“You can bend my ear We can talk all day Just make sure that I’m near When you’ve really got something to say…”~Toad the Wet Sprocket
I admit to writing a lot. I don’t claim much of it is great. I think this is common to writing, moreso even than photography. How many times, for instance, do major motion picture scripts get rewritten and rewritten, only to end up being not very good?
At Open Mic Nyte Monday, I suggested the idea of writing a short story every month. I know I could do this, but at what point will I start to repeat myself, bore myself, lose my audience, become a word masturbator?
The "KISS" Rule Applied to Writing...
I prefer to write short stories because I believe, as Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” I have neither the patience for reading and writing very long pieces, nor do I feel it is fair to ask someone to devote days or weeks to some story of mine that should have taken 20 minutes to ingest. I know there are zillions of people who like to get lost in novels, including my wife, but what could I possibly have to say that would be worth so much of your time?
As I prepared to read my newest short story, The Crying Girl, I mentioned that my stories tend to be autobiographical. Does this mean I am a stenographer? Am I uncreative, reliving and copying essentially the same story over and over? Many phony writers talk about living life to provide material for stories, but they are usually just putting off writing and making excuses for not having 50 short stories and 12 novels in the bag. Is that me?
Finally, is it the ultimate form of intellectual self-indulgence to write about writing, which this very entry is?
“A kitchen light at midnight, all her flatmates are asleep Before she makes me go, it’s about to go deep You’re going to miss us when we grow up I miss your sweetness and your grief I may be a mystery but you were beyond belief…” ~Third Eye Blind
The gym was crowded, noisy, and hot. The game on the court had engrossed the crowd. Tie score after tie score in the first quarter, and every time another three pointer rolled around the rim and fell in, one side of the crowd would burst into cheers.
I photographed it. That’s what I do. I photograph everything I can and put it in our newspaper. Much of that can be intimate, like a family standing on their curb watching their house burn to the ground. I wondered as my ears rang in that small high school gym if what I was witnessing… the shouts, the clasped hands, the raised arms, the noise… was a form of intimacy, or a chance to escape the intimacies we face every day, intimacies that can both liberate us or burden us.
At the end of the first quarter, I was finished with this game. I travel from venue to venue when we are busy, covering three or four games in a night. I made my way to the doors, through an opening between the plywood stands and the cinder block front wall of the gym, probably built by a shop class in the 1950s, and almost certainly a bottleneck in case of fire. They don’t make them like they used to.
I stepped out into the December evening. Though it wasn’t cold, compared to the tightly packed human throng I just left, it felt suddenly nicely cool.
On the sidewalk in front of me I saw a girl, about high school age, dressed in all black. She sat on the pavement with her knees drawn up to her face, which was hidden in her hands. Her long, deep red pony tail hung spread out on her back. She was quiet and motionless.
Then, a miracle. Just as I walked past, she started crying. It was that crying we’ve all heard and recognize: the break-up cry. It was so beautiful, maybe the most beautiful form of human sorrow, so tender and innocent and heartbreaking. Her tears made me thirsty for youth.
That kind of sorrow disappears as we become grown-ups, replaced by uglier, less worthy sorrows like late mortgage payments, asshole bosses, disappointing politics, indifferent children.
But her sorrow, this simple, sweet crying on the sidewalk at the high school in a town of 500 people was the opposite of all that.
Or was it? Was this crying a show? A manipulation? I remember in tenth grade, one of my sisters fringe friends locked herself in my bathroom at a birthday party one night, and cried and cried. It wasn’t the sweet, simple crying like the girl on the sidewalk, but a “pay attention to me and my drama” crying. In some ways, it was like the squall of a hungry week-old baby, completely helpless and demanding so much.
Is this really the intimate moment I want it to be?
When I was 16, a girl I knew wrote to me, “the tears are beginning to sting my face.” When I read that, it seemed like all the honesty in the world, that her tears were real, they were important, they mattered.
I was so tempted to go to her and put my arm around the crying girl, look into her tearful eyes and tell her it’s okay. But I don’t even know her. I’m a grandfather now, old enough to be her grandfather, and the last thing she needs or wants is me. What she really wants in that moment is to cry.
I hope she writes it down. I hope she remembers that moment as vividly as I do right now. It’s a terrible, wonderful, perfect, moment. She mattered. She was alive.
I stood in the same spot in the wind for what seemed like 30 minutes.
It was very cold.
Maybe it was the wind and the cold that kept me from moving. That was my excuse, anyway.
I had those six letters in my hand, six identical white envelopes, all with my name in her handwriting. They were held together by two old, cracked rubber bands. I thought they’d break any time. I pulled the first letter out and stuck the others under my arm.
Her picture was inside. I looked at it as it whipped in that wind. She looked great. It was like she was looking at me again with those eyes that seemed to see right through me.
I opened up the letter, written on pink lined notepaper. It was the first one she had sent me since she went away. She thanked me for the flowers.
“My letter may not be cheery,” she apologized. “The first day I got here I spent wondering how I got here and why I’m here.”
I folded it up carefully. How absurd. I put it back in the envelope.
The next letter, which she’d sent the next day, was on white filler paper, torn out of her notebook. I scanned down the paragraphs and felt an odd mixture of anger and disinterest. I shook my head. “What a bunch of crap,” I thought.
“I am trapped and I cannot escape,” she told me.
“Thank you again for the flowers, your love, your support,” she added. It seemed so hollow and pointless reading it in the wind, in the desert, on that bridge.
The Rio Grande flowed silently by 800 feet below.
“I look at sunsets here and I think, ‘Richard could make a good picture of that.’ ” she said. She couldn’t have known that I would return, summer and winter, to where she was, long after she was gone. She couldn’t have known I would be there now, on the Rio Grande gorge bridge at sunset in the cold wind reading her letters.
“I just re-read this and I know it makes no sense,” she explained at the end. It made sense then. And in some way it made sense when I stood there.
I folded it up carefully too. How ridiculous.
Her third letter was just business, urging me to book my hotel as soon as I could when I come to visit. But I kept it, and I folded it up and put it back in its envelope.
Letter number four read like a confession. “Confusion is giving way to intense pain,” she told me. Later she admitted, “I miss you and think of you often.”
I know it was pointless, but I was as careful to fold it and put it away as I was with the others.
Letter number five was newsy. She told me all about what was going on, and all about how she felt about it. She thanked me for the letters and cards.
I wondered as I folded this one up if she ever really thought of me as her lover. Were these even love letters?
Letter number five got to the meat of her feelings. She explained to me that, “anger and sorrow frighten me because I fear losing control and becoming a raging maniac.”
I had to take a deep breath to read that fifth letter. It was the last civil conversation between us in writing. It was last time she showed any real affection for me.
“Richard, you mean a great deal to me. I need you in my life and love you.”
I felt shaken after I read that. I felt that way every time I read it, from the day I got it in my mailbox, to the day I read it in the wind on that bridge. Maybe in the moment she wrote that, she really did love me. Maybe.
I took out that sixth letter and read the first few lines, and remembered how judgmental it was, and how angry I felt every time I read it. If she loved me in the fifth letter, it was all erased by the sixth. I couldn’t read any further. I couldn’t read it at all.
I bundled it up into its white envelope and slipped it under the rubber bands that held them all together. It was time. The sun was down. The cold was making me shake. I looked at the bundle of letters in my shaking hand against the darkening backdrop of that 800-foot gorge, leaned forward, and let them go.
“This wall is so plain,” she muttered to herself, staring at the blank, grey facade. “What can I do, what can I do?” she continued, trailing off to a whisper by the last word.
She felt a strange, urgent, crushing tension inside her, a need, an overwhelming desire. As quickly as it came to her, she bolted across the room and dived beneath her bed, emerging a few seconds later with a plastic mop bucket. In it were art supplies; paint brushes, sponges, plastic sculpting tools, and to her disappointment, only water colors and some modeling clay. “It’ll do, it’ll do,” she muttered again.
She went to the sink and prepared the paints. She rushed over to the wall again and froze in front of it. A moment of absolute silence passed. Suddenly she burst into action. Her brush was a blur of color as angry as a hornet buzzing around an intruder. She had made this kind of makeshift wallpaper in her last place, but this time there was a kind of insane, explosive urgency to her motions.
At the top, streaks of red and white. Towards the bottom, deeper greens and browns. It all make perfect sense in her head. “Yes!” she barked to the empty room as her brush found a perfect combination of blue and grey.
Soon the whole wall was covered by watercolors, an ocean of hue and inspiration. She stood back for another moment, wringing her hands, pushing the sleeves of her blue denim shirt further up her arms, staining them with paint. “More,” she decided out loud.
She tumbled over to the sink and searched. After scattering almost everything there into clutter on the floor, she found a felt-tip pen. “Okay!” she declared excitedly, and hurried back over to the wall.
She stood up close to her sea of imagery, and pressed the pen onto the nearly-dry watercolors. “When you were a child,” she wrote in meticulous little letters, “unhappiness took the place of dreams.”
“Mmm, yes, I know!” she declared to herself. She flipped her bucket upside down, dumping the remaining contents all around her, and stood on top of it. In larger letters at the very top of the wall she titled her piece “The Landmind.”
She simply let the pen fall from her hand, and heard it clatter to the floor. She absently backed off the bucket, then backed up across the room. She looked up and down at what she had created. Her mouth trembled; her eyes started to fill with tears. “It’s perfect…” she whispered. “Perfect.”
“Hey Picasso!” the huge male voice boomed abruptly, “the warden wants to see you.”
There is something about the turn of autumn that hurts us inside. It’s an insane time, when anyone with any artistic or poetic heart feels a sense of loss, or remembrance, or hunger. The hunger is this: when the primary weave of our lives becomes the cold, we hunger for what warms us inside and out, the affections of another.
I spent the autumns and winters of my youth hungering for her, wanting to be in that place, the physical place of being wrapped around her, holding her, smelling her hair that is soft and cool in the evening air, touching her hands. And all the while the moments in that place are only made meaningful by her hunger to be in that place with me.
That night I felt it again. I was walking away. Just moments before, standing behind Michelle, I put my arms around her shoulders, around all of her. She raised her arms and put her soft, white hands in mine. I squeezed them a little, and at the same time laid my head on hers.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked.
I paused, and thought, “I love you.”
“I like this,” I said, and started to sway back and forth.
“I never liked being rocked as a baby,” she said, so I stopped rocking her.
Now I was fifteen steps out of her door, walking away from love, since, it occurred to me suddenly, it was walking away from me again. I resisted the urge to look in her window, but felt almost certain that she was looking at me, and as I felt watched and onstage, it seemed as if I had forgotten how to walk and was trying it for the first time.
I got to the street, looked both ways, and crossed, trying to look as casual as I could. Somehow I had to save the face of the embarrassment of failing again at love. I couldn’t let her see how much I wanted to run away from the pain swelling inside me. I took a deep, deep breath. Was I shaking?
It’s funny. Five years earlier, ten years earlier, fifteen years earlier, it was the same walk. It feels like my body isn’t even along with me. Everything seems completely different suddenly. Even if I was expecting it, even if I saw it coming, the reality of walking away was not of me, not of my routine.
On a summer evening five years before this night, after a hard, bitter cry in Pam’s arms, that moment came again. Full of hurt and hunger, in this moment I was about to go from the touch of her hands to the lonely warm air of another night. I stepped back and let her willowy arms slide out of my hands, then turned around and looked at the stairs to my apartment, no different than the first or last time I climbed them.
Two years before that found me outside a dorm room at a college not far from my home. Lisa was moving back to the east coast. I’d never even bothered to confess my feelings to her. I knew it wouldn’t have helped.
She stood before me in the parking lot at just after six o’clock. It was a still December night, and the early sunset was a cold blue. She wore a red cotton sweater that was mine until I decided it didn’t fit.
I don’t remember what we said. Goodbye, I guess. She didn’t like to be hugged, but I broke her of that just in time for her to leave. She hugged me, then I her, then I knew it was time to turn around and walk away. I’d gotten pretty good at walking backwards for a few steps, giving her the chance to turn around first, and this time it worked. I got to watch her walk awkwardly away before I turned around and walked awkwardly away in the opposite direction. It wasn’t a long walk, but it was long enough.
In 1994 it was another walk. She was there to stay; we had just buried Kathy after she shot herself to death. The walk away from the grave on that sunny winter day was different than the others, but it was still a walk away, still awkward, still taking me away from love.
I never thought of turning around, though.
She loved me.
When I was sixteen, I was visiting Melissa at her home in Missouri after her family moved her away a year earlier. She wasn’t my girlfriend, but I wanted her to be. I was feeling very sad that she and I were parting, and she was feeling very homesick.
“Can I go with you?” she half-joked, and the thought stirred her to tears.
“Sure,” I said, and held out my arms. The sensation of having her so close to me was as pure a feeling as I’d ever had, and in ten seconds it was over. Nothing was even remotely the same after that. My only thought was desire to be close to her again, to be in that moment of perfect peace and freedom, wordless and unlonely.
Yet there she was, walking away with tears in her eyes, and for me was only the task of getting in my car and driving away, which seemed to take forever and felt totally alien in every way.
When Tina and I said goodbye, I was nineteen. In her darkened room, we sat on the edge of her dormitory bed.
“What is it?” I asked her once, then again in the consuming quiet of her room.
She lowered her head, and tears spilled down her cheeks. “Here,” she whispered, “is your promise ring.”
“Why don’t you keep it,” I told her, followed by, “I’m going to go,” after another awkward silence. I turned and walked to her door, opened it with wooden gracelessness, and slipped into the even darker hallway and down the stairs. Finally at the bottom of the stairs appeared the night, and I let it swallow me up. Even under the cover of darkness, I felt certain her eyes were still on me somehow.
Last night it was the same, walking away in the occult gloom of night, and suddenly I knew, just as Michelle’s apartment slipped out of view, why this walk away from love surrendered all of it’s grace and left me so desperately, pathetically awkward: I was carrying the weight of the loss squarely on my back. It was a weight I wanted no one to see me carrying, a weight that held defeat at its core. At last she could no longer see me, and I slowed, no longer hurrying to disappear into the blackness. I breathed out, looked down. The weight was suddenly lifted, and replaced by a much more familiar emptiness.
I sat on a folding chair on my balcony, waiting. The black sky all around me was momentarily quiet. A few seconds before, a flash of lightning hit the ground to the south, tripping the breaker on my air conditioner, silencing it as well.
I relaxed in the momentary lull. My camera pointed to the sky southeast of town, where there had been a heavy concentration of thunderstorms. I looked at it, then decided it was time to reset the shutter. I reached up to the cable release and closed the shutter, then wound the film and opened the shutter again.
Trying to photograph lightning is a waiting game. It requires patience and voluminous amounts of film. The camera and I stared at the sky. Occasionally we would see a dim flash that would brighten the clouds for a moment. Then as I watched, there was a blinding crack in the heavens right in front of the lens. Quickly, I closed the shutter, and knew I had the picture I wanted.
A few seconds later came the report of the miracle of heat and light, high pitched at first, then rumbling lower and deeper. I paused for a breath of the rainy air and to admire the depth of this sound. It was then that seeming all around there was a flood of blinding white light, and at the same time a punishing explosion of thunder, deeper and broader and harder than any before. The sound rattled the balcony, the chair, my heart, my world.
Though startled, I immediately closed my eyes and felt the energy pound through me like the rewards or punishments from God. I listened to the echoes strike the city’s buildings around me.
I listened to the voice of the storm speak directly to me. It said, “You are alive.”
As usual, her hands smelled like gasoline. It was unavoidable. To her, though, it was a good smell. It meant that soon she’d be flying again.
Standing before her bright white and blue Cessna Skyhawk 172, she pulled on the center of the propeller and the airplane rolled slowly into the October sun. The sky was deep blue. She looked up into the morning sun, thinking how perfect the day was for flying.
The preflight walkaround complete, she got in, and adjusted her seat. She looked at the silent interior of her beloved airplane for a moment. She’d spent so many hours having so much fun in this airplane, just her and the machine and the sky.
The sky was her favorite place.
Now, though, she paused. She was going on a trip she didn’t want to take.
She thought again about the preflight. Did she check everything? It was going to be a long ride, nearly five hours, and she wanted everything to be perfect. Yes, she thought, I’m ready. She smelled the avgas on her hand again. Checking the fuel for contamination always got it on her hands. The smell was comforting.
“Clear!” she yelled, knowing no one was around, but keeping the practice anyway. She turned the key and the prop turned, groaned, caught, stalled, and finally the engine roared to life. A quick look at the engine gauges, and she started to taxi the eager airplane toward the runway.
Roses. She thought, suddenly, about the roses she sent him only a week before. Sadly. A lot had gone wrong all at once, and now those roses seemed wrong somehow.
Flying, she reminded herself. Think about flying the airplane. Usually when she flew, flying was all she took into the sky with her. But he was intruding, and she felt angry. She pushed a little more right rudder to center the plane on the taxiway, and thought about the letter…mmm…she gritted her teeth. That damned letter. And he had some nerve calling her answering machine and reading it to her while he knew she was away.
At the end of the taxiway, she swung the plane hard around into the wind and stopped. She was so mad at him. Madder, she though, than she’d ever been at anyone.
Throttle to 1700 RPM, gauges good, carb heat OK, mags check, flight controls check. Time to fly. She pushed the button on the control yoke and spoke into the black microphone suspended from her headset. “Hays traffic, Skyhawk 1270 Lima is departing one-seven, Hays.”
She taxied onto the runway, and felt the sensation of flight start to come over her. She pushed the throttle to the firewall, and in a great burst of rushing air, Cessna N1270L was about to fly. 50 knots, 60 knots. She pulled back on the yoke and the ground drifted away beneath her. She was flying again.
She smiled, felt relieved, free, relaxed. She was in her sky again, where she belonged. And Eric never came with her.
But as the ground fell away, 2000 feet, 3000 feet, 4000 feet below, thoughts of Eric began to intrude on the serenity of the cloudless sky. Angry thoughts, alone thoughts, sad thoughts.
Four months earlier, Kristi and Eric met, her persistent smile and a bottle of Perrier charming her way in the door. Before long that night flew by, and she drove home thinking of nothing but him. She thought of his dark hair that tumbled down his shoulders.
The night before that, Kristi and Eric had gathered at the house of a friend, Hank. Along with Hank’s wife Sara, the four of them formed a kind of club. Every other Friday, they met to trade short stories, poems, and artistic ramblings.
Kristi looked behind her over the empennage. Twenty miles back and a mile below she saw her home, Hays, Kansas. In that little town she fell in love with him, easily, deeply, fearlessly. In the short time they were together, the intimacy they found was intoxicating.
The little town now twenty-five miles away, she thought about how far away he was.
Spring Glen, Utah lay 546 nautical miles in the distance. Somehow it seemed further. He’d been there for three weeks, isolated from the rest of the world, isolated from her. Just outside the dusty mining town was the Castle Gate Treatment Center.
Eric was an alcoholic.
One Friday night, Hank and Sara, each through a six pack of imported beer, started arguing about Hank’s story. Sara thought the plot, about a man committing a series of gruesome murders, was absurd. As they shouted across the table at each other, Kristi and Eric looked at each other and smiled.
During a momentary lull in the argument, Kristi held up Eric’s latest literary attempt and caught his eye in an uncomfortably intimate moment for him.
“You. You’re the one who has something to say in this group.”
The story in her hand was about a small boy being beaten by his alcoholic father.
Alcoholic. She thought about the word for a moment as she scanned the sky. She tossed it around in her head. The word was completely alien to her. No one in her family, none of her friends were alcoholics. Kristi never even drank.
Something was wrong, somehow, suddenly with the idea that she was so in love with someone with so much of a problem.
She tensed for a long moment, then let out a long breath. It was time to conduct more of the business of flying. She reached up to her comm 1 radio, dialed in 122.3. Squeezing the microphone button, she spoke calmly, professionally, “Wichita Radio, Skyhawk 1270 Lima on 122.3.”
“November 1270-Lirna, Wichita Radio.”
“Good morning, sir,” she cheerfully said. His voice was just a bit familiar. Maybe she had talked to him before. “1270 Lima would like to open my VFR flight plan at this time.”
“Roger 70-Lima, flight plan activated at 1330 Zulu.”
She smiled. Her talents were many, not the least of which was her radio voice. It was strong and commanding, yet still human and engaging. It was too bad for the man in the darkened room at the Wichita Flight Service Station that he could only hear her voice. Kristi was a strikingly, powerfully beautiful woman.
Her smooth, tanned face and soft sandy hair bracketed her giant, shining blue eyes. Tall and slender, she carried herself with grace and confidence. And her perfect smile was always the brightest light in any room.
At 8500 feet, she leveled off, but didn’t have much reason to smile. She thought of his face, his eyes. She missed him. And at the same time she didn’t really want to see him. For a long moment she pictured herself slowly turning the airplane around, landing on the broad 6300-foot runway at the Hays airport, parking the plane, driving horne. It was Sunday, and there was still time to have lunch with her mom.
Instead, she reached up to the Nav 2 radio and twisted the black knob to 112.2. She turned the volume up and listened. Through static she could hear the familiar, “Dot dot dot dot, dash dash dot, dash dash dash.” H-G-O. The Hugo VOR was 175 miles away.
She turned the Omni Bearing Selector to center the VOR needle.
She was on her way.
Five days earlier, she sat in the small, bright office of her counselor, one she saw exclusively to help her deal with Eric, with fists clenched in rage at the message from Eric.
“Instead of calling me, he called my answering machine,” she explained, almost in tears. She unfolded a piece on paper on which she’d written the words he’d read over the phone to the machine, and read.
“I need you to look at your own issues of codependency and control and work on your own pain. This gives me the chance to work on mine. I am not willing to remain in a codependent relationship at all. I know you talk to my friends. I also think you should listen to what they say, too, because I know they have brought up the codependency subject, and you have not accepted its presence in our relationship. One of my boundaries is now that I will not be with anyone who isn’t committed to a serious program of recovery. The longer you concentrate on me and my pain, the less time you have to look at your own. You cannot protect me or care for me enough to keep me out of pain I have denied for 20 years. I am in a place to take care of me, and while I am here, I need the space to do that.”
What a bunch of crap, she thought. She looked up at her counselor. “Paul, I think this is a bunch of crap,” she said angrily. “His ‘friends’ are a bunch of alcoholics just like he is. Why should I listen to them? And why should I be in a recovery program? I’m not an alcoholic at all.”
“But you’re in a relationship with someone who is,” he answered.
Kristi paused for a moment. “For now. We’ll see.”
“One thing you might keep in mind, Kristi. A truly codependent person would have fought tooth and nail to keep him from going to the treatment center in the first place.”
Kristi liked herself. She liked her work, and she liked her life. She liked the way she expressed herself. And she loved to fly.
Once when Kristi was brushing her hair in the bathroom, Eric sneaked up behind her and hugged her. Instantly they were transfixed on the reflections of each other. A moment passed, and he looked away.
“Kristi, when you look at yourself in the mirror, do you like what you see?”
Without a pause, she said, “Yes, I do.”
He frowned silently for a long moment, as though he was surprised by her answer. “Sometimes,” he said shyly, “I feel like I don’t deserve to be loved.”
The sky was deep blue at 9500 feet.
Why should I be in a recovery program indeed, she thought. It’s not for my problems. He wants me to be in the same kind of program as he is because he feels so bad about himself. He needs me to be as sick as he is.
The tiny indicator on the VOR lazily started to rotate from the “TO” indication, first to “OFF”, then to “FROM”, telling her she had passed over the Hugo VOR, and that she was more than a third of the way there. The idea of being closer to him made her heart jump a little, made her tense.
At the start, going to Castle Gate seemed like a good idea to Kristi. Eric would check in to a 30-day treatment program, and she would, at his invitation, join him in the third week of his treatment. The center held a “Family Program” for spouses, family, and friends. Exactly as he promised, a few days after he disappeared into seclusion deep in the mountains, she received the notice of when to be where.
Comm radio to 124.0. “Colorado Springs approach, Skyhawk 1270-Lima. 20 east, 10,500 climbing. VFR Direct Blue Mesa VOR.”
“Roger 70-Lima. Squawk 5204 and ident.”
“5204 and ident. 70-Lima,” she answered.
She turned the knobs on the transponder from 1200, the normal VFR code, to 5204, and pushed the lighted blue ident button. A moment later, the controller, a non-pilot sitting in a dark room 5000 feet below, spoke again. “Skyhawk 70-Lima, radar contact 19 east. Traffic at your two o’clock, four miles. Boeing 727 descending out of niner thousand.”
Kristi looked off her right wing and below, and saw the shimmering wings of the jet. “70-Lima has the traffic,” she answered.
Almost at 11,000 feet, she set the mixture nearly as lean as it would go, attempting to get another 2000 feet out of the already hypoxic airplane. The Skyhawk lumbered in the climb.
Kristi’s father had taught her to fly, and how to fly in the mountains. At 12,500 feet, the airplane could climb no more, so she leveled off again, and looked at the majesty that lay before her. Below her, Colorado Springs. Ahead and to the right, Pike’s Peak. Beyond that, more huge, imposing towers of rock and snow and pines.
In the week since receiving his letter, she felt so angry and betrayed. It seemed almost like there was no reason even to be with him.
There was always doubt. That uncertainty had grown when, early in their relationship, Eric revealed that he was an alcoholic.
“Part of the reason I’m going to Castle Gate is so I can be in this relationship with you,” he told her once.
“I want to fall in love with you,” he explained. She believed he meant it, too. She wouldn’t marry a man with that kind of problem, though. They both hoped the treatment center would help him, and they could be together.
“70-Lima,” came the controller’s voice, “radar service terminated one zero west of Colorado Springs. Squawk VFR. Good day.”
“Good day,” she responded, and set the transponder back to 1200.
Alone again. The mountains now firmly below and around her, she began the complicated task of real mountain flying. Although flight service hadn’t issued any flight precautions, she respected mountain flying.
Nav radio to 114.9. Direct Blue Mesa VOR, then direct Grand Junction VOR, then direct Carbon VOR, her destination. Her Skyhawk had extended range fuel tanks, so this long mountain flight was possible without stopping.
Some of the times they had together were magnificent, she thought, relaxing a bit. She remembered some of the good times.
Once, during a quiet moment as they sat together on the couch in his apartment, he took her hand and drew her close, quietly, gently folding his arms around her. They held each other close for a few incredibly peaceful moments, feeling each other’s warmth, and then looked up into each other’s eyes.
“Thank you for letting me hold you,” Kristi said.
“We held each other,” he added, smiling.
She thought of another time when they each dressed to the nines and drove over 70 miles to Salina just to have dinner. When she opened her door to greet him, there he stood, the perfect gentleman in his black tuxedo. And she was radiant in her black taffeta dress. The evening was as a dream for both of them, completely romantic, completely wonderful.
Kristi wondered if they would ever share another night like that again. She looked all around at the spectacular mountains which surrounded her. Far off to her right, The Mount of the Holy Cross and Mount Elbert, parts of the Sawatch Range. Below her, Cottonwood Pass and Tincup Pass. To her left, the La Garita mountains, and beyond that, the Sangre De Christo mountains of her youth. For a long moment she scanned her old haunt 100 miles to the south, dim and soft in the light haze. She imagined herself pointing the Skyhawk south for another hour and landing in Taos, New Mexico. She could visit her best friend again, climb the Rio Grande gorge like they did when she was seventeen.
The Sange de Christo – Blood of Christ – mountains, her home, her favorite place on earth, were only an hour away. Somehow, though, the airplane stayed unwavering at 280°.
My pain dims in comparison to his, she thought. His father beat him up until he was sixteen. By the time he was eighteen, he had a six pack in him by noon every day, and had attempted suicide four times.
Only two days before reading the letter over the phone, Eric had composed a much kinder note. But since he mailed it, Kristi actually recieved it after the message on her machine.
“As far as my pain goes, you are doing what I need you to do. You validate my feelings. You offer me comfort and positive strokes. You share my sorrow. You are willing to walk my journey with me. Last night we had a relationship seminar. You and I are on target with the way we have conducted our relationship.
“We are building something very solid. Kristi, you mean a great deal to me. I need you in my life and I love you.”
Kristi thought of the two letters and felt mystified. How could he go from such an extreme to another in such a short time? Even more mystifying for her was why she loved him in the first place. They were two very different people, and Kristi often didn’t understand, and in some cases didn’t even respect, Eric’s views. He believed in God; she was an athiest. He smoked; she was a vegetarian non-smoker. He loved television; she thought it was puerile. He believed in astrology, which she…well, she thought it was complete crap. Eric also based most of his beliefs on a psychology-as-truth genre, which Kristi was coming to doubt most of all. The more she contemplated the concepts of the “inner child” and the 12-step idea, the more she began to understand that she and Eric were in different worlds.
She thought of this as she crossed the last range of mountains that stood between them. In the hazy valley fifteen miles ahead, she spotted the Carbon County airport. Seeing the town sent a shot of adrenaline through her, making her heart race. She felt dangerously near him, and near his problems.
She took a deep breath. Time to land the airplane, she thought. She pulled the throttle back to 2000 RPM, and the bright white craft started to descend into the valley.
Why indeed had she fallen in love with him? She thought of his face for a moment, narrowed her eyes. There he stood before her, smiling sweetly. It dawned on her in that instant why she loved him. His face. He was a strikingly handsome man. It was the only reason that came to her mind. For the same reason she loved the mountains, for the same reason she loved her photography, for the same reason she loved flying itself, she loved him. They were all things beautiful to her eyes.
Now these beautiful, sharp blue eyes began setting up the landing approach. The checklist was simple in the Skyhawk: turn on the landing light. Five miles out, she pushed the button on the yoke and spoke.
“Carbon County traffic, Skyhawk 1270-Lima is five east, inbound, full stop, runway one eight.”.
When the aircraft had settled to 7000 feet, about 1000 feet above the ground, she applied full power to stop the descent. At a mile and a half, she turned parallel to the main runway and spoke again into the microphone on her headset. “Carbon County traffic, 70-Lima is left downwind for one eight, full stop.”
The airport clearly visible below her left wing, she searched every inch of ground and sky, remembering what her father taught her from her first flying lesson when she was fourteen: “Cover your butt.” The airport, like most she used, was uncontrolled, so there was no control tower, and no radio requirement. Kristi self-announced her intentions for her own protection; there was no guarantee other pilots would.
At the approach end of the runway, she pulled the power back to 1500 RPM, and she and the Skyhawk sank toward the ground.
“Carbon County, 70-Lima is turning left base.” She put down ten degrees of flaps, and the plane slowed to 80 knots.
“Carbon County, 70-Lima is turning half-mile final for one eight, full stop.” Twenty degrees of flap, throttle off, she centered on the runway. A bit of left rudder compensated for a slight right crosswind. Ten feet off the runway, she rounded out her descent, and two feet above, she flared the nose high, and heard the familiar barking sound as the wheels touched the pavement.
She had arrived.
Dark clouds hung low over the tops of the mountains to the east. Patchy fog dipped in and out of the valley, in and around the Carbon County airport. She sat under the left wing of her beautiful airplane in the soft grass next to the tiny red brick terminal building.
She looked at the turbulent sky. To her shining blue eyes, it was a blur. She was crying.
His words rang in her head over and over. “I just don’t think I can love you the way you love me.”
And that damned sky wouldn’t let her leave, wouldn’t let her go home. The Cedar City Flight Service Station was calling for, “Low clouds and fog in mountain areas until 1800 Zulu, VFR not recommended until then.” Kristi looked at her watch. 11:15 a.m., 1715 Zulu. She would have at least 45 more minutes to sit and think about the last four days.
The moment she arrived at the treatment center, her anger with Eric melted away. She was so glad to see him, she actually ran to him, melting into his arms and holding him tight for a long, long time. The rest of the visit the first day went much the same way. They sat in the sun under a tall grove of aspens on the grounds of the center, quietly making eyes at each other and discussing the turmoil of the previous three and a half weeks.
It was obvious to her that he was still in a lot of pain, despite all the treatment he’d been given.
“Kristi,” he said in a whisper barely louder than the wind rushing through the trees, “what do we have?” The wind rose a bit and caught the leaves in the tops of the trees. The aspens gently sang their songs of sweet seclusion as they cast spots of sun and shadow on the quiet couple.
“We have mutual respect. We have physical affection. We’re both intelligent. We love each other. We listen to each other. We have fun together.”
“Do we have intimacy?” he asked, shrinking from her as though the answer would hurt him.
“Yes,” she reassured, “we have intimacy.”
Intimacy. She thought about the word as the first spot of sunlight pierced the rolling grey and shone on the north end of the 7300-foot long runway. Didn’t he understand…love, respect, affection, fun… that was all intimacy?
She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and stood. She stepped over to the pay phone and dialed 1-800-WX-BRIEF to get another weather briefing from Cedar City. One ring, and a professional voice clicked on. “Pre-flight,” he announced.
Immediately, she felt better. Instead of talking to the tormented families of chemical dependants, she was suddenly in contact with someone like herself, someone who knew about flying, someone who, to her, made sense.
“This is Skyhawk 1270-Lima. Cessna Skyhawk, private pilot. Papa Uniform Charlie VFR to Hotel Yankee Sierra. Departing within the hour. I’d like a standard briefing please.”
She smiled suddenly. It felt so good to speak the language of a pilot again, instead of the words of someone whose “significant other” was on the edge of self-destruction.
She thought of the people with whom she spent the last four days. Dianne, who was sexually abused for four years as a young teenager, had come to support the recovery efforts of her husband, who three months earlier drank himself into a coma.
Edward, a chronic chain-smoker, came to see his chronic chain-smoking wife, who also drank to excess. Sondra was visiting her fiance, whose drinking had cost him his job and his driver’s license. Guido, the gangster, attended on behalf of his sister, a problem drinker since she was 14.
None of these people were anything like Kristi, and Kristi never faced their kinds of problems, in her childhood, or in her adult life. As the week progressed and they all attended workshops and group therapy meetings, it became clearer and clearer to her that the “swirling toilet of despair”, as one family member put it, was not for her.
The briefing complete, and filled with good news about the weather, she hung up the phone, and walked back to her airplane. Removing the fuel tester from its holder in the cockpit, she began the pre-flight. Left wing tank first, she drained several ounces of 100-octane low-lead aviation fuel. At the bottom of the tester was nearly two ounces of water, probably formed in the tanks when they got cold at night over the last four days.
She drained again, until the tester came up with nothing but fuel.
Around to the tail section, she checked as she went. Then to the right wing tank, she followed the same proceedure. She carefully inspected every inch of her craft.
It came as no surprise to her when, on Wednesday morning at the “one-on-one” meeting with Eric, he announced that their relationship would be ending.
What surprised her was how much both of them cried. For 45 minutes, gathered in a small upstairs room, Eric explained why he couldn’t love her. The reasons he gave to her seemed to be unconnected, thinly-contrived excuses, she thought, for him simply being too afraid to be with her. He said he needed her to be in “recovery” too, but never told her from what he wanted her to recover.
When the one-on-one meeting was finished and the counselors had left the room, Kristi and Eric held each other and cried and cried.
It had become very clear in the sessions that she attended in the two days before that she was an emotionally healthy person. Every time a counselor would ask for a show of hands, or ask Kristi directly, she could only shrug and feel more and more like she was in the wrong place.
On the last day, Wednesday, the family members sat in the circle that had become a familiar home for their pain, their tears.
One by one, each told the group of their feelings, and what they thought would happen next. Finally, when everyone else had spoken, Joan, the group therapist and alcoholic herself, looked over at Kristi, who had remained silent throughout.
“Kristi, we haven’t heard from you yet.”
She paused, looking at everyone looking at her. In four days she came to know these people as friends, despite their desparation and sorrow. In the circle of couches and chairs in the small white clapboard building in the high mountain air of eastern Utah, they had all opened their hearts to each other as they never had before. They arrived as strangers from Maine and Wisconsin and Georgia and Kansas, and departed as friends who had all cried together in a small mining town far away from everything.
Now, at the end, it was finally Kristi’s turn to cry with them.
“I feel left out. Everyone here is going home to be with their partners. It’ll be hard, but you will be with them…” she looked down and closed her eyes tightly, but was unable to keep the tears from spilling down her cheeks. “…I have to let Eric go.”
After another long silence, Joan spoke. “Kristi, what are you going to do to take care of yourself?”
“I’m going home,” she answered, “to my friends, to my family. I love them. I love my job. I like the way I live. I love my life. I like myself. And I’m going to keep flying.”
“That sounds very healthy,” Joan added.
Far to the south, a thunderhead had been growing for an hour, and it finally opened in a great grey cloudburst. She watched it, but saw that it was moving west, away from her intended route of flight. She thought about the rain so far away, how it was so much like the tears she was crying.
Nothing can grow without rain, she thought.
At ten after twelve, she decided she had waited long enough. It was time to fly. She dried her eyes for the last time and climbed into the silent bird. With checklist in hand, she quickly completed the start-up. A rush from the propeller dragged the Cessna from its grassy parking place onto the taxiway toward the waiting runway. At the end of the runway, she turned into the wind and followed the run-up procedure as she had hundreds of times before.
She looked around at the airport, the valley, the mountains, the town in the distance, the treatment center beyond that. It was all about to be a part of her past, below her, shrinking and far away.
A rush of engine noise and she was on the runway, then full power. 40 knots, 50 knots, 60 knots, and she pulled the nose of the airplane off the tarmac.
As the runway fell below her, she smiled brightly, and tears filled her eyes again. Now, they were tears of joy. The treatment center, the family members, the dusty town, Eric … none of that mattered any more.
“Life is like a really expensive cut of beef that you’ve just overcooked.”
At 9:30 p.m. Greg was just finishing his shift, and Shelly was about to start hers. He removed his grubby red polyester smock and tossed it in a ball on the floor under the cash register. As it was most nights, it was spattered with grease from the fried chicken bin. Greg hated that smell, and its ugly polyesterness made it that much worse, so he almost never wore his smock home.
“When you use profanity, you are being something rather than saying something.”
Shelly looked at him enviously. Eight hours of uninspired boredom lay ahead for her. She buttoned her own red uniform shirt. Over the pocket it read “Shelly” in script letters, the stitching a reward for six whole months of faithful service to Texaco and Big Bad Bob’s Quick Country Mart.
“Church keeps God and man from ever meeting.”
No one named Bob had ever owned, or had anything to do with, Big Bad Bob’s, but the name seemed to fit, so no one changed it.
“The most real feelings are hate, fear, and nausea.”
It was cold out. Shelley found it refreshing, in the same way one might find narrowly escaping the swing of a wrecking ball refreshing.
“Cold world. Bundle up.”
“We’re outta premium unleaded,” Greg said, leaning on the door on his way out. Removing the tattered red work shirt now revealed a tattered green camouflaged “Nugent Rules” T-shirt. “Truck’ll be here in the morning.”
“Don’t resist change. It’s the only thing you’ll always have.”
With the quiet hissing of the hydraulic arm of the door closing, he was gone.
“Food is the opiate of American simpletonhood.”
Shelly took a deep breath. How she ever ended up in this dumpy convenience store baffled her. And she was stuck on the night shift. Six a.m. seemed an eternity away, and not just tonight, but every night.
“Some things you never get over, and love takes even longer than that.”
She looked around the store. Spread before her was the peeling dirty white countertop, worn from years of service and lack of maintenance. It formed a ring around her seat, with the cash register at one end and the beef jerky rack at the other. It was a barrier, her protection, she imagined, from would-be bad guys. Under the counter near where Greg had tossed his shirt was a .41 Magnum that belonged to the owner. It too, she imagined, was her protection.
“Inspiration never really comes to you. You must come to it.”
Outside her little haven stood the usual convenience store shelves filled with Mars bars, liquid smoke, Vienna sausage, and motor oil, all of which was priced about three times higher than anywhere else in town.
“Happen to life. Don’t let it happen to you.”
Shamrock, Texas, wasn’t that big a town, but it did have a grocery store and a Wal-Mart. Most of Shamrock’s existence centered around its proximity to Interstate 40, just half a block from Big Bad Bob’s, and from Shelly.
“Overpowering fear overpowers overpowering rage.”
With no customers currently in the store, she pulled out her ragged paperback, The Complete Philosophy of Hampton Simple, and continued reading…
“Is the inherent knowing of knowledge the result of the seeking of that knowledge, or the result of the pre-knowing of the known, of knowing to know, or otherwise having known, or to know, or having to known the known knowledge?”
Shelley squirmed a moment in her seat. It seemed that when she read this book, given to her by her half-sister Regina at a Christmas party, the lines got smaller and began dancing around on the page until nothing made sense.
“An army is basically a tool designed to target the flow of adolescent anxieties, passions and unconscious homosexual desires into a killing juggernaut.”
Unknown to Shelley, the book was a gag gift. But when no one laughed, Regina decided to keep the gag to herself. Shelley had drawn the name of her ex-boyfriend Steve. It was the seventh Steve she’d known romantically, and the only one with whom she remained friends. Shelley gave Steve a hand-bound volume of her own poetry written under the pen-name S. S. Minnow. Shelley thought that was really hilarious.
“Giving love to another person is like giving lettuce to a cat.”
Shelley wished, passingly, that Hampton Simple would explain his thoughts just a bit more.
“Blood is thicker than water, but less useful around the house on a day-to-day basis.”
Moments later, the heavy glass front door opened and in strode her least-liked beast-like best friend Lilac. Lilac seemed to be hanging her head a bit. And, Shelley noticed, she wasn’t wearing her favorite tattered sweatshirt. Unknown to Shelley, Lilac had given it to her mother to try to get some of the lint balls out of it.
“Hi, Lie. Where’s your old faithful sweatshirt?”
“I gave it up for lint,” Lilac answered, a sheepish grin of someone trying to be clever growing on her round face.
“Oh, you’re right,” Lilac answered, “I lent it up for lint.”
“No. ‘I gave it up for lent.'”
“Did you really?”
Shelley suddenly remembered why Lilac was her least-liked beast-liked best friend.
“HEY!” came an angry voice from outside, “turn on the damn gas pump!”
In her effort to ignore Lilac, Shelley also ignored the beeping of pump number one. She looked up abruptly, wondering for an instant where she was, what she was doing, what year it was.
It was still 1984. “Sorry!” she said. All the man outside saw was her mouth move and her hands frantically scramble to turn on the pump.
“Lilac, I’m busy. Can we do this later?”
“Do what later, Shel?”
“Um, uh… this. You know.”
“Yeah,” Lilac said and headed for the door, “I know.”
FFFFMMMMOOOOSSSHHH… the door closed. Shelley picked up her book and again tried to read.
“Essentially, all solid matter is nothing more than empty space and magnetic fields. The actual material that makes up our reality isn’t really real in it’s reality.”
Really? she wondered.
The man who had yelled at Shelley opened the door, catching the sleeve of his maroon letter jacket on the metal handle.
“Son of a bitch!”
“It is only in utter, abject ignorance that we can believe we have any grasp of reality.”
Shelley could see that it was Bobby Thomas, a senior football player at Shamrock High School. “Hey, babe, why don’t you get that thing fixed?” Bobby paid for his fuel, and left, vanishing into the quiet night.
“If your life is threatened, you’ll take steps beyond your imagination to preserve it. Your instinct for self-preservation is the ultimate driving force in your being. Forget love. Forget the soul. Forget belief. When it all comes down, all you are is the instinct to survive.”
Bobby Thomas was not just an offensive lineman. He was an extremely offensive lineman. At 314 pounds, he was almost exactly three times heavier than Shelley. In fact, no woman in Shamrock weighed more than 110 pounds.
Shelley had never seen a picture of Jesus laughing.
“Just getting through alive doesn’t count for much. Almost everybody can do that. There’s got to be more.”
That’s when I came in, I guess. She had dark hair and blue eyes, and sat behind a pile of books. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus by Carl Jaspers. The Koran.
She hid behind them.
“And isn’t it ironic that the only true driving force in your being is the one that will most certainly be taken from you one day?”
And of course there was The Complete Philosophy of Hampton Simple.
“What you are thinking is what you are becoming.”
I on the other hand was in no mood to wax metaphysic. I was five hours out of Albuquerque, where I’d spent four days in Motel 6 trying to console my girlfriend, whose elevator, it turned out, didn’t go all the way to the top. She was so moved by my kindness and compassion that she dumped me on the spot.
“The beauty of egg nog: You take the last drink and set it down, but five minutes later you have more egg nog because it slowly drains from the sides of the glass.”
I was still trying to pick up the pieces of a broken heart. They were so squishy.
“Time goes on, unaware it swallows you like some beast.”
I had spent the last hour and a half or so listening to the National League Championship Series on the radio, but if Shelley had asked me who was winning, or even who was playing, I couldn’t have told her.
“When you kill time, all you end up with is dead time.”
Dairy cow. That would be the life, she thought. You get to sit around and moo, eat grass, and wear a cool polka-dotted jacket. Every morning you get your breasts sucked by a machine. Yea, she thought, I want to be a dairy cow.
Really, though, this isn’t my story. But I’m in it, since there I stood with a bag of chips and some chocolate milk in one hand and my wallet in the other. Shelley peered out from behind Hampton Simple.
“99% of failure is fear.”
She rang up the stuff… I always got the same thing on the road…and sighed. “One eighty one sir.”
I could tell she hated her job. I could tell she thought she deserved better. I could tell she had a heart and a brain and hunger for more in her heart. I could tell not from her voice or her manner or her eyes. I could tell from the way our hands touched when she handed me the nineteen cents.
That was it for me. I pushed the heavy glass door open and stepped into the night. I was gone.
“Everyone gets what he deserves, but no one thinks they deserve it.”
She fancied herself to be the philosopher as well. She pulled one of her own stories from under the cabinet…
Tissue by S.S. Minnow
The smartly-dressed man stood in the center of a large room, surrounded on all sides by beds containing dying people. He’d come to visit one of them, and he was summoning his courage.
He thought for a moment about his own son. Would this happen to him? How could he stop it?
Nervously adjusting his silk necktie, he stepped to the bed where his friend lay dying.
“Sebastian? How are you?”
“Worse.” There was a awkward pause. “Um, worse.”
The smartly-dressed man shifted stiffly and tried to think of something to say. He loved his friend, but now this disease had turned him into a monster. If only he could help Sebastian; if only he could donate something, some blood, an organ, some tissue from his body.
“Listen, I gotta go,” he blurted, “I just came by to say hello, to see how you were.”
“And how am I?”
The smartly dressed man smiled and looked at his friend with tears welling in his eyes. Then he abruptly bolted from the large room. He found his way to an elevator.
As he rode alone, he faced the back of the elevator and pulled a tissue from his overcoat.
It was her favorite story.
Trust: The five-letter four-letter word.
Sometimes she felt like a swimmer. Her life was a pool, shimmering below her, waiting for her. Then she would dive in, and instead of being beautiful and peaceful, it consumed her, surrounded her, devoured her.
“Get your mind on the present. Eventually your heart will follow.”
…she was feeling the way a kid feels about numbers before a math test…
L Y I N G
L 0 N E L Y
A L 0 N E
0 N E
“Nobody falls in love on purpose. It just happens to you, like an industrial accident.”
On the drive to work just hours before, she held her hand out the window and thought that the wind felt the same on the hand of the driver in front of her, but everything else was different. She imagined not being blown by the wind, but being the wind itself, moving in swirls above the trees.
“What is loss? Loss is not getting your way.”
She believed she was not the body she saw in the mirror, nor the soul the church said was inside her. She was all the things she said, and all the things she failed to say.
“Let go of boredom. It’s not really necessary in order to accomplish things you might otherwise find boring.”
She wanted to be loved, but knew that being loved wasn’t about who she was, but about who she wanted others to be.
“The basic emotion of the public is fear.”
Pain, she thought, is the perfect pet. You never need to feed it, because no matter how much you give it, it will still be hungry.
“The future is exactly like the past was before it happened.”
She could hear God say, “One, two, three,” and blow into Life’s microphone.
“Blankets are cold. You are the warmth.”
She had truly twisted dreams, or so she believed. Once she dreamed of some men playing football on the edge of the world above an eternal abyss. One of them went out for a long pass and fell off, but they kept playing until two plays later, when the ball fell off.
“Sympathy is not understanding. Perception is not imagination.”
Shelley considered herself to be both an optimist and a pessimist. An optimist says a glass is half full. A pessimist says the glass is half empty. Shelley says it’s both, and yes, thank you, she will have a drink.
“The biggest lie you’ll ever tell yourself is that other people are judging you as harshly as you are judging yourself.”
Shelley and her next-best friend Herman, a 350-pound man with the world’s largest collection of meat loaf recipes, were confident of the notion that there was something fundamentally wrong with the Universe.
S.S. Minnow's Flawed Universe
Water pistols shaped like AK-47 assault rifles.
Rubber dogshit (specius canis fecum).
Special emphasis should be placed on the last of these, as when it is seen in a socio-industrial dynamic, the nature of things just sort of falls apart.
Life is a story problem.
Beep beep. Midnight. Two hours had passed. She straightened her neck, stretched a bit. It was going to be another long night.
In 1992, some co-worker friends and I created my second iteration of a writing club, a template I used again and again to try, often without success, to get creative minds together. In 1992, the group consisted of Pam Young (later Hudspeth), Frank Rodriguez, Melissa Price (later Davis) and me.
I still have contact with these people, and feel that I was right to include them in my intimately creative circle, and I still have admiration for them all to this day.
For this occasion, co-worker/reporter Melissa Price and I agreed, mostly at my urging, to write about a shared experience, the time she and I went to Roff, Oklahoma, to investigate the cause of the town’s mysterious garden damage.
Here are the two stories we wrote based on that day.
by Richard R. Barron
“This is different,” she blurted. It was the first words either of us had spoken in five minutes.
“Thank you,” I answered, smiling. I wanted her to like it, and therefore like me. But “different” would have to do.
My car bounced hard on the rock-and-gravel road, so I held the steering wheel tightly. Rough travel and I were well acquainted, as I was often sent on assignments in remote locations such as this one.
Melissa and I, as reporter and photographer respectively, were on our way to find a story in Roff, Oklahoma.
Her honey hair danced delicately on her soft shoulders as she stared vacantly forward at the road. The music I so wanted her to like, music I found very beautifuI and evocative, continued to fill my car.
“…how many ways can you say-ee-yay goodbye…?” it sang.
Being with Melissa was rapidly becoming a double-edged sword. Part of me was starting to like her, starting to be charmed by her gentle movement and calm smiles.
Another part of me saw her as a constant reminder of everything that seemed to be missing from my life. She was beautiful and bright and creative. But like everyone else I met, she was from another world. Married since she was 20, she had two adorable
I, on the other hand, had none of that. No wedding ring, no prom photos on the wall, no baby bouncing on my knee. No one waited for me when I got home.
The music continued to play as we rolled up the ranch road that lead to an agri-business headquarters, the second stop in our quest for our story.
“This is called ‘Baby Ray Baby,'” I explained.
“It sounds like a baby,” she answered, frowning slightly. I could tell she didn’t like it.
An hour earlier, she and I sat in the home of two dreadfully poor residents of the tiny town in the middle of nowhere. They were irate, and talked on and on, their serpentine conversation smacking of their small-town manner. They claimed that the local ranch had carelessly sprayed their town with herbicide, killing all the plants, including their formerly prize-winning okra and tomatoes.
I sat quietly on the tattered sofa while Melissa made notes, talked to them, tried to feel their anguish and rage.
I looked around at their modest home. Pale armchairs bracketed peeling end tables, on top of which stood faded snapshots in faded frames, pictures of grandchildren from years and years before.
Directly in front of me in their den was a window that had been covered with a bright red gel filter. Through it I saw the neighborhood; the children playing in the warm spring sun, the men mowing the tall, green grass, the teen-agers driving their hot-rods down the crooked blacktop street.
Everything I saw was red, deep red, like blood.
A red filter meant something to me. As a photographer, I knew how to use gel filters. Red was for more contrast, darker skies, brooding clouds. A red filter produced an extreme effect, and an extreme mood.
Why was it on their window?
The conversation droned. Melissa wrote as they chatted, and I could hear the sound of her pen on the paper. Watching her hand, I noticed she was left-handed, and I smiled, since I was also. Her hands weren’t feminine or pretty, yet something about them was intoxicating.
The house was musty and drearily silent. She and I were the only life in it. As I sat, I got sleepy, and my thoughts began to stumble around here and there, remembering other houses, other places, other moments.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
“Hmm? Oh, sure, I guess.”
We were led out to the back yard to get some proof of the terrible tragedy that was rapidly becoming the talk of all of southeastern Oklahoma.
As Melissa and I walked around the back yard, looking at damaged trees and turnips, I watched her. I thought about her name, a name I’d been saying and writing for years before I ever met her.
Another Melissa…with whom I shared a tender moment one delicate autumn afternoon long before. I took her in my arms and held her close, feeling her warmth, her soft hair brush my face.
Now, suddenly, I thought about how much I’d like to share a similar moment with this Melissa.
“So what do you think, Melissa?”
“I think the rancher was right,” she explained, “I don’t see how the pesticide got into town.”
An hour earlier, she was equally convinced that the rancher was the Devil Himself. Now we were on our way into town again where she would be swayed once more by moist eyed townspeople and their drooping peach trees.
Visiting several more homes and meeting many people, we stayed longer than we intended. The last stop was a large back yard with a host of dead or dying plants. A woman escorted us at first, but almost immediately we were greeted by a much more interesting member of her family. He was hairy and huge, at least 400 pounds, wearing overalls. He was strikingly ugly, from his giant yellow banana-like fingernails, to his giant misshapen earlobes, which resembled leather bags filled with cottage cheese. To accent his charms, he constantly expectorated and muttered about how the doctor couldn’t do anything to relieve the swollen, pus-filled boil on his leg.
He was repulsive. And he was as different from Melissa as anyone could possibly be. I looked back and forth between them. She was so small and soft and pretty, all the things he wasn’t.
Then, as if in some kind of slow motion, she looked at me looking at her. I had no idea what she must have seen in my eyes, but as if I was drawn into her stare, I knew she knew what I was feeling. It wasn’t love or lust, it was a feeling about who she was, and everything she was to me.
As clearly as if I had stopped everything and said it out loud in the awkward silence of the warm May afternoon, she knew how much I was longing. Longing.
We looked at each other for another moment, and then it was time to go. An hour later, the car door slammed as I let her out in the parking lot at the office. She was gone. I looked away, feeling empty.
I started to drive home, and remembered the music still in my car’s stereo. This Mortal Coil. She didn’t like it. I put in the tape, turned it up. A sweet voice filled my car…
“Several times I looked in your eyes Several times I saw you wishing to stop this…’
I drove home thinking of her.
In Between Black and White
by Melissa Davis
The first thing I thought as I climbed into Richard’s red sports car was I wouldn’t like his music. He’d told me, in earlier conversations, that he listened to groups named “The Cocktail Weinees” and “That Mortal Coil.” I knew nothing of those bands and didn’t care to.
I listened to real music, like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Later, I’d find out, he did, too. But that day, we listened to the The Cocktail Weinees, and I didn’t like them. Ironically, that first day alone together, I would judge him on that.
We arrived in Roff, a miniature community just south of Ada, with much ado. You see, we’d called earlier —- or, more accurately, I had —- and they knew we were coming. It’s not often newspaper deadlines, in a city 10 times its size, had been set aside for Roff. But the town’s gardens were dying, and on a slow news day in Ada, this was considered worthy.
I asked Richard: “So which approach shall we take? I, personally, think the rancher is guilty. He sprayed pesticide all over their gardens —— though, possibly, he meant no harm — and, really, he should pay. Let’s nail him.”
Understand this, I’m a misplaced leftover from my dad’s generation. He grew up in the Sixties, and I’ve always envied him that. What must have it been like to puff pot openly, to say, “screw you” to your parents, to simply not care about the consequences? It made yelling for the underdog so much easier — a requirement, almost — and I could, at least, do that now.
I did it with gusto. Richard did not. It made me like him less.
“I am here to take pictures,” he said. “You came to write the facts. Someone else will interpret them — and interpret them fairly — if we do our jobs right.”
The fact was, I didn’t know that. Oh, deep down, I knew that was what we were supposed to do. But I had long ago discarded accepted requirements as mundane and senseless. I was not about to change that attitude now.
I pulled out my spiral notebook just as we slid into the driveway of a gardener I’d spoken with briefly on the telephone. Richard gathered his gear as well.
The home was an older one, as most are in Roff, and until three years ago, owned by somebody else. The current residents were an elderly couple who’d chosen to spend retirement watching their grandson play baseball. That, and plant a garden.
“See the leaves,” the old man said, leading us outside and tenderly fingering the wilted branches of a peach tree. “Used to be healthy. All but dead now. we’re still getting fruit, but I wouldn’t eat it. Unsafe. Richardson, across the way, said he ate some okra from his garden and didn’t get sick.”
He shook his head, before continuing, “That’s for him to decide. I know a bad piece of fruit when I see one.”
Seemingly untouched by the pain in the man’s voice —— his name, by the way, was Art —— Richard methodically snapped photographs. I knew already how I would color my story. I wondered if Richard, with his black and white film, would realize the value of doing the same.
“You ready?” he asked, packing up his camera, answering my question. “I’ve got what I need.”
No, I thought, you don’t. But, instead, I nodded quickly, pumped Art’s hand and promised him a good story. Richard never promised someone a good photograph. He just automatically assumed they would assume he would deliver one. He was, after all, the Oklahoma Press Association’s choice for photographer of the year. He didn’t earn that title through mediocre work.
“Where now?” he asked. He clicked his seatbelt together and demanded that I do the same. He always did that, and I hated it.
Once, I contemplated stealing off in his car, driving with reckless abandon down Mississippi Avenue, blaring the radio on Rock 100 The Katt and doing it all without the safety of a restrictive seatbelt.
I figured I could get away with all but the last part. And the rest of it wasn’t worth the risk.
“To the rancher’s house,” I said. “We need to get his side of the story. Then we’ll go back and look at some more gardens.”
Richard didn’t even nod. He just drove, content behind the wheel of his beloved car, the binding strap of material that kept him there. The cocktail weinees droned out another irritating tune from his tape deck.
“You like me, don’t you?” I said simply.
No, I didn’t say that; I thought that. It struck me as I turned to Richard in an attempt to persuade him to change the music. I could tell, suddenly, that he knew I didn’t like this group and was disappointed because of it. I could tell that he cared about what I thought. And for the first time in the year that I’d vaguely known him, that made him human.
Richard was not simply an odd, difficult, self-centered, vegetarian, prize-winning photographer. He was all of that with veins.
Smiling, I gave the Cocktail Weinees another chance. I didn’t like them any better.
Richard looked at me quizically. “Why are you smiling?” he asked.
Why, indeed. I had not, I reminded myself, made this newfound discovery known. I had no explanation for my grin. But I quickly made one up, mumbling something about the senseless lyrics that were intruding on my thoughts.
And my thoughts were this: I savored the idea that Richard liked me. That he liked me, as a matter of fact, in a way he should perhaps not like a woman so visibly married. Craig and I had been together eight years by then, half of them in so-called wedded bliss. I had two small children and waved their names constantly in my conversations with Richard.
I did so again.
“Did you know,” I pondered, tossing Richard my most charming smile, “that Heather could very well be the smartest person in her daycare? She’s only 2, but already, she can say her alphabet, correctly identify all her colors and count to 10. I think that’s amazing.”
I spread my left hand out, staring in admiration at the gold wedding band on my fourth finger. It caught the sun, twinkled, caused Richard to squint. I waited for him to comment, either on my daughter or my ring, both harsh reminders of my unavailability.
“You bite your nails,” he said instead, turning into the long, gravel driveway leading up to the rancher’s house. “You must be a nervous person.”
Was I, indeed, a nervous person? Perhaps a little. But I afforded the comment little thought and no response, before again reaching out for my notebook, the second time this trip.
The rancher’s story was completely opposite that of the gardener. He complained of undue blame, pointed out his hefty contribution to Roff’s economy and sent us on our way. I disliked him immediately. Richard, on the other hand, treated him exactly as he had the gardener. With distance. Each time I leaned closer to the rancher, scribbling furiously on my pad, Richard seemed to take a step backwards. He used his zoom lens, pointing the camera in our general direction but remaining distant enough to silence its click.
Hours later, I would learn he spent two rolls of film at the rancher’s place alone.
“So what do you think?” I asked, tucking myself obediently, grudgingly behind my seatbelt. “Some smooth talker, huh?”
Richard raised an eyebrow and popped Pink Floyd into the tape deck. The first soft strums of Wish You Were Here filled the car, and that surprised me, pleasantly so. His reply did as well.
“He’s convincing,” Richard agreed, “but I think I believe the gardener -— Art, was it? -— I think I believe him more. He was genuine, real. That last guy’s lost touch.”
Then why, I wanted to ask, did you offer them the same aloof treatment? Did you not feel, as I did, the need to throw a comforting arm about Art’s shoulder? Didn’t you want to share in the sentimental stories about peanut butter sandwiches lathered thick with peach jam? You’re a vegetarian. What about compassionate mention of green beans, tomatoes, corn? You could have at least admitted, “Man, that must be a drag,” for Christ’s sakes!
I said none of this, of course. But it struck me that every “real” thought I’d entertained all day had not been spoken aloud. Did I not share them because I considered Richard an unworthy audience? Or wasn’t it more true, I scolded myself, that I shared them with no one?
I bit down on a fingernail and hummed vacantly to Pink Floyd.
The rest of Roff’s gardens proved very similar to the first. There would be no canned tomatoes, no pickled cucumbers, no frozen okra or tangy peach preserves in this older community that so depended on such leftovers in the winter. Theirs was a summer crop completely lost. And inside, I angrily mourned this devastation.
On the way back to Ada, I plucked a cassette from my purse and asked Richard if we could listen to it. It was a well-used tape, made by myself years before but only rediscovered that very morning. Heather had come racing into the kitchen, proudly clutching the TDK in her small, pudgy hand.
I took it gratefully and, of course, did not scold her for having it in the first place. I seldom did, scold her, that is. I loved her unconditionally and wanted her to feel the same. Only for Logan, my recently born son, could I feel anything as pure.
The Eagles’ Peaceful, Easy Feeling poured into the car, and I was immediately transported back to a long—ago afternoon, well before Logan, Heather, even my marriage to Craig.
It was my nineteenth summer, and I had stolen away for a walk with Craig’s best friend, Jay. Days earlier, I’d learned that Jay was in love with me, from Jay’s own mouth; it proved an awkward outing, with music filling the air where our attempts at nervous conversation failed.
That was the first time and completely innocent. I had not lured Jay into loving me, was, in fact, shocked at his confession and disappointed with how it unraveled our friendship. But in later meetings, I would not forget what he said. How he obviously still felt. And I would play it to my advantage.
I wondered, sitting in Richard’s car and again flashing my ring, if that had started it all. I admitted that it had, but not alone. The reason behind Jay’s honesty and, consequently, betrayal of Craig was Craig himself. Craig had cheated on me, and Jay had told, thinking he could do better.
How many men had there been since then? Three? Four? Fourteen? Any that, to at least some extent, was willing to fall for me? Yes, to some extent.
But there was, of course, nothing tangible between any of us. I would never compromise my unwavering fidelity for them, no matter what their feelings were. Some of them thought like I did; others did not. It mattered little to me.
Ironic, that I would pride myself on being so like my father’s generation but, in many ways, avoid what they stood for. Free love, for example.
“Richard?” I asked, shattering the song’s power. “If you thought the gardeners were right, why didn’t you say so? They probably think you’re on the rancher’s side, the way you were acting. They knew I was with them.”
“You approach things differently,” he said simply. “When it’s all said and done, when the paper goes down, we’ll tell the same story.”
By the time we returned to the newsroom, everyone else was gone. It was a Friday afternoon, and reporters, burdened with overtime hours by early week, clear out quickly for the weekend. Since Richard and I had Sunday’s top story in our bags, we stayed.
I wrote two stories. One of them was a hard news account of what was going on in Roff; quick, to-the-point, fair. The other, I labored with for two hours. It was Art’s tale, told with eloquence in the same slow, pained speech pattern of the gardener himself.
A prize-winner, maybe. I clicked my computer off and went to check on Richard in the darkroom.
Funny, I thought as I walked from the room, I felt I knew Art. He was honest, caring, probably true to his wife. And he’d been destroyed by some rancher — deceptively charming and easy to look at — as though he didn’t matter.
I would never hurt a man like Art. Would I?
I made the mistake of not knocking. Richard had a sign on his darkroom door that said, “Always Knock Before Entering,” in order to prevent fatal interruptions in the film developing process. We’d arrived three hours earlier, so I knew he’d already souped the film. I figured I was safe.
And in that sense, I was. Richard had the light on, making prints. Of me. Prize-winners.
Me, talking to Art, smiling with understanding. Me, again, a pained expression on my face as I turned away from the face, also pained, of an elderly woman. Her arthritic hands clutched a shriveled peach.
There were several of local gardeners and the confident rancher, none of which featured me. These were the ones we would use in the paper, because I, of course, could not be the news.
And then there was one without any of them. Its impact nearly knocked me over. I remembered, precisely, the moment it was taken, though at the time, I was unaware Richard had snapped it. I had looked toward his car, where he’d stood, restless and finished with his work, waiting for me. I’d been angry, I remembered, at Richard’s apparent lack of compassion toward the gardeners.
Yet, I’d seen him, and I’d smiled. A surface smile, anyway, and Richard, the Oklahoma Press Association’s choice for best photographer of the year, had captured everything beneath that superficial grin.
The exasperation. The impatience. The haughtiness. Me.
“You’re supposed to knock,” he snapped, not looking up from his work.
“Oh…” I stood there, mesmerized, staring at myself, the self I’d glimpsed intermittently, in private moments of reflection, all day. The self I only scarcely acknowledged, and never in public.
“Uh, I’ve got to go,” I blurted and swung out the door before he could stop me.
I punched down on the accelerator of my Dodge and jerked out of the parking lot. The radio blared out the one Led Zeppelin tune I’d never liked. I turned it down.
In the silence, Richard’s comment from earlier haunted me. “I am here to take pictures … Someone else will interpret them — and interpret them fairly —- if we do our jobs right.”
And then, ironically, my internal response. “I knew already how I would color my story. I wondered if Richard, with his black and white film, would realize the value of doing the same.”
The Zeppelin song, though quiet, still irritated me. I snapped it off. And I thought, fleetingly, of my life since 19. I’d wronged Craig and everybody else, save Heather and Logan. I promised myself to do it no more.
Smiling, I clicked my seatbelt together. With a tentative voice, I tried out a few vaguely remembered lyrics from the cocktail weeniees.
As of the initial publication of this story on October 24, 2013, I have been in Ada, Oklahoma, working at The Ada News, for 25 years. In some ways, this short story, Acme Road Bridge, is the story of how I landed here.
This turned into one of the hardest short stories I’ve even written. Equally, it is one of my worst. I don’t recommend reading it, but here it is if you must. 90 revisions. It’s full of lies.
I realized as I wrote this what completely eluded me at the time: I was a bastard of a boyfriend. I talked about other women too much. I talked about “freedom” too much. I talked about kissing her instead of just kissing her. I talked too much.
Alternate title: Ridiculous Counter-accusations.
Alternate title: Being in Love Makes You Look Like a Pussy
Alternate title: Adjectives Like “Soft” and “Gentle” Make You Look Like a Pussy
Alternate title: “All we really have is ourselves.” ~Her
Alternate title: Dreams Make Promises They Can’t Keep
It’s not an exposé. I’m not divulging her secrets. But it’s the fuckin’ truth. Names and places have been changed, of course.
She wrote in her journal and talked a lot about her emotional walls and her fear of intimacy, which was all bullshit, really. Fear of intimacy? Grow up.
The story starts at the Rainbow Grill. Last year it closed.
Someday we’ll be a thousand miles away, and I’ll miss her so much.
Lovers in the Wind by Roger Hodgson
Only Because of You by Roger Hodgson
Let’s Go Forward with Our Love by Terrance Trent D’Arby (She sent this to me on cassette the week before we broke up)
Not Yet Remembered by Brian Eno
Old Land by Cluster and Brian Eno
Late October by Brian Eno and Harold Budd
Still Return by Brian Eno and Harold Budd
From the Same Hill by Brian Eno
Julie With by Brian Eno (weird, unsubstantiated jealousy on her part about the lyrics to to this song)
By this River by Brian Eno (after break-up)
Every Little Kiss by Bruce Hornsby and the Range (after moving away but before breaking up)
With or Without You by U2
October by U2 (the first U2 song she played for me)
A Sort of Homecoming by U2 (quote on her journal cover: “Face to Face in a Dry and Waterless Place”)
Two of Us by Supertramp
A Soapbox Opera by Supertramp
Red Rain by Peter Gabriel
Don’t Give Up by Peter Gabriel
In Your Eyes by Peter Gabriel
Mercy Street by Peter Gabriel
Acme Road Bridge
by Richard R. Barron
– The Rainbow Grill –
Tuesday, June 10, 1986
“Where do you want to eat?” I asked.
She smiled. “How about the Rainbow Grill? Now there’s a greasy spoon with character.”
I agreed, and she drove us there in her rust-colored Pontiac. She liked her car better, she said, because it had a higher “comfort factor” than my Volkswagen Beetle.
Inside, we sat in the far corner, as far as we could get from the smokers, and looked around as we waited for our waitress. Painted a dingy white and garishly lit by banks of bright fluorescent overhead lights, the walls were covered with paintings of unicorns jumping through rainbows.
The waitress brought menus, which contained the usual assortment of midnight coffee-house food: steak and eggs, pancakes and waffles, chicken fried steak and okra, etc.
“Ah,” she smiled, “I know what I’m going to have.”
The waitress asked us for our orders.
“I’Il have the cinnamon French toast, fluffy with cinnamon,” Susan said. She held up the menu to show me it actually did offer cinnamon with cinnamon.
The waitress smiled, “Would you like cinnamon with those?”
I interrupted. “I’ll have an order of saute’d mushrooms, and could you ask the cook to sauté them?”
The waitress laughed, then left us alone, and Susan began to tell me about her latest adventure as a news reporter at the police station. The detectives, apparently trying to test her mettle, had shown her dozens of pictures of people who’d been brutally murdered. And she had looked at them without flinching.
I like her.
– The Bridge –
Friday, June 20, 1986
She said this about me: “Friendships like this are what life is all about.”
We lay on our backs on the hood of her 1982 Pontiac Phoenix, staring straight up at a billion bright stars. Around us, around the bridge, was the night. The bridge led Acme Road north from this paradise of ours in Ottawa, Kansas, into the country over Interstate 35.
It was past one in the morning, but the traffic on the highway below us continued.
We were talking about school and work and love and our lives. Gradually, almost motionlessly, I reached over to her side of the hood and began running my fingers through her almost-black hair. Little by little, touching her beautiful raven hair more, I invited her into my tactile world.
After ten or fifteen minutes, she took my hand and held it. For another hour we touched in this shy way, wanting more, but remaining desperately cautious, feeling that any more would certainly frighten the other away.
Mostly quiet as we felt each other’s hand, the conversation turned to the stars, the sky.
“I’d like to photograph the night sky like it is tonight,” I said.
“Okay, but you can’t have your hand back,” she said.
Her words were the first verbal acknowledgment that we had even been touching. I looked at her shyly, and we smiled at each other with great relief.
Another hour came and went, and neither of us seemed the least bit tired of each other’s company. The bright, nearly full moon had risen from yellow haze, and now was poised directly above us.
“Come here,” I said.
She stood awkwardly next to me on the dirt-and-gravel road, and I put my arms slowly around her waist, then around all of her. She did the same, and as we held each other tightly in the still night, I thought how bright and beautiful the moon was above us.
We released each other and smiled.
“That was nice,” she whispered.
“Yes, it was,” I answered.
I got back up on the hood of her car, lying on my stomach, facing away from her. A moment passed in silence, then another.
“What are you thinking now?” Susan asked.
“Nothing I want to talk about, ” I told her.
There was another long silence as I felt a dark sadness work its way through my thoughts.
“Okay. I was thinking that someday we’II have to say goodbye, you and me.”
She is starting to mean a lot to me.
Sunday, June 29, 1986
Susan just calls her journals “books.” All together she has five volumes. I’ve got three of them here on my desk. She has the current one at home, and her first one needs to be rescued from her ex-boyfriend, Larry.
It’s been difficult to find time to read them, since Susan and I have been spending all our free time together at the Bridge or talking or listening to music.
I like reading her journals because we care a lot about the same things. Sometimes I stumble across things about Larry that seem incredibly familiar, like those romantic things I wrote all those years ago about Melissa.
I wish there were more of her “books” to read. But if we’re friends the way we’d both like to be, there will be more.
Tuesday, July 1, 1986
Today I turned 23 years old, and to make the day the way I wanted it, I laid on the hood of a copper Pontiac Phoenix under the shining clear stars and watched the night grow old in the eyes of Susan.
I hope she can understand me. A lot of the time when I try to tell someone how I feel, words get in the way. I’ve always wanted to say how f feel, but there’s seldom been anyone to listen.
Okay, here’s how I feel. Susan and I have something very something I really like and really want to keep. I’m sad scared that it’ s going to end.
She has sweet green eyes. She claims they’re hazel, but look green to me. They smile.
– The Journal Rescue –
Friday, July 4, 1986
“Hi. I’m Richard. Is Larry here? Susan asked me to come by and pick up a … ah … a spiral notebook that had some journal entries in it.”
“He’s not quite ready,” explained the smiling woman, who motioned to her living room. “Come in and sit down.”
I carefully but purposefully sat on the expensive suburban furnishings. Looking around the room my eye settled on a family portrait, and I instantly picked him out of the crowd.
“Larry looks like Sting,” Susan had told me.
“You must be Susan’s friend,” a voice said from the top of the stairs.
“You’re Larry? Susan asked me to come by and pick up a spiral with some journal entries in it.”
He looked at the floor, at his girlfriend, and at his hands, but would not look at me.
“Well, I’m kind of in the process of moving right now. Could you come back in an hour or so?”
I glanced around again briefly and found nothing that indicated moving; no boxes or out-of-place furnishings of any kind.
“Okay,” I said, and left.
I went by the house of my friend Chris to confirm our plans for fireworks at dark. An hour passed and I returned to Larry’s home, which was not at all far from where I grew up.
The smiling woman sat me in the same spot, and I waited again. Larry appeared without words and stood right in front of me. He smiled.
“Well,” he said, then took a deep breath. “Here it is. Thank you.”
He handed me a thin blue college-ruled notebook. His hand was shaking.
“She’ll be glad to get it back,” I added.
“Thank you,” he said again.
I spent the evening with Chris and his family as planned, then hit the road. About halfway home from Emporia, at the wide spot in the Interstate 35, I stopped for a soda and to read this mysterious notebook of hers that was so difficult for him to release.
The cover was adorned with her handwriting, obviously some important platitudes:
“Life sucks and blows.”
“Alleged-reality alert. ”
The title, at the top of the book, said, “Cool Left-wing Juggling Nihilists for Social Revolution. ”
I read the contents for a while and discovered the real reason Larry wanted to hang on to this prize: their love was immense in these pages filled with her handwriting. And the pain of their separation was obvious from the last entry, which ended with, “Larry, I never thought it could hurt this much.”
– The First “I Love You” –
Sunday, July 6, 1986
After we’d been together for a while tonight, driving to Kansas City to find something to eat, I finally told her I loved her. Twenty minutes after that, on a dark stretch of the interstate, she spoke. “Richard. I love you too.”
Friday, July 11, 1986
My life rises from the heat like a mirage.
Last night we lay in the night silence under the stars. It feels so good to be near her, I thought. I want to stay with her for a while.
“What are you thinking?” she asked.
“I love you.”
I worry sometimes that saying that too much can get old in a hurry, and become hollow.
“Give me your hand,” she said. A long silence passed as we held hands.
“How about midnight?” she asked on the phone eighteen hours later.
I’m very glad she’s coming over. The knock on the door will feel good. I was so lonely for so long, and now I’m just not any more. I’m just blown away that she loves me.
“I don’t know,” she wrote in her journal the other day, “it all happened so fast, and now, there he is. I love him so much.”
Sunday, July 20, 1986
“Have a good night,” Susan told me.
“I already did,” I said.
“I feel so close to you,” I said.
“I know. It’s a strange feeling.”
Reading her journal tonight I was able to establish that she is afraid, but unable to pin down exactly why.
Tuesday, July 22, 1986
We sat together at my apartment for just a little while after work. We held hands, and when I looked into her eyes I was filled with the feeling: I need her.
It was a little more than a little scary, but there it was. We’ve passed the point of no return.
Thursday, July 24, 1986
“What?” she asked.
“I can’t remember ever feeling this much love.”
Leaving her is a moment that’s difficult to describe. After goodbye, walking away in abject silence, knowing that the best feeling I’ll ever have has just become the memory of the best feeling I’ll ever have. . .
– Driving in the Country –
Wednesday, July 30, 1986
We’ve only known each other for only a couple of months, but we’ve quickly found that there isn’t much to do after midnight in Ottawa. So we went for a drive in the country. Her sister was out of town, and we had the use of her white Jaguar.
For the first part of the drive we listened to Pink Floyd’s Meddle as we talked and watched the road. With the sunroof open and the cool night air of July wrapping around us, filling the car with the fresh scent of Kansas farmland, we felt relaxed, at ease. When the moment lulled her into sleepiness, we decided to try the new Peter Gabriel album, So. The tape was cued up to track 6, Mercy Street, a hypnotic song. Our mood shifted. We were quiet for a long time. Turning south on State Highway 31, we rolled smoothly into the country. The rolling hills of this impoverished county took on a new beauty in the moonlight.
A few more miles and minutes passed, the moonlit grassland sweeping past us in the ghostly white sports car. Soon we both noticed a cluster of bright lights ahead of us to the right.
An hour later were were home. Susan and I stayed outside, not wanting to wake her sister, who sleeps normal hours. We stood around at the side of the house. The house is a huge two-story place with several fireplaces. As we talked and sat on a swing set in the side yard, a thunderstorm approached from the west. It was a summer storm, full of lightning and a cool rush of wind. But the rain edged just north of us, barely sprinkling the trees that swayed in the breeze above us.
“I don’t know how to tell you how much I love You,” she said.
As I drove home, it rained in earnest. I was very happy to come home and sit inside, thinking of her as the rain splashed outside my window.
Friday, August 8, 1986
I wonder if she’s awake right now, if she’s thinking a little about me. I miss her, wish she were here. I like the way I can slide my arm around her, and she does the same and smiles. These days it’s difficult to let go to say good night. Her smell lingers in my head; the warmth of being in her arms fades, a memory. I don’t want to lose it.
– Be with Me –
Thursday, August 28, 1986
Susan and I laugh a lot together. We hold and touch each other a lot too. At the Bridge we are very intimate. I feel magnificently close to her, and it is accented by our physical closeness under the stars at I-35 and Acme Road. I like laughing with her. It seems at times like these that I can’t remember feeling this much before. Time at the Bridge with Susan is like a dream coming true.
The Bridge was suffocated in fog tonight, a drenching, blinding soup that made the entire scene a semi-dream, semi-nightmare from the darkest heart in an asylum.
“Someone with a real heart is holding me,” I told her.
“Will you be with me when I leave?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered, “every time you leave.”
We were sad for a while after that, thinking about the day when we aren’t together any longer.
“That isn’t today,” I said.
“Ask me what I’m thinking,” she said last night.
“What are you thinking?”
“I love you,” she answered, “boy, do I love you.”
Saturday, September 6, 1986
There was something especially real about the half-conscious state she and I shared tonight. It was a long, long moment, silent and steady, with only the wind for conversation.
Earlier tonight she had reported on a murder case, and she had murder suspects on her mind, which led her to be afraid of being blown away herself. I held her close, but it only helped a little. She’s quite attached to her fears, and she went home still a little afraid of the night.
– From Inside –
Wednesday, September 24, 1986
Try to see things from all angles, or better yet, from no angle at all, but from inside.
3:30 a. m. Susan just called, her voice filled with the giddy rapture of a person who had just helped deliver her best friend’s new baby daughter. She sounded so happy on the phone. How will this birth feel inside her? I hope it leaves laughter in her eyes.
4:30 a. m. Susan finally arrived, and is sitting in my big brown chair, rocking gently. I wonder what circles of thought are spinning in her head. The crease of a frown fell across her brow just now, behind her glasses, as though she might be worried or anxious or angry. She stopped rocking, too. Maybe she’s remembering being in the delivery room.
I want to ask her what’s on her mind, but she looks as if she is enjoying contact with her thoughts.
“I love you,” I said.
I never thought I’d say that again, but you always never think you’ll say that again.
– Five Hundred More Times –
Saturday, October 4, 1986
Together under an open window we held each other, so close we could hear each other’s hearts beating. It was a time almost magic in its subtlety.
“Can we do this about five hundred more times?” she asked.
– Not a Kiss –
Monday, October 6, 1986
“I want to kiss you,” I told her. It seemed obvious enough that nature would eventually take its course, since we hold each other close, hold hands, lie on the couch together, etc. All I said was that I wanted to kiss her. End of the world, right?
To witness her reaction one might have thought so. She sat bolt upright on the couch, and without saying a word started to leave. What did I do?
She ended up leaving without saying much more.
Wednesday, October 8, 1986
Okay, it’s irrational fear time. I’m feeling very anxious that she won’t call me tonight. I realize it’s only 12:20 and she always calls after 12:30, but I ‘m feeling it nevertheless. Call me, Susan, call me.
It’s 4:30 now and she just left. We talked about things all evening, and seemed to get some of them ironed out.
Note from Susan
“I got hurt Monday night because all this time that I’ve been close to you I’ve been working with the assumption that there was no romantic type of situation going on.
“Sometimes it hurts a lot that no one has ever had those feelings about me. And then, sometimes it doesn’t. Those times when it does hurt, the feeling of being last-chosen, never-chosen … those feelings are on top of everything else. This feeling is probably the most acutely painful feeling I have regularly, and one I rarely discuss.
“What I spent the whole day trying, and failing, to understand is why it hurt so much when what happened Monday happened. I’m referring to your puzzling statement about wanting to kiss me. From my somewhat stunned point of view, I didn’t know exactly what you meant. I got scared, confused, baffled, confused, and confused. I think I suffered a minor stroke.
“The problem stemmed from your … well, the lapse of time between the original statement and my eventual grasp of your meaning is what got me. If you’d started out saying … I’m getting confusing. Sorry.
“My problem is just that, my problem. My past is not your fault; you did nothing wrong. The events just added fuel to my present case of “never-chosen,” see? I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to figure out why mental and emotional affection … why does absence of physical desire jab me so badly? I don’t know! And I’m afraid that this will sound like I feel spurned by you. The deal is that I didn’t expect it from you, and for a second, I thought I was suddenly, and with no warning, getting it from you, and I guess it freaked me out.
“The facts: I love you; I don’t pine for you; I’m trying to figure myself out. ”
Regrettably, this note doesn’t really clear up anything.
Saturday, October 11 , 1986
I somehow ended up feeling closer to Susan tonight than ever before, maybe closer than I’ve ever felt to anyone. I kissed her, once or twice, for the first time tonight. Thinking back to it, I wish she were still here so I could kiss her again.
I’m happy. I hope it lasts.
Monday, October 13, 1986
She said that she was better now, that she just freaked out for no reason, that I just got in the way. But everything she wrote about me in her journal is so bitter and ugly and true. When she wrote all that, she really hated me. She wrote that I was “blind” to her feelings, and that things about me sicken her. She wrote that she wasn’t even sure she loved me.
Through the whole thing, I kept saying that I loved her, that I’d stand by her. I didn’t realize she was thinking she was alone, that I had betrayed her, until I read her journal yesterday. I think there’s pain in her I just can’t know. Of course, the same is undoubtedly true of myself.
It feels good to be calmed now, thought, not hurting, back into the rhythm of our love.
– Running to Stand Still –
Tuesday, October 21, 1986
I stand still and time passes through me.
It’s been raining since before sunset, a steady stream of medium wet, making the day seem sad. But I was very happy with Susan as she looked at me through her odd lopsided prescription glasses.
“What?” I asked.
“I was thinking I don’t know how to tell you how much I love you,” she answered.
Later, saying good night, I saw our shadows together on the breezeway wall, and I just couldn’t believe it.
– “Never Leave My Life” –
Monday, October 27, 1986
Note from Susan
“Hey, Richard. Thank you.
“Thank you for being corny, and making me feel special, and for being silly and making me laugh, and for being born and ending up in Ottawa in 1986, and thank you for being human, and thank you for holding me and wanting me to hang around. You are kind, gentle, sweet, smart, funny, obnoxious of course, you have a cute face, you’re too ticklish, you have a warm heart and a great laugh, and I love you very, very, very much.
“You know, sitting here writing this while you make one of your tapes over there, I try to imagine what’ll happen in my life when you leave it. I think I’ll have a great emptiness to fill. But I know the things I write down will bring back this incredible love I feel for you; and then again, I won’t need the writings. I’ll never forget you.
“I hope you never leave my life, now that you’re here.
Thursday, November 13, 1986
Life flows in circles and circles flow in spheres. Here I am, time and time again where I began, moving on and on. This moment passes around me, passes through me.
Susan is sick. I wish we were together. A few minutes ago I picked up her five journals, thinking of her and how much I love her. I feel lost without her.
– The Christmas Tree –
Wednesday, November 26, 1986
I bought an artificial tree and about a ton of lights and ornaments, and set it up. I’ve always had a knack for holiday decorating.
When Susan arrived just before midnight, it was ready. I beamed proudly as she looked at it and smiled.
“It’s beautiful,” she told me.
On the stereo we listened to Brian Eno’s The Pearl, a mystical miasma of music all around us. We wrapped up in a blanket on the couch and watched the tree shine all night long. Half-asleep and warm, we held each other as close as any two could, the graceful arc of her raven hair wrapping around her face and tumbling down to my own.
Sunday, December 7, 1986
Tonight Susan was a little distant, and for this she gave no measure of explanation. Despite this I held her close, standing in the parking lot, facing the cold north wind, bitter with the trace of icy rain, thinking how lucky I was to have her. I wonder if she is thinking about me now.
Looking over at my Christmas tree, I am astounded at how good it looks. Best damned tree on the lot.
Sunday, December 14, 1986
I like the way the word “hate” has the sign of the cross in it.
I went down to the Pottawatomie river this afternoon, in the slight mist of grey not-autumn, not-winter weather. I found a spot near a dried-out log jam and built a large bonfire, which I kept going for several hours. The day around me was quite ethereal.
Susan sent roses, which arrived yesterday. “Plant these beautiful things in your heart, Richard, and take care of them. And name them after yourself.”
It was a good, easy day, with no demands.
Wednesday, December 17, 1986
Maybe it was Susan who liked the sound of this date. She likes the word “seventeen.” She’s not here tonight, but she’ll be back, or I’ll be there, tomorrow. Time away from her always reminds me of how much I like time with her.
Thursday, December 25, 1986
Susan called. She sounded like a hundred bucks over the phone. She got a giant inflatable Gumby for Christmas. It’s really too bad she couldn’ t get enough time off that she could come skiing with us. She could ski down the hill with Gumby on her back.
– Year in Review –
Wednesday, December 31, 1986
I’d like to write the basic “Year in Review, ” but since I was there and wrote the whole thing down, it seems kind of pointless. Another January is here for our enjoyment. I always feel fresh in January. I don’t have any regrets for 1986. Many of my years I would have changed if could, but in 1986 I did pretty well. Susan was the best thing to happen to me in 1986 . Sometimes I think she was the best thing to happen to me ever.
Monday, January 12, 1987
Respect, attention, affection, patience: the four basic food groups of love. Love is complex and disorganized. It reminds me of sign-in tables at large meetings.
Wednesday, January 14, 1987
I left Susan this evening with the odd, terrible feeling that I was disappointing her. She said I seemed “far away,” but I didn’t feel distant. Her face seemed to want to tell me something. I’ve gotten the same feeling all week. Every night she’s told me I’ve been distant.
Sunday, January 18, 1987
An ice storm swallowed the city today, so instead of driving, I walked to return the movies we had rented. I walked through the frozen grass and over the frozen road. I looked at the frozen trees and bushes, under a sky of fading ancient grey.
In the darkness of a blackout after we ate, Susan and I lay in her bed and talked about the deaths of two children who were close to her. She said it made her want to cry, which she may be doing right now.
– The Man from Minnesota –
Wednesday, January 21, 1987
The couch pillow is still warm from where our heads were. Something about that is very romantic.
Today I met a man whose son killed himself when he was sixteen.
Later Susan and I went to a fatality accident, one of my least-liked duties as a news photographer. A 58-year-old man from Minnesota, traveling with his wife, walked across the interstate to help a stranded motorist and was struck by a highway-speed car. His leg was severed. I wonder what the last thing they said might have been. I wonder what his last thought was.
Thursday, February 12, 1987
I just took a walk to my mailbox. The night air is warm and the sky is clear. There is a ring around the moon tonight. Maybe it will rain tomorrow, but it’s so nice tonight. Maybe if it stays this way Susan and I can visit the Bridge. It’s been a long time, huh Bridge? When summer comes, we’ll be there.
– Dream Programming –
Thursday, February 19, 1987
I told susan to meet me tonight in a field of wildflowers, in the middle of an empty plain, with a distant thunderstorm blotting the setting sun into glowing streaks.
The last thing I told her was, “I’ll be waiting.” I hope she remembers to be there and remember the dream.
With her sweet voice an inch away from my ear, “I love you, too,” I was so glad she was there with me.
Wednesday, March 4, 1987
“When you’re dead, you’re dead,” I told her.
“That’s where we disagree,” she explained.
Tonight I was thinking that Susan was less secure than I am regarding her and me. She writes a lot about how temporary we are. I, on the other hand, take a largely more, “It happens when it happens, ” attitude. I don’t know. Maybe she’s playing it smarter. I didn’t see her today, but I thought about her.
Wednesday, March 11, 1987
Susan went home earlier than her usual early tonight, sleepy and a little more than a tittle distracted. As we held each other under the street light, our warm bodies wrapped in my tiger blanket, patrol person Jennifer rolled by in her copmobiIe presumably eyeing our affection. Then I turned my attention back to Susan, and all the rapture I felt as I held her beneath my bengal blanket.
– Utterly Misunderstood –
Monday, March 16, 1987
I feel utterly misunderstood tonight , tragically unable to communicate , a helpless verbal prisoner in my mind.
“Sometimes I just don’t know what you want, Richard,” she said. Everyone always says that to me and it always means something different. I have no idea how to answer its implied question.
Thursday, March 19, 1987
“I hope we never fade,” Susan said to me after a moment of protracted, awkward silence. Yeah, I too hope we never fade. She and I are sure to wax and wane, as every pair of close people do. But with a little patience, and a little strength (most of the time those two are the same anyway) the lines of our lives won’t drift past the point of no return.
She and I only spent a few minutes together tonight. I know she’s been feeliirq troubled lately, but we didn’t have much time to talk. I told her I was proud she was losing weight, which is obviously important to her, and I told her I thought she was strong and beautiful, and that I loved her very much.
“It’s almost as if you read my journal already,” she told me. I hope she understands that I feel these things because they are obvious and true, and more than just compliments.
Tuesday, March 22, 1987
When I was very young, I sang from the back seat of the car as we drove from FIat River back to Saint Louis. I watched as we passed the rock that had been cut to make room for the highway, and the day, always cloudy, set into night. I sang tunes and made up words as I went along. They were always about love and peace . When you’re a kid, they teach you that love and peace run the world. Mom and Dad were always silent. I always felt alone in the back seat, but now I realize that they were probably listening, enjoying me and my song.
– Somewhere Else –
Thursday, April 9, 1987
She cried last night. Where was I? I wish l could take the sting of it all away. But I can’t always be there. Heck, I can’t always be here.
I ordered some flowers to be sent to her for her birthday tomorrow. Roses. The card says, “Wed woses. How romantic.”
Tonight she seemed amazingly unhappy about turning 24 – I didn’t know what to say, nor was I sure anything needed to be said, so I just let her plow through whatever was in her. I hope she ends up feeling good about it. She’s a good person. Rare. Maybe one-of-a-kind.
She and I are counting the hours until we fly off on vacation, in the words of her journal, “SOMEWHERE ELSE!”
Our journals are … I love them. No closer embrace, no kiss as sweet as the intricate, euphoric, complex rapture of words on paper.
Sunday, April 12, 1987
Music is poetry with legs.
“What’s the score with you and Susan?” someone asked me today.
“We’re lovers and best friends.”
Wednesday, April 22, 1987
She was distant.
Friday, April 24, 1987
Susan looked sad, acted sad, all day at work. I can’t really understand, and she can’t really explain. Maybe she’s homesick, or maybe she’s feeling lost in what she’s doing. Maybe our relationship isn’t satisfying enough, or maybe she’s clinically depressed. I don’t know. There’s not all that much I can do for her. Tonight she wanted to be left alone, so I left her alone. I feel afraid she might decide to move home to Chicago. She changes the whole landscape of my life. If she left, it would change again. I’d be lonely. I don’t want her to go.
– Job Opportunity –
Sunday, April 26, 1987
Then she said, “They need someone in a month.”
I felt my heart jump, but remained silent. A newspaper near Chicago is interested in her.
I taste tears, or maybe they taste me before they devour me.
I can still clearly remember what she wrote in her journal about us last summer: “Richard and I are blooming like a flower.
“It felt so good to hold him tonight; I wanted to crawl inside his skin and ride around all night, inside Richard, safe and warm, always something to do. Inside Richard’s blue eyes, looking out.
“I love him so much.”
Monday, April 27, 1987
I held Susan tight, close to me all night. I feel and fear that these might be our last days together. A part of her wants to run far from this place, this place that has me. But I can’t run with her. If she goes, all I can do is watch.
“I won’t stop loving you just because we live in different places,” she says. Susan, you just don’t get it. You can’t have love by remote control. Letters and visits and phone calls are only echoes of love that separation removes.
I hope she doesn’t get hired, but I get the feeling that if she does, she’ll go. I’m not enough to keep her here.
Tuesday, April 28, 1987
“I am a man whose dreams have all deserted…”
I feel better today, but not really good. Everyone says, “don’t worry until it happens.”
It always hurts to think about being apart from Susan, and this makes it real instead of theoretical. I don’t want her to leave.
My life would change, but I could live if she went away.
“Someday you and I will have to say goodbye.”
Monday, May 4, 1987
Over the past week or so, Susan and I have been watching Shoah, a lengthy documentary about the population in Poland who witnessed the killing of the Jews during the war, and about the killing itself. It seems to touch Susan much more, or in a different way than it does me. She’s been very moody, depressed, agitated, frightened, angry … maybe she needs to feel this way for a while, to make the experience more real.
“I can’t believe that it really happened,” she said as we took a break from one of the most intense parts of the program.
I can. I have a lot of faith in human cruelty. Somehow none of the incredible cruelty we’re seeing comes as any surprise.
Thursday, May 7, 1987
Susan and I had a confusing, though ultimately rewarding, conversation about making love. Actually, it became complicated, but we decided some things. Sort of. It’s actually quite complex. I’d like to write more about it later. It’s important, but unresolved.
– Kiss Kiss Kiss –
Saturday, May 16, 1987
Hi, Susan. “Hi, Richard…sweetie…(Kiss kiss kiss).”
How are you?
“I’m sleepy and I’m cheerful and I’m good,” she answered. She’s going to spend the night. A moment ago she began to get frisky and I turned into a puddle. Mmmmmm. Actually, we’re going to camp out here on the living room floor. We have blankets and pillows and we’re ready for “roughing it.”
“It’s been so long since I’ve written in my own lonely and neglected journal that this feels pretty good.”
Thanks, Susan. That was downright inspirational. Now I want to roll up with Susan and spend a nice cozy night on the floor. Sounds nice.
Sunday, May 17, 1987
As Susan was leaving, she said that there were thunderstorms in the forecast, so I went back to sleep and immediately dreamed about thunderstorms in Chicago. She and I had a very physically satisfying night. We had a lot of fun, but I got so hot.
Thursday, June 11, 1987
“…dreaming of mercy…”
Soon Susan and I are going to start visiting the Bridge again.
I miss the stars and the sky. I look at them now and think of Susan. I’ll never look at the sky the same way again. Together we wait for the cool winds of autumn. Patiently we wait. There’s no other choice, really. We’ll watch a few shooting stars, I guess.
– Fly Away Home –
Tuesday, June 23, 1987
Susan is on her way to the airport. She’s going to interview for the job in the Chicago area. She stayed up all night last night, and I helped. Staying up like that is easier for me, of course, as I’m going to be asleep in about ten minutes, whereas her plane doesn’t land back here until 10:30 tomorrow night.
I hope she gets what she really wants.
Thursday, June 25, 1987
Susan and I were both totally beat, so we took off our clothes and lay around together, in her bed, just enjoying being bored and naked and in the dark. Sometimes I picture paradise as bored and naked and in the dark.
After talking and then eating, it was time for what seemed like a long, tough goodbye. We held each other tight and wouldn’t let go for so long.
Monday, June 29, 1987
She can’t decide.
“No matter what, I’ll disappoint someone,” she told me.
They’ll disappoint themselves, Susan. And you’ll be disappointed because you’ll believe it when they tell you that you’ve disappointed them.
Oh, STOP IT!
(I say that because I think she probably went home, went through all kinds of agonizing yes-nos, then yelled those words to herself inside her confused, aching head.)
Thursday, July 9, 1987
Mind-numbing, how it’s all the way it is, isn’t it? I feel relieved that Susan turned down the job, but at the same time I’m sad for her. She wanted to be close to her family, but she also wanted to be close to me. No matter what she decided, she was making a sacrifice.
I had a magnificent night with Susan. We laughed and laughed and mmmm she looked so beautiful. She looks best when she’s laughing, I think. She probably feels best that way, too. Susan laughing…I hope I remember that until I die.
– Moments –
Wednesday, July 15, 1987
The Ides. R. E. drove from Topeka to visit, and he and Susan and I went to the Bridge together tonight and had a well-tap of a time. On my suggestion we all dug up some moments and told each other about them. Some of the moments were intimately personal, and it was good that we shared them. Susan’s parents divorcing; R. E. saying goodbye to Lisa; my own parting from Tina in eleventh grade…
I love moments.
Saturday, July 18, 1987
Lately she’s been worried, dissatisfied with it all. Sometimes it feels like she’s unhappy with me, but then we hold each other and I remember how much more than me is her life, and how bad feelings come out all over those closest to you. I know I can love and support her, and I know she can do the same. We’ll make it through the rough places.
– A Thousand Miles –
Sunday, July 19, 1987
A year has gone tumbling past. On the phone tonight I said over and over, “I love you.” It felt so good to say that to her, and so good to hear her say it to me.
A year. Hmm. Now we’re intertwined.
Someday we’ll be a thousand miles away, and I’ll miss her so much.
Tuesday, July 28, 1987
Susan and I are moving her across town to her own apartment. It’s making her sad and lost, moving out of her sister’s place. She’ll feel better when we’re done and she has her own home.
Several times during this move Susan has alluded to the notion of the two of us becoming permanent in each other’s lives. That’s an interesting, and not unpleasant, idea. But the future is always in motion. Sometimes the concept of marriage seems like an incredibly ordinary thing to do, and something that’s expected of me. I’d have to consider it very carefully.
Wednesday, July 29, 1987
Easily the best thing about today was taking a long whirlpool bath with Susan at her sister’s house. Though Susan was in a disassociated emotional condition, largely from moving, she and I relaxed well and were sluggishly happy all night. I love her in all her moods. Some just take a little more work.
She wonders why we haven’t had many “deep” times lately. Perhaps the dog days just aren’t my deep days. I’m just sort of waiting for a change.
Tuesday, August 4, 1987
I don’t want to write.
I don’t want to itch.
I don’t want to feel useless.
I don’t want to seem like a burden.
I don’t want my eyes to itch.
I don’t want to make anyone hurt.
I don’t want to forget.
I don’t want to lose myself.
I don’t want to throw up.
I don’t want to burn up.
I don’t want to grow up.
I don’t want to break a leg.
I don’t want arthritis.
I don’t want to bite my tongue.
I don’t want to shake.
I don’t want to be forgotten.
I don’t want to ache.
I don’t want disease.
I don’t want to be hungry.
I don’t want to be mentally ill.
I don’t want to be in an asylum.
I don’t want to cough.
I don’t want to be an asshole.
I don’t want to seem insensitive.
I don’t want to lose touch.
I don’t want to lose face.
And I don’t want to lose you.
Sunday, August 23, 1987
Somewhere there’s a 16-year-old right now who’s writing in his journal about how he dreads going back to school in six days. Or was I the only one?
I’m tired and so lonely tonight. I want to reach for the phone and call for help, but there’s no one who’s willing to be uncomplicated with me. I just want to smile for a while. I’m not disappointed by or forsaken by Susan, but she has something on her mind that won’t leave, something she says is due to me in her life. Nothing really changed between us, but I end up being not enough, or too much.
– Other Lovers –
Monday, August 24, 1987
A complicated, emotional day has drifted into a resolved, relieved night. After Susan and I had talked once, over dinner, and I was on assignment, I felt like driving on and never corning back. But I knew I wouldn’t; making a big mess bigger doesn’t help anything.
“I want you to promise you won’t have any other lovers,” she told me. In a way it was flattering that she thought I would be able to get other lovers, and in a way it was insulting that she thought I would have other lovers. Somehow that all got incredibly complicated.
The end result was not really a promise, but more of a clarification. I told her that I understood that she could never accept my having another lover.
Tuesday, August 25, 1987
Note from Susan
“I hope that his sweet head sleeps well tonight. If I could leave my body, I’d blow into his warm room as a soothing caress of a breeze, which would smooth the creases from his forehead and unknot the knots in his back. And I would brush his fingertips so he would know that something was with him; and in his sleep, maybe he would believe it, and at least the shackles of sleep would keep him from moving away. For Richard, I love you so.”
– Some Way to Win –
Sunday, August 30, 1987
Life isn’t a game. If it was, there would be some way to win.
After seeing Melissa in Saint Louis, I enjoyed the drive home … the road, the speed, the motion, the yellow line…
Arriving at Susan’s and not finding her there, I left her a note saying I loved her, and I went home. I called Robert, who was in town looking for me. I got a bite to eat, and Susan called. Come on over, she said. It was nice to hear her voice. I missed her all weekend. I hoped that now that I’m back from Saint Louis and my visit to Melissa, her mind would be at ease.
We had fun, right at first. I gave her the gifts I bought her in Saint Louis … the big wall watch, the wristwatch, a ridiculous bowtie, an aloe plant from my grandmother, and three kinds of preserves.
Before long, though, it was clear that something was bothering her. I thought, as I asked and asked, that she was worried that I had been unfaithful to her with Melissa, which I had not. I kept prodding and prodding until finally it came flooding out. She saw us as fundamentally different. She said she was tired of hurting. She was giving up on us. She told me she didn’t want to be lovers any more. She’d had enough.
Why don’t I let her give up on us? Maybe I will, I don’t know. But that feels like such an amazing step backward. I want to be lovers. I told her to wait and we’ll work on it. Maybe it’ll give us a chance to ruminate, or maybe I’m just stalling. I told her that we can work it out, that we can make anything work.
Monday, August 31, 1987
From Susan's Journal
“Richard, trying to make a list is difficult. What causes the problem is an attitude I perceive, more than actions. I’ll drop my defenses and tell you what hurts.
“Yes, knowing that you still have feelings for Melissa in a romantic way, it hurts. You choose to keep that fantasy private now, but before we were lovers, you told me all about her. I can’t conveniently forget it. I know it, and it’s your emotion and your desire. Asking you to change would be wrong, and impossible. So this is something that will have to stand.
“It bothers me because I wish I filled the need that keeps you wanting her in your life. I love you very much, and I have opened my heart to you; you know my strong and weak spots. One of my weak spots is my physical self image. But between your love, working out, and dieting, that’s improving.
“I love and trust you enough that you are my lover; I’ve never had a real, physical lover before, because it’s a great commitment for me; it’s a leap of faith, a leap to you.
“I know you wouldn’t do anything to hurt me. Still, these differences make me wonder; your attitude has seemed so much more casual in regard to this that I’ve wondered how much of it is vital to me and minor to you. So I wondered if being lovers on such uneven ground was good for us. My pain causes you pain.
“But the bottom line is our friendship. If sexual intimacy is going to cause constant pain and eventual resentment, how can I let it go on? If that’s the price of an orgasm with you, the price is just too high. Your friendship means more.”
Wednesday, September 2, 1987
She asked me, “What is your deepest, darkest fear.”
Tough question. Good question. I was just quiet for a while. Deepest, darkest fear. I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it for a while. I must have one. Deepest, darkest, coldest, secret fear. I’ll get back to you.
Tuesday, September 15, 1987
Susan and I hated the world together tonight. It didn’t really provide much comfort. Hate is hate. The only real comfort comes from loving each other. In the end we hugged and kissed and it was okay.
The sky is the limit to my limitless dreams.
“Can you believe it’s already September?” she asked tonight. I just shrugged and picked an enormous mushroom that was growing in the grass.
– The Rabbit Dies –
Tuesday, September 22, 1987
Susan bought me a stuffed bear and hid it in the darkroom under a towel. In its arms she put a sign that said, “hug me.”
To usher in the first night of autumn, Susan and I went to the Bridge and breathed clouds of steam into the night. The dark air held September in its pinpoint stars. We were cold there, but I think that with a blanket and each other, we can have wonderful times watching the night sky turn to snow.
A telling event happened on our way back from the Bridge. As we drove south on Acme road, we spotted a jackrabbit, but it wasn’t running away from us. We stopped and got out of the car to find it had been seriously injured, its legs crushed, probably by another car.
“I can’t believe someone would hurt it and then just leave. Is there anything we can do for it? It’s getting so cold out here.” She was almost in tears.
“We could kill it,” I added.
“How?” she asked, looking at me like I was some inhuman monster.
“Run over it with your car. It’ll be quick and painless.”
She relaxed a little. “I guess you’re right. It just seems so cruel to kill it without trying to help it.”
Finally she and I get back in the car, and after taking a deep breath, she drove quickly forward and finished it off. On the way to the Rainbow, she had a great deal of difficulty calming down.
“Why don’t you eat something. It might help you relax.”
She glanced at the menu, then looked at our waitress.
“It’s been a hard night,” Susan told her, “so I’ll have the veal Parmesan.”
Thursday, October 1, 1987
It’s October, yes, and I feel a little lonely because Susan isn’t around.
I called her twice tonight to tell her how much I love her. She’ll be at work tomorrow. I’ll smile when I see her.
Monday, October 5, 1987
Susan and I were back at the Bridge tonight. We laid on the hood of her car, just like always, this time under a ragged blanket, staring at the moon. It was a fine and gentle time. I hope we keep doing it.
Sometimes I feel like a bottle of wine. I sit in the cold and dark, waiting in tender isolation, free to look out at nothing. Then one day, someone tastes my soul, and it’s bitter, sweet, and dry.
I can hardly believe it’s already now. Time flies, far above, silently, casting no shadow. One day it’s gone.
Friday, October 16, 1987
Tonight as we were parting, I didn’t want to let Susan go, so I just kept talking. It was so nice to have her there under the clearing sky, hearing her voice and watching her watching me. So I just kept her there for a while. I’m certain she didn’t mind.
– A Magic Night –
Saturday, October 24, 1987
Susan and I had dinner and a little wine, and now we’re going to have a magic night, assuming Susan wants to have a magic night.
“Define ‘magic night.'”
“We dash our glasses in the fireplace,” I explained, “and waves are crashing on the shore.”
“Is the fireplace on the shore? The waves are going to put out the fire. That’s not very good planning, Rich.”
Saturday, November 14, 1987
I spent the night with Susan last night. It was nice, really nice, but I don’t get enough good sleep with her. I’m always waking up, smiling, touching her. As a result, I’m tired.
She’s on the phone with me now. “What are you writing about?”
“You,” I answered.
“Will you still love me when you get back from visiting your friends in the Kansas City tomorrow?” she asked.
“Yes, of course I will.”
Sometimes she’s a stranded calf.
Friday, November 20, 1987
Susan and I are sitting together on the her blue love seat, listening to Claire de Lune. Soon we’re qoing to bed, to sleep together for a while. I can feel her head on my shoulder as she listens with her eyes closed, and her heart open to the music.
“Susan,” I said, then waited for a long time. I smiled weakly at her. She knew I didn’t want anything but a moment of her attention.
“Nothing,” I added, and she smiled.
– Invading My Journal –
Friday, November 27, 1987
Note from Susan in My Journal
“You’re sleeping in my bed now, all naked and soft and warm and good-smelling. You just called me in to remind me to say goodbye, but I could never forget.
“I’m privately invading your journal to tell you, Richard, how sweet it always is to sleep with you. To feel your hands and arms and legs slowly creep around me, become entangled with me; to feel loved, surrounded by your love.
“I just wanted to record these feelings in a place you’ll never lose them. I love you, and I love being with you. I’ll treasure this time, not knowing how much we’ll have. I’ll treasure you.”
Saturday, November 28, 1987
I just got Susan’s message in my journal yesterday and it really made me smile. Now she sits next to me, watching her favorite music videos and falling asleep on my arm. I really enjoy the nights I spend here in her apartment. Tonight we set up the Christmas tree at my house. We looked at it and listened to music for a while, then ate and came over here to spend the night. It’s very cold out tonight, and she’s going to be very warm.
Saturday, December 12, 1987
Susan is feeling very far away from me. I wish she’d come back. You know, I feel so good and happy with her. Things are easy and fun and it all feels good. That’s why I don’t understand when suddenly things aren’t so good between us. Susan, you make me want to cry.
I’m in love. It feels really wonderful to be in love still, after a year and a half. A year and a half ago, I had no idea I’d be here, and I have no idea where I’ll be in a year and a half.
– Walls and Walls and Walls –
Wednesday, December 23, 1987
Letter from Susan
“I was lying in bed, doing my yearly analysis, and your name and your face kept coming up over and over. So let me tell you now, on the eve of Christmas Eve, what you’ve done for me in the 18 months since we started ‘killing time,’ and in the eight or so months since we became lovers…
“There are walls and walls and walls in me. Many of those I unknowingly erect around my heart to protect me from the pain of total love. Since you first spent the night with me in my brother’s bed in Chicago – awkward as we were – you’ve been pounding on my walls: insistent, patient, impatient, lonely, angry, but always loving.
“It was only the knowledge that you waited outside my walls with open arms that gave me a reason to keep chiseling until I reached you. I was lonely too: angry, patient, impatient. And I wanted so much to love you.
“There are so many things in you that I love. It seems that every day you tell a ridiculous joke that I hadn’t heard; reveal more knowledge that I didn’t know you had; express your love in another gentle, passionate way; or wear that white sweater…
“A new year is coming, and I can look forward to brighter days – somehow brightened by the decreasing fog of my fears and reflex inhibitions. Days filled with brilliant light of a stronger love than I’ve ever experienced – an intimate love that gets deeper, wider, stronger, taller every single day. I have us to look forward to in January, on Christmas Eve, tomorrow, and forever in my heart.
“Merry Christmas, Sweetness. I love you.
Thursday, December 31, 1987
All night long I’ve felt a little strange, sort of lost between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Here it is, though, New Year’s Eve, and Susan and I kissed and drank a toast. It was very romantic. We had pizza and wine, and apple pie a la’ mode. It was a nice evening, quiet and safe, and in love.
“I love him.”
1987 was full of Susan’s love. ’88 needs improvement over ’87, but Susan’s love was right on the money.
– Falling in Love with Ourselves –
Monday, January 4, 1988
It occurs to me on this very cold, cloudy night somewhere in the middle of my life that recently I haven’t been writing nearly enough about Susan. Maybe I feel as though there’s nothing remaining to say about her, as she’s firmly entrenched in my side as my significant other, living with me most of the time. We grow, though, together every day, and we are very happy together, loving each other, touching each other’s lives in ways neither of us has known before.
It’s sweet. I look in her eyes and see love, admiration, affection, sympathy, support … everything I need from her. Without her my life would be profoundly different now, and I don’t think it would be as good.
Susan says that we really just fall in love with ourselves, loving the things in others that reflect the things in ourselves we already love. I disagree. I think we fall in love with the way we blend with each other.
Tuesday, January 19, 1988
Days go by quickly, unique and so strange. Some are full of laughter and some are laced with pain. Most are a mix of love and hate, boredom and freedom, pain and decision.
Today I felt mostly loved and in love. Susan and I are feeling closer and more loving than ever before, touching and holding more, laughing and saying nice things more than ever. It’s like a miracle, a blessing. I can’t explain. Our eyes meet, our souls touch…
I wonder if she’s thinking or dreaming about me now.
Friday, January 22, 1988
Susan and I are having a fine evening together.
We made a videotape letter to a friend of hers. We toured Susan’s apartment, then went to the police station and filmed, then to the office where we both work. Later we came home and made a tape of both of us for my mom and dad.
These days we’re sharing each other better than ever before.
Thursday, January 28, 1988
Susan and I just finished watching Shoah again. As long and lackluster as the film was, we were interested all the way through. I think Susan and I must enjoy being patient, careful observers of history. There aren’t all that many people I know who are willing to sit through nine hours of Polish-French-English subtitled dialog about what it was like to watch Germans gas and burn Jews.
I’m tired now, but at least my insides are full of good food, my bed is warm and dry, my girlfriend loves me very much, and no one is trying to kill me.
– The Shallow Grave –
Friday, January 29, 1988
At about 8:45 tonight, we heard a call on Susan’s police scanner from the Sheriff’s Office. They found the remains of a body buried in a shallow grave northwest of town.
We arrived at the scene in a little over twenty minutes. It was a small abandoned farmhouse that stood at the top of a hill. With no electric power, there were no lights. There was no moon, either. Above us was a murky black and grey nothingness. Even the lights on the police cars were inexplicably off. Only the dim illumination of our flashlights allowed us to see at all.
Susan talked to the officers for a few moments, then returned to me at the car. We waited. The night should have been colder, but somehow held a warmth in its hands. A gusty south wind was eager to hold us.
It would be a while before they let us actually do our jobs, so our attention turned to each other. Holding hands, facing each other, her almost-black hair tossed on her shoulders by that warm-cool wind, her trusting green eyes looking at me in the near total darkness… she seemed to me to be the most beautiful, most perfect woman I’d ever known.
“I love you,” I whispered, and the sound of my voice carried to her like an echo on the wind.
“I love you, too.”
– Snow on Our Shoulders –
Thursday, February 4, 1988
We walked down the stairs to her parking lot in silence, surrounded by the sweet quiet of muted traffic in the softly falling snow. At my car, I turned and leaned on it, and she quite naturally wrapped her arms around me and leaned on me.
She was the perfect picture, her dark hair tumbling over her knit white scarf. I held her very close and watched her eyes as she told me things about her day. As she talked, snow fell on her glasses and melted, fell on the shoulders of her navy pea coat, fell on my hair and my suede jacket.
We both just kept on talking as the snow quietly fell on and around us. An hour in the cold night passed, and we both realized that this wonderful moment was ending.
She leaned forward and kissed me gently. It wasn’t passionate, so much as it was so very loving. I kissed her back, and from our breath rose a wispy pall of steam. In a moment we separated, and she looked at me.
“Do you know where I am?” she asked.
“Where?” I answered.
She lifted her finger gently to my lips and touched them.
“I’m right there.”
Friday, February 19, 1988
“‘Healthy’ is someone else’s definition of what I should be.”
Susan is writing in her journal on my knee, and even though I’m heavily medicated for a severe case of sniffles, she still looks tremendously cute.
“What do you think of all my poetry?” I asked her. “What does it all mean to you?”
“I think you’re trying to figure out something. You don’t understand why things have to be the way they are.”
Tonight, like most nights for a while now, ended as I drove back home to my own apartment, and as I turned the corner to head east, I looked back over to my left and saw her leaning way over the edge of her balcony, waving. I honked the horn, and then as quickly as I saw, she was out of sight. She and I do this every night.
Sunday, February 21, 1988
I watched Reds all night at Susan’s place, then took her fish over to my place so I can feed it while she’s in Chicago for the week. I miss her already. When she left this morning (when I was very little, I thought that was just one word … “thesmorning”), I was sleepy in her bed, but I think she understood that I was going to miss her.
She was crying when she called me tonight. She had no idea why. She’s been crying a lot lately, and she doesn’t understand it.
– An Envelope with Nothing In It –
Thursday, March 10, 1988
“Are you asleep,” I asked on the phone a little while ago.
“Mmm hmmm,” came the answer.
“I just wanted you to know,” I whispered, “that I love you and I hope you dream about me.”
I wonder if I … no. I wonder if Susan is dreaming about me now. Is she happy? Is she in love? Am I what she wants?
Tuesday, March 15, 1988
Strangely I called Melissa today because she sent me an envelope with nothing in it. We talked for a long time about how she doesn’t want to work or have a career, but wants a rich husband and lots of time to herself.
Susan felt bad, as she always does whenever she hears the name Melissa. Insecure, jealous, threatened, etc. She can’t understand that her presence in my life drives out the desire for women like Melissa, and that I find Melissa kind of immature and shallow.
I’m not ready to say goodbye to Susan. I want to stay with her some more. I don’t want us to end.
Sunday, April 3, 1988
The long, lonesome road was broken by Susan’s loving embrace. The moon rising along the endless, empty highway tonight reminded me of the summer of 1986, meeting Susan, watching the moon rise from The Bridge with her. Those weren’t easy or even especially happy days, but they were special. They changed my life.
Susan, anticipating lots of pounding on her roof and walls from construction has gone to sleep in my bed. I don’t know if there will be room for us both, but we’ll try.
I also sensed a sort of desperate need to be with me tonight. Recently she’s desperate and clingy a lot of the time. I hope she can learn to be happy with herself. She and I have hit some potholes in the road of our relationship.
If you don’t understand freedom, you don’t need it.
– The Inadequacy of Blueberry Pie –
Sunday, April 10, 1988
For her birthday I brought her a blueberry pie with five candles, one for every five years. At first she was kind of angry, presumably because I didn’t bring her diamonds and gold. Later though, it became apparent that she was feeling old, in the sense that she had some unfulfilled expectation about who and where she would be by now.
Her heart is thirsty.
Friday, April 15, 1988
Here are some of the things we said tonight …
“The muscles in my chest are so hard you probably got a concussion.”
“How many times did I shove you off of it?”
“It’s just like playing a French horn, only much softer.”
“A score in time saves lives.”
“It’s a little phrase. It goes together.”
“Your hand sure is curved around.”
“Don’t put your pen in my ear! Can’t you keep your writing utensils out of other peoples’ orifices?”
“The dreaded noselock!”
“Yes it is. I’ve been taking hormones.”
“Keep your pen out of my mouth now!”
“What next, ektoplasm?”
“Right the way you’re doing it is supreme ticklishness.”
“You give me a funny feeling in my groinal area.”
Monday, April 18, 1988
Susan says that in some ways, there’s no point in being my lover. I wonder, then, for what is our love, or any love? Is it only useful if it leads to some greater reward, like childbearing? I find love to be its own reward, satisfyingly so. I find that having love is enough, and that its other rewards are illusory, and hungering for them is only an effort to avoid dealing with ourselves and our inadequacies.
I have love in my life simply because I like it.
– Layoffs –
Tuesday, April 19, 1988
They told me today that a bunch of us are being laid off from work on May 4. That in itself didn’t upset me too much. I’m not that attached to the job. My concern is that the day she and I never hoped would come may be close at hand.
Maybe Susan and I could be together for a lifetime. Something to think about, isn’t it?
Saturday, April 23, 1988
I feel sad now, but not because I had a really good time with my friends today. Anna, David, Michael, Ben, Kevan and I went to the Glacier Rocks and climbed our hearts out, then ate at Big Bubba’s, then came home and played Risk until midnight.
No, it was because when I called Susan, she said she had a cold and that I shouldn’t come over. Now, though, I think I should have, just because lovers ignore each other’s illnesses and such and make the necessary sacrifices. Mostly, though, I wanted to be with her. I’ll be moving in with her soon (although we spend so many nights together now it won’t be a big transition), and I hope it draws us in closer than ever. Susan’s been far away the last few days, having a tough time sorting through what lies ahead.
– The Cat and the Cardinals –
Thursday, May 5, 1988
Susan’s mom has decided that Fred the Cat is too much trouble. His aging cat body is no longer keeping itself clean in typical cat fashion, and Fred’s continual incontinence is driving the family up the wall.
“Come and get your cat or we’ll have to destroy it,” is the word from her mom.
As we drove today and the hours started to roll by, we talked about everything and nothing, a wonderfully serpentine conversation that led us from past to future, near and far.
For an hour or more we played name-that-tune with the radio. We set it to scan, so it changed the music every three seconds automatically, leaving both of us just enough time to try to come up with the artist and song title before it scanned again.
The game started and ended in uproarious laughter from both of us. When there had been a few minutes of road-noise silence, she smiled at me and took my hand.
“Put on the ‘Driving Music,’ ” she told me. I knew which music she meant. It was a Brian Eno’s Old Land, and it seemed to fit our day together perfectly. We listened to it into the night, very pleased to be with each other, and then we were here in Illinois.
Friday, May 6, 1988
Up at the crack of noon, we packed ourselves and Fred the Cat into the Escort and headed west. An hour out of Chicago, she sighed.
“What is it, honey?” I asked.
“Mmm. Richard, remember what we talked about last night, about what we want?”
“Yea,” I answered, “I remember you said you didn’t know what you wanted from your life.”
“It’s just that every time I come home to Illinois, I miss my family that much more. I want to be with them.”
“I know,” I told her, remembering when we departed Chicago on United Airlines last year. She cried and cried. I also remembered when she was offered that job at the newspaper near Chicago last year, and after all that agonizing decided to stay with me.
“It’s ironic,” I continued, “that you want to be with your family so much, when just last week you told me that … ”
“Yea, that all we really have is ourselves.”
In Saint Louis, we saw that the Cardinals were playing, so we tuned to the game on the radio. Dash board light. The chatter of the game. The dark night.
Tuesday, May 10, 1988
Fred the Cat seems at home with us now. He has fun with us, he’s comfortable with us, he likes us. I say “us.” That’s because I’m in the process of moving in, and we are more of an “us” now than ever before. We’re inseparable, Susan and I. I’m in her bed now, watching her flip pages and read.
Wednesday, May 11, 1988
Since I have little to do in the day, I’m writing about the firsts … the first time Susan and I slept together, the first time we held each other, the first time we went to The Bridge, the first time we said hello. I miss her now. I’m in her home, waiting for her to come home, missing her, hoping our time together isn’t disappearing before our eyes.
“Do we love to live together?” I asked tonight.
“Yea, I think so,” she answered.
– Ham and Cheese Loaf –
Sunday, May 15, 1988
Note from Susan
“Richard, remember the cherries and the ham and cheese loaf in the drawer, and please pull the knob on the dishwasher before you leave. And remember all day that my love surrounds you with bright, white, healing light.”
I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be surrounded with bright, white, healing light.
– How Not to Open Biscuits –
Sunday, May 22, 1988
Susan offered to make biscuits for brunch, so while she began that, I stepped into the shower.
Just as I was fully soaped, I heard, “Honey?”
I opened the shower curtain to see her holding her left hand above her head, a trail of bright blood steaming down her arm.
“What happened?” I asked, alarmed.
“I opened the biscuits with a butcher knife.”
So I took her to the clinic for stitches, then made the ill-fated biscuits, and finally took her to see a minor-league baseball game. It was all excellent fun, except for her accident, and one time at the game when she observed me glancing at another woman. Her insecurities are intense sometimes.
Monday, May 23, 1988
“Go to sleep, honey. I’ll be along in a moment,” I told her.
She looks sweet now, trying to sleep.
“I wish I could open my heart to you,” she said.
Now she’s talking about things, yawning sometimes, looking at me, then becoming quiet and trying to sleep again. I touch her hair and she smiles gently and scratches her nose.
Now almost asleep, she’s talking and laughing and mumbling things that don’t make sense, like, “did you wash your illegal alien today?”
– “I Should Do Something Else” –
Sunday, May 29, 1988
I know I need to be able to be alone.
Susan and I had a day that was really good, then really tough. She’s sitting on the love seat quietly thinking about the things we said today. Another baseball game, this time with fireworks, was great. Susan was at my side in the midst of the crowd, the sun was down behind the seats in left field, the home team was winning, and we were sharing a hot dog.
But tough times came to us as we got home. A hurtful discussion from last night bled into tonight, and we struggled with it for a while. Love and praise are no match for her insecurities.
“I just don’t think we want the same things,” she told me at one point last night, “so maybe you should go to the ball game tomorrow and I should do something else.”
Now, though, it seems like we’re settled. It’s late, and we’ll be sleeping together.
Friday, June 3, 1988
The editor of a newspaper from Illinois called today to say he was very interested in the portfolio I sent. We set up an interview for Tuesday at two. This news is both exciting and saddening to both of us. An interview isn’t a job, and a job isn’t the end of us, since it’s geographically close to her family. You’d think from the expression on her face, though, that she’d just come back from a funeral. Or a marriage. Ha, ha.
Tonight I just can’t make her smile. I asked her to label some cassettes for me and she became downright hostile.
– Five Different Things –
Monday, June 6, 1988
Here I am in Lombard, Illinois, and while I know it’s where I need to be professionally, my heart is begging me back to Ottawa. The closer I got to Chicago, the more I wanted to turn around and come home to her apartment, with Fred the Cat and balloons on the ceiling, and Susan.
As she cried in the parking lot, I told her, “I’ll be back soon.” I don’t want to live up here without her. I don’t want to live anywhere without her. She says she’s going to find a job up here and join me. There are a lot of questions in our lives now. We don’t really know what to do. I feel young and inexperienced.
Monday, June 13, 1988
A kind of subtle tension has settled on the Richard-Susan household, as tomorrow is when the editor is supposed to call from Illinois to offer me the job. We’re both hoping that he’ll call, and we’re both hoping he won’t. She’s in the bedroom now, in the dark, sulking, mortified at what the future might hold. I can’t say I blame her.
Sunday, June 19, 1988
“What?” I asked.
“I don’t know, honey,” she whispered, “I just feel like crying out to you about five different things.”
A little while passed, then the cat made some noise in the living room. I thought that things that are gone are gone.
“Are you asleep?” I asked.
We talked, and minutes passed. I thought of the week waiting to hear from Illinois. No call, no job. Just an unemployment check.
She is lying next to me, sighing. She feels very sick, and probably won’t go to work tomorrow. She stares at the wall,. Her gaze doesn’t move, gathers no information. She’s lost in a pool of thought, about me, about us, about the future.
– “We’ll Make It, Honey” –
Monday, June 20, 1988
Note from Susan
“Dear, darling Richard,
“I’m lucky to be the lover of a tender-hearted soul like you. I know a lot of people, and you are one of the gentlest, kindest, sweetest people I know – I love you so much. And that’s why I can’t seem to stop going haywire about your temporary absence. Do you know what it’s like to leave your arms, your eyes, your hands behind and be expected to go on about your daily mundane business? Yes, I believe you do. Well, you’re moving away from me, my love, and however temporary, it won’t be easy.
“We’re strong and we try to be there for each other. Sometimes we fail, but we admit it and say we’re sorry and mean it. That’s why I know that you and I will still be in love when the world has tired of tearing at our hearts.
“I am sorry that I’m hurting you. Please don’t hide from my sadness. Let me help you. Let me hold you up like you’ve done for me so many times. I want to be your lover, a good one. But more than that, I want to be the best friend you’ll ever have. Because that’s how much I love you.
“We will make it, honey. And no matter how far apart we are, I will always carry your heart in my heart, cradling it, embracing it, letting no harm come to it.”
Friday, June 24, 1988
It seemed like it was going to be such a good day, when suddenly it fell through. I got my apartment in Chicago, and Robert and I had a pretty good time. Then the truck overheated and Robert and I got into a serious disagreement. Then calling Susan the spit really hit the fan. Her doctor says she has mono and will probably need as much as six weeks of bed rest. Life is certainly taking a gigantic wet dump on us all of the sudden. No matter what I said on the phone to her tonight she just cried and cried.
She seems saddened by my moving away as though she were never corning with me.
– Long Distance –
Sunday, July 3, 1988
She stood wrapped in nothing but a blanket, looking at me, tears pouring down her face. She held me for a long time, staining my shirt sleeve with tears.
“It’s okay, Honey. We’ll be together again soon, I promise,” I told her. She just cried. I kissed her a final time, then walked out the door. As I drove away, I saw a last glimpse of her face through the window as she waved a sad goodbye. I looked away.
Now suddenly my home is far, far away, in this strange town and this strange land. How long will it be before she can join me? Will she? Without her, I guess I’d go back home. Echoes of my love for her ring through this empty apartment as I sit here, starkly alone.
“Honey?” I asked her from the pay-phone tonight, “will you come to live with me in Chicago?” I guess I just needed to hear her reassure me. I’ve never felt this kind of need before.
“Yes,” she answered.
What am I doing here?
Wednesday, July 6, 1988
I talked to my friend Ayn for about 45 minutes. She was encouraging, but had no idea whether or not I was making a mistake. In 1986 she moved up here too, to be with her boyfriend, but only stayed three days and moved back. She said they just weren’t meant to be.
Susan got a call from another paper, one just sixteen miles from my front door. They wanted to see her work. It would be really great … paradise … for her to work and live right here.
I lie in bed, exhausted and unhappy, ready to be rudely awakened in six and a half short hours to go back to work.
Sunday, July 17, 1988
Have I ever been this alone in my life? When I was fifteen? Yesterday? Ever? I’m feeling acute dread about facing the week alone, no friends, no rewards, no company, no love…
Letter from Susan
“It started out as a note, and ended up as one of the few ‘poems’ I’ve written. It’s for you. Hey honey, we’ll be us again soon. I love your guts completely.
“I miss you at bedtime
whenever I go away and come back
I miss me home to return to
I miss you at lunchtime
I miss you when the sun beats me to bed
I miss you in Movieland
And all these moments
break up the long, long hours
during which I miss you most of…
Monday, July 25, 1988
I wonder if I’m too passionately in love with the good life that I had back home with all my friends and with Susan. Oddly, now mostly what I hear from home is that I should make new friends. I don’t want to be unhappy (by definition), but I do feel very sad when I think of them. I can remember times in my life of great elation, and other times, like now, of great loneliness. If I’d gotten this job in Illinois and moved here in 1985, before I met Susan, it would have been much easier. But now it’s now, and I have to deal with the way I feel today.
I talked to Susan on the phone a lot today. She feels like she’s being buried alive. I wish I could talk to her face to face, to let her know that we’re still us. She’s so uncertain about the future. She doesn’t even know for sure that I’m the one for her future, or if instead she should just simply be alone.
I’m alone now, and feeling it rather acutely. I might have to be alone from now on. I think sometimes that being alone is the way to which it must always return.
– I Sit in the Dark –
Friday, July 29, 1988
I realize with my heart crushed to the ground how incredibly alone I am. Susan, once my best friend and lover, is tonight an agonized and horrible stranger. She no longer wants to be my lover.
My head is spinning, reeling, aching. I find myself a thousand miles from home, and my whole reason for being here, Susan, is evaporating before my eyes. She was my home.
I sit in the dark now, thunder dying in the distance, thinking and wishing my life had a meaning and a place and something to make me smile.
Wednesday, August 3, 1988
For a moment I was one step beyond desperate to get back to that wonderful, confused, falling in-love summer of 1986, to be by her side, hurting to even touch her hand, but too scared to try.
Then as I looked around on this hot Illinois evening, I found myself thousands of miles from that irreplaceable beauty. We lay on the hood of her car and stared at the stars, talking and talking, telling each other our whole lives. Our lonely hearts reached out for the rare treat of a friend, and found a lover.
It hurts too much to live, to breathe, to believe.
Out of my control and destroying my hopes and dreams, she’s gone. No mutual decision, no real discussion. It’s just over.
Dreams make promises they can’t keep.
– The Ground Will Always Hold Me Up –
Monday, August 15, 1988
I just got off the phone with Ayn. “Hey,” she said in the end, “this will all be over soon.”
I know she’s right. Still, now I must feel this way. Before that I called Susan, and told her I wanted to talk seriously about another chance.
“My heart is open to you, Richard, but not to that.”
I’m never comfortable any more. My heart races, I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I pace, I’m too hot, I’m too cold. All I allow myself to think about is all the wasted chances, all the selfish, lazy excuses, all the blindness and insensitivity. I stare at the ground, never smile…
But what’s done is done, and while facing that is painful, I will. Actually, I don’t think I’ll call Susan again. That sort of conversation only results in abject humiliation. Now I am alone, and in some strange, familiar way, I am starting to remember what it was like to be alone. The ground always holds me up when nothing else will.
Wednesday, September 7, 1988
Days go by and nothing much changes.
Here’s the thought that gave me strength today: I made it through junior high. I can make it through anything.
Now I’m back in my lonely bed. Hmmm. The word “lonely.” I think about it and use it a lot. Ever since I was 15, it seems like that word and I have been close. And still, after all this time, it has just as much punch, as much ice and hurt, as much black and grey, as always. What a word.
“I think about the stupidest thing I would do,” I told Ayn, “would be to pack up all my stuff and come home.”
I feel like Susan was never really in love with me, or that she is really unfeeling and uncaring. Was I really that wrong about her? She says she cares about me and still loves me, but her actions (speaking louder than words) seem to say that my friendship isn’t anything special, that she is moving away from me. Is she really as selfish as my admittedly biased perspective tells me?
Isn’t everyone? She’s selfish because she comes from a culture of selfish people. Does anyone love, or do we just take what we want? She couldn’t get what she wanted from me, so I wasn’t of any use to her any more?? Man, listen to me. Every evil, game-playing voice in my head is speaking tonight.
Sunday, September 18, 1988
A girl named Brenda and I spent some of the evening together, sharing our complaints about life. We sat by a pond in a suburban Chicago park in the cool autumn wind after it stopped raining. I told her about myself. It was nice at the end of the night to be held for once in a long time. It was nice to feel wanted.
– Message in the Bottle –
Monday, September 19, 1988
One of Susan’s favorite things to do for me was leave notes. Most of the time, they were funny, playful thoughts intended to amuse me. And sometimes they were genuine love notes.
“I’ll carry you with me everywhere, Honey. I love you, I love you, I love you!!!”
“I’ll be thinking about you wherever I am.”
“You look so cute when you just wake up.”
“These vitamins are waiting to be absorbed by your handsomeness.”
She was also fond of making up new and increasingly absurd nicknames for me.
“Care for yourself while I’m gone, my little lemon sugar-heart-cow-ice-fork.”
That particular pet name originated during a game of charades while waiting for our dinner to arrive in Mama Louise restaurant the night in snowed last January. I had run out of clue ideas and had started picking up various items on the table, mooing like a cow, etc. She thought it was hilarious, and I wore that nickname for a while.
She also called me her Darling Honey Lamb, her Little Blueberry Muffin Cup, Honey Sweetness ‘Ness, Sweetness Face, Smoky Links, Sweetheart Face, and Puddin’ Pie.
Sometimes she’d draw pictograms, the usual translation to which was, “I love you.”
“I wanted to write you a note, but I don’t know what to say,” she explained once.
“How about, ‘Dear Richard: I love you. Susan.'”
A moment later she handed me a piece of pink note paper with the words, “Richard, I love you. Susan,” written on it.
“No matter what, I will never desert you.”
I tell you that to tell you this.
I got up and got in the shower, turning the water on almost as hot as it would get on this cold, dark morning. As steam filled this tiny apartment, I thought of all the times she and I sat in her bathroom, steaming away our head colds and hay fever.
I dressed slowly, almost painfully, like an arthritic old man, and picked up my grey jacket, for the first time this season. I pulled it on, then reached into the pocket for my gloves. Inside, on top of the right glove, I felt a small piece of paper. I pulled it out and read:
“It’s cold outside, but my love will keep you warm.”
Sunday, September 25, 1988
Right now the hurt is so bad that there’s no way any of it could have been worth it. It just hurts too much, too much to smile, too much to look at the night sky, too much to wish or remember or even breath.
Susan says she’ll always be my friend. Will she? Is she now? At some point she must have stopped being my friend and started simply cushioning my fall. Why? Maybe she just felt guilty about leaving me.
Tuesday, September 27, 1988
I got a call from back home today. They offered me a job, wanting me to start on October 24. Can you believe that? At exactly the same time, ironically enough, Susan got a job up here and will be moving up the same weekend I’m moving down. Our ships will pass in the night.
“You can never be friends again,” someone told me this weekend, “you can only be ex-lovers.”
I knew that day would come when we’d have to say goodbye. I sat in stunned silence tonight, unable to respond, when she said to me, “It never worked.” How could she begin to say that after all the feelings we shared?
“The day will come,” I told her two years ago, unaware that she had a crush on me, unaware of the emotions and players in the mix, unaware of the way we were destined to tear each other asunder, unaware of many things, “when we’ll have to say goodbye.”
Goodbye, goodbye. Our love was so good. I’m sorry it had to end this way. I’m sorry it had to end. Something inside me is dying.
– Still Return –
Monday, June 19, 1989
I write in my journal by the light of the summer moon as I have returned to the Acme Road Bridge three years after it all happened.
It is exactly as I remember, as though I were here yesterday. But tonight, no one is falling in love. The trucks on the interstate pass under the Bridge, the moon rises slowly to the southeast, the lights from the factories and colleges shine in rows in the distance. The gravel road and the dirt turnout where we parked are exactly the same.
I feel lost in time and space, as though it were 1986 again, and I had closed my eyes for a moment. I almost expect her voice to ask me what I’m thinking, to shatter this dark dream.
Tonight, though, it is my own car sitting by this dusty, dimly lit side road. There is no voice teasing and exploring and inviting me to fall in love. There are no green eyes watching for feelings hidden inside.
Long underwear, hiking boots, a wool sweater, a big coat, a yellow rain jacket, and a black ball cap gave me the look of an all weather photographer. I toted a duck-taped, garbage-bag-wrapped 600mm lens as well.
Feeling like the emblem of a working professional photographer, I stepped onto the rapidly icing football field and glanced around. The rain was still coming down and freezing as it hit the artificial turf.
I scanned the field for something to watch, something to keep my mind off the numbing cold all around. A cheerleader or a mascot would do. I didn’t want to feel like I was alone on this frigid night.
Looking toward the west end zone, I saw her. Dressed in black, with no gloves, she looked cold.
I halfway turned to another photographer and muttered, “I’m going to go see a girl.”
He didn’t hear, and I didn’t care.
I hoisted the enormous lens to my shoulder and made my way across the end zone in the ever-deepening slush.
She faced away from me now. I wondered if it really was her. If it was her, would she be glad to see me? Please, I thought, let her be glad to see me.
I tapped her shoulder with my gloved left hand, and she spun around to see me, a genuine look of surprise on her otherwise beautiful face. Obviously she didn’t recognize me dressed as a waterproof lemon, so I smiled and said, “Hi! How are you?”
“Hi. It’s you!” She glanced at my face, at my bushy red beard. Oh, yea. She’s never seen my beard before. “You’ve changed!” she chimed.
I didn’t say anything really, at least not that I remember. I do remember her face. It was soft and round, smiling sweetly, bracketed by her softly waving auburn curls. Looking at her, I wanted to be alone with her, to hold her hand and have her laugh at my jokes and listen to my stories.
But we were two perfect strangers in the freezing rain in a crowd in the end zone of a football field. And I was the only one who wanted the quiet and the warmth.
“I didn’t answer your letter,” she said, obviously trying to make me believe that she felt guilty about it. She didn’t, I knew. She and I had been through years of my letters and her absent responses. But in the latest round, in my usual overly dramatic style, I had finally confessed my love for her.
I narrowed my eyes and leaned back a little. “Answer it,” I said flatly.
When other close friends see each other, they hug and smile and laugh and say things like “I missed you so much.”
But I missed her more than she could understand, and she missed me less than I wanted to know.
Her eyes were so bright and beautiful.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m sitting with the band,” she told me. When she went to this college, she was in the band.
“Are you busy at halftime?” I asked.
“I’m going to watch the band play. I’m going to try to take pictures. I have a camera.” She laughed, holding up her Instamatic, obviously embarrassed that her camera was so tiny compared to the huge 600mm on my shoulder.
“Okay,” I said, trying unsuccessfully to hide the disappointment in my voice, “maybe I’ll see you around.”
I turned around and started to walk back to the sideline through the ice that coated the ground, my camera, my clothes, my soul.
Already I missed her. I wanted to turn around and go to her, be with her, see her for just another minute or two. But I didn’t. I just walked away.
You have to understand the reason I went to see Melody in the first place was that I kind of enjoyed how painful it was. Probably. How the hell did I know? I thought I loved her.
Weary from eight hours on the road but excited to see her, I followed her up the stairs of her non-air-conditioned dorm room at the University of Missouri. Once in her third-floor room, baking in the lingering warmth of the concrete campus, I could see, for the first time in my adult life, the place where I was born. Across the street from her open windows was the University hospital where, 22 years before, I’d uttered my first sound.
For a moment this distracted me. Then Melody turned around. Suddenly, abruptly, she was my focus once again. And why not? Wasn’t she the prettiest woman I’d ever seen? She smiled. No, not exactly smiled. She tried to smile, then winced from the pain in her neck and back.
I smiled back and remembered the letter from her I received two weeks before. In it she told me of a tipsy night at a bar, and the blurry drive home. Well, not all the way home. She made it as far as that big truck, which returned the favor of her getting in the way by crushing her car into a two-ton accordion.
The letter also said sure, Richard, you’re welcome to come see me anytime.
I assumed that two weeks later was included in “anytime,” so there I stood in her room, looking at my birthplace and the prettiest girl I’d ever known. And I’d known her for a long time. We met in seventh grade. We were twelve. Wow. Twelve. She was cute and quiet and ten times more popular than I was.
Watching her turn in her math homework was the hand that turned the faucet of my hormones all the way on. I had a crush on Melody Ferris. In those dark days of junior high, her freckles and pixie haircut held promise, and now, as I stared at her across the room, all that promise was in its prime. Small and delicate, yet athletic, her body was as perfect as her three freckle nose. Her face was graced with a frame of silky red-auburn hair, and her pale hands had their own imaginative grace.
With the meaningless hellos out of the way, I felt like being with her, like talking or walking or eating or something. She, however, wasn’t really that kind of person.
“I’m going to The Granary,” she explained, telling me what a great bar it was, and how much fun she’d always had there. “You’re welcome to come along, if you want.”
I guess she either didn’t care or didn’t understand that I had no choice in the matter. I either went with her or sat in silence in her dorm room waiting for her.
The drive in awkward silence behind us, we entered the smoke-filled, dimly-lit night club. Finding a table, we sat, and were pounced upon immediately by a darkly-tanned sorority-type college girl anxious to sell us overpriced watery drinks. She seemed aggrivated when I asked for an iced tea.
Five or ten minutes passed as we sipped our drinks. My tea must have seemed a bit pious next to her tall whiskey sour. And my clean smile must have paled in the clouds of her cigarette smoke.
Wait a minute. Melody doesn’t smoke. My perfect little Melody doesn’t smoke!
She caught the eye of a friend or two, then another, and soon I was surrounded by people I didn’t know. They were loud, drunk, and vulgar, and I couldn’t understand exactly why Melody wanted to be around them. Not my Melody.
The dance floor had been empty, except for one trashy-looking couple who persisted in amusing the entire patronage of the tavern, including us. Their dance was sleezy, sexually obvious and unimaginatively plebeian.
It turned out to be the icon of the evening. Melody drank and smoked and danced with her friends, and with the sleezy couple.
One in the morning rolled around, and to my relief, it was time to go. I drove, since I was the only one close to sober.
Back at her dorm, she led me across her hall to a friend’s room, where they offered us an amyl nitrite “popper.” Melody took it, place it to her nose and inhaled deeply, and was instantly in another world. I was stunned.
The next morning, we decided to have an early lunch.
“I couldn’t believe you just sat there all night,” she said as we tried to eat, frowning. “Didn’t you even want to be there?”
No, I didn’t.
“Sure I did,” I said.
It was as if she had ordered me to have fun, and I disobeyed. Now I was being punished.
“I just don’t appreciate the way you acted, that’s all.”
Ah, yes, the way I acted. Sitting quietly, minding my own business. No wonder she’s so angry.
“Melody, maybe I should go.”
“Maybe you should.”
* * *
The windshield collected bugs rapidly, thick splotches of bug guts and bodies clinging to the glass. The windshield belonged, I thought for a moment, to my own Bug.
“A bug killing bugs,” I mused and smiled weakly to myself.
If I didn’t clean them off at every fuel stop, they quickly became so thick and messy I could hardly see. And as the sun started to set off to my right, the brilliant yellow summer light began to highlight them.
The bugs were a sideshow. I watched them and considered their presence a major issue, because I didn’t want to think about the weekend I was escaping.
The green Missouri farmland rushed past my open window. Trees swayed in the waning heat of the wonderfully, oppressively painful day.
Music covered the drone in my ears as the last rays of the sun touched the tall windbreak trees, southbound on U. S. 63.
I listened to my music trying to get Melody out of my head.
“… ain’t got no feelings
ain’t got no pain
ain’t got no reason
to try again …”
Ugh. This Supertramp song was the wrong choice. Bad message, bad grammar. I reached up and yanked off the headset. The broken muffler of my Volkswagen droned louder. The night dragged on longer.
I remembered something a friend told me one time. If you start to get sleepy while driving, put your hand in a bucket of ice water. The pain will keep you awake. I was certain that tonight, no ice water was necessary. There was already enough pain.
My Volkswagon and I rumbled south towards Jefferson City on one of the sturdy four lanes of U.S. 63. It was almost dark, so before it became too dark to see, pulled her last letter from its envelope. Awkwardly, with one hand driving and the other unfolding the typed page, I read.
“… and I’d love it if you would come up. Just name the weekend and I’ll work around whatever I have going on.”
She’d love it. And she did love it, for about the first three minutes I was there.
I don’t know. Since I was alone, I had plenty of time to think about what had transpired, if anything, between us. And honestly, I didn’t go to see her with any kind of plan. I didn’t plan to try to fuck her, or talk her into marrying me, or anything in between. I just wanted to be with her.
Fully dark, my headlights shone on the sign for West U.S. 54. I turned, and was on my way home. My tiny car and I rushed through the night. I relaxed as we got further from Melody. I wasn’t going to see her again anytime soon. And the next time I wanted to feel some pain, I’d just put my hand in a bucket of ice water.
A gentle August rain fell on us as we drove nowhere for an hour or more, saying nothing. In the distance, lightning danced, decorating the horizon with the shadows of cool grey clouds. Thinking without words in my heart, I listened to the faint complaints of a distant clap of thunder.
Jeff downshifted and poured the throttle to wide open as we rocketed down the empty street. A fence on our right blurred by, and the mountains beyond were kissed by another finger of fire from the restless heavens.
I didn’t wonder at all what Jeff was thinking, if he was thinking. I was concentrating on the road, the sky, the summer rain. It was a beautiful, majestic, mysterious night. I opened the window on my side of his prized Trans-Am and let the drops fall on my hand and face. The rain felt warm and soft, and it smelled of wet grass, weeds, and pavement.
His high beams flooded the road ahead. In the distance, a third of a mile down the tarmac, I caught the telltale white reflections from the headlights of another car, which I could see was parked on the opposite side of the road, facing us. My first thought was that it was a speed trap, and the car was a patrol car. Jeff apparently had the same notion. We both snapped our eyes to the speedometer. 54 miles per hour. It was one of those rare occasions when Jeff wasn’t speeding.
Another second passed and out of the darkness we could see a figure emerge. At first it looked like a mailbox where none had existed on this very familiar stretch of South Boundary Road. In another second we saw it was two people. A second after that we saw them clearly. A man in a blue ball cap and a plaid flannel shirt was vigorously embracing a plump woman in a pink pants suit.
Then, in another tenth of a second, we were gone, and they were gone. I wondered who they were.
* * *
Nine months later, I was driving home from college for the summer in the middle of a blinding thunderstorm just north of Chickasha on Highway 9. A few hundred yards ahead a bold bolt flashed forth from the heaving clouds, filling my father’s car with the light of a thousand suns. I stared at the ghost of the flash in a split-second of anticipation, then felt the explosive roar of the thunder as it shook the ground beneath me, beneath my father’s car, beneath aII my possessions, beneath my reality.
The rain was slowing my progress down the two-lane highway. I checked the clock when my vision and awe cleared. It was 4:45 p.m.
Within another mile, the storm that had so captivated me had dissipated, and the sun fought its way out into the open through patches of lingering grey. I stepped harder on the accelerator, trying to get more speed out of my dad’s lumbering Oldsmobile. But it wasn’t much use. Despite only being away two semesters, I had amassed numerous boxes and bundles containing my valuables. 55 miles per hour would have to do.
It wasn’t like that at all the night Jeff and I drove in the rain. When I drove alone, I felt a kind of pain. It was the pain of loneliness. I never felt that when I drove with Jeff. Maybe it was that he felt so at home in his car. Maybe he was at peace on the road. Being with him in his car lent me that same peace.
I was driving home to spend the summer in Lawton, my hometown. Jeff was already there. Finally, the storm had passed. I pressed on under clearing skies. By the time I reached his apartment, it was as though no rain had fallen there in weeks.
Without really knowing why, I went straight to his place instead of home. It seemed like the place to be, to start the summer. When I arrived I saw his familiar Pontiac Trans Am backed into his space in the parking lot. Next to it stood Lynn and Kathie, two friends of ours. I parked my dad’s car, it still full of everything I had in the world, and got out.
“Hi, Lynn, hi Kathie. Where’s Jeff?”
They paused and looked at each other. Something was wrong. Had they been crying? Their eyes were red. The pause grew longer, more awkward.
“You tell him,” Kathie said.
Lynn looked at me and took a deep breath. “About an hour and a half ago…I can’t.” She looked down, apparently trying to hold back her tears.
Kathie took over. “A little before five today, Jeff committed suicide. He’s dead.”
* * *
June rain fell in the distance. Yellow streaks of lightning arced along the horizon. Chip and I rode the streets of Lawton without Jeff. Silence had consumed us as the cars and businesses rushed past us. The wind from the open sunroof blew in our hair, and on this very warm night, I was a little cold. Chip turned down a side street, then another, then another.
We knew the town so well, from our endless rides with Jeff, that there was no chance of getting lost. We snaked through the neighborhoods in abject silence, putting together the pieces of the last few days.
“When do you think we’ II stop thinking about it?” he asked.
He was right. There was nothing else on my mind.
“I don’t know,” I answered.
We went around another corner, then another. At one intersection we waited, the only car at a traffic light. Across the street from us appeared a young woman, followed a few steps later by what looked like her boyfriend. She was obviously angry. Her arms were folded and she stared at the ground. The boyfriend was trying to explain something to her. The light turned green and we pulled away. We were gone, and they were gone. I wondered who they were.