About the Author
Sarah Tomlinson is a Los Angeles– and Brooklyn-based writer. Her writing has appeared in publications including Marie Claire, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Salon.com, and Vol1Brooklyn.com. She has ghostwritten nine books, including two uncredited New York Times bestsellers. Visit her online at SarahTomlinson.com and follow her alter ego, Duchess of Rock (@DuchessofRock), on Twitter.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Good Girl chapter one
BACK TO THE LAND
We were building the house we would live in forever. The two-by-fours rose like a ship’s mast against the still, blue New England sky. I squinted into the sun watching, feeling the adults’ anticipation swell. It was our house. We were making it ourselves: my mom, her boyfriend, Craig, and me. Helping us were members of the community we’d formed with three other families in the woods of midcoast Maine that spring of 1979.
Where there had been nothing but forest and swamp, there was now a clearing, a home. Dressed in denim and flannel, the men called back and forth to one another beneath the wooden skeleton. I stood nearby, clutching my Raggedy Ann doll, trying not to get in the way. At three and a half, I was tall for my age, unathletic and pale, with crimson-brown hair and heavy, reddish freckles across my cheeks and the bridge of my nose.
One by one, the men removed their hands from the beams and stepped away. The timber stood straight and true. Everyone relaxed and laughed and paused to have a drink of water. Even with just the outline drawn, it already looked like a house.
At day’s end, we camped in a tent. This little orange triangle felt like home, as we had begun staying there on weekends the previous year, clearing trees and brush to prepare for the build, and then pouring cement for the foundation. After that, Craig went by himself to pound nails on weekday afternoons, until we were ready for the group effort of the house raising. During the week, we lived in an apartment an hour away.
When she’d left my dad the previous spring, Mom had moved us up to Augusta and taken a job at her friend Lou’s health food store. She soon reunited with her college boyfriend, Craig, who had been living at home on the Jersey Shore, working at his family’s flower shop and as a carpenter. He joined us in our new life.
The idea to go back to the land had first taken root among a small circle of my mom and dad’s like-minded friends, including Lou and Dot, whom my parents had met before I was born. Mom had inherited a little money from her grandmother and wanted to buy a piece of the hundred-acre plot the group had found in Maine. But my father, who had become a compulsive gambler soon after my birth, would not agree to the plan. Believing deeply in the chance to create a better way to live, and realizing she would end up on welfare if she stayed with my dad, my mom left him in Boston.
My mom and dad had met at the Trenton Public Library in 1973, where Mom worked after graduating from the West Virginia liberal arts college Davis & Elkins. My dad had recently washed up at his mom’s apartment after hitchhiking back and forth across the country, emulating the Beat writers he adored and dropping acid 120 times. He was tall and loud, with a thick, dark beard and a shambling laugh, and he smelled musky and exotic, like sandalwood and myrrh.
A photo of my parents appeared in the 1973 year-end issue of LIFE magazine. They’re kissing in the crowd at the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, a music festival with performances by the Grateful Dead and the Band. One of only two photos that exist of them together, it sums up their union. Blown together by a frenzied cultural moment, they had a passionate relationship that could not be sustained. And they had me.
Their connection was already troubled when Mom became pregnant. When my dad proposed, she said no, later telling me that she refused him because she believed in marriage. When my dad learned I was on the way, he redoubled his focus on est, a seminar devoted to personal transformation, hoping to become the man and father he knew he was not. I was born in January 1976 at a farmhouse in Freedom, Maine. My dad said I came to him in a dream during Mom’s pregnancy, and I was born two weeks late so I could be an Aquarius. Mom took my name from Bob Dylan’s song “Sara,” which, tellingly, was written for his wife during their divorce. My father insisted I have a home birth, having read how important it is to ease a child into the world gently and with love.
That summer my dad left Mom and me alone at the farmhouse with no car, miles from the nearest town, and hitchhiked to Boston to attend a review seminar of the est training. Although he had never been drawn to gambling before, he went to the track and won a hundred dollars. And then he lost a hundred dollars.
When he hitchhiked back to Maine and told Mom, she was devastated. He was not otherwise working, and they had almost no money. In lieu of paying rent, my dad had agreed to paint the farmhouse, but the owners weren’t happy with his work and we had to leave in a hurry. We lived in a big domed tent in the yard of some friends, and my dad worked for Lou, helping him break down a stone wall for a masonry project.
That fall my parents relocated us to Boston. My dad drew on the connections he’d made through rebirthing to find a sublet in Somerville and a job driving a cab. Rather than being warned off gambling by his first failure, my father had stirred up a fierce compulsion. Mom held on, staying home with me while my dad lost money and drove extra shifts to allow him to spend more time attempting to make up for his loss. And then, realizing he would never change, she left.
After we had been in Augusta for a few months, Mom told me that my dad was coming to stay with me while she and Craig went camping in Baxter State Park with college friends. The anticipation built and built, and then, he was there. The moments I remember of my father—like this one—are vivid with detail and emotion because I saw him so infrequently and cherished our time together. It was overwhelming, almost too much, but I moved toward him anyway. When he bent down to hug me, I pulled back before he did, knowing even at three not to seem needy or provoke his guilt.
My dad took me to St. Augustine’s, the Catholic church across the street from our apartment, because he wanted to check it out. I felt very small as we crossed the road, which sloped steeply down toward the river.
I let my father lead as we climbed a flight of steps carved from the same pale stone as the building’s exterior. It was so big and fancy that I held my breath as we went inside. I didn’t understand what it was, but I didn’t dare ask.
My dad paused and surveyed the scene. “Far out,” he said.
He looked down at me. I smiled, uncertain, but happy to be with him.
“We’re going to visit all the churches of the world,” he said.
“Okay,” I replied.
Okay was my response to whatever my dad said or did. I could tell how hard it was for him to be around Mom and Craig, and even me, although I had no idea why. It seemed as if he were about to spook and bolt like one of the horses at his beloved racetrack, and I knew that if he did, there was a good chance he was never coming back.
Before it seemed like the visit had really begun, he was headed home to Boston. There was no stopping his leaving, nothing to be done. As soon as the door closed behind him, my attention became fixed on the next time I would see him, and on how we would do, together, all the things he had promised.
A few months later, I was coloring a picture on the floor of our apartment. My real focus, though, was on my father, who was coming to visit me that day. He would be there any minute. The phone rang in the other room. My mom’s face grew clouded. But she had become a master at the smooth facade, and she smiled at me as she went to answer. I could hear the low murmur of her voice, but not her words. Anxiety bloomed inside of me. When she returned, she sat next to me on the floor, down at my level.
“Sarah, your dad can’t come up this weekend,” she said.
I didn’t look at her, intent as I was on coloring absolutely within the lines, controlling my exterior even more rigidly as my feelings began to riot.
“Why?” I said.
She paused for a long moment. Still, I kept my eyes down, holding on tight.
“He has to work.”
“He’s going to come see you as soon as he can.”
Soon was not now. Anything beyond now was impossibly far away. I wasn’t hearing her anymore. I was running to my bed, taken over by the flash flood of tears I only allowed myself when he was not there. Mom let me cry until I had exhausted my tears. There was nothing she could say to comfort me, or to explain, but she never spoke badly of my father, either. She let it be between him and me.
In the fall of 1979, when I was three and a half, I was invited down to Boston to visit my dad in the big city where he lived, where I wanted to live, too. I was taking stock from the moment he parked his cab. His apartment was on a short, dead-end street in Somerville. I studied the drab vinyl exterior. So this was where my father spent his time instead of with me. I followed him up the dark, narrow stairwell to his second-floor apartment, absorbing every detail as he swung the door wide, revealing a life that was as strange and wondrous as I’d always imagined it to be.
He turned on the kitchen light, upending my sense of reality. The lightbulb was red and bathed us in an intense, surreal glow like Christmas gone crazy. The kitchen wall above the table was a giant collage of newspaper clippings and health food store greeting cards with photos of sacred locales in India and Asia, and illustrations of mandalas and the Buddha. I drew close. I’d seen these images on the cards my dad sent Mom, sometimes with forty or sixty dollars, more often with an excuse, only mentioning the track when he’d won, always blaming his lack of money on his taxi shifts.
He was already bopping into the next room, lighting incense. I followed him, breathing in his particular scent of essential oils and the musty paper from his many notebooks and the racing forms and new age magazines he read. I followed him into the living room. He pulled the chain dangling from the lightbulb. Even though I was prepared this time, the blue light that bathed everything in an aquatic chill was still startling.
With my gaze, I traced the yellowing Scotch tape on a crack in the living room window. Although I’d been too little to remember it, we’d all lived here together, the family I wanted us to still be, Dad and Mom, and me. But now my dad lived here alone. I lived far away with Mom and Craig, who struggled to mask how little he thought of my dad. He wasn’t like my father, who focused on me with flattering wonder during our brief visits. Instead, he could be aloof and short with me, as if he didn’t know what to do with this intense little girl he’d suddenly found himself helping to raise.
My dad took me out for Japanese food, the tempura batter crunchy on the broccoli and carrots—unlike anything I’d ever eaten. I fumbled with the chopsticks but didn’t ask for help. Instead, I did my best to mimic how my dad balanced his on a little dish of soy sauce, which had the magical feel of a child-size tea party.
My father leaned in.
“Do you like Joni?” he asked, inquiring about one of my parents’ friends.
I looked at him with surprise.
“Daddy, I like everyone,” I said.
My dad laughed his big, shuffling laugh, and I puffed up with joy.
After dinner, my dad walked me through the city streets. I marveled at each cab and building and person. We arrived at a big lurking structure, which shimmered inside with twinkling lights and the salty allure of hot popcorn. It was a revival movie house. Sitting beside my father, I thrilled at the bright, happy chatter of Singing in the Rain, loving how the characters spun around light posts and twirled their umbrellas.
The next day, my dad took me to the place he had, in a way, chosen over Mom and me—Suffolk Downs racetrack, or Suffering Downs, as he later told me it is called by those in Boston wise enough to avoid its grinding gears. My father was easy amid the frantic sea of strangers, who jostled each other as they hurried back and forth across the wide, barren space—like a city train station without the excitement of an impending trip. He ran into a friend and, barely introducing me, bent down to listen eagerly as the tiny man spoke. I trailed behind him as he made his way to place a bet at the window, his racing form folded under his arm. During our visits before, he’d been intent on me, and I didn’t like how far he seemed from me now. There was no magic in the horses, or the jockeys’ bright satin uniforms, or the pomp and circumstance of the announcer’s voice over the loudspeaker. Everything was gray and dark and cold.
Not long after I returned to Augusta, Mom called me to her one day. “Your dad sent us a letter,” she said.
I leaned against her as she read it out loud in her soft, clear voice:
“Halo Lovelies, Oh Sue I’m so sorry, I’m finally in touch with my irresponsibility, it’s what I’ve wanted to feel lately, because I have been doing things all along and not feeling them, and I kept thinking I know I do these things, but I don’t feel it like I used to and now I do, it’s great, and I get the only one I really hurt is me. So now I am living and breathing and digging (loving) everything. I know it will take a while to straighten everything out, but it will be easier now, now that I’m here doing it, instead of wanting to do it and feeling sorry that I wasn’t.”
The message ended with a description of how charmed he was by our conversation over dinner. “She’s such a blessing and I’ll be up as soon as I can.”
The majority of his letter had been way beyond my understanding. But I felt like my efforts to behave well had been rewarded, and I was happy to have made a positive impression. Even if he hadn’t realized he couldn’t stand to be away from me, which was my ultimate goal. And that meant more waiting.
As much as my separation from my father pained me, the life my mom and I were leading in his absence was actually running smoother than ever. After our house raising, the building had come together in fits and starts. By 1980, the construction site was our home, and we lived on the land with three other families, whose six kids were my first friends. The seven of us were given free reign to run back and forth through the woods between the houses, where our parents could rest assured that all of the snacks would be healthy and vegetarian, and we’d be encouraged to play outside whenever possible and only watch educational TV. The men had jobs off the land, but there was always a mom home somewhere, and I remember a safe feeling of being watched over.
Designed to heat itself with sunlight during the day, our house had four big skylights across its roof and four big windows in front. They looked out onto the yard Mom and Craig had cleared. It seemed I was always standing at one of the windows, careful not to get too close because the glass was chilly, even in summer, and I had been warned not to smudge it. My father’s promise of a visit “soon” had extended into more than a year, but today he was really coming to see me. I watched intently for the flash of yellow through the sun-dappled trees that would signal my father’s taxicab, doing math in my mind—it took three and a half hours to drive from Boston to midcoast Maine. If he’d left at nine, then he would be there by twelve thirty, or maybe one, depending on how many stops he made. I hummed with anticipation and joy. His cab should appear any minute, and he’d be there with me, just like he’d said.
Our house was like my sibling. We grew up together, intertwined. A ladder of two-by-fours nailed to the wall gave way to stairs, which we...
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