Shame

By Steve Young

 

Midnight.

They are doing it beside me in our bed. They think they are being solicitous of my sleep; the bed rocks only slightly, a gentle tremor that barely suggests the violence of their movements, and in all of our emotions these past two nights.

If we do not survive this night, this will be my confession. I will confess the sins of all three of us. For none of us are blameless, though none of us are to blame, exactly. What is it, then, that brought us to this moment of extreme peril? This exquisite royalty of desire and pain? They in their restrained motions, their restrained love, their perfidy as silent as falling snow are unaware that my Browning .22 semi-automatic is within easy reach beneath the bed. The safety is off, the clip fully loaded.

The bed gently rocks and rocks and I am a long way from sleep.

 

The irony: John helped move us into our marital house six months ago. One bright wintry Sunday afternoon he helped me snake the king-sized bed up the curved stairs and into the second floor bedroom of our new Woods Hole home. It took great effort and there were moments along the way when we thought it would all end in failure. Heather was her usual cheerful, faux-helpless self and made jokes at our expense, mocking our exertions, our frequent pauses to pant and flex our muscles and swig our beer and rethink our strategy. But later I wondered what other thoughts were even then troubling and exciting her as she watched us labor. Two men not much different from each other, tall and lean men, handsome men, college-educated sensitive men – the kind Heather’s sister Carla, the terminal cynic, called SNAGS – Sensitive New Age Guys. Two men, two good friends who would come to love the same woman.

She and I joked about how we would need the extra space as we grew old together and grew fatter. But looking back, I see it was really a symptom of something deeper, something darker. A woman buys sixty pairs of shoes, a man buys twenty firearms. Why the need for such excess? Maybe it represents our moral impoverishment. We covet objects and then abandon them in closets and they become our museum pieces of extravagance, of shame. Having to have and never having enough.

Now on this dark night I think of Heather’s excessive need for love and my excessive need for Heather and, like the king-sized bed itself, like the shoes and the guns, we have arrived at this moment because of our inability to deal with our excessive needs.

 

We both knew John well before we actually met him. In typical fashion, he called himself a “low-wattage celebrity” and pointed out that once across the Cape’s twin bridges to the mainland not a soul knew who he was.  Every weekday morning his voice filled our kitchen in our old house on Sandwich Road in Falmouth that fronted the fallow cranberry bogs. His voice was a comforting presence to us, the morning announcer on the commercial classical station in Hyannis. His voice a friendly, erudite baritone with a quality of both authority and deference towards the music and the audience.

I was the only one of the two of us who knew or cared much about classical music before we encountered John on our radio. The irony was that Heather had the pedigree and I did not. She grew up in Milton and I grew up in Dorchester, both suburbs of Boston ten miles apart but they might as well be on different continents. Her parents were longtime NPR contributors and held season tickets to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. My father was a welder and a Teamster and a fan of Johnny Cash. He said that classical music made him physically ill. The one and only time that my mother dragged us – me, my older sister, and him -- to a classical concert, he stayed out in the car in the parking lot and listened to the Red Sox game while we were inside the hall.

My father was a political liberal whose principal hero was Bobby Kennedy. He was against the death penalty and the Vietnam War and for civil rights for virtually anybody who felt oppressed for any reason. Yet growing up under his roof I often felt oppressed, as if he were holding back the tide of my own progress alone. My father’s resistance to me going off to college was because he was afraid he’d lose his only son to a self-indulgent culture he feared and couldn’t understand. I went off anyway and it turned out he was absolutely right. Amidst the French poetry and nineteenth century German philosophy, the random sex, the dope and general debauchery, I lost my bearings at Brown. In retrospect, I kept only his love of guns and his love of the Red Sox and my love for him.

Heather says that until she met John she thought classical music too placid and sterile and besides, she said, the violins sometimes made her ears ache. She was a rock and roll girl through and through when we met at Brown, a willowy blonde who never seemed to take anything seriously but still managed nearly a 4.0 GPA. She called my interest in classical and jazz “cute” at first. Later she called it “deep,” sarcastically of course. Then around the time we broke up, it had become merely “annoying.” She grew up with all that, she said, all that high culture, that “All Things Considered” upper-middle class well-bred civility crap and she now had the hots for the lowbrow and the stupid and the nihilistic. She said that she knew it was a phase she was going through but she was having fun so why not? Her own parents, she said, were once dynamic and interesting people, flush with hope and idealism. It was marriage – more particularly monogamy, she was convinced, that in the end sapped and neutered them both. Take away the urge to roam, to explore other bodies and hearts and minds, you shackle yourself and destroy your imagination, your inner world. To take away half the mystery, half the pure fun of life crippled your soul. Now her parents spent their evenings together in front of the TV, slaves to flickering images, like Plato’s cave dwellers. Too bored and disillusioned with each other to even bother to converse. Truth between them became like a field of poisonous fungus, she believed, grown more and more malignant and barren with time. A marriage is too filled with truth. What it needs more than anything is the comfort of lies, she said. The kind of lies that bring two people together in the first place, the lies of seduction, when you only see and hear what you want to see and hear and ignore the rest. On the other hand, intimacy, she said, turns good people into barking dogs on leashes, barking impotently at every disturbance in the night.

 

 She had the rest of her life to find her true bearings. She warned me I was probably a phase, too.

            But I was in love with her, true bearings or not, phase or not, in love and in lust with an ardor that, in the end, never went away. We broke up in our senior year and didn’t find each other again for another ten years. My addiction for her never quite lost its grip on me. In those ten years we kept in touch, throughout her disastrous marriage to a seemingly gentle man who turned out to use his fists to end every argument, my own serial string of unsatisfying relationships, graduate school, the painful death of my father from cancer. When Heather and I finally realized that we wanted to marry each another, we had both done well financially, far better than we’d each expected, she as an investment counselor, me as a computer systems analyst. All we needed was a home for both of us to work out of and a high-speed broadband connection. We chose the house in Woods Hole because it seemed the nearest to paradise we could find.

 

As it happened, we met the face behind the morning voice at a dinner party on the Vineyard. The party was given at the home of a renowned food writer who was trying out various new recipes for friends before launching them into the outside world in her latest cookbook. Clara and her two teenage daughters served up dish after dish of gourmet wonders while the rest of us hovered around the kitchen, intoxicated by the mingle of aromas and the free flow of wine.

During a break in the action, Clara introduced us to a slender, dark-haired man of about 35 who wore a suit jacket but no tie. “Hey Heather and Paul, this is John. John Redden. He’s the radio guy you’re always raving about.”

At the time, he seemed the gentlest of souls and he acted like anything but a celebrity. The truth is, he said, nobody ever knew who he was until he was introduced as “that radio guy.” Only once in five years on the air had someone recognized his voice out in public. Ironically, it was when he was standing in line in a 7-11 in Falmouth chatting with a friend. For the first and only time in his life he was asked for his autograph. But otherwise, he said, “I might as well be a stockbroker. There’s really no such thing as being famous on the radio.”

            “Heather’s a stockbroker,” I said, a little tipsily.

            He smiled at her. “Well there you go. And I bet you’re a hell of a lot richer than me, too.”

Later on the ferry back to the mainland, we got into a slightly sodden discussion of Mozart piano concertos.

“The 23rd in A. That’s the great one,” I said. “The Adagio movement.”

“Naah. They always play it too slow. These modern-day orchestras always want to sound so pompous and grandiose. Mozart didn’t care anything about that.”

            Heather didn’t say a word during the trip. Later after we said goodbye to John at the landing, she said to me “Well that’s one way to get sober quick.”

            “You didn’t like him?”

            “He’s okay. It’s just you men have to one up each other about every little thing, even Mozart, for God’s sake.”

 

After that night, John and I became more or less inseparable. We began a routine of running together on the Falmouth bike path every morning after his shift, three miles that passed before the Vineyard Sound and the salt ponds out nearly to the fallow cranberry bogs.

 

When you fall in love you build a cathedral to your beloved and the cathedral has its own design and shape, its own architecture, its own stained glass windows, its own special spectral light streaming through the windows and diffusing the colors in its own unique way. When love ends, when it crashes all around you and you stand amidst the debris, the glass shards, you mourn. You mourn because no other cathedral you ever build again will ever be the same, will ever have those same dimensions and depths of light and color and  beauty.

            Exactly when and how Heather and John began their affair I never learned. They both say it just happened, that they weren’t looking for it and it surprised them both. I had been away for a series of tech conferences on the west coast and of course the thing happened in my absence.

            She told me that she still loved me but she loved John too and needed to explore what that meant. She said she’d be moving in with him at the end of the month. I broke down and cried. I’d never cried before in front of her and I think it stunned us both. It was as if a brand new unexpected sound had intruded upon our lives. It made her cry too.

            “Don’t leave me! You can’t leave me!” I howled.

            She wept silently.

 

 

 

            “I can’t have you touch me,” I said to John.

            “Christ of course not. Nor you me.”

            “I don’t even want to feel your hand brush over mine. I mean it. I’ve never done this but I might have a violent reaction. I’m just warning you.”

            “Don’t worry about it.”

            :”I mean you’re not gay, right?’

            “No, dude, I’m not gay.”

            “I mean at all.”

            “No. Let’s agree. Neither of us are gay.”

            “Okay then here are the rules: we take turns. We take it slowly. Lights off – or very dim, enough to barely see. We just caress her at first. Maybe that’s all for the first time. Kiss her, either side.”

            “Okay.”

 

            The first time neither one of us could get it up. Of course there was wine and maybe that was the problem. Heather had lit a sandlewood candle and it barely illuminated us. Neither John or I would take off our clothes for over an hour. Heather was naked under the sheet. She kissed each of us in turn during that hour. Her eyes burned with excitement. The only time I felt something was watching her kiss him. That made me excited. But the feeling went away when I kissed her. I felt betrayed. I felt jealousy – that black specter I had almost always held at bay – face to face with him.

            Finally she suggested a game of strip poker. We found a Bicycle deck and the penny jar and sat around the dining table, drinking and laughing and playing Anaconda 123. That eventually got us down to our underwear. We went upstairs to try again. Nothing. By then it was 2 AM and the mood was gone. We both kept apologizing.

            “Maybe it’s not meant to be,” Heather said at 4 AM. “And that’s fine.”

 

            Do women have even the slightest idea how deeply violence lurks within the breasts of men? It’s our form of mother’s milk. When Heather takes John’s erect penis in her mouth in front of me she is committing sacrilege. She is burning down the village, looting the granary, tearing down the temple. It is the opposite of an act of love

 

Two nights later and I’m the one holding the torch above their lovemaking. A torch in one hand, a .22 in the other.