when pictures fail me…
Learning that Martha was dead came as a jolt from the blue–not just because the evening air was so perfectly laden with the scent of lilac, or because the news was so unexpected. More likely it’s that the cloak of optimism I wear in the company of struggling loved ones had become as comfortable and well-worn as the Levis she and I both favored. I was “acting as if” Martha were beating the odds…and as if I were, too. I am the one always waiting for the other shoe to drop. But my money had been on Martha.
Do we ever master our demons? Or merely, if we are lucky, keep them at bay as they alternately snarl and snooze by the door, one day at a time?
Martha’s were on a very short leash, muzzled and quiet, when I met her. We first exchanged smiles at an AA meeting in the early 90s, recognizing each other from the karate school where we both trained. I felt a bit guilty, misrepresenting myself in that room of struggling, recovering alcoholics on Perry Street. I was dating one, and wanted to see what a meeting was like. Feeling a bit like a snoop, I told her the truth which she took in perfect stride.
We slowly became friends, mostly from taking classes together as we advanced from green to brown belt, levels where things really get down to business. Having started earlier, I earned my black belt before she did. But Martha seemed to have more of the “right stuff.” A natural fighter, she also assisted the hearing-impaired students in special classes, even learning sign language (which I am pretty sure was not required), all the while juggling school, a part-time job, and AA meetings.
I caught on quickly that Martha was intense about everything she embarked upon. Karate, painting and studying art, working as a sous chef. Not in a frowny, sobering way, but upbeat and energy-charged. And sober. Freckled, tan, blonde Martha had grown up golden in San Diego and ended up dead from alcoholism in Minneapolis. I wonder if, besides her disease, being so far from an ocean was also a kind of slow death for her. She had landed there for rehab, years after our early friendship, and entered grad school for art education. There were mishaps. A car accident and painful therapy. News from her was detailed yet sketchy, but very “Martha”: a boyfriend was in the picture, a dog. Maybe a couple of each. A part-time job in a video store. Visits to see her sisters, other travels. Personal art, always. School was difficult, but she was almost finished. I applauded her discipline and perseverance. Martha was a natural teacher, aiming for a coastal inner-city where she was most needed and where her heart yearned to make a difference in young lives. Not too far from an ocean.
At the beginning of our friendship, she had wielded her tomboyish appeal–no make-up, Dennis the Menace hair, and a lack of typical girl-vanity–in my polar opposite direction, while her androgynous GAP wardrobe camouflaged a gymnast’s body that bicycled everywhere, even the icy, wintry streets of Manhattan. (Even Minneapolis). Initially I thought she might be gay, but an ongoing roster of boyfriends red-flagged, instead, a certain vulnerability that would eventually manifest itself in a heartbreaking way. Just like that string of guys, I entered into her gravitational pull.
Martha sketched in her background with swift, colorful strokes and no self-pity. She and her three sisters were left orphans very early in their lives, when their parents died in a plane crash. Raised by her aunt and uncle in a casual, comfortable (and probably quite affluent) southern California lifestyle in the early 1960s, she had the most dramatic bio of anyone I knew. Throw in some frequent jaunts to Acapulco, and I was almost retroactively coveting this (albeit off to a tragic start) Gidget-like childhood. More hedonistic later years were hinted at, but she and I mostly talked about Now as opposed to Then.
Making art was Martha’s terra firma, even as both natural and metaphorical waves lured her out to seas of tranquility and depths that dared her to plunge ever deeper. Those I didn’t know about until later. What I remember is being in the ocean with Martha in tony Southampton, while she worked as a personal chef for a music mogul. And the far grittier Far Rockaways for Seido Karate’s annual August day of beach training. The dichotomy of class and geography perfectly suited her.
We took a camping trip to Nova Scotia, to hike the Cabot Trail. I knew nothing about camping, except that the few times I went as a kid the experience was met with extreme indifference. Martha had camped solo across Canada. I was with a glowing lighthouse beacon of what a single, adventurous woman could be. She taught me how to pitch the two-person pup tent, and how to make a perfect pot of coffee at daybreak, while she took off running down the ribbon of white sand. (She then smoked a cigarette, and again at sunset). We spent the days driving, talking, painting, hiking, swimming, and pitching our tent in remote campgrounds. We laughed at the synchronicity of our bladders during the drive, always needing to pee at exactly the same time. We shared a similar dream of having an old house with a porch, to sit and watch life go by. In the car trunk was her extensive spice rack, so that every evening she could turn basic local fare into five-star meals. Most memorably, I discovered what a night sky really was, and vowed I would do all this again and again. Martha was my Peace Corps volunteer, and I was the parched recipient of all these gifts.
I don’t believe she ever intended to stay in New York. There was always a trek to take, a journey to make. A boyfriend-turned-stalker caused her to quit karate and move to Chicago. “C’mon out!” she invited. My first trip to the Windy City, and while I was there Martha ran the marathon. An exemplar tour guide, she took me around to all the must-sees, from the Art Institute to the funky, artsy neighborhoods where we always felt most comfortable. Then I saw something I had never seen before: Martha with a glass of wine at dinner. She was now a chef, along with her current boyfriend, and fine dining and wine tastings came with the territory. But I wondered.
There were more moves, eventually back to California, but here is where my memory gets spotty. Our lives were on different tracks, but occasional hand-written notes, phone calls, and hand-crafted gifts still flowed between us as we navigated the new millennium. The years were interrupted by long gaps that I later would learn were stints in rehab. Rehab. My friend had a problem.
She told me that she started drinking again when she woke up one night to find a stranger who had broken into her Chicago apartment taking the diamond earrings right out of her ears. Violated, shaken, she turned to the enabling support that would never fail to step in with liquid ease and drown her fears. I wondered about how childhood events can trigger this, or whether it was genetic. Or both. I knew the answer really didn’t matter. Not picking up a drink was the only thing necessary for her survival. Each time she emerged from rehab clean and sober, I was relieved. Hopeful. Eager to reconnect with the Martha I had first met, so vibrant and full-steam-ahead. Wanting to share that energy again.
A few years after 9/11 I had moved to a town just up the Hudson River. Martha was visiting New York and wanted to stay with me for a few days to see my new home.
I stood in the parking lot under the noon day sun, ready to wave. When I finally saw her exit the commuter train my heart sank. She was happy to see me, but she was drunk. I was happy to see her, but she was drunk. We spent a mutually perilous time together, punctuated by my phoning her aunt in San Diego for help, and a crash–she had stumbled into my glass coffee table. I found and emptied a full bottle of vodka from her tote bag, and the next day made enough coffee for an army. She agreed to the plan: getting Martha back home. We took the train into Grand Central (managing to have a somewhat normal conversation), then I put her on the bus to the airport. I waved through the dark glass and turned away, very much torn about how far I needed to go to make sure she got on that plane. Heading south down Park Avenue, I was flooded by the warmth of the sun and a feeling of relief I had rarely ever known.
My address book was scratched out with her ever-changing addresses, but eventually all roads of this kind lead to Hazleden. Next thing I knew, Martha was back in school and living on a street called Pleasant Avenue. She came to New York just four years ago and it seemed like old times–funny, wise, Lou Reed-loving, sober Martha. She was almost fifty and wearing glasses. I had seven years on her there. We visited the High Line and the Fire Museum, and reminisced a bit about people who had died.
The other day, I was on Facebook. There was her silly profile picture–a self-portrait painted with typical Martha wit and abandon, all blue, her tongue sticking out at the world. Wondering what’s up with Martha, I clicked on her page.
Hey Martha. You were really something, girl.
top photo: Martha 1993/property of Sharon Watts
bottom photo copyright Martha Hartley