[ This story started yesterday. It will conclude tomorrow. ]
III: I KAN’T
I’m at the wedding reception in DC, catching up with L. after, what, three years? She’s concerned because my back is acting up, and the painkillers aren’t helping. But I’m doing a good job keeping it together, even if I can’t dance and I’m not as voluble as I’d like.
We’ve stepped out for a cigarette, and she is telling a story. I’m laughing, but I turn away because suddenly everything wells up, the sciatica, the Terrible Situation, the way nothing is going away. And — poor L., I have been doing this to people a lot lately — without warning I burst into tears.
By the time I tell her my story I have smoked at least two more of her cigarettes and downed the beer she’s brought me. You can hear the music coming through the walls, you can hear people dancing, and what a schlub I must look like, slumped on a bench outside the party with my face wet and my nose dripping.
I hate weddings.
L. tells me I can’t be so hard on myself, can’t keep pushing myself. She tells me we’re not supposed to put ourselves in occasions of sin. I misunderstand: it’s not like I’m in danger of sleeping with these guys. But that’s not what she means. She tells me, like a true grad student, that I’m being a Kantian — which is to say, I’m falling into the trap of believing that just because something’s difficult, it must be good.
I’m glad she’s here, but I don’t want to hear this, because that’s not how I live. The harder things are, the better you can use them to beat the weakness out of yourself. Didn’t Jesus say: “That which does not kill me, makes me stronger?”
Maybe that wasn’t Jesus.
The reception’s over, and we say our goodbyes and head to an all-night diner, where after I’m done spilling my guts, we get some scrapple and eggs and decaf coffee and talk about other things, her dissertation, her boyfriend. It’s a good visit. Eventually I drop her off and head to my friend K.’s place, and share a smoke or two with him — it’s late, but he’s been up all night with his two-week-old and is happy for the company — and then I head to sleep. The next morning, I go to Mass, endure the bleating of the inevitably awful cantor of a foreign parish, and begin the eight-hour drive.
I love long drives: a chance to reflect, listen to music, do nothing in the world but smoke and daydream. But this one is spoiled: I was supposed to be getting away, recalibrating, but despite the good visit with L. and with K., I’m right back where I was. It hasn’t helped. I’m starting to see: this isn’t an interior problem. This isn’t about getting perspective, and it isn’t about growing in interior peace and gratitude and all the rest.
Or maybe it is about those things, but mainly it’s about getting the hell out. I call Father T. from the road.
Father T. never tells me what to do; like any good teacher, he lets me take as many steps by myself as I can. But this time I’m too close to the situation, too tangled up in my own fears and desires and theorems and strategies.
I’m like an animal caught in a bear trap, except I am somehow emotionally attached to the trap, and I keep poking the spot where the metal teeth have gone into my leg, to see if maybe the leg’s healing yet. I try one more time to convince him and myself, and finally ask: “I have to move out, don’t I.”
“Yes.” Fr. T. gives no sign of being put out by my everlasting masochism, but his voice is sure and firm as, for once, he just tells me the answer. “You do.”
I know this. Everyone else knows it too, everyone whose shoulder I’ve cried on for the past two months, everyone who really knows me. I know it, but I don’t feel it. And oh, how I hate it.
[ Part IV tomorrow. ]