Silver Balloons

I remember when I first spoke, my jaws shredding and snapping the wires of my six-year silence. Sounds of speech cracked from my mouth. I spoke, not perfectly, not easily, not always even sensibly: I stammered and giggled to the cabby who, growing more and more concerned as I chatted about my sickness, hurried me to the psychiatric clinic, where he then undercharged me, in sympathy; I rambled confessions to scads of phone counselors without last names; I seemed flighty and manic in support groups for grieving spouses. In my search for employment, I overtalked, confessing to anyone who would listen that for six years I had been silent. I was proud of the length of my suffering.

In Rhode Island, at my sickest, I feared that, if I were to speak in the open, my incompletely terse phrases, my unidiomatic choices of prepositions, and my imperfectly rhythmic syntaxes would rise like silver helium balloons out of my grasp and, being unfit for heaven, would twist and turn in the sky forever as suffering souls.

English, spoken by ordinary people--by an elderly man casting a hello, by a tourist asking a question, by anyone trying to make conversation--seemed to me, at my sickest, a deadly shrapnel of sounds. My then wife threw herself on these grenades by speaking for me. The sky over her, not over me, was filling with balloons of blunders in speech. Better her soul than mine, I thought then.

"That’s freakin’ nuts!" my friend Gary says today.

I like Gary a lot. Every time I look at him, he reminds me of Gary Cooper in a defiant role. He is much taller than I am, and in this additional height of his rises his duty to listen to me.

I had insisted of myself to speak as well as I wrote, and writing, during those years, had been an exact surgery of thoughts: Sentences, spoken as well as written, were the living bodies of ideas, verbs the hearts, nouns the brains, modifiers the bones and skin. A conceit above God, was how one counselor described it. On the lowest level, I was grammar obsessed. (Grammar-obsessed.) In how I talked, I had strived to outdo John Updike, in how he wrote.

Says Gary, "Who in the hell is John Updike?" He really does not know, and that’s the beauty of it.

For me, he was the father of my arrogance. I was 26 when it started, not long out of college but long in the vacuum they call writing. I had had some success, emulating Updike’s short stories. But not enough success. It was never enough.

Worse than being young, I was recently married and earning nothing as a writer and living in a Rhode Island town where that was the same as loafing. I hated my wife’s parents for their working stiff’s mentality. Get a real job, they said. You can’t make no living putting words down on paper.

Then something happened, I got quiet. "Took yourself out of the world in spite?" is how Gary puts it.

"In spite?" I say, playing it back to him. "No, in shame."

Shame. I will not say how bad my childhood was, what it was like growing up a Catholic in isolation in West Virginia, or how difficult it was finding my way out. Nor will I go on and on about my father. That is an overplayed American sob story. What is interesting, in terms of its sheer imbalance, is the fact that I had a big ego but little self-esteem. It was like having one leg shorter than the other and being expected to keep up.

At the newspaper where I worked after college, I wrote to impress, not to inform. It was not what I said, but how I said it. The sky was not blue, but azure. In language, I took on a pretentious crusade that ended up being a plain old complex. (If the writing is the writer, then I had a long way to go.)

It gets far worse, but all I need to say to fill in the blanks is that I lied, lied in marriage, lied in my heart, and beat myself black and azure along the way.

Gary’s story, in essence, is not all that different. He may be from Wisconsin, but Wisconsin might as well be West Virginia, and I might as well be the drunken postal worker he once was. And I might as well have his arrest record, and he might as well have my psychological profile at the Neighborhood Involvement Project. And on and on. Regret is what we have in common.

"But whatever you've done wrong," he often says today, "you shouldn't beat yourself over it before another day even begins."

He is right about that. What matters first is truth to yourself, thinking and acting in a way you approve of.

After two years, I am okay speaking again. I grumble about the lines. I yak on my cell phone. Every day is like every other day. I listen to Gary talk about his AA meetings, and he listens to me talk about my writing. Talk. It is a lovely sound, full of imperfections, beautiful imperfections. Today, there are no silver balloons above me.

"Who in the hell is John Updike?" I say, grinning.

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