Thursday, December 31, 2009

Peace, Goodwill Toward the Old Man

Twas the season.

So, I invited my ex-husband to Christmas Eve dinner.

I figured he wouldn’t have too many invitations, with him fresh out of prison and all. I did ponder it for a few days though, before I actually picked up the phone. I conferred with the kids, they said it was cool, so I called him up.

“Hi Rick,” I said. He picked up on the first ring. He’s always a little jumpy when I call, which isn’t very often. I guess he assumes it’s always bad news. “You know, I was thinking, would you like to come and have dinner with us on Christmas Eve? It’s Pat’s first day in town, and he’s got so little time, I thought rather than having the kids chase all over town, it might be easier on everybody.”

On everybody but me. Or so I reasoned with great hesitancy when the idea first popped in my head. But I knew the issue of, “Dad’s first Christmas since he got out of prison” was looming large on my kids’ minds, much in the same way, I’m sure, it was on the minds of millions of other young adults across America this holiday season. And I knew my young adults were a tad bit preoccupied with it. I knew my Brooklyn son was coming home for a very short visit, I knew he needed to see his father, (for the first time since Rick’s release) I knew I didn’t want my kids in some Denny's or Applebee's feeling like the convict's kids on Christmas Eve, or in a cramped one-bedroom apartment, forced to endure some awkward “let’s pretend this doesn’t suck as much as it really does suck” fake family meal. And, I knew it was the right thing to do. Plain and simple.

I hate it when I know something is the right thing to do but I don’t really WANT to do it. But sometimes my better self edges out my lesser self. After he registered his surprise with an emphatic, “really.....?” when I told my L.A. son, Nathan, I’d invited his step-dad to dinner, (Nate would not be joining us because he’d be in Memhis with his future in-laws) he quickly followed with, “well, tis' the season!"

Christmas spirit notwithstanding, there was a method to my madness; I’d be better off holding the devil in my bosom than worrying about my kids on Christmas Eve. There’s comfort in numbers, there’s comfort in their own home and there’s comfort in tradition; I was preparing pasole’ and tamales for Christmas Eve dinner, in true New Mexico fashion. (Pasole’ is a pork and hominy stew with red chile and if you don’t know what a tamale is, you need to get out more.) There’s only about five places east of Santa Rosa, New Mexico where you can find pasole’ on Christmas Eve and one of them is my house. My gut told me that inviting Rick to share a meal with his kids on Christmas Eve, after being locked up for the past seven Christmasses, was the right thing to do. And if I’ve learned one thing in lo, these many years, it’s to listen to my gut and heed it’s churning. All that was left after he said, “Yes, I’d like that very much,” was to calm it down.

That’s because I swore he’d never darken my door again, and I told him so. People make wild ass statements when they’re angry. We tend to throw down the gauntlet, make threats and present ultimatums that we can’t always back up. Once the TV stations in town had finally unhooked themselves from the intravenous drip of daily Rick reports, (his name was thrown out almost daily for weeks, since there were four men arrested for their involvement with this teenager, one of them was the Executive Director of the STL PRIDE organization, another was a Republican nominee for the state legislature -- every single time there was a filing, a motion, a hearing, or some random person expressing their outrage and shock, Rick’s name would come up again) and once the St. Louis Post Dispatch finally stopped reporting every time he farted in his jail cell, (reminded me of the first season of Saturday Night Live, in “Weekend Update” when Chevy Chase would say, “In this breaking news just in, Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead...” ) anyway, when the media coverage finally died down, 14 months after his arrest, on the snowy day Rick was sentenced, delivered straight from the mouths of my friends in the press corps, when ALL that crap finally went away and the hard core reality kicked in of keeping things afloat financially and keeping kids in tact emotionally, I sent Rick a hate letter in prison. I sent him a letter cursing the day he marked his kids for life.

“It’s between you and the kids, what your relationship will be, or won’t be, once you get out. I will neither impede nor intercede. But here’s what I ask for me, and I need you to respect this. I do not want you to contact me. I do not want to hear your voice or see your face. And I do not want you to ever come to my home again. Ever.”

If I’ve learned two things in lo, these many years, the second thing would be-- never say never. It’s not that I’m an unprincipled woman or that I lack backbone. I’ve got enough backbone for a couple of broads. But our home, my children’s and mine and our dogs’ (Pete, who has gone to his great reward in a ceramic urn on my mother’s pine hutch in the family room) and, Libby the replacement dog, our home is a haven of love. It’s a fucking haven of love, with a history of more tears and misty-eyed optimism than the Little White Chapel on the Las Vegas strip. In the ten years since, by the grace of God and a sympathetic banker, I bought this 82-year old bungalow, this old house has cradled more love and celebration of life than all the other dwellings I have occupied in my life--in my life, all of them, put together.

And so, if your home is about love, how can you hate? If our home is the historical backdrop for the knobby fabric of our lives, doesn’t it make sense to start the thread of the next chapter here? There’s some kind of nauseating closure to this concept. But, I’m no fool, first of all, I think closure is a joke. I think the best a person can do is learn to live with the holes of a pock-marked life and try to enjoy the breeziness of it. Secondly, we have untold issues yet to face. And it’s not like I’m planning to invite Rick over for canasta on Fridays, even if I played canasta on Fridays. This was simply a gesture of peace, goodwill toward that man.

And you know what? It was just fine. It was all, absolutely fine.

It’s not like I had a date or anything on Christmas Eve. So we ate and laughed and talked and looked at old photos. At first Rick was a little tentative, but after a while, the kids and I began to see glimpses of Rick the person he used to be, not the inmate, not the shameful, broken, apologetic person he’s become. Despite what he’s been through, and as I’ve said in earlier posts, I didn’t spend a lot of time contemplating his journey of the past seven years, but in spite of whatever he experienced, he still has a sense of humor and a hearty, resonating laugh. He’s got such a great voice, the man was a news anchor for like, 20 years, and all our kids, even my daughter, inherited his good pipes, (that's broadcast code for good voice.) He hugged Lauren and congratulated her for being on the Dean's list. I tried not to bristle as I thought of the college debt. He and Pat talked politics, while I kept my contempt in check, silently taking credit for Patrick's thorough indoctrination in all things liberal. He and Sean drew pictures, like they did when Sean was a little boy. Sean, the art scholarship kid, who I pushed and prodded through college applications, portfolio reviews, talking him down off the ledge when he almost quit his second semester. Yet, he most assuredly did not inherit his artistic talent from me. Watching the two of them doodle was an interesting revelation of some subtle, yet undeniable truths about paternity. Try as one might to “Do Not Acknowledge,” one cannot undo DNA.

Things were winding down, and the kids stepped out of the room for a moment, when Rick's eyes welled with tears.

“Jean, I just wanted to say, I’m so very know, about everything.”

“I know."

He left a few minutes later, thanking me again. When Pat walked back into the kitchen after walking his dad to the door, the four of us broke into spontaneous applause, I swear to God. It was like the first clap of thunderous applause after a command performance, instantaneous and exhuberant. It’s not that we were clapping because Rick was gone, not at all, we were applauding each other for a job well done. The thing we’d all been wondering about, fretting over, even dreading, for seven years, had just happened and there were no tears, no yelling and nobody threw up. It was all just fine. We, were all just fine. Seven years ago, weeks before Christmas, we were thrown into a cold, dark, smelly well of shame and heartache, with the bucket tossed in on top of us. But we climbed out. We climbed out, sometimes by our fucking fingernails, but always with someone pushing us up from behind, one slippery brick at a time.

When their father was sent to prison, for crimes some consider more egregious than even murder, I told the kids, "the world might turn against us, so in our home, we have to be for each other. We have to take care of one another and, you guys HAVE to behave!"

It was more a prayer than a command. And it’s not like there weren’t a few episodes when they failed to obey. There were a few nights with no bodies under the blankets at bed check, a few incidents of too many bodies under the covers at bed check, there was that minor shoplifting issue, one kid who spent a night in jail on a bench warrant for failure to appear in traffic court, one kid I had to spring from jail at 3:00 A.M. for getting busted at an underage drinking party. You get the picture, and trust me, this is just the highlight reel. But by and large, we stayed out of jail, we got along, we moved on, we moved mountains, we fell in love, we fell out of love, we made good grades, good friends, sometimes good money and good progress. Seven years later, we sat on the side of that deep, dark well, flicking off the mud.

“It all washes off,” said Patrick, retrieving a screenplay from his backpack. His latest passion project is an independent film he’s producing. He held up the script, like it was the Good Book. “It’s a line of dialogue in this script,” he said. But to him, it's a credo, subscribed to in a way that only fortunate people understand. “This is my favorite line in the whole movie, it all washes off.”

If one has never been stained, would one even recognize the freedom that comes from washing it off?

I didn’t intend for Christmas Eve to be a “teachable moment,” one of those hackneyed phrases from parenting manuals I eschew. But this particular evening, was indeed, one continuous teachable moment. I learned a lot, watching my kids, seeing them begin to fill in the gaps on seven of the most formative years of their lives and then, tentatively starting to pick their way through what’s next. They don’t really know what’s next. They don’t know how things will turn out. They’re adults now and they’ll have to figure it out. Nathan, of course, wasn’t in town for this unlikely little reunion, and he’s got a whole nother’ point of view on this sordid little chapter in the family history. Nathan was an innocent five year old boy when I married Rick, hoodwinked right along with his mama. There are fields there yet to plow, which he might well turn and then leave fallow. Being the oldest of four, Nate was keenly aware of the toll this took on me.

Maybe it's time for me to step away from the toll booth, to hang up my uniform and surrender my badge of courage. I’ve found an odd sense of safety, familiarity, sympathy and support in the process of earning it. Not that I put on airs, hell, I was too damn tired! I mostly just plugged along, doing the neccesary, and sometimes through the grace of God, the remarkable.

But maybe now, I can set the car down. I can begin to let it go. I can evolve into the next iteration of myself. Hey, that would be a new challenge --maybe a new challenge for a new decade, I dunno, I don't have a shit ton of decades left. There’s a whole big world out there, my kids are grown and I’ve done the best I can. The old man’s out of the clink. He’s done his time and I’ve done mine.

Later on Christmas Eve, after Rick had left, I sat in a heap in our family room, my feet on the ottoman, worn completely out from the cooking, the cleaning, the stress and three margaritas. My daughter’s boyfriend, Jeff, who’d met “the dad” for the first time that night, came in and sat down.

“You’ve got a big heart, Jean,” he said, with his sweet Irish smile.

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” I said, half conscious.

But maybe, I thought, maybe I’ve just got a wise heart. If I’ve learned three things in lo, these many years, maybe that third thing is-- bitterness is a killer.

Happy New Year, ya'll.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Uncovering Nuggets and Not Being Chicken

So, Mr. Fancy Dancer didn’t call me back. The disinterest must have been mutual. By the time we got the check at the seafood shanty, I was thinking, “this won’t work.”

I gave the first kiss the old college try. I even went on the obligatory third date, a custom my Jewish girlfriends encourage. They say you’ve gotta give it least three dates to see if there’s any chemistry. Meshuggah! At my advanced age, who’s got time to hope the third date’s a charm?

Maybe he didn’t like it when I corrected his grammar.

“Just wanted to let you know I’m “thing” about you,” he emailed after date #2.

“Perhaps you meant to say, “thinking?” I typed back all snooty. And of course he was “thing” about me, I’m a good kisser.

“See what you do to me?” he replied apologetically.

It wasn’t just the missing “ing”. It was noun-verb agreement, the incorrect use of “our” versus “are,” “there” versus “their” and “too” as opposed to “two.” And this is a man with multiple engineering degrees! But apparently, English was not his strong suit. Herein lies an oddity with on-line dating, you find out if someone flunked English before you get to the sniff test. Speaking figuratively of course, you know, checking them out, giving them the once over, the old, look-see, to determine if they have any nervous tics or behave like a criminal.

Rick certainly didn’t. He passed the sniff test with flying colors--always fresh scrubbed, clean shaven, a trace scent of Irish Spring soap, and on date nights, Grey Flannel cologne. He must have patted just a smidge on his handsome jaw (think Kelsey Grammar) right before our first date, where he arrived, face flushed and his hair still damp, straight from the gym, where he’d been whipped in racquetball by the Albuquerque Chief of Police. It wasn’t every reporter in town who had a standing racquetball date with the top dog in the cop shop.

“He smokes two packs of cigarettes a day and he still kicks my ass,” Rick said sliding into the booth.

I was waiting with the rest of the news posse he’d assembled for drinks and a movie, because then, and always afterward, Rick preferred to have other people around us. I just thought he was shy. We went to see THE RIGHT STUFF, which years later would be the headline in a feature story about us in the Albuquerque Tribune. We were a bonafide “power couple” according to the paper, proving that, sometimes life imitates the name of the movie on your first date.

And, it was, the right stuff, for a while. So long as we were busy churning out babies, (three in four years to add to the one I already had and the churning was more on me) and moving up in money, houses, cars, (from a jeep to a mini-van) and all the other outward signs of yuppie nirvana --if that isn’t an oxymoron.

Things were fine, so long as I didn’t obsess over the decline of his affection, which he blamed on the kids, or fatigue, or depression, or his growing discontent and confrontations at work. Things were fine if I stayed too busy with pre-school and soccer and science fairs and band practice to pay attention to that feint doubt in my gut, too late to undo now. Doubt over his past, doubt over his motives, self-doubt and recrimination over why I turned a deaf ear to my inner voice in the very beginning, needling me, bugging me, “why hasn’t this guy ever had any serious girlfriends?” and me naively accepting the explanation that at 30, he’d been “too focused on his career.” I married him even though it was me who eventually seduced him, after waiting forever for him to make the first move. What self-respecting heterosexual man puts off a woman for months by saying, “I have to get up early in the morning.” And what woman who’s even conscious buys this load of crap? I did. And I was a fool.

And ultimately, made a fool again, by the OTHER MOST BREATHTAKING KISSER of my life, who showed me, at 47, that love at first sight does happen and it can be beautiful and thrilling, life affirming and tragic, but oh, so very much worth the cost.

I promised you, I’d get back to this.

A lifetime in one day, that’s what it was. A beautiful, life changing day, sandwiched in between what would be the hardest days of my life. The “lifetime” day began with the mean, hovering grey realization, when I woke up on my mother’s hide-a-bed, that my next older brother Garrett, was indeed still dead. He had died suddenly in California. The ultimate cause of death was an acute asthma attack, he had it all his life. But his precious body had also been worn down by years of drug abuse. He’d overcome, time and time again, with long stretches of being clean, but like the Neil Young song says, oh, the damage done. Garrett was a musician, sculptor, painter, pre-school teacher, drug counselor, concert promoter, writer, and mail-order, ordained minister, who married his former girlfriend--not married, married her, but performed the ceremony. He was wickedly smart, one of the funniest, most endearing, evolved humans I have ever known and I loved him very much.

I’ve read in psychology books, that in dysfunctional families, (oh, barf, a cliche’) some kids act out and some kids accommodate. Guess which roles we adopted? Garrett left home in the summer of 1968, he was 17, hitchhiking all over the country, finding friends with crash pads from New York to California. But he was traveling with a monkey on his back, the sad result of one too many trips to the Stop 6 part of town. The circles in which Garrett ran were a dichotomy of the elite and the underbelly of provincial Ft. Worth, Texas, where we grew up. He and the country club kids would go on drug runs to Stop 6, which still to this day, if you Google “Stop 6 and Ft. Worth”, there’s a visitor's advisory to get the hell out of there after dark. Wish Garrett had. But that’s where the heroin was then and probably is now, only it’s the drug dealers’ grand kids peddling this shit. The lucky ones in our generation flirted, skirted, dabbled in drugs, usually not serious, and moved on, migrating and melding into the establishment we so shunned, leading us to where we are now--grown ups with mortgages and kids in college and an affection for red wine. The unlucky ones, who pushed it too far, whether it was genetic quicksand or some aching need to fill up an empty space inside their hearts or veins, the unlucky ones got stuck. Garrett got his foot stuck in a crack while the rest of us moved on, his addiction becoming a revolving door. When he died, he was happily married, still trying, hoping, working to get off the methadone which had been his maintenance drug for years. He did not make it. He collapsed and died alone on the kitchen floor of his San Francisco apartment while his wife was teaching school. Garrett and I had been thick as thieves, even as adults, despite the miles between us and vastly different lifestyles. We understood each other’s challenges, where familiarity bred respect, even though our individual demons wore different hats.

And so, the lifetime-inside-a-day, occurred the day after Garret’s memorial service, where I had to pull in all my strength, all the way up from my toes, to deliver his eulogy. There was also a cute guy from Wisconsin who spoke, he was eloquent and I was quite taken.

On this, the day after we had to stand and deliver at the funeral, he invited me to go hiking in the mountains. It was unseasonably warm, a spring-like day in early December, where as fate would have it, none of the other mourners who’d pledged to go the night before, actually had the legs to do it. So, we, not by design, but divine intervention, were the only two who spent the day outdoors, inviting the healing air and altitude to soak into our weary bodies. The Aspens still clung to their remnants of gold, the giant rocks, actually warm to the touch as we’d climb, sit, rest, and talk, climb, sit, rest and talk. We talked politics and the pitfalls of being single in our 40s.

“I tend to have these May-December relationships,” he said, extending a hand to help me up a slippery slope. Literally.

My heart sank. “You like younger women?” trying to disguise how hard I was sucking in air.

“Nope, I mean they usually last from about May to December.”

I laughed out loud. The 60 mile panorama from the Sandia mountains and our mutual curiosity was like a truth serum. What’s to hide when sudden death has delivered an immediate intimacy which comes from loving the same person? We swapped stories about Garrett, we laughed, and of course, we cried, beginning the process of replacing death with life.

Back at my mom’s, we made it through her stories, we made it through the last supper at the Mexican restaurant, with the mourners lapping up their last margarita and decent enchiladas before parting ways on Monday morning. We made it through tearful hugs from people you know you’ll never see again, the Garrett bond now being broken. I offered to give folks a ride to the hotel.

We pulled in front of the Rio Grande Inn. The other rider got out and so did Nick, my hands clenched on the wheel,

“Please God, please God, please make him stay just one minute more.”

He stuck his head back inside the car.

“Want to go for a drive, or something?”

I knew just the place.

The view from Nine Mile Hill was never so lovely.

“Garrett brought me up here once,” Nick said after we’d rolled to a stop in a gravel lot. “Except it was on his motorcycle and we froze our asses off.”

Nick and I were toasty warm in my sister-in-law’s car, overlooking the city, less than a mile from the very spot where I’d parked, alone, some ten years earlier seeking catharsis from the flickering lights below.

“Wanna come over here?” he invited.

When a person has been through so much pain, comfort is tantamount to a defibrillator. He put his arm around me as I leaned on his shoulder. His chin, against my forehead, his breath on my hair, his fingertips tracing my cheek, my chin, my lips. Finally my lips found his and we were kissing. Finally, he was kissing me. From the moment I laid eyes on him, I knew I had to. He’d walked into my brother Don’s house, on the afternoon before the funeral, as we were chatting with the minister. Nick sat down with a cup of coffee and a chocolate chip cookie, because Lord knows the food rolls in the moment the mourners do. He had the most luminous, inquisitive blue eyes I have ever seen and I knew, I knew I had to kiss him. Two days later, in my sister-in-law’s borrowed station wagon, overlooking the city lights, it was the most thrilling kiss I’d experienced since I was 16 years old. How remarkable a gift, when lips can say what words can not.

“I feel like I can’t get close enough to you.”

“It’s because the hand brake is poking me in the ribs,” I murmured.

We kissed some more, to hell with my ribs.

“I need to hold you.”

“Me too.”

I put the car in drive and we made little small talk on the ride down the hill. What’s to say when you’re fixin’ to bring somebody back to life? We drove past the Indian curio shops, the upscale condos with their pueblo-style flat roofs outlined in neon. We crossed the Rio Grande river, down Rio Grande Boulevard, past the desk clerk, past the noisy ice maker and the insolent, buzzing florescent lights over the vending machines, into the blessed, quiet darkness of his room, where, he moved his guitar off the bed and we loved each other like there was no tomorrow. Because for us, there wasn’t. For the first time in years, I was with a man who made love like he meant it.

I had bought into the whole package of Rick, his success, his celebrity, his clean cut background, his promise for a good life, a legitimate life, whereas Nick was a package of a whole different sort. He brought back the girl I’d forgotten I liked. He was strong and kind and smart and wickedly funny, uncannily like Garrett. I could lay it all down with him.

“Who takes care of Jean?” he asked one night, my first visit to Milwaukee after Rick dropped the hammer.

The Hoover Dam of tears had just broken and I was crying Lake Mead all over Nick’s bed.

“I don’t know,” as I blew snot into another wad of toilet paper.

“I will, baby."

But he didn’t. A year later, the long-distance relationship, with oh-so-wonderful weekend honeymoons here and there, proved that location can trump even fate. His flesh was willing but his backbone was weak.

I didn’t know how things would turn out on that first day back from Garrett’s funeral. So unsuspecting of the eventual heartache Nick would bring, and the emotional tsunami brewing at police headquarters just a few blocks away, I dropped a letter to Nick in the mailbox. There were lovely flowers on my desk that morning, my back-to-reality day; single mom, kids with school and sports and doctors and dates on the calendar, back to the high-pressure job, and the brooding ex-husband. I’d taken a walk to the post office at lunch, to clear my head of the emotional hangover, a low-frequency distraction of grief and hope. The metal door creaked, then clanged shut after I dropped the letter in the box.

And then my cell phone rang. Jen, my assistant sounded nervous.

“Jean, the police just called. They said you’ll have to pick up your son from school today, because, um, they’ve brought in your ex-husband for questioning.”

That was seven years ago this month. Seven years since I’ve heard Garrett’s voice. Seven years since my four day cataclysm, four days! Inside four days, I said goodbye to a beloved brother, fell in love and flew away, (day three was a travel day) and learned through my secretary’s hesitant voice that my deepest fears had indeed, come true.

So, to answer your long neglected question, El Nate, from my second post, are there rules of etiquette on when to disclose the details of one’s past?

I think we make it up as we go. I might have ventured down this murky memory lane, by, perhaps the 5th date, but Mr. Fancy Dancer didn’t ask. He sure could dance, but he couldn’t spell and he didn’t ask very many questions.

Think I’ll change the requirements on my dating profile:

Must be inquisitive.
Good grammar, essential.
Must not have an attraction to adolescent boys.
Should live within 50 miles or be willing to relocate, a.k.a., commit.
Nice package, preferred.

Let’s see how far that gets me. Today’s a whole new day and I’ve got a date with a guy who plays guitar.