Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Matched Luggage

Hello, I must be going,
I cannot stay, I came to say,
I must be going. -- Groucho Marx

Before all of this happened, I had been a youngster without a heavy burden, without dark sirens of judgment that would lure my heart off course. Why is it that so many of us spend the last third of our lives in search of the first third?

I've heard addicts say that when they took their first puff on a crack pipe, the immediate feeling was so euphoric, then ephemeral, and ultimately elusive that they would spend their waking hours in search of that transcendent 30 seconds. I know for a certainty that I felt that way the first time I took a handful of paper-wrapped sugar cubes from an Italian restaurant and secreted them in my coat for the ride home in my parents blue '54 Chevrolet. The discomfort of riding with unhappy people instantly went away, and I spent the entire drive home along the Ventura Freeway, unwrapping nugget after nugget in search of the first bubble of comforting solitude.

Along the way I became a virtuoso escape artist. Be it ever so humble, there's no place like out of here! Although I added preoccupations with food, drink, sex, drugs, or work as a means of avoiding a world with too many sharp edges, I knew how to disappear without the means of any artificial substance. I could drop through an inner hatch into a fuzzy sanctum where all around me buzzed, but I was secure and protected. In short: I erased myself.

I ran away from home at age 9. I was pissed off and tired of being yelled at, and so I started up Longridge Avenue without a lunch or sweater, headed north on Woodman, and got as far as the hospital when it got dark. Ten miles, maybe. Far enough to know I had created sufficient turmoil, but not far enough to continue without a plan and supplies. There would always have to be supplies. So I let the hospital call my mother.

Years later, after so many wake-up calls, I found that the pain I feared was ancient, tribal, cellular--and that I had already survived it. And here in my latter third of life, it became apparent that the evasions postponed reconciliation, were only preemptive strikes against my own happiness.

But as I said, before all of this, I had lived out in the open. I can almost see it from here. Longridge Avenue. I can see Laurie Finley. We were seven years old, living about four or five houses apart. In between lived the dreaded Mr. Feindish, who would scowl and snag softballs we hit onto his lawn before we could retrieve them. Laurie was a tomboy, although I could make no such distinctions at the time. She was my friend. She evolved from the same soul matrix as I. Loved whatever I seemed to love. And she could hit the crap out of a softball.

I remember four or five friends in my lifetime where the brambles of judgment fell away from the start. I spent every waking hour at home excited about the possibility of heading out to the street to meet Laurie Finley. I spent every moment playing alone in the yard waiting for her mother's station wagon to pull around the corner of Longridge so I could run to meet her.

But eventually my sister was born and the little house we had on Longridge was too small for us. The Saturday before we moved, Laurie Finley's mom arranged a party in their yard so I could say farewell to the neighborhood gang, but I never went. I woke up that morning and my eyes had slammed shut--an allergy the doctor said--and I was in agony.

Years later, after I had a driver's license, I drove back to Longridge and passed by the old stationwagon in Laurie Finley's yard. I did it many times over the years, but never got out and knocked on the door.

The next time I felt that way, I met Matt Garbutt. An only child, Matt was showered with affection and was the most inventive, creative boy I ever met. He could ride a unicycle and play an upright tuba at the same time. We were inseparable. We spent hours wide awake in his bedroom, making up comedy routines and satires that we recorded on reel-to-reel tape. His mom would shout for us to shut up and go to sleep. I couldn't wait to meet him in the schoolyard, at the band room, to work on our sketches. Matt was the only gentile friend at my Bar Mitzva.

But when we entered high school, Matt found a different circle of friends and had little to do with me. "It's because you're Jewish," my mother said. But that was an explanation I had heard too many times upon my failures in the social world. Most of those things happened because they happen to everyone. I followed Matt's career, after he left college and became a symphonic tuba player and conductor. We've never made contact.

In high school I found Dianne Chassman. She was lovely, delightful, gorgeous, an exceptional flautist, and we shared a friendship without a sexual trajectory. You would hardly know it to see us. I would sneak out of bed at 1 am to phone her. She had her own phone! (Not many kids our age did in those days.) We'd trade intimate secrets, share dirt on other friends, spin our separate dreams). After a while, finally, we had our own sweethearts and drifted apart. By then, I was embarking on my middle third of life.

I sometimes wonder why I no longer feel that insatiable pull toward another person, that unbridled enthusiasm for intimacy despite the rough edges. The attraction wanes. Have I been irreparably numbed, distracted by narcissism, made wary by pain I have already survived? My deepest friends today are just like me, it seems. We have matched luggage. We're here, but we're always leaving. We're loving by turn, distracted by struggles, often disappointed, and yet we're all still here, in each other's corner, a phone call away. Now the phone goes with you and sits in your pocket. So why do you sometimes seem so far?

Here I am in my last third, wondering how to return to that open place without fear, without judgment. Is it you? Is it me?


tangobaby said...

Wow. I don't even feel worthy to leave a comment on this one, but I can try. This post is so layered, it brings up memories and asks more questions than it answers.

I have driven past those homes and not stopped either. And I wonder, am I the only one who misses them? Do they miss me too? Why has no one knocked on my door?

One thing I do know now, as I guess I'm in my third part of life too, is that the friends I make now I appreciate in different ways. And I guess I don't expect them to be around forever. I'm not sure if that's good or bad.

This is a beautiful essay.

Gabby said...

T: I guess we'll never know who may have driven by without having the courage to stop. Let's knock sometime.

tangobaby said...

You've just reminded me of someone who DID knock. I think I have a story of my own soon.

See, you mused me.