A WORLD OF SENSATIONS
I tend to overthink, but most of it’s
an afterthought. Self-educated in
the classics and now a relic in dust, that’s me. But ‘O for a world of
sensations rather than of thoughts!’ It hasn’t turned out that way for me.
Screw Keats and Shelley. Jesus Christ! What’ve those bastards ever done for me?
Someone dared me to write this story, and I
never back down from a challenge. I can spin a yarn as well as the next man,
especially when I’ve had a few. That doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to it,
though. This is going to hurt like hell, because this story is real. Ita sit1.
I’ve married twice.
What follows is a raw, unvarnished account of both relationships. Not a
thoughtful reflection, but the emotional essence of those experiences. In the
end, does anything else really matter? Anyway, this story is about those two
women and me. And…well, I’ll get to that.
I met my first wife
on an overcast night in New Orleans. Mardi Gras 2020. It was a year before the
latest War to End All Wars. I wore the traditional accoutrements: shirt with an
outrageous floral print, khaki shorts and dark sunglasses. Oh, and the
obligatory assortment of tacky beads and trinkets strung like talismans of
youthful exuberance around my neck. I was 35, and a late bloomer.
I was sipping on my
fourth gin sour, because I was into Fitzgerald back then. But hey, it’s not a
bad concoction and I was feeling it. There was this crazy jazz band sauntering
down Bourbon Street. Yeah, drums and horns and whatever else they could play
and carry at the same time. I thought I heard an accordion. Maybe it was the
So I glanced
sideways and tried to focus my eyes on this girl. She was blurry, but I took it
as an omen. Good or ill, I still don’t know. I tried to thread my way through
the crowd, but it resisted. No impediment where fate is concerned.
When I cast my
droopy eyes upward, there she stood right in front of me. Her feet were firmly
planted on someone’s discarded party mask, and she…how should I describe her?
Have you ever seen a medieval depiction of a wood nymph? In a way, she looked
like that. Not the classic stereotype, but you know, she was petite with
flowing auburn hair, alabaster skin, stringy limbs and tiny ears that almost
came to a point. Her eyes blazed. Or were they glazed? It’s been too long; I
“What’s your name?”
I shifted my weight
from one leg to the other and replied, “John.”
She raked me up and
down with those penetrating blue eyes of hers and cooed, “I’m Amelia, John.
You’re not half bad. I could do you.”
I wasn’t prepared
for that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ugly. But I’m not used to being
propositioned by attractive women. Even drunk ones. It doesn’t happen to me
very often. When it does, it always surprises me.
A strange feeling
stole over me. It was like having to piss again and getting a hard-on at the
same time. That may not seem very literary, but it’s how I felt. And I guess it
was pretty accurate, all things considered.
She had a place on
Conti Street near the police station, and we went back there for a drink. She
asked me what I liked, then improvised and poured us a round of highballs. I’d
mentioned my taste for all things Fitzgerald.
Her apartment was
small and unconventionally furnished. An overstuffed green and beige sofa of
art deco design occupied the space just inside the door. An alert orange tabby
languished on it. In front of it stood a colonial style coffee table on stolid
legs. At the far end of the living space were a stereo receiver, analog
turntable and two floor standing walnut speakers. A mahogany framed waterbed
was conspicuously situated in the middle of the single room dwelling.
Sipping on my drink
and abstractedly watching a splash of rye and ginger trickle down the front of
my shirt, I lightheadedly asked her if she knew what century she preferred
living in. She only shrugged. Turning on the stereo, she rummaged through a
sizeable collection of vinyl records on an adjacent bookshelf and put on, of
all things, Rush’s Fly by Night. We
were making strange love by the time the soothing acoustic tones of “Rivendell”
reached our ears.
I say strange
because not a word was spoken. Yet, the intimate bond of our union was
unmistakable. The closeness of the encounter frightened me. Emotionally and
physically, there was no space between us.
But in the morning
when I dressed and lightly kissed her sleeping head on an upturned ear, I
dismissed the experience as an exceptional, yet transient, one-night stand. I
was wrong about that.
inexorably by when you’re not having fun. Two years later after three failed
jobs and a marginally successful stint in rehab, I managed to secure employment
as a structural engineer in New York City. A new high-rise condo was going up
in Manhattan and the developers were mercilessly capitalizing on the majority
of my free time. But that didn’t prevent me from venturing into Soho one night
to sample a well-decorated plate of sushi at a popular Japanese restaurant in
the area—and yes, I also ordered a large carafe of sake. Old habits die hard.
I’d eaten myself
halfway into the Imperial Samurai dish (the house specialty served with wasabi
and ginger in a shiny wooden boat) when I happened to notice a party of three
dining in the opposite corner of the room. I thought nothing of it until I
heard a member of the group—a small figure of a woman with her back turned
towards me—absurdly dressed in a pastel colored frock and rhinestone studded
sandals angrily raise her voice. I kid you not. They were rhinestones.
Don’t get me wrong;
I’m no slave to fashion. But this oddly attired young woman immediately
captivated my attention, even facing the other way. I poured another cup of hot
sake and savored it. Man, that stuff feels so good going down.
The woman’s dining
companions were a well-dressed couple in their fifties. They were engaged in a
heated argument. Politics isn’t my forte, but I eavesdropped on the
conversation with growing interest.
“You don’t seem to
understand what I’m saying,” the older man said. “This is serious,” cried the
older woman. “Listen to your father.”
“I know damn well
it’s no joke,” replied the young woman. “Why’d you vote for the idiot? Zero
experience, no qualifications, bad temperament…. All he’s got is a big ego.
What’d you think would happen when he got elected? Dinner parties with
champagne flowing in the White House every night of the week? Hell, I hear his
wife doesn’t even like it there,” she added with a shriek. “I guess the décor’s
a trifle too Spartan for her tastes.”
“Your father and I
are loyal Republicans dear,” the older woman snapped. “What did you expect us
to do, turn our backs on the party? Besides, it’s better than having that woman
in the White House. Dear God,
she’s a public disgrace!”
The younger woman’s
voice assumed a higher pitch. “How in fuck do you know what she would’ve done
if she’d been elected? At least she has diplomatic experience. Maybe we
wouldn’t be at war with Russia and Syria if she’d won. But thanks to you and
all your stalwart conservative friends, we’ll never know. Now will we?”
The older man
shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “This isn’t a political discussion, Amelia.
And don’t curse at your mother,” he sharply replied. “It’s insane, the very
idea of you signing up to serve in the Red Cross and trapesing off to Syria.
That’s not humanitarianism, it’s suicide! I won’t stand idly by while you
recklessly step in front of a bullet, or worse. I won’t have it, that’s all.
Forget about it, and stop worrying your poor mother sick!”
I went rigid.
Amelia? That voice, the delicate figure…what were the odds? Could it be?
The young woman
gathered up her things and threw a twenty on the table. Her words were hard.
They bit like sharp nails into rotten wood. “Look Dad, in case you haven’t
noticed your little girl is all grown up. I’m 25 years old with a life and mind
of my own. I don’t need you or this hysterical basket case of a mother I was
forced to grow up with in the same dysfunctional house telling me what to do.
You can both kiss my ass!”
The older woman’s
face fell, then registered shock and indignation. The older man—I’ve never seen
anyone look sadder outside of a funeral service. But maybe, I thought, I was
witnessing a kind of rebirth. A rite of passage and point of no return. I
dunno, but I felt bad for the old guy.
In a single fluid
movement, the young woman pushed herself away from the table, sprang to her
feet and turned to go. Our eyes met.
Amelia! There was no
doubt of it. Her angry eyes burned with rage and recognition. She paused momentarily
in front of my table. I felt like a voyeur and cursed my choice of dining
venues. Of all the lousy fricking places to be.
Still, I was glad to
see her. She was so upset her hands shook involuntarily when she reached for
the door. “Amelia, wait!” I croaked. Groping for my wallet, I hastily threw
down some cash and followed her outside. God help me, I chased after her. She
was halfway down the street when I finally caught up to her.
casual encounter two years ago hadn’t
seemed all that important to me then, but now there was no denying that
somehow, she mattered to me. I had to try and comfort her.
I grabbed her arm
and attempted to stop her, to turn her around and face me. But she twisted free
of my grasp. “What’re you doing here?” she exclaimed, half in fury and half in
accusation. “Are you stalking me or something? Can’t a good memory just stay
that way for once? Why does everything always have to turn to shit?”
She screwed her red
eyes shut, but hot tears pushed through. I stood there, forlorn and gaping. I
felt driven to do something to help her, but my mind was reeling in panic.
Finally, I said in a voice soft as a whisper, “Please don’t run away from me.
Let’s go someplace and talk. Anyplace. I can’t leave you this way. I couldn’t
live with it.”
I was shocked. What
was I saying to this young girl I barely knew, and what the hell did I mean by
…Looking back at it,
that was the day my life stopped making sense.
Amelia and I married
six months later in a small chapel by the sea. We’d since relocated to Merritt
Island, Florida. I had some folks living there at the time. We invited friends
and family to the wedding, but it was still a small affair. Just as well, I
Amelia’s mother was
a no-show. Her father looked tired and ill. After the ceremony, he patted
Amelia’s hand, hastily shook mine and left early to get some rest before flying
back to New York City the next morning. We never saw him again.
For the following
six months, life was pretty serene. It was just me and Amelia and her cat Beauregard
living in a house much too big for the three of us.
Beauregard was a big
cat with piercing green eyes. We tried introducing him to other pets but he
cowered from them in terror, even kittens and puppies less than half his size.
We couldn’t keep any of them. Apparently, he was a lover not a fighter. You
could only hold him one way: flat against your chest with his neck draped over
your shoulder like burping a baby, patting his rump while he purred contentedly
into your ear.
This was probably
the happiest time of my life. We took long walks along the beach, played hide
and seek with Beauregard and made love under the stars.
But even then, the
specter of doom hung over us. She kept insisting she needed to do her part in
the war. I delayed, I begged, I cajoled. But she always persisted. She had to
go. One day I gave in and she joined the Red Cross. Three months later she
shipped out to Aleppo on a military transport. The work she was doing made a
difference. We corresponded daily. The suffering, death and carnage—I heard
about it all.
Then one day the
communication went dark.
I was standing at
the kitchen window looking out at the gulls and the pounding surf when a van
pulled up in the driveway. Two women got out and the doorbell rang. One was in
a dress military uniform, the other in slacks and a freshly pleated blouse. The
civilian had been her immediate supervisor in Aleppo. She stammered frequently
and kept swiping at her eyes. They were moist and bloodshot. Amelia had been
killed by an enemy RPG. Blown to pieces along with two of her compatriots while
handing out food in a refugee camp. The soldier was an army chaplain. When
Amelia’s former boss rose to offer a final apology and moved haltingly to the
door, the chaplain started to say something about her bravery and patriotism in
the face of enemy fire. She was pushed out the door in mid-sentence by her
I went to the
mortuary before the funeral and opened the casket. Inside was a sealed
container—her remains. I looked at it but it didn’t look back. I don’t even
know if her pretty blue eyes were inside it.
I skipped the
funeral. If her father attended, maybe he wondered where I was. Fuck him. Screw
I went nuts.
Screamed like a lunatic, punched holes in the walls and drank day and night.
One day, I opened the front door to bring in the mail and Beauregard darted
past me into the street. I stumbled after him in tears, but he was too fast for
me. He never came back. It was providence if you ask me. It just wasn’t home
without Amelia. Besides, three weeks later I drank myself into a hospital bed.
Acute alcohol poisoning.
They said I was
lucky to pull through. I didn’t feel lucky.
When the hospital
released me, I put the house up for sale, sold it for a song and left
everything behind except the clothes on my back and my ’67 Mustang.
That’s how my first
marriage ended. With a bang and a whimper.
This all brings us
up to the year 2030 and my second love affair.
They say no two
lovers are ever alike. I wouldn’t know about that, but the only two women I
ever cared about were very different. My love for Amelia had been primal, yet
all consuming. Greta was a whole different kind of animal.
But I’m charging
ahead of myself. A brief recap of current events is sorely needed here.
On April 6th, 2017,
in response to President Assad’s use of poison gas against his own civilian
population, the US destroyed Shayrat air base in Syria with a barrage of
Tomahawk cruise missiles. Throughout the remainder of that year and up until
the end of 2019, a series of military escalations occurred in Syria. These
conflicts, however, were waged and funded primarily by the US and Russian
governments, targeting Syria as a common battleground.
Russia cultivated a
closer alliance with Iran and encouraged them to break the nuclear agreement
they’d negotiated in 2015 with the US and a group of other world powers.
Consequently, Iran cut off all diplomatic relations with the US in 2020 and
declared the nuclear pact null and void.
By 2021, growing
tensions between Israel and Russia reached a breaking point. Russia unleashed a
salvo of non-nuclear bombs on Tel Aviv. Israel swiftly retaliated by launching
nuclear strikes against Russia and Iran, and the US followed suit.
Beyond this, no one
can accurately reconstruct the series of events that resulted in World War III.
It’s all a blur, because by then nuclear war had engulfed the planet in a giant
conflagration that could clearly be observed from orbit. Within days, 75% of
the world’s urban centers were reduced to rubble. Fully 65% of the Earth’s land
mass that was once habitable—and inhabited—by the developed nations was no
longer either. The thermonuclear blasts cracked and scarred the earth with
craters, and in the ensuing months deadly radioactive fallout drifted for
thousands of miles across both land and sea. It knew no boundaries and gave no
quarter. About 3.5 billion people were killed. That’s a lot of desiccated
To put it succinctly,
human civilization was plunged into the Dark Ages, the instrument of its own
Let’s be clear, this
isn’t a post-apocalyptic tale. But a dystopian world was the backdrop against
which Greta and I met and fell in love. If you want more details, good luck.
There’s got to be a historian or two alive somewhere.
It was around 2030
when we met for the first time, so I must’ve been about 45. Nobody watches a
calendar or celebrates birthdays anymore.
Let me just say
there’s nothing noble about living like a savage. When push comes to shove, you
do what you have to in order to survive and deal with your conscience later—if
you still have one. Just before the ICBMs descended on North America, having
seen the handwriting on the wall as it turns out many others had, I stowed away
in the cargo hold of one of the last flights out of Los Angeles bound for
Auckland international airport in New Zealand. I shared this compartment with
five other people: two civil servants, the President of Yale University (seriously!),
Greta and her 10-month old daughter, Christine.
Greta was tall,
athletic and full-figured. She grew up in Belgium and spoke with a Flemish
accent. Her smooth, dark skin was warm to the touch. Warmth was the quality
that best described her nature. When I held her in my arms, as I first did
after one of the civil servants lost his mind and tried to molest her—I slipped
a knife in his gut, dragged his miserable carcass into a corner and kicked it
behind a crate—it was almost as if I’d returned to the safety of the womb.
When the plane
landed, airport security discovered the corpse, roughed us up and detained us
awaiting instructions from their higher-ups that never came. It seems dead
bodies weren’t in short supply. After two days, they relieved us of anything
that looked as if it might be valuable in trade and turned us loose with
pointed instructions never to return. We didn’t plan to.
From there, Greta,
Christine and I rode in the back of a fruit truck to Cape Rodney. Then we
wrangled passage on a fishing scow to Te Titoki Point, located in the southwest
corner of Little Barrier Island.
From a human
perspective, the island is a desolate place—sparsely populated, its landscape
consists mostly of craggy hills, cliffs and huge rocks. But one thing it has in
abundance is trees. We bargained to work on the captain’s fishing scow in
exchange for food, tools and basic construction materials. The captain turned
out to be a decent guy, one of the few men I could trust to be alone with
We felled a few trees,
built a log cabin along the narrow beachfront big enough for three and learned
how to use a fishing net.
There were no
particular events I can point to that marked milestones in my relationship with
Greta, as there had been with Amelia.
It just gradually
happened—like planting a tree, watering it and watching it grow. Hers was a
nurturing spirit, whereas I struggled to maintain any kind of spirituality. Our
bond had a life of its own.
When Christine was
three, the captain took us out on his boat and married us at sunset on a clear,
crisp autumn day. Christine clapped her hands and babbled joyful consent.
Although Greta had asked several times before, I waited until then to tell her
about Amelia. Afterwards, she cradled me in her arms while I bawled my eyes
out. I thought I’d jettisoned that baggage years ago. I was wrong again.
We lived simply, and
over the years I came to love Greta and her daughter with a kind of depth I’d
never experienced. By contrast, my love for Amelia had been more breadth than depth,
though wide enough to cover the whole world.
Christine’s 9th birthday on a sultry summer afternoon, Greta’s life suddenly
came to an end. She was gathering berries at the edge of a steep cliff when a
boulder dislodged itself from the topsoil. From only a few feet away, I
helplessly watched her go down in a landslide of rock.
It took me almost an
hour to run down the coast far enough to gain access to the beach and then
double back to where the landslide had fallen. The rocks and boulders formed an
oblong pile of debris at least 25 feet high. No doubt, she had died instantly—crushed
under the enormous weight of the stones. I never recovered the body. Why should
I? She was already dead and buried.
I helped Christine
fashion a crude cross out of two sticks and a piece of twine. We made a place
for it near the top of the heap, as far up as I thought it was safe to go.
Greta had given her Christ’s namesake and raised her in the Faith. She asked me
to say a prayer.
The eulogy was
short: “God, if you’re out there don’t let this be the end. If you created us
and everything else in the universe, don’t let all that work come to nothing.
You put us here, so please help us. We don’t know much, but teach us to use
what we do know to do right by each other. Life is hard enough without causing
ourselves more pain and suffering. Amen.”
I bet you thought I
was going to conclude this story with a lot of philosophical and religious
rambling. If so, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I don’t know why we’re here or
what any of it all means.
I could jump off
that cliff myself, you know. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t thought about it.
But I do have Christine to think about. She’s sleeping peacefully in a hammock
on the other side of the cabin as I finish my tale. Watching her small breasts
rise and fall beneath her blanket, knowing she’s the daughter of a woman I
dearly loved, and that she needs me—I owe it to her to do enough thinking to
puzzle it out in my own head.
First, Walter M.
Miller, Jr. was right.2 Civilization as we know it—or knew it—is
based on the flimsiest of constructions. All the refinements and niceties
gradually built up over the centuries by civilized cultures and their various
institutions of power can be swept away in one fell swoop. And they were.
Secondly, Jesus of
Nazareth had some important things to say. I don’t give a rat’s ass about
organized religion, but that guy knew the score. If we’re to make any progress
as a species, we’ve got to love our neighbors. We must protect them as well,
when needed, but love comes first. If we don’t teach our children empathy, if
they’re incapable of expressing love in both word and deed, what are we
protecting? A mere automaton that walks and talks like a man, but who is
incapable of feeling compassion for others? What’s the value of such a man, to
himself or to his fellows?
My daughter (that’s
what Christine is to me now) will learn by example. I’ll teach her how to love
by freely offering my unconditional love to her. Then, if need be, I’ll protect
the child from danger.
existence is fraught with peril. If I must take another life to ensure her
survival that’s what I’ll do. The difference being that from now on, I won’t
delude myself into thinking I’ve done a good or noble thing. Vultures gorge
their bellies, not their egos, on the flesh of the dead.
Instead, I’ll mourn
the loss of life.
Even that of a low-ranking
civil servant who tried to rape my future wife in the cargo hold of a plane
headed for New Zealand. I never knew your name, mister, but I’m sorry. Not for
having to kill you, but because I allowed myself the forbidden luxury no one
can truly afford: feeling good about it. I should’ve loved my enemies more than
I loved you.
And finally, I miss
you daily, Beauregard….
1Latin: So be it.
2A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Says Michael Dority: "In my defense: I'm guilty as
but innocent by way of insanity. The sheer madness of it all--using a colon and
semicolon in the same sentence!"
(Sorry, but my life's not very exciting or remarkable.)