Archives for the month of: August, 2022

When I finished the last line of “Ingenue,” the pianist Ben stood to applaud and I gestured awkwardly to him with my left arm as I left the stage. I went to the green room to return my guitar to its case and settled down for a few minutes to drink some water. Through the green room speaker I heard Deborah Blackburn singing harmony to a pre-recorded track of herself and Johnny singing “I Walk the Line.”

I was back in the house to hear the end of John McCord’s “House of Love,” Edie O’Hara’s “Don’t Keep Her Waiting,” Mance Lipscomb’s “Shake, Shake Mama,” Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and Seán Lightholder leading everyone in the first singalong of the evening, Warren Zevon’s tender “Keep Me In Your Heart.” That one always makes me tear up, but I sang along on the sha-la-las, mostly droning on a high B-flat at the top of the chord. I made a note to myself to listen to the song on the archived live stream: Johnny had wanted it sung at his memorial.

Back in the green room to finish my sandwich before I was due back onstage, I listened to Patrick McKenna sing “Go to the Mardi Gras” and heard some kind of confusion over the intro to “Guitar Rhumbo.” I was in my front row seat to hear Jerry White sing “Blue Angel” simply and sweetly after musing on what Johnny sang about (drinking, love, sex, escape and connection) and inviting us to let the music set us free.

We heard remote, absent Johnny telling us a long story — as he often did — about running away at the age of ten, hoping to float down the Mississippi River like Huck Finn. He didn’t get that far, but he caught the drifting dream in his song “Loafin’ on the Water,” sung ably by Abby Dees.

Abby fronted the next two Johnny Harper classics, “Nothin’ But A Party” and “Light of a New Day,” backed by Maureen Smith and Shirley Davis and then it was time to take the stage for the final numbers. Once again I threaded my way past horns, guitar, bass and drums to the clump of vocal mics, trying to figure out where to squeeze myself in to the short girl mic between Maureen and Shirley.

Jennifer Jolly announced the tune and the band launched into the familiar opening run of “The Weight.” Deborah lead off with a descanted line of “I pulled into Nazareth.” Everyone was in by the chorus, “Take a load off Fanny.” Jenny had printed the words in the program and warned us that Johnny would surely cut the power to the house if he heard anyone sing “Annie.” From where I stood there were plenty of effs — I hit them hard.

Shirley stepped into the mic to sing about Carmen and the Devil in her rich alto. I stepped back as far as I could to give her room. Then Dale Geist took a mic for “Go down, Miss Moses,” ideal for his tenor voice.

I heard the walk down, stepped to the mic and hoped for the best, bringing forth Crazy Chester from deep in my chest. It was a little crazy — my third line went wild, leaving the melody behind, but regaining it for the last line and the chorus.

Freed to sing anything I liked on the last verse and chorus I started to enjoy myself, tapping my foot and swaying, ending the chorus on a high hum. The fun continued as we swung into “They All Ax’d For You,” a good-time tune if there ever was one and a signature tune for Johnny.

Abby gave us the verses about the Audubon Zoo and the deep blue sea, interspersed with scintillating piano from Mark Griffith and followed by a plethora of horn solos. Then Jennifer Jolly asked the band to vamp on the one chord, quieting them down so that I could be heard, and counting me in for my last solo: “Went on over to the other side…”

Jerry picked it up again, singing “Went on down to the Carnival gig.” Then, while Jeremy Steinkoler kept the rhythm on drums, Jenny took the mic to thank the venue, the sound techs, the live stream provider, the online viewers, our absent friends, our donors, the M.C.’s, the planning committee and the musicians. Abby sang the iconic Johnny Harper verse “Went on down to the federal pen,” everybody sang the chorus and the saxophones closed out the final line.

I went backstage again to gather my gear, the backpack full of shoes, extra masks and tissues that I never used. I went out to the lobby for a couple of group photos that I haven’t seen yet. Then I got a chance to mingle and see people I hadn’t seen, to chat with one of Johnny’s drummers and some old friends. I checked at the favor table to pick up a gator from Johnny’s collection, but they had all been packed away for the night — I figure my shrine to him will be a plastic gator decked with Mardi Gras beads: like the gator, he had sharp teeth, a big wide smile and a wicked sense of fun. I will never forget him, his last big party, the music he made, or the people I met through him. I hope we all meet again before too long.

P.S. If you want to see the entire list of personnel and songs for Johnny’s Big Party, here is a link to a PDF program: Event Program

https://tinyurl.com/JHMemorialProgram

Two days before Johnny Harper’s memorial service at Freight and Salvage I began to have a meltdown, touched off by our single rehearsal for the event. We met, masked, in a practice room at the Jazz School with a quarter-grand piano, a separate keyboard, a full drum kit, basses, guitars, two saxophones and a trumpet. Although the band quickly got into their groove, the singers could not hear themselves or the other singers, even though we were all singing on mics. At least two of us strained our voices trying to be heard.

I had wanted to be part of the ensemble for the final two numbers, “The Weight” and “They All Ax’d For You,” both songs Johnny and I loved. He related to “The Weight” as the story of a man taxed with the burdens of others, and gloried in the pure, playful fun of “They All Ax’d For You,” which he used to close many band shows. I had written a verse shortly after Johnny died where the unruly denizens of heaven and hell called for a bandleader and I wanted to sing it:

Went on over to the other side and the all ax’d for you.
The heavenly host was out of hand and they needed somebody to lead the band
Went on over to the other side and they all ax’d for you
The devils ax’d and the angels ax’d and Saint Peter ax’d me, too.

What I hadn’t counted on in my imagination was the keys chosen for these numbers: “They All Ax’d” called for the second lowest note I can sing and “The Weight,” too, sat in my low range. I have a typical soprano fondness for my high range and mid range — they’re my comfort zones as a singer. Singing low takes more breath than singing high, and more breath still to produce volume.

Although I enjoyed hearing the band play Johnny Harper classics, such as “Loafin’ on the Water,” getting to hear the horn section, and the general camaraderie of the reunion rehearsal after months of Covid-induced isolation, I started to obsess about how bad I sounded, how little vocal power I had, etc. Over the next few hours that morphed into my personal nemesis, the old refrain of “I am not good enough,” with its corollaries, “I didn’t practice enough. I didn’t warm up enough. I should have learned to read charts properly by now. Johnny was right, I don’t belong on a stage. I feel like a bad singer.”

I wrote separately to two other friends and singers who had been at the rehearsal, wondering if I should back out of the ensemble numbers. One said he heard me struggling for power on “The Weight” and suggested that any number of people could sing it, but that I should sing my verse on “They All Ax’d.” He later posted on my Facebook page: “You are more than good enough. You are great!!,” addressing my demons directly. My other friend said I belonged in the ensemble.

Monday, August 22nd, I cried all day after teaching a writing class. I also arranged to meet another friend on Zoom, a singer with a beautiful low range, to ask for advice. We spent over an hour together, discussing vocal exercises, melodic variation, visualizations, head positioning, mic technique, attitude and ego. She was warm and supportive and helped bolster me to give the songs another try.

Ironically, the song I expected to shine on, an original love song called “Ingenue,” that I had written for Johnny when I fell in love with him, also fell apart in rehearsal. I had asked one of Johnny’s piano players to accompany me, which he did, but we didn’t set up a guitar mic for me. He couldn’t hear the guitar, watched my hands for the chord changes. We were not in sync. I didn’t know what to do, so I said nothing, hoped for the best and feared the worst.

The day of the show yet another friend spontaneously recommended some vocal warm-ups. I did those. I practiced my low solos. I played through “Ingenue” a couple of times. I bathed, dressed in dark red chiffon, packed a sandwich, two granola bars, an arsenal of spare masks, water, Kleenex, lipstick and dress shoes, picked up my guitar and walked to the bus stop. I got off the bus at the top of University Avenue and walked slowly to Freight and Salvage in mid afternoon heat, arriving well before my call.

I watched the sound techs set up from a seat in the front row. Friends began to trickle in: Abby Dees with two guitars, Jerry White and his wife Sally, who began to set up an array of snacks in the green room and immediately offered me a delicious blackberry soda. When our music director arrived I found out that I was supposed to have made signs for the dressing rooms (Oops, I thought I was just supposed to tape them up), so I took my one spare piece of paper and lettered a quick sign.

When sound check started, I threaded my way through cables and instruments to reach the microphones at the far side of the stage. I practiced bending mics down to my lips, being several inches shorter than every other singer. I missed my entrance on “The Weight,” having misread the notes on the arrangement. Fortunately, the sound was good and I could hear myself. We went through part of “They All Ax’d For You” and I retired to the green room to eat half a sandwich, grab a water bottle and apply lipstick under my mask (when you sing in public during the pandemic you wear a mask whenever you are not onstage, but you need lipstick so that your mouth will show up on video). Then I went off to greet attendees in the lobby. Meanwhile the sound check continued behind the closed doors of the concert hall.

The doors finally opened to a slide show of photos of Johnny played over three of his songs. When the last note ended, a procession of horns, snare drum and tambourine began to snake through the aisles of the Freight in a cheerful New Orleans-style second line. People fell in line, danced in their seats, waved scarves. The M.C.s grooved onstage before the last note ended and they spoke their words of welcome to Johnny’s family and friends.

We settled down to speeches. Speeches — you never know what you are going to get. We were treated to a glimpse of young Johnny in military maneuvers at private school, getting a perfect score on his SATs and paying a backstage visit to Hoyt Axton. Larry Miller gave us a beautifully-worded account of Johnny’s nonmusical passions, including Paladin and Nero Wolfe, with thoughtful reflections on Johnny as the good guy fighting the good fight, unable to ask for help. His remarks reminded me of a line Johnny often quoted from “The Right Stuff”: “Do you wish to declare state of emergency?” The answer was always no.

Dale Geist gave us a portrait of guitar lessons with Johnny, whom he credited with “saving his life.” Jennifer Jolly gave us another list of things Johnny loved, including Star Trek and vanilla ice cream. People touched on Johnny’s flaws (perfectionism, arrogance, stubbornness), but spoke of his vision, his generosity, his breadth and depth of knowledge. His beloved niece, Lucy Lumsdaine, crowned the speeches with a testimony to Johnny’s deep love for her, his ferocious pursuit of ethics, and her own call for all those present to extend our compassion and care to one another.

At some point during the speeches pianist Ben Shemuel whispered, “Can we talk?”

He beckoned me into the backstage hallway.

“Can you stand so that I can see your hands when you play?”

He said I was his source for the rhythm or pulse of my tune.

“I’ll try,” I said.

When I took the stage to sing I explained that I needed to angle toward my accompanist. I played the intro. Ben came in along with my voice and we moved through five verses about falling in love: a roller coaster ride, a free fall, a siren song that nevertheless makes your heart sing with joy and hope.

To be continued…

The day before the rehearsal for Johnny’s memorial I finish sorting and filing miscellaneous papers, except for the small pile that I cannot figure out what to do with. I am doing this because I have left divided stacks of things on my bedroom floor and I am afraid I will fall over them. When I have put the final unfiled stack in a folder I move on to my next task: changing the strings on my guitar. I consider changing the strings on Johnny’s guitar, too, but I decide that one string change is enough for the day.

Out come sharp scissors to cut open the string packet, dykes to cut string ends, a rag to clean off accumulated dust on the peg head and near the bridge. I sit on the bed with the guitar beside me and slacken the three lowest strings one at a time, loosening the tension until I can unwind each string from its tuning peg. I pry up the wooden bridge pins to detach each string from the guitar: as I remove each string I wind it into a circle and stow it in the used string packet. I run a red garage rag over half of the peg head and next to the bridge, swiping it over the pick guard as well.

I begin to replace the three lowest strings, one at a time, uncoiling a new string from its envelope, securing it with a bridge pin, running it through the groove in the nut. You wind low strings counterclockwise and I am in the habit of wrapping the string once around the base of the tuning peg before running the lead wire into the hole in the peg to secure the string. Then begins the painstaking process of tightening the string, turning the peg away from me. I turn the peg until the string in it is taut and straight, no longer curving, and then I begin to check for pitch. Tightening strings is scary business — there is always the possibility that one will snap and hit you in the eye. This has never happened to me, but the ends of strings are sharp enough to prick the ends of calloused fingers and I usually have a few bleeds doing this task.

After the three lower strings are on, I reverse the direction to remove and add the higher strings: wind the strings on the pegs clockwise, turn the pegs toward me to tighten, bending the strings sideways to stretch them periodically. Generally, you tighten them slowly and, inevitably some of them slip back suddenly, losing pitch — sometimes a bridge pin pops up, allowing the string to loosen. You push it back in and begin raising the pitch again.

Eventually, I activate my tuner and start bringing all six strings to standard pitch. I like to do this fairly slowly — I feel tension in my body as the tension in the strings rises, but I manage to gain the correct pitches without mishap. Once the guitar is in tune, I cut the loose ends of the strings with diagonal pliers, gather the string ends for the trash and stow the dykes back in my guitar case.

I put a capo on fifth fret and run through the melody of “Ingenue” on the strings, not singing, just picking out the tune. I will be singing this song, which I wrote about falling in love with Johnny, at his memorial concert on Tuesday evening. Completing the first run-through, I begin again, singing this time: “Open mind/open heart/It’s hard to live in the world when you’re letting it fall apart/Nothing to hold on to…”

My voice is true. I remember all the words. The chords come back under my fingers. When I hit the penultimate line of the last verse, “But my heart is singing like an ingenue,” my voice breaks and fades because I am starting to cry. I finish the song in a broken whisper. I hope I will be able to sing it on Tuesday without faltering, but there are no guarantees.

Returning the guitar to its stand, I check my email and find an email from our music director, telling me that the piano player who was to accompany me may not be at the rehearsal or the memorial. She gives no reason, so I send him a short email asking if he is alright and I send her an email thanking her for informing me and stating “The show must go on.” She sends me a thumbs up symbol in reply. I realize I feel entirely alone: although I’ve sung solo more often than not, I feel the emotional weight of this upcoming performance.

I call Patrick, one of Johnny’s bass players in his band Carnival, to ask him for a ride to tomorrow’s rehearsal. He leaves a message for me while I am at lunch, watching the Star Trek movie, “Nemesis,” which is playing on the Movie Channel. Johnny introduced me to Star Trek The Next Generation. (I scorned the original series, which my brothers watched during my childhood, and I had never wanted to watch Star Trek again). Johnny told me I was a snob and watched episodes with me, introducing me to various characters. I got quite fond of Data and Q.

I call Patrick back during a commercial. He will give me a ride. I give him my address and we agree to leave my house at 11:20. I tell him that I am singing with the band for the last two numbers, “The Weight” and “They All Ax’d for You,” so we have to be at rehearsal at the same time. I say I’m glad that he is singing in the show as well as playing bass.

We talk for awhile. I learn that he only met Johnny in 2009, around the same time that I did. I tell him I thought he had known him a lot longer because they were playing in a band together when Johnny and I got together in 2012. I would have asked a few more questions, but Patrick says we can continue the conversation tomorrow, so I thank him and hang up. He calls me “Kiddo.”

I have lost the story line of the Star Trek movie as I sit mending a thin cotton shirt. The movie will play again on Wednesday evening after the memorial is over. My mother turns the T.V. off and I go to check my email. This time I find a forwarded email from 2020: Johnny had sent his friend Dale his notes for a planned album. I knew about the album, but I had not seen Johnny’s notes on the songs for it. Johnny always had big plans: he mentioned wanting to write a third album of original songs. Dale’s list includes a song Johnny wrote called “Too Late to Reconsider.” I have never heard it.

In the last three months of his life, Johnny did not invite me to gigs or send me links to his live streams after the first one, which I attended. (I thought he had stopped doing them). We still talked on the phone occasionally or emailed each other. The last time I called him I called to see how his last gig had gone. He was disappointed by a lower turnout than he had expected but he said he gave a good show that made the audience happy. I saw some footage of that show after his death: I thought he looked weak and tired, his voice subdued, the man a fraction of his former self. It was sad for me to see him that way, as it is sad for me to live without him now — I miss his former vigor, liveliness, intelligence and empathy as well as much of the music he used to play.

I’m updating this Monday night Pacific Time: if any of you want to watch the memorial live-streamed in real time or later after it is archived, here are links to the live stream and the program:

New Live Stream Link:

The event begins at 6:45 PM Pacific Daylight Time (or UTC-0700 for you international types.) 

Event Program Link:

https://tinyurl.com/JHMemorialProgram

When Johnny did not return my first emails and calls after my return from France I went back to Al-Anon. I also initiated conversations with some trusted friends of mine, including a professional therapist, and with friends of Johnny’s. Before I left, Johnny’s younger brother Peter and I had been talking about the possibility of a formal intervention to confront Johnny on his drinking and to offer him help. Everyone agreed that it would be useful to have a professional and that it was necessary for Johnny’s brother to be present.

Three days after I returned Johnny called me. He was still holed up and drinking and largely incommunicado. He said he was “depressed.” He said he was calling me “out of respect.” He returned to the theme that his deceased brother David knew what to do and what to say to him and that I didn’t. He mentioned that David would call him fifteen times a day and I wouldn’t. Damn straight — who wants to call someone fifteen times a day? When I invited him to talk about his depression he said not a word. When I said “I love you,” he said “That’s what you say.”

As soon as I told Peter that Johnny had called me, Peter reneged on coming down to take part in an intervention, rendering an intervention useless.

On July first BART goes on strike, so I have more time off work and no income: with no commuters coming through the station there is no one to sing to. There is no one to sing to for tips, but I make it to a singing session five days later. When I arrive the hostess asks after Johnny and I tell her there is no news. Then a few others come in and start singing drinking songs. I refuse to sing songs in praise of drink at this particular juncture and I do not want to talk to one of the singers, my ex-fiance, about what is going on with Johnny. In order to avoid my uncomfortable feelings, which I don’t feel I can express at the session, I start eating chips. I sing and chat and joke with the others. I don’t know if anyone notices how much I am eating. I am not savoring each chip carefully and slowly, enjoying each taste — I am eating in an effort to swallow my feelings. I am vaguely aware that my eating has a compulsive quality and I think at least once that I should stop, but I do not want to stop.

After I return home I start to practice the other compulsion I suffer from, that of scratching off scabs. When I have a small scab I run my fingernails underneath its edges, trying to loosen only the dry scab over the healed skin, trying not to trigger bleeding of the unhealed wound beneath. If I cannot tolerate a feeling or a thought or a situation and I happen to have a scab, watch out — I will worry it. Although I have moments when I will stop, when I will wash the wounds with soap and water, I will go back to picking the scabs again eventually.

I investigate my compulsions in my writing over the next two days, turning my attention to them, telling what I understand about them. Mostly I know that these self-destructive habits surface during times of trouble. I am somewhat surprised to see them appear when I have been meditating, attending Al-Anon meetings, calling friends, learning new songs, reading spiritual literature. All I can say is that these compulsive habits emerge during times of deep trouble when every healthy thing I know how to do is not enough. Perhaps this is how Johnny feels — he may have, somewhere inside, a sense that his drinking and isolating is bad for him, but may also feel that he has no alternative, that nothing else is working to help him deal with uncomfortable feelings. I do not know that this is his internal experience — I’m just speculating that his experience may be somewhat similar to mine.

The next day, a friend calls me and starts telling me, unasked, what I should do about Johnny and his drinking, from giving him an ultimatum on the phone to removing myself from his life entirely. I have not asked her for advice. Sure enough, during our conversation I start scratching the wounds I have just cleaned. Here it is again: uncomfortable feelings and compulsive behavior. Agitation and conflict with people I care about trigger the behavior. When I get off the phone I note that I need to slow down and breathe and get peaceful again, using writing or sitting meditation to settle myself down. And I continue to struggle with my own behavior over the next day.

Two days after the singing session and spending some time with my compulsions the BART strike ends on Monday morning and I go back to busking in downtown Berkeley. I also hear from Johnny’s brother who wants to do something, but still doesn’t want to come down to the Bay Area. Instead he calls various friends of Johnny’s: he wants someone to go out to check on Johnny. I am still holding the line, saying I will not go out to Johnny’s alone, but I will go if someone goes with me.

By Thursday Johnny’s old friend Eric has agreed to drive out to San Leandro. He says he’ll take me to find out if Johnny is alive. I meet Eric at his house and we drive to Johnny’s.

Eric parks the car. He and I approach the Marcella St. house. The living room curtains are drawn, but I can hear the sound of a television.

I knock on the living room window and call, “Johnny.”

“Who is it?,” he calls back.

“Sharyn and Eric,” I say.

We hear the sound of bottles hitting the floor as Johnny gets up from the love seat under the window. Clink, clink, clink. Eric and I look at each other. Clink, clink, clink. It sounds like sixty bottles falling; perhaps it is only twenty, perhaps it is nearer to a hundred like the song my Dad used to sing, “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, Ninety-nine bottles of beer, If one of those bottles should happen to fall, ninety-eight bottles of beer on the wall.”

Johnny shuffles into view. He has opened the wooden inner door, but leaves the metal security door in place. The metal is closely woven, like some outdoor tables. Through it we can see that Johnny is dressed. He has some facial hair, but not six-days growth. I forget to look at his feet to see if he is wearing shoes. He reeks of beer, or the house does, or both.

“You can’t just come over here,” he says.

Well, we did, didn’t we?

I say, “Johnny, no one could reach you. We came to see if you were alive. Lots of people care about you.”

“I’m alive,” he says.

“I see that,” I say. “That’s a good thing.”

Eric retreats to his car to wait for me.

“I’m depressed,” Johnny says. “I talk to Deborah every day.”

Deborah is his “therapist.” She used to be his therapist for real. Now she is a friend. I am completely mystified that she doesn’t seem to confront his drinking. I think, “At least he has a lifeline. Better a defective lifeline than no lifeline at all.”

I say to Johnny, “I feel like part of you wants me to rescue you. I can’t rescue you.”

“I don’t want you to rescue me,” he says. “I have to do this myself.”

“You need some help, Johnny. I’m glad you have Deborah.”

“You were depending on me,” he says. “I let you down. I’m sorry.”

I don’t say anything. What could I say? If I agree that he let me down, he might feel worse. I can’t say he hadn’t let me down. So I say, “I’m sorry you’re having a hard time. I love you.”

At some point Johnny refers to my decision not to call him every day because it breaks my heart. It seems to bug him that I won’t call him every day because he does not answer his phone, which makes me anxious.

His temper flares in response to something I say. “Now we’re covering the same ground,” he says.

I just look at him.

We stand there in silence. I have nothing more to say. Then I rescue him, asking “Do you want me to go?”

He says “Yes,” so I leave.

On the way home, Eric and I discuss the visit, “He didn’t tell us to fuck off,” I say. “And he thanked us for coming. Thank you for driving out here. At least we know he’s alive.”

Eric drops me off at my house in Kensington. I thank him again. He tells me to take care. Then he leaves.

I feel much better knowing that Johnny is alive, that he hasn’t died alone in his house.

I call his brother, who isn’t home, so I relay what happened to his brother’s wife. She tells me she feels encouraged because Johnny wasn’t as savage as he could have been. She says they continue to pray for him.

“Maybe your prayers are making a difference. He’s still alive and he managed to be civil.”


On June 12, 2013 I leave California for a meditation retreat in France with my zen teacher, Natalie Goldberg and a number of students I know. And, on June 16, 2013 Johnny crawls out of his house and shows up to play at the memorial for Les Blank.

What we do on retreats with Natalie is spend a week in noble silence, speaking only during question and answer periods, or to give or receive instructions during work periods, or in dokusan, brief group interviews with Natalie late in the week. We sit zazen, write in our notebooks, eat in silence. We study assigned books (memoirs, novels) and read aloud from those books and from our own notebooks.

We study our minds: sitting on chairs or makeshift cushions in the converted barn at Villefavard we focus on our breath, following it all the way in or all the way out, or focus on sound: church bells ringing, rain falling on stone, birds calling, cows lowing, the low hum of cars on the road. We also study our minds as our thoughts, emotions and memories spool out through our hands and arms, inked on the blank pages of our notebooks.

Natalie gives us topics. Or her assistants give us topics. We start out with “What is your material?” We quickly move to “What is your ‘Fuck-It’ List?” My anger spews out quickly: “What kind of a hell of a choice is this? Resign myself to a life as a drinking man’s wife, a drinking man’s girlfriend, grateful for the crumbs of the days when he is only drinking moderately, highly functioning, sweet and funny — and doing what during the other times? Going home to mother? Going to meditation retreats and Al-Anon meetings. Blech. And what is the alternative — excuse me, the fucking alternative — giving up the man I love entirely because he will not give up drinking, who will not even see the slightest possibility that he might have a drinking problem… Give up my love or suffer the consequences of his drinking. Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it — what kind of a choice is that?…Fuck it all — it does not need to be fucked — it’s already about as fucked up as a situation can get.”

Natalie sometimes calls herself good Natalie and stinky Natalie. Using that polarity leads to this pair of portraits:

Good Johnny follows instructions in the kitchen. Tells me he loves me. Looks at me with soft eyes. Snuggles up to me in bed. Says he’s lucky to have found me. Dresses in clean clothes, shaves and showers before he comes to see me. Looks forward to seeing me and spending time together. Laughs. Listens well. Tells stories. Is sensitive to my feelings, aware of how I’m feeling, reassures me. Good Johnny talks about telling the truth.

Stinky Johnny passes out, calls me from a bar. Doesn’t call or email for eight days. Doesn’t shower, shave or change his clothes. Flips bottle caps on the floor. Leaves bottles all over the house. Is argumentative. Challenges me. Cooks up dramas (example: soul music debacle). Evades (calls two D.U.I.s “traffic tickets”). Doesn’t show any awareness of my feelings or needs. Stinky Johnny says “What are you doing here?” when I come over for a date.

And then there is “How we find ourselves”:

“We find ourselves in a jam. We said we loved each other. We said we were committed to each other. Being committed to Johnny is like being committed to an insane asylum, being committed to rows and rows of unwashed bottles, being committed to a lover who does not answer the door when I come to see him, being committed to a week of silence, hard variety, silently worrying about him while he doesn’t answer emails and his phone gets full, when his brother confides that he has been suicidal in the past (Big deal, so have I, but it’s just another thing to worry about). Being committed to an actively-drinking alcoholic is marrying the drinking bouts, the holing up, the isolating, the disorder, the accusations, the undermining of perceptions. I find myself facing all of this in a sweet man that I really like when he is only drinking his daily maintenance dose, whatever that is (I have no idea).”

Later, we take on “What I brought with me”:

“I brought with me the weight of Johnny and his drinking, all of those beer bottles in the living room, stirring up my retreat, the open jar of peanut butter and the butter melting on the kitchen stool in the heat, the sound of a bottle cap hitting a hardwood floor, the moldy dishes in the sink, the bloodshot-ness of his eyes, the greasiness of his hair and him trying to be jovial and jocular as he sank into an alcohol-induced depression and called out from it that I was cold and unfeeling.

I brought with me the weight of my childhood in an alcoholic house in an alcoholic family — it’s a wonder that they let me get on the plane with all that. I brought my not knowing what to do about any of this.”

On and on we go. I keep wanting an answer: what should I do about Johnny and my relationship with him? I am angry and sad and frustrated by our situation, sarcastic by turns, then a little compassionate toward him. And then in the first sitting period of the day on the third day of the retreat, what to say to Johnny appears in my head:

“You can have what you want — the happy marriage, the fantastic record. You can have all that, but you cannot have it if you are drinking. The flourishing student trade, all of it. You can have what you want, but you can’t drink and have it…I’m going to ask him to make a choice between alcohol and me because I can’t live with Johnny’s drinking.”

Decision made, I settle down. I write about meditation retreats. I write about a Jungian doll class I took. I write about childhood punishments. I write a description of the zendo and its furnishings.

When the retreat ends I travel back to Paris with another retreatant. Paris hotels are full. I have not made a reservation; she has. We talk the desk clerk into letting me stay in her room. He agrees as long as I am gone before the 6:00 AM shift change.

I clear out early in the morning, find my way back to the Gare du Nord, have a six Euro breakfast at a cafe, go to the Metro where I buy a bottle of water to get change for a ticket machine. I get on the RER train to Charles DeGaulle, where the flight is delayed. I use my last few Euros to buy a muffin, hoping they will give us real food on the plane: fruit, vegetables, some kind of protein. It is 2 AM California time. I want nothing more than to buckle myself into my airplane seat and sleep.

I arrive back in California late in the evening, too late to take the bus home. I take BART instead to an El Cerrito station. I am dead tired. When I get home I do not open my email or check my phone messages, but, when I do, there is nothing from Johnny.

Over the next few days I call, leaving messages like “I’m back from France. I’m wondering how you are doing. I hope you are feeling better. I love you.”

Johnny does not respond, even when I call to ask if he can just leave me a message to say he is alive. Welcome home. Apparently not much has changed since I left.