The Writing on the Wall

I once dated a guy because he rode a Ducati. At least, it seems now, this was his most attractive feature—also, the one that makes the relationship seem appropriate upon reflection. It was college and Joe was my first real “motorcycle boyfriend,” so I took complete advantage of the fact that we were living in Tucson, saddling up for long rides through the foothills, snaking through the desert mountains at sunset. He was older than me (nearly 30) and always wore dirty jeans and a leather jacket. His hair was short and thinning, and it never occurred to me then, but as I remember, his face was perceptibly asymmetrical.

It would be inaccurate to describe us as a “cute couple,” but we were something. He would drop me off in front of the Modern Languages building, cutting through packs of students, zigzagging bike racks and sidewalks. Then, still straddling the bike with the motor running, he kissed me, open mouthed, in front of strangers and occasionally slapped the back-pocket of my jeans when I turned. He always revved his engine, coughing up desert with his back wheel as he peeled away and escaped campus for an old coffee shop where he sat with the other AA members, smoking cigarettes until I met him after class.

Sometimes at night, we would pretend we were Bonnie and Clyde, a game comprised of me furtively tucking wine and whiskey deep in my 90’s baggy pants while he waited for me outside the local liquor store. Keeping cool, I would duck out, swing my legs over the seat and hold onto his chest with both arms. We laughed maniacally, careening, swerving and helmetless as I tried to keep the bottles from crashing out of my pants and onto the street.

In addition to his fascination with motorcycles, Joe also had an obsession with weapons. He was a collector, a connoisseur, and more seriously, neurotic about self-defense. He always carried a Taser in his pocket and a gun in the seat compartment of his motorcycle. Joe liked  to insert himself in situations where he could play out delusional vigilante fantasies. One night after dinner, we were walking under the 4th Street Bridge into what was nothing short of a drug deal gone awry. Before the junkies could duke it out, Joe pulled out his Tazer, and made some goading gestures, the sparks, forcing them to part ways. He was proud when he asked, “Did you see that? That was awesome,” still holding the Taser like it were Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. I was annoyed and slightly concerned about his weapon use, but not yet convinced that our time was over.

We still shared the Ducati rides, after all.

One night Joe invited me over for a standard Monday of wine and cigarettes on the back porch of his small stucco adobe.  Normally, this is where we would sit and talk about his non-committal AA membership, his failed attempt at a Ph.D. and my own 19-year-old reveries. Outside there was a small table with candles next to a hammock, surrounded by cacti and desert flowers, the sound of cicadas loud enough to keep you awake. The way he kept his garden pruned and the red Ducati, pristine, you would almost think he were normal.

On any other night, he would be waiting outside, but I didn’t see him, so I knocked on the door. “Come in!” he yelled. I sensed determination in his voice. I turned the knob, and felt the door hit something, opened the door slightly and maneuvered through the crack sideways. I watched a gun go sliding across the wooden floor. Sprawling the living room, Joe, had arranged every gun he owned and was shining them, in a phallic-manner, with an old t-shirt. This was Arizona, so I wasn’t surprised at the sheer volume of his arsenal. There were rifles, shotguns and various handguns—pistols and revolvers. Not that I knew the difference: I saw an open room, a volatile man, and a shitload of weapons.

Joe’s antics became menacing, even for a danger-prone and reckless 19-year-old. We were going to sleep that night when he said to me, “If you find a gun in this house, don’t fuck with it, cause it’s loaded and if any son-of-a-bitch tries to break in here I’m going to fuckin kill em.”

In a soft voice, I agreed,  and said, “Okay,” starting to think that maybe things were getting weird.

Then he added, “And just so you know, there is a gun under your pillow.”

A few nights later, he woke me up panting and sweating, nearly in tears because he had what he was calling “bloodbath dreams.” In the middle of the night, in this over-armed house, he revealed fantasies about standing on a building and going on a “killing spree” shooting up pedestrians with an automatic. He desperately wanted someone to talk to, and childishly, he uncovered, what he was… scared.

The next morning, I decided to make my exit swiftly and mentioned that he may need counseling. During the break-up, I asked him to keep the Taser in his pocket.

Some things just aren’t going to work out.

When I first moved to New York, I started guitar lessons on the Lower East Side. I got the instructor’s contact information off of Craigslist and didn’t exactly do my research before committing to a private lessons in his apartment. Arriving at Delancey from Queens, I started walking towards the East River, only to learn that my new teacher resided in the projects. The post-war building was tucked behind a playground and looked like the other projects in New York—short of windows, lined with a futile attempt at shrubbery, and guaranteed characters shifting about. This building was also secured with two pit bulls tied up out front.

I dialed the instructors number and was buzzed in without hearing the sound of his voice. Still clenching my guitar, I went through the entryway and then another heavy door, down a hallway and past the bullet proof security window. The air reeked like piss, booze and sex. The walls were a pale green and the only lighting was bright and exposed. I seem to remember the elevator light flickering.

I let myself have this one snap judgment: if he looked like he could take me down, I would leave. I looked down the dimly lit hallway and searched for a sign of safety, a sign of life. Then, I heard a door crawl open and a man poked his out into the shadows. Before I had a chance to size him up, he said my name like he knew me, and stepped back.

I was lucky. The man was elderly with a wide smile. More comforting: he walked with a cane. The apartment was well-lit with floor to ceiling windows and had an amazing view of lower Manhattan from the 20th floor. It was actually bigger than any other apartment I had seen in the city and was lined with a books and a record collection that probably enveloped a lifetime. There were three guitars, a banjo, tambourines, horns and other various instruments lying in a circle next to the two worn leather chairs that faced each other.

Henry was in his late seventies, an old blues player, and a gentleman. He gave me sheets of music and I attempted to follow the chord progressions. He scolded me when I sped up, always reminding me to keep my pace with a light foot tap. We laughed and I played him a short finger-picking arrangement I had been messing around with. It was pleasant and I found myself sinking into comfort.

Each week, I braced myself for my march through the projects, which always gripped me until I made it into the safety of his apartment. I couldn’t help but clench my jaw as I walked towards the river, past what I knew to be Avenue D, pressed with fear, especially as winter neared, and the days became shorter. Once I found myself texting my brother the name and address of the location, in case I turned up missing. The journey also required that I divert attention, which is never easy when taking on a dozen street blocks with a guitar. Invariably, dude yells, “Girl, you wanna play me a song?”

After a few lessons, I stopped going to see Henry, neglecting to explain, “It’s not you, it’s the hood.”

I arrived in England, set on a week of camping in the North with the 20-year-old Max I had met in Spain. He assured me that we would be safely traveling across the Grasmere Lake District, camping and sailing in what he called a “dingy boat” over a lake, which he claimed to know well. The “dingy boat,” was really, a blow up raft, with several patched holes. From packing the tent and equipment, through making train reservations and maintaining a general travel awareness, I trusted him. I had been traveling for 9 months and was more than willing to let someone else take control of my life and direction.

We left from Leeds with only our backpacks and the large, precariously packed raft and oars, taking turns carrying the bundle down the streets, under bridges, running through the train stations and resting on it when the car ran out of seats. The first night we camped (illegally) in town, setting up our tent near the dock where we planned to catch a ferry the next day. Our plan was to get across the first lake by ferry, travel by bus through several small towns and eventually make it to port where we could finally blow up the raft and sail away.

A late morning arrival, a longer than expected hike and some snafus with the tent meant that we didn’t get to the port until late afternoon. It was nearly five in the evening and we planned to spend the remainder of the day trying to get to an island; an island I saw, very distantly in the horizon. Over any Robinson Crusoe fantasies, I was distracted by the setting sun, goose bumps on my legs and the fact that we were almost out of wine. The thought did cross my mind, that if we sank in the middle of Beatrix Potter land, it was cold and I had my most of my possessions, including my passport, tucked into the front end of the raft.

Lead by a determined 20-year-old, I complied. It took him 45 minutes to blow up the raft and about 10 minutes to pack up and push off. We climbed in and,  in a chivalrous fashion, Max began rowing backwards towards the island, smiling against the sun. The blankets we had tucked in the raft were getting splashed with water and the wind started blowing us in the wrong direction. Max persevered while I voiced my second thoughts, “It’s cold. Are you sure you want to do this today?” I came up with other excuses: the sun was setting, I was bored, was the whole thing really necessary anyway? By my calculations, we would be in this dingy for several hours each direction, the sun was setting, I was shivering, and I wasn’t entirely convinced the adventure was worth it.

Our age-gap reared its head.

In Max’s defense, it wasn’t so bad: it took only a little over an hour to reach the wooded island, which was beautiful and completely isolated.  We pulled the raft up onto shore, jumping out of the boat, exploring like two children, imagining where we could build a tree house. When that little fantasy was exhausted, we finished the wine and watched the sunset. At some point, we decided the wind gusts became too cold to enjoy and climbed back into the raft, our wet feet dripping all over our bags.

Knowing that we would have to make it back quickly because of the dark, Max suggested that I row from the front and he row from the back. We each had one oar and positioned ourselves on our knees, sort of like I imagine Lewis and Clark navigating the U.S. waterways. We were cutting against waves and I could feel the pressure against the rim of the boat. The lake was wide and we tried to make out familiar sites along the way, the most distinguishing feature a small farm and a field dotted with lambs.

Max was getting frustrated with my baby rowing: “It looks like your spreading butter, at least try to churn it.” I explained that it would be impossible to motivate me with such a metaphor, however, I started paddling more functionally with the promise of a sleeping bag and some rolled cigarettes.

It was in this moment of immense daydreaming and paddling, that the raft blew. I felt the air release from under me with a pop as loud as a gunshot. It was cold enough, that I immediately considered the dangers of going under—no we didn’t have life vests, the water was  fresh out of winter freeze, and everything we would need to get help would be sinking with the boat.  Within seconds, we lost all of the air in the walls. Max yelled for me to pull the sides up with the ropes, and I reached back and tied them up around my chest with my knees still locked. We were floating on a bed of air and wrapped in walls of plastic. When I turned around, I realized the back end had already gone under and Max was rowing, kind of dipping each oar in carefully because he had lost all ability to leverage. His voice was calm and North Englandy: “It’s awright, I reckon. We’ll just stay calm then, won’t we?” In the current, the boat was drifting in a lake a mile wide into nothing.

The combination of current and our attempts at navigating meant that we were moving, in a direction, at least, towards the edge of the lake. The boat was sinking and neither of us could change positions or we would have tipped. I do remember some shouting and irritation. Max eventually threw me an oar, thinking that would help us, then busted me when I got distracted, “Pay attention!”

We strayed and panicked. As soon as we could see the bottom of the lake we stepped out, which happened to be about the same moment when the raft would have gone under anyway, quickly grabbing our bags and carrying everything over our heads. We stumbled up dragging everything over rocks, shrugging and wondering what to do next.

We washed up on the plush lawn of some rich folks who harbored a Range Rover in their four car garage and willingly drove us (and the broken dingy) the 10 miles back to camp.

Max was still determined to fix the holes, even though we had blown out the entire side of the raft. We managed it again, on the ferry, the bus, and onto the train. Connecting in Manchester, we were headed back to Huddersfield when we heard the announcement, “Did anyone leave a boat on Train 224 arriving from Grasmere?” I pictured a long kayak resting on luggage or a row boat wedged between the seats. We looked at each other, smiled and I was about to say, “Who leaves a boat on a train?” before he jumped up and went running towards the back of the car. I heard the sound of the doors closing and had watched Max disappear, when the train began to pull away. I thought I lost him on the track. Then the door opened again. He looked down, his hands deep in his pockets. He missed his exit. Now…the boat was gone. I tried to comfort him, “Maybe it’s time to let it go.”

Some situations have all the red flags for disaster. Moving quickly demands quick decisions. Think ahead, be a good planner; more importantly, know when to walk away. The trick is acknowledging when something is dead, when it is broken, when you know it just won’t work. There are lessons in learning to walk away, before it is too late… before the boat starts sinking, the trigger is pulled, before there is actually, something to lose.

waywardbetty

Author, ex-pat, mother, traveler, artist

One thought on “The Writing on the Wall

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