Almost twenty years ago I was in Australia, deep in the karri forests south of Perth. Two months earlier, in New Zealand, I had met the man who I thought I would spend the rest of my life with. We’d spent three days together before he returned to the States to finish school while I continued my budget walkabout.
In the tourist office in Perth, I saw a brochure for a three-day wood turning class in a tiny town called Pemberton, and used the last of my funds to pay for a ticket on a bus whose springs had given in during the Carter administration. It wound down dirt roads until I disembarked, many hours later, where the sidewalk ended, in one hundred and ten degree heat. I consulted the map on the back of the brochure, headed down a dusty road in a forest, and found Peter Kovacsy.
He had only just opened a wood shop big enough to accompany four or five students, adjacent to a mudbrick home he and his wife had built by hand. Teaching would bring in some income, he’d thought.
Not much, that week, it turned out: I was his only student. Just as well, because I think I was full-time work. For three days I stood over a wood lathe wearing a white Tyvek jumpsuit and goggles that made me look like I should be removing asbestos from something or singing Whip It. Before that, I’d been a stranger to power tools any larger than a blowdryer.
Peter was smaller and at least ten years older than I was. For hours broken only by his wife bringing us plums plucked from a backyard vine or calling us to lunch, he patiently instructed me as I held the tip of a steel chisel to a block of jarrah spinning at five hundred revolutions per minute, trying to absorb everything he’d told me. Trying to use a gentle hand. It was easy to push too hard and cut away too much. It was easy to not push hard enough, which produced a shallow curve that echoed my temerity.
I told Peter about the boy I’d met. The one I’d begun planning my life around.
Peter told me to forget about him. Or not forget, exactly–just to let him go.
I did that once, he said. Met a girl. Three days. He shook his head and looked over his lathe through memory. Best three days of my life.
But why? I asked. If it was so good, why didn’t you want it to be more?
Some things, he replied, are best left as they are.
On the morning of the fourth day, I boarded the antique bus back to Perth with a surprisingly beautiful paperknife and a graceless bowl of my own making in my knapsack, leaving Peter, with his tiny front room gallery filled with exquisite paperknives and bowls that held the sun beneath their polished skins. Before I went, Peter turned me a goblet less than an inch tall. It was the work of perhaps five minutes, the minutes a work of years. The stem was so fine–a thirty-second of an inch?–that I was almost afraid to hold it. Peter, who knew when a thing was done.
Peter’s gallery is no longer tiny. He still teaches. He exhibits internationally.
When I returned to the States, the boy asked me to marry him. I said yes. I broke the engagement three months before the wedding. But it took another year to leave him.
Are you good at knowing when a thing is done?