For Valentine's Day....
“A little to the left,” I say. “No—about half an inch down now. No—the right corner just up a notch.” I can (unfortunately) feel it viscerally when a picture on the wall if off by a hair. This is a gift—or a curse—and I make my way through the world rearranging furniture, trees, table settings, pillows. The results, I must say, are more harmonious, calmer, neater, but it may just be that living with me is a tad difficult.
And it is with some appreciation of this that I say: Allen was always the most annoying person in the room. Rearranging him—that is, moving him here or there made no difference. He would always appear either distracted—this, when someone else was speaking—or obsessed, talking at another person about his fly fishing, his morning bike rides or at worst, the weather.
Allen finds the weather endlessly fascinating. He will say (with an amused insider’s grin), “Well, it was supposed to be sunny today but it rained this afternoon. What can you do?” This last, always said with a deep helpless shrug as if the rain had been sent down exclusively and purposely to foil his plans. Or, like a farmer with a thousand acres of standing corn, “Well, I guess it’s a good thing,” (deep shrug) “we need the rain.”
I, on the other hand, don’t consider the weather a topic of conversation at all. It’s been said a trivial person talks only about other people and a substantial one talks about ideas. I think a very trivial person talks mostly about the weather.
Still, Allen is not stupid. (At least I don’t think he’s stupid. As he had no conversation when I met him, I thought he wasn’t very bright. It took me a long time to see beyond his catalog of precipitation.) But I began to suspect—after a while—that he might be quite clever. Every once in a while a lucid look would cross his face and he would say something surprisingly insightful. But then the pendulum swung back: perhaps he was clever, but he was also extraordinarily egocentric. That is, any topic which veered from his very self—was he hot, was he cold (these insights he would announce with dull predictability many times a day—more in winter); was he going to brush his teeth: an announcement which came unerringly and daily with the same gravitas as a presidential proclamation; did he ride up Burrows Hill or do the loop around the lake on his bicycle—all these topics took precedence—in fact, were generally the only ones, he would talk about.
Well, you ask, am I that interesting? Who knows, maybe not. And no doubt my obsession with reordering the world—and it doesn’t take great insight to understand that I’m just trying to make a safe place for myself—maybe that is very wearing on another person.
The truth is, we are all the suns of our own solar systems; and if we can somehow jockey our ellipses to overlap, without, that is, destroying the whole damn universe, we may be able to create another pattern where both suns find a new stability; where new possibilities arise.
Frankly, I was about to pack my own sun up and go home. I was tired of weather reports, of distracted conversations.
Me: “I think the stability of nuclear power plants is threatened by global warming. “
Allen: “Did you see that titmouse up in the tree?” (Allen is a birder: he scans the skies for birds even on the expressway, a habit which makes for very tense car trips for me.) The routes of bike rides, the condition of stream beds when he fished—I was very tired of all of that.
And I had rearranged all the furniture in the house, replanted the garden, even moved a tree. I had given dinner parties—frankly, my favorite part is planning and setting the table with flowers, choosing the napkins and serving dishes, considering the seating. I do this very well and I always wish I could just stop there. I often feel that actually having the people in is just one step too many.
Had we tried to talk this out? We had.
“I’m lonely,” I said. “You don’t listen to me, you never remember to give me my phone messages; you don’t tell me what your plans are or what’s happening. You don’t listen to me.”
Allen, while tracking a blue jay out the window: “You always say the same things.”
“How would you know,” I say, “when you never listen anyway.”
“I’m going to brush my teeth now,” said Allen. “And then I’m going for a bike ride along the river road—not the south loop, but the east. Though it’s a little cloudy—but what can you do—we need the rain. But I feel pretty warm today so getting a little wet might be O.K.”
“All right,” I said, and figuratively started to pack up my solar system.