October 13, 2008

The Women I Never Had

If you’ve been reading my writing, you may have noticed that I don’t write much about the women in my life. The subject is so complex and my feelings are often so confused and contradictory that I haven’t wanted to tackle it. I’m afraid to be completely honest about the things that happened for fear of leaving myself open to ridicule or scorn. You can see I’m an expert on nothing. I have failed so wretchedly with them that I’m ashamed of myself. I don’t want to hurt anyone, slander or defame anyone, or lie about it either. When I confessed years ago to my friend Bob Fass how brief and unsuccessful my love-relationships had been, he said, “You must be doing something wrong.”

Maybe I started off wrong.

I’ll begin by saying that every significant woman in my life has been unquestionably exquisite. There were five. I think about them all more often than I probably should. Each love attachment began with exhilaration and great hope and ended in pain and grief.

I don’t know why I feel things so deeply, but I do. When the last one left me in 1987, the pain was so intense I wanted to die. I almost hanged myself to escape it. I came very close to doing so one night in the early nineties in Woodstock, NY, when I saw happy couples going home hand-in-hand after the Tinker Street Café had closed. I knew suddenly that I would never, could never, have that. I was 50, and no longer physically attractive to women. I felt that nobody knew my name or cared to. The loneliness I lived in, the heartbreaking yearning which I knew would never be satisfied, the mold that could never be broken and re-cast, were set and seated in my soul. I would never know the happiness or the secure and fulfilling knowledge that I was loved or could love the way normal people do.

The main street was deserted. I stood in front of the empty café for 15 minutes listening to crickets chirp and feeling the gray emptiness which had become my life. How had it come to this? I suddenly felt nothing. I felt dead. A brief black-and-white film of my whole past sped double-time through my brain, and I saw and felt the absolute uselessness and absurdity of my life reel by and go black. There was nothing ahead on the road but more of this.

I looked directly across the street at the Woodstock Police Department which seemed deserted. The flagpole had a concrete or brick foundation and the halyard hung limp, untied to the clevis and flag-less.

That’s the way, I remember thinking, and do it now do it now do it now. I whispered the words to myself as I walked deliberately across the street: Do it now do it now do it now do it now do it now do it now do it now. With no hesitation I grabbed the doubled rope and grasped the pole with my other hand and stepped onto the foundation and wrapped my left arm around it. With my right hand I wound the rope ‘round and ‘round my neck until it was secure. Then I stuffed the remainder inside of one of the coils and gave myself a foot to fall.

I knew it would not break my neck but thought it would cut off the flow of blood to my brain sufficiently to make me lose consciousness and in a few moments I would be strangled and dead. Without hesitation I jumped backward and fell a foot, still whispering my death-song .

The rope tightened and my forehead banged against the pole. It really hurt badly. I felt an intense pressure in my eyes but the tightening on my neck was the worst. I had made one mistake. I had forgotten to fasten my hands somehow behind my back, and in the instants I hung there I didn’t lose consciousness as I had planned. My instinct to survive kicked into action and I grabbed the pole with both hands and clamped my feet on the sides of the pedestal and dragged with extraordinary effort and pushed as well as I could with my feet until I regained a footing on the concrete.

It had hurt like hell. The sharp pain of striking my head on the metal was nothing compared to the burning and constriction on my throat. I clawed the rope until it was loose enough for me to breathe. I hugged the pole for dear life and suddenly felt fear, not of death, but pain.

I knew in a microsecond that I didn’t want to die that way. But I still wanted to die. I unwound the rope and sat on the ground and wept. I couldn’t even kill myself. I felt so sorry for myself. I see it now for how preposterous, pathetic and sorrowful it was. Nothing went right for me. It seemed that nothing ever had. And I knew that at the bottom of it was that I longed excruciatingly for a woman.

It seems that I have written about this before, but I really don’t remember where or when. It might even have been recently. The trouble with me as a writer perhaps is that after I’ve written about something as well as I can, it’s gone. I seldom and rarely go back and read it again. It’s always been like that. So I apologize to my readers-- and there are a few now-- for the repetition if I did write this before.

The street was still quiet and deserted. No cars had passed, no people had walked by. It was me and the crickets. I still thought I wanted to die, but the truth was that I secretly hoped someone would see me trying to do myself in and stop me, take pity on me, listen to my woeful tale, and help me. Just please help me to live and be happier. Tell me what I was doing wrong, tell me what I should do. It never occurred to me to ask for the help of God. It simply didn’t enter my mind.

I walked down the street for a few blocks till I stood on the short bridge over a rushing river. Thirty feet below were rapids and rocks. I knew that if I dove off headfirst, I certainly would crack my skull and die either from that or from drowning. I placed both hands on the rail and tried to push myself over. I jumped up about two feet and could have launched myself on the first try, but I couldn’t do it. I tried again and again. I tried to do it for an hour. Finally the absurdity of it dawned in the little intelligence that remained, and I said aloud, “Mike, who the fuck are you kidding? You don’t want to die.” And I gave it up and walked to my van and drove back to Central Valley. I never told anyone until now, not even my psychiatrists and psychologists.

The rope had burned a red welt across my throat and around my neck and had wrenched muscles and my neck was sore for a week. Although it was a warm Spring, I wore turtleneck sweaters until it faded. I patted the welts with talcum powder after that until it was healed. There isn’t a scar.

I thought hard about it and tried to write about it but couldn’t. I knew that failures and loneliness and my bankruptcy with women were why I had wanted to finish my life. I had failed at every single thing I had ever undertaken (except a General Science test I’ve written about.) I had failed as a son, had been a mediocre marine, had been fired from decent jobs, had failed as a news reporter, failed as a husband and father, failed as an antiwar activist and failed as a writer. I could not look back on my life and find a single important thing that I could honestly tell myself had been successful, or even satisfying. I felt like a failed human being, something that should have been a saguaro cactus in the Jornada del Muerte in the Southwest instead, a creature with no other conceivable task than to stand in a scorching hot desert for a hundred years and store water for any Indian smart enough to extract it. A cactus had more usefulness to humanity than I had.

And underneath it all was this incredibly passionate yearning for a woman, for companionship, for sharing, and above all for sex, and the fear of them I didn’t know I had. I didn’t know then as I know now that I needed to love someone more than I needed to be loved. I needed to serve someone, to please someone, to be needed by someone, and for a woman to relieve me of a sexual hunger that has never subsided, never gotten anything but stronger, even today at 68 years old. I needed intimacy. I still do. I could not find it. I still can’t.

Why has it always been this way for me? Why is it that other men I’ve known seem to have satisfied their sex-hunger before they were 30? What is it about me that frustrates the strongest urge I have ever had? I don’t know. I would be a liar if I said I didn’t care.

I guess I was a bad lover. My first sexual experience at 16 had been with a prostitute in the Midway Hotel of Port Arthur, TX--a whorehouse. Forget getting it from one of the “nice girls” of Lake Charles, LA, back in my day of the late 1950s. If they went to bed with guys, as far as I knew, it was with the football players, the big guys, the brash guys, the guys who bragged and bullied each other around in the high school pecking order. Guys who as far as I could see treated them like dirt.

I wasn’t brought up like that. Most of my family were women. My grandmother whipped my butt if I hurt or was disrespectful to my older sister. My mother was gentle and kind even though she was an illogical drunk (like me.) I was taught to “turn the other cheek” when insulted. My stepfather Sidney told me not to fight and took a belt to me when I punched my sister in the eye when I was 11 and she was 13.

I played football until I was hurt badly in fifth grade, but I greatly enjoyed collecting butterflies, the only pretty bug in the world. I loved birds and flowers, trees and sunsets, and the sweet dark blackberries which grew in bushes near the railroad tracks. I was fascinated by rivers and bayous, and by most of the animals I’ve encountered on my long and unfinished hegira. And after I discovered their beauty and felt their magnetic and irresistible attraction, I loved and longed for girls, and later, women.

From first to third grade in Westlake before I moved to Lake Charles to live with my mother and her new husband Sidney, a sweet little girl with brown hair and brown eyes seemed always to be looking at me whenever we boys played rough and tumble beneath the magnolia trees. I looked back and saw how pretty and dear she was. Her name was Emma Lou Harris and she always seemed to be standing apart from the other girls. I don’t remember ever speaking with her at all. I remember the exertions I made in the wrestling games to show off for her alone. I didn’t notice the other girls at all. I thought of her as my girl friend. My sister Pat teased me about it. Three years after leaving Westlake and in sixth grade, I saw her standing with her hand in her mother’s at the corner of Pujo and Ryan Streets. She half-turned and looked at me. I stopped and looked at her too. Her brown eyes never wavered. The light changed and they crossed Ryan. I never saw her again.

The only thing on earth more lovely than a beautiful woman is any human infant. If an infant can’t fill you with compassion and love, in my opinion, there really is something wrong with you. Anybody who can deliberately hurt an infant, or torture or kill an infant, as far as I am concerned, has lost his or her claim on humanity. I would simply and without remorse kill that unredeemable monster and call it self-defense.

I just walked outside this nice coffee house in Marigny for a smoke and felt up a tree. I don’t know what kind it is and don’t care. It’s about 30 feet high and flourishing with the green leaves of God. Look at the solidity and strength of a tree. Feel it. Sense its purpose for Man and Earth and know you can never make one, and are not supposed to. All you can do is appreciate it and use it without harm, selfish exploitation or greed. Use it for shade or for building or for beauty and if you are lucky or blessed you can love it. To love a tree or anything or anyone at all is the greatest blessing of all.

I walked back and a bearded man was strumming perfectly some chords on a guitar with fine skill and rhythm. I closed my eyes and leaned against the building not looking at him and listened with my ears and felt with my heart the soft beauty and loveliness of his tune. I could have cried with gratitude (you can see I’m a big crybaby at heart) for those few moments.

It’s the same way with me about women. Sometimes I love them so much it wants to tear me in half. God truly did give them to men and us to them. But our lives and society are sick with selfishness and greed, ambition and competition, and what often seems beautiful outside can contain the most awful ugliness within. Nobody is excepted or exempt from catching it or infecting others with it, and certainly no human being is perfect or ever will be.

There was a fine girl whose name I’ve forgotten. It was 1958 and I knew I was leaving Lake Charles and never wanted to return. I was still sort of in the tenth grade of high school but I skipped it most of the time and hung out in a gas station or on a bench in front of a small café with two guys who also played hookey and didn’t give a damn for the consequences. One day a girl showed up and hung with us. Then she came back the next day and the next and I saw she was like me, alone and different.

She had short straw blond hair and wore jeans instead of the dresses other girls wore. She had a slim body and small breasts and a fine complexion and a spark in her eye. Unlike us she smiled a lot, and I saw that she liked me best. She talked to me more than to Bobby and Jimmy and sometimes she sat beside me and let her hip touch mine. It was electrifying, but I didn't know how to respond there in front of my pals. I talked about my mother and how I was getting out of Lake Charles and going to New York to learn to play drums. She liked that a lot. After I told her I was leaving the next day, right there in front of the others she touched my right cheek with her left hand and leaned over and gently kissed my left cheek and said, “Mike I’m so glad. Write to me and let me know what happens.”

No girl had ever done that. I was so surprised I think I only looked at her sweet blue eyes and said, “Okay I’ll write to you.” She wrote her address and as soon as I got home I copied it into a small address book and stored it in the things I was packing without my mother knowing yet that I was leaving.

The next day I walked into the living room with my suitcase where my mother was sitting watching television and told her I was leaving. As I’ve told in this story before, I had run away at 15 after she’d jailed me. I’d been caught in San Diego and detained as a runaway and sent home on a train. But this time I was 17 and legal enough to be on my own and she didn’t try to stop me. She gave me twenty dollars and a ride to Highway 90 and we kissed and hugged goodbye and she made me promise to write.

That night in Alabama at a fork in the empty road gazing at a cloudless sky full of stars, that ex-marine picked me up and the next morning Fate put me in the Marine Corps. After the drill instructors were satisfied following a few weeks of destroying the notion that we were individuals, they gave permission to write letters. I wrote to that girl and told her where I was but not how it had happened.

I received a reply a week later. It contained only a few sentences, and the only one I never forgot went: “Well Mike, that’s a long way from playing the drums in New York City.” I never wrote or heard from her again. In the onrush of events that followed I don’t think I remembered her at all. I was nearly 50 before she came back to my mind, and when she returned her face and body and manner were as clear to me as they were the day she kissed me goodbye. I thought that she probably was the one I’d been looking for. God put her there for me, and me there for her, but I made other choices. Nothing is ordained, but after we do it there is no explanation fitting finer than Fate.

In the Marine Corps I had nothing but prostitutes for four years. Prostitutes in Wilmington, NC, prostitutes in Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and on Okinawa for two years, where a “short time” cost $2 and all night was $5. I went with prostitutes in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Mexico, and finally back in the United States one in Kansas City during a 24-hour layover on a train. Then I met Cindy and never had another until we split four years later. She was a gentle young black lady I met in a bar on Broadway and followed home to her place on 110th Street in Harlem. I didn’t even know she wanted money until we got there. I wasn’t much of a lover with her either.

I learned my lesson about prostitutes with the third one I had in the Cape Fear Hotel in Wilmington while on a liberty pass. She was an absolutely stunning young blonde woman with nice manners and a body that belonged in Hollywood. When we were naked I stood and hugged her the way I need to be hugged and she gently pushed me away and said, “Not that, honey.” She meant no intimacy. Only screwing, and that’s all I got. Only once on Okinawa did I bring one to orgasm which we experienced together. There was nothing like it and I didn’t experience it again until several years later.

I never had a woman who wasn’t a prostitute until I met a bartender in Metairie while managing the Putt-Putt in 1963. She was only horny and really didn’t like me or I, her. So it went nowhere at all. During all that fucking I experienced intimacy only that once on Okinawa. I didn’t know the soft touch or passion or generosity of a woman. All I knew was doing it and feeling the blessed relief of the “little death” of orgasm which lasted only a few minutes while she dressed and departed. It was a rare marine who had an actual loving relationship with a woman in the brothel towns surrounding military bases. Those experiences had nothing of love in them, and if I felt love at all it was perverted love and not real. The Marine Corps desensitized me. You can’t be sensitive about human life if you have to kill it. It was a process of years to begin feeling again.

But somehow I found five women in my life who liked and wanted me and in at least two cases actually loved me, and I them. None of those relationships lasted long enough for me to actually learn how to be a good lover. I was 50 when I caught on, and by then it was too late, because the ones I wanted (the young ones) didn’t want me. The irony is that most old men want the same kind of women they had when they were young, vital and potent: young, beautiful, sexy women.

But most young women are disgusted by the thought of sex and intimacy with old men. That’s just the way it is and maybe the way it’s supposed to be but it doesn’t seem right. Yet the longing and yearning never stopped for me. I never was satisfied enough or pleased them enough because I didn’t know how. I was selfish and stupid and wanted only what I wanted, my own rude satisfaction.

But I never—except once with Cindy—tried to dominate them or hurt them with the ordinary tyranny of American males. I wanted to be on their side. When I became genuinely aware of injustice during the struggles of the Sixties and examined myself and my motives and began seeing flaws in my character that I could barely isolate or define, I began trying harder to be a good and real person. To regain the sensitivity I had lost. For one thing, I persuaded my new wife to not drop her own last name for mine. It didn’t make sense to me why women should give up part of their identity to be with a man. If women have to take a man’s name, men should assume theirs’ too.

But I failed anyhow at becoming Fidel’s “new man” for years, and today I really don’t know what I am. Every moment I wonder if I’m telling myself and others the truth or if I’m only pretending and presenting the person I want to be but am not. Is this me or another persona? Is this another mask hiding an injured little boy? I’m too complex even for me to understand it all.

But I understand this: women are not so unlike men as many of them suppose. I cannot imagine a human being from New York to Tibet free of personality defects and character flaws. Sexism is sexism like racism is racism no matter what sex or race you are, and that is all.

This is all I have to say about it now. I feel that I’ve broken the ice on the subject and might be able to get more specific and forthcoming but not now. Not now. I don’t want to get it wrong or do injustice to the beautiful and loving women I’ve tried with and lost or abandoned. Not now.

The women I’ve mentioned here I never really had. Of the ones I did have, well, I don’t know what they think of me or if they think of me at all. But I never stopped loving any of them. Loving them too late with an aching and busted heart that won’t heal.

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