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October 30, 2016

This is What it Means to Lead a Quiet Life of Courage.

Suhyeon Choi/Unsplash

Courage is being yourself every day, in a world that tells you to be someone else.” ~ Unknown

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When I was in junior high, my mother made arrangements for me to be a “Lady’s Companion” to a middle-aged, single woman who worked as an engineer with my dad.

“Miss B” lived in a third-floor apartment in Palos Verdes, California. The neat, 1950s living room had a commanding view of the Pacific Ocean, and looking north, you could see all the way to the Redondo Pier.

As a “Lady’s Companion” I was expected to clean Miss B’s house, do the laundry, clean out the cat litter, iron, walk to the grocery store and buy the groceries, cook and serve dinner. I don’t ever remember eating dinner. But I do remember cooking and serving it while Miss B ate, a book propped up on a reading stand in front of her dinner plate.

Miss B would leave for work in the morning before the sun was up, would come home after the sun went down and was never without her nose in a book in between.

I really never figured out why my mother called me a “Lady’s Companion.” Miss B didn’t need a companion. She needed someone to keep house for her.

“I’d like you to start reading one of the three books I left on the counter in the kitchen,” she told me one day. “We can discuss what you read when I get home.”

Miss B read about one subject only.

The Blessed Mother.

I never in all my junior high years had any idea there were so many books written about the Blessed Mother.

It was really boring.

But I dared not do other than what Miss B instructed. After all, she was paying me to be her “Lady’s Companion”—or rather, I should say she was paying my mother. I never saw a penny.

During the day, after I read the requisite chapter in the book, had all my chores done and all the shopping done, the table set, the litter emptied and the dinner started, I learned the meaning of true boredom.

The additional books on the shelves, with their pious pictures of the Blessed Mother in about a thousand different permutations, didn’t interest me in the least. I would leaf through them, hoping to see something besides the pabulum that passed as veneration on page after page of each book and go mad with lack of stimulus.

Against all instructions, I did one of the most daring things I had ever done in my life.

I decided to leave the apartment.

“It’s too dangerous out there by yourself.”

“You can’t go alone to the pier.”

“Don’t even think about going to the beach, you could drown.”

There were a million reasons why I wasn’t supposed to leave the apartment, and for the most part—at least for the first two or three weeks—I stayed put.

But after a while, when I finally figured out that there was absolutely not going to be a change in routine and that being a “Lady’s Companion” would kill me if I let it, I left.

I walked right out the door, down the stairs, and headed straight for the beach.

In fact, I did it more than once.

I loved the freedom of being outside in the actual air.  Walking right beside the ocean all by myself was absolutely exhilarating, and I spent my time in daydreams about the kind of woman I would become, the kind of books I would read—that would have nothing to do with the Blessed Mother—even the kind of car I would drive and the job I would have at Hughes.

I loved it. I loved being alone in the big world with the big dangerous beach where anything could happen at any moment right beside me.

I hated going back to Miss B’s apartment and one day walked the entire three miles or so to the pier.

The day Miss B caught me was the day I walked right by the restaurant—the big, shiny, Italian restaurant with glass walls that overlooked the Pacific Ocean that I fantasized about being able to afford to eat in one day—and she saw me.

“What was she doing inside a restaurant in the middle of the day?” I wondered. “She must have been sitting at a table by the window.”

But there were no tables by the window. There was only a bar. A bar that looked out over the beach. A bar that, when I went into it years and years later, I realized was why Miss B left so early in the morning and came home so late at night.

Miss B was a drunk. Or so I thought.

That night, the night she caught me, my suitcase packed and locked in the trunk of Miss B’s olive green Studebaker, she was driving me home when she told me that—well, she didn’t tell me anything actually…she blackmailed me.

“If you tell your mother where I was today, I’ll tell her you weren’t any good at keeping house or at cooking and that you broke things and that you poisoned my cat.”

If I hated Miss B before, I really hated her then, her and the cat I wished I really had poisoned.

I think I even hated the Blessed Mother.

All these 60-plus years later, I have wondered why I remembered Miss B in particular. My mother had sent me to live with many families. Places she called “Opportunities That Will Be Fun, You’ll Enjoy It, You’ll See.” Most of them, though, I didn’t remember beyond the fact that I went.

And then, one night recently, my husband took me to a restaurant on the Pacific Coast Highway outside San Diego that looked in my mind’s eye just like the one from my childhood. It was Italian. It had a glass wall overlooking the ocean. And it had a bar.

In fact, my husband and I sat at the bar and from that bar, from behind the calamari and the wine and the pasta, I told my husband the story of Miss B and—I swear—I could see her there looking back at me.

Then, mid-story, I suddenly remembered something I had entirely forgotten about for decades.

I had always known that Ms. B had a secret. The entire summer I stayed with her, I had known.

“But her secret wasn’t alcohol,” I told my husband. “It was more than that.”

I was 11 or 12 at the time and didn’t even know that her secret had a name. But I knew it.

Miss B was a lesbian.

I felt sad for Miss B that night at the bar when I told my husband about her. I felt sad for her having to have a secret, for her lonely life and for her having to have a “Lady’s Companion” who was bored to death with her.

Underneath it all, however, I recognized something that I’d felt for Miss B my entire life.

I admired her.

I admired her for her quiet life of courage.

I turned and looked out the bar window at the great timeless orange dollop of sun sinking into the Pacific, and there on the sidewalk, right in front of the bar, I saw Miss B. She walked over to her olive green Studebaker parked by the curb, took off her aviator sunglasses, turned around and waved.

As she pulled away, I could see inside the car.To my great joy—the kind of joy that only fantasies can provide—she wasn’t alone. There was someone beside her in the passenger seat.

From the distance of a lifetime, I hoped it was exactly the kind of “Lady’s Companion” Miss B had always really been looking for.

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Author: Carmelene Siani

Image: Suhyeon Choi/Unsplash

Editor: Toby Israel

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