Spinning Shame into Nostalgia by Robert Rubino

Runner up, 2016 Contest for Creative Nonfiction

man reading paper in park

Now these thoughts are haunting me

… And I think of you

And I think of you

And I think of you.

— Sixto Rodriguez

 

Hidden deep inside a suburban daily rag’s local section of April 12, 1996, to the left of legal notices, above car and tire ads, a six-inch murder-suicide story with the 24-point headline Two Bodies Found, gets the murder victim’s age wrong, misspells her first name. Should be forty-one, not forty-two. And it’s not Katherine with “e” in the middle; it’s Katharine with “a” in the middle. Like Hepburn spelled it. And she was called Kate, too, like Hepburn, and an equally compelling actress, in her fashion, playing wide-ranging (albeit real-life) roles: youth gymnast who idolizes Olga Korbut; college art student inspired by Toulouse-Lautrec and Hieronymus Bosch; stoner who goes from morose to belly-laugh in nothing flat and back to morose even faster; daughter of divorce; stepdaughter of brutish high school football coach; jealous kid-sister of a science brainiac who’s about to become a Jane Goodall protege. And her most demanding role: Pregnant at 17 in 1972 by you, a 24-year-old, pseudo-bohemian Henry-Miller-wannabe who attempts to write stories filled with hedonistic hunger and spiritual thirst and who leaves your estranged wife and your girlfriend and your dead-end job as a bellman at a hotel near Fenway Park and follows Kate from Boston to Berkeley after a chaste all-nighter of spontaneous talking and delicious dope smoking and simultaneous laughter (at National Lampoon-printed parody of high school yearbooks, but mostly at yourselves, at your know-it-all/know-nothing fiats) and of tuning in exclusively to each other even though you’re among several others, becoming true believers believing your connection destined, transcendent.

The all-nighter is more than merely chaste; it’s without touch, Kate confiding her fear of intimacy, her dread of, and inexperience with, any physical affection. And you’re simpatico, having grown up afflicted with Catholic cant and Playboy philosophy, and having been a paralyzed noncombatant far from the front lines of the sexual revolution, stationed for years at the emotional equivalent to an Arctic outpost, remote and isolated, and just two years removed from having been a 22-year-old virgin on your wedding night.

But Two Bodies Found has none of this.

            ____________________________________________

Two Bodies Found says Kate was a popular waitress at a local diner who sometimes entertained co-workers with impromptu balletic splits or handstands and often sketched portraits of customers, especially kids, with ball-point pen on napkins, and gave the drawings to them.

Kate’s killer appears to be garden-variety homicidal/suicidal Whack Job. Two Bodies Found identifies him as J. Marsh, 42, freelance handyman deep in debt, quotes Whack Job’s mother saying he bought gun “for protection,” but she’s mute about from whom or what. Two Bodies Found quotes Joanne R., Kate co-worker: “I think she just wanted to be his friend, but he wanted more;” also says Whack Job knew Kate for less than a year, frequently tried to hit on her at the diner, clung to fantasy of living with her in a cabin in the mountains, off the grid.

But Two Bodies Found contains no mention of Kate at 17 in early autumn of 1972 moving out of her college dorm and moving into the rooming-house room of Henry Miller Wannabe whom she occasionally calls Mud Man for his brown eyes and murky past relationships and who sometimes calls her Star Child for her guileless zest and who has followed her from Boston to Berkeley seeking to remake himself as a writer, as a man, in a free-spirited environment, a la real Henry Miller. And Two Bodies Found has nothing about impossibly ironic pop song “I Can See Clearly Now” with which Kate entertains Henry Miller Wannabe by joyfully and expertly lip syncing when it plays on the radio. No mention, either, that for the first several months, they live off spaghetti and instant iced tea and chocolate chip cookies (before they eventually work shit jobs in hotels and banks and upgrade to occasional dinners of fancy salads with melon slices and artichoke hearts and sautéed mushrooms at Cafe Mediterranean). Nor is there anything about maryjane being their constant and consoling companion through good times and bad, loyal and libidinous and low-cost. Nothing about Kate going weeks without shaving her armpits or legs, and Henry Miller Wannabe kind of liking it. Or that she devours Cat’s Cradle and all of Vonnegut’s sardonic humor, all of Kesey’s, too, or that she memorizes long passages of One Hundred Years of Solitude (drawn to the magic more than the realism), or that she’s swept away by balletic brio of both Baryshnikov and Bruce Lee, or that she delights in reading aloud to Henry Miller Wannabe from pun-filled Phantom Toll Booth, or that she raptly listens as he reads to her from Hermann Hesse and Khalil Gibran and of course from Tropics of real Henry Miller (I say that you’ve got to laugh hard before you can get anywhere near God. … I need to be alone. I need to ponder my shame and my despair …). No mention that she’s a precociously sophisticated cinema snob of wildly divergent tastes, with blissfully naive King of Hearts, about mentally ill, better-adjusted-than-sane-but-demented conformists, among her favorites, along with a piece of black-and-white noir nastiness called The Servant, its own kind of 3-D—amorally dark, disturbing, decadent, about psychosexual power plays. Or that the intoxicating scent combining tobacco and cannabis and patchouli and eucalyptus wafts off her like distant screams off a roller coaster. Or that she rarely wears a bra, never makeup, compulsively uses a nasal inhaler in an effort to relieve an imagined breathing problem or that her Frida Kahlo-esque eyebrows choreograph frowns more often expressive of whimsy than worry. Or that she eventually favors wearing a sweatshirt with the number zero on front and back. Or that she perfectly mimics Shirley Temple singing On The Good Ship Lollipop, including swaying curtsies, wide-eyed eyebrow-lifting emphases. Or that in times of stress or sadness, she obliviously (or indifferently) sucks her thumb, like Carroll Baker in Baby Doll. Or that she greets Henry Miller Wannabe upon his arrival in California three weeks after hers by sprinting to him like an Olympian going for the gold and locking him in a bear hug, as if they are long lost lovers even though it’s their first actual physical contact.

Two Bodies Found says Kate had husband (separated), two sons (ages 10, 14), but nothing about newborn girl she and Henry Miller Wannabe give up for adoption when Kate is 18 in 1973. It’s Henry Miller Wannabe’s idea, seven months into the pregnancy, after they take Lamaze class at a free clinic, long after they righteously reject abortion option—unsolicited advice so casually and confidently given by others, including Kate’s Type-A father, another science brainiac, living with his newly impregnated third wife.

Hard to say whether Henry Miller Wannabe’s adoption idea comes from pure panic, suddenly realizing he’s emotionally ill-equipped to be a father, especially when he disappears with Harry, his closer-than-a-kid-brother best friend from Boston who’s AWOL and hiding in plain sight in Berkeley after a few months in the Navy, for nights of imitation Hemingway drinking marathons or determinedly inept chess playing. Or they lose themselves in obsessive riffing on Jack Nicholson’s jaded, tour de force, misogynist rants from Jules Feiffer’s Carnal Knowledge, two long-repressed nerds mining their stumbling into Kenmore Square’s free-love vibe by comparing notes on their common sexual conquests of Joy, the college literary magazine editor, and Angela, the movie theater cashier, and Harry adding Lorraine to the list, this coming as a surprise because Lorraine was, and technically still is, Henry Miller Wannabe’s wife. Or they disappear into eclectic flights of bluff erudition, exhaustively appraising Godot or Bardot or Babe Ruth, or deconstructing 1984 or 2001. Or they go to watch Deep Throat or to see Sugar Ray Seales when his boxing career held promise instead of blindness. Hard to say whether Henry Miller Wannabe’s adoption idea comes from a coward showing his true colors; after all, this isn’t the first time he flees commitment, nor will it be the last. Or whether he’s unduly influenced by Harry’s girlfriend Toni, the only non-flake among them, already with a real education and a real career, a registered nurse who unfailingly flatters his writing and favors his adoption idea and is adopted herself and unable to have children and who will find just the right pro bono advocates to help Harry claim conscientious objector status and get an honorable discharge in exchange for a two-month stint in the Treasure Island brig and who, a year later, will take Harry back to Boston, back to family, and to friends who presumably won’t feel an emotional attraction to her and certainly won’t feel one from her, only to lose him two years later to a drunk driver. Hard to say whether Henry Miller Wannabe’s adoption idea sparks from Kate’s debilitating days-long doses of gloom-and-doom moods that flummox and frighten him; or whether he calmly comes to believe Kate isn’t emotionally stable enough to be a good mother. And hey, they’re artists, they still need to pursue their creative dreams, so maybe he’s delusional enough, stoned enough, to imagine they can simply return to Shangri-La—Baby? What baby?—to that tender slice of time before the pregnancy was confirmed, to those wondrous weeks with their heaping daily portions of creativity and love and lust and laughter and pot and preternatural pretentiousness. However the adoption idea originates, affordability becomes their cover story. It’s easiest for others, and themselves, to swallow, although some friends suggest Kate is too young, too kooky for motherhood. They imply Henry Miller Wannabe desperately needs an escape route, finds it. He fumes at these implications. It’s one thing for him to hold such thoughts, quite another for others to voice them. But he says nothing, bites his tongue even while suspecting his silence gives a knowing nod to such intimations. Can each explanation contain truth? Some truer than others? Definite maybe.

In any case, it’s Henry Miller Wannabe’s idea to give up the baby for adoption and Kate agrees, kicking and crying and sucking her thumb, but she agrees. And it’s Henry Miller Wannabe’s idea to provide a different cover story, a colossal, cold-blooded, bald-faced fiction of a cover story, to their parents 3,000 miles away, a cover story that precludes any interference whatsoever—no predictably pious judgments or dutiful offers of money or mawkish morale boosts or, most dreaded of all, provisions of shelter and child care if they would just return home. All of that is unacceptable. Most unacceptable, though, would be his parents knowing him to be the kind of man who gives away his child. Their seeing him as a man who impregnates an underage girl after leaving his lawfully wedded wife, a man who rejects their religion and tepid centrist politics, who rejects their city and state and even their speech, having scrubbed their New York working class accent from his tongue, well, that’s OK, that’s acceptable. He even gets perverse pleasure out of it, out of being a rebel without a cause, the family’s own James Dean Wannabe. But to have them know him as a father who gives away his child? No. Unacceptable. Impossible to fit that into his imagined personal narrative. Instead, he and Kate will be free to live their lives, beholden to no one, in love now not only with each other but also with the Bay Area, with Northern California, and not so much with the reality of the Bay Area and Northern California as with the surrealism, the idealization, the easily conjured golden glow. So he tells their parents the baby died at birth. And Kate goes along with that, too, numbly, as if in shock, but she goes along. The lie lives a long life, spans nearly half of Kate’s.

“It ruined her. She was never the same after that,” says Kate’s sister, the scientist, who marries a real writer, published and prize-winning, and will never give away her child. She’s speaking just before Kate’s memorial service, referring either to the pregnancy or the adoption or the big lie or all of the above.

Kate and daughter meet once, July 1995, in San Francisco, 22 years after the adoption. Henry Miller Wannabe there, too, sees Kate for the first time in some 16 years. The three meet in front of the Exploratorium. Bright sunshiny day. Nothing but blue skies. Pain is gone. Bad feelings have disappeared. Hugging, crying, talking. Intense. Reunion’s shared vibe of purest intentions proves fragile, though, fails to stick, soon drifts away like a lone gust-blown gull.

It’s mighty difficult to spin shame into nostalgia.

Nine months later, April 1996, a suburban daily rag publishes Two Bodies Found, murder-suicide story of Whack Job shooting Kate in the chest, twice, with a .38 caliber revolver, before lying beside her and shooting himself in the chest, once, inside servants’ quarters of mansion where Whack Job had a room, and job, of sorts, as caretaker.

“In the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Kate’s mother, a retired schoolteacher, spinning the murder as random bad luck after flying in for the memorial service, on her own after jettisoning her second husband, the brutish high school football coach. She reports with apparent pride that the preliminary autopsy report reveals only blackened lungs from a 25-year nicotine habit, and pepperoni pizza from a last supper, no illegal drugs inside her youngest child, her baby girl known to have rassled with cocaine demons.

Kate’s estranged husband is a car mechanic, owns repair shop, opts for “no comment” to suburban rag that publishes Two Bodies Found, but he tells Henry Miller Wannabe, “she told me she’s bipolar. When I asked how she knew, she said it was self-diagnosis, with her third eye.” He stews in his own juices, a goulash of grief: heartbreak, exasperation, anger, shock. He also says that Whack Job’s mother insists “my son’s no murderer.” He says she spins it as double suicide, a modern Romeo and Juliet.

Yeah, right, except without exalted language or curtain calls and shouts of “bravo!”

Distraught daughter given up for adoption says Kate “is in a better place.”

Well, no, not unless the urn packed with her own ashes is better than air.

But Two Bodies Found has none of this.

                                 ______________________________________________

There’s a possibility Kate never saw the pseudo-bohemian Henry Miller wannabe as he began to see himself, as a creep, a Vietnam-era vet too cowardly to be a pacifist or a real soldier, who played it safe and dodged the draft by joining the Air Force, where he worked clean, well-lighted desk jobs and never came within 6,000 miles of Vietnam, never even carried a weapon, who followed Kate from Boston to Berkeley where they slept together chastely, fully dressed, as true believers who transcended sex, for two weeks anyway, before descending from their platonic peak and hitchhiking to a sandy Stinson Beach sanctuary in a labyrinth of gnarly, thick, windswept brush some one-hundred yards from the Pacific, where they shared a sleeping bag and where he impregnated her when she was still 17, wouldn’t turn 18 for two months.

It’s possible Kate never saw Henry Miller Wannabe as he would increasingly see himself, as a creep. After all, it’s with him she smiled ever so briefly but ever so brightly, and it’s with him she walked up into the Berkeley Hills to the Lawrence Hall of Science and Botanical Gardens or down to the marina or rode the ferry to Angel Island and hiked around and absorbed a panoramic paradise. It’s with him she saw George Carlin ignite gut-busting guffaws and the Grateful Dead make merry music and Willie Mays glimmer in the World Series. And it’s with him she lived for nearly three years, including two years after giving up their baby for adoption, in a minimally furnished room with an imperious stray calico cat they adopted and dubbed Sir Thom and where her drawings and painting—of mournful, serpentine figures with luminous eyes, which she deflated as derivative and he saw as soulful and spooky art—covered all four walls, and his manuscripts she critiqued as earnest (not a Hemingway reference) and he inflated as art covered a big, battered wooden desk with peeling green paint.

Even after a months-long operatic breakup in 1975 featuring mutual hysterics and experiments in both celibacy and non-monogamy, even after she hinted at what had become painfully obvious by pointing first to the jukebox playing B.B. King singing The Thrill Is Gone (… Oh I’m free, free, free now, I’m free from your spell …) and then pointing to Henry Miller Wannabe who turned into a blubbering mess, even after he took a baseball bat to the door of the room inside of which he heard the lilting laughter she had shared with him being shared with her new lover, even after they finally went their separate ways, eventually remaking themselves yet again and finding substitute lives, grown-up lives, in other cities with replacement partners and children they didn’t give away, it’s possible Kate never saw Henry Miller Wannabe as he came to see himself, a creep.

After all, for twenty years, she reaches out to him, a phone call here, Christmas greeting there, birthday card now and then, jogging together twice in Golden Gate Park, just quietly watching TV together once, a sitcom called One Day At A Time, and checking in after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. She calls one Mother’s Day, doesn’t say much, just weepy. Another time she intimates a marriage problem, confides a need to explore her sexuality, whatever that means. Henry Miller Wannabe finds these contacts troubling, a disconcerting disturbance to his hard-earned patchwork peace of mind. But he also finds them lovely, exquisitely and intangibly so, and he feels vaguely vindicated. Communication from Kate is off and on, mostly off, random and infrequent, if not truly and valuably rare. But still. Twenty years.

That’s something, isn’t it?

        __________________________________________________

Your long letter written longhand, sent to Kate eight weeks before she was shot to death, was equal parts remorse for having so profoundly failed her; self-aggrandizement in reminding her that you had remained faithful longer; conciliation in gently trying to assess what happened, exactly, when you and she reunited with your daughter; and astonishment, still, over knowing that for an unlikely but undeniable blink of eternity, you and she had been an incandescent couple. In your long letter written longhand, you sought forgiveness for the unforgivable and answers to the unanswerable, and most of all you sought peace with honor, as if for all these years you had been slogging through the quagmire of an unpopular war. Kate never answered the letter, so the sole cache of consolation remaining is an artful birthday card she sent in 1979, six years after the adoption, four years after your breakup, nearly 40 years ago now (and counting). The front of the card displays an Escher-type aesthetic evoking her style from her art-student days, depicting a wide-eyed mouse reflected in the calmly calculating eyes of a balefully staring fat-faced cat. Yes, it’s mighty difficult to spin shame into nostalgia, but this time Kate pulled it off. On the creamy white inside of the card, in thick black ink, in her calligraphic handwriting:

“Another year gone to dreams, so many more await realization. We blindly rush ahead laying tracks into infinity. From time to time I pause to look behind me and remember to wish you well, my friend. Thank you for touching my life, my self, forever.”

    That’s something, isn’t it?

And she added a quote from Gibran:

I would not exchange the laughter of my heart for the fortunes of the multitudes; nor would I be content with converting my tears, invited by my agonized self, into calm. It is my fervent hope that my life on this earth will ever be tears and laughter.

Of course Two Bodies Found has none of that, either.

 

robert rubinoRobert Rubino is a fiction and memoir writer who lives in Sebastopol, California. His short fiction appeared in Elysian Fields Quarterly from 2001-09. For more than 30 years he was an editor and columnist at daily newspapers.

 

 

 

 

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Jaroslav A. Polák
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  • This story was so poignant that I had to continually remind myself that it was true. Your essay was haunting and unforgettable, and the way you paid homage to Kate by crafting this essay with both personal complicity and utter respect gave her life again for me. Congratulations on being the runner-up!

    • Robert Rubino

      Thank you for your thoughtful and big-hearted comments. Your observation that the essay was crafted “with both personal complicity and utter respect …” is especially meaningful to me.

  • Nansi Weil

    This is a fine encomium to two people, one of whom is alive, writing with delicacy and wisdom about inexperience — and about heartbreaking experience when it comes. Your story is haunted by the cost of naivete, the romance of the self, and the unreliable cultural edges during an era of exhilaration and free-fall. It is marvelous to write so concisely about emotion, without melodrama and without appearing remote — a tricky balance. Congratulations. I look forward to seeing more.

    • Robert Rubino

      I appreciate the unusually thought-provoking expressiveness of your comments, particularly “… the romance of the self and the unreliable edges during an era of exhilaration and free-fall.” Thank you.

  • What a courageous piece of writing. Beautiful and brilliant. I can barely breathe.

    • Robert Rubino

      It’s an unexpected pleasure, and quite humbling, to receive such a reaction for such a personal piece. Thank you.

  • Liz Brina

    Riveting. Such a magnetic voice. It really pulled me in. Congratulations.