Things were going well when I met Annie. The machinery of divorce had been tooled to a frictionless precision. The kids didn’t like moving from house to house, and I often wound up sleeping on the couch when they were with me so they could have the privacy of separate bedrooms, but that was fine; I can sleep anywhere. I took care of Lisa’s dogs when she went off-island, helped the kids with their English homework and struggled with eighth grade arithmetic, a hell I had thought I would never have to revisit. Finally we found a tutor. Lisa was making good money, in those days. She paid for the lessons; I drove the kids and picked them up. We struck up an elegant and organic division of labor. Lisa cooked healthy vegetarian food and made the Halloween costumes, counseled Caroline on her first period while I handled pizza night and Laundromat runs, along with Tom’s puberty problems, bullies and puppy loves
Lisa and I never trash-talked each other, though both of were sorely temped and I know the kids caught the occasional sigh or raised eye-brow from me when Lisa bought another couch or contrived another dramatic break-up with the Hoosier; or from her, when I broke another dish or forgot another appointment.
I lived alone and I liked that too. I’d dreaded solitude at the beginning but it’s a kind of drug and I was getting addicted. I arranged the furniture and stocked the fridge just the way I liked, listened to the music I preferred, and took full control of the television remote. When I talked to myself, no one answered. When I read a book in bed at night, no one had to stay up. I dealt with no one but myself, and I got along with myself flawlessly, without a single argument or misunderstanding. Sometimes I would slip into the silence of my little apartment like a hot bath and just soak there.
It was a hermit’s utopia.
Why had I not seen this before? The way to achieve a perfect social order is to junk the ‘social’ part. People were the problem in a ‘people’s republic’ . I preferred the Kingdom of Steve.
Solo flights – that was my kind of flying. Solo cups – that was my kind of cup! Han Solo, that was my kind of corny outer space smuggler with a heart of gold! O Solo Mio – that was my kind of Mio.
And “An Army of One” was my kind of army: one where you don’t take orders.
Or so I told myself. In fact I was lonely and miserable. Like most narcotics, the drug of solitude loses its potency over time, etches its grooves into the nervous system only so deep, leaving you craving more. But what could that excess consist of? A lone world cruise on a sailboat? I get sea-sick on the ferry. A trek through the Hindu Kush? I never even make it to the ocean when I walk at Sanford Farm. No, the real solution was to go cold turkey. I needed to shower and shave and get out into the world and meet people. I needed to look into a woman’s eyes and make her laugh; I needed to hear an answer that surprised me. I needed to feel nervous and awkward and scared again.
I needed a night I couldn’t predict. You can’t live on cheap frozen food, expensive wine and bad TV forever. Even Han Solo wound up cranking the Millenium Falcon into a U-turn and pitching in with the Rebel Alliance. Not to mention planting one on the Princess.
About a week after I arrived at this embarrassingly obvious revelation, an opportunity to socialize appeared, like a boat out of the fog.
Emily Grimshaw was holding a reading at her cramped little apartment on Orange Street; or, as she liked to think of it, convening her salon. A few times a year, local writers and musicians gathered among the piles of books and shelves of trinkets, to perform their work. On the occasions when Emily was speaking to me (her bizarre feuds and imaginary grudges were legendary), I enjoyed these sessions. Even the bad writing was entertaining in its own way: squintingly intense, endearingly awful odes to someone’s embattled womb(“O, sacred source of life, pillaged for the pleasure of the patriarch)” or unappeasable father. (:“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, why are your eyes so silent, why does your mouth refuse me, why are your broken hands fisted with grief?”) Anyway, I enjoyed reading my stuff aloud, a habit Lisa had always hated. She often quoted Heinlein on the subject: “Poets who read their verse aloud may have other nasty habits.” Maybe, but It was a nasty habit with a purpose – you could always tell when an audience was losing interest, if you paid attention, and I was always able to trim and sharpen things after one of those performances. When they went well, it was a nice ego boost. Of course the bar was set fairly low. The real danger was tripping over it.
I liked the Bohemian atmosphere in the cramped atelier, the congenial mess, the smell of incense. Emilymade excellent hors d’oevres, and served good wine. She was proud of her little salon and always had a few young writers around that she was mentoring; most of them strapping twenty-year-old boys. They adored Emily and did most of the heavy work, moving furniture and setting up the little apartment for the art installations and readings
Several of them were hauling the big lectern to the arched opening between the bedroom and the living room when I pushed inside. Emily, bulky and intense, was talking to a slim blonde woman I recognized from a few years before – her erratic boyfriend had acted with me in a local theatre production. He couldn’t remember his lines and tended to improvise. I remembered one moment vividly. She had brought him to the theatre just in time for a shouting match with the director.
When I turned the corner the boyfriend was shouting “Why don’t you take over the Part then?”
“No, I have a much better idea. Why don’t you take over the part! You’re supposed to be the professional actor!”
The woman had intervened. “Leave him alone,” she said. “This isn’t helping.”
“That’s my decision, Annie. I directed this play.”
“No. You blocked it. And you gave line readings to the amateurs. That’s not directing. A real director would be long gone by now.”
She had been fierce. I remembered that; and I admired it, though I was irritated with her boyfriend myself.
She was alone tonight. Apparently the boyfriend was long-gone.
“I expect a real poem to change my life,” Emily was saying to her now. She stepped back from the door. “Oh, hello Steven – You’re late, as usual. We’re just about to start. Shut the door after you and introduce yourself. There are some new people here tonight. I’m going to open some more wine.”
Then she was gone.
“Something had better change her life,” I said. “The sooner the better.”
Annie smiled. “I like her. Until Emily, I’d never met anyone who wore black as a life-style before.”
“There must be more to her life-style than that.”
“You’re right. I’m being unfair. I shouldn’t leave out the self-help seminars, the nuisance law suits and the continuous low-grade nervous breakdown. She feels the pain of the world -- which makes her better than you. Just ask her. She calls it Weltshmertz, basically because things sound smarter when you say them in German. She’s in court with her ex over custody of their Siamese cat. That’s been going on for six months. Last year she announced that she was the bride of Jesus. But apparently that marriage didn’t work out either.”
I shrugged, closing the door behind me. “Jesus, huh?,” I said, “Well, it makes sense. Another Nantucket carpenter with father issues.”
She laughed. This was what I came out for.
“Are you reading tonight?” I asked her.
“maye. If I have enough to drink first.”
“Are you nervous?”
“No, I just hate reading my stuff aloud. If there’s one person yawning or looking bored or something I just feel, you know – what’s the point, they all hate it. Which is pretty distracting. I guess I get distracted too easily. A drink or two helps. When I’m drunk I don’t care what anyone thinks. I get sort of hostile, in fact. I think stuff like, you know – oh, boy, they thought they were bored before! Wait until they hear this!”
“I bet no one is actually bored, though. Most people yawn because they’re tired. Especially around here. Most of these people worked a ten hour day today.”
“I guess. I shouldn’t pay attention to them, anyway.”
I didn’t see Annie again until she was picking her way through the people sitting on Emily’s floor towards the antique lectern. To say Annie was casually dressed somehow missed the point. It seemed to me that she had turned utter indifference to her appearance into a kind of high style that you’d have to work hard to copy effectively. Her jeans were a little too big on her; so was the loose white long-sleeved t-shirt. It was as if she’d recently lost a lot of weight and hadn’t bothered with a new wardrobe, though she told me at some point later that she’d worn the same sizes since high school. The clothes contrived to look as if they might just fall off her body at any moment. She slouched a little, as if she wanted to disappear into them. It was only when she stretched her back and squared her shoulders, preparing to read, that I noticed she wasn’t wearing a bra. The four buttons that descended from the crew neck were unbuttoned but once again, it seemed negligent rather than intentionally provocative: she was too busy and distracted to bother with them.
It was an old money look – I thought of Katherine Hepburn in baggy sweats tooling around New York on her bicycle. Later I found out that Annie’s family had burned through their money a long time before. But a certain residual elegance remained. It was the way she held her head, her hand gestures – there were generations of gracious hostesses lurking in there somewhere. She looked frail but he could tell from her handshake that she was strong, and her very awkwardness constituted a kind of self-effacing, light-footed physical grace.
I had never seen anyone quite like her before and I was glad to have the chance to just study her as she read her story aloud. She knew how to wait for people’s attention. There was complete silence in the room when she finally began. Here’s a snippet from the story (it was later published in The Chariton Review), to give you a sense of what caught my interest:
Sometimes it was more luxurious to have the offer of sex than the actual sex itself. Like money in the bank, you could spend it later or keep on hoarding, building up a larder of lust, gilding the peaked archways of desire, spinning gold from simple restraint.
“Maybe tomorrow?” she said, backtracking a little.
. “Nope, can’t make it tomorrow honey, but maybe I’ll see you over the week-end though.” He kept his voice friendly and firmly in neutral, but she heard the slight pick-up of anticipation in his breath, the liar’s rise in register at the end of the sentence.
What a fucking deadbeat he was really. What a loser.
Alison knew a loser when she saw one. Creep-allure: she’d always had it. First there had been Rasta-boy Rick. Fuzzy blond dreds and roller blades instead of feet. The guy didn’t even have a car. He lived in a tent and owned a wolf. He fixed computers for a living, but only when he felt like it. He attached flashlights to his skates for better night vision. He said he was a genius.
On deck there was Toby, a foreign car mechanic by day, a compulsive Keno addict by night. He was a beer-guzzling, chain-smoking, number-obsessed mess. But he knew a lot of funny jokes and he had a seductive five o’clock shadow and a lazy, criminal smile.
There were of course, after that, a string of unimportant others. Guys not worth mentioning. Guys with quirks and tics whose m.o.’s were a paragraph or two right out of Abnormal Psychology.
And then, just as she thought the situation was getting chronic, he showed up: the hall of famer. The one she’d put on the long white dress for. The first guy she could ever actually introduce to her parents. Bill.
The name said it all, because she was still paying for it.
When she was done she received what was obviously an excruciating round of applause, and then she faded back into the crowd. A little later I read some poems about Sophie. The essential quatrain:
This is tragic
This is why I rant –
I want words to do magic
And they can’t.
I slipped into the kitchen for a beer while some kid droned through a nightmarishly bad story about a fishing trip with his father (“He never let me bait a hook”). Annie was there ahead of me. She raised her eye brows in Grouch-like disdain.
“You were great,” she said.
“So were you.”
“Everyone hated it. I told you.”
“No – you told me you’d think that everyone hated it. Even if they didn’t. And they didn’t.”
She took a swig of her beer. “How about that girl talking about building fairy cloud bridges to the stars with her stories? What was that about?”
“I have no idea. I try to build actual bridges with mine. Something solid that takes you somewhere. With, like – rebar and cables. Interesting characters. A plot hat makes sense. Stuff like that.”
“Ugh. Sounds like work.”
“Exactly. What a drag.”
I grabbed the bottle opener off the counter and popped my beer. Emily would never stock twist-off cap, non-artisan brews.
“It’s different for me,” Annie said. “I feel like I’m building a bird’s nest. A twig from here, a leaf from there. Just bits and pieces really.”
“Well, they come together nicely. You make an excellent nest.”
“You’re just saying that because of Melanie.” It was true I had briefly dated a friend of hers; but that particular debacle was long-concluded.
“Melanie? You’re really reaching for it. You might try, I don’t know … taking a compliment some time? It’s easy. Just say thanks.”
“I can do that.”
“OK. You look gorgeous tonight.”
“I certainly do not! That’s ridiculous. I – Oh.”
“Thank you. That was very nice.”
We both drank. Someone else slipped out of the main room – a burly carpenter I knew by sight.
“Great reading, Annie,” he said.
She glanced over at me. “Thanks. I’m glad you like it.”
I shrugged, palms up in the air, as if to say “See? I told you.”
Two women, friends of Emily’s from off-island, cornered her and I drifted away for a piece of prosciutto and melon.
Annie found me a few minutes later. “This is fun. It’s too bad Emily doesn’t do it more often.”
I said the thought aloud without thinking: “We should do it ourselves. We could have our own private literary salon. You know … drink wine eat a little dinner, read each other stuff. I really do want to hear more of your work.” *
She narrowed her eyes. “Really?”
“Maybe we could help each other. Like a critique group.”
“Okay. I have wine. You bring a picnic. 286 Polpis Road – the cottage in the back.”
She extended her hand and I shook it – small and cool, delicate fingers with a strong grip. She sensed my surprise.
“Years of landscaping,” she said.
“So you’re one of those cute landscaper girls I see all the time.”
“I used to be. Now I just have the callouses.”
We were still holding hands. I let go, but the touch stayed with me.
I thought about Friday night as I walked home along the lively summer streets. Was this going to be a date? Or a seminar? Or a little of both? I wasn’t sure what was happening. But I felt giddy, light-footed and caffeine wired, though I I hadn’t had a cup of coffee for hours. I even smiled at the tourists and refrained from saying “Walk in any direction” when one of them asked for directions to the beach.
I look back at that night now and smile.
The big relationship had found me: w ithout fanfare or forseshadowing, the big love had arrived.
I just didn’t know it yet.
* If anyone feels the same way, Annie has a story in Lost Magazine on-line, called The Feast Of Stephen. Just go to Lostmag.com and click on the archives for the April issue. It was the lead fiction that month.