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Just Another Damn Lament

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Perspective came to me eventually, I guess, as 1976 drifted heartlessly away, twisting violently into the sultry heat of 1977. Long overdue, though people have mourned for longer. Arriving in the form of a short tempered, scruffy haired boy.

He was the sort that hung around, clinging, until life without them was beyond even my own excessive imagination. The sort who told you exactly what he thought and was usually fucking right. One of those people who were good with honesty or, more usually, cruel with it.

Brutal sometimes.

It, perspective that is, arrived and announced itself, leaning in the window of my flat. Naked. Drawing slow patterns in the air with a cigarette, between the occasional drag, smoke trails dark against the afternoon sky.

The sheets were still tangled sweatily around me as I watched him from the messy confines of my bed. And though the boy had been gazing out of the window for ten minutes at least, eyes on whatever passed below, I knew he knew he was being watched and was fucking enjoying it. It was a performance; he was waiting for the right moment to spring the denouement on his captive audience.

I was waiting for it, whatever it was, could sense it in the air, in the patterns of ash upon my carpet. I wasn’t even nervous, I know all about holding people captive. And I knew which one of us was trapped. I was waiting but not ready.

“I think you need to get over your boyfriend,” he said, still not looking round. “The one you never fucked. The dead one.”

“Is that a god-like pronouncement, from on high?” It was a sharp reply, but then it was a sharp comment: the two deserved each other.

The boy turned to look at me then for a second, holding up the cigarette between us, eyes shifting and fixing upon it.

“No,” he said slowly, twisting the cigarette in his fingers, another act. “Just tobacco this time.”

“If you’re not going to smoke the damn thing, pass it here.”

With a shrug, he leant forward hand outstretched, our fingers brushing electrically for a moment. I took a long drag, ignoring the words still hanging between us. Ignoring the shadow in the corner. A glimpsed reflection in the mirror hanging there.

He insinuated himself back into the bed beside me, shifting sheets and limbs and stealing back the cigarette. Hair soft and rough against my skin.

“Well?” He asked again, once he had settled himself to his own comfort, if not mine.

“You should cut your hair,” I responded, my fingers already thick in its depths. Out of character I know, but he’d rattled me when he shouldn’t have managed to. “Or the Sons of Sam will think you’re a girl.”

“You’re one to talk.” He pulled his hair loose from my clutching fingertips and shuddered softly as my fingers ran instead along his neck. “And stop avoiding the question.”

“Was it a question? It sounded more like an order.”

Deep down we were both angry, under the thin layer of sensuality and desire, our bodies pressed together. A storm had been building.

“Then take it as an order. A request. A plea. Take it however you damn like.”

“Fine, what would you have me do oh wise and benevolent leader? What do you want? Exorcisms? Ritual burnings? Should I be dressing some innocent guy up as Claude and having my wicked way with him?”

“Claude?” he asked. I let my silence fill the space left for an answer. “I just think you need to talk about it.”

“I do talk about it. I told you, didn’t I?”

“You let it slip. You wouldn’t even tell me his name. Claude. You need to talk about it properly.”

He used that name like a weapon against me and it suddenly felt like a war. Claude was his enemy and I was his prize, a city to be liberated, him the hero and the victor. Only I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be won. I never had much time for fighting, not in wars.

“Right. Therapy.”

“No, I just thought-”

“I’m not going to talk,” I cut him off.

I knew what he thought. He thought I should talk to him, but I’d be damned if I’d give him that satisfaction. Still, he’d insinuated himself again. Right into my mind, deep into my darkness. It’s been a week, a week of building heat, the fourth of July exploded and gone, a week of sweat and his absence. And his presence in my mind, insinuating himself into my thoughts, even when he’s not here.

So I guess I should talk, expel my misery, my hang ups. But I’ll be damned if it’s to him. He might win the war but he’s losing this battle. And now the lights have gone out, not gently one by one but in shudders and starts, a city plunging into darkness, dying, and you’re here and you’ll do. You were there, after all, you saw it too.

As the snow fell and Claude left us all to die. Both him and us.

You remember it.

****

I waited for Claude for a long time. Started before news came of his death. It was two more months before that happened. But I was waiting from the moment I stood in that snow filled street. From the moment I walked away, leaving a protest and a revolution behind.

It went on long after, long days and longer months. Lingered on past the day that we heard he had died. Haunting me.

Perhaps I was unable to believe the truth because the news had come on a fairy tale kind of day.

They didn’t tell us, of course, they could have already known for weeks before we even heard the rumor. After all, why would they tell us, why would we need to know, deserve to know. To them we were just a mistake Claude had made. Something he’d turned his back on.

Hell, they might have been right on that front. He was the one who left.

I’d known, of course. As soon as he’d refused to burn the damn draft card. It had the inevitability of doom about it. That’s the problem with being clever, you see things coming. See the patterns, the destinies building. It makes you cynical, too. Claude had been a tonic against that, he’d been serious enough for the both of us. He let me fly, untroubled.

Without him, I had to think too much. That was never good for anybody.

Anyway, it was Crissy who found it out at last, like Alice stumbling through a rabbit hole, but wider eyed and more innocent. Desperately wanting us to reassure her that it wasn’t true. There’d been a man, she told us, someone had seen a man at Claude’s parents’ doors. In uniform. With a soft pile of blue white blood in his hands, folded stars and tangled stripes.

Everyone knew what that meant.

But nothing was certain, she wasn’t certain. It was all just stories and fables. And maybe I hadn’t wanted to believe it, though at that moment - the moment when she spilled her truth across us, I hadn’t felt numb or sad or any of that shit. I’d felt relieved.

I was angry at him, angry that he’d gone, angry that he’d left me behind, angry that he had left me searching for him in every crowd, round every corner, every time the sunlight shifted. And I’d thought at least that was over, at least now I can stop looking.

I didn’t.

As I walked out of the park and into the crowds, my eyes searched for him again. It was years before I stopped.

Maybe it was just that none of this was right. Claude Bukowski, destined for greatness or madness. He wasn’t supposed to die in some distant field – it was blazing glory one way or another for him. And this was nothing.

Everyone else released whatever stained breath they had been holding and they started to live again, wild abandon taking hold again, life harder and more vital and more precious than ever and there I was still screaming his name.

Claude!

It must have echoed through my eyes as they shifted from face to face. In the tight muscles of my neck every time I turned. In the way my fingers rolled their joints, small potions, clutching for something long lost. And no one noticed, despite all that noise. They should have.

Sometimes I thought Jeannie had seen it, felt its vibrations but she had other problems.

So I alone was left waiting for Claude to reappear, to strip off his invisibility and reclaim the world.

****

We went to the funeral, though we weren’t invited and certainly we weren’t welcome. We didn’t have any dark, neat, miserable clothes to wear, so we went in what we stood up in. Taking what space was left at the back of the church, we listened and disagreed and sang and eventually we danced, a brightly colored stain against the order of their misery.

Doing what we could to remember Claude in the way that we remembered him. Trying not to let them steal him from us quite yet, though it was a fight.

See, we were his family, however it ended, that’s who we were. But it was easy to wipe us away, to wipe who he’d been for us away, to mould him in death into what they couldn’t force him to be in life. What they had forced him to be.

We didn’t have any sorrow-faced man to tell us of our loss. To smooth out its edges with platitudes. I wouldn't have even known when he died if it hadn’t been engraved on the priest's tongue, on the marble of the grave stone.

There was no one to tell us how it had happened, how he had fallen, to spell it out in simple words and make it real.

That used to haunt me, the not knowing. There was a whole other Claude that I hadn’t known. What sort of soldier was he? They’d said their usual garbage at the funeral, a glowing vague reference to send him on to whatever lay next. But that meant nothing.

Had he killed? Raped? Had he rushed in, first to fight? Had he been serious and deadly or had his hand shaken? Did he cry? Refuse to fight? Had his heart beaten in fear or exhilaration? Who was this man I’d never known?

I hated him for that, for keeping a part of himself hidden from me. And I hated them more, for making that the part of him that would be remembered by the world.

So we danced and sang and cried and made a nuisance of ourselves as the world looked on and thought – ‘why couldn’t we just leave them alone, those poor souls, they who had surely suffered enough’.

****

I remember the 1965 black-out. It was my first year in New York and we took to the streets, all the peaceful wandering souls reaching out to others in the darkness. But 1977 is not 1965: New York has been bathed in blood this summer, sweat and anger brewing in the heat, and below my windows now I can see fire and violence and fear.

I went to Claude's parents after the funeral. The Bukowski house. On my own, except for Sheila, desperately trying to hold me back. Not managing it, of course, for once I’d had a sense of responsibility. Twisted as it was.

If they could have stopped me, they would have but if there’s one thing I’ll say for myself it’s that no one ever could stop me going where I wanted to, for better or worse.

They had a picture of Claude on the wall, newly framed and shiny, a bright new tomb. He was wearing a uniform, his hair shorn short. Their pride and tragedy. That stranger who had taken Claude from me.

I pulled it from the wall and smashed it; dragged it from beneath the shards of glass and tore it apart with my blood spattered hands. This last image of Claude, this man I hadn’t known he could ever be. This thing I could never know.

It had been the wrong thing to do, of course, but then I never was much good with parents. My own had been the least of my problems.

If there is one thing I regret that I did, back then as the world stormed around me, it was tearing that picture. I should have stolen it, kept it. Perhaps then this would have become real to me. Something tangibly understandable.

But I didn’t and I never got to see the Claude inside the coffin, the Claude laid out in a hospital or crumpled on a blood-stained battlefield. I had nothing real of his death. And so for me he had just become invisible at last and so I was left waiting. Waiting to conjure him back into the world.

Perhaps all it would take was a loss of power, a sudden darkness, a handful of torches and the right voices and I could pull him back into the world.

****

I should talk about Sheila, of course. The other love. The other loss. She’s bound up in all this too. And despite everything I did and didn’t do, I do still love her.

But no, that’s too soon. That’s the difficulty with grief, it makes everything fractured and out of order. Even after long years have passed it’s still like looking through a broken window.

I didn’t see Sheila after the house and the picture. Not for months. Instead I went. Just grabbed what money I could and got on a plane, one way, a rickety metal box in the sky and went. Didn’t tell anyone where I was going, or that I was going. Not even Sheila. I just vanished, not invisible but gone.

I’d spent almost a year dreaming of India. Of heat and dust and pretty girls in bright colors, elephants decked in flowers, of magic cows and ancient wizened men, beards trailing the floor, and of a river flowing deep and fast with life and death. Of the exotic and mystical and wondrous.

I went to Manchester.

Damn Manchester. Miserable and cold and raining for the three months it took me to raise the money to get back to New York.

A month searching the streets, the nooks and crannies of the town, hunting down the invisible man. Following an accent. That stupid fake accent of Claude’s, it was nothing like the real ones. The hard, gritty ones that were difficult to penetrate.

I learned to fight in Manchester.

That’s probably a surprise – that I had waited that long for the education. After all, most people come to the conclusion pretty soon after meeting me that I’m ideally designed to get into violence. I’m loud, abrasive, intrusive, expressive... I have no common sense and a desire to be playful that sometimes borders on the suicidal.

Luckily most times, these things got me out of trouble as well and if they didn’t, well, there was always someone following me close enough to drag me away.

Manchester was different. Maybe it was simply the fact that there was no one following me anymore, no one looking out for me. Maybe it was that those rough English boys saw right through me. Or maybe it was that those parts of myself, those ingredients that formed my charm, had finally worn away. Run dry.

Mostly though, I think I just didn’t want to avoid the fights, not enough, not anymore.

There was some sense of the old joy in the energy of fighting. On the night we had yipped at the moon and begged the sun to rise, hands flat against the ground, I had beaten the earth. Fists hard, bound full of fear and powerlessness and anger, Claude already slipping through my clenched fingers. Now I had other emotions to let loose and softer land to hold my blows.

It was a sharp education and mostly it was me that lay bruised and bleeding on the floor, long before the end, but even that was a reminder I was alive. And the fact that I had chosen this – this struggle – was a victory. It was something.

Three fucking months. I didn’t even see a Beatle, not even Mick Jagger.

****

So Sheila.

I reckon you can imagine how my sudden reappearance went down with her.

Sheila had always been better off without me. I was bad for her, her and Claude, for both of them I guess, and we’d all known it. But it cut both ways: they’d been bad for me, too. We needed each other too much, become too invested, Sheila had too many plans for me.

We were so tightly bound it was only right that eventually we’d shatter and break.

That’s where people get it wrong, all the time. They think that if you need someone, that you need them because they’re good for you, because they improve you, make you a better person.

God knows why. In my own experience, everything I’ve ever needed has been bad for me. That’s the thing with addictions.

That was it with me and Claude and Sheila – we were addicted to each other, running around each other in circles, but we were poisonous, too. Then again, maybe I’m just sparing myself. Maybe I was the toxic one, right at our center.

Without me maybe Claude would have been satisfied and Sheila would have been unhurt and life would have gone on, if not on a better path, at least on a different one.

Probably a better one.

I tried to push them together, tie them to each other and fling myself loose. Don’t think of it as a self-sacrifice. They could have become mother and father and I could have been the child again. Spinning freely through New York. It was a selfish desire, but that doesn’t mean it was bad, things can be selfish and work. If they had let it work.

I think Claude would have accepted it, at least for a while and maybe it would have kept him alive. But Sheila never would. She was always too stubborn. I mean, look how long it took her to give up on me.

When I got back from my Manchester adventure she even managed to pretend it hadn’t happened. For almost two weeks. The unspoken accusations brewed between us and I pushed her, again and again and again, seeing how far she would bend. Seeking out another small victory, another fight that would leave me bloodied and bruised.

In the end she burst like a dam. Water and anger spilling outwards.

“Do you think this was what Claude would have wanted? You to abandon us-”

“What do you care? You didn’t love him.”

There was a pause, then and when she spoke again her words echoed quietly.

“That’s not true, you know that’s not true.”

“If you had loved him, he wouldn’t have gone with them. This is all your fault.”

It’s funny how the arguments stick in your mind, the hurtful things stay, while the funny ones and silly ones and loving ones and clever ones run away from you. Run away to play with someone else. Maybe nobody else will play with those hurtful thoughts, so you have to keep them, carry them with you.

“He asked you to marry him, remember? You could have saved him. All those fine ideals, but you wouldn’t help him – your friend.”

I might as well have stabbed her, run a bayonet right through her. I knew it as I was doing it, I just didn’t care much. But you shouldn’t keep all your sympathy for her, however much I deserve it. She could be hard Sheila. Deep down solid iron.

“You loved him and that didn’t save him, did it? That didn’t make him stay.”

There wasn’t ever much chance of us going back after that.

No one loves healthily. Some people manage the illusion that they do but that’s all it is, an illusion. Because love isn’t nurturing or compassionate or gentle – it’s more like being mad. Being consumed. Fire and passion and grief and rage and insanity. That’s love. At least, that’s my love.

But despite all that, love is... it’s utterly vital, the only thing that really matters. It’s like breathing. Even if every breath you took seared your throat and choked you, you’d still breathe, because the only other option is to be dead.

Love spins the world round, but never fool yourself that it does it gently.

****

That was Sheila, of course, and me – all over. I said we weren’t good for each other, we knew just where  to strike, where to land the killing blow. She had torn me out, my roots reaching for the sky, an upside down tree, shivering.

Shivering.

So, the sex thing. Sheila was right. I had loved Claude and he had left.

We never slept together, the boy was right about that, though I don’t remember telling him. Maybe he just pieced it together. The boy's a Taurus. Big surprise, right? He’s not destined for greatness or madness, just stubbornness. I sometimes wonder if I understand people because of their zodiacs, or if it’s just that I see them differently because of them.

Aquarius.

I guess I must have let other things slip, maybe I told him about the first time I did sleep with a boy. 1972. He was smooth-skinned, my hands rough against it, and long, slender-limbed. And he wasn’t Claude.

At the time I thought it was just an experiment and it wasn’t like 1972 stuck around long, he disappeared the next day with my wallet. I thought maybe the drugs had finally worn me down, twisted me around. Or maybe it was just that nothing mattered anymore.

Or maybe it was just that I’d finally seen a Beatle, John Lennon wandering the streets of New York and that that was a spilling point, a boiling over. It felt oddly like a rite of passage, a loss of innocence and it had made me crave other such rites.

To jump in deep, conquer those things I should have done before.

You see, the thing about being a hippy - the real thing about it, about being free and liberated and not giving a damn - was that half the time it wasn’t that simple. Well, it wasn’t if you were being honest about it. About yourself. We all have barriers and walls, deep inside ourselves. Breaking them down is the challenge, the point of life I think.

Then again, you shouldn’t listen to me I’ve never really bothered with honesty – lying has always been easier.

So while everyone else, all my tribe, were experimenting and free and breaking down their walls, I was still hiding behind mine. I just told myself that it was just that I liked women. I always liked women, every part of them – their voices and their bodies and their energy and their hair and their soul and their toes...

Hell, I still do.

Don’t think anything has changed. Don’t imagine the boy’s presence says anything fundamental about my sexuality. Like I said, he’s just persistent and, anyway, I never did much like making decisions about anything.

There are still girls and boys and there will be more. This thing with the boy, whatever it is, it’s not a lasting one. My love is forever seasonal, it shifts and changes and I fly south for the winter.

I loved Claude... we kissed and our hands sought each other's warmth as if it was they, not us, who were addicted. But we didn’t go farther. We didn’t stray down that woodland path. And our love stayed strange and ethereal and like a fairy tale.

But the boy is wrong, too: the sex doesn’t matter, it’s not that important, not the most important thing in the world. Don’t get me wrong – it’s probably the most fun thing in the world. But that’s not the same as important.

And it’s not like that’s my great big regret with Claude, one of them maybe but not the big one. I’ve got more than enough regrets to choose from. I’m not even sure what is. Maybe that’s the point of all this, of all these words.

*****

I guess the tribe is the big regret, or at least the one that encompasses all the others. The hopes and dreams and expectations that we lost with Claude. I guess that’s what you want to hear about most too, what happened to the rest of them.

I don’t know.

The thing with the tribe - the real thing with it - was that it needed all three of us. Claude was the leader and Sheila was the leader and I was the leader. And we were all useless without each other. Because I was the energy and Sheila was the compassion, the hope, and Claude was our dreamer. Our thinker. Our architect.

He gave my energy somewhere to go, my mind something to believe in, took all my enthusiasm and bravado and shaped it into something powerful. And Sheila’s compassion was his target and I was his arrow and we were his anchor.

Whilst he believed in us, his life had shape and meaning, he didn’t have to make decisions for himself. Just for us and I think that was easier for him.

We didn’t just lose him, we lost all our structure.

And they were so afraid and angry, the tribe, with Claude dead and me gone and Sheila breaking. It was like a fire exploding – far too bright and unsure of itself – it couldn’t last. Once he was gone, it was sort of inevitable that we would break and shatter – like a dead dandelion, seeds scattering outwards.

Sheila stopped seeing us, finished university and went out West. Last time I heard of her, someone saw her at a protest in Washington last year. Or two years ago, maybe. I do see Jeannie sometimes, in the park with her daughter, clutching her hand, pretending she’s normal – though she can’t quite stop dressing like a hippie. We don’t say hello, just our eyes meeting and then pretending we don’t know each other. I think she feels sorry for me, that’s what her eyes say as they catch mine. There’s never a man, at least not at the park.

Hud did all right for himself, successful, made money – though he still campaigns on weekends. Loudly. I don’t know about Dionne. I wish I did: I miss her. Woof died, he took some drugs and thought he could fly.

I don’t know what happened to the others. They just vanished, scattered. I guess it’s easier to disappear than Claude thought.

*****

I wandered, worked here and there, never really finding anything. Making anything. I watched the hope turn into rage, punk, and I remained a shadow of the past. Until I ended up here in this little hovel apartment that I sort of love, sitting in the dark talking to the invisible man. Waiting for this wild haired boy who probably has more plans for me than Sheila. I think he’s an architect, too, you know.

And maybe he’s right. Maybe I do have to let go, so I’m here in the darkness conjuring you. Making you visible.

I try to ignore the tremble in my fingers as I switch the flashlight on, until now the only light has been the indistinct glimmer of the city burning. Now the cold light of the torch reveals only emptiness. I set it down on the floor before me and start it spinning, the light flashing around the room.

 The words come back to me and I chant them under my breath, with the feeling that there used to be a melody. And many voices.

 

“Oh great god of power
Oh great god of light
Oh great god of gas
Oh god, Oh god

Where has all the power fled?
He is light
He is sin
He is bone
He is air

He is... 
He is Aquarius.”

 

Claude Hooper Bukowski. My invisible confessor.

He flickers before me, switching between the Claude I’d loved and the stranger in the picture, settling  back into himself. Long hair and beatific smile.

“I’m sorry...” I tell him, not sure if I mean it. “You left.”

Claude’s eyes are sad and forgiving and completely how I remember them, though I suppose this is only my own memory I’m conjuring.

“I’m sorry,” I try again. “You left. And he isn’t you, he never will be. But he smells of summer and I’m not ready to fly south.”

The memory of Claude leans forward as the flashlight settles, shining into a mirror I’d forgotten was in the corner of the room. The reflected light dancing across us both like magic or electricity. And Claude kisses me. Softly. An indistinct haunting.

As we break apart the light flickers on with a soft electric buzz and Claude is gone. Not invisible, just gone.

Below I hear a low whistle that tells me the boy is back, waiting for me to throw down the keys. I flick the flashlight off, feeling like it is an end. Finally.

“Goodbye Claude.”