Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Good Dog is Lost

Ron Hynes: A good voice is lost.
Lately Michael and I have been listening to a great album by a wonderful songwriter/singer named Ron Hynes. Hynes lives in a dying part of the world, St. John’s, Newfoundland, a remote city on a far-flung province north of Nova Scotia, Canada. He is being treated for throat cancer, the curse of too many cigarettes, drinks, drugs and lost nights. The cancer will take away his voice before it takes away his breath, which makes it all the more tragic. Ron’s voice is his fortune and his fame, the vehicle for the stark poetry of his songs.  This is a beautiful voice to silence! This is a gentle soul to subject to the torments of terrible illness. And finally, this is an awful way to get laid off.
    I was born in Nova Scotia, another place where the ability to make a living isn't easy. The scenery is lovely; the air is clear. Jobs are scarce. That’s why there are no traffic jams or long lines for anything. There are artists, with the ability to live on nothing. There is music everywhere, fiddlers, singers and crowds to appreciate them. But sooner or later, most people become entangled in the messy truths of life: the babies, the bills, the day after this one. That’s the kind of guy I think Ron Hynes is. That’s the kind of guy I think my father was.
My father Donald. I love him . . . I think.
    There is a belief that in the moment you die your life flashes before you, every twist and turn, at the speed of lightning. And if that is true I wonder if my father, who died in an uranium mine disaster, reviewed his life in that breath, and recognized regret. My father and eleven other young men far from home, in a Quebec mine, working for paychecks to send home to their loved ones back in remote places in Nova Scotia like Cape Breton Island, perished when a scaffold collapsed. They died instantly, we're told.  On that day my grandmother heard on the radio news of miners dying in Quebec she told her family that she knew for sure her son was one of the dead. She felt it, she told them. And she was right.
     I wonder what my father saw in that final flash? Did he see me, his first-born child, suffering under the rough hand of a stepfather who resented my existence? Did he see a baby boy still asleep in the womb of his mother, my father’s wife, who would grow up to be his namesake, my brother Donald? Did he see his sweet wife, she with the strict father who forbade her to be alone with my father till their wedding night on her 18th birthday? Did he see his baby sons, Keith, the contemplative one? Or Floyd, the romantic? Did he think of how it was for my mother when he told her he regretted her unfortunate pregnancy but that he was bound to marry his intended, the virginal one who waited in her father’s house. Did he forsee those three boys growing up fatherless and poor, and the girl, who was me, growing up in America with another stepfather, and a pained heart, piecing together in a thousand ways, on a thousand days, the puzzle of her life? Could he have imagined my mother, living in New York, married to an Italian, reading the news of his death in a breezy letter from home, written by someone unaware of my parents' secrets?
Aunt Marge, left.  Bertha, my father's widow, right.
    I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I know that Ron Hynes understands the part of me that remains a thick scar on my heart. He put the same scar on the heart of his own daughter, born outside of marriage, raised by a stepfather far away from Canada and her parents' secrets.  I was four years old when my father died. I was forty when I met my Nova Scotia brothers for the first time.
    My aunt, my father’s sister, was in her 70s by the time I got around to meeting her. The years between my birth and today provide insulation and a salve on the shame of my beginnings. Our connection is familial, comfortable as if it’s always been a part of our lives. Aunt Marge tells me stories of my father, a man I never knew. He was a character, she says. My favorite story is this one. My aunt designed clothes. She was living in Montreal and my father, a merchant marine, was in town for the night. He called her to meet him for dinner. She told him she’d just washed her hair. He told her to throw a turban on her head and meet him at a restaurant. When my very glamorous aunt arrived, he told her to not utter a single word. My aunt was quickly seated, wined and dined. My father shared in the bounty. Eventually he told her that he’d convinced the owner of the restaurant that a very famous, and very shy, opera singer was arriving for dinner. She could not speak, my father told them, because she was resting her voice for an upcoming performance. And she was not to be approached by fans, because of her painful shyness. The charade worked, Aunt Marge says, and they ate and drank like royalty all night long.
Family.  Blood is thicker than water.
    My favorite Hynes song, "A Good Dog is Lost," is so full of regret, so full of pain, it feels good to listen to it time after time. It’s a refreshing sort of pain. I hear my father and so many Canadian fathers and children in that song. I hear him talking about being lost, how quickly it can happen, how wide the ripples spread from its center of one lost soul.
    Michael and I listen to Ron Hynes and imagine him alive and well, because artists live forever.  Michael loves the songs because Michael loves songwriting. But I love the songs because they remind me of my father, and of the tragedy of those destined to be born in beautiful and bleak places.

"A Good Dog is Lost" written and performed by Ron Hynes.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Tata House

The Tata House in September
We almost sold our house. It’s a house in Nova Scotia my husband and I purchased online, one hot Key West night, dreaming of the green and the cool and the lobster and the yeast rolls of Canada. We had accumulated a bit of extra money through some miraculous alignment of the moon and stars and at the exchange rate of the time our American money was worth 33% more when it crossed the Canadian border.
June with concert pianist and great friend Genie Malek

     Our house, more than  twice the size of our Key West cottage, is in the tiny village of Tatamagouche, where I was born. The address is 13 Maple Avenue. The locals call it Post Office Hill. Our post office box number is 413, my birthday. From the house you can walk to the butcher, the baker and the tourist shop candlestick maker. There is a grocery store called “Mike’s” where lots of high school kids work. There is a pork shop that sells bacon that leaves no fat behind when you cook it to crispy perfection in a black iron skillet. On Saturdays there is a farmer’s market. Just outside of town there is a lavender farm and a sheep farm with a retail wool shop. A winery. Several beaches. The Transcanadian Hiking Trail, built on abandoned railway beds, skirts the shore of the Tatamagouche Bay. In fall, when the trees are bare, you see the waters of the bay from our upstairs bedroom window. In the summertime a forest of ancient maple trees block the view.
Mystery writer Dilys Winn eating Nova Scotia lobster
      The house is almost grand, with a circular driveway and verdant green lawn, a sumptuous array of flower beds, a Japanese Maple tree, a blossoming crabapple tree, a huge garden plot, a tiny greenhouse, and a grape arbor. The grapes aren’t ready till the fall, long after we’ve left for the islands. But still . . . grapes! Rhubarb! Raspberries. Pear trees. And apple trees yielding plump green and red apples perfect for pies. There are raccoons that come out at night with the unbelievable pluck to attempt to push a huge Tupperware garbage bin, secured with bungee cords, across the driveway and into the woods for an attempt at tearing it open. A neighbor once told us she’d seen a black bear amble down our driveway, past a rusty old pump at the edge of the property that yields icy cold spring water if you have the power and the patience to pump the handle long enough. There is a clothesline strung from a tree to the corner of an old garage, where we love hanging out our freshly laundered sheets to sweeten and dry in the summer sun. There is a backyard big enough to hold a great circle of chairs to seat several generations of my Canadian family.

Michael and "Beautiful Sandy" Arena at Skinner's Beach
     We bought our Nova Scotia house because we fell in love with it. Love has nothing to do with reason of course. That’s Love 101. Anyone with any sense at all might have requested an inspection. But we were too far gone for that, rendered senseless with adoration. She was such a beauty. We figured her bones must be strong, too. And they were. Built by shipbuilders a century earlier, you can see their craftsmanship in the thick chiseled beams in the basement. It was her systems that were failing. The wiring and the heating and the insulation were weak. But you can’t see that in pictures. And so we signed the documents and breathlessly faxed them on their way to Nova Scotia. We’d read of the Bohemian writers who summered in seaside towns of the northeast and wintered in the south and we wanted that sort of life for ourselves.  Somehow we’d make it all work, we figured, and somehow, for a while anyway, we did.
Crazy lady waltzing with maple syrup

     The closing was in April. In those days it was around $1000 for Michael and me to fly to Halifax. Today it’s twice that. On the morning we took possession of our house it snowed, thick and wet. I pulled out my camera to bear witness but the shutter was frozen shut. It was cold in the house, too. But we were in love, so we bundled up in many layers of sweaters and slowly explored the space that was finally ours to touch. Making our way through that big old house for the first time was like making love to one you have desired for a long, long while. We bought a card table and chairs at a thrift shop and set it up in the cavernous, farmhouse kitchen. We covered the table with an Indian bedspread and boiled water for tea. Then we went back to our motel room, which was also cold, and prepared for the trip home, a pre-dawn ninety-mile drive up and over a mountain to the Halifax Airport, and a day of little and big planes, in and out of the sky to land in Key West at dusk.
Bouquet from Tata House gardens

     Have you seen a movie called The Money Pit? That was our story, too. The
electrical system needed to be replaced before it was safe to sleep in the house. We needed all new wiring. No negotiating there, but we hoped for some wiggle room in evaluating the ancient furnace. My brother Rocky, an ace furnace repair man, advised that furnaces were unpredictable things. Our furnace might run another 30 years without a problem, or it might expire in an hour. But surely, he told us, were it to die in the dead of winter, our water pipes would freeze, burst and destroy virtually every floor and wall. So obviously, we needed to buy a new furnace, too. The water heater eventually exploded, but that was a bit later.  I bought the book “This Old House” which is all about rehabbing ancient domiciles such as ours. We hired a carpenter.  “Would you please throw that damned book away!” he said to me, with a conspiratorial wink to my husband that ignited in me a red rage many frustrating months in the making.

     Through the years we’ve made our Tata House into a place warm and cozy. We’ve made friends of our wonderful and fascinating Tata neighbors. My mother, who had grown up in Nova Scotia before marrying her New York Italian husband, was able to spend a last summer there, before a fatal degenerative brain disease robbed her of her vision and her ability to eat solid food. That summer we ate like royalty, with Mom, the queen, at the head of the table each night. We wandered a bit, too, with Mom on her walker and her constant companion Pekingese dog ever by her side.  I could probably write a book about driving from Florida to Nova Scotia and back with my mother and her
dog and her needs and the thousand ditties and poems she recited at the slightest provocation. Every time we saw a crow it was this one:

    One crow sorrow
    Two crows joy
    Three crows a letter
    Four crows a boy
    Five crows silver
    Six crows gold,
    Seven crows a secret, never to be told.

I’ll tell you a secret: there are a whole lot of crows on the long road between Florida and Nova Scotia.
Queen Mom and Babe, the princess dog

     There is a Buddhist retreat in Tatamagouche and from there we have found student renters to inhabit our house during the winter months. But not every winter. Often our house sits empty. The last time we were there, two years ago, it was to scatter Mom’s ashes. This summer, another season in which our lives have kept us tethered to this house, we hired a realtor and hung a “For Sale” sign. Saturday the realtor called and said she had an offer. Someone wanted to buy our house, but for far less than our asking price.
The secret to a great garden? A great scarecrow of course. Dig those apple trees!

     So much has changed since we bought that house. Money isn’t flowing as it used to. Our Canadian property taxes have risen quite dramatically and the American dollar is worth a whole lot less today than it was when we became summer residents of Tatamagouche. None of our four adult kids have been to the house. It’s just so darned far away, and now, it costs like the dickens to get up there. Renting a car is prohibitively expensive, and there is a sales tax of 18% on everything. So the dream of sleeping beneath the quilt my grandmother made, in our flowered bedroom in the Tata House, seems to loom ever further beyond our reach.
Michael and Rocky cooking in the Tata House yard

     When the offer came on Saturday Michael and I sat down together and talked about what it meant. I was surprised to find myself crying. It was not a good offer, and when we considered what we’d invested in that house, the money, the work, the years, the love, well, we just couldn’t do it. We couldn’t let our Tata House go. We called back the realtor to tell her what we’d decided. The people offered more money, but not much more. We refused again, and hoped the realtor wouldn’t call again. She didn’t.
Tata House in winter

     Our contract with the real estate company is up in two months. Should we renew it? Or should we take that For Sale sign down? Will it be the white elephant Canada house of our children and our children’s children? Forever at the top of Post Office Hill, an ever empty house, owned by, as one villager once described us, “a nice older couple from the States”? Or should we call that realtor back and let the young family with two little boys pay an apallingly low price for it and cut our losses? I wish I knew what to do. I need a sign. I need a crow or two.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Saturday Morning Fever

Sandy's Cafe. 6 a.m. on a quintessential Saturday morning. A girl running. A girl in shorts. A girl in pajamas. And ER Nurse Susie, heading to the hospital for the day shift, with a con leche almost as big as her, and a thermos. I think maybe Susie, who was riding her bike to work, may live on cafe con leche . . .
     For the past three years I have worked a weekend job with the unimaginable start time of 7 a.m.  I don’t even want to guess how many yard sales I have missed in those three terrible years. The Saturday morning Key West yard sale is an institution, a happy combination of meet and greet and shop till you drop. Quit showing up at yard sales and people begin to assume the worst: that you’ve moved Up North.

Sandy's. Predawn. 
     I have been so starved for secondhand deals I’ve become a regular at the thrift shops, which is not at all the same thing. A thrift shop has its charms, sure, but a thrift shop has nowhere near the charm of the well-mounted yard sale. At a thrift shop you can’t nickel and dime prices down the way you can at a yard sale. At a thrift shop you can’t chat about the history of an interesting piece of merchandise with the good people who once cherished and paid big bucks for the thing you are about to make your very own for a mere pittance. At thrift shops you are not likely to run into the stylish people you can count on seeing at the Saturday morning yard sales.

The managers: Rob and Stacie
    No. Nothing at all compares to a great, rollicking yard sale, where you encounter all the yard sale regulars.  There are the tool and jewelry folks, who yell “got any tools or jewelry?” from the windows
Do you think that early bird in plaid shorts will buy anything?
of their trucks, through the pre-dawn haze, hours before your sale is advertised to begin. (They make me wonder: what are they looking for? A solid gold screwdriver? On a chain?) The merchandisers arrive early, too. They come to pick up stuff at bargain prices which they will sell in their own shops at retail prices. In every town there is a shoal of sharks, sleek and smiley. They examine the goods, find their target, and then, dart in for the kill with lightning quick offers of take it or leave it.  Always there are yard sale observers, who walk around with their hands in their pockets, looking, asking questions, but never buying. And there are tag-alongs, people accompanying the serious shoppers. They watch and wait and appear to be very uncomfortable, standing around in strangers’ yards amid displays of other peoples’ leftovers.

The Minister of Sobriety and Secretary General of the Conch Republic stage an impromptu joint task force meeting in the Conch RepublicMobile. That's coffee in those cups. I swear.
     Nowadays I am working nine-to-five, weekdays. So when my great friends Stacie and Rob announced that they were staging a Saturday yard sale in their gated front yard, I asked if I might share in the party. They even advertised the sale in the Citizen, scheduling it for 7 a.m. till 11 a.m. The first customers, the tool and jewelry folks, arrived at 6:20. That gate came in handy.

The earliest birds: the shopkeepers.
     Among the usual yard sale mavens on that day I met a lady who told me she liked my writing. Her name was Lynn and I’d like to shout out a hello to her now. As she walked through our yard sale, Lynn clutched to her chest a sweet little watercolor painting in a lovely frame she’d purchased at a previous sale. She did not want to risk leaving her find in her bicycle basket outside the gate while she shopped at our sale.  She told me she’d paid $3 for it and I wanted it bad.  I told her many times how much I liked the painting. I followed her around the yard as she shopped. I complimented her on her good looks and her fine taste in books. (She bought five. All mine.)  I told her that the only thing I collected at all anymore is art. I hinted in every way I could imagine, but Lynn did not offer me that painting. Finally she told me that her family had decided to exchange Christmas gifts of stuff they found at yard sales or thrift shops. So I forgive you, Lynn, for holding onto that painting for dear life. And I envy whoever in your family gets it for Christmas.

     We had a lot of stuff to sell, and lots buyers to take it off our hands. We had clothes, shoes, books, and the assorted accumulation of five kids, assorted parents and their crazy Aunt June. We sold out of
Eggers Junior Division, Lev and Georgie.
shoes quickly. It was amazing! Whenever someone examined our shoe collection, which went from size 1 – 10, Rob announced: “Shoes are two dollars apiece, the whole pair for $3.” People tried on clothes and bought lots of those, too. Our sale had nothing big and extravagant, save a push lawnmower that would have been the very first thing to go in our Nova Scotia village. The mower didn’t sell!  Nonetheless, by selling a thousand (or so it seemed) fifty-cent items, we made enough money to feel quite successful by lunchtime. Our yard sale was hot, exhausting, fun, and possibly easier than loading everything into the car and delivering it to the thrift shop. But I’m not quite sure about that.

My beautiful friend Stacie and me, counting up the loot.
Here in Key West, it’s the end-of-summer, paring down season. Unburdening is a healthy response to belt-tightening times. When the going gets tough, the tough go yard sale-ing, because women must shop. My long-suffering husband explains that shopping, for women, is a physiological imperative, programmed into the female gene. And on an island 130 miles from the nearest mall, yard sales are a Big Thing.

     My husband also suggests that a truly great yard sale should begin around 5 a.m., so as to accommodate the earliest of early birds. But I think the ultimate yard sale begins on Saturday morning, or you might say the after-midnight side of Friday night.  Open the gates at 3 a.m. for a nice headstart on the other sales. Offer complimentary mimosas. Brew a pot of coffee. Buy a box of sugary donuts.  Crank up the rock ‘n roll. Turn your yard sale into a happening, a party! Offer deep discounts to whoever carries away the most junk. Label your most desirable items with post-it notes revealing some titillating fact about them. For example, you might note, on that old blue dress: “Once worn at the Clinton White House.” There! That’s a conversation starter!

Here is our son Miguel Perez's homage to Sandy's Cafe, filmed at 4 a.m. -- of course!!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Waccabuc Wedding

Hanging out at Mead Chapel

 Wedding Day. Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, July 1956

My happy place. Lake Waccabuc
When I was a very little kid Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller showed up in New York, in search of a setting for their wedding. A small, family-owned chapel near our house at Lake Waccabuc was considered. But the good people in charge of the lovely Mead Chapel vetoed the Miller/Monroe bid to wed in that breathtakingly beautiful place because of the event’s attaché of friends and family, fans, reporters, photographers and assorted rubber-neckers. Who could resist the chance of a glimpse of America’s most famous sexpot? None of our neighbors wanted that kind of a circus going on in our back yards. It was probably a wise decision. On the day of their civil wedding ceremony, a young reporter from Paris-Match magazine was killed when her car, racing along a curving country road toward the Monroe/Miller pre-nup press conference, crashed into a tree. And so the couple slipped into the White Plains County Court House and quietly married. Two days later, July 1, 1956, there was a small and private Jewish ceremony in the Waccabuc home of Miller’s literary agent, Kay Brown. Those are the facts. But, as I said, I was a wee thing then and somehow I got it into my head that the wedding had actually happened at the Mead Chapel. Many times I hiked past that sweet spot and thought of Marilyn, who died her infamous death just six summers later. For years I took visitors to see the chapel where, I told them, Marilyn Monroe married. I posed for pictures there. I meditated there. I had schoolgirl dreams of having my own wedding there. Perhaps if Marilyn's wedding had happened in that beautiful chapel a brighter light might have shone on Marilyn’s marriage, and on the rest of her sad life.
     Marilyn was 30 years old when she married Arthur Miller. I think it was her finest hour. In photos taken at the time, Marilyn seems at the very height of her spectacular luminescence, clutching the arm of her husband like a grateful survivor plucked from an icy sea after a shipwreck. I once read that on the back of one of those wedding pictures she’d written “Hope. Hope. Hope.”
     Would it be too melodramatic to say I felt some of my finest hours there at Waccabuc? I remember when my parents were happy there. I remember the monstrous groans of the lake when it was frozen over with ice on full-mooned winter nights. I remember the first delicious dip into the lake on warm days in late May. My friend Tina Kaupe, who also lived in Waccabuc as a child, and I sometimes talk about Waccabuc, of how much we loved growing up there, of how we love it still, and of how, if one of us were to hit the lottery, the first thing we would surely do is buy a house there.
Producer Frank Taylor is the guy holding up the ladder. On the set of The Misfits. 1960.
The Misfits was Clark Gable's last film. Marilyn's last, too.
      Remembering Marilyn is a trek along a marshy trail of historic images, movie stars, black and white TV, neurosis, champagne, pills, erotica, expectations, sex-pectations, literature, film, profound hunger, horror, greed, but also, fun. I have a Marilyn Monroe Museum in my head and I visit it often, lifting each bitter and sweet truth up to the light like a diamond with a thousand glittering facets. I never tire of turning the prism of Marilyn’s light this way and that. I have a shelf bulging with Marilyn books, a collection that grows with each birthday and Christmas. I have Marilyn knic-knaks, a magnet on my fridge, a postcard on permanent display on my dresser, an Andy Warhol print of Marilyn on my bedroom wall.
    “How many times did you think of Marilyn Monroe today?” I asked my husband, as I was writing this.
     “Um . . . not once,” he answered. “Why? Is something going on with her?”
My friend, Key West writer Alyson Crean, grew up in Nevada and remembers drinking with her father at this Dayton, Nevada bar, used as a setting in The Misfits.
     Something is always going on with her! Marilyn is a template, a role model and a cautionary tale. Marilyn is every woman, realized, failed, reinvented, loved, adored, maimed and murdered. And finally, a legend. I was in a store the other day examining a display of Marilyn Monroe clocks. A young girl was looking at them, too.
     “I love Marilyn,” she sighed. “I’m gonna see if my mom will buy this for me.”
     “What do you like about Marilyn,” I asked her.
     “I love her self-confidence,” she said, testifying to Marilyn’s remarkable skill as a model.
I was greatly impressed by the film, My Week with Marilyn. As a major Marilyn fan, I didn’t expect much from it. I can’t think of any movie about Marilyn that justly portrays Marilyn as I understand her, till now. I was mesmerized. Actress Michelle Williams creates a very real Marilyn, the very woman I believe Marilyn Monroe to have been. I believe Marilyn was that forlorn and lost beauty portrayed by Williams, who surely studied Marilyn and nailed her character better than anyone ever before. In that film Marilyn is portrayed as a user and a self-abuser, luscious as a ripe piece of fruit, and clearly destined, as we all are, to lose. Williams gave us a glimpse into the frail heart and simpering soul of a very sad woman. Indeed, Marilyn had lost so much by the time she was 36 years old that the normal course of human events became too heavy a burden for her to bear, well before it does for most of us. Frank Taylor, producer of the film, The Misfits, lived in Key West. The film was written by Arthur Miller as a homage to his famous wife. Of course I asked Taylor to tell me about Marilyn, as she was when he knew her, near the end of her remarkable life.
     “She had a need to seduce every man, woman and child she ever met,” Frank said. “And it worked. Everyone fell in love with her. She used the story of her horrible childhood for sympathy. You wanted to protect her."
After the fall . . . Marilyn seems small, drained of vitality, in this June, 1962 photo. Weeks later, she was dead.
      Frank went on to explain how once Marilyn had someone securely in her thrall, her warm charm could quickly turn to cold contempt. And so she was not to be trusted. And she trusted no one.
     There is a scene in The Misfits where Marilyn’s character celebrates newly constructed stairs, built for her by her lover Clark Gable. The three steps enable her to easily enter or exit their very modest shack. Marilyn goes up and down those stairs, gleeful, childlike, saying: “I can go in. I can go out. I can go in. I can go out.” And so she lived her life. Going in. Going out. Going in. Going out. And going out.

Friday, July 27, 2012

What, Me Worry?

This week the hilariously funny man Tom Davis, half of the Saturday Night Live writing team of Franken and Davis, died of throat cancer. He was diagnosed around the same time I was. He fought the good fight, but ended up succumbing to a fatal tumor that lodged in the bones of his spine and pelvis. I’ve been told that my throat cancer, currently in happy remission, might reappear in my lungs, or liver, but no one said anything about tumors down there.
Franken and Davis, insanely funny guys. “I wake up in the morning, delighted to be waking up, read, write, feed the birds, watch sports on TV, accepting the fact that in the foreseeable future I will be a dead person,” Davis wrote. “I want to remind you that dead people are people too.”
    Robin Roberts of Good Morning America fought her own cancer battle five or so years ago, only to learn recently the chemo treatments that arrested her breast cancer had planted the seeds for a new version, this time in her bone marrow. So she’s back in Cancer Land. I know you can recall people in your life who’ve gone in and out of Cancer Land a few times. It’s not unusual to hear of warriors with multiple tours in Cancer Land. Like my friend Dr. Sandy Shultz once told me: cancer is an adversary every bit as cunning as Al Qaeda. When you understand that, you gain the ability to sit back and relax. It really does no good to imagine what might or might not happen next. And even if nothing at all untoward happens cancerwise, there’s still the specter of old age and, inevitable death, the final chapter on everyone’s horizon.

    My husband Michael visited Cancer Land nearly fifteen years ago. All these years later he enjoys a cozy and practical relationship with the reality of death. This is good for me, the recently reprieved, the tentatively hopeful. Such intelligent rationale and healthy fatalism is ultimately comforting.

    Last Sunday, a mostly gray day punctuated with angry squalls of rain, thunder and lightning, Michael noticed a break in the weather around 5 p.m. and suggested a walk on the wide, breezy promenade at Smathers Beach. I picked my head up out of the book I’d been reading, and told him I was afraid of being struck by lightning. So, no.

     “Oh don’t worry about that,” he said. “If that happened you’d never even know it. And it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Think of all the misery you might miss. You’d avoid the risk dying a lingering death of cancer or of drying up of old age.”

    I came out from under my quilt, sneakered up and followed him out the door. By the time we arrived at the beach I sort of hoped I would be struck by lightning. What a great line for my obituary!

Who would notice this?
    My old friend Lois Kline celebrated her surrender to cancer with a huge party for family and fans. She was 86 years old. Lois and I shared a friendship of the sort that transcends time and space. We bumped into each other every two or three years. It never mattered how much time or circumstance separated us between visits. We had rapport. Lois had rapport with life. She was a fan of my writing, and she always let me know. I was a fan of her joie de vive. She was the kind of woman you call “real.” A few weeks after her big party she died. Her obituary, which she wrote, appeared in the paper. It made you feel happy to read that obituary. It also made you wonder about yourself: have I done everything I wanted to do with this brief appearance on Earth?

Two years down the road from Cancer Land. (Thanks, Alyson, for the happy picture,)
    The last time I saw Lois, just a few months ago, we chatted merrily, as we have dozens of times before, and she mentioned she’d been terribly sick with gall bladder disease. I now surmise it was the prologue to the pancreatic cancer that took her life shortly after that. On that day, she did not know she was terminally ill. Nonetheless, said she was thankful to have lived for 86 years. She said being old was rough. She said she had begun to be curious and ready for what comes next. After a few minutes Lois paused for a beat or two and then, cocked her head to the side and demanded: “What in the world happened to your neck, woman?”

    She’d apparently not heard of my visit to Cancer Land. Surgery on my neck has left me somewhat rearranged. Cancer treatment, after all, is always a deal with the devil. So I’m not the same as I used to be, but who is? In any event, since that surgery, husband, family, friends, and coworkers have all assured me my scar and tissue deficit is barely noticeable, unremarkable, and certainly no one meeting me for the first time would suspect from my appearance that any bad thing had ever befallen me. But Lois, with the spirit of a soaring eagle, and the keen eyes to match, noticed. I laughed out loud. Thank you, Lois, for your unerring honesty. And thanks for acknowledging those hard-won battle scars. Thanks for reminding me to live till I can't.
Miguel Perez and his grandfather, Miguel Perez.

    My ex-father-in-law is absurdly healthy, also is in his mid-80’s. He doesn’t do much anymore. He lives quietly, and often consults his doctors with health issues that have so far turned out to be not life-threatening. Still, his patience is wearing thin.
    “How’s your life going, Grampa,” my son, his grandson, might ask him.
    “It’s taking forever!” Grampa always answers.

    One of these days I’m going to write myself a brilliant obituary. It will be long, and probably expensive, because the Key West Citizen charges by the inch for obituaries. But that bill won’t be my problem. And right there, you’ve got something else to like about being dead!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Hemingway Reconsidered

Antonio Gattorno, a Cuban artist, sketched Hemingway in 1934
When it comes to Hemingway it seems we just can’t get enough.  I have been this way forever, more caught up in the Hemingway legend and lore than that of any other writer. And I am not alone in this.  Every day of the week we bump into pedestrian tourists from every corner of the world en route to the Hemingway House and Museum, Key West’s number one tourist attraction, located just around the corner. When I moved into this house, I hopefully envisioned that a molecule or two of Hemingway’s genius might survive in the air I breathed, or that his magnificent mojo might linger on the lazy tradewinds buffeting our neighborhood just below the Key West Lighthouse.

    Hemingway’s star burns brightly fifty years after he shot himself to death while his wife Mary slept. He was 61 years old and burned out, emotionally, mentally, and physically. He was done with this life and he apparently knew it, not surprising to imagine in a writer described by his biographers as being self-absorbed and delicately strung. Controlling, too. Hemingway began calling the shots long before that final, fatal one.

    It is amazing to consider how Hemingway single mindedly paved the way to his fame and fortune, dependent for years on funds provided by his wives’ trusts and their willingness to keep his path cleared of impediments like pesky journalism jobs, mortgage payments, unwanted pregnancies, crying babies, and histrionic reactions to his outrageously selfish nature. They believed in him and he believed in him and he made it work — with their supremely significant support.

    In spite of all the bravado associated with Hemingway in Paris, in Spain, in Africa, and at sea, the man was actually rather clumsy, the books say. He adored truly brave men who fought bulls and won boxing matches. Those were his heroes. But he met his physical challenges in the wild armed with a gun or a fast boat, and a sturdy rod and reel or a hefty pair of boxing gloves. He had deep contempt for F. Scott Fitzgerald, a great writer, because he was unmannishly incapable of holding his liquor. He was jealous of others' success, friends or not. He discouraged his wives from having interests or deep friendships outside of the marriage. His first wife Hadley, whose legacy lived on in the lovely, high cheek-boned beauty of her granddaughters Margeaux and Mariel Hemingway, was an accomplished pianist. But when Mrs. Hemingway scheduled a concert in Paris, her husband didn’t show up. Hadley lost her nerve. The concert never happened and Hadley’s great talent goes largely unrecognized. Did you know?

    Hemingway kept track of Hadley’s periods in a little notebook he carried in his pocket. When her period was late, he despaired. Babies were a bother in any number of ways — the division of their mother’s affections primarily, and then, it was difficult to travel with them. Sadly, Hemingway’s three children all spent much of their childhoods without the presence of their famous father, often with caretakers while their parents traveled for months at a time. Remember the story “Hills Like White Elephants”? Well it ain’t just about a couple having a conversation over a beer at a train station. Just ask the critics.

     Hemingway’s second wife, whose family purchased for her as a wedding gift the house that is today Key West’s Hemingway House, was a writer. Her writing career ended on the day she married Hemingway. Pauline was pretty and fashionable and modern. Hadley was earthy and substantial. With single mindedness of purpose, somewhat akin to Hemingway’s blind dedication to his talent, Pauline cunningly befriended Hadley, and then took Hemingway from her, setting aside her strict Catholic scruples (she never missed Sunday mass) because she just couldn’t help herself. Hemingway, whose vanity was a flimsy and pliable thing, rued the theft till the day he died, writing often of Hadley’s feminine perfection and ultimately holding Pauline in contempt.

     Then came Martha Gellhorn, who calculatedly posed herself on a bar stool at Key West’s Sloppy Joe’s Bar one day in 1936. She planned on knowing Hemingway, who was by then well-published and much publicized. He was also growing restless with life on Whitehead Street, beneath the lighthouse. The address of the grand house of Hemingway, far more splendid than any other in the neighborhood then and now, was listed as a tourist attraction in a 1935 guidebook published by the city. It was not unusual after that for his curious fans to wander into the Hemingway’s yard. Meanwhile, Pauline was growing weary of keeping the children quiet and their menagerie of pets fed and watered while Hemingway holed up in his studio pursuing his art by day, patronizing downtown bars by night. Martha Gellhorn was hot, more attractive than Hadley or Pauline, younger, and a fine writer. She was accomplished, too, as a war correspondent. Always up for a catastrophic scene, Hemingway got himself hired as a correspondent and followed Gellhorn into the Spanish Civil War. Imagine the excitement of those times for wartime writers — living in hotels, ducking bombs, never knowing if the next rendezvous would be their last. The strange aphrodisia of wartime cemented their relationship, and, only weeks after divorcing Pauline, Hemingway married Martha. After the war they settled on a farm in Cuba, and entertained other notable personalities of the day. But it was not a happy marriage. Hemingway was growing grizzly and fat, while Gellhorn was reaching her brilliant and long-legged professional stride. They parted with animosity, and Gellhorn later famously wrote that after the wartime dust had settled, she recognized Hemingway as a brute and a lousy lay to boot.

    Hemingway’s last wife, also a writer, was Mary Welsh. They met just as his and Martha’s marriage was collapsing, and on their third date, Hemingway proposed. Mary was married to another, but wasted no time in freeing herself up for Hemingway, whose need for a woman to love him and provide him with unwavering support, was deep and profound. Mary stood by her man as he clamored into the sloppiest days of his life. He began to frequently injure himself in ways both mundane and dramatic. There were burns from drunken falls into campfires, plane crashes, gashes and infections. His liver was failing. His blood pressure was up. He suffered diabetes. He endured depression. The hostility he'd kept mostly covert for so many years became blaringly obvious. He was noticeably abusive to his wife.

    And in the middle of all that, with the ever-faithful and long-suffering Mary responsive to his every beck and call, he wrote the novel that put him squarely on the world’s literary map forever. It was The Old Man and the Sea. He wrote it in a blast of clarity, in a kind of fever, and knew, as he wrote, that it was his finest work, that he had reached the sure pinnacle of his success. And as scalers of the highest peaks know, getting down the mountain is often far more arduous than the climb to the top.  And so it was for Hemingway.

    The Old Man and the Sea changed me. It opened my 14-year-old eyes to the possibility of words telling so much more than just a story, blowing the lid off my conscripted little world. I wrote an English paper on the book. I got it! And the teacher got it that I got it and gave me a big fat A Plus. I watched the same thing happen to my son when he read Hemingway’s greatest hit. He told me he wanted a tattoo in homage to Hemingway. I discouraged him. I told him that although Hemingway’s work was great, Hemingway the man had been a creep and certainly no one to be emulated.

    Many years ago when a cherished hero of my childhood came to Key West to participate in the Hemingway Look-Alike contest, I was horrified to witness the high esteem in which he held Hemingway, the man. I felt it was a sacrilege that he, who truly was a magnificent and even noble man, was interested in aligning himself with the fat, white-haired, bearded middle-aged Hemingway wannabes who assembled on the stage of Sloppy Joe’s bar to be judged in a competition that had absolutely nothing to do with art.  It was a celebration of the middle-aged Hemingway, a man who, in one way or another, had trashed the lives of just about every person he’d met, man, woman or child.
What’s to celebrate about that? I wrote a newspaper column at the time, and in it I ridiculed him for his folly. His family has held me in contempt ever since. But before he died, he forgave me. Because he was a noble man.

    Now that I am older, older in fact than Hemingway when he died, I can sometimes consider the Hemingway phenomenon in a different light. I understand that Ernest Hemingway was driven to create, to strive for greatness, to live forever, no matter the cost. And though it is true he was not a very nice guy, he inspired us well beyond nicely. He inspired us spectacularly. I envy him his dedication, his unshakable faith in his talent.  Every July Key West celebrates Hemingway with running races, arm wrestling, a look-alike contest, fishing tourneys, walking tours, trivia contests, and lots and lots of drinks. Hemingway lives on, long after the blood and bones of him are dust, he endures, because he lived his life as an endurance contest, always believing what the old man Santiago did: that "a man can be destroyed but not defeated."

Friday, July 6, 2012

Dying For Affordable Healthcare

Three years ago I was diagnosed with cancer of the throat. It’s a nasty business, cancer, and when you hear the news you think: “what do I do now?” and then “let’s start doing it, now.” In a little town like Key West, people being treated for cancer get to know each other. In waiting rooms we swap remedies for the horrific burns, sores and weakness that come of treatment. I paid 37 visits to the radiology clinic, and there I was friended by two men dealing with the same cancer. The younger one, Jeff, was an independent contractor house painter, around 40 years old. The other, Cecil, about my age, was a musician. Neither had health insurance, so, in addition to being stripped of any and all energy, and thus the ability to work at their jobs, they both struggled to find ways of paying for their treatments. Cecil had a wife. Mrs. Cecil was bright and personable and devoted to her husband’s recovery. She also worked fulltime, as a bartender. Her job offered no benefits like insurance. Cecil’s treatments were paid for by Medicaid. And all of their savings. Not long after we three started, the radiation ruined Cecil’s teeth. Mrs. Cecil talked of her frustration in searching for a dentist to perform the indignity of pulling his teeth and fitting him with dentures at a price they could afford. They finally found him in Miami, and were forced to pay for it out of pocket. Medicaid did not help with that expense. It was a real hardship. Less than a year later, Cecil’s cancer returned and he died.

     Jeff, the youngest in our throat cancer trio, was surprisingly chipper during our radiation treatments. Aside from a rosy hue to the skin on his neck, he did not seem to be as horribly affected as Cecil and me. The standard treatment for throat cancer is chemotherapy and radiation, both at the same time. It’s quite gruesome. It’s chemo in the morning and radiation in the afternoon with breakfast, lunch and dinner served through a tube implanted in the stomach. One day I asked Jeff how he was doing with the chemo. He told me that he wasn’t having chemotherapy yet because he was waiting for Medicaid to approve it. Rather than wait for the go-ahead from Medicaid for standard treatment, his doctors had advised him to go ahead with the radiation, to do at least something to keep the cancer from spreading. And so he did. He had half the treatment, and waited for the slow-moving wheels of Medicaid to grind out an approval to pay for the other half of the life-saving equation, which was chemotherapy.

     Five months after I finished radiation and chemo, my cancer returned. I had surgery and more chemotherapy, and finally the cancer was arrested. Meanwhile, Jeff gave up the struggle of being treated for cancer in Florida and returned to his family home in Connecticut.  I read his obituary in the Key West Citizen a few months later. Somewhere in that horrible season another local man was diagnosed with throat cancer. He’d been gainfully employed, and health insured, for many, many years. The economy had changed all that, his insurance had run out, and he was back in school to learn a new trade when the cancer diagnosis came. He had a wife, a car, a home, grown kids, a life rich in years well spent, most notably as a beloved, volunteer soccer coach. In spite of all he and his artist wife had done right, they were without health insurance. They scrambled to rearrange their lives and their savings to make themselves eligible for Medicaid. There were fundraising parties. There was much sympathy and horror all around. After all, we are a community of artists and hand-to-mouth living citizens – the coach brought the truth sharply into focus; this could happen to any of us. Not long after his shocking diagnosis, and just before he dove into the real hard and nasty part of his treatment, the beloved coach died. Why he died is unclear. One morning he just didn’t wake up. Heart attack? Or broken heart?

    I was working for a national corporation when I was diagnosed with cancer, but I’d only been working there for a few months and the insurance company questioned whether or not my cancer had been pre-existing. Ultimately I was able to prove that I’d not surreptitiously gotten myself hired in order to have health insurance and be treated for cancer. My husband mercifully spared me from the bills around my cancer. But I did take a peek at the year-end statement from my insurance company. It said my cancer had cost them over $100,000.
     The last time I saw my oncologist he said he would make no promises about how long my remission would last. But he did tell me this: “Cancer returns on the day your health insurance runs out. Do not be without health insurance.” And so I work a job that provides health insurance because I am quite literally terrified of being without it. Dying for lack of health insurance seems to me like drowning just off Mallory Pier, at Sunset, with crowds of American tourists watching you, sorry for your struggle, but too frightened of drowning themselves, too concerned with their own survival, to dive in and help.

What the world needs now is love:

Friday, June 22, 2012

No One's in the Kitchen with Johnny

The old man and the sea: Johnny Conte in his kitchen in Rockland, Maine. Summer, 2010.
The junk pile outside of Conte's. Not everyone finds it charming . . .
If you are in Maine this summer, you should go to Rockland and pay a visit to my old boyfriend John Conte’s seafood restaurant. It’s called Conte’s Fish Market, or at least it was the last time I looked. It may have changed by now. But not to worry. Whatever the name, you can’t miss the place. It’s right on Main Street. It's an institution. Although nothing stays the same at Conte’s, because Johnny Conte’s point of view and philosophy of living are pretty constantly in flux, I can promise you the dining experience at Conte's like no other. Eating there is kind of like going to the principal’s office for dinner. You’re in trouble, suspect, merely for showing up. Go there knowing that you will be subjected to a bizarre presentation. You could compare John Conte to Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. Ask for ziti instead of spaghetti, or shrimp instead of scallops, and you risk the wrath of Johnny’s generally gnarly mood. Your waitress will advise you on Johnny's shade of gloom that evening. Generally, the report is not sunny. The menu is handwritten on a chalkboard, at the door, and patrons must decide, before being seated, what it is they want for dinner. No lingering over the menu. No cocktail hour. Don't ask questions! You make a commitment at the start, which is so strange because making a commitment is something Johnny Conte could never do. He is a lifelong bachelor. That John has never married gives me some satisfaction. Back in the day I loved Johnny desperately, and surely would have married him. But he would not marry, then or ever. Me or anyone. His restaurant is his fish wife, his own Molly Malone.
We were young and we were merry. N.Y. 1971
Kathy & June at the chalkboard menu. Rockland, 2007.
     My brother Rocky, who was once Johnny’s best friend, has for many years been in love with Kathy, a woman who followed me on Johnny’s long list of romantic conquests, way back when. Rocky and Kathy have been lovers for many years, sometimes taking long breaks from each other, then reuniting for fresh attempts at harmonic bliss. But Kathy (who works at L.L. Bean, another Maine institution) is just an aside here. The point of this story is Johnny Conte, who might be a genius, and is definitely quite mad. And not in a particularly charming way.
The menu.
Aw shucks. Johnny being interviewed by Tony Bourdain. Rockland. 2010.
     When food writer Anthony Bourdain’s television crew showed up at Conte’s, they were advised that Johnny did not come out of the kitchen for anybody. Ever. And in my experience this is true. Once John sent out to the table of my husband Michael and me a lobster clutching in its claw a postcard from Key West I’d sent him years earlier. Michael got a kick out of that. But Johnny has never appeared to meet my husband. Nonetheless, Michael is one of the reclusive Conte's most ardent fans.  Bourdain was granted an interview with the infamously kooky Chef Conte. Later, in his blog, Bourdain spoke disparagingly of Johnny’s haughty attitude. It is difficult to imagine two bigger egos.
     One time when we dined at Conte’s Johnny told me he’d been taking painting classes in New York City. He showed me a framed painting of a simple bedroom.  Raw. Achingly lonely.  I was awestruck. I knew Johnny loved to paint, but I’d had no idea he was so good. Had I made a big mistake? Maybe I should have hung on a bit longer. Had I missed out on being the great artist’s muse?
     The next day Michael and I wandered through a bookstore. I came upon a picture book of Van Gogh’s greatest hits. I leafed through it. And there, on page 27, was Johnny’s painting. Precisely the same image Johnny had shown me in his restaurant a day earlier. Years later I took a painting class with Rick Worth here in Key West. Rick’s teaching technique is brilliant. He instructs his students, step by step, on how to mix colors and use technique to create a duplicate of a genuine work of art mounted before them at the front of the room. The results are quite extraordinary. Everybody walks away with a great little painting, and you can see how the amateur might think the work is actually their work. And that’s how, I assume, Johnny Conte came to pass off Van Gogh’s, "Bedroom at Arles" as his own.
Van Gogh's famous, "Bedroom at Arles." 1888.
     But that was such a long time ago. When all is said and done I must confess I owe a great debt of gratitude to that man. I learned from him how to make a divine marinara sauce. He is why I came to Key West. I came here after Johnny broke my heart. And, as I said before, the trail of broken hearts is bloody and long.
Miguel wearing his Conte's T-shirt, circa 1975.
     When he was around ten years old I took my son with me when I visited with Johnny Conte.  As Johnny and I talked over old times, Miguel played in the crazy/chic junktique collection in the yard of his (at that time) New York restaurant. Johnny drank many glasses of wine. Miguel dubbed my first great love “Johnny Chianti.”
     Now my son is a grown man, with a girlfriend from Maine. This summer he’s going there, and we’ve told Miguel that anyone who goes to Maine must visit Conte’s Fish Market restaurant in Rockland. Go for the incredible food. Go for the outrageousness. I’ve told him to be sure to announce his presence to John Conte, because I like to think my son is someone Johnny would come out of the kitchen to see. It's a common mistake, over-estimating John Conte's interest in you and yours. President Harry Truman famously said: "if you can't stand the heat stay out of the kitchen." But in John Conte's world, I think it's the other way around, as things often are for the eccentric chef. I think John stays in the kitchen precisely because he can't stand the heat.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Send in the Clowns: My High School Reunion

A happy day with the class clowns in Key West.
The high school reunion is a cliché inside a cliché. It occurred to me at mine the more people change, the more they stay the same.  The mean girl is still mean. The fast girl is as inappropriately flirty as she was at 17. Her third husband seems to be a good sport. The smartest guy in the class, once an Adonis in his baby blue gymnastics uniform, and my favorite dance partner at the sock hops, is now a pudgy, sex-obsessed weirdo, possibly with a foot fetish.
    “How do you girls walk around in those high heeled shoes?” he pondered. “Are you wearing them, too, June?” he asked.
    I showed him my stacked heels. He said: “Let’s go back to my hotel room and make up for lost time.”
    I was both flattered (I’m a mature woman after all!) and disgusted (I’m a mature woman after all!).
    I went to the reunion with my high school best friend, the brilliant and accomplished, whip-thin Vicki. When I told Tom, the first boy I ever kissed, that I was there with Vicki – “We’re still great friends” I said, he lifted an eyebrow rakishly and asked “how great?” 
Good Morning America How Are You? Peter at Ft. Taylor.
    I had been so excited, in those dizzy days before the event, about seeing Tommy again. Would he remember how we kissed for hours and he gave me whisker burns with his scruffy pubescent mustache? He did not remember. Nowadays Tommy is that guy at the party who sits alone, clenching a beer like a prayer, shoulders slumped, staring at the floor, hoping for someone, preferably an attractive female, to become intrigued with his disconnectedness.
    Decades after our steamy graduation night back in the decadent '60s, my classmates looked pretty darned good. Well-preserved. Youthful. Healthy. I’d figured Vicki and I would be the hottest women there, but we weren’t. Every woman looked great. The men, not so much.
    “I went to high school with a very attractive group of people!” I told my husband, who preferred to sit out my New York reunion back here in Key West. In fact, attendance was sparse. Probably less than a quarter of the class showed up to see what time had wreaked on their peers.
    “That’s not necessarily true,” Michael said. “It's more likely that people who don’t age well don’t exhibit themselves at class reunions.”
Jennifer's birthday on the beach. See the green heart cake? I made that. See the man in shades? He's the guy who's kept our feet on the ground for 25 years.
    The happy, chatty girls of the high school in-crowd organized the party, prepared the food and the booze, and made sure we all paid admission. Among them, Jennifer, the captain of the cheerleader team, and, during the years of our time there, the most avant-garde dresser at John Jay High School. Jennifer was a great mix of kooky and straight. I liked her. She always said hello to me back in the day, which she certainly didn’t have to. She was cool. I was a geek.
    Also in attendance was Peter, another member of the high school hip crowd and also, as I recall, universally pleasant. In the Celebrity Round-up in the yearbook, Peter and Jennifer were named Class Clowns.
    “Who do you suppose will be the big match up at the reunion?” Vicki asked, as we drove past Martha Stewart’s Katonah estate on our way to the reunion. “Who will find each other again?”
Beach bums: Jen, Peter, Michael. Ft. Taylor Beach.
    As it turned out, the most reunited at the reunion turned out to be the class clowns, Peter and Jennifer. They hooked up at the party, spent the weekend together, and headed off into the sunset, in Peter’s camper. It was terribly romantic the way the two traveled about in that tiny camper, sending email updates from far flung state parks and exotic beaches. It was like 1968 all over again.
    Many months later they showed up in Key West. We had a great time. Peter really is crazy, off-the-wall funny, as well as a great musician. And Jennifer, full of stories of her adventures with both the famous and the infamous in her madcap past, is energetic and fun. They loved Key West and Ft. Taylor Beach and the challenge of finding a place to park their camper and sleep free like tin can tourists.
    Then, one night, Jennifer came to the door of our house. Alone. There’d been an argument. She’d fled the camper. She slept in our loft. The next day Peter came for her and all was put right. The clowns reunited, yet again.  And again, they rode off into the sunset, in that camper, while we less adventurous and more tethered folks watched with more than a little envy their apparent escape from normalcy.
June, Peter, Jen in our back yard.
    Eventually Peter, who is very clever with his hands, bought a house in Central Florida and set about remodeling it for re-sale. He flipped and flopped several properties. But settling in one place, Jennifer said, put a damper on their happy relationship. It floundered. They fought, parted, departed, made up, reunited, fought, and so on, in an endless drama Michael began calling, “Two Class Clowns and Their 3-Ring Circus.”
    Twice Jennifer has moved herself to Key West with the plan of staying forever, with or without Peter. Each time there has been a search for a new nest, a job, a life. Twice Peter has followed her here, in that camper, and slept outside her door.  Twice she has packed up her things and gone back to him, most recently, last week.
    Sunday, when the clowns fought at Peter’s home, Jennifer phoned to say she was leaving him. This time, for good. She added that were she ever to even consider going back to Peter I should save her from herself by any means, even if it meant tying her to a chair. She reminded me that doing the same thing the same way again and again and expecting different results is one definition of insanity. But I’ve tried to convince her that living in a circus, though exciting, is probably ultimately too discordant for grown high school graduates — even if the music is really, really good.
    Today, I heard through the grapevine that Peter and Jennifer are in their camper, back on the road, heading for New England.  The wild animals are in their cages. The circus is moving again. 
    This is a cautionary tale. To anyone considering a high school reunion, a second look at the people with whom you shared your most angst-ridden years, I say consider carefully. Do you really want to go there? Is it ever a good idea to revisit the ghosts of our pasts, in the flesh, a thousand years later? Just look what happened to me . . . my first kisses half forgotten, a lone, whisker-burned memory. And look at the class clowns, who ran away with the circus and the romance of the road. Sometimes I wonder.  Did romance ever really happen at all?