[I] may be crazy but I'm the closest thing I have to a voice of reason.

23 March 2010

It Happened Like This

Welcome to the next installment of The Movie Lovers. I’ve included the last paragraph from Prelude Part 2, just for a bit of continuity.

I grew up in an outwardly happy culture that was inwardly steeped in rage and sorrow, raised as I was by the generation who fought a “war” that was, in fact, a never ending police action. Some of this I began to understand when, as a young woman, I saw Apocalypse Now and later met my soldier father as if for the first time. And some of it I came to understand when I experienced my own generation’s unofficial war: AIDS. My comrades-at-arms were spit upon just as my father and his were. We still don’t have a movie to explain us.

Prelude, part 3

As fate would have it, my father died to me when Jose was born, in February of 1964. And when Jose died thirty years later, my father died all over again, buried memories surfacing like hungry ghosts. Haunted by my own forgotten past, I began to grieve for the first time, to mourn for what I had lost decades before my friendship with Jose had even begun.

It happened like this.

In the winter of 1963 President Kennedy was shot and killed, which I don’t actually remember, but some time after Christmas that year I flew with my mother to a little town in Oregon to attend my great grandfather’s funeral, which I do remember even though I was only three; my father, a soldier serving in Viet Nam, disappeared right after. I asked my mother where he’d gone, but instead of explaining service or duty or divorce, she gave me the same answer she’d given when I asked where grandpa went: “Away. And he’s never coming back.” My first experience with death -- my first two experiences -- came at a time when every American family seemed to be losing fathers and grandfathers; sons; a time when the whole country watched in shock as the complications of an undeclared war abroad and civil unrest at home murdered the men we had built our lives around. But war, protest, assassination, divorce, these were not words spoken in my mother’s family. Few words were spoken in my mother’s family that did not revolve around work or meals or any of another thousand daily tasks, and so in the rhythm of daily life I learned that the people I loved could go away and never came back.

Allowed neither to question the parameters of my world nor to grieve, I did what so many do: I made the pain disappear by refusing to let it show. Problem was, who I was and how I felt wasn’t just hidden from the world, it became hidden from myself as well. By the time I met Jose, I was a stranger in my own life. I just didn’t know it. Growing up, I was an outwardly compliant, intelligent, even eager child, but my inner life spun on a knife-edge. Perhaps I’d be considered just an average kid today. Maybe I was even then. In any case, I grew up in a world where children didn’t have tempers and teenagers couldn’t have depressions. They had attitudes. For me, puberty heralded not only hormones but also head-slamming headaches and suicidal ideation, but the only words I’d learned to describe my experience were “the curse,” “bitch,” and “baby!” It was a childhood guaranteed to produce the woman I became, someone for whom every relationship -- every close friendship, every sexual encounter -- was an opportunity to suck at a breast that had run dry long before I was born. My composed exterior masked an interior that leaked out only through my taste in music: fast, hard, screaming-loud. No one was listening.

My family didn’t fail me. And they didn’t fail to love me. They just failed to see me. From family I learned the pain of saying not what I felt but what was expected, the punishment of asking not for what I needed but for what was possible. I can’t say that meeting Jose changed all this, we were friends for only four years before he died, but I can say this: Jose’s friendship marked the first time I loved anyone without making the child’s bargain I had come to understand relationships to be. It wasn’t what I had with Jose so much as what I didn’t: I didn’t have to fantasize the impossible; I didn’t have to take what was given but secretly wish for something else, something more; I didn’t have to second-guess what the other person was feeling before I decided how I felt; and I didn’t have to be anyone but myself. Through Jose’s friendship I experienced the joy of being seen, and for the first time I knew the freedom of being loved for who I was, instead of in spite of it.

Jose and I loved books, we loved writing, we loved movies, and we loved each other. And although Jose was gay, brown, and from a privileged landed class who lost everything to communism and the subsequent emigration to the US, while I was straight, white, and a third-generation American from a working class family that raised its kids to think they were middle class, inside we were alike. And it was from the inside that Jose and I saw each other. How we differed was mainly in the way others saw us. Jose had the common touch: he could say anything to anyone about anything. He could talk about his novel, his travels, himself; about being gay, being ill with the effects of HIV, being on disability; about being from Nicaragua, not Mexico, becoming a Sandinista to teach the poor to read and then learning that the Sandinistas executed homosexuals. No matter what he said, everybody loved Jose. Me, I was nervous about sharing who I was and how I felt, and when I did, others tended to have strong reactions. Just as it was with my family, these weren’t necessarily positive reactions.

Upon viewing the stars as they mapped themselves out at my birth, an astrologer friend once told me that I bear something called a grand cross. Some might call this a fancy way of saying I had a big chip on my shoulder, for a grand cross indicates someone who is sure to bristle when demands are made to reveal emotion; one who is inclined to be in a near-constant state of rebellion; a willful person who must do things her own way and who puts up defenses at the first sign of being challenged. For such a one as this, tolerance must be a feature and not an accident of one’s behavior, or so I’ve been told. I’ve often find myself wishing I were more like my father, a man who remains proud of me no matter how many knots I tie myself into or how many times I must say I screwed up, again; a man who somehow knows that each person is always doing his or her best, no matter how piss poor the results.

The year Jose activated his Care Team, which is what he called the circle of friends who helped him as his health declined, I was the administrator at a place called The Writing Center, a tutoring facility at the university where Jose and I first met. The position was temporary, transitional, a nine-month appointment while a search was conducted for a Ph.D. to run the place, but the offer had come after three frustrating years of trying to cobble together work as a writer, an editor, a tutor, anything in my field, and since I had trained at The Writing Center as a grad student, the job seemed a shoo-in. I accepted in anticipation of experiencing some much needed success. See, it wasn’t just my career that wasn’t working at that time. My friendship with Jose was one of the few bright spots in a life that wasn’t working in so many ways, including in my marriage. I could say that I felt like a failure; I never slowed down long enough to feel much of anything. Except intolerance. I felt that often enough, though I wouldn’t have believed it if you had told me at the time. I thought the way I felt was just fine: I was intolerant of intolerance, intolerant of others who were intolerant. I have come to understand that this is my biggest character flaw. I’ve tried -- I am still trying -- to be accepting of faults, to keep in mind the fact that we all learn our lessons in our own way, at our own pace, in our own time. I want to be tolerant, I do. All the same, I was quick to judge human failings then, and I am quick to see them now. Jose’s mother, Sonia, may have seen me as an angel because I loved and cared for her son as he died, but too many of the graduate assistants who worked at the Writing Center during the same time period would have painted the flip-side, the portrait of a woman with exacting and inflexible standards, someone unyielding. That year at the university was not the simple success I had hoped for. Nothing was.

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