There are magical days for fishers, unique because they are both rare and mysterious. These days are also accidents, and they don’t fit naturally into the pattern of causes and effects, so they must somehow be turned into stories.
Last August, Richard and I drove up to McCall, Idaho, and decided to fish the Brundage reservoir. This was a trip we both needed. Richard’s wife was dying, though her medical team continued their attempts to stop the growth of cancerous lung tumor, which had doubled in size in a year. Death struggles cannot be contained; they send their tremors in every direction, and Cheryl’s condition made my own marriage seem vulnerable, a feeling I had not expected or had ever felt before. Richard had lived long enough with an ailing partner that the idea of losing her—and of being alone—wasn’t as terrifying to him as it seemed to me. He was an attentive caretaker, and when I proposed that we take a day to fish, he said he would love to. “But let’s see how Cheryl is doing,” he said. She encouraged him to go.
Reservoirs hold the visible memory of the land they flooded. There are the naked stumps of decaying timber, particularly in low water, and the rise and fall of water often scores the shore with impossibly straight ridges, each a few feet apart, which could be steps one might descend to reach the river that once flowed through there.
Idaho was burning last summer—historic fires in both the desert and the mountains—and the air was filled with smoke, even in McCall, which is at around six thousand feet elevation. Here in the West, gaining elevation is the solution to a lot of problems—heat, inversions, and one hoped, smoke. But when the high country burns, the smoke stays where the fires are. Unlike fishers, firefighters hope for smoke because it helps suppress the fires. It was a sunny day, but the haze created a pewter wash over everything, especially the water on the reservoir, and all else was drained of color.
We launched our small kickboats, and in the morning the fishing was pretty good. I trolled small streamers, and I landed and released five or six fish in a few hours. They were pretty fish, many of them rainbow and cutthroat trout hybrids—“cutbows”—with scarlet backs and golden bellies and sides. But after lunch, the fishing slowed. Kickboats are quietly propelled by flippered feet, freeing the hands to hold the rod, and one of the great pleasures of these small boats is the comradery of trolling with a companion. When the fishing goes south, Richard and I often found each other on a lake, kicking along in unison, and talking now and then. In light of everything—Cheryl’s suffering set against the somber and smoky gloom of that day—those moments together, floating high above a lost streambed, seemed especially poignant to me.
When the conditions are right, the aquatic insects that flyfishers imitate with their feather and fur flies erupt in a hatch—a sudden blizzard of bugs that emerge from the water at once. When this one started, I heard the fish first, rising to take the flies, and then trout were all around us, swirling and splashing, hungrily working the surface. I quickly switched over to a dry fly line and put a big bug on—grasshopper-like with rubber legs. Tying knots when fish are rising around you triggers a desperation that makes knots harder to tie. The mind focuses on one thing—getting the fly to the feeding fish. Meanwhile, the hatch intensified.
“Have you looked up at the sky?” Richard said. When I did, I saw a rolling cloud of flies. They were big black bugs with yellow-orange bellies that defied classification—they weren’t mayflies, or stoneflies, or caddis, or any of the usual aquatic insects that flyfishers typically imitate—and yet they seemed to emerge from the water, hovering around us and nowhere else on the reservoir. Soon I was casting to the rising trout, my fly landing on a carpet of floating bugs. The takes varied from violent to lackadaisical, and before long we were tying into nice fish, nearly all fifteen inches or more. These were thick, well-fed trout that rose hungrily from the bottom of the reservoir. The hatch continued around us for more than an hour, and the feeding and catching continued, each of us pulling fish to our boats and quickly unhooking them to begin again. From time to time, Richard and I would turn to each other and comment on the magic of it all—two men alone together in small boats in the middle of an eruption of flies and fish.
When the hatch finally waned, we floated together for a little while, exhausted but still wondering if somehow the magic would continue. For a few minutes, the sun wanly broke through the smoky sky, but the reservoir’s surface went slick, unbroken by rising trout. For that hour, though, Richard had a break from his death watch. It was an hour filled with life—the golden flash of rising fish, the frantic flight of insects, and the steady, back-and-forth beat of our forearms as we hurled our fly lines out and away to where the fish were. Cheryl died a few days later. But when we returned to Boise that night, tired and exuberant, she was waiting for us on the back deck at Richard’s house, lying in the dark on a chaise lounge and wrapped in a white blanket. Cheryl could not get up to greet me, and yet somehow, in my mind, I see her rising, again and again.
BRUCE BALLENGER, a professor of English at Boise State University, is the author of seven books.
Through our mid-twenties, this friend of mine, Tom, hosted an annual party at his family’s cabin in rural Wisconsin, and that year—the last year he invited us all there, incidentally—we were the last two to crash. The dawn was coming up quick, and we were watching the blackness outside morph into gray, into a fog that would settle on his family’s forty acres and on the half-mile gravel drive leading up to the house. I called it a cabin, but it was definitely a house. This friend of mine, his parents had bought this land and built the place as a retirement escape. Then his father had died, suddenly—I think he was fifty-nine, just like that, an aneurysm—and his mother had settled instead into a condo in the city.
Tom and I were in a sunroom off the kitchen, sort of a three-season porch thing, with screened walls and wicker furniture. The air was muggy and cool, and the sweet smell of wet grass had settled on everything. He was slouched in a chair. I was sprawled across the love seat, busy pining for a girl asleep upstairs. Pining, because I was dating someone else, though I was already in love with that girl up in the loft, and I didn’t know what to do. Should I leave my girlfriend and pursue—
No, he said. Probably wouldn’t work out anyway. Why risk it?
Even then I recognized this was terrible advice, but he was himself newly single, frustrated, and lonely, with no patience for these woes. And in that moment, he didn’t want me to go. He asked if I would stay with him, if I’d sleep there with him. Sure, of course I would. We’d been friends for a decade. I’d slept next to him many times. And then he asked—with a pause, mid-beat—would I hold him? Would I hold him, just the once, and just that, out of compassion if not desire?
I knew Tommy was in a rough spot then. I’d never seen him so vulnerable, and isn’t that what we all want, what we all need, someone to just be with us, like that, through the worst parts? Still, I said No. May as well have said, Will never happen.
I did sleep there, but on the floor. I was always out of reach but never more than just then. He was looking for a little compassion, a little tenderness. And I said no. As close as we are, everything we’ve been through together, this is as close as we’ll ever be. An arm’s length away. That space between us, he couldn’t close it, and I wouldn’t. And why not?
Why didn’t I hold him, just for a minute, like he’d asked? Maybe because I was still telling myself we were just friends like any other, and because even then, especially then, I knew this wasn’t exactly true.
By the time I was eighteen, I’d invested a lot of thought into my sexuality. Not so much because Tom, my closest friend at the time, was gay, but because he had spent the previous year—since coming out to me, and to me alone—trying to convince me I was gay, too. Because he wanted to get it on? Because he wanted company? Probably a bit of both, and either way I was familiar with these impulses. I could relate. That said, understanding that my masculine self is a construction of sorts, that gender is a learned performance, and that sexuality can be a fluid, evolving thing, my own hetero-ness has always seemed inherent to me.
I am of slightly below-average height. I have flat feet and a weird space between my first and second toe. I inherited—from my mother—a genetic blood-clotting disorder called Factor V Leiden thrombophilia, for which I take an aspirin a day. My eyes are hazel. And at eighteen, the image of Brad Pitt in his Fight Club prime opening a door wearing nothing but rubber gloves only ever inspired in me a competing mix of admiration and envy, while a mere glimpse of the thigh of the girl who sat next to me in Economics roused erections like flagpoles.
So my sexuality was never really a question, not for me, but when we were teenagers—sixteen, seventeen—Tommy did what he could to convince me otherwise, mostly by telling me I was gay, over and over, all the time, mistaking my denials for Denial. Eventually the rest of our friends picked this up too and started telling me I was gay, groping my chest and asking if I was turned on and responding to my firm nos with Hey man, it’s okay if you like dick—the predictable and condescending high school taunts I never knew how to answer. Really, it was only a couple of our friends that did this. Knowing them now, I wonder if they would have been so callous if they’d actually thought I was gay. Or if they’d known he was?
It was half my lifetime ago, so his actual coming out to me is a hippocampal blur, but I think it went something like this: We were juniors and had been spending most afternoons in our high school’s weight room (and adjacent locker room, notably, surrounded by all kinds of hard-bodied adolescent boys in various states of undress: tall, short, bronze, black, white, footballers, wrestlers, runners, the gamut), and eventually we started going on long warm-up runs around town. We were friends before, but those runs were really what made us. Away from the weight room fugue, we could actually talk, and we talked about all kinds of things. Like what? I have no idea. I can’t remember any of it, except that one day Tom turned to me and told me he’d just spent ninth period in the janitorial closet by the theater with Mike Miller (a cherubic sophomore boy, and a rising talent in the drama department) getting a blowjob.
Once the initial shock—that my friend was now, apparently, getting some—wore off, I didn’t think much about that coming-out moment. I didn’t really return to it until a decade later when a group of us old friends spent a post-wedding night drunk and reminiscing, and he reminded me what I’d said to him: “You got a blowjob!” And he thanked me for how I’d immediately accepted him, gay or whatever, getting head in whatever closet. He said that back when we were teenagers he hadn’t realized how lucky he was. When he said this we were both in our late twenties—I was married by then, and lived on the other side of the country, so we only saw each other every few years, usually at a bar the day after Christmas—and I was grateful that he still thought about our lapsed friendship at all, as I did, as I do. Of course, I told him. You were my best friend.
Back in the day I suppose he was confused about my sexuality in a way I wasn’t. After he came out to me, I didn’t stop working out with him. I didn’t stop changing next to him in the locker room. Was I supposed to? Well, I didn’t. He would point out some pumped up cornerback, with a chest like a longshoreman, and I would say, Yeah, impressive. Out running together we would see the lean cross-country boys in the distance, and I would agree, Yeah, they’re something. I remember he once asked if I’d noticed Tony Steino’s junk, and I replied, How could I not?! and he said, I know! My being straight and my taking an active role in these conversations—and my lathering up next to him at the end of the day—never seemed like a contradiction. And maybe he thought my continuing to act as if nothing had changed meant I had to be gay too, but really, what had changed? For him, I suppose, a lot. For me, not much. At least not much I recognized then.
This dissonance, I think now, was the beginning of that space, that rift that would eventually grow not so much between us as between our worlds, though I wouldn’t understand this until long, long after the fact.
Eventually, after a year or so of trying to convince me I was gay, he let it go. Why? Because, get this, he realized there was no way I would have been able to resist his advances for so long unless I actually was straight. He told me this. So, so arrogant. And probably true, which you’ll understand if you were ever a horny, hard-up teenaged boy, as I definitely was.
We graduated on to different colleges, but both worked summer jobs cutting grass for our hometowns. After work, we would go fishing. We called it fishing, but really we just canoed around local lakes and rivers, occasionally casting for bass, occasionally swimming. There are more than forty lakes in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, the land where suburbs meet country, and we made it to many of them. Sometimes other friends tagged along, and when it got too cold to swim, or too dark to paddle, we’d end up smoking and drinking coffee and eating fries at the local Denny’s, eventually dragging ourselves home only to be back on our lawnmowers a few hours later. This was our routine, for a while. We didn’t spend all our time together—I had one girlfriend, and then another, and he had one boyfriend, and then another—but a lot of it we did.
At that point—our early twenties—Tom was a constant in my life, a point of reference. As I imagine I was in his.
Just the other night I drove home with my arm out the window, the evening a cool seventy-five after an eighty-five-degree, humid day. I was on gritty 35th Street in the city, but that didn’t matter. I was singing along to the radio, like we did back then, and there was the same heavy wet smell in the air, and even though if I was thinking about anything, I was thinking about the pomodoro on the stove, or the class I was coming from, or if I’d catch my two-year-old before he hit the crib for the night, that smell suddenly knocked me back fifteen years and there I was, driving home from the lake, him shotgun, the bow of our canoe dripping algae funk on the windshield, Neil Diamond coming at us with Sweet Caroline. You know, Good times never seemed so good. I’ve been inclined to believe they never would. But now I…
Summer nights are the best nights. I was so young then, and had no idea. Those were some of my best nights.
I never understood why we drifted apart. Rather, why he let me go. For a long time I thought he resented my absence when his dad died. I was living in Japan at the time, and it happened quickly, and I wasn’t there for him—not that I know what being there would have meant exactly. As it was, I sent a card. A heartfelt card, but how lame was that? It didn’t even occur to me to call—I barely called my parents back then. Later, we lived in the same city for a couple of years, but only hung out a few times. We would make plans and he would break them, and eventually we both just sort of amiably stopped trying. The only way I could understand this was believing he was still upset that I hadn’t been there when he needed me, or something like that. I was reaching for an explanation, and not having another, I accepted this as truth.
We build these truths like walls around us, and it can take a long time for them to crack. Ten years on, and one otherwise ordinary day, epiphany: that night in the sunroom, the two of us still up at dawn, my eventually going to sleep on the floor. I realized that tick on our timeline might as well read End of Era. It hadn’t seemed significant before, probably because although I’d thought about that moment many times, I’d only thought of it in terms of where I’d been, and where I was going just then. It hadn’t occurred to me that mine wasn’t the only story being written in that sunroom. But then it did occur to me, suddenly, the way a crack finally splits one thing into two.
Why didn’t I hold Tom that night, just for a minute, like he’d asked? I hadn’t said No to him like that since high school, back when he was so sure all it would take was a little convincing to get me to join him in that janitorial closet by the theater. Maybe I was afraid that if I crossed one boundary he would ask me to cross another, and we’d be seventeen again. Maybe this had been a fear of mine for a long time, even though we had both grown so much, and things were obviously different then. Maybe I was afraid things weren’t so different after all.
Anyway, he asked and I said No. A resounding No. A final No.
That girl up in the loft—we’re married now and have two kids. What if, in a way, in that moment, I chose this over that, her over him? In a way, that’s exactly what I did, though like I’ve been saying, it was never really a question.
In any case, things were never the same after that.
Losing old friends is nothing new, but I feel this loss the most. And would I feel differently, about this, about him, if he were just another straight guy I used to hang out with? If he wasn’t gay, would we ever have grown so close in the first place? Can there ever be a friendship like this without an attraction of sorts, one-way or otherwise?
In my early twenties I was close to a number of women, really close, on an intimate emotional level, and I was convinced I could maintain these intense friendships indefinitely, but the truth is you can’t, or at least I couldn’t. There simply isn’t enough space in life, because friendships as intimate as those, well, you’re never really just friends—that familiar old story. Intimacies like those either wax or wane and eventually slip away. Such has been my experience with women. Why not with him?
Tom and I were friends, just friends, but I suppose it was never so simple. I loved him, my friend, but not like he needed. Philia in abundance. Agape even. But a dearth of eros. And you’d be right to respond: As if you know what he needed. So, so arrogant. But it would explain things.
He recently moved to within a hundred miles of where I live and called a month ago, but we haven’t connected. Still playing phone tag. I know he’s getting married one of these days, to a doctor, a guy I haven’t met yet. We’re still friends, I would say, but certainly not like we were. The old Pop! Fizzle… Déjà vu. I’ve been here before, many times, but not here exactly. Such a familiar story—but suddenly it feels new to me.
I suppose this is just a blown-up case of nostalgia, what with summer sprung on us once again, and Neil on the radio, with the lakes warming up, the landscape gone green, the days growing longer, and then already, a little shorter. And these sore muscles this morning, and these joints stiff like they’ve never been before, are a reminder too that like all those summers past, my youth, such as it was, is finally and totally over, lost, and with it the closeness we once shared, irretrievably gone.
—Some names have been changed to protect privacy.
CRAIG REINBOLD’s work has appeared in the Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, Gulf Coast, Guernica, Brevity, Ruminate, Zone 3, Mud Season Review, and a number of other more or less literary places. He is also a regular contributor to Essay Daily, the blog-cum-conversation about all things essay, and is co-editor, with Ander Monson, of How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader (CoffeeHouse Press, 2017). He works in the emergency department of a Milwaukee-area hospital. When he’s not there, he spends his days alternately hanging out with his two boys and studying to become a nurse.
My best friend Justine, in a sleeveless white dress that flared out in ruffles above the knees, descended the steps of a waterfront house in Maryland. The fifty hushed guests gasped on cue. They were here to celebrate the couple’s forever-love; I was paying my final respects to our friendship.
That morning I hadn’t helped blend makeup to match Justine’s honey complexion or calmed her down in a moment of panic, even though we’d been friends for twenty-one years. Instead, I wandered around a nearby mall where I once waited while she went on a first date with a man she met online. This was in the early 2000s when Internet courting was synonymous with Craig’s List Killer. Then, I was her wing woman, but today I wasn’t by her side.
But at least I’d be in attendance, unlike her first wedding seven years ago. Amidst the stress of planning a wedding both families disapproved of, she decided on a four-thousand-dollar per person destination affair, even though I, the maid of honor, was living paycheck to paycheck. We’d already been quarreling about details when she took a new stance.
“Honestly, I don’t care if anybody’s there. I don’t care if my family’s there. It doesn’t matter if you’re there or not,” she’d said in a huff. Hurt, devalued, and financially relieved, I’d bailed on the wedding and the planning of her stateside bridal parties. But seven months later, I’d felt guilty.
“It’s fine,” Justine had said when I’d broken our silence with an apology. “I’m over it.”
But I wasn’t. I’d vowed to prove myself reliable. So a few years later when she—newly divorced—prepared to relocate to New Jersey, I scouted apartments on her behalf and emailed self-made videos. With my help, she picked a Jersey City high-rise with a hypnotizing view of Southern Manhattan, not unlike the one behind her now.
As the bride stepped slowly into frame, I held up my iPhone and counted: one … two … Two was the number of times that I’d spoken to Justine on the phone in the last two years and I didn’t know why. My thumb hovered over the shutter button as I let her walk out the shot and to the trestle where her groom and maid of honor—her college roommate who had replaced me before—waited.
Inclusion on Justine’s wedding guest list but exclusion from her life was the culmination of bewildering behavior that began when she left New Jersey in April 2012. For two months, I left unrequited texts and voicemails. At first I was worried that something happened to her until I saw a Facebook post. She was living; she was just doing it without me.
My phone remained silent until September. “Hey. I’m in the City,” she texted. “I’m gonna be at Penn Station around seven tonight if you want to meet up. If not, that’s fine.”
“Sure,” I said, trying to match her nonchalant-ness. That evening I braved the rush-hour drive over the George Washington Bridge to meet her in Midtown.
We hugged. Then we laughed.
“What the heck happened to you?” I said.
“I guess I did your thirty days of silence and solitude,” she said referencing my sporadic practice to abstain from phone calls to find my true and drama-free self.
“Yours was like three hundred days. And at least I tell people,” I said. “You just disappeared.”
Justine shrugged. “I did think about you. I’m glad to see you’re doing okay.”
Until she boarded her train, we made familiar easy jokes and traded expressive glances that had become like a secret language since our first day in a Connecticut Catholic high school. Drawn to each other by the energy that makes atoms collide, we compensated for our inability to take unsupervised outings (edicts set by mothers we believed were overprotective) by creating our own social world that lived on the landline.
We talked every day for hours. Even after college, we chatted in the mornings until she pulled into the parking garage and her signal dropped. Fifteen minutes later, we reconvened at her desk, yapping about work before getting off to actually do it. One year she called me at seven in the morning. A New York City radio morning show was searching for a female co-host. “You should apply,” Justine yelled excitedly from somewhere on I-95. She knew my dreams of working in entertainment. I auditioned for the job and got it. If it weren’t for her, I never would have heard the ad.
I hoped our train station reunion was the rebirth of us, but my only communications from her the rest of the year were two pictures: one of her in a cat costume on Halloween and another of some balloons on New Year’s Eve. The next summer she texted that she was moving in with a new boyfriend. We joked about telling her mom, and I refrained from asking why she moved on from me.
I suspected fundamental differences in our personalities had finally convinced her we were incompatible. While I had been taking creative risks that led to years of low-paying jobs and episodic unemployment, she was making good on a self-imposed deadline to be a six-figure salary executive at a Fortune 500 company by age thirty. If we were TV shows, she was The Jeffersons, and I was Sanford & Son. I knew she wanted positive change for me, but maybe like a haggard spouse grown tired of waiting, she packed her bags and left.
At the end of the year, I found out that she’d gotten engaged. Another friend saw it on Facebook and phoned me before I received my BFF’s texted pic of the groom on one knee: “He proposed.”
I was truly happy for her. I just pretended to be surprised.
The next month, I actually was astonished when Justine texted a surprise dinner invite at the end of a business trip that had brought her back to town. I agreed.
I picked her up in my SUV, but we may as well have been in Doc’s DeLorean. As we waited for a table, I marveled over the chocolate diamond engagement ring and chuckled at stories of her fiancé. After the food arrived, I asked why she disappeared.
“I didn’t realize that happened … it wasn’t intentional,” she said. “It was a crazy time. It’s funny because he knows exactly who you are. I talk about you all the time.”
Even though unintentional wasn’t in her DNA, I nodded. Two months before the wedding, my phone rang.
“Would you write and read something for the wedding? You know me the best and the longest,” she said. “I was going to wait until you returned your invite, but I figured I’d ask you now.”
The invitation had been sitting on my kitchen table. It wasn’t just the loss of friendship that made me debate my attendance; the costly trek from western North Carolina to the coast of Maryland would obliterate the tiny bit of money I had to live on for the summer.
“I’m surprised you asked,” I said. “I didn’t think that I was in your inner circle anymore.”
“I guess we’re not on the same page,” Justine said. “To me, our friendship is the same even though we don’t talk. I thought about what you said at the restaurant. Maybe I pulled away because I didn’t want to keep asking you to hang out when you couldn’t afford it. I dunno. But if someone asked me, I’d still say you are my best friend.”
“Well, I’m honored that you asked,” I said, blinking quickly to ward off a familiar sting in the corners of my eyes. “Of course, I’ll do it.”
During the ceremony, as the couple made jokes with the officiant and guests, I waited for my cue. When she called my name, I rose from my seat and angled my body toward the couple, reading the poem I’d written.
“Love is patient, ever-present /Love is kind, joy divine/ Never envies, never boasts/ Humbles hearts, comforts souls / Pushes towards the finish line /in the midst of mud and grime.” I paused at the reference to the couple’s participation in a mud-filled obstacle competition and glanced at my old friend. Justine had tears in her eyes.
At the end of the reception, she walked over to me. “Thanks for doing the reading. It was perfect. I hope you weren’t put out of your way with all the traveling …”
I was exhausted but not from the physical distance—from the emotional one.
“Of course. I wouldn’t miss it,” I said, glancing only for a minute in eyes that used to say so much before averting my gaze to the blue-black water behind her, almost indistinguishable from the night sky.
“What time does your flight leave? We are having people over for crabs tomorrow at eleven if you want to come.”
“I leave at one.” I gave her a loose hug. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks.” She gestured towards remaining wedding business. “I got to go.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”
[“Justine” isn’t her real name. —ed.]
KEYSHA WHITAKER has a MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. Her work has appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward, The Frisky, and the New York Press. She hosts Behind the Prose, a podcast for writers, from a closet in Pennsylvania.
Maybe it’s nothing to be proud of, but tonight I felt my life coming together at a chichi grocery store. At home, things are in disarray, beyond disarray: the result of multi-front home improvement projects undertaken by my husband Stephen, perfectionist and reluctant decision maker.
Acrid fumes volatilize from newly varnished kitchen cabinets. The bathroom stands hallow, stripped of its porcelain fixtures. On the wide douglas fir boards where the tub once stood, the contractor applied an outdoor-only rot-prevention paint. Cursory internet searching vaguely links its ingredients to neurological problems. An oil-based primer seals off that toxic layer but simultaneously introduces hydrocarbonic vapors to the mix. A layer of dust covers the floors, ledges, and window sills. Mostly disintegrated plaster, but molecules of cancer-causing petrochemicals certainly encase each tiny particle.
All of this might be okay for us, but not, I think, for the developing lungs of our not-quite two-year-old son Nico.
We have already been staying at two other places, first a housesitting gig, then the rental house next door ours, until it was rented, which it now is. There is nowhere to go except Miriam’s, while she and her two kids are back east visiting family.
After work, I pick up Nico from his sitter’s and meet Miriam at her house to put dibs on it. If I feed her cats, we can stay there. It buys us a week out of our place.
Miriam tours me around, apologizing for the mess. She opens the door to her playroom, swinging it wide with a ceremonious ta da gesture. Behold. Here, a child’s plastic basketball hoop, the net torn, juts at an angle from a cardboard box sliding off a Navajo rug folded across the arm of a badly cat-scratched sofa. Nearby, a red and black checkerboard and two palm tree bookends are viewable in a thirty-two–gallon aquarium. Normally I don’t care anything about messes, but with this much chaos I’m concerned that keeping an exploring toddler out of trouble will be a challenge. I make a mental note to keep this door shut.
Cats are independent. This sink drain goes nowhere. The water gets hot quickly. The door is locked when the knob’s button is horizontal.
“This is Maya’s pet beetle.” A little roll of Miriam’s eyes. “It was one of those meal worms. Its name is Pepsie. I don’t know what she’s doing.”
(Assume it will die. Assume it won’t stay in the container.)
“Maybe,” Miriam ventures, “when we’re back, you could stay at the house down the street that’s for sale. You’d love it. There are so many kids around, and it’s nice to be so close to Whole Foods. We even memorized the dinner sales. Monday night is burritos. Wednesday, the rotisserie chickens are only six dollars. “
I say yes. Yes to the chickens. I bought a rotisserie chicken at the Co-op last week. It was the best thing I did all month.
She agrees. “My kids love it. I got three meals out of it!”
Our enthusiasm is delivered slightly deadpan, winking and grimacing to ourselves. After all, I once made a practice of pressing my own soy milk to avoid the non-recyclable foil lined packaging. But now I embrace chicken in a plastic bubble.
Miriam and I agree to meet up at Whole Foods after she makes a spare key to the house.
Gleaming steel grocery cart, with a tray projecting in front of the child seat. In the style of a cookie cooling rack, the tray has narrowly spaced metal bars such that Nico’s little wooden Gold Dust Thomas Choo Choo can perch at an angle between two bars without falling through. Off to one side, a circular gap in the tray can hold his sippy cup. This thing was built for us.
Even so, it’s difficult to get through the store. Tired and hungry, Nico writhes in the seat, straining against the nylon seat belt. He grabs my coat collar and tries to pull himself out. He yells.
At last the checkout line. And there at the end I see just the set up I was looking for:
Tall tables, bar height, and stool chairs. Twisted cast iron legs and slate tops. Behind the table, a smoky-gray tinted mirrored wall, an attraction, engagement for a toddler. More wholesome than TV, like a fish tank.
I must have expected to look alright by that half light, because I startle at my first glimpse of myself in the mirror, dark circles under my eyes, my hair pulled tight with frizz escaping along the hairline. I do look how I’m always afraid of: old.
But, hey, the cart pushes right up to the table, the seat at just exactly same height as the tabletop.
Looking down at our browned chicken, condensation forms under the plastic dome. A paper ribbon seals the package. Everything would be perfect if I had a knife and napkin. I can’t muster the will to leave the table and venture to the silverware bar.
I pull the chicken apart with my fingers, but the avocado?
Nico screams, “AVO AVO!”
He is loud. People in line look at us.
One man radiates judgment. Does he think this is how we eat every night? An entire encapsulated chicken between us? Popping the airtight seal to tear meat from its bones?
I look over toward the counter of silverware, and there is Miriam, wondrously materialized, bringing napkins and forks and knives and Maya.
We take up a conversation that we, two mid-Atlantic transplants to central California, have been having since we met seven years ago. Without even mentioning any of it, we talk about the greenery, the rain all year, the architecture, the pull of home.
“How long have you been here?”
“Twenty years. And you know, as recently as last summer thought I’d move back, but not anymore.”
“How old are you now, Maya?”
I had been staying with Daniel while Miriam and her friend made the trip to bring Maya home from China. When I ask how she did it, I don’t mean it to be patronizing. I remember the autism parents who have said simply you would do it too.
But Miriam says, “I don’t remember. I felt called.”
I don’t remember her complaining.
She says she actually doesn’t remember much of the first couple years, when Maya was one and two, and Daniel was four and five. It was too busy to remember.
As we talk, I recall the stone statues of basket-carrying ladies just outside that adorn the exterior roofline of this grocery store and remember an essay that came through my writing group describing their architectural and mythological history. Remembering those moments of hearing that essay cinches that time together with this time at the table, the stitches of my life gathering tighter. The mirror behind the table reflects Miriam and I, where we have arrived through this more than half-decade of conversation.
And with these threads pulling through time, I am back in memory to a day in Virginia, snow flurries swirling out the window all day and late afternoon as dark falls, until I had to turn on the porch light to check if they were still falling. One year to the day after you died, Mom.
There in the kitchen, I reflected on Isak Dinesen’s writing about the pattern of a life, a pattern that can only be discerned with the space of time. As if looking down from above on a person’s life—the movements and places travelled—the pattern will emerge like a constellation shape. I believe Dinesen described the shape of a wading bird, but I never have been able find those words again. In the Virginia kitchen, warm and light with snow outside, I thought of your life. What was the bird pattern? Was there one, if you had trouble seeing it even at the end? What if the path never did arrive?
I think of you talking about the way you would watch your Christmas tree. Your childhood trees with real candle flames and weighted metal tinsel lametta sparkling. Shining silver balls hanging half hidden toward the interior branches. Light glinting between these and the ornaments with miniature scenes inside half-glass globes. On our oral history tape you said, I remember just sitting in front of the tree. The reflections of all the little lights. I could just sit there for hours and watch it, because the icicles would move because of the natural candles, because they would move. A door opened or some little wind would come, and it was going through the whole tree and it shifted all to one side.
I imagined your life as that tree, a web of moments, points, reflecting back and forth each other, amplifications and interferences. All the moments like tiny hanging mirrors.
The next day, when I get to Miriam’s, there will be a note on the container where Maya’s beetle lives. In blue crayon, in child’s variably sized lettering, it says:
Please chang apple every DAY (drawing of beetle) Two little sqeres of apple (heart).
Also labeled are Pepsie bed and Pepsies tunnel.
Most of the week, I ignore Pepsie. He has a chunk of apple, although it looks browned and withered on the outside. On the last day, I cut a small fresh slice and put it next to Pepsie’s toilet paper roll cave, and, unbelievably, he trundles out right away, and extends some sort of proboscis and sucks, sucks and sucks, on the apple.
I leave Maya a note: I think Pepsie missed you.
But this I don’t know yet as Miriam and Maya and Nico and I finish dinner together, and somehow it feels leisurely.
Before I head home, I pat my pocket and discover the change that I’d scavenged from my car the day before, when I’d planned to get some cocoa but then misplaced my car keys and missed the chance.
I walk up to the beverage counter to buy cocoa for the road. The young man tells me that Harvest Cocoa is the drink of the hour. I can get any size I want for the price of a small. I get a medium.
Carrying it in one hand, I push Nico out to the car. It is dark, and light sprinkles have started.
One of the first rains of the year in this place where we go months without rain. The rain feels like everything. The dirt, the leaves, the stomata, the dirt, even the sand in the sidewalk opens up. Like pores. Breathing. Drinking. Petrichor.
Driving now, I pull the car off the dark access road into an Amaco station, lit bright as an alien outpost. I swipe my magnetic strip and stand by. I try not to inhale too deeply the vaporized hundred million year old liquefied remains of giant reptiles as they are pumped above ground to burn in the furnace of my car, propelling our course home.
Tank full, I swing out and onto the highway ramp.
We drive the twelve straight miles on the highway. Through fine rain drops, red tail lights stream out in front of me and white lights trail the other way. And I am so surprised to register a net of connection around my heart as we slip along this path of least resistance.
ANDREA MUMMERT PUCCINI is a mother, environmental biologist, and writer. She is a native of Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay lowlands. She now lives in northern California with her husband and two sons, where she works with farmers and ranchers to improve water quality and create wildlife habitat on agricultural lands. She co-authored California Wildlife: Conservation Challenges prepared at the University of California, Davis, and her work has appeared in the Yolo Crow, Pilgrimage, River Teeth online, and a number of scientific journals. She can be reached at http://andreamummertpuccini.blogspot.com/
When I was fourteen, I was what guys now call “thick.” In 1979 terms, though, I was just “fat.” I developed early and had boobs and butt galore, but I also had linebacker arms and thighs to go along with them.
In my family, my sisters were the beauties. My oldest sister Cheryl was fair-skinned with deep green eyes. My second oldest sister Caroletta had naturally wavy hair that required no heat straightening to cascade over her shoulders and down her back. I had neither. My eyes were hazel, more brown than green, and my hair, according to my mother, was “nappy” and had to be pressed. Both my sisters were slimmer than me: my oldest sister was short and curvy, and my second oldest sister was thin and muscular, with a tiny waist and large breasts. With my brown hair, brown skin, brown eyes and thick thighs, I most closely resembled a piece of well-done fried chicken.
Since I wasn’t considered a beauty in my family, I tried to content myself with being the smart girl, the good girl, the girl who never got into trouble, and I told on my siblings who did. When I reached my teens, I didn’t just want to be smart anymore—I wanted to be cute, too. But my weight kept getting in the way.
At Precious Blood, the small Catholic school I attended for eighth grade, the fine boys in my class either ignored me or teased me. It was always good sport to make fun of the fat girl. The only other male attention that I regularly received was the street harassment that I endured nearly every day as I walked home after school. Men would drive slowly alongside me, shouting, “Hey baby, can I talk to you?” I would ignore them and continue walking, acting if I didn’t hear the comments they made about my ass and what they’d like to do with it. Eventually, they would scream, “Fuck you then, you fat bitch!” when I kept my eyes focused ahead and refused to acknowledge them.
All throughout eighth grade, I had watched couples sneak across the parking lot at recess and go behind the nursing home adjacent to Precious Blood to make out. High school, I hoped, would mean a wider variety of boys, some of whom might appreciate my ass like the men who followed me in cars, but hopefully without the “fuck you, fat bitch” part. Unlike all the schools I’d gone to before, my high school—Cass Technical High School, Detroit’s largest and most prestigious high school—was huge. With over five thousand students, the school was filled with good-looking boys everywhere I turned. My second oldest sister, a senior, was friends with all the hot senior guys, but to them, I was just her little freshman sis.
Along with the multitude of hot guys, there were girls at my school who were bona fide glamour queens. Every day, these daughters of doctors, lawyers, and judges came to school with their slim bodies dressed in the latest fashions. I envied their tight Calvin Klein jeans, their fresh-from-the-salon hairstyles, their Fashion Fair and Clinique makeup, and their Coach purses. With so many beautiful girls around, no matter how many boys I had crushes on—and the crushes felt like legion at that point—the guys I wanted to notice me were paying no attention to the shy nerdy fat girl.
A few other boys took notice. There was the senior boy at my school who, one day during swim class, took me down to the deep end of the pool—I couldn’t swim—and stuck his tongue in my mouth and his fingers in my vagina. I hadn’t much cared for either intrusion, but I held onto him for dear life so that I wouldn’t drown. He was a senior, and he was light-skinned with curly hair, so I was even momentarily excited that I’d been singled out to be assaulted by him. One day, I asked Caroletta, as casually as I could, if she knew him.
“Ugh,” she responded. “He’s a creep. How do you know him?”
“He’s on the swim team, and they practice in the deep end during my swim class.”
She frowned in disgust. “Stay away from him. He’s a weirdo.”
Caroletta didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t ask what that statement meant. But her words forced me to stop thinking of what that guy had done to me in the terms of the romance novels I loved—as a seduction. I began to see what he had done to me as something that was wrong and that shouldn’t have happened. I didn’t tell my sister or anybody else what he had done to me, but I avoided him after that.
There was the boy I met at a football game—a boy from one of our rival schools, King High School. He wasn’t even remotely cute, but he approached me like I was, and convinced me to go over to his house one day after school. As we lay on his sofa that day—him on top of me, his enormous lips completely encircling mine, covering the lower half of my face with spit—I could only think about washing my face and getting home. Fortunately, he was as afraid of his mother as I was of mine, so he hustled me out before his mama got home from work, and I managed to get home early enough to avoid getting in trouble with my own mother. I had no desire to repeat the experience, so although I made the mistake of giving him my phone number, I luckily answered the phone every time he called, and each time, I would hang up like it was a wrong number. Soon afterwards, he took the hint and stopped calling.
And then there was the boy I liked the most at the time, a sophomore who was friends with my best friend Melinda’s boyfriend. He kissed me once during study hall, apparently out of boredom, and then forgot I was alive. Even though my crush ignored me afterwards, I replayed that kiss over and over in my head every day, multiple times each day, each time daydreaming that the kiss led him to realize that I was The One.
Since the boys I liked showed no real interest in me, and the ones who did show interest were creeps, I turned to the worlds of sports and entertainment for fantasy boyfriends. I had crushes on both of the Brothers Johnson, Prince, Paul Newman, Billy Dee Williams, Bjorn Borg, Detroit Tigers right-fielder Ron LeFlore, and NFL quarterbacks Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, just to name a few. I had so many celebrity crushes, I could have founded a fantasy boyfriend league.
I also lived vicariously through the exploits of my best friend Melinda. Melinda was dating the boy of her choice, a cute guy on the football team. Melinda was in love, and her stories of skipping school to spend afternoons at her boyfriend’s house while his mom was at work sounded like true romance to my virgin ears. Since I couldn’t have a boyfriend of my own, I lived for her stories about hers. When Melinda wasn’t skipping class with her boyfriend, we would skip class and walk downtown to Hart Plaza, sit by the Detroit River, and talk about her real love and my imagined ones.
Most of what I knew about boys, men, and sex came from reading my three older brothers’ porn books and magazines, along with Harlequin, Silhouette, Harold Robbins, and Jackie Collins novels. I had been reading my brothers’ porn since I was eight, and racy romance novels since I was ten. From time to time, Planned Parenthood pamphlets would appear, randomly and without explanation, on our dining room table. This was my mother’s way of giving us sex ed information without actually having to talk about sex. I read those, too, under my mother’s watchful, approving eye. Reading about sex was fine, as long as I didn’t ask my mother any questions.
Between the porn and Planned Parenthood, I felt pretty well-informed. But I was still missing the one thing I wanted most—a boyfriend. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend, but that detail didn’t much matter. I’d never had a boy ask me to be his girlfriend. I’d never even had an in-school-only relationship, the kind of boyfriend who was only your boyfriend during school hours because you couldn’t see or talk to him any other time.
So when Melinda told me she knew a boy who liked me, I was excited to hear more.
“My cousin Rob thinks you’re cute,” she said.
Melinda’s cousin Rob was gorgeous. His neatly groomed Afro, velvet-smooth caramel skin, and faint mustache over full, lush lips reminded me of my fantasy celebrity boyfriends, like Prince. I was sure he would know how to kiss a girl without putting her whole face in his mouth.
Melinda’s cousin wasn’t a boy, though. He was twenty-eight.
“He wants me to give him your number,” Melinda told me.
“You know I’m not supposed to have boys calling me,” I told her. “What if he calls and my mother answers the phone?”
Melinda shrugged. “Have him call when you know she’s not going to answer.”
On one level, I knew to avoid older men. There was one teacher at Cass who grossed us all out. He would leer at the attractive girls in his class and tell them he would give them a higher grade if they would set him up with an older sister, cousin, or aunt. To us, he was one step away from being a pedophile, and everyone knew to stay away from him.
But at fourteen, I didn’t put Melinda’s twenty-eight-year-old cousin in that same creeper category. He was about the same age as some of the R&B and sports stars I dreamed about. I’d met him a few times at Melinda’s house and was flattered by the way he talked to us like we were people, not just kids. I had never noticed him paying particular attention to me at all, so to hear that he thought I was cute and wanted my number was both surprising and thrilling. Having a handsome, adult man I knew—not some random dude in a car—ask for my number made me feel attractive, desired and valued.
“I don’t know how I’m going to manage it, but give him my number,” I told Melinda.
We had one house phone—the heavy, indestructible black rotary dial phone that was Ma Bell’s trademark. The phone sat on the buffet that separated our living room and dining rooms, and although my mother eventually relented and allowed us to buy a longer phone cord from Radio Shack, we weren’t allowed to move the phone too far off the buffet. The phone’s location ensured that my mother heard the phone every time it rang, heard one of us answer it, and could detect from our response whether the caller was appropriate or inappropriate.
Melinda acted as the go-between for that first call. I told her exactly what time Rob had to call so that I could be right there to answer when the phone rang. I had to position myself by the phone, yet act as if I wasn’t standing by the phone because I was expecting a call. When the phone rang, I had to move quickly to answer it but not leap to answer on the first ring. My mother saw and picked up on everything, and she would have definitely noticed that. When I answered, I had to move far enough away from her so that she couldn’t hear a male voice coming through the handset, but I had to stay close enough to her that it didn’t look like I was trying to have a conversation that was so private that I couldn’t have it in front of her.
The actual call was even trickier to manage than I’d anticipated. Rob had one of those panty-dropper phone voices, sonorous and bass-filled, the kind of voice that teenage boys, no matter how cute, just don’t have. As he spoke, I imagined his lips brushing my earlobe.
“Who was that?” my mother said when I got off the phone.
“Melinda,” I lied.
“Hmmph. That didn’t sound like no Melinda.”
“She has a cold.”
I told Rob—through Melinda—that calling on school days wouldn’t work because my mother was watching too hard. We settled on Saturday mornings as a good time for us to talk without interruption. My mother slept late, my father would be out grocery shopping, and no one else would be awake, either.
During our conversations, Rob told me I was beautiful. He said I was mature beyond my age. He told me I was too smart and too good for those boys who didn’t want me. He never said, “If only you were eighteen, I’d love to date you.” He said he wanted to take me out—now.
I protested. “I told you: I can’t go out with you. I can’t go out with anybody.”
“We can pick a place to meet.”
“Nope. My mother would never go for that. The only place I can go is to school and over Melinda’s house.”
“Then I’ll come pick you up.”
“You can’t come to my house!”
“What if I shave?”
“Then you’ll look like a grown man without facial hair. You don’t understand, I can’t go out with boys until I’m sixteen. And even if I were sixteen, I couldn’t go out with you, because you would have to pick me up at my front door, and there’s no way my mother would let me leave the house with some man.”
He would laugh and offer up other schemes. He suggested picking me up from school, but I knew Caroletta would eventually get wind of that. I had gotten away once with sneaking off after school with the boy from King, but there was little chance I’d ever get away with that again. I wondered to myself—never suggesting it—why he couldn’t meet me at Melinda’s house. It never occurred to me that his aunt, Melinda’s mom, wouldn’t stand for it if her adult nephew started being too obvious in his attentions towards her teenage daughter’s best friend.
Still, I was pleased with my little secret rebellion. Rob and I had found a sliver of time on Saturday mornings where I could consistently talk to him on the phone without being bothered by anyone. We never used the words “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” but those phone conversations—even if they were only once weekly—felt special. In my head, he was my boyfriend for fifteen minutes every Saturday morning. Talking to him on the phone was enough for me.
But it wasn’t enough for him.
During one of those Saturday morning conversations, things changed. Rob’s voice acquired more bass than usual, and he became insistent that I find a way for us to meet. He was so determined that I was nearly ready to agree—until he said something that startled me. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was sexual, in tone if not in content; the kind of ridiculous bullshit a man says to clarify that his intentions are not platonic.
I knew something had changed, but in my inexperience, I couldn’t fully process what happened. So I asked:
“What are you doing?”
Rob chuckled. “I’m making love to your mind.”
In one of my brothers’ porn magazines—Penthouse or Hustler, I can’t be certain—there was a cartoon that fascinated and horrified me. It was a drawing of a girl with crossed eyes and a stupid grin. A guy had his penis shoved in her ear, his balls squished against the side of her face. The tip of his penis extended out her other ear and dripped with cum. The caption was equally crude and extremely offensive: “How to Fuck a Retarded Girl.”
When Rob told me he was making love to my mind, I immediately recalled that image. My still-kid brain took the words “making love to your mind” literally. And although, intellectually, I knew he didn’t mean he wanted to stick it in my ear—and that if he did, it wouldn’t penetrate my ear canal and come out the other side—emotionally, I blanched. What I fully understood in that moment was that nice Rob, who said I was smart and pretty and mature for my age, wasn’t my Saturday morning fantasy phone boyfriend. He was a grown, adult man who wanted to fuck fourteen-year-old me.
And just as my sister’s calling the guy on the swim team a creep had stopped me from romanticizing his sexual assault, Rob’s claim that he was “making love to my mind” didn’t feel sexy and romantic, but icky and wrong.
I didn’t know what to say, so I laughed.
“What’s funny?” he said.
“Oh, is that what that was?” I replied, buying myself time.
“Yes. How do you feel?”
I guess this was the point where I was supposed to tell him he was making me wet and I wanted to kiss him and, yes, I would find a way to sneak out of my mother’s house and see him. But I could only think about getting off the phone before anyone caught me, and telling him I couldn’t ever talk to him again.
“I have to go,” I said. “My mom is going to get up soon.” And I hung up.
I don’t remember if I told Melinda to tell Rob he couldn’t call me anymore or if I told him myself. However the message was conveyed, he obliged. And when I saw him at Melinda’s house, he stayed away from me.
Although Melinda and I remained friends throughout high school, Rob showed no further interest in me once I reached the age of consent. He came by Melinda’s house less and less often when I was there. Melinda would casually mention, “Oh, my cousin Rob asked about you,” but with no indication that he wanted any further contact. That was a relief, because I didn’t want any further contact with him, either.
Over the years, I told my story about Rob, to different audiences and for various purposes. In my late teens and early twenties, it was almost a point of honor to show that, like other girls, I’d had grown men chasing after when I was very young, despite my weight. Sometimes, I told the story as part of a longer narrative about the benefits of having strict parents who kept me from doing stupid things I wasn’t smart enough to keep myself from doing.
But it wasn’t until I told the Rob story to one of my law school friends that I understood its true significance.
As I described the compliments Rob bestowed upon me—that I was beautiful, smart, and mature beyond my years—my law school friend shook her head.
“He was grooming you,” she said.
Grooming? Until then, I’d never heard that term. I hadn’t realized that what happened to me was a thing that adults who prey on children do as part of their twisted seduction game. I’d been groomed by a pedophile—and I had no idea. Technically, the term for a man like Rob who desires to have sex with teens is ephebophile, not pedophile—but to me, that’s a distinction without a difference. No matter what term you choose, it means a grown man who wants to have sex with a child—and at fourteen, I was definitely still a child.
Rob had other issues and later wound up in prison for murder. He asked Melinda to ask me to write to him in prison. I told her I would think about it, but I never did write to him, because I had nothing to say to him.
I am thankful for my mother and her strict rules, because they helped prevent me from putting myself into an untenable situation with Rob. But now that I’m a mom, I wish I could have gone to my mother and talked to her about what was happening. I wish I’d had not just rules to keep me safe, but guidance on how to deal with sex and my burgeoning sexuality. If I’d gone to my mother, she would have forbidden me from going to Melinda’s house ever again, and that would have been devastating. I needed an adult to talk to about Rob—and I didn’t have one. My own daughter is now seventeen, which is the age of consent in New York State—but even now, I hope she would come talk to me if she found herself being pressured into a sexual relationship that she wasn’t ready for, something I was unable to do with my own mother.
As I learned from being groomed by Rob, an adult need not be in a position of authority over a child to wield unequal power. Rob preyed on my teenage insecurities, and were it not for that gross porn magazine cartoon, I might have allowed him to “make love” to more than just my mind. I wasn’t mature enough to handle a telephone relationship with a twenty-eight-year-old man that turned overtly sexual only once. I certainly wasn’t mature enough to handle an actual physical relationship with him. While I’m sure exceptional cases do exist, my experience with Rob taught me that the idea of a teenager under the age of seventeen truly consenting to sex with an adult is nothing more than a dangerous illusion. When I think about Rob, those weeks I spent as his Saturday morning telephone girlfriend feels less like a sweet young romance, and more like a near miss. I was lucky to escape unharmed.
A couple of names have been changed. —ed.
CAROLYN EDGAR is an attorney and writer who lives in New York City. She is a regular contributor to Salon and on her own blog, Carolyn Edgar – Notes of a Writer, Lawyer and Single Mom (www.carolynedgar.com).
Preparing for Douglas’s memorial, I was still so numb from the news of his suicide that I could only grasp one word at a time, as if I were recovering from a blow to the head. Memorials are one of those few gatherings in which being a writer can actually be useful, and so not being able to string words together into sentences was only adding to my heartbreak. In the days before the service, as I was struggling to write something thoughtful or healing, words beginning with the letter t came to me. The first, titan, because of his genius and then, teacher, because he was professorial in all ways. The rest came swiftly, even if verbs and articles didn’t.
My list of t words was a weary attempt at honoring someone I’ve known and loved for more than thirty years, but I didn’t have any practice eulogizing a dear friend who died from a bullet that he sent through his head.
But offer it I did, to our gathering of six, all friends from college who had long histories with Douglas, who listened quietly as I recited my stupid t words on the campus where we all met in the late 1970s.
On the year he took his life, it had been close to four years since I had spoken with him. He’d been pulling away. On his fiftieth birthday, I sent him a coffee table book of Grateful Dead concert photography, but I never heard back, which irked me more than made me worry. On his fifty-first, I emailed him, but he didn’t reply. In previous years, when there was a chance for us to get together in Chicago, he’d grab a flight or jump into his beige Honda from his Lawrence, Kansas, home and, voila, reunion. His recent non-response was deafening; his absence creeping into every gathering, turning talk to the question of why he was shutting us out of his life. During that year, all six of us had all reached out to him in various ways, leaving emails, voice messages, acknowledging his birthday, the new year. I had gone as far as anonymously calling the university where he taught to ask the department secretary to confirm that he was still teaching there, which he was.
On his fifty-second, I sent another email.
I wrote, “Hoping this finds you well and that this day brings you joy and peace. Know that you are in our hearts.”
Later that day, he wrote back, simply, “Thank you.”
That birthday prompted a series of conversations between the six of us about what was going on with him.
We had several theories.
There was the bat mitzvah overload theory. Between us, all of us Jewish, there were six children celebrating bat or bar mitzvahs over a half dozen years. Douglas, who didn’t identify with any religion, made the trip up for two or three but then just stopped. A single, agnostic guy with no kids. We couldn’t blame him.
There was the theory that professional disappointmentswere at the root of his pulling away. The strain of grants not earned, articles not published; that job in D.C. that he really wanted but didn’t get.
Most of us shared the theory that he had gone off his antidepressants and stopped going to therapy. He’d been depressed for most of his teaching life, but it seemed to us that when he was seeing his therapist and taking his medication, he had been doing well. But somewhere around his fiftieth birthday, he had confessed to Steve, with whom he was the closest, that he simply didn’t want to talk or take medicine anymore.
There was a short-lived suspicion that he might be gay and not out. I didn’t subscribe to this theory, because during my first two years of college, he and I dated. In his heyday— our heyday—he looked like red haired, freckled Christian Bale. Imagine Christian, with a tinge of Howdy Doody. I’ll never forget him in his puffy blue parka and plaid, woolen bucket hat. He was, without a doubt, a self-professed computer geek with a Middle-earthy charm, drinking tea and calling friends “M’lady” and “M’lord.” He was insistent on being the teacher, in being right, and eventually I wanted to be more like a colleague so I moved on. In later years, the Christian Bale–Howdy Doodiness faded and he became a ringer for Mario Batali, bald head and ponytail included.
It took some time for us to meet back in the middle for what would become decades of friendship that would also, weirdly and wonderfully, include a close camaraderie with my husband. They shared a passion for disc golf, cycle-commuting, home-brewed beer, science fiction, Chicago Blues, and the Dead.
Douglas did date women but since becoming a tenured professor of computer science, he had been decidedly single, living in a ranch house with two black retrievers and an expansive video, television, and audio library.
He and Steve had exchanged email in recent years, but Douglas had even been avoiding Steve’s calls. Steve talked about flying down for an intervention, but before he did, he called Douglas, first unlisting his cell number. And Douglas picked up. Caught. Douglas confirmed that he was dodging us. He told Steve it was “the least bad alternative to avoid dumping gloom, doom, pessimism, and angst on top of your existence.”
In an email he later sent to Steve, he wrote, “I told Ellen some of this, and she was kind enough to say that my argument was logical, cogent, and reasonable, and what I said might well be true, but couldn’t I enjoy myself anyway? A reasonable question, and if I were sufficiently Zen, maybe I could do it, but the practical answer is no.”
He went on to tell the story about the Zen Monk who, while walking through the forest, hears a lion running after him. He outruns him, but, in doing so falls over a cliff, grabbing a bush on the way down, which stops him. Looking up, he sees the lion. Looking down, he sees a tiger. Both are hungry and anticipating lunch. But the bush is slowly ripping out of the hillside and he will soon fall down to the tiger. It’s then that he notices a big, beautiful strawberry on the bush. He picks the berry, takes a bite and smiling, says, “Delicious!”
“So,” wrote Douglas, “while I aspire to the monk’s moment-by-moment existence, in this case, I have been unable to reach that level of enjoying the moment while still seeing the lion and the tiger because you guys would want to help with the cause of my problems but cannot, or want me to cheer up, and I am simply not cheerful in the face of these lions and tigers. The only strawberries have been the books, videos, and students wanting to learn a few things I know how to teach.”
He then he added, “Sorry for the worry.”
It was a poetic description of depression. I learned later that the strawberry plant has actually been used to treat depression. None of us could disagree with his facts. That was the thing about Douglas—he bated and urged argument on, like sport. I saw it as a sign of his passion, the place he was most passionate—an argument with someone else in which he felt strongly. Why argue if you don’t care? That he stayed away from us, and the arguments, struck me as a frightening sign of his loss of interest in life.
But I kept thinking that as long as he showed up to class and had students who needed him, he was stable, even if we weren’t in his life. At the university, he worked on Linux systems, the free, open-source program designed for simultaneous multi-uses which dovetailed perfectly with his often-voiced philosophy that information should be freely dispersed to everyone, that the pursuit of knowledge is good for its own sake, and that people should live harmoniously with others.
And, there were Susan and John, two former computer science professor colleagues from Kansas about whom we’d all heard a lot. They currently lived and taught in Arkansas with Douglas and spent many holidays with him, even in those depressed years.
Other than teaching students and periodic visits with Susan and John, he was a loner. An only child, his father left when he was eighteen months old. He hadn’t spoken to his mother in twenty years. And his college buddies, the ones he was pushing away for reasons we will never fully know, were two, three and four states away.
Yet signs that he was losing his patience were becoming evident. There was that letter he wrote to Bill O’Reilly in 2005:
I have heard you are publishing an enemy’s list. I can think of nothing I would like better, at this moment, than to be included on the list of enemies of such a self-important, self-serving, egotistical, amoral, and slime-covered opportunist as you so obviously are.
Susan’s husband John saw Douglas ten days before his death.
“He seemed happier than usual,” Susan told me in a recent conversation, “not as abrasive as he could usually get.” Later, the gun receipt date confirmed that by that time, he had made his plans.
Douglas sent Susan and John a touchy-feely email thanking them for their friendship that struck them as uncharacteristic.
He didn’t show up for the first day of class. A department member phoned Susan. Susan and John called the police who said they might be able to find him via cell signal, which heightened their worry.
Susan and John left for work and, when the housekeeper later arrived, she found a box in the driveway. It was Douglas’s electronic library containing over a thousand hours of content. His worldy goods, dropped off, in a drive-by.
Douglas’ car was found by the landowners of a farm on an Arkansas highway, dead from a gun shot to his head.
Twelve days after he died, we gathered on campus to say goodbye; we left red carnations at locations where each of us had shared something with him to acknowledge our coming of age there. We began at the dorms where we all met and ended at the lake, where everyone managed to speak in full sentences, except me.
Some months later, Susan and John organized an academic fund at the university. A perfect legacy honoring the teacher, the titan. But what about the man?
This year, on his birthday I felt, as I did every year, the urge to reach out again. Even though, in the latter part of his life, he didn’t reach back. But maybe in death. Recently, Susan told me that her husband was in the airport and saw a tee-shirt printed with words that we all swear could have been a direct quote from Douglas himself. A suggestion of his presence, still floating in the world; a possible response to our questions.
It said, “I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you.”
ELLEN BLUM BARISH is a Chicago-based writer whose essays have appeared in Literary Mama, Tablet, and The Chicago Tribune and have aired on Chicago Public Radio. She is author of Views from the Home Office Window, a collection of essays from her syndicated newspaper column on motherhood. She has taught writing at Northwestern University, StoryStudio Chicago, and several other Chicago-area universities and adult education venues. Ellen also is a private writing coach, specializing in personal essay and memoir. Learn more at www.ellenblumbarish.com. This is her first piece for Full Grown People.