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  • Shadowgod - Almost Home
  • Shadowgod - Almost Home
  • Shadowgod - Almost Home

Circumstances - 10. A Fine Romance

Well, despite the song lyrics, this one has a bit of kissing.

One of the last things Shawn told me, wrote me, was, “You’ll never get over me, Vic.” The last thing I wrote him was, “Don’t marry him. It won’t work.”

“Him” was Duke Mattingly – Eugene Norris Mattingly. “Duke” was a childhood name. Technically, I never met him, though he once grunted at me on the phone. Another time, he sent what I’m sure he thought was a letter. I’ve seen pictures of him: black-and-white college shots; a grey newspaper photo from his wedding. You can’t tell much. He was tall, blondish, had an enviable smile. Still, I never liked the guy. After all, he was married to, however briefly, a guy I greatly loved.

It’s not as though Shawn was perfect. When I met him, he wasn’t even good-looking – at least, he didn’t allow it to show. His hair was too short. He wore unflattering clothes: torn jeans, worn flannel shirts, mud-colored boots. Everything he did unconsciously fought the idea he might be attractive.

We were freshmen at one of those small colleges that litter the Midwest. I grew up in Lockbourne. It’s the town name as well as the college’s. I was on free ride because my folks were faculty. Shawn had been recruited on a recommendation from his art teacher, a Lockbourne grad. Shawn’s parents were well-known Cincinnati architects, and he’d taken the scholarship mainly to break with them.

“They want too much,” was almost all he’d say about them, though the few times we met, I found them pleasant if not always understandable. And if their choices explained much of Shawn’s rebellion, their interests also provided his base.

The same can be said of me: for years, my folks lectured “security,” so for a long time I lived day-to-day. But from my family came my interest in music.

As early as junior high, instead of watching TV after my friends were kicked out at night, I filled our basement with critically-mauled Benny Goodman tunes. By ninth grade, I’d been exiled, with my sax, to college practice rooms. Senior year, I auditioned and was accepted at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, but we couldn’t swing the money. There are six kids in my family, my parents believing the bright should wrestle the earth from the greedy.

By high school, I’d pretty well set a routine my folks tolerated as long as my grades stayed high. I’d do homework during other classes, mess with friends till nine or so at night, then hit the college for two or three hours of practice. Starting at Lockbourne, my pattern changed only with increased freedom. I slept late, took classes afternoons, and practiced till three or four AM.

The music department shared an old glitz Deco building with several other departments. Over the front of the Bragg Fine Arts Center, chiseled among masks, harps, and brushes, is “Music, Art, and Oratory Abound Within.” Actually chaos abounds, but by midnight the racket and crowd were reduced mainly to straying actors, wandering lost. I could leave the door of my tiny practice room open and bother almost no one. By three, only Shawn and I worked, in opposite wings of Bragg.

I knew he was there from echoes of smashing steel and odd industrial smells. In lulls, he could probably hear me playing. We’d see each other mainly when he’d leave, usually before me, at the music end of Bragg. Near eleven, the campus cops chained shut all the other doors.

Passing by, Shawn would usually smile, and I’d nod. We weren’t interested in each other and didn’t know we had much in common, so there seemed no point in becoming friends. It was mid-February before we really talked. I was practicing in the hallway early one morning when he appeared.

“Hot in there?” he asked. He studied my small practice room. It was nearly a john stall, walled in acoustic tile and further crowded by an upright piano.

“Overheated,” I agreed. The campus buildings were always too hot or too cold. Outside the room’s steamed window, it was snowing.

“I know you’re not bothering anyone,” he went on, “besides me. But you’ve been playing the same piece... the same section... over and over.”

I grinned.

“Making you crazy?” I asked.

He half-smiled, as though saying, “If you know what it’s doing, why do you keep at it?”

“It’s a rough piece,” I explained, then demonstrated the section, absently forgetting he’d heard it repeatedly. He listened, still half-smiling, then not unpleasantly said he wished I’d go back in my hole.

“And close the door. Please.”

Then he left.

I was pissed off and normally would have started blowing, as hard as I could, but it was too late, and I was tired. Instead, I followed him to the sculpture studio, ready to complain about the smell.

He was doing something with sulphur, and the halls smelled of rotten eggs. When I’d reached the studio, I started to say as much, then stopped, when I saw what Shawn was doing.

The piece of sculpture he was working on was so far beyond even the best student art I’d seen, it looked completely out of place. I stared. When I finally picked up my unfinished sentence, to compliment him, he wasn’t even embarrassed. I sometimes am, when people who know nothing about music overpraise my playing. He simply thanked me and worked on.

I watched him haul away at something seemingly so delicate it shouldn’t have withstood his blows, watched as he carefully etched the fine steel surface with foul-smelling acid. I must have started to light a cigarette, because he suddenly told me, “Everything in here’s flammable. You’ll blow the place up.”

I needed a cigarette so reluctantly went back to my cubicle. Door closed, I again started to play. But thoughts of Shawn’s sculpture kept distracting me: the image, his technique. Concentration gone, I began to pack for the night. As I started out, Shawn appeared again, also ready to leave. He asked if I wanted tea.

I laughed. “Not at this hour. I wouldn’t sleep.”

“It’s herb... Jasmine... Rose... No caffeine at all.”

It sounded awful.

“No... Sorry.”

When he looked disappointed, I quickly asked about beer. That seemed to displease him, but he counter-offered wine, and we were soon outside, headed, in a freezing wind, to his apartment.

It was upstairs, in a small house just across from Bragg. It was really two rooms. The bedroom had a wide futon on the floor. In the kitchen, a sheet of birch ply on low glass blocks was the table. Uncurtained windows broke white walls. There were no posters, paintings, sculpture, or plants. I sat on a thin cushion too close to the cold floor at one side of the plywood table. Shawn boiled water on a combination stove / refrigerator / sink which would have seemed small in a van. My wine, in a handcrafted mug, was red and as warm as the room allowed.

“Where’s all your stuff?” I asked. My room at home, shared with my oldest brother’s relics, was crammed. Shawn only smiled.

“There’s a huge closet in the bedroom. I hate having things in the way.”

Finished with my wine, I again started to light a cigarette. He shook his head.

“Please... not in here.”

It threw me, but I shrugged. “I can live.”

I tossed my cigarette pack across the room, where it plopped square into the waste basket. Together, we laughed.

I didn’t leave that night. We talked till more than just the snow’s reflection brightened the sky, then huddled, innocent, under the futon’s covers. I woke alone, after noon. A note on the kitchen table directed me, if needed, to a shared john, one flight down. I first pulled my cigarettes from the trash, then stood on the freezing porch, grabbing a much-needed smoke.

It was June before I moved in permanently, and it happened so gradually we almost didn’t notice. First came hundreds of hours together, dozens of cheap dinners – fast food and better – day trips to nearby parks and museums, concerts, movies, nights spent away, weekend explorations. The first time we had sex was as exhausting as hiking a steep mountain trail, but not something I’d want to repeat. We got better from there.

Living with Shawn was easier than I would have thought, considering his intensity. He always seemed most comfortable in the studio, working, though he didn’t exactly relax then.

“It takes such concentration,” he explained. He didn’t like explaining things, and always seemed frustrated choosing words. He was more comfortable listening. “It’s all exploration,” he’d gone on. “I doubt I’ll ever know what I’m doing... I mean, exactly what. I follow ideas... I have so many. But when I try controlling some... if I try... they get less interesting. In a way, I’m totally undisciplined.”

“But when an idea’s good...”

“...when it’s good, it takes me further than I hoped.” He smiled, as though remembering something wonderful, then his expression changed. “And when it’s bad, I just forget it – you’ve got to, no matter how hard you’ve tried. There’s no point struggling with things that can’t be fixed.”

Living with Shawn then was a matter of sorting priorities.

“You need the car?” he’d ask.

In mid-summer, we’d bought an old VW squareback, battered, but perfect for hauling art and music equpiment.

“Yeah,” I’d say. “I’m working tonight.”

I’d been playing with a small jazz band.

“Will it make us money?”

“Hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

“Will it pay for gas?”

“If I take the car, tomorrow we go out for dinner.”

“All yours.”

And he’d throw me the keys and go off on his bike.

Shawn was an only child, fairly well off, and used to getting more than he wanted. For me, growing up was like having good seats on an urban riot. I learned to get things by staying calm while other people fought. Then I’d grab what I needed and run. Between Shawn’s tense assurance and my inbred patience, we rarely fought. And when we did, even our closest friends, watching, sometimes missed it.

“I thought you’d quit,” Shawn told me one afternoon, wandering into the student snack bar just as I’d lit a cigarette.

It had been my first in several months and had just sat there, loose, on the table, tempting me for twenty minutes after falling from a friend’s pocket. I didn’t protest or confront him. Instead, I did an end run, casually mentioning to my friend an article I’d recently read on the dangers of art materials. My friend didn’t know what I was talking about. Meanwhile, I put out my barely-touched cigarette. My fight with Shawn was over, though both of us were pretty steamed. It might be a day before things relaxed.

They never did between Shawn and his parents. A typical conversation involved his phone ringing, and Shawn listening, almost silently for twenty minutes, then fiercely disconnecting. “What did they want?” I’d ask, when I sensed enough time had passed. Sometimes that took a day. But no matter how long I waited, Shawn knew what I meant.

“It’s my mother’s birthday. My father called to ‘remind me.’ As though I’d forget.”

“Are we invited?”

It was a dangerous subject. At that point I’d been to his parents’ house on Mount Adams only once. It was a day of truncated skirmishes. Home, I chugged three beers before I could breathe.

“They’ll be away. St. Maarten or somewhere. I need to send something before they go.”

“That shouldn’t be hard.”

It was a lie, and Shawn had been silent. He’d already told me, “My mother hates everything I give her. First, she claims it’s perfection, then it disappears.”

“Make her something,” I’d said, which made Shawn laugh.

“We don’t agree about art. Each of us thinks the other’s is self-indulgent.”

That made me laugh. My folks and I disagreed about simpler things, like how I planned to make a living.

“Isn’t it time you picked a major?” my dad asked one Saturday morning.

I’d stopped by the house to use the washing machine and mooch lunch.

It did no good pointing out I had a major, that I was one of the more focused, hard-working, disciplined people my age. To my folks, music was always a hobby.

“Maybe Economics,” I’d say, and Dad would beam for a moment before catching on. Then he’d sigh. Sighing was his hobby.

“Everyone else in this family has a Ph.D,” Mom would say. “Or will have, in time.”

“Mine will be honorary... from some prestigious music school.”

“Not funny, Vic.”

My oldest sister insisted “Vic” was short for “Victim.”

Still, unlike Shawn and his parents, my folks and I talked all the time and constantly ran into each other on campus. I’d get back to the apartment – our door was never locked – and Mom would have left food she’d found on sale or a shirt she thought I might like. Sometimes, there’d be a remaindered art book for Shawn. We were welcomed at my folks’ home, any time. There was nothing reasonable of theirs that I could ask for and they wouldn’t give me. Shawn envied that.

“Your folks’ll give you anything, too,” I insisted. “The difference is your folks can give you things mine can’t afford.”

There was no point acknowledging that what Shawn most wanted from his parents, what he felt they could easily give, was the main thing they didn’t seem able to.

Of the three years we lived together, I can best say it was a fine romance. I’ve never been so happy for so long in my life. Our apartment was a gathering place. Coming home, I could find anything: friends, meetings, political discussions. I wanted to move somewhere larger but couldn’t persuade Shawn. In compromise, he allowed a little change: the apartment became an inviting place two people lived, rather than temporary shelter for one compulsive artist. I even got our landlord to trade our toy kitchen thing for a full-sized refrigerator and stove.

Shawn liked what I’d done but mainly contributed everyday clutter. He wouldn’t bring any of his finished work, home, insisting it wasn’t good enough.

“You won’t let me record your jams,” he’d tell me. “You say they’re ‘work in progress.’ Well, that’s what my sculpture is.”

I disagreed. His work was always so much better than mine. I wish now I’d persuaded him to give me one small piece. To this day I have nothing.

I could buy something but wouldn’t feel comfortable. I don’t dislike being reminded of Shawn, which something of his might constantly do. I just feel he’d hate knowing I owned something he’d made.

He misinterprets everything I do now. Our relationship ended badly and too quickly for either of us to work things out. The problems began with the best of news: in May of our senior year, Shawn had been invited to a juried workshop at the University of Texas.

It lasted a week. The planned schedule would keep him so steadily busy that even if we’d had the money to get me there, too, I’d only be in the way.

Not that I minded him going alone: we were both excited by the honor of the invitation. The workshop was the conclusion to a year-long review of hundreds of college art exhibits across the country. Shawn was one of only ten artists selected. Unfortunately, Duke Mattingly was another.

As I like to picture him, Duke’s a primitive artist in the sense “primitive” relates to “primate.” His knuckles scrape the ground. He’s covered with dense, matted hair. He can’t control the urge to constantly display himself.

Actually, Duke looks much like the Midwest preacher’s kid he is, a stranger you’d willingly trust with your five-year-old. And he’s talented: not only is his work increasingly respected, it deserves to be. Still, meeting him today, I’m sure I’d want to flatten the guy.

Shawn came back from the workshop happily exhausted, unusually talkative, and glowing with the kind of exuberant glaze you get from the most successful all-nighters.

“We were running all the time,” he told me. “There were meetings, seminars, juries... We listened to what critics said, talked with agents... I may have an agent now... There were dinners, receptions... And nothing was thrown together. These were beautiful parties in wonderfully-designed homes. I may even have sold a piece... to a man who flew in from New Orleans for the afternoon.”

After four years preparing in isolated Lockbourne, Shawn seemed headed towards where he wanted to go. The news was terrific. He wanted to tell everyone, even his parents.

“We’re practically driving past their house,” he mentioned, as we drove back from the airport. “We should probably stop.” He said this casually, though I’m sure he’d worked it over on the plane.

His parents seemed surprised to see us, but quickly changed their plans. The afternoon went, so smoothly Shawn asked if I minded staying the night. I couldn’t, I had a gig that evening, but I suggested he stay. He ended up spending the week.

He came back rested, serious, and as good-looking as I’d ever seen. Nothing physical seemed changed, but there was a sense of assurance.

“We talked a lot,” he told me. “Went out for dinner every night, and talked and talked. They closed restaurants around us.”

“Talked about what?”

“Everything... I listened more than anything, you know me. And maybe I’ve never listened enough... maybe they never have...” He was silent for a moment. “Our work’s not very different... the process, preparation... We’re very similar.”

“Is that a surprise?” I asked.

Again, he hesitated. “In some ways.”

He seemed to be choosing words.

“There are so many possibilities,” he continued. “I’ve known about some... always hoped I’d be able to explore others...”

He paused.

“I’ve always known where I wanted to go.”

Another silence.

“We’ve talked about this before,” I said.

“I’ve dreamed about it maybe... And it’s not like this’ll all happen tomorrow. I’ll never be famous... I never want that really... I just want to work... and teach... and do what I’m best at...”

“Did you ever doubt that would happen?”

I smiled at him. He smiled. Our life together would be exciting.

Silence.

“This isn’t what I wanted to say,” he went on. “I’m trying to make this easier...”

“Make what easier?” I didn’t understand.

“...for you... maybe for me...”

“I don’t know what you mean,” I told him.

“I know.”

I waited. Shawn wouldn’t look directly at me. He studied my palm as though trying to see the future. And then it came out – about Duke.

“There are so many things...” he began, “...so many people I can meet... will meet... People more like me... who’ll share certain things...” He was looking at me then. “I wanted to say this when I first got back, Vic, but didn’t know how... I hid at my parents’ house... I’m sorry...”

He’d met Duke at the workshop. Duke had been so easy to be with. They thought alike, saw things the same way. They could talk or not need to. Things Shawn felt, he said. Duke was like no one Shawn had known. There’d been no need for compromise.

“Is that how you feel with me?” I asked. “That it’s been compromise?”

He seemed hurt.

“I love you, Vic.”

“Then what’s the problem?” I really couldn’t see.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “But the fact I let this happen... let something happen... so quickly... with someone I’d only met...”

He wanted an answer: “No,” I said. “Nothing’s changed... nothing that can’t be made good.”

He was silent.

“I don’t understand what’s happened...” I went on, “I don’t like it, but... But we share so much... We mean so much to each other...”

We talked all afternoon and then through dinner, through a planned evening with friends. We talked long after we had anything new to say. After midnight, with still nothing settled, we had sex, as gently as ever. And when I woke, just as I’d been after our first night together, I was alone.

There was no note, nor would there be on an ordinary morning when Shawn left the house before me. I crossed to the street to Bragg, but he wasn’t there. Almost no one was, with classes finishing. Shawn was done with school. The workshop had been his finals. There was just graduation.

I called friends. I drove around town. I hit places Shawn might normally go, stopped where it made sense to find him, then tried less logical places. Finally, I called his parents.

“No,” his mother said, Shawn wasn’t there. “No, I don’t know where he’d go.”

But I could guess.

Shawn had told me far more about Duke than I wanted to know: what he looked like, how he thought, why he loved his work. I knew where he’d grown up, what his plans were, where he was going to school.

In New York.

I got his cell number and address by gently persuading the art department secretary at NYU that I was a lost, visiting friend. I was still in Ohio. I alternately called his number and Shawn’s till late afternoon, when Shawn finally answered.

He wasn’t surprised I’d found him. “You’re a bright guy.” And he quietly apologized for how he’d left. “There wasn’t any more I could tell you.”

I told him it didn’t matter and that all I wanted was for him to come home. He didn’t argue, just answered with silence. There haven’t been a lot of times in my life that I watched myself lose something I desperately wanted, but it’s never hurt as much. When I finally disconnected, Shawn had been crying for a long time. I dialed again immediately, unable to take even the shortest break, but he never answered.

By midnight, I couldn’t stand it. Grabbing what little I needed, I headed to New York. I’d been there only a couple of times, knew no one in the city, and had just the vaguest idea where Duke lived.

The drive was fast and slick. It stormed in Pennsylvania. In New Jersey, the Interstate was flooded. I reached Duke’s loft mid-morning. Climbing six flights of narrow stairs, I discovered no one was home. When someone finally did arrive, using the previously-locked freight elevator, it was Shawn.

He was stunned to see me. As stunned as I was when he instantly shut the door.

“I don’t believe you,” he shouted through it. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“We’ve got to talk.”

“We’ve talked too much.”

The elevator hummed downward, and by the time I understood he was leaving and renegotiated the stairs, he was out of the building. As I reached the street, Shawn rounded the corner. It was the last I saw him for seven years.

I camped outside Duke’s loft all day and overnight. No one saw me. The loft was on the top floor of a commercial building. Possibly no one used the stairs. The elevator hummed any number of times, but never reached me.

I slept. I wrote Shawn a half-dozen letters on wide-lined paper I’d bought in a store nearby, carefully slipping each letter under Duke’s heavy door. I’d never written Shawn before. There’d been no reason. While he was in Texas, we’d spoken several times a day on the phone, once it seemed after Duke accidentally answered late one night. But I’d mistaken his light grunt for that of Shawn’s supposed hotel mate.

The letters were almost impossible to write. I kept trying for the right words, thinking, if I just put things perfectly, I’d need nothing more to say. I doubt Shawn ever read the letters, and maybe he was right. Maybe it would have hurt too much. I got them all back, in Ohio, in a large manila envelope. Attached was a note in neat artist’s script, reading:

Vic,

Lay off.

Duke

After two days, I’d left. There seemed nothing I could do. The drive back to Ohio was awful. Everything that rushed by heading east, moved in centimeters going home. I needed sleep. I was angry, depressed, defeated. When I got back to Lockbourne, I slept for two days at my folks’ house. Late the third night, alone, I cleaned the apartment of my things. I’m told that Shawn took everything else, some weeks later.

I would have skipped graduation but couldn’t cheat my family. Shawn wasn’t there, which was no surprise. I didn’t know what I’d say, anyway, but had thought about it constantly.

Not seeing him was a reprieve, but no release. Soon after the graduations parties ended, I left Lockbourne, working slowly cross-country with my sax, earning money where I could. In Chicago, a note from a friend enclosed several pages from Duke’s yearbook. A year later, in Seattle, the clipping from Shawn’s wedding arrived. Eventually, through friends I made in L.A., I connected with the band I still play with. It’s great, and I don’t need a day job.

Within two years of their marriage, Shawn left Duke. I never learned why. Maybe they were too young, or Shawn was too intense, or they were too much alike. Shawn moved back to Cincinnati for a while, living briefly with his parents.

I called him there some months after I’d heard, after a week of wondering whether to call. We spoke pleasantly for most of an hour. About old times, shared friends, new plans. I mentioned I’d be east at Christmas, to see family. I promised to call. He didn’t disagree.

Three days later, in an note mailed the afternoon we talked, I read:

 

Vic,

It was good hearing from you, but I’m not sure I can see you again. I’m afraid you’ll never get over me, and I don’t know what to do about that. Until you do, there’s nothing more I can say.

Shawn Howells

 

I lived with Shawn for three years, loved him longer than that, and he signed his note as though I were a stranger. Maybe, despite everything else he’d learned, he could still only leave things he didn’t know how to fix. Or maybe he was right: maybe it was my problem.

This Christmas, in a Mount Adams gift shop Shawn had showed me while we were still at Lockbourne, I was buying a present for my newborn niece when Shawn’s mother walked in. I smiled, surprised and ready to start at least polite conversation. Then Shawn followed her into the store.

He glanced at me, also beginning to smile, but when I grinned, almost lifting off the floor, he walked right by. I couldn’t move, couldn’t go after him, didn’t know what to say. It was clear he thought nothing had changed, but so much had. He just gave me no time to explain.

Trying to unsnarl it, talking it out with the guy I eventually settled in with, I question what little I know. Since Lockbourne, Shawn’s life may have been less than he expected, and maybe I remind him of that. And though his skill as an artist keeps growing, I’m sure that’s not all he needs to be happy. Still, I can’t believe, on the phone or in that store, he’d think after seven years apart, I loved him in any way that might be a threat.

I do still love him, but in the way I love many old friends: for the memory of times spent together. If we can’t talk as easily now, if we seem to have less in common, maybe that’s sad. But I won’t let it ruin the times we were close. Maybe Shawn doesn’t see it that way. I have other friends – close friends – for whom I seem to vanish the moment I leave the room. But then we pick right up the moment I walk back in, even years later. Growing’s a funny thing: Growing. Growing. Still growing. I’m not sure anyone’s ever fully grown. I hope Shawn understands that.

2019 by Richard Eisbrouch
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