She is the one that I don’t want to write about. She is the thing. The one thing I must write about. She is dead now. But that doesn’t mean that on occasion my love for her doesn’t burn like an ember on a funeral pyre. I don’t tell my wife about these feelings. Of course not. Carla is locked away in our collective vault of memory as something that happened long ago, like her barely remembered paintings gathering dust in our overflowing basement. She’s put away in the deep folds of my brain with Joey Ramone and Johnny Thunders. Ironically, there’s a video on of Joey Ramone singing “What a Wonderful World” and tears are falling from my eyes and I don’t know if it’s from thinking about Carla or from the “What a Wonderful World” trigger.
Since I’m being uncharacteristically candid, I’ll let you in on a personal secret. I tell anyone who might care that I never cry, that I’m incapable of tears. Of course that’s pure egotism on my part. I want people to think I’m hardened, slightly damaged, and mysterious in some inexplicable way. But there are 3 triggers that make me cry every encounter. 1) Lou Gehrig’s “today I consider myself the luckiest man alive” speech upon his retirement from baseball in 1939. And yes, Gary Cooper’s reenactment in Pride of the Yankees works quite effectively. 2) John-John Kennedy saluting the horse drawn carriage carrying his father’s casket as it passes him by on that November 1963 day. You can imagine the torrents unleashed a couple of years ago when the adult John Jr. died in a plane crash and the footage of his famous salute was played ad infinitum. 3) Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World.”
Whenever I hear that song, the bittersweet pain of what it means to be alive comes to the forefront of my consciousness and leaks out my eyes. Now there’s a number 4) Joey Ramone singing “What a Wonderful World.”
Okay, there is a number 5. I really don’t like to talk about this one. I guess I have to because I brought you along this far. I don’t like to admit this one ‘cause it may seem as if I’m dwelling in the past. I guess I am. You see I’m a teacher who is on sabbatical, which means I have the time to do things that I haven’t had the luxury of doing, like dwelling in the past. Okay, here’s the secret 5th tear trigger: I cry when I stand by Carla’s grave behind the church in Titusville, New Jersey. That’s about 60 miles from here. It’s where she’s from, past Trenton, next to Pennington, down the turnpike. And where she is. Behind the church. For nineteen years. I bring roses to put on her grave. Since September, I’ve visited a couple of times. Why? Because I have the time.
I can’t decide whether to tell the story backward or forward. She died on September 26, 1983. She had been in the hospital all summer long. She shot 13 bags of heroin. She tried to kill herself. But she didn’t die. At first. Her then boyfriend discovered her in an overdosed heap and called the ambulance. Donny was his name. They took her to Cabrini Medical Center. She languished for three months. She was getting better. She came to appreciate that her actions impacted others, that we cared about her very much, and that she had many reasons to embrace life. She understood that her father loved her. That I loved her always and forever. I visited her every day except for a couple of weeks when Elizabeth, my future wife, and I went on vacation. The only time I ever got mad at Lizzie was when she had the temerity to wonder aloud why everyone was so intent on keeping Carla alive, when she so obviously wanted to be dead. I didn’t talk to Lizzie for two days, but when I thought about it, I couldn’t stay mad at her. Who else would put up with a boyfriend who insisted upon visiting his ex-girlfriend in the hospital each and every day? Like I said, Carla was getting better. The tube in her throat was removed and she could talk. She thanked me for helping her father. She said she loved me. A few days before her release, she had a heart attack. And died. Like that.
No, I don’t want to tell this story backwards. It’s not better this way. Drift back to 1978. Picture a college town. No, picture a decaying New Jersey industrial town moonlighting as a college town. That’s it, you got it. New Brunswick, New Jersey, home of Rutgers, the state university. Visualize a block of student apartments just off campus. See porches and fresh-faced students sitting on the porches pretending to read weighty college textbooks. Picture a world wide open to a future as broad as a Montana sky.
Now picture me. Hopelessly alienated for no good reason. And I can’t find my keys. I know my roommates Ray and Eddie are inside snoring away. The rumpled blackness of my clothing accentuates my hangover. Inflation battles unemployment in a pong match of epic proportions. Jimmy Carter is President. Disco is the rage. The Dallas Cowboys won the Super Bowl. Life sucks. I couldn’t be happier. Laurie is standing on her porch next door. Looks like she forgot her keys too. Laurie and I usually smoke a late night joint on her porch before I inevitably try to kiss her and she inevitably pushes me away and sends me on my way to my lonely bed next door. Damn, her ass looks good today. Must be the hangover. For some God knows why reason hangovers make me hornier than usual. I try a new tack. A rhythmic wolf whistle and a Barry White bass line, “Hey Momma, sure lookin’ fine this mornin.’” She turns around. Oh shit, it’s not Laurie. It’s maybe the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. At least talked to. She smiles. I blush so deeply I feel it in my fingers. “I’m sorry,” I stammer, “I didn’t mean to whistle. I’m not like that.” It’s okay she tells me, she just got back from Italy and she’s used to it. I am blushing so much my breath feels red. She offers her hand, “My name is Carla, I’m moving in here with Nancy, Laurie and Cathy. Do you know them?” I nod dumbly, a deep shade of scarlet.
Carla is here with me. Don’t worry, she’s still dead. It’s a painting that my friend Patty made. She made it from a photograph I took of Carla as we were driving across the country. She’s smiling at me. Her self-inflicted bad haircut looks as alluring as in real life. Carla never knew how to wear her beauty. So she mutilated it. Chopped bangs with gardening shears in the case of this painting. But the smile. A devilish Mona Lisa smile captured in a painting, but the smile is for me. I was there, I know. And Carla is smiling at me as I write and ride my exercise bike and watch MTV2, which is a new station on our cable system. Nowadays we call this multitasking, but I’ve always lacked focus, which might explain why I’m not more successful. I can stay focused if I have to, it’s just that I see no great urgency to maintaining a focus. MTV 2 rocks. It’s much better than the real MTV. Carla would approve. Our cable company gave us this new station because they feel bad, no, let me rephrase that, because they are hemorrhaging money because they can’t come to an agreement with the YES Network, the Yankees owned station. So people are pissed off at our cable system and are leaving in droves for the greener pastures of satellite tv. The video playing is a song called “Party Hard” by Andrew W.K. and it rocks hard and he can’t dance a lick. I feel like punching my fist through the wall. I shake my head around but my locks don’t whip around in sweaty glory. I don’t resemble a bad boy anymore. My appearance is closer to that of a menacing middle-aged Bozo. I need a haircut. I pedal harder all the while pumping my fist along with “Party Hard.” Thanks, Carla. Keep smiling.
But I digress. Carla and I were in love. I think we were. All I can say for sure is that I loved her as completely as my being would allow. Maybe it was obsession. Not the corny kind of obsession we see in perfume ads with delicately thin men in turtlenecks chasing after an impossible to please ice goddess in black cocktail dress, but the real gnawing in the pit of one’s stomach, mind fogging tunnel vision love that I once was prone to. Carla lived next door to me on Guilden Street and I would find an excuse to visit her every day during the fall of 1978. If for some reason, I managed not to see her over the course of a day, I would lie awake all night, my mind spinning with yearning and jealousy. I may have failed to mention that I had a girlfriend at this time. Two actually. No, not Carla.
Her name was Angie. And Lisa. Angie was everything I might have asked for in a woman. She was a twenty year old Douglass College English major, half Irish, half Filipino, thinly built with firm, well-proportioned knockers, and what best can be described as a come hither smile. She commuted between her home in Bricktown and Douglass. She often spent the night at my place rather than driving back down the shore. I loved her very much. I don’t know if she loved me. She found me intriguing, no doubt about that. We met in our Beat Tradition course over at Douglass College where my roommate Eddie and I ruled the roost as wanna be beat poets. I was a challenge to her hippie sensibilities, I think. I worked hard for her. Maybe too hard. The amount of energy and brain power I had to expend just to get her into bed almost wasn’t worth the effort. But it was. Angie was the master of the backhanded compliment. Lying in bed, famished from vigorous coupling, she would casually say something like: That was wonderful, I never orgasmed so completely before. It must be because your dick isn’t too big like the other guys I’ve been with.” Thanks, Angie.
And there was Lisa. She was in love with me. I might have loved her. I took advantage. I never officially broke up with her, I just lost her. Lisa lived across the street with Betsy and Sandra. Lisa was 19 when I met her. She came from Hackettstown, (which if you don’t know New Jersey, is the serious boonies) and had a healthy farmgirl type of build to match her personality. If you need to visualize her, leaf through an old R. Crumb comic, you’ll find Lisa there; big boobs, thick thighs, bubble butt, the living embodiment of earth mother. Lisa cared for me so much, bringing home food from the restaurant where she worked, typing my papers and straightening up the apartment that Raymond, Eddie and I maintained in a constant state of disaster. Lisa was loving, warm, comfortable. And she knew about Angie. Then Lisa discovered marijuana. She took to it with same warmth and relish she had previously taken to me. She exalted in smoke. She consumed, and was consumed, and finally lost herself in cannabis. Then acid. Then the psych ward. In retrospect, my fling with her was probably nothing more than a footnote in her more meaningful love affair with drugs. After a while she lost interest. Or I did. I forget.
Sorry, Carla. Back to you, the subject of this twisted tale. Carla and I consummated our relationship the day after Christmas 1978. I had come back to New Brunswick from Dumont with two of my high school buddies, Mack and Pete. My Dumont friends loved visiting me in New Brunswick because they viewed the college girls as looser, wilder and infinitely more gorgeous than our hometown girls.
Inevitably they would get drunk, and obnoxious, ultimately embarrassing me in front of my more sophisticated college cohorts. However, my college friends always had more patience for my Dumont friends than I did. Somehow they were viewed as strangely exotic in a working class sort of way. But on this particular night after Christmas, Mack and Pete’s usual brand of charm was not warmly received. Perhaps the emotional residue of Christmas in Dumont saddled Mack and Pete with a desperate edge that came off as menace to those not familiar with the ways of small-town male frustration. Things started going bad after the eighth beer when Mack thought what the hell, he’d go for broke and proposition each and every girl in the Bull Pen, with the wild hope of getting lucky. The Bull Pen was the bar where my college compatriots and I liked to drink, and where I had built up over the years a cache of good cheer. I could cadge drinks with the best of them, 3 dollars in my pocket could get me through the night.
Mack finally got around to Carla. I don’t know what she said, but she rebuffed him amiably enough, keeping in mind I guess that he was my hometown friend. Mack came over to me. “So what’s the story with you and Carla? Are you fucking her? “Cause if you’re not, I hope you don’t mind if I dip my wick.” All the embarrassment, frustration and pent-up yearning within me forged into a steely anger that centered in my knuckles. I punched Mack as hard as I could just as the jukebox changed songs and the dull thud of my fist meeting Mack’s jaw reverberated through the Bull Pen. Unfortunately, just as Mack flew backwards, someone opened the door to enter. Mack tripped down the front steps and crumbled on the sidewalk with a splat that was matched by a crimson pool of blood spreading from the back of his head. I thought he was dead. Chris the bartender made a sweeping Ralph Kramden-like gesture for all the bar to see that I was 86’d big time. Pete, Carla and I went outside to survey the disaster. Sirens were approaching. Mack wasn’t dead. But he wasn’t all that alive either. Pete and I carried Mack to my apartment, where we wrapped his head with towels and deposited him on my bed. I took his car keys from his pocket before leaving. That night Carla welcomed me into her bed for the first time. I spent the next two years there and it was the happiest time of my life. For a while.
I’ve done everything possible today to not write this story. I went to Sears to shop for a new washing machine to replace our recently deceased model, I caught up on my correspondence with people I’ve never met or care to meet, I cut our 12 x 10 foot backyard grass after taking apart and oiling our primitive hand powered lawn mower. And I thought about Carla. Our first night together didn’t happen exactly as I said it did. Yes, I did punch Mack, and yes, I did knock him out. Yes, I did take his car keys, and yes, I did leave Pete in charge at my apartment.
After that, Carla and I went out. We went to a house party at Big Joe’s house on Prosper Street which served as home base for the other partying contingent at Rutgers. The inhabitants of Big Joe’s house called themselves the Prosper Street Irregulars and their hard partying frat boy style hijinks served as a yin to our artsy disaffected punk yang. Their parties cooked. But our presence made them cool. We played to type. Upon arrival, Ray, Carla, Malcolm or sometimes me, would go directly to the turntable and lift the Grateful Dead or Kansas album off and dismissively toss it aside. We’d inspect the album pile and settle on a Ramones or Clash album. Devo would do. Patti Smith was acceptable. Then the party would change gears and follow a trajectory of our choosing.
After the crowd finished pogoing to Devo’s “Mongoloid,” Carla put on Patti Smith’s “Ghost Dance.” This is one of the few songs I remember the lyrics to. I’ll recite them for you: “We will live again, We will live again, We will live again…” Our crew; Ray, Malcolm, Eddie, Carla, René, Alice, Jane, and me, linked arms in a circle and danced a combination “Hora” and staggering minuet. By the time the song was over, Carla and I were making out and the turntable watch was left to Malcolm. I was lost in Carla’s lips. Then, an inebriated whine, “Are there any lesbians here? I want a lesbian.” It was Mack and Pete. I don’t know how they found their way to the party, but sure enough Mack was conscious if more than somewhat bleary eyed and Pete was screaming from the bottom of his besotted soul, “I need a lesbian!” Mack looked at me and asked, “What’re you doin’ here? You’re s’posed to be at college?” I could only smile. And dance. Pete said something to Carla that I couldn’t hear. I smilingly nodded along. All of a sudden – whack– right between the eyes. Carla had thrown a nitrous oxide whippit canister and it broke upon impact with my face. Blood streamed from the bridge of my nose onto my face, my shirt, and the floor. Mack offered me his blood-soaked bandanna. Before I really knew what happened, Carla was upon me, wiping the blood up with her overshirt. Then she was kissing me, her face a bloody reflection of my own.
Then we were on the floor, the crowd dancing to “Rock Lobster” around us and on us. Sometime before dawn we made our way home. Once again, I put Mack in my bed and Pete on the couch. I put Mack’s keys on the pillow next to his comatose self. And I went to Carla’s basement room next door. We spent the next 12 or 24 hours exploring the contours of each others outer and inner selves. No doubt about it, we fit together nicely. If only that first night could have been extended for a lifetime…
That was Elizabeth on the phone. She wanted to know something about the new washing machine we bought last night.
“Whatcha doing?” she asks.
“Oh, sorry.” Her voice is hesitant tinged with reproach or maybe disbelief. “Whatcha writing about?”
“Life, my life.”
She laughs. “Oh that’s a stretch.” She’s being ironic. She doesn’t know how right she is.
Carla and I become inseparable. I see to it. I spend mostly every night during the spring of 1979 in her bed. We eat together, study together, and drink together. Eddie, Ray and Malcolm become her best friends. Carla’s roommates become my surrogate sisters. Life is clear and simple. Should have been. I see rivals for Carla’s affections everywhere. If we’re at a party and Eddie and Carla are off in the kitchen talking, I become suspicious. Is my best friend hitting on my girl? In the movie version of this story the soundtrack is blaring The Cars’ “She’s My Best Friend’s Girl (And she useta be mine…)” Is she leading him on? Are they carrying on and everybody knows it but me? There’s John Cooper, her totally tall, handsome albeit preppy ex-boyfriend. She smiled at him. What does that mean? Does she miss him? Do I measure up? I have always possessed the innate capacity to torture myself with pure unbridled masochistic zeal. An experienced psychotherapist would have a field day if she could ever get me on a couch, wading through the murky quagmire of my tangled deep rooted insecurities. But that’s not going to happen. That’s why I write.
The question replays in my mind like an endless tape loop: Was my jealousy self-inflicted sabotage or was it justified? Looking back on events that happened over 20 years ago, the mature me can see how I should have behaved differently.
But I couldn’t.
Carla moved in with Gwen and Nan in June. The new apartment was down the block from Greasy Tony’s, the most notorious sub shop/ late night food stand in New Brunswick and maybe the world. When some uninitiated college student inevitably would complain about the color or texture of his pizzasteak, the hired help thought nothing of jumping from behind the bullet proof glass separating the workers from the customers with a tire iron or car antenna in hand. Seinfeld’s soup nazi had nothing on the thugs working the counter at Greasy Tony’s. Carla’s place was 5 blocks away from mine, but it felt like 20 miles. Gwen was 26 years old and worked as Assistant Manager in the Rutgers bookstore. She was a woman. Nan was a 25 year old psychology grad student. She was a woman too. Carla and I bought a car together, a beat up Toyota station wagon that we paid about a hundred dollars for. We went on vacation in the car. I forget where, but I know it involved a hotel. I remember the thrilling wave of maturity wash over me as I signed the registry Mr. & Mrs. Scott.
In September it was back to college, me for my fifth and final year, and for Carla one last term. Things started to change. Carla began seeing a psychologist at the Student Health Center who gave her pills that Carla said were to fight the urge to drink. Later on, Gwen let it slip out that they were to fight depression. I fancied Carla and me as the class couple; we were cool, second hand clothes looked good on us, she was beautiful, and I was on my way to becoming a famous writer. We had it all, how could she be depressed? Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Carla was a bad drunk. It’s been said that God protects the drunks and the idiots. He sure watched over Carla. For a while. She never got slurring staggering sloppy drunk. Not like me. Quite the opposite, she became clearly lucid. Both of us shared one drinking characteristic; no internal shut off valve. Most people drink until they can’t drink anymore and then they stop for the night. Not me, I drink until I reach a certain threshold, then I cross that threshold and drink more and more until I mercifully pass out, or get into trouble. Carla was the same. The difference being that when I’m drunk, I look and sound drunk. On certain nights Carla would say the most horrible things while looking me straight in the eye. “Don’t look at me with those horny devil eyes and froggy mouth, I know what you’re after and you ain’t gonna get it. You don’t just want my pussy, you want my soul too. You’re lucky I despise beauty, that’s why I let you into my warm and private bed. I told you I promised my soul to Mo when I gave him my virginity. You can pretend to possess me but all you’re getting is second hand goods. Mo’s waiting for me in heaven, and he’s gonna get me the way I was at 17 when I was innocent and beautiful.” The next morning she would recoil in horror as I recounted her drunken confessions. I never knew for sure if her true buried feelings were emerging during these inebriated unravelings or if I was hearing hallucinatory wordplay bubbling from deep within to the forefront of her consciousness. Either way, it was frightening.
She could be affectionate. And indiscriminate. Her affection was not always pointed my way. Too often I had to pull her off an all too comfortable friend (or foe). Her youthful philosophy professors constantly leered in her direction and repeatedly questioned me about our status as a couple. I got into more fights than I should have, though I’ve always appreciated the curative effects of a healthy row, especially while intoxicated, and double especially, with my intellectual superiors. One night I watched Carla glide elegantly through a closed plate glass sliding door. She walked right through it, glass shattering all around her. She never broke stride, delicately sitting down in a lawn chair, quietly sipping her beer as blood poured from a gash in her forehead. Over the course of our years together, my knowledge of first aid became an essential component of our relationship.
With time, my demeanor changed. I came to believe my role in life was to protect Carla from harm, opportunists, and fate itself. Of course this was an impossible task and she gradually came to resent my Jewish mother-like overprotectiveness. Yet I know that I saved her life on any number of occasions. Of course, ultimately I failed, but by the end I knew that only one of us was going to make it out of the relationship alive.
Predictably unpredictable. That was Carla. One time, after too many cocktails, I went into the Bull Pen bathroom with Henry, a drug dealer who dressed like a farmer, or maybe it was a train engineer. I know he wore overalls long after they were fashionable. Henry had a needle and a little plastic bag of heroin. He tried to shoot me up, but couldn’t find a vein. He tried again and again. An hour later I had deep purple bruises extending over the length of both arms.
“Look, Carla,” I shouted in drunken surprise across the bar holding up my bruised arms, “Look what Henry did to me.”
A beer mug came sailing in the direction of my head. “Don’t come near me, you selfish bastard.”
With Ali-like reflexes I ducked as the mug smashed into the wall behind my weaving head. I felt a certain disjointed pride that my girlfriend was upset about my apparent self-destructive tendencies.
Wrong. I found out a couple of days later that Carla was angry that Henry and I didn’t share the dope with her. I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Our band. Raymond and the Exploding Garbage Can Band. Looking at the photo album reminded me. I keep this particular photo album on the shelf with my most precious books. Away from our family photo albums. These pictures are from Before. Pictures of Carla. And me. There is a funeral mass card with a picture of a suffering Jesus with a glowing heart. It says: In Loving Memory of Carla Ray Carlson, Born October 5, 1957, Died September 26, 1983. Wilson-Apple Funeral Home, Pennington, N.J. The priest at the funeral never mentioned suicide. I guess that technically speaking, Carla did not commit suicide. She attempted suicide. And was saved. And wanted to live. Then died 3 months later of natural causes. The heart attack. So they could bury her behind the church.
Everything is all mixed together. Newspaper clippings, mass cards, love notes, photobooth pictures, fliers for poetry readings, a playing card from Lake Tahoe, photos of the band.
Somebody, maybe Benjamin Franklin said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” That was how our band came to be. Carla, Ray, Malcolm, Eddie and I were in the same English class; The Avant Garde in Modern Literature. It was the most fun class that any of us received college credit for and our long suffering professor was at our mercy. Getting stoned for class became a bi-weekly ritual, only broken when we decided to digest mushrooms or mescaline as an added avant garde study aid. At the end of the term, Professor Bender gave us a choice – write a paper or submit a final project. No brainer. Sorry, Marcel Duchamp, Gertrude Stein, and Eugene Ionesco, but written analysis of your work would have to wait for a more sober time of scholarship. We came up with a band. Not any old band mind you, but… Raymond and the Exploding Garbage Can Band! The premise was simple – Raymond wrote the songs, played guitar, and sang. Billy Pigeon, a School of Visual Arts classmate of Ray’s girlfriend Alex, played bass in a sort of color by numbers way and generally looked too cool for school in his bushy black pompadour, precision cut sideburns, and tailored shirts. Carla, Eddie, Malcolm and I played upside down garbage cans pilfered from unsuspecting neighbors’ front yards. For aural diversity, Eddie played bass garbage can with a severed broomstick, while Carla, Malcolm and I preferred banging with extra heavy gauge drumsticks. Back then, garbage cans were made out of metal, corrugated steel to be precise.
Amazingly enough, and probably because we looked and sounded so different from other bands in the area, we got some gigs. We played the Sophomore class end term party and our entire Avant Garde class was invited. This gig counted as our final project. And wouldn’t you know it, we sounded good. It also just so happened that a shipment of mescaline had just come through town and much of the party, including Professor Bender, was flying high. I can hear snippets of songs “I got a big thing in front of me/ they’re all making fun of me. I got a big ugly throbbing purple thing, thing, thing…” Needless to say we passed with flying colors.
We played at Skillman State Mental Hospital and were much loved by the exuberant audience. Ray’s old high school buddy Dave Remnick played second guitar that evening. His name may sound familiar because today he’s editor in chief over at the New Yorker. After our fourth encore, the patients dutifully lined up and waited for autographs. We played at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on the occasion of a beauty named Sugar’s birthday. The audience stood about twenty feet away with hands firmly planted over ears and knitted brows not at all hiding obvious disdain. But Sugar liked us, and she gave me an inflatable yellow umbrella hat that I wore through our set. At the end of Acceleration, one of our most rockin’ numbers, Sugar wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed me passionately with those full luscious lips which are forever tattooed into my daydreams. I pounded the drums with unabashed frenzy, lost in rock star heaven. We played the Cancer Marathon, a two day Rutgers bacchanalia with the lofty aim of raising money to fight cancer, but more aptly remembered for setting the world record for most beer consumed in a single place over two days. You can look it up in the Guinness Book.
Raymond wrote great punchy songs and we the rhythm section created a wall of noise beating the hell out of banged up metal garbage cans. It was a formula that had to work in a punk rock avant garde sort of way. We played all over New Brunswick. New Jersey Monthly wrote a feature story about us, which was followed by angry letters from pissed off New Brunswick residents whose garbage cans had been stolen. We played at Mason Gross School of the Arts first annual end term party along with another fledgling punk band Liquid Idiot. We had fans. Then Ray got bored. Then we stopped.
If Carla were not to die, would this story still be compelling, worth writing, or for that matter, worth reading? I don’t know for sure, and I’m an interested party. It’s been said of my people, the Jews, that we are endlessly fascinated by all things concerning the Jews. It’s that way with me. I am forever fascinated by all things concerning me. Let’s survey the possible storylines.
1) Carla goes on with her life. She works as a waitress in the same East Village restaurant she always worked. She falls in love with the ambiguously heterosexual night manager who also happens to be a coke dealer. After about 18 months of troubled marriage, Nick the husband is shot and killed in a late night drug deal gone awry. Determined to turn her life around, Carla goes back to school and learns to be a graphic designer. She runs into her recently divorced former film professor Woody Cookson who still has the hots for her. They get married and move into a large house in Short Hills New Jersey. Once a year she communicates with me via Christmas card (an artist’s rendering of their magnificent faux Tudor house) wishing me and my family the best. Along with the card is a computer printed recap of the year’s events; things like Junior’s hockey exploits, Hubby’s job promotion, and Daughter’s honor roll status. Left out of the year end recap is any mention of unpleasantness such as the September 11th terrorist attacks. I no longer know Carla. Worse than that, I no longer like her.
Or 3) She falls in love with a former punk rock star who has reinvented himself as a spoken word artiste. However, he has never shed his heroin habit. He turns Carla on to dope which she takes to with enthusiasm. The only punk rock junkie of his generation not to die of an overdose, he abandons her when she tests positive for AIDS. She battles on for a few years before succumbing a few days before my wedding. The punk rock junkie does not attend her funeral.
No, the only possible ending for this story is the real one. The tragic one. Anything else would be cruel. But we’re not there yet.
We moved to San Francisco after graduation. We loaded the beat up station wagon Carla’s father had given her as a graduation present, waved good-bye to Ray, Malcolm and Eddie and were on our way. We took along Bernie and Patty for the cross country drive we determined would be an adventure in the Jack Kerouac/Neal Cassady style. Actually the adventure more followed the Charlie’s Angels formula because Bernie and Patty were knockouts, and I had my hands full looking after 3 healthy fresh out of college babes as we traversed America. Here’s a sample entry from my 1980 adventure journal.
6/19/80 – What a fucking day yesterday was. I woke up and Carla, Bernie and Patty were dressed. They said they were going on a hike. I took a piss and got dressed as quickly as I could. We decided on a medium sized mountain, though all of the Grand Tetons are tall. It had a fair amount of snow covering it. After about an hour and a half of vertical climbing, I started getting tired. We all did. Got to cut down on the cigarettes. Every 100 yards or so we had to rest. The altitude made it difficult to breathe. My shoes started hurting my feet, rubbing the heels raw. I never realized mountain climbing was so tough. I was way in back. Eventually I caught up to Carla. She was tired and her knees hurt. Bernie and Patty were up ahead determined to reach the top. Carla and I quit about 1000 feet from the top next to a snow covered stream. I took off my shirt and Carla took off all her clothes and we played and slid and rolled in the snow. I took pictures. In about half an hour Bernie and Patty came sliding down our ridge on the snow like they were skiing, but without skis. I asked how it felt to be at the top. Patty replied “It was a fucking ego trip, I could have stayed there all day.” I wished I didn’t smoke. At one point while Patty was leading, I saw her slip and fall in the mud and slide down out of sight. It looked like fun. Then Carla sat down and slid down. Then Bernie. Then me. It was too late by this time as I slid about sixty feet through coarse cold mud. What I didn’t anticipate was the last part – a ten foot cliff made up of large rocks. My ass must have bumped every one of them. I got up, covered head to toe in mud, ass sore as hell. We all looked like mud people, but at least the girls got some padding on their asses.
We cleaned ourselves up and drove to Jackson Hole. We decided to treat ourselves and stay in a hotel. We all stayed in the same room smoking lots of pot, taking baths and watching the one channel television. At night we went to The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, a huge, crowded bar with the distinction of housing more cowboy hats in one room than I ever dreamed possible. Amazingly enough, nobody took off their hats in such a sweaty place. Maybe there was nowhere to hang them. Some hick kept asking Carla to dance, and even though she said no 3 or 4 times, he continued begging. Finally he told her he’d buy her a beer if she’d dance with him and she said yes. They danced for about half a song jumping around and swinging each other like drunken monkeys. After the song Carla came back to our table and he bought us all a beer. Carla introduced Patty, Bernie and me to him, and I tried not to be jealous, but I was. He had a long scraggly beard and no mustache and looked like a goat. After our drink we went to another bar, a cocktail lounge type place. In the bathroom, a biker asked me where I got my jacket. I was wearing my black leather jacket. I told him I was from New Jersey where lots of people got ‘em. He asked me if I knew a guy named Joey DiSalvo who was from New Jersey. When I got back to the table Carla was talking to some middle aged guy in a crewcut. He told her that Clint Eastwood was at the bar. I looked around but didn’t see him. Must have been in disguise. Patty was dancing with the goat fucker who had followed us.
I never really wanted to live in San Francisco. But I had to get out of New Brunswick. Carla had finished school in January, but I had to hang in until May. Our lives became different, she was part of the working world and I was still a student. She worked as a waitress at Tumulty’s Pub saving her money for our trip west. She was good at that. I could never save a thin dime. I continued life as a student working part time at the Rutgers University Press book warehouse, where I spent my time tutoring Jimbo, the none-too-slick warehouse manager, refining my whiffle ball skills, racing fork lifts and shipping out copies of John Ciardi’s Selected Poems. I don’t know how it happened because I had been vigilant in my jealousy, but Carla started seeing Woody Cookson, a film professor (maybe he was just an adjunct, but such distinctions were lost on me), whose claim to fame was that he was a member of Andy Warhol’s inner circle a decade earlier.
Actually, I do know how it happened. Sometime around December, Carla realized she was pregnant. In retrospect, I should have realized that the pull out and cum on her belly method of birth control was not 100% effective. But so should she. I took care of everything, arranging for the abortion in the local women’s health clinic. On the day of the procedure, President Jimmy Carter came to New Brunswick. I left Carla alone in her room so that I could see the President of the United States. As the Presidential motorcade zoomed by I ran into Angie (remember her?) and we smoked a joint in honor of old times and the Presidential visit. One thing led to another and I wound up in Angie’s apartment on the other end of town helping her drink a bottle of expensive Scotch that had been given to her. There was no reason to spend the night. But I did. Perhaps it was sheer perversity on my part, maybe it was one ignored woman getting revenge on her rival. All I know for sure, is I shouldn’t have done it.
The next morning I found out that soon after I left, Carla started hemorrhaging and her roommates Gwen and Nan had to take her to the emergency room. She was still in the hospital. Gwen couldn’t even look at me. I never could explain to Carla why I wasn’t there for her. She never asked. To make matters worse, about a month later, Angie called to tell me she was pregnant and that she knew it was mine. I dutifully borrowed the money (some of it from Carla), took our car, and drove Angie to the clinic for the procedure. The withering stares of the clinic nurses as I arrived with Angie were enough to render me impotent for the next 72 hours. While I don’t think Carla ever found out what happened, she knew something happened.
Things weren’t the same for the next couple of months. Carla finished school, worked in the restaurant, played in our band, took life drawing classes and retreated into herself. She met Woody. Actually he met her. I imagine guys have an instinct for when couples are going through a period of discord. Woody, a drinking buddy of Professor Bender was a fan of our band. He came into our lives as a friend, or shall I say customer. I was dealing small quantities of pot at the time and Woody would call looking to buy quarter ounces. Since I never was around (don’t ask me where I was or what I was doing), I would leave the bag with Carla who would give it to Woody. I don’t know exactly how I found out about them, but I think everyone knew about Carla and Woody before I did. And yes, for those of you sitting upon a loftier moral perch than I, that does make it worse.
One day, I went to Carla’s apartment after work and Woody was there. He didn’t leave when I arrived, and it didn’t seem like he was going to leave. I sat there waiting for him to go. He didn’t. He lit a joint and passed it to me. Time became interminable. It would not move. Finally, Carla said that she and Woody were busy and I could come back tomorrow. I laughed because I thought she was joking. Woody said something I couldn’t, or wouldn’t hear. I picked up the ashtray that Carla had made in pottery class and hurled it at Woody’s head. It opened a bloody gash over his eyebrow. Carla was upon me, biting my ear. For the first time in my life I hit a woman, knocking Carla across the room. Gwen came out of her room where I guess she had been listening. I raised my fist to her. “Don’t you fuckin’ move.” Tears were streaming down my face. I felt woeful and powerful at the same time. I turned my attention to Woody. “If you don’t like the way I treat my woman, stand up and I’ll kick your ass the way it deserves to be, you big pussy.” I had been reading Bukowski for the past year, so I knew exactly how to behave in this type of situation. Thank goodness I wasn’t reading Truman Capote.
I worked from 2 to 10 p.m., and Carla worked days, so we didn’t see each other as much as I would have liked. We often met at Vesuvios on Columbus Avenue (next to City Lights Books) for a mid-day liquid lunch. (I wonder if our initials are still carved into the back wall by the bathroom?) My job title was Assistant Cafeteria Manager, but I was more of a dishwasher/janitor than anything else. The daytime cafeteria staff was a gang of surly ex-cons who made no secret of their contempt of my white college educated ass, though contempt is not a word any of them would use to describe their feelings regarding my ass. Rudy, the oily cafeteria manager did not attempt to hide his loathing for my existence. He operated the cafeteria as his personal fiefdom, often taking young office workers into his office for “personal consultation” as he called it. The employees called it the United Filipino Bank, because the office staff was comprised predominantly of Filipinos. The office workers were a noisy lot, generally good natured, but prone to dramatics, particularly the males. I can’t tell you how many slap fights I broke up during my time in the cafeteria. Another annoying habit of the clientele was their inability to master the finer points of microwave cooking. Apparently, fertilized chicken eggs are a delicacy in the Philippines. Yet, did they have to microwave them to the point of combustion, leaving me the job of scraping exploded chicken fetus parts out of the microwave?
The only non-Filipino workers who utilized the cafeteria were Rudy, Paco the cook, Willie the other cook, Manny the dishwasher, Leroy the security guard (by the way, the only white Leroy I ever encountered), Mo the Palestinian janitor, who was as friendly as could be but loved to argue Mid-East politics (a pastime I still have no taste for), and me. I was not so shocked one day to open The San Francisco Chronicle and see a photo of Rudy, Paco, Willie, Manny, and Leroy being led away in handcuffs under the headline “Drug Kingpin Busted.” When I got to work I was immediately promoted to Cafeteria Manager and told not to talk to the press. The President of United California Bank personally came in to the employees cafeteria to congratulate me. I was given a 25 cent an hour raise. The next day I quit.