This is a chapter from The Messes I Made While You Were Waiting for Godot
How to make a decent knot after more than a quarter-million words, some good jokes, wisecracks, stories, revelations and what we learned on the bus?
Lizzie’s gone. That’s one thing I should tell you. It’s the saddest news I need to share. Twenty years after we rode out to breakfast from the middle of a frigid winter night, Lizzie died, mother of one child — a daughter — and a wife, still young, fifty years old and a universe of awakening not realized. She never joined Facebook, tweeted or suffered the revolting Bush/Limbaugh years or the rot that followed in Washington. No one will ever convince me that life is fair, knowing Lizzie died so young while thugs like Kissinger and Cheney eat slops in their eighties and nineties, suffering no punishment and free from guilt.
Would things have been different if I’d stayed that morning and gone van shopping with Lizzie instead of driving back through the snowy countryside to Maggie and our disintegrating marriage? Different, sure. Better? Only a fool would try to make that call. Of course, I am a fool, as you’ve probably gathered by now. So, I will.
Lizzie and I were at our best that day. We’d been up all night, nursing our mutual addiction to talking, and had driven off before dawn to eat breakfast while an icy fog hovered in a valley below us. We lingered, drinking coffee and smoking, and it bothered Lizzie that strangers stared at us, assuming we’d spent the night in Cupid’s gym.
“They think I’m a slut,” she whispered, a little amused, a little uneasy.
“So, let ‘em have their fun,” I said. “Who gives a shit what they think? I think they’re corroded with envy. They want to be us, but they can’t be.”
For me, the situation was far worse. My wedding band hidden in my wallet, I was a married man in a masquerade, not honest enough to tell the truth to the woman I believed to be my surest friend and the love of my life. Even when we split, once for years, it was still the same with me. I loved Lizzie from the core. Sleeping next to Maggie, tickling Andy, smoking alone on that corner where Alex and I used to hang out, driving to the airport, pitching life insurance, I thought about Lizzie any time. A lot of it was curiosity. Why not just shake the Etch-A-Sketch and lose it? As much as I enjoyed replaying my life, I wasn’t hooked on the past. I never wanted to go back, but Lizzie was always there like an imprecise beacon, a thread weaving in and out, certain to return. Going with the flow was a transcendental mantra, but in that once only milieu, I couldn’t see my way clear to ignite the calamity certain to explode if I did.
“There’s too much snow to drive through in the dark. I barely got through this morning,” I’d told Maggie, hoping to get off the pay phone before she thought to ask me about what motel I was staying in.
Mission accomplished, I tore through the raw winter night for a hundred miles. Still spiffy in business attire, I broke into a smile when, after years, I saw Lizzie at the door, her wild, wavy hair falling past her shoulders.
“You look great,” she said.
Her mother entered the room as I released Lizzie from a hug.
“Liz said you were coming.”
“You remember me…?”
“The boy who was always kept my daughter on the phone for so long? Yes, I remember you. Lizzie says you’ve always stayed in touch, even if she wasn’t so good at it.”
“She was fine.”
I looked at Lizzie in a kind of disbelief, probably a more mellowed version of what hits people when they win the lottery. After all this time, often with so little hope, I looked “great” to her. And gossiping about me with her mother.
“Remember the last time I was here?”
“No…” Lizzie’s mom admitted.
“It was Christmas Eve in ’66. I came out in a
snowstorm. Lizzie and I went for a walk. We sat on a bank and watched the snow falling over the city…”
“I remember that,” Lizzie said.
Did she remember that she wouldn’t pick up the phone when I called the next day and all the letters, few of which she answered, after I left Binghamton for good?
But I stuck with it, even edging into provisional places, like where I lived now. Crazy shit I could not understand or evade. Maybe, right now, I was standing in an ideal place where the flow, the transcendental waters, eased straight through me, but I hadn’t gotten there fairly. In a situation that called for moral and emotional courage, I wasn’t able to find either. It occurs to me, decades later, I was out on a limb without enough trust in Lizzie to jump into space.
Promising to come back soon, the morning rising full of bright, cold light, I pushed my Volkswagon, now minus Lizzie, along the shortcut out through the rolling foothills to Buffalo. For a hundred and fifty miles, I kept to the bare roads that struck the trail between snow-covered farms and villages until Buffalo’s skyline, harsh under a winter sky, grew large. Regret mushed with resistance as I drove the last stretch up along the churning, ice-cluttered Niagara. “What the fuck are you doing here, you fucking coward?” screamed in my ear, but what was I going to do, suddenly become a truth-teller with Lizzie, awaken her to the fact I’d been lying to her for months, living, sleeping, eating, fucking with my wife while nurturing our love in a secret room? Where does trust go when you’ve burnt it yourself?
Untenable, I said to myself, is what the fuck we are.
Here was the best lesson I knew about dishonesty, although I didn’t quite get it all in place for a few more years. When we lie, we lie to ourselves as much as anyone else, maybe more, and we subvert the best in us. Lying is an admission that we‘re not now good enough in our own estimation. It’s not even evasion. It’s chicken shit. And how screwed up is your life if you have to lie to keep it inflated?