Beautiful but Unlikely

boston interview
Jean was very pragmatic, didn’t suffer fools graciously, didn’t talk much about what she did—only actions counted with her, not words, not intentions. For a religious person, she didn’t seem very spiritual or nice for that matter—not a trace of softness or compassion. She wasn’t with Medicine Nonsectarian for religious reasons she told me at one point, but because they were honest and did good work. She had a distinct distaste for sob sisters, hand-wringers, and didn’t care for me, either. Apparently I was too much of a dreamer, a flake. She took to calling me “Gidget,” which I hated, for no apparent reason other than the fact that I refused to see the world in the dreary terms she did. I had tried at first to impress her with my seriousness (See, I’m like you . . .), but soon gave that up. I was quickly set straight. No one was like her.

So much for my notions of the road angels. A nurse by training and for the past nine years a member of Medicine Nonsectarian, the faith-based ecumenical nurses organization that worked in tandem with the International Refugee Council, Jean had brown hair that framed her face nicely, falling just below her chin, but she generally wore it pulled back in a covered rubber band, the short ends sticking out at her nape like an old shaving brush. She never wore makeup and had odd trapezoidal green-gold eyes and delicate features; however time and hard experience had worn off some of the fineness, leaving her eyes stern and her features less brilliant. She was plain, practical, precise. Her one concession to femininity was her penchant for dangling, intricate filigree earrings. She had scores of them, collecting them from around the world; I never saw her without a pair flittering prettily against her neck. Like her—fragile, brittle and thin—they suited her, and I imagined her sweating somewhere in some forsaken part of the world, surrounded by stinking filth, cradling a stricken child, the suffering eyes mutely focused on those earrings twinkling in the sun.

She possessed the ability, same as Lawrence, to make me feel small, and it was humiliating in an additional sense to be bullied by someone who was shorter and weighed less than oneself. She’d come home from her recruiting trips and bemoan the general moral fiber of the people she talked to (keeping me silent on any thoughts I might have had of volunteering my time to anything beyond my own comfort). They wanted to meet rock stars; they wanted to be Mother Teresa. They come, they go; they’re in it for the moment, then they’re gone. Over time I came to believe that Jean didn’t actually want them to be any better than what she saw them as; she didn’t want anyone stepping on her turf. She’d given up everything for this; she was the standard. A major case of queen bee syndrome, except this time it didn’t manifest itself in terms of men but rather in terms of good works, in terms of the moral high ground. In many ways she was everything I wanted to be, but I didn’t want to be like that if I had to be like her.

Jean belonged to numerous humanitarian organizations, including Human Rights International, and constantly received newsletters and information from these groups. I had let my membership in HRI lapse; for a while I couldn’t afford the dues, then had forgotten about it. I expressed an interest in this literature and Jean allowed me look at her pamphlets with the patronizing air of an adult letting a child paw at a book that was too complicated for her. (She’ll soon put that down.) But I read and reread the things, as unsettling and horrific as they sometimes were; they were the doors and windows to the more meaningful world I was searching for. A world where the courage to court the assault, the struggle to survive and triumph over it was dignified and held to true value, where people went beyond themselves, where violence was called by its real name. I’d go into her room when she was out on the road and take them to my own room to study, or pull them out of the trash to keep. I looked at them again and again; they became my spiritual tracts.

I thought about sending some of the material on South Africa to Lawrence, partly to show him how I’d gotten off my back, partly because it had always made me mad that I had never broken through the wall of background and race that separated us. A wall neither one of us had a hand in constructing, really, but one he evidently felt I had no primary claim to criticize, it being put there for my advantage. At one point I called Michael’s management group in order to get in touch with him (not wishing to speak with the immediate family), but was told Fremontaine no longer worked for the Raynes’s. Unfortunately, they had no idea whether the address they had on file was current. I copied the information and sent it to the address they gave me (Hey—remember me?), but never got a reply.

Then one day sifting through these clues and markers, laboriously lifting, moving the rubble, I uncovered an opening. Maybe it was just time. Sitting cross-legged on my bed, I opened the latest HRI quarterly I had filched from Jean’s mail pile on the dining room table, drawn again to that disturbing world. The middle spread was a reprint of The Boston Globe’s weekly magazine feature, “The Boston Interview,” from October of last year. The subject: Boston’s own Ross Fowler, one of HRI’s bright and dedicated young lawyers just back from Central America. The accompanying photo struck me even though it wasn’t a great shot; it was hard to tell exactly what he looked like: a lanky man in shirtsleeves, jeans, sunglasses, dark hair caught in a ponytail at the back of his neck as was the fashion, sitting on a rocky ledge with some farmers somewhere in the Guatemalan countryside. He could’ve been any hip young man—an anthropologist, a Peace Corps volunteer, an engineer.

I stared at this photo for a long time, there was something there I just couldn’t quite see, something spoke to me, him sitting there, me sitting here. Life was there—in all its bloody reality. I read the article, then read it again. I leaned back against my pillow, pressing the paper to my chest, staring up at the New Year’s sleet hitting and sliding down my bedroom windowpane. His words turned the world slightly: ‘There can be no justice, no legitimacy conferred on any government, without an end to impunity for perpetrators of human rights abuses.’ Thoughtful, non-self-aggrandizing words, telling these people’s story, saying what needed to be done, not making it more or less than it was. Stubborn words. Words that never acknowledged the suspicion, condescension laced throughout the interviewer’s questions: (Things will never change. Why aren’t you home makin’ money?)

‘Here’s what I want to do. What I want to be,’ I thought, but never would on either count. I lacked the inner resources. Without any knowledge of any of us, this man whose thoughts rather than face I could conjure, showed up my treading time to be an unconscionable waste, made Michael seem childish, Jean arrogant and unkind. I never thought anyone could accurately articulate what I hoped and dreamed in my finer moments. We all had these finer moments, but were quickly taught to devalue them. Here he was giving them full weight. I knew now I was not the only one, that I’d been right to pull toward what I wanted. The voice inside my head poked at me, saying, ‘See . . . see . . . you were right; you were right. You were right all along.’

I went for a walk to discharge some of the emotion, feeling impervious to the lashing, blowing snow, and the world seemed different to me, all the possibilities previously robbed put back. Maybe I couldn’t do what I wanted, but I would want what I wanted, because I had my proof now that it could be done. I did not question this. I’d looked down that road many times before, but there had never been anyone there. Now I could see the footprints; now I could sense the heartbeat, the living breathing presence of someone just beyond the next bend. My life was so changed that stormy afternoon that I did not find it fantastic to be wandering around alone on the empty icy streets in the middle of a Nor’easter, but wondered instead at the traffic lights routinely blinking in the wailing blackness and the snowplows doing their usual gargantuan duty as if the landscape had not been irrecoverably upheaved.


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