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"What Kind of Romantic Are You?" - by Jan Steckel 

Former pediatrician and two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Jan is the author of The Underwater Hospital.  (A review of the book can be found here.)  She lives in Oakland, California.  Visit her site.


© 2007 Jan Steckel


     When you pray, Ty, do you pray as a way to commune with God?  Do you pray for strength?  Do you pray for enlightenment?  Does it come when you pray for it?  Or do you sometimes feel you're pitching rocks down a well so deep you'll never hear a splash?

     Pass the pickles.  I told you this place had the best corned beef.  I didn't know Monique was working here now, though.  Hey, Monique, would you bring us some mustard the next time around?

     Love that skirt. 

     It seemed blasphemous to me when the Giants got down on their knees and prayed for the winning field goal against the Forty-Niners in the play-offs.  I tried to imagine what they could be saying.  "Heavenly Father, send me to the Super Bowl.  Nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt."  When that football sailed through the goal posts, I squinted hard, but I could not see the hand of God in it.  If God didn't answer the prayers of my grandmother's cousins to save their babies from the gas chamber, why should He listen to a linebacker?  Because the linebacker is addressing Jesus instead of Yahweh?  I can't believe that God would ignore the prayers of the Jewesses simply because they didn't go through proper channels.

     Thanks, Monique.  You're a doll.

     (Can you believe all that hokey stuff about moving to New York and waitressing while she writes?  What does she write, True Confessions?  Maybe how she and Nick made love in the elevator between floors to show their joie de vivre.  Or about the time Sean's dad came after her dad with a pistol because she got his little boy in trouble.)   

     So, Ty, do you attribute the good in the world to God and the evil in it to man?  Will you say I am arrogant to suppose we could understand God's plan?  That God the watchmaker made the machine, and now He's leaning back and observing it run?  That for Him to intervene to save us from our own choices would nullify our status as moral beings?

     His non-interventionism is relatively recent.  Why did God save Daniel from the mouth of the lion and not Yaakov from the hands of the S.S.?  My father says God paid less attention to the prayers of the Jews after the birth of Christ not because Jesus was the Messiah, but because the spread of Christianity led to an unmanageable increase in the volume of prayers addressed to the Occupant of the Throne of Heaven.  This created such a bureaucratic backlog that God didn't actually hear about the Holocaust until 1955.  When He discovered what had happened there was hell to pay in Heaven, but it was too late to rectify the oversight.

     My faith is an emotional response.  I'd like to play you the Pergolesi Magnificat, because it reaches toward heaven and the mind of God.

     Hey, Monique, we're ready for the check.

*                         *                         *    

     In high school I was in love with a girl named Lauren.  She had long black hair that she used to fasten into a ponytail with an elastic tie that had a little gold ball on it.  I would sit behind her in class staring with great longing and affection at that little gold ball.  One day I asked her to a movie, and to my shock she said yes.  After the movie we sat on a bus-stop bench, and I kissed her for hours.  I asked her to a lot of stupid movies so we could kiss on the bus-stop bench.  One night she sneaked out of her house and walked to mine.  She tapped on the window; I removed the screen, and she climbed in.  We took off our clothes and lay in my bed kissing and caressing each other.  She told me how beautiful my body was, and I told her how much I loved her.  After several hours of this, she told me she wanted me.  I asked her if she loved me.  She admitted she did not, but that she loved my blue eyes and my blond hair and my strong hands.  I asked her to wait.  She said she had no more patience.  She got up and got dressed and left in anger, and she never returned or went out with me again. 

     Before I made love to Gabriela, she didn't love me; she was just a groupie.  She had the hots for me after my band played at a party at one of her friend's houses.  I drove her out to an abandoned construction site and made love to her on the hood of the Galaxy. After several heart-stopping orgasms, she discovered she was in love with me.

*                         *                         *

     What is it in the voice of a man that goes straight to your heart before your mind can make any defense?  I liked his thick brown hair that fell in curls around his neck, the way he moved, and the expressions of his face when he sang. It was none of these, however, nor any of the things that Richard said, but the tone of voice in which he said them, that made me love him.  At the party in Malibu he wore a black T-shirt and jeans.  I had on my red dress.  We met in the kitchen after the second set.  He was soaked with sweat, and his cheeks were flushed.  He asked if I wanted to go for a drive.  Six weeks later I moved into the place he shared with you, Ty.

     The first time I saw Richard he was kneeling over a man stretched out on the cement in front of a sidewalk cafe.  He was asking the people around to help move the man out of the sun, but no one wanted to touch him.  They said, we know this guy.  He's been like this before.  It's best not to get involved.   

     I said, I'll help.  I took the man's shoulders and Richard took his legs, and we moved him onto the grass under a tree.  One of the man's forearms was darker than the other; it looked dead.  The hand was bent into a claw.  When we set him down he moaned and reached out that hand, palm up, toward Richard, who took it in his own without hesitation and asked me to go call 911.

     When I came back Richard was still holding the man's hand, and the man was speaking to him urgently and unintelligibly.  Richard kept saying, I'm sorry, I can't understand you.  The paramedics are coming.  It'll be all right.  I'm sorry, I can't understand you. 

     After the ambulance left with the man, Richard sat on the grass glaring at the people in the cafe for a few minutes.  Then he seemed to remember that I was there.  He looked at me, and all the anger went out of his face.  Let's go somewhere else, he said.  We were both sixteen.

     I guess the only person I care more about than Richard is my brother, but it's a different kind of caring.  Once when we were kids, Christopher and I went on a hike in the woods with a couple of boys my age.  We ran out of water early, it was hard for Christopher to keep up, and in the late afternoon we walked into a beehive.  We were in a ravine, and the only way to get away from the cloud of bees was to run through it.  I grabbed Christopher's hand and told him to run, but he wouldn't move.  One of the boys started to scream as the bees began stinging him.  I pulled Christopher's arm roughly and shouted at him, and he let me yank him into motion.  As we ran the air seemed dark with the bees and angry with their buzzing, and the one boy's screaming turned to a barely human yelping.  I made my little brother run through the bees and for many yards beyond, until the forest was silent again.  That boy had to spend the night in the hospital, and I was stung on the eyelid and my eye swelled shut, but Christopher didn't get stung at all.

     I don't feel protective of Richard.      

*                         *                         *    


     I can't really believe in God, Gabriela, but sometimes I walk into the church on Ocean Avenue and stand in the back watching all the votive candles burn.  It makes me happy to see how much faith there is in the world, even though I don't have it myself.  That's how I feel when I look at Tyler.  He seems made of thin alabaster, and his unquestioning love of God illuminates him from within.  I try to do the right thing, but Tyler doesn't have to try.  His goodness comes to him naturally.

*                         *                         *


     Richard is practicing with the band at the house in Venice.  Gabriela and I go down to the beach to swim.  Her black bathing suit is scooped low in back, showing skin that is smooth and white.  As she ties her hair back I see the muscles in her shoulders move under that smooth skin, and I have to look away. She runs straight into the water and dives under a wave without taking any time to get used to the cold.  I follow and dare her to swim out to a distant buoy with me.  She makes it out to the buoy, but then she is tired and afraid to start back for the beach.  I tell her to hold onto my shoulders.  Her hands are cool and soft.  As I swim slowly toward the shore, her small breasts brush against my back.  I feel guilty that I tempted her to swim too far, but not sorry.

*                         *                         *

     Tyler and I are dancing to Richard's music in the club.  My arms and feet move fluidly, and my body moves with them.  Ty thinks of his spirit as being trapped within his flesh.  I feel strongly that I am my body, not that I inhabit it.  We have a good table near the front.  Chris and Monique's chairs are empty-- no doubt they're out necking in the parking lot.  I should show Chris how to open a matchbook and light a match using just his left hand.  It's good practice for unhooking bras, which I believe is still beyond him.  Tyler looks unhappy.  He's afraid Monique is going to eat his little brother up alive.  Richard sings a Cuatro Cuarenta song I taught him; his accent is not too bad.


Saliendo del Conde un día la vi,
vestida de rojo como maniquí,
su cuerpo el centro de toda atención,
de toda la calle, de todo varón....

....Yo no se lo que me pasa a mí,
pero yo me siento solo.
Por eso ahora, ya yo no volveré a querer.

     When I was sixteen I got a fake ID, and I finally let an older friend of mine get me up in one of my brothers' clothes and take me out dancing.  The brief appeal of looking like a boy -- I told myself it was only one more form of narcissism.  But I was struck by how it felt when the woman tied my tie for me and let the backs of her hands brush against my breast.  Looking down at her bent head, at her small-boned wrists, I felt an unfamiliar protectiveness stir inside me.  I lifted her face in my hands, and I kissed her.  We went to a gay disco in Hollywood and danced all night.  The women pretended to be tough or femmes fatales; the men danced exuberantly.  I felt, momentarily, as though I had come home.

     The guitar and bass are out of tune with each other again.  Richard's voice has a rough charisma and a heartbreaking strain when tender.  He is not necessarily always on key.  I am glad I don't have absolute pitch.  Hell must be a waiting room where you sit forever while in the next room a soprano practices her scales slightly flat.  What do the words in the song mean?


Leaving the Conde one day I saw her,
dressed in red like a mannequin,
her body the center of all attention,
of the whole street, of all the young men...

...I don't know what's happening to me,
but I feel lonely.
That's why now, I won't love again.

*                         *                         *

     I am lying on the long living room couch, my head touching Tyler's thigh, with my legs draped over Richard's lap.  I look up at you and offer you the joint, Ty, out of mere politeness, knowing you will courteously refuse.  Oh well, when the trumpet blows, judgment will find you with clean hands and a pure heart, wishing you had sinned a little.

     Ty, you look as though you were painted on the ceiling.  Were you given the face of an androgynous angel as evidence of the existence of an artistic God?  You are beautiful, but you appear too serene to invite the approaches of women, who find the immobile symmetry of your face forbidding.  When the band plays you are strangely still in the midst of a rocking crowd, as though what moved the rest of us could not move you.  You look like a carving of yourself recumbent on your own tomb.  You need to be reminded that perfection of execution is inhuman.  You need something to disarrange your hair and clothes and give you an expression of anxiousness and yearning.

     Ty is not like us romantics:  phoenix and ashes, passion and heartbreak, then ready for passion again.  He is like still cool water, that can't be set afire. 

     I leave them and go to my room.  I put "Carmina Burana" on the stereo, and I lie back on my bed.

Stetit puella
rufa tunica;
si quis eam tetigit
tunica crepuit.
Eia, eia.

There stood a young girl
in a red tunic;
if anyone touched her,
the tunic rustled.
Heigho, heigho.

*                         *                         *

     I have to keep lighting the pilot light of the oven because Richard and Gabriela don't smell gas.  The whole apartment would fill with gas before they would know.  I can't get them to check the pilot.  If I leave for a weekend, will they blow themselves up?

*                         *                         *

     Monique of the stretch-knit miniskirt and henna-ed hair:  when you enter a room you smile at all the men and don't even notice the women.  How did I get here in your little girl's bedroom, with the icons of the saints next to the plastic horses on your shelves, as if you had not had your second abortion before you dropped out of high school? The fashion magazine on the vanity table is open to this quiz:

What Kind of Romantic Are You?
Incurable, passionate or contemporary?
Take this quiz to find out what your romantic style is.

1.  A man you've had your eye on finally asks you to dinner.  On your first date you wear:
     a.  A leather mini-skirt.
     b.  Silk pants and a shirt.
     c.  A sensational red dress.    

2.  You would find it incredibly romantic, if your man were to:
     a.  Kiss the inside of your wrists.
     b.  Give you a single, handpicked flower.
     c.  Leave you a sexy message on your answering machine.

3.  The predominant colors in your wardrobe are:
     a.  Soft pastels.
     b.  Vibrant, vivid brights.
     c.  Black, white and neutrals.

SCORING  Add up your points below, and discover what kind of a romantic you are:

1.  a-3  b-1  c-2
2.  a-3  b-2  c-1
3.  a-2  b-3  c-1

(1-3)  A Contemporary Romantic
(4-6) A True Romantic
(7-9) A Passionate Romantic

The saints regard me gravely, as though you are a virgin I am about to deflower.  Un libstu mikh mit varer libe, to kum tsu mir, mayn guter shats.  If you love me with true love, come to me, my beloved....

*                         *                         *

     Driving late at night on curving unlit roads in the Ventura Hills...the big American car (1970 maroon Buick Skylark, automatic on the column) has such a wide turning radius, makes it a challenge, but the 350 V8 engine gives you pick-up and power to make up for the thing being such a whale.  A small gray fox freezes in the headlights.  We stare at each other, the fox's eyes reflecting back red.  Where is Richard so late at night?

*                         *                         *

     When I open the front door I startle Gabriela in the living room.  She is wearing only an over-sized white T-shirt.  Her black hair spills around her shoulders.  Her legs are long and smooth.  The place smells like gas.  She asks me if Richard is carrying on with Monique.  I betray Richard passively by my silence.  She goes to bed, and I light the pilot light in the oven.  In my bedroom I put the Mozart Requiem on the stereo and lie down.  Most nights I imagine I am Gabriela being made love to by Richard.  Tonight I imagine how I would feel if Richard made love to me.

Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla
judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus...

That day is one of weeping,
on which shall rise again from the ashes
the guilty man, to be judged.
Therefore spare this one, O God.

*                         *                         *

     I am walking alone at Trancas.  The beach is destitute now of its bean clams and sand crabs, kelp holdfasts and jellyfish, dogs' footprints and the scratches of sandpipers' feet.  The wind comes across off the water with nothing to stop it.  The tide has drained away and left isolate pools on the shore.  So gray and white, this empty beach.... 

Like the Boss sings, Gabriela:
"Everything dies baby that's a fact,
but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty,
and meet me tonight in Atlantic City...."

     Back in my parents' house, having left Richard, I dream of a man pierced by the spokes of a gyroscope, like the man impaled on the harp strings in the Hieronymus Bosch painting.  The man in my dream is blond; his eyes are blue.  It is Tyler, transfixed on the spokes of a wheel within a wheel, and as it turns and turns his face remains serene.

     Ah, you never loved me.  If you'd loved me, you'd have stayed. 

I think of Gabriela in all her unsubtlety, with her brass earrings and her tacky Latin whorehouse music, trying to draw me out about my sexuality.  I should have asked her, Why do you think God made everyone else in your image?  I should have said, You don't know me.

     Ty is a choirboy.

     I see pictures on the news of an oil spill on a lake, and the lake is burning.

     Ty is an old woman.

     Christopher calls me on the phone, "Tyler, help me, I'm scared, help me."  He is at Monique's.  I go there and find my brother freaking out while Richard and Monique are too absorbed in each other to do anything about it.  Richard got LSD somewhere, and they have all taken some.  Christopher is crying, and when I touch him he starts screaming and tries to punch me.  I have to wrestle him to the ground, like our childhood when he used to fly at me flailing wildly and my only job was to grab his wrists to keep his fists away from my face.  I hold him and comfort him, until at last I get him quiet.

     I yell at Richard and Monique for taking acid without leaving one person in possession of his wits the way you're supposed to.  Richard says,  "It's not my fault if Chris can't tell what's real and what isn't."  I hit him in the mouth, knocking him back against the wall.  Christopher starts screaming again.  Richard spits blood and grins sourly.  "Take your baby brother home, Ty."

     For two days Richard and I avoid each other in our big apartment.  Late the second night I hear a crash from his room.

     I am staring at my reflection in the bedroom window.  I see the eyes that burned for her, and before I understand what I'm doing my hand has gone through the window and blood is dripping from my wrist.  Ty bursts in and looks frightened as I tell him my heart is ashes, I'm sorry about the carpet, I'm sorry about the window.  He binds my hand with a T-shirt and tries to make me hold it above my head, but I tell him I'm so full of ashes I can taste them in my mouth.  I can't sing anymore, my throat is so dry, and all the fire that burned in me has gone out.

     I drive him to the emergency room where they pick all the bits of glass out of his hand. He thinks it will take him a thousand years to rise from these ashes, but it will only take him a few months. 











All work is copyrighted property of Jan Steckel.





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