02/27/2021

      I don’t do well without pets. Even as a college freshman, I had an illicit pet rat in my dorm room, named Prufrock1 and subsisting on smuggled cafeteria food.


      Why do we have pets, anyway? To someone who doesn’t feel the itch to tie their life to someone of a different species, pets make no sense at all – they’re noisy, smelly, destructive and/or dirty, and they arrive laden with the expectation of a future full of responsibility, expense, and eventual heartbreak.

      To some of us, though, all these downsides feel like upsides – our lives feel incomplete when they’re not weighted with the need to care for, and be cared for by, another creature or two (or five, or twelve…)

      A therapist friend told me about a theory of family dynamics that holds that we marry the person our family of origin needs to be complete. I’m not sure about that when it comes to partner choice (although I must concede that it took Miles’s wedding to bring an honest-to-god extrovert into our clan), but I think there’s something to be said for it when it comes to pets.


I got Prufrock at a time when I was intensely lonely. College was a strange, unwelcoming environment, where none of the skills I’d developed over seventeen years of life worked at all: not for making friends, not for passing classes, not even for maintaining basic hygiene for my body and my environment. If you’re too weird for UC Santa Cruz, you are very weird indeed, so I guess I was. Prufrock was someone who genuinely liked me, who I could take care of without being taken advantage of. He rode in my pocket or up my sleeve to classes and errands, so I didn’t have to be by myself. By the time he died – I smuggled him onto an airplane in my purse, and he ate the lining and was dead when we landed – I was feeling a little more able to get on with my life, so I was petless for the rest of that term.

By my sophomore year, though, Frank and I had moved in together, and we were both people who were used to having pets. He got Phoebe, a calico cat he had for many years after, and I got Mac, who acted out all the resistance I could not afford to let myself feel: against being half of a couple, against having our own place, and a few years later against becoming a parent – against getting older, really.

My reasons for choosing Mac had less to do with any particular knowledge of his breed than they did with Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, a favorite book: Mac was a big white Standard Poodle pup that I got for a few bucks from a backyard breeder.

 I know now that a wuss like me is not a good fit for an alpha puppy, and that feeding an animal that size was not actually practical on my student budget – but when Mac clambered over a squirming white cloud of littermates to lick my face, I knew he was my dog.


Mac and I did as well as could be expected, given that I had next to no experience in puppy training and that he was a big, high-energy dog who needed a whole lot more exercise and attention than I could give him. He was the charming homewrecker every girl falls in love with once, and he wrecked several homes in the years of our association. Fortunately, he loved baby Miles and was gentle with him…

… with the occasional hiccup. One afternoon, I was having a friend over for dinner, and didn’t have time to make dessert. So two-year-old Miles, who was just learning his letter sounds, and I stopped at the bakery to buy a small cake. The nice bakery lady even handed a free cookie to the cute little boy, and he was nibbling it slowly to make it last – until we stepped in the front door, and Mac inhaled it out of his hand in a single gulp.

You can imagine the wailing. And I didn’t blame him. I picked him up and tried to soothe him. “Is there anything that would make you feel better?” I asked.

The tears stopped like he’d found a shutoff valve. He looked me straight in the eye, then looked at the pink bakery box I’d placed on top of the refrigerator, and announced, firmly: “It begins with the letter K.”


In the course of Mac’s life with us, he:

  • Appeared out of nowhere to bite a cop (who we’d called to investigate someone camped out in our basement) on the inner thigh, an inch from his scrotum. The cop did not have a sense of humor, and Mac did two weeks of hard time in the Sacramento County Pound.
  • During a family gathering, disappeared every crumb of a large platter of sandwiches from a china plate atop a four-foot-high pass-through, without moving the plate an inch or making a sound that could be heard by the dozen people ten feet away.
  • Vaulted effortlessly over every fence we installed, including an eight-foot one with a jagged wooden top.
  • During the pre-Independence Day fireworks in our predominantly Latino neighborhood, tore an entire second-story window out of the frame with his teeth, and disappeared for two weeks. He eventually showed up in an industrial office just a few blocks away. The place had no open windows, and all its doors were locked. Nobody ever figured out how he had gotten in.

The last straw was when he began applying his formidable intelligence and dentition to the brand-new townhouse that Frank and I had stretched our budget to the max to purchase. We gave him away. I hope he landed with someone who had the knowledge and patience to bring out the good dog that was hiding somewhere in that curly, chaotic head.


After Mac, I was cautious about acquiring another dog. But then a friend told me about a couple who were relinquishing a female Basset Hound. I grew up with a basset, and I have a weakness for their gentle, loyal thickheadedness, so we adopted Gert.

I’m not sure about some of what was wrong about Gert, or what issue in our family dynamic she served. I think she must have been raised in a puppy mill – she showed no signs of affection, happiness, excitement – not even fear or hostility: she was a long, low blank slate that none of us could find a way to love. (The fact that the cracks in our marriage were beginning to show around then might have been part of it, but, honestly, I think nobody could really connect to Gert, including the couple who gave her to us.)

One thing I do know was wrong with her was that she had the most virulent flea allergy I’ve ever seen. Just one little black bloodsucker turned her into a frantic, scratching, balding, sleepless sausage stuffed with misery. This was long before today’s miraculous systemic flea prevention; we tried everything from professional flea baths to every brand of flea collar on the market to putting garlic oil in her food. Nothing helped. By the time she had no hair left from shoulderblades to tail and couldn’t sleep at all, we gave up and had her euthanized – to her relief and ours.


I think one of the reasons we have pets is that they’re practice for losing people. With the exception of parrots and tortoises, pets tend to have lifespans a great deal shorter than people do; to love a dog or cat or reptile or rodent is to recognize that you will grieve it someday.

The decision to euthanize a suffering animal is the biggest and hardest promise we make to our pets. They give us affection, entertainment, touch and love; we give them a painless and loving death. (“Painless” for them. Not so much for us.)

During both of my parents’ deaths, both chosen to the degree that the law made possible for each of them, I was forcefully reminded of the dogs and cats I’ve said goodbye to through the years. Human euthanasia can take as much as twenty-four hours between the moment the fatal draft is swallowed and the moment the body gives up its futile effort to keep functioning. With a pet, the same process takes seconds or maybe minutes.

I will never understand how we can be more generous to our pets in their time of greatest need than we are to the humans we love.

My dad’s wife Mona had to euthanize her dearly loved cat Scarlett, and was so distraught that she chose never to have another pet. That choice, to reject love because loss always lies at the end of it, is the saddest choice I can imagine. Love is a muscle that gets stronger with exercise, and there is no more demanding exercise than letting go.


After Gert, I gave up on dogs for most of a decade, although we had a series of unmemorable cats (Frank’s cat Phoebe went to live at his folks’ house after we adopted Jane, who we discovered had feline leukemia and was dangerously contagious). I tried having a canary – I love the happy sound of a canary singing; it brings sunshine into the household – but I knew nothing about birdkeeping, plus having an ornithophobic mother had rubbed off: I had a very hard time handling Zack2 at all, much less catching him during his numerous escape attempts. I walked in one day and found him dead in his cage, and that was that.

Then came Maynard, the first pet since Mac to become an integral part of my life. We got Maynard when he was a half-grown kitten and Miles was just starting to toddle, so they grew up together: Miles’s first word was “kitty.”

Maynard (named for the proto-hippie Maynard G. Krebs of Dobie Gillis fame, a longtime crush object/role model) was a handsome cream tabby with one of the strongest personalities I’ve ever encountered in a cat: if he did something he shouldn’t, I would correct him with a hiss or light swat, after which he refused to speak to me for several days – but he would never do that thing again, and would in fact completely and permanently ignore the existence of whatever temptation had gotten him into trouble.

Maynard was far better suited to life in suburbia than I was. He spent most nights out hunting, and unlike most of the cats I’ve had, did not bring his prizes home – later, I’d find a few scraps of mouse or bird in a vegetable bed. On one occasion, I looked out the window to see him carrying a dead rat in his mouth. He paused, glared at me with an unmistakable air of “mind your own business, bitch,” and disappeared over the fence.


The only time one of the Dudes wanted a pet of their own was when Miles asked for a pet rat for his tenth birthday, so we got Rocky3. The first time I saw Maynard go into a predator crouch near Rocky, I hissed at him and he ran out of the room. From then on, Rocky did not exist as far as Maynard was concerned.

Sadly, Miles shortly discovered what all rat fanciers learn too soon: they are smart, affectionate, terrific pets, and they don’t last long. He wept for Rocky but did not ask for another pet.


More than the kids or Frank or me, Maynard hated our breakup. I’d moved to the top floor of a funky old downtown Victorian; I was fairly sure he could manage the traffic, but not at all convinced that he could find his way back if he got out (I suspected that he’d head straight back to our old place, several city miles away; cats are often more attached to homes than they are to the people in them). The kids and I agreed he needed to stay indoors for a couple of months.

He was miserable. I’d found my independence but cost him his. He complained, he sulked, he tried to dart between our feet anytime we opened a door. Nevertheless, we remained obdurate, for most of the three months we’d agreed on…

… and here the narrative reaches a fork. My recollection is that one day when we were just back from taking Maynard to the vet, the cumulative misery of his behavior at home and his utter hysteria in the carrier finally got to me, and I said, “Okay, let’s let him out now,” and Miles opened the cage.

I learned when I started working on this book that Miles does not remember me giving him the order to open the cage; he thinks he did it under his own initiative.

The truth is lost in time (Ben, the only other person present, doesn’t remember). Two facts are certain: Miles and I have each spent three decades feeling hugely responsible and guilty, without either of us knowing that the other felt that way. And we never saw Maynard again.


I didn’t last long without animal hair on my furniture, of course. I adopted a pair of identical orange kittens, Biff and Happy4 . Shortly thereafter I met Jay, and the cats, particularly Biff, became more his than mine. Jay was inconsolable when Biff met his end at the fender of a passing car; we heard from a neighbor who claimed to have seen the car swerve to hit him, which added rage to Jay’s grief.

Both cats turned out to be diabetic (I don’t know for sure that orange cats are more susceptible to diabetes, but it does seem as though I’ve seen the disease more often in orange cats than other colors). Biff was gone before the disease got more than “special food” serious, but Happy – who one of our friends dubbed “the world’s least aptly named pet”; he was a sulker and a kvetch – lived on: we went through the special food, the insulin injections, the multiple vet trips for blood tests. Then, like many diabetic cats, he developed kidney issues necessitating a multi-thousand-dollar surgery, and that turned into one of the bitterest fights Jay and I ever had.

Jay, a former ambulance crewman, had “do not let things die” as his prime directive – he was appalled by the fact that many of our acquaintances with AIDS had chosen to end their lives on their own terms, and disgusted by the people who participated in helping that happen. I believed that keeping Happy alive would do little for his feline quality of life and would, as a secondary consideration, cost more than we could afford. Jay won, as usual, and Happy lived to grouse another day – but after Jay and I split up, I watched Happy get unhappier with each passing day, until he was no longer grooming himself or asking for affection, at which point I drove him to the vet and said, weeping, “End this.” I never told Jay; he may be learning it for the first time as he reads this book.


And then there was Amy, another character who really merits a whole book of her own. I’d said for years that if I ever got to design my own dog, I’d breed a Standard Poodle with a Labrador, imagining Mac’s intelligence and high spirits modulated by the phlegmatic lab personality. (This was long before “labradoodles” and other popular crossbreeds were a thing in the US, although Australia had discovered this particular combination years before.) And one day I happened to open a copy of the Penny Saver5, to find an ad for a litter of poodle/lab pups just a few blocks from our house.

Our lease firmly excluded any pets other than Happy, to whom the landlady had agreed reluctantly. But we figured we weren’t going to get our cleaning or security deposits back anyway, so we might as well get a puppy.

Amy was a scrap of black fur about the size of my two fists when we got her; when the vet estimated she’d top out at about 100 lbs., we snorted. (She actually maxed out at 120, but that was well above her fighting weight, which was indeed around 100.) After a couple of the usual loud sad nights with a crated new pup, she settled in nicely, sleeping in her crate and hanging out in the kitchen during the day while we figured out the whole housebreaking thing.

If Mac had been the dog of my young-adult years and Maynard the cat of my new-mom years, Amy was the dog of my becoming-a-famous-perv years. She was joyously friendly and welcoming to the more or less constant stream of friends and family visiting or occupying our house – years later, when I was recovering from surgery and Jay asked for a guideline about who I wanted to visit me during my recovery, I thought about it for a few seconds and responded, “Anyone for whom Amy makes the Wookiee noise.” (The “Wookiee noise,” a warbling moan of joy, was reserved for the folks she considered family; everyone else got an ordinary someone’s-here bark.)

Because I had Amy before people started being doctrinaire about leaving dogs alone in cars6, she went almost everywhere with me. She considered my car to be her apartment, and welcomed the opportunity for a ride even if it meant waiting patiently for me for a few hours while I shopped or visited.

Like all of us, Amy had a few gaps in her otherwise very high intelligence: to her dying day, she never figured out why it was a bad idea to walk on the other side of a telephone pole from the person holding her leash. But she intuitively understood a vast range of human language and customs.

  • She got very excited at one point when she overheard me telling someone that I was going to yoga. Yoga, yogurt – who can tell the difference? Similarly, she heard a dinner table conversation about a half barrel of fish we kept in the yard, and immediately came to the table to get her share of fish, a favorite treat.
  •  She figured out on her own that if she’d been scolded, a handshake was a détente. She’d sidle up, sit at your feet, cast a pleading look from under her shaggy mop, and lift one paw, until you relented and gave her a shake.
  • After raiding the garbage on a pouring miserable day, she was sent into the yard for a time-out. Now, the yard had a small porch with an eave that sheltered it from the rain, and we assumed that she’d huddle there for the twenty minutes or so of her disgrace. But when we looked out the window she was sitting in the pouring rain, head down, fur streaming with water, abjection in every line of her body: a posture that said quite clearly, “I’m the worst dog in the world and I wouldn’t blame you if you never let me back in.”

A question I often ponder about Amy is: “Does someone have to do BDSM to be part of the kink community?” (Given that I’ve done maybe three scenes in the last decade, this question is more than academic for me.)

  • Amy was known and beloved by a vast number of Bay Area pervs. She attended play parties (perpetual doorkeeper Brandie once said, “If that dog ever figures out how to work a doorknob, I’m out of a job”), salons, private play dates, and pretty much every other kind of gathering the kink community has created.
  • One of the tests Jay used to confirm that someone had been to our house was the question, “Name the submissive who sleeps at the foot of Jay and Janet’s bed.”
  • If Amy was at a party and a scene was being too loud or violent for her, she would calmly leave the room, returning when things were more comfortable: in other words, she had better party etiquette than many of the humans in our circle of acquaintances.
  • Jay and I were at the time giving biweekly salons in our home, offering a mini-workshop, demonstration or game for the first hour and then breaking into a freeform social. In one such demonstration – Jay had devised a new way to tie someone in a spreadeagle – our sweetie Lynn was playing victim, and several attendees were acting as bedposts. Amy wandered into the room and saw her beloved Aunt Lynn, who took care of her when we were traveling, spreadeagled on the floor and getting a lot of attention. She pushed through the crowd of onlookers, flopped onto her back next to Lynn, and spread all four of her legs as far apart as her anatomy would allow. The room, of course, dissolved into hysterics (Lynn sat up, rubbing her wrists indignantly and sputtering “Upstaged by a fucking dog!”). In other words, Amy even had some volunteer experience as a demo model.

So you tell me: kink community member, or not? I’m inclined to vote for the former.


When I left Jay’s and my relationship, he refused to see Amy again, saying it made him too sad. Of all the things that came up during that long and contentious breakup, this is the one I found hardest to forgive. She mourned him for months.

But a year later, when Edward came home with me after a date, she took one look at him and fell instantly in love. That got my attention (Amy had excellent taste in people), and our next date cemented the impression: that was the date during which Edward helped me clip away several little balls of shit that had formed in the place that dog groomers, with nowhere near enough irony, call the “sanitary area.” Not every potential sweetie is up for that, but Edward was.


Amy, perhaps even more than Jay or Edward, was an inextricable part of my life for thirteen years – from the rental house I shared with Jay and two friends/occasional lovers, to the duplex I bought with the same folks, to the industrial loft where I tried to salvage Greenery when it was trying very hard to circle the drain, to the little house in Oakland where Edward and I lived for the first phase of our relationship. When I was sad, Amy let me cry into her shaggy back; when I was cold, she let me shove my blue feet under her warm belly; when I was confused, she was a patient and dedicated listener; when I was busy, she’d curl up with a sigh and keep me company while I worked frantically on the save-my-company project.

But Amy had not been intentionally bred, the way the best of today’s Labradoodles are. Her mother was a championship Standard Poodle, but her dad was a rogue fence-climbing Lab who apparently suffered from hip dysplasia. By the time she’d been part of my life for more than a decade, she was starting to show signs of being in pain most of the time: the long walks that had once delighted her turned into geriatric shuffles. Edward and I decided that we’d know her time had come when she was unable to climb the stairs to sleep next to my bed, as she’d done since puppyhood.

That day came far too soon. We called a vet who could come to the house. The vet, who was our age, arrived, and we remembered just in time that none of us would be able to lift 100 lbs. of inert dog – so instead, we took her out to her beloved car, helped her into the back, and got her comfortably settled in the environment she knew so well. We presented her with the unbelievable bounty of three – three! – pig ears, and while she was trying to choose which one to munch, the vet slipped the needle into her leg and she was gone.

We buried her ashes under a bush in the front yard, and when we moved to Oregon a few years later, we disinterred her and buried her under a hazelnut sapling here.

There have been other dogs and cats since Amy, and I’ve loved them all and I still do. But she was my heart dog, and she was my loyal companion during the most kaleidoscopic, wonderful, awful years of my life, and nobody, dog or cat or human, will ever really take her place.


As I write this, we have Willow (graying Border Collie/Lab mix), Augie (Australian Shepherd/something with very short legs – Corgi perhaps, or caterpillar), Pearl (matronly gray tabby), and Nick (gangly cream tabby). So these are the pets that have found me for this part of my life, to support me as I retire from the publishing business, as I try to figure out my goals for my final decades, as I experience the inevitable aches and twinges of aging, as I gradually withdraw from the active travel and teaching that were so much a part of my existence for several decades. They cuddle, they amuse, they provide skin contact (well, fur contact, but still), they demand that I stay busy and aware. It is at least possible that one or both of the younger ones, Augie and Nick, may be the last pets I have; if things don’t get quite that bad, those two are well-suited to living in a senior complex, or in assisted living.

None of them have ever attended a play party, or withdrawn from a room where the smacking noises hurt their ears. They’ve never raised a baby, survived a breakup, kept me company when I was single and lonely. They are, in short, pets that belong to someone who is in the process of becoming an elderly person, and they are really, really good at it.


1 Yes, I was indeed that pretentious.

2 Short for “Muzak.”

3 I swear I never told him about Prufrock – the name resemblance was, as far as I know, pure coincidence.

4 I am pleased to report that I no longer give my pets pretentious literary names. On the other hand, I’ve always wanted a pet named Smee, and if I can ever talk Edward into it, I intend to have one, because every pirate needs a Smee.

5 A free weekly paper containing nothing but classified ads – kind of like Craigslist, but in print. God, you’re young.

6 Not that overheating was ordinarily a serious problem in cool gray San Francisco; on the rare occasions the temperature got above 80, I left her home.

09/03/2020

I was sitting by my in-laws’ pool, watching three-year-old Ben splashing around in the shallow end. “Guess what, Mom!” he called. “I know how to swim now!”

His voice held such utter confidence and sincerity that it never occurred to me to doubt him. For all I knew, he’d had a sudden epiphany in which the physics and body mechanics of swimming had been revealed to him in a vision. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s see you swim.”

He strolled nonchalantly out to where the water was over his head. I sat there and watched him – or at least I watched the part of him that was above the water, a circle of scalp about the circumference of a large apple.

It took a minute or two of waiting for the swimming to start before I realized that there wasn’t going to be any swimming. I kicked off my shoes and waded fully clothed into the pool, where I picked him out and carried him back ashore, coughing and spluttering.

The first thing he said when he got his breath back? “Well, next time I’ll know how to swim.”

There is no question from whom he inherited this blithe belief in his ability to do something he’d never learned how to do. I wasn’t much older than him when I believed with all my heart that if I ever really needed to fly, a good running start would launch me into a low graceful Peter Pan soar across the living room – it’s pure luck that I never attempted to prove that belief.

In the six decades since, I have done all kinds of things I didn’t know how to do – mostly very badly, at least at first. Before I founded Greenery Press in 1992, my only experience in book publishing was a part-time gig as a glorified secretary at Jalmar Press, the home of the 1970s classic TA for Tots. (TA, for those of you who missed that era of psychobabble, stood for Transactional Analysis, a trendy way of understanding interpersonal communications. I still don’t quite understand the philosophy but I do remember drawing a lot of “Warm Fuzzies.”)

But in 1992, I wrote, designed, illustrated, produced and marketed my first book, The Sexually Dominant Woman: A Workbook for Nervous Beginners. It was terrible in almost every way. I’d actually been a dominant woman for two or three years, I’d never designed a publication, and I had no idea how to market a book. But SDW went into a fourth edition a couple of years ago, a quarter century later, and is still in print, so apparently I figured it out as I went along.

My early kink scenes weren’t much better, constructed as they were from a knowledge base consisting of a lifetime of wildly unrealistic fantasies, a couple of articles in Penthouse Variations, and a paperback book published in the UK called S&M: The Last Taboo[1]. I hurt one guy significantly (how was I to know that you had to stretch an anus before sticking things in there?!), but other than that I got lucky. Once again, I learned as I went along.

I can’t possibly remember the number of rooms I’ve painted, repairs I’ve attempted, garments I’ve sewn or knitted, items I’ve bought in the cherished and false belief that I’d have enough money when it came time to pay for them, scenes I should have safeworded out of were I not afflicted with what a friend calls “masochismo” – well, you get the idea. Most, thank god, were easily repaired afterwards, when I noticed what a shitty job I’d done.

Another manifestation of the same worldview is my invariable belief that I can fix whatever is wrong with the person I’m sleeping with at the time. News bulletin: I can’t[2].

The only sphere of endeavor in which I lack this unearned confidence is the physical. My mesomorphic frame makes me pretty good at picking up heavy things, and I like doing it – but my 65-year-old back makes that particular pleasure a bit less pleasurable than it used to be. And as for any other physical enterprise, the ones that require stamina and/or flexibility and/or reflexes and/or coordination – well, let’s just not talk about those at all.

But I think my greatest baseless confidence was the day I said to Frank, “Hey, I think I might be pregnant,” and he said, “Huh, what do you want to do?” and I said, “What the hell, let’s have it, how hard can it be?”

I should note here that confidence like mine is a hallmark of privilege, which is why it’s characteristic of so many straight white guys my age. I think I’ve been able to maintain it all these years simply because I’ve rarely encountered serious consequences for getting stuff wrong.

And I’m a fairly quick study. I didn’t know anything about being a parent or a publisher or a partner or a dominant or a homeowner, but I figured it out – generally, thank god, before I’d made any mistakes I couldn’t unmake. And now that I’m old enough to have some dough and also old enough that my oblivious marches into the unknown are a bit riskier than they used to be, I’ve gotten a little better about hiring people to do the things I can’t or shouldn’t[3] – although I doubt I’ll ever learn to like doing so.

But I guess I can stand by my results. My kids are good human beings. Greenery Press published some terrific books. My exes are better off (I think) for having known me. And my current house contains no embarrassing paint jobs whatsoever.

I still can’t catch a ball to save my life, though.


[1] This book, charming as it is, reinforced my belief that “S&M” consisted entirely of spanking, plus maybe a bit of bondage to get them to hold still while you spanked them. There was no mention of D/S, or even of other types of sensation play. Which was fine for me, given that my tastes run that way anyway – but it came as quite a surprise, a few years later, to learn that kink comes in more flavors than breakfast cereal.

[2] Although I do take some pride in leaving them in better shape than the way I found them.

[3] I still suck, badly, at telling people what to do. I let Edward do that part.

Frank and I separated when Ben was six and Miles was eleven. We did it, we thought, because of an irreconcilable sexual difference – I was kinky and he was not. Bless him, he tried, but somebody has to occupy one end of the bell curve, and he was it. I was imagining orgies, dungeon parties, climbing to ecstatic heights with pain and role-play – and he wanted genital sex, which didn’t and doesn’t do much for me.

In hindsight, of course, our separation was a lot more complex than that. Each of us had gotten horribly dependent on each other to do things we should have known how to do ourselves: he had to ask me how one went about renting an apartment, and I had to borrow money from him to cover my missed quarterly self-employment payments. But he started writing poetry again, for the first time since we’d been in college (he would go on to become a skillful, published poet). And I began exploring play with partners of all descriptions.

Meanwhile, though, there were the kids. They dealt very differently with the news of our breakup. Miles matured overnight, and began relating to Ben more as an uncle than a brother, while Ben regressed a little bit – he started wanting to sleep with all his stuffed animals on the bed with him, which he hadn’t done for a year or two.

Frank and I had agreed that we wanted joint physical and legal custody. That required that we see each other at least a couple of times a week. At first it was difficult – the first time he came to my new apartment, I tried to hug him goodbye, the way I’d do with any friend. He stiffened in my arms, and stepped back to break the embrace .

Gradually, though, as the months wore on, we eased back into the friendship that was the natural setpoint of our relationship.

He had rented an apartment in our old neighborhood. I was never invited to visit, but I heard from the boys that it was dark and cramped – I was pretty sure that he’d fallen into depression, and it was hard for me not to try to fix it – but I’d sworn off trying to fix people[1], so there wasn’t much I could do to help.

I’d decided to do my best to atone for the separation by finding a place where they could, for the first time in their lives, have separate bedrooms. Given the realities of my budget, we wound up in a decrepit three-bedroom flat on the second floor of an elderly Victorian in downtown Sacramento.

Our weeks fell into a comfortable pattern. Monday through Friday, I’d pack lunches, drop the boys at school, do my work – I was a freelance marketing copywriter at the time – pick them up at their after-school program, supervise homework and TV, then tuck them in.

Frank would pick them up on Friday. As soon as I heard his car driving away, I’d get started spending my weekend slutting around with my new circle of what would now be called “friends with benefits” – kinky people of all shapes, sizes and genders, with whom I practiced both my own fantasies and theirs (and discovered that “spanking” was not synonymous with “S/M”). He’d drop them off at dinnertime Sunday, and it would all begin again.

There was one exception. On Wednesdays, we had Laundromat and Pizza Night.

Our weird little flat, unsurprisingly, did not include a washer or dryer. Fortunately, we lived a couple of miles from a reasonably nice laundromat – and better yet, there was a Round Table Pizza, complete with a video arcade, two doors away.

Wednesday afternoon, I’d gather up laundry: Ben’s clothing from the kids’ department, Miles’s from Young Men, mine from Misses (this was before I began acquiring the specialized wardrobe which included garments from the fetishwear store and the men’s department). I’d strip the bedding from all three beds, and pick up the unreasonable number of towels needed by two growing boys. I’d retrieve the boys from their after-school program at the Y, and we’d head over to Round Table.

Our order was always the same: one large combination and a pitcher of root beer. While the pizza was baking, we’d go start our laundry. I’d dispense the first of several handsful of quarters, then peacefully watch my laundry go round and round while they entertained themselves with electronic mayhem[2].

When the pizza was ready, one of them would come get me, and we’d scarf it down (only those who have never fed two growing boys will be surprised to hear that we were able to kill an entire combination pie in a couple of minutes). I’d sigh and pass out more quarters, and  go transfer the clothes into the dryer. My plan in creating L&P Night was that the boys would help with the folding, but that almost never came to pass – although I did insist on another pair of hands to help with folding the sheets. Full, wired and freshly laundered, we’d head home just in time for bedtime.

Later, when we moved into nicer digs that included a shared laundry room, Miles asked, “Do we have to stop doing Laundromat and Pizza Night?” Sadly, we did – the new place was pricey enough that my budget didn’t include all those weekly quarters – but we all missed it.

Adult Ben and Miles playing air hockey, with silhouettes of themselves as children.

[1] An oath that I still struggle with, 30 years later.

[2] To this day, anytime they get together they try to play a few rounds of air hockey.


09/14/2020

Author’s note: It seems to me that the things which didn’t happen to a person are as important as the things that did. Several of these “alternate realities” will appear throughout the book.

Alternate Reality #3

The marriage license in our filing cabinet says it’s really much too late to be coming out to anyone about anything – but in my own defense, I didn’t really understand my own sexuality for the first near-decade of our marriage. And then it takes me several more years to work up the courage to tell him, stammeringly, about my desires.

We play a few times. Although my fantasies are mostly about topping, I am happy to play bottom if it means I get to play at all – but as it turns out, neither role works for him.

We are at an impasse, and talking about divorce. We decide to try to spend more time together, and follow our reading interests to one of the early science fiction conferences. Together, we attend a discussion of alternative family structures in science fiction, and consider for the first time the idea of an open relationship.

That saves us. It isn’t easy – we often bemoan the lack of an informative how-to book that will help us over the hurdles. But eventually, he finds a girlfriend who likes vanilla sex as much as he does, and I find myself a couple of regular play partners, nad somehow it works, mostly.

He and I rarely have sex anymore, because that energy mostly goes to the outside partners who are better matches than we are. But all the things we like to do together – raising our kids, going to the movies, talking at length about books and music and theater – still give us great pleasure.

It’s not most people’s idea of marriage, but it works for us.

July 9, 2020

Ben had gotten kicked out of yet another preschool. He’d been swinging his lunchbox around, endangering other kids. The teachers took it away from him and put it on a high shelf.

The moment their backs were turned, he built a tower of chairs. He was at the top, teetering, reaching for the lunchbox, when a teacher came back into the room.

“I’m afraid he needs more supervision than we can give him here, Janet,” the principal said sadly.

I knew they’d done their best. They’d had Miles for a couple of years, I was a former member of their Board of Directors, and I believe they genuinely liked Ben – they just felt helpless in the face of his wild will.

I did, too.

We found a children’s therapist. He was a nice guy, and he actually did help a little. 

The therapist suggested that Ben was unusually sensitive to overstimulation, which I could see was true once it was pointed out to me. He added that, for a kid like Ben, eight hours a day in the noise and chaos of a preschool was simply too much.

The choice came down to this: either I had to cut my writing work down to part-time (which would also mean the end of my nonmarital dalliances), or I had to hire a caregiver.

That was how Edna came into our lives. I’d placed an ad in the paper, and gotten so many responses that I had to set aside two full days to interview them all.

Two of them actually showed up.

The first was a very nice woman who was profoundly deaf. As much as I liked her, she didn’t seem like a good fit for a kid who liked to sneak off and do dangerous things when nobody was looking.

Edna, the second interviewee, was a tiny, elderly lady with a thick mop of coal-black hair. (I was later to discover that the black hair came off and was placed on the table the moment I left the house.) She had several children and even more grandchildren, and she seemed kind and patient. I hired her to pick Ben up at noon, bring him home, fix him lunch and spend the afternoon with him until I could finish my work and become a mom again.

It was a perfect match. Ben adored Edna, and Edna spoiled Ben unconscionably, letting him get away with things I probably wouldn’t have allowed but which actually seemed to calm him down: once he discovered there was little resistance to his wildness, he stopped pushing. (This might not be the best strategy for other strong-willed children, but it worked for him.)

I got a call one afternoon from our pediatrician: “Mrs. Taber, Edna seems to be a very loving caregiver, but I think you need to be the one to bring Ben in for his allergy shots.” It took me a few minutes to pry the whole story out of him. Apparently Ben had decided he was not going to have another shot, thank you very much. He’d pulled a metal support bar out of its sheath in the exam table, and menaced the nurse with it while gentle Edna sat and watched.

I gave them free rein in the kitchen. One day I walked in to find the two of them, whose combined weight couldn’t have been much over 120 pounds, devouring the last bites of an entire full-sized watermelon.

Most days, though, she would fix his favorite lunch of Top Ramen, then settle down with him to play Atari or watch a movie, most often anime. His favorite – he watched it over and over – was Ringing Bell.

I only got the plot in bits and pieces as I moved through the house. It seemed to be about an orphaned lamb who was raised by wolves, and then had to decide whether he was predator or prey. I don’t understand why he loved it so – Miles, the future puppeteer, had preferred Pinocchio – but it was a weird movie, and Ben was kind of a weird kid, so we went on renting Ringing Bell over and over.

His favorite book was My Book About Me, one of those books for kids to fill in with the facts of their lives. One two-page spread was filled in with the child’s dreams, which he’d dictated to Frank or me. It includes the following:

The teachers tried to kill me. They put a bracelet that kills guys on me. First they put a star that kills guys, but I got it off. I saw Miss Tricia in my dream and Miss Judy. They were trying to kill me because I wasn’t obeying. They don’t call my mom or dad in my dream; they just kill me.

We overrode Edna and refused to rent him Ringing Bell any more (“Dad and I think it may be giving you bad dreams”) and, after some initial resistance, he actually seemed a bit relieved.

Ben’s essay about Edna won a district-wide prize. It was illustrated with a stick figure boasting a layer of white hair under a wild zigzag of black hair, and his love for her shone through every word.

My political consciousness of what it meant for a young white woman to pay an old black woman to watch her child was dim (this would have been around 1988). Even I, though, had some doubts about using money earned mostly by my husband to free my time so I could carry on with other men.

During those waning days of my marriage, I was exploring submissive men I’d found through the personals. I’d prepare for a morning visit from one of them, a stout little fellow with a monkish fringe of ginger hair and an avid shoe fetish, by scattering my high-heeled pumps all over the house so he could lovingly pick them up and return them to my shoe rack. Then he’d crouch in the footwell of my desk and paint my toenails while I worked. He’d blow them shiny and dry, then grab his jacket and be gone by the time Edna and Ben came home from school.

It was a lot of fun (although I remember wondering when I was going to get to spank him). What it wasn’t, though, was sustainable.

Frank and I asked Edna to add a couple of hours to Tuesday nights while we were seeing our marriage counselor.

Inevitably, it came apart.[1] We told the counselor that we were splitting, and that was the end of counseling (although Frank would go on seeing her for a couple of years as he tried to rediscover his personal boundaries after having me run his life for fifteen years). We told the kids the next day, and everyone else the day after that.

We had bittersweet sex one more time before he left.

Ben was five at the time. In some ways I felt worse about taking Edna away from him than I did about the separation – but there was no way we could pay rent on two places and still pay her salary.

I took Ben to visit Edna a couple of times, but the magic of their friendship was over. Maybe it had never existed, for her.

Kids have loved and lost caregivers for as long as there have been caregivers, which means as long as there have been kids. Ben was just one among millions of sad, powerless kids that have had to move on to the next part of their lives.


[1] I sometimes wonder if our story would have had a different ending if someone had given us a copy of The Ethical Slut.