A Final Reflection

Day One

This morning, after emerging from the garage in our building’s basement, I turned onto Madison, heading west, away from the city. A glance in the rearview revealed Tallie standing in the street near the curb, both hands crossed over her heart. She was barefoot, in jeans and a black, long-sleeved t-shirt. At the stop sign by the corner I lifted my camera from the passenger seat, aimed it at the rearview mirror, and snapped a photo. After I took the photo of Tallie, I turned on my iPod and played the first of thirty playlists I created for this trip, one for each day. The Eagles’ “Ol’ ‘55” suffused me with calm resolution. I’m propped up in bed studying that photo now. Tallie, in the mirrored glass stands in sharp focus. Everything else is blurred. It’s an analytical photo and when she sees it, she’ll appreciate both its composition and its symbolism.

I’ve allotted myself thirty days for this journey, but don’t expect a travelogue…I’m not cataloguing any passing scenery or tracking the number of miles logged. Every journey involves self-discovery, and mine will certainly involve elements of that, but the point of this exploration lies in others. I have mapped out a trek through the western U.S. to visit seven people who are or have been important to me at some point in my life. A coin flip determined the western states as opposed to those states east of Chicago, where we live. I determined the seven individuals less by chance.

They include friends, family, old lovers…and a stranger.

Once she had accepted the inevitability of my trip, Tallie helped me pack, selecting my clothing…sweaters, pants, and shirts…appropriate for the weather she anticipated I would encounter. She double-checked the telephone numbers and email addresses in both my cell phone and on my laptop. One of the conditions she specified: contact her at least once each day. Tallie may have relented about this trip, but that doesn’t mean her fear of my leaving is any less strident. We have been married for more than thirty-five years, together exclusively for three years beyond that. Both faithful that entire time. More deeply devoted to one another and more passionately in love now than the year before, also true for the year before that. The two of us have grown…independently and together…with a harmony that others envy. I understand how our history might frighten her…at times it both amazes and frightens me, too. Our connection seems too flawless, so she can be forgiven for expecting the arcing pendulum to slice through that perfection, to counter our mass of good fortune with unbelievable sorrow. If she needs a bogeyman, isn’t that the role of my diseased pancreas? Is this illness the consequence of decades of unwarranted good luck? Not likely. I don’t believe in karma; I’m inclined to place my faith in chaos.

I checked into a motel on the outskirts of Minneapolis that offers free Wi-Fi and a continental breakfast with fresh waffles. The TV is on but I’ve muted the sound. It was dark and raining when I parked the Saab. I considered telephoning Tallie but elected to send her an email letting her know I had arrived safely. She would have preferred a call, but an impulse convinced me to establish a fragment of separation on this first night. My computer lays cradled in my lap as I begin the first entry in this, what…journal? Already I fear what to say. How much is too much? What is too little? How much background is enough to understand the indulgence I’m trying to satisfy? Who is my audience?

I’m sixty-four years old. My parents are both dead. I have no children with Tallie. That’s the outline, as ordinary as so many others. The extraordinary, as in so many others as well, is quantified day-by-day in moments captured by memory. Some of those moments will dictate how I spend the next twenty-nine days, as the people I visit have been actors in many of the remembered scenes. I’m not so different from millions of other people, but like each individual, I am unique. And, of course, I am dying, which scares me. How people neutralize fear varies with their character. It’s not in my character to accept this death sentence easily, but I don’t tilt at windmills, either. On at least one emotional level, I have accepted that I am going to die. I simply need a bit more preparation. Hence the trip. Securing a leave of absence from my firm was not difficult…my name’s on the letterhead. I laugh when I reflect on how fortunate I’ve been throughout my life. Dying may very well be the only hardship I ever face. Not many people, in my experience, can claim that.

The choice of who to see on this trip was mine, something I didn’t share with Tallie. No point in compounding her anger over my trip by layering decision on top of decision like bricks in a wall. Keeping her in the dark led to another condition: when I return home I owe Tallie a debriefing. She’ll get a complete report, perhaps in the form of this journal. On that I am ambivalent at the moment.

Tomorrow I’m having breakfast with Ellen Solomon…a former college lover…whom I haven’t seen in more than twelve years. When we met in the early seventies, she was a dark-haired and dark-eyed girl, with an angular face that emphasized her edgy demeanor. She expressed inflexible opinions with a passionate personality. That passion carried over into the bedroom. I caught Ellen during the height of her rebellion against everything her middle-class parents cherished. For a short time we shared an off-campus apartment where we regularly fucked with the devotion of athletes in training.

Ellen joked about being the only Jewish child in North Dakota. Her parents farmed a small acreage outside of Hague, near the South Dakota border. As the valedictorian of her high school class, she garnered a scholarship to the University of Iowa, where she studied literature and film criticism, and practiced a highly-personalized variety of revolution designed to thwart the intrusion of any influence of her mother’s values on her own. She purified her wit and insightfulness, later earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and moved to Minneapolis to work as a film and theatre critic. She married and later divorced. I saw her at the Chicago Film Festival, where she moderated a panel contrasting postwar films from World War II through the first Gulf War.

She retired from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune a year ago and now writes a blog about film, politics and women’s issues. Ellen remains one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met… astute, funny, acerbic and nuanced. We’ve corresponded over the years…she more than I…writing seemed to come easily to her. Watching Ellen channel her energy into articles, and now her blog, has been a pleasure. For the past twenty years we’ve mostly maintained an email relationship: lengthy periods of silence periodically shattered by a few days of frenzied volleying, as we dissected a current event. Ellen never filtered these discussions through our shared past…her vision always seemed focused on the horizon.

Tallie knows about Ellen….she and I long ago disclosed our romantic and sexual histories, enumerating the various partners. So Tallie knows of Ellen’s existence, but not the extent to which I have continued the relationship. There’s no infidelity, but Tallie’s jealousy would never allow her to see my correspondence with Ellen as friendship, only as a threat. No reassurance could ever convince her otherwise, she’s that insecure. So I have kept Ellen a secret.

I suppose I’ve revealed the first crack in the veneer of our perfection, haven’t I?

Tallie and I met at a rooftop party weeks after I passed the bar exam. She lived across the hall from the woman who threw the party. Alison worked in my office, a serial monogamist with devastating taste in men, favoring assholes with flashy disguises to plainer men of substance. When Alison’s lovers inevitably tired of her, Tallie comforted her neighbor with tissues, chocolate, a pint of ice cream, and a sympathetic shoulder, while Alison sniffled her way through another break-up.

That first night I spotted Tallie, her blond hair, always wild and unkempt, seemed aflame. She had a symmetrically round face, a delicate chin, and above a petite, but slightly crooked nose she wore granny glasses that magnified glacial blue eyes. She was stunning in faded corduroy pants, a cotton turtleneck and scuffed leather boots. The imperfection of her nose, that tiny bend of the bridge, tempered her beauty and made her seem approachable. She was drinking red wine, so I boosted an open bottle of Merlot from the serving table and crossed the deck to refill her glass. I’ve never been shy, but as I chatted with Tallie that night I felt my mind seizing up from time to time; I worried I would say something stupid enough to allow her to ignore or dismiss me and bestow her attention on someone else. Certain people in life you meet and the encounter seems less a meeting than a reunion, so immediately comfortable are you with one another. I sensed Tallie and me embodying such serenity that night.

I recall morsels of our conversation that night…we each regarded our jobs as good entry-level springboards; we agreed the view of the city from the rooftop deck was disappointing; and the fate of the Cubs was just that…their fate…but what impressed me as most extraordinary was how her eyes deepened to indigo as the sun set, how the candlelight teased her smile in the dark, and how the wine warmed us both when an evening chill rode the breeze. Sex was prominent in my imagination that night. I had already envisioned the contours of Tallie’s body, the smoothness of her skin and the softness of her lips. Honestly, the physical attraction had been immediate and I fantasized about the two of us sleeping together from the first minute of our conversation. Spoiler alert: we didn’t have sex that night, but we embraced one another’s company throughout the rest of the party.

Years later, on an anniversary, each of us recounted for the other our impressions from that first night. Nostalgic honesty is required entertainment for a couple. Tallie had understood that sex constantly occupied men’s consciousness, but years after the fact, I had stunned her by recounting the specifics of assessing the kind of fine fuck I thought she’d be. Yes, she had been attracted to me as well and had entertained the possibility of intimacy. But intimacy, she had explained, outshined the physical; it occasioned an emotional bond. Women and men, she had chuckled, approached these affairs from divergent positions, at which point I had made a coarse joke about positions. Tallie had rewarded me with an open palm slap to my ass. Did I mention we were in bed at the time?

We spent a lot of time having sex in our early years together, craving the sensation of skin next to skin, clasping one another so tightly, merging as closely to one being as we physically and emotionally dared. We exploited fucking as a language and relied on spontaneity to schedule it…anywhere and everywhere. Besides our apartments: after hours in our offices, an alley behind a bar in the Gold Coast, a parking garage in Old Town, along the lake shore bike path. The threat of discovery in public places intimidated us but never prevented us. Sex with Tallie is the most intense connection I’ve ever attained with another person. I remember the Sunday morning of my epiphany during our first summer together, a few weeks after that rooftop party, weeknights of slippery pleasure and weekends of sluggish tenderness. Tallie lay beneath me, her legs roped around my ass, as I slowly slid in and out of her. I propped myself on my elbows, gripped her face with both hands and searched her eyes…craving to recognize in her a sign that she reciprocated what I felt, that we were intended to be with one another. I distrust the impulse of fate but fixed on a romantic ideal: one woman would see me as no other would ever be able to see me. Had I found her? Was Tallie that woman? When I came I locked on her eyes…she stared at me and for an instant, an immeasurable pulse beat, they dilated and the arctic blue sparked with brilliant light. I know it was probably a projection, but that beam forged a link between us. Then her eyes softened, they visibly calmed as her face melted from a fierce expression into a smile more benevolent than anything I’ve ever seen. I identified with that moment more than in any previous moment in my life. It eclipsed romanticism and I knew it would devastate me if Tallie hadn’t felt the same. I’m a far more cynical man now than when I was twenty-five, but I am and have always been a romantic. I needed Tallie or what Tallie represented…a matching puzzle piece, my complement…so that’s what she became. If you strive for an ideal, should you be surprised when you find it? My God, that does sound cynical.

Tallie and I were the last people to leave the rooftop that night. I walked her downstairs where the party continued in Alison’s apartment, but Tallie said she was tired, so we hugged and said good night at her door. I told her I wanted to see her again. She said she would like that. And history tells the rest of the story.

Driving today was more easygoing than I had expected. I wasn’t certain how I’d react to sitting in the car for hours. I’m a bit sore; there’s a stinging throb in my lower back, but Janine warned that could be a side effect of the cancer.  I considered taking one of her pain killers, then decided against it. I worry about developing a reliance on them too quickly, not just on this trip, but in what time I have left. I don’t know what I expected, but the moments when I dwell on the gravity of this disease and its death sentence erupt like ambushes; gooseflesh prickles along my skin and a chilly shiver surges from the base of my spine straight to my head. What an old-fashioned rush it is. I remember a sergeant in my platoon in the Marines, a veteran of both Korea and Vietnam, swearing that death was the ultimate rush. I suppose I’m primed to confirm that assertion.

Am I frightened? How could I not be scared. I’m months from death, and one thing I learned in Vietnam was you cannot defeat fear, but you can contain it, can prevent it from containing you. If you ask me have I accepted death…I don’t know. I won’t deny it, but the lack of denial doesn’t constitute acceptance. This trip is evidence of at least partial acceptance.

I’ve always enjoyed my analytical mind.

I can be emotional but rarely sentimental.

Tallie and I have traveled. We’ve created some amazing adventures as well as humble moments. We’ve acknowledged our regrets and we’ve celebrated our triumphs.

I’m tired and I think it’s causing me to ramble. I wanted this journal to be methodical and organized. But a linear storyline seems to have been blown out of the water already.

I’ll try and get some sleep, although an Inspector Morse rerun just started on the TV. One of my guilty pleasures…BBC mysteries.