Michael and I moved into this house in August, 1974. Looking back, it’s hard to believe we switched living places every year, but at the time we were living more like college students than adults. We each parsed a livable wage out of part-time jobs while still straggling through classes. For the first time, we started trying to actually decorate our space. On Friday nights, we went to Lamb’s Auction, a building in an industrial area on Oak Street where we got our number card and bid on furniture and other household items. In a letter I wrote to my mother, I told her I that I was more comfortable in this place as I’d been since leaving home. Michael and I had been living together for two and a half years. Our friendship was the same solid bond which had been somehow instantly forged when we’d first met in the summer of 1971. The romance was still fiery too. But our very different personalities were stoking lots of insecurities and conflicts as we probed each other for the possibility of a long term commitment.
Our little house was located next to the railroad tracks that ran southeast through the city. Michael loved the sound of rumbling and the whistles as the trains ran by in the middle of the night. I was less enamored but didn’t really mind. Half the time I think he was fantasizing about racing out to jump a boxcar and head anywhere for an adventure, somewhat terrified that he was settling in to a more staid existence than he’d imagined for himself at this age. He made lots of pronouncements about being opposed to institutions like marriage, as if to remind me that he was an anarchist at heart. I was wanting a permanent partner as I’d always had since being a little kid. The question was whether or not Michael was the right one for me. I’d thought so initially. But after these few years together, despite fundamental agreements on almost every important issue, our vastly differing personal styles pressed buttons in each of us which ignited the fight or flight response. Most of the time in my case, the fight and in his, the flight.
What had really happened to us was that the powerful collision of emotion which had instantly crackled when we met, had simultaneously pulled away the protective veneers that most people hone by the time they’re young adults. We were both naked in front of each other, wide open and truly vulnerable. Ultimately that’s what’s ideal in a relationship, a situation in which you can always be your most genuine self. But we’d both experienced a lot of previous damage which made us both skittish. Michael’s older sister came out of his family with deep scars – she never married or had children. Out of my siblings, I was the only one of four to never divorce. We two youngsters were deeply entangled but with many hurdles to get past before we could finally be sure we were where we wanted to stay.
We spent the fall creating a comfortable home space. I had a new part-time job as a teaching assistant at an alternative high school for kids who had trouble adjusting to a traditional educational setting. I continued to work at the park district at the youth center as educational coordinator. Michael was full time at the Record Service. My jobs were emotionally demanding with kids only a few years younger than me, trying to navigate tumultuous times. I wasn’t great at setting boundaries and my level of work involvement began to encroach on my personal life. I saw that flag which was one of the key triggers of Michael’s annoyance with me. He often felt I was overcommitted to too many other people. I can’t say I disagreed with him but was still bumbling around trying to figure out who I wanted to be. I thought he was reticent and withdrawn. We had a long way to go.
While we struggled with all those undercurrents, life went forward. We went to lots of movies on Friday or Saturday nights, often after burning our tongues at a popular hole-in-the wall barbecue joint called Po Boy’s. Only open on weekend nights, it had three booths and a counter with stools where people stacked up four deep, hoping that Arnie, his wife Red or Dorothy, a grouchy lady who picked favorites, would recognize your desperation to order and eat before you missed the start time of the film. Arnie often mixed his hot sauce after having downed a few shots of whiskey. Sometimes it was so intense you couldn’t feel the tip of your tongue after a taste or two. If you got popular, you got invited into the kitchen to share a swig. At least the men did.
Late at night, after playing cards or listening to music at a local bar, we’d head to the Chuck Wagon Diner for a middle of the night breakfast. Sometimes we’d play our favorite pinball games, Drop-a-Card or Lawman for a few hours. We followed several local bands and went to clubs where we danced late into the night. My younger sister had moved here to attend school so we spent time with her. My oldest friend Fern came to stay with us before moving to California for a court-reporting job. She was with us when I became convinced that we had a peeping tom which frightened me. I remember seeing footprints in the snow around our windows. On that visit, she saw his face through the bathroom window which led to his finally being caught. I’d felt paranoid about that faceless stranger for months. One of my most vivid memories from that time.
Another memorable event happened after an evening when we’d had a lengthy game of Spades with another couple during which there was a good deal of laughing at old memories. Back then in our twenties, we were still smoking pot. Suddenly I glanced up from my cards and saw that Michael looked dreadful. I rose from the table, grabbed his hand and headed home. I have no clue what happened to him, nor did he, but something in what he inhaled had negatively affected him. We lay awake all night, me holding him tightly to the earth while his mind whirled with terrors. We never did know what actually been the cause of what happened.
I got my new dog in the house on Oregon. She was a border collie from a sizable litter, the last pup to stay in my lap late one afternoon in a barn twenty minutes away from town. I named her Ribeye after a mishap we’d had with Herbie and Harpo snarfing down two precious steaks from the kitchen counter when we weren’t paying attention one day on California street. She was with us for fifteen years. We had a memorable road trip to Florida early that winter of 1974 which was a highly successful disaster as our first lengthy vacation together. Also unforgettable was Christmas that year. Both Michael and I were Jewish. I never celebrated that holiday at home but his parents, who were more interested in fitting in to the society at large, had a huge tree, gifts and everything but the religious underpinnings. In a family as cold and dysfunctional as his, Christmas was a joyous time for him. As much as I wanted to make him happy, I simply couldn’t make sense of creating a tradition that had nothing substantive to do with either one of us. That year he set up a big tree in our living room, using his family’s decorations and lots of tinsel to the snide accompaniment of my sarcasm. His volcanic temper asserted itself and he picked up the tree and hurled it across the room, shattering all the ornaments and creating general wreckage. We found pieces of tinsel in all kinds of odd places for months. After this incident we shared that holiday with friends who were celebrating in their homes, which made things between us much easier.
Our personal issues were still persisting into the spring. I was utterly bewildered about whether to push my way through them and hang on to the magic that was still there amidst our emotional chaos, or move on. One day, Michael showed up with an airline ticket he’d bought, intent on shipping me off to San Francisco to see Fern for eight days so I could figure out what I wanted. He’d sold a music catalog he was developing that would form the foundation of an independent store he’d hoped to own some day. He said he’d done it as a best friend, putting our romantic relationship aside for the moment. I remember thinking it was the most generous gift I’d ever received. I was simultaneously glad and terrified – what was I doing? I was in my corner, fearful of abandonment, one of my life issues so I was thinking I’d do a preemptive strike and jump ship first. That old story, which started with fears about my mom’s health which I’d had my whole life, became exacerbated by the on-off relationship I’d had with Al. And Michael’s insecurities, pounded into him by his always disappointed parents, went ballistic every time I questioned any of his actions. Anything that felt like a negative judgment made him insecure. After that kicked in, all he could manage was a guarded defensiveness. Across this chasm came the ticket.
The next thing I knew I was with Fern in California. When she wasn’t working at her flexible court reporter job, we did the tourist rounds, especially the nature ones. Muir Woods, Mt. Tamalpais, the Pacific Ocean and Monterey. In the midst of exploring I felt scared and almost ill. Al was in grad school in L.A. at UC Davis and decided we should get together for one more try at a life. I knew that choosing to participate would be the end of my life with Michael. Even if I concealed it. In those unnerving moments where no one could see me but Fern, who was my trusted friend, I had utter clarity. Somehow I had to go back to Michael and struggle through all our fears so we could move into a future together. I knew it would be a challenge. I’d figured out that we all carry our emotional debris with us forever and that what we needed to do was get better at managing it. I stopped communicating with Al. I wrote Michael heartfelt torturous letters which he loved while wishing he could go down his rabbit hole and hide forever. When I went home, he was at work. While I was gone, he’d entirely remodeled our house, which I was initially afraid meant I was getting kicked to the curb. When he showed up as I sat eying him warily, he explained that this was a fresh start for us. Imagine telling a liberated woman that you’d changed everything without asking for her input. I grudgingly accepted his explanation in the spirit of temporary truce, we made love in our “new” bedroom and moved forward. For a time things were still bumpy but, eventually, we started helping each other with our problems. We both began to gain confidence. All those thrills and chills, the intimacy and cosmic connections leaked back into daily life. We were so lucky to have leaped those hurdles with honesty and only to come out stronger on the other side.
In the fall of 1975, we took another road trip, this time to Arkansas, to the Bull Shoals – White River State Park. We spent half the time camping in a little pup tent for two, along with the dogs and the other half of the trip in a cabin. School was in session so the park was quite empty. I remember being wakened one morning by a rafter of wild turkeys gobbling on the run past our tent.
We ate, we read, we hiked and we slept. Getting away from everything was such a relief. The best part was learning that we were ideal travel companions. I think that’s a critical component of any relationship. For the rest of our lives, although we of course navigated trips with our kids and still traveled on our own, being away together was always just the best time ever. I still remember stopping on the side of the road where makeshift entrepreneurs were selling their wares. I got two pairs of earrings and Michael got a spoon ring.
We were getting ready for another move across town to the twin city which was separated from ours by a street. That fall of 1975 would bring new life changes and of course, more challenges. On to South Mattis Avenue.