Original Short Story: "Tipi for the 21st Century"
Back to School
After fifteen years, three children, a failed marriage, and five years of moping around a tiny apartment on the south side of Muncie, I decided to return to school at Ball State University to finish my masters degree in architecture; I needed only six graduate credits, but my advisor suggested I take some undergraduate courses in English composition and math. He also advised me to audit some architecture courses, claiming that a lot of new material had been added to the curriculum, since I had studied here twenty years ago.
So as advised, I enrolled in English Composition 111. During the first meeting the professor put us in groups of four or five students. Our assignment was to interview each other and write a short essay based on the interview. I was grouped with two freshmen and a senior. The senior began the conversation.
“I guess the first thing is to find out each other's names. I'm Sled Wheat.” He turned to me, and in his leadership tone asked, “What's your name, ma'am?”
“I'm Lucinda Robertson. And I know I'm the oldest student in the room, but you don't have to call me 'ma'am', do you?”
“Oh, I'm sorry; I didn't mean to make you feel uncomfortable. There are a number of non-traditional students on campus now, and I've met many of them in my classes, but I didn't even think you were a non-traditional, you look so young.”
“Well, thank you, I think . . . I mean, well, are you a non-traditional?”
“Oh, no, that is, not in the ordinary meaning of the term. I'm somewhat non-traditional in that I'm a year younger than most seniors.”
After the girls had introduced themselves, we paired off and began the interviewing. Sled Wheat was my partner, and he soon got into fairly personal matters.
“Do you think your ex-husband missed you that much and moped around those five years?”
“I doubt it, since he was the one who left. I do have to admit I was lucky he helped me financially. My job at the bookstore couldn't support me and our three children. But then Harold wasn't stingy with money, just his love. And I wanted his love, not just his money. I'm sorry I babbled on about that. That can't interest you. I always get down in the dumps when I talk about love. Let's talk about our majors. What's yours?”
“Psychology with a minor in classical studies,” he said.
“That sounds deep. And like a lot of work. Do you graduate this year?”
“Actually, I finish all my course work this quarter. But I'm hanging around for winter and spring to catch up on some courses I wanted to take but never had time for. How did you ever get into architecture?”
“I just always design stuff, kind of, in my head—mostly buildings, and usually buildings that look like tipis—and then I draw them as close as I can to my vision. My art teacher in high school was impressed with my drawings and suggested architecture as a major in college. I've always felt that was the right choice, even though I didn't finish my masters. I only have about 6 hours to finish. I didn't expect to have to take undergraduate courses in English and math, but it's kind of fun being in classes with all these young students.”
“Are you seeing anyone special right now?”
“You mean dating-seeing, like a boyfriend?”
“No, I haven't had any relationships since Harold—well, one, but it didn't go anywhere. I don't know—I guess I've been hurt too much. I know that must sound sappy and like I'm sorry for myself, but in high school I got my heart broken really bad; I had a steady, Ed Jackson. He's part Oglala Sioux, like me, and we studied our heritage together, we read everything we could find about our Lakota people; after we graduated we spent the summer on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota; we both have relatives there. He wanted to take part in the Sun Dance, but for some reason they wouldn't let him, but we did participate in some other religious rituals. Anyway, I thought he loved me as much as I loved him, but then he dumps me and starts going with Kate Sooner. Kate had a reputation . . . you know, like she was kinda loose. I'd hear guys sniggering about her, saying stuff like, 'see Sooner for a nooner' and 'I'd rather Sooner than later' or something like that. Anyway, I freaked out, when Ed dumped me for her. I didn't trust any guys for a long time. And by the time I met Harold, I had avoided relationships until I made it almost impossible for Harold to begin one with me. I think I must have something in my nature that makes men have difficulty committing to me permanently.”
“Well, it's probably not you. It must be them. Harold was probably intimidated by your strength, and Ed, well, if you were both in high school, you could probably blame that on youth. It seems that women are usually more stable earlier than men in relationships. That's true I believe, and they disconcern (He actually used that “word” a lot. Later I found out it wasn't really a word. I should have told him, I guess. Oh, well, surely someone in graduate school would set him straight.) the compatibility of psychological and physical make up which is highly ambiguous at best. But that provides the motive for devising a philosophical code of life. What do you feel is your own personal code of life?”
“I just want to live and let live.”
“Yeah, but that's not always possible. You can't always find that you can disconcern every detail of your existence. You have to take a stance, like with your son. Why don't you suggest to him that he get his own apartment or live on campus in a dorm? That way your daughters couldn't hassle you all the time about coddling him.”
“But I don't want him to do that. He has no money, no job. He's just a freshman. If it weren't for his scholarship, he wouldn't be in school at all, and his scholarship only pays tuition. You said yourself that you still live at home with your parents, and look at you, you're 21. My son has plenty pressure on him just being a student. You know that. And I don't coddle him. He does a lot for me—he helps clean the apartment, and he usually does the grocery shopping. The girls are just too eager to be mothers. They're practicing by bossing me around. Besides, what's this got to do with a life code?”
“It shows what your life code is. You are obviously over-influenced a great deal by your son—well, your children. Here you are at school primarily to upgrade your employment in order so you can buy a house because your daughters want a nice place to bring their children—children that they don't even have as of yet. And your son does a little cleaning and grocery shopping for you, and you think that's enough to warrant your still supporting him.”
“Don’t your parents support you—didn't you say you still live at home?” His impertinence was becoming annoying
“I do, but I do have a job that covers the expenses for my recreational activities. I think there is a significant difference in the dynamic of my situation.”
“Well, I think I have enough to write my essay now. Thanks for the information,” I said, trying not to sound as disgusted as I really was.
Annoyed by this young man's arrogance, I took my notes, turned away to begin writing. Sled turned his attention to the two freshmen girls in our group and talked with them the rest of the time. After about twenty minutes, the professor ended interview time and instructed us write our essays. Since I had already been writing for that twenty minutes, I decided to revise what I had. As I read through my paper, I realized that the tone was bitter. I decided that I should not judge this Sled Wheat so harshly; after all, I hardly knew him. So I filtered out the bitterness as much as I could. I could tell my writing needed some fine tuning. I decided it was a good thing I was taking a composition course.
By the end of the class period, I felt tense and tired; it had been a long day, and I couldn't wait to get home to relax. Out in the parking lot, as I was unlocking my car, I heard a voice call out, “Lucinda.” I looked around, not many people have that name, and the voice sounded vaguely familiar.
“I wanted to tell you I enjoyed talking with you, and well, if you don't have to get home right away, maybe we could continue our conversation; how about walking over to the Dug-Out, have come Cokes or something?” I will never know why I said yes to this suggestion.
We went for Cokes. And every Tuesday and Thursday night after class Sled suggested we continue our conversation. Usually we'd walk to the Student Center, or we'd go to the Dill Street Bar and Grill. We found we had a lot in common. He told me that his mother's father was part Hopi, and he had started studying the Hopi religion. He believed that the Native American religions were more natural and compatible with human life than the religion of preachers like Billy Graham. I told him that I had been scared silly listening to preachers who promised sinners hell-fire and damnation. I could never figure out if I was a sinner or not. So I had just stopped listening to anything religious until I had started researching my Lakota background. We liked Mexican food—the hotter the better. Sled had broken up with his girlfriend recently, and he, therefore, felt he understood how I felt about my marriage break up. He seemed so mature and intelligent and at the same time awkward and naive, and I think that combination of qualities endeared him to me.
I began to enjoy these conversations and looked forward to them, and when he didn't appear in class one Tuesday night, I was disappointed and worried. But at Thursday's class he told me he had to take his mother to the airport; her sister in Arizona had suddenly fallen ill. He usually insisted on driving his mother places, because he didn't trust his father's driving. But he said he had really missed talking with me Tuesday night and asked if I was busy Saturday. He invited me to take a drive with him to Brookville Lake where his parents own a cabin.
The lake was beautiful. The cabin was more like a mansion than a cabin, I thought. Sled pulled out two beers from the refrigerator and said, “Let's go sit on the deck. We can watch the boats. And maybe see some fish jump up out of the water.”
“So you and your family spend a lot of time here?”
“Mom and Dad come down almost every weekend. I come when I can. Especially when I think Dad isn't really up to that long drive. I do worry about them driving. It's certainly an irrational primal fear. I know Dad is healthy enough and a capable driver, but I almost lost my mother once in a car accident, and that latent fear motivates me to try to protect her.”
“You care a great deal about your mother, don't you? I admire that in a son. Daniel and I are close, but he doesn't worry about me, which is good, because I couldn't stand the thought of my child trying to protect me. I hated it when my parents tried to protect me.”
“Well, my mother is the most important person in my life. Everything I do I try to think about the effect it could bring to bear on her. Of course, I don't live the life of a celibate monk, and she knows it, but I do try to consider everything carefully. That's part of my code of life.” Sled stopped talking and took a long drink of beer.
I stood up, walked to the railing of the deck, took a sip of my beer, and looked out over the lake. A warm breeze flustered the water into tiny ripples, and I enjoyed the feel of it on my face. I hadn't been out of Muncie for several months, and this was turning out to be the most pleasant trip I had had in many years.
I took a deep breath, and felt Sled standing close behind me. He leaned against me, put his hands on my arms, and rubbed up and down. I leaned back against him. I felt nervous. All the time we had spent together was time spent talking. Now we were touching.
Sled lifted my hair and kissed my neck. I moved against him. He moved up to my face, and he took my mouth with his. Our tongues searched each other for a long moment.
“I've wanted to do that for a long time now. I hope you don't mind too much,” he said.
“No, I don't mind at all.” I wanted to be composed and cool, but inside I was trembling, and as I looked into his deep blue eyes, I fell in love. Some little voice kept taunting me, “you foolish woman, you foolish woman”—like a chant, but I ignored it; I ignored it because it was so warm and wet, swimming in those eyes.
“I want to make love to you, but I guess I've been a little bit afraid that you'd reject me, and that would crush my masculine ego. But I don't want you to feel pressured. You know? Like I got you down here to trap you? I'd still enjoy being with you even if you don't want sex with me. I wanted you to know that. I think about you a lot when we are apart, and I do really care about you.”
“Thank you for saying that. It makes me feel better. I think one of the worst things a woman can feel is that a man is interested in her only for sex. It's not that we don't want a man to be interested in the sex; it's just that when sex is the only thing, it destroys even the sex. I'm babbling, I must sound idiotic—does that make sense?”
“Perfect sense and I'd say men feel that way too. And I would assert that sex is only good between really good friends, and we have become the best of friends, wouldn't you say so?”
“Oh, yes, I would definitely say so.”
Then Sled leaned in close to me again. I felt his body against mine. I felt his hair, let it stream through my fingers. We kissed again, a long kiss, soft and sweet and warm; then he led me to the giant bed in the master bedroom.
“Oh mother, oh God, oh mother, oh sweet Jesus!” Abruptly, he pulled out, stood over me, just stood for a moment, dripping cum on my belly; he rubbed his eyes and looked at me as if he was seeing me for the first time, and said in a strange tone, “That was a real trip, lady.” And he went to the refrigerator and brought us two beers.
I think I should explain here, that the flesh represents ignorance and, thus, as we dance and break the thong loose, it is as if we were being freed from the bonds of the flesh."— Black Elk, “Wiwanyag Wachipi: The Sun Dance,” The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rit
Sunday I worked on my architecture project. The assignment was to design a living space for the twenty-first century. I got out my old designs to search for ideas. I had come to the conclusion that the only real way to move into the twenty-first century and be environmentally correct was to look back to the American Indian way of living and incorporate some of the features of the tipi. I hoped it wasn't racial pride that led me to believe that, and when I read about the feasibility of many Native American customs in my textbook, I felt I must be right. So as I thought about the project, I knew I would have to do something with the idea of a tipi as living space.
I had thought a lot about Sled's idea about a “code of life,” and I figured that mine was to love and be of service to those I love. I had long thought that the isolated nuclear family caused tension and stress that could be alleviated with an extended family concept. Not only could children remain part of the family unit, but others could be brought in to form a family of friends who love one another. It seemed to me that with such a change in attitude there would be no homeless, no abused children. Vast communities of loving extended families would cover the globe, and peace would finally arrive on earth. What an idealist! Or was I just naive? No matter. I liked the idea. I guess my ideas were just throw-backs to the sixties, but after all I was influenced by hippies and civil rights activists. It occurred to me as I worked on my “tipi for the 21st century” that maybe I could conduct an experiment to test my idealism; maybe Sled could be part of it. My tipi project included a main building, with surrounding compartments, and each compartment as well as the main central building would have a central area that contained a huge fireplace ventilating upward like a tipi opening; the fireplace would serve as a gathering place for all the family members. It would also serve as the place to cook meals as well as to keep each compartment warm. I wasn't yet sure about other details such as sleeping arrangements and building materials; I had to research that. But by Sunday night I was truly excited with my ideas and plans, and I couldn't wait to tell Sled about them and get his ideas.
I arrived at class a little early on Tuesday hoping to talk to Sled before class. I had tried to call him a couple of times Monday, but I never found him home. So I was doubly excited and terribly eager to see him. But class had started by the time he arrived, so I couldn't talk to him. When class finally ended, I got up and looked around, but Sled had left. He hadn't even waited to speak to me at all. I was shocked, so I ran out to see if I could catch him. He had vanished. Wednesday I tried calling and could never find him home.
By Thursday I had begun to panic. I could not understand why he would deliberately avoid me. What had I done? I thought we were friends, lovers; what was going on? Instead of going into class, I waited at the door for Sled. He arrived ten minutes late.
“Sled, can we talk?”
“Oh, hi, how's it going?”
“Well, I'm a little confused. I haven't heard from you. You bolted from the classroom Tuesday before I could even say hi. Is something wrong?”
“No, nothing. I've been pretty busy, but nothing's wrong.”
“I have some things to tell you about my tipi project. Remember? I told you a little about it on the way to Brookville Lake.”
“Oh, yeah. I'd love to hear it, but I really have to run. I don't have time right now. Maybe next week. It was nice talking to you. Really gotta run.”
And that's what he did. And that's what he did every class night. He arrived late to class and ran as soon as class was over. I felt so confused. Just totally baffled. Everything he had said to me since that first night he asked me to go for Cokes had indicated to me that we were close friends. We had shared so many details of our lives. I thought he was a fascinating individual, full of spirit and courage. And I thought he felt the same way about me. Once in a while the nasty thought occurred to me that all this young man had wanted was a sexual encounter with me, and every time I thought that I dismissed it as a silly idea. That just didn't make any sense. Why would a young man pursue a woman twice his age only for a sexual encounter? I reasoned that our relationship had to be based on more than sex; it had to include friendship—hadn't he said so?—and I wanted his friendship back. I thought that if he would just tell me what I had done wrong, I could make amends and we could continue. So I kept calling and finally reached him the day before our last Thursday class meeting; I asked him if we could just talk for a few minutes. He said he would have some time right after class on Thursday. So after class we went for coffee at the Student Center.
“Sled, I really miss you. I know you've been busy, but I feel like I've done something wrong. And I wish you'd tell me what it is, so I can fix it. I thought we were good friends, and even good lovers, I just don't understand what's happened.” I didn't want to do it, but I started to cry. I tried to catch the tears before they ran down my cheeks.
“It's not you. It's . . . well, it's something I realized about our relationship and quite frankly it made me sick. And it's really me as much as it is you. I think it affects us both. But I am willing to accept my part of the perversity.”
“Perversity? What do you mean? Do you think there is something perverse about our relationship?”
“Well, I've thought about it a lot, and I realize now exactly what our attraction was. At first I tried to disconcern myself to it but now I am facing it . . . it's Oedipal. You see, you love your son a great deal and feel very close to him, and I love my mother and feel extraordinarily close to her. So it's your latent sexual attraction to your son that attracts you to me, and the same for me.”
“You mean you would like to have sex with your mother? And so you think having sex with me has something to do with that?”
“And the same for you, even though you try to disconcern yourself to it, you have a latent . . .” Before he could finish, I stood up, and for a long moment, I gazed at his beautiful, deceptive face. Then stunned and amazed, I turned and walked away.
Questions & Answers
© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes