This is me at sixteen years old, writing, and appearing content with the world.
Ah, but if you could browse those pages I was writing, you wouldn’t see contentment at all. You would know about my anger, fear, dreams, and heartache, and you would know that I was planning my escape. To the beaches of Santa Cruz, where I would sell seashell necklaces and write poetry on the boardwalk. I would sit by a bonfire every night and teach myself to play the guitar. I would learn to sing in tune, and play folk music in coffee shops. I would save my quarters and crumpled dollars, and buy myself a Volkswagon van.
I never did make it to Santa Cruz, but instead landed in Sunnyvale, California just a few months after this picture was taken. I exchanged babysitting for a room in a crowded house, and went to work — during my first year of freedom — as a waitress, an ice cream server, an airplane parts greaser, and a stock clerk. Eventually, I got a furnished studio apartment with green shag carpeting and a hideously flowered daybed. I bought my first car for $250 at three o’clock in the morning after working the night shift, from a Mexican boy I worked with who spoke no English. It was a 1965 Plymouth Rambler, with wooden blocks for pedals and no rear window. Worse, what appeared to be beige in the dark was actually pale pink in the light of day.
I kept thinking it would get better, this thing called reality, but improvements came in the smallest of degrees. A .10 an hour raise at Racal-Vadic. A hanging wicker chair given to me by a neighbor who was moving. Knee-high moccasin boots and my first pair of brand new Levi 501′s.
I’m pretty sure it was the jeans-tucked-into-moccasin-boots look that brought me affection, or some facsimile of, with someone who appealed to my sense of exotic adventure. On-off-on-off, it was the kind of affection that worked best in the dark.
Three years later, I had Elisabeth, who really was my first agape and forever love. She was followed by MacKenzie shortly after, and Mr. On-Off-On-Off took off for parts unknown and no longer cared about. (I imagine, though, that he’s probably still at his best in the dark, when he’s not speaking and doesn’t have to think about much).
At sixteen, I couldn’t have imagined the life that lay ahead. I couldn’t have imagined, for instance, working in a penile implant factory, where my job was to inject saline, pump the penises up, check for leaks, and then deflate them before putting them in a box. I couldn’t have imagined being a cocktail waitress at a Reno casino, which is the last time in my adult life I ever wore a dress. I still have the scar given to me by the lit end of a poker player’s cigar, when in a fit of pique he threw his hands back to where my thighs happened to be. My nylons burned, but he didn’t apologize. He threw a $5 bill at me and asked for another beer.
I would have never guessed that I would end up writing about 6000 pieces of ad and promotional copy over the course of a decade, or helping to create one of the first mylar billboards to appear on a West coast highway. I would have never planned a career in radio, newspaper, and marketing, and I never thought I’d live in the suburbs, but either on a remote beach or in the heart of a city.
I wanted to be a braver version of Sylvia Plath. A more prolific Dorothy Allison. A feminist counterpart to the ever-reclusive JD Salinger. At sixteen, I dreamed the life of a writer. Days spent at a mahogany desk, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, throwing page after frustrating page in the trash before the inspiration hit and threw me into a feverish whirlwind of perfect writing. At 46, I’ve just about got the coffee and cigarette part down to an art. The rest, including the perfect writing, has yet to come to me.
What were you doing at sixteen? Did you live the life you dreamed, or did you let the fates and circumstances decide? Do you still have any deferred dreams you’d like to live out? Curious minds want to know.