I wrote about the picture last week in the newspaper, but I didn’t link because the web sites were funky and I wasn’t pleased with it anyway. Some things require more than 800 words. Epic poems. Novels. My thoughts about pretty much everything.
And it felt perfunctory; as I wrote on this blog a while back, I had more to say about this particular picture. What I was thinking was, hey: I’ve got a good Valentine’s Day story. And suddenly Valentine’s Day had come and I had a deadline and so on. It was sort of rushed.
And really? It’s an easy thing to misconstrue, and a hard thing to explain. It’s sort of nostalgia, but then maybe it’s metanostalgic, remembering what I used to remember. And it’s certainly metametamorphical, a snapshot in time of a snapshot in time. See? We can get tangled here pretty quickly.
So here it is, as plain and simple as I can make it: A friend once took a picture of me, posed and sort of pretentious (although not, as several people have implied, a lie; that’s not actually my 12-string in the photo, but I’ve been playing the guitar for over 40 years. Long periods go by when I don’t play, and I was never interested enough in it to be more than passable, but if I put my mind to it and practice I’m not bad at all).
In those prehistoric times, of course, a picture like this took work. She had to finish the roll of film first. She then had to rent a darkroom, develop the film, do what magic she wanted to do, crop, enlarge, make prints, etc. The idea was that she’d produce a nice print and it’d be a gift for my girlfriend, for Valentine’s Day.
I want to note that I have no special feelings for Valentine’s Day. I’d guess I’m as romantic as the next guy, or most guys — February 14 never really made a mark, is all. If I ever spent a Valentine’s Day moping around because I didn’t have love in my life, I’ve lost that particular memory.
But I remember a million details about this Valentine’s Day, in 1979. And, as it turns out, it left a mark, too.
I can tell you that I drove a 1973 Celica, a little sporty car I loved. I worked a graveyard shift at an HMO. I was 20. I was starting a one-week vacation that day, as I got off at 6am. My plans were to pick up the picture, drive to my brand-new apartment and sleep for a few hours, give my girlfriend her gift, and then drive up north to Flagstaff, where my once and future school, Northern Arizona University, was hosting a regional American College Theater Festival. Lots of schools, lots of plays, lots of fun. My old friend and former roommate Kurt had arranged for me to have tickets for all the performances. He had responsibilities, so he gave them to our mutual friend, Sue, who would wait with them in Kurt’s apartment for me to show up.
She waited a long time.
Kurt is dead, now, of a sudden, massive heart attack 10 years ago. Sue is alive and well, now a lighting designer for a theater company in Minneapolis. Hi Sue.
So this is not turning out all that plain and simple, sorry. Let’s cut to the chase. After picking up the picture, I was involved in a serious car accident.
Oh, well. Serious. Relative term. Serious, maybe, in the sense that it had echoes; even at that age, my social sphere had already seen two major car accidents, one involving far more serious injuries that I would suffer, and the other resulting in the death of a high school friend. Trauma has a long half-life; nobody wanted to hear any more bad news.
In truth, it wasn’t that bad. I’d made a quick left turn at a tricky spot, a curve as I remember, and I just never saw the other car. It T-boned my little Celica, slamming me across the road until I hit the curb. I was wearing a seatbelt (not a given in 1979), but my head hit the rearview mirror and maybe the dashboard, slicing up my right ear and my forehead, and also lacerating my right knee against something.
Lessons learned? Ears have a lot of nerves. And even superficial forehead lacerations can bleed a lot.
Details? I remember that the car radio kept playing, and I listened to the traffic guy in his helicopter describe my accident below. A paramedic on his way to work just happened to drive by, so first aid was almost immediately on the scene, applying direct pressure and making my blood loss, which had already soaked my shirt, not an issue.
A plastic surgeon sutured my head wounds. I wore an air cast and walked on crutches for a couple of weeks. I didn’t need to be hospitalized, although my mom thought that was a bad call and maybe it was.
On the way home from the doctor’s office, exhausted and with a horrible headache, I suddenly remembered my picture. My mom somehow found out the location of the junkyard where my poor totaled Celica had been towed and retrieved the print. My girlfriend eventually got it, but I’m thinking the charm had been lost by then.
And we broke up, eventually, and moved on, and if I remember the story correctly an irritated husband, years later, tore it up. I probably wouldn’t have been so theatrical if I’d been in his shoes, but I get the impulse — your wife shouldn’t be keeping pictures of old boyfriends, even in boxes in the closet.
So this wasn’t really about romance, or Valentine’s Day, or even love, not really. When my friend found a second print, also stored in a box somewhere, it meant less to me to reflect on what a rootless, unsure poseur I was at 20 than to remember the story. And the ifs.
If I hadn’t had to make a side trip to retrieve the picture…you get it.
As I said, metametaphorical. Or at least leveling back out, peering through layers until I find the subjunctive mood and a counterfactual that I wonder about sometimes. Not a lot; you can only wander through other lives so much before paradoxes pop up and children go poof! and so on.
My friend Guy Erickson was kind enough to mail the print to me. My friend Sue Berger stays in touch and might remember this vaguely, who knows? A couple of days after the accident, my friend Pat Russel came down from Flag to visit me; I saw Pat last summer. The story has little tendrils that make me smile.
I pick up my guitar and play it more often these days.
I have a little scar over my left eye, and another one on my right knee. Hard to see but there.
And my wife liked the picture a lot, seemed charmed by my younger image, although when I told her the story, told her, “It was a gift for Robyn,” she made a funny face and said, “I’m not sure I like it that much now,” which made me smile, too.
Robyn remembers, too. I sent her an email.
As for trauma, who knows? I remember getting restless after that accident, so maybe. I eventually moved to LA, played with comedy, came home again, went back to school, fell in love…the rest of the story.
It’s a fun picture. It sits by my wife’s piano. Maybe we’ll frame it. Maybe, we’ll put it in a box in our closet. Maybe that’s where it belongs.
And maybe, when I look at it, all I see is a story. I certainly don’t see myself. I do, though, see an alternate ending, and you have to be careful with those.