By David Morse
I’m trying to give Izzy some chocolate truffles. He’s accepting them, but that’s not Izzy. I have not wrapped the gift truffles in the gold foil of words so crucial for his delectation.
“I was in the basement,” he said. Meaning, my knock on the door had put him out somehow. In reality, Izzy’s lakeside cottage has no basement. Only one front step.
Why do dreams take such liberties? Why create a basement?
“What were you doing down there?” I ask. “Diving in your money, like Scrooge McDuck?”
He silently samples a truffle. This is Izzy being polite, as he was in his final days. Izzy doesn’t like to be asked questions – even querulous ones like these, and they too are missing their gold foil. I’m not managing to summon the real Izzy.
Izzy is irascible in a controlled and controlling way. He loves playing the brute, but his brutishness is always nuanced, arch. Arch is the very architecture of the carapace of gruffness that always surrounded Izzy. Inside that shell was the small boy who was thrilled with life. The grownup Izzy gives no reasons or offers only capricious reasons for his refusals.
He must be in control. As a little boy, the child of old parents, a fearful mother, he learned to protect himself from any maneuvering kindness. He memorized his entire barmitzvah service – not just his own parts, but all the parts – officiated, as well. He once studied to be a cantor.
I didn’t know Izzy in his younger slimmer days, when he still sang and played tennis and wooed women with such ardor that he made the mistake of marrying several, an undertaking for which he was spectacularly unsuited. The first marriage ended in a matter of weeks. But Izzy kept marrying.
The dream truffles are trying to unwind the mystery of Izzy, his petulance and his charisma, and the larger mystery that I’m afraid includes me.
I was forty when I met Carol. She was six years older. She shared an office in the English Department with Izzy, who taught mostly Izzy. I had a hard time believing Izzy was my age, he seemed so fully formed, so cranky. He lived in his little cottage by the lake with Phoebe, his fourth and final wife, a poet, with whom he had two children, and they lived with his collection of museum-quality Japanese tea bowls, for which he had a carpenter build special shelves with special lighting behind glass, and his collection of antique fountain pens and his books – until Phoebe left him.
“Izzy will never change,” she told me.
Izzy was finally alone. He was so strapped for cash from alimonies and child support that he ended up selling the tea bowls and treasured books. He borrowed money from Carol, wrote her into his insurance policy and his will.
Carol was his closest female friend for most of the thirty-two years Carol and I were married. He kept me at that gruff distance – jealous of my proximity to Carol. She often said it was a good thing she and Izzy had never married. They could still be friends. I kept my own distance from their relationship, knowing they had a sort of spiritual marriage that, unlike his others, was inviolate.
Carol was his intellectual equal. They shared the same fiercely nuanced wit, but were polar opposites in other ways. She was tolerant of other; Izzy was not. She could shrug off his prickliness, his refusals, the shroud of mystery in which he wrapped himself. “Izzy won’t tell me,” she would often say, about some place he’d been or whether his relationship with some graduate student was romantic.
I didn’t exactly hate Izzy. I was intimidated by him and annoyed at myself for letting that happen. Newly married to Carol, I was encountering the academic community as a faculty spouse, and Izzy seemed the quintessence of academic snobbery. As I learned to hold my own in the sparring of male academics, I understood how Izzy was masking his fears.
Carol and Izzy were on the phone daily while they were dying. She did his grocery shopping during the last year she was mobile and he was confined to his little house by the lake, a prisoner to gout and swollen ulcerated feet and ever-weakening legs. And after Carol could no longer drive, I served in her stead, but I didn’t have the patience for all his peculiarities and ironies and the checks he would make out for sums like three dollars and nineteen cents to cover some item. His face still glowed with life; up almost to the last, through all his pain, he was passionate with some new enthusiasm, some actress or ballerina about whom he read everything he could find, though he refused to use the Internet, refused to join the computer era. He sat buoyed by pillows in his shapeless armchair surrounded by books.
When I told him of Carol’s death, he took a gasping breath and sobbed once, and I put my arms around him – the only time I showed him any tenderness or he allowed it. He died a month later.
Carol’s other close friend, Sondra, another curmudgeon, though a gentler one, died two months before Carol. They too had been on the phone daily.
Do I understand myself any better, for dreaming about Izzy and the truffles? If we learn more from our failures in life than from our successes, then the failures of our dreams – our inability to find a bathroom in a large train station; our mistaken identities, our wandering into unknown rooms of a familiar house – are surely teaching us something we could not otherwise know.
As I come to understand who I am now without Carol, I come to see Izzy as a shadowy part of Carol’s own mystery, her own opaqueness.
So who am I without Izzy?
One never fully knows the beloved.
I can try to unwind my own mystery, understand Carol and my love for her and who we were together. But to understand who I have been and who I am becoming, I must encounter the opaque inclusions in that composite self which forms in a love relationship.
I am offering truffles in my dream to lure that darkness from its hiding place within me. This is the Carol I never knew, the part of myself that resided in Carol and remains opaque to me, self-protective and controlling, and never fully knowing peace.
David Morse’s fiction and essays have appeared in American Fiction, Boulevard, Esquire, and elsewhere. He is author of a novel, The Iron Bridge (Harcourt Brace) and has also worked as an investigative journalist, with publication in In These Times, Northeast Magazine, and on-line in Huffington Post, Salon, TomDispatch, Truthout and elsewhere. Currently he is working on a memoir that will incorporate short stories as well as poems and essays about growing up in segregated Arlington County, Virginia.