A 26-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Late January, 1978

Talking to a Stranger

Sunday, January 22, 1978

It’s 8 PM and I’m in room 342 of the Holiday Inn in Rockville Centre, Long Island. I hardly dare say it, do I? I feel marvelous. Not scared at all. Well, maybe a touch. No, not really. I needed a vacation and took it.

Not one person in the world knows where I am tonight. I packed up a few things in an overnight bag and my briefcase and made a reservation at the Holiday Inn here (because they take Gulf credit cards and because I’ve already stayed at the one at Kennedy Airport) and drove out here.

Dad saw me go. “Where are you going?” he asked.

“Away.”

“Where?”

“Away.”

“Do you need any money?”

“No.” And then I just left, like that. I made my way through the bad streets of the neighborhood – Irving Cohen, coming from the store, waved at me – and I found the highways out to the Island well-plowed.

Today was a bright, sunny day, about 32°, and I had lunch at nearby diner before checking into the motel. My room opens up to the elevator and the coke machine. It has Holiday Inn décor, the comforting kind with nice lithographs, two double beds, a desk, color TV (the radio is playing now): I could be in Denver or Acapulco for all I know.

The first thing I did when I got into the room was to close the curtains and take off my shirt and look in the mirror: really, before I even took off my boots. Somehow my body looks more muscular, kind of like Charles Bronson’s, than it ever looked in any mirrors back home.

Immediately I sensed a truth: living at home has been a way of making myself safer sexually. For with my own motel room, I actually started to have thoughts of going to a gay bar or a singles bar and picking up a stranger.Lynbrook Yep, just like Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

When I put my shirt back on, I read the New York Times Book Review and then went out for a ride. I found a quartet theater in Lynbrook and went to see Equus.

Though I know the movie is supposed to be a bomb, I rather liked it. The point Shaffer was making – about passions, however strange, being superior to safety and normalcy – well, let’s say it hit me at an opportune moment.

While of coursEquus ade the premise is not really true – although D.H. Lawrence would have loved the movie – I wanted to feel it was, at least just for today.

After the film ended, it was 4:15 PM and still the sun was fairly high in the sky, and the whole mood of the day seemed a reminder that despite all the snow we’ve had, spring is on the way.

I drove down Sunrise Highway past the motel, through Baldwin and Freeport, along a route I’d never taken, out to the Meadowbrook and back west along the Southern State.

At 5:30 PM, I had a burger deluxe and a coffee ice cream soda at the counter of Jahn’s. There were a couple of guys sitting next to me – one black, one white and angelic-looking – and I wanted to talk with them, maybe make friends, but I coolly minded my own business.

I had a moment when I thought a big anxiety attack was going to hit, but I let it come and nothing happened. So I asked for the check and sipped my last drop of coffee ice cream soda and went out walking along the main street here in Rockville Centre.

FantasySlipping into the Fantasy Cinema (lovely name), I saw Neil Simon’s cute The Goodbye Girl. I got back here at 7:30 PM, watched the last half of 60 Minutes, and here I am.

I miss a kitchen snack and a moisturizer for my sandpaper-dry skin, but I do not miss my parents or my brothers. I had to prove to myself that I could. If Mom says, “Leave if you don’t like it here,” I want to show her I’m adult and I can take care of myself.

If I get deathly ill in the middle of the night, I’ll call an ambulance and not my parents. If I can’t sleep a wink, I’ll stay awake. If I have an anxiety Goodbye Girlattack, I’ll shake and sweat and get nauseous. But I won’t. Hey, I don’t even care if I do die.

In the shower, when I pushed the curtain down, I of course thought of Psycho. Let someone try to murder me tonight; just let them dare. Hey, this doesn’t much sound like a neurotic, does it?


Tuesday, January 24, 1978

5 PM. I think my one-day vacation was quite therapeutic. I slept well on Sunday night at the Holiday Inn although I was occasionally awakened by cars speeding down Sunrise Highway. I felt at ease in the motel room, with no anxiety at all.

I’ve learned that home is wherever I am comfortable; it could be anywhere. I need to keep taking risks in this direction and I’ll get over my residual agoraphobia.

holiday innAfter a nice breakfast in the Holiday Inn’s coffee shop, I checked out and stopped off at Green Acres on the way home to withdraw some money from the bank to pay Dad back the $31 they charged to his Gulf credit card for the room. My stay, including movies and meals, cost me $50, but I feel it was worth it.

When I came back, Mom kissed me and started crying; she had been worried, she said. I heard Jonny mutter, “Son of a bitch, worrying everyone sick,” and I noted that he turned all of the books and magazines in my room upside down.

I just uprighted everything without mentioning it. I’ve proven that there is a difference: I am an adult and he is still a child and too neurotic to leave the house. We don’t speak much anymore, but I think that my going away may prove beneficial to him.

1978 sled snowIt must anger him, knowing that he can’t break out of his routine compulsiveness – it was the argument over that which triggered my going away – but maybe it will leave him open to consider his situation.

I feel so lucky that my adolescent defenses were not as good as Jonny’s; he uses his religiosity and weightlifting to justify everything.

This morning it took me an hour and a half to drive downtown; most of the streets are still very bad, especially in our neighborhood. Temperatures were above freezing today – the elusive January thaw – and rain is expected tomorrow. But for now things are very messy as the snow has turned brown, snow cars restaurantgrey and ugly.

I signed for a check at Unemployment, glad to know that I’m assured of at least $42 a week even if I don’t teach next term.

At LIU, Margaret said she won’t know about spring courses until next Tuesday, the day before the term begins. I’m a bit surprised at my readiness to teach at LIU again, but maybe it would be for the best not to be back next semester.

I’ve made tentative plans to see Teresa and Mikey later in the week, but it depends on the weather.

California Quarterly back cover close upYesterday the mail brought an unexpected $22 check from the California Quarterly for my story. I also got three wonderful letters yesterday: from George Myers, Ronna and Avis. They were so literate and intelligent, they were a joy to read, and I’m tempted to quote from them at length.

Avis says that her case against Berlitz will be coming up soon and that the first McDonald’s has come to Bremen.

George says he’s broke and provided some literary gossip; he asked me about Karla Hammond, who’s been approaching him as well as me. We are all careerists, of course, but I like George so much.

I was especially pleased to hear from Ronna. Her letter was so intelligent and witty, I’m glad to know that I’m not deceiving myself to think she and I still have a lot in common. I’m so fond of Ronna.

Aspect Magazine No. 69Today’s mail brought ten – count ‘em, ten – self-addressed, stamped manila envelopes, but only seven of them were rejections. A magazine called Write On is publishing “Footsteps,” an awful bore of a story. Aspect will print “Roominations,” though probably not for a couple of years; Aspect’s got a good reputation, though.

And the Hudson River Anthology at Vassar is taking the revised version of “Bridge Beyond” after all. That’s today’s big news because (1) it’s one of my favorite stories; (2) the magazine has prestige; and (3) it will be out in April. So I’ve ended my slump.

I spent an hour getting my files in order and sending out new stuff. I must say, a better class of stories is getting rejected these days.


Wednesday, January 25, 1978

slush9 PM. Heavy rains have made the streets a complete mess. Driving is impossible and there is heavy flooding everywhere; in front of our driveway, there’s almost a foot of water.

But despite all that and despite the fact that it’s been a week since I’ve written any fiction, I feel good. I am relaxed and not at all worried about teaching next term. I’ll be collecting unemployment every week if I don’t work, and I can devote my energies to finding another job.

Today I finished with the dentist; Dr. Hersh cleaned my teeth and tortured my poor gums, which are sore now.

My checkconfrontation for $563 from LIU came today, and a $15 check for my Confrontation story as well; combined with my California Quarterly check, that added an even $600 to my saving account today.

I got two rejections, but RiverSedge, a rural Texas magazine, said they’d print my old piece “The Smile in the Closet” despite their “bias against Eastern/New York/Jewish provincialism.”

Four stories accepted in two days is pretty good, I think. Today I’ve broken 80 acceptances, and I feel certain that I will hit 100 stories by the end of the year. That’s why I don’t feel pressure to produce; eventually it will come.

riversedge-coverI had a nice hour’s talk with Gary and Betty last night. They still haven’t been able to get their car out. Betty is leaving her job because (she says) that older lesbian woman in whose department she first worked started a smear campaign against her.

Gary is bored with his work and keeps going on interviews; I know he must be very discouraged. Betty wants to introduce me to a girl in her office who’s going through a divorce; she’s 23 and intelligent, Betty says, so I told her I wouldn’t mind.

When I spoke to Mikey, he told me a few choice stories about Hal told to him by our state senator, Don Halperin, at an engagement party they both attended on Sunday.

Hudson River AnthologyHal drew up an indictment against Santa Claus for breaking and entering. Then Hal and the legal aid attorney both moved to waive the reading of the indictment, which was in the standard format, and the Criminal Court judge took it seriously.

The judge began to get suspicious, though, after the legal aid attorney waived the defendant’s appearance in court. Finally the judge caught on and whole courtroom was convulsed with laughter.

More recently, Senator Halperin said, Hal – who belongs to a club where they fight with old weapons – was having a saber-fight with some guy which ended when the guy broke Hal’s leg with the saber.

WifemistressThis afternoon Alice called, upset about Scott. I could have predicted this. When she called Scott last weekend, he was brusque and unfriendly and ended by saying, “We’ve got to get together again sometime,” not very convincingly.

Alice asked if I thought she should keep trying with Scott. I told her I wasn’t surprised that Scott turned off her. “It’s a pattern with him,” I said.

“Yeah,” Alice said. “It’s a pattern with me, too.”

I had warned her not to get serious about him and she swears all she wants out of him is sex, but Alice tries too hard.

scrabble 78Despite myself, I feel somewhat responsible for Scott as far as Alice is concerned. After all, I brought them together the night of the snowstorm when both of them came over here to play Scrabble.

Jonny has two Regents tomorrow, but he hardly studied; instead he buries himself in his muscle magazines. I just heard Mom say, “Do you need pencils for the test tomorrow? I’ll sharpen them.”

I went in to tell her that doing everything for Jonny – washing his hair, fixing his breakfast, sharpening his pencils – is just making it more difficult for Jonny to take responsibility for himself, and it keeps him dependent on her. (At 16, I would have never let anyone do those things for me.)

Her response: “I’ve always done this, it’s my nature and I can’t change.”

Family Feud 1978To which I replied: “Bullshit, that’s the easy way out.” And then I got in trouble with Mom again. I’m a big nuisance, right? But I can’t keep quite when I see craziness going on.

Of course, all Mom and Dad and Jonny want to do is watch TV. Avis is right when she says the main problem in America is too much TV. (Ronna doesn’t have one in Pennsylvania.)

At least Marc has other, more interesting, interests besides TV: listening to music and smoking marijuana.


Sunday, January 29, 1978

I Claudius TV10 PM. I, Claudius just finished its last episode. I haven’t enjoyed a TV show so much since The Forsyte Saga. How do the British do these things so well: The Pallisers, Vanity Fair, Upstairs Downstairs, Cousin Bette, The First Churchills? I’d give all that I’ve ever written if I could produce one TV serial like those.

Last night, over coffee at the Floridian, Alice asked me what my ultimate ambition was. “To be a novelist,” I said. “But I’m old-fashioned about novels. The stories I write can be experimental, sketchy, fragmented, tricky. . . But I’d want my novels to really live.”

By this, I mean the novel in its old sense, as a vast panorama of life. I want to take characters from early adulthood to maturity and old age; I want my characters to evolve and change and surprise the reader; I want them to I Claudius stillbecome real people, the way Claudius or Soames Forsyte is real to me.

This I cannot do yet. If I follow my college friends, say, to their early forties, then I have to wait until I am also in my early forties to see where we all go.

I’ve been jealous of young novelists like Rafael Yglesias, but I felt better today when I read a review of his latest book in the Times Book Review: “It’s hard to write movingly about youth when one is young because so many of the concerns of youth are, well, pretty silly. Who cares who was senior class president? High school and college are not the world writ small . . .”

Rafael YglesiasSo much for my LaGuardia Hall novel. Anyway, the reviewer says that Yglesias’s latest novel “makes me wonder if some of the same qualities that produced his early success are now standing in the way of his development as an artist.”

Perhaps I am looking toward the long haul and will be a great novelist one day when I am 40 or 50 or 60. Writing novels – real novels – is best left to older people. Right now I feel it would be presumptuous of me to write the kind of novel I want to write.

Meanwhile, turning out short stories seems to me a wonderful apprenticeship. I don’t consider myself a mature and full-developed writer yet; first I must mature and develop as a person.

Growing UpHence – hence? – my concern with growing up, going away, taking risks, exploring more of life than my little world in this house and this city.

Ronna didn’t phone this weekend. When I called her house in Pennsylvania, her Japanese roommate Yoshiko said that Ronna had gone to New Jersey for the weekend. Ronna has a friend there, she said (a boyfriend?), so perhaps she didn’t come in to Brooklyn after all.

Today I wrote a bit and overslept and went to Grand Army Plaza to do research in the Ingersoll Library and later I drove Mikey into the city.

He’d spent the weekend in Rockaway, and since I wanted to see him, I offered him a lift home. Mikey is a Jew York version of a Southern good ole boy, and I enjoy being with him: he has no pretensions.

RoselandThat’s also why I like Alice, and last night after the movie (Roseland: depressing), I told her I was worried about her new life in Manhattan threatening our friendship.

“I’ll still be the same old schlemiel,” Alice assured me, but I think we’re moving in very different directions. When I turned the tables and asked Alice what her own ultimate ambition is, she said she didn’t know.

But she made it clear that she loves the glamour of the slick magazine world. In a way, that world – a world of self-help, me-ism, gossip, TV talk, “service” articles – is everything I want to fight against, so I’m afraid my long relationship with Alice may be put to the test.

Hey, I just realized that my “I, Eliza Custis” (due out in the spring in Texas Quarterly) is similar to I, Claudius in more than just title. Both are fictional memoirs written in old age by the step-grandchild of a nation’s first Emperor/President. Maybe “Eliza Custis” would make a TV miniseries? Should I send the story to the BBC? Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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