Sunday, May 27, 2007

My Black Cat

At about seven o’clock in the morning on September 1, 1994, I crawled into bed, alone. The next half hour was to be, in retrospect, the eye of the hurricane. Still, but uncomfortably so. Calm, but deceptive. Not really safe.

[Those of you who read here regularly need to know that on that date I happened to be married to someone other than the “Lovely K” whom you read about from time to time.]

This was a Thursday morning. That Wednesday wasn’t anything special, except that my buddy and erstwhile colleague – and quasi-partner in crime – Jack had invited me to go drinking with him. We were to meet up with one of his clients to whom he sold time management seminars. Jack was everybody’s best friend, and this client was everybody. In many ways that night and perhaps for many nights leading up to it, so was I.

We were having a grand old time at the first bar, which was on the north side of Atlanta, somewhere in the Sandy Springs section. Problem was, I was due home in Morrow, on the south side, about an hour before. I went outside and called from a payphone – this was in my pre-cellphone days – and spoke to the woman who answered.

She was a good woman, not always nice and not always sweet, but good. And kind. She was long-suffering, perhaps too much so. Her father had died when she was a teenager, and now her mother lived alone in Morrow. She had a sister at Auburn University; another sister who was married to a brickmason and lived in Kansas; another sister who married a former Iranian soldier who had served under the Shah and was living in Houston and whom I was quite scared of because he talked drunk about killing all his wife’s former boyfriends; and a brother, divorced, who also lived near Morrow. This brother had custody of the one child from his marriage, a daughter, who was nine at the time. He was a good father.

This woman was the middle child in her family and had been divorced once already. She was a modern dancer and also taught dance to children. At one point she had been performing internationally. When I met her, she had been performing with second-tier companies and other companies on the rise, and every now and then her name appeared in a New York Times dance review, always favorably. She was passionate about what she did, and she was a superior dancer and a gifted teacher. Parents of dance students adored her.

“Are you on the way home?” she asked, understandably. It was about eight at night.

I decided to lie.

Now you have to understand that the decision to lie at that moment was actually the turning point for everything else. It wasn’t the first time I had lied to her, of course. In fact, I had lied pathologically about my actions and my thoughts and feelings hundreds of times in the past. We had met on a blind date in September 1990, and the next morning I had left for a 17-day vacation in Spain. When I returned, I was overjoyed to see her, but I quite naturally lied about my activities during my vacation, which had been a bachelor’s jaunt through some of Europe’s more raucous nightlife spots. She had always figured I was keeping something from her about that trip, but she eventually dropped the occasional interrogation because I was not about to start telling the truth once we were in an ostensibly committed relationship. I had lied in the months leading up to August 31 of the year of the events described here, 1994, but the late spring and summer leading up to that night had been a little different. And that difference is what made my lie on August 31 a turning point.


In May I had attended my friend Jon’s wedding, and his brother, a missionary living in Japan, had officiated and had given a brief sermon from one of the books of the Bible, St. Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus. This missionary had talked about wives loving their husbands and husbands loving their wives. The wedding had taken place in Philadelphia, and since I had driven north alone from Atlanta, I had a long car trip home to consider whether I indeed loved my wife. It often takes longer to come to a negative conclusion about a matter than it does to a positive one.

I was convinced I needed to “try harder.”

So she, long-suffering and good, found us a marriage counselor. His name was Gary, and the odd part was that he was an evangelical Protestant minister at a local church off State Route 1941. She was a lapsed Catholic, and I was a perpetual seeker and quite antagonistic toward “god.”

We went to see him twice a week, and around the fourth time or so of meeting him he asked me a simple question about life and death and eternity.

“If you were to die today and go to heaven,” he started, “and God asked you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what would you say?”

Fair enough. I know this game, and I have the right answer.

“I’d tell him—“ I am answering him seriously now, with a straight face, meaning each word, “—that I tried to do good and that I loved others and was a loving person.”

Gary looked back at me with love.

“Well, based on your answer, God wouldn’t let you in.”

Silence.

I was floored. She sat there, I’m sure staring at me, wondering what my next move would be. Since college, I had been interested in spiritual matters. I had first heard people talk about Jesus during my sophomore year and wondered what it all meant. How was I to live? To respond to people? To think and believe? I searched and searched, and for ten years I went through all sorts of cosmological arguments for and against the existence of God. I had been active in a large New York City religious institution and helped build a singles group from seven people to over 300. I wound up on the national Singles/”Young Adult” committee of this institution and got to know people around North America who were – like me – worshiping a question mark. Three weeks or so before the date of the fourth counseling session, I had heard in Philadelphia – The City of Brotherly Love – about husbands loving their wives and wives loving their husbands and had had many hours of driving to consider that. And, as I mentioned, to consider how perhaps I was falling short.

I cried.

And I wish I could say I was crying because I wanted so much to go to heaven to be with God. No. I was crying because I was terrified about the alternative. So Gary told me what I needed to do to have a relationship with this God.

That afternoon, after our counseling session, alone in the spare bedroom at home, at about 2:30, I knelt and prayed. I had never really prayed to anyone before. I didn’t know what to expect. I prayed what Gary told me to pray, even though I didn’t really believe it all 100 percent and because I didn’t know what else to pray.

But then I added a “rider,” you know, like you see at the bottom of an apartment rental contract where it says you can keep your pet ferret as long as it doesn’t chew up the doorframe to the bathroom. My rider was, “And, Jesus, change me however you want to change me.” That was the most terrifying part of it all. Change me.

See, for the longest time, I thought men who followed Jesus had wispy hair and Jerry Lewis glasses and wore white sweatshirts with air-brushed pictures of dolphins jumping through surreal crystal-blue ocean water at sunset. Not a flattering image in my mind. (Sorry if this describes you; no offense, dude.) I thought these men talked only about “Jesus my Lord this…” and “Jesus my savior that…,” but to tell the truth, at that point on June 14, 1994, I didn’t care.

So I added the rider because it was what I feared the most about God, that he would change me the way he wanted to and I wouldn’t have control anymore. Like I had ever had it.

I finished the prayer, and not much was different that I could tell. No thunder sounded.

There was some positive movement toward what I had committed to in the weeks following, but there was still an old self hanging on, wrestling with the new self. Over the summer, I changed jobs several times – though I hardly considered as jobs these commissioned sales “opportunities,” and neither did she, for they brought in next to no income and we were living off her fees as a self-employed dance instructor and the unemployment checks that I was still collecting because none of these opportunities lasted long – and I continued to live largely as though June 14 didn’t happen.

Yet it nagged.

So on August 31, when I decided to lie, something inside me snapped. Like I crossed a line that was new territory even for a veteran liar, even for a soured relationship recidivist whose past was littered with human debris and whose integrity was as tangled as last year’s fishing line from a summer home tackle box. I decided to resist and even kill this nagging for good. It had loitered in front of me like an unwanted pet, and I decided to put it down instead of accept its love and blind devotion.

She asked when I was going to be home, and I answered, “My contact lenses are messed up and I can’t see well to drive–” lies. I wanted to go back inside the bar.

At that point I knew, inside, that I had ended all that was real up to then. I had called it quits. I had turned away from all that was beautiful and redemptive. I had a couple beers in me, and the scenery looked good, and I was staying. That was that. I knew then that our relationship was over, and I didn’t frankly think too much about God. Who was he? Where was he? Kill the pet; it’s a nuisance. I want to live my life. It’s mine.

She didn’t sound overly convinced, yet still sounded a bit worried. She didn’t let on. I hung up the phone and went back inside the bar with Jack. He was my best friend at the time.

The next several hours included multiple stops at establishments whose female employees were held to a lax dress code policy that pertained only to the waist down. At the first of these, we met up with Jack’s client, a sturdily built 30-something who was Vice President for Sales of a fitness chain in Atlanta and whose month of August had been quite productive. He was ready to let off some steam. Married with kids, he apparently did what he wanted to on the 31st of the month. He was stuffing 20-dollar bills into bikini bottoms right and left, and his wallet wasn’t getting any thinner. Soon, Jack and I were in his brand new silver Infiniti, and they decided to go to the ‘hood.

Three white guys in a luxury car in the Atlanta ‘hood, looking for crack cocaine for the fitness executive. I won’t tell you what transpired, since I believe in the right not to incriminate myself. Yes, someone selling actually got in the car with us on one dark corner, but I will say no more. Through the fog of many drinks, I was seeing in my mind the headlines in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the next morning.

Some time later, around 5:30 a.m., Jack and the fitness guy were stoned out of their minds and we all needed to get home. We had families and responsibilities that all three of us had completely disregarded for the previous ten hours. I insisted on driving, because the beers had largely worn off at this point and I had abstained from what the other two didn’t – probably my one good decision that night – and we headed back to Sandy Springs.

By the time I got my car and drove back to Morrow, it was 7:00 a.m., and I entered the apartment, with only the cat, Bandol, greeting me. Unconditional love…ignorant, blind devotion from an animal who didn’t know better.

It brought me back to Poe.

When I was in eighth grade, I read Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Black Cat.” The only detail from the story that sticks in my mind to this day – in fact, it was the only thing in all of eighth grade I recall reading – was this section, which I recently looked up: “One morning, in cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree; - hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart; - hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence; - hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin - a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it - if such a thing were possible - even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.”

When I read those words, as a 14-year-old, I wept. Weeping over literature as a teenager is not cool. But the sheer act of soul lost-ness struck me at my core. The line “hung it because I knew that it had loved me” seemed to be the ultimate summation of a lost soul – like Nietzsche – it was the cry of a man who had killed God and knew it. God who had loved him and only loved him, and had only wanted to be loved in return. And in killing God, the man killed hope and killed his soul with it, for his soul had life only through its connection to its Creator.

Yes, I had love for this cat, Bandol, but I had no soul to give it. I had killed all that was dear to me, because I knew that I had been loved, and no one had given me reason of offence.


Somewhere in my mind, I figured that this all-nighter wasn’t going to be a big deal. I had done this kind of thing to the woman previously including, in New York City, going out to a similar establishment and coming back in the wee hours after a champagne-induced blackout with my inside suit coat pocket stuffed with American Express receipts totaling more than $1000.

So this day I crawled into bed and tried to sleep, but did so fitfully for only 30 minutes during this deceptive calm, this false safety, when busting through the door – for she had seen my car out front – came the good woman. The woman whom I had lied to for four years. Had my wedding vows in December 1991 been lies? A rhetorical question, you correctly point out, Dear Reader.

For once, she was inarticulate. She was crying and screaming and talking and trying to make me understand that she had called the-police-the-area-hospitals-the-morgue-friends-everybody-and-anybody, all looking for me since I called nearly 12 hours earlier and had not checked in since. All of which meant that after my call she still trusted me that I was possibly telling her the truth. For all she knew, my contact lenses were bothering me and I could not in fact drive. She trusted me, and that was her mistake. But her mistake did not come on August 31, 1994. It came in September 1990 when after a few glasses of red wine in a West Village restaurant she gave me her heart. Never trust a criminal with jewels.

I hung it because I knew it had loved me

Not five minutes later, her sister, the one at Auburn whose will was almost as steely as her mother, whose husband died of cancer in his 40s and left her to raise five children by herself with only a military pension and some life insurance, also came racing through the door and marched loudly upstairs – and this was on carpet, so she was really stomping – where the argument was taking place.

The sister yelled at me, and the other woman melted, became inconsolable, became like jelly, for the fine china of her being had been shattered into a hundred pieces by a cold hard hammer. She wept and heaved in her breath and stared at a wall, not knowing what to do or say next.

The sister, all five feet of her, looked up at me and yelled, “YOU ARE TOTALLY FU@#ED UP!” She said I needed to get out now or she would call the police.

I left carrying my toothbrush.

I drove through rush hour traffic back to Jack’s house on the north side of the city and woke him up, told him I needed to stay there a few days. I had no idea how long; I just needed time to think. From Wednesday the 1st until Friday the 3rd, I stayed inside his apartment. I barely ate. I watched TV. Jack came and went, seemed to go about his life as usual, offering few words other maybe than “fu@# her.” This was his outlook on life in general.

To say I felt empty is to say that the sun is bright when you stare at it. Brightness is correct, but it is not enough. You need a new word to go further, to a next level, in your description. A word to describe the pain you feel staring at that kind of brightness, to describe the after-effects on your eyes, the light-dark shadows.

On August 31, I had turned my back not only on her, but I had turned my back on God’s grace. I had experienced earlier that summer a moment of grace on the part of the One who created me, and yet I turned away from it. I had said, No, I will not enter heaven even when the door has been flung open to me. I had experienced the clasp of forgiveness and then had bitten the hand. I had put myself outside the reach of the infinite mercy of God.

I called my dad, and he said, “Have you considered AA?”

It was like a clear bell ringing in the crisp nighttime air.

That Friday evening, September 3, I walked into an AA meeting room near Hammond Drive just north of the 285 beltway. There were faces I knew because they were like me – people who themselves had turned away. Turned away from loved ones, from themselves, from the One who created them. They were liars, thieves; they stole precious jewels and hearts. They rent others’ most cherished beliefs and securities. They stole others’ very lives and ruined them. They ran from God or they cursed God, waiting to die. They killed that which loved them. They had separated their souls from God through lies and pride and selfishness.

But in seeing each other, in telling their stories, in promising to each other not to drink that day, in turning over control to Someone greater, they found salvation and a new life. They made a pledge to each other and they kept it. And when they failed to keep it, they told each other they had failed. I walked into that room and saw them.

And they saw me.

On June 14 I had come to God open-minded and with a sincere heart, but I was not ready for his love because I was not ready to be honest. On August 31, I killed honesty. On September 3, Truth pervaded my life again and pulled me up from below the surface of the water, where I had sunk, drowning.

And I did not drink that day. Nor the next day. Nor the next 4,652 days, which brings me to today. And there has been darkness and light. But there has not been black. And there has never again been emptiness.

That which I killed has come back to life and come back to me. Yet it did not come back to haunt and expose the guilt of the narrator as it did in Poe’s story. It has come back to rub up against me and purr. It trusts me. It loves me.

And I love it.





photos: rgageler (wine), beriliu (star)

2 comments:

Lillie Ammann said...

Howard,
Reading this brought tears to my eyes and made me eager to read your book.

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