Chapter Six

CHAPTER 6

in·ti·ma·cy – 1. A close, familiar and usually affectionate or loving personal relationship with another person or group, (2) deep understanding of a subject, place, period of history, etc., (3) an amorously familiar act, (4) sexual intercourse, (5) the quality of being comfortable, warm or familiar, (6) privacy.

APRIL 2010

“I’ve been thinking a lot about intimacy over the past week. Well, probably longer than that, but I started to write some things about it last week. Trying to get at things the way C advises me to get at them. I was writing and thinking about the different kinds of intimacy, the different levels of it. There are only so many people that you let be intimate with you – or even want to be intimate with. Only so many people you want to have such closeness with. I was looking up all of the different definitions of the word. There’s an element of closeness, of familiarity, of affection. I also liked the “worn next to the skin” definition, as in ‘intimate apparel’. I liked the metaphor. How many people do you wear next to your skin?”  (Part of an email message sent to Donna, 4/5/10.)

I WAS thinking a lot about intimacy. I was thinking about the different ways we love people. I was thinking about the different people I’d felt close with during my lifetime. The first of April, April Fool’s day, always made me think of one such relationship in particular, maybe the first relationship I experienced that came close to intimacy. In other words, the first crush I ever had.

One day during the summer before I entered the 5th grade, in the week before we returned to school, when teachers returned to set up their classrooms and get ready for the coming year, my mom came home and told me that I had a new phys ed teacher. She told me that she’d met her that day and that she thought I’d like her. It was a prescient statement if ever there was one. I met Loraine the next week, after school one day, sitting in my mom’s classroom, and for the next decade or more of my life, my relationship with her became one of the most significant I’ve ever had.

Teaching at Rohoic Elementary was, I believe, Loraine’s first job out of college. If not her first, it had to be early in her post-collegiate days. She couldn’t have been more than 23 or 24 years old. I was 11. For the next three years, from grades 5 through 7, Loraine became the older sister that I never had.

My mom taught in an experimental classroom, something called Title VII. The classrooms didn’t have rows of desks, but tables of different shapes, chairs in blue and green. It was an “open style” classroom, one that could be easily rearranged in different ways to promote different learning experiences. She taught the 6th grade Title VII class. Ms. Robie taught the 7th grade. Their classrooms were side by side with a small room in between that had the same kind of glass in the windows as the line-up rooms in police stations. People could observe their classes without anyone every knowing.

Because of the set-up of her classroom, Loraine and I could easily play games at the tables. We spent afternoons in my mom’s classroom playing a Scrabble-like game on those octagonal shaped tables. I don’t know why I rarely had homework and I don’t know why Loraine didn’t have after school responsibilities like other teachers; grading papers, making out lesson plans or putting up bulletin boards, but this was our pattern and I was delighted to have her company.

When the weather warmed, we’d ride in her car, a mustard yellow MG convertible sports car. We’d travel East and West on Route 460, never speeding, but thrilling all the same. She showed me how to put the top down and let me help her snap it securely into place.  She drove us to the Wagon Wheel for orange popsicles or orange sodas because these worked best to cool you off on a hot afternoon. That’s what Loraine told me. She also told me to never stare at people in motorcycle gangs because they will kill you.

When we didn’t go driving up and down the highway, we’d go to the teacher’s lounge where I was able to enter without knocking. I’d get a Pepsi and peanuts for myself, a Dr. Pepper for my mom. I’d pour the peanuts into my Pepsi, like Loraine did, and watch the salt make the soda fizz up. Some of the peanuts would float, while others sank to the bottom of the bottle, sticking there even after the last gulp. I did this with a Pepsi a few years ago and couldn’t believe how awful it tasted. What had I been thinking? But then again, when you’re a young kid and the coolest person you’ve ever known does something, you do the same. As I grew older, I smoked Merit Ultra Light cigarettes and wore K-Swiss tennis shoes, because that’s what Loraine did. And even now I swear that I will one day own an MG.

Loraine took me to tennis tournaments in Richmond. We saw John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. We saw Billie Jean King and Virginia Wade and Martina Navratilova. I’d spend the night on her couch in my sleeping bag, riding into school the next morning in the carpool with some of my other teachers who were strangely so fun outside of work. I knew teachers were human, since my parents were amongst their clan, but still it was different to see others in this way. To be taken in by them.

Throughout junior high, I was prepared to be sitting in class some springtime afternoon and hear my name announced over the loudspeaker in the classroom, “Mrs. Barnes, please send Sally to the office with her things.” I’d pack my bag and head out the door in time to see Loraine bounding down the stairs to get me. We’d head off to watch high school softball games. I’d ask, “Does my mother know I’m with you?” and she’d just laugh. We both did. I was as safe as could be with Loraine. My mother would never worry.

It’s quite obvious to me now that she was the first woman I ever had a crush on. My pre-teen heart had no words for such. My high school self knew about girls who liked girls. Our junior high school basketball coach had left our high school algebra teacher for the bus driver of one of my classmates. I thought that perhaps my softball coaches were lesbians, but no one spoke of these things. And none of it mattered to me, anyway. I wasn’t really interested in boys or girls. I had friends, a group of friends who did things together. I dated several guys along the way, but it always felt awkward, always fumbling. I got nothing from it. I figured I just wasn’t ready.

The day after my mom died, as teachers from her school, as well as some I’d been close to in high school, began to arrive at our house, I wanted Loraine. I needed to go for a ride in her car. I needed to be 12 again. She had left teaching several years earlier, but someone had known how to find her and sure enough, she arrived that Friday afternoon. She took me in her arms and gave me the longest hug. At 21 and 33, we were now the same size. I asked her to please get me out of there and after she took some time to be with my dad and to say hello to old colleagues, she did just that.

We drove to a local restaurant, an old barn that had been converted into a nice place with exposed beams and thick, dark wooden tables and chairs. We sat in the bar and I ordered two Seven and Sevens and drank them in quick succession. I needed those drinks. No floating peanuts this time.

She asked me how I was doing, knowing I didn’t have an answer. She asked me about school. She asked me about my social life. I had come out to Loraine a couple of summers before. She’d been the first person I’d ever confessed this to. My first girlfriend had broken up with me at the end of the semester, just before she graduated. I was heartbroken and had needed to talk to someone about it. I didn’t think twice about whom to call. She had never done the same with me, but I knew that she’d lived with the same woman for many years. I knew she’d never married. I knew that she would understand.

As I finished my third drink, she told me not to deal with this situation in such a way. It was perhaps the best advice she’d ever given to me, but I couldn’t hear it then. There was simply no way that I was going to get through this sober. We stayed out for a couple of hours, until she knew that my dad would need me back at the house, until she knew I was sufficiently clear-headed from the alcohol to return to the crowd. She took me home, held me for a good while on the sidewalk to our house, kissed me on the forehead, and told me she’d see me on Monday at the funeral.

**********

“I seem to have a lot of friends, but none of them are here. The people that I like the most are far away from me. I have friends in Chicago, friends in Louisville, friends in Virginia, friends in Maine. I have no friends here. I have coworkers. I work with some people that I like, but they’re not friends. It’s not like I can pick up the phone and ask them if they want to go to a movie or go out to dinner or go get coffee. Nobody wants to do this with me.”

Cindy listens and then asks, “Have you ever asked them to?”

“Well, no. I just know they won’t want to do anything with me. People are busy.”

“People aren’t always busy. A lot of times, people are home doing not much of anything. Not always, but sometimes. A friend of mine called me the other night, unexpectedly, and asked if I wanted to go to a play that night. I didn’t have any real plans to do anything, so I said ‘Sure!’ She could have sat and thought that no one would be free on the same evening she called, but she took a chance and called me and then we went. It really is that simple sometimes.”

I wish I could believe her, but all I can think of is how often people talk about how busy they are. Everyone is always busy. I spend most of my working hours either (a) feeling guilty that I don’t feel overwhelmed with work tasks like all of my colleagues, or (b) wondering what I’m doing wrong that I don’t feel overwhelmed with work tasks like all of my colleagues. I tell people all the time (not at work, mind you) that I’m a bit of a sloth; a very lazy person. Yet inevitably, they argue back at me, telling me that I’m not. It’s very confusing. I spend my weekends lying on the couch. How is this not lazy? But if ever I say it, it’s immediately denied.

Thus, I am sure that the logic goes: If A is true and B is true, then C is true, too*.

(A) Everyone says that I am busy, yet I am the picture of inertia

(B) Everyone says that they are busy all of the time

(C) I am the only one doing nothing

*Qualifier: I took logic as a college course, thus if you did not and this makes no sense to you, that is why. You may perhaps consider enrolling if you wish to keep up with this section; otherwise you are free to move on to Page 68.

Donna moved away. That’s what I think about. Donna lives in Rochester. Dina lives in Louisville. Carla lives in Richmond. I could pick up the phone and call them, but I don’t. They are not here to go to the movies. I could go visit them, but I don’t. Dina is busy working and being a single mom. Carla has two young children. Donna is… unavailable.

Donna is busy. ALWAYS busy. It’s all I ever hear from her lately. And all I hear is via email. I couldn’t call her if I wanted. Couldn’t go and visit, thanks to the crazed jealousy of her spouse. Our friendship is unnatural. It isn’t normal. This isn’t how friendship works, at least not the kind of friendship where you’re told, “You’re the best friend that I’ve ever had.” Those kind of friendships are different. I know, because I’ve had one.

**********

My roommate Terri graduated in the spring of 1984 and I didn’t have anyone in particular I wanted to room with the next year. One of the conditions of joining Phi Mu was that you agreed, should there be open slots in the sorority house on campus, you would enter into a lottery and if your name was chosen, move into the house. I was already in the house, but a spot to live with me was now up for grabs in the lottery. Carla Shepherd was the lucky winner. Carla already had roommate plans for the coming year. She was going to live with another of our sorority sisters in a dorm up campus, one of the great, old bluestone dorms. She put up a gracious front, but wasn’t happy for the change.

On a stifling hot Saturday in August 1984, we moved into Phi Mu 202 together. Who knows what makes relationships work. Opposites attract. Two people as similar as a pair of socks match. Shared experiences or a common set of friends can bring us together. There are as many explanations as relationships. I don’t know what it was that made Carla and I fit, but we have pictures of ourselves in our room that very first day and you’d be hard-pressed to tell that we’d really just met.

Our first semester together was filled with the usual classes and exams, working in the dining hall (we both did), happy hours at JM’s, and Saturday nights in the rec room of the house with Karen and Beth and Stephanie and Becky and the whole slate of us who were much more comfortable in our pajamas drinking wine out of a box or Milwaukee’s Best beer and watching television than partying up and down Greek Row. We enjoyed making up games like Killer Love Boat. Choose a character before the show begins; Julie or the Captain, Isaac, Gopher or Doc, and then every time they appeared on screen, you took a shot of whatever someone had brought downstairs from their room. We watched Fantasy Island and Dynasty and all of the nighttime soap operas of the 1980s. We belonged together, the most non-sorority-like sorority sisters imaginable.

During Parent’s Weekend that fall, we invited our parents to Harrisonburg and we all went camping together at Natural Chimneys. The Shepherd’s and the Stone’s – Susan Stone, another of our sorority sisters who’d grown up going to the same church as Carla – and my parents took over a corner section of the campground. We were all camping families. Every family vacation I could remember involved camping. We camped in every state park in Virginia, leaving many Friday afternoons after school, arriving at Otter Creek or Fairy Stone Park after dark, pitching our tent by the bright white light of the Coleman lantern. We took 2-week summer vacations to New England and the Maritimes of Canada, to the Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge, always camping. Occasionally we’d spend the night in a 2-star hotel chosen from the AAA Tour Guide, but mostly we pitched our green canvas tent, our cots and sleeping bags, our screen tent over the picnic table, and we settled in together, Mom and Dad, Marty and me.

The Shepherd’s camped as a family, too, only they had a pop-up trailer instead of a tent and they tended to camp a lot more often at the beach than the mountains. My dad preferred the latter, so that’s where we went. This weekend though, we all camped together, our parents meeting one another for the first time. We went hiking in the daytime and stayed up late by the campfire. Carla’s dad, Carl, is a big, tall, wonderfully funny man. His daughter is his namesake in many ways. He entertained us with stories of his children, of past family exploits. You cannot be thin-skinned and be a Shepherd. We laughed until the fire burned down, right on cue to Carl’s lowering of his arms like a preacher motioning the congregation to sit after the doxology has been sung. Today, it’s still one of the funniest scenes I can conjure up in my mind.

It was a good feeling knowing that our families got along. Our parents were very different. Carla is from a blue-collar family. Her dad was an electrician who spent his days on construction sites. I always like to point out, when on the Mall in Washington, DC, that the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum is wired by Carl. Joann, Carla’s mom worked for the Census Bureau. At that time, if you called the Census Bureau to find out the daily population of the United States, you would hear a recording of Joann’s voice telling you the number for the day. They had both grown up in Washington, DC but raised their family in Prince George’s County in Southern Maryland.

My parents were both college graduates, both teachers. They were a bit more reserved than Carla’s folks, but that’s about where the differences ended. When I returned home from my first weekend with the Shepherd’s, during winter break of that year, and my mom asked me how it went, I said, “That is the most normal family besides us that I have ever known.” It was true. I felt as comfortable with them as I did with my own family.

That weekend at the Shepherd’s occurred in December, after finals were over, but before Christmas. Carla’s dad had season tickets to the Redskins, a prized possession handed down from generation to generation. Each year Carla and John, her younger brother, each got to pick a game and the tickets went to them. They could invite whomever they chose to go along. That year, Carla chose a late December game against the St. Louis Cardinals and she invited me.

I was a lifelong Redskins fan. My father grew up in Alexandria, VA, just across the Potomac River from Washington. My granddaddy loved the Redskins from the beginning, when they were a losing bunch. “Poor old ‘Skins,” he’d say week after week as they got clobbered. But in the 1980s, the Redskins were one winning football team. Joe Gibbs and Joe Theisman and John Riggins and Mark Mosely and Art Monk – they were winners. I had never been to a game.

We donned several layers of clothing, stuffed about a six-pack of beer each in our longjohns and pants and the inner pockets of our down jackets, me getting the most because I was the most innocent looking of the bunch. It was FREEZING cold, and we got drunk and ate hot dogs, and the Redskins won on a last second field goal. It was wonderful; Carla and John and their cousins, Kathleen and Brian – and me. I was one of them.

The week after New Year’s, that same year, Carla came to visit us. We didn’t have beer and football to offer, but she loved doing needlework with my mom and hanging out for a quieter, if not just as nice, visit. One night, my dad took the two of us bowling at Walnut Hill Lanes down the street. My dad had been an avid duckpin bowler in his twenties and while he’d rarely bowled in all the years I could remember him, he was still pretty good, even at ten pin. We bowled a series of games, taking turns winning and bragging until my dad decided to squash us both. We didn’t stand a chance.

When we got home afterward, we couldn’t find my mom. My parents had a strange habit of playing this game, hiding from one another only to sneak out from behind a door, jump out last-second for a good scare. We looked everywhere for my mom, all of the normal spots, but couldn’t find her. My dad finally went to get the broom, thinking that somehow she had gotten up into the attic and was going to fly out at us at any moment. Our attic was accessible from a door in the hall that you pulled down from the ceiling, the ladder folding down behind it. The large spring on the left-hand side had been off track forever and you needed to use the broom handle to hold it in place as you pulled down the stairs. Dad was about halfway through this process when my mother walked out of the den and said, “John, what ARE you doing?” She’d been on the back porch the whole time. When Carla tells stories of my parents today, this is the one she tells. It’s sadly one of the few that she knows, but she makes the right assumption that it pretty much sums them up. They were playful and fun, and in the end my mother was always the voice of reason.

Carla spent most of that week with us and then headed home to spend time with her folks before break was over. Everyone hugged her goodbye. We said we’d meet back up at school the next weekend, early Sunday, in time for hot dogs and beer and the Redskins game on the TV at JM’s. It didn’t happen as planned, though. That next Thursday came with its snowstorm and every plan I’d ever made for the future changed.

*****

I spend the weekend sorting through boxes of pictures. I have hundreds, more likely thousands, of photographs stashed away in boxes, piled high on the shelf of the closet of our guest bedroom. Out of sight, out of mind. They’re on my mind, though, as I talk more and more with Cynthia about family, as I think more and more about growing up. I decide that I’ll devote an entire weekend to organizing them. (Not to ruin the plotline, but in the end, organizing meant putting them in different piles according to time or theme or some very un-librarian-like classification system, and then putting them BACK into the very same boxes and returning them to the very same shelf.)

Hours and hours pass as I go through the piles. There are pictures from the first 40 years of my life, before we bought our first digital camera. There are photographs from professional studios; baby pictures, Christmas pictures, and school pictures. There’s one of me in my Brownie Scout uniform. Why we had this done at a studio, I do not know. There are faded Polaroids, black-and-white glossies with the the curvy edges, and hundreds of snapshots. There are pictures of family gatherings and family pets, of our front and back yard on Fort Rice Street, of the first day of school each year, of high school prom dates, of college parties, of my wedding to Lynn.

There are grandparents and great aunts and uncles, first cousins, second cousins, and cousins once or twice removed. There are birthday parties and birthday cakes. There is a whole collection of photos of our house or our street in different weather; snowstorms, ice storms, the tree that lightning hit twice. There are pictures taken by my dad when he first got his 35mm camera; lots of shots of my brother and I diving off the diving boards and swimming with mask and snorkel in the pool at the swim club. I sort all of these out into piles that eventually cover the entire dining room table. Of course, I take a picture of it.

One thing missing from the photo collection though are vacation pictures. This is because vacations – and also many early Christmases – were captured on slides. (I have the many boxes of family slides, too, though I don’t dig them out for this particular project.) I fear the family slide show evening is a thing of the past. I doubt many kids today even know what a slide projector is, let alone can conceive the idea of a photograph captured in a 2” x 2” cardboard frame. It’s sad. The family slide show event was just that in our home, an event. It was a Saturday evening gathering, a time when we were allowed to sit on the oriental living room rug with popcorn and something to drink. It was a time to relive the trip we’d just been on or the holiday just passed.

I can still smell the screen when my dad dug it out of the front closet. It was rolled in a metallic blue case, with tripod legs that extended when you pushed on a yellow, rubber button that inevitably pinched your index finger. Standing on its legs, you then turned the case counter-clockwise and then pulled the screen up – the moment when the smell was its strongest – and hooked it around the metal hangar at the top. It snapped into place, the screen flopping side-to-side in front of the piano.

Dad would set up the projector on the table in the dining room and turn it on, shining it towards the screen. We’d need a dictionary, sometimes two, to set it at the proper height. He’d fiddle with the knobs, getting things adjusted properly. There was always the trial run; one slide inserted and viewed – upside down – reset – backwards – reset – sideways. Eventually the first one was loaded into the carousel properly and then we’d wait while he filled in the rest of the slots with others from the boxes he’d picked up at the photo shop. Finally, when everything was ready and all of the slides set in their slots properly, the lights would go off and the repeated double-click of the advancing machine would begin.

“Oh! Look at that!”

“Oooh…”

“Ahhhh…”

I miss slide shows.

The pictures remind me of myself thin, in shape, feeling better about myself. That’s not now. Now I feel fat and miserable. I’ve gained weight over the past couple of years. Is it a side-effect of the medication? Is it age? Is it hormonal? It’s probably just the fact that I eat too much and I’m too lazy. I vow to get to the gym more often. I vow that I will do something daily. Anything. I can do anything for 30 minutes. I can approach it like sobriety. I can do it. Day after day after day after…

My journal fills with jumbled, disconnected thoughts; thoughts I share during my sessions with Cindy. Intimacy, sex, sharing, vulnerability, openness, touch, closeness, barriers, lack of barriers, boundaries, friends, lovers, and something that says, “mothers as frayed nets.” I don’t remember what that means now.

It’s a month of grumpiness and anger. Little makes sense to me and as I stare at piles of photographs, my life feels like a bunch of different snapshots. I feel like there are too many still life moments captured and not enough connection between them. I wish for the finished version, the edited film, the one where the gaps are neatly spliced together so that you can’t tell where things came apart.

Chapter 7 (coming soon)

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