Jacob Lawrence, The Life of John Brown No. 4. His ventures failing him, he accepted poverty. (1941)
May 10, 2003:
The twentieth anniversary is approaching of one of the worst things I've ever done.
I was in love. It's so hard to find words with the right expressive power. People talk about being
"heart and soul in love", but for me it was more like bones and blood. I felt a sense
of connection that I still marvel at after all this time, although I now question whether it was
real or illusion.
And I was determined, in my own crackpot rebel way, to seek some kind of rock and roll domesticity,
if you can imagine that. I wanted, I guess you could say, the symbolic attributes that elevate
a relationship to the highest level of commitment, while still refusing whitebread conformity. Which
is to say, I wanted to live together.
I pressured her, Lord forgive me, I twisted her emotional arm past any reasonable ethical posture,
and in an all but physical way I forced her to agree. "You're going to lose me if you don't
move in with me..." I actually said that. Blackmailing bastard.
Disaster. She'd never lived apart from her parents. I'd never shared a space in anything except the
most selfish ways. When she saw the apartment I'd chosen she burst into tears. We fought over
money, over how to spend our food stamps, over how much sex to have, over who should unlock the
bicycles and bring them in out of the rain. It was conflict-ridden and claustrophobic and it killed
something which had been special, I think, in our friendship.
It hurt her. I found a job I wanted, she didn't. She felt isolated and became increasingly fragile,
unwilling to leave the apartment, unhappy to meet people. She seemed to lose some core kernel of
self-worth. And she would compete with me in ways that were destructive to us both.
Beach town. Corner unit, one-story apartment, green-painted,
an institutional color, like a public school or a restroom. Outside, two Schwinn bicycles chained
to a tree, rusted in the rain. Inside, a lovely peach-colored woman, alone and self-isolated,
with no-one for company but a stray gray tabby named "Roscoe", whose bleeding gums are a
symptom of the leukemia that'll soon kill him.
Tall boy arrives home from work in a very rusty 1965 Volkswagen bus, blue with a white roof.
"Gus," they called it. Gus the Bus.
He's found the job he wanted. Night guy at a small hotel. Where he can
spend 80% of his time reading Lenin and Althusser and tinkering with his epic and
ever-unfinished papers on theories of mythology and characteristics of pre-scientific
She's found a minimum-wage job in a convenience store, and quit after a few days, because she
was upset by the way the other girls looked at her.
They're unhappy. She's lonely, and she feels unworthy. All the things he does, from his
endless loopy cheerfulness to the impossible books he reads to the seemingly easy way he achieves
the things he wants leave her feeling small and incapable. And so she fights over small things,
like the color of the carpet, and should they spend their last food stamps on fillet mignon,
knowing full well they'd go hungry the rest of the week.
He opens the door, bounds smiling into the living room. WHAM! A trashcan hits him square in the
In disbelief he stands with dropping jaw. He looks so silly she bursts out laughing, throwing her
head heavenward, a gift of mirth sent flying to the sky.
Stunned he says, "You dirtbag!", and that makes her laugh even more.
"Trashbag!", she counters.
"Rag bag!", he insists.
"Vacuum cleaner bag!", she says with venom.
That one gets him. With something like real anger he steps toward her. Her eyes grow big.
"Uh-oh," she says, backing away. Backing, backing, backing, through the hallway
door, past the bathroom, through the bedroom door, into the bedroom closet, where she stands
holding the french doors shut with all her might.
"Hose bag!", she taunts through closed doors.
It's forty minutes before he can coax her out, and then instead of eating or sleeping or
speaking they make sweet love for hours, their only remaining form of communion.
It's this way until they finally admit failure, and it's him, which could have been predicted,
who asks her to move back home.
In the end when I asked her leave, it was like ordering her out, which hurt her worst of all, I think.
So that I look back on this failure and wonder, was it me who damaged her so badly that she's become
what she is now?, a grim and bitter woman, forever turning her back on the friends who've loved
her, forever seeking a new beginning where she can be free to fail again with a new cast of witnesses.
At least, until she runs out of places to run to.
How I wish I'd been someone who helped her be more instead of less,
feel better about herself instead of worse, be happier instead of more and more distraught. The fact
that I was head over heels in love is offered as context, not excuse.
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© 2002-2013 Mark Phillips.
All rights reserved.
This writing is fiction. Please don't confuse it with reality.