Heat, love, and lies

Telluride Daily Planet Sunday, July 8, 2012

Summer, 1978. Our neighbor in Seattle, a prominent physician, has just called in a favor and arranged for me to intern in D.C. with one of our state representatives, someone he has pulled a fistful of strings for without ever asking for anything in return.

As it happens, a college pal is already living in the capitol in a group house right off Dupont Circle, and she tells me I can have the fifth bedroom, recently vacated. As details sort themselves out, all I can think of is freedom, the freedom of not living at home for the summer.

The bus ride from the west coast — — where I’m in school — to the east is an eye opener. Wedged in my window seat with nothing to do but stare out, I settle in for three days, washed over by the wide open spaces of the West that slowly shrink down, overtaken by patchy grids of brick, schedules tightening, people thickening until the bus parks itself on the other side of the continent at last.

I am unprepared for D.C.  Unprepared to arrive not as a person but as an argument, the group divided on not having met me prior, not having voted. Unprepared for the sweltering vacuum of bell jar heat.  Most of all, unprepared for the cockroach armies of the night, an ugly skittering anarchy sucked back into the walls when the lights are turned on each morning.

I am also unprepared for notion that my man — The Man — has no intention of giving The Girl – me — a job, regardless of how many times she checks in or how many times he says he will. This saying Yes while doing No shifts something in me — a chiropractic anti-adjustment — something that makes my spine a fraction more crooked while allowing me to function a fraction more cannily in the Real World.

In the month it takes to spend every cent of my savings, I haunt the magnificent trove of free-to-the-public museums on the mall. Every day, after flicking on the cockroach switch (Let there be cockroaches…), I eat a double portion of oatmeal before ticking off more cultural landmarks. The summer scorches and suffocates, even more hellishly so in the last hippie house off Dupont Circle where there is no AC, the propeller fans set up so close to our pillows and heads we feel their vibrations in our teeth.

I sit on the stoop a lot that first month. I spend days at the library listening to records in listening rooms, feeding an obsession with Billy Holiday and Dinah Washington, and musical theater, and follow up by writing a dreadful libretto for a musical about being unemployed in our nation’s capitol. My other obsession is my housemate Joyce, an instant best friend, who teaches me to fear thunder like the plague and to run for cover in the cool of dark bars where we order Irish Coffees to keep us warm and bolstered.

Finally, there is no avoiding the truth that I’m broke, and the internship was a lie. With a new sense of reality, I myself lie in order to get a job in a café in Georgetown. This leads to another lie and an overlapping job in a busy bar that sells 700 kinds of beer. Eventually, I have a new schedule: 10 – 3:30 at the café and 5 til 2 at the bar. Because I’ve learned to drink during thunderstorms, I figure out how to do it late at night in order to get to sleep.

In my blue-collar hustle of serving people, I meet an English boy who likes to hang out at the café in his skinny jeans and high top sneakers. I soon learn he’s a blue blood who, in defiance of his parents, has come to the States to slum a little rather than take the next set of exams. He finds me refreshing. I find him utterly beautiful (because he is) and we fall in a clingy tumble down the hole of desperate love.

But when he tells his parents that I’m coming back with him to England, the ticket of which is being purchased as they speak, he is summoned — in a tractor beam of authority – instantly back, without me. Thus wrenched away, he writes me a stack of brilliant love letters from England that linger for months and months in my consciousness, long after he has disappeared completely and irretrievably into the upper crust of his velvety white bread. It is all so mysterious.

In early September, having written him the first and only poems I’ll ever write any man, I pack my suitcase, summer clothes layered with feverish lessons of life and Lover man, oh where can you be. As I press down and snap the latches I am given my first 20 pounds of adult baggage: Where is the truth, then, in all these lies?

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