Through multiple moves and other upheavals, I have kept an inch-thick sheaf of correspondence from Jeff, all emails, all printed out, which he handed to me at some point before Christmas of 1997. The correspondence covers scarcely a month, from just before our first broadcast to the end of September. They are all from Jeff; my side of the correspondence is lost. And there are sometimes two or three missives a day. They allow me to reconstruct in painful and painstaking detail what was going on during that fateful month of falling in love, as we seemed to be falling hard and fast, mostly via the Internet and phone calls.
But let us digress a moment to discuss this “falling in love” business. It is one of my least favorite expressions, and yet it is so much a staple of the English language that no one thinks twice about it. No one even dismisses it as hackneyed; it goes unchecked under editorial eyes hundreds, probably thousands, of times a day. And tell me, in what other context is “falling” a good thing? Think of these expressions: falling on your face, falling from grace (or favor), falling behind, falling on your ass, falling into debt, falling short, falling flat, falling into a dead faint, and so on. And then we have pratfalls, pitfalls, fallback positions, downfalls, and shortfalls. About the only good things with “fall” in them are windfall and snowfall (and the latter is debatable). So the “falling in love” stuff has always made me a little wary.
Nonetheless, it happens.
Among the more curious documents in this voluminous one-sided correspondence are two or three emails between Wendy and Jeff, tucked in for reasons unknown to me, so I can get a bead on how close their friendship was and how both were thinking about me at the time. Writes Jeff to Wendy, a propos of moi, three days after the swoony kiss outside the studio: “This woman is a complete pleasure and joy to be around. And, of course, I’m terrified. I want her in my life, and if I get some sort of romance started and blow it, then what? I haven’t done this in so many years I’m a complete basket case….I keep thinking about that soliloquy in The Women’s Room, where the character talks about the rush of romantic fantasy being spoiled by the first time your beloved ‘says something stupid,’ and I’m just about guaranteed to do the same, given my knack for hyperbole.”
The Women’s Room? This is a guy who’s read one of the classic feminist novels from the 1970s? Four stars and two hand claps for that one.
He goes on to confess: “Plus I have been so completely wiped by the disaster of my marriage than I have almost nothing to bring to the table except a grin and some good conversation, and I am thinking I should just cool my jets for a year or so until I get my financial footing back.” Well, let’s give him a couple of stars for honesty.
To all of which Wendy responds: “Cool your heels for a year or so? Great idea, pal. Of course, the lady will be gone, but the woods are full of beautiful, smart, kind, loving, generous spirits who find you deliciously attractive—women who are not looking for a meal ticket or a father for their children—women who can walk and talk while listening and remembering. Women who enjoy sex. And women who will let you smoke those horrible little cigars—yes, the woods are teeming with them. Did I mention women who have all their own teeth?”
She goes on to offer advice on care and grooming. “Go to The Gap or The Limited and find a sympathetic saleswoman of around 28 years or so. Tell her, ‘After years of a horrific marriage I got divorced and lived alone. Now, suddenly, an intriguing woman has come into my life. I need a makeover. Help me!’
“The young woman will ask you: What are you looking for? How do you want to look? You say: Like a 50-year-old man who listens to classical music and serious jazz stations, who is interested in a 46-year-old woman from New York who writes about art. In other words, conservative but not Republican.
“Buy $400 worth of clothes,” continues Wendy, “and then go home and throw out everything that is stained or raggedy. Budget another $100 (this is a one-time deal, trust me) for a ‘real’ haircut. This includes removal of all types of middle-aged hair that men tend to collect in places that women find off-putting.”
I quote at length here to give a sense of the charm and affection emanating from those two and to assure you that my wits were mostly about me as I first began to consider upending my life on the East Coast for the wilds of the Pacific Northwest.
And what else was transpiring during that first week? It seems I hightailed it back to New York, where presumably I met up with Peter or other friends (though I have no recollection of seeing anyone), and then I’m on a plane back to Portland on Friday or Saturday, and in the interim the emails are flying so hot and thick it’s a wonder we didn’t leave scorched tracks in Cyberspace.
Jeff, who is soon signing himself “Jeffer,” tells me about Vashon Island, 25 miles long, with the northern tip at Seattle, the southern at Tacoma. “The only way you can get there is by ferry. From 2 a.m. to about 6 a.m. we are completely isolated from the rest of the world,” he writes. “I find this somewhat comforting. He tells me all about the flora and fauna. “In my front yard, you can find clams and crabs and seals and killer whales and jelly fish and all kinds of other little live things. Some possums live in one of my trees. I tamed a feral kitten who lives under my deck.”
Tell me, are you getting warm and fuzzy yet?
A day later writes to me, “They are playing a bunch of ars musica pavanes and other stuff on the box. The tide is in, the water is calm and golden in the sunrise. There must be 200 sea geese floating out about 100 yards away.”
By Wednesday September 3, three days after Princess Diana’s death, we are corresponding about Matthew Arnold and Robert Graves, Magritte and Matisse (or at least we are alluding to them and other subjects dear to the hearts of kulchur writers and liberal arts grads), but there’s enough “real man” stuff mixed in with the sensitive artiste in him to reassure me that he’s no sissy. He did some hunting and fishing as a kid, but no more. He loves baseball. “In my defense, that game and my fierce will to play it well marked a time in my life when I was transitioning from a loving, painfully scrawny teacher’s pet into the society of manhood and my eventual skill at mastering it accomplished the change.”
But, he adds, “the activity which matters most in the entire universe is sparkling, intelligent, intimate conversation with the very few people I have found who have that kind of dialogue. And I love to go to places where people who are passionate about what they do are doing it….good music, for instance….which leads me to the point that I love talking with you here, or on the phone, or across the table or wherever you are willing to talk with me.
“I am trying out a lot of new stuff, and it is yielding terrific results,” he continues. “I am trying out a sort of unformed spirituality. I am trying out humility. I am giving vulnerability and sincerity a little test drive. I am so delighted with the result of these little experiments that I am a little bit like a kid in a candy store.”
So what’s not to love here? I believe we exchanged more information in five days than Peter and I ever had in three years. (And rest assured that Peter will be handled in as kind and delicate a fashion as possible.)
By September the 5th, I was already making plans to visit Vashon Island, after the second radio broadcast with Wendy and The Twins on Sunday the 7th. These plans to rendezvous were happening only about 10 days after we’d first met.
Yet not once in that correspondence, I see now, was there any discussion about practical stuff like what he did for a living or his relationship with his daughters.
He quoted Goethe before I got on the plane for Portland and I went soaring over the moon: “All beginnings are delightful. The threshold is the place to pause.”