A Daily Exclusive: Serialized Novel

"Is It Always A Love Story?" Chapter 2

Chapter 2 from Is It Always A Love Story? finds Peter McCarthy returned to his hometown in Upstate New York, reuniting with family and friends, unsure about all that comes next. He's changed but fears the loves, family, values and hometown he left behind, two years before, have not.

Chapter Two



As much as I flattered myself that I had control of my emotions, I didn’t know how I wanted to feel as our small plane bumped through updrafts and air pockets over a rich, green canopy of trees and onto the isolated hilltop runway. Having your hands on the wheel is no big benefit when you have no clear destination.

The sun was bright and the sky blue. I’d left this place in summer, and I was returning in summer. When we were kids, Dad drove us up here to watch the planes take off and land, as impossible as that seemed. Now, reality was shot through with impossible things. 

Approaching, looking out the window at the relief map below us, I tried to find the road to Ginny’s house, the paved strip that turned, flowed and lifted to conform to the way nature built hills, the road I trekked so many times when she and I were shattering hearts, including each other’s, in every direction.

You come out of childhood with the kooky idea that love is some kind of answer to something. You don’t know what, and you can’t even be sure that there was ever a question. Love and the potion it streams into the congestion of bodies is, in reality, the problem because no one earthbound can ever live up to its demands and promises, but you are addicted and you keep trying. The fucking messes we make, starting out with good intentions…

I couldn’t locate her road, the twisting trail up the rises on that insignificant foothill. As my interest faded, the drama my search resurrected suddenly seemed small in context. I had killed men. Without intention — Who needs it? — I killed at least one child. I helped collapse livelihoods that sustained communities, knowing it would lead to starvation. All legal and honorable in the art of war. Breaking teenage hearts seemed like diverting bullshit for a lazy afternoon, playacting of little consequence.

Anyway, our plane’s tires screeched as they hit the runway, the forests and the trees racing by my small, thick window, then slowing, reassembling in a thicker reality. The escapes were over for now. I was home. It was all in front of me. I had plenty in tow but also a determination to look back no more than I had to. Looking back makes life heavier.

It’s funny in a bittersweet way, remembering how I lugged my duffel through the gate and saw Tim waiting, my brother, tall and athletic, although a little bit wider, his always at the ready grin greeting me, a mile wide. It’s bittersweet because my family never ventured into that foreign topography where men hugged each other. Tim and I shook hands. We avoided eye contact. 

It’s bittersweet as all hell because Tim is dead now, a few years already in a coffin on a polished shelf aboveground. I’d have loved to get in a few hugs while he still got up and walked around, his bare feet scuffing the carpet at home.

But no, we shook hands, firmly, and he spoke first.

“How are you doing, Peter? We’re glad to have you home, undamaged,” he added.

Nobody comes back undamaged, I wanted to say, but that wasn’t necessary. Everyone knew. Nobody said it out loud.

“I think I’m glad to be back, but I’m still a little disoriented,” I said instead. “America still feels like the foreign country, but that will pass.”

“Listen —” We turned and began walking side by side toward the exit — “Marge and I talked it over. If you want, you can come and stay with us until you get settled, you know, until you get a job and a place. We’ve got an extra room, you probably remember, in the basement…”

“Thanks. I appreciate it.”

I did too. Until he made that offer, I wasn’t really sure where I was going or what I’d do when I got there. A couple years of taking orders and having your routine decisions made for you will do that, especially when that regimen is designed to save your life.

Tim’s backseat being lost to a mobile play land of kids’ stuff, I tossed my duffel into his trunk.

“I can’t wait to get rid of all that shit, get some new civvies and let my hair grow back. God almighty, Binghamton,” I added, looking over the tops of the low trees, down into the valley where my hometown spread with a grace that proves more elusive the closer you get.

“Same place. It hasn’t changed.”

“Not in a hundred years…”

“I wouldn’t go that far…”

The small talk was adept with meaninglessness. I was never any good at that, and I sensed Tim didn’t want it either.

“I got a letter from Mo,” I told him.

“Maureen?”

“Yeah, Maureen.”

“She called Marge to ask about you. She said she wanted to write…”

“What she wants is for us to get back together,” I interrupted. “Not said directly, of course, but in her circuitous, never quite going all the way out on a limb sort of way. She seems to have forgotten what a mess it was when we tried. Besides, one of us has changed, changed a lot, and the other is pretty much the same.”

Tim turned away from the road to glance at me.

“Meaning what?”

“I’ll say this just once before we get to civilization.” I paused, feeling like a stranger was speaking in my behalf. “I’ve been through two horrible years of killing and death. I never want to talk about it with anyone, but even though I’ll have to, it won’t be with her. She’ll never understand where I’m coming from now. It’s not like she had a good grip before, but she wants the old guy back. That guy is gone and will not be returning.”

Tim didn’t quite get the full drift either.

“Shouldn’t you give her a little more credit? She may have grown a little, too. Marge thinks she really cares.”

“Oh, she cares, but it’s all relative, man. It is all relative.”

As a conversation stopper, that turned out to be one of my best.

I didn’t wait. I went to see Maureen before she came looking for me.

But that first night I spent devouring a home cooked meal Marge carried into the dining room in delicious waves. The home front, I kept thinking, reflecting on the Norman Rockwell continuity. We all wanted in our hearts to keep this, to have it be worth keeping. This is what we were supposed to believe we were fighting for, but nobody I ever met in uniform really thought so. We were fighting for our lives, nothing less. Sure, the home front was worth defending, but it was never in jeopardy. Underfed farmers working their asses off in rice paddies were in no position to come raging across the Pacific in a dash for conquest. Mostly, they were happy if their children survived the Americans pounding past. None seemed to understand why the mightiest power in the world was dropping bombs on them, marching through, trampling rice paddies and villages.

Another story, that one, I thought while we were eating — and pushed it aside, far away where you stow things you can’t do anything about, no matter how much they hurt.

Then, after I loosened up by playing with my niece and nephew, 3 and 5, I slouched in a big, soft chair and caught up with Tim and Marge.

“Your Dad’s all settled in his new apartment,” Marge announced. “You probably heard about that. He’s going to try renting the old house.”

“He wrote me about it. Not a lot of details. You know Dad — unadorned, just the facts, ma’am.”

“That’s a good word for his apartment, isn’t it, Tim? Unadorned?”

“Basic,” Tim chuckled.

The old man, as we mutually and somewhat derisively called him while growing up under his roof, never had much of a shot at luxuries or, really, what you might call extras: movie tickets, nights out with the boys, dinners served in restaurants. He read Readers’ Digest “condensed books” he got through the mail, and that, coupled with pinochle whenever four people could be rounded up, was the limit of his self-indulgence, after television.

“He’s probably still in ecstasy over moving into a place without steps. Climbing upstairs was probably getting to be too much,” I volunteered.

“Well…” Tim mused, then let it go.

The conversations that defined Dad had been rounded off, years ago. He saved us, that was a fact. And he sacrificed enormously to do it. That was good enough. Maybe years into the future, many years, the emotions might cool enough to allow a detached view. 

“I’ll go over and see him tomorrow,” I promised, “if I can borrow one of your cars. I can get a rental until…”

“Don’t be silly,” Marge interrupted. “You can use my car. If I need something, I’ll just drive Tim to work in the morning and keep his car.”

“And I’ll hitchhike home,” Tim suggested.

“Sure you will,” Marge teased. “When was the last time you hitchhiked?”

“Fortunately, I’ve forgotten. Anyway, Peter, I told Dad not to come over tonight because I thought you’d be exhausted, you know, with the time zones and everything…”

“Good guess.”

“He wants to see you, but unless you like to gamble, I suggest you skip dinner with him at his place. Cans of chili and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese are his staples, these days. Marge can call and invite him over here, if you want.”

“Sure,” Marge agreed.

“But if you’d rather spend some time alone with him…”

“The choice, as I see it, is dinner and pinochle with you guys or a can of beans and losing at chess with Dad — again — at this place. Let’s go for pinochle.”

I inherited my inclination to talk too much from Mom, but she hadn’t stayed around long enough to teach me to polish the gift through her example. Dad talked too little. He was economical about it, never wasting more verbs than necessity demanded.

An anecdote Sally, my sister, and Marge loved to share demonstrated Dad’s verbal stinginess, among other things. It took a long time for me to tire of hearing that story because the two of them enjoyed reliving it so much.

While Sally and I still lived with Dad, our older brothers moved out, a visit from Tim and Marge meant a mandatory game of pinochle or, more likely, two — three if they went fast. Dad was very good at games that required attention, tracking the cards and shifting dynamics. His broad face was built for poker. He could have a hand full of nines or one full of aces, you would never know until he played it.

This night, Marge and Sally got silly, probably provoked by Dad’s gravity, and were giggling over something. It was just after dinner, and all four players, Tim included, had cups of instant coffee in front of them. The giggling escalated until Sally, as she always did, started to hiccup. Panic swelled, and she tipped her cup over, brown liquid flooding across the table. 

As Tim, Marge and Sally nearly came unglued, Dad continued bidding.

“Thirty-two,” he said, shifting his cards slightly in examination.

As a family, we chose this anecdote as a “Dad story,” I believe, because it was innocuous. Nobody got hurt. Nobody got dissed.

But there was more. Just as nobody gets out alive, unless you’re Saint Francis and have centuries of oiled machinery lifting your worst behavior to saintly idiosyncrasy, nobody gets away unblemished either. My friend, Jim, once told me that some writer, I don’t remember who, says maturity means that you’ve learned to forgive your parents for not being perfect. That feels jejune to me now, although it rang wise at the time. Can simple forgiveness untangle or numb the web of wounds and love that a family weaves? I doubt it. We all have our legacies, and they don’t go away.

Thanks to Mom and Dad and a few other players tangled in the mix, our family legacy is unlike any other. It can’t be packaged. It stands out like folk tales from a remote village that escapes the nation’s attention until it falls like a sandcastle and breezes toss it every which way. Then, it’s gone, and “Gee, we hardly knew ye.”

Before Dad got the mantle lowered over his broad shoulders, none of us had ever heard of a “single parent,” let alone a “single dad.” He was better at it than any of us had a right to expect because he did it without any role models beamed over TV in shows or news magazines, no support groups, no cluster of friends and relatives to keep his head above water. He did it blind, as strong a man as I will ever know.

Mom? She had the distinction of being the first runaway mom in the known world. She left us to deal with her absence with as little guidance as Dad had with his mission.

What else? Nature demands balance. One stayed. One left. The rest accumulates near the base of the pendulum, somewhat in chaos.

Forgiveness was never part of the equation, not for me or for my brothers and sister as it all rolled out. What was there to forgive?

That night, stretched out on a sofabed in my brother’s cool basement, I laid awake for what felt like days but might have been more like minutes. A corner of the universe had been unsettled, and I was intensely aware of the emotional charges darting around in everything, every sight, scene and person nearby. 

Abstractly, I began to see how I’d managed my life, what I’d kept in play and what I’d set aside and left to whither. Eight hours in town, and it was coming back with force. Time? That son of a bitch hadn’t healed all wounds. It hadn’t done much of a job in working things out while I was away, while I was off being rebuilt, torn down and rebuilt again, clay for a kiln where the heat was never just right. All these people and places tread water, relatively. 

As when I felt slightly weightless while our plane lowered toward the runway, I did not know how to feel about any of it. Doubt sat there like a lump, like baggage that must be opened, its contents put away somewhere. San Francisco had been chilly but risk free, nothing stirring the pot. And Vietnam threw shadows and flairs over the horizon, unforgettable. How do you turn toward home and be sure about anything again, confident that you understand your world and how it operates, understand it enough that you know how to behave yourself? A gnawing depression swelled. How do you handle yourself when you have changed so much you’re not even sure you’re the person on your driver’s license, but nothing around you has?

Later, post traumatic stress disorder would be introduced as a media flavor of the month, appealing to an audience dedicating its life to watching others do stuff. And it was some of that. You can’t sit starving in front of a plate of carnage without eating some of the stew. You see enough, you become an involuntary glutton. You can’t ever shake the weight. But I don’t see what changed inside me as a disorder. That point of view is a convenience for the placid. In my mind, it was healthy, a consequence of experience, natural as little green apples, and if your experiences are as easy as most are, you will never get it, you will not need that crutch of protective thinking. 

“Since he came back, he’s not right,” they’d summarize, maybe to the press after a violent incident. The silent majority seemed to think you owed them a guilt free return, not an unflushed toilet of frustration.

PTSD, America’s guilt-free way of disposing with the wreckage made of young men.

For nothing much, I felt compelled to add, in the dark silence of that room downstairs.

What bothered me most, more than the hobgoblins of tragedies, were the inharmonious streams of change, of process. Time, as we know, is an invention that helps keep our stories straight. For most, it’s a steady thread that ripples a little but mostly runs smoothly. For me, it was like a bloated cable of fabrics saturated with an overdose of spilled juices. How do we entangle or get into the same groove?

Eventually, I was so exhausted, sleep drowned the racing stream of thoughts in my head, my dreams dense and impossible to remember. I woke up feeling like I weighed a million pounds spread out like a flabby slab, but that passed as I heard the floorboards squeak above my head. The uncomplicated melody of footsteps told me that Tim and the kids were off for the day and only Marge remained upstairs, puttering around, not doing anything that might disturb me. No vacuum cleaner, no dishwasher, a toilet sending a gush of water through the pipes her only misdemeanor.

Of course, I had to get up eventually, and I did. Resuming the world was not an option. I had to do it, one way or another. Might as well start now.

After a breakfast Marge cooked but left me to eat alone in the kitchen, I set out on a plan put together from juggling impulses while we were still in the air over some town in Illinois. I left too much unresolved in my old life, when I wasn’t a veteran and didn’t understand the importance of taking action, now, today, right away. Delay from not being sure of the consequences led to never doing enough.

I drove through Johnson City, a small town on Binghamton’s flank, built by immigrants coming to work in its smelly tanneries, now falling apart, to the house where Maureen and I used to stay up half the night, making out on the living room floor. Her family lived on an otherwise forgettable block on the South Side. Marge told me Maureen worked a three-to-eleven at Binghamton General and would likely be home.

Maureen was studying at nursing school full time when we met, and while still in conversation with the America we’d been pitched since we were old enough to read, I wrote lyrics for her class’s capping day song. I was asked to stand up from my seat in the audience and got my first in a lifetime round of applause, my girlfriend beaming from the stage. 

Driving Tim’s car across town to her house, I recalled that, on a Saturday night blessed with indiscretion, I cheated on Maureen with the president of her class, an odd choice since I liked Maureen so much better. But, I was nineteen, you known, and prone to let biology think for me. The president, for reasons I couldn’t fathom, chose to confess to her Maureen right away on Monday. Battles followed in fresh directions, my reservoir of trustworthiness leaking out like somebody shot a cannon through it. Dramas birthing context flowered. As a story running by me now, it felt ridiculous, like pausing beside a diorama of pioneer culture before the universe accelerated, rendering what was then essential merely interesting, diverting and true.

Going up Mill Street, where, car-less, I’d usually walked the steep incline, I caught a tug of memory. Up on the round top of Mill Hill, a parking area offered a broad view that took in land washed flat by the Susquehanna where it ran west to absorb the Chenango, from out toward Kirkwood all the way into Endicott. Midway, the rivers met to complete the triangle where old Joshua Whitney, Jr., planned the city while his boss, from whom it took its name, sat in perfumed luxury with modern plumbing in Philadelphia. At night, the lights burned in patterns while the river disappeared. This is where guys drove girls to make out, angling around steering wheels and stick shifts, maybe winning a trip to the back seat. Every town had a Lovers Lane. This was one of ours. It struck a vein with me because I never once kissed a girl while the city carried on below us and the Susquehanna flowed invisible, and it used to tug at me as a miss whenever I walked up to Maureen’s, knowing that marrying her meant I never would. It still did.

Wouldn’t it be sweet to have such trifles loom large again?

I resisted an urge to drive on up to the top and take a look, putting on my blinker at the last minute and turning right onto Newton. The street sloping slightly west seemed smaller, more spare than what memory gave it, thousands of miles away. Maybe somebody cut down a tree. If so, nothing remained to suggest its story.

Leaving the motor idling, the pop music radio station still playing, I parked not quite across the street from the front porch where Maureen and I sat together on the steps on the day we got engaged. Three years ago. We hadn’t told anyone else, but we had her ring. Tonight, we’d make the rounds and break the news. I thought I was in love with her, but I also felt like I had arrived, arrived at normal. I still can’t say what was certainly true about the chemistry. Tim first broke the spell of strangeness hovering around our one of a kind family, getting married in a church, setting up a home, starting a family, the first normal family sprouting from our damaged nucleus. He showed us we could do it, and I was stepping up to follow.

Mark, my oldest brother, failed to take the cure in time, dropping out of high school where he was fucking up at a championship level to join the navy, a traditional solution for boys on the brink of going completely to hell. A year and a half later, he sprung it on Dad in a letter that he was not just married but the father of a daughter. Just a couple of months earlier, he’d been home on leave, out prowling for girls with me, and I was one happy kid to be hanging out as my big brother’s sidekick. Such peculiarities did little to unsettle a family like ours, already attuned to the expectation that nothing would go for us like it did for anybody else. 

Before you knew it, Mark brought his wife and daughter home to meet us, conducted brutal battles in his old bedroom upstairs, and generally stayed in step with the rugged strangeness to which we were used to being chained.

I now realized, in the same way I caught the plot twist of a novel after mulling it on the side, that I’d never have persuaded Maureen to agree to marry me, had it not been for that aching appetite for normal. I can only guess why she made the equally foolish decision to accept.

What a mess we made of romance! Our conflicts were never the thing of legend, but seething silences or unresolved conflicts frozen with tension. By the time my draft notice arrived, almost a year after that happy interlude on her front steps, the ring now off her finger, our engagement battled its way to an extended love affair with no end in sight, a condition with which I was much happier than she. The longer it played out, the less we had in common. 

Summer of 1968, we were dividing like everyone else. The last time I heard from her before I went to the war, she mailed a postcard from New York City where she’d gone with a couple of girlfriends on vacation. “All the book stores remind me of you,” she wrote. It felt like — as my intuition read it — she was rolling back in my direction, but it was too late. I was already involved with someone, a girl as hippie as Maureen was straight, playing out the clock until it was time to leave my soul behind while the rest of me trudged off to boot camp. That was the plan, anyway.

So, recalling this, I hesitated to get out of the metal protective layer of that car and walk straight toward those steps. When I finally did, my legs felt tangled, not fully set to march as they had just a few days ago. I had to get this done or it would hang over me like that guy with the dark cloud in Al Capp, Joe Btfsplk.

“Oh my God! Oh my God!”

Maureen opened the screen door and rushed out before I had a chance to take a step inside. She wrapped her arms around me and pressed her face against my chest. Teased blonde hair tickled my chin.

“Oh my God,” she repeated, her voice muffled now by my shirt, then popped up on her toes to kiss me. “I am so happy to see you!”

“Really?” I teased.

“Oh, Peter!”

Over the top of her head, I spotted her mother. She stood, waiting diplomatically, in the hallway between the door and the kitchen. As the renegade in me wished she would interrupt, the needier side recognized again that Maureen was the most huggable girl in the entire universe. Fragile and strong at the same time, the puzzle of her, the brew I loved but could never quite digest.

“Hey, it’s nice to see you, too.” I stepped back. “Can we get some time to talk? Maybe I should’ve called…”

No surprise that this, said in the tone it was said, startled and worried her. The weather changed. 

She recovered quickly.

“Sure, Peter, I’d love to talk to you. I’ve been waiting…”

She’d been waiting for more than two years, since the night she thumped my chest and cried that she had “no future with you.” That was a few months before my draft notice arrived and my decision to go in, to not resist, months I spent with other girls in relationships made terminal by the war, refusing every effort of hers to get back in.

Now, I nodded at the door behind us.  

“Maybe I should say, ‘Hello,’ to your mother, first.”

“Oh, sure…” Maureen turned without letting go, her fingers pressing my elbows. “Mom?”

Her mother came out of the shadow toward us. She had a dish towel woven between her hands. Women of her generation, mothers of my friends, seemed always in the middle of some chore.

“I hope I’m not keeping you from anything important, Mrs. McDowell,” I joked. 

We’d gotten along well until Maureen and I began pulling apart when, of course, she took sides with her daughter who got hurt by me more than once and not very gracefully. My social ineptitude showed up, waving its flag of emotional ignorance, and my image faltered.

“Peter, we are all so happy to see you. Maureen told us she heard you were coming home, safe and sound.”

Coming home alive with all my limbs and organs functioning is what she meant, and I was safe but hardly sound. The rest of my life, I would never again be sound. I didn't even like the sound of it.

“Thank you. It’s good to be here,” I lied.

“Mom, I think we’re going to take a walk, okay?” Maureen looked up me. “Is that what you want?”

“Yeah, that’ll work,” I agreed.

“Will you stay and have lunch with us, once you’re finished talking? I can start…”

“I’m not sure, Mrs. McDowell. I…” 

The air around us thickened. 

“Oh, hell, of course, I’ll have lunch with you,” I relented. “Make it something good, okay?”

“I’ll try.”

We were teasing, just as we had when I was her up and coming son-in-law.

Maureen might walk back through that door alone, that was a fact, but why dish out trauma while afloat in a swell from the past?

“Wonderful. I’ll see you kids after you do your talking.”

She turned one way and we, the other.

“Come on, Mo. Let’s walk.”

We crossed Newton and started down a leafy street full of single family homes toward the Susquehanna, unseen but unstoppable below Conklin Avenue. If you stood across the river, among the shops and government buildings downtown, the South Side looked like an urban carpet, solid, unexceptional, streets lined with mature trees climbing straight up Mill Hill. It felt that way too, up close, and to me, something else: impenetrable. When I broke my engagement with Maureen, one reason was that I knew none of the doors we passed now were portals I ought to walk through. I’d be welcomed but never welcome.

“Peter, can I say something first?”

My abstract musing fled like the abandoned orphan it was.

“What, Mo?”

“You don’t have to say anything about what it was like — over there, but if you ever feel like you want to, you can. I’ll be a good listener.”

“I kinda decided never to talk about that place with anyone any more than necessary, but thanks. It’s over, and I want to leave it over. Period. Is that okay?”

“Of course,” she said, suppressing a wariness that wasn’t fully suppressible.

“You know, it’s not like that with me. Some of the guys come back as whack jobs, off their nuts. There are plenty of good reasons for it, believe me. You never want to know or see what they saw. But that isn’t it, not for me. Talking about it just brings the whole mess back to life. You can’t make it better. It will always be with me, I think, but I don’t have to put it up on the wall or make it campfire conversation.”

“I should say I don’t understand, but I think I kind of do. You don’t want to keep the fire burning, right?”

“One way to put it…”

I looked at her from the side, not ready for a full face exposure where complications would be hard to dismiss or even balance. Never beautiful in the way you’d see loveliness in a magazine, Maureen was wonderful to look at. Her rounded features, warm and detailed in an Irish face you might find in photos from Dublin, seemed always ready to smile. When I thought about her at a distance, I saw her turn the corner from her kitchen into the dining room, so happy to see me her smile radiated, touching me across the space, the first time I came to meet her family. I suspected it already, but that was the moment when I knew for certain I was in love with her.

“Have you lost some weight?” I wondered.

As soon as I said it, I realized it wasn’t weight loss. Maureen had always been trim. It was a clarifying of features, an increasing presence.

“No, I don’t think so, but you gained some. All muscle. It looks good.”

“That’s one thing the army does very well.”

I stopped and spread my arms in presentation.

“You look great, Peter.”

That spontaneous gesture, I knew instantly, was a mistake, letting my guard down, defaulting back to the guy who flirted with her incessantly, making jokes, posing. 

Gear switch. I had to.

We walked a few more steps, maneuvering around a section of sidewalk cracked and crumbling from the root pressure of an elm trapped in a narrow patch next to the street.

“The reason I wanted to talk in private is because your letter, which I read on a different planet with torrential rain pouring down over my head, sitting in mud, brought up some strong feelings I’ve had to think through since then.”

“Yeah…?”

“Well, yeah,” I echoed. “Yes, and what I decided is that you and I can never be married, we could never work out our differences. They’re even greater now, and it doesn't matter how much we love each other or even if we don’t. It’s all aside from that.”

I hadn't always been blunt with her or anyone else, but some lubricating gel had leaked out my personality. It started with the rush of how I felt about her when we were first in love and made stupid with hope. I brushed that aside and started talking to her straight from the heart.

“So, that sounds familiar,” she objected, “but can we talk a little, anyway? Maybe you should at least give me a chance. I can change, you know. People do.”

“It’s not what you think, honey. It really isn’t about you or anything I don’t like about you. I like almost everything, really. The problem started before you, swam all around my life, including the time I spent with you, and it’s something I have to learn to live with.”

My deficit was, I realized, like my father’s polio. Luckily, he survived; otherwise, no me. But the profound limp, the customized shoe, the terrible way one knee had to bend backwards to make walking possible, those things were the cure, the tradeoff for keeping your life. I needed my own, emotional orthotics.

Maureen pursed her lips. A redness changed her cheeks. I had hurt her, but I didn’t want to. I scrambled.

“Do you remember that night when you told me you had no future with me and you didn’t know what my mother did to me?”

“How could I forget? That was kind of the end, wasn’t it? I’ve had that in my mind, ever since, wishing I never said it.”

“Since we’re walking together here now, it wasn’t quite the end, though, was it?”

She smiled. It was intimate.

“It pissed me off at the time,” I continued, “like you saw me as some kind of victim, but you were right, as it turns out. The reason,” I pressed on before she could interrupt, “really is because of what happened with my mother. I’m sorry I had to go to Vietnam to see that. But even though you hear all the war stories and movies and books are so graphic, in fact, there are huge spells of idleness or even making your way for hours, going single file through jungles, when you just think about your life. You untangle some knots and see things more abstract. Most of the bullshit’s gone before boot camp’s over. You have a choice whether you see things as they are or go off on what you want them to be, but you can’t just stay were you were. Your life could end in a second, and you want to know what it’s about. That’s the way it was for me, anyway.”

I paused to collect my thoughts.

“Should we turn here?”

We’d reached Vestal Avenue. Straight across the street was the rectory where I’d taken catechism sessions, one on one, so I’d be eligible to marry the Irish Catholic girl standing next to me now, at the church around the corner.

“Either way. Doesn’t matter to me.”

Maureen took my hand.

“Let’s go this way.”

She led me left, downhill to where the streets converged as the city narrowed to an end.

“The thing is, I was more damaged by Mom’s leaving us than I ever wanted to know. I always thought I was being so independent, the free spirit, the rebel, but I was really just unable to do normal things. I can’t really be the guy we both thought I was when we decided to get married. It took a lot of time alone to understand and accept that, but I know now I’m damaged goods. I can make it up as I go along and make it look like something else. I always did. But it won’t work.”

God bless her, Maureen did not say, “We can try.”

All kids of lessons escort you out of childhood. After Mom left us, I learned from Dad’s metal comb and fingernail file that personal hygiene is painful. I learned from his fortitude that emotions are not to be nourished but kept as restrained as a sparse English garden. It was, as you can imagine, a fucked up recipe for life. But that recipe is what got cooked. It got cooked before I was old enough to know there was even a kitchen.

“Mom left us with Dad,” I told Maureen. “She says she did it because she knew he’d take care of us, which makes a decent cover story. By take care of us, she meant we’d have shoes and Cheerios and milk in the kitchen. But she was the second major disaster in his life. How was he going to teach us how to live when he was probably struggling to care about living at all? You’ve met him. What kind of example were we supposed to see? A parent who never hugged or kissed anyone, whose only visible passion was anger, where emotion was a forbidden weakness…?”

“Oh, Peter, I get all that, but…”

“Hear me out, Mo. I love you. Honest, I do, but I need to explain that getting it’s probably not enough. Do you know how, if you don’t learn to play a musical instrument, say a piano, when you’re a kid, they say you can never really get it?”

“Okay…”

“Love is the same way. I will never know it in the same way you do, and I will never be able to learn it. I’m love blind or handicapped or whatever you want to call it. I can feel it, but I can’t really do it. I don’t know if I’m explaining well enough…”

“But…”

“I could say that’s why, when we broke up after fights, it was so easy for me to walk away, to cheat, easy to just make the switch. Maybe I let us break up because I knew I couldn't promise you anything I was sure I’d stick with. Shouldn’t love have a commitment built in? For you, it does. I see that. For me, it doesn’t. I move on too easy. I could say all that, Mo, and it would all be true, but the worst thing is, I also realized that the crippled guy I grew up to be was able to go to war and to kill and become a civilian again without the trauma so many of my buddies had. I can pull myself outside, like a magician. I can step aside and let my other self do whatever the hell it wants to do. I’m immune. I can watch.”

“Peter, I don’t understand any of this. It’s over my head…”

“That’s why I write. It’s why I will always write. I can’t really get inside, where you always will be. I’m just always going to be on the fringes, watching. No bullshit, not anymore. I’m not going to kid myself or anyone else about what I can or can’t do.”

I had never explained it so clearly to anyone, and I never would again. She had a special place in my heart. I should not mislead her, anymore.

“This isn’t something I know how to talk about,” Maureen protested. “Can you give me a little time to think it through…”

What I thought she was really asking for was time to build her case, and she had a right.

“Okay,” I said. “Come on, now. Let’s go get some lunch. Your mother’s ready to slap some bread together, I’m sure, by now.”

********

A complete chapter list can be found here.

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