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Waking Up is Hard to Do
You see, I want a lot. Perhaps I want everything the darkness that comes with every infinite fall and the shivering blaze of every step up.
So many live on and want nothing and are raised to the rank of prince by the slippery ease of their light judgments.
But what you love to see are faces that do work and feel thirst. You love most of all those who need you as they need a crowbar or a hoe. You have not grown old, and it is not too late to dive into your increasing depths where life calmly gives out its own secret.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Das Stundenbuch
I leaned against a doorframe and quietly surveyed the party swirling around me. Laughing revelers spilled through the doors of Mark's big living room onto the bluestone terrace and down the sweep of lawn. It was just dusk, and a warm May breeze brought the scent of lilac. Mark throws parties like his theatrical productions, I thought: lavish and well attended. I wondered anxiously if Sean would show up with his new lover.
I took a deep breath and sighed, turning back into the big kitchen at the rear of the house. The antique harvest table in the center of the room was abundant with the kind of food we eat when we're supposed to be having funcasseroles stuffed with ricotta; desserts made with whipped cream; salads sprinkled with pine nuts and feta cheese. The odor of warming lasagna, my contribution to the party menu, wafted from the oven. It was a relief to be alone for a moment. My eye caught the pile of dirty dishes near the sink, and I filled the dishpan with soapy water and began to wash a pot. The warm water felt good on my hands.
"Want some help with that?" came a voice from the door. I hadn't heard her come in. Paula stood in the doorway looking particularly elegant in a slim black sheath, her brown hair cropped in a perky new style I hadn't seen before.
"Did you get tired of the party, too?" she asked as she picked up a stray dishtowel.
"Just not in much of a party mood." I attacked the burned edge of a cake pan with my Brillo pad. "But Mark swore he couldn't have a party unless I made my vegetable lasagna. He only loves me for my casseroles."
Paula's smile lit up her fine features. She was beautiful in the way only a forty-five-year-old woman can be, and I was glad for her quiet company. Paula picked up the pot I'd just washed and began drying. I pulled the lasagna out of the oven and set it down on a hot plate on the sideboard. We worked together in silence for a moment, then she asked me if I was OK. I felt relief admitting I was not, that I was depressed.
"You sure do a good job of covering it up," she said, referring to the little riff I'd done at the piano that broke everybody up. She told me how well she thought I was handling the situation.
"It's still hard being at parties by myself . . . without Sean. I'm not used to it yet."
Paula put her hand on my shoulder. As usual, her instinct was just right.
"How're things with you and ol' Geoff?" I asked, pulling back from the moment of closeness.
Paula was silent for a moment. "Have I told you that I've been on Prozac for the last year?" I was surprised. Paula and I studied with the same yoga teacher in Cambridge, and we saw each other once or twice a week in class. I'd always thought of Geoff and Paula as the together "power couple." Geoff was a well-known lawyer, currently experiencing his fifteen minutes of fame in a notorious political case in Washington, D.C. Paula was a successful marketing executive for a large mutual fund in Boston.
"Let's talk," I said, scooping out two small plates of lasagna. She poured two glasses of wine, and we cleared a place at the table.
In the last two months, Paula and I had grown closer. Her seventeen-year-old gay nephew, Matt, of whom she was particularly fond, had made a suicide attempt, and I'd sat up most of one night with Paula and her sister in a hospital waiting room. We'd had coffee or a phone chat weekly since then, talking mostly about Matt.
"Prozac? How come you never told me?"
She said she'd been embarrassed, covering it over, minimizing, doing what I'd just done with her. She reached out a hand and touched my arm. "You're a really good friend, Steve. I don't want to have to put on a face with you."
"I don't either. But you know, I'm the ultimate Lone Ranger. All those years of heavy-duty WASP training"never complain and never explain.' But you first. I want to know how you're doing."
Slowly, Paula began to reveal another side of herself. Under the surface of her successful corporate career, she felt a sense of desperation. Her job had always been a pressure cooker, she said, but now she seemed less able to tolerate it. For the past year, she'd regularly had panic attacks on Sunday nights as she contemplated going back to work after the weekend. Work nights, she would often go to bed early, hoping for a refreshing night's sleep, only to sit bolt upright at two am with her mind racing: deadlines, pressure to perform, competition with a rival rising star who was, as Paula put it, "younger and hungrier than I am."
"You know, I truly don't remember why I'm doing this work," she lamented. "I don't really care about it anymore. If I'm going to pour out my energy the way I do in that job, I want to be doing something that matters." I was aware that it was Sunday night and Paula was facing a new work week.
"I don't know if my work life feels empty because I'm depressed, or if I'm depressed because it feels empty." Paula went on to describe how she'd begun to feel melancholy and confused a year earlier, when both children had been out of the house for the first time. Katy, nineteen, was now in college in California, and Marc, twenty-four, was in New York, struggling with a nascent career in music.
"But it's not just that I miss them. It's like I'm lonely for myself. I feel like I'm missing life. And I'm sad about that."
It was a relief to be talking to somebody else whose life was falling apart. "I've been feeling like that for the last eight months, since Sean left. It's like, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, and I can't seem to put the pieces back together again."
"Tell me about that," she said.
"He was in the middle of some kind of midlife lunacy, I guess." I told her the worst partthat he was having an affair with a guy in his twenties, whom everyone said looked exactly as I had at that age. "He actually took him to our goddamned summer place when I wasn't there. It just walloped me, experiencing betrayal like that after fifteen years together." I had been living in a state of shock, uncomprehending. How could he leave all that we had?
"It's unbelievable. You just watch as the whole infrastructure of your life collapsesfriends, extended family, rituals, holidays, the cat and dog, neighbors. I mean, Sean is my niece's godfather. I adore his family. And we had so many friends who looked up to us as a stable gay couple." I wasn't feeling self-pity so much as bewilderment, like standing on a dock in a storm, watching helplessly as the boat that contains your most precious possessions comes off its mooring and drifts slowly out to sea.
I wondered secretly if I would be ruined beyond repair by this loss. I felt sure that I would never have the treasure of a relationship lasting long into old age the way my parents and grandparents had had. And I'd always assumed I would have this. I took another sip of wine and looked into the middle distance. What had I done wrong? Was there a great big L for loser plastered on my back that nobody had told me about?
"Here's the thing that's really got me, Paula. Forgiving betrayal like this seems to require some huge grownupness, a maturity I don't seem to have. It's the hardest thing I've had to face in my life."
"Forgiveness, yes," she murmured, dragging a fork across her empty plate. I wondered, then, whom she had yet to forgive. After a moment, I smiled. "Help!" Paula pantomimed a big, hysterical scream. We both laughed, and I reached for one of Mark's nasty death-by-chocolate brownies, gulping it down as though it was the only thing that could give me comfort.