It was Saturday December 8th and I woke up in the rollaway bed in Kevin Clay’s bedroom at his family’s house in Horspath outside Oxford. I had gotten in last night around ten o’clock and Madge, Kevin’s mom, had made up that bed with fresh linens, rather than having to use my sleeping bag. Good thing, because I had noted that final morning at the youth hostel in Amsterdam when I had last rolled my bag up, that it really smelled of ten weeks of my sweat. Not so noticeable in a big male bunkroom where your nose kind of expected a bit of that reek. Plus the pervasive smell of hashish also kind of masked it. Of course, after those three days lying open on my bunk, with all that burnt hashish in the air, I’m sure my bag was now imbued with that scent as well. But here in this clean well kept house, it’s odor would probably be more noticeable, so best not to have to unroll it. When Angie and I had been here back in September and I used it to sleep on the living room floor with Kevin, it had been all fresh and clean and never used before.
Since the plan was for me to stay here for the next three nights, my last three before flying home, my bag was stuffed in its little sack and lashed to the bottom of the metal frame of my pack presumably for the duration. It had done yeoman’s work, me having spent more than half my nights in it, and had survived getting pretty wet that rainy night outside Bar-Sur-Aube. It had been my cocoon for comforting me at night while I processed much of whatever metamorphosis my nearly three month odyssey had wrought on my psyche. I at least felt I should be changed somehow, I surely wanted to be. Certainly one of the main drivers for staying the course against that periodic urge to cut my journey short and go home was that if I stuck it out I somehow would be transformed from that person who was not quite what I wanted to be to some version of me that was more fully realized.
I had always gotten a little queasy when I looked back on my past exploits, or lack thereof, versus where I was now. I had written a poem for a high school English class on that pervasive feeling that started with…
I hate my past
My life before
There was always madness
Last night, after parting company with those three drunken young women I had shared the bus ride from London with – Stacey, Jeanie and the smolderingly sexual and awesome Mitzi – Kevin had picked me up at the bus station in his Dad’s VW bug. On the twenty minute drive back to their house he had been full of his own news, having just completed his training program for certification as a first level auto mechanic, and having secured a full-time job starting after the new year at the garage where he had been working part-time through the fall. Anticipating some real income from the new full-time job, he was wrestling with whether to move into his own place or buy some sort of used car, since he figured his income would not be enough, at least initially, to do both. He had gone out on a couple dates with a young woman, Nellie, who was pretty much becoming his girlfriend now, and it would be nice to have his own car rather than begging to borrow his dad’s, that his mom and even his sister Kate were all driving as well. Of course, if it got more serious between him and Nellie, it would be nice to have his own place, “If I play my cards right.” But he was currently inclined toward the car, since that should leave him enough to offer to pay some rent at home, and his parents could use the extra income, between extra care for his grandma and “financing a bloody teenybopper”, that is his sister, who had just turned sixteen since I had last seen them.
It was just as well that he filled the time and let me be quiet, listen, and vegetate, since I had had a long day and was still kind of low energy recovering from my cold. And as I noted in my journal, I seemed to be falling into a ‘coma of anticipation’ of my return home, running on fumes as it were. It seemed kind of like the ‘reverse stage fright’ I got before a big performance on stage. Rather than getting all anxious and agitated, I would get quiet and almost overly calm, though my energy would come back once I set foot on stage, under the lights, with the audience out there watching me and expecting me to entertain them.
But now it was morning and the house was abuzz with all five of its residents – Kevin, Kate, Madge, Bill, and ‘Nana’ – plus me, all six of us competing for the one bathroom and toilet. At least the toilet and tub with shower were in separate small rooms, which made it a little easier, though they actually had a calendar on the wall by the bathroom door to write in times for showers. Noting the logjam at times, even for the toilet, Kevin had said that once or twice he had actually gone out and peed in the backyard. And Madge said that ideally you should wait fifteen minutes between showers for the hot water heater to recover, or before trying to wash a load of laundry on anything but cold. Despite being faced with many hostels with no hot water, during my entire ten and a half weeks in Europe, I had not been willing to take a single cold shower, going without instead, or substituting a quick wipe of ‘pits and parts’ with a wet washcloth.
Madge apologized that there was no hot breakfast, saying their Saturday morning routine was “everyone for themselves”. I was happy to manage to get my twenty minutes in the bathroom, which included a shower and a very satisfying and ‘productive’ fantasy about Mitzi. I also got to chat with Madge while I chowed down on a big bowl of cornflakes, and even got to do my laundry, she offering me one of Bill’s bathrobes so I could wash everything. She even offered to do the load for me but I insisted I was happy to do it myself, and she recruited Kate to show me how the washer worked. After all the morning showers, the bathroom became the clothes drying room, Kate showing me how to drape my wet stuff over various unfolded drying racks.
The morning went by with everyone doing their chores. Bill drove to the market with a list of groceries. Kate washed Nana’s clothes after mine were done. Kevin tidied up in the garage, including pulling down some winter comforters from the storage space in the rafters. Madge ran the operation from the kitchen while she did dishes, prepared food for dinner, including a meat pie in the oven that smelled wonderful, and made various calls to arrange doctor’s and other appointments for Nana for the weeks ahead. I noted that the four of them seemed quite the team, all happily and energetically doing their tasks and assisting each other where those tasks intertwined. Kevin and Kate would tease each other a little, but it was pretty good natured without any real ill will that I could detect. Just after noon the five of us sat down for dinner, me still in Bill’s purple bathrobe while my clothes dried in the bathroom. Nana took her dinner in her room, Kate doing the honors of preparing a tray and taking it to her.
As the five of us sat at the kitchen table, passing around and serving ourselves slices of shepherd’s pie, mashed potatoes, and lima beans, it was Kevin, always the instigator, that broke the ice and got the conversation started.
“Right”, he said, getting everyone’s attention, “Our guest of honor is appropriately dressed in his regal robes to hold court”. Everyone else nodded and laughed.
Bill followed his son’s line with his own. “Wearing that robe never gets me any deference”, he noted, “Just ole dad in his purple dressing gown.” More laughter from all.
But it was Madge who cut to the chase with her question.
“So what happened with Angie? Kevin said that the two of you parted company in London just a few days after you left here. When you were here back in September I had sensed she was a bit iffy. Is she okay?”
That second question made me realize that I had not communicated with Angie since we parted, that maybe it had been selfish of me not to, maybe even holding a bit of a grudge against her. At least I had read in my mom’s latest letter that Angie had inquired about when I would be home, so that probably meant that I could at least say she was okay.
“She’s doing good”, I reported, trying for a bright line reading, “She’s been checking in with my mom to keep tabs on my progress.”
“I’m so glad to hear that”, Madge noted.
But her first question still hung there, unanswered, and obviously of keen interest to everyone else at the table, since no one chimed in to move on with the conversation. It was certainly of keen interest to me as well, having never really sorted it out. I had to address it, but I did not want to say it was too much for her, or something like that, like she’d chickened out, and unlike me was not up to the challenge. I mean that was an okay answer to my backpacker comrades I met along the way, since they hadn’t met Angie and never would. But to Madge Clay, who had really bonded with Angie when we were here back all those weeks ago, that quick answer didn’t feel right.
I recalled some TV shows where people would answer difficult questions about their relationship with someone else by saying “it’s complicated”. I also felt that the context of how the whole endeavor came to be was important.
Feeling like I was playing the part of ‘Cooper’ in front of an audience, I scrunched up my face in thought and concern and sighed.
“I guess it’s complicated”, I said, putting at least that initial thought out there into the ether, to perhaps lessen the expectations of my audience. Then some context. “It was actually our friend Lane who thought up the whole ‘trip to Europe’ thing. She and Angie have been best friends for years. Lane had convinced Angie that the two of them should go together. I wasn’t originally part of that plan, I was off at college.”
I continued, weaving a story with some true elements but other parts that were more conjecture on my part.
“But when I found out they were going, I had asked if I could come along. Lane was actually the one most enthusiastic about me joining them, Angie just going along with it maybe. I was really excited about the whole thing.” I chuckled and shook my head for emphasis.
Then I theatrically exhaled and continued.
“So some issues came up with her family’s business and Lane decided she couldn’t go, that she had to stay home and assist her mom with sorting that all out. But Lane insisted that Angie and I continue with the plan. She’s pretty convincing and I was still gung ho!” I chuckled again thoughtfully.
“So it was Angie and I that ended up getting on that plane to London together. Maybe she had second thoughts but felt uncomfortable sharing them. Maybe we both hoped it would work itself out somehow once we got going with it.”
I paused at that point, leaving any stated reason by Angie for not continuing unsaid, but maybe implied. I felt like the four of them sensed my unresolved issues around it. Madge came to my rescue, sighing and shaking her head.
“Dear it just was meant to be the way it worked out”, she said, looking me in the eyes with a thoughtful and caring gaze, “You ended up having your solo adventure. But please give my best to Angie when you get home.”
It stuck me again that I had been so caught up in my own drama, my tenuous self esteem and being judged, or worse, judging myself a failure if I had not continued, that I had not been concerned about what Angie might have gone through herself. I felt a bit ashamed, but I was not about to share that with my four partners around the table. It was a blemish, a burden, that I was going to carry alone.
Now given leave to continue my tale, I did share with them my mixed feelings at the time about whether to continue on my own, and how I would have felt like a failure if I had not continued the journey. I could see this resonating strongly with Kevin, who chimed in on my behalf, a young man supporting one of his male peers.
“I think it was brilliant that you continued on your own. You’re a real trooper”, the other three nodding and vocalizing assent to second that assertion. I bathed in their supportive feelings for me, and thus reinforced, began to recount the story of my odyssey, starting with leaving Angie in London and taking the trains and Channel boat to the Continent.
I sculpted the story for my audience around the table. Maybe if it had just been Kevin and Kate, my age peers, I might have shared the stories of smoking hashish and of all the young women I had met along the way. But with the adult generation also at the table, I stuck mainly to the places I had visited and the travails of train rides, navigating one-way streets and hitchhiking. There was plenty of good material in those areas to flesh out an entertaining dinner table conversation, and all of them chimed in with comments and questions. Bill and Madge had done some traveling of their own on the Continent, both separately and together, and we shared thoughts and impressions of places that two or all three of us had seen.
Kevin, who seemed to relish playing the role of my vocal booster and agent of sorts to the rest of his family, made a big deal that my stories were inspiring him to consider venturing to the Continent himself, or maybe to the States as well. Now that he had a full time job he could sock away some money and use his paid holiday time to see the sights beyond his homeland’s shores. His dad grinned and nodded, with that sceptical knowing look that I had seen in a number of other adult type people when they thought us younger types might be going off half cocked.
“Make sure you pay off your scooter first before you buy any tickets”, he said.
Kevin grimaced and rolled his eyes then forced a smile and said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!”, winking at me as he did. His mom caught the wink as well and laughed, enjoying her son’s bravado and joie de vivre, again that belly laugh I loved hearing women let loose with. There seemed hope for the world whenever I heard women laugh that way, like they were finally ready to claim their full partnership in life’s struggles and adventures alongside men and maybe set things straight that male types in ascendance had screwed up. Madge laughing made me think of my mom and how much I wanted to get home.
But despite Kevin’s showy protestations, I think it was his younger sibling who was most taken and even moved by the stories I told of my travels on the Continent. I could see Kate listening intently to every tale I told with that inner dialog going on in her head behind engaged eyes, between checking on her grandma eating lunch in her room at her mom’s suggestion. Her comments and clarifying questions were poignant and always right on. Like when I told the story of hurrying through the long rooms and corridors of the Vatican to get to the Sistine Chapel.
“Wow”, she said, “Running through the Vatican!” and I could see in her eyes that she knew it was all about going for it, going for that ultimate experience.
And when I talked about passing on taking the cog railway up from Grindelwald to the weather station near the peak of the Jungfrau, but then telling the tale of every bit of that journey as told to me by Monika, Ragna and Beth, I could feel her quiet determination that she, unlike me, was going to do that someday.
I could also see Madge taking in Kate’s determination, with just the wisp of a smile. I could tell Madge was deep and seemingly all knowing. She observed with great patience and respect, completely in the moment and without ego, and then when she acted or spoke, she came from love, a love that seemed like it was just there and did not need to be earned. She had that depth and soulfulness that any number of female people I had encountered in my life had, that in most men seemed to be sadly deficient. I remember how she had bonded with my mom when we had lived next door to them, in Ceil and Ilya’s house, back three years ago in the summer of 1970. She ‘got’ my mom totally, pretty much right from the start of our families being neighbors, and was inspired by her as well.
That was my mom’s superpower. She was engaging, well spoken, charismatic, bright, creative, intuitive, yet resolute, and she put it all together in a package that was endearing and inspirational to so many of the people she met, particularly other women. But my mom certainly had her demons, deep in her psyche, that led to a tenuous self-esteem that always made her a little too needy, for an otherwise stellar person, and required her ego to always step in and advocate for her. That generally made me uncomfortable seeing that ego, knowing the tenuous sense of self it was a manifestation of, reminding me of my own tenuous self image. And I think Madge had seen that in my mom, understood it, and appreciated it, and had been my mom’s biggest fan that summer.
Bill seemed to me by all conventional measures a good guy. A hard worker, a good provider, a faithful mate, an enthusiastic and supportive dad to his kids. He was funny, charming, self-effacing, and he really cared about the people around him. I mean he was miles, light-years even, beyond needy gnarly Ilya. But he still had that aspect, that deficit, most male people seemed to have, that forced them to operate at a lower quantum level in their relationships with others, and the intimacy and maturity that were critical to that relational space. Maturity was at the heart of it somehow, men being allowed, encouraged even, to not develop it and remain more childlike in that relational space. Those residual immaturities retained from childhood – competitiveness, pridefulness, not getting the subtleties and nuances of things – were seen as charming ‘boys will be boys’ behavior in an otherwise adult person. I remembered that song that Angie and I had danced to at that teen dance Sebastian had taken us to in Southampton that day before I had parted company with her in London and headed off on my own…
The boys are back in town
The boys are back in town
Women were not allowed that luxury, the only ‘girlishness’ they were expected to express was in their physical appearance or perhaps their sexuality. Other than that, they had to really truly ‘grow up’, in all the connotations of that phrase. But in that process of having to struggle for full maturity, they became more interesting, had more dimensions, were more soulful, and just more fully realized, at least in my opinion. Or maybe it was just my libido tuned to women and my ego turned on myself and my kind, that made me generally judge men more harshly and give women more of a pass.
Those thoughts blew through my mind at the time as small epiphanies above the level of words and sentences, as the five of us engaged in our boisterous midday dinner conversation, revolving around my telling of my journey since they last saw me, now in its final throes. Before Madge called dinner to adjournment, and released my tablemates to their afternoon agendas, I had pretty much gotten through the highlights, including Amsterdam, with its Heineken brewery, Anne Frank House, and Van Goghs, though not the story of the discomforting encounter with the BOAC agent, because that was all about the hash.
It spoke so much to the generation gap, even with Madge and Bill who were probably among the most accepting of my parents’ generation, that I was comfortable talking about all the experiences I had drinking alcohol, getting drunk even, but not any of my experiences smoking hash. If one of them had hazarded to bring up the subject and asked if smoking hash had been part of my experience, I would not have been willing to lie that it had not. I took great pride in the fact that my generation, or at least my cohort among that generation, was building into our shared culture an unorthodox recreational intoxicant, that had some commonalities with the effects of alcohol, but also had some very different, even ‘mind altering’, aspects. But at least in this conversation, where I was playing the charming young man telling his perhaps coming of age type story, bringing in the cannabis threatened to degrade my standing with at least half my audience, particularly the older generation. At least that was my take on the dynamics of the situation.
So as to afternoon agendas, Kevin was off to pick up a weekend shift at the garage he worked at. He needed every pound he could bank to make those scooter payments, pay for dates with his new girlfriend, plus save money for the big purchasing decision between car or apartment of his own. He apologized profusely for having previously scheduled the Saturday work shift, before knowing I would be in town. He theatrically bid his farewell for now, suited up in jacket and Helmet, and zoomed off on his shiny new Yamaha candy gold FS1-E ‘Fizzy’ scooter.
Bill’s agenda was to take Nana to the village pub, which I learned later from Madge was a Saturday afternoon ritual that Nana insisted on doing, even if she did little else during the week, eating dinner alone in her room or otherwise passing on many other parts of the family routine. She’d buy both her and Bill a pint of Watney’s, nurse her own while buying him a refill, and sometimes letting him finish hers as well. Nana and Bill would banter with the bartender and the other locals at the pub. For her it was a weekly statement that she was still at least minimally alive, and for him it was a chance to down a few pints, get a ‘bit tiddly’ with some familiar company, yet still feel he was doing something right by his family, giving Madge a break from playing caregiver for her mom.
Kate was going to meet up with a couple “mates” and take the bus into town to see the movie Godspell. I was surprised when she invited me to “tag along”, she being two years younger than me. My somewhat tentative “sure” prompted Madge to volunteer that it was okay if I just preferred to hang out at the house with her. At that, Kate persisted, asking if I had already seen the movie, which I had not. Standing between me and her mom, so her face was only visible to me, she gestured surreptitiously with her eyes and mouthed the words “come along”.
So now aware of subterfuge but still not sure what it was all about, I issued a more enthusiastic, “Sounds fun, I’d like that!” I followed up by saying that I had done a lot of theater in the three years since spending the summer as their neighbor, including singing and dancing in several musicals, and I always enjoyed seeing one performed, either live or on the screen. I had heard the original cast album of the show and thought the music was really good.
Kate was a bit surprised, and said, “You don’t seem like the type”.
Behind her and beyond her view her mom rolled her eyes, grinned and asked, “So what type is that hun?”.
Kate was flustered, looking back at her mom and then again at me and stuttered trying to push out words, finally shaking her head and saying, “Don’t mind me, I’m a TEENAGER”. She held up her hands and wiggled two fingers in each like quote marks to emphasize that word that her brother and adults sometimes used to describe her, a gesture I had never seen someone do before.
She looked at me sheepishly and said, “Well we should probably head out, hopefully your clothes are dry!”
Madge offered to check on the status of my clothes drying in the bathroom, but I said I would check since if they were dry I could use the room to get dressed. My paisley shirt and flared slacks, which were made of wash and wear fabric (an important feature in my decision to bring them), were basically dry though my underwear was still a bit damp. Damp underwear and all, I dressed, put my money belt back on, put on my two-inch heels, grabbed my down jacket and headed out with Kate.
Once we were out of the house and walking down the road she explained that she had invited me to join her because her mom liked having a few hours home all by herself. She said Madge, who rarely drank alcohol on other occasions, would pour herself a drink or two from a special bottle of scotch she kept under the sink behind the cleaning supplies, then take a romance novel from the drawer of her nightstand and read it sipping the stuff on the rocks. Kate knew this because she and her brother had secretly spied on their mom a couple times after heading out of the house. If anyone else was in the house, other than Nana, Madge would neither drink nor read the romance novels, the two together were her secret, that is mostly secret, vice. A little love for herself that she so readily gave to others around her.