Saturday, February 16, 2013

In The Name of Love: A Twisted (& Belated) Valentine To Unrequited Love

I have a scar on the inside of my left wrist, just to the right of center, a tiny oval divot of missing flesh. It's been there since the day in fifth grade when Ricky Doud challenged me to a race--first one to the top of the monkey bars wins!

It turned out Ricky had ulterior motives. Once we were both at the top of the monkey bars perched on opposite rungs with the top bar between us, we spent a few minutes bickering about who had reached the top first (hint: it was me), but then he grabbed my wrist and pinned my hand down to the top bar.

"I love you," he said. "Do you love me?"

Now, Ricky was cute enough--dark, bowl-cut hair framing deep dimples and soulful brown puppy-dog eyes--but he was no Tony Cimino. And though I expended considerable effort covering my true emotions with nonchalance and fake hatred, Tony Cimino owned my ten-year-old heart--as he had owned my nine-year-old heart. In top secret declaration of my nearly two years' worth of undying love, I had even carved Tony's initials high on the trunk of the maple tree beside the chicken coop at our house. My heart was a loyal and stubborn thing, even then.

As far as I was concerned, Tony was the love of my life. I did not want to hurt Ricky's feelings nor did I want to profess a love I didn't feel--not even to get out of the hostage situation I suddenly found myself in. So, I said, "I don't know."

My attempt to dodge Ricky's question unleashed a dark side of Ricky I'd never seen before. He squeezed my wrist tighter and said, "Do you love me or not?"

I squirmed, as much from emotional discomfort as from any physical pain, and tried again, "I don't know. I'll tell you tomorrow."

Ricky pressed the nail of his index finger into the skin of my wrist, the glint of a threat in his eyes. Those eyes had gone from puppy-dog to Cujo in an instant. "Say you love me."

"I won't say it," I said. I looked him straight in the eye, daring him to carry through with his implied threat. Though he claimed to love me, he clearly did not know me at all. I was not the sort of girl to cower and squeal at bugs or snakes or mud puddles or fingernails pressed into my flesh. Not only was I not that kind of girl, I was ever-ready for the opportunity to prove how much not that kind of girl I was.

"Last chance," he said. "Say you love me."

I vigorously shook my head, my lips pressed tightly together to dramatically illustrate my resolve.

My skin gave way beneath Ricky's nail with a barely perceptible pop. When this failed to elicit either a whimper or a proclamation of love, Ricky's eyes met mine as his nail dug deeper and twisted, carving away a little piece of me. I pushed Ricky hard then, pulled my arm free and climbed down from the monkey bars without a word or glance in his direction.

That lifelong indentation on the inside of my wrist was the first scar I got in the name of love. It would not, of course, be the last.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Ode To A Complicated Man

"The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves in them." 
~~Thomas Merton1

My Pap, my paternal grandfather, was a complicated man. The wickedness of his sense of humor was matched only by the wickedness of his temper. By the time of my childhood, he was mostly a quiet man, given to solitary pursuits: reading, fishing, tying flies, staring blankly at the television while rolling itty-bitty balls of Scotch tape between his index finger and thumb. When a ball got good and gummy, he would stick it under the end table next to his chair. After he died, Nan and I found thirty or forty of these little balls wadded up under there like chewing gum on the underside of a diner table.

Whole afternoons could pass in the three-room house he shared with my grandmother without us hearing the sound of his voice. He tended to be most animated around company, though whatever mysterious spirits moved him sometimes did so at unpredictable times and it would be like the sun poking out on an overcast day--if the sun were not only shiny, but quick with a raunchy2 joke and possessed of a full-throttle wheezing laugh that was equal parts disturbing and infectious. For some reason, boredom maybe, these moods would often overtake him while he was driving longish distances. He would crank Juice Newton's "The Queen of Hearts" (he had the 8-track tape of that album in the player in his car) and sing along while make goofy faces or press the accelerator in time to the music. When these moods came over him, he would ask for a smooch on his stubbly cheek, he would dole out affectionate pats and squeezes, and he could be ridiculously generous with gifts and money.

His fits of temper, like his fits of good humor, seemed to sweep out of nowhere, triggered by the teeniest things. In those moments, if his bacon was a little too crispy, he would slam his hand or, worse, fist, down hard on the nearest flat surface and the resulting smack-thud would echo through every cell in my body. He would let loose a string of profanity which rarely made much sense and in which "goddamn" and "son-of-a-bitch" figured prominently. He sometimes called my grandmother stupid or lazy. Once, I saw him drive a steak knife into a wooden table top because she had forgotten to put the butter out for his noonday meal. It was not the forgetting so much as it was her frightened attempts to apologize and explain that seemed to set him off. I never saw him lay an angry hand on my grandmother, or anyone else for that matter, but he sometimes threatened to and in those moments when he was swept away by rage, it was difficult not to be utterly convinced that he might.

For all his oversized personality, my grandfather was not a big man. Even in his youth, before drinking and smoking and steelworking and finally emphysema ground him down, he was perhaps 5'7" or 5'8" and maybe 145 pounds. By the time he died at the age of 67, the steroids which had helped him breathe had so weakened his bones that he was not quite 5'5". He weighed 87 pounds when he entered the hospital for the last time.

Despite his ever-diminishing physical stature and declining health, there was a whole stretch of time during my childhood when I thought my grandfather might be the strongest man in the world or at least in the top ten. I was convinced there was nothing he couldn't do. No doubt his ferocious temper contributed to this illusion, but that wasn't the whole of it. He had freakishly strong hands--he kept a hand exerciser within reach of his rocking chair on the end table next to his breathing machine; until I was in my early teens, there was not a jar that man could not open. He could put together any toy we pulled out of a cereal box without even looking at the directions. With his bare hands, he could pick up a hot coal that rolled out of the wood stove. (I later learned this was less of a feat of fortitude and more a function of poor circulation in his hands.) He could spell Punxsutawney.

My grandfather was an abstinent alcoholic. Though he stopped drinking when my father was very young, I do not say "recovered" or "recovering" both because he never, to my knowledge, participated in any formal recovery-type program (including AA) and because he was, in many ways, exactly the kind of man that people in the recovery community would call a "dry drunk." A dry drunk is an individual who has quit drinking or using, but has failed to adequately address underlying emotional and psychological issues that contributed to addiction in the first place, issues that are often exacerbated by years of active drinking or use.

Pap was a classic dry drunk: moody and often miserable and wholly unwilling--or, given his time and place3, likely unable--to address the source of all his bitterness. He was more than that, though. Of course he was.

Oh, how I loved that man, with his messy, outsized personality. I loved him not in spite of his faults and certainly not because of them. My love for him simply existed alongside my knowledge of his faults. It was not "I love him, but..." and not, "I love him for..." but "I love him and I'm fully aware that he's a crazy sumbitch."

The knowledge that my heart was big enough to hold pure, undiluted love and not just the awareness of, but the acceptance of a whole, real person, warts and all was an invaluable gift my grandfather gave me. That, and the love of a naughty joke--oh! and the ability to spell Punxsutawney.

Pap & Me, 1968

1. As I was struggling with the finishing touches on this post, I clicked over to Facebook to rest my brain for a second and stumbled on this quotation, posted by one of my cousins. Timing is everything.

2. To this day, I cannot hear the Eagles' "Heartache Tonight" without hearing my grandfather's phlegmy remake of the lyrics, which, naturally, included the word "hard-on." And don't even get me started on the flag raising story, which, naturally, made great use of the phrase "blow the bugle."

3. Born February 6, 1919 just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Random Quote Tuesday

"Logic was, I first thought, like a train. Get on it and the rails would carry everyone to the same destination, and when they got there, they'd see it was the only place to be. But I soon understood that, outside of arithmetic class, logic was more like a taxi. You told it where to take you, and it took you there. If you were in favor of the death penalty, it found a street that led to the electric chair and nailed the accelerator to the floorboard. If you hated the death penalty, it took the same street just as fast, but in the opposite direction."

~~Andrew Hudgins, "Helen Keller Answers The Iron" from The Kenyon Review in The Pushcart Prize XXXVII: Best of the Small Presses

Monday, February 04, 2013

Masked Mom's Media Monday: Blogging

I've missed it.

I have a folder full of half- and three-quarters-written posts that should've been posted months ago. So, for the next few weeks, you may stumble upon some posts that would've been timely in mid-November. In other words (as always), read at your risk.

Masked Mom's One-Two-Word Review: I'm back-ish.