We arrived at my mom’s apartment, 1129 ½ High Street, above a day care center. Off the stairs going up to the apartment was a little room off to the left. Inside was an attic-like space with bare beams and a small window. It was meant for storage but made a nice little room for Mike to stay in.
Up the stairs and around to the right was the kitchen, with room for a table and chairs. The bedroom and living room were off the kitchen, in that order. There was no hallway, one simply walked through each room to the next. That meant that Mom had little privacy.
It was a nice apartment. There was linoleum in the kitchen but the bedroom and living room had wood floors. There was a large braided rug in the living room. The bedroom had a large walk in closet with a window.
We arrived late Monday and there was little time before we all settled in for the night. I slept on my sleeping bag in the living room; Mike was in his little attic hideaway on his sleeping bag. We made out for awhile before I was expected to leave and go to my room.
When we got up Mom was already awake and we set about cooking something we could eat—most of Mom’s supplies were for a meat-based diet. She gave us some money so we could get supplies for cooking our own food. On a tight budget, we bought lentils, milk, rice, flour, butter, oil, yogurt, and a few vegetables. We made dahl, rice, home-made yogurt using the yogurt for a starter culture with a gallon of milk, and puris. I had tried to learn about cooking Indian food before I went to the temple, and had observed some cooking in the temple, but this was my first chance to really learn how to cook. We had a lot of fun cooking together.
I spent the evening making out with Mike. It was all we could do to stop when Mom told me I had to go to bed. All night it was all I could think of. Finally I felt ready to lose my virginity, and I was feverish and anxious to get past this nerve-wracking step. What would it be like? How would I feel about undressing and being seen for the first time? Would it hurt?
As soon as Mom left to return to work that next morning I went into Mike’s room. I was wearing a nightgown with no underwear beneath it. When Mike saw me he opened his sleeping bag and motioned for me to join him.
Soon we were kissing and the next thing I knew, Mike had pulled up my nightgown—without removing it—and was ready to enter me. I was a little startled that it was happening so fast because I had read so much steamy romance and soft core porn that I pictured quite a build up to this stage. But here we were and Mike was quickly pushing past the resistance of my hymen and after a few brief minutes and some pain it was all over. He used the “withdrawal” method of birth control, he explained.
I was a little stunned and I thought, “So that’s it? That’s all it is?”
In fact, those words were running through my mind the rest of the day. I made a note of this important date: April 21, 1976.
During the day we cooked and talked and walked around town. I showed him the main city park, Rand Park by the Mississippi river. As we were walking around the park that evening we talked about our future, about marriage, and we reached an understanding that we were going to marry. He didn’t so much ask me as speak as if it was a given. He talked about “Gandharva marriage” where the kshatriya carries off a woman who is then his wife. He was very excited about the position and role of kshatriyas in the varnashrama system of ancient India. He talked a lot about his study of martial arts and guarding Srila Prabhupada, as he’d had the opportunity to do.
As he was talking I was still thinking, “So, that’s all sex is? I’ve waited so long and that’s all it is?” Most of my girlfriends had had sex much younger than I. I don’t know what I expected, but nudity, foreplay, and an orgasm were among my feverish imaginings.
We settled into a pattern of having sex in the mornings and throughout the day while Mom was at work. We did finally get around to removing our clothes–he pulled a blanket away from me when I was too shy to reveal myself–and Mike showed me other positions. The first time was strictly missionary. I was insecure and wanted to be sure I pleased him.
“What do you like?” I asked Mike.
“I don’t want to freak you out,” he replied.
“I won’t freak out, tell me, please,” I pleaded.
“I will someday, when the time is right.”
I suspected he was referring to oral sex and so I talked to Aunt Gin, who had always been open-minded about sex and whom I saw as experienced. I asked her for some pointers, and she gave me some good ideas and also talked to me about birth control. I told her about his idea of the withdrawal method and she explained why that didn’t work. I got some contraceptive foam at the drugstore.
Soon I surprised him by going down on him and doing some of the things my aunt had suggested. My jaw muscles hurt, so it was more difficult than I suspected. But I was haunted by the fact that he’d had a skinny girlfriend before me, that his first wife was thin and beautiful, and that his former girlfriend Elaine was a model. I felt pressured to do more, to give more, so that he wouldn’t leave me for a prettier girl. As a young fat girl I hadn’t expected to find anyone who would love me. Now that love had struck, like lightning, I didn’t expect it to strike twice. I suspect that was part of the reason why I didn’t question that this was going to be a marriage. I felt compelled to make it so, to hang on to him so I wouldn’t end up alone.
So in spite of the pain, I kept going down on Mike and he grew to expect it from me, pushing my head downwards. It became both a means to orgasm and a form of foreplay for him—though foreplay for me was still rather lacking. As I continued to perform oral sex the pain subsided. I guess my jaw muscles stretched. I was happy and proud to be improving my technique and paid close attention to his reactions so I could gauge the effectiveness of each new thing I tried. Looking back I suspect men have paid a great deal of money for the quality I provided for free.
When we weren’t cooking or having sex, we talked for hours and hours. Mike shared his books with me, books about going back to the land, living off the grid, about beachcombing, and traveling cheaply. He knew a devotee who used to make catamarans, and one of his ideas was that we would travel the oceans on a catamaran, free and easy, moving from island to island and harvesting the fruit. It sounded so cool and romantic and adventurous. I was swept up in his vision but sometimes mundane details would occur to me. What about tampons? What about money? When I broached these questions to Mike I remember once he got frustrated.
“You American women,” he said, “you’re all so spoiled!”
Was I being lumped together with his former wife and girlfriends? I noticed he didn’t really answer my questions. I brought the issue up another day.
“Oh, there are natural things like sea sponges. Women were taking care of these things long before tampons were made.”
This ticked me off but I buried my resentment. I didn’t want to rock the boat.
He was expected to get a job and so one day we went down to the unemployment office. I waited in the front while he was taken back to fill out forms. When he came out he seemed relieved to see me.
“That was weird—I really missed you. That’s the first time we’ve been apart that long.” He looked really surprised to have reacted that way.
“We have been spending every waking moment together.” I said. “It makes sense.”
It was spring in Keokuk, everything was in bloom, and we were in love. We cooked and talked and made love all day long, planning our future. Every love song on the radio seemed to be about us and I sang with them all. I had never experienced any of this before. It wasn’t the first time I was in love—my eighth grade science teacher was my first love—but it was the first time I was loved in return. It was a heady experience and I floated around on a wave of euphoria. I didn’t know about the “love chemicals” back then, but my brain was awash in them. I remember that summer Diana Ross released a song called Love Hangover that expressed my feelings exactly: If there’s a cure for this, I don’t want it, don’t want it.
Mike met the rest of my family and if they had doubts they didn’t say anything about them for once. My grandma did say “thank the Lord he’s white” because she had feared I would follow in Aunt Gin’s footsteps and marry a black man. I never ceased to be amazed at the racism of my grandma. I certainly hadn’t fallen for Mike based on his skin color!
While I was back in my home town I got in touch with one of my friends, Jeanne Long. She was in a relationship with a boy named Ray. I was shocked to find out that he was hitting her. I couldn’t imagine why she’d put up with this for a second. She was such a strong-willed person. It was hard to picture. I of course told her I didn’t believe she deserved such treatment and urged her to leave. She was afraid to leave him, worried about what he’d do to her if she dated another boy. She was still in high school and this was my first exposure to domestic violence and the fact that it could take place during teen dating relationships.
I told Mike about this and he was shocked at this boy’s behavior too. We both thought she should leave him.
Mike got a job at the rubber plant in town but it didn’t last long. He hated it there. He started talking about going back to Chicago and finding a job there and sending for me when he got one. Mom was beginning to resign herself to the idea that I would be leaving with him at some time, and was saying when he got a job she’d sign the papers so we could marry. She also pressured me to take the G.E.D. test so I could go to college. I went ahead and took it and passed.
In May Mike decided to return to Chicago, so he got on a bus one day and we bid each other a tearful goodbye. I wrote frequent letters and we found a way to call long distance that didn’t cost us anything—a total scam. I no longer remember the details of how we did this but it was something he taught me. I knew he had a history of criminal activity and that he had been involved with grand theft. I didn’t let this phase me because I believed passionately in redemption and figured we’d end up “surrendering” together at a temple some time. Certainly his past activities didn’t matter any more and he’d become “purified” as a devotee.
I couldn’t stand to be away and after just a few weeks I wanted to join him. Mom decided to move to Chicago to be close to me. I tried to talk her out of this because she had a nice apartment and job in Keokuk and Mike and I were talking about moving to Los Angeles. She was determined, however, and quit her job and packed up her stuff. We were soon on our way to Chicago together.
It turned out that Mike’s mom wouldn’t let me stay at her house, so Mom and I ended up in a studio apartment together. It was the summer of 1976 and we attended the bicentennial fireworks display in the park. It was amazing!
Mike found a job and we hoped to move in together as soon as he had money for a place. Things were tense with my mom and it was clear I couldn’t stay with her much longer. She was moody and I never knew when she’d blow up at me, once trying to punch me in the head. Mike had taught me some martial arts and I blocked her, pushing her back away from me. I ran outside to cool down. Another time we came in to find that she’d broken the conch shell he’d given me to pieces. He’d modified it so I could blow it like they did in the temple, and we’d blown it once. Mom’s excuse for breaking it was that the neighbors might complain and get us thrown out of our apartment. Mike’s theory was that she was haunted by ghosts, because ghosts are driven away by the sound of a conch shell. They made her break it, he told me.
One night Mom was complaining to her friend about Mike and said something about him that really offended me. I don’t remember what but I was very angry. I had a handful of pennies I was counting and I threw them across the room, not directly at Mom but off to the side. I guess this embarrassed her. She just exploded in fury, yelling and trying to hit me. I blocked her and hit her back by reflex. This only enraged her further and she started pulling my hair, yelling, tearing at my shirt. I was mainly trying to stop her from pulling my hair out and pushing her away. Her friend was telling her to stop and I broke away, grabbed my purse, and ran out.
I was calling Mike on the pay phone in the lobby when Mom’s friend came in and offered me some money. I tried to turn it down but she insisted and of course I needed it for bus fare anyway. Mike told me to meet him at his mom’s. When I got there he told me he had a friend we could stay with. His mom still wouldn’t let me stay there. His friend, Rita, had told him she had a big apartment with an extra room and that he could stay there if he ever needed to.
We spent the rest of the summer with Rita and her boyfriend. Mike was at work during the day and I cooked dinner for him in the evening. We tried to get my stuff back while Mom was at work but she’d had the locks plugged and left me the following note saying I could pick up my things after she returned from work and that she’d talked to the police regarding her rights. She accused me of attacking her! Mike went with me and we got my suitcase and sleeping bag plus my Beatle albums while Mom looked on, grim-faced. I don’t remember if she said anything. I had never been as angry with her as I was after that fight. I didn’t care if I ever saw her again.
Mike and I talked a lot about which temple we should go to and after meeting up with Swarupa as he went through Chicago on his way cross-country, we decided on Los Angeles—New Dwaraka as the temple community was named. We arrived by plane on August 11th, 1976. No one asked to see a marriage license. We were afraid if we told anyone we weren’t officially married they’d separate us for having a relationship that wasn’t arranged in a temple (maya, in other words). This robbed me of a wedding fire sacrifice according to Vedic custom. A fire sacrifice wedding is a very beautiful ceremony and I was sad not to have my own.
We spent a couple of nights with Swarupa and his family while he arranged for an apartment for us. The temple owned some apartment buildings and the devotees also rented from landlords who were friendly to us. Across Venice Blvd. there was a Spanish-style apartment building at 3816 Watseka, and a devotee named Nalinikanta and his wife Ratnesvari were moving out. Swarupa told us we could have that apartment and we met with the managers, Jack and Mary Miller, who were a little surprised that our stuff was already there. We’d assumed they already knew about us. Once we explained our confusion they understood that we’d meant no harm. They were always really sweet to us.
Mike found service with the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, across the street from the temple. He would be doing computer typesetting at night while guarding the building. Srila Prabhupada was translating at a rapid pace, trying to complete the work on two multi-volume scriptures while his health deteriorated. The Book Trust felt that the only way to keep up was to have typesetting done night and day. For Mike’s service we received our rent and a $100.00 stipend per month to cover our expenses. I had been writing to registered members in Chicago and Swarupa arranged for me to meet with his boss and propose that I officially be given this service. He lobbied for me to also be paid but we were turned down.
Since we’d arrived with our clothes, sleeping bags, and little in the way of cookware, the $100.00 per month turned out to be difficult for us. We really didn’t have everything we needed to start out as householders. Perhaps we should have asked for a one-time allotment to get a few pots, a broom, and an iron. I remember cooking meals in our two quart saucepan. I’d make the dal, a split pea or lentil soup, first. Then I’d pour it into a large bowl and cook the rice. Our plates consisted of a stainless steel pie plate and cake pan. We had two spoons, butter knives, and forks, and I had one small paring knife to cut all my vegetables with. We had two stainless steel cups to drink from.
To match my husband’s schedule, I stayed up all night. We attended the morning program and then went to sleep. The evening program was our morning. It was completely the opposite of what everyone else was doing and this made our social life difficult. Still I managed to make a few friends and found old faces in the temple as Midwestern devotees joined the New Dwaraka community. Almost everyone in the building was a devotee.
I dived into domesticity and delighted in mending my husband’s clothes and other household arts. By night I wrote to new members and continued my correspondence with others, answering their questions and offering them spiritual counsel. I repeated the things Swarupa had once written to me or the things I had learned in my own reading of Bhagavad Gita and other scriptures. I sent recipes and shared bits of my life with them. It felt strange advising members, who were often older than I was, but I was firmly convinced of the truth and effectiveness of this yoga of devotion to Krishna, and I was moved to share it with others.
I missed Deity service, however. I couldn’t think of any way I could engage in service to Rukmini and Dwarakadhisa. I was sleeping all day—how could I do any of the tasks I had previously engaged in if I was not awake when others were? I never developed the same level of attachment to Rukmini-Dwarakadhish that I had felt for Kishora-Kishori. Also, at New Dwaraka women were relegated to the back of the temple, far away from the Deities. This really bothered me.
About a month after we’d arrived in New Dwaraka, Mike’s friend Ken came to visit. He was thinking about joining the community but didn’t want to live directly in the brahmacari ashram. He stayed with us for a couple of weeks. This caused my first fight with Mike. We had a studio apartment and the strict rules of male-female relationships forbid me to be alone with a man who was not my husband. Yet Ken and I were sometimes alone at the apartment, and on more than one occasion one or the other of us needed to take a shower.
The dressing room and closet were just outside the bathroom, and we were not allowed to wear clothes that had been in the bathroom into the temple room in front of the Deities. However, the dressing room only had a curtain to separate it from the living room. I felt very self-conscious trying to dress and worry about the man on the other side of the curtain.
After a few days I thought that maybe I should just stay with the brahmacarinis until Ken found a place to stay. It seemed like the perfect solution and I figured the guys would be more comfortable that way. I got together some clothes and told Mike that I planned to sleep over there while Ken was apartment hunting.
Mike stormed over to me and knocked me down! Ken was there and looked at the floor, embarrassed to witness this altercation. As I started crying he left and Mike calmed down and apologized. I explained I wasn’t leaving him! I didn’t think it would be a big deal. I thought it would be better for everyone if I just slept somewhere else.
I was really shocked that he’d knocked me down but I thought it was a one time thing because he was afraid I was running out on him. I tried to put it out of my mind and concentrate on being a good, chaste wife according to the Vedic principles of our scriptures. I knew I had a lot to learn but I was head over heels in love with my husband and wanted to be the best wife I could be. I thought it was perfect that I was a virgin when I met him and that I would die having only ever been with him. I tried to behave without reproach when in the presence of other men. I wanted to do everything right.
We weren’t supposed to be having sex unless we wanted to conceive a child. I wavered between trying to follow this strictly and giving in to my good looking husband. I hated myself when I fell down from the ideal. I thought everyone else was able to do this but us. I can’t believe how naïve I was back then! Although I’ve met some former devotees who say they were chaste within marriage, most admit they weren’t. Of course Mike was having trouble with this too. Sometimes I’d wake up with him on top of me, pulling my panties aside, insistent on having sex. It was impossible to turn him away at that point.
As months passed we fell into a disturbing pattern. Mike would become distant and almost completely stop talking to me, absorbed in his books about living off the land, dropping out of society, herbal medicine or martial arts. I would try to get his attention until he became angry at me, hitting me several times with his fist. I learned to be wary of his temper yet I felt so abandoned that I would finally risk it.
He began to say I was haunted—that explained why I would bother him like that. We did a kind of exorcism with offered incense and chanting, ringing bells and blowing a conch. The cycle continued, and sometimes other things I did sparked violence. He would be very sad afterwards and apologize and ask me why I made him do it. At other times he could be so gentle and thoughtful and I was confused. How could the person who made me herbal teas when I had stomach pain be the same person who hit me with his fists or knocked me down?
The neighbors had to have heard it but said nothing. I was troubled and I remember reading a Reader’s Digest article about how marriages go through rough patches and you may feel like you no longer loved your husband, only to fall in love all over again. I was reassured by this and believed we’d make our marriage work. We didn’t believe in divorce and I didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of the women in my family.
Grandma had two husbands before she married my (step)grandpa, Mom had two failed marriages and Aunt Gin had three. According to my religion, these marriages failed because the women weren’t submissive. If I could just be surrendered enough, my marriage would work. I just had to keep trying to be a better wife. My husband was my guru and I had to be a more submissive disciple. Then he would have no reason to hit me.
Looking back it is easy to see how much I had to learn about the dynamics of relationships, abuse, and how our respective dysfunctional families impacted our marriage. I was trying to figure it all out at the age of 17 with no previous experience with even a boyfriend, much less a husband. Neither of us knew the first thing about how to create a healthy relationship or get our needs met. We had no one to teach us these skills, either. We just muddled through on our own, looking to scripture and the public examples of other devotees as a guide.
Kiss me once again
Don’t you never, never, never say that we we’re through
Cause I ain’t never, I ain’t never
I ain’t never, no, no, loved a man
The way that I, I love you
–Ronnie Shannon (sung by Aretha Franklin)