The Ties That Bind

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Inseparable.  Acrylic on canvas and board.  2018

Some couples stay together out of true love, love that deepens and grows richer with each passing year.  Even if passion fades, the bonds of friendship and shared history strengthen.

Some couples remain conjoined when inertia prevents both from making a break for freedom.  The ennui becomes familiar, and the slow deadening of hope becomes the normal and comfortable state of being.

Some cling to each other in a symbiosis based on mutual contempt.  The hatred shared becomes the tie that binds.  Anger drives their anti-relationship forward, and resentment transforms itself into a negative romantic fervor.  If faced with the possibility of starting a new life based on affection and attraction, they wouldn’t know what to do.

Some relationships cycle through phases of love, inertia, and contempt, and still manage to go on.  They are like trees that weather storm after storm while others around them fall.  Perhaps endurance is a matter of blind willfulness and occasionally grace.

 

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Foggy Mess of Happiness: Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s morning dawned foggy, and the day stayed gray at midmorning when I went on a mission to get a haircut and buy some plants for my wife.  I drove to Oviedo, but a barbershop near Home Depot had been replaced by a fitness center.  I headed back toward Winter Park, but stopped at Lukas Nursery on the way.  I found an odd looking plant with purple flowers in the shape of ragged trumpets.  The tag said they’d lure butterflies and hummingbirds.  Judy would love the color and the visitors they attracted.  As I walked off in search of an African violet, an older woman approached and said she had to take all the purple flowers, but added that I could keep the one in my hand.  Didn’t know what to say, so I went with a simple response:  “Thank you.”

After I purchased the plants, I took Red Bug Road home so that I could search for a new barbershop.  Ended up in Casselberry at a place that I’ve gone to off and on for a year.  A well dressed woman wearing make-up and carrying a shopping bag stopped me as I approached the door.  She said, “Mister, can you give me two dollars?”  I pulled out my wallet and she added, “I need to buy a bus pass.  That’s five dollars.”  I took two bills out, and she said, “Three dollars?”  I said, “Two,” handed her the cash and fled inside.  I’d never encountered a dickering beggar before.

I sat down to wait.  When I looked up, I was surprised to find an old acquaintance sitting in the barber chair in front of me.  I hadn’t seen him in six months.  Charlie said, “Dennis!”  We chatted for a few minutes and caught up on a bit of gossip.  “Strange coincidence,” I thought as he walked out the door.

Judy and I had a pleasant lunch, and the flowers and my haircut pleased her.  She teased and called me her silver fox. I didn’t mind.  We meditated, and I baked a peach upside down cake for a snack.  We watched a “Doc Martin” episode before I cooked supper and went to work.

Class went well for the most part, but I stepped in several times to correct some drawings.  Some of my students haven’t yet mastered (or committed to memory) some basic techniques in perspective and measuring proportions, and I grew impatient with the amateurish look of some of the work.  “We’re nearly at midterm!” I muttered under my breath.  I drilled a Drawing II student about some basic rules of line work, and as I walked away I realized I’d been too harsh.  I came back, apologized, and told her that we all have mental habits that need a bit of work.  I told Erin that I had to train myself as a boy to look back at my classroom desk each time I left to make sure that I hadn’t forgotten anything.  She relaxed, and I decided to ease up on the class and let them work in peace.

I cleaned up the room after the students left and found a smart phone on the tray of Erin’s easel.  “How odd,” I thought.  “Forgetfulness must be communicable.”  I decided to take it with me.  Leaving it there would ensure its theft, and the lost and found at the security office was closed.  I walked toward my car hoping to see Erin coming back from the parking lot, but instead ran into a slender young man sitting on a concrete ball.  He looked up from his phone and asked whether the Lynx bus would come near where he waited.  He added that he had to return to Disney World.  I said, “I haven’t seen buses pull in here for a couple years, but there’s a bus shelter two hundred feet south of the main entrance on Econlockhatchee.  He smiled, shook my hand, and said, “Thank you.  I am from Pakistan.”

As I drove out of the lot I saw him trudging south.  A Lynx bus appeared and turned onto campus.  “What the hell?” I said.  It didn’t seem to be heading to the shelter.  I took a right and drove north, but as I went on I felt a growing sense of dismay that I might have given the young man the wrong advice.  Would he be stranded there all night?  I also reasoned that I was dead tired, needed to go home and see my wife, and that my mission in life wasn’t to save the world.  Fog rolled in, and driving conditions got worse and worse.  Rationalizations failed me two or three miles up the road, and I turned around.

I had no idea what I would do if I found him sitting at the bus shelter.  I didn’t really want to drive for an hour down to Disney, and my gas gauge hovered below the half full mark.  Judy would worry…

I cruised around campus, pulled up to the shelter, but didn’t see the young man.  I assumed that the bus had swung around to where I had directed him to go, and that he was safely on his way.  A large man in a bulky coat did slump on one of the shelter seats, and I felt an odd obligation to give him a lift.  I resisted and drove home.

Judy waited up for me in her bedroom, and I explained why I’d been delayed.  She gave me a warm smile and told me that she loved me. I felt most of my tension and fatigue drain away.

Valentine’s Day had twisted and turned in unexpected ways, but none of that mattered.

Entourage: The Dangling Men

Nancy liked to dangle men, to entice them to come nearer and then hold them at a distance.  She often had two or three hooked at a time, but felt no guilt in trading one for another on a whim.  One time she had made a date to meet a new boyfriend at a restaurant.  An old beau saw her cross the parking lot and called her over.  Nancy made out with him in his car while her latest waited inside for her to make an appearance.  Latest became aware of her treachery.  But when he confronted her she just laughed and said, “Oh Brian, we’re not really dating, are we?”  Brian told her that he thought they were, and she laughed again at his foolishness.

She was attractive, intelligent, and had a good sense of humor.  Boys and men had made moves on her, had given her The Look, from the time she turned fifteen.   It must have been wearying to brave the constant attention and pressure, to sort through all the options.  She had to weigh the merits of her would-be suitors and hope that her scales had been properly calibrated.  And she must have wondered whether any of her gents really wanted her, the total sum of her, and not just the glittery package.  In the end she probably threw up her hands and decided to make love, sex, desire into a game.  She was the queen, and members of her entourage became her pawns.

Eventually she slipped and fell in love with an owner of a record store.  He was fifteen years older, however, and didn’t see any future in the relationship.  Steely Dan’s, “Hey Nineteen” played on the radio at that time, and the record man made it the theme of his argument when he broke up with her.

Nancy didn’t know how to deal with rejection.  All her training had been in holding men at bay, not at winning them back, and certainly not at mourning their loss.  She latched onto another record store owner, a mild-mannered stooge closer to her age, and began an affair.  She got pregnant, and they married although neither loved the other.  They named their son, Graham.

She called me up one day and spoke to me in her most charming, winsome manner.  “It’s been so long, Dennis.  I’m just dying to see you.”  Brian told me that he too had received an invitation a few days earlier.  Nancy was trying to reassemble her entourage and begin the game again.  She considered marriage and motherhood as slight handicaps that had been added to give her a deeper challenge.

I kept my distance, though I once gave in to curiosity and visited her and her toddler.  Graham was round faced, sandy-haired and good-natured.  He liked to gurgle and bang his spoon on the tray of his high chair.  Nancy seemed distantly amused by her baby and acted as if he were an odd creature who had somehow, through a series of madcap mishaps, become attached to her.  “Oh Graham,” she said, “You’re not really playing the drums, are you?”

 

 

Beth Floats Downriver

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Beth said, “Look out–there’s a rock straight ahead!”  I leaned to look around her, saw the ripple in the water, and pushed my paddle to veer away.  Too late.  The side of the bow hit the submerged rock hard. Beth flew out of the canoe, and I rolled into the river.  I bobbed to the surface and saw her 10 feet away from me.  Actually, I saw her upright head facing me as it floated sideways downriver, a huge grin plastered on her face.

I grabbed a paddle floating nearby, righted the canoe and climbed in.  I went after Beth.  I reached out a hand, shifted my weight away from her to counterbalance the canoe, and pulled her aboard.  I circled back and found the other paddle caught in some reeds at the edge of the Little Miami.

We had set out an hour earlier from a canoe rental shop.  The owner warned us of pirates downstream who would call to us from the shore.  He said, “Make sure you see my sign on the dock before you pull in.  If you pick the wrong place, they’ll take the canoe and leave you to find your way back on your own.  And if you come back without my canoe, I’m gonna charge you for it.  Same thing if you lose a paddle.  Oh yeah, give me your driver’s license.  You can have it back when you return with everything safe and sound.”

I normally wouldn’t have agreed to such odd terms, but Beth looked eager to go.  I handed the man a twenty and my license.

Beth and I had gone to the same grade school and high school, but had never been friends.  During the spring semester at U.D. she sat a few rows over from me in a philosophy class.  She had green eyes, a willowy figure, and a big smile.  I wanted to get to know her better.

Our first date didn’t end well.  I gave her a little kiss as we said goodnight, and she stared daggers at me.  I had crossed one of the lines a Catholic girl still felt obliged to draw.  She surprised me when she agreed to go out again.  We got on much better, and I made sure that I maintained a foot or two of separation between us the whole night.  A week later she stopped me as I turned to leave, closed her eyes and leaned in for a kiss.

That summer we went to movies, family picnics, and jogged together in the evening.  She liked to slip her hand into my back pocket as we walked side by side.

Beth broke things off at the end of August.  We’d had a few arguments, nothing serious.  Her phone call shocked me:  I hadn’t seen any of the usual signs.  She didn’t criticize my clothes, my choice in movies, the crappiness of my rust bucket car.  I didn’t catch her coldly studying me.  My first girlfriend once sat silently and glanced at me out of the corner of her eye as I drove us to a restaurant, toting up my strengths and weaknesses.  The balance had been a negative number.

I had annoyed Beth on a few occasions, and she once accused me of not caring one bit about her feelings.  But she’d never put any distance between us.  I called her back and demanded an explanation for the sudden dump, and she concluded with the following:  “I know I’ll find someone I like better than you.  There are other fish in the sea.”

I saw her once after the fall semester began.  She and a girlfriend crossed the quad in front of me, and Beth stopped to say hello.  I grunted something back, deeply embarrassed and still smarting from her rejection.  She smiled ever so brightly, said a few kind words and drifted away…

No pirates accosted us on a warm day in July as we glided on the current and twisted our way through a few rapids.  We made it to the correct drop-off point without further mishaps, turned in the canoe and paddles and waited for the bus to come.  She and I were still drenched, and the other canoe renters stared at us as we rode back.  Beth and I didn’t feel embarrassed, but held hands and smiled.  It had been an excellent day.

 

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.