Saturday, October 9, 2010
Paul: "No Conventional Phrase"
This may be the oddest grief I've ever felt. Years ago I had to necessarily suspend feelings for this person, although his deeply sentimental streak was one of the traits where we had most kinship. We were not good for each other.
His early death was inevitable; I knew this not long after I first met him twenty-two years ago. But I carried a persistent denial - it made the relationship that we had possible - that his body would be as big and unique as his personality and he would beat the devil.
He died in December but I found out only this week. It's been a week of heart-filling beauty - limpid blue skies, trees on fire. A week to be grateful for life. Today I wrote for hours -- Randy took the girls costume hunting -- then biked, hard, down the Green Bay trail, trying to get out of my head. I walked the bike down the sandy slope to the Wilmette beach below Plaza de Lago, then left it to run to the water. After an icy bite, the little waves were cool and good on my legs. Kids in swimsuits, moms in beach chairs. The horizon was hazy; closer in, white sailboats and sailboards dotted the brilliant surface.
I needed to get lost in this beauty. "He's not dead," I told myself this week, because the memories that flooded in were so vivid. I could hear his voice. "I remember it like yesterday," said my friend Dianne. Yeah. But it wasn't yesterday, thank God, and yes, he is gone.
I left my shoes at the water's edge and ran to Gilson beach through the shallows. Waved to our neighbor at his sailboat. Pulled off my sweaty shirt and shorts and walked into the water. July and August had colder water than this. Kept walking, kept breathing through the chill until the water hit my chin and I turned back toward the shore. The cottonwoods have turned pale gold. I sobbed once, twice, three times, - this brilliant life, this lovely, lovely life, an abundance of riches, no more for him. I took a breath, ducked under the surface and emerged. Moved out of the heavy water back to shore.
There were tears enough when we were together. More than enough.
How do you talk about your first lover? How do you forgive him? How do you forgive yourself?
He was a charming scoundrel, a rabbit trickster, a gambler and a con man. He was a sentimental sap and a brilliant writer, an inspired teacher, a comedian, an artist tortured and capable of torture. If what sets us apart from the animals is knowledge of our own deaths, his human burden was unfairly, onerously heavy - he knew all too well the early outcome. He carried the disease not only in his genes, and in his lungs and gut, but on his very skin. Cystic fibrosis obstructs the cells' proper absorption of salt, leaving a salty rime that a mother can taste on her baby's skin, that a lover can taste.
We were together in Iowa, when I was barely earning my master's in film studies and he was a member of the Writer's Workshop. We were together, and then we weren't, then we were again. Then I left him for my friend Greg in the English program, then I cheated on Greg with him and left Greg to return to him.
He bought a dog and we drove with her to his parents' summer house in Manchester-on-the-Sea, north of Boston. He wrote; I waitressed and tried to find production work. After a year, his parents leased the house to a paying tenant and Paul and I had a terrible fight. I left him for two days. He pleaded until, exhausted, I took him back and we moved to a house in Lexington, Massachusetts with his depressed but sexy friend, with whom Paul could not believe I did not cheat. I left him. I got a job in Chicago. He came to Chicago. We were together somewhat; I left to date a man I worked with. And then cheated on the man. With Paul. I left the man I worked with, not for Paul, but because I shouldn't have been with him in the first place.
The eventual end, after four on and off years, spiraled down to dust and nothing amid the debris of quick and angry sex ("I'm a monster," he said the last time, with remorse and guilt, then got up and left), infuriating phone calls that left me pounding the phone with the receiver, revelations of betrayals so far in the past that they almost didn't hurt, and amnesia to all that had been good between us.
If at the beginning of all this lying and cheating and sex, I learned that he had a fatal and incurable disease, and yet continued the lying and cheating and sex, does that make me inhumanly cruel or could it please maybe mean that I looked beyond his disease and dared to grapple with the heart of a real and brilliant and terribly complicated man who happened to be ill and yet refused to be defined by it?
Could I have been a girl in her stupid twenties who had a huge hole in her heart and in her family and whose neediness was confirmed and partly satisfied by the intensity of his persistent desire and sometime love? Could we have been a match, even if a bad and destructive one, like magnets drawn by the other's weaknesses and absences?
Could the prescribed steroids he took to remediate his symptoms, and the self-prescribed drinking and tobacco he took to remediate the stuff in his head have exacerbated the rages, the irrational jealousy, the self-destructiveness and the search for temporary oblivion in me and all the other women? Yes, of course.
The last years, the Chicago years, he taught me the Cyrillic alphabet and the ever useful word "Schadenfruede." He introduced me to my beloved Richard Yates and Ivan Turgenev. We laughed at their black and beautiful work, and at the unrelenting sorrows of Young Werther. We recited lines from Dr. Zhivago back and forth in bad British accents: "The walls of his heart were like paper!" "I don't want to believe it if it isn't true!" "They shot the Czar! And all his family!" I called him Pavel when things were good. He wrote my boss a nasty letter about me when things were bad.
The last time we spoke, I had been content, safe, good and happy with Randy for years. I'd gone back to school, jumped with gusto into teaching full-time. He called to tell me he had to put down Lady, the chocolate lab we both loved. I took the phone into the bathroom; the former bank building where Randy and I lived had no reception in the basement and I didn't want to talk in front of Randy. I had nothing to hide from him -- I would share the entire conversation later, but this moment needed to be private. Paul and I wept together as he told me how he held her as she received the injection and as she died. We had loved her; she was funny and good and innocent. We shared this moment of remembering her. I thanked him for calling to tell me and said good-bye.
I have ten thousand regrets, but the only really important one is that I wish I could have been kinder.
He loved to recite the sixth stanza of Yeats's "Under Ben Bulben" - a poem where the poet speaks of himself and his own death in third person. He always recited the words in a rushed, joyous gallop that irked me because I couldn't understand what he said. He laughed at his own drama as he intoned the last lines.
Under bare Ben Bulben's head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!