Suzanne Forbes, an expat New Yorker in Berlin. Made possible by the generous support of her Patrons. https://www.patreon.com/SuzanneForbes. Former DC Penciller for Star Trek, former courtroom artist, painting portraits and teaching drawing.
In late summer or early Fall 1989 I did this painting of my beloved, cherished friend John Talbot Wallis. He was staying with me at my little basement apartment in St. Paul, trying to kick heroin. It didn’t work out for him, and he went back to NY and relapsed immediately. I desperately hope he is still alive. Last I heard, in the mid-90s, he was very deep in addiction and had apparently lost most of his teeth. The odds aren’t good, but we junkies are tough as cockroaches. I’ve said a prayer for him every night for almost thirty years.
This was one of the earliest portraits I ever painted, though I had drawn quite a few by this point. To get ready for going back to art school full time, I was taking a painting class in downtown St. Paul, an extension class from the Minneapolis College of Design, with a wonderful woman professor.
I started out painting in acrylic, though there is tremendous bias against acrylics in the figurative and especially portrait painting community.
I really appreciated my teacher’s willingness to let me use acrylics. I was afraid I would have problems with my sobriety if I used oil paints, which involve solvents. I had never been an inhalant abuser, but I was less than a year sober and I wasn’t taking any chances!
I liked acrylics and it turned they are perfectly suited for my run-and-gun, punk rock style of painting, so I’ve never looked back. My palette was a lot more Fauvist early on, partly because I didn’t know how to mix colors or how to see color temperature in shadows.
I had never intended to be a painter – I was gonna be a comic penciller, and have colorists to take care of that! So I had paid little attention to my color theory class at Parsons and stubbornly avoided working in color as much as possible. It was really an accident that led me to becoming a painter, that the only class in the extension program that Fall was a painting class, and that I loved my teacher. I also just really love Fauvism, and I still think my early paintings are terrific examples.
This portrait of John, an homage to The Green Stripe aka Portrait of Madame Matisse, is probably one of the top ten likenesses I’ve ever achieved.
This IS John, who I met at Stuyvesant a day or two after my fourteenth birthday and was close friends and sometimes friends with benefits with til I was 23. He was literally the jolliest drunk I have ever met, a vibrant, loving, wildly creative guy without a mean bone in his body. He was a drummer, an artist, a rapper, and a lover who adored pleasing women.
He turned me on to NWA and The Tubes, and we walked thousands of miles together over Manhattan Island in the 80s. We logged thousands of hours hanging out, writing graffiti, drinking beer, roaming the city or watching MTV. We used to do acid and heroin and watch Jaws 3 in 3D with the colors on the television reversed, laughing hysterically. He had a heart the size of Central Park. Merciful Goddess, I hope he is still alive.
Another redhead, fellow MCAD painter Brad Geiken.
I painted this in the fall of 1990, I think, when Brad and I were together. Brad was a terrific, terrific painter and a really nice boyfriend. He looks mean here but that is the fault of me as the painter, not the man. Or he was mad because I was a shitty girlfriend and he deserved better. He had the most beautiful red hair.
I am incredibly grateful to my Patreon Patrons, whose monthly financial support makes it possible for me to take time to document my art archives.
Until today, no record of these paintings existed – if we had a fire or flood they would just be gone forever.
At the cheese counter I ran at A.G. Ferrari in Berkeley, 1998.
The cool comes from under the trees in the Berlin summer nights, from the leafy plazas and million parks and the green breathing lung of Tiergarten.
You catch a vegetal blast of air that feels almost icy, the way passing the 72nd st Transverse used to feel on Central Park West in August. We’re pretty far north in Berlin, and it stays light til 10pm. The day Anthony Bourdain killed himself I took the U-7 to Eisenacher Str. at 7pm; the long twilight hadn’t even started.
On the subway an American was explaining what Currywurst is to another American. “And the place we’re going is the most famous currywurst stand in Berlin,” she said. I came out of the station by the church and walked along Akazienstr to my favorite Habibi falafel cafe, the one with the strange fountain full of sunken amphorae.
Where the guys are brusque and the line is slow but it feels so much like Mamoun’s.
And the falafel is damn near as good. In 1981 my boyfriend Paul and I used to scrape up change from under our bed and walk from the West Village to Macdougal to get falafel at Mamoun’s. I would ask for “extra, extra tahini” and they would laugh at me but fill my falafel til it dripped creamy tahini sauce. Paul slashed his throat with a razor blade in our bedroom when I was fifteen and was hospitalized at Bellevue. My first suicide attempt was two years earlier.
On days I visited Paul at the psych ward I would go to DiBella Brothers and get a Stuyvesant sandwich and marinated artichokes stuffed with blue cheese and eat them on the lawn of a high-rise in the East twenties. I would sit on the grass in that spring of 1982 with a book – Madeleine L’Engle, I was rereading the Earthsea books – and breathe in the good news that I was alive, still, and could feel pleasure.
The first gateau marjolaine I ever made, in 1992 or 1993.
In Berlin on this summer night I had slabs of roasted eggplant smeared with baba ganoush, cauliflower caramelized at the tips of the florets, cinnamon-scented chicken schwarma, pita dredged in green olive oil.
I breathed in and out in the warm cafe, as people came and went and bought baklava at the counter. They don’t make it there, of course, but it’s so good. Pistachio only, no walnut. Also delicious: the basbousa, drowning in sugar syrup.
I didn’t get any baklava, because I was planning to get ice cream, and i can always come back another day. I ate roasted carrots cut slantwise, soft as sweet potatoes. Mint leaves. Again green oil, soft pita. Again mint.
Fresh mint leaves are the single most luxurious affordable luxury item in the world.
I sat for a bit after I finished eating, looking around, breathing.
Cakes, tarts and mousses I made for a party I gave when my first Star Trek comic came out in 1994.
Hand-sculpted gold-leafed marzipan penguins I made for a wedding cake at Dean & DeLuca in 1996.
My breath is safe in my lungs, moving safely, freely. In 1987 in my tiny Chelsea bedroom the paramedics yelled into their walkie-talkies, “Put a rush on that bus!”. My boyfriend Richie hadn’t been able to wake me up.
My heart ticks over smoothly. In 1996 in Adams-Morgan I stood up, stepped one step to turn on Victoria’s oven, stepped one step back to the kitchen table, and called the hotline instead.
I was working at Dean & DeLuca Georgetown in 1996, manager of the bread and pastry and fine chocolate departments. I had the most beautiful food in the world at my fingertips.
It was like a museum of food, our store, and I would cry in the bathroom in the basement.
Here in the Berlin summer, I left Habibi’s and went down the street to Eisfee. Eis means ice cream, and Fee of course is “fairy”. I had Berliner Bar, a vanilla eis with karamell and brownies. The flavor is amazing but the texture was a bit chewier than usual. I walked slowly up towards Gotzstr. eating ice cream with the sky still, still light. It seemed like the sun would never slip over the horizon, like the city was holding it against the skyline.
The first wedding cake I ever made, white chocolate with white chocolate buttercream and handmade marzipan roses.
The charming streets of Schöneberg are lined with restaurants and cafes, and their outdoor tables were full of evening diners. People were eating together, waiters were bringing full plates. I smelled fish skin sizzling on iron, and lemon juice, outside a taverna. I smelled cilantro and green curry, and basil crisping on top of margarita pizza in a wood oven. I smelled tandoori lamb, and roasting doner kebab. Berbere and sumac. Cumin, the scent of life.
I walked up to Jones Ice Cream, and waited in the line, which was no worse than the Bi-Rite line on a Tuesday night in winter.
Bûche de noel with meringue mushrooms and crème brûlées, Christmas 1994.
Jan Diekmann at Jones Ice Cream
Jan Diekmann, who runs the line, saluted me when I came in. I only make it over there every couple months, but I have made it clear how deeply I value the quality of the ice cream. I had a scoop of black sesame ice cream on one of their absurdly good white chocolate cranberry cookies.
It was a serenade of salty, buttery, umami-rich sweetness, yet with a grassy and floral creaminess. I love the way you taste the grass in good cream.
I will go ahead and say Jones Ice Cream has better flavors than Bi-Rite. At Jones each flavor is actually even more superbly calibrated, but Bi-Rite beats them on texture. I ate very slowly, paging through “Sweet Berlin”, a book of Berlin pastry chefs, confiseurs and chocolatiers. When I was done I dodged through the line, and thanked the counter staff quickly, as I often do at such times. “Vielen danke! Sehr lecker, lecker-lecker!”.
And then got out of there, because you don’t take up people’s time in the evening rush.
Gateau mârjolaine with white chocolate gates and handmade marzipan roses, and petit-fours, made for my first wedding in 1995.
I walked up Goltzstr to the St. Matthias Kirche, which is being repaired, like every other fucking building in Berlin. I smelled a breath of lilacs at the edge of the small park there, though it’s past their season, and I saw that among the wild roses there is a little cherry tree, laden with shiny fruit.
There was a tiny path worn through the loose flowering bush, but I left the cherries for the kids who will come to the Markt am Winterfeldplatz tomorrow.
At the Markt am Winterfeldplatz I once bought a handmade praline of milk chocolate ganache dusted with bee pollen; my friend Monique bought flaxseed oil they grind as you watch.
In 1987 I was sitting in the Cocolat cafe on Fillmore st., eating Alice Medrich‘s three-chocolate mousse cake and drinking a split of ice-cold Piper Heidseick I had shoplifted. I was high on heroin and I was still absolutely fucking miserable. I said to myself, fuck, if this mousse can’t make me happy, drugs really must not work for me anymore.
I went to my first recovery meeting just a couple days later. It was another eighteen months before I got sober, but that moment was the beginning.
I went back to San Francisco in 1991, two years sober, and went to that Cocolat and bought Mme. Medrich’s cookbook, Cocolat. It was the first serious cookbook I bought as an adult, and I made that three-chocolate mousse cake for the opening of my first art show at school.
I spent my tweens reading Vladimir Estragon’s Waiting for Dessert column in the Village Voice and Craig Claiborne in the New York Times. But it was Innumerable hours studying Cocolat and The Cake Bible in the 90s that formed the beginning of my professional food career, which put a roof over my head when none of my other skills could.
I walked up to Nollendorfplatz, where I picked a sprig of lavender and sniffed it over and over as I waited for the bus, as the sky darkened at last, as everything turned blue.
Astringent, spicy soapy, floral, herbal – lavender is everything. I can’t believe I’m alive. I am stupidly fucking grateful to be alive. In Culver City in 2005 I was curled up on the floor of the bathroom of my second husband’s corporate housing, cradling the phone, holding on to the hotline. I had taken the scissors, the sharpest blade I could find in the place, in there with me.
Holding on to the hotline like a subway pole. The hotline was the only dignity in my pain, the only justification for my existence now that I was discarded by my life partner. I was experiencing the worst emotional pain I had known since I got sober, and I wanted so badly to be dead, but the hotline held me. They told me I had value when every particle of my brain was telling me otherwise.
Halloween cake with hand-sculpted marzipan and royal icing bat, raspberry mousse heart and vanilla Bavarian brain for Halloween, 2001.
When food doesn’t make me happy, I know I’m depressed.
Gateau Marjolaine I made for my 50th birthday, Berlin 2017.
I don’t mean pleasure; as a libertine, a person with lifelong disordered eating, I can use sugar and carbs to get drug-like comfort even when I’m deeply depressed. I mean happy – that sense of exhilaration and wonder, at the alchemy of flavor.
At the mystery of how the elements of the food come together.
For me, eating is reading a story, thinking about where the food comes from on the planet, the food traditions of the culture. About the antecedents and variations of the dish.
I never eat pasta without remembering my training at The Pasta Shop in Berkeley in the late 90s.
Coulibiac of saumon made for Daria’s 30th birthday in 2017, recipe from The Pie and Pastry Bible.
We learned that microscopic corrugations in the surface of the century-old bronze dies give the best extruded pastas their sauce-grabbing power. We tasted forty-five-year-old balsamic, syrupy thick, and Cowgirl Creamery fromage Blanc made that day, and there was always Acme Bread.
The cheese period of my Pasta Shop education was especially precious. I trained with a Neal’s Yard cheesemonger. She taught me how to break an 85 pound wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano, and taste the first flake from the heart of the wheel. The head chef at the Pasta Shop was a joyful grey-haired Deadhead who ate kimchi for breakfast every morning. She was wonderful. Amazing food women have guided me all my life.
The summer I was 24 I worked as a cook in a restaurant on a boat on the Mississippi River, with a group of other women. We would bake off the night’s desserts in the hot afternoons, music playing, the windows of the boat all open, cutting whole flats of ripe peaches, until everything smelled like ripe peaches. Cooking with those women are some of my most cherished kitchen memories, even though one night a body washed up in the inlet next to our boat.
Making flourless chocolate cake for Daria, 2017.
When Spalding Gray’s body was found in the East River in 2004, I thought it was a sign.
Depressed people think crazy shit like that. I had been so depressed for so long, it just seemed like I couldn’t possibly find the strength to keep going. I thought, what is the point of making it another decade and then giving up anyway? I thought, he fought it all that time only to lose in the end. I was tired of calling the hotlines, of hiding how I felt from everyone. I felt like I would get better, then get worse, and each time I was sick I was more exhausted.
But then I got to leave my toxic job, and I started painting again, and I got on Wellbutrin, and by 2005 I was doing great – until my husband left me. Between that, the Great Recession, losing my house and losing my art business, I was down for the count until 2011. And yet, that wasn’t the end of the story. I thought my story would end like Spalding Gray’s, a long battle, the appearance of making it clear of the weeds, and then losing after all. That isn’t the story I got.
The story I know today is the story of the miracle of not being depressed.
My story today is that I have been in true, complete, uninterrupted remission from my lifelong depression for almost six years. It is the story of smelling green curry from a cafe table and feeling it as a celebration of life and human magic. Instead of feeling it as a rebuke.
Once in 1995 I was standing by a pond in a park in Hartford, looking at some ducks on the water. My comic book had been cancelled, I had no apartment and my stuff was in storage, my first marriage was coming apart, my student loans had just defaulted and I had been severely depressed for a year. I felt really pissed that there was this beautiful scene, that I was supposed to appreciate, when all I could think about was how many Tylenol it takes to kill yourself.
It seemed like a cruel cosmic joke, those fucking ducks. That’s how the world feels, when you’re depressed. It affects every part of your worldview. I remember the relentless negativity and hopelessness of most of my life quite clearly. But I’ve never operated from that system of feelings, despite dwelling within it for the majority of my time on the planet. I’ve always, always proceeded as if things were gonna get better, as if I would be ok someday, no matter how bad I felt.
Vegan chocolate cake with vegan chocolate mousse I made last month. Photo by Daria Rein.
I was always blessed with a dunderheaded amount of what has turned out to be, surprisingly, justified faith.
Thanks to my extremely high resilience score, and the love and support I’ve been blessed with all along, I believed in a possible future without depression. But I felt the pain of that worldview most of the time, and the pain and pressure of it were unbelievable. It’s only now, having been released from it for almost six years, that I can begin to understand how pervasive and relentless and exhausting it was.
I fought like a lioness to save my body, my soul, my work, my love.
I would never say I won, because I have no idea what will happen tomorrow. Luckily, I already had pretty good skills for taking chronic illness a day at a time when I entered remission from depression. Twenty-nine years of sobriety, and three rounds of cold turkey heroin withdrawal before that, have given me certain abilities. One of them is the ability to be fucking grateful not to be in pain. SO grateful it’s like a whole emotion, like being in love. Another is the ability to relish reversals of fortune.
I never imagined I could be this deeply, consistently, profoundly happy.
It can get better, and statistically, it just plain WILL for some depressed people. Happiness has a U-shape for many and you can age out of depression, or get better through treatment, or heal. I have no idea how to share that truth with those who are suffering, to get it in under their aching chests where it can grow.
Suzanne Forbes photographed at home by Mirella Frangella, May 2018
I only know my story, the story of walking around on a summer night so glad to be alive I feel like I won the lottery. Eating ice cream.
I wrote here about how Longterm Remission from Severe Depression is Fucking Possible.
And here about how Depression is a Disease, and Most of Us Aren’t Doctors.
More writing about my fancy-food career here and converting US recipes for Europe here (Guerilla Peanut Butter Pie) and here (Five-Car Fender-Bender Flapjacks, GF).
If you’re having suicidal thoughts, the Berlin Crisis Service (Berliner Krisendienst) offers telephone and in-person help in English at nine centres throughout the city: www.berliner-krisendienst.de/en/
I finally got out to visit the Berlin graffiti/street art community!
I’ve been wanting to start documenting this huge and crucial part of Berlin’s art scene since we got here. But it just hadn’t worked out until now.
This week I heard about an art installation, an Urban Art Temple, called Wandelism.
And it was only three subway stops away! So I contacted the organizer and was invite to come by and make drawings of the artists at work. Work was wrapping up but I met some lovely folks and got to sketch some of the action. Everyone was super friendly and chill. I met Marina Zumi, one of the artists, who had the coolest Jessica Jones vibe going on, and Denis Leo Hegic, who was documenting the event with a camera guy.
I was very happy to begin connecting with this community, which is both so familiar and so different.
There is a great range of works in the Wandelism Temple. There are murals, pieces, large scale flaming sculptures made with played cans, scale models of trains (I want one for my action figure dollhouse so badly!) and entire rooms painted up by individual artists. You can reserve a time for a guided tour here, or come to the vernissage on Saturday March 17 at 3pm. You can see tantalizing pics on Instagram here!
In my day the idea of graffiti artists wearing masks just hadn’t occurred to anybody, and if it had, none of us would have had money for them. Although of course they could have been racked from Pearl Paint like cans, I guess!
We just called what you spit up after a long night “technicolor phlegm.”
Much better to protect your lungs and health, so you can have a long working life. My people died young, mostly, and there is grief in revisiting the graffiti world for me, but also hope and joy. Like the sight of this young woman artist, Alice Gruen, drawing in her book. I’m looking forward to the opening on Saturday!!
As always, I am so grateful to my Patrons on Patreon, whose monthly financial support makes it possible for me to document Berlin life and art!
Earlier this year I discovered that action figure photography is a thing.
Like, a huge thing. There are all these groups on Instagram of guys – it’s only guys, as far as I can tell – taking serious photos of their 6″ (dollhouse) scale action figures. As the toy photography culture has grown, props for it have also become a thing. And a company called Extreme-Sets (which tells you a lot about the dudebro culture of the toy photo groups) has emerged, creating pop-up cardboard sets for your action figure photo shoots.
When they came out with a subway station that had a NYC subway map and a subway car that looked like a classic NY car, I knew I had to have them.
Look at this, you can practically hear Electro saying “Ayy, whaddaya whaddaya?”
But shipping was ruinously expensive. Lucky for me, some friend-muse-patrons were coming to Berlin for Thanksgiving!
Once I opened my new sets, I set about kitbashing them. Kitbashing is a term from the model car world, I believe, that I learned after it found its way into dollhouse culture.
My dollhouse, for example, is a radical kitbash of a standard dollhouse kit.
I trimmed down some elements of the Extreme-Sets station and changed their proportions so it would feel truer to an 80s’-era station.
I customized my station by cutting the panels apart and melding them back together in new forms. That way I could feature the subway map and have the parts of the panels I liked best clearly displayed.
I added a poster for the original Terminator movie. It’s 1984 in my subway station.
I mounted the panels on the deconstructed interior of the IKEA door modules on the bottom center cubbies of my dollhouse, using carpet tape. I spackled the grooves where the panels met and colored the spackle to match.
Then I tagged the station and the train car with the tags of my 80s graffiti writer boyfriends and people I knew back in the day, and my own tag, with my crew, Acid Writers. I posted what I was working on Instagram, with the hashtag “AcidWriters”. It showed up as an official hashtag, so I browsed through the images, and saw people I recognized.
That’s when I found out another one of my boyfriends from the 80s was dead.
We had a high-risk lifestyle. I don’t know why I had expected he’d be alive. To be honest, I hadn’t thought about what he was doing in many years. There’s so much grief and loss from those days; I don’t borrow trouble. Matt was drinking hard by the time he was twelve.
Making art, and my dollhouse in particular, is a way of processing grief and turning it into tribute.
Berlin is a recursive, palimpsest city, drilled down deep into the underworld, like New York.It seems completely right to build a tunnel to the past under my dollhouse here, a secret shrine with coded messages.
Stories are the immortality of love, and telling my stories are my tribute to the dead.
This week the news broke that Maisie Williams has been cast as Rahne Sinclair in Josh Boone’s New Mutants movie.
With an early (perhaps the first) New Mutant cosplayer, NY Creation Con, Thanksgiving 1985
It had been rumored for a long time, and I had been hoping and praying.
I love Maisie infinitely because of her amazing journey as Arya Stark and her completely rad dignity and coolness growing up in the public eye. There is no one I’d rather see play one of the two characters most important in the world to me.
I feel like the story that matters more than any other to me is in safe hands with Josh Boone. After 33 years, the New Mutants will be on the big screen! Who on earth could have imagined this? Certainly not me, seventeen in 1984, when I read my first New Mutants comic.
Why did I read it?
My girlfriend asked me to bring her a comic book at boarding school.
New Mutants 18 cover by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz
She was going to Simon’s Rock, an elite private school that was part of Bard College. I missed her terribly, so I took a bus from Port Authority to Great Barrington, Massachusetts to visit her.
P. had gotten into this comic book series, “The New Mutants”, and she desperately needed me to bring her the next issue.
I lived in Chelsea with my mom; I vaguely knew there was a comic book store up on 23rd st., so I walked up there. In the acrid smell of mouldering paper I asked the big unkempt man where “the new New Mutants” was to be found, and bought it.
As every student of comics knows, New Mutants #18 was one of the issues that broke open the history of comics.
It was part of the 1980s revolution in comic art and storytelling that would culminate in 1986’s Dark Knight and Swamp Thing and Moonshadow and Watchmen.
I had seen 1980s comics before, when my boyfriend Paul lived with me and my mom in the West Village when I was fifteen. He brought a duffel bag with Frank Miller Daredevils and the Byrne/Claremont X-Men run. But I didn’t read them, then; just looked at the covers. They were sealed up in slippery poly-bags.
Me and P., NYC 1984
So when I went to Simon’s Rock I packed the New Mutants comic in my suitcase along with my long skirts and my bottles. At Port Authority I was drinking Midori from the bottle, calling P. from a payphone, so excited.
On the bus I took out the comic book. I hadn’t brought anything else to read. I was planning to be a children’s book illustrator or a fashion illustrator back then, career-wise.
I had dropped out of Stuyvesant and was taking adult ed fashion drawing classes at Parsons, waiting to be old enough to be admitted to the BFA program in Illustration. I wasn’t especially excited about becoming a commercial artist; it was just a practical career choice given my drawing ability. Commercial artists had job security.
Most of my energy and ambition in my teens went to finding beautiful boys and seducing them.
P. was my dear friend and sometimes lover, the only girl I’ve ever truly been in love with.
She was brilliant, absurdly smart – we met at Stuyvesant when I was a junior and she was a freshman- and in terrible pain. It was just a few months after her first hospitalisation, that day in 1984 when I headed to Simon’s Rock.
She had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, like her father and brother. They were both well into lifetimes of Stelazine treatment and disability, and that was certainly what the medical establishment intended for her.
I loved her profoundly, intimately, with a depth entirely unlike my relationship with my boyfriends and whoever I was cheating on them with. She was shy, furious, poetic, inhibited, intensely loving. We only had sex when I pulled a boy for a threesome or she was really drunk or I’d given her some pills.
But we were always physically close, always touching. She was queer as fuck, but she didn’t have parents who were like, “being gay is totally normal”, the way I did.She lived in Staten Island with her crazily messed up family, so she spent days at a time in the city, at the safe haven of the apartment I shared with my mom. And then she got a scholarship to this fancy prep school program, and I went to visit her.
On the bus I opened the comic book, and I met Danielle and Rahne and Sam and Illyana and Kitty and a red-haired girl named Rachel.
Later, when my friendship with Chris Claremont was known in the comics community, people thought he’d named her after me. But I didn’t meet Chris til 1986.
You probably can’t imagine, in the 21st Century with a million YA novels about disenfranchised traumatized gifted outsider teens out there, in a post-Buffy pop culture world, what it felt like to read The New Mutants in 1984. It was like coming home to a sanctuary I had only seen in dreams.
I was an obsessive science fiction reader, but I connected with the ideas, not the characters. Larry Niven never wrote about anyone who was my age and full of pain. In the New Mutants and X-Men, Chris wrote about how wounded teens could be at a loss for how to navigate the world and find a bearing with their friends.
The story in #18 was disjointed, haunting, full of bad dreams and traumatized teens on the run.
Rachel’s confusion about the timeline felt like my mornings after a blackout. Dani’s night terrors matched my own. The ending was terrifying, dark as hell.
When P. picked me up at the bus stop the first thing she asked was if I had her comic. “What IS this??! What the hell IS this??” I babbled at her. She told me she and her new friend M. had just started reading it recently, but were obsessed. Ah, M.- I would have been so jealous of how P. loved her, if she hadn’t been so fucking cool and easy to love herself. We talked about the New Mutants a lot that weekend, the three of us.
When I got back to the city I went and bought all the New Mutants comics there were- all 18 of them- and that led me right into the X-Men comics.
Of which there were 184 issues, plus Annuals and a couple of cross-overs. Getting my hands on those was a project. The X-Men led me to the rest of Marvel, and then within a year I found the TItans and they led me to DC.
In the Fall of 1984 I drew cartoon versions of the New Mutants and the Hellions featuring P. and M. guesting as “Scallions”. (I have no idea why the idea of them being onions was funny, but for some reason it was at the time.) Then I started…drawing the New Mutants.
By Christmas I was making up pages with them. And I had decided that Rahne and Dani were definitely going to fall in love, even if the writer didn’t know it yet.
My mom, always completely supportive of my obsessions and ambitions, had gone to comic stores all over Manhattan with a list of X-Men back issues I needed.
There were stacks of comics under the tree along with all the science fiction paperbacks. I gleefully tore open the wrapping on each one, incredulous- “You found #146?? Ma!!!”
I never cared at all about their condition; I just wanted to read them and look at the art.
My older friends came home from college for the holidays and I showed them all my new comic drawings. All I could talk about was comics. All my letters had been about comics.
Someone said, “Hey, you should do this for a living”. “Somebody has to draw them, right?” someone else chimed in.
I actually have a photo of me from that night. I had enough life experience at seventeen to recognize a moment when the forces of the universe gather around you and give you a push.
I was reading a copy of Playboy my friend John gave me because it had Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics in it! That’s John and Donna above, looking at my sketchbook of comic art.
When I turned 18 in January and matriculated at Parsons my entire career and educational plan was laser-focused on becoming a comic book penciller.
Which was not a popular idea in art school, then. I was pretty much treated like a crazy person for wanting such a low-brow career. Mainstream awareness of comics was a year or two in the future, when Dark Knight broke.
The amazing woman who ran the Parsons Illustration Program, I think her name was Debra Diamond, was friends with Art Spiegelman and Gary Panter, and she was cool with the alternative comics in RAW.
But superhero comics were considered unbearably lame. Genre comics were just not something real artists talked about.
It was a job you did as punishment, when you couldn’t find something else in the world of illustration! When you couldn’t find something more remunerative and more dignified and less laborious.
Although my teachers thought i was crazy for wanting to do comics, they loved how hard I worked and how I could draw like hell.
I signed up for every figure drawing class available, with the toughest teachers, and took night classes from comics professionals around town. I found the comic artists I loved and followed their work obsessively; my longboxes were labelled and sorted by penciller, not book. José Luis García-López. Steve Rude. Gil Kane. Alan Davis. Paul Smith. John Romita and JRJR. It was a litany of men, but I was confident i could be as good.
I bought every book my teachers recommended and spent hundreds of hours studying Burne Hogarth and George Bridgman (Andrew Loomis was out of print in those days, and pages from his books photocopied from library books were passed around between comic artists like contraband).
I started out terrible and I got better fast. I studied perspective like a maniac. Even though I wanted to tell stories about superheroes in love, I expected to have to draw a lot of buildings. The Marvel Universe was based in New York, after all.
In 1985 and 1986 I was chipping, doing heroin only on the weekends, and during the week I just went to school and drew.
I threw myself into the work like a demon. I wanted to draw comics more than I had ever wanted anything in my life. I think wanting it so badly is a huge part of why I didn’t die in those years. So was the saving grace of the New Mutants, the X-Men and the Teen Titans.
Loving something the way I loved those comics, changes you, I’m convinced. It’s a source of strength.
Having my mom back my dream 100% mattered enormously – soon I had my huge drawing table and lightbox set up in the living room!
I was so lucky to be at Parsons, where traditional drawing skills were still valued and where technical perspective and anatomy were still taught.
Every month I was reading more comics – I came to love as many DC characters as Marvel, and even a few independents like Nexus. But the New Mutants were closest to my heart. In a Special Edition of the New Mutants Chris gave Danielle a (flying) horse, and I was like, great!! I can draw horses!
Then he had her attacked by drunk bros and nearly raped.
I was enraged, and I drunkenly sent Marvel a telegram to express my feelings.
I meticulously explained to the telegraph operator over the phone how to address it to the specific letter column group for the New Mutants, “Report Card”.
There were precious few women artists working in mainstream comics in 1985. Maybe even less than now.
Glynis Wein was the colorist on the New Mutants, and Cindy Martin had drawn Star Wars, as had Jan Duursema, who’d also done a variety of superheroes at DC. June Brigman had created Power Pack with Weezie. Mary Wilshire had done Red Sonja. Marie Severin was on Special Projects at Marvel, drawing Fraggle Rock and Muppet Babies for Star instead of superheroes. Trina Robbins was working for Marvel’s Star imprint too, drawing Misty, a grown-up Millie the Model. Wendy Pini and Colleen Doran were doing popular and much-loved independent work, but I wasn’t interested in creating my own characters or the tiny reach of the independents. I wanted to be in the big leagues, to work for one of what have always been called “The Big Two”.
In ’85 there were some women on the production and editorial side, Weezie and Ann Nocenti and Bobbie Chase and Jo Duffy and Carol Kalish at Marvel, Jenette Kahn and Karen Berger at DC. Cat Yronwode was editor in chief at Eclipse.
Heidi MacDonald had put Chris on blast in the Comics Journal, and would soon take on Alan Moore. She’s still fighting the good fight. But in 1985, wherever I went in New York, whatever comic store or con I went to, I was the only woman.
In 1986 things started to change for women in comics. Mary Wilshire did several issues of the New Mutants, after Bill left, then got the Firestar mini-series. Colleen Doran was on the Legion, as mainstream superhero as it gets, and had drawn a historic issue that delved into trans identity.
Lynn Varley colored Dark Knight. Ann and Weezie were writing superhero stories. Mindy Newell wrote a Lois Lane mini-series. Cat and Trina’s book, Women and the Comics, got mainstream press. Trina became the first woman to draw Wonder Woman.
And comics as an industry was exploding.
New comic stores were opening all over the country, some of them even clean. The mainstream press was starting to write about the writers and creators who were changing the industry.
Storylines were getting darker, wilder, more mature. No one had done a mainstream comic with queer people in it, but John Byrne had wiggled around Shooter’s prohibition on gay characters with Northstar, and I believed the time was coming when you could show young lesbian mutants in love.
Which I just kept drawing! There was no tumblr, no deviantart, no Ao3; as far as I know I was the only person drawing New Mutants slash art in the 80s.
In February 1986, at a Creation Con at the Roosevelt Hotel, I met Chris Claremont.
I was working at a booth for my friends Chris and Gary who had a comic store in the Meatpacking District. I was walking back to the ballroom in one of my Betsey Johnson bondage dresses.
I recognized the man sitting on the hallway floor writing in a stenographer’s notebook; I had seen his picture in the Comics Journal. It was during a period when his writing was being dragged hard in the comics press (all two of it), both for its excesses and its problematicness.
“Whatcha writing?” I asked him brusquely. “X-Men plot.” “Is it any good?”
He gazed up at me, unruffled. I sat down with him on the carpet. and told him I wanted his job. I was nineteen and like Jim Kirk I feared nothing. I razzed him about the bdsm references in the X-Men. I was pretty problematic myself in those days.
Chris was thirty-four, and we became not quite lovers but passionate friends. He believed in my work. He treated me as a person he believed could work in comics.
“I don’t think of you as a fan, I think of you as a nascent pro”, he said.
His huge apartment in Riverdale was such a refuge, such a heaven for me. He gave me stacks of X-Men and New Mutants scripts, Marvel paper to draw on, walked me around the Marvel offices, which were a short walk from my house. In the summer of 1986, hanging around Marvel in my flowered Fifties dresses, high on heroin, wearing Keds and with huge skateboarding bruises on my knees, I was a unicorn.
One time we sat in the hallway at Marvel with Bill Sienkiewicz and I taught Bill the basics for drawing a horse.
What a time, summer 1986. I had a new boyfriend, a serious artist, who loved comics as much as I did, and he was so supportive and excited for me.
He wasn’t jealous of Chris, or P.. He took the picture of P. and I below, and came in the car when my mom drove me up to Chris’s. Every week Rob and I went to the comic store and got all our new books and sat down to read them together. Swamp Thing was our most special shared passion and my mom would tease us about reading a comic with such a silly name.
Everything was in place, but that’s not how life always works.
With P., summer 1986
I didn’t get to draw the New Mutants for Chris.
That summer I went to San Diego Comic-Con for the first time, at Chris’s suggestion, and although Chris looked after me as much as he could, everything fell apart.
At the Marvel 25th Anniversary Ball I sat with Chris and Stan Lee and John Romita, and a young artist from Eclipse got drinks from the open bar for me after I was carded. I had never seen an open bar before; I had three Long Island Ice Teas lined up in front of me at that table.
Later, blind drunk, high on pills and coke someone had given me in the bathroom at Dave Sim’s party, I was violently, anally raped in my hotel room by an inker.
That Friday in New York my amazing boyfriend died of an overdose, though I didn’t find out til Sunday night.
I came back to New York out of my mind with fresh PTSD and whatever shot i had at keeping it together long enough to actually work in comics was gone. It wasn’t ever much of a shot, then; I had an appointment with an addict’s bottom and the timeline just got sped up a lot. Chris held me while I cried hysterically during a Christmas party that winter.
“Take a taxi”, he’d say, and I’d take a cab all the way up to his apartment in Riverdale and we’d sit on the floor talking X-Men while the cats paced around us. Things I said showed up in the book, thrilling me. He kept giving me scripts. But I lost touch with him and everyone else once I became a daily heroin user, a year or so later. P. was in trouble too, on disability, heavily medicated, experimenting with cults.
By the time I got sober, in January of 1989, Chris wasn’t writing the New Mutants anymore.
He left the book in 1987, and what it became was…nothing that meant anything to me. But I still wanted to work in comics, despite everything, even if it wasn’t on the New Mutants, even though the scene was changing fast.
It was a harrowing, exhausting process to break into the comic industry from St. Paul, where I’d gone to treatment, and stayed on the advice of the halfway house. I was constantly travelling to the cons and being constantly sexually harassed.
That hadn’t changed at all, from ’86 to ’90. It was horrible, and some of the editors were fucking pigs.
The first Marvel editor who gave me a sample script mailed it with a letter on Marvel letterhead. The script opened with a splash page of a dead girl, and the letter commented explicitly on my physical appearance. Another (married!) editor asked me, in front of the San Diego Marriott, if he could masturbate in front of me.
There were so many more women around, though, and women were getting work as the full-time pencillers on monthly books. More comics were being published and sold than anyone had ever thought possible. I met people who helped me, people who backed me.
Rest in power, Kim Yale!!
There were men around who were clearly, obviously committed to helping women get work. Virtual hugs, Rob Simpson! I met a woman writer, Sarah Byam, and we became friends. I met a woman inker named Pam Eklund! I met Jill Thompson, who had Dave the Thune painted on her leather jacket! I never, ever considered giving up.
It took three more years, before an editor gave me a chance. In 1993 a woman editor, Margaret Clark, hired me to draw Star Trek The Next Generation #72.
And then a TNG Annual, and then the prize of prizes for a comic artist: the regular penciller gig on a regular monthly book, Star Trek The Original Series.
I did an issue that was inked by Pam Eklund, at my suggestion; it may still be the only mainstream comic ever pencilled, inked and edited by women.
In 1995 Chris had been doing some work for DC and we sat together at the DC table at the Chicago Comic-Con, signing comics, our faces blown up huge on a wall of monitors. It was good to see him.
And I was a pro, just as he promised me, just as I promised P.
Not very many people get to have their life’s ambition come true when they’re only 26.
Even now, less than twenty women have ever been full-time monthly pencillers for an ongoing book at one of the Big Two. I’m proud to be one of them.
Sadly, what safety there is for women is mostly the ability to name and share the names of bad actors in the system and protect themselves pro-actively.
But things have gotten a little better for queer and trans visibility in the stories themselves.
Shan, Karma of the New Mutants, is canonically a lesbian and even crushed on Kitty!* Northstar married his boyfriend in the X-Men! When DC refused to let Batwoman marry her longtime girlfriend, the creative team walked. Wonder Woman and John Constantine are canonically bisexual, at least right now. Iceman is gay! The new Aqualad is gay! And that’s just the beginning.
The comics I imagined, where teenage mutant girls can love happily even if the rest of their world is insane, seem within reach. If creators can just keep fighting the toxic forces around them and their own demons to tell those stories. I couldn’t; I had to leave comics. Today, drawing real people is the best way for me to tell stories. Teaching drawing is the best way to honor my teachers and the work I put in to become a comic artist.
But today, at least I can tell my story, and the story of how much I loved superhero comics. How they saved me.
How much I loved the New Mutants, in the 80s.
* Here‘s a beautiful piece about queer-girl subtext in the X-Men and New Mutants by Sigrid Ellis. In it I learned that in 2002 Chris wrote a series called Mechanix, where Kitty actually comes out as bisexual!
On Friday I was feeling a little shaky. So I went rambling around Friedrichshain in the just-a-bit-raw weather with Daria, and felt immeasurably better.
On the train I was working on the drawing of the violinist I started last week, (when we went to Dussman Cafe, pics soon), and then:
this guy with a pink accordozylophone thing got on!
Ninja drawing by Daria Rhein, photo by Daria Rhein
As I drew the guy I could hear Daria’s voice in my head saying “Don’t overwork it!”, just as I hear the voices of my teachers and mentors advising me at so many moments.
To be guided by the wisdom of artist friends is the best thing in the world.
We got china markers when we went to Modulor, because I hadn’t one for decades; here’s Daria’s first china marker drawing! I used a mix of greyscale marker and china marker on the musician drawings.
There is nothing, absolutely, nothing, like living and working around true peers for an artist.
Yesterday we went first to look at a possible flat for her and the adorable auburn-haired English lad. It was a really gorgeous perfectly reno’d altbau, in the absurdly desirable neighborhood around Boxy, about 700 sq. ft., rent about $750. Yes, you should still move to Berlin. Changes in the law meant to control rising rents appear to have worked, and you can still get an incredible place for what seems like nothing.
It is open in the front half to the incredibly charming handmade burlesque fashion design shop Redcat7, where a pink-haired gal manned the counter. One of the tattoo artists was working on sketches for a throw-up style tat; in the back Sammy, the designer and owner of Redcat7, was getting ready to be tattooed by Vivien.
They have benches and a tattoo bed and rests of every kind, to tattoo any part of you comfortably, and a big lightbox for composing designs, and a screened private area.
The walls are covered with framed art and there is a tag wall too.
After we rifled through all the pretties at Redcat, we walked to Aunt Benny.
It was a long walk, through all the charms of Friedrichshain, past the coolest shops and dive bars and eis cafes and music shops and print shops where people were making beautiful real screen prints like people do in Berlin.
We had to go in to Coexist Berlin, a totally amazing punk pastelgoth alternative fashion shop for local and European designers.
I told the lovely pastel-haired designer of Indyanna who was working that it was like a perfect flashback to Betsey Johnson’s first store in Soho, Manic Panic and Trash & Vaudeville in the 80s.
Indyanna designs included a biker jacket lined with blue leopard and appliqued with blue glitter flames I badly coveted.
Ragged Priest dress
I bought an insane Tyvek paper jumpsuit in Patricia Field in 1980 and it was just the kind of thing Coexist would sell. Daria wanted this mesh flame dress by The Ragged Priest for her next tattooconvention– comfy but rad!
Everything looked gorgeously fresh and delicious. We sat in a secret alcove in the secret corner room that you get to by going to the WCs. We discussed getting a visa so I could go to visit Moscow with Daria later this year and see the magnificence of her home town.
Spectral phantasmagori of my peripheral vision: journal drawing, winter 1981
I’ve always had a problem with the phrase “my rapist”.
My “Angry Unicorn” tag, journal drawing winter 1981
It attaches so much ownership and blame to what is actually an event that happened TO me, without my consent. It’s so much clearer to say “the man who raped me”.
Except I was groomed as a child to become a perfect assault victim, and my teenage alcoholism created a perfect storm of vulnerability, and so multiple men raped me.
Which means it’s not clear at all, to say “The man who raped me.” I can’t even say, “The man who raped me when I was fourteen”, and have it be clear.
So, one of the men who raped me when I was fourteen. The first one. Left a comment on my blog. Yesterday.
With a beloved friend and student, Charlottenburg Fall 2016
Rusty iron in my mouth, cupping my coffee cup for warmth, safe in Berlin, safe and loved, so loved, so strong, and still it sent an electric charge of nauseous danger through me.
He reaches out every few years, contacts me on social media, says he’s glad I’m doing well. That I wasn’t doing so well the last time he saw me. But never, “I’m so sorry”. Just say it. Trust me, it won’t solve the problem. You will still carry guilt and grief and horror at your actions.
But there is a tiny scrap of peace in knowing you have done due diligence at last.
I know how it is not to be able to say it. It took me thirty years to say it in one instance, to clearly and openly admit my guilt at the harm I did. And they say making amends lets you forgive yourself, but maybe sometimes it only lets you open your heart to the depth of the wrong you did or the loss you endure. And you just have to live with the depth of that wrong, just breathe it in and say “I am so sorry”. To the universe, to the family, to the spirit of that blue-eyed boy or girl.
It makes me furious that he always mentions how I wasn’t doing so well the last time he saw me.
Opening my 80s and 90s journals box to write this piece, Berlin 2017.
Well sure I was a mess, I was a fifteen-year-old alcoholic and drug addict whose live-in boyfriend had just tried to kill himself in front of her and been locked up at Bellevue! I am an addict, a person with multiple disabling diseases of the mind and body, and me being that doesn’t make me a lesser person, or excuse the harm you did.
My alcoholism did not make me complicit in the violations that occurred to me.
That is, I continued to see, and had sex once or twice with, Evan, the first man who raped me when I was fourteen. For several months, until on an early Summer day in 1981, I replaced him with a gentle lover, Teo.
I was so incredibly happy that winter of ’81, when I first met Evan. The happiest I had ever been.
On January 8, 1981, my fourteenth birthday, I woke up with a clear decision in my mind.
I would try one more thing before I killed myself: becoming a drug addict.
It seemed totally reasonable; I could not endure my feelings and the pain I was in, but drugs offered a way to manage those feelings until I had more resources.
I was somehow sure that if I made it to adulthood, got away from my father, I would be able to get tools to be happy.
With GIlly and other cherished friends, Abington Square Fall 1981
So I walked into Tony’s coffeeshop next to Stuyvesant High School, and asked where the kids with the drugs were. I found Gilly, and she took me to my people.
I had Found the Others, at only fourteen. Decades later, living in the Bay Area, I met a lot of people who hadn’t Found their People til college, or ’til they moved to San Francisco. As a New Yorker I was incredibly lucky, and it surely saved my life. My people were the last group of Stuyvesant Freaks, who hung out in the east half of Stuyvesant Park, doing drugs and listening to the Dead.
I immediately began taking all the chemicals of every kind I could find, as well as drinking. But my people didn’t drink much; they were Deadheads, and psychonauts, and hippies. So my first serious forays into drug use involved a lot of psychedelics and pot. I was stoned all the time. I smoked pot all day, and I took speed and acid with it.
My new best friend Jenny, who like all my new friends was a junior or senior, was so disappointed that I was still a virgin.
She had lost her virginity at 14, and wanted to be able to talk girl talk about sex with me. Falling in love with her, day by day, it became even more urgent to me to get rid of my hymen. I loved Jenny, I wanted to be lovers with her, but she was straight, and I couldn’t even tell her.
We roamed the park in a mob, only afraid of the Guardian Angels.
The park, shunned at night by everyone but criminals in 1981, was our huge playground. One night, high on acid and jug wine, I broke my ankle falling from the Frisbee Hill rocks. My friend Billy carried me to the huge Upper West Side apartment of one of the sweetest and kindest of the Music and Art kids, an adjunct tribe to our Stuyvesant Freaks.
In the morning I woke up and realized my ankle was broken; my mom took me to the hospital where it was reassembled with a pin.
And I had a cast and crutches. Plus a vague sense that smoking pot was turning weird for me.
Inside journal cover, Winter 1981.
But I was still deliriously happy, because my friends were amazing. I had briefly run away the previous month, and my divorced parents had agreed my mom would take me away from my father, to a place of our own. She had found a place, on leafy Abington Square in the West Village. We would move in together in May.
A week after the surgery, now pretty mobile on my crutches, I was back at the Music and Art guy’s place for a party. I had promised Billy I wouldn’t drink this time, so my friend John suggested a nice bowl. I smoked with him in one of the rooms of tie-dyed laughing singing teenagers, the huge flat’s endless rooms filled with our people, our beautiful brilliant gifted people. (You never knew where the parents were.)
But the high went wrong, it filled me with terrible paranoia, and suddenly I felt wildly unsafe and terrified.
So John let me drink a bit of wine, to take the edge off. My friends were three and four years older than me, there was no-one my age around, and they were experienced users. I started drinking. Billy, a gentle drug-dealer who genuinely cared about me, yelled at me. I went into the bedroom of the host guy (it grieves me I no longer remember his name, maybe David or something) where I had spent the previous Saturday night struggling to get up and dance while Billy held me and explained that my ankle was hurt. The host’s room was crowded with our people, and small; the kids always got the maid’s rooms in these flats.
I was sitting on the floor, looking across at a boy I knew playing guitar.
His name was Teo, and he would become my first boyfriend. He was wearing a white embroidered cambric shirt from India, open at the chest, and he was playing “Blackbird”; his long dark curls tumbled over his shoulders. I was drinking whatever bottle was passed to me. I was so happy and so full of love for the world I’d stumbled into. I blacked out.
I came out of the blackout kissing someone. I pushed him away to find out who it was.
Age 14 or 15, on Abington Square
It was Evan, a senior who I had bought acid from once or twice. Blue Dolphins, maybe. He was a graffiti writer, and tall and slim and beautiful, with brown eyes and long golden-brown hair in a ponytail. He looked like a hippy version of Shaun Cassidy.
I found him quite acceptable as a kissing partner; he was on my mental list of guys I found hot, “candidates”. He was eighteen, a little old, but that was ok. We were sitting in the window, and it was dark; the room was empty and silent. A lot of time had passed, obviously.
I kissed him some more, and we decided to go to my place. In the lobby we were kissing, me on my crutches, him holding me up I suppose, and he pulled away and said, “Look what you’ve done to me, you goddam little nymphomaniac!”.
I had a vague idea he was a vegetarian or Buddhist or something, and I thought possibly he had committed to celibacy for some spiritual reason.
So I thought perhaps what he meant was that i was seducing him into unwanted carnal feelings. I did not fucking care. It was April, it was Spring, young people had boiling sap for blood and missing out on desire was obvious foolishness.
We caught a cab the long way down the West Side to Chelsea and walked through the dark apartment, past my father’s bedroom and through the living room where my brother slept. We went into my tiny bedroom and got on my single bed, and started making out again. At some point there were less clothes, and I was backed up against the wall at the head of the bed. My head was angled against the wall, I was propped up on my pillow, and suddenly his naked hips and his erect dick were in my face.
He shoved his cock in my mouth, and I bit him. Pretty hard, I think.
I was offended as hell. I was raised by hippies, and the 1950s idea that women should provide oral or manual release service to men to avoid having further intimacy was tacky as hell to me. I wasn’t there to get him off; I was there because I liked boys and I wanted to do sex with boys. He pulled away yelping in pain, rocked back on his heels, and said, “Alright, I’m gonna fuck you then, you bitch.”
I looked him in the eye in my dim bedroom, and I said, “See if I care”. And he pulled me down onto the bed and did it.
It hurt quite a lot. I blacked out again at some point, and of course I was very intoxicated, so luckily I missed some of it.
All my life ever since I have drawn strength from that moment, the moment when my brave-hearted fourteen-year-old self met ugliness with brio and courage. I have always been proud that I stood up to him in a spirit of sarcasm and New Yorker sass.
And I have always grieved that I didn’t wait just two months longer, til the sunny summer day when Teo and I made love in my new West Village bedroom together. But I might not have had the courage to boldly seduce Teo – which I certainly did- if I hadn’t had the confidence of being devirginized. And Teo was a bit of a geek, he would never have made a pass. So it goes.
In the morning Evan was odd and awkward; only now do I realize he might have been a bit of an Aspie. He demonstrated his most impressive physical skill, the lighting of a match from a book with his toes. Probably to light my cigarette; I smoked Marlboro 100s in the gold pack back then.
He got dressed and picked up my white Princess phone and wrote down the number written on the metal place. “That’s not my number”, I said. It was the number of a very bad boy I had loved in 8th grade.
He asked me for my actual number and I gave it to him. I walked him out, past my brother and my father, and locked the door. There was blood on my sheets, not too much, and I was still pretty drunk.
I did not want to discuss the matter with my father, though he gave me an inquiring leer.
The first time a boy had spent the night with me was on March 16. That boy, Gerardo, had not had the resolve or perhaps the ability to wait, and it had ended in his messy ejaculation, though I would certainly have had sex with him. After I walked him out my father had wanted to know if I was finally having sex, and did i need birth control; I had been able to evade him and say no, which at least was a good thing.
I could not wait to get to school and tell Jenny. I had beaten her by a couple months; she was almost fifteen when she lost it.
When my mom drove me to school I told her I needed birth control, and she made an appointment for me with Dr. Wolff on the Upper East Side. The camaraderie with Jenny was glorious; we sat on 15th st. in the Spring sun giggling together.
Evan sorta stuck around for the next couple weeks, in a weird, embarrassing and embarrassed way. He would come out of school and sit with me at lunch ( I had long since stopped actually going into the school building, and went straight to the park with my friends each day.) He would sit near me but not really pay attention to me, and Billy would kiss me hello but Evan never did.
I felt like he was ashamed of me, which made me furious. Then he invited me to dinner.
I was still on crutches, so we took a taxi. I wrote about the evening in my journal (seen below) for my beloved English professor Roger Baronat, who adored my writing and treated it with great respect while never cutting me slack for skipping class, finals and homework.
I have transcribed it here. You can see I was not in any way a normal fourteen-year-old. And also that the Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson I was reading were bad influences on my early writing style.
Well. Evan said he wanted to cook dinner for me, so after school (after his– eighth – school) ( I didn’t go) it was a beautiful sunny day and we stayed, in the park, for a bit – so many people! – mmm – then found a cab (takes a while – going downtown? – they yell over their yellow doors – ) and directed it to Brooklyn. Wide-eyed, enchanted and happy I looked over the bridge – ships! ships! Look, look, see the masts? see the dock? See the sailboats? Oh! Look! This is Brooklyn? How come? Suburbs? My god, you live in the suburbs?
‘Don’t look now’ (where?) ‘but my dad’s right behind us’, said Evan, and I turned with my chin on his shoulder to peer out the back window of the checkercab. Green car. Hee. hee. heeheeheehee…’Don’t wave.’ ‘No?’…Looks like my dad…– beard-brained, ponderous, charming and soulless — trees and crowded houses, quiet streets, wonderful Victorian turrets and formica ranches – driveways and cars and bikes — oh Evan, the air smells good! – the country!! Taxi-cab driver don’t know where he’s going so we walked a sleepy lawny block, down a path — a patio, no less, fancy me going in through a screen door after fourteen years of bolts and locks? Kitchen a tribute to TV commercials and floor wax America over, but Evan’s room is just like every teenage dope fiends’ and cluttered, postered and unmade. Jimi Hendrix Experience poster on the ceiling above his bed – now I couldn’t cope with black orpheus medusa snakes above my head every night, but that’s me. I won’t go near a lay-up either.
Anyhow – we went and sat outside, sun going down, by the garden, huddled close for warmth, and then went back inside so Evan could cook. Well I did the best I could to help, and now and then his dad harassed us, and his mom came home, as sweet and soft-smiling as you could possibly imagine, soft brown pageboy hair falling over her cheeks, tall and still graceful though in a weary way; laid her head on Evan’s shoulder, for a moment aglow with creator’s awe at this tall lovely creature who was yes, her son and was now cooking dinner —
She was a little bit drunk from champagne at her office, (to celebrate an account or somewhat) and as she fixed her scotch-and-water and sat back she told us how they’d had a beastie, a chameleon, named Camile, at the party. I never quite understood why but it was enough that it had been there, crawling among the vino-damp cocktail napkins on the desks pressed into bar service, and that she’d taken pleasure in its glowy, gentle eyes and soft tummy, iridescent tail and little feet.
May 8, 1981 journal page
Since the journal was for Mr. Baronat, who knew that I was a drug user and graffiti criminal but had perfectly good boundaries about sexuality with his students, I did not mention the sex.
After dinner we went into Evan’s bedroom and he had sex with me again. I told him I had an appointment soon to get birth control, but he didn’t care one way or the other. I looked up at the Jimi Hendrix poster as he pushed into me. “Lie there and think about pizza”, Jenny said, about sex that wasn’t fun.
It hurt again, and I rocked my hips, trying to get comfortable; he hissed, “Up and down, not side to side!” I was mortified; not a good start to my career as a femme fatale. Later his dad drove me home to Manhattan. For one night it seemed like maybe he was going to be my boyfriend. But things went back to the weird not-quite-hanging out at school.
And my mom and I moved in together, to our own place, where I had a nice bedroom and a double bed and was safe from my father.
Evan came over one last time after I had my cast off and my diaphragm (Dr. Wolff, who had delivered me, said I was too young for the pill, too young for tubal ligation and he was terrified of IUDs).
We had sex in my grown-up bed, actually naked, and he actually went down on me and acted like a lover. But it was not thrilling.
There was no intimacy, it was just awkward, and I was really pissed about every single way he was an asshole.
I knew he wasn’t what I wanted, and a week later I was with Teo. And with a half dozen other boys and men by October.
A quote from Gilly, written in my Fall 1981 journal.
Me age 15, with Paul, winter 1982
Evan stopped by six months later, after my live-in boyfriend Paul had slashed his throat with a razor and been hauled off to the Psych ward, after I’d embarked on a course of self-prescribed compassionate leave involving bottles and bottles of Valium obtained with forged prescriptions. Evan yelled at me about not going to school, about my drug use, and gave me a beautiful airbrushed piece of art with my name graffiti-style.
He seemed to be trying to tell me he was sorry without ever saying the words, in the 80s.
In the later half of the 80s I learned he was dating a very vulnerable and fragile sixteen-year-old friend of mine, doing Dead tour selling t-shirts with her. Figures, I said to myself.
In 2008 or so he tracked me down on Facebook. Said he was glad I was doing ok, since I wasn’t in such good shape the last time he saw me. In a sober spirit of full accountability for my own sexual predation, my decades of rage at men and the time I might have had sex with a boy below the New York age of consent at 20, I did not judge him. But I could be pissed that that was the tack he’d choose to take, and I blocked his ass.
“Hi Rachael, your blog is incredible, and very powerful. Glad to see you are doing well.
He left it on this post! About making amends! Where i state quite clearly that:
“The people I knew and who knew me, well, that’s up to them, and they haven’t made much progress to date.”
Jesus! Just say you’re sorry! The statute of limitations has expired!
I did horrible things in the 80s. I cheated like crazy on my sweetest boyfriends. I hit them. I froze them out emotionally when they just wanted to love me. I seduced boy virgins endlessly, thirteen in all, avenging my trauma by giving them the consent and attention and gentleness and passion I didn’t get, a night they would never forget. And then breaking up with them.
In the 80s, if you wanted to be a sexual adventurer, you paid a high price. The ratio of sexual trauma to adventure was very high, a friend my age once told one of our young women friends. Dark magic was all we had. Our desire was dangerous as hell to us.
We swung the cannons of our young bodies, firing broadsides. I suffered great harm, and I did terrible harm. Let there be healing for all who can heal.
Me and Daria at KaDeWe, November 2016. She said today,
“As for the guy, take it as they neither can live free from what they’ve done. They are evil in this story although they caused this evil not just to you but to themselves, if it’s still haunting them.”
I used what may be my last scrap of silver velvet, some old-gold colored wired organza ribbon that I bought with a coupon at Jo-Ann for my first wedding, and gold tulle.
Plus my favorite Black Pearl metallic thread from Rico Design, which is the only good metallic embroidery thread available in the world.
And two citrine Swarovski crystals for her eyes, some brass rhinestuds, a scrap of teeeny gold dollmaking braid trim, and plain dark green cotton thread, doubled, carefully stitched around the border of the design.
Using a fine dark thread to go around the edges of important shapes really helps me control and refine the line, I highly recommend it.
It’s especially great where a regular back-stitched embroidered line butts up against a satin stitch area. The tiny needle you can use for a single strand of floss or regular thread means you can stitch into the satin stitch without disturbing or spreading it, yet stabilize it at the same time.
I also added brass stud stars, both to reference Wonder Woman iconography and because I love studs.
When I was a child, about seven to nine, I had a babysitter I adored. Her name was Melissa, and although she was a hardcore drug addict and a total flake, she was so mellow and gentle with me. Some friends of her and her sister Nadine had a clothing store on 8th Avenue between 20th and 21st, a funky hippie store where everybody hung out. I don’t know if they ever sold anything but drugs.
Sitting on the floor in there under racks of fringed and embroidered and patched rocker clothes impacted my aesthetic so much.
There was a barrel of studs for your jeans or jean jackets, all different shapes and designs, stars and moons and pyramids and other shapes I can’t quite summon. Like, a barrel- they must have bought them by the kilo at some surplus place. I would run my hands through them, gently so the points wouldn’t poke me.
I felt completely safe there. Years later the clothing store friends became famous Deadhead t-shirt silkscreener artists, and I went to a party at their loft on 14th st. I came home drunk at dawn and gleefully told my mom about their huge ball python Clyde who had cuddled me. They were such nice people, and such incredible artists.
Melissa died in a motorcycle accident in Hawaii in the 80s, and I still think of her with love and remember her gentle grace, which bent like a willow in the crappy world of 70s New York.
Everything you do or see or feel goes in the hopper for creative work.
Everything I remember, here in this safe-at-last place, surfaces and turns and shines under the light. I don’t know where the synthesis will take me. Or what the meeting point will be between painting and drawing, the skills I trained a decade for and made a career in, and the making things I’ve always loved.
This is one of those Berlin moments that kind of confused me.
It was a Saturday late fairly late, and this guy was eating a sandwich in a white Tyvek jumpsuit. Was he a homeless guy, with his possessions in his cart? His cart also contained folders of papers and cleaning products, maybe he works in the subway system?
I couldn’t tell. I snuck behind the elevator shaft and drew him through its glass walls. Then I finished it a month or two later with the new greyscale markers one of my beloved Friend-Muse-Patrons gave me for my 50th birthday!
I saw this woman last week on the U-Bahn. Everything about her took me back to the 80s.
It was an older train, she was in the classic straphanger bookworm brace position, she was reading an 80s thriller and wearing the same kind of puffer coat my mom wore in the 80s. Puffer coats came back in style a couple years ago, and I am glad because they are so fun to draw.
We’ve had a few undesirably hot days here in Berlin, and today was the hottest.
I bought a portable A/C from a Brit who was leaving town last year, because we don’t do well with heat. I set up the A/C in the library and painted the hubbin while he did whatever he does on Reddit.
This watercolor thing is getting to be FUN. Probably if I’m gonna keep doing it I should buy a better watercolor block than this one from the stationary store around the corner, and maybe some real watercolors. Maybe even a new Windsor & Newton Series 7 Sable, nobly though the one I bought when I was at Parsons thirty years ago has served.
Maybe I should actually take a class and learn HOW one does watercolors.
I had one class where we had one watercolor assignment, in school. Unfortunately I didn’t think painting in colors was worth my time, then; it was just an useless tangent for a person who was going to be a comic book penciller and have a colorist to take care of such things.
So I did a sloppy job of the assignment, and showed up late and drunk to class, with my very drunk boyfriend Richie tagging along.
My teacher was furious. I felt at the time that he was furious about the banal quality of the green grass I’d painted. It seemed like he was just really disgusted that I’d painted such bad grass. But I know better now. I still think the grass really bothered him, but I bet it bothered him more that I had wasted a priceless opportunity to work and learn.
I forgive you for yelling at me, Parsons teacher whose name I’ve forgotten. I forgive you for being a medium I didn’t know how to use, watercolors. I forgive you for being drunk and sloppy when you were 20 years old, Suz.