The Soul unto itself
Is an imperial friend –
Or the most agonizing Spy –
An Enemy – could send –
But now, at least, there is nothing
between me and my soul but myself.
It’s a wide arc, bound by spaces of sky, their shape and light clothed in fire and velvet, but always the same sky, prone across the oceans, the prairies, and spooned into hills and mountains. All the terrifying and beautiful places of my life. I can see them, behind me, not always as it is now: my wife of twenty years sleeps in our bed, and there’s a black and white dog small enough to lie peacefully by the keyboard as I write, content with who I am. Honest reflection admits everything as it was. But age renders all as exquisite necessity. I am who I always was. I am not backward, I am not slow, I am not anti-social. I am an introvert, and of myself, friends have made a friend.
In my earliest recollections, winters were the cruelest—for years, purchased from Goodwill, a red coat with a collar lined in fur. Most winters, until too small, it lay discarded and rumpled at the foot of a tree among the roots, or hung on low, capable branches, while I played. I hated it for the jokes it spawned, its bulk and color. More than a few winter hats spent years in trees, or were carried away from Medary Ave. on the tops of mail trucks, milk trucks, bread trucks and car antennae. My parents knew I did not like to wear hats. So, when I came home without the latest stocking cap, or ear-muffed, billed hat I was punished further. They did not believe it was southbound, out of the neighborhood on a delivery truck.
I spent hours as a child in the solace of my room, where the echoes of the day ricocheted off the inside of my skull and twisted themselves like snakes inside me. Even during the brief respites at the house of Billy Joyce, my best friend, I was woefully cognizant of my soft voice and my hesitant ways. Billy’s father was Cat Joyce. He played bass for a jazz band. He was a barrel-chested man with a deep, resonant voice. We would listen to him practice, watch his fingers pull sonorous notes from the frets, Kong-sized heartbeats, thunderstorms, and the rumble of race cars. We were sometimes allowed to try and play the strings, while Cat held the bass upright. The heavy-wound wires seemed nearly as large as our fingers. Even when Cat pressed the strings for us, the most we could pull from the dark, cavernous wood was a dull thud. We marveled at how he seemed to effortlessly press them and cull the music from them. In those hours and minutes I found myself wanting to possess the ability to capture someone’s eyes and ears in a way that what I was doing, what I was giving was accepted.
I grew. My family moved from Ohio to Florida, where I became a teenager. I went to dances, reticent to dance. I was chaperoned with a car carrying teenage couples kissing, but I did not out of fear. I had no girlfriends my first two years of high school. My first real date after a football game, my father drove us there. Brady Nader danced with my date all evening because I couldn’t do fast dancing. When my father dropped her off at her home, she bolted from the car without a word. There seemed no peace from the mortification that was my shadow.
In 1961 Hurricane Carla hit Houston, Texas. Nearly every window in the downtown skyscrapers were blown out and shattered on the city streets. A call went out for glazers. My father had been forced to abandon his art glass company when we moved to Florida, and worked for Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company at that time. He responded to the petition from Houston and drove there from Florida. I was fifteen years old. My sister, Janet, was twelve, and my two brothers, Bill and Eddie, were five and three. We moved again, this time to Houston in September. Once again, everything was new, which did not play well with my personality.
We were in Houston a short time before we moved again. My mother had been introduced to a man named Vincent while we lived in Florida. He was an erudite Spanish gentleman with a deep rounded voice. He lived with his sister and two nieces in Ormond Beach. They had stayed in touch and in the summer of 1962 my mother announced that we were moving to Spain. At the time I remember lying awake at night listening to my parents argue. They were not in agreement, but we sold everything we owned and booked cabin-class passage on the USS Independence. I felt anything but independent, more like a flag in a hurricane.
One thing appealed to me the most on the ship to Spain—the isolation. At night I lost myself in the two seas—the starry sky and the ocean. I stood as far forward as I could go on the ship’s bow, feeling the night air around me, hearing the cutting of the water, watching the moon and stars, rippled and radiant, on the surface of the endless Atlantic. I felt otherwise somewhat freakish. My father had my head shorn before we left Texas. I had not much I could call “my” sense of style.
I wandered awkwardly through the floors and solarium of the ship, and it was in the solarium that Katherine walked up to me and invited me to go to a movie that evening. Her father was an ambassador to Lebanon, which is where they were going. I had never heard of Lebanon, and vaguely knew what an ambassador was. We went that evening to see the movie, Parrish with Troy Donahue and Connie Stevens. The movie was shown in the large cafeteria. We sat in a booth. At one point Katherine reached up and kissed me. It was my first. I felt like I never felt before, having done something I never thought possible for me. When we arrived at her stateroom she talked to me about Lebanon and I about Spain. I had a jacket on and she played with the zipper, which made me nervous, but delighted. She seemed genuinely interested in me, and I accepted it, a new experience for me. We saw each other nearly every day for the remaining seven days of the voyage. We said goodbye in the Gibraltar Straits. From the large windows of the Promenade Deck, I watched a shuttle take her and her family toward the Port of Tangier as an old black porter sang “Hello Young Lovers Wherever You Are” while swinging a mop rhythmically over the floor. I wrote to Katherine, but I never heard from her again.
Could there have been a worse nightmare for a young introverted teenager, brought to that age by strict parenting and the shame-ridden behavior techniques of a Catholic grade school, than to be gently rocked over an ocean and then thrust into a school for boys where not one other person spoke English. Nuestra Señora del Buen Consejo was my Inferno of Madrid, an irony of biblical proportion. Ostensibly, the reason for this school and the trip to Spain in general was to impart a “European education” to Janet and I, and for my father to acquire a position under a stained-glass master, neither of which came to pass.
Our Lady of Good Counsel was a boarding school run by Franciscan monks. They wore long, heavy brown robes with rope sashes at the waist. These ropes they used like clergy cattle ropers to keep the boys in line. I was put back in the eighth grade. Spanish schools were ahead of American schools in the 50s. In the eighth grade, students were learning physics and chemistry. I learned nothing of either, because the classes were in Spanish. Of course, I excelled in the English classes. Sleeping quarters were cubicles of two boys each. I was paired with a boy the others teased. He had an impairment, one leg was shorter than the other. He was required to wear one shoe with a very thick sole. Boys threw old bars of soap over our cubicle at night, and one night I was blamed for starting this practice and had to stand against a wall all night. Every time I fell asleep, I would soon feel a rope sash across the backs of my legs. Needless to say I retreated to where comfort lived in me, the places in my life alone, woods in Florida where I passed full days among the harmless trees, birdsong and the slow music of reeds that swung creek water in a low curl around them. There I stayed, behind the walls of language, while timidly disassembling their stones with each new Spanish word or phrase I learned.
To find relief from my torment at the school, on weekends I would ride the subways from one end of Madrid to the other. Often I would exit onto the streets downtown and buy a calamari sandwich and a bottle of Spanish beer from a street vendor. It was at one of these on the Calle Huertas where I met Isabel working with her father. “Are you American,” her first words to me, received almost like a song in perfect English. It was all I could do not to cry. Nearly three months had passed where, except for every other weekend home, I spoke or listened to no one in words I understood completely. Isabel. We talked on a bench near her father’s food cart until I had to go back to the school before evening meal.
I came to Calle Huertas after that day every chance I could. Isabel’s father allowed her to show me Madrid. We ran the streets laughing, slipping into cathedrals and museums, or sitting quietly in the wide esplanades with a refreshing helado. It was heaven to have such a friend. My scattered visits and romps through the city emboldened my spirit and became a buffer against the torturous interim weeks at the school. While walking alone on the streets of Madrid, I found myself occasionally initiating “hello” to passersby. But on my Sundays in our apartment on Paseo Del Prado, where I was drilled on what I learned the last two weeks, and forced to speak what little Spanish I knew, I seemed to revert back to my private inner world.
My father went home from Spain early. I remember watching him climb the ramp onto the plane with tears in his eyes. In a little less than a year, my mother and siblings and I boarded a plane for the long flight home as well. All those months seemed to accomplish none of the intended results. What I have taken from my time in Madrid has come back to me in strains of memory like night clouds illuminated by moonlight over the Atlantic.
To be introverted is not something I should try and overcome; it is something to embrace. We are wired differently, just as electronic devices made to function in America need adapters to work in Europe. My life has been a series of ups and downs in decreasing fluctuation to the present. Friends have facilitated my ascents into the paradise of self-regard. It is true friends that guide us to our true selves. These friends have come into my life and, through circumstance, vanished into memory. This was my European education, a realization that began with a voyage to Madrid and my encounter there that provided the lessons—the first an innocent shipboard romance, and even more enlightening, the discovery of a city and myself through friendship with a calamari vendor’s daughter. Each prepared me for changes when I returned home. I will never forget them.
Photo by Anita Ritenour, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Richard Maxson.