Still Life in Shadow Ch. 02byAdrian Leverkuhn©
She was in her outlook a simple woman, and it had been said of her for as long as anyone on the island could remember that she had never shown an interest in men. Perhaps if I'd known that I would have been surprised by the attentions I presumed Maria Louisa paid me that first night with her. Or perhaps I would have thrown off my depression and acted on them. As I walked back to my new 'home' that night under the stars, I thought about Maria and her simple life, but I had - when I considered the notion - no context for these thoughts. Maria Louisa was a mystery to me, and, as I would soon learn, she remained so to most people on the island. I didn't know then that she was regarded by everyone in the Azores as a Saint. She could just as easily have been - so little did I know then - an alcoholic pedophile or the proverbial axe murderer. I simply did not know her. She was a terrific surgeon; that I knew, that was obvious. She was full of compassion for the sick, and people took comfort from her simple presence when she walked into their hospital room.
Of more relevance to me that night, I hadn't thought of Jennifer Stinson in several days, and when I saw her on the steps outside my little hotel, I was suddenly, overwhelmingly, filled with hope.
Hope? Why hope? Wasn't that an odd response to one who had been the genesis of so much discord? But that wasn't fair, was it?
When I look back on it now, I suspect when I saw Jennifer there in the still night air, I saw her as a link to my immediate past, and that past had come unravelled in the cool light of day. I suppose I felt hopeful that she would ground me to that past, shield me from the discontinuity I had felt under the cold, dispassionate gaze of the stars above me on my walk home. When she ran to me, when she threw her arms around me, I felt an overwhelming release of tension inside, and I kissed her hard on the mouth and held her to my chest while she cried. I wasn't aware of my own tears for quite a while.
So are the mighty fallen.
Portugal is a conservative nation, a Catholic nation, and the Azores are no different from their motherland. I suspect the Innkeeper had a hard time keeping her mouth shut when I walked into the hotel with a nineteen year old girl crying on my shoulder. I could see an icy contempt replace the genial acceptance she had shown me earlier that day, and in an instant I could perceive the reality I would face if I did in fact decide to settle here. It was an unsettling reality, one I had never experienced, and it left me feeling hollow inside.
I walked Jennifer up the stairs to my room, and let us in the room. It was a small space, but it looked out on the harbor, and of course I could see the Sea Witch down there moored on the breakwater. A tree was right outside the closed window, and I opened it and leaned out to pick a blossom from an offered limb and handed it to Jennifer, then I kissed her again. I couldn't feel guilty about this attachment I had to her, despite all of the entangling barbs that surrounded us. She wasn't an innocent; despite her years she had had so many meaningless affairs with men old and young by the time she graduated high school I thought - used to think - that she was something of a slut. But that wasn't true, and I knew it.
That was before I came to understand the competitive nature of the new world women faced today, trying to compete in a man's world, so to speak, and I saw that Jennifer had, like so many of her generation, become hypersexual as a means of expressing her competitiveness and her insecurity with this new milieu. This affair was not, I had glibly thought, an end in and of itself. Hadn't men been doing the very same thing for eons? As women moved into the workplace and competed with men for choice promotions, why couldn't they stake out their turf in the very same way men did? It was unsettling, perhaps, to be pursued by a young woman, but in the end why was that so different from men my age chasing down young secretaries and nailing them in what was, apparently, little more than a rite of conquest, a means to an end.
Maybe we were all wrong. Maybe we had forgotten what it means to really love someone.
In all fairness to Jennifer, I had in the beginning thought that perhaps she was just expressing independence from her parents. A little rebellion, perhaps. Hell, I'd seen 'Blame It On Rio' more than once, and I thought I knew the score, but what had at first started as a little peccadillo rapidly blossomed into a full-fledged emotional experience of the most import to me. Let's be adventurous and call it love. Sailing, I've heard, does that . . . the shared experience of the journey, the perils, the emotional highs . . . all of these contributed to the experience, I'm sure, but something more developed between us, something quite intense flowered in the belly of the Sea Witch.
So, let's not mention that I'd been living with the 'Ice Queen' for the past twenty five years, and that it had been more than ten years since my loving wife expressed even a mild interest in me. And come to think of it, learning from friends that she wasn't having any trouble making it with the tennis pro at the Country Club didn't predispose me to heightened sexual discretion on this trip, now, did it? The thought took me back to an old Burt Lancaster movie called The Running Man. Life is full of so many painful ironies.
How many middle-aged men start off an indiscretion with the words "my wife just doesn't understand me . . ." Yes, it's a cliché, and a ponderously bad one at that. But how many indiscretions begin with the daughter of a best friend, with a young woman who has seen your marriage unfolding in all of it's worthless glory? How many such affairs begin in an exultation of narcissistic rage, only to move forward as a sigh would accompany the inevitable hands of release that have come to claim their rightful place in the world?
I don't know why, but Jennifer and I didn't make love that night.
How very strange it is to just talk when lust has been the language of choice.
Harry and Trina had laid into her viciously after my departure, and Jennifer as much as told them that the entire affair had been her doing. I couldn't believe she had said that; it wasn't even close to being true, but I guess she wanted to protect me, protect my friendship with her father. We had, after all, been the two constants in her life - for all of her life.
As these trajectories came into conflict during the day, Jennifer had exploded at her mother, then gathered her belongings and left the boat. No one had followed her, her father and mother simply let her go, and in her confusion she had at one point in the afternoon felt like taking her own life. She eventually made her way to the hospital, found out where I was staying, and had been sitting outside the hotel ever since.
She was broken. Alone, lost, confused. And she said she loved me.
After an hour I went downstairs and got a separate room for Jennifer - which seemed to mollify the proprietress somewhat - and I helped Jennifer into her room and got her tucked in for the night. We looked at one another for a while in the dim light, and I knew I loved this girl, loved her in ways I never had my own wife, and I thought I must take care of her until she was ready to break free of her past and fly away.
I walked up the street to the hospital and scrubbed in at little after five the next morning; Maria was looking at CT scans of an aortic aneurysm with a general surgeon who would be on hand to assist her with the repair, and we got to it. The case lasted 'til noon, and Maria and I walked to a nearby café for lunch. The afternoon was free, and she decided to take me for a walking tour of the town of Horta.
We walked down to the waterfront and out to the breakwater. I was alarmed to find that the Sea Witch was nowhere to be seen; not tied up along the breakwater, not moored out in the harbor, and I explained to Maria that Jennifer had jumped ship and had come to the hotel last night. I explained as best I could my feelings for Jennifer.
"So, you feel responsible for this girl? Tell me. Did she seduce you?"
"Probably, but I'm sure I didn't put up too much of a fight."
"So, what would you do? Marry her?"
"I, ah, I don't think that would be in the cards. She'll get over this, get over me in a few weeks and move on. She's just moving out into the world, and she has a lot to learn, a lot to experience for the first time."
Maria was looking at me dubiously, like I was stupid, so stupid that I didn't even know the limitless bounds of my stupidity. "And what if she attaches herself to you? If she is to fall in with love you, then what? Would that be a problem?"
I looked at Maria, and I knew the answer.
"Then you owe it to the girl to tell her that. Today. Right now. Before this goes any further."
"I think her parent's are gone," I said as I looked over the harbor one more time.
"They do not sound like good people to me."
"Before today, Maria, I might have disagreed with you. I don't know anymore."
"Come. Let us find her. She can move out to my house, stay with me for a while, at least until this relationship is settled. No good can come of her living with you in town."
We found Jennifer in her room at the hotel, and we told her of our plans to move her out to Maria's house. She seemed hesitant at first, but the longer the three of us talked, the easier she became with the decision. I told her that the Sea Witch was gone, and she said that she knew, said that her father had been by to see her this morning.
"What did he say, Jenn?" I asked, now full of dread.
"That he and Mom were moving on. He'd keep in touch by email and let me know where they were headed, and that I'd be welcome to rejoin them. He left me some money, too, so I guess I'll be alright for a while."
"Well, come on then," Maria said. "Let's get your things and move them up to my house. But first, I need to stop by the clinic and check in with Mr Latham."
"Who?" Jennifer asked.
"You know, David Latham, from the Bolero," I added. "He's still here."
We walked the few blocks to the hospital and Maria stopped by the lab for some paperwork. I waited in the hallway outside with Jennifer, and we small-talked about events at sea and the excitement of the helicopter rescue. Jenn had never met Latham; she had, perhaps at best seen him from a few dozen yards away. Yet now she seemed curious about him.
"Did he have cancer?" she asked.
"Well, you know, Jenn, it's not that I don't trust you, but that's kinda private, you know. Any rate," I added, seeing the hurt expression hit her face like a cold slap, "it's kinda between Maria and David now. I'm not in the loop anymore."
Maria came out looking very grim indeed. "I need to go talk with David," she said. "Pete, you're welcome to tag along, you too, Jennifer, if you'd like."
Jennifer looked at the two horns growing from my head with barely concealed glee. I think she was looking for my pitchfork as we marched off towards David's ward.
"David," Maria began, "it looks like there are tumor markers all over the place. I would say the cancer has spread all over the lining of your gut, through the lymph, most likely. There is one procedure, only one really, to contemplate, but I must tell you it is extreme and the recovery is long. It is called retroperitoneal dissection, and would be followed by chemotherapy. What this means, David, is that we would go in through your belly and remove all of the lymph nodes in your lower body cavity, perhaps up into your chest if involvement was found there. Most likely you would never be able to have sex again, at least in the normal way, and it is quite possible that you'd become incontinent."
"What the fuck does that mean?" he said as he looked back and forth from me to Maria in what I could only describe as wide-eyed horror.
"You'd need to wear diapers, sport," I chimed in. "But you would be alive. You gotta look at both sides of the equation, you know."
He smiled. "Yeah. I guess. Chemotherapy too? Is that what you said?"
"Yes, David. And possibly radiation therapy, depending on what we found. And there is another complication. You are an American citizen. This is the EU."
"Uh, I don't have insurance in the states, no medical insurance."
"I see," Maria said thoughtfully. "Well, if we can certify you as unable to be transported, you'll have to stay and we can take care of you here. Let me look into this." I tried to hide the shame I felt about the dismal state of medical care back in the States. People here just didn't have to worry about such things. Maria walked from the ward and off towards an office down the hall; this was just one more problem to be solved by her. The Saint, indeed. I looked down at David; he looked shook up and disoriented. I could only imagine what was running through his head . . .
One day you're out sailing, having the time of your life, and the next day you're in some weird Portuguese hospital with a couple of loopy doctors telling you they're going to basically rip your guts out in order to save your life, and, oh yeah, you'll never be able to screw again and you're going to have to wear diapers whenever you go out, but hey, you know, no big deal, cause, you know, you'll still be alive. Kinda.
Life's a one way ticket, baby, and you've got but one chance to make the ride.
Maria and Jennifer walked up the lane toward Maria's house, yet I opted to remain with David Latham that evening and shoot the shit with him. He seemed most interested in talking about what would happen if he refused treatment and just took off on his boat. Questions like 'how long will I live?' and 'how much pain would there be?' - those kinds of questions.
The kid didn't have family except for an aunt somewhere in Oregon that he hadn't spoken to in ten years, and he seemed adrift in life, content to blow where the winds took him. It was an odd career choice. Or was it?
"So David, why did you decide to take to the sea?"
"Hmm? Oh, I was just tired, Pete. Tired of selling my soul to write a few more lines of code. Stuck in a cubicle, watching life walk by out my window."
"Where did you work?"
"Nice up there?"
"Yeah, but place doesn't really matter, you know? It's what you do. I think you can be happy anyplace, and there's no place far enough away to run from your troubles. I just wanted to taste the world, you know? Not some Discovery Channel three week trip to paradise. I made enough money to buy Bolero and leave me with a comfortable nest-egg to live on for ten years, so I thought why not, why not do it while I'm young . . ." I could see the irony hit him, and he seemed to curl up inside and wither away from his words, but they chased him into this new private hell, wouldn't let him be . . .
"So, would you really just bail out of here, not do the surgery?"
He came back when my words registered.
"Yeah. I just can't help but think no matter what you do, well, you won't get it all and I'll end up here dying in pieces. You know, cut little pieces off one bit at a time; just linger in meaninglessness . . ."
"Well, without the surgery you might make it for six months, maybe a year if you get real lucky. Not the course I would choose, but then again, I'm sure we have different priorities."
"Really? Why's that? I mean, what is it about life that makes the end so hard to face? It seems to me like now we're all in this race to see who can exist the longest, like the one who lives the longest wins the blue ribbon. What happened to living those years out as we were supposed to, as active and engaged in life, not just observers. That's what I hated about writing code. I was, in a sense, enabling this brave new voyeurs world. People living vicariously through their computers . . . learning more, maybe, but not really experiencing the world as we're supposed to. With our hands in the dirt, so to speak."
"I'm not so sure there's a way we're supposed to live, David. Our technology is forcing us to accept new ways of experiencing life . . ."
"Forcing us? Did you say forcing us?"
"I guess that sounds bad, doesn't it?"
"I think my cancer came from the life I led. It's just a symptom of that life. Maybe if I just go, maybe I'll live, maybe I'll die, but at least while I'm alive I'll be living."
I sat in my room in the hotel that night and thought about what Latham had said about choices. I looked down on the little harbor below my room, looked at the handful of voyaging sailboats down there, and wondered if that's what all those souls were up to. Living life out there on the edge, trying to feel life not as a vicarious experience but as a living, breathing challenge to their very existence. Was Latham on to something I'd missed. Had Harry and Trina stumbled onto something vital? Were they searching for something beyond suburbia and the comfortable challenges of modern life.
Or maybe it was all a little like 'A Clockwork Orange'; everyone was jumping out into the world trying to up their experience portfolio before they punched out at the end of the line.
I didn't work the next day. I spent the day with Jennifer. We rented a couple of bicycles and pedaled off down a country lane with a picnic basket until we came to a little cliffside lookout, and we ate olives and cheese and bread under the warm June sun while we looked out over the infinite blue of the sea around us.
I've always marveled at the way the sea breeze feels when it lifts through the hair. There's something about it that makes me feel so alive, and it worked it's magic again on me that afternoon. I looked at Jennifer not as the little girl I had known all her life but as the young woman who had awakened me from a long, cold sleep. I thought about my conversation with Maria - about my feelings for Jennifer, about my denial of this love that in my heart I knew was so true. I felt utterly confused until I felt the breeze rifling through my hair, and with this not so subtle reminder that nature always prevails, I had a sort of epiphany.
Nature's music is given to us - we are born with it in our soul. The cadence of the surf below us that afternoon was not unlike the life sustaining rhythm of the heartbeat that surrounds us in our mother's womb. Life had, I felt, choked this music out of us, torn it from our outstretched arms just as surely as life - in time - rips the child from every mother's arms. We ignore this music as we grow older, we ignore beauty all around us, and our lives are diminished within our ignorance.
Of course, Kant argued that one's ability to appreciate beauty is related to one's ability to make moral judgments. What then, truly, had I lost in my middle age? Not unlike the simple breeze passing through my hair, had life stripped me of the ability to feel the beauty of Jennifer's simple truth? Too many layers of technology, of politics, of impending doom from terrorists or global climate collapse - these elements force their tortured will on us all, and too soon our ability to appreciate beauty grows withered, subsumed by exigent forces intent on stripping us of our humanity. I wondered if anyone could appreciate just what it is we've lost. We can, in our blindness, no longer see even the outlines of moral problems. Truth, beauty . . . where do they go in all this madness?
I looked across at Jennifer, at the wind playing through her auburn hair, at the way her nose wrinkled when the sun danced across her freckled brow, and I felt once again life in all of it's infinite capacity to inspire. How could I let this go? What was I missing? What had I been blinded to? Blinded . . . blind . . .