The Lonely Surprise
We were talking about the sculpting of moments because I'd brought it up again.
"I think it's an art form," I said. My girlfriend, Kate, nodded beside me. A hint of a smile graced her lips. She knew to anticipate the next part. "A deeply moving moment in life conveys, well, at least as much inspiration as a painting."
She was descending with grace down the staircase of our dormitory. I was thumping down the stairs just in front of her, grabbing both handrails and lifting two legs at a time, moving like a kangaroo or a hyperactive child. It was what I always did. The walls beside us were grey. The steps underneath us bore a different shade of grey with a darker edging. Kate touched one of the steel railings as she turned a corner. When we arrived at the bottom, I landed with two feet together. A few steps beyond, we transitioned from the tiles to a strip of brown carpet.
Everything about our scenery seemed uninspired. But it was college. It was a dorm. Anyway, the students seemed so alive, sometimes, that meeting them in a dull setting felt almost unreal. You could be walking among the stained greys and browns with your footsteps echoing like in an abandoned building; then you would glance up and spot someone at the other end of the hall and feel for an instant like you were encountering a spectre in a graveyard. Look, we have found unexpected life amidst these ruins.
"Or like a scene from a dance?" Kate suggested.
"Even better, yes."
My comparison to paintings came from my reactions to them. Images gave me ideas and impressions but they were never transformational for me in the way books were. This was my sense of most of life's planned moments, too. On the occasions when other people had planned something for me, their event seemed inevitably to be a brief handshake or an award.
Here's a painting scholarship - and a pause for a photo. Here's your sixth grade diploma - with a handshake and flash photograph. Here's your swimming trophy - handshake. Here's your birthday song - and a slice of cake. Here's another diploma - and a photo. As with a painting in a museum, there was usually a visual element to the organized moments. My parents pasted the photo prints into a book to be regarded with embarrassment later. (The embarrassment came from me. I usually experienced it when looking at my plaid trousers or something similar.)
My parents were exceptions. My mother, at least, was a planner and a wrapper of presents. But I didn't have much context for their actions. I liked buying and making presents myself. I planned a great deal about each gift. But it didn't seem to be as much of a thing with my peers. Most of my friends didn't seem to enjoy the planning as much as I did. Still, once or twice, some of them showed forethought directed my way and it stunned me. Another teenager at work, Adam, copied music onto a tape and gave it to me. The effort gave me a hint of the transformational feeling I sometimes got from books. It was a feeling of commitment. At the least, sharing passions about punk and new wave music shifted Adam and I from being co-workers into being friends. Later that summer, I left an album that I'd liked on his doorstep and drove away.
Kate, though, was a dancer. That was the context for her comparisons. She was right about how the shaping of a moment was like a part of a dance. It's what dancing is. So is love-making and, I think, ritualized fighting like tai chi. Sometimes, I'd include basketball in the list. These kinds of activities are not always thought of as arts but they are, each in their own way, designed to culminate in a particular spiritual effect.
"Sometimes I hear the music of bodies," I told Kate. Well, I heard the rhythms in women's bodies. The sense of underlying music was there at non-sexual times and in less sensual modes, too. When we moved together in a task like washing and drying dishes or in making the bed, it was there.
"You hear music in a lot of things," she observed. She laughed. With a shrug, she added, "But I do, too."
"I like making everything culminate in the right moment."
"Hmm." She made a more skeptical face. "Are you talking about things with your old girlfriend?"
I hadn't mentioned her. However, Kate and I had reviewed this topic too many times for her not to spy the influence of one of my former lovers, who had heard my ideas about the 'art of the moment' and turned them toward our sex life with good results. Her determination made for many learning experiences. At that point in my fairly young sex life, it proved important to spend time with a woman who talked about sex directly, who possessed humor and excitement, and who encouraged me to experiment with her. She had always felt she wasn't good at art but the art of the moment, at least, she spotted as being perfect.
We worked on the art of many moments. We played. We danced at parties where I was the DJ and at some others where I wasn't working and we were just part of the crowd.
Those moments achieved emotions on the scale of a painting or a poem. They produced slight transformations, sizable only over a great deal of time. I couldn't think of a single planned moment that made for an entire novel's worth of transformation. Some novels like Siddhartha, Le Morte D'Arthur, or Lord of Light had come along at the right time in my life to pivot my worldview. That hadn't been true with the 'art of the moment' so far.
"Let's forget it," I said. The subject of old lovers was a lopsided one and never a fair topic unless Kate asked. Not even then, really.
"We don't have to," Kate replied.
"No, it's better. Let's just have the afternoon out together."
"Okay." Kate's face relaxed in a smile and my heart eased with it. For a glorious moment or two, we walked in silence through the campus quad in front of the dorm. The January air was freezing but calm. The result felt awakening. Kate asked, "Did your brothers call?"
It was my birthday. I had hoped they would. But they had missed me calling them a week before and that one had been planned. Anyway, I knew I wasn't likely to be on their minds on a Wednesday.
A year ago, my parents had forgotten my birthday, a normal thing given how I'd been living away from home for a few years. Nevertheless, it also seemed unsettling, especially with regard to being forgotten by my brothers. I had fallen out of the thoughts of my entire family, it seemed. And so I had been, ever so slightly, dreading the possible loneliness of a birthday mostly alone, wanting to talk to my brothers but not feeling welcome to call them.
Kate, fortunately, had let me know she wanted to take me to an early dinner and keep my birthday celebration small. I felt good about it. Her affections reassured me that any stray expectations about my family that I hadn't fully extinguished would soon be forgotten. I would exist only in the moment and in Kate's presence.
Dinner in Amherst was unmemorable, which means it was probably good. I drove my steel blue Mustang there and back. At least, I know I must have. I don’t recall the driving or parking or walking to the dorm except for a pleasant sense of listening to Kate. But near the top of the staircase, suddenly I can summon up a vision of how it was.
We stood on the second floor landing. Kate moved in an unexpected direction. She didn't turn left toward her room but strode toward the common area. The light in the hall seemed dim but warm. She touched the common room doorknob. She turned her body towards me and studied my face.
"Did I give it away?" she asked.
My body language made her suspect I knew something. I didn't, though. She hadn't revealed her plan at all. Whatever she was talking about, the first clue I'd had was when her march up the staircase started seeming a little bit off. There were small changes she made that didn't add up to anything I could identify. She took faster steps, then slower, and she seemed a little nervous. It was nothing much.
Then she turned and I guess I hadn't looked surprised about it.
She opened the door. My internal vision of the moment grows dim at that instant, as if parts of the memory have been overwritten by my sense of astonishment. Light poured out through the door, I know.
I recovered myself and stepped into the common room.
"Surprise!" a crowd shouted at me, more or less together.
Six of Kate's hallmates, including Lisa, Michael, and Annette, stood in different positions around the room, surrounded by streamers and balloons, red, yellow, orange, and blue. Other friends had come from farther away like David, Andrea, and Mark. They totaled over a dozen and it wasn't a big room. Someone had brought cake. Someone else had hung a cardboard Happy Birthday sign with string and tape. Friends of ours from the other side of campus had arrived and helped themselves to the punch. Next to them, on a counter top, rested a punch bowl and a stack of cups.
"Holy crap!" I responded. Overwhelmed with an emotional shock, I had no great words to express my astonishment. "Wow!"
For a while, I walked and talked. I couldn't help thumping the balloons with my knuckles, as if I thought they might cease to be real. I ran my fingers over the streamers. The fragile banner, I didn't dare to touch. And then I noticed the cake. People, actual grownups, lit candles for me on the white icing. They sang a song. It was amazing. And off-key. They stopped once to ask me to hum along as they re-started. Then Kate tried to pass off the cake-cutting duties to me. Another woman stepped forward to save me the effort. She cut me the first piece.
Happily stunned, I took a seat. I gazed at everyone's smiles. I couldn't quite believe them. Our friends had planned this for days, at least.
"Oh my god," a young woman told me, hand on my elbow. "I thought you were going to catch me when I was in the fridge yesterday."
The stories began spilling out from them. Half of the planners had close calls to share. Chuckling, they confessed when they had made mistakes. Lots of the conspirators had grown suspicious that I was catching onto them as they slipped up. They thought I had clued in. But I hadn't.
As they sat and laughed with one another, I looked around again. There were so many faces, so many smiles. They were so pleased with themselves and so happy and relaxed with one another, it made me want to slow down time and linger in this moment.
"We really fooled you!" the woman said.
I grinned with her. Our gaze drifted toward Kate. Earlier, she had positioned herself at the head of the party with a taut stance and business-like expression. After the celebration began, her tension turned into something more flowing, a sort of ready energy. Her nervous joy and surprised-at-herself triumph were easing into happiness. She wasn't looking at me but she was grinning. She hadn't stopped grinning for minutes.
This is it, I thought. She did it. She created the art of the moment. It was perfect art.