(This is the final installment. The story starts here.)
The Man Who Would be Guru, Part 6
Reductio ad Absurdum
Baltimore, Maryland 2004-2006
"Finding that those signature traits had endured intact across time and distance was as weirdly wondrous as coming across a woolly mammoth trapped in a glacier with its final meal still in its stomach."
In the post-Alain era, everyone in the former micro-cult grew up, fast, and claimed the lives that had been waiting for them all along. The single guy came out of the closet; the other couple got an amiable divorce; and Robert and I had our third child. Confounding ourselves and just about everyone who knew us, our marriage lasted another 13 years, and some of those years were good, although at the end we were hard-pressed to remember even one. When we split up, I dodged the alimony bullet — Robert's opening shot across the divorce bow was a legal attempt to make me responsible for his financial upkeep — but was winged by a massive, unknown-to-me marital debt to the IRS that I discovered only when my paycheck was about to be garnisheed. I mopped up the blood, ramped up my career, and turned to face the future, which was already looking much brighter.
Robert moved to a third world country ruled by a military dictatorship to sit at the feet of yet another guru, who gave him yet another spiritual name — two, in fact, both of which had so many syllables that no one from his former life could pronounce or remember them. He passed out of my family's life entirely. I met and married Jack; together, we put my youngest child through college, walked her older sister down the aisle, helped my son and his wife buy a house, and relocated, temporarily, to Baltimore for Jack's career.
Even with the assurance that we’d be back home in five years, it was a tough move. I’d lived in San Francisco my entire adult life. Now, stranded in Charm City and experiencing it as one of the least charming places on the planet, I was terribly homesick. I had been prepared to miss the people who sustained my life in the Bay Area — my kids; my friends and colleagues. But I was blindsided by the depth of a persistent ache for daily graces long taken for granted: ocean fog, wine on supermarket shelves, drivers who could merge down from two lanes into one. Leaving my past life felt like severing my shadow, and I missed it, a lot. Then a bit of the past caught up with me.
I had a couple of dreams in which Alain appeared as a supernumerary. This was odd. It’s not as if I never thought of him; he’d been embedded in my family's life for more than a decade, and recalling those years inevitably exhumed his shade. I hadn't seen him since he moved to Texas in the early 1980s. What was he doing in the margins of my dreams after so many years?
I Googled his name, and up it popped up on a list of lay homeopaths in Baltimore. Recent, vague visual memories snapped into high relief: the fellow customer at a little CD store near the Peabody whom Jack had noticed staring as I flipped through a bin of discs (“What did you do to that old guy?” he’d joked as we were leaving.) The gray-haired man and his younger companion being shown to their table at Petit Louis. The same two men, stamping snow from their shoes as they entered the Meyerhoff. I realized I’d been seeing Alain Naudé around town for months without ever really seeing him. Having filed him in the distant past, with a geographical buffer of a thousand miles, I didn’t recognize Alain in Baltimore because he wasn't supposed to be there, any more than I was. Now, connecting the dots, I recognized his companion, too: the pianist who as a teenager had moved with him to Dallas so many years ago, older now, as we all were.
Like San Francisco, Baltimore is at its core an urban village in which people who have interests in common cross paths frequently. Alain’s path and mine intersected one Saturday morning in the produce department at Whole Foods. I pushed my grocery cart to where he stood next to a heap of melons and said hello. He regarded me without speaking. “It’s Cynthia,” I said, throwing in my former surname — Robert's — for good measure. I waited, curious to see what came next, and completely unprepared for what did.
“Are you wearing a wig?” Alain demanded, without greeting or preamble.
Of all possible ways to greet someone after many, many years, demanding to know if she is wearing a wig is surely among the most bizarre. And indelicate, because unless one is a drag queen, the reasons for wearing a wig — chemotherapy, alopecia, witness protection, really bad hair days — are generally quite personal. I was so startled that I actually answered his question.
“No, it’s my own hair,” I assured him. “It's a different style now. It's been a very long time,” I added, stating the obvious.
This seemed to satisfy him, and he asked how I was, how my kids were. Our exchange was just as odd as you could imagine. Alain's mannered, twilight-of-the-Raj accent, still under full sail after 40 years in the United States, thickened with every word until he sounded like a Monty Python sketch about upper-class twits. My own stress response of effusive volubility kicked in, hosing down hidden corners in the conversation with a relentless stream of verbiage. Anyone overhearing the conversation might reasonably wonder if we were both bonkers.
Alain asked, “And do you ever hear from...what is his name?”
Who could he mean? He had my sympathy there — I forget names myself, all the time. I tossed out a few from the micro-cult era.
“No, no, no. Your former husband,” Alain said. "What is his name?"
I was stunned by a swift, searing sympathy for Robert, wherever he was, under whatever alias. He had devoted 11 years of his life, prime years, to seeking this man's approval. He had sponsored him for American citizenship. He’d been his loyal lackey, his go-to go-fer, his eager, abject, perfect beta. He had truly loved Alain, and grieved deeply after Alain dumped him. Now this man — the guru, the confessor, the father figure who for more than a decade had introduced Robert to others as "his son" — either truly did not remember his name, or else affected not to. Either possibility was awful.
"His name is Robert. Robert Cusick," I reminded him, repeating the surname for the second time in three minutes. "I do not hear from him, ever. I don't know where he is." Something in this exchange must have engaged the engine of our own ancient, dysfunctional dynamic, for after a moment's silence Alain again demanded, this time so sharply that a passing shopper shot a worried look in our direction, “Are you quite certain you are not wearing a wig?” You know, in case I had lied about it the first time he asked, or had the cheek to imagine that what I did with my hair was my own business. In case I had forgotten the particular attributes of the man.
And I nearly had. My world had changed, utterly, since I'd last seen Alain. It had not occurred to me that his world — that he — might not also have changed over the past two decades. But moments into our improbable encounter, he picked up exactly where he left off, all those years ago: an inveterate violator of personal boundaries, eternally entitled and terminally rude. Finding that these signature traits had endured intact across time and distance was as weirdly wondrous as coming across a woolly mammoth trapped in a glacier with its final meal still in its stomach: The Man Who Would Be Guru, frozen in time since his failed attempt to leverage four years as secretary to a big-brand spiritual leader into a power base of his own.
That attempt began and ended with a handful of young people who, growing up and moving on, became prey for a metaphorical last meal. Now, The Man Who Would be Guru was a simply A Man Unable to Behave Himself in a Supermarket, and I — quite certainly — was far too seasoned to be anybody's lunch. I said goodbye to him, and walked on.
Alain and I continued to bump into each other around Baltimore, and he invariably ignored me. When I was on my own, I’d make a point of acknowledging him, partly because it seemed so childish to pretend we didn’t see each other, but also for the prissy pleasure of that rarefied view from the moral high ground. When I was with my husband, though, I’d skip the social niceties. Jack is a physician, and the possibility that Alain might not have not outgrown his habit of greeting what he called “allopaths” with the jocular inquiry, “So, you kill people for a living?” was an effective deterrent to introducing them. I had witnessed such encounters more than once in the micro-cult era, and truly did not need to again.
A couple of months before returning home to California, I had lunch with a friend at the restaurant in the Baltimore Museum of Art. Afterward we strolled in the sculpture garden, scuffing up fallen leaves in the low November light. I saw that Alain was in the garden, walking briskly in our direction. As he approached, I nodded and said hello. The manner in which he looked away from me was so pointed and exaggerated that my chum did a double take. “Who was that?” she gasped, laughing. I told her that it was a long, complicated story, and that someday I would tell it.
Now I have.
Addendum, June 2013
Eugene Alan Naude 1927 - 2013
Requiescat in pace.