Buffalo, June 1975
I woke up to a beautiful, fully opened summer morning in an unfamiliar room, in space marked off for someone else. Sweet air on a slight breeze ruffled sheer white curtains under a window. Car sounds and random voices floated on the wind. Night had gone and, with it, even those few guideposts I’d half-assedly noticed between the time Darlene squeezed me in the door, her full breasts rolling freely beneath her nightgown, and the precipice where, not very much later, sleep swarmed around us. I scrambled to retain some of the recognizable things that had been with me in sleep, replaced by a creeping sadness as they receded into the dark, blue, unreachable background.
(Happily Morally Corrupt and Only Sort of Married in 1975 is from Traveling Without a Passport.)
Alone, I lay flat on my back on Darlene’s mattress, my hands forming a brace behind my head. This small room felt anonymous, strangely short on images and icons. Everyone else I knew charted out their spaces with photos, framed prints, posters, items abbreviating a past leading into the present, even some personal junk ditched on a dresser, but there was next to nothing here. All the permanent colors were pale, savoring no commitments, the furnishings uniformly convenient, nothing to force anyone into awareness. It was like a motel room designed for efficiency by someone who’d never be caught dead in such a sexless space. It was about as close to blank as you could get and still retain a clear identity as human.
My first impulse, crossing the line to more awake than asleep, was a desire to wedge my body silently out the nearby window, to drop down into the alley between this and the next inelegantly converted single family home, escaping to give myself a chance to wipe the slate clean, disappearing into the beginning day. Maybe I’d never have to appear here again. I’d probably break both my ankles jumping from the window, of course, and for a reckless moment or two, I weighed that against the inevitable and embarrassing event awaiting me in the kitchen. I pictured myself stretched out in agony in the cluttered alley, dragging my broken bones toward the certain freedom of a public street. The choices I’d made last night while soaked in alcohol hadn’t been encumbered with anything resembling a long view. I hadn’t contemplated an escape or any kind of graceful exit.
In the end, I accepted the emotional chaos of the kitchen, but only because the physical pains from crashing into the alley below held the promise of lasting so much longer and with no certainty of ultimate success.
Before I’d had any other, less irresponsible opportunity to wear out my welcome at Harold’s, after taking over his conveniently spare bedroom, I’d thoughtlessly stole his first date since he was jailed in Wisconsin.
That was Darlene, and I didn’t actually steal her. It was more like a mutually agreed on redirection of affections.
Alex had disapproved. I mean, he really disapproved.
I’d climbed upstairs to his apartment to wait. His place was dirty in a typically unmarried guy kind of way, vaguely organized and filled up with his parents’ discarded furniture. It seemed a little Dadaesque, irreverence-wise.
Alex sat in his favorite overstuffed chair, smoking marijuana and soaking in Mozart.
Idling, my head still askew from way more beer than I was used to drinking, I committed the unpardonable blunder of telling him what I intended to do between now and morning, which was: go get Darlene. Like in the old days. No strings, not on my part at least. Obviously, I couldn’t speak for her. I also couldn’t be responsible for her. Like in the old days. All of us were big boys and girls, answering to and for ourselves.
“Isn’t that kind of an asshole thing to do?” Alex asked straightforwardly.
“Well, yes, but I told you I gave up on morals, at least until I find some that suit me, depending, of course, on the occasion and whether it’s to my advantage.”
“You don’t seem to have much consideration for Harold’s feelings either,” he scowled.
Harold had introduced us, Alex and I, although we had vastly more in common with each other than with him.
“Jesus,” Alex swore randomly for emphasis.
We all, including Harold and Darlene, his date, had downed so much alcohol over the past few hours that the ordinary rules had been obliterated. They hardly existed at all. With my thin veneer of decency rinsed off, the codes I’d abided by all my life seemed embarrassingly jejune and easy to ignore.
“Come on,” I argued. “She isn’t interested in him. She just went out for something to do. She was bored and wanted to get away from her kid. And he doesn’t care about her any more than she does about him. It’s all a big, fucking charade. All he wants to do is get laid, and she plans to do is not let him. She wasn’t going to let him long before I entered the picture. She was playing leg games with me under the table most of the night.”
“I wonder who started that?” Alex mused.
That was what heated it up for me, the schoolboy surreptitiousness of it, the secretly fooling around. The truth was, I didn’t find Darlene especially attractive, just okay, but my focus and values had been rearranged by alcohol and by playing under the table, my inhibitions melted, my adolescent sex drive ignited. Admittedly, I was way too old for that sort of thing, but it’d been a long time for me too.
I climbed back downstairs and sat beside the phone in our mostly dark apartment. Harold, of course, was not back yet. He was wrapping up what was left of his date. My head swirled, and I began to feel separated from myself. Returned from the stagy universe of marriage to the quirky tumult of single life. Upended. Derailed from the track I’d built to get me inside, where I’d never really arrived and where I’d probably never really belong. Longing and sadness stirred. A decent part of me had wanted that, to be inside, for once. Being there, almost there, had made me start to feel safe. One of the things I eventually hated about it. Safety’s like spiritual death.
The telephone rang.
“Coast is clear,” Darlene whispered on the other end. Harold had just been rejected and sent home.
He’d soon be finding his way through the perfectly straight Westside streets, as officially declared by John Updike. I pushed myself up out of the chair.
Darlene’s apartment was only a few minutes away, closer to the river. Too plastered to think up an alternate route, I probably passed my friend as we went in opposite directions.
On muggy summer nights, branches thick with leaves hung over her street in a verdant, textured fog.
Darlene met me at the door, already out of her date jeans and shirt and into a summer weight nightgown–out of which she’d also shortly be.
Now, sober in the morning after, my thoughts wavered between guilt and mild panic, trending toward atavistic retreat. I was not yet at the point where I didn’t automatically feel like I’d just finished cheating on my wife when I woke up in the bed of another woman. Well, technically, I had, but I thought the corresponding technical nature of our mutual antagonism vindicated me. Still, I knew I owed Darlene something more than the cool and crafty escape I’d contemplated. Unpracticed, I lacked the skill as well as the insight to deliver it, but I thought I should try.
Darlene waited nearby, in her kitchen. I’d heard her talking to her child, coaxing him through breakfast in a light, singsong voice, artless and sweet.
How on Earth did I ever land my ass here? I wondered again, my question broader now, taking in more circumstance.
I summoned some sketchy images from the night before and tried to throw them into sequence. Alex and I discovering Harold and his date at that bar on Bailey and refusing to accept his halfhearted demands that we go home. Then, sinking all four fingers between Darlene’s thighs while looking straight ahead, even continuing to talk with Alex and Harold, and feeling the tension in her muscles release as her legs relaxed in separation. In my mind then, I was doing her already. My social IQ plummeted. Immediately, I started making choices that required something like the intellectual prowess of a salamander and the moral encumbrances of dirt.
The door at the top the stairs I’d stumbled up, I remembered, was only a step or two outside the bedroom. If I stretched up on my toes and the floorboards weren’t too creaky…or, if I just dashed out fast… Chances were, I might never have to see this girl again.
Alas, I wasn’t going to do anything hurtful like that at all. I just calmed myself with the knowledge that I could. Lessons from personal history as well as my immersion in Fifties decency would never allow me to get away with it. Even the Sixties hadn’t fully pushed the Eisenhower out of me.
The music had been with me from the moment I came out of sleep, dancing, notes brightening with the increase in natural light. Briefly, I sensed everything as clear and connected, but the more I woke, the muddier and more distant things grew. Now, I felt as though I’d been ejected from some warm, familial place, plummeting here, crash landing in the middle of Middle America.
Be awake and be a freak at sea on this oceanic wasteland, I wrote in my head.
I wanted to run hard and to hold the fading music longer.
After another ten minutes of debate and inner wrangling, the panic and sadness ebbed, and I was at last ready to accept things as they were. I gathered my jeans and shirt from the floor where I’d flung them and, now, reassembled them on my body, like drapes. In the mirror, I looked like the guy most people took me to be again, relaxed and with reasonably good intentions.
In sleep, the world had been mine, the old one, the one with Lizzie in it. Sometimes, awake or asleep, I just ached to have those prairies, oceans and plateaus back.
“Good morning,” I said, scratching my head as I entered the kitchen, pretending I was just now waking up to this bright blue day.
I’d traipsed right into someone else’s life, a life completely unlike my own. The middle of some kind of America. Bland Land. You couldn’t really blame Darlene. A product of our public education system in the decade immediately following the revolt, she’d never been encouraged to know much about her own life. She’d just been inducted as one of them, plunked down in the pod.
Darlene smiled. She was a different, more wholesome person in her own place in the daytime, a child under her immediate care. She was good-looking in a fresh-scrubbed way.
At the moment I interrupted them, she was leaning over her son who she’d situated in a highchair. She was wiping up the carnage from another in a months long series of confrontations with breakfast. She wore a perfectly acceptable, powder blue robe over, probably, nothing.
“Bobby,” Darlene sang, “this is Uncle Peter. Can you say, ‘Uncle Peter?’”
Uncle Peter –- Oh, God, I thought, I’d finally landed there.
“Some breakfast?” she asked, glancing at me and smiling, uncombed, thick brown hair bouncing with every motion, the song still in her voice.
I had to do this. It was the right thing, and I’d made a pact with myself anyway.
“Sure,” I agreed, smiling.
I really had no distaste for her at all or even for the circumstances. She was just one of them, and I was not. This wasn’t any worse than the many other places where I also did not belong.
“Thank God, my check’s coming in a few more days,” she remarked idly while leaning into the refrigerator.
Darlene was scrounging around for enough acceptable items to constitute a legitimate morning meal. Bobby was looking at me with his mouth open and eyes popped out. I couldn’t resist grinning at his excitement, and titillated, he smiled too.
Someone in me watched at a distance, increasingly mortified, paralyzed at having drifted so far from where I started.
This, I thought, trying to have a laugh at myself, this is how morality got invented. Properly deployed, it kept you out of unforgiving situations such as this one.