I once had a boyfriend named Michael. Ok. Michael Dille, if you want to know the whole name. I don’t care. I somehow doubt he’s still alive. And, if he is, I still don’t care. I’ve googled him once or twice to see what became of him, but never found a trace.
The romance lasted one hot, strange, summer. Michael was what used to be called (in the old days) a class A jerk, in more modern times, perhaps, a douche. But I didn’t know this until after the summer was over. I was a young twenty-one, doing a stint of summer school at Arizona State University (in Tempe, Az.), after a six month hitch-hiking tour of Europe. I had gotten a one-way ticket to Europe because I didn’t know what to do with my life here. And now I was back, to start over. I still didn’t know what to do, but that didn’t stop me from trying.
That summer, I was basically in recovery from my travels (and my entire childhood, though I wouldn’t understand that ’til much later). My strengths included that I had a sense of wonder and curiosity, I liked people, and I had a rather determined survival backbone, as well as perhaps, a guardian angel. Because, seriously, I played it close to the edge.
Let’s see. That summer, I rented (that is my parents rented for me) a little wooden, run-down bungalow apartment — one bedroom, tiny kitchen and living room, with no AC. The outdoor temperature was 110 degrees, sometimes reaching 118, and about the same indoors. At night it might go down to 100. An old-fashioned water-cooler located above the bed made a whiny and clattering noise attempting its hopeless task of cooling off the apartment. All it managed to do was create a New Orleans-style humidity. It also dripped water onto my pillow and face.
The bungalow sported an ancient mattress, creaking bed springs, and an old iron bed frame that would now cost thousands in an antique furniture store, but then was unappreciated and worth next to nothing. Mom lent me a set of bed sheets, a towel, dish towel, a couple of plates, cups, and utensils. The flooring throughout was old linoleum. A small kitchen table and two chairs filled what I called the living room space, while the other end of the room held a stove, sink, and refrigerator. I’m quite sure I never cooked a single thing there, though I did probably keep some fruit juice or a bottle of coca-cola in the frig and probably a stash of cookies on the table.
I rode my old bicycle to classes and was nearly killed twice that summer, once by a car door suddenly swung open in front of me, and another time when I mis-understood the nature of a slatted drain cover in the gutter, rode directly over it, and my front wheel went down, flipping me over the handle bars. No broken bones but I was banged up and a nasty abrasion on my elbow and arm would take the rest of the summer to heal.
I was such a toddler of a young woman, learning everything the hard way. If you noticed that I didn’t describe the bathroom in my apartment, it’s because it was located in a little wooden shack in the courtyard — shared toilets and showers. Despite the sharing, I knew not one of my neighbors.
Somehow, I found all of this potentially romantic. Days of life-sucking temperatures followed by over-heated evenings were an obvious backdrop to a Tennessee Williams play. A script was needed, but alas, I wasn’t writing yet. All I had to offer were my survival instincts, a sense of adventure, and a creepy apartment manager lurking about and peering in open doors (left ajar in futile attempts to allow air flow). I should have been freaked out, and part of me was, but the heat drained me and I lacked the imagination to do anything about it. This was my lot for the summer. I would attempt to re-gather my energies at summer’s end and get myself back to temperate San Francisco, and whatever were the more beneficent influences I hoped awaited me there.
In the meantime, my romantic inclinations led me to Michael, a young guy with surfer blond hair — handsome and smart. He charmed me the minute I met him on a just-off-campus street corner one early hot evening at the beginning of summer. He wasn’t my type (brooding revolutionary intellectuals). Michael was light-hearted, easy-going, and fun; we started hanging together immediately.
My classes at ASU were swimming and architecture with the visionary Paulo Soleri. I was required to swim a mile everyday, so that was good. I also worked as a model in an art class — yes, naked. It was SO boring, but I earned a little money. Despite Michael’s presence, I had a crush on the art teacher, Mr. Hahn, an older married man, who, fortunately had good sense and didn’t respond one whit to my flirtation.
Every evening I returned to the bungalow and Michael, my only friend that summer. Besides making love under the ever-dripping water cooler and the never-far-away gaze of the apartment manager (who may have wanted to collect more rent due to the second person essentially living there, or was simply vicariously enjoying our love-making. Ugh!), Michael and I would borrow my mom’s car and drive to a nearby water hole on the Salt River (or maybe it was the Verde River?) where he would join other macho young men in jumping off high rocks into the water, while I swam about on the water’s edge, feeling isolated (no other girls) and concerned about the aggressive energy of the boys. I counted on Michael to protect me should they become more aggressive; fortunately it never came to that. Another time, with a few dollars in our pockets, we drove mom’s car down into Mexico, made love in the warm gulf waters, and slept on a beach for a night or two. Dressed for the summer, it got cold at night, but the sand fleas were the real mis-fortune.
Eventually the summer ended. Our last day together we were sitting in a coffee shop in Tempe and Michael was flirting outrageously right in front of me with the pretty young waitress. I’m not sure how successful I was in hiding my hurt feelings, or why I thought I needed to. The next day he left for San Francisco. I was going to spend a week at my parent’s, then head to San Francisco myself. I received a loving letter from him saying he missed me and looked forward to my arrival. But by the time I got there, he had a new girlfriend. When I asked what happened, his only (and I mean ONLY) response was, “WE are not what is”. It was the sorriest break-up excuse ever given. I hated him, and yet, at the same time, I was able to see the truth of his words. So I let go. Mostly. There was no more WE. Though, truly, it took awhile, and a little more of his bad behavior.
Eventually I would move on from Michael’s teaching (he was not wise, but the teaching was), to the more real wisdom teachings of Krishnamurti, Anais Nin, Ram Dass, Jon Kabat-Zinn, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Thanissara, Allison Post, Tara Brach, Cheryl Strayed, and a host of memoir writers. I had no idea, way back in that bungalow the summer of ’69 that wisdom teachings already existed and I would eventually find them.
I had no idea that by the end of September, I would move into a North Beach apartment with a playwright and actors from the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a 4 room flat that rented for $110 a month, with four of us sharing the rent. Michele had the only real bedroom. Joan and Dan shared the living room and made their bedroom/loft in the large closet. The dining room was my bedroom. The only common room was the large kitchen, painted pale blue and white, and with a magnificent view of the Bay. In this kitchen I first learned how to parboil a zucchini I’d bought at the Italian grocery story on Vallejo, near Columbus, around the corner from Molinari’s Delicatessen. To do it, I followed closely the instructions in the recipe book. I loved sitting in the breakfast nook and watching the ocean liners and cargo ships with their names in big black block-y letters from alphabets I didn’t recognize.
I had no idea that in a few months I would start going to nursing school to become an LVN and later, an RN, and that having this life-and-death work to do would deeply ground me in a sense of purpose and service, and re-connect me with the love of learning I’d experienced in grade school, but not since.
I would eventually learn to navigate this life with a little more intention and grace, boundary-setting and kindness-to-self than I knew that summer of ‘69. But then, I was wide open, dangerously so. Somehow I survived. Maybe, it was my guardian angel. More likely, it was luck.
Ps. These days I have great compassion and deep respect for the millennial generation, who are coming of age into a much more daunting world. I’m deeply moved by how wise, focused, and generous-of-spirit many of them are at such a young age. I bow to them. I whisper prayers for their safety and for peace, and that their endeavors to make great and positive change are successful.
2 thoughts on “Ah…. Youth.”
Ah, yes. Wonderful, evocative, and honest. This was after Sutter Street, and I still have my Soleiri Bell! Sometimes I’m aghast too…lucky we came through.
Oh Gayle…I just love your memoir unfolding and this line in particular: “I was such a toddler of a young woman, learning everything the hard way.”