Paul Belz Writings
ESSAYS, NOVELS, AND COMPILATIONS
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The Lure of a Train Wreck
A personal essay by Paul H. Belz
I was tied to the railroad tracks while the giant sunglass-accessorized banana with the body-action of a San Francisco queen loomed on the horizon, bearing down with the promise of my imminent, mushy death.
The dream lacked only a handlebar-mustachioed villain, an ominous whistle, and a Hitchcock-schooled cinematographer.
The bizarre image lingers, but in reality the bright yellow banana-locomotive always switches course on the mall promenade, averting collisions at the last instant, with men suffering mere intimidation while carefully targeted self-image-deficient women are plucked from the right-of-way to become emotional cargo.
A relentless, uncompromising dominatrix, this broad-shouldered, long-armed, anatomically nondescript mallwalker imprinted me with the banana imagery because when I first got to know her she often wore bright yellow tops with bright yellow bottoms. Her persona, however, is anything but bright, soft, and benign; it is dark, hard, and voracious.
Ironically her name is Grace.
She exhibits the instincts of an army ant—doing battle successfully with enough fellow predators to make a comfortable living. For a career she instructs lawyers in assembled platoons around the world on how to write with a more Machiavellian flair.
For a hobby she stalks susceptible mallwalking women for service as psychological slaves in symbiotic relationships evocative of the ones between ants and aphids.
Just as humans keep cows, ants keep aphids, stroking them to get the honeydew they relish while in turn protecting them from ladybugs and soldier beetles. Grace’s aphids need humiliation and submission.
While Grace’s strategic plan is borrowed from the ant, the tactics are strikingly arachnid. The product of her psychological spinnerets mirrors the spider’s web and I observed that web snare one victim named Meg and narrowly miss another named Rachel.
She spins her web at the mall from nine to ten o’clock each morning when she’s in town. She’s charming, effusive, and interesting enough that she engages women, probes their personalities, relaxes them, waits for that invisible web to entangle a needy one, then strikes suddenly, inflicting a paralyzing bite: “Why don’t you start joining me at my pool and work on those flabby arms?”
Or perhaps a more lethal, ”Since you have a terrible marriage, which provides no companionship, why don’t you join me for daily jogs around the college campus a block from here?”
If an unsuspecting friend-starved walking companion ignores the insulting component of the question, meekly acquiesces, or is frozen in shock, the venom has worked.
Evocative of yet a third tiny predator—the cicada wasp, which paralyzes victims and drags them to a lair as living meals for its larvae—Grace painstakingly secures her victims and achieves living meals for her psychological and emotional needs.
Grace’s control over a target grows incrementally until compliance is programmed and reflexive. The process is psychological rape and the end game is addictive behavior that fills needs in both predator and prey.
Even if her prey declines those swimming or jogging invitations, by allowing the dubious compliment of an invitation to short-circuit a deserved rebuke for the insult, she’s given Grace license for a pattern of double-edged pronouncements that will proliferate and humiliate.
A judiciously chosen victim will protest to others, but in the company of her new mistress she will acquiesce and even enjoy the abusive treatment.
Grace’s voice is a compendium of every voice you’ve dreaded: the officious mother-in-law commandeering your wedding plans, the coach humiliating you for missed free throws, the teacher lancing and draining all self-confidence in your fondest dream, the priest-confessor excoriating you for disappointing Jesus, and the lover emasculating you with a cavalier “it’s over but we can still be good friends.”
It’s a voice that can pierce a din without shouting, reverberate uncanny distances, and inflict discomfiture though you’re neither in her company nor the target of her predatory tongue.
A retired male French teacher regularly walking alone on the mall’s fourth floor confided that her voice and body language are so intimidating that he reflexively shudders, turns his head, and casts his eyes down to avoid sending any encouraging signal when they pass. Such toxicity between two people who’ve never exchanged a hello is a silent, eloquent reminder that humans are animals and the focal point of animal relationships is dominance.
This then is Grace. She was resplendent in her bright yellow warm-up suit and dark sunglasses for our first solo encounter, striding imperiously, silently, and briskly past me on the mall’s fourth floor against the counterclockwise stream of ninety-five percent of the nine a.m. mallwalking crowd. I was quick to intuit that she was the bête noire of the mall, and corroboration came swiftly. Evidence was ubiquitous.
First there was Bernard, a diminutive, combative urologist. He held his own with Grace on topics such as the worthiness of San Francisco as a tourist city—she pro, he con. His generosity in sharing the minutiae of his professional and personal life, however, revealed a naive underestimation of his verbal sparring partner’s proclivities toward backstabbing vitriol. In his absence the vixen was merciless.
His laser surgery skills had earned him publication in journals, speaking engagements at medical conventions, and invitations to perform surgery and teach doctors in American cities as well as in Canada, Israel, China, Mexico, and South America.
Unimpressed, her laser tongue would denigrate the lifelong bachelor’s skills as obsolete, his medical pedigree as unworthy, his regular practice as sparse, his income as unimpressive, and his persona as off-putting to sophisticated women. He walked the mall twice a day and she called him a “walking-addicted loser.”
Though recipients of her opinions relayed her soul-soiling sentiments to this genuinely nice healer of the sick, he was sufficiently magnanimous and eager enough to debate informed people that the siren call to the verbal battlefield periodically lured him back into her company. Neither gave any quarter and neither expected any.
It’s the same emotional dynamic that obsessed Sherlock Holmes with Professor Moriarty and which makes sports wins over arch-rivals especially savory. The contest matters. That’s how nature awards breeding rights. His self-worth secure and breeding rights irrelevant at age sixty, Bernard didn’t covet her imprimatur and assumed that his admirers would be unimpressed by her venom.
When the doctor was stricken with esophageal cancer in April of 1999 and underwent surgery, the recovery-room doors had barely closed when she assumed the mantel of “dear friend” and began pronouncing authoritatively to inquiring and non-inquiring acquaintances—and veritable strangers—that Bernard’s death was imminent. She immediately scoured the mall soliciting funds for a large flower arrangement which she was to personally deliver to the hospital.
When a neighbor and mallwalking friend began looking after Bernard’s apartment and ferrying mail and clothes to the hospital, he was openly denounced by Grace as a sycophant with designs on ingratiating himself into Bernard’s last will and testament. Ironically, that protestation may have been a window into her mentality. She knew Bernard had no living relatives.
When Bernard defied Grace’s prognosis and returned to the mall to resume his walking rituals, her first greeting was in the form of a pointed suggestion that he throw a party to thank those who bestowed gifts and visits throughout his medical crisis.
When his cancer re-appeared six months later and he chose aggressive treatment, she dispassionately remarked to an elderly mallwalking couple: “I don’t know why he doesn’t just die.” He soon did.
After gleaning information for a year through observation and solicitation of opinions, she deemed me a worthy companion and invaded my space one morning, offering the felicitous greeting: “I hate to walk alone.” We managed a mutually charming veneer but I was distracted by a dripping faucet. As she spoke, the drip, drip, drip of adjectives emerging from my subconscious relentlessly fractured my concentration: officious, narcissistic, name-dropping, tactless, arrogant, unfeeling, manipulative, overbearing, pompous, pretentious, backstabbing, hypocritical—and yes—self-loathing.
Her personality revelations to me crossed from the quirky to the dark when she launched a criticism of one of her “dear friends” who always did everything well in life, but was “dying poorly.” One often has to catch one’s breath after particularly cruel comments from Grace and this was such an occasion.
The drip, drip, drip became a rushing river of potential inquiries. Her unspoken but clearly exposed meta-message—as though an airplane had scribbled it across the sky—was: “How dare anyone associated with me impugn my reputation for choosing only the most enlightened friends by dying poorly!”
I mused further: Just how does one die poorly? By failing to provide mints for visitors to the sick-bed? By failing to reassure visitors that their flower arrangement was the finest ever received and that the bulbs will nicely complement the nasturtiums in the garden—end-stage terminal illness notwithstanding? Of course the critically ill should above all maintain magnanimity and empathy for the stress hospital visitors must endure. If the dying would only place paramount importance on the good cheer of their well-wishers, such outward focus would in turn uplift themselves and relieve that debilitating damn self-pity; sort of a Reaganésque trickle-down theory for the dying.
Feeling the need for an inoculation, I relieved myself of this Dickensian caricature and permanently retreated to the role of distant witness in her life.
There’s only one mall adversary Grace ever totally underestimated. Jack was the adopted son of Greek Orthodox parents and had lived an unpampered childhood in Arkansas. He grew up to become a career Army man who, as a lieutenant in Vietnam, piloted Huey Cobra attack helicopters in the Rocket Belt southeast of Da Nang.
He and Grace were neighbors in the same luxury apartment complex near the metropolitan area’s most upscale regional mall. The PhD-bearing feminist author and former English instructor at a prominent women’s college would soon discover that unlike Bernard the surgeon, this career Army man, who had seen buddies vaporized on battlefields, would view magnanimity as a contemptible weakness. Having risen to the rank of colonel before retiring, he had enough grace and sufficient diplomatic skills to carry on tenuously civil conversations with her.
Being neighbors and possessing a rapid walking gait was all the two had in common. For a dominatrix, he was to be her Everest. Secure in her superiority, she was quickly disseminating tawdry gossip such as the unfounded opinion that following a fire, which temporarily forced Jack out of his home, he had defrauded an insurance company by egregiously overstating the damage.
Professionally utilized daily, her verbal cutting tools were honed razor sharp, achieving a level of articulation and manipulative agility unapproachable by her conversational sparring partners at the mall.
Her Waterloo was in assuming that Jack would follow Roberts Rules of Order during their disagreements. One day, ever the liberal Democrat, she defended Bill Clinton’s behavior with Monica Lewinsky as a private matter, irrelevant to his presidential obligations.
When their debate branched into the subject of acceptable behavior in a modern marriage, the paunchy, red-necked conservative family man could not match wits with the never-married flaming liberal so he drew his ad hominem saber and thrust for the jugular. “What would you know about marriage you old lesbian? What you need is to get laid!”
The military ferocity in his voice and his intuitive grasp of her emotional Achilles heel, as much as the words themselves, left her in tears. They never spoke again. He retreated behind his Walkman radio earphones, shutting out all morning aggravations, i.e. humanity. She rigorously enforced a “no greetings to Jack” policy with all of her timorous female walking companions. He soon moved to California.
Most timorous in Grace’s stable of submissives was Meg. Brainwashed in the pre-Vatican II Catholic tradition, her personality was fermented in a bubbling theological vat that dispensed faith for those inclined to ask reasonable questions, guilt for those inclined to seek any pleasure in life, unworthiness for those driven toward success or leadership, bigotry for those inclined to unconditionally love people of rival faiths, and fear of eternal horrors for those not meek enough to acquiesce.
Eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat, tongue of dog and adder’s fork could not have devastated a personality more.
By contrast, Grace was a member of the First Presbyterian Church. When she proudly recited that part of her curriculum vitae to new acquaintances, the inflection suggested that, for her, the word “First” was really the noun in the title.
In middle-age, Meg possessed an enviable public profile: an attractive physical appearance, a bubbly personality, a faithful, loving husband who was the cantor at their church, a beautiful house in an upper-class neighborhood, successful children, a good education which endowed her with an intellectual curiosity, good manners, a well-rounded sense of humor, and an admirable ethical code.
It is startling irony that ingredients which should have produced a supremely confident, proud woman included a hidden one that robbed her of all self-esteem and left a person craving public humiliation and dominance.
Nature always provides a predator to exploit weaknesses; it keeps a species’ gene pool strong. Grace was the mall’s predator.
Grace controlled Meg with an invisible bridle, bit, and reins, dictating social events to attend, vacation itineraries, the five-day-a-week schedule for mallwalking, determining which walkers could join them, and who should be greeted or ignored.
Meg was once rebuked for greeting the “Hee Haw” twins, two jolly, stocky, plaid-flannel-wearing middle-aged men one could easily have envisioned popping out of the cornfield in country music great Roy Clark’s long-running television variety show (from which their mall nickname derived). Grace deemed the jolly couple as potentially dangerous.
A more hideous side to this relationship’s profile was revealed by Meg’s propensity not only to absorb insults like a sponge but to eagerly share them with virtual strangers. She became a Phantom of the Opera who delighted in pulling the mask off and startling the public.
Grace persistently disparaged Meg’s clothes, furniture, husband, and relatives in a very personal way. At one party she loudly proclaimed that Meg’s dress was “so awful that it should be immediately discarded.”
When Meg proudly showed her home to Grace for the first time, she heard: “This stuff should all go to Goodwill.” When her husband gave her a mink coat one Christmas, she was lacerated by Grace with: “It’s about time he gave you something nice.”
Sufferance was the only response—ever. Meg meekly refused to attack, defend, or retreat on behalf of herself or those she loved. She would somberly repeat the insulting stories to virtual strangers at the mall, thereby constructing a reputation—which she perversely relished—as a doormat. But after complaining to someone sotto voce, as though her mistress might be eavesdropping, she would never answer the inevitable question: “Why do you walk with and tolerate her?”
Rachel met Grace on the high-rent fourth floor—its exclusivity and architectural appeal made it the only floor Grace would frequent—and she would become a fascinating near-miss for Grace. Underestimated, but, unlike Jack and Bernard, a potential victim rather than an adversarial sparring partner, Rachel was a popular, sought-after walking partner. Grace wanted nothing to do with the unattractive or the down-and-out.
Bubbly, outgoing, and self-assured; Rachel had a PhD, a robust interest in literature, and a family with lots of Ivy in its résumé. Her intellectual assets far superseded Meg’s and earmarked her as caviar for Grace’s self-indulgent emotional smorgasbord. If psychic salivation were tangible drool, “Death by drowning” would have headlined Grace’s obit.
Insults, invitations, and officiousness pounded Rachel like Niagara: “flabby arms,” “bad marriage,” “your son-in-law’s PhD in history is an improvident pursuit,” “your bangs are too long,” “get a haircut,” “come visit Bernard at the hospital with me,” “come to lunch at my new house,” “walk with me outdoors at the nearby college,” “swim with me at my pool,” “let me help choose your daughter’s college,” “let me help plan your trip to England,” “your travel agent is wrong, Covent Garden is not a safe area to stay in London.”
Though non-confrontational to an extreme, Rachel was a self-confident supervisor of teachers-in-training for special-needs children, so naiveté was not a weakness. The web that seemed invisible to Meg loomed as a stone wall festooned with garish neon lights for Rachel. Strong, healthy bugs see it, and, if snared, break out of the spider’s web—nature wants them to live and breed.
Rachel’s self-respect and her far-reaching compassion for special-needs people each donned battle garb, faced-off, and began a stressful confrontation. Self-respect won.
Concluding that Grace’s behavior was seminal rather than episodic aberrations curable by tolerance, empathy, and a little subtle steering, she plotted a strategy of evasion.
Something always drew her back.
Rachel fell into a dangerous cycle with Grace: walk, endure insults to herself and others she admired, evade, forgive, and walk again. Meg confided to others that this was driving Grace to distraction. Determined to unravel the mystery of Rachel’s periodic disappearances, Grace delegated sleuthing duties to Meg, who is to conversation as copper is to electricity—a perfect conductor. “You’re negative and insulting,” was the ultimate report from the double-agent, explaining Rachel’s absences.
I once questioned Rachel about her vacillating resolve on avoiding Grace, and she likened the relationship to the lure of a train-wreck. “It’s too fascinating not to be drawn to it, but then you’re repulsed by what you find.”
Soon after receiving Meg’s report, Grace ambushed Rachel from a fourth floor alcove one morning and self-righteously proclaimed that she was not a negative person nor did she ever insult people. “People love me!”
Disarmed by the ambush, Rachel not only meekly failed to assert her honest feelings, but apologized to Grace.
The Dominatrix called Meg that evening to gloat over this turn of events, knowing that the call and its substance would be quickly relayed to Rachel.
After a week of self-flagellating anger, Rachel firmly resolved to quit Grace cold-turkey. This time Rachel’s cold-turkey would not channel Lazarus; it remained quite dead.
Grace is blissfully unaware of the hard-edged aura she exudes. While a bedeviling, palpable toxicity pervades the air around her and radiates like black sunshine, she fancies herself a lovable, teddy-bear-type.
Reinforcing this self-delusion of a whimsical and endearing persona is a house bursting with hundreds of teddy bears, many endowed with literary names. She lives alone and sleeps with a bear character of murky derivation named “Violet” while the living room coffee table is the fabled study of “Bear-lock Holmes.”
It’s ironic that the name of literature’s greatest detective should be invoked by one so clueless about life’s mysteries.
“Universally disliked; unceremoniously buried; eternally forgotten.” The perfect epitaph.
Perhaps her departed “dear friend” will one day welcome her into First Presbyterian’s vision of the after-life with a felicitous, “You died well Grace!”
LINKS TO RELEVANT SITES
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The Cities Destroyed