The Wedding Party
a little revenge and
this too shall pass
“Wishes can be dangerous. They can come true.”
“A wish coming true is dangerous?”
“Think about it. What if you wished somebody harm and it came true? How bad would that be for karma? So don’t wish for that. Just wish for something very bad to happen to the building they’re standing in. Things work out better that way. For karma. You know. The way it goes.”
The sad thing is that I do believe him, more because I can not think of any good reason not to believe him. This is a man who has wished enough harm that his karma couldn’t possibly ever recover. He better hope that karma is driving an old Ford Pinto because anything faster and it’s going to run him down.
He reaches for the bottle and it makes me smile.
“It’s empty,” I whisper. He frowns and reaches anyway. He shakes the bottle and discovers I’m telling the truth. Since I rarely lie and even when I do, I’m a lousy liar, I wonder why he would even have doubted me.
“Well I’m not about to drink that Drambui stuff you’ve been drinking.”
“You don’t have to.” I hand him the flask I’ve been holding for him. He pulls the top away and takes a sniff.
“Is this what I think it is?”
“It’s a flask full of Jim Beam and Kahlúa, the most horrid concoction ever dreamed up,” I say, but he smiles when I say that and starts drinking.
“Drink of the gods, you know.”
“It’s a drink for hopeless drunks who are so plastered they can no longer taste anything.”
Indeed, the thought of even touching his drink makes my stomach turn, especially when combined with memories of the horrid night when I did actually try it. I drink straight from my bottle of Drambui as we look out at the dunes.
“We’re turning thirty next month, Jim.”
“Yes we are.”
“Got a plan for a celebration?”
“Total thermo nuclear strike on the state of California. Then go back to drinking.”
“A bit harsh.”
“No worse than the fuckers deserve.”
“What happened to not wishing people harm?”
“Wishing specific harm on a specific person and hoping an entire state will slide into the ocean are entirely different things. Karmetically speaking, of course.”
“Is karmetically a word?”
“I’m fairly certain you just made it up.”
“Me and Joyce, breaking the boundaries of the English language.”
“I’ll be sure to point that out to my class. Hey, kids, I want you to read Dubliners and the drunken ramblings of this jackass I know from college.”
“You are one sarcastic son-of-a-bitch.”
“That’s what my mother always told me. Or, at least up until the point where she finally realized that meant she was calling herself a bitch.”
Jim snorts and I stand up. The sun is completely gone now and the darkness has settled over the ocean. I spent most of my life with a fairly easy drive to the ocean and almost never did it. Now I live in an ocean of sand and a valley of fire. The night is calm and cool and I wonder if the people in this town know how lucky they are, that it never gets too hot, it never gets cold, it’s just perfect all of the time. Which makes it feel weird that I have this lingering bitterness that won’t go away. It’s been a beautiful day, with friends that haven’t been all together in one place in ages and I’m in the most beautiful damn town in the whole country. It feels petty to be bitter.
“You’ve gone quiet,” he says.
“Ah,” he says. I turn and look at him and marvel that he’s got the flask completely vertical, drinking the last drops. I can’t even remember the last time I was drunk. If I drank what he was drinking, I’d be dead.
“That supposed to mean something?”
“I’m gonna go ahead and say that you’re bitter.”
“It was a beautiful wedding and it’s a gorgeous night. What would I have to be bitter about?”
“Because Jeff invited her and he clearly didn’t tell you that he was inviting her. Then, when you saw her, you clearly didn’t know what to say to her. That’s because you’re fucking repressed by the way.” I don’t answer him, won’t answer, can’t answer. Lying is not my strong suit and I have nothing to say, nothing to respond, because he is right and I am bitter and I wish I wasn’t because its been so long and she shouldn’t mean anything to me anymore.
“A little bitter,” I whisper. “Jeff should have told me.”
“Probably a little distracted, you know, what with getting married and all that shit. And probably getting some serious sex as well. Did you see her in that bikini this morning?”
“I was a little distracted.”
“Oh, by the whole being bitter at Jessie thing?”
“A little bit, yeah.”
“When was the last time you saw her?”
“She came to Sarah’s funeral.”
“I think you should go for it.”
“Bruce, you’re single. Jessie is single. Maybe the time is finally right. You’re about to turn thirty. She’s already thirty, if I remember right. People have gotten together for much worse reasons than that. Maybe it’ll work forever this time.”
“You disdain the institution of marriage.”
“Well, sure, for me. I still have women to fuck. You have a kid to raise. You can’t be bringing home women. So find someone to settle down with and you get free sex for life. Or free sex every 10 or 11 days judging from Paul’s marriage.”
I stand there and try to digest the incomprehensible suggestion he has just made. But he’s already moving on to other things.
“Do you see that withering mass down there?”
“Over by the dune on the left?”
“What about it?”
“I think it’s Tom and the wedding singer.”
“It’s hard to tell in the light. But she was the only one wearing a hideous shade of lime green. And I think his bald spot is reflecting the lights from the hotel.”
“Well, somebody’s getting some tonight.”
“Do you have a flashlight?”
“And you want a flashlight because . . .” He looks at me, that disgusting condescending look he somehow manages to give people that informs them they are the world’s biggest fucking idiots.
“Don’t ask me stupid questions.”
“Nonsense. Spying on Tom is a time honored tradition, going back to Freshman year. We used to have betting pools on who the next one was going to be. Kevin once bet him he couldn’t go more than a week without cheating on someone.”
“You know, when you spend most of two years with your head up someone’s skirt you miss the things going on around you.”
“Don’t you two have anything better to do?” comes the voice behind us. It takes us both a second to recover from having the crap scared out of us. Kyle has somehow managed to come up behind us without making a noise. From the first day we met he has been able to do this, the Batman thing we call it, as if he somehow instantaneously appeared out of thin air rather than walked down the dunes. I hate it. I have always hated it.
“Is this gonna be a lecture, Barton? Because if so, I hope you’re serving refreshments. I seem to be completely out,” Jim says as he drops the empty flask in the sand. I wonder that he is still standing after what he has consumed. Or alive.
“I don’t drink.”
“I know you don’t drink. You also know I do.”
“I have a flask of Absolut and banana liqueur. Will that do for both of you?” Jim and I turn and when our eyes meet we both give agreement. Kyle knows that he’s right, so we don’t bother to give him the satisfaction of an answer. No one ever bothers to tell him he’s right. It would take up too much time.
Kyle stares down at the dune on the left. “Did you say that’s Tom and the wedding singer?”
“Yep. Hey, don’t you carry a flashlight for work?”
“I carry a gun. It’s not the same thing.”
“We could shoot in the air and scare the crap out of them.”
“Leave Tom alone. He’s got enough to worry about if he’s out there with the wedding singer. Especially after what she did to ‘Beautiful Day’.”
“Too bad it’s not Kevin,” Jim says.
“I thought you saw Kate naked,” Kyle responds.
“Well, I did, but that . . . How do you know about that?”
“He knows everything,” I say. “Four years as roommates, I never won a damned argument. He knew everything.”
“Nobody wins arguments with me,” Kyle adds. “Nobody beats me at poker. Nobody makes mix tapes like I do. There are some certainties in this world. We live by them, we die by them. Those are certainties.”
“Oh, let’s not do that right now,” I say.
“I’d ask what you are so bitter about but the answer is painfully obvious.”
“Oh, you think so?” I snap back at him. “Maybe people could stop asking me about it then. Ever talk to her, Bruce? Ever think about her anymore? You’re single now, Bruce, you could go for her. Long lost love of your life, Bruce. It’s like people don’t ever clue in to the fact that I was married.”
“Fuck this. I’m going down there. My cell phone has a camera. I can make this worth my while.” Jim says and then heads down the dunes.
“Some flames never die, huh, Jim?” Kyle says but a “Go fuck yourself, Barton” is the only response.
“What the hell was that about?”
“Jim pined for Jessie starting week one of school but you made your play first.”
“Are you fucking serious? Jim’s harbored a thing for her for over a decade without ever saying it?”
“Certainly not to you.”
We watch as he goes leaping up the dune, the flash from his phone lighting up the sand and the accompanying body parts. “Excuse me, ma’am, Santiago Oaks Alumni Association. Just wanted to make certain you’re eighteen because this man has a liking for the younger ones. He does still hold the school record for most Freshmen banged in a single year. Care to comment?” We can hear the voices and Tom’s screaming while the poor wedding singer’s breasts are lit up with the flash.
“Did she want him?” I ask.
“No. She wanted to be an artist.”
I don’t know how to respond to that, so I don’t. I have probably spoken more words to this man than any other person I have ever known in my life and yet, somehow, this subject always seems to elude our ability to communicate. Maybe Kyle just doesn’t want to communicate about it. And there’s no question that, for years, I certainly didn’t want to communicate about it.
“Do you hear John Fogerty?” I ask him, as I look towards the hotel, wondering if it’s something to do with the wedding reception that we might now be missing.
“Your phone is ringing,” Kyle says, softly. I look down at the sand where I threw my phone when Jim and I first saw down to drink and indeed, see the green flashing and remember that Kayce set the song “Centerfield” up as my ringtone for when she is calling.
“Is something wrong, honey?” I ask as I answer the phone.
“Dad, how can you tell if someone has a concussion?”
“Kayce, where is Kim? She is supposed to be taking care of you. There aren’t supposed to be any concussions.”
“Kim might be the one with a concussion?” she says, that amazing way of somehow making it sound like she’s asking a question when she is, in fact, not.
“You gave your baby sitter a concussion?”
“A small one? Maybe?
“Did she lose consciousness?”
“Did she what?”
“Did you knock her out?”
“That’s a good sign. What did you do?”
“I hit her with a pitch.”
“She was crowding the plate.”
“Okay, Kayce, honey, she’s your babysitter, not Barry Bonds. You don’t have to throw up and in. Throw her a slider and watch her swing and miss.”
“I threw her a curve and it kind of didn’t curve.”
“But you threw it up and in, didn’t you.”
“Uncle Kyle told me when somebody crowds the plate, you have to protect it. He said it’s smart pitching.”
“When your uncle said this, was he perhaps showing you old videos of Juan Marichal?”
“And did he explain that Marichal is a Hall of Fame pitcher with amazing control while you are a nine year old?”
“Those words were never said.”
I turn to look at Kyle. He raises his left eyebrow slightly in that way that you think only Leonard Nimoy can do when he’s playing Spock. It makes me frown.
“Kyle, how do you know if someone has concussion?”
“If she hit her baby sitter with a pitch, I am not taking responsibility for that.”
“At the moment, all I need is an application of your field training to ascertain the physical health of a 16 year old girl who’s in a different state.”
“I’ll talk to her. Give me the phone.”
“Talk to your Uncle Kyle, Kac. I’m certain he will give you great advice. Just try not to kill Kim before I get back home.”
“Was the wedding nice?”
“The wedding was resplendent. I’ll be home tomorrow. Talk to your Uncle.”
“I’m gonna have to know the meaning of resplendent before you get home, aren’t I?”
“Spell it like it sounds, honey.”
“I love you, Dad.”
“I love you too.” I hand the phone to Kyle. “Try to give her good advice.”
“I give everyone good advice.” I walk down the dunes and watch as Tom tackles Jim down the side of a dune and attempts to strangle him.
“You fucker! She wanted me! I was totally in!”
“Dude, she’s Jeff’s cousin! And she’s ten years younger than us!”
I slide down the dune and pull Tom away from Jim. Jim isn’t putting up much of a struggle because he’s laughing too hard. If Tom knew how to throw a punch, Jim would be a dead man.
“Fuck off, Yale. I so had that one. You piece of shit!”
“Come on, Tom. You got so many women at college. Wasn’t that enough for a lifetime?”
“She was a redhead!”
“She was a fucking San Diego State student! A Freshman too, I think. You’ve probably fucked enough Freshmen in your life.”
“And to think that Jeff was asking if you two were ever getting married. It boggles the mind why you two remain single,” I pitch in.
“Your dating life ain’t so hot, Yale,” Tom snaps at me.
“I can’t exactly be bringing home women with my daughter in the house, dumbass.”
“All your passions died with Michelle, Bruce. You’re not one to be handing down advice from on high. Go take a run at Jessica,” Tom replies. I let him go. As I go to make a move, Kyle is next to me, whispering in my ear.
“Let it go, Bruce. It’s not worth this. You drink enough and you’ll say anything, things you don’t know, thing you won’t remember, things you don’t mean.” I don’t relax, stay ready to take the swing that Tom’s asking for as he circles around past me.
“Got something you want to say to me, Wilson?” I whisper softly. I know the look in his eyes, the look I’ve had since she’s been gone, the look I wake up to, because he is right and all the passions I used to have are lying in a cemetery in Tempe and this is why I have run from Jessie, can not let her go but can not yet find a way to deal with what I have seen, wish I could find some way to be different, to make things live again, to not be afraid to look in the mirror, to be something, anything, or maybe just to be.
“She was mine once, you know. I loved her, you know,” Tom says.
“Yeah, and she was Gary’s after that. And you both used her and threw her away.” He shivers, touched cold, I’m sure by the perfect breeze softly coming off the ocean. Kyle steps around me and takes a step between us.
“That is enough. Out of both of you.” He hands me the flask he brought with him and pushes me away. “Go find Paul and Kevin. They’re around here somewhere.”
“This isn’t done.”
“It is for now. Go be somewhere else.”
“Take a swing, Wilson. Isn’t that what you’re dying to do, to show how much the bigger, the stronger guy you are? Fucking someone isn’t loving them. Maybe somewhere along the line you’ll learn that. Do the women you date a favor.” Tom takes a step but Kyle is between us and the step dies.
“See the first punch that gets thrown,” Kyle explains, “is gonna hit me. And you all know I do not like getting hit.” Everything stops. I remember Kyle and that drunk asshole in the parking lot and what he looked like afterwards, what a punch looks like, what it can sound like and I think again, Kyle is right, Kyle will always be right because things in life have to stay the same sometimes because the center must hold true sometimes, things can not always fall apart and I turn away, slip on the dune, stumble and hold true and find a way out into the darkness along the surf.
It’s much later when Kevin and Paul find me. They’re alone. Maybe Kyle sent them, maybe they came on their own, maybe it doesn’t matter. They’re here.
“What happened between you and Tom?” Kevin asks when they are sitting beside me.
“He opened his big fucking mouth.”
“When doesn’t he open his big fucking mouth? But what could he have possibly said to set you off? Nothing sets you off.”
I turn and they can see the tears, I am sure, because I will not wipe them away, see no need to hide them from the world.
“Why? Because I’m dead inside? Because everything with me died when she did? Because I’ve spent my life bottling everything up and there’s nothing left there?”
“Jesus, Bruce no,” Kevin replies. “What the hell did he say?”
“More than he should have.”
They exchange glances. I remember when we all met, that first stupid meeting of the entire hall, Paul in charge of the hall, playing at the role that Kyle lives, at ease, in charge, with it, and how we listened to everything he said and everything he said was right, through the year, everything he said was right and none us were afraid to try because we knew with Paul in charge that none us could ever fail.
“You want to be alone,” Paul asks, softly, thinking of all that has come already, of what is still to come, of what I have need to work through.
“I’m okay,” I answer, quietly.
“Really,” Kevin replies, “because for someone who’s okay you are doing a damn good job of mimicking someone who’s about to lose it.”
“The past is never dead,” I whisper. It’s not even past.”
“Faulkner,” Paul answers, as if I was asking something.
“How do you know this shit?” Kevin asks him.
“I know everything.”
“Okay,” I say, smiling through tears, “what’s it from?”
Paul stares. He says nothing. He doesn’t even smile. He doesn’t know what to say. No one has ever bothered to test his authority.
“You don’t know, do you?” Kevin says, not even bothering to hold back a smile. “You’re just a big Bartlett’s but you don’t really know anything.”
“I know what your wife looks like naked,” Paul replies in a dead solid voice that’s hiding a smile.
“And that will be your response until the god damned end of time. Is that your only comeback? One of these days, you know, I’m gonna see Sharon naked and you’ll have no comeback at all.”
“That’ll be the day.”
“It’s not enough to think about Michelle,” I say, “to think about everything that’s come and gone. Then I have to fucking deal with Jess.”
“I was wondering when this was gonna come up.”
“Jeff couldn’t have mentioned a word? Oh, by the way, Bruce, your college love, who you only see at funerals, is gonna be at the wedding. Hope you’re emotionally prepared because she’s single again and looking good. Good thing you left your daughter back home in Phoenix.”
“To be honest, that sounds more like Jim than Jeff,” Paul says.
“Why didn’t you just fucking sleep with her in college?” Kevin asks. “Maybe then we wouldn’t have to deal with all your what-if questions. You’re not dead inside, Bruce. That’s the whole problem. You’re very much alive inside, but you can’t figure out which life you’re supposed to be living.”
“What makes you think he didn’t sleep with her?” Paul asks, turning towards Kevin. Kevin stares at him.
“Now I know that’s a guess.”
“It’s not a guess.”
Kevin turns to look at me. I shrug.
“Somehow he knows things.”
“You slept with Jessica?”
“If Paul says I did then I must have.”
“After all, I know everything.”
“The past is never dead,” I whisper. “It’s not even past.”
“Fuck! Absalom, Absalom?”
I smile. Paul flinches because in my smile he knows he’s wrong. But at least he knows he’s wrong. He even knows that.
“Requiem for a Nun.”
“Fucking sequels. They should all be banned.”
“I bet you’d reconsider if John Irving ever wrote one.”
“He doesn’t leave enough main characters alive to populate a sequel.”
“You should have studied harder, Paul,” Kevin says, “instead of just laying claim to knowing everything.”
“I know everything that’s worth knowing.”
“That’s at least more believable.”
“If you slept with Jessie, then why the fuck did she leave?” Kevin asks. Paul responds to that by smacking him upside his head.
“Don’t you think that’s the exact fucking question he’s been asking himself for ten years? Aren’t you a fucking college graduate?”
“We didn’t exactly study the hard metaphysical questions of life in the Computer Science department. That’s what the computers are for.”
“I don’t understand how you ever got married to such a gorgeous woman.”
“We started dating before I chose a major if you recall.”
“How long has it been since you’ve seen her?” Paul asks me.
“She was at Sarah’s funeral. Talked to her for like, I don’t know, two minutes. She was at Michelle’s funeral as well but my memories of that are a bit hazy.”
“So you haven’t really talked to her since before Michelle died.”
“I haven’t really talked to her since before Michelle and I got married.”
“Well, funerals and weddings. At least she’s seeing you dressed for success,” Paul says.
“You’re all fucking heart, Barrett,” Kevin says.
It’s all dark now, the sun having long descended. But over to my left, the hotel is lit up like a beacon of hope. It’s the kind of place where people go to find romance and happiness. Very rich people, I assume judging from the prices Jeff quoted us, which is why so few of us are actually staying there.
“Was she your first?” Kevin asks.
“Don’t you ever have any fucking tact?” Paul yells at him.
“Some of us don’t know everything, Paul. Some of us actually have to ask questions to find something out. And besides, tact is not something we studied in the Computer Science department.”
“What exactly did they teach you, anyway?”
“How to digitally place Sharon Barrett’s head on the body of a Playboy playmate and send it to all the students at the UCI Writing Workshop,” Kevin replies, finally confessing. I can’t help but laugh, partially because I’ve known for ages that it was Kevin and it’s driven Paul nuts trying to find out who did it even though it made his class the most popular on campus from what I heard, and partially because I’ve never seen Paul speechless before, never seen him anywhere close, never seen anybody but Kyle find the way to take control of a situation when Paul is there, but Kevin somehow does and he finds a way to make me laugh and laughter finds a way to heal the wounds and laughter makes me remember, makes me see them as they used to be, see her as she used to be, the last time we really talked, the last time we touched, the last time we were an us.
I’ve slipped inside without anyone noticing and no one sees me coming, no one hears me, with Kevin focused on Kate and Kyle talking to Jess, so I can finally pull the sly move that Kyle’s been pulling on me through two years of rooming together and be next to everybody before anybody knows I’m there, if not for that bastard, Paul, who turns at the right moment and sees me and manages somehow to smile at me when he’s already smiling and I’ll be damned if I can find a way to explain that. But it’s too late for anyone to get the chance because now I am there and it’s good because I don’t want her to see me, I just want to be next to her and whisper in her ear and tell her all the good things in the world because I know she doesn’t really want to leave, doesn’t want to say goodbye, really, if I say the right things she’ll stay because I know she has to love me. She has to.
“Dance with me,” I whisper in her ear. She jumps, a palpitation of the heart, a skip of a beat that comes with the touch of a voice. Things will do that. Things will make the heart skip a beat. I make her heart skip, she has to see that, she has to know that, she has to know I’m a reason to stay, that she doesn’t have to go, that she has a life here that can be worth everything she’ll give up. When she turns I catch her eye and something of a smile comes alive, touched with a tear and I know this has to be hard for her, to walk away, to try and say that she can find a better life than love.
“Bruce.” Her voice touches on my name and that’s all I can hope for, for now, forever, and I’ll make that vow, I will, yes, I’ll say yes I will Yes.
“Come dance with me, Jess” I say but I see now that she’s not smiling, that something is different, that she knows it has to come to this and she can’t do it, all these last few nights and she’s still going ahead with it, take the best thing she’s ever had and walk away. I want to find the words, I know there have to be words, something has to make her stay, something has to let her know that she’s the best thing I’ve ever had, even if she doesn’t need me, she has to need this because even if this isn’t love and God this has to be love it needs to be love, then even still, sex has to count for something, anything, if not everything.
A voice shatters the silence, although, come to think of it, it’s not silence, the room is bursting with noise, with laughter, with romance, with love and lust and hate and fear and envy and all the silence has just been in my head, although that’s not so much silence since my head won’t stop intruding all of these thoughts in an instant. I don’t turn, don’t let Jim steal this moment away, just stand still and take in the words and drink in her beauty. Sixty four inches matched with one hundred and seventeen pounds, dark hair that tries but fails to hide dark eyes, nice soft legs, wonderful breasts, yes, I know what every inch looks like, can try to find ways to describe things that before her I never knew existed, never had a need to know until they were placed close to my lips, to where I could taste, touch, smell, fill every sense and every desire all at once.
“Okay, this is the last chance, this is the last dance, and there will be no more romance, not on my floor, not near my door, and never before will you find a mind that can so quickly run out of rhymes,” Jim says into the microphone. Whoever thought having him be mc was an idiot. “Dance now with your loved ones, dance now with your cousin if you’re from the South, just take that chance to dance because believe me, and I can do no wrong, this is indeed the very last song.”
“So what’s the story, morning glory?” I ask.
“You know, romantics die hard,” she whispers.
“I hope I die before I get old. It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
“Pop lexicons don’t help the romantic soul.”
“No, but they make me feel better on lonely nights.”
“Get with the fucking dancing already!” Jim yells. “Here comes your song. No sentimentality. I don’t believe in it. No ‘Stand by Me’. No ‘Lean on Me’. If you think I’m playing ‘Every Breath You Take’ then you’re a fucking idiot who should try listening to lyrics. And no fucking country music! This is what we call a classic, and he is what we call the Boss.”
The drums begin the song, followed quickly by an organ. Then comes a guitar to accompany them. I know the song because I’ve lived with Kyle for two years and as a result I know every Springsteen song. But this is one of his best. I sing along.
“It’s Saturday night. You’re all dressed up in blue. I been watching you a while. Maybe you been watching me too.”
I hold out my hand. She plays along with the dream and we step into the music. I want to know what I can say, what I should say, what words will mean anything more than what we have shared together, what can say more than the look I gave when everything fell away and it was just her flesh and mine and nothing in between.
My eyes touch across her hair and she turns into my arms and I remember, oh God, I remember and I wish I could live it all over again, find my way back into the last two years and let them come forever and that time could stand still.
It’s a first date, yes it is, no it’s not, maybe somewhere in between, how do we decide, well what’s the definition, let’s find a point of view. Experts are called in, couples are consulted, decisions are rationalized, briefs are written, closing arguments are presented, and lo and behold, going for a long drive that ends up in nothing more than five minutes of shopping and three hours of mindless meandering, even without the benefit of a kiss is decreed a first date.
But even before, a spark, a light, she walks in with her roommate, dragged along when her roommate is already part of a couple and she is the extra wheel that only spins in circles. Then the alarms are rung, a drill has begun and she is in his arms before he knows what is happening and she is apologizing, but both are smiling and a connection is made, sparks touch in the air and when they are outside in the night air, lying next to each other on the grass the questions about the forthcoming weekend are asked and something like a date is resolved upon. A date, for certain, as it turns out, after much debate.
If you’re looking for love. Honey, I’m tougher than the rest.
“What happens to us?”
She doesn’t speak, just melts into my arms, keeps the question at bay with her body. But when I can feel her start to stir and begin to answer I speak again.
“Do we just drift away?”
“We’re not gonna drift away, Bruce. I know that much. There are things that keep us together. The phone. A letter. You guys are supposedly getting e-mail in the fall. There are things. We won’t be as apart as you think.”
These are empty promises, I think, and I think of other promises, promises made, promises kept, whispered in the wind that there would be so much more, that maybe with the right word, the right touch, she would never have to leave, we wouldn’t have to break, but the world breaks everyone in the end, I know that much, I’ve read that much, the world breaks everyone and those that will not break it kills.
A first often leads to a second, that’s why it’s called a first, a hope, with a potential for more. What begins as fun leads to something more, a potential from the start that can only lead onwards or nowhere. And dates become confused with late night conversations, debates, voices lost in the halls, in rooms, over pillows, under blankets. Is fuck a more offensive four letter word than cunt? Is kill a more dangerous four letter word than love? Is Casablanca the perfect first date movie or is the promise of love too much and maybe the potential for disaster, for compromising in the face of what is important, too much to bear? Is it a better move to try to charm someone by putting on Simon & Garfunkel or be true to instincts and yourself and go with simply Paul Simon? Is Faulkner too difficult, Hemingway too simple, Fitzgerald too pedantic, Wolfe too boring, Steinbeck too preachy, essentially concluding that all American fiction before Catcher in the Rye is a waste of time?
Is the night of the speeding ticket the third date because it’s the third movie, the first date because it’s the first kiss or the second date, strung out across nights of conversations? What makes one different from another, what makes the date, the same debate springing up again, for there is no doubt but that this is a date, that this must count for something for at the end of the night the count is, two ripped movie tickets (admission for one each to an evening showing of The Age of Innocence), a receipt for seventeen dollars and nineteen cents from Red Robin, one sixty-five dollar speeding ticket for being clocked at forty-three in a twenty-five zone and one soft, perfect kiss.
Some girls they want a handsome Dan. Or some good lookin Joe. On their arms some girls want a sweet talkin Romeo.
“Things can be beautiful while they last, can’t they? It can be like a dream that doesn’t fade,” she says, in an effort, I suppose of mitigating the possibilities of where this conversation can go.
“In dreams begin responsibility.”
“It sounds like something you would quote to Kyle to try and win an argument.”
“You’re being evasive, Jess.”
“Now you sound like Kyle.”
“And you sound like me, running away from questions, trying not to have to answer.”
“What are you afraid of, Bruce? That I’ll forget you?”
“Maybe that you won’t forget me and you’ll leave anyway and that you’ll drift away without even bothering to forget,” I reply. This makes her look me in the eyes.
“You think the last two years don’t mean anything to me? You think you aren’t important to me?”
“Not important enough to make you stay.”
“You knew the deal from the start, Bruce. I never made any secret that I wasn’t staying more than two years. My whole life is in front of me out there. I can’t stay. This school can’t give me what I need to succeed.”
“Maybe you’re right. Maybe your whole life is in front of you,” I say, trying to get a response from her, but her only response is to stop looking at me and nestle up against me.
“Can you just hold me, for right now? Let’s just dance.”
If you’re rough enough for love. Honey I’m tougher than the rest.
Two years come and fade, something like love, something more. Some nights pass without a word, a sign, anything, no touch, not even sight, for sometimes life must take over and other things must stand forth. But some nights bring more, not just a miss, not even more, but something that is supposed to be the beginning but too often signals an end. So things can never be what they were before and people can never get it back for there are no second chances in this life.
And somewhere in the dead of winter, some night after he throws her in a bank of snow and falls down on top of her, lips to her neck, but some night before he will stay awake through to the dawn with her in his arms praying that if you never sleep that a day will never end and time can stand still, somewhere in between heaven and earth words begin to get said, words that have been foreshadowed, words that have been expected and an argument begins to filter in.
Please let her go, he begs, pleads, cries deep in the night when she is gone or is asleep in his arms where she can not hear any of the words that escape his lips, let her be gone now and don’t make me go through this later, let it end like this, picture perfect, true love, everything the fairy tales got wrong.
Then comes the strange argument, the late at night cry of her apologizing, saying I’m sorry, I never meant to use you, and him, me, I know all this because I was there, me saying I let you use me, I wanted you to use me, anything to have you near me, I wanted you to need me, I needed you to need me, because maybe I was hoping if she needed me enough she would know enough not to leave but now nothing can stop that and all this falls apart, things fall apart, as the poet once said, the centre can not hold and what was once so beautiful, such a touching friendship, and maybe, just maybe love, degenerates into a sick joke.
I don’t think it’s funny.
And so I can hold tight, hold her close, for one last dance, one last minute together and then she will be gone. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry.
Maybe your other boyfriends. Couldn’t pass the test.
“Well if you’re rough and ready for love. Honey I’m tougher than the rest.” My voice comes along with the song, a whispered prayer for what? For love? For hope? For everything I want that I can’t have? Her eyes touch to mine and I see something, love maybe, lust probably, maybe somewhere in between. Whatever I see is not enough to make her stay.
When I catch her eyes I want to cry. How do I say to her, you can’t do this, you’re the most important person in my life, the best thing about my life, you can’t leave me, you can’t do this, you have to stay, I love you, I need you, I want you, please, just stay, please.
“It’s gonna be okay, Bruce,” she whispers. “We’ll still be friends. You and I, we’ll end up being okay.”
“Be easier to believe that if you were staying.”
“Don’t, Bruce, please. Don’t make it harder. We’ll be okay. I’m not some girl from a song sung blue. I’ll be back. I’ll be around.”
“If you’re so sure about us why do you look you’re about to cry?”
She turns so I can’t see them when they fall, no one likes to be seen, everyone needs their little place to fall apart on their own. I don’t need to see them, not tonight, so I pull her close, tight against my chest as the last notes of the song fade away.
“I love you,” I whisper in her ear.
“Just hold me.”
“I can do that.”
And so I do, clutch tightly to all I have left, one last soft touch before the goodbyes. I try to find a voice, to sing, to give her some words I can’t think of on my own but which just might work, just might be what we both need to hear.
“I’m calling one last time, not to change your mind. But just to say I miss you. Good luck. Goodbye.”
She tips up so her eyes can catch mine and I can see them now. I don’t know that it matters.
“Has two years with Kyle allowed you to memorize every Springsteen song?”
“You go with what works.”
There is a pause as she seems to search for whatever words she needs.
“I have to go. I have other people to see.”
“We can see each other tomorrow. My parents won’t be here until lunch.”
“I . . . I think it best not. I don’t do goodbyes well, especially not long ones. Maybe just call it a night, call it a relationship right here. Make it easier.”
I can’t believe I just said all that, but I have to get this done, one quick yank, it’s off, everything is healed.
“Bruce, I . . .”
“It’s okay. Go.”
“I’ll write. I’ll call. I promise.”
I give her the best smile I can, the best that I can do, for she has always gotten the best from me. Nothing left now, nothing left to say, to do, and she turns and starts to go. She is almost to the door when she turns. Before I know she is doing it she is back in my arms and her lips find mine, lips to each other, then her lips to my cheeks, my eyes, my forehead, then back to my lips again. Then we are apart and I can see the tears flowing, a steady stream from soft brown eyes.
“I love you. Goodbye.”
Then she is gone. And there is nothing left to do but call after her, a few whispered words behind her as she is across the room, though the door and out of my life.
“Love you too. I miss you. Good luck. Goodbye.”
I turn (to what? to see her go? to look for ten years gone by? to wish things could have been different?) and see Paul standing at the top of the dune staring out into the darkness, the fearless leader who is now discovering that his followers have no need to be lead anywhere. But then the voice intercedes upon my life.
“Your wife is looking for you, Paul,” I hear Jessica say.
He half turns, his face in a silhouette against the lights of Ocean Boulevard. A smile breaks across his lips but I can see his eyes half turn down the dune where Kevin and I are, hidden in the darkness from her.
“Where is she?”
“She is back at the hotel in a drunken conversation with Laura that I think is heading into areas you might not want your wife and your college girlfriend discussing.”
“Perhaps they’re discussing what could be a very interesting arrangement for later,” Paul says, his snark rising.
“Not if it doesn’t include you, it wouldn’t be, at least for you. Besides, rumor has it you’re a babbling drunk rather than a horny one.”
“Such words are malicious untruths fostered by slack-jawed simpletons who don’t understand the magnificent uses of the English language.”
“Well, they got the babbling part right.”
“Was I supposed to go find, Sharon? Were you sent forth with a task to return me to her graceful presence?”
“Well, I suppose that depends on whether she’s a horny drunk, because Laura definitely looks hot to trot and Sharon does look fetching in that dress. But I wasn’t sent on an errand. I’m looking for Bruce.”
Paul turns completely towards her now and I lose sight of his face. She’s still out of sight, just above the rocks at the top of the beach, up by the boulevard sidewalk. I look at Kevin. He shrugs but he knows that any attempt to flee will probably be noticed.
“I’m not certain such a person exists. Perhaps you could provide me with a description.”
“I dated him through my two years at the Oaks. Tall. Smart. Likes to quote works of literature that most of us haven’t read. Caring. Passionate.”
“He rings a bell. Would this be the young gentlemen that you danced with your last night at school and then, before leaving the floor, you ran back in and kissed him like he was the love of your life?”
While she tries to respond to that, I turn and whisper to Kevin.
“Was everyone watching when that happened?”
“Pretty much. I think we would have applauded if it didn’t look like your heart was breaking.”
I don’t know what to say to that, to think that what I have always remembered as a private moment did, in fact, take place in front of something like a couple hundred people.
“It’s been a very long decade, Paul. I thought it was time he and I talked.”
“You are most well-informed. The decade in question has been lengthy and has wrought many changes. He has used it to heal. The first time it was from you because I think you broke him when you went out the door that night. Then he had to learn to heal again after his wife.”
I’m hidden down below, can’t see what, if any, reaction she makes in response to the word as he tries to cut her to the bone, the loyalty of a friend and a mentor. She was married once too, a long time ago, one of those ones that looks so great one Christmas and the next one is spent dividing the tapes and books. Maybe the word holds no fear for her.
“I just want to talk to him, Paul. What are you? A guardian angel?”
“My delivered role upon you all.”
“When we were eighteen. Time has a way of changing our roles.”
“I’m down here,” I say, just loud enough to be heard. Paul turns and looks down. Kevin looks me and I shrug. “Fuck it. Time heals all wounds, right?”
“You sure?” he whispers.
“No better time to find out.”
I look up and see her at the top of the dune. Ten years and so little has changed. The hair is still dark, still trying and failing to hide her dark eyes, still one hundred and seventeen pounds encased in a sixty-four inch frame, still every inch the beautiful wonder who wandered in with Rachel and Sean and ended up in my arms when the alarm went off. Time doesn’t change so much. Sometimes time won’t heal anything.
Her dress is long, past her knees, draping down towards her ankles. Even with her shoes in her hands, I can see she is not about to come down into the dunes, that she does not have our casual disregard for fashionable clothes, perhaps because the dress is owned while the tuxedos are rented. I climb back up the dune, ascending towards the lights. I drop my eyes to my shoes until I have reached the top. My eyes slip slowly along the curve of her legs, up along the hem of her dress, through to her hips and then suddenly make the leap to the brown of her eyes. I suddenly find myself remembering how long it has been since I have slept with someone by my side, how long she has been out of my life, how much I miss everyone who has gone before.
“Walk with me?”
The confidence of a decade ago has faded, the pain of loss now haunts her in much the way it has me and the words come as a request rather than a command, though I answer her much in the same way I did all that time ago, when she would appear in my doorway, bouncing up and down, full of energy, of love, of lust, sin, desire, every good thing in the world and in a high-pitched voice would say ‘walk with me,’ knowing full well that I would follow anywhere and the words slide so easily from my tongue I wonder where they have been hiding.
“Lead me on.”
Sand gives way to steps which ascend to concrete which leads along the street and soon we are a few blocks away and still not a word has been said. I hope this doesn’t go on all night. I have a plane to catch tomorrow afternoon.
“Have you ever been to Coronado before?”
“I’ve never been to San Diego at all. Rancho Palos Verdes is the farthest south I’ve ever made it.”
“This always seemed like the perfect place to end up. The beautiful little town in the lights of the city, where I could watch the world and draw everything that came across my line of vision, raise two kids, find the perfect life, the perfect guy, have us grow old together.”
“Yeah, well lots of dreams turn out to be a one way dead-end street.”
She turns and I half turn in response, one eye to catch two.
“Did those years with Kyle beat his cynicism into you?”
“How do you mean?”
“You had dreams. You talked about them all the time. Your life was full of hopes and dreams. When we used to run around you would talk and babble and ramble on and find everything in your heart to throw before me, just waiting see what would catch. Is all that gone?”
She stops, then smiles, half smiles, lets her hair fall to her eyes, tries to brush it back, finds herself unable to keep it away, my hands moves to her cheeks, catch the hair behind her eyes. Then I catch myself, stop, force my hand back down and I start to walk, much in the way she used to leave me behind to babble and force me to catch up. Soon she is beside me again.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about the Oaks,” she tells me.
“Maybe the Oaks has been thinking about you.”
“I don’t recall you being so sarcastic.”
“I wasn’t when I was with you; it came out when you left. I don’t recall you being so sentimental.”
“Time makes you think about things in different ways.”
“Yes. It does.”
“I ran into Gary Wagner about a month ago.”
I don’t want to stop with this information but she’s stopped and she obviously wants me to stop as well. When I turn there is something new in her eyes, something that looks like mine, eyes from a night long ago.
“What did he have to say?”
“He told me about Kayce.”
I don’t say anything, don’t want this intrusion into my life, turn to start walking again, but her hand is on my arm and she wants me to look and I don’t feel strong enough for a fight.
“I stopped here for a reason,” she whispers.
“Does this house look familiar?”
I don’t know how a house in a town I’ve never been to could possibly look familiar but I turn and look across a small lawn. There is nothing special about this house, especially in this neighborhood, as it is flanked on both sides by more newly constructed houses of grotesque proportions. It’s a bit rundown for such a nice part of town, but has the size, the trim yard, this is all very much part of what the older houses we have been walking past look like, nothing special to stand apart other than its age, but something does look vaguely familiar, a ghost image from the past and I think I must have seen a picture of this house, somewhere, years ago.
“It does. How could it look familiar?” I ask, not a whisper anymore, a step into a real conversation, memories of what we used to have.
“Come on,” she whispers, much in her old manner, much in mine. Her legs propel her across the lawn and she is up the steps and at the door. I follow. She leads me on.
Inside, lying on a couch, watching television is a woman I remember, a middle-aged woman in a robe who looks very much like all the good things in her life are long gone. And then I remember that the best things of her life are, in fact, gone, and I know where I am and why the house looked familiar, from all the pictures I saw in those two years, in all that time that we were together and that they were roommates, that this is Rachel’s house.
“How was the wedding?” Mrs. Darcy asks.
“It was gorgeous. His parents must have more money than god to have paid for a wedding at the hotel.”
“I see you’ve picked up a date.”
“You might not remember me, Mrs. Darcy,” I say, softly. “Bruce Yale. When Jess and Rachel were roommates, she and I were . . .” I am suddenly at a loss for words in how to describe such a relationship to someone of a different generation and I fear for a day when I might have to explain such things to Kayce.
“I do remember you, Bruce. You were with Rachel when she died.”
This has been a very long day, far too long for all of this but I will not cry, not now.
“Yes. I was.”
“I’m guessing from the look on your face that Jessica didn’t tell you where she was bringing you.”
“No, she didn’t.”
“I’ll let you two talk,” she says, starting to get up. But Jess and I both have our hands up before she can rise.
“No,” we both say. “It’s okay,” I say as she adds “we’re gonna walk down to the park. I just wanted to come in and say hi for now.”
“Okay then,” she says, softly. “Go run and play.”
We stop upon entering the park. We can see the group of them sitting on the other edge of the park, gathered together in the midsummer heat, eyes outstretched towards the horizon, a group long since thought passed into oblivion, six friends, two husbands, two wives, one bound to bachelorhood, one bound to memories, and yet there are still those among the missing, two young women, perhaps elsewhere on the peninsula, two others who swore what I swore up above Mountain Lake, near where the Santiago River pours over the falls out of the lake and begins its swift descent into the valley. I turn to look at her and I wonder what she’s thinking, what she feels has been missing from her life. Before she can say anything I let it loose, let everything that has been building inside me go and fall into her arms and tears and words and kisses flow together.
When my confession is done she holds me, continues to hold me long after we have crossed the grass to find the rest of our friends, to find the rest of our lives and she lets me know that things will be okay, that she is not waiting for me, is not trying to find what is missing from her life, that she has come to a point where she wants to set things right, make amends where she feels they are due, has come, not just to see Jeff step across the threshold that she and I have already crossed, but to see me, to ask if I am okay, if I am mad, if I need help, if I can raise my daughter on my own, if I can step past all the years gone by and find the strength to forgive her for anything she might have done wrong and in the midst of a kiss she learns what I long ago wrote in fiction what I could not find the strength to say in words in life, that there was nothing to forgive, that we must all step down a path, that no choice we make is any better than any other person’s choice.
“There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” I whisper to her, a kiss upon the tears that fall when she knows that she has done no wrong, that guilt need not be a part of her life, “If it be not now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come:” and I am in her eyes when I say the last words, “the readiness is all.”
Perhaps that is right and there is nothing more, for she accepts this, seals this agreement with a kiss and we both know that this might perhaps be a start or yet may be nothing at all. The rest is silence.