Close My Eyes

I wrote yesterday that I’ve only addressed one Cathy by name in a song. I chose my words carefully. A person bearing one of the names in the first sentence of yesterday’s post has been the subject of a song I wrote, but the song does not include her name.

We were co-workers for a while—more than four years—but more days have passed since I last saw her than took place while we worked together. Both of us moved from desk to desk in the company for various reasons, but there was a long stretch of time when our desks were close enough for us to talk with each other (and for me to overhear her conversations with other people). Suffice it to say that she was (probably still is) a nice person, a thoroughly competent and efficient worker, a ray of sunlight in the workday. I was stunned when she announced to the company that she had taken a job with another employer. After she left, I missed her even more than I had expected. From that experience, though, I did come to write a song. It has a bouncy tune, reminiscent of Boyce and Hart. Without any further ado, here it is:

 

Late at night I’m lyin’ in bed/                                      And I close my eyes

Pictures of you crash through my head/                 And my heart cries; my heart cries

I can’t believe you left me here/                                Each day or night I dream of you, dear

And since you’ve gone, I only bring you near/      When I close my eyes; I close my eyes

 

I’m sitting outside on the ground/                            And I close my eyes

And thoughts of you crash all around/                     And my heart cries; my heart cries

The birds can flutter, chirp, and sing/                      And joyfully announce the spring

But thoughts of you block everything/                    When I close my eyes; I close my eyes

 

You didn’t have to leave, you know/                        My love for you would only grow

And ever since you went away/                                 I fight to make it through the day

And night or day I always seem/                                 To picture you as in a dream

I reach for you and my soul tries/                              To draw you near when I close my                                                                                                       eyes; I close my eyes

 

I’m driving down the road, you see/                        And I close my eyes

I crash my car into a tree/                                          And sirens cry; I hear sirens cry

I should have kept them open wide/                        And paid attention to the ride

Instead of wanting you by my side/                          To close my eyes. Please close my eyes

I should have kept them open wide/                        And paid attention to the ride

Instead of wanting you by my side/                          To close my eyes. Close my eyes

 

J.

 

Advertisements

Cathy: the musical

I’ve known many Cathys over the years—Catherine, Katherine, Kathryn, and Kathleen, among others—but I’ve only addressed one of them by name in a song. Oddly, she’s probably the Cathy I’ve known the least well.

I was a graduate student, and I had taken an evening job as a security guard at a local business. My assigned duty was to sit in a guard shack at the entrance to a parking lot, checking vehicles in and out. How I spent my time in that shack when no vehicle needed my attention was up to me. I did most of my schoolwork in that shack: reading and research, writing rough drafts of papers I would then type back on campus, even some writing of fiction. The day I accepted the job, I signed a paper saying that anything I produced on company time belonged to the company. Fortunately, they never asked for copies of my school papers or my short stories. They remain in my private collection to this day.

Even though the job was not stressful, the company was required to give me a break every evening. I spent my break in the main building, often buying a snack at the company canteen. I spent time visiting other workers also taking a break at the canteen. One of them was a young petite blonde named Cathy. I only met her three or four times. I don’t know her last name, her position with the company, or anything else about her. All I learned from her was that she had an abusive boyfriend who didn’t deserve her love or her attention. She’d given him one last chance more than once, and she knew he shouldn’t get any more chances. Yet, for some reason she couldn’t identify, she was still with him.

Back on campus, I wrote a song about her situation. I wrote it from her boyfriend’s point of view. From what she had said, I believed that he was a jerk and a loser, yet somehow I was able to put myself in his shoes. Somehow, that song has become a signature song in my repertoire. When I entertain myself in the evenings by strumming my guitar and caterwauling, “Cathy” is usually my closing number. It requires a bit more energy than my other songs, and the melody challenges my range. For years, though, the song about a man I never met based on the little his girlfriend said about him has become one of my favorite songs. At one time, I even changed the words of the chorus to make it a Pepsi commercial.

Here are the lyrics: the chorus first, and then both of the verses. The chorus repeats between the verses and at the end of the song, and there is also a long instrumental interlude.

CATHY

Cathy, don’t be afraid;

Don’t give up quite so soon.

Cathy, stay one more day

Before you leave on your own.

We still have a chance;

Please don’t throw it away.

Cathy, stay one more day

Before we go it alone.

 

I know that I’ve been a fool.

I’ve made it hard on us both.

When you needed me, I was cruel.

Why that was, I still don’t know.

All I know is I’m sorry now

If you’ll give me a chance to prove it;

And if you want to know how,

Just give me a chance, and I’ll do it.

 

 

The first time you went away

I thought it was a joke.

I barely lived ‘til the day

You came back to renew my hope.

I swore it wouldn’t happen again;

Time has made me a liar.

Give me one more chance and then

I’ll set your heart on fire.

 

J.

 

Misunderstanding the Rhythm of the Rain

I can’t believe that I’ve been misunderstanding that song all these years!

In 1963, the aptly-named Cascades released their only hit single, “Rhythm of the Rain.” It rose to number three on the Billboard charts and has been a staple of Sixties stations and compilation recordings ever since. As a writer, I respect copyright laws, so I will not quote extensively from the song.

The premise, though, is that a man is mourning the loss of a friend. The rain is both expressing and interrupting his grief. He calls himself a fool, which—until today—led me to believe that he had caused the end of a relationship. I thought that he blamed himself for her departure.

Over the past weekend and during the middle of this week, that song has been running through my head. After multiple repetitions in my mind, the song’s true message suddenly burst upon me. I googled the lyrics to make sure that I was right, and I am indeed right.

“The only girl I care about has gone away, looking for a brand new start.” It’s happened to me; it happens to a lot of people. But nowhere in the song does he claim that she left because of something he said or did. She just left. Now he’s sad. He misses her badly. He wishes that she would return.

“But little does she know that when she went away, along with her she took my heart.” If she doesn’t know how he feels about her, they must not have had much of a relationship. Perhaps he was too shy to try to get closer to her. Perhaps other circumstances kept them from being boyfriend and girlfriend. For whatever reason, she left for her new start—maybe a new job, maybe life in a new city. Possibly she got married. Now he sits alone and mourns her departure, wishes she was back, and knows that he cannot build a relationship with someone else because he’s still stuck on her.

This is why he calls himself a fool: not because he caused a relationship to end, but because he’s heartbroken over someone he never dated, someone who doesn’t even know how much he cares about her. He calls himself a fool because he allowed his heart to stay with this woman who has left. The rain is not going to tell her how he feels, no matter how he pleads with it. If he never had the nerve to say how much he cared, it’s too late to say it now. And he is miserable without her, even though he was never really with her.

“Oh, listen to the falling rain—pitter-patter, pitter-patter.” One hopes that he soon gets out from under this cloud and learns that life goes on. It would be sad if he spent years missing the one who got away when they were never even together. J.

First Friday Fiction–Susanna, part four

Tony was still doing his best to give Susanna a hard time at work. He had updated his song selection to “Wake Up, Little Suzie” and “Susie-Q.” Every day he criticized her wardrobe selections, saying, “Mighty colorful today—are you trying to catch someone’s attention?” and, “How can you keep your balance on heels that high? And why would you even bother to try?” Conrad actually agreed with Tony about the heels, but he would never confront a woman about her clothing, especially not in front of other people. Susanna did not show any irritation at Tony’s ribbing. Sometimes she forced a small giggle at one of his comments. Usually she waved her hand at him or simply ignored him.

Conrad was also not bold enough to rise to Susanna’s defense. He wanted to tell Tony to leave her alone, to stop being such a bully, but instead he suffered in silence.

He tried to find ways to start little conversations with Susanna, but most days “Good morning” was as far as they got. On Mondays he would try, “How was your weekend?” but Susanna replied with one-word answers such as “fine” or “OK.” She wasn’t unfriendly toward him; it was clear that she just didn’t want to talk.

She opened up to Tina, though. The two of them conversed about Netflix and recipes and their cats. With his back to the conversation, Conrad was able to listen while he appeared to be working. He loved the timbre of Susanna’s alto voice and the jingle of her laugh when it was sincere, not forced. He resented the Saturdays and Sundays when he didn’t see her or hear her voice. Constantly he waited for the clue that she was ready to accept the offer of a date.

Then, one Friday morning as the women were visiting, Tina said, “Oh, by the way, how was dinner last night?”

“The food was just OK,” Susanna answered. “The company was not as bad as I feared. He can be decent and polite and gentlemanly when he tries; he just doesn’t seem to want to try too often.”

Conrad tried not to jump to conclusions. Susanna might have gone out to eat with her father or brother or some other family member. But in his heart he was convinced that she had had her first date in a long time, and obviously that date had not included him.

About a week later, Tina asked a similar question—“How was the movie?”

“It seemed long,” Susanna admitted. “I guess I’m just not into car chases and explosions and ten minute fights that devastate an entire city.” Conrad knew which movie she was describing. It was new to the theaters that month.

Tony happened to be walked toward the door when Susanna spoke. He stopped and looked at her. “I’m sure that when you choose the movie,” he said, “it’s going to be some girly romance with mushy music and long gazes into each other’s eyes, and I’ll be bored stiff.”

She looked up at him, a twinkle in her eye. “I hadn’t planned on such a movie,” she said, “but if that’s how you feel, then that’s what I’m going to choose.”

Tony imitated Susanna’s way of waving away an insult and went on his way. Conrad sat stiff in his chair, staring at the monitor. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw Susanna dart a guilty glance in his direction, but he might have imagined it. He tried to focus on his work, but his mouth was dry and his heart was dancing in the middle of his chest. “Why Tony?” he asked himself again and again. “What could she possibly see in him?”

A few minutes later, Susanna grabbed her coffee mug and headed to the break room. A few seconds later, Conrad followed. He was relieved to see that no one else was in the room when he got there.

“I know it’s none of my business,” Conrad began, and a truer statement had never left his mouth. “But I have to know… did I just overhear that you and Tony went to a movie together?”

“Well, yes,” she said, and she looked down at the floor. Her cheeks were beginning to turn rosy.

“Didn’t you tell me a couple weeks ago that you aren’t ready yet for that sort of thing?”

“I didn’t want you to know,” she admitted. “I’m sorry you overheard. Honestly, I would never want to hurt your feelings.”

“I just don’t understand. How can you be ready to see a movie with Tony but not ready to see one with me?”

“I don’t want to have to answer that—please,” she begged. Her rosy cheeks were now glowing bright red, and a tear welled out of her right eye.

Conrad knew that he was probably making a big mistake, but he persisted. “I think I have a right to know.”

Susanna set her mug on the counter next to the coffeemaker. “Look,” she said, “It’s this way. I accepted a date with Tony because I knew what to expect—a night out on the town, nothing more. For that, yes, I’m ready. And if he wanted anything more, it would be easy to tell him no.

“But with you…” she shook her head. “With you it’s different. I’m not ready to get involved quite yet, not ready for a serious relationship.” She looked up at him, “When I’m ready for a man in my life, a real man, I promise to let you know.” She turned, filled her mug, and went back to her desk.

Conrad stood in the middle of the break room for several minutes, staring out the window.

 

First Friday Fiction–Susanna, part three

As she had promised, Susanna met Conrad at his home the next morning to drive him to work. Conrad had pondered how to open a conversation with Susanna, now that he had learned part of her history at the hospital. After exchanging greetings, while she drove, Conrad ventured a question. “If you don’t mind me asking, how did you get back into school after your time away?”

 

“I don’t mind,” she replied cheerfully, and on the way to work she gave him a thorough account of how her life got back on track after the sudden death of the man she had expected to marry. Conrad followed up with questions about her experience getting a job out of school and how she felt about the IT department at the company. Susanna did not seem shy about sharing her feelings about the job, even making it clear that she saw it as a stepping stone toward a specialized position at a larger firm.

 

She parked next to Conrad’s car, and Conrad was relieved to see that the car had been unmolested during the night. Fear for the safety of his car was a frequent part of Conrad’s life–since he was renting his home, his car was his largest investment. Ever since high school, Conrad had been in the habit of approaching his car with the eyes of an inspector, checking for dents, scratches, flat tires, or any other problem. Although this was a healthy habit, Conrad didn’t like the racing heart and churning stomach that often accompanied the inspection. In much the same way, he always made sure to leave home with his work badge, laying it on the passenger seat next to him and checking two or three times on the way to work that it was in car. And he never got out of his car without squeezing his set of keys in his hand to assure himself that he was not locking them in the car.

 

Such diligence in small matters made Conrad a good employee in the IT department, but it also made him socially awkward. Small talk was a chore for him, and teasing or flirting were out of the question. He could plan conversations in his head, but somehow they never happened the way he imagined. Now, as they walked together from the parking lot, Conrad marveled that Susanna was still maintaining the conversation, which had now shifted to the topic of weather, of where in the country she would live if she had her choice of jobs in any climate.

 

Once they reached the IT department, the flow of words stopped. Susanna settled herself quietly into place at her desk. Several coworkers, including the manager, stopped to check on Conrad’s health. The workday began, and Conrad and Susanna quickly focused on their tasks. Conrad thought about trying to join Susanna for lunch, but she slipped away before he could make the offer. Likewise, at the end of the workday, she escaped out the door and made it to her car before Conrad could join her, thank her again for the ride, or even wish her a pleasant evening.

 

The next week, IT staff had to travel around the building, checking on computers, updating programs, and removing illicit links and files. Conrad was amused by the kind of material company workers uploaded–anything from puzzles and games to pornography, as well as shopping sites and personal documents. IT staff generally deleted such material without comment and without reporting the offenses. If a file was innocent and did not use a lot of computer storage, Conrad was generous about leaving it alone–a file of family photographs, for example, or a draft of a short story. Items that suggested a waste of company time or a strain on the company’s bandwidth or storage capacities had to go. Conrad frequently emptied workers’ recycle bins and their “deleted email message” folders. Shortcuts to Facebook and other social media were also taboo. Many of these tasks could be done through remote access to a computer by way of the company’s network, but occasional personal visits sometimes caught hidden material on the work computers, and they also subtly reminded employees that the computers were company property and not for personal use.

 

The manager sent IT workers on these clean-up missions in teams of two. Confrontations over company policy were greatly reduced when the IT staff did not arrive solo. Conrad’s partner was a congenial young man named Keith; he had a beard and a pony tail. Susanna was paired with Tony.

 

Because of these excursions, Conrad scarcely saw Susanna for three days, apart from a brief “good morning” at the start of the day. Wednesday afternoon, though, as Keith and Conrad entered the IT office, Conrad saw Susanna at her desk with no one nearby. He waited until Keith had gone further into the room, and then he stood next to her desk and spoke her name.

 

Susanna looked up and smiled at him. “How is your week going?” she asked. He knew that she was mainly asking about the clean-up tasks, but he dared to answer in a different vein.

 

“Lonely,” he said, “but I’m used to that. Listen,” he continued bravely, “I was wondering if you might be free tonight. We could do something together, maybe dinner or a movie….”

 

She smiled again but shook her head. “I’m afraid tonight will not be convenient,” she told him.

 

“Well, tomorrow night, then? Or maybe some time over the weekend.”

 

“Conrad,” she answered, “you’re sweet to ask, but I’m going to have to say no. I’m sorry, but I’m just not ready for that. Not yet.”

 

“I understand,” Conrad assured her. His heart had sunk when she said no, but it soared with the promise of her words, “not yet.” With that crumb of hope, Conrad could be patient for a long time.

Eros and Psyche and Ted and Alice

Beauty and the Beast. The Phantom of the Opera. My Fair Lady.  The story is told repeatedly: a mature man becomes some sort of mentor to a young woman; over time an awkward romance blossoms out of the relationship. Sometimes the awkward romance involves a love triangle (Phantom-Christine-Raoul, or Henry Higgins-Eliza Doolittle-Freddie). This seems to be the more modern approach. For Beauty and the Beast, her love and loyalty to her father forms the triangle rather than any romance with a peer. The central figure, though, is always the mature male who is molding some portion of the young woman’s life to meet his standards and who then comes to view her entirely as his.

Henry Higgins wants Eliza to talk and act as a woman of high society. The Phantom wants Christine to sing as a well-trained soprano. The Beast wants Beauty to look beyond appearances and to have compassion, even affection, toward the misshapen.

The oldest version of this story, so far as I know, is the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche. Psyche is a beautiful young woman—so beautiful that men admire her from afar but are too frightened of her beauty to woo her. Eros sets out to fix her problem, but he falls in love with her himself. Even though he marries her, she is never allowed to see him; he comes to her only in the darkness of night. When her sisters (There’s the completion of the triangle.) tell her that her situation is too weird, she lights a candle to view him while he sleeps. She feared that he would be a monster, but he turns out to be achingly handsome. After all, he is a god. A drop from the candle falls and awakens him, and he flees from her; she must accomplish various impossible tasks before the couple can be reunited.

From a god to a hideous beast—or a deformed man living in the cellar and pretending to be a ghost—or a misanthropic linguist. Somehow this man is transformed by the presence of a vulnerable and shapeable young woman, and he learns that he needs her to make his life complete. Is this not a common male fantasy? And what does the young woman receive in exchange? She seeks a mentor, a teacher, or merely a host to take care of her. The last thing she wants is a lover, at least not one who is far older than she is and rather unattractive in other ways to boot.

Though much of the story remains the same, the ending varies. Beauty and the Beast find true love. Eliza spurns Freddie and returns to Henry Higgins (but only after he confesses to himself that he has “grown accustomed to her face”). Christine escapes the Phantom, who either disappears or dies, depending upon which version of the story you are following. At least Christine has Raoul, and Beauty still has her father. One wonders what will happen to Eliza; after a long diatribe on equal rights for women, the story ends with Henry Higgins demanding that she find his slippers in a tone reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

This male fantasy, this cautionary tale for young women, has its roots in a culture in which women became wives while still in their teens, but men had to show that they could earn a living and support a family before they married, often in their late twenties or early thirties. Marriages were arranged, and romance generally was not a factor in the arrangement. The blossoming of romantic tales took place in medieval France, tales in which a woman typically garners romantic love from a man who is not her husband. (Think of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and Sir Lancelot.) Beauty and the Beast is not as old a story; it was written in the 1700s, and its usual form is known from the Blue Fairy Book of 1889. Perhaps that explains why that version of Eros and Psyche could include a marriage based on love, in which husband and wife live happily ever after. J.

First Friday Fiction–Susanna, part two

No one in the office had ever heard Susanna shout. When she spoke at all, she spoke in a quiet voice. Her coworkers were startled one morning when she called out, “Somebody call 9-1-1!” It took a couple of seconds for anyone even to think to ask why they should call the emergency number.

Only Susanna had noticed when Conrad collapsed. Perhaps the odd movement caught her eye, or perhaps she had been glancing his direction more often lately. Conrad’s body turned limp, and he began to slide off his chair onto the floor under his desk. Before his head could hit the floor, Susanna was at his side. She pushed away his chair and eased him into a flat position on the floor. She checked his neck for a pulse, which she noticed was rapid and weak, but regular. Next she watched to make sure that he was breathing. He was.

She heard the voice of one of the other men in the office talking to the emergency dispatcher over the telephone. As three or four concerned workers gathered around, she waved them back. “Give him some air,” she pleaded.

Conrad’s eyelids flickered. Then he opened his eyes and began to sit up. “What happened?” he asked groggily.

“You fainted,” she told him. Putting her hand on his shoulder, she pressed him back to the floor. “Lie still,” she said. “Help is on the way.”

“I’m sure I’m fine,” Conrad started to say, but she interrupted him. “I said lie still. You are going to be checked out to make sure that you’re fine. I lost one friend this way—I’m not going to lose another.”

In stunned silence, the sound of an approaching siren could be heard. “You!” she commanded, pointing at Tony. “Go down to the door and guide them up here. They mustn’t waste a second!”

Susanna took Conrad’s hand and squeezed it. “You are going to make it,” she promised him.

Conrad was already feeling stronger. He decided to try a little joke. “If I don’t,” he whispered, “I just wish… I just wish I had spent more time at the office.” No one laughed, but it seemed to Conrad that
Susanna relaxed slightly.

Less than two minutes later, three paramedics were tending to Conrad. “Do you know your name?” one of them asked him. “Do you know what day this is?” Conrad answered both questions correctly. Another paramedic was checking his pulse and counting his heartbeats. “What happened?” the first paramedic asked.

“I guess I fainted,” Conrad said sheepishly. One minute I was at my desk, working, and the next minute I was lying on the floor.” He paused and confessed, “During the night I got up and was sick, and I didn’t think my stomach could handle breakfast this morning.”

The paramedic nodded and gently pinched the skin on Conrad’s arm. “Dehydration,” he announced. “Probably nothing serious, but we’ll still get you to the hospital for a complete check-up.”

“Really—I’m fine,” Conrad protested, but they seemed to ignore his words. They had a stretcher which folded into a chair which would fit in the elevator. As they carefully moved Conrad onto the stretcher, Susanna grabbed her purse. “I’ll follow you to the hospital,” she told them.

Of course the ambulance took Conrad straight to the emergency room entrance. Susanna had to find a parking spot, then find the public entry, and from there try to find Conrad. When she admitted that she was not part of his family, they were reluctant to allow her back to see him. He remembered her promise, though, and asked about her, and soon she was with him.

One machine was monitoring his heart, while another was pumping fluid into his arm. Susanna had no medical training, but on the heart monitor she could see that Conrad’s heart was pumping thoroughly and regularly. He also seemed less pale than he had been when he was lying on the office floor.

She took his hand. “You gave us all a little scare there.”

He smiled weakly. “Sorry about that. I guess I should take better care of myself.”

She smiled back. “I guess you should.”

Conrad squeezed her hand and said, “Can I ask you a question?” She nodded, and he asked, “Back at work you said you had lost a friend this way. Please tell me what happened.”

She drew her breath in sharply, and Conrad thought he had made a mistake. After she let the air out slowly she took another breath. No longer smiling, she said, “I guess I can talk about it.

“We were both in college—our last year, about to graduate. We weren’t officially engaged, but we were making plans as if we were. We both knew what jobs we wanted to have, and we hoped that we found jobs in the same city, because that would make it easy for us to get married right away.

“He was on the football team. They were having a practice, a normal practice, getting ready for one of the last games of the season. It was just an ordinary practice, nothing strenuous, but he suddenly collapsed on the field. They rushed him to the hospital, but he was dead when they got him there.

“Something was wrong with his heart. He had probably been born with a weakness in his heart, but no one ever knew it.” Susanna closed her eyes and tried to hold back the tears, but they flowed all the same.

“I’m sorry,” Conrad said. I shouldn’t have asked.”

Susanna shook her head. When she could speak, she said, “It’s good for me to talk about it. I’ve held it in too long. I’ve been frightened of what would happen to be when I finally came to terms with it.”

“It must have been a terrible shock to you—and to his family and everyone who knew him.”

“It was. I took it very hard. The night after his funeral, I got drunk and walked down the middle of the road, screaming and cursing at all the drivers who swerved to miss me. I wanted them to hit me. I wanted to be dead and buried, just like him.”

“How awful!”

Susanna looked Conrad in the eyes. “I was messed up for a couple of years. I dropped out of school and spent days in my bedroom binging on movies. I would go days without food and then fill up on sweets. My parents told each other to be patient, I’d snap out of it. Instead, I kept making myself more miserable with bad choices. Then, finally, I… I….”

An older nurse had been in and out of the medical bay as Susanna told Conrad about her past. When Susanna burst into tears, the nurse wrapped her arms around her and spoke soothingly to her. “I(t’s alright now, Honey. Don’t let it bother you. Things will be fine from now on.”

It took a couple of minutes for Susanna to regain control of herself. “I’m sorry,” she said, wiping tears off her face. “I guess being in a hospital again is bringing back a lot of memories.”

“Well for now,” the nurse said to her, “talk about something more pleasant. The doctor is going to be back in a few minutes to check on your friend, and I have a feeling he’ll be allowed to go home. So—you see?—everything’s not so bad.”

“Yes, let’s talk about something else,” Conrad agreed.

“But one thing before we change the subject,” Susanna interjected. “You won’t say anything about all this to anybody at work, will you?”

“Of course not,” Conrad promised. “If you knew me better, you wouldn’t have to ask.”

As the nurse had promised, the doctor was soon checking on Conrad. “You don’t seem to be in any danger,” the doctor said. “If you can go home and stay quiet for the rest of the day, and get plenty of fluids, you should be fine.”

“I’ll drive you home,” Susanna told him, “and I can pick you up tomorrow and bring you to work.”

And that is what they did.

 

To be continued… but I don’t know when… I don’t even know what happens next. J.

First Friday Fiction — Susanna

“You know that new girl in the office—Susanna?” Tony asked Conrad in the cafeteria. “I’ve come to the conclusion that she doesn’t like men.”

Conrad rolled his eyes and pretended not to notice.

“Seriously!” Tony persisted. “You know I was right about Tina.”

“You were right about Tina. So what?” Two weeks after she took a job in the company’s IT department, Tina had invited her fellow IT workers to be friends with her on Facebook. Those who accepted her invitation immediately learned from her profile that Tina was married to another woman. “The fact is, you say the same thing about every woman who doesn’t like you.”

Conrad wanted to say more. He wanted to say, “It doesn’t help when you call them girls. It doesn’t help when you make fun of their names. It doesn’t help when you keep on flirting with them long after they’ve shown they have no interest in you.” But Tony—annoying though he was—was the closest Conrad had to a friend in the company. Other than the IT manager, Conrad and Tony had been in the department the longest. Most people stayed only until they had gained some experience for their resumes—then they went on to better-paying jobs. Conrad wished he could be outgoing, like Tony, but it hardly seemed worth the trouble to make friends with new people before they left. Being shy, Conrad often didn’t have his first conversation with someone new until he or she had been in the department at least a month.

Tony was still working on getting Susanna’s attention. He stopped by her cubicle to visit with her. Three or four times a day he would mock her by singing, in a tuneless way, “Oh, I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee.” Aside from hellos exchanged in the hallway, Conrad and Susanna had not spoken with each other. Conrad regretted this very much.

From the day she started her job, Susanna reminded Conrad of someone he used to know, but it took him a long time to realize who she resembled. He went through people at work and people at church without making a connection. He went back through college friends and high school friends. Susanna bore a passing resemblance to some of the young women he had dated. But only a passing resemblance. She was a dead ringer for someone.

Then Conrad remembered. When he was in junior high school, his grandfather had spent a week in the hospital. In the hospital hallway, just outside the family waiting room, hung a painting. It showed a dark-haired young lady in a bright red dress. The background behind her consisted of swirls of color. Her dark eyes looked out from the painting at Conrad, inviting him and challenging him at the same time.

About half the homes and public buildings in Wisconsin had portraits of this young girl. She had been the favorite model of a Hungarian-born painter who trained in Paris and then moved to Norway. More than forty times he painted the same gypsy girl from memory, and it seemed that every Lutheran from Scandinavia and northern Germany had a reproduction or imitation of one of those paintings. Even American artists imitated his work, because it sold.

Because he saw this painting frequently at a time when he was especially impressionable, Conrad was always drawn to the dark-eyed, dark-haired exotic women he met. In college he had dated one student from Venezuela who rather resembled the painter’s gypsy. She was in college for an education, though, and was not interested in romance. Since graduation, in a large part due to his shyness, Conrad’s dating had dwindled to nothing.

For Susanna he was willing to change his ways. For her he was willing to come out of his shell. He had the desire, but he was lacking the opportunity. He saw no way for that to change in the near future.

One evening Conrad stayed at his cubicle when the other workers had gone home. He was trying to solve the problem of why a new download was working on some of the company’s computers while causing others to freeze. His thinking was better when the office was quiet, and he felt he was on the verge of finding the answer, when Susanna’s soft voice interrupted. “Do you know anything about cars?”

Conrad turned and looked at her. “Not a lot,” he admitted. “What’s wrong?”

“My car won’t start,” she said. “I was hoping you might be able to help.”

“Let’s go look at it,” Conrad offered. The two of them walked to her car in the parking lot. She handed him her keys, and he got behind the driver’s wheel. When he turned the key in the ignition, the starter gave a brief moan and then stopped. It also seemed to Conrad that the dashboard lights were dim. “I think you need a new battery,” he told her. “I can drive you to the auto parts store and back.”

She smiled a small smile. “Thanks,” she said.

Conrad’s car was only two rows away. He walked to it and got out the tool box that he kept in the trunk. Returning to Susanna’s car, he popped open the hood. Handing her a flashlight, he said, “Aim it right here, please.” It took about ten minutes of struggling to free the battery; leakage had caused some corrosion around one of the terminals. Conrad slammed the hood closed. “Please carry this,” he asked, handing her the toolbox. He carried the battery himself and put it and the tools in his trunk. Then he unlocked the passenger door and opened it. “Get in,” he invited.

As they drove two miles to the store, Conrad hunted for some conversation opener. His instructions while removing the battery had hardly been conversational, and Susanna was contributing even less. “How long have you had the car?” he asked.

“About two years,” she replied. “It’s used.” Conrad nodded. Another silence followed.

Probably too much time had gone by, but Conrad had thought of nothing else to say. “Do you like it?” She hesitated. “Your car, I mean.”

Conrad sensed her shrug, though he could not see it. “It’s OK,” she said. Then, after a few seconds, she added, “At the moment I’m pretty angry at it, though.”

Conrad forced a small chuckle. “Don’t worry,” he promised. “I’ll have it running again soon.”

He carried the faulty battery into the store. The salesman brought out a replacement battery for which she paid. He put the new battery into his trunk. Their drive back to the parking lot was silent.

Susanna held the flashlight again as Conrad installed the new battery. “Give it a try,” he said. The car started right away. She opened the window and leaned out to speak to him. “Listen, thank you for all your help. I appreciate it.”

“You’re welcome,” Conrad said. Susanna drove off while he was putting his tools back in the truck of his car.

Even though Conrad felt like a hero that night, he realized that what he had done had barely broken the ice with her. He was still too shy to approach her at work. He had gained one privilege for his help, though. He now knew which car was hers. He had even taken the trouble to memorize the license plate number.

About a week later, Conrad noticed that one of the tires on her car seemed low. He stopped by her cubicle and mentioned that to her. “I’ve got a pump in my trunk,” he offered. “It plugs into the car’s lighter. I can fill the tire for you during lunch break.” Susanna thanked him. Instead of going out to the car with him, she gave him the keys. He filled the tire, checked the other three, put the pump away, and gave her back her keys. Not much more was said.

The next week the tire was low again. “I think you might have a nail in it or something,” Conrad suggested, as he offered to fill the tire again. He had a droll thought while he ran the pump. “Maybe she’s letting air out herself so we have something to talk about.” He knew that wasn’t true, but it amused him to pretend that it was.

The following week, when he saw her car, the tire was totally flat. Conrad knew that his pump wouldn’t be any use now. “Let’s see what we can do about this,” he said to her, after describing the flat. “Do you have a spare tire and a jack in the trunk?”

“I think so,” she faltered. They found that she did have an undersized spare—“a donut,” Conrad called it—but no jack. “My jack should fit,” Conrad volunteered. He pried off the wheel cover, loosened the nuts on the wheel, and jacked up the car. Then he took off the nuts, carefully putting each into the wheel cover. He put on the spare, replaced the nuts, lowered the car, and tightened the nuts. Finally, he put the tire into her trunk. “Don’t drive on this donut for more than a day or two,” he suggested. “Have the tire patched or replaced as soon as you can.”

Susanna lowered her eyes to the ground and said, “I don’t know how to thank you for all your help.”

“Don’t mention it,” Conrad said, although he could have bitten his tongue when he realized that he had just thrown away a chance to arrange a date with her.

To be continued…. J

roka10

Romantic comedies

“Boys only want pork if it’s kosher” is a mishearing of a line from a Taylor Swift song. It makes just as much sense as the real line, though. We live in a culture that is confused and misinformed about love. For generations, poems, books, songs, and movies have distorted the meaning of love. No wonder our culture is trying to redefine marriage, when we cannot distinguish true love from infatuation, romance, or just plain selfishness.

That said, I actually enjoy watching romantic comedies. The late Nora Ephron is one of my favorite movie-makers in the genre, largely because her distortions of love are so over-the-top that they practically serve as satires rather than portrayals of romance. I must add, though, that I would not want my children to watch her movies without a clear warning that true love is nothing like what they will see in Ephron’s movies.

When Harry Met Sally (1989) was written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner. It follows two shallow and shabby characters through several years of their lives. The wit of Billy Crystal and the charm of Meg Ryan make the movie entertaining. The most telling quote from the movie comes from the wedding reception of Jess and Marie. Harry and Sally had tried to arrange a blind date in which Harry was matched with Sally’s best friend Marie, and Sally is matched with Harry’s best friend, Jess. Instead, the two best friends become attracted to each other, ignoring Harry and Sally. At the reception, Jess, the groom offers this toast: “To Harry and Sally. If Marie or I had found either of them remotely attractive we would not be here today.” As in all Nora Ephron’s movies, the main characters practice serial fornication without shame, although Sally is affronted by Harry’s casual attitude about his behavior. The movie is packed with clever lines and convincing portrayals of the characters. The interviews with married couples between acts of the story are a nice touch, showing diverse ways that a man and a woman can become a couple. As a love story, though, the movie is sadly lacking any other positive portrayals of true love.

Sleepless in Seattle (1993) was both written and directed by Nora Ephron. Tom Hanks plays a man who was happily and faithfully married, but then his wife dies. Hanks’ portrayal makes Sam likeable and vulnerable, but Sam boasts of fornication with eight different women during his college days, and he seems inclined to return to that lifestyle. Meg Ryan’s Annie is already living with her fiancé, but when she hears Sam’s voice on the radio, she suddenly becomes a stalker who pursues him from across the country and arranges to meet him in New York City on Valentines’ Day (because she and her fiancé will be registering for wedding gifts at the time). Annie’s pursuit of “magic” in a romantic relationship reveals exactly what is wrong with our culture’s understanding of love.

You’ve Got Mail (1998) brings back Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as a romantic team. Nora Ephron wrote, directed, and produced this story, in which Ryan’s Kathleen owns and manages a small book store, specializing in children’s books, while Hanks’ Joe Fox is part of a family which owns and runs a large chain of book stores, the kind of chain that puts stores like Kathleen’s out of business. While the two compete professionally, they are also becoming friends in anonymous email exchanges. (At the same time, they are both living with partners to whom they are not married.) In the latter part of the movie, after Joe has realized that his email partner and business competitor are the same person (and after her shop has closed), he begins a crafty and manipulative pursuit of Kathleen which leads to the expected happy ending. If one of my daughters became involved with a man like Joe Fox, I would urge her to run the opposite direction as quickly as possible.

More recent movies from Nora Ephron include Hanging Up (2000) which she wrote and produced (and which again stars Meg Ryan), and Julie & Julia (2009) which Ephron wrote, directed, and produced. In both movies, the romance in the plot takes second place to other happenings. Hanging Up is about three daughters and their relationship with their aging father. It speaks on several levels about life and death, love and families, and our dependence upon technology. Julie & Julia, starring Amy Adams, is based on a true story of a woman who chooses to blog about her attempt to cook every recipe from a book by Julia Child (portrayed by Meryl Streep) in one year. Both movies benefit from the same clever dialogue and convincing acting as in the other three I have mentioned.

I enjoy Nora Ephron’s movies for their cleverness. I also enjoy the way she portrays holidays with genuine affection for their flavor. Harry and Sally’s Christmas decorations and New Year’s Eve revelation, Sam and Annie’s meeting on Valentines’ Day at the top of the Empire State building, and Kathleen and Joe’s contrasting celebrations of Thanksgiving (both involving singing) are all nice touches in each movie. In fact, the friendships depicted in all of these movies are frequently healthier relationships than the romantic relationships at the center of each plot. J.

Novella

Last spring I started writing a short story. After a while, the characters took over the story. They changed their names, and they kept extending the action until the short story became a novella. I was curious to see how it would end, when suddenly they told me they were done. I allowed the story to rest for a while. This week I pulled it out again, dusted it off, and tweaked it one last time. You can now read this novella by clicking on the word “novella” near the top of this page.

Someone once said that the first words to every story are “what if?” In this case, the story began this way: what if a young pastor was asked by his old flame to give counseling to her and her husband? I could imagine any number of possibilities, and it was interesting to toy with them as the story developed. Please believe the disclaimer at the start of the novella: Any resemblance to real people or real situations is unintended and purely coincidental. I would not want any reader to think either that this story is autobiographical or that it betrays confidences.

I hope you enjoy my novella. J.