11/24/2020

Brandie really deserves a whole book all to herself. She was the first (although not the last) person I met who had actually been martyred on the pyre of sexuality: as a teenager who got caught stealing women’s clothes, she was repeatedly institutionalized and subjected to multiple courses of electroshock therapy, which left her with a permanent traumatic brain injury.

Brandie was smart, verbal and – fortunately – had a sense of humor about herself. Why “fortunately”? Well, the TBI had left her with some permanent deficits in executive function, including some difficulties in personal hygiene – not to put too fine a point on it, she smelled bad. Moreover, even as a man she would have been startlingly homely, with her stringy hair and the kind of long hooked nose that is usually a prosthesis given to actors playing witches or offensively stereotyped Jews. As a woman, she turned heads, and not in the way most people would wish.

But all of us in the San Francisco scene back then cared about her deeply – she was a genuinely sweet person, an excellent bottom, and had built herself a life that wasn’t easy but was ethical and manageable. She got admitted free to play parties by acting as doorkeeper, and several of us played with her, not so much because we found her attractive, but because she deserved good things and a nice flogging or caning made her happy.  She made what money she had beyond her disability checks from her friends hiring her for tasks like assembling mailings and babysitting: the few of us who were parents (not common in the scene back then) knew that she was great with kids. She was a daily caregiver for one woman’s son, and was happy to come hang out with Ben when Miles was somewhere else for the weekend and I had a party or other commitment: I’d get home and find the chessboard still set up in the living room after the two of them had played a couple of games.

Brandie was my, and my sons’, first exposure to someone whose gender was not fixed. I’m still not clear in my own mind about whether she was a better fit for the category of “crossdresser” or “trans woman” – she lived full-time as a woman, but it was also clear that being female was a turnon for her in the way it is for many submissive men. I think what she was, was Brandie, sui generis: a small but crucial part of the ecology of our household.


I refer to Miles and Ben collectively as Les Dudes – it’s an abstruse joke on an old unremembered Gene Kelly movie called Les Girls. I’m too old for “dude” to be a regular part of my vocabulary unless you’re Jeff Bridges, but they’re not, and I still remember how startled I was the first time one of them addressed me as “Dude!”

Gender in our family has, unsurprisingly, been an occasional point of ambiguity. When Miles was very small, he insisted he was a girl, which he said was because the hair on the back of his head was curly. For some reason that almost certainly had to do with my own unrecognized dysphoria, it infuriated me; Frank asked, “Why do you care?” and I couldn’t answer, but I did care, deeply. Fortunately, that phase lasted only a couple of weeks. Since then, Miles has shown no signs of being anything but a nurturing, artistic, unmistakably male human.

Ben’s sense of gender seemed less flexible. The first time he went to a barbershop, when he was around two, he announced, “Mom, tell the barber to make it very small” – and hence was born the Ben Taber Buzz, which he wore well into his teens. I’ve never known whether he loved it because it was butch or because it made strangers ask to rub his head, but it was part of his identity for more than a decade. 

Both of the Dudes greeted my own experimentations with gender with blasé amusement; they were entirely accustomed to seeing me in short spiked hair, jeans, boots and a tank top. The only pushback I can remember was Ben, looking at me femmed up for an age-play party in a schoolgirl outfit and ringlets, snorting, “And what are you supposed to be?” (My age-play persona was the only unqualifiedly female part of my identity – the rest is, and probably will be, always up for grabs.)

I probably encouraged this comfort around gender stuff by filling the house with folks of all genders and gender expressions; Brandie was the first, but she wasn’t the only one by far.

A household friend named Jamie, mid-transition, offered to help us move. To avoid the kind of awkward observation of which every parent of young children lives in dread, I thought it wise to spend a few minutes ahead of time explaining that Jamie used to look like a boy, but was taking medicine and choosing clothes so that she could be a girl. As it happened, Jamie was a tech geek, Ben’s favorite kind of person, and they got on like old pals. Ben mused afterward, “I really like Jamie, but I have trouble remembering which she used to be and which she was turning into.”

I’ve lost track of Jamie, but if I were a gambler, I’d bet their identity these days is non-binary. Ben may have been more precognitive than I knew, back in those simpler days of only two genders.

I think that the effect such people created in our lives, though, went beyond gender, and I don’t know whether we learned it from them or whether they were drawn into our lives because we shared a similar drive toward self-definition.


All three of us, the Dudes and I, have a horror of being restricted in any way, in being forced to be only one person. We all have the same restlessly creative drive: all of us write and make art, Miles and Ben are musical (they owe that to Frank, not me), Miles performs as an actor and puppeteer, Ben designs video games. We’re all puzzle junkies, and each of us is attached to certain pieces of art that we have a better chance of explaining to each other than we do to anyone else. If someone calls us writers, we feel the need to point out that we’re also artists, or performers, or programmers, or cooks, or all the other things we need to do to fill up our souls: getting trapped in just one thing, even if it’s a thing we love, is anathema.

I remember a night that Les Dudes were helping me set up some warehouse shelves in my office space. We were all exhausted and in pain, but we simply couldn’t stop until the job was done, until the thing – however mundane and utilitarian – was created. I see the same thing in myself when I walk into my office to send an email and wind up sitting at my desk tinkering with an essay until I suddenly notice that everyone else has gone to bed, or in Ben when he shows up puffy-eyed and grouchy because he got into the groove with a piece of game programming and couldn’t stop for fear of losing direction, or in Miles when he works himself past exhaustion trying to perform in three different shows at once at the same time as he’s trying to maintain an income doing the various bits and pieces that constitute his actual living.

Ben has written, “This discomfort in time and place and vessel is one reason why I feel a great deal of empathy for trans folks. Though I certainly can’t claim to feel it with the same urgency they do, the dissatisfaction with having a body which doesn’t really feel like home is unnerving. For me, though, it’s not just my body: I want sometimes to change my mind in an unusually literal way, to take on a whole new mantle of personal history, to be someone completely.”

I can’t explain it any better than that.

11/09/2020

The only evidence I’ve ever had of my ability to write fiction was my creation and dissemination of a Christmas letter to my extended family, every year for most of a decade. The main thing this exercise in heavily filtered half-truth did for me was to instill a deep cynicism about the Christmas letters I got from other people.

In 2004, I wrote: “His name is Edward, and we’ve been spending most of our time together in the last year… however, a couple of years ago, an old spinal injury flared up badly and he’s now trying to find a kind of work ­­– probably writing or politics – that he’ll be able to do from home.” This was edited down from: “His name is Edward, and we’ve never had intercourse because his body is too fucked up, but we’ve done a few amazing scenes together, switching roles and exploring what fun is to be had with his sensitive tits and my iron butt.”

In 2006: “I decided this year to return to school to work on a Master of Fine Arts degree with an eye toward teaching writing at the university level. I’m in the Creative Nonfiction program at St. Mary’s University in Moraga, about half an hour from here, and completely loving it.” Edited from: “I spend a lot of my time trying to figure out how to write about sadomasochistic sex, gender-bending, polyamory, and traveling around the country to teach those things, for everything I write to be critiqued by a roomful of people – including most of my professors – young enough to be my children.”

In 2007: “Miles cashed in almost everything he could… and took off for six weeks of solo backpacking across Europe: London, Dublin and Galway, then across the channel to Paris and on to his ultimate destination, Prague.” Edited from: “Miles went to Europe and came home with a large bottle of absinthe in his luggage. His new girlfriend L was here waiting for him, and the two of them disappeared into the spare room for two days. Every time I tiptoed through there with a load of laundry, the level in the bottle had dropped another inch or two.”

In 2008: “I haven’t yet had any luck finding a home for my book; I had an agent for awhile, but we had very different visions for where the book was going, so I decided to move on.” Edited from: “My book Girlfag: A Life Told in Sex and Musicals has been looked at by dozens of agents and publishers, every one of whom has said, ‘I’m not sure what the market will be for this book.’ Well, that’s never stopped me before, so I guess I’ll self-publish. Again. (PS: The agents and publishers may have been right, but I still love the book.)”

In 2009: “Even by usual crazy standards, this has been a year full of rapid change, most of it due to this difficult economy.” Edited from: “We’ve been here in Eugene for six months and have already moved twice, renting while we wait for the economic chaos to settle and something to happen with our house in Oakland.” And, if I’d written one in 2010, I could have added: “The Oakland place went into foreclosure and we wound up moving four times in two years, and it’s looking like we’ll be renters – in a town where the rental market is tailored to college students – for the foreseeable future. And, oh, yeah, one of the ‘owners’ we rented from turned out not to own the house at all, which we didn’t find out about until her ex-husband showed up expecting to find the place empty.”

At that point I gave up writing the Christmas letters. I’ll probably never be much of a fiction writer.

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.

08/26/2020

As I write this, late in the summer of 2020, Santa Cruz is on fire. The UC Santa Cruz campus was evacuated earlier this week, and photos showed the Boardwalk glittering against a backdrop of ominous orange, with a setting sun of otherworldly magenta.

Santa Cruz was a major character in the first half of my life, and has been an occasional correspondent since. Watching it suffer feels like visiting the hospital bed of an old but no longer dear friend.

Frank and I met when he was a sophomore and I was a freshman at UCSC: I saw a card posted on the dining hall bulletin board, from three people looking for a fourth for bridge. Given that I’d spent most of the year vacillating from depression to terror and back (the serial killer Edmund Kemper was picking off girls my age and leaving them strewn in pieces around the campus’s many forests, crevasses and ridges), the idea of an occasional bridge game was compelling. But I had no idea what a big part of my life the game, and the three of them, would become – we wound up playing cards more nights than not, often piling into a VW Beetle to go downtown at 2am and eat fresh donuts from Ferrell’s, a local haven. Sometimes we came back and played more cards after that.

Scott, our informal leader (and the owner of the Beetle), was tall and slim, with wavy sunbleached hair and an engagingly crooked smile. When you asked Scott what his goals were, he said “getting rich”[1]; last I looked, he was the Chief Technical Officer of a huge national media empire. Maureen, dark-haired and easygoing, was one of the campus’s very few female math students. Scott’s roommate Frank was taciturn and wry, and was majoring in chemistry.

I made a move on Scott, who gallantly pretended not to know what I was trying to do. (He knew.) So it was Frank who wound up in my bed – his first time, my eighth or ninth. And when I realized that another year in the dorms would be hazardous to my mental health, it was Frank who I invited to share a large off-campus room with me, near a campus bus route.

We lived together for a pleasant, if very stoned and sloppy, year. Then he changed his major to Civil Engineering and transferred to UC Davis, back in his hometown. I stuck it out in Santa Cruz for a year, working as an “usherette” in a movie theater and going to classes when I felt like it, which was seldom. Then I dropped out and moved to Davis, where we found an apartment together.

But Santa Cruz wasn’t through with me yet. Frank’s family owned[2] a huge old beach house on the west side of town, overlooking the vast stretch of the Pacific. So for all Frank’s and my decade and a half together, we spent nearly all our vacations – first with my big crazy standard poodle Mac, then with Mac and Miles, then with Miles and Ben – in that house, along with a shifting cast of a dozen or more grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. (Those vacations spurred my earliest impulses toward extended family: there was no question that both the kids and the grownups were calmer and saner with a lot of loving company to blunt the harsh edges of any particular relationship.)

It was also in Santa Cruz that Frank and I decided to end things. We left the sleeping kids with his folks, drove far enough out of town that we were unlikely to be seen by anyone who cared that we were sitting over coffee with tears running down our faces, and together sketched out our separate futures.

I was no longer welcome at the Santa Cruz house after that, but the kids were still spending lots of long weekends there with Frank and his family. Today, they both adore Santa Cruz in the way that any kid loves the site of repeated fun and affection: Miles had hoped to have his wedding to his wife Destiny there, although the logistics proved impossible – they ended up marrying in Long Beach, Southern California’s closest analog to Santa Cruz.

I tried, once, to vacation in Santa Cruz myself, building a few days’ break around a speaking gig at a downtown sex shop. But the topography of the town had shifted after the Loma Prieta quake in 1989, so many of my haunts and landmarks were gone; those that remained all carried a ponderous weight of memory. I drove home in an odd, sad, might-have-been mood, wondering if what I’d gained was worth what I’d given up.

Les Dudes continued to report back to me about the doings in Santa Cruz. Their great-grandmother was there and then she wasn’t, and then their grandmother, and then their grandfather. Cousins I remember as infants came, played, went to the Boardwalk and for walks on the beach, left for college and other towns, and their kids came back to Santa Cruz.

Over Labor Day weekend of 2006, Ben heard a noise from Frank’s room. When he went to investigate, he found Frank on the floor in the throes of what turned out to be a major stroke. But a few months later, he drove Frank back to Santa Cruz, where the deaths of the family elders had left the wheelchair-accessible bedroom available. The family, its topography changed by the earthquakes of life, still gathers at the house several times a year.

I’ve had one more visit to Santa Cruz. When Edward and I got married, we spent as little as possible on what was at our ages a fairly unexceptional rite of passage (the County Clerk’s office, then later a modest gathering in a church meeting room, with some cheeseboards and some champagne and a cake). With the money we had left, we took a “honey-asteroid”[3] at a place in downtown Santa Cruz that billed itself as a “bed, bud and breakfast,” run by a pair of dyke cannabis activists who turned out to know Edward already from the queer and activist communities.

Santa Cruz, on that trip, was the end of another story: the site of the last full-on kink scene I ever did, and also of the last time I had genital sex (making the place a Bed, Bud, Breakfast, Bondage and Blowjob). Another landmark, I guess.

By the time I get back to that part of the world, it will have shifted yet again: the fires are still uncontained, and whatever remains of the town and the campus will be irrevocably changed. But you can’t change the past, and Santa Cruz is a permanent part of my brain and my heart.


[1] Contemporary college students might not recognize how startling a statement that was in 1972, particularly at “Uncle Charlie’s Summer Camp.” For comparison, imagine asking a fellow student in the 2020s what they want to do after college, and having them say “I dunno, man, just hang out, smoke a bit, figure out who I am, you know?”

[2] Still does.

[3] Too small to be a honeymoon.

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.


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.