The Clouds Above Us, a short story
“And from the midst of cheerless gloom
I passed to bright unclouded day.”
― Emily Brontë
The town we live in is Two Rivers, Wisconsin, population 11,000, where even the seagulls were made cross by this breakup. It’s a close-knit, church-oriented community with the familiarity of an old love ballad from the 1940’s. A relationship triangle involves a couple and one other person. It began to form when Olivia and Colin fell oddly and haplessly in love. They occupy triangle points one and two. Perry, Colin’s mentor and Olivia’s big brother, occupies point three.
My friend Perry, 36, is a biologist and a decent amateur gourmet cook. He stays in shape, too. Perry is running along Lake Michigan in Two Rivers. He is irritated with Colin because he insulted Olivia when he broke up with her. It was the way he broke up with her that was insulting. He sent her an email message: Olivia, I’m sorry, we can’t be together anymore. I hope we can still be friends. Colin.
Perry knew about the complications of a triangle, when two people pull in a third person to reduce their anxieties. Points one and two aren’t fully aware, but sense their need for a point three, who was Perry in this case. It was a responsibility he consented to, for an undetermined brief period, to help them; but not indefinitely, because it’s a no-win situation being a point three.
It was Christmastime when I met Olivia and Colin, at a party. Olivia struck me as a little self-centered. After some study I pegged Colin for an anxious introvert. Perry is bright but not self centered; composed and thoughtful, but not anxious. He teaches biology at Marquette, the Catholic university in Milwaukee. When they started dating he worried about their compatibility. Eighteen months later, Colin abruptly broke up with her, without any warning. On the surface everything looked fine. He got into this triangle almost worse than a lamb to the slaughter, but he was released from it quickly.
Perry fumed as he ran, glancing at the surf hitting the shore. You don’t break up with someone with an email—not okay. Olivia agreed with her brother about it. Olivia was a grad student in clinical psychology and picked up on the triangle, of course. She was at home, stunned and angry, with her cat, Sneakers. He was black and had little white feet, like sneakers.
Poor Perry, she thought. Poor me didn’t even enter her mind. Perry’s brotherly bias was, Olivia deserves better. What’s wrong with Colin, anyway? Sneakers sensed something was not right with Olivia, which moved him to curl himself around her ankles.
Olivia had the traditional and pure kind of charm of a Dolores Hart or a Dina Shore. She was beautiful, brilliant, kind-hearted and understanding. Olivia’s personal ethics were Humanist. She didn’t identify with a church or subscribe to any religious tradition, nor did Perry, their liberal parents, their aunts, uncles or cousins.
Colin was indeed a religious person, and a poet, and a student of Philosophy (favorite philosopher Socrates). He had once thought seriously about entering the seminary and distinctly possessed a talent for composing religious poetry. He admired and respected Bishop Fulton Sheen, was a fan of Martin Sheen, the Catholic actor, who took the good bishop’s name to honor him. That’s one thing Colin admired about Martin Sheen. He liked his acting, too.
What Perry wanted to know was why Colin’s theological stance had to stop them from moving to the next stage in their relationship? Although reluctant about it in the beginning, he had become comfortable with it despite the oddness of it. Perhaps their breakup didn’t have to happen, he thought. Maybe it was caused by Colin’s stubbornness. He didn’t know what to think at this point. Besides being a published poet, Colin worked as an English tutor at the university.
At the very moment Perry was running and thinking, Colin was studying a poem he greatly admired, “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo.” He scanned the poem’s opening lines:
How to keep—is there any, any, is there none such,
nowhere known some bow or brooch or braid or brace,
lace, latch or catch or key to keep beauty, keep it,
beauty, beauty, beauty from vanishing away?
Here sat the unlikely villain, at a table near a window looking onto the quiet street, reading a poem penned by a Catholic literary figure. He reflected as he did about Olivia’s rare and almost vanished kind of beauty. Her beauty it reminded him of was the beauty of his love, more pure, more spiritual, than any he had known. That was his love for Olivia.
As Hopkin’s poem made clear, she and her beauty would eventually pass from this world, and nothing could stop that.
Perry reviewed his memory of Colin becoming infatuated with his sister. Colin basically had divorced his literary studies to get to know Olivia. The two had been enjoying a mutually respectful, affectionate, non-sexual relationship, which had been growing deeper for a year and a half.
Colin had a dark side—not evil dark, but as someone who must rise from a resistant inner cataclysm, known only to him. Outwardly he was “a nice, sensitive guy,” we all knew that. Inwardly he was deeply melancholic. Depression ran on both sides of his family, which was no wonder to an experienced observer: his parents’ marriage ended in a bitter divorce when he was twelve. It had been decimated by their religious differences. His mother also suffered from depression. Before her suicide, she had been a strong Christian, or had tried to be, but with many crises of faith along the way. His father embraced a popular brand of science-justified secular humanism.
Perry was determined to know what provoked Colin to abandon the bond with Olivia.
Colin and Perry agreed to meet that morning at The Odd Collections Coffeehouse. Colin was early and continuing the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, scanning the line: just finishing the Hopkins poem at a table near a corner window. He read these lines that responded to the former lines:
No there’s none, there’s none, O no there’s none …
Meaning there is nothing that can keep beauty, ever on this earth, from disappearing. Reading it as intently as he was reinforced his melancholia a very great deal. Not easy at all to cope with.
Perry had thirty minutes before he taught his first class of the day. He finally arrived, found Collin’s table and sat down. He just stared at him as he read the lines quoted above.
Perry let the exasperation he was feeling show now. “I don’t understand you, Colin.”
“Hello, Perry. I’m sorry. I don’t understand either, but I accept what’s hardest to accept,” Colin replied.
“Don’t mistake fear for courage,” Perry said coolly. As he spoke his anger surfaced. “Olivia called me and I couldn’t believe my ears! You told me you loved her, man! Now you drop this bomb on her!!”
Looking grave, sad and remorseful, Colin sighed, cleared his through and looked away. Finally, he looked back at Perry and said, “Yes, I had to end it because I knew it wasn’t meant to be.”
“Without consulting Olivia? How do you think she feels? Did you think about that?”
He grew very sad. “I don’t know but she can’t feel worse than I do.” He hated to have hurt two people he cared about so much, at the same time, by the same action. He had once hoped for something special to grow between them. They just turned out to be too different.
Perry inserted a reflective pause. “What do you want from life, Colin? You must want something from life.”
“I used to think that way, Perry, but not anymore, because this world is full of vanities and false hopes. Wanting something out of it is just asking for sorrow. In the end, whatever it is we find, it doesn’t satisfy. I’ve accepted it.”
“I think your standards are way too high, and your expectations way too low.
“Maybe, maybe not.” He pointed up at the ceiling, through the skylight. “You see those clouds above us, drifting by?”
“What about them?” asked Perry, looking up.
“There’s more than just clouds up there.”
“Perry was impatient with the direction of this discussion. Can we get back to you and Olivia?
“I’m saying that time is passing, just like those clouds. Moments evaporate in succession, one after another. They have since the beginning of time, and one day it will all come to an end and time will be up, literally.
“Perry couldn’t tell whether his friend was depressed or just in a very dark, ghastly mood. He was really worried about him.
“After time comes eternity.”
Perry was losing his patience by the second, but he controlled it. Perry had a lot of self-control and managed his feelings and impulses pretty well. “Is there a small chance that you’re taking your religious beliefs too seriously?”
“My concern is that people in general don’t take human destiny and the Four Last Things seriously enough. I’m talking about Death, Heaven, Judgment and Hell. I don’t expect you to agree with me.
Perry didn’t take a position on eternity or whether there was or wasn’t an afterlife. He didn’t care to reflect on it. He had a full day in front of him, and anyway there just wasn’t time.
“I want to talk about you and Olivia, Colin, not eternity.”
“Don’t you get it, Perry? I haven’t stopped loving Olivia.”
“You have a strange way of showing it.”
“When you love somebody, you warn them when they are going to make a big mistake—I was her big mistake and she would have been mine. It’s that simple.
“Right, simple. And so I assume that the mistakes you both were to each other had something to do with your philosophical differences about time, eternity, judgment, hell and whatever else, right?
“Correct. Perry, you really should spend more time thinking about these major existential concerns. Time is just a construct, a grace, if you will, so we can choose where we stand in the next life. In this life we choose our eternity for the next life. It’s a such vitally important concern in my mind and I really don’t know of a bigger one.
“Well, I think it’s better to live for today.
“We are at an impasse but I respect your opinion.
Perry now had a very hard time controlling his frustration. How impudent! How stupidly poetical! But he controlled himself, somehow.
“Good, well done, I’m glad. So why can’t you put philosophy and theology aside for just once, kid!? I don’t understand why you can’t when so many others can. And I frankly can’t understand why you both can’t resolve this thing and somehow keep going.
“I think we can be good friends eventually, I do think that’s possible. But whether friends or not, eternity is where we’re all headed. Okay, now you tell me what you believe, Perry. Let’s hear what you believe.
“My belief is that everything–matter, energy, cell life to human life, known or unknown worlds, infinite space—all of it may be nothing more than a mixture of unrelated oddities on a massive scale. Where’s the evidence that it isn’t all just matter and energy, which is unintelligent and undesigned, a colossal, cosmic fluke?
“Colin looked inward, whispered “okay,” and spun his Bible to sit right in front of Perry. “Check out Genesis 1:1.” He rose. “I have to pee, most urgently. Excuse me. I’ll be right back.”
How could he be so polite all of a sudden? Perry looked down at Colin’s Bible and read the verse.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” which made him Perry think of all the origin theorists he’d ever studied, including Darwin. He thought of the movie, “Inherit the Wind.” He fancied that he was Clarence Darrow and Colin was Matthew Harrison Brady. In the same moment going pee, Colin ached with frustration and sadness for Perry. At bottom he felt in this moment that Perry would never understand him or his faith.
Colin sat back down.
“Colin, I do respect your personal belief and all, but with evidence …
“Evidence. This passing, flimsy reality is the evidence itself, Perry. It’s staring directly into all unbelieving eyes, like yours, like mine were once. Without faith you can’t see.
“Do we all have to believe as you do, Colin?
“Of course not.
“Everything here in this reality is ephemeral; doesn’t last. The opposite of ephemeral is eternal. You look frustrated or mad.
“I find it hard to follow you sometimes, I guess because I’m thrown when you say “this reality.” I just live in one.
“I understand. I’m sorry”
“You don’t have to apologize for what you believe. It’s still a free country. (He smiled and he reminded Colin of Olivia—they had similar smiles). So go on. Finish your thought.
“It’s crystal clear to me that an intelligent, eternal being, of great love and great power, set all of this in motion. I don’t believe in evolution simply because it’s illogical to me.”
“You’re talking to a biology teacher, you know.
“Yeah and you’re a good one.
“You’re also my friend, Perry. I’m talking to a friend, not an adversary. Look, Perry, I don’t have to prove eternity. Creation in all its’ wonder and precision proclaims Someone greater, who is beyond it and who existed before it. Yes, God is hidden, but his creation speaks for him. The origin theory I believe in is Intelligent Design.
Perry now formulated a theory that Colin broke up with Olivia because she didn’t share his religious beliefs. This made him a little feel uneasy; broke a rule he had adopted that religion shouldn’t be allowed to make people uneasy; that it should be de-prioritized for some reason. People should have enough sense to rise above it, he felt.
“Okay, that’s what you believe, Colin, okay fine. You need to talk with her, Colin, more that you need to talk to me. You didn’t break up with me, you broke up with her.
“How important is it to tell the truth? I wish God meant for us to join in marriage, but I discovered he didn’t. That’s why I broke up with her. I gave up my will and accepted God’s over my will.
Colin looked up and saw Olivia standing there. She was listening with a bemused look on her face.
“Hello, Colin. You might have talked to me after talking to God. Isn’t God polite? I just want to know why God opposes our being together.
Colin looked startled, because he was.
“Perry called me that you were meeting. I asked where, he told me, so I came. Do you mind?
“No, not—not at all. Please sit down, Olivia.” He grabbed a nearby empty chair and pulled it up for her to sit down.
Perry was very relieved indeed. “Perfect timing, Liv. I have to go anyway. So if you will both excuse me. I hope you two can work things out.”
“Thanks, big brother.”
“You’re on your own.” Then departed point three of the triangle, leaving the original two points to fend for themselves.
“I’m here and I’m all ears.
“First, I’m sorry.
“Oh, for breaking up with my by email? Doesn’t everybody do it nowadays?
“Again, I’m sorry.
“You said that.
“I don’t know what else I can say.
“You’ll think of something. I thought you loved me.
“I do. I love your soul, too.
She laughed. “First prove to me that I even have a soul.
He thought of replying, Prove to me that you don’t. However, that was too confrontational. He couldn’t say it. Instead he said, “I wish I didn’t have to prove it. Can you prove I have a mind?”
“There’s no proof that anyone has a mind, my love. All that’s required to have a mind is a brain. Because the brain supplies the mind, or the illusion of one. Our brains create the illusion of our having minds. No brains, no minds. It’s very likely that for some, the illusion of a soul is necessary, so their brains create that for them also.
Colin couldn’t disagree with the plain fact that she was smarter than he was. But he believed the discussion was more important than who was the better debater. It was hard not to compete with her and he was trying very hard not to.
“Let me admit you have me in this area: I’m not a psychologist. But what if it’s not an illusion? A major change in our thinking would be when we could perceive ourselves as souls, not only as brains in bodies, but as spiritual and material persons.”
“So finally, after eighteen months of delicate avoidance of the elephant, we are having this conversation. Well, good, it’s about time. But at the same time it doesn’t matter. Because I don’t expect you to be like me or think like me. Can you say the same? No, I don’t think you can, Colin. I don’t think you can, though I dearly wish that you could. … Now I’m crying, dammit!”
He wanted to somehow rescue her from her pain, but he knew he didn’t possess that power. All he had was empathy and compassion, which he wasn’t used to showing. He was more that a tad schizoid.
Colin took a quavering breath and managed to say, “God, I wish love relationships were as simple as these self-help relationship experts make them out to be, Liv. I read three of them in the last year. They made me think of my poor parents’ failed attempts at lasting love. My mother left my father trying to save her sanity, but in the end she killed herself. It was her illness.”
“I know, Colin. I’m sorry.
“I was sure that if we stayed together much longer, I would at some point leave without saying goodbye like my mother. You wouldn’t deserve that. See?
“Yes, I see. But what about you? Did you deserve her to abandon you, so that now you deprive yourself of the happiness we were given, and could have continued to enjoy, because of that fear? You don’t have to repeat her mistake, you know. It’s not inevitable, unless you believe it is.
Colin thought about what she had said. His distorted belief, a form of fortune-telling, battled her more self-compassionate, rational thinking. His metaphor of them being oil and water splashed about unevenly in his mind for a few seconds, then thankfully disappeared, leaving him relieved and calm. For Olivia’s part, something intolerant of this side of human beings, or human souls, wanted to censor him, abolish or discount his sensitivity and vulnerability. Instead, she protected him from it.
She bridged the physical space between them and cupped the side of his face with her long hand. A flood of warm emotion came into him.
“Why did you do that?
“Ah my dear. Did I need a reason? You do need a therapist, my dear, but I can’t be that for you, nor do I want to be.
He smiled, then laughed, causing her to smile, then laugh. “I would pay you good money to be my therapist! C’mon, why not?”
“Not happening,” she said. “There is some suffering I won’t endure for anyone.”
He remembered a line by another poet, and quoted it, of course.
“Human beings can’t bear too much reality. T.S. Eliot.”
She knew Eliot; not her favorite, but okay.
He ventured on, this time confidently. “Yes. God made us to need one other. We just can’t help it, I guess. So, it’s a reality I am going to have to accept. Can we start over, you and me?”
She looked at him a long time. “Well, my tender-hearted poet, what major riddles exist that we can’t face together?”
He thought about it and finally said, “Maybe the Oedipus Complex. For me that would be very tough.”
“Believe it or not I can understand how it would be. I’m half Jewish, half Italian, remember. You’re mostly of German ancestry.”
“We’ll break all the rules in the book!”
” What should we do about that, you think?
“For starters let’s find a German-Jewish-Italian restaurant and have dinner tonight to celebrate.
“You know, I love you the most when you decide not to depress yourself. Did you know I love you for your brain? Does that offend you terribly?
“Hurts a little, but I’ll live. I’d trade a big brain for a big heart any day.
“Well, I’m definitely up for that. I want to see a personal transformation in the coming years.”
“Uh-oh, you sound like a sexy version of my therapist.”
“It’s okay, you sound like my rabbi with Catholic leanings, so we’re even.
Perry was happy they repaired their rift so well. They eventually got married and moved to San Francisco. Olivia is a successful psychologist in private practice, working mostly with mixed couples and people with anxiety disorders and childhood trauma. Colin teaches religious studies at U.C. Berkeley and his new favorite poet is Robert Frost. They have two children, a boy and a girl. Olivia is a vegan who does yoga and Colin has learned to eat whatever he likes because life is too short, he says, the most ironic thing he could possibly believe. Both Perry and I think they’ve had an equally amazing impact on each other, and only because they accepted they were simply meant for each other, just like folks in the Old Days.