A 23-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Early November, 1974


Monday, November 4, 1974

8 PM. Always, always, it seems, I keep coming back to the last line in that Rilke poem: “For there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.”

This stomach virus (or acute gastroenteritis, as Dr. Fletcher diagnosed it this evening) has put me face to face with my own existence again, and I’m not terribly happy with what I have become.

When I took off my shirt in the doctor’s office, I noticed a shocking amount of flab. And my skin has been bad lately. I just haven’t been taking care of myself. I can’t let myself sink into an abyss easily because I don’t have the therapy sessions to prod me into self-examination and change.

I got my college ID today and liked the picture of me on it. I look so tanned and confident and slightly bemused and not at all bad-looking. But now that I think about it, that photo was taken at one of the most difficult times of my life: the day after the Holiday Inn night, when I didn’t know what was coming off.

So I guess outward appearances can be deceiving to an extent far beyond the cliché. Still, I wish I looked better.

Times come and go, and I’m always uncertain. The only constant thing in my life is my writing: it’s the glue that holds the disparate elements of my existence together – even more so than therapy did.

Right now I’ve been thinking about my job. I didn’t realize how much I hated it until these past few days, when I was sick and didn’t have to worry about it. I don’t want to go back to Alexander’s, really – but I suppose I will.

It’s such a tight, computerized, no-brain, boring boring job. What was I given a brain for if all I was mean to do was fold pants? Why did God or whatever creator is responsible for me allow me to soar intellectually if I have to remain grounded in reality? (And it’s hard for me to be immodest, but damn it, I know I’m pretty intelligent.)

I could never wish to be dull, but at times I wonder if I wouldn’t be completely serene if I were. Maybe that’s why I was so angry with Scott. In his letter, he came off as holier-than-thou: “I’m glad to see you’re working for once. It will improve your writing.”

Even Ronna, an advocate of work, said she failed to see how working in Alexander’s would improve my writing. And so I’m stuck. I can’t go back to the idea of suicide; I don’t want to die, and I don’t want to hurt any one person.

I know my suicide would kill, say, Grandpa Herb, who loves me so much. (Good news: he’ll be coming out of the hospital this week.) So what’s my alternative? Just live and write and muddle through the next forty or fifty years as best I can, I guess.

As I said, I went to see Dr. Fletcher at 5 PM, figuring even a doctor as incompetent as he could handle something like this. He gave it a fancy name, told me to eat lightly and take two kinds of pills he prescribed, which I got at Deutsch Pharmacy afterwards.

Today featured peculiar weather: it was very warm even as brown, crunchy leaves were scattered all over the ground. In late morning, I went to Brooklyn College, where I saw Vito, who was busy with his gay friends. He thanked me for the birthday card and asked my instructions on whom to vote for tomorrow.

And then I found Libby sitting on the grass. She said she got a lift to Teresa’s party in Williamsburg on Saturday night from Alan Karpoff and his new girlfriend and that she was driven home by Nancy.

Avis told me that Alan’s now beardless and looks exactly like Carl. She also said that when Scott arrived at Teresa’s party, he only wanted to talk about himself and his life in law school in D.C., but no one really wanted to listen, so he left early.

After leaving Libby to let her study, I found Josh and we did various things together: listened to some ridiculous Reverend Moon person at the Junction babble on about God and Satan; went to the new, ugly bar in the basement of SUBO; talked about his terrific weekend fishing and my lousy weekend having nausea and diarrhea.

Oh yes, and we washed the car. You can never tell when you need to.

Tuesday, November 5, 1974

5 PM on a raw, damp Election Day. I plan to sit home and watch the election returns, hoping for a Democratic sweep.

Last night I made a Freudian slip. After talking on the phone with Ronna and ending up even more depressed than I’d been before, I decided to go out for a drive. As I was leaving, instead of saying to Dad, “I’ll be right back,” as I had intended to, I said, “I’ll be all right.”

Dad looked at me funny and said, “What?” It looks as though my subconscious believes in me more than my conscious self does.

I see now that I am trying to prolong my romantic relationship with Ronna beyond its normal limits. Almost two years is a long time; perhaps it would be for the best to just leave things there.

Ronna seems to feel that way, and I think the fact that Felicia and Spencer have announced their engagement has something to do with that.

Also, Ivan again called Ronna last night, and of course that bothers me. Ronna said there is nothing between them anymore, that she had only “been imagining something that wasn’t there.” He hung up to go somewhere with Vicky, who’d come to pick him up, and Ivan also mentioned that Stacy is still after his body.

I’ll probably never completely get over my obsession with Ivan’s being everything I am not. While Ronna wants to ease off with me, while Stacy goes out of her way to avoid me, while Vicky views me at best as a well-meaning weirdo, they are all under Ivan’s spell.

Maybe I’m wrong in trying to prevent Ronna’s drift away from me. Last night I told her, “You just get into the habit of loving someone.”

“But is that love?” Ronna asked, and just then, characteristically, she excused herself from the phone, saying that her brother had just come home and she had to give him dinner.

Yesterday, when I went to pick up my ID, I flirted with the girl working in the photo ID room – I did it unconsciously, really – and found her responding. She was cute, but I didn’t think anything of it then. Now I do.

In probably the wisest statement Gary ever made, he said, “Engagements and weddings are anticlimactic. It’s falling in love that’s significant.” As I told Alice at lunch today, “I want to fall in love again.”

Alice agreed that she did miss the excitement of the beginning of her relationship with Andreas, or even with Howie. I’d like to feel the things I felt in the spring of ’71 with Shelli or in the winter of ’72-’73 with Ronna. Ronna’s sister feels that way about Hank now. It’s excitement, anticipation, learning new things about a person.

I’ll be taking big risks – of rejection and loneliness and more – but the end result will probably be worth it. For nearly two years, I’ve had the security of being half of a couple. Now it’s time to explore other possibilities, and there are endless possibilities (maybe too many).

This morning I called in sick again, but tomorrow I’m going back to work. I went over to Alice’s for lunch. She’s such a good storyteller that it’s no wonder she writes with such charm and ease. She’s cutting classes and losing weight and reading Dale Carnegie, and as always, is thinking up some new clever idea no one else could ever dream of.

Alice and Andreas seem pretty solid, although their relationship has the usual rough spots. After lunch, Alice and I walked over to P.S. 203, where we first met as second-graders, and we voted; I voted straight Democratic. After I left Alice – our friendship never seems to need nourishing; we can always pick up where we left off – I drove out to Peninsula Hospital.

Grandpa Herb was looking well although he was uncomfortable. As on my last visit, Grandpa Herb told some of the greatest stories, things I never get tired of listening to.

Today he told me how my great-grandparents met back in Russia in 1899: his father, a soldier, saw this girl swinging on a gate in her village, and he asked his older sister, who was married with kids, to talk to the girl’s father and ask if he could start seeing her. They got married soon after even though he was older than Bubbe Ita and maybe a foot taller.

While we talked, Grandma Ethel packed some of his things to get ready for being discharged tomorrow. I drove her home, where we had rose hips tea and apple pie as we looked out over the boardwalk and beach and the Atlantic.

The world has a lot of nice people in it.

Wednesday, November 6, 1974

6:30 PM. I did not go to pick up Ronna at the New School tonight although part of me wanted to go very badly. Yesterday I had decided that I wouldn’t go into Manhattan this evening, but about an hour ago, I was sitting in the college library and I thought of Ronna.

I was reading this story by an undergraduate in Baumbach’s Creative Writing class in preparation for subbing for him. It must have been autobiographical: it was about a guy who wants to get back with his old girlfriend, who’s named Marie. In the story, he keeps showing up at her subway stop and trying to talk to her.

At one point in the story, the girl – who, like Ronna, has contact lenses – is worried about her vision problems and so “Marie” makes an appointment with “Dr. Wesely,” which is the actual name of Ronna’s ophthalmologist.

The guy shows up at the doctor’s office, where the girl tells him finally that she doesn’t want to see him anymore. Reading that, I wanted to call Ronna and tell her about the coincidence.

Somehow (very logically, really), Eliot’s phrase from The Waste Land ran through my mind: “Marie, Marie, hold on tight.” I wanted to go to Ronna and hold on tight for security’s sake. But then I realized what the content of the story was, and I figured Ronna doesn’t care to see me, regardless of her appreciation of a ride home.

I want to let Ronna know by my action tonight – not going to the New School – that I have begun to separate myself from her, as she wants me to do. I’m still worried about her getting home on the trains, but I have a responsibility to myself now.

Years ago I made such a fool of myself with Shelli, showing up where I knew she’d be to give her a lift somewhere. I’ve got to let Ronna go now.

It’s difficult, because there are many things bothering me. First, I noticed how grossly overweight I’ve become. (I come to that first because it’s the easiest thing to deal with – hopefully.)

Second, I’m worried about money. It’s difficult to be concerned with how much you spend when all your life before that, money was a substance that seemed in inexhaustible supply.

But Dad is shutting down Art Pants and will go partners with a man in his building on Fifth Avenue who imports suits from Korea. Dad’s income will be cut drastically, and that’s going to affect us greatly at home.

I’ve already had to give up therapy, and I’m sure I’ll have to make more sacrifices, which leads me to my third, if not last, problem: my job at Alexander’s. I really dislike the work, but I’ve got to keep that $35 or so coming in each week.

Today I went back to work, and I have to admit that it wasn’t as bad as expected although that was due mostly to the fact that I worked all day in the stockroom and not on the selling floor.

I very badly want to continue with the MFA program, so it’s the only choice I have now: continue to hold out at the store for as long as I can.

The spring teaching schedules were up at the English Department today, and I was thrilled to learn that Susan Fromberg Schaeffer will be taking over the Fiction Workshop in the spring (at later hours on Tuesdays and Thursday). I would love the chance to be exposed to her more traditional brand of writing.

I feel at home in the academic world; I can’t leave it. Ultimately I would like to be a writer-in-residence somewhere – but that’s a faraway dream.

Last night’s Democratic sweep materialized as expected, although even Hugh Carey’s landslide in the governor’s race couldn’t stop Senator Javits’ victory over Ramsey Clark, which is too bad.

It’s amazing what a partisan politician I am. On election night, I’m totally in my element. I can recite percentages in obscure Senate races from the 60s, and I gobble up every bit of political information I can get my hands on.

After all, I used to want to be a politician more than anything, and maybe someday I’ll again have political ambitions.

I keep thinking of Ronna not seeing me in front of the New School tonight, and I don’t feel satisfaction; I feel regret. Ronna told Ivan, “It’s bad to have regrets.” But then I should never have expected this to be a painless process, although hopefully breaking up will be more gentle and less painful than it was for me in 1971.

Thursday, November 7, 1974

It’s just after midnight. When I came home from school this evening, I was suddenly struck by the fact that today was Gary’s birthday and that I’d completely forgotten about it.

I phoned him immediately and found myself invited to share the birthday cake with his parents and himself. Glad to go over to their apartment, I arrived at there at 10 PM. I’m still not used to seeing Gary with such long hair.

Gary was tired after a long day up at Columbia. While I was there, Kay called, and Gary chatted with her the way boyfriends do with girlfriends while I looked at her photo. She’s a pretty girl and she looks like she goes well with Gary.

When he got off the phone, he showed me a 14-karat gold locket he got her (“To Kay from Gary with Love”). I remember he got the same thing for Wendy, but what can a friend do but say, “It’s lovely”?

I assume Gary knows what he’s getting into – and after all, this might be, as the romance comic books say, “the real thing.” It’s just that Ronna and I agreed never to spend more than a few dollars on presents for each other.

I greatly enjoyed having cake and tea with the Marcus family, who’ve always been so friendly with me. We got to talking about various things, and somehow I mentioned that Avis and her parents were moving out of Philip Howard (“Our Lady of Bohack,” based on the sculpture in front of the building and the supermarket next door) and into the co-op in Sheepshead Bay.

Gary’s father said, “Their last name is Feintuch,” which startled and amazed me, but there was a logical explanation: at the post office, he sorts the mail and has been forwarding theirs to the new address.

Coincidences like that really intrigue me. Mrs. Ehrlich would say that I somehow want for the whole world to be related so I’ll always have a friend.

Gary’s a bit concerned because the Sociology Department sent him a letter saying they’re evaluating all third-year students to see if they should remain in the Ph.D. program. But then, as we discussed, even if he does get his Ph.D. from Columbia, will there be any jobs for him?

This morning I woke up early and went off to the store. For the most part, work went quickly today; my feet hurt, though, and I’m grateful to have tomorrow off.

At 2:30 PM, I got to Baumbach’s office and showed him my latest trifling story, “The Facts Are Always Friendly.” It’s sort of another “Rampant Burping,” but in this one I try to get down pat eight distinct voices or consciousnesses.

Baumbach and I talked about the favorable article about the Fiction Collective in this week’s Newsweek, which highly praised his novel.

While walking to class, I met Morty and we stopped to talk for a while: Morty’s one of the people I’d like to see more of. He just ended a relationship with a girl after seeing her for two weeks.

Morty hardly had a chance to get to know her, much less sleep with her, when they broke up. But Morty said she was only seventeen, and besides, he doesn’t want to fall in love: “It messes you up so that you can’t sleep or do your work or anything.”

In the Workshop today, we did two surprisingly good stories by Denis and Todd; Todd’s was about his experiences in the Army in Texas. Then we all went for our usual dinner at the Pub.

Somehow I didn’t feel like spending a whole hour there, jousting verbally with everyone, so after I finished my dinner, I took off to the library to be alone.

I was checking out Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent when (appropriately, given the title) Stacy called my name. She was standing behind me waiting to check out some psychology books.

Stacy told me she had been in Puerto Rico for the past week. (She: “At the Hilton.” Me: “The Caribe Hilton?” She: “No, the other one.” Me: “The San Geronimo?” She: “Yeah.”) She said it had rained every day she was there. End of conversation.

I told Stacy to “take care” and went off to discuss Faulkner in Heffernan’s class.

Saturday, November 9, 1974

Alone on Saturday night. It’s going to be that way for a while, I guess, as Ronna and I irrevocably broke up last night. So now I’ve got time to explore myself, get involved with new people, learn to be alone again.

(Correction: I already know how to be alone; what I’ve got to learn is how to live without a girlfriend.)

It’s scary, but I know I’ll come out of it a better person. At least I hope so: there’s always that lingering doubt. But my self-esteem cannot rise or fall with the affection of other people.

Yesterday I got into a traffic tie-up going to Manhattan and I was fifteen minutes late. Ronna was waiting in her building’s doorway on Park Avenue South, wearing my favorite outfit of hers.

We had a polite, pleasant dinner at Brownie’s counter, discussing trivial things. But on the ride back to Brooklyn, the tension built up and we both had to come to the realization that this was it, that it was time to be decisive.

Every time before now when we had decided to be just friends, we always drifted back to being boyfriend and girlfriend again. Ronna suggested that maybe those were dress rehearsals for the real separation we had to make.

Our relationship, which was originally constructive and nourishing, had deteriorated to the point where we both half-dreaded seeing each other and having disagreeable arguments and scenes. I knew it as well as Ronna, but when she said we have to break up, I got this dead feeling somewhere in my stomach.

Yet I know that we had best end this way, while we still like and respect each other. Ronna said we’re both so passive, we practically had to count 1-2-3 and all together say, “Let’s break up.”

Perhaps we should have done it months ago, but that doesn’t matter now. “Is this it?” I asked her, and she made a dreadful but humorous sound.

“At least now neither of us has to feel guilty for not liking Buñuel movies or believing in selfishness,” Ronna said.

We can (hopefully) learn to view each other as people again, without any possessiveness entering in. Funny how we both kept remembering the good things just as we were ending it – but that’s a lot better than remembering the bad things.

In front of her house at 8 PM, we discussed banal, practical things for a while – like who’s got to return what – and then we started to get a little sloppy, saying how we’d miss each other.

(Ronna said she missed me this past week, and it surprised her, for she thought it was definitely over. But missing someone and wanting to be with them are not always the same thing.)

I tried to reassure her and mostly myself: “We haven’t failed . . . neither of us is to blame.” Maybe in a crazy – or not so crazy – way, our relationship has been all the more successful for us knowing when to end it.

She never looked prettier or more womanly than last night, and I had to hold myself back from saying, “Forget it – I need you – I love you” and giving in to my erection. I had the idea she was doing the same thing (minus the erection part).

We held hands and said we’ve always been pretty honest with each other and we both decided there was no reason to cry despite the fact that we half-felt like it.

“Call me anytime, and I mean anytime,” she said. “It’s not like with Ivan; I want to keep hearing from you.” (I was struck by the feeling that I’m finally released from competition with Ivan.)

I told her to call me, and that I’d certainly be speaking to her. I gave her my copy of Portrait of a Marriage; she said she would read it and that she liked the inscription, “To Ronna Caplan, From A Friend (Richard Grayson).”

We told each other to be strong and not weaken in our resolve. Ronna said she was thinking of the song from Bye Bye Birdie, “One Last Kiss.” I kissed her on the cheek, but she said we should really kiss.

Afterwards I hugged her very tightly for a minute, released her, and said, “See you” to her as she entered her house.