By Don Millard
"Closing Time": Portrait of Tom Waits
So, this was Christmas… Another year over, and a new one just begun. My present had come early in the form of Amy. This was one gift I never imagined I’d get to unwrap again. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, if I’d see her again or if this had been a one time thing. Either way, it beat getting socks or cologne.
When I came back to the City of No Trees–Cape Coral–I saw Helena again a few days before Christmas. We met one afternoon at the same little bar by the sea where it had all begun. We both knew that our relationship was over, but didn’t really talk about it all. There was no mention of the times or the love we’d shared. She seemed cold and aloof and didn’t even seem like the same girl I’d fell in love with at this very spot almost exactly a year ago. Hell, we might have even been sitting at the exact same table we’d sat at the year before. As we made banal small talk, I wondered if she’d met someone new in the Fall and if she was dating, but I never asked. After all, what right did I really have to ask her about it? I’d already been with Amy again and had no regrets. As I was thinking about all of this, I noticed a guy walking around with a camera, asking couples if they wanted their picture taken for a small fee. Oh, god, I thought, don’t bother me. Sure enough, a few minutes later he ambled over to us, dripping with phony sincerity, and said:
“Hey, you guys look like a nice couple… Do you want your picture taken so you can remember this moment forever?”
“No, that’s alright,” I said.
Helena and I spent about an hour talking to each other about everything except what had happened between us. When we said goodbye that afternoon, it was like we were parting now more as strangers than before we’d made love. For me, it was a cold and lonely end to our relationship and the dream we’d shared. We probably told each other to “take care”, too. “Take Care”: that trite, horribly hollow phrase that’s usually reserved for in-laws and other people we don’t give two shits about.
Meanwhile, Amy had come back down from Tampa to spend Christmas and a few days with her mom and sister at the condo. She called me and invited me to go with her as she visited some of her relatives over the holidays. It was kind of surreal to be with Amy at these family functions again–especially since we weren’t back together or even dating. But I wasn’t complaining. It was healing and satisfying to be having fun and making Amy’s family laugh again–the very same people who didn’t believe me and thought I’d gone off the deep end just two years ago.
Not long after 1993 was ushered in, I picked up a part time job at a questionable professional fundraising company. I forget now what per centage of the money we raised went to the actual causes, but I do remember that our boss drove a Viper.
It was around this same time that Amy called again and I started spending every weekend up in Tampa with her. I’d arrive on Friday evening and wouldn’t leave until Monday morning. At the time, this was the happiest period of my life since my medical nightmare began.
Shortly after we began spending our weekends together, Amy told me her girlfriend had asked her, “So, does he want to get back together? What does he want to do?” To which Amy said she’d told her friend, “I don’t know. He hasn’t said.”
Amy was telling the truth. I hadn’t said anything. She had said she’d told that same friend we were just using each other for sex. I didn’t know if she was joking or if this was how she really felt. The only thing she really said to me more than once during this time was “I have a crush on you.”
I didn’t tell Amy anything because I was afraid. I was afraid to tell her how I really felt. I wanted to tell her right then and there that I still loved her–that I’d never STOPPED loving her. I wanted to tell her all this and more. But I was afraid; afraid that if I did tell her this–even though it was the truth–my heart would be writing a check that my body couldn’t cash. So I said nothing. If that isn’t torture, I don’t know what is. No one should have to live like this. No one.
So, we never talked about getting back together, but for the next three and a half months we spent every weekend together. I’m not quite sure what it meant to her, but for me it was like a big cosmic do over and that was enough for me at the time. Gone forever from my mind was the searing image of Amy sobbing in my driveway, saying goodbye; instead, that horrible scene had now been replaced by us having fun, going places, making love, and making fun of things the way we used to before my health apocalypse. It was especially cleansing for me to visit and enjoy places in Orlando like MGM and Universal Studios with Amy because the most horrifying night of my life had occurred at Disney World, the happiest place on Earth.
It made up for a lot. It was a It was a wonderful little interlude, a moment in time out of time. It was as if a pause button had been pressed and the vast, cold universe was allowing me a brief window of time to wipe out the bad memories with Amy and replace them with good ones. I was just happy that we had come together again. I didn’t want to analyze it, categorize it, classify it, finalize it, or advertise it. All I really wanted to do was enjoy it. And I did.
During this special time with Amy, I found myself wanting to do artwork, even though I was in Florida. Before I got sick, and only a few days after I arrived in Florida in November of 1988, I drew a portrait of JFK. I did this drawing on election night. It came out pretty good and it was my way of protesting the election of George Bush. Little did I know there would be a far worse George Bush on the horizon. This portrait was the only piece of art I’d done in Florida.
For the new drawing I had in mind I chose to do a portrait of James Dean. As I worked on it and tried to get it right, I did so with the secret hope that it would be good enough to one day find a home and even be displayed at the Fairmount Historical Museum in Fairmount, Indiana, Dean’s hometown… Hey, a guy can dream can’t he? This was the museum that housed many of James Dean’s artifacts and possessions, including some of his own artwork. I had visited Fairmount twice and seen the museum both times, once in 1984 with my parents and again in 1986 with two high school friends.
When I thought the drawing was finished, I took it with me to Tampa to show Amy. Amy had done some artwork herself, including an amazing portrait of a pair of ballet slippers. She was a tough critic and I valued her opinion. Upon seeing my portrait of Dean, she said “That’s good.” I took this to be a good sign, but didn’t tell her about my secret hope for the drawing’s final resting place.
At Busch Gardens one day, Amy and I ate at the Festhaus, that big dining hall in the middle of the complex. As we were going through the buffet line, I saw that there were two different lines to choose from; one had the Americanized version of German dishes while the other line had food that was more authentically German. I knew which line I was going to go through. After getting our food and sitting down to eat, Amy pointed out that the vast majority of people were going through the American line, but I had gone through the German line.
“You see, you do have a heritage,” she said.
Being adopted, the only information that the adoption agency had given my parents was that I was of German descent. My parents had told me I was adopted as soon as I was able to understand what that meant. As an avid history buff, it had always bothered me not really knowing anything about my own heritage. Growing up, I felt that instead of a family tree I had a stump. Amy had told me that her boyfriend in high school had been a German exchange student named Klaus. After the first time we made love, Amy told me that she could tell I was German.
But knowing only that you’re German isn’t much of a heritage, and not knowing my birth family’s medical history was yet another mystery that weighed heavily on my mind now. Very heavily.
It so happened that in 1993 my birthday, March 14th, fell on a weekend, Sunday. I was very happy about this and naturally I wanted to spend it in Tampa with Amy. There was one little problem, however. A severe storm was fore casted to hit Florida late Friday night. When I talked with her on Friday evening, Amy told me to come now, as the system wasn’t predicted to hit our area until about midnight. So down the highway I went for the now familiar two and a half hour drive to Tampa. I would beat the storm and get to spend my birthday weekend with the girl I loved. We had it all figured out.
I was about halfway to Tampa when I realized that we didn’t have it all figured out. My first clue might have been when I discovered I was right in the middle of the storm I thought I had avoided. Having lived in Florida off and on for a few years, I’d experienced my share of thunderstorms and torrential rain, but nothing like this. Thankfully, the hood and windshield of my little Toyota MR2 had been replaced, but now my radio didn’t work. I’d brought along a tape recorder for the ride so I could listen to music during what I thought was going to be a boring drive. My tape recorder looked like something from MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. I had my tunes alright, but I had no way of getting any weather updates or emergency info. The night was as black as a crow, and there were cars pulled over along the side of the highway as well as some taking refuge under the underpasses. Seeing as I was already more than halfway to Tampa, I didn’t see the sense of turning around nor did I plan on stopping and leaving myself a sitting duck for the wrath of Mother Nature. All I knew to do was to keep going forward, so I did.
Despite nature’s fury, or maybe because of it, a kind of calm settled over me in my little car. Sure, this was scary stuff, but it was no worse than the storm in my own body that I had to fight with since 1989. If something happens to me tonight, I thought, at least I’d die happy. I was on my way to see someone I loved. There are a lot worse ways to go. It beats old age or falling down the stairs, as Ambrose Bierce would say.
I could see the lightening all around me now, but couldn’t hear the thunder thanks to the acoustics of my state of the art tape recorder on the passenger seat. As I pulled off the main highway and onto a smaller one coming into Tampa, I heard a giant thunderclap this time and all at once the entire landscape lit up before me just like it was day time! This lasted only a few seconds, but I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.
All of the traffic lights in Tampa were blinking red as I got into Tampa and the streets looked more like canals than roads. It was an eerie scene, as the normally busy streets were nearly devoid of oncoming cars while I navigated my low-slung silver MR2 through the flooded streets. I could hear the water lapping at my wheels and even my door. How I didn’t get stuck or stall out, I’ll never know.
After pulling into Amy’s apartment complex at last, I jumped out of my car and ran toward her door as I tried not to get soaked or electrocuted. Once again, after I knocked on her door, it was almost immediately jerked open as Amy pulled me inside and hugged me with all her might. She told me she’d been crying and freaking out for the past three hours since she’d told me to come up. Not long after telling me to come, the forecast had changed. She tried to call, but I’d already left.
“I thought I was gonna have to call your Dad and tell him that I killed you,” she said.
When we awoke the next morning, it was sunny and beautiful outside, and it almost looked like nothing had happened the night before. There were just some small puddles drying up in the parking lot. That’s Florida for you. Later I would find out that there had been three small tornadoes all around me as I drove that night and the whole system would come to be called “The Storm of the Century.” It hit Florida and then went up the entire eastern seaboard of the US and into Canada. This system would claim 310 lives, including 10 in Cuba. In Florida alone, 47 people were killed on March 12-13 by this massive cyclonic storm. That’s my birthday weekend for you, folks.
For my birthday itself, Amy bought me about $200 worth of new clothes at the mall. As soon as we got back to her apartment, she stripped me of the mail order shirt of my Dad’s that he’d given me and ceremoniously threw it in the trash. I didn’t care for it very much, either.
When April came, it came time for me to make my planned return to Connecticut. Winter was over, and so was my time out of time with Amy. I said goodbye again to my Dad the week after Easter and spent my last weekend with Amy in Tampa. I didn’t want to go, but I said nothing to Amy about any of this. Again. On Monday morning Amy would leave for work and I would leave for my 1300 mile trek back up North, even though my heart wasn’t in it. This being the case, it was kind of appropriate when, on Sunday night, I started getting sharp, stabbing pains in my chest every time I took a deep breath. I’d never experienced anything like this before and knew there was something wrong. When I told Amy about it, she said:
“You’re fine. It’s all that spicy food you eat.”
I knew better. So, rather than leave for New England on Monday morning as planned, I drove myself to a local walk-in clinic instead where I was promptly diagnosed with Pleurisy. This was a new experience for me.
Spicy food? I had an infection in my lungs! I was glad I got a second opinion. Chalk another one up for the guy who was delusional about his health and body.
On Tuesday morning Amy woke me up by throwing her panties on my head. After eating breakfast, we kissed goodbye and she left for work and I left for… somewhere else.
I drove all day and most of the evening before stopping for the night at a seedy little motel in Lard, North Carolina. It was the kind of a place where, as Tom Waits has written, you take on the dreams of the ones who’ve slept there. As I checked into the room and boiled the sheets, I flipped on the television just in time to see footage of the Branch Davidian compound burning to the ground.