"You're going to go to mass with us tomorrow morning, right son?" my father asked on Saturday night.
How could I say no? Every parishioner at St. Joseph's Church had prayed their Yahweh
-loving hearts out for me when I was sick, whether they knew me or not. At every mass -- 8, 9, 10:15 AM and 12:45 PM on Sunday, Saturday nights at 5:30, weekday mornings at 7 and 8 AM -- the entire congregation had offered up prayers especially for me
, for my speedy and complete recovery. And it worked, I guess. Or maybe something else worked. Who knows? Whatever it was that saved me, my recovery had been both speedy and complete.
Okay, maybe not necessarily complete
, at least not yet.
I was still getting fatigued very easily, and reluctantly taking naps like a petulant toddler. Naps have always been my father's favorite pastime, which is another example of how he and I differ. For me, taking a nap feels like time stolen, like the secret theft of a tiny little piece of my life. I wake up feeling disoriented and nervous. What happened when I was gone? What did I miss? What might I have accomplished in that time, now lost? Naps slow down the steady flow of nervous energy that speeds my plow. And when I wake up, I need to start again from zero.
I never felt that way during my hospital stay, though. I was okay with doing nothing, with resting, watching TV, being out of the flow of life for months on end. That was, at least in part, because the very act of being in the hospital, of being treated, of getting better -- that was an accomplishment far greater than any other thing I could have been doing.
But now that I was back in the real world, I was slowly being re-infected with that relentless, oppressive, exhausting need to accomplish, to fill the space of the day with activity, to be productive.
Thanks, Mom. That which makes you great can also be your downfall.
And so I was filling my time with business
, like a poor player, strutting and fretting until the day was done. But I wasn't quite strong enough to handle it yet, physically, emotionally or neurologically. Like Danny, my grapefruit-tumored
roommate, I would notice myself slurring late in the day, or when I was particularly tired. I was tripping over my words way more than I did when I was in the hospital. I had always been a sharp talker, a wise-cracker who got laughs --usually at the expense of others -- with perfect timing. But my timing was a beat off. I would flub my wise-cracks, which made me less inclined to attempt them.
My increasing tendency to trip over language made me extremely self conscious. And that self consciousness only served to make things worse, because I would scrutinize
everything I said before I said it. Good timing is instinctual. It can't be vetted. So, in effect, I had lost my timing, in a misguided effort to save it.
I also found that I had to put more effort into the basic act of speaking. If I didn't, I would occasionally mumble, or slur or be generally inaudible
. My face felt generally tired and sort of frozen in blankness. My mouth seemed to want to stay shut, not to have to go to the effort of contorting itself into difficult words.
So, before I would say something, I would focus my mind, take a deep breath, puff out my chest and work hard to eee-nun-see-ate
I felt like Audrey Hepburn
in My Fair Lady
. The rain in Spain, etc. etc.
Sharpness of thought, speech and action had always been my trademark. That was what got me into a position
of authority at such a young age, and what earned me nicknames like The Pirhana
. But I had lost that edge. I felt soft, round and weak.
Part of me wanted to recreate that edge, to attempt to recapture what had been lost, to reanimate the old me in this new body. Another part of me wanted to give myself time to recreate myself, to allow myself be reborn as someone different, someone more highly evolved than I had been. I had to fight the urge to fall back on my old ways of doing things, and work hard to give myself the time to develop new ones.
And, like any victim of a brain trauma, I had to give myself time to relearn. Or, in my case, to learn
Sunday morning felt just like the old days; my mother sitting in the living room, sewing; my father drinking a cup of coffee and yelling upstairs for my sister and me to hurry up or we're not gonna get a parking spot!
; Missy hogging the bathroom and me running late. Same shit, different decade. As usual, I was the last one in the car.
My mother, Missy and I walked in a minute or two late for the 10:15 AM mass, and sat near the back. My father joined us a little while later, after parking the car next door at the pizza place.
I immediately began scanning the congregation
faces, old school friends, Mary. It was going on a week that I had been
home, and I still had not seen her, even though she lived a short walk from my parents' house. (But you already knew that.)
I recognized plenty of old timers at church, but noticed plenty of young ones too. I had forgotten how hot Catholic girls look in their Sunday finery. And so, while I should have been following the mass, singing hymns and silently praising God for rescuing me from the clutches of death, I was instead playing a game of Who in this Church Would I Fuck?
It was not the first time I had played that game, and it certainly wouldn't be the last. The results surprised me. It's amazing how, as I aged, the goalposts of acceptability kept slowly pushing back.
I wondered if thinking of church through the prism of my desire to get laid would result in me being struck dead, right there in the third-to-last pew. I have always been convinced that my death would somehow be sexually related: either I will have a heart attack trying to fuck some girl who is way too young for me, or I will get shot by a jealous husband or boyfriend while fumbling to put back on my pants or I will mistakenly choke myself during a vigorous bout of auto-erotic asphyxiation
That's why, at least in part, I always knew I would make it through my illness: because it had nothing to do with what Bob Eubanks
likes to call whoopee
. Thank God my bacterial infection came from oral surgery
, not some other form of oral.
While I waiting on line for Communion, I began to notice that people were staring at me, like they were seeing a ghost
. Some of them would lean over and whisper, others would point, or smile or give me a head nod. I would offer a little wave in their direction, like Miss America or Don Corleone.
After the mass, people swarmed around me like it was a papal visit. An impromptu
receiving line formed at our pew, stretching all the way toward the front of the church. My parents stood next to me, introducing the people I didn't know. Most were older couples, who would warmly grab my hand with both of their hands and look up at me, misty-eyed.
"We were all praying for you," they would say.
"It worked!" I would respond, wearing a politician's smile. "Thank you so much. It's so nice to meet you."
After while, the faces became a blur and my stump speech was repeated time and time again. Then the church deacon brought his youngest daughter over to meet me. She was maybe 6 or 7 years-old.
"This is the guy we were praying for?" the little girl said. "He doesn't even look sick!"
"That's because you did such a good job" I said, as everyone around us laughed.
It was the kind of heartwarming, after-church, Christmas Season family moment that might have ended an episode of Little House on the Prairie
back in the '70s. I guess that would make me Laura, which is too bad. I always associated more with Nellie.
As the well-wishers finally filed out, I stood there -- in the church in which I had been baptised, where I received my first Communion and my Confirmation, where I had been an altar boy for six years, where I had gone to school for eight years, where I first met Mary's son Ian and where my parents were still among the best known, most active and most loved parishioners -- and I felt genuinely touched, moved, even blessed.
I also felt strangely horny. Catholic girls have always had that effect on me. And so, when I got home, I called Mary.
"You missed my big homecoming at church," I said.
"I'm sure it felt great," Mary said. "You've been a big topic of conversation there for the last few months."
"I know. I met Deacon Tom's youngest daughter, who told me that I didn't look sick enough."
"Ummm..can I call you back later?" she said. "I'm heading over to my mom's house."
"Sure," I said. "Just page me. And please give my regards to your mother."
She never paged me back. And I would soon understand why.
On Tuesday night I was alone in the house, watching TV downstairs in the back room. My parents
were asleep upstairs, and my sister was somewhere out East visiting a friend, a French girl who was working as an au
pair. I was bored and feeling antsy. I wanted to go out and nobody was around to drive me, so I decided to drive myself in my father's station wagon.
It was quiet on the roads, after 11 PM on the night before Christmas Eve. I ended up at the King Kullen
supermarket in Lynbrook
, which had always been a popular late night destination, due to it's 24-hour schedule and its plentiful stock of Jiffy Pop in the hard-to find, Natural flavor in the blue package.
I parked out front, walked inside and grabbed a basket. Then I saw her. It was Mary.
I couldn't believe it. What were the odds of us meeting like this, alone, late at night in the store in which we used to shop together? It was the perfect spot for a tearful reunion.
I was obscured by a display of Holiday decorations near the entrance, so I could see her but she couldn't see me. I stood there, watching her through the fake Christmas trees, just like I had done six months earlier when I camped out in the parking lot across from her apartment.
I took a minute to catch my breath. I thought about what I would say to her. I wanted it to be special, memorable. Should I bring up my Welcome Home Dinner, or should I wait for her to mention it? Maybe we could shop for the dinner together, like the old days, when we used to race our shopping carts up and down the empty aisles at all hours of the night.
I watched her pull a box of cereal off a display at the end of the aisle. And then she turned to place it in her cart. But the cart was moving. Someone was pushing the cart. It was a guy.
It was 11 o'clock on a Tuesday night and Mary was in a supermarket, buying breakfast food, with a guy. He was wearing sneakers and a puffy ski jacket. I froze, dropped my basket and backed out through the front door. Then I walked over to the car, got in and started it up.
I began to back out, and then I stopped. Why was I running from this? What would I achieve by doing that? Is that why I had come back
, so I could pussy out, sulk back home with no Jiffy Pop, watch TV, jerk off and then go to sleep?
I pulled back in, turned off the car and walked inside. My heart was practically beating out of my Polartec. I walked past the cereal aisle, but didn't see them. Was it possible
they had checked out already and left? I headed for the snack aisle and picked up my Jiffy Pop, and then I saw them, heading toward the register. I briefly considering turning back into the snack aisle
, and hiding there until they left. But I decided against it.
As they began to load their groceries onto the checkout counter, I walked over. Mary was standing behind the
cart, and the guy was next to the conveyor belt, lifting items on to it. He saw me first, then Mary turned and looked. I've never seen shock like that in someone's
"Hey," I said.
"Hey," she said.
"Merry Christmas," I said.
"Merry Christmas," she said, as she looked
at the guy, who continued to unload the cart. "This is Will. Will, this is Tim."
"Nice to meet you," I lied. I don't remember if I shook his hand or not.
"You look great, very healthy," Mary said awkwardly
. "Picking up some late night Jiffy Pop I see."
"Yup," I said.
"You go ahead of us," Mary said.
"That's okay," I said.
"No please," she insisted, almost begging. "Please
, go ahead."
I handed my Jiffy Pop to the salesgirl while Tim continued to silently unload the cart.
"So is your Mom all ready for Christmas?" I asked, breaking the silence.
"Oh yeah, lots of cooking. Always plenty of cooking, with so many people."
The clerk handed me my change. Mary continued to smile her frozen smile. Tim continued to attempt to bury his entire body into the shopping cart. Then I gave both of them sort of a half salute, with my right hand. I have no idea why I did that. It just came out that way.
"Have fun, guys," I said.
Then I turned and left.