The Walls are Down: Publishing my Memoir Gave Me Nightmares

The nightmares started after I sold my memoir and signed a contract. Then it hit me-this is really going to be a book. My 92 year old mother will read it.

I knew I was doing the right thing. I’m an essayist and columnist who’d been trying to sell a memoir for a decade. After two failed attempts, I had finally figured out the right container for my story on the third try. I was thrilled when a small independent press signed me. I was 64. I’d earned this book, but now I was terrified.

I finally understood that Oscar Wilde quote, “In the world there are only two tragedies.One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”

Only one chapter in my memoir, Looking for a Kiss, is about my family, but I was still worried. My Irish Catholic mother comes off as someone who has evolved, as she helped me get through the traumatic breakup of my 26 year lesbian relationship. But to give that section more gravitas, I had to explain how we once had a stormy bond since she was controlling and I’m the maverick middle child.

The flashback scene where I come out to my parents in 1979 and my father told me I’m abnormal seems comical today. But he does come across as an old school Catholic.

“It’s like coming out all over again,” said my long-time shrink, who is also a character in the book.

I decided not to show anyone in my family the manuscript since I had no intention of changing anything for their comfort.

“You are really putting it out there,” said my astrologer as I noted my memoir has several sex scenes. He reassured me that the publishing planets were lining up in my favor. “This is your moment,” he said. But those dreams kept occurring.

The nightmares had a similar beginning: I meet a cute woman at a party. We flirt, she likes me and I’m taking her to my loft in the West Village. Next scene we are walking through a dark alley and then up the back stairs of my childhood home in New Jersey. In one dream I enter the kitchen with my date and see my mother and a bunch of dead relatives, including my father. The dreams all ended with a scary scene- one had Nazis, another had police chasing us with the plague.

“The situations involve putting yourself in danger,” my therapist analyzed. “The relatives are ghosts inside you. You’re afraid your mother will read about your sex life and have a heart attack and die. The book brings up irrational fear.”

As we continued discussing the dreams, we decided it it would ease my anxiety if I told my mother that the book has sex scenes and it makes me uncomfortable to think about her reading it. Of course I also wanted her to read it and love it. This conflict dominated my therapy until I made a decision: I had a right to tell my mother not to read my memoir. I thought she would be hurt and feel slighted.

“Maybe she will be relieved,” my shrink suggested. “You’ve been upset about this for a long time and will feel better when you deal with it.”

I resolved to bring this up the following weekend when I visited my mother at the Jersey Shore. On a sunny afternoon, we were sitting on the beach chatting. We’d gotten into a discussion of my writing workshop and how I’d met my publisher though a referral from a member.

“Uh, Mom about the book…. there are some sex scenes. I’d rather you didn’t read it.”

“Okay,” she said and went back to her novel.

That night I dreamed I’m having a party in my loft and the wall separating my place from the next door neighbors is gone and they are wandering into my home.The music on the stereo is not my taste and when I go to change it, this guy grabs my arm and says he is a friend of Sue (who runs my writing workshop). He sticks a needle into my arm and injects a drug into my veins. I scream and wake up.

Yes, the walls are down. I’ll be exposed to my readers. I decided the drug is a truth telling serum.
Heliotrope Books will publish Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing in June, 2015.

Rear Window Revisited

At age 62, I finally had enough space to stop sleeping on a convertible sofa and buy a real bed. After years on a waiting list, I moved up in my rent stabilized building from a tiny studio to a small one bedroom with spectacular light. I was lucky to live in Westbeth Artists Housing, an oasis amid the pricy condos in the West Village. When I graduated from the 3rd floor to the 8th, I lost a horrid neighbor who kept me awake all night slamming her hall door. I gained more square feet and a better view.

I’d landed on the couch (yes, I was also in therapy) after my 26 year lesbian relation ship ended, leaving me broke and broken hearted. I had to rebuild my life. It took five years. By the time things were was back on track, I was old enough for Social Security.

Now I overlook the townhouses on my block. At sunset, glorious pink and red colors splash across the sky as the sun drops into the nearby Hudson River (blocked by a new luxury tower). My three large windows, facing northwest, afford light from dawn to dusk. I have a sliver view of New Jersey, where I escaped my conservative Catholic family in 1975 and moved across the river to be a journalist and a proud gay woman. After decades in Greenwich Village, I finally had a really cool loft-with a view into another world.

From one window, I can see into the two top floors of the apartment building on the corner: pricy rented penthouses that feature terraces with a river view. Sitting at my desk, I look directly into their large living rooms and kitchens. I measured my lack of romantic progress against my neighbors across the street. Since my break up, I’d tried online dating, speed dating, praying, chanting, using the law of attraction, but my social status was the same as when I moved two years ago – I’m still single.

When I arrived in December 2011, the one penthouse was unoccupied. I watched the agent show it to prospective tenants. I wondered who’d take it. As I started to see boxes pile up in the empty place, I knew it was rented. Soon a single guy appeared.

That spring the new tenant had a housewarming party on his terrace. His guests were straight couples in their 30s. A few had young kids and the crowd looked like an ad for Abercrombie & Fitch. I decided he worked in finance. My second summer, the single guy had a female companion as he sat outside reading the newspaper on Sunday. He was dating. I was on hiatus.

During my first year, the original couple on the top floor had romantic dinners on their terrace. In the afternoons, she sat outside sipping drinks, reading magazines, sunbathing on a chaise lounge. Either she didn’t have a job or she worked at home. I was jealous when I came back from my full-time teaching gig and watched her hanging out.  This past summer, I saw them outside less frequently and I wondered what was going on.

I see the neighbors more when it gets dark early and their lights go on at 5 p.m. This winter, as I noticed the Christmas tree go up in front of the sliding glass doors of the preppy guy’s place, it was obvious the woman had moved in. They sat around every night and admired their tree. I enjoyed it too; it was cheerful.

The couple above had nothing festive on display; I decided they were Jewish. As I looked closer I saw she was holding a baby. I had a feeling they were married. How did I miss the pregnancy? After the holidays, I saw a black woman with braids holding the baby- the nanny. So many changes across the street.

Assuming my neighbors looked into my apartment, what did they see? Woman at her computer, woman standing on one leg in the yoga tree pose. Woman dancing around by herself. Did they think I was weird or pathetic?

When I first got this place, I was dating an attractive attorney, who came to my house warming party, but she decided she just wanted to be friends. When I bought a classy platform bed, I hoped this gesture would attract love. It didn’t, so far, but I’m sleeping much better, and my astrologer said 2014 looks promising.

On New Year’s Eve, the preppy guy, wearing a white shirt and navy sweater vest, made dinner. They ate in front of the tree. I felt lonely as I watched them. I had no plans. I was popping in movies and heating up leftover pasta. At least I had good wine.

The next day my 92 year old mother called from New Jersey with good wishes and described her rocking New Year’s Eve. She’d gone to a dinner party, with my sister and brother-in-law, and they got home at 2 a.m. I was already asleep by then.

Still I love the solitude of living by myself. But at this time next year, I hope my neighbors will look into my place and see me dancing with a beautiful woman and remark, “Hey, that woman across the street finally met someone.”

No Place Like Home

“Tilt it a little more to the right,” said my mother, as I rehung a painting in our family summer cottage in Ocean Beach, New Jersey. It was a lighthouse scene, a corny paint by numbers that my older sister did as a kid. This relic hung in the living room for over half a century. We were finally back after Sandy flooded the bungalow. The water- from Barnegat Bay- came up to the beds, and the cottage had to be gutted and restored.

My Dad loved our little house, which my parents bought in 1949 from the original developer. From the start, my father made it clear that we would never rent this place- it was our home. When my father died almost 15 years ago, my mother produced a pail of sand at the grave site and we each tossed in a handful. “From the top of our walkway,” Mom tearfully explained, “Ocean Beach sand.”

From infancy until I graduated college, I spent entire seasons there, escaping the inner city where we lived the rest of the year. Down the shore, I had more freedom. My first boyfriend was a summer romance. (Who knew then that we were both gay?) My first job was at Martin’s Department Store in Lavallette. Like every local teen, I cruised the boardwalk in Seaside Heights eating pizza, hanging in arcades, listening to The Ronnettes on the juke box.

As an adult, I visited and caught up with people I’ve known since high school. I hung out on the beach with my large family, our chairs spread out to commandeer space. My great nephews trekked in and out of the house with sand and surfboards. My mother, the matriarch of four generations, prepared dinner on Sunday. At night we played Scrabble at the kitchen counter.

After Sandy, when my sister told me about the damage, and wondered if the bungalow would have to be razed, I cried. Here I was living in Greenwich Village in a huge building flooded by the Hudson River. I had no electricity, no heat, no running water, but this news smacked me harder.

My first night back at Ocean Beach, we opened boxes with wall hangings and pictures that were saved. My 91-year-old mother showed me a black and white photo- she was kneeling by her tomato plants, smiling. My niece took it two decades before Mom’s knee replacements.

“Sometimes I can’t believe I’m so old,” she said.

“But your mind is very sharp,” I said, thankful for my good genes. “That’s what counts.”

Friends from our block dropped by to hug my mother and welcome her home. The next town was celebrating Founder’s Day with a dazzling fireworks display. As we stood in the street with our neighbors watching the sky light up, I felt this was in honor of our return- a light show tribute to my mother’s resilience.

The original target date to move back was July 1 but an electrical fire in June caused more damage. As the summer wore on, I felt an aching, an incredible longing. By August, I felt bereft. I missed this place, the repository of my history where I reconnect with my roots and get my “family fix”. I was honored to be the first person, after my mother, to sleep in the restored house, right after Labor Day.

My childhood bedroom was exactly as I remembered it, only the knotty pine paneling was more burnished. As I sat in bed reading, I felt the presence of my father who carefully installed the woodwork that my mother insisted my brother restore. My Dad, an English teacher, was not very handy, so this feat amazed us kids as he finished one room each summer. My mother treasured this connection to her husband of 57 years.

Restoring this was a complicated job: each panel was marked as it was removed, the wood was treated to prevent mold, a rented storage shed held the sections while the house was repaired. The two-man crew did such a good job that when I went to rehang things, I found the original nail holes.

My steely Irish Catholic mother epitomized “Jersey Strong.” When a crew of relatives tossed out furniture, rugs, and appliances, my mother donned rubber boots and supervised. One winter night, stressed from dealing with insurance people and confusing messages from FEMA, she sighed, “I wish your father was here. He was good at this stuff.” We all reassured her she was doing a great job. Thankfully, she had flood insurance and our house was not condemned.

During the summer, my mother stayed at my sister’s bungalow, a few blocks away, while she supervised the repairs. She joked that it was nice having someone cook for her, but I’m sure she longed to be back in her own kitchen. My sister took my mother shopping for new furniture and my brother scoured garage sales. Rather than replacing the wall to wall carpeting (which would have delayed the return), the rooms now have throw rugs on the stone floor, like when we first settled in the early 1950s.

In September, as I rode my bike through harder hit neighboring areas, like Ortley Beach, I saw destruction everywhere. I felt overwhelmed and grateful our house was spared. Although I’ve lived in Manhattan almost 40 years, I’ve never felt more like a Jersey girl.