Dominic and Denali – A Story of Love and Loss but Not of Lost Love

A short story from R.M. Dolin’s novel: RAINMAKERS OF REVOLUTION, book three of the WHAT IS TO BE DONE trilogy

Summary: Dominic and Denali are both college students at Cornell when they meet. After getting married, they move to Washington state for graduate schools and once done, to Los Alamos where Dominic goes to work for the National Laboratory and Denali begins her career as an artist. Agreeing to meet in Santa Fe to celebrate getting an art show in New York, Dominic doesn’t recognize that the burned over car along the side of the road is Denali’s, at least not at first.

“All I’m saying,” Jake says before relighting his cigar, “is that no one escapes tragedy and loss. For us sure,” he smiles at Sympatico who’s neither drinking bourbon or smoking a cigar, “we wear our tragedy and loss for the world to see.” He glances at Chance who’s just finished his cocktail. “But sometimes I wonder if the deeper we bury things, the more unbearable they are? Dominic is a case in point, even though you might not know it to look at him. And while certainly no one’s ever going to accuse him of being a player, the instant he first saw Denali, he felt fate was forever his friend, but I can assure you, fate was working off a very different agenda.”

Jake slowly sips his bourbon, “Of all the liberal arts students attending his “Statistics for Non-Believers,” seminars, Denali stood out.”

“Because she was so beautiful,” Sympatico asks taking a cookie from the tray on the courtyard table.

“And you said he wasn’t a player,” Chance adds.

“Beauty was of course part of there deal, it always is, but the thing about intellectuals is beauty may get you noticed, but it’s all those other things that close the deal. He liked that she tried so hard to understand concepts her brain simply was not wired to comprehend but never quit, that simply wasn’t in her DNA, and that is, well, alluring in a way that sticks with you.”

Chance tries to remember what his Mom used to look like. He thinks she was pretty, but for some reason can’t conjure an image. Maybe what Jake’s saying is true, since there was nothing about her that rose to the level of being memorable; especially the part of her leaving.

“Dominic also appreciated that Denali never cried during tutoring sessions. One thing all technology grad students have encountered at some point is liberal arts majors crying in their office. For me it was nurses when I taught “Linear Analysis,” every day someone was in my office crying, and the thing is, no one tells you what to do with crying under grads.

“Over time, their group sessions gave way to private lessons, and from there it was a short hop to dinners, movies, and ultimately love. Cornell, like most universities back in the day, had a somewhat vague policy regarding faculty dating students, and besides, Dominic rationalized grad students weren’t really faculty, and if his major Professor was anything like mine, it was something he often stressed.” Jake reaches into his cooler for ice and fixes Chance a fresh cocktail. “Dominic liked to tease Denali whenever she’d tell friends how they met, “When it comes to Italian charm,” he’d say, “resistance is futile.”

“You damn nerds and your Star Trek, Chance laughs taking his cocktail.

“They married the same weekend Dominic received his master’s degree. The timing was optimal since his family was already in town, and while Denali felt their race to the alter was all-together too fast, she couldn’t find a convincing counter to Dominic’s assertion that when you know you know and waiting doesn’t make you know any better.”

“I agree with that,” Sympatico meekly affirms.

“Nope,” Chance counters. “Courtship needs time to evolve. Too many Americans rush to marry and don’t consider all those real life things that tear at you. I can’t even begin to tell you how many women I encounter who refer to their first marriage as a practice run.”

“Emelia, worried about that. Said American’s treat marriage like wine, all a gush when new and fresh but once it has a chance to oxidize, it’s time to toss it aside to get a new bottle. She’d always get angry at Hollywood who portrayed the French as people measuring love based on their infidelities when in fact, it the Americans who do that. French women marry for life, something she made very clear to me before accepting my proposal.

“But back to Dominic, when he proposed, Denali wasn’t certain she wanted to accept, A) she was too young, and B) she wasn’t done with school. So to mess with her, Dominic gathered a notebook full of statistical studies showing that the shorter a romance, the longer the marriage.”

“Bolivians believe that.”

“Yes, but years later Dominic confessed to omitting Mark Twain’s salient observation that, “there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

“I’m starting to like Dominic,” Chance says, “the dog’s got moves.”

“I don’t know about that, but Denali accepted his proposal with hopefullnes, which was in direct contrast to the sense of doom she accepted their impending move to Seattle. In all her sheltered twenty years, she’d never been west of Erie or north of Syracuse, and the prospect of completing her undergrad at a new university while depending entirely on a man she was still getting to know was desperately disconcerting.”

“Bolivian girls to that every day, but nobody really moves around so they don’t have to leave family and friends.”

“Part of what comforted her was Dominic’s absolute confidence that what they were doing was best for their future. What she wouldn’t realize until later was that he was possessed by a consuming eagerness to immerse himself in research and would be blind to her emotional struggles. But the truly beautiful part about Denali was she never held that against him, she loved Dominic for the man he was. She admired his passion, his ability to find reassuring purity in formulas and equations, and for his unassailable conviction he was building toward being a part of something important. I think we all felt that way back then, and God bless the women who were willing to take our journey with us, because I frankly don’t think it would have been possible alone. Funny thing about technical intellectuals is that we spend most our lives alone, but we don’t do well alone.”

Jake takes a break from his story to relight his cigar and think about his own story. “But even with all she accepted and understood, Denali could not escape being overwhelmed with just how utterly hard it was to be a bride, be a PhD student’s wife, and to live in such a dark depressing place as Seattle. Ironically, it turned her into an optimist. She was seriously tested though, especially three years later when Dominic’s research committee rejected his dissertation.”

“What does that mean?” Sympatico asks.

PhD students are both fools and gamblers,” Jake responds. “They’re fools because they live for years barely getting by, abused by professors, and completely immersed in research, when they could be earning big bucks in industry, enjoying life, and calling their own shots. They’re gamblers because they bet on themselves, their research, and the belief that after years of intense work they’ll make an original contribution to science, which is required to earn a PhD. At the end of their journey, a PhD student presents their research to the public and their dissertation committee has to decide if they’ve made an original contribution to their discipline. Well in Dominic’s case the committee felt it wasn’t, and just like that it ended for him.

“Like an Acme anvil falling on Coyote, a devastating blow Dominic was unequipped to deal with. Three years of consuming commitment flushed down the toilet in an instant. All those endless nights neglecting his bride, his life, and all other pursuits, just to reach the point of irreconcilable disappointment. It was the end for Dominic, the utter end.”

“We’ve all been there,” Chance adds. “I mean about the disappointment.”

“Yes,” Sympatico adds, “about the utter end. I know exactly how he feels.”

“The thing that’s different about PhD’s is that, in general, they’ve never experienced disappointment, for their entire life all they’ve known is success; smartest person in class, nothing but A’s on their transcript, always certain there’s nothing they can’t accomplish. But when Dominic has his first taste of the bitterness of life, he drops into a manic panic, and Denali wakes early one morning to the sounds of him frantically stuffing their possessions into the car announcing without equivocation that they’re moving back to New York. ‘To do what,’ she ask, to which he answers ‘who the hell knows, teach community college math.’

“Well, Denali, and here again is another example of why she was so freaking beautiful, with determined subtlety, convinces Dominic to take a breath and unpack. She then takes her encouragement up a few notches by mercilessly telling him to suck up his pride and get his shit together. She marches that poor sap back inside to re-examine his research until he finds his flaw. That was her gift, her beauty, keeping Dominic on track with a medicative mixture of tender compassion and drill Sargent authoritarianism.

“By the time the University of Washington accepted Dominic’s revised dissertation, Denali was pregnant with their second child, finished with her creative arts curriculum, and carefully packing the sedan for their next big move.”

“I wish I could have known her,” Sympatico offers, “such women are rare.”

“Amen to that,” Chance adds, unclear even to himself if means as a wife or a conquest.

“By the nonstop way Dominic talked up Los Alamos and the national laboratory where he won a coveted Post Doc position, Denali envisioned some sort of undiscovered utopia, and to be fair, for us brainiacs Los Alamos probably is as close to Shangri-La as anyone can get. For normal people though, the stark reality of this oasis is more akin to a social outpost on the dark side of Mars.”

Jake takes a pause to build himself a fresh cocktail. “I didn’t have to deal with that, Emelia was a chemist, and Los Alamos is the most cosmopolitan place on earth so this was as close to nirvana as she was ever going to get. Things were different for Denali though, she was an artist, and as hard as it is for artist to fit in with normal people, imagine her struggles with an entire city of people programmed to process the world in absolute terms of black and white, on and off, right or wrong. In Los Alamos, there’s no room for gray scale, no drawing outside the lines, no doodling in the margins.

“Denali begged Dominic to move back home, rationalizing that a community college professor’s life in upstate New York was far more idyllic. Unfortunately, she retained enough from her statistics semester to know the probability of Dominic leaving Los Alamos was null, he was home and with his people. So, like a true optimist, Denali sought positive take-aways. To help adjust to life on the dark side of Mars, Dominic converted their garage into a studio where Denali quickly immersed herself in work. End of story, right. Isn’t this where Hollywood love stories end?

“Yes,” Sympatico offers, “in so much as real love stories can exist.”

“No,” Chance counters. “You claimed victory way too early, and my time on the road’s taught me it’s the middle years where shit happens and things fall apart.”

“Well,” Jake says relighting his cigar. “You are correct, every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and we’re just working our way through the middle.”

“Called it,” Chance echos with satisfaction.

“Don’t finish,” Sympatico pleads. “Right now Denali is a hero and if Chance is right, her polished armor will soon be tarnished. I want to remember her as you have already described.

Jake looks at Sympatico unsettled, she is right, this story is about to turn dark and he doesn’t want to upset her, but he started down this path to teach her an important lesson, and as a teacher, feels compelled to bring the lesson full circle. “Sometimes, Sympatico,” Jake says with empathy he’s not entirely sure even exist for him anymore, “a story requires full exposure or the lessons remain unfinished, and that means unlearned. Don’t judge the final chapter until all the evidence is gathered.”

Sympatico nods prepared for the worst. “Denali the optimist was stuck in technical nirvana, and like all optimists, she moved forward with positive abandon. She immersed herself in her art but the undertows of life in Los Alamos were inescapable. She became an unsettled artist, painting until it got boring then sculpting. When that grew uninteresting, she tried local art, like blanket weaving and pottery. Before long she discovered a mere forty-five miles south of technology nirvana flourished a vibrant artistic and cultural community defying place and purpose and that, for her, sealed the deal.

“Everything Denali made in her makeshift studio, no matter the medium, was gallery quality. She became most known for her mixed medium sculptures. In a few years, she was selling pieces in Santa Fe and being overwhelmed with commissions. By the time the last of their three kids finished high school, Denali was as much in love with the land of enchantment, as she was with the awkward tutor who rescued her from the madness of mathematics. And then,” Jake says taking a drink to stiffen his resolve, “the final chapter demanded writing.”

Jake looks at Chance as if to preempt whatever he might say, and then looks at Sympatico as if to apologize in advance for the brutal lesson that needs to be learned. “Not a day goes by that Dominic doesn’t relive that morning seven years ago when Denali found out a prominent Manhattan art gallery wanted to feature her sculptures. When you can catch him willing to talk, he’ll tell you how she spent the entire morning excitedly running around her studio picking her ten best pieces.”

Jake takes another drink only now appreciating how hard it is to convey the final chapter of a story that will impact Dominic as profoundly as his own story, but on different levels. “Dominic is a gentle soul, and Denali knew that, its one of the reasons she so loved him. Even when the pressures of the Mind’s Eye project we worked on together seemed unbearable, she found ways to prop him up and prepare him for the next day. She was beautiful that way, people get caught up in the physical, but women like her, like Emelia, their gold was so much more profound.”

Chance and Sympatico sense a hesitancy in Jake, one that indicates this story is about to get very tragic very fast, even if they each approach the water tank from opposite horizons. Sympatico feels she knows Denali and how her tragedy whatever it is, will come from unrelenting love, and that the impact will be against her not Dominic. Chance is already projecting his Mom onto the ending, as well as all his encounters with married women who compromised him, or he them, and has projected an ending that has Dominic as the character coming up short. Jake for his role as storyteller can’t chose sides, because to do so would be to rob his students of their lesson.

“Dominic did what he could to keep her calm with little effect,” Jake restarts, “he did provide value by helping her load the sculptures into her Prius to deliver to the Santa Fe gallery that would coordinate shipping. Dominic wanted to go with her, but the Prius was so packed there wasn’t room, so they agreed to meet for happy hour in Santa Fe, followed by a celebratory dinner at Denali’s favorite Mediterranean restaurant just off the plaza.

“Denali spent the afternoon at the gallery assisting with curation but in the excitement of her moment, she lost track of time and had to text Dominic that she was running late, which worked out since he’d gotten sucked into a weapons design review that also ran late.”

Jake relights his cigar and takes a stiff drink, not sure he has the fortitude to finish, but he knows that he must, in part for Sympatico’s healing, in part for Chance’s growth, and in part to put his own pain in proper context. “Denali was idly making her way from the Plaza,” he painfully resumes, “to their happy hour rendezvous along Cerrillos, so full of an exciting cocktail of satisfaction and anticipation.” Jake takes another drink, he looks at Chance and then at Sympatico and blurts out what has suddenly become so hard to say, as if he personally has become part of their tragedy. “That’s when a drunk’s SUV indiscriminately slammed into the side of her poorly protected Prius with so much energy and momentum it crumpled the driver’s door against the steering wheel pinning Denali between the center console and collapsed dashboard.”

Jake pauses once again to find the will to continue. “She was still conscious when the car caught fire.” He stops, uncertain if the rest is worth telling. Maybe more is disrespectful to Dominic, maybe to Denali’s memory, maybe to the lesson meant to be learned. After a struggle to form words, Jake continues. “The official report didn’t mention that, but unfortunately for Dominic, local media was all too eager to print the gory details.” Both Chance and Sympatico look on in horror, unable to say anything. “The stumbling drunk tumbles out of his SUV unscathed as flames engulf the Prius, and in his baffled confusion, he decides his best option is to flee. At least the police get there in time to nab him, but not even the heroics of late arriving firemen could save Denali or ease her final anguish.”

Both Jake and Chance reach for a desperately needed drink, leaving Sympatico wishing she drank. Jake gives up on his cigar, there’s no solace there. “Dominic chances upon the scene just as the fire’s being extinguished. Initially he doesn’t recognize the badly damaged sedan because he’s busy estimating the probable speed the SUV had to be traveling based on the sedan’s deformation, but then he catches a glimpse of the car’s charred bumper sticker that satirically reads “Visualize Whirled Peas.”

“No one knows for sure whether his collapse onto the pavement was due to shock, sorrow, or having the will to live sucked out of him by the dying fire’s suffocating need for oxygen, but in the end, it matters little. Cerrillos is the most dangerous road in America, but that’s small conciliation to those devastated. To this day, the closest Dominic’s gotten to Santa Fe is the Al Azar. He’s still trying to come to terms with how she died, and how the courts, in a mixture of blatant corruption and arrogant liberalism, let the drunk bastard off with a three-month suspended sentence.”

“How is such a thing possible,” Sympatico ask in horror.

“The questionable judge sided with defense lawyers who argued the driver was not responsible because he had no intent, and lacked mental capacity, because he was drunk. Ya see, in New Mexico law, recursively illogical arguments pass as profound jurisprudence. Coincidentally, systemic corruption in the judiciary reaches back to Spanish colonial days, and carries forward with blatant disregard for discretion. It’s evidenced on a daily basis as courts render joking judgments for family, friends, and in Denali’s case, the politically connected.

“But as tragic as that is, the story doesn’t end there,” Jake looks at Sympatico to gauge whether she can absorb more tragedy. “Ya see, after years of struggling to accept how fate, who was once a friend who turned against, Dominic had finally found something of an equilibrium. He never got over that afternoon, but on incrementally small levels, was starting to find peace. He even started practicing Mindfullness Meditation, which was working, that is until five months ago, that’s when the drunk who murdered his Denali was rearrested for another DUI fatality. That cut Dominic open as quickly as any dagger stabbing at the heart ever could. And that, is when me and the boys took matters into our own hands.”

“Like you did for me?” Sympatico asks.

“It was because of what happened to Dominic, that we were positioned to help you. None of us thought we were capable of the things we could do, until push came to shove. Like Denali did for Dominic when his research was rejected, we helped our friend obtain justice in a system where justice is just a word. But even after taking care of that drunk bastard, there was nothing we could do to help our friend resolve how fate, that once promised to be his friend forever, could so coldly turn away.