General Non-Fiction posted March 5, 2018

This work has reached the exceptional level
the night I left home

The Night I Jumped into the River

by johnwilson

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
-from Wait Without Hope by T.S. Eliot

On the afternoon I decided to take the plunge into what I thought to be the dancing river of life, I was seventeen years old. It was as impulsive and ridiculous as taking a trip to Europe alone, with neither the funds, the wardrobe nor the je-ne-sais-quoi to pull it off.


The weather on that particular afternoon in mid-June of 1968 was atypical for the City of Angels; there was no "June gloom" appearing as if Winter still lurked in the wings. The sky was a radiant blue, birds were sounding their exuberance, flowers were startling in their abundant brilliance, and I was hanging out inside with Ernestina, our family's maid-- a usual occurrence since I could remember. I was frustrated with my parents, annoyed at having finally graduated from a high school filled with snobby girls, only to be forced into attending Radcliffe, one of the Ivy League colleges. Since I had graduated a year early, I had convinced my parents I wanted to think carefully about the next phase of my life, and possibly take some art classes during that Fall and Winter. And it had taken a great deal of convincing, with some help from my parent's best friends, who thought it might be advantageous for me to attend the Sorbonne in Paris with their daughter the following fall of 1969. I had no such intentions.


My elderly father was in the hospital for some minor surgery, and was due home later that day. Ernestina and I were laughing and talking in the laundry room, the washer running, so we didn't hear my mother pull into the driveway, or open the back door into the kitchen. Needless to say, she surprised the hell out of both of us. We both knew the forbidden stigma of socializing with the help. Still, I hated observing the indecorous anger, prejudice and jealousy painted across her face, upon seeing me laughing with the black maid inside on such a glorious afternoon. With these thoughts at the forefront of her mind, she uttered the words, "How can you be laughing, when your behavior was responsible for your father being in the hospital?" That sentence, so obviously said in anger, provoked my seventeen year old bravado into perceiving it as the straw that broke the camel's back.


I headed up the back staircase, pounding the inanimate wooden steps as if they could feel my pent-up anger. I walked purposefully to my room, grabbed my favorite granny dress which my mother thought tantamount to dressing like a gypsy whore, my virtually empty purse, and snuck out one of the side doors. The afternoon was quickly approaching twilight--a time when I was rarely out by myself. As I ran conspicuously down the street to the main thoroughfare of Wilshire Boulevard, I began to calm down just enough to let fear inside me, and to wonder where in the hellI I thought I was going.


I had enough change in my purse to be able to navigate by bus to Sunset Boulevard, which was considered home to the hippies and druggies in that summer of '68, and one of the most well-known infamous live music spots in the country. The twilight had deepened to darkness quickly, and the lights of the strip were blinding to someone who had rarely seen it in its full night-time splendor, and only from the closed tinted window of a car. The sounds of music began to pump the blood, and roust the effervescent spirit of the passerby, particularly at the door to the Whiskey, where Canned Heat could be heard blocks away. The eerie whispered phrase, echoing along the strip that evening was, "Got any uppers, got any downers?" I had only a quasi-knowledge of what these strangers were asking, but I was instinctively aware of attracting the attention of quite a few of the long-haired handsome guys asking the questions, as they were looking me up and down; simultaneously, I remembered what I happened to be wearing-- another outfit my mother deemed unacceptable to wear inside or outside of home--a pair of skin-tight boulder-washed jeans, hugging my well-defined body, and a cotton french-cut top, sans bra, exposing my breasts with their erect nipples. Suddenly seventeen, which had seemed so mature an hour ago, reverted me into an intrepid, on-the-verge of crying, twelve year old. I ran down the street, my long hair flying, until I saw a brightly lit gas station, which miraculously housed a glassed-in telephone booth.


Having exactly fifteen cents left in my possession, I picked up the receiver and called a friend who had graduated last year from Marlborough High School, and was now a freshman at USC, living at home in the Hollywood Hills, high atop Grammercy Place. Her mother answered the phone. After I screamed frantically in her ear about my leaving home on the fly and my present predicament, she replied that she and my friend, Kathy, would be there in minutes. "Hang tight", she stated in a calm voice, as if anyone or anything could have pried me loose from that telephone booth.


Ten minutes later, I saw the familiar faces of Kathy and her mother, as they pulled into the gas station, and drove up to the phone booth. I must have looked far worse than I thought, because Kathy's mom got out of the car, and as I opened the booth, she grabbed me and gave me an awe-inspiring much needed hug. I crumpled into her arms and began to cry.


I don't remember any details about the short ride home, other than neither her mother nor Kathy uttered a sound. Before I could froth at the mouth like a rabid animal, I was ushered inside the large comfy living room, and given a cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows on top. As I proceeded toward coherency, I slowly elaborated on everything that had led up to this moment of my sitting in their living room, still gripping the granny dress and my purse as if they were talismans.


Kathy had said nothing, but she was staring at me with an expression of pure astonishment, as if I had just landed from another planet.. Mrs. Cunal finally produced a long sigh.

"Dear, I'm going to have to call your parents, and ask them if you can spend the night here. OK?"

"No, Mrs. Cunal", I replied in an emphatic tone. "I never want to go home again. You understand, I'm leaving, and starting the life I want to pursue. I don't want to go to another school, which will try to teach me how to behave, or show me exactly where I belong." I would have quoted the lyrics from a Cat Stevens song, "On the Road to Find Out", but it hadn't been written until 1971. She let out another long sigh, and proceeded into the library, presumably to call my family. All I was entirely certain of, at that moment, was that I was not going home, even if I had to leave the bit of soothing sanctuary attained by sitting in their living room.


No longer than five minutes later, Mrs Cunal appeared from her library as if a monster had attacked her; she was pale and quite shaken.

"Well, dear, I've just gotten off the phone with your father." She uttered these rather obvious words, twisting her hands, shaking her head a couple of times, and staring at me as if I was a bigger imposition than she had previously thought. "It appears that you can spend the night. Actually, you are welcome to stay as long as you like."

Kathy finally spoke up. "Mom, what happened?"

"Let's talk about that later. Why don't you get Clem settled in her room, and find her some pajamas?" Her voice was shaking. She strode to the liquor cabinet, and poured herself two little tips of scotch, along with a glass for her husband who, up until this point, had been stoically silent.

"No, Mom. Let's hear what her father said. It must have been something explosive to get your tits in such a wringer." Kathy's language didn't surprise me, because I had witnessed her family's dynamics. Kathy got up from her chair and sat down next to me on the couch, grabbing my free hand.

"Clem, I’m sorry dear; your father said to tell you that, since you chose to leave home, you are dead to your family. He also gave me his permission for you to stay here, or go wherever you wanted to go, as your are no longer welcome in their home." Mrs. Cunal, tears running down her cheeks, opened her arms to me. I was in a state of shock, even though I had been granted exactly what I thought I wanted. It was a strange sensation, for which I had no immediate solution. I wanted to feel joyful--to celebrate my future, but I was exhausted; doubt, and its suitcase full of fearful recriminations, was moving rapidly to the forefront of a dire situation.


The rest of that evening was spent within an uncomfortable solemnity. The verbalizations, emphasizing how welcome I was to stay in their home for an indefinite period, were paraphrased over and over, juxtaposed against my family’s oath--words which released me, before I was expecting to fly.

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This is a short part of a memoir I'm writing in separate pieces.
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Artwork by ChuckWaxman at

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