(This chapter was written in a 2017 Aspen Words Summer Workshop taught by Chinelo Okparanta, of whom I absolutely adored!)
My body lay horizontally across the bed with my head hanging off the edge. The world felt so upside down at that moment, this was my feeble attempt to turn it all right side up. Glancing away from the yellow water stain on the ceiling that had expanded into interconnected circles, I glanced outside at the mountains outside my window, all connected in a wavy symphony of silhouetted peaks as the warm summer breeze rustled the leaves in the trees. I wondered if everything in the world, except for myself, was connected to something? It was the kind of evening I longed for all winter long, warm enough to be outside without having to wear layers of down. I should have been out there in it, allowing for the sweet summer evening air to brush lightly over my bare skin and help to blow off the self doubt invading my mind. I was listless, my spine sinking heavier into the mattress, weighting me down into the springs as I reflected upon yet another failed romance.
I was supposed to be on a balcony in Italy, inhaling the sweet scents of Jasmine while wrapped in the strong arms of my boyfriend who I had met the previous winter on top of Highland’s Bowl, my white gauze strapless dress blowing in the Mediterranean breeze. But somewhere along the way, the needle of my life got stuck in a groove and it was skipping, leading me to hanging upside down pontificating life, and how this man, this relationship I had fled from in Turkey the week we were supposed to go to Italy, was all that my father had ever wished for me. Only, it wasn’t what I wanted.
A panic had set in as I felt the wheels of the plane land from my First Class seat, boxing me into the murky depths of my mind which incessantly replayed my father’s lectures that began when I was still learning to ride a bike. “You have to take life more seriously. It’s not all about fun,” he’d admonish me as I wove and swerved my way onto our neighbor’s lawns packing down freshly mowed grass into tiny tire tracks. “Make sure that you look for a man to take care of you. Somebody with money. Somebody Jewish. I’m not going to be here watching over you forever,” he’d lecture, waving his hands in the air like a spastic windmill.
Tomás was my father’s dream come true for me, his youngest daughter. A man who I had almost moved away from Aspen to live with in his bachelor pad in Pacific Heights, a cozy apartment that felt like a mini version of the living room I had grown up in, all grown up with Tiffany stained glass lamps with bulbs casting a glow through red firefly eyes, and oriental carpets sprawled underneath antique furniture imported from all his parents travels all over the world.
He had looked good on paper. An Investment Manager, making millions. A graduate of Harvard with a postgrad degree at Columbia. Jewish. Or at least, his father was Jewish, which would certainly pass my father’s criteria. What wasn’t spelled out was his bipolar disorder that leaked out the more the Turkish culture where we were traveling seeped in.
It was his idea, inviting me to come along on a trip he was already planning, to Greece, Turkey, and then on to Italy. “But it’s only been two months into our relationship,” I stated. His eagerness to speed things up concerned me. What was his rush? That time he had slipped out that idea of my moving out to live with him felt like it was more an empty promise in the heat of passion as we broke in every nook and cranny of his pied a terre, rather than a true invite.
Tomás was moving way too fast, but I was done with my life lived in Aspen where my endless search to find that guy to take care of me kept leading from one college grad exploring his new found freedom, to another. NOT the place to get serious about life. Tomás was a real man. Doing something real with his life. A man who knew what he wanted. And so I let him book my first class round trip ticket. I was experienced enough in relationships that I should have recognized the red flag warnings as they flapped loudly in the windless air.
The criticism of my behavior began about two weeks into the trip. Tomás began reprimanding me for everything, the way I enjoyed the prayers broadcasted over the loudspeakers at night that flowed into my dreams, the way I woke up early ready to go exploring everyday. It annoyed him that I needed to go running in the sweltering afternoon heat, despite the dogs chained up baring their fangs and lunging after my heels, their chains barely keeping them from eating me whole. His judgement began to feel like I was wearing a wet wool blanket. I wrote his words down at night to sift through them and decipher what was real and I needed to improve upon and what was bi-polar.
It was a cooler afternoon and Tomás was going on about my not being properly dressed for the stroll we were taking along the wharf. It was when he began haggling the price down on the muscles he was trying to buy off of a barefoot Turkish man with no teeth, where I strolled away. I didn’t like the seething feeling I felt bubbling beneath my surface as I took him in, his smug expression on a head too large for his small stockish body, a body that reminded me of those Dachsund/Corgi mixes. Standing there in Gucci leather loafers, a Brooks Brother pale pink shirt and a navy smoking jacket arguing he argued at the price of .5 cents per muscle. I didn’t care to see his shrewd business side play out on somebody who would probably be eating those muscles he didn’t sell for dinner, and breakfast.
“Come with us for a sail,” the tanned Australian boy said with a wink as I walked by his schooner, his eyes flashing of trouble and adventure as he lured me onto his boat. This was exactly the offer I was hoping for, a quick escape to the ancient city of Ephesus to send the message to Tomás that I was right, it was too early for us to travel together and that his nitpicking ways were slicing into our romance.
Placing my white Adida sneaker with red stripes onto the meticulously polished mahogany deck, ready to be the next character out of a Paul Bowles novel, the word “Kidnapping” shrieked into my brain. “I’ll report you for kidnapping,” Tomás was yelling as Turkish police with sweat stained khaki armpits and black stained teeth rolled cigarettes at the nearby market. I saw him pointing his finger at the boat I had stepped on, and I felt all eyes follow the end of his finger and land on me. Even the slaughtered goat heads as they sat on the shelves amongst the pickled onions seemed to be staring at me vacantly. I stepped off the boat.
On the flight home Tomás had admitted that he had put me on a pedestal that day we had met at the top of a mountain peak in Aspen, but that my joie de vivre that he had first found himself attracted to had driven him to a dark place. That the more carefree I became the more he had plunged into depression. He thought he had wanted somebody who could bring levity and surprise into his predestined path laid out for him by his intellectual parents, but he acknowledged that his romantic illusions of what he thought he wanted were a far cry from what he was really needing. He needed everything in its place where he felt he had control.
Wondering whether the connecting circles would crumble into an avalanche of mold and suffocate me in my sleep with the next summer storm, my 32 year old self recognized that love was not something that one could force, and that I was a failure not only to myself, but also to my father for not having been serious enough while searching for it. One thing was clear, as much as I was not cut out for the men in Aspen, I also was not made for the men that my father had prescribed. I was destined to live my miserably happy life all alone.
Needing to reacquaint myself with who I really was, and not somebody who everybody else wanted me to be, I threw my favorite lacy dress over my shoulders and drove down to a party at a friend of a friend’s house in the countryside.
The pink velvet couch that snaked it’s way around the entire oval shaped room was so low I had to do my best to gracefully plop my lacy self down so as to stop standing out like a sore thumb amongst the crap brown shag carpet and faux terrier fur pillows. I was dressed all wrong.
Introducing myself to the girl I landed next to, dressed far more appropriately in frayed jean shorts and a plaid cotton shirt tied into a knot at her navel, she said her name was Lisa, a perfectly petite girl about my age with enormously round translucent blue eyes, an athletic body and silky blonde shoulder-length hair. The type of girl most men took to immediately. Lisa had been sitting alone on the couch and was eager to talk. “Are you here alone too,” she asked? “My boyfriend hates parties,” she explained, “But I needed to get out of the cabin. Sometimes the quiet can be a little too noisy to deal with.”
She was chatty that Lisa, and I sat and listened to her monologue about Chuck, her wood chopping, flannel wearing boyfriend. “He’s perfectly yummy,” she exclaimed, ” With a scruffy beard and eyebrows that give him such character as they shoot off in different directions as if electrified by their own currents. “The one thing is, I can’t get over his scent. He smells as if he eats bacon every morning, but he’s a vegetarian.” She said, her brows knit in perplexity. “What’s the attraction then,” I asked stroking the pillow next to me. Usually it was the scent of a man that drew me in closer. I couldn’t imagine the confusion that must bring, feeling one’s salivary glands juice up, while being repulsed at the same time. Maybe everybody was a bit bi-polar. Maybe I had been too picky all these years.
It was the gust of mountain air I felt that made me look up to see him enter into the house. His elegant stature offset by slightly stooped shoulders, as if apologizing for his chiseled jaw and strong physique. The sign by the door said “Shoes Off” and I watched as he placed his well worn sneakers by the front door and set his dish onto the brown linoleum countertop in the subterranean kitchen where guac and chip eating guests mingled. Bending his a-framed shoulders over the hostess of the party, he placed a large hand on her back and kissed her hello on her cheek. Was his hand intentionally gently placed, or did it retain some kind of ownership? I couldn’t decipher from where I sat.
As Lisa rambled, I did my best to keep my eyes on her middle forehead so I could also watch as he said hello to friends who seemed so eager to get his attention. His haircut, shaved very closely to his head with a #1 blade felt severe. Were his long bird like legs peaking out from his long white corduroy shorts shaved? I knew his type, another bike racing dude on a strict regime of oatmeal, bike magazines and spinach.
As he moved around the party something black flashed into my periphery and I zoomed in for a closer look. Black socks?! I quickly averted my attention back to Lisa’s watery baby blues and dove back in.
Suddenly he was standing above us, his long tapered legs reminding me of the Blue Heron Crane I had seen by the river earlier that morning. I wondered if his feet were webbed. “You think everybody was on acid in the 70’s when they built homes like these?” he asked, directing his question towards me. His smile was George Clooney-like, with deeply grooved lines around his eyes that spoke of laughter and happiness. My eyes swept the room noticing the sunken living room, the nouveau Buddha statues, the very bad painting of the hostess placed over the fireplace, her left dark nipple protruding out from the bubble bath she seemed to be frolicking in. “It feels as though we are in a badly staged genie bottle,” I replied, giving him only a half committed smile.
“If I had all that drug money, I would have NO house and take off on my Honda to see the world,” he said. Black socks …. Shaved Head … No ambitions, I tuned back into Lisa.
Ignoring our new visitor, she continued, “Sometimes he searches his beard with his tongue for pieces of his breakfast, and licks the morsels back into his mouth.” I looked up to see his reaction. He was smiling, seemingly amused.
Resorting back to our own conversation he continued, “Personally, I’d rather be like Don Juan sitting on a rock eating Peyote while discovering the hidden messages of life that I would certainly miss if I sat dropping acid in a room like this.” My ears perked up and I looked back up at his tall tree trunk of a frame. Searching for life’s meaning was far different than living a lie instilled by controlling parents. I stood up abruptly, ending Lisa’s monologue, my eyes level with his broad chest covered only by a thin pale yellow dress shirt, undoubtedly gifted to him. “What dish did you bring?” I asked, staring into his deep green eyes speckled with brown, like Pine trees in the forest. I waited upon his answer as if it were a clue to our future. “Mashed potatoes gratin with corn,” he replied. An impressive answer. “Made from a box.” He continued. Perfectly imperfect, I thought, noticing that he had a faint hooked scar on his forehead that looked as though an owl had swooped down on a pitch black night and tried to carry him away as a child. I felt something stir within me. A desire to get closer.
He introduced himself as Wes, and told me that he had just been recruited here from San Francisco by a top Architect firm, and that it was a tough decision to make the change because he had a very large family and he was contributing his earnings to his parents who both worked full time for a bro-bono law firm who helped victims of domestic violence. My earlier thoughts of becoming a spinster fell from my shoulders falling into the shag carpet that I was kneading between my toes.
Before asking me my name, he asked if I wouldn’t mind stepping outside to take a stroll under the velvety starry sky. “But you just got here,” I replied. “That’s okay. I’m not much into crowds, and the night is young. I told him that I wasn’t dressed for that. “That’s okay,” he said with his movie-star smile. You can wear my fleece.”
Maybe the journey I had just taken, and all the journeys prior to that, had led me to this very moment. A moment where preconceived notions of how life should be were only just that. Notions. Maybe, it was possible to shed what should be and accept what is. And maybe … just maybe … it was time for me to start taking life a little more seriously and just be me.