A WORLD OF SENSATIONS
I tend to overthink, but most of it’s an afterthought. Self-educated in the classics and now a relic in dust, that’s me. But ‘O for a world of sensations rather than of thoughts!’ It hasn’t turned out that way for me. Screw Keats and Shelley. Jesus Christ! What’ve those bastards ever done for me?
Someone dared me to write this story, and I never back down from a challenge. I can spin a yarn as well as the next man, especially when I’ve had a few. That doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to it, though. This is going to hurt like hell, because this story is real. Ita sit .
I’ve married twice. What follows is a raw, unvarnished account of both relationships. Not a thoughtful reflection, but the emotional essence of those experiences. In the end, does anything else really matter? Anyway, this story is about those two women and me. And… well, I’ll get to that.
I met my first wife on an overcast night in New Orleans. Mardi Gras 2020. It was a year before the latest War to End All Wars. I wore the traditional accoutrements: shirt with an outrageous floral print, khaki shorts and dark sunglasses. Oh, and the obligatory assortment of tacky beads and trinkets strung like talismans of youthful exuberance around my neck. I was thirty five, and a late bloomer.
I was sipping on my fourth gin sour, because I was into Fitzgerald back then. But hey, it’s not a bad concoction and I was feeling it. There was this crazy jazz band sauntering down Bourbon Street. Yeah, drums and horns and whatever else they could play and carry at the same time. I thought I heard an accordion. Maybe it was the booze.
So I glanced sideways and tried to focus my eyes on this girl. She was blurry, but I took it as an omen. Good or ill, I still don’t know. I tried to thread my way through the crowd, but it resisted. No impediment where fate is concerned.
When I cast my droopy eyes upward, there she stood right in front of me. Her feet were firmly planted on someone’s discarded party mask, and she… how should I describe her? Have you ever seen a medieval depiction of a wood nymph? In a way, she looked like that. Not the classic stereotype, but you know, she was petite with flowing auburn hair, alabaster skin, stringy limbs and tiny ears that almost came to a point. Her eyes blazed. Or were they glazed? It’s been too long; I can’t remember.
“What’s your name?” she said.
I shifted my weight from one leg to the other and replied, “John.”
She raked me up and down with those penetrating blue eyes of hers and cooed, “I’m Amelia, John. You’re not half bad. I could do you.”
I wasn’t prepared for that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ugly. But I’m not used to being propositioned by attractive women. Even drunk ones. It doesn’t happen to me very often. When it does, it always surprises me.
A strange feeling stole over me. It was like having to piss again and getting a hard-on at the same time. That may not seem very literary, but it’s how I felt. And I guess it was pretty accurate, all things considered.
She had a place on Conti Street near the police station, and we went back there for a drink. She asked me what I liked, then improvised and poured us a round of highballs. I’d mentioned my taste for all things Fitzgerald.
Her apartment was small and unconventionally furnished. An overstuffed green and beige sofa of art deco design occupied the space just inside the door. An alert orange tabby languished on it. In front of it stood a colonial style coffee table on stolid legs. At the far end of the living space were a stereo receiver, analogue turntable and two floor standing walnut speakers. A mahogany framed waterbed was conspicuously situated in the middle of the single room dwelling.
Sipping on my drink and abstractedly watching a splash of rye and ginger trickle down the front of my shirt, I lightheadedly asked her if she knew what century she preferred living in. She only shrugged. Turning on the stereo, she rummaged through a sizeable collection of vinyl records on an adjacent bookshelf and put on, of all things, Rush’s Fly by Night. We were making strange love by the time the soothing acoustic tones of “Rivendell” reached our ears.
I say strange because not a word was spoken. Yet, the intimate bond of our union was unmistakable. The closeness of the encounter frightened me. Emotionally and physically, there was no space between us.
But in the morning when I dressed and lightly kissed her sleeping head on an upturned ear, I dismissed the experience as an exceptional, yet transient, one-night stand. I was wrong about that.
Time creeps inexorably by when you’re not having fun. Two years later after three failed jobs and a marginally successful stint in rehab, I managed to secure employment as a structural engineer in New York City. A new high-rise condo was going up in Manhattan and the developers were mercilessly capitalizing on the majority of my free time. But that didn’t prevent me from venturing into SoHo one night to sample a well-decorated plate of sushi at a popular Japanese restaurant in the area—and yes, I also ordered a large carafe of sake. Old habits die hard.
I’d eaten myself halfway into the Imperial Samurai dish (the house speciality served with wasabi and ginger in a shiny wooden boat) when I happened to notice a party of three dining in the opposite corner of the room. I thought nothing of it until I heard a member of the group—a small figure of a woman with her back turned towards me—absurdly dressed in a pastel coloured frock and rhinestone studded sandals—angrily raise her voice. I kid you not. They were rhinestones.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m no slave to fashion. But this oddly attired young woman immediately captivated my attention, even facing the other way. I poured another cup of hot sake and savoured it. Man, that stuff feels so good going down.
The woman’s dining companions were a well-dressed couple in their fifties. They were engaged in a heated argument. Politics isn’t my forte, but I eavesdropped on the conversation with growing interest.
“You don’t seem to understand what I’m saying,” the older man said. “This is serious,” cried the older woman. “Listen to your father.”
“I know damn well it’s no joke,” replied the young woman. “Why’d you vote for the idiot? Zero experience, no qualifications, bad temperament…. All he’s got is a big ego. What’d you think would happen when he got elected? Dinner parties with champagne flowing in the White House every night of the week? Hell, I hear his wife doesn’t even like it there,” she added with a shriek. “I guess the décor’s a trifle too Spartan for her tastes.”
“Your father and I are loyal Republicans, dear,” the older woman snapped. “What did you expect us to do, turn our backs on the party? Besides, it’s better than having that woman in the White House. Dear God, she’s a public disgrace!”
The younger woman’s voice assumed a higher pitch. “How in fuck do you know what she would’ve done if she’d been elected? At least she has diplomatic experience. Maybe we wouldn’t be at war with Russia and Syria if she’d won. But thanks to you and all your stalwart conservative friends, we’ll never know. Now will we?”
The older man shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “This isn’t a political discussion, Amelia. And don’t curse at your mother,” he sharply replied. “It’s insane, the very idea of you signing up to serve in the Red Cross and trapesing off to Syria. That’s not humanitarianism, it’s suicide! I won’t stand idly by while you recklessly step in front of a bullet, or worse. I won’t have it, that’s all. Forget about it, and stop worrying your poor mother sick!”
I went rigid. Amelia? That voice, the delicate figure… what were the odds? Could it be?
The young woman gathered up her things and threw a twenty on the table. Her words were hard. They bit like sharp nails into rotten wood. “Look, Dad, in case you haven’t noticed your little girl is all grown up. I’m twenty five years old with a life and mind of my own. I don’t need you or this hysterical basket case of a mother I was forced to grow up with in the same dysfunctional house telling me what to do. You can both kiss my ass!”
The older woman’s face fell, then registered shock and indignation. The older man—I’ve never seen anyone look sadder outside of a funeral service. But maybe, I thought, I was witnessing a kind of rebirth. A rite of passage and point of no return. I dunno, but I felt bad for the old guy.
In a single fluid movement, the young woman pushed herself away from the table, sprang to her feet and turned to go. Our eyes met.
Amelia! There was no doubt of it. Her angry eyes burned with rage and recognition. She paused momentarily in front of my table. I felt like a voyeur and cursed my choice of dining venues. Of all the lousy fricking places to be.
Still, I was glad to see her. She was so upset her hands shook involuntarily when she reached for the door. “Amelia, wait!” I croaked. Groping for my wallet, I hastily threw down some cash and followed her outside. God help me, I chased after her. She was halfway down the street when I finally caught up to her.
Our casual encounter two years ago hadn’t seemed all that important to me then, but now there was no denying that somehow, she mattered to me. I had to try and comfort her.
I grabbed her arm and attempted to stop her, to turn her around and face me. But she twisted free of my grasp. “What’re you doing here?” she exclaimed, half in fury and half in accusation. “Are you stalking me or something? Can’t a good memory just stay that way for once? Why does everything always have to turn to shit?”
She screwed her red eyes shut, but hot tears pushed through. I stood there, forlorn and gaping. I felt driven to do something to help her, but my mind was reeling in panic. Finally, I said in a voice soft as a whisper, “Please don’t run away from me. Let’s go someplace and talk. Anyplace. I can’t leave you this way. I couldn’t live with it.”
I was shocked. What was I saying to this young girl I barely knew, and what the hell did I mean by it?
…Looking back at it, that was the day my life stopped making sense.
Amelia and I married six months later in a small chapel by the sea. We’d since relocated to Merritt Island, Florida. I had some folks living there at the time. We invited friends and family to the wedding, but it was still a small affair. Just as well, I say.
Amelia’s mother was a no-show. Her father looked tired and ill. After the ceremony, he patted Amelia’s hand, hastily shook mine and left early to get some rest before flying back to New York City the next morning. We never saw him again.
For the following six months, life was pretty serene. It was just me and Amelia and her cat Beauregard living in a house much too big for the three of us.
Beauregard was a big cat with piercing green eyes. We tried introducing him to other pets but he cowered from them in terror, even kittens and puppies less than half his size. We couldn’t keep any of them. Apparently, he was a lover not a fighter. You could only hold him one way: flat against your chest with his neck draped over your shoulder like burping a baby, patting his rump while he purred contentedly into your ear.
This was probably the happiest time of my life. We took long walks along the beach, played hide and seek with Beauregard and made love under the stars.
But even then, the spectre of doom hung over us. She kept insisting she needed to do her part in the war. I delayed, I begged, I cajoled. But she always persisted. She had to go. One day I gave in and she joined the Red Cross. Three months later she shipped out to Aleppo on a military transport. The work she was doing made a difference. We corresponded daily. The suffering, death and carnage—I heard about it all.
Then one day the communication went dark.
I was standing at the kitchen window looking out at the gulls and the pounding surf when a van pulled up in the driveway. Two women got out and the doorbell rang. One was in a dress military uniform, the other in slacks and a freshly pleated blouse. The civilian had been her immediate supervisor in Aleppo. She stammered frequently and kept swiping at her eyes. They were moist and bloodshot. Amelia had been killed by an enemy RPG. Blown to pieces along with two of her compatriots while handing out food in a refugee camp. The soldier was an army chaplain. When Amelia’s former boss rose to offer a final apology and moved haltingly to the door, the chaplain started to say something about her bravery and patriotism in the face of enemy fire. She was pushed out the door in mid-sentence by her companion.
I went to the mortuary before the funeral and opened the casket. Inside was a sealed container—her remains. I looked at it but it didn’t look back. I don’t even know if her pretty blue eyes were inside it.
I skipped the funeral. If her father attended, maybe he wondered where I was. Fuck him. Screw them all.
I went nuts. Screamed like a lunatic, punched holes in the walls and drank day and night. One day, I opened the front door to bring in the mail and Beauregard darted past me into the street. I stumbled after him in tears, but he was too fast for me. He never came back. It was providence if you ask me. It just wasn’t home without Amelia. Besides, three weeks later I drank myself into a hospital bed. Acute alcohol poisoning.
They said I was lucky to pull through. I didn’t feel lucky.
When the hospital released me, I put the house up for sale, sold it for a song and left everything behind except the clothes on my back and my ‘67 Mustang.
That’s how my first marriage ended. With a bang and a whimper.
This all brings us up to the year 2030 and my second love affair.
They say no two lovers are ever alike. I wouldn’t know about that, but the only two women I ever cared about were very different. My love for Amelia had been primal, yet all consuming. Greta was a whole different kind of animal.
But I’m charging ahead of myself. A brief recap of current events is sorely needed here.
On April 6th, 2017, in response to President Assad’s use of poison gas against his own civilian population, the US destroyed Shayrat air base in Syria with a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles. Throughout the remainder of that year and up until the end of 2019, a series of military escalations occurred in Syria. These conflicts, however, were waged and funded primarily by the US and Russian governments, targeting Syria as a common battleground.
Russia cultivated a closer alliance with Iran and encouraged them to break the nuclear agreement they’d negotiated in 2015 with the US and a group of other world powers. Consequently, Iran cut off all diplomatic relations with the US in 2020 and declared the nuclear pact null and void.
By 2021, growing tensions between Israel and Russia reached a breaking point. Russia unleashed a salvo of non-nuclear bombs on Tel Aviv. Israel swiftly retaliated by launching nuclear strikes against Russia and Iran, and the US followed suit.
Beyond this, no one can accurately reconstruct the series of events that resulted in World War III. It’s all a blur, because by then nuclear war had engulfed the planet in a giant conflagration that could clearly be observed from orbit. Within days, 75% of the world’s urban centres were reduced to rubble. Fully 65% of the Earth’s land mass that was once habitable—and inhabited—by the developed nations was no longer either. The thermonuclear blasts cracked and scarred the earth with craters, and in the ensuing months, deadly radioactive fallout drifted for thousands of miles across both land and sea. It knew no boundaries and gave no quarter. About 3.5 billion people were killed. That’s a lot of desiccated corpses.
To put it succinctly, human civilization was plunged into the Dark Ages, the instrument of its own undoing.
Let’s be clear, this isn’t a post-apocalyptic tale. But a dystopian world was the backdrop against which Greta and I met and fell in love. If you want more details, good luck. There’s got to be a historian or two alive somewhere.
It was around 2030 when we met for the first time, so I must’ve been about forty five. Nobody watches a calendar or celebrates birthdays anymore.
Let me just say there’s nothing noble about living like a savage. When push comes to shove, you do what you have to in order to survive and deal with your conscience later—if you still have one. Just before the ICBMs descended on North America, having seen the handwriting on the wall as it turns out many others had, I stowed away in the cargo hold of one of the last flights out of Los Angeles bound for Auckland international airport in New Zealand. I shared this compartment with five other people: two civil servants, the President of Yale University (seriously!), Greta and her ten-month old daughter, Christine.
Greta was tall, athletic and full-figured. She grew up in Belgium and spoke with a Flemish accent. Her smooth, dark skin was warm to the touch. Warmth was the quality that best described her nature. When I held her in my arms, as I first did after one of the civil servants lost his mind and tried to molest her—I slipped a knife in his gut, dragged his miserable carcass into a corner and kicked it behind a crate—it was almost as if I’d returned to the safety of the womb.
When the plane landed, airport security discovered the corpse, roughed us up and detained us awaiting instructions from their higher-ups that never came. It seems dead bodies weren’t in short supply. After two days, they relieved us of anything that looked as if it might be valuable in trade and turned us loose with pointed instructions never to return. We didn’t plan to.
From there, Greta, Christine and I rode in the back of a fruit truck to Cape Rodney. Then we wrangled passage on a fishing scow to Te Titoki Point, located in the southwest corner of Little Barrier Island.
From a human perspective, the island is a desolate place—sparsely populated, its landscape consists mostly of craggy hills, cliffs and huge rocks. But one thing it has in abundance is trees. We bargained to work on the captain’s fishing scow in exchange for food, tools and basic construction materials. The captain turned out to be a decent guy, one of the few men I could trust to be alone with Greta.
We felled a few trees, built a log cabin along the narrow beachfront big enough for three and learned how to use a fishing net.
There were no particular events I can point to that marked milestones in my relationship with Greta, as there had been with Amelia.
It just gradually happened—like planting a tree, watering it and watching it grow. Hers was a nurturing spirit, whereas I struggled to maintain any kind of spirituality. Our bond had a life of its own.
When Christine was three, the captain took us out on his boat and married us at sunset on a clear, crisp autumn day. Christine clapped her hands and babbled joyful consent. Although Greta had asked several times before, I waited until then to tell her about Amelia. Afterwards, she cradled me in her arms while I bawled my eyes out. I thought I’d jettisoned that baggage years ago. I was wrong again.
We lived simply, and over the years I came to love Greta and her daughter with a kind of depth I’d never experienced. By contrast, my love for Amelia had been more breadth than depth, though wide enough to cover the whole world.
Soon after Christine’s ninth birthday on a sultry summer afternoon, Greta’s life suddenly came to an end. She was gathering berries at the edge of a steep cliff when a boulder dislodged itself from the topsoil. From only a few feet away, I helplessly watched her go down in a landslide of rock.
It took me almost an hour to run down the coast far enough to gain access to the beach and then double back to where the landslide had fallen. The rocks and boulders formed an oblong pile of debris at least twenty five feet high. No doubt she had died instantly—crushed under the enormous weight of the stones. I never recovered the body. Why should I? She was already dead and buried.
I helped Christine fashion a crude cross out of two sticks and a piece of twine. We made a place for it near the top of the heap, as far up as I thought it was safe to go. Greta had given her Christ’s namesake and raised her in the Faith. She asked me to say a prayer.
The eulogy was short: “God, if you’re out there don’t let this be the end. If you created us and everything else in the universe, don’t let all that work come to nothing. You put us here, so please help us. We don’t know much, but teach us to use what we do know to do right by each other. Life is hard enough without causing ourselves more pain and suffering. Amen.”
I bet you thought I was going to conclude this story with a lot of philosophical and religious rambling. If so, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I don’t know why we’re here or what any of it all means.
I could jump off that cliff myself, you know. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t thought about it. But I do have Christine to think about. She’s sleeping peacefully in a hammock on the other side of the cabin as I finish my tale. Watching her small breasts rise and fall beneath her blanket, knowing she’s the daughter of a woman I dearly loved, and that she needs me—I owe it to her to do enough thinking to puzzle it out in my own head.
First, Walter M. Miller, Jr. was right. Civilization as we know it—or knew it—is based on the flimsiest of constructions. All the refinements and niceties gradually built up over the centuries by civilized cultures and their various institutions of power can be swept away in one fell swoop. And they were.
Secondly, Jesus of Nazareth had some important things to say. I don’t give a rat’s ass about organized religion, but that guy knew the score. If we’re to make any progress as a species, we’ve got to love our neighbours. We must protect them as well, when needed, but love comes first. If we don’t teach our children empathy, if they’re incapable of expressing love in both word and deed, what are we protecting? A mere automaton that walks and talks like a man, but who is incapable of feeling compassion for others? What’s the value of such a man, to himself or to his fellows?
My daughter (that’s what Christine is to me now) will learn by example. I’ll teach her how to love by freely offering my unconditional love to her. Then, if need be, I’ll protect the child from danger.
A dystopian existence is fraught with peril. If I must take another life to ensure her survival that’s what I’ll do. The difference being that from now on, I won’t delude myself into thinking I’ve done a good or noble thing. Vultures gorge their bellies, not their egos, on the flesh of the dead.
Instead, I’ll mourn the loss of life.
Even that of a low-ranking civil servant who tried to rape my future wife in the cargo hold of a plane headed for New Zealand. I never knew your name, mister, but I’m sorry. Not for having to kill you, but because I allowed myself the forbidden luxury no one can truly afford: feeling good about it. I should’ve loved my enemies more than I loved you.
And finally, I miss you daily, Beauregard…