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.

1 comment:

  1. Despite the many, many things I could comment on (because let's face it, there are a million things to say and a million points I'd like to pick open), I must say: poor grammar is really a buzz kill. Back when I dated boys, my boyfriend-at-the-time wrote me a sonnet. Yes. A sonnet. I suppose he thought I'd read it and show up at his house and nothing but an overcoat, incapable of holding out any longer. He was wrong. For a lot of reasons. But the biggest one, at that moment, was that in telling me something or another about my lips, he said "you're lips." Ugh. Yuck. Disgust. You are lips? Hmmm. Maybe it was intentional - he was a 17 year old boy. Anyhow, that was the best excuse I could come up with to wear not one, but two belts on our next date.

    Keep it going, Jean. I can feel the stories, the many, many things to say and write, burgeoning behind everything that you've already written.