Sunday, July 15, 2012

Dirty Old Town

We've all had them: those relationships we know are over long before we ultimately manage to make our graceless exits. For a time you willfully ignore the obvious indications that the relationship is on life support. Of course, you maintain hope at first because, after all, there was something of real love there once. Then you're holding on because admitting defeat, accepting the flaws in your dreams and expectations, is only slightly more palatable than a bowl of stewed rat testicles. Even when you've come to terms with all of that, there is, finally, the dubious prospect of facing the unknown. Transient comfort is easier to bear than the prospect of near certain distress.

I moved back to this small city from a considerably larger city eleven years ago. By then I had spent a year driving up and down the interstate to see my daughter on the weekends, and that bleak drive, amplified by the bittersweet farewell at weekend's end, compelled me to follow my daughter and her mother back to Waterville, the place where I had already spent much of my life. Growing up in nearby Vassalboro, Waterville was "town," the place where everything was: groceries, school clothes, doctors' offices, the movie theatre. When it came time for me to go to college, I chose Colby, which is technically in Waterville, although the gulf that exists between the city proper and the campus on the hill is measurable not so much in miles as in the elements that comprise the essence of privilege. After brief forays into the wider world, I made what I intended to be a mere pit-stop here, just enough time to patch my old Volvo together before I headed west to points mostly unknown. Instead, I met a girl, and I stayed. Twenty months later, we had a daughter who still, seventeen years later, makes me glad that old Volvo of mine wasn't anywhere close to ready to roll across the continent in the fall of 1993.

We were living in Portland (Maine -- when I say Portland, it is always Portland, Maine, unless otherwise noted) by the time the little beast arrived, and we would spend most of the first five years of her life there. It was a pretty good time to be living in Portland. We didn't have much money, but back then it was still pretty affordable as cities go, so we lived in a decent apartment, ate out at good restaurants once in a while, and wandered all over the city. The relationship's death knell tolled right around the time the cost of living in Portland skyrocketed, and with two households to support rather than just one, soon there was little choice: my daughter and her mother made their way north to cheaper climes. Again, a year of making that drive every weekend wore me down, but it was more than that. Being in the same city had meant having midweek options, impromptu dinners and sleepovers or just a sweet half hour sitting with her on the steps eating ice cream. A year without any of that was more than I was willing to endure, and so I followed them back home to Waterville.

For the first seven years, I could have been living anywhere: the place was mostly irrelevant because I found a job that occupied most of my waking hours. I worked fifty, sixty, sometimes seventy hours a week, and when I wasn't working or sleeping, I was with my daughter. Waterville existed, for me, as little more than the backdrop to my ongoing life. It wasn't until that job ended, quite suddenly, that I poked my head out of what was then my cave and found myself in the midst of a burgeoning scene.

Those were impressive times by any standard. Everyone was young and smart and interesting and enthusiastic. People were involved. It felt very much like the future of Waterville was not just promising, it was assured. There was an award-winning author, a doctor, college professors, journalists, world travelers, a librarian and her punk-rock husband, a hippie farmer, a concert promoter . . . a remarkable array of talents and experiences. I knew at the time it was rare, but I never guessed it was also fleeting.

People move on, they move away for jobs or family or whatever. All of that happened, but there was another element to our disintegration that was, at least in part, my own fault. I fell for the farmer's girlfriend, with foreseeable consequences: the group splintered apart. Where once any given evening could find a dozen or more of us joyfully spread around four tables pulled together in a corner of the bar, suddenly no gathering was easily made: allegiances had to be considered, as well as wagging tongues. I certainly lamented the change, but I was no less besotted and self-absorbed than that simpering twit Paris under the gaze of Helen of Troy: I was more than satisfied that my relationship with the farmer's girlfriend remained one of the few unscathed by current circumstances. Meanwhile, in ones and twos, my friends began to move away. Eventually, so did the farmer's girlfriend, although she didn't go so far away that I couldn't still see her. She had ended things with the farmer, and because pretty young women of a particular stripe thrive on unqualified affection and the constant tacit reminder that they are desirable, she kept me on a string for a short time -- just long enough to find her way in the new version of her life, long enough for her to stop feeling desolate and alone. Once her own sense of order had been restored, she cut the string, and I sank rather briskly into my own personal oblivion.

For a long time after that, Waterville became for me a place with ghosts around every corner. The bar, the good restaurant, the coffee shop, the footbridge, my own house: all of it was fraught with her. I considered leaving then because, at the time, it was impossible to imagine seeing any or all of this every day and not constantly seeing some flash of her in my periphery. It was grotesque. Time passed, though, and it was she who became grotesque, not the things she had touched. I had new eyes for Waterville and, not without considerable modifications, I settled in once again.

Joyce had Dublin. Faulkner had Oxford County, Mississippi; Hemingway Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the Florida Keys and, of course, Paris. Steinbeck had Salinas and Monterey. Places as desperate obsessions, grimy windows on the near world. I have, for most of my life, had a dying, decaying mill town perched on the edge of a river. In my youth there were two still thriving department stores spitting distance from one another right downtown. Today, one of those buildings is a cobbled together collection of shops, offices and event space; the other is a derelict. The good restaurant, the one that had sustained itself for decades, closed three months ago. The coffee shop is the hangout of strange misfits, Jesus-freaks, and old people. The bars are full of bad music and loudmouthed drug dealers. The sidewalks are crowded with the desperate, the mad, the medicated. None of this is entirely new -- it's worse, of late, but it's certainly not new.

No, what is new is this: I see no hope here. With barely more than a handful of exceptions, my closest friends have drifted off to other places, other lives. What was once a fair copy of the Algonquin Round Table is now little more than a lunch counter of barely audible witticisms. Opportunity is scarce: it seems the only sort of "business" that finds this place appealing these days is low-income elderly housing. The city's current motto is "Converge and Create." I believe it was my friend Chili who quipped, "It should be 'Converge and Cremate.'" That's right, folks: come here and die. But, because so many of the ones who were supposed to comprise this small city's renaissance have moved on, I suppose I can't blame the rich old white men of the chamber of commerce for being enthusiastic about the prospect of Waterville becoming a de facto retirement community. Old people commit comparatively few crimes, after all, and they're off the streets before dark. They are a dream populace in this disposable age.

When I need a break from writing, I wander down the street to the park, where I sit and smoke a cigarette and let the sun do what little it can for a guy who spends most of his time in a cave. There's a crazy homeless asshole who sits at the edge of the park on days like today, and he's taken to muttering at me every time I walk past him. What he says is easy enough to ignore because, well, he's a crazy homeless asshole, and for a handful of reasons he probably resents having his routine disrupted by my routine. The fact that I don't even acknowledge his existence almost certainly rankles him as well, but believe me, I don't dismiss him simply because he's firmly ensconced in the shallow dirty end of the human wading pool. I pay him no heed, yes, but the thing I can't ignore, the thing I shouldn't ignore, is the sense that, the longer I stay in this town, the narrower the margin between that guy and me becomes. You never can tell what the consequences might be when you linger just a bit too long.

We've had some times, though -- we've had some times. I've fallen in love, kissed a lot of ladies, been drunk, been sobered, found and lost friends, {NOTE: It appears something went wrong when I originally posted this entry, and about a sentence and a half at the end of this paragraph got lopped off. I apologize. I also wish I could tell you precisely what I said in those words that are no longer with us, but I couldn't recreate it for all the money in your pocket. It is gone, and we must not grieve. Take it on faith that whatever I wrote, it was pithy, quite possibly poignant, and probably included a reference to a once beautiful succubus.}

Waterville, je t'aime. I want a divorce.

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