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Stuck in Neutral While a Couple of Friends Hit the Skids

My friend Mary had a problem, seemingly without a solution.

She liked Dave and Dave liked her, but she couldn’t be seen walking with him in public.

“How come?” I said.

“I’m taller than he is,” she said.

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Indeed she was, by a couple inches or so, but that’s what she got for being 14 when he was only 13 and coming from a long line of short Italians.

I put on my Tom Sawyer thinking cap and came up with an idea. “When you’re walking with him, why don’t you let him walk on the sidewalk and you step off the curb and walk in the street?”

Mary lit up like a Christmas tree at the unbridled genius of the idea and added her own wrinkle of always going barefoot when they were together. I don’t think Dave was ever the wiser, although he thought it was strange that Mary “always walks in the gutter.”

I’m recalling Dave and Mary (they never lasted, by the way) with much fondness, only because their problem in that summer of 1963 now resounds with such sweet simplicity. Why didn’t we realize what a grand life it was when our greatest problem was how to resolve height differentials?

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I say that after recent go-rounds with grown-up friends caught in a post-divorce squall that has left me spent, despondent and questioning my skills as a problem-solver. It was a talent I once took for granted, but as Bonnie Raitt asks in a song, “When did the choices get so hard?”

Late-night phone calls with them. Mid-day phone calls, morning phone calls. Wall Street arbitragers don’t spend this much time on the phone.

I won’t divulge the details of their ongoing arguing, but you all know the general story line: Boy meets girl . . . they laugh constantly . . . they fall in love . . . they fall out of love . . . they stop laughing.

Cut to final scene: Take no prisoners.

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I talk to him for an hour or so and he tells me how unreasonable she is. “She’ll sound perfectly sane to you on the phone, but trust me, she’s crazy,” he says.

I talk to her on the phone and she talks, sounding alternately mournful and defiant, about how he’s gone “off the deep end.”

“But that’s exactly what he says about you,” I say, exasperatedly.

She brings up an incident that occurred a few months ago, just to give me an idea of how troubled he is. She describes a situation that makes him sound awful.

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The next time I talk to him, I ask him about it and he describes it totally differently. “You’ve known me for a long time,” he says. “You just have to believe I’m telling you the truth.”

When I talk to her, she says, “You’ve known us both for a long time. Whose story sounds more believable?”

“That exactly what he said,” I tell her. “The exact same language.”

“Have you ever known him to lie?” she asks.

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“Frankly, no,” I say.

“Oh,” she says, sounding as if she’s genuinely pained by my ignorance, “he lies. He lies.”

“You see the problem,” I tell her, “when two people I’ve known for this long give me different stories about the same situation?”

“One of us is lying,” she says. “You’ll just have to figure out which one it is.”

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He tells me over and over that she’s getting advice from a “man-hating woman lawyer.”

She says he needs counseling but refuses to get it. When I say she was the one who dropped out of joint counseling, she says, “That’s because the therapist came out of the men’s movement.”

Beautiful. She has a man-hating lawyer and he had a woman-hating therapist.

I tell the two of them that they’re not giving me much to go on. In my naivete, however, I think I see room for compromise. This must be how Arafat and Rabin do business, I’m thinking.

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I run my compromise idea past them in separate conversations. If you’ll do this, maybe she’ll do that, I say to him. And vice-versa to her.

“I’m not feeling too generous,” he says.

I mention it to her and she says, “I’m not feeling very charitable, given the way he’s acted,” she said.

Once upon a time, these people could talk to each other. Once upon a time, I could mediate little disputes between them.

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Somewhere along the line, the animosity either overwhelmed them, or I’ve lost all my negotiating skills.

“I’m feeling very impotent,” I say to him as we wrap up our last conversation.

Somehow, I’m still on speaking terms with both of them after these conversations. They both thank me for trying to help.

They’re missing the point. I don’t want to get paid for trying. I want to get paid for results.

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Oh, Dave and Mary, where are you?

Please, Mary, come find me and tell me how brilliant I was at solving your problem. If only for a moment, I want to feel useful again.

Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.


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