Thursday, December 27, 2007

Griffith Park

Helen ignored her textbook as she sat transfixed on the log bench. Shades of green on green. A profusion of hues cascading down from the lanky redwoods to the forest floor. Pine green, emerald green, week-old-broccoli-green-with- yellow, avocado-moss green, turtle-astroturf green, ivy-lime-green..... Sunshine, shade, leaves, and needles jockeyed for position, topping each other in fresh examples of green-ness. She opened her eyes wider, absorbing the richness of textures and singular colors. She felt dizzy, but alert.

Sound also bombarded. The nearby stream plopped, pinged, and jangled relentlessly, like a Balinese gamelan orchestra. The never-ending, tinkling percussion soothed but then grew irritating. Soon the entire forest seemed to vibrate as the gurgling intensified. She took a deep breath and tried to surrender to the mystical roar.

Helen had developed a ritual. On days off she grabbed her psychology text and headed for one of the log benches near the perpetually chanting stream. Sometimes she enjoyed a chapter discussing Freud or Jung, but intellectual pleasures could not always compete with the woods. She contemplated ancient redwoods, squirrels popping from beneath brittle leaves, and the moist, cool, air itself, which seemed to harbor a kind of potent consciousness. She took a deep breath. She wanted to hold the fertile air inside her. She wanted to capture the spirits here and hold them.

It was always twilight beneath the towering branches. The thick grove of redwoods provided a climate 20 degrees cooler than the surrounding neighborhood, yet Griffin Park was practically empty. She marveled at the irony: during a scorching August she had this paradise to herself, while most Los Angeles residents were at the shopping malls. As they stalled in traffic, she reveled in forest butterflies and the transformations of her own life.

She was 23 when her marriage ended and she moved to L.A.. She found a job waitressing at a natural foods restaurant and spent her free time loitering in metaphysical bookstores frequented by movie stars. She braved the vast freeway system, worked with a theatre troupe and tried primal therapy. There were impromptu nudist gatherings in bubbling hot-tubs, and meetings with astrologers. She explored the quaint canyons and seashore.

Las Vegas heat and Midwestern humidity joined forces during her first L.A. summer. She wandered her tiny apartment, swabbing her head with icecubes. At night, unable to sleep, she saw images from the last days of her marriage.

He was lying on the couch; she knelt beside him, her face drawn close to his. She was talking and gently touching his shoulder, trying to somehow bridge the gap between them but he simply stared at the ceiling. And then remarkably, after 5 years of struggle and 3 years of therapy, she understood. She stood, walked away, and went to bed.

She listened from the master bedroom upstairs. It was a relief that he hadn’t come to their bed. He was punching the pillow on the couch downstairs. Then she heard him approaching. She closed her eyes and tried to slow her breathing. She sensed him in the doorway, looking at her. Then he grabbed another pillow and went downstairs again.

She felt sorry for him. He wanted her attention but she would not, could not, give it. His rage frightened her but his tantrums had to be withstood. She had prayed for a transformation in their marriage. Despite her fears, she knew this trouble was her answer. She would remain strong and hope he might discover his own strength.

She listened again. Their beautiful house was silent. He was going to sleep on the couch. What had precipitated this latest skirmish? She tried to piece together the words and silences that had passed between them. He had gotten angry and withdrawn, as usual. But this time she would not appease him, soothe him with kisses even as he rejected her. This time she had had enough. She would take a revolutionary new step--she would risk their separateness. She would not fabricate an emotional intimacy. She would see, once and for all, if he were capable of affection himself. His violent reaction proved to her that she was on the right path. Change would only come if they could withstand this crucible of pain and fear.

She woke up. He was dressing, rather noisily but said nothing. Helen withstood the silence. She moved to the bathroom, then to dress. The timing of this eruption was probably terrifying to Joe, but an answer to her prayers. He was going away for a week. She had to drive him to the airport and then she would be free. She prayed that their distance and his pain would finally jar him, pry him, open.

They needed to leave in 15 minutes but Joe began to scream insults and obscenities. Helen responded quietly. She would not become the opponent, or the pacifier. As he grabbed her and threw her on the bed, she felt calm and peaceful. This too was an answer to her prayers. He began to shake the bed, continuing to curse. She went limp and he stopped. He said he was sorry. Helen said nothing. They drove to the airport.

In the car they chatted about household matters but a new miracle was materializing inside her. He said goodbye, they hugged. Did they kiss? She could not remember. She drove home in a daze, planning.

When they were dating, Helen would reassure Joe of her devotion, asserting that she did not approve of divorce, except in cases of physical abuse. It was an odd declaration of love. More of a warning to him. Her Catholic upbringing compelled her to stay with him. To accept his shortcomings. But there were limits. He had thrown her on the bed. Weeks later he would deny the violence of the act. He was “merely playing.” But she had her escape clause now. He had thrown her on the bed.

When she got home she packed a few bags, took some money, and flew away.

Nightfall was approaching; she should prepare to leave. Still, Helen shifted the closed textbook on her lap and took another deep breath. She would sit for an hour longer, studying cocoons on redwood bark or the intricate mandalas on sunset-speckled water. While the rest of Los Angeles hustled, she would sit motionless, surrendering to the sounds, devouring the breeze.

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