Recollections of Orlando
As I prepare to leave Florida and the people, places and legends of my time here, I have been spending time putting things into perspective, in essence packing up the memories and putting them in safe storage. One of the most vibrant memories is of what I call "my church." It is actually a Chili's here in Orlando, but what transpired there, especially over the course of my first two years in Orlando, has become woven deeply into the fabric of my personal mythology.
It began with Tina and the first night I came to Orlando to visit Christine, the sister of my then roommate Kevin's girlfriend. What was supposed to be a week spent determining the nature of our relationship, of the potential of Christine and myself as a "couple," and a scouting mission for living and working here in Orlando, changed dramatically. The appearance of Tina remains one of the strangest and most inexplicable turns in my journey through life. I was actually trying to prove that the vivid dreams I was having were nothing more than illusions and fantasies, but when the woman who appeared in so many of those dreams was waiting on us in the restaurant's lounge, everything changed. It was months before I returned to Orlando. My only real hope was that Tina would still be working at Chili's when I returned, otherwise I would have to no way to find her. In dreams she asked me to find her, and so I did. That mission was fulfilled, but the question of "why?" remained.
It actually took some time to find the place again after I moved, since Christine had taken me there months ago and I still knew very little about where things were in this city. When I did find the place, I stopped in for a beer. I sat at the bar sipping my beer and Tina was not to be found. There was concern as to whether she had quit or gone on to another job, but it was also possible I had come on her night off. I resolved to come again on a different day, later in the week, after finishing my beer. Instead, I was drawn into two lengthy conversations by a waitress named Kim, and Joy, the bartender. Both conversations stemmed from questions about what brought me there, framed by statements about how I looked familiar but neither was sure why.
It was November of 1997, seven months since my visit to Orlando and my first encounter with Tina. At that I time I had been there on what was basically a date with another woman, but seven months later I was there on my own. The next time I came in, I saw Tina working at the waitress in the lounge and so I took a seat in the lounge. I ordered dinner and once I was finished eating, she sat down in the booth across from me and started telling me her life story. I know people who do that kind of thing all the time, gushing their life and their problems over anyone with a kind face who happens by, but Tina was not one of those people. She was one of the most tightly guarded women I have ever known. The rest of the staff of "my church" were close friends, hung out together outside of work and knew everything about each other. Tina was the exception. She was a few years older than most of the other women on staff, being twenty-eight to the usual twenty-one year old servers, and she was in nursing school, working as a waitress and bartender to get herself through her schooling so she could become a nurse.
For a while, my church seemed to have its own reality. My concern in the beginning was how to approach the situation. How does one walk into a bar and tell the waitress that after a suicide attempt you began having dreams in which she figured prominently, beckoning you to find her so she could tell you something? After I came to Orlando, I began writing the story of my experience, but it was not until I was reminded of the importance of making fun of myself that I called it A Dead Guy Walks Into A Bar.
What was strange about my church was that as I started to slowly tell pieces of my story and why I was there, the weird looks, judgments and doubt I expected never came. One of the managers, a sharp-witted diminutive black woman who loved to engage me in conversation, began referring to me as "The Patron Saint of Waitresses." When there was a crime wave in the area, with many restaurants and bars in the area being robbed and employees being mugged in the parking lot at closing time, she arranged for me to have free dinner there nightly in exchange for walking the girls out to their cars at the end of the night. The robberies and muggings went on for two months before the police caught the perpetrators, and most of the area restaurants and bars were hit several times. They never hit Chili's, just everything around it. Or as that manager used to say, "You're our talisman. No one fucks with the dead guy." For anyone who ever wondered, this is the source of my user name here on E2.
There is a sense that people want to believe in something, and in some ways I explain the experience of my church in this way. At the time I saw no reason to complain. I believe we create our own magic, and when we see our life and the components of it as mundane, they are mundane and then why do we live? Within six months I was going to parties at the homes of people who worked at "my church" and was out drinking and dancing with them on their nights off. I got to know everyone on staff and after a while it was as if I was one of the staff. I had the gate codes to their apartment complexes and even the key to one waitress' apartment so I could feed her cat while she was away. I spent time with all of them. Except Tina. For her I wrote encouraging stories when she struggled with nursing school, telling her about my mother's adventures in nursing school while raising two sons and working full time. Eventually, I dared her to finish nursing school and eventually she did. I loved her and I still do.
To me it was remarkable, because I have more trouble believing myself than anyone else, and for me to walk into a bar, tell people I died and was there to find a woman they worked with, was completely insane. I thought it was insane. They thought it made sense. After a while, whenever anyone would say I looked familiar or they felt they knew me, which still happens to this day, I would simply say, "I've always been the caretaker here."
"You will know it when you see her.
You will have no doubt and the sky will turn to gold."
It came down to a matter of determining why I was there, and with so much acceptance and interest it became easier to do so. Maybe Tina wasn't really the woman from the dream. Maybe they just looked very, very much alike. Maybe it was all an illusion and I was deeply deluded. I settled on this interpretation for a while until a series of events happened that, for lack of a better word to explain it, spooked me. The first was that my church, situated on Sand Lake Road and facing Sand Lake Road actually had as its address Golden Sky Lane, the side street that ran alongside it. In the dream I was told that the sky would turn to gold. The next discovery was that, according to the plaque behind the waitress stand, construction had begun on the building on June 7, 1994, the day after my suicide and the day the dreams began. It was starting to sound like a bad horror movie.
It became even stranger when I found out that Tina was from Worcester, Massachusetts, which is where I grew up and moved to Orlando from. She had grown up no more than ten miles away from where I had grown up. In her youth her favorite activity was taking the city bus to the Auburn Mall, either alone or with friends. In my youth I had done the same thing, taking the same bus to the same mall because for some reason I liked hanging out there. We both remembered the name they gave the bus, the name of the route, because we both made fun of it as children. Bryn Mawr. It was entirely possible the two of us had met before.
"I'm not the reason you're here.
You're here for someone else."
To this day I have trouble believing that she had no memory of having spoken those words. I was not the only one who heard them. Another waitress, Kaylee, heard them as well and Kaylee was tuned to my frequency. In the course of working behind the bar, mixing up margaritas, Tina's eyes went blank and she stared forward at me and spoke the words. Two minutes later she denied ever saying them and insisted she had not, but we both heard her. Apparently, this was the answer she was meant to tell me.
Soon after this, Tammy and Christina entered into my life. I learned that the explanations and stories I had written about why I was there and the journey I had taken to get there were not being read by Tina. Tammy found the manuscripts where Tina left them, behind the bar, and took them home and read them. She had always been in the background and was someone I rarely spoke to. She usually worked days and I visited during the evenings. When Kaylee introduced her to me, she claimed to be in awe of me and then warned me about tunnel vision. "I think you're missing the big picture by fixating on Tina. She isn't the reason you're here. Even if she was, she doesn't want to be the reason you're here."
I missed the point, and it was in a large way related to my tunnel vision. I could not move past my need to determine why Tina appeared to me in dreams before I met her and why I needed to find her. My focus was completely on Tina for over a year. Tammy started beating me over the head with words and interpretations. She wanted to be the reason I was there. To a beautiful but awkward and clumsy waitress who struggled through life after growing up as an orphan in New Mexico, having a man walk into her bar and tell her he had come to find her after dreaming of her would have been more than she imagined possible. I ignored what she said, filtered it for my own purposes, and failed to realize for the longest time that she wanted me to notice her and embrace her and give her what I was trying to give Tina. Sometimes I was amazed by her wit, but never as amazed as I am today about how so much of what she'd say to me went completely over my head at the time.
"You know what I like about you, Keith?
Every guy I know stares at my tits when they talk to me.
Sometimes I hate these things because they are all anyone ever notices about me.
You never stare at my tits."
"Yeah, but I do stare at your legs."
"I know. That's why I wear shorts all the time now, silly."
Soon after, it turned and Christina was the one who walked onto center stage after months in the shadows. Somehow, I had never met or even seen her before, but she had always been there. From all the stories of what, at that point, had been a year and a half of me being a regular fixture in the lives of those who worked there, I became Christina's boyfriend. Her own story was wound into mine, a girl barely five feet tall who had grown up overweight and ignored, whispered about behind her back because she had cancer when she was five years old and went through grammar school and chemotherapy at the same time. She was one of the most beautiful people I have ever met in my life, a light of radiance and joy hidden behind the storm clouds of her own ghosts and fears. She was in love with Bill, a bartender there who she had been with for several months before he dumped her in order to "play the field." Bill thanked me for taking her off his hands. It was his loss.
The romance lasted less than two months, and in the end my life was crumbling around me. I felt like giving up because I was tired of struggling to avoid total ruin after losing my job, my car and all my money. When I could, I went by my church, hoping to see or hear something that would give me a reason to push forward. It would be Tammy that came to my rescue, using my own words and my own beliefs to remind me that I could not give up. It remains the most powerful statement anyone has ever made to me.
"If you give up, then what are the rest of us supposed to do?"
In the end, it came together as it fell apart. Before she finished nursing school and started work as a nurse, Tina took me aside and told me she was going back to religion, back to the Catholic Church she had been raised in. She felt an urgent need to tell me this, punctuating it with the statement, "I have no other way to explain what has happened here with us. I struggled with it for a long time, and this is the only way I can accept it. I hope you find your happiness." Her final words to me were an admission that it had meant something to her, despite all her claims that it didn't. A year later she would be the nurse on the floor where my friend Don was dying of leukemia.
A couple of years later, Christina died, and her best friend Erin, who also worked at my church, saw me a few weeks after the funeral back at the bar. Standing where Tina had so often stood, behind the bar, Erin told me that she never believed the stories I used to tell in the old days. Despite the fact that she invited me to parties and gave me access to her home, she thought my story was the work of an overactive imagination. Then she told me that the death of Christina changed her mind. Christina had come to her and talked to her and given her direction. The night she was buried she came to Erin and told her she had become an angel and not to worry about her. The same thing happened with me the night she was laid to rest.
What does it all mean? I don't know. I don't think it has to mean anything to anyone other than myself and those involved. What happens outside the lines doesn't matter. What happened in those days is a very important part of my personal mythology. It was through the lessons I received in those days that I understand my own weaknesses and limitations. I am easily led into tunnel vision. I also give up too easily and take the easier road when it presents itself. I also have a tendency to be blind to what is happening right in front of me. My weaknesses and limitations were exposed within the context of my church, but so were my strengths and my abilities. I screwed up with Tina, Christina and Tammy, but I also had a positive impact on their lives. I had an impact on the lives of all the people I knew in those days and I live on in many of the stories they now tell friends and associates.
After almost a two year absence, I went back to my church about six months ago. A waitress I had never seen before approached me and told me I looked familiar. Who was I? Wanting to avoid getting into the complexities, I told her that I used to date someone who worked there. When I told her who, she hugged me and said, "You're the dead guy? You're real? I thought they were making you up." And I find myself at a loss to explain why this happens. Maybe I do not know the depth of the impact I've had on the people who have been a part of my life.
We create our own legends and sometimes we become them.
Next week I take The Muse to my church. The major players have all moved on, but something remains there. And there has never been a more dramatic worlds colliding event in the history of my personal mythology.
There are angels in the architecture.
To my queens and to my angels,
My dream came true.
I could not have done it without you.
May you find your road and see your path.
We are forever intertwined.
This is not farewell.
This is thank you.
Sometimes the synchronicity amazes me. I was writing this in the morning and went out to run some errands. Flipping around on the radio dial, I stumbled upon a song being played that gave me pause. In the old days, Tammy would often mumble the same cryptic phrase at me while I sat at the bar trying to engage Tina in conversation. "These foolish games are tearing me apart." It is from a Jewel song and I don't think I'd heard it in years. You ever have one of those moments where every word from a song cuts through you as if they were knives and you were butter? It was like that. If I did break your heart, Tammy, I'm sorry, but I will love you forever. You always wanted to sit next to me and you always wanted me to dance with you. I thought you were just being nice. You know, I'm an idiot most of the time. If it helps, baby, hearing the song now is breaking my heart. I forgot Christina bought me this CD. How much else have I forgotten?