Now and Then
As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his foolishness.
I love to tell stories. I love to tell stories about my life and the lives of interesting people who are interesting and do interesting things. I tell stories that make people laugh, cry, or want to think deeper about life and love. I like it when my stories make them feel differently about who they are. I won’t bore you right now with who I am. After all, that’s not the more interesting story.
September 2, 2010
Grace Dumais worked six days a week and felt depressed every single one of them, plus one. Her life was in shambles, and a wide gap was developing between her and her husband of five years. Declan Dumais tried to take control of all the problems at home by building schedules and giving short “motivating speeches,” but those speeches and his faulty perspective were tiny Band-Aids on large bullet wounds.
Declan’s confidence stood taller than his actual height. Wiry and short with a tiny nose, ears, and a tight Marine haircut, he looked like an athlete. His job as a PE teacher did nothing to dispel that myth.
These days, Grace never quite did her hair or looked like she wanted to impress anyone, but in college she twisted the heads of men faster than a praying mantis. Her hair was dark brown and bouncy, but her attitude had lost its former pep. She seemed taller than her husband of the same height.
Each day felt like a blur. Declan went to work teaching at the elementary school and Grace watched the boys. After work, Declan came home and spent time with the kids so Grace could get a bit of sleep. Then she woke up around 10:00 pm and drove to work at a nearby gas station for 11:00. The station was in a rough part of town near Great Brook Valley, a collection of housing projects in Worcester not far from their house in Shrewsbury.
Declan slept and she worked till 5:00 am. At five, she drove home to start cooking Declan’s breakfast. He’d laid out the ingredients the night before to ensure she made the things he wanted to eat. After all, he was a Phys. Ed. teacher, and needed the appropriate body fuel.
Two days a week, Declan went to the library to study after work. Simply being in his home office wasn’t enough. He told Grace she could hire a sitter if she wanted, but mentioned funds were tight so she had to be careful spending too much. On those Tuesdays and Thursdays, if she didn’t hire a sitter, she watched the kids, went to work and slept very little.
When my wife, Marie, heard about this new schedule, she had Grace bring the boys to our house. Grace cried for an hour when Marie presented the offer. My wife asked me to mention this to Declan in hopes his pride would get in the way of requiring us to watch the kids with that regularity, but when I did, he thanked me and said it was for a good cause.
Declan chose Tuesdays and Thursdays to study because of the Flat Earth Group. His friend Adam Starr held private “Flat Earth” meetings at the Shrewsbury Library those days, and Declan wanted to hear what others had to say. More importantly, he wanted to share with others what he was learning during his private study times after.
Seven people attended the group every week, and Declan enjoyed the discussions. Adam was the leader, with his bright white hair and his resemblance to the professor from Gilligan’s Island. Every time he spoke with his British accent it seemed like the wisest, most eloquent thing anyone said that day. Declan wrote everything down.
Lou, or “Sweet Lou” as everyone affectionately called him, was the self-professed “Lieutenant” who took the lead each time Adam could not make the meeting. Everyone liked Sweet Lou, but didn’t respect him the way they did Adam. Lou was bald with two patches of hair on either side of his head, light strings crossing over the “bald head sea” from one side to the other. He had a pot belly and rosy cheeks and early on Declan hoped he played a Santa character during the holidays (the handlebar mustache needed to be replaced by a beard, though, for the sake of appearances).
One of two women in the group was a gruff, heavyset woman named Jenny Cruze, a “wicked cool name” Declan thought to himself the first time he was introduced to her, though the coolness, in his opinion, ended there. She spoke in a deep southern drawl that made Declan wonder what made her move north. Each time she spoke his name, he laughed to himself.
“Is that what you think Dee-Eclan?”
“Dee-Eclan, please come over here and help me with this.”
Then there were the twin brothers who looked like they still lived with their mom. They either loved the polyester pants they received from their grandfather or they bought them at the Goodwill store for that cool throwback style. When it came to Mike and Gary Barnsworth’s clothing, neither was true. They looked malnourished, hardly said a word, and Declan later learned they did still live with their mother.
The sixth member seemed a little out of place among the misfits. Amber Starr intensely studied and talked about every aspect of Flat Earth theory. Whereas mostly “scientific types” attended these kinds of meetings including her father Adam, Amber, five foot three and in Declan’s mind a twin of Shania Twain, participated as much as anyone else. At twenty-five, the group designated her the “baby.” When she spoke, however, every eye fixated on her.
Declan’s attitude toward her was no different. He found himself smitten by her confidence. When the group dismissed for the evening, he longed for her to stick around and talk to him about the theory, or whatever else was on her mind. He couldn’t tell whether she had an interest in him. She knew he was married, but Declan had been hit on enough times by the moms at his school to know that didn’t always matter.
After a few months, smitten by infatuation, Declan wanted to make a move on Amber, yet understood the consequences if he stepped into such a thing. He believed in God, and even claimed to love him, but Grace was going crazy and in the last year his connection with Amber felt so strong. He convinced himself that God wanted them together. If it was not reciprocated, it would end up making things awkward at the group, and ruin some good friendships. To say nothing of what would happen if Grace found out.
So, he continued wanting her, but doing nothing about those desires. That left him unfulfilled and longing, but in the end kept him safe from making a stupid decision. This routine worked everywhere except the shower.
I guess it’s wrong to say he did nothing because Declan threw himself into his Flat Earth “studies.” He went to the library every Tuesday after work, met with the group at seven, then studied on his own until closing at ten.
Declan liked to stick with what he could control, and tonight’s meeting topic was figuring out why the United Nations had a vested interest in keeping people from knowing the truth about the shape of the Earth. In 1959, seven nations placed flags down in Antarctica, as well as resources to make fight over the land a real possibility. America and the Soviet Union, the two superpowers at the time, agreed on a peace treaty called the Antarctica Treaty on June 23, 1961.
Declan wondered why the two worked together for such a treaty since the Cold War had raged on in the late Fifties. The two countries suddenly became friends on this topic and spearheaded the push to fight for the treaty to be enacted and enforced.
The three major tenants of the treaty were: The countries would ensure that the legal status of the continent’s independence remained unchanged; that scientific cooperation continued; and that all exploration done in Antarctica was for peaceful purposes only.
People traveled to Antarctica all the time. Cruises and tours to breathe the fresh Antarctic air, provided they had $10,000 to drop for the vacation. People regularly mocked Flat Earthers for arguing that the UN kept people from visiting the seventh continent. This was a silly debate and many in his group often wondered who spread these types of idiotic points when it came to arguing for truth
Though Adam started a few groups in the local Massachusetts area, and loved to spread the “plain truth” about how the world really worked, he believed the official “Flat Earth Society” was a government-planted organization that spouted off “idiot science” to make true Flat Earthers look crazy. When Declan studied, he made sure to look at credible and scientific sources only.
For instance, though people could go to Antarctica on guided tours, those tours only traveled to sixty degrees latitude, essentially the coastal areas of the continent. To go beyond that required being part of a scientific community. Even then, it would be easier to be chosen as a Chick-Fil-A owner/operator than be approved for a research project on Antarctica.
It was possible, however. One must fill out State Form DS 4131, and that form must be approved. The EPA must then verify the visit complies with the Title 40 Code of Federal Regulations, or CFR. Finally the NEPA must prepare an Environment Impact Statement. That statement, Declan found out, would cost him – or anyone who wanted to research the tundra – $250,000 to $2,000,000. Not to mention, no one except government scientists had ever been issued a research approval beyond 90 degrees latitude. So no, Antarctica was not exactly an open country for anyone wanting to investigate.
Should one try to navigate their way into the interior, they would be arrested. UN troops ensure it security, and US Marshals have jurisdiction to arrest anyone caught on the continent without government approval.
Declan looked at his watch. He had to be home by at least 10:35 so Grace could get to work, and the library was closing soon anyway. He leaned back in his chair and rubbed his rubbed his face. On nights he wasn’t at the library he usually stayed in his home office or played with the boys. Communication had frozen between him and Grace as she continued to struggle. He knew the remedy, but she never listened.
Grace’s eyes wanted to shut. They were, in fact, shutting as she drove the boys to the mall one afternoon while Declan worked, or studied, or whatever he was doing during whatever time it was right now. She didn’t want to go to the mall, but the kids had been rambunctious and staying at the house felt like more of a problem than a benefit. Why couldn’t he just come home? She thought to herself. Why couldn’t things be like they were before? When he wanted her and she craved his body touching hers? Now she hated when he touched her. Every few days or so he came home and tried to control her like some whore. He did his thing, and then went into that damn office to study.
Now she felt tired and lonely. The mall wasn’t where she needed to be right now, but it was where she was going. A few weeks before, she’d ordered new credit cards. Grace figured she could use them to get some new clothes and start feeling more confident about herself. Walking into a room where every guy shifted their eyes from their girlfriend to her no longer happened. It wasn’t that she’d gained much weight over the years. In fact, in some ways she was smaller than her college days, but the soul had ways of exposing a lack of confidence as much as the body did.
She parked in the same lot she’d parked the last time she visited the Solomon Pond Mall, four years ago, but this time much closer to the door. When she decided to come here earlier, in the chaos of the kids around her, she’d forgot about her last visit and the balding, bearded man smoking outside of the entrance. As she walked in with the boys she could see him again in her mind’s eye, and hated him. She hated his stench. She wondered if he’d tried it with anyone else.
For a moment she considered turning around and going to a different mall, but it had been a while and this was the most convenient. Grace breathed a sigh of relief when she stared through the TGI Fridays window and did not see her old “friend” – she couldn’t remember his name – but silently thanked him for paying attention enough that day to save her from what could have potentially been disastrous.
In the middle of the mall, she stopped her two sons, and called for Luke to come over to her. Now four years old, she held him tight and thanked him for being alive and for being her son. Luke didn’t know what he did to deserve the affection, but gladly accepted it from the favorite woman in his life. She stood up and kissed his younger brother on the forehead. Brandon sat in his stroller, approving the action.
They visited several stores that afternoon trying on what she thought of as a lot of clothes. She only brought home half of them, and she wouldn’t tell Declan they were new, or how she paid for everything. The total bill rang to about five hundred dollars, a small amount compared to what she’d tried on. Grace commended herself for the self-control.
Most of the clothes had long sleeves. The more down she got on herself, the more she continued scratching and cutting her arms. She didn’t know why she did it. She only knew that she couldn’t feel anything otherwise. Nothing mattered anymore. Her husband didn’t care about her. Grace’s mother spent all her time with her new church friends, and Grace chose to not share any of what was happening in her life with her own church circle. Besides, Declan wasn’t going to allow the imperfections of his family life to be visible.
She and the boys arrived home around eight o’clock. Three hours until Declan returned. She sent Luke and Brandon off to the toy room to play for a few minutes. Recently Grace had told Doctor Subrakash she felt low, that she might be depressed. After running through a list of questions that doctors like to ask, the woman prescribed Prozac. Grace stood in front of the mirror sobbing, wondering where her life was headed and hoping the boys didn’t hurt themselves while she napped before she had to work that evening.
Around the same time, Declan’s Flat Earth Group dismissed for the day after a lively discussion on how the sun and moon rotated around Earth’s tabletop frame. There was disagreement around the track of the celestial titans, but in the end, everyone agreed the Earth was not currently moving through the solar system at 67,000 miles per hour, as scientists suggested.
Afterwards, Declan headed for his favorite study room in the back of the library. Recently he and Amber, after talking a bit more about Flat Earth theories, moved onto more personal topics. He didn’t know if they’d be talking tonight, but when he saw her leave, he knew the disappointment he felt was problematic. He pushed away that feeling and got into study mode, but struggled getting her out of his mind.
The feeling of disappointment vanished instantly the moment he saw Amber knock sheepishly on the window of library’s back door.
“Come in, come in,” Declan said, then repeated the words a few more times under his breath. Old habits die hard, and not constantly taking control of every situation proved to be too difficult for him.
Amber opened the door then flinched, as if expecting an alarm to go off. When it didn’t she walked in as if it were her home, that confidence returned. Declan felt breathless as she smiled. For months his mind played through the “what ifs” of their relationship, and now he so badly wanted to find out how she felt about him he worried what he might say.
“I know you’re studying, but I had a question. Do you have a minute?”
“Of course. All the time in the world.” He chiding himself for his answer. He needed to stay in control.
“We’ve been talking so much the last few months, and you’re such a great guy. I’ve enjoyed our conversations. I know you’re a church guy, though, and wanted to pick your brain about some things I’ve been going through on a deeper level. Maybe from a different perspective than I usually get from some of my other friends?”
Ok, she brought up the church thing. I have to tread carefully here, Declan thought, then answered, “Yeah, sure. I don’t have all the wisdom in the world, but I know a few things and what I don’t know, I’ll try to find out.”
“Ok, good, good.” She sat down at the table, not across from him but beside him. Their knees almost touched. “I graduated a few years ago from Worcester State, and have been working and pouring a lot of my time into this group, and you know, our theories? My friends, the few I’ve kept since school, they want to go out every night so I did that, too. A lot at first, it was fun. I met people and I dated a few guys.” Declan couldn’t help but hear the slight hesitancy in her voice.
“I guess I thought life would turn out different after I graduated. I don’t know how, but it seems like life should be more than this.” She looked up at the ceiling and made some non-committal gesture with one hand. “I hope you’re not offended, but the highlight of my week has been at the Flat Earth Group and, well, my conversations with you. They seem more real and authentic, you know?”
“I know what you mean,” he said, mentally struggling to maintain his breathing, maintain an air of cool. “But my life isn’t perfect, either. I’ve got struggles. I guess, in the end, it’s how you deal with them. I choose to give them over to God and see where that takes me.” Declan knew in his heart he was a hypocrite. Here he was talking all spiritual to this woman while at the same time wondering what it would be like…. He blinked involuntarily, mentally erasing that image.
“That’s what I mean, Declan…” She paused and touched his arm. He liked how she said his name. “You’re always so in control. Most men wouldn’t ‘give all their stuff’ to God. But you have, and you’re even proud about it. Your wife must be so proud of you.”
She looked down when she said this. He couldn’t tell if she’d made the statement to hear his response or if she genuinely meant it.
He made no move to pull his arm away. “My wife and I are going through some stuff right now, so I don’t know if I’d say she was proud of me.” He glanced down, trying to give an appearance of shame. “Since we’ve had the boys, Grace hasn’t been the same, and nothing I do seems to make her happy.”
“I’m sorry, Declan. I had no idea,” Amber said, though her statement was obvious. He’d never said anything, preferring to keep his two worlds separate. There was no way she could have known, other than any implications from his constant flirtation.
“No, no of course you couldn’t have known,” he said. “But just you being here and talking with me has been huge in this season of my life. I don’t know how to say this but my conversations with you have been the highlight of these last few months. So… thank you.”
Amber blushed. She turned to face him directly, sliding her chair a fraction closer. She played with her black hair, not quite knowing what to say, but trying to come up with words.
“Sometimes, I feel so lonely…” She paused to think about her next sentence, then put her hand on the table next to his. Their fingers touched gently without ever crossing. She continued slowly. “…and you. Have helped. Me, I mean. Get through some of that deep, deep loneliness. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. I love talking to you, and being with you.” Declan’s voice had more confidence now.
“Wait. I’m not done. I love talking and being with you, too. Which is why we can’t talk anymore.” Her eyes glazed over. “It is definitely for the best. and it’ll be better for your marriage if we stay away from each other.”
Amber stood up and walked out the door, crying from the decision. Declan felt tears down his cheeks, too, though he didn’t know if it was because “they” were done before they even started, or simply seeing her heart break like this. He sat a long time in the study room, staring at the surface of the table until ten, then packed his backpack and drove home so Grace could get to work. That night, sleep evaded him.