Writings

  

One Two Three Cry

            There were seven of us. A perfect number said the therapist. We’d all get to know each other well, yet have a buffer of numbers for comfort. Providing we all were loyal and never skipped sessions. That warning was the first of many indications that Irene Norvall was a bit preachy if not downright parental.

            What did I care? I was such a wreck going through that divorce, I would’ve grasped at any lifeline. A crisis group for the middle aged? Sure. A meditation group with a twist? Just say the word. Even though I was a successful professional man (that’s the term), with two almost grown children and a bunch of good buddies, over educated and well travelled, I did not feel that I was at that point anything that could possibly be called normal.

            My name is Red. No, not because my hair is (it’s actually dark brown) but because my dear romantic mommy named me Redmond. (My father hated the name, and said so often. He always called me Ed.) In the therapy group’s first moments, I knew right away that I would break at least one of Ms. Norvall’s rules.

            “To preserve the integrity of the group,” she informed us, “we must all promise not to meet with each other outside of session. Say you run into another member on the street. It’s not okay to even invite them for coffee. I’m sure you can all understand what that would mean—confidences between you unknown to the group. So that is forbidden.”

            As she breathed the word forbidden, my eyes met those of Cherie Lederman. She was, I saw at once, exactly what I was looking for. A sweet young thing with loose legs. This I needed after all my cold as ice years with Amanda, and the even colder dispatches I was still getting from her lawyer. I knew I didn’t look my best in those days, to say the least, but I was a pretty good- looking guy basically, broad in the shoulders, slim in the hips--or used to be before this ornery paunch--nice friendly face, and a killer of a sexy smile (so I’ve been told). Plus, I was making a damn good salary as a tax accountant, providing Amanda didn’t take it all.

The other folks in the group were two couples, Barry and Josie and Gail and Lance, and Hal. I wasn’t worried about competition from Hal, a big fat not jolly Santa type just turning thirty but looking about fifty, poor guy.

We all went around the group introducing ourselves and saying why we were there. The room was kind of small and stuffy but the chairs in our circle were comfortable.

When it was my turn, I said, “I’m going through a terrible divorce. I’m worried about my kids, and about how much money my wife is going to get. I don’t mind paying their college expenses, but her trips to Barbados no. I’m losing sleep. My son Freddie’s doing marijuana, he’s only sixteen.”

Nobody minded that this statement was disjointed and had no point. All of them were suffering in similar ways. Gail said Lance was beating her up, Barry said Josie was “out to get him,” Cherie said she wanted to kill herself, and Hal confided that his mother still wanted to give him a bath. I wasn’t such a kook after all. I felt better already.

Cherie didn’t make it hard for me to catch up with her after the first session. She was waiting at the bus stop so I pulled up in my car.

“We shouldn’t,” she said when I offered her a ride.

“You don’t have to take the bus.”

“I like the bus.” But she was smiling and heading for the passenger door.

“Ms.Norvall has a point,” I said when Cherie settled herself beside me. I wanted to make it clear I was a law abiding, sensitive person. “But a rule like that was made to be stretched.”

“Yeah, made to be stretched.”

Yikes, was she the type that simply repeats your words and calls it conversation? But I was compensated by her great legs, skirt to mid thigh. I dropped her off at the Union Square Starbucks where she worked, but not before getting permission to pick her up the following Wednesday so we could drive together to our therapy session. Already, I felt, I’d crafted  the big brother role that would get me into her pants.

That was one horrendous week. The very next day, my daughter Linda called me all distraught from high school. I was to come right away to the principal’s office: her brother had passed out. I asked if her mother knew, and yes the school had already called her, so I knew Linda was pulling another one of her ruses to get us back together. But this was far too serious to ignore, so I rushed over there. Left my secretary in a tizzy to deflect several meetings.

I had to carry Freddy home, poor kid. He was drunk. He had come to school drunk that morning.

“Where’s he getting the booze,” I yelled at Amanda, who was in a monster mood, trembling with that rage of hers, not even crying.

“See what you’ve done,” she seethed at me through her teeth. “Just look at what you’ve done.”

Linda wanted to come with us, but none of us adults thought this was a good idea, so we left her sobbing in the nurse’s arms.  She would not learn much more at school that day, I figured, but it was the best place for her as opposed to our house (excuse me, I mean Amanda’s house) where while Freddy slept it off upstairs, Amanda and I duked it out with our usual poisonous verbiage. Finally I left, banging the door of course, yelling back at her, “Have it your way. He’s your problem now.”

I felt like a terrible jerk as soon as I got into the street. I looked up at the window of Freddy’s room. We bought that house ten years ago, when they were both so little. What in God’s name had happened to our family? It was a wreck. It didn’t even exist anymore.

Over the weekend I tried to get my mind off things by going out drinking with my poker buddies, but they were all so damned cheerful it just made me feel worse. After about five beers I called the house and tried to talk to the kids but Amanda wouldn’t let me. “Call back when you’re sober,” she ordered in that prickly nanny voice of hers.

By Monday I was glad to go back to work, but my boss called me in to ask for an explanation of my abrupt departure on Thursday. He ended up sympathetic but I ended up hating his guts more than ever, mostly because I want his job and the prospects for that aren’t good.

On Wednesday I went early to pick up Cherie so I could watch her working. She was wearing a cute little black apron and squirting various coffee elements into paper cups as each order came her way.  She had on very bright lipstick, making her look older, and long earrings like a Gypsy’s. Exotic, erotic. Finally I caught her eye, and got a huge adorable dazzle of a smile. Congratulated myself.

But she wouldn’t agree to a date. She said, “As long as we don’t tell each other anything relevant, driving together’s okay. But, Red, we really shouldn’t disobey the rules. They have them for a reason.”

“Irene’s rules,” I protested. “Her reason’s just control.”

But Cherie didn’t like disparagement of Irene. She wanted to believe in her special powers.

“I think she’s good,” was how she put it.

That day we learned meditation. I was the only one in the group who’d never tried it. But Irene said this won’t be like your average experience, we are going to have laughing and crying and shouting meditation. Oh boy. What kind of kooky idea is this, I thought to myself. But I wasn’t about to turn down anything that might give me some peace of mind. And I’m not a coward. I’ve faced my share of challenges without backing down. So there we were, each supplied with a large cushion. Not for sitting on but for hitting when we felt like it. I liked that idea.

First we had to sit cross legged on the floor, close our eyes, open our palms, and breathe regularly. It was much harder than I ever would’ve thought. I was really proud when I mastered it. The secret is to forgive yourself when your mind wanders, and just bring it back gently to your breathing. I actually got really relaxed doing that. But Irene wasn’t finished. After we’d spent plenty of time with the breathing, she made us moan a sound like “om” with the out breath, and after that we had to learn the names and colors of the various spots in our body. My legs were aching by that time and I was starting to really lose my concentration worrying about Freddy. I was so happy to be out of there that Cherie was almost an afterthought.

That week I talked to the kids a few times on their cell phones, and then saw them visitation day, Saturday. I picked them up promptly at noon, but they both had friends they wanted to see and stuff to do. So I drove them to their events after the three of us had a nice quiet lunch in Davis Square. We even talked a little bit about the divorce and how we all felt about it, so it was a success. I was so relieved to find that I was going to be able to keep a relationship with my kids after all, in spite of their mother. I felt pretty good about that.

The therapy session on Wednesday was a whopper. Cherie was looking particularly appetizing that day, wearing a silky striped jersey thing that showed off her curves. When I picked her up, I was in a good mood, and we had a lot of laughs on the way. I vowed to myself that today was the day to make my move.

First Irene had us take turns giving the group a detailed report of what was bothering us and how we had dealt with it that week. Cherie came up with a shocker telling us about a man who grabbed her in the basement of her apartment house when she was doing laundry. He would’ve raped her, she said, but she screamed bloody murder and another tenant came running. She was proud she’d been able to scream. Apparently, she had actually been raped some years earlier and that was one reason she was here.

“I wasn’t able to scream that time,” she was explaining in a strangulated voice, “I opened my mouth but no sounds came, like in nightmares. I never dared tell anybody, not even my mom. She probably would’ve hit me.”

“Very good, Cherie,” crooned Irene. “You were strong. You protected yourself. And then you were able to tell us about it. Very good.”

I didn’t have time to sneer at Irene’s preachy manner, I was too absorbed in how I was going to share my feelings. What words could I use? I didn’t want to sound like a wimp.

When it was my turn, I said, “I had a good experience this week.” I looked around at all the faces, realizing they were in the same boat. So I went on, “I was really worried I wouldn’t be able to be a dad any more to my kids. But we had lunch.”

“Lunch,” Irene repeated, nodding.

She wanted more? I was more scared than skeptical.

I said,” We had a nice lunch. We all talked. I feel good about it.”

“Okay,” sighed Irene, as if I had fallen short somehow. “Thank you, Red.”

After she got all the confessions, and all of us were kind of wrung out and exhausted, we had to get down on the floor and meditate. I wasn’t too sorry. It was really peaceful listening to my breath, picturing the colors of my forehead, chest, groin. I found a place inside myself where I could go for comfort. It was pretty amazing.

But, naturally, Irene wasn’t satisfied with that. She had to make us suffer some more. When she first described the crying meditation I got ready to flee the room. But I half thought it was a joke: surely she didn’t believe she could get us all bawling just by giving us an order. Cheeky even for Irene Norvall. But she did!

She told us to get ready, close our eyes, and concentrate on something really really sad. I started thinking about Freddy. Drinking all that booze by himself, getting zonked, all because Amanda and I, his parents, couldn’t keep it together. Suddenly I hear this horrible wailing coming from somewhere. I can’t even tell if it’s male or female. My eyes fly open, by God it’s poor old Hal, blubbering and pounding on his pillow. Then Cherie chimes in. She sounds awful, like a screeching two year old. I decide I simply can’t stand this, I’m going to get out of here right this minute and never come back. Then I feel my own tears, squeeze them back, get so overwhelmed by the fact that I have started to cry that I sob out loud. My sob sounds worse than anybody else’s, like an animal, a dog, but it’s drowned out by all the agonized noises welling up around me. It sounds like a torture chamber. It is a torture chamber.

            I have no idea how long that lasted. I was in and out of awareness, coming to as I was pounding my pillow, wet with my tears. How long had it been since I cried? My whole adult life. Those little old salty drops were stale from being stored up all that time, and once they got going they were not about to quit. Even when Irene finally told us it was ok to stop, most of us kept it up for a while. This I hate to confess: it felt wonderful. I’ve never been so drained in my memory, not after sports, not even after sex. I was simply emptied, I was a pristine and new vessel, I was reborn.

            Irene passed out boxes of tissues and we sat around slobbering and blowing our noses and not daring to look each other in the eye.

            In the car, Cherie was talking to herself, telling Cherie to be brave, she was safe. I can tell you, making a pass at her was the last thing on my mind. After I dropped her off, I had to sit for a long time before I dared go back to my office. For a minute I worried if I was gay. I mean, bawling like a baby and losing interest in that adorable little body! But I knew it was only Irene Norvall’s clever tactics. If she had her way I’d become a wimp for sure. A ball breaker, that Ms. Norvall. For the rest of the afternoon I ordered my co-workers around like nobody’s business.

 

            It was Linda who asked me, “How’s grandpa?”

            It was Saturday and the three of us were sitting outside an ice-cream shop. I was enjoying a mint chocolate chip with sprinkles. Freddy was nursing the same thing, but a double, and Linda scooped modestly with a tiny little spoon at a cup of strawberry yogurt. It was a fabulous fall day, colored with reddening trees and crisp but sunny. I was caught unawares by her question. I didn’t realize she even remembered her grandfather.

            “Well, honey…”

            I waited so long for inspiration that she pushed me. “C’mon, Dad, he’s your father. Don’t you know how he is? Is he still sick?”

            “Gee,” chimed in Freddy, chomping ice-cream, “how long’s it been since we saw him?”

            “I remember when I was eleven, two years ago,” said Linda.

            This was getting uncomfortable. I gave my cone a lengthy lick it didn’t need, mumbled, “Why are you asking?”

            The silence was enough of an answer. Why the hell shouldn’t the kids ask about their grandfather?

            So I said, “He’s fine.”

            “Can we go see him? Is he going to stay in that place?”

            “It’s a nursing home. He’s old and can’t live by himself. He’s not sick, just old.”

            “You sound like you don’t care.”

            These barbs from my own darling little girl? I looked at her, hurt welling up in my eyes. But she gave me a comeback worthy of her mother.

            “Dad, what is your problem?”

            “I say we go visit him,” blurts Freddy. Maybe he sensed trouble, but he was so wrapped up in conquering that chocolate mint mountain, I wasn’t sure. It was probably just another ignorant asinine teenage idea.

But the upshot was, we went. The next Saturday, I picked the kids up early, giving Amanda the opportunity to sneer, “Visiting your own father? What a concept!”

The ride out to Methuen was tedious. I was tense, and the weather would have to be grey and drizzly so the colorful trees totally lost their luster. Also, I couldn’t stop remembering Cherie’s big drama in Wednesday’s therapy session, when she told us her name was really Cheryl, and Queen Irene decided we were all going to call her that. I was forced to say Cheryl to her face, and shocked to see the gratitude and relief in her tear-stained little face. For some reason, this development meant curtains for my lust, and from then on I could only feel like the big brother I had pretended to be.

I’d only been here to this grim old institution once before. Linda got it right—two years ago. I picked Dad up to bring him into Cambridge for lunch with us. I remember that he needed a straw to drink, and his hands shook. He looked pitiful to me, but I found no compassion and hadn’t seen him since. The place still smelled of cleaning fluid.

He was waiting in a sterile looking foyer, in a wheelchair. He took our tentative embraces as a matter of course, although I had never kissed him when I was growing up.

“How ya doing, Ed?” His tone was flat.

I told him I was fine, but I was furious. After all these years, with one foot in the grave, he still has to call me Ed?

“My name is Red,” I suddenly said rudely. “Redmond.”

But he paid no attention. He was stroking Linda’s glossy blond hair. “What a pretty child. My little granddaughter. Growing up so pretty, what d’ya  know?”

Linda to my disgust was  loving it. Freddy shook hands with him and studied him as if hypnotized. The kids were having a ball, and I wanted to puke.

I sat there, staring out the picture window at the grey autumn landscape misted with drizzle. What a vale of tears this life is, I thought, overcome with self pity. Look at the shambles of my life. I dwelled on the river of tears old and new that I’d shed in the therapy session. Those bits of salty water, produced by my own body, seemed the real expression of all my experience, not the bombast and boasting of my public persona, the bossy coworker, the rule making father, the ranting husband.  What’s the point, I wondered miserably. Someday soon I’ll just be a sad sack of bones like this old man here.

Looking at the three of them smiling together, I suddenly realized I was jealous. They looked like a happy family. Wait a minute. This is my family. Why do I feel like such a jerk? I couldn’t get over it. All the way back in the car and the rest of the week I planned my announcement.

On Wednesday I said to the group, “I’ve got something to share.”

            They all perked up, especially Irene Norvall. Oh boy, she’s really going to crow when she finds out what I finally have to say. She’s wormed it out of me at last.

            “I feel like a failure,” I said. I meant it to sound authoritative but it was more like a moan. “I’ve never done anything in my life I was proud of. My parents didn’t even love me. I don’t want to look in the mirror any more. I hate who I am.”

            There was a breathless silence in the wake of my words. Then Ms. Irene Norvall crooned, “Very good, Red. We’re all proud of you.”

Cheryl said, “Hey, Red, that’s so brave. Welcome to the world.”

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    (this story appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of the HILR Review.) 

 

 

I Saw a Pair of Swans Today

        --prose poem

I saw a pair of swans today in Gerry’s Pit. So named by local kids, a small pond created long ago by digging out clay to make bricks. In the 50s, filled with water and industry gone, for a time the neighborhood swimming hole. But a chemical company replaced the clay business and you can’t swim there now, the pollution is rank. How do those gorgeous swans survive it? Pristine white, proud necked, devoted to each other. Does anything else live there, in those poisoned depths?

Gerry’s Pit in North Cambridge is triangled between two highways, surrounded now by brush and high fencing. It looks in sparkling sunlight like one of nature’s gems. Were the swans fooled? Will they fly away? Can they fly?

I saw swans flying only once, at my brother’s funeral, in the farthest reaches of Long Island. Vast wings powerful and mighty, a roar of air right over our heads. I thought briefly of Leda, taken by Zeus in the guise of a swan. Yeats’ awed conjecture of what it was like for her, for lovely young Leda, “…her thighs caressed/By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill…”

Yes, the sages were correct: death and beauty are that close.

 

Kitty Beer

(this poem appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the Bagel Bards Anthology)



Five Things to Expect from Climate Change  This article appeared in NewsBlaze in May 2010
 
Sweet Sorrow This article appeared in the HILR Review in April 2009.

How to Study the Environment This article appeared in Harvard Magazine, March-April, 1994.  

What Love Can't Do  (excerpt)

Human Scale (excerpt)