Still learning after all these years
In the course of their Flea Market afternoon he had stumbled onto what seemed an important new understanding …….an epiphany, if you will.
They were nearing seventy……..each of them moving toward an ill-defined future, carrying his or her share of existential baggage.
Would the very different paths they were treading lead to the shared future each of them hoped for?
Today’s October Year's serialization, Chapter 14 of Second Chances, continues our excursion into the sometimes daunting world of Geriatric Adolescence.
By eleven thirty-five Friday morning Gary and Claudia were ordering their lunch at a Lawrence restaurant, preparing for an afternoon at the flea market. Waiting for their sandwiches, Claudia sipped her ice tea as she explained, “I was hoping my son, Dennis, would be here by now. He’s coming up from San Jose for a few days. I’d like you to meet him.”
“If he’s here next weekend, I’ll see him then. That is, if I’m invited back.”
Gary had welcomed the opportunity to meet her family again. As before, he and Barbara seemed to be on good terms. There were times he could feel the daughter rooting for him, urging her mother to be a bit more adventuresome. Even Connie, Claudia’s granddaughter, seemed to enjoy his teasing attention. That left only Dennis to be won over.
Their sandwiches arrived and Gary, as was his way, put their conversation on hold while he ate. Claudia however, was not limited by such strictures. “By the way I almost forgot,” she said between bites, “Did you get an invitation to the Denton’s fiftieth anniversary reception?”
“No.” A moment later he elaborated. “I wouldn’t have expected one. I haven’t kept in touch with Bob. They weren’t at the reunion, were they?”
“They were on a trip. Carol and I have corresponded ever since high school. She’s about the only one who has stayed in touch. Anyway, they’re having a reception at their place in Newport next weekend, on Friday night.”
Minutes later Gary looked up from the last of his fries, “I just had a great idea.”
“Why don’t we plan to go over for the Denton’s party.”
“What kind of an idea is that?” she laughed. “A weekend at the beach.”
“Who said anything about a weekend?” Gary protested. “You’re making me sound like some kind of lecher.” In truth, he had not considered the possibility of a whole weekend. But now, on second thought, that too had the ring of a good idea. “Besides, why not, if that’s what we want to do?”
“Gary Harris. What are you talking about?” Claudia joked. “I really don’t know about you.”
“Of course you do. It’s true you know. We’re old enough to do what we want. But I wouldn’t ask you to do anything too crazy. Not yet anyway.” There, he wondered, was that enough to calm her down? “Besides, there’s no reason it has to be for the whole weekend.”
“That’s just it. The reception starts at seven o’clock Friday. It goes until eleven, or probably later. That would be awfully late to drive all the way back from the coast.”
Their plates were cleared from the table. Gary had his coffee warmed up, then paused to ask, “Do you know Carol well enough to ask if you could spend a night at their place? If you did that I could get a room downtown. We could do the reception, and have the next day at the beach”
“She may have others staying there. But I could ask.” Claudia took a moment to consider that pleasant prospect---a party with old friends and a Saturday at the coast with Gary.
“We’re talking late August. Right?” Gary asked. “We should be able to count on some good weather. A day at the beach would be fun, wouldn't it?”
He grew silent, smiling to himself as he wrung good feelings from a long forgotten memory. “Remember our senior skip day at Pacific City? That was something special. I’ve never spent a better day at the coast.”
In a matter of seconds Claudia’s own bittersweet recollections had her eyes turning misty. “I remember,” she said softly, knowing that her memories did not match his. “I expected it to be the start of something very good. It turned out to be the end.”
Reaching across the table, Gary took her hand and tried to look into her downturned eyes. “Then it’s time for a new beginning,” he whispered.
The sprawling flea market was as big as advertised, filling the fairgrounds auditorium and overflowing into the wide corridor leading to the livestock barns. The parking lot was only half full, but once inside the narrow aisles were already jammed. Claudia’s decision to be there for the Friday session had been a good one. By Saturday there was bound to be total gridlock.
Gary let her take the lead. He followed a few steps behind as she worked her way up one aisle and down the next, carefully scanning each table she passed. Her pace was slower than he remembered from his tours with Christy. But then Claudia’s approach was different---stopping to examine every item that caught her eye, asking questions and chatting with the vendors.
Every few minutes she would hold up some treasure for Gary to inspect. He did his best to appear interested, sometimes even asking a question or two. Invariably she would look it over again, set it back on the table and move on. They had seen little more than half the tables and purchased nothing, when Gary suggested they break for coffee and a donut.
“Seen anything interesting?” he asked when they found a place to sit.
“Of course. Lot’s of things,” Claudia answered. “But most of them are way too expensive.”
“I suppose you’d have to want them pretty bad. Eh?”
“That’s the trade off for coming on the first day. You miss the the crowds. But the sellers aren‘t ready to cut their prices. The best deals are always on the last afternoon---if you want any of what’s left.”
“I haven’t seen anything I couldn’t live without.”
“You’re way too fussy,” she teased. “Who knows, maybe there is something special out there just waiting for us.” A few minutes later she was ready to return to their treasure hunt.
By two-thirty their tour was complete. They had invested more than two hours, visited every booth, and left the building with a sack of old Life Magazines, a white-handled cap-gun, and very tired feet.
“I can’t believe you paid fifteen dollars for that silly gun,” Claudia said as they started to the car. “Why would you want that?”
“Look who’s talking,” Gary replied. “Why do you want a bunch of old magazines? What can you do with them?”
“Well. I paid three dollars for the whole bunch. If I spend six hours looking through them, it’s fifty cents an hour. That’s good entertainment value. Don’t you think? Besides, I really love the old advertisements.”
“Okay. You got a good deal,” he admitted. “But I bought a cap-gun that I’m sure is exactly like the one I had when I was a kid. There’s something very sentimental about that. It brings back lots of good memories.”
Claudia took the cap gun from her sack and gave it a once over. Handing it to Gary, she offered, “You must have been way ahead of your time.”.
“What does that mean?”
“It means you were probably the first kid on the block to have a cap-gun made in Taiwan, which I’m pretty sure didn’t even exist when you were a kid.”
“Taiwan? Let me see.” He was laughing out loud, knowing he had been snookered again! “Man, I hope your magazines are real.”
Even before Gary pulled out to the street, Claudia was ready with a new request. Could they stop for a few minutes at Dillon Pond Park on their way home?
Following her directions it took only a few minutes to reach the turnoff that led down the shrub-lined driveway into the park. From the parking lot they strolled through a grove of alders toward Dillon Pond. “This has always been one of my very favorite places,” Claudia explained. “It’s usually quiet and not too crowded. I used to walk over here from our place, just to sit and think.”
“What kind of thoughts did you think here?”
He nudged her toward a bench overlooking the pond, which was actually a modest-sized lake. She was quiet for a moment, retrieving memories of the trials and questions she had addressed while seated on one of those park benches.
“In the early days it was mainly about staying afloat---the kids and I. Sometimes I’d be angry, sometimes sad. Sometimes I’d cry. Later, when the kids did something special or I got a raise, I’d be happy. It all depended on what was happening in my life.”
“It’s funny isn’t it---remembering where those kind of thoughts can take you?” Gary nodded. “When I was a kid I used to daydream about places and people I’d never even heard of. I’d study the maps in Dad’s atlas for hours on end, imagining what places in Africa or South America must be like. For some reason I always wanted to see Mongolia.”
Remembering those youthful hours spent poring over multi-colored maps was enough to produce a soothing warmth. There were times when he could not remember what had happened that morning. Yet the pleasant excitement of those alluring maps, sixty years before, was never far out of reach.
“Why do you suppose they attracted you so?”
“I’ve tried to understand that.” Indeed he had tried, though his answers were sketchy at best. “Probably because the ordinary, at least the ordinary I knew, never satisfied me.”
“Even as a kid you felt like that?”
“Yeah. Even then,” he nodded. “You have to remember. I was basically a nobody. Except for Clint I didn’t have many friends, at least until I started wrestling. In the beginning I just kind of tagged along after the other guys and did what they did.”
He closed his eyes for a moment, allowing those unsettling recollections to pass. “Then, by the fourth or fifth grade, I learned that it was easier to get noticed if I raised a fuss or did something crazy. From then on it seemed like I was always finding new ways to get in trouble.”
“That doesn’t sound like the best way to start out?” Claudia offered. “Where did you think that would lead when you grew up?”
“You know, I don’t remember thinking about that. I’m not sure I understood that I had any choice in the matter---that I could do this or that, or be this or that. I just kind of floated along.”
It felt like a good time to change the subject. Standing, Gary reached for her hand. “Why don’t we walk around the pond.”
It was an unusual body of water, that Dillon Pond, circular in shape---perhaps a quarter mile across, with steep sides that dropped sharply off into deep water. It was, in fact, the remains of an old gravel pit filled nearly to the top with ground water and circled by a concrete path. Along the way three floating platforms, reached by long ramps, served as boat docks and handicapped fishing stations.
They chose a clockwise walk around the pond. The afternoon sky was clouded over, but it was comfortably warm. After only a minute or two Claudia’s low chuckle caught Gary’s attention. “What’s so funny?” he asked.
“You said that you 'learned how to raise a fuss.’ Right? Well that’s what I remember....one of those fusses. We moved to Tanner in my junior year. Before long the girls I was hanging out with were warning me about Gary Harris.”
“Yes, you,” she laughed. “Becky Collins made a big thing of it. She told me that you were trouble just waiting to happen.”
He took her hand and pulled her closer, until their shoulders touched as they walked. “That’s a fine way to get noticed. Where do you suppose she got that idea?”
“Actually, I’m not sure it would have mattered what they said. By then you’d already made your own impression.”
She was shaking her head at the thought of it---her introduction to the young rebel he had been in those days. “Your fight with Rodney Powers did that. It was the first real fight I’d ever seen, and it scared me to death.”
“Oh my. I wish I could have done better for your first time.” Gary too remembered that encounter, though for a different reason. By then he had gained a reputation as stubborn and head-strong. That rather bloody confrontation would be the most public demonstration of his willingness to make a stand ….signaling the behavior expected of him, whether or not he was in the mood to push back.
“But why did you even fight him?” Claudia asked, intent on moving beyond the superficial. “He was so big, one of those football players. You were a scrawny little guy. I know you were a good wrestler against boys your own size. But that was different. Everyone could see he was going to beat you up. It made no sense.”
Gary steered her onto a floating dock, to a bench next to the handicapped-fishing station. “I don’t even remember what the fight was about,” he said. “By then I just had to do it. I couldn’t let him push me around anymore.”
“But he did.”
“He sure did. That’s why I have these caps on my front teeth.”
“So why didn’t you stop? He was ready to let it go, to let you leave. By then I think he was embarrassed that he’d even started it. But you wouldn’t let him off.”
How could he explain it in a way she would understand. Even fifty years after the fact he remembered his own chagrin at finding himself in such a predicament. Yet never once did he recall having a choice in the matter. To walk away in front of all those kids would have been even worse.
“What could I do? I couldn’t run. I had to push back---and turn myself into a punching bag with legs.”
Five decades after that afternoon Claudia still struggled to accept his logic. “I know for sure that I‘d never felt anything like that,” she said. “I don’t remember ever wanting to stand up to anyone. Why would I have done that? I wanted them to like me.”
“But how else could you make them see that you were your own person, not just one of them?”
Her lips tightened into a frustrated frown. Why was it so hard to make him understand? “I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to be like them.”
Gary slipped an arm over her shoulder, drawing her closer. It was only a hug, nothing more---just a long and caring hug. “Why didn’t I see that before?” he wondered out loud.
She leaned back, looking up into his face. “See what?”
“All that time I was trying my best to let everyone know that I wasn't like the other guys. I didn't have to do what they wanted." How could he have missed the difference? "And at the same time you were doing everything you could to convince your friends that you were just like them.”
He grinned down into her puzzled wondering. “Don’t you see how it was? We were going in opposite directions---wanting totally different things. No wonder being together was sometimes kind of bumpy.”
His unexpected understanding had the feel of an epiphany---an important truth suddenly revealed. Had he finally stumbled onto the reason for Claudia’s frustrating timidity and appallingly low risk tolerance?
Suddenly it seemed to make sense. It felt as though a weight had been lifted off his shoulders, producing a surprising lightheartedness. They were arm in arm as they walked back to the car and held hands as they drove to Barbara’s house.
Minutes later at Barbara’s, Gary pulled into the driveway and turned off the engine. Before he could open the car door Claudia had his arm. “There’s one other thing I’ve been wanting to tell you,” she said.
She was not sure how to say it, but it needed saying. “You may not have known it at the time but until almost the end of our junior year, when you first asked me to the May Day dance, my friends had never seen me with a boy. Because that was the first time I’d ever been with one. I can still remember how much I liked the way that felt.”
“Hey. you just said I was nothing but trouble. Remember? All your friends said so. Being with me couldn’t have been a big deal.”
“It was to me. Even before I started liking you, being with you made me feel good.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
“Anyway, what I’m trying to say.” She fidgeted with her bracelet, then brushed something off the front of her sweater. “That's how it felt at the reunion, fifty years later. When I walked in there that night I was nobody. No one remembered me. There was no reason they should have.”
He started to interrupt, but she motioned for him to wait.
“I suppose it had never crossed my mind,” she continued. “That people our age still needed help to feel good about themselves. After we danced I went over to visit with the girls. They’d seen us together and all they wanted to talk about was me and Gary Harris. I kind of liked that. I was still upset, thinking about how you’d disappointed me. But I also liked that they were asking about us.”
“You’re right about one thing,” Gary nodded. “As a kid I’d have never guessed that old folks could still be dealing with those kind of things. I probably thought that stuff would have been worked out long before now. Maybe it is for most folks. But when I look at myself today, I know I still have some of those questions.”
He was leading them into a philosophical landscape far beyond Claudia’s comfort zone. “What I wanted more than anything else,” she said. “Was someone who would stay with me. Who would be there. Someone who needed me.
“Do you know that except for my kids there has never been anyone like that in my whole life---someone who needed me. So I learned to be very careful, because the only one I had to count on was me. I'm sure you’ve never felt that way, but I have.”
“Look, I don’t want to be alone either,” Gary countered. “I hope you can tell that. So don’t be saying that no one needs you. Because I do.”
“It’s hard to believe that you’ve ever needed anyone. That’s not the way you act.”
“Claudia, I’m exactly like you. I want the people I care for to care about me. Even when I’m wrong or not paying attention, I want to know there’s someone who cares.”
She took his hand and for a few seconds said nothing. Finally, she nodded, “You’re right. We need that. I suppose everyone does. Especially if they’ve ever been afraid they might be alone forever.”
She paused, reflecting on that awful possibility. “But that’s when you have to be the most careful. To have that person, the one you think cares, go away when you need him most might be a hurt you’ll never get over.”
“I’m not going away this time. Don’t you worry about that.” Her only answer was a soft smile. That was fine. There was no need for further words. He walked her to the door. Without caring who was looking from the window he kissed her lightly on the lips. Moments later he was on the road heading home to Tanner.
As always, dear reader, if you have friends or family who might enjoy a dose of Geriatric Adolescence I invite you to share our address (octoberyears.blogspot.com) with them. That is the best way I know to spread the word. The blog's right sidebar lists all the earlier chapters, beginning in October, so they can always start at the beginning.