The last man I dated with any conviction before the appearance of The Troubadour in this story, over a period of a bit less than a month, called my house “the monastery,” though I’m certain he meant it as a criticism and I took it as a compliment.
I did live in a monastery, in a life in service to a state of self-reliance and the slow practice of learning to write and to make music and to keep the world in fine mechanical and administrative fettle, but that’s a life now mutating into something new and often inexplicable.
Almost from the start, she was changing everything.
“Joebie,” asked Little Miss, poised at my feet in an increasingly other home place, who’d fled the breakfast table, where her father and I alternated cutting her pancakes for her and topping off her milk, in order to change into a ridiculous red party dress, “Will please you come dance with me?”
It was early in the year that’s just now winding out the clock, and I was still in future shock.
I have to wonder if she could see from the bags under my eyes to know that I didn’t sleep well the previous night, because one of the last of my adventurous friends, who was my willing companion in pursuit of mayhem and my copilot for long bouts of roadfarming, in which we’d point my beat-up old Saab in a cardinal direction and drive for hours with no destination, just watching the world unfurl, was at that moment lying in an ICU a continent away, stitched up like a football and completely failing to trip any of the electrical signals that would let us know that he was still in there. She was so small and perfect, just as pink and fresh as buds on a tree, and was twirling like a Sufi mystic, pausing to clutch my hand and shake it, wanting me to dance.
“Honey, I need to get to work to argue with a bossy New York theater licensing agent,” I said.
It’s so easy to just go cold. This is how you learn to live with silence.
She propped her hands on her hips and furrowed her brow. Kids have no patience for silence.
“Why do you have to argue with a bossy New York…what did you say?“
“Obligations, little darlin’,” I said.
“What are obligations?“
And the thing is, I was already forgetting. I’d spent a week on the phone, or texting, or emailing, linking up a loose network of friends scattered across the country to join hands around our mutual friend, who’d lived much as I have, except on the road, moving and settling, moving and settling, amd moving and settling so that he was always somewhere new, or somewhere once-new, or somewhere familiar, but always on his own. Our friend in the nursing trade packed up, jumped in the car, and crossed three states to get to the hospital to be our contact on the ground.
Thing is—you can forget how to be a person, almost. You get comfortable and get settled, and silence becomes your normal, even when you fill the gaps with television and films and Twyla-Tharping around your apartment in your underpants to Sufjan Stevens while the dog huffs and goes back to sleep. You can forget that humanity, and lose yourself in your head and in your slow, mysterious projects that you wonder if, on some level, are meant to be posthumous memorials to what you were doing for all those years in the monastery. In time, you’ll even forget what it means to be lonesome, because that’s just the background radiation left from a vibrant, pulsating, thrilling universe that blew up a billion years ago, leaving you hanging in space, counting your way through the rites and rituals of sustaining your corpus in action.
Suddenly, something changes and you wake up. You wake up.
My gentleman caller and his daughter and I all climbed into my giant pickup truck, strapped her into the booster seat on the velour bench seat, picked out a cardinal direction, and set off, and I was alive and uncertain, unsure how I was suddenly doing all these strange new things at 48, so long after I’d already worked out my quiet plan for the rest of my existence. In a little town well west of Baltimore, we went from antique store to antique store, just looking, until we found a strange little “children’s museum” which called to the little one like sirens on the rocks.
We paid five dollars each and ten for her and entered the day-glo maw of two germphobes’ panickiest dreams and she ran wild, playing with all the kids also running wild in a hopped-up rendition of a daycare center.
“Joebie Joebie Joooooebie come play the fishing game with me and Daddy!”
“Joebie Joebie Joebie come sing with us!”
“Joebie Joebie Joebie you have to watch this play I’m doing with Daddy!”
I enjoyed the play immensely, despite being required to wear a too-small pair of clip-on teddy bear ears that I’m fairly certain were crawling with lice, bedbugs, scorpions, and as-yet-undiscovered influenza viruses. She played the wolf and her daddy and I were bears, a point that gave us both an attack of the smirks, and the end of the play came when she bought our baby and took it behind a rock to eat it, which made her father ask me if that seemed like a disturbing thing for her to do and made me grin like an idiot, proud as hell of a wild and exuberant kid I was just getting to know back then.
At some point, a jagged line of prismatic color started slowly crossing my vision, and, as a mild hypochondriac, I became convinced I’m having a stroke from an overexposure to the concentrated roiling kid energy in the place, but Little Miss was having a ball, so I kept on coloring with her after sneaking into the restroom to ask hundreds of Facebook friends if it sounded like I was indeed having a stroke. The phone blipped and I subtly peeked at it, despite all the signs warning parents to focus on their children and not on their phones.
It sounds like an ocular migraine, read a message, and then another, and I rooted through Wikipedia for confirmation. There was no pain, just a weird jagged line in my field of vision for a few minutes, then it faded. My fear that I’ve been freaked out by children into a life-threatening situation was aborted by incoming messages that added the corroborating point that the sinus headache I’d been having is a standard trigger for such things.
It makes me wonder, though—as I struggle to undo the social tics of a long life free of the complexity of new contact—I feel like the deeper into solitude you go, the more you adapt a defensive role into it, becoming better and better at accepting the silence until it’s all you know. I was not unhappy, not by a long shot, and yet I felt like I’d been rescued, somehow, and reminded that maybe that the last lines of Gatsby weren’t meant to make it so easy to let larger aspirations slip away.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms further . . . And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
“Joebie! How can I wave my arms like I don’t care? I do care!”
My tiny dance partner was jitterbugging wildly on the rug while Lady Miss Kier was belting it out on the hi-fi. I was dancing, too, and I demonstrated exactly how one can wave their arms in the air like one just doesn’t care. She paused, folded her arms to watch for a moment, and then duplicated my flailing almost perfectly. The Troubadour, who was working from home that day, joined us, and I was late for work and I was dancing and it was all okay.
On the other side of the continent, my friend was dying, even as a record he and I loved back in our absurd heyday played in a place that just suddenly appeared in my life, and I was dancing with a man and a kid when I should have been at work an hour ago…and it’s all okay, because it has to be.
And every day, I have to put up with some new intrusion, some new force of change upsetting the ordered life I led for so long, and it’s just luck, really, that made it all happen.
A few hours later, I was alone in a small basement theater in a town just outside DC, where I was vacuuming the lobby and cleaning the ticket printer and doing an inventory of cleaning supplies and candy bars in the concession stands until returning to my office to work on the scheduling for the next season of plays, and my dog was snoring at my feet and everything was about how it had been for a long, long time, except that every square inch of the wall around my desk was plastered with crayon drawings from someone who won’t stand for letting me just sit and stew in peace.
I feel almost panicked, at times, at how little control I have over all this, and yet, here I am, and I think maybe this is better than always knowing what’s going to happen next.
I think maybe I learned all there was to learn in the monastery.
“Joebie?” Little Miss asked, as I was struggling to put my shoes on and get out the door.
“Did Daddy kiss you in the kitchen while you were making us pancakes?”
“I believe he did.”
“Because I was sad.”
“I don’t want you to be sad, Joebie,” she said, and presented me with a new drawing for my office wall.
© 2017 Joe Belknap Wall