Despite his earnest beliefs to the contrary, polite society continued to cling to several established notions which, among others, marked its superstitious barbarism: the syllogism about all good stories needing to be told; the silliness about the rainmaker-in-chief suffering from poor public relations; the absurd insistence on lining men’s swim garments with a genital-oriented mesh halo prone to holding sand where it was least wanted; and, the arrogant inclination to preserve everything – fallow fields, derelict train stations of yore, habitable habitats, special species, and loving relationships, included - as if society itself was the key component of history and all else needed to be held in stasis in shrine immemorial.
Doug didn’t get out much, but when he did, he walked with the purpose of the man hoofing it across a hot parking lot into an air conditioned retail outlet.
“Wear a ribbon to raise awareness….,” began the puffy, denim-clad male of indeterminate age made older by a whiskered face and thick poseur frames.
“For what?” Doug cut him off mid-sentence, looking over the interloper’s We’ll End A.I.D.S. Now! (W.E.A.N.!) display atop the card table adjacent to the door inside the Banana Republic he’d just entered. “For A.I.D.S!?! You really think you’re going to find anyone in here who’s unaware of A.I.D.S? This is a Banana Republic Outlet in suburban Atlanta, not a free health clinic in some banana republic hot zone.”
“I just thought…I mean, every bit helps,” managed the hyper-aware, shaking a can emblazoned with the logo and the thanks of some corporate not-for-profit.
“Every bit helps your ego, you mean?”
“You pass out taffeta ribbons to shoppers buying shorts and halter tops in an air conditioned store, sitting on your ass, and you have the condescension to tell others that you are ‘raising awareness?’ Well, golly gee, are there any other well-known maladies you’d like to make me aware of today – cancer, poverty, acid rain?” Doug really hammed up the last sentence, evoking the drawl of a wide-eyed rube with low blood sugar.
The reasons for his isolation – self-imposed or otherwise – were readily apparent to those whom he met, if not to himself.
His phallocratic tendencies regarding swimwear aside, Doug thought himself a level-headed optimist. Who, after all, would be able to bear each successive day burdened by such dismay at a world gone to pot, other than a genuine optimist? Those who woke with wooly thoughts of warmth and promise for the upcoming day required no such optimism, much like the naturally slender and fit required little exercise or dietary restraint.
Anyways, he was conflicted about people. He never felt comfortable around any of their kind. Whether that was a result of meeting the wrong ones, a failure to have had his expectations slowly worn down by years of continual letdown and eventual submission, or because of some innate incompatibility with others was never quite clear. The reason escaping him, he found ready alibis in his political and world views. It was easy to see why things wouldn’t work, rather than how things could.
That is, until he was weak and tired.
Often after days spent alone, no matter how productively he’d spent the day, he felt a rot and waste which both sickened and saddened him. Unfulfilled and fading steadily from reality, he clung to whatever fleeting contact he could muster: awkward smiles and overly intense conversations directed at cashiers and anyone who wore the mark of the available; friendship at the behest of others more interested in yet others; abortive flirtations with unavailable women; and an over-reliance on the few, frustratingly fruitless relationships which comprised his social world.
Like most times when so discomfited, Doug turned on the tube and prepared for sleep.
“The Hayflick limit, named after its discoverer, Leonard Hayflick, is a built-in limit on the number of times a cell may divide for replication. This limit – thought to be around 60 for most human cells so limited – is believed to place a biological check on the maximum human lifespan. When this limit is reached in integral organs, cells will die and the organs will fail, eventually leading to the human’s ultimate demise” went the smooth-tongued NOVA contributor on Doug’s screen.
Waking in front of a talking television was not out of the ordinary for the lonely and the otherwise alone, but for Doug, television was never strictly a matter of watching; it was a conversational, if largely monologic, exercise which came as close as any other in his life to equating sustained human interaction.
Per his usual conversational decorum, he began, “Ultimate demise? Are there other types of demise than ultimate? Come on PBS, you’re promoting some kind of thinly veiled suppositions about an afterlife; I thought I could depend on you for a strictly scientific appraisal of the universe.”
The T.V., as T.V.s tirelessly do, continued undeterred, “A recent discovery by scientists studying the aging process has cast light onto the role of a mysterious molecule known inelegantly in scientific circles as P16INK4. The newly discovered molecule is believed to play a role in carrying out the termination of cells; and recent experiments hint that it may be curtailed and perhaps even reversed…”
“NOVA, NOVA, NOVA!! Who do you take us for? Even when we do eventually rob the human body of its ability to bow out on its own terms, we’re still going to die. Even the medically immortal would have bad luck – drop a curling iron in the tub, find ‘ultimate demise’ in accidental auto-erotic asphyxiation, or simply light himself and a prostitute afire out of boredom. I give the perfect human six, maybe seven-thousand years, tops – and that’s for a happy person!”
Doug wasn’t altogether foolish; his conversations with screens and speakers were not wholly fulfilling – to him or his partner.
Sensing the deficiency, Doug knew he had to force himself to meet others. Aside from the aforementioned kindness to cashiers, wait-staff, and the obviously odd, autistic, and/or obsequious, Doug tortured himself in continuing education classes, online dating services, and tears of glad-handing ingratiation.
On the occasion of the most formal of these efforts – the profile at HeartOnForYou.com – Doug felt a profound sense of violation – much, he thought, like the infected must feel the first time he or she shits a tapeworm.
Questionnaire: “What in life are you most proud of?”
Doug: “Should I mention the fact that dancing like a monkey for a girl who can’t scare up a date is the least proud moment of my life?”
Questionnaire: “What are some things you cannot live without?”
Doug: “1) Double negatives; 2) contractions, when appropriate; 3) obviously not you”
Questionnaire: “What do your friends say about you?”
Doug: “As soon as I meet one, I’ll be able to tell you – will it be you?”
Things did not go well for Doug online.
With each passing day – but much more noticeably when observed year to year – Doug gave up a bit more.
Society said that quitters never win, and that was true, but it wasn’t the whole story. There were also plenty of losers amongst those who kept on trying way after they should have quit like a bitch. These were the same martyrs who beat their chests proudly about “Doing everything I can.” Doing everything you can, Doug realized, meant dying in loveless relationships, sinking in ships, and spitting on house fires.
He came to the conclusion that he’d find happiness elsewhere rather than continue to find frustration here. Or, even if it turned out that he couldn’t find happiness elsewhere, he’d leave this particular unhappiness right where it was. Forget winning; not losing means something.
In popular mythology there was someone for everyone, a back for every scratcher, an anus for every butt plug. In reality, one could hardly dignify such fatuous hope-thought about perfect matches and a spoon for every spoon rest. The simple laws of logistics and gender ratios contravened any such fiction, as any clear-eyed person could see.
Freed of the narcissistic belief of his own centrality in the universe, Doug could embrace other aspects of life often given lip-service by society’s greatest proponents – individuality, creativity, and self-confidence, to name a few.
It shows what they know: he died alone and hollow.
Good thing he never listened to them.
In introspection – an experience, he realized, which was often lacking from his life – there were several non sequitur statements which had bounced around and bubbled up repeatedly throughout his life like lyrics to trite and overplayed songs which wouldn’t be cleared from his mind.
Usually when he found himself with them, he was repeating them sotto voce. Other times he found himself mid-sentence, fully enunciating the apparent jibberish. Fortunately for him, he spent the extreme majority of his life alone, so these instances rarely coincided with the rarity of company cognizant of his presence.
“Stuart O’Donoghue died early this morning in a fiery car wreck outside of Santa Barbara, California. He was 42,” went one particular example, sounded in somber AM radio broadcaster’s tone. If he didn’t catch himself, or if he did and decided to indulge the impulse, he might allow it to continue to include a prepared statement from his publicist asking for the public’s thoughts and prayers for the O’Donoghue family during these difficult days.
Stuart had never been to Santa Barbara, and rarely saw the early morning hours, but that reporter must have repeated the sad news thousands of times.
The one echoing in his mind when he first became aware of the phenomenon – “Guess who I ran into today? I saw…” – was unique in that it was obviously part of a conversation, and that the fill-in-the-blank at the end changed with some regularity. Though the most repeated name – Carmen Landers – was a bungling former middle-aged coworker capable of fucking up all situations – wet dreams included – other stand-ins included celebrities like Roy Orbison and strangers he’d never known.
That strangers featured so prominently in his consciousness’s diarrhea was perhaps unsurprising given Stuart’s real-life isolation.
In one utterance, he introduced to a dais at some swanky hotel’s convention hall someone named Sally Anne Parker. “Please welcome, winner of this year’s Sally Anne Parker Award for Excellence, from the Sally Anne Parker Foundation, Ms. Sally Anne Parker!!!” He couldn’t help but chuckle each of the hundreds of times he introduced the lucky winner.
“Can I ask you a question?,” frequented his mind, complete with the earnestness of the man repeatedly asking the foolish question over and over again. He smirked in anticipation of the inevitably acerbic response, “Got news for ‘ya, dickhead: you just did.”
At this point, Stuart realized that he had taken up the role of spectator in his own head. At the very least it was like some call and response song at an aging rock band’s concert. Space needed to be filled, company needed to be shared, conversation needed to be made, experiences had to be had.
He remembered an imaginary South African politician – Johnny Picardin – from his childhood. As a 7-year-old, Stuart had constructed the glad-handing presidential candidate from whole cloth, bits of overheard news, and a child’s searching mind. Sometimes he had been Picardin, waving and over-grinning at passing motorists from the back of his mom’s station wagon. Other times, the wise South African statesman confided in him about the intricacies of post-apartheid reconciliation or the ideal marshmallow melt for s’mores – whatever the moment called for.
Whatever the moment called for, he had never failed to show or call. Whatever the moment called for, Stuart always felt confident and thoughtful when with him. Whatever the moment, he could be there at a thought’s notice and would always leave when Stuart eventually drifted off to sleep. Whatever the moment, Stuart never worried about never seeing him again.
Grinning, recalling the comfortable ease of good friends, Stuart didn’t even take notice of the words being spoken:
“I’d really love to get to know you.”
Steve and Sally found each other years after they should have.
Sally said, “All my life I’ve been looking for you, but I didn’t know who I was looking for.”
Steve, at that particular moment, was busy looking at Sally’s ass, but still heard and responded appropriately with a goofy smile which seemed heartfelt and probably was.
Not everything in their relationship belonged in the world of cartoon bluebirds on shoulders, however. After all, how could love at their age be untouched by regret and a pain of loss for their misspent years apart? How could they help themselves but curse their luck that, yes, indeed there was someone out there they wanted to be with, but that they had had to wait so long, suffer so much, and resent life so stridently to get to them?
Further practicalities, such as Sally’s now distant departure from child bearing years, Steve’s unease at the inordinate amount of pictures of herself Sally displayed in her apartment, and Steve’s enlarged prostate, registered as minor obstacles to their love.
“You think I want to have photos of my exes hanging around the place?”
No, he was glad she didn’t.
He didn’t care so much about her past relationships, just as he knew she didn’t care about those he’d lived through. Those sorts of concerns were born of the insecurities of youth which had long ago passed them by.
However, he couldn’t assign a rationale for the sorrow he felt seeing her in awkward poses from bygone eras of flannel shirts, of poofy hair, or of the long ago days when her now ratty sweatpants were new and fashionable. But if he were more self-aware, he would have recognized regret and jealousy: regret that he hadn’t been there for the smiling teenage girl in her prom dress without a date; jealousy for the stranger in the background of that shot of a dripping wet and smiling thirty-something Sally at the waterpark; more regret and more jealousy for each photographic reminder of a lifetime not being in this woman’s life.
In his clearer moments he lamented the life lost without her. It turns out that all the years of his life which he had passed alone, all the days he had passed unhappily – all of these had been passed just miles from this woman. The melancholy of love, of not being able to absolve past pains, or overcome present circumstances, of not being able to completely know this woman, left Steve cold.
This coldness, it seemed, could only be warmed with Sally’s presence, and even then only fleetingly.
He began, “If I had a nickel for every dime I’ve ever had…”
“Hih, hihh, hihuh,” Sally chuckled, interrupting Steve’s mistake.“Honey, you just messed that one up pretty bad!!…,” she smiled, still shaking from the laugh at his blunder. “Your poor ass would be twice as poor!!!”
Steve, who liked to use words precisely and with some flair, was prone to misspeaking, stuttering starts, and struggled with a lisp.
“Oh, okay, have mercy on me, oh, Goddess of Grammar and Good Speaking!!!” he rolled his eyes and smiled back, moving in.
All of his life he had taken criticism poorly, even that which was superficial and legitimate. But she had a way of pointing out his mistakes which somehow softened the blow. She let him join her in laughing at him.
A lifetime of conflict, in the form of self-imposed isolation, addiction, and sundry other injurious behaviors seemed less and less relevant with every hour spent in her presence. She could grab his hand, squeeze gently, and see him gain a clearer picture of the man he wanted to be. When she tenderly put her hand on his chest or forearm, he stiffened with something like resolve. With her at his side, he felt a swell of purpose, a strength to stand firm and follow his heart.
But those moments with her couldn’t calm the instabilities of his soul.
There were the drives home early in the morning after spending the night with her when Steve hated the sun for rising on another day when they’d have to be apart. There were the hours spent apart, between phone calls when he convinced himself that she’d gotten over him. There was a never-quite-gone whisper in his mind which told him that this wouldn’t last, that he couldn’t be happy, and, even, that he’d be better off retreating, eschewing any joy he might gain for fear of the pain he’d inevitably reap as deferred payment for brief joys.
It was too late for Steve to trust that good was possible for him.
He was strung out. But unlike a common addict, he was all too aware of the long term risks. In the moment, he had no control. Outside of the moment, something within him told him to go for the happiness now; if his life had shown him anything thus far, it was that happiness doesn’t come around often enough to be disregarded and ignored.
Of course, the doubts and fears would never leave him – by this point they were him.
And that, more than anything, struck fear into Steve.
What could a woman as wonderful as Sally see in a man who felt this way?
Whatever it was, he never saw it.
Setting: a low bar
The hotel and its bar were for tourists, and every stripe of tourist could be found there.
Straight off the beach, middle-aged men and women draped in damp, baggy cotton clothes wandered in regularly, usually in pairs. Others, evidently from the rehearsal dinner, strayed in occasionally, again in pairs or subsets of pairs, for a bit of privacy, a shorter bar line, or to admire their own glamour against the ragamuffin backdrop the rest of us provided. Still other tourists, family types, thought the bar room safe enough for dinner as it was still happy hour.
Yes, the dangerous types – the heavy drinkers – were already there, but we were easy to spot and it was early and bright enough that we weren’t yet fully operational.
Though not a tourist myself, I fit right in among the misfits and strangers. At a place like this it wouldn’t raise eyebrows for a guy to sit at the bar and get crocked by himself.
Anyways, alone was how I preferred to drink. That’s why I didn’t know the bars well – not even the ones just miles from my home.
Drinking alone was something that I had long ago mastered in much the same way that anyone uncomfortable with people learns to eat, entertain, and orgasm by him or herself.
“What’ll it be?” the lardy salt-and-pepper waitress in a black t-shirt barked. She appeared hassled and the sweat glistening across her brow told me I ought to try and stay on her good side, if she had one.
“Take the Kona,” I shot back quickly, not wanting to waste the big lady’s valuable time with considerations of taste or price.
It wasn’t what I wanted, but it didn’t matter. I’d have to be more prepared next time; if there’s anything I hate to do it’s to inconvenience waitstaff, bartenders, or, in general, anyone appearing to work harder than I am.
A minute or two later, after getting a chilled white wine substance for some tanned catcher’s mitt of a woman bedecked in blue and white nautical stripes, white pearls, and a musky stench, the sweaty drink slinger threw down a cardboard coaster and plopped my Kona on to it.
I slipped her a twenty, not wanting to presume our relationship was advanced enough for the trust required for a tab.
Wondering where I got off ordering a craft draught at twice the cost of a Big Three domestic, I took a minute to size up the bar’s crowd. The aforementioned tourists were all there. There were also others more like me. One of them was a portly man twice my age at the end of the bar. He wore a sleeveless t-shirt – Addidas, Reebok or some such emblazoned on the chest. I pegged him for a roofer, landscaper, or painter – something in a trade which required several end-of-the-day drinks, but did not carry the responsibility or emergency duties of, say, carpentry or plumbing.
Another face I found myself drawn to was a rail of a man moving clumsily from the pool table to the bar, pool cue in hand. Louie, as I’d later learn him to be known, had dark hair and a sympathetic goofiness which would have precluded holding down a job of any consequence. I figured him for marrying a career woman who enjoyed providing for her lovable dope of a husband. Hours later, when he bought me a shot and pointed out his wife, her appearance confirmed my diagnosis.
Time elapsed, the busy bartender softened up to me after I had acquiesced completely and proved I was a pushover. At one point she even mopped up the condensation my drinks had left on the bar with no apparent signs of derision. And I looked hard for them.
There’s a point in every lonely man’s trip to a bar when his mind inevitably turns to the girl he’d like to have next to him. A particularly lonely guy will have this moment over and over again, and if he’s drunk enough, the image of this girl gets fuzzier and more malleable until he’ll take whoever’s next to him.
And though I’ve been down that slide of barroom fantasy many times, and pursued girls for sheer availability rather than desirability, today I wasn’t going there. I told myself I wasn’t going there.
The AC was too cold, probably management’s proactive attempt to make sure the big lady wasn’t poked or peeved. My teeth chattered, which is an odd thing for the teeth of a man at bar to do. I suppressed the reflex by clenching my jaw.
There was a physically unappealing, sunspot-speckled woman at least twenty years my senior on the stool next to me. We hadn’t spoken as I’d been too busy thinking and talking up Louie to give her any attention.
“How you doin’?” I offered up because, well who the hell knows why – politeness, drunkenness, loneliness?
“Yeah, hi, honey,” she simultaneously mumbled and wheezed back, making no eye contact and turning her stool to the left, away from me.
Ahh, yes, I told myself, this is why I hate people. Go rot your liver over there, 14 inches from me, and make sure you keep your face angled away from mine at all times, you unfriendly toad of a woman.
“Ekhh,” I breathily let out in tempered disgust over my right shoulder.
“Yeah, eish! Your breath smells like Cutty Sark and lighter fluid,” said some smiling female face which had suddenly appeared over my shoulder unbeknownst to me.
I smiled back, seeing in her eyes a sense of playfulness, “It’s Ezra B. and bug spray, only one of which I’ve been drinking. Unless…well, I don’t think the bartender likes me.”
I turned to face this brave woman, bearer of confidence to say things to strange men at bars. Her hazel eyes pulled right back at mine. Freckles and a slightly upturned feminine nose gave her face a playful innocence which pulled at me. Pulling her hand across her forehead, she swept aside her hair, revealing her forehead and unleashing the full force of her eyes. Somewhere on the periphery of my sight, her chest caught my attention in a less innocent fashion.
“My friend and I have been watching you all night,” she indicated in the direction of a girl sitting at a table directly behind my bar stool and set back about twenty feet. “You’ve been drinking a lot, pissing almost as much, and engaging with some real oddballs. I’m a little worried about you making it home in one piece.”
This girl could say anything to me, and I was thrown. The mention of “making it home” by a girl this appealing should have put me into some kind of flirt mode, but I was weak at the knees, even though still sitting. My teeth were no longer chattering.
“I am. I am quite drunk, I guess,” was what came out of my mouth.
“Well, if you’re ready to go, I’ll take you home – wherever you want to go.”
I nodded, lips pursed in some drunken face contortion. “Ok. Yeah, ok.” I was both too drunk and too enamored with this girl to say anything more.
“Ok, you pay up, and I’ll get my car and meet you at the curb.” She leaned in, put her hand on my shoulder, and smiled at me a second or two longer than the average, perfunctory smiles which pass for the real thing. Maybe it just felt longer.
I turned back to the bar, stuck my hand in my pocket and looked for the big lady. She was busy pouring liquor from a bottle. I remembered our arrangement: I had paid piecemeal in cash for each drink and she agreed not to spit or snarl at me. There was no bill to pay.
I turned to leave and meet that confident, say-anything angel with her face that melted my bullshit defense mode.
“Sid! Where you goin’, Sid?” Louie was yelling after me, calling me by the drinking alias I had given him earlier. “Have a shot with us, Sid!”
Still stupefied by the girl, I accepted. And another after that. I remember the third in a row, only because I remember thinking to myself, “run!” Unfortunately, I didn’t run. After that, I don’t remember anything until the next morning.
I woke up on the beach. It was uncomfortable.
To have someone within reach and then to lose her, that’s a lot more painful than any hangover.
I’ve wanted to go back to that bar and look for her, but I know I can’t.
I need to stay away.
Bumps are part of any road worth traveling.
Like the old ladies who heaped attention on babies, took inordinate interest in the growth and health of their gardens, and collected scores of curious cats and dogs, she was helplessly attracted to youth and vitality.
Logically and analytically, as any good psychologist would, she understood the reasons for this: I’m old, and losing vitality – both my own and that around me.
Her kids had had their own kids but they were not close enough or brought around often enough to plug the ever expanding hole in her soul. Their photos adorned her home, especially around her desk and in her living room, not coincidentally the two places where the rational dispositions of her occupation and life view were felt most severely.
Those desktop photos had made their way up on to her desk not long after being moved from the office at her practice when she’d retired nearly 15 months ago. The framed license bearing a stamp from the Connecticut Department of Public Health, her name, “Lucy C. Schiller,” and some overwrought lines in overly-decorative cursive, remained in the cardboard box beside her desk.
Ever aware of her thoughts, the estimable Dr. Schiller, was on top of things. She thought, I know how to deal with this. I’ve helped others through this before. Nothing a little bit of practiced self-talk and rational emotive behavior therapy can’t fix!
Secretly, while it was true that she had worked with patients to solve such dilemmas as her own, she was never quite sure she had actually helped anyone reach a satisfying conclusion or if her patients had simply struggled long and hard enough so as to learn to live with their pain, or, just as plausibly, until they were distracted by new pains.
But those were weak people, people who let their emotions rule their lives. I’m not going to do that. Let emotion in and then you’ll lose track of yourself, your goals, your needs.
Determined that she was on the road to health, Lucy found new pursuits to pour her life into. Her gardens were one of those pursuits.
Mowing the lawn one summer day during this time, she observed a young snake wriggle frantically ahead of the riding lawn mower. She took her foot off the pedal at the last moment, watched it move aside, mistakenly trying to evade the mower by seeking cover in the slightly longer, as-of-yet unmowed grass.
She excoriated herself for thinking negative thoughts; she sought to put an end to any dwellings on death and decay; she denied the validity of sadness, sorrow, and longing, choosing instead to project happiness, joy, and fulfillment; she hummed songs about blue birds on shoulders and deleted any soulful lyrics or blues from her digital musical library.
Appropriately circumscribed in the image of idealized happiness, she still struggled.
It was the loneliness which did it at first. “I am so alone,” repeated itself in her mind at the oddest of times. When she sat to read her romances and adventures, she heard the voice. “Alone,” came to her when she was wrestling with her dogs. Over the marsh, as if carried by the wind, “so alone” overcame her when she tended to the green tomato plants in her garden.
Frustrated by these setbacks and, indeed, the worsening of her condition, Dr. Schiller redoubled her efforts to modify her thoughts and sublimate her emotions.
She reassured herself that, in fact, she really didn’t want to spend her last years with a man. She was independent. She was happy. She enjoyed her freedom. Love was not important to her, as it was not a thought, merely a feeling – and a potentially painful one at that.
The answers were there, she thought to herself lying in bed; I’ll throw myself into new hobbies, onto new friends. I’ll travel. There are ways around this pain. There are ways to stamp out all pain, if only I’m strong and outthink it.
She dreamt, recalling her dreams for the first time since childhood, of dark, cigarette-smoke-filled blues clubs, of sweating in ill-lit, damp hotel rooms amidst ruffled sheets, of feeling the hot sun on her face while floating, eyes closed, in a silent swimming pool, and of other visceral scenes somewhere on the edge of consciousness.
The images disturbed and frustrated her logic at first, until she reckoned that her dreams were part and parcel of her sickness. As images from her subconscious, she told herself, these dreams were irrational and ultimately unimportant because they were subject to her thought control. A little bit of rational pre-sleep conditioning would wipe out any dreams.
It helped little. She thought often of death, of the temporary nature of her life. Expiration dates jumped off the shelves of the supermarket, reminding her of this unwanted obsession. When she looked at anyone, even the youngest and most vital, she automatically imagined them in some time-elapsed future projection, balding, fattening, shrinking, and hunching over, until a yellowed-grey pall overtook their faces.
Her garden dried up without water. The fall came early that year, driving down the sun and temperatures which had both sustained and killed the garden. The trees dropped their leaves. What was green, shriveled and stalled.
She aged noticeably in those days, startling her five year-old granddaughter who remarked that grandma suddenly looked “like an old lady.”
Staggered by her failure to think away negativity and loss, Lucy didn’t know where to turn. She’d done what she’d been taught.
The ways of her day and her profession shot the life out of her. It would never occur to Lucy that by killing her emotions, she was in fact killing herself.
She’d never realize that an existence which values only positivity and happiness cheapens those highs to the point of relational obsolescence; positivity exists only in distinction to negativity, and vice versa for sadness and happiness, pain and joy. That there are unavoidable emotions, especially those which are painful, is not to be lamented, nor should these feelings be treated away. Avoiding, ignoring, and eliding these pains does not lead to more life, but to a quicker death.
Lucy’s death came long before the last breath passed from her lips.
This ain’t what it seems.
Those who knew me those years – and there weren’t many who could actually claim such knowledge – would have probably said I was a nice and bright enough fellow who could’ve done so many things and found happiness from so many things if only I had enough confidence to believe the same.
They’d probably also follow this admission with something to the tune of, “But, you know, I don’t really know him well. You’d better ask someone else.”
My closest friends from my mid-twenties through mid-thirties were never quite sure they were actually my friends at all. I never reached out to them. By then it’d been years since I could have been said to have spent any significant amount of time in the presence of any other living soul.
One summer in those years, I remember my childhood friend, at the time ostensibly still my “best” friend, informing me he’d be travelling out of town for business and for his wife during the entire month of August. It didn’t mean much to me; I wouldn’t be expecting his company during the month anyways. He could hardly be anticipating any contact I’d initiate.
But a week into that month, when he and his wife sped by me and my ancient Jeep on the highway, it suddenly meant more to me. What was he avoiding? I didn’t expect him to spend time with me; why did he need to go so far above and beyond to avoid me?
When I had to pass them to make exit #7, they stared in their mirrors to see if I’d noticed them. I didn’t look at them as I passed just feet away from the guy who had lied to me for no reason I cared to consider. I didn’t want the engagement, the connection.
I still don’t know if I should have avoided him like I did or waved and honked like a Shriner on parade.
And that vignette might make you think that, in fact, I did lack confidence in those days. But I’d disagree with you, my “friends,” and a coterie of therapists who’d made such a diagnosis.
For Christ’s sakes!!! There are those lowlifes who feel bad enough about themselves that they run – not walk – across crosswalks as if an Olympic sprinter with a penchant for public raping was chasing them from one side of the street to the other. And then they have the sheepishness to wave their gratitude at me in the waiting car as if I had pardoned them from the electric chair. Those people had confidence issues.
There were, of course, others, the inexplicably confident, those who were too lacking in introspection, perspective, intelligence, or honesty to realize they shouldn’t get much of a rush from their Packers winning the Super Bowl, their cheap Schnapps high, their phallic yachts, or their dumbass, average children. These people were the true losers in the confidence sweepstakes. They had thought they’d won when they actually held a 2 and a 7, which, apparently, is a bad hand in Texas Hold ‘Em.
Fuck them. Fuck them deeply.
That was not me. I was the one who woke up feeling like shit, imagining ways out until, exhausted and emasculated by my failure, I’d just looked instead for ways to numb the pain. I was the one who had to live “at home” until 33. I was the one who went most of a decade without loving a female who’d love my dick in her mouth. I was the one who couldn’t get a job paying a tenth of what I was worth. I was the one whose “friends” knew better than to be friendly.
Imagine yourself in these positions, dear reader, and then tell me what kind of confidence I had. Tell me about the balls it took to work the shitty hourly-wage jobs which embarrassed me; tell me how I could have the gumption to impress competence at interviews for jobs I didn’t want; tell me how I attracted a steady drib drab of gals who didn’t interest my, by that point, eminently prickable prick. Tell me about the cojones it takes to tell you that your god is just a fairy tale for the weak-minded.
Who the fuck would you have been with a voice bent on death in your life? What kind of life would your confidence-appropriate ass have enjoyed with the constant desire to go fuck up any worthwhile, loving thing you have? Who would you be with doubt telling you to erase this and anything else you’d ever written?
If I had the confidence these visionaries envisioned for me, I’d have been a terror – an unconquerable crustacean of impermeable presence. Here, here always, and hard enough to move slowly and conspicuously knowing that nothing could throw me.
You’d never be able to budge this asshole. You’d have to hear me scream until my throat was raw and I’d had enough. You’d have to read my words.
You’d even have read this.
And this was not for you to read; it was for me to write.
In a walk-in closet somewhere in Manhattan.
Harry and Diana – so named in years before royals would make such a pairing ironic, if not incestuous – had married in their mid and early twenties, respectively. He was out of Princeton, a budding financier at one of those boutique outfits designed to make clients’ large fortunes even larger and partners’ fortunes somewhat more medium sized. He had a head of Brillo Pad black curls set gleamingly above two beach stone blue eyes which, at least in those heady early days, shot straight through her soul.
Before meeting Harry Parker, Diana had been both an over- and under-achiever: a merit scholarship to help her modestly incomed mother foot the Lawrence Academy tuition, three years and two months of stellar marks at Columbia, a sudden cocaine and fucking flame out, then the eventual unplanned pregnancy with the devastatingly handsome Harry the December before she would have graduated.
Instead of donning a graduation down, the following May she wore in a maternity gown; by November she was in a wedding gown. Harry had proposed on New Year’s Eve, perhaps the only romantic part of what was a hastily arranged marriage to save Harry’s prominent New York family the indignity of having a bastard’s father for a son.
Nowadays Diana only vaguely remembered the proposal, some muddled pragmatisms about “doing the right thing,” and the drunken trance he had had to affect to summon the courage.
Mostly, at the time, she had heard an answer to her fears about being a single-mother with no college degree, like her own mother had been.
So she said yes.
The whole thing had the feel of a thoughtful (or slow?) motorist nodding in another car wishing to make a late lane change at the light, only to be stuck at the red light as the cutter-in made it through late in the yellow. Who exactly was who in this scenario was only a matter of perspective.
At twenty-five, he was the breathtaking devil in Ferragamos whom she had let fuck her without a condom.
At thirty, he was a dick who wore the collar on his pastel polo shirts up in an attempt to be debonair. At thirty-one, he was a partner, and suddenly spoke of others in their brownstone with such derision until she finally acquiesced to his demands to move to a penthouse on the Upper East Side. By thirty-five, she knew he was cheating on him. At forty-two he stopped coming home on weeknights, claiming he had “to be at the office.” By fifty, they had stopped talking except to keep up the appearance of a functioning couple to their two kids.
As she stopped to ponder her adult life now that she was fifty-four and her children were long gone from her house, if not yet her life, she shivered in guilt. When she thought of his inattentiveness, indeed his callousness to her, she couldn’t blame him.
At least he’d been honest. Ever since he proposed – and that had just been a panic move – he’s done whatever he wants. He never tried to convince himself or me that this was anything more than an arrangement. He’s lived his life as he’s wanted – fucked whomever he wanted, lived wherever he wanted, worked wherever he wanted. Anything he wanted!
Cold, shallow breaths punched from her throat – not her lungs – as she stood half naked in the walk-in closet.
But me? What have I done? I’ve lived for others – for the kids, for him, for anyone but me. I’m the real ass, thinking this was ever anything more than what it is.
To be fair to Diana, at this moment in the closet, she wasn’t remembering the stands of freedom she had made. In her thirties, Diana had returned to college – CUNY was accredited just like Columbia was – and made a go at a career as an elementary school teacher at a city public school. She lasted little over a month before Harry had threatened divorce if he had to have a school teacher for a wife. Still, as a peace offering he had agreed to let her volunteer at their youngest’s private school. By forty, she had her own friends independent of Harry’s domineering social circles and there was nothing he could do about it. On her forty-fifth birthday she had renounced the trappings of his wealth and began to wear only brands which were accessible to the average woman; He’s not going to dress me up in some designer fantasy just to impress his friends!
All else that she might have done, though, had seemed too much. Divorce was out of the question because she couldn’t afford her independence. He’d move on, she thought, men age more gracefully than women. All that salt and pepper hair gives them an air of distinction. Females just sag and bloat with age. Only thing that hinders them is when their dicks stop working, and even that could be a draw for many women.
Staring at the pants she was about to put on, she instinctively thumbed over the waist tag: Sag Harbor. Could there be a worse name for a female clothing line? ‘I’m getting saggy where the waters wash ashore in my harbor!’
Amused, she laughed, sputtering from the unabashed laugh of a half-naked woman alone in her cavernous closet to a staccato gasp, then the uneven sobs of a woman who is no longer a woman.
Who was she?