Having It All, Having Nothing
This is a free excerpt from Funny Music
Maggie was waiting at home. I had to bring her car back soon.
She'd accepted responsibility for driving me to the bus station, the dumpy, neglected art deco place that still lit its Greyhound sign over Main Street, awaiting the catastrophe of urban renewal and conversion to a police precinct. My emotions were conflicted — about my wife’s delivering me into exile, I mean — mainly because she seemed so upbeat about it, supportive, as we say these days, my ally.
In our short, combustible marriage, we went through plenty, especially our clumsy adjustments to parenthood. We shared the kinds of experiences that bond friendships, and while this last experiment of mine had not shown any great flash or flair or promise in her eyes, nor anyone else but Alex's and mine really, I hadn't blow up the lab either. So, what made her so amenable to escorting me out of town?
“Are you trying to get rid of me or what?”
“I’m trying to help you do whatever you decide to do.”
Our five year relationship, most spent in what Alex called “holy deadlock,” tumbled along with knots and gaps. Smoothly unfolding intervals were few, typical, I thought, of two people just right and very wrong for each other. You adjust, but mostly, as individuals, you explode and implode, explode and implode, on and on, until the process bleaches you and you find yourselves stuck.
Something that happened last spring finally pushed me out a door, back into that enormous room without walls where I hung out previously. I was successful at placing the blame on Maggie.
This incident got what was left of my body out. As a downstream result, I'd soon be separated, also, from everything predictable, everyone I knew, every routine I trusted. My space would grow larger, more down to earth and be littered with rubble.
What happened was that, battling through another evening, I kept Maggie arguing long enough that she confessed to having sex with another man. Other events could as easily have brought our demise, but this one popped the seams and got fabric unraveling. It had obvious appeal, story-wise, but it was a convenient dishonesty. I'd been cheating on her for months and with multiple partners. I knew I was in love with someone else. It was shameless on my part but true to the tone and direction in our marriage. Her indiscretion allowed me to play victim, and I used it with relish. I won the point, as they say in tennis. You can use the same competitive terms in a bum marriage.
Maggie, I should mention, was victim of a seldom diagnosed genetic defect I called “The Filibuster Reflex.” In some circumstances, stress chiseled deep with guilt, for example, the ability to shut up abandoned her, even while no other capacity was diminished. Words flowed from her with only the slightest encouragement, unedited, dancing, marching, kicking their heels, sprinting, diving. No slouch where verbal aesthetics were concerned, she tossed them deftly into perfect, complex sentences and woven paragraphs, and there they stood, primly and proudly, like row after row of little picket fences. These were pathetic, of course, as defenses go, and if you only waited long enough, coaxed her to keep talking, the fences grew to this crazy, unmanageable clutter. How many verbs can be deployed to contain or describe the borders of a single yard, after all? Finally, without any detectable delicacy, she tripped and fell among the clattering consonants.
“How did you find out? Was it one of your spies?”
I hadn’t known for sure, only suspected, until that moment. I don’t know where she got the crazy idea about spies, paranoia probably, but I wasn’t socially organized or even popular enough to have spies.
“Actually, I didn’t know until you just told me. I tricked you.”
I’m not at all sure she bought that premise.
Maggie might easily have parried with denial here, but on balance, she probably was flush with relief over having the secret out.
There really wasn’t much of a scene, once the news got delivered. You'd expect tears, a bitter or vindictive outburst, old resentments erupting after months, even years, under civilizing wraps, unalloyed anger, but I remember it as dry. A nice, warm breeze was blowing in through the opened, west-facing windows. Through these panes, you could just see the deep blue lake fall off into the darkening horizon.
For a moment, in the immediate aftermath, Maggie and I looked at each other from opposite ends of the couch, both relaxed, almost as if a clear partition had mercilessly, silently lowered between us.
We were together, but not there together. We must both have felt relieved of each other. Life is a game, after all, among so many other things, and it seemed like we’d run out of the theatrical gas that shapes it.
“I guess it’s time to move out again,” I conceded after a long silence.
“I guess it is. Where are you going?”
“Who the fuck knows? I’ll figure something out.”
“Take as much time as you need. There’s no hurry now. Sleep on the couch, if you want.”
The knowledge that we always liked each other, even after the worst events, seemed weird, even now that I took it as a matter of fact.
None of this happened a minute too soon, as far as I was concerned. In recent months, a painful insight burned an imprint on my thoughts whenever I had an idle moment. What grew clear was that I'd developed this habit of taking certain articles of common sense so much for granted I forgot to think about them. Much of my life was like rounding curves without turning a wheel. As an unhappy result of this carelessness, my everyday life, the way I lived and decided about it, seemed more plausible, more reasonable, than it was.
Now, at last, sitting on that inevitable couch with Maggie, in the direction we were always bound to lean, the errors glared at me as sternly as if circled in red by some omniscient schoolmarm. Each ripened mistake fortified by spilling over with abundance, blending with others. The indisputable fact, the knowledge I had to live with, was that I'd been caught (by myself) taking comfort in parading around in the guise of a regular guy, a mensch, an average Joe married to a professional, liberated woman, a dad, a taxpayer, the sort of malevolently fluffed up mannequin for whom the exploiters of current events invented the detestable six o’clock news. What the hell was I doing here, anyway?
In the wake of Maggie’s confession, it took a day to clear my head enough to work out what I wanted to do. Take a sharp turn right or left? Blow straight up in crimson? Or, what?
What I wanted was to bend back reality and make it 1968 again, take these years of screwed up exile, jam them in a can along with everything else that got fucked up and start over.
I wanted to go to my real home. I wanted to get back in the face of the murdering politicians who sent me away. I could feel and smell that revolutionary summer, the cooking hope and possibility, the bombs bursting in air. Passions blowing up in Miami, then Chicago. Czechoslovakian society rent. Paris in bloom. San Francisco like the first city in a new age. Campuses seized. After that one, full season, my world ended. Yet, in my head, I could still walk with Gary, barefoot on the dusty, sun dried pavement, across the slightly arching Chenango River Bridge, on a wide-open, blue-skied morning. Last night’s grass and sex mellowing through every muscle and bone, in every synapse, in every cell, everything known, no battles to fight. Muddy, hissing water slid down the channel. A million tiny whirlpools skittered over the surface. It hurried, building waves into a v-shaped convergence with the Susquehanna, a quarter of a mile south, and after the powerful, silent currents wove together, immeasurable volumes of brown-green water pushed west.