When I left home at seventeen, my life was a rubber arrow. It made for a wobbly trajectory, but then reaching a target was an older generation’s concern, not mine. Targets, destinations, goal setting – they all implied some end to the journey, and I had no interest in stopping.
I also had no interest in Princeton University (where my father hoped I might settle down). It had been an aesthetically magical pit stop to be sure, but my homemade belief system – patched together from philosophical scraps swirling around me in the early seventies – had left me wanting to focus on wisdom, truth and love. Not one of my college professors seemed concerned with the pursuit of such quaint concepts.
Dozens of drinks are available for the physically thirsty; the emotionally hungry have relationships and counseling. I didn’t know what my problem was, but why wouldn’t there be food somewhere to satisfy my hunger?
These then were the years of “poking chocolates.” Let me explain. My father, unconventional in many ways, spent years giving my mother the predictable roses and candy on holidays. Those gold Whitman’s Sampler boxes of assorted chocolates inspired my inner thief. Before Whitman provided a map showing which chocolates were where, I was compelled to poke my finger into every piece (from underneath, to avoid detection) in order to locate the ones worth eating.
The process was not unlike my life. Focused on getting the best for myself, I poked at the underside of everything that came along, experimenting in search of the most satisfying soul food. This was no systematic quest. I often just walked through doors already cracked open, half expecting my destiny to arrive like an invitation blown across my path. And several months after I left Princeton behind, a wayward wind did just that.
IVY LEAGUE LOVERS
“Did you miss me?”
Only one man had the power to scatter the words in my brain so I couldn’t put a sentence together. And now here he was, calling. The sultry voice I hadn’t heard in seven months was dragging up feelings safely packed away. With that confident half-grin of his, Costa would be cradling the receiver in both hands as if I were the most precious person in the world. So much for being strong and independent. I was proving to be one more sucker for charm and chemistry.
In early May, Costa had left Princeton and had flown to Greece without much of a goodbye. A few days later, I left there for good. Already disappointed by seven out of eight classes, and with no one else holding me there, I went home and spent the following semester at a local university. Smoking flavored Bidis in a spider-infested basement bedroom and attending passionless lectures, I was trying to prove I had moved on.
“Welcome back,” I managed. “How was Santorini?”
“Fabulous!” he raved. “Ohmygod, the cliffs at sunset – you would die! And I met this extraordinary sculptor at a nightclub who let me stay with him. We made spanakopita with homemade feta, and you have to come with me next time, that’s all.”
It was hopeless. How could I protect myself when this man could close a gaping absence with a single call?
The longer we talked, the more Costa’s enthusiasm pulled me in. “Listen,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it. Why don’t you come out east and stay with me? My cousin’s divorced. She’d love to have us around until we figure out where to live.”
The lure of his voice curled around my flabby defenses and brought them down. Was I really the kind of woman who’d drop everything for a man?
Blame it on the old magic.
I’d first met Constantinos Pappas in 1973, late in my freshman year at Princeton. A friend had dragged me across Jadwin gym to introduce me to her friends after an electrifying dance performance. Pilobolus – a new, gymnastically inventive dance troupe from Dartmouth – had channeled its extreme energy into quirky tales of insects and machines.
Costa stood at the center of a small cluster of people with his arms crossed and hips cocked, a soft, worn sweatshirt tied around his neck. The gathered group was full of good spirits, and this animated man seemed to be the reason. Sadie and I joined the circle. Her friend was describing the grueling life of a gymnast he’d known. He seemed annoyingly in command of everyone’s attention, so I looked the other way. Noticing us, Costa turned away from his friends and whispered in my ear, “You loved the performance, and you’re ready to dance. Am I right?”
On this male-dominated campus, I was guarded around overly attractive men, so I stared him down with narrowed and accusing eyes. I didn’t trust popular people. But my exaggerated disapproval only made him laugh. Drawn in by his strong brew of intimacy and energy, I tried not to grin but had to admit, “It’s hard not to move after that.”
He told me his name before taking my hand and drawing me outside with charming banter about universal rhythms and the movement of stars. Though normally an observer, that night I was filled with an odd, childlike abandon. We started out walking but gradually began a sort of contemporary dance, as if we were both hearing the same music. Our movement was a wordless dialogue, mechanical and fluid, that sent us weaving through a stand of trees. When we reached an old building reserved for upperclassmen, Costa invited me in.
Feeling sure this was no macho ploy, I went inside to find dim light, and walls washed a moody blue. Costa played Thelonious Monk in the background. The poetic jazz filled in any awkward gaps as we began to poke into the hidden corners of each other’s lives. Watching for my reaction, Costa let drop that he was bisexual. As a champion of personal freedom, I was impressed. He seemed to relax after that. I shared my own secret –I was a happy virgin. We laughed.
Costa did most of the talking that night. I scrambled for words to hide behind, speaking carefully when I had to, but mostly studying this magical man whose drooping eyes wouldn’t let mine go. Something about the cockeyed grin and his careful, poetic speech snagged me, but the spell between us broke when a tall, thin-faced upperclassman barely knocked before slinking into the room. Mumbling that he’d wait, the unfriendly fellow stretched out seductively on Costa’s large bed and stared at us. Without his saying a word, I felt accused of intruding and knew it was time to leave.
When I stood up, Costa protested playfully, “My appetite has just been whet. Don’t leave me now… we’ve only met!”
I lied about research and papers calling me. Backing out his door, flustered, I tripped over the threshold.
What was Costa up to? I’d been perfectly content on my own, like a bird in a tree watching the world but removed from its messes. In one hour, he’d not only found my perch, he had wooed me down. Now here I was on the ground ready to play, and the game was over. He was already involved.
Or so I assumed. But Cos kept coming around, introducing me to a side of Princeton I didn’t know. Smitten, for days after we met I could only speak to him in rhyme. He had started it, but I continued the compulsive rhyming, afraid to reveal my girlish vulnerability by speaking normally. The playful banter kept things light between us, kept him at a safer distance for a bit.
Once I finally relaxed and moved into his world, he coaxed me to a party with his friends at an eating club on campus. (Rumor had it that Jane Fonda had once swung on the chandelier in the main hall.) I made a great first impression stumbling over mattresses in a dark basement room where students lay around looking stoned. Recouping my cool, I feigned interest in the TV screen with its wavy lines flashing to the beat of Led Zeppelin.
Upstairs the drinking crowd was louder. Women with stern faces and flipped collars were immersed in emotionless flirtations with the men around them. I didn’t fit on either floor. As we moved from room to room, people swarmed around my date, enjoying his fast-fire wit. An unlikely appendage to the star, I slipped away early.
Costa and I did better when we were alone. Breezing through his coursework, Cos was free to play. I had always put off academics, writing papers the night before they were due, so I was a flexible cohort. After introducing me to Satyricon, Fellini’s surreal Bacchanalian celebration, he took me to contemporary art exhibits I would have overlooked. We slipped into independent films and improvisational theater nights, as if extracurriculars were the point. Costa was single-handedly stretching my provincial boundaries, giving me part of the education I wanted.
Several weeks later, when he took off for Greece, there was nothing left at Princeton to hold me. I had begun to neglect my work anyway, so I dropped out and wandered through the summer, picking up short-term jobs and visiting friends in New York City, Canada, Martha’s Vineyard – what and where didn’t matter; I craved change and movement.
At the end of August, having no better plan, I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Compared to my colorful time with Costa, academia seemed bland, but staying in college meant I wouldn’t have to find a real job. All through that summer and fall, Cos sent me long, passionate descriptions of his island travels. I skimmed past the olives, cafes and beaches, past Greek architecture as a metaphor, searching for feelings, hungry for some reference to me, some indication that I was in his thoughts. His letters might have appeared in a travel magazine – very What, Where, When … but no Who that mattered. No me.
Chiding myself for being egocentric, I determined to live in the present. It wasn’t as if he owed me anything. We’d only begun to know each other. I’d been infatuated, but those impersonal letters made the distance easier to take. I detached and moved on. Until, back in the States, he called.
“Why don’t you come …”
The decision was surprisingly easy. UW-Madison, once famous for its heady political atmosphere, had degenerated into a party school. People dyed their beer and painted their faces green on St. Patrick’s Day and acted silly-drunk in the streets. My first sexual encounter had been a disappointing hit and run. I was ready to explore a superior brand of love. Enticed by my bohemian friend, it was easy to move again.
Sure, I’ll come.
The spring semester had barely begun when I dropped out of Madison and drove my VW bug to his cousin’s apartment in Connecticut. Costa met me at the door and led me through a world of red velvet upholstery, ornate draperies, and plaster casts of naked Greek gods, to Zoë. She pushed back a waterfall of dark hair and took me in with a wide-open smile and huge embrace. Like Costa, Zoë radiated enthusiasm for the simple pleasures of food and friendship. We sat for hours at the kitchen table, talking and laughing, while her shy sons wandered in and out, pretending not to listen.
Costa was brimming with stories of colorful fishermen and mysterious women wrapped in black cloth eyeing him and offering honeyed sweets. I feasted on his memories of boisterous folk music and dancing, glad to be with a man so alive.
After days of luxury lounging, we needed to move on. Trusting in fate, Cos and I closed our eyes and spun the globe in Zoë’s den. Our joined fingers stopped the spinning ball in the middle of the Atlantic. So much for divination. Like naughty children changing the rules of the game, we pushed our fingers directly west to the closest appealing option – Cambridge, Massachusetts. A welcome change from the subdued refinement of Princeton. Alive with students, Cambridge was a hub for East Coast writers and artists, “people pushing the boundaries,” Costa explained. Reason enough to head there.
The next morning, after a quick hack job on my hair over his cousin’s sink, Costa and I threw our stuff into the backseat of the VW, hugged Zoë and her boys, and hollered our goodbyes. With Stevie Wonder on the radio, we sang our way into Harvard Square, parked illegally, scoured bulletin boards looking for cheap housing, and checked out the street scene.
The Hare Krishna, in billows of orange, drew an audience with their bells and circular dances. Mime artists and playful jugglers had their own crowds. Student types dressed in khakis and polo shirts ignored the homeless woman with her torn brown shopping bag, while a short man weighed down by heavy sandwich boards advertised God’s judgment on the likes of us. (Jesus was coming back with gas and matches.)
We found the perfect home four blocks from the Square – a well-lit bedroom and a kitchen we could share with Rick and Ulla, irreverent Buddhists. As we talked about the rent and divvying up the small fridge, I tried not to stare at the various Kama Sutra sex positions printed on Ulla’s t-shirt. I learned only two things about the grim European in the months we shared a kitchen. She had married Rick to stay in the U.S., and she kept a plastic battery-driven massage toy on her bedside table to counteract her irritability.
During the day I took acting and writing classes, while Costa shelved, read and sold books in a secondhand bookstore and made friends I never met. At night, while I waitressed, his alter ego woke up. Dressed in a worn leather aviator jacket and white silk scarf, he hung out at bars, poetry readings, and late-night bookstores. When I came home and gleefully counted my shallow pocketful of change, he would quote a new writer or tell me about a mysterious man who had stared at him all night. I had my own stories.
One eighty-year-old customer at our restaurant had an extraordinary offer. Would I go with him to Texas where his friend owned a bordello? “You’d be like nobody that’s ever worked there before!” (Was it the pine cones I wore around my neck to offset the horror of being wrapped in a white polyester uniform?) Hoping to persuade me with free alcohol, he poured his banana daiquiri into my dark green water glass to hide the contents from my boss. After a week of this, and no sign of commitment from me, the poor man gave up and moved on.
Then there was Dino, the brawny Italian cook who tried to finagle kisses before handing me my customer’s food. Patty, the fifty-ish waitress with long, dyed-blonde hair, scolded him on my behalf. She was his lover. One night the two of them invited me over to play poker after work. Always open to new experiences, of course I went.
When I rang the doorbell, Patty yelled to come on in. I opened the door to find the hefty thirty-five-year-old cook sitting in a wing chair facing me, completely naked. Apparently I had missed the fact that they were playing strip poker. Committed to being cool, I tried not to look surprised.
Patty was still in her waitress uniform, sitting on the floor pressed up against her boyfriend’s leg. They were eager to show off their new townhouse. Before leading me on a tour, Patty brought Dino a towel that he reluctantly wrapped around his waist. I followed the unlikely couple upstairs to a frilly room filled with a wall-to-wall king-size bed. Feeling obliged to fake admiration, I wondered why this was worth seeing.
Bedroom? Naked man? Throwing out a lame excuse while trying to appear nonchalant, I hurried down the narrow stairs, not sure what I was hoping to escape. I didn’t know I was anxious until I smashed the headlight of the car behind me and the taillight of the one in front of me trying to get out of there.
Back home, Costa laughed at my naïveté and explained their kinky intentions. Warm and welcoming, he was my safety zone when I returned from work. Given my inexperience, our relationship was perfect – easy and undemanding, more affectionate than sexual. I enjoyed the life we shared; I just never meant to get attached.
One evening, a friend from my Acting for Film class surprised me by appearing at our door unannounced. This handsome man with his wide-open approach to the world was easy to let in. Cos and I shared our usual meal of corn-and-molasses bread sandwiches stuffed with lettuce, followed by hours full of poetry, art photos, and new jazz. The evening was perfect. Late that night, when buses were scarce, I insisted that Andrew stay. Exhausted from waitressing, I fell asleep on my side of the bed as the two men talked on.
The next morning I woke up chilled and alone on the old mattress Costa and I shared. Shivering, I rolled over to grab our comforter off the floor, but it wasn’t there. Half-asleep, I looked around. Hanging pampas grass divided our bed from a tiny living space beyond. Our thick llama-hair rug was still next to the green recliner we had dragged off a discard pile. But this morning something was odd. A rounded heap lay on the rug, wrapped up in the missing comforter. It took me a minute to realize just what it was.
FALLING THROUGH DARK AIR
The question floated, unretrieved. I waited, and finally the comforter moved. Pushing off their covers, Andrew and Costa slowly stood, turning away from me. No one spoke.
Numb, I wrapped the sheet around me and withdrew to the room next to ours that Ulla had set aside for meditation. Disconnected from my feelings, I sat cross-legged on the bare floor, staring into space. I didn’t have it in me to fight for myself, not for love. Across the empty room a small Buddha sat passively on a makeshift altar six inches off the floor.
The two men left me to myself for a bit, but my mind didn’t. Badgering thoughts crept in and began their slow tour of my assumptions. Why was I flattened? To Costa and me, utopia was the freedom to do anything we wanted, without having to consider anyone else. No bondage, no entanglements. Easy.
Andrew, a sensitive soul, interrupted my thoughts, peeking into the room like a cautious child testing the water. Judging that it was safe, he came toward me, his thick wool socks soundless on the bare wood floor. In his outstretched palm lay two perfect sections from an orange, a gentle peace offering. The gesture softened something in me. Grateful, I took one.
“I didn’t mean for that to happen,” he almost whispered. “Your friend came on pretty strong.”
Before I could respond, Costa walked in, heading for the kitchen. Glancing at me, he said, “I didn’t think you’d mind.”
I didn’t think I would either.
My stony response was incompatible with our commitment to the pursuit of liberty at every level. Indulging a moody reaction was philosophical mutiny, exposing expectations I wasn’t supposed to have.
I didn’t know what to think. Some closeted part of my heart wanted to talk, but I couldn’t allow it a voice. I was eighteen and bound to disappoint such a worldly man. Costa and I never spoke of the incident.
After months with Costa, I suspected we weren’t the soaring helium balloons unhampered by the drag of tradition that we had imagined. Rather, we seemed like half-filled water balloons rolling around on an unswept floor. Extravagant flexibility, but no lift off.
Remaining true to my ideals, I censored any difficult feelings and let the incident go. Not long after, my charming Ivy League lover let me go. Having met a stunning man, Costa traded me in and moved on.
As a drifting poet wannabe who had left college three times and been recently dumped, I was in the market for a riveting diversion the night Anne Sexton came to Cambridge to give a reading. Like me, the Pulitzer prize winner had never graduated from college, yet unlike me she had sold thousands of books. She was famous for a sexy brand of alchemy, regularly transforming her devastating love life into passionate confessional poetry. I joined the cultured mob at Harvard that had rallied to see her.
From the moment Sexton sauntered into view, she commanded the stage in her form-fitting, floor-length red dress, splaying her emotions with a soulful Yankee drawl. Her low and unhurried smoker’s voice lent authority to the perpetual drama of her work.
“Watch out for intellect,
because it knows so much it knows nothing
and leaves you hanging upside down,
mouthing knowledge as your heart falls
out of your mouth …”
With guts and flair (dramatic confessions everywhere), she opened her wild and wounded heart, keeping us spellbound. This brilliant woman could paint in black, dignifying pain.
We rose to our feet that night, rewarding her reckless vulnerability with roars of appreciation. Shortly after that reading, posters went up at colleges around the East Coast and all over Cambridge. Sexton was offering a summer seminar to aspiring poets. Suspecting I had stumbled on an all-purpose mentor, I submitted samples of my writing. The chosen eight would meet in her home. Happily, I was one of them.
Though decidedly unconventional, Anne lived alone in a standard colonial in Weston, a quiet suburb of Boston. Each morning as her awed cluster of groupies gathered, she would tilt back in her swivel chair and scrutinize us, her dark eyes moving slowly from person to person. In those sleeveless knee-length dresses, with a thin cardigan draped over her bony shoulders, Anne looked the part of a jaded sophisticate. Her long legs were always crossed so that her calves lay perfectly flat against each other. Our poems balanced on her narrow lap like a tidy sacrifice. With a cigarette and a glass of something clear in one long hand, she used her other hand to reinforce her tough assessments with gestures that kept the air moving above and around her.
“Listen … You cannot mix your metaphors like Mr. Kohl has done here. Go with the train and scrap the meteor, Stephen.
“Cia, lop off the dead weight of the first fifteen lines, and the poem can soar.
“Lewis? Don’t bring us anything else until you’ve read it out loud and know it’s true. I don’t buy this bit about your father. … I need to feel something. The rest of the poem works.”
Floundering a bit after Costa left me, I latched onto the contemporary wisdom Sexton embodied: the truth is within each one of us, if we would just dig deep; experience leads us to wisdom; and the heart is a trustworthy guide.
I just didn’t have much in my heart to follow. So I went to the writing seminar, wrote sad poems, and ate several pounds of carrots dipped in chunky peanut butter that summer. Sexton, so deep and so sure of herself, had twenty-five years on me. I imagined she could teach me to celebrate the dark feelings I had buried and perhaps free me to love as extravagantly as she seemed to, regardless of the outcome.
After one of our group sessions, I lingered in her kitchen to discuss a poem I was ready to throw out. Aimed at a particular group of misguided feminists, it attacked their assumption that liberation meant imitating the mistakes of men. To make my point, I pictured flat-chested women standing in line to sell the breasts they had just sliced off. I let her read until I couldn’t stand it.
“I’ve overextended the metaphor, haven’t I?”
Anne ignored my question. Maybe the poem was worse than I thought.
“Sliced-off breasts …” she finally said, looking up at me. “Would you let me have that image? I’m working on something, and it’s perfect.”
I was glad to have anything this powerful woman wanted. Our writing seminar was intense. The eight of us usually left her home promptly, not wanting to overstay our welcome. But that afternoon her injured heart seemed to crack open to me. The gravelly voice went soft.
“I’d like you to stay in touch with me … after this is over.”
Uncomfortable with making promises, but impressed by the invitation, I fumbled a Sure, that’d be good. The woman I wanted to be my spiritual mother seemed to be inviting just that sort of connection.
The seminar and summer ended together; it was time to leave Massachusetts. I junked the used mattress, gave my waitress uniform to a young woman with no other options, and headed home to Wisconsin.
Losing Costa had been disturbing, but it was the second, more devastating loss that jerked my loose reins and brought me to a jarring halt.