Saturday, August 22, 2015
SO "RIGHT" YOU'RE "WRONG"--FROM CHAPTER VII: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
My brother drove me to Schuylerville on a hot September day. I introduced Bobby to Pouliot who directed us to the dorm, adjacent from the main house, where I’d be staying. I had a small bedroom, bathroom, and study that overlooked the river. Bobby and I smoked a few cigarettes, talked about nothing in particular, and then he left.
Later that day, the other teachers arrived and over lunch in the main dining room, Pouliot made the introductions. Greg and Jane were a married couple from Ohio, he of medium height and slight of build who, under thinning blond hair, wore glasses and sported a wispy mustache. He taught math and seemed to be a quiet fellow who regaled us, later that afternoon, about the complexities of the stereo system he’d brought with him. His wife looked bored when he spoke, much preferring to interrupt his train of thought every few minutes with some inane comment. She was not a bad looking woman, though certainly would not be considered attractive. She had a stout Midwestern body, muscled calves and thighs, heavy breasts supported by a wide back and thick shoulders. She looked at me the way a whore looks at the best looking guy out of a gang she has to serve time with in prison. Her look left no doubt in my mind of the kind of diversions she was thinking about. I made up my mind to avoid this happily married couple. I had a stereo, too.
John, a short, powerfully built man in his late twenties, was our gym teacher. He seemed to be what every gym teacher I had ever met in my life was supposed to be, a real, no bullshit kind of guy. He had black curly hair, dull brown eyes, thick arms, and hands like two hams. He also appeared to have a little trouble getting next to water. I smelled him when I got near enough to shake his hand which felt like a vise. When he spoke, he lacked the pretense of other teachers. As we talked, we found a common interest in sports. He had lived up around that area all his life and promised me that once the season changed to “real fall,” he’d drive me up and through the Adirondacks to see the turning of the leaves. He kept his word.
Then there was Stephan, a wormy looking sonofabitch, very thin and morose, who was older than he appeared. When he shook my hand he offered only his fingers, and I didn’t really want to touch them; they were wet. He was the senior teacher who had been there as long as Pouliot, ten years. Having seniority, he had the cabin that stood alone in back of the house, directly overlooking the river. It was an out of the way place which seemed to fit his personality. He spoke in whispers, when he did, had a hard time looking you in the eye, and his body was always shifting. I knew by the placement at the table, and the few exchanges he had with Pouliot, that he had his ear, and so I decided to be careful what I did and said around him.
There was also Glenda, Pouliot’s wife, a fat sow of a woman, who was the bookkeeper and kept calling into the kitchen berating the cook for doing this or not doing that: “I wanted a ham sandwich for lunch, I told you that! I wanted applesauce for dessert, where is it? Why aren’t all the screens in the windows? There’s flies in here!” Pouliot seemingly paid no attention to her, and she didn’t seem to mind.
The rest of the afternoon was spent painting, hammering in a few loose boards, and getting our classrooms ready. That evening, we discussed what we wanted to do individually and collectively, and how we could compliment each other. That night, in my room, I read the available files on some of the kids who would be arriving the next day and discarded the gossip/advice/and prejudices of the returning teachers.
The limos started to arrive early in the morning. We stood in front of the main building to meet and greet them, and also to direct the students to their rooms. I observed with a writer’s curiosity, what method of transportation brought them to us and who accompanied them. Some arrived by chauffeur and seemed to be put off by their own pretensions and carried, to the protestation of either their families or the hired help, their possessions to the assigned room. While others, getting out of Caddy’s, Lincoln’s, Mercedes and two or three Rolls’, exuding the bored detachment of “ I can’t believe I’m doing this again,” the wide-eyed fear of separating for the first time, or the practiced nonchalance of “nothing you can do is going to get to me.” A few arrived on the bus with a bag of clothes in their hands and “where do I stash these and sleep?” I watched others who stood in circles and smoked making furtive glances at me and the other new teachers, snickering, nodding, and agreeing with each other in the practiced way of adolescents. We took them all. Hell, the school’s population had declined so rapidly that it was bordering on bankruptcy, but that’s one of the reasons I was hired, to try and keep them there.
I was standing watching the action when I felt the presence of someone standing beside me. I turned to see this very attractive woman, professionally made up and stylishly dressed in layers of white, holding the hand of a young boy.
“Are you Mr. Savage?” she asked flashing me a smile of perfect white teeth.
“Yes, I am,” I answered, shielding my eyes from the glare.
“I’m Mrs. Simon and this is my son, Howard.”
“Hi Howard,” I said, extending my hand.
“Hello,” Howard said showing me a mouth of silver braces.
“Mr. Pouliot said you’re Howard’s dorm father and I wanted to introduce myself to you. We’d really appreciate it if you watched Howard, I mean especially watch Howard.” Mrs. Simon made a gesture towards the Mercedes in back of her where a gentleman sat behind the steering wheel, wearing a thick gold chain sporting a large gold medallion and wearing driving gloves in 75 degree heat. I waved to him in acknowledgment. “My husband and I would really appreciate it.”
“Of course, Mrs. Simon. Howard and I will be just fine. Don’t worry about a thing. You play basketball Howard?”
Before Howard could answer, Mrs. Simon said, “Howard loves basketball, don’t you Howard?”
Howard wagged his head like one of those dogs in the rear window of Mexican cars.
“That’s wonderful,” she continued. “We will both see you very soon, parents day in another month or so and we’ll speak to you tonight.” She stooped down to where I could see plenty of breast, kissed Howard, and was gone in an instant. Howard stood there dumbstruck.
“Cheer up Howie, things could have been worse. She could have stayed,” but Howie didn’t comprehend. He was fourteen but looked ten. He was a little overweight, with fat red cheeks and the bluest of eyes. “Listen, maybe we’ll shoot the ball later, let’s get you settled.” Howard looked up at me like a drowning man seeing a life boat. I put my hand around his shoulder and showed him to the dorm, giving him the closest room to me.
“No fuckin’ nightmares, Howie, you got that?” I said and smiled.
He looked up at me and, for the first time that day, laughed.
After meeting the parents and getting the young men properly placed, we had to go the main house for dinner. It was the first time I had to say “grace” before a meal. I didn’t digest it any better, especially sitting next to Mrs. Pouliot who kept huffing and puffing about the ineptitude of the chef and his assistants. Pouliot sat at the opposite end of the table talking with no one and staring off into the distance.
There was nothing that I tried to do that first week except introduce myself, and the classes I was teaching, to the students assigned there. Also, I talked to them about the groups, voluntary in nature, and hang around the basketball court with those who were attracted to the sport and to me. Before too long, I had so many students signed up for group that I had to have two of them to accommodate them all which was all right with me. I truly love that dynamic and the changes it can bring.
I was excited with teaching what I loved and running groups, and that kind of infectiousness rubs off. In order to kick off the groups, I knew if they were ever going to open up to me and each other, I’d have to level with them by divulging some of my own past. I didn’t linger or embellish it. I just stated it in the vernacular of the streets and their generation so they’d know I knew similar, if not the same, upheavals that they had experienced. It was, I explained, the help of my friends, and the trust that groups like this try to initiate and maintain that made me feel better about myself and what I was doing. Also, I emphasized that these groups were “sacred” and whatever was discussed in them should remain in them, that I would not go to anyone outside of the group and “rat them out,” and that any violation of that trust would result in expulsion from the group. They treated it like their private world, respecting and protecting it as their own.
I’d go back to my room at night and try to write, but couldn’t. One day, the phys ed teacher, John, was going into town and asked me if I wanted to ride along. I went into a liquor store and got two pints: Chivas Regal and Jack Daniels. John cautioned me not to let Pouliot see them. He supposedly frowned on drinking, especially while working but even when off. I felt it was also wrong, but not because of any conflict with Pouliot’s morality. I believed that I should have the strength, imagination, and determination to write without the aid of substances. Damn my diabetes. That didn’t figure into the equation. I was still dodging that bullet, let alone confront my other disease of addiction. Back in my room that night, I sipped from the bottle of Chivas, listened to Trane and wrote a letter to Diane and one to Julio not saying much to either. I felt a little easier just to have contact with those I felt close with but were far away from. I felt a little like the kids I was trying to dissuade from doing exactly what I was doing, drinking.
Howard stuck to my side like his life depended on it, and maybe it did. He was, if anything, a funny pain-in-the-ass. It seemed like every time I turned around he was tugging at my pants’ leg either to play basketball or show me something he did. One time, trying to get away from him, I ducked into the bathroom, excusing myself as I did this with a “Seeya later” exit line. When I reappeared, a few minutes later, Howard scared the shit out of me by picking up the conversation exactly where we had ended it. All he really wanted to do was belong and he was having a hard time of it. I tried to include him in whatever activity I was doing, trying to grease the social wheels for him, but he still had a difficult time. If an adult was not around to broker a situation for him, he stayed alone. He showed me a letter he was getting ready to send home. It read something like this:
I love you very much. I love Daddy, too. I love brother and I love sister. I love everybody at home. And I always will.
“Are you sure you want to mail this?” I inquired.
“Yes, you bet. And I’m going to call them tonight and tell them all about you and playing basketball and everything.”
“You don’t have to do that. We can keep that stuff just between you and me.”
“No, oh no, they have to know. I want to tell them.”
“O.K. Howie, I’ll seeya later.” I knew it was futile to continue. Howie was already rushing towards the phone booth, his hotline to the womb.
On a clean, crisp, Saturday afternoon I got into John’s car to take a ride with him through the Adirondacks. For four hours we drove up the magnificent sides of mountains and through valleys looking at the fall foliage and smelling the scent of pine needles and earth. I was grateful that John wasn’t a talker. I enjoyed smoking a Lucky, looking out the window at the colors of a changing landscape, noticing the brilliance before death. It reminded me of a Shakespearian sonnet that Rosen had taught. ... “such fire/That on the ashes of his youth doth lie/As the deathbed whereon it must expire,”...
We stopped for lunch at a roadside saloon that John had frequented since he was old enough to drink. It smelled of pine needles and cedar. We ordered burgers and beer, and both were delicious. Over our lunch, John began asking questions about the groups I was running. He was not curious, he was quick to tell me, but other faculty members were. Since there were only three other faculty members beside myself, it was not too difficult to figure out which was which. He sounded like he felt he was being left out as well, though he wouldn’t talk about that. I told him that my intention was not to alienate anyone, certainly not the teachers. (I really couldn’t care less but, if I were to stay there, I had better make an attempt.) I explained that I was hired to run groups. I also explained the importance of keeping groups confidential. I tried, by giving him information that wasn’t “classified,” that was offered in conspiratorial whispers and asides, trying to turn a potential threat into an ally. When I thought I succeeded, I stopped talking saying that I really “couldn’t divulge any more at this time” but perhaps I could later.
On the way back, I could feel he wanted to say something to me but was finding it hard to find the right way to begin. I smoked a cigarette waiting for it to find a way out.
“You better watch Stephan,” he suddenly said.
“Why’s that?” I responded, sure he was now ready to go full bore.
“He’s the one that’s putting a bug in Pouliot’s ear. Seems there have been students that feel pressured to join your groups.”
“That’s not true. These groups are voluntary,” I said, but knew differently. There was one kid in one of my groups who had felt that pressure. I didn’t know why some of the other kids leaned on him to join, but I had some suspicions.
“He’s a fuckin’ faggot too,” he blurted out and turned his head to me to gauge my reaction. If he meant to say that to shock me, repulse me or test me, he was disappointed. I stared out the window knowing what I needed to know.
That week in group, Kevin, a strong handsome seventeen year old, who looked like he was twenty, expressed a desire to leave the group. I told him that coming to the group was his decision, and leaving was also up to him, but I could see he was conflicted and asked him why. The other students, some of whom were friends of his and knew the conflict, watched him sit and squirm, struggling with the truth. Tears welled up in his eyes, and anger gripped his throat. He told me and the group how this teacher was putting tremendous pressure on him to drop from the group and continue the affair that they had begun last year. He was, as so many boys are at that age, ambivalent about his sexual identity, and this affair had conflicted him even more. The teacher was fearful he’d be exposed and threatened to break the relationship up should he continue coming to groups. Wanting the affection, if not the friendship, of the teacher, Kevin had decided it would be less risky to just stop attending. While he was relieved that his secret had seen the light of day, he was less than thrilled to have to make the decision he had. I said that no one in here was judging him on either his actions or his sexuality but that we hoped he’d remain with us. He didn’t, I continued, have to make a decision now, but should take some time to think about it and perhaps talk it over with me alone.
After the group I went down to Stephan’s cabin and knocked. A look tinged with concern and fear crossed his face when he saw who it was at the door. He opened it wearing a bathrobe and slippers, eating a bowl of cereal although it was near evening.
“Norman, hello, come in,” he said, a little milk spilling from the corner of his mouth. He wiped it away with his hand.
“No, I’m not coming in and I don’t want to stay long. I’m concerned,” I went on, “about one of the kids in my group. It seems that there might be a teacher here who’s been having an affair with him. You wouldn’t know who that might be?”
“I certainly wouldn’t. Could you believe him? You know how students that age say anything, especially the kind of students we get here.”
“He’s seventeen,” I said, paying no attention to what he asked me. “Being seventeen means that that teacher, whoever he is, besides taking a confused kid and fucking him up even more, could be accused of rape, you know what I mean? I have no moral take on homosexuality at all, sex is sex, but I do mind fucking predators, know what I mean?”
“Absolutely, me too, but still, I would be circumspect with these kids, take what they say with a grain of salt.” This time he looked at me without any fear, resolute in his ability to challenge whatever I, or any student, would have to say against him.
I looked at him for a few seconds before turning and walking back up the hill to my dorm. Kevin left the group shortly thereafter. I felt the situation was not over; I didn’t realize then how fucked I really was.
The next Friday, Bobby, Joann (my brother’s high school sweetheart), and Nina came up to the school to stay with me. My brother and Joann took my study to sleep in while Nina stayed with me. Something in my gut told me that this was not something I should be doing for many reasons, the propriety of the school and also out of respect for Diane, who was coming up the week after for my birthday, but I said, once again, the battle cry of alcoholics and addicts far and wide, “Fuck it.”
We tripped around Saratoga that weekend going in and out of different restaurants and saloons. Nina brought me a copy of Sylvia Plath’s book of poems, Crossing the Water, and my brother and Joann paid for dinner and a night of carousing. Sunday morning Nina and I got up and went to the main house to have some breakfast and a cup of coffee. After a few hours of talking, I sent Howie to my room to wake up my brother. He came back a few minutes later, his cheeks beet red and tried to tell me, without stuttering, what he had seen. I gripped his shoulders, told him to calm down, but already had a pretty good idea of what he saw. I went to my room with him and opened the door. They were still in the same position, naked but thankfully sleeping. Howie saw, for the first time, female genitalia that was not his mother’s.
“Howie,” I said, “one day, and I hope that day is not too long in coming, you too will find yourself, like my brother there, oblivious to any and everything around you. A woman can do that for you.”
Howard looked up at me not at all sure whether he wanted what I said or not. He asked me, after a pause, if I wanted to play basketball. I told him I would love to play, but later.
By the time I turned around, a week had passed. My birthday was upon me, and Diane was nearing Saratoga. I borrowed John’s car to pick her up and waited while the Greyhound pulled into the terminal. When we saw each other, it seemed that the difficulties of the past few months disappeared. Once again, we were caught in each other’s energy, complimenting each other’s rhythms, and curious about where the next turn of phrase would come from and take us. It felt new.
We drove onto the campus and parked the car in front of the dorm. When the kids saw me pull up, they began walking our way. I introduced Diane to the five or six who stood there. I could see they couldn’t take their eyes off her. Their mouths stood open, as if they were catching flies. I hoped that some of the less sophisticated boys, like Howard, would not blurt out my last weekend’s adventure with my brother, accidentally mentioning Nina’s name. No one did. Yet, I could see those who were smarter, were drawn to me and knew the ropes of the liar I had admonished them from continuing to be, cast a few disappointed glances my way. A few of the bolder ones asked if she was an actress or a model and how the hell she could have me as boyfriend. She shook her head and rolled her eyes to mean she didn’t know either. I’m sure she invaded a few of their dreams and instigated their forays into pleasing themselves that night.
I carried Diane’s overnight bag and put it in the bedroom and showed her my digs. When we went into the study, she eyed the bottles of Chivas and Jack Daniels, didn’t say anything, and went to my desk. I saw, on top of my desk, Plath’s book of poems, the one that Nina had given me. My stomach froze.
“When did you get this?” she asked, turning the cover and reading the inscription.
“Awhile ago,” I lied. I knew the inscription did not give a specific year.
“Who’s Nina?” she inquired.
“A chick I knew, who knew I liked Plath,” I said trying to sound nonchalant.
“It looks new,” she said.
“It is new, never really opened it until I came here. Just kinda put it aside and let it lay there. When I started to think what women writers they might respond to I thought of Plath and brought the books I had by her. Am I on trial here?”
“No, sweetie, just asking,” she replied and came and put her arms around me. I felt like a heel because I was a heel.
That night we went back to Hattie’s for dinner. Later, we found Mose Allison playing in a jazz bar and caught his second set. After, back in my room, we spoke about the last few months and caught up on each other’s lives.
The next morning we went to the main house to have breakfast. In the anteroom sipping on a cup of coffee Glenda, Pouliot’s wife, purposely I’m sure, brought out my mail. There on top, was a postcard from Nina, with a big Love & Kisses inscription for my birthday. Diane went wild. She snatched the card from my hand and ran back to my room. Quickly, I followed her saying things like, “Wait, wait a minute,” and other inanities.
She ripped up the postcard and started tearing pages from Plath’s book. She repeated the word, “Liar” over and over. Once she was finished destroying the book of poems, she proceeded to grab anything within reach. Each time I tried to stop her, she got angrier. “Some nerve,” she shouted.
“Why don’t I help you pack? I’ll take you back to the bus. I’m sorry, truly sorry,” I finally said.
“Fuck you and fuck you being sorry, and fuck Nina, and fuck whoever you want to fuck now...and no, you’re not going to take me to the bus; I’m going to stay here and ruin your birthday.”
“No you’re not. I can’t let you stay,” I said, anger and humiliation creeping up my spine.
“You’re afraid I’ll embarrass you? I’m embarrassed, why shouldn’t you be?” she spat at me.
“Listen, I’m sorry, but you’re leaving. I can’t talk to you this way and I’m not going to let you stay here.”
“Who’s going to stop me?”
“Me,” I said my voice escalating with controlled rage. “Because if you don’t leave,” I continued, “I’m going in the bedroom, get your stuff, pack it, and throw the shit all over Saratoga. Now go the fuck in there, pack your things, and I’ll take you to the bus.”
She glared at me, came forward, slapped me in the face and muscled her way past me, back into the bedroom. I waited while she packed. I felt sick to my stomach. I would not see Diane again for almost a year.
The taste of my birthday weekend lingered in my mouth like wet ash. My mind was busy making rationalizations while my heart knew the sickening truth: my insecurity, my double-dealing, my lies and duplicities kept me away from, and caused pain to, those who had done nothing but get too close to me.
In the two weeks between putting Diane on the bus and parents weekend, I had managed to alienate the teachers by not extending an invitation to attend the groups I was running. My explanations did little to inform and educate, nor did it curb their distrust and, in more than one case, dislike of me. The kids in the groups discussed their parents impending visit with an ambivalent mix of desire and disgust. At first, they thought I would champion their positions, and I quickly assured them that this was not so. It was never my intention to initiate an “either/or,” “us” vs. “them” battle over who was right or wrong. There was no need to choose sides, I told them. However, I went on, this was an opportunity to begin a dialogue that encourages the honest exchange of information and feeling. In retrospect, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Most of the parents arrived by midmorning on Saturday. Each teacher stood in his classroom and waited for them to filter in. They greeted me warmly and we talked about how their boys were doing in the subject area and, if appropriate, how they were doing emotionally. Generally, I thought it went well.
That evening I went out for dinner with Howie’s parents even though he was not a student of mine, despite having received five or more invitations from the parents of students who were. Howard’s father cornered me at the very beginning of the day telling me how much he appreciated my interest in Howard, and he’d simply would not take no for an answer. Quickly, I reasoned, I’d probably be better off going with them rather than with a student’s family, where I would more than likely have to talk about them in more detail.
We arrived at an exclusive restaurant adjacent to the racetrack in Saratoga. Over drinks and dinner, I was surprised at how relaxed I was. Ron, Howie’s father, a manufacturer owning mills in another state, looked like Tom Jones and wore a rug, a Rolex, and the gold chain and medallion. He was, nevertheless, intelligent, funny and very charming as well as warm and interested in my views. His mother, Leslie, wore another all white ensemble, a single strand of white pearls which were as big as marbles, a Piaget tastefully rimmed with diamonds, and an assortment of expensive rings and bracelets. She was gracious, had a quick laugh and, if she could, would devour Howie whole. Yet, the evening was entertaining, if for no other reason than I was unaccustomed to being around very wealthy people, and I was curious about the dynamics of such a family.
At evening’s end, when they dropped us off at school, they thanked me again. Ron gave me his business card and encouraged me to call him “about anything.” I thanked them for the dinner, and as Howie and I trudged back to the dorm, I thought about the forces that had brought his parents together to forge the misshapen and funny kid who walked beside me.
By Monday, it was all over. Pouliot called me into his office. “Mr. Savage,” he began, “the groups are going to have to stop.”
“Why, what for?” I asked, a bit incredulous.
“What for!?” He glared at me intimating he didn’t know they were going on in the first place. “What for! Because the parents are concerned that a person with no medical, not to mention psychological, credentials should be allowed to conduct something that might very well harm their children. That’s what for.”
I knew the smell of fear. Sometimes that smell means “danger” and sometimes it means “money.” I knew, instantly, in this case, it was the latter. “What do you want me to do?”
“Well, I must admit, frankly, and here I must take some responsibility for inviting you up here--our intentions, well...”
“Mr. Pouliot, what do you want me to do?”
“Well, like I was saying, to be frank with you, I would want you to, well, leave.”
“Leave? You want me to leave? You’re firing me?”
“Yes, I’m sorry, but yes.”
I felt as if the earth cracked, and I was falling into the abyss. I struggled to regain my balance. Realizing that this was a done deal I said, “Make out a check, including severance pay.”
“Severance pay?” He looked up and into my eyes. “Yes, a few weeks, of course.”
I went into the adjoining room and made a phone call to my brother. As I spoke with him, telling him what happened, and watching as Pouliot made out a check, I felt humiliated. It was like seeing a cop’s red light in my rear view mirror and knowing, although I had done nothing wrong, they were coming for me. I knew there were no busses out at that time and asked him to drive up immediately, if possible, so I wouldn’t have to stay overnight. He said he would and I hung up. I went and got my check and, without looking at Pouliot, went to my room to pack.
The news spread rapidly. Soon, there were kids from my classes, groups, and the dorm coming by to ask “why?” All I told them was that it was a difference of opinion with the administration over certain issues. However, some of the kids knew better. They came, both individually and in pairs to tell me that they had told their parent or parents about the groups and some of what was discussed there. Some of their parents freaked. Other parents’ facial expressions were enough to register displeasure. I exchanged phone numbers with some of them. Howie was already on the phone to his mother. I packed everything except the Chivas, it was nearly empty anyway.
pgs 111-118, From Chapter VII: JUNK SICK: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
Greenwich Village, 2015