For me, it began the summer I turned 11, and ended sixty-one years later when, going on 73, I woke up disgusted with myself and wrote in my journal: “Please help me, I am going straight to Hell.”
The summer I turned eleven, my mother, my new stepfather, and I moved to an eerie house on the top of Sunset Mountain. The address was 1000 Sunset Drive. Many years later I would give this address to Helen, the narrator of my novel Flora. Our new little family rented the second floor; our landlords, a nightclub owner and her husband, lived on the third floor. There was a polio epidemic that summer, so children didn’t get together to play but sometimes one child would be whisked through town in a parent’s car to visit another child. So Stuart was whisked in her mother’s green Buick from her house on downtown College Street for an afternoon visit with me at 1000 Sunset Drive. And halfway through that visit, Stuart and I sat down at the kitchen table and played chug-a-lug with two shot glasses and my stepfather’s bottle of Kentucky Tavern. Then we wobbled outside to the second floor balcony and tore into each other. I don’t remember the cause of our fight, but we were both pitched to a wild destructiveness. I grabbed her by the shoulders and beat her head against the stone wall and ripped the buttons off her blouse. The next thing I recall is Stuart’s mother’s green Buick departing down our steep driveway. My mother had sewed the buttons back on the blouse. The murderous thrilling rage I felt while beating her head against the stones, a feeling I only had a single time in my life, I would give to Marcus, in Grief Cottage, when he is beating up his friend Wheezer:
(“As I saw this being accomplished before my eyes I was filled with elation. I felt that I was driving out the badness from my life through my fists and feet.”)
A word about Stuart. Today the word “frenemy” is used, but this nowhere near what the two of us were to each other. When we were close, there was room for no one else, but also we went many days without speaking. I used to think I was the envious one, but now I believe it was a two-way affair. Whether we were close or not speaking, we maintained a mutual peripheral watchfulness. I have tried to “capture” Stuart, first as Freddy Stratton in A Southern Family, and later as Tildy Stratton in Unfinished Desires. Stuart was fascinated by Freddy Stratton, I signed her copy of A Southern Family when we were in our early fifties. I was sitting beside her in her den, we were polishing off a nice bottle of white wine between us, and she said, “One of these times, you are going to drive down here to Asheville, and I am going to ride back with you to Woodstock.” That, alas, was not to be. Soon after she was diagnosed with a melanoma that had metastasized to her brain, and when I saw her one more time, she was bald and had lost her voice from the cobalt treatments. When I said goodbye, I kissed her and said, “You can still visit me,” she cried. I don’t think she knew I meant visit me in dreams. Though she has. As recently as last night.
I see that Stuart is going to require a multiple installment blog of her own. Possibly she will give me a chance to look deeply into this thing called Envy, from the Latin invidia. The literal translation of invidere is “to look against,” which I think could describe Stuart’s and my mutual peripheral watchfulness. I have always known why I envied her: she had a striking beauty, was safe within a prosperous family, and had that thing called Power. (In our Freshman year at St, Genevieve’s, she went from not speaking to me to announcing to everyone that I would make the best class president. I was duly elected.) As I enter my serene old age, I have a few ideas about why Stuart envied me, but now I must get back to a lifetime of DRINKING.
(To be continued soon)