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... :)