Wednesday, May 19, 2010
In that year Peter and I turned 11 and were plotting our return to Connecticut in our room on the 6th floor at 124 East 84th Street. This strange year when we had been uprooted from Connecticut again. The last time it had been to go down to a decaying resort in Florida for six moths , with Mother and Grandmother Clark but without Dad. No explanation then, and no explanation now beyond that living in the country was too hard for Mother and she needed a year off in the city. Peter and I prided ourselves on being country people. In Florida they had forgotten about us, and not even tried to get us into a school, and though peter read schoolbooks anyway, I wandered like a vagabond, my uncut hair bleached nearly white, though jungles and citrus groves.
And now this year they did just the opposite, forcing us into an Anglophile private school called Allen-Stevenson down on 78th street where Dad himself has been forced to go many years back. Our public school in Connecticut, in a sparkling building surrounded by woods, had been just the opposite of this new place. Because, they said, of ideas circulating by someone named Dewey – which strangely was also the name of our Negro handyman and chauffeur – there was no homework. We stayed in the same room all day, a place with students’ art work everywhere. As likely as a session on spelling would be a session on moving to music or finger painting. Each room had a big mural of hearty workers and farmers walking into what someone said was meant to be a socialist future. Something to do with Roosevelt and the dread depression, about which they kept complaining even when it was over. But now in the city we were marched, each time harsh electric bells rang, into different old dusty schoolrooms with old rutted desks bolted to the floor and harsh, foul breath disciplinarians who were constantly punishing me or ridiculing me because I could not understand Latin, or much of anything else. And we had to wear neckties and blazers and scratchy gray flannels. And after school, when in Connecticut we might do to some unsupervised, vaguely boy Scout event, or more like just roam, the boys in this all boys New York horror place put on comic opera uniforms of an organization called the Knickerbocker Grays and leave us behind to go off to an armor, sporting medals and always swords, to do some high society military marching thing or something.
So we were far away from what we had known – and in some ways not nearly far enough. Mysteriously, our grandparents Gaga and Nana, and their pretty daughter Betsy and her infant son Robin moved into an identical apartment on the 4th floor . Up in ours on the 6rh, where Peter and I had a room and Mother and Dad a bigger, room, and there was a fairly big room too for mother’s Southern mother, grandmother Clark, who made fun of the colored women who came to cook and clean, and made sure they gave us grits and okra with our meals.
And then more confusion. We had had nothing resembling sex education from school or home, though somehow we knew there was something very deep going on when we were up against girls, which of course we were in Connecticut. But there were no girls in this school we were in, no women teachers even. Which increased the longing for I did not know exactly what.
But a feature of our room was that it was on a direct line with the 6h floor in a building across the street where a very pretty, happy looking long haired woman, almost an adult, would lean on a window sill, lean out so she was partway through the open window, and she would smile, looking so happy there with practically with no clothes on.
I had a reverie that went way beyond the dreams about getting back to the country. It did not even seem like a dream. A sweetly smooth and tanned naked girl, sweat running down her body, was on a ladder climbing up into the sunlight from a deep pit where fires raged.
Monday, May 17, 2010
And still in these days driving alone in Vermont I always keep in mind what was over in New Hampshire, where I know I have to go to follow the mystery of what went on back in that apparently sun-shiny place that might be tied to the darkness that became apparent years later – the bad ends these cousins of mine were coming to – and my late father and late uncle and still living mother and aunts as well, though it was easier to keep the failures of another generation at a distance than it was the failures in my own generation – like Margaret’s brother Fitz John, one of the favored ones, the family’s only Eagle Scout, who had kept being thrown out of places, Exeter, then Williams, for rather large scale thievery, and he seemed on the surface much like how everything in his mother’s house in Scarsdale seemed , as if put in place by Martha Stewart.
And I kept driving, and I kept stopping at those small state parks with lakes for swimming that were never more than a couple of hours apart, and I kept on going over to the that riding ring above Castleton for lessons in Western style riding from a raw-edge young woman in a family of people devoted to the little known world of competitive rodeos in Northeastern states. I kept going to the two big art galleries, the one in Rutland and the other to the south, still hoping, should I stay on here, that there would be more than sentimental barn paintings to sustain me.
And I thought of how in those wild meetings in Manhattan people had picked up on what on what a full, adventurous life I had had till now – and I wondered that I had hardly said a word about all the times I had been by myself, wandering the streets of lonely cities, often places where I did not speak the language. And I thought of the times I had thought I was in love, as well as the times between shallow relationships.
And I kept bringing myself back to my mission that was bring me so much life now, and so in my thoughts drifting to the past again and again between these trips I was making over to the White Mountains. And sometimes in my thoughts the White Mountains part would sometimes almost drift away, and I would be other places at other ages, not just the exotic lands I had chosen but often back in Weston, Connecticut, which I had recently looked in on in its current form as a tidy and costly rich man’s suburb. I would be there in my mind when it was still a basically New England town. When most of the men were not commuters, in fact most worked locally on small farms or places that were partial farms, on town road crews, and as journeymen small businessmen who built things and installed things and were paid to take care of what they had put in place.
And I was back in the World War II time when my parents became virtual farmers, the world’s least likely farmers, in order, they said, to get around food rationing, but now I wondered if they didn’t also have dreams not unlike the dreams my brother and I had once had of becoming such regular people that we might even be able to be farmers – farmers if our fantasy of running a log inn on a woodland road did not play out. For surely rationing had not been that tight an affair. We used to drive all the way up to New Hampshire in the green Plymouth convertible each summer, so gas rationing, anyway, could not be as strict as it sounded in the adults' complaints.
Friday, May 14, 2010
Standing there as if suspended in time, there in cool night air on the Killington Road with its touristy businesses, like that faux alpine place with bad food and stuffed heads of murdered animals – though I will have to get back for my friends think I have only gone to the men’s room. But I am standing under a clear sky, stars such as I never see in the cities I live in, a crescent moon in a cradle configuration, the scent of pine and other growing things in crisp clear air, which has winter in it already though we are in August, air that is filled with memory – including, if I search, memories of other mountain places, lonely Kinabalu in northern Borneo, the scruffy Julian Alps in Slovenia, the strangely refreshing Taurus mountains rising out of the dust of Anatolia – places where I have had moments breathing in something like such air.
This unique air that members of the old guard over in the summer communities of the White Mountains said was just like Switzerland – which to a point it was but they went beyond that point and said that in the White Mountains you could just as well be in Switzerland, these stark granite mountains with their avalanche scars and ski trail scars rising out of almost impossible to farm rocky farm land, most of it taken over by woods now, New Hampshire the opposite of Vermont, barely able to support agriculture, which was why it seemed so clear to me that, as outsiders had said, New Hampshire was right wing and cruel where Vermont was liberal and comforting, for New Hampshire was a place where you had to live by your wits, which meant a good deal of trickery in the name of Yankee shrewdness, trickery and lying and cruel anti-everything-except-us discrimination. This bare bones life by devious means being so admired by the old guard in the summer towns, who were mostly people who might hold jobs but were so far from the bare bones life they admired that they were also living on inherited wealth. And nothing in the White Mountains was tidy and cared for like the protected, also wild but basically man-made, landscapes in Switzerland.
Those friends of my grandparents. Those peers of my parents. And what about my own peers, the ones who were young over in the White Mountains when I was young there too, they had seemed so different, but from a distance I heard about people my age who went back, the only change from past generations being that those in mine tended to live in their winterized summer places all year round now that they had found they were not suited to the outside world.
This air. My youth. I see lonely headlights, a car coming down Killington, which strangely seems to mean hope. It has only recently occurred to me that though I have by this point lived in so many distant parts of the world it has always been in cities, never in countryside – maybe a stilt house on a tropical river but a river in Bangkok, maybe a little island-style white-washed house reached by old hillside paths, but that house only being like an island house for it was right in the middle of the old part of Athens. These and all the other places – from awful Beirut to even worse Luanda – much better Havana to much better Cairo. All of them cities. Why just cities?
The thought oozes in that maybe it is fear.
What was I afraid of?
My only experience with living in countryside was in childhood.
Here I am, I think, out here on the Killington Road just to breath the air, here I am moving back and back in time. Like something was lost back then, and for the first time since very young I am in countryside again – like I have moved back in time. Like a second chance.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
We go to dinner at a restaurant on the road up Mount Killington to its ski lifts. This ugly tourist road. I have been seeing it as I drive by in the daytime – a violent slash up the lower part of this still, despite bars and restaurants, somewhat green mountain, that becomes less green further up with all its violent ski trail slashes. When Peter had first been in Rutland, which was after his divorce in the city, he had been living in a very old commercial travelers hotel, filled with sixties kids and vagabonds, in the middle of town. He had worked as a busboy on the Killington road at a place called The Wobbly Barn, which was a very sixties bar-restaurant-night club where everyone was on drugs or drunk or both, right here in rural new England. I had driven up one weekend in 1970 with his stepbrother Jason, and so knew the drug and booze part as an insider. And now after Peter’s years in AA, his achievements in writing, his time as director of a state alcoholism clinic, his years doing PR for the Vermont state Fair, now a certified citizen, married again, married as well as published. Back now on the Killington road. Peter, his current wife Julie and I are here not at the Wobbly Barn, though it still exists. Instead we are in a dark restaurant with a Swiss or German motif eating rubber shrimp and salad made of wilted leaves, the kind of place that has sad stuffed animal heads on its wall, also a fireplace with flames coming from a gas jet behind in a fake log.
I keep excusing myself to go outside and breath the mountain air, breath deep, remembering who I am and why I am here, wanting to get in every moment of mountain time. Remembering mountain nights in the deep past with this cool air that already in August has the long winter in it.
Remembering actual time in mountains in the past – summers in northern New Hampshire with air so like this air outside the restaurant – mountains in other places – Slovenia and Turkey and northern Borneo, that had this air too. And remembering how I have this year been going over past times, stepping into the deepest parts of the past – the parts I had thought at every stage were not worth even thinking about.
It is like death to me inside that grim restaurant, while here outside in moonlight is the possibility of anything I want. I wonder if I am not just riding on Peter and Julie’s life up here, and I am getting increasingly impatient. And I think of the ridiculous transactional therapy with which he and Julie and all their friends are involved. And that they joined a study group devoted the Road Less Traveled, as if it were revealed scripture (not that I believed in any scripture). And they make fun of their cat for being so fat – like the way a schoolyard bully might make fun of a fat kid. And the morning of Julie’s 50th birthday a few days ago Peter was making fun of her for being eligible to join AARP. I am building up a case against my old friend, almost as if he is one of the villainous people of my past whom I now verbally attack.
I want to stay out here in the August mountain cool, look at the upper reaches of Killington in the moonlight, look at the moon. It is hard to breathe inside.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
He is pretentious and verging on ridiculous, but he is colorful – Mario the sort of person I should be with despite everything – just like Gillian, the dramatic blonde girl who had looked so alluring at a distance and even more so when sitting across from me this spring talking sex and dysfunction and art and the Dali Lama – so pleasing as the colored lights of a seedy Italian restaurant garden played on her sweet and perhaps untrustworthy face and her rounded arms and what I could see of her front and back that was not covered by a sleeveless T shirt. Gillian the right sort of woman to have in my life – so very different from the people I came from, and so very different too from the girl who for a time, until recently, had been the wife I thought wrongly could have had no connection with those people.
And now I am in Vermont again, where this adventure began less than a year ago when I was at the bottom of my deepest depression, this place from which, thanks to Peter’s suggestion last fall, I began these take-no-prisoners travels in time that had brought me so much already, not least the obliteration of my depression – gone forever it seemed clear – along with the figurative obliteration of my blood connections, the ties that I had not realized until this year had bound me even as I, the family rebel, had been setting up scenes in exotic places that seemed as far as anywhere I could be from where I had started out.
During the second evening back in Vermont, which I spend with Peter and Julie at their frame house back in from the Rutland strip, we talk about the lay of the land in this part of the world. Peter tells about rural poverty in this otherwise prosperous seeming underpopulated place. This bit of reality makes the place seem more complete. I tell them I am getting ever more serious about moving up here. I may be finished with things I need to do in New York. I am certainly finished with writing, for writing has been useless to me in this time of change. I repeat again a needed declaration that it is from the visual world, not the stuffy world of letters, that I get my information and sustenance and inspiration. I ask them if they know about a drawing or painting course I might take up here, since I have been thinking of taking such course in the city (not that I myself might be an artist but that it could help me enter more fully into the art I am seeing). They say there is an admirable woman who teaches privately. Not what I had in mind, for I had been thinking of Manhattan art schools, though maybe this would work.
We also talk about the time Peter was in the city and went to ACOA meetings with me. He asks me about Abigail. I tell him she still has her humorous edge. She recently did a riff on that sentimental thing about letting a lover go and if he comes back it is meant to be and if not that was meant to be too. In Abigail's version, if he doesn't come back, hunt him down and kill him. Peter laughs. I am a little surprised that when I say this out loud it does not seem funny to me.
I get back to Donna’s house late and do not see Mario or his wife or his dog or Donna herself. I have not seen her since we got back from that minister’s meeting. And Mario and his wife are out all the time, which must mean they are finding plenty to do. This is all working out well.
I am on my second cup of coffee and not very awake yet when Mario comes into the kitchen. He is upset. This is not working out, he says. This is terrible. When they came in last night, while I was still over at Peter and Julie’s, they were accosted, he says, by Donna. She is not, he says, keeping herself to the basement as promised. She scolded him, he says, for leaving unnecessary lights on, and she complained that they were not cleaning up the dishes when they were finished with the kitchen. I cannot live this way, he says.
I stay non-committal, though I do say I don’t think Donna means them any harm. And at this Mario explodes. How can I of all people be so insensitive. How can I, after all the things I know from ACOA, support someone being so tyrannical. Can’t I see how Donna reminds him of his awful mother? And I say nothing, and Mario gets angrier, as if I have betrayed him. Then he says outright that I have betrayed him.
Next, he is all charm again, telling me that he had not wanted to say it but this, today, is his birthday. I ask him how old he is and he shrugs and says he is not saying, which tells me he has turned 60.
Then he gives a distorted smile and says Donna is furious with you. She says that you wheedled her into telling you all sorts of awful things she wanted no one to know. You squeezed it out of her.
I leave and drive over to Peter’s place to arrange to move over there right way rather than wait a few days as we had all planned.
I may hunt up an art teacher. And also take up horseback riding again. And I may have to take my search for what happened into the darkest part of New Hampshire. I can’t be bothered by Mario throwing a fit.
Good riddance Mario. And Donna?
Then a nagging thought: that maybe I am just racing through things that in the past it took me years go get through, that the movie of the present may be nothing more than a speeded up version of a movie of the past.
Saturday, May 8, 2010
And 48 hours after Bruce’s funeral I am back in Vermont again. Back for the summer. I drive up with my dramatic new Italian friend Mario and his sweet young Eurasian wife who supports them both with her job in a theatrical agency. She also supports their nice, sloppy, untrained dog, sort of a German Shepherd Great Dane. The dog and the girl are crammed into the tiny backseat of the old Mustang, a backseat that is more like a storage area than something meant for passengers. But Mario insisted she wants him to have the front. I do all the driving for they do not have licenses.
Alice, this friend of a decade of my old friend Peter Cooper, had asked me to find summer tenants for the suburban style house she had inherited, after much family death. Mario was very ready to get to New England for a civilized long vacation, "like in Europe."
The idea is that I will stay for a few days with them at Alice’s place, then move into the room that is ready for me at Peter and Julie’s. I am up early the first full day, for Alice has asked me to come with her so some sort of church meeting. Suddenly all these churches. Bruce’s strange funeral in that strange pretentious part of Long Island. And, two weeks back, before my trip down to the city, that tiny church way out in the middle of nowhere farm country where Alice does summer services, for which I think she will get credit in the fall when she is in divinity school down in the city at Union.
Again I appreciate that she is full bodied and tan and very quick. We roll along beneath the soft inviting Green Mountains that are such a change from the mountains with which I grew up. And I am marveling at fast shallow rivers where clear water runs and ripples over smooth stones, just like in rare tender aspects of New Hampshire but here such rivers seem to be everywhere.
We talk and talk about things that are most on my mind these days – getting at the true stories, the family stories, finding out who did what to who, getting at what really happened, getting at what is real, getting it right, no matter who gets hurt. Questions of identity. She talks of how when she was growing up in Massachusetts her older brother got a job delivering milk, for which he drove up to Vermont for pickups very early in the mornings. It was then when she heard his tales that she swore she would eventually herself live in this magical place. And eventually she did move to Vermont, and took her mother with her. Her mother who recently died here. She tells me how she ran for the state senate not long after her arrival. Then she is suddenly talking about another aspect of her childhood.
She says she thinks it is so wonderful how I am hearing so many real stories in these meetings, wonderful that I and all these people are getting has what had happened in our own lives. And she starts on something she says she has never talked about before – an uncle who molested her over and over for years. She says she thinks it may explain aspects of her sexuality and I know from all the stories I have been hearing in those meeting that “sexuality” can be a code word for same sex coupling – and this is news I do not want to hear, for despite everything I am beginning to realize I am lonely, as well as horny.
We arrive at a church on a hill in the town of Rochester where a dozen ministers from around the state are gathering. It turns out to be a monthly meeting for sharing. This is 1986 and I had lost my faith in 1951, at 16, in what seemed like a moment of revelation – and I had never thought to look for it again. And I had ignored all religious traditions, including the stylish ones that I ignored in my years in the Far East. Since boarding school days I had been in churches only a handful of times, and always as a tourist in places like Greece and Haiti and Manila. In the prayer circle each minister has a few words to say about where they are in their lives. I just say “I am here,” hoping it will sound like something profound. For I am in a familiar situation now, pretending one thing on the surface that has no connection with what is underneath. Or maybe not this time.