Tuesday, January 31, 2012
cover photo: Diane Zagoren Taub
Awkward (Times Three)
Edwin Forrest Ward
When I first spy Jessica on the stage in the auditorium among the group of newly hired teachers, I am cruelly smitten, awash in a flush of lust and testosterone, turned on and, in the long run, doomed. She’s wearing a stack of bracelets on her left arm, some gold, some turquoise, some ebony, that jangle with the motion of her locomotion, as she raises her arm to waive Hello to her fellow teachers. When she is introduced as Ms Jessica Golden, I take heart: at least there is, at present, no Mr. Golden standing between me and any chance I might have of her becoming Mrs. Ward, as, after all, at this point in my life, I’m looking for a mate as much as I would settle for getting laid. All I know is that Jessica’s got the goods that have seduced me: an educated brain (Elmira and Columbia culminating with a Teacher’s Certificate and a Masters in Modern Lit), a very comfortable Rubens-esque sashay to her walk (as if she knows what she wants), flirts for eyes, a face and figure that will prompt married men to doff their wedding ring, an unsatisfied hunger for passion to be straddled, and a consciousness on the other side of her mahogany eyes that I already knew I’d never own. Love counts on each lover to be slightly beyond the other’s control, the other’s ken, and so we are.
Well, it isn’t easy wooing Jessica – I mean: I am spread pretty thin - temporally, physically, sexually and emotionally - what with the women in my life, including (One) my soon-to-be ex-wife issuing terms of our separation and divorce through a major Philadelphia law firm and revenge sleeping with my now ex-best friend – a cruel kind of awkward; (TWO) my summer fling secret lover in Manhattan, and (THREE) my ex mistress-girlfriend, CCee - who as a student teacher I supervised and with whom I had the affair that ended my marriage – CCee now teaching in the classroom right door next to mine – still, I somehow successfully manage to woo Jessica and become her lover, this despite the fact she had been presently already involved with a successful lawyer who years later will become her husband, later divorced, and the father of her son.
I sweep and sweet talk Jessica off her feet – as only a curly haired Irish lover can, with twinkling blue and emerald eyes, decent Scotch, rock poetry, Bob Dylan-isms, and a very hip and groovy lifestyle of after school Kools, 4:20 weed, and sex to die for, hmm, sex to li e for. Somehow, I am so into the eros of me and Jessica, so blind to the differences in our ingrained cultures, I fail to realize that the spell we live under for a year is primarily of my solo making: her multiple o’s, her anxieties stoned, her depressions intoxicated, her dreams acted on. But this tale is not about our love and its loss; this is about things awkward.
Now, although Ms Golden does not have a husband, she does come with a family. Her father died suddenly during her final semester at Columbia last year, and her mother, sister and brother have moved from a gated suburb of Boston to a wealthy Northern New Jersey enclave within sight of Manhattan, where siblings of her mother Isabel and her grandmother live. Her younger sister Rebecca now attends Beaver College outside Philly; and her older brother Josh, a well medicated paranoid schizophrenic, lives at home with Isabel, a woman with whom I only ever have but two conversations, both of which are exceedingly awkward.
The first occurs at the door of Isabel’s home; the second, in a parking lot in Boston.
A phone call from her drama queen sister Rebecca interrupts Jessica and I in our late Friday afternoon, start-the-weekend-right, Scotch-ed and stoned sex-capade. O’Becky, as I call her, is sick, has been for days with some kind of flu. Her dorm mates have left for the weekend and she wants company. She is so sick and weak that she is afraid to be alone. Thus, Jessica and I do a madcap drive from our Jersey apartment in Wenona through Philadelphia rush hour traffic to find her sister almost delirious with fever and dehydration in her Beaver College dorm room. After a call to Jessica’s mother, our plan becomes to drive Rebecca home to Isabel for some chicken soup and mother’s care, a far better idea than Jessica and I nursing her here in a dorm room.
I do the hundred-mile drive from Glenside PA to Ridgeway NJ in my Datsun B-210 in just under two hours and prepare to meet, for the very first time, my lover’s mother and her troubled brother. Beyond the beveled glass of an impressive front door, Josh stands gazing forlornly and thorazine-ed aside Isabel who looks unashamedly grief stricken as she unlatches the door. I’m hoping that her disapproving worried expression is because of the shock of seeing the sickly pale and fever wracked Rebecca, not a result of Isabel’s first sight of me, her oldest daughter’s lover. Sadly, it is the latter, as her comments to Jessica - which she voices as if I’m not standing there - affirm. “Who and what is this Eddie that you would bring in to my house? Is he a Negro?” condescending questions asked as an elitist of any ilk or a racist would: to mock, to bait, to provoke, to dismiss, to put in place, as if my genealogy were an excuse for incivility, prejudice and rudeness.
There is a protracted awkward silence, as is easily imagined. My possible retorts are as numerous as the miles between here and home, beginning with “Am Irish” and ending with “Why, thank you!” the latter of which I choose to voice, as those three words served well the first major outsider and righteous connection in my life, the hippie-long-haired and Fu Manchu-ed Ronnie K. When ignorant and petty people tried to put him down because of his appearance, with such digs as “You look like a girl” or “You look like Charles Manson,” he simply replied “Why, thank you!” and Ronnie meant it, being as he was, quite fond of the dark and feminine side of himself.
“Why thank you,” I say to Isabel without a trace of the resentment roiling in my gut, as Jessica gives her mother a look I will not see again until a parking lot in Boston. Thankfully the Columbian cheba cheba we partake of on the drive home to Wenona neutralizes the acid of my anger at my lover’s mother.
Some months later, the dedication of a plaque honoring Jessica’s father’s bequeathed generosity to his synagogue, is to take place in Boston. She and I do the six hour drive via the yet to be completed I-95 corridor in a little under seven white knuckle hours with late Friday afternoon rush hour stop and go through Trenton, New York City, Bridgeport, New Haven and Boston. It’s especially tricky finding her family’s suburban synagogue as Jessica, princess that she’s always been, had not learned to drive until her senior at Elmira and had never actually driven a car where she grew up and, consequently, was not much help at co-piloting the winding traffic-circled roads outside Boston. But after numerous false starts down poorly lit oak lined roads, countless wrong turns and illegal u-turns, and repetitious back-tracking we drive into the parking lot of Temple Emanuel some ten minutes prior to the start of the service to honor Jessica’s father on the anniversary of his passing.
Bitter Isabel, the struggle that is Josh and drama queen O'Becky are standing outside the doors to the synagogue anxiously awaiting our arrival. I’m quite done in by the huge effort of the drive, but proud and pleased as hell that we made it, as could be sung, “to the church on time.” If truth be told, I’m actually feeling heroic and mythically lucky, given the number of speeding tickets I did not receive that I surely qualified for over the course of the last seven hours. To mask the odor of cheba cheba that clings to our clothing, Jessica mists us with a spray of Canoe Cologne for Men, before we join her very emotional family, none of whom I’ve seen since the night of Becky’s illness. But all the perfume in the world cannot conceal the rank stink of what Isabel barks at me as Jessica and I approach. “Eddie, you are not welcome here. Simply said, you are not Jewish. Do not set foot in our Temple.” To say there was yet another awkward silence would fail to imply the accurate weight of the lead balloon that floated above our heads in that Boston parking lot. So it would not crash down and crush us all I simply said, “Isabel, why thank you” and walked back to my Datsun B-210 and fired up a joint.
A year later in Denver, after abandoning the East Coast, as it has turned out for me, for good, there was not a bit of awkward silence when Jessica (whose dream it had been to move out West) announced that she missed her family, especially her mother, and her culture, and she was leaving. This time, without a trace of sarcasm or acrimony, I, like Ronnie K, really mean it when I say, “Why, thank you,” as she packs her things and lies, “I never loved you.”
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Cover Photography - Marcia Ward
Just now the first car to head south out of Rexburg since an hour ago screeches to a stop fifty feet past me and my girlfriend Lucia, as if the driver hadn't seen us until he passed us. His car is an old Fifty-two Chevy Belair. The driver is as young as the car is old. He's got thin straggly hair down to his shoulders. He's missing teeth, upper and lower, in the center of his mouth, but he smiles widely nonetheless.
After a quick introduction, he tells us, “A hockey puck took out my front pearly whites. I played a year of semi-pro hockey after the Marines. Grew up in Canada, but I got relatives here on the Res. You guys headed to Powwow?”
“We're headed south. Eventually towards Bryce and then the Grand Canyon. Mostly we're just wandering and having a look at the West. What's this Powwow?”
“It's the yearly big-to-do on the Blackfoot Reservation. Everybody comes from all over the Res and pitches camp for a week. There's a rodeo and dancing and food and party mayhem. Kids come and fall in love. Lot's of gambling, too. It's a party. That's where I'm headed, you should check it out before you head south to Idaho Falls.”
“Can we camp there, I mean at Powwow?”
“Hell, anybody can. A lot of people from town come out. It's a good time. I been coming off and on since I was a kid. My aunt married into the tribe.”
Contrary to the advice of Bill Rex - who had dropped us off here before hightailing it into the further wilderness - to only accept a long ride out of Rexburg, we accept this short hitch. Twenty miles down the road we exit the blacktop on to a dirt road, and a mile and a half later after ascending a rise I catch sight of maybe fifty large white tepees that ring the southern and western edge of a large oval, the eastern rim of which is comprised of RV's and pickups and cars of all sorts, some down right ancient. The northern end of the oval is a rudimentary area fenced off for rodeo-ing. There's but one stand of trees off to the north where there are a few smaller non-traditional tents staked out. Outside the configured oval to the west there are tented booths serving as concession stands and a couple of small amusement rides.
G. G., our new friend, parks the Chevy on the rim of the oval and scrambles out of the car. “See you around. I've got to go find the drummers. My cousin is one, and around the drummers you'll find the beautiful women, and that's where you'll find me. Hey, sleep in my car if you want. I'll be hanging with my cousin.”
Lucy and I decide to stay for a day or so and wind up staying three days on the Blackfoot Reservation at Powwow. We put up my orange mountain tent amidst the chaos of campers and canvas at the north end of the site. It looks so puny, almost silly, given the noble beauty of the tall white tepees.
Lucia and I have a great time. The visual experience of Powwow is surreal and religious; the ceremonial clothing is part of the highest theater.
The partying is just about around the clock. A cold Coors can be had for fifty cents and a can of pop or juice for a quarter. Frybread is available anytime, day or night. About the only time there's little going on is late mornings. But starting about one in the afternoon the activity is ceaseless and the spirit of this annual rite of summer is contagious.
The days at powwow develop a pattern. We sleep until late morning, eat fry bread for breakfast, watch the rodeo in the afternoon, drink a few late afternoon beers and get high, retire to the tent for the late afternoon to fuck and to nap, eat a dinner of roast corn and bean burritos for the price of a subway token, Steppenwolf a walk outside the Powwow site to smoke a joint, and then return to watch the dancing and listen to the drumming until the wee hours. When we crawl into the tent at say three in the morning, most of the rendezvous-ers are still up and partying. It seems like some of the gambling games go on round the clock.
Basically, although there are a few tourists and townees around in the afternoon to watch the rodeo, Lucy and I are the only white people at Powwow. Our white sticks out among the Blackfoot as the orange of our tent does among the whiteness of the tepees. Lucy's height and my long curly hair give us away even at a distance. For the most part no one seems to care that we are among them. On three separate occasions we are invited to eat with someone. During our time in conversation with the people who befriend us, we are peppered with questions about the most ordinary of subjects. Who's my favorite singer? Do we like football? Of what religion am I? Does Lucy have a beauty secret, as her skin is so perfect? Do we hunt? Do we fish? Have we been to Yellowstone? Did I serve in Viet Nam? What's my favorite beer? What's the best movie out now? I decide we are as exotic and interesting to the Blackfoot as they are to me, judging by their response to our answers to those questions. We laugh and argue opinions.
The most haunting and beautiful aspect of Powwow is the dancing. It begins a short time after dusk. The dancers, men and women, are dressed in traditional ceremonial clothes. The women wear soft skin dresses that sing and the men wear fringe that whips the air about them. Apparently every dance narrates some aspect of Blackfoot history. Generally the dancers follow the route of a large circle. Sometimes during the course of a rotation, dancers will change places or drop out only to return at a later point in the progress of the dance, sometimes wearing different clothing. Movement is for the most part minimal but continual, although there are times of occasional frenzied dancing. The stories we watch danced out are sedate, serious. The most remarkable aspect of the dancing is its duration. For hours dancers dance, some almost seem entranced. Lucy and I watch, we drink beer, we sneak around smoking pot, and we pick up on the trance-like state of two a.m., as a big sliver of moon sails west above our heads amidst a hundred million stars while forty beaded and braided and quilled dancers retell the centuries old tale of the tribe, the dancers and audience aglow in the yellow, red light of the bonfires, bound by the groove of the singing and drumming set by the musicians, all of whom have hair longer than that of the new rock stars. As I imagine the dancers do likewise, I feel that I am watching and walking in my sleep, witnessing a communal dream, lucky and blessed to be here, privy to the expression of such tribal ritual.
Lucy, my film buff companion, says, “Fellini and Truffaut ought to see this!”
Our last night at Powwow, we run into a wee bit of trouble.
It's about midnight, Friday about to become Saturday. Lucia and I have been watching about twenty people, grandmothers, young men and women, parents with babes in their arms, doing some serious gambling. The game is one of deception and guessing. No cards are involved although the players all wear poker faces. With eight players to both of two sides, one of whom seems to be principal player or games-man, the teams drum on a log between them and hope to guide their games-man to be right when the time to speak or nod or reveal is at hand. A lot of money changes hands. Players come and go although I notice many seem never to leave the game. The stoic partnership of the players reminds me of pinochle. I'm still trying to figure out the fine points of the game and watching intently when Lucia interrupts my study.
“There's a drunk behind us talking' bad about us. I don't speak Blackfoot but I get his meaning. He's talking trash. He wants to provoke a fight. With you or anyone who would defend you.”
I turn and take in the scene behind me. A guy in a white, fringed shirt, cowboy hat and boots, bolo, and blue jeans stands amidst three or four other men. He is intoxicated and posturing. He switches in the middle of a sentence from his native tongue to English, ending with “White trash ain't welcome at Powwow.” A smallish man, wiry, he actually looks to be as white as he is Blackfoot. He's probably one of the rodeo riders.
The situation is delicate. I am not naive. As a kid I've been in this situation before: punk with a chip on his drunken shoulder and a minor player egging him on. I am aware of a dozen things on the tip of my tongue, beginning with asshole and ending with zit face. I choose silence. I am aware that everyone is interested in my response. The stage is set for drama, comedy or tragedy, who knows? I step out of the crowd into a more lighted area near the entrance to the rodeo rink. All the while I am scanning the crowd, hoping that maybe G.G.’s around, looking in to each and every one's eyes for an instant. I trust the love in my heart. Things will work out well I tell myself. I catch sight of Little Man as he steps out of the crowd he's with. For an instant we are both on a field of his drunken honor. He spits tobacco juice onto the Idaho dust – which is not the same as tossing tobacco to honor the four directions. He mouths “White Trash” in my direction. I do not bite at his racist bait. In fact, as if nothing of any consequence is happening, as if anything said or done by him could never matter, I step back into the circle of people gathered near Lucia, as if I am nothing but a figment of his imagination. Any fight now is solely at his instigation. He turns to look at his friends for support and further encouragement but none is forthcoming. It seems as if the eyes of the entire tribe are watching. The balance of savage and social is being determined. The moment to look good or vain in the eyes of the gods crawls. Lucia and I so meld with the spirit of the others around us that we effectively disappear. Lucia takes up talking with the people, a family of five, those she'd been conversing with when she'd first overheard him. We all are laughing at a remark of the youngest. The drunk can only now make a fool of himself if he goes on with his braggadocio and threats, no matter what language he chooses to make them in. Others will intervene, elders or friend, for he is out of hand. Everyone, even he, knows his words are hollow. My silence makes them arguably lame.
Throughout the whole minute or two that it takes for this incident to occur, I am aware of the presence of evil. The face it wears is incidental. I've seen troublemakers before. Usually it takes more than one man to open the door to war.
Later after watching a couple hours of dancing Lucia and I return to our tent. A wariness pervades our consciousness. I feel alien this night. I am not horny. My sleep is uneasy.
Rather than stay another day for the conclusion of the festivities - there is an all Blackfoot band going to play some rock and roll prior to the last of the ceremonial dances - we break camp and hike out to the road early in the morning. The trouble that didn't erupt last night could easily happen again should I run into Little Man again. The first mile is up hill. Neither of the two cars that pass us heading out offers us a ride.
Near the top of the hill we stop, as that is the best place to hitch from. We look back on the Powwow scene below. Smoke is now rising from breakfast campfires. The dust of activity in the rodeo arena floats in the cloudless sunlight of Idaho morning. From this vantage point I imagine Little Man searching the campground for sight of me. He's got to watch out for his own back now. He’s hung-over and can't find me. He doesn't know what I might do. He's not sure if I was ever there. He's now got another chip on his shoulder. Another reason to dislike himself. There's no such thing as a happy racist.