The Butterfly Nebula 3 – Gladys

July 20, 2013


I first met Gladys, my wife of 15 years, through Roy Erskine, a co-worker at Brainchild Scientific. I had only been working at Brainchild about a month when Roy asked me if I’d consider going on a blind date with a friend of his wife’s. I liked Roy. We were both Navy vets and had a few things in common. Roy was an electronics genius, and he was taking night classes at college to get a degree in electrical engineering. As it turned out, his beautiful wife Carol had this friend and she asked me if I would like to meet her and the friend (and Roy of course) at The Starlight Tavern, a local tavern we frequented where they made exceptionally good prime rib, and also pizza.

We wound up having fun that evening, although Gladys had not been what I’d expected. She was small, almost mousy, and slightly ethnic-looking, but she was cute and not unattractive. She didn’t say much, but she seemed to be good-hearted and interested in different subjects, including astronomy. The four of us carried on at the Starlight, and made a lot of noise, a lot of joking and laughter, mostly because Roy got louder the more he drank and began doing impressions of people, some of whom were sitting not too far away from us. After dinner we repaired to the bar for more beers and whiskey and cocktails until the owners kicked us out around 10:00 because the bar was closing. Roy smoozed with other patrons in the bar. He struck up imaginary business deals or bragged about the Yankees, about Maris and Mantle. He told everyone about Brainchild Scientific, about what a great company and retailer we were. Carol excused her husband’s boisterous, inebriated behavior. “Oh, that’s Roy . . . can’t take him anywhere.” I talked to Gladys to keep the conversation moving. I found out that Gladys was living with her mother and working as a secretary at an architectural firm. She had attended college for a year. We decided to see a movie that Saturday night and enjoyed each other’s company. We continued dating, and experienced a curious absence of rough spots which I misconstrued as the two of us getting along pretty well. We were married in less than a year in a small civil ceremony. Roy and Carol were our witnesses, and after the wedding the four of us, along with a dozen other friends and Brainchild employees and Bob Crane, all celebrated at The Starlight Tavern where Gladys and I had been introduced approximately ten months earlier. As we partied that day, getting drunk on Schaffer’s and cheap champagne, it felt that Gladys and I had come full circle, and that the tavern had marked the beginning and the end of something. I knew I was missing an important piece of the puzzle, or that I still didn’t have all the information, or all the right information. Gladys had been pushing for us to get married, mostly so she could be free of her overbearing neurotic mother, and I’d agreed with her, feeling that I might be ready for marriage too. I was settling into my job at Brainchild Scientific and my astronomy, settling into what looked like a stable life, and I wanted to be married. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.

But within the first few months of our marriage I’d begun to notice that Gladys was a much different person. The Gladys I had known during our courtship turned out to be a stand-in double, a representative of marriage potential, a rough, a mock-up or prototype before all the negative components had been added in. The most painful of the newly emerged negatives was Gladys’s constant carping on my astronomy hobby. Gladys didn’t like my astronomy hobby. She said that buying and building telescopes was a waste of money. “You don’t spend enough time with me at night,” she’d groused, when in fact I’d done nothing else but spend nights watching television with Gladys since we’d been married. The Saturday night Jackie Gleason show with the June Taylor Dancers was a mainstay of our entertainment, and I can still recall those aerial shots of the dancers creating ever-shifting mandala patterns. Later I would realize that Gladys didn’t seem to be at all in step with the 60’s, or at least its political and cultural symbolism, and while I wasn’t demonstrating on college campuses (hell, I hadn’t even gone to college), I at least recognized the zeitgeist taking place across much of the country. Gladys felt threatened by it all. She feared and did not understand the Reverend Martin Luther King, and Malcolm-X plain scared her. She didn’t like Bob Dylan’s songs because “he can’t sing,” and in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, as we were watching round-the-clock news coverage, Gladys had confessed to me that, “I never liked Kennedy. I didn’t vote for him. I wanted Nixon to win. Kennedy nearly got us all killed because of Cuba.” She had at least possessed enough sensitivity and compassion to acknowledge that the assassination of our president was a national tragedy, but she was also pro-Vietnam, or the US war to defeat a Communist takeover in Vietnam. As a veteran I’d agreed with her at first, however by 1968, following the Tet Offensive, I began to question US involvement in Vietnam and opposed any further escalation of troops.

After a year-and-a-half of marriage Gladys quit her job without telling me. Her reason was that, once we’d tried to conceive a child, she’d prematurely decided to be a stay-at-home mom, kind of as a way of forcing the baby issue. Predictably, Gladys’s unilateral and impulsive move—which cut off nearly half of our income with a mortgage to pay—led to a huge fight. But she got her way in the end, and stayed home, and for whatever reason, she was never able to get pregnant. We tried for about a year, and then more or less gave up trying for other reasons too. We had begun to drift apart sexually, or maybe just drift apart altogether, with lack of sexual activity being the obvious manifestation of the drift. In spite of our disaffection for one another, we still managed to have sex two or three times a month, but the sex was no longer planned around Gladys ovulating, and I’d begun to suspect that Gladys was now monitoring her cycle so that she wouldn’t have sex with me while ovulating—just in case. And that was fine with me frankly. I had realized that there was an unspoken palpable feeling that maybe our procreating was not meant to be, that we should not deceive ourselves by thinking that a child would somehow make a bad marriage better, or that we’d grow more in love. What a child would certainly do at this stage was deepen the trap and likely kill the marriage for good. And at first I’d foolishly thought that maybe it was just the wrong time for a child, but I soon reached the conclusion that with Gladys there would never be a right time, and maybe out of spite, or jealousy of me, or a sense of our failure, she’d decided to stay home permanently and watch daytime TV and grow put on weight. I eventually got her a dog, a black-haired mutt she named Benji. The dog wasn’t house broken, and Gladys didn’t bother to walk him or let him run in the yard, and every evening as I happily entered my observatory I would find a crude pyramid of dog shit waiting to be picked up.

By the late 60’s I was certain that my marriage to Gladys was in free fall. We had begun avoiding one another. I either worked long 12-hour days at Brainchild, or spent evenings with my telescopes. During this time, “The Age of Aquarius” as it was being labeled in the media and popular culture, we were doing a huge business in black lights, strobe lights and do-it-yourself light shows for psychedelic bands and be-ins across the region. I had helped maybe a dozen hippies and counter-cultural longhairs, electronics wizards, who’d come to the store to buy equipment they needed for putting on shows, or happenings, in Philadelphia, and North Jersey, and even New York City, mostly in Greenwich Village.

And that was how I’d met and befriended Cosmic Cosmo.

I had begun to feel an affinity for these light show wizards and was interested in what they were about. And reciprocally they were interested in all things celestial or cosmic, space travel, and science fiction. Astronomy tied into their drug experiences. We had all seen “2001: A Space Odyssey” at least a couple of times, and we talked about that space vision with a reverent and vaguely philosophical alacrity . . . I was older than the hippies. I was 28, almost 29, but somehow age wasn’t the difference, or at least numerical age. Some of the light show wizards were close to my age, but I felt cut off, not a part of the collective counter-culture, the love-ins, the demonstrations, the drugs and sexual promiscuity that seemed to be taking place everywhere in major cities, near urban centers or in college towns.

Gladys had an aversion to the growing counter-culture, which I believed made it more attractive to me. She called the hippies “weirdos” and “dirty, drug-crazed radicals,” and stated no interest in attending any of the shows or concerts that I had been supplying strobe lights for, even when I was given free tickets. I was hurt and confused by her “straight” way of thinking. Gladys already looked and behaved like a 40-year-old woman and she was only 27. Clearly, we were no longer at the same place in our lives, and I wondered if we had ever been.

One of the light show buyers who frequented the store was nicknamed Cosmic Cosmo. His real name was Frank Loyola, and because we’d both seen “2001” he’d asked me if I would help him with one of his shows because he was looking for a similar effect to the final space trip sequence and he believed I could advise him on the authenticity of certain astronomical phenomena. Cosmo was a physics major from Rutgers who bore a likeness to Jerry Garcia or a character from Zap Comics. We became unlikely friends, and to pay me back for helping him with his special effects, he invited me to a concert at the Filmore East —Quick Silver Messenger Service and Ultimate Spinach—and of course Joshua Light Show, “the most far out, fantastic, trippy light show you will ever see in your lifetime,” Cosmo told me. I’d begun to smoke pot and grow my hair longer. I started a fu-Manchu moustache. Gladys said I looked stupid. A few months later, in the early days of the crazy summer of ’69, I threatened to drive up to the Woodstock Festival but lost my nerve at the last minute, and that was in spite of or because of the experience I’d had several weeks earlier, at the beginning of the summer.

It was the end of June or early July, only a few weeks before the Apollo Moon Landing and Moonwalk, and I had stopped by Cosmo’s one evening to find a small party in full swing. There were about a dozen people and a few were tripping on LSD and psilocybin, and the rest were stoned on hashish. Cosmo had one of his light shows projected onto a large wall, and strange prismatic lights were bleeding and scattering and morphing with myriad amoeba like primal images accompanied to the music of Led Zeppelin, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, and others. I joined in with the company. I smoked hashish and drank Mateusz wine, and wound up in someone’s bedroom with a 21-year-old Rutgers co-ed who’d been crashing on Cosmo’s couch for the summer . . . A few weeks later, as I sat watching the astronauts bobbing like helmeted lice on the surface of the moon, all I could think of was the night I’d spent making love to that young but experienced girl, my senses buzzing to the pure light of flesh and intoxication. I had waited nearly a decade for the crowning moment of the moon landing, and it had been pre-empted in my mind by the memory of being fellated by a pretty young college girl.

The Rutgers co-ed was actually the second time I had cheated on Gladys. I’m still not sure why we’d stayed together through that strange, tumultuous but wonderful period of the late 60s and early 70s when it would have been much easier and smarter for us to divorce. We had no children, you see. We still have no children, and now we mostly go through the motions of being married, and sex with Gladys is once a month (if that) and more unsatisfying than ever. I guess we’ve never quite recovered from that enormous rift back in the Cosmic Cosmo days, and have drifted even further apart, and I’ve been mostly living in a dead marriage and denying myself happiness for nearly the past decade. My salvation has been to lose myself deeper in astronomy and telescopes, deeper into the outer reaches and wonders of our known universe as a means of escape . . . it’s the only way I’m able to cope.


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