Pushing the River: FLASH flash

It was not her first foray into the parallel universe of online dating. Madeline had been divorced for more than ten years. She had braved a string of relationships that progressed from interest, to the first tingle of excitement, to the exhilaration of genuine possibility, to the frightening, heady, joyful moment when the roller coaster passed the peak of its climb and in that split second, there was no going back: momentum had taken over; it was utterly and completely out of anyone’s control, because at that moment, there was love. There was real love.

And then there wasn’t.

Madeline took time to lick the wounds of disappointment. She allowed the lesions of dashed hopes to scab over. She understood that persevering was an ongoing matter of keeping one’s optimism just enough ahead of the injury of experience to keep going.

After a time, she would go back online, pouring over profiles, scrutinizing descriptions, gathering courage. As crazy a universe as online dating was – she recalled a friend aptly calling it The Wild West – it was essentially the only path to meet people. Since Madeline worked alone, had never buddied up to a man in a bar, and didn’t attend church, she reconciled herself to the necessary methodology.

Madeline worked hard to extinguish the flame she had carried for Jeff. But the feeling of being part of something larger than herself – everything from the ongoing sense that life was bigger and mattered more, to the immeasurable joy of small, everyday moments – was a living spirit inside of her.

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I am up to my eyeballs in re-writing/editing my novel Pushing the River.  The above snippet is excerpted from an early chapter. The first paragraph remains from the original draft; the remainder was written yesterday.  It struck me that it could stand on its own as a Flash.  It also struck me as being remarkably similar to the Flash I wrote entitled “January 2,” which suggests that I still endeavor to get it right.  WATCH FOR THE RELEASE OF PUSHING THE RIVER THIS SUMMER!!!

photo by Garry Winogrand

A Walk

This is the second chapter from the “September” section of my novel PUSHING THE RIVER.  Watch for the third chapter next Friday!

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A Walk

“Ellie, what in the world am I doing?” Madeline said.

“You,” Ellie said, “are taking a much-needed break from what you’ve been trying to do ever since Dick left – secure a ‘forever’ future.”

“Huh.”

“And I, for one, am damn glad.”

“Huh.”

“You need the break.”

“Huh.”

“ I think this is a great thing.”

“Huh.” Madeline added, “I think you need the break.”

“OK, Maybe we both do.”

How many walks just like this one had Ellie and Madeline taken over the past ten years, Madeline wondered. How many times had they clipped along on some pathway, beachfront, nature preserve, botanic garden; how many cups of coffee had been sipped in little cafes, student centers, large malls, bookstores, while they deconstructed Madeline’s latest date, possible romance, new romance, budding relationship, full! rosy! cheeked! blush! of ! love! first stagger,

swaying, reeling, crumbling, dissolving, dissolving, dissolved.

The thought of all this exhausted Madeline. She was utterly bored with herself. Bored and worn-out and miserable about how much time, and brain space, and thought, and conversation the whole subject of dating and relationships had consumed, had sucked from her life. She had a nearly overwhelming desire to lie down in the grass, right then, halfway along the trail, right there, in the middle of the sculpture garden, and resolve to stay there, not move, not continue, until something changed. The blades of grass would soak up the late summer sun and caress her with their easy warmth. She would watch the wispy clouds drift lazily across the sky, she would search for the pictures in them, then make stories out of the pictures. The air would turn cool, the leaves would start to change, just barely at first, a tinge of color lost. Cyclists would whiz past her, thinking, “Huh. I don’t remember that sculpture being there before.” The first tiny, barely perceptible flake of snow would drift onto her cheek—

“You’re not re-thinking this, are you?” Ellie said.

Madeline considered for less than half a second telling Ellie what she had been thinking, but said, “Nope. Not.”

“Good. Be here now,” Ellie said.

“I’m all about it.”

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A first draft of this chapter was originally posted on August 5, 2013 with the same photos.

Quantum Leap

The bulk of my novel Pushing the River takes place within the confines of a house, over the course of four months.  As promised, I will be posting a chapter each Friday (oops) from the “September” section of the book.  Here is the first chapter:

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Quantum Leap

It was certainly not her first foray into the parallel universe of online dating. Sadly, it was quite far from it. Madeline had been divorced for more than ten years by this time, and had watched a string of relationships move from interest, to the first tingle of excitement, to the exhilaration of genuine possibility, to the frightening, heady, joyful moment when the roller coaster passes the peak of its climb and in that split second, there is no going back: momentum takes over; it is utterly and completely out of anyone’s control, because at this moment, there is love. There is real love.

And then there isn’t.

After a time, she would be back online, pouring over profiles, scrutinizing descriptions, gathering courage.

There were less than a handful of people in the “neighborhood bar,” each one sitting at a measured distance from the others, making the throbbing lights and disco music seem thoroughly pathetic. Even the bartender looked as if she would rather be somewhere else. Anywhere else.

A first glance around the room didn’t turn up anybody she thought resembled his online picture. Certainly nobody came close to what her daughter-in-law Marie had called The Underwear Model upon seeing his photo. “Oh! My! God! He’s an underwear model!”

“Do you know if there’s anybody here waiting for somebody? A guy?” she screamed at the bartender, leaning as far as she possibly could over the bar in order to be heard.

“Are you kidding?” The bartender retorted, “Everybody here is waiting for somebody.”

She gestured with her arm, waving her hand around the room in a need-I-say-more sort of way.

“I mean, not that I know of. You’re just gonna have to look.”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

And then she saw him. QuantamLeap. Standing in a dark shadow, pressed against the back wall as if pinned there, minutely nodding his head in time to the music in a good-soldier effort to not look as thoroughly uncomfortable as he clearly was. Off-white, baggy, mid-calf length shorts that could have passed for gangsta, could have passed for j. crew. Collared shirt.

(“Collared shirt?” she thought. “I did not see that coming.”) She had pictured: T-shirt. Definitely. Very faded. Possibly with the name of an early punk band, but more likely touting some esoteric, highly left-leaning thing. Noam Chomsky, maybe. But nope, collared shirt it was. And striped. (Striped?)

“Dan?” she yelled.

He was tall. 6’3”, maybe even 6’4”, so had to lean way, way over to get his ear in the general vicinity of her mouth. He nodded, minimally, in time to the music, as if he were not sure he wanted to acknowledge his identity to the person who had chosen this particular bar.

“Let’s get out of here,” she said. Knowing full well that he couldn’t hear a word, she made exaggerated pointing gestures toward the door.

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With the last beam of blue light evaporating across his arm, Dan emphatically pushed the bar door closed behind them. The instant the door was closed, they stood unmoving, still on the stoop, as an exhilaration of relief – to be outside, out of the blue light, out of the inescapable throb of long-forgotten music, out of the scene of utter desolate encroaching loneliness — washed over them.

Madeline said, “Oh my God, I am so sorry,” and laughed out loud. “Oh! My! God!”

There was something just a little goofy about him, the stoop of his shoulders, the enormity of his feet in the ultra-white gym shoes she later learned he had bought that day at Costco. A mortal after all. Thank God, she thought, or he would be too impossibly good looking.

She suggested they walk to a nearby place that she ardently wished she had remembered in the first place — a low-key homage to the 60’s that still sold tie-dyed shirts, incense and bumper stickers in a little shop adjoining the restaurant. It also boasted a lovely outdoor area, a giant screened-in porch strewn with twinkly lights that was heavenly on a summer night.

Though she was less than two miles from the house she had lived in for nearly 30 years, she got lost. Damp with fretful sweat that grabbed at her mauve silk blouse, she surreptitiously scrutinized him for any sign of frustration aimed at her. They had met in person less than fifteen minutes before, so she had no cache of information that could tell her whether his good-natured reserve was just that, or if, perhaps, he had already decided that these two particular people, him and her, would not be seeing one another for much longer on the evening of September 1, 2013. Or ever again.

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A version of this chapter was originally posted on 7/23/13 with these same pictures.

On-Line Dating: A Glimpse at the Rage and Hatred behind Orlando, Baton Rouge, the Republican National Convention, the Country in General, and the World at Large

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I admit it. My parents were Republicans, though they came to that same track from vastly different sides. My father grew up in a small Pennsylvania town, part of a sizable extended family of first-generation French all struggling to keep their children fed. He was so far down the hand-me-down line of cousins that his feet were forever crippled by shoes that never quite fit. My mother, on the other hand, was the daughter of a Naval officer, raised in frequently-changing “quarters” where servants cooked and cleaned and manicured the grounds. My mother remembered, with great fondness, how her parents sent the help home each evening and did the dinner dishes themselves, so they could chat about their day.

But my mother and father, born in 1919 and 1920 respectively, prided themselves on their social liberalism. And like all children who grow up with all parents, I had nothing to compare them to, and therefore no idea how truly remarkable this was considering the time and place. My mother worked as a chemist during part of World War II, and never tired of telling me how she and her lab mate shared a beaker to drink water from. He happened to be African-American, though in Norfolk, Virginia in the mid 1940’s, one said either “Negro” or “colored.” She never thought a damn thing of it, as she would have said herself.

I thought my mother might explode with pride when a new child moved into my 4th-grade classroom in the middle of the year, and became my best friend. She was Mexican, from the country itself, and I thought every single thing about her was wildly exotic and perfect – her flowing, jet-black waves of hair, her circle skirts with donkeys and cacti and such. I walked around my house saying her name, slowly savoring each syllable of E-LO-DI-AH. E-LO-Deeeeee-Ahhhhhh. And when Debbie Allison – one of those prim 10-year-olds whose youth is an entirely wasted slog in their march toward the thin-lipped spinsters they were born to be – conspiratorially whispered in my ear, “I don’t like Tommy Whitesong; he smells funny,” I was completely baffled about what she meant. All I could think of was when my father’s cheap after shave (that I had undoubtedly bought for him) was around for a bit too long, it took on some rather rank undertones. I told all this to my mother when I got home; and whereas my mother was not one to throw her arms around anyone or make a show of feeling, she did straighten her skirt and say, “good for you.” Tommy was one of two – count them, two – black children in my elementary school. Even as a kid, I thought it must be kinda hard to have just one other person who was like yourself in an entire overcrowded school, and I thought Debbie Allison was a mean little twat.

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My father’s best friend was always “Uncle Bill to me.” He lived at the top of the hill where our street began, and we lived most of the way to the bottom. Every year he brought his whole family down during the holidays so his kids could play with the Lionel trains that ran all around our Christmas tree; and we would go to their house for a dinner of potato latkes (certainly one of the best things ever) and an evening of dreidel. A few times a year, he would come to our house by himself, right around the time I was going to bed, and I knew that he and my father would either hole themselves up in our little den, talking into the wee hours of the morning, or they would set up a card table in the living room and play chess, in virtual silence, for just as long. My parents were involved in numerous bridge clubs and neighborhood groups and medical-related stuff that kept them socially active, but Uncle Bill was the only real friend that either one of my parents had.*

So here I am, 60 years old, trying to gather all the various things one has to gather in order to [re]enter the world of on-line dating. Years ago, I ran into someone who referred to this world as The Wild West – meaning a vast land where there are no rules, a whole lot of very bad behavior, some good souls, and absolutely anything can happen. He nailed it. And, into this maelstrom, one has to proceed with the lowest possible expectations while maintaining eternal, even if faint, hope. You have to believe that whatever it is you seek is 1) out there, somewhere (it is), and 2) you can find it (um….).

At this point, fifteen years after my divorce, I believe myself to be a seasoned and skilled decipherer of on-line profiles. If I may quote from Joan Crawford addressing the PepsiCo good old boys: “This ain’t my first time at the rodeo.” Perhaps I should add that the line was preceded by her saying: “Don’t fuck with me boys!” What this attitude translates into is that I am very, very selective in communicating with anyone. Believe me, this is not a case of me passing up terrific potential guys, this is a case of me saving both parties additional wear and tear on our fragile sense of hope. When I was an on-line dating newbie, I wrote a nice note back to each and every person who took the time to write to me, just as the daughter of Mary Barbara Mills had taught me to do as a necessary part of maintaining a civil society. What I found was – people will then argue with you, often with frightening intensity! They will badger, bully, name-call, hurl insults – all in response to a very lovely note that wished them all the best! Last week, I forgot my own rule (Do NOT Write Back!) when I received a note from a guy who seemed very decent, and worked in a field quite similar to mine. I wrote back, told him that I really wanted to find someone in an entirely different line of work, for balance, and I wished him well. He completely went off on me. At length, and with a degree of rage and hostility I can’t imagine feeling, let alone directing it at a complete stranger?!

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OK. Onward. Wild west. Expectations sub-low. Hopes, um, in tact enough, I hope, to be awakened if there is reason.

Last weekend, I received on on-line approach from a guy who seemed…pretty good. Cute, a bit off the beaten path, fun-loving and witty, and seeming to be genuinely seeking something of substance in both a woman and a relationship. I responded. We emailed back and forth, safely and anonymously through the site, throughout the afternoon. At one point he asked me what I do for work; I responded that I was a clinical social worker in private practice. He wrote back: “It’s completely unhealthy to spend time with people less fortunate than ourselves.”

Earlier in my life, I would have assumed that he was joking. I probably would have laughed. But, lo these many years of life later, instead I wrote back and asked: “Are you serious?” He replied: “Absolutely, yes. That has been my experience.”

We were, as of that moment, done. Out of curiosity, I went on-line and started researching. I wondered just what percentage of the people in my own country, and then the world, I should shun from here forward if I followed this credo. Using income alone as the determining factor, this handy rule would save me from any further pesky interaction with more than 65% of my fellow citizens, and wow, certainly well over 80% of the people on the planet. While I was pondering the complexities of the term “less fortunate,” and the multitude of things that covers beyond money, my phone indicated that a new message had come through.

Yep. New note from The Guy. “I mean, these people have undoubtedly stolen from you, right?”

What?

WHAT?!?

Is this guy seriously suggesting that the “less fortunate” will eventually steal from you? No! He’s suggesting that they have already! Somehow what came to mind was shoplifting, a frequent rite-of-passage in the upper economic brackets. I mean, my daughter’s acquaintances who did a very brisk business in shoplifted Abercrombie merch out of their middle school lockers were among the wealthiest kids in the school.

I did the on-line equivalent of un-friending someone on Facebook – I un-favorited his ass!

Deep breath. Wild West. Onward.

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Next morning, approach received from a cute guy with a wonderful, open smile, looking for a Real Relationship. He had lots of pics of himself at various charity events looking very dapper and sincere, a give-back sort of a guy who made himself interesting by being interested. We exchanged emails back and forth, both of our interest clearly piqued. He indicated he would like to talk on the phone, thereby taking our relationship to the next on-line level; and though I hate talking on the phone with strangers, I agreed that it made sense. He suggested that I text him when I was free to talk later that day.

I did, and even though he had originally said he’d wanted to talk, he immediately blew up my phone with a flurry of texts including additional photos of himself in various locations, various tidbits of news about his day, and a number of questions for me. Hey, I’m pretty flexible, and I hate to talk on the phone, so OK, texting it is. After flitting across various topics, such as his workout routine (de rigeur for men on-line and over the age of 50), he said: “Hey, both of my parents were born in Italy. I’m 100% Italian. What’s your background?”

I said: “My father was 100% French, first generation. My mother was essentially a WASP.”

He: “Are you Jewish?”

Wait, are there people who honestly don’t know what WASP means? Is he double-checking if I perhaps converted at some point?

Me: “No.”

He: “Good.”

Me: “Why?”

He: “I don’t get along with Jewish women.”

Here I am again, saying for the second time in as many days: “Are you serious?”

He: “Yes.”

Me: “Why?”

He: “Because they’re whining, nasally, pretentious, drama filled, high maintenance, boring women.”

I am…utterly dumbfounded. And sad. So sad. There is certainly nothing I can say to a gent in his late 50’s that can possibly alter his views, and this is neither the time nor the place. The only thing to do is…move along.

Ding! A new text comes through: “…also, they never ever take their wallet out to buy a man a drink. In other words they’re cheap as shit.”

So, no, I am not surprised when I go to my computer each morning, and see the headlines that summarize the latest unimaginable tragedy. I’m shocked. I am filled with grief. I am disheartened to varying degrees of near-paralysis. But I am not surprised. In the world of on-line dating, where one might easily expect people to be on their very best behavior, a murmuring level of anger, blame, prejudice, aggrieved bitter rage – all of these lie barely below the surface for so many people.

I am sure that each of the men I encountered believed that their perspective is entirely justified.

And that is how it begins.

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*My parents remained unshakable in their Republican ideals, in the way of a woman born into great privilege whose much-adored parents never missed an opportunity to decry how FDR had ruined an entire nation, and a man born into a fatherless home of endless want who had lived his very own American Dream of rising from the great unwashed to become A Doctor; and who therefore believed with all his heart that this was, indeed, a land of opportunity where anyone with a whit of determination could pull himself up by his bootstraps and succeed. And, perhaps he was right, for his time. If “anyone” was white. And male. And not needed to work from such an early age that dreams could not even form.

“Pushing the River” excerpt introduces Auggie and Bess

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“Now, exactly what is our role here, Madeline?”  Auggie was barely able to contain his delight.  “What do you need from us?”

            After the walk with Ellie, Madeline’s renewed burst of enthusiasm for the prospect of Living in the Moment manifest in the form of shooting off a text to Dan: “Hey, no idea what you’re up to this evening, but having some friends over for dinner.  Join us later if you’re free.  I made pie.”  8069027891_3e0726af21_bHe had texted back that he’d love to come by, but didn’t want to infringe on her time with good friends.  He suggested he stop by around eight.

            “Auggie, you’re being weird,” Madeline said.

            “No, no.  I’m serious.  We want to be there for you. We just need to know what our role is.”  Auggie radiated a decidedly boyish quality, in the best sense.  And in his unbridled enthusiasm for the task at hand, he was adorable.  Bess nearly always found him adorable, and made this obvious in frequent, glowingly loving glances at him.  Across the dinner table from Madeline, the two of them radiated exuberance, good will and love.  It delighted Madeline, and made her misty, and wistful, and, as her son would have said when he was a little boy, sickenated.

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            Auggie continued: “I mean, are we chaperones here?  Do you want us to stick around until after he leaves?  We would love to do that for you.”  He put his arm around Bess, and pulled her head over to lean against his own.  “Wouldn’t we, babe?  Chaperones!”  He caught Bess mid-sip with her wine, and as she gurgled an assent into her glass, he said, “Or wait.  Do I have the wrong idea here?  Maybe you want us to leave right away!  Maybe you’re dying to be alone with him! Maybe the whole ‘why don’t you come over while I have friends here thing’ is just a ruse to make it seem innocent.”  Bess could barely get her wine glass safely onto the table, she was laughing so hard.

            “Auggie, seriously, don’t do anything one bit differently than if Dan wasn’t here.  Really.  Stay as long as you want to stay.   Leave when you want to leave!  Like always!! ”

            “What about a sign?  Maybe we should come up with a sign – two signs – one if you think it’s going well, and you want us to leave so the two of you can be alone; one if it’s not going so well, and you want us to stay.”

            “It really doesn’t matter what I say, does it?  You’re deep into your own thing here.”

            “F I N E,” Auggie said.  “Mission aborted.”

            “More pie, Auggie?”

            “You betcha.”

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Exerpt from upcoming novel “Pushing the River”

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The minute she walked into the blue-light-pulsating, music-thumping, eardrum-shattering, sad sad sad “neighborhood bar,” which is what the online City Guide had called it, she knew she had made a hideous mistake.

            “Pick some place where a yuppie or hipster type would never dare set foot,” he had said.  “Some dive.  A real neighborhood place.”

            “Are you kidding?” she had responded.  “We are very groovy up here.  We’re talking brick walls and industrial chic lighting in places where millions of dollars have been sunk to make the joint look like the basement of a factory, where you will be gouged with exorbitant prices for a PBR because it’s all ironic.”

            “Consider it a challenge,” he had said.

            Ah fuck, she thought, a challenge.

            It was certainly not her first foray into the parallel universe of online dating.  Sadly, it was quite far from it.  My lady had been divorced for more than ten years by this time, and had watched a string of relationships move from interest, to the first tingle of excitement, to the exhilaration of genuine possibility, to the frightening, heady, joyful moment when the roller coaster passes the peak of its climb and in that split second, there is no going back: momentum takes over; it is utterly and completely out of anyone’s control, because at this moment, there is love.  There is real love.

            And then there isn’t.

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            After a time, she would be back online, poring over profiles, scrutinizing descriptions, gathering courage.

            There were less than a handful of people in the “neighborhood bar,” each one sitting at a measured distance from the others, making the throbbing lights and disco music seem thoroughly pathetic.  Even the bartender looked as if she would rather be somewhere else.  Anywhere else.

            A first glance around the room didn’t turn up anybody she thought resembled his online picture.  Certainly nobody came close to what her daughter-in-law Marie had called The Underwear Model upon seeing his online photo. “Oh!  My!  God!  He’s an underwear model!”

            “Do you know if there’s anybody here waiting for somebody?  A guy?”  she screamed at the bartender, leaning as far as she possibly could over the bar in order to be heard.

            “Are you kidding?”  The bartender retorted,  “Everybody here is waiting for somebody.”  She gestured with her arm, waving her hand around the room in a need-I-say-more sort of way.

            “I mean, not that I know of.  You’re just gonna have to look.”

            “Yeah.  Thanks.”

            And then she saw him.  QuantamLeap.  Standing in a dark shadow, pressed against the back wall as if pinned there, minutely nodding his head in time to the music in a good-soldier effort to not look as thoroughly uncomfortable as he clearly was.  Off-white, baggy, mid-calf length shorts that could have passed for gangsta, could have passed for j. crew.  Collared shirt.  (“Collared shirt?” she thought. “I did not see that coming.”)  She had pictured: T-shirt.  Definitely.  Very faded.  Possibly with the name of an early punk band, but more likely touting some esoteric, but highly left-leaning thing.  Noam Chomsky, maybe.  But nope, collared shirt it was.  And striped.  (Striped?)

            “Dan?”  she yelled.

            He was tall.  6’3”, maybe even 6’4”, so had to lean way, way over to get his ear in the general vicinity of her mouth.  He nodded, minimally, in time to the music, as if he were not sure he wanted to acknowledge his identity to the person who had chosen this particular bar.

            “Let’s get out of here,” she said.   Knowing full well that he couldn’t hear a word, she made exaggerated pointing gestures toward the door.

            With the last beam of blue light evaporating across his arm, Dan emphatically pushed the bar door closed behind them.  The instant the door was closed, they stood unmoving, still on the stoop, as an exhilaration of relief – to be outside, out of the blue light, out of the inescapable throb of long-forgotten music, out of the scene of utter desolate encroaching loneliness —  washed over them.

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