Walter Mencken 7 p.m., Dec. 10
After I took the job hauling electrical supplies in a stake-bed truck, Karen and I maintained a silence for almost two weeks. This one felt differently, deeper, I could sense that crumbling again, but it was exponentially more dire than previous splits. Within me, that wounded little boy rose from the dread. Day by day, hour by hour, my mood darkened, a debilitating emotional bleakness overcame me. And when Karen didn’t call as she usually did, to mend it and bring back her love, when more days than ever had passed, I felt as if she really didn’t want to hear from me anymore. My thoughts sank further: I was a loser delivery driver, a deluded amateur hack, a chronic underachiever who didn’t know how to fit into anything, job or family or life, I was doomed. The thought of Karen with someone else nauseated me, but I knew she’d be so relieved to date someone she didn’t have to pay for all the time, someone stable, more mature. And I felt even worse.
It was pathetic in retrospect, but the emotions consuming that younger being were a noxious mix of conscious and subconscious, past and present. They were colliding mid-cortex, in the heart of the mind, in the body of the man and the boy. For the first time since Karen and I had started dating, my pains and maladies from childhood returned. My stomach constantly hurt, and what little food I ate, no matter its type or origin or spice level, it all gave me the cramps and worse. (Needless to say, short of hemorrhoids or a gangrenous buttock, this is a delivery driver’s worst nightmare, always at the mercy of random public restrooms anyway. Better to have something easier to deal with on the road, like bunions or leprosy. As such, and dredging my courier memories, I made a new list of where the best toilets were around town, and I noted where to park the stake-bed truck when I had to run into whichever office building with good facilities I was nearest.)
Now hauling loads of electric supplies on top of my own heavier baggage, my back began to ache severely again, my legs burning with it, and my “allergies” started up out of season. I was hunched and sneezing and fit to be diapered, and the combination (it seemed) finally brought me down, tweaked something in one of my lower discs (or so the symptoms indicated), and I couldn’t move for three days. Nursing my back took up all of my attention. As my brain, I came to understand later, had wanted. Better a thrown-out back than a complete emotional breakdown. Certain injuries, we all know, are more socially acceptable than others. Don’t believe me? Try it sometime. Tell half the people at work that one of your discs is bulging, that your back is wracked with pain; then tell the other half that, in essence, your emotions are bulging and your soul is wracked with pain. The first group of people will be helpful and understanding and bring you cookies and pillows; the other half will be so uncomfortable that they’ll avoid you like they do the cross-eyed security guard with cannibal breath who never stops whistling “My Sharona.” The divided mind knows.
I spent three days laid up. Fortunately they were a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so I didn’t lose too much of my microscopic income. I re-read Salinger’s NINE STORIES (“De Daumier Smith’s Blue Period” becoming my favorite), watched a lot of ESPN, and didn’t write a word of my own. When I was able to walk the fourth day, something had changed, in my mind as well as my back. Karen slid from my thoughts for a few days. It was the first time that had ever really happened since I’d met her. I still hadn’t spoken to her since our last parting, and I didn’t feel the inclination to force it, nor did I feel anxious that I didn’t. We’d done it too many times before maybe, I’m not sure what it was, but some natural instinct set in for a brief spell. All the maladies lifted, “allergies” and stomach trouble along with the tortured spine.
The only thing that interrupted those few days of relative peace were my dreams, which featured Karen and no one else, except other men crawling all over her, and I’d wake up jealous and sad. By breakfast, however, the emotions and most thoughts of her were gone. I was trying, and I might not have made it, but I was trying. Somewhere in that skull I was. In, in, in. Inner, inner, inner, it was all interiors, I was tired inside my peeling Freudskin, sick of it, cabin cough infecting even my notions and urges. It was time to shake it off, peel it off, stand up and get out.
It was time to get a new fix, in other words.
Who would she be?
Fortunately, I had a good idea, or bad, depending on your perspective. And she was conveniently located; I wouldn’t need to venture more than thirty feet from my front door to see her. Within hours of first considering it, I became intensely re-infatuated with our neighbor, Cat, a cute and buxom red-haired gal with a pierced tongue (still a rare sight back then, a fifth of a century ago, gasp) who, with her slightly reformed hippie roommate, Nadia, lived on the first floor and were co-managers of our apartment building. I’d had a small crush on her, more like a slight press, a few years earlier when I’d first met her and we’d made a few seconds of eyes at each other, but nothing ever came of it. Then, lo and behold, there she was handing us our lease to sign on Ward Road.
J had worked with Cat at a movie multi-plex during and just after college, when he must have given me the equivalent of two hundred bucks in free movies. Their cinema employee uniform was a relatively formal affair, with creased black slacks, white dress shirt and red velvet vest. J would go to work with his hair slicked back ridiculously some days, to replicate the Pee Wee Herman look he’d used to great effect two straight Halloweens. The first year he’d dressed as Pee Wee, however J had gotten so drunk that we had to wrestle him to the ground and forcibly separate him from his car keys to keep him from driving. He was screaming curses the entire time, and he hurled inebriated rubbery punches at us from the canvas. I’ve never seen him more hammered.
J was still half-asleep the next day around lunchtime, nursing an Animal House hangover, when we drove to Mission Beach to retrieve his car. He was wearing his movie theatre outfit, had to go to work, and he was about to doze off, his coffee cup set to spill and scald his crotch, when I woke him and warned him. He yawned so wide I thought his jaw was going to dislocate, then he thanked me for not letting him drive home from the Halloween party the previous night.
“I’m just glad I gave you the keys,” he added like an amnesiac.
“GAVE them to us? It took four guys. You were throwing haymakers. We had to tackle you and utilize some sort of choke hold that McAdams learned in high school ROTC.”
“You did? Sorry about that. Damn, I don’t remember a thing. You guys must’ve been pissed. Did you violate me at all when I was passed out?”
“Just a little body art. We all chipped in and had a clarinet tattooed on your Johnson. But it’s beautiful work, so you could hardly call it a violation.”
“No wonder I’m sore. And I really would’ve preferred a flute.”
“Clarinet’s better. Woody Allen plays a clarinet. And if you can ever achieve an erection again after that bender last night, it expands into a bassoon when it grows.”
“Hey doll, you wanna go see my clarinet and then my bassoon?” he pretended to ask an imaginary woman. “I like it, she might think I play in an orchestra. It’s cultured, but still filthy.”
“My thoughts exactly. See you back at home tonight. And roll up your window before you get out.”
Unaware that this decidedly dude dialogue would be digitally transcribed some day (if in a slightly edited version), J rolled up the window and opened the door.
“Thanks again for beating the sh-t outta me last night. I needed it. And come by the theatres before five, I can hit you with a free movie.”
“Is Cat working?”
“I don’t know. But I get her first.”
But I don’t think he did. I’m pretty sure I got that studded tongue on my body first, if he ever did. And that night, when I was jonesing for my fix, J was out with Quinn. I was home alone. And I hated it. Even when not gutsick from fading love, for all my writer’s instincts toward solitude, I’m really in need of a fifty-fifty quality time split. Half solitude, the other half a showering of me with love and affection that borders on a personality cult. (My wife, as you can imagine, while perhaps not a saint – no atheist gal would aspire to be – is still the only winner of my own personal peace prize. Sadly, the honor comes with no cash award or polished medallion, but merely an increased amount of dysfunctional attention seeking from me.)
Yes, I was alone that night, and lonely, and miserable, my cult was down to one member, and I peeked out our despised vertical blinds (does anyone not hate those useless things?) to see the light on downstairs in Cat and Nadia’s apartment. Truthfully, I would’ve tried to sleep with whichever roommate had answered the door, I was that lonely and weak; hell, I might’ve tried to seduce the cleaning woman if they’d had one. Wispy thin and plain-faced Nadia – while a tripper and a fun time with her three-foot bong and crazy stories (“I kid you not, I spent all of 1974 through 1978 on acid in a cabin in the mountains”) – wasn’t as physically attractive to me as Cat, whose hair and tongue and lips and legs and look and everything…I dug it. Even if I knew we would never make it as an actual couple, that I would never want to try.
I. Dug. It.
I heard music from inside their apartment, it sounded like the Waterboys, probably “Medicine Bow,” as I stood outside the front door.
Knock knock knock.
Please let Cat open the door…please let Cat open the door…please let Cat open the door... Then the door opened, along with my eyes.
“Hey you,” Cat beamed back at me.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
An hour later we were on the sofa, an empty bottle of Beringer’s White Zinfandel our only companion (a man will drink a lot of heinous and syrupy things to get touched when he needs to). We started making out, and it’s always so odd to kiss and taste someone new. To feel different little hairs on strange new lips and the unfamiliar shape and feel of a new tongue, much less the surgical steel stud in that tongue (though its effect was overrated). It was awkward from the start, but there was no stopping it. We unbuttoned and unzipped and disrobed, defiling her couch completely, Nadia hopefully gone for a good long time. If not, she was in for quite a sight when she walked in.
I started to kiss my way down to Cat’s southern regions, only to find out she had a problem with that, was uncomfortable with it, in a way that I could sense was more than just “I haven’t taken a shower” or “It’s not my thing,” she’d reacted far too strongly, a genuine fear in the brief moment. So I stopped, headed back north to her blushing face, and we continued our lip servicing. I actually had a condom with me (not that I’d planned anything, oh no), but she wasn’t thrilled by the prospect, said she hated them, that they always ended up coming off inside of her. Hmm. Well, that was unfortunate, and a more than a bit unbelievable (it seemed her love life must have included a significant overrepresentation of undersized members), but I was not going bareback. Karen and I had already had a close call, and there was AIDS, not to mention all the other genital unpleasantries resulting from bodily fluids at play. Cat relented and we put the Trojan to good, if not overly passionate, use. The passion factor was diminished by my constantly nagging guilt. I was a free man, no? Karen and I had broken up, no? The answer to every question about Karen, however, was a resolute “I have no idea, but I think we’re still a couple, at least enough of one to still count, maybe, but I don’t know, it just feels like we still are. Sort of.”
Then I found myself behind Cat, admiring her tiny hips and fair skin, as we did what young lovers do. Then I started thinking about Karen. Then about Cat. Then Karen again. And back and forth, over and over. It was not conducive to good sexual performance, or any kind of genuine connection, and I knew I needed to stop. But how could I stop without offending Cat, without seeming like I wasn’t enjoying it. I didn’t want to insult her or make her feel badly, or be that guy crying to her about how he still loved his girlfriend, egads no. Thinking on my knees, in a fast fit of enlightened self-interest (and I could not have been the first rooster to figure it), I realized that my condom could be used for more than just birth control or protection from STDs: it also gave me the ability to fake it! Since I was behind her, I didn’t have to worry about putting on a goofy and twisted orgasm face, I just had to put some hips into it, grab onto hers, thrust a bit more, give a good moan and groan, and that would be that.
And that it was.
I offered up quite a convincing physical and vocal performance, then I hurried to the bathroom before she could even catch the slightest glimpse of my empty reservoir tip, which would’ve given away my having faked it. In the bathroom and cleaned up, I had that cliché moment of looking at yourself in the mirror and hating what you see. But then I hated that I hated myself. I had no idea what I felt. I was lost. I think I hated mirrors in general at that point. I just wanted to comb my pubic hair, use some of her apricot facial scrub, and leave.
I managed to get out of Cat’s apartment swiftly, as we were both even more awkward in the aftermath and didn’t know quite what to do. We kissed at the door, nothing major, and I was about exit when she grabbed me again and gave me a second kiss, this one like no other woman had given me before. There was a pull to it, hard and desirous, raw and longing. It made me think for the rest of the night. Maybe Cat and I were right for each other, maybe it wasn’t just a random night on her couch. So she had hang-ups about her southern regions, who didn’t? Karen had her hoarding, Cat had her kitten, I had my Greek tragedy. We all had something. I was full of it, though. What I really felt was the dread. The crumbling.
But then I found out, that very night from J, that Cat had a boyfriend who was in the military, away on active duty, and I got very nervous that I would be on the loaded end of a jilted soldier’s weapon. Cat tried to calm me, telling me they had an open relationship, which I tried to believe, but I just couldn’t, or not enough. I was, however, reassured when she informed me that he was on duty aboard a submarine. I remember thinking he couldn’t be very big to be stationed on a sub. I pictured him about Willie Shoemaker size. And I imagined him a closet Unitarian pacifist. But it didn’t work. So I stayed away from Cat for the time being, and I kept alert for any jockey-sized men in naval uniforms visiting the complex.
Who was I kidding anyway? I was no player. I loved Karen, I didn’t want to break up with her for good, I got sick at the genuine thought of it, which this straying had made me consider as never before. The crumbling sound grew louder, I’d helped it along this time, swinging a pick-axe into the foundation. And this crumbling would be unprecedented, because this kind of love was in my life, and the pain would be double, triple, I could feel it approaching. A weight pressed down into my chest, and I knew I’d done something that could forever end Karen and I. I may have thought this longest separation of ours was serious and different, but on second and deeper reflection it was only after I’d been with Cat that I realized what I would be losing, and how much that potential emptiness frightened me. That love, that sweet first time love which always managed to overcome everything for us, it had to work again. I thought of all those hours and days Karen and I had spent together, savoring simple existence, feeding squirrels at Lake Murray, walking on the beach in Del Mar, experiencing the rolling and rocking joy of lust on a train, whispering to each other “I’ll never stop loving you.” But now I’d been a pig and messed it up for good. I’d been my father. And I could never tell her, ever. It would be my one secret Mulligan. Never again.
By the end of the week, with that familiar tone of melancholy loneliness and desire, Karen had called to apologize, but I would barely let her start. I said it was all me, I was at fault, that I was the difficult and arrogant one, that I needed to do more. My guilt about Cat was working overtime. Karen was surprised and encouraged by my attitude, and that night we were back in her bed, in her mess of a bedroom.
“Did you go out with anyone while we were apart?” she asked me.
I paused just long enough to gulp, but managed to spit out my lie with a decent delivery, and she bought it. I felt like dirt. She asked me if I thought we could’ve gone much longer without seeing each other again. I told her no, but the tougher truth remained the same, as it had for a year: of course we could have, and we should have, we were going to eventually, we both knew it. But there we were, emotional junkies getting the fix. Withdrawal is what we feared the most. As I got out of bed to dress and get a drink, my back went out again with a vengeance. Just locked up for no obvious physical reason and wham…I was on the floor. For another stretch of days. It could’ve only been that brain of mine, fighting its ongoing civil war. Pain, pain, pain. No better way to get your attention. It was out to protect me again. From myself.
* * * * * * * *
When J and Quinn announced their engagement, a month after we’d returned from our trip, Karen reacted to the news with a guffaw.
“I think he’d have better luck with the crazy lady on your answering machine,” she sniped. “The one who’s stalking that Sonya woman.”
Karen never forgave Quinn for making fun of her 1970’s cruising music on that road trip to Anaheim for the baseball game. It was the defining moment of her opinion of the future Mrs. J.
As for me, I had a month to decide what I was doing, where I was going, before I had to be out of the apartment on Ward Road. Quinn and J were moving in together, Karen and I were most certainly not. I had a new job driving a delivery truck, and I was not required to wear a uniform. I was happy enough with that, happy enough to write every free moment I could. I just needed a new place to live. A cheap new place. Always cheap, much to Karen’s dismay. But there was still the chance I’d leave San Diego entirely, the urge endured and pestered me. As I debated again whether to move to L.A. to give scriptwriting a chance – and whether I could handle living closer to my family – Karen sort of shut down. If I was gone, then let me be gone, she wanted no more drama about it.
* * * * * * * *
“SONYA!! You BETTER pick up that PHONE, bitch!—“
“Hello!” J cut her off, having arrived home just as she was leaving her message. “This is J, how can I help you?”
The caller was stymied for a beat. “Is, uh, Sonya there?”
“Sonya does NOT live here. I promise you. She has NEVER lived here. This is NOT her phone number. We don’t even KNOW a Sonya.”
Another confused moment. “This really…ain’t her number?”
“No ma’am, it is not. Maybe at one time it was, but it’s my number now. My name is J, my big white ass does not drive a Bro-ham, and I don’t want to be frightened of you anymore.”
The caller paused, and J said he could hear what sounded like a lighter and a few puffs.
“Well alright then,” the caller exhaled more cheerfully. “Happy Holidays!!”
While thrilled to be done with her, the only holiday even remotely approaching was Columbus Day, and we found it hard to believe she was hitting the pipe in honor of the Nina, the Pinta, or the Santa Maria.
“You find a place to live yet?” J asked me a few minutes later.
“Nope,” I said, looking through the classifieds in the copy of the U-T he’d brought home from work.
“How much do you want to pay?”
I chuckled. “Want to?”