I always had the sense that I was American but never more so than when I moved from New York to California more than 20 years ago.
Actually, that’s not true.
Once, for one week during the 1980s, I felt American in a way that took me beyond the stirrings of parades and seventh inning stretches and the singing of the national anthem. It happened when I performed jury duty on a murder trial and was sequestered in a shabby midtown motel reserved for hung juries and foreigners exploring New York on $15 a day. Suddenly, I was thrown in with citizens from all walks of life exchanging thoughts about what is perhaps the most important issue on which human beings can exchange thoughts — the fate of another. It was exciting to see people taking to the task seriously, in spite of the jury flasher who lived across the street, directly opposite the floor that juries were empaneled on. And it made me realize that, although it is viewed (by the upper and middle classes) as the domain of the stupid and the jobless, it is an institution that brings out the best in people who are happy, if not a bit awed, to find out that, finally, they are being asked for an opinion.
Some time later I moved to Los Angeles, which sits at the edge of the Mojave Desert. Although I grew up in Ohio, which is more or less in New York’s sphere of influence (to the degree that Ohio can be said to be orbiting around anything), I have always felt a yearning for the other coast, torn between two lovers (though for a long time have cheated on both with New Mexico and Arizona). On the one hand, there was always New York, the place that says, Do I look like I’m off duty to you, pal?… I don’t see your name on the list … Why are you wearing pastels? On the other, there was always California, the place that is just there, doesn’t particularly care if you are, but when you arrive, lies on its back and says, Hello, may I help you? I guess you could say that New York, fueled by an Old World of rules and restraint (fuck you) is more classically male, and L.A., informed by a desert and sea of space, is more classically female (fuck me). Is it any wonder that, in spite of the smog, it is L.A. — the land of the night-blooming jasmine — that actually smells better?
As a little girl growing up in Ohio, I fantasized about both places. I wanted to go to New York and live in a hotel and be a writer. I wanted to hail cabs and be on all the lists. I wanted to meet the guy who skis down Fifth Avenue every winter when it snows and the city looks like a winter wonderland. This fantasy was perhaps a result of the fact that my father, a lawyer, had really wanted to be a writer. But I also wanted to go out West and join the rodeo. I wanted to leap up on an Indian pony and gallop across the red-rock mesas, leaving a swirl of magic dust. I wanted to wear skirts made of deer skin and moccasins with beads. This fantasy was perhaps a result of the fact that my mother was an equestrienne par excellence. As a girl it didn’t occur to me that these fantasies were perhaps at odds with each other, each actually embracing different styles of behavior, not even that if I lived in one place, possibly I would not be able to engage in a particular activity requiring — in my fantasy at least — the scenery of the other.
And then something happened that later determined my first choice of geographic bedmate.
The world which nurtured my fantasies ended one morning in third grade. I was sitting in the kitchen in our big house with the winding mahogany staircase. I was eating a bowl of Grape-Nuts before school (my father’s favorite cereal, mine too). There was a phone call. It was my best friend, who lived across the street. She was upset because I hadn’t told her we were moving. “What are you talking about?” I asked. She told me there was a “For Sale” sign on our front lawn. I rushed out to look. There it was, in front of my favorite dogwood tree, not unlike one of my stamps commemorating a cataclysmic moment in history. My mother explained that moving had something to do with my father being away so much, but a few weeks later, she attached the word “divorce” to the situation, and I suddenly realized why the television actors on “Divorce Court” were always sobbing.
A family uprooted by a surprise air raid, my mother, sister and I moved from a world where even the children grazed on filet mignon and cherries jubilee to the side of town where everyone was powered by tuna casserole, a foreign country where we were greeted with suspicion as immigrants always are. This was a neighborhood where the only people who were divorced were divorced women from other neighborhoods; the church in this district of tool-and-die workers didn’t permit it.
At the time, I had no idea that there were other children whose hearts had broken along with their homes. Pain was solitary, not a burden to discuss with your friends or proclaim in public. My first knowledge that families could have serious problems had come from “Divorce Court,” perhaps the most melodramatic show ever brought to the airwaves. Why were these people always crying? Couldn’t they just kiss and make up? Nobody had the answers because nobody who lived outside of a TV set talked about divorce. While many Americans were rocking around the clock and politely steering clear of the other guy’s blue suede shoes, others were locked in a private two-step, the unseemly dance of divorce, which was generally performed with the venetian blinds closed.
My mother, sister and I settled into our new neighborhood, but the only people I recognized discussing divorce were stand-up comedians on TV. The jokes generally portrayed women as the bad guy, and many of them introduced me to a strange, new epithet for my mother: “divorcée.” As I recall, the term “divorcée,” nowadays heard only on the channel that regularly features Barbara Stanwyck, came to mean “hussy” at worst, and “cocktail waitress” at best; although my mother was neither, she was one of the few single mothers in the neighborhood, so why else did my girlfriends tell me that they weren’t allowed to play at my house because there wasn’t enough supervision? Was my mother out with men? Maybe, but so what? So taboo a subject was divorce, in fact, that despite my regular viewing of “Divorce Court,” I didn’t really understand what it meant when my mother told me, a little girl with a big vocabulary, that my parents had entered that unholy state.
At first, when I was invited to the unbroken home of my new schoolmates for a meal, I was scared. How could they eat, I wondered, while a figure nailed to a cross dripped plastic blood above the Kraft salad dressing on the dinner table? Yet it had become my mission to spend time with them, no matter how haunted their houses, for they all had fathers.
In 1981, I wrote a book called “Getting Back at Dad.” It was a collection of my own writing, with an introductory piece of that same title, subtitled, “Or Why I Write.” The introduction was an angry essay chronicling all the details of my parents’ divorce and the sudden disappearance of my father. I talked about the joy of fleeing Ohio and the excitement of finding kindred spirits at college; it wasn’t just me with a gripe against a parent — the whole country was mad at Dad. “The Dad in the classroom was teaching Dad’s warped version of history,” I wrote, “and the Dad at home played golf with all of the other Dads.” I discussed how I had carried my childhood rage into my professional life, and how I had made a living by being funny for money (the writing of “Getting Back at Dad,” my parodies, satires and commentaries had been paying my rent). And I wrote about how prior to my parents’ divorce, my father and I had been co-conspirators in literary flight.
Our world was one that had nothing to do with the routine of family life and everything to do with escape. Instead of polishing the waffle iron, for instance, my father and I would flee a household of chores and head for his study, a safehouse where he would open old volumes of prose and poetry. Often he read aloud from his favorite authors — Hemingway, Steinbeck, O’Hara. I remember thinking how fantastic it would be to live in a city where “Butterfield 8” was a telephone exchange, as opposed to ours, where everyone’s had something to do with fruit. In fact, when I moved back to New York after my junior and senior years of college at the University of New Mexico (the first two had been at NYU), I was disappointed to find that “Butterfield 8” was no longer in use and re-read the book to see it in action. I had recently begun to contact magazine editors for assignments, and I was struck by O’Hara’s joke about a hack selling a piece on houseboat life in Manhattan. Sometime later, I picked up a local magazine and there it was! — “Houseboat Life in Manhattan,” an article that appeared every six months, often along with another standby, “What to Eat on Jury Duty” (not by me, remember; I like jury duty for the American-ness of it, although the dim sum at Hong Lee’s is pretty darn good). Then one day, I too got the call from an editor, but declined this tired assignment, saved by “Butterfield 8.”
One of the works my father most liked to recite was Edgar Allan Poe’s “Eldorado,” the sad poem about a wandering knight’s search for the land of gold. Together, my father and I traveled the path of the perpetually questing knight, and I remember the sense that Eldorado was a land far beyond the borders known to either of us, an enchanted place to be found somewhere in the books from which my father loved to read aloud, perhaps in the reading itself. Later, when I was old enough to understand jokes, my father began to introduce me to his most treasured friends — anyone who could make him laugh. As I recall, Dad’s crowded shelves were well-populated by various wiseacres through the ages. While learning childhood classics from my mother (“Charlotte’s Web,” “Eloise,” “Winnie the Pooh”), my father taught me how to sound out the texts of Ring Lardner and James Thurber. I still remember him trying to explain the title of Max Shulman’s book, “Rally Round the Flag, Boys.” I must have spent one week of my life asking, Who are the flag boys?, unable to grasp the function of a comma.
Soon, when I began to write (in complete sentences, with large block letters), my father and I would escape to our world and create fictional characters who gleefully rejected the day’s prevailing wisdom, a front united in the battle against mediocrity and rules. I remember coming home from school one day and complaining about a teacher who couldn’t spell. I had evidently committed a bit of mischief when I had raised my hand to let her know that “mischievious” was not a word but “mischievous” was. She didn’t call on me for the rest of the day. My father thought this was funny and exclaimed, “What a great character!” thus causing me to elevate her from the merely ill-informed to the mythological.
I knew I had an audience of at least one, so I began to invent other characters, cloaking them in parody and submitting them to Mad Magazine under the name “Dean” Stillman, for I had noticed that the only people who got bylines in Mad were boys. My mail during those elementary school years was a strange mix of birthday cards, postcards from sightseeing relatives and form letters bearing the comment, “Not right for us.”
But something else about me must have been wrong, I believed, otherwise why would my father have left? Fortunately, my father had shown me how to flee the tedium of the real world. Now it was time to escape its pain. I found solace among the fictional wanderers along the path to Eldorado, the only world that remained. I started reading tales of the West, stories about all of the great frontier characters — Crazy Horse, Jesse James, Calamity Jane — and I started to compose short stories in which “seldom was heard a discouraging word.” In one of them, my parents reunited; I called it “They Got Divorced at the End of a Decade,” and it was inspired by the apocalyptic tone of the James Jones title, “Some Came Running” (which, to this day, I still have not read). I tried to arrange a reunion one Christmas when I persuaded my parents to exchange presents. Neither wanted to and both of them hated the presents. I moved on to a less painful approach (for me) — humor, the Swiss Army knife my father had given me, which I knew could be used for all appropriate literary occasions: whittling, carving, slicing, filleting, filing, opening a can. I remember turning my parents’ failed holiday reunion into a tale called “Security Council,” about a battling couple who air their problems before an emergency session at the U.N., a place I knew of because, in college, my mother had worked there. I submitted it to Reader’s Digest, either not realizing that they only published condensed books, or being presumptuous enough to think they could make an exception in my case.
When I was more adept at wielding my Swiss Army knife, I began to make a living as a writer. I wrote pieces that I would not be able to write now, including “The Feminish Dictionary” (which satirized the influence of political correctness on the language as it relates to gender); “Dean Martin Roasts Alexander Solzhenitsyn” (at least 10 years before glasnost — now a quaint and forgotten term — and several years before Yakov Smirnov, who fortunately, thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union, appears only in Branson, Missouri; I wrote this sketch about the elevation of a Soviet dissident to an American icon); “The Monologue of the First Vietnamese Stand-Up Comedian” (written 10 years before the lifting of the embargo against Vietnam, this was a fantasy about the assimilation of the South Vietnamese into American society); and “The Last Survey” (before the ubiquitousness of polls, I wrote this poll about what happens when everyone is wired for their opinions). I say I would not have been able to write these pieces now — nor would I even think of them — because they were driven by a certain kind of rage.
At the peak of this phase in my writing life, I found a publisher for my angry essay about my parents’ divorce and the pieces that went with it. But when I turned it in, my publisher had a change of heart; their lawyers advised them that the introduction invaded my father’s privacy and they did not want to go ahead with “Getting Back at Dad.” I explained that, mainly, the introduction invaded my privacy; it was a piece about me, not anybody else, and naturally, my father happened to be part of my life, along with others, such as Peaches, our erstwhile gardener, and my friend who had delivered the newsflash about the “For Sale” sign. Their fear of a lawsuit quickly subsided, although I later realized that this may have been because they knew they were going out of business about two hours after my book was to be published. At any rate, “Getting Back at Dad,” my message in a bottle, was cast into the sea and, to my surprise, floated ashore to a house I hadn’t visited in years — my father’s.
What happened was this: I was not sued. But to my surprise, several months after publication of my book, my father called, announced that he was in town and — just as surely as the pope stands up in his car — asked me to meet him for a drink. To my relief, we confined our conversation to updates about family members; I wasn’t prepared to retry my case during happy hour at the Tiki Room. After the second or third round, my father asked me to stay at his house instead of the hotel I generally inhabited whenever I was visiting Cleveland. He also warned me that other household members were still upset about “Getting Back at Dad” (for some, it was the first time they had heard about the things I had written about), and a visit might be fraught with tension. I pointed out that various relatives had recently “joked” about sequels, either fearing or hoping that the “getting back at” shelf would soon expand with more stories. My father and I both marveled at their presumptuousness, trying to imagine a book called “Getting Back at Aunt Edna,” yet knowing that this would never happen, and not just because I don’t have an aunt named Edna.
Eventually, I took my father up on his invitation and spent a few days with him and his family. One afternoon, when I was out, the phone rang and my stepmother answered. It was the owner of a local bookstore who was a fan of my work. My stepmother asked the caller to leave a message. “Oh, is this Mrs. Stillman?” the caller wondered, not knowing that she was speaking to my father’s second wife, the mother of two of his other children. The answer, of course, was yes; the caller was speaking to Mrs. Stillman. “Well, tell Deanne that her book about her father is quite popular around here. It really seems to have gotten to people.” My stepmother replied that the book was not as popular chez that particular Stillman residence as it may have been at others, and later related the phone call to my father as we watched a football game on TV. He was not overjoyed and his feelings were mixed. I felt a pang of hurt knowing that my father was embarrassed, and then we both sat back in an uneasy and intense silence, as the Browns took on the 49ers. During a timeout, Dad turned to me and winked, in the peculiar sign language of those born before Pearl Harbor Day. A couple of days later, as our reunion was winding to a close, he confided that he had one editorial comment about the book. “You should have put the introduction at the end,” he said, “because the other stuff is so funny that it’s hard to laugh after you read about us.”
If life were a television show, this would surely have been the “golden moment” — or “golden shower” as we called it on a TV series on which I was later employed as a staff writer, that brief interlude when relatives hug/kiss/phone home and have otherwise heartwarming experiences. But since life is something else (exactly what I cannot say), it wasn’t until years later that I fully experienced the impact of this particular moment.
It happened in Los Angeles and had to do with the desert, the place that tells you it’s all right not to react — in fact, if you do react, you’re not going to be able to survive because you’ll use up all of your water way before the next cloudburst. On assignment for a local newsweekly, I attended a two-day meditation at the Airport Hyatt Hotel, led by a woman known euphemistically in New Age circles as the “Shaman of Beverly Hills.” But who was she really? Threat or menace? as the old joke goes. It didn’t matter to me. I had been flayed that week — the heave-ho from my beau of 10 years, and likewise from a television job that would have bought either a beach house or an iron lung, depending on whether or not I had decided to live for the moment or plan for the future. Here I was, back in the past, standing at square one with a gig that paid a nickel a word with a newspaper whose ads came from escort services and high colonics. So I decided to do something that life in New York would have completely precluded: I decided to take this shaman at face value — at worst, I’d come away with a magazine article and a free weekend at the Airport Hyatt with a complimentary Cobb salad and garment bags. The first day of the weekend journey was not productive for me; unlike the others who had meditated and found their power animal, I was unable to find mine and was disappointed, as I love animals. But on the second day, everything changed.
Once again, the lights were dimmed, incense was lit and the low drone of aboriginal music began to pulse through the room. Again came the instruction: I want you all to lie on your backs, breathe deeply in and out, that’s right, in and out, really get comfortable, and then we’ll begin. After a few moments, we were told to visualize a port of entry into the earth, crawl in and follow the path to a primeval setting. I knew from my years of wandering the deserts of the Southwest that this is a traditional visualization, used by native cultures here and around the globe, not just those in Beverly Hills. My port of entry was a familiar spot in Joshua Tree National Park, which I had been exploring for years prior to this weekend. Now, said the shaman, find something you need from someone who has it … At some point you will come to an altar and that’s where it will be … something you need from someone who has it. Lulled by the keening of the ecstatic Navajo voice, I proceeded on my journey with great dispatch — to a port of entry leading to my own secret world, down into the earth until I found my barely perceptible desert path, marked by a flourish of ocotillo and creosote and signaled by the prolonged cry of a raven. A tortoise crossed my path as I wandered along the trail under the sharp light of the afternoon sun, a pocket of time in the desert when what you see is exactly what you get, but won’t be when the raven cries again. As the roadrunners and jackrabbits and butterflies moved as if frozen in the heat, a tranquilized tableau of zoology, I continued on at a fairly deliberate pace, through a grove of ancient fan palms and up a rocky path to a higher elevation capped by a giant Joshua tree in full bloom. It must have been a hundred feet tall. Could this be the altar? I wondered, and looked around for clues.
There was no such information — no mantlepiece, no burning candles, no statues of tortured martyrs. Suddenly from behind the branches of this grotesquely beautiful tree appeared my maternal grandmother. Although she had died long ago, clutching a letter that I had mailed from the desert in New Mexico, my grandmother lived on in the family’s memory with her oft-uttered observance that, “Life is funny. Oh dear, oh dear,” kind of a metaphysical bumper sticker that explains everything from who really wrote Shakespeare to Billy Martin’s mysterious death in a drunk-driving accident. Many times have I dreamt of my grandmother over the years (and occasionally Billy Martin), yet as far as I know, have never actually left this realm for a visit. Perhaps the distant hum of departing 747s had fueled my spiritual wanderlust, perhaps the Shaman of Beverly Hills had guided me to some sort of cross-dimensional reunion, perhaps it was because my personal applecart had been upset recently and I knew I could no longer pretend that everything was fine, perhaps it was because I had skipped lunch that day, perhaps it was all of these factors and more; whatever was operating, there I was, under a Joshua tree in the desert, about to receive something I needed from someone I knew. I was ready.
The sun glinted off a small vial of what I took to be water that my grandmother held in her hand. She stepped toward me, offering the vial. I took it. My grandmother was instantly reclaimed by the desert. As she vanished behind the tree, I knew then that it was not a vial of water, but of tears, my tears, tears I had not been able to shed since I was a little girl, had not shed during that wrenching moment with my father that had transpired years later. These were the tears of a lifetime’s worth of pain, tears I had withheld because I was fine, I could handle anything, since my parents’ divorce. I could bear pain no more, so I didn’t, at least not as far as the world was concerned. My grandmother, always quick to spot a half-truth, knew the whole story. And so my tears had been stored for me in the land of little rain, as the writer Mary Austin had called it, the land that writhes silently in pain, silently in ecstasy, and now it was time for me to have them. Sometimes life isn’t so funny, oh dear, oh dear.
Since that weekend at the Airport Hyatt, I have returned to the desert many times, in my dreams and in my car. Prior to that moment, I had made a life and a career out of reacting. It made perfect sense that I happened to be in New York. Since then, I have come to feel at home in the one place where having a reaction is beside the point, the place that is the ultimate laugh track, the place where the silence is louder than the flap of a butterfly’s wing in the springtime — the place where I had been living all along. To many people, this parched and quiet cipher of a scape looks like the land of the dead. To me, it’s the only part of America that’s alive.
Speaking of which, I feel particularly American in Los Angeles. I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe it has something to do with the endless stretches of space, or maybe it’s just easier to find 7-Elevens, the only other place besides jury duty where true democracy exists. Whatever the reasons, it is out here that I finally came to terms with my two lovers. Once upon a time, I loved New York, the place that allowed me to express my rage, to tell the have-a-nice-day-smile-face to take a long walk off a short bridge. But it is Los Angeles — and through it, the West — that has allowed me to feel the wounds beneath, to not be embarrassed to actually have a nice day. And it is being from Ohio that helped me put together the sophisticate and the naïf, the city slicker and the easy touch, the male and the female, in the living anthropological figure I call Ohio Girl.
Please read an excerpt from Deanne Stillman’s MUSTANG with audiobook excerpts from Anjelica Huston, John Densmore, Frances Fisher, Wendie Malick and more.
The piece published here first appeared in The Rumpus, under the title “The Last City I Loved: How I Traveled the NY-LA Fault Line and Got Home.”
Joshua Tree National Park Image: National Park Service, Robb Hannawacker