Death By Fortune Cookie

I pushed away the remains of my breakfast plate, squinting at the morning light that filtered through the dingy restaurant window. The newspaper was still in the corner where I had tossed it after scanning the banner headline “SCIENTISTS DECLARE ROMANCE IS DEAD.” The subhead continued, “Romantic feelings deemed a fraud, delusion.” I had tossed the paper away without reading on, disgusted. Not that I had lost anything to science. I had given up on romance long ago. Too many missed chances. Too many broken hearts. Maybe they were right—delusional. As a consolation, I cracked open my fortune cookie. The message inside read, “Your destiny is not your own.”

Good to know, I thought bitterly as I threw down a few bucks on the plastic checked tablecloth and only then started to wonder what I was doing in a Chinese/Thai/ fusion buffet restaurant for breakfast rather than my usual diner.

Stepping through the ornate red door, instead of finding myself on a cluttered LA sidewalk in the brilliant morning sun, I walked into the hall of a grand palace bustling with servants who all seemed to be preparing for a great feast. The walls were hung with red tapestries embroidered with golden dragons. Guests were arriving dressed in traditional European formal wear and servants swarmed about in colorful outfits that looked—I didn’t know—Chinese, maybe?

I felt dizzy and disoriented as I tried to take in this unexpected setting and the swirl of activity. My head swam as I, for the first time, noticed that I was wearing loose pants and a matching shirt, both made from heavy, gold brocade instead of the suit I was sure I had put on this morning.

It was as if I had entered into the set of a movie or a play, but I had no idea which one. Who was I? What was my part? I could swear I wasn’t dreaming.

I felt a gentle tug at my elbow and turned to see one of the serf-like attendants at my side. He kept his eyes downcast as he whispered, “Don’t worry, your Majesty, you will catch up.”

At that moment music swelled from the orchestra and the guests all stood aside emptying the dance floor. A beautiful young woman glided to the center of the room, her eyes fixed on me, arm extended, and the attendant gave me a respectful push toward her. She took my hand and curtsied beautifully and then began to sing:

                        We’ve just been introduced

                        I do not know you well

                        But when the music started

                        Something drew me to your side

                        So many men and girls

                        Are in each other’s arms,

                        It made me think…

                        We might be…

                        Sim-i-lar-ly occupied.

                        Shall we dance?

And as she continued to sing, we began to waltz around the grand hall. Waltz! She sang, and then I sang, and we spun about the dance floor and everything seemed effortless, lovely, and romantic. I matched her song with my own:

Or perchance, when the last little star has                        

                        leave the sky

                        Then will we be together with our

                        Arms around each other and will

                        You be my new romance?

             The words seemed to burst from my chest. It was all just so goddam romantic. I don’t know how I knew the words or the song or the dance or anything that I was doing, but in that moment, I could feel myself falling in love. Her eyes were lively and mischievous, and she felt lovely in my arms.

For that very brief moment, I believed I was a king, and that this dance, this night would last forever. The thought filled me with joy and wonder, and at the very moment I started to believe, she began to fade, become unsubstantial in my arms, and disappeared. The palace walls melted away, and I was alone once again. I found myself looking out over a darkened city skyline, standing on a gritty, city street dressed in blue jeans and a black leather jacket. I felt a surge of youthful energy and could hear my friends calling to me, “Tony! Hey, Tony!” in the distance. But I left them behind as I ran through the streets, simultaneously with no idea of where I was going and absolutely certain of my destination.

There! I thought, when I spied a fire escape that had been lowered to the ground. I dashed up the rungs until I came to the third landing, near a lighted window.

“Maria!” I whispered loudly, “Maria!” I’m not sure how I knew that I should be calling out her name, but my heart swelled when I saw her face appear in the window. We were both so young, and I felt myself consumed with such passion for this dark-haired beauty. I felt just as deeply in love as I had been a few minutes before, or was it centuries, since I had danced with that woman—since I had been a king.

It didn’t matter now. We whispered our intimacies furtively, her parents apparently nearby, but soon, our love was just too great, and we found ourselves singing to the stars, no longer afraid of anyone or anything:

Tonight, tonight the world is full of light

            With suns and moons all over the place

            Tonight, tonight the world is wild and bright

            Going mad, shouting sparks into space…

We sang, we whispered, we made plans for the next time we could be together, and then she disappeared behind her curtains. I slid down to the bottom of the stairs and sat, still feeling like I would burst. This is what love feels like! How could romance be dead? I suddenly no longer cared if I had control over my destiny. If my fate was to live in a whirlwind of passion and to experience love across the globe and across all of time, then so be it. I stood and walked away with Maria on my lips and filling my mind and looked back one more time at her window just as her building, the streets, the skyline, all began to melt away.

I barely had a chance to whisper, “Maria” one last time, when I found myself entombed in what must have been a crypt. The smell was dank, and in the dim light I could see corpses, big and small, shelved on either side of me for all eternity. I walked down the narrow entrance, full of dread until the tomb opened up and in the center was a bed of marble, a place for the newly dead. And there upon that bed, was my Juliet. I knew it was her before I saw her name engraved. As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear, I remember thinking when I first saw her at the masked ball. Oh, bitter destiny, I thought. If Juliet be dead, then romance could not live.

This time, I knew the play. I knew my part.

I sat beside her and traced the cold cheek with my hand one last time. Even in death, her beauty warmed me–the warmth that had struck me the night of the masquerade; the warmth of our one night together. Oh god, just one night.

Oh, my love, my wife,

            Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath,           

            Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty.

            Thou are not conquered. Beauty’s ensign yet

            Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,

            And death’s pale flag is not advanced there.

I felt inside my pouch and fingered the bitter vial I had purchased from the apothecary just hours before. In the distance, I heard a disturbance. Someone was coming to take me from my love once again. No more. I pulled the stopper from the bottle and offered one final toast to sweet Juliet before I drank the potion and felt it seize my heart, my very soul.

Oh true apothecary,

                        Thy drugs are quick.

                        Thus, with a kiss I die.

I could barely see, but forced myself forward to leave one last kiss on her lips. I imagined, with my last breath, that I felt her return the kiss ever so lightly. It rendered death just a tiny bit sweeter.

From Singapore, With Love

He was contemplating the advantages of suicide as he sat in his cubicle when his thirty-third call of the day rang in.  “LoveActually Dating support services.  This is Brian, how can I be of assistance?”

“Hi, Brian,” replied the female voice, “my name is Judith and I’ve been using your dating app for the past 6 months and it has matched me up with an unparalleled string of complete losers.  You advertise an 85% satisfaction rate and, excuse the pun, but I’m not getting any satisfaction.”

“OK, Judith, thanks for calling.  I’m sure that I can help.  Have you tried powering down your phone any time in the past 6 months and then re-starting it.”

“Of course,” she replied impatiently, “It’s the first thing I tried.”

“Great, now do you mind if I mirror your phone and take a look at your dating profile and your settings?”

“OK, I guess.  Don’t you need my passwords or something?”

“No, actually your first name and phone number are plenty. Let’s see…. OK, you are 35, from the Bay Area, currently living in Fresno, California, and enjoy skiing, snowboarding, long nights, fireplace, wine, conversation, etc., etc.  Do I have the right Judith?”

“Yep. Sounds like me.”

“OK, let me get into your settings.”

“I usually don’t allow that on the first phone call,” she quipped.

“Ha!  Good one, Judith.  You didn’t mark “sense of humor” on your qualities.  Let’s add that now, OK?”

“Sure.”  Her trepidation at calling was disappearing in Brian’s apparent enthusiasm and confidence in the task at hand.

“OK, now under the question “How anxious are you to find a suitable partner?” you clicked on “beyond desperate.” What if we move that up to “very interested” and see if we can weed out some of those unsuitable matches.”

“But I am beyond desperate, Brian.  This is my fifth dating app in three years and I haven’t gotten… I haven’t had a really good date in a really long time if you know what I mean.”

“Yes, ma’am.  I think I get it.”

There was a long pause.  “Judith, are you still there?” he asked.

“Brian, you didn’t just call me ma’am did you?”

“I–um–it’s just the training we get, ma–ah, Judith.”

“Brian, can you activate the camera on my phone?”

“Well, yes, I can, but I’m not supposed to. It would take me a minute.”

“Just do it.  I’ll wait.”  She could hear him clicking frantically at his keyboard in the background. “Ok, I just saw the green light come on.  Do I look like someone you should be calling ma’am?”

She could hear him gasp as he saw the live picture of her flash on his screen.

“Ah–uh, no, Judith.  A-Absolutely not.  I-uh-if you could just button your shirt back up I think we can fix your profile and get you a much better result.”

“Just breath, Brian, it’s OK.”

“May I just say, that I don’t think your current profile picture does you justice.”

“No?  I don’t think they will let me post one topless, do you?”

“Well, no, but…”

“Yes, I can fix that later. What else can we do.”

His breathing had almost returned to normal as he scanned the rest of her settings. “What I’m thinking is that it pays to be more selective so that you can attract someone who really fits your interests.  What if we change your “absolute requirements for a match” from ‘under 60 years of age, breathing, and must be employed’ to something like ‘under 40, fit, and interested in both indoor and outdoor activities.’”

“Ha, I like that!  ‘Indoor and outdoor activities’–a bit suggestive, don’t you think?”

“I can take that out if you don’t approve.”

“No, let’s stick with it.  You have a kind of cute sense of humor also, Brian. Any other recommendations?”

“Why don’t you go with the changes we’ve already made, select a new profile picture, and see how things go for the next few weeks.”

“And if I’m not satisfied with the results?”

“I just texted you my direct line.  I’d be happy to be of assistance to you for any of your future needs.”

“Goodness, Brian, I do believe you are flirting with me.”

She could hear him sigh audibly over the airwaves.  “Believe me Judith, I certainly would be if I weren’t slowly dying in my cubicle here in Singapore.”

“Story of my life, Brian. Story of my life.”

Why I’m Off The Deep End Over “A Star Is Born”

Warning:  There are many spoilers in this article

It’s embarrassing to admit that as of this afternoon, I’ve spent at least $50 of my hardly-earned money to watch the film A Star Is Born in the theaters.  Four times now, I’ve gone off to watch this melodrama on purpose.  The last time I went, I got inspired and dashed out to catch a 9:45 showing–one that turned out to be a private viewing.  I was the only soul in the theater until after midnight.  I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to go a fifth time, but as I sat down to write, I did check to see that it just happens to be showing at 6:45 tonight at a nearby theater.  Just in case.

The last time I went to the theaters to see a film four times was in 1964. I was 11 years old and the Beatle’s film  A Hard Day’s Night was all the rage among teens and pre-teens.  It was a badge of honor to brag about how many viewings you had attended.

I’m not bragging about this one.  I have mentioned it quietly to a friend or two–in confidence.  I felt better this morning when I stumbled across an article by Christopher Rosa that appeared in Glamour Magazine on January 11.  In it, he detailed how he had spent over $100 viewing the film 8 times!

The big difference between Mr. Rosa and me is that he is a huge Lady Gaga fan and speaks about her with the kind of reverence that some people only use for their mothers or certain sports figures.  I, on the other hand, know who Lady Gaga is, and I’m pretty sure I saw part of her performance at the Super Bowl.  If you showed me a list of her 10 greatest hits, I would not recognize any of them.

That’s not Lady Gaga’s fault at all.  My musical tastes have gone through periods of fossilization, and there are scores of popular artists who are a mystery to me.

I went into the film with the lowest of expectations.  I had a sketchy idea of what the film was about knowing only that it was a remake of a remake about a star in decline falling in love and being eclipsed by the lover he has mentored and nurtured.

I’ve been trying to pinpoint the precise moment in the film when I knew I was hooked, and I think it may have been in the drag-bar scene where Jack ( Bradley Cooper) sings a ballad to one of the queens while Ally (Gaga) looks on, and I could feel the chemistry really begin to cook between the two of them.  After all, she stands off to the side watching him, a famous, grizzled country/rock star, sing and play for one of her drag-queen friends, both respecting a place that she loves and at ease with himself and her friends.

You could put Gaga in a sack and she’d look glamorous, but her down-to-earth, girl-next-door look through the first half of the film made me love her even more.  Punching a cop in a cop bar and being carried out by Jack who then nurses bruised hand with tender care did nothing but add to the feeling that I was watching a great love story develop and I am a total sucker for watching two likable characters fall in love.

Up to this point in the film, I realized that I was identifying entirely with Jackson Maine.  I’m falling in love with Ally right along with him and feel the same sense of despair when he says his first goodbye to her a dawn out in front of her house and mumbles something to the effect, “I think I might have fucked that up” to his erstwhile driver, Phil (Greg Grunberg).

Minutes later, the point of view completely shifted for me. I realized that suddenly I was seeing everything through Ally’s eyes.  As Jack woos her by having his driver Phil follow her from place to place with his limo while a jet waits for her at the airport to whisk her away to his next show, I’m right there with her feeling the rush of amazement and overwhelmed by the “grand-gestureness” of it all.  Sure, it makes perfect sense to quit her dead-end job, jump on the jet, and join the roadies backstage who all seem to already know her name.

Then comes the most ridiculous and wonderful moment in the film.  As they sat in the parking lot the night before, Ally sings two disjointed scraps of a song she might write some day. Maybe. The very next night, he calls her out on stage.  Somehow, he has finished the song, arranged it, rehearsed it (all without her mind you), and she takes the leap and kills what we are to believe is the very first performance of the song “Shallow.”

As she walks up on stage and takes the mic, tears involuntarily burst from my eyes–I kid you not.  It’s the only moment in the film that made me cry.  Even on the third viewing, that moment gave me chills. The risk she takes, the reaction of the crowd, the pride in Jack’s eyes as he watches her win the moment, just did me in.

Watching their relationship develop and the artful weaving in of the concert performances carry the middle part of the film.  Her performance of “Always Remember Us This Way” rivals “Shallow” for being able to create that visceral connection with the audience.

But shortly thereafter she falls into the evil clutches of super-agent Rez (Rafi Gavron), and I find myself  becoming just another person watching the film.  Maybe it’s a defensive posture, knowing that my buddy Jack is going to continue to spiral both personally and professionally, and that Ally is going to rise to stardom, now transformed into a pop diva.  These two things have to happen because that is the story of A Star Is Born.

Gaga’s stirring finale, her performance of “I’ll Never Love Again” is worth waiting around for, even if your are the only person in the audience in a theater after midnight.  But by then, I’m already looking forward to the next time I’ll get to go on this emotional rollercoaster.

And yes, there will be a next time.

The Answer Is…I Have No Idea

In a comment I posted recently, I mentioned that I had met my wife when we were both juniors in high school and that we later (in 1974) were married and continue to torture each other to this very day as we approach our 42nd anniversary.

One of our writers asked what was the “secret” to having stayed together for so long, and I hope I can give a reasonable response. It won’t be complete or in some cases helpful. Sometimes I think, when it comes to relationships, there is an awful lot of luck involved.

We were celebrating year number 36 at a swank hotel in Coronado, eating appetizers and having an afternoon cocktail, when Mary asked me, “Did you ever think we would still be married after 36 years?” In one of my shining moments as a partner, without preparation or pretense, I honestly answered, “It never occurred to me that we wouldn’t still be married after 36 years.”

So there is something about commitment and expectation that makes a big difference, I suspect. I wrote earlier about how Mary and I first met at a youth retreat and my first impressions of her were that she was strong-willed and looked terrific in the jeans and snug t-shirt she was wearing. For me, it was a powerful combination. I did have to wait around a bit, dating friends of hers, until she ditched a tenuous boyfriend, and I could swoop in. Yeah, I was the rebound guy.

But for all intents and purposes from age 18 to age 21 when we got married, we were each other’s everything. She was extremely faithful, and I never found the wild oats that I guess I was supposed to sow. One time, I put our romance on hold for about two weeks to give me space to consider if I might have a vocation to the priesthood (I’m a recovering Catholic), but I happily realized that giving up my affection for women was not an acceptable compromise and our relationship intensified quickly.

So, right. Longevity. I might be completely off on this, but I think the sexual freedom that young people have enjoyed over the past few of decades (we just missed that particular wave) has made them a little uncertain about the viability of a long-term commitment. The number of serious partners that young people now have between the ages of 20 and 40 seems to make them feel unsure about the possibility of a union that will last a lifetime.

Believe me. I’d love to have a wonderful, guilt-free affair. Truth is though, I can’t even be unfaithful in my dreams. No, I’m serious. I have turned down the advances of beautiful women in my dreams and hated myself for it in the morning. I am a terrible liar, and I find myself feeling guilty about things that I have only thought about doing.

It has not been easy. We pretty much lost ourselves in the 25 years we dedicated to child rearing. Our children continue to mean everything to us and continue to challenge us. It turns out that being the parents of young adults is just as tough as dealing with the terrible twos.

Both of us worked in demanding jobs that we loved. I cared deeply about becoming the kind of teacher that could, on a good day, change lives. As hard as I worked, Mary worked harder. She spent incredibly long hours as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. Her workdays seemed to have no end. All of that took a toll on us as a couple. And while we certainly went through periods of time where we felt more like roommates than lovers, we persevered, believing that eventually the bond we had initially enjoyed would return.

In retirement, we are now healing. We’ve identified some of the dynamics that have continually driven us apart and are now much more aware of each other, appreciative of each other, loving toward each other. We still have work to do, but now we feel like we have the space and time to make things special again. It doesn’t hurt that she still looks great in jeans and a tight t-shirt (yes, I really am that shallow).

I do believe that relationships can last. I’m not sure I’ve done the subject justice. Maybe our combined stories will weave the tapestry that creates an answer that satisfies.

 

Visiting Love: One Letter at a Time

letters

A fraction of the total!

When I delved into a long-forgotten box of cards and letters that my wife and I had written to each other when we were courting from 1970 to 1974, I had no idea what I was getting into. We met as high school juniors but did not begin dating until the fall of the year we graduated. From October of ’71 to May of ’74 when we were married, the letters flew hot and heavy between my home in San Diego and hers in Orange County.

There is a sort of loveliness in re-living a time when all communication was not instantaneous, before texting and talking were considered synonymous. We dated long distance for a little over two years. I began to get serious about the relationship when the price of gas reached 53 cents per gallon.

Once I broke into the box, I thought that I’d read over a couple of letters, laugh at our youthful expressions (Mary used to think that lots of things were “far out!”), eventually feel the wide gulf between our teenaged selves and the adults we had become, and do what Mary had advised all along—“Why don’t you just toss them all?”

But I couldn’t. As I picked up the first few randomly, I felt myself thrust back in time and the immediacy, the honesty, the humor of the letters hooked me. I had decided I would only read her letters to me—those were MY letters. The others belonged to her, and she could do what she wanted with them.

Randomness was not satisfying though. I found myself seeking a narrative, the story and sequence of how we had fallen in love. The earliest letters sported 6-cent stamps, but more importantly they were dated with legible postmarks, so I began to arrange the letters chronologically. All 187 letters.

I started from the very beginning, when we were just friends who had been thrown together by a retreat we had both attended. That friendship continued off and on until October of 1971 when I apparently more openly declared my interest in her because the tenor of the letters changed dramatically. We would frequently write twice weekly, catching each other up on work and school and making plans for every weekend when I would drive up to spend time with her.

The first letter of every week seemed to have a certain glow about it as she would recount the happiness we had enjoyed in our limited hours together. She seemed anxious to make sure I understood everything she had said or done over the weekend and we both (I peeked at a few of the letters I wrote also) were frequently apologizing for any moodiness or distraction we might have exhibited.

She spent a tremendous amount of time telling me how wonderful I was and how much she appreciated me as a man and as a boyfriend. I spent an equal amount of time making sure she knew how lucky I felt that she had chosen me and letting her know how happy I was to be with her. The warmth and affection literally radiated off of the pages

I have yet to finish reading all of the letters and wrap my mind fully around that time of my life. However, what I have read filled me with a sense of renewal, a sense that there was really no reason we could not recapture that liveliness and passion. I felt a little sad that we had stopped writing to each other twice a week. I sense restarting that habit could make a world of difference.

Forty-one years later it would be easy to describe these feelings as naïve, but I don’t feel that way at all. It’s like looking at a slightly yellowed portrait of what love is like before it has endured the bruises and scars that time eventually brings. It is a portrait that I’m happy to have come across. It is a portrait worth cherishing.

 

Can’t Make This Stuff Up

It happened 30 some years ago and it was the most romantic thing I had ever seen or would ever see again. There are times we get to be witnesses to something extraordinary happening in the lives of others without knowing anything that came before and no idea what their next chapter might be. This was one of those times.

I was standing in the outside waiting area of the Amtrak train station in San Diego, trying to look sad that my wife and young son were just minutes away from leaving me behind for a visit to her parents that I somehow had weaseled out of. It was Friday evening and my head was full of just what kind of trouble I might be able to get into in the 40 hours of unsupervised time that stretched before me.

I was growing impatient when it became clear that departure was imminent as the assistant conductors began removing stepping stools and generally looking like they were ready to go.

But out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flurry of motion that turned out to be a young man in a full-on sprint nearing the south end of the north-bound train. The guy had no luggage and no apparent ticket but seemed fully intent on catching this train before it left. He leapt onto the steps of the car in front of me and engaged in an animated conversation with the attendant there who looked like he was trying to insist that the guy get off the train, that they were just about ready to go. The young man pleaded, “Just give me two minutes, man. Please!” The attendant tried to say no once again, but the guy was so passionate and so sincere that finally he waved him on to the train where he disappeared from might sight.

Suddenly, all of us waiting for the train to leave had become a collective audience in a moment of street theater. We exchanged “did-you-just-see-that?” glances and felt the delicious suspense building, knowing that some kind of dramatic action was taking place inside the train, off-stage, where we could not see. The assistant who had let the young man on was trying to placate the conductor for the delay with a series of hand gestures that seemed to indicated his helplessness in the situation, that seemed to say, “What was I supposed to do?”

True to his word, the young man reappeared shortly, this time with his hands full. While on the train, he had swept up a lovely young woman wearing a long white dress whose arms were now encircling his neck as he prepared to sweep her off the train. Their faces literally beamed with joy, and the guy stopped at the top of the steps to tell the attendant, “I really owe you one!” The attendant dutifully waved them off the train but smiled along with them. I don’t think the audience that I was a part of gave them a round of applause, but all of us were likewise united in the couple’s happiness as the young man refused to put her down and carried her off to….well, to wherever.

If I had written this as the end of a piece of fiction, it could rightfully be criticized as “hopelessly romantic,” “cheesy,” and/or “totally unrealistic.” But it happened—Just. Like. That.