Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Daybreak (at the Bottom of a Lake)

Interstate miles evaporated behind me as the ghostly glow of Raleigh's inner belt line approached in the distance. The house I had moved into three months earlier was on the east side of town, so I would normally wait five more exits before leaving the highway. But tonight was different. I was making a stop in the northwest suburbs, for reasons that wouldn't come clear until later in the trip. My tight grip on the steering wheel began to exert a numbing effect on my fingers as vague, ill-formed thoughts bounced around my brain like numbered balls in a lottery machine. I couldn't help but feel that the evening's outcome would be every bit as random, although an unreasoned surge of optimism had spurred me on since leaving Barnes & Noble. I now saw the book and my brief vision in the parking lot as harbingers; indications that change was near. This couldn't simply be a chance aligning of the stars. Fate was calling, and I was to be its envoy.

In retrospect, it was completely irrational. Karen's obstinacy was a matter of pride, and hoping to change her decision on any matter was like betting on a crippled race horse: pointless and needlessly painful. But at some point, I had decided that her inconsistency and contradictory behavior were an encrypted code of sorts. Maybe she was trying to tell me something that was too difficult to verbalize. Perhaps Karen's rigid will was bending under the weight of her emotions, but her certitude prohibited surrender.

Whatever the case. I had grown tired of waiting.

The drive was initially nerve-wracking, as the evening's possibilities loomed like faded spectres on an obscure landscape. But as the minutes dissipated, a sense of calm gradually worked its way through my veins. The opening strains of Trevor Rabin's "Can't Look Away" swelled through my car speakers as the evening's plan approached realization. I had already acknowledged that it was underhanded and a bit cagey, not to mention precarious. I had seen a side of Karen that was clingy and vulnerable, but she wasn't stupid. She possessed an aptitude for gauging people's intentions that bordered on the paranormal. Thus, I was going in at a disadvantage.

But against hope, I somehow maintained a cool optimism. I could still prevent Karen from making another costly decision, that being a full divorce. She had already sounded the knell, but I wouldn't acknowledge its finality. I continued to believe that this was all a reaction to the pain of feeling abandoned and betrayed. I certainly had my quirks, and some had damaged the marriage considerably. When verbal threats failed to register, Karen felt she had to up the ante. It seemed a reasonable conclusion, and I moved forward under that assumption.

As traffic slowed to a halt, I looked over to the passenger seat and began studying the cover of that crucial tome: 'Zoya's Story: An Afghan Woman's Struggle for Freedom'. Over the preceding months, I had occasionally bought books that appealed to Karen's interests. Since any attempt to call or e-mail her would likely be thwarted, I had resorted to simply leaving them in our mailbox. Admittedly, it was a peace offering of sorts; just another barren effort to ensure that the slender, tenuous threads between us would hold out for another day or two.

But in the end, the books were a prop. I was trying (in vain) to let Karen know that I was thinking about her. I wanted to acknowledge her pain and show her that I still cared. Where words had fallen flat, action would surely prevail. The entire gesture was obviously flawed and ill-conceived, but I thought restoring our marriage was simply a matter of persistence. She could only resist for so long until I wore her down, although I would never admit that my reasoning was so dense and simple-minded. More astute methods had fallen flat, and I was determined to make this attempt succeed.

Traffic gradually resumed its normal pace as I began scanning signs for the appropriate exit. Number "293-A" had a special significance, as I clearly remembered driving past it on our first date. We had eaten dinner at a Mexican cafe just off UNC's campus, and my ego and hormones had distracted me from anything but Karen's aesthetic perfection. She sat in the passenger seat, musing about some topic I had lost track of thirty minutes ago. I was simply in disbelief that someone who resembled a younger Tina Fey had started the evening by taking my hand and telling me that I was more handsome than my picture implied.

I had expected Karen to be attractive, but was flabbergasted when she initially approached me outside the restaurant. I had seen a rather stunning brunette park her Saturn a few moments earlier, and noted some similarities in her shoulder-length hair and wire-rim glasses. But I figured she had to be meeting with some other guy. This couldn't be the same woman who accepted my invitation for a date with such enthusiasm. That just wasn't in the cards.

But then she exited her car and assumed a brisk pace toward me as her high-heeled boots clicked excitedly on the pavement.


I tried to say something, but my vocal chords froze.

"I'm so sorry I'm late. My ex waited until 5 to get the kids, so I literally had to fly out the door".

My throat finally opened and attempted a meaningful exchange.

"Oh, uh...that's totally okay. I didn't think you would stand me up."

She laughed, and we embraced. Her lightly perfumed neck gave off a bewitching scent that made my heart pound like Buddy Rich on his best night. I would have been content to just hold her for that first hour, but there was conversation to be had and a meal to be eaten.

Throughout the evening, Karen never failed to intrigue me. Her stories, her witty anecdotes...even watching her spread salsa on a tortilla had me transfixed. At the date's conclusion, I looked at myself in the rear view mirror and acknowledged the inevitable. I was in love, and there was no turning back. One day, I would make Karen my wife. No matter what it took.

I eased onto the exit ramp as Cary Parkway unfolded in front of me. This part of the trip would take a mere ten minutes, so I took a quick inventory and conceived a plan for my approach. As noted, I usually left the books in our mailbox. What would distinguish this effort was the method of delivery. I would give Karen the book in person, thereby forcing her to acknowledge me. She would resent me for it, but it would likely become an opportunity for dialogue. I would apologize and ask if we could talk for a moment. She would acquiesce (albeit grudgingly) and lead me to the living room couch. As the conversation progressed, she would finally see what she was leaving behind: a husband who adored her. One who would stop at nothing to have her back. One who loved her in ways he had never loved another.

Time got away from me and I almost missed the turn onto Kildaire Farm. I thought of stopping off at a gas station to pick up some mouthwash and aftershave, but discarded the idea as a waste of time. I was focused on the task at hand, and couldn't tolerate distractions. It would only be a quarter of a mile before I hit Helmsdale Drive, and I had yet to sufficiently prepare. Simply put, this had to played off in a way that wouldn't reveal my motives. I had to give the appearance of acceptance, as though I knew our marriage was over and really just needed to talk. Otherwise, she would never open the door.

Of course, I had neglected to address Karen's keen perception, which would surely call me out like a sniper waving a flood light. However, I had convinced myself that she would forgo the usual scrutiny in favor of trust and faith. In the end, I still thought she wanted our marriage as much as I did. She simply refused to acknowledge it. She didn't think of herself as someone who was weak and co-dependent, and wanted to avoid giving that impression to me or anyone else. She had been walked on before. There wouldn't be a second time.

I came upon our two-level house and found the driveway empty. Karen was parked in the garage, my headlights roving over her green Mazda as I pulled closer and came to a halt. After cutting the engine and grabbing the book, I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths. I was feeling more confident now, but for reasons I still can't justify. Amidst all of this plotting and planning, the elements of clarity and logic had somehow eluded me. And sadly, I was in too deep to realize it.

I stepped out of the car and proceeded toward the house. The walk to the front door took longer than usual, as I was taking slow, measured steps to avoid looking stressed or harried. After ascending the brick steps that led to our porch, I noticed that the bedroom light was on. The muffled drone of a newscast played in the background, which meant Karen had finished her evening clean-up ritual and was laying in bed.

I took one more deep breath, then reached forward and rang the bell.

The passing seconds felt like hours. I didn't hear her fumbling with the dead bolt, or even coming down the steps. It was odd, as the doorbell was certainly loud enough to be heard from upstairs.

I reached up and rang the bell a second time.

Again, no response.

I opened the screen door and knocked lightly.


I began rapping a little harder, hoping the dog wouldn't start barking and awaken the kids. Still no answer. But as I started to turn in defeat, a noise cut through the silence and stopped me dead in my tracks. The stairs were creaking as Karen's bare feet pattered against them. I spun around and took a deep breath as the dead bolt retracted and the door swung open.

Considering the time, I was surprised to see Karen standing there in a form-fitting red shirt and dress slacks. It looked as though she had just returned from a party, dressed in a way that was guaranteed to attract attention. I looked up at her and smiled.

"Hi. Can I talk to you for a minute?"

I certainly didn't expect her to throw her arms around me, but Karen's response was one I hadn't anticipated. She seemed...nervous.

"Um...can't we do this d-during d-daylight hours?"

Since childhood, Karen had battled a distinctive speech impediment that tended to worsen under strain. She stammered, and our first several phone conversations were difficult as a result. Certain letters and syllables gave her more trouble than others, and I didn't know if I should try finishing her sentences for her or just shut up and let the stuttering run its course. Things got smoother once she explained the problem, and I came to embrace it as a unique facet of her persona. But tonight, it was to reveal something far more insidious.

"Well...I guess so, but why can't we talk tonight?"

"B-because this isn't fair."

Obviously, something wasn't right. While normally meticulous about her appearance, her hair and make-up seemed disheveled and haphazardly applied. A tiny clump of eyeliner hung from one of her lashes, and her lipstick was obviously smeared.

"Is everything okay?"

She went silent for a few awkward seconds before answering.

"Yes. B-but this isn't fair. You can't just c-come to the house without at least c-calling first."

Now I was getting suspicious. She was hiding something, and doing a poor job of it.

"You look scared. I'm not a threat to you. I just came to talk and give you something."

As I finished my sentence, I saw a man's tennis shoe on the stairs behind her. Tilting my head a little up and to the right, I was astonished to meet the eyes of an older man. Ashen-haired and roughly ten years our senior, he seemed a little dressed-down for the occasion. A gray sweatshirt clung to his muscular frame and faded jeans hung from his waist. A neatly trimmed mustache accented his upper lip, which held a contemptuous sneer.

I felt a leaden hammer plow through my stomach. My head spun madly as I staggered backward and almost fell off the porch. Fighting back tears of rage, I found the strength to look up and challenge her.

"How could you do this to me? We're still married, for fuck's sake."

"You need to leave now. This isn't fair."

Her calm exterior was clearly masking panic. I could have exploited it, but a stark vulnerability came over me and I began to plead.

"This couldn't be happening. Please tell me this isn't happening, Karen. It's all a big misunderstanding, right? Please?"

It was pathetic. I felt completely helpless as pangs of rejection and betrayal shot through my brain. A wave of nausea came over me and I fancied the idea of vomiting all over her freshly-cleaned carpet. But there was no point. It was over, and nothing I could do would change it.

After giving myself a second to muster an ounce of composure, I reached forward and handed her the book.


She started to thank me as I turned around and walked to the car. I hastily turned my key in the ignition and threw it into reverse. Rubber squealed against asphalt as I flew out of the driveway and onto the street. I turned left and made it to the next block before erupting into sobs of hatred, pain, and anger. I started thinking back to those last few moments on the porch, and regretted not charging into the house and beating that thieving son of a bitch into unconsciousness. The legal ramifications were far from my mind, and I was too distraught to entertain reason.

But even worse, Karen had won again. I was the one leaving under a storm cloud of defeat and humiliation. For her, nothing had changed...and I hated her for it.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Twilight of the Idles

I spent much of Saturday and Sunday trying to focus on the week ahead of me. I was scheduled for a business trip to Oklahoma City on Monday morning, and found some solace in preparing for the change in climate. Despite its relative latitude, the forecast was calling for temperatures in the upper 40s for most of the week. The coat that Karen had given me last Winter proved to be hot and cumbersome in anything less that blizzard conditions, so I set out to find something lighter.

It was late Sunday afternoon before I found a jacket that suited me. There were few things I resented more than packing into the late hours of the evening, so I hastily made my purchase and stepped outside the mall into a heavy drizzle. I had taken about three steps toward the parking lot when a little red raincoat jumped out of nowhere, landing both of his feet in a puddle directly to my right. I tried stepping back, but it was too late. A thin geyser of rainwater shot up to ankle-height before descending onto the cuff of my pants. As I looked down in bewilderment, a toddler's wondrous smile emerged from underneath the red hood.

For a precious second, his wide blue eyes locked onto mine. Bright images of rainy Spring mornings flew by at a dizzying pace. Three children of different ages stood in our driveway, jumping into puddles and splashing each other as joyous shouts echoed down the street. We sat on the porch, laughing and taking pictures as the youngest tried to generate a splash big enough to soak both of his sisters at once. I put my arm around her shoulders and turned to study her expression. It spoke of a rare contentment; one which I hoped was a sign of renewal...

"Joshua! Shame on you!"

Shaken from my diversion, I looked up to see a young mother pull her child from the point of impact. She seemed both embarrassed and surprised by his adept puddle-jumping skills.

"Sir, I am so sorry."

I didn't mean to be flippant, but couldn't stop myself from laughing.

"It's okay. Don't worry about it."

"But the hems of your pants...they're soaked!"

"Really, it's not a problem."

"Nonsense. Let me get you a towel from the car."

There was an amusing quaintness in her speech and mannerisms that seemed charming and anachronistic. I followed her back through the parking lot as Joshua (whose hand was now tightly secured to avoid another incident) persisted in trying to hit every puddle along the way. For the first time in several weeks, I felt myself smile.

We soon arrived at a blue SUV, which was promptly unlocked and stripped of a thin white towel.

"I keep them for when we travel with the dogs, but don't worry. This one hasn't been used."

Humored by her reassurance, I graciously accepted the towel.

"Thanks for this. How should I return it?"

She seemed amused by my query.

"It's a beach towel. Keep it, throw it doesn't matter."

I thanked her again and headed toward Barnes & Noble, which housed the nearest restroom. Along the way, I thought of Joshua and his mother, envying the apparent normalcy of their lives. Even during the best of times, my life with Karen was never typical or easy. She often seemed undecided about the merits of a "traditional" marriage over a contemporary one, but couldn't settle on a balance between the two. She simultaneously embraced the role of staunch feminist alongside a more subdued identity; a modern day "damsel in distress" of sorts. Our first conversation was over the phone, and I remember being intrigued by her confidence. I didn't understand why someone who was so independent would need a husband in the first place. Maybe a few sporadic relationships here and there, but certainly not a marriage.

Over time, I began to sense a paradox. It took awhile for the facts to align, but Karen's insecurities gradually came clear as the manifestation of two opposing personalities: the downtrodden single mother with a strong inferiority complex, and the self-assured intellectual with a sharp demeanor that bled arrogance. As we stumbled through the early stages of our relationship, I remember being caught off guard by her ability to cycle rapidly from one extreme to the other. Over the course of many conversations, she would regal me with stories of her Southern Baptist upbringing, and how it ostensibly promoted her culture and character. But invariably, a particular question or comment would prompt recollections of some long-forgotten trauma, thereby derailing the conversation into a shallow abyss of indignation and self-pity. The ensuing moments appeared cathartic, as she would seemingly relive each transgression with a level of detail that was eerily vivid. In hindsight, the red strobe lights flickering through my head should have been enough to produce a migraine. But at some point, I had subconsciously learned to ignore them.         

By the time of my arrival at Barnes & Noble, I was considerably aware of the cold dampness permeating my socks. After finding a bathroom and drying myself off, I checked my watch and saw that it was almost five o'clock. My new jacket was supposedly water-proof, so I hurriedly tossed the white towel into my bag and began traversing the stock green carpet toward the door. After successfully navigating around hordes of casual browsers and strolling families, I found myself within several strides of the exit. I could finally see an end to the weekend's trial when something appeared in my periphery, calling out like a flock of sirens through a dismal fog. 

I came to a dead halt and turned to my left. The "new titles" rack stood in front of me, but only one of its twenty-odd selections had grabbed my attention. I anxiously plucked a non-descript paperback from the shelf, and began reading from the back of its pale brown jacket. 

It appeared that fate had finally thrown me a bone.        

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Ghost of a Chance

Note: My original intention was to post the following narrative as a single blog entry. The realities of time and certain personal limitations have made it necessary for me to divide the story into separate parts. I am posting the first piece now, and will have the second posted shortly.

In an unexpected turn of events, this piece has taken on a life of its own. What began as a mere 550-word account of my troubled past has rapidly developed into a trilogy. At present, the story seems to be dictating my thoughts and effort, not the other way around.

I appreciate everyone's patience on this matter. I am flattered by the encourging e-mails that have come my way since posting the first entry, and sincerely hope everyone will find the ensuing text worthwhile.

It is said that there are three sides to every story: the teller's side, the opposing side, and the truth. The following account will likely seem partial or biased, but this is necessarily so. The details are culled from my subjective experience of a tumultuous event that was life-changing, for better or worse. I can't possibly speak for the other (opposing) parties, nor can I give a third-person account of what "really" happened.

With that in mind, please note that certain names have been changed to protect the guilty.

In contrast to previous months, October of 2007 seemed fairly innocuous. Karen and I had been legally separated since July, and I was trying (in vain) to interpret her ongoing litany of mixed messages and vague implications. Despite the resolute tone that marked every phone call, her disposition often changed the moment we were in close proximity. The resentment and general acrimony would dissipate, and we would find ourselves communicating again. Over the phone, Karen repeatedly assured me that our marriage was a dead issue. She wouldn't deny having delivered the coup-de-grace, but felt no responsibility for its dissolution. She refused my pleas for counseling or other forms of reconciliation because she "couldn't" be married to me; as if she didn't have a choice in the matter because some cosmic presence was pushing her away.

In person, I would see a dramatically different side of Karen's complex persona. She never failed to greet me with a tight embrace, and the level of affection would increase if we happened to be alone. Naturally, this was rather confusing and only compounded the emotional turmoil that characterized those early months of separation. I believed that through these one-on-one encounters, she was giving me a reason to hold on. Maybe she was confused about her own feelings and just needed time to sort them out. Surely a few months alone would give her enough perspective to realize that divorce was a rather extreme proposition. I refused to believe that she really wanted it; no more than I did, at least.

As the months passed, I began to see a side of Karen that was starkly unfamiliar. While always a bit dramatic, her personality took on a belligerent quality that seemed puerile and vindictive. One of her more insidious methods involved disregarding my attempts to contact her. I had witnessed Karen's tendency to brush off friends and family members who violated her abstract code of fairness or principle, but never imagined myself on the receiving end. Even carrying out the simplest of tasks (e.g. picking up personal effects from the house) became a debacle that would go on for several days. Typically, the sequence of events would begin with my initial phone call, which would be ignored.

Every time.

Attempts to contact her by e-mail would be similarly deflected. I wanted to believe that she was just overwhelmed by work-related stress or the difficulties of managing a household by herself. However, there was a convenient irony in Karen's tendency to leave multiple voice messages (usually 45 minutes apart) whenever she needed me to sign a check or remove my name from a joint account. I eventually came to realize that she saw very little of the world outside her own suffering and dissatisfaction, and truly felt entitled to some form of universal restitution.

It was 9:00 pm on a Friday when I received a rather unexpected (not to mention uncharacteristic) call from Karen. As promised, she had put our house on the market and was in the process of painting and having some electrical work done. She didn't want my help with any part of the process, and was quick to let me know that several friends and co-workers were lending a hand. Naturally, I had a few questions about how she planned to carry out such an ambitious plan without my assistance.

"So someone is taking care of the electrical work?"


"I thought we were hiring an electrician for that."

"Well...we don't have to."

"One of your co-workers is an electrician?"

"Um, no."

"So who is doing the work?"

A brief pause ensued.

"His, uh...his name is Eric. He's an electrician."

I was hearing Karen's tone gradually decline from indignant confidence to an awkward stammer. Out of necessity, I braced myself before proceeding with the next question.

"Is there something going on there?"

Anticipating another pregnant pause, I was taken back by an irritating giggle.

"Please! He's mama's age!"

I marveled at how the southern charm that once enamored me had become little more than a blank affectation. She went on to explain that Eric had been introduced to her by a co-worker. Given that she was struggling financially (as tends to happen when one eliminates a spouse's income from the monthly ledger), he was willing to donate his time and talent. She considered him a friend and supporter. In other words, he provided blind validation for those times when she needed to excoriate me.

"But there is something I should tell you."

Once again, I felt my stomach wind into a spring.

"I asked Eric to go through the house yesterday and remove all the knives."

A cyclonic blur of emotions came over me. She continued talking, but I couldn't focus beyond the images flashing in front of me. I heard running water and saw pink rivulets trailing from the bathtub to the white tile floor. I saw the steely glint of a paring knife on the kitchen counter and static puddles of crimson against a linoleum canvas. I heard her muffled gasps as I resignedly blotted the angry red gashes across her thighs with Q-tips and antiseptic solution.

"God, I...I'm really sorry to hear that. Are you okay?"

"I am now."

"It sure doesn't sound like it. You should probably see someone."

"I saw Dr. Gibson the other day. He gave me an antidepressant and a sedative. I'll be fine."

True to form, Karen had spent fifteen minutes with our family doctor and believed she was cured.

"You'll need more than that. Take it from someone who knows."

I was referring to my own penchant for self-destruction, which had a tendency to surface in turbulent times. Despite the difference in method (she turned to a knife, I turned to a bottle), I had always seen parallels in our respective coping mechanisms. But Karen would never acknowledge any such likeness, preferring to operate under the pretense that she was healthy and I was not.

With a petulant huff of exasperation, she proceeded.

"I don't know if you've noticed, but I'm a little busy at the moment. I'm having to sell a house by myself, you know."

I was all too familiar with this line of reasoning. She had abruptly kicked me out of our home and refused my help at every turn. Just the same, it was my fault that she couldn't keep the house and stood on the verge of bankruptcy. She "had" to do everything by herself because she "couldn't" accept my assistance. She had not made a choice in the matter, because there was no other option. Therefore, Karen bore no responsibility for the stress that had seriously diminished her quality of life.

Slighted by her insinuation, I tried (churlishly, I might add) to reason with her.

"And whose choice was that?"

A deafening pause ensued.

"You arrogant fucking prick."

Each word met my ears about a second apart, every syllable bursting with menace. I was admittedly shaken, but felt guilty for steering the conversation into such parlous territory. Taking a deep breath, I attempted to explain myself.

"I've tried to help you, but every time I reach out you push me away. I've given you everything you've asked for, and--"

"I'm done talking to you."

With a sharp click of the handset, the discussion had ended.

On Karen's terms.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A Subtle Induction

Many years ago, I found it therapeutic to clear my mental space by conducting lengthy dialogs with a friend who lived in Siberia. He wasn't there due to an archaic system of punishment or exile; he was a true, dyed-in-the-wool Siberian. Despite his relative youth, Andrey (or "Andy", as he preferred) had a keen perspective on life that seemed ironic in its optimism. Despite living in a country that had gradually progressed toward Westernization (if "progressed" is even the correct term), he never failed to startle me with tales of a nation in disarray. 

At the time, my life's greatest obstacles were parenthood, financial anxiety, and terminal boredom. Andy's included human rights violations, imminent social chaos, and the looming spectre of economic collapse. Needless to say, every parallel he drew was similarly unbalanced and disproportionate. Over the five years that we stayed in touch, I gained more perspective from this affable young Siberian than any friend who preceded him. We lost contact over the years, but nary a day will pass when I don't think of our many e-mail sessions. We used to refer to them as "mental defecation rituals", and it remains an appropriate metaphor. 

In Andy's absence, I've decided to throw my continually recycling detritus (i.e., thoughts and experiences) onto a computer screen for the perusal of a wider audience. Many (if not all) of the posts will seem pessimistic, cynical, and/or nihilistic, with a touch of misanthropy thrown in for good measure. But keep in mind that this is my venting space, so you're not going to hear much about what is good in my life (which is a lot). Consider yourself warned... :)