At twenty-four Connie Caruso was a secretary in a prestigious talent agency. It was 1950s Hollywood, when the studio controlled its stars. Glamour ruled: Connie rubbed shoulders with Cary Grant, Marlon Brando, Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Grace Kelly, et al. She lived in a world of fairytales and ambition.
A clandestine affair with the father of a major celebrity went south when Connie became pregnant. He offered to marry her, but not before suggesting abortion. Fueled by fury, she left him after she had a back street abortion. Within a few months, lonely and depressed, Connie invited David, an Adonis-like beach boy from Santa Monica, to move in with her. She soon realized her mistake and threw him out. Too late, she discovered she was pregnant again.
Against advice from psychiatrist, friends and sister, she decided to have this baby, forging ahead into the unknown. She took on the Welfare system in Los Angeles and New York, called in markers from friends, and implored an old Brooklyn boyfriend, Johnny, to marry her. Nothing worked. Hardened by adversity, her child became her raison d'etre and taught her the power of love. This ultimately motivated her to realize her dreams.
Connie became a media personality with a 15-year run as co-host of Frankly Female, a groundbreaking talk show on KCAL-TV's channel 9, and has accomplished independence and good fortune in more ways than she could ever have imagined.
Most important, she continues to carry the message that there are many footholds in the mountain and many options for happiness.
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Foothold in the MOUNTAIN
By Constance Caruso
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Constance Caruso
All rights reserved.
Dr. Comess's Couch
I STARED AT the polished teak tissue box and thought it must have cost seven dollars at Van Keppel Green in Beverly Hills, and that that seven dollars had come straight out of my measly biweekly paycheck. The box was angled on a corner of the good doctor's desk, a Henredon classic in cherry wood. His armchair was a gray leather swivel with matching cherry wood back. I asked if it was a reproduction of the Eames style so popular that year. He stared, impassive. I was stalling for time and he knew it. The lighting was soft and deliberately calming. I resented these posh surroundings. I sat stiffly in the corner of the camelback couch with its round cushy arms, holding down the hysteria building up in my head, the fear simmering in my gut, against my family and against the talk-talk-talk of therapy, while the psychiatrist filled the room with palpable silence. My rage was approaching a crescendo when I heard him say, "Have you considered an abortion?"
I wanted to slap him; instead, I said, "Are you crazy? Out of the question. That would be twice in less than two years. I'm not going through that torture again. Ever. You know nothing about being a woman, about killing someone inside of you. It never grows back, you fool. I might as well stab my soul. Sonofabitch! No. No abortion!"
His voice was even, not a trace of emotion and barely tepid. "I don't think you have to worry," he said. "You're about to have surgery for your prolapsed colon. At six weeks the fetus couldn't stand the shock of surgery. And what you will be having is major surgery, that's certain. Besides, there's still the possibility that you're just late in your menstrual cycle."
My heart jumped, but I couldn't express my thought. Was it hope? It felt closer to relief. Then, fear began to rumble. Suppose I want, really want this one? "Suppose, after I have this baby," I said aloud, "I meet a nice guy, like my old boyfriend Johnny, and we get married. F'rinstance, Johnny wouldn't judge me if I had this baby...."
"I don't think you have many choices, do you?" he intoned.
I actually reflected, as if there were more than one choice left for me. "Well," I hesitated, "there's always the unique idea of giving birth. You know, being normal. What're they gonna do, doc? String me up? Brand me? C'mon, this is the twentieth century. Come to think of it, it would be kind of unique for a middle class, educated young lady to have a baby—OUT OF WEDLOCK!" I shouted.
The good doctor jumped. His reaction startled me. I was miserable, in a tough place, and worse, the decision was all mine. So I sat back on Dr. Comess's boring beige couch soaked with the world's tears and said, "Who knows? In sixteen years—society is moving so fast anyway—it wouldn't make any difference whether the babe had a father or not. It wouldn't be damaged, society wouldn't care where he/she came from.... What'd'ya say, doc? Do I have your blessing?"
His silence was deafening.... Eternal.
I ran out of his office before he had a chance to make one more banal remark.
My Father Was ...
THE HANDSOMEST AND smartest man on the whole block and one of the smart things he told me when I was eight was, "Stick with the Jews because they're smart." That was Pop's idea of being broadminded and progressive. A Liberal. I knew he meant no harm, he just had an unusual way of expressing himself.
In my family I was the only one who understood my father. Let's just say I heard his trumpet, but I never knew when he was going to blow. I would stand in front of him when he'd summon me in the middle of a heated debate with Mom.
"Am I right or am I wrong?" he would ask.
"Of course you're right, Pop. You know how Mom is—not too smart, y'know," I would say, hoping that would settle the debate.
Well, it wasn't really a debate since that would mean two people were talking. Anyway, I'd stand in front of him, eyes down, focused on his shoes. Some days the Johnson & Murphy wingtips caught my eye; other days, I zeroed in on the cordovans with the side buckle like the Air Force officers wore on leave. Pop's arms would cut the air above him in threatening motions as he raved at Mom. He was frustrated, alone. Like me. I couldn't hate him more than I loved him because somehow I understood what was going on in that tortured soul of his. What I never could get was why Mom would bait with the phrases Pop would warn against. "Tinuzza," he would say, "Tinuzza, don't say another word, just don't say another word or ... I'll kill you."
"Oh yeah?" she would reply. "You just try and I'll get my brothers to—" She never got to finish the sentence. Pop punched her. Square on the jaw. And that was just the beginning.
He looks straight at you,
beneath the canopy of roses,
seated in the wood chair he calls his throne.
A curl of sarcasm in his smile,
his flippant arm appears to say hello.
No, he holds a cigarette,
the smoke smoldering to the sky.
The child sits in his lap.
She dare not look back
Lest someone steal her bounty:
A plate of spaghetti held fiercely
in her fists.
He is comforted by her presence.
This is the best love he can summon
from his tortured soul.
she is lonely.
Charlie's Starlight Café
WHEN I STORMED out through the double doors of the midtown Beverly Hills building known as Doctors' Row, I found myself in the bustle of Bedford Drive, with its corner café inviting me to have a cup of coffee and a cigarette. For the moment it solved my problem. I could barely contain my rage. It manifested the lonely fear and dark road ahead as if all were happening in this moment. What did I want? What did I really want? A man who cared about me? A man who wasn't afraid of me so I could calm down and be less afraid of myself? I couldn't admit that out loud; it was too distant a hope. But I couldn't admit fear either; there was a baby on the way and there was no way anybody was going to care or help or do or—what? I had to calm down. That was the first order of business. I just had to sit and pray, beg and barter, smoke and drink.
The chill in the Starlight Café matched my mood. I felt so alone, unworthy, and scared, but I also felt defiant. Being female in the fifties was a tough job, I thought. I didn't realize how tough it was until I became certain of my decision. I had no idea what I was going to do. My only ammunition was the certainty of what I would not do. I had no physical feeling yet. I did not know what to expect except a change in size; all I felt at the moment was bloat, like expecting my period. I looked around the coffee shop. I sat at one of the round faux marble tables, which were situated on both sides of the door, and noticed the wire-back chairs. They were reminiscent of cheesy Brooklyn and an eyesore in this Beverly Hills scene. I scanned the counter and thought the only thing missing to complete a studio set of an all-American, mid-century coffee shoppe was the counter boy in a peaked white cap and starched wraparound apron standing tall with a geeky smile.
"What's your poison, lady?" My reverie blitzed as I looked up to see Charlie, the café's mainstay, whose presence lent a sense of continuity to this fairyland setting. He was a blatant example of la-la Los Angeles. Just as I was settling into a condescending judgment of this city, up popped Charlie, who completely knocked out any preconceived notion I had of the dullness and predictability of the "perfect scene." Charlie was his own man; he'd been working at the Starlight Café for about six years and unashamedly confessed to striving for stardom in the next four. He had a dancer's walk. Charlie was chubby and balding, about twenty-nine, and was still taking acting lessons at the local "Y" down the street on Little Santa Monica Boulevard. Charlie was testimony to Hollywood's rags-to-riches fantasy. But he still poured a great cup of coffee. He was the town gossip who had the skinny on anyone or anything you wanted to know about Hollywood. Who was doin' it or stickin' it to whom were his favorite topics. Much as he gossiped, I trusted him.
Coming to the Starlight was a right move, I thought. Charlie distracted me. Everything else in my life was shit. A Hollywood pretty boy I had just met at the beach a couple of months ago knocked me up. I bedded down because he thought I was pretty. He didn't notice I was a schlub in a pill-induced thin body and that I kept my legs tight so the jiggle in my thighs wouldn't show when I moved. I lived in my head and only burst out when a gorgeous man noticed me and took me back to my place to fuck. Once done, I fell in love and thought marriage. Why not? All Catholic girls had that dream. Only mine was more intense because I was Italian, so I had to be married now before anybody found out.
"What's the matter, babe? You look down." It was Charlie again. I felt grayness in my complexion and dullness in my eyes, yet I looked up and mumbled, "Nothing. Just pour."
"Well, ex-cu-use me, kid, I was just trying to comfort a friend in what appears to be some pretty freakin' anguish but I can see you don't understand that language!"
"Fuck you," I muttered under my breath as I wiped up the residual splash Charlie made on the table. I'm sure it was deliberate but it didn't matter. I felt drunk with rage, which seemed to turn into paralyzing depression. What am I going to do about being pregnant? I had no prior experience. All I could think of was the few times I thought I was pregnant and the way I begged God I'd never do IT again if He'd get me out of this one this very last time. That's as far as my practical design for living carried me. Scaring myself and talking to God were my lifelong habits. This time, God said, you're on your own.
Jesus Christ! I told myself. I was mad, mad as hell to be in this dilemma. Over a year ago, the abortion was the biggest mistake I had ever made. I should never have agreed to that. I gave in because I felt sorry for Marlon-the-Elder. I remembered how scared he acted. I felt sorry for him, so I behaved like the strong, loving, little woman he could understand. A fool is what I became. Nobility sucked! This time I knew better and I was not going to deprive myself of my womanhood. I took a hard pull on the coffee and contemplated another cigarette. My lungs were raw and I was jittery from the pills. Should I be taking these pills? I was going to get fat anyway. But obese? Was I going to become obese? I had better find a gynecologist, fast. Where should I go? Money was tight. MCA hardly paid, but with overtime I didn't do too badly. I couldn't stop my psychotherapy sessions. I'd go completely berserk. Dr. Comess recommended abortion. Therapist or no, he was not my friend.
"Charlie," I called out. He looked up. With a raised eyebrow, the jerk. "C'mere, I gotta talk to someone I can trust."
"Why call me, lady? You just let me know in no uncertain terms that you don't want to be bothered with this pansy."
"Charlie, Charlie, you know I'm moody. How long have I been coming here? I need a friend and booze makes me crazy. You're the nearest."
"Gee, thanks, Prima Donna. What can I do for you?" His eyes rolled to the ceiling as he added, "Oh Lady of the Mood Machine."
I feigned offense. "Jeez, now I have to pay for your friendship. Okay, Charl', forget it."
"Just kidding, Con, just kidding. C'mon, what's going on?"
I looked at the clock on the wall above the counter. 2:17. I was late getting back to work but at this point I didn't care. Nothing could get worse, I thought. "Charlie, I'm in trouble...."
"What kind, babe?"
"The kind no guy wants to know about, even you. So never mind."
"You're kidding!" A look of knowing, an attempt at recovery, then, "I don't get you—you say you need a friend and then you slap me down. What gives—?"
"Charlie, I'm sorry, I'm really sorry. I don't know whether I'm coming or going. I don't know where to turn or what to do. All I know is what not to do."
"Connie, talk. I'm here. Listening. I don't got a lot of patience, y'know, but I am your—"
"I know, Charlie, I know. But ... I gotta go." I jumped from my chair, reached for a bill in my wallet, slapped it on the table and ran out of the place. The sun was blinding. For the moment I couldn't see and, as I hightailed it back to work, I didn't even realize I was crying. I was heading toward the richest agency in the world and I didn't have enough money to take care of myself. What irony! Yet I continued forward with not a rational thought to support me.
I Came From A Home ...
THAT CONSIDERED A royal blue and burgundy velour parlor suite "The Ritz." If you had a Bigelow rug on the floor, you were snappy. We're talking Bensonhurst Brooklyn here in the nineteen-forties. Our flat covered the second floor of a four-unit building. I liked the feel of two private homes attached like conjoined twins. We were the only family on the block with a white glider on the front porch outside the bedroom my sister and I shared. We had the first television set on the block and a huge radio/phonograph console in the living room. My mother would drape the top with a vintage Italian tapestry, "to protect the mahogany." Then she would set a stiff-leafed plant in the center, "for decoration." I hated that plant; it was so Old Country.
My father was a tool-and-die maker with Sperry Gyroscope. He would come home after work, sit in front of his dinner at the kitchen table, fork and knife in each fist and cloth napkin tucked in his working man's collar. "Can you believe that bastard," he would say between bites of pasta, sausage and escarole, "telling me how to work my tools?" After a couple of glasses of red, he admitted to socking his supervisor and running out of the plant. He moved to the Brooklyn Navy Yard soon after.
My mother was a crochet beader. I remember sitting under her frame, my back against her knees as I looked up to see her push the crochet needle in and out, in and out, the stretched chiffon yielding to intricate patterns of leaves and blossoms in delicate pastels or sharp jets that would eventually become a jacket or gown for the very rich.
My parents paid cash for everything they owned. We were borderline middle class and our family appearance was benign and complacent. One glitch—my father was a maniac.
The Sperry Gyroscope incident was one of several life-threatening episodes in five years, based on some mystery going on in his mind. My mother was ready for divorce but was convinced that such a move was out of the question. He'd kill her first. We knew that the only way to escape his violence was to have him committed to the Kings County psych ward. With help from the medics who were familiar with my father's antics, the police arrived one night during dinnertime. My sister worked nights teaching dance, so my mother and I were left with "handling the monster" when he came home from work.
My father strolled in, whistling. He hung his coat and hat in his bedroom closet as he chattered away. My mother was silent. He washed up. The door of our small bathroom opened wide, the splashing audible between hums of "Sweet Adeline, Won't You Be Mine?" He went into the kitchen and invited me to sit beside him. I stared at the wall clock, laughed at his forced jokes, and listened to his factory talk, hoping my expressions mirrored his importance.
At the stove, my mother stirred a frying pan of green roasted peppers and braised onions in pale olive oil, which reflected the color of her face.
My heart was in my mouth. I was thirteen years old.
My father was jovial, my mother ashen.
Then, a knock at the door....
Excerpted from Foothold in the MOUNTAIN by Constance Caruso. Copyright © 2013 Constance Caruso. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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