In 1969 I took some time out from New York to slow down and try to patch it up with my husband, Lee. I called him in New Mexico and he sent me a ticket to Albuquerque. The last time I had seen Lee he was scuttling down Macdougal St. glowering over his shoulder and lugging a pillowcase full of Revere bowls, candlesticks and sterling rococo flatware–the remains of our wedding presents. Seeing him like that struck me funny. I pointed and laughed out loud and this seemed to confirm my sinister intent, so he ran faster to get away from me.
While I was separated from my husband I became friendly with an anarchist street gang called the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers whose leader, Ben, looked like Che Guevara and, unbeknown to me at first, recruited female cadre by sleeping with them. Ben was ardent, persuasive, good in bed. One night the group came knocking at my door on East 6th Street when Ben was there, and about thirty motherfuckers took over my tiny place.
In the bathroom “Mama” Carol Motherfucker–a large woman with a broad forehead, gypsy skirts, and a zillion African bangle bracelets– pointed at the bathtub when I tried to get her to vacate her perch on the toilet where she was sitting deep in conversation with her boyfriend, Charlie, who was half her size and resembled Jim Morrison after a lifelong diet of fluffernutters.
I needed to urinate. I said this. Carol Motherfucker pointed at the tub again. I said, “No, you get out.” Then Ben’s regular girlfriend, the kind but pie-faced Joanie, made her claims. On my bed Ben and Joanie snuggled like an old married couple motioning affectionately for me to come join them. I stood mute. Romantic love crumbled. I said, “No”: no to Ben and Joanie; no to Ben’s clunky vision of tribe cheerfully crunching down fences–fences between me and you, mine and yours; no to my small piece of turf as communal spoils. No, no, no. It was a very long night.
Even before this, groups gave me the creeps. I was a weasel and couldn’t stand up to them. Personal power, charisma, cliques, and in-groups paralyzed me. I feared the pack–any pack–could always feel it snatching, asserting its loathsome power. My husband felt something similar. A year on a hippie commune had convinced him to become an astronaut. Far away was not far enough. I couldn’t wait to see him.
Always a man of action, Lee had a plan, which he described in a phone conversation. It turned out that after separating from me, he’d been given a Piper Cub by his mother– a cute toy-like plane with a single engine and bright yellow fiberglass skin. This was phase one of astronaut plan: learn to fly it. He had done that and was now supporting himself giving flying lessons. Next he wanted to rack up hours to qualify for a commercial license: phase two–fly back East, solo. After that he intended to amass accomplishments so stunning that NASA would gasp in wonder and awe. So much, so fast, so brilliant! Blinded by his talent, they would forget to notice that Lee had avoided the military even when he was out of school. Lee was a latter day Admiral Byrd, a superhero, and at least he was someone whose selfish ambitions were of a familiar type to me.
Lee’s house was in Placitas, a town tucked in the foothills outside Albuquerque, on a dusty road shaded by a few gnarled cottonwoods. The house was made of reddish clay, which rose from ground the same color. He had two housemates: Rick and Ceil. Ceil was baking whole-wheat bread when I got there. She had long thin hair with blond streaks and malamute eyes. She wore a floor-length shift and bare feet, and she stood sneering in front of the Mexican-tiled sink, bread fumes and cinnamon smells wafting, ready to battle for her seat of power as woman of the house. She should have wielded a rolling pin, but she didn’t.
I hated her without being able to admit to myself I did. I hated her boyfriend, Rick, even more. He reminded me of the inquisitor in “Crime and Punishment.” While feminine ill will ricocheted off the walls of his kitchen, Lee hung back by the stove alternately smiling helplessly and shooting me suspicious side glances. He was a nice guy, Lee. But like most men of his time he didn’t know or didn’t care to know about the turf war unfolding under his nose, how access to and influence over him defined the strength of Ceil and me in his house.
Ours was a meeting from hell. I tried to talk to the housemates and they objected. “You talk so fast,” said Ceil. Rick was a sword swallower and fire eater. But when I attempted to flatter him with abundant interest in his art and trade, he pursed his lips as if biting into a raw lemon. They ate wheat, were mellow and moving back to nature, cleansing themselves of bad things; bad food, bad air, bad thoughts. They wove cloth grew vegetables made their own food and clothing. They must have had an inchoate vision they strove for, some ideal, something beyond words, something wide, holistic. Yet I never saw evidence to support this; more I suspected they were just assholes. Or, like me, they were slinking away from raw choices served up in our greater world…To be or not to be…Part of the problem or part of the solution…Then again, perhaps our failure to communicate was based on something simple–some basic economics; that they were protecting their meal ticket, Lee. And for this reason I was a threat.
I was no real threat though. I shrank from Ceil’s war of the stove and sink. I didn’t have a problem with grain. Whole wheat bread tasted better than balloon bread. True, I was on speed half the time content to glom candy bars and chain-smoke unfiltered Gauloises, which smelled like burning shit, sometimes lighting up one before I had finished the last. True I yapped franticly, but I lived in New York. Everyone talked fast there. Anyway, it was 1969.
The war in Vietnam was raging, the country was splitting apart with racial hatred, the cities were on fire. There were worse things to be than an eater of Snickers or a smoker of rank cigarettes. But not in the eyes of Ceil and Rick. Lee was caught in the middle.
In a play for power, that night I convinced Lee I wanted to try again. So on the roof under a curved black sky, infinities of stars spilling over, as loose niblets of adobe brick dug into my back, we had our last lurching fuck. Just like the old days. A spazzed-out Bull Run. I kept telling myself I liked Lee and to be spontaneous. When this failed I resorted to will power. But his sexual enthusiasm put me off. There was something impersonal about it, onanistic. I could have had a bag over my head, and his thing was a bumptious bald knob, bobbling here, butting there. It would never be different. In a swift ceremony soon after we divorced, amicably. Lee squeezed a discreet tear out his eyehole, and I felt nothing except the suspicion the whole thing had been planned in advance.
Lee flew me from Placitas to New Jersey, and then he drove me to Manhattan. Back in New York I looked for Ben, but he had left for New Mexico. Turns out he had had a vision when reading “Black Elk Speaks”. In his vision it struck Ben that he was the white guy from the East appearing in Black Elk’s prophecy, the guy who was supposed to descend from the clouds and save the Indians.
I read “Black Elk Speaks.”
There is no white-guy-savior from the East.