A 22-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Late February, 1974
by Richard Grayson
Friday, February 22, 1974
Last night I met Ronna and Susan at Brooklyn College and we went to see the Student Government presentation of Romeo and Juliet. Susan had never seen the movie and wanted to. Alex sat with us, and Melvin and Stefanie were behind us.
I enjoyed seeing the film again; it was truly beautiful. Mason was there, and we hugged after not seeing each other for so long; he went off to a Transcendental Meditation lecture afterwards.
After we had dropped Susan off, Ronna told me she had to babysit for Billy tonight and would I like to come over? (I knew she’d already agreed to babysit for the Fishmans on Saturday night.)
I told her very honestly that I didn’t feel like doing that, and we agreed to do something during the day on Saturday. I asked her if she was upset or angry, as I expected her to be, but she assured me it was perfectly okay.
However, when we got to her house last night, she asked if I wanted to come up, and then said, “You may not want to if Billy is still up.”
“You are angry,” I told her, but she said no. I watched her have a late meal and then went home.
When I spoke to Ronna this evening, she admitted I had been right: she was hurt and angry last night, feeling that I didn’t care about her enough to see her if I had to share her with Billy.
I replied that it wasn’t a question of “caring,” but that I had to tell her the truth: I just didn’t think it would be worth it, seeing her that way. I sense that she has an “Okay, now I know where I stand” attitude, but if she thinks that my feelings for her depend on what we do one night, she’s mistaken and maybe she really doesn’t know what our relationship is about.
Still, I’m inclined to take the optimistic view that we can get things straightened out.
It rained this morning. I awoke late and read Lawrence’s The Fox while waiting to fill up my tank with gas. I called Josh but couldn’t reach him at his house or his brother’s.
I also phoned Avis, who Ronna had told me had a cold. Apparently it wasn’t such a bad cold; when I called, Avis said Alan was in the shower. I’m always afraid I’m going to call someone in medias res.
Avis said that she hasn’t heard from Helmut in a while and is thinking of giving up the idea of moving to Germany; I had always thought it was sort of a pipe dream. If she can manage a good, down-to-earth relationship with Alan, it’s worth more than a romantic mirage in Bremen – though she says she still may go to Europe after graduation for a few months.
Avis mentioned that she was supposed to see Shelli today – Shelli’s on intersession at Emerson – but didn’t, and she didn’t know if she wanted to, because the last time they met, Shelli was brittle and sarcastic, a trait no doubt acquired from her husband.
Late this afternoon I went over to Alice’s, bringing her gifts to make up for forgetting her birthday: stationery, a cactus plant, and a candle holder. We decided to have dinner out, so after saying goodbye to her mother and her mother’s friend Seymour (another deaf man, he had been an old friend of her father’s), we went to George & Sid’s.
Alice showed me her stories published in various little literary magazines – and her idea for a magazine for old Jewish women, which she plans to offset herself and leave in selected stores. Alice’s enthusiasm for these projects astounds me.
We had a nice long talk during which she said I was like a second brother to her. Alice and Andreas have now passed through their third anniversary together – today he was driving one of his sculptures to a Raleigh shopping center – and while Alice loves him, she sometimes feels they’re in a rut.
I agreed with her that while we enjoy dates with steady lovers, they do always tend to fall into a pattern. Alice seems to have this crush on our high school Spanish teacher Mr. Blaustein. I think it’s unrealistic, but who knows?
Alice and I also talked of Howie and Shelli and how first loves are necessary to teach you about life.
Saturday, February 23, 1974
I’m feeling really good about life at the moment. My talk with Alice last night brightened me up. We parked in front of Renee’s house – Alice had to go in and babysit for a sick Renee – and spoke for an hour.
I liked most of Alice’s ideas on male-female relationships. We decided that there are certain people, like Renee or Teresa, who send out nonverbal radar signals to others, saying “I’m shit – step all over me,” and then they get a series of guys who are bastards. Then there are girls, like Alice or Ronna, who wouldn’t stand for that type of treatment.
Alice said Andreas told her he loved her only one time – “on August 8, 1973 at 4 PM” – and she doesn’t say it because he doesn’t (although that one time he did, she had tears in her eyes).
We talked about Open Marriage, and Alice, like Ronna, can’t reconcile herself emotionally to the idea of sexual “infidelity.” I kissed Alice good night on the cheek. She’s like an older sister I can confide in.
Today I picked up Ronna at noon and we took the subway into Manhattan. She said she had a marathon talk with Susan last night, and Susan just wants her to put too much into their friendship. Susan feels that Ronna has made me her whole life, and she’s quite jealous of me.
Ronna decided that I was right, and she was going to start expressing her anger to Susan the way she usually does with me. (Thursday night was an exception). Without knowing it, Ronna has begun to put into practice the things that my therapy with Mrs. Ehrlich is all about.
She seems to be making a conscious effort to get in touch with her feelings although she knows how hard it is (and it must be even harder without therapy). This makes me so proud of her. Delving deeply into my relationship with Ronna can only result in good things for both of us.
The thing of it is, though, that there is a genuine liking or fondness or love that I have for her deep in my gut. When I think of her, it makes me smile – and I know we can get angry or upset, and still those good feelings remain. It’s the same with Mrs. Ehrlich, or Alice, or Avis, or Mason, just on a less intense level.
Ronna and I went to the Public Library on 42nd Street. She wanted to see this painting of William Cullen Bryant and Thomas Cole (who did that crazy Voyage of Life series of painting we saw last summer in the National Gallery); it’s calledKindred Spirits, and she’s learned about it in American Studies.
Then we spent two hours looking at the most extraordinary exhibit: “Other People’s Letters,” a hundred examples of British and American writers’ correspondence.
I wished I could have those letters: Byron, Twain, Lawrence and Huxley, Woolf, Joyce, Conrad, Shaw, Yeats, Whitman. The letters were interesting, funny, heartbreaking (especially one from Elinor Wylie to her ex-husband Horace). The world of literary people is so fascinating to me, I think I could live in the Berg Collection.
What made it so good was that Ronna could enjoy it as much as I did. We read the handwritings of the famous until we both got eyestrain. I’ve been reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Manand feel I’ve made the right decision in turning to literature.
We took a bus downtown and had lunch at the Smokehouse in the Village, where Ronna told me something in confidence. Leroy wrote her sister a letter and Sue let Ronna read it. Part of it went something like: “As for your sister – well, every man has his ideal and Ronna is mine. She’s gentle and warm and a little bit of a bitch, which is good for a woman to be. . .”
And Leroy went on, saying how Ronna was so wonderful, but she wasn’t open to a relationship with him, and he knew he could never have her. This letter mystified Ronna, and I can’t figure it out, either.
Why would Leroy write it to Ronna’s sister? Does he really love Ronna? We both put it out of our minds as we went back to Brooklyn, to my bedroom, where we played and wrestled and made love, in our way, on the floor – and suddenly the afternoon light was gone and I had to drive Ronna over to the Fishmans’ house.
Monday, February 25, 1974
I feel so terribly desolate. I woke up several times during the night to look out the window, feeling very disappointed that the heavy snowstorm that was expected failed to materialize.
This morning for a while it looked as though it might turn into something, but the snow became wet flurries. I realize now why I wanted a storm – because I felt I could hide under a blanket of white. I see now so clearly that I’ve been running away from and hiding from life, and it hit me that I can’t do that forever.
I’ve been putting off applying to schools next year. I’ve been putting off seeing Ebel about my thesis or Cooley about my comprehensive exam and seeing about my language exam and talking to Jon Baumbach about the MFA program at BC.
(I did submit my application to it today, though – but maybe going back to Brooklyn College is just another way of hiding out.)
I’ve seen no one about letters of recommendations – maybe because I feel there’s no reason to recommend me for anything. I’m approaching 23 and I have little to show for it except an endless string of withdrawals and half-hearted attempts at things.
Alice, bless her, sent me a thank-you note for the gifts. She wrote, “It’s been swell having you for a friend for 17 years.” Somehow it hit me when I read that: I’ve had a friend for 17 years, and I always used to think that only ancient people could have such old friends.
In the 17 years since Alice has known me, what have I done? When I was 6 years old, I was living with my parents, and I still am. What’s been holding me back from doing what a person should be doing to grow up?
I think of Kurtz’s words in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which I read last week: “The horror! The horror!” I wish I could live my childhood again – but there was terror then, too. I don’t think I’ve ever really been comfortable as a human being.
Perhaps I should have been born a porcupine. Why a porcupine, as Mrs. Ehrlich might ask? Why, then I’d have quills to protect me from the outside world. Now I can fully see what Bob Wouk meant when he said that for many years I’ve been trying to return to my mother’s womb.
I even try to cling to the womb of Brooklyn College, going there today to file my application for the MFA program and to see Women in Love, which ended up not being shown, as the film got lost in the mail.
College kids are already five years younger than me, some of them, and I see I can’t stay 17 forever. I wonder if the people I saw in LaGuardia today – Vito, Mara (who hugged me hello), Sid, Avis and Alan – consider me a pathetic person, like a defeated congressman who still hangs around Capitol Hill.
I went to another movie with Ronna, Susan and Felicia, and Josh: an old Humphrey Bogart film. I wanted to escape into the world ofThe Big Sleep, set in Southern California in the 1940s, but I could not. Afterwards, Ronna and I got on our separate buses; I told her I felt upset but I just couldn’t lay the whole scene on her.
This weekend is the bar mitzvah reception in the country: will that be a way of running away, or just a pain-in-the-ass social function?
I would like to go back to Florida with Grandpa Nat when he returns there – I need warmth and sunshine – like the way John Denver sings, “Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy.”
Tonight is Prof. Cooley’s class, and I don’t want to go but I will force myself to.
Thursday, February 28, 1974
Today was a productive, energetic day. The only thing I regret is that tomorrow I have to go up to the Raleigh Hotel for Jonny’s bar mitzvah celebration.
I’ve never wanted to go: the Catskills are not my scene, and I dread spending a weekend with Mom and Dad’s friends, whom I despise for the most part.
But I’ll do my familial duty; I guess my parents have done enough for me that I can grin and bear a weekend to make them happy.
I awoke in the middle of the night and remembered an incident that disturbed me: yesterday in the screening room, Ronna shouted to her cousin, “I don’t want to put my tuchas there, just my books.”
It made me embarrassed to hear Ronna use a Yiddish word, but I know it was something more. It was a symbol of the gulf between Ronna and me.
She’s an old-fashioned girl: believes in virginity before marriage (for herself, anyway), and is sentimental – while I’m cynical, always wanting to explore new things. I made up my mind that I had to break up with her, so we don’t stifle each other’s growth.
But when I awoke in the morning after an amazingly rejuvenating sleep, the argument didn’t come off so well. In many ways, I’m an old fogy and Ronna’s the explorer; I’m always concerned with meeting deadlines and controlling situations while she takes things free and easy.
I just don’t want us to stay together because it’s the easiest thing to do, and I’m sure Ronna doesn’t, either. My affection for her was never in doubt – but love doesn’t solve anything.
I went to Richmond, took a deep breath, and knocked on Prof. Ebel’s door. He was eating a tangerine and reading the Voice, but he remembered me. After a bit of hesitation, I asked him to be my thesis adviser, and he agreed, providing I do it this spring (“I may be on leave or dead in the future”).
He told me it would be relatively easy to expand my paper on Lawrence and Huxley into a thesis, giving me some suggestions. He also said he’d like me to make a shorter, publishable version; he has faith in me.
I don’t think I’ve ever liked a teacher as much as I like Prof. Ebel. We bullshitted for a while, and he told me about lunching with President Truman when he was a Columbia undergrad. I left feeling really happy, went back to Brooklyn to have lunch, and then headed to BC to see Prof. Baumbach.
I waited for him in the English Department office and saw old teachers, all of whom recognized me and were friendly: Prof. Mayers (now back in the English Department after giving up the chair of Afro-American Studies), Jack Kitch, Lillian Schlissel.
Baumbach came in and told me about the program. “It’s going to be prestigious,” he said, and the MFA is considered a terminal degree.
Jon remarked that originally they were not going to take many BC undergrads, but they’ve had so few applications, they probably will take anyone who applies whom they think can do publishable work – and he said he thought I could.
One problem is that they may not get enough students to make it feasible to offer the program this September. And Baumbach said he’d recommend me for a teaching assistantship at BC.
When I left his office, I was feeling good. I ran into Mason, who said I had burst out into a huge grin. I went into LaGuardia and told Helen about the MFA program, and she seemed happy for me.
It’s odd how on Monday my “career” seemed a shambles and today I have hope. And that’s enough for now.
When Costas came by and said he’d just left Ronna, I ran in the direction of her bus stop. I wanted to see her so badly, I don’t think I’ve ever run so fast in my life. It was exhilarating. I passed by Renee, who must have thought I’d gone insane.
I couldn’t find Ronna, so I went to her house – I was sweating so – and waited for her to come home; her mother gave me tea and cookies in the meantime. When Ronna got in, I told her of my day. It was so good to have her there. While she packed her trunk for tomorrow, I kibitzed a little, so glad to be with her.