Women Jumping Out of Cars

Last week I waited to make a left turn into my neighborhood and saw a woman jump out of the shot gun seat of a car idling at a red light.  She looked as if someone had goosed her.  The driver made no effort to call her back though she stood on a nearby curb and stared intently at him.  She bounced on her toes as if waiting for him to make a move.  She began to walk away after a minute passed, and then he finally turned the car in her direction.  Negotiations had begun.

I saw a more vivid version of this story a few years earlier.  I heard yelling inside a car beside me on Semoran Boulevard.  We were stopped at a red light.  The front passenger door flew open.  A twenty year old woman slammed it shut and stomped away.  She veered behind the car, stepped onto the median and quickly put distance between her and the car’s driver.  He leaned out the window and called, “Hey, baby!  Come back!”  She ignored him and kept going.  Then he began to cuss her out in Spanish, shook his fist at her, and hit the horn once.  She kept going.  When the light turned green he made a u-turn and slowly headed in her direction.  He looked grim as if he expected no success in retrieving her.

Twenty years ago I heard yelling up the street from my house.  It was 1 a.m., so I peeked out my front door and saw a woman staggering across a lawn at the neighbor’s across the street.  Two or three men were inside a car idling at the curb, and one ordered the woman to get back in the car.  She screamed at him.  Her speech slurred, but I believe she told him to go to hell.  She knocked on my neighbor’s door–no one answered.  The man in the car yelled again, this time with greater violence.  I stepped outside and headed toward the woman.  When the men saw me they realized that a witness had arrived, and they sped away.

The woman spotted me and staggered to where I stood at the bottom of my driveway.  She asked if she could use my phone.  I let her inside and pointed to our land line.  I asked her if she wanted some coffee to help her sober up.  She glared and said, “I’m not drunk!  My boyfriend hit me!”

I retreated to the kitchen to get her some ice, and while I was gone my wife woke up.  Judy came out to the living room half awake.  She found a strange woman with crazy hair talking on our phone.  The lady’s outfit, cut offs and a sweaty tube top, gave her a street look.  I took Judy aside before she could make unfortunate assumptions and explained the situation.  The woman put a hand over the mouth piece and asked, “Where am I?”  I told her, and then she gave instructions to the person on the line:  “Pick me up at the 7/11 at Forsyth and Aloma.”

She hung up, and I offered her a ride to the convenience store.  She refused and headed out the door.  I followed after her and watched her walk up Bougainvillea Dr.  I worried that her tormentors might return.  A police car turned the corner and stopped next to her.  She waved her arms, shook her head and refused to get in the cruiser.  They let her go shortly after, and she strode away with firm, determined steps.  She turned the corner and disappeared, and the cops drove on.

Fifty years ago my mother stepped out of a car after an argument with my father.  We were stopped at a light about three miles from home.  We three kids huddled together in the back seat and wished that the nightmare would end soon.  My father drove off, and Mom’s figure grew smaller and smaller in the rear window.  I felt an odd sensation that I was the one left behind.  Two hours later Mom opened the front door to our house, came inside, and hung up her coat in the hall closet.  We all pretended that nothing had happened.

Entering Into the Retirement Zone

I recently turned 58, and one of my birthday presents was the realization that I only have 7 or 8 more years to officially belong to the workforce.  I can continue on after that if I still feel some drive to teach and exhibit my work, so the end doesn’t have to be in sight just yet.  But the promise of an upcoming choice made me feel positively lighthearted.

And I had another realization:  my professional ambitions have largely gone unfulfilled.  I am not a tenured college professor, I’ve made nearly no impact in the world of fine art, and I’ve never earned more than chump change selling my art.  If I had known how things would turn out when I was twenty-five I might have chosen to become an accountant or a biological research technician, but I’m happily surprised to say that I’m not bitter about my choices.  I’m largely satisfied by the experiences I’ve accumulated as I made my artwork.  The sweetness of applying paint to canvas is addictive, and I’ve had 30 plus years to scratch that itch.  Teaching has been a trial at times, but helping students still satisfies me.

And it’s good to know that most accounts have been settled, that I’ve gone about as far as I’m going to go.  It’s an odd relief to accept that a final sink into oblivion is probably my natural arc.  I’ve never been a fan of suspense, of waiting for the moment when my professional fortunes would finally start breaking good.  The overwhelming evidence suggests that they never will.

I still remember how I used to torture myself when I was twenty-five about every move I made as an artist, how I questioned and doubted my abilities and potential whenever I finished a painting that didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped.  Now I know that it’s just a matter of averages.  Like a baseball hitter I’m bound to succeed and fail according to a percentage.  I’m happy when I do well but no longer hope that a streak of good work will continue indefinitely.  In my personal life I also have realized that I will inevitably screw up from time to time, and be thoughtful and kind other times.  I have fewer illusions about my ability to maintain a state of benevolence, and also know that I have a penchant for snarky cynicism.  I still feel guilty when I say or do something hurtful, but am aware that there’s another side to the ledger.

It helps of course that I’m married to a woman who accepts who I am.  The one blessing that I desperately needed when I was 25 was to find someone who saw me in my entirety and still loved me. It took another couple decades for me to figure out that she hadn’t made a self-destructive mistake by volunteering to live with me.  Now I finally can relax in the knowledge that we’ve had a mostly happy marriage and have been good for each other.

The next decade or two may consist of a long downward slide, but at least I’ve gotten some altitude (thanks to Judy) from which to descend.  To quote Edith Piaf, “No, I don’t regret anything.”

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A Poet Wore Black

My friend Kathy wore black on the day after Ronald Reagan’s first presidential victory in 1980.  She told me that she intended to dress like a widow until she no longer felt the need to mourn a political world gone mad.

Kathy was an English major at the University of Dayton.  She wrote poetry and frequently used the words “bone” and “ash” in her free verse to give her writing an air of grim melancholy.  She lived by herself in an off campus apartment and kept her rooms dim by blocking light from the windows with sheets hung from curtain rods.  She cleaned and aired only when the smell of dirty clothes, sour milk and stale cigarette smoke overwhelmed her.  It took a lot to overwhelm her.

I had a crush on her, nonetheless.  I had spent three years dating Midwestern girls who expected me to conform to their middle class expectations, and Kathy presented a bohemian alternative.  But she remained steadfast in her resistance to my overt and covert maneuvers.  Instead she favored the company of Sheila, a fellow English major who glared at me with narrowed eyes whenever I spoke to Kathy.

Two days after Reagan’s election I came across Kathy smoking a cigarette as she sat on the steps of the student union by a statue of JFK.  She squinted through the smoke and coldly studied me.  She knew that I was a Dayton native and once asked me if the world ended for me just beyond the city limits.  She believed that the locals suffered from the delusion that nothing worth knowing existed outside of Dayton.  She coughed and ran a hand through her tangled hair as she continued to appraise me.  She finally said, “You wanna come to a meeting with me?”

“What meeting?” I asked.

“Reps from the Communist Party are giving a talk here at noon.”

“Okay,” I said.  I was glad to be given a chance to prove that I wasn’t a rube and to spend time with her.

The commies, a man and two women wearing gray and black coats, set up a card table in the square near the art building.  They had stacks of pamphlets and flyers at their elbows and looked as grim and determined as revolutionaries should.  The man spoke for twenty minutes and told us that capitalism was doomed and that our lives were exercises in folly until we genuflected before the teachings of Karl Marx.  He didn’t offer any evidence for the imminent downfall of the American system and failed to mention Stalin’s legacy of horror.  I asked him if Reagan worried him.  I knew that the president elect had testified against fellow actors during the McCarthy witch hunt era and had fought against unions in Hollywood.  The communist didn’t hesitate to answer and told me that one American president was much like another.  Reagan was no different than Carter.  I didn’t challenge him.  I thought, “Why argue with a fanatic?”

Kathy went to England during Christmas break.  I saw her at the beginning of the next semester.  She no longer wore black and looked almost cheerful.  I invited myself over to her apartment that evening, and we sat in her living room and drank wine.  I asked her to tell me all about her trip.  She hesitated for a long moment, closed her eyes and said, “I’ll tell you one thing, but I want to keep the rest of my experiences for myself.”  It appeared that anything revealed would lose its magic power to inspire her, and she was only willing to give me a scrap.

I no longer remember what she said–maybe she visited Charles Dickens’ home and saw his writing desk.  But I do recall that a little door closed in my mind as I listened to the rise and fall of her voice.  I made my excuses a few minutes later and left.

During that semester I no longer sought her out.  And whenever I ran into her outside a classroom I nodded a hello but said little.  I no longer considered her much of a friend or had any desire to pursue a romance.

A few years later I ran into an acquaintance who had known both of us at UD.  Pat knew that I had been interested in Kathy and told me that she was still in town.  I was surprised as she had vowed that she would never become trapped in Dayton like so many graduates of the University.  The town was a narrow minded, cultural wasteland that would do nothing to nourish her poetry.  Pat went on to say that Kathy worked at a bar in the Oregon District, a trendy strip of night clubs on the southeast side of downtown Dayton.  She dressed in gypsy skirts, wore a head scarf and did Tarot card readings for the well heeled patrons.  He waited for me to ask for the name of the bar, but I just started to laugh.

 

The Right Thing

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Sarah Kunkel closed the blinds and pulled back the sheets on her double bed.  She sat down by the pillows, took a damp hand cloth from a bowl on her night stand and lay down.  She gently pressed the cloth to her forehead and closed her eyes.

Her migraine rested like a sleeping porcupine on the right side of her head, but sent out sharp quills to probe the back of her eyes every minute or so.  Sarah felt as though her head would eventually split in two when the malevolent creature woke up and clawed again at the tender connections inside her brain.  She hummed a lullaby in the hope that she might fall asleep.  Her mother sang it to her when she was a sick little girl, and it had worked like magic.  But Sarah stopped when the vibrations on her lips became vibrations in her skull.  Pulsations of dull pain already thudded in time with her heartbeat, and she couldn’t bear adding another rhythm to the mix.

She began to feel blessed sleep descend upon her ten minutes later.  The few remaining unaffected corners of her mind rejoiced as her limbs grew heavy and her breath began to slow.  She saw a vista open up before her of mountains topped with glaciers and Alpine meadows filled with flowers.  She took a deep breath and smelled roses and newly mown grass, honeysuckle and lilacs.  A figure clothed in dazzling white robes walked toward her.

But then the door to the bedroom opened a crack.  A shaft of light from the hall pierced the darkness.  The door swung in, and a man stood in the doorway but didn’t come into the room.  His back lit silhouette looked familiar.  But he wouldn’t dare, would he?  Not again?

The silhouette spoke in a low rumbly voice.  It was Jeff, of course, but she couldn’t quite make out his words.

“Oh for God’s sake, Jeff!  Close the door and a leave me alone.  Can’t you see I’ve got a migraine?”

“Mumble, mumble, mumble.”  He stood there and faltered his apologies.  She couldn’t take it.  He had visited every single night since that horrible day last week when their marriage had fallen and shattered into a thousand splinters of betrayal.  Now the shards were embedded inside her skull, and his visits just pushed them in deeper.

“Jeff!” she screamed and regretted it instantly.  A bloody tsunami swelled in the back of her head and raced forward to tear at the roots of her nerves.  She held her head, moaned and nearly passed out…If only she could pass out she’d praise the gods forever…When she was able to speak again she said, “Come closer so that I can hear you.  You’re killing me.  Tell me what you want and go away.”

He shuffled into the room with his head down and sat near the foot of the bed.  She pulled her hand away when he took it, but he persisted.  She was too weak to fight him.  He leaned closer and whispered, “I did the right thing.”

“I know what you did,” said Sarah.

“Please listen,” whispered Jeff.

“You cheated on me.  That was the wrong thing, stupid.  You can’t talk your way around that.  It’s over and done.  You can’t take it back,” said Sarah.

“I slept with Rhonda, but I did the right thing.”

“Rot in hell, Jeff.  And please, please go away.  Why are you torturing me?  What did I do to you to make you so cruel?”

“You don’t know the whole story,” Jeff insisted.

“What?  You’re going to tell me that it was just a mistake?  She came on to you and you felt sorry for her?  She told the cops that you were the one who wouldn’t leave her alone.”

“I didn’t feel sorry for her.  I just wanted her,” admitted Jeff.

“I see.  Now we’re being honest.  At long last we’re being honest,” said Sarah.

“I didn’t come in here to apologize for the affair.  I know that you’re never going to forgive me for that, and I don’t expect you to,” said Jeff.

“So?”

“I just want you to know that I didn’t want to leave you.  That was never my intention,” said Jeff.

“Bullshit.  The moment you went to bed with her was the moment you left me,” said Sarah.

Jeff released her hand and turned away.  Over his shoulder he said, “You’re not angry because of the affair.  You’re angry because I’m leaving.”

“Shut up Jeff.  Go away.  Make me happy and leave.”

“Not until I tell you the whole story.  I promise I’ll go away and never return after I say what I have to say,” said Jeff.

“That’s a deal, but keep it short.  My head’s about to explode.”

“Rhonda’s husband George interrupted us last Tuesday.  We heard the car pull up, and I managed to run out the back door.  But he saw my wallet on the floor by the bed.  It fell out when I grabbed my pants.  I heard him roar, ‘Whose wallet is this?!’  She screamed.  I crept up to the bedroom window and saw him slap her.  Then he punched her in the stomach and she fell down on the floor.  She tried to crawl away from him on hands and knees, but he kicked her in the ribs.”

“Stop it stop it stop it!  I don’t want to hear any of this!” wailed Sarah.

“I did the right thing,” said Jeff.  “I went back inside and fought with George.  Rhonda got away.”

“Well good for you.  You did the right thing.  You’re my hero.  Are we finished here?”

“Yes, Sarah.  I’m finished.”

He got up off the bed and walked to the door without looking back.  The light from the hall blinded her, and she closed her eyes.  When she opened them again the door was shut and he was gone.

Sarah woke up early the next morning, and the migraine had retreated.  She snapped on a lamp by her bed and saw the wedding photo of her and Jeff framed in gold on top of her dresser.  It was surrounded by an arrangement of white flowers.  She trudged over to the dresser, pried off the cardboard backing and took out the picture.  She stared at it intently for a few seconds and came to a decision:  she tore it in half to separate her image from his and tossed young, still faithful Jeff into the trash can at her feet.

The scrap landed on a thick piece of cream colored paper scrolled with black leaves and flowers.  Beneath the header was a reproduction of a photo of Jeff taken a few months ago when he and Sarah celebrated their twentieth anniversary.  Beneath that a script of heavy gothic letters read, “In memoriam:  Jeffrey Kunkel, beloved son and husband.”

Wedding Bells and Christmas

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My son married his high school and college sweetheart three days ago.  They have known each other since they were four or five, and played together when we visited with Amy’s parents.  Amy asked Alan out for a date when they were seniors in high school, and their romance continued long distance while Alan attended Rollins College in Winter Park and Amy went to FSU in Tallahassee.  About a year ago they became engaged, and three days after this Christmas they said their vows in the Rose Garden at Leu Gardens in Orlando.  This was a climax to a week of frenetic activity what with Christmas celebrations, the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner, the wedding and reception.  My wife and I had guests and house guests from the 21st through the 30th: my brother and nephew drove down with their wives from Ohio for the wedding;  Judy’s brother Rick flew in from Colorado; and my daughter and her fiance’ and their two dogs drove to town for Christmas and the wedding.

Judy and I lead a very quiet existence, and the sudden bombardment of social activities was quite a break from our usual routine.  Our soon-to-be grand dogs added a lot of welcome noise and commotion to Christmas Eve and Day, and I found it comforting to watch them curl up around folks and fall asleep on a sofa when they finally wore themselves out.

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Now the newlyweds are off on their honeymoon.  Our daughter and fiance’ have returned to Miami with dogs in tow, and my brother and his wife are on the road back to Ohio.  Rick flew out yesterday, and we spent today cleaning up and reorganizing the house.  The normal business of life presses in and demands our attention once again, and it’s fortunate that we are busy.  If we’re quiet and idle we notice the echoes in the house.  And the sudden absence of loved ones makes our rooms appear too large for our needs.

Judy and I discussed taking down the Christmas tree this afternoon.  I’m usually impatient to get back to my customary rounds after a prolonged break and to banish Christmas until its due time in the coming year. But I told her that I wouldn’t mind waiting a few more days.  I want to savor this holiday season a little longer.

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The Ones Who Run Away

Have you ever spent a few years wondering why a relationship went wrong?  I’m not just talking about pining away over a lost love.  I’ve worried about students who took my instruction as a personal insult, members of my extended family who treated me with caution and disdain whenever I spoke to them, fellow grad students who put me on their permanent list of undesirables. A rejection may spur thoughts of self-doubt, can make me obsess over the steps leading up to a moment when I’m judged unworthy.

I’m not tortured by every negative interaction, however.  I realize on many occasions that the person who has reacted badly to an innocent remark or a harmless gesture is acting in accordance to their personal damage.  I just happen to resemble someone from the past who treated them badly.  Bullies and angry people do not bother me once I’ve escaped their wrath.  Their intentions are bad from the outset, and I just happened to stray into their field of fire.  I understand that jealous people are actually giving me a compliment when they say something nasty.  I’ve achieved an accomplishment that they wish they had.

The rejections that bother me happen when I’ve spent time and effort to do the right thing, but nothing can change the negative response.  Extra efforts to be polite and kind are met with greater amounts of loathing.  It feels like I’ve been accused of a crime I haven’t committed.  And when accusers are persistent and sure of their conclusions I sometimes begin to doubt my intentions and worth.

I’ve gotten somewhat better about dealing with rejection in recent years, however.  I can usually ignore a student who angrily wishes to be ignored.  I can give a friend who cuts me off (for reasons unknown) plenty of time to reconsider.  And I no longer wonder why a woman dumped me thirty-five years ago after one mild disagreement.  There have been enough folks in my life who have loved me when I didn’t truly deserve it to balance the accounts.

And the past five years have been crazy enough to make me focus more on the people who actually like and love me.  I’ve grown too old and tired to waste energy on things that I can’t change.  To misquote Groucho Marx, “I wouldn’t try to join any club that won’t have me.”

A John Malkovich character in “Dangerous Liaisons” asked a countess this question:  “Why do we always feel compelled to chase after the ones who run away?” She answered, “Immaturity.”  I’d add insecurity.

Stammering Dan and Lulu Du Lit

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Stammering Dan Weber was a soldier long before he became a senator.  He served as a sergeant in the Indiana State Militia during the Menominee Uprising of 1843, and suffered a grave wound at the Battle of French Lick  when a fourteen and a half pound cannon ball struck his body two inches above his navel.  He was carried to a field hospital, and his torso was surgically removed.  He retired from the army as his new condition made it difficult for him to salute, point toward enemy positions, and to properly aim a rifle.

He began a prosperous career as a side show attraction after several years spent on the road in a futile search for his once beloved fiancee’, Delores Del Frio.  (She had fled French Lick shortly after visiting him in a field hospital where he lay in bed recovering from his traumatic disfigurement.)  As his enthusiasm for the entertainment profession gradually waned his interest in law grew stronger.  He intended to earn large sums of money trying medical malpractice lawsuits, to use his profits to hire Pinkerton detectives to find Delores, and to sue her for breach of promise.  Daniel believed that her flight was a cowardly abandonment of him at his lowest point, and he wanted to see her grovel in the dust as he demanded her last penny.

He studied at Harvard, and as a law student he became all too familiar with the seedier bars and clubs of Boston.  He drank to dull the chronic pain from his war wounds and to drown his spiteful longing to reunite with Delores.  One night he happened to spy Lulu Juteux, or Lulu Du Lit as she was billed on her signboard, dancing in the Chez Piaf.  Lulu’s ample beauty, for a moment, dispelled Dan’s fixation on his wayward fiancee’.  She stirred nearly forgotten feelings inside him even though he no longer had insides capable of being stirred.

Lulu was a calculating young woman with ambitions for her future.  She noticed Dan’s striking lack of physique, his persistent obsession with her figure (he sat down front at every one of her appearances), and the quality of his clothes.  She could spot a gentleman of means at fifty yards.  She invited him back stage one night for a chance to get acquainted and offered him brandy.  He sat at a little table in her dressing room and sipped his drink through a straw as she changed clothes behind a screen. She took a chair beside him after she had donned a revealing dress made of loosely woven peacock feathers.  She toyed with the curls in his hair above his ears, drank from his cup, and listened to his war stories. She kissed him on his forehead after he told her how it felt to be struck by a cannonball (“Bad–most unpleasant.”).  When the bottle was empty Dan led her away to his carriage and told his man to drive them to his rooms. They spent the night together, and in the morning he proposed marriage.

They lived happily as man and wife by following a few simple rules:  she was allowed lovers as long as she was discreet and didn’t cause a scandal;  he was the only one permitted to enjoy her dancing as long as he refrained from mentioning Delores Del Frio’s name.  Dan had confessed his lingering obsession shortly before their wedding, and Lulu had surprised herself by becoming passionately jealous of the fugitive fiancee’.

Dan became a prosperous lawyer even though he acquired the affliction of stammering when speaking in public.  He compensated by taking a ponderous long time to utter each word, and developed a reputation for gravity and wisdom as an unintended consequence.  Word of his growing stature spread beyond Boston and throughout New England, and he was eventually elected the United States Senator from Massachusetts.

He served his state and country to the best of his abilities with the support of Lulu, his beloved wife, until one fateful day in 1851.  As he delivered a speech to the Senate he happened to spy Delores Del Frio seated in the gallery.  He lost his composure, began to speak rapidly in an attempt to finish his speech quickly as possible, and stammered his way through a five minute address that should have lasted twenty.  Delores, true to her character, ran out the door as soon as Daniel spluttered the last word.

The senator, his obsession fully reawakened, would have pursued her to the ends of the earth if he hadn’t been accosted in the lobby of the Senate building by Lulu.  She too had been seated in the gallery and had seen him lose his self-command as he stared with bulging eyes at a strange woman.  Lulu knelt before him on the marble tiles as legislators and pages passed by.  She looked him in the eye and demanded, “Was that Delores?”  He nodded his great head and nearly toppled over, and then he collapsed in her arms.

She carried him home, sat him down in a kitchen chair, and left him for a week.  She considered divorce but found that she missed the sound of his rasping voice and the sight of his boulder like head.  She had grown accustomed to his pate.  When she returned she found him passed out on the kitchen table.  The floor was littered with broken bottles of brandy and bent and shredded straws.

He was never the same again.  Lulu tried to nurse him back to health, but he fell into a deep spell of melancholy and soon took to his bed.  She danced before him in an attempt to arouse his spirits, but failed.  She brought him newspapers to try to keep him interested in current events, but he let them fall from his lap unread.  She invited fellow politicians such as John C. Freemint to argue with Daniel about the state of the union, but even the most spirited repartee with his friends and rivals failed to inspire a lasting passion capable of sustaining his life.

What Lulu didn’t know, and Dan refused to tell her, was that Miss Del Frio’s unexpected visitation had filled Daniel with a hopeless longing for the simpler days he had enjoyed before the Battle of French Lick.   Her second appearance and flight dealt him his final wound, one more dire than the cannonball’s, and soon he wasted away until he was nothing more than a shriveled, gnarled head.  Lulu laid him to rest in the Granary Burying Ground in Boston.

Daniel’s widow donated a portion of his burial policy’s dispensation to a war veteran’s relief fund.  The undersized casket had cost half as much as expected.  And then she went off in search of Delores.  She didn’t know how she would manage it, but she intended to dance on Del Frio’s grave while wearing a white bustier trimmed with a beaded leather fringe.  Dan had asked her to wear it when she had shimmied for him on their wedding night, and she had, of course, complied.