Tuesday, September 15, 2009
#10 – A WAY OUT
My second as well as my first reaction to Peter Cooper’s strange, out of the blue suggestion – this Adult Children of Alcoholics thing – was that I am not the sort of person to do something like that. And then, amazingly, such thoughts were being blotted out by a feeling that dark things were being lifted from me. This was so fine, but I felt I would have to be very careful. And also, the awareness that it was no surprise that childhood should get into my world at this point.
And in Rutland now it seemed that Peter Cooper had somehow seen something else that had come into my life in this past year. From mid-1984 until the start of this year, 1985, I had gone through a stretch of being a familiar comic figure, a guy leaving his marriage who lives on friends coaches and takes over other friend’s lofts and apartments for brief times when they are away. And one of the things I had done was go to Florida for a month where my mother’s condominium would be vacant while she was off in Europe – to Florida to a boring sort of place, Naples, not on the Atlantic but on the Gulf and some it on a tame (if you discounted alligators and tropical diseases) bay. Along the Gulf some people were absurdly rich and lived, when they were there, in the sort of out any context houses I had once seen that were built but hardly used by oil rich Bedouins in the grim wastes of Kuwait. Some of the retirees, former CEOs of dull but rich corporations, had these grim new quasi-mansions. Other old people – like my mother, and my father briefly before his painful death – lived in new condominium buildings that had the style of prisons but were not so well built, for Florida contractors cut so many corners that new appliances keep giving out and if you opened a door you would not be surprised if the door knob came off in your hand.
I had gone down there in the summer of ’84 not quite realizing how this sweltering swampy place was not a place anyone was meant to live. Noxious gases from the Everglades wafted over Naples. Something called the red tide meant that if the jelly fish did not get you you would suffer rashes and welts anyway should you give in to the heat and go swimming. The phone was constantly ringing with calls from men representing various police departments trying to hold up frightened old people for “donations.”
I exchanged extremely friendly letters with this quite dashing blonde travel photographer whom I had met in the last days of my marriage. We were to meet when she got back to the city from Rome and I was back from Florida. Meanwhile, she had a cousin in Naples for me to look up. He was, of all things, a funeral director. For my ridiculously careful family of birth he would be one of the huge numbers of people who fell into the not-our-kind-of-people category.
We met at the bay in a dockside bar and restaurant, this pleasant, smiling guy, someone I thought our-kind-of-people might meet and forget whether or not they knew his place in the world. A group of men and women of varying ages came through the bar area on their way to the dining room, where the early bird special people were congregating. “Watch this,” the blonde’s funeral director cousin said. “Not one of them will recognize me.” And not one of them did though he looked them in eye as they came through. “It’s always this way”, he said. “They were all at a funeral I did earlier today, and not one of them recognizes me now.”
For a week I had my stepson down, thinking maybe we could continue the relationship even without his mother. We did a lot of fishing from a pier. For the first time since my early teens I was killing and gutting fish, which I pretended to like. And we went over to the Atlantic side for a student tour of the University of Miami’s campus. But I had the feeling we were both making up lines trying to think what the other would expect the one talking to say. It seemed unreal that there was any relationship to save.
Mostly I was alone in my mother’s condo. Just before leaving New York I had run into a friend on the Upper West side and after chatting I had said Hello at the point where I should have been saying Goodbye. This scared me. So in Florida I was trying to get off pills, and so I was not sleeping.
I really wanted to get off pills. I had brought it up with David Yammer, who set up an appointment for me with a big-time authority, a woman at St. Luke’s Hospital's Smithers, which was apparently a celebrated addiction center. I had somehow convinced her it was not so bad as it was, and she had told me how I would not be able to get drugs out of my system as quickly as I had gotten rid of accumulated alcohol. This now added to my insomnia, for now I wondered if it might not take years before I could really begin to get straight. I tried fantasizing about a beautifully sweating chubby bikini girl I had seen on the sweltering beach, which meant concentrating on a mental picture for masturbation purposes. The television was going pretty much night and day with the Olympics, live and rerun, which America was winning because the Soviets and their allies did not come. After that it was the Democratic National Convention, live and rerun.
And I talked and talked on the phone to people from my past, including a woman I had loved, though had hardly seen in the years since our initial, intensive soul mate/sexual connection back when I was 23 and my basic experience beyond intense 1950s necking had been with prostitutes. She was 20 then and married. Her husband stalked me in Atlanta. Each night I checked under my mattress to see if a bomb was there, something, I read, that the British had to do at this time in Kenya.
Awake at night in Florida now I put myself into a fantasy in which we would meet again and still be viable. Her voice still thrilled me. In cold light I phoned her in California and set up a rendezvous in the city, where I had no place to live.
And then I went back to the city and this was when I slipped into therapy by mistake. Two years earlier I had pressed hard for my wife to join me in going to a marriage counselor or some version of this new thing called couples’ therapy. She had said she despised the idea. And now, many months after our separation, she had phoned me and said she had arranged something affordable with a trainee at a place called the Jewish Board for Child and Family Services, and maybe, she said, for once I would keep a promise I had made to her. So there we were sitting in a small room with a man named David Yammer who was maybe half my age and wore a yarmulke – which seemed like a nice change from our-kind-of-people sort of situations but also seemed quite silly. The moment he tried to set up of dialogue between us my estranged wife and me she started screaming at me, which was probably not her version of what happened. She was cataloging everything I had done wrong – including things I had not done and now regretted not having done, these imaginary affairs that she said, just before I moved out, would justify her in cutting off my penis some night while I slept – which was something quite common, she said, back in the Philippines, which was where we had met at a time I had very recently stopped drinking and returned to Southeast Asia, and thought my life was really opening up.
David Yammer, apparently following something he had been told in therapy school, said now it would be a good idea if I saw you separately. And I played along. And he was horrified with only a little knowledge of where I came from that I would actually try to sleep in my mother’s Florida place. And then he was asking me about my father, who a year before had died a horrible death in a second rate hospital down there, everything conceivable wrong, and his wife, my mother, drunk at the condo, would not come to see him because she said he clearly would not recognize anyone, which I knew, and my wife who was there too knew, was wrong, but Mother stuck to it, and so did my brother, the good twin, and his very white wife, and so did my father’s sister my Aunt Betsy, known as my favorite aunt, and so did the Scarsdale widow, my aunt Peggy of his late brother Nick, my favorite uncle.
Dad was deserted. Who were these people?
And David Yammer had asked me the most strange question. How did you feel when your father died? And I was in tears. I was actually crying, which was something I had not done at since I had stopped drinking and left forever certain maudlin scenes.
And two years later, I took a bus to New Hampshire and they were all pretending they were English – my Aunt, my Mother, my brother, my sister-in-law and an Australian woman who had married a Littleton man, and they were talking about how what they called “Our London” was being ruined by the presence of blacks and Asians – Asians like my wife and stepson – I was as invisible here as was that funeral director in that Naples, Florida dockside bar.
And in these past months, I had been thinking I could drop it all now that I had gotten on to things I had actually always known about my nearest and dearest. I was reading Alice Miller now, and seeing David Yammer and taking him seriously – and I had started to think it was all behind me, these past things that now I saw could be in my life. It was all behind me, and it suddenly got worse and worse.
And here I was in Vermont now – the antithesis of Florida and also New Hampshire – here in Rutland hoping to fight my way out of things paralyzing and maybe terminal.