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Sandra Kolankiewicz

Shark in a New Age Sea

For five years I’ve been in love with Angela. The first four months after she moved into the house next door, I tried to force it, courting her with a dogged fury, making myself available to be her fixer-upper, her movie and dinner companion, silently waiting for a door in her heart to slide open. Unfortunately, it never occurred to me that there must have been a reason for her being unmarried, a painful divorce years before from a man who had betrayed her, a childhood with an alcoholic father and a passive mother.

I was aware only that she treated me just like any other friend, even making me a confidant about her relations with men. That spring with the magnolias blooming all around us, the smell of the lilacs driving me mad, she kept me up night after night on my front porch as she wondered aloud if anyone, ever, would love her, disregarding my painfully obvious intention, oblivious to my strangling frustration, taking what she needed from me and leaving the rest.

Insulted, I then tried to deny my feelings, turning a blank eye to her when I stepped from my car, pretending that I didn’t see her when I ventured down the walkway to get the mail, screening out her telephone calls. I would pause, my heart twisted, at my upstairs windows and peer over her yard, seeing her comings and goings, hoping she would react to my absence. After realizing with anguish that she had merely gone on with her life, I even debated moving to the other side of town.

Finally, after nearly a year of ignoring her, the following spring I wandered up her driveway one day while she was uncovering bulbs, and I commented on the beauty of her dogwood tree. That night we ate supper at the picnic table in her back yard, together like we used to, the mute presence of my house looming over us as if its spirit alone and not I had furtively jumped from window to window, spying down upon her life, crying to be noticed.

So now I just accept my love for her as a minor inconvenience, the same way I have come to live with thorns on the stems of roses; they don’t detract from the bloom. In other words, why tear apart the flower trying to get to its aroma? Why pull up the seedling to see if the roots are taking? Why coerce a bud to blossom before its time?

I used to ruin things, but not anymore. At least I can say that in this life I’ve learned patience, discovered that being around the person you love, even when that person doesn’t love you, is preferable to being away from her. I am grateful for Angela because the other alternative is to feel nothing for no one, like I did for years and years after my own divorce, so I bask in the glorious light of my feelings for her, relishing how happy simply seeing her face can make me, even when she’s frowning, storm clouds over her head, and anyone else would say she looked at least homely and probably mean.

I just love to be with her, I just love to see her, that’s all. Even if she never turns to me, I’ll be content. I thought I’d never have a chance to feel this way about anyone: I was nearly fifty when we met and had given up on ever having the desire to wake in the morning, throw off the covers, and run to the window to see what a woman was doing. For the five years I’ve been her neighbor, Angela’s always been up to something.

Even her lovers don’t bother me anymore. Given a choice, she always picks the man who needs help, so I never worry that anyone will stay around for very long; they’re not stable enough. Most women instinctively choose the weaker man: it’s why my first wife married me: I needed a mother. In college the woman who became my wife had noticed that I just isolated myself in books. I possessed no friends and went no where, a withdrawn child that needed her comfort. I’d let her take care of me because I’d learned to expect that from women; having everything done for me seemed natural.

I can no longer hold against Angela what is obviously a pattern for her, knowing fully well how I am at the mercy of my own. Instead of becoming angry at Angela for not "loving" me, I now barely suffer, watching as her plans with each new lover spoil, knowing already what she still needs to learn, at least about her love life, and waiting for bits of clarity to disengage her from her driven pursuits.

Imagine, if you will, the view from my front porch: the arriving and departing out Angela’s kitchen door. Her house is set wrong on her lot, the only house like that on the street. From my porch I see her back yard. On the other side of her is someone who moved in three years ago and hasn’t been out in daylight since.

Angela has speculated for hours, wondering why she’s never seen her other neighbor. The lights are always on at night, the curtains drawn. A lawn care company cuts and trims the yard. Even the mailman hardly stops. A contractor did the painting last year, but for all we know, the person inside never stepped out to do an inspection, never stood there on the lawn or sidewalk and surveyed her domain after spending thousands and thousands of dollars to change its colors.

When Angela would walk up to the front door and knock, no one ever answered. She asked the painting contractor about it, said she’d never seen the person who lived inside the house, but the contractor had brushed her off.

"She’s just like anyone else," he’d said, flipping through papers on his clipboard. He glance up just in time to catch the line of Angela’s face, the open collar of her blouse rippling in the breeze, the straight curve of her back running down to the swell of her behind under her chino skirt, until he saw me watching him as he evaluated her. I had caught him looking that way at a woman who he probably thought was my wife. Then he sized me up too, a quick shift of his eyes under his brow, up and down, and I saw him relax because he found nothing in me that mattered. Within seconds he had dismissed me, and dismissed Angela because she was married to me.

She used to be so beautiful, men say about an older woman, meaning that they aren’t looking at her that way any longer, meaning, of course, that they never really ‘saw’ at all and that if they do look at her now, the woman doesn’t make the same thing happen to them anymore. The point is that her beauty occurs for the man’s pleasure and the man’s pleasure alone. When the woman is no longer breathtaking, she ceases to exist. She fades into the background like a spent rose among fresh blossoms.

I have a daughter who is quite lovely. She lives in another state, attends graduate school there, and we rarely see one another. She is wise and intelligent, with just enough good looks so she’s not distracting, but she will never drive a man wild with pursuit. She’s lucky; she just doesn’t have that quality. Whoever she’s with will be happy.

Angela, on the other hand, was born to make men crazy; therefore, she was born to be miserable. There are few men who understand how it is.

For this very reason, for the discrepancies between the sexes, the uneven distribution of the ability to express feelings, because of the hunter and hunted mentality, the necessity of there always being a winner and a loser, I started attending a men’s group. I had never been successful as a man’s man in this world because, like many other people, the type of personality and looks that I had been taught to admire were not what I possessed. I am excellent at my job, but I have never been remotely popular. I suppose I could have been if I had pretended to be someone else, cultivated a personality, lost myself.

"You have no friends," Angela accused one morning over coffee. "Don’t you think that’s a little strange?" She was sitting across from me, a mug between her two hands on the table between us, and she fixed me with a frank gaze.

Angela’s phone was always ringing. How she could keep track of the intimate details of so many lives astounded me. She spoke with more people in a day than I talked to in a month. She had the longest phone cord in the world. When I was at my office, I would lean back in my chair, close my eyes, and imagine her floating through her house, weightlessly gliding from room to room, attached to the mother ship by her lifeline, the phone receiver, strapped to her mouth and ear.

"The only friend you have is me," Angela said, matter of factly, saving me the embarrassment of her beating around the bush. "Aren’t there any men you like to do things with?"

Then it was my turn to stare at her flatly and sip my coffee. The light was white coming into the breakfast nook, and I could see the little lines around her blue eyes that were still puffy from sleep.

"Actually," I told her. "I’ve never liked men."

She howled at that one, actually threw herself back in her chair and slapped her knee like a graceless old farm woman until she saw I was serious. Angela had known me for a few years by then, so I wondered why she was suddenly so interested.

"Not one friend?" she asked, perplexed, a stitch appearing in her forehead.

"Well," I said, suddenly feeling flustered. "I don’t like to do the things that men do." It had never occurred to me that I didn’t have friends because my whole life I’d never really had them, and I flushed before her. "There’s people I see at work."

"That’s not the same," she told me, and I shrugged, as if to say ‘Don’t blame me.’

The next week she gave me a flier torn from one of the bulletin boards in the university library where she worked: Men’s Group.

"You’re out of your mind," I told her.

I went the next week, of course; she badgered me.

We don’t talk about group outside of the group, but there are some general issues: sex, women, our fathers, mothers, each other, the role we’re supposed to play and how it stunts us. We generally agree that on some level we became addicted to the affection of women because we never learned how to establish relations with other men without being perceived as homosexual. We resent the macho part we are forced to play because only the truly stupid can live up to it. We are frustrated with women because we are dependent on them, yet we find it exceedingly difficult to turn to one another for warmth and understanding. Sometimes one of the group will talk about his wife; another will talk about his relationship with his father or an incident that he remembers from childhood. Every time we meet, usually one of us cries about something.

About the fourth time I went there, one of the men, Mark, relived an experience. His wife had invited some women friends over to the house, and the women had all been sitting around in the den, chatting easily as they always did, relaxed, laughing, some drinking coffee, others with wine. One of the women had sighed, said her shoulders were sore from work, and had begun to massage her own neck. The woman behind her took over, and then another woman had said ‘oh me too,’ until everyone was massaging each other to a chorus of oohs and aahs when he had walked in on them.

There had been nothing sexual happening between the women, Mark had said, sitting there on the floor, knees drawn up, his hands clasping his ankles, but he had immediately gotten an erection, and his wife had noticed.

She was angry, he told us, but he couldn’t understand why, and she wouldn’t talk to him about it. Perhaps he had desired the other women, perhaps he had seen each of them being there simply for him to admire or reject as he chose, not as having their own thing going, this nurturing of one another.

Or his wife was angry perhaps because he had taken something of women that was innocent and used it for his own purposes because try as he might, he couldn’t get the image of those women rubbing one another out of his mind; it excited him. Even though the women had all been wearing clothes, that they were touching one another had been too much for him.

"Who touches you?’ I’d asked him then. He was young and handsome, seemed to be in his mid-thirties, and he’d looked at me in surprise, perhaps the first time he’d ever really noticed me in the group.

"Well, no one," Mark said, "just my wife." He’d looked stricken for a moment, then burst into tears, his face crumpling like an old potato. He sat with his forehead on his knees, sobbing in the midst of the calm group of men.

His wife was leaving him, he told us helplessly, and they’d been married only three months. With that, he could say no more, and he just sat there, his shoulders shaking.

The men in the group nodded, as if they’d only been waiting for the break up to happen, and there seemed to be a group history that carried me along with it. The others had watched him meet and then marry on impulse a woman he hardly knew. They had seen it coming and had warned him over and over, but he hadn’t listened or understood.

The place where we had our group that week was in an area where there were a lot of students. The owner of the house was an instructor at the university, and he was also the group’s facilitator. He’d sat there, listening attentively and stroking his beard like Freud, until he glanced up and out the front window.

Passing by on the sidewalk was a slim, brown-haired girl in a bathing suit top and a pair of shorts. The other men followed his gaze, and they all became mesmerized, even Mark in the midst of his pain, and when the girl had passed by the window, one of the men had sighed deeply, a sad letting go of breath, as if the girl had lifted him up in her hand, taken him for a little ride, and then set him back down in the grass before he got too far away from home.

Watching the men recover themselves one by one, snapping to as if they were coming out of hypnosis, I wondered what we could possibly do to help one another when we were so unable to help ourselves, when we were so easily distracted, when we perhaps even loved our sickness.

‘Edge drama’ is the phrase Angela uses to describe the place where two worlds touch one another, like the land and the sea creating the shore, or all the birds fluttering along where the meadow meets the trees.

The drama between rivers and seas creates estuaries and deltas where fish hatch and birds breed. There’s action on the border between two rival urban gang territories. In love making, says Angela, the boundaries separating man and woman are still defined, even though one enters into the other.

In other words, anything worth experiencing, according to Angela, happens on an edge, and for every edge that you choose to see, there are always ten more.

Which explains a lot about her behavior and about my own. I’ve never stood on the edge of a thing in my life while she thrives there; she never looks more alive than when she’s about to metaphorically die. She began to walk an edge the moment I introduced her to Mark, the man from the group whose wife was leaving him, and it was this edge that I retreated from to become their observer.

One evening after group, Mark approached me and asked me what I was doing for dinner, and for the first time in my life, I cooked a meal for a male friend and myself.

Angela, of course, could hardly contain herself. The moment she saw a strange car follow mine into the drive, she was on the phone. It was natural for me to invite her over later for coffee; she was my best and only friend.

At the time, I thought that dinner went well. Now I realize that Mark never asked me a thing about my life; he talked about himself all evening, how he was doing, how far along he’d come in accepting the break up of his marriage. He’d been living apart from his wife for two weeks.

"I won’t be ready for anyone for a long time," he said, chopping garlic at the kitchen table. "What I need to do is get into my own stuff."

"And what is your ‘stuff?’" I asked him. I was buttering the sliced loaf that was going to become garlic bread.

"I’m a body worker," he answered and started cutting up the pile of fresh mushrooms I’d set before him. I assumed he’d meant that he worked on cars.

It felt strange cooking with a man; I usually cooked just by myself or with Angela. He cut his pieces larger than I would have liked, and he wasted more than he should have, almost as if her took the vegetables for granted, but I said nothing.

He did ask me one question during dinner. I’d told him to pick out a tape, and he’d put Cole Porter on. There we were, sitting across from one another at the dining room table, and I felt for an awful instant that he and I were on a date, what with the candles and the meal, the bottle of wine, the music.

I squirmed a little in my chair, facing him, and he must have felt it too because he asked, "Wouldn’t you like to be married?"

I shook cheese on my spaghetti, debating whether or not to tell him about Angela.

"There is someone," I said, "but she’s not available now."

"Oh," he said, "a husband," and he sucked in a string of spaghetti, sswhhhhht!, between his pursed lips until the end disappeared in his mouth like a worm.

"No," told him, looking away from him and shrugging like it was no big deal. "There are many reasons."

"Yeah," he said, "that’s me too. I’m working on inner things." He sat back in his chair and sipped his wine, thoughtful for a moment. "I won’t be getting involved with anyone for a long time."

"Hey!" I heard Angela call from the back door. Without waiting for an invitation, she walked through the kitchen and found us at the dining room table.

"Fancy!" she said, gesturing at the candles, the cloth napkins. "You never do this for me!" She sat down across from Mark and winked at him as if the two of them were teasing me together, making Mark and me out to be better friends than we were.

Angela looked beautiful, like a woman kissed by God, a happy glow about her in the candlelight. Across from her, Mark sighed, and she gazed back at him with a smile.

So that night I learned some new vocabulary. I found out, for instance, that a ‘body worker’ was a massage therapist and had nothing to do with cars. As Angela asked Mark more and more about his profession, he spoke about how much our muscles hold ancient anger from our childhood, our freak adolescence, our bad marriages. He explained to her in great detail that the state of our bodies mimicked that of our emotions, and emotional pain is stored in our muscles, in our very fibers, patterned there by what he called our ‘flight or fight’ response.

As he talked, he puffed up, little by little becoming so sure of himself that the image I had had of him crying in the midst of the group disappeared. Now he seemed calm and mature, myself the bumbling youngster. He was interested, he told us, in ‘spiritual’ things.

I almost believed him until I glanced over and saw Angela’s rapt expression. Then I realized that Mark was the kind of man about whom women say after they have met him, "He’s so sensitive. He understands us so well."

And there was Angela, utterly taken by him.

Imagine, if you will, the next three weeks, Mark’s arriving and departing out Angela’s kitchen door while I try not to watch from my windows. Imagine, if you will, how I longed to be free to warn Angela that she was sleeping with a shark that I had brought home to be my friend.

I comfort myself by rationalizing that she wouldn’t have listened, but still it bothers me that I never even tried to speak to her about him right when they first got going. Just that once she might have heard me, she might have used her brain along with her heart and loins before she jumped into something.

As it was, she thought him charming when he dropped by her house the next day to give her a big amethyst crystal for her kitchen window sill. He’d brought some fresh blueberry bagels made from certified organic ingredients, and they’d sat down with cups of Tropical Sunset tea for a four hour conversation that ended up in Angela’s bedroom, where it continued all night until, thoroughly disheartened, I saw him leave the next morning in the same clothes in which he’d arrived the day before, but now they were wrinkled.

"He’s a wonderful man," Angela told me the next evening when I got home from work. She had been waiting for me on my front porch when I arrived and never noticed my pained expression. Chattering about Mark and the night before, she helped me carry my briefcase and stacks of paperwork into the house.

"Thank you so much for introducing us," she said.

"He’s married, Angela," was all I told her. I poured a glass of wine at my kitchen table and drank it down so quickly it made my eyes water.

"He’s separated," she reminded me. "And he’s getting a divorce. You know, my whole life I’ve never felt as close to any man as I did to him last night, and he told me he felt the same way. In fact, he told me first. He’s different than other men. He’s more aware, more like a woman."

How could I have argued with that? Stranger things have happened; it might have been true. Meanwhile, Angela was standing by my kitchen sink, looking more manic than happy. I suddenly felt sorry for her.

"Why don’t you have a glass of wine?’ I asked her. I moved to the cupboard and brought out a glass.

She laughed nervously as I poured for her.

"You’re right," she said. "I feel like a kid." She sipped her glass while I belted down another.

Thus began what I know for Angela were blissful days. The two of them were together constantly. I’m convinced that Mark was happy too because, painful as it was for me, I was thinking of Angela now and how important our friendship was to me, so we still all spent time together, cooking out, gardening, going to movies and flea markets. He held her head in his lap for hours, rubbed her face when she got headaches, and brought her presents, books to read and herbal mixtures from the health food store. He massaged away a muscle injury from when her husband had pushed her down a flight of stairs. For an instant, I even thought it might work, and I relaxed for her.

I don’t know what caused Mark to pull up short two months into their love affair, but one night he just didn’t show for dinner. After avoiding Angela’s phone calls for a few days, he finally told her that they’d gotten too close, it was too soon for him, his ‘awakening spirit’ was ‘moving,’ so he couldn’t be monogamous. In fact, he couldn’t see her any longer.

The nine weeks they’d been together he’d missed group, and a number of things had happened among the members. One man found that his wife had incurable cancer, one man’s father was committed to a home because of Alzheimer’s, and another lost a child. I began to call my daughter on the phone weekly, and I ended the conversation each time by telling her that I loved her, something I’d rarely done before. The first time I’d said it, she laughed, just barked like she’d been surprised, but after that, she always told me that she loved me in return.

So Mark was almost an outsider when he returned to the group; a lot had gone on without him. He greeted me as if he’d never spent night after night with Angela, as if the three of us hadn’t ever sat down at a table together during that time, as if I didn’t know that he, like so many others, had been attracted to her because she was beautiful and funny, because other men wanted her, but the commitment had been superficial, and he had hurt her.

"Where’ve you been?" someone asked him, "It’s been a couple of months."

"Well," he said, "I got involved with someone." He winked at me as if he and I were conspirators, two men who shared a secret about the same woman. I wanted to take all his talk about ‘body-patterning’ and ‘healing,’ his monologues about our life on the ‘physical plane,’ I wanted to take all his talk about his ‘emotional body,’ his ‘energy,’ his ‘life force’ and cram it down his throat.

"You knew you weren’t ready," I accused, and then other men nodded. The last thing he’d said to them was that he was ‘off to explore himself,’ not use another person to make himself feel good.

Mark shrugged, as if the whole event had been out of his control.

"I don’t seem to be able to keep from jumping into things I don’t really know if I want," he said. "And then I always bug out, or I pick someone who bugs out. I know it all goes back to my childhood, but I don’t know how to control it. I feel like a fifteen-year-old boy." He shrugged then as if that were explanation enough, as if he were bereft of responsibility because of past damage done to him. He’d taken his problems and passed them on to Angela, where she was forced to either pass them on herself or examine them.

"But you’re not a fifteen-year-old boy," someone said.

Mark sighed tragically.

"She was a good woman," he said. "And I hurt her."

Then I realized that he was one of those people who love being miserable, whose choices always lead them and others to pain. He reveled in feeling inadequate, in anguishing, in indulging himself with emotion, happy or sad. He could not have a quiet moment; he was narcissistic in his attraction to strife. See how he hurt! See how sensitive he was! See how profound was his pain!

He was a parasite.

Angela, meanwhile, behaved like a true friend after his disappearance; she never once put me in a position, never asked once where he was, what I thought about him, what we discussed in group, or if Mark ever even went there anymore. I did notice without comment that all the crystal, self-help books, music, and herbal blends gradually disappeared from sight. When I finally asked Angela about them, she told me that she’d left them one by one in pretty boxes on her strange neighbor’s front steps. She even received a thank you not through the mail, written in tangled script. Little by little, she started jogging again, took an art class and recovered.

Over the following months, Mark came and went from group, his current relationship with a woman the barometer of his attendance. For the most part, we dismissed his ability to help us, but we were kind to him when he showed. We felt sorry for him. One member tried to broach the subject with him, but Mark was impervious. He was like a bat with an ear infection, flying blindly in the night and crashing into things. He was a cannon that had broken loose and was rolling back and forth across the deck with the ocean’s pitch, squashing people in his path. Then he came to us and confessed.

By then, I had made some friends. I stated inviting men from the group over for cookouts, sometimes alone, sometimes with their wives or girlfriends if they had them. I’d talk to them on the phone during the week, and when something came up that was upsetting, we’d listen to one another. I told them all about my feelings for Angela, and once they met her they liked her too.

At first they were worried for me, wondering at my motives when Angela and I seemed not to be getting any ‘closer.’ But now they have come to understand that I’m not just following a compulsion; I’ve made a decision. I’m committed to the edge between Angela’s life and my own.


Sandra Kolankiewicz has published widely in journals such as North American Review, Chicago Review, Confrontation, Frontiers, Cimarron Review, and the Blip Magazine Archive. Currently, she is working on a novel entitled Reunion.

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