It all came crashing to a halt that New Year's Day when I finally had the guts to open the envelope. Inside were a small brass key, two photos, and another envelope, scrawled with a heavy "FUCK YOU" on the outside.
I started shaking and sat down without thinking. The photos--one was a picture of her in bed. The other I stared hard at and finally moved my thumb to better see the right side... turned it over and stared at the blank back, then up at the wall, heart pounding.
I had taken both. The second was a scene I'd held in my memory for two years, since the day I'd met her. It was on a beach outside Cabo. She stood with wet pants in the surf, the setting sun making the fringes of her black hair gold. That was the image that kept me going for the last two years. Her loveliness and her laugh were in it; I pulled that moment out every time I was sad or missing her, which had been a lot.
But the photo was different from the memory.
We'd met on that beach--I was traveling alone, she with friends, but we were so drawn to each other we'd had sex on the second night. And you have to really like someone to have sex on the floor of a laundry room in a Mexican hostel and still have it rank as one of the most unbelievable, most spiritual experiences of your life. She snuck away from her friends to spend time with me every other day for a week but then she flew back to L.A., and I eventually to San Francisco, and that was when the pain began. The excited first visits and heartbreaking goodbyes, the phone conversations, the overnight meetings in motel rooms that went from elation to misery over the course of twelve hours, the excuses.
He was in the photo. Along with a couple of her other friends that I remembered, he was just a little further down the beach, beer in hand. He had been there.
In our last phone conversation she'd told me that she thought he knew, and she was angry at me for my indiscretions. She screamed into the phone and I pulled it away from my ear and set it on the table and walked outside for a minute. When I came back I told her that I loved her. And she didn't relent--she was furious, I could hear the tears in her voice and the clack of her shoes on the floor as she paced.
The key I didn't recognize. I held the smaller envelope, the Fuck You envelope, in my fingers for a moment before I opened it and pulled out a folded sheet of notepad paper. It read, "For two years I have been asking you to be there for me. You know what I have been going through and how much I needed your support. I needed you, I loved you, I gave you my heart and soul, and I thought we'd be together for the rest of our lives. So FUCK YOU for doing this to me and for saying you would always be there. Never, ever contact me again." I didn't recognize the handwriting.
I looked again at the key. I had no recollection of what it could be, until I suddenly did--it had been on her third visit to San Francisco, when we stood on the Golden Gate Bridge and she took out the lock we'd just bought at the hardware store. She ripped open the packaging with her teeth and we wrote our names on it with a Sharpie and locked it onto the chain link. And then she took the key out of the package too and tossed it up and over the fence and I tried to follow it all the way to the water.
But she hadn't thrown it. Or there had been two keys and she only threw one. And she hadn't been "on a break" from her relationship when we met in Cabo. She had been cheating on him under his nose.
She had told me a couple months ago that she was feeling ready to leave him, and the new year would be a good time to start fresh. I don't believe in New Year's resolutions myself, but sometimes they're forced on you. Before I slid everything back into the envelope I stopped to look at the other photo. I had taken it here, in my bed. She looked five years younger than she was. She was half-naked and asleep, catching a few more minutes before having to get up for her flight, sprawled awkwardly with her arm under her belly and one thigh pulled up to her chest. At the time it had been achingly beautiful.
Sunday, February 12, 2012
I guess I'll just begin again. I went into the Army because they were going to train me to be a mechanic... the recruiter said they would... and my life had been going nowhere. I was living in Bitter Falls with a girl named Jamie who already had two kids, and working maybe two days a week at her uncle's shop, just running parts for them. I was twenty-two and the only friends I'd had who'd left Verona County had just graduated from college, one in New York and one in Florida, and the friends I had who hadn't left town were all married to women who had kids by different dads, and I wasn't sure what depressed me more.
Jamie didn't want me to go in the Army, but it wasn't like she was doing a lot to keep me here. She spent half her money on beer anyway. When I left for Afghanistan I told her I'd come back to her, but even then I didn't mean it. And I'd probably stopped thinking of her within a week of being out there.
The first week my unit had two IEDs to deal with. I didn't realize they were that common. Maybe I'm stupid but I didn't think we'd be over there if it was that dangerous. Just that it would be the Rangers or something, not regular troops. If it was that bad. I was just getting used to things a little when the explosion went off that day under our truck. The next thing I remember was the hospital in Germany, and then all those days my mom visited at Walter Reed.
The thing about traumatic brain injury is that you're not yourself anymore. Not that you're in a bad mood; that you're literally not the same person. Like you're this stranger with a different personality, different likes and dislikes. A stranger to your family and to yourself. There was a lot that I hated about what happened to me and a lot that I cursed out God for and even cried about, some things that were really bad, but this was just strange. I don't know if I'm supposed to be upset about it or not.
Today they had a party for me and I felt like I was at a party with strangers. But what do you do when you're at a party and you don't know anyone there? Just party even harder, right? I thought I was going to be one person at twenty-four, and instead I'm another person. Still trying to figure out what to do with that.
(Googled "I guess I'll just begin again" and went off this picture.)
Posted by J at 11:37 PM
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
He had it figured out. He could keep living alone if he built a big ramp into the kitchen. He could build a big ramp if he lowered the table saw to a height where he could work it seated, and re-hung all his tools so he could reach them from where he was sitting. He could lower the table saw if he rigged a harness for himself so he could stand and lean without any risk of falling. The harness could be suspended from the ceiling of the garage. Somehow, he'd have to get up there on a ladder, but he'd figure that out.
They told him there was a chance he'd be able to stand without a walker again, but that to be safe he shouldn't--that his balance was so bad, even after the broken leg healed he ought to keep using it, shuffling around like a frail old man, whether or not he actually felt like he might fall. Since he hadn't felt like he was going to fall the first time, he was inclined to listen. He might be stubborn but he wasn't stupid.
No, he was too smart to try to go on living the way he had. But damned if he was going into one of those nursing homes. Anything a man could think of to build, he could build. And he'd do it. Slings to help him get out of bed, one of those chairs on a rail to get up the stairs, a higher toilet seat, a post he could strap himself to while chopping wood so he wouldn't fall. Because a man's got to be able to live on his own. He might choose to live with others. But he's got to be able to do it on his own, because relationships with others that aren't based on choice aren't worth anything at all.
Googled "He had it figured out" and went off this picture.
Posted by J at 3:32 PM
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
She was the last one left. We hadn't wanted to get a Dachshund--Gary said a German Shepherd was a dog, a Dachshund was a type of rat--but we had come already decided we'd be taking home one of the rescue dogs, so we did.
This dog was one of the rescues from the Jersey flood. They told us she'd been found on top of a snag of trees in the middle of Ketchum, one of the towns that was inundated. Her owners had never come forward. It was hard to believe--she was about as cute as a button, with little brown "eyebrows" that always looked worried, and tiny ears. At the shelter they said they thought she was less than a year old, and would get a little bigger, but I was hoping she was a miniature Dachshund and was always going to stay so tiny. Small enough to ride in my backpack as I biked around the park.
We named her Daisy. That fall, Gary lost his job, and I first started experiencing the grinding exhaustion that would be diagnosed 2 years later as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I missed a lot of work, and Gary was home when he wasn't at the library. We fought a lot. One of my clearest memories of that time was of Daisy sitting between us looking back and forth at us, her tiny eyebrows giving her the most fretful, vigilant expression.
I wish I could say that she became my comfort during those long months when Gary moved out and then we split entirely just as I was becoming unable to work. But by then, Daisy was gone. It was the oddest thing. I had been worrying about everything--about Gary, about how I was going to support myself, about how I was going to take care of the dog when I didn't even have the strength or energy to take her for a walk most days. And one day I let her out into the yard, and she never came back to scratch at the door. And I, God forgive me, didn't even notice until she'd already been gone for over 24 hours.
I don't know what I could have done. I suppose if my neighbor and I had gone out driving around the neighborhood sooner we might have found her, but I have to wonder if Daisy knew what she was doing. If leaving was her way of trying to help me.
When I thought of that I thought of her, alone, on that snag of trees surrounded by flood waters and how her owners never claimed her, this cute little thing. I wonder if she'd left them in order to make their lives easier, too, somehow. Of course I miss her and her funny little expressions. But of course I was relieved, too, when I realized she wasn't coming back.
Googled "She was the last one left" and went off this picture.
Posted by J at 1:50 PM
Thursday, January 12, 2012
If I could do it all over again, I would wait just two more minutes at that door. And then leave, just like they told us in training. But it was my first house call and I was nervous. So I did the next best thing: I walked around to the side of the house to peek in the window and see if I could tell whether anyone was home.
What I saw in that window can never be unseen.
There was a very white man with a very saggy butt on his hands and knees. The black apron hanging off his body hid absolutely nothing. Standing close to the window, facing away from me, facing him, was a very slim young black woman in stiletto heels and a black corset. Her hair hung to the middle of her back and she had a riding crop in her right hand.
I was so startled I dropped the box of Pyrex® Sexy Sixties products I was carrying onto the garden stones, and the high pitched tinkling on impact told me I'd just lost at least half of the $400 investment I'd made in the brightly painted, heat-resistant bakeware. That was my seed money, the money I needed to turn a profit on, so I could buy more and better bakeware, and make more money, and eventually progress to holding Pyrex® Sexy Sixties parties in my home, and soon be raking in the $1000 a month the other independent representatives said they were making in their spare time.
Nobody at the training had said anything about this.
At the sound of the shattering glassware, the tall woman turned around. She looked at me through the window. She had purple mascara. She had red red lipstick and long red fingernails. The corset did not... contain her. It seemed to have been cut specifically to expose her feminine gifts. Below her and to the side, the very white man also looked up over his hairy shoulder. There was something round and red in his mouth.
The woman crooked a finger at me.
I turned to run and tripped over the box, then stepped in it, the violent shattering of an avocado-and-cream Amish Butterprint four-piece nested mixing bowl set ringing in my ears. I was into the car and halfway down Center St. before I even became conscious of what I was doing. At that point I was faced with a choice: go back and see if anything salvageable remained in the box, or go home.
I went home. To this day I refuse to imagine what they might have done with the box of glass shards I left them.
Googled DP's inspired starting sentence of "If I could do it over again, I would wait just two more minutes at that door" and went off this picture.
Posted by J at 1:10 PM
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Someone could have stopped it. In Flagstaff, in La Jolla, in Eugene. By the time they got to Portland there were only three of them left but the tour wasn't over, and it seemed a shame not to finish in Seattle like they'd planned. They eased the van into a gas station north of town and pulled some cardboard out of a dumpster. Pete got a Sharpie. Dave got one of xylophones out and set it up on the cracked asphalt. Ben went in to use the bathroom.
"We're going to play here?" Pete asked.
"Man, what the hell else are we going to do? We could be here for a long time."
It was chilly, but Dave blew into his fingers and worked his hands open and closed in between pulling SuperBalls out of a cardboard box and testing their bounce against the inside floor of the van. Pete was writing, in skinny block letters:
PLEASE HELP US GET TO SEATTLE
Dave jogged across the parking lot to toss a red SuperBall in the trash, then came back to look over Pete's shoulder.
WORLD'S ONLY SUPERBALL XYLOPHONE
The word "band" didn't fit on the same line. The dumpster cardboard wasn't long enough.
"All right. Warm up?" said Dave.
"Put this over here. Put your hat under it." Pete propped the cardboard against the back of the van. Ben had returned from the gas station store.
"Guys, I think I have dysentery, or something."
"Can you play?"
"Um." He sat down on the back bumper of the van. "I think I need to go to the hospital."
Pete had taken three balls and was juggling them downward against the keys of the first xylophone, experimentally. A few random notes sounded and then the strains of "Mary had a little lamb."
Dave put his hand on Ben's forehead. "You're sweaty, man."
"How are you going to afford a trip to the hospital, dude?" Pete clutched the three balls in one hand now and reached into the box for another.
Dave turned around. "How is he going to afford it? I don't know, you tell us. How much money's left in the emergency fund? The one you said we could restock if we started eating out of dumpsters. Huh?"
Pete shrugged and began bouncing the balls against the keys to the tune of "Oh when the saints come marching in," sustaining the long notes with multiple strikes like a mandolin player.
"I'm not sick. You're not sick. We're doing fine. He'll get over it."
"Well if he doesn't the tour is over. I'm not chasing after balls. It won't work. And nobody's going to pay to listen to you play the same three songs you know how to do by yourself over and over."
"So don't drop any balls." Pete didn't look up, now.
Ben was doubled over now, his blond head between his knees. Dave knelt beside him. "Look, man," he said quietly. "Go lie down in the van. If you still feel crappy in a half an hour we'll get you to the hospital. Don't worry about it." Ben nodded and Dave helped him up, around to the side of the van where he slid open the door, turning the painted SUPERBALL XYLOPHONE WORLD TOUR into the condensed SUPER HONE WOR.
"K, Pete," Dave said, dragging the box beneath the instrument and reaching in for a few balls. "I don't think either of us is capable of playing through all of, say, Stairway to Heaven without dropping at least once." He bounced his balls on the low end of the xylophone, tapping out "Hava Nagila" with stiff fingers. On the last note he missed his pickup and knocked the ball to the ground with the back of his fingers.
Three of the people who had been getting gas were now standing in front of them, looking from the instrument to the van and back, hands in their coat pockets. A teenage girl in heavy mascara leaned in and put a five in Dave's hat.
"Wanna bet?" said Pete.
"Yeah," said Dave. "I do. If I play with no drops, we take that five and put gas in the van and get Ben to the hospital. If you play with no drops, we take the gas and start heading up to Seattle."
"What if we're both perfect?"
Dave looked at their audience of three. "If we're both perfect, you guys are gonna shower us with dough, right?"
They chuckled. "I have a fiver," said a man.
"All right," said Dave. "If we're both perfect, we split the ten dollars. You get the van and I get Ben. If you're so damn good you can go to Seattle on your own. Me and Ben will figure out how to get back to Jersey."
"Fine," said Pete, so quiet the word registered more as a drift of misty breath in the cold air then as a sound. He lifted his arms a foot above the xylophone, ready. "We go on three."
Dave blew on his hands.
Note: Googled "Someone could have stopped it" and went off this picture.
Posted by J at 12:25 PM
Tuesday, January 10, 2012
It wasn't like he needed permission to go out. He didn't need to ask her. And it wasn't like he needed permission to have friends over, either. She'd always told him he didn't need to ask.
It was more like nobody wanted to come over anymore.
That Friday night, Jessica and her friends took up all the seats in the living room. They were on their third bottle of wine. They were so loud Mike could hear half of what they said through the closed study door. He heard "That's why they call it brainwashing!" and "No Washington bureaucrat man is gonna tell me abortion is good for women."
Mike had the Colbert Report turned up so loud it was hurting his own ears, but his wife's meeting still came through in the silences. It was like being back at school, except instead of blasting Credence to cover up his neighbor's New Kids on the Block, he was blasting politics. He was just as embarrased as ever, though, for the person on the other side of the wall.
He sank lower on the couch, holding a pillow over his chest. This wasn't his fault. Was it? This terrible mismatch. He had had no idea. They'd been together six months before Jessica had said a peep about the second amendment. Or baby-killers. He wondered if he was crazy, if perhaps there had been signs he'd been blind to in his infatuation with her energy and humor. And her lips.
What about when she told him that of course she'd shot a gun before? Or the time she got on him for making fun of rednecks? At the time, he'd assumed she was a true liberal, somebody who really believed in equality and open-mindedness rather than just preaching about it. Now he wasn't sure if the mistaken assumption was more to his credit or to hers.
He could list the things he loved about her, sure. There were a thousand things. The problem was that none of them was big enough to get over... this. How can a person seem so sane when talking you through the reasons you should start your dream business and so crazy when talking you through the reasons why conservative feminists are the real feminists?
Mike turned the TV off before the show was over. He stood up and listened at the door for a moment, then opened it. None of the women looked up at him. They were howling, half in amusement and half in rage, bright-eyed, wine glasses in hand.
When the noise died down, he opened his mouth. He spoke and then there was a sharp and engulfing silence in which he realized that although he'd meant to say, "Abortion does not increase rates of child abuse," he'd somehow said, "I want a divorce."
The relief was instant. Mike blinked once and then walked to the hall closet to get his coat while every woman turned her head to watch him. This was satisfying. This was the silence he would have liked to achieve with a well-timed and cutting argument about abortion. He couldn't have, he knew now. They weren't interested.
But they sure were interested in this.
The silence still hadn't been broken, but lingered round and full and complete and perfect, by the time he closed the door behind him.
Googled "It wasn't like he needed permission to go out" and went off this image.
Posted by J at 3:04 PM