The Unlacquered Puzzle
Preserving Puzzles and Friendships

 

A personal essay by Paul H. Belz

  

On rare occasions you meet individuals who radiate an exuberance that immediately charges you with energy.

Sparkling eyes dance with life and create a social field of gravity. Smiles are broadcast that welcome others irrespective of résumés, and purvey attitudes that raise the self-esteem of the meek and the grand. Any room these men or women are in is permeated with joy, and an infusion of happiness lingers through acquaintances’ days like the last stubborn embers in a fire.
 
Sally was one of those rare people.

Paradoxically, whenever Philip met such people he would be torn about how intimately to get to know them.

Should he keep the relationship shallow and preserve the comforting belief that their happiness reached the core, or, deepen the friendship and risk discovering that the exuberance was merely a curtain wall as fragile as those shrouding New York’s recent-vintage skyscrapers?

Philip met her at the mall in 1997. Many others dropped in and out of their conversations at random, but the pair gradually forged an identity as walking partners.

During four ensuing years of mallwalking, the tapestry of Sally’s life was revealed like a giant jigsaw puzzle, with occasional pieces completing a segment that led to a character revelation, much like research scientists piecing together experimental data leading to eureka moments. Those moments become milestones signaling a broader understanding of what they’re exploring.

Just as puzzle aficionados initially work on the most interesting, colorful segments, new acquaintances usually reveal their most interesting, endearing selves first.

The ugly and mundane can be saved for if and when chemistry ignites or a bonding occurs.

As with puzzles, small insights slowly begin to coalesce into an integrated panorama, giving depth and texture to the end product.

At some unpredictable point in both puzzle and relationship building a moment of decision intrudes—should I lacquer this puzzle?—should I preserve this friendship?

That milestone may be sparked by something trivial or momentous. For Philip, it would be her tantrum in 2001.

Sally led a visibly charmed life that most of humanity would envy and which outwardly left her inveterately happy.

Few who met her would ever speculate that appearances and reality might be out of sync. Only the incorrigibly cynical would reflexively presume that extraordinary verdure cloaks a boiling cauldron.

And so for Philip, the clues were widely dispersed and masked by the two walkers’ perpetually effervescent, ebullient repartee that led to hundreds of hours of mutual enjoyment without a moment of discomfiture or strain between them.

Her life was not unlike the Super Bowl contender that looks so good on paper and is so widely touted as the betting favorite that one gets the vague, uneasy feeling that this very excellence somehow becomes the enemy.

A pretty, PhD-bearing part-time faculty member at the state’s major public university, Sally had been married for twenty-five years to a handsome Ivy-educated owner of a thriving business, which kept the family housed in an exclusive neighborhood and financed the Ivy educations of their two gorgeous, outgoing daughters.

Sally confided to Philip that the girls had been such scant trouble to raise that she had guilt twinges when hearing tales of rebellious youth from friends. Unlike typical teens, her girls loved the company of their parents.

The family had experienced no significant health problems or serious accidents. Sally was a leader at her synagogue and contributed significant volunteer work to the community, as did her daughters.

She loved kids and had initiated a large reading program at a local hospital for which she solicited and collected thousands of books. Each Monday she or a fellow volunteer read to children at the hospital, and each child was allowed to keep their book.

She regularly visited sick friends in local hospitals and served on the National Council of Jewish Women’s local chapter, once turning down their offer of the presidency.

Had she been allowed to write the script for her own life, there’s little she could have added to embellish the rough outline.

Always bubbly, vivacious, and positive with Philip, it would be during a pleasant, sometimes comical conversation that she would inadvertently reveal facts that would startle him by their dark implications.

She would never dwell on these revelations and he avoided the temptation of turning conversational focal points toward them. Physically, their relationship never crossed the boundaries of mallwalking—hence conversation never ventured beyond the jovial and positive; a feel-good moment to inaugurate each day.

Some conversational exchanges and topics are better suited for stationary targets, i.e. seated participants. Activities where others may intrude suddenly and unpredictably—as in mallwalking—or that require your attention—as in driving a car, horseback riding, and rock climbing—are not conducive to deeply personal conversations.

While fast-tempo mallwalking is not an intrinsically intimate activity it does place moving bodies in close proximity negotiating crowds and fixed obstacles, thereby making collisions and physical contact inevitable, unanticipated, and, depending on the partners,—electric.

Sally and Philip frequently waded tenuously into the heady surf of sexual innuendo but never ventured into deeper waters, each fearing a different form of lurking predator.

Bumpings, touchings, as well as clothing choices, vocabulary, conversational imagery, complements, and eye contact were always cloaked in the veils of inadvertency and ambiguity. Neither was naïve—neither lacked perspicacity.

In “Paradise Lost” John Milton wrote, “the mind can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.” He postulated that people are only as happy as they make up their minds to be and that outward appearances often belie the reality within. Sometimes the verdure does mask a boiling cauldron.

For over twenty-five years Sally would pursue motherhood with a laser-focus.

After a movie blind date and a two-week courtship in the early 1970s, her mother had taken firm control of her wedding plans and the compliant daughter proceeded to fulfill the religious directive to produce more Jewish families by marrying within the faith and raising children.

Her father was a widely respected Orthodox Jew for whom passion, romance, and true love were required to play subsidiary roles to the mission of replenishing the worldwide Jewish population, depleted by the Holocaust.

Twenty-five years later America was a land where the exigencies of parenthood, two-spouse careers, and commuter living had sealed the genie of true romantic love back in its bottle.

What few vestiges remained were quickly spurned by those it embraced as they opted to worship at the altar of narcissism and technological toys. There wasn’t enough time, energy, or selflessness left in America to accommodate true love, leading the delusional to simply morph its definition to equate with child-rearing—itself a responsibility increasingly defaulted to local schools, the federal government, and corporate America’s day-care centers.

Sally and her husband Max subjugated their personal desires and interests to provide their two daughters with a fashionable home, a prestigious synagogue, beautiful clothes, travel opportunities, the best education America could offer, attractive careers, and a restricted social network that would assure marriage to Jewish men with similar or superior credentials.

                                                *

When their child-rearing was completed with spectacular success, Sally and Max were left alone in middle-age, incompatible but congenial strangers.

Could they then build a romance that hadn’t existed even on that blind date long ago, and, failing that, could each find sufficient happiness within a cordial yet emotionless relationship to sustain them through life to come? Each acknowledged the other to be a good person and parent, both were physically attractive, both were in good health, and they could afford to purchase any of life’s indulgences. Was that enough?

Philip was acknowledged by Sally to be the only consistent listener in her life—a revelation that at once flattered and dismayed him—and what he heard conveyed just how daunting the married couple’s task would be.

As a new millennium dawned in 2000, they were no longer wearing their wedding rings and had long since stopped any ritualistic acknowledgment of their wedding anniversary or their birthdays.

Max had become the stereotypical American male workaholic, leaving for the family-owned business at 7 a.m. seven days a week, returning at 5 p.m. for dinner, then returning to the plant for a few additional hours of work. He rationalized that it would be impossible to find a manager capable of replacing him even part-time.

Sally dutifully and punctually prepared dinner for Max each evening, but they usually ate in separate rooms, she to watch her favorite British soap opera, East Enders.

Conversation was restricted to the requirements of any house-mates; servicing the cars, maintaining the landscape, managing family finances, scheduling dental and general health check-ups, completing tax forms and preparing dinner menus.

Their family gathered for the major religious holidays and the couple cheerfully fulfilled their responsibilities as host and hostess or as guests, although in the latter role they often drove separate cars so that he could leave early to check on his business. Max only attended shul on important holidays, while Sally sporadically went alone to Saturday services but generally found them overly long and uninspiring.

Their house came alive only when the girls were home with friends, dates and eventually their husbands-to-be.

In the four years Philip knew Sally, the dysfunction persisted. Max was a wonderful father, adored by his daughters, and was a gentle, kind person, but one who simply ignored Sally as a woman and a wife.

Max’s friends probably heard the inverse of that story and only two people can ever know the unvarnished reality.

To Philip she conveyed fatalism rather than depression about her marriage. Revelations weren’t presented as complaints, just facts about realities to which she had become inured and unmotivated to alter.

Max and Sally’s only ritual alone together was conversation-less Saturday nights at family-style restaurants followed occasionally by a movie or a play.

That’s as high up the cultural ladder as they ventured together, although she did hold a membership in the region’s major art museum and attended alone once or twice a year.

Since their taste in popular films differed drastically—he liked action thrillers and she liked romantic themes—they rarely attended together. When they did go to a multi-screen theater complex, they usually separated to see different films. More often, she saw her favorite movies alone, in mid-day.

As a new empty-nester in 2001, Sally was not going to find life’s void filled by her husband, nor would her existing personal paradigm provide fulfillment. In raising her girls she had neglected herself. She had cultivated no hobbies.

She didn’t like to watch, participate in or discuss sports, politics, cooking, gardening, or house-keeping, nor did she share her brother’s passion, genealogy.

For house-cleaning she handed the front door keys to a Merry-Maid Inc. crew and left the home so she wouldn’t have to watch and wonder if they were sharing her ruminations on mysteries of the universe such as the accident of birth which left her owning those keys while they owned just the mops.

The closest facsimile to a hobby was her addiction (her word) to soap operas. The daily schedule accommodated over ten hours a week of an American and an English soap.

When conflicts were unavoidable, the VCR (video cassette recorder) was programmed to record the shows for later viewing. She played no musical instruments, disliked boats, water, pets and nature in general, and eschewed games such as bridge and mahjong.

Obsessive avoidance of the sun and the outdoors had left her with a wrinkle free middle-age complexion, the most enviable part of an appearance fifteen years younger than that of her same-generation female friends.

Mallwalking, shopping, soap operas, and volunteer work filled a preponderance of what solitary leisure time she had, with the occasional added diversion of a good novel recommended by a friend or her book club.

Religiously, though uninspired to attend shul regularly in the tradition of her parents, she was very active in community service, which is an important tenant of the Jewish faith.

Assiduously she attended a women’s prayer group each Wednesday, where the force of communal spirituality focused on each member’s intentions.

Other civic endeavors grew out of membership in Hadassah and the local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, where she took charge of numerous volunteer projects and became an officer in both organizations.

Proud of being Jewish, Sally nevertheless had a secret fascination with the Christian faith, regularly listening to a Christian radio station, while concealing that interest from friends and family. It was a natural but discouraged curiosity to pursue knowledge of the culture in which you were permanently immersed as a minority.

Most people in her life were important because she was serving them; her husband, her children, her church committees, her students at the university, and the friends she visited in the hospital regularly.

Any sense of self-importance had to come from within. Her closest, long-time friends regularly met her for lunch at area restaurants, with Sally typically serving as a stoic listener for their litanies of chronic illnesses and wayward progeny.

No one regularly asked her opinions, complemented her or did anything to make her feel special. Both parents were deceased and a brother was her only sibling, visiting from Canada rarely. Formality rather than intimacy colored those visits since he stayed at a hotel rather than at Sally’s spacious home.

This one-sided life paradigm was exacerbated because she was extremely non-confrontational. She feared confronting her husband about their marriage because he was a nice guy and she didn’t want to hurt him. The community might perceive her as a spoiled housewife and villain, and, since the girls were her entire life, she harbored the paralyzing fear that they might side with Max.

The couple needed to but recoiled from confronting their daughters about the huge credit card debt in which they mired the family.

As the girls approached adulthood, neither Max nor Sally wanted to risk a lifetime of estrangement from what they loved most in life, particularly if their own marriage disintegrated. So when a daughter wanted to fly to New York to visit friends she simply did so using the family credit cards.

When Sally’s students took advantage of her she acquiesced, and, in order to avoid confrontations gave them grades exceeding what they had earned. When home contractors took advantage of her she simply paid them and hired another to complete the job.

                                               *

Despite the myriad abuses she had silently tolerated over the course of decades, she finally chose Philip to become confrontational with, transferring pent-up anger born of many sources into a paroxysm of rage.

Philip hadn’t the slightest premonition that the boiling cauldron was about to explode, as all steam containers do when pressure becomes excessive. The two had enjoyed each other’s company immensely throughout May of 2001, but, inexplicably, she began walking with another male partner in June, virtually ignoring her friend throughout that month. He assumed she had simply grown bored with him.

Philip had always steeled himself to focus on the twin mall goals of exercise and writing, and resolved that no interpersonal relations would derail that agenda. Stoically he accepted that his friendship with Sally might be ebbing. She was a married woman and they both fastidiously maintained mallwalking as the boundary of their relationship. Even seated post-walk coffee chats were off-limits. Without walking there was nothing to share.

His philosophy of life incorporated Ben Franklin’s belief that one’s best interests are served by being civil to all, even enemies when unavoidably thrust into their company.

Philip was pleasant to everyone at the mall, including Grace, the mall’s bête noire and gossip nonpareil, disliked and avoided by most but particularly despised by Sally.

He reasoned that being unfriendly to anyone early in the morning probably wouldn’t alter the behavior causing his displeasure but would definitely leave him feeling distracted and unpleasant the entire day.

It was on the twenty-eighth of June that he was walking alone on the fourth floor when Grace suddenly approached from behind and joined him uninvited. Within seconds Sally appeared on the opposite promenade and observed the two in pleasant, animated conversation. Philip excused himself and joined Sally.

She immediately unleashed what could only have been years of frustration deflected from her husband, daughters, students, contractors, employers, and relatives. The degree of venom delivered for the perceived offense of socializing with Grace was analogous in Philip’s mind to using a cruise missile against a jaywalker. There had to be another motivating force.

No one could hate a mere gossip with the intensity displayed in the speech, eyes and body language now directed at Philip for the sin of innocuously greeting the gossip-monger whom Sally despised.

He surmised that the rage was vented on him because the cauldron was overdue to explode and he was the most expendable person in Sally’s life. His disappearance wouldn’t rock the comfort zone she had been ensconced in for many years.

Philip was stunned into an excruciating silence until she mercifully made her exit from the mall. The outburst’s fifteen minutes had seemed an eternity. They had been the first unpleasant moments he’d ever spent with her.

Behavioral course corrections had previously been communicated through good-natured chiding with sufficient edge to convey expectations. Their camaraderie had been an ethereal delight for four years and by outward appearances that feeling was mutual. Love passed between their hearts but too many demons had prevented the words from ever flowing.

She never returned to walk that mall again.

Such experiences do leave ghosts. There is no emotional chemotherapy to remove the far-reaching tentacles of an excised relationship; there’s no faucet to turn off the night’s fantasies; there’s no exorcism to quickly purge intruding memories which sadistically choose inopportune moments for their hauntings.

Upon reflection he was deeply wounded by the realization that her paranoia over an inconsequential gossip superseded what he had deluded himself into believing was an enduring friendship.

A searing edge to that wound was her presumption of censorship authority over his life, a self-empowerment tinged with arrogance given her selection of an alternative walking partner for the month just prior to delivering her verbal assault.

The final laceration was that her actions broadcast the conviction that he was incapable of changing behavior through rational discussion, thereby justifying the tirade over his unbridled politeness to someone she despised.

                                                *

Perhaps Sally needed to explore a road never traveled, to find a soulmate who was demonstrative about worshiping the larger essence that encompassed her motherhood; who could help unearth skills and emotions long-dormant or never cultivated; whose empathy would facilitate the articulation of her fears and aspirations, and whose non-judgmental support would give her the courage to step out of her comfort zone to pursue initiatives which would enable her multi-dimensional essence to germinate and flower: or perhaps all she was capable of would be a new perspective on the life she’d already fashioned.

If she found neither the soulmate nor the new perspective, the cauldron would again begin percolating toward a traumatic day with a future disposable friend.

As he resumed partner-less mallwalking, Philip reverted to his Emily Dickinson-like people-watching rituals; walking all four floors of the mall instead of one, observing and creatively daydreaming, pleasantly greeting many, regularly interacting with some, occasionally walking briefly with a few, but intimately bonding with none.

Pre-dating Sally, that formulaic ritual had always been a relaxing, effective method for triggering his writer’s “flow” at the start of the day.

Philip’s emotions and intellect wrestled with the issue of whether to once again reserve the mall venue as a detached writer’s private laboratory, or leave his soft emotional underbelly susceptible to the next pair of sparkling, effervescent eyes that might draw him into their field of gravity.

A four-year puzzle is a lot of work if it goes unlacquered.

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Eventually decisions must be made whether to lacquer a puzzle, seal a friendship or continue a marriage.

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