[Well, I just know you'd laugh yourself silly, if you could see me right now, sitting at the kitchen table, wolfing down a plate of sliced apple and cheddar cheese. Or, to be more precise, you'd laugh yourself silly if you knew why I was wolfing down said snack, as though I hadn't eaten in recent memory. (When, truth to tell, I'm still slightly stuffed from my dinner at the ever-reliable VIP Diner, one of Jersey City's landmarks, at the corner of Sip Ave and JFK Boulevard. My fallback position, when I can't face the daunting traffic heading over the hills from the Hudson, and fanning out West toward the setting sun. But very, very slowly]
As for me, even though I know why I've now consumed about two day's worth of food, I'm a little alarmed. If I were in the office of one of my many former therapists, and something similar had just occurred -- I'm half an hour late; I burst through the door in a snit about something totally extraneous... we would both agree that... Walter is avoiding something.
Well. We wonder what it might be.
So, let's see... I've spent part of the day being tended to, mostly by men, as it happens. And while I haven't been allowing myself to be the center of attention, I've been traveling to and fro, in the very gas-hungry Honda Odyssey -- an appropriately-named vehicle for a day in which I never seemed to be able to reach my destination without breaking at least one rule of the road...
I had a haircut. The barber I've seen, for the past 10+ years, is Geno, of Geno's Barberia, on Greenwich St. (I think), in the Village. I see Geno about once a month, usually as close as possible to the new moon, because someone once said that was a good time for a haircut. And since I need trimming on a regular basis, this gives me a reason for checking the phases of the moon, on the daily NYTimes weather page. Last night, the moon was a tiny pale nail paring, hanging in the sky. Time to see Geno.
I also have an annoying, yet non-fatal scalp 'situation', which I make worse by picking at myself until I bleed. Very penitential, but otherwise not terribly useful as an activity. Because I'm so embarrassed about this, I only trust Geno to be the one who actually sees these results of my inability to keep from digging into my scalp. He never says a thing.
Instead, we talk, sometimes about his new shop, or about his parents, visiting from Montenegro, where Geno and his brother and their sister grew up. Sometimes Geno has a brief conversation with a co-worker, in what may be Albanian, or Russian, or Italian -- he's got a patchwork of languages at his beck and call. When we were talking about Lent and Ramadan once, he said that, although he's an observant Muslim, his family used to be Christian. 500 years ago, he said, without a trace of irony.
And of course, while we talk, he cuts and clips and sprays and applies a little warm lather, and shaves the back of my neck. Never a nick. He uses a nice brush, and a big dryer, and makes me look like a world-class financier, or a big-shot lawyer. For reasons I can't grasp, he really seems to like cutting my hair. It can't be all that different from the hundreds of heads he clips and combs each week. But he seems genuinely pleased, when he brings the mirror over, and shows me what the back of my head looks like. 'Beautiful', I always say, and I mean it. It looks so nice, I wish I could turn my head and walk down the street backwards.
Today, because it's the first time I've seen him since the operation, I mentioned the surgery to him, and his eyes got big. This was a topic of conversation that was a bit beyond both of us. So we settled for not much of anything at all. I was tempted to offer to pull down the collar of my t-shirt, and show him my scar, and the lump where the pacemaker is wedged under my skin, but the moment didn't seem to present itself. Besides, he's seen my scalp, which I'm sure is far scarier.
Geno. Once a month, for ten years. More often than I see my brothers.
The other ministration had less to do with appearances, and more to do with what I think I'll be calling my Li'l Intruder. I had an appointment with the cardiac specialist who patiently convinced me, with prognoses and likelihoods and actuarial statistics -- all with an unmistakable undertone of genuine caring -- that I really needed to have this procedure done. Today marks the one-month anniversary of my new state of Borg-hood, and Dr Benz wanted to have a look.
I had intended to bring him bunches of flowers -- lilies, if possible, because they last so long, and because there's that heady, drug-like scent that I find so alluring. I was certain I would burst into tears when I saw him. I toyed with the idea of prostrating myself at his feet, or kissing his shoes. This is, after all, the man who had overcome my ambivalence about my continued existence; the man who might legitimately be said to have saved my life.. Surely a display of some sort was called for.
But... I couldn't squeeze a trip to the florist's into my odyssey; I'd only been able to cobble together the same tired package of printed materials I've had for the past fourteen years, to show Dr. Benz what my art looks like. As though he would care. When he came into the office, my eyes did sting a little, but no noticeable water works. (I'd snagged a paper towel from the rest room, just in case) The consulting room was actually too small for me to do much prostrating. His shoes were nice, and black, and expensive-looking. I thought better about the kissing.
He thinks the incision is healing nicely. He asked about pain, or other bothersome things. I told him about some intense clutchings, deep in my chest, that I'd been having, mostly when I'm lying down. Then, in my way, I suggested that I had assumed that these pains were part of the new territory -- that, like saints-in-the-making, I had to accept a certain amount of auxiliary suffering. He made some notes.
Then he took a few minutes to look through the package of materials I brought him. Then took a few minutes more. He seemed genuinely impressed, and even made one of those charming statements that most of my artist friends and I have to roll our eyes at, and smile about -- "This work is wonderful! You should have an exhibit somewhere!" I forgave him instantly. Then he telephoned the surgeon who inserted my little hi-tech guest, and wrangled me an appointment for tomorrow, to see about those pains I've been having. "We care about our patients,' Dr. Benz said as I was leaving. 'We worry -- is Walter okay?' I believe him.
(His suit, by the way, was amazing... well, it'll sound lurid but it was quite beautiful -- made of a corded green material, with a slight sheen -- like sheaves of slightly sunburned grasses. He has a rich dark complexion; he looked off-handedly regal, I think)
Ah, and now I think we're getting someplace, because it's becoming a little difficult for me to see the screen. Where's that paper towel? There's one more case of ministering that I'd like to include. In this case, I was only an eavesdropper, but...
Last week, here at our house, John hosted a Master Class for one of his harp students, and John's former teacher, the redoubtable Ray Pool. We live roughly halfway between the respective residences of student and Master, so it made all the sense in the world. That, and the fact that there are four harps in the house, and someone should play them all as often as possible.
The student -- a young man of maybe 13 -- was chauffeured to the lesson by his father. They also brought a nice bouquet (lilies!), with a simple vase for the flowers. (Talk about coals to Newcastle...) I did the hostly thing, taking coats and asking if anyone needed anything to drink. Everyone was fine. John and Ray, student and student's father all went into the harp room, John to observe. The student's father was videotaping the lesson. I sat here at the kitchen table, playing my scrabble game like a crazed alphabet junkie (must... make.... more.... points....), and waiting for someone to need a glass of apple juice.
It was when this thirteen-year-old began rattling off the (correct!) names of each of the chords that he was about to play, that I started to cry. (What a wuss I must seem to be...) Not because this boy knew what he was about to play, but because his father fully supported his child. This father was in the room with his son. Paying attention to this son of his. Supporting him, so the youngster would know the names of these minor seventh chords. Making considerable efforts -- this wasn't the first music trip of theirs, nor will it be the last, I'm sure -- to help his son groom the talent he's been given.
What was happening in the next room was acting as a kind of life-mirror. How could I not inevitably compare what I knew to be going on, with harps, to my own experience -- that of parents suspicious of intelligence, of a father who, more than once, literally discarded his sons?
And I think this is the reason a day like today, a day of being ministered to by men, is both intoxicating, and painful. How can I be worth this? How was I not worth this... long ago? Who might I have become if, instead of resistance and suppression, hostility and resentment, I had had... even one week of the kind of attention in which that young harp student was immersed, probably without even noticing it?
Oh well, I'm sure we can all 'go there', and with enough rooting about, find things to regret. On the plus side, I can say that I have been a full-time college art professor, instead of the garbage man my family assiduously suggested should be my vocational goal. I've gotten standing ovations. I've had solo art exhibits.
But I never tell anyone in my family.
Tomorrow, another man will minister to me -- looking at his handiwork, maybe adjusting the voltage, so my heart doesn't cook from the inside out. Chatting with me in his pleasant, sunny way. I'm pretty sure I'll feel guilty, for taking up his time. Hesitant to bring out the list of (still more) questions about how to live with live wires running into my heart. And I'll feel awkward too, because I still don't believe I deserve this kind of valuing.
Some of the pain in my chest can be dealt with, I think, with a simple adjustment on that fat computer they use, to 'talk' with the Li'l Intruder. (It's wifi! Can you believe it?) But some of the pain I'll have to handle, in some other way, as best I can.
© 2012 Walter Zimmerman