Issue 227, Winter 2018
It’s the summer of 1966, and Sheila and Peter are a young married couple living in Berkeley. They are very much in love, and also very high—tripping on acid for the first time in their lives, in Tilden Park—walking in a shallow stream full of primordial monsters, or at least salamanders. The leaves are emeralds. The whole world is an amoeba. They are Adam and Eve, and they’ve found their way back to the garden.
They are renting a room in a communal house from a lawyer turned drug dealer; a local character named Wild Bill painted on their walls during an acid trip, “Oh Lord, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have BAD DREAMS.” They eat spaghetti made with pot pesto and cookies baked with pot butter. Drugs make their minds feel wrapped in rabbit fur. They go to dinner parties that turn into orgies. They have a wife swap with a distinguished poet and his wife. They believe in liberating love from possession, but their open marriage starts buckling when Sheila falls in love with someone else.
This is the plot, more or less, of “The Parting of the Ways,” an unpublished novel written by a man named Peter Bergel in 1968. It’s the story of two people who are young and passionate and broke and vulnerable, and it’s the story—ultimately—of their shared future dissolving. It’s also the story of my mother.
My mother before she was a mother has always lived in my mind as a collection of myths—half invented, barely possible. Reading a novel in which she is a character simply literalized what already felt true: the years of her youth seemed larger than life.
My mom’s name isn’t Sheila. She hates the name Sheila. Her name is Joanne. She fell in love with Peter, who is actually named Peter, when she was a sophomore at Reed College. They got married after he graduated, a year before she did, and divorced two years after that. Their time together fascinated me—especially when they lived as hippies in Berkeley, trying to make their open marriage work—because I knew my mother only in the context of the ordinary days of my childhood, with NPR on the freeway commute and casseroles in the oven. My best friend said our fridge was always full of leftovers involving beans.
What can I tell you about my relationship with my mom? For many years of my childhood, it was just the two of us. We made vegetarian sloppy joes for dinner. We watched Murder, She Wrote on Sunday nights, eating our two bowls of ice cream side by side. We did a ritual on New Year’s Day that involved writing down our wishes and burning them with a candle flame. In many photos from my childhood, she is embracing me—one arm wrapped around my stomach, the other pointing at something, saying, Look at that, directing my gaze toward ordinary wonders. To talk about her love for me, or mine for her, would feel almost tautological; she has always defined my notion of what love is. Just like it’s meaningless to say our ordinary days were everything to me, because they were me. They composed me. They still do. I don’t know any self that exists apart from them.
How many times has my mom picked up the phone to hear my voice cracked with tears, letting it crack only once I knew she was there? When she arrived in the hospital after my daughter was born, I sat there on the starched sheets holding my baby, and she held me, and I cried uncontrollably—because I could finally understand how much she loved me, and I could hardly stand the grace of it.
So now you know where I’m coming from. I stand accused of worship, mythmaking, exhausting idolatry. For many years now, I’ve been trying to confess. I’ve been trying to find language for my gratitude.
When my mom told me that her first husband had written a novel about their marriage, I was thirty years old and feverish with curiosity. But I had no idea how Peter would respond when I wrote to ask if I could read it. We didn’t know each other well. He had been a benevolent figure hovering around the edges of my childhood, vaguely mythic himself, living in the Oregon woods. I knew he kept his income under the federal taxation minimum to avoid financing our nation’s wars. I knew he’d been arrested for blocking access to nuclear power plants. I knew he’d given me a dream catcher when I was a kid.
I conjured a vision of their younger selves from photographs and scraps of anecdotes: my mom was a leggy brunette with smoky hazel eyes and sculptural cheekbones, one of those infuriating women who are beautiful without particularly caring about being beautiful, while Peter was a tall guy with a beard and a dramatic, regal nose; the son of European Jewish intellectuals, he had always identified as an outsider, but had found his people in college, playing folk songs on his guitar and breaking the drama professor’s rules by doing his set changes in character, as a lowly shoe shiner with a blacked-out tooth. My mom told me there was something primal about how she was drawn to him, as if she sensed he was the leader of the tribe.
To my delight, Peter actually seemed eager to send me his novel, even though there were only a few copies of the manuscript in existence. It arrived as loose pages tucked in a purple folder, the faded photocopy of an original typewriter manuscript. The pagination skipped backward partway through, a relic of the revision process, and the pages were peppered with small handwritten corrections. In a scene involving a few friends smoking pot and sticking their toes into liquid laundry detergent, an apostrophe was carefully crossed out.
The novel felt like precious contraband in my hands, as if I were reading letters I wasn’t meant to see. I read it in a single day. It let me perch on my mother’s shoulder as the mysterious, elusive, unknowable days of her early life played out in front of me, starting with that first trip in Tilden Park. I’d been a tiny stowaway tucked into her ovaries, a not-yet-person along for the ride.
The novel’s opening chapters are Edenic: Sheila and Peter ride a psychedelic painted pickup truck through the Emeryville mudflats, drinking orange juice laced with acid. They go to the Fillmore in San Francisco to watch Jefferson Airplane play with a band called the Grateful Dead, who haven’t yet cut an album. California offers them a thrilling alternative to their existence back in Portland, where Peter worked at a stainless-steel foundry, surrounded by coworkers picking their noses above the degreaser and quartering their powdered doughnuts in the break room. In California, their life revolves around what Peter calls the “Ethic of Cool,” something ineffable but unmistakable: It’s a wooden bowl of clean grass in the middle of the dining room table. It’s people frequently and unironically calling things “far out.” It’s a beautiful girl named Doreen sweet-talking the cop who wants to write her up for trespassing on a state beach. Even if Peter doesn’t fully understand what “cool” is, he knows it when he sees it. “Now I may not know much about sitar,” he observes at one party, “but I can sure as hell tell that this dude knows what he is doing.”
Their Shangri-la is a nude beach down the coast, where they go camping one weekend. The only problem is the man with a shotgun guarding the private road. (“Paradise down there and we can’t get to it. We’re blocked by an insurmountable egomaniac who won’t let us climb down his lousy cliff.”) Luckily, a naked man standing in the surf draws them a map on the sand that leads them to a secret road. They make a campfire and spend the night, tripping at dusk near the phosphorescent algae. They hold a mock funeral for “the good old days.” They are living the good old days, the ones they will someday look back on, the ones a daughter might look back on, too—peering over the shoulders of their ghosts, hungry for the lives they once lived.
Trying to write about my mother is like staring at the sun. It feels like language could only tarnish this thing she has given me my whole life—this love. For years, I’ve resisted writing about her. Great relationships make for bad stories. Expression naturally gravitates toward difficulty. Narrative demands friction, and my mom and I live—by the day, the week, the decade—in closeness. Besides, I’m no fool. Who wants to hear too much about someone else’s functional parental relationships, anyway?
A friend once told me that it was frankly a little bit exhausting to hear me talk about how much I loved my mother. Duly noted. I’m her baby hagiographer. But what can I say? She has saved me over and over again. My hunger for her feels endless. I want to love her more fully, by loving the woman she once was. Perhaps it’s a way back into the womb, past the womb—seeking these stories of her, from before I was born.
Sheila and Peter’s marriage starts to unravel halfway through “The Parting of the Ways,” after Sheila falls in love with an engineer named Earl. Earl is introduced as a hopeless straight man, reading the Stanford alumni newsletter on a stoop while everyone else in a ten-mile radius is getting impossibly high. But he and Sheila have a history—insofar as it’s possible to have a history with someone when you are twenty-two years old. When the three of them go backpacking together in the Sierras, part of Peter’s attempt not to be jealous, he finds himself haunted by images of Sheila and Earl together: “My subconscious opened a little trapdoor to show me an X-rated horror movie—a weird little 3-D film built out of my fears and insecurities.” Even though Sheila and Peter have an open marriage, they aren’t meant to fall in love with other people.
The rift caused by Sheila’s relationship with Earl becomes a fissure opening onto deeper discontents: She and Peter can’t quite make their life together work, and can’t quite agree on the life they want to lead. They are broke, and trying to figure out what to do about it. Is Peter going to get a job? Is he going to get a job that requires cutting his long hair? The chapters stop being called things like “Consenting to Blow Your Mind” and “The Second Coming,” and start being called things like “Hassles.” They could have been kings of infinite space, but there’s no running from their bad dreams.
Their tensions reach a boiling point at Sheila’s mother’s house in the suburbs. “Mother Jean” has asked Sheila and Peter if they’ll take her on an acid trip. (Grandma Pat? I thought as I was reading, then nodded with recognition at the exchange she has with Peter. When he warns her, “Acid isn’t all hearts and flowers,” she replies, “Neither am I.”) She is ready for anything, but disappointed when her first hallucination is of a boiled ham.
During that trip, Peter talks to Mother Jean about his fears that Sheila might want to end their marriage, and Sheila herself has a confrontation with fear behind her mother’s house. “Fear and I had a little discussion up on top of the hill,” Sheila tells Peter, just before asking him explicitly, finally, “Do you think we can stay together?”
As a reader, I followed the unraveling of their marriage with a sense of tender sadness mingled with selfish relief. Their marriage needed to fall apart, after all, in order for me to exist.
The novel’s epigraph is from the famous poem by Robert Frost, who is identified as “a straight American poet”:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by.
I’ve always found the most moving part of that poem to be the stuttering pause created by the line break, the repetition of the pronoun—“I—/ I”—as if the speaker is trying to assure himself that his path was the right one. But there’s a break in his own voice that betrays his uncertainty.
The fork in this road is starkly asymmetrical: Sheila is determined to end the marriage, and Peter is devastated. His pain is operatic and eager to express itself. He writes a poem called “Rough Spot,” full of barren imagery: “The strange ocular rain / Gets no one / Pregnant.” He goes to Sexual Freedom League parties where you can have sex with strangers, but they aren’t much fun. He finds himself playing guitar at a party one night: “I reach into the open wound and bring the pain out like an eel wriggling on the end of a hook, hold it up, glory in it.”
Sheila, on the other hand, is portrayed as unruffled: self-possessed and craving independence. When she tells Peter that she wants to get her own place, he sees the determination harden in a “firm little corner by her mouth.” That firm-set mouth—her determination, her desire for autonomy—stands in contrast to his open wound. Reading “The Parting of the Ways,” however, I knew what its characters could not: that even after getting divorced, my mother and Peter would stay important to each other for more than fifty years. The end of their marriage was just the beginning of their story.
It was an act of trust for Peter to send me his novel. Not only am I his ex-wife’s daughter—and thus, perhaps, a biased audience—I’m also a writer, that particular species of vampire: one part barnacle, one part critic, always capable of betrayal. Someone invested in stories of my own.
But I don’t think Peter would ever think of me as his “ex-wife’s daughter,” because he doesn’t think of my mom as his “ex-wife.” At one point, when he asked me what this essay was going to be about, I told him that I wanted to explore the ways that his marriage to my mom influenced the rest of both their lives, as well as the ways their lives diverged after the relationship ended. He interrupted me midsentence to say, “The relationship never ended. I would never characterize it that way.”
It came as a relief that I loved his novel as much as I did. I loved its details, how it evoked the world of that summer with crisp tenderness, in all its fever-dream wonder: friends letting their baby sleep in a dresser drawer as a bassinet, roommates keeping two pet mice who leave droppings all over the apartment, a guy writing a comic book about a hero whose superpower is that he can give anyone an acid trip (even the members of the jury who might convict him for possession). I loved how the novel noticed the small things, how it recognized acid as a pretext and catalyst for lavish attention to the ordinary world, to the pleasurably aggressive sensation, for example, of drinking Diet Rite soda: “The bubbles roll into my mouth like the tide coming in, and each one has a little pitchfork that it’s driving into my tongue.” I loved the novel’s sense of awe—the startling way it describes listening to Coltrane “as if the music were concrete, it hardens in mid-pour into a graceful, ethereal bridge upon which I can walk straight up and out of my own head”—and its sense of absurdity, how one character suggests curing a bad case of crabs: “Shave half your pubes, pour kerosene on the other half, light it, and stab the little mothers with an ice pick as they run from the flames.”