April 06, 2020
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An Elephant in the Room
by Bernie Pilarski (short, PG-13)
Is it really there? What does it look like, anyway?
From the kitchen window of his parents' house, Doug could see over the canopy of the trees that covered the hills as they sloped down to the Monongahela river. The flats on the near side of the river held the neighborhood simply called the South Side, although most of the South Side was out of sight to the right owing to a bend in the river and the orientation of the house that favored views to the left, towards downtown Pittsburgh on the other side of the river. The South Side was where his parents were born and raised, and it was there that he himself was born in a hospital along Carson Street, the main street in The South Side. The hospital building was still there but had been converted into apartments. It was probably fortunate that he had never become famous, Doug reasoned. It would have made the conversion of the hospital to apartments needlessly complicated, and someone would always be uncomfortable with his exact place of birth being in the middle of the kitchenette of an apartment on the third floor. Things need to be allowed to change without being too terribly burdened with the past.
"What are you going to do with this place now?" Courtney asked. She joined him in gazing out the window. "Oh wow," she said looking toward downtown. "What a fabulous view of the city."
"Yeah, I would imagine it won't be difficult to sell."
"Is that what you want to do?"
"Too many bad memories here?"
Doug furrowed his brow. "Some, I suppose. Aside from this house, there just isn't any reason to move back here, and this house needs too much work. After my father died, my mother didn't really keep it up. In the right hands, it could be spectacular, I suppose, but I've no interest in doing that."
"I'd take this window out and put a door in, and then a great big deck out the back with plenty of really comfy wicker chairs and one of those round fire pits."
"Absolutely. Then we ... you could have wonderful parties and entertain all your friends. Look at that," Courtney said quickly. "You can see all the way to The Point." She cleared her throat and moved back away from the window, looking around the empty room as if she might be looking at purchasing the house.
"You've always had a thing for fire, haven't you? I remember when we first met. You were sitting in your dorm room in the soft flickering light of dozens of candles."
"Two. Two candles, that was it."
"It seemed like more, probably because they were the only light source."
"I was there with my date. We were trying to be romantic."
"So, what was stopping you?"
She turned to Doug and smiled at him, her hands on her hips in a mock gesture of irritation, then perhaps suddenly feeling a bit too coquettish, blushed and put her hands behind her back. "You, you jerk, and your date."
"It was our first date, and she said she'd forgotten something. How was I to know? What was her name?"
"You don't remember?"
Doug shook his head. Courtney smiled, then went back to surveying the room.
"Memory is funny," Doug said moving slowly toward the kitchen sink. "Like I have this memory of sitting in this sink being bathed. I would have been less than a year old. The problem is that I also somewhere in my house have an old black and white photo of myself taken while I was sitting in this sink. It is entirely possible that my mind simply manufactured a memory using that picture as a template. I know that sort of thing occurs all the time. My mother used to manufacture memories about all sorts of things, and there was no way of convincing her that what she remembered did not happen."
"I remember what you were wearing that night, the night you came barging into my room."
"I remember what you were wearing, and it wasn't much."
Courtney blushed. "I was supposed to have the room to myself, and Melissa ..."
"Melissa. That was her name. Dreadful girl."
"Melissa was supposed to know that and give us some privacy."
The couple looked into each other's eyes and lingered just long enough that the moment could be easily misconstrued. It may have been nothing, or it may have been a tease.
In that dorm room years ago, the young woman who sat in the bed with a sheet pulled around her, strands of her long hair across her face, stared at Doug standing in the doorway, not taking her eyes off him even when she spoke to her roommate, and Doug stood in the doorway, not moving, not blinking, and if memory served, unbreathing. As Doug and Melissa left, Courtney said "See you around," but it was hard to say for whom she meant that, or even what she meant.
"That explains why Melissa was so insistent of seeing my apartment."
"So, what, she spent the night with you?"
"Well, what'd you expect?"
"I thought she'd spend the night with her spinster aunt or something."
"Did she have a spinster aunt?"
"I don't know, but I didn't intend for her to spend the night with you."
"You didn't know me then."
"Oh," Courtney said, thinking. Her eyes darted back and forth. "Still ..."
"Right about where you're standing," Doug said, tactfully changing the subject, "I can remember sitting in a highchair, and my mother gave me a bowl of ice cream. I think it was butter-pecan, but whatever it was, it had nuts in it. I didn't like the nuts, so I took all the nuts out of my mouth and laid them in a line across the tray. That's the way I remembered it, but I actually thought I may have imagined that until one day I heard my mother telling one of her friends about it, and she described exactly what I remembered."
"Maybe I heard her tell the story before, you know? It's just hard to know about some things."
"So how can you remember stuff like that, but you couldn't remember the name of a girl you slept with?"
Doug shrugged. "Like I said, memory is funny."
They wandered about the empty house, not speaking, just observing. They had known each other for nearly twenty years and had been friends but never lovers, although less by choice than by chance. If their relationship was displayed as a decision tree, it could have been seen that at critical moments they had been led on a path away from intimacy. They had each considered it, but at different times, and on those occasions when they both may have been weighing the possibility, there were exigencies that drew them in a different direction, yet they always remained friends, comfortable in each other's company. Even after Doug had moved away, they maintained a correspondence, and anytime he was in town for business or personal matters, they would try to spend some time together.
"Come here," Doug said. "I want you to see something." He led the way upstairs to the second floor, then up more stairs to the attic. The attic was a long narrow room that ran the length of the house. The plastered walls angled sharply toward each other following the slope of the roof, so it was possible to stand upright only in a narrow path along the center of the room. There were windows at the north and south ends, and at the midpoint of the room, there was a dormer with a window facing west.
"Watch you don't hit your head," Doug said as he motioned Courtney toward the dormer window, "but look at this view." She moved into the close quarters of the dormer and knelt down. Doug moved behind her and knelt, leaning over her shoulder. The view from this window was like that from the kitchen window, west to downtown, but the added three-story elevation gave it a much more expansive feel. It was easy to see past The Point and the confluence of rivers that formed the Ohio River, and much further down the tree-lined slopes of Mt. Washington. Off in the distance, the western horizon softened from a clear demarcation between earth and sky to more of an Impressionist suggestion of a boundary, and even that dissolved at night when the twinkling lights of the city simply bled into the canopy of the stars.
"I used to come up on Christmas Eve and watch the sky because my father had told me I could see Santa and his sleigh approaching."
"And did you see him?"
"Oh, many times. The airport is in that general direction, so there was always a good chance I'd be able to see something flying around."
Courtney shifted a bit, settling back on her heels, and Doug suddenly became aware of how close they were, the gentle touching of her back to his chest, the brush of her hair on his cheek.
"I also came up here to just hide, to get away from the chaos downstairs."
"What went wrong with you and your family?" Courtney asked, but then perhaps realizing that it may be too personal of a question quickly added, "You don't have to answer that, I shouldn't have asked."
"It's fine." He didn't want to move. He was acutely aware of her scent and of the warmth of her nearness. "I suppose it was the usual, only more so."
Courtney turned to look at Doug, her gaze moving slowly over the face that was so close in front of her -- lips, cheek bones, eyebrows, eye lashes -- and then into Doug's eyes where she lingered. Her lips parted and she drew a quick breath as if maybe she was about to say something. Without exhaling, she reached behind and put her hands on the floor, slowing backing away from Doug to sit on the floor and to push herself back against the wall. "Sorry," she said softly. "It's really none of my business."
Doug sat down on the floor and pushed himself back against the dormer wall opposite Courtney. He stretched his legs out flat on the floor in front of him. They reached to within several inches of the wall against which Courtney rested. "I remember this space as being bigger," he said. "I would lie up here and read, or nap, or just stare out the window. It was kind of my Fortress of Solitude."
"Superman, eh?" Courtney said.
"I wish. Quite the opposite, in fact. I hid here because I was scared."
Courtney reached out and placed her hand on Doug's leg, patting it ever so slightly.
"The thing is, I wasn't scared for myself. I never thought either of my parents would hurt me, but I was never sure what they would do to each other. They hated each other so powerfully that it created a toxic environment for anybody around them. It was like living in a cesspool. I never understood how they could never see that, or why they didn't care about that.
"When my father died, I was supposed to be due some money. My mother didn't see it that way, and when I confronted her about it, things got ugly. She said some things, then I said some things, and then then there were some things said that should never have been said. The bottom line was that I spent years seething about it, and I never spoke to her again."
"That's when you moved away?"
Doug nodded. "I was so angry that it began to infect my whole life, so I drank too much, and I burned through several bad relationships, and I felt very, very sorry for myself."
"I didn't know," Courtney whispered.
"It's all good."
A river tug with a dozen barges filled with coal plied the river near the city, the bridges were beginning to fill with evening rush hour traffic headed to the southern suburbs, lights were beginning to shine in the windows of the buildings downtown, but it was doubtful that either Doug or Courtney took note as they sat in silence, each contemplating what could or should be said next. The conversation had left Doug feeling exposed and vulnerable, and he never liked feeling that way with anyone, especially not with a woman.
"It's all good," Doug said after a while. "I forgave her."
"So, you patched things up between you?"
"No," Doug shook his head. "No, we never spoke again."
"I don't think I understand."
"A couple of years ago, I happened to go to a Good Friday service at church, and the priest's homily was all about the words of Christ on the cross -- Father, forgive them, they know not what they do. He said we needlessly suffer because we hold onto the sins in our life, both our sins and the sins we've encountered, and that by forgiving, we not only heal others, but we heal ourselves. So, I thought, what have I got to lose?"
"And that worked for you?"
"Yeah. It seems so. I accepted the possibility that my parents were clueless shits that simply didn't know how to get themselves out of the bad situation they were in. Maybe they didn't know how to be married or how to be family. Maybe they just weren't good at it. I know I wasn't. I had started down the exact same path, letting my anger ruin everything I touched. So I stopped blaming them for the chaos in my life. The past was what it was. They did what they could. Then I moved on and tried not to make the same mistakes they did."
"But you said you and your mother never spoke again?"
"Never did. I forgave her, but I'm not a saint. I stopped hating but couldn't bring myself to try to get back involved with her either. I guess you pick your battles. I didn't try to contact her again, but then again, she never tried to get in touch with me."
"But you're doing better?"
"Yeah," Doug said nodding. "I think so. I'm finding that I am content with who I am now."
"I wonder if that's why God did what they say he did?"
"The whole die on the cross to forgive our sins thing. Do you think he did that because he was tired of being the angry, vengeful God of the Old Testament?"
"Your father was a minister, wasn't he?"
"Oh yeah, a fundie, fire-and-brimstoner."
"I'm more of a Gaia kind of girl."
"Gaia, the Earth Mother, source of life, although less of a deity like in the ancient Greek way, but in the more modern universal consciousness, environmentally responsible sort of way."
"I'm just saying that if there is a god, and I'm not opposed to that idea, what if he forgave people because he was simply tired of being pissed at them, that he did it because it was better for him?"
"I pretty sure that the party line is that he forgave us because he loves us."
"See? That's good. That's Gaia thinking -- god coming 'round to the universal truth that harmony with what is is better than disruption and chaos, or like Buddha coming round to understanding Right Mindfulness, an awareness of being present in reality, of being part of the universe."
"That's what Buddha says?"
"Yes," Courtney said. "Or something like that." She smiled, and Doug could not help but smile back.
"And your father is okay with your beliefs?"
"Not really, no. He's a good man, you know, but he's kind of like one of the blind men that encounter an elephant, and one touches the elephant's trunk and thinks it's like a snake, the other the elephant's leg and thinks it's like a tree, and the other the elephant's side and thinks it's like a wall. Dad's got hold of a tusk, and so for him everything is ridged and unyielding. He thinks I'm silly for trying to visualize the whole elephant."
The light was beginning to fade rapidly as the sun set, but Doug was reluctant to let go of the moment. He did not want to lose the feeling of Courtney's hand, of the gentleness of her presence.
"We should go," he said.
"Probably," she said, though there was more resignation in her tone than acceptance.
"You know, I've never invited anyone one else up here before."
"It's always been kind of my space, you know?"
"I'm flattered I'm the first."
"Actually, I'm very sorry that I've not done this before."
"Is that an apology?"
"Well," Courtney said. "You're forgiven."
"See, doesn't that feel better?"
Courtney leaned forward to be closer to Doug, and she reached out with her hand to very gently and slowly stroke his cheek. "Nope, didn't do a thing for me."
"I, ah, don't know what to say."
"How about dinner? I'm hungry."
"I'd like that," Doug said trying to compose himself. "There's a good Italian restaurant not far from here ..."
"Come to my place. I can cook."
"I don't want to impose ..."
"Come to my place, I really can cook. And if you really feel like it's an imposition, you can apologize in the morning."
"Oh," Doug said. "Oh my."
Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
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