I can track the seed of my 2001 Dave rendezvous back to the summer of 1997, to a particular evening at home with James.
The house was in the Mt. Tabor neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, built on the cinder cone slope of a dormant volcano. Geologists will tell you that volcanoes do not become extinct. You cannot say they are dead, only that they have gone to sleep. Someday — some eon — they might rise up again. You should never feel completely secure around a seemingly dead volcano. Stay vigilant.
In my master bedroom, the hypnotic ceiling fan — suspended from my 25-foot, sea-foam green ceiling — whirled above me. I stared at the blur of the blades while I spread eagle on James’ and my queen bed. The bedroom television was on (some news program?), as was the TV in the great room downstairs, where James was watching some sports event. Vast space and a thin wall divided us; I could hear the broadcast waft up to the bedroom.
James was relaxing downstairs after cleaning up and cooking our salmon dinner on the grill in the backyard. We dined by my special-request backyard waterfall, the final touch that transformed our home in SE Portland, Oregon into my — our? — dream house. How Oregonian of me, buying a dream house. The New York City girl in me just wanted to rent an apartment in a building with a reliable elevator and good vector control, and a super who gives lots of winter heat. But that girl was dormant under the Oregonian layers of silt.
James had hauled the stones from Oregon riverbeds for the backyard rock retaining wall and water feature. A strong man; I liked that. Part Native American, his face fell into deep lines and he had a full head of brown hair — and sparse hair elsewhere — even though he was on the cusp of 60. His clear blue eyes and freckled skin betrayed his WASP mongrel parts; his lack of awareness of religious rites or respect for sacred objects revealed he was wholly atheist.
Now the dishes were in the dishwasher, clothes tumbling in the dryer, VCR and thermostat programmed, cars safe in the garage, and my flowerbeds weeded and watered. I was living in the middle of the bell curve of vanilla, suburban, middle-class American life.
What the hell was I doing in someone else’s life?
I lay transfixed by the rotating fan blades. All was finally in place in my life and would continue just as it was — indefinitely. A body at rest or in motion will tend to stay . . . Life will persist as peaceful, secure and calm: what I had worked so hard to achieve. After my confusing, floundering teenage years and the experimental decade of my twenties, I had finally settled down. James was dependable and daily life was stable. No more surprises.
The realization filled me with dread.
I can withstand anything except monotony and predictability. But, I loved James and I would never leave. I am loyal and dedicated. I am a good partner. He was my rock, my stability, my man. I could count on him. He was kind, intelligent, trustworthy. He accepted me as I was. We had the perfect relationship: I stood behind my wall, he behind his. The unspoken motto of our relationship was, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” It worked.
I had arrived at my destination and, short of death or illness, this was going to be it – indefinitely. Dread flowed through me. At that moment, I am sure, I sowed the seed of change. Excitement, novelty, something different — anything! — had to happen, or I would die.
Sometimes a single awareness — if it resonates thoroughly, down to one’s core — a single thought is all that is needed to change life’s course. A seed, an acorn, is sown; it grows underground, unattended and unnoticed while we live another life. Then, it blooms like a surprise. I must have set things in motion at that moment of awareness. Deep down, I know the change was my doing, no matter how it looked to others — no matter how much they took responsibility or blame.
I had experience sowing the seed of change. I knew how it was done. In 1985, a year before my relationship with James began, I had the secret thought — the seed –that catalyzed that next phase of my life: I wanted to be his partner.
James taught botany at Portland State University. I was responsible for taking phone messages for him. Yes, it was long ago before cell phones, before voice mail. Instead, people wrote messages in a book with pink “while you were out” slips, using carbon paper to make a permanent copy. His wife called at least three times a day. When she became too frustrated with being unable to reach him, she gave me detailed messages. I became an extension of her, her avatar at his workplace. I relayed grocery shopping lists (what was she contributing, anyway?), updates on the children, her whereabouts, plumbing crises, the problems with the bank. Apparently she missed having someone, anyone, to talk to; she would visit with me on the phone like a girlfriend, until I had to beg to take leave to tend the other phones. But, I didn’t really mind. I was lonely and needed a friend, too. And I had my fantasy.
She was as disorganized as I was super organized and efficient. Surely I could do her job as wife better. He deserved better. James commanded respect. He was accomplished, educated. He was fifteen years old than I was. Long and lean, he had a deep baritone but spoke softly with measure, choosing his words most carefully. How did he end up with someone so flakey for a wife? Surely the children were suffering.
I could do a much better job for him.
I knew it was a fantasy and of course I had no intention of taking any steps to make it happen. I entertained myself by picturing myself in her role. It was just make-believe.
Apparently, sometimes, that is all it takes me.
One Friday evening in early 1986, James invited me out for a drink with his colleagues. I was flattered, and joined them at the Cheerful Tortoise by the university. Once. Twice. The third time, he walked me to my car and said, “Give me time to work things out.” I said okay. The next day, we made love on my living room floor. He went home and announced to his wife he wanted a divorce.
But I didn’t mean for that to happen! That’s not how it works! They never leave the wife, never leave their lives. At least, not for me they didn’t. I never meant for that to happen.
Another marriage violated. Another woman I cannot look in the eye. What was wrong with me? I hadn’t stopped to think. All I knew was my loneliness and yearnings, and I could not get beyond that.
But now I owed him, didn’t I?
We didn’t marry, which was fine with me. I loved him. I looked up to him. I could be loyal to him. He knew how to do things I didn’t know how to do, and I respected that. I needed that. But marriage would make the relationship official and would not fit with my other life: my life on the other side of my wall.
“Don’t ask. Don’t tell.”
to be continued . . .
© Barbara E. Berger, 2011, all rights reserved. “Stalker” is a work of fiction.
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