My favorite part of the day has always been the first instant you wake up in the morning and even if you are in the same place you normally awake- it all seems new. It’s like being born over and over again. I was lying in a bed and although I was covered in layers of cheap beddings I was very cold, in a way that I felt deep in my spine. At that moment I was struck with a thought from my childhood, I have always had an active imagination to the point that I actually narrate my own life in my own head and I am wondering if other people do as well, and more importantly, do other writers do that? I expect if I were narrating my own story, this would be the point where I start to foreshadow my own demise. My head felt 10 miles wide and the lump of guilt that was sleeping in the cold bed next to me was beginning to awake. As I tried hard to pretend like I was still sleeping, I was also desperately trying to remember her name. Oh yes, that’s right: Billie, just like Billie Holiday, how fitting.
Billie woke up and went straight to the shower, as if in a hurry to wash off the guilt of sin. Even though this was my hotel room, I took this opportunity to leave without complication or confrontation. I packed my overnight bag, ordered room service and charged it to the room and left- no goodbye, no awkwardness. I acted like buying her breakfast rid me of the guilt, but it didn’t. I took a cab to the airport and flew home. I sat in the overpriced first-class seat pondering my life. Since my best seller came out I have been on a non-stop book tour around the country. I have been to 17 cities in the last 17 weeks and I have met 17 very eager female fans and I have made 17 mistakes and subsequently have had 17 flights that feel like this. Finally my double shot of Jamison arrived- time to sleep.
I woke up the next morning, which was a Saturday, in my own bed next to Susan, my wife of 20 years. Our 20th anniversary was 2 months ago and our children threw us a surprise party, it was quaint poetic justice. This bed, on this day, was also cold. I woke up and went downstairs- I was not ready to make eye contact. In the kitchen both of the kids were doing homework while grazing on breakfast. I tossed a waffle in the toaster, poured a cup of coffee that the kids had made earlier, dropped a shot of whiskey in my coffee and sat down at the table. Hoping that their devout attention to their homework would keep them from trying to communicate with me, I sat there and ate a half cold waffle and my sipped coffee with whiskey. This was my life: book tours, sexual exploits and cold waffles with a family in the distance. I was able to curb potential conversations with my kids for the time being, however, I don’t think this is something I should be bragging about. I cleared my plate and cup, took a swig of whiskey from the bottle, which goes unnoticed by the studious children, and went upstairs to take a shower. My first shower in two days, it happen to be the only thing I looked forward to, maybe that’s why I postponed them for so long- so they feel special.
In the shower, I stood there at stared at nothingness- off-white ivory tile with hints of mold growing on the grout stared back at me. I scrubbed and cleaned my body several times over, but I never felt clean. I was just wiping away the loose filth, but the true filth remained in tact. My mind was wandering and guilt was starting to push down on me to the point that I felt the need to sit down. I did. I sat in the shower, on the floor in the corner with the showerhead beating down a soft massage of water on my face, masking the tears that had been there the whole time. There was a part of me that began to tell myself that I needed to confess everything to my wife- I must come forward. She was my wife of twenty years; if anybody was going to understand me it was going to be her. But, then I think that if I told her that I had an affair with not one, but seventeen women, she was going to be in pain- ungodly pain that I could not comprehend. If I was the one that made the mistake, why should she feel the pain, was it more considerate of me to endure the pain myself and torture myself and not bring her down with me? The aforementioned consuming thoughts and internal debate exhausted me, but I couldn’t stop my mind from wandering and thinking. I decided to masturbate to calm my racing mind. Since it had been months since I had been intimate with my wife, my only sexual motivation was two nights ago with Billie. I did not feel any guilt for getting-off to the thoughts of Billie. It took me nearly forty-five minutes to climax. I stood in the hot water for several minutes after that, embracing the pure bliss of an empty mind. I then exited, dried and went back to bed. My body was bright red from ninety minutes of high-pressure, hot water pounding my body. As I lay in bed I came to the conclusion that my life now comprises of two activities: creating experiences for me to feel guilty about and then creating things to help me hide from the aforementioned guilt. My favorite hiding places were in alcohol and sleep- they were very reliable.
The last time I felt like I had any control in my life was when I was writing- I wish I could write. My publicist said I couldn’t start writing until the wave of my previous novel started to fade. Although, even if I was allowed to start writing again, I was lacking inspiration and there is no way I could sit down and concentrate anyway. I reached into my nightstand and grabbed my flask and took a big sip, it was half full and then became empty. I slept like a baby until about 6pm.
I woke up in, surprisingly, a good mood. Maybe the sleep is what I needed, maybe it’s because it was dark out or maybe it was the smell of dinner in the air. Either way, I walked downstairs with an added pep in my step. My wife was in the kitchen cooking dinner and the kids were in the living room doing homework, still. When the children were younger, Susan and I had this little trick we did to motivate them to be interested in their schoolwork. We basically played stupid, so when they were first learning to read we would ask them what words are or, if we were writing something and came to a word they knew, we would pretend to struggle and ask for their help. The confidence they got from feeling the satisfaction that their education was helpful made them want to learn more. They eventually caught on to our little game, but by that time they were self-motivated. But, nonetheless, we still played that game with them. Our oldest daughter Cindy was constructing some sort of set on a small scale- like shoebox size. “Cindy, what are you making over there?” I asked her out of genuine sincerity.
“I am making a mock-up set for my theatre production class, what do you think?” She turned it on the coffee table to give me a better view of inside the scene. It was a small room with some random antique looking doll furniture, a door and 3 white dolls that resembled pillow-like objects.
Acting out of true intrigue and not playing stupid, I asked, “What play is this for?”
“It’s for the short one act play No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre [she pronounced it Sart]” she says as she smiled big in excitement over her project. It was rather soothing to see how much she truly enjoyed school.
“Its pronounced Sartre [Sar-tare]I tell her, its French”, I corrected her, as if I was an authority on French, theatre or even existentialism. To be honest I do not even know if I was accurate on the pronunciation, but at that point in time I wanted to feel like I knew something or had control of some situation. “So tell me what you have learned about Sartre”, I said in a way that implied that I am playing the playing dumb game, but in reality, I did not know anything about Sartre, nor did I actually understand what existentialism was, besides a buzzword that was thrown around in college classes.
“Alright dad”, she says and then moved from the chair to the couch where I was, as if this explanation was going to take some time and a higher level of focus and closeness. “So Sar-tairre…” pronounced with an exaggerated version of the way I said it, “…believed that every single person was the center of their own universe and every person had total control of everything that happened to them. If something bad happens to you, it’s nobody’s fault but your own, because you are the center of everything. Everybody is 100% in control of everything in the life, if they like it or not.”
“Everything?” I asked.
“Yes dad, everything. The play No Exit is a play about 3 people who die and go to hell. But because Sartre believes everybody in their life is in total control of their life, Hell must be the opposite of this. Hell must be living life without control. So the play depicts three people who are trapped in a room for eternity and the room has no windows and their eyelids have been removed so they can never sleep. Each of the characters needs something from each other in order to feel validated, normal or human, but nobody is willing to give in and it’s a viscous circle of pain. So they are left to live out eternity in hell, in a room with two other people they despise, grasping to the hope to regain control and failing every time. To Sartre, that is hell and that is what the play is about”. After she was done talking my mind started to wander of what my hell would look like. Was it burning lakes of fire and an endless amount of pain and torture or was it something much more sinister, was it psychological hell? I stopped and realized that my daughter had finished talking a while ago and was staring at me, as if waiting for a response.
“Wow Cindy, that is pretty intense. Do you think hell is really like that?”
“No, I don’t think that is true. I honestly do not believe in Hell but I think this story is more a commentary on life and our relationships with other people, more than it is a story about faith and the afterlife, but that is just my two cents”. As she was talking I felt myself smile, in a very uninhibited natural way and that made me happy. I was so proud of my daughter, all those years of playing dumb with her actually paid off. Now I was the dumb one.
“That is a pretty smart assessment of the story, I am so proud of you! I am going to go help your mother with dinner and let you get back to your hell-building”. I stood up and touched her shoulder gently before I walked into kitchen. She feels the touch and looks up and smiles and I smile back. That was a moment I will not forget. Having that deep conversation with Cindy, even though I didn’t contribute anything, actually made me feel better and I now felt I could bring myself to make eye contact with my wife.
I entered the kitchen and she was cooking away with dishes everywhere and several pots and pans were on the stove- with steam sizzling out of most of them. I asked her what she was making and she turns and looks over, she didn’t notice I walked in before. “Oh hey dear, its good to see you awake- it must have been an exhausting business trip. Here taste this and tell me if it needs salt”, as she almost force-fed me a wooden spoon of a thick stew, which was too hot to eat.
“Its actually perfect!, wow, that is fantastic!, what is that?”
“It’s a new dish I found online, it’s a Middle Eastern dish. It’s basically a lamb stew but it has some fancy name I cant pronounce or remember”, she swung back into her cooking rhythm and it seemed like she was too busy to talk, and she definitely did not need any help- I guess I will clean the kitchen later for her. Perhaps it’s a good time for a pre-dinner cocktail. I grabbed myself the accoutrement for a Manhattan and made it in the dinning room, out of her way. I took my cocktail on to the front porch and sat to think. It was pouring rain and the smell of winter was in the air- this was my favorite time of year, favorite time of day and favorite place to sit- perfect for self-reflection and bourbon.
Right in front of our house was a giant magnolia tree and it’s that tree that was the selling point for buying this house, nearly 10 years ago. I prefer the magnolia tree in the winter months, to me, it’s prettier than the spring version. It’s easy to love and appreciate something when it’s at it’s best, but true love is when you love something at it’s worse- when it looks dead and stagnant. Just as I as starred at the mighty tree in admiration a squirrel came running down the tree and to the ground. He grabbed something off the ground and attempted to carry it back up the tree, but after six feet up he dropped it again and then he ran down to retrieve it. He kept trying to carry it up the tree and every single time he dropped it again. I wondered if the squirrel thought he was at the center of his own universe and that everything revolved around him and that he was in complete control of the situation? Or maybe he was just a product of my universe and his life and existence orbited around mine. If Sartre was right, I don’t think hell would be that bad. In my life, with total control of my universe and actions, I have failed at achieving my own happiness. So if I was to lose the ability to control my own happiness and fate, at least I won’t feel like an utter failure, I would simply be unhappy. But I can deal with that.
The squirrel finally figured out how to carry his food home.
I starred at the nearly dead magnolia tree for another hour. If you knew nothing about trees and nature you would probably look at this tree and think it was dead. But, it will be in full blossom in a few months again and become a point of pride in the neighborhood. I got that feeling that somebody was looking at me and I turned my shoulder and my wife was starring at me from the window with an endearing smile. I smiled back. It was nice to be loved while at my worse.
The next morning I told her everything and I took control of my hell of a life. She came to know me for the dead and stagnant tree that I was. The next day I quit drinking and began writing again. It took years for my marriage to fully recover from the damage I caused, but the realization that I am in control of my life and I cant rationalize my bad decisions as the product of something else. It is all me, all the time.
The magnolia tree continues to blossom every year.
Photo Credit: Virginia Drake