When I wake up, I find myself alone in the house. This should not be surprising, as I was alone when I fell asleep. The days are beginning to grow longer again and the sun is still bright and high in the sky as it approaches five.
I have somehow stumbled into a life that should not belong to me. This should be his life, going to sleep among the fruits of labor and waking to find an unfinished day beckoning beyond the window.
I’m thinking about the phone call I received before I went to sleep. Would it have been a different conversation if Bruce had been here for the call? Would I have reacted differently? Shouldn’t this be happening to him and not to me? Maybe that’s why I retreated into sleep in the first place.
I get out of his bed. Since I hadn’t intended on going to sleep, I’m wearing a t-shirt and jeans and not anything I have to worry about being seen in. Not that Kayce seems to have any worries about me. She doesn’t seem like a ten year old. There are times when it’s easy to see she’s still just a kid and there are times where it feels like she’s older than me.
I walk into Bruce’s office and sit at his desk. It was my computer in the dorm where I wrote “A Different Corner”, which may be a ticket to something new but might also be the wedge that comes between Bruce and I. But Bruce has invited me to write in his office. ‘I don’t finish anything here but you might,’ he said. So I look at the computer and notice the post-it attached the screen with the words written on it ‘write what you know.’
I could write what I know, but who wants to read about some nineteen year old California beach blonde being fucked from behind by a nice guy named Sanjeev. Actually, even given how nice and boring Sanjeev is that would probably work as porn for a lot of guys. All they would need is me on my knees with the bottom of my bikini lying on the floor. Okay, let’s put that away in the back of my mind again.
The doorbell rings. You’ve got to leave it behind, I remind myself, as I walk to the front door. When I open the front door I find myself looking at a young man, dressed in a suit, breathing heavily. If he tries to get me to invest in a subscription to the Watchtower, I’m going to scream until he goes away. If he’s a Mormon I might offer him a beer to get his reaction.
“Do you have a daughter?” he asks, but he is already looking skeptical. I look younger than the twenty years old that I am and I know it.
“I’m not . . .”
“There’s been an accident.”
“Kayce? Is she all right?” I ask, my pulse suddenly racing.
He is quiet for a moment, but then he slowly answer my question.
“There’s a lot of blood.”
I never knew I could move this fast. It is less than two blocks and I’ve been running with Bruce for a few months now but I still never realized I could do this. Fast enough to leave it all behind.
As I come around the corner, I can see the people. I think I can hear an ambulance as I run to the car. I can see the crack in the windshield. There are pieces of Kayce’s helmet on the ground. It must have saved her life, if the helmet hit the windshield hard enough to break apart.
I come through the crowd and see Kayce on the ground. The first thing I can see is the bone sticking out of her leg and I wonder if I am going to pass out. Somehow I don’t and I fight even the urge to flinch, to cower away from bone and blood, and instead I kneel down by Kayce and take her hand.
Looking at Kayce’s face, covered in blood, I can see that her eyes are open and wide with shock but she sees me and it seems like she is saying my name. The voices around me start to filter down and I can understand what someone behind me is saying.
“She hit that slick patch and went straight out in front of me. I hit the brakes as fast as I could, I swear. Oh god, I never meant to hit her. I didn’t have any time to stop.”
The voices recede and I follow the stretcher into the back of the ambulance, taking Kayce’s hand, squeezing as tight as I dare, hoping that all the good things that have found my life are not about to take their bows and exit.
I teach English and I coach basketball at Tempe High School. Our practice has run late today and my kids are hopeful that it is almost over. Ronny takes two dribbles up to half court and then launches the ball in the air. It banks off the backboard, rolls around the rim twice and finally falls away from the hoop. A chorus of groans rises from the twelve players standing near and around half court.
“You know the rules. Full court sprints,” I say, but I turn when I hear the door slam open. At first I get a warm feeling when I see Rebecca but when she gets closer, which doesn’t take long at a full sprint, my stomach runs ice cold.
“There’s been an accident,” she says. “I didn’t have my phone, I couldn’t call.”
“Is she okay?”
“She’s got a broken leg and probably a concussion. She’s across the street.”
“Practice is over,” I say, loud enough that everyone on the team can hear me. Then I am gone, as fast as anyone can move when they know their child has been hurt.
I am twenty-one years old, going to my girlfriend’s mother’s house. I know what the destination is, but I am still uncertain why we are going. I don’t understand why she has broken down crying in a bathroom just a few suburbs short of our destination. She has been struggling, ever since we cleared the mountains, to hold herself together and I am just allowing her to do whatever she feels she needs to. When Michelle opens the door and the little girl runs forward and calls her ‘mama’ I finally understand and in one second I fall hopelessly in love with a little girl with green eyes and I make the one decision in my life that I will never regret. When, years later, I am forced into an uncomfortable conversation with her biological father, I describe that little girl as the best of myself. In the days after Michelle’s death, Kayce takes me by the hand and suggests that we go out to the Grand Canyon. Standing there in the dry dust of later summer, she tells me that I am stuck with her and she hopes that she can make me happy. ‘I’m not Mom,’ she says, ‘but I’m your memory of Mom.”
I look at her then, thinking that she is right, that is the memory of my wife, that for a long time she has been the memory of my wife. While Michelle was wasting away with ALS in the same house where often Sarah would come to spend her dying time, Kayce had come to be the embodiment of all aspects of pure, unadulterated life. The life I had come to expect. The life I had come to need.
Tempe St. Luke’s Hospital is located on Mill Ave, just across a set of railroad tracks from Tempe High School. To take the car would require an illegal left turn onto Mill Ave, which would be impossible at this time of day even if it was allowed. So I run. I run faster than I realize I am capable of and I leave Rebecca behind without meaning to. I am standing there being appraised of my daughter’s condition when she catches up to me.
“She has a severe compound fracture of her right tibia,” I am being told when Rebecca runs up to the desk. She has a look in her eyes that seems like blame. She feels like she is to be blamed? Or she feels as if I will blame her for this?
“Where is she?” I ask.
“She’s being prepped for surgery, sir. I’m sorry, but you can’t see her right now.”
“She’s A positive.”
“We know. The young lady told us,” the nurse says, motioning to Rebecca. I turn back to Rebecca, my expression fading from one of shock into one of sadness.
“She was on her bike. I think she hit a slick spot, somebody had been watering their lawn or something. She slid out in front of a car. It didn’t seem to be anyone’s fault, just a freak accident. She must have flipped up onto the hood because her head slammed against the windshield. Her helmet was broken. But she could talk and she could hold my hand. She was responsive.”
“She is not in any danger, Mr. Yale. But her leg has been badly broken.”
“What about her head? Her helmet broke. Are we looking at a concussion? Something worse?”
“The helmet took the brunt of it. There is no swelling and she had not lost consciousness. These are very good signs. A concussion is likely, but nothing worse.”
I don’t know what I am supposed to do. I don’t know how I am supposed to react. I find myself dialing a number on a phone and saying everything that is in my head and then collapsing into Rebecca’s arms, sobbing softly.
I look up. I have no idea how long I have been sitting, waiting. Time has compressed, slipped into a place where I can not touch it, can not feel it even at its most basic concepts.
It slowly becomes apparent what is being held out for me: the gift of food. The logo on the bag says Del Taco, so my best guess it that the bag contains two Del Classic Chicken Burritos. The hand holding it is as easy to identify as the food. I’ve lived with this hand and the voice that goes with it my entire adult life.
His name is Kyle Andrew Barton. He is two months shy of his 31st birthday. He has a degree in Sociology from Santiago Oaks University with a Masters in Criminology from the University of California. He was born without knowing his father, raised near the Castro when it became the graveyard of the 1980’s and he has spent his entire life studying those people who were always around as he grew up, not the gays who were so prominent in his neighborhood, but the pimps, the hoods, the rest of the underworld that his mother brought him to the edges of. Married at the age of 23, he became a widower at the age of 28, almost a year and a half ago now, his marriage actually lasting slightly less long than my own.
Looking at him now, it makes me remember.
It is the last week of July in the summer of ’93 and the doorbell has just rung. My father is home but I know that if I don’t get the door then no one else will either. When I answer it, I find myself facing someone I’ve never met before, a guy about my age. Parked on the street is a black vintage Mustang, a beautiful looking car and it’s certainly not one I’ve ever seen around Gilroy.
“Yeah. And you are?”
“Kyle Barton. According to the fine folks in Housing at Santiago Oaks University, we’re roommates.”
“Already? I thought we’d at least wait until school started. My room is really small.”
“I had time to kill. Thought we could meet. You busy? Want to grab a burger?”
“You drove down from SF?”
“Had nothing better to do.”
I look at him. I only know what I’ve read on the sheet of paper sent to me from school, the one private school in state that I was able to get a scholarship from and thus be able to afford to go. His name is Kyle Barton and he is from San Francisco. Our musical tastes and sleep habits identified us as compatible roommates and we’ve been placed in room 428 of Howard Hall. It said nothing about Kyle showing up at my house within a couple of days.
“Let me grab my wallet,” I tell him.
I take him to the milkshake place at the edge of town, the same place where three and a half years later I will begin the romance that will lead to my marriage. After we order, we begin to talk and find out further connections, tales of absent parenting, of raising yourself, but at the opposite ends of the social world. Kyle is from the big city and his mother seems to have money in some shady manner that bothers Kyle. I’m a couple of hours but a world away from him.
“Gilroy must seem very small to you,” I tell him.
“Good milkshakes though.”
“You have to be good at something.”
“Lots of people aren’t good at anything.”
“What are you good at?”
“I am good at being cynical. A deep rooted refusal to believe in a happy ending.”
“Someone who prefers the novel of The Princess Bride to the film.”
“Empire rather than Star Wars?”
“So what are you going to study at Santiago Oaks?”
“I mean, sociology is my field. But I could have gone to Cal and done that. I wanted to get out of the city for a while, out in the sticks. See what people are like out there.”
“So you gonna study Psych too?”
“Maybe. My thought is to eventually get a graduate degree in Criminology.”
“And do what? Like join the FBI?”
“It’s certainly one of the strong possibilities. But what about you? What’s your plan?”
“I’m thinking Literature. I can just be destined for unemployment. Certainly that would be a family legacy.”
“You good at reading?”
“I read a hell of a lot.”
“Do you write?”
“I’m good at starting. I have a hard time finishing.”
“Have to be good at something.”
“I’m also good with affection. Caring deeply and passionately. Or so I’ve been told.”
“Relationships in which I was the one who cared deeply. Broken hearts. Failed dreams.”
“In the end, all dreams fail.”
I remember that now, Kyle looking at me so seriously, and saying that all dreams fail. What a thought when you’re eighteen.
“Do you still believe that all dreams fail?” I ask. Rebecca is over at the window, out of earshot. Kyle turns, but does not look at me, just stares at Rebecca as she watches the sunset.
“Everyone dies baby, that’s a fact,” he says.
“But everything that dies, someday comes back.”
“It’s good to know you were paying attention all those years.”
“You must have been very good at Sarah’s game.”
“Not so much after she banned me from using Springsteen.”
“How often do you miss her?”
“Less than I should. More than I expected to.”
“Did you love her as much as you loved Jenn?”
“Yes. But not as much as I loved Michelle.”
“Do you wish you had taken her up on her offer?”
“I loved her, Bruce. She loved me, though I don’t think it was as much as she came to love you. And I love that little girl. But I knew enough about myself not to inflict myself on a child as a parent.”
There is a pause before Kyle speaks again, and when does it is slowly and with great clarity.
“It’s easy for me to make myself believe that all dreams fail. That way, the fact that Sarah died was a natural part of life. Dreams fail and there’s nothing I could have done about it. But that’s the easy way out. Not every dream fails. Too many people get their Sarah, their Michelle, or even their Rachel, their Xian. Most people seem to get at least one Jenn or Jessica. But sometimes we get lucky. Sometimes we get a Kayce. And things go happily for years and years, beyond count.”
“Your daughter is out of surgery now, Mr. Yale, if you would like to go in and see her.”
Kayce is asleep when I walk in. I stand over her and look at the scar upon her leg where they had to cut her open to fix the bone. I run my hand down her cheek, in the line where her tears run.
I can feel Rebecca and Kyle at the doorway, watching her, watching me. I motion to Rebecca and she comes to my side.
“I’m gonna stay. I’m gonna need some clothes, both for her and me. Can you get them?”
She doesn’t speak. I turn to look at her. She nods and I think she did that the first time and I missed it. I move my hand to her face, stroking it gently.
“Come back,” I say. “Please.”
“I’ll always come back to you.”
“You’re welcome to. For as long as you want.”
She shudders and shuts her eyes, swept away perchance with love.
“That’s a big promise to make,” she says, her eyes still closed.
“Then don’t think of it as a promise. Think of it as an offer. Think of it as a possibility.”
I spend the night in my dorm room because I have an 8 AM Politics class. As soon as it is over, I slip my roller blades on because they are the fastest way of getting around town. I cut south-east through campus and then around the Gammage and cross Mill St and head two blocks down to the hospital. I stop by slamming into a bench out in front of the main entrance because I’m still not used to having to lean my foot slightly back – I keep trying to drag my toe like they’re ice skates and that doesn’t even slow me down. I change back into shoes and go upstairs to try and find Bruce.
I come around the corner and see him talking to a man in his mid 50’s, dressed in a tie but without a suit jacket. It’s kind of the standard outfit for high school teachers so I assume he must work with Bruce. I don’t know if Bruce really wants to have to introduce me, so I stop just on the edge of earshot.
“It was nice of you to come over, Clyde.”
“It’s a rough thing, Bruce. I thought you might like some support.”
“Thanks. I’ll have to see how this works. I may be out more this week. I don’t know when she’ll be able to go home.”
“Have you thought about the game on Thursday?”
“I haven’t, really.”
“By then, it might do you some good to be there. Doesn’t Kayce have an uncle or something in town.”
“She does. Or Rebecca could stay with her, if she’s willing.”
“My girlfriend. Would you like to meet her?”
My face goes completely blank with shock. I didn’t even realize that Bruce knew I was standing here, let alone was I ready, covered in sweat from roller blading, to be introduced to someone. But the man turns around and sees me standing there.
“Clyde, this is Rebecca Logan. Rebecca, this is Clyde Miller, the school’s principal. My boss.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I say in a small, squeaky voice. I swallow once to clear that out. “I apologize, I just roller bladed over. I had no idea I was going to meet you.”
But he smiles, a nice charming smile and I can see why he’s a principal. He’s clearly very good with people and his advice for Bruce to coach his basketball game is probably the right one.
“No worries. Pleasure to meet you,” he says shaking my hand.
“Now, Bruce,” he continues, “you take whatever time you need. You look after Kayce first. If you need the rest of the week, we’ll have you covered. But give some thought to coaching the game. Those boys look up to you. And it would probably do you some good to not spend all week in here.”
“Thanks, Clyde. I’ll certainly think about it,” he says, shaking his hand.
“Rebecca, nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you,” I say, realizing that this is important, this is real, Bruce just introduced me to his freaking boss as his girlfriend. And to his credit, he didn’t even blink at how young I am, or worse, how young I look.
“Did you spend all night here?” I ask Bruce after the principal has gone.
“How are you doing?” I ask, brushing his hair back over his ear. There’s a slight bit of facial hair, something I’ve never seen on him before as he is so particular about shaving every day.
“I’m doing okay. She woke up a little while ago. She asked about you.”
“You ran to her, Rebecca. You were there for her. And I think she saw how scared you were. She’s worried about you.”
“Kayce, lying in there with a broken leg, is worried about how scared I was?”
“She is a person who cares very deeply. She lost her mother. She lost her aunt. She has been without an adult female in her life for close to two years now. I think she looks up to you a lot.
It’s late afternoon and I am sitting by Kayce’s side and she is talking to me about her conversation with the doctor, about whether or not she will have a chance to be ready to play before the Little League season ends when her uncle walks into the room.
I am still not certain what to make of him, even though I have known him for months now. If I can say I know him, which I’m not sure that I can. His ability to suddenly appear, as if out of nowhere, combined with his job, makes me always worry about what I am doing when I am around him. But meeting his college girlfriend at Christmas, the congresswoman, really humanized him. I just wish I had an idea of what he thought of me.
“Uncle Kyle!” Kayce yells when he comes in. “I might not miss the whole season!”
“That’s good to hear. It’d be a shame to have to wait a whole season for those kids to find out how good your curveball has become.”
“It all depends on how quickly the bones can heal.”
“Well, you’re a quick healer. Look, Kac, honey, would you like it if I stayed here with you tonight. Give your dad a chance to go home and get some rest.”
“I’m cool with that.”
Kyle turns to look at Bruce. The two share a look that I gather they have been perfecting for well over a decade now and Bruce nods.
“Go home and get some rest.”
“You need rest, Dad, so you can coach your game on Thursday.”
“Kayce, I wasn’t certain . . .”
“You have to coach, Dad. You can’t let them go without you. They’ll be lost without you.”
“Sometimes they’re lost with me, honey.”
“Go home and get some rest,” Kyle says. “Come back in the morning. You’ll feel better. Kayce will be okay.”
Bruce walks over and runs his hand over her forehead. She looks up at him with her bright green eyes and gives him smile.
“It’s okay, Dad. I’ve got FBI protection. I’ll be fine.”
Bruce smiles and nods. He kisses her on the forehead and starts to walk towards the door. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to follow him, but then Kyle turns to me.
“A word, Rebecca, before you leave.”
Bruce doesn’t seem to hear, just slowly walks into the hallway. Kyle motions towards the door and he and I walk out of Kayce’s earshot.
“What he needs,” Kyle says, lowering his voice to a whisper, nodding towards Bruce, who seems to be waiting in the hall for me, “is some seriously good sex.”
My eyes grow really wide. I have no idea how to respond to that and my mind goes completely blank. But Kyle doesn’t smile, doesn’t smirk. He just whispers again.
“And I’m not up for giving it to him. So if you can help out with that, it would be great.”
He looks straight at me and I can’t tell what I’m supposed to say, if this is some sort of test, if he’s teasing me. But I, hopefully, rise to the challenge.
“I think I can take care of that.”
“Thanks,” he says. But then he adds “you’re really good for him.”
My face softens and I feel a slight blush coming on.
“He is my best friend in this world, Rebecca. And she is the closest thing I will ever have to a daughter. So I’m the one thanking you.”
I don’t, as a habit, drink much. But I pour myself a glass of wine when I get home. The day has been very long, as was the day before. I turn to Rebecca.
“Would you like a glass of wine?”
“Um, yeah, I think so.”
“Are you okay?” I ask because she seems nervous. Exhausted I could understand, but nervous isn’t making sense.
“I have something I need to talk to you about.”
“Is something wrong?”
“I hope not. I mean, it’s something good. I hope you’ll think it’s good. I don’t want it to . . .” but I interrupt at that point, as I hand her the glass of wine.
“Just tell me.”
“My story. ‘A Different Corner’.”
“What about it?”
“I got a call about it.”
“Not something wrong about the song copyrights, is there? Since the magazine is free, I can’t imagine that anyone would object to its publication.”
“No. It’s not that.”
And then she shuts up again. I take a step closer to her, kneel down a little so I can try and see her eyes. She looks up at me, her blue eyes clear and beautiful and then she leans forward and kisses me. Her right hand comes up to my cheek and brushes my hair back over my left ear. I realize how tired I am and how the first few sips of the wine have gone straight to my head and I bring one hand to her breasts and the other around her hip and rest it on her lower back, my fingertips creeping just inside the top of her jeans.
“So,” she says, when there is a gap between kisses, “I am kind of under orders to give you some mind-blowing sex tonight.”
“So that’s what he was telling you. Somehow I am not surprised.”
“But I really feel I should tell you about this first,” she says and this causes me to take a step back and look at her.
“This really can’t be that big a deal, whatever you’re worried about.”
“I’ve been given an offer to reprint ‘A Different Corner’.”
This causes me to take another step back and I fight hard to make certain that the shock on my face is not unkind or ungrateful. I think I understand now why she was reluctant to tell me.
“What kind of offer? Like, for money?”
“Rebecca, that’s great.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Why wouldn’t that be great?”
But as I say it, I see the start of a tear in her eye and I think I can understand but I just want to hear her explicate it so I can make her understand that she need not worry.
“You finally finished a story,” she says, “and it was a really good little story. I don’t want you to feel . . .”
But I feel like I need to cut her off and set her straight.
“Rebecca, I am not worried about having a girlfriend who is more successful than I am. This is not a competition. Being with you got me inspired, inspired enough to actually write a story. But I am not a writer and I made my peace with that a long time ago. You are a writer. A very good one. A fantastic one. I can’t believe you managed to write that story. I couldn’t write that now, let alone at age 20. Now, you should be proud of this. Is it a small magazine, or what?”
“It’s Rolling Stone.”
My eyes go wide. There’s no hiding the shock this time.
“Are you serious?”
“I got a call from William Miller, an editor for them, yesterday while you were at work. He said he has a friend at ASU who sent along the story, thought, with it being about a band and all, that it might find a good place there. He wants to publish it.”
“That’s amazing, Rebecca. That’s fantastic.”
“I mean, he said there might have to be some tinkering. If there are problems with any of the song lyrics, I may need to try and write some scenes differently and use different songs.”
“Rebecca, look at me.”
She looks at me now. She is still worried, but it seems to be fading. I can also see the pride in her eyes. And she deserves that.
“You say to me, ‘I worked hard and I have earned my success’.”
“Bruce, I’m not gonna . . .”
I resort to the most base method of getting what I want. It works with Kayce. It used to work with Jess and Michelle and even Sarah. Thankfully, it doesn’t work on me so no one has ever been able to turn the tables on me.
I start to tickle her. Mercilessly.
“No, Bruce, stop.”
“Bruce, come on . . .”
“Say, ‘I worked hard and I have earned my success’.”
She looks for a second like she won’t do it, but she’s twisting all around and I’ve got her where I want her.
“Okay, okay. I worked hard and I have earned my success.”
“Good. I’m glad to hear you admit it,” I tell her.
“Well, there’s one other thing I do need to say.”
“I desperately need to fuck you.”
“I’m good with that.”
I’m sitting at my computer reading the contract that was e-mailed to her from Rolling Stone. She’s on the couch, wearing a tank top and panties and leaning forward in expectation, but all it does is drive me a bit crazy with desire because every time she leans forward a little she gives me a glance straight down her shirt. I shouldn’t feel like this given that we just finished with sex but I’m glad that she has this effect on me.
“Bruce,” she says.
“This looks really good, Rebecca. This is incredible.”
“Don’t try to . . .”
I turn to look at her. She’s looking me straight in the eyes, a deadly serious look.
“Bruce, do you want to hear about the U2 song.”
It takes me a second, as I try to think of any U2 song that is referenced in “A Different Corner” but I come up blank. Then I remember what happened months ago, when she freaked out on Kayce while I was out to dinner with Kyle. I turn the chair so I am facing her, ready to allow her to tell her story.
“Are you ready to tell me.”
“I think I am.”
So she tells me the story. As I start to listen to her, I understand why she had no difficulties writing “A Different Corner”. When I tell a story, I know how to grab attention, how to get someone straight into the action and then I keep going. Then I lose my way. I struggle to see where the ending is and often times there is no ending. Rebecca has no such problem. She is blessed with the natural ability to tell a story, to find the moment when the story separates itself out from all the other aspects of life that have come before it. And she knows where to define the ending.
My dad, he was gone very early on. He was a sailor, like a lot of men in San Diego. He met my mom and they had me and then he must have realized that the life of a husband and a father was something different than what he had expected and so he escaped to the sea. He used to write when I was little, but even that began to dry up. My mother even moved us close to the water, down in La Jolla, but it didn’t matter. For him, everything dried up except the sea.
I certainly wasn’t the only girl in my class who had a sailor for a dad, a sailor who wasn’t there. But most of the other dads at least came back from time to time. There was something to hold on to, some semblance of hope. I would go through love affairs with the ocean, loving it like I felt my father must have, wanting to understand the way the waves could talk to me, if there was something there worth escaping to. Then, as I got a little older, I began to understand that he hadn’t so much escaped to somewhere as escaped from somewhere. My mother and I were shackles he was unwilling to bear the burden of. So, I turned away from the ocean. And I would run hot and cold, all through my teen years, never deciding if I wanted to be near the water or escape inland.
My mother, she turned to something else. She found God. Or maybe that’s not quite right. Because it wasn’t God that appealed to her. It was a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, something that could organize her life. So she found church.
I think that’s why I was so sensitive when you teased me about being Catholic. Because for my mom, Catholicism wasn’t just about a belief in God. It was figuring out something that helped make her world make sense. There was absolution to be found there, the idea that things could be forgiven, while they may haunt us forever, they need not hold us down. We can be forgiven.
It was easy for her to make time for the church. She was a bank teller, so she had very specific hours that never interfered with church. She never had to work at nights or be there too early in the morning. She never had to work on Sundays. So going to church filled in more and more of her time. But she wasn’t a fanatic about it. This was her life and she didn’t try to make it mine. I went with her on Sundays and I was confirmed but it never became a part of me to the extent that it became a part of her. And that only became more important when she met Sam.
Sam worked for the Diocese, which was over on the other side of I-5, but he lived in La Jolla, so he went to our local church. Catholicism was his whole life, but he never felt like he was cut out to be a priest. He was smart enough to know that things that he wanted, a wife, a family, weren’t things he could have as a priest, but that there were other ways for him to serve God and his church. He met my mom when I was 11 or 12, sometime around there. Eventually, they started seeing each other a lot on Sundays after church. That lead to dating. By the time I was 14, I had a stepfather.
Stepfathers are a tricky thing when you tell a story. What are you supposed to make of them? Will they turn out to be the villain? Do stories about real life have a villain? Sam wouldn’t turn out to be the villain, but he would turn out to be something else. An obstacle, perhaps, to finding my own life. But we’ll get to that in time.
Things went well for a few years. It was nice to actually have a father in my life. He was stern, because the rule of the church meant so much to him, but he wasn’t strict. He tried to guide my life but not to rule it, at least then. And he loved my mother with a fierce intensity. It was nice to see. It gave my life some order as I was going through high school and trying to figure out what I wanted to do.
But, just around the time that I was starting to look at colleges, preparing for what was going to be my next step in life, life got in the way.
My mom started to act strange. She would be forgetful. She would be a bit erratic. And Sam started to worry about her. So finally he brought her to the doctor and they ran some tests. It turned out she had early-onset Alzheimer’s. Suddenly, it didn’t look like I was going to be headed off to college after all.
Most of my senior year of high school, I spent looking after my mom. I would go to school, and as soon as it was over, I would head home to watch over her. Every now and then on Saturdays, I could escape to the beach with my friends, but for the most part, when I wasn’t at school, I was keeping an eye on her. She was slipping away. She started forgetting things. Then came graduation.
Sam was parking the car and I was already in my place in my seat. My mother wandered off. It was over 48 hours before we found her. Someone at the beach called the cops because of the woman who seemed bewildered and lost.
After that, I settled into watching her all the time. I spent most of what should have been my Freshman year at college staying with her. I was helping her eat. I was helping her live. And everyday, her notion of who I was, was just slipping away from her. I was just a stranger, someone who helped her out during the day. I needed an escape, and yet, how could I escape? She was my mother. She had always been there for me. She never let me lose hope, even when it became clear that my father was never coming back.
At the same time that my mother was slipping away, I was becoming all the more necessary for Sam’s life. He’s a natural Catholic. He craves the church, not just because the notion of faith speaks to him, but because the Catholic church, of all organized religions, provides the most structure. Sam needs structure to make his life work. Marrying my mother had worked for that. She was a bank teller. It was a job that had very specific hours, hours that didn’t change. So, for a man who liked to have breakfast and dinner ready at specific times, to have those times stick to a schedule, being married to a bank teller worked perfectly. But, once she got sick, the schedule didn’t work. And it was hard on Sam.
It’s hard to know how to describe Sam. In some ways, think of Phileas Fogg from Around the World in 80 Days. He craves structure and precision and he doesn’t tolerate anyone who can’t live up to that. Sam would never hit me, he would rarely even yell. But you could see the displeasure in his eyes, feel how he would grow cold. But he knew that he couldn’t grow cold towards my mother. First of all, he loved her so much. She brought life and joy into what had been a fairly sheltered life for so long. And second, he understood what was going on. He knew that her inability to live up to the standards that he had, to standards that she had unfailingly fulfilled for years, was not her fault. This was a sickness and nothing she could do, nothing he could do, could overcome that. So Sam didn’t know what to do, and it hurt to watch him grow cold in himself, because he didn’t know where else to turn.
So I gave him heat. Don’t misunderstand that. I provided him with structure and order. I made the breakfast. I made the dinner. I kept the life going in the household, no matter what was going on with my mother. And he came, perhaps, to rely on me too much. To look to me, for, I don’t know. Support? Family? Companionship? Compassion? Love?
So, the day finally came when we couldn’t keep my mother at home anymore. She was too apt to do something suddenly, something that could put her in danger. And I had already taken over a year off and I needed to start my life. So we found a good home and we set up everything for my mom. And, I started looking at schools again.
But Sam said that it wouldn’t work. He needed me at home. He needed me when he would go to visit my mother. The words he used were ‘the structure you provide to this household is indispensable to me and I need you to stay.’ But, what it felt like, was ‘you can’t leave me and I won’t let you go’.
So, what to do? I was nineteen by this time, my friends had gone off to school. I had been willing to go to UCSD, to stick close to home and look in on my mom, but I also wanted to get into a dorm, to get out of the house that started to feel like it was trapping me. But Sam was adamant that he wouldn’t pay for it and that I couldn’t go. He needed me home.
So, finally, I pushed myself as far as I could. I had made up my mind that what I needed was to get myself thrown out. Sam wouldn’t let me leave on my own. And I needed an excuse to get far from home. So I needed to do something that Sam wouldn’t be able to cope with, something that would make him have to throw me out. It seemed like the only way out.
So I decided on sex. I needed to get caught having sex in the house. It was the one thing I knew would really rile him up. I don’t think Sam would have ever acted untoward in regards to me, but it felt like he was hoping that perhaps I would turn to him, that at some point I might offer the companionship he could no longer get from my mother. So it felt like I needed him to see that he wouldn’t be my first if that was the case. I needed an excuse for him to push me away and not want me, if indeed he wanted me. So sex was the answer. But the question still lingered. Sex with whom?
This was a worrying proposition. For one thing, I wanted it to be with someone I cared enough about to lose my virginity. But I also didn’t want to get tied down in a real relationship. My goal was getting out, after all. That narrowed the potential list. The goal seemed to be, a friend, but a friend who wasn’t looking for a relationship. But I also wanted to narrow Sam’s options and speak to his prejudices. If I slept with a Catholic, Sam might seriously try to push me into marriage. I certainly didn’t want that. Even a Protestant might bring up that problem. A Lutheran might have worked but I simply didn’t know any. So I decided it needed not to be a Christian. Then I expanded it. It needed to be someone who wasn’t raised in any Abrahamic religion. Sam had enough respect for other religions to acknowledge the importance of faith to someone who worshipped God, especially a God who came, in some way, from the same tradition as his own faith.
But what about gods? If God was out, maybe I could look for a pantheon. And that’s what made the decision for me. I have a friend named Sanjeev. He was a good friend and he was back home for Thanksgiving. I was willing to lose my virginity to him and I figured he would be willing to take it and lose his own in the process without feeling the need to want to keep things going for long. But the most important bit was that he was raised Hindu. It seemed the perfect out.
But I was nervous. I hadn’t ever had sex. I had barely had a boyfriend in a while because of caring for my mother. And I was concerned about how Sam would react, if he would go off the deep end. But this felt like the answer, like what I had to do. So I worked myself up to it. With a song.
You’ve got to leave it behind. Leave it behind. You must know the words, you have the album. “Walk On” was the perfect song for what I was doing. I was trying to leave it all behind. My mother. Sam. The life I had been living. I needed to find a way to put it behind me. So I was listening to the song, not just every day, but like every hour. I was looking to it for my hope, my future, my dream. I needed to let it all go, to leave it all behind, to walk on. And so I did.
I won’t give you all the details. But I needed to make certain Sam got the image. I needed something that would burn into his brain. Just having sex wasn’t going to be enough. But to find his stepdaughter on the floor, on all fours, with the bottom half of her black bikini on the floor and a boy raised Hindu who has no use for his Christian god doing her from behind? That was going to be more than he could take.
And it was. He came into the room because the door was open and because the U2 album was blaring at top volume, though I think it was well past “Walk On” by that point. And then he seemed to just stumble back. He didn’t yell, but it was clear he saw us and we both saw him. And he somehow made his way out of the room and I let Sanjeev finish and then I threw on some shorts and a t-shirt and I went to find him.
He was quiet and soft but he wasn’t anything like calm and collected. He just kept looking at the floor and finally he said ‘I can’t have you staying here anymore.’
I was surprised at how much the sorrow had been building inside of me. I had grown up in this house, all through high school, after they got married. But this was what I had wanted. This was what I had needed.
So I left. I grabbed some of the stuff I really wanted, packed some clothes, some books, some cd’s. Then I went to a friend’s house where I could crash over the holiday.
My best friend, she had gone off to the University of Washington. She hadn’t really taken to dorm living, so she had an apartment even though she was only a Sophomore. She said I could stay with her for a while, so I took a bus north and stayed there until the end of the school year.
Some of the stuff in the story, it came from life, from watching some local bands play their hearts out every night in clubs. I got a job working in one and I got to watch it. And I got really into music for those months and I started writing. I mean, I had always written, had taken a creative writing class in high school. I loved to write just like I loved to read. And being in Seattle was an inspiration. So the story just flowed out of me, though I made myself not include any U2. It just felt too raw at the time.
When the school year ended, my friend, Karen, she was headed back to San Diego and so I went with her. I needed to see my mom, even if she wouldn’t know who I was. And I needed to talk to Sam, to see if he was okay.
So we sat there, the two of us, in the warm spring sunshine at a table outside a small little seafood place, up by the university. He still had a hard time looking at me. His eyes just kept straying to my hair and I couldn’t decide if he was admiring my hair or trying to avoid my eyes. He was clearly still hurt but he also seemed to have come to some sort of understanding that I needed a break from him, from the house, from the life that had me trapped. He said that he was not comfortable with having me come home and I started to explain that I wasn’t asking to come home but he cut me off. He explained that he knew I should go to college. He asked me if I wanted to return to Seattle and go to school there. But the rain wasn’t something I was anxious to return to. I wanted the glorious sun on my face. But I also knew I needed some distance from the life I had grown up in. I asked him if he could help me so that I could maybe come here to Phoenix, to go to Arizona State. I had thought of applying here when I originally was looking at colleges and I was fairly certain I could get in and even an out-of-state public school would be a better financial bet than going to private school. He said that he could help me out to start, give me some money so that I could get settled. I said that sounded more than fair. He asked me what we were supposed to do next. It seemed like there were so many things he was asking me with that question. But I simply answered ‘we have lunch and then we go visit mom’.
I move my chair towards her. She’s not looking at me, but looking down. I look at her hair and remember how I looked at it back at Lindbergh Field, how it was the first thing that caught my eye, even before her book and how maybe that reminded her of that lunch with her stepfather. I take her hands in my left hand but my right hand I bring to her chin and push it up so that she can’t escape my eyes.
When she’s looking at me and I see the tears in her eyes and I know how much telling this story has haunted her, I bring my thumb up to just below her eye, wipe the tear away. I lean in and kiss her, bringing my left hand up to run through her hair.
When this kiss is over I stand up and pull at her hand.
“Come on. Back to bed.”
“But we did that.”
“No. What we did was some serious fucking. Now it’s time to go make love.”
I finish reading Chamber of Secrets and put it down on the table. A lot of times when I re-read all the Harry Potter books, I skip the first two books. They’re almost too easy to read, so quick and easy, with so many things in black and white. It’s with the third book that things really get interesting, just like the third movie was a big step up over the first two. But, since I didn’t know how long I would have to stay in the hospital and how long I would be off my feet, I asked my dad to bring me all six books. God, I can’t believe I’ve got over a year to wait to see how it all ends.
I swing my legs over the side of my bed. I pick up the crutches that the doctor has given me and let the weight come down on my left foot. They’ve fitted me with something called a soft cast and I still have to wait a few days before I come back and get the hard cast. But they said I can probably go home tonight and dad is supposed to be back after his game to pick me up.
I put my weight on my left foot and slowly stand up. I have the crutches under my armpits now and I stand up, making certain not to bump my right leg. I move the crutches forward and then slowly take a step. After the first couple of steps, it starts to become easier. I’ve been walking around my room for five minutes when I hear a voice from the door.
“Looks like you’re gonna be okay, squirt.”
I turn and see Brian Cole. He’s kind of geeky and he’s a bit weird-looking but he’s also the best three-point shooter dad has ever had on one of his teams so that makes him kind of cool at the same time. He knows who I am because I’ve been to a lot of practices and because I usually go to all the games. In fact, I think this might be the first one of dad’s games I’ve missed since before mom died.
“What are you doing here?” I ask him.
“You weren’t at the game. We were worried about you. Coach said you broke your leg.”
“That’s nice for you to come see me.”
“Oh, it’s not just me,” he says, turning back to the hallway and yelling “hey, guys, it’s okay, she’s awake and dressed.”
Then I’m suddenly face to face with eleven high school guys all cramming into my hospital room.
“You brought the whole team?”
“You’re our mascot, squirt. We need you at our games cheering for us.”
“We’re here to sign your cast.”
“But I only have a soft cast right now. I don’t get a hard cast for a few more days.”
“Then we’ll have to sign it at the next game.”
“Yeah, you will be at the next game, right?”
“We were terrible tonight. We got crushed.”
“Yeah, you have to be at the next game.”
They’re all talking so fast I can’t keep track of who is saying what. But then a female voice comes in and that one is easy to recognize. She’s the only female voice outside of school that’s regularly in my life.
“You’re walking! And you have visitors.”
As one, all eleven guys turn to look at Rebecca. And it’s like watching my dad whenever a movie with Julia Roberts is on. Suddenly their eyes are wider and they’re paying way more attention than you were expecting.
“Apparently the team missed me at the game,” I say.
“Well, we all missed you at the game,” Rebecca says.
“You were at our game?”
“You don’t go to Tempe High do you?”
“No way, man, I would recognize her if I had ever seen her on campus.”
“Actually, I go to Arizona State.”
“How old are you?” Carl, the team center, brazenly asks her.
“I’m twenty. How old are you?”
“What were you doing at our game?”
“She’s my dad’s girlfriend,” I say, but when Rebecca starts to blush a little I wonder if maybe that wasn’t the right information to divulge to my dad’s basketball team. They all turn to look at me, then they all turn to look at her.
“Wait, Coach has a girlfriend who goes to Arizona State?”
“Coach has a girlfriend who’s twenty?”
“Coach has a hot blonde for a girlfriend?”
These are probably not questions that my dad wants to be dealing with and I hope we can somehow change the conversation to something else before he comes in. He can’t be far behind.
“How on earth did Coach get you to go out with him?” Brian asks.
“We met on a plane. He won me over by quoting Faulkner to me.”
There is a very long pause in the conversation and a strange silence settles on the room and it’s at that moment that my dad chooses to walk in to find me walking and to find his entire team standing there, staring at Rebecca.
“Okay, this is not what I was expecting to find,” he says.
His point guard, a Junior named John, but who gets called Muggsy after an NBA player who was about the same height, gets down on his knees in front of my dad and puts his hands forward as if he is trying to pray to him.
“Coach, I swear to God, I will read any Faulkner book that you give to me.”
This just makes Rebecca blush furiously and the rest of the team busts up laughing. I slowly make my way over to my dad and he smiles as he sees me walking on the crutches.
“I hear you lost,” I say.
“I see that you’re walking.”
“Yep. And there’s more good news.”
“What is that?”
With a nod towards Muggsy, I say “You finally got one of your students to appreciate Faulkner.”