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The blues in the key of karma

John Lee Hooker

About a month ago, I got a Facebook friend request from a woman whose name sounded familiar. I couldn’t place it, though.

The moment after I opened the request, but the instant before I saw her picture, I remembered: She was my first serious girlfriend from college. I hadn’t heard from her in more than 40 years.

In that sliver of a second after recognizing her, I expected something to happen: a gasp, a surge of adrenaline, a quickened heartbeat. Instead, nothing happened. I was merely looking at a picture of a stranger whose name I knew. The not-feeling was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

I don’t remember much about her. Our time together occurred decades ago, and my brain has long since jettisoned those memories. Here’s what I do remember: Unlike my friends and me, she didn’t get high or use other drugs. She didn’t drink to get drunk, and she didn’t smoke cigarettes. She was a David Bowie fan. We never fought. That’s all I’ve got.

Our relationship ended when I dropped out of college in January 1975. She lived in a Buffalo suburb and drove down with a friend for a visit one Sunday afternoon that summer. It was like two people who barely know each other having a forced conversation at a wake.

That fall, I drove back to school for a party at the house where I used to live, and she was there, sitting on the lap of the guy she would eventually marry. I hadn’t expected to see her and immediately started avoiding her.

To get as far from her as possible, I snorted two long, fat lines of a terrifying drug called PCP (“angel dust,” in the parlance of the times). One online site says, “Many believe PCP to be one of the most dangerous drugs of abuse,” and I hoovered a snootful of it.

Before long, I was sitting motionless in a saggy recliner, seeing and hearing what was going on but unable to process it, much less react in any way. I was on the borderline of death. All I remember was her and her new boyfriend walking past me on the way out. In an attempt to be funny (I guess), she stopped, looked down and said, “We’ll just call you ‘Pass-Out Pat’ from now on.”

Later, I thought she had been unfair, because I hadn’t passed out. My eyes had remained open. My brain had turned into cabbage, that’s all.

Back to the present: I didn’t see any point in accepting her request friend because, well, more than 40 years ago and all that. The experience brought to mind one of my very favorite song lyrics:
But old times come on back again
When you think you’ve heard the last of them.

But what if it’s not a case of old times? What if it’s a case of these times, and they are lost too soon? Over the past nearly two years, I’ve been asking this about somebody I know (knew?). Half of my brain tells me this is life, and life only: People move away and move on. Accept it, that half of my brain says, and for the most part I have.

But the other half of my brain is John Lee Hooker, and he’s singing one of his hits, “Serves You Right to Suffer.”

I have to refer back to the first serious girlfriend: Before I started seeing her, I had been dating a girl whom I remember a lot about. For instance, I stopped by her dormitory one afternoon so we could go eat dinner together, and she was in the lobby playing the piano. She didn’t see me, so I just stood there and listened. She played beautifully.

We would walk to the downtown bars. I remember one fall night in particular: dry, a just-right cool, crisp fallen leaves, a full moon. She wore a white sweater, her long hair black against it. I was happier than I had ever been.

She also was an artist. The last thing she ever gave me was a full-size drawing she made of the inside cover of Led Zeppelin’s fourth album. The album art is a painting of a Gandalf-like man standing at the top of a rocky peak. It’s night. He’s holding a bright lantern at arm’s length as a person trying to climb the peak looks up from far below. “This is my message to you,” she wrote. I never was able to decipher it. It was the last thing I heard from her.

Our time together had not ended well. You see, I ghosted her to take up with the later girlfriend. The heart has a mind of its own, and mine wasn’t thinking clearly, considerately or kindly. This came back to me in a dream about five years ago, and the memory of what I had done shamed me. I wasn’t able to get over it until somebody suggested I forgive myself because I was 19 at the time and not very wise.

This is why John Lee Hooker is occupying half of my brain. He’s playing blues in the key of karma.

As I said, people change, move away and move on. That’s life, and life only. But it doesn’t stop John Lee from singing.

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March 2017

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