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Authors: Jane Juska

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BOOK: A Round-Heeled Woman
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It turned out to be pretty cold, freezing, in fact. In Minneapolis, out of anger, I suppose—we never talked about it— my husband withheld sex on purpose, unlike in my father's house, where he was too exhausted to offer it at all. If he had had money, he could have withheld that and we might have had a healthy sex life, though I doubt it. Still, a healthy sex life might have kept us from behaving badly. At the university, where his fellowship lay in wait, he pretended to go but didn't. He had affairs. He spent my teaching salary on therapy. He couldn't stand being near me, an altogether reasonable response to my behavior and to his.

“We all have school,” I told my son, who right then and there began a long career of hating it. “Mommy goes to school, Daddy goes to school, and so do you.” He scrunched up his face. “Mommy and Daddy like school, and so will you.” Ah, distrust in one so young. In fact, I was the only one of the three of us who liked school, and I loved my school in Minneapolis. It became a haven. It reminded me every day that there was something I knew how to do, something that no one could take from me, something that demanded my entire and complete and intense concentration every hour of every day. Along the way, I could be certain of laughing, for this school seemed to be chock-full of funny kids. There were times when I was the one who had to leave the room and regain control by pressing my hot forehead against the cool tile of the hallway. Even the principal was funny: “I want you all to remember,” he ended his opening-day speech, “that if you have any problems, my door is always closed.” I laughed. I liked him, so I couldn't quite figure out why he put me in a converted storeroom along with thirtyfive kids, some of whom, for lack of desks and space to put them, sat on the windowsills and the radiator that ran the length of them. I had been told that, if the principal
really
didn't like you, he would assign you five classrooms, one for each period and each on different floors, so that you might find yourself climbing and declimbing four flights of stairs, plus descending to the half-basement, whose windows were half-covered with snow during the winter and tall grass the rest of the time. So I shut up until I got mad and knocked on his door—closed, as promised—and demanded another classroom. “There are people,” he said from behind his desk, hands clasped behind his head, “standing in line for your job.” I said, “I'm calling the health department.” Next day new room.

At home, I was not so aggressive. I stopped cooking. Every evening at five o'clock, just like my father, I made myself a scotch and soda, stirring it with my finger, the natural swizzle stick my mother had schooled me on. From the couch, beneath a cloud of Marlboro smoke, I listened to my husband in the kitchen lay out the pizza and tacos he had brought home for dinner. And so, at the same time my son was developing a lifelong antagonism toward school, he was also developing a lifelong taste for junk food. His blue room far behind him in Ohio, my husband hid out in the bathroom. As for me, smoking and drinking were enough, with a Valium thrown in every once in a while.

I had sex with Henry. Remember
Our Miss Brooks
on TV? She was the English teacher mad for Mr. Boynton, the biology teacher. They never did anything, of course; the biology teacher was too shy. Henry taught biology at my school and he was not shy. Every day Henry and I and Gunnar, the geometry teacher, had lunch together in the teachers' cafeteria. Gunnar—whose opinion I respected after he described a particular proof so elegant, he said, that when he presented it to his students (Gunnar didn't teach kids, only students), he had to stand next to the window of his classroom in order to cool off—urged me to sit in on one of Henry's lectures. So one day, during my prep period, I went up to the small auditorium, whose seats were slanted, like at the Colosseum, down to the stage below, where Henry, shunning film strips, overhead projectors, transparencies, all the paraphernalia available to lesser teachers, spun romantic tales of pistil and stamen and bees in words that fairly vibrated with promises of pleasure and fulfillment. Not above vibrating myself, I felt a tingle in my nether regions and wondered about the kids, tenth-graders, who appeared mesmerized by the music of Henry's voice and the lure of his stories. Not long after, despite the wise counsel of the librarian, who, from way across the cafeteria could see what was going on, Henry and I made plans to Be Together.

On a Sunday afternoon, I excused myself from home and family for a special department meeting. Off I went to our prearranged destination, where Henry promised he would meet me and drive me to his home. Henry was married, just like me, so I understood at once when he told me to duck down beneath the dashboard until he got the car into the garage. His wife and kids were at the hockey game, but there were always the neighbors to consider in this very, very respectable neighborhood, Henry told me. It was a bit cramped down there, but not for long, and besides, I was laughing at Henry, who was not laughing in case anybody might be watching.

We had done some kissing in Henry's Mercedes before this assignation, one time parked on a hill. Henry's hand had tugged my skirt up to somewhere near my ear, and I was fumbling with his zipper, when there came a knock on the window. It was a policeman, for god's sake. I straightened myself up, and Henry opened the window to hear the policeman remonstrate with him for parking on a hill. “Could roll right down. Better be on your way.” We continued to whet our appetites here and there after school and before I collected my son from church and Bible school, then the only affordable day care in the greater metropolitan area. With the cops on one side of us and the Lutherans on the other, we were squeezed right into Henry's sauna. What else could we do? Where else could we go?

It took hours and hours, it seemed, before I began to sweat in that sauna. I had never been in a sauna, had only read about them and how the Swedish people ran from them into the snow and whipped themselves with saplings. What fun could that be? And now here I was—naked with Henry. Thank god, I finally began to drip. It was a requirement that I sweat, just as it had been a requirement for me to hide out on the floor of the Mercedes. So far, I had completed both, though not as quickly or as quietly as the teacher might have wished. “I thought you were never going to sweat,” said Henry, trying to hide his disappointment. I thought briefly of running into the snow to look for birch branches.

Henry led me on a tour of his house, both of us in towels, both of us careful not to drip on the carpet. The whole house was blond. Henry told me that every piece of furniture had its original in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was all blond, Danish modern. It was a very Lutheran house, very northern, Nordic, like Henry's blond wife in the picture on the piano, like Henry's son, the junior wrestling champion of Minnesota, and Henry's daughter, queen of the eighth-grade winter carnival. The pistils and stamens of Henry's school life were nowhere in evidence any more than my fiery lambastings of the Puritan hypocrisy with which I regaled my students. Maybe a sauna at school, at least in the teachers' cafeteria, would solve a lot of problems before they turn into adultery.

In his study Henry had already laid out a blanket on the floor right in front of the very large television screen. I wondered briefly if I were in a lab of Henry's making, if this Sunday afternoon was meant as an experiment, if I would be pinned to the blanket, observed, made note of, and written up for a journal. I lay down and pretty soon we were kissing and Henry was naked, too, and then there was this strange thing that Henry did. “Put your head up there,” he said, pushing me so that my head pointed toward the television. I did as requested, Henry laid himself beside me, and, as we rubbed and kissed, Henry raised his head occasionally and watched TV. I had never had an affair before, so I reminded myself that one couldn't expect everything to be normal and that if I wandered from my uxorial duties, as surely I had, I had better be ready for whatever happened and not complain. I was lucky not to be in jail or struck down by a hockey stick.

In answer to my question, Henry said, “I'm watching the game. You have to be out of here before third period begins. My wife and kids will be home soon after, maybe even sooner if the game isn't a close one. That's why I'm watching. Come on, roll over here.”

We never did have sex, not the kind where the man inserts his penis into the woman's vagina. Henry believed that, as long as he did not penetrate, he was not being unfaithful to his marriage vows. It would take Bill Clinton, the true education president, the man who educated the entire country about sexual practices the Puritans never wrote down, to make me realize that Henry's peculiarity was not his alone. As one day our president would proclaim on national television, Henry could say to himself, “I never had sex with that woman.” To that end, Henry and I rolled around on the floor of his study, his eye on the TV screen, until third period of the game. I got dressed, so did Henry, I got down on the floor of the car, he drove, and I went back to the apartment I shared with my husband and son.

I was sad. I so much wanted to be held and, if not loved, then liked a lot, cared for. The next morning I woke and thought, I used to be happy. I decided to be happy once again. I decided to pack up my son and my books, leave my husband in the care of his psychotherapist, and return to California, where I had work I loved, friends I loved, and maybe someone someday to love me.

On June 12, my parents' wedding anniversary, five months after my affair with Henry, two days after the end of school, at nine o'clock in the morning, I put my son in the backseat of the VW Squareback, a six-pack of Coke in the front, a map on the dashboard, uppers and downers in my purse, and off we went. I turned up the volume on Jimi Hendrix's
“Are You Experienced.”
Sort of.

It was the end. It was the beginning.

FOURTEEN

The Education of Andy's Mom

Whether or not I shall be the hero of my own life or whether that
station will be held by someone else, only these pages shall show.

—DAVID, in Charles Dickens's
David Copperfield

I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest.

—HUCK FINN, in Mark Twain's
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

In the week my husband and I had agreed would end in my leave-taking, Andy going with me, I watched from our bedroom window as, day by day, Tom took the Volkswagen apart. When he wasn't doing that, he and I were having sex. In the living room, standing or sitting, hard up against the kitchen sink, in the shower, on the bed, on carpet, tile, on hardwood and soft, wham bang, all the sex he had ever refused me came at me now and I couldn't get enough. This was truly great fucking. It was pure, unencumbered by love, spurred on by anger, made urgent by imminent loss. Tom told me about his affairs, I told him about mine, and we became for each other all the partners we had ever had or wanted to have. A helluva week. It would be almost thirty years before I had another one.

Andy, confused and upset by packing boxes and suitcases and the dismantled family car, not to mention his parents conjoined all over the apartment behind hastily slammed doors, ran up and down the hall, banging on doors, ran outside and in, banging his trike into the walls of the apartment and over the auto parts that littered the sidewalk out back. By Friday, the seats were lying on the sidewalk, alongside the tires and some things that looked as if they had once belonged to the motor. “I just want everything to work,” said Tom, and, sure enough, by Sunday morning, everything seemed to be back in place, and off we went, Tom running alongside the car calling to Andy, “Bye, son, have a good vacation. See you in the fall.” Huh? What had he told Andy during the little talk the two of them had had?

Like the car, only far more fragile, Andy's life was dismantled and I didn't do a proper job of putting it back together. I took him away from the father he loved to a land he could never have imagined, to a life that depended for any stability on his mother, who, high on amphetamines throughout most of the trip, couldn't have been entirely reliable. At a motel somewhere in Oklahoma, we forgot he couldn't swim, and Andy, in the deep end of the pool, sank. Whoops, I pulled him out by the hair, hey hey, what happened there? On the road again, Andy asked, “What's that smell?” I replied by composing a song, “Manure.” It was a call and response. Andy would sing out, “Hey, what's that smell?” and I would sing back, “Manure, manure, O lord, I smell that manure.” Much ruckus from the backseat: laughter, hiccups, kicking the front seat of the driver, small body falling to floor, gasps for serious air, and then, “Hey, Mom, what's that smell?”

We sang a song for every state: “I was born in Michigan,” “Oooooooklahoma!,” “I was born/in a trunk/in the Princess Theatre/in Pocatello, Idaho,” until we got to Nevada, where, stymied at last, we bumped up “California, Here We Come” and doubled it with “San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gate.” We would sing and laugh and tool on down the highway free and happy with the adventure of life.

Just across the state line into California I wept at the beauty of Lake Tahoe spread out before us and in relief that we had made it this far. I stopped the car, got Andy out of the backseat, pressed his face close to a mountain stream, and announced that he no longer had asthma. This turned out not to be true. I promised him a backyard. This turned out to be true, though he had no interest in backyards, never having had one. I got him one anyway, in the town of Orinda on the east side of the Berkeley hills. Orinda was and is an upscale settlement of mostly white people, mostly Republican, many of them nice. It is one of the most beautiful towns you'll ever see: houses, a few monstrous and ugly, others small and charming, tucked in among the live oak and madrone, built up and down the sides of hills, some teetering on, even sliding down, those hillsides when the winter rains loosen the earth beneath them. Neither Republican nor upscale, I found a small house on a hillside for rent. In 1970, property taxes were lower in Orinda than in Berkeley, so many professors lived on the same hill we did and commuted ten minutes over the top to the university on the other side; it was called Red Hill, from the days of Senator McCarthy, when professors were accused of being pinko Commies, reasons for the Red Scare. I was proud to live on this hill. I loved our little house. The backyard was surrounded by huge pine trees, and their scent kept the inside of our house cool and fresh. It was the best of outdoor living.

While the out-of-doors is democratic—it invites everyone— income streams are not; they are divisive, and mine was at the bottom. As a lower-class person, I turned to music, which, like the out-of-doors, lets everyone in; and one day, when we were in the middle of the Orinda grocery, I made up this song, its burlesque beat requiring my hips to swivel ever so slightly as I sang it out to Andy while we wandered up and down the aisles of Safeway:

Verse:
Orinda woman
(
bump
)
Dressed in your tennis white (grind)
You play around the livelong day
And then go home at night.

Chorus:
Orinda woman
(
va-va-va-voom
)
Orinda woman (Repeat and fade to whisper)

At night, we bundled ourselves together in my bed and slept. Mostly. Sleeping next to this little boy was like sleeping with a pony. His arms and legs pummeled the darkness, and I woke more than once when a small but powerful heel slammed into my stomach. And then there was the notion somewhere deep in my lonely head that five-year-old boys oughtn't to be sleeping with their mothers, comforting though they might be to each other. I sensed that Sophocles and Freud would have agreed with me, so Andy slept in his bed and I slept in mine until I was asleep, when Andy crept in and snuggled beneath my blankets. I woke when an elbow slammed into my thyroid, and dutifully carried him back to his own bed. I returned to my bed, fell asleep, until . . . This was not working. Let's try money. “I'll give you one dollar for every night you stay in your own bed, time not to exceed one month.” “Okay.” Twenty-nine dollars later, he was his own boy and I resumed a full night's sleep.

In the midst of all this frivolity, when we weren't marching in San Francisco against the war in Vietnam along with three hundred thousand other like-minded folks, we went to school. Just like in Minneapolis, Andy and school hated each other from the first day of kindergarten. “How was school?” I asked. “I went,” he said. “Well, tomorrow . . .” I began enthusiastically, and stopped at the look of astonishment on his face. “I already did that,” he said, refusing to believe that school wasn't over, wasn't a one-time thing, a sometime thing, but instead a thing that would take up the best part of his days, that would interfere with everything he wanted to do, a thing his mother loved and paid the bills (sort of) with, a mother he was mad at. In his mind, his dad's words rang: “See you in the fall, son.” Well, it was fall, vacation was over; his mom was supposed to take him back to where his dad was. Instead, look at what she did: she took him to school. What had she done with his dad?

School did not make up for being half an orphan, but it did provide the one immutable rule of our family: no matter what, we went. In the winter, another one of those cold and rainy ones, I came home from school to find Andy on the doorstep with a note pinned to his jacket: “Do not send this child back to school until he is well.” I looked at my little boy. His eyes were running, his nose was running. I felt his forehead; it was hot. I burst into tears. So did he. And I was angry: how dare Miss McDougal tell me I was a bad mother, a mother who would send a sick child to school! But I was, I was, and what was I going to do about it?

I called in sick the next day and took care of my son. It was a joy to do so, a joy of the kind known only to working mothers. Next day, though, I had to go to school, and Andy was definitely not well; the chance was very high that that teacher would send him home again with a note that said, “Not yet.” Back in Minneapolis the nursery school provided extended care until six P.M. The people were kind, the Lutherans ran it, so what could go wrong? Nothing, until one day Andy said, “Does it hurt to hang on the cross?” Bible stories with full-page illustrations; damn those Lutherans. “Yes,” I said, “it did, but people don't do that anymore.” No, but they still scare children half to death. Here, though, in the advanced civilization of 1970 California, I could find no extended care, not in the school, not in a church, not in a private home. So, in times of headache and runny nose and hot little forehead, I sent him off to the neighbors, to their charming houses, each one different from the other, scattered up the hill, across the road, and down the hill. They were wonderful, our neighbors, but they weren't Andy's mom. I was, and I hated myself for not taking care of him the way my mother had cared for me.

Not everything was hard. Sometimes, I slept through the whole thing. On our hill, the kids built stone forts, got poison oak, and learned the ways of the wilds. At night the cat, Bessie, lurking in the darkness outside, snared wood rats. Wood rats were big and ugly, almost as big as Bessie, but she managed to leap up and through Andy's bedroom window, rat in mouth, and, in the dark hours of the night, run it to ground. In the living room the dog, Tear (short for Tear Up and Terrible), chewed silently on my driver's license, rousing himself only to shit on the carpet, saving his energy for the daylight hours when he chased cars and bicycles and, occasionally, just to keep up his strength, bit small children. Elsewhere in the house, a hamster, dumped without warning from its plastic town house, cowered, awaiting sudden death or a return to life imprisonment. In my sleep, I heard scampering, scuttling, thumping, and what surely were death rattles. Where? Andy's bedroom? I slept on, the deepest sleep of all, the sleep of the ignorant. In the morning, the wood rat would be gone, except for an organ or two that Bessie had gotten too finicky to finish. Tear stood proudly in the middle of the living-room carpet next to his doings; the hamster waited in the closet for me to step on it. As Andy reached fourth-grade science, he grew knowledgeable about the various parts of rodents. “Look here, Mom”—he pointed to a slimy glob on the floor next to his bed—“this is the liver.” He learned to read scat: “Look, Mom, Tear ate something with writing on it.”

Sometime during fifth grade, I began to tune out. I know, I know, parent involvement and all that, christalmighty I was too tired and I was too fat. And I was too tired to get myself not fat, too scared really. In my expanding body, I didn't have to worry about sex and not having any, which was why I had gotten that way, aided and abetted by the end of my lifetime supply, or so I thought, of amphetamines; what a comedown of a week that was. Appetite inhibitors no longer mine, I ate. So it was, his mother comatose or close to it, that Andy learned about sex, not from his science book but, the way most kids do, from his friends. One day after school, I was lying down on the couch, where I lay every day after school. Suddenly, faster than a speeding bullet, Andy streaked across the room and landed
ker-thump
on top of me and began pumping his nine-year-old behind up and down. He said, “Is this how you do it?” Well, what would you do? I laughed and answered, “Pretty much, that's how you do it.” He wanted to know, “Why do people do it?” and I said, “Because it feels good. When you do it with the right person.” Puzzled but willing to rest and brimming with information new and old, he continued, “I know how many times you and Dad did it. Once.” Triumphant, he climbed down from my belly and ran off to tell Michael next door how to do it, too, and that Michael's parents had done it four times.

Like me, he grew up without a no-nonsense talk from either parent about sex, about the naturalness of desire, about taking care of the other person, about unexpected consequences. How was I to do it? I who was avoiding even thinking about sex. So I didn't. One day, when Andy was twelve, I said, “I suppose you know all about sex, don't you?” In those words I heard my mother, who had said exactly the same thing to me. Thoughts of being a parent who was improved by time collapsed when I heard Andy say, just as I had, “Oh, sure.”

I was a better teacher than I was a parent. For Andy, school got worse; for me, it got better and better. It was the seventies, and School was Happening. These were the times when schools had money for books, when teachers were trusted to decide what to teach, when kids thought poetry was Far Out, when accountability was real and true and happened between teachers and kids, when every so often everybody got stoned. In my Russian lit class we read
Crime and Punishment
and discussed Sonia's options (none). In my British lit class we agreed that no one, not even Andrea Dworkin, could have withstood the hunkiness of Mr. Darcy (“Elizabeth and him are totally equal, you can tell!”). In my Athletics in Literature (known as Jock Lit), we discussed the symbolism in
The Natural;
actually, I discussed the symbolism, the boys wanted to know Roy's ERA, which in no way stood for the Equal Rights Amendment. In my Women in Literature class, we read
Playboy, Hustler, Penthouse,
and discussed this photograph, that foldout. “Hey, Mrs. Juska,” said Lori, holding
Hustler
aloft for all to see, “is this a split beaver shot?” Oh, that again.

I thrived. Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan were liberating me, telling me that sisterhood is powerful, empowering me with self-esteem up the wazoo, along with righteous anger at the patriarchy my father had been king of. All around me women were burning their bras, doing gynecological inspections with mirrors on one another's kitchen tables, taking the pill, having sex with more than one man before, during, or instead of marriage. They were having legal abortions and their mothers were shutting up. History was asserting itself and the pull of its tide was strong. I rode the waves. I masturbated in the bathtub without guilt, just with loneliness.

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