Living with Joy

A memoir by Celeste Cheyney

It was June 1962, and I had absolutely no interest in what was expected of me – that I stay within 100 miles of my family in Philadelphia, find someone to marry, and settle down and have kids. I simply had to escape that terrible fate. Armed with a B.A. in philosophy from Penn and the ability to type forty words a minute, I joined three students heading west to Berkeley. Being 3,000 miles away should work.

After a week of sitting in a cramped 1959 VW Beetle all day and dozing in our sleeping bags under the stars wherever it seemed safe, we arrived. For a few days we stayed with someone’s friend and I lined up a job as a clerk-typist at the university and registered for a course in 19th century philosophy at Cal Extension. I was ready for my new life. All I needed was a place to live.

I met Joy by posting a notice on a bulletin board at the Coop Supermarket. She called, and that evening we sipped cappuccinos at Café Mediterranean on Telegraph Avenue. An energetic, buxom blonde of 22 with a gravelly voice and intense almond-shaped blue eyes, Joy’s name was right for her as she certainly had lots of joie de vivre. She said she got her eyes from her Russian émigré father who died when she was three. Joy was working on her M.A. in French, which she intended to teach, and she, too, had no interest in marriage or kids. We both liked folk music. Her favorite album, which she loved to dance to, was Village Dances of Bulgaria. My two favorites were Songs of the Lincoln Brigade and The Weavers at Carnegie Hall. She loved to experiment in the kitchen, a definite plus since I had never learned to cook. It was a perfect match. For $100 a month each we would share five rooms on the second floor of a frame house in the flat part of town near the bay. I envisioned quiet evenings with Joy reading Balzac or Stendhal while I deciphered Nietzsche or John Stuart Mill. I had no idea of how unusual living with her would be.

It was still pre-hippie Berkeley, a few years before the Aquarian Age with its anything–goes mentality. Well, Joy was ahead of her time. It was a good thing we had two bedrooms, because the kitchen was not the only room in which she loved to experiment. While we arranged the worn chartreuse tufted arm chair and matching couch we had bought at the Salvation Army, Joy mentioned casually that she had slept with over forty men. She liked variety and preferred men from exotic places. I was horrified but tried not to let it show. This is a business and she expects me to be part of it was all I could think. I had visions of lusty men pounding impatiently on my bedroom door.

Joy sensed exactly what my fears were and tried her best to reassure me. She never did this for money. She did it simply because it was a great way to celebrate life. Nobody would get hurt. After all, she was on the Pill, those unmentionable diseases would never touch her, and she was not the vindictive type who would tell anyone’s wife. It was clear that the celebration was going to continue. She would have to keep her men away from me, I told her emphatically.

Joy had another unusual idea. It showed that studying French culture had gone to her head. Two evenings a week we would have a salon, with her as the host, or salonniere, and our participants would be mostly male.

Our salon even came with dinner. I can still see some of our guests sitting at the large round oak table we had found for $10.00 at a garage sale. I can picture most clearly slight, swarthy Ahmed, a chemist from Turkey, in his embroidered tunic. I also remember dashiki-clad, ebony-skinned Okwamy from the Congo, who was working on a doctorate in math. I can still see Laszlo, the intense blonde engineer from Hungary, who always had a slide rule in the pocket of his shirt.

We and our guests poured wine from a huge jug and devoured the tasty dishes Joy had prepared with me as her willing assistant. She loved French cooking and we often had Coquilles St Jacques or Coq au Vin, but Turkish cuisine was her favorite. It was not unusual to have eggplant stuffed with lamb, tomatoes, peppers and herbs or trout cooked with pine nuts, currants, herbs, and sweet spices.

Joy said the time when salons were prevalent is often called “the age of conversation.”

Though it was not always intellectual, we had plenty of that. As the salonniere it was Joy’s responsibility to choose the topic and set the tone and that she did with great skill.

I remember one evening when the topic was life in America versus life in the country of origin. Everyone was grateful to be here, but missed something from home. The comments made me question my assumptions and want to see more of the world. I can recall what everyone said, and my own thoughts that followed.

Ahmed believed that using price tags was ridiculous. He missed watching his father sell rugs at his shop in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. The merchant and customer sat and bargained patiently over tiny cups of Turkish tea, and both parties thoroughly enjoyed the game. Hmmm…..Their way of doing business does sound like a lot more fun than ours.

Okwamy was saddened by the brutal murder of the Prime Minister Patrice Lamumba and by all the turmoil in the Congo. He missed being there to fight for a new nation free of exploitation and strife. Hmmm…..Maybe I should join that new agency, the Peace Corps.

“Lecherous Lazslo” earned that name the night he arrived late, found Joy occupied, and said I “would do.” (He rushed out when I threatened to call the police.) Poor Lazslo missed the arrangement he’d had back home before the Revolution – one apartment for his mistress and one for his wife. Wow!…..Nobody in Philadelphia would ever do that, but maybe in Budapest it’s OK.

I never figured out how Joy decided who was going to be the fortunate one to spend   the night; she handled that with great discretion. When a salon was over, she and the chosen one retired to her bedroom while I cleaned up the kitchen. I tiptoed to my room and curled up with Nietzsche or John Stuart Mill, ignoring the sounds of ecstasy from behind the door.

I tried to figure out what motivated Joy. Did she behave that way because she had lost her father at the age of three? I asked myself other questions. Was being so promiscuous really right? Was it as safe as she claimed?

At the end of the spring semester, Joy received her M.A. When the offer arrived to teach French at a college in New Orleans, she was thrilled. Joy turned on Village Dances of Bulgaria and twisted, skipped and tapped her way around the living room, her eyes glowing.

After that year, Joy and I never saw each other again. However, through the years we’ve exchanged letters at Christmas. For decades Joy celebrated life in the usual way in her bedroom. Until a few years ago she still had a salon. Her letters still bring back fond memories of that year of living with Joy.

I never joined the Peace Corps, but I did spend a few summers in Europe on $5.00 a day. I bargained over tea for a tribal rug in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, and wondered about couples’ marital arrangements while strolling on the Chain Bridge in Budapest. Eventually, I was living within 100 miles of Philadelphia and celebrating life with my husband and two kids, which wasn’t such a terrible fate after all.


Celeste Cheyney, while working with a remarkable woman who was Jewish, British and Deaf, was inspired to write a memoir about the woman’ experience as a child in England during World War II. “Making Sense of It All” was published by Gallaudet University Press. Celeste has also been inspired by writing classes at the IRP.