A 26-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Mid-February, 1978


Sunday, February 12, 1978

2 PM on a bright, above-freezing Sunday. I’ve just come back from Kings Plaza. Before this week I never would have thought of walking there, but it’s really faster and simpler than taking the car, especially the way the mounds of snow have clogged traffic.

There’s a gargantuan mound in front of Jerry Bisogno’s house; he was able to dig out a tunnel with three entrances through it to accommodate all his kids.

I just started up my car, and amazingly, it perked up immediately despite not being touched in a week. Of course it doesn’t go into any gear but reverse, and even then, there’s a four-foot pile of snow blocking its way. Tomorrow they’re going to tow it to the transmission place Bob recommended, so I may have the car back by the end of the week.

They’re predicting more snow for tomorrow night, and I’m praying (no, I’m not actually praying; it’s hyperbole, you fool) that the temperatures go above freezing and we get rain instead. Wouldn’t that be nice? Now there are all these puddles that freeze up every day around sundown. Ugh.

Yesterday I wrote a story, “Aspects of Ann,” very probably publishable. But it’s too easy and too lifeless. I’ve risen above wanting stories in literary magazines. After fifty stories, you begin to want more than that.

I realize I must write more difficult stories: third-person stories with more extensive characterizations, motives, plots, settings. I am basically a very, very lazy man, so this won’t be easy. Also, I’m an instant-gratification freak, and with these new pieces, I won’t be able to turn out a story a week.

But if I could turn out ten really good stories a year, stories that could appear in Antaeus, The New Yorker, TriQuarterly, Paris Review and Harper’s, wouldn’t I be much better off?

Right now I’ve got only the germ of a nucleus of a story. It will be about a woman psychologist flying to Fort Lauderdale to the 50th (60th?) anniversary party of her late husband’s parents. I don’t know much more about the story yet except that perhaps that the woman has a nephew, a man in his early to mid-twenties, whom she’s traveling with.

This story I’m going to approach from the viewpoint of a craftsman. As descriptions and incidents and character traits come to me, I’m going to jot them down in a notebook. There will be less random detail, less putting a phrase or a pun in just because it strikes my fancy. Can I do it? I don’t know, but I’ve got to try.

Today when I saw that Tim O’Brien’s new novel had been given a rave review on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, I said to myself: “I guess he knows something I don’t know.”

On the grass on that Sunday morning at Bread Loaf (the only warm day there), Tim assured me that I could indeed write well-developed fiction if only I made the effort. Now it’s about time I found out if he was right.

I don’t want to settle for being a small press/little magazine “name”; that’s too simple a goal, one I could definitely achieve by 1980. No, I’ve always been in this for the long run, and I view my little magazine publications as only the first phase in my career.

I can write accessible things; most of my experimental stuff is fairly tame and even sentimental. I think my stories have become more “understandable” over the past year.

Harvey called today and said he finally quit his job after he realized that his old lady boss didn’t have the money to pay him; at least she sounds like such an interesting old eccentric that he can probably use her as a character in some future writing project.

I had lunch at Bun ‘n’ Burger and then at Waldenbooks I bought Tom Robbins’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which I’ve been meaning to sample; a study of twins which may become useful to me; and How to Flatten Your Stomach (it’s only February, but eventually – I can’t wait! – it will be time to go to the beach again).

Monday, February 13, 1978

5 PM. Last evening Marc became very ill: when he called me, I could tell immediately that he wasn’t well at all. He was very nauseated and feverish, with aches and pains and a cough.

Dr. Larry Rothenberg came over and of course he said it was the flu, probably the new A1 Russian strain that’s just coming in. It’s related to the Asian flu of the 1950s and so it primarily affects young people who have no immunity to the strain, Larry said.

Whether I can catch it, I don’t know, but so far I feel fine and I’m not going to be a hypochondriac about it; worrying doesn’t stop viruses, so it’s better to be fatalistic. Jonny’s taking the precaution of sleeping in the basement; he may be overly concerned, but it’s probably a wise move.

After taking Jonny to school this morning, Dad drove me to the Junction, and I was at LIU by 8 AM. Dr. Farber told me that he and his wife were awakened at 4 AM to find a burglar in their bedroom.

Dr. Farber chased the burglar downstairs, and the man – a young black wearing a stocking over his face – took off in their car, where he apparently had already taken most of the loot from their downstairs.

They frantically phoned the police, who picked up a man lurking with a knife a few blocks away – but he was another (would-be?) burglar, not the one from their house.

Finally, by accident, the police went up a one-way street the wrong way, and the burglar, in the middle of taking his stolen goods out of another house, mistakenly assumed they were about to corner him and gave up.

My classes on Carson McCullers’s “The Sojourner” went all right, but I didn’t feel very motivated today and neither did my students; the only ones who discussed the story were the same ones who talk all the time.

In the pharmacy class, our discussion was more difficult because they’re all so young and none of them have been married yet. Unlike the older students in the 10 AM class, nobody at 9 AM could relate to a story about a man meeting his ex-wife and her new family.

Back on the fourth floor, Ken Bernard got a call from the NEA’s Len Randolph – I had to tell Ken that Randolph was the director of the Literature Program – to say he’d gotten a Fellowship for $7,500. I’m going to apply for one in the fall, when the next batch of applications is being taken; there’s no reason Ken can get all this money and I can’t.

After having lunch at Junior’s, I took the D train home; I had to wait an hour for the Mill Basin bus, which was running on a holiday schedule (today was the celebration, if you call it that, of Lincoln’s Birthday).

Alice called, sounding ecstatic after a phone call from Scott, to whose apartment she’s going tonight. Alice also said that her first weekend at her apartment was traumatic, so traumatic that she’s decided to cancel the party on Saturday. She just can’t adjust to living alone, and the noise from the street is incredible. But her friends advise her that she’ll get accustomed to it.

Alice said her mother is now agreeable to my staying at their house and taking care of Kat – that is, if her aunt doesn’t object. I’m still not going to get excited about having “my own place” – not until I know all the details and get the final word. But it seems like an ideal solution for everyone.

I sent out some of my poem postcards that Blue Crow Press printed up, and the reaction has been good. Alice, Gary and Betty, and my grandparents all thought the postcard was very nice although nobody had ever heard the word “Remontant” before.

Gary and Betty say they’re still snowed in; at this point, when I speak to Gary, Betty always gets on the phone to talk to me, too.

They towed my car to the transmission place today, and I should have it by the end of the week.

I’ve gotten no rejections or acceptances in a week although Write On canceled their acceptance of “Footsteps” because they didn’t think public monies (their library system funds the magazine) should go to stories on “such controversial subjects”: i.e., bisexuality. Who cares? But, God, that story was so tame.

Friday, February 17, 1978

7 PM. I feel so much better on the days when I teach. If I had another two classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’d be so much better off; it’s bad for me to have too much time on my hands.

Last year at this time I had all this pressure from Baumbach and Gelber over that conference, and I don’t miss that, but I do wish I had more interpersonal contact outside the house. Two hours of teaching every other day is not enough.

Today I drove to LIU for the first time in two weeks; it wasn’t that bad although taking the subway is faster. I had two fairly good classes on Salinger’s “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut”; I like my students and I suppose they like me back.

Sometimes I fear that I could very easily become a pedant, hunting for symbols in stories and removing them from what literature is all about. “How does it make you feel?” is the essential question with all art, isn’t it?

I keep having to guard myself against becoming “an English teacher.” No wonder most Americans hate serious literature; they’ve been taught to hate it in classrooms.

I’m expecting a call from Ronna this evening, as she sent a note saying she would phone when she got in this weekend. I keep telling myself not to get excited because Ronna has disappointed me so many times in the past.

Snow may have delayed her journey, or she may be busy with Susan and her family, or she may be ill. I probably won’t get to see her. But her short letter, a reply to my letter that she got on Tuesday, seems to be an indication that Ronna is thinking about me.

Her thesis adviser wants to see a first draft by March 1, so she’ll be pretty busy now. (Ronna writes that she’s glad the adviser is counteracting “my hateful work habits.”)

Libby wrote me from the commune. “Hello Sweet Richy” is her salutation: “I’m doing just great and am content right now. Being here is so peaceful and relaxing and loving. People all hug and smile and talk gently to each other.”

Hm, no wonder so many of Libby’s female friends there are “with child” (she used that phrase twice). She does what she wants to do: goes into town, swims at the local Y, goes to meditation, takes walk in the country.

“Grant is a very gentle person, a bit outgoing with people and makes them laugh and smile a lot,” Libby writes. “But he is so loose and accepting of people, I can’t believe it.”

Grant works just enough to keep himself – and now Libby – “living easy”: “I’m very comfortable with him and am being drawn closer.”

Mason writes to her, but she thinks it’s good for them to be apart. He doesn’t know she’s living with Grant.

Sunday, February 19, 1978

11 PM. Tonight was worth going through all the bad times. Yes, it was. Ronna and I are very close again.

We made love, and that was wonderful, but it’s more than that. I said “I love you” to Ronna, and Ronna said “I love you” to me.

But it’s also more than that; I can’t quite state exactly what it is, though. It’s as if it’s been there all along, the feelings between us. Is this the real thing? (And do I sound like a schoolgirl?)

No, but after all these years, we’re still as close as we ever were: maybe even closer because we’ve allowed each other room to grow. It’s hard to answer the question “Do I love Ronna?” because the feelings are so natural that I can’t distinguish them from my everyday sentiments and sensations.

I suppose, in my crazy way, I do love her. It’s not the maddening, topsy-turvy, roller-coaster kind of falling in love – but I’m not sure it ever was like that with Ronna – and anyway, I’m not sure that kind of crazy love lasts.

This morning on the phone we had a fight but it was only because neither of us was sure how the other felt. I thought she was disappointing me again by seeing me later today rather than earlier; she thought I didn’t really want to see her because I was being so negative on the phone Friday night.

Of course it was a circle: I was being negative because seeing her meant so much to me and I was afraid of allowing myself to fall into disappointment.

When I explained this to her, and when she explained to me how much she wanted to see me – “I haven’t been this crazy about anyone in years,” she said, making me feel great because it made it sound as if I were a new person, a better man than the one she had fallen in love with years ago – then I couldn’t wait to see her.

All day I had trouble passing the time: I saw Saturday Night Fever again, this time with Dad, and I did some (unnecessary) shoveling.

Finally, at 5:30 PM, I picked Ronna up at the Brooklyn Museum. Her British friends had been staying with her after competing at the powerlifting meet at the Y. We had Chinese food at the New China Inn. Do you know it was the first time we had Chinese food together?

We had a wonderful dinner – I hardly seemed to taste my food – as we talked about everything. There’s no other single person I can talk with the way I talk with Ronna.

She’s quick, literary, witty, compassionate, capable of non sequiturs, up on things. It just went on so naturally that naturally I took her home afterwards.

In my room, we discussed books and her friend Pat and Ivan’s forthcoming marriage to an Italian girl who used to work for his father. When Ronna telephoned him on his birthday, Ivan told Ronna that their wedding will be this summer. (So that’s finally over. Ivan doesn’t matter anymore, anyway.)

As we were talking, suddenly I went over to Ronna, who was sitting on my rocker, and I hugged her knees. Slowly we began to hug and kiss, and it was sweet: we made love on the floor.

It was – words will make it sound banal – I was going to write “ardent and playful,” but that sounds awfully dumb. Somewhere near the end of it, Ronna said, “I’m not as young as I used to be,” and I laughed.

Then we lay on the floor and made each other laugh and I surprised Ronna by telling her details of our first date: I remember her blue turtleneck and how she had a cold and couldn’t get tissues, only paper towels, in the Midwood Theater women’s room and our exact seats at the Foursome Diner.

Ronna said she remembered thinking that the next day was Thanksgiving and “now I’ve got something to be thankful for.” She was embarrassed by that.

I took her home about an hour ago. She’s got to work tomorrow in Middletown, where she operates a video camera and does office chores, so she’s leaving on the 8:30 AM train.

But she’ll be back: her thesis will get written and she’ll get her masters and then we can see where we are and make plans.

Wednesday, February 22, 1978

9 PM. I just wrote a surrealistic little piece called “Dreamspace,” which I think is a way of trying to work out my feelings about Ronna. I talked to Alice about it last night, but I really don’t know where I want Ronna and me to go. I think about her the last thing before I go to sleep every night.

This afternoon I drove into Manhattan for the first time in weeks. At the Eighth Street Bookshop, it was good to see Laurie again. She said she’s busy working there and teaching at Brooklyn College; next week she’s moving to Park Slope. It felt great to tell her I’m moving, too: no longer do I have to be embarrassed about living with my parents.

Then, after seeing Laurie, I had dinner at Brownie’s. I hadn’t been there in a long time, but the waitress at the counter was still the same one. Passing Dad’s old office building at 87 Fifth Avenue, I noticed that in the front there’s a blank space where the old “ART PANTS CO. – Marc Richards Creations” sign was.

I half-wanted it to be five years ago so I could go up and see Grandpa Nat cutting some patterns. Ronna’s grandfather is going into the hospital for tests soon; he may need to have an operation for a blood clot in his lung.

I’m rambling, I know . . .

Tomorrow night is the big literary shindig. I’m not that nervous because I know I can always pull my shy wallflower act and not have to talk. Alice is excited about going, anyway.

Actually, these days Alice’s life is pretty exciting by itself. Peter, a fellow student in her BMI musical-comedy workshop, is in love with her, and it all happened so quickly. He’s been calling her every day since they first went out, sending her love letters, praising her to the skies.

Peter is a 32-year-old writer, a successful playwright who’s had one play produced in 23 states and various foreign countries. He’s from Boston, divorced, has an 8-year-old son, and he’s absolutely crazy about Alice.

They made love for ten hours last Thursday night. He’s coming on very strong, and Alice hasn’t yet told him about Andreas (with whom she’s going to Rockport this weekend).

For her part, Alice says she thinks about Peter a lot, but that still didn’t stop her from calling Scott on Monday and asking if he could come over for an orgy. (His reply was a terse “I have other plans.”)

June met Peter when they both helped Alice paint last weekend, and she told Alice not to let Peter get away. (By the by, again June told Richard that she’s leaving him, and she’s still with him. So what else is new?)

Anyway, Alice enjoys getting herself in these delightfully sticky romantic situations. Sometimes I think she’s so promiscuous because she fears real commitment – though not anywhere as much as I do.

By now, after seven years, she knows nothing permanent can happen with Andreas: they’ll go on with their Friday nights and Sunday afternoons. Scott can give her nothing but sex, and I think he knows Alice is using him for that and resents it.

Now that she’s got someone who can offer her love and a two-way relationship, Alice is scared. Well, I would be even more scared. Perhaps Alice is not all that different than me even though we express our insecurities differently.

Alice’s mother told her what she wants me to do every day while she’s away in Iceland: feed the cat in the morning and night, turn on the lights at night, get the mail, and send Alice the bills.

I’m going to feel awfully peculiar staying at their house and sleeping in Alice’s own bedroom; I’m not sure I’ll be able to adjust to that very easily. Alice’s mother said she’ll give me a detailed list of dos and don’ts when I pick up the keys next Monday. Her flight to Reykjavik is on Tuesday evening.

This morning I had two fairly good classes on Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home.” I got a batch of themes which I dread correcting, though the grammar probably won’t be as bad as the papers from last term.

Dr. Tucker asked after Jon Baumbach and told me they’re looking for someone to take over the Fiction Collective now that Jon and Peter Spielberg are retiring as co-directors.

Today I got four rejections, two of them nice ones from Story Quarterly and Quarry West.

I don’t know what the next few months will bring, but I think it’s going to be an exciting time.