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  • The Overland Trail
  • Joan Silber (bio)

My mother almost got married when she was nineteen. As she told it, she was a townie that Gil (that was his name) was fooling around with in New Brunswick. He went to Rutgers, and they'd met because she was working as a receptionist for a local New Jersey doctor he went to for a torn rotator cuff. She flirted with a lot of the patients; nobody cared in those days. It was midway into the sixties.

What he liked about her was her lack of timidity. (A trait she kept.) Their best date was a trip to Asbury Park—he'd never met a girl who wanted to go on the roller coaster two times in a row. All the crazy lurching into space, the swoops and the turns and the insane dips you could see ahead but couldn't stop from happening, were to her an orchestrated metaphor for the great physical excitement they were privately doing to themselves whenever they could. She'd been to the park many times as a kid, but on these visits she really understood it. It was a gaudy version of an enormous truth. She explained this to me with more specifics than I wanted.

So she and Gil were out on a warm May evening, right before the end of the semester, and they were strolling the boardwalk with their french fries and red cream sodas after the rides. "You know what?" he said. "You could marry me."

My mother was wildly flattered—no one had proposed to her before—and she didn't even really mind the conceited way he phrased it. But the utterness of marriage (marriage!) didn't seem accurate to her for what they had, though she was willing to be open-minded. "Maybe we should live together first?" she said. Since dropping out of college she'd been living at home and was eager not to.

"Forget it then," he said.

She hadn't known how insulted he would be. He stopped right there on the boardwalk and turned around and walked them back to the parking lot, a long and winding walk (it took her a minute to stop thinking: no frozen custard?). "We don't have to leave," she said. "Are we leaving? Don't leave!"

He hated anything she said then, no matter how tearful she got. "I should've known," he kept saying. "You're such an infant, you have no clue at all." She hadn't [End Page 136] expected him to turn on her like that. They had more dates before they actually broke up, but that was the end of whatever good times they had.


Years later, after my mother had lived all over the world, she was shopping in New York for a jacket, and she saw Gil's name on a label. She knew it was really Gil, she knew he'd gone into the clothing business, but still it was a shock to see the threaded satin letters. "I knew I couldn't buy the jacket," she said. "Nothing against Gil but nobody wants the past muttering to her every time she gets dressed. Does she?"


The next boyfriend she had, after Gil, saw how well situated she was for swiping a few boxes of pharmaceuticals from the doctor's office. She didn't think anyone would catch her and they didn't. She packed the goods neatly in her tote bag, under a flowered silk scarf. "Good girl," Quinn, the boyfriend, said. She'd expected heartier praise, and he didn't kiss her until after he'd counted the bottles. She was excited anyway. She wanted to be a different sort of person, and he was offering lessons.

He'd wanted the drugs to sell, not use, though they did try them and get stoned and drowsy and physical (as they called it then) in slow ways. They were in his apartment at the time, in another part of her town. She fell asleep and didn't go home to her parents' house till morning, and the ruckus when she walked in, all the shouting...


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pp. 136-156
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