When I Came Back From My Honeymoon
One day your adversary will have a bigger problem than you
When Debi went on her honeymoon, I could finally think. The On Our Backs workload was still enormous, the bills daunting, my health shitty— but the great relief of not humoring Bridezilla was a tonic. No tip-toeing, no fragile egg that might turn into a grenade. My lungs filled with air.
I still felt guilty— shitty that I was in thrall with such a beautiful woman, but that I couldn’t stand her requirements any longer. With Deb out of town, I could least say it out loud.
Did she know we were saying good-bye?
Last week’s chapter, if you need to catch up . . .
I still had her little notes to me on my old OOB production binders: “I love you— D.” I couldn’t look at them.
I got a slice of almond cake at Dianda’s Italian Bakery one day, walking home from the 24th Street BART. I wanted cake, and a carton of cold milk— that sticky almond paste, raspberry jam, and milky swallow.
I licked the last of the powdered sugar off my fingers and thought, “This reminds me of when my dad picked me up at the airport in Vancouver and everything was going to change.” Reality could look very, very different.
I called Nan that night from bed. I said, “You know, this thing of getting up at dawn to get baby to childcare and then picking her up after the sun goes down just isn’t working. And I can’t be the “part-time” editor of On Our Backs. The rubber band has snapped.”
“I know, it’s been pretty tough . . . ” I could hear Nan’s sympathetic cluck.
“I want to find a successor. Within a year someone else could be doing this—you know, after all these dreamers who write us saying they want to be “guest editor,” let’s put one of them behind the wheel.”
“How long have you been thinking this?” Nan said. She didn’t chuckle at my joke. “Have you told Debi? I just don’t know.”
“I’ve been wanting to ‘say the unsayable,’ but I couldn’t add to the wedding dog-pile . . . and now it’s finally quiet. For a week. I want to tell Debi when she comes back. But I want to tell you, now. You’re not crazy, you’re my partner. All three of us are. I feel like I’m bursting. I want to hire a new editor. I want to find someone wonderful.”
“What is Debi going to say?”
“Well, what do you say? I mean, I have no idea, she’s always the one who says at any moment she could retire and devote herself to ballet.”
I could hear Nan’s fingers rubbing something. “I don’t know, I just don’t know.” Her tongue clicked against the roof of her mouth.
I told Nan not to worry and to let me know as soon as Debi got home.
I said to my lover Jon later, cuddled in bed, the blanket over my head. “Nan is scared of her— the way I am. . . but we can’t go on like this where Debi is the scariest part of the enterprise.”
Later that night, I woke up when with the baby. I looked at her long lashes and blew on them until they shut. She was my True North and she didn’t even know it.
I never got my chance to deliver my Almond Cake Realization to Debi. I didn’t see her the night she flew in. I came home from work, nursed, and conked out in a coma myself, half-dressed. Jon let himself in, after dark, off his cab-driving shift. I could feel him pulling off my jeans and rolling me like a jelly donut under the flannel sheets. “Humph.” I never opened my eyes.
My house door didn’t have a bell, it had a loud brass knocker. Anyone who knew me just rattled their knuckles on the wood. But at 3:00am, bam-bam-bam went the knocker, like the Devil himself was paying a visit. I stumbled over a squeaky toy, Jon grabbing his robe behind me.
I opened the door and there was a young man in a suit-coat, blue tie, and purple trousers.
“Are you Susannah Bright?”
Shades of St. Rita’s principal’s office. “Yeah?” I said.
“You’ve been served,” he said, checking a sheaf of papers at me and turning to skip down the stairs.
I opened the document and there were only a couple phrases I understood: “Debi Sundahl . . . On behalf of On Our Backs. . . Suing Susannah Bright . . . for “something something fiduciary duty.”
What time was it, exactly? If it was going to be an all-night party, I was going to start waking people up, too.
I called Nan. “Debi has just served me with papers . . . it says you’re suing me, too. Is this you, too?”
Nan could barely talk. I could hear her hands wringing; it was like a Pontius Pilate sound effect. “She made me; she doesn't understand,” she kept saying. “I’m sure we can work something out.” She sounded worse than me.
Debi’s position demanded that I never write again, and whatever I did do for a living, I would have to pay 20% to her, because I had abandoned my “corporate” duties. Given that all three of us had done everything except give blood to On Our Backs for the past seven years— it was hard to imagine what she was talking about.
The next week was my last one in our editorial offices. Debi took down all my artwork from the office and disappeared with it. She took my old desktop Mac from my desk.
At the end of that longest day, Deb confronted me with a box that had arrived in the office mail from the O’Farrell Theater with my name on it.
“What is this bullshit?” she said. “You’re going to open this in front of me, right now.”
I had no idea what it was. In my mind, I was thinking, “Something from someone who’s died.” It looked like a brick. I didn’t touch it. I didn’t know who I was talking to.
She tore off the thick cardboard flap. Two small framed photographs fell to the floor, with a note from Jeff Armstrong at the O’Farrell theater: “Jim thought you would want these.”
It was a couple of funny photos we’d taken years ago, when On Our Backs was accused by the Anti-Porn-Feminist Whoever of running a white slavery ring out of the Mitchell Bros dungeon. I’d been in Artie and Jim’s pool room one day, opening some similar hate mail, and I said, “Why don’t we make a parody of this? Let’s do a tableau where I’m a horrified prisoner of your evil empire.”
Our staff photographer Jill Posener grabbed her camera. I posed Jim to look as if he was going to putt a golf ball into my vagina as I lay spread-eagled on the floor, in leather fetish wear, while I asked Artie to hold up my head by my pony tail so I could shoot a look of open-mouthed horror into the camera’s eye.
On top of the photo, we wrote the caption in black Sharpie, “Contrary to the rumors!”
Debi stared at the photos she’d dropped on the rug.
“You know, Deb, what I remember the most about that photo shoot?” I said. “Artie was so worried that he wasn’t pulling my hair too hard.”
“Anything that comes into this office belongs to the corporation,” Deb said, as if that was her new name for herself. She walked into her office and slammed the door. Her wallpaper samples were strewn all over the shipping tables.
I didn’t know what to do next. I wasn’t leaving OOB for another job. I didn’t have one. Of course, I had the same freelancing stuff I’d done all along. I worked outside of OOB to pay my bills. There was no sudden call to fame, no one had asked me sell my rolodex, and become a lesbian superstar. There were no lesbian superstars. Everyone was still in the closet except us.
My reason for quitting, motherhood, was a truthful reckoning except for one respect, which was my anxiety about Debi. I didn’t want to work with her, this new apparition. I couldn’t keep “painting the roses red” every day.
Yet for all her delusions, I could only blame myself because I never said, “ENOUGH.” There was always some part of me that believed her, that we would run away and become ballerinas, and some angel would pay everyone’s bills, and Steve Jobs was going to be our best friend, there was big money in being lesbian pornographers, and… I just kept playing through. What about everyone who believed in us?
If Deb could have sued me for being gutless, co-dependent, a naive nail-biter, she would have had ample cause.
I needed a lawyer. Of all people, my male-chauvinist-pig neighbor, Mr. Hera, counseled me on the sidewalk where he found me in shock. “In America, anyone can sue you for anything, no matter how preposterous, and if you don’t sue back, they win.”
He gave me the name of his lawyer, John Ricci, who worked in one of those Montgomery Street skyscrapers that I hadn’t seen since I worked as a temp my first year in San Francisco.
I had never been to an attorney's office; my only context was television. Ricci’s suite lived up to the Hollywood dream. Everything was massive, mahogany, with gorgeous quiet women dashing around talkative men in Armani suits, getting them things. I rode up in the elevator to the top floor with three men who looked like John Gotti. I was probably leaking breast milk in my Pink Triangle wife-beater and jean jacket.
Mr. Ricci listened to my tale of woe. He handed me a Kleenex box. As I talked and wept, he looked through my copies of On Our Backs that I’d brought him and burst out laughing. In delight.
I knew that laugh— it was one of the reasons I loved doing On Our Backs. People who’d never seen it before had their minds blown. My magazine was the most interesting forty-eight pages of anything in his multimillion dollar office.
It took John awhile to realize the state of our assets. Minus-zero. The cash flow: Non-existent. Everything was based on potential. Our second distributor had gone out of business, writing off five figures in debt to us. We hadn’t paid the rent in months, and the printer was holding our film hostage. I would never get the money back I put into the business. I didn’t care; I just didn’t want this psychotic tin can attached to my tail for the rest of my life.
“NEVER WRITE AGAIN?” — that’s what I kept thinking about.
Debi had sent a message through her lawyer that perhaps “Susie writing fiction’ would be allowed— with attendant 20% to her, of course. I had no idea she thought of me as such a cash cow. I hadn’t done anything to warrant it.
John moved the tissue box off the desk between us and folded his hands on the table. “Ms. Bright, I’m going to take care of this for you.”
“I haven’t even asked you what this is going to cost, I just have to—”
“No, not at all. I am going to take care of this, myself. Don’t think another thing about it.”
He just shook his head and waved his hand at me, as if a small child had tried to pick up a bar tab.
“It’s going to be fine. Forget about it.”
“How can you be so sure?” I wanted to believe him so bad. Believing in fairy tales was what got me into trouble in the first place.
“I will tell you why,” Mr. Ricci said, looking at his watch and then straight into my eyes: “Because one day, your adversary will have a bigger problem than you— and when that day comes, they won’t be able to get rid of you fast enough.”
It was time to do the laundry again. I had five loads and a giant bag of quarters that I was going to let Miss Thing play with, while I washed every last rag. It was a foggy day in the Mission, and I was walking around the corner for a candy bar, when I ran into my neighbor Spain Rodriguez.
“Hey baby,” he said, giving me a big hug. He didn’t know about On Our Backs. He had some flyers in his hand. “Do you know anyone who wants to swap pads and live in Southern France for a few months?”
I had to burst out laughing. “Yeah, me! I don’t have a job anymore and I don’t know what I’m doing next.
I called Spain’s French-American friend, Maxine, who was part of a minuscule American expat community in France that consisted of retirees from C.O.Y.O.T.E, (the first prostitutes’ rights organization), and other Zap Artists like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton. It turned out Maxine knew Honey Lee from back in the 60s, waitressing. Now she needed a house-swap to care for her American parents and finish a novel.
Maxine’s home in Languedoc was part of a tenth-century stone fort, alone among miles and miles of farm fields and vineyards. I felt a little guilty that all she got in exchange was my freeway-adjacent cottage crumbling amongst ten decades of drug-dealing on Army St. and Bryant.
I moved. I just did it.
Maxine’s “fort”, was quiet for an American like me with a little baby. When I rarely met anyone who spoke English, I knew they must’ve hailed from North Beach in the sixties.
I worked on a book. I charmed my neighbors with American “pancakes” and my little angel, who was almost one. When you are a woman alone with a baby, people are curious.
I’d haul coal up from the “cave” under the Fort to heat a stove every night, and the Mistral wind blew west, chilling the fort’s stone walls like blocks of ice. I got pneumonia that winter. The French midwives in our village came to my bed and gave me shots in the butt. I got better. If there was ever a case of the “kindness of strangers,” I was deeply cherished by my new friends. Little Romper grew up fast with so much affection from everyone we met.
One day, I got a long distance phone call from my attorney’s stylish assistant in San Francisco. “They’re settling today, Ms. Bright; John just went to court to sign the paper; and you’re all done,” she said.
“Done? What happened?” I said. “What’s going on?”
“Ms. Sundahl is apparently in Marin County Jail booked on assault charges.”
I faxed a friend, Sukie, who still had connects with the old O’Farrell girls.
Sukie faxed me back: “Yeah, it’s bad. I heard her mother is driving from Minnesota to come get her and take her home.”
Take Debi home? I thought California was our home. It had been so long since I thought of her Minnesota origins. What had happened to her son, whom she had spoken of the first day we met? He must be a teenager now. Where was he? She loved him so much.
But Sukie wouldn’t know. The clouds were so thick. I could imagine Debi’s own mother, her car wheels spinning, taking her curly-haired woman-child away from the coast, back to where she came from, back to all that snow— and something else, something I’d never figured out.
If you’d like to read previous chapters of my autobiography, they are all here on my blog, in chronological order, at this link: Memoir. That’s where you’ll find the chapter before this one, etc.
You may also listen to my reading of my first edition memoir, here.
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