The Fifth Sharp Line
Dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman, who marked this passage in a book a few months before he died:
“After many bitter years, can I be blamed if, having found at last one by whom I may hope to be understood, I should wish to have this person constantly beside me...? To me it is not enough that I should be understood..., but rather should there be, at last, one whom shall perceive the source of all my doing and striving...to whom without reserve I may disclose all things, because the motive and impulses which drive me forward are known. [Archduke Johann of Austria]”
My name is Owen, and I’m a damned fool. My life is a story that can be pretty much divided into five sharp lines. There will probably be more, but this is the story of the first five.
My growing up wasn’t awful or great, though it is possible that I was so caught up in my own head that I didn’t notice either way. Once a psychologist suggested that there were very bad things in my childhood that I blocked out. They must be blocked out because I don’t remember them. All I remember is being bounced from one school to another with no one knowing what to do with me and flailing around doing a lot of things I felt ashamed of.
But here’s something I remember: the day I turned 18, my father made some remark about wondering what his pansie son was going to do with his life. I have no idea how he formed that opinion of me, but people thinking before they spoke wasn’t a family attribute
I thought, “I’ll show you!” and I joined the army. This was the time of Vietnam, and, while most the country was trying to dodge the war, I enlisted and was sent immediately.
So, this was the first sharp line. I went from being a spaced out, unattractive teenager to a SOLDIER AT WAR in a FOREIGN COUNTRY. Now I had a definition, purpose, and a clear idea of what I was going to do.
Being a damned fool had its advantages in this situation. I always said yes, was willing to try anything, open-minded about the swamps and bugs and moral chaos that surrounded the whole situation. Even one a medal of honor. Yes, the damned fool saw a grenade thrown in our path and rushed ahead to pick it up and through it into the brush before it ignited. Saved a group of men and myself.
But willpower alone could not overcome the challenges of such a messy war in a terrain we were completely unprepared for – terrain meaning physical but also moral (amoral) and political and cultural.
On top of it, I was still hellbent on proving I was a real man and that included bonking as many local prostitutes as I could.
I contracted severe cases of malaria and syphilis and was sent home.
Coming home was the second sharp line.
By home, I mean the US. Had NO desire to go “home” to my family. I was too sick and exhausted to have to face a group of people who said whatever came into their head.
I was sent to VA hospital in the Northeast where I was treated for malaria, syphilis, and general exhaustion. All I remember is lying on the bed and wanting everything in my mind to go blank.
Eventually, I had to leave and begin a life sans the rigor and directions of the army. I knew I needed to meet my basic needs, but I wanted something else, too. What I saw in the war was horrible, and the word “horrible” in no way encompasses the actual experience. I couldn’t stop that, but maybe I could do something good. You know, tip the balances a little.
But my basic mental make-up hadn’t changed: I was still a damned fool, running headlong into dead ends and worse. The litany of failures isn’t the point.
I complained about this general trend to the doctor I had to see for some lingering physical problems. He said, “You are quixotic.”
“Like Don Quixote, the character in the novel of the same title. Look it up.”
I found a copy at the library and began reading. I loved this guy. A whole, super famous novel written about a guy who, like me, wanted to do the right thing, flailed and failed. I felt a little better. Beginning this book was the third sharp line.
I continued to bounce from one idealist venture to another, lots of enthusiasm, lots of bad choices, living hand to mouth, having no meaningful friendships. But I had this book. I’d read a little every night before bed and, when I couldn’t sleep (which was most of the time), would lie in bed imagining that I was right there in the novel. I imagined that Don Q. and I could be friends.
I was living near a fancy University and saw a flyer announcing a conference dedicated to Don Quixote. Wow! I figured out how to make the time and how to pay for it and showed up as soon as the doors opened.
Sitting at the desk was a woman whose age I couldn’t determine who was wearing some sort of period outfit – you know, dressed like someone from 17th century Spain.
She greeted me in Spanish.
“Oh,” I said, “Maybe I’m in the wrong place. I’m here for the Don Quixote conference.”
“You’re in the right place.”
“Why did you think I could speak Spanish then?”
“The conference is for Hispanists. All the papers will be read in Spanish.”
I deflated. I just wasted money and time and felt disappointed about not spending a few days focused on my new favorite thing.
“I’m not here because I’m a Hispanist – whatever that is. I’m here because I love this book. No, I don’t love this book. I love Don Q.”
She smiled. “That’s why I’m here, too.”
“Yeah, but you speak Spanish. And you seem to dress the part.”
“I’m a double major, Spanish literature and period costume design.”
“So, you decided to test an outfit on this event?”
“No, I always dress this way. I’m so infatuated with Don. Q. that I want to immerse myself in the entire culture of it. My name is Rae, by the way.”
And this is the fourth sharp line: meeting this odd, open woman who loved Don Q. as much as I did.
It was a sort of living dream: Rae and her outfits and her way of adopting modern foods to recreate a 17th century Spanish diet, reading Don Q. together every evening, knowing that I would come home from whatever mess I made at my current job to this magical person.
She was in school but had some money from somewhere. To tell you the truth, I still lived a lot in my own head and didn’t ask her enough about her self. Anyway, with what money she had and the little I could contribute, we bought a historic house in a small town not too far from her university. Weekends were spent fixing it up and planning our own 17th century Spanish landscaping – what would be possible in the northeast of the United States.
Sounds like heaven, right? It was, except I was still Owen the Damned Fool and my proclivity for impulsiveness began to chip away at our peace: jumping headlong into idealistic, non-profit adventures only to eventually piss everyone off, starting projects on the house that I had no ability to finish, spending money that shouldn’t have been spent. No need to drown you in the complete list. You get the point.
Rae took it in stride though, looking back, I think her willingness to sweep up after me, so to speak, sheltered me from the consequences of my actions.
I hadn’t seen the breaking point coming, but, as you know by now, I don’t pay much attention to the world around me. Maybe I didn’t see it because it wasn’t one event the caused it but an accumulation events.
I came home and found Rae crying. Rae, this magical woman who was the only woman I dared to become involved with since coming home from the war, was crying, and I knew quite well it was because of me.
She looked up, her face wet and twisted from crying, but, because she had sense (unlike me), she didn’t say anything.
“I really must be a damned fool if I made a woman like you cry. Are you giving up on me?”
“Did Cervantes give up on Don Q.?”
We both sort of smiled and laughed.
“No, I’m not giving up on you, but we need some help. I’ve been reading. I’m pretty sure you have life-long, untreated ADHD, and your war experiences haven’t helped.”
“So, you think I’ll get rid of this?”
“No, I don’t think you will, but maybe we can bring it to a more manageable place.”
And that, dear reader, was the fifth sharp line: we sought help for me and for her and for us. Anyone paying attention would still see that I was a damned fool, but I no longer was coming home to find my beautiful Rae crying.
Epilogue: in a scholarly article about the novel Don Quixote, Pierre Ullman ended with the sentence, “...is meant to remind us that [Don] Quixote...is a book about life.”