As expected, our church “dinner for eight” last night was enjoyable. Good food, interesting conversation, and plenty of laughter. All the above took place in an environment that encouraged everyone to shed at the front door whatever stresses they might have brought with them. And then the music started. It was good music. The musician was a talented guitarist with a pleasant voice. And the music wasn’t unreasonably loud. But it was loud enough to make conversation virtually impossible for us. Our table was too close to the stage to permit conversation without ramping up the vocal volume to uncomfortable levels. One of the couples invited us to their home for after-dinner drinks and conversation. All of us readily agreed.
We followed them to their home and spent more than an hour engaging in conversation. Nothing particularly consequential. But enjoyable. One of the group talked about a surly, Confederate-flag-displaying neighbor in Ruidoso, New Mexico. She suspected he had turned her in for allowing her antique turquoise and white teardrop camping trailer to sit in her yard for too long. Another couple spoke of their plans to take a river cruise along the Danube in Germany. All of us engaged in conversation about favorite “dives;” restaurants that look and feel slightly dangerous but that satisfy our taste for adventure and good food. I don’t recall all the topics we discussed. As I said, nothing particularly consequential. But relaxed, casual, enjoyable. That’s how I like my evenings.
Back to the restaurant. The moment we walked in, I saw several other church members busily consuming their dinners. Only a few hours earlier, I met one of them at a favorite coffee shop (actually the only coffee shop) just outside the Village. She and I meet more or less regularly to talk about writing, publishing, church, politics, etc. She often shares her astonishment that she has reached the age of eighty and still makes plans or commitments that assume she will be around for years. Things like a three-year magazine subscription. I like the attitude that informs such commitments.
At any rate, my coffee mate told me earlier in the day that she and a few others meet every Friday afternoon at The Beehive. I gather they start with lunch, then clear the table to play bridge. The group had been there all afternoon. Beginning at noon. Our group arrived at six. The husband of one of the bridge players had joined them after choir practice, he said. When I approached their table to say hello, I asked whether they have been drinking all afternoon. “All afternoon? No, since early this morning.” That response was untrue, of course. But its frivolity helped set the tone for the evening.
Last night’s dinner was the last one for the “season.” The other couples apparently travel during the summer or their families visit them with some frequency, so a structured program like the church’s “dinners for eight” or “dinners for six” would be impossible to plan. That’s a key difference between us (that is, my wife and me on the one hand and other couples, on the other). Janine and I don’t plan summer travel. And we don’t have children or grandchildren. So, instead of taking a break from structured social activities for other plans, our break leads us into a time-void. It’s not that we can’t travel or otherwise engage in activities that would replace these social engagements, it’s that we just don’t.
The “social engagements” that have drawn us in on occasion since we moved to Hot Springs Village constitute a new experience for us. We have been, and continue to be, a mostly unsociable couple. We have very few friends and, consequently, we have very few occasions to happily immerse ourselves in the company of people we enjoy. But these structured activities, like small group dinners and social affairs orchestrated by the church, provide occasions to “pretend” that we’re sociable. It’s not that these activities are artificial, nor that our interactions with the people in these groups isn’t enjoyable; it’s that these “forced” engagements allow us to feel like we’re part of a group when, really, we’re not. It’s odd, in many ways, that we have become far more social and sociable since we moved here. Yet I think both of us, in ways unique to each, value our individual isolation. Both of us remain fiercely introverted. We display that introversion in radically different ways, though. One day, I’ll explore those ways in more depth. I might find that they are not so radically different, after all.
A small group of the shrinking group of writers who constitute the Village Writers’ Club have decided to publish an anthology of our selected works. None of us (with one notable exception), I think, took the project particularly seriously. The project came together during meeting I missed over the past several months; the meetings conflicted with my scheduled cancer treatments. Despite my absence, I was asked/encouraged to participate. So I agreed. I selected two short stories, one piece I label “a fantasmagoric fiction vignette written in the first and second person,” and one decidedly dark poem. I wrote none of these pieces for the anthology; I simply picked, essentially with the toss of a dart, pieces I’d written earlier. Two of them were inspired by a neighbor’s art in connection with a VWC activity. One of them is the product of this blog and a strange mood. And another was a short story written to satisfy the requirement that each member of a critique group bring something to be critiqued. None of them represent my best work; not even close. So, now that the book is in the hands of a printing company, I wish I’d given it more thought, rather than haphazardly picking pieces almost at random. I’m too lazy to be a writer. Writers have to devote both time and energy to their work. And they have to avoid offering their least attractive work for publication. Hmmm.
My body is decaying. It has been doing so for years, but the evidence of late is more visible and more upsetting than in years past. My emergency surgery, almost thirty years ago now, involving the removal of a long piece of small intestines, started the process. But that scar remains hidden under my shirt. Then, fifteen years ago, my open-heart double bypass surgery continued the degradation. But that scar, too, remains hidden under my shirt. And, only a few months ago, the removal of a lobe from one of my lungs kept the process going. But, aside from the occasional expressions on my face that reveal pain associated with that surgery, the scar remains hidden. What’s not hidden is the very visible change in the appearance of my skin. The skin on my arms, especially, looks like the skin of a very old man. Tiny, almost microscopic, wrinkles make my arms look soft and elderly. Yes, arms can look elderly. Mine are proof. And my legs look old and used up, too. But, unlike my arms, they’re not awash in microscopic wrinkles. Instead, the skin on my legs is dry and, on close inspection, awash in scales. That is, it looks like dead skin that remains affixed to my body. But when I’ve scrubbed it, in an attempt to reveal the fresh, new, youthful skin below that layer of decay, I find only raw, red, painful marks that morph into dry decay in short order. And I have strange new marks on my face. Moles, I guess, that mark me as an old man whose skin has turned on him after years of neglect and abuse. My distaste for the spots or moles or whatever they are is not based entirely on vanity. Though, I’ll admit, vanity has something to do with it. My concern is that these innocuous bits of evidence of my decay will one day (and it may not be long) transform into not-so-innocuous beasts that will consume the remnants of my sagging skin, leaving me with a grotesque outer layer of shriveled muscles and tendons. Actually, I don’t harbor that concern. If I did, I would be certifiable out of my mind. But my body does show plenty of evidence of decay. And if the body is showing signs of decay, chances are better than fifty-fifty that the cells that form the brain and sustain the mind are morphing into matter better suited for feeding plants than for fueling thoughts.
I seem to have an uncanny ability to transform happy, almost joyous, thoughts into gloom. I traveled the road from last night’s enjoyable dinner to social isolation to bodily decay in only 1400 words, more or less. There should be a prize for high-speed, word-based psychological deterioration. There may be such a prize. But I’m not going to go searching it out. I have better things to do. Like rebuilding the happiness with which I began to construct this post.