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.



My Wife Doesn’t Support the Arts


It all started with her African violets.  Judy asked me to watch over them while she went away for a few days to a plant physiology conference.  I put them in my bedroom, admired the round forms of their leaves, and decided to do a series of charcoal drawings.  The series went well as I recorded the gradual descent of the stems, the drooping and dropping of the leaves.  When she returned I showed her the drawings before I returned her plants, and I waited for her to praise how closely I watched over them, how I put all my powers of observation into making a faithful record.  Instead she cried, “You didn’t water them!  They’re half dead!”  Her outburst shocked me.  How could she not understand that true art is about the cycle of life and death, the drama of mortality?  Her plants may have given up their lives, but they had made a worthy sacrifice for Art.

I decided to ignore her odd sense of priorities and married her, but the early days of cohabitation were fraught with tension.  Judy objected one day when she found me in the kitchen mixing painting solutions (varnish, stand oil, paint thinner) at the dining table.  She exclaimed, “We eat there!”  “Of course we do,” I replied.  “Are you saying that a table has only one function?”  She couldn’t find an adequate response to my query, but I agreed to mix my painting media on the back steps.  I thought, “This is how it starts.”

A few months later she asked me where the hammer was.  She’d rummaged through the tool chest and the drawers in the kitchen and couldn’t find it.  I said, “I’m using it in a still life.  Don’t touch it.  I’ll be done with it in a month or two.”  She shook her head in disbelief and failed to comment on my innovative use of nontraditional subject matter in a genre filled to overflowing with fruit ‘n flower paintings.  I began to wonder if I’d married badly.

DSC_0260 (2)Cat and Hammer, Oil/Canvas, 1985

Three years later she forced me to shut down my studio in a spare bedroom in our duplex apartment in State College.  I had to relocate to a cold and drafty basement and work wearing a coat during the winter months.  At the time of my banishment Judy was seven months pregnant and refused to listen to my objections.  She said, “We have to get the baby’s room ready now.”  I began to suspect that she placed more importance on family than on Culture. So bourgeois.

And then one day about six months later, she came down to the basement with a load of laundry on one arm and our daughter on the other.  I thoughtfully interrupted an intense painting session to warn her to not step on a tube of oil paint that I had left, for a no longer recalled strategic purpose, on the floor drain in front of the washer.  I gathered from the pained look she gave me that she thought that I should quit working and move the tube.  I gallantly ignored her unreasonable expectations and began to rework a difficult passage that I’d been struggling with for days.  (The demands my paintings made on me often left me exhausted and mentally battered, but I had become used to making sacrifices.)  I barely noticed when she slammed the lid to the washer and retreated with baby back up the basement stairs–stomp, stomp, stomp.  “Some people,” I thought, “have it so easy.”

This morning I set up my French folding easel in my bathroom and began a palette knife self-portrait.  I spent an hour or two.  Judy wondered what kept me out of sight for so long, and I asked her if she’d like to see how I had managed to turn yet another room into a studio.  She stared at my work arrangement and the newly begun painting, but instead of expressing wonder at my ingenuity she said, “I guess this means that you’ll be using my bathroom a lot.”

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My wife.  The muse.

All About After

I don’t care for the aftermath.  Taking action feels a lot more powerful, and living in the moment offers less time to consider one’s regrets.  After is an ugly guy who comes for a visit, sleeps on the couch, eats up all the food in the fridge, and won’t tell me when he’s leaving.  But After gives me an opportunity to arrange recent events in a framework that makes sense.  Then I can move on.  Then I can make peace with What Is.

My Daily After is the butt end of a day, and I’m the last two inches of a smoldering cigar.  While I’m in the middle of teaching a class I’m usually caught up in the process of communicating with students, evaluating their work, giving advice and planning ahead for the next exercise.  I sometimes teach Drawing I and II simultaneously and have little time for a breather.  When a class is over I answer follow up questions and tidy the studio before making my exit.  On the walk to the parking lot I download the emotions I’ve pushed aside in class.  (An instructor must create the illusion of self composure at all times.)  As I trudge to the car my adrenaline fades, and my books and equipment feel heavier the longer I carry them.  Then I discover how much effort I’ve expended.  My mood dips, and I relive each mistake just made in class.

My Rejection After varied during my dating years.  Sometimes a girlfriend dumped me long before I was ready to call it quits, and my feelings for her lingered painfully for a month or two.  Other break ups left nothing but a sense of relief and freedom.  Time and reflection sometimes gave the realization that I had been mercifully spared.  But in one case it took me three years to figure out that the object of my desire had treated me badly and always would.

The Grieving After:  My sister suffered a long decline as she died from ALS.  During a visit I presented an even tempered demeanor.  I reminded myself as I talked to my parents, brother and sister that my emotions were not the most important thing. Time spent with my family was not about me.  My true state of mind asserted itself on the plane ride home.  I took an upgrade to first class if the ticketing agent made an offer, and I ordered a complimentary whiskey before the plane took off.  I felt no shame as I gulped my drink even if the morning sun had just crossed the horizon.  As we flew south I stared out of the window at the passing clouds, and a heavy sensation filled my chest.  On the trip home from Orlando International my wife drove, and I sobbed.  I became functional after two or three days passed, but during the down time spoke little and kept to myself.  I found it difficult to adjust to the concrete realization, reinforced over and over during my visit, that dying is a process of losing everything.

My father in law died in 2008.  The kind and solicitous representatives from the funeral home drove us from the grave site to my mother in law’s house.  The man riding shotgun opened the door to let us out of the limo and quickly turned away without saying anything in farewell.  I realized that the funeral directors had finished their work, and any compassion shown at the viewing, service and interment had been part of a contract just ended.  We were on our own.  My mother in law drove us to her favorite local restaurant for lunch.  It had rained hard at the cemetery, but now the clouds scattered and weak sunlight brightened the wintry hills of eastern Pennsylvania.  The crowded dining room hummed with conversation, and the checkered table cloth and vase of artificial chrysanthemums made our table insistently cheerful.  Our group said little at first, but after the food arrived we chewed our salads, ate our bread, and told a few stories about the man we had buried an hour before.  We even laughed at a few jokes.

What Do You Do with a Drunken Girlfriend Ear-ly in the Morning?

Jane told me over the phone that she had met a young woman named Callie at the hospital. Jane worked as a medical secretary on one of the floors in the main building of Miami Valley Hospital, and Callie had just been a patient there. Jane was vague about the reasons for her new friend’s hospitalization, but I got the impression that she had overdosed and been housed in the detox ward. Callie had invited Jane to come to a party to celebrate her release. Jane added that Callie would be picking her up at the hospital after she finished her shift.

Jane said, “I wish that you could come along, but you always have to work on Friday nights. You should trade for some day shifts so that we could do things together on the weekend. I hate being trapped with nothing to do because of your job.”

I grunted. Our relationship had grown sour by that time, and we both knew that she was lying when she said that she wanted to spend more time with me. When we did go out on a dates in recent weeks we spoke less and less, and the tension between us made her crabby and gave me a headache. We were both looking for the exit, but hadn’t admitted it to each other yet.

Jane said, “Well, I might see you tonight at the hospital. I’m coming over to the Apple Street exit.”

“Okay,” I replied unenthusiastically.

At twelve a.m. Jane came bustling through the lobby where I worked as a third shift receptionist in the nursing school dormitory at Miami Valley. A thin woman with brunette hair and freckled, pale skin followed in her wake. Jane paused to introduce me to Callie, and when Callie said, “Hey there, Jane’s boyfriend” her lazy consonants mushed together. She was already tipsy.

Several uneventful hours passed by, and few people came and went. I was drawing a copy in my sketchbook of a still life painting by Chardin when the phone rang. It was Jane. I could tell that she was in the mood to be cruel, and she sounded very drunk. She sneered, “Hey, Denny. I’m at the party!” (I heard dance music and laughter in the background.) “I having a great time, but you wouldn’t like it. People are having fun! You don’t like to do fun things, do you? Well, I do. Hey fellas! Do you think that we’re having a good time?” (A group of men cheered.) “Hey, Denny! D’ya wanna hear what these guys think about you?”

“Not really,” I answered.

“That’s too bad, because here they are. Boys! Tell old Dennis what you think of him!” (A group of men shout into the phone, one over the top of the other. I thought that I heard a few obscenities and slurs, but it was hard to decipher what they were saying.)

Jane came back on and said, “Nighty-night old man!” and hung up.

I sat there and stewed. I couldn’t concentrate on anything and put away my sketchbook. I decided that I had to break up with her once and for all. Why waste time and effort on someone who enjoyed mocking me? She kept telling me that she thought that I was too old for her even though we were only four years apart. Somehow I was to blame for keeping her from a young and carefree lifestyle.

At five thirty she and Callie staggered into the lobby. Jane obviously needed a ride home. Callie was a lot more sober, but didn’t want to go out of her way to drop off her drinking buddy. She looked happy and relieved to dump the problem in my lap. Jane went to the bathroom after Callie dashed out the door. She left her purse on the counter in front of me, and I fished her car keys out of the clutter of cosmetics, loose coins, gum, cigarettes, and used tissues inside the bag.

Jane came back and tried to find her keys, and I held them up in front of her.

“Give me those,” she demanded.

“You’re too drunk to drive,” I said.

“I am not! Give me my keys. I’ll call security!”

“You’re drunk and you’re on hospital property after hours. What are you going to tell them?”

“I’ll think of something, damn you! Give me my keys!”


“You’re just doing this because you’re mad at me. I had a good time tonight and you didn’t and now you’re taking it out on me!”

She had a point. I might have been holding onto her keys to reassert my power in the relationship, or to pay her back for that night’s phone call. But what really made me persevere was a temptation that danced around in my head. A devilish little thought told me to let her drive home, and if she got into a wreck it wouldn’t be my problem. If she killed herself or someone else I wasn’t responsible. She had chosen to humiliate me that night, and I felt like letting her meet her fate.

That evil enticement made me do the opposite. I knew that I couldn’t live with the guilt if something did happen to her. I would always suspect that I had let her go just to get rid of her. There was nothing selfless in my decision to hold onto the keys, just a twisted mess of motives and counter motives.

“If you don’t give me my keys I’ll get you fired!” she threatened me. “When the next shift comes on I’ll tell them that you held me here against my will! I’ll tell them that you hit me!”

“You’re drunk. They won’t believe you. And you’ll get fired too. Can you afford to lose your job?”

She calmed down while she thought that over. Her head bobbed a few times as she nearly fell asleep while sitting in a chair just across the counter from me. She got up and stalked away to the lunch room, and I heard her trying to put coins into a vending machine. She kept dropping them and cursing, but managed to get a cup of coffee. She spilled some of it as she walked back to my post. She made a show of drinking it down, and began to walk back and forth in front of me. She swayed and veered, and was too drunk to realize that her words were heavily slurred when she told me, “See, I’m sober now. I can drive.”

“No,” I said.

“I have to get home! Who’s going to be there when Carol Ann wakes up?”

“Your mother will be there. I’ll drive you home when I get off my shift.”

“But what about my car? It’s parked on Apple Street. I need my car!”

“I’ll drive you in your car, and I’ll call Tony to follow us down to Miamisburg. He’ll drive me back.”

“Call me a cab!”

“I don’t have the money. Do you?”

“Fuck you!”

“No thanks.”

We spent the next hour arguing in short bursts. She gradually got more sober, but still seemed unsteady. I called my brother at six and apologized for getting him up. I explained the situation briefly to him, and he agreed without complaint to come down to the hospital. He knew some of the things that had been going on between me and Jane and wasn’t surprised by this latest development.

My day shift replacement was a starchy old lady who had been widowed for years. She was a straight shooter for the most part, didn’t gossip much or wage office wars, but I was still worried about her reaction. Jane screeched something horrible about me stealing her keys when ‘Clara’ sat down at the desk, and I said nothing. Clara sized up the situation and her eyes narrowed when she took in Jane’s disheveled state. Tony walked in the lobby door, I clocked out, and Jane led me to her car. I pulled around to where Tony was parked and honked the horn. He nodded and started his engine, and we headed south.

Jane fumed in the shotgun seat and said, “I could have driven home. I wasn’t that drunk.”

“You would have killed yourself. You couldn’t see straight when you came back to the hospital.”

“How would you know? And don’t sit there judging me! You always act so superior, but you don’t have to live my life. What would you do if you had to raise a little girl with your parents nitpicking your every decision, looking over your shoulder and interfering? How would you handle it? I just need some help to get by. Everybody needs some coping mechanisms to get by.”

Jane had been taking diet pills for the last two months to shed pregnancy weight left over from her daughter’s birth three years before. As she got thinner she became more irritable and had begun to smoke and drink. Her ego had swelled as the fat on her frame diminished, and she had let it slip on a few occasions that she thought that I was no longer in her league.

I lost my temper and shouted, “Coping mechanisms!? Trying to kill yourself isn’t a coping mechanism!”

She was startled at first, and then became peevish. “You don’t have to shout at me!”

“You don’t respect me unless I shout! You don’t listen to anybody unless they yell at you!” I shouted louder.

“All right, all right! I get it!” she said as she turned away. We rode the rest of the way in silence. When I pulled up to her parents’ house I turned off the motor and tossed her the keys. I got out without saying anything and walked over to my brother’s car.

He drove us back to the hospital where I picked up my car. I thanked him and explained a bit more about what had happened at the hospital, and he told me not to worry about calling him for help. I also said that if Jane tried that again I’d let her drive no matter what her condition.

It was past nine when I got home and I was exhausted. I fell into bed and didn’t wake up until supper time. Jane hadn’t called while I slept, and I entertained the hope that she had finally decided to dump me. I had grown tired of finding myself in situations with her where I couldn’t tell whether or not I was making right choices, or making right choices for right reasons. She had a talent for twisting me into mental knots.

I graduated with a B.F.A. from Wright State a week or so later. Jane came uninvited to a party that my Mom and Dad threw for me to celebrate my accomplishment. When she walked out onto the back patio I felt my face stiffen and the muscles in my neck and shoulders tense up. I hadn’t known that I was still that angry with her until I saw her and heard her voice. She tried to glad hand her way around the crowd until she came to me, but some of the folks gathered there knew her reputation and didn’t do much to welcome her. I glared at her when she sidled up to me. She laughed as if nothing were the matter, and I could tell that she was trying dazzle her way out of trouble by laying on the charm. Her face fell when I ignored her pleasantries and said, “What are you doing here?”

She left a few minutes later, and I felt some satisfaction in driving her away. But I knew that our ordeal wasn’t really over. My show of force was just a temporary victory. She was the one in charge of this disaster, would end it when she was good and ready, and would dictate the terms.