Sometimes a person has an effect on our lives long after they have gone their way and we have gone ours. A long, long, long time ago I was enamoured of a guy in New Mexico. He was beautiful, smart, and adventurous, and I was me, which is to say, pretty cute but terrified. Still I summoned up the courage (twice!) to visit him. The first time was filled with a chain of small and apparently trivial events that forever changed my life.
It was 1979. I was 27, just out of graduate school. Most of the people I knew were lawyers or on their way to becoming lawyers. I had been working in the development office of the University of Denver College of Law and then got a new job as a paralegal in a law firm that (literally) spawned David Gorsuch. His grandfather was a founding partner.
My friends were all about things. Fancy pasta making machines, elaborate camping equipment that took the camp out of camping, ergonomically designed leather furniture, Brookes Brothers Suits, the whole litany of “Holy shit I’m a successful lawyer now!!! I can have a two-bedroom apartment! Maybe even my own condo!”
As a divorcee living on the income of a secretary, I wasn’t living like that, obviously. One day one of the law students who was clerking at “our” firm said, “What’s with you? You think you’re going to come in here one day and be promoted to attorney?”
I signed up for the Law School Admission Test.
My journey to New Mexico had problems from the start — I awoke to find a flat tire on my car. I had to wait for stores to open so I could replace it. I got a late start. A few miles after I crossed the New Mexico border, I got a speeding ticket that I more or less flirted my way out of. I had never taken a long road trip by myself and suffered a few sessions of paranoia. I had no music in my car (a ’70 VW bug) only a tape recorder with two tapes, one Donna Summer the other Jane Oliver. Shudder.
I arrived at an empty house where the man rented a room. He was trying to get into medical school at the time and taking organic chemistry. He was a mountaineer who would make an attempt on Everest (North Face, Mallory’s route) in a few years.
There was a note on the back door, “Martha, If you come: I’ll be right back. I’ve gone to the store for groceries.” I was so late, that he thought I wasn’t coming. Back then there were no cell phones and no way to say, “I’m on my way.”
Because I’m a writer, and because back then I hadn’t found my stories, I naturally wrote everything down as if it were fiction, making characters out of the man and myself. For the sake of making it SOMEWHAT fictional, I changed his name to Charlie. We are in Albuquerque. Something like small talk has been exchanged, information about the flat tire, and we are cooking dinner…
“Let’s cook dinner.” He opened the sack which contained cheese and two cans of tuna. He handed me the cans and told me to open them, but I, who had never thought of getting my tire repaired rather than replacing it, didn’t know how to use his can opener. I suppose he thought I was some kind of pansy who had used only electric can openers, but that wasn’t the case. My can opener was even more primitive than his.
“I don’t know how to use this.”
“No. I never used one like this.”
“Here.” He showed me opening one can. “Now you do it.”
I did it and drained the oil from the tuna into the sink.
“What are you doing with all that good oil?” he screamed. “You’re wasting it!”
“You cook,” I said, and he did, winding up with a tuna casserole we ate with carrot sticks. Then, it was over. Everything had been prepared, cooked and eaten from one stainless steel pot. I loved it. No Cuisinart for this man; no fancy pasta machine. Just one pot, two knives, two spoons.
“That’s great,” I said.
“It’s all they use in Nepal, for everything. Cooking, eating, shopping. That’s what I learned there. You don’t need a lot of stuff. You shouldn’t have more stuff than you need because, one way or another, you just have to carry it around with you. The best thing is a thing you can use in a lot of different ways. So, this pot. I brought back two.” He washed it. “Come on. I have to do something. You can help.” We went into what had been planned as a dining room but was now a study. He sat down at the typewriter.
Next to the typewriter was a model of a molecule. I picked it up and said, “Benzene.”
“How did you know?”
“My husband — ex-husband — was a chemistry major.”
“You’re a writer,” he said, suddenly. “I’m trying to write my application for medical school. Maybe you can figure out a good way to say this.”
“OK.” It was the first time I’d heard that I was a writer. The idea was exciting.
“I need to explain why I want to be a doctor.”
“So why do you want to be a doctor? Maybe if you tell me, you can just write down what you say.”
“I don’t know. Inspiration? Inspiration, I guess.”
Inspiration. Wow. I was knocked hard. No one I knew used inspiration as a reason for anything. Reasons were money, success, prestige. Charlie had beautiful legs, a stainless steel pot and ordered his life according to inspiration. I was very, very frightened.
“What inspired you? Write that.”
“India. When I was in India, I saw so many sick, sick people. You can’t imagine. You want to see some pictures?” he got up from the table and went to his room, and I followed like a puppy. I felt like a puppy. I’d been taken in, fed, disciplined and now I wanted to stay.
“Here.” He handed me a big book filled with pictures. I was behind him, still looking all around me. On the wall was a photo of the Taj Majal. There was the dome, some minarets, a slight haze, a reflection; water in the foreground in which beautiful curves moved, curves like the necks of swans or a woman’s arm, everything your mind visualizes with the words, “Taj Mahal.” But, the curves were the necks of camels, not swans; the water was a lake, not the rectangular reflecting pool; the dome was not centered perfectly between the minarets, but stood to one side. The photograph did everything I believe art should do, force you to turn around and look beyond your expectations.
“I love this picture,” I said with solemn reverence.
“It’s mine,” said Charlie.
“You took it?”
“It took me a long time to get everything just right.”
So, now I had to imagine Charlie sitting on an unknown dusty hill in Agra waiting for things to get “just right” so he could take this picture, develop it, hang it on his wall in Albuquerque so that I, a person he didn’t even know, would see it.
That was the end of any chance for coherent conversation between us.
“Charlie” succeeded in getting into med school and is now a doctor. I succeeded in not acquiring a lot of stuff and keeping a comparatively simplified life. It all worked out. And, though I showed up for the Law School Admission Test, in the middle of it I realized I was not the LEAST inspired to become an attorney and I walked out.