I am late to the first Gulf War protest, the one before the war officially starts. It's dusk, and as I cross Broadway and pass the hollow pillars of the Federal building, there is already a rhythmic pumping of somebody's African drum, backed by a thick echo of cheering. I come around the corner onto dark, milling hundreds, a harassed-sounding voice ringing through a PA system. The air has cooled and smells of incense. A girl twirls in circles, then skips off through the crowd, shaking a tambourine.
They stand wearing tie-dyed T-shirts and military surplus, in little sign-waving clusters at the perimeter or pressed against each other's backs near the platform full of speakers. It's been 20 years since I have seen so much hair in one place, so many paisleyed and batiked cotton skirts, so many loose breasts. Friends are bear-hugged with loving howls — "Hiiiiii! You made it!" — tagboard signs compared and exclaimed over. Chants swell and die; a line of counter-protesters across the street is shooed onto the sidewalk by police. Women waft past me in clouds of patchouli, long earrings flashing. People smile radiantly, kiss, massage each others shoulders. A floodlight on the platform bleaches out the faces of those striding through it (barefooted, ankles festooned with tiny jingling bells). Young faces, excited by the seriousness of their purpose.
Is there really a sign here that says "War is not healthy for children and other living things"? I have not seen this slogan since we colored it on stones with paints made from wildflowers, 20 years ago. Yes, it's there, being raised and lowered in time to an off-key rendition of "Give Peace a Chance." Two rippling-tressed boys smoke a joint off to one side, their jeans torn at the knees and embroidered on the asses.
The call goes up via bullhorn to begin the march down Front Street. Flashlights are flicked on, white candles and more sticks of incense are hurriedly passed and lighted. I do not join in. Newspaper editorials say that people of my age group — nearing 30 — are conservative. But it's simply that I have seen it all before. The clothes and hair and slogans, the freeness of the bodies all are symbols resurrected from my childhood, and they still don't mean peace and harmony.
In my mind I see a woman dancing in a dark and crowded room, long brown hair swinging around her shoulders, strands of it curved against her damp forehead. Her arms beat the air above her head, descend to twist around her undulating stomach, outline the rocking of her hips. In-a-gadda-da-vida, honey, don't you know that I lo-ove you.... Her dark eyes are half closed against the sting of pot and cigarettes. In-a-gadda-da-vida honey, don't you know that I'll always be tru-ue.... She is panting in time to her hips. Sweat runs down from where she has tied her gauze shirt under breasts, and it rolls into her low-slung jeans. One of her ornate brass earrings has swung up and caught in her hair. She snaps her head sideways and runs long fingers through the tangle, always moving: it's a kind of contest between her and the music and the wine she drank. Her thighs ache, her stomach burns, she moves and moves.
I imagine this scene from what my mother has told me of how she spent her nights out when I was little. The song lasted the whole side of the album. She was high as a kite. She danced nonstop. The other people in the room were friends from her college art classes. She was avoiding home, where my sister and father and I were. The marriage was falling apart and she had gone into therapy, and was getting fucked by her shrink. She spent a lot of time in her bedroom with her door shut, crying.
My mother removed herself by degrees from our middle-class tract house, our neighborhood's PTA housewives and welders and four-wheel-drive clubs. She founded a local chapter of NOW, began reading Psychology Today and Ms. Her closest new friends belonged to a group called TORI — "Trust, Openness, Response-Ability, Interdependence." When she took us with her to see them — couldn't get a babysitter, our father was out of town — we found their homes were old and full of antiques, plants, and home-baked bread. The men did not wear suits. The women wore ethnic jewelry, kept journals, made sculptures. These people were forever hugging each other while rocking back and forth. There was a lot of touching. My mother spent long hours in intense conversation with them, and my sister Jean and I explored their strange houses, played games. She didn't bother about us, and we stayed up much later than we were used to. The changes in our mother meant fewer rules for us, more fun.
This was in my mind when we moved to San Diego: freedom, newness. It was spring 1972. The three of us, luggage, two cats, and a litter box crammed in a dark green Volkswagen Beetle drove south. Tinny AM car radio blasted "Time of the Season." I'd finished third grade the previous week; my school records were in the glove compartment with my mother's divorce papers. We drank Tab and laughed over National Lampoon, a magazine my sister and I were excited to be allowed to read.
In San Diego, our mother found us a place to stay with friends — people from a group called the Mandala Society. They were professional-types with good manners and quiet habits. I remember a man named Dave who wore a Rajneesh pendant over burgundy-colored velour shirts. There was a piano in his living room, lots of bookcases, an Oriental rug. Surrounded by such familiar comforts, meditation and the concept of transcendence through the contemplation of pretty geometric patterns were not difficult for my sister and me to accept. Besides, we were getting used to not understanding things: Vietnam, the generation gap, psychedelia.
There was talk of starting a commune, purchasing a mansion at Sunset Cliffs where 15 of us would live together. Instead our mother moved us to an apartment on University, near 55th. We complained about the cockroaches, the stink of the gas oven, the cold tile floors. Our apartment filled up with plants in macramé hangers our mother made, incense, candles on brick-and-board shelves. On the shelves were books about transactional analysis, yoga, meditation, and our books: The Little Prince, The Velveteen Rabbit, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. On the floor were big pillows. We had a lot of cats with exotic names like Whispering Moon Cloud. We made and ate what we called Super Atomic Health Food cookies. We did not delve into exotic cuisines, however, since government food commodities did not lend themselves to that.
We began to see that world we had come from, our father's world, as allied with conservatism and the sort of limitations to freedom our mother now rolled her eyes at. She sometimes took our side against the bureaucracy of the school system, called us in sick when we weren't, boycotted PTA meetings and open houses. She dated a lot then. Her first steady boyfriend in San Diego was a bearded divorcee who wore peasant blouses and silver-and-turquoise jewelry — they took a massage class together and practiced on my sister and me. They took us camping or out to play in a friend's Jacuzzi.
Our mother's hair was brown and, until we moved to San Diego, worn shoulder length and smoothed back with a headband. She got a "gypsy" cut then — done in front of the bathroom mirror by pulling her hair forward onto her forehead, securing it an inch from the ends with a rubber band, and cutting the ends off. She wore long, dangly earrings and heavy silver rings she made herself in college art classes. Her glasses changed from cat-eyes to thick-framed tortoise oblongs, which she was forever breaking and repairing with Band-Aids and safety pins. Her body went into jeans and flower-printed nylon shirts with big collars and cuffs, worn bra-less, or was draped in wraparound paisley skirts or Mexican wedding dresses or long caftans she sewed herself and embroidered on the sleeves and bodices. She often sat with us while we did our homework, embroidering or stitching beads onto jeans, onto blue chambray work shirts.
After a few months, our mother moved us to an apartment on 43rd Street, south of University. Two L-shaped Huffman buildings facing each other, finished in beige stucco and black wrought iron. It was newer and cleaner; it had green shag carpeting and a chandelier in the dining alcove. My sister and I shared on bedroom, Mom had the other. She made her room up to resemble an Arabian tent. Turquoise and lavender fabric draped the ceiling and ran down the walls, punctuated by photos of naked men she clipped from Viva and Playgirl. Her long necklaces of clunky beads, velvet chokers hung from tacks. She bought an Indian-print bedspread at Pier One. There were a dozen candles — sand candles that she taught us to make, inset with shells, stones, bits of driftwood.
The neighborhood was lousy, but it was just a few blocks from the place we were spending our Sundays then, the Teaching of the Inner Christ. TIC was not, we were told then, a church. It was a "teaching." There were Sunday services, where, between meditation moments, songs about the power of love were sung. Slogans — "I Am," "Love Is the Only Power" — appeared in songs, sermons, on jewelry, on bumper-stickers and banners, in paintings and poems presented by members of the congregation. Sermons dwelt on the infinite possibilities for fulfillment that could be ours simply by "being open" and focusing our inner power, which we were to get at through contact with our individual, inner guiding spirits.
The name of my inner spirit, my "inner Christ," came to me as I sat between my mother and sister during a group channeling session. The lights were dimmed. There were perhaps 30 people on folding chairs in a circle. After opening relaxation exercises and a meditation in which we "closed our auras to all but the Christ vibration" (a precaution against invasion by evil spirits), the group leader asked us to speak the names of our personal guides. One by one the people paused, exhaled, said the strange names; I grew increasingly worried about what I would say. My mother went before me. "Ama," she said. It was my turn. I didn't think about it. I just said, "Iya."
My sister and I took a dance class through TIC, performed one Sunday in purple leotards and paisley skirts to a Moody Blues song called "Om." There were evening classes — I took Inner Sensitivity Training I & II, where I was taught how to write "treatments." There were nine-step prayers written out on paper and meditated over. Anything we wanted, the message was, was ours if we could just focus our spiritual energy properly. At the age of nine, this seemed a step up from fairy tales. It was real magic, that adults believed in. To work the magic, you only had to be true to yourself, nonjudgmental, open to all experiences.
Walking home from fourth grade once, I ran into one of the TIC's directors coming out of a store. The neighborhood was frightening to me. Even then there were homeless people on the bus benches, winos, men who'd approach you with suspicious-sounding requests. So I felt happy as he held my hand and walked with me back to the church building. He walked me as far as the alley behind the building that led toward our apartment. He bent over me, put his arms around me, and kissed my cheek. "If you were a little older, and I were a little younger," he said, "we could meet somewhere in the middle and have a beautiful thing."
Our mother did not express any skepticism about the concepts we were introduced to at TIC. Astral travel, reincarnation, crystal power — why not? She consulted psychics, had her tarot cards read. We bought tarot decks ourselves and practiced on each other. Astrology had been mainstreamed for several years by this point, and the three of us often commented on each other's typical Capricorn or Leo or Sagittarius behavior. When I was sick, my mother helped me to visualize white light. When Jean or I were angry with her, our mother accused us of "trying to lay a guilt trip" on her. Guilt, like obligation and responsibility, was considered a destructive concept. It belonged to the world of father and school, bills, rules.
TIC held aura-reading sessions. And there were "table-tippings," in which a group of people sat around a table and got in contact with spirits of various kinds — the names are lost to me now, I remember one named Baba-something — whose energy caused the table to rock back and forth under the guiding hands of those seated around it. I heard a bluebird channeled once. I heard strange languages like Gaelic spoken by people who claimed to have no knowledge of them. During group outings to Black's Beach, we decorated our naked bodies with seaweed and danced in the surf.
We went on weekend mountain retreats, sometimes with TIC people, sometimes with TORI people. Children tended to be shunted off at these functions, left to their own devices except at bedtime. The adults sat cross-legged on the floor, talking intensely, hitting pillows, giving massages, hugging each other. Late at night, there was body-painting and pot.
Jean and I would catch sight of our mother walking in the woods, clad in a suede coat lined with sheepskin, face stained with tears. When I succeeded in getting my mother's attention, I showed her drawings I'd made. As I got older, these were very often drawings of the floor plans of houses. Sometimes palaces, sometimes cozy little homes. Elaborate multi-leveled homes with all the different types of windows and doors I could think of.
In my mind, I see my sister standing in front of our bedroom window. It's the middle of the night. She is naked; the floodlights on the parking-spaces outside outline her body in bluish light. She is very quiet. I can't hear her breathe. Her arms are above her head; the window curtains are draped over her forearms. Her palms are pressed against the glass. Very slowly, she steps up onto the narrow window sill and wedges her bare feet into the lower corners. She leans her forehead against the window pane and stares out over the roofs of the houses to the west.
I remember the sounds of my sister waking up. Yawning, popping joints, thumping on the floor in a yoga exercise called "salute to the sun." The bathroom door would close; I listened to the water running and to the vigorous brushing Jean gave her braces. When hangers clicked in the closet, I'd turn over and ask, "What are you gonna wear?" We shared our clothes — low-riding bell-bottomed jeans, bell-sleeved blouses, knit vests. We talked then about our dreams of the night before. Flying dreams, animal dreams, running-with-stuck-feet dreams. Dreams where we battled gangsters or tricked them into leaving us alone.
I watched Jean in the bathroom brushing her hair, long and straight and dirty blonde. I was becoming envious of her. Her hair was longer and thicker. She was cultivating long fingernails. She was growing breasts. As we grew older and started spending our summer vacations at the beach (every day, an hour bussing there, an hour back), her tan was darker, her hips slimmer.
I listened from my bed to her muffled breakfast conversations with my mother, a peevish teen's bargainings for spare change and less housework and later hours. She'd come in to grab her school books, her detested orthodontic headgear, and scold me out of bed. Then she'd leave to catch the number seven bus down University, walk up over the 54th Street hill to Horace Mann Junior High.
I was dependent upon Jean for my opinions and attitudes. She was the trailblazer, the tester of things. Her thinking, in turn, was a trickle-down of our mother's thinking. All those little details of dress and decor that belonged to our new life were attached to ideas, assumptions about who people were. They were the criteria by which Jean and I evaluated people. If you wore huaraches and hooded shirts made of old flour sacks, you hung out at the beach. If you hung out at the beach, you probably smoked pot. If you smoked pot, you had rejected traditional means of subsistence. So you were cool — okay by us.
Jean studied French, went roller-skating in the park, ate brown-bag lunches with her girlfriends in the quad. She grew away from me. She came to spend most afternoons at her friend Maria's house, most evenings talking to her on the phone. The two sometimes met up just to wander the neighborhood, maybe shoplift some cosmetics from the Rexall Drugstore on the corner.
She was most mine when we were alone together, times that became more infrequent with each passing year. We still danced and acted out scenes from musicals together. We made up television commercials while we did the dishes: "This grease is so stubborn!" "No need to get pissed about it. Why don't you try Joy?" "I'm not into that new-age stuff...." In her less self-conscious moments, she still played dolls with me, but our games were rougher: Barbie plunging to her death from the top of the bureau, Ken making it with another doll and Barbie shooting him in a jealous rage.
Between us came boyfriends and what I saw as Jean's condescending assumption of a more parental role with me. I borrowed money from her; she yelled at me for spending it on candy bars. She put a curse on me, a TIC-derived proclamation that in later years I ridiculed her for: "I say this now and so it shall be: you'll never spend a dime wisely in your life!" I lost a ring my grandmother had given me; she found it and suspended it from a string near a door jamb, while I searched for a week.
When Jean made friends with Maria, who attended TIC with her family and lived nearby, I made friends with Maria's younger sister Rachel.
In my mind, I see Maria and Rachel taking us home for the first time. The first thing we see is their mother Rita's harp. The light in the living room is buttery, thick with dust particles. The harp stands at an angle in front of an unused fireplace on a threadbare dhurrie rug. Its gilt surface, figured along the pedestal and crown with curving vines and flowers, gleams. I walk across the creaking floorboards and dare to pluck a string. The tone is richer and mellower than seems possible for such a high note.
The golden, magic thing was in an old bungalow on Van Dyke, full of dark wood, stained wallpaper, and strange, small rooms whose original functions had been lost to time. The house smelled of vegetarian food and the faint sickly sweetness of pot. Maria and Rachel, lion-haired, barefooted, wearing dashikis and trailing the scent of frangipani, made their own yogurt and wove bracelets out of colored yarn. Their little brother Alex ran naked through the house or threw dirt clods at us in the yard. There was usually a man staying in the house with them, their mother's on-again, off-again boyfriend. Once, Alex ran up to us, very excited. The boyfriend, James, had been in the bathtub, Alex watching him through the door. Alex had been fascinated by James's penis. James had let him touch it and it popped up, which Alex thought very funny.
Rita was terrifying and alluring to us, as mysterious in her sudden rages as our own mother. She covered her immense bulk in caftans, wore her long, tightly curled hair loose over her shoulders. She gave harp lessons, had a part-time job at a stereo store. Maria and Rachel didn't speak much about their mother at first, but we knew that the odd rules of the house — when you phone, ring twice and hang up, then phone again — were edicts issued by Rita. There were times when Jean and I arrived to find Maria and Rachel whispering, tiptoeing around the house. "We have to go somewhere else," they'd say. "Mom's here."
So we walked out, to run and slide down a ramp into an old bomb shelter at Hoover High, to test out beanbag chairs and waterbed mattresses at a store on University Avenue. We walked down to Synthetic Trips, a head shop, and bought blacklight posters when we had saved enough money — Rachel's favorite was a scene of Disney characters in a cartoonish pastoral setting, fucking.
When Maria and Rachel had grown to trust us, we were told that Rita held Sexual Freedom League parties at their house. Sometimes the girls spent the night elsewhere, sometimes they stayed in their rooms when the orgies took place. Rita, it became apparent, was a kind of holistic whore, offering massages, pot-smoking, and sex. Her clients received her services in her bedroom, which was between Maria's room and the bathroom.
Maria, at the age of 12, once had to walk through the bedroom during one of her mother's engagements. Jean and I heard the story in whispers and giggles the next day. "I had to go to the bathroom, so I knocked and went on in. When I came back through the bedroom, Mom said, 'My friend here would like you to join us. Do you want to?' I was curious, so I did." Rachel, I remember, was furious.
Maria was a practical, blunt-spoken girl. Her voice was low and wet-sounding as if there were saliva in her throat she hadn't swallowed. She was impatient with emotional displays, which Jean and I were prone to. But it seemed to us that she knew how the world worked and how to handle anything. When a tomcat jumped on my back, dug his claws in, and wouldn't get off, Maria wrenched him off of me, laughing at his amorous state and my tears. When the four of us were stuck somewhere without bus money to get home, Maria was the one who approached strangers and bummed the change for our return fares.
I was listening to the radio when the announcement was made that US troops were pulling out of Vietnam. Maria and Rachel came pounding at our door, and the three of us jumped up and down on my mother's bed, shouting and whooping as the station played "War." Hunh! Good gawd, y'all, what is it good for? "Absolutely nothing!"
The four of us — Rachel, Maria, my sister and I — formed a club. We sneaked pornographic novels from my mother's bottom drawer and took turns reading chapters aloud. We spied on the Knights of Columbus next door, staked out a mysterious warehouse down the block that we were sure was run by the Mob. There was a treasure hunt game, in which we paired off and left clues for each other around the neighborhood, until someone on the street caught on and began following us. If we were in a particularly daring mood, we ran past Scotty's Bar on University and pushed open the door.
As we grew older the club split up. Maria and Jean would spend hours sequestered behind closed doors, telling secrets. Rachel and I went to school together briefly, before I was transferred across town. We played with our dolls, made houses out of chairs and record album covers for them, made up fantasies in which we'd shrink the teachers we hated and imprison them in our dollhouses. We read fantasy books together and imagined traveling through time, meeting our parents when they were children. We tried communicating with each other via telepathy (followed by a phone call: "Did you feel me thinking about you just now?).
By the time I was 12 and Jean was 15, our mother had finished with TIC and TORI and the Mandala Society. The friends she had made scaled off of her like skin, in layers. We ask her whatever happened to so-and-so. "Oh, him. Probably busted for drugs by now. Did I ever tell you he came on to me at that party?" Her affairs became longer, her boyfriends more "establishment." Positive visualization, astral travel, reincarnation were discarded, like the long gowns and ethnic necklaces she relegated first to her bottom drawer, then to cardboard boxes in her closet, then to us for costumes in school plays. Our efforts to remain what we called "open" gave way; openness was cast off with our sand candles and yoga exercises.
Maria telephoned me a couple of months ago. We hadn't spoken in 13 years. She had looked up my father, and he gave her my number. Her voice was the same — watery, smiling. She was living in the Bay Area and had just given birth. Unfortunately, she told me, she and the child's father were "cycling out," she said, when she went into labor. "I call it cycling out; what I mean is he's manic depressive like me, and we both ended up getting locked up that weekend." She was calling to tell me that her child is an angel, sent to Earth to bring people together.