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The opera singer

A woman thirty-six years ago changed the direction of my life and helped make me who I am. I dreamed about her again last night and woke upset and fatigued.

In summer 1985, I was 22. I worked in a liquor distributorship warehouse. We’d start at 7 a.m. loading cases of liquor and wine onto the delivery trucks. By 8 a.m. the jungle heat we have in these parts us drenched with sweat and kept us that way until we hit the time clock at 5 p.m.

As soon as we opened the doors in the morning, the nearby wastewater treatment plant filled the warehouse with the odorous fug that only thousands of gallons of human sewage can produce. The stench was so strong, my clothes reeked of it. I came home and smelled that sewage plant until I fell asleep or passed out. I’d been working at the warehouse for about six months and already fell into a routine of work, drink, and sleep.

That September I was ripe for a change when a friend of mine who was traveling in Germany called me from a broken payphone in Hamburg and extolled the wonders of foreign travel.

Germany! Vineyards! I had for some time been infatuated with wine. I didn’t understand this passion for what it was. It was as a ruse the alcoholic uses as an excuse for excessive drinking. Devotion to just such an illusion gives the drunk purpose and allows him to think he’s doing something significant with his life. It fools no one but the drinker. Every night I pounded away at beer, liquor, and wine. I always woke with a foggy head and walked around punchy until mid-morning. Every day, I worked in the stench, the dirt and dust coming off all those boxes, and the intense heat. And I always dreamed of owning my own vineyard.

“Why not come to where they make wine instead of living in a place that has no vineyards?” a friend of mine asked the night he called from Hamburg. I was already drunk. Finding a job at a winery in Germany sounded like a fabulous idea. (California didn’t come to mind.) The idea of selling everything I owned and moving to a foreign country seemed a fitting escape from the routine, sweat, and dirt. I felt as if I stood on the edge of a cliff and all I needed to do was jump.

Two weeks later, I had sold all my material possessions and got down to a backpack and a plane ticket.

I first met the opera singer at my sale. She lived around the corner. She didn’t buy anything but said she was thinking about taking a summer semester in new music at Darmstadt. I took her address and told her I’d write her when I finally settled in.

I found a job in Trier with lovely people. I moderated my drinking with a few notable exceptions. I wrote her and she decided to take a summer semester in Darmstadt.

We had a fiery affair. She traveled back and forth from Darmstadt to Trier on weekends. I lived in a small room at the time but had the run of the house of some friends who were often away on the weekends. The opera singer and I made love the way 20 year olds grind away at that zesty enterprise. We went at it at all times of the day in any room in the house, in the bathtub and on the washing machine, at the kitchen sink and in front of the television. I still think about all that gyrating with fondness. I was young. I was exploring new worlds. I had an adventurous guide and teacher.

Was it love? I was 23 that summer in Trier. I was living the sexually irresponsible life of a young man breaking ties with the repressive atmosphere he grew up in. Hormones and emotions had hold of me. Still, I’ve been in love now more than once and am convinced I was in love with her.

After the summer, she went back to the States. I convinced myself that she was true to me and looked forward to my return, a return I had not planned until she came to see me in Trier. When I came back to Kansas City, however, I found that fidelity was not on her agenda. She wasn’t interested in having a needy, naïve boyfriend who was, in the end, damaged goods. I don’t blame her. I drank all the time. I was backward and inappropriate. I was lost.

It wasn’t a fun relationship. I often felt ashamed and inferior, and she did her level best—albeit not consciously—to demonstrate her superior creative ability. This one-upmanship lasted until the relationship sprung apart. Regardless of her actions, my expectations and drinking did more to create a toxic atmosphere and end that relationship than anything she did by accident or on purpose.

But during our short relationship, she pressed me to open myself. Under the vineyard aspirations, I only ever wanted to be a writer but was unable to access the place where the imagination lives and works. She made me look farther, break open the door to the creative safe, and begin exploring myself and my mind in ways that seemed off limits until I met her.

I still dream about her. I never remember the details but the dreams are real and vivid. When I wake up I am always emotionally drained and, again, stunned at the influence she still has over me. I’ve been married for twenty-three years. I have two kids. And still, I think about her.

I have not seen her in decades, so the woman I dream about must be a shade of the one I left all those years ago—someone I didn’t know or could know. Or is she someone I imagine her to be and I’m creating a person from whole cloth?

She became a professional opera singer and, from what I gather of my internet searches—yes, I’ve done that—she’s built a successful business and publishing enterprise—around Tantric sex, of all things. I eventually became a writer and may not have done that without her. I started out on a literary course trying to impress her. That ended somewhere along the way. But I write today because of her. I have her to thank for my success at freeing myself from my pedestrian background.

Would I love her still? In truth, nothing would have worked between us. There was too much working class in me (still is). She came out of a comfortable life. While she was involved in esoteric creative matters, I wanted celebration of my commonness. I thought I found heaven. She had summer fun with a callus-handed rough. That dirty fingernailer came back to Kansas City chasing after the love of his life. It was a situation, I think, she had not counted on and that no one should be made to endure.

I still scrutinize that relationship. What about her so moved me? Why does she haunt me over thirty-five years after the fact? Why do I still need to impress her?

That last is the real question, I think. I find myself still trying to prove myself to her. She hasn’t thought of me and probably never had a dream about me. I wonder who I’m trying to astonish. The 21-year-old libertine or the person she is today, or someone between? I realize now that I never knew her well. I don’t know who she is today. Maybe I’m still trying to meet my own expectations. Maybe it’s me I’m trying to impress.

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