Killing Christina – Part 4

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I wake with the dream still more real than reality.

There were three of us – me, Christina, and Death – sitting around a table. Death wasn’t in his stereotypical guise, with the hooded cloak and scythe. Instead, he wore a baseball cap, a T-shirt with something rolled up in its sleeve, and jeans. But I knew who he was. He seemed like a nice enough guy, except for his eyes. They weren’t tombstones or Xs or anything cartoonish like that. They weren’t rheumy or bloodshot, they were exceptionally clear. Too clear. Painfully clear. So clear that they looked not just through me but through time. His eyes were clearer than anything I’d ever seen – glass and mirror at the same time. I could look right through them and still come face-to-face with my reflection.

We sat together around a table and Death held both our hands. Christina and I also held each other’s hands so that we sat in a linked circle, as if we were attending a séance. Death’s hands weren’t cold and clammy like I expected. They were warm, and soft, and comforting.

“Don’t be afraid,” Death said to Christina whose teeth were chattering. Maybe his hand felt cold to her. Or maybe mine did. “When your time comes, I will be ready for you. That time is not now.”

“But you,” he said, turning to me with a welcoming smile, “you’re ready, aren’t you?”

I couldn’t answer.

“Don’t be mad at me, baby,” I said to Christina.

“I’m not mad,” she said the way women do when they’re so mad they can’t even admit it to themselves.

“You should probably get out of here,” Death said to Christina, “while you still can. The boys are going to play a little game.” He unrolled a deck of cards from the sleeve of his T-shirt and shuffled them.

“What’s the game?” I said.

“Solitaire.”

Christina got up from the table and looked at me. She needed me to say something, and I knew what she needed to hear, but for a reason that I don’t understand, I couldn’t say the words. She walked away. When I looked back at the cards on the table they were all the same: The face and back of the cards were blank, as clear as mirrors reflecting the snowfall. I saw into and through the reflections of a long, empty life without Christina.

Death held a card in front of my face. It reflected the sun and it also let the natural light of the sun through, into my eyes. “You love her?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“How much?”

I don’t know how to answer that. How do you measure love?

“You lose,” Death said. He picked up one of the cards and flipped it rhythmically across his long slender fingers.

“I can’t lose,” I said. “How can I lose? I’m playing against myself. If I lose I have to win too.”

Death smiled. It was Christina’s smile, but twisted. His teeth were mirrors and glass, reflecting her perfect smile, but backwards and conscientiously empty of all the joy in hers. I saw through his smile, at the sun, fighting a losing battle against the early afternoon clouds that hunched menacingly over the snow-dusted Catskill peaks. The end of the daylight comes too quickly to the valley.

* * *

I wake up but stay in bed for a long time – hours, at least – staring at the sky, and the falling snow, sweating and shivering and watching the steam of my breath, thinking about my dream, before I reach the sickening conclusion that my love for Christina isn’t the thing I came here to kill.

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Killing Christina – Part 2

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I tried telling myself lies about her:
She’s an idiot.
She’s unstable.
She’s not that beautiful.
The charms of her smiles, her thoughts, and her scents have no effect on me.
But every lie was so foul that it made me sick to pretend they were true.

I tried imagining parallel realities where we never met, or where we met under different conditions, ones that made us immediate incompatibility.

I tried to push thoughts of her out of my mind, but even that involved thinking about her, and once that starts, I’m lost.

So I came to the most remote place I know to strangle the life out of my love for Christina and give it a proper burial.

I felt from the start that we were on a timer. The weight of my feelings for her, compared to the weight of hers for me, made us too lopsided a couple to stand together very long without tipping over. When we came to the inevitable crash-and-burn part of our relationship I had to get away from everything – not just Christina but every habit and object in and about my life – to find canyons of silence and emptiness where the enormous resolution I need has enough room to move around and to find me. If it can find me anywhere, it will be in this most sacred space: halfway up a mountain, in my Uncle Bob’s cabin in the Catskills.

Uncle Bob is an old vinyl guy and the depth of his record collection fascinated me even when I was a boy. I pick out a disc at random and put it on the turntable, then I grab a beer and start a fire. I don’t look at the album cover so I don’t know which one I picked until I hear the gravelly voice of Louis Armstrong hitting the nail a little too sharply on the head, singing:

In my solitude
You haunt me
With reveries of days gone by
In my solitude
You taunt me
With memories that never die

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Killing Christina – Part 1

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Lies are dangerous things.

None are more deadly than the ones we tell ourselves.

Of all the lies I’ve known there is none worse than the one I told myself about Christina, that she could love me as much as I loved her.

* * *

Time has its own way of breaking things down. Even plastic and styrofoam biodegrade eventually. There is no rush. People don’t retire when they reach a certain age because they can’t do our jobs anymore. Most jobs, unless they require physical labor, are done more quickly and easily by people with experience. The reason we retire is that the rationale behind our occupations inevitably falls apart, like newspaper in a gutter. Love is the only thing I know of that resists time’s efforts to break it down. It withstands onslaughts of alcohol and infidelity. It is almost indestructible. So, if my love for Christina is going to die, something is going to have to kill it.

Before we go any further, I would like to alleviate any apprehension I’ve caused by calling my story Killing Christina. You could be forgiven for imagining that this is going to be another of those stories where a sick, possessive man commits an act of intolerable cruelty against a woman. It is not. I am not going to kill Christina. Neither is anybody else. I would not see any harm come to her. I am in love with Christina and it is that – my love for her – that I have come here to kill.

We met in the most enjoyable place two people can meet: a bar. My first image of Christina was on a bar stool, reading. A song was playing that I hadn’t heard in years and I got a little more excited about it that I should have. I bumped into her and spilled her cocktail all over the bar. She might remember it differently but the way I remember it, I let out an astonishingly unmanly shriek. I grabbed a handful of napkins from the bartender’s plastic caddy and tried to sop up her drink. “I’ll buy you another,” I said.

And she smiled.

Just that. Just a kind, simple smile to a bumbling stranger, and I was undone. I knew, as sure as I know how to breathe, that if I have a moment before I die, to look back at all the strange and wonderful moments of my life, that handful of soggy napkins is going to be part of one of them.

“It was a martini,” she said. I interrupted the bartender who was cleaning up my mess to order two martinis. “I’ll pay for that one too,” I said, pointing at the spill.

It wasn’t until the drinks came that it struck me that I’d never had a martini. “Cheers,” I said and we clinked our glasses.

I sipped and  watched her long slow swallow. The lighter fluid in my mouth didn’t taste like anything I wanted to swallow. As badly as I wanted to spit the martini back into its glass, and would have in front of anybody else, I couldn’t do that in front of her, so I forced it down. In an attempt to distract her from the repulsive look on my face I pointed to her book and said, “I’ve never read anything by Virginia Woolf.”

The skin of her nose wrinkled, disclosing freckles that reflected the neon lights above her. “You should,” she said, and within minutes we were locking in an intense conversation about Haruki Murakami. We’d each read a few of his books, but none of the same ones.

After an evening of deepening conversation we went back to my place and talked some more, about books, and the exploration of our solar system, and the development of photography, and its impact on our sociology. We talked about her beloved second-grade teacher and my despised Little League coach. We talked about insects and religion and dreams.

“So,” she said during a pause in our inexhaustible revelations, “What do you think?”

“About what?” I said.

“About me.”

“You’re devastating,” I said. She smiled. She knew that about herself. She just wanted to see if I knew.

We continued until the sun came up and our talk of dreams rolled into the one where we were lovers and the universe belonged to us.

 

Victor Hugo and the French Aesthetic

I have long admired, even loved, the French but I don’t think I ever quite understood why until I read Victor Hugo. Their commitment to liberty inspired two revolutions – America’s and their own – that created the best of the world we live in today. They are more responsible than anyone for the evolution of government from hereditary monarchy to a system that exists to serve its people, not the other way around.

Their culture, their devotion to beauty, their appreciation of romance inspires artists and lovers everywhere. Their lust is not simple desire, but desires, eternally mingled with playful affection. In addition to their reverence for fine wine, cheese, and bread, they have an appreciation for the peculiar wonders of femininity and masculinity that aren’t chained to rigid concepts of gender. Makeup, wigs, and high heels were always for men as well as women.

Love is not a rigid concept either. It flows. It mutates. It entices. It satisfies a hunger that even the finest meals cannot. In this passage from Les Miserables, Victor Hugo produces a fine reduction of the love between an old blind bishop and his adoring sister that could easily translate into the love between parent and child, or between lovers:

To have continually at your side a woman, a girl, a sister, a charming being, who is there because you need her, and because she cannot do without you, to know you are indispensable to someone necessary to you, to be able at all times to measure her affection by the degree of her presence that she gives you, and to say to yourself: She dedicates all her time to me, because I possess her whole love; to see the thought if not the face; to be sure of the fidelity of one being in a total eclipse of the world; to imagine the rustling of her dress as the rustling of wings; to hear her moving to and fro, going out, coming in, talking, singing, and to think that you are the cause of those steps, those words, that song; to show your personal attraction at every moment; to feel even more powerful as your infirmity increases; to become in darkness, and by reason of darkness, the star around which this angel gravitates; few joys can equal that. The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves – say rather, loved in spite of ourselves; this conviction the blind have. Are they deprived of anything? No. Light is not lost where love enters. And what a love! A love wholly founded in purity. There is no blindness where there is certainty. The soul gropes in search of a soul, and finds it. And that soul, found and proven, is a woman. A hand sustains you, it is hers; lips lightly touch your forehead, they are her lips; you hear breathing near you, it is she. To have her wholly, from her devotion to her pity, never to be left alone, to have that sweet shyness as your aid, to lean on that unbending reed, to touch Providence with your hands and be able to grasp it in your arms; God made palpable, what transport!

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The Event

Going into the event, of course Joseph would have preferred success to failure but the final verdict on something like that can change over time. The important thing was for the event to take place. There was no way things could continue the way they were. There would be violence and possibly, even likely, war. If war came the judges would no longer be able to enforce the law.

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Joseph was as prepared for the event as he would ever be, to the point that he was growing impatient, as if the longer he waited now, the longer the odds of success.

The judges had been set for a while. The weather looked clear for the foreseeable future. Nobody was getting any younger.

“Now is the time,” somebody whispered and that was all it took to start the event.

Joseph looked around in a sick panic until he saw Sara. He made a slow, determined path to her. Whatever the event was going to be, he wanted to go through it with her. “Now is the time,” he said.

“I heard,” she said.

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The judges had heard too, so had mobilized to observe, record, analyze, and pass history’s first judgment on the event.

“I’ve been living in a dream,” he said.

“We all have,” she said.

The event spread from its epicenter at rate halfway between a crow and the speed of light. It enveloped Joseph and Sara in mid-breath.

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Uncle Kurt

Of all the people in the world who I don’t know personally, there is no person who has had a more profound and long-lasting impact on me than the author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. His novel Slaughterhouse Five is one of the first novels I read and whenever I am asked to name my favorite book it is the first one that comes to mind. I found it, or it found me, at the time in my life when I was changing from a dependent boy to an independent man. I was becoming many things – atheist, pacifist, vegetarian, musician, writer, lover, pothead, drunk, and left-winger – that I still am today, more or less.

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The latest addition to the Vonnegut library, and one them I am up to my eyeballs in, is called Letters. It is a fascinating glimpse into a life deeply marked by tragedy and humor. His mother committed suicide while he was home on leave before being shipped off to fight in the second world war, where he would become a POW. The thoughts he shares about these incidents with those closest to him, as well as reflections on his marriage, fatherhood, divorce, depression, infidelity, professional accomplishments, and the deaths of those he loves, including himself, make for reading as satisfying as his novels.

My understanding is that I am so odd emotionally and socially that I had better live alone for the rest of my days. During my last years with Jan, there was a formless anger in me which I could deal with only in solitude. Jane did not like it. There is no reason why she should. Nobody likes it. What is it? Well – if I had to guess, I would say that it was caused by a combination of bad chemicals in my bloodstream and the fact that my mother committed suicide. I have finally dealt with that suicide, by the way, in the book I just finished. My mother appears briefly at the end, but keeps her distance – because she is embarrassed by the suicide. And so she should be.

The great appeal of Vonnegut’s writing goes beyond his direct style that reads like a letter from an intimate friend. The simplicity of his humanist message, like Christ’s, makes the truth impossible to deny: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Christ’s came with the promise of heaven; Kurt’s did not.

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of reward or punishment after I’m dead.

Kurt Vonnegut, like me, was a white man. People who aren’t white, and a lot of us who are, want to hear new stories from other perspectives. Fair enough. We have hogged the cultural conversation for centuries. But the greatest artists in any field illuminate eternal truths that transcend gender, nationality, “race”/culture, sexuality, income level, and age. Finding and sharing those universal truths is the artist’s only job.

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One of those truths is the great equalizer, Death. Kurt died in 2007, and left this thought behind for the end of his days:

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: ‘The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.

If, instead of carving messages in stone at the end of our lives, we were given little gold plaques at the beginning, with a message for the lives ahead of us, this one from Uncle Kurt might be a good place to start:

Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’

This is Not Happening to You

I was introduced to Tim Tomlinson’s writing through his poetry, which I recommend highly to those who love poetry, and even more highly to those who don’t. You might find your distaste for poems is relieved after reading a few of his. Tim’s poems often feel like fiction, so I thought I knew what to expect when I picked up This Is Not Happening To You. I did not.

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cover painting by Mari Otsu

These are not easy stories to read. They are raw, pungent, and brutal, but tinged with the humor and beauty that lurk in the most unlikely places. Ranging from 2 to 30 pages long, they don’t feel like stories so much as 19 glimpses through the slats of a fence viewed from a moving train – startling and better comprehended after some digestion.

Like an expert marksman, the author draws a bead on each protagonist and does not blink until after each story’s final word. The characters are drawn with such attention to detail that the reader will almost certainly recognize some of them from their own lives. Their circumstances can be so real that they transcend truth, as in this excerpt from The Motive for Metaphor:

“Six weeks later he moved to Los Angeles where the red-haired woman belonged to a repertory company that welcomed Maris. The New York edge, they told him, is what they’d been missing. Maris told them he was from Montana, which was half true, but he didn’t remember which half. You reach an age, he told them, when the lies become the truth and the truth, it never mattered anyway, at least not as much as you thought it did.”

These stories cover a wide range of narrow insights, from painfully intimate first-person confessions to third-person observations of murder and rape that are told with almost clinical detachment. Two of the stories included in this collection, including the title piece, are written in the second-person. This rarely used perspective offers a unique relationship to the reader/protagonist. These two paragraphs from the title story are a perfect illustration of the book’s charms and dangers: the first one reveals the dark underbelly that hides the even darker underbellies of addiction:

“Approaching the corner of Dauphine and Touro, you discern the sickening deposits of last night’s bacchanal percolating throatwards. Clutching the sticky trunk of a banana tree, you hurl. Violently, agonizingly, remedially. Even as you discharge, you think. You are thinking, you are a thought machine. It’s a juxtaposition this time that commands your ideation, the juxtaposition “pink-green vomit and brown-black Louisiana loam.” You are not certain if “loam” is the correct term, horticulturally speaking. You are not certain if horticulture is the correct term. You are certain that you don’t give a fuck because although your gastro-intestinal distress has been somewhat alleviated by the reverse peristalsis, your head now hurts worse. A bit of a pain in the Gulliver….And there in the pink-green, brown-black gloop of yester-eve you spy the barely dissolved, barely discolored Extra-Strength Tylenol caplets, the very thing that enabled this excursion. Two conflicting impulses obtain: disgust at the puke and the objects of relief that lie therein.”

This second excerpt captures the impossible dream of every struggling artist, and of some successful ones:

“Some persons, you reflect, many even – that vast horde of unstout souls, might, at this time, experience the first stirrings of remorse, depression, self-recrimination. Not you. This is not happening to you, it is happening to the Undiscovered Genius, the character you’ve created to play you in the tragi-comic farce you know as “your life.” The talents of this Undiscovered Genius have yet to manifest in any recognizable form that might ultimately be remunerated by an institution, a governing body, a critical faculty, a network or publishing house, or rewarded by an adoring public. Its nebulosity, you understand, is part of its genius: the suspense! What form will it finally take, you imagine the public you have yet to seduce wondering? As far as forms are concerned, you have already conceded painting; painting is a form for which you demonstrated little if any aptitude. This was evidenced early on and most acutely by the F you took, and deserved, in ninth-grade Studio Art, the year you gave painting the brush. Singing, dancing, the violin…these, too, have been purged from your schema. You are practicing the process of discovery through elimination, one step at a time.”

I have reached the conclusion, after many years of pondering, that there is no such thing as “good art” or “bad art.” A work of art either speaks to you or it doesn’t. The 19 stories in This Is Not Happening To You resonate with me to a depth that is almost uncomfortable. Their unavoidable intensity should ring true to anyone with some experience of life. This is writing that will not just grab but hold the attention of any reader interested in contemporary literature. If you’re not careful, you might even find some pieces of these stories popping up in your memory, as if they had been happening to you.

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Tim Tomlinson