Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Remembering, Or Learning By Heart

In the early 1980’s, my dreams and ideas were far more energetic and sparkling than I. There was a daunting gap between that to which I aspired and that which I was willing to do in order to arrive there—and if you’d asked me, I wasn’t even sure where there was. No-one was hiring copywriters, not in Florida anyway. And no-one was hiring any sort of writers, nor public relations specialists, nor entry-level news readers or editors—even my applications for work as a flight attendant wrought nothing but form letters from Delta and Air Florida: Due to company-wide layoffs, we are currently not hiring…thank you for your interest; we will keep your information on file for future reference. In fact, truth be told, the state’s economy was in fairly dismal straits, with most of the job offerings falling into that euphemistic category of “service sector” work.

And so it came to be that a once-idealistic and now terribly overeducated young lady would spend her nights mixing and serving cocktails to rowdy vacationers—sunburned Suncoast visitors who were, more often than not, too drunk to remember to tip the increasingly irritated waitress—and pass the mornings sleeping, eating my breakfast at noon. Or perhaps, if I was lucky, heading out for yet another local go-see, or audition, for used car commercials, swimsuit catalogs, or embarrassing-in-retrospect wine-cooler promotions that inevitably meant long hours wearing short skirts. In supermarkets.

Every Tuesday night, though, I’d head to the local rock-‘n-roll club. Tuesday was special. It was New Wave Night, which usually meant live bands, wildly creative outfits, and enough disaffected, clove-cigarette-smoking company to make me feel a tiny bit less lonely. I met Kjeld at New Wave Night. He was a fellow bookworm and fashionphile with whom I’d sit up all night talking about the clothes we coveted, the models we admired, the pricey-but-wonderful Paris Vogue that had just hit the stands, and whatever nihilist novel one of us had recently discovered and almost finished. Kjeld would also introduce me to his sister, Cynthia, who’d soon become the best girlfriend I ever had.

While Kjeld was introverted, his carrot-orange spiked hair and kohl-lined eyes a jarring contradiction to the bookish, profoundly intelligent soul within, Cynthia was brash and outgoing, an eternally caffeinated cheerleader of a girl who loved to watch baseball, and since Clearwater is host to a number of baseball Spring Training camps, she could attend the breezy outdoor games (not to mention date more than a few of the players) to her heart’s delight.

One night, after rolling in around four a.m., Cynth sat down with us in Kjeld’s room. She wasn’t interested in sleeping; tonight, she wanted to talk fashion and movies, too.

“Kjeld said he went with you for the audition and you got to meet James Woods," she said, shoving aside a pile of magazines and sitting cross-legged on the bed. “What movie is it—do you know yet?”

“I don’t know the title of it; they’re not saying,” I said. “I think they’re trying to keep things quiet because Robert DeNiro is going to be in it and I guess he doesn't want a lot of fans calling his room.”

“Deborah was the last extra to get fitted, right before the principals,” said Kjeld, dragging deeply on one of my Dunhill Menthols. “So we got to meet James Woods.” I’d taken the artistic Kjeld along with me for moral support as well as his ability to make my cheekbones look, well, like cheekbones. “James Woods—you know, of The Onion Field.” He got up and headed for the restroom.

"Did you know Kjeld is still a virgin?” Cynthia whispered, catching me off-guard. “And I think he’s gay, too, but he’s afraid to date anyone around here…he’s just so afraid, period. And I worry.”

-----


One afternoon, still puffy-eyed with sleep, I answered the telephone.

“It’s Cynthia. Kjeld’s sister. I wanted to tell you that Kjeld left for New York last night—he said he couldn’t take it any more. He hated the job at the bakery, he hates the rednecks and bigots in this town—not you, of course—so he bought a one-way ticket to the City. He’s going to stay with friends and work toward getting his beautician’s license,” she said.

He didn’t tell me because he knew I’d be selfish and try to talk him out of it. My heart sank.

“What are you doing later?” Cynth was asking now. “Want to go out to a club or something?”

And that’s what we did, Cynthia and I. We went to a club in Tampa, and after talking about Kjeld for a while, we discussed all sorts of other topics. I knew nothing about baseball; Cynth couldn’t care less about Nietsche and Camus. I was in my pretentious and highly affected eighties Black Period, ordering martinis and requesting—and surely mispronouncing—a certain Russian vodka; she was wearing head-to-toe fuchsia and drinking rum-and-Cokes. Yet we had more in common than I’d ever have imagined—a passionate interest in women’s rights, a fondness for British television, and best of all, the complete lack of funds that drives one to seek fashion in unconventional places.

“So. Why don’t we go thrift shopping sometime?” I said.

A friendship was born; two closets began to expand. And I noticed something else happening: as I grew more adventurous with color, Cynthia began to tame her wardrobe palette. She also began to run on a treadmill and stopped eating cheeseburgers and nachos—all meat, in fact. When we went shopping on Saturdays, we’d gorge on salads and containers of vegetable soup bought at the health-food store, and if we were feeling especially celebratory that week, we’d buy the occasional chocolate truffle or mini-croissant to go with our skim-milk cafés-con-leche.

When I met my husband—the day after I’d met him, in fact—Cynthia was the one I called.

“So I’m standing in the back garden with my date from last night…”

“Ooooh! Do tell!”

Well…we’re going out again this evening, but I had to stop in at my house for a bit—get some clothes, feed the cat, you know…”

“I love it. This is serious. I can tell: you’ve never called me about a guy before. Hey, phone me again soon when you can talk.”

And I did call her again—countless times in the decade that followed. Whether it was the best of times or the worst of times, Cynthia was a constant, a kind and sympathetic ear when I needed it most; a stern taskmistress when I hinted at self pity—which Cynth considered pointless—or showed signs of going under with the depression I sometimes battled.

At Kjeld’s sweet apartment in New York, I remarked how much I loved his sister.

“You know, we didn’t get along when we were growing up, but now we talk all the time. She loves that Siamese cat of hers, and Carl, well, she adores him,” said Kjeld, referring to his beautiful Danish lover, the man with whom he’d recently traveled to Copenhagen and for whom we were now waiting. We flipped through thick stacks of photographs.

“This is me at Carl’s parents’ house; that’s his mother.” Kjeld’s English had acquired an amusingly accurate Danish flavor. I remembered his fondness for a large coffee-table book about the ballet dancer Peter Martins and imagined him poring over Berlitz manuals with the same ardor. “This is Carl, and me, visiting our friend in the hospital a couple of days before he died.”

I peered at the frail man in the bed. His white hospital gown was, like all hospital gowns, far too loose. The friends who ringed the bed wore dark woolen things, coats and capes and knitted caps, and the sky outside the window behind them was damp-gray, too. But everyone was smiling, even the patient, and a fat, colorful cluster of balloons was tied to the bed’s guard rail.

“What…how…”

“Oh, AIDS, of course.”

I would later tell Cynthia about our visit. “You should see Carl lately—he’s completely gorgeous, in a horn-rimmed glasses, Comme des Garcons, European sort of way.”

“Ha! Funny you should say that. Carl works at Comme des Garcons. Doesn’t get much of a discount. But he did give Kjeld a fantastic jacket for his birthday. What about you, though--did you find a wedding dress?”

I had, in fact. I found my wedding dress in New York, the new hometown of my one-time dancing buddy Kjeld and the former one of my husband-to-be, the guy I’d called Cynth about the day after our first date. The only guy I’d ever called her about.

-----


“Are you busy with your family today? I’m freaking out. There’s no way I can make all this Thanksgiving stuff and take care of Mogwai and nurse him and tidy up the house….HELP!” I had the cordless phone wedged between my jaw and my shoulder as I danced around the kitchen, trying in vain to get “Mogwai” (the nickname we’d bestowed on my first son, in honor of the little Gremlin-like coos he’d made as a newborn) to stop fussing. Not only did Cynthia come over that day, but she sang to Mogwai and bounced him on her skinny knee; she read to him from Sesame Street cloth books and generally entertained him while I pureed chunks of pumpkin in the food processor and made a frantic idiot of myself in an attempt to prove that Having A Baby Would Not Change My Life. We laughed about it years later, remembering the feast and the mess. Marveling at my deranged insistence on making not one, but two kinds of dessert: real pumpkin pies with home-made pastry, and chocolate-cranberry torte decorated with handmade chocolate leaves and cranberries that Cynth and I had rolled in egg white and sugar and arranged in clusters, like small sparkling grapes.

Cynthia and I talked almost every day, though we lived a half-hour apart. Sometimes we just gossiped or griped a little; other times we planned fantasy trips to cities like Boston or San Francisco, where Kjeld and Carl had recently moved. Places we’d go when my two boys were a bit older and, we reasoned, easier to endure or, hell, just leave with my husband—he could handle it. Or we’d talk about our cats or recommend beauty products to each other, enjoying our girlishness in a manner that would seem cliché to anyone unfamiliar with all-boy houses like mine, or all-man offices like hers. We were both gloriously, hilariously vain, though Cynthia was far more dedicated to the whole cleanse-tone-and-moisturize thing than I was. Her discipline was clearly evident in her poreless skin; my own sloth, along with some not-infrequent chocolate binges, were also regrettably obvious.

We never talked much about Cynthia’s family, though, with the exception of one time when we’d had too many glasses of wine during our traditional Christmas Eve Girls’ Day Out. Cynth confided that her father, who’d left the family when the children were still in elementary school, had been unspeakably abusive to her. I’d known about his alcoholism and his rages toward Kjeld—he’d told me stories about his dad’s drunken put-downs and the anger he’d expressed at having a skinny, intellectual son whom he considered effeminate and unworthy. But I had no idea his vitriol had extended to Cynthia.

“When I was nine, he drowned my cat in the canal behind our house. He made me watch.”

“Dear God. Why?” I asked, my throat closing in shock, my voice thick with tears, though I can’t say I expected there to be any sort of satisfactory why. Apparently, he’d blown up about some chore that, in his eyes, Cynthia had neglected. He would teach her to ever disobey him again.

-----


“It’s me. It’s yet another boy,” I mumbled into my cell phone on the way home from my sonogram, expecting the tone of Cynthia’s response to match my own unfortunate glumness.

“That’s fantastic, Deborah! Three boys! Wow. Wow!

Later, she left me a voice mail: Listen, I know you. I know you wanted to sew dresses and tie ribbons around braids. I know all that stuff. And I know you’re feeling unbelievably guilty for being sad right now. So I wanted to tell you that it’s okay. You were so sure you’d have a girl this time, I mean, you even bought a little dress and everything—of course you’re sad. You’re mourning. You’re mourning the idea of a little girl, the loss of that idea, that phantom girl. But in no time, you’ll be cheering for the wonderful boy you’ll have, the newest brother—a team! Don’t worry, and don’t feel guilty, for Heaven’s sake.

-----


A few weeks later, I would receive a call from Kjeld and Cynthia’s mother, something unusual enough in itself that the sound of her voice on the telephone made my forearms ripple with goosebumps.

“Cynthia is really sick, Deborah. She’s in the hospital…” This could not be. I had spoken with her only days before; I’d called her from the airport before leaving for a weekend in Philadelphia with my husband. Her stomach had been bothering her for a couple of weeks, due in no small part, I was certain, to the long hours she’d recently been working; she’d spend all day at the law office, typing letters and answering phones, and all night researching real estate law for her boyfriend’s upcoming breach-of-contract litigation. It had sounded like an ulcer to me, and I urged her to see a doctor, which she did. In our conversation at the airport, she reported that the ulcer medicine was really helping, and so was drinking lots of water.

“What happened?” I asked, rubbing my swollen stomach as though it were Aladdin’s lamp, wishing for good news but somehow knowing there was none forthcoming.

“They, ah…they found a mass. They’re doing a biopsy later this morning. I’ll call you as soon as I know anything.”

We would take the boys to the zoo that day for a field trip with their school. Then we would stop at the pizzeria on the way home. I waited in the car because the tiny, pungent restaurant was too intense for my pregnant-woman nose. I wound the windows down for air, then got out and paced back and forth. I was furiously hungry—what was taking everyone so long? My cell phone rang: Cynthia’s mom.

“It’s the worst possible news. It’s pancreatic cancer. She knows, but she doesn’t know you know.”

-----


“So, what do you know. Tell me what you know.” Cynthia was thinner than ever, a wraith with fluffy hair and moon-pale skin.

“Everything. I know about everything. Oh God.” I held out my hand and she wound cool, bony fingers around my warm, swollen ones. I looked around the room—there was nothing bright or offensive, no faux-cheerful distraction to make fun of or rally against—only dull, murky hospital tones.

I made a list in my head as I drove home. She would have flowers tomorrow, the best I could find. And some real bedding. I went on a shopping trip to end all shopping trips, pulling the toddler seat from the car and shoving toys out of the way to make room for down pillows and peonies. I bought bags of strawberry throat lozenges from our favorite health food store.

At the end of my next visit, I leaned over and kissed her forehead. This was a mistake.

“I just cleansed my face, Deborah. Now would you kindly re-do the toner thing so I don’t get pimples? Thank you.” She was equally bossy with the hospital about the food she probably wouldn’t be able to eat anyway, since they’d removed parts of her digestive system. Carbohydrates were verboten, she told the dietician—would she be this slim if she ate all that dough? Good Heavens. And what sort of fish did they have? Would that be grilled as opposed to fried, she hoped?

“Walk with me, okay? I need to exercise. We’ll have to haul all this junk along, though.” And so we walked the halls of the cancer ward: one pink-cheeked and chattering female, her belly exploding with rambunctious life; one spectrally weightless and quiet woman, her shoulder pressed against the IV pole, trailing a half-dozen tubes as she went.

She didn’t stay there for long, though. Ever the practical, cool-headed woman, Cynthia informed her mother she would rather rest at home and have Hospice bring over pain medication, which turned out to be the strangest-looking liquid I’d ever seen: tarry, blackish-green stuff served in a tiny plastic cup.

Within days, Cynth wasn’t able to speak very much. She drifted in and out of consciousness as she lay in her bed; Kjeld had blow-dried her dark blonde hair just so. But her mother had dressed her in an old t-shirt, This way, she’ll be comfortable.

“Look,” said Cynthia, pointing to a vase of carnations. Scarlet ones. “My father came. We spoke. We made peace.”

I turned away so she wouldn’t see my face, though to this day I don’t know what it would have said to her. That I hated this man I’d never met? That I felt equal measures of pride and guilt at having a warm, loving father myself, as well as anger that this falling blossom of a woman could not, in her final days, look back on her life and draw the comfort of happy memories around her like a favorite shawl?

And there it was, right next to the vase of red flowers: a stuffed cat. Holy Mother of God, I thought. He bought her a cat. It was a cheap, ugly little Siamese cat, too, made of real rabbit fur, with beady glass eyes staring blankly at nothing. A cat fashioned of real, dead fur for the vegetarian daughter he wounded so brutally all those years ago. He never knew her, and he never would. He meant nothing—he was nothing.

She didn’t say anything else to me directly, but she murmured Oh my…oh my… a number of times, as though she was seeing something that astonished her. Oh, my!

Later, Kjeld baked a cake to celebrate Cynthia’s thirty-seventh birthday: chocolate, with whipped cream and fresh raspberries. We sat at the dining table while Cynth slept in her room, and we ate cake without her. She’d have been so upset.

-----


The call came the next morning: Cynthia passed away just before dawn. Kjeld had awakened with a start when Cynth’s cat, Vibeca, wailed and ran around the room in frantic circles, her eyes wild and her fur standing on end.

My best friend’s last words, I’m told, were ones of salutation: “Chang!” Cynthia said, as though she hadn’t stopped speaking more than a day before. “Chang! Oh, Chang. There you are.”

12 comments:

  1. Stephen Benson3/07/2006 7:20 PM

    lovely. truly beautiful. you have a deep gift. i can do snide, angry, sullen, snarky, whack, but i can't begin to touch beauty like this. i can recognise it. i can appreciate. i just can't do it. you are very good at this. i have lost people i loved and can't bring myself to stare the emotions in the face like you do. brava mia cara!

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  2. Thank you. I miss her so much. It helps to have wonderful new friends, though.

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  3. What a lovely and beautifully written tribute to your friend. (I'm just stumbling through the blogosphere and found you.)

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  4. So beautiful and wrenching -- thank you for sharing this.

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  5. Stephen Benson3/08/2006 12:08 PM

    more dylan thomas -

    refusal to mourn the death, by fire, of a child in london

    Never until the mankind making
    Bird beast and flower
    Fathering and all humbling darkness
    Tells with silence the last light breaking
    And the still hour
    Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

    And I must enter again the round
    Zion of the water bead
    And the synagogue of the ear of corn
    Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
    Or sow my salt seed
    In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

    The majesty and burning of the child's death.
    I shall not murder
    The mankind of her going with a grave truth
    Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
    With any further
    Elegy of innocence and youth.

    Deep with the first dead lies London's daughter,
    Robed in the long friends,
    The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
    Secret by the unmourning water
    Of the riding Thames.
    After the first death, there is no other.



    we must, as friends, do something with the tart one's unfortunate fascination with the dreary doggerel of poe. let's conspire a way to show her some real poets. . .

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  6. Love that one. It has been many years...

    Poe is kind of the Nightmare on Elm Street of his time. Compelling for a while, spooky fun when you're in the mood for it, but his work is, to my ear, one-dimensional in that it doesn't explore the infinite number of other constellations that comprise the soul. Only the dark side.

    I love that term "dreary doggerel", Stephen--it's spot-on.

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  7. Hey come on, I have taste. I just like Poe's stories. They're fun and they scare me.

    I have been exposed to many great poets- I'm a lit student, doncha know.

    Brit, this is a lovely piece, really.

    Oh, and I have no idea why I thought of this this morning, but have you read Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat? Just seems like something you'd enjoy. If you haven't, it's a novella and can be read in one sitting.

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  8. We know you have taste, dear Tart! And btw, I commented over at Shakes that you ought to send your post about the propagandist art to Bill Maher or The Daily Show--or both. And tell them to hire your clever ass.

    Now, what is The Driver's Seat about, generally? I think the next thing I read ought to be funny, or at least ironic. I'm just finishing LeCarre's Almost Friends, and McEwan's Saturday is next up. But I need a short-ish something-or-other to entertain me on my flight to LA this weekend. We're going to do a day trip to Lego Land--ever been? It seemed the perfect way to mix business (husband's) and pleasure (Lego Land for the lads; room service and maid service for me).

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  9. Yes, I have indeed been to Lego Land. It's twenty minutes from my house, and the family I used to work for lived up the street. It's perfect for smaller kids because most of the fun stuff isn't rides, it's activities like building a lego car and racing it. My favorite part is the big fenced-in play area where you can throw them in and they run around like maniacs for two hours while you sit in the shade and read. Mmm, relaxing theme park experience. Oh, and bring bathing suits- there's a big fountain thing they can run through. They'll love it.

    The Driver's Seat is a quick read but it's not light-themed. It's dark and darkly ironic and darkly funny...an excellent feminist text, but creepy and sort of frightening, too.

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  10. stephen benson3/08/2006 2:55 PM

    i have always preferred short story collections for airplane travel. t.c. boyle has a few out that are wonderful. i just finished doctorow's "the march" and was floored. when i flew back from ireland in january i devoured revete's "purity of blood" it's the second translation from the capitan alatriste series which are wonderful swashbucklers. they are releasing the film of the first novel and it stars viggo mortensen...also by revete is "queen of the south" great stuff. for a good boyle short collection look for "After the Plague, and other stories" "Tooth and Claw" has some wonderful Alaska stories, i took that one with me the last time i went up to visit my oldest daughter and her family and it saved me on a brutal layover at Sea-Tac. for a california feel, try isabelle allende's "Zorro." tart is on target with Lego Land, I took by two grandchildren (7 and 3) in September and we had a wonderful time. it's refreshing to have a place where the kids actually do stuff, it is far better than just sitting and riding. . .remind me to tell you of my one day term of employment as a musician at disneyland sometime. . .i guess i was just to cool for the room there.

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