By Mariana Damon
We were sitting in Dena’s house in Eugene, drinking coffee and reminiscing about the sixties and how we’d all barely gotten out alive. Back then, the four of us had been closer than sisters; we’d lived together, danced together, and cried together. Forty years, marriage, careers, and raising children had separated us. Then my husband died, and I woke up hung-over, suicidal, and alone in Nebraska. I’d flown in for a visit, and Janet had driven down from Portland. Now we were all together again, along with Dena’s new husband Phil (husband number three) who was in the kitchen getting ready for work. He was listening to our conversation and occasionally popped his head in with a comment. Phil was a nice guy, but he hadn’t done the sixties with the vengeance we girls had. Phil had spent the sixties safely tucked away at McAllister College in Minnesota, majoring in business administration and dreaming about the job he was going to get for one hundred grand after he graduated so he could buy a house in the suburbs and have two kids and a wife. Phil was smart and I liked him, but he didn’t know shit about the sixties.
Janet was talking. “Sometimes, I’m amazed I’m still alive when I think of how many of our friends died.” She shuddered and put her coffee cup down. “Remember when I was living with Holly and Crazy Al in that dive on Pearl Street?” She looked at Dena. “You were living on Kincaid with Adam, and Murr was living with Mark.”
Dena nodded. The afternoon light shone through the panes of her big picture window, and I thought about how many times we had sat together, talking about life and love and men and what books we were reading.
Dena said, “I didn’t visit you there much it was kind of scary.”
Janet nodded. “Crazy Al was selling meth to bikers and everybody was stoned all day and drunk all night. The bathroom sink was boarded up because everyone was too busy to wash.”
Phil stuck his head through the kitchen door. “Jeezuz. That must have been awful.”
Janet rolled her eyes. “You’d think I would have noticed, but I didn’t. I remember this one biker, Jose. He was a paid bodyguard and assassin for The Hells Angels. The Angels were passing through Eugene on their way to a Grateful Dead Concert out at Kesey’s.”
“How come I don’t remember this?” I asked.
Jan patted my arm gently. “You were busy.”
“Getting stoned,” I said.
Janet and Dena were sitting on the futon that passed for a sofa in her living room. Janet leaned back. “Anyway, Jose and I were in his VW van and he wanted to do it. He was so gross. He smelled and had tar or grease or something under his nails, but I thought, hey, someone wants to do it with me, so I fucked him, in the van right out there in the driveway.”
Phil came out from the kitchen. “Jeezuz,” he said.
Janet shrugged. “It was the summer of free love and I thought I was being liberated.”
We all laughed, understanding, except Phil who looked horrified. Phil had dropped out of McAllister to invent the gel they use in Pampers that helps soak up urine. It didn’t make him rich, but it gave him self-confidence in his own intelligence. Self-confidence was something Janet and Dena and I had lacked.
We were trust fund babies who didn’t want to grow up back in that long ago world when fucking greasy bikers in vans or getting falling down drunk in front of strangers didn’t touch the core of innocence within us. Like Gatsby, we were reinventing reality, and we believed we could be whoever we wanted to be once we decided who that was.
Dena stood up. “I’m going to make more coffee. I made cinnamon rolls. Anybody want some?” Dena was a baker. For years she’d owned a bakery. She was an artist with cakes and doughs, and did beautiful wedding cakes sprinkled with real roses. Her second husband had gotten the bakery, her first the house they’d built together, but she didn’t care, she said. She’d never liked the house, and she was getting too old to lift hundred pound sacks of flour. Now she ran a vocational school and taught cooking arts.
“A cinnamon roll sounds good,” Janet said.
“I’ll have more coffee,” I said.
Dena came back with rolls and coffee and we all helped ourselves. I didn’t really want a cinnamon roll, but I took one just to be social and looked out the window at Dena’s garden. She had two raised beds, and in the beds she’d planted marigolds and poppies and tomatoes. A tiled walkway ran between the beds inlaid with ceramic tiles. One of the tiles said, “make love not war” and another said “give peace a chance.”
“Do you remember the time we got drunk at Spencer’s Butte on Southern Comfort, and I wiped myself with poison oak?” Dena asked.
“Oh my God,” I said. “I do remember that. It was right before you married Tim.”
Janet laughed. “That was so fun, your bachelorette party. We all went to the Riv Room and danced to Aretha.”
Dena nodded. “The next morning, I got married.”
Jan said, “And Tim forgot the wedding ring.”
“I never liked him,” I said. “He was an asshole to me.”
“He’s an asshole to everyone,” said Phil feelingly. He was still standing by the kitchen door. “He won’t even support his own children.”
“Well, he gave me three beautiful children,” Dena said. “But he was jealous of my girl friends.” She looked at me and Jan. “Jealous of how much I loved you guys.”
I stared out the window at the raised beds. The sun was glinting off the marigolds making them glow like fireballs, turning them into dozens of miniature golden suns.
Dena had put a silver thermos of coffee on the coffee table. Janet poured more coffee in her cup, set the thermos down, and smiled at me. “Hey, Murr, do you remember the time we hitchhiked with Reverend Chumley and you wore that green slip Dena gave you?”
“Christ,” said Phil shaking his head. “You guys must have been a trip.”
I laughed. “I was always making fashion statements back in the day.”
“You were cutting edge, Murr,” Dena said.
I shuddered. “It’s surprising I never got raped or killed,”
“Think how many did,” Janet said.
Dena began counting. “Holly, Mark Schmidt, Mark Larson, Vern, Richard, Chief Sleezy Weasel, Crazy Al. That makes seven, just from our crowd.”
“And probably more we can’t remember,” Jan added.
Phil walked over to the futon, with his backpack on his back. He worked at a shooting range, and I noticed he wore a holster with a gun in it on his belt. He leaned over and kissed Dena. “It’s almost two,” he said. “Time for us worker bees to get out of the hive.”
“Bye, Philbert,” Dena said in her little girl voice. Men loved Dena because she has the face of an Italian Madonna and the voice of a little girl who needs protection. Unfortunately, after a few years, they realize their mistake. Inside, Dena is made of steel and needs a lot of space. Janet and I knew that.
“Bye, girls,” Phil said, smiling at us. He put his hand on the doorknob, then turned and looked at us. “I’m surprised you all made it out alive,” he said. “Damned lucky if you ask me.”
After the door closed, we sat together, silently sipping the dregs of our coffee. Dena still had all her old vinyl records. She went over to the stereo and began to flip through them.
“Let’s see, who do we want to listen to? Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Fleetwood Mac…” Dena had stayed in Eugene, but Janet and I had left. Janet had gone to Portland and become a social worker. I ended up teaching school in Nebraska. Now we all had children and husbands and Janet had grandchildren. Life has a funny way of taking you places you’d never thought you’d go.
Dena decided on Joni Mitchell. “Voice like an angel,” she said, and sat back down on the futon. She looked at me fondly. “Remember how you and I would listen to Joni, smoke pot and sew patches on our jeans in the sun room on Hilyard?”
“I can’t even remember the last time I smoked pot,” I said.
“Me neither,” Janet said.
“I don’t really remember much from back then,” I said. “Now I want to remember everything.”
“Well, at least we made it out,” Janet said. “We pieced back together a life.”
Dena said suddenly. “Maybe you guys don’t agree, but sometimes I miss those days. We had each other. We loved each other, and we were so free.”
“Remember going to the hot springs and reciting Howl?” I asked.
Dena’s brown eyes were distant, remembering. “I haven’t thought of that in a long time. It was dark and the stars were out and the mist from the springs rose up and the air smelled like moss.”
“I was going to be a writer, like Alan Ginsberg,” I said.
“I was going to be a textile artist,” Dena said.
Janet said, “I thought I was a hippie, but one day I woke and knew I was a drunk.” She shook her head. “I agree with Phil. I like it better now.”
“That summer we lived together on Hilyard, I remember reading William Carlos Williams and Lawrence Durrell and thinking how beautiful the world was.” I said. Now I think of lesson plans and sealing the grout in my bathroom.”
“Don’t even go there,” Janet said. “The problem with the sixties was too much drugs and alcohol and no responsibilities. You’re much better off now, Murr.”
“You’re right,” I said. Joni Mitchell sang, and I looked out the window. The afternoon sun picked up the blood red of the tomatoes in Dena’s garden. Some of the tomatoes had split, and their insides spilled out pink with tiny white seeds like the membranes of nerve cells when someone has a deep wound.
Janet’s cell phone rang. She turned it off without bothering to answer. “That’ll be Rickie,” she said and looked at me. “We better go now, Murr.”
Janet was my ride to the airport in Portland. I nodded and stood up. It was past time to go.