Every therapist in town is aware of a phenomenon that has been ‘sweeping the country’ in recent years: getting back in touch with old flames from years past, via the Internet. Now, I don’t say it’s not understandable, and I get the basic gist: you’re sitting there at the keyboard late one night and thinking,
Wow, she used to be hot – and so were we.
I can’t remember why we broke up – I must have been an idiot.
God, remember that one night we………………
Man, those were the days – no responsibilities, no bills, no job, just me, ol’ Janey Jones and the back seat of that ’75 Gremlin.
Wow, she used to be so hot (oh, I already said that).
Maybe I could recapture my flaming youth if I got back in touch with her.
Wow, she used to be so hot (oops – sorry, my memory isn’t what it used to be).
Okay, so what do we really have here? The Past vs the Present – with the ‘past’ being the amped-up, revisionist history of a probably-never-was life, now burnished to a golden hue by distance and wishful thinking. A totally unfair boxing match.
I can hear the announcer now:
Ladies and gentlemen, let’s get ready to rummmmmble!
In this corner, your current wife, Quasimodo, in the long, baggy black trunks – representing the relationship that is in your face every day, burdened by responsibilities, dirty dishes, bills, arguments, diapers, night farts, snoring, more bills and more arguments.
And in that corner, in the snazzy, form-fitting red trunks with the gold glitter, Kid Glamour, in the form of the soft, glowing memory of Janey Jones, lovely and unlined at age 18, who had the luxury of spending two hours in front of the mirror getting ready for each date, always smelled wonderful, and was ethereally perfect because all you did was hang out, drive around, go to the movies and then hit the back seat of the aforementioned ’75 Gremlin (a back seat which was designed strictly for children, but one must make sacrifices) for two glorious hours of kissy-face and huggy-poo.
So: Quasimodo vs Kid Glamour. Hmmm, wonder who would win that match?
But consider this, Hot Shot: Did the alluring Janey Jones have to put up with your running late for everything for the last twenty years? Did she still love you even though, while you can remember what the count was on every batter in Tim Lincecum’s no-hitters, you can’t remember what grade your kids are in? Did ol’ Janey, your Venus in blue jeans, have to get down on her hands and knees in the middle of the night and clean up puke, because you let your kid have five bags of candy corn and three cotton candies at the county fair, after ‘Quasimodo’ told you to stop? Did Kid Glamour get her alabaster orbs moving and pick you up at the airport at 4:00 AM, after you forgot to make reservations on Ride Share, like your wife reminded you to twice, or was that someone else at the wheel?
As a therapist, one runs up against this kind of unfair ‘comparison’ all the time, especially with affairs: i.e. comparing a new relationship, where the person is perhaps “in
lust love”, on good behavior, and not facing all the frustrations, all the history, all the sacrifices, of a longer-term, familiar relationship, to an existing workaday relationship. Of course the new person looks better: you’re seeing them at their best, and only at selected times, the physical relationship is brand-new and exciting, and they only see the ‘you’ you want to present to them, not the guy who was afraid to set the mouse trap in the pantry because he might hurt himself, or the guy who got himself fired because he got drunk and told the boss his wife was ugly at the Christmas party, or the guy who missed half of his daughter’s high school graduation because the Royals game was on, while ‘Quasimodo’ took one for the team by telling the daughter you were late because she had broken a heel on her good shoes.
In times past, before the Internet Age, the temptations that would create the possibility of such unfair comparisons were much more unlikely, and harder to come by: maybe a minor flirtation at the office, or a meeting at a high school reunion, or coincidentally running across someone from one’s past on the street. But now – whoa Nellie, all bets are off: with a few surreptitious keystrokes, you can find almost anyone from your past whose name you can remember; you can find and meet up – tonight! – with women who want everything from a perverted quickie to lifelong love; and you can you see any kind of porn you can dream up.
All across the nation, men and women are up late at night, pounding out their fantasies on their keyboards, from the privacy of their own dens, in complete secrecy. This is a terrible, and unfair, burden on a long-term relationship. Why should you stick around and work out your problems with your wife, when you can sail away to a mental Tahiti on your own little pirate ship, any time you want?
What’s to keep you from creating “relationships” (whether physical or cybernian) with one, or two, or twenty women, that no one but you knows about? Man – to live a ‘secret life’, a guy used to have to be smart, ruthless and cagey: he had to maybe have a job as a traveling salesman, or an airline pilot, or a spy, to have the opportunity to meet, woo and bed the “other woman” (or women) in his other life, and keep all parties in the dark. Now – well, all you have to do is pilot your computer around the world, setting up as many clandestine relationships as you want. All that’s required is a password on your PC that your wife can’t guess, and you’re the Captain Cook of the airwaves. Aaaaarrr, Matey!
But what happens when Captain Cook actually contacts his ol’ matey, Janey Jones, and they try to rekindle some of that Gremlin Love? Well, for one thing, the beautiful and unlined Janey Jones has a few years on her. She’s a bit long in the jowl, portly in the pot-ly, and there’s now a bit of a haggard cast to that porcelain shell of a face she labored over in the full-length mirror for hours. And for another, she’s been through a few things by now: maybe a crummy relationship or five, a couple of bankruptcies, an honorary Narcotics Anonymous life membership, a kid in jail, and oh yeah, that affair with her brother-in-law that put the skids to her only decent marriage. Aaaaarr, well, there goes your tropical paradise, me bucco.
And that doesn’t even factor in what good ol’ Janey would see in the ‘new you’: the pathetic wisp of frazzly hair you try to sweep over that bare forty acres and a mule on top of your head, and the fact that you haven’t seen your feet in twenty years, thanks to that beer gut you’re sporting that’s a bigger monument to Budweiser than the St. Louis Arch. Not to mention the emotional mileage you have on you, from your own bad relationships, and your unwillingness to do anything around the house, and your habit of passing out at the Side Rail Taproom every Friday night – you know, the place where that bosomy redhead bartends, the one you sometimes ‘help with her taxes’, because you’re something of an expert – having once attended a free marketing talk at H&R Block called ‘Taking In Wash: Can You Write Off Your Laundry Room’?
But suppose you and Janey do decide to go ahead and have a ‘meet-up’ anyway? After all, you did email back and forth for three hours once, comparing notes on what kind of dogs you like, discussing whether lethal injection is humane or not, and deciding for once and for all whether prime rib is better than steak. Deep stuff, right? I mean, doesn’t that mean you’re soulmates? Damn straight!
Okay, it’s finally here: the day of the secret tryst. You’re all set: you had your wisp specially trimmed, you bought an orchid corsage – the same exact kind you gave her at the Frosh Bop (on the corsage deal, you cannot go wrong, according to Billy Brady at the Taproom, who really knows people: after all, he used to be a janitor at an HR firm, before he got fired for making a pass at an admin in the Inappropriate Relations division). Oh, and you also got two tickets (expensive ones) for Swan Lake – because you remember Janey used to take ballet when you were in elementary school (yeah, yeah, Quasimodo has been harping on you for years to take her to the ballet, but what the hell – for that kind of money, it has to be a special occasion, right?).
You’re breathing hard. You told her to meet you on the corner of Fifth and Broadway, because you’re taking her to an oyster bar here, and then you can walk to the Ballet House later: perfect. You’re standing there watching for her, as you shift from one leg to another in the cold, trying to push away the negative thoughts:
I wonder if she’ll get cold feet? I wonder if she’ll reconsider? I’ll wonder if she still has that little mole…
Suddenly, someone yells,
That’s it – the special name Janey had for you! But the only person in sight looks like your Great Aunt Eunice, the one who took her teeth out to eat.
Yeah, you, Big Boy!
Oh my god – think fast! You force your arm up into a sort of weak papal benediction. Hey yourself – Kitten! Well, you had to throw back your nickname for her, right? You’re already backpedaling fast on the dinner reservations and those ballet tickets, but it’s too late.
She punches you in the upper arm, hard, like your older brother used to. It hurts. Then she musses up your fancy sweep-do and rasps, How you been keepin’, Sport?
Well, nothing to do but play along now. Great, great – how’s yourself?
She jacks out a pack of Marlboros and offers you one.
You shake your head. No thanks – quit twenty years ago.
She cackles derisively, Pusseeee!, and fires up a camo-colored Zippo.
You’re wondering desperately how to downgrade this thing: maybe just go out for burgers, or a doughnut – or maybe just coffee? If you could ditch her early enough, you could go hang out in front of the Ballet and scalp those expensive seats.
Goddam double-wides – they take too much housekeeping anyway!
What? You realize you missed a few words while you were planning your exit strategy. She continues, in a torrent of raspy words, apparently about trailer park life:
Throw me out, will ya, I sez. I don’t need your goddam double-wide anyway, you little sawed-off weasel! Got me a sweet single picked out already – and it’s half the price of that pile of shit you call ‘luxury’! Not bad, eh?
Through your haze, you realize you’re expected to respond. Uh – yeah. You really showed ’em, Janey!
She gives you another shot in the arm. It hurts. You bet I showed ’em, pard – up one side and down the other. With a single, there’s no housekeeping at all! Once you get up, all you gotta do is reach down, yank the covers up over the pillow, and you’re good to go!
Now you’re desperate: So, I know this great coffee place around the corner where you can get anything you want. They got Jamaican, Nigerian, Kenyan . . .
Coffee – you kiddin’ me? Sanka I can get at the Safeway! I want a row of boilermakers, and I want ’em now! Besides, we got time to make up for, slugger! Let’s get to ‘er!
Actually, a drink wouldn’t be a bad idea – anything to dull the reality of the moment. You see a neon sign:
Red’s Recovery Room, Where Every hour is Happy Hour!
You wonder if they have a shorter version – you know, like a Happy Minute? Before you can decide, Janey makes a beeline for the bar and hoists her girth onto a red plastic stool. You follow.
The bartender is busy washing glasses on the other end of the bar. Just as you’re motioning hesitantly for his attention, Janey hollers,
Boilermakers, Jackson – and I do mean plural!
The bartender cuts his eyes to you, real quick – you think you see pity there, but you could be wrong – it could be horror.
Three rounds later, you know more than you could possibly have realized there is to know about the denizens of the Shady Grove Trailer Lodge and Park, and the lovely pied a terre Janey maintains there. You’re just about to look at your watch ostentatiously, and segue into your exit routine, when Janey jumps up and yells, Let’s get a little life into this place! and launches into a full-on bump-and-grind karaoke to Stuck In the Middle With You, blasting out of the jukebox.
The bartender cuts his eyes at you again, and this time there’s no mistaking: it’s horror and pity. But before you can think of your next move, Janey rushes over and yanks you onto the ‘dance floor’. You now have the full attention of everyone in the house. You just hope nobody here knows you, or even might know someone who might know you. You move as minimally as you can move, and still have it defined as dancing. Janey, on the other hand, is just getting warmed up. She shimmies, she spins, she wiggles suggestively, as she belts out the words to the song, or rather, belts out words she is making up as she goes along.
And as the song comes to an end, for her final dance move, she grabs your crotch and, to the amusement of the assembled multitude, shakes it, hard. It hurts.
It’s time to end this. Discretion doesn’t matter any more – you need out, now. Back on the stools, you point to your watch:
Oops, I forgot – I have an early meeting tomorrow. I’m going to have to run. Uh – Janey?
But Venus is out to lunch: she doesn’t even hear you, caught up in mumbling evilly into her drink. You only catch a few words: Double-wide, kitty litter, maybe eviction notice.
You get up to leave. Again, no response, except for the bartender’s eyes throwing you another pity party. You nod back at him, “Tell her I had to go, okay?” He frowns, unhappy in the knowledge that he’s just been granted temporary custody of Kid Glamour.
You look at your watch: good, you still have time to make it to the Ballet, where you pray you can still get back at least something on those expensive tickets. It’s cold. You throw on your topcoat and run – the running warms you up by the time you get there. You station yourself at the front entrance and hold up your hand with the tickets. People swarm by you – people dressed nice, mostly in groups, or couples.
Couples – yeah, that’s nice.
A name comes to you: Quasimodo – er, Joyce, your wife. She’d love the ballet. Gee, I wonder . . . You look at your watch, then pull out your cell phone . . .
You’re inside, together, in the good seats.
Gee, ballet isn’t half bad.
Oh George – it was so nice of you to think of this.
You turn to her.
Jeez – what was I thinking? Didn’t Paul Newman once say, Why should I mess around with hamburger when I’ve got steak at home?
She looks kind of pretty in that blue dress.
You put your arm around her.
Yeah, taking my wife to the ballet: not a bad idea.
Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.