I have personally come to believe that we all have one great illusion that weaves itself into the fabric of our lives. Maybe some people have more than one. Perhaps there are even people who have so many illusions that all of them collectively weave together to become the entire fabric of their lives rather than just a pattern within it. But I am talking about the kind of illusion that blindsides you. The strands of it’s fibers commingle with your world until it all becomes one, for a period of time. If you are lucky, you get one of those illusions.
Ultimately, the fantasies I created from this illusion made my world then, and the one I live in now, a better place. Or so I believe.
But because they can disguise what is real from what is imagined, illusions can be a dangerous chimera. The especially dangerous ones are about people. Illusions have no flaws. People always do. Still, within danger is the opportunity for growth; whether you want that growth or not. I did. At the time, however, I didn’t realize it. You never do with the truly special illusions.
If you are extraordinarily lucky, you can look back on the illusion, as well as the ashes of the fantasy it helped create, and smile.
There are times when you reveal and speak your truth. There are times when it is stashed away and stored in the smallest trunk of your heart in the dustiest corner of the soul’s attic. The truth becomes a scrapbook. It can be brought out casually at cocktail parties and mentioned offhandedly. This protects its importance. But you know. You always know. There are times you take it out of that attic on an ordinary day and view it with a fond smile. Such is this truth with me.
By the time I was nineteen, I can very honestly say that I was a mess. Not a felonious mess, or an uneducated mess, or even a going nowhere fast mess. I was the worst kind – a lost and scared mess. I could function in the bounds of society rather successfully. There were many times I could fool the world along with myself that all was great and I was coping with impending adulthood quite nicely, thank you.
Nor was I an unambitious mess. Once again, quite to the contrary. I was going to conquer the world. After all, I was just fine the way I was. It was everyone else that had the problem. Not me.
And that, as you may well have surmised, was just exactly the problem. It was genetic. We had a long standing family tradition to never accept responsibility for or the consequences of one’s actions.
It was my senior year at a large university. As each year gave way to the next and the big world loomed larger and larger, the cracks in the spackle of my façade of perfection spread and multiplied. They formed so many fissures in the mask that I wore for the outside world that it was obvious to everyone but me that in no way was I prepared to graduate and move to the next phase of life’s journey. Indeed, I was so busy fighting the mask my father was trying to put on me, that I couldn’t begin to face anything.
Even when he was sober, the old man was pressuring me by any means possible to become an accountant. An accountant!! When I couldn’t even add without a calculator? Wait, an accountant and then on to law school to be a tax attorney? Surely, there was a room in hell for me with just such a set up.
But, it was what the old man had always wished he had done before his parents had demeaned him into a bottle of scotch as the solution for all the world’s problems.
I was his chance to right some obscure karmic wrong, balance the scales of inter-generational injustice. Even though his parents had been dead lo these twelve years, he was still fighting the battle.
And he was determined that I take up the sword.
So, in addition to the major angst of not really knowing what my path should be, I was dodging the bullets of Catholic guilt and his sodden threats of suicide if I didn’t fulfill his destiny.
Not the best senior year one could hope for.
All this battling on so many fronts was exhausting and taking all my focus and a great deal of my time. The old man was relentless. It wasn’t too late for dual salvation, if only I would listen. He would fund this mutual salvation if only I would comply and switch to a business major. Otherwise, I would be on my own.
I was on my own.
It is well known to be impossible to win a war fought on two fronts. Despite the bravado I exhibited when facing the old man, I had taken the bait. The battle had become both internal and external and left me wallowing in doubt. I was fighting to maintain appearances as well. Covering myself with the ever more fissured mask of the all American kid had me coming and going at the same time.
On top of it, money was running out just a bit ahead of the last of the tuition bills.
So I applied for a job.
I sought a proper job, one befitting my station in life as the daughter of a “successful” attorney. No beer slinging or pizza wench for me. The job board at the student union had one posted for a “girl Friday” (still a mostly acceptable term in the mid seventies, especially in the College of Engineering). The interview went well. After pestering the daylights out of the man, a portent of the future, he got the funding for the position and I got the position.
It was easy. Mostly, my duties entailed running to various libraries around the campus to pick up research articles, along with a bit of phone work, typing and other miscellaneous errands. I felt competent. I also wasn’t home to receive the old man’s calls.
HM was European in birth and education. He spoke five languages with fluency and had lived in several countries while growing up. He was ruggedly good looking in every sense of the cliché. He was also a private man. He was a very private man. Whatever and whoever he was in reality, I immediately saw him as a very sophisticated and educated older man, an enigma.
He was fascinating to me.
I began to wonder what was behind the enigma. Like a pit bull on a meat truck, I became determined to find out. On one occasion, several months into my employment, I had to drive him home from campus. Even his house was unique. At least it looked like it from the outside. I was not allowed inside, though had he crooked his finger I would have followed him to Mars by then.
And then I found out about the dancing.
One Friday as I was leaving his office and lab, I mentioned that I was going out dancing. With a smile, he told me he taught ballroom dance at the University center.
The illusion was complete. The perfect man wished me a good evening as I closed the door behind me.
I was in love.
There is a saying in the ballroom dance world that the dance begins with the dancer’s feelings. There is another saying that dance is foreplay in public.
To my eyes, this man was the be all and end all of masculine perfection and élan. Life and my guardian angels had put this man before me to answer all my prayers, right all my wrongs, and solve all my problems, even though these problems were not of my doing, as our family creed dictated. It would all magically get better.
Finally, I would learn to dance. All the grace, elegance, and sophistication I longed to possess would come to me naturally, commencing with my feet.
I don’t remember how it came about, but HM and I went dancing. He was patient. I was awkward. As a good partner does, he kept me on track and restarted when I went off count or off step.
The evening was heavenly. Like sampling laudanum, I was hooked and had to have more.
The dance nights became a regular thing, in a sporadic sort of way. The nights in his dance framed arms would occur whenever I could hint, finagle or arrange them with him. I got better at the dance. When we would step out to the dance floor and begin our revolutions, others would stop and watch. Occasionally, there was even applause. Cinderella, Isadora Duncan, and Ginger Rogers had nothing on me. Nothing.
As a concession and to gain some breathing room from the military maneuvers with the old man, I did take the LSATs during this time. My scores made him redouble his efforts on his relentless quest for salvation via progeny.
The sprint to the finish line of my senior year became endless.
The awkward ritual of my dance with HM and our elaborate moves carried me through the rest of my college days. As I fought the increasing panic that came from the impending prospect of graduation and of the real world, I found solace in the dances and the dancing with him. It was, in part, because of my illusion of HM that I managed to graduate on my terms.
My graduation ceremony came. My parents came down for the momentous occasion. The old man arrived with a gallon bottle of vodka under one arm and a gallon of Bloody Mary mix under the other. My mother carried the limes.
The old man fell down at the ceremony.
My college days ended and I went home. I found an entry-level job and stayed away from the house as much as possible to avoid the daily wars with the old man. Even if I was destined to be the greatest lawyer in the history of jurisprudence, there was no way I would give law school any consideration. Doing so would have cost me my soul. The contrast between who I really was and who I felt I was while on the dance floor hit me like a cold, wet towel. There was no doubt. I was still a mess.
Having kept in constant touch with my elegant illusion, I poured my energies into finding a way to have HM make me a part of his life. This would solve everything. I knew I could make him happy and thus make myself complete.
That is where I would have to say that the music and the dance lost the rhythm. But a good dance picks up the beat and maintains the dance frame of the two dancers. Not too close, firm grip, leave a firm space between partners.
Every opportunity that arose, I would drive down to the university town and stay with my former roommates and go dancing with HM whenever he would allow it. A good dancer moves gracefully and gratefully into her partner’s awaiting arms. All the while the dance frame is maintained.
HM would not allow these moments too often. Just enough to keep me hooked. The tempo slowed considerably.
Things began to shift a bit. I moved into my own apartment after a short, ugly stint at home. Eagerly, I collected hand me down furniture and pots and pans and began to decorate in the style of early Salvation Army. It was my own space to grow in any direction I chose.
It was then that he called me.
He was coming through the city on business and would like to see if we could get together. Last minute? Not a problem. As usual, I would drop everything to be with him. At last, he was coming to see me. He was making the effort this time. The pace resumed and still, as always, he commanded the pace. It left me alone most of the time. It left me empty and waiting with anticipation for him to crook his finger in my direction and beckon for a meeting. Each time, it would be last minute and I would drop any plans and go to wherever he happened to be. Of course, we would dance.
My need for this illusion increased with each time we were together. But I also chafed under the strict but unspoken rules I was always following to be in the pleasure of his company. My calls were taken but only at his convenience. I needed him to remember my birthday and it went unnoticed. I needed him to transport me away from the disappointments of my life and make me a better person. The fortunately unfortunate part of all of this was that I had never discussed whether or not he wanted to participate in anything but a dance. I only knew that if I wanted this illusion to maintain itself, I had better not ask any questions. My silence and complicity brought me the moments in his company and the snippets of time.
I even ceded control of our mode of communicating. As I was traveling with my job, I would send postcards or notes, but never call. I wrote long letters sharing my naïve and idealized outlook for my world. It earned me my pet name from him: Poppins.
On one trip to the homecoming football game with friends, I broke all the rules and called him at home. When he answered, I chose to use the wee bit of French I had learned in his company.
“Hello, H____? C’est moi, Poppins.
“C’est moi, Poppins.”
“Poppins. I’m in town.”
“Il est non ici.”
“I’m sorry, H____, what did you say?”
“He’s not here.”
“But you are talking to me!”
Obviously I was not good at grasping such subtle hints. That conversation should have made a rather large dent in the illusion. It didn’t. It never occurred to me that I was a sidebar in the relationships in his life. I was far too focused on making him the center of mine. I realized that there were never any other relationships discussed. I never met any one of his acquaintances.
Though beginning to puzzle over this, the relationship puttered onward on his clock and I continued to try to surrender all my power to this illusion of mine.
But he always chose the music that we danced to.
There continued to be trips and candlelit dinners and always dancing. That was all. I suppose, as I reflect, that it could have been enough. It was enough for the faceless, unknown others that dance with HM. It wasn’t enough for me.
I began to date occasionally and be more open to social life with people my own age. I made new friends in the business world and reconnected with old friends I had neglected. My life was full. I began to unravel the warp and woof of the relationship with my father with the assistance of a professional wise enough to ask me the right questions.
Learning to dance had been much easier.
I didn’t talk about HM with any of them. Any dates I chose to accept were always a disappointment. Even then, I was still holding fast to some corner of the illusion and still, no one could hold a candle to him. He still wore the cloak of this illusion easily and at his convenience. He remained patient with me as always. His hand kept gently holding me at arm’s length, within the dance frame, as I fought to shorten the leash.
My path was not without bumps and I did make enough mistakes that the music stopped and I had to take a long hard look around the dance floor until I caught my own reflection in the mirror. But I did one thing right during this time. I called HM and told him that the ball was in his court and I would no longer diminish who I was becoming by calling regularly and desperately flirting in hopes of a rendezvous.
The offer was accepted with the usual grace and poise. I had tried to become too intrusive in his private world.
This left me with no alternative to begin the hard and intense introspection that would lead me down a new path. The fabric of my life was rewoven on my loom. I learned to be comfortable in my own skin and own not only my liabilities and imperfections, but my assets as well.
One of those assets was my acquired knowledge of the art of dancing. My quest taught me to apply the dance frame to my old man. Firmly, with the proper distance, I kept Dad in my life. Whenever he pushed too hard or tried to step over the boundaries I had established, I would walk away. I would not dance to his discordant tune. When his drinking finally put him in the nursing home with alcoholic dementia, I paid the bills and saw that the staff met his needs.
My life experiences were no longer laced with drama and desperation. I found what I was looking for within my own space. I soloed.
The illusion that I had craved so badly became a very colorful spot on the cloth that is my life. The loom continues to weave.
I wouldn’t say, all told, that whatever it was I had with HM ended badly. I don’t think the dance ended at all. Rather, it just faded away. Several years later, I met the man whom I would marry. But I only met him after my own skin fit like a comfortable dance shoe.
I like to believe that the numbers of women who have had, or are having an experience such as mine are legion. Most of us have locked away these memories in the secret trunks in the attic of our souls. They gather dust, but remain intact and can be called up on the odd instance. Now we are all older, hopefully wiser, and hopefully in a place of peace. Some women, I am sure, dismiss this as a one-that-got-away story. Other women have these trunks of memories locked and padlocked very tightly against the light of introspection. Me? I like to occasionally open my secret trunk and look at the scrapbook of what is now a fond memory. There is just a tinge of embarrassment and remorse that the lesson took so much effort on the part of HM.
We are happy, my husband and I, though the music comes and goes. As it should, I suppose. The magic I was looking for in sharing life with another, the magic I demanded from HM, was found when I stopped looking. Then it was placed before me.
When the music leaves now, or fades, there is warmth and substance still present. Not emptiness. The laughter of our children adds depth to the music. It is a good life. I still have some of the moves I learned with HM’s tutelage. My husband and I dance very well together. But within the music and the dancing, there is honest discussion and complete exchange of respected needs and emotions. The volume goes up and down as circumstances demand, but the tune gets heard.
I have always felt, however, that there was one more thing to say to HM. I wanted to thank him for not becoming my myth. I wanted to thank him for not participating in my illusion, and thus keeping me on my path to where I am today – self contained.
Finally, I decided that I would act on this feeling. I reconnected electronically several years ago in an attempt to accomplish this one moment of truth with HM. He had left the academic world and become someone very technologically important in the years that had passed between that time and us. I have traded my dance shoes for a computer and a keyboard and my life circumstances. Though these circumstances are safer, there is also much more contentment within and without. I would not trade back for anything or anyone. Even HM.
Through e-mails, it came to pass that he would be passing through the airport in our city and had some time. With my husband’s knowledge, it was arranged. I was to meet him between flights at the airport and, during this layover; all would be wrapped up. I was there. He was not. At the last minute, he changed his travel arrangements to something more convenient with no layover. Though he could have contacted me to alert me, he did not. I was inconvenienced. He was not. Again. That was the last lesson he taught me.
A friend recently showed me a cartoon that said, “Sure Fred Astaire was a great dancer. But Ginger Rogers had to do everything he did backwards and in high heels.”
Sometimes, backwards is an effective way to one’s destination.
The talk will never take place now. I know that. HM doesn’t want it. He wants the memory to stay in place with no new impressions upon the past. In our brief e-mails before the abandoned rendezvous, he admitted that he had gained “a great deal of weight”. So, it seems, he wants me to keep my memories intact as well.
I do have to admit that I would have liked to meet him vis a vis. It would not be to renew this illusion I once cherished at all costs. It would have been to be honest and real and true and most of all, to thank him. Clearly, illusions can only end by mutual consent.
Some illusions do not want to be discovered. The illusion was as much for him as it was for me.
Occasionally, when I dance, I think of him and thank him.
Je ne regretted rien.
Merci, wherever you are.