My Monster’s Keeper

MonsterI haven’t wanted to write this, even as far back as last July, when I first added it to the edit slate.

So I yanked it, worried about “getting it wrong.”

Then it popped up after New Year’s, while I was searching through 1982–83 letters for topics.

There it was againmy monster—on the page.

The memory had been easily forgotten, since there’s no journal for 1983.

“I’ve not been in a ‘people’ mood lately,” reads the aforementioned page—a copy of a letter to Lindsay Clarke written on Sept. 7, 1983 (photo at left probably taken early that year, in Dad’s den at the farm, likely prior to the Guthrie date with Thérèse).

“I’m finding fault in everyone and trying hard not to say anything out loud. Let me explain.”

I’d returned to Minnesota from Britain feeling more lonely than I’d ever been, moreso after Thérèse and I stopped dating sometime that year. She’d met a carpenter at the theater where she then worked. They married and moved to South Dakota.

So I looked into a singles group advertised in the Sunday paper. That September letter to Lindsay tells the story in full (italics mine, 2015):

“Well, I turned up Friday and drank, and drank and eventually made a fool of myself in a way which ashamed me I think, more than others. Turns out that the members of this group, and its visitors, rarely venture in age any younger than 40, are divorced, widowed, separated … God knows what these people had been through for they all looked tired and lonely. Their talk was of trivial things (one woman chattered away about horoscopes and astrology—perhaps you would have enjoyed talking to her, it seemed to me that she really didn’t have an interest in it, it was just a chatting-up topic. A hollow one, but one nonetheless).

Our discussion question—or topic, I should say—was slang, language usage, popular and unpopular. Of course, being the youngest one there I thought everybody would turn to me for some explanation of just what the hell their children were saying. The conversation was lively, even though after my first few beers I felt a bit surly and disappointed to find my young and lonely self under the scrutinizing eyes of my elders. I felt like one of them! Boorish and old before my time! Where had all the young, silly faces gone?MonsterToo

Well, I struck up a conversation with a bassoon player for the Minnesota Orchestra and in my drunken state tried to impress him with my ‘heartfelt’ appreciation for Tchaikovsky. He wasn’t impressed. His face was flat, his eyes dead. He said, ‘All these stupid people talking about things they don’t know anything about.’ I said, ‘You know, we’re all different. Some people when they’re put in a group situation make statements about things they’re not sure of just to see if anyone will politely correct them. It’s a way for some people to ask questions.’ He still didn’t seem impressed with my observation; so, to keep his audience and to anger him a bit I started asking him direct, specific questions such as ‘How long have you been with the Orchestra?’ and in the attitude of not really caring how he answered—just as long as he said something, anything. In the middle of one of my pointed, pointless questions he stalked off, leaving me embarrassed.

You cantankerous old bastard, I thought, how dare you make a fool of me! I caught up with him across the room, with a beer lodged in my fist and said quietly: ‘You’re a sad, bitter man. I feel sorry for you.’ And I walked away taking a slug of my beer.

Feel sorry for him! I feel sorry for myself, after all, now that I write this and think about that evening, I was in the wrong, for I had realized how much he bored me and I was looking to ‘punish’ him for it. It’s like kicking the hell out of a stranger and then saying to him, ‘I feel sorry for you, you sad, worthless person,’ without knowing the least thing about him.

Monster3Later in the night, when a few of us stopped in at a small local nightspot for more drinks, a group of the singles and the bassoonist were there and I started in again talking without listening. One of the guys said to me: ‘You know, you’ll end up a sad and lonely person if you don’t stop attacking people. You have to accept them as they are.’ I was hurt and confused by this. Was I really so bad? I’d begun to think so.

In your letter you reminded me of something I wrote to you, the bit about physical confirmation of things we call ‘higher’—about possession. I was feeling smug and comfortable with myself as I wrote that, and now I think it is an interesting revelation—you wrote that ‘Affection, friendship, whatever, can be given, it can be received, but not owned … never can it be possessed.’ Why I feel hurt: I think I can receive an unconditional guarantee that someone or something for which I hold wavering respect and fickle affections will never do the same to me. My hopes lie in possession, not simple acceptance. Getting in the way of myself! My inclination is to shudder at this and then stupidly move on … I’m tying myself in knots over this thought. Someone once told me not to be so introspective. I can’t help it.”

The story shows “my monster” in three removes: 1) the 22-year-old who experienced the event firsthand, 2) the 22-year-old telling the story to a trusted friend and, 3) the 50-year-old rethinking everything over time and experience. Thirty-two years later, reading this story, I still feel that knot—tightening like a noose around my monster’s neck.

Sure, I get it. What’s past is past.

But past is also prologue. And my monster is older and stronger.

He’s three parts ego masquerading in confidence and nonchalance, the remainder horrible to other people even as he’s acknowledging his own awfulness and desperately trying to pass off faint sparks of emotional intelligence as bright bonfires of self-awareness. He’s in love with his own story, throwing Hemingwayesque punches with “a beer lodged in [his] fist” and “taking a slug of [his] beer.”

Hey there, Mr. Beach Bully Monster, kick any sand in people’s faces lately?

That poor bassoonist was probably looking for a sympathetic ear. If monster had shut up long enough and been genuinely curious about this fellow human being, he might’ve truly learned something that night—something more than what’s revealed in the letter.

So, well, of course his—my—“inclination is to shudder at this and stupidly move on”—because I’ve been successful at that, oh yes, ending up a “sad and lonely person”—evidenced by the fact that I’m 1) sad and 2) lonely. Even my inability to decide on which grammatical person says it all: “I” turns into “he” (or “it”) because, well, distance is safety.

I still seek not to understand, but dominate or control. “How dare” anyone make a fool of me—when there I was, doing a fine job all on my own.

A thirty-plus-years incident, forgotten until revealed in a letter, private until made public … but to what end?

Possibly, to finally ownbe 100 percent responsible for—the consequences of my behavior?

To be a better person?

~ by completelyinthedark on February 13, 2015.

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