Rape Stole My Soul

rh-ithaca-college-freshman-year-cropped-8-14-14Rape stole my belief in myself and left in its wake a corpse lying in a heap on an unmade bed. Rape took away the little girl I loved and put an actor in her place.

Fall, 1984. After a couple of hours at the college career counseling center my sophomore year, I decided exactly how I would achieve my career goals. It was a rush – a huge, empowering relief. I’d work by day in the editorial department of a magazine and write screenplays at night. It was all coming together. A killer plan that would make my dreams of being a screenwriter with a beachfront house in Malibu a reality while still in my 20’s. I walked out of that counseling center on a cloud-less spring afternoon feeling high, rejuvenated by a new sense of direction.

As luck would have it, my roommates were invited to a happy hour house party being thrown by upper classmen. We set off in our grey 1980’s Ford Escort to purchase our liquid contribution, Steve Winwood hitting the highest high notes on “Bring Me a Higher Love,” while my friends regaled each other with “Bring me another Bud.”

Buds in hand, we parked the Escort facing up a hilly street and followed the drifting sounds of the Grateful Dead. We arrived at a grey Victorian with a large front porch, the sun shining directly overhead. The air felt light. We saw no one we knew, but the stylish upper classmen decked out in Polo shirts and Tommy Bahama shorts were laughing and gently rocking their bodies back and forth – the “Deadhead Bop,” as it was known in sophomore land.  Undaunted, we mingled. Anna flitted here and there, joking with people she’d met for the first time, while Carmina and I hung back, smiling, content to be where we were on what we knew was a rare and perfect day.

Already buzzing with visions of my future deck overlooking the aquamarine Pacific, I got drunk quickly and easily. The day became night. We’re at a grimy underclassmen bar – back with our own kind. A senior from the porch party is there, wearing a light blue Mets cap. Kinda cute. Funny in a snappy, sarcastic way. I want to feel attractive, desirable. I steal his cap, flirting with him. He watches me walk away, smiling slightly. He lopes toward me.

The bed. Unmade double with door swung wide open. My naked body lying on it, head turned toward the door. His long, thin penis inside me, pushing himself harder and harder into me. How did I get here? Why is he on top of me? I want out but stay quiet. He’s hurting me. I lie there motionless. Where did I go and why can’t I speak?

His face never looks down at mine. Never wonders who I am. Never questions if I am someone’s daughter, sister, best friend since pre-school. Someone who played with her Barbie camper on the front lawn, knocked on every door on the block looking for friends when she moved to a new town, taught herself how to ride a unicycle.


Someone with an unshakeable belief in herself and her place in the world.

As he pushed himself carelessly deeper and deeper inside of me, I left her on the bed, in that house, that night, in Ithaca. Never said goodbye. Never mentioned her again. She was dead, but my corpse carried on.

My belief in myself and the inherent goodness of others lie in ruins on the top of that unmade bed. In the 29 years since, I’ve never fully believed in anything. It’s like my soul was ripped out and replaced by a copy – a perfect replica on the outside but empty within.

Gone is the girl with the bounce in her step. Who am I now and how do I get that bounce back?

The girl who whiled away rainy Sundays watching Gene Kelly and Cary Grant movie marathons and loved nothing more than lying on the warm cement at the swim club eating Fun Dip while the sun baked your back. The one who felt strength in her difference when friends called her “flake,” “airhead,” or “FROBIN” (fucking Robin.)  I was sensitive and my brain worked differently, but that’s what made me who I was. And that was good.

I miss that girl, her spunk, and her Barbie camper.  When she comes back, I promise to love her and never let her go.

Summer Camp at 50 or How I Learned to Stop Thinking and Smell the Manure

I’ve never been to summer camp. Always wanted to. In my 14 year-old fantasies, it was a place you sat on a dock at dusk with the best friend you wish you had at home, telling her your deepest and darkest until a sporty, pony-tailed counselor dragged you kicking and screaming back to your bunk. I was Kristy McNichol in all her feathered hair and cut off jean shorts perfection. My best friend a street-wise cross between Blair from “The Facts of Life” and Molly Ringwald.

I’m 50 now and couldn’t squeeze an arm through either leg of Kristy’s jean shorts, but I got a taste of camp last weekend. It was all I’d hoped, albeit without Matt Dillon eyeing my curves from across the lake.

I sent myself to writing camp in the woods of Montana. A retreat actually. Twelve women sat in a circle for three days, warmed by a crackling fire, hot tea, and animal-free food creations that would melt the souls of even the most die-hard bacon lover.

Guided by our leader, writer Laura Munson, we wrote with abandon. Laura gave us “prompts” – a few words to include in what we were writing and ten minutes during which time our pens must move. Mine sailed across the lines, releasing what’s been bottled up for years with ease and joy. I felt freer than I have since I was 12 years old, flying through the air on a neighbor’s zip line.

Twelve is when you birth your inner critic, I learned. That may explain why I’ve always felt 12 – prepubescent pimples erupting within while struggling to maintain the unblemished veneer of normality without.

Don’t think. Trust what’s in there to come out. Let it bypass the “scared, little girl with a megaphone,” as Laura described our head noise. If your intuition, your trust lives, so do you. If the scared little girl triumphs, you’re just one of our many walking wounded.

Writing’s been the one thing I’ve wanted to do since I was 5. Lying on our living room’s blue shag carpeting making up stories to go with the comics I could not read while my sister grew more and more engrossed with Hagar the Horrible, Peanuts, the Lockhorns, and eventually just tuned me out.

I’ve written on and off through the years but never with complete commitment. So, at this point, my scared little girl has morphed into a 300 pound weightlifter with one monstrous megaphone.

“Get out of your own way.” I’ve heard that before. I’ve done Landmark for crissakes. But it wasn’t until I consciously felt my soul running roughshod over my mind did I get the power and freedom in those words.

Way back in third grade, as a new kid, I started editing my speech so no one would notice my healthy vocab and innate weirdness. Unfortunately, what I though was a kind gesture that would make me more likeable was the beginning of a self-esteem sucking journey of dumbing down who I was. By not honoring my true gifts, I’d passed the megaphone over to a little girl hell bent on pleasing others with little thought for her own well-being.

My version of summer camp also offered something called ‘equine assisted learning.’ As someone who’s one horse riding experience years ago resulted in an unplanned jaunt through the Mexican countryside, I viewed horses as stupid, large and strong. “They sense fear,” I learned while sliding off my horse into the pool of jello that had been my legs.


With a now entrenched, sweat-inducing fear of anything horse-y, I had to go.

We didn’t ride them so much as “be” with them. I entered a large field with my camp friend, Melisa (more Tatum O’Neal than Molly R.) where 30 horses milled about. Sections of the field were cordoned off with loosely strung electric wire. My mind flew to visions of my Mexican horse noshing on long, yellow grass, the feeling of my legs clutching his torso, while my mind begged him to get it together and join the others. As we walked into the field, the horses approached, and I felt all the unknown insecurity of speed dating. Would any of them pick me over the much younger and prettier Melisa?

Breathe. Don’t touch the live wires. I didn’t want to let down Bobbi, the independent, salt-of-the-earth ranch owner, or seem weak to her. Two majestic horses noticed me but didn’t stay. And so it went.

Then I saw Star, a gray, slope-backed pony ridden by Bobbi’s 27 year-old daughter, Cedar. Cedar has Down’s Syndrome like two of my aunts, so I knew Star would be gentle and sweet. He was a soft furry bundle of warmth wrapped in an all-encompassing horse hug. I stroked the sweet spot down his shoulders while Bobbie talked about all the times Cedar painted and dressed him.


There were 29 more horses and a wide open field yet to explore, so encouraged by Bobbie, I walked on.

She said horses put their muzzle where they feel you need their energy the most. So far, they’d been nosing around my waist. Muffin top intervention?  Bobbie asked me to look up. I was surrounded by six geldings. One kept pushing his muzzle into my stomach.

“How much do people push your boundaries?”

“All the time.”

She told me to gently nudge the horse with the back of my hand.

“Go ahead. He won’t take it personally.”

I did. He moved his face away but stayed put. They all did. At the time I thought they were showing me that I belonged – a rare feeling for me. But now, I realize it goes deeper. By surrounding me, they were telling me “We’re taking care of you. You’re safe here.”

And my stomach? That’s where we smash it all down like an emotional trash compactor. Decades of bottled up desires, words unsaid left to rot. I now hear what my horse friends were saying: “be like us, live here, now, trust yourself, and most important of all – drop that megaphone, girl.”



Purification on the High Seas; Discovering the Power of Focus from a Whale Watch Gone Bad

I’ve never been much of a meditator. Thoughts flash too fast and furious on a wide range of equally irrelevant subjects. My nails are worn to nubs from picking and biting. But, at age 51, I’ve finally experienced the power and beauty of lack of thought.

Just as I’ve always admired the yoga practitioner and serial meditator, I’ve fantasized about the peace that lies in the calm of the open sea. With dreams of spouting whales and jumping dolphins, I shepherd our family of four to our first whale watch.

What I thought I’d see.

Twenty minutes after ‘take off’ and I’m bent over a silver toilet in what must be the cleanest ship’s bathroom ever. If any of the marine biology students guiding our vessel ever decide to start a cleaning service, I’m in.

Provided just enough room to wedge my doubled-over self between the outer rim of the toilet bowl and door, I brace myself for the impending swells and gastrointestinal upset against my own personal lifesaver – the sink. I’m over-the-moon grateful for its lack of errant, stranger hair and rock-solid sturdiness when all around me bobs and weaves. I feel a connection far beyond what’s normal for porcelain.

The phrase “getting your sea legs” comes to mind and provides some relief. I repeat it over and over. Its future tense implies that use of my legs is just a matter of time. It gives me hope that I will leave this room walking upright and not carried out on a stretcher.

Not me.

When my husband knocks on the door, I can barely speak, but I need to know I’m the only sick one. Knowing that, I’m free to focus on the sweat that pours from me like a water tap at full blast and expelling anything remaining in my belly. Despite the microwaved White Castle burgers my sons ate as we left the dock, I’m the only one taking up permanent residence in a bathroom. Judging from the fortunate lack of sandaled feet visible on the other side of the door, I may be all alone in my love of the sink and scorn for the sea.

Given the knowledge that I’m blissfully alone, I’m free to focus on my current state and all it entails. With everything inside coming out and the ability to stand seeming increasingly like a pipe dream, it’s impossible to think of anything other than where I am at this very second. My mind is a slave to my body.

The churning sea.

After an hour and a half in my own personal purification chamber and missing every whale and dolphin sighting blared with joyful exuberance from the ship’s PA, I stand with my legs of clay, hugging the sides of the ship in search of the first familiar face. I still can’t force words from my mouth, but I fall on the ship’s stern next to my ten year old son, who looks like he’s seen a ghost. Oh wait, it’s me.

I manspead my legs like a frat boy on the subway. No guilt or worry about social propriety. It feels freeing and glorious.

My husband rubs my back. With each movement, the soaked t-shirt and jogging bra move as one, the straps getting caught up with the shirt and vice versa. But with zero thoughts clunking around my brain aside from surviving this journey, I can fully appreciate the affection. Despite lingering flop sweat and Pippi Longstocking on acid hair, I’m being caressed. To me, that’s the best of what meditation brings someone – clearing away the debris to see what’s been there all along.

While my ‘meditative’ experience is not something I’m eager to repeat, it showed me with complete certainty that sometimes you have to throw it all up to see what you have.

A photo by Jeremy Bishop. unsplash.com/photos/omDNGQ8E9rg

Bye, Bye 36B

“Raaaaab. Was it the 34A or AA that was too big?,” my mom yells from across the small, dimly lit family-owned department store whose bras were a rite of passage for local junior high girls. Bra shopping at 12 is cringe-inducing enough, but when the store owners’ son is a boy you know, it’s excruciating. And there, as if on cue – Todd Yaserian, walking toward me, straight from the free-standing racks of off-brand plaid Toughskins. From the way he lowered his head and smiled slightly, I knew I wasn’t the first girl whose red face he’d seen pop out from behind these heavy, brown curtains. Even though I was fairly confident sweet Todd would never reveal my cup details, it’s a moment of deep, pre-adolescent embarrassment I’ll never forget. I wanted to become a puddle on that cold linoleum spot, leaving nothing behind but my white maidenform AA’s.


Thirty six years later, and I’ve still never been fitted properly for a bra. With my 30th high school reunion in a few days and two hours of alone time before the next kid pick up, I tentatively step into a local bra store. With its rows upon rows of designer bras, panties spanning the gamut from high-waisted to something called Commando, and flowered bikinis that look like works of art, I’d unwittingly entered underwear nirvana.


With no previous experience, I’m dizzied by possibility. A woman behind the cash register talks easily, laughing with a customer seated a few feet away. I assume the customer is a regular and came in knowing not only her size but had a favorite make and model.  I begin flipping through the racks, attempting to appear as though I have a plan. But I’ve only got two hours, and mindless perusal is getting me nowhere fast.


“I’m not sure what I’m doing,” I blurt to the first unoccupied sales woman.


“No problem. We’ll get you fitted.” Yes, a plan in place.


My saleswoman, Esther, spends over an hour with me, giving me her undivided attention. We explore underwire versus no underwire, padded versus hello nipples, and sizes ranging from 34DD to 36FF. As someone who thought of herself as roughly a 36B, this sizing comes as a shock. Then my counsel advises against my running favorite – a lacey black underwire.


“You see that, that’s double boob.” Esther’s more experienced colleague Sydney points toward my left arm pit, to flesh that’d been pushed beyond the outer limits of the 34FF. I’m beginning to feel like a patient being observed by medical students.


When I make my final selection known to Esther, she calls for immediate backup. Still wearing the pretty black underwire, Sydney asks me to shake my boobs back and forth while leaning over. I give it my best shot, but there’s a reason I’ve never danced that way. I’m lacking whatever fluidity is required to shimmy. The two women watch intently, keeping their laughter to a respectful minimum as I jerk to and fro. Everything stays put. A meeting of the minds regarding the severity of my double boob affliction results in a reserved thumbs up from Sydney.


There are still more underwear firsts I’d want to achieve. Spanx? But do I have to try them on? A resounding “Yes” from my counsel.  My shoulders fall to my knees. I want a pair, particularly with the reunion so close, but do I have what it takes for another hour of shimmying, squeezing and staring? Plus, I’m growing tired of looking at my no-pack abs glorified in fluorescent lighting – a stark, visual reminder that my pre-dawn exercise regimen has gotten me no closer to wearing one of those beautiful, lilac print bikinis.


I soldier on, limiting myself to three different styles – unitard with legs, unitard without legs, and briefs. Getting them on and off requires slightly less balance than imagined, and I manage to remain upright while stretching leg number two through its illusive hole. After putting the unitard on backward, we agree the brief is best.


I leave the store boobs and head held high. I’d gotten exactly what I wanted and had never treated myself to. I go home to practice my shimmy for my next underwear first – a black lace nightgown.


Random bra and life facts learned:

1)      Moving up from a size 34 to a 38 does not mean that your breasts have gotten bigger, it means you have grown wider.

2)      The existence of double boob, the Commando thong, and bra gap.

3)      Self-consciousness in group dressing rooms diminishes drastically with age

4)      Half-naked shimmying in front of strangers can fun – with the right strangers.

5)      Bye, bye 36B.






“Like me. Like me. Find your backbone or lose yourself”

Robin Hoffman 70's with glasses 2 (2)Sitting in my friend Megan’s wood-paneled den watching “General Hospital” with my 12 year old pals in the late 70’s, a spontaneous poll broke out. Via anonymous crumpled pieces of notebook paper, Pam was voted the prettiest, Patty the funniest, Kate the best athlete, Stacey the smartest, Megan the toughest, Tina the best hair, and I won “the nicest.”

It felt like a slap across my tin-filled mouth. That was the exact opposite of how and who I wanted to be. I felt weak, invisible, too nice to matter. The jig was up. Others knew my secret – I was a pleaser, not a fighter.

I wanted Megan’s votes – the ability not to feel and notice everything so intensely, not to care what other people thought about every minutia of you, to accept without hesitation when another girl “called you out” for an after-school fight on the hill. That was freedom, and as alien to me as Tina’s soft blonde, perfectly feathered hair.

Around that time I remember my mom saying that I treated my friends better than my family. Immediately, I knew it was true. My family was stuck with me, warts and all, or so I thought back then.

I wish I could say that with those early realizations came change, but that’d be a big, fat one. Fast forward 36 years from middle school to last night. My husband said he feels like he and our kids get the scraps of what’s left over after I’ve given the best of myself to clients, co-workers, friends and strangers. Being thoughtful and kind takes energy, and my tank of nice is typically spent by the end of the day.

Case in point – yesterday I picked up my seven-year-old at a friend’s house across town at 5pm when I knew my husband needed to get him somewhere by 6. I’d agreed to the date and time last week when I knew the timing would be tight. In my effort to please my son’s friend’s mom and my son, I’d set up an arrangement that’d add more stress to our family’s already rushed evening time.

When I arrived to retrieve my son promptly at 5pm, he was in the midst of a critical part of his starburst Rainbow Loom bracelet and in no rush to leave. His friend’s mom was warm and fun. She popped open a bottle of red wine, and guess what? I had a glass. I never fully enjoyed the wine because I knew that my husband would be incredibly ticked off when my son and I arrived home late and unfed. Yet I drank, and he loomed.

What’s at the core of this strong compulsion to be liked? If I truly knew, I’d vow to care less.

This morning, I read a news report about 12 year-old Rebecca Sedwick who threw herself off a tower at a concrete plant in Lakeland, Florida last month after months of extreme cyber bullying. Her mother homeschooled Rebecca rather than send her to school alongside her 12- and 14-year old tormentors, but still allowed her to use her cell phone. “I just didn’t want to have her not like me….,” her mom said.

And that’s likely how the 12-year old bully felt about the older girl leading the charge against Rebecca. So strong was her need to be liked by this 14-year-old alpha dog that she beat up her former best friend simply because this broken but ultra-tough girl told her to.

Adolescence and its seeming unending cycle of pain makes things appear more vividly in my mind. I think back to that time and know that if we’d had cell phones and social media instead of Pac Man and General Hospital, there would have been bullies and the bullied. And it would have been brutal.

I would have been bullied.

But I have the luxury of guessing, which is something today’s eager-to-fit-in pre-teens don’t. If someone with power in their social circle posts something mean about them, they feel as though their world is crashing in. And others can be compelled to go against their nature and hurt former friends or do nothing rather than risk being cast out of what seems like the most important group that will ever be.

Are we so earth shatteringly afraid of others’ judgment and looking at the dark places within that we neglect ourselves and those that care about us?

That desire to fit in may begin in adolescence and continue on for decades, but we can chose to end it whenever we want. I’m starting now.

Why I Hate the Word Retarded

Aunt Suzanne
Aunt Suzanne

During a recent visit to my local salon, I emerged from my hair cut to see my eleven- and seven-year-old sons in the reception area with noses buried deep in hard covers of “The Red Pyramid” and “Captain Underpants.” There’d been an all-electronics ban that morning, so my heart skipped a beat when I saw them reading with a focus that only the words “doughnuts” or “free Legos” could disturb. What thrilled me most was that an older, mentally challenged man sat reading over my younger son’s shoulder, tugging at my son’s book and laughing with gusto while spit dropped onto the flipping pages below.

My kid never moved a muscle. He looked wary and didn’t engage the man in conversation, but he calmly stayed put.

For that I thank Aunt Suzanne and Mrs. Vascimini. Aunt Suzanne is our family’s tightest hugger, an ardent fan of “Dark Shadows” and “Touched by an Angel”, and one of the few people I know who says “I love you” every day. Suzanne and her now-deceased twin sister Joanne were born with Downs Syndrome. Mrs. Vascimini was my son’s kindergarten teacher. In her inclusive classroom, one of the many lessons she instilled was ‘everyone has a gift.’

I was feeling a strong need that morning to connect with humanity, and in my experience, it’s easier to connect with someone without pretense.

With that in mind and with my older son’s 3-inch high hair now meeting #1 blade clippers, I begin to pepper the man with questions. What was his favorite Captain Underpants book? Was he getting his hair cut? How long did he think the crowd at the bus stop had been waiting for the NYC bus in the 100-plus temperature? I can’t understand anything he says in response. I nod, smile, and send my eyes back down to the pages of Captain Underpants.

Later that day I’m asked, “What does retarded mean?”

That word always brings me back to the long street where I grew up. I’m about ten years old and walking to a friend’s house. There’s a large group of high school kids gathered at the top of the street, with my friend’s older sister twisting her body spastically and falling to the ground. She hobbles toward me, falling over at my feet, and loudly blurts out the United Way commercial catch phrase of the 1970’s “Thanks to you it’s working – the United Way.” Her friends laugh, except for one who tells her to cut it out because she’s scaring me. My friend’s sister continues twitching and grunting below me. With every rapid jerk of her bent arms and legs, a sharp pain cuts through my body. She must know. I’m different too, just like the kids in the United Way commercials. Half Jewish/half Catholic, unlike my fully Catholic neighbors with five to 12 kids in a family. We have three kids, no Christmas tree, and two Aunts with Downs Syndrome. I say nothing and walk on.

I attempt to describe the word ‘retarded’ to my son. Aunt Suzanne is retarded, meaning her brain works differently, slower than ‘normal’ people. But, as she says, “I’m retarded, but not stupid.” She laughs, hugs, and loves without reservation. She has no filter of looking good. “You’re my favorite,” she says to whoever has just engaged her in conversation or returned a hug. And she means it every time.

“So, who’s really retarded?” I whisper angrily from my lips.

“Everyone has a gift,” he says. The day brightens. My heart overwhelms with love for him, Suzanne, and Mrs. Vascimini.

Suzanne’s gift is her fearlessness. As she sits at my mom’s kitchen table, meticulously filling in the pages of her Barbie coloring book, she’ll gently touch my forearm, look up and smile. She never stops to worry what if I don’t smile back or put my hand on top of hers. There are no such rules for her.

That’s one of the many reasons the word retarded has always pissed me off. Shouldn’t we be more like those that hug with a force that almost knocks you over rather than those of us whose hugs are wrapped in fear and restraint? As we ‘mature,’ we kill our souls with our own insularity, blaming others for our own pain and isolation. Suzanne knows better and always has. The older I get, the more I realize she’s someone I want to and need to emulate. The only fear is the one we give life.

Carmina, Seth and Connections Untended

I went to my summer orientation at Ithaca College in 1983 mainly concerned with the paltry, much-ballyhooed 1:3 guy/girl ratio.  That fear quickly gave way to elation when I saw Seth – a tanned fellow frosh with a shy, crooked smile and black Specials t-shirt sitting on a dorm room desk during our ‘grain alcohol in trash can’ mixer.

I stood motionless at the doorway, unable to lift my arm to accept my first grain punch in a red plastic cup offered by my orientation roommate whose name and face I no longer remember. Seth’s smile and dancing brown eyes told me all I needed to know – he would be my salvation from four years of girl-only company.  I saw us strolling hand in hand through the quad, laughing casually, gazing deep into each other’s dark, brown eyes, then shyly at the ground. Others would long for our connection.

Seth one week after we met
Seth one week after we met

My visions of a Seth-filled future were quickly dashed when into the room flew a storm of a girl with black curly hair and a slightly hunched over, Groucho Mark walk. She strode toward Seth and hopped up next to him, their bare thighs touching. She talked loudly but closely in his ear. She announced, “No one here knows good music,” marched over to the boom box, increased the volume, and unleashed Shannon’s “Let the Music Play” upon the roomful of would-be freshmen. She was from Long Island. She knew good music.

Hatred seethed from every pore, as I remained rooted in the doorway.

I need not have seethed. That fall, arriving early to my first Tuesday night “Introduction to Cinema” class, with the large lecture hall nearly empty, it was easy to spot Seth sitting near the back row of seats, his leg bobbing rapidly up and down. Instinctively, I knew I had to act. I’d watched my junior high through high school crush date the entire cheerleading squad, remaining mute in his presence for fear speaking would reveal my inner weirdness. History would not repeat. I sat next to him and attempted my best small talk. Our mutual awkwardness bonded us immediately. He lived in Ithaca, had a pet Tarantula, and loved horror movies.  I told him about my summer lifeguarding, cleaning bathrooms with buckets of a chemical wash that looked like dirty Listerine, and picking up lipstick-stained cigarette butts. 3:1 ratio be damned. I’d scored my first-ever boyfriend on the second day of college.

We were a serious couple for a year and a half – akin to briefly married during the pre-AIDS college years.  He was the first person I ever cared about more than myself. This I discovered through the 1984 movie “Starman” was the definition of love.  I lost my virginity to Seth on the twin bed in my dorm room after a Friday night date of Mexican food and The Big Chill.

Midway through freshman year, at Thursday’s dime beer night, I met Anna Green, a tall blonde woman who seemed to do everything at ten times the speed of normal people. Within ten minutes of meeting Anna in the narrow corridor of a bar where the bathroom door never quite latched and the floor was perpetually coated with a layer of Pabst, I laughed harder than I’d ever remembered. Her deep, booming voice resonated over the heads of our fellow drunken 18 year olds and pounding music. “Make like a Honda. Follow the leader,” she beckoned. Anna deftly led me through the sweaty bodies pressed together at the bar to where the beer soaked ground parted, and there stood….the curly haired disco girl from Long Island.

“This is my best friend, Carmina.”  Still stinging from memories of Orientation ’83, I mumbled a lame hi in Carmina’s direction. She met me with a slightly confused smile.

Anna Carmina and me
Anna Carmina and me

The three of us were connected from that ‘dimies’ on. As young friends do, we raucously rolled through life, my initial judgments vanishing. We were roommates until the singularly most depressing day we’d ever known – college graduation in June of 1987.

From the time she broke free of her mother’s womb, beating the other triplets, Carmina was the one to do things first. The first roommate to cook a steak for her date, which also marked the first time our apartment’s broiler saw any action. Flames flickering in the oven, Carmina laughed, rushing her towel-covered hand into that bottom broiler pan, rescuing the blackened meat.  She was the first to try a dance I knew on the slippery, diamond-lighted floor of the North Forty disco;  the first (and only) to try the sardines in tomato sauce my dad packed in his slightly eclectic care packages; and the first to speak a foreign language during our travels abroad. The first to get us kicked off a London bus for talking back to the conductor who, thinking we were entitled young friends of Ronald Reagan, asked to see our American Express cards.

In Paris, Carmina, our London semester roommate Michelle, and I neglected to notice the tunnel walkway beneath the Arc de Triomphe. We thought the only way to cross was directly through the traffic circle of careening 1960’s cars whose drivers would surely love to impale three, lost American girls. Carmina grabbed Michelle’s hand and navigated them safely through the swarm of cars. I can still hear the honking.

This woman I’d envisioned as symbolizing everything I’d hate about college made it one of the most joyful times in my life. Carmina died from cancer on May 27th at the age of 48. We hadn’t spoken in over a decade aside from a quick chat on Facebook years ago. She said she’d had breast cancer.  She was upbeat. I assumed cancer had nothing on Carmina.

After seeing a Facebook photo of Carmina and her best friend Patty last month, I realized something was wrong. The comments below the picture read “BFF’s before there were BFF’s” and “Very significant photo.” I sent questions to her FB friends. The funeral was the next morning.

Attending her funeral was the best friend thing I’d done for her in over 10 years. Driving there, the tears raged.  Gone was my chance to sit in her kitchen, laugh about our college exploits, and listen as she filled me in on her life and struggles with breast cancer.

After Carmina’s funeral, my thoughts turned to Seth who was diagnosed with MS several years after graduation. I Googled his name.  Seth died this past March, just two months before Carmina. A high school friend wrote on the funeral home guest book that Seth always championed the underdog, fearless of the repercussions. I’d often thought he was too good for this world. He cared too much, loved too deeply.

When I think back to the mid 80’s, Carmina and Seth loom larger than life. I imagine them sitting together again where I first saw them, laughing, enjoying each other’s strength, high spirits, and kindness. I know they’re the friends we all wish we could be.

Will the pain I felt driving down Route 80 toward Scranton late last month break me out of my bubble of insularity? I so wish I could say a resounding yes.  Truthfully, I still barely answer my home phone. My hope is that I honor them a bit more each day by being what they were blessed with – Carmina’s ability to make anyone feel like her best friend and Seth’s limitless love and sensitivity.  My heart aches for their presence, but I’m sure glad they got to teach me while they were around.

My Friend the Fighter

The climb toward self-reliance was a bit steeper for me than most. In family movies, I’m five years old and hanging behind the crowd of family and friends as we trek toward a renowned sledding hill near my cousins’ house in Rochester—never more than two feet from my mother’s hip. She’d brought our new puppy, a Siberian Huskey named Pandi, on the hike leash-free. I couldn’t leave my mother’s side for fear that if I did, Pandi would pick that exact moment to run off and no one would be able to stop her. While the other kids careened down the huge hill in tubes, skis, and toboggans, I stood with my eyes peeled on Pandi and my astonishingly cavalier mother who continued to laugh and talk with the other adults while our new puppy could be just seconds away from a life fending for herself in the wild or annihilated by a passing Honda.

During a family vacation in Quebec City when I was eight and enjoying the cozy feel of the narrow, stone-laid streets, I began to skip ahead of everyone else. I overheard my father say to my mother, “She’s such a free spirit.” I was skipping, that’s true, but aiming my skips so that my back foot landed on only the dark-colored stones. If I didn’t, disaster would befall the rest of our Canadian travels.

Linda Jackman was a free spirit. In fifth grade she was everything I was not—tough and short. I would stand in front of the bathroom mirror imagining what I’d look like if I were born a Jackman. With a dirty blonde bob, half a head shorter, squinting my eyes so that they were wider and narrower like hers, adopting my best “been there, done that” gaze.

I couldn’t imagine her crying—ever. I went to her apartment one day after school. All the drapes were drawn, so it was cave-like but very alive. She and her sister passionately argued the perennial Good-Times-versus-Happy-Days debate. Her sister, a year older and a lifetime cooler than us, thought Good Times was far funnier and Happy Days was for babies. I agreed with Linda’s sister, although I watched Happy Days more, but didn’t say a word. Their passion intimidated me. At ages 10 and 11, they were sure of their own opinions in a way I’d never known.

Her mom was divorced, still uncommon in the mid-70’s, and did not sweat anything smaller than a broken bone. She later became my all-time favorite softball coach after I took a particularly hearty practice swing, conking the nearby Anna Marie Walton, solidly in the head. Ms. Jackman rubbed Anna’s head, saw the look of terror in my face, and said nothing to me. She was full of quick jokes and chain smoked. And I knew whenever Ms. Jackman was around, we were free to be ourselves. They were the real deal. “One Day at Time” without the fame, fortune and drug addiction.

I was a perpetual goody goody. Never so much as sneaked a pack of Bubble Yum into my coat, tried a cigarette, or played hookey from school with the other kids. This is why, I believe, Linda Jackman “called me out.”

To “call someone out” in 1970’s grade school parlance, at least in suburban Philadelphia, meant to challenge them to a fight after school. In our world that meant meeting after school at either the hill across the street or in a rundown local park—location to be agreed upon after the fight was accepted. The two fighters were shoved together by a self-appointed referee, typically the most aggressive and outgoing of the crowd. The shove was initiated to get the two in physical contact so the fisticuffs flowed forth naturally from that point.

I sheepishly said no, but then practiced punching Linda in that same bathroom mirror. If I could just practice my form enough times, maybe I could win. She called me out again. Again, I said no. “You’re such a Momma’s girl. You’re just afraid your mom will be mad at you.”

Of course, she was right. That and I was petrified of the unknown. Fighting was not my element. Linda’s was the first time I was called out, but it wasn’t the last. While I knew I was strong and could likely hold my own if I remained confident, I never accepted.

But Linda and I were still friends, and even arranged our sleeping bags next to each other at the fifth grade social event of the season—Josie Purcell’s slumber party. Josie was the girl most likely in a fight on the hill or serving as the referee. During our middle school years, her command not to talk to Lynn Richter, a girl on the periphery of the popular social circle, left Lynn with one or two friends until she moved away a year later. There was never any reason given not to talk to Lynn – just that Josie had given the order.

I’d known Josie since third grade and knew her in a way many of the other girls didn’t. Our moms were friends. We both loved to read, and she’d always found in me a particularly engaged listener when she spoke about her experiences with boys.

Josie’s party was shaping up to be the wildest of an already memorable year of elementary school slumber parties. She was inviting 20 girls and some that I did not know.  I hated these slumber parties but went to every last one. I was afraid to fall asleep because, if I did, someone would paint my face with mascara or put my wrist in warm water to make me pee in my sleeping bag. And then there were the séances to bring back the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, Jack the Ripper, or some such long-gone historical figure. The worst was the behind-the-back gossip about other girls, some who were at the party but presumed sleeping. This happened to me. A group of girls were trying to top each other with the weirdest best friend they had when they were younger. One girl said, “Oh, that’s nothing. I was best friends with Robin.” I closed my eyes tightly, counting the minutes until my mom picked me up.

What I liked about the slumber parties was returning home the next morning and sleeping all day, so thoroughly grateful that another one of these events was behind me.

We never made it to the séance portion of the evening at Josie’s. Josie had concocted a different game to play. Her friend DeDe Marigold, one of the girls that I didn’t know, was going to hide under Josie’s sleeping bad and Josie was going to dare DeDe to take her clothes off piece by piece. I stayed in my sleeping bag next to Linda, clear on the other side of the room. Nonplussed about the atypical striptease about to go down, Linda asked me, “Will you wake me up if someone mascara’s my face?” I said sure but hoped I’d be asleep by then, thereby absolved of any responsibility.

Linda slept like a baby while DeDe slowly took all her clothes off under Josie’s sleeping bag. The front door of the house flew open and in walked Josie’s dad. The living room was dark and covered with wall-to-wall sleeping bags. Some girls whooped in excitement at Mr. Purcell’s arrival. DeDe scrambled to make sure all of her private parts were covered by the blanket. Josie yelled, “Dad, DeDe’s naked.” Mr. Purcell groaned, smiled slightly and clunked his way up the stairs.

I looked at Linda. She was fast asleep. It was the middle of the night but jeez, someone was naked under a blanket, Josie’s dad just walked in, throngs of girls stood ready to paint your face with make-up, and soon there’d be a gossip fest possibly mentioning you.

Linda didn’t wake up until the next morning, complete with mascara freckles all over her face.  “They got you,” I said. “Why didn’t you wake me up?” she asked me. “I am so sorry, Linda.” I didn’t even offer an excuse for my cowardice. I knew without question that Linda would have woken me if I’d been the target.

During winter break of my freshman year of college, I saw Linda working at a local Bloomingdale’s. She was dressed elegantly in a black and white suite, her blonde hair grown out to shoulder length, with what I swear was a golden aura surrounding her head and shoulders. It startled me, as did a softness she showed. I couldn’t help looking back at her before I left the store. She was such a far cry from the scrappy young girl who tried to give me ringworm by touching her infected neck and then mine. I wanted to say something to her about how put together she was, but again my words and confidence were nowhere to be found.

Linda was killed in her early 20s, hit by a car as she was crossing a street. I’ll always remember her exactly as I saw her in Bloomingdale’s that day. And I’ll always believe that the golden shine was her halo.

I am Latchkey; Hear me Roar

After a succession of particularly mean first, second and third grade teachers, I was assigned the motherload of evil in one Mrs. Webster for my fourth grade at Round Meadow Elementary. She was a short, stout woman with horn-rimmed glasses and a red bouffant hair-do that seemed as petrified of her in its frozen stillness as her wide-eyed students. After receiving the news of my unfortunate placement, my mother, (imagine a cross between an angry Helen Reddy and Sally Field from “Norma Rae”) marched to the principal’s office demanding I be put in a class with a teacher that didn’t hit or believe in public humiliation as a teaching tactic.

Enter into my life the amazing Mrs. Miller. She was like no teacher I’d ever had. She oozed warmth, plus a whole lotta 70’s cool. I remember seeing her one day smartly dressed in a white turtleneck, dangling gold chain, and flared bellbottom slacks, and thinking I wanted to be her when I was older – although sans the stench of smoke that floated around her like Pigpen’s cloud of dust.

While I was in the fourth grade, my mom decided she’d had enough of a life that existed mainly within the four walls of 371 Oakwood Lane and re-joined the workforce. This filled me, already a fingernail-biting nine-year-old, with considerable fear for my future. With my mom gone, that would leave just myself and Pandi, our aloof Siberian Husky, to watch “Tattletales” and “Match Game 77” after school. I had no idea, nor did I care, just how desperate my mother was to re-start her nursing career. How could she possibly want to do something other than spend time with me, watching Gene Rayburn and pals on our small black and white TV in the kitchen while I ate my Peanut Butter Tandy Takes and drank my milk?

Until that point, it was just my dad who worked. And judging from his tense face, frequent cursing (“Jesus Christ, I hate my job” was a frequent refrain heard ‘round the dinner table), and litany of complaints about his “idiot” bosses, work was not something that seemed in any way pleasurable. It was to be endured.

As a nine-year old with an ever-present, PTA President mom, I‘d never been alone. As the youngest of three kids, I was the one always in the back seat while she drove my older brother and sister to the orthodontist, sporting events, birthday parties, and forever by her side at the supermarket, clothing stores, and trips to the bank.

Shortly after getting the news about my mom’s impending absence from our afternoon viewing ritual, Mrs. Miller discussed with great passion how independent kids become when both parents work. I suspected no involvement from my mom and bought into the premise hook, line and sinker. I would be that kid – the one who walked into an empty house, made tuna fish salad for dinner, and did homework without parental assistance. I would become what I hadn’t even cared about until Mrs. Miller deemed it so admirable – independent.

When we visited my grandmother that winter in Florida, she commented on how hairy my arms were. My grandmom had a superstition for everything. And regarding my hirsuteness, she said, “Hairy arms means you’ll marry rich.” I immediately shot back, “No, I’m gonna be rich.”

She looked out at me from over the top of her glasses and ducked her chin. “Well, good for you,” she said with a mixture of surprise and pride. As the oldest daughter in the early 1900’s, she’d been forced to quit school in seventh grade to take care of her family after her mother died from diabetes. She washed the floors of the house every morning, shopped and cooked all the meals for her father and four siblings, made their clothes, generally sacrificed her dreams to do what had to be done each day. She told me often how she was the fastest runner in her school and had been looking forward to joining the track team. To make up for her self-consciousness at her lack of education, she’d randomly insert large vocabulary words into a sentence regardless of meaning. My favorite was ‘cosmopolitan,’ which she substituted for flexible: “Whatever you want, I’m cosmopolitan.”

My grandmom, who was my dad’s mom, taught my mom to cook and lived with us on and off throughout the years. My mom’s own parents and all but one of her seven sisters cut off ties with her after she married my father, who is Jewish and apparently to be shunned like the devil. My mother tried to make peace with her father when I was eight years old and attending the wedding of the one sister we knew. My grandfather’s words, “I’ll never forgive you for marrying a Jew.” That was the last time they spoke.

My grandmom became my mom’s family and pitched in with all her might, just as she’d done after her own mother died. In later years, their relationship was strained, perhaps because my mother achieved something my grandmom never did – finding a place of her own outside of the home.

To me, my mom was, like Mrs. Miller, strong and cool. My elementary, junior high and high school friends always commented on my mom’s cool factor. She was engaged in her own life.

Those two women showed me at a very young age what it looks like when you love what you do, being a mom, pursuing your career, or a combination thereof. Mrs. Miller with her glamour and sincere love of children, and my mom whose career started with severely disabled children, then as a nursing home administrator, and later as a hospice nurse, gave every patient 100 percent of her attention and herself. She came home exhilarated and eager to talk about her adventures that day. With every dinner conversation she started, no matter how some of the more bodily topics repulsed my more lady-like older sister, she grew more and more vibrant. She was behind the wheel of her own car now, not merely along for the ride. In her confident stride and enthusiastic storytelling, she exuded the same new found independence I was finding as a proud, latch-key kid.