"Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your savior?"
April 6, 1985. I was standing on the second floor of a mall, leaning against the railing overlooking activity in the courtyard below. I was with a friend and we were just passing time. Going downtown was all that was left when other ideas ran dry and I didn't have many ideas that day. I was lamenting a failed relationship with a girl I wasn't even attracted to. I was empty.
The man who encouraged me to take this born again route wasn't overbearing. He was a pleasant fellow. My friend and I chatted with him for a while and we each shook his hand. He told us that life was a gift. We tried to agree, and when our conversation broke off, my friend and I took the escalator to the first floor. We were going to harrass my younger brother, who was participating in a Junior Achievement function, selling key chains.
"That girl over there thinks you're cute."
She had seen me leaning against the second floor railing. An afternoon spent trying to sell cheesy little items in the mall wasn't terribly exciting and the different groups in different booths had taken to chatting with each other. My brother had overheard the girl in the next booth talking to her friend about the guy up on the second floor. He opened his mouth and told her I was his brother.
I was a ship without a sail, a man without a country, and my bearings were about as gummed up as they've ever been. I was nineteen. I had just dropped out of college and moved back home and was working two part time jobs in a nursing home. My car was a 1975 Fiat, an ugly box of a car that didn't run, and no mechanic in his right mind will work on a Fiat. I had the worst mullet ever seen by man or beast and about twenty cents to my name.
No girl had ever openly called me "cute" until that day. If any girl actually thought that before April 6, 1985, they never let me know. Now I was standing five feet away from a girl who was so embarrassed that my brother had overheard her and told me what she said that she was avoiding making eye contact with me. Her friend did most of the talking, but I could not look away from this girl. She was sixteen. She wasn't even five feet tall. She stumbled with her words, as if she were trying to convince me that she was advanced beyond her age and afraid I would think she wasn't.
"I'm having a party at my house this weekend, do you want to come?"
It felt awkward, and it was. It felt dirty to be asking this girl anywhere, especially to a party at my house, which I didn't even begin planning until that moment. She was a sophomore in high school and I had just dropped out of my sophomore year of college. She was too young and, in my mind, too silly to possibly be of any real importance in my life. The only reason I asked her to the party was because she thought I was cute. In those days I needed that.
None of it made any sense. I had invited her to a party that didn't exist, and for some strange reason my parents agreed to let me have the party. For some inexplicable reason the parents of a girl who had just turned sixteen three months earlier allowed her to go to a party at the home of a college dropout four towns away. For some reason the girl's parents and siblings welcomed the college drop out with open arms. Their only requirement was that she take a chaperone to watch over her.
My car was an oversized cigarette lighter parked behind my house, so I needed to enlist my closest friend to drive out to the town of Southboro in order to pick up this scatter-brained little girl and her chaperone. We didn't really know what we were doing, but my friend Martin had a handle on it.
"Remember when we were in high school? Remember all those girls who acted like they were better than us because they had college boyfriends? Now we're the college boyfriends."
It became a power trip. Martin and I had long classified ourselves as losers who couldn't get a date if our lives depended on it. When the girl and her female chaperone, who was fifteen going on forty, got into the car it turned into a prefabricated double date.
"You two seem to be hitting it off."
If the chaperone and the driver had not hit it off, the chaperone never would have let her guard down. She was strong willed and demanding and took herself very seriously. She became like a watchdog, standing by and watching carefully to make sure I did not take advantage of her friend. It was only after Martin and the chaperone went off together to talk privately that the moment was allowed to happen.
They had both been drinking, something fairly hard to avoid at a party where alcohol was in abundance. They sat down next to each other on the sofa in the living room and talked. The conversation became a blur. They were gravitating towards each other, getting closer with each passing moment. A combination of the alcohol and a rush of emotional intoxication caused the room to spiral and disappear. He didn't kiss her. She didn't kiss him. They kissed simultaneously, a moment he remembers all too clearly in his mind. They simply could not stop the kiss, and it exploded, it lasted and it lingered until they found themselves being stared at by two dozen stunned onlookers.
"Stop molesting my friend!"
In those days I was a pushover and a wimp. People walked all over me, as they will anyone who willingly serves as a doormat. I retreated and backed down from any confrontation. For the first time in my life I would stand up to someone. I would stand up to the chaperone.
"We're going outside. To talk."
We would sit in my broken down Fiat, parked on the grass behind the house, staring up at the house and talking. I have no recollection of what we talked about that day, all I can remember is suddenly feeling alive. I had kissed girls before, and it was always a very pleasurable sensation. Something beyond that happened when I kissed The Muse. Instead of experiencing sudden excitement in my jeans, my heart started beating so fast that I could not think. At that moment I became afraid of her, afraid of this effect she had on me. This was a silly little sixteen year old girl and she did not fit the description of the kind of girl I was seeking as a "girlfriend."
Three weeks later my Fiat was still rusting behind the house and I was still riding my bicycle to work. I had the day off and woke up feeling strange. We had talked on the telephone almost daily, but it was a toll call and since I hadn't been able to afford to pay for the calls, I was forbidden to use the telephone to make long distance calls. I could sense things going south, so I decided to get on my bicycle and ride from the west side of Worcester, Massachusetts to the town of Southboro to prove to her that there was a way we could see each other and that I was willing to ride out to her if there was no other way.
There were quite a few hills on that journey, and I was exhausted by the time I hit the outskirts of Southboro. I saw her school bus and pedalled behind it for a while until I could no longer keep up. I kept hoping she would see me, and then hoping she wouldn't. When I got to her house she had already been there and left. He brother told me she had gone to the park in the center of town. When I went there to find her there was nothing but an empty swing swaying it the breeze. Later on I would learn she was at the library, a block away from the park, but I felt defeated and rode my bicycle home.
"Amy gave me this to give to you."
An hour after I came home from my all day bicycle expedition, my friend Martin came by. He had been seeing Amy, the chaperone, regularly and she had given him a note from The Muse to give to me. She had no idea I had bicycled out to Southboro.
She was ending things. At first she went into how impossible it was to have any kind of "relationship" when we couldn't see each other or even talk on the telephone. That might have been enough, but she did not stop there. She went on to say that our conversations were shallow and meaningless, that we weren't open and honest with each other, and that she was too immature to handle "whatever it is that is going on between us." If she had stopped at not being able to see each other or talk, I might have closed the book. She was saying something more.
I agreed to go back to college the following January, which prompted my father to buy me a car, an orange 1980 Datsun 210. He was growing frustrated with my college endeavors, and let me know this was the last time he would finance me. I began going to classes again, and got a part time job working at a gas station. The first ride I took in the Datsun was to Southboro. Being able to actually drive to The Muse's house gave me a feeling of empowerment. I could see her and talk to her on the telephone now, so reasons one and two were removed as barriers. We became friends, carefully navigating the strange bond between us.
On my second visit to Southboro in the Datsun, I brought her a present. Using tractor fed, perforated computer paper, I created something absurd which I labelled as The Muse's growth tree.
"Hang it up on your wall. That way you'll know when you reach five feet."
She eventually reached five feet, and presently calls herself five foot one inch. She was always insecure about her height. Of course, I didn't realize that at the time. I just thought it was funny. I started bringing her stories that I had written, which she read and critiqued. She would express her frustration with life in general to me and I would try to listen.
"It is such bullshit. I do everything for my class and the so-called class president doesn't do anything."
"So, become class president."
I'm not sure why I thought that was the answer to her frustration, but the following year she became class president. She would remain class president through graduation, helping her to gain acceptance to the University of Connecticut even though her grades were never terribly impressive.
Martin and Amy had somehow managed to stay together for two years, despite very different personalities and backgrounds. Martin asked me to help him out selecting his tuxedo for Amy's prom. I laughed at him for being twenty-one and going to a prom, but when I saw The Muse's prom dress hanging up I just felt a very empty feeling in my stomach. I asked her to take me. She declined.
"I have to go with this guy who won't go otherwise. I'm always having to do things for other people."
I was practically living with a twenty-five year old graduate student working on her doctorate in psychology and I desperately wanted to go to the prom with a high school girl. I figured my priorities were messed up. A couple weeks later Martin called, annoyed with being recruited for another task by Amy.
"I have to go out to Southboro, they're having a graduation party and no one there is old enough to buy booze."
"Let me go."
My girlfriend threatened to leave me if I went to Southboro with a carload of alcohol. It took several hours before I could break away. It was after eleven at night when I finally arrived. The guests had grown frustrated, and it was Amy the chaperone who came out first when I arrived.
"You've screwed up again. You're too late. We don't need it anymore."
I closed my trunk, stared at her angrily, and was about to get back behind the wheel and leave when The Muse's twin brother came out of the house. He told Amy to go back inside and then apologized to me. After thanking me several times for the delivery, he handed me a fist full of money to cover the expense.
And I would leave without seeing The Muse.
"How about those Celtics?"
It was her patented line, her automatic response to any time I brought up the concept of us being more than friends. It was the sign to change the topic. She would go away to school in Connecticut and I would not see her for almost two years.
It was our usual routine. We would go to the same downtown bar every weekend, blend into the crowd, drink and imagine we could seduce the waitresses. I was always with Martin in those days, and it was usually just the two of us. We often saw familiar faces at the bar, but this time the familiar faces would be very unexpected. At a table near the door sat The Muse and four of her friends. The last of their group had turned twenty-one and they were celebrating their ability to drink legally as a group.
It was a big night out. They had gotten a room in the hotel two blocks away, planning on getting too drunk to possibly drive home. At the end of the night they invited us back to their hotel. Drunks like us were always hooked at closing time by anyone who promised the availability of more booze. We went back to the hotel, up to their floor in the elevator, and one of the girls had her key out, ready to open the door.
"You guys have to leave. I'm too drunk, I can't do this."
What had been a private party with five girls and two guys became a strange debate between two people. Everyone else stopped at stared. Couldn't do what? One of the other girls said something about us just having some drinks with them in the room, that nothing was going to happen. The Muse repeated her statement and added an apology. We mumbled something about needing to go anyway, and went down the fire escape stairs. As we were halfway down the stairs, The Muse called out to us.
"Come back, I'm sorry. You guys shouldn't drive like that. Come back upstairs."
We turned around and went back up the stairs. I looked at her, smiled and shook my head. We started walking together down the hallway to the room. She stopped.
"No. You guys have to leave."
She would change her mind again twice, all while her friends were safely inside the hotel room. She was looking at me the way she had the night of our first and only kiss. This had nothing to do with anything other than her being afraid of spending a drunken night in a hotel room with me there. Years later she would tell me that she couldn't deal with being drunk around me.
"I make stupid decisions when I drink."
I was unattached with a tendency to feel sorry for myself. My girlfriend of over three years had left me in style, letting me discover her blatantly having an affair in our own apartment. She told me she was sorry, but that she had to do something. We had been too long in a stagnant relationship and she knew she had never been my number one. "Why don't you go be with that annoying little girl you never stop thinking about."
In an attempt to be funny in the face of tragedy, I told her that was tied to the performance of the Boston Celtics. She didn't get it.
For more than a year after the hotel incident, we would see each other regularly. Our friendship was cemented as we shared elements of ourselves and opened up to each other. I brought her old break up letter she wrote when she was sixteen one night when we were having dinner together. The third reason for splitting up, I told her, was now covered. We did talk about things. The open and honest problem had been solved.
"I was an idiot when I was sixteen. How about those Celtics?"
I managed to get involved with another woman I had no real passion for. The Muse took the time to point out to me that I was following the same pattern I always followed. She needed to talk to me, there was something very serious going on in her life and she needed a friend. We drove around for hours. She needed time to open up and then needed time to get everything out. I listened and tried to help, but felt like I could do nothing. It was a strange day. She was wearing jeans and a white t-shirt with a spiral of Grateful Dead trippy bears. When my girlfriend came over that evening, she was wearing exactly the same outfit. They never met each other.
I thought it was odd that The Muse disappeared for two years after I announced I was engaged. The engagement lasted three months and the relationship ended two months after that. I entered a period of severe depression that ended in suicide. When I died, the last words I spoke were a farewell to The Muse. She was the only part of this world that I was unwilling to let go of, and probably the reason I am still here.
Six months after my suicide, I decided to send her a Christmas card. It was something I had never done before, and that year I sent out quite a few Christmas cards. She called and we met for ice cream. Sitting at the table, waiting for the ice cream to arrive, she shuffled nervously in her chair.
"Do you mind if I smoke?"
I pulled a pack of cigarettes out of my jacket and tossed them on the table. "Do you mind if I do?"
Neither of us had ever really smoked before, although I had fooled around with the idea in high school. We had both started smoking the night before Thanksgiving of that year. Neither of us could really explain why. We smoked, and she told me I had changed for the better but that she never changed at all. I told her she was wrong. She laughed at me. We had ice cream.
She invited me to spend Christmas at her house with her family. Even though I had plenty of family in the area who wanted me to spend the holiday with them, I went to her house. Her family was as warm and open to me as they had been that first night, almost ten years earlier.
"They've always liked you better than they like me."
A week or so earlier we had been watching television together in her room. A commercial for something called "Dr. Dreadful's Food Lab" kept coming on. She would act like a six year old whenever the commercial came on, saying "I want that for Christmas!" It was supposed to be a joke, but I bought it for her for Christmas anyway, along with a ring containing her birthstone. Six months later the ring was the only thing left in her jewelry box after a desperate trip to the pawn shop.
We were closer than we had ever been. After an event involving his girlfriend falsely accusing me of attempted rape, I had stopped speaking with Martin. The Muse wanted to know why, since we had always been closer than brothers. I told her everything, but I withheld the story of my suicide and death. I felt that might scare her off and this time I didn't want her to go anywhere.
I tried to turn it around. I told her I was jealous of Martin. She asked why. I told her that I had a very powerful fetish for women's legs and that Martin had seen her legs and I hadn't. I pretended to be a hurt puppy dog. It worked well.
"Saturday night when we go out, I'm going to wear the white outfit."
It was better than the prom dress I never saw her wear. Sometimes the most beautiful thing about a woman is when she steps out of her element. Someone who always wears jeans and a t-shirt and boots and centers her life over taking care of horses takes on a different glow when she wears something out of character.
"It has always been my fantasy to take a woman's thigh highs off with my teeth."
"Oh great, now I have to borrow thigh highs from somewhere."
She borrowed them from her sister. The fact that she wore them at all boggled my mind, and combined with a short white skirt, heels and a matching white blouse created a version of The Muse I never knew existed. We had dinner in the nicest restaurant I could think of and split a bottle of wine. She had trouble walking in heels and kept telling me she looked ridiculous. Then she sighed when the waiter came to our table and said something about never having seen two people so in love.
"What an idiot. He doesn't know anything."
Later, I took off her thigh highs with my teeth. She complained that I did it too quickly. We kissed, but only briefly, and then I left. The situation became uncomfortable. I knew that if I stayed something more would likely happen. It wasn't the way I wanted it to happen. I still had not told her how I really felt about her, and knew that if we were to make love, I would tell her during and it would come off the wrong way.
"You molested me!"
"No, I didn't."
"Yes, you did. You molested me. You took advantage of me when I was drunk."
"Nope, I don't think that was what happened at all."
"You haven't learned anything yet, have you? When someone like me calls you and tells you something completely ridiculous, you need to learn how to say 'fuck you, bitch' and hang up in her face."
Mostly for effect, I said "Fuck you, bitch" and hung up the phone.
She had developed a habit of always acting as if she was preparing me to "handle" other women. She liked to point out where I had gone wrong in my relationships with women. I never realized at the time she was jealous and felt guilty about needing to put space between us. She was always afraid of no longer being number one in my life, that someone would come along and steal me from her.
A week after the white outfit, I told her I needed to confess something to her. It was a cold February night. I walked into her room and took my jacket off, hanging it over the chair by her desk. She sat on her bed, looking at me, knowing exactly what I was going to confess and trying to determine how to respond. The great unspoken truth was about to be revealed, the truth I had been afraid of for the past decade.
"I love you. I love you more than I've ever loved anyone in my life and I think I always will."
I immediately grabbed my coat and prepared to walk out. There wasn't anywhere this could go, but at least now I had relieved myself of the burden of locking that inside me for so long. She stopped me. She made me sit on the bed and listen to her. It looked like she was going to cry.
"You know that I'm not capable of loving anyone, I'm a bitch and that's all I'll ever be. I can tell you that I care about you as much as my closest friends, those I've known since I was a kid."
I thanked her for that and left anyway. We saw each other regularly over the next couple of months. She told me she'd be a lot better for me as a friend than as a lover and then expressed concern that I was sitting alone at home waiting for her to change her mind. I laughed and admitted that I was in the middle of a project to see if I could date fifty different women in one year.
"Fifty different women? What's up with that?"
Part of me thought that would impress her, the rest of me figured it would either make her jealous or see that I was someone desirable. She knew what I was doing, she knew I was dulling the pain. No one decides to try to date fifty different women in one year because they are lonely or trying to find someone to invest their love in. They do it because they are dulling the pain and feeding their ego.
"I can't be who you want me to be, but if I could be that person, you would be the one."
"Why don't we stop fucking around and get this together?"
"Why? So we can make demands on each other and tell each other how to live our lives? So we can have a bunch of stupid rules to screw up what is between us? Why would we do that to each other?"
"Who says we have to do that to each other?"
"Oh, so what rules would there be? Would you be jealous and upset if I started screwing around with someone else?"
"If that person could give you something I cannot give you, then I would have no reason to be jealous. If that person is giving you something I can give you but that I'm not giving you, then that is my failing."
"So, if I were to have sex with another woman, she would be giving me something you can't give me, so that would be okay?"
"What if I were to have sex with a guy with a twelve inch dick?"
"You don't know that I don't have a twelve inch dick. Besides, you couldn't handle a twelve inch dick."
"Well, you are right on both counts, but I'm still not impressed."
"I'm the only guy you argue with that you can't beat every time. I'm the only one who challenges you."
"Guys are idiots. And I resent you claiming that you've ever won an argument with me. I win every time."
"I've always let you think that because you're beautiful. All our arguments end in a tie because we're almost never arguing the same point."
I would have Easter dinner at her house, but first we would go horseback riding. The most central element of The Muse's life was one I had absolutely no experience with. I told her I was ready, and she laughed whenever I made claims that were not really true. She set me up with a horse known for its dislike of riders and we set off on a ride down the trail. After the horse decided to try to scrape me off its back several times by riding under low hanging branches, I told her I had to go back before the horse killed me.
"That is so like you. You let that horse walk all over you just like you let women walk all over you. Take the reigns and show the horse who is in charge."
It may have been the most obvious signal she ever gave me, but I smiled and told her that I would learn how to ride. I started secretly taking horseback riding lessons, but insisted on learning to ride English because she rode Western and I wanted to annoy her. Twelve lessons later I wasn't any better with horses and we never went riding again. She made fun of me for taking lessons when I had her to teach me.
"What the hell is wrong with you two, anyway?"
A few weeks later we drove to Mystic, Connecticut to get a pizza. I happen to quite enjoy doing such absurd things and the girl I had broken up with just before meeting The Muse was from Mystic and I have this thing about ghosts. Put someone on another person's home field and see how they hold up. The Muse trumped anyone's home field advantage simply by making them irrelevant by comparison.
The ride home was a ploy, I had every intention of convincing her to stay at my house that night instead of driving her home. I made claims of being tired and not wanting to drive any longer, and she offered no argument. She slept in my bed that night, with her dog Bear sleeping on the floor. She stayed awake and watched me sleep, telling me the next morning how much I talk in my sleep and how much more truthful I am when I'm sleeping. I was three hours late for work the next morning, only because I did not want to kill the moment. We didn't even kiss each other goodnight, but she never suggested that one of us sleep on the couch.
"You always hold me at arm's length, but sometimes I get your elbows to bend."
"You'd only end up disappointed in the end."
"You only disappoint me when you disappear."
She would disappear, this time for eight years. The summer was too difficult. They became too close and it scared her. She felt she wasn't worthy of what he offered her, and when her life came crashing down on her, she decided she was definitely unworthy. If she left, he might move on and find someone who would be good to him, and yet she held onto a hope that he would never give up. All she ever wanted was for him to never give up on her.
She tried making him dinner, the first time she had ever attempted such a thing. Not being a very good cook, but always insisting that since she was 100% Italian she had the ability, she offered to make him some ziti. He brought a bottle of wine and rented a movie. When he got there, she was trying to turn the stove on, but nothing was happening. The pilot light was out, and her attempts to start the stove had caused the whole house to smell like gas. He went out and bought a pizza.
"I'm in a lot of trouble. I have no money. I can't pay my rent or the expenses for my horses. I need four hundred dollars by the end of the week. My blacksmith said he'd pay me five hundred dollars to sleep with him and I'm seriously considering it."
He tried to tell her she was talking crazy, and then insisted on hugging her before he left. "Don't do anything crazy," he said and wondered if she was playing him. She knew him well enough to know what he would do. She also didn't want him to do what she knew he would do, but she was desperate. When he left four hundred dollars under the windshield wiper blade of her truck, he knew it would end, but there was no other choice. She tried to give it back to him. He refused. She said she could never pay him back. He said he didn't care. It was a gift. They argued over that, and over phone calls from someone telling him to stay away from her.
They would not talk again for eight years.
"I have to give you credit, tracking me down to the company I work for."
"Wasn't hard. Your name is on the company website."
"Someday you are going to find out who I really am and you are going to be disappointed and reject me just like everyone else does. Then I'll have nothing."
"I'm not going to be disappointed in you, I have no expectations. I just need you in my life."
"I haven't been with anyone in over five years, but I know I get a letter or a card from you every six months. That's what keeps me going."
"Just be a part of my life, in any way you can. I'm not asking you for more than that. I just want you to stop disappearing."
"I disappear on everyone, you're not an exception."
"I will never reject you, that I can promise you, and I never break a promise."
"How do I know that I really mean more to you than any of the other women you've had in your life?"
"Do you have access to a computer?"
"My landlord has a computer, he'll let me use it."
"Good, because there is this website, and if you go there I'll prove to you that you mean more to me than any other woman I've known."
They would chain smoke through the hour long conversation, the first time they had spoken in eight years, prompting him to ask if maybe the reason they both started smoking inexplicably on the same day in 1994 was to prepare them for this moment.
"You might be right, I don't think I could handle this conversation without cigarettes. Or without being drunk, for that matter."
And still he waits for her to come home.
She came home less than a year after this was written.