Time to Cast Away Stones tells the story of Janet Magill, a shy, straight-arrow Berkeley freshman with compelling reasons to join the antiwar movement. Janet’s brother has been shipped off to Vietnam, and Aaron Becker, her childhood sweetheart, might well be next. When Janet’s parents banish her from Berkeley to what they expect will be a safe, idyllic springtime in Paris, she runs headlong into the 1968 May Revolution and along the way, falls in love with a secretive Czech dissident. The story brings to life the historical “Events of May,” in which over ten million French citizens were involved in the only student-worker-bourgeois alliance and true “revolution” that a Western, capitalist democracy had ever experienced.
So, in the fall of 1967, I came north for my freshman year, cherishing a vague, Victorian version of romantic fulfillment. Like nineteenth century Daguerreotype portraits. Wedding cake couples, slightly blurry around the edges with touched-up blushing cheeks.
From my dorm room on the sixth floor of Freeborn Hall, the San Francisco Bay spread out in front of me just as in those dozen or so “propaganda” postcards from Aaron that I’d saved in the bottom of my desk drawer. But my boyfriend couldn’t be with me all the time to romance me away from the grating reality all around us. His vivid descriptions of life at the “greatest public university in the nation” began to look like a Norman Rockwell with a shredded canvas, or worse, like one of those poor mangled people painted by Soutine or Munch.
On my first night as a college freshman, hours after the rosy sunset had turned to sludge over the Bay, my new roommate asked, “Do you support Johnson’s war?” Her voice was tight, as if something was bunched inside her throat. Her name was Barbara Borovsky, and she was from San Francisco. We had been telling each other about our high schools and families. Across the darkened room, talking between beds, it should have been easy to express the ambivalence that was in my heart.
“Well…no…but I don’t think I know enough to tell them how to win it,” I replied.
“Then you believe it has to be won,” Barbara spat out. She was way too disgusted to be relaxing into a good night’s sleep. “How do you feel about the American military just making a quick exit, getting the hell out right now?”
“Well”—I always used words like ‘well,’ ‘perhaps,’ ‘I think,’ and ‘maybe.’ I had read in Cosmopolitan Magazine that those words signaled that you lacked self-confidence. So natch, I tried not to say them, but they continued to pop out. I stopped talking for a moment, and then I told her, “I just got to college. What do I know?”
Barbara was silent for what seemed like a long time, except for quick, deep nose breathing, like a girl running laps for gym class. Then, with a hard edge to her voice, she said, “If you don’t mind, Janet, let’s not talk politics in this room. No war. No politics. And no religion either.”
“But, you seem to be interested, and I’m not…not…”
“We have to co-exist here,” she said matter-of-factly. “And I, for one, have a very busy year planned.”
So that was my potluck roommate. Barbara Borovsky was short and stocky, with frizzy orange hair, and I soon noticed, she dressed in pants every single day. In a way, she was what I had always wanted to be: sure of herself. From the moment she stepped off the bus from her home in the big city across the San Francisco Bay, she knew what she wanted to accomplish at Cal. She was there to learn about societies and politics and to master effective writing and speaking skills. Her parents were against the war, and she fell naturally into a pattern of extracurricular activity that gave her ac cadre of friends with a common purpose.
After that first night, Barbara was never mean, she just ignored me. I tried to accept the fact that I would never be my roommate’s friend. She would hear the words “snooty and superficial” in my high-pitched, little-girl voice, and see it written in my appearance— cashmere sweaters, long, wavy black hair, and green eyes that I emphasized with black eyeliner, just as I had done in high school. After all, I did think I made a more attractive impression that way.
But it bugged me. The distance between us was more than superficial. Underneath layers of hair spray and scalp, my gray matter felt like it was all wrapped up in one of those Ace bandages that protect sore muscles from movement. Barbara’s brain would contract, breathe, bleed and crackle, and it might just as well configure itself into a big electric neon sign that screamed, “Here I am!” Basically, I was scared to death of her. I went around ashamed of despising Barbara. I comforted myself with the assumption that she despised me back.
Elise Frances Miller’s novel, A Time to Cast Away Stones, published by Sand Hill Review Press, is set in Berkeley and Paris in 1968. With her degrees from UC Berkeley and UCLA, Elise began writing as an art critic for the Los Angeles Times, Art News, The Reader, and San Diego Magazine. She taught high school and college humanities, and served as a communications director at San Diego State University and Stanford. Her short stories have appeared in The Sand Hill Review (fiction editor, 2008), Best of the Sand Hill Review, and Fault Zone: Stepping Up to the Edge.
Book availability: Amazon, print and Kindle, and order from Ingram at bookstores. Available now from Oakland Museum of CA (with 1968 Exhibit) and Books Inc. in Burlingame and San Francisco Opera Plaza.