The House on Belmont Road

 

This is apparently a fallow time where the lack writing and the insomnia are conspiring to make me feel very guilty indeed. I’m not creating; I am merely taking up space.

In the past, when I couldn’t sleep, I wrote. It wasn’t necessarily timeless prose, but it was worth keeping in a folder labeled Of Little Interest But… for possible future use. Every six or so month, I’d winnow the stuff down and find a phrase or two with some semblance of style. Once in a great while, there would be something really good. Now, for the very first time in my life, I’m throwing my writing away. I’m not naming it or pushing the Save key. I’m printing it, then shredding it, or balling it up and using it wipe up spills though it’s not very absorbent. I stack pages in the yellow recycling bin and hide them beneath yesterday’s magazines. I’m embarrassed by what I’m writing. It’s sort of emotional porn and not good at all.

The last piece I’ve written is the beginning of a maybe book tentatively titled The House on Belmont Road. It’s about a long ago marriage and a house that saw its dissolution, and it seems to be a story in too much of a hurry to be told. At a recent writer’s group meeting, one of the readers told me bluntly, “I just don’t like this at all. I don’t like the main character, or what you’re telling us, or where this is going. There’s not a single person here I find agreeable. I wouldn’t finish this book.” I managed a weak response, saying I’d done my job; at least the characters were interesting enough to be disliked.

I reread some fourteen pages of the manuscript. The story is largely autobiographical because I am at the time of my life when I’m going to write about my life, but there’s a problem. The grouchy reader was right; as written, I’m not a good character. I’ve fictionalized myself in other works, but in this instance, what I am trying to describe may be too close to home. I can’t seem to write with any degree of accuracy, never mind objectivity.

One of the problems is that who I was in my late twenties has little bearing with who I am now. I had married a woman a decade older than me and with a daughter; I was in search of an instant family. We were ill-matched. I liked singers and she sang. She liked Europeans and I was one. There wasn’t much past that.

I can look back at decisions made then, at the foolishness of certain ambitions and certainties, and be amazed at the conviction I had that, yes, of course, it would all work out. And if it didn’t there would be time to correct mistakes, change course or, at worse, move on. That sense of positive inevitability has changed.

In the end, I gave up the house. I was desperate to leave a marriage that was both poisoned and poisonous. I left with my guitars, my clothes, a motorcycle that worked only sporadically, and $257.63 in my checking account; I remember the exact figure. I have never regretted this until very recently, when I came to terms with the fact that my haste back then has led indirectly to an unspectacular and not particularly pleasant now. This is difficult to write about. There may have been a failure of common sense in buying the house, but wasn’t it an even bigger failure to give it up without a fight?

True, there have been accomplishments that, had I stayed, would not have occurred. I’ve written untold thousands of words, some of which have been read by others. I’ve gotten to travel, meet some astounding people and frequent less stellar ones. All told, it’s been an interesting life.

Writing often allows the writer to reshape his or her personal history. I could do this with this new project, but I don’t want to. If indeed The House on Belmont Road becomes more than a handful of pages, I’d like it to be as truthful and authentic as I can make it. I suspect this is what’s stopping me from writing. I may not be quite ready for that level of soul-searching,  honesty, and unpleasant discoveries.

 

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The Passover Test

Two of the five diners ate bread. The remaining three did not, but we looked longingly at the rapidly diminishing breadbasket and the little bowl of olive oil with rosemary and crushed garlic. . The bread-eaters, one Jewish, one not, tried but failed to tempt us. I felt virtuous. Six breadless days to go. Understand this: I am French. I believe this is the first time since I was weaned that I have gone a day, much less three, without bread.

For the past year or so, I’ve been learning about being Jewish, which I probably am through my mother, but that’s a story for another time. Arielle is my teacher, and we have celebrated a number of holidays. On Monday, it was Passover, so I found Passover matzah, a much more difficult chore than anticipated, and Arielle recited (but did not chant, as I understand she should have) the Four Questions.

How is this night different from all others nights:

  1. On all nights we need not dip even once, and on this night we dip twice!
  2. On all nights we eat leavened bread or matzah, and on this night, only matzah!
  3. On all nights we eat various vegetables, and on this night, bitter herbs!
  4. On all nights we eat sitting upright or reclining, and on this night we all recline!

To me, this is one query with four answers, but I won’t question tradition. It’s easy to see that Passover is a remembrance, a commemoration of harder times, of difficult pasts and better presents. I appreciate the significance of the question and the answers, the then and now aspect of the celebration. I studied comparative religion many decades ago and came to understand the importance of customs, of songs and prayers and family rites. Since I no longer have family, this is something I’ve missed and welcome when they’re offered.

I like the concept of dipping twice, and of reclining during a meal, both signs of ease and comfort, though reclining hardly makes for pleasant meals. The bitter herbs, though, remind me not so much of poverty as of purging, and I wonder if perhaps there is something to that. The matzah is self-explanatory. Unleavened food is poor people food.

I‘ve barely scratched the surface, but I’m an eager student.

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Jim Feather

This is hard to write; I’m afraid I will do it badly, and it should be done well.

For the past few years I’ve had the pleasure of going to Jim and Jane Feather’s apartment in downtown Washington every few weeks or so, there to be regaled with both food for thought and food for body. I always looked forward to it, to the elegant meals Jim prepared, and the talk and inevitable laughter.

Jim died last Thursday. I idolized him and am inconsolable.

He was an editor of incomparable skills. He was a gentle man and a gentleman of the old school, a Brit with perfect manners who managed to make erudition appear both effortless and unthreatening. He was the only person I’ve known who could offer a university-worthy lecture on the dangers jellyfish posed to the power grid, while simultaneously cooking a rack of lamb and simmering a saucepan of caldo verde. He quoted classic writers in Latin and I pretended to understand. He would pretend not to notice and translate into English, or sometimes French. Our lunches would last long into the afternoon and the conversation never flagged.

Jane is a New York Times bestselling author, and, after more than a half-century of marriage to her husband, she claimed to have heard every tale he had to tell. I suspect this might be true, but it never stopped him. Stories could end with a bad pun, a spoonerism, or a bilingual malapropism that mixed French and English.

Jim and Jane enjoyed good wine and traveled incessantly, pausing to catch their breath in Washington before setting off for an Asian tour, a barge trip in Beaujolais country, or a celebration overseas with their children and grandkids. I always missed them when they were out of town. An afternoon with the Feathers invariably cheered me up, even when the subjects discussed were far from merry. After he was diagnosed, Jim and I often spoke of illness, since we shared a disease, and doctors and chemo and treatment and death, and we debated on when one should decide to simply let go.

Yesterday’s service was quiet, with the smiles reserved for a friend who has passed on and left only the very best of memories. There were occasional bursts of hushed mirth, and songs by Francoise Hardy. There were a bottle of Jim’s favorite cognac and a bowl of gold-foiled chocolates. The older grandchildren were somber and fully aware of the importance of the day; the younger ones galloped about with flying shirt-tails. It was the sort of afternoon I think he might have enjoyed.

I left after starring too long at a photo of a young Jim gazing at a glass of deep red wine with obvious appreciation. My own eyes were full of tears and I suspect they’ll stay that way for a while whenever I think of him.

I have very few friends. Now I have one less.

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Accomplishments

Some days the accomplishments are small. Laundry, the dishwasher, vacuuming and ineffectually wiping pollen and dust from the furniture, writing a few pages that might or might not survive second and third readings.

There is always something to do—that’s the nature of living by one’s self in a house and, I suppose, part of being self-employed. Bills are paid and small household repairs made with varying degrees of success. One day recently I spent a good three hours trying to find a part to fix the oven door of my 30-year-old Hotpoint electric stove. I searched the Internet and spoke with people at Sears, where Hotpoint ranges are still sold, and was told by a salesperson with twenty years of Sears experience that the parts simply didn’t exist. “Definitely obsolete,” the salesman said.

I searched some more. Eventually I found the parts in a warehouse in South Carolina where ancient appliances are disassembled and sold piecemeal. That made me inordinately proud. I’m a loud critic of planned obsolescence and knowing I had foiled the system in an oh-so-minute way made me happy. That was the day’s major accomplishment.

Book and short story queries are sent out, most of which will never earn a response. There are phone calls, and doctors, and tests for this and that because yesterday’s test was lost or false positive, or misinterpreted, or revealed something that warrants more thorough and scarier tests.

And there are the rituals, the minute necessities that make daily life tolerable—the coffee brewed just so, the half-bagel with a single pat of butter, the afternoon tea, the rereading of something written days or weeks ago.

Today I’m working on a new book, and I don’t yet know if it has a future. Since it’s largely autobiographical and relates to my first marriage, there are going to be difficult moments involved. I’m not sure how deeply I want to dig into events promulgated by a younger, far more foolish me. I’m hoping the book will explain the folly of youthful endeavors but, being not so youthful any more, I’m uncertain whether I can do the past justice.

It does seem as if the bygone was fuller than the present is now, but that may be a series of false memories. It also feels as if the past was more interesting, and the accomplishments of then greater and more important than those of today.

I can’t remember the smaller undertakings, and perhaps that’s for the best.

 

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Saturday

Saturdays are normally editing days.

Arielle comes over, unleashes her laptop and makes many hmm sounds as she deletes sentence fragments, realigns fractious paragraphs and clears up confusing points-of-view. She makes my work better, often over my objections, and this time around she appears to really like the book I‘ve done, unlike an earlier novel of mine she termed, “not your best work.”

This weekend, however, her Britches and Hose Theater Company is presenting tiredwriterShakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, which she directed, so the call of the stage supersedes the call of the page.

My home goes up for sale again next week, so I will spend the day doing small household things. I’ve already fixed the oven door, replaced washers in the laundry room sink, and adjusted the float in the downstairs toilet. I need to wash the windows. I should repaint the dining room ceiling, but probably will not. My back still hurts from breaking ice in the driveway following a late winter storm, and anyway, I hate painting. I will take photos of my favorite car, now wrecked, for posterity (and the lawyer). I will check on the fish in my pond and change the hamster’s bedding. I will vacuum and dust and mop and in time accept the fact that this is make-work.  I am doing all this because I don’t want to write. I really, really don’t.

Yes, okay, I’m writing right now, but I don’t WANT to.

It’s not writer’s block, it’s writer’s futility. I don’t know how many millions of words are cranked out daily by people like me, but at times, I sense I’m simply adding to word pollution. Everything that can be written has been, in all languages, and quite often—unlike most of my stuff—without the desperate need of an editor. It’s an unsettling feeling, since words have been the mainstay of my life, and not that long ago I really did think of myself as an above-average wordsmith. I still believe words are the most powerful force a human can wield, and that writers carry history on their backs. Today that load seems a bit heavy.

I may go to the mall and sit at Barnes & Noble. I may go see a bad movie (Kong beckons), and eat a couple of Seven-Eleven quarter pounder hot dogs, always a solace. Or I may not.

Today, Saturday is just one of those days.

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Twenty-six Years

A lot can happen in 26 years, and a lot has.

On March 10, 1991, I gave up alcohol and the other drugs I used daily to quiet my ever-present unease. I quit because the small benefits of altering my consciousness were completely overshadowed by the panic attacks, black outs, ill health, embarrassment, and general stupidity engendered by drugs. Since that date, I have taken one Vicodin to allay discomfort following surgery. On two occasions, I’ve had accidental mouthfuls of drink. Once was during a social evening when I left my glass of ginger ale on a side table and later accidentally picked up an abandoned scotch and soda. The second was at a New Year’s party a half-dozen Januaries ago. At midnight, the hostess handed out flutes of champagne but assured me mine was sparkling apple juice. It wasn’t. The alcohol hit my tongue and I sprayed her dining room-and a couple of astounded guests-with a powerful mist of champagne. There were heartfelt apologies proffered all around. I was never invited to her house again.

I don’t regret the decision to become abstinent, although I am absolutely positive my creativity has suffered from it. There is a reason so many writers, musicians, painters and performing artists of every stripe use drugs. Psychoactive substances do free one from inhibitions and the constraints of accepted social norms. This is why peyote, marijuana, hashish, mescaline, opium and alcohol are found in so many religious ceremonies. Under the influence, the gods allow themselves to be seen. Is this freedom good? Yeah, sometimes it is. It lets us entertain thoughts we might repress or simply not have, and if we are smart and able and patient, we can translate these thoughts into something viable, something pleasing and perhaps even original.

On the other hand, we can become so spectacularly boring and cretinous that our friends and family flee. We are dullards who develop horrible conditions like cirrhosis of the liver or esophageal varices where we bleed to death from the throat. We swell up with ascites. We get hepatitis and strokes and cancer and bleeding ulcers. We kill off brain cells and drive drunk and walk in front of buses. We accidentally or on purpose maim and murder people and commit acts for which we cannot atone. We die.

The problem with drug usage is that it becomes cumulative. When I first started drinking, a couple of shots of Jack Daniels would do me fine for an entire evening. When I stopped, there wasn’t enough alcohol in the world to make me feel good. I had devolved from Jack Daniels Black to Popov vodka, which is made in New Jersey and does not involve potatoes or other natural products. Popov feels and tastes like boiling tar going down one’s throat, but it’s cheap. My pill intake grew as well. I seldom did street drugs, but my taste and need for pharmaceuticals grew and grew. I shook. I could not drive or sign my name. I had cold sweats and nightmares. At one point, four doctors were prescribing me Xanax, Valium, beta blockers and opiates.

Often, I couldn’t sleep and had to ingest enough to knock myself out. This is not a good habit when one is in a relationship because your spouse or partner will quickly discover the real bond is between you and your drugs of choice, and that this union is more profound than any that can be forged with another human.

Only twice—once recently and another time a decade or so ago—has the desire to use reappeared full force. In both instances I thought it through. I came to the conclusion that, tempting as a one-time fling might be, the likely return to addiction was simply not worth the very temporary peace of mind alcohol and drugs might offer.

I’m pretty sure I made the right decision.

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Marie Thérèse Henriette Hughette Février

My mother died twenty-five years ago tomorrow in the city she loved. By one of those strange but commonplace coincidences, she died at the American Hospital in Paris where, 46 years earlier, she had given birth to me. In her last days, my father, whose Alzheimer’s was already making life difficult, could not quite figure out where his wife was, so to me fell the unpleasant task of telling the doctors to end her life support. The cancer that had begun in her liver had invaded too many organs and she would never awaken from her coma.

Marie Thérèse Henriette Hughette Février Sagnier was a woman of great courage and wondrous talent. At 16, she ran away from home and married a North African Jewish doctor and film-maker. Fearing for his life, they fled Paris for Algiers just before the German occupation. She joined the Free French fighting forces, drove trucks—possibly badly if her skills behind the wheels were as poor in Algeria as they would be in America—and in time separated from her doctor husband, but not before having two daughters who never quite forgave her the divorce.

She married my father when she was seven months pregnant with me, the mention of which always drew a blush and a Gallic shrug.

She evinced monstrous gifts but lacked patience. She was a painter of extraordinarily beautiful scenes from La Belle Époque, where the men and women stood ramrod straight in bucolic settings, but if she showed in a gallery and failed to sell every work, she would spiral into a deep depression and not paint again for years. Instead, she would write of her childhood in a middle class family with aspirations, where an older pianist brother received all the parental attention and she was relegated to helping the maid do chores.

She too played the piano and, I learned after her death, the accordion. She acted, and after coming to America was the chairwoman of a dozen organizations that supported the local French parishes (Catholic and Protestant), the French theater, the French lycée, the French book club, the Franco-American Friendship Society, and the French Language Club. She was a Meetup maven a half-century before the creation of social media. She entertained and created soirées on a shoe string, serving fare I fled from (poached eggs in aspic) and cheap Gallo wine in crystal carafes. She loved my father madly but belabored his perceived lack of ambitions. She wanted to be an ambassadress, a job she wsoldier-and-spouse.jpgould have done well, but he was perfectly satisfied in being a little-known journalist whose hobby was building exquisite frames for his wife’s paintings.

She was a pharmaceutical drug addict who never fully recognized her dependence, though both my father and I did, and we worried. She overdosed twice. When I cleaned out her apartment after her death I found thousands of pills—Xanax, Valium, opiates, phenobarbital, and a host of other stimulants and anti-depressants—stashed in her shoes, her purses, the pockets of her suits, beneath the bed she and my father shared, in the toilet tank, and in baggies in the freezer. There were even more in a safe deposit box, and I would learn she had a half-dozen doctors prescribing whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. Like any good addict, she was terrified of running out, and so she hoarded.

Her dependence never made her less brave. Four days before she died, she organized an afternoon tea and bridge party for her favorite women friends, and though I knew she was in terrifying pain from the disease destroying her, she never showed it.

She was fortunate. She had a long and good life with a partner she loved. She lived history. Her paintings still adorn my walls and her spirit haunts my house, which is as it should be.

 

 

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