Where Angels Fear to Tread
I want to say it should be funny. Irony is the advanced sort of humor, a dark way of looking at life and finding it funny. Irony is the calling card of the cynics. It just somehow never strikes me as funny.
My best friend is a cynic. My husband is a romantic. Yet, they both adore irony. My husband would argue that’s because they are flip sides of the same coin, that a cynic is just a romantic who has been beaten down enough by life or love to accept certain bitter realities. Or that the romantic hasn’t been beaten down enough. But perhaps that is irony. And I don’t appreciate irony.
Like this. My best friend’s wife, another of my closest friends, has been slowly dying for years. She slept with the wrong person, a person too dumb to use a clean needle and she was too dumb to use a condom and in the end they both were fucked. It came back to bite her in the ass. Or in her blood, I should say. Her husband and my husband, best friends since the day they met, are very big on accuracy.
Little by little, her immune system has been eaten away, been compromised, been weakened, to the point where a minor infection could be potentially fatal. But I get to die first. What I’ve got, something called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease because he’s the most famous person to ever die of it. The typical length from onset to death is between two to four years. Sometimes it’s not that long. Gehrig went from Major League Baseball player to dead in just over 25 months. I’ve only been sick for eighteen months, but it doesn’t look like I’ll get as lucky as that luckiest man on the face of the earth.
It was a big deal when my best friend’s wife first got sick. It was the disease that no one in the world wanted to get, the one that everyone is convinced is an instant death sentence, although that is no longer really the case. Besides, as my husband would want to so accurately point out, it’s not my ALS or her HIV or even Ebola that’s the deadliest disease on earth, so I suppose we should both be glad we don’t have rabies. But it was a big deal to her. She tried to kill herself. We talked her out of it. Instead, she gets to come over everyday and watch me die. She’s not the best when it comes to cheering me up.
But there is my husband. He’s a romantic. He believes in love. He believes in hope. He believes. For him, faith is an endless well that will continually push us all forward and out of reach of life’s great folly of despair. But still, in spite of that, he gets to watch me die. Isn’t that funny? It’s not? Well, I never much appreciated irony anyway.
“You know, right, Sarah, that the two of you are listed as Kayce’s guardians, should anything happen to Bruce.”
“What about you?”
“I think it’s safe to say that I won’t be an impediment in that process.”
“Placing a child in our hands is not the greatest parental move.”
“You both love her.”
“Kyle had a chance to be her father once before. He backed out. And I won’t be around forever.”
“It’s only a contingency plan.”
“I notice, Michelle, that you never react to the outrageous things that I say.”
“I’m sorry. Did you say something outrageous?”
“I suggested that my husband could have been yours.”
“That’s not outrageous. Merely accurate. And you know Kyle, he’s big on accuracy.”
“Did you ever sleep with him?”
“Why are you always so obsessed with who slept with whom? Maybe we should just make you a chart.”
“Kyle could turn it into an Excel spreadsheet.”
“I’m not sure you’d come out very well, Sarah.”
“I came out with HIV. That is definitely not very well.”
“Maybe you should have slept with me. It might have been safer for you all around.”
“I was never concerned with safety.”
“Did they not teach the concept of safe sex in Orange County?”
“You know how it is among the fucking Republicans. Condoms bad. Drugs bad.”
“You’re in a bitchy mood. Are you horny?”
“Yeah. Maybe if you pass it on to me, it’ll kill me quicker.”
Sarah has long been known for her inattention to tact, for her tendency to say whatever springs to mind, regardless of whether it should be said, and thus, it is very hard to ever surprise her, or, especially, to shock her. But this time I think I may have done it. She normally gets a pass from our friends because of her condition. I think I’ll get one too.
“Pick your jaw up off the floor, Sarah, honey. It’s unbecoming.”
“If you were a guy, you’d like it when my mouth is that wide open.”
“I have no dick for you to suck, dear.”
“That’s not a song lyric,” I reply, since her life tends to revolve around lyrics.
“They don’t all have to be song lyrics. Sometimes I can just be deep and meaningful.”
“By quoting movie lines?”
“By quoting a movie line with a lot of subtext from a deep and interesting movie.”
“Look, Sarah, I’ve chosen life for as long as I can. I still choose life. I’m just running out of time.”
“I don’t know how Bruce would cope without you.”
“Bruce is stronger than anyone believes. He is the anchor that has kept us all grounded in reality.”
“I’m not sure that Kyle could cope,” she says and I think she surprises herself in saying it.
“You may be right,” I say and I worry about how he will cope.
“I may be crazy,” she replies, more the level of dialogue I have come to expect.
“Sarah, honey, they is no maybe about it. You’ve been crazy since that first day God gave you to the world and it’s been obvious to me since the day Paul stood on the table and declared himself in charge because he was the loudest.”
“He fucks the loudest.”
“Does he really?”
“He talks. A lot.”
“What kind of stuff?”
“Dirty. He likes to talk both people into the game and then push it to the conclusion. Then he would cum and want to flee.”
“Not so good a lover.”
“Well, no, he’s a good lover. But if you’re fucking him, he’s not so good a friend.”
“Why did we all blindly follow him, no matter where he lead us?” I ask.
“He was in charge. And he fucking well knew it.”
“Because he was the loudest?”
“Sort of. But he was just always in charge. He was stronger than Sean or Kevin, more full of confidence than Jenn or Kate, more admired than Bruce, more willful than you and he had more faith than Kyle.”
“Would you still follow him today?”
“Would you still fuck him?”
“Today, probably not. But sometime next week, when the hairdo is not so new, then possibly,” she says, getting up and walking over to the window. As she does this, I start to feel something in my throat. I reach to my throat as Sarah keeps talking. “His style of sex is rough on the hair. I wouldn’t want to let him mess up this new do.” I’m listening, but it’s harder and I’m struggling to breathe. I try to say something to Sarah but I can’t force enough air out to get anything out. I try to reach for her and get her attention but everything goes dark.
In and out of consciousness, I relive the Month of Many Conversations. That’s how Bruce and I like to describe June of 2003, although it really started at the end of May, when Bruce and Kyle took Kayce to the reunion over Memorial Day weekend up in San Francisco.
The first conversations came that night. Bruce and Kyle got back home. Sarah had not been feeling up to going and I, myself, had been feeling really run down, so the two of us stayed home together and the guys took Kayce. And then they came home and Bruce explained what had happened, how they had run into Gary, which I probably should have thought about and that Gary had realized that he was the father of a child. But that was actually the easy part of the conversation. The harder part came when I sat Kayce down the next day.
“Dear,” I said to her, as she looked expectingly at me, as if the answers would flow as smoothly from my lips as they always had from Bruce’s, “do you know who that was last night?”
“There were a lot of people, Mom.”
“You met someone named Gary.”
“Yeah, he seemed nice. He was interested in my eyes.”
I looked at Bruce. Time had slowed, crawling along at a pace I could not fathom. I looked to Bruce for answers, not just then, but for always, from the day he flirted with me in the milkshake place down the street from his parents’ house, to that moment when I was faced with a larger truth that I had tried to contain and was now slipping into our lives anyway.
“Kayce, honey, you know your friend Shawna at school.”
“You know how she’s got two moms, but not a dad.”
“You know how her moms talk about her biological father.”
“Yeah, her bio-dad. Because he doesn’t live with them, so he’s not really her dad.”
“Well, Gary is your biological father, honey.”
“That guy tonight?”
“Well, yes, honey. He’s your father.”
And then Kayce stood up and sat on Bruce’s lap.
“Mom, this is my dad. I don’t need another one.”
And at that point it was hard to say anything more because Bruce was crying and holding Kayce tight and Sarah was bawling louder than I have ever heard her and Kyle was trying to get her to calm down until Sarah finally said, “Don’t you tell me to calm down, Kyle Andrew Barton, that was the most beautiful fucking thing I have ever seen.” And Kayce just looked at me and she looked at Bruce and the three of us held each other tight. It seemed like such a good moment, but it was the opening salvo in the Month of Many Conversations.
“I am being transferred to Phoenix,” Kyle told us, just over a week later. The four of us were sitting there in the kitchen, with Kayce having already gone to bed. It was so easy for the four of us to be part of the same family, with the next door condos in Menlo Park. We had moved in at the same time, Kyle working close by in Palo Alto and I was able to get a CPA job in Menlo Park itself. At the time, Bruce was still trying to make it as a writer and it wasn’t until later that he would get the teaching degree and find a job in San Jose. The four of us had gotten so close ever since the days when Bruce and Kyle still shared an apartment and Bruce and I got married. And now it looked as if it were coming to an end.
“When?” Bruce asked.
“Sometime next month.”
“Because they need people down there who speak Spanish, because I don’t have a child in school and I have a wife who doesn’t work, because I am still quite low on seniority.”
“So, this is it, then?”
“It certainly would appear so.”
“This is going to be really rough on Kayce.”
That conversation wasn’t long and in the end, it didn’t matter that it wasn’t long. That wasn’t the conversation that decided matters. It was a way station. Things might have been different if I had loved the Bay Area and had wanted to stay, but I was from LA and I wanted more sunshine in my life, more warmth. And it was the next conversation that really started to change things. Bruce was able to get someone to cover his final class the next day and since it was so late in the year, there wasn’t any basketball to be coached. Sarah agreed to pick up Kayce from school (“I won’t have to look for her out there, she’s the brightest light in the first grade.”) and Bruce drove me to the doctor’s office. So we were sitting there together when he sat down with us and explained the results from my blood work, explained why I kept seeming so tired, that this was much more than a touch of the flu, that this was serious.
“It’s called Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis,” the doctor said. I stared at him but I could feel Bruce tense up in his chair. I turned to look at him and it felt like he was the one struggling to breathe rather than all the difficulty I had been having with my own lungs. I gave him a look and he knew to answer it right away.
“It’s Lou Gehrig’s Disease, hon. It’s what Stephen Hawking has.”
I turned to look at the doctor and his face was stone and solemn as he nodded slowly.
“People live with it then,” I said, thinking of seeing Hawking on television in his wheelchair, thinking of that time he was on The Simpsons. The doctor looked like he wanted to say something comforting but Bruce, well, Bruce was always into accuracy, into being precise.
“No, they don’t. Hawking’s the very rare exception.”
I looked at Bruce and I could see how worried he was. I turned back to the doctor and started to realize how serious this was.
“How long do people live with it?” I asked him. He took a deep breath and answered my question.
“Most people live between two to five years. The average survival time is three years.”
“How many people live with it like Hawking does?”
“Less than 20% of people with ALS live more than five years beyond the diagnosis. Less than 10% live longer than ten years.”
“So I have a very small chance of reaching 40,” I said.
“If you would like me to be brutally honest, Mrs. Yale, the odds are that you might not even reach thirty.”
That conversation changed everything, of course, but it seemed like all the conversations that month were changing everything.
It was late that night when Bruce and I were talking. I had talked him into sex, said that I needed it, that we both needed it, that who knew how much longer we might have to enjoy it before things got really rough. I had spent the drive home reading the literature that the doctor had given me and none of it sounded encouraging. We hadn’t told Kyle or Sarah anything, but we had asked them if they could watch Kayce for the night and they agreed without question or hesitation.
In the post-coital reverie, I popped into the closet and grabbed Bruce’s jacket. He was tense and I thought he needed a good image of me with just his jacket and a pair of black panties on, so I put my leg out and gave him a little show before coming out. He was struggling to smile. I could see the desire in his eyes but it was laced with an overbearing sadness. Maybe that’s the downside of marriage, that while it gives you someone to be with, it means that when things go bad it doesn’t just affect you alone. But as I sat down next to him on the bed, a thought that had been rattling around my head since the night before and as I sat there and stared at the jacket, the jacket I was wearing the day we first started falling in love with each other, I didn’t look at him when I started that next conversation.
“You like me in this jacket,” I said.
“I do like you in that jacket.”
“How upset would you be if I couldn’t wear it anymore?”
“How do you mean?”
“Like, if we lived somewhere where I wouldn’t ever have a need to wear it.”
“Like somewhere warm?” he asked. I turned to look at him and he had gotten it, just like I knew he would. Because he’s always been one of the smartest people I know. I felt like I needed to be brutally honest in this conversation, that we needed to have everything on the table. Because this wasn’t just about me or him or even us. It was about Kayce.
“It’s not because I love him, you know,” I said to him. He looked at me and there was something like a smile, something like a wince, something I couldn’t begin to describe, yet completely Bruce.
“It’s the best thing for Kayce, staying together. And later, it might be the best thing for you. To have them around. To have him around, because Sarah won’t be around forever either.”
“None of us will be around forever.”
“Bruce, you know . . .”
“My teaching certificate will transfer to Arizona.”
I paused before I responded to that.
“I checked today before I picked you up.”
I looked at him in amazement. He shrugged and added, “It’s what’s best for Kayce.”
I went to his side, running my hands across his face. I kissed him as passionately as I could and decided that one round of sex wasn’t enough for the night.
It was a week later when the final conversation ensued. We began it with the treat, the revelation that later that day, Bruce and Kyle would be taking Kayce up to the city for the Giants game. It was the World Series year, with Barry Bonds in the middle of another monster season that had inspired shouts of devoted frenzy as well as bitter whispers of cheating. We started with the good news – that she would be indulging in her favorite treat, a baseball game with her father and uncle. But that was followed by the other news – that there would be very few such trips in our future, at least in San Francisco. Our new baseball stadium was going to be where the Diamondbacks played. The bad news was that she was going to be leaving her home and where she had grown up. The good news was that we didn’t have to tell her that her uncle was moving away because we would be staying together as a family. We probably would try to buy a house in the Phoenix area, so there would be no more next door condos, but we would probably still live close by. She took it with ease and grace, the same way she always seemed to take everything with ease and grace, as if she were so much older than any other child her age. Of all the talks we had during the Month of Many Conversations, that may have actually been the easiest.
I find it hard to move when I wake up and I realize I am on a ventilator. Kyle is already standing over me before I am even fully awake and I wonder if there are felons who have awoken like this, staring up at him and probably feeling a lot less at ease than I do. Because of the ventilator I can’t really say anything but he seems to understand what I’m asking.
“Sarah’s getting Kayce from school. Bruce is at home getting everything settled.”
My eyes must do a good job of asking questions because Kyle seems to understand to explain that further.
“We know you don’t want to be here, but we had to get you breathing right away. Bruce is getting hospice care set up. Your mother got here a little while ago. She’s out talking to the doctor at the moment.”
Again my eyes seem to ask the question and again he can understand me. I was right to have chosen him the first time just as he was right to have declined.
“About seven hours or so. It’s almost four in the afternoon.”
He gives me his hand and I squeeze it tight. It’s hard to think right now and I think they must have given me some morphine because nothing focuses very well. I hold on to his hand and slip back into darkness and memories.
It’s the day before Thanksgiving in 1995 and because of a late start, it’s close to 9 PM before we get into Bakersfield. If we had gone the quick route, we probably would be at my mother’s house by now, but we decided to make a trip of it and come down 99, through Modesto, Merced and Fresno. If we plowed straight through the Grapevine and down towards home it would probably be after midnight by the time we got home and I don’t want to risk waking Kayce by getting in late, so I talk him into staying in a motel, saying we’ll be there in plenty of time to have Thanksgiving with my mother. We check into a Holiday Inn and head across the street for some dinner.
After dinner, I am standing in the room, looking out at the pool. It’s still warm enough, even in late November, to use it, but maybe because it’s the night before Thanksgiving and because we’re in Bakersfield of all places, the pool stands empty. I am standing there, just looking out, when I feel him come up behind me and kiss me softly on the neck. I shudder a little and turn to look at him. I put my arms around him and pull him closer to me. I wonder if this is cheating. I wonder if Jenn will hate me if she eventually finds out. But they’re over, that’s what she’s promised me, and he isn’t beholden to her. So I pull him close and kiss him passionately.
When the kiss is over he stares at me, brushing my hair back from close to my eyes.
“Are we here for a reason?” he asks.
“You’re coming to my mother’s house for Thanksgiving.”
“We could have been there. Are we stopped for the night for a reason?”
“I can think of a good one,” I say, a little bit flirty, a little bit scared.
“There is no one I would rather be with,” he says.
When the lovemaking is finished, he’s sitting in a chair staring out the window, a hotel towel wrapped around his waist. I keep looking at him and now is when I start to get nervous and it’s not just because I’m also only wearing a towel. The sex was the easy part. Now I have to tell him the truth.
“Kyle,” I say.
“Yeah?” he says, but without turning his head.
“I have something to confess.”
“If you want to stay in the hotel all weekend you’re gonna end up owing me an entire pumpkin pie for missing out on Thanksgiving dinner.”
“It’s not about that. It’s about something else.”
Now he does look at me. He stands and comes over and sits on the bed next to me. I take a deep breath and make the plunge.
“I’ve never had strep throat.”
I start with that. I know the questions will come now and I’m trying to prepare for it. I’ve decided to give him a minute to think about it but he doesn’t even need a second.
I almost jump as a response. I look at him and he’s staring straight at me. He puts his hand on my knee and rubs gently.
“How could you know? How do you even know . . .” but that’s as far as I get. I forget who he is and how he functions, how he observes the world and what he remembers.
“When you came back, after missing Rachel’s funeral, you were a bit heavier than you had usually been. Not quite as heavy as you were when we all left school in May, but even then your weight gain hadn’t been to the point where any average person, even a close friend, would have noticed, even a roommate. By September, you had clearly gained weight and then lost it. Your breasts, which have always been magnificent, were actually larger than they had been before. Weight gain and loss is extremely common among college students, especially ones who have gone through a stressful event. But that kind of weight fluctuation combined with the increase in bust size lead to an obvious conclusion, or at least one obvious to someone who keeps such a close eye on the people around him. The chronology of events fits the pattern of all the other pieces. Given your extreme nervousness at inviting me down to your mother’s for Thanksgiving even though I have met your mother already would suggest that you didn’t go for adoption, but rather that your mother has been raising the child. Given her job as a set designer in major motion pictures is one that could easily allow her the financial means to hire a nanny when she is at work, it all seems to fit.”
He stops talking and stares at me. He’s known. He’s known all along. Holy fuck.
“Aren’t you the regular fucking Sherlock Holmes of the Oaks.”
“I observe people. It’s what I do.”
“Does anyone else know?”
“As far as I can tell no one else realizes that the strep throat story was one to cover the recovery time before you could return to school. They either legitimately believe you were sick or that you were trying to play for time and decide whether or not you wanted to return to school after the events of last December.”
“I guess you know everything.”
“I don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl,” he says.
“It’s a girl.”
“Did you still name her Casey?”
“How the fuck did . . .”
“Your Uncle Casey was your mother’s little brother and she was devoted to him. He died in the Gulf and it broke her heart. It was very hard on you when it happened and you decided you wanted to name your first kid Casey, a name that conveniently works well enough for either gender.”
“I don’t remember ever telling you that.”
“You had consumed a considerable amount of vodka that night and it is unlikely you would retain any memory of what you said.”
“How much did I say?”
“Nothing that Jenn or I would ever use to embarrass you.”
“I spelled the name differently.”
“I did name her Kayce. But I wanted to give her something that was uniquely hers. She got my uncle’s name, but I gave it a different spelling. K-A-Y-C-E.”
“It’s very nice.”
“I was hoping you would be taken with her,” I say, letting everything slip out now that the cards are on the table. And, for the first time, it seems like he doesn’t know how to respond. Did his deductions not lead him this far? Or was he just hoping this question would not come? Does he not want me?
He looks down for a minute. He takes a deep breath, brushing his hair back from his eyes and looks straight at me.
“I love you, Michelle. I love you passionately and deeply. I would marry you without question. But you need a father for Kayce. And I am not the right choice for that. My life growing up, all those years without a father, with a mother who was a complete fucking mess, letting me wander around the Castro with the world falling apart, with people dying all around us, that left its mark on me. I am incorrectly wired to help raise a child.”
I look away to keep the hurt look in my eyes away from his. I want to hide my shame at asking him for something like this and I am hurt even more that he can not say yes, that he will not say yes. But he takes me and looks directly in my eyes.
“I desperately want to be able to say yes to you, Michelle. To love you, to stay with you forever. But it would not be fair to you, to ask you to bear the burden of overcoming my deficiencies. It would not be fair to Kayce to have her cope with my faults. I will be there as much as I can for you. And I will love you. But I can’t be a father. I have a deep-rooted violent streak in me. Look at what I have done.”
“What exactly have you done?”
“Well, I was ready to kill Gary . . .”
“That one we can skip. There are certainly extenuating circumstances.”
“I gave Scott Cooper a pretty serious beating.”
“He killed Rachel. And he swung at you first.”
“No he didn’t.”
“But I thought the doctors . . .”
“He was a drunk driver who had killed someone. They backed my story.”
“Kyle . . .”
“I don’t trust myself, Michelle. Not with a child. I won’t take that risk. I can’t.”
I am barely breathing now, just wondering how we will get through this weekend. What do I do now?
“Will you still come down with me?” I ask.
“Of course I will. I want to see the child that came from you. And I’ll love her because she’s yours. I can’t be a father but I can still be there.”
“Can you make love to me?”
“That I can definitely do,” he says and he pushes both towels aside and lets them fall on the floor.
It’s my husband, not my first love, who helps guide them through the door. I’m still hooked up to the ventilator and from what I have been told, there is very little chance that I will be free of it again in this lifetime. Bruce has set up the dining room as a place for my bed to go. The table has been removed and everything I might need is within arm’s reach of the bed. He has been busy while I have been out of it. He explains to me a schedule for who will be with me at which times. They have worked things out so that I will not be alone, just in case anything happens. But I have a feeling that at this point all we will be doing is waiting for things to happen. So I try to make myself as clear as I can without the power of speech.
I start to move my hands and he looks down at them. With my right hand, I use my index finger to point at the palm of my left hand. It takes him a second, but I keep tapping at the scar on my palm. He looks at me and I bring my hands out as if to hug someone. Then he understands.
“You think it’s time?”
I nod and when the tears start coming, I raise my hand to his face and wipe them away.
“Some of them won’t cope very well.”
I smile and nod. He does the same.
I wake to the sound of giggling. I recognize Kayce’s giggle easily enough. It’s a wonderful little laugh, just the kind an eight year old should have. It’s also not too hard to recognize Sarah. So much of the world she manages to laugh at, in spite of her own condition, and I have heard it more times than I can count. But it takes a little while to recognize that the third laugh, the third female voice, so light-hearted and silly, is my own mother.
I am able to sit up a little and so I spot Sarah when she peaks her head around the corner to look at me. When she sees me looking back, she ducks back around and I hear her say “Okay, she’s awake. Put it on.” I hear music and it only takes me a second to recognize “Papa Don’t Preach”, though I can’t figure out why they would put that on. But then I hear Sarah again, this time saying, “No, skip this.” Then I hear the opening music to “Open Your Heart” and I realize they are playing my copy of True Blue. It’s been my favorite album ever since it came out when I was still in elementary school. I must have worn out two copies of the tape, I listened to it so much and I eventually bought it on cd after I was in college. I still don’t know why they’re playing it, but then I recognize Sarah’s long beautiful leg come around the corner, with a nylon going up the leg and a garter high up on the thigh. Then, she swings around the corner and she’s dressed in the kind of fancy dress you might find on a saloon girl in an old Western. I wish I could start laughing, but I’m just amazed, especially when Kayce comes around the corner, also dressed like she’s an old-fashioned dancer and she’s dressed to the nines. I don’t know what film my mother got these costumes from, but it’s the only explanation. They have clearly been waiting for me to wake because they’ve got the words down pat and they’ve got moves to go with it. They come prancing into the room, dancing and singing along. Their moves are perfectly choreographed with each other.
“I see you on the streets and you walk on by,” Sarah lip syncs, moving in time to the music and turns, giving me a look at her profile.
“It makes me want to hang my head down and cry,” Kayce adds, coming around to Sarah’s back and leaning up against her.
“If you gave me half a chance you’d see, my desire burning inside of me but you choose to look the other way,” they sing together, their backs up against each other and both of them turned away from me. But then Sarah turns towards me.
“I’ve had to work much harder than this,” she sings.
“For something I want, don’t try to resist me,” Kayce adds, also turning towards me. Then they both start walking towards me, moving together in time.
“Open your heart to me, baby. I hold the lock and you hold the key. Open your heart to me, darling. I’ll give you love if you, you turn the key,” they both sing together as they walk towards me. I feel like my heart will burst and if I had to choose a moment to go, it would almost be this moment. They both come in close and continue to sing as they wrap themselves around me and I am reminded that in the midst of all this darkness, I am surrounded by a light that never stops burning.
We call it ‘The Diner with No Name’. It’s a block east of campus, with simply the word “Diner” on the front of it. The townies love it when it comes to breakfast but our group has always preferred it for lunch. They make a wonderful tuna melt and it’s what I’m sitting here not eating as Kyle stares at me. It’s the day after Christmas in 1996 and I’m trying to think about the future. My future. Kayce’s future.
“What are you asking?” he asks me and then takes a bite of his own tuna melt.
“I would like your advice.”
“Are you concerned about financial security?”
“Well, no, obviously not. I mean, my mom’s got money, obviously. She’s been a big help and it’s clear that she’ll help as long as she needs to. And I have a plan. It’ll take a year, but then I’ll have the Masters and I can take the CPA exam. After that, I should be mostly set on my own.”
“Then, again, what are you asking?”
“You have ruled yourself out,” I say and look down as I take a bite of my own lunch. I don’t look up for a minute, but just let himself think and talk. It hurts to feel rejected and in a sense, I shouldn’t feel rejected. He loves me. I love him.
“I have ruled myself out as Kayce’s father. That, sadly, rules me out as your husband. I am with Sarah now. It is a relationship with remarkable complications but they are complications that I am capable of dealing with, unlike the complications that would have existed in a marriage with you. That rules me out as a lover, as I will not walk away from Sarah. Aside from that, I am in for whatever you need from me.”
“Okay, well, I need some advice. My mother has been very good with raising Kayce, but I want her in my life everyday. I need her in my life everyday. I need to figure out something that helps that problem.”
“Then your best bet is to get married.”
“You’re saying I need a husband?”
“I’m saying Kayce needs a father, someone who would love her, someone who would be there for her, who could be around and make life work while you’re finishing what you need for your degree. Someone who loves you and that you love.”
“Well, that shouldn’t be too difficult to find, should it?”
“Paul is getting married in a few months.”
“Yeah, that’s not news to me.”
“Kevin and Kate will almost certainly get married at some point.”
“Again, not news to me. Is the next thing you’re gonna tell me that Sean is dead?”
“Jim would possibly make a passable father, but he’d be a pretty bad choice as a husband.”
“Is this a checklist?”
“As one of my idols once said, once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be true.”
I suppose it’s nice that he’s modeling himself on Sherlock Holmes at the moment rather than Batman or fucking Darth Vader, but that still doesn’t . . .
I take a deep breath. I focus for a minute on Kyle’s eyes, on those steely blue eyes that are so captivating. I think long and hard about what he is saying.
“You said someone who loves me,” I say.
“People don’t always know their hearts. But he does. Trust me.” He pauses for a second, then stares straight at me. “We all love you.”
“Someone I love.”
“Who is the most decent person you know? Who is the smartest guy you know? Who is the most loyal person you know? Of all the people you have ever met, who would make the best father? Who would almost certainly make the best husband? How could you not love that person?”
I continue to eat for a minute, taking a sip of my coffee as I do. We eat in silence and I think about it. Finally I talk again.
“A romantic connection would be nice.”
“Then go see if you have one.”
“He’s not back yet, is he? He’s not sitting back at your place trading song lyrics with Sarah, is he?”
“I’m supposed to go pick him up tomorrow. You go instead.”
This is not the advice that I thought I might get. But I don’t know what I thought he might say. And this is definitely something to think about.
The family has gathered. These people are not related by blood. I have no siblings, as my father, who I think has been relegated to directing direct-to-video films since the failure of his last two films, has never been part of any organized family. He knocked my mother up when she was designing sets for one of his films and my mother managed to parley some of his large salary at the time into the house in Rancho Palos Verdes. She only had one sibling, my Uncle Casey, who died somewhere in the desert when I was in high school and so I don’t have any cousins. I’ve only met Bruce’s parents once and that once was more than enough. He has cousins but he has pushed his family away and never looked back. Aside from my mother and my daughter, there are no biological connections to be found here, although I suppose we are all related by blood, the blood we all spilled up on the hill overlooking the lake on a very cold night, blood dripping away and burning up in the fire.
Paul and Sharon were the first to arrive. They must have hopped into the car and hauled ass from Orange County as soon as they got the call. The first thing I heard when I woke up was Sharon and Sarah complaining to each other about the politics in Orange County and Sarah expressing disbelief that Paul and Sharon would ever choose to live there when Sarah spent so much time trying to escape from it. I haven’t had a chance to ask yet, but I suspect that Sharon is pregnant yet again, which would make child number three to go along with Irving and Rachel. I was still awake when Kate and Kevin with their own Rachel showed up at the same time with Jenn. They must have all been on the same flight from SFO. I’m glad Jenn was able to find the time to come down since she’s just announced that she’s running for Congress next fall. She’ll win, of course. She always manages to do everything she has set out to do. Except perhaps marry Kyle.
I had drifted back into sleep before Jim and Laura arrived. It’s a shock to see Laura. I knew she was pregnant, of course, though it had slipped my mind in all the things that have been going on. It’s weird to see her so large, waddling around the room as if she is fit to burst. Apparently she had it done in vitro. She doesn’t seem to have decided which gender she is going to settle on, but I have noticed that her relationships with females seem to be much more settled. I suppose the females don’t have to live up to Paul in her mind.
Throughout all of this, there is Bruce. He is my rock. Kyle and Sarah have a handle on the family, getting them out when I need to sleep and allowing them close so they can have their goodbyes, goodbyes I treasure. They are the people that I love most in the world and I would not want to leave without seeing them one last time. My mother is here, of course, helping with Kayce, as she did for so much of the first two years of her life, as she has done for me so much all of my life. She has been everything for me that Bruce’s parents were not for him and I am so grateful that I have lived long enough to understand that and be thankful for it and to tell her that. But, of course, it is Bruce who is my rock. I can not believe that it took so long for me to notice him there, for him to escape the shadow of Jessica, for us to find each other.
I am crouched on the seat of a toilet somewhere in either Redondo Beach or Lawndale, right by where Hawthorne Blvd crosses the 405. I pulled off the highway a little while ago to head down that last stretch home and fear took over. I can’t seem to stop crying. Kyle was definitely right, that there would be a connection between Bruce and I, that I really do love him, that he really does love me. But that doesn’t mean he’ll be willing to take this on. But I won’t make the mistake I made with Kyle. Sleeping with him was so good, but I should have waited and talked to him about Kayce before we fucked. Waiting until afterwards only meant that the sex wasn’t destined to last. So I can’t make that mistake again. Kayce comes first.
I hear the knock on the door but I ignore it. When the knock comes again, much louder this time, I realize it must be Bruce. But I seem to have lost the ability to speak, so I don’t say anything. I look up when he walks in but I still don’t say anything. He comes to my side, runs his hand through my hair, pulls me close, lets me cry against his shirt. He doesn’t say anything either, just holds me there until he’s ready to kneel down and look at me. By this point, I’ve been crying so long I can barely see, so I wipe my eyes with his shirt.
“We don’t have to go if you don’t want,” he says.
“Yes. We do,” I explain to him. I wish I could just tell him now, but I think he needs to see her first. Maybe if he sees her first, he’ll say yes. How can he look at her and say no?
“We can find a place where no one will ever look for us, just a place where we can be us and not have to play any . . .” he is saying but I cut him off because it’s too much a reminder of what Kyle and I went through a little over a year ago.
“Bruce, you don’t understand yet, you can’t understand yet,” I explain to him. “I want to hold you now, to feel your lips on mine, your body up against me.” I want to confess about Kayce but I can’t yet, so I confess about me. “I need you, I want you, I wish I could have you, all of you, right now, every and any way I can think of. But I made a promise a long time ago. I need you to do this. Because, if you’re not willing to accept this, then it won’t work. You have to understand what’s gonna happen. I made a promise. I go though this before I sleep with anyone else. No fucking until all the work is done. And I really want to fuck you, Bruce. I need you.”
When he takes a partial step back, blocked by the wall from going any further, I start to worry. But then I understand the look in his eyes. Jessie may have loved him, I don’t know. But she sure as hell didn’t need him.
“There’s got to be a whole lot you’re not telling me about,” he says.
“I love you, Bruce,” I say, because I really do. “I love you. More than anyone I’ve ever met,” I add, though I can not say for certain if that’s true. “I don’t know why I couldn’t see this for the last few years, why it took so long.” That part is definitely true. “You’re the only one I want to take this journey with me.” That part, I realize, is also true. “But we have to get this over with. This has to come first.”
He looks at me and for once, I don’t try to drag him into Sarah’s game. I try to meet him on a level that will connect to him.
“How does it go?” I ask, and reach deep for my best Hamlet. “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. The readiness is all.”
He smiles and I think it’s the most wonderful smile I know.
“Yeah. That’s how it goes.”
“So just be ready. Because, you know, the readiness is all.”
“I love you,” he says.
That is enough to sustain me through the final stretch, down Hawthorne Blvd and into Rancho Palos Verdes, the lifestyles of the rich and obnoxious. I don’t bother to point out my high school as we go by, knowing there will be time enough for such things afterwards. I just need to get home, to get us through that door, to find the strength to ask him this.
The panic starts to rise up again once we’re in the driveway and I can’t even think about what he’s saying, about what I’m saying, I’m just trying to remember to breathe and I can’t even look at him and I’m wondering if we shouldn’t have just done something else, if maybe we should have just found a hotel and fucked the night away, but then he says ‘fuck it, this’ll be fun’ and he has kissed my hand and is out the door and I have to leap out of the car and run to catch up to him before he goes inside, but then at the front door I pause, almost freeze, until he nudges me slightly and so I open the door and there is my mother standing there with a soft smile and then I hear the voice say ‘Mama!’ and I remember why I am here, what my world is all about and Kayce comes waddling across the room and I reach down and pull her up into my arms and spin her in a circle and as I turn to Bruce, I can see from his eyes that he’s already figuring out all the timing, calculating backwards from Kayce’s age, to her birth, to her conception and my heart feels like it will break through my chest just like the creature in Alien, so I say all I can think of to say, which is ‘Kayce, this is Mama’s friend, Bruce’ and I look right at Bruce and I have never been so scared in all my life and then all time stops.
His eyes light up. They’re just like mine when I see Kayce. He smiles. He comes close. He whispers in my ear, softly, just low enough that I can hear but that Kayce won’t be able to listen and repeat the words and I hear the words I have been longing to hear.
“Fuck it. She can call me Daddy if she wants.”
I know now why Kyle pointed me in this direction, how much he knew about his best friend that the rest of us kept missing. I was not wrong when I told him I loved him, but I don’t think until today I knew how much that was true.
My mother seems impressed with him as well. Over dinner, she quizzes Bruce, but she doesn’t push at him. She liked Kyle a lot, but she, I think, also knew enough to hold him a bit at arm’s length.
“Do you think you can make a living at writing, Bruce?” she asks.
“I’d like to try. I’d have to have something that I can fall back on. I don’t know that I’m good enough.”
“I work in the industry, you know.”
“Well, that’s very nice, Ms. Palit, but screenwriting isn’t really where my interest lies.”
“Do you think you can write a novel?”
“Well, I know I can write a novel. The question is whether or not I can finish a novel.”
“He’ll have some time to write,” I say and they both look at me.
“Why is that, honey?” my mom asks.
“A CPA should get me a job pretty quick. I can give him some time to write.”
“That sounds like a plan for the future,” she replies and her tone is very telling, so I go with my trump card.
“Well, I’m not one hundred percent certain and there was no ring in sight, but I’m fairly sure that Bruce proposed to me just after meeting Kayce,” I say and turn towards Bruce. He turns a shade of scarlet you usually don’t see outside of a paint store. My mother turns and looks at him as well and raises her eyebrows. Bruce stammers for a minute, but then finds his voice.
“I would feel better if I could have had a ring. But I stand by what I said.”
“That’s not exactly a . . .” I start to say, because if my mother won’t needle Bruce a little bit, I will, but it’s lost in the rush of breath I take when Bruce comes down out of his chair and kneels in front of me.
“Marry me,” he says, passionately, earnestly. I can’t find words, can’t even think what I am supposed to do in response, so I put my hands to his face and pulls him close and kiss him as sweetly and lovingly as I can.
Later, after my mother has gone out to catch a screening, because it is Oscar season after all and she is a voting member of the Art Directors branch, and Kayce is sleeping soundly, I find other ways to show my love to Bruce and we finally manage to free ourselves of the clothes that have been encumbering us.
He cums so quickly after I put him in my mouth that I am forced to swallow because I can’t do anything else. I look up at him, a little in surprise and he is once again turning a lovely shade of scarlet.
“I guess it has been a while,” I say, teasingly.
“Well, if by a while, you mean never, then yeah.”
“But you slept with Jenn. And Jess.”
“Slept, yes. Sexual intercourse.”
“Neither one of them ever went down on you?”
“My relationship with Jenn was short and kind of conservative aside from the few times we slept together. It was . . .” he tries to say, but for once, words fail him.
“And Jess, I suppose just wanted to get rid of her virginity and you felt like she was doing you such a favor that you wouldn’t dare suggest that she blow you,” I say. The look on his face pretty much says that I’ve got that one absolutely correct.
“Bruce, honey, your life is about to get much more wild and fun,” I say and put him in my mouth again.
Most of the family has gone to Kyle and Sarah’s house. They have all had their chance to see me, to talk to me. I have had lovely moments with all of them, but it’s been hard on them. Though I still have the strength to write, I can’t really talk, so most of the conversations have been one way and what do you say to someone when you know their time is running out?
I think it has been hardest on Paul. He looked on all of us as his flock. He stood on that table and said, ‘I’m Paul and I’m charge because I’m the loudest’. Then, after Sarah got sick, after his friend Xian died, he looked at all of us and feared what could happen. He would not watch someone else go like Xian or Sean. He would not allow Sarah to say goodbye to him. So he made us all stand in front of that fire and make our promise. And I wonder now as he has been sitting there, staring at me, if he regrets making us promise him that we wouldn’t surrender.
He takes my hand when he stands to go. He is crying now, something I have never seen in him. He leans in and kisses me on the forehead.
“You are so much stronger than any of the rest of us,” he says to me. “And I love you fiercely.”
Then he goes, from the room, from my life. The only ones left in the house now are my closest family, my husband, my daughter, my mother, my closest friends. And even those are going to be saying goodbye now, I can see, as Sarah comes into the room and she can’t stop crying.
“I have to go home, honey,” she says to me. “I can’t stick around for this.”
I understand and so I nod, but I also pick up my pad and motion her closer. I write the words ‘I want you to take Kayce with you’ on the pad. She looks at them and then looks at me. She turns to look at Bruce, who has been sitting in the corner. He comes over and reads what I have written.
“Are you sure?” he asks me. I pick up the pen and write ‘Don’t want her around for the end of this.’
He stands and walks to the door and calls for Kyle. Kyle comes in and the three of them stand together and talk for a minute. They walk together over to my side. Kyle sits on the edge of my bed and takes my hand.
“I’m gonna take Sarah and Kayce back to my place,” he says. “But then I’m gonna come back. And you’re gonna hold on until I’m back.”
I nod because this is a promise I have every intention of keeping. But I write another message on the pad and the three of them look at it. There is another moment when they stare at each other but then Bruce nods and goes to get the hospice nurse. Kyle waits until the nurse comes back and helps me get the mask off. When the mask is off, Sarah leans in and kisses me on the lips, tears pouring down across her face.
“I will love you forever, darling,” Sarah says to me and then, before she can say anything else, she runs from the room.
I watch her go and realize I am crying myself. But I wipe the tears away so that I can put on my brave face. It’s time to say goodbye to my light. I have reached the end of my story.
Mr. Barrett and the Lanes have left and gone back to Uncle Kyle and Aunt Sarah’s house. Their kids are already there and they must be playing with my stuff in the spare bedroom that they keep for me, because what else could they be doing in Uncle Kyle’s house? I suppose they could be watching Star Wars. Or reading his Batman books.
I am sitting on the couch in the living room, reading Goblet of Fire. I had been re-reading Order of the Phoenix, but with all the stuff with my mom it feels like if I read about Sirius dying I’m just gonna start crying and not be able to stop. And right as I think about that, Aunt Sarah comes out and she’s crying harder than I’ve ever seen anybody cry. It almost makes me start crying already.
“Honey, it’s time to come in and see your mom.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your uncle is gonna take you and me over to our house.”
“But what about Mom?”
“Come on in, honey.”
I stop asking questions and I follow Aunt Sarah. But she stops before she gets to the door of the dining room.
“I’m not going back in, honey. I’ve already said goodbye. You go on in. Your dad is in there.”
I turn and look at the door. I’m only eight years old. I can’t be saying goodbye to my mom. But I walk through the door because that’s what I’ve been told to do.
Her mask is off. It’s the first thing I notice and I wonder if she’s getting better. I run over to her side and hold her tightly.
“Your mask is off!”
“Yes, honey,” she says, but it’s very weak. I look at her and she’s crying.
“Why am I going to Uncle Kyle’s house?”
“I don’t want you around for this honey. It’s time to say goodbye.”
And then I’m crying more than I thought I ever could.
“No. Your mask is off. You’re getting better.”
“No, honey. I took it off so I could say goodbye.”
“No, Mom, no . . .”
“Kayce, I need you to listen to me,” she says in her Mom voice and so I shut up like I’m supposed to. I look at her and she puts her hands to my cheeks and uses her thumbs to wipe away my tears, like she always has.
“You have been more joy than I ever could have realized. Kayce, darling, you have been the light of my life. You always remember that.”
“I will,” I say, or I think I say, because it’s hard to talk.
“Kayce, who is the bravest person you know?” she asks. It seems like a strange question but I answer it as honestly as I can.
“It’s Uncle Kyle.”
“That’s right. But I want you to remember something about your uncle and your father. There’s gonna come a day, and it’s gonna be before too long, when being brave won’t be enough. They’re gonna need you to be brave for them. Today, they’re brave for you. So you remember that, and you remember when the day comes that you need to be the one who saves them.”
None of it makes sense and I start to say something but she shakes her head.
“It’s okay, honey. You’ll understand someday.”
“Mom, I love you,” I say.
“I love you too, honey. Now kiss me goodbye and go home with Kyle and Sarah.”
I lean in and give her the biggest kiss I can. I hug her tightly and she hugs me back. I’m crying and I can’t see and it’s hard to realize that it’s Uncle Kyle, who must have been standing in the corner, who has picked me up. Dad comes over and kisses me on the forehead and then Uncle Kyle takes me out and I close my eyes so that I don’t have to watch Mom as I leave the room.
I feel like I can walk into the house, but Aunt Sarah picks me up and I don’t argue. I hold tightly to her and she carries me into the house. When we come in, everyone in the room turns to look at us. Mrs. Lane looks at Sarah and starts to ask a question but Aunt Sarah must answer her without saying anything because then Mrs. Lane looks a little relieved.
Aunt Sarah puts me down in my favorite chair and I curl into a ball. She turns to Uncle Kyle and I hear her say something about taking a few minutes and allowing him to collect himself before he goes back and I’m not really sure what that means. I just try not to think about any of it. Ms. Beaton, who is looking huge, as if her baby is about to come crawling right out of her, comes over to Aunt Sarah and demands that she be taken to a Del Taco so she can eat half a dozen Del Classic Chicken Burritos. Aunt Sarah tells her it will be just a couple of minutes. I just turn away from everyone else and try to stop crying but I can’t seem to make it stop.
“Why are you crying?” I get asked. I turn and look and I see Irving Barrett. It seems mean-spirited to say something like ‘My mom is dying’ because he’s only five years old.
“I’m sad,” I say to him. He looks at me. Then, before I can do anything, he leans in and kisses me on the lips. My eyes go wide and that makes me stop crying. Before I can do anything else, his mom yells at him.
“Irving, come here!”
He gives me a scared look and walks over to face the Mom voice. I just keep looking at him. Actually, right now everyone in the room is looking at him, kids and adults.
“Why did you do that? That’s Kayce’s personal space.”
Now Irving is starting to cry and I feel bad because I don’t want him to get into trouble.
“I, I . . .” he starts to say but he’s having trouble getting the words out.
“Irving, answer your mother,” Mr. Barrett says, standing over him.
“When Mom is crying, you kiss her,” he says to his dad.
“And?” he asks.
“So, isn’t that what you do?” Irving asks, daring to look up at his dad, but still worried he’s in a lot of trouble. “When a pretty girl is sad and crying you kiss her so she’ll stop being sad?”
The different people in the room react in different ways. Mrs. Barrett leans out of the chair she’s sitting in and picks up Irving and hugs him tightly. The Lanes seem like they’re in between laughing and crying. But everyone turns to Aunt Sarah because she’s suddenly crying so hard and so loud that it gets everyone’s attention.
“What’s wrong with you?” Ms. Beaton asks her.
“I’ll take you to fucking Del Taco, Laura, but you’re fucking driving. That was beautiful and it’s gonna be a long time before I stop crying,” Aunt Sarah says.
“I’ll drive,” Mr. Post says. “Keys, Paul!”
Mr. Barrett throws a set of keys across the room and Mr. Post catches them. He turns to Sarah and mutters “You’re such a sap.”
“Shut up, Jim,” she says and the three of them leave the room. I look back at Irving. He’s looking back at me. His mom puts him back down and whispers something to him. He comes over and stands in front of me.
“I’m sorry for being in your personal space, Kayce,” he says, but he’s looking down.
“Do you really think I’m pretty?” I ask him. At this, he looks up.
“You’re the prettiest girl I know!” he says. I smile and kiss him on the cheek and give him a hug because I don’t know what else to do.
I wake up suddenly. Uncle Kyle’s house is closer to the Salt River than ours is and it’s not unheard of that a coyote might come close enough for us to hear one but the noise that woke me up didn’t sound like a coyote. It sounded like a person. A really loud person. A really sad person. I hear it again and it scares me to death. I get up out of my bed and I’m careful not to wake up either of the Rachels, Lane or Barrett, both of whom are sleeping in sleeping bags on my floor.
I come into the living room and my dad is there. Uncle Kyle is there. They are both talking quietly to the Lanes and they all look so sad. They turn when I come in. Dad comes over and kneels in front of me. Before he can say anything, Aunt Sarah comes into the room, groggy.
“Paul is outside in my yard howling. Why do I have the feeling that I’m like Marlon Brando in The Godfather when everyone knows what has happened except him?”
Dad turns away from me and looks up at her. When she looks up at him, she collapses into a heap on her couch. Uncle Kyle goes to her side while Dad looks back at me.
“Did Mom die?” I ask. He doesn’t say anything, just nods his head.
“But I wanted to tell her. I got my first kiss,” I say. Dad smiles at me and he’s starting to cry. “Irving kissed me on the lips last night.”
“I know, honey,” he says. I look at him, wondering how he can know. Then I realize that it must have happened before Uncle Kyle went back to the house. I turn and look at him. He smiles and I realize that he’s also crying. Everyone in the room is crying because everyone loved my mom. I look back at Dad.
“She knew. Kyle told her.”
“I, I . . .” but then I realize I don’t know what I want to say.
“How was the kiss?” Dad asks me.
“It was sweet and a little sad.”
“My first kiss with your mother was also sweet and a little sad,” he says. He picks me up and carries me over to the couch. We sit next to Uncle Kyle and Aunt Sarah. I sit on Dad’s lap and curl up against him and the tears won’t stop. Aunt Sarah’s tears won’t stop either.
“I don’t have to marry Irving, do I?” I ask. I hear a little laugh escape from Aunt Sarah in the middle of her tears.
“Not if you don’t want to,” Dad says.
The four of us cuddle together as the sun starts to come in through the window.
“What are we supposed to do now, Dad?” I ask. He seems to think for a while before answering and as he does, he kisses me on the forehead.