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  • Joan Schweighardt

Five Directions Press Authors Dish: When I Was 21 (Part 1)

Updated: Nov 15, 2020

At our last virtual watercooler gathering, we discovered that we all have this in common: Twenty-one was a transition year for each of us, and not just because it was the beginning of adulthood: Here is When I Was 21, Part One, with When I Was 21, Part Two, to follow next month.

C. P. Lesley: Twenty-one was a big year for me. I graduated from college, got my first job and first apartment, met the man I later married. And I acquired a marmelade kitten that I named Arthur. He turned out to be the first of a series of cats, one of the best—and one of the longest-lived. In the end we spent sixteen years together, and one of my few regrets is that if I’d known then what I do now about feline health, I could probably have enjoyed his company for a couple more years.

I’d never had a cat before; my family was big on dogs. But I brought Arthur home, took him upstairs to keep him safe from the current dog (whom he later terrified, but that’s another story). I had a baby gate set up to keep him inside, but although small enough to fit in my cupped palms, he promptly pushed through the gaps. I carried him back and set up a barrier; he extended his tiny claws and climbed it, teetering at the top of the gate as he stared at the perplexed Scottish terrier below. That marked the beginning of our relationship.

Arthur loved to take part in the action. He welcomed people, including my future husband (also a cat person). When I danced, he rolled around on the floor near my feet as if taking part. He “tended” our houseplants to the brink of destruction, ripping baby spider plants from their mothers and tormenting philodendra. In later years, when we lived on a campus, he followed us as we strolled in the evenings. He brought us dead mice and stray frogs—even a bat, on one memorable occasion. On the day our apartment caught on fire, he hid under the bed. The other cat was terrified into immobility, but Arthur came out as soon as he heard our voices. By the time he passed away, I’d reached the next stage of my life. Yet he remains inextricably linked in my mind to those early adult years, when everything seemed possible but nothing felt certain, because I was still making the choices that would define my future.

I have many great memories of the year I turned twenty-one. Not all of them belong on the Worldwide Web, which barely existed when Arthur came into my life. But wherever he is now, I think he might rather enjoy being an Internet star.

Gabrielle Mathieu: We were the coolest poor people I knew. My boyfriend played bass in a band. He had once bunked with the members of Black Sabbath, and also once lived in a trailer where he shot up heroin. How glamorous! Plus, he had a British accent. The best. Of course, he didn’t really have a job, other than sitting around in a used bookstore, looking through out-of-print books and occasionally helping customers. But I couldn’t call being a checker at the grocery store much of a job either—even if it was an upscale store—particularly for someone who had been courted by colleges like Smith. At twenty-one I was a glamorous college dropout.

We did have fun, when the Brit and I weren’t fighting. In our crowd, there was exactly one person with a reliable car, an older man who had a job that actually paid a living wage at Southern Pacific Railroad. He would pick up me and the boyfriend, and the keyboardist for the band, a very short gay man who was my best friend and confidante. We would beg him to take us to a dive restaurant that was open day and night. It was called Lupita’s. You could get monstrous servings of liver or mountains of enchiladas for very little money, with bottomless cups of coffee. That, and the fact that it was always open, meant it attracted a lot of beat cops too. It was a thrill to wonder if they would confront me (totally wasted as I usually was) while I scarfed down my food or, depending on what drug I’d ingested, pushed it listlessly around my plate until my boyfriend asked me if he could eat it.

There were the times our friend had to work and couldn’t take us out. We had no stove, only a portable hot plate where the Brit would make “a cuppa tea.” We would take whatever we had in our pantry—which was never much, maybe some eggs and garlic—and walk over to my best friend’s place. He was usually home because he didn’t have a car or a steady job. Home was a partitioned-off space in a large factory-style building that functioned as a wholesaler of floral supplies. It wasn’t noisy, but since his tiny living space was made out of aluminum siding, it did get quite hot, despite air conditioning. He would cook whatever he had around, plus whatever we brought, and somehow, that would work. If we were feeling extravagant, we would splurge on the Texan favorite, Shiner Bock, rather than the cheapest beer, Pearl—which, despite the nice name, tasted like muddy, fizzy water.

Was this fun? It doesn’t sound like fun. All I can say is it was totally unlike the environment I grew up in. I grew up in a very clean place with pale carpets, fluffy Persian cats, and scheduled, well-balanced meals. And now I was experiencing the opposite of that. It was liberating. I didn’t die, the earth didn’t swallow me up, the dump where we lived didn’t go up in flames; we weren’t even arrested.

I wish I could say I made friendships that lasted a lifetime, but that’s not the case. I moved on, and now, decades later, I rent a lovely flat in a turn-of-the-century house with my very exacting husband. It costs thirty times what my rent in the dump did. We shop at the farmer’s market and go into paroxysms of excitement when we sample a fine Pinot Noir or a decadent chocolate truffle.

But I don’t regret being twenty-one. I can honestly say I’ve lived a full life.

Joan Schweighardt: When I was twenty-one, I ditched my present and set off into the future, with E, my best friend at the time.

I’d lived a sheltered life till then; I’d made all my many mistakes from the same northern New Jersey county where I was born and raised. When E called and said she was moving to Fort Lauderdale, I was knee deep in the beginning (and the end, as it happens) of what I knew to be a bad relationship. Moreover, I had a full time job that required me to spend hours in stop-and-go traffic and then turn up the radio and look the other way when my married boss’s married lover came by for “lunch.” I was naïve; I didn’t see a way out until it was offered.

Since Fort Lauderdale was 1,300 miles away, I sold my car, a Pontiac Lemans with a reverberator (big in those days) to my father, whose own car had exceeded its life expectancy, and off we went in E’s car. Though E had ventured as far as Connecticut for college and I had experienced bliss on the beaches of Puerto Rico for one whole week, neither of us had ever really gone anywhere or done much of anything. We’d grown up the same: Catholic-school girls from a lower-income neighborhood with overly strict, old-fashioned mothers. We were thrilled to be heading into the unknown. Me and Bobby McGee, Hit the Road Jack, Leaving on a Jet Plane, Bye Bye Love, Bye Bye Blackbird, Born to be Wild, Marrakesh Express: we sang them all, loudly, every song we knew that was about making change, moving on, saying goodbye. Our throats were raw before we even crossed from North to South Carolina.

We reached Fort Lauderdale and came upon a vacancy sign for a small apartment right there on A1A, right across from the ocean, and we went in and rented it. (The manager failed to tell us it was a seasonal rental and the monthly fee would increase fourfold in a couple of months.) We filled the refrigerator and cabinets with the few foods we knew how to cook and set out to find a job—the same job, because we only had the one car, and until I had a job, I wouldn’t have enough money to buy a vehicle.

E had a degree in nursing; I hadn’t finished college yet, but when I did I’d have a degree in English Lit. We bought a newspaper and poured through the classifieds. Let’s see, we said, What job will satisfy E’s need to heal and Joan’s to speculate? And then we found it, the perfect job: recruits for a detective agency! We interviewed over the phone, explained to the Private Eye that we only had one car, and agreed to his hourly rate. Done! He promised to call as soon as he had an assignment for us.

In fact, he called later that night, late, when we were already asleep. “Does one of you have a camera?” he asked. I did. I had a very cool Yashika Twin Lens. He wasn’t impressed. He wanted us to drive to a certain motel and take some pictures. We didn’t have to break down the door or anything like that; just sit in the shrubs and shoot the occupants of a particular room as they were leaving. Okay, we said. (After years around nuns, we were too well-mannered to say no then and there. We had to work our way up to it. Once we did, we called back and quit.)

Life went on. E got a position in a hospital and I got a throwaway job I could bus to and eventually bought a secondhand car and found a college where I could continue my studies. E stayed eight years in Fort Lauderdale. I stayed a decade. And though the path I got there was roundabout and very bumpy, it eventually landed me precisely where I wanted to be. I will always look back in fondness at those three days spent singing songs about, essentially, transformation, and of course I will always wonder if E and I might have actually made good sleuths.

Images: Arthur dancing © C. P. Lesley; Mexican food and Sleuth from Pixabay (no attribution required).

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