I ran feral for five or six years in my early twenties. These are years my family knows little about. Oh, I sometimes share a few impressive incidents here and there: the solo bike ride across France against Le Mistral wind; my year as a topless dancer and drink hustler in San Francisco; that time in Yugoslavia when I picked up a sailor, was stranded on a Croatian island, and got bitten by a bat. And too many of my stories begin with, “I had this one boyfriend who . . .” My daughter Annie just rolls her eyes.
Sometimes I feel odd that I’ve relegated those formative years to a few funny, adventurous, and salacious stories that sound good in retrospect, provide anecdotes for parties, and thicken my fiction. I usually skip over the hard parts — the confusion and the loneliness, the mistakes. Sometimes I haul out a story as an object lesson (“Whatever you do, don’t try Speed. Trust me.”) But really, I’m not sure how much my daughter really wants to know about those times, anyway.
I’ve rarely asked my own parents about their own Missing Years, those years between living with their parents and living with me. “None of your damn business,” my dad would probably say. And my mother, if she answered, might tell me graphic sexual details. No thanks. I’ll stick with the tantalizing hints they’ve already dropped.
Hints about my mother’s Afghani boyfriend (“That whole family had the most beautiful white teeth, and they brushed them all the time”) and about my father’s live-in girlfriend in Paris. I know my grandparents got together at a Sadie Hawkins dance, she in her early twenties and he in his mid twenties. She lived in a little room with one source of electricity — the ceiling light — and all her cords plugged in there, festooning the room. I imagine them coming home from the dance, making love in that little room, her baby (my mother) living in Nebraska with her parents so she could stay in California and work as a labor organizer . . . but I’ve painted this from a blushing moment my grandmother once shared with me, a single image of those electric wires.
Maybe we’re not meant to know too much about our family’s past or to share everything with our children. I don’t want to tell my daughter everything about those naughty years, those sad years, those years when sex was the main thing, and too many friends were junkies, the years before I was an adult but after I was a child. Before I was a parent. Her parent. Yes, I want to be open, but some of the things I did aren’t much to boast about — actions driven by heartbreak, insecurity, greed, irresponsibility. Those experiences are hard to talk about, except those I’ve already codified into stories: “The Bike Ride.” “Stripping.” “The Yugoslavian Sailor and the Bat.”
Childhood stories are easier to share. I’m comfortable telling my daughter that I was a good child, interested in school, passionate about reading and writing and drama. I’m even okay telling her I was not always an obedient child, that I sometimes stole, often lied, and occasionally cheated on tests. I love telling her about how in fourth grade Anthony punched me in the stomach after I accidentally made him fall into the wastebasket. (“Do you know what ‘revenge’ means?” “No, Anthony, I don’t! I don’t want to know! Please!” KAPOW!); about my black-and-white poster of kidnapped Patty Hearst as “Tania” standing spread-legged with a beret and machine gun in front of the S.L.A.’s seven-headed cobra flag.
But those private years, those independent years between 18 and 25? Those years of excitement and misery are my black hole of stories. Because I was me, and I wasn’t yet the “me” that I am now. I’m kinder, gentler, more honest, happier now, and that’s the “me” I’d rather have my daughter know.
At my grandmother’s memorial last year, I spoke with a perky, sexy, white-haired woman in her eighties. Her eyes sparkled. “I used to date your grandfather,” she said. And her hips gave a little wiggle and the corner of her mouth turned up. “Before he and your grandmother were involved,” she assured me. Before the Sadie Hawkins dance, I thought. Before that night of electric cords and a small, rented room.
My grandpa attracted gorgeous women. There was a story there, a special one, more than sixty years old. I was entranced, but I didn’t ask for details. It wasn’t the time or the place. Instead, I let the story unspool in my mind.
I’m a writer, I write my life. I tell more than most, but during my Missing Years I had adventures that were only for me, and these stories I’ll keep to myself. Anyway, some stories are truly more powerful when hinted at, shown in fragments, left largely untold.