issue 10

may 2018

losing linda

LINDA GLIDED ALONG THE SURFACE OF LIFE, like a bee checking out fragrant flowers, always in motion, never alighting for long. Our lives intersected only intermittently but at critical junctures. I missed a final opportunity, though. I found out this morning she died two months ago.

Our first meeting was over 50 years ago. It was in one of those godawful 8 a.m. seminars, an editing class at Cal in 1964. I was a senior journalism and political science major, writing a weekly TV and film review column for the Daily Californian. I was hunched over a news story when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone crouching next to me.

“Excuse me. Aren’t you the Pam Osborne who writes for the paper?”

Stunned by both the interruption and the polite deference, I answered quickly.

“Yeah. And you are…?”

“Linda Morrison.”

She had acurly crown of bright red hair and a lively expression on her wide-open face. I hadn’t noticed her before but I knew she had to be in the class. Who else gets up that early if you don’t have to do it?

“Hi, Linda.” There was an awkward pause. I could see she wanted something.

“I was wondering. I’d like to write for the paper, too, but I don’t know how to make that happen. Can you give me some advice?”

I was happy to provide the contact info and offered to make an intro. I don’t remember if she ever followed through but I do remember we developed a quick friendship. Not only did she live just down the block from where I shared a house with five other girls but she was in possession of aTV set, a rarity among us undergraduates.

Linda was warm, engaging and verbal but I wondered why she was in college. She was a junior, transferring from a small Colorado school. She didn’t studyand I never saw her read anything. She told me she hoped to become a stewardess for United Airlines, her father’s place of employment. On almost any given night, Linda and her roommate were hosts to a party. The booze would be flowing and the boys were draped around her like Spanish moss. Her lifestyle seemed like something out of a novel, foreign to anything in my experience. While I was undergoing major adolescent collegiate angst, Linda was perpetually cheerful. She had a look of half amusement on her face, her expressive eyes suggesting she knew something you didn’t. She was usually ready with a snappy, clever remark. She gave off the impression of buoyance, that her life was good.Was she as simple and happy as she seemed?

That June, I graduated, and moved back to the family home in Los Angeles while I looked for a job. I was in and out of a few and couldn’t get my existential bearings. Then I got a letter from her, telling me she was dropping out of school, moving to LA and wondered if she could stay with us for a few weeks until she got settled. Of course, I said. After a month of looking, she landed a job and moved to a small apartment in Beverly Hills, where the partying went on nonstop. Like me, she seemed to have trouble staying at a job for very long but for different reasons. I was peripatetic because I wanted to find myself. Linda wasn’t as introspective. She just wanted to have a good time. We socialized now and again but her lack of substance, alcohol abuse and her promiscuity pushed me away. She casually listed her liaisons with famous actors as if they were merit badges. My life was going in a different direction. We lost contact.

Flash forward nearly forty years. I don’t remember who was the initiator but it was immediately clear we were happy to have rediscovered each other. I was curious, too, about her choices and who she had become. My partner and I were considering a move to the Palm Springs area from Portland, OR. Coincidentally, Linda and her husband were looking for a place to live in Palm Springs after twenty years in Santa Barbara. She had used her journalism training, working as an adjunct teacher at a community college and as a freelance writer for a local magazine. When she sent me some of her work, I recognized her style immediately. It was so like her – breezy, nimble, with affection for her subjects. We ended up living within a few miles of each other in the desert.

For some reason I can’t recall, we rekindled our connection on a street corner one afternoon in downtown Palm Springs. Her hair was darker now but she was the same ebullient and smiling Linda. When I told her I wanted to hear all about her life, she suggested we meet at a local upscale mall. There was a public performance space that was nearly always empty and so we arranged a mutually compatible time. Odd? I thought so, since we both had homes which would have been more comfortable. Once seated on the deserted concrete risers, she began to spill her history.

“I worked for ten years in New York for some famous and infamous people in the fashion magazine industry.”

“That’s exciting! Who?”

“Oh, Estee and I were pretty close. She was a character but we got along like a house afire.” I knew she was referring to Estee Lauder. Linda seldom provided the full story. She left it to her listener to fill in the blanks.

“I thought you might have made your way there. You liked the glamorous life.”

“I did. I loved living in New York. But….”

I waited, hoping for more.

“I started drinking too much.”

That did not surprise me, given our experiences decades before. I had outgrown my early 20s beer binges but she had not.

“How did that complicate things for you?”

She laughed. “Well, I was unceremoniously canned.”

She told me she moved to Santa Barbara for a new start, met her husband, who had been a comedian and television personality. Soon they had a daughter. Linda said she had been sober all these years, after just a weekend aversive training class.

I was skeptical, knowing from my educational and professional background how recovery works best. “Wow. That’s quite a turnaround. You didn’t do any therapy?”

“Nope. Once the drinking stopped, I was fine. Alcohol was the problem. And then I met Willie and we took care of each other.”

She admitted the marriage was problematic almost from the start. He was older and paternalistic; she was passive-aggressive. She told me they had fought and joked their way through countless crises, had divorced, then remarried. I knew she was conflict-avoidant from stories she had shared. She was familiar and comfortable with things left unsaid and undone.

Our mutually revelatory conversation went on for four hours that afternoon. A few weeks later, we agreed to meet again, this time outside Starbucks. Having thought about her story, I had more questions. I still didn’t understand the preference for public meeting places but I would soon find out.

After we embraced and bought coffee, she took hold of my arm and stopped me.

“There’s somebody over here I want you to meet.”

Uh oh. I was immediately uncomfortable as we walked toward a table in the plaza. There was a man sitting alone and rose to greet Linda with a hug. He smiled at me.

“This is Michael.”

I shook his hand and returned the smile. In her letters, she had mentioned taking piano lessons and I thought the teacher’s name was also Michael. Was this the same guy? Why the deceptive, manipulative introduction? Didn’t she trust me? Or was this just her M.O.?

Watching their interaction, I understood what was going on. Still, we had spent all those hours talking about our lives, revealing deep feelings and experiences. Why hadn’t she told me then? Somehow, I felt violated.

Michael played piano in bars and lounges and worked as a salesman in a local piano store. As it happened, I was in the market for an electronic piano for my Dixieland band. A few days later, we met at his store.

He purposefully walked toward a large piano. “This is the one you should buy,” he announced, before he heard what I was looking for.

“OK. Why is that?”

“It’s a good price and it will do everything you want.”

I was irritated, feeling pressured by this ham-handed aggressive salesman. I had expected a personal interaction and got a shark instead. If he hadn’t been close to Linda, I would have walked out. As it was, I told him I had just started looking and I’d get back to him.

Later that day, he called and upped the pressure to buy the piano he had prescribed. When I was there, I had noticed a smaller, less expensive model, just what I was seeking, so I agreed to purchase that. He seemed satisfied and ended the high-pressure tactics.

Thanksgiving arrived a month later. We had invited Linda and Willie (who was still clueless) over for the holiday dinner. Willie had palpable ADD and couldn’t sit still for more than an hour or two. The minute dinner was over, he excused himself and left. When he was safely out the door, Linda reached into her large purse and pulled out another set of clothes. She entered the bathroom, changed and emerged, announcing she was meeting Michael.

The pattern here was disturbing. What Linda wanted, Linda got, regardlessof who might be hurt. I knew I had to distance myself, angry at being used. But I relented when she made a special request. I had been a singer and had worked with a software program that I could program with chords and tempos to allow rehearsal. Linda knew about this and asked for help. She wanted to surprise Michael by singing a song for him on his birthday, “Mr. Wonderful.” We sat down in my home office. I handed her the words and put on the music. She could barely carry a tune but with a little coaching, began to feel comfortable singing the song. It was a lovely way to surprise her lover, though I felt like a co-conspirator, aiding and abetting an emotional crime.

When Willie called me a week later, crying, telling me Linda had announced she had found another man, I didn’t know what to say. Willie and I had met only a few times, had little or no camaraderie and now he was seeking information about “the other man.” This wasn’t my business or my responsibility but they were both sandwiching me in the middle of their domestic drama.

“Who is he? Is he handsome?”

“Willie, I’m very uncomfortable talking about this.”

“But you knew about it, didn’t you? Didn’t you? How long has it been going on?”

“I think these are questions you need to ask Linda. I don’t want to get in the middle.”

“Can you think of anything I can do to win her back?”

I felt sorry for Willie. Of course, he wanted to know and was devastated. I called Linda, informed her of the calls, and reiterated my fervent desire to stay out of it.

We emailed now and then after that but I had no further desire to get together. We sent each other birthday greetings with a quick note. And again, time passed. Ten years, to be exact.

In the interim, life held some surprises for me, too. I now lived alone. Part of the process of reconfiguring my life involved redoing the house. The master bath remodel was sufficiently glam that the local paper covered it in a big Sunday article. A few months later, I saw an email from Linda, now sporting her “new” husband’s last name.

“Hey, stranger. Are you up for a glass of wine?”

I saw it as more than a simple invitation. It could mean she’s drinking again. We met at a bar at a country club at four in the afternoon, the only people there. Once again, I was curious. I still found her fascinating, so unlike me in many ways. What was her life like now with Michael and likely a reduced standard of living?

I saw her get off the elevator. At first, I wasn’t sure it was her. “Hi. You look great.” Something was different. A little heavier, perhaps, older. We both were the same age, in fact. She sat down and immediately began scanning the bar menu.

“What do you like to drink?” she asked, as if my choice would influence hers.

“I’ll have a glass of wine.”

She signaled for the server who was sitting at the bar, chatting with the bartender. They smiled as if they had met before. “What’ll you have today?”

“Do you still have the double for the single glass price?”

I hadn’t seen that on the menu but, then, a single glass was more than enough for me. “Sure.”

“That’s what I’ll have. Oh, and a side of sliders.”

The server looked at me. “You?”

“Just the single glass, thanks.” I turned to Linda.“Will you share the sliders?”

“Of course.”

“It’s really good to see you again. Can’t believe it has been ten years. How the heck are you?”

She looked at me briefly, then turned away, surveying the room without responding. Was the expecting someone? I hoped not. Please, no more surprises.

“I’m fine.”

I had googled her and saw she and Michael were running a small teaching studio for guitar and piano.

“How’s business?”

“Good. We have big plans for expansion.”

“Sounds great. Like what?”

She didn’t respond. She shifted in her chair.

“I saw the article about your bathroom.”

“Oh, yeah. They did a great job. I’m very pleased. It’s gorgeous.”

“It said you were living alone.” She looked at me expecting a clarification I really didn’t want to give. It was way too involved and would have required another one of our four-hour time blocks to get through it all. I gave her a quick explanation which involved describing a few of the tell-tale symptoms of dementia. She perked up and looked directly into my eyes.

“What were the symptoms?” She hadn’t taken in the info I had just given her.

But I didn’t want to get into this at all and was puzzled about why we were talking about someone who wasn’t there. Was this the reason for the meeting? There was something she wasn’t telling me, as always. It felt like a game and I didn’t know the rules.

“Well, as I said, they weren’t the classic signs, really. It’s an idiosyncratic set of symptoms. It was a tough time.” She kept pressing. I watched her down her big glass of red wine, order another and wondered if she might be having some troublesome and confusing symptoms, herself. Her conversation seemed to lack linearity, her references disconnected. I changed the subject, seeking a focus.

“How are things going with Michael?” I thought that if she were asking me about my relationship, she needed to offer an emotional quid pro quo. What came out was not what I expected. For the next 20 minutes or so—it could have been longer—she described in excruciating detail an event that had happened recently. Michael’s car had died on the freeway and Linda’s attempts to pick him up involved miscommunications that ultimate left him stranded there for hours. I wondered why she was sharing this trivial story but she was quite animated while recounting it. It was the sort of amusing anecdote you’d tell to an acquaintance at a cocktail party.

By the time she concluded the story, my boredom threshold had long been crossed. I was disappointed there had been no real connection, more like two acquaintances exchanging stories about other people. We agreed to meet again soon. In her mind, we had resumed our friendship. For me, I welcomed another hiatus. Other than the query about why I was living alone (which was obviously not about me) there had not been a single question. Was it a lack of curiosity or something else?

Over the two years since that meeting, I have thought about her often. I missed her bubbly exuberance, then realized it had been absent during our last meeting in the bar. She wasn’t there very much at all; she was preoccupied. I had known better than to probe, recognizing her penchant for secrecy and covert lying. But now, I was feeling a need to check back in.

I sent a light, casual, “Let’s not let another ten years go by” email. I sent it to the address she said she’d never give up and it bounced back. So I sent it to their music studio and within ten minutes I got a reply, reprinted here the way it came. “Sorry pam I died last July. Sorry Pam, I was so devasted by Linda’s passing that I neglected to inform a everyone. My sincere apologies.”

At first, I thought it might be one of Linda’s clever jokes, that she just didn’t want to get together. But the spelling and punctuation errors told me it hadn’t been sent by her. It was from Michael. But why? How? I had to know.

Michael was kind enough to respond. He had not known the extent to which she drank, he wrote, or noticed the depletion of their funds. Like any good alcoholic, she cunningly kept it from him. In his responsive email, Michael said, “Basically, Linda drank herself to death.” Of course, he misses her and so will I. Or at least the upbeat, positive, funny young woman I met when we were both 20 and stillso hopeful about our lives.

Pam Munter Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram (Nicholas Lawrence Press, 2005) and AlmostFamous: In and Out of Show Biz (Westgate Press, 1986). She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Her many lengthy retrospectives on the lives of often-forgotten Hollywood performers and others have appeared in Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age. More recently, her essays and short stories have been published in The Rumpus, Matador Review, The Manifest-Station, Litro, The Coachella Review, Communicators League and others. Her play Life Without was a semi-finalist in the Ebell of Los Angeles Playwriting Competition and has been nominated for the Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Original Writing, along with a nomination for Best Play (staged reading).She has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

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