by kathleen maher
pictures by rhoda penmarq
5) The Problem Was Wholly My Own
Neither Carlos nor anyone else has asked why I’m calling the group “The New College of Complexes.” They think it’s because these days everything is new. New Mind. New Men. New Women. New Life abounding... But there was an old College of Complexes.
More than ten years ago it disbanded when its meeting place was demolished by bulldozers.
And each of its members mysteriously surrendered to whatever individual fate he or she had been valiantly staving off.
Either that or they bribed the manager at the McDonald’s across the street to tell me so, so as to get rid of me.
Not that I’d been hanging around the first C-of-C all that much. In two years I attended six of their meetings, and only then in response to their bold-faced motto: Everybody Welcome.
The group impressed me as genuine seeker-martyrs, a type I respected then—and now—more than anything.
In those days, before leaving my apartment, I bathed, shaved, and followed a rigorous series of self-designed mental exercises to rid myself of odiousness. When that didn’t work, I’d pretended that Colin had not died—he was never even in danger and the whole incident was a nightmare my subconscious had unrolled to protect me from the shame when he left me for the bass player across the hall: A stretch, on many levels, the most significant that Colin and I were mates for life. We believed that and professed our commitment a lot. Anyway, whenever I attended an old C of C meeting, I sat strictly in the back and watched.
So why would I wonder if they bribed the counterman at McDonald’s? Well, for one thing, motto or no motto, the old group was very big on spiritual quid pro quo: you were only as holy as you were poor; enlightenment demanded destitution.
With no exceptions for anyone owning a profitable coffee and pastry shop (which my parents “invested in” as soon as I dropped out of Northwestern, after Colin’s death.)
I tried to explain myself to the old C. of C-ers. Owning a shop, I said, was not venal in and of itself. I nourished people. For free if need be. And of course they were welcome anytime, gratis.
“At a cappuccino place in the suburbs?” asked Hugo, a true seeker-martyr.
“Yes,” I said, “but not a far suburb.”
Hugo shook his head. “I just don’t think so.”
For a second there I suspected him of bias against suburbanites: that is, a soulless, careless class desperately grasping for whatever’s most conventional. And if anything, with our driveways and vinyl siding, we deliberately set out to quash transcendence. But then I realized the problem was wholly my own. If the old C. of C-ers sweetened their lives with small fictions, so do we all. Really, my problem was how ardently I wanted to be one of them; how desperately I admired them; and that I failed to become intimate with them.
* Everyone Has Something To Hide.
* Everyone Wants More.
* Is Prayer Addicting?
* Six Ways To Overcome Loneliness.
That last one sounds good for the second meeting: Six Ways to Overcome Loneliness. But what if that topic mostly attracts a bunch of singles despairing over the big date they can’t get. Then what?
7) Perfect Waste
All week I’ve jumped up and down, thinking, “The first New C. of C. meeting was perfect, it was perfect!”
Then this afternoon, driving west on Armitage, I got distracted and skipped a beat and the next thing I knew, doubt crept in, changing the refrain to: “How do you know it was perfect? What if it wasn’t?” In front of me was a low-riding station wagon with half a jacket hanging from the trunk. One sleeve was dragging on the ground and the back kept filling with air, forming half a torso and then deflating as the car slowed down. Was the first meeting of the New College of Complexes really perfect? Or really a waste? This billowing worry thrummed through me: perfect, waste; perfect, waste. . . *
Louie Duvall swore on his mother’s grave that the business with my flour, mealy moths two weeks in a row, was an honest mistake. He threw an arm around me and slipped me an uncovered CD. “All original, man.” Louie by night is a blues singer. He yelled into an intercom and a muscle-bound teenager dollied in three 50-pound bags. Louie slit each bag and we leaned over the stuff together to make sure it wasn’t infested. Louie’s tiny teeth gleamed and the edges of his round little stick-out ears turned translucent. The teenager loaded the bags in my car.
Louie pumped my hand and slapped my back and said my next two orders were on the house. The whole visit took less than ten minutes. Driving back, though, I had to roll down the windows. An intense flowery fragrance enveloped me. Louie must wear an intense cologne. Because even after work, after a bowl of chili, an orange, and two light beers, I was still conscious of his scent. And then twice last night as I started to drift off, my body twitched awake, my heart pounding a sudden alarm at the smell of a young girl in bed with me.