IN TEXAS THERE ARE are summer stretches when whole days seem like high noon. At times like this you pray for rain and ice yourself down with whatever your vice is. Mine was Tecate or tequila or whatever was around. I used to drink, and write, and wish I were someplace else. If I were someplace else, I thought, I wouldn't drink and if I didn't drink I wouldn't get so tangled up in my metaphors. Finally I moved 2,000 miles north.
I knew there would be weeks when the locks would freeze, the telephones wouldn't work, and the sky would take on the greys of a wartime photograph. But I didn't know geographical cures have to do with inscape -- or that stretches of internal weather so absolute they are almost weatherlessness would follow me to the snow country.
Not long after I got here a young woman whose name I can't remember remarked that she felt "like a walking dead person." We were in an upscale eatery where people don't ordinarily talk about things nocturnal or subterranean, and I didn't understand why she'd chosen to dwell on her darker habits of mind. I remember looking around at the solar windows and the slanty, greenhouse light and wanting to point out that not only was her remark wildly out of context but that it was a poor idea to look for confessors among near strangers. Instead I said that my own "ontological logjams" were strictly confined to my novels. That, unlike the lovers and husbands whose lives have informed my fiction, I've never suffered a parent's shotgun suicide; grappled with congenital heart disease; lain in a midnight rain forest listening for Viet Cong; had a revolver cocked at my temple on a deserted Biafran airstrip. And that, unlike my fictional sisters, my real-life sister and I didn't poison our grandfather; nor did I know anything firsthand about botched cut-rate abortions.
In other words, I couldn't make the connection between literature and life.
My immediate past husband (revolver, Biafra) is a product of the Roman Church and the American Left. He's given to brooding and to hallucinating his destiny writ large, and sometimes he's almost astrologically sure of things. Awhile back, after determining that a last tango with the Dark Continent was on his moral dance card, he hied himself to South Africa in hope of catching some fireworks. I joined him there, in part because he said a state of war would help me "understand."
My journal of our trip is filled with notes on sabotaged trains, shot-up squatters' shacks, and teen-agers in camouflage Land Rovers. I wrote about visiting Nelson Mandela's daughter in Soweto after dark, and about Steve Biko's mistress in the northern Transvaal badlands. I even took down the weird non-news that came over South African airwaves. One entry, dated June 19th, 1980, is a verbatim report on "the collection from the world-famous Smithsonian Institute in Washington now touring the country . . . . A blue plastic toothbrush with red gum massager shared by astronauts Virgil Grissom and John Young in their epoch-making Gemini III mission into outer space; a clock in the shape of a wedding cake, complete with replicas of the Capitol and the Statue of Liberty, carved in 1876 by a Boston cabinetmaker, including famous Indian battles, standing over seven meters high and said by the cabinetmaker to be the most historical clock in the United States; a pint-sized replica of a grand piano, made for midgets in P.T. Barnum's circus; the largest American flag, measuring . . . ."
Private observations are confined to "I'm spending the afternoon in the room because the bar is too palimpsest" or "I'd rather sit here with the shades drawn than face the queer, flat African sunlight; it makes me think of that scene in 'The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber' when she picks up the rifle and plugs him in the head."
In other words, I couldn't make the connection between political and private outrage. The sauna is a dry, dim box in which time passes differently and in which the atmosphere is peculiarly still. It's much, I imagine, like a coffin, except that you're not often alone there. Usually you share it with women who have great swags of meat on their thighs, or maybe droopy little dugs, or maybe scars like zippers from carelessly performed Caesareans. In any event, you rarely share the sauna with gorgeous physical specimens because, out of clothes, most women are, well, a little shocking. Indeed, according to the male- defined, stereotype-perfect standards of beauty by which most of us judge ourselves, we are -- most of us -- hideous to contemplate. We're the creatures crawling the landscapes of Miss America's worst nightmares or maybe characters on the lam from some medieval tale. And, as a general rule, our hideousness increases in proportion to our years; the women I share the sauna with are terrified of aging.
So we lie around on the hot shelves eyeing our spreading flesh, talking candidly because there is no reason not to. We talk about diets, clay packs, split ends, moles, unwanted hair and everything we'd pork away if we didn't have husbands or lovers. The liberated among us make cracks like "Imagine a world without men . . . . There wouldn't be any wars or proverty, and all of us would be happy and fat." The stoics argue the probable odds and surest methods of cutting losses, and those who style themselves survivors say things like "If it don't kill me, it makes me stronger." There are those who weep, those who claim they don't give a damn. And there are those who rationalize their terror by telling themselves -- quite rightly -- that perfect beauty would cast them among the freaks as certainly as perfect ugliness.
I, myself, am an interesting sauna case. My form is small and wiry but not without essential curves, and due to years of ballet training I possess what in Texas is called "a real good set of wheels." Nonetheless, I'm beginning to deteriorate. A fat, raised vein snakes its way along my left shin, and I'm showing the first tell-tale signs of writer's ass. After a decade of going without, I wear a bra again. And I don't like the deep cuts extending from nose to mouth, or the crow's feet that no doubt will continue to creep outward, or the barely perceptible crinkling at the throat when the head turns in harsh light, the crinkling that will one day be a flap of skin like that beneath the lip of a lizard . . . .
The alternative was to chuck zero-sum aesthetics. To imagine a new way of inhabiting my female body. To stop drinking, stop double-thinking, and keep refining my connections.
This story is not fiction.
The year is 1971 and the place is Dallas. I haven't yet flunked out of a downtown junior college vulgarly known as Ubangi U. and am on my way home after a morning of classes. Home is a roach-infested apartment soon, by fate or circumstance, to be destroyed by fire, which in the meantime I share with a person who deals methedrine and a person who deals Tarot cards. For some reason we need a refrigerator, and it's my mission to find one. I have twelve dollars, plus a quarter for the bus.
Near the intersection of Ross Avenue and Hall Street I get off and begin to walk. I'm in a block of junk stores where I've been several times in the past and where, I'm sure of it, I can buy a cheap refrigerator. The first place I try, the man wants thirty dollars for a 1950s engineering wonder resembling a meteor, and in the second the cheapest is twenty. I keep walking, finally turning onto a side street where I remember another store. I'm in The Project now, an all-black neighborhood.
As I used to tell the story -- when I told it -- I was ambushed by a black man with a switchblade and forced into a house. Here's the way it really happened:
The black man, who's maybe seventeen, falls into step with me. We begin to talk. He asks what I'm doing. I say trying to buy a refrigerator. Because he's obviously on something, and because I'm a cool hippie chick who thinks drugs are The Great Equalizer, I believe him when he tells me his mother has a refrigerator she's looking to sell. I believe him enough, in fact, to go with him down the block.
The house seems okay -- the dirt is raked and there's a TV antenna. Inside, there are doilies and everything is neat, but as we walk from living room to kitchen I realize no one is home. "Where's the refrigerator?" "On the back porch." I panic, control it. Then he reaches into a drawer and pulls out a butcher knife. I take off for the front door, but he traps me against it. It's dead-bolted, and I have an armful of books. He's panting, and pressing into me from behind, and although I don't know where the butcher knife is, I squirm around and face him. "Have you ever been raped?" -- the knife is at my throat -- "Well, baby, the time has come."
Strangely, miraculously, I'm not frightened. All I'm thinking of is killing this black man. I want to wrench the knife from his grasp and stab him in the gut, and this is what I try. In two seconds my arms are pinned.
I'm raped on the floor, on a braided rug with a Sears Roebuck tag. It doesn't take long, and he doesn't hurt me. Afterward I pull my Levis up and watch him finger the knife. The terror is setting in now, little by little, for I'm beginning to realize how terrified he is. This is America. And he's just raped a white woman.
I start to talk, jabbering. He stares at me and sweats. Suddenly he sticks one hand under the mattress of the roll-away next to the window and produces a long-barreled pistol. "Walk." He gestures toward the back of the house.
What happens next I couldn't put in a novel, not even a spectacularly bad one: the telephone rings. He jumps, hesitates, moves toward it. I throw myself against the dead- bolt and am outside, running. By the time he fires I'm on the other side of the hedge.
I run past a police car. I run through an intersection. I keep running for seven or eight blocks until I reach a house where I know someone named Rainbow. Rainbow isn't in, but his girlfriends are. They make a pot of coffee and listen; it doesn't occur to me to call the cops.
Later I walk to the corner, catch the bus, and get off at the Safeway near my apartment. I spend the twelve dollars and load the food into a cart. Then I push it home, as if nothing at all had happened.
I put pen to paper intending to write about not-drinking. About not-drinking, however, there's very little to write. You lurch your way through spells of weatherlessness on tea and Perrier, and after awhile -- with luck and grace -- you begin to make connections. Often this means confessing things that may seem out of context. Always it means remembering things that, in the best of worlds, you would never have had to forget. Well, so be it; in the world as it is, and as it has been, you're better off remembering than not.
Here in the snow country I've connected with an old sub-zero outrage. It's private and it's political and it's neither defined by landscape nor limited by race or sex. It's a zone of absolute terror in which we're all both victims and opressors and in which real-life threats to being demand personal responses.