Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Cow

I was told once that there are always three sides to any story, his, hers and what actually happened. This story not ending in cake and confetti, I only have the “his” bit to offer with all of its flaws and possible errors. I’m not saying it’s fact. I’m not saying it’s fiction. I’m saying it makes me feel better, so here it is:

I was engaged to a woman once. Sort of. She was from Houston, Texas and I met her through giving her and her niece violin lessons at a local music store before moving to Michigan to grow into myself. This girl had blue eyes and an electric, somewhat crazy grin, she wore cowboy boots in all weather, or wedges that were denim or cowhide and she liked many of the same things I did for completely different reasons.

After many, many letters, emails and all-night phone calls we decided we might make a good – or at least a solid – marriage between us and she should come to Michigan for an extended visit to see if what worked on paper and over wires worked in person. I think it possible that lack of sleep might account for an awful lot of what finally fell out.

She arrived in town with a good amount of luggage and a fixed sort of expression that implied she might have done some thinking during the flight, but that it was too late to turn around now. After some initial chat we headed to the friends’ who had offered to let her a room during her stay so she could get settled for the next five or six weeks.

In the ensuing days we had some fun catching up on mutual acquaintances, sharing meals and introducing her to people. We began to run thin on activities in about a week because it is a small town, and it was cold, and we had no clue how to proceed after we ran out of new things to talk about. I think we actually had a conversation sitting on a bench once that went,

Me: “What a wonderful tree.”

She: “Yes, yes it is.”

That was it. For two hours. Eventually, we decided kissing could be a good thing to look into if we were to spend the rest of our lives together since there might not always be a tree to discuss.

She had never kissed a guy before and I felt since my experience was only with other guys the conversation might have gotten awkward if I tried to offer advice. Her sister had told her that chocolate made first kisses more interesting, and we figured it was worth a try while we were spending time in my studio after dinner and watching “Ten Things I Hate About You.” She put a piece of chocolate in one of our mouths and then leaned in slowly to begin kissing. That’s when I realized she had gotten a bar of chocolate with dried blueberries inside.

I have to agree that trying to kiss around melting chocolate did sound interesting in theory, but given the newness of the joint activity the addition of dried fruit might not have been advisable.

The girl went from gentle lip pressing to eating my face; actually eating it. Her teeth were trying to pull my lips from my face much the same way they would have pulled meat off an over-cooked short rib.

The intensity of her approach caught me off guard and I inhaled a dried blueberry and began choking. She did not notice the difference between a return of passion and a desperate struggle for life, and the realization hit me: “I am going to die asphyxiating on a blueberry watching Heath Ledger drill a hole in some nerd’s text book while a woman enthusiastically chews my face off.” Shit.

I was finally able to swallow during a brief tactical error and survived our first kiss, but – for a now-confirmed gay man – things don’t get any more real than that moment and I still class blueberries amongst unconventionally deadly things like tire irons and cast-glass door knobs and socks filled with pennies.

I remember on a weekend I’d gone to the house where she was staying to see what she was thinking of doing with the day, knocked on the back door and waited. And waited. I called her cellular phone and got no response so I knocked again and finally heard steps in the house as I was about to leave. She answered the door in whatever she’d woke up wearing with her mouth set in a firm line and moved aside to let me into the kitchen. She was clearly peeved, and I wasn’t sure why. (This being early in our relationship as a couple, I had not yet realized that trying to run her mood through logic wasn’t a productive use of time.)

On the butcher block table (which now lives in my own kitchen) were two place settings, one used, in front of the two stools that lived there and on the stove was a sheet pan bearing what appeared to be baked rocks. I sat down at one of the stools and waited for something to develop.

“Here,” she said in a flat-line voice putting two rocks on my plate with a thud and a clink. “You were supposed to be here earlier. I made breakfast. My mother used to make these when my sister and I were growing up.”

Did her mother make rocks for breakfast when they were growing up to let them know they’d behaved too badly for mere bread and water? Would I have gotten rocks for breakfast if I had come when anticipated? Did I have to actually eat the rocks, or just regard them mournfully and wait for a change of topic? Pending conversation, I sipped tea and made a tentative attempt to cut into one of the rocks.

I later learned the items in question were Scotch Eggs which consisted of a boiled egg rolled in uncooked sausage, then in breadcrumbs and baked until brown. Her eggs had sat meditating in the oven long enough they resembled the handiest tool of a street fight.

From that point forward, things began curdling between us more often than sparking and because everyone knows confined spaces soothe hostile situations, I thought a road trip to one of my favorite places might be fun. Sort of like Camp David, but without warring Middle Eastern factions or the involvement of even one Bush.

An hour and a half north of where I lived in Michigan is a national forest, and in that national forest is a spot called Iargo Springs. The springs are not a spot commonly known even to people who live in the area because most people think the spot is only another scenic overlook of the Au Sable River.

Next to the overlook platform are over 300 stairs descending to a place where the world seems to stop and time doesn’t exist. It is a heavily wooded place of babbling springs – clear as a fine day and cold as an angry woman’s stare – criss-crossing each other twisting around mossy stones and fallen trees to the river. It is possible to look out across the water at the outside world but there isn’t a building or power line to be seen in any direction.

We had a very quiet drive north until we reached the parking area near the top of the stairs and began to descend. The place had more than the effect I had hoped; I hadn’t realized that having grown up far away, she might not be familiar with this type of terrain at all and just might find it both interesting and possibly a little alarming.

We wandered, and then settled in one of the seating areas overlooking the springs where I took out a note book and began doodling and she sat with a book in her hands looking at the springs and woods until she nudged me and asked with barely-subdued alarm, “Is that a cow!?”

I looked at her very seriously and after reminding her that we had come down over 300 hundred steps asked her if she thought a cow, even a wily, devious and blood-thirsty cow, could do that. Once she agreed this was not likely I looked in the direction she had thought she’d seen a cow: The cow was actually a bear cub ambling casually into a clearing.

When I told her that the cow was really a bear she wondered aloud if it were safe to pet the animal. I was left with the distinct impression that she would never in a million years approach a cow with such familiarity, but a bear – that was different; stuffed bears were given to children all the time, so how dangerous could they be?

Part of me, the petty, bored part, wondered what would happen if I said she could, no, should – even – pet the bear, but then I recalled we were alone and there were bound to be questions if a girl from Texas got mauled petting a bear in the woods of Michigan while her boyfriend watched, so I suggested we take pictures and sit tight.

When the bear’s larger mother arrived, the girl looked at me again as if to ask if now it were alright to approach. I hesitated, but said it was best to leave the animals be.

I think now of the ensuing arguments, episodes of depression and bewilderment, the exchanges of non-compatible wants in life, the confused bartenders, bag ladies and friends and the irrevocable damage done to an innocent vacuum cleaner and I can only shake my head. In retrospect it might’ve been simpler to have just let her pet the cow, but I was hardly to know that at the time.

(This piece was finished on a bus to Patras, Greece.)