Yes you who must leave everything that you
It begins with your family, but soon it comes
Around to your soul
– Leonard Cohen
It’s always country music in here, always. Always Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings, Gene Autry, Garth Brooks, or 100 other people he can’t stand, and it’s appallingly clear to him now more than ever how he just doesn’t fit in this godforsaken town, but that happens when you lose the things keeping you in one place.
“Fly me to the moon!”
In high school, he swore nothing or nobody could keep him here, and his parents’ disastrous marriage only made it easier to get the hell out of here and head to college. But there she was, the one girl he never had the nerve to speak to in high school, seated right in front of him the first day of freshmen orientation at BU.
And, after learning the masculine art of making an enormous ass of yourself thanks to alcohol, he’d worked up the courage to say more than two words to her; after Commencement, they were married and both had their teaching credentials – hers in Art, his in History. And where, oh, where, was the place she wanted to return to, but back home to that tiny hellhole, so she’d never be far from her family but, unfortunately, he’d be too close to his own.
“Fly me to the moon!!!”
In the past 11 years, he’s made a tentative peace with his father, never quite understanding why the old man had left he and his mother, but at least they can enjoy an occasional drink together at the local watering holes. When his son, John, Jr., was born 10 years ago, he thought, like all new parents, that he’d be far superior with his kids than his parents had been with him; if he’s learned anything in all that time, it’s that he doesn’t know anything about being a parent or a husband, and when he left his own wife and boy this very morning, instead of bringing any sense of relief, all it brought was an aching open wound, a public declaration of his failures.
“FLY ME TO THE MOON!!!!”
Now here he sits, next to his old man, both drinking more than their share of beer, and he is trying to find the words to tell his father how his own life has changed. His father, however, is more interested in solving the puzzle on Wheel of Fortune.
“It’s ‘Fly Me to the Moon!!!’ Good God, how dumb can people be?”
His father always screamed at the television while he grew up, so it brings a creeping grin to his face knowing some things don’t change. Not that he should pretend to imagine that they are close just because they share the same blood.
He looks at his father for a brief eternity as the old man shakes his head and relights his cigar, demanding the sports car that the idiot contestant just lost; he can’t believe just how wide the divide between them really is. His father worked so often while he grew up that he was more of a ghost than a parent, and after he ditched the boy’s mother for a woman who, in turn, he left just like he left Mom, it made him wonder just why the hell we all look for love and acceptance from outside of our families.
In all their get-togethers here at the bar (or anywhere else) his father has been more of a good time, fun-loving uncle than a dad, a side he certainly never revealed in the past (but one surely glimpsed by all his buddies when he still worked at the fire department); rarely, if ever, would his old man allow any serious conversation to trickle into their time together. Tonight, his father seems stalked by some melancholy that he looks tired of outrunning.
“I can’t believe it, Johnny,” the old man says with a sharp wave, and John is taken aback both by his father’s familiarity with him and his sudden frankness. “She doesn’t love me… Sweet, bloody Jesus, she just doesn’t love me. I finally meet a woman I can’t breathe without being around, somebody whose eyes make you forget all your troubles, and she tells me ‘I just don’t like you that way, Bob…’ You know, like we’re goddamn teenagers, or some shit.”
The old man flags down the barman to switch up the beer for whiskey, but John declines anything stronger; he’s had enough of a jolt for the moment.
He knew his dad was seeing somebody new (wasn’t he always?), but he’s amazed that for once the ladies man was shot down. Normally, it was the old man who did all the hiring and firing in the romance department, and there’s a small glee in the back of John’s mind that makes him think maybe now his old man has an inkling of the pain and rejection John and his mother were dealt when he left, but that vanishes when he sees the tears roll down his old man’s cheeks just in time to welcome the shot glass he greets his lips with.
Suddenly, he realizes John, Jr. must feel the exact same resentment toward him right now, but…no. That’s different; the kid could never understand how mismatched he and Junior’s mother really were, or how much he has resented her for keeping him in this cauldron of old wounds.
The old man slaps the empty shot glass on the bar and asks for a refill, and John catches their reflection in the mirror as the bartender bends to grab the whiskey bottle – amazing how he & Poppa Bear have the same posture, along with the same mask of quizzical depression.
I better say what I need to now while he’s drunk and weepy, like –
“How’s it feel to hurt this much, you son of a bitch?”
“Goddamnit it, we aren’t that different! Just today, I left my family, too!”
“All my life I’ve tried to figure you out, but the answer’s been right there in the mirror!”
But before he says anything, the old man slips and falls in a heap of drunken laughter. “Ok!” says John. “Looks like somebody’s ready to head home.”
The walk is mercifully brief since his dad only lives blocks from the bar. He uses the old man’s key to let them in; Dad crumples into bed but, just before he passes out, he mutters, “Don’t leave me.”
For a second, John thinks he misheard the old man, or that maybe in his drunken reverie his father mistook him for the sweetheart he’s pining for. If that’s the case, he could glide out the back door and, when the old man sobers up tomorrow, he’d never know the difference.
John stares at the helpless, unconscious, unknowable figure he’s spent so long trying to stop hating, then climbs in next to the old man, and holds onto the only one he has as the deep blue dawn breaks.
Copyright (c) 2015 by Eric Peeper
LOVE WILL GET YOU IN THE END
“Being alone has nothing to do
with how many people are around.”
– Richard Yates, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD
Normally, she wouldn’t spend any of her free time around these people (she practically lives at the office, and sees far more of her co-workers than she’d prefer), but she knows the company’s New Year’s Eve bash tonight all but guarantees that Josh Anderson, the one co-worker she does want to spend as much possible time with, will be here. Donna Franklin is only 29, but she has had enough men in her life to know what a prize Josh is, and it’s more than just his gorgeous features – it’s his wit, their mutual old-fashioned tastes (jazz, and movies like “The Third Man”), as well as the instant repartee they shared almost instantly when Josh joined McTeague & Sons Realty just prior to Thanksgiving. Though she knows that it is rarely a good idea to become involved with co-workers, Donna hasn’t had any of this with any man in a very long time, and tonight she is ready to let Josh know that she sees him as more than just a pal.
Donna Franklin may make her living as the pool secretary in a realty firm, Donna Franklin knows damn well that she is far more than just her job description (even if hardly anyone else in this room does) – Donna graduated with a BA in English Lit from UC Berkley 8 years back, has written no less than six romance novels that no one has published (yet), and is a woman of culture and class. Sure, none of her prior relationships have worked out; sure, no one has ever proposed to her; sure, she doesn’t have any kids (yet); sure, she still lives with her folks here in Berkley (college loans are a bitch); sure, she has invariably spent the holidays solo (not once has she rung in the new year with a kiss), but Donna is equally sure that tonight may be the beginning of the end of all that nonsense.
McTeague & Sons rented a ballroom at a Marriott for this bash tonight, complete with an open bar, and there has been a helluva turn out; Donna guesses there must be close to 200 people here, and that’s a credit to her bosses inviting clients as well as employees. And, naturally, damn near all of them are couples.
Being around all these colleagues and total strangers making mindless small-talk (all she’s heard from these people is how wonderful their year was, how great their marriages are, kids about to be born, et cetera) suddenly makes Donna realize just how few close friends she really has; yes, she talks with her folks, but most of her best friends are ones she went to college with, and they’ve long since scattered to other lives, though they remain in touch. She gets along with her co-workers well enough, but Donna spends most of her time reading or writing, save for those periods when a boyfriend enters the picture; she’s been lonelier far longer than she’ll ever admit to (yes, even during some of the relationships she’s found herself in over the years).
Her bosses hired a DJ to keep things lively tonight, and he’s been hosting some karaoke for the past hour or so; at the moment, somebody Donna doesn’t recognize is butchering Elton John’s “Love Lies Bleeding.” In spite of this guy’s spectacle, Donna thinks she may try some karaoke herself whenever Josh finally shows. Maybe she can give him a hint of how much she wants him by singing something like “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” while giving him the kind of looks guaranteed to rev up his engine.
Donna was instantly attracted to Josh the first moment she saw him around the office, but it was his third day on the job when she learned that a real mind lay behind those baby blues. She’d been heading out for her lunch break when she passed Josh’s office and heard his soft voice mutter, “The answer is meaningless unless you discover it for yourself.” That stopped her cold; Donna was rereading Of Human Bondage, one of her favorites, and had brought it with her to work. Anyone who had read it, let alone quote it, was more than enough to arouse her interest (among other things).
“Pardon?” she’d said.
Josh simply pointed to the shopworn paperback sticking out of her purse and smiled. “Maugham knew what he was talking about.”
That did it. Instead of heading out to the park for lunch as she normally did, Donna spent that lunch hour eating her tuna fish sandwich in Josh’s company talking books and having plenty of laughs, and things have been that way in all the weeks since.
Aside from his weakness for great books, though, Donna actually doesn’t know a whole lot more about Josh yet; he’s always been a bit evasive about his private life, but she’s just chalked it up to a slight shyness, something she finds endearing since he sells real estate for a living, and is apparently more at ease talking to perfect strangers than new friends. Hopefully, that will soon change between them.
It is just after 11:00 p.m. and this place is really starting to fill up, but Josh is nowhere to be seen. She heads over to the bar to grab a fluke of complimentary champagne when she notices, at the other end of the bar, the type of woman she hates just on general principle – a tall, blonde knockout in a low-cut dark blue dress, sans back. Of course, all the guys in this woman’s orbit (married or not) are drooling at the sight of this stunner and crowd her to get a word in. It makes Donna want to vomit; as loathe as she is to admit it, just once she’d love to have men pushing each other out of their way to spend two seconds with her; it’s women like this that make Donna so timid to even think about approaching a man because she knows, down deep, that this is the type of woman they prefer, and Donna knows she’ll never be in that league.
Donna turns her attention to the alcohol that the bartender just placed in front of her when, out of the corner of her eye, Donna spies a man stroll up behind Ms. Bimbo and kiss the back of her neck. She notices he is even clad in a dark blue suit to match her dress (how fucking adorable), when she realizes that the man is none other than Josh.
When he slides his arms around Ms. Bimbo’s waist, and she reciprocates by tilting her head back to greet his mouth with a warm kiss, Donna feels a vice-like grip strangle her heart in a way that she’s felt far too many times. In the past, Donna has learned that nothing does the heart more damage than an “I love you” said or unsaid at the wrong moment, but now she understands that there is one thing more toxic – knowing that there isn’t even the chance of hearing those three words from the one you want to hear it from.
She downs her champagne so she can slip back to her public solitude undetected, but, unfortunately, the second she turns her back, she hears him.
She turns around. “Oh, hey, Josh. Happy New Year.”
He smiles. “Same to you. This is my girl, Elaine.”
She and Ms. Bimbo shake and exchange pleasantries. “You’ve never mentioned you have a girl, Josh.”
“Well, we’d started seeing each other just before I joined McTeague, and, you know… I didn’t want to spook our chances or anything. I’ve been through enough girls to know what a prize she is, and we’re moving in together next week!”
“Well,” she says, “congrats to you both.” They give one another the kind of look that makes Donna want to reach for the razor blades, and Donna has the nauseating feeling that Ms Bimbo can tell exactly how lonely Donna is by her reaction to how tightly Josh holds her.
“You here by yourself, Donna?” Josh asks.
“Yes,” she replies absently.
“Well,” he says, “let’s not pretend to be strangers! Let’s ring in this new year together!”
“Oh, no!” she answers, her courage rising to match her bitterness. “I wouldn’t want to interfere! I’ll let you enjoy each other while everything is still so magical and wonderful that you both shit rainbows at the stroke of 12!”
They both look like they’ve just been kicked in the stomach. “Donna, that’s out of -”
She’s gone before Josh can finish his sentence, off to the restroom.
Donna avoids looking at her reflection in the large mirror along the wall of the ladies room, not wanting another peek at the person so obviously unsuited for anyone. She beelines for the nearest stall and shuts herself in, just wanting to be alone for minute and do her damn best not to cry. She should just head home, but that champagne has already made her a bit tipsy, so she knows she’ll have to hang out her for a bit until she sobers up enough to drive. On the other hand, maybe splashing some cold water on her face will help speed up sobriety, so she heads to the sink (proudly not crying) and runs her petite hands under the faucet when none other than Ms. Bimbo herself strolls up to the sink right next to her to freshen up.
Bimbo doesn’t say anything, and Donna certainly has nothing to say to her, so she just grabs some paper towels and dries her face, but she stops Donna on her way out.
“Believe me, I know how you feel,” she gently says. “Before meeting Josh, I was single for close to five years, and I’d given up. But trust me, honey, love gets you in the end.”
Donna would love little else than to clock this bitch, and tell her that, indeed, love has “gotten” her enough for one lifetime, but… Donna just walks out and heads back to the bar for more champagne.
Fuck it, she can call a cab if she has to.
And before she knows it, they have less than 60 seconds until the New Year.
The rented big screen TV next to the karaoke stage shows the ball slowly dropping in Times Square and the ballroom crowd joins the masses in New York for the countdown:
Donna’s saved some bubbly in her glass so she can “toast” the New Year. She’s gotten so tired of telling herself that this year will be different; that this will be the year she’ll finally be published and quit her day job; that this will be the year she finally finds a love that will last, so she stops herself before she can even think any of these things again, and –
“HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!!!”
Instead, Donna just drains the rest of her champagne. In spite of herself, Donna gazes at all the couples, all of them intimately happy and kissing in the New Year. She asks for yet another glass of booze, and it’s only then that some of her co-workers quit sucking face long enough to remember she still exists and wish her a Happy New Year.
“Oh, no,” she says cheerfully. “I don’t need your pity.”
They laugh politely, but she doesn’t think they realize how serious she is. That, plus the sight across the room of Josh and his girl making out like their train is about to crash, gives Donna an idea of how to show everyone here just how serious she is.
Donna heads to the karaoke stage and asks the DJ to call up an old favorite of hers – “Only You.” She’ll sing a completely sarcastic version of this, maybe throw in a few “fuck yous” into the lyrics, and then, before she can get booed off, she can give a little speech, something like:
“I want to send a big thank you to all you couples brave enough to come out tonight and show us all just how happy you really are! Honestly, where would you all be without us poor single folks to bask in the glory of your perfect lives?! And I certainly can’t forget to give a shout out to all you that share your romantic wisdom with us single lepers! May the world always be up to its eyeballs in assholes like you!!!”
But she’ll save all that until after her song.
Now, the song begins, but Donna barely gets started before she drunkenly fumbles “Only You” into “Lonely You,” and suddenly, she can’t fend off the pain anymore of all her failures, especially the sight in her mind’s eye of all the men (including Josh) whom she thought would be her everything.
All her bitter heartaches flood forth and, as tears spring to her eyes, Donna Franklin, without a trace of sarcasm, sings her heart out.
Copyright (c) 2014 by Eric Peeper
WHAT LOVE TELLS ME
Martha, Martha, you are anxious about many things.
There is need of only one thing.
– The Gospel According to St. Luke, 10:41
Everyone knows for sure their lives will be nothing like their parents’, and for Lizzie McClane to be in the same church where she spent childhood this Easter Sunday, that is all the proof she requires. Lizzie’s father ditched her and her mother when Lizzie was still in diapers; her mother promptly found Jesus, giving her the only crutch she’d need for life, and Mom made certain her daughter would rest her life’s weight on the same brace.
Throughout her adolescence, Lizzie’s mother instilled in her daughter that men would only take what they wanted and leave. Her cynicism was not unfounded, nor truly bitter, just sad and vacant. Lizzie never saw her mother cry, but still always understood how broken she was. Mom’s cardinal advice was, “God has His plan for you – and it includes no man!” As she grew older, Lizzie refused to believe this, and while she easily had boyfriends that her mother never knew about, most of them only reinforced her mother’s warning.
Then, late last year, just before she turned 23, Lizzie met Darren.
Upon her high school graduation, Lizzie went straight to work so she could afford her own place and live her life her way….and going to church would not be a factor. After nearly four years, however, she felt something was missing, and it wasn’t just the presence of a man. Perhaps it was some latent Lutheran guilt, but Lizzie began attending services again with her mother, and it was there she met Darren Klein, 26 years old, new to the area, and perfect. Church was the last place Lizzie ever expected to find a man, but right from the beginning, something told them both that this could be serious, so maybe her mother had been right about the divinity that shapes our ends, etc.
Their first date didn’t foreshadow anything spectacular, it was just a private picnic on a summer evening, but Darren’s easy charm made it heaven. As she took Darren inside her for the first time, surrounded by the damp, soft grass, Lizzie thought the spark in his eyes outshone the bright stars overhead; the moon was bright, yes, but his breath on her cheek was far more soothing.
Afterwards, bathing in the soft glow of their nascent love, Lizzie hoped those distant stars overhead had been forged just to shine on a moment so perfect.
Her reverie fades as the pastor’s sermon concludes; appropriately enough, today’s homily centers around the nature of love, and Pastor Josephson is outlining the origins of the hymn “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go,” which was written, he reveals, by Scottish minister George Matheson in the late nineteenth century.
“Matheson never married,” he elaborates. “In his younger days, Matheson was engaged, but when he learned he had an eye disorder that would gradually rob him of his sight, his intended felt she could not live her life with a blind man and left him. Matheson, however, never despaired and found comfort in the Lord.”
Pastor Josephson smiles at that anecdote before going on. “Many years later, the imminent marriage of his sister, who’d been his caretaker for all those years, prompted him to pen those beautiful words celebrating Our Heavenly Father’s boundless love. Let us now internalize this message, dear friends in Christ, and allow it to be our prayer of love.”
Lizzie is the first to reach for the hymnal, hungry to find these words. The organ strikes up, and time stretches as the congregation sings with one unified voice.
In absolute darkness, he has staved off bitterness every minute of every day since learning that his reward for serving God meant losing both his eyesight and his great love. Tomorrow, the one who has been his eyes for so long will be married away. Of course he is happy for his sister; part of him wishes that he could see how brightly the light of love will glow inside her as she and her husband exchange their vows, but he also knows how sharp the sight of that would be to his tender heart; the news of her engagement alone brought a pain blinding enough to remind him how long it had been since he’d felt anything so beautiful.
For all these years, the two things that have comforted him have been the presence of the sister he couldn’t see, and the equally invisible presence of the Lord. If He wasn’t truly there, which he’s increasingly thought likely, then……..no, no, then absolutely everything would be meaningless. But what kind of master does he serve? If God is love, why did God create Adam to love him back? And what of the expulsion from Eden? Was that God’s manner of making his creations feel the pain and confusion He felt at man’s fall?
Even after 20 years, he can still see her radiance as clear as fresh snow. Once his eyesight was gone, he’d regretted any time he’d closed his eyes while kissing her; the first time he gazed into her eyes, he knew those warm, piercing blues would be the calm of his every storm.
But that was then. Now the memory of that blissful countenance both heals and burns with equal precision.
His sister and her husband-to-be had invited him to dinner this evening, but he needs his solitude tonight. He’d planned to rework a sermon on the suffering of Job to distract him, but he knows that won’t do. He picks up his pencil and finds some paper; for the first time, he’s not sure there’s a God who’ll listen, but he is 20 years tired of trying to outrun this.
As he finds the words he needs, tears that he cannot see form in eyes that can only see the sole soul he’s ever loved.
From The Hymnal:
O Love, that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
O Light, that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to Thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in Thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.
O Joy, that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.
O Cross, that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.
Lizzie cannot explain why, but these words have shifted the pendulum of her heart; squeezing Darren’s hand as the congregation sings, Lizzie McClane spills the happiest tears of her life.
Copyright (c) 2018 by Eric Peeper