stories, some that are still being formed, some that went over the transom in the last century
The "Brit a Day" series
What does a months-long parade of attractive British men have to do with fiction, you might well ask? These gentlemen have inspired some lovely scenes, part of the life I live in my head. Over time, some of these scenes reach out to one another and begin to form a story. For the present, each one of these pictures provides a writing prompt for me, a way to keep me writing with a sense of passion and narrative, even when the stories are not yet fully formed.
Author’s Note: go ahead and click on the images of my handwritten notes about my family’s old farm and our dubious lineage. They are with parts 1 and 3 of the story I just posted. Then you can see them large enough to read them. It’s actually quite funny and all true. It’s a miracle that any of us Hinsons are here.
After my accident, having children was put on hold indefinitely. When we got to California, I really wanted to have a child. I wanted it for him. I was willing to take the cardiologist’s advice—that we wait a few years, then taper off the medication, then wait a while after that to see what happens—as an advisory only, but I was preparing to go ahead with my own plans. He wouldn’t hear of it. He wouldn’t take a chance with my life—it would not be worth it. I told him I felt like I had plenty of time, but he was ten years older. “I have plenty of time,” he said. “Blokes have all the time in the world, god made us that way.”
The first period I got after I got to Asheville in the spring of 1983—I was eleven days late. We’d stopped using birth control pills that winter because I thought my body needed a rest. He was great about my decision to make the switch. A lot of men would have objected or refused to take responsibility, refused to step up to the plate, as they say. But we did everything the way we were supposed to with our alternate form of birth control which we immediately nicknamed the Things. Eleven days. I wasn’t pregnant. Just late.
At first they thought my heart attack had been caused by an undetected pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in my lungs. They told me I’d have to stop using birth control pills. I was still in the hospital with weird complications after the accident in New York. I remembered the messes with the Things. We hadn’t stuck with them for very long—I went back on the pill before the wedding—and we had hated them, but we didn’t admit that to ourselves until we quit using them. Now we were going to have to go back to something like the Things. He said, half serious, “I’ll just get a vasectomy.” I said, half joking, “Or I’ll just get pregnant.” A multitude of possibilities and impossibilities seemed to be hanging in the air that afternoon awaiting a verdict, waiting for permission to proceed. Then the doctor came back to say that there actually had been no blood clot, the heart attack was caused by the Prinzmetal’s Angina they’d discovered during the angiogram.
Spring of ’86, Pasadena, Cal State LA: We’ve been here since the fall, reunited with friends we met here in the summer of ’82. We were especially happy to take up with Mike and Charlie again. They are musicians and they had a great band back in the 70’s. I’ve heard the recordings of some of their old stuff, and they are amazing. They remind me of Stephen Stills and Manassas: these are men who understand the judicious use of a cowbell and a wah-wah pedal. I paint scenery in the Valley, moving more towards management than actively painting sets these days. I still come home covered in paint sometimes. I came home covered in paint today, expecting him to have been here when we invited Mike and Charlie over. I knew I was going to be late, but he was later. I didn’t get a shower until he got home, apologetic for being so late. So now I get a fully passionate kiss of apology. I’m sure he can taste the beer I’ve been sipping while I was hanging out with the guys in our kitchen; on him I taste the faint flavor of cigarettes. I have everything that I need at this moment. I leave the kitchen reluctantly, my steps toward the bathroom are the only proof that time has not stood still. I am 26, and he is 35.
2009: By now you are wondering, “Did Mr. And Mrs. Reid ever have children? Is that the miracle?” The whole moral of the story seems to hinge on my answer. Well, I’m not going to tell you. I will tell you that there is a beautiful, smart 20-year-old girl who is very much in our lives. She has a boyfriend who is English, and when she brings him to our house, our men are lost to us in a haze of Yorkshire English that we can barely understand. Is she our daughter? Perhaps she is Mike’s or Charlie’s daughter—we’ve stayed close with their families over these years. Is she the miracle? What I know now is that it doesn’t matter. It does not matter. I’m going to begin today to break us all of the habit of believing that it matters.
…Until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. --Alan Moore, Watchmen, 1986
I had an argument in 2nd period English with Mr. Reid once in front of the whole class. He tried to assign a certain book for me to read and report on, but I told him that he must have forgotten that he had already assigned me a different book and I was half way through writing the report on that. He said that couldn’t be the case, and I would have to start over with the new book. It escalated to the point where he threw me out of class, not literally, but he told me to collect my things and get out. I went out the west end of the hall and sat on a low wall that surrounded the athletic field. He came out five minutes later and said, “What are you doing? You can’t stay here, you either need to get back in the classroom or go to the office.” “And what would I tell them I was there to do?” I said. I started to cry. He let me cry for a minute and then said, not unkindly, “Do you want to go to the bathroom and take a few minutes to pull yourself together?” It’s hard for me to remember what happened next. I do know that I didn’t feel well, and I told him so. He put his hand on my forehead to check for a fever. His hand was cool, and the signet ring he wore felt smooth on my skin. He sent me to the office to call my mother to come pick me up. It was the only time in the whole of the ninth grade that he ever touched me.
I am grading 7th graders’ tests one afternoon after school. He tells me I can sit at his desk while he goes to the office. I’d like a fresh red pencil, so I open the drawer of his desk. There is an opened envelope in there with a postmark from Wales and a woman’s handwriting. Before I know what I’m doing, I’m looking inside the envelope. There’s no letter, just two pictures. One is black and white, of a girl about my age standing next to a boy, a little older, holding a baby between them. Very serious, the young man. The date on the border of the picture says 1951, so the boy can’t be Mr. Reid although he looks a little like him. The baby looks just like the girl, and the serious boy, I will learn much later, grows up to be the man I recognize as my father-in-law. The other picture is in color. There is a different boy at the center of it, this one much more obviously Mr. Reid. This one says 1960, the year I was born. He is small in the width of the picture, framed by a railroad trestle just as the train is going by overhead. There seems to be a waiting family in the background, but they are hazy. I think I see the outline of a picnic basket in someone’s hands. The look on the boy’s face is the embodiment of wonder. He is looking up at the train as though a dinosaur has just landed in south Yorkshire. He looks as though some one has just whispered in his ear, “Think of the most amazing thing in the world; if it makes you happy, it’s enough for us.” I can hear the western door opening, so I close the drawer quickly and quietly. I smell the slight reek of tobacco on his jacket hanging on the chair behind me. As he comes into the room I am thinking, yes, Mr. Reid, the miracle is you.
I’ll tell you when I knew. In ninth grade. One afternoon when I’d stayed a while past the end of school we were still talking when he walked me to the door of his classroom. The classroom door was right by the double doors with glass panels in them at the west end of the 300 Building. I stopped in the hall, and the sun coming in those doors was golden. He leaned back against the door jamb, and for a second I had the horror that he had missed it and was going to fall right past it to the floor. But he settled into place against it, his eyes never leaving mine. I told him about my memory of that day after we got together. He said that it had the same meaning for him that it did for me, that the sun had shone right on my face as if to say, “she’s the one you’ve been looking for.” He said he didn’t really know what to do with all the emotions he felt, but he knew that whatever he did, he’d have to be careful. “Was I ever not safe?” I asked him. In loco parentis, I thought, and I had to smile. “You’ve always been safe with me,” he said softly. I never let things go very far in my head when I thought about him after that day in the hall. I was 14 and he was my teacher. Mr. Reid and I were friends, as far as a student and her teacher could be friends. But that one moment of connection, his back against the door jamb, my face in the sun, meant that it wasn’t just a crush.
The summer after his first year in Connecticut, we went to California together for his summer teaching job. We loved it. He was invited to stay on, but we both had stuff to get back to in Connecticut. I found a studio that needed a scenic painting intern, and it was so refreshing to have a nine-to-five job after my whole life of school and homework. It gave us more time together, to explore each other, and we were deeply in love by the end of the summer.
May 1985: Married almost two years. Hit my head at a theatre conference in NYC. I was 25, he was 34. Hospitalized in NY. His contract at Wesleyan was up for renewal, and this was the beginning of the final exam period for his students. Many gut-wrenching good-byes each time I made him go back home to deal with school. Interest in starting a family put on hold. Contract wasn’t renewed; we left CT for CA at the end of the summer. He’d been at Wesleyan almost four years.
California, summer of 1982: Him: “Do you think you want to have children?” Long ambiguous answer from me. Him: “Do you want to have children with me?” Me (rambling): Well, I’d prefer to be married first, yada, yada, blah, blah, blah. Him: “Do you want to be married, then?” Me: Well, yeah, someday, yeah…yeah… Him: “Do you want to be married to me?” “Are you asking??” “Of course I’m asking.” Shocked, stammering answer about finishing school, parents freaking out, etc. He puts his hand up to his face and looks like he’s going to sneeze. Says “excuse me” and gets up and goes into the bedroom. In a few minutes he comes out with something cradled in the palm of his hand. He sits down; it’s his mom’s engagement ring on a gold chain. I’ve seen him wear it before, a long time ago, but frankly, didn’t realize he had it in California. Him: “I’d like you to have this. God, the diamond is so small. It’s pathetic….” It’s not pathetic, and I let him slip it on my finger and it sort of fits. I hug him, kiss him, cuddle his face. Me: “I’m a little worried about my parents, since I haven’t finished school…” Him: “I just want you to have it now. Wear it while we’re here if you want, and then put it back on the chain when we go back East.” Me: “Or I can switch it to over here (right hand), it seems to fit okay there…..
The day he found out his contract was not going to be renewed I felt horrible. I thought is was because of all the time he’d spent away from school while I was recovering from the accident in New York City. He said that wasn’t it, but he was preoccupied with the news he’d just gotten. At one point, he put his head in his hands, I thought he was going to cry—I’d never once seen him cry—and when he swept his hair up away from his forehead, I guess it was the angle—he was seated, I was standing—I saw a small scar there that I had never seen before. How could I not have seen that, I thought. I’d lived with this man for almost four years and hadn’t noticed it. So I asked him about it. He said it was a soccer accident when he was young, someone’s cleat. Ouch, I said. I knew he’d played soccer as a teenager. That was reassuring; I was back from the unknown territory of the scar. He rubbed it with his fingers. “Christ,” he said, “It used to be above my hairline.” “You’re not going to have a mid-life crisis, are you? If you are, I can tell you, I’m not ready for it!” We both laughed. It helped us both to laugh.
He would have had to go into the British Army to pay for school. His step-mother’s parents offered to pay in-state tuition to UNC-Asheville, but he’d have to move there to get the cost break. When he graduated he got a job in Durham teaching ninth grade English as Miss Watson’s year-long substitute. Miss Watson was taking a year off to travel around the world with her elderly mother. I had planned to be Miss Watson’s aide, and I loved Miss Watson, so I was disappointed. The beginning of ninth grade was September 1974. I was 14, he was almost 24. So I was his aide instead during 7th period when he didn’t have a class. He said I could just leave early anytime I wanted, but I usually just stayed, sometimes even stayed late, and helped him grade the younger kids’ papers. We talked a lot. It was hard not to be the teacher’s pet when I had him for English in 2nd period. He was trying to work on his PhD in English at Duke while he taught. It wasn’t working so well. He stayed on at my junior high and tried to finish it the whole time I was in high school. I ran into him sometimes when I was using the Duke library for AP English. By the time I was at State, he had quit teaching junior high and was working on his thesis full time in Chapel Hill. He finished it while I was in my first semester at Yale. I had transferred there for my junior year, but I had to start late, in January. The beginning of spring semester 1981. I didn’t know it at the time, but he applied for and got a position at Wesleyan just down the road. He went back to Asheville for the summer before starting at Wesleyan, and I was at home in Durham. He got in touch; I was 21 and he was almost 30. We started seeing each other when we got back to Connecticut. By the time I graduated in December of ’82 we’d been together for over a year. I stayed with him at Wesleyan in the beginning of 1983, and we knew we wanted to be married. I went to Asheville to stay with his step-family while I planned our wedding. We were married that summer; I was 23, he was 32. His step-grandparents, Herschel and Eleanor, were Episcopalians, and the wedding was at their church. His father and step-mother came from England, and my family came from Durham and all over.
“In human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter…” --Alan Moore, Watchmen, 1986
I smoked my first cigarette in his car. He and three other teachers, all women, took their student aides out to lunch on a teacher work day near the end of the year. Ms. Flack, she let us call her Jody, and her student rode in the same car with me and Mr. Reid. After lunch we all got a little silly. I think two of the other girls—all the aides were girls—had smoked something in the bathroom at the restaurant. In the backseat of Mr. Reid’s car, Jody passed a cigarette to her aide and they lit up; Mr. Reid took one when she offered it. I’d never seen him smoke before. When she offered one to me, I took it. I lit it from the car lighter, and I looked so awkward that he knew. “Have you ever smoked before?” he asked. When I said ‘no’ I was smiling, and he tried to grab it out of my hand. I said “NO!” again and he stopped. We were all laughing, but he took a long kind of angry drag on his cigarette before he started the car. I never smoked in front of him again—I never smoked, really—and I never saw him smoke again. We laughed about it once after making love.
The Monkees For my birthday last weekend, my husband gave me a 2-CD compilation of songs by the Monkees. He hid it in the compartment under the armrest of his car before we set off on a big road trip, and at some point he asked me to dig in there and find something to listen to. At that moment I really had no idea of the flood of memories that were about to overtake me. All I was aware of was the irony of the timing of the gift--take away the first digit of my current age, and I was right at home. I might have been a little self-conscious if I had been in love with them 20 years ago or 30. But it was more; I was 9. Nothing to be embarrassed about, the gift was as venerable and sentimental as a bronzed pair of baby shoes.
The first disc was all of their hits. While we listened to it I read aloud the individual bios fo Davy, Mike, Peter, and Micky. Sean had always been skeptical of any talent among them, so it was fun to point out that Davy Jones had been in the Broadway cast of "Oliver!" and Peter Tork had been talked into auditioning for the Monkees by his fellow musician Stephen Stills.
Graham Nash, David Crosby, and Stephen Stills
The second disc was not so much stuff left on the cutting room floor as stuff left in the vault when the band broke up. Some of the tracks are kind of spontaneious and raw, and at one point you hear Micky Dolenz introducing "Mr. Henry Diltz on the clarinet." Why was that name so familiar to me? The same name, Henry Diltz appeared in tiny type as some of the photo credits on the liner notes. But it was more familiar than that. I was now in this zone of memory which could make anything possible, and I started to think that I knew exactly who he was. That he was the photographer who had given me a window as a teenager into the lives of people I ached to know as my closest friends. I started to remember so many images, precious because they existed for me before pictures could be copied at home on your own copier, or saved on your hard drive, or accessed on the internet. I had wanted to work for the Bettman Archive when I grew up, just to be near pictures like his, the only vessels for history that had any pull on me.
Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash
I began to think that he had taken the photograph of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young that I had thumbtacked to my wall at age 12 so that I could lovingly gaze at Graham Nash every moment I was in my room. I thought of the most famous photograph of Bob Dylan from that era, Dylan's profile in the halo of a spotlight. I knew that that picture had been taken at the Concert for Bangladesh c. 1970, and Dylan had been sharing the stage with George Harrison and Eric Clapton. When that photo graced the cover of Dylan's next album, it was all the more meaningful that not everyone knew the moment it had been taken as well as I believed I did.
Today, I found out I was right. Henry Diltz is the artist behind those amazing pictures, and it turns out--this is unreal to me--he's a partner in a gallery right here in La Jolla called Morrison's Hotel. I was able to find an archive of his photos today through the gallery's website.
So many of these photos, the first time I saw them I was still forming my dreams of what to become and where to become it. Some of Henry Diltz's pictures made me want to live in Southern California, a desire that began when I was still in single digits and that I never let go of. The pictures he took of the musicians I loved made me love them more. They were gods photographed like humans, not the other way around. I imagined standing at the photographer's shoulder when he took those pictures. I imagined taking them myself.
These pictures above and below are of people who were my first California family. At the time, when I was in junior high and high school, they were as palpable as anything in my real life, often more. I hope Henry Diltz won't mind--I haven't asked him--if I show you my just-discovered long-lost family album, c. 1968-1975.
Top: Buffalo Springfield; Middle: Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, and Eric Clapton; Bottom: Crosby, Stills, and Nash