Commentary: A Tale of False Starts and Dead Ends

Last year about this time I got an idea for a book, a comic novel of failed relationships, based on my own lifetime of unfortunate experiences. Yeah, I know, it’s been done.

But I thought I had a new take on this old chestnut. First I’d present the story from the male’s perspective, and then from the female’s view. And I thought I would approach it by asking the ex-girlfriends and wives to write their own sides – they are all literate. Why not?

To test the sanity of the premise, I decided to start by asking an ex-girlfriend whose friendship, at least, was not ruined by our relationship. As expected, she liked the idea and seemed interested in contributing to the project, but then she threw something that made me flinch – “You’ll have to meet my boyfriend,” she said. “He’s jealous. He’d feel better if he met you.”

That made me realize this could be a very long process. If it was going to be that much work for an ex who still liked me, what would it be like with the one who tried to stab me, and all the others in between?

Then I thought, well, it’s fiction. I can get inside their characters and tell their sides. It won’t be the same, but the other way could be a life’s project and I don’t have time for that.

A deadline for a fiction contest was coming up in a couple days, and I set my mind on trying to spin out one of the relationship stories for the competition. But I wasn’t finding the right voice and the clock was ticking. I went for a walk in the village where I live. This was before the village library had moved across the street to new digs. Back then it was inside the same building as the village office and the post office. I stopped to pick up my mail and then walked into the library lobby, where various used books were for sale. I picked up a 1903 edition of The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant:  Ten Volumes in One. After dropping a dollar in the slot, I hurried home for inspiration from a master storyteller.

Thumbing through the book, I stopped at a story titled “Diary of a Madman.” I can only guess why that one caught my eye.

It’s the story of a much honored and respected judge who, when dying at age 82, leaves behind a diary, in which he admits being a serial killer.

Well, I thought, if Guy de Maupassant can do it, so can I, and in the next 24 hours cranked out a story of possible murder (does he? doesn’t he?) that I knew was entirely inappropriate for this sort of contest, but at least I met the deadline. Yes, I am a slave to deadlines.

And I thought this might get the bigger project out of my system. But it did not. The idea keeps bobbing to the surface like a bloated corpse.

Very recently I thought, how far back should you go? First crush or first real girlfriend?

That got me thinking about the first real girlfriend. She dumped me soon after I was asked in my junior year to leave the school grounds and never darken the doorway again.

She said she was too mature for me.

“A whole 16 days,” I said, referring to the number of days between our birth dates.

“Seems like years,” she said.

I was crushed, but now I know what she meant. I was an idiotic, know-it-all, know-nothing teenager who did a lot of stupid things. I would have worked on that had I known my desire to be the Abbie Hoffman/Ken Kesey of Central High School bugged her so much.

But before I was finally kicked out of high school, we had a lot of fun together. We both had long, flowing hair and one of our classmates once said we looked like lions coming down the hall together, which we thought was funny since we were both Leos.

She once painted for me a full-size rendering of the inside of the Led Zeppelin IV album cover, the wizardy guy holding a lantern and looking down from rocky heights. It was one of our favorite records. Wonder what happened to that painting?

So I really have nothing but good memories about her, and I thought, why not start with her? I bet she’s still living somewhere near our mutual hometown. I Googled her with the idea of finding her healthy and having lived a happy life. Should I reach out to her when I find her? Let’s just see what we see, I told myself.

The first thing that came up was an obituary from March of this year for her mother, and in it the absolutely stunning news that the woman I am looking for died five summers ago.

How can this be? No, I think, this isn’t her. But, there, in the list of survivors, is the name of her sister and brother-in-law, still together all these years later. We went to visit them in Minneapolis on a sunny but cold March weekend. Took the Greyhound. I thought they were the coolest people I was likely to ever meet. I remember some people stopped at their apartment before they all went to a concert with Long John Baldry, Savoy Brown and Fleetwood Mac. I can’t remember why we didn’t go. Blew all our money on the Greyhound tickets, I’m guessing. Still, that weekend felt so adult.

It’s inconceivable to me that she is no longer here. As I read and confirm that it is indeed true that she died in June of 2013, I feel I have been kicked in the gut.

I have not seen this person, or really even thought of her, in 40 years, yet I feel a part of me is lost forever. Any clarity I might have gained about that first real relationship by talking to her these many years later is nothing but fantasy now. Maybe it was fantasy before because who knows if I would have reached out had I found her still here, or if she would have responded to my odd request.

And maybe that is the true story, a story of false starts and dead ends.

RIP, Claudia.

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