I took a month off work and went to South America with my boyfriend. He had been setting up seismographs in the Andes to graph earthquake activity near a proposed dam site. In the office in Medellin where he sometimes had to prepare reports, the secretaries brought in trays of coffee every morning at ten. "Blanca o tinto?" they would ask. With milk or black? We travelled as far as Arequippa, an old colonial city in southern Peru. At the center of town the domed towers of the church of Santa Catalina loomed above the white walls of a convent, recently opened to the public after a secrecy of 500 years. Beyond the barred gate, where before only women could go, another city was revealed. Cobble streets meandered along alleyways of whitewashed walls, with here and there the blaze of red geraniums in terra cotta pots. Over the open doorways names were painted in large letters. M. Manuela Ruiz. M. Ines Suarez. The residents had been wealthy widows mostly, those with enough money to set up house in the convent, perhaps with a maid or two, all sworn to live out the rest of their days inside the walls of this city of women. In the sun-blazed courtyards, water dripped from glazed tile fountains and deep shadows cooled the columned cloister. Here the daughters, wives and mothers of Spanish viceroys, bankers, and soldiers of fortune read their catechisms and Lives of the Saints, prayed and gossiped while maids scrubbed the linens in the stone basins of the outdoor laundry. No soldiers, no bankers, no royal viceroys here. It became clear to me then that not all convents were prisons for women. They could also be clubs, a sort of secret society of women; they could be places of freedom. I wandered for a long time in the empty city with my camera and the ghosts of Santa Catalina. I returned to find my boyfriend slumped on a bench outside the gate in the throes of an appendicitis attack.
The boyfriend survived. The relationship didn't. Back in Berkeley, I decided it was time to finish my education. At 30, I re-enrolled in the university. In four years I completed the BA and the Master's degree. In the department where I matriculated, half the students were women. None of the faculty were. A law suit was soon to change the peculiar demographics of that department, but I saw little to recommend the academic life to me. Two of the women I knew from those days are professors now. Most of the men I knew then are now closing in on tenure at prestigious universities.
It's been a long time since my first job as Cashier in the Rexall Store at the Charleston Center mall. So long that my resume now consists of only one in five of all the jobs I have had. But there is just one job that I remember with affection. I loved that job. For two reasons. The first was that I got to write. And the second was we were all women. Well, there was one guy but he sort of blended in. No one at the state agency was much interested in the project we were working on - a compendium of natural resources, culture and history of the California coast. For four years we went unnoticed--researching our topics, editing each other's pieces, compiling an illicit diary of workplace gossip, goings on, and ribald comentary on the Wang computers, and getting underpaid. It was lovely. When the project was done, we all got laid off. No raises. No promotions. Wonderful.