Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I, Elijah Cabot, entered a group marriage. It had nothing to do with orgies or what suburbanites used to call wife swapping. When we all decided to live in a rural commune, it was enough of a challenge to share breakfast, let alone bodies.
Looking back, though, I wonder if daily sexathons might have been less challenging than dealing with the emotional bonfires that regularly threatened to incinerate our fragile and tender connections. We survived because we were determined to learn something new about living and loving.
Four of us kept journals of this odyssey. Forty years later, I asked the others if they would open the secrets hidden inside marbled composition books, locked diaries, and loose-leaf notebooks. Like the martyr I sometimes still am, I volunteered to lead the way.
When I was first typing several years of dementia into my computer, I barely recognized the blundering intellectual stumbling toward the notion that he had a heart. Why hadn’t the others thrown me into a pile of snow and buried me?
Either I got smarter and more humble over the years, or reading my repetitive idiocy dulled its effects, because by the end of the journal, I felt less contempt and more compassion for the young Elijah. I wasn’t sure how some of my secrets would go down, but in this age of reality TV, it takes a lot to ring the shock alarm. I took a deep breath, emailed the document to the others, and waited.
“I don’t know if this made me feel young again or very old,” Michael wrote, “but I’m not afraid to share my insanity now. Here it is. Be kind.”
Mary and Amethyst echoed his sentiments and sent files of their journals.
As I read each, the words of a poem by W. B. Yeats sang in the background.
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
-Elijah Cabot, May, 2011
City Streets in the Dead of Winter
Today Jake Levy visited my apartment to tell me he reported for induction.
He’d made the mistake of thinking he could take a year off after college to plan his future. Unfortunately, Selective Service doesn’t stand aside and say, “Oh, sensitive youth, we would not interrupt your journey of self-discovery. Let us know when you’re ready to pick up a gun.” They send out draft notices.
Jake freaked out. Should he go back to school, to Canada or Sweden, or go underground? He considered a homosexual deferment until he realized that his parents, back in Cincinnati, would disown him. Jail was never a possibility.
Today he told me, “I’m going to be a medic. I can save lives.”
My excellent and heartless mind told me I’d already given Jake plenty of good advice. Since he’d ignored it, I didn’t see the point in telling him he’d be fixing up soldiers so they could go out and kill again.
I tried a Zen voice of detachment. “Okay, I hope it works out for you.”
“Is that all you can say? I made the wrong choice, and now I don’t exist? Don’t you get that everyone can’t be so correct? So brave? You think I’m a coward.”
I did for maybe ten seconds. I have trouble balancing on Mount Moral Superiority at the best of times, and whenever I cast judgment on someone else, guilt rebounds and pushes me down the slippery slope.
My justification for superiority is that I’m a draft resister. I ignited my card a few years ago and became a candidate for incarceration. My friends in prison are surviving, despite occasional gigs in solitary, so I’m not completely terrified of going there, only ninety-five percent.
I should have told Jake about my prison-related paranoia. He wanted me to do that. Every cell in his being tingled with the need for absolution or even one lousy kind word of caring, but I was too busy scrambling back up my mountain peak of righteousness, where it was safe.
Jake’s eyes glistened. “I feel so worthless, so lonely, like I’m going to go over there and get killed, and no one will care.”
His self-pity aroused my knee-jerk disgust reaction, but I said to myself, the poor kid is crying. Try one drop of compassion. “Jake, a lot of people would care. Why do you think no one wants you to go to Vietnam?”
That was a huge emotional outpouring for me, but Jake was beyond hearing anything. He sobbed while the radiator wheezed in asthmatic harmony. Someone else would have hugged him, smoothed his hair, and told him everything would be all right, even though it wouldn’t.
My motto was, neither a liar nor a comforter be. Still, it was hell to watch a guy who was honest about his fears and who was maybe the kind of hero I’ve never been. I might have been brave enough to burn a draft card, but I was too cowardly to cry.
Why should I worry about prison? I’ve been there all my life, caging passion, the urge to shout with joy or rage, to do something spontaneous and even stupid, barred in by the voices of grandparents who told the orphan boy to stop acting like a wild and wounded savage. They flayed me with disapproval. I thought they didn’t have to keep me.
I should have ignored them; I should have remained a goddamned human being. Is it too late?
How can writing be good therapy when it’s so depressing? I’m getting out of here.
The pub is around the corner from a warren of peace organizations, and I was hoping to run into someone who would cheer me up. I was sitting at the bar brooding with Seamus when Michael Hutchinson came in. He wore an Afghani sheepskin coat, a Palestinian scarf, and one turquoise Navajo earring. The guy’s a walking tribute to Third World cottage industries.
He’s also my best friend and one of the few people with whom I become something close to a human being.
“I just ran into Jake Levy,” he said. “What shit. He told me Amethyst broke up with him. She said he had the right to do whatever he wanted, but she didn’t have to go along with it. I never would have thought she had that kind of fire. Weren’t you counseling him?”
My failure button bleeped again.
“I blew it.”
“You weren’t working with great material. Jake was a nice kid who went to demonstrations to meet girls. He would have folded in jail.”
“No, I mean I really blew it. He came to my apartment and told me he’d reported for induction, and I sat there like a marble statue. He cried, Michael.”
“We know how you love that. Seamus, I think this man needs a whisky.”
“Right you are.”
Drink in hand, I moved with Michael to a table. “Listen, Eli,” he said. “I’m your friend, maybe your only friend.”
“I have lots of friends.”
“You have colleagues, intellectual counterparts, big minds who discuss the economic and geopolitical ramifications of practically everything. Who else knows you have a heart?”
“They suspect its existence.”
He’s right about me, and I can’t excuse myself by saying that he doesn’t know what it’s like to have your heart broken. We’re talking about a former junkie. I saw him through withdrawal, and, believe me, his heart was scattered in bleeding pieces.
But maybe I’m a junkie, too, hooked on distance and living in my head. What would it take for me to go cold turkey?
“I think I should give up draft counseling,” I said. “I can trot out the facts and figures, but one tear unhinges me.”
Michael, of course, had the answer to my problems.
“Hey, man, don’t look so gloomy. Go for a bigger change than that. Join the commune.”
“Right. We’ve all been hearing about the commune for months. When will you admit it’s never going to happen because you’re wired to this city? What would you do anywhere else?”
Here’s the great thing about Michael. He cops to his deficiencies with more ease than anyone I know.
“Carry this secret to your grave, but I’m half-sorry I got the idea. Rainbow has latched onto it, and whenever that happens, I can forget about any other plans. She wants to raise kids in pastures with daisies and stuff and little Bambis coming up to play. And she’s determined to start an alternative school.”
“I’m supposed to find something to do. And I will, I guess, but it’s going to be a lot easier if I have my friends with me. Come on, Eli. It would be a humanizing experience for you. You need to wake up, all grubby and fuzzy-brained, and have to deal with people.”
That would definitely qualify as a cold turkey experience. “I don’t think so.”
When Michael is in full drive, nothing can reverse him. “Besides, you’re a writer. You need new experiences to enrich your brain. Communal living, that’s a mother lode. All the freaks will flee. Important things will happen in the hinterland. It’s time for us to claim this country, at least whatever bits of it we can. Tell me you’ll think about it.”
I muttered something noncommittal and walked home, my eyes on piles of dirty snow. Back in my underheated apartment, I looked at my dying cactus. Someone who can’t keep a desert plant alive has no business moving to the country. Communes are all about living off the land. They have gardens, and the thought of gardens tortures me.
Long ago, before I’d learned that I needed a big mind to get through life, Dad went to work, and I hung out with my mother, who was very big on gardening. She taught me when a tomato was ripe, how to pick snap beans, and how to mulch. To this day, if I pass the produce in a vegetable market, I can tell if the squash was picked too early, and I identify weird herbs no one else has ever seen.
The technical memories are harmless. What kills me is remembering the pungent smell of earth, gritty between my fingers, the sun’s heat a kiss on my forehead, and, most of all, my mother smiling, her face opening like a flower. She was an ordinary woman. She was beautiful.
Nothing will return her to me. Nothing can bring back that happy little kid. I don’t believe in gambling my life away for the long odds of recapturing a taste of that happiness. But what is that life? My rent-controlled hovel? New York? Privacy? Loneliness and self-loathing? The alternative is communal living, sharing bathrooms, and looking at the same faces day after day.
I sit here, weighing tough choices, knowing something has to change if I’m not to become a grouchy old man well before my time. I do have a heart. It may be a shrunken, dried-out specimen, but perhaps all it needs is a little rich soil, water, and tender hands to pat it into life. If I don’t take this chance, I’ll never know.
Maybe I should go back to Finnerty’s and talk about it some more with Michael. I think it’s going to happen. The commune idea is gathering momentum. I’m at the top of the rollercoaster, and there’s no way to get off. I don’t know whether to laugh or scream.