Wednesday, January 19, 2011
WHAT I ALWAYS KNEW
as always for Marcia
In keeping with the notion
WE ARE NOT GHOSTS
a tale to tell, entitled
WHAT I ALWAYS KNEW
Thirty-seven years ago I went on a wild and come-what-may adventure. My former lifestyle of being married to my childhood sweetheart and teaching high school English in a quintessential small town Jersey suburb of Philadelphia, well, that life was over. Although I would teach for another year after my sojourn westward, I knew at its start that I needed to and soon would be reinventing myself, as up until then my life had seemed swayed more by chance than choice. I had married young in pursuit of love and sexual fulfillment, as my Catholic upbringing required me to do so if I wanted to remain in God’s good graces. And then I went and destroyed a damn good marriage by having an affair. I felt such guilt I gave my ex everything: the house, the car, the dog, the bank account. I might have orchestrated a reconciliation, most likely could have pulled it off, but I put the nail in the coffin of my love for my wife with my going, going, gone on my ramblings: south, then west, and south again then back.
The hand in life I’d been dealt was a mixed one.
There was poverty - I mean there were times growing up that my mother wouldn’t give me a dime, and I’m speaking literally: not ten cents; and the answer to “why not” is because she didn’t have ten cents!
There were my looks, a mixed signal as ever, my face to the world: color changing eyes, some days blue, some days green, some days hazel or some color in between, curly haired and fit, but with teeth considered odd, and so the somber smile.
My mind was keen but I disliked study. I figured Einstein just always knew that e=mc squared and that Bob Dylan just always knew how to write songs. With naiveté, yet how right I was, I supposed I would eventually just figure out what I always knew and go from there. I hoped it something noble, that I would someday know God or be touched by Mary his mother, you know, witness a miracle, or have eureka! moments of insight into the nature of what this world is all about.
There was my education: a top notch Jesuit prep school and private university in Philly, but I must say that my four years at Saint Joe’s Prep and my four years at Drexel were years wherein every day my time at school was a dream I awoke from every afternoon on the bus, subway and trolley rides home to my life of family, friends, and neighborhood. At least my education and subsequent stint as a teacher kept me out of the Viet Nam War, even if those times shed not enough light on how to learn what I already knew. Every man is wired to know something; it’s just that every man is not conscious of his knowledge.
So, off I go on my great adventure: a summer of hitchhiking with no destination going, no destination home. Wherever my thumb took me I would go, and I, indeed, had a grand time. A week into my soloing I hooked up with one Lucia Cilento. She was hitchhiking back to New York from Georgia with three other woman (to save bus fare) and we crossed paths at a campground on Cape Hatteras. We flirted, we got high, Lucia and her friends slept in my tent. In the morning Lucia and I swam naked in the rough surf of the Atlantic. We kissed and we fucked, all within twenty-four hours of meeting. I asked Lucia to join me on my great adventure and a week later, and after she hitchhiked home to tend to some affairs, we rendezvoused in Jersey and spent a William Blake and Jack Kerouac-esque summer on the road. Our time together and the particulars of our adventures was the stuff of novels, complete with mystical discovery of what it is one knows. Lucia and I were both were very interested in understanding what the other knew. I discovered what I always knew via my involvement with Lucia; namely, that life is how you write it. That life is of one’s own invention. Nonetheless, our summer romance turned out to be just that: a summer romance, after which she went her way and I went mine, and we lost contact with each other. From what she told me of her dreams and hopes during our time together, I figured she was probably living somewhere in Europe or Africa, for Lucia was always interested in what was beyond the horizon.
And so, a quarter century after our summer fling and great adventure, I write and publish my novel, Lucy and Eddie, wherein I use my time with Lucia from beginning to end as the framework for a sometimes true, sometimes fictional retelling of our adventures. The narrative’s a hoot, if I do say so myself, and many readers tell me they couldn’t put it down. Oddly more than one former student of mine from my years of teaching long ago has Facebooked me that he or she, to quote, “always knew” what my novel reveals.
A year or so after publication of my novel, I gain access to the Internet with the purchase of a Millennium computer. One day early in my exploration of the uses of the internet I typed the name Lucia Cilento into the search engine of my browser, and up popped the question: Do You Mean Lucy Cilento? I clicked on YES and soon an image of the Lucia I had shared a summer with filled the screen of my monitor. She was twenty-five years older but instantly recognizable: the thick black hair, the sparkling eyes, the tilt of her head, and confident stance. She appeared as an advocate for nursing, testifying about how and why she came to be and loved being a nurse. Midwives had attended the birth of her first child when she lived in Norway and they so impressed her with their skills and womanly powers that upon her return to America some years later she had attended nursing school. About her chosen career she was ecstatic. There was no personal contact information given for Lucia on the Nurse Advocacy Webpage, but for a couple of dollars on another webpage I was able to find out her address.
And then I was faced with the question: Do I send Lucia a copy of the novel? I mean the past can trespass on the present. Stir up ghostly what ifs. Arouse emotions best left undisturbed. Trump the serenity of the present, as it’s always complicated reconnecting with ex-lovers. Lucia obviously had at least one child, probably more, judging by her reference to the birth of her “first child.” I certainly did not want her to think I was attempting to rekindle anything by sending her my novel. I mean, a happily married man I am. And most likely she would be as well, a happily married woman. She certainly looked assured and bright and very much what I would call Lucia-spirited in her photograph. In my eyes, looking at her image, she was exactly who I knew that summer, only older. Had I’d been able to find her telephone number online I would have called her, to tell her first about the novel before sending it, with an explanation that it is creative Irish fiction. Exaggeration and bravado add a certain cachet to life and I had certainly punched things up in my recapitulation of events. That yes, much of the story of Lucy and Eddie is true, but that just as much of the story is pure fiction. And one never knows how someone living will react to what a storytelling novelist says about them. Still, I knew that Lucy should certainly have an opportunity to read it, no matter how un-autobiographical it be. I wrapped a signed first edition in plain brown paper and mailed it along with a note wherein I let her know I hoped she would not take offense at my portrayal of her. As I’ve said you never know how someone’s going to take a writer’s slant on them. In my experience I have found that most journalists, no matter how pro me, no matter how hard they tried, did not get my story right.
About ten days after sending east my novel I get an e-mail from someone I had never met and whose name I did not recognize in the SENT FROM line. The text of the email read something like this: I don’t know who you are, Mr. Edwin Forrest Ward in Denver, we’ve never met or even knew of each other’s existence, but I am writing to thank you so much for helping to remind my mother just how wonderful she is. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I loved the book. My mother, likewise. Even my grandmother loved it. Ciao! Pia, Lucy’s older daughter.
And then after a week or so, Lucy, as she now prefers to call herself, is on my office phone. After an exchange of greetings, it is 1974 all over again. In that moment of the new millennium, I am twenty-five not fifty-two and our comments to each other are as intimate as ever. We are still very much interested in what the other knows. She is very much the woman who could hitch a ride to anywhere and I am very much the man who made of her a muse. Indeed, we are not ghosts. Lucy’s major comment on my novel was that she had read it more than once from start to finish and now she no longer knew what was fact and what was fiction. She asked me, “Did I really see a bear?” and stated that she could not believe she’d followed my suggestion and thrown away her diaphragm. The story of my novel had replaced her memory of events.
I tell her “No, you never saw a bear. That scene in the novel is of something that happened to me and my wife years later. You and I did not see a mother bear and her cub on Rabbit Ears Pass. And it was my wife who threw away her birth control.”
“But, Eddie,” she tells me, “I can see her, the sow, right now, even though my eyes are closed.”
I guess I’ve always known that what is written down is our collective memory, that words make real the ghosts of our lives and return them to the here and now.