Shattering the mirror of self-delusion

Shattering the mirror of self-delusion
                        

I promise you that if I’d ever known it was good for me, I’d never have started.

That’s who I am.

I’m the guy who’s always going all in, who’s afraid of missing the what-ifs, who’s always lived up (or down) to his own mother’s perfectly expressed encapsulation of his character (or lack thereof).

Specifically, precisely, I was (am) a child of excess.

I remember Mom looking at me, not in wonder, but in sympathy.

Maybe she knew, between my classes and my ball games, my crushes and my conquests, my music and my writing, that mine was going to be a bumpy, turbulent ride-or-die kind of life, one whose ending would come much too soon.

As did hers.

I tried to understand her better after she was gone, but that proved to be a fool’s errand. Nothing about her was left undone or unsaid.

All I had to do was remember.

And that’s where I failed.

I’ve never been what you could call a giving person; oh, I’m capable of the occasional thoughtful gesture, but it’s not me.

I’m completely alone in the world, and I’m happiest that way.

The night before my college graduation, something happened. My on again, off again girlfriend, a couple of years younger but much more mature than I’d ever imagined, smashed my bedroom mirror.

I was living in an off-campus house, a rather modest dwelling in a seedier part of South Bend, with four or five or six other people, depending on the random spins of fortune’s wheel. She was among those who came and went, perhaps sensing the path I’d chosen could only be wide enough for one.

It was that instinct, I think, that created our volatile, combustible chemistry, something so preposterously and wonderfully dangerous that neither of us could bear to be the first one to jump.

So we held onto each other as long as we could, as well as we could.

It was doomed, of course, and I knew that from the night we collided, drawn to each other as irrevocably as water to the shore.

Cue the Beatles: She was just 17. You know what I mean.

We laughingly, teasingly argued from the start, about everything, about nothing, about everything in between. Some nights everything fit perfectly, only for us to find things jarringly awry the next day. I was exhilarated when I was beside her, miserable when she was away, and that tension, that high-wire act, that daredevil pantomime created in us an ineffable, kamikaze kind of love.

When she left me the first time, I felt kneecapped, crippled, so I threw myself into my studies, with time off for my excesses. I took up jogging again, wanting to burn off the poisons I’d consumed. I spent lots of time with another woman, a jazz aficionado, a cross-country skier, a beautiful English major with dreams of academia.

She offered shelter from the storm, and I was grateful for the refuge.

Soon enough, though, what we had dimmed, and that was fine. I knew I was punching above my weight class, way out of my depth.

During the mid-'70s, Notre Dame had a 7-to-1 ratio of men to women, meaning guys understood the odds; for every one of us trying to make something happen with someone special, socially, there were a half-dozen others waiting patiently in line behind us.

It was a sucker’s game, and I was determined not to play it.

So I channeled my inner excessive self into various other tributaries of college life. I obsessed over my grades. I spent hours in the student center, polishing my pool skills. I frequented a few bars where I’d win more than my share of nine-ball games.

The trick was to let your opponent take the early advantage and then, just as he was feeling confident, cut him off at the knees.

One place played lots of Rolling Stones songs on the state-of-the-art stereo system, and I still retain muscle memory of winning lots of money, mostly quarters, whenever I hear “Gimme Shelter.”

But it was Jackson Browne I returned to again and again when I rode my 10-speed back to the ramshackle rental I shared with those five or six or seven other folks in the ghetto. I knew it was wrong to keep on playing his music because it had been “our” soundtrack.

Still, I put up my very best Bogart façade, thinking of that line in “Casablanca,” the one that went something like, “You played it for her; you can play it for me. If she can stand it, so can I. Play it.”

But instead of “As Time Goes By,” I’d listen to “Late for the Sky”:

You never knew what I loved in you

I don’t know what you loved in me

Maybe the picture of somebody

You were hoping I might be.

And then, well, the gravitational pull that had drawn us together in the first place reasserted itself once again, and we, like tectonic plates sliding over and under one another, created a tsunami that was immense in its intensity and awesome in its rekindled excess.

There’s that word again.

If I do take things too far, it’s not because I’m incapable of dialing it back. After all, if you don’t count beer, I hardly drink at all, and as for the smokes, the Surgeon General said nicotine is more addictive than heroin, and you won’t find any tracks on my arms.

I’d like to live well into my 90s, watch the world become a better place and perhaps travel with my wife and revisit Nantucket or Cooperstown, Key West or Bar Harbor, our sites of so much fun.

I’d also like to take her to Jamaica and Morocco, maybe the Galapagos Islands, perhaps Tibet to gaze at Mount Everest, or Australia to dive deep and have a look at the Great Barrier Reef.

After all, we have our passports, and they’ve never been stamped.

She’s a remarkable woman, and I wish my flaws weren’t so obvious and occasionally hurtful. Sometimes, I have no idea why she doesn’t smash that bedroom mirror too, saying, “All you care about is yourself!” and reducing that relic to shards and shanks.

You know what I’ve been taking to excess the past few years?

Crossword puzzles from The New York Times, which I do in ink. Scientists have said activities such as that greatly reduce the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease for folks my age.

Had I known it was good for me, I’d probably never have begun.


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