweds to their parents and all the guests were in an altered state. I was having a pretty good time. I saw one of my friends, lying on the back lawn, head on a log next to someone I’d met briefly the day before. There was a space in between them, just my size. I settled into it and began a chat with both of them. I was relaxed, comfortable and filled with warmth. A night which would change my life.