The Kindly Sinner: Great Aunt Mary

Wayne Avenue runs downhill from Belmont to downtown Dayton.  Great Aunt Mary lived in a building halfway down the slope in a neighborhood that had once been pleasant.  We three kids climbed vinyl treaded stairs to her second floor apartment, knocked gingerly and waited.  She opened the door with a big smile and invited us in.  She had snow white hair, laugh lines, and a hoarse, rasping voice.  She returned to a large oak table in her dining room, picked up a kitchen knife and cut dough into thin strips.  I asked her what she was doing, and she said, “Making egg noodles”.  She finished quickly, wiped the table and washed her hands.

Time for a tour.  I saw a painting hanging in her living room, a winter scene of a snowy lane, a haloed moon, and frost covered trees.  Beside it hung a still life of roses in a vase.  Aunt Mary saw me looking at them and said, “Those were painted by a nun who used to teach at St. Mary’s parochial school.  She came from Germany and spoke with a thick accent.”

Aunt Mary sat us down on a sofa and asked us questions:  how do you like school?  what do you like to watch on TV? what position do you play on your baseball team? She smiled and listened as we answered and never glanced sideways as if hoping we’d stop talking.  (My grandmother, Aunt Mary’s older sister, had limited patience for me and my brother.  We learned to keep our thoughts to ourselves in Grandma’s presence.)

Aunt Mary fed us supper, and we sat down in front of her black and white television after we finished.  She asked for suggestions and turned the dial to Channel 7.  The Sonny and Cher Show came on.  Aunt Mary seemed bewildered by the odd commotion of the program, but she beamed at us as we pointed at the screen and laughed.  She pretended to like it too.

We knew that Grandma carried a grudge against her sister, but no one explained how it started and why it was so one sided.  Aunt Mary shrugged off Grandma’s snubs and pointed remarks and never struck back.  I asked Aunt Mary one day if she felt hurt by that treatment.  I had been on the receiving end of my grandmother’s spite on a few occasions and feared doing anything that would make her wrath permanent.  But Aunt Mary said, “Oh, your grandmother doesn’t bother me.  She’s always been that way.”

Mom and Dad took us to our grandparents on Sunday nights to visit.  Talk inevitably turned to family history and gossip.  Aunt Mary became the main topic one night.  I heard that she had had an affair with a married man for years and years.  My great aunt and the man were Catholics, and the man refused to get a divorce even though his marriage had long grown cold.  Aunt Mary never made any demands.  She understood that she and “Bill” would get married if the estranged wife died.

Bill suffered a heart attack and exited this world well before his wife.  Aunt Mary never took up with another man, and years later remarked, “To hell with the Church.  I should have married him while I could.”

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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.”

A List: Love’s Labor Lost and Found

1.When I was five I loved Shirley Temple. I felt sorry for her when an evil spinster or a policeman tore her from the loving arms of her crusty but kindly grandfather and carried her off to orphanage hell. I wanted to hug her and make her feel better as she wept.

2. At seven I fell in love with Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills in the movie, “The Parent Trap”. The young actress played a set of twins who had been separated by a divorce and didn’t know of each other’s existence until they met, by chance, at summer camp. I adored their curly short hair and big round eyes, and my heart went thump, thump, thump when they played guitars and sang, “Let’s get together, yeah, yeah, yeah.” If only we could…At school I two-timed the movie twins with a skinny, little girl with freckles named Laura. She had a great sense of humor, and I enjoyed talking with her every morning on the playground before the bell rang. The only problem with our relationship was that she punched me with her bony fist every time I made her laugh. It was meant as an affectionate gesture, but her knuckles separated the thin strands of muscle in my upper arm before colliding with my bone. I decided, reluctantly, after a month of her sadistic love, that I valued the structural integrity of my arm more than her.

3. In fourth grade I probably fell in love with Sharon. She was a happy go lucky girl who didn’t have all that much to say. I don’t remember any significant moment of romance between us, but that I enjoyed chasing her around the classroom at lunch time and she enjoyed being chased. I guess that I secretly longed for a deeper, more meaningful relationship and began to allow the distance between us to grow wider and wider.

4. In eighth grade I kinda/sorta liked Eileen. All the kids were starting to pair up, and while I didn’t feel any lust for her, she seemed like the most natural candidate. She was the smartest girl in our class, and I was near the top among the boys. We were both quiet and studious and took things very seriously. The main difficulty we had in jump starting our passion was that she looked like a hunted animal whenever our eyes met. She lived in terror that I might actually walk up to her and ask her out. I believed in the virtues of kindness and mercy and left her alone.

5. When I was a freshman in college I fell in love with a girl named Madonna. She dumped me after a couple months, and when I recovered from that blow I began to look for another target for my desperate affection. A young woman named Karen sat in front of me in speech class. She was a short brunette, petite and cute. I tried chatting her up one day, but her cold response warned me away.

I gave several awkward speeches at the beginning of the semester, and tried very hard not to look in her direction while I stammered and shook at the podium. I eventually got the hang of channeling my nervous energy into making stronger performances. I began to relax and enjoy public speaking. I wrote a skit and acted it out with three other classmates. We made satirical references to the health clinic and administration at U.D. and got a few laughs. Even Karen smiled a few times.

My final exam that semester was in biology. I filled in scan-tron dots for two hours, and after I answered the last question I felt my brains seize up in a massive, mental Charley horse. I stumbled out of Wohlleben Hall and was confronted by Karen. She looked up expectantly as if she wanted something from me. I was puzzled:  she had never bothered to talk to me in class. She hemmed and hawed and said something about living in a little town close to Dayton and that she had a summer job but would have lots of spare time and she thought that I was from Dayton and…then she trailed off into silence. She blushed and looked embarrassed. I rubbed my eyes and stared down at her and couldn’t imagine what she wanted from me. I wished her a good summer and walked away, but noticed that her shoulders slumped and head bowed after I spoke.  It didn’t occur to me until a few minutes later that she had been hinting around for me to ask her out. I ran back but couldn’t find her anywhere. I felt like a complete moron.

She wasn’t a science major, and I didn’t see her in any of my classes the next fall. But one day I was walking along Stewart St. near the campus with a friend. I saw her in the distance with a male companion. She glanced in my direction and a look of recognition crossed her face, followed by hurt and embarrassment. She hung her head and took the hand of her boyfriend for comfort. I felt the urge to run up to her and explain that I was a blockhead when it came to reading signals from women, but managed to restrain the impulse. I knew that anything I would say would only make matters worse.

6. I turned down a chance for love when I was 23. I had an off and on crush on a poet named Kathy. She was close friends with an English major I had known in high school named Sheila. Sheila was friendly toward me when I ran into the two of them on campus as long as I didn’t talk to Kathy for very long. One day I heard pounding on my apartment door, and when I opened it Kathy and Sheila invited themselves in. They had odd smiles on their faces as they chit chatted about U.D. gossip. They eventually got around to telling me the reason for their visit. Eileen, my proto-crush in eighth grade, was a friend of Sheila’s. She apparently suffered from having remained a virgin all these long years, and needed someone to release her pent up, libidinal energy. They went on to explain that poor Eileen had talked to priests about her problem to no avail, and had recently begun to break down crying during Mass. She was wracked by nun induced guilt when it came to her sexual needs. Kathy and Sheila wanted to know if I was willing to help a poor girl finally get some relief.

The two of them sat close to each other on my sofa and stared at me with wide eyes and coy smiles as they waited for my answer. It occurred to me that they were trying to kill two birds with one stone. They were a lesbian couple, I was a possible distraction for Kathy if she ever decided to switch teams, and Eileen needed to get laid. As all of these revelations danced in my head, I imagined going to bed with a hysterical, guilt ridden woman. I knew without a doubt that Eileen was one of those Catholic girls who would blame me for stealing her virtue minutes after the deed was done.

I was too embarrassed to admit to anyone that I was a virgin myself and was starting to get very impatient to have my first go at lovemaking, but the thought of deflowering Eileen wasn’t very attractive. And the offer being presented seemed predicated on their theory that I was a man and would screw anyone available if given the chance. I told Kathy and Sheila that I wasn’t interested. They looked disappointed and left immediately, but they had accomplished one part of their mission: I no longer had a crush on Kathy.

7. In the spring of 1983 I was finishing up a B.F.A. degree at Wright State University and a relationship with a woman named Jane. At various times I believed that I loved her, but inwardly cringed at the thought of marriage. She could be randomly sweet and loving and cruel and critical with me, and I wasn’t sure which end of the spectrum would become most dominant in her dealings with me. She once told me that she was a month late, and I reluctantly agreed to marry her if it became necessary. I could feel all sorts of doors to a happy life slamming shut as I told her that I would stick by her. That crisis turned out to be a false alarm, and our affair continued to stagger onward toward its final, ugly conclusion.

I had a few opportunities for a better romance during the last three tortured months of our relationship. One was a nursing student who rented the apartment below me. She had been living with a hyperthyroidic plumber who could stand outside in the freezing cold wearing nothing but shorts and a t-shirt. She had tired of his hot blooded love and kicked him out shortly before attending a wedding in which I served as an usher. We had shared a few sympathetic looks when we met on the front porch of our building, but I hadn’t thought that love might be possible. When she came through the receiving line she gave me a sad smile and a peck on the cheek, and it occurred to me that she was letting me know that she liked me. Visions of a vengeful Jane danced in my head, however, and I let that chance pass by.

A woman in my French II class liked to talk with me in the hall during breaks. She had long, silky, black hair, and caramel brown skin and gorgeous black eyes. One day she stood a little closer to me than normal and had that expectant look in her eyes, but she said nothing obvious. I knew that I could ask her out for a cup of coffee and that one thing might lead to another, but didn’t respond to her subtle overture. (I had vowed to never two-time anyone after being two-timed by Madonna.) She grew quite angry, stormed off and never spoke to me again.  (Years later I realized that she thought that I turned her down because I was a racist.)

Jane walked into my place early one morning six weeks later, woke me up and told me that she had been seeing someone else, and that she only thought of me as a friend. I wasn’t surprised. We had stopped going to bed together for the last two months of our affair, she had previously told me that she had learned to enjoy kissing again with a man who was better at it than I, and she had drunk dialed one night from a party and encouraged a group of men to jeer at me.   Jane babbled a few more excuses and self-justifications before she left, but I had stopped listening. My attention was focused on the urgent need to kick myself hard in the ass for remaining faithful to her.

7. My wife and I met two months later. Judy was the anti-Jane: she was consistently kind, thoughtful and loving. She didn’t like the way I kissed either, but was happy to teach me how to please her. And I was happy to practice until I got it right.