Kristal Forest, The Dalai Lama, and Me
I have published something like this here before, but that was then.
Water Pig Fever
In 1963, Eric Ross, John Irving, and I were Juniors abroad at the Institute of European Studies in Vienna. We studied European philosophy, read Sartre, drank in the second basement of the Deutches Wein Haus, ate steak and egg dinners upstairs at the same place on Friday nights, and rode crashing go-carts in the Prater. We took coffee in a modern little place just off Kartner Strasse, where the street walkers kept comic books to read on breaks. John taught us the first stanzas of A Child's Christmas in Wales, and led us in walking recitations: "When I was a windy boy in the bit, in the black spit of the chapel fold..." boldly in the face of the wind and of whatever disapproving Weiner happened to be coming in the other direction. Eric and John grew mustaches, which I couldn't manage to do, so I just grew my hair.
Bernard from Hiati and Chuck from Chicago, who had revived the institute literary magazine, must have seen by our outfits that we three were writers. They asked us each to contribute to the Spring issue of the I.E.S. literary magazine, and we agreed, and so became promising writers. John knew what novelists themselves were all about and what they did other than write novels.
And the main thing, it seemed to me, was that writers can actually be IN their stories. Anyway, in that frame of mind, we planned a Grand Tour for the next summer, involving bull running, trout fishing, and motorcycles, with girl companions hanging on behind: adventures in part based on novels by Hemingway that I hadn’t read yet.
But first, in February, we boarded the Orient Express bound for Istanbul; planning to go from there by boat to some unspecified Greek Island, where we would be writers, and write. We packed hard rolls and cheese for the journey. John brought along a small portable typewriter.
I remember that train ride as one long night interrupted by a stop or a dream in the middle of a snowstorm with no depot visible......peasants climbing aboard, some with feet wrapped in rags, others carrying skis ... a woman with a baby trying to get into our compartment, the door held shut by the two Turks riding with us at the time.
From the start of the journey, we ate nothing much but the hard rolls and cheese we had brought along, but when we were almost to the end of the line, we went for our one real meal in the dining car.
I don't remember the meal ... and I will never forget it happened. When we had finished and were still at the table five minutes after the train pulled into the Istanbul station, but the waiter had not yet come with the bill, we walked out.
Our waiter caught up with us before we left track side. He made us pay, and we would pay again and again for eating that meal.
As soon as the waiter got his money, a little old kid appeared and offered us rooms in a a cheap "Student Hotel,” then hustled us to a taxi.
Our shared room in the hotel had a tile floor, bunk beds close to a sort of toilet/ bidet with an underbutt water-jet and no toilet paper. A small bath tub close opposite it was convenient during that long night of vomiting.
The day after, we dragged through the underground bazaar, buying meerschaum pipes and roughly-used leather vests. Eric says now that he and I went into an opium den in the lowest level of the bazaar, and got so shnockered there, that John had to come and pull us out, and John seems to have some recollection of that, but I don't believe their memories. Water-pig fever, as we came to call it, would affect us each differently, especially in the memory department.
About as soon as it could be arranged, we sailed for Greece. We disembarked at the port of Piraeus as snow fell into gray Greek water. Not what we had imagined.
We were advised at the ticket office that the nearby island of Hydra would be as warm as far off Crete; so we went to Hydra, which we never had heard of. Hydra is traditional home of Greek sea captains. Hydra houses where mostly heated only by cooking, and our one meal a day in the pension was cooked over a single jet gas burner in the downstairs apartment by the wife of Jimmy, an Egyptian maître d' in the tourist season, and served on Jimmy’s steamer trunk. Occasionally opened his trunk to show us photos of him with famous people. He told us that he had worked for the C.I.A. during the second world war, and that he had appeared in three novels.
Only a few years before, he had traveled the islands for six months in order to find a wife, and got Maria, a fisherman’s widow, fishermen’s widows being plentiful and cheaply bought. She never said a word to us, but I had a crush on her. Jimmy said that he could fix us up, and him too, with some naughty Greek girls, but we declined. I myself was not about to cheat on Maria.
In our rooms, it was was just too cold to write; especially when feeling like shit, and when one has never written anything that wasn't homework.
John brought his typewriter down to the harbor where we took coffee every morning after breakfast in order to sit out in the sun. If your hand was in direct sun light it was hot; if your elbow was shaded, it was cold. Not much writing was done there either.
One day Eric and I went sunning on the rocks just a little down the shore from the harbor, and were picked up by an old fellow at the head of an outboard powered boat operated by a man in a suit. A former sea captain and his lawyer, protector, as we would learn from someone would later meet in Athens. We were told that he lived with his mother, but believed she was dead, or maybe it was the other way around. The movie Phaedra had been filmed on Hydra the year before, and when they filmed the Blessing of the Boats, where the bishop throws a crucifix into the water and the boys of the village all dive in, contending to be the one who retrieved it … the old man dove in too. He had a place in Athens also and would go to bars at night pushing a wheel barrow (we were told) and whoever agreed to push him home in the wheelbarrow at the end of the night, could stay on in the apartment for a while.
The old fellow took us for a ride up the coast a little ways and brought us up at a dock in front of a large home with a high and wide grape arbor out front under which a wedding reception was happening. He sat us down, made sure we were served a plate of olives, and he danced with the bride. A man in hunting togs entered and leaned his shotgun against a fence. Our old man took it and shot it off through the arbor. Just celebration of course, but his lawyer and the family of the bride decided it was time for him to leave. Eric went back down the coast with the lawyer. The old man insisted on walking and I, being polite, agreed to go with him. We made several stops along the way. He stepped into homes where people were eating, introduced me, and took something off the table or the grill. People seemed to be used to him.
When we finally reached the harbor, the Captain reached into a trinket shop and grabbed a ring. A silver skull. He gave it to me and asked me to marry him. I accepted the ring, but turned him down. I don’t know where the ring is now. Dead.
At the harbor front another day we sat with a lawyer from Atlanta, named Bob George, resting on his way back from Viet Nam (I place we had never heard of) which he was leaving because all of a sudden everybody was carrying a gun.
The young Leonard Cohen had probably just left Hydra. There was a very famous Australian novelist whose name I forget and whom we never actually met because he was surrounded by people all the time. We met the ex G.I. named Fred....who at the time was trying to make poems on paper which he could bake and eat.
One day, maybe a week after our arrival in Hydra, we didn’t go the the harbor because John woke up sicker than ever, and the next day he hardly woke up at all, barely conscious, puking and drooling into a waste basket.
So we went asking for a doctor .....only to find that the one doctor ( who was also the mayor) traveled a circuit of the islands every week seeing patients. So we had to wait for his two days on Hydra.
I don't know how long we waited, and I am sure we weren't sitting by John and the waste basket all that time, but doctor finally arrived and gave him some pills for what he said was Typhus, or maybe it was Typhoid Fever. He said John would have died if the wait had been much longer. That may or may not have been an exaggeration, but the odd thing is that after the crisis, John was hardly bothered by the Water-Pig Fever, at least not like Eric and I were.
As we were about to board the ferry back to Athens, the old Captain came riding a donkey down along the waterfront, with a lot of village kids following and cheering. He stopped by us and pulled an orange from inside his shirt. He handed to me. I don’t remember if Eric got one too.
Back in Vienna Eric handed the literary magazine a story about running over a dog, and I submitted one about a disconnected expatriate artist standing on the sea wall of the Hydra Harbor and staring down into a floating mass of fish entrails or seaweed, while a butterfly flutters unseen overhead. Irving still hasn’t turned his in.
I hauled my sorry entrails to Dr. Rudolph Faulkner, a Russian doctor of internal medicine, who told me I had a rare form of dysentery that I would eventually be able to discourage some, but never completely vanquish. He suggested I give up coffee for six months and hard liquor for a few years, and he gave me some big pills.
Doctor Faulkner’s patients were mostly middle-aged women with pastry problems, and he obviously valued having me in his practice. He assured me that my essential problem was a deeply active philosophical disposition which assured that I would always be aware of the darkness at the heart of things, or something like that , and it felt intellectually validating. The doctor recommended that I read Fragments of an Unknown Teaching by the Russian mystic Gurdjief, which I will do some day.
Crafting the Narrative
Peter the waiter from Graz walked into the international students dining hall in Vienna as we were having our regular evening meal.... and he announced that President Kennedy had been shot.
A bunch of us, Peter included, decided we should go right then to the American embassy. I’m not sure what we intended to do there, or if there was anything more than a consulate in Vienna then, so soon after the war and partition, and we never did find it. At the end of the day, I went for a drink with Peter at his room.
Peter always wore blue jeans...... is probably wearing them somewhere in the USA right now........and back then was more shocked by the assassination then I was. I must have mentioned one of our recreations that played on the effects of the Waterpig Fever. Solemnly and sincerely, he told me that his own father had died in the trenches during world War II, as a result of a backfire from lighting a fart.
As Spring warmed, my digestion improved some. An influx of American students at the institute, half of them from California, included the iconic Kristal Forest and Cheryl Nickel, who had met when they both worked at Disneyland : Kristal as a stewardess on the Moon Rocket, and Cheryl employed aboard the Monorail. Cheryl....open and friendly.... with the sparkling, laughing, and overflowing eyes; Kristal, taller by a neck, and very collected, with very large eyes that drifted off when the boys of the institute tried to get her attention. She resembled a North Italian, Egyptian, a Stepp-Gypsy, or an Indian of either sort. But blond.
None of the Institute boys had been able to get anywhere with Kristal.
One night in March or April, Eric, John, along with me and two or three others went with Marco Walshock to the room he had in the apartment of a Polish Countess in exile. There were pictures of her old castle and hunting trophies in the hall, and we made tea in her kitchen. We spiked the tea with rum and sat in his room around the stove one had to feed with quarters.
Somebody brought up the Kristal Forest problem. John himself was expecting his girlfriend from home to arrive soon enough that he could be disinterested. After listening a while, he said that there was only one fucking guy who stood a chance with this Kristal, and that was David here.
I had no idea what chance he was talking about. I had not considered myself to be in the competition.
Well then … John let us know … the reason I was the only one with a chance at Kristal, was because I was the only one who had showed no interest in her. This must have intrigued her, he said. So all that was needed now, was a back story for me that would build on that curiosity, and fire up her interest. The story, according to John, should be that I had recently lost the love of my life, and had almost lost my will to live....unless. And so on.
This argument got reluctant acceptance from the contenders for Kristal, and as long as it didn't require that I do much of anything actively outgoing, the scheme was alright with me. Besides which ( as I told no one) it was not such a big lie either: I had never really recovered from the summer of my sophomore year when I adventured off to Alaska and my high school sweetheart Carmy Mignano took up with the guy she has been married to for forty some years now.
Eric had already been seeing Kristal's room mate Cheryl, so the lost-love story was passed on casually.... and within days Kristal and I found ourselves sitting beside one another at the Marine House bar.
One thing we did have in common then was an inability to make small talk. Conversation didn't exactly flow. At some point, I handed her a small sea- shell I had found on the beach in France, and had been carrying in my pocket since. She said something, or she didn't say anything, but she looked away, closed her hand around the shell, then opened her hand again and looked down into it at the crushed shell as if it had mysteriously appeared in her hand. She dribbled it into the ash tray. We ignored the incident. She would not remember it happening when I mentioned it years later..
It got to be May and Kristal and I were still failing to connect. More help was needed.
The Grinzing vineyards on the slopes at the end of the street-car line were bringing out the new wine. I don't know whose idea it was......nor do I know that Kristal wasn't just as aware of it as I was, but Eric and Cheryl nvited Kristal and me individually to come drink the new wine and take a picnic up into the hills bordering the vineyards. Eric and Cheryl would have their sleeping bags to camp out over night, and Kristal and I could travel back on the street car before dark.
Of course we all stayed the night, two to a bag. Bag rolling races down a grassy knob, ambiguous giggles and whispers. When Eric and Cheryl had lapsed into silence, we two kept buzzing with small talk like two black holes trying not to disappear into one another.
But the central story had all its bones and some detail now: With our girls clamped on behind, we we would ride the length of Austria, up over Switzerland, zipping then to the North coast of France for an ocean dip at Biaritz, and then south across France to Spain, and up over the Pyrenies to Pamplona for the annual running of the bulls, which I knew nothing about. I didn't know motor cycles either, and hadn't even ridden a bicycle since Junior High School.
Running off the Boars
Eric had already bought a used Horex of around 450 c.c.s and John a Jawa. 350. Kristal and I saved our pocket money until, for seventy five bucks each, we bought a Deutche Triumph that had three previous owners, and barely two hundred CCs - minus the CCs taken up by the carbon deposits we didn’t yet know about. The more obvious problem was that it had no luggage rack; so I arranged to have something welded on, and picked it up in time to practice driving around Vienna for a few weeks, before the day we all roared off to criss-cross Europe.
sixty two, sixty three
The Kristal Problem
Grinzing and the Motorcycle plan-
Three cycles and three girls to Pamplona
My Motorcycle chain-drive Deutche Trimph, plus rack.
An hour or two after we rode out of Vienna and onto the Autobahn, the motorcycle engine began to cough, spit, and loose power.
When we had been out of sight of the others for half an hour, Eric dropped back to say that they wouldn’t slow down for us, but from then on each night, they would camp somewhere visible from the road.
Before long, The little old Deutche Triumph was going so slow we had to drive on the shoulder.
The sun was already below the mountains and we were nowhere; so I walked the cycle down the embankment and a little way through the brush into a clearing only a few yards across. The grass was all laying down to make us a bed. We rolled our bags out, zipped them together, and climbed in.
Before it became completely dark, a very tall and hairy, tusked Pig stepped part way into the clearing.
The Boar stopped, stomped a foot several times, and snorted.
I stood upright very quickly, and Kristal grabbed me around the ankles, so I didn’t run, if I had been going to.
I yelled and clapped my cupped hands several times hard, like when r dog is about to eat the cat food. Anyway, the Boar backed into the darkness and we spent the night waiting for light.
The next morning I cranked up the engine O.K., and we were able to ride along on the shoulder of the ever-level autobahn to the first exit. But from there it was up a steepening slope, until we were having to walk beside the machine, and I pushed a little to encourage it.
By mid morning, we arrived at village with an Inn and a garage, and not too much else that I remember.
It was Sunday, and the Garage was closed, but the Inn was open, and we were the one big thing happening there right then. It was as if the village had just been waiting for this moment to arrive.
Within half an hour after we walked into the Inn and started asking, we were back out front, with several men squatting by the motorcycle and taking it apart. They lay the choked up internal parts in the gutter, doused it with gasoline, and burnt the carbon out of it.
Within an hour or two they put it together and sent us on our way. I should send that town a post-card every year, but I don’t even know it’s name.
Now we had half again as much power as when we had bought the machine, although even with that much more power, we just made it to the top of our first Swiss mountain pass at sunset and in a snow flurry, having gone about five miles an hour most of the way. How lucky that that, where there had been nothing for miles, there was an Inn at the pass, and it had foot thick down comforters,if not so much heat. The outer wall was of stone. The key to our room was like a big old jail or castle key. I forgot to return it before I left.
We rode on down toward Geneva, and in another day or two found our friends camped near the road.
But the Plans had changed.
John and Shyla had decided to turn around and go to Hydra. I had no idea why. They did get married in Hyfts later that summer though.
But Eric, Cheryl, Kristal, and I continued on to Pamplona for the famous Running of the Bulls, whatever that was..
We camped a few miles out side Pammplona beside the cart lane in a well kept orchard, near a small village,.
After the first night in the orchard, Cheryl and Eric decided to pack up and splurge on a hotel room in Pamplona, but Kristal and I didn’t want to spend the money, so we left our baggage at the campsite when we all went in to town.
Late that afternoon, Kristal and I arrived back at the orchard just as four or five men in white field clothes were carrying off our sleeping bags and clothing.
We got off the cycle, but Kristal pressed up behind me as if she were still riding. She told me to do something. A couple of the looters were carrying sickles.
I clapped my hands and yelled as if I were trying to frighten off a Boar. The men in white laughed, and continued on their way.
They didn’t leave much.
As we were gathering up the remains a few minutes later, I saw the head of someone watching us from the little ridge behind us, and so I went up there...but he was gone. Lucky for everybody.
It now seems obvious enough that these guys were on their job site, and that we could have looked for the nearest house and done some apologetic begging, especially since this was Franco’s Spain, and police were to be avoided, but, we went to the police in Pamplona.
The Pamploa poliece sent us to the mayor of the little town we had ignored while imposing ourselves on it.
The mayor was a wide, friendly man on a Vespa scooter. He took us for tapas treats at the town bar, and than had us follow him as he drove around looking for suspects. He stopped a Gypsy wagon, made everybody get out, and asked us if those were the ones.
He took is into a reform school dining hall and asked us if we saw the robbers there, and so on, but no luck.
Of course, we never did see the running of the bulls. I still hadn’t even read The Sun Also Rises.
And a year or so later the mayor would send me a post card in Spanish saying that our possessions had not been located, but that he would let me know if they ever did.
We four rode across dry central Spain and past several big wildfires … although it seemed there was very little to burn.
As we were entering Barcelona, we lost Eric and Cheryl in a traffic circle. Or they lost us, and If they weren’t trying to lose us, they were just lucky they did. We may have already borrowed money from them, or were thinking about it. We wouldn’t see them them again on that continent.
Staying in a not too expensive hotel convenient to American Express, we wired the Nice office to have our money order forwarded, and then wandered around for a few days. We discovered the street where they sold nothing much but guitars, and we bought a small guitar without a case. After a week or so of waiting for money to be forwarded, we learned that there had been a postal strike in France all along.
So we paid off our hotel bill with most of our remaining money, wired to have the Nice Money forward to us in Barcelona, then we camped out on the beach, sketched and plunked the guitar for a few waiting days.. On the back of my army field jacket, using a ball point pen, Kristal drew a picture of the two of us riding the motorcycle.
It was good we didn’t have much luggage now, because the rack I had paid to get welded onto the cycle had begun to break under the original load.
So as soon as some money came from home, I bought a novelty jack-knife from a souvenir shop. It was about twelve inches long when closed. We rode out into the hills where I hacked down a sapling that I used, with some rope, to re-enforce the luggage rack.
On the road again, half way up the Costa Brava to France, we argued about something. The argument ended with Kristal getting off and walking up ahead to hitch-hike. She got a ride before I even got back on the motorcycle.
We found each other the next day fifty miles further on, and Kristal got back on; but I don’t remember that we ever made up.
We rode on up to Nice, where we learned trying that they do not let you camp on the beach in front of the hotels.
We needed to move on anyway, to get back across Europe to Holland for Kristal’s ship and my Plane.
The motorcycle engine was still performing well enough, but when we tried to ride from the harbor front the hill out of Nice, the chain slipped so much we turned back.
At a garage in town, we were shown that the teeth of the cogs that drove the power chain were very worn/ we learned that, because it was made in a foreign country, the new parts would have to be ordered … then there would be a long time spent waiting, and a high import tax to pay.
We signed the machine away to a passer by on the street. We took our bags and started hitch-hiking up the hill.
After we gave our motorcycle away, getting rides was easy enough for the long-legged blonde with the little guitar and the boyish companion, but I don’t remember a single ride until we were already through Vienna again and on the Autobahn in Germany. We had been picked up by a World War II Luftwaffe pilot returning from Czechoslovakia, where he’d gone in order to fly military airplanes--a privilege not allowed him in Germany any more. Soon after that, still on the Autobahn: a younger German, who took us at high speed, swerving to avoid a pileup in the right lane, and told us as we fishtailed on past the sliding wreck that we were lucky he had used to be a professional race driver. He gave us schnapps in sample bottles from the glove compartment.
Copenhagen seemed to be full of students at the beginning of something. Kristal and I lunched on the free condiments at an American-style hamburger bar, and slept on the floor of a Turkish bath which turned us out early in the mornings so they could turn on the steam.
I left Kristal at the ship in Amsterdam , Then went to Rotterdam to catch a plane to New York. I enjoyed a Salisbury Steak flight meal, the first food in some time for which I didn’t need my silly jack-knife. As soon as I made it through customs, still wearing the army field jacket, cheese and sapling-hacking knife in one pocket, passport in the other, a couple of plain-clothes cops took me by the elbows and steered me to a room upstairs, where they made me empty everything from my shoulder bag and pockets onto a table. They were uninterested in any of my grungy clothing or toiletries and they laughed outright when I pulled the jokey jack-knife out of my pocket and put it on the table.
They told me that in passing through New York City, where there were laws about the maximum length of pocket knives, I had better carry it in my bag rather than in my pocket.
By the time I got to Grand Central Station, I had just enough money left for a bus ticket that would get me to within fifteen miles of Ithaca. I don’t know how I made the last fifteen miles, but I know I got there, and I slept for two days, with some time to watch television and to stand at the refrigerator eating. After the rest, I was interested only in going up north to do some trout fishing. So I did. My dad and I drove across the Adirondacks to the Ausable River. I smoked in the car.
When I got back to Ithaca from Lake Bonaparte, Kristal called to tell me she was pregnant.
She flew to Ithaca, determined not to go through with the birth. The issue was her independence, and anyway, willing as I might have been to stand up and take responsibility, to depend on ME might not have been a good plan. I visited a doctor or two and was turned away. Kristal flew back to California, and a friend drove her to Mexico, where the operation was done in a room behind a drug store, without complications.
After the abortion Kristal decided to transfer to Boston, and applied to little Catholic Boston College, mistaking it for Boston University. She discovered the difference after she arrived, but somehow managed to get out of B.C. and into B.U. I visited her in Cambridge more than once, and very soon she was pregnant again. Condoms don’t work twice.
We agreed to go ahead with the baby and to get married. I told my parents of the circumstances and the decision. They were gravely disappointed and supportive.
Kristal didn’t tell her own parents about the pregnant part of the wedding plans, but arranged to finish her Boston University requirements with courses at Cornell, and she started planning a wedding. She designed our two embossed wedding bands for a Boston goldsmith to produce, and set the ceremony in the back yard at Edgewood place, with the Cornell Library chimes cued to play as we marched up to be joined by the next door neighbor, Rev. John Lee Smith. She found some traditional Vietnamese rail-dancers who performed on a saw horse at the reception there.
Kristal’s parents were flying in on the day of the wedding, but their flight was delayed so we had to postpone the ceremony for half an hour and maybe the plan had been to get us married before they could find out she was pregnant (and they did) but according to plan, Kristal and I hopped into the family car and drove from the wedding reception still in progress to the safe remove of Lake Bonaparte where we had pretty much to ourselves except for the plane spraying DDT over the lake as we crossed in the canoe. I caught a couple of bass, which was easy because they were on the spawning beds and out of season. I broiled them over the outdoor fireplace. Kristal had not yet become a vegetarian.
Another day I drove us across the Adirondacks to the Ausable River. I left Kristal in the car by a favorite stretch below Wilmington and went upstream with my fly rod, and was gone so long she drove back to Wilmington and bought a watermelon which she had time to eat all she wanted of before I drifted back down stream with the reversing air currents of evening. She was angry, but not as angry as she should have been.
How do you name a child who hasn’t been born yet? Like most other parents-to-be, we thought we needed to do that. I can’t remember the name for the boy who never was, but for a girl’s name, we settled without argument on “Mnetha”: the name I got from the Dylan Thomas poem “Before I Knocked and Flesh Let Enter,” about the experience of being a child in the womb. Thomas got it from Blake. Blake made it up, based on the Greek word for memory. Here is to the fallible goddess of memory.
Mnetha was born at The Tompkins County Hospital while I happened to be at the State Diner taking a break from waiting. It was an era when fathers were not invited to watch the birth, but when I got to the hospital they brought the baby by me in a glass case on wheels, like a mummy, I thought.Wrinkled.
We brought her home to my family home at Edgewood Place, where we lived on the third floor,sharing the downstairs with both of my parents, sometimes my younger sister Valerie, and with my grandmother Donna, who was already around ninety years old, but still contending in the kitchen. It was a big house, but the kitchen was not big enough for three women. We didn’t live there very long.
Cornell hadn’t given me course credit for my Chicago University sponsored junior year abroad, so I had done my junior year all over again in Ithaca. During my senior year, I worked short order at Noyes Lodge, and we were living in the Pleasant Grove married student housing complex . We didn’t stay there long either.
It seemed like wherever we were, Kristal would shift the furniture around every few days, until the inherent unsuitability of the place became clear to her, and we would move on. I didn’t much like change and I still don’t. but I hadn’t the backbone to resist, and resistance would have aggravated the situation. More than once, we moved because of dust. Her allergies were furious and undeniable. All of a sudden, as if struck by a cosmic spoor shower, she would flush with a full body rash and have to restrain herself from clawing at the tangled webs of coagulated mucus that formed on her eyes. I had to roll up the webby stuff on swab sticks.
At the doctor’s direction to build her immunity, I gave Kristal injections containing regular household dust, then cortisone shots when her condition got worse anyway, and adrenaline when it was worse than even that. I don’t know if it was mostly a matter of time, or the treatments, but she battled through, doing yoga, taking dance classes at Cornell, and becoming religiously vegetarian. She gradually became less allergic, and she was eventually able even to keep a cat, as long as he didn’t come further into the house than the basement.
Mnetha may have been the reason we got married; she was a beautiful child, and we both loved her unreservedly, but no glue could hold us together.
We didn’t fight a lot, but with her sensitivity up against my r insensitivity, I irritated Kristal enough that, in the Summer of 1968, she moved without me; went with Mnetha off to house-sit for her dancing teacher. I was allowed to visit for meals and such, but she let me know that the future was uncertain.
During my final year in the Cornell M.F.A. program, I was finishing a novel called Norman Is An Island, in which Norman fakes his own drowning and leaves his wife. I was also making a short movie, featuring Kristal, that I filmed partly at the dance teacher’s house. The film opens on Kristal in a dream of floating dead or asleep on her back down a slow stretch of river, which was in fact, Fall Creek in Forest Home above the Cornell campus. She is dressed in her wedding gown, hair and gown streaming. The scene dissolves into one of her waking and sitting up out of bed. As she makes coffee that morning, a large trout swims by the window, but she does not notice. The dream continues.
Finishing my M.F.A. in the summer …. I got a job teaching in Puerto Rico in the Fall. I hadn’t known but the University of Puerto Rico had been closed for the last year, after the police had shot a couple of students who were putting up protest posters. Kristal had decided to come with me, to give me one more chance. She started giving dance lessons at the University, but her class was shut down when there were complaints that it was modern dance that she was teaching. One of her students was the Thai wife of an young English department member who beat her. Kristal sheltered the woman with us for a few days, and her English professor husband was outraged about it. Puerto Rico was no place for Kristal.
Kristal, Mnetha, and I had some beautiful days combing the wild beaches on the back of the island, but at home, I rubbed Kristal the wrong way. I don’t remember the substance of any of our own conflicts, but I remember her being bothered that I was able to just go off into the other room and write, as if I had just gone up a trout stream, when there were still unresolved issues.
After Christmas she and Mnetha flew back to Ithaca. Right away, I missed them both.
At first, they moved back to the third floor over my grandmother and parents at Edgewood Place. She enrolled Mnetha in East Hill School, which I had myself attended and was only a few blocks away. But the city of Ithaca had been making moves toward closing the school to save money. Kristal joined with a group of East Hill parents who demanded that the school be turned over to them, saying they would do the janitor work and the principal work and everything, plus build a green house on the school roof and maybe raise chickens up there too. They were ahead of our time.
Kristal also joined a group of mostly Cornell people with overlapping interests in psychodrama, astrology, and mysticism, who gathered weekly at the American Brahmin Bookstore down on lower State Street. Lennie Silver: mathematician, poet, musician, then teaching at Cornell, moved his math class down the hill to the bookstore, and magically transformed the group meeting into an astrology course.
But the American Brahmin Bookstore was primarily the business and domain of Tony Damiani, a retired N.Y.C. longshoreman and devote of Paul Brunton: an English Journalist who had experienced a grand realization during a night spent in one of the Egyptian Pyramids. A psychodrama group also formed within the group and met there and other places for their sessions.
While in Puerto Rico, I missed the year during which Cornell black students took over the student union and were photographed marching out out with some hunting rifles.The Beatles came to America when I went to Vienna. I had also missed Woodstock while I was in Puerto Rico. I have always had a way of not being where it is happening. Suddenly there was all this weird clothing, social experiments and well-intentioned communities out on the hills around Ithaca.
Kristal introduced me to the psychodrama. The group agreed to forgo some of the normal social restraints and considerations of privacy in order to get down to what is really wrong. It was clear very quickly—from the others’ reactions to me—that Kristal had been complaining about me before the group and that the others didn’t recognize the devil she had been describing. But I came across as unnaturally quiet and silently critical. My new friends encouraged me to access anger.
And so I accessed anger, but I learned that getting angry with Kristal was fighting fire with gasoline.
Surprisingly, the school district allowed the East Hill parents to keep the school open. At Kristal’s suggestion I volunteered there and the parent group soon offered me the chance to stay on as a paid teacher, but then, I got an offer to take on a couple of over-subscribed writing courses at Cornell. I had been practically raised on that campus, where my father was a law professor, and although I had never liked school from the very beginnings at East Hill, and had more than enough of it already, I had by the end of my schooling figured out how to make an easy enough job of it—especially teaching writing, so I took the job. I did it for a couple of years.
Kristal, Mnetha, and I lived and moved together a few more times. The last place was a little house set back from East Shore Drive, across the road from the lake. In front there was a large garden entirely of irises, a third of which I dug out and replaced with vegetable plants.
In memory, it seems like the two of us were seldom in the house at the same time, and then we communicated through Mnetha. But I remember Kristal and I alone once, standing in the kitchen at the rear of the house, arguing about something, when I glanced out the window and saw four or five deer standing right there, not even feeding, but just looking in at us. I tried to get Kristal to stop and look, but she would not. It was over: all but the divorce, the after-fighting, and the recriminations.
In the divorce, Kristal did get custody of Mnetha , which seemed natural and obligatory back then, and I agreed to child support payments, while Kristal agreed to leave Mnetha with me weekly. One day I brought her back to Kristal and had, as directed, packed her bag with some food to take to the camp she would be attending that day. Kristal had looked into the bag before I was all the way down the stairs, and, finding a can of beans (maybe it was pork and beans) she threw the can down the stairs at me. She missed, but she said that she would no longer let me see Mnetha.
I decided that I was not going to pay her to do my share of the child care, so I did not, and Kristal sued me back into court.
Before the judge, she agreed to let me see Mnetha, and I was directed to see a probation officer for a while, to make sure I kept up my payments. I remember standing with Kristal in front of some judge or legal clerk ; I made a joke and Kristal said “David, you think everything’s funny don’t you?”
I would like to think so, but anyway my writing got weirder. The book I was writing then dwelt often on Charlie Peckerstone, who lived all alone trying to write a PhD philosophy thesis … when he was trying. Peckerstone himself was more concerned with collecting retro diner artifacts than he was in writing his thesis. Purchase by purchase, he had gradually turned his apartment into a diner, right down to napkins and an institutional food supply. Wonder Bread in the super long loaves. The tuna had to be Star Kist in the gallon-sized institutional can, with the standard mermaid and the starry sea label. Of course there were no people but him in his diner, so he never managed to eat more than a third of a can before the remainder began to smell bad, even in the fridge.
But then he always enjoyed buying and opening a new can.
Late one night, after having put out the spoiling remains of the incumbent tuna, Charlie went to the supermarket and bought a brace of of Wonder Bread Long Loaves, twenty five pounds of burger patties, and a gallon can of Star Kist. He got home at one in the morning, and right away opened the can.
What was in there......was not tuna.
Curled in a cloudy albumin, was a sort of mermaid, not your tacky Disney scaly tail carp-ass thing with pale skin, plastic blond hair, and waterproof mascara, but a creature both more human and trout-like, with a perfectly smooth skin all over shading from fish belly white below, through the vermilion sunsets of her flanks, to the starry night of her back.
Unfortunately, though, she was far from perfect for this element we live in. As soon as the air touched her skin, Star Kist, as he would call her, shivered. Her skin began to crackle and itch.
Charlie Peckerstone was in love or something, but Star Kist’s exquisite skin was so sensitive to air that he had to keep her in the bath tub all the time, and she lived there unhappily singing lonesome songs of the sea, until the location of the story changed without notice or explanation.
Soon after our divorce, Kristal left Mnetha with me at my parent’s house, parked her car at Wisdom’s Golden Rod, the religious retreat established by Tony Damiani and his group from the American Brahmin Bookstore, and flew to India with our wedding rings. She donated the rings to the rural ashram which had been home to the guru of Tony’s guru: the monk called simply, “Ram.” Ram was slight, wore next to nothing, and smiles appealingly in his pictures. He was known for his understanding and sympathetic way with animals. He was not known for philosophical disputation; Ram was all right with me. Kristal stayed at the ashram for a few months to meditate and serve.
But when she got back to Ithaca again, she found that her car engine had seized while in Tony Damiani’s care. She was sure that he had driven the car without bothering to check the oil, and that such behavior was unworthy of a religious teacher. She was unforgiving.
Kristal wasn’t getting a lot of child support from me, but she was expert at getting jobs. She worked in the Cornell library system, and she managed Ithaca’s first self-service gas station. She could hostess your event, clean out your closet, or remake every dress in your wardrobe. She got Montessori certification and taught preschoolers.
With me as a cosigner, she bought a house out toward Slaterville, though eventually she turned it over to the bank. Later, she bought a house out in Perry City, and sold that one after a while, so that she could travel to Dharmsala India, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugee community.
In Dharmsala she taught at a school run by the Dalai Lama’s sister. After a while she returned to Ithaca for short visit, then packed up Mnetha, age thirteen and traveled with her back to Dharmsala.
Mnetha soon got so sick that Kristal sent her home alone. A nightmare.
A few months later, Kristal also left Dharmsala. She was not getting on well with the Dalai Lama’s sister and she was not feeling well either.
Mnetha and I picked her up at the airport in New York and Kristal slept with her head on my lap much of the way back to Ithaca.
Kristal was genuinely fierce, and she seldom, or never, apologized for an outburst. She denied it. It is not that she was angry all the time; she may have been placid for months at a time. Peace, after all, was the main goal of her yoga, her studies, and her pilgrimages.
One day when we had reached our forties, I remarked that she didn’t seem to be as angry as she used to be, but that made her angry..
Most everyone involved with Kristal probably came to recognize that she wasn’t just easily angered and overly concerned with the spiritual and moral state of others, but had a mental illness which ought to have a clinical name with an acronym, a treatment, and a support group. I suppose it could be what nowadays is called Borderline Personality Disorder. As I read about the diagnosis, it seems to me to be pretty much the human condition; some people are just more human than others.
Whatever its roots, the basic characteristic of a borderline personality is emotional “thin skin.” In terms of behavior, that involves an intolerance of ambiguity, particularly in moral and existential issues. Such personalities lack the ability to recognize the several clashing characters inside themselves. Instead, the borderline tendency is to project all internal battles outside and fight them there. I suppose we all border on that condition, except those of us who blame themselves for every thing, and that isn’t so different.
Kristal was a mother to mothers, to lost seekers, to the poor, and to animals, and she was a great mother to her daughter when she was not a nightmare. By the time Mnetha was an adult she and her mother worked happily together collecting, dying, redisesigning and printing on second hand clothing that Kristal then sold at craft fairs under their Salamander label. In later years Kristal taught in native American schools in New Mexico and made another trip to India, always rescuing as many creatures as she could. She had begun signing herself on cards and gifts to her grandchildren as “Madhu,” which can mean something like sweet, nectar, or honey, in Sanskrit, but as a name in Hindu mythology, was applied to one of the deities that the Gita says share the qualities of pride, arrogance, conceit, anger, harshness, and ignorance. I had thought that, for Kristal, it had the sense of Mother or Grandmother, although Kristal had become so intrusive and insistent about how her Granddaughter Marea should be handled, that Mnetha had to keep her away from the child. Kristal had been living in the area again at the time. Now she accused Mnetha of ruining her life, and she moved back west. She would never stop accusing Mnetha of ruining her life. Just by being born. She made special phone calls and send letters to make the point.
Kristal was living in Campo Verde, Arizona, with the two street dogs she had adopted in Calcutta, when she decided that if she moved to Mexico she could get by on her Social Security payments alone.
She had always been able to toss out old things, and things not so old, pack up and move by herself, but this time she hired a local homeless man to help load her things into a rented trailer hitched to her Nissan Pathfinder S.U.V.
After everything had been cleaned out of the apartment, the landlord inspected the place, and then handed Kristal a wad of bills for the deposit refund. She drove off with her helper and the dogs, headed first for Austin, Texas, where Kristal had arranged a temporary job.
When Kristal’s family in California hadn’t heard from her for three months, they reported her as a missing person and soon began prodding the police toward a murder investigation. There had been no activity in her bank account. Arizona police found no record that Kristal or her vehicle had crossed the border, but they found her moving helper still in Arizona, and driving Kristal’s Pathfinder. He had some dubious paperwork indicating that he had bought the car. Whether or not he had bought the car, the papers established that he was a certain Robert Reed, who had burnt down his own townhouse for the insurance, and had disappeared while he was out on bail but had been tried in absentia and convicted of arson.
Reed refused to talk about Kristal Forest.
The investigation was stalled at that. The members of her family in California memorialized Kristal in a ceremony at a Buddhist monastery there, as she would have wanted. Several people urged Mnetha to call Phil Jordan, a well known psychic in the area, who agreed to a phone consultation and when she called began telling her about the condition of her internal organs, until she reminded him that the question she had submitted was about the fate and whereabouts of her mother. Jordan switched easily to that question, and it seemed to him right awayt that it had something to do with a cabin in the woods and her neck. For whatever reason, the Arizona police opened a full-scale murder investigation. Mnetha shared Phil Jordan’s comments to Arizona and got a call from a retired police officer who was coming back onto the force just to get on this this case, like in the movies.
The fact that about the time she disappeared, my vehicle was also a red Pathfinder, is a mere coincidence. The presence of the Crystal Forest State Park near Campo Verde, was also only a coincidence. “The Crystal Forest,” the title of a German folk tale I read in Vienna, was also not likely relevant. Phil Jordan’s reading may have been a clue, but then everybody knew who did it; what was needed was only for Reed to lead the police to the body.
Reed would have died in jail anyway for his various other crimes alone, in particular, for burning down an occupied building to get the insurance money, but there was enough evidence to at least try him for the murder of Kristal ; he was charged, and was then offered the option of having the charges dropped, if he would confess to the crime and lead them to the body.
He went for the deal and took them to the site; I don’t know if it was near a cabin as Phil Jordan had suggested - the police had found that there was indeed a cabin he was known to frequent - but the body had been disturbed by animals, and all they recovered was Kristal’s skull,, identifiable by the dental work.
After some months and a lot of paper work, Kristal’s skull was mailed to New York State, cremated, and brought to Mnetha, right to Second Story Rose: the antique, vintage kitsch, and art shop she she started in Aurora.
We distributed the ashes in a small ceremony under a big old tree, supposed to have been the site of Cayuga tribal councils.
I had taught writing at Cornell for two years after returning from Puerto Rico, and then I decided that I really didn’t want to be in college any more. I didn’t think I had learned enough yet about writing to teach it, and I had certainly spent enough of my life on campus.
I also didn’t want to make a living writing, because it seemed to me that I would not then be able to write what I really needed to write, but would have to crank out what somebody else wanted, when it was wanted, ready or not. I decided that I would rather work with my hands …. telling myself how I had spent the summer after my freshman year, being a gandy dancer on the Alaska Railroad, so I had some idea of what the physical work was about.
But not much idea how to do most things not involving shovels or lawn mowers. Fortunately Baxter Hathaway, from whose M.F,A. program I was the first to graduate, as I had been a year into graduate school already when he established the program, and who had sponsored me there, now hired me to maintain his rental properties and Ithaca House, the publishing house he set up in his retirement …. about the same time as my very earlyretirement from teaching.
I learned some trades and handwork, some from books, some just from doing things wrong. I started working around town, painting houses that needed painting mostly because they needed new roofs, moving up to roofs, bringing Mnetha with me. She had gone to art school, finished at Cornell and then followed me into the trades. A few years ago she said she is too old to help me on roofs any more.
Ten or fifteen years ago she bought a little, unplumbed, uninsulated artist studio that had been built a few years previously, cantilevered over the foundation of an eighteen twenties farmstead near Aurora New York. I helped her convert it to a home, moved on to her land with a a retro trailer.and not too many years later she moved down into Aurora with her husband and two children, leaving her dog with me and my dog up here on the hill where we would be happier than in town. I moved into the house.
I call the place “Dog’s Plot” and I started a blog about Dog’s Plot … or my imaginary brother William Bonaparte Warren did. The blogis still there on the internet, and I have taken charge of it..
In the spirit of never being there until it had already happened, Kristal and I were not ready for the drug revolution. when it came. The first time I smoked pot was at a writer’s workshop party and at first it seemed to have no effect on me, then I went to the bathroom and as I was passing a turd, I entered a state of mind in which it seemed that moment had no ends and I was there for ever. It was not like going up the trout stream and totally forgetting time and everything else; it was like being shot into infinite space.
It was a while before I tried pot again. The next time, my friend Eric was passing through Ithaca with some Acapulco Gold. Smoking some with him and friends I thought that they had all conspired, perhaps to rape me or something, and I heard the siren of a police car. Afterwards I knew it came from within me.
It was a while before I tried pot yet again and found it to be a way into music and the wild. I tried L.S.D. once and it had little effect on me, and I never tried it again, maybe because I already had some idea what might happen the second time; cocaine the same. But Peyote buttons, which I tried once, made us sing every song we didn’t think we knew ; and I will have to try that again sometime. Give me L.S.D. or Heroin when I die. I learned to appreciate pot as a fine door opener, and kept at it, as a young man, growing it yearly in swamp beds, and in the back yards of professors for whom I gardened, but I was more into literary magical realism than into drugs, more interested in imagination than in hallucinations.
I don’t recall Kristal smoking pot more than once or twice and I don’t think it was not at all pleasant for her. No L.S.D. or Peyote for her. She gave just about all her attention to religion and real magic.
But I am sure that Kristal and I could agree on The Dalai Lama., who’s North American seat is in Ithaca. Years ago Mnetha and I did a stucco job on one wall of the downtown monastery. The monks borrowed cups of mortar from us, and used it to butter cracks in the sidewalk.
But a new monastery and education center, designed by a former employee of mine, has been built up on Ithaca’s South Hill. I haven’t visited there, but I like to pretend the Dalai Lama is my buddy, and visits me here at Dog’s Plot occasionally when he is in town. He especially enjoys the chickens and gets on famously with my wife Georgia.
Yes, I got married again, but that is another story, and it will be a movie when we are dead.
While writing this, I discovered that the Dalai Lama (who as a boy in Tibet got his hands on a telescope) has always been an early adopter of modern technology, now has a Facebook page. Here was his status report on the day I discovered him there: “We must learn how to identify the opposing sides in our inner conflicts. Take anger: we need to see how destructive it is and at the same time, realize there are antidotes within our own thoughts and emotions that can counter it. So by understanding how negative it is and then by strengthening our positive thoughts and emotions, we can gradually reduce the force of our anger and hatred.” I hope this helps.