Reunion Blues

i’m trying not to move
it’s just your ghost passing through
t amos

“Who the fuck are all these people?”

“Please try not to swear in front of my daughter.”

“Kayce, honey, feel free to ignore any profane word you hear from me.”

“Mom told me I’m pretty much supposed to ignore everything you say, Uncle Kyle,” my six year old says.  We both turn to look at her.   She shrugs.  “I’m just following orders.”

“When did she tell you that?” he asks.

“She’s been telling me that as far back as I can remember.”

His gaze turns slowly until it finally settles upon me.  Given that the intensity of his gaze has been known to make people surrender their weapons, it’s not something I really want bearing down on me but I have the advantage of almost a decade of getting used to it.

“She ever said that to you?”

“Well, no, but I’ve known you a long time.  I know enough to ignore everything you say.”

He turns away from me and looks out across the room.  I must admit that I am as perplexed as he is.  Our class only had something like 211 people in it and none of the people in this room seem familiar.  Perhaps this is some other reunion.  Or five years has just made us forget.

“We still haven’t answered my question.  Who the fuck are all these people?”

“Just because she’s supposed to ignore you doesn’t mean you need to swear in front of her.”

“Do you swear in front of her?”

“I try not to.”

“Then I’ll try not to.  Do you recognize anyone here?”

I turn and let my eyes wander across the room but the sudden intrusion of the music of Oasis makes it hard for me to concentrate.  I’d rather just flee the room or, barring that, slam my head against a wall.

“Well, I see someone,” Kayce says.  We both look down at her.  When she turns to look up at us her ponytail bounces up and down against her dress and I wonder when she’s actually going to wear her hair down.  At least she has been prevented from wearing a baseball cap though it was a struggle on her mother’s part to get her to agree to that.  Perhaps I will someday come to an understanding of my daughter but it’s not coming tonight.

“You see who, darling?”

“Kevin and Kate.  The Lanes.  Your friends.”

“What about them, dear?”

“They’re standing right behind you.”

I turn and catch Kyle’s eyes and I don’t understand, always thought he knew everything, could sense everything, that he was the one who could always appear from out of anywhere and when we turn we find that she is right and that Kevin and Kate are standing behind us.

“Your wife is looking particularly young, tonight, Bruce,” Kate says with a smile.  Her smile, reaching the edges of her thick black curly hair that falls down over a black dress and is as entrancing as it was the first day I met her, back during orientation.  She kisses me softly, her lips gently brushing against the beard I haven’t bothered to shave for the last six months.  “And you appear to have lost your razor.”

“Michelle likes it.”

“Actually, Dad, she hates it.”

“And you, young lady, can go get yourself some punch,” I say, pulling Kayce in close and pressing my own lips against the top of her head while giving her a squeeze.

“How did we get so close without you seeing us?” Kevin asks.  “I thought that was Kyle’s thing.”

“Luck,” Kyle says, softly.

Kate watches Kayce head over towards one of the refreshment tables and once she is beyond earshot, she says “Why are you two alone?”  This question touches on so much more than we want to say.  A group sits together in the hall, a first night away from home, a new world that we all expect to find, something different, something brilliant, something much more than we ever could have imagined but it’s just a night because every night is another night and they all link together, but this is so much more, all these strangers turning into friends, some back for another year of it, most together for the first time, and a voice looms over everyone else, the words, ‘I’m Paul and I’m in charge because I’m the loudest’ and one girl in the corner falls in love while other couples are forming within minutes and so many people together, they should be together now, but four years later, in a circle around a fire just yards above a mountain lake that flows over falls and down a river into a valley full of lights and crops, the same group is gathered but now there are not so many, some are gone, some have stepped out into the part of life we experience after we are free of the classrooms, ten hands held together in a common bond, a vow and nine of those hands should be here now, should have faces to go with hands and should be here and happy together again and now we are four and maybe four is better than none.

“Our better halves were not quite feeling up to a night like this.”

They both go tense and I see the worry take over, the survival instinct to look out for any other person who was there that night and when they both say ‘how sick?’, we all know who they are asking about, not mine but his and he already has his hands up to try and calm them, saying ‘she is okay, just a little weak, nothing to worry about,’ and the feeling starts to ebb but there is still the slight spring of tension in the air as the music takes us back five years and I am reminded why I never listened to the radio while in college.

“Is this Hootie and the fucking Blowfish?” I ask, but then we turn and see couples grouping together, dancing slow to this hideous song and the four of us find ourselves shaking our heads.

“Well, now we know who made this song a hit in college,” Kate says.

“I do not understand people,” I say.

“People have bad music taste, Dad,” Kayce says as she comes back with punch.  “Get used to it.  Do you know how many kids in my school like to listen to Nickelback?  You should count yourself grateful that you don’t have a kid like that.”

Kate and Kevin look down at her and I can see the indecision over whether to smile or look perplexed take over their faces.  Kayce prompts that look from all our friends except her Aunt Sarah.

“What kind of music do you like to listen to, Kayce?” Kate asks.

“The Clash rock my world.”

“I love this child,” Kevin says.

“Everybody loves me.  It’s part of my natural charm,” she says.  Kate’s eyes drift to mine and her smile turns slightly crooked.  Then her eyes drift to Kyle and her left eyebrow raises slightly in a look of bemusement.

“Do you have anything to do with the raising of this child?”

“I try.  She could do a lot worse.”

“Yes, but she could do better,” comes a voice from over my left shoulder and a fifth hand has come back, leaving now only two more to find what with one not invited and two resting together down in my living room down at the other end of the bay.

I feel the tension course through my best friend’s body and memories crowd over me, of the first night together, of us all learning at Paul’s feet and how two fought back, kept yelling that he was making up the rules as he went, that none of this was fair and the smile on Paul’s lips when he explained that perhaps they were beginning to understand and the look that passed between the two of them, the young cynic who doubted anything he heard and the girl with so much spunk who kept fighting back, refusing to take anything at face value and I could see it from across the room, could see what was meant to be, what I thought was destined to be and I never understood what took so long, why life took close to a year to follow up on nature and destiny.

He is frightened.  I have come to understand that much.  He has been so much over the years, best friend, roommate, best man, and through all I have always wanted to be him, to have his strength, his smile, his perception, anything but his life because I have never been able to understand the things that he has survived, the things he has endured.  And after all of this, through all of this, I still find myself surprised when I realize that he too can be frightened, when I realize that fear is more powerful than everything I have believed in.

He has been happy.  The last five years have been hard, have been long and I have spent most of them within shouting distance of him in case things got hard and they have been hard but he has endured, yet more then endured, for he has prevailed.  But he has not had to face this, not had to come to terms with a love lost to the passage of time, a first love, a true love if fairy tales are to be believed.  And my daughter believes in them.  So why not?  Who is to say that fairy tales can not come true?  Fairy tales come true.  Miracles happen.  Love happens.  He did not live out the fairy tale, did not find the happy ending over the rainbow and now his life is back and he has to stand face to face with it.

“Hello,” he says softly, turned now to face her, the young woman, Jennifer Gabriel, in a dark red dress with spaghetti straps, still with amber hair falling just below her ears, still with the brown eyes (should I have expected different?) that marked the passion inside, the smartest of all of us and now, two years out of law school, the richest of all us I assume and soon to make a run for Congress if rumors can be believed and in my experience they often can.

“Hi,” she says and I know this is our turn to exit and I take my daughter’s hand and lead her out towards the floor where the faces are starting to look familiar now, of years gone by, of days in class, nights in the halls.

“You coming?” I ask Kevin and Kate and there is no need for those words as they are right behind me.  We all learn things through the years.  Sometimes, no matter how far you run, how much you find in between, the years can be gone in an instant and you are face to face with what you thought was forgotten.  I don’t have to live that, at least not tonight.  Somewhere, maybe in the streets of Boston as far as I know, walks a young woman that I handed my heart to and who ran out of the door with it, some seven years ago.  I’ve had the chance to come face to face, twice now at weddings, but with my wife at my side, with the past sliding behind me with every year, she seems more a ghost now than a memory.  She’s safe enough there.  Ghosts can do no harm.  Only memories can come back to haunt you.  Ghosts are just an image, an afterthought left behind when the memory has faded.

Songs change and the draining crooning reminder that Jakob Dylan may sing better than his father but did not inherit his songwriting ability is wiped away by a haunting beat and softly spoken lyrics, almost ghostly, the strain of which threaten to pull ghosts from the walls, but the touch of my daughter’s hand in mine and the slowed down pace of the room anchors me in the present and we slide together out on the floor.

“You say you packed my things  /  and divided what was mine,” I sing softly, not so much to Kayce as to myself, a reminder of words, of tunes I don’t want to let be erased from my memory, don’t want to see drift into ghosts and her eyes sparkle in the light of the room and I remember that at six there are a lot of things which don’t make any sense and still, for some reason, really need not be explained.

“I never see you dance with Mom,” she says, her voice quite soft for a young girl and I wonder if Michelle has explained certain elements of life to her without bothering to inform me.

“We don’t take you to places where we would dance.”

“Even when you dance together in your room, you don’t dance so far apart.  You hold Mom closer.”

“How do you know what your mother and I do in our room?”

“Uh, well, you know, you guys always leave the door open in case I need something.  Sometimes I go by and the two of you are dancing.”

“How do I hold her?”

“Closer.  More cheek to cheek, so that you are touching all throughout the body.  Not so far apart.  And your hands are usually lower.  A lot of times your hands are on . . .”

“I know where I keep my hands, young lady.  Perhaps I should be worried about where you keep your eyes.”

“Who’s Angie Dickinson?”

“What?”

“Who’s Angie Dickinson?  She just sang it.  ‘My best impression of my best Angie Dickinson.’  Was she famous?  Sounds like she must have been.”

“I don’t actually know.  She might have just liked the rhyme.  But she’s a strange singer, you know.  She sings about faeries and angels and they come to life.  I don’t really know that I ever understand what she’s singing about.”

“Are the lyrics important?”

“That depends on the song.”

“What about the Clash CD I’ve been listening to?  Are the lyrics important?”

“Well they’re a political band, so they have a lot to say.  They can be very important.”

“And this song?”

“I really don’t know.”

“So you don’t know what ‘putting the damage on’ means?”

“No.  You could try asking your Uncle Kyle.”

“He said I should always ask you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Remember when I came and asked you what all those things meant in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?  When I asked you if he came back to life because he was Jesus?”

“I remember.”

“I asked Uncle Kyle about it first.  But he said anytime I was reading something and I didn’t understand it, that I should come to ask you, that when it came to words, to reading, to understanding, that there was no better person to ask than you.  So I thought you might know what the song means.”

I turn and the words catch me as I catch Kyle and Jenn from the corner of my eyes, her in that gorgeous red dress and him holding her just far enough that he feels is not unfaithful and yet close enough that they can talk without the world intruding upon them and I think that Ms. Amos is right, that I’m trying not to move, it’s just your ghost passing through and I am putting the damage on and I don’t even know what that means but it seems to describe properly what is going on at the moment and I think I need to not be dancing slowly with my daughter at this minute but need to be sitting down and relaxing and trying to understand that in all the parenting my best friend has done for my daughter the most important is to ensure that I am her father and that she will always connect to me.

“Kac, honey, let’s go sit.”

“Are you okay, Dad?”

“I just need to sit down for a minute.  Is that okay with you?”

“I guess.”

When I find myself in a seat at a table I find all my strength gone and I turn slightly to look at my beautiful daughter.

“Can you get me something to drink, honey?”

“Something with alcohol?”

“If you can get it without being noticed.”

“Okay.”

She is gone and I let my head slip down into my hands and my body slump down into the chair.  Before she is back, Kyle and Jenn are by my side looking at me.

“You okay?” she asks, a soft voice I am used to hearing her use to try to keep me from hearing what she is saying in whispers late at night just a few feet from my bed but less than inches from her loved one.  Rather than answer, I look up, look into the eyes of my best friend, the person who I still, years after first setting eyes on him, have not been able to win an argument against, have never been able to explain, understand or anything else.

“Thank you.”

“For what?”

“Just, thank you.”

Then she is back with a glass of champagne and I drink it quickly and let the first bubbly feeling flow through me and I am able to sit up slightly.

The song changes and the ghosts are gone and pop music blares through the room with a nice beat you can dance to, a song I remember from my senior year of high school, from dancing to at the very first dance, in the large multi-purpose room beneath the cafeteria the first Friday night of classes, the night after the fire drill, the first time I took Jessica in my arms and danced with her and my daughter bounces up and down in anticipation of a real song to dance to.

“I love this song, Daddy.  Can we dance?”

“I’m tired right this second, honey.”

“But I really want to dance.”

“Maybe Uncle . . .” but that is all I have to say before she has turned and is almost leaping into his arms, begging him to dance, crying to him that one, two princes stand before him, princes who adore him and he is in love and he has her in his arms and is out on the floor before any objections can be made.  Jenn watches him go, watches their love go and smiles and sit down beside me.

She speaks slowly and softly, the words rolling off her tongue as she makes a conscious decision to say them, the one person I have known over my life who takes the time to think about she says before allowing the sounds to flow, never giving her cause to regret, the need to take the words back and I think we may just have to move to the north end of the bay just so we can vote for her when she runs.

“You have done very well.  Not just with her.”

I turn and a slight look of confusion must come into my expression because she smiles and puts her hand on my mine when she clarifies things.  “Also with him.”

“I think Michelle deserves some of the credit with her,” I say, then add, a bit more softly, “and Sarah with him.”  Those last words I feel like I am trying to slip in, to hide beneath the others, to not have to say them, for I do not have her gift, will let words spill forth that shouldn’t, but it is okay because she keeps smiling.

“Yes.  She probably does.  In both cases.”

“You should come down and see us.”

“I think I might like that.”

“It’s been too long.  You’re not that far away.”

“Things have been really complicated in my life.”

“Are you seeing anyone?” I ask.

“Not at the moment.  If I was, would I show up here alone?”

“You’ve always been smarter than me.  I don’t make any attempt to deconstruct you.  I wouldn’t be able to understand it.”

“You underestimate yourself, Bruce.  You’ve been doing it for seven years.”

“Jessica has nothing to do with my outlook on the world.”

“Don’t be silly, Bruce.  If she hadn’t left, you never would have had the strength to find yourself and your marriage would be a joke instead of a strong bond between two people who love each other very much.”

I want to reach for a bottle, for a drink, for something that will tell me that she’s not right, but there is nothing to run from here because not only is she right but there is nothing wrong with that.

“Bruce.”

At the sound of my name, I turn and hope to find one of our remaining two but I don’t know the person right away and I feel awful that I’ll have to ask this guy who he is.  He looks vaguely familiar, not particularly tall, maybe shorter than Kevin even, but muscular, sandy hair, a mustache I’m betting wasn’t on his face in school and I think, I should probably know this guy, give it a second and his name will come to me.  I feel Jenn’s hand slide off the table and down into my lap.  The movement catches me by surprise and I turn to take a look at her and I see the tension in her eyes, the way her body has gone stiff, every muscle primed to explode and I know something is wrong and I turn and things start to fall in place.

“Is Michelle here with you?” he asks.  Then I know, remember, understand and I know his name, place, everything.

“No, Gary.  She didn’t come.  She wasn’t feeling well.”

“Oh.  Well, I guess . . . I don’t know.  I wanted to talk to her.  I’ve been trying to make some amends in life.”

“Dad, you really should consider taking lessons from Uncle Kyle,” Kayce says, running over, full of energy and life.  “He really knows how to shake it out on the dance floor.”

But then she stops.  She is perceptive for a six year old, sees that something is wrong, that I am talking to someone that she does not know, has never met, and she stops, because, as is so often with her, she wants to understand.  Then happens what I fear will happen and Kyle follows her off the dance floor and he is not six, does not have her boundless energy and he is not speaking as he comes to us and he recognizes the man I am talking to, can see through the mustache, knows the eyes, enough perhaps for him and the tension in Jenn comes faster in him and she is standing and has her hand on his and is whispering in his ear and I turn back to look at Gary and I see him tense, break back in fear, memories I think, of what came before, of what I have tried not to know about, have made certain to never ask about, of a time I wish had never happened, but did happen and had a silver lining, had a beautiful thing come out of it, against all odds.

“Who are you?”

All eyes drop to the young girl at our table, the only one here who fears nothing of the past, who knows nothing of the past, who only knows that there is someone talking to her father to whom she has never been introduced.

“His name is Gary, honey,” I say and then, before I can stop her, before I can say anything, her voice breaks the air again.

“Hi, Gary.  My name is Kayce.  Kayce Yale,” she says with her hand outstretched and perhaps that is the best thing at the moment for when he reaches out, slowly, to shake her hand her stops and their eyes meet and I suddenly think about what I have not thought about for years and he notices, I can see that he understands and his eyes latch on to hers and after he takes her hand and shakes it, he turns slightly, talking to her, but asking a question of me.

“You’re Bruce and Michelle’s daughter?”

“Yeah.  Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too.  You have green eyes.”

“Yup.  You must like eyes.”

“I do like eyes.  I’m an ophthalmologist.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m an eye doctor.”

“Oh.”

“Your mother and your father both have brown eyes.”

“Yup.  It makes me special.  Makes a unique and a special snowflake.  At least, that’s what my dad says.”

He turns and when he sees Kyle, I see him flinch back and see Kyle’s warning not to say what he has understood, what we all know, what I have known for years, what others have only guessed at, never asked at.

There has been a cover story for years, that Michelle and I adopted a two year old in our first months of marriage, that I was at an orphanage researching a story I was trying to write and we saw her and couldn’t take our eyes off her and had to have her as our own and no one has ever asked, ever made a question of what they must know not to be true, but we have never given this story to Kayce, never told her anything other than that she is our natural daughter and are waiting for a day when she does the math and starts to ask questions and maybe we won’t have so long to wait, but not now, not with him, not in this place, not without her.

“She should have told me,” he whispers, aimed towards me, but my friend answers for me.

“I think you gave up that right,” Kyle says, an undercurrent of potential violence running through it and it makes Gary flinch back and he turns, half towards Kyle, keeping an eye on what is going on and Jenn puts her hand out and takes Kayce by the hand.

“Come teach me to dance, honey.  Kyle never taught me anything like he just taught you.  And I love this song.”

“You love the Counting Crows?  You’re weird, Ms. Gabriel,” Kayce says, but leads her on and they are gone, disappearing into the crowd and the three of us stand around the table, balanced in the circle.

“Is she really sick?” Gary asks me once they are gone.  “She’s not just here and avoiding me?”

“She’s really sick.”

“Will you tell her I was here?  Tell her I just wanted to see her.”

“You can’t make things right, you know,” Kyle says.  “So don’t fucking . . .”

“I never thought I could make things right.  I just want to try and make some amends.  You have nothing in your life you ever felt you did wrong?”

“Don’t you . . .” Kyle starts but I stop him with my hand.  I turn and he knows that he has to let me do this on my own and he steps back and walks off, perhaps to find more of those hands, more of those who should be here with us, helping to remember.

“He tried to kill me, you know,” Gary says, watching him walk away.

“No.  I didn’t know that,” I reply.  I turn towards him.  “I don’t know it.  I don’t want to hear it.  I’ve told him that, I’ll tell you that.  What happened between those guys and you with all of that, it’s not part of my life.  You keep it buried back there.”

He seems to stop and think for a minute before he says anything else.  I wonder if explaining this conversation once we get home will be more awkward than the actual conversation.

“Does she still hate me?” he asks.

“If you want to know something kind of messed up, I don’t think she’s ever really hated you.”

“I don’t know what she’s . . .”

“Paper and pen.”

“What?”

“Do you have paper and pen?”

He searches through his pockets, actually has a pen somewhere in a pocket and manage to find a prescription pad in another pocket, offers them both to me but I shake my head, nod towards the table and he puts them both down, uncapping the pen and tearing a sheet of the pad and flipping it over.

“What?”

“Address, phone number, e-mail.  That should be enough.  I’ll pass them on.  If she wants to hear what you have to say, she’ll let you know.  But don’t try to contact her.  You let her do that.”

He looks down and speaks as he writes without lifting his eyes up to me.

“You’ve never told Kayce, have you?”

“No.  She has never been told.”

“Will you tell her now?”

“That is up to her mother.  It’s her decision.”

He straightens, holds the paper out to me and I think I should slap it away, slam him into the table, break every bone in his body, make him look worse than I remember her looking, than I can ever remember anyone looking, should make him scream for pity, cry for a release.  But this is a release.  This is not an exit.  And I’m too tired to hate anymore.

“She’s beautiful.  She seems like a really great kid,” he says, quietly, his voice dropping at the very end, as if he has not the right to compliment her.  I smile, softly, not cynically, not Kyle’s nor anyone else’s smile, my own soft smile that says, yes, I am too tired to hate anymore and I can take this comment from this man.

“She’s the best part of me.”

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