Prize, Price, and Prying Eyes

Who were those people anymore to tell her what to do?
She rang the changes as she felt inclined —
What was this bit of foolishness that they said was ‘the true’?
She would not by their rules be so defined —

She set out to reclaim her self;
To live with feeling, and to feel her way.
She needed no permission slip
And took on love as a bioassay —

For she would claim the prize, and be the prize.
The price was jealous talk, and prying eyes,
But all that social nonsense was just so:
It would not shape where she would play, or go.

I wandered into her when I was young,
A part of her experimental phase.
She gave me keys, then took each slowly back,
A few short nights that felt like holidays,

Then I was pushed aside
As she went on for more
A boat with only one
Left stranded on the shore

She went away
I heard the news
Of someone else
She deigned to choose –

But I would not speak ill of her:
There were no lies, no conscious work to hurt.
So I was a philosopher,
I’d my own life to live, to reassert —

Relationships are merely games for those who choose to play them:
And yes, there will be costs, but many merely, simply pay them.
It might feel less than human, but, I did feel human there for just awhile.
For some, amid the storms, find out that they, indeed, become a rheophile —

What moral is there now to this, you say?
Just this: we don’t control the sun or seasons,
And much that happens to us isn’t in us,
For other humans have their sundry reasons
To live and love as they see fit, and when —
And we can only live life now,
Not then

In Youth

You asked me once, when we were young,
If love was made to last.
I said I had no way to know:
“The future’s not the past.”
    And on a bridge, beside a pond,
    We sat there, full in youth,
    And wanted nothing comforting
    But truth.

It wasn’t many years before
You found yourself a place,
And built a home and family,
And filled it up with grace.
    For youthful as were all your ways,
    You lived true to your feelings,
    And marked your life with love in all
    Your dealings —

But I went on to just go off.
My heart and mind betrayed me.
I traveled through the manic lands,
For no one could dissuade me.
    Though youngish in experience,
    I felt old in my pain,
    And strove for nothing; all of it
    Seemed vain.

But in those last cold days of youth,
I still remembered us,
And saw you’d made another choice,
Got on a different bus.
    And so I traveled back in time,
    And stood beside this pond,
    To try to look around, and see
    Beyond —

For “young” is everything at once,
And little in return;
There’s cold and empty nights for those
Who always blaze, and burn.
    But honesty’s its own reward.
    In truth, you’d chosen wisely,
    And how my life had gone could not
    Surprise me…

You asked me once, when we were young,
If love was made to last.
A thing you answered for yourself:
“Depends on how it’s cast.
    For love’s a sturdy building
    If we’re careful in its making,
    A thing that starts and ends with
    Undertaking.”

“For Me, Sixteen”

I remember emerging from years of almost entirely same-sex friendships, shocked to find out how much girls had changed from what I remembered, and feeling like I needed a few good courses in cross-cultural communication.

Much of the incremental excitement of relationships at that age (apart from the obviously physical) comes from how “wholly other” the opposite sex seems. They don’t seem to think or act the same way about anything. So dating feels like you’re in an exotic city in some foreign country — which is kind of amazing.

Even the smallest amount of reflection indicates that we are just as strange and unpredictable to our dating partners as they seem to us.

At that age I did not, however, actually engage in even the smallest amount of reflection. From hence sprung many difficulties.


I was sixteen years old for almost my entire junior year in high school in 1978-79, and I was badly in need of a retread. I was still taking piano lessons, but my heart wasn’t in it. Or maybe, my heart was in the music, but it I had realized by that point that my heart would never be in performing, per se.

I had an older friend who was dating a classmate of mine; they were going to a Valentine’s banquet at our church. He suggested I ask one of the other girls at church to go and we could double-date, since I wasn’t old enough to drive.

“But I’ve never been on a date.” I said.

“I know, Owen. All of your friends know this, believe me. That’s why I’m offering to help. You should ask Medusa*,” he said. “I know she’d say yes.”

“We’ve never spoken more than two sentences to each other,” I said.

“I know she’d say yes,” he repeated. Then he handed me her phone number on a piece of paper.

He had come to the conversation prepared. I went to the phone and dialed. “Hello? May I speak to Medusa please? Yes, thank you.” … about 30 seconds … “Hi, Medusa? This is Owen. Would you like to go the Valentine’s banquet with me?”

She said, sure, but not with a lot of enthusiasm.

“Okay, great. Umm… we’ll be with Jon and Tammy, he’ll be driving. We’ll pick you up, um, ten minutes before time, since you live closest. Okay. Bye.”

He was smiling at me. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

I stared back at him. “What’s in this for you?”

“If it’s a double-date, her parents don’t insist on chaperoning. But it has to be people they know from church.”

“I hate you,” I said.


Long story short, the night was a complete fiasco. I never considered it a real date, and it was entirely evident she didn’t, either. But I had supplied valuable wingman service to my friend Jon, so there was that.

Wingmanning, as an important rite of passage, is not to be underestimated.


A few months later, I had turned seventeen and had my driver’s license. It was the weekend, and I was hanging out with several large clusters of teens. On that occasion, still another friend of mine suggested I should approach Medusa again.

“She likes you,” he said.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“No, she does. Just ask her to go for a drive with you,” he said.

“You’re insane,” I said.

“If she says no, I’ll give you five bucks,” he said.

Hey, five bucks is five bucks. I went and found her, talking with some other girls.

“Hey, can I talk to you for a second?”

She said, sure.

We walked a few paces away from her friends. “Would you like to go for a drive with me?” I asked, pretty sure I knew the answer.

“Okay,” she said, almost immediately.

We walked straight out to my car, with my friend grinning like the Cheshire Cat watching us go.


I knew why I was there, but didn’t really know why she was. Upon reflection, I can see that a very similar thought process served as my model for relationships for about twenty years thereafter.

But as for then and there, I had never kissed a girl and wanted to try it, and she was willing. I never learned much about her feelings beyond that.

I think the relationship, such as it was, lasted about two weeks. It ended as abruptly as it had started. Within a few weeks, I was on to another girl.


I was selfish and inconsiderate, of course; I wish I could say I stopped being that way at some point in my life. I think, at some point, my selfishness metastasized to where it is so widespread that I fear I am unable to detect it any more.

That being said, however, what remains is still true: in healthy relationships, we each want what we want and if the other person can’t provide it, we should move on, right?

Right?

I’m not sure that is right. It seems right, though.


* “Medusa” is actually shockingly close to this girl’s actual name, but not quite the same.

Grandmother / Mother

A true story.

her thread came loose —

i was but a boy
maybe eight years old
and she

and she kept repeating herself —

she could not remember
what she’d just told us
and it frightened me

like i’d landed in a madhouse —

not my grandmother’s
new condo
where we came to visit

my mother talked to me in the car —

what’s wrong with grandma?

She is going through [what was then usually called] senility
She loses her sense of where she is, and
Time goes back and forth
In her head

but why?

It’s something that sometimes happens…
‘Senility’ is God’s way of reminding us that…
That the mind and the soul
Are not the same thing

will she get better?

No, son, she won’t.
Her mind will gradually unravel
Until she’s ready

ready for what?

To be free

* “It’s the story of my life…” *

When I was twenty-two,
One of the women at work asked if I would be willing to
Give her kids piano lessons: she had a son and a daughter.
I said, ‘sure’. I needed extra money.

They invited me over to their house.
They lived in a huge house right on the water.
Their son had begged off of piano lessons, so
There was just the daughter, who was fourteen.

She looked like she’d rather be anywhere else.
She had dark hair, and dark clothes, and
An even darker expression.

It took a while to figure out that she had braces,
Because she barely opened her mouth;
When she did her voice was barely audible.

“I’m Owen,” I said. “And your name is? –”

“(gwn)”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“Gwen.”

We got through the first lesson okay,
I thought she had done really well, and told her.
Then her mother came in, and the girl
Immediately left the room.

A week later,
I came back for her next lesson.
She was already at the piano.
Still all dressed in black.

She had practiced hard; I had given her
Quite a few things to do.
It went well.

When it ended, she asked me, timidly,
If she would be able to play music she liked
As part of these lessons.

I asked her what she liked –
“The Smiths,” she said. “And The Dead Kennedys.”
I said I thought she could, if she kept at it.
I definitely knew she had braces then.

The next week I came in, she
Was wearing all black, as usual, but
With a cool looking knitted hat.
She was also wearing perfume and mascara.
She smiled and looked straight at me.

“Oh, no.” I thought.

She was making incredible progress, but
I was not quite sure what was motivating her.

When I showed her how
to hold her hands correctly,
she blushed up at me, with an
unmistakably adoring expression.

I thought I could ascertain at least
part of her motivation.

“If only I could have attracted
fourteen year old girls when
I was fourteen,” I thought.

I had agreed with her mom that
I would stay for dinner that night.
Gwen asked me after the lesson if
I wanted to walk out on
The dock with her.

“Sure,” I said, but I was starting to panic.
I was twenty-two.
I had never read Lolita.
Only Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
That didn’t turn out well.

The water was beautiful,
very peaceful, as the sun was going down.
She sat down at the edge of the dock;
I sat by her, but
Not close to her.

“You really are a natural at music,” I said.
“You’ll be able to play all the music you want
Within a year or two, tops.
Just keep working hard -”

“You’re the only one who talks to me like this,”
She said suddenly, scooting towards me.

I looked back at the house, but realized:
Her parents had the blinds lowered.

Her perfume really did smell good.

“I mean, you get me, you talk to me like I’m a real person.
They treat me like I’m five.”

I was grateful she hadn’t moved closer.

“So, what are we having for dinner?”

“Steaks. My dad’s round the other side of the house,
Cooking with my brother. Anyway, Owen…”

“Yes?”

“Do you think we’ll ever be able to play duets?”

She was so precious. But I was going to
Do the wrong thing if I didn’t move fast.

“Of course,” I said, getting to my feet.
“Let’s do a little extra lesson.”

We went back inside and I taught her a
Duet on the piano.

The next day I called my best friend.
“I’ve got a situation”, I said.
I told him.

He laughed.

“Dude, you couldn’t buy attention
from girls that age -”

“… when I was that age, I know.
What do I do?”

“No idea.”

I had no idea either. She was smitten, hard, and
She was just old enough, and
I was just young enough that…
Well, I didn’t want to think about that.

A couple days later I saw that
The local community theater needed a
Pianist for a six month gig.
I went out for it, and got it.

I had to tell Gwen’s mom I
Couldn’t give her lessons anymore,
But that a friend of mine
Who was a great teacher
Would take her on.
She was the best teacher in town.

Gwen’s mom said, “you need to come by
and tell her yourself.”

Some friend.
Some mom.

She knew, damn it.

I pulled up in the driveway
In my old white car.
Gwen was in the driveway, sitting.
All in black.

Her eyes were red. She marched up to me.

“Why can’t we still do lessons?”

“I”m not really a teacher. Lois is
Way better than me.”

“I talked to her. I’m starting next week.”

“That’s great. You have so much talent, you
Were born for this -”

Now she was crying in earnest.

“But I — I thought –”

I couldn’t stand it any longer. I hugged her. I held
Her shaking up to me, and she cried, like
I’d never known anyone to cry.

Then she broke away, and ran in the house.

My buddy called me the next day.

“So… how’d it go…?”

“Sucks, man. It’s the story of my life.”

“I think you made a mistake, dude. If it was me, I would have -”

“I know you would have. That’s why God makes sure things like this don’t happen to you.”

I never saw her again. Her mom left our office within a year, and they moved, I don’t know where.

I really didn’t know what to do.

It is the story of my life.

Rain Out On the Garden Path

The day was wet, and I stayed in,
The rain out on the garden path,
A brand new book I could begin,
Then stare out at the aftermath.

For I was wise when ten of years,
And I could solve all mysteries —
My future still held all careers,
With no chagrin, and no disease.

The book was good, I read it long,
Into the windy, rainy night;
A copy still sits on my shelf,
And on its face, I see the light

Of many years and hopes ago,
When dreams were all of would and can,
And rain out on the garden path
Foretold a person who
I’ve never
Been

Destin Beach, Florida

A place, a time, a memory.

The day was ending soft, the night had nearly come
I met you near the dunes, and put my arm
Around your shivering shoulders, as the breeze
Blew the autumn wind and slightly moved the sand

You, a matron now, whose children could not
Imagine as a girl, walked exceeding close to me
The smell of your perfume in every part of my
Being, and sparks coming off of your sweater

And as my hands moved through your hair
There by the darkening Gulf, we were

All that we could be

As the sky grew darker and larger

And we

Faded out of sight