With just a tad of a snide edge in her Australian accent she wondered about my butterfly pins, as in “What’s up with them?” At the same time her long fingers lightly examined the broach arrangement of the colorful flying insects displayed on my chest. And then she pointed to the bracelet adorning my right wrist.
At first I wanted to dismiss the inquiry… as usual. To shrug it off. And simply provide my standard offering about metamorphosis: That we sometimes experience dramatic events that alter our lives forever.
And that was going to be that. Nothing more. Norhing less.
But then, for some reason or other, I basically changed my thinking. To self-indulgence. After all it was Father’s Day. And no one bought me a tie. Or anything else.
Isn’t it amazing what we end up confessing to strangers every now and then? Probably because they go away. And take our guarded secrets with them. They don’t linger around or about, like friends. Or acquaintances. Or even our own relatives. Reminding us of what we professed. What we imparted. The stuff that churns memories you spend a lifetime endeavoring to drink away.
Besides, she was a psychologist, as she told me early in our incipient conversation, attending a 3-day convention in Philadelphia from the Land Down Under. So I imparted a short-part of a long story from years back about me and my butterflies.
If I’ve mentioned this to you readers before, please don’t interrupt, because obviously she’s never heard about that time. In West Africa. When we ex-pats were being held – more like incarcerated – in compounds.
A large rag-tag of kid soldiers with carbines was guarding us. And one day a snarly teenager poked me one too many times in all the wrong places. And I snapped. Snatched his rifle. And provided a few angry butt strokes.
Next thing I knew — after an intervening frightening episode or two that I didn’t go into — I was in ‘the hole.’
The ‘hole’, as I explained, wasn’t quite like the solitary confinement you hear about in a U.S. prison. Nor was it like the jailhouse brig of a ship. Such as the massive four-masted steel ship turned into a floating restaurant where she and I were presently sipping beers. Aboard the upper deck, open-air bar of Philadelphia’s Moshulu.
A summer breeze skimmed across the Delaware River from the half-mile stretch to New Jersey and tussled her flowing cognac hair… as I related that the only aperture in this little dirt tunnel of ‘the hole’ was just barely large enough to frame my face.
And there I was. Hours roiled into days. Days merged into weeks. Weeks toiled over three months.
‘Months?!’ She repeated, in a controlled professional tone. ‘That could really do something to your mind.’
‘If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter,’ I said flippantly. But then admitted that it surely did. And continued that: What actually saved me. What saved my patch of sanity, were these butterflies.
‘Periodically, one… or two… would land on my face. Obviously, these lofty creatures had no idea that they landed on a human. My mug had apparently blended into the dirt and trees, beneath the burdensome humidity. Or they simply didn’t care. And recognized my despair. They seemed so goofy. But they kept me in touch. They gave me hope. They made me smile with my heart.
‘So I would keep my face motionless. And my eyes from blinking. Not only to keep from scaring them away, but hopefully because they would return.’
And they did. And, eventually, so did I.
‘And you’re all right with it now?’ she wondered.
‘But of course.’
‘This happened years back. Hey, I haven’t killed anyone in… in…’ I made a theatric gesture to count on my stubby fingers… ‘What? Three… no four months… Aren’t you lucky there aren’t any steak knives around.’
She was amused. ‘Is that how you deal with it? Humor?’
‘Is there any other way? I should have killed my last ex. But I figured what the hell, what the heck, let her latest husband hang her up by duh neck… I hear he’s researching an alibi…’
For some reason, at the very moment, we gazed at each other with some luxury. Not like two lovers, but simply two people who just met and engaged. A man and a woman absorbed in a revealing conversation that had rapidly transpired in the less than an hour since I pulled up a barstool next to her, smiled appreciatively, and facetiously asked: “New in town, sailor?”
Her name, I learned, was Leanne. And at this point she suddenly became aware of the din from the multitude of other patrons and diners surrounding us.
‘Is it always this busy?’ She wondered. ‘Along this harbor area.’
I explained that this harbor area is known as Penns Landing. And it’s been a coming attraction for the city for 50 years. Mostly because, surprise-surprise, the federal government never delivered what it promised by ‘capping’ the Interstate 95 that runs from New England to Florida and cleaves the city from easily ‘sitting on the dock of the bay… watching the tides drift away…”
“It’s also Father’s Day,” I informed her. “Dads get to pay to drink heavily in front of their kids.”
‘Oh yes,’ she realized, ‘You a father?’
I rolled my eyes. ‘Apparently I wasn’t a very good one.’
‘My grown kids still think they hate me.’
‘Any particular reason?’
‘I donno. Maybe next time I ought to learn their names.’
Again she laughed. Her dark eyes sparkled. And I went on elucidating that certainly I was 49 percent of the blame concerning the matters of my dysfunctional family.
However, there is no question that my wife was, indeed, evil, I said. But don’t just take my word for it. There were petitions signed by 40,000 people. Including all her exes. And my exes. And all her forsaken screaming in padded cells. Everybody she’s driven down the potholed road of insanity. Including her parents. And they were once missionaries. Not to mention the police who would no longer arrest me. And the courts who would no longer try me. That is after they finally realized she was like a politician: when her lips moved she was lying. Otherwise she was scheming.
“So you still blame yourself, do you, mate?” I love the way beautiful outback women utter that word: Mate.
“Blame is for g-d and small children,” I said, during an especially satisfying quaff of beer. “So yes, I blame myself. I am still a small child. I used to be a g-d. But then I got over-circumcised.”
And then for a moment I stopped joking. I confided that my younger son was born with every imaginable and unimaginable malady known and unknown. That we had been medical vagabonds about the country seeking some magical pill. Or operation.
And at 23 the patient has survived. So far. Some days barely. And who knows for how long. But there are always consequences.
The patient has been saved in a tortured manner. But at the same time my wife killed the family. She poisoned the well. The older boy, who recently became a doctor, has little to do with her, and especially me. The younger one, after a 7 year hiatus from my life, seeks contact. Or so I have been informed by an avuncular neighbor of hers. But she won’t let him come out and play without her in hand.
And, I noted a tad more than poignantly, and only half-jokingly, that I don’t want my hands to get that close to her.
Hmm… Tired, but mostly uneasy, with this strain of conversation, I exhaled and decried that I abhor Father’s Day. ‘It’s like big bully. I am neither seen nor heard…’
And to change the subject, I threw the spotlight back on her. By this time we had ordered the house specialty of two different large Sushi rolls. And she had ‘tasted’ half of mine. Like many of the Aussies I have known from that spacious country of merely 24 million merry men and women: they do have hearty appetites. For a variety of pleasures.
“Kids?” I asked. “Married?”
Her story folded down neatly into some familiar sadness. At first she never wanted to get married. And then at 38 she decided she finally wanted to get married. And, at the same time, luckily she found someone whom she wanted to be married to.
“He has the gift of gab,” she said. “He’s into sales.”
And then they immediately went about trying to have kids, only to discover after a 3 or 4 and more years of tests, and more tests, that she couldn’t.
“And so I’ve left the future of my parent’s family in the hands of my brother. And he’s been quite fertile about it. So, it won’t be an end to the line.”
She yielded a quick smile that weakly disappeared into her glass of beer. It became one of those soft, quiet moments. The ripples of our mental storage had spread out with the wind that had once assured our sails. And in that instance our stories, the ragged edges of memories that altered our lives, had unfolded from an aging steamer trunk that had been packed away in the safety of our attics.
The sun had dipped over the city’s tall collection of office buildings and evening had cast its early shadows. We then weaved our way through the throngs of people as I walked her the two blocks back to her hotel. To my surprise as we first stood up from our barstools she was as tall as I am. And as firmly built.
And when she wrapped me in her long-armed, good night hug on the Hilton plaza, I returned her squeeze, just as firmly and vigorously. And simply spoke into her ear. I said something to the effect of:
We’ll probably never see one another again. We’ll walk back through the portals into our worlds. And disappear. But the last three hours have been grand. And while loneliness has become my good friend, I don’t really want to jump on my bicycle and pedal back to lonely tonight.
After all it was Father’s Day. And I can’t be a father. And you can’t be a mother. And your husband is ten thousand miles away. And my family is even further. And I don’t want to be alone. Especially tonight. I want to be held. Like the child I still am. And the g-d I once was.
Obviously this wasn’t rehearsed. It just kind of poured out. She took a sturdy step back and just kind of observed me. And like a trained psychologist she simply weighed the moment. And then like a woman, she took my hand. And led the way. Under the night sky moon, until the rosy fingers of a splendid dawn splashed into her room and tickled us awake.
I’m glad she and I met. And even though we’ll probably never meet or have such an opportunity again, I am thankful for the moment we had. And that I seized it. We get such few opportunities in life. Such few chances. And I don’t want them to slip away.
And dats yDrewIS on dis penal colony…