Lifeline … A Short Story to Honor A Friend’s Life

Sometimes, gut-wrenching as it is, you have to cut the lifeline to save your self. Not because you don’t want to help save the other person, but because he or she, in their frantic desperation, gives you no other choice. No matter how hard you may want to reach them or how much you want to knock them unconscious till you can pull them to safety, sometimes neither is no longer an option because you see the tsunami is now on the horizon. In the flash of a split second, you must finally decide: be pulled down together or sever the lifeline in order for one of you to live.

Looking at him, you would never think of him as the drowning type. Solid and strong, he was more like an anchor. Floating adrift at sea, bobbing about, barely keeping my head above water for some time, I grabbed the lifeline attached to his solidness. I needed a rest, and if not a harbor, at least some solidness to ground me on the restless sea. A hand placed on his chest and biceps revealed the solidness of muscles well worked with weights. Long, strong legs carried his solid frame of six foot two and served as the pedestal for his handsome face, contoured with strong angles and pleasing curves that highlighted his quick-to-smile wide engaging grin brightened by his dancing blue eyes. Capping the statue of the man was a lightly curled mop of golden brown hair. David, how fitting a name for a statue.

His energetic swagger revealed awareness of his attracting visual impact, but it was Shakespeare’s eloquent words flowing out of his classic-trained booming voice and his well-honed emotionally painted face that drew people to him like worker bees to the sweetest nectar and honey.

Words: beautiful words, spun a safety net around me, buoyed me up when I felt myself slipping away. They weren’t his words, but Shakespeare would have been proud of his passion and his delivery. Perhaps Shakespeare would have seen past his David’s pain, revealed by his jaded words and actions and let him reign as one of his great performers, but the world David and I lived in would not.

We dated briefly, but time revealed only tethered drifters we would be. As with any new beginning relationship, the first weeks lit up our lives, but soon our rebounding from previous experiences on solid ground, forced us both to let go, convinced this was just another disappointment to flee.

During the following weeks though our paths kept crossing. I would see David riding around on his motorcycle in and around the outskirts of Oshawa though and I felt an attachment still there. He did too, because one day he stopped, offered me a ride and we talked again.

A desperate story revealed a desperate man sinking fast with no lifeline to keep him afloat. Most lines he had severed, so jaded and angry he was with the world. Funding no longer available for his children’s performance company, no acting jobs because his resentment and anger was what people saw most and when it wasn’t, the pay so poor, the work growing less available, and even his fall back, drafting, which he excelled at too, had grown all but obsolete because factories were not only no longer being built but disappearing as businesses withdrew to places overseas or shut down completely.

All this, topped off during the time he was boarding in once what was a fine home, that collapsed in on itself while the owner’s coke addiction and unsavory business dealings were revealed as was the neglect of the mish mash of residents grew leaving them without heat and lights, backed-up plumbing, and crime creeping along the hallways.

He hadn’t told me all of this, of course. I discovered the state of his life when I stopped in to visit him and found him trying to live in the dark, cold, filth and despair of that house. I could not turn away from such need, so I returned his previous gesture and threw him a lifeline

This time the lifeline came in the shape of a three-bedroom apartment I rented for us to share as friends, since for both of us, money was not something that filled our bank accounts and lives either. Both of us had run through the abundance we once had, believing the same work and pay was just around the corner, waiting for us to grab, but when you’re adrift on the sea and not on the shore where most of the green is found, you can wait a long time to before you feel settled again.

David hated Oshawa. He had only moved into his friend’s house the year before after his girlfriend died because the events surrounding her death sunk him so deep into depression and debt. My reason for being there was just to be somewhere. David wanted to return to Toronto where the constant stream of life outside his door soothed him in a way that it repelled me. Not wanting to go, but not ready to be cast adrift again, I acquiesced because I was hopeful. Hopeful because David convinced me my paintings would sell in the city. Hopeful too, because I adapted one of my stories into a play that David hoped would not only return him to not performing, but would lead him to directing in schools. The sale of workshops to an elementary and a high school encouraged us to look up at the horizon again, so we packed up our things, including the third bedroom stuffed with remnants of his performance days; trunks of make-up, costumes, life-size puppet costumes, a clown costume and paraphernalia he refused to let go of because they symbolize the great joy and success they once reaped as the performer he was once and still longed to be.

We finally agreed on a small apartment on the east side of the city, just a few blocks from Lake Ontario, where the city did not squeeze in on me so tightly, yet brought him within ten minutes drive of the city he loved since his move there as a teen. Ten minutes also within the company of his teenage daughter: his one and only child, whose company he had to fight for most of her life. A child conceived without intent on his part, brought not only the joy of having a child, a lifeline he desperately needed to stay afloat, but also the anguish of manipulation brought upon him to support, at great financial and psychological cost to himself, to the point of poverty, the daughter and also the mother, for which great contempt grew and seasoned the relationships of both.

The workshops David directed on my behalf for the two schools were disasters. Residual anger dominated his life and his interactions with most people, though he was often unaware of just how much. The play was written to address bullying in schools by presenting stories of people’s lives to expand and develop the performers and audiences’ empathy and compassion, but David did not get the message as revealed by his direction, or lack of direction, to the students trying to master their performance for their schoolmates. My idea was lauded as one very much needed for students and schools, feedback revealed much work would have to be done, but even then it was unlikely their school board would recommend the two of us and the project be contracted again.

David, I was learning, his ego wounded beyond repair, would never accept responsibility for his negative contribution to events. Reluctantly, I started to acknowledge the pattern I hadn’t wanted to see before; he would always blame others and this time I was the one to blame for the failure.

For several years, tethered to each other by our lifelines, we each tried to put our feet on solid ground again, stumbling awkwardly, both scarred and growing increasingly embittered as doors on land opened and closed or didn’t open at all, sending us adrift again, looking for land hospitable to our needs.

During the next several years, David’s talent upon talent was revealed to me. His natural gifts and talents translated into a number of skills my small town, blue and white-collar mind had never seen before packaged in one person. As well as his performance talents, he could draw, by hand or on a computer, the exacting details of what people would view and read to create something from nothing, be it piping for a factory, the details of a house or the specifications for building an automotive body from scratch. From three-dimensional drawings, he shaped fiberglass and other materials into car bodies and built cars. David took the engines of cars and motorcycles apart to their finest details, and then I watched in amazement as he repaired, with whatever materials were at hand, then rebuilt, and restarted the vehicle, turning the dead engine into motion again.

Little jobs here and there, part-time, now lower paying than before filled the spaces in my life, while I tried to keep my writing and eventually even my painting dreams buried deep inside. Contract work for him, paying much less than before, and my own limiting circumstances motivated him to give his once very successful and lucrative traveling theatre company for school children another try. Unloading trunks, repairing props and life size puppet costumes, rehearsing moves to the recorded words and music, filled my life with new zest. I ignored, or tried to ignore, his verbally violent outbursts, writing them off to his frustration of working with an amateur, but one he admitted by hiring me was a natural. Frustrated too by the change in economy and arts funding, David had to lower price his price and then, the reduced number of bookings to those of previous years in his twenties and thirties, added unnecessary fuel to the fire of his rages, especially when it was discovered during the road trips for performances, that what was once a successful and satisfying venture was also now yet another losing, cruel game.

After trying to return to the many successes of the past, he found he could not go back in the same way, so he took another track, returning to the University of Toronto where he had completed his degree while living in Oshawa.

This time though, his love of words and languages, plus the hope of new opportunities to take his performance art to new countries drew him to study teaching English as a second language. His hopefulness tethered to me, ran like lighting along our cord, sparking me to give in and write a story once again; this time for a local writing contest. Winning a prize then fired me up to finally put to paper so much of what had been rattling around in my mind for years.

David and I both seemed to be gaining ground: me, hopeful as a writer and one day philanthropist, and him as a one day professional teacher, and performer again. Surrounded by people in the city and university, David came back to life. His need for an audience went deeper than just being a performer. He needed an audience to feel alive. I was glad he was finding an outside source, for I was growing weary of having to be his audience on demand.

Thankfully, girlfriends started to arrive on the scene. Again, greatly relieved, it was also quite strange. We had grown quite dependent upon each other to fill the social needs not met outside of our home, but our relationship bound us together because of the mutual need not be feel so alone in the world. In between the times of rage and frustration, we made each other laugh and we kept each other company in a world that kept pushing us off land, setting us adrift over and over again because we didn’t fit into the mold most people wanted us to be.

But when she arrived, I knew I had to leave.

Isabel was from South America. She was one of David’s students: a married one: a beautiful young woman who married a much older man to escape extreme poverty. Since our small apartment living room was still half filled with David’s mechanical and performance tools, the three of us barely fit into the remaining space in our chairs along with the television. Soon she was spending nights, her things finding their way into the kitchen and bathroom cupboards. Squashed between the bathroom and his room, the soundtracks provided by their presence in either were not soundtracks I wanted to hear.

I knew it was time to leave, but I had little to my name and knew not where to go. Faith was not something I had in abundance either, but it was the new lifeline I grabbed on and held for dear life.

Images of an angry husband arriving to reclaim his wife raced through my mind and I didn’t want to be a casualty of that war. Plus, with David now attached to another I was able to justify my leaving, though without letting go of the lifeline completely. What I did not expect after our teary goodbye was the ensuing monumental rage. Phone calls, texts and emails filled with hate assaulted me from across the necessary distance of four hours. After being at the end of physical violence before, I did not want to relive such an experience with David. Threatening police intervention, he finally stopped his psychological and emotional assaults. Arriving one day, he brought the rest of my things and took me out to dinner, telling me he had sent Isabel on her way and he wanted me to move back.

But I had let go of the chain our lifeline had become. I knew to survive myself it was the only thing left to do. If I didn’t, I knew he was strong enough to drag me down with him and I knew he didn’t want to go down alone.

David helped me to accept we cannot help those who do not want to be helped. Perhaps it is harder for a man because we’ve made it harder for a man to ask for help without him being viewed as weak.

When the phone call came from our Toronto neighbors, I was not surprised to hear Isabel discovered David’s cold body in his bed after she crawled frantically through the open window when he did not answer his phone or open the only door.

Greatly saddened by the loss of his brilliance and the tragedy of his life, relief also flooded my being; grateful that finally he would be at peace in a way this life had never granted him. Haunting me for months, I now know he is finally freed from his pain, empowering me to write his story for you. Maybe that was David’s hope all along.

April 24, 2013

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