“How singular is the thing called pleasure, and how curiously related to pain, which might be thought to be the opposite of it; for they never come to a man together, and yet he who pursues either of them is generally compelled to take the other.”
Marcus Valerius Martialis 80 A.D.
Bird sounds came before anything else. He began to listen, trying to separate the various calls and their distance from him. Some were close, but pleasant, not threatening at all. A soft breeze played in his hair and brushed his face with a lover’s caress. He let his mind wander, not focusing on anything in particular, the memory of various faces and familiar voices drifting in and out of his vision without purpose, glimpses of people that were. They were speaking to him, their happy faces glowing, moving, just out of clear focus. What were they saying? He tried to speak back, but no words came. The fragrance of his surroundings touched his consciousness, making him aware of flowers, pine trees, moist grass and…yes, the smell of salt water. Sunlight warmed his face and body and saturated his eyelids with a red glow. It is pleasant here, he thought, not wanting to move, to lose any of his awareness, a mellow satiated feeling coursing through him.
There was a soft footfall close by and a moment when Michael could feel that someone was looking at him, then a small grunt as the person sat down with effort close by. “We should talk, Michael,” the person said affectionately. A suggestion, not an order or a command. Michael chose to not move, not wanting to lose a precious second of this experience. A perfect existence, one not troubled by life, not worried about death, just absorbing nature in its finest moment.
“Time, Michael. It’s time we talked,” the male voice said, and a warm hand fell on Michael’s shoulder. His first view was of the sky. Blue, intensely blue, the sun blindingly bright. Michael put his hand over his face, trying to return to reality. He could feel the grass against his ear, the earth’s odor of life drifting around his head and into verisimilitude. Michael turned his head toward the voice and saw the older man’s smile, somehow familiar and inviting. A person whom he had always known, causing a warmth to come into him, a feeling that he was welcome, respected and loved by this man.
Michael sat up, at first looking into the distance and seeing the sparkling water stretch out past the horizon, cradling islands and rocks which jutted into irregular peaks, each with an unremembered name. It was home, he knew, but he had no memory of being here before. It was a place he would have wanted to come from. A place with no evil, no memory of failure, no demands and no rewards.
“You are troubled?” the man asked, looking at him sideways, the heavy wrinkles and sun-brown skin reflective of his age and his wisdom. Michael couldn’t recall his name, but his face was as familiar as his own, his soothing voice was one he had heard before. The man wore a white robe, the folds exposing his weathered arms and gnarled hands. A small leather tie held his long graying hair back, disappearing behind his broad shoulders. His exuberant eyebrows were of an older man, long in years and experiences.
“Yes, I am troubled,” Michael spoke, listening to his own words as if they had arisen from a stranger.
“A man with so much, but you are unhappy. You are young, intelligent and capable of so much, yet you feel incomplete.”
“I have lost my way, my purpose for living. Nothing gives me pleasure.”
“They simple live only for the moment, and they are happy. You strive for more but for what do you quest? Has it a name?”
“I want to make a difference, to be important, to get recognition that I have tried. That’s all.”
“It is a lot to want. Perhaps you know in your heart that the only meaningful appreciation wells up from yourself. If you know that you gave your full effort, that your purpose was pure and hate banished from your soul, then and only then can you feel that your life had meaning. Material things and physical pleasures are distracting and add nothing to your life, especially as it comes to an end. You must return to fundamentals to be happy.”
“My world is complex. Fundamentals are lost in piles of issues, a pure life no longer valued. To get ahead requires cheating, pushing others aside, doing what is possible, not what is right. A bad man will triumph a good man because he can.”
“What you say is true…but,” the older man said, pausing to study the horizon for a long moment. “We were talking about you, though. What will it take to make Michael happy? You have done all the things you abhor, but did it bring happiness or satisfaction?”
“It is what I had to do at the time, though I am not content with my actions.”
“Shame. You feel it. There is much about yourself that you dislike. You must change. Remember that one’s time is not written. The end always comes too quickly, leaving much undone. Prepare yourself.”
A soft knock and the door popped a little as it slowly opened. “Michael,” a soft voice called. “Don’t you have to get up?” she asked, reluctant to come into the room.
“Yes, I do. Thank you,” Michael answered belatedly, pulling the covers from his face so that he could squint at Jennifer. She was smiling, as usual, her perpetual sunny outlook always starting early. The door closed quietly, leaving Michael to study the ceiling, scratching various parts of himself awake. His sleepy eyes followed the crown molding around the limits of the ceiling while he started thinking. Wasn’t there a dream last night? He had dim memories of one but at this moment couldn’t recall any details. Not too surprising because he rarely recalled dreams, and wasn’t absolutely certain that he actually dreamed at all. Often, friends would discuss their vivid dreams with him, not realizing how utterly boring other peoples dreams are. On the other hand, he envied them a bit as it seemed that their nocturnal adventures extended their lives in some way, or at least provided things that they really wished they could do or say in real life.
Michael sat up scratching his head with both hands, still avoiding thinking of the day’s events and his obligations. He stood by the bed, generating a series of straining sounds from the wide board flooring as his weight shifted. It was their fifth year in this old townhouse, and he had never grown fond of the creaking doors and floors like Jennifer had. The miasma that Jennifer amusingly had named “ancient fragrances” assailed his nose from closets, pantries and, on occasion, seemed to arise from the cracks in the floor. The rooms were small and paint chipped easily from the old door frames. It was the price they paid for living in a historic area of Georgetown, that and the startling purchase amount when they bought it. Proximity and location is everything in real estate, and in this case the townhouse was close to Georgetown University where Jennifer worked and not too far from the White House where Michael pretended to work. At times, Michael could imagine Georgetown in an earlier era. Not so far back as the Civil War but more just before the Second World War, the time of the great American Expansion during the Roosevelt Era. Prior to that, Georgetown had a rougher edge, unrefined, industrial and largely populated by the poor. It was an inside deal, getting this house at an affordable but still extravagant price. One that required contacts in high places, like at a congressional level when Michael was first elected to Congress. Perks of office, thanks to his party being in control that term. It had been a big step and a long way from Iowa, culturally and physically. Michael had changed in the process, mostly not for the better.
As he tied his tie around the collar of his still untucked shirt, he studied his image in the antique mirror. Not bad for a man approaching forty five, he thought. Still ruggedly handsome in some ways but well past the firm vigor and energy of his days in the Air Force. He smiled at the memory of his attraction to women when he was in fighter pilot training. Yes, those were the days. Wish they could have lasted forever he thought as he brushed his full but speckled hair in place. He tossed the brush onto the dresser and paused for a moment, the impact of life’s progress striking him, the realization that things change in a blink of time and some experiences only come once and then merely become memories which fade.
At one time, the future looked positive, the sun parted clouds for him and he was happy. He remembered looking forward to wrapping Jennifer in his arms when he came home, she of the always positive disposition. The quick step of youth, the glamor of success and power, the newness of everything, the wonder of it all. Where had it gone? In some ways it was still there but in an ill defined way, things were not the same, were duller, less interesting and less fascinating. He no longer held Jennifer as if she were the only thing that mattered, his treasure of treasures. By mutual agreement they had slowly drawn apart both in the important physical way but also in the circles of their lives. She had hers, and he was left with his. Eventually, the sexual urges that men are condemned to have couldn’t be contained, ignored or shelved. The result was another woman. The one who was waiting for him across town at this moment.
“Will you eat before leaving?” Jennifer asked, knowing that he would not. “Not even a cup of coffee?” she persisted.
This routine placed his actions in the open for both to see. Her way of letting him know that she was aware, even contemptuous, but uttered in a way that would also acquiesce to his plans. Jennifer smiled graciously, but inside not angry, merely hollow. She had lost him some time ago. There wasn’t a moment, an incident, which commenced the change. Just a slow inexorable, inevitable, slide down a slope of no return. She stayed married to Michael because she had no other lovers, nor intended to, and their home was where she wanted to live, its glamor and address adding to her sense of self. Jennifer no longer longed for a physical relationship with her husband, but she did want stability, comfort and at least the semblance of married life. Even that was slowly slipping away as he stayed away longer and was missing at inopportune times. Eventually there would be the inevitable scandal. Washington thrived on prurient interest, and there were competing factions always anxious to make the other side look bad even if there was only smoke. Here, there was fire.
Michael glanced at his wife as he was putting on his coat. They went through this same routine nearly every morning like clockwork. He knew that she didn’t really care what he did as long as it didn’t threaten her. She looked soft this morning, well scrubbed, fresh, and there was no trace of confrontation in her voice or face. Suddenly, the memory of intimacy between them returned, making him contemplate her as he had not done for so long. At one time, she was, even tempering his view, ravishingly, stunningly beautiful. Jennifer was what a man would want. Intelligence combined with innocence worn lightly by a delicate and feminine girl whose presence bellowed purity. She hadn’t really changed much over the eight years of marriage, not really. Her demeanor was now more penetrating, vibrant with experience, but yet approachable. Desirable? Yes, she still was. Her persistence with physical training and moderation in diet and alcohol kept her youthful, easily appearing years younger than her real age. She knew that he was involved with another woman, had to know, not that he had openly admitted it or flagrantly flaunted the fact, but because she knew him so well— a woman’s unfailing intuition about such things.
“Actually, I will have a cup, if you meant it, that is.”
“Of course I meant it,” she said sweetly and turned toward the kitchen. “Sit. Back in a minute.” She wore her long brown hair tied with a yellow ribbon, allowing the waves of curly hair to bounce along her shoulders. The silk kimono that she wore was purchased while they were in Tokyo on a congressional junket during his first term. She filled it nicely, and the tightly tied waist allowed her hips to move under the thin silk in a most seductive but natural way. Michael remembered the difficulty of the transaction, because the merchant didn’t want to be paid in dollars and spoke no English to explain. Michael remembered the event like it was yesterday and smiled as he sat on the couch.
“Smiling? Something that good about to happen?” Jennifer asked as she appeared with two cups.
“On a typical day at the White House, there is rarely something to smile about. No, I was remembering buying the kimono that you are wearing. Remember how funny that was?”
“Oh yes! I do remember. If it wasn’t for our cab driver, I wouldn’t be wearing it now.”
“What are your plans for today?” Michael asked.
“Same as always. First to the health club then to school. Two classes today. Then…will you be home for dinner?” she asked, obviously planning for either possibility.
“Uncertain. I’ll call first if I’m coming.”
“Then in that case I’ll get dinner out, then there is a play I want to see afterward.”
“Will you have company for the play?”
“Most likely.” She stopped short of telling him who she would go with, intentionally retaliating for his plans, which didn’t include her.
“I see,” he said, nodding into his coffee. Pursuing this topic would be problematic. A trap or at least a dead end. He let it drop.
“And you. What are you doing today?” It was polite conversation only. She not only didn’t expect the truth, she didn’t want to hear it.
“Go to the White House, get humiliated. Go to Congress, get impossible instructions. Same stuff.”
The conversation had run its course. Michael carefully placed his cup on the polished wood and stood up. He had a strong desire, or perhaps it was an impulse, to kiss her. It was what the occasion called for, demanded, in fact. But he didn’t; he simply donned his suit jacket, nodded to her and left. It was too late, too far down that slope to change direction.