A Decent Guy

I was 16. I was riding in the backseat of a friend’s car. I reached for her hand. She pulled it away.

My life changed.

Nothing had happened. Well, except this: I violently agreed with her. Why would anyone want me to touch them? Of course I had been wrong to do it, I should have known better. She reacted as all girls would, and as I knew, or should have known, she would.

I was beyond angry, but I was not angry with her. I was angry at myself. Because I had wanted something I was not built to ever get. I was filled with self loathing, because of what I was.

Girls have their own problems of course. Many of them have to face violence, violence from guys who don’t react to rejection the way I did. The psychology of male decency requires consistent application of principles, the leading one of which is this: to never attempt to take what is not yours.

Even enraged as I was, I had no thoughts of wanting to cause anyone harm. But I hated myself with an almost unbearable intensity. I was repulsive. How could I not know that?

The end result of this was a strong desire not to ever have that feeling ever again. So, I became completely unwilling to initiate any kind of physical contact or relations, even with women I was dating, or, ultimately, married to. Bluntly, the joy of acceptance (and sex) paled compared to the agony of rejection.

Another result of this, completely unforeseen, is that I have hundreds of female friends, all of whom love the fact that I never come on to them.

Because I’m such a decent guy, they think.

Declarative

I’m lost in these halls. Pain makes more effective walls than steel or concrete.

Each doorway is a small politeness. We must knock before entering. Death itself serves at a shrine of manners.

I was carried in here, of course. I never walk. The world is a constant storm to brains like mine; fluorescent lights are just matches to a fuse.

The night worker looks questions at me as I wander past. I wasn’t sleeping at home, either. No, I don’t remember what happened.

I don’t see that it matters which room I return to; they are designed to be identical, as are the patients. I also can’t remember which room is mine.

Hospital rooms are never ours. We belong to them, for a time.

I find a soda machine. It takes credit cards. I have mine. I get a soda. I sit down on a sofa to drink it.

Now I’m in a bed, inside a room, a Dr. Pepper in a bottle on the table next to me; I remember thinking that it would be the most medicinal of all the soda choices, if only by name. I’m not sure how I got back to this bed.

There seems to be a considerable amount of pain in the room. I’m not entirely sure who is feeling it, however.

There is a beautiful woman sitting in a chair next to me. She looks sad.

She’s holding one of my hands.

She stands and kisses me on my forehead. You weren’t here when I got back. You can’t just leave me like that.  You can’t just disconnect yourself from your monitors.

I have been doing that most of my life, I say.

You were asleep in the break area.

And that sounds like the rest of my life.

When I wake up again, it is light outside. She is asleep in the chair. The room is cold. There is another bed in the room, but whoever the occupant was, is gone. Whoever the occupants were, I guess I should say. These beds transport many, many souls.

As do these rooms. As have these halls.

 

Music and Madness

Total time spent in mental health wing of hospital: around half a year.

Accomplishments while there: I learned the following piece of music, playing it on the piano located in the lobby area of the facility.

Suffering from mental illness has a unfair degree of stigma attached to it; however, the stigma is arguably less than when the same types of people were thought of as “mad”. 

There have always been two types of words for mental illness: stigmatizing ones like “insane” or “crazy”, and minimizing ones, like “troubled” or even “eccentric”. My coworkers thought of me as troubled, for what that was worth. The people at the hospital, on the other hand, knew I was mentally ill.

I practiced that old upright piano in lobby every day. I had to do something with the hours. I went to individual and group therapy. I saw doctors and social workers. I took various meds.

I thought a lot about suicide.

I had one book of piano music with me: 8 Brief Pieces by Gabriel Faure, of which the Nocturne, above, was the last. I kept working on them and it, everyday. Trying to create order out of the chaos in my head.

I had a crush on a nurse, then one of the social workers. I made friends. 

I kept working on the music, every day. People would come by and ask me to play popular tunes, songs they knew. I would.

When they left, though, I went back to learning this music.

Loneliness. Isolation. Chaos. Madness.

Trying to play music. Trying to breathe.

We built things for therapy, and in my mind, I was the jar and the crepe paper and the rhinestones and the glue smell and the man next to me had magnified eyes like jumping out of airplanes through kites in white satin —

Remember the music. Starts with an F in the right hand.

Why is there blood on my pillow? What are those shapes across the room?

You can’t go play at 3 AM.

if you had just done it while you had the chance…

No! Stop it, I’m tired of this!

Mr friend Jeneen smuggled my cat in for a visit. Her boyfriend had been feeding the cat every day. On another visit, she asked me to play “that song you always play”…

The Nocturne. The Faure.

“The therapy music. Like little bits of hope riding waves of despair.”

Little bits of hope riding waves of despair. I like that.

Total time spent in mental health wing of hospital: around half a year.

Accomplishments while there: I survived

(Another) Last Piece

Sometimes, you write something, and hit “Publish”, then an hour later, you decide that it’s the worst thing you’ve ever written, possibly with the word “you’ve” removed.

You mean that doesn’t happen to you?

That happened to me yesterday. Hence, a new post under the same photo, and with a similar title to the original, now destroyed, piece.


When I was first divorced, before my (now) wife and I started dating, I dated, consecutively, three other women. The last of the three was the strangest relationship I was ever in. It didn’t last but about two months, and it coincided with me doing about three months of therapy to sort through issues surrounding the divorce.

I’ve decided to write about that time here, every Monday, for as many Mondays as it takes. My desire to write about it is to some degree because the issues identified about me during therapy at that time have cropped up again recently.

The names of the people involved have been changed, as is always true on my blogs. Hell, half the time, the events are changed, too, and the outcomes. But I’m trying to recount the truth here. And the truth, frequently, sucks.


Looking back on that time, I feel disappointed in myself beyond my ability to describe. Disgusted with myself, really. In keeping with that mood, I wrote a short fictional piece yesterday about a woman who finds out what a scum her husband is. It involved pecan pie.

It, too, sucked, and didn’t even have the benefit of being real, or truthful. It was more just a reflection of how I was feeling about myself when I wrote it.

My complete inability to keep my feelings about irrelevant matters from spilling over into my writing is one of the reasons I became a poet. I look at poetry – and it is admittedly just one view of poetry’s value – as a realm where neither rules of syntax nor emotional nor logical coherence need apply. Which is pretty much me.

I also realize that, when the actual facts about my own life are laid out, it does not lead most people to conclude the same things I have from the circumstances concerned. Hence, I write far more coherently about other people’s feelings, which almost always make more sense to me than my own.


Last week, my sister let me know that my favorite teacher from high school had died. She was our neighbor growing up as well, and person number one I always think of in terms of me “paying it forward”, because she did so much for me that I could not pay back at the time: jobs, food, money, sympathy.

She and her husband and sons were all very tall people (she was about 6 foot 3), but lived in a very compact old house. In their kitchen, she always had sweetened sun tea, and whole meals and desserts ready to serve to whomever might come by.

She was originally from West Virginia, but had met her husband in Alaska, before ending up in Florida where we knew her. She taught a lot subjects, but I remember her best for teaching Humanities.

She loved jokes and puns, which made me a favorite student of hers, because I’ve been a random pun generator for as long as I can remember. There used to be a genre of puns called “Tom Swifties” where the joke was always structured to be in the adverb, as follows:

  • “This soda has gone bad,” he said flatly.
  • “We should go camping, she said intently.
  • “What was Stallone’s nickname again?” he asked slyly.

… and so on.

I used to generate pages of these things to give to her, for no other reason than to see if I could do it. She would then read them to other classes, which greatly lessened my already non-existent high school popularity.

She loved literature, and poetry, and plays, and music; since I did, too, that was another point of connection. She got me my first piano playing job (at the church her family attended).

I last saw her a couple of years ago when I was in Florida to visit my elder son. She seemed the same as always I’d known her: tall, energetic, jovial. Even in the face of overwhelming sadness at the untimely death of her younger son, she radiated a sort of universal love.

And the pie and the tea were still delicious.


A little house
Near Lion’s Park,
Just up the hill
From where kid’s voices ring
As they swim in summer

A garden and a fig tree
In the back

A house filled up with
The smell of books
And hospitality

A kitchen stocked
With meals prepared
And frozen, ready to be
Served to whomever
Might happen upon the door

A house where
Every inch of space was used,
Not cluttered, but
Not wasted, either

Love, as though
From its original source,
Poured out in tall glasses,
And where the last piece of pie
Was never given
Grudgingly

Among the Rites of Passage

The first time I ever saw a condom dispensing machine, I was eighteen years old. It was in the bathroom of the Villa, in Niceville, Florida, a now defunct bar. The drinking age in Florida in those days was eighteen.

It had never occurred to me in my life to buy a condom. At that age, I’d scarcely been a situation that called for them. Coming face to face with a condom dispenser, I considered doing so. Upon reflection, it seemed to me that buying condoms in the filthy men’s room of the town dive probably said something about the quality of the experience I would be likely to have using said condom.

But I bought one anyway. Rites of passage, you know.

I placed it in my wallet and returned to the group of friends I had come in there with. The condom didn’t get used that night, nor, so far as I can remember, did it ever. I wasn’t exactly unpopular with girls at that age, nor was I particularly popular. In the year or so that followed this, I probably dated something like twenty-five different young women. None of those relationships ever got to the condom using stage. They just — didn’t.

I made a group of seven male friends starting in 7th and 8th grade that have stayed my closest friends now for something like 40 years. Three of them were with me the night I bought my first condom, and the same three (plus one) were with me at the Villa four years later when I actually picked up someone up at that bar.

I had graduated and was working back in the old hometown; the rest were back visiting family during Christmas vacation. We decided one Friday night to meet out at the Villa; one of the friends had the (good) idea to call some women we had known from school to meet us out there.

One of those women was a very good friend of my old high school girlfriend. She was a very intelligent young woman, but not someone I had every known all that well. As we sat and drank, and talked, and laughed, I noticed how funny and likable she was; when we were dancing, it really struck me just how much fun she was to be with.

At some point, (we were there a long time, and I wasn’t wearing a watch) we were no longer talking to anyone but each other. We also both had quite a bit to drink. We went out to my car, and —

— well, I couldn’t have used the condom then, either, if I’d still had it. But other things happened, things that men rarely complain about when they happen.

Eventually, she decided she needed to get back home. The bar (which stayed open until very very late) was still going strong when she got into her car and pulled out, me right behind her. When she turned, she turned the opposite way from what I was expecting, because (it turned out) she was going the back way to her parents’ house, a way I wasn’t familiar with. But I was puzzled by it just long enough to pull out without looking.

WHAM.

I had pulled right out into a car as it drove by. It smashed into the side of my car, knocking it off the road and into a telephone pole.

I got out of the car (I was either okay or too drunk to notice I was hurt) and immediately started apologizing to the woman in the car. Neither she nor her vehicle seemed damaged in any way. Someone in the parking lot of the bar had headed back in and called the police. An officer showed up about three minutes later.

I admitted it was all my fault; the officer got her information, then mine, then she left, then he was about to administer a breathalyzer to me when five more police cars suddenly came zipping down the street, flashers flashing, pulling into the Villa. The officer who had been dealing with me said, “Wait here,” then dashed across the street.

I stood there for what seemed like hours next to my pitiful, smashed up car (which still ran, surprisingly) while the police attempted to break up a giant bar fight that had broken out.  Ten people (by my count) got arrested and herded into cars. Then, after a long while, the original officer came back, and said, “I can’t believe you’re still here.”

“You told me to wait.”

“Well, it’s been too long for a breathalyzer.” He handed me a citation for pulling out into traffic, and left. I drove my beat-up car the four blocks home.

The next afternoon, my roommate (who had been one of the friends with me the night before, but who’d left early) asked how things had gone. I told him about my car wreck, and the riot that had broken out at the bar, but he seemed impatient and uninterested. “I mean with you and HER.”

“Oh, that. She is fun.”

“Are you going to see her again? Call her?”

I hadn’t even considered that. He continued on:

“Her friends were really excited you two seemed to be hitting it off. She’s never apparently had a boyfriend, or so much as a date.”

“What?”

“That’s what they said. I told Sandra I’d let her know your side of the story. I just had lunch with her. She says she’s never seen Margaret so happy.”

Uh, oh. Um. Fuck.

I called her, telling her I needed to talk to her about something. I drove over to her parents’ house (using the only route I knew) and she met me at the door. We walked around back to a kind of covered garden area.

“You have a girlfriend, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Where was she last night?”

“She goes to school in Mobile.”

“So you just thought you’d have a little fun.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt you. Look, I wouldn’t even have come here, except I felt like I owed you…”

“Owed me what?”

“An explanation.”

“I don’t need your pity.”

“No, it’s just that I — I really like you.”

“Yeah, well. Fuck off.”

She wasn’t crying. She was angry. I got back in my smashed up car, pulled out, and drove home.

“So what happened?” my roommate asked as I walked back in.

“Nothing. I told her about Annette.”

“You just made a big mistake, boy. I’ve never seen you as happy with Annette as you were last night with Margaret.”

Mistakes: the true rites of passage.