—a meandering tale
I’ve moved this last anecdote to the end from the beginning (where it belongs chronologically). I was 35 with a young family. My prognosis wasn’t great. I thought I should leave my kids some sort of letter or autobiography. This is the result. 10 years later, having reached a ripe old 46, I showed all these writings to my kids. They liked all the tales except for the introduction to this story, which they found both long and boring—I’ve shortened it quite a bit. I’m thinking about loosing it completely and just getting on with the story of the murder…
An introduction to a possible autobiography.
I’ve been putting off writing this but I guess I had better get on with it, seeing as I’m dying and there are certain things that you should probably hear from me before you hear about them from anyone else. The kind of Lymphoma that I have is very aggressive, though the doctor said I have a 30% chance of at least a temporary remission if I’m treated. If not they say I might live as long as two years. Well, a couple of years seems pretty optimistic at this point. When they gave me that prognosis 10 days ago I could walk, even though my leg hurt. The next day I was dragging my leg around as I hobbled along. Two days later I couldn’t stand. A day after that I couldn’t even sit up. At this rate living another two years doesn’t seem very likely and so tomorrow I begin chemotherapy.
Consider this: I lie here dying and sometimes I feel that if I am quiet enough I can feel my body falling apart. I think of loosing myself, of loosing you, the world, the future, everything… and I find myself almost ecstatic. Please don’t misunderstand, I am not happy to die, not happy to loose you, your mother, our family, everyone I love. I would rather live, but I find myself ecstatic in spite of, not because of, my imminent demise.
Very good then, but so what if I’m foolish enough to feel great while terrible things are happening to me? What does my ‘ecstasy’ prove? Does it hint of some eternal reality behind the looming tragedy of daily life or is it simply a form of denial?
The same mood of denial or liberty seems to have affected your mother. Just the other day some of her friends dropped by to see her. Not quite the mourning widow but she would satisfy their lust for the moment. Sitting around the kitchen table they consoled her in their way – ‘you poor thing, you must feel so terrible, and so on…’. Your mother hesitated for only second before replying that, while there were moments when she was really scared, most of the time she felt fine.
Not surprisingly they responded with those kind of awful and fashionable stock phrases: ‘You’re just in denial.’ ‘Deep inside you feel horrible, you only think you feel happy’. Your mother’s reply was just about perfect: ’You might be right’ she answered, ‘Maybe you are right. Maybe I feel fine on the outside while inside I’m really feeling awful and not knowing it. But if that’s true maybe, even though you don’t know it, maybe you really feel wonderful on the inside and your just in denial of that’. She really would have had to dug deep to come up with something better than that, or a comment they would have found more offensive.
Imagine – there are mental hospitals filled with loonies who commit horrible crimes and feel that all is well. Of course we know that outside of horror movies there are not many hospitals like that. There are, however plenty of boardrooms, temples, schools and government buildings that house these types of deranged creatures. Is their apparent certainty proof of anything? If they are wrong despite their faith in their own correctness does that mean that a sense of certainty is not proof of anything …or at least not proof of anything more than the fact that I have a sensation of certainty?
I’d really like to begin these remarks with a neat little cynical quip; I figure this is a good strategy since cynicism so often seems to slip by the intelligent reader, bypassing the normal critical faculties. I’d like to begin that way but it’s not simple. I really don’t feel that life is ‘nasty, brutish, and short’ – or at least that’s not all it is. It’s a phrase that for no logical reason somehow seems so much more ‘realistic’ than saying life is ‘kind, intelligent, and eternal.’ Do we really have any more evidence for one or the other? They stand there, two metaphysical statements; the first is acceptable; the second filled with problems; but the truth… ahhh there’s the rub (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).
Back to the question: What ‘truth’ is there to my feeling that life is ‘tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing’. Or for that matter in… well how can I say it…the opposite of all of that? Clearly, if the strength of my belief or conviction is not enough to determine what is right and true then we’ve got a problem. How will we know what to do? What direction points to meaning? For the believers of different faiths the answer is clear. What about the rest of us who aren’t privy to such cosmic secrets? Since the circumstance of my health might not allow me the time necessary to explain all the mysteries of the universe I will instead busy myself writing this short autobiography for you.
Beginning with an apology.
Writing an autobiography for oneself can be an important exercise in self-knowledge, but writing one for others demands at least an explanation if not an apology. First, because of the arrogance implied in expecting that one’s life is of sufficient importance (or even has the minimum coherence) to be worth someone else’s interest. It is not very satisfying to think that one’s life so lacks in drama, scandal or, if nothing else, instructional value that an autobiography will always be there like some guest who has over stayed his welcome. Or like an aging relative who endlessly repeats stories that were boring the first time round.
The second motive for my making an apology has to do with writing a story that I know before hand has no climax. As others have pointed out, the meaning of a life cannot be read until it’s over. And if that’s true then all autobiography is a bit of a cheat. There you sit scribbling away even though the meaning of your life isn’t yet discernable since even the last moment might change the meaning of everything that’s gone before.
I’ve always thought that I’d be able to parcel out my sage fatherly advise at opportune moments but a random quirk in my physiology, or my destiny, has mercifully saved you from that. Still that leaves a number of more personal questions to which ¬¬¬ I feel you might want answers, as you grow older. So under the guise of fulfilling the obligation I feel to answer those as best I can – I’ll also try to make it a package deal and slip in some fatherly advise.
One of the things that has kept me from putting all this in writing is the severe limitation I’m under of having to anticipate what questions exactly you might find interesting or important. Worse still, what if you don’t have any questions for me? I guess I’ll have to think up some questions for starters; until then I can only promise that I won’t follow that tradition so popular ¬with biographers. You know what I mean, promising a lot but playing coy with the juicy revelations. I want you to know that I’ll only mix fact and fable as far as necessary for pedagogic purposes, or because I can’t discriminate between the two, or simply because I no longer remember what was what.
I remember my first murder though. Murder is not the kind of think you forget easily. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.
“There’s a killer on the road his brain is squirming like a toad.”
The Doors circa 1970
Memory is weird stuff. I really think that many of the traumas that most of us suffer from are a mixture of half remembered events, stale nightmares, bits of old movies, anecdotes we’ve heard from other people, partially digested newspaper headlines; all dimly recalled and all enhanced with a sound track of genuine schmaltz. I know that this is true for me, and some of my most cherished memories.
There is no doubt that some people will find this position offensive, but to wallow in false memory is as dangerous as denying true memory. And even though I believe that, still I count myself among those who find this position objectionable. Of course all these memories have psychological reality and it seems that some of them have another kind or reality as well. Seems to me that it’s pretty obvious.
Seems to me that its equally certain that if you can go through your life and not remember getting put through a meat grinder and then 30 years later suddenly recall this ‘truth’ then it is equally possible that the consciousness could weave together this memory and re-call it as if it were real. If the consciousness can totally bury away a painful event, might it not also be able to create one? Seems to me that the pressing question would be: why would anyone do this to themselves? Why would they construct a painful memory?
Most people who after many years recall a painful trauma tell us that this sort of anamnesis, this process of remembering, is horribly painful. An attempt at burying agonizing moments would appear to make sense. On the surface at least it seems really dumb to create unpleasant memories. I think that raises some good questions but more on that later for now consider 3 things.
1) My father, your grandfather, lived through the death camps of the holocaust. He saw his family and friends tortured to death, he saw his neighbours applaud, he lived through unimaginable horror and he remembered. Not to say that his memory would have been 100% accurate… why should it be better than yours or mine, but he did not lock those horrors away where they could be hidden for decades. Nor did the others who survived those horrors or the horrors of Cambodia, the Congo, Bosnia, Israel, Palestine or too many other places. Why don’t these survivors tuck those memories away – bet your ass they might like to do just that. Is it simply because these memories are sanctioned or, so to speak, shared by society at large?
2) On a lighter note: Early on (even before I met your mom) I found myself wrestling with a memory that was normally almost out of reach. This memory had become revitalized and while now vivid it was not very painful but rather charged with meaning. I couldn’t have explained what this memory meant or why it bore such portent but I felt it somehow was of real importance to my knowledge of myself. But one day…
Remembrances of Things Past
If I told you that my apartment was above a store I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong impression. It wasn’t a dive by any means, that’s not to say it was anything very fancy. It was a decent place and more than being decent it had a number of advantages: it was big for one or even two people—a split-level job with two bed rooms on the second floor and even better it was affordable; a fact that may have something to do with the fact that my dad was the landlord. The place was simply furnished. Every room except the kitchen and the washroom was crammed with books, the bedroom had two mattresses on the floor, the big one was mine the smaller one was the dog’s. The only other furnishings were a large, heavy, dark, Danish modern wooden table and about a dozen black leatherette and aluminum office chairs. I don’t mean it to sound sexist, but you won’t be shocked to learn that the decorating scheme changed substantially once your mother moved in.
It was actually a sound and sensible domestic arrangement for me at that time. I was working as a waiter in an Italian restaurant just north of the main library. When I wasn’t working, inspired by the Argentine thinker Silo, I was organizing meetings and actions around the idea of simultaneously changing oneself and the world around one. Perhaps it was because of these kinds of activities that my living room looked like a very, very down scale boardroom.
I always felt that your uncle Julian was ambivalent about the specifics of my activities but he liked a lot of the people who were involved and sometimes he would drop by. This was one of those occasions and in a weird way that chance event proved very important for me. If I remember correctly the discussion turned to what Silo – whom you’ve heard me speak of many times before—called the Three Pathways of Suffering: of how ‘human beings suffers because of what has happened or they believe has happened, what is happening or they believe is happening, and what will happen or they believe will happen’. This was over a decade before the somewhat hysterical discussions of abuse and ‘false memory syndrome’ that filled the media in the later part of 1980s. During an exchange of examples I offered the following story, which I had been thinking about the previous day, it stood out not only because it was my earliest memory but also because in some undefined way I thought that it captured something of an emotional landscape that had been very formative in my life.
“It was early spring and I was six or seven years old (or five or nine). Some other neighbourhood kids, even younger than me, were leaping up at a tree poking with a broomstick as I high as they could reach. When I came over the asked me to help them get a birds nest down; filled with the wisdom of the elders I explained how they should leave the birds in peace. They assured me that the nest was empty and pleaded with me to help.
What followed was no Greek tragedy but it was seared into my memory forever. I can feel the broom handle almost as well as the feeling of my head swelling pleasantly under the admiring gaze of the littler kids. I reach up and poke the nest and stand utterly shocked as it tilts over and three tiny featherless birds fall to the ground; their beaks opening and closing, they lay there helpless; naked bodies stained with dirt and flecks of grass.
I tucked them back in the nest as well as I could but latter that day we found them dead on the ground.
I ran home filled both with the horror of killing such innocents and the shame of having no stomach for such manly pursuits. I hid in the basement where I lay crying until I was sick and exhausted. I don’t remember much more than the sticky feeling of my tears and saliva on the arm of the couch.
I presented this tale to those gathered at the meeting with the same mixture of shame and pride that I feel when I first screen one of my films for people or when I think someone may someday read these words. Then the weird stuff happened, my brother—your uncle Julian, dropped the bombshell—at least seemed explosive to me. Julian is older than me and perhaps he remembered those events more clearly than I do. And while he agreed with my version on most points he insisted that I never knocked the birds out of the nest—he had. I had been, he assured me, one of those kids who stood around watching as he unintentionally knocked the birds on to the ground. Perhaps it will be difficult for you to understand why, but I started to shake and just like they say happens in these situations, the room began to spin.
3) Then there were those experiments in hypnosis. I’m not sure how old I was when I carried these out, maybe 12 or 13. I must have been quite young, as chasing girls had not yet distracted me from all other interests like my practice of sleight of hand, or these kinds of experiments in sleight of mind. I’ll leave out the details and just tell you this: after various experiments, some quite elaborate, where I hypnotized my little friends and, as I had seen on some TV show, sent them back through time, through the years, past the moment of birth. Back to the womb and before the moment of conception, blah, blah, blah… Some of my victims became convinced that they had recalled past lives and at least one of them remains convinced of it to this day. As I watched their conviction take form, I realized that I was forming my own convictions about the functioning of memory and belief. If nothing else these insights helped me become a much better magician then my clumsy sleights alone would have allowed.
Perhaps this whole discussion of memory and belief is not necessary? Maybe you know all this shit? Perhaps you live in more civilized times where it’s not necessary to defend the obvious? I hope so.
The Children’s Crusade
Anyway on the subject of memory, I know the consciousness can create false memories — mine has, on more than one occasion. But I do remember that first murder, accurately and in Technicolor©. I can tell you exactly what happened because it is as you’ll see, one of those memories that remains forever etched in the circuitry of the old gray matter… neurons firmly welded in fixed patterns, forever fused by overload. That’s not surprising; I’m sure its true that almost everyone has vivid memories of their first murder—even if it was in self-defense (remember I told you… revelations as well as deceptions).
“…and Mr. Jones won’t give you a lift up pull two dudes in a Cadillac and they say won’t you jump in the back”.
Country Joe and the Fish circa 1967
Okay we had better, start by being honest…it wasn’t my first murder… maybe it wasn’t murder at all. It was the summer of 69′ and we had been on the road for only a few days and made remarkably good time considering the flood of hitchhikers that jammed the highways from Toronto to Vancouver, from Jersey to California, from Copenhagen to Katmandu. It’s odd but that’s a memory that society as a whole has buried away. Nonetheless it is true that the last few years of the 1960s’ had seen crowds like that on the road every summer, a veritable children’s’ crusade thumbing its way west to the Pacific, to Vancouver and Frisco, rather than marching east to retake the holy land. I find it an extraordinary feat of self-censorship that no modern historian or sociologist has paid much attention to this phenomenon. Anyway it was only May and already the emergency hostels in places like WaWa were overflowing with everyone telling stories having been stuck there for a week or three.
She had been my girlfriend for almost exactly a year before we took to the road together—it was to prove an unusual anniversary. We had made good time until today. The morning had started off all right, we’d managed to get moving before noon and even though we had been surrounded by a herd of other freaks trying to thumb lifts we eventually got a ride out of town with some geek in a convertible and sideburns. Once we cleared the edge of town we saw almost no traffic except the usual parade of hunters up from the states, with campers pulled by car or pickup but always with U.S. plates, always with a gun rack and usually with someone giving the finger to any weirdo that they passed. It was the kind of traffic where you didn’t even bother sticking out your thumb. I was thinking that we had been lucky to get a ride out of that hole (I never could tell what d. was thinking, never), but our friend with the ‘Happy Days’ coiffure ended up being a real joker and dumped us out in mid-nowhere.
It was the high point of the day, so far. Driving by on the far side of the road, he slowed down almost to a full stop, and then he spat at us, it wasn’t a very bright thing to do – before he could speed off a sympathetic gust of wind blew at least some of the blob of saliva and mucus right back into his own face; after that bit of excitement things really slowed down. We lazed about, talked a bit, shared a couple of apples and a chocolate bar and since we wanted to keep an eye on the road, we only wandered off as far as the edge of the bush. The long afternoon stretched out until the sun was almost at the horizon.
We watched as he burnt rubber along the narrow strip of weathered, broken asphalt that passed for a highway along most the length of the grandiose sounding ‘Transcanada Highway’. He had suggested getting out for a stretch after we had driven for a little while. I was a paranoid even then and so I grabbed the straps of our bags as I got out. As soon as my boots hit the gravel shoulder I could feel something was off, maybe it was the muffled sound of his white and shiny shoes as he slithered back into his car. Maybe not, but I knew, even before I turned my head that he was going to split and leave us on this godforsaken strip of road too many miles from the last truck stop and probably even more until the next one. She turned at the sound of the car accelerating as she tilted her head. A glint of amusement showed in her usually unreadable eyes. I too tilted my head but being less restrained I started howling at the afternoon sun and stomping my feet in a tantrum (if someone asked at the time I would have described it more as a war dance). My banged up cowboy boots smashed up and down on the gravel, I could feel each individual pebble and piece of gravel through the long worn, almost paper-thin soles.
The toes of these oversized boots curled up (‘elf-like’ I would have said). Well it was probably on my very own elfish toes that I tripped—anyway it was face first down the small embankment that separated the highways shoulder from the ditch and the strip of grass that lead into the thick north Ontario bush. d. didn’t offer me a hand up when I managed to crawl out of the ditch; she remained squatting by the side of the road rummaging through her canvas knapsack. Dumping out a heavy sweater that had been rolled into a bundle, she unwrapped it to reveal a couple of film cans and a denim shirt that she had started to embroider. The sun tightly stitched of sun radiated ripples of light from a face enigmatic as its maker’s. One film can held needles and embroidery thread, the other only seeds and stems—everything seemed to be running low, running out or breaking down. She kicked off her buffalo leather sandals, dumped them into the stained rucksack along with the sweater and the remnants of our stash.
I crouched at the roadside and watched her work on the shirt – effortless dexterity laying down rich rows of texture and colour, not like those sparse little x’s that I’d always thought of as embroidery. The day stretched on with only a couple of Winnebagos trying to run us down and a few hunters who didn’t even bother…except one.
We didn’t really start to bitch about our luck until the wind grew cold though evening had barely begun to close in. I took the knife from the sheath at my belt and started to whittle at a scrap of wood. We talked about starting a fire, but somehow it seemed that it would be a sign of surrender, an admission that we might not get a ride. I put the knife away and not very successfully tried to kick the stick across the highway.
“It’s a shame and a pity you were raised up in the city and you never learnt nothing about country ways.”
Country Joe and the Fish circa 1967
The sun was not even at the horizon but the next car that passed already had its lights on. I wandered up the highway a bit. The backlit trees blended and blurred and even though I knew it could not be real I saw them transformed into ancient stone towers surrounded by massive walls. I walked towards them wagering with myself about what moment they would disappear — they didn’t.
Vaguely fearing what I might discover if I continued I turned and wandered back, she sat against the knapsack her legs extended in front of her, bare feet crossed. And then something unheard of happened, something that defied the laws of nature. A pickup complete with Alabama plates and a gun rack slowed down and pulled up on to the shoulder. I starred down at her and for a moment and we remained for a moment simply looked at each other, trying to ignore this horribly unnatural manifestation for as long as we could.
Maybe you, living in more civilized times, don’t understand what this means — but we did. It wasn’t just that this was an unlikely turn of events it was a genuinely dangerous one. The cat had stopped and offered a helping hand to the canary. The rednecks didn’t stop and offer you a ride because they were lonely and looking for companionship, nor from a sense of charity or fraternity. They stopped because they were drunk and hot. Hot for ass to kick, hot for blood or pussy, or both. The look that passed between us was not simply an exchange of fearful glances, we knew for certain that we were trapped, we had seen this film, we knew how it would end and we knew there was no way out. I looked down at her feet and thought that it didn’t really matter; they could out run us even if she had shoes on.
If we told them we didn’t want the ride they would act hurt, offended, and they’d trash us right there. Anyway trash me, rape her, or maybe rape her before they killed me or both at the same time or…well you know the script, it allows for some variations but the ending is always about the same and we saw it coming down fast. We knew how it was going to go, how it would play out and we had almost no chance of changing even a line, not a jot or a title. It was already written out as clear as could be, but the point was to get through one scene at a time and to stay alert—who knows, as unlikely as it seems, the cavalry might come charging in over the hill. Or, no more likely, we might find an opportunity to escape. Two guys one dressed in khaki and denim, the other in hunting camo with a civil war cap, Confederate of course, got out of the cab and jumped in the back of the truck. In spite of being a bit wobbly on their feet and slightly slurred in their speech they couldn’t have been more gracious as they seemed to hiss out an invitation, ‘here kids, just get in the truck’. Afraid to even look at each other we mumbled our thanks and got in. As the door closed the cab light went off and we realized that at some point it had gotten real dark outside.
Cut to the chase, as they say — and that really is good advice in general, if you don’t push it to far, or take it out of context — cut to the chase. Ok, these good Samaritans had slid into the back to make room for us beside the driver. It would have been getting cold outside but you can bet your ass that the truck stinking of alcohol and sweat felt more than hot enough.
We drove for a ways up the highway as we were regaled with stories about hunting exploits, the beauty of the Canadian wilds, and how they all missed their wives and girlfriends back home. The stories hit a high point as the guy who was driving told us some tale about the pearl handled pistols he had received from the grand dragon of the Klan. This was followed by various comments from this representative of our new friends about how we northerner’s didn’t like the Klan because we didn’t understand what it was really about.
We told the driver we were heading west and while it was right neighbourly of them to offer us a ride they could just as well drop us off anywhere…here would be fine. Instead they turned off on to a dirt side road and we bounced along into the night. You know what they say about growling dogs and other nasty beasties, ‘don’t panic because they can smell your fear.’ Well we knew that too, and we really tried not to panic as we both blurted out phrases about getting out here and things of that sort. “Why, aren’t we good enough to give you a ride” our hosts growled. We had pissed him off and it was made clear that it would be best for all of us if we accompanied them to their camp. We told them that we wouldn’t want to impose on their hospitality and … as you might have surmised he made it abundantly clear that they wouldn’t hear of it and we would just have to share the hospitality of their hunting camp.
I can tell you that we made a number of turns down what must have been old logging roads but about the rest of the ride itself I haven’t the foggiest. I don’t know whether to tell you that it felt like it took forever or that it was all over in a moment. I do know I was scarred shitless but that at the same time it was clear to me that it was really important to act like everything was cool. Freaking out would just precipitate the very nasty and inevitable ending. I knew that she wouldn’t blow her cool, not till they hurt her anyway—she was amazingly tough. Their tents were outlined in the beam of our headlights even before we saw the large bonfires and two more ‘new friends’ sitting around passing a bottle. Turned out to be Jim Beam, no surprise there either. Unfortunately the story seemed to be proceeding as per the script.
Too soon the truck came to a stop in the clearing where they had made camp. How strange to be trapped in a bad made for TV movie. As I stepped out of the truck, under an almost unbearably beautiful night sky, encircled by the black shapes of tall pines rising around us I thought what a remarkable place to be murdered, surrounded by these characters from central casting in a set pinched from a Group of Seven painting.
The Art of The Ninja
I didn’t even bother to turn when I heard the guys jump from the back of the truck and fall in behind us. Two more rednecks that had been left to ‘guard the fort’ came laughing and stumbling towards us. I braced myself for the conclusion of this story that could only be moments away. But the climax that had been rushing toward us out of the drunken night was to be slightly delayed, as the driver turned to me and with a dangerously calm tone spoke: ‘Alright boy, why don’t we leave your little girl friend here to rest a spell while you and me have a little talk’. With a gesture whose ordinariness only emphasized the threat lurking below the surface he made it clear that we were to walk down the trail away from the camp.
I think it was only at this point that I started to think of how I could turn the tables on these bastards. I was no fool, I knew this was no Kung Fu movie; there was no Calvary about to charge in for the rescue. I was a scrawny kid and these guys were big and mean and drunk. I knew that I only had a few minutes before I would hear her terrified screams begin; I had to decide what to do.
‘Come on let’s go a little further. Tell me, what do you hear?’ As he spoke I slipped my hand down under the plaid lumberjack shirt that covered the knife I wore on my belt. ‘Tell me, what do your hear?’ he repeated and now the anger in his voice was starting to leak through.
‘I will have one chance at this’ I thought as I strained to hear her cry out or the muffled sounds of struggle. ‘The first hint of struggle will be my cue, this asshole is huge but if I’m quick enough and if I throw my whole body into it I can drive my knife into his fucking beer filled gut’. If I can do it without hesitating and then rip up from his belly into his chest maybe it will work. How strange that I can think so clearly, don’t let him see you’re upset. He’s much bigger than I am my only chance is to surprise him. I’ll draw the knife and drive upward as if my whole body is a giant coiled spring. I’ve got to use my whole body. Where did I hear that you should strike with the knife blade facing up – drive it into his gut and then up. If I do this right I might even have a shot at getting back to the campsite; maybe I can get back and even save the day or at least have some revenge… at least fuck these guys up’.
‘You don’t hear shit because you’re a fucking little city boy who doesn’t know squat. I was raised in the woods. I know what’s happening. I don’t have to see. I know. Hear that?’ he demanded. I coughed to cover the sound of the opening of the snap that held my knife in its sheath. ‘Whatever you do don’t hesitate’ I told myself. ‘Throw your weight into it or you’ll never get the blade through his shirt. Don’t telegraph your move, wait for the moment. Wait’.
‘Now let’s talk about that pretty little thing you’re traveling with’ he cocked his head as if he was also listening for that first scream of despair. I noticed how clear and calm I felt as I grabbed the handle of the knife. ‘Maybe I can slip it out of the sheath and just hold it by my side that could gain me the fraction of a second that I’ll need to kill this motherfucker’. The only thing that seemed unreal was the ridiculous inevitability with which every frame of this film was unfolding. I slipped the blade clear and carefully braced my body, I knew exactly what it would feel like as the knife tore through his clothes and ripped through his skin. I anticipated the sound of meat being torn apart, I saw the wisps of vapour that would rise steam like as the heat of his entrails met the cool night air. ‘When I tear his gut open will it stink? I mean, shit stinks; I bet his torn bowls will too. I inhaled the crisp, still pure night air. Breathe deeply. This is it. I have to do it. I have no choice. It’s not much of a chance but it’s our only hope’. My head filled with clips from old TV shows. I was so stuffed with clichés that I was choking. I could barely breath. I was suffocating in the inevitable fulfillment of my expectations. Then unexpectedly he stepped outside of the script and he spoke in a hushed voice.
‘Now I noticed that your little lady friend has no shoes. That ain’t right for you to leave her with no shoes. So, now don’t say no, I’m going to give you some money to get her something.’
I don’t remember putting the knife away or even walking back to the camp. I do recall trying to explain to him that she had shoes; they were just in her pack. We strolled back into the camp where she sat holding court, warming her still bare feet by the fire. The good old boys that we’d left with her were almost falling over themselves vying to see who could show her more southern hospitality as they plied her with food and drink and stories about their own daughters… ‘Hell, uh pardon, I mean heck my oldest now she must be your age…’
It still fills me with dread and wonder when I realize how close I’d been, how trapped by the images in my head. It still feels me with shame when I admit that this story is true and how that night they gave us our own tent to sleep in. Early the next morning after feeding us a huge breakfast, and filling a bag with some treats for the road they drove us back to the highway where they finally left us only after reassuring themselves that the young lady really did have a pair of shoes in her backpack.
A Puzzling Postscript.
Or, a postscript where I’m left puzzling.
Or, well you get my drift.
After our share of adventures, and misadventures, we made it to Vancouver surprisingly unscathed. Towards the end of that summer we headed back to Toronto. The plan was to go back separately; she wouldn’t travel alone but accompanied by the large dog who had become our loyal companion. We’d meet back up in Toronto and find somewhere to live.
It didn’t work out so smoothly; instead our relationship ended in, what for me at least, was a painful and sad collapse. Though, like the person dying who has one last rally, we did get back together and live happily ever after – or rather, we lived together again for a some months before the final demise of our youthful romance.
Obviously I can’t speak for her but for me, as a heartbroken teenager, it was an unprecedentedly anguished moment. All that subjective angst was played out against a much larger series of events full of their own drama (police, drug dealers, mid-night raids, and young people punished with ridiculously brutal jail sentences, etc). For me as for so many of us perhaps since the species’ origins this, if not first then certainly primordial love left scars, and questions, and established patterns that would play out for years. And over the next decade or so, whenever relations would end, or I found myself alone, my thoughts would turn to her, and I was sure that if I only knew how I’d abandon whatever I was doing for the chance of finding her. Of course even as a young man dreaming of a relationship that might be or never was, I knew that I loved a phantasm. I was in love – not with a girl who no longer existed but a being who lived deep in my imagination: Lilith, She, the elusive figure whom I glimpsed in the eyes of every woman who I was drawn to.
I’m now 60 years old; I was 35 when I started writing this anecdote. A year or two before my 60th I had the opportunity to talk to my childhood flame, the allegedly shoeless girl of our tale. Except for a few emails and a brief phone call to set up our dinner we hadn’t seen or spoken to each other for close to 4 decades. It was, for me anyway, a wonderful and strange encounter. I am left with the impression that it wasn’t so interesting for her, maybe even unpleasant, certainly uncomfortable – all my fault I’m afraid.
In what follows I will make every effort to be honest with you and with myself, but in the end all I can say is this is how I saw it. If the anecdotes related so far haven’t underscored the need for that disclaimer I think this one does, and this short postscript can only drive that point home – as if it needed to be insisted on any more emphatically.
The last I’d heard (many years earlier) was that she was living on the other side of the country – somewhere in British Columbia. In an earlier age that almost certainly would have been an impediment to locating her but thanks to the wonders of the Internet, not so much. I was going to be in Vancouver for a narration recording and hey, what the hell, it took a few minutes to find her and a day or two before I heard back. It was great. I had reason to believe that like a few other characters in my past she might not remember me in the most kindly light. It seemed I was wrong and she felt much as I did, full of fond memories of an early love and curious about what had become of that person who had been little more than a child when we last met (in fact we both had children quite a bit older than we would have been at that point).
From the moment we met to go out for our re-encounter over dinner I found the situation almost overwhelming. Here we were again, but not 16 instead almost 60! She looked like her! Except older. I must have seemed the same. She seemed as weirded-out as I felt. She said something like: “you look like you”. Her laugh somehow uttered at the same time as she spoke seemed incredibly familiar. And so it continued through the evening: familiar, strange, and overwhelmingly surreal. I think all evening I must have repeatedly, and inanely blurted out things like “how much fun”, “how strange”, “how weird it is” to be here with her. And it was, at least for me; I think for both of us, but perhaps not in the same way.
We made our way to a vegetarian restaurant that she knew of (I’m the vegetarian she was being a good host). She expressed surprise that I could drive – it was a skill I’d picked up relatively late in life. When we were young she did the driving. For reasons unclear to me I was somehow chuffed that she remembered this particular detail. I was soon to discover that there were – what struck me as – much bigger things that she didn’t seem to recall at all.
The difference in our experience of that evening perhaps paralleled the difference in our memories of the past. That divergence was so marked that at some point it actually crossed my mind that this isn’t really her; she’s sent in a ringer, a pinch hitter, someone to take her place. Maybe this is really her sister? They had never looked alike but it seemed to me that they had shared some family resemblance that perhaps had been made more evident over time. Perhaps she had briefed this person on many things out of our mutual past, but of course had been forced to leave out many things. Perhaps, it’s just that our memories are so different because what mattered to us is, and was, so different. Even while we lived through “the same” events, we were paying attention to different things, constructing different realities, distinct memories, diverging landscapes.
I know that throughout these anecdotes I keep interjecting things like: “it seemed to me”, but I think you understand my insistence on this caveat; if not these anecdotes haven’t served at all. So I’ll try and resist the temptation to continue qualifying the nature of my memories or perceptions ad nauseam. In any case it suddenly felt like a shadow fell over our dinner and things became uncomfortable as the conversation turned to what we knew about mutual friends from that distant time. Our respective siblings, Susan and Shush and Shain, Anne of the Blanket, Abdul and John and… Don? He’s dead, I said. OD’d on junk I think. Maybe not surprisingly, things suddenly went off the rails.
Much later I was puzzled by this announcement. Why did I think he was dead, or that the cause was a drug overdose? I hadn’t seen Don in many years. Where had I heard he died? Why from an overdose? Who would have told me that? Why would I have believed them? Was it just something I dreamt? I didn’t know the answer to any of these questions; but I felt terrible that I might be spreading such unpleasant rumors, especially about a friend of my youth who had meant so much to me. Oh well, if he finds out about this I suspect it will please him greatly. But these reflections didn’t happen until later. At the moment I was perhaps more focused on memories infused with the taste of obsession. As a kid I was saved from stalking her across the country by the remnants of sanity and a healthy dose of laziness.
But the two things were most surprising to me in all of this; they were two things that she didn’t remember. On one hand, she didn’t recall anything about Mad John but delving into that would takes us to another, very different tale; one I hope to tell before too long. The other was that, she didn’t remember anything about the anecdote I just shared with you how close I came to murdering someone. I don’t know if it showed, but I actually felt faint when I realized she had no idea what I was talking about.
We had gotten lots of rides from lots of people, and probing revealed that she perhaps had a vague memory of these nice good ol’ boys gave us a ride, treated us to dinner, shared there camp, with us and sent us on our way well provisioned. Of course, it really made sense; we’d never discussed what happened. I thought that like me she would have, quite rightly I feel, seen these drunken Klansmen as a real and imminent threat. But she never came for that stroll into the dark woods. Back at the camp they’d treated her with kid gloves (would y’all like a cup of coffee little lady?) so how would she have known? When I got back to camp, everything was fine. I couldn’t tell her what had happened since I certainly didn’t want them to over hear that conversation. The same the next day – when we woke, and by the time we were back on the road we were absorbed in the adventures of that new day.
I’d struggled with the realization in my paranoia I’d almost killed someone but I had never questioned until this moment that it wasn’t “reasonable” paranoia. It seemed obvious and unquestionable to me that it was at least the kind of interpretation of events that any young person at the time would have shared. Was this entire tale even more of a delusion than I had ever realized? Certainly, I was paranoid but was she simply a young naïf, foolishly unaware of the dangers that had surrounded us? How could she not have been scared with what looked like inevitable rape and death?
The excess of our youth, and the death of old friends were, unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), not the only stupid thing I blurted out at that dinner. Among other delicacies, I tried to explain that, just as one might fear delusions, one could love them, and how, in the years following our teenage romance, I knew that I loved, and suffered for a figment of my imagination. I was still in love with a person who no longer existed or who still lived but in the depths of living memory and who continued to shape who I was. That realization that I could be so enthralled with, so moved, not to say so totally altered by a “mere” figment of my imagination changed my understanding of myself and my fellow human beings. It left me more grateful and in some odd way in love with all of you who led me to that place between the worlds – that place that linked internal and external landscapes.
Our early loves, hates, and friendships were felt with a ferocity and passion shared only by the very naïve, very young, or very lucky. But these youthful versions of ourselves don’t disappear; they are still there alive and kicking in our individual and collective memories. The affection and connection we feel for each other is not less for being totally irrational – maybe on the contrary.
I’m afraid that my attempted explanation may have resulted in some uncomfortable confusion.
Perhaps my feelings would have been better expressed through the words of the guided experience of Nostalgia. It’s one of those deceptively simple guided meditations that Silo made available to us:
The colored lights pulse to the rhythm of the music as I stand face-to-face with the one who was my greatest love. We dance slowly, and each flash of the lights reveals some detail of my love’s face or body.
What went wrong between us? Perhaps it was money.
Perhaps it was those other relationships.
Perhaps it was having different goals.
Perhaps it was destiny, or something impossible to grasp then.
Again I dance slowly, but now with another great love. Each flash of the lights reveals some detail of my love’s face or body.
What went wrong between us? Perhaps it was money.
Perhaps it was those other relationships.
Perhaps it was having different goals.
Perhaps it was destiny, or something impossible to grasp then.
I forgive you and I forgive myself, for if we dance and the world dances around us, what can we do with those rock-solid promises that turned out to be butterflies of changing colors?
I rescue what is good and beautiful from my yesterdays with you.
And from my yesterdays with you, also.
And from my yesterdays with all of you who have dazzled my eyes.
Ah—the pain, the suspicion, the parting, and then the wounded pride and endless sadness—these are the excuses. But how small they seem beside those beguiling eyes.
Because the great wrongs I remember are errors made in dancing, and not the dance itself.
I’m thankful to you for your tender smile.
And I’m thankful to you for your softly whispered words.
And to all of you, I’m thankful for the hope of an everlasting love.
At peace with yesterday, my heart is open to the memories of those beautiful moments.