Tag Archives: Commonwealth

A Relationship in Presents, Part Five: The red dog

There’s an interesting discussion of how readers approach posts in this blog in the last post, if you’d like to participate. I also wonder how readers are seeing the posts in this series as style pieces; how do these pieces read differently to you, and what do you think the artistic point is?

Remember to leave stories for this week’s Theme Thursday! We had seven posts for the very first game last week, and I’d like to see that number beat! I’ve also finished the remix of the piece I selected from last week’s games, and I’m really looking forward to showing it to you! 🙂

**

Behind the black bars of the waist-high fence, it pouted at me as if a real dog, kenneled. The red fur looked to me like passion in faux crushed velvet. The synthetic material crowded around the plastic eyes like desire would do to me if it could, if I weren’t buried so deeply down in depression to render it helpless, a child in a well slipping against a wall he thought he could scale.

Its face asked me about abandonment, whys and what could it dos and reallys. He wanted to come along, but I wouldn’t have it. I didn’t even wait to see the arguments played out in the stuffed, unreal face.

“Why do you stay with her?” Renisha had asked me. We worked across Summer Street from each other, me at a financial corporation doing client communications and she social networking, and we met in a Starbucks caddycorner to our separate offices. “Why do you stay with her?” she asked. “You don’t have to.”

The answer was true and horrible and romantic. Like a trumpet call to start a military dirge, it bounded forth, monosyllabic and haunting. I couldn’t maintain eye contact while it hung in the air, but I saw her face drop to the table in my peripheral, expressing a mixture of pity and disgust spiced with a moment of wonder about whether love really boils down to my response. The table had no answer for her, and neither did I. As the relationship with Sarah wore on, my friendship with Renisha waned, forever stealing her chance to solve my riddle.

My love for Sarah held within it a paradox, that I wanted to spend as much time with her as possible and yet every moment I spent with her was spent not-quite-with her. And yet her very real absence from our time together made me want to spend even more time with her, up to the point where I cut out all other engagements. The downward spiral had started in the summer we first moved in together, months before that February meeting with Renisha, when Sarah and I ran out of Grey’s Anatomy episode to watch and so she moved into Solitaire.

Her laptop. My laptop. A 64” HDTV. Free Cell. Nintendo emulations. Family Fued.

“You don’t have to stay with her, you know,” Justin had said. He had come up for New Years to see us and gone home. The Thanksgiving after, when I told him that I was breaking down under he relationship, my very real dog resting on the purple microfiber chair to my right behind which the red dog had been stuffed, he told me, “You don’t have to stay with her.” I told him that I loved her, and when he asked if I was sure, I said yes. But I also told him I was breaking down.

You spin the wheel in the teacup ride at Disneyworld, and the cup spins round and round. The tangent force pulls you towards the chair, and you grab harder, pulling yourself forward and spinning, spinning. Eventually your arms fail, and the custodians tell you to stop, and the cup breaks off the ride and takes you for a horrible, unrestrained trip across the theme park, trampling families and employees and cute little crafted bushes, eventually tossing you into the castle’s pond where you drown, destitute and broken. No, nothing breaks; that’s your short little dream before the ride stops and you get ushered out of the cup, at which point you can rejoin the line if you choose or perhaps get a bite to eat.

Sarah said, “You didn’t have to do that,” when I held out her Valentine’s Day present, Lindt chocolate truffles from the store in the hotel two blocks away and a bottle of vodka with a penguin on it. She collected penguins like an obsession. I once, as a child, told friends and families that I was collecting piggy banks, an admission I always regretted, especially after I stopped my collection. Sarah had no regrets.

“It’s Valentine’s Day, and I love you,” I answered, slightly confused. The presents remained in my hand, unwrapped except for an unmarked brown bag and a Lindt plastic bag with a drawstring.

“You just didn’t have to do it is all.” She took the presents, put the vodka on her Crate and Barrel foldable bar. She kept the chocolates in her right hand but picked up a brown box with her left. “This is from my mother.”

A dog toy, a little squeezable thing. Kallion doesn’t play with toys.

“Excellent,” I said before grinding my teeth. Yes, I had bought my presents late, the night of, but it began to dawn on me that she hadn’t bought a present at all.

“I’m stuck,” I told Renisha over a sip of cinnamon cappuccino.

“You’re not,” she answered. “Why don’t you go stay with Shoshanna? You know she’d let you.”

“No dogs allowed,” I said. We paused, thinking. “Is it pathetic that I’m staying with Sarah because of my dog, like parents who won’t divorce because of the children?”

“Yes,” she answered. “It is. Your dog is not your child.”

I put the empty box by the trashcan behind the bar and tried to coax Kalli into playing with the new toy, which she ignored. Sarah watched for a moment and then went downstairs. When she came back up, I had already put myself under my computer and logged into World of Warcraft. She put on her coat from the cheap Target coat stand by the door and left without a word.

Sarah walked down Exeter to Newbury without pausing at Commonwealth—she had already taken pictures of them covered in snow—and then she walked to Fairfield. Inside, she picked up some candy from the seasonal aisle before spotting a red stuffed dog hiding on the banister above the turn in the stairwell to the basement. Retrieving it, she concluded her purchase and returned home, dropping the white plastic bag marked CVS and a large stuffed dog on the couch beside me.

Internally, I scoffed. Externally, I thanked her, petting the cheap, dusty material. I wiped my hand on my pants. She sat down in her chair and refreshed Facebook, and I continued playing World of Warcraft. Ten minutes later, I started to raid, and when I started talking on the microphone with the other players, Sarah rolled her eyes, unplugged her laptop, and went downstairs into her bedroom. As with most nights for the past few months and most to follow, I would sleep on the couch.

When I moved out, I left that red dog behind the fence under the construction docks of the building on the far side of Exeter and Commonwealth, under renovation. I mused whether a construction worker might take it, might give it to a child who could take some joy in the thing. Sarah had set aside effects in a box, items that I had given her that she didn’t want to keep and held no meaning to me: a coffee cup that read Bean, some dog toys, the red dog.

I remembered Justin’s words as I looked at that stuffed animal behind the fence. You don’t have to stay with her, he had said. I mean, I wouldn’t leave her—she’s rich and pretty and funny—but you don’t have to stay. All the pitiful and pathetic moments infected by thoughts like that, a relational virus. Just so, the dog pleaded with me to stay. But I walked away. I wouldn’t engage; I would only remember.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Filed under Creative nonfiction, Presents, Writing

Starbucks: The third place

Dear readers, commentators, and friends,

I cannot begin to express my surprise and gratitude at the readership surge in this blog. I passed several important new-blog milestones Friday night, a claim followed by boring stats that you can skip past if not inerested: having more than a hundred visitors in one day and breaking a thousand views to the site total. Further, breaking one hundred in a day was itself a caveat: the highest day before had only seen ninety-seven viewers, and the day afterwards [sic] had seen just over sixty. Friday, though, I have one-hundred and sixteen views, followed by a Saturday of exactly one-hundred and sixteen views. Even on Sunday, with no new post for days and very little advertising from me, I reached what only a week ago would’ve been stupendous. Thank you, seriously, for supporting the effort.

I have spent so much more time developing this site than I thought I would, and I have so many plans now for the future, long before I ever thought that I would need them. Soon, though, you’ll see the first item on my to-do list, a Featured Fan story about Kate Barkhurst, an old friend from highschool and faithful Facebook friend. Thank you, everyone, and look forward to more stories from me, more guest posts, featured fans articles, and more… you know… as I get around to doing it.

My best,
Greg

**

They don’t understand, they haven’t listened to me. They called me arrogant. They’ve had all semester to see who I am, to see how I resent that label, and yet they called me arrogant. Not only said it, but spit it in my face, an accusation that seemed to say, “You can never succeed as a writer.” They read it, and they missed the point. All of them.

No, not all. There was Jenny. Jenny understood the torment of miscommunication; of course she knew what it was like to speak and yet not be heard. So sweet and so deep, she writes about moving from China to Boston as an experience of change, a flowing river of time and philosophy that soaks and bathes her mind. But writers as audience largely gloss over grammatical mistakes (as they should), and ink-on-paper doesn’t communicate in accents.

I think, and the other students notice it, too, that her writing is permeated by beauty over frustration. She writes so well, one might assume because of passion and integrity. But I have passion and integrity, too, and where does that get me? Labeled as arrogant is all, and alone. I suppose it’s about as lonely and isolating as not speaking the language of the land you’re in, but you hope in that other circumstance there remains the mysticism of discovery, or at least the obvious route of escape. For me there’s only years of letdowns, my adolescence into my waking life, of conversational successes mired by literary failures.

The cold wind of Boston winters blows through the Public Gardens and against my wool coat. I can feel its malevolence despite scientific objectivity having drowned out the world; the wind wants to bite my skin, wants to punish me for protecting myself from its harshness. Nature wants, like all life, love, to receive love as it exists, to receive without bending. My coat speaks for me my refusal of the unspoken request. My hands hide inside my pockets’ cashmere lining, helping the buttons to hold the coat in place. I had felt so sexy the day I bought this coat, had looked at myself in mirrors to memorize the way it weight and thickness complemented my girth rather than hid it, the day I thought there might be something to expensive designer labels after all. I remember the deflation upon coming home, of Sarah meh-ing her apathetic approval.

The wind cuts through my khakis instead since they’re exposed underneath the three-quarters coat. I’ve worn my Starbucks uniform to class for the last few weeks, thin-material long-sleeved block polo with dark khaki pants. Since money from Fidelity finally ran out and Sarah started asking me to pay her back for mostly legitimate expenses—to which I did not contributing but neither, really, did she—I had to get the job, and now I’m at class and at work, never at home. Sarah misses me, comes to Starbucks sometimes to sit with me, but I’ve had years to resent her attention, loath her presence. The absence of both in preference to her laptop drove me into romantic despair. World of Warcraft didn’t help on that topic, though it did relieve some of the years’ boredom.

The reading of my colleagues has broken my heart. I take criticism well—I write and people talk about the writing, and I love them for pointing out errors and paths I haven’t noticed—but like lay readers, my fellows decided to psychoanalyze me. They had done it before, when I wrote about my relationship with Sarah, talking about how sad I must be instead of the impact of the piece on the abstract reader and how that impact could be improved. The saying goes that these days everyone’s a critic, but that’s not quite the case in my experience; everyone is a psychologist, everyone thinks that they understand you by slapping their archetypes onto you, especially the ones who tell you (not ask you) not to judge. Not “Please don’t judge me until I’ve told you the whole story, or perhaps until you’ve researched it yourself,” but, “Don’t judge me, you don’t know me!” Of course, the latter ones are right; I don’t know them and never will.

I walk under the monument to ether, the world’s first anesthetic, used first at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846. “We have conquered pain,” it reads. If only the words spoke truth. The wind blows again, cuts again at my shins savagely like a rusted and knocked razor.

I want to speak with someone about the disappointment. No one thought the writing was poor; the professor spoke its praises in that regard. The students merely wanted to ask me who the fuck I thought I was, in the nicest phrasing possible. But on that ground, I thought the piece stated rather clearly exactly who I claim to be.

I can’t talk to Sarah about this. She’d listen, but she’s cold, lacking in empathy. Or she has empathy and doesn’t show it. In four years, or in six if I count our friendship, I haven’t figured out which is the case.

I could go to Starbucks. It’s almost on the way home, less than a block from Sarah’s Back Bay condo, but I opened this morning and sat at a table once I got off shift until I had to leave for school at five. I literally sat there all day, and now I’d go back to do what, to stew? After all, who would I talk to? I’ve been there three months, but I’m not really friends with anyone. I go to work, I do homework, I play World of Warcraft; that’s me condensed. And when I got home, what? Sarah will already have gone to bed, not that I’ve joined her in months, and I’d stay up all night—til four, maybe five, maybe six—playing World of Warcraft, trying not to talk on the microphone so that I can relish in secret human contact in my home.

The churches at Berkeley Street, the Lutheran one with the homeless person (gender unidentifiable; I default to male) in the wool coat that I pass every night as I sing along to my iPod, so separate from his condition and just as vague a character to him as he is to me—but I’m not listening to music tonight, fuming instead; tonight, for the first time, he watches me, but I don’t mind—and the other one with the largely ignored cement hole. Clarendon, the rundown yard with the painted-black metal staircase and the door to the garden. The Newbury Street sidewalks, bricks that speak of old money, the townhomes broken into condos that lament the money’s loss. The plasma screens, shining vibrant blues and greens off beige walls, reflected off faux crystal chandeliers except that one home with the library, the dusty old tomes and the ladder on the right side; their crystal shines legit, reflecting white light off white walls.

But I have a friend at Starbucks, Ashley. But not quite a friend. She’s attracted to me, she told me so. Why would I call her? For an ego fest, so I can gain some pride off of how attractive she finds me? I don’t think so. I told her that rainy day that she walked me to Emerson that I wouldn’t turn her into a ’50s cliché, some girl hanging onto a man who says he’ll leave his wife (girlfriend) but never will, and I won’t. We had sat on the steps outside the piano shop, and she had told me that she couldn’t play the piano—not well, anyway. She had looked at me and told me she liked me, confessionally. She waited, seeing what I would do with it. I watched the automatic piano play a tune, and then I rubbed my hand down her cheek and told her that I wouldn’t abuse her. There she is; she is there.

She won’t be, though: she told me that the schedule marked her off at eight and it’s almost ten. She’ll have gone home, have left for the day, and I’ll be just as alone and just as forlorn as I feel now.

Call Mani instead. Call Steve. Call Justin and Mom and Dad. Consider calling Allison, and really feel like an asshole. Resent the way Murphy’s law applies to people answering their phones when you actually need human connection.

“Hello?” she asks.

“Hi, Ashley. I’ve got a strange question for you.”

“Yes?”

“You wouldn’t happen to still be at Starbucks, would you? I mean, I know you’ve probably left for the day.”

“No, actually. I’m here.” A thrill hits my spine between the shoulders and shivers its way down, the thrill of success; necessity or fortune falling into place I can’t tell, but it doesn’t matter and this is what I wanted, what I needed, to cut short the onslaught of despair. “Someone didn’t show up for their shift, and I stayed late to cover.”

Pause. Blink. Consider.

“I need—” But do I really want to do this to her, to rely on her when I don’t know how things are going to go with Sarah, when I can’t even pin down my feelings for a girl I just met at work, not to mention the girl I’ve loved for four years? Do I really want to be that asshole?

“I need someone to talk to.”

“I’m here.” She laughs, and weight falls away.

“Do you have anywhere you need to be? Do you need to go home?”

“No, I’m here, and I can stay. You should come. I want to listen.”

I turned left and walked down Dartmouth to Boylston, along the broad brick pathway of the private school, across the tree-lined Commonwealth Mall, and passed they dying Newbury Street. If I had gone to Exeter, Sarah might have seen me and asked where I was going. No, I turned left, kicking a pebble in the process.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Filed under Creative nonfiction, Writing