Part 95: Bonnie & Clyde
A few weeks ago, I had a dream that Riley went to prison, and that I had to go, too. In the dream, the officers told me the reason I was being incarcerated: Because I was Riley's daughter. No other reason was given.
I'm grateful to my friend Dorrit for whisking me away to a state college back in the 80s, hours away from Porterville, a town filled with bad luck, or so it seemed. Back then, I didn't know the difference between colleges. I didn't know what was considered a "good college" or a party school; the latter Chico had a reputation for. I didn't even know the term "ivy league" or any of the other ways schools are classified as better, or best. No one else in my family had been to college. I had no advice, no idea what I was doing, and no money––I qualified for Pell and Cal Grants, but still had to work various odd jobs to make it all come together. Dorrit helped pave the way, and she was the one with the car and the budget for groceries. We attempted to live off of Top Ramen and Lipton Cup of Soup, sharing a two-bedroom apartment with another friend.
When I first arrived, I tried to major in something besides theater. Deep down I knew that I was beginning to correlate the arts with poverty and instability. Financial failure was all around me growing up. I tried to major in something that seemed more practical, although I had no idea what anything would lead to, or how to live a normal life. I thought I'd major in psychology. Maybe I could help people who were chronically depressed or mentally ill. Next, I decided on art history–– maybe I could work in a gallery. For a time I was an English major, but when the classes started I realized I felt lost and clueless, a feeling that's never left me...but after having met other writers, I understand this "lost and clueless" feeling is something writers grapple with. On top of that insecure feeling, I knew my early childhood education was sketchy–– all the moving around, the fact that my parents weren't impressed with academic achievement, never looked at my report cards, and they both felt that becoming an artist was almost the opposite of doing well in school. "Doing well" was for average people. I was allowed to stay home and watch old movies if I said I was sick, or stay home from school for any reason, really.
The greenroom in the theater department is where I found my "people." All the useless information I learned from Riley about show business was welcomed in that room. I changed my major to theater mostly for this tribal feeling I had.
Getting cast in shows at the college kept me close to Riley, we had long talks about plays and performance. He still thought I was wasting my time–– according to him, as I've mentioned, all I had to do was move to New York and the city would be my teacher. I knew by then that my parents didn't have the best advice. I stayed in school. Riley came out to see me in a show called "Top Girls" by Caryl Churchill, the only time he came to visit me, but it was a big deal.
I remember feeling like Riley and I had a special connection. Yes, he bailed on my mother and his other children (at that time I only knew about three other kids; Richard, Leslie, and Graham) but he didn't bail on me. I must've done something right, I reasoned. I'd told all my new friends that my father had been a performer, a singer, songwriter, about his time in vaudeville. It gave me a stronger sense of belonging in the department. I left out all the other stuff I grappled with in Porterville, and our strange family history, wanting a fresh start.
Above: With Mark Staben in Harold Pinter's "The Lover."
Harold Pinter's "The Lover."
Above: Harold Pinter's "The Lover."
Above: With Randy Wonzong in "Translations" by Irish playwright Brian Friel.
That's me in the black wig next to an actress... I can't remember her name! (center) and Larry Mauro on the right. Larry and I played twins, Sarah and Ben. The play was called "God's Favorite."
After my first year of college, I had a short and unfortunate break when I lost my Pell and Cal grants because, I was told, one piece of paper was missing. It was such a blow. I cried in front of the financial aid office lady–she was unmoved. I had to leave town with my then boyfriend and stay in my father's garage at his place in Ventura. After a month of that, a spare room in a classmate's mother's condo in Southern California. I worked at an Alpha Beta grocery store in the deli, generally depressed, lost, and afraid I'd never get back to school.
Finally, after a semester when my paper work was back in order, I returned. While I was at Chico, I took several odd jobs; a baseball card shop, a salon, a donut shop, an ice cream shop, the school library, and I was hired to design the make-up for the dance, opera, and theater department. I also cleaned my theater professor's house, which was depressing because she'd call my boyfriend for some artistic opportunity, and then ask me when I could clean her house next. I was cast in many shows, always exhausted, little time to sleep or study. I couldn't afford to eat right. Even with all those jobs and financial aid, I was barely getting by.
In 1989, I graduated with a BA in theater, and I knew I had no idea what I was going to do with that degree.
A couple of years ago, I called Jan to tell her about the discovery of Dad’s journal, careful to leave out his long list of girlfriends while they were together. Jan moved to Washington State in the 90s, to a small town three hours east of Seattle, having been invited to live in a house owned by a friend of ours. A self-described recluse, Jan lived at the end of a dirt road, and our conversations were mostly phone calls.
We talked for an hour going over things that happened, and the "Hidden Brain" episode. I told her what I was trying to do with Riley’s ashes, and how after I spread them in the Blue Mountains in North Carolina. Hurricane Florence had hit right after we got back to Seattle, and with the high winds kicking up all the dirt, Riley was “everywhere” which might’ve suited him. Jan and I laughed about that.
We spoke of Riley’s sudden, secret departure back in Porterville, how he took off without a word, and what she was going through after that, how Ted Ensslin used to drop by to see if Jan knew where Riley was, and how uncomfortable Ted's visits were for her. Then she told me something I was completely in the dark about.
“After almost an entire year of being away, Riley came back to see me at the house on Jaye Street in Porterville. He wanted to get back together, tried to convince to leave town with him,” Jan said.
“What?” I asked, confused. This was new information.
“He wanted me to run off with him. He said we could just take off without telling anyone,” she said.
“Wait, when I was in college? Why didn’t you tell me?” It was strange the things my mother decided to blurt out or keep to herself.
He said we could just travel around,” she paused for a moment. “He said we’d be just like Bonnie and Clyde, isn’t that crazy?” She let out a sharp laugh.
“So, just leave, and not tell anyone? Not even me?” I said.
“I told him, what about my daughter? He said you were grown-up, that you could take care of yourself," Jan said.
I pressed one hand over my face, letting this information sink in. I calculated in my mind how old I was that year. I was twenty. Old enough to take care of myself, but losing both parents suddenly and mysteriously would’ve been a blow. I was having trouble comprehending what the plan was.
“So, like…never call me, or contact me again?” I asked, unable to hide the hurt in my voice.
“He said we’d leave, and that you’d be fine, and we’d just never see anyone again. We’d just keep moving, just the two of us. It could be me and him, he said, just like that movie. We’d never contact anyone, that was the plan.” Another long pause. Then: “Not even you.”
“Bonnie and Clyde? Just like that, leave town?” I was just repeating what she was telling me, like saying it again would help me understand.
Hearing this now right after running around like a chicken with his ashes, worrying about his health while he was alive, twisting my life around so I could stay on his good side— all the time I gave my father, the loans, the emotional expenditure, and after all that, I was just as disposable as his other kids. None of it mattered.
Jan continued, “I already had a boyfriend, I didn’t need him anymore. I looked right at him and said, ‘Riley, I don’t even know you. I don’t know who you really are,’ and Riley was quiet for a long time, and then he admitted I was right, that I didn’t know him. And either do you.” She was directing this last part to me.
A bit of I told you so was in her voice. It was true. I didn’t know him. My mother, who was so crushed when he'd left without a word, had quickly moved on with her life. She had no residual loyalty to him. My new found siblings had moved on––they had no attachment to giving our father much thought after they found out what had become of him. The women who had his biological kids didn’t talk about him, he became a ghost. At least two of his exes told everyone that Riley was dead rather than talk about where he might've run off to.
I’d spent so much time trying to maintain my relationship with my father, and when he died, so much time was spent trying to bury his ashes in the right place. To find out all these years later that he would’ve taken off with my mother that year... never contacting me again...left me feeling as if I’d given my brain over to delusion for most of my life. Hours of time spent worrying about legacies and burials and loyalty, while he probably wouldn’t have done the same for anyone.
I know he loved me in his own way to the best of his broken abilities.
After a few weeks, the conversation with Jan stung a bit less. I even joked about it. It's quite a twist. But. It’s time to get on with my life, as the others have.
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