August 14, 2009
Note To My Readers: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is purely intentional. If you see yourself here please rest assured that I have liberally embroidered upon who you are and what was said so that although there is truth in this story it is built out of lies.
“Would you mind being pond scum?” he asks. The designs on his shirt swim before me, a wash ‘n’ wear painting by Miro with abstract minnows darting in between watery waves of blue and yellow fabric.
I stare at the delicately inked red “2” on the inside of his right wrist. It sits on the tender white skin where the doctor searches for sounds of life. I wonder what font he has used and why he has chosen a “2” instead of a “1” or a “3.” I intend to break the code if I’m allowed to stick around long enough.
“You can call me P.S. for short.” I counter, keenly aware that I am sounding glib, too clever. Will he notice and disinvite me?
I deflate inside afraid that I have exposed myself. My profession is showing. Next thing you know I’ll be spouting out catch-phrases: “What a deal! The whole nine yards! When push comes to shove!” and my favorite “Let’s pull the trigger” which a client once told me disturbed her because it was evidence that I was supporting a violent paradigm.
“If you’d like to come back, please do” he extends.
There was a moment during class when I watched from the outside of the circle, in but not quite in, pond scum instead of part of the pond and I saw him scribble a note on the palm of his left hand. I wanted to stand up and shout “I do that too! I write on my hand just like Tom does except I usually write on the top fleshy part because I’m going through menopause and my brain is like a sieve and if I write on my palm I will forget to remember that I have written anything at all!”
The faces in the pond would have turned to me, staring as I ripped off my emotional outerwear and stripped down to full disclosure of how fucked up, scared, no make that terrified, I was to be wanting something so bad and being afraid I would not get it.
“Sometimes I just hate to hope” Tom begins the class. Is he a mind reader or is my desire that contagious? I sit a mere three feet away and study the size of his ears. They are large and, like God, maybe all hearing.
Later I skip down the sidewalk, my silver platform Mary Jane’s have transported me to Oz and back and the wizard has just given me an assignment. He asks that I write about something that has changed my life, a moment so huge that it separates before from after.
“I’m thrilled.” I repeat in threes, needing to say it over and over until I believe this is really happening. We stand across from each other in the backyard where we have gone to talk privately and I clear my throat several times the way I do when I am nervous but cannot stop.
“Thank you so so so much for the chance to come back” I say and walk quickly out the gate, afraid that my desperation will frighten him away like the boys who stopped calling knowing I wanted more then they could give.
I speed dial Laurence to tell him I am in. Like Flynn. In like Flynn. The phrase, like a tape loop, replays itself and I realize I have no idea what it means. I google it when I get home and discover it is a reference to movie star Errol Flynn, popular in the 40s for his flamboyance, fame and what was rumored to be a very large cock.
And I think Tom will like this because he has a blown glass cock sitting in the middle of the writing table alongside piles of books and a plastic wind-up toy nun. He jokes in class that he is “nothing but a sentimental old homo” and my heart breaks for him and the virus he carries to prove it.
For twenty years, I have silenced my voice in journals that nobody read and writing classes where they praised me for knowing how to spell. Along the way I have found and lost two good teachers; one helped me turn abstract to concrete and the other taught me that pauses were as potent as words.
Mostly I write to myself on the kitchen table with confetti-colored zinnias blooming in an Italian pitcher. I look out the plate glass window at a bird feeder without any birds. It hangs from the eaves filled with barley corn and sunflower seeds packed tightly in a plastic tube advertising a free meal with no takers. I tell Laurence it is too close to the window but we never seem to get around to moving it.
I steal time to write between showing houses and writing up offers. Each year I grow more successful and more afraid that I have sold my soul to the National Association of Realtors. I skip staff meetings and forget to mail thank you notes to clients who have referred me to friends and friends of friends who never suspect I have a secret life hidden behind my Lexus and lockbox key.
“You look like a prude.” my sister-in-law observes, “Too straight to be a writer.” The sliver of her nose hoop quivers as the words pour out of her mouth and onto my shame. She is from Manhattan and sees me as a lost cause. She tells me she has read my blog and says my posts are getting better and then reminds me she has an MFA in creative writing.
“I need help” I say, staring down at my 500 Mile Chai as the fountain trickles behind us in the corner of the teahouse. She nods and we split a plate of spinach rolls. She is a therapist now but I think she should have stuck to creative writing.
I need help” I tell my shrink. “I need a community, a teacher, a mentor.” He leans forward, his bushy gray eyebrows forming a V as they reach for the top of his forehead. “Dangerous writing” he says and grabs a book from the bookcase behind his ergonomically-correct chair. “Tom Spanbauer” he adds, pulling out a thick hardcover wrapped in a book jacket illustrated with pictures of flying Indians, buffaloes, and a burning skull. “The Man Who Fell In Love With The Moon” he beams like the moon itself floating large white and yellow across the cover of the book.
He tells me Tom is a renowned writer and teacher of the minimalist school who specializes in the technique of dangerous writing. He is an underground legend and mentor to Chuck Palahniuk, the diesel mechanic who fleshed out his famous novel Fight Club at Tom’s writing table.
“How do I find him?” I ask. The shrink hands me a slip of paper, a non-refundable ticket to my future. I carry it home, a life line held tightly to my palm.
It takes 30 minutes for me to write the five line email. I am a wordy girl and work to impress him with less is more. Hoping to entrap him with well-cut words and minimal sentences: writing in shorthand.
Within the next week I meet three more people who tell me about Tom. “You must meet Tom Spanbauer” says my allergist plunging a needle into my arm. “It was life-changing” states my new friend Jane describing the workshop at Haystack when Tom changed the course of her literary life. “I’ve heard about him for years” says the bartender who dabbles in words between dabbling in drinks.
The email arrives. Simple words without flourish. Inviting me to observe a class. Telling me his table is full, there is a long waiting list but that he’d like to meet me.
One week later, I sit in Tom’s basement on a love seat behind the heavy wooden chairs that pull up to farmhouse-sized table. All 15 chairs are filled, pages are handed out. Tom readjusts his floor lamp, the shade hand-painted the colors of an African flag.
He has greeted me warmly and I realize he has no idea who I am. Does not remember my well-parsed message or the story of how I found him and what I was looking for.
“You are pond scum” he explains and at first I don’t understand. The writers grin and someone laughs loudly across the table. I am a private joke but nod happily, willing to be anything to be in that room.
Later I learn that the writers at the table are the pond. They have earned the right to read their work aloud, to sit with Tom around the well-lit rectangle. The rest of us are scum to their pond, perched on a group of mismatched chairs sitting in dark corners. Aquatic algae we are primitive plants, no true roots, stems or leaves we bloom on their surface.
“We’re all so fucked up” Tom says to the group and I know I am where I need to be.
Four and a half hours later we stand outside the back French doors and he asks me to write something. A before and an after. About a time in my life when something so important happened that everything changed. Forever.
I turn to leave, my insides filled with fireworks and the flash of roman candles and suddenly I see the moment he has asked me to find and realize at once that this is my After.
July 24, 2009
I admit it. I watch The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. I’ve seen nearly every episode from every season since the romance reality series debuted on ABC in 2002. I have host Chris Harrison’s Entertainment Weekly Blog on my favorites list plus I’ve become a regular on the FORT – Fansofrealitytv.com – a website devoted to all things Reality TV.
The show, created by Hollywood reality TV honcho Mike Fleiss – second cousin to convicted Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss – revolves around a bachelor or bachelorette searching for love. Each night The B goes on dates with one or more contestants. At the end of every episode, red rose buds on stick pins for men and long-stemmed roses for the ladies, are given out to the favored few; the ones who do not receive a rose must say their goodbyes and step into a waiting limo with a producer on board waiting to capture a shocking confession from the dumped and usually drunk contestant that will then be played and re-played for the rest of the season.
The goal of the show is for The Bachelor or Bachelorette to move closer every week to finding the woman or man who will sweep them off their feet and into reality TV fame for as long as it takes the couple to realize they hardly know each other and aren’t in the least bit compatible.
The Bachelor/ette has an even worse track record of happily-ever-after endings then do modern-day American marriages where the success rate is currently 50%. Out of 13 seasons of The Bachelor and four seasons of The Bachelorette (we are currently nearing the end of season five with spunky Canadian Bachelorette Jillian Harris), 14 “commitments” were made, nine of which resulted in fancy dress proposals at places with palm trees and one that actually ended in a pink-themed wedding on national TV.Two contestants refused to commit to anyone, one couple remain “life partners” despite an assault and arrest by said “partner” Mary Delgado on life partner Byron Velvick. A final couple – Charlie O’Connell (brother of Rebecca Romijn spouse/actor Jerry O’Connell) and Sarah Brice – are rumored to be planning a wedding following a break-up and reconciliation. According to the happily reunited couple during an interview on national TV, things have been great since Charlie got a little help for his drinking problem.
So why does a woman with a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, ten years as an international public broadcasting executive and nine more as the owner of a successful real estate company continue to feed her addiction to a reality television program about failed relationships?
Do I watch for love or do I tune in to see the smiles crack and the engagement rings go on eBay, the bachelors move on to new blonder and bigger boobed bachelorettes and the bachelorettes write books about how great it is to be single?*
Am I a true believer or a die-hard cynic? Do I enjoy the spectacle of a tuxedoed train wrecked against the highlighted tracks of a bejeweled bleached blond? Or do I wonder if finding true romantic love complete with pumping heart, raised blood pressure and that long-lost feeling that it is possible to find your soul mate – on TV or off – is still possible?
I watch the show obsessed as 25 women or men pop out of a stretched limousine and into the arms of the main attraction who stands in front of his or her grey stone castle of a bachelor/ette pad that puts Barbie’s Dream House to shame.
On the opening night of each season I wait for the “first impression” rose to be handed out to the person with that special spark; that rose has become the kiss of romantic death as everyone who has ever received it is dismissed far before the season finale airs. First impressions don’t seem to have anything to do with long-term compatibility but then again neither do proposals popped within a seven week production schedule.
I TIVO the show opener so at the end of the season when the final bachelor/bachelorette has been chosen, I can go back and recapture the instant they first met; all the time knowing that within a week, a month or a year that couple will appear on the cover of US Weekly with the word “SPLIT” etched across their Crest-whitened smiles and unlined air-brushed faces.
I click through the FORT several times a day to read the Spoilers & Speculation strands where hundreds (thousands? millions?) of women and a few men sleuth their way into figuring out who will receive the final, coveted rose. Last season Bachelor Jason Mesnick, single dad from Seattle with camera-friendly four-year old named Ty, returned to the series to search for love after being rejected by the previous season’s Bachelorette. Within an hour after the first episode aired the sleuthers had figured out who received the bent knee and diamond-encrusted multi-carat engagement ring on the final night.
Most FORTERS, myself included, lost interest in Jason’s season and barely tuned in to watch the love story grow. However, Jason and producer Fleiss pulled a final twist when the couple returned to the stage for the After The Final Rose episode (known to FORT followers as the ATFR) only to have Jason announce that he’d made a mistake and chosen the wrong girl. Was it a set-up? Had they planned it from the start, or did he truly change his mind and realize that it was Molly not Melissa who had captured his televised heart?
At 50 years old, with too many relationship notches on my belt, one failed marriage, one successful marriage and many a man in-between, there is still something that pulls me back to the TV, to the websites and the tabloids. I am forever trying to figure out what combination of ingredients makes two people fall truly, madly and deeply in love, if only for the time it takes to shoot, edit and air a reality TV series.
Perhaps I’ve given up on it myself and realized that real, long-term committed love does not a blood pressure raise. Maybe I’m trying to recapture being 17 and falling for a boy named Andy who taught me how to drive a stick shift and told me I was beautiful even though I wasn’t.
Does the camaraderie on the FORT remind me of the girlfriends I had before marriage and commitment and the endless hours we sat sipping white-foamed cappuchinos and deconstructing each and every cute guy that entered our line of sight? Or is it my love of a really good mystery – for clearly love falls in that literary genre – that keeps me sleuthing through the sound bytes and screencaps until I’ve followed all the clues and solved the case of a romantic “whodunnit?”
My real fixation with the series started when Trista Rehn became our first Bachelorette in 2003. A silky-stranded blond Miami Heat Cheerleader, Trista bounced on the scene during the first installment of The Bachelor and got all the way to the final 2 (or F2 as we say on the FORT, also known as the second to last woman standing) only to be rejected at the Final Rose Ceremony by Bachelor Alex Michel. She returned the following year with a show of her own and a bevy of dark-suited bachelors with well-shined shoes and carefully-coiffed hair all waiting to be her one and only.What a surprise for all of us when Trista tossed over the well-tailored, high-lighted, L.A.-based financial analyst Charlie for the poetically-challenged Colorado fireman named Ryan. Sure he was tall, dark and handsome but was he the sexy celebrity-friendly California “catch” that we thought Trista had been looking for? Trista, it seems, was a lot smarter then her high-pitched baby talk and squeals had led us to believe.
Within a year she had dyed her hair back to brown, given up her career options in Hollywood, moved to Colorado and married her fireman. Five years later they are the “gold standard” of the Bachelor franchise with two kids, normal jobs and what appears to be a strong marriage. Granted the squeaky voice has mellowed and they are often interviewed talking about how hard it is to make a relationship work, but they still stand tall in the Reality TV Hall of Romance Fame.So here we are nearing the end of the fifth season of The Bachelorette as the maple-leaf loving Jillian from Vancouver, BC has whittled her selection down from 30 (the first Bachelor or Bachelorette in the franchise history to have been given 30 – not 25 – eligible fiances to choose from) to two. . .or so we thought until we saw next week’s previews.
Word on the boards is that the F3 (yes, the third to last man standing) named Reid, a Matthew Perry look-alike from Philly who sells high-end condos for a living, may be coming back to propose. Or at least make a commitment. Or to simply create more drama and bring in more viewers for ABC and its advertisers. For, as any good FORTer knows, the love story will always take a back seat to ratings.
Besides Reid coming back into the picture, Jill has two more guys on her plate including Ed who she calls “a gentle giant” and Kiptyn who she recently dubbed “seriously sexy” and “better looking in person then on TV.”A lot of controversy has surrounded Ed who first left the show several episodes in to return to his high-stress job at Microsoft in Chicago when his boss called and gave him an ultimatum. This was the explanation given to the general public, however the sleuthers uncovered “Girlfriend-Gate” which indicates that Ed is a player who is balancing two girlfriends back at home. Ed also appears to be a drinker – ABC has peppered the show with drunken Ed moments – plus we just got word that he was recently kicked out of a karaoke bar in Chicago for disorderly, drunken conduct. How much of this is true is up for grabs, but FORTers are concerned that Jilly is about to pick the wrong guy.
And then there is Kiptyn who is rather small but towers over the tiny size 0 Jill. He must spend a lot of time at the gym given the shape and size of his well-muscled body; his resume tells us he is a business developer, owns his own company in Encinito, California plus runs a charity for at-risk kids. Kip’s problem – according to Jillian – is that he is too perfect and it seems the viewing public shares her concern as Kip is the dark horse and not favored to win.
With five days left until the season finale the obsession grows and I still can’t figure out why I spend more time contemplating Jillian’s future then thinking about my own. I guess a future for a 30-year old seems ripe and ready to blossom while I feel stuck in an empty lot overtaken by old weeds with deep roots and no time or energy to pull them out and plant something new.
Through Jillian I cling to my dating days, my waiting-for-my-life-to-begin days, my sense that the world might have an oyster complete with a key carved from mother-of-pearl that would unlock the future I wanted but didn’t know how to find.
Now that the future has passed my dreams are too tired to stay awake, my thyroid levels are high, my vitamin D levels low and my goal is to reach the end of the day without a tension headache.
And every Monday night, I slip exhausted onto the couch to watch the next installment of The Bachelorette. I’m a voyeur and enjoy the experience of viewing vicariously without the anxiety of introductions, conversations and feelings that can’t be controlled. I float on the comforting tide of someone else’s story and secretly hope that someday I may find the energy to step back into my own.
In the meantime, I will continue to follow each Bachelor and Bachelorette as they mingle, snort champagne and smother each other in uncomfortable TV kisses in the hope that sometime, someday, one more televised couple might just get it right.
*”Better Single Then Sorry” by Jen Schefft; author Schefft received and accepted a proposal from Bachelor Andrew Firestone on season three, broke off the engagement and returned as ABC’s third Bachelorette only to reject all 25 suitors.
Postscript: Jillian chose Ed and received a $60,000 Neil Lane diamond engagement ring (see inset). They promise a wedding in 2010 yet Girlfriend-Gate rumors continue to pop up like gophers before an earthquake. A level orange heartbreak alert is in effect until further notice.
March 15, 2009
In college, classmates took me for a precocious high-schooler with early enrollment and bouncers carded me at clubs until I turned 39. I bore a strong resemblance to my Russian grandfather who died in his mid-70s looking like he’d just hit the half-century mark. “Good genes” people said. “Not fair.” I thought and waited for my body to grow into me.
In my 20s and 30s I began to resemble my age group, still adolescence stuck to me like a half-eaten Sugar Daddy and my features never quite matured past the state of awkward.
But on July 4th at age 40, a friend snapped pictures at my cattle dog Caleb’s first bithday party. Caleb was wearing a plastic Elizabethan dog collar decorated with metallic stars: my firecracker. I looked almost beautiful.
I sent photos to my mother in Willoughby and she commented “Oh, you’re going to be one of those women.” “What women?” I asked. “The ones who grow beautiful with age.”
I looked at the photos and believed her. Past suitors had thrown compliments out: “cute,” “pretty,” and sometimes “beautiful” but only when dizzy with love. The tip of my nose ends in a night light-sized bulb and the older I get the more it takes center stage. My eyes, like twins, don’t like to be too far apart and are deeply embedded into my face, creating a chiaroscuro effect beneath my bottom lashes.
But at 40, suddenly everything came into balance – perhaps it was a trick of light or maybe I finally lost the baby fat. The ridge on my nose grew soft, my hair sprouted curls, the bags beneath my eyes grew lighter and I developed a glow that can only come with the wisdom of years and expensive Chanel anit-aging serums.
I imagined that if my facial luck continued I might morph into a dark-haired version of Catherine Deneuve who, irregardless of pounds gained or cigarettes smoked, remains joyously radiant, her skin still firm and stretched tightly across the Gallic facial bones that have carved her image into celluloid as the icon of eternal French beauty.
So I coasted on my newly-found, ripened and aged beauty and delighted in the idea that I would grow more beautiful and lustrous with each passing year.
And then I hit 49 and crashed into a Stop sign shaped like a mirror. Gravity grabbed at my skin and tackled my face pulling it down to the 50 year old yard line. I gained ten pounds which made a loving leap to my cheeks and tummy. As a child, chubby is playful; chubby babies win pageants. Stout middle-aged women don’t pass GO or collect compliments.
Men stopped looking at me in “that way.” They see me now as a mother or aunt and the youngest consider me grandmother material. They don’t avoid my gaze, they simply don’t notice me. I blend in; a middle-aged woman walking down the street, her face gently falling like an overcooked souffle that is slowly losing air.
I think about plastic surgery and am terrified; not of the surgery or results, but of being put to sleep which is one of my lifelong phobias. I study pictures of unlined celebrities in US Weekly and contemplate a little botox in the small furrow between my eyebrows and then remember the articles I’ve read about faces permanently frozen in a state of suspended anticipation.
I gaze into the mirror and pull tight the skin beneath my eyes. I angle my head to the side, placing my right index finger over the offending knob on my nose. I construct ways to convince my insurance company to cover the cost of a nose job; after all I do have a deviated septum so perhaps a repair and quick shave to the bone would be medically recommended for easier breathing and a prettier face.
I thought I could hold this off longer. I thought I could wait ’till 60 before I had to seriously consider invasive techniques to restore me to my less then former glory. But age and gravity have snuck up on me quickly this year and I am unhappy every time I catch my face in the mirror or, worse yet, see a photo of myself standing next to my husband who is a decade younger and looks it.
I secretly support and cheer on the women who have the money and the guts to put themselves under the knife and wonder if that makes me shallow. Why can’t I embrace my age and enjoy the falling chin and misalighed forehead? Do I blame this on fashion magazines, Hollywood or both? Or do I simply thank the universe that normal women like me can go to a surgeon and have things tweaked and turned and come out with a more youthful, fresher face?
I consider myself a feminist yet here I am contemplating having a plastic surgeon cut open my face to cut off my years. Does Gloria Steinham get botox or has she evolved past that point? What would Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir or Virginia Woolf think of my vanity? Would Gertrude Stein quote me the following lines from her famous poem Sacred Emily:“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose
Pages ages page ages page ages”
And would I hear in her words how a rose is nothing more than a flower on a stem that eventualy ages, ages, ages? Would she roast me at one of her Saturday evening salons in Paris at 27, rue de Fleurus surrounded by Picasso, Matisse, Hemmingway and her girlfriend Alice B. Toklas? Would they laugh at my addiction to youth and dismiss me as hopeless and point their attention towards a discussion of the direction of Modernism in art and music?
A friend from my past Sara Halprin wrote a book called “Look at My Ugly Face! Myths, Musings Beauty Other Perilous Obsessions with Women’s Appearance.” I was disturbed when she first shared the title. The words and sentiment were so hard-edged, like the breaking of something antique and china on cold stark cement. And yet, the title summed up perfectly what I and many women I have known believe to be true – that we are ugly, our faces, our bodiesand that no matter how many times we read Camile Paglia, Naomi Wolf or Sara Halprin, we always come back to the mirror and our desire to be Helen of Troy with the face that launched a thousand ships or at least to have a glancing resemblance to Angelia Jolie, Scarlett Johnanson or Marilyn Monroe.
It gets worse as we age, as we see whatever beauty we once might have had begin to fade like the darkening shadow of dusk across the petals of a rose made famous by Gertrude Stein in a repetitive poem that that simply ends in the dreaded word “ages.”
We buy our creams, our potions, we melt our Vitamin B-12 pills under our tongues, we visit the plastic surgeon for a consultation, contemplate the evil needle of botox and stop by the naturopath to see if a homeopathic remedy exists to hold back the aging face of Mother Time.
Will I know when it’s time? And by then will there be less invasive techniques so that a nurse can magically waive a laser over my face and make ten years disappear like a rabbit popping back into a magician’s hat?
Will my extreme fear of the long needle and a general anaesthetic force me into old ladyhood with everything sagging away au natural or will I wake up one morning and embrace the wrinkles as hard-won war paint from a live fully lived? Or will I have lived just as fully and perhaps more happily with a nip here and a tuck there and most importantly with a neck lift because I truly cannot stand the idea of losing my fairly well-formed chin?
I watch a TV show on Wednesday nights called Life On Mars, a sci-fi crime series originally set in London and aired on the BBC; the show has been translated for an American audience to New York City and is set in both 2008 and 1973. The program features some great performances not the least of which is the aging Harvey Keitel paying Lieutenant Gene Hunt as the head New York’s 125th precinct in the days of peace, love and lack of understanding.
As a hardcore officer on the edge of retirement he wields his police baton over a band of sideburned detectives dressed in tight polyester suits who consider interrogation to be a contact sport. The show is both absurd and often touching as one of the detectives – who has been transported from 2008 to 1973 – tries to find his way home.
What I find fascinating about Keitel’s performance is how completely he embraces a fully-lined face, sagging body and out-of-shape physique. He often ends his day in his office at the precinct, dressed in a wife beater T-shirt drinking a glass of scotch, fatty underarms pouring out of the arm holes, loose skin hanging off his jaw, and an expanded belly protruding under the white stretched fabric of his cotton T. He looks every inch of his 69 years and yet, as he sits on the grimy, nicotine-stained avocado green couch circa 1970, there is something noble and dare I say sexy about his realistic portrayal of an aging cop contemplating his deeds and misdeeds of the day.
Is it easier for a man to age then a woman? Would we be equally enamored with a 70-year old Julia Roberts sporting sagging boobs, wrinkled skin and liver patches? Is that what Sara Halprin was trying to tell me all those years ago when she wrote a book called Look At My Ugly Face?
I look into the mirror and notice the flaws. I click through facebook and find old friends who have morphed into middle-aged women. Their eyes and smiles flutter and curve in familiar patterns; I am relieved to see moments of the girls that I knew. But now those features are sinking into the quicksand of drooping skin and folds of fat: we are fun house mirror portraits of our former selves.
I look young for my age, even now. Inside I feel old and see each new line that crosses my face and each new silver hair that pops up unbidden from beneath the color and highlights that have hidden the gray for nearly two decades. Inside I feel 15 but outside I am 50 and beginning to show the pregnancy of age which will culminate in the opposite of birth.
I see my future a la Gertrude Stein: A rose is a rose is a rose. . .Page ages page ages page ages ages ages.
February 7, 2009
“I felt a sudden, complete exhuberance, the fresh air of 1,000,000 windows opening simultaneously + a sense that my life had been building towards a turning point + that it had happened – now.”
– American Lyricist and Playwright Adolph Green, from a letter detailing his first encounter with Leonard Bernstein at Camp Ononta in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
According to Adam Green:
“That friendship was born in the summer of 1937 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, at Camp Onota, which my father later dubbed ‘Uncle Lou’s Heavenly Haven for Healthily Well-Fed Young Hebrews.’ Berstein, who had just finished his sophomore year at Harvard, was the camp’s music counselor; my father, a self-described aimless bum at the age of 22, had been invited by a friend to guest star as the Pirate King in the camp’s production of The Pirates of Penzance.Moments after they were introduced, Bernstein, who had heard about my father’s uncanny knowledge of classical music dragged him into the dining hall and challenged him to identify a Shostakovich melody, which he played on an upright piano. After a few bars, my father said, ‘I don’t know what that is, but it’s not Shostakovich.’ Bernstein leaped up, threw his arms around him, and confessed that it was a piece he himself had written.
Late into the night, they wandered through the hills surrounding the camp, singing each other snatches of music, impressing each other with esoteric bits of knowledge, and discovering their common love of everything from Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat to an obscure novelty song called ‘I Wish That I’d Been Born in Borneo.'”
I was struck with the details that Green gives us of Bernstein, a larger-then life American conductor; the first born and bred American conductor and composer to be taken seriously by the world of classical musicians and fans. But to Green, Bernstein was not only a celebrity but a member of the tribe, a godfather and surrogate uncle, his father’s best friend and a frequent presence from the time he was born to the time he grew up.
He describes going with his father to see Bernstein conduct at Lincoln Center, a frequent childhood outing they shared together. Green recounts:
“I remember having to shush my father, who would be singing and conducting along, and I remember believing that swashbuckling leaps and Byronically tossed forelocks were necessary to the making of great music, a notion that still strikes me as fundamentally sound.
After the concert, we always went backstage, where a crush of people would be waiting for an audience with Bernstein, who, a silver tumbler of scotch in one hand and a cigarette perched between the fingers of another, held court in a state of glamorous dishelvelment, shirt unbuttoned to the navel. He was an infamously profilgate kisser — my father thought someone should make a movie about him called Lips, whose tagline would be ‘He only wanted to say hello.’
When Bernstein inevitably swept me up in his arms, planted a wet one on me, and announced, ‘This is my godson-I held him when he was circumcised,’ it would fill me with that particular mix of warmth and embarrassment that can only be evoked by family.”
Adam realized quickly that “the calculus of my relationship with my father involved finding my own place in their [Adolph and Leonard’s] ancient camaraderie.” And thus his relationship with “Goddaddy Lenny” is as much about his fascination and enchantment with Bernstein as it is about his continuing love and desire to find shared passions with his father, the lesser celebrity but perhaps the larger men.
The article follows the frendship from Camp Ononta to the Village Vanguard where Adolph Green along with performers Betty Comden and Judy Holliday would entertain audiences with sketch comedy and songs, often accompanied by Bernstein at the piano.
During this time in the late 30s and early 40s, Bernstein and Green shared “a squalid apartment” on East Ninth where Bernstein once announced to Green “You’re brilliant. It’s too bad you’ll never amount to anything.”
And in 1943, having recently been appointed assistant conductor for The New York Philharmonic, Bernstein was called in at the last minute to subsitute for conductor Bruno Walter who was ill with the flu. Bernstein was an overnight sensation, hailed by The New York Times as “a good American success story” and recognized instantly since the concert had been nationally broadcast.
A few years later when Bernstein was asked to create a musical based on Fancy Free, a ballet born out of a collaboration between Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, Leonard asked Green and Comden to write the book and lyrics which later became On The Town , a musical that was the first in a successful series of plays and films from Singin’ in the Rain to Peter Pan starring Mary Martin that turned the unknown Green into a successful performer on Broadway and in Hollywood.
As Adam grows up, so does the friendship between Leonard and Adolph, weathering professional differences – Green turned down an offer to write the book and lyrics for West Side Story – to personal tradgedies. Adam writes:
“In the mid-seventies, Bernstein briefly left his serenly beautiful Chilean wife, Felicia, for a young man, and somehow my parents managed to remain loyal to both of them. One night a year or so later, when Felicia was dying of cancer, Bernstein wept to my father, blaming himself for her illness. My father rested a hand on his friend’s shoulder and said ‘Leonard, m’boy, I’m afraid you’re being a wee bit self-indulgent.'”
Adam writes of the day to day, year to year memories he saves of Bernstein “presiding rabbinically over hotly debated Passover seders; leading frenzied performances of Christmas carols; dominating cutthroat marathons of Anagrams, jotto, and other harrowing word games” and recalls a night during a party at Berstein’s apartment at the Dakota “a crowd of admirerers hovered nearby while he and I had a long, heated discussion about Nabakov, with whom I, at seventeen, had recently become obsessed. At some point, my parents signaled that it was time to go, and I told him that I was leaving. His eyes flashed and he smacked me across the face, saying ‘Fuck you–we were really talking.'”
The last collaboration between Leonard and Adolph occurred in the winter of 1989 when Bernstein was conducting a concert version of his opera Candide in London and asked Green the father to sing the part of Dr. Pangloss. “I will never forget watching my father belt out ‘The Best of All Possible Worlds,’ conducted by his best friend, both of them wearing white tie and tails and half-moon reading glasses, tossing their now-white manes theatrically and exchanging sly glances in front of the crowd in London Symphony Hall as if sharing one final private joke.”
Ten months later, Bernstein was dead at 72 from pneumonia and a pleural tumor, a long-time smoker, Bernstein had been suffering from emphysema since his mid-50s.
Adam describes the scene at Bernstein’s deathbed, “looking down at his ashen, lifeless face–eyes closed, mouth slightly open–I felt a sharp intimation of my father’s mortality and turned to him. I expected to see him crying, his features melted in grief, but his face was hard, and he was trembling with anger. ‘OK, Leonard, this isn’t funny,’ he growled. ‘Get up. Get up, goddamn you. This is bullshit.'”
Years later, shortly after Adolph Green died, his son Adam found a letter that he had written on his fiftieth birthday to his best friend Leonard, recalling the night they first met. To the man who opened up 1,000,000 windows, he wrote:
“Whatever our ages, + until we stop all walking, we are still taking that walk in the night around the Onota hills. . .How happy your friendship makes me. It fills me with the simple + complicated joy of knowing there can be a meaning to life–,that our haphazard + rambling walk is filled with endless connections into the past + the future. ”
January 25, 2009
I found an old friend today. She was my best friend. I thought I’d never ever see her or hear her or sit beside her again on a hot humid day in Washington,D.C., arguing the finer points of the Maplethorpe exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery. Never hear the emphatic and amusing high note in her voice as she stretched out a syllable to make an extra added point. Never again see her in a red silk suit, watching a flamenco dancer and holding a glass of ruby red wine as we celebrated her birthday. Never be amazed yet again at the shoes she would wear – pilgrim style all black with big silver buckles and clunky wooden heels or white suede flats with laces and white leather fringe – that I called ugly at the store but which looked infinitely stylish the minute she slipped them on her feet.
This is the friend who took me to an old-fashioned lingerie shop in downtown D.C., and taught me the value of a well-fit bra, who helped me learn how to put on eye liner, blush and pick the right shade of lipstick. This woman taught me that black can be worn with brown (I had a limited clothing color palette). She is the fashion-forward friend who pronounced that Red is the New Black then Gray was the new Black and finally Black was the new Black.
This is my friend who traveled from Baltimore to Graceland on a charter bus with an all woman Elvis fan club. She had a professionally framed picture of Elvis, girdled and zipped into a white leather pantsuit, which hung in a place of honor in her apartment in Adams-Morgan. She believed that the South was the true promised land, that professional wrestling was athleticism at it’s best, understood the writings of Jean Genet and quoted Christopher Lasch from “The Culture of Narcissism” frequently; I don’t remember any of the content but I will never forget the name of that book.
This woman made a small black and white film staring a lovely couple named Tony and Collette who played Adam and Eve in a visual poem about the Garden of Eden; Collette, a locksmith, later blamed my friend and the film for her subsequent break-up with Tony. But as my friend explained, “It wasn’t that their lives fell apart because they made the film, it was because the story was actually a blueprint, a coding that predicted the path their lives would take.”
This was my best friend and she taught me how to laugh. She shared her secret for making pasta al dente and dreamed up the most original dinner parties. One them was an all white event where everything was white – the food (think turnips, potatoes, cauliflower and yogurt), her grandmother’s white lace tablecloth and Calla Lilies in the Milk Glass vase at the center of the table. Or the alphabet dinner party where the entire alphabet had to be represented in food, wine and table decorations. There were apples, and brocolli, camembert and daisies, eggplant, fringe on the table runner and garlic cloves hanging in the hallway.
My best friend taught me to look at the universe in new ways. She was like a kaleidescope; each time we talked about the writings of Roland Barthes, deconstructed Thelma & Louise or discussed the latest issue of Vanity Fair, my brain would fill up with more colors from more angles and suddenly I was Dorothy entering the magic kingdom, ruby slippers on my feet, Toto at my side, living a technicolor life in a technicolor world.
I am not a happy person. I’m not funny and I always drink a glass that is half-full. With my best friend at my side the cup was full to overflowing, the world one giant oyster and we were the life of every party.
When we broke up, as women friends sometimes do, the colors in my kaleidescope faded, the turning device broke and I was stuck at a crooked angle in a colorless landscape wondering how I would ever recapture Cerulean Blue, Alizarin Crimson or Burnt Sienna. How I would ever plan another dinner party or pick out the right pair of shoes without her at my side?
I have dreamed about her every so often during the past 14 years since we last spoke. In each dream she was with a group of women I did not know and they were talking and walking together and I stood on the side watching as she and her entourage of fascinating friends flocked by, unaware that a lonely large-eyed woman who had forgotten how to smile stood on a street corner dressed all in black.
I told new friends about my old friend. I described her thick brown hair which changed monthly from long to short, blond to black, bangs to chignon and back again. I described her garment bag filled with elegant suits from Saks and how she never washed her face with water, instead opting for a facial cleanser which she took off with balled cotton. I regaled them with stories about her relationship with a quirky boy named Jeff who was obsessed with talking chimps and heavy metal parking lots: he was Jewish and as they fell more deeply in love she checked out a book from the library called “So, You Wanna Be A Jew?” I described in detail the short story she wrote called “How To Read A Fashion Magazine” and mused that although I loved the concept and never tired of hearing her talk about the narrative, story structure and her literary choice of an unreliable narrator, her endlessly fascinating ideas became obscure and convoluted when translated to the ever-flat surface of paper.
And finally I remembered so sweetly the time she decided to plan a Mardi Gras party at work and spent hours researching how exactly to order a King Cake that was to be sent straight from New Orleans to our downtown D.C. corporation in time for our very own Fat Tuesday.
I told my new friends how my old friend was one of the loves of my life until I got married, moved away and needed her too much for our friendship to survive. I ruminated over our final conversation and replayed it in my mind, listening to it like a verse on a broken phonograph record that gets repeated over and over again until you tap the needle and finally move on to the next part of the song.
Our last conversation went something like this: She told me that I needed to be fully myself, to say whatever was in my heart or on my mind. I told her there were things too painful to talk about or act about at that moment in my life and I asked her if she could say what she needed to say to me in a gentler way. She said she couldn’t be herself if she had to edit her words. I felt judged. She felt misunderstood. We didn’t speak again.
Until today when I heard her voice for the first time in 14 years. The voice that was as familiar to me as my own. The voice that sounded just like yesterday but wasn’t. The friend I lost and thought I would never find. A friend. A best friend and I used to be her best friend until the last time we visited in June of 1996 in Washington, D.C. and she introduced me to her new boyfriend as her friend not her best friend and my heart stopped cold as I recognized what she already knew.
I found an old friend today that I haven’t talked to since my divorce from a man I never loved but decided to marry hoping that friendship could grow to passion. She never knew that I dropped into a deep, dark depression from which I thought I’d never return or that I sat alone in an apartment in NW Portland watching the World Trade Center collapse and wishing I could call her to talk about witnessing the towers crack and fall from grace and hear her explain in terms of metaphor what was happening to our world. A friend who never sat beside me in my two-door white Saturn hatchback, dogs stuffed into the backseat, the CD-player blasting Sheryl Crow as I drove down to Chico, California every month to see a therapist who would put me into a trance and help my unconsious mind untangle years of crooked pathways and anxious synpases.
My best friend had no idea that I went to Paris for my 45th birthday, dining on apple tarte tatin and beef bourguignon, sipping chocolat chaud at the Angelica Cafe and walking the Champs-Elysees, wishing she were there beside me staring into shop windows and exploring the Jean Paul Gaultier Salon on Avenue Georges V where I imagined she would have intrigued me with stories of how the enfant terrible rose to Parisian fashion fame. My friend wasn’t the first one I called to tell her I’d met a man named Laurence who called himself Lars who had wavy copper red hair, a strong jawline and a great smile with gaps between two of his teeth. I dubbed him the “Irish God” and our love story was beset with starts and stops, Voodoo Donuts, an antique garnet promise ring, and a meglomaniacal pitbull named Gretel.
I didn’t call her to tell her I was engaged. That Laurence rested on one knee in a small steam-heated hut hidden in the woods at Breitenbush Hot Springs and handed me a soapstone box covered with carved roses and vines which held between layers of purple silk a mine-cut Victorian diamond engagement ring. She never knew my wedding dress was tea length or that my shoes were Wizard of Oz-like Stuart Weitzman mules topped with large crinoline golden bows; the very same shoes that I wore to my first wedding. The wedding where my best friend was my maid of honor, stunning in a long black evening gown with criss-crossed straps, her newly trimmed puff of dyed blond hair showing just enough black roots to make her the most fashionable woman in the room.
She never received an invitation to my second wedding at Genoa with a seven-course sit-down meal for 50, negronis for apperitifs, orchids on the tables and in my bouquet and a three tiered bittersweet chocolate torte cake covered with chocolate roses topped by a bride and groom statuette circa 1958 that I bought on eBay.
My friend never saw the pictures of our honeymoon in Zihuatenjo, Mexico where we stayed at a villa on the side of a cliff, looking down at the bay and the Pacific Ocean, eating lime pancakes, drinking fresh grapefruit juice and tequila, reading in the swinging hammock on our private balcony and taking multiple photos of the giant dead tarantula Laurence found in the middle of a small village road.
She wasn’t there to call when I got my real estate license. I couldn’t talk to her about how I felt like a failure, that with a BA in Photography, an MA in Film and the credentials of an international executive on my resume, I was trading in everything I had accomplished for a gold jacket, a lockbox key and a For Sale sign.
She didn’t see my career take off or watch as I realized that real estate was actually a pretty cool career. She never knew I was helping people find home (she would have appreciated all the metaphors) and building myself a small empire: Buying and selling houses for myself and my clients, making more money then God or at least more then I had ever imagined making and using that money, rather unwisely, on private guest houses in Ireland, Italian hand-made shoes, beach cottages in Manzanita, vintage diamonds and black patent leather handbags from Paris.
She missed my recent mid-life crisis that lasted an entire year from my 49th to my 50th birthday. I didn’t call her from the depths of my overstuffed down chairwhere I lay curled up for endless hours staring zombie-like at the large black and white photo of a street scene in Marseilles, wondering if I had enough time left to pick up a few of the pieces of the many dreams I had dropped on my way through the decades; artist dreams, creative dreams that haunted me like angry old ghosts refusing to retire gracefully to another dimension until I finally picked up a pen or camera, a pastel crayon or a block of sumi Japanese ink and scribbled my inside visions outside so I was no longer invisible to all but myself.
And through all these years that I was missing her and looking for her and imaging what she would say about my retreat to Long Beach, Washington or what she would think about the low-VOC colors I had chosen to paint the interior of my house, all this time I was convinced that she never wanted to see me again. After 14 years of nursing a broken frienship heart, we are talking on the phone and she is telling me how she tried to find me too and thought I had e-blocked her messages and today I finally heard her voice again and it all came rushing back, what was lost has now been found and time has compressed itself and I wonder if 14 years was merely 14 days?
I found an old friend today. Heard her voice and caught the edges of her new life and the first thing we talked about were celebrity couple names where you combine two names into one and she told me that she and her husband were “Tomelyn” and we tried to tease out something for Rachel and Laurence but “Laurchel” just didn’t sound sexy enough to appear on the pages of People or US Weekly.
She told me about what it was like at 40 when she felt most connected to herself and rented the first floor of a house owned by the locksmith Collette who lived on the second floor. During that time my friend was constantly interrupted by beautiful, young men knocking on her door in search of Collette and she would tell them to go around to the steps at the side of the house.
And one day in June a guy named Tom with salt and pepper hair and a chiseled face and body stood outside her front door and knocked. He was a friend of Collette’s but wasn’t there for Collette. He had been watching my friend from his woodworking shop across the street and hoped they could strike-up a conversation. Instead she flung the door open and stood there annoyed; he quickly retreated upstairs.
The following November their son Thomas was born and the following October they were married. I missed her wedding, a small affair she explained. I missed her pregnancy and the birth of her son and his christening at the Catholic Church where she and Tom take Thomas every Sunday to hear mass and take communion.
I’ll never get to see her pregnant and although she insists that her friends in D.C. romanticized the event (as her friend Joan once remarked “Even a cow can get pregnent.”) I would love to have seen her body grow round and get swollen with the promise of a tiny new personality inside. I would like to have watched as she prepared for an experience I would never have: Days of changing dirty diapers, breast feeding at 3:00 am, pottie training, tantrums and the first smile, the first step and the first word – barely more then a breath – recorded faithfully in a satin-bound baby book kept carefully on the shelf for special occasions.
I found an old friend today and she told me that she loved my intelligence and the fact that I would insist on giving time to acknowledge important interior moments in her life and mine. She told me I had a moral voice that she admired, that our relationship was special because of the way our personalities formed and fit together and that she felt that I added a burnish to her life.
Function: transitive verb
Date: 14th Century
Etymology: Middle English burnischen, from Anglo-French burniss-, stem of burnir, alteration of Old French brunir.
1 a : to make shiny or lustrous especially by rubbing
b : polish
I found my best friend today after 14 years of second-guessing our relationship, of wondering if I ever meant anything to her in the way she had to me. I found my best friend today after 14 years of imagining her life without me as filled with experimental filmmaking, published treaties on the cultural significance of the World Wrestling Foundation and why theology needs depth psyhology to survive; magical motherhood and one endless romantic marriage covered with buckets of sweet-sceneted freesia, long lanquid nights on Kiawa Island and an old Victorian home filled with loud bursts of laughter and the smell of pork and sauerkraut mixed with the tart taste of apple pie.
I found my best friend today and she told me she lives in a ranch house in the suburb of Silver Spring, that sometimes she feels flat and tired, that she feels she has written out everything she has to say, that she doesn’t see herself as a perfect mom and that she, like me, struggles for a deeper connection with her husband and close friends.
Her perfect life existed only in my imagination and by knowing her true details she becomes rich and textured again and the colors in the kaleidescope of our friendship start to return and shift into new directions throwing light and truth onto a surface that once again takes on dimension.
I found my best friend today and realized, finally, that I have burnished her life as much as she has burnished mine. I’m excited to choose our celebrity friendship couple name – Ravelyn or maybe Everach – and I am ready to pick up the string of that long-lost conversation and turn it together, like wood on a lathe, as we watch the symmetry of our friendship rotate and spin into something new and well-crafted, something that can only be made by two, together.
I found an old friend today.
January 15, 2009
I have put off sitting down to write this entry. This story that began nearly sixteen years ago in a cardboard box at a veterinarian’s office when my kitten-to-be issued forth a three-week old howl letting everyone know that he was a force to be reckoned with. This story that ended on Saturday at 6:00 pm when the now elder-statesman of a cat let me know that no matter how much money I spent on vet bills or how many pills I forced down his little throat, or how often I treated him to fresh salmon and cream, that he was done. Tired of organic catnip and litter boxes, Boppho let me know that he was ready to move to a place where I could not follow.
The difficulty with losing someone or something you love is that they may be done with you before you are done with them. You are still in the same space waiting for them to put their key in the lock, clump down the basement steps, turn on the dishwasher or bounce up on the counter for the dinnertime bowl.
I have lost too many beloved people and pets in my life. Some to death and still more to misunderstandings, relocations and irreconcilable differences. The losses are starting to pile up one on top of the other and with each new grief the old griefs are pulled up again like a series of paperdolls joined hand to hand and foot to foot.
My griefs stack up like body bags on a military transport plane flying home from Iraq and all the other deaths from Vietnam to Tianaman Square, The Ghaza Strip and Virginia Tech, from American Airlines Flight 11 to the cancer ward at Rainbow Babies and Children’s hospital in downtown Cleveland, all those deaths rise up and remind me that I too am terminal, that one day I will be ready to go where no one else can follow.
But until then I will lose and grieve the losses of the ones who go before me. It seems much harder to be the one left behind, much harder to get up in the morning expecting the sounds that have become so ordinary that you don’t even hear them until they are gone: my father singing “Moon River” in the shower; the irritated meow of Boppho demanding his breakast at 6:00 am; the sniff-snuffling of Gretel as she noses along the kitchen floor in search of run-away crumbs; the husky soft voice of Ralph on the phone from Chico reassuring me that change is possible and I can, for the first time in my life at 41, live without depression; the clip-clop of Cousin Jan’s saddlebred outside the kitchen window as she puts Abu through his paces. Now there is only silence.
I start imagining more deaths. I see Laurence curled up on the side of the road, the victim of driver in an SUV who didn’t even notice my husband as he proudly rode his brand new bike home from work making sure to stay in the bike lane. I guess at what it will feel like to get the call from Cleveland letting me know that my mother collapsed on the steps of her church leaving a Sunday service and chatting with a friend about what she would be bringing to the upcoming Circle Supper.
And then I see my own death, hiding right around the corner of tomorrow, each new pain signals a rare form of cancer, a heart attack, a stroke. I check and re-check the tiny pink mole under my left eye convinced it is a fatal melonoma that will eat me alive before I even have a chance to see a dermatologist. I call my doctor and make an appointment certain that she will find something to cut short my life because why do I have the right to be alive when those that I love have been taken?
I close my eyes and see people and pets who I love who have died or just disappeared. I watch my childhood, my youth and my current middle-age winding and unwinding like a giant ball of twine trying to stay together but being pulled apart by the forces of gravity and death.I remember my father on his hospital bed, watching the NCAA basketball tournament and flirting with a blond nurse, his lungs so damaged by cancer that to breath at all was an act of unrivaled courage. He told his girlfriend that he wouldn’t be there in the morning. She called me and I raced down to see him, to touch him, to question him. I called in a special hospice nurse who told me his vitals were strong, like an ox he could keep going and going. I asked “Daddy, will you be here tomorrow?” and he tried to smile, nodding his head up and down in the signal for yes. He had spent his life lying to me and everyone else who loved him, why was I surprised that he’d leave me with one more lie on his death bed?
Boppho my kitty had a death bed, or at least a death floor. The warm carpeted floor of my special room, my reading room, my writing room that is filled with books, a 1940s dressing table piled high with rhinestone brooches, Chinese bracelets and beaded earrings spilling out of a small purple glass that a friend carried gently home for me from Paris.
The room contains my enormous down-filled chair where I sit, snuggled into feathers and pillows, my feet stretch all the way out in front of me because the chair is so long. Boppho liked to sit on the top of the chair, right behind my head and purr to me as I wrote or read or fell softly asleep, my pets surrounding me, my husband peeking in every so often to make sure we were all still breathing.
Jan’s death bed was made of steel with moving parts and stood starkly on the 7th floor of Mass General as we surrounded her and the bed – the cousins, my aunt and uncle, my mother and me creating a family circle to hold her while she took longer and longer pauses between each breath. All of us holding hands and watching her long golden curls waving around the ventilator that had been forced down her throat one last time when her second pair of lungs finally failed. As they put the vent line in she mouthed to me “Let me go” and we did, after ten long years of collapsed lungs, pneumonia, one transplant and a permanent address at Massachusetts General Hospital, my beautiful 45 year old cousin with eyes the color of cornflowers and a grin that stayed with her through her fight with an illness with an unprounceable name, died in a hospital bed. Before she died I asked her how I would survive not having her to talk with and she replied “I’ll still be talking. You just have to learn to listen.”We brought Boppho home from the vet on Friday night after two full days of antibiotics and fluids being pumped into his little 11 pound body. His kidney functions were worse and we had all but decided to have our baby put to sleep in the “quiet room” at the clinic but the instant we got him in there he perked up, started exploring and head butting our shoulders. He purred and he ate bites from his food bowl and we scooped him up to take him home, hoping for a miracle. For his damaged kidneys to repair themselves, for his fever to go down, for him to stop sitting at his water bowl licking the side of the rim hoping for water but tasting only metal.
I wanted a miracle because people say there are miracles. That completely broken people or animals barely balancing on that line between life and death can choose life. Get up out of bed and go play tennis or plan a dinner party for eight. I’ve read reports in the paper, watched the interviews on TV, scanned the non-fiction accounts that detail the journeys of remission, return to consciousness, a trip to the light and back again to awareness and health. I’ve watched it in the movies, but I’ve never seen it in real life.
Death is cagey and likes to play games. It takes you to the edge of the end when you’ve just been told that not only does your dad have lung cancer but now he has brain tumors as well and suddenly your father looks up and suggests you go out for ribs at Tony Roma’s. Or your cat looks up at you and winks and gobbles down an entire can of food after refusing to eat for one full week. Or your dear friend and therapist in Chico, California talks with you on the phone and mentions he has a cold, never hinting at the fact that two weeks later you will get a call from his friend Shangra who tells you “Ralph is gone.”
And you scream “No. No. No. No. It’s not possible, it can’t be. I just talked to him and he was fine. He is fine. It’s not real. It’s not real.” And you call his cell,wanting to listen to his voicemail message one more time or maybe to hear his live voice when he picks up the phone and you both realize it was all a misunderstanding and he is there waiting for you to come visit again. You drive down again and there he is, a turkey basting in the oven, his Newfoundland like a giant rug sprawled across his floor and you will go together to the Chinese restaurant one more time for chicken and almonds and read your fortunes and you will tell him that without him you wouldn’t have survived the many losses leading up to his loss and that he has saved your life if not his own.
And in this dream of life not to be lived he will drive away in his tan and cream van with the handicapped license plates, his oxygen machine pumping away and still, somehow, you don’t realize he is sick. That the small canisters of canned air he carries with him aren’t just for asthma or a bad cold. That I am so determined that he be well that I forget to remember he is slowing dying and that the one person in my life who truly understands the depth of sadness I have suffered is not waiting for me in Chico, nibbling on a muffin at the French bakery, drinking black coffee and asking me how I am feeling. And right now I’d say “I feel terrible. I lost my best cat friend,” and he would know exactly what to say but he’s not here and I search for the words but I’ll never find them without him.
Boppho lay on our bed, sandwiched between us, purring for most of Saturday as we read, we slept, Laurence played solitaire on his iPhone and we started to believe with the bravado that only comes from trying to cheat death that we would soon be cancelling the 4:30 appointment with the vet who was coming to the house to perform last rites.
And then amidst our relief and slight embarrasment that we had “jumped” too quickly to conclusion, Boppho gave us a sign. He began to pant and gasp and it took Laurence 30 minutes of holding and calming him for the pain to cease and his breathing to go back to normal. Laurence called the vet and asked them to try to come sooner and I prepared the room.
Kevin died last year. It had been decades since we had seen each other or even spoken but he was still so alive in my memories of my freshman year at Macalester College in St. Paul. An Irish-American, Catholic-born and bred wiry and skinny guy with red hair and freckles, giant blue eyes and a huge smile, he became my college sweetheart under the late lilac blooms in a Minnesota May. An actor, a hysterically funny raconteur especially when loaded with green beer on St. Paddy’s day, he traipsed across campus in overalls and a checked short sleeve shirt, a pipe in hand and gorgeous girls (far more beautiful then me) waiting for him as he trotted from dorm room to dorm room. And for some reason he picked me and we kissed in the privacy of lilacs, stayed up ’till 4:00 drinking champagne and sifted through family albums as he showed me pictures of his many siblings, cousins and friends.
Our love story lasted several years and ended in angry shreds when he kicked me into a closet at our rental home in Maryland where I had moved to live with him. I lost 20 pounds and he lost, or so he told me, the love of his life. Thirty years later I received a call from his best friend Marc who told me Kevin had died a week before his birthday in April 2008. He was found ten days dead, alone in a rented apartment near D.C. He died of cirrohosis of the liver, a full-blown alchoholic who had lost his license to practice law, his wife and two daughters and nearly everyone and everything that had ever mattered to him. And I wished for months to have the chance to transport back to my eighteenth year where I would warn him of the tradgedy that awaited him or at least have had the chance to say goodbye.
I lit candles in my special room for Boppho. The large candle we bought two yearsago when our darling pitbull Gretel was diagnosed with cancer. The smaller one, a Tuscan Blood Orange candle, was a Christmas gift from Laurence’s sister Brid. The beautiful auburn-haired Brid, with the lovely long neck and white skin like frost who had faced down the the worst that death has to bring – the illness and passing of her husband Jerry, her soulmate, her most beloved who was diagnosed with ALS shortly after we attended their wedding on the Cliffs or Mohrer on the West Coast of Ireland four years earlier.
I arranged pictures of Boppho at six weeks old, wrapped in my hands, a tiny, red-nosed little elf of a cat, curled up in my palm as I tried to pose him for the camera. I also added the picture that Laurence took of him sitting silent and Boppho-like in the downstairs utility sink. Peering out over the top of the concrete sink, all the secrets of the unverse inside of him, unbeknowst to us since we don’t speak cat. I brought over a picture of my Buddha-dog Emma, the Akita I found at an animal shelter in West Virginia many decades ago. Emma was there even before Boppho and left me a year after we all moved to Portland.
Her death was the first of the many bad things that happened after I left D.C. for Oregon. I hoped that Emma’s spirit could help Boppho on his lonely journey. Alongside Emma’s picture sat Gretel’s beautiful Chinoiserie urn, filled with pitbull ashes, someday to be buried in a garden when we finally found a house we would stay in for more then three years. Gretel and Boppho spent 11 years together and although I’m not sure they actually liked each other, I knew she’d want to be included.
Laurence gently carried Boppho into the candlelit room and we sat with him for two more hours before Dr. Fletcher appeared at the door. I lay on the floor staring into his face and studying every detail, trying to memorize the little white tabby markings that covered his forehead, the soft white kitty eyeliner that emphasized his emerald globes, his racoon tail which flicked back and forth like a metronome when he was irritated. I stared at him for two hours and Laurence stared at me and every moment we did our best to be present with him during the last hours of his dear, sweet life.
Dr. Fletcher came at 5:15 and sat with us, letting us take our time. She explained that the euthanasia proceedure happened with two injections. The first was to bring him to an unconscious state where he wouldn’t feel the prick of the second final needle.
And nothing I could do at that point could stop it because the miracle never happened. He was resting quietly, too sick to purr or open his eyes or sip the water in his bowl. Dr Fletcher bent down to give him the first shot. His rest turned into a deep, unconscious sleep and I put him on my lap and Laurence held us both and the second shot was given and he left us. Peacefully if death can ever be peaceful.
We held him and stroked his little furry body, talking quietly with the vet, exchanging pet stories, listening to her tell how it was for her to lose her cat Albert, talking about how Boppho was one of a kind. A cat amongst cats. Of course we don’t know any other cats but Laurence and I are convinced that he was an entity to himself.
Boppho’s friends got in touch too. Diane sent an email we read out loud about how he was a great teacher and friend and Liz, the patron saint of all cats everywhere, lit a candle for him and meditated on his life and his passing. His pet sitter Lori sent a sympathy card and my mom put his picture on the dining room table to remind her of her favorite and most cherised grand-cat.
So many deaths in so short a time for life is short and each death is long and large and no matter how much we try to ignore it, death will always return to find us, our families, our friends, our animals, the pansies in summer and the primroses in spring. Death will take the trees in winter and the bees are fed to death after they dare to challenge the reaper with a brief, sometimes fatal sting.
I thought it would get easier but it doesn’t. It just gets harder as one death stacks up into another and another and they are linked together and each grief brings up the last grief and the one before and I imagine the deaths – real or emotional – of those I have loved the most and wonder if the reason I don’t make close friends anymore is because I can’t stand the thought of losing them.
Has death shut me down even while I am still living? Has death stopped my heart or is it still beating? Without death would I love more or less?
They are gone now. My dogs, my cat, my father, my grandparents, my cousin, my brother-in-law, my therapist, my first love, my broken romances, missed opportunities and long-lost friends. I have grieved for those living and dead who have disappeared or dissipated and I will continue to do so. For one death leads to another and one grief belongs to the next, like a row of paperdolls joined at the hands and the feet, forever linked and not soon forgotten.
January 13, 2009
My new favorite song is by a young chanteuse out of LA named Lucy Schwartz .
Her music and lyrics resonate with the empty places inside of me. The places usually filled by watching the funny cat antics of my beloved Boppho, may he be resting in peace with organic catnip, a window to watch the birds through and lots of dog noses to swat.
Just click on the link and it will take you to her myspace page where you can listen to her new single “Gone Away.” I keep playing it over and over and over, just letting it run through me. It unleashes my tears and gives me permission to feel my sadness, my grief and aloneness now that so much has “Gone Away.”