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I Could've Been in Pictures

A week before my nineteenth birthday, I married my first husband—let's call him "Dick"—at the Little Ivy-Covered Chapel in West Covina. My mother, the official witness and only guest, sobbed through the entire eight minute ceremony, and when it was over, she stuffed a wad of dollar bills—her tip money—into my bra and raced back to work. Everybody loves newlyweds. We were raking it in. Dick's parents, "unable to attend" (because they had a golf date in Palm Springs), had already given us a used, 13 inch TV as a consolation prize.

On our way out, the receptionist, a vision in orange chiffon and cat's eye glasses, handed me a plastic mop bucket and said, "Compliments of the Little Ivy Chapel, Honey." And that's when it hit me that I was a married woman. Because this wasn't just any old mop bucket. No! This turquoise beauty was brimming with samples of Tide, Rice-a-Roni, Kleenex, Tampax, Del Monte Ketchup, instant Sanka, Bayer Aspirin and a bottle of champagne.

Of course, it was too early in the marriage for confident predictions, but I thought things seemed to be going pretty darn well. Dick had been polite to Mom and he hadn't started an argument with the rent-a-preacher about evolution or the existence of God. This was so much bigger than just the two of us. We really were, as Dick said, a part of the "biological imperative." I was flushed with excitement, ready to continue for a lifetime, this sort of heady dialogue. And then in the parking lot we discovered the car (my car) wouldn't start.

"Damn it, Maggie!" Dick pounded the steering wheel and made his usual angry, implosive, mooing sounds, which I'd come to know so well. "This isn't the effing battery, is it!? Didn't I tell you to get a new one, like two weeks ago!?" (It was. He did. I didn't).

Luckily, a middle-aged guy in a Hell's Angels jacket (somebody's best man, as it turned out) overheard our discussion and offered to give us a jump start. We got the motor running and Dick popped the cork on the complimentary bottle of warm champagne and offered the guy a swig.

"Thanks, Son, but I better not," the biker said. "That fizzy stuff just kicks my ass every time." He pulled a silver flask out of his boot, unscrewed the lid and passed it to Dick, who politely took a big gulp. His eyes bulged and he bent forward, gasping and wheezing until he finally managed a strangled "whew!"

The biker laughed. "Good shit, ain't it? My old lady makes it herself." Retrieving the flask, he tilted it to his mouth, swallowed delicately and wiped his lips with the back of his hand. "Care for a taste?" he asked, nodding at me. I shook my head but Dick had guzzled a fair bit of champagne in the interim and was ready for another chug from the flask. And so it went.

By the time we got to my place, I had to ask Mrs. Nagle, who lived in the apartment below mine to help me get Dick up the stairs.

"So this is him?" she said, unimpressed. And I must admit, he wasn't at his best, out cold like that and with chunks of puke clinging to his clip-on tie.

Mrs. Nagle got his ankles and I grabbed him under the armpits, but it was no use; he was just too heavy for us. So the highlight of my wedding night was sitting alone and watching the premiere episode of Star Trek on the lousy little TV Dick's parents had given us (which by the way, had a bad vertical hold), while he slept it off on Mrs. Nagle's kitchen floor next to Rudy, her blind and incontinent poodle.

In case you're wondering, here, in no particular order, are three little words which sum up what first drew me to Dick: handsome, blond, surfer. If you think this makes me sound shallow, you'd be right on the money. But don't forget, I was young and untutored.

Until the wedding, Dick lived at home with "Ward" and "June," his Orange County uber-Republican parents. Though to give him credit, he'd spent most of his adolescence struggling to distance himself from that whole conservative gestalt. Which reminds me of another reason I was attracted to him: he wrote Marxist love poetry. At least he said it was his and I had to believe him because it didn't scan all that well. Here, I offer one deathless line from his poem entitled "Forever Red": "I kiss the rough, chapped-knuckle fingers of your righteous worker's hands." Which was followed a stanza or two later by a riff on scrubbing "bourgeois toilets".

Yes, it's true that in those days, his declared goal was to bring Capitalism to its knees, and he gauged the success of each mission by how much it pissed off his parents. He hadn't had a haircut since the Beatles' first appearance on Ed Sullivan and once it reached his shoulders, not a week went by without his father (an ex-Marine) offering him a hundred bucks to visit the barber. For that kind of money, I'd have gladly shaved my head but Dick wouldn't budge.

His mother, who'd nearly been Miss Pasadena and nearly made the Olympic swim team, nearly O.D.'d on Valium when her boy got arrested at a peace demonstration. Most people who've heard this part of the story say it's axiomatic that you just don't sell dope to guys wearing black wingtips. Luckily the charges were dropped when it turned out to be Dick's own special blend of oregano and lawn clippings. But I just know that FBI agent added half a dozen pages to Dick's file out of spite.

Dick's most subversive act occurred June 7, 1965, in the wee hours following his parents' gala twenty-fifth anniversary party, when he impregnated the cleaning lady in the family's kidney-shaped swimming pool.

I happen to know all the gory details about that night because I was the cleaning lady. I'd grown up in Orange County too—the alternate universe version. My mother was—and still is —a cocktail waitress at Danny Ho's, a faux Hawaiian place near Disneyland. For reasons she keeps to herself, Mom never married and I've never seen my long absent, perhaps even mythical father.

When Dick and I first met, I was cleaning houses for seven different families in three different cities and doing some fill-in waitressing at Danny Ho's. I was trying to save up enough money for cooking school. That was my plan: work a semester, go to school a semester. In fact, I had my whole life pretty much mapped out. Right up through opening my dream restaurant.

Okay, hold on tight because we're going to flash forward three years. Surprise! Against the odds, Dick and I are still married. After mousing around in junior college, he finally got accepted to Berkeley, where he declared a major in engineering (just like his father). Our daughter Skye was by this time two and a half and through some accident of shuffled paperwork, we got bumped to the top of the waiting list and into a WWII-vintage apartment in married student housing. Not the worst dump in the world but certainly a contender.

So our marriage wasn't all roses and violin music, but at least now, I thought, we'd finally be safely out of Ward and June's sphere of influence. How could I have guessed that life in Berkeley would so quickly awaken Dick's long dormant Orange County sensibilities? I suspected something was up when I discovered his favorite Ho Chi Min t-shirt in the garbage. But a week later when he hacked off his ponytail with a rusty Exacto knife and declared that he'd registered to vote as a Republican, I knew the revolution was over. I locked myself in the bathroom and wept because I finally understood that I was married to a man I didn't know. A man who would never again write poetry in praise of my proletarian soul. Skye knocked on the door and said she needed to go potty. You can't just throw away four months of toilet training so I let her in and vowed silently to make the best of it for her sake.

With Skye as our emissary, Dick and I quickly got to know Jane and Billy who lived in the building across the courtyard with their four year old twins Tinker and Ducky. Initially this was a friendship based almost entirely on proximity and exchanged babysitting.

I think Jane, who called herself a "secular Jew", intimidated Dick a little, with her strident opinions (delivered in rapid-fire Brooklynese, compounded by a sultry smoker's rasp) on subjects ranging from alfalfa sprouts to the proliferation of nuclear arms. She had the thickest glasses and the biggest breasts I've ever seen and an explosion of black ringlets, wound into a messy bun, anchored with well-chewed pencils.

Dick regarded her husband, flabby, pockmarked, slow-talking Billy, with vaguely jocular contempt. But I was touched when Jane told me he'd grown up in a family of snake-handlers in an inbred little holler of Appalachia. Unless you were listening for it you might not even notice the occasional soft twang, because he'd paid for speech therapy to overcome his accent. Billy had escaped the hills with a full scholarship to Harvard, where he promptly had a brief nervous breakdown before meeting Jane, settling in and coasting on a string of gentleman's Cs toward graduation—an asymptote he never quite reached. I gave him extra points for his struggle and for working as a mailman to support Jane and the twins while she pursued her Masters in Public Policy.

As for me, I was keeping our own pathetic little boat afloat working part time at a tiny macrobiotic restaurant on Telegraph Avenue. The sign over the door said "Burdock and Daikon," but everyone on the Ave just called it "BAD." If restauraunts had mottos, BAD's would have been "Eat this, damn it, it's good for you." Jane stopped by now and then for a seaweed smoothee. And if business was slow (which it usually was) we stepped into the alley to have a cigarette. I didn't really smoke but I was test driving a lot of possibilities in those days.

Jane did most of the talking, delivering whole free association soliloquies, whatever was going on in her head at the moment and I have to say, she was brilliant. I was her complement, a great listener. Once I asked if it bothered her that she was so much smarter than Billy. Jane smiled and slowly exhaled smoke through her nostrils. "Oh..." she purred."Billyboy has other talents." There was no mistaking her meaning and I suddenly felt so much worse about my own crappy marriage.

One night, about a month later, I was at Jane and Billy's place to babysit Tinker and Ducky when I came across a couple of Polaroids. It's not like I was snooping. They were right there next to the coffee pot, where Billy must have known I'd find them. The first one showed him standing in front of the bedroom closet with a goofy grin on his pock-marked face, clutching his rigid member in both hands, like it was a Louisville Slugger. And the other was a profile of Jane. Without her glasses, her face had a rabbity look. It was a head shot. Well, a giving head shot. I stared at that one a long time, turning it this way and that, trying to decide if I'd understand what I was seeing if I were just four years old like Tinker and Ducky. I tiptoed to the doorway of their bedroom and listened to them snore softly, untroubled it seemed by their parents' exhibitionism. Then, I stepped into Billy and Jane's room and flicked on the light. It had an organic, loamy smell, like the inside of an old hat. Clothing and books were piled everywhere. Billy's mailman uniform was tossed over the arm of a lop-sided chair. I was surprised to see they shared a narrow single bed. The mattress had a deep hammocky depression in the middle, a nest where their bodies would inevitably roll together and intertwine each night. In the king-sized bed I shared with Dick, there was a carefully maintained no-fire zone in the middle. Okay, I'll say it: my moral indignation gave way to the gnaw of jealousy. I was thinking how Jane's marriage was about passion and mine was about mistaken identities and making the best of it, when I heard their voices at the door. I switched off the light and almost leapt into the living room as Jane and Billy came in, laughing and a little tipsy.

"How'd it go?" Billy asked.

"Just fine," I mumbled.

"They didn't wake up?" Jane said.

I shook my head and realized I still had the Polaroids in my hand. "Here," I said and shoved them at her.

Jane glanced at them and murmured, "Uh oh, Billyboy."

"It's really none of my business," I said primly, "But what kind of parents leave this...this kind of...stuff lying around?"

"Ah, now," Billy sighed. "It's not like anybody died. It's just Mama an' Papa lovin' on each other."

"So that makes it okay for Ducky and Tinker to see?"

Billy grinned. "Who d'ya think took them pictures?"

"Oh my God! You are the sickest—"

"Just kidden',Maggie," he said, drowning my fury in a big boozy hug. Jane looked on, with a brittle smile as she lit a cigarette and set the Polaroids afire with her lighter.

I pushed away from Billy and headed for the door. "Hey, Maggie?" he chuckled. "Tool like this could save a marriage. You an' Dick ever wanna borrow it, just gimme a hoot."

It wasn't until I was half way down the stairs that I realized the "tool" he was offering was the Polaroid camera. By the time I reached the bottom of the stairs, I decided that from now on, Dick and I would be seeing a lot less of Billy and Jane. But when I got to the door of my apartment, it hit me that what I really wanted was to be seeing a lot less of Dick.

Appeared in Writing Humor: Giving a Comedic Touch to All Forms of Writing by Ian Bernard (Capra Press, June 2003); Read at Speaking of Stories, April 2005

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