Tag Archives: JANUARY 2022
village on the lake
Cosmology of Beat
Cosmology of Beat
In the Cosmology of Beat
there are back-bent cars parked on roads, detritus beside lampposts.
Rooftops above the Five-spot, with curling smoke,
rising from black-grey still-shots on walls of poetry on fire with desire,
uppermost in the narrow corridors of prized lofts,
going for cheap.
Still-shots of a messiah standing slouched,
Spouting, pouting defiantly
on Wooster and Bleecker,
Mumbling Sanskrit slokas
Le Sang des Poetes painted on the walls.
the lone gunfighter,
pensive in a loft up there, or
standing in the wings or
leaning against a piano
that weeps and faints,
that weeps and faints
as he begins to recite-
the tale of his baptism by bop,
in a black and white space,
by Peter and Jack,
pounding on Underwoods
fuelled by whisky,
with handwritten labels.
In the cosmology of Beat,
there are black iron stairs,
that escape to below
that escape to below
where sulks a twist,
at the end of a martini,
at the bottom
of the glassy pit, empty,
as muffled horns screech to a cued stop,
for jalapeno and chips
and a squeeze break
for the needy.
In the cosmology of Beat
the mind sits,
armed only with a swizzle stick
Swirling the dust
from the Buddhist tantra
That makes the cosmos
sound like physics-
gone to shit.
In the cosmology of Beat
there is hope,
that the hum and the swirl,
And the chance that
a sound will emerge
and bulbs will sway
and faces will turn,
where whispers and chants,
Once did ricochet.
In the cosmology of beat,
It is said that
Beats will come
in ekta fuckachrome,
beats from a bongo, a harp
a piano will bojangle-
from a sax on the edge of the metro,
will tunnel down,
will tunnel down,
and take you away
in a whoosh,
any obsession with Om!
Five-spot: Five-spot Café (1956-67), a café and performance space in New York City that featured cutting edge bebop and progressive jazz and attracted a host of avant-garde artists and writers.
Wooster and Bleeker: an intersection of two famous streets near Washington Square, Greenwich Village. Bleeker Street was once a major centre for American bohemia and remains an important nightclub district; Wooster is home to many boutiques, restaurants and cultural institutions including the The Performance Group (later the Wooster Group), an experimental theatre company.
Peter and Jack: Peter Orlovsky and Jack Kerouac
I am having dinner with a goldfish.
It is not a dream, my eyes are open,
the fish is looking at me, swirling
solicitous of my solitude.
It seemed rude to refuse the waiter
approaching with the fish in a bowl,
as if I were some character in a
The fish sizes up my curries and naan,
I eyeball its buoyant swishes,
our body language slides into
I raise my fork
and something spasms
a flash of molten gold rises
light cascades in the fish’s wake,
an improbable message
making its escape.
A Purolator truck drives by the living room window
as you listen to Sam Rivers’ Involution and expect a parcel,
expect it to contain a dehumidifier. UV index reads 9/10
and a heat warning is in effect. Blinds are drawn, windows shut
and you’ve been watching the drama of leaves
fluttering in the breeze
reflected on the grey wall
as you work out
how to translate
certain key phrases.
You’re waiting for the delivery of a parcel, a dehumidifier
and your dress is magenta, clinging to your damp skin
as you translate certain key phrases
in the book you find impossible to finish,
the phrase about obsessively tracing hands
across the new and old decomposing walls
sitting still in the white space of a room
listening obsessively to the rollicking riffs
of Rivers’ Involution.
Key phrases in the evolution of the tenor saxophone,
subtracting oneself from death
like engraving in white-on-black
the risk of a window.
How do we see, exactly?
Heat rises from her middle like frothy magenta foam
on a strawberry milkshake, and she dreams
of fording a river on a steamy night in June,
her blue pencil scrolls, pacing, spacing the words,
the meanings trailing with the ease of jazzic fluidity,
horns, percussion, heat, voices,
the apparent free flow of highly stylized phrases
those of the conversation
those of the hushed
when you tell me the events, the dates, the places, the spaces
you last heard music like this.
The record ends in the shimmering shade
of the living room where the sun lingers
like the risk of a door opening onto the street
where a crowd rears its head and no one hears
the roar of the rivers that scream underground
day in day out, as potholes creak
under the weight of ambulances.
HOW TO QUIT SMOKING
HOW TO QUIT SMOKING
Have you ever wondered which came first,
the poem or the letter?
I cycle to the canal to meet you —
you, who still smoke half a packet a day;
(We met at a poetry reading five years ago
among books and fine speakers with so much to say.)
We saunter and speak but rarely in iambics
more rarely still in swishy hexameters
at best in blank verse, citing common parame-
ters, our aches and our nagging pains emblems
of the strained life we lead in a metropolis,
with deaths in the thousands from
this novel coronavirus;
How the people we love we don’t see anymore
How friends have left and we’re tempted to flee
How chain-smoking was only recently banished
When ‘twas once the source of grace notes such as
Du feu s’il-vous-plait
Haben Sie Feuer, bitte
Baby won’t you light my, um, cigarette?
A writer we both admire once wrote
A poem called How to Quit Smoking
Where Felicity, smitten with Fred
Punches Bob in the gob, I’m just joking.
It’s a poem wherein, as you know, the rhythm flows along quite unencumbered by rhyme scheme, in no way or shape bending to preconceived pattern, balanced on the triple knife edge of pathos, irony and delirium, along which it tiptoes acrobatically, following lyric chords strung invisibly like tight-ropes within our cerebral cortex, upon which stories of love and loss leap and pirouette…
leaving me breathless,
with visions of a simile
(Go ahead and blame the pox of romantic cigarette advertisements if you will)
“… like the smoky whorls issuing from the rosebud of your dreamy lips…”
OLD MISS HILL
Snow squalls tear at petals
and you can’t see this miracle
of intemperate growth in your own back yard
or remember the slanting lane
(vision of men in flat caps
walking to work past brick warehouses)
where the parent tree began one spring –
or the granary shed
made of sun-burned hemlock and tin
in front of which where it never was before
transplanted from city shrunken leaf-nude
is dream – flowering
angels and glass candy woven in.
African Americans Didn’t Exist in the 1960s
AFRICAN AMERICANS DIDN’T EXIST IN THE 1960s
Across the road from Mee Maw’s house, gray mist rose above the cornfield. That cool mist covered my face on what normally became an unbearable July day. Now a city boy, it was something I hadn’t felt in quite some time. Nor had I been sitting in a rocker on a front porch a recent memory. Eyeing the dilapidation of my grandmother’s porch, the idea of rocking was just going to be a memory. No one had been in the house in at least ten years. Soon as Mama passed, neither my sisters nor I wanted to try to rent the place. Too much hassle with all of us living hundreds of miles away. I was there now to meet up with a real estate agent.
The smell of the rain’s ozone reminded me of a simpler time. A time when there had been no looking at my smartphone every five seconds. A time I could hear Mama softly gossip while Mee Maw rocked as they shelled crowder peas. Rocking in chairs my grandfather built with hickory and cowhide, they often got louder.
I remembered smelling the fresh green paint of Mee Maw’s porch. The porch that seemed like a vast expanse at twelve years of age seemed so narrow now.
The rockers were gone and the bright green had faded to a dusty olive interspersed with the speckled blackness of rotting wood. After fifty years, many of the wood slats were either buckled or vanished. I had to be careful sitting on a plastic milk crate probably left behind by the renters. I remembered Mama called them “trailer trash upgrades” before she passed.
I didn’t listen much because I didn’t know who they were gossiping about nor did I really care. I killed flies while they shelled peas. I got a nickel for every seven flies sent to fly heaven, using the metal grated swatter. I brought many a fly to its demise that summer of 1967. They don’t make flyswatters like that anymore. Everything is cheap plastic now.
I remember every so often, a pea bounced and rolled underneath a rocker.
“Ronnie Newsom’s wife caught him in bed with the colored maid.” Mama gazed my way to make sure I didn’t hear what my grandmother just said. Can’t say I cared much then, though for a soon-to-be hormone-driven teenager, it was one of a few gossip memories that stuck. I pretended not to hear while going about my business chasing flies.
Strange how something that put a one-red-light town in south Mississippi on edge appeared now to be nothing but a faded memory. There’s a good possibility the cuckolded adulterer and colored maid were now dead or in a nursing home. It’s an even greater possibility I’m the only one who remembers this shocking event that took place so long ago.
Time can fix the importance of all things. There is wisdom in the words my gay Black priest friend often said to me.
“This too shall pass.”
I met him where I work. Not sure if he ever made a pass at me. Didn’t matter. We soon became friends. He was a part-time priest and a full-time professor at Boston College where I worked.
“Betty shot Ronnie.”
Mama said, “Well, did she kill him?”
“Naaw, just a twenty-two in the butt.”
“What about the colored girl?” Mama again looked my way as she asked this.
“She didn’t get shot, but she sure won’t be doing any cleaning at the Newsom house anymore.” Mee Maw reached into the paper sack and brought out another passel of unshelled crowders for her bowl.
After bending back to start shelling, Mee Maw added, “Ronnie had the slug taken out of his ass at Doc Moore’s office within the hour.”
“Are they gettin’ a divorce?”
Mee Maw snickered. “Betty lives in Richtown, Mississippi. I’m not sure she finished high school.”
After more rocking, Mee Maw said, “She’s stuck with his sorry ass for better or worse.”
I thought it ironic—the idea of a white man loving a Black woman. But, in Mississippi during the 1960s, that kind of love proved impossible to consider. Neither Mama nor Mee Maw said anything else about the Black girl. I’m sure they just figured it seemed a repulsive and vulgar carnal act. Don’t think they thought particularly bad things about the girl. She just wasn’t important, apart from the fact Ronnie Newsom got a bullet in his ass because of her.
Time changes things, I repeated to myself. What were socially unacceptable mores in 1960s’ Mississippi are accepted today. I guess, at least for the most part. Looking at the cracked and busted sidewalk leading to the front steps, I noticed how shards of grass came through, continually widening the gaps. Made me wonder what my mother and Mee Maw might say about my second wife today.
College-educated Chelsea is a mixture of Irish and African American. Mama never met or knew about Chelsea. That’s probably for the best. Time changes some things but not all people. Sitting there hearing the now-steady rain hit the tin roof, I knew their meeting just wouldn’t have worked. My mama wouldn’t approve, and Boston Chelsea had no interest in ever visiting Mississippi.
A new memory hit me as a car rolled past the old house. When I wasn’t on the porch killing flies, my going to the movie house in Richtown became quite a racial experience. It was easy walking distance from Mee Maw’s house.
Every Saturday in the summer, my sisters and I went from Mee Maw’s house to the one-screen theater. After the walk in the hot Mississippi sun, it felt nice sitting in the cool darkness despite the musty smell that emanated from the concrete floor. I remember pouring Dixie straw powder down my throat waiting for the projector to crank up. You could hear the Black kids rustle as they sat in the balcony. It had been weird never seeing these beings while knowing they were behind and above like dark angels looking down upon whitey. We never saw them come in since they had a separate entrance. I suppose the idea was to make you think they didn’t exist.
But we knew they were there despite never seeing them. Popcorn, and every now and then a popcorn box, came down from above. We didn’t think much of it since we sat in the front row. Guess if a white patron got hit, the manager would have done something. But usually the place wasn’t crowded.
Sitting on this porch thinking about the past, the “how it has changed” became my epiphany. Sure, there were plenty of bigots in 1960s’ Mississippi. But I knew plenty that weren’t. And there may be fewer bigots today. Who knows for sure? But thinking about the way it used to be, I now believe a big change for many of the non-bigoted Mississippians is the realization that Black people do indeed exist.
They seemed to be nothing but a sidenote to many white people when I had been a kid.
When I flew into Logan from Mississippi, I was ready to be home. My priest friend picked me up, and my wife would be home waiting to love on her Mississippi boy.
I tried many times to convince Chelsea that Mississippi had changed. She wouldn’t believe me.
“So yow tryin’ to tells me ‘us colored folks’ didn’t exist when yow wuz a chillen?”
She knew I really hated it when she talked ghetto to me.
“Mississippi cracka boy had him some jungle feva!” Chelsea tried to rattle me after I told her the story of Ronnie Newsom getting shot in the buttocks.
“Just had to get him sum of that safari girl!”
Chelsea was an expert at sarcasm. I knew I was going to hear it, but it still made me uncomfortable.
“Guess I would get you really mad if I used the word irrelevant.” I knew I shouldn’t have said that as soon as I said it. The glare had been something to behold.
Finally she said, “Is that why you married me, Joe? Wanted to get you some safari girl?”
After quite some time, she calmly said, “So you’re trying to say the non-bigots in your cracker state didn’t know we existed in the 1960s?”
Chelsea interrupted, “Just answer the question, please.”
“Not sure I can answer the question without you getting madder at me.”
I think my voice seemed weak, and I know I cowered. Chelsea never got violent, but she had a temper when it came to race. I knew referring to racism in south Boston would not go over very well in this conversation. That had been my go-to defense, when defending my home state.
“I’m just trying to say as a child I was not very aware of racism or how African Americans were seen in that time period.”
“Not going to get mad at you, Joe. Not going to have one of those—what did your first wife call it—?”
“I wish you would forget that. She was just repeating what some doctor said.” Chelsea had been referring to my “nurse” first wife, saying what Black people had in the emergency rooms of hospitals, according to the doctors.
She muttered something I couldn’t hear.
“Chelsea, you know I love you, but when you get mad it makes me uncomfortable. And as you know, your daddy said it was your Irish temper that made you this way.”
She again muttered something inaudible.
Finally, Chelsea looked at me calmly and said, “What about your mama and Mee Maw?”
“I’m certain they were aware of things, but I also think they didn’t have feelings of love or hatred for another race.”
Pausing, I said, “I never heard them say anything derisive about Blacks. Certainly never heard either use the N-word.”
“You don’t think using the word colored is offensive?”
“Well, of course. Yes!” I knew I needed to emphasize that calling an African American colored seemed offensive. We had already gone there before.
“But, in that time frame, the term African American didn’t exist, and besides, there were a lot more negative words used other than colored.”
Chelsea kind of smiled as she muttered, “Nazi Germany.”
“What do you mean?” I knew where this appeared to be going; we’d had this conversation before. Playing ignorant wasn’t going to work.
“Come on, Joe, you know what I mean.”
Chelsea earned a graduate degree in sociology with a minor in history. She had a particular interest in what people do in crisis situations.
“I know good folk can become selectively blind.” I was glad she stayed calm as I said this.
“Yes…?” She wanted more from me.
“The real question—I guess—would be if these people could actually be deemed good people,” pausing I added, “if they ignore injustices?”
“The question out of all this is—what would you or I do in 1960s’ Mississippi?”
“Not me, Joe. I’d be up in that balcony throwing popcorn boxes at your white ass!” She smiled after saying that.
I had to laugh.
After a pause, Chelsea asked, “And what would you do, Joe, if you were an adult in the 1960s?”
“Well…I know what I’d like to say but, honestly, I don’t know. There were a lot of things, including the risk of your life, that were a deterrent to doing the right thing.”
I knew Chelsea would no longer be mad since I affirmed her beliefs. She understood human nature. Being a realist is one among many things I love about her.
Like Fish That Rain Down From Heaven
Like Fish That Rain Down From Heaven
Sometimes the making up was harder than the fighting. The quarrels were stupid and pointless. We both dug in, refusing any acknowledgement of each other. Occasionally, I stalked out of the house, telling myself I would never go back. Then I rethought things, realizing either I was stupid and had no real place to go, thinking maybe this is what true love was, and finally saying to myself I was a coward. I would slink back.
This time it was over platanos fritos versus platanos hervidos. She was just as locked in as I was, though she never stormed out of the house. It was her domain. I often felt like an interloper even though I was the one with the salary that paid the downstroke on this place. When I snuck back in, she ignored me. This might go on several days. Then, for no reason at all, things softened up and we gradually accepted each other. It was a mystery.
We had visited a friend of hers in Chicago named Duñia, who made us a nice Honduran style dinner – sopa de caracol, pan de coca, and of course, platanos. I told Dunia and her boyfriend that Tina, my wife, usually had platanos hervidos, or boiled plantains just about daily. I was trying to establish some sort of common ground or camaraderie or whatever was supposed to bring people together. It didn’t work out that way.
Tina exploded. We wound up leaving. As we left their apartment on Whipple, I apologized to Duñia and her boyfriend, an old Peace Corps hand with a pony tail. We never saw them again. Friends came and went. I tried in the car, and later on, at home, to find out what I had done wrong. She folded and unfolded her arms every minute or so, waving me away. By now, I had learned that any attempt at reconciliation was useless. I went upstairs, as far away as possible and just stared out the window at the other houses on our block, wondering did everyone have stupid arguments like we did? Were we fated to disagree because women were the opposite of men? Or did each one of us have the capacity to do dumb things?
Eventually there was a thaw. It didn’t happen abruptly. Instead of carrying her head down, she lifted it up from time to time. Her pace gentled from a gallop to a trot. Then, at the breakfast table there was evidence – her eyes looked up and tried to make eye contact. I had been waiting for this.
“Good morning,” I said.
“Good morning,” Tina replied.
“How are you today?”
“Bien, y tu?”
“I’m sorry about at Duñia’s.”
It could have stopped here. If I had been really smart, I would have stopped. I was not really smart, though.
“I just didn’t understand.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, apologizing for being American. “It was something about platanos.”
“Platanos hervidos and platanos fritos.”
“So forget it.”
Again, I should have stopped. Thinking myself rational I thought that since Tina grew up in Trujillo, near the coast, maybe platanos hervidos were a coastal thing, enjoyed by all the costañeros, from Puerto Cortez to Trujillo to Brus Laguna. “So boiled platanos go good with the seafood around Trujillo and La Ceiba?”
Tina shook her head. I remember her shaking her head when I met her working in Trujillo. It was usually because my grasp of Spanish was so frustrating for us both. I was something of an oaf. How she shook her head told me that.
“Look, we’re different, that’s all.”
I could have just accepted it, but went on. “I thought there was some sort of gap in my knowledge. I was just trying to understand, you know? I’ll drop it.”
We didn’t exactly establish full eye contact over the breakfast table, but we came close. Her eyes swept from side to side, brushing mine as they circled the dining room. “It’s not about you. It’s not about me. These are things that just are.”
It was coming. Tina was about to school me again on the principles of metaphysics. She went on. “You think that you are responsible for things. You’re not. These things just happen.”
“If I’m not responsible for platanos hervidos being different from platanos fritos, then why are you angry at me?”
“Because I’m not responsible, either. This is something you don’t understand.”
“I really think we could work these things out.”
She sat straight up in her chair and now looked me right in the eye. “You know every year it rains fish in Yoro, right?” She did not wait for me to answer. “Yes, you do. The year you were in Trujillo there was the biggest lluvia de pesces since Hurricane Fifi. Everyone in Yoro ate fish for a week.”
“They say the lluvia de pesces is due to waterspouts in the Atlantic.” I made my hands into the shape of a geyser, complete with a spouting action of my palms facing up so that they would shower the earth with water and fish.
“The ocean is more than a hundred miles away. They also claim it is the result of a dumb Spanish priest many years ago wanting some miracle to feed the poor. That is all mierda, murandanga, bofonada. What role did you play in the lluvia de pesces?”
“The priest – “
“Forget the priest. They are all corrupt and seduce girls from the confessional box. Girls like that whore Duñia – that puta from Tegucigalpa with her Peace Corps friends, eating platanos fritos in a Cuban restaurantlike they were tourists. Did you make it happen? Did I? No! Nobody made the lluvia happen. It just is. There is nothing we can do to stop it or make it get bigger. It is. We are here only for a short time. ‘This’ is forever,” she spread her arms to signify what ‘this’ is. She was describing something big, bigger than our fruited plains, our purple mountain majesty, the Republic of Honduras, the province called Gracias a Dios, the Horse Latitudes, the Humboldt Current, the snow that falls on all the living and the dead, the sun, the stars, all that was and will be, maybe even including God who might be puny beside it. It included everything but us, because we were at odds with It, and It would prevail.
“This is the one thing you don’t understand.” Tina refolded her arms. “One of many things,” she corrected herself.
If I had been really smart, I would have stopped there. But something happened. As her eyes swept across the room, I felt something inside me swell. We were talking. She was doing most of it. I was listening. That was enough. This was how I felt before we got married at Saint John the Baptist church in Trujillo, in love with a foreign-looking, foreign-speaking beauty whom I thought I could tame. Her eyes captivated me, and I wanted to give her a hug. Maybe this is what God had in mind. Maybe it wasn’t fate or luck or free will or where we are headed. Maybe He knew that after fighting awhile, our arms would get tired and we would lay them down and learn to forgive each other out of exhaustion. Sometimes He was right, and sometimes not. There might have even been a law above Him not even He could fix.
We both stood up. Three days of silence had softened us up like one of those mallets used to tenderize meat. I held out my arms. She came over, a bit reluctantly, and then we grasped each other. I felt her leg go between mine and had to shove my chair out of the way so I could fully latch on to her knee and make it mine once again. Her knee, though still reluctant, gradually accepted its status of a thing that I longed for and her lips let me kiss hers. I decided not to ask about platanos hervidos and platanos fritos. She told me that was not my decision to make.
“But I’m glad we’re at least talking. I’m glad we decided to do at least that.”
“We didn’t decide that either,” she said. “All of this was decided for us, just like those fishes.”
Captain Jack’s Deep-Sea Fishing
Captain Jack’s Deep-Sea Fishing
Niles M Reddick
When Lee’s dad, who was our manager at the Ponderosa, said he would take us deep sea fishing in the Atlantic off the coast of Jacksonville, I wasn’t sure. I had been in Bass boats in ponds and lakes and even in the alligator infested Okefenokee Swamp in rural Southern Georgia, but I had never been on a boat in the ocean and wasn’t sure I wanted to see “Jaws” in the real world any more than I had wanted to in the theatre when a group of us had seen the film when it was first released.
There were four of us, plus Lee’s dad, and we each had to pitch in to cover the costs. The others were stoked to deep sea fish. I figured if we went too far from land, we would have life vests and rafts in case something happened, so I said I’d go, too. I wasn’t sure what would happen at the Ponderosa restaurant since we were busboys and dishwashers, but Lee’s dad said some of the cooks were going to assist while we were away for the day.
Lee’s dad drove their family’s Bonneville, and with the early morning darkness, the cool wind blowing in the open window vents, Lee’s dad’s Marlboro smoke, and the plush seats, I drifted. The sun hadn’t risen when we arrived at the marina, and Captain Jack wasn’t all that friendly and smelled of stale beer. He tossed some ice bags in a cooler, cranked the old boat, and unraveled ropes tied to the dock. He warned us, “You boys watch your step and don’t slip.”
We had all worn our Sears tennis shoes, gym shorts, and t-shirts. I had wrongly assumed the boat would have a restroom and asked.
“You can hang it over the side or use my bucket in the cabin,” he said. We only had one shared bathroom in our house, but we never used it at the same time or with the door open, and I didn’t feel comfortable everyone on the boat watching everyone else, but using the restroom was the least of my worries.
Moving through the harbor in the still water was nice, and light showed just at the horizon. I imagined it would make a great painting. Once the boat passed the rock jetty, we rollicked up and down like we were riding a mechanical bull in a cowboy bar, and Jeff, the buffest and toughest guy among us threw up the biscuits, eggs, and bacon his mom had made him for breakfast.
Captain yelled over the motor and crashing waves, “Boy, you’ll be alright. My first time out, I got seasick, too.”
I was queasy, but I held my cinnamon pop tarts. Once we were out, the water was calmer, and land disappeared. We came to a stop and bobbed up and down. The Captain tossed the anchor over, told us it was a good area because of a shipwreck below, and helped us bait the hooks with small fish. I wasn’t quite sure how he knew there was a shipwreck, but I didn’t want to question him and get him angry. After all, he was in charge, and I had been taught not to question those in authority.
I had been used to red wrigglers or earthworms to catch bream or chicken livers to catch catfish. He showed us how to cast and cautioned us to hold the rods tight and with both hands. Within five minutes, Lee, his dad, and Jeff had bites and yelled, reeled, and pulled their red snapper and sea bass into the boat and tossed them in the cooler. For the next six hours, we did one repeat performance after another, catching over two hundred pounds.
At one point, we saw a huge vessel about a mile away, and Captain Jack shared from his binoculars, “She’s Russian, probably spying.” It seemed frightening to me given the escalation of rhetoric Dan Rather shared on the nightly news about Reagan and Gorbachev. I only hoped that if tensions escalated while we were at sea, that we would be the least of their concern.
Lee’s dad cut the heads off fish and tossed a bucket load overboard and I felt the boat bump. I turned and looked down into the water and watched a shark’s fin glide through the water around the boat. I whispered to Joe, “Did you see it?”
“Hell, yeah, I saw it. It’s huge.”
“He’s not as big as Jaws, but he was still big,” Joe said.
I hadn’t thought about the life jackets or rafts since I had initially committed, but I didn’t see them anywhere, and suddenly, I wasn’t sure who I wanted more—my parents or Jesus. Quite frankly, either would have sufficed.
After a few minutes,“Jaws’” fin disappeared into the murky deep, and the fish stopped biting. The Captain said he thought it would take about an hour to get back, and I felt elated the adventure was almost over like my first ride on Disney’s Space Mountain, my first drive on the interstate, feeling almost blown off the road by the eighteen wheelers, or even the first football game we lost, but I also felt between the Russian ship and the shark, I was reassured that land was where I belonged. Unfortunately, we had a way to go before we reached land, and as we bumped and busted each wave, I noticed a dense fog surrounding us, and Captain Jack slowed the boat.
“Gonna have to slow her down, boys. Never know what you might hit in a fog. Instruments and radio don’t work.”
“Did he say what I think he said?” Joe asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t like this.”
“You think we’re in the Bermuda Triangle and might disappear?”
“Shut up, Joe, or I’ll make you disappear.” I didn’t tell Joe I had already thought the same thing, but we had recently completed Geography with old man Ferguson who showered the front row with spit, and I remember the triangle was further South near the Bahamas.
“One of you boys needs to get up there on the bow and look port and starboard to make sure nothing is in the way.”
I was relieved Jeff sprinted into action. Every now and again, Jeff yelled “Looks clear”. I imagined ghost pirate ships and fins surrounding us, but I changed my thoughts to family and prayed that if we made it home, that I would stop conjuring nude images of the Morgan twins in class. It wasn’t my first broken promise and wouldn’t be the last.
We heard the bell on a buoy and barely missed running into it, but Captain Jack said he knew exactly where we were and which direction to take. The closer we got to land, the more the fog cleared, and especially when the jetty appeared in my vision, I felt I could swim if needed. When the boat bumped into the dock at the marina, I didn’t help unload the coolers of fish. I headed inside the market to the restroom and vowed if I ever went fishing in the sea again, I would stay on or near the jetty, stay close enough to see land, make sure to have life vests and a raft handy, and go on a boat with a restroom.
A Very Reluctant Reaper
A Very Reluctant Reaper
Today, I was at a motel. I leaned my scythe against the wall and I looked down at my leather-bound ledger to double-check I was at the right room. 12B. That was correct. I stood outside the door and took a deep breath and wished for a cigarette. I still missed them after all these years but it was hard to smoke without lips or lungs. I shook my head and put up my black hood. I floated through the room. Just from the sight, I knew I was lucky I couldn’t smell the place. Body on the bed with black hair, some band shirt, tight jeans, and no socks. There was the blackened spoon that had fallen onto the ground. Needle still in the arm. The body was resting on that floral bedspread the shitty motels had and it had absorbed most of the bodily fluids. By the looks of it, the body had been there for quite some time. She, however, was sitting at the edge of the bed and was staring at me. Her arms crossed. I braced myself for what was coming.
“I’ve been here for DAYS,” she shouted, “Where the hell have you been?”
I held up my hands, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. We’ve been a little backed up.”
“Backed up? I’ve been stuck in a motel room with my dead body. Do you have any idea what this is like?” All too well.
“Hey, hey, hey,” I said, her frown growing in intensity, “I’m here now. You have a problem with the time? Take it up with management. Us reapers can only be at so many places at once. The organization was made when there was a lot less of us on the blue and green.”
She shook her head, “So, now what? Do I have to stay here longer?” “You go to the white light. Get processed. You’ve seen the movies.”
“Do I go to Hell?”
“Not my job. Sorry, I’m just a delivery boy of souls.”
“Job? This is your job?”
Aw shit, I wasn’t supposed to say that part. They talk about the pearly gates, that marble staircase in the sky, and St. Peter checking whether you go up or you go down. They fail to mention that St. Peter has a big clipboard that has your afterlife occupation designation. That’s the real hell. Well, depending on how you did. I did rather poorly on my exit exams.
“Yeah,” I leaned against the wall, “Nobody tells you but you still have to work when you’re dead. How good you did determines the job you get.”
“How’d you get yours?”
“I was pretty bad at most things Christians are supposed to do. I jerked off too much, I drank too much, I got rich (the news anchors always forget to tell you that’s a no-no), and I didn’t really believe in God. So… he decided to teach me a lesson. For eternity. That’s how I got the black clothes,” and I brushed my black sleeves and twisted my scythe so the light reflected off of the metal.
“And they still give you a scythe? Really?”
I looked at it and felt self-conscious. I rocked on my heels.
“Don’t you think you look a little ridiculous for the time?” She continued, looking me up
and down. My clothes felt extra baggy that day. Bones will do that. I guess God doesn’t want us naked even in Death.
“I don’t make these decisions, okay? You ready to come?”
She looked behind her at her dead body. White, cold, and staring at the ceiling. “I can’t believe I died.”
“Yes, you can,” I yawned, “Heroin users aren’t known for their longevity.”
She shook her head, “I was going to get sober soon.”
“I know, dear. At least you won’t have to suffer anymore,” Unless she goes to Hell but I was trying to be a team player. The workshops teach us that.
“Okay,” she looked up at me in my eye sockets, “Before I go, can I feel the breeze one last time?” And she motioned to the window.
I was late already. I had picked up an extra shift for another reaper. But I’ve always been a softy. So, I went over to the window and slid it open. The breeze of the day filled the room. She inhaled deep into her nonexistent lungs. She looked at peace. She wasn’t upset. She understood which is more than I can say for most. I’ve learned plenty of those who dance on the edge of death are less resistant when this time comes. They knew this was a possibility. After a few minutes of the wind blowing through her hair, she stood up and brushed off her jeans. She brushed her hair back and straightened her back.
“What’s it like?”
“You’ll see,” I nodded.
She made a brave face and I waved the scythe. I could do it with my hands but it was always more dramatic with my scythe. A hole was cut into the room. White light beamed out of it. It was the size of her and brighter than anything she had ever seen. She stared at it. Entranced at the reality of it. I stepped to the side. She looked at me one last time before she walked through it. As her body disappeared from this world, the hole closed behind her. I was in the room by myself. I took out my ledger and crossed the name off the list with a pencil. I looked at who was next. A stockbroker. He had been holed up in a condo trying to fight off death for a few months. I groaned. Stockbrokers were always the worst. Not as bad as tech giants but still bad. I had to travel all the way to Chicago. Not my jurisdiction usually but that reaper was on vacation and I had volunteered to help out. A job is a job and you always want to look good for the boss.
Closed-Captioned Book Clubs
CLOSED-CAPTIONED BOOK CLUBS
Nancy Ford Dugan
(sounds of squealing)
It’s so good to see you after all this time!
(floorboards creaking on makeshift dining structure jammed onto sidewalk outside Spanish restaurant)
Oh my God, your hair! It’s so long! And so gray! And in pigtails!
(group gasping, sound of Fosamax jaws crackling open in shock)
Great to see you all too! How are you? You all look wonderful!
(sounds of social exhaustion creeping in at first encounter in over a year)
Well, we can’t even see you. Are you going to take that damn mask off? For God’s sake, we’re outdoors. We’re all vaccinated.
(indistinct yet specific chatter: “She looks awful. It’s the hair. It’s so aging. She’s too pale to pull off gray hair.”)
When we eat, I’ll take the mask off.
(sounds of chairs scooting closer to table, accompanied by effortful grunts; cellulite-ridden thighs encased in snug capris slapping together as they settle into the uncomfortable chairs)
I could snip those pigtails off for you.
(mumbling to self: “Wow, that seems aggressive, even for a dog groomer. And who is she to judge anyone’s hair? She’s had Ruth Buzzi’s center part for decades.”)
Why? I actually like my pigtails.
So do I (waitress approaches). And I like the ombre coloring.
Thank you! See, ladies. I get surprisingly kind reviews from the younger demographic.
(group muttering: “Sure she does. The waitress wants a tip.”)
They’ve already ordered. What can I get you?
Do you have any mocktails? No alcohol. Anything festive is fine. And to eat? Anything with vegetables and without shellfish would be great. Thanks.
Coming right up.
A mocktail? That’s a departure for you. You usually just sip water.
Well, we are celebrating getting the gang back together. Although I know the rest of you have had your monthly meetings for a while now.
(personal muttering: “In violation of all that is sacred and holy; and the mocktail is a new defensive strategy after all these years of splitting the check and covering your multiple glasses of wine.”)
Isn’t eating outside great?
Yes. But if I lean over just a smidge, I’ll be in the street and may get clipped by a moving vehicle.
(sounds of sirens, cars honking)
True. And there are so many! Scooters now, and bikes.
How many more bike lanes do we need, for heaven’s sake?
(sound of creaky older necks nodding in agreement)
They can promote bikes till the cows come home, but it’s just not realistic.
At least we don’t have cows!
That might be sort of nice actually.
Yeah, when the progressives get a little older, let’s see how eager they are to bike everywhere. Try hopping on one after your colonoscopy. See how that feels!
And wait till they get vertigo! Oh, thanks. Here’s my mocktail. To your health, everybody! We are incredibly lucky, and I’m grateful we are all okay.
(sounds of slurping through a biodegradable straw wedged between greenery and unidentifiable fruit)
So, who’d you all vote for today? In the primary.
I am the face of the democratic party.
(sounds of laughter and sighs)
Most of us voted for the sanitation lady.
You know she’s not Hispanic, right?
She’s not? Oh.
Yeah, it’s her married, now divorced, name.
Thanks to ranked voting, we won’t know the results for a week. Let’s see if there are any updates.
(sounds of colorful drugstore reading glasses being whipped out of cases, sounds of swiping and punching on cellphones)
Why, after the last four years, am I still surprised when people vote for TV personalities?
I know! (hums of agreement) It’s all brand recognition. (sounds of tsk)
Did anyone read the book?
What was it again?
The Furies. I thought it was fascinating. It’s about…
(sounds of abrupt cutting off, cacophony of multiple people talking at once, indecipherable)
Oh, here’s our food. Whoops. We all ordered mussels. Will that trigger your allergies?
(sounds of bowls placed on table and requests for extra napkins)
Just my nose and eyes. And skin, with the hives.
(sounds of resignation, sniffling behind a mask, yearning for social distancing)
Stop leaning away from us. We’re all vaccinated. We follow the science.
Maybe she’s leaning because she’s allergic to shellfish.
Oh, that’s true. Sorry. Here comes your vegan platter.
(sounds of gentle mask removal and placement in zippered section of oversized purse; sounds of chewing, swallowing, roughage entering delicate intestinal system, unaccustomed in past year to food prepared by others)
Why is your bag so big? Isn’t it heavy?
(personal muttering: “What’s it to her? Is this how conversation works? It’s been so long.”)
I’m just beginning to venture into stores after months of overpriced online shopping. I wanted to zip into one spot I like in this neighborhood.
What did you get?
(mumbles to self: “Again, so intrusive!”)
Oh, you know. Sundries. (singing) “I want a Sundries kind of love.” (laughs) Remember that song?
(sounds of plucked shells tossed into gruesome, life-threatening bowl)
Did you finally get to visit any members of your family outside the city?
Yup. At last! The train upstate was great. They mandate masks. It wasn’t crowded. I felt more comfortable than I expected.
I don’t think anyone who’s vaccinated should have to wear a mask.
(sounds of sighs and exasperation)
How far is that trip again? Where do you go?
Under two hours to Brewster. Then it’s another thirty-minute ride.
Brewster! Makes me think of Marlo Thomas in That Girl!
Or in my case That Crone!
(giggling, followed by group at nearby table singing “Happy Birthday” as non-lit, candled cake arrives)
Oh, they’re so loud!
It’s nice to see a happy family gathering. Despite their aerosols spraying on us.
Did you catch the birthday girl’s name? It went on and on. How many syllables do you need?
Oh, come on.
Seriously. Two is perfect. Three or more is just showing off.
Or just making it hard for you to pronounce?
Well, there’s that.
What book are we not reading for next month?
Oh, this doesn’t look good. That bike is going awfully fast, and it’s awfully close. It may make that car swerve…
(sounds of chairs scraping, screams)
(sounds of splat)
Ever since Ben was on his high school’s cross country team twenty years ago, he loved running. It had always been his preferred workout, and he could run for an hour or more without difficulty but with that perfect blend of challenge and achievement that made exercise so satisfying. The year he turned thirty, he ran a marathon, and while he was happy with his time, the raucous crowds that lined the routes and cheered the runners made him miss the solitude of distance running that he so enjoyed.
Now in his forties, he would leave the house early, before the midday heat, and be predictably gone for an hour or two, running through streets, wooded areas, open fields, sometimes even losing his way and simply running until he recognized some landmark that reoriented him so he could find his way home. He stayed remarkably fit, and when he ran, he felt weightless, as if on the magic carpet of his sneakers, powering through the air toward the horizon and into the future.
This morning, a Sunday, he left the house without saying goodbye to his wife Sharon because of an unpleasant argument they had over breakfast about one of the million little annoyances that plague marriages. The things that needed fixing around the house. Their teenage son Nathan’s drinking and poor choice of friends. The difficulty Sharon was having finding child care for their three-year-old Beth, and Ben’s resentment that all the daycare slots were gone because Sharon had procrastinated. And of course, money. Ben didn’t get the promotion and pay raise he was expecting because his company lost a major bid to a competitor, which necessitated layoffs. Ben felt lucky just to be able to keep his job. They had recently purchased a new car for Sharon and a new living room set they had been talking about for the better part of a year, and their accumulated credit card debt had now become alarming.
The aggravation Ben felt about the argument gave some extra power to his running, and he took off at a sprint. After three blocks, he knew he had to pace himself if he was going to get in his usual distance so he slowed his gait and let his breathing return to a comfortable level. He turned onto the main boulevard through the town center, across from the ball fields where he saw teams of Little Leaguers practicing, then up the hill and into the state park that covered hundreds of acres. He smiled to himself and thought, “I’m not a dirt track runner, I’m a cross country runner,” remembering how much more he preferred the wooded, overland routes to the boring tracks or roads. He saw a trail marker that said, “Scenic vista, 10.2 miles” and decided to run uphill.
As he ran, he became angry and self-pitying about how lonely he felt in his marriage, how Sharon never took anything seriously, which meant he had to make all the important decisions himself. “Oh, honey,” she would say, “everything’s going to work out,” this being her idea of problem solving. She was in total denial about Nathan’s drinking, and chalked it all up to “boys will be boys.” Ben had a serious drinking problem before he met Sharon that he had never talked to her about. It was in the ’80s, so of course there were routinely mounds of cocaine around. One night, after a stupid stunt that left him with eight stitches in his left shoulder, he went cold turkey for about two years before he settled into mild social drinking and absolutely no drugs. He’d been lucky. He knew all too well about the slippery slope of substance abuse, and he was convinced that Sharon had no idea. There is nothing worse, he thought, than feeling alone in a marriage. It was supposed to be a partnership, a shared enterprise, that’s what makes it all worth it.
He realized he was on the downhill side of the trail, having missed the scenic vista, and was back below tree line. He turned left, off the marked trail and into the woods, hoping to challenge himself a bit by having to dodge the tree roots and boulders. After about twenty minutes, he came out of the woods onto Route 109, a small two-lane road that went under the interstate and into the next county. He looked at his watch and saw that he had been gone for almost two hours. He didn’t feel nearly as tired as he would have expected, and kept running.
He took a few random turns onto random streets, half-hoping to get lost. He thought, “What if I just keep running, end up in some motel three counties over, call my friend Sal to come get my key, sneak into the house when no one is home, bring me my wallet and a few things so I can just keep running. Away from the debt and the house and the new car and the kids and the wife and the job and the living room set, away from all of it. Start over somewhere, anywhere, even change my name or fake my death and just be someone else.”
He felt stronger as he ran, and this idea felt increasingly compelling. There was no downside. He pumped his legs a little harder and felt himself reaching escape velocity.
Without consciously meaning to, he saw that he was running back through town, then onto his street and up his driveway. He looked at his watch, he’d been gone for four and a half hours. He stopped at his side door, stretched his calves, and stepped inside. He forced himself not to say, “Hi honey, I’m home.”
Clenching my teeth, with head held high and comfortable shoes, I stride out the front entrance of the Iowa City Graduate Hotel. I am spending the weekend at the Iowa Writers’ Conference, one of the most prestigious writing schools in the country. I have rented a deluxe room for this occasion, a lifelong dream realized, possibly, just in time. My room is one of a few with a private bath. This splurge was a long time coming, after my husband’s prolonged illness.
The rooms are decorated with a writing theme. The walls ingeniously clad with multicolored pencils, the lamps, old school trophies, the desk equipped with black-and-white notebooks and Eberhard Faber pencils—for your writing pleasure. Years ago, I might have called it tacky. Now, it makes me feel relevant, involved, alive. I search the photos hanging on the walls of the men on the soccer team and imagine them today, their muscles flaccid, their uniforms moth-eaten, in their prime in 1937, when I was born.
After my husband’s death, I stayed put. Afraid to try things on my own. For fifty-seven years, I’d had a bodyguard. He carried the boarding passes, lifted the luggage into the overhead bin, would probably notice if I dropped dead in the hotel room, slipped in the shower, or was trailing a tail of toilet paper out the door. He killed the bugs, paid the bills, stroked my head, and loved me.
I’d never considered the possibility of tripping on a plastic bag and going to Iowa City Medical Center alone. I found the insurance cards and remembered my address and my next of kin. The X-ray disclosed a hairline fracture—the pain continued for the duration of my stay. They gave me a cheesy sling, and I was on my own. I stood on an overturned garbage receptacle and flung myself onto the high bed, amazed that I scaled it by tugging on the sheet.
Most of the time, I was navigating around in a maze.
Backtracking, searching for something, something I need: keys, phone, shopping lists, insurance cards—all nag like a toothache.
My life is now a continuous scavenger hunt. I enjoyed that game when I was a kid. I was good at deciphering the clues, but now, when I finally locate what I’ve misplaced, it’s validation that I have not yet crossed the line.
My thoughtful grandson has given me a doormat that reminds me in bold letters to check for:
KEYS PHONE MEDS
It’s early; I’ve given myself plenty of time to locate my classroom. It’s hot, humid, and uphill—a trifecta that impedes my determination. My writing paraphernalia is heavy; I lug it behind me in a burgundy backpack with wheels that clunk as I shlep them noisily over the cobblestones. They reverberate, causing the students racing past me to turn around and stare.
The concierge has drawn me a diagram; I know to turn left when I exit the hotel. Then climb the hill leading to the campus, and the quadrant of pale stone buildings at the top. They are identical. Each has four entryways, leaving sixteen possible choices. I am out of breath, and panting. I feel the sweat gluing my thighs together as I circle the buildings looking for the right door. Nothing is familiar, even though we had a welcome dinner here last night. Time is running out, and I am forced to ask a coed wearing shredded shorts with long strings hanging from the crotch, and tendrils of hair echoing the statement. “Where is building A?” I ask, horrified that I might be at the very place where my journey began ten minutes ago. “You are standing in front of it; follow me.” She beckons.
Breathlessly, I enter the classroom. My eyes averted, I lift the wheely thing off the floor to keep it quiet. Everyone stares as I take a seat in the last row and ruffle through my papers, retrieve my water bottle and shawl. The air conditioning temperature cannot be regulated and is on the igloo setting. I am aware that they are all waiting for me to get settled, and also, that I am the oldest person in the room.
I remember another time, more than forty years ago.
My late husband and I are sitting in the front row at a comedy club performance—never a good idea—I remember being warned about that, too late.
I glance around the room and notice that we are probably the oldest people in the audience. I mention that to my husband, whispering into his familiar warm ear. “You are nuts,” he responds curtly.
The hyperactive comedian leaps onto the stage and greets his loyal audience. There is a lot of clapping and catcalls. He is strutting, enjoying the adulation when suddenly he stops and notices us in the first row—big mistake. I sense it coming; something tells me I am right; he is staring at us with lust in his eyes.
Slowly, with determination and a deep bow, he says, “Ladies and gentlemen, look who we have with us tonight.” Long pause. “Let’s give a rousing cheer for Fred and Ethel Mertz.” The audience and my husband are hysterical. I, on the other hand, am mortified. Is it too late to move to another country that reveres its elders? I wonder.
I have not forgotten that moment—the burn can still crawl up my neck, and my eyes can still smart. I can feel diminished and humiliated. But suddenly I’m laughing with them, and I’m the audience, not the victim.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” I ask nobody in particular.
I am amazed when the maze eventually leads me through to completion—giddy, when the other students laugh as I read my newest story to them. One gent sharing later how he almost “pissed his pants” when my protagonist told us that she considered writing porn part of her writing practice.
But most of all, I am amazed to know that I can still be amazed.
It was five o’clock. I had just passed through Covent Garden and was walking towards the Thames Embankment. Throngs of people… Londoners, mostly business people in proper navy or gray pin stripes, heads down, faces serious, mingled with talkative tourists dressed in jeans and sandals. Everyone hurried…a dash to the underground, a bar, or yet another of the small shops dotting the area. The sound of rushing footsteps was occasionally punctuated by strains of violin or accordion music provided by street musicians eager to add a few more coins to their day’s earnings. A corner pub cast its calm, benevolent gaze over this mass of bustling humanity. Cascades of brilliant violet petunias and flaming marigolds overflowed the flowerpots hanging under its eaves. “Old Nagshead”, written in elegant, gleaming gold script, graced the black border that ran across the building’s facade.
Suddenly, I noticed a small crowd forming a semi-circle at the corner opposite the pub. All eyes were fixed on a strange, otherworldly figure standing by the lamppost and facing the group. An oasis of silence had been cast amid the bustle and rush of the crowd. The figure, painted in silver from toe to head, glistened in the slanted rays of late afternoon sun.
Silver shoes…large with bulbous toes; silver trousers…tightly stretched across a bony frame; silver, close-cropped jacket. Hands, fingers…all painted silver. My eyes traveled upward to his narrow shoulders and high collar centered by a wide, silver four-in-hand. Then to the face…again, silver. A faint, enigmatic half-smile wavered on closed, silver lips. At last a respite…his eyes, laced round with dark lashes, were shiny brown orbs framed in white. A silvery frown creased his forehead as those dark, expressionless eyes surveyed the group of curious, silent, gathering spectators. He carried a small, silver umbrella in his left hand, and slowly, ever so slowly, raised it over his silver, peaked cap. Gradually it opened, protecting him at last from the setting sun filtering down over tops of shops and restaurants. He lifted his right foot ever so slightly… paused…then after a moment or two, carefully closed the umbrella and placed it deliberately on the sidewalk beside him. He paused again, then solemnly reached into his trouser pocket and leisurely removed a gray, string-like object. He raised his hand to his lips, and with measured breaths began to inflate the limp mass.
My gaze strayed from this hypnotic figure and rested on a young boy who stood at the front of the onlookers. He couldn’t have been more than six or seven. His red hair was close-cropped; his skin pale and freckled. Head tilted, thin mouth ajar, a frown creased his forehead. A mixture of puzzlement and wonder filled his blue eyes, eyes which never for a moment left the bizarre figure of the silver man.
Soon a form emerged from the mouth of the man…a dark, silvery gray transparency of a dog…a curly balloon tail; short, pudgy balloon legs; long body and small head topped by the tiniest of balloon ears. With each blow of silver breath, the boy’s knees pumped as if to help his mysterious friend complete his magical task. At last the creation was complete. The silver man held it up for the boy and all around him to admire. He slowly, oh so very slowly, turned in a triumphant half-circle, the same, never-changing half smile grazing his silver lips.
Abruptly, in mid-turn, and for no apparent reason, the silver man jerked to a stop. He raised his arm, seized the silver cap from his head, and tossed it on the sidewalk where it landed near a box sparsely filled with coins. He then squashed the balloon-creature and tossed it casually into the corner waste bin. The spell broken, he paused, calmly took a cigarette from his silver trousers, lit it, then squatted down on the curb, eyes averted, waiting for the next group of passers-by. “Old Nagshead”, steadfast, continued smiling down, but the crowd, anxious to get on with its concerns, dispersed as quickly as it had gathered.
I saw the back of the little boy, head down, shoulders hunched, clutching the hand of his father as his small legs struggled to keep up with the rushing crowd. He did not look back, and I did not wish to see his face.
Sunday at Jarry Park
Sunday at Jarry Park
“Oh! They are married.” Granddaughter Jessica twirls round and round. Sings: “Kiss. Kiss. Tam. Ta-Tam. Oh! She is so pretty.”
A wedding party is coming around the bend on a narrow gravel path. A photographer and a cameraman accompany the newly married Asian couple. Tell them where to stop. Where to stand. Two bridesmaids walk with the young wife. One is dressed in tomato red, the other in black lace. The maid of honour, in pale yellow.
My grandchildren play hide-and-seek in the park. Amanda is ten, Jessica, seven, and Matthew five-years-old. The children run toward the couple. Laugh and giggle. The bride is lovely in a long, white satin wedding dress. The groom is wearing a black tuxedo.
My daughter Marisa sits on a low cement wall facing the pond. Blinking in the afternoon sun, she looks with indifference at all the commotion. Amanda sits down beside her mother and states in a matter-of-fact voice: “I guess she is marrying him because he is so handsome.”
Marisa gives her a half-smile. I wonder what she is thinking. Twelve years earlier, it was her wedding day. October 8, 1988, she married Jeffrey. The bride Catholic, the groom Jewish. We gave her a traditional Italian wedding with three white limousines, a Rolls Royce, a photographer and a cameraman. Over a hundred guests danced all night to a trio band at Princess Buffet. The bride’s parents’ wedding gift, a key to her own house.
I was still married then. I left my husband a year later, on the first wedding anniversary of Marisa and Jeffrey. They were expecting their first child.
I look at Marisa’s huddled body. Blinking in the afternoon sun, she doesn’t speak to young Amanda. Outpatient at Douglas psychiatric hospital. The medications are powerful. They also tranquilize her joy. She suffers from chronic lung sarcoidosis. Generalized anxiety disorder. Melancholia. She lives in an adult foster home under public curatorship.
Youth Protection court. Divorce court. Jeffrey obtained full custody. I supervise her children’s visits: “Owing to potential, accidental, harm to children.”
Bees are buzzing at the open garbage can. We have an Indian summer in October. I call my grandchildren and we walk back to McDonald’s on St-Lawrence Boulevard. They romp and slide in the playroom. Jeffrey and his girlfriend Alicia pick them up at three o’clock. The Sunday visit is over. Marisa takes the metro back to the foster home in LaSalle. I catch a bus to my downtown studio.
What Might Have Been
What Might Have Been
I have a photo of me standing next to my mother. I am probably two or three years old. It is a wintry day and my snowsuit envelopes me. My right hand points up at the sky. Perhaps at a bird, perhaps the sun, perhaps the faintest of moons. I have no idea what my childish self saw. But as I now gaze upon that moment of magical thinking, I wonder if it is good to let yourself stray from the path a little and follow your inner child, because you never know what you might find.
In Greek mythology, the Fates, a group of three goddesses, weave our destinies at birth. Supposedly, they determine not only the length of one’s life, but also the allotment of joy. Or misery. You might think, since the Fates were women, they might have been kind to the women in my family. Sadly, that was not the case.
The women in my family had no poverty of aspiration. My father’s mother, blessed with a beautiful soprano voice and an offer to study music in Vienna, found that road closed to her because of her fearful parents. As fate would have it, her parents had just arrived in America and refused to allow their daughter to return to the country they had fled, even if it presented the possibility of a stellar career in the world of opera. Her life continued through an arranged marriage to a much older man. A child followed, then his frequent absence, and his return leading to another birth, then another, and finally divorce. In a limited education and job that wasted her talents. In a basement apartment in Brooklyn, where she could never fully escape poverty or loneliness. In perennial resentment towards my mother, never ever good enough for her son. In bitterness that made me a fearful silent child whenever my father and I visited her.
Poverty crushed my mother’s dream of teaching. She grew up in Hartford, Connecticut and her parents offered to send her to the nearby New Britain State Normal School for teachers. Too close to home for her. She dreamed of college in some far-off place.
Her sister Irene, the eldest, wanted to be a nurse. But it was 1933, there were eight children, and the Great Depression being what it was, the family needed Irene to work. So she took a job at the local department store and never left Hartford. My mother escaped to New York City and the nursing school Irene had hoped for, one sister’s dreams cascading into the other’s.
Nevertheless, they remained close. When I was a child I often heard them on the phone. Long conversations, often about their unhappy marriages, never about their careers. Conversations overheard that determined me to never marry, because marriage would stunt my talents and derail my dreams.
I was wrong.
I was a bit of a tomboy as a child. I played every sport I could in high school and lettered in track and field, softball, and bowling. My parents wanted me to go to college. I wanted a career in sports. Title IX, providing new opportunities in sports for women, was passed two years after I graduated high school. Too late for athletic scholarships or women’s varsity. Too late to imagine a decent-paying career in sports other than as a physical education teacher, a career I did not want. The best I could do, as my college newspaper reported, was star in powder puff football, with “two interceptions … in the final game of the regular season.”
I loved sports, but I also loved theater. Musical theater. I inherited my grandmother’s voice, and what I longed for most of all was a life on Broadway.
I attended auditions but was never cast. One day my voice teacher said “music can always be an avocation, you know.” I was stunned. Slapped in the face. Was she saying I wasn’t talented enough? Would never earn my living with my voice? I couldn’t ask. But I now realize she knew, and perhaps deep inside I knew, that my happiness lay elsewhere.
This detour did not result in bitterness like my grandmother’s, although I inherited her voice and the irony does not escape me. This simply was not the star my inner child saw.
My mother was not bitter either, although a bit disappointed, I think. She shared recordings of my voice with neighbors, queried them about children who were in “the business” and might “give me a break.”
She was not disappointed by my next move. A move that took us both by surprise.
My husband and I met at a swimming pool on a sunny March afternoon in California. We marvel over the insistence of the Fates. Had we made different choices, we might well have met and married in New York City, he taking the job he was offered there and I remaining to seek a career in musical theater. Or even earlier, in Illinois, where we both strode the same campus at the same time, but apparently never crossed paths. If destined to meet, we certainly made it quite difficult for the Fates to succeed.
After my mother died many years later, as I cleaned out closets long neglected, I found old family photos. Of weddings, of days at the beach, of holiday parties, of old people sitting around and talking. Those photos gave me a clearer and more focused picture of my family’s choices.
Divorced when it was still considered shameful, a single mother supporting three children and her own mother, the best job my grandmother could find was as housemother to student nurses in Beth Israel Hospital in New York City. I found a photo of her at her desk, sitting ramrod straight, gaze cold, and lips stiff, as if she had just issued a reprimand. Probably little different from her demeanor when my father told her he was marrying my mother, one of her former student nurses.
Mother was tough on her nurses too, but former co-workers told me she was the best head nurse they ever knew. Perhaps that’s why a 1939 photo reveals her, just out of nursing school in starched uniform and cap, grinning at the camera. Newly licensed. Independent. Hopeful about the road ahead.
The wedding photos of my aunt Irene suggested that she was not hopeful about the road she was heading down. She frowned in every photo. Wedded bliss was not what she was expecting. And not what she got, either. She married an inveterate gambler more interested in the ponies than raising a family and uninterested in the children she so wished to have but never did. Photos through the years show an increasingly worn and saddened woman. Was it for this, she seemed to ask. My mother must have agreed about my uncle. She kept plenty of photos of her sister Irene, but few included Irene’s husband.
I noticed something else in those photos. As Irene aged, she seemed to become someone else. All the relatives did. Like those high school reunion photo name tags, they became ancient witnesses to the people they had been. But then, I thought, perhaps they actually became more themselves … perhaps after being on the road a long time, they simply knew themselves better, were more able to show their happiness, their bitterness, their disappointment.
And I wondered if, as I had wandered down paths too numerous to remember, perhaps I too had become more myself. More able to understand the triviality of my so-called failures and to cherish my accomplishments. More able to understand the sadness of others and not hold grudges. More aware of the immense love in my life. Yet aware of questions I should still ask, of love I should still give.
I found my intellectual path somewhat late in life, at least that’s how I felt in graduate school, a thirty-eight year old student, isolated from much younger hipper classmates. I labored for six years for a doctorate in English Literature and loved teaching, but had no desire to teach in any of the places I interviewed. A major press showed interest in my dissertation, but I did not follow up, my desire to labor on a book that appeared unlikely to get me a position in a field flooded with younger candidates fairly low. Neither my dissertation director nor any other professor explained how the road ahead might diverge, offering other choices. And earning a decent living loomed largest.
But literature now colors all I see and I do not regret the worlds it opened up. Books are my most trusted of friends and I sit down with them often. When I am about to speak in anger, Jane Austen reminds me “good opinion, once lost is lost forever.” When I think only of myself, George Elliot reminds me: “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other.” I no longer bear grudges, because Charlotte Bronte reminds me “Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs.”
Robert Frost once said in a letter to a friend, “No matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh, and wish you’d taken another.” I still wonder what life would have been like had I accepted a professorship and married another scholar or coached softball or been a star in musical comedy. But these days I do find the time to read George Eliot, sing in a choral group, watch women competing in softball and basketball, and dream of what might have been. And so those things have become, not my vocation, not the way I earn my daily bread, but my avocations, the things that bring light to a world that sometimes threatens darkness at any moment.
If my grandmother had become an opera singer, she might have had a happy marriage and mentored me. If my mother had been a teacher, I might have found my literary path sooner. But I now realize the might-have-beens of three generations of women are not useful. Learning to be at ease with the life I have is what mattered most.
She died at age fifty. Not too young anymore but definitely not old. She had insulin-dependent diabetes. She was diagnosed at a young age. She didn’t just die of some accident or disease; she killed herself. Serene was her name. How ironic. Her life turned out to be everything but calm, everything but peaceful and untroubled. She grew up in a dysfunctional family with an inept father, a sister, and a brother. That brother was the only one who managed to escape the village and a sad fate. I was told that Serene and her siblings were faraway cousins to me, although I never understood what that meant. The intricacies of my genealogy tree and the various relationships among its members, if not within the immediate family, have never been clear to me.
Serene’s mom, Atessa, died in her early thirties of an ictus, a cerebral thrombosis. There is nothing else that can be done. Her life is now holding on to a thin thread, the doctors reluctantly and apologetically announced to her husband as he, I heard, was tightly grasping his hat with both his hands, his mouth agape, while slowly getting up from a white metal chair in the white waiting room of the hospital.
Atessa agonized for a few days at home. Then she exhaled her last breath, leaving behind three beautiful children and a useless husband. If he was the one to die, things would have turned out better for everybody, I often heard other relatives whisper to one another. Atessa would have taken much better care of the children. There is no substitute for a good mother. They would have had fewer troubles and a happier life.
My parents went to visit the family after Atessa was brought back home from the hospital. I was very young but I have memories of that visit.
Atessa’s family lived in a beautiful villa on top of a sunny hill, surrounded by green meadows. I remember thinking that I would have loved to live there. But then I saw Atessa in the darkness of her deathbed, her eyes rolled back, her breathing harsh, her once beautiful face now swollen and deformed. A deep sadness came on to me, and nothing about that house seemed desirable any longer.
My parents and Atessa’s husband, a tall, skinny man with ill-fitting clothes whom I was told to call uncle, asked me and the children to go and play outside. I guess the adults wanted to talk freely about the enormity of that tragedy and keep us from peeking into Atessa’s bedroom, although it was customary to let children go at the bedside of the dying.
I led the way as we walked down the hallway and left the house in silence. We immediately started to run toward the wildflower fields without making a sound. There was no laughter, no screaming. Our ears were filled by the high-pitched chirping of the swallows and our lungs by the fragrant spring air.
We raced all the way to the edge of the woods. I remember the three siblings refusing to go any further. They seemed scared of the dark path ahead, which looked impenetrable to sunlight. Their parents had told them not to go into the woods alone. Wild boars would occasionally come down from the surrounding mountains looking for food and could be dangerous.
I looked at the three children. There were no smiles on their pale, worried faces. They looked like little ghosts. I don’t ever remember them smiling. The death of their mom and what followed must have thrown them into a deep depression. The father was not a bad man, although he would scream and yell at them for the smallest things. He just didn’t quite know how to be of comfort to the children nor even to himself. He lived in a different world, a world of photography and filmmaking that took his attention away from the family. He was absent. The children grew up unwell, starved for affection and much-needed attention. They must have been fighting depression since young ages. The girls never recovered from the trauma. One of them, Sondra, earned a PhD in mathematics, but she never did anything with it. She never worked. She became a recluse, living in a large, old apartment back in the village left to her by her grandmother. She lived there with two dogs in total filth. Serene used to say Sondra had a hardened heart, that she was capable of loving only her dogs. But that was not true. My mom said that after Serene died, she would hardly leave the house. She would sit in the kitchen in almost total darkness and feed the dogs what she should have cooked for herself, whispering songs to them.
Serene had diabetes and needed insulin to control her blood sugar level. Her grandmother had diabetes too and had died of the complications that came with it. I remember her: a thin, small woman with fine features, long, silky white hair gathered in a bun, pale skin, and blue eyes. I remember her struggle with ingrown toenails and the painful extractions that she had to endure. The diagnosis of diabetes is a tough one to swallow, and when people are that young, like Serene was at the time of her diagnosis, when they don’t have any support and they are already struggling with deep feelings of sadness and depression, then there is no way they’ll ever win that battle. Short of a miracle, they are doomed. There were no miracles in Serene’s life and so she was doomed.
One year, in late summer, Serene became very sick with a foot infection and ended up in the small, local hospital. My mom, who was down in the village at that time, went to visit her. Serene told her she didn’t want to live anymore. She said she was tired of it and wanted to leave. She began to refuse her medications. After discharge from the hospital, she started eating a lot of sweets and skipping the insulin injections until she stopped them altogether. Her aunt Marisa saw her before Christmas and said that Serene looked very old and emaciated. She had lost a bunch of hair and a lot of weight; her skin was gray and all wrinkles.
Serene very well knew that stopping the insulin injections and eating sweets would have been the end of her, and she did it on purpose. It was the only way to put an end to her painful life without a clamorous gesture like jumping out of the window or overdosing on medications. It was a suicide by omission, and it was well thought out, without last-moment regrets. She killed herself slowly and could have stopped anytime, but she didn’t because she truly wanted to go. She was determined to die. Death was her way out, maybe the only thing she felt she had control over, the only way to free herself of so much pain.
My mom said she was relieved that Serene was not among us any longer because she knew how bad her life had been, and finally now she wasn’t suffering anymore. There was truth to that, but the fact that she wasn’t suffering anymore wasn’t of much consolation to me. I thought of all the things that could and should have happened to change the course of her life, all the misery that could have been avoided or lessened, but nothing happened, and nothing could have been changed any longer. I didn’t help either. I was so far away, gone for so long. I never really had much of a relationship with any of the three cousins. I was raised in another region. Then, as I grew up, I proceeded to move from city to city, from country to country, shredding many of the already thin threads of my genealogy tree. I have realized, over time, that those children were not the only ones I had left behind and forgotten about.
I hadn’t forgotten everything, though: one episode continued to haunt me, maybe because I’ve always regretted the way I behaved. I was about seven or eight, and we were at a campsite right on the beach. My family invited the uncle and the three cousins to come and visit. Their mother was already gone. My parents gave me some money and told me to go to the bar with the children and buy them an ice cream. So we went together but when I got there, I came up with an excuse not to buy them anything because I wanted to keep the money for myself. My parents never gave me any allowance, and when I found that money in my hands, I had a hard time letting go of it. Earlier in the day I had seen a cute necklace with a starfish pendant and thought that I could have used the money to buy that instead of the ice cream. I remember us sitting at a table on the bar deck. I can still see those sad little faces and me coming up with a stupid excuse not to spend the money. I said that since we already ate cookies and chocolate and drank sparkling lemonade at the beach, the ice cream wasn’t really necessary. The moment I said that, I so very much regretted it. I knew it was wrong but went ahead with my little scheme nevertheless. I was a child, maybe too young and selfish to understand that small gestures of kindness go a long way, but shouldn’t I have bought them the biggest, most delicious ice cream there was on the menu, and hugged them and been extra kind to them, knowing how unhappy they were?
What happened to the lives of those children? Were they ever happy? Did they ever feel loved? What is this life about, if human beings have so much trouble going through it? They say that life is not what happens to us, it’s what we make out of it, placing a lot of emphasis on our inner strength and our ability to overcome difficulties of all sorts. This statement makes the assumption that every human being should be capable of summoning that strength and coming out on top, despite the misery of their own personal circumstances and the constraints of their own genetic makeup. Granted that some people might be able to do just that, I don’t think it’s possible or realistic to expect it of everyone or to blame those who can’t. Ideally it would be wonderful to turn lemons into lemonade or, even better, into Limoncello, but this is not going to happen because, since birth, human beings have to reckon with the cards they’ve been dealt. These cards can be really challenging ones, and they come in the form of broken, dysfunctional, underprivileged families, medical disease, poverty, physical and mental challenges, abusive environments, lack of support, and unfortunate zip codes.
Some people, fueled by faith, hope, and personal beliefs, are able to struggle through life all the way to the bitter end. Others will kill themselves. Others, like Serene, stop doing what keeps them alive, because you don’t have to put a gun to your head or in your mouth to kill yourself. You don’t have to hang yourself, or slit your wrists, or jump out of the window, or overdose on pills. You can do it like she did. Slowly, willingly, without ever looking back. Or maybe it was the looking back that made her do it because all she saw was pain and abandonment.
Some people write letters when they decide to die. I wondered if Serene left one behind. I don’t believe she did, but her sister, Sondra, said that Serene wanted the people in her life to know that she carried no hard feelings toward them, although they might have disappointed or hurt her. Was I one of those people?
Sondra also said that Serene started talking more often about how much she wanted to see her mom again. Serene wondered if her mom was in a better place, a brighter place filled with love and peace, the things that neither one of them had on this Earth. Serene said that she felt like she didn’t belong to this world anymore; all she ever wanted was a chance to shine and be happy. Serene had searched for something that was not here, and she had no hope she could ever find it. Her life had been a heartache, and she wanted to forget it all and be free. Sondra said that Serene used to listen to a song of Macy Gray, a song about a letter, and would sing along and whisper, while looking at her, don’t be sad for me.
Sometimes, in the twilight of my dreams, I see myself and my three cousins running again toward the woods and hesitating for a moment as we enter the dark, shaded path, smiling at each other and holding hands.
The Elusive Taint of Perfection
The Elusive Taint of Perfection
I’ve never traveled to St. Ives but I have in fact met a man with seven wives. Isn’t that the way the riddle goes? And though this particular man had one cat, he had neither sacks nor kits. What he did have was a prodigious ego and a huge repertoire of killer stories. As he described himself, “I may not have class, but I do have style! Whoa!”
I met Ronnie on a dating website and answered his ad because he used the word “cogent“ in his note to me. After seeing many posts with misspellings and typos, or simply with boring litanies of each man’s purported interests, I had to sit up when I saw that word. I answered Ronnie’s ad, we met for coffee and the rest was dating history.
An avid book collector and trader, we would pore through the stacks at all the local Goodwill stores looking for volumes that he had an interest in or could resell. It was an enjoyable way to spend my afternoons after many men on the site promised sensual escapades or walks on the beach. Ronnie was different.
Ronnie was a cab driver. He took pride in his car and in being “first up” at the Hilton. Whenever I needed a ride, all I had to do was call his private number and he would appear with a big grin on his handsome face waiting to whisk me away.
He was a bigger-than-life man, secure in his corpulence. He smoked huge cigars and told the aforementioned killer stories whenever there was a momentary gap in our conversations. “Did I ever tell you about the time I treated ten teenage boys to a Yankees game?” or “Did you hear the one about how I adopted my cat Betsy from a crazy person on Craigslist?” Some might have thought Ronnie tedious and self-centered but I preferred to think he had a real zest for life.
On one evening, after we’d finished searching the shelves at our local second-hand store, Ronnie and I were relaxing at his apartment. He had put on a Coleman Hawkins recording just a little too loudly, as he was wont to do, and we vibed to the sweet sound of the sax while Ronnie shouted to be heard over Hawk. “Did I ever tell you about the time I spent as a volunteer fire fighter?,” he asked, not wanting an answer but merely using the question as a segue for his story. “I was living in Santa Barbara with my third wife – that was Gina – and I guess I decided life was too serene. I wanted to get out and save some lives so I went down and joined the fire department. Unbelievable, right?”
The story went on. The saxman went on. And I couldn’t help but smile. Here was a middle-aged man who took such glee in his own exploits that he had to share them enthusiastically and often. Here was a man, one might say, who had something to prove. The stories were entertaining but they were also sad. Ronnie was constantly needing to prove himself. I only learned this gradually and after hearing and analyzing a prodigious assortment of his exploits. All of his stories featured himself in the hero role. I didn’t know what was real and what might be purely apocryphal. To be sure, Ronnie enjoyed hearing them as much as I did. And he kept them coming.
And the thing was, Ronnie adored women. I wouldn’t have trusted him as far as I could throw him, but life with him was a spectacle. He treated me to lavish dinners and weekend trips to the coast or to the deserts of Eastern Oregon. He regaled me with stories and songs of love, with flowers and with promises made in passion but kept in friendship. Don’t get me wrong. He had a lot of issues. He was not Mr. Right. But I had fun with him and fun is often in short supply when one is a woman of a certain age looking to meet eligible men.
His living room had a massive grandfather clock that chimed every hour and half-hour and a sprawling gold-upholstered settee that made me want to lie down and eat peeled grapes (which Ronnie once accommodated). He had a state-of-the-art sound system for listening to his beloved jazz records. In time, I came to learn it was all an illusion. The furniture was rented and he scrambled each week to make the payments out of his up-and-down income as a cabbie. The dinners and the trips were done on borrowed funds. He wanted so badly to be that man of means who had the world by the tail.
Ronnie had loans out all over town and spent his off-work hours driving around repaying them in little dribs and drabs, just enough to keep his chits afloat. I know because he borrowed money from me too and paid it back in small irregular sums every day or two. When he’d finally repaid me in full, he made me call him a man of his word. This was very important to him. I got the feeling that it was a matter of some debate depending on who you talked to.
Ronnie was a tornado passing through my life and, at the time, I welcomed the stormy diversion. He was loud, emphatic and easily impressed with the creature comforts. Underneath it all, he was a sweet man who wanted to be liked. And I liked him. I guess that was the basis of our friendship.
Once, at a time when the leaves were starting to turn and the days were long, Ronnie suggested that we take an impromptu road trip to Florence, Oregon, to partake of the casino and enjoy the Fall color along the way. I packed snacks and drinks in a cooler, provided some relevant AAA maps and guidebooks, and set off to pick up Ronnie at his townhome. When I arrived there, his drapes were pulled shut and I couldn’t hear any music coming from inside so I got out of the car and knocked on the door. He answered after two or three knocks and told me he had changed his mind about the trip. He no longer wanted to go. There was no reason given, just the general impression from his uncharacteristically quiet voice and the sad look on his face that something bad had happened. He didn’t want to talk about it. I couldn’t convince him to change his mind so I got back into my car and set off alone. When I returned three days later, there were no messages from Ronnie. He hadn’t phoned or come by. I tried calling him but there was no answer, just an automatic rerouting to his voicemail. Puzzling, for sure.
I continued to try to reach him until I finally got the message after several days that he was purposefully incommunicado. The party was over. I just figured he’d met someone else and that our affair was at an end after six months or so of noise and carousing. The possibility of something being seriously wrong never crossed my mind. Ronnie was emotional and likely to end a relationship in as messy a way as he had lived it. I guess I always knew the day would come. So I moved on.
I took a writing class, adopted a dog and started seeing another man, Dennis Chang. Dennis was more sophisticated and more reserved than Ronnie. He lived his life in a careful, thought-out manner. We took a few really nice trips and went out for coffee or meals at least twice a week. With Dennis, life was orderly and dare I say it – ordinary – after the chaos that was Ronnie. There was a cultural aspect, I thought, to what was a fairly significant incompatibility between us. Just once I would have liked to see him do something spontaneous, but it never happened. As a traditionally Chinese man, he lived his life with a guarded sense of balance at play. Harmony and order were important to him in a way that I could neither understand nor embrace. Our relationship fizzled out in time, not with a bang but with a whisper. He was probably bothered by my impulsiveness and I was, quite simply, bored to tears. He was a good man but not the right man for me.
After Dennis, I tried again on and off to contact Ronnie but without success. I wondered if he’d packed up and moved away. I tried to forget about him. Still, there seemed something unfinished in our relationship, an aspect that was left dangling. One day we were fine and the next day he was gone, up in a puff of cigar smoke.
I had gone into Goodwill one day to find some travel books on the Mexican Riviera as I’d planned a cruise with a writing buddy of mine, and I glimpsed a friendly face in the stacks. I couldn’t put a name to the face but there was something familiar in the stance, the affect.
“You don’t recognize me, do you? It’s me, Ronnie.”
He had lost perhaps a hundred pounds and wore his hair long with a beard.
“I knew you were somebody I knew,” I stammered. “But you look so different than you did a year ago when I last saw you.”
“I had a heart attack,” he said. “I’ve had to change the whole way I live. No more elaborate meals. No more salt. No more cigars. I’m a real bore.”
“Are you okay now?” I sputtered, not sure what to say.
He assured me that he was okay physically, but there was something missing in the aura of joy that he’d once exuded. He was a changed man. I could see it plain as day.
We hugged. He promised to call me, though I knew he never would.
Then it all made sense. He must have been sick when he broke off our relationship. He didn’t want to share that fact, didn’t want to be the subject of what he would have interpreted as my pity. He just went away on his own to suffer, like a wounded animal. Now he was different, chastened, and he thought the new man not worthy of my love and admiration. It was true, I did feel sorry for him. And that was the last thing he would have wanted.
I went home saddened.
It was at about that time that I reconnected with Dennis and drifted back into a relationship with him. If the first time had seemed distant and somehow impersonal, the second go-round was a real eye-opener. It hadn’t occurred to me that we spent all of our evenings at my place, never his. When we went by his house, it was just so he could pick up some belongings or feed his dog. I always waited in the car.
Then, on one occasion, we went by his house after work to pick up his binoculars en route to the beach. He paused and then invited me inside. I knew this represented a new stage in the relationship. He was trusting me to go into his home.
I took a breath and followed him in. What I saw were not the accoutrements of a secret life or a messy frat house scene as I’d imagined. It was surreal. Everywhere I looked Dennis had plastic bins stacked and organized containing a wide array of belongings from paperclips to old newspapers to hamburger wrappers. There were grease-stained paper bags all neatly folded, soiled plastic dishes and utensils stacked high, rubber bands, old batteries, and empty tubes from paper towels and toilet tissue. It turned out he saved literally everything he’d ever touched, all neatly ordered and labeled. The mess was enormous, towering, and crowding in on the narrow walkways that remained throughout the house. He didn’t look at me as we made our way among the bins and piles, whether out of shame or because he needed to watch where he was going.
The fact that Dennis was a full-on hoarder took me aback. I can tolerate my share of kinks but somehow this struck me as more than neurotic. It all made me wonder what he did with the people in his life. Did he store their bodies in the crawlspace? I tried not to react too strongly. I could tell he was waiting and feeling vulnerable to my response. Surprisingly, he was able to locate the binoculars straight away and we made our way out of the claustrophobic setting and back to the car for our trip.
Nothing was ever said. He never asked me what I thought about the scene and I never ventured an opinion. It was the beginning of the end for us. We drifted apart and I saw less and less of him until he ultimately moved back to Arizona where he’d come from.
In the meantime, I continued to think about Ronnie.
Everyone, by a certain age, carries a lot of baggage. I include myself in this supposition. After the brief glow of youth, no one remains unblemished. Everyone is flawed, everyone is damaged. I was not going to find Mr. Right because he didn’t exist in my compromised world. I had been tearing through life looking for some type of perfection that wasn’t there. Where I should have been seeking a kindred spirit, I was searching for a straw man.
I allowed my membership in the online dating service to lapse. If I was to find a partner in life, I would find him in some more prosaic setting, perhaps groping among the avocados at the grocery store or walking his dog in an Oregon downpour. There would be no romantic epiphany. No magic. Just an ordinary meeting of two impaired souls on solid ground. Still, I liked my odds. It meant I didn’t have to feign faultlessness either. I needn’t lose those final ten pounds. I didn’t have to worry about whether my clothes or my car were good enough. I didn’t need to hide the fact that I liked cats or that I’d never really graduated from college. Instead, I was free to be myself, in all my quirky, imperfect glory.