Getting There From Here
“Young Gal Spring divorces Old Man Winter;
a blessing, really -- he'd never survive
the way she heats up the town.
Savannah Pratt, just back from a weekend workshop called Open Your Heart, took a long look around the dimly-lit restaurant just beginning to fill up with the dinner crowd. Her eyes slid over couples with their heads together and finally focused on the large man at the corner table. From the serving port in the kitchen at Diki's where she worked as a chef, she’d watched him bring different women to the same table – the one in the corner – several times a week for the past two months. He’d lean toward a woman as someone coming in from the cold might bend toward a fire. Big and bear-like, with lots of face, his head of curly black hair and his bushy salt and pepper beard gave him a woolly appearance, as if he'd just arrived off the steppes. Savannah noticed that his deep brown eyes were sometimes soulful, sad, as well as wild and gleaming. She liked the way he looked sort of lost and found at the same time. "Who is that guy?" she asked Z., the waiter.
"Leo Stein. Poet. Over at the college for the fall."
"New York, I think. He's filling in for somebody on leave."
"Savannah, does this mean you're actually showing an interest in another human being at last?”
Savannah had worked at Diki's for almost a year by then, the first time since about the age of twelve that she hadn't been involved with a man. Or men. She'd found the absence of a relationship restful, not unlike an extended vacation. Up until the year before her life had been filled with emotional intensity, slammed doors, midnight exits. But then it had all come crashing down, and she’d more or less pulled herself out of the fray, then managed to stop reacting long enough to think about what she was doing, why she was doing it. Now, after a year of intense inner exploration, she could feel her chrysalis cracking open with a renewed urge to flutter about.
"He's seeing too much of her."
Savannah stood with Z. looking out into the dining room a few days later.
"Lisa Meyers. She's the only one he brings in any more."
"Do you know her?"
"Megabitch. She took over the women's history class my friend Wendy started at the college."
"Well, she doesn't know jack about food. Ordered Potage Freneuse then refused to eat it when she found out it was made from turnips. Should I spill something on her? Something hot?"
Z. was an actor.
Savannah turned away from the serving port and began to garnish the lemon mousse tarts with whipped cream and a few strips of lemon peel.
"Listen, Savannah," Z. said, watching her for a moment, "you're good looking. Or could be if you'd try a little more. Wear something beside those god-awful tee-shirts with your dirty apron. Get that mop of hair out of your eyes. Why don't you just introduce yourself to him? Go schmooze with the customers.”
They gazed out on the small dining room, the tables so close to the serving port that they could almost pat the diners on the head.
The restaurant itself was long and narrow, with an eighteen-foot bar beginning at the door and running nearly the entire length of the room, backed by a gigantic mirror. Glass shelves in front held bottles of booze, while law books and old Reader's Digest hardbacks filled a shelf on top. Originally exclusively a bar, a dining area had been added on, or rather crowded in, by the present owners two years earlier. On the opposite wall, small tables and chairs jammed together under various Japanese prints. At night (when the staff remembered) these prints were flipped over. "Young Maiden Viewing Cherry Blossoms" turned to the wall while "Three Men at the Baths" faced outwards. Sometimes the baths would remain on view for a week or more until the owner noticed that it hadn't been flipped back into respectability. Towards the rear, the room bellied out slightly, providing additional dining space. A chaotic waiter's station with coffee pots, silverware trays, and napkins stood at the end of the bar. In all, there were exactly ten tables. A swinging door against the back wall led to the tiny kitchen, and next to it was a serving port with a somewhat lopsided shelf.
Tucked away downtown where the business section gave way to the historic district, Diki's never advertised, never called attention to itself, relied completely on word of mouth. Everyone agreed the place put out unusual food, easily the best around. Then people would laugh a particular laugh. Would laugh and say: you really have to go see for yourself.
“Wait,” Z. continued after a moment, “Better idea. Corner him at the poetry reading Monday.”
Earlier in the year, Beau, the head chef and part owner of Diki’s, had declared that no dinner would be served on Monday nights, they would all just dedicate themselves to literature instead. At first Beau had taken to reading Baudelaire and Verlaine to anybody who'd listen, then others began to bring in their favorite poems, usually their own. As the word spread, Monday night became a sort of unofficial poetry evening at the restaurant where the local literati and wanna-bes would gather to sip champagne, eat French chocolate cake – the only thing Beau would serve – and read or discuss poetry.
“Beau’s all atwitter about our November session. Hook up with this guy then and get rid of this Lisa, you know what I mean."
"Not me, I'm through with all that." Even to herself the words sounded thin, only half-meant, filled with conflicted emotions.
If Savannah had been able to slip into Leo Stein's mind as he sat at his corner table, she would have quickly discovered that he himself was going in the opposite erotic direction from her avowed withdrawal. At last out of a dry and sexless marriage of twenty-two years, the man was roaring with newly unleashed energy that he thought would last forever.
If she'd lingered in his mind for any length of time, Savannah would have learned a few other things about Leo as well. For one, she would have noticed right off that Leo wasn't very observant of the Big Picture, but tended to concentrate on the details: the slope of a woman's breast, the way a particular curl spiraled over her collar, the curve of her lips, her tone of voice or the way her mouth moved as she pronounced certain words. Like "Lee-oh," with her tongue coming forward and lingering against her teeth over the "lee" before her lips rounded into the "oh." These things interested him enormously.
Leo was telling his companion that he liked to come to Diki's because it was the sort of place his former wife Lynn would never have entered. After decades of being ultra respectable as the faithful companion of the noble and accomplished Lynn, Leo felt that he was just beginning to test the waters outside the largish wading pool his marriage had become. Diki's offered an underworld atmosphere making him feel he'd entered a zone of danger, daring. He'd heard that Diki's was owned by two gay men and that the gay subculture in town centered around the place, but he had no idea what that entailed. It struck him as odd that in this redneck Kentucky town where most people seemed interested only in basketball or horses, there'd be such a restaurant at all.
Had he bothered to look up, Leo would have perhaps noticed the striking woman with copious and untidy fox-red hair gazing intently towards him from the serving port, her bright blue eyes ablaze. He would have also noticed the beginning of tiny laugh lines around those eyes as well as their steady intelligence. Or he might have focused on the humorous twist of her well-formed lips. Having determined that she was really quite attractive in a somewhat haphazard way, he might have investigated further. As a poet used to observing women, he might have sensed a certain sadness that comes from having lived a little too fast and a little too hard. And much else besides. But Leo continued to concentrate on the woman across from him: Lisa Meyers.
Leo realized that he was only lightly in love with Lisa Meyers that week, but also in love with Helen Blaise, whom he had left behind in New York, the one he credited with getting him out of his long, long, marriage. And in love with the secretary of the English department at the college who had helped him find a place to live, the gatehouse out at the historic Wembly estate, and, from the moment he first saw her, completely enamored with the check-out girl at Kroger's, the one with the long, straight black hair.
Leo frequently lamented the fact that he had only one life available – but a dozen women with whom he would like to spend it. Despite this, he couldn't imagine going from woman to woman like some Don Juan. He had no stomach, really, for womanizing in the usual sense. Not that he got the chance. Almost every woman he was attracted to in New York always somehow ended up as his wife's best friend, he never knew how that happened, but it did, over and over. Helen Blaise who awaited him back on Bleeker Street being the main exception. Leo consoled himself by writing poetry about many women, about his overwhelming love of women.
"They are all just so dear," he said to Lisa Meyers thinking that she would be interested in his love of women in a general way. He wanted to believe that this was one of his more worthy qualities, his overwhelming approval of roughly half the humans on the planet, plus his somewhat grudging realization that you could only take them one at a time.
"But surely some stand out more than others," Lisa remarked.
"Of course, of course," Leo murmured, running his hand up her leg. "Especially those with soft skin, especially those with. . ."
Z., the waiter, arrived with their duxelles chowder.
"Mmmm." Leo's attention turned towards the food.
"Isn't that Vanna Pratt in the kitchen?" Lisa asked Z. She'd caught a glimpse of an aproned figure at the serving port.
"Yes. Savannah's our chef now. Very talented."
"Thought so." Lisa looked pleased as a cat with a suddenly opened birdcage. She'd heard that Savannah had left the college to become a chef, but didn't know it was at Diki's, of all places.
"Know her?" Leo said through a mouthful of the most delicious soup he had ever tasted.
"Everyone knows Vanna. Or about her. One of her husbands is a dean at the college. She used to teach there.”
"Oh? One of her husbands?"
"She's crazy," Lisa added complacently. "Not dear at all."
Leo turned around in his seat to glance at Chef Savannah, but she'd disappeared from the serving port.
No matter what Lisa Meyers may have told Leo, Savannah herself knew that she was far from crazy and getting farther from it ever day. During her life, she’d survived many things, including a strict Southern Presbyterian upbringing, graduate school, a number of impulsive leaps, various mind-altering drugs, and, through times dark and light, an almost unbroken string of relationships. She’d had her first boyfriend in the first grade, then planned her wedding with a different one in the second. Partnerships were her thing – legal marriages, longish relationships and shorter ones had piled up over the years.
At the end of the last marriage, which coincided with the end of her teaching career, the two being inextricably joined, she'd taken a serious look at her life and made two vows: (1) Never again to have a job requiring panty hose and (2) Not to get involved with a man again for a good long time, if ever. That had been over a year ago.
She stopped teaching modern poetry at the local college after a contract dispute. Or at least that’s the way she described it to her family in Georgia. Her contract, unsigned when she asked for a divorce, was withdrawn by her soon-to-be-ex-husband, the dean of the college. Contract dispute, no question.
She’d eventually found a job in Diki’s restaurant (ah, no panty hose) and worked her way up from kitchen help to luncheon chef in a few short months. It wasn’t hard, she just had to be the last one standing after the highly dramatic arguments that rocked the restaurant, usually during the full moon.
And she had stayed celibate for close to a year. Given her past history, this was a new and surprising record. Having both a sun and a moon in Scorpio meant that she’d spent countless hours in bed, rarely alone. Instead of investing time and energy on a relationship, during the past year she'd focused on trying to understand her relationship to relationships, what went right, what went wrong. What expectations she harbored, what issues she brought to the union.
She tried therapy, but grew tired of trying to explain the many events of her very complicated life to a therapist who was, truth be told, somewhat lacking in imagination. Not that Savannah was without self-knowledge to begin with. Ten years before, she'd gone through a longish therapy with a feminist who'd specialized in teaching women to actualize an authentic self. She had been, as her partner at the time constantly reminded her until she finally left him, a real pain in the ass about being empowered.
During the past year Savannah and her good friend and former colleague Wendy had regularly attended a series of workshops in Louisville which included everything from yoga to poetry writing, from studying Christian women mystics to Buddhist meditation. She loved this series and the way she'd feel so much smarter and more focused after each session. At least for a little while. Then she'd come back to the swampy restaurant, knee-deep in turbulent testosterone, the air thick with male lust. She'd work for a few weeks or months until she'd slip off to another weekend intensive or to help out with the retreat center’s cooking.
Savannah attended workshop after workshop, each focusing on different pieces of the mosaic of the self, each one adding a little bit more insight into her understanding of the human condition. As dream work followed chakra alignment and a study of archetypes dovetailed with that of myths, her sense of the world and her place in it began to deepen. She often wondered how she had managed to remain so profoundly unconscious most of her life.
During the months that she and the therapist plodded through her past, the process had proved mildly helpful, but not nearly as inspiring or even as challenging as the workshops.
“Apparently,” Savannah had told her therapist at their first session when asked about her background, “there were only two choices for girls growing up in a small Southern town as the daughter of a respectable family like mine. Be good like your mother or go bad. By the time I realized that I was counted among the bad ‘uns, it was too late to do much about it. But bad had a certain freedom to it, and certainly lots of good bad company.”
“What sort of things would you do?”
“Oh. Skip school and spend the afternoon at the drugstore with the girls my mother called ‘cheap’ or ‘fast’. Or say I was going to the Presbyterian Youth Fellowship, then park out in the piney woods with my boyfriend and neck. Drink beer rather than study for a chemistry exam. Or swim naked at night in Red Hills Lake.”
“That doesn’t sound so dreadful.”
“True. We didn’t have much of a range of badness in Willows, Georgia, but I did the best I could given the circumstances. It was the motivation that counted. At any rate, it wasn’t that I wanted to be contrary so much as I didn’t want to be like my mother, full of disapproval and judgment. Besides, I never felt bad about being bad. I only wanted to be happy.”
“And how did that work out?”
“Good years, bad years. Wonderful beginnings, wretched endings. Mostly instigated by myself. Always moving on, always looking for something better, something that felt real, right. Sort of going faster and faster. Lots of romance, men, marriages.”
“Well, Southerners do tend to marry early and often. But it all piles up, you know, the intensity leads to burnout, melt down. Eventually everything comes crashing down.”
“When did the tipping point come for you?”
“The end of the last marriage and everything that led up to it set off this chain reaction. Or maybe better call it a downward spiral. Then last year, in a workshop called How I Got Here, one of the exercises was to visualize your past in very specific path-like terms behind you, a deer trail through the woods, a zigzagging rocky road, whatever. When I turned and looked back during the exercise, I saw a superhighway with nothing but miles and miles of emotional road-kill behind me. Just these heaps of stunned looking people that I’d knocked over in my unrelenting pursuit for love and happiness. I could feel it for the first time.”
“Feel your pain?”
“No. Feel the pain I’d caused other people. Far worse than anything that was ever done to me.”
As Savannah neared the end of her short sequence of therapy, she became sick to death of thinking about herself and her own problems. She sometimes longed for her old unconscious days when she would simply act out. But it was too late for that. Consciousness, for all its stability and maturity and generally laudable attributes, had the unfortunate downside of making her feel that she was post-life. Post this life, anyway. The one filled with sex, drugs, and daring – albeit largely unconscious – choices.
And now came an unexpected but undeniable draw toward this poet Leo Stein. And, at the same time, an equal and opposing push against falling in love again with its infinite potential for pain and loss.