For inspiration, to keep her writing schedule, Mona has been using the To Do list of author Henry Miller, famous for Tropic of Cancer and a lusty affair in Paris with one of Mona’s special loves, Anaïs Nin. Boiled down, Miller’s repeated advice to writers is: Get in there, god damn it, every damn morning, and god damn it, enjoy your god damned writing!
Well ye gods, Mona thinks. How great to feel so very virile about it.
Henry Miller, of course, never had to think about dishes in the sink or to buy groceries for dinner, or whether having sex might give him a bladder infection. “A man is what he thinks about all day,” said some positive thinker, at a time when it was obvious a woman had to think about so much more. Yes, she remembers, that was Norman Vincent Peale, How to Win Friends and Influence People. He’s the one who inspired Charles Manson to greatness. And more recently, a president who tried to destroy America.
“God damn it!” This was the sound of Gus finding something not to his liking. She ignores him.
Henry Miller, Mona repeats aloud, because the sound of his name gives her a sad pleasure. Authors and characters who affected you in your youth never lose their power. Mr. Toad of Toad Hall in his motorcar from Wind in the Willows will never die. She thinks of Toad often. Henry Miller invaded Mona Lee’s teen-age years, and today she reads from Miller’s The Rosy Crucifixion:
“Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty.”
“What a cunt,” Gus calls from the bedroom, laptop on lap. Mona Lee knows that he is not talking to her, but is speaking of the current U.S. president. She continues to ignore him:
“…the tender shoots we stifled because we lacked the faith..” Oh how that hurts Mona Lee. Lacking faith, finding it so hard to make a story of the unlikely origins and layers of her life—that is her crucifixion.
“And I mean cunt in the most British of ways, darling.”
Ignoring Gus is a learned ability.
Mona Lee approves of Miller’s call to writers to just get in there and do it, but he also wanted to inspire us to have pleasure in the writing, to work hard and then head off to some bar or beach or bed for the joy of it. Mona ends up in the afternoon watching series on HBO, Netflix or Amazon, and spends way too much time sharing outrage against the current president on Facebook.
“Hey Mona Lee,” Gus yells from his position in bed, laptop over his genitals, “my Natasha returned to the smoke shop last night.”
“Ah,” sighed Mona. Not ignoring him for a minute might be a relief from her thoughts of regret. “Uh Huh,” she said again, having forgotten that a girl named Natasha had ever been at, or left her post at the smoke shop.
“And. So. Gus. Did she want you?”
Gus reminds her: Natasha is the beautiful young Russian sales clerk where he buys his Export A Canadian cigarettes, the cigarettes they both smoke, a terrible habit, part of their strategy for not living too long. Now that they have both lived longer than expected, and their strategy for suicide has not yet worked out, slow deaths by not breathing is truly a terrible “love pact.” It’s time to stop again, she knows they can, they’ve done it so many times. But, just in case, Mona’s imagination goes again to what Gus calls their "love pact", to die together in some desert spot, where at night the two of them could witness the beauty of the Milky Way, and a full moon shining above them, before taking a lethal overdose of something... (how you get that something? Mona has no idea).
Mona Lee knows she is being glib, because the two of them are relatively healthy. It would not be so amusing to think about a romantic death if one of them were terminally ill. She knows that. "Your writing is glib," she has been told.
“Natasha? Want me?” Gus calls from the bed. “Oh. Yeah, she wants me, like she wants an extra grandpa.”
“Oh…honey, I can’t think of you at any age but 26, I really can’t. And what woman wouldn’t want you, at any age?”
Gus laughed, appreciating such praise, while knowing she’s shoveling horse shit, and then he went on. “Natasha was very mysterious; I asked if her family were doing alright, and she said in a long low drawn out voice and that thick accent: ‘Oh, Noa…some peoples…vill…just…niever change.’”
That’s great, honey. I’m writing now, Gus.
"Allrighty….I vill leefve you alooooone."
Henry Miller had come and gone in Mona’s life since high school when she read The Air Conditioned Nightmare, essays of condemnation of the path America was taking, written after his return from Paris and Greece in 1939. In his own words when it was published in 1945: “…we are a vulgar, pushing mob whose passions are easily mobilized by demagogues, newspaper men, religious quacks, agitators and such like. To call this a society of free peoples is blasphemous. What have we to offer the world beside the superabundant loot, which we recklessly plunder from the earth under the maniacal delusion that this insane activity represents progress and enlightenment?”
At sixteen, such feelings resonated with her. Today, it sounds downright prophetic. It was the rebellion of the beats in the late 50’s that had finally made the censored Miller popular in his home country, when his books were no longer banned, and “smart” people were reading them. Miller’s Nightmare exactly coincided with Mona’s feelings about the sprawled out suburbs with no center she had visited, and the ugly mini malls springing up, and all of the crappy developments wrought by industry and corporate greed. What is it in American suburban planning that does not love a center? No church, no city hall, no town square, houses spiraling out around a center, where people could meet, have a community? Was it deliberate, paid for by the oil companies so you will have to drive? No town center, no revolution. Nothing but highways, you've got to buy our gas! Henry Miller could see what was happening.
Miller had once visited Mona’s neighbor state in a little place called, Monte Ne (Ne pronounced, nay), Arkansas, where in 1900, a one-time presidential candidate named “Coin” Harvey sought to build a pyramid to remember America’s greatness, which he believed was already dying. He claimed that Monte, Spanish for mountain, and Ne, the Omaha Indian word for water, would name a great monument; he would also build a European spa. The enterprise turned out to be a calamitous failure, and what had been built was destroyed in a flood. But this spot was a great love of Henry Miller’s, and Mona’s mother took the family there to see the odd ruins beginning to emerge from the water—oh how interesting that place was—is—as it still exists as a tourist destination. The Pyramid was never built, but the foundations are there, an amphitheater in a kind of Aztec style, a spa tower called The Oklahoma Row. Coin had a theme song written for it:
Beautiful Monte Ne, God's gift to man they say
Health resort of all the world is beautiful Monte Ne
Rosy cheeks and purer blood they gain there day by day
in mountain air water rare at beautiful Monte Ne
Mona was entranced as a teen with the exotic beauty of the place, and how a great pyramid might have looked there, and what the hell were Masons? Miller was enamored of Masons—our founding fathers were Masons, and slaveholders. Not enlightened as to race, as hardly any whites were.
“Some piieple vill jus…niever chahnge…” came again from the bedroom. Clearly, Gus was smitten by the way smoke shop Natasha spoke.
In the early sixties, Mona grew obsessed with how her developing breasts and cheekbones made her confused, got in the way of forward motion and thinking. Beauty and sex and failure and a dark view of America, all tied up together in Miller’s prose, speaking to a generation of well educated, rebellious beats and hippies, all buried under a flood in exotic Arkansas. Why did her imagination not impel her to tell stories then? Why was telling a story so difficult for her? For her, life was splattered on canvas like a Jackson Pollack— there’s no A and B plot, it was all stimuli and reaction, the female passivity; she did not understand then that you could make your own story. Mona might have taken up this fight against America going wrong, but in 1961, for her, it was going right: Robert Frost at the White House, the values of art, literature and growing Civil Rights action—until Kennedy was murdered. Then King and Robert. A state of depression took over her body, and her escape from Oklahoma was slow and painful and full of erotic love and confusion. Where was the story? Buried in Arkansas.
“Soome peeeples, dey yust neiver chahnge.” Gus is still perfecting his accent for Natasha, and sings it like a song.
Some people never change. How ridiculous is she, to think she could take on grand themes in her stories and collages, at her age? Manifest Destiny destroying the beauty of a hybrid society of Indians and whites, and the inheritance of slavery, and youth and romance and sex and death all at once? How idiotic to get in there and do your work every day, and god-damn enjoy it, at her age.
By her age, how many books had Henry Miller written?
Give up, says her old self.
By her age, Mozart had been dead for more than forty years. By her age, Sappho and Georges Sand and Colette and Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood, and Doris Lessing and ….
She jumped from the chair, headed to the bedroom, pushed Gus’s laptop aside and landed on top of him, taking his breath away. He laughed, “Oh, I thought you were working,” and enveloped her in his arms.
"I like life, I like life with a razor thin margin…I like life just enough not to kill myself…
the whole world is just made up of people who didn’t kill themselves today.”
LOUIS CK I love Louis CK, he makes me laugh, and think dark thoughts, but now I have to think about
his transgressions against women. Damn you men I like, why do you do such sad and stupid things?
"Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another."
― Toni Morrison, Beloved
THOUGHTS IN 2018:
If I died today, I would be the die-er and my love the die-ee.
I never swam hell bent towards the mystery I wanted. Wanting was not feminine. Currents drew me slowly away from those places that felt like cages, but my tentacles stretch back all the way to the beginning.
I’m over seventy, I’ve been out of the workplace since 2008, and my work was always work-work to support the work I really wanted to do (acting and then writing), which (lots and lots of) work has never made me a penny. Except for SAG group looping, odd work known only to insiders. My degree plus thirty hours graduate work was in French and literature. I taught as a T.A., I married and taught French in a middle school, I left my husband and from then on worked as a waitress in joints from haute cuisine to Greek diners, and then as a proofreader in law firms, New York, then LA, and for a while as a proofreader/editor at The Hollywood Reporter.
I was at the Reporter when their CEO came to visit and announced we were branding upscale—yes I saw it, when it changed from a paper representing the whole of the industry to one that had a “brand.” UPSCALE. Now, it’s big and glossy with rich people ads for rich people in the biz, like we needed another upscale anything anywhere! At the same time, they pushed most of us out by making us quit, and tried to get away with not honoring unemployment or accumulated moneys. I forced them to honor mine by not quitting (no matter how they made me uncomfortable) and I got the small and part-time pension that had grown in my account. Now dear workers, there are no such things. You get zero anything if you are part-time, and full time, you have to buy your own plans and call it some acronym, and when the market fails, so does your pension. Very few young people remember LAWS THAT PROTECTED WORKERS. In fact, I would venture to say that no young people remember them. The kids I worked with at the time thought Ayn Rand was really cool and those new personal savings acronyms were dandy. And now, the king of the deal is president. I hope you all like what you have wrought. Wroughten? Wroughted? You know what I mean.
I DIGRESS! I want to work. But when I go online to employment sites the categories are rigid and un-evolved. They are like those prepackaged questionnaires of sites or reps that want to know your opinion, except the choices of voicing your opinion are limited to their idea of what they want you to say. Such as, Do you prefer Death Or Obamacare? Which is more important to you: Killing the environment or battering baby seals to death? And then at the end of it, you must give money.
Oh my, what I would give to sit across from a human being who would ask me about my experiences, how I work best, how I could help someone, how my volunteer work prepared me to be good at some services. (And why do I still seem so young? Ha.) I’d love to sit across from someone who would understand my sense of humor, or if not, send me to someone who would. No one is responding to the ads I’ve placed on the neighborhood sites, saying I could tutor you in beginning French or advanced English, that I can proofread or edit papers for you, help you with your writing of stories, screenplays or a novel. Or I could just visit and read to you, or help you go to the grocery store. Too broad, too all over the place, too much not in a box? I just want to work.
Sadly, somehow, I never connected the doing of what I love, my acting, thinking and writing, with getting paid. The reasons for that are many and varied and cultural and familial and go on and on. That problem of not believing— I'm working on it every day.
A memory of hands all over me, a long time ago: I called to my friends, Tracy and Joyce. They were behind the door of Tracy’s bedroom and I was stuck on the couch with a handsome stranger. Blind Date’s hands went under my skirt, and I hit him. He laughed, and I laughed too. He gets it, I thought. I felt safe again. A moment of calm followed before he took off his black-rimmed glasses, set them on the coffee table and started again. He was an engineering student from the Middle East—his country of origin I would have known nothing about in the 60’s, Was he Saudi? Persian? My university was attracting guys from many countries for geology and advanced engineering studies. Tracy had set me up with him because they were class friends, and as we piled in the car headed for the student apartments, I thought Blind Date was intriguing. He sat forward on the car seat, but kept his head turned back to look at me. The glasses enhanced the dark of his eyes, his thick sleek black hair was cut short; he wore a nice sport jacket and white shirt. I felt safe.
But, hello, Blind Date, have a seat on the sofa you two, and Tracy and Joyce disappeared after the sharing of no information and the drinking of rum and cokes. Why did Joyce leave me alone with him? She and Tracy were in love, hot for each other, and soon got married. She was my bridesmaid when I married two years later; we had been in a car wreck together that could have killed us both, and Joyce and I could laugh all night telling stories and acting silly. But this memory of Blind Date I had stashed away in the ether. I never forgot it, but I never made any sense of it.
I was a virgin—you remember that antiquated notion—and had only parked and petted and let myself be felt up, but had never gone “all the way.” And this was before girls felt obligated to give such a stupid thing as a blowjob. (Girls, don’t ever do that unless you really want to, which then makes it delightful.) I did not know what a blowjob was then, and I had no intention of giving my sacred virginity, which I had withheld by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin from a boy I loved, to some stranger I’d only just met. I tried to engage him, ask questions, but I was not like I am now, when a facile question flies off my lips like greased pig flesh. Today, I would wear him out with curiosity: where are you from, what do you believe, why are you here, what do you think of America? My ideas forming then were inchoate. I was eighteen. It was hard to control the dialog with any boy for fear of seeming too smart, or too aggressive, unfeminine. Blind Date smelled good, steeped in some cologne exotic to me. I smiled at him. Peering at me behind his glasses, very shy at first, then, suddenly, there I was being attacked by the handsome foreigner, who worked up to the intent to rape me.
It’s complicated, being kissed by someone attractive, because the feeling comes up from your womb. It feels good. It is hard for a girl as well as a boy to control sexual pleasure. You like the buzz of it in spite of yourself. Things go too fast, but you don’t want the kissing to stop. I really wanted his hands to stop trying to go inside my panties, but when he struck there once, it felt good! I was terrified of my own body’s desire. I hit him so hard on the arm, he made another retreat, gave me a moment to breathe. Kissed me again. So, letting myself enjoy his mouth, but pushing him off again and again must have encouraged his masculine drive, because it became an all-out struggle. Stop, I said, finally. Really! Now stop! We tumbled off the couch onto the floor, and I was fighting him with every ounce of strength I possessed. I kicked him, I pushed him away, I slapped his face, I said no, no, no, over and over again, and I was screaming for my friend Joyce, who arrived, disheveled, just at the moment Blind Date thrust himself hard against my body, and with an animal groan, came inside of his slacks and onto my dress.
It was over.
I have a memory of feeling ashamed, and surely he was. But, I have no memory of leaving, saying goodbye to him, getting back to the sorority house, or ever talking to Joyce about it. I think I was shocked to the core, while, at the same time, felt that nothing terrible had happened—I mean, I was still a virgin, wasn’t I? He did not hit me, or hurt me. What he did was use my body for some hard foreplay, to achieve what could only be called tawdry, sad masturbation. Not cool, not right, but survivable. My space and my desires were violated, but not really hurt. Less said the better. No use crying over spilt milk. Get on with life.
The stories of date rapes come up every day in 2017. Never were they subjects of discussion in 1962. I remember how I fought him, how terrible it felt to be eighteen and clueless, how hard it was, and still is, to be young. I did not understand why sex felt so good but was so dangerous. Today, I could bring charges against the young man with the university. It never occurred to me then. Boys and men were forgiven too much, yes, and most of them have learned better now—or at least know they could be arrested. But, girls, the beasts in fairy tales are mostly male, and often have lion’s manes, long snouts, big eyes and multiple hands. To fear a woman in old fables meant that she was a witch. We have today, at last, girl wizards and female super heroes, and you would do well to live up to their standards. I’m not saying you shouldn’t wear your skirts up to your asses if you want, but I am saying don’t go anywhere alone with someone you don’t know or trust, don’t drink too much in groups of kids you don’t know, and never take a pill from anyone and swallow it, no matter how handsome or famous he might be. Don’t become a new generation of shrinking violets who expect to always be protected by males with testosterone bursting their veins, especially now with the new dawn of white male privilege reasserting itself in a shameful way by our new leader. Learn to fight, get down with defensive kicking, eye poking, and stay with groups of friends and stay aware. I know, I know, girls, you shouldn’t ever have to do anything. It’s all on the boys. It’s always a man’s fault when anything bad happens. But, the thing is, anything can happen. It almost happened to me, and I was sober and fully dressed with friends in the next room. I will probably be un-friended again on Facebook by women who say that I am blaming the victim. Telling you to be smart is not blaming you; it’s arming you. We need more than ever now to be armed.
Life happens like a speeding train, and you are helpless, no matter how awake you are, to do anything but watch it disappear into the mists. Pieces of your memory float around to be snatched up and relived. I had repressed the memory of that night, so why do I think of that boy today? The Middle East is always in the news, and I wonder, was his sister an uneducated veiled Muslim girl with no choices; was his mother a smart Iranian woman before the Ayatolla Khomeni crushed the life out of her with religion. Was he saddened and mortified by his own surge of desire and pitiful ejaculation? Was he Egyptian, a Muslim or a Christian, or was he just a guy who thought American girls were fast and he could just grab him some by the pussy? Whatever family he came from, whatever he was or might have become, I feel less compassion for him than for my naive and diffident self. I fought well, but what saved me, I believe, were friends in the next room. What might he have done if I had gone to a hotel room with him alone, taken a pill, drunk too much and found myself in a situation I could not escape?
On the recent election:
I try to be clear. What is clear? It runs from me like the crystal streams and collected pools of my childhood. In Tennessee on a hot summer road trip before air-conditioned cars, my brothers and I were always on the lookout for natural swimmin’ holes. One day it was, go down that road, Dad, shrieking because we had seen a patch of blue in the rocks. He pulled to the shoulder, grumbling, mother sweating, and we all looked down. It was a deep strip mining pool, and the color of it was not natural, but some unknown spectrum of ice green and smarmy toilet bowl blue. Before we saw the sign, danger, no swimming, toxic, we knew that offending color was false. I was very young, eight maybe, and a lasting sadness bloomed in me that such a fraudulent thing in the natural rocks could entice us. It is how I feel today.