Dysfunctional Family

For Tom Shaw S.S.J.E. (1945-2014)

Where has this cold come from?
“It comes from the death of your friend.”

Will I always, from now on, be this cold?
“No, it will diminish. But always
it will be with you.”

What is the reason for it?
“Wasn’t your friendship always as beautiful
as a flame?”

-Mary Oliver, Felicity

Last night, I went to Scales’ house, where we had a great time eating and watching Doctor Who. Then, we walked over to Kramerbooks/Afterwords and spent some time browsing. I picked up a lot of books, but put them back down because most of them were really heavy and I have a Kindle for that very reason. I found a book on the Korean War by David Halberstam that was easily over a thousand pages… and I still almost bought it because the front cover brought tears to my eyes that did not fall. The cover said something about “David Halberstam’s last gift to the world.” Anyone who knows me well would know that when David was alive, I literally would have followed him into the ocean. My first Halberstam was “The Best and the Brightest,” recommended to me my freshman year in college by my 101 government instructor. I ended up writing a paper on McGeorge Bundy for the class, not knowing that my friend Steve’s dad is mentioned in it and at the time, Steve was alive and I could have written a better one.

My second Halberstam was “The Fifties,” where I cried so hard that I thought the people at Barnes & Noble were going to ask me to leave. It starts in a classroom, with Diane digging her fingernails into her desk, willing the bell not to ring, because she knows that after the bell, it will be time to go to Woolworth’s for the sit-in.

I have read nearly everything he’s put to paper, and it crushed me when he was going to an interview with someone for his next book on football and was killed instantly in a car accident.

Because there were tears in my eyes, I walked to another section and noticed that Mary Oliver had written an anthology of love poems, and I was thumbing through it when the one quoted gutted me like an axe in light of my present situation… that both of the women I have loved with blue-flame intensity find me too hard to love in return… or at least, that’s how it feels… that the price of my friendship and my fidelity are both too high.

No contact with either of them has been the styptic pencil to stop the bleeding and start the scabbing-over process, but there will always be two scars. Nearly 20 years ago, I had choir practice on Thursday nights, and I made the fatal mistake of coming home before the end of ER, Kathleen’s dire obsession. She loved that show. It was real and it was deep. I forgot my keys and couldn’t let myself in the door, and Kathleen wouldn’t get up to let me in until a commercial. In retrospect, maybe we shouldn’t have gotten married… but that is neither here nor there. What is important is that while she was watching, I was wandering around in our front yard in the dark and I tripped over a tree stump, splintered at the top in a thousand pieces. I was cut and scraped pretty bad on both shins, and again, it’s almost 20 years later and I remember that story every time I shave my legs, because the razor has a hard time fitting into the narrow trenches left behind.

And interestingly enough, the episode of Doctor Who that we’d watched earlier in the evening is where The Doctor and Clara travel to Trenzalore, where he is buried. He is not in a human body, but a rotating helix of energy, and he says that they are the scars of traveling through time.

Time itself does not heal wounds. It just moves them further down the z-axis so that they are far enough away that you can look at the land mines without standing in the blast radius. They become the emotional scars of traveling through time. And my legs aren’t so much scarred as is my mind. How did I let a woman who thought a TV show was more important than I was have so much power over me? Why didn’t I just keep knocking until she relented? Why didn’t I call a friend who would have said, “this is bullshit.” It would have at least helped me to feel validated in a moment where I felt utterly discarded.

I don’t feel discarded by either Dana or Argo. I feel that I have proven to them the worst side of me, the one that was waiting to get out and exorcised like a demon. The problem comes in when I think that is all they think of me, when I have proven to both of them over the years that it simply isn’t true. Especially with Dana, there were far more years of goodness than there ever were of strife, or perhaps I was just unaware of it because Dana tends to keep her cards close to her chest where no one can see them. I wish I had been more patient, more kind to Dana, because she felt like her feelings were always going to be invalidated and it wasn’t worth talking to me at all… when I never felt that was true, because even if I disagreed with her, that didn’t mean I wasn’t listening, wasn’t taking in her words, wouldn’t come back to her and say, “I’ve thought about it, and you were right.” Because of course the post-mortem took way longer than the disagreement itself, even if we’d come to a resolution.

It was the same with Argo. I had to learn to listen, really listen, but we were both so justice-oriented and convinced we were right that neither of us would fold until we’d had some time and space to think about it. Our inner eight-year-olds were attractive, because I think we would have made just as much headway with repeating “nunh UNH!” to each other as the words that were actually said. No fight was just a fight. It was mutually assured destruction in a race to be even more right than the other one. I think it’s one of the reasons I love her so much. She was the first person to actually stand up to me and call me on my bullshit and 9 times out of 10, she was correct. It gave me a lot to chew on, and laugh about. I write often about the day she called me a “judgmental dickhead” and no sound came out, I was laughing so hard… tears and snot running down my face because I knew it was Truth.™

And because that’s how she knows me, that’s how she treats me, regardless of all the therapy I’ve had to learn to listen and communicate, so of course when she pushes my old buttons, I just regress into my inner eight-year-old because those patterns are entrenched now… regardless of how much peace has been established since the last time I did something she didn’t like.

I mourn the future as much as I mourn the past, because I moved here when we were fighting and I didn’t have a lot of hope that it would resolve… but when it did, I began to have dreams of an actual pizza night, someday taking the woman I was interested in to meet her because I knew she’d tell me the truth about whether I’d found someone amazing or an equally judgmental dickhead and we’d kill each other inside of six months. I dreamed of meeting the man that would make her heart beat faster, the ending to her fairy tale as well. I dreamed of our friendship making us better women than we were the day before. Mostly, I dreamed of context… the thing that would lift her off of the page because people who care about each other on the ground have completely different reactions to each other than people who have virtual friendships. I dreamed of learning and teaching over and over our lives, the tumble and roll of easy give-and-take… the way it was before we started emotionally bombing each other… Hiroshima and Nagasaki in black and white.

All of those dreams died in an instant as I read that poem, stunned into silence. I was going to go home and crawl into bed sobbing, but I knew I that I had the power to direct my own emotions, so I grabbed Scales and said, “is it time for chocolate?” We got in line for Afterwords and grabbed a table, where I ordered the “dysfunctional family sundae.” When I ordered, I said, “I want the dysfunctional family sundae, as long as it doesn’t come with an *actual* dysfunctional family. And if it does, could I have it ON THE SIDE.” And then I proceeded to eat nearly the whole thing, until the theobromine kicked in.

THEN I went home, crawled into bed, and slept like a baby.


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