I can not stand. I try for five minutes while he is in the shower. I know his schedule, the preciseness of his timing, how he shaves first, filling the sink with water while lathering his face, then turning off the water. It’s a safety razor and has been since the day I tried to use his razor blade.
He starts with his neck, moving from the right to the left, then does his chin, then his upper lip. He then moves the razor to his left hand and does his left cheek. Putting the razor back into his right hand, he shaves his right cheek. He then lets the water drain as he dries his face.
He turns on the shower, then cleans the whiskers from the sink. From the time he turns the shower on, I will have nine minutes before he will turn off the water and reach for his towel.
For the first five minutes I try to stand. I try sending commands to my legs to push my body up but nothing will come. I have had a bout of pneumonia and it has left me weaker than I would like, although I could, I suppose, consider it a blessing that it didn’t kill me outright given the low level of my T cells after eight years of this virus.
When I am finished trying, when I am certain that my muscles are no longer responding to my desires, I turn to lie back down. It is then that I see him standing in the doorway. I look at the clock and see that it has been only six minutes since he turned on the water. I also see that his hair is still dry.
“You’re wasting water,” I say.
“I’ll turn it off,” he says and turns and disappears into the bathroom. He comes back, seconds later, the water having been shut off and his hand towel hanging around his neck.
“You always seem to know.”
“Observation and deduction. It’s the first thing they teach you at the Academy.”
“You were observing and deducing long before you went to the Academy.”
“I was, I admit, preparing myself for this career.”
“And what have you deduced this fine morning?”
“That you’re tired.”
“Ah, an incorrect deduction. More like an assumption.”
“Not tired then?”
“Well, of course I’m tired, Kyle. But what you missed is that I’m angry.”
“Angry at who?”
The name hangs in the air between us. I suspect he is remembering the same thing that I am, Paul standing on that damn table and announcing that he was in charge. Or maybe he’s remembering Paul standing over a fire on a hill on a cold February night with blood dripping down from his hand.
“You could have let me know you were watching,” I say.
“You obviously didn’t want me to know.”
“I can’t do this, Kyle. Not anymore. I can’t live like this.”
“Sarah . . .”
Our conversation is broken by the voice of a young girl soon to turn nine, her voice high and bright on an August morning.
“Uncle Kyle! We brought breakfast!”
My hand slips to his, pulls tightly at his fingers. He turns and catches the slight fear in my eyes.
“I’m not strong enough to see her. Not yet. Please. Intercept breakfast.”
“She’s just a kid.”
“But she’s not my kid. Not right now. Not today.”
“What about Bruce?”
“He can bring me something to eat.”
He stands up and looks at me. I am 29 years old. My hair is a faded brown, set delicately on a pale forehead. I have been slowly dying for eight years. My body has gotten weaker over the years and I find myself without the strength to stand and most assuredly without the strength to face an energetic eight year old.
He kisses me on the forehead and leaves, replaced two minutes later by his best friend, in many ways a carbon copy, but bearing donuts.
“I must warn you,” I say, “I don’t have much of an appetite.”
“Eat it. Eat it. Don’t you make me repeat it,” he sings to me. I smile and a slight burst of laughter escapes my mouth.
“You sang. You never sing.”
“I do what the patient requires. Although, I must admit I would rather quote long stanzas of Eliot than attempt to show off my singing ability.”
“If you do what the patient requires, I could use a drink.”
“There are limits to what I will provide,” he says with a smile and sits in the chair.
“So a fuck is out of the question?”
“Quite. My daughter is in the kitchen.”
“Did we sleep together in college?” I ask.
“Not that I recall.”
“But you slept with Jessie?”
“I seem to recall doing that.”
“I’ll admit to that, though it’s probably best if that doesn’t get spread around seeing as how she’s running for Congress.”
“But you never slept with me?”
“I think I would have remembered. Reputation had you as being good in bed.”
“I was known for being a good fuck,” I say, perhaps a bit too wistfully.
“I seem to recall that.”
“I had a fantastic body.”
“Indeed you did. Many of our friends thought so. They slept with you.”
“I was prettier than Jessie.”
“Not to me you weren’t.”
“Is she still married?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You’re a handsome man, Bruce. A very eligible bachelor. A good father. A good teacher.”
“A writer who can’t finish anything and a bad basketball coach.”
“There’s not much talent to work with, from what Kyle says. You’ll be better this year.”
“I’ll assume you’re talking about the team and not my writing. It would nice to win a league game this year.”
“I have a question for you, Bruce.”
“I have already told you that I never slept with you in college and that I’m not going to sleep with you now. I can’t imagine there’s a topic you want to cover that we haven’t already been over in detail.”
“Would you understand if I said I hated Paul?”
He sits down on the edge of the bed and reaches for my left hand. He turns it palm up. He places my hand next to his, the scars side by side. He looks around the room, around the life he’s helped us build. But he’s not answering my question.
“She never gave up, did she?” I ask, because I couldn’t bear to be there at the end.
“No. She never gave up.”
“Did she want to?”
“She was a much different person than you, Sarah.”
“She kept her promises.”
“Not always,” he says, turning back to look at me. “She wasn’t perfect, Sarah. She tried to keep them, if she could. Things fell so that she was able to keep that one.”
“You know, I never was as strong as her. I was never as smart. Couldn’t do the things she did.”
“Don’t compare yourself. I tried comparing myself to Kyle for years. It never came to any good.”
“Maybe you and I should have married instead, the insecure back-up couple,” I say, but it immediately feels like a hurtful thing to say. After all, if not for Kayce, Kyle and Michelle probably would have married. But Bruce pushes it aside, or at least chooses not to respond. So I speak again.
“Do you think Paul would forgive me?” I ask.
“Paul would never need to know.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Bruce. Paul ends up knowing everything.”
“That’s just a myth, Sarah. It’s one of the things we like to make ourselves believe to cover the basic fear that there’s nothing out there to believe in. None of us ever have to deal with the difficult metaphysical trek through agnosticism into atheism and on through to nihilism because we all have something that we can solidly believe in without any lapse in faith.”
“It doesn’t sound like you believe in it.”
“I believe in God. I don’t have to believe in Paul.”
“Then never mind Paul. Would you hate me?”
“We do what we have to in life. I gave up the habit of judging people a long time ago.”
“Then can you send your daughter in now?”
“I think I should try my chance at saying goodbye.”
“I’m not so crazy about that idea.”
“I need to make some sort of peace with myself and your daughter is involved in that.”
“You can’t tell her that.”
“I’ll try not to. And I’ll try not to use any profanity. And I’ll even try not to cry.”
“What are you going to say?”
“Yeah, haven’t figured that part out yet.”
“A long detailed speech that brings you some peace without a single word of profanity or letting her know that you plan to throw yourself into the Salt River? Maybe you could write me a rough draft.”
“I can’t tell anymore if you become more like Kyle or he becomes more like you.”
“In the end, we’re all the same.”
He leans in close and kisses me on the lips. There’s enough life in my arms to wrap around him and pull him closer into the kiss and it’s going well until the tears start hitting our lips. When we break, he looks me in the eyes.
“You have held on longer than anyone had any right to expect.”
“I don’t like going back on promises,” I say. “Not when they’re made in good faith.”
“Are you certain that you’re up for seeing Kayce?”
“We all die. If we’re lucky, we get to say goodbye to those we love. She’s the only daughter I’ll ever have.”
“May the living let us in before the dead tear us apart.”
“The rules of the game strictly forbid the use of Springsteen.”
“Yeah, well, you know, I never was any good at your game.”
“Don’t let me tear you apart.”
As I wait for Kayce to come bursting through the door, I think of a conversation with her mother. I began it casually, with a simple question: What time was Kayce born? In the morning, was Michelle’s answer, but I needed more than that. What time was it when Kayce was born I asked. It was 8:11 in the morning she replied and that was when I knew. I had been wondering about it since I first knew Kayce’s birthday. So then I asked Michelle the question that had been burning inside of me. Do you know where Bruce was when Kayce was born?
I think about that when she comes through the door, bouncing in, exuding energy as she crosses the room, dressed in a bright red shirt and deep blue skirt, her long, dark ponytail bouncing up and down in tune to an inner rhythm obvious in each step she takes.
“I, I love the colorful clothes she wears,” I sing, “and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair.” My voice has so much more energy, so much more life than the rest of my body can provide.
“I’m walking on sunshine, wooh,” she sings, by way of reply.
“Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful girl.”
“Aunt Sarah, that song’s about a prostitute.”
“Haven’t you ever paid attention to it?”
“I’ve been quoting so long, I’ve forgotten to think about the words. I know the right words, but I no longer remember what they mean.”
“He who fucks nuns will later join the church,” but even as she says it, is looking back to make certain her father is out of earshot and that she doesn’t lose her internet privileges.
“Watch your mouth, young lady,” I say.
“Isn’t that kind of hypocritical?”
“Does your father teach you words like that?”
“Some of them come from Uncle Kyle. Like antidisestablishmentarianism.”
“Do you even know what that means?”
“No idea. But it’s fun to say.”
“What do you think of your uncle?”
“He’s fun. The coolest person I know. Why?”
“I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter. I think it’s about forgiveness.”
“Have you come here for forgiveness?”
“I live here, missy.”
“What’s on your mind, Aunt Sarah?”
“To everything, turn, turn, turn. There is a season, turn, turn, turn. And a time to every purpose under heaven,” I sing, the words coming quickly, pushing forward from my lips, less an effort of singing than uttering in tune. The last eight words come much more slowly, deliberately. “A time to kill. A time to die.”
There is a long pause as I make contact with Kayce. She is about to say something when I think she must notice the tears that are on the edge of my eyes. She shakes a little and then clenches her fists as she responds.
“We made a promise, we swore we’d always remember. No retreat, baby, no surrender.”
“Springsteen is against the rules.”
“Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine and all this darkness past.”
“Kayce, honey . . .”
“It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”
“Don’t, honey, you have to understand.”
“Some people just give up living. Start dyin’ little by little, inch by inch.”
“It’s not going to stop, it’s not going to stop, so just give up.”
“Song lyrics don’t excuse it, Aunt Sarah!”
“Listen to me, honey. I can’t even stand up. I can’t get out of bed. I can barely even lift my arm. I am weak and I am never going to be strong again. I live in this pain, everyday, and I can’t take this pain anymore. I’m not as strong as your mother.”
“You don’t have to be my mother! You never did.”
“The time has come, honey.”
“You can’t do this,” she begs through a vale of tears.
“Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.”
“But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”
“I will be back, honey. You have videos of me. Pictures. Memories. Things that can’t be taken away from you. Things that you will always be able to keep.”
“But you won’t be there. It won’t be you. Just a pale imitation. Just a ghost passing through.”
“You’re strong, honey. You survived this once. You’ll survive it again.”
“Oh, yeah, Aunt Sarah. I, I will survive. Don’t make me live my life to songs that are total shit.”
“I have spent my entire adult life dying, Kayce. You knew this was going to come. I’m just not putting off any longer. I can’t keep waiting for the great leap forwards.”
“You are not handling this in the manner in which you promised,” comes the voice from the door. We both turn to see Bruce and Kyle standing in the open doorway.
“What do you suggest I do?” I yell in a hoarse whisper. “I don’t know any great deep and meaningful literary quotes. Song lyrics are the only thing I know.”
“Paul’s gonna be mad at you!” Kayce yells at me.
I stare at Kayce in utter disbelief. I begin to say something, then stop. I bite my lip softly for a minute, then finally speak.
“How do you know this stuff?”
“She broke into my filing cabinet and read my journals from college,” Bruce says, calmly. Kyle and I both turn to stare at her. She looks down.
“I was looking for pictures of me and my mom.”
“You thought he would keep them locked in a filing cabinet?”
“I found pictures.”
“Pictures of your mom?”
“Some. Some were of someone else.”
This time, Kyle and I turn to look at Bruce.
“Polaroids, Bruce? Really?” I say.
“Polaroids are a thing of the past. These were prints I made from a digital camera. At least the ones of Michelle were. The ones of Jess were not.”
“Neither were the ones of Ms. Gabriel,” Kayce adds, still looking down.
“You keep them locked in a filing cabinet?” I ask.
“Shall we open that drawer of the little nightstand right there on the other side of your bed and discuss the contents?” Bruce replies and that shuts me up. Silence reigns in the room for over a minute.
“You aren’t gonna let her die, are you?” Kayce asks the two men, the men who have been my lifeline for nearly a decade now. I look at them and they slowly stare at each other, not quite sure how to respond to the question.
“You are,” Kayce says. There are tears in her eyes. She moves close to her father and for a minute I wonder if she will pound her fists against his chest, screaming out her rage and pain. Instead, she clings to him, holds him close, leans her head against his chest and seems to listen to the calming beat of his heart as they both try to calm themselves.
“What happened to the windows?” she asks and I wonder how much of Paul has been ingrained into her. “You said to always pass the open windows.”
I decide I’m gonna answer this one.
“Sometimes that window is the only option, honey.”
The tears are coming harder now and it looks like it won’t be long before we’re all crying. I look to Kyle and Bruce. It’s been almost 11 years since we sat together in the common room, all the new kids in the hall, never dreaming how much we would go through together. And so I make a decision.
“Help me get dressed,” I say to Kyle.
“We’re going to San Diego.”
“Excuse me?” Bruce says.
“San Diego. I’ll explain once we’re on the road. But we need to get moving because it needs to still be light out when we get there.”
“All of us?” Kayce asks.
“All of us.”
Kayce and I both look to Bruce for confirmation, for permission, for direction. He gives us all three with a nod.
While he is quickly washing my hair and Bruce is running to the gas station to fill up, Kyle starts in with the questions.
“Do you have a plan?”
“I’m going to give the golden ‘an’ to the man in the tan van. His name is Stan.”
“Been watching Sesame Street again?”
“It helps to keep my mind off the pain. Especially any scene with Cookie Monster.”
“Do you have a real plan?”
“I want to see the ocean. I’m sure as shit not going back to Orange County on the last day of my life. So we’re going to Point Loma. We can watch the sun set from out at the monument. I want to see something nakedly beautiful. I want to see something that will make me weep.”
“You could watch Shakespeare in Love again.”
“Weep with beauty, not cry like a little stupid schoolgirl.”
“How often do you see that schoolgirl cry?”
“She’s been taught to be strong.”
“Please remember that she’s just a young girl,” he says, with some emphasis.
“Don’t give me that shit. That child is twenty-nine years old. She was born on June 16, 1975, making her just two weeks younger than me.”
The length of the pause in the conversation surprises me. I didn’t think that anything about him would ever surprise me at this point, but I wonder if perhaps I’ve surprised him. That, in itself, would surprise anyone who knows him.
“How long have you believed that?” he asks.
“Since the first time I knew her birth date.”
“It’s a coincidence, Sarah.”
“The exact same minute? That’s more than coincidence, Kyle.”
“Do you really believe this?”
“Has she ever seemed like a child to you? Is she anything like what you remember of kids that age?”
“Sarah, you must remember that the first time I saw her she wasn’t even crawling yet. She certainly wasn’t talking. She was like a little bundle of drool.”
“Look at her eyes, Kyle. And God damn it, be careful with the shampoo. It stings.”
“Sorry,” he says, rinsing the front of my face and getting it out of my eyes.
“I do not have enough time left for you to be sorry.”
“Gary has green eyes.”
“Not like that he doesn’t. And there’s a tint of red to her hair. You can see it in the right lighting.”
“I don’t believe in such things.”
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, don’t say that to Bruce. If he hears you spouting Shakespeare, the shock will probably kill him.”
“Oh, fuck off.”
“That’s more your normal level of dialogue.”
I turn and grab his hand, which I’m surprised I have the energy to do. He looks me in the eyes and it looks like he desperately wants to smile, but there is no smile behind my eyes for him to respond to.
“I believe it’s her, Kyle. I see you look at that girl and you love her the same way you loved Rachel. Different from how you love me. Different from how you loved Jenn or Michelle. That little girl is our Rachel, all her energy and loveliness brought back to life. And you know it’s true.”
And he doesn’t answer me because perhaps he does know it’s true.
The poor boy looks so out of place, the straight man amongst the drunks. How did Jeff and Tom and I manage to drag him here, especially on just the second weekend of school? Maybe after that talk with Jenn he needed to be in here. I think he’d feel more relaxed if Bruce had come with us but he’s not 21 yet, so Kyle will just have to suck it up and have some fun.
Tom and Jeff already seem to have lost themselves in the crowd. They’re both hitting on what appear to be a couple of UC Davis girls. Which is fine with me, because it’s Kyle that I wanted here. Tom and Jeff were just along to help me get him down to the city.
I admit, I’m dressed to catch his eye. My hair is cut short again, just above my chinline, and I actually have a barrette holding some of it back, designed to make me look like some schoolgirl. I’ve gone ahead and dyed it back to a normal color, a dark brown, with a little hint of red to make it stand out. My skirt is cut short and I’ve pulled my button down shirt up and tied it just below my breasts. Laura thinks the black bra under a white shirt look is trashy but I’ve found it generally works.
Something has to pull Kyle out of this funk. I understand. He was standing there when Rachel’s car was hit, was the first one there to see her in the wreckage. Then he stood on that roof with Bruce and tried to keep Sean from falling away to kiss the ground. Is it any wonder that he ran from that into my legs? But then we both went home for the summer and it seemed like it wasn’t going to last, it was just one more thing to help him get over Jenn after they broke, after she ran off to Bruce’s arms and bed. Christ, Jenn can’t begrudge Kyle sleeping with me. At least he wasn’t climbing into the bed of her best friend.
And finally, the music lends a helping hand. They’ve been playing horrible shit like Oasis and Hootie and god knows how you’re supposed to dance to that. But this? New Order? “True Faith”? Oh, hell yeah, I can dance to this. And so I do and as I turn, I look at him and he’s just standing there like the world’s grumpiest 21 year old.
“This is supposed to be cheering you up, jackass. Isn’t that why you agreed to come?”
“I’m not perfect,” he says. “Sometimes coming is a mistake.”
My eyes go narrow and I stare at him. I can’t quite make out his tone.
“Is that a regret?” I ask.
“You’re making a joke of my sexual prowess? I can take your mind off things, you know. I bet I give a better blow job than Ms. Gabriel.”
“That would be none of your fucking business.”
I lean in across his chest and blow softly in his ear, sliding a finger down one cheek and across his chest and I whisper in his ear, “Darling, my business is indeed fucking.”
“Don’t tempt me,” he replies.”
“Temptations always come along. There’s always somebody tempting somebody into doing something that they know is wrong.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, Sarah, but I believe you explicitly banned Springsteen from your game.”
“My game. My rules.”
“Why are you trying so hard to seduce me?”
I stop. I am. I am doing this when I shouldn’t be. I can’t be doing this. I have to change what I’m doing. Is denial the first stage?
I sit at a table. He sits with me and takes my hands. I’m covered in sweat. I shouldn’t be covered in sweat. I’ve barely been out there dancing. Oh God am I scared.
“You look lonely, Kyle,” I say, pushing down all of my fears. Some of my fears. The ones that he can’t do anything about. “You look sad. And I’m lonely. I’m tired of being lonely. I thought maybe you might be too.”
“I thought you had Laura,” he says and I look to see if he’s making fun of me, but he’s serious.
“Laura is fun and all. But I made it clear to her that when all is said and done, I want a guy next to me.”
“Somehow I feel like you probably put it in different terms than that.”
I look up at his steely grey eyes, the cold dark stare that someday is gonna make criminals give up their guns without an argument and I try to find some light behind them.
“I’m not fucking with you here, Barton. I can’t make you much of an offer right now.”
He starts to rub my hands, while continuing to stare at me.
“It’s a nice offer, Sarah. But I don’t know that I’m the one that you want.”
“Are you fucking kidding? You’re the best anyone at this school could hope for,” I say and my voice trails off as I say it because I didn’t mean to be so honest.
“Don’t kid yourself. I ain’t nobody’s bargain.”
“Well, hell, a little touch up and a little paint. And besides, just because I can use Springsteen doesn’t mean your ban has been revoked.”
“Now you’re the one who seems sad.”
“Look, Barton, let’s just get out of here and talk. Can we do that? Go somewhere and just talk?”
“What about Tom and Jeff?”
“Hey, they know the rules when they came to Sac with me. They stay in sight or they could get left behind. They’ll be fine. Jeff’s fucking loaded and Tom always has enough with him to pay for a motel room.”
“And why do you know that?”
“Let me let you in on a little secret. Every fucking girl on campus except Jenn and Kate has slept with Tom. And the reason they don’t fret too much when he’s gone on to someone else is that he’s a pretty lousy lay. He has no fucking style in bed. You totally put him to shame.”
“I’m all about flattering your sexual prowess.”
“Maybe later. Let’s go for that walk.”
“Lead me on,” I say but when I do, he winces. I give him a curious look.
“Do me a favor and don’t say that.”
“It’s what Bruce and Jessie used to say to each other. Just don’t say it. Trust me.”
“Funny enough, I have always trusted you.”
Outside it is still light, a strange late summer dusk with a touch of breeze to make it nice. We cut a few blocks over and walk along the river and he actually takes my hand as we walk. Maybe we can’t always get what we want and I’m not about to believe that we find that we get what we need, but sometimes we just get things that are nice.
“You had your talk with Jenn, didn’t you?” I ask.
“It went better than it could have gone,” he says, but I’m not sure I believe that. I’m not sure that he believes that. He thought he could sit in the Diner with No Name and have lunch with her and fix everything because he always believes that he can solve everything. He never expects less of himself.
“I take it you don’t want to talk about it.”
“Sometimes it’s all a world of pain,” he says.
“And, the cynic comes out.”
“Were you expecting something different?”
“It’s okay to smile, you know. You’re allowed to laugh in life. I thought it was Bruce who was supposed to have no sense of humor. The world isn’t so bad sometimes.”
“Maybe it is and you just don’t want to look at it.”
“When you look at the world and all you see is pain, Kyle, it makes you wonder what sense there is in letting your world exist.”
He offers up a half smile, a little glimpse of something better than pain. He kisses the point where my lips end and my cheek begins, a soft touch at the edge of my mouth.
“There are momentary pleasures,” he says.
“Is that what I am? A momentary pleasure? Or is that what I was? Or going to be?”
“Just give a little respect to me,” he sings and I think we are both surprised. But then I realize I’m trying to cheer him up. I’m flirting, making the moves and I can’t be doing any of this. I have to tell him. I have to tell somebody. I turn away and when I see a picnic table, I sit down. I feel completely exhausted and I wonder if he’s going to have to go get his car and come back to get me.
He frowns as he looks at me. I think I was reaching him and maybe that’s why I had to stop. He walks over to me and looks at me. I look away, just stare out at the growing summer darkness.
“Do you believe in God?” I ask. He is taken aback. He sits down on the bench, his shoulder resting just inches from my knee.
“I don’t know that I ever believed in god.”
“I do,” I say. He turns and looks up at me. I look down at him and nod. “I do, I still believe in God. In spite of everything, I believe in God, because it seems like there must be something absolute about the world. It seems the only answer plausible enough for me.”
He pushes himself up and sits on the table next to me. He brushes my hair from my cheek, tucking it back behind my ear.
“Do you believe in love?” I ask him. He takes time before he answers, thinking much more about this one than he did the first question.
“I believed in what Jenn and I had. It seemed real.”
“And now, what do you believe?”
“We make our own love. If the love we have isn’t strong enough, then we find another.”
“That’s a cynical fucking idea, Kyle.”
“Do you believe in love?” he asks.
“Believing in something is better than doubting everything.”
“But is love what you believe in?”
I don’t answer him and I’m sure, as he continues to brush his finger along my cheek, that he must feel the tears. But, since he doesn’t say anything either, I finally speak.
“I can’t believe in love with you, Kyle.”
He doesn’t react at first. I can tell he wants to, that he’s fighting the urge to react. Did he want to hear that I could believe in love with him? That I loved him? That I wanted him to love me? He moves like he is going to stand and I grab his arm because he needs to know this isn’t about him.
“I can’t believe in love with anyone, Kyle.”
“I never asked for anything,” he says, but it comes too quickly and softly. He wasn’t just asking for something, but I was trying to offer something, something I can’t offer. I stare at him.
“You’ve never asked for anything from anyone, that I know of.”
“Gift from my mother,” he says, but he’s not looking at me.
“Well, you and Bruce, you both really need to shake off that influence. You’re both trapped in that apartment with the shadow of your mothers lingering.”
“Sarah, I . . .” he starts to say but I cut him off.
“I wish, Kyle, more than anything, I could believe in love with you. I wish I could love you more passionately than Jenn ever did, more passionately than Sean and Rachel loved each other. But that promise would be a lie. Every promise of pleasure I could make to you would be a lie. It would be just one more thing about my life I wouldn’t be able to follow through on. And I still couldn’t stop myself from flirting with you because I don’t want to have to admit what’s happened to my life.”
“Look, Sarah, don’t give me any . . .”:
“I’m sick, Kyle,” I say, but before I can say more, he is standing and shaking my hand off, more violent than I am expecting. He paces back and forth in front of the table, working himself up.
“Sick is right. Sick, like Tom and Jim. Sick like the rest of the fucking people at school, like all the fucking people back on Market Street, like so many people in this fucking country. Sick at heart, sick in the head, sick of trying, sick of making an effort. The whole fucking country is too sick to make the effort to be happy. The great pursuit of happiness and no one has the courage to go fight for it.”
I am crying harder now but I’m not saying anything. I just let him get it out of his system. Then when he stops talking, but continues to pace, I say my own piece.
“I’m sorry that she hurt you, Kyle. I’m sorry that what happened to Rachel and what happened later with Jenn has made you so bitter against everything in the world. I wish I could love you and make all of this disappear in a flurry of beauty and despair and everything else that’s so important, everything you know so much about and that none of rest of us know because we aren’t as smart as you. You’re so fucking smart, both you and Bruce, and what you both just need is love. So fucking simple and that’s all you both need. Bruce needs someone to love, you need someone to love you. I wish I could be that person for you. Jenn can’t be that person, Rachel is gone and I think Michelle is more the person that needs to be loved. Maybe she’s the one for Bruce.”
I stand up and I feel dizzy, but I manage to walk over to him. I put my hands to his face, make him stare at me.
“Because I do love you, Kyle. Maybe not as much as Michelle does, maybe not as much as Jenn did. But I love you, love you more than I ever loved Jim or Paul. But I can not believe in love with you. Because I am sick. This is not the kind of sick that lingers over a heart and mind and keeps happiness at bay. This is not the kind of sick that keeps me from lunging for happiness just because it’s hard. This is the kind of sick where you catch a common cold and you get really bad and then you die because your body doesn’t understand how to get well anymore. This is not the kind of sick you get better from.”
Then he understands, because of course he understands, he grew up with this, watched this and he’s seen this darkness before and he holds me, holds me like I always wanted him to, from the day I realized how gorgeous he was, how smart, how strong, how arrogant, how proud, how everything I ever wanted and still want.
“The trouble is he’s lazy.”
“The trouble is he drinks.”
“The trouble is he stinks.”
Kayce turns completely around and faces me as we trade off on the lines. She shouldn’t really be sitting in the front seat at her age but she is tall for her age and there’s no airbag in the car and it’s the only way that Kyle can sit in the back with me and I’m not doing so well trying to sit up on my own.
“The trouble is he’s growing.”
“The trouble is he’s grown.”
“Officer Krupke, we’re down on our knees!” comes a loud shout from all four of us and suddenly it is only Russ Tamblyn’s voice singing “cause no one wants a fellow with a social disease.” A brief silence descends on the car as we pass the sign that says WELCOME TO CALIFORNIA.
“Okay, that was unexpected,” Kayce says as she and I continue to stare at each other.
“I do know the words, honey,” Bruce says from the driver’s seat. “It is my CD.”
“Yeah, that wasn’t the unexpected part, Dad,” she says, now shifting her gaze a little to catch us both. Kyle doesn’t react, like he so often doesn’t.
“Your uncle actually used to be really good at my game. He was so good, in fact, that he earned the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen a lifetime ban.”
“Is that how that started?”
“Well, apparently your uncle must listen to all the albums in his sleep as soon as they are released because he seems to know every lyric the man has ever written.”
“Don’t be bitter because all the music you’ve ever listened to combined isn’t as good as ‘Born to Run’,” he comments without looking at either one of us. But then, finally, he turns to me and he has a bit of a smile. He even kisses me on the forehead just as Bruce starts to slow down.
“Why are we slowing down?” I ask because there can’t possibly be traffic in the middle of nowhere.
“It’s the Inspection Station,” Bruce says. I lived in California for most of my life but I always forget about this because I so rarely left the state and you only find this out when you enter California on an interstate. The damn state is so obsessed with making certain none of their precious produce is damaged from an infestation that you have to declare that you’re not bringing anything in.
Bruce comes to a stop and a nice looking woman in sunglasses peers inside and asks if we are bringing any fruit into the state. I’m having none of this. I lean forward so that she can see me.
“My husband has often accused me of being a vegetable,” I say. “Does that count?”
I can feel Kyle flinch a little and I know he’s closing his eyes in disbelief. I imagine Bruce, his carbon copy in so many ways, is doing the same. But thankfully I have someone in the car on my side.
“My dad says that when baseball comes on, I turn into a couch potato. Does that count?”
“I wore a purple dress once and my best friend said I looked like an eggplant!” I yell.
“My uncle says I’m a rare plum and my dad claims I’m the apple of his eye,” Kayce adds.
“I’m a kumquat!” I yell at the roof, laughing so hard I think I might have to pee.
“I’m a rutabaga!” Kayce yells, looking at me.
“I’m perfectly willing to leave them both in Arizona,” Bruce says in a sincere and apologetic voice.
“That’s all right, sir,” the nice woman, who really is probably too nice to deserve this, says to him. “We don’t want you to bring in fruits or vegetables. Bad jokes are sadly still allowed.”
“Oh, we know,” I add, ready to make my dig at the state where I was born and raised. “That’s why we moved to Arizona before the recall!”
A slight snicker comes from the woman and she waves us on. When she does, Bruce gives Kayce what I call the Dad look, which isn’t as effective as what Kayce used to call the Mom voice. Kyle looks at me and I just smile.
“You know you love me,” I say.
“You know, I think I do,” he says and I snuggle up to him.
“Do you think of me much?” she asks. I don’t have to look around. As the years go by, you start to learn who the voices belong to, what they want, why they have come, who they are asking for.
“At the moment, the only thing I am thinking about is a possible conclusion to this fucking story. I have no intention of asking for an extension on everything again this semester,” I say without looking up. I take another bite of my apple, holding it in my left hand as I write with my right hand. But after the bite, I make a motion with my hand towards the chair next to me. At the edge of my peripheral vision, I see her take a seat. I look at her for a second and note that her hair looks much as it did when we first slept together.
Actually, no. She’s grown her hair out over the summer. Her hair, freed of the ponytail at the moment, looks the same length as Jessie’s was when she left. I’m not sure what I think of that, so I look back down at the story and continue to eat my apple. I can tell, even when looking down, that she is staring at me. It is particularly unnerving, as the only other person who sits and stares at me like that is Kyle, whose stare is much colder and reveals much less of himself.
“What’s on your mind?” I ask as I struggle to complete the next sentence. It shouldn’t be this hard to think of a fucking ending. They’re just words.
“I was wondering how much we meant to each other.”
Those are just words as well, but they are enough to make me know that my story will not be getting any longer right now. I put the pen down and give Jenn my full attention.
“Your talk with Kyle yesterday must not have gone very well.”
“This is not about Kyle and I. This is about you and I.”
I don’t know what to say and perhaps this says enough, as I have never known what to say, no matter who happened to be sitting across from me. That unknowingness has already helped to drive my first lover across the country. I’ve only been with one other and she is now staring at me, making me uncomfortable in the same way the first one would make me when she knew I was behind in the conversation.
“I can’t read minds, Jenn. Only Kyle has mastered that.”
“He’s never been able to read minds either. And stop doing that.”
“Stop bringing him up. You two share an apartment. You don’t share a life.”
“Look, whatever . . .”
“This is not about him, god damn it!”
I wait, almost two full minutes, looking at her, remembering all the things about her that make me almost love her, the way I almost love everyone we know. I think about how she’s smarter than everyone else I know, about how her voice is so refined, not soft and sexy like Sarah’s, not low and mysterious like Michelle’s, just refined, where every word seems well thought out before spoken, like she was born to be saying important things and that people would listen. I think of all that. Then, finally, I talk to her.
“Two. It’s a small number. It’s not one, but it’s the next best thing.”
“Thanks for the math lesson.”
“It’s how many people I have slept with. The number is small, meaning that the emotions run very deep.”
“So we mean a lot to each other.”
“What do you want me to say, Jenn? We both know why it happened between us and we both know why it’s better off being in the past. If you’re asking me if I want to sleep with you, well, on one level the answer would be yes without hesitation. But then comes the level with the hesitation and that makes me stop.”
I think of saying more, but before I can, Jim is sitting next to us. We both turn to look at him. He doesn’t take the hint.
“Now is a bad time,” Jenn says, softly.
“These kind of things don’t have good times,” he says.
“What are you, fucking listening to us?” I ask.
“Not the thing I’m referring to. What you two are talking about is between the two of you. I spent two years living with Paul. I’m tired of listening to that kind of shit. Why can’t you people ever talk about your sex lives in private instead of the middle of the student center?”
“Go away, Jim,” Jenn and I say as one.
“I need to talk to you,” he says. We both turn and look at him again. He stares back at both of us.
“What the fuck aren’t you understanding?” Jenn asks him.
“Do the two of you know Amy Harper?”
I turn and look at Jenn. We both seem to realize that we’re not getting rid of him, at least not until he’s had his say.
“Isn’t she the captain of the volleyball team?” I ask.
“And aren’t you dating her?” Jenn asks. I look at her in confusion.
“Yes. To both.”
“You’re dating Amy Harper?”
“Which part of yes was unclear?”
“What about her, Jim?”
“Well she also runs the school blood drive.”
“I’m not donating any blood,” Jenn says. “I don’t like needles.”
“I’m not soliciting.”
“Then what the fuck do you want, Jim?” I ask in exasperation.
“This is not about getting people to give blood. It’s about blood that has already been given.”
“Can’t you just fucking speak?” Jenn yells at him. “You all learned too god damn much from Paul. It’s okay to speak sometimes. There’s no three act structure to follow in life. Nothing has to be kept back until the climax. Fucking talk.”
“We have a friend whose blood has been rejected. Amy has been told not to let her donate again.”
“Well, how exactly is that our problem?” Jenn asks. “And I’m not sure why the hell you know about it, anyway. That kind of thing should be kept strictly confidential.”
“Well, it’s your problem because I’m coming to you to ask for advice. I don’t have Paul around to ask anymore.”
“What the fuck do you think we’re supposed to do?” I ask.
“Well, Jenn is supposed to be the smartest person in our class. So I was hoping she could give me some advice.”
“That doesn’t answer the question of why you know about this,” Jenn points out.
“Because it’s the kind of thing that slips out in bed, especially when you’re scared. Hey, didn’t you used to sleep with her? You should get tested. I should get tested. Fuck, we all should get tested.”
The other shoe has dropped. Jenn and I turn to look at each other, but it’s slow and deliberate. We both know what’s happening now, both know who it is he’s talking about. And that means there’s really another reason why Jim came to us, not just Jenn, but both of us.
Jenn was wrong. I do share a life with Kyle. Until Rachel died, she did as well. We all share our lives, it’s what the last few years have been about. We share our bodies as well. I shared mine with Jenn. She shared hers with Kyle. And it’s reasonable to assume that Kyle never shared his with Sarah until after he was done sharing his with Jenn but when you are talking about something that could make you sick it’s never a good idea to assume anything. And unfortunately, too many friends of ours, and even more people who aren’t friends of ours, have shared their bodies with Sarah. I can probably think of four in just our immediate group of friends.
“Could it just be an STD?”
“They rejected her fucking blood, Bruce and they were really clear to Amy not to let her donate again. It’s not like she’s got a dose of the clap. If people even still get the clap.”
“What are you thinking Jim?” Jenn asks.
“I’m thinking they either found hepatitis or HIV.”
“Is that just a conjecture?”
“It’s my best guess.”
“You slept with her, didn’t you?” I ask.
“I did. But I have the advantage that I was the first to sleep with her. She didn’t catch anything from me and I couldn’t have caught anything from her.”
“Any idea where she could have caught it?”
“Nothing more than a guess.”
“Nobody gets hepatitis.”
“What?” Jim and I say as one, turning to look at Jenn.
“Nobody. Not anymore. I mean, that’s your worry, isn’t it, Jim? You think she has HIV and you’re worried what would happen if this news gets out. We’ve got hysterical idiots at this school who think god created the world in six days and hands out punishment to sinners and you think they’ll go bonkers with this news once it hits and you’re worried that it will hit, because, hell, you know about it and you shouldn’t.”
She does to Jim what she does to me, what she has attempted to do with Kyle. She cuts through everything else and makes clear what needs to be said. There is a long pause as he stares at her and I become an afterthought to the conversation.
“See, this is what I’m talking about,” he says. “I always knew you were the smartest.”
“What the fuck are we supposed to do?” I ask. “Do we warn her? Maybe she already knows. Do we warn Kyle? Maybe it’s too late to warn him. Do we try and find every idiot on this campus that she’s fucked? That’s probably everyone but me and Kevin.”
“Or is it worse than that?” she asks. I’m turning to look at her but she’s already talking. “Do we have to figure out when I last slept with Kyle? When he first slept with Sarah? When I slept with you? Does everybody have to start counting things back?”
“Jenn, don’t start. Let’s not turn this into a fucking panic situation.”
“Oh, but people are so good at panicking, sometimes. They need that burst of adrenaline to make themselves feel alive.”
There is a long pause at the table as we all catch our breaths. Then we all turn and see Kyle standing behind us. I don’t know how he can surprise us out of the shadows in the middle of the damn day in the middle of the student center, yet he has.
“Is this a closed study group or can anyone join in?” he asks. But there is something really dark in his eyes.
“You know,” I say.
“Know? What do I know? What is there to know? What does anyone need to know?”
“Fuck you, Kyle Andrew Barton. Don’t you do this, not now.”
“Such language, Jennifer. I expected more of you. I presume you won’t use that kind of language in your valedictory speech, come May.”
“We’re your friends, Kyle. We’re her friends,” Jim says. Kyle turns to look at him.
“And how do you know anything about this, anyway? I missed that part of the conversation.”
“Amy’s been told not to allow Sarah to donate any more blood.”
“Yeah, you can tell her that Sarah got that message loud and clear.”
“Kyle, where’s Sarah?”
But that question doesn’t come from any of us. We all look up at Laura, who has managed to walk up with all of us unaware, caught up in the conversation.
“What makes you think I know where she is?”
“Well, maybe because she went to Sacramento with you last night and never came back home. I need to know where she is.”
“She’s not fucking fine! Have you seen these?”
She’s holding a bunch of flyers which she has clearly torn down. She throws them on the table.
“They’re all over the fucking campus. Don’t you people ever look around you?”
The words on the flyer are printed in large 48 point bold and they, very clearly, say SARAH POTTER GOT AIDS FROM SUCKING TOO MANY COCKS.
“Where the fuck did these come from?” Kyle asks with a snarl, turning on Jim.
“Oh, don’t look at me. Amy wouldn’t do something like that and you know it. Someone else must know.”
“Must know what, Kyle?” Laura ask and there is more than a hint of desperation in her voice and I wonder if the rumors about her and Sarah are real, if they’re more than just roommates. “You can’t be telling me this is true!”
“Who could have done this?” Kyle asks, staring at the flyers. We look around and realize that Laura is right. They’re all over the place.
“Tell me this isn’t true, Kyle!”
“Oh don’t you know the difference between AIDS and HIV, you pathetic whiner?” Jenn snaps at her.
“Of course I do, you uptight, rich, pretentious bitch!” Laura yells back with more of a forceful comeback than I would have expected from her. “But the flyer says AIDS.”
“Yeah, well it’s not AIDS, Tanghead. It’s HIV,” Jenn says, but she’s not looking at Laura. She’s staring at Kyle. “Because it is HIV, isn’t it?”
Kyle slowly looks up at Jenn. Jim was right, of course. Jenn is the smartest and she’s figured out what’s happening here. Kyle’s affirmative nod is so subtle that anyone who doesn’t know him as well as Jenn and I might not even notice it.
“Oh, fucking hell,” Laura says and sits down. Jenn turns to say something, but I think maybe she starts to understand something, because when she sees the devastation in Laura’s eyes, she stops.
“Where is she, Kyle?”
“She’s at our apartment,” Kyle says, softly. We all look to him to see if he will say more, but for once his anger fails him. He sits down.
So I do something I’m not really known for. I take charge.
“Laura, go over to our place and go talk to her. Tell her what’s happened, see if she knows who might have done it. Jim, Kyle, come on. Let’s see if we can get all these fucking things torn down.” I stand up and crumple up the flyers on the table and then I look at Jenn.
“I guess we’re done talking.”
“It’s about fucking time you people showed up. I can’t drink all this fucking beer by myself.”
The three of us stare at Paul, completely dumbfounded. He graduated three months ago. He’s a grad student down at Berkeley, living with Sharon. This must just be an illusion resulting from the last stressful couple of hours, wandering around campus, tearing down all these fucking flyers. There must have been a couple hundred of them and we don’t have the faintest idea who could have done it.
“Talk. One of you fucking talk.”
“What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be in Berkeley?”
“It’s a Saturday afternoon, in case you didn’t notice. Nobody has classes on Saturday, even at Cal. I drove up to see you guys.”
“Okay,” Jim says, “not that it’s not cool to see you, but what the fuck for? You just got out of this fucking place. And stop drinking all my beer,” Jim yells, grabbing three bottles from the fridge. He hands one to me and goes to hand one to Kyle, but Kyle just stares at him.
“Seriously?” Jim asks. “Even after today?”
“Yeah, the thing about not drinking Jim, is that you don’t drink.”
“Let him be the stuffed shirt, Jim,” Paul says, taking the beer that was meant for Kyle.
“You haven’t explained what you’re doing here.”
“Well, I get better responses in person than on the phone.”
“What the fuck are you babbling about?” Jim asks as I open and drink half my bottle.
“Look at Yale go. I didn’t know you really drank, Bruce.”
“Only on special occasions.”
“And what a special occasion you have chosen,” he says and points at me, adding, “Groomsman.” Then he points at Kyle and says it again. Then he points to Jim and adds, “best man.”
“What?” we all shout.
“Which of those words was unclear?”
“Married? Have you lost your fucking mind?”
“Sharon is it, Jim. She’s all I ever want, from here on out.”
“Oh, given up on ever getting Kate, have we?” Jim asks, with considerable snark.
“Shut up, punk,” Paul responds. “Now, the seventh of April. I hope you all like raisins, because Sharon is determined to get married in her parents church, which means we’re having this wedding in fucking Fresno. But you will all be there. You will all wear tuxes, as will Kevin, after I have told him. Sharon will probably end up finding him first, since she was going to go ask Kate to be the maid of honor and then try to find Jenn and Sarah to ask them to be bridesmaids.”
The three of us share a look and Paul stares at us because in spite of being at least half-drunk already, he’s quick on the uptake. He realizes there is something wrong. So we tell him.
Kyle and I are helping Paul stumble along. We’ve abandoned Jim to his own abilities, which aren’t much at his level of drunkenness, so he’s fallen way behind. I think we’re headed to our apartment, because clearly Paul isn’t headed back to Berkeley drunk like this. When we talked to Sarah, Sharon and Laura were both with her. I’m not sure why Sharon is willing to have Sarah be a bridesmaid when she won’t have Laura, but maybe it’s Paul who doesn’t want Laura standing there at his wedding. Now we just need to figure out where we’re going.
“Oh, fuck this. I need to sit for a minute,” Paul says. We’re still several hundred yards short of our apartment, so Kyle and I just kind of dump him on the ground. Jim makes some progress towards us while we stand there, staring at Paul.
“Well this has been an interesting day,” Paul says. “Gonna be some interesting times. Maybe I graduated too early. Or just in time to miss all this shit.”
“Good fucking lord,” Kyle says. “Why is it only your legs are affected when you get drunk and not your mouth? We not only have to carry you home, but we have to listen to you babble as well.”
“Hey, luck of the draw. Just be glad I don’t pass flat out like Jenn.”
That shuts both Kyle and I up because neither of us really wants to talk about Jenn at the moment.
“But it gives me a minute to talk to the two of you before Jim catches up to us.”
“We agreed to be your damn groomsmen already,” Kyle points out.
“Not about that. This is about Sean.”
Now we are both staring at him. He wasn’t there, didn’t see it happen, didn’t have to live through it. I can’t imagine what he’s got to say about it.
“You need to realize that this Sarah situation is different.”
“Well, no shit . . .”
“Just shut up and listen, Kyle, for once in your life.”
So he does. We listen. He stares at us and it’s weird how focused he looks given how drunk he is and how little he can walk under his own power.
“You couldn’t save Sean,” he begins. Kyle and I start to look at each other but Paul yells at us and we turn back to stare at him. “Hey! Listen! You couldn’t save Sean. Nothing was gonna save Sean. You two think because you were on the roof with him, because you tried to talk him down, to keep him from falling, that there was something you could have done. But Sean was already dead. He was dead before he ever got up on that roof. He gave up. There was nothing left for him to do but die.”
He pauses for a moment as he catches his breath. We both look down, trying not to think about this. But he yells again and brings us back to him.
“Listen to me, damn it! Stop carrying this around with yourselves. Sean made his choice, and it was awful, but you couldn’t change it. But Sarah is not Sean. She is strong. And you are not gonna let her give up. I loved that girl. Maybe I still love her. But she’s with you, Kyle. She loves you. She’s loved you since the god damn minute she set eyes on you. And you will be strong for her. And Bruce, you will be strong for them both, because you’re good at it. So you two keep it the fuck together. Because I will not lose her like we all lost Sean. This is not fucking 1986. People don’t just die just because they have HIV. Fucking Magic Johnson has had it for five years and he came back and played for the Lakers last season. And thankfully they lost, because I hate the fucking Lakers. But, back to the point. Sarah is strong. She can fight this. She can live. She is not lost. So don’t you fucking give up on her.”
Kyle and I stand there, slowly moving to look at each other as Paul finishes his lecture. Jim finally catches up to us, walking very slowly and wobbily.
“You realize, of course, Paul, that everyone within a block can fucking hear you.”
“Of course I do. That’s why I’m in charge. Because I’m the loudest.”
As meals go on the last day of your life, a burger and fries at In-N-Out are a pretty good way to go. Best of all, since they don’t have interiors, we don’t have the awkwardness of eating in the parking lot in the car because of how bizarre it would be for Kyle to carry me inside.
We’re in El Centro, which puts us well past halfway to San Diego, so we won’t have any trouble getting there in time for sunset. It’s a beautiful August day and I remember why I loved growing up in California. I lived in Villa Park for 18 years and then on and off for four more and I rarely ever saw anything that wasn’t a beautiful day. It seemed like every day started overcast and you wondered if it really would be like the day before, but then the sun would burn off the clouds and it was just a joy to behold. I sure don’t miss the homophobic assholes I grew up with, but god damn do I miss the beach.
After lunch, there’s a flat run through some more desert before we head up into the hills that divide the coast from Imperial Valley. As the car climbs, you get a magnificent view to the south of Mexico and we sit and stare at it.
“I wonder if we should have travelled more,” I say to Kyle.
“All the things we didn’t see. All the things we could have had,” I say, a bit wistfully.
“All I ever wanted. All I ever needed. Is here in my arms,” he says. I turn and stare at him and I could almost feel Bruce and Kayce get tense in the front seat. There isn’t a hint of smile in my husband’s face but I can tell that he’s enjoying himself.
“You waited until the last fucking day of my life to quote my favorite song to me?” I ask.
“I was worried that if I did it any earlier the shock would kill you,” he says. I hear two reactions, as Bruce can’t contain his snicker and Kayce cries out a little and I think is about to start crying.
“You are such a bastard,” I say, but with a smile.
“There’s no need to get technical,” he replies and he kisses me on the lips.
“Dad, what’s . . .” I hear Kayce start to say, but Bruce interrupts her.
“I will explain it at a different time, honey.”
I have not been feeling well, although my doctor says it’s not anything dangerous. My T-Cell count is a bit low, but it’s nothing to worry about. Just get some rest, he said. And I have been able to do that, working on school work without always being there, thanks to the surprising overreaction from my dad. Well, that he overreacted isn’t surprising. That he was willing to stand up for me once he learned what the situation was is the surprising bit, but he’s a damn good lawyer and I think he scared the hell out of the dean of students. It’s clear that whoever leaked my medical info isn’t employed by the school, but that doesn’t make it any easier to cope with. It’s been a very hard month and I’ve been tired a lot, which is why it took so long to get around to making this lunch date.
Michelle is having a tuna melt, which is probably the best thing they make here at the Diner with No Name, but I’m not feeling up for that, so I’m having a small salad and a cup of soup. But the soup is really good as well, so I suppose I’m not losing out. At least on the food. But with Michelle, I’m a bit more worried.
“What did you want to talk about?” she asks. Most of our friends have been very supportive. Actually, they all have. Kyle, my rock. Laura, my dear darling. Bruce, who seems to be putting up quite nobly with how much time I am in his apartment and sucking away his time with Kyle. Jim, who seems to remember that he once loved me, maybe. Kevin and Kate, the two nicest people, always being so damn nice. Jenn, who is trying to be nice to both me and Kyle while never seeing both of us at the same time. Even Tom and Jeff. But Michelle, who has been just as nice as anybody else has also seemed a little distant at times. And I want to figure it out. Because she makes me nervous.
“You’re not like your old roomie,” I say to her.
“Well that’s always been obvious,” she says, not knowing where I’m going with this.
“Look, Jenn is a known quantity.”
“She’s smart. Much smarter than me. She’s beautiful. Not my type, not who I would want to fuck, but beautiful, no question about it.”
“Agreed, all the way around.”
“But her and Kyle, they broke.”
There is a pause, but then Michelle agrees with me.
“Yes, I would say that’s a fair description.”
“Rachel’s death broke them.”
“They can’t get back what they had before she died.”
“I would agree.”
“So I’m not worried about Jenn. I can handle that. Even if she’s smarter than me, and she is, even if she’s better looking than me, and she probably is. But because they broke, I know where she stands with Kyle and I can handle that.”
“So where does that leave this conversation, exactly?”
“You, Michelle, are not a known quantity.”
She doesn’t respond to this, but simply takes another bite of her tuna melt. I continue to stare at her. But, finally, when I actually resume eating my soup, she figures she must say something.
“Why does it matter what I am?”
“Because you clearly love him. And he clearly loves you. And that makes me afraid that I’ll lose him to you.” Brilliant, Sarah, I think to myself, about as subtle as a sledgehammer. But subtlety has never been my trademark and I might as well go with what I’m good at.
“For reasons I can not explain to you,” she says, “for reasons I will not explain to you, Kyle and I are not a couple and never will be. So you have nothing to fear from me.”
“You’re not denying that you love him?”
“I am not.”
“Or that he loves you?”
“You’d have to ask him that.”
“Are you okay with me being with him?”
“Sarah,” she says and I look at her beautiful brown eyes and dark hair. I have been so scared of what she might say in this conversation and now that she has said she’s not standing in the way, I feel so relieved that I can barely function, “you being sick is hard. It’s got to be really god damn hard on you and pretty terrifying. It’s scary to a lot of us. And I know it’s scary to Kyle and it makes things hard. And it must be hard, because it means you can’t have any kind of sex life like you clearly both want. But, and this is very important, so I need you to listen to me.” I focus closely on her eyes and listen to her. “When Kyle is with you, he is happy. And he has been so rarely happy. It’s so wonderful to see. I wouldn’t want him to be with anyone else.”
It’s about a week later and I’m sitting at the table in Kyle and Bruce’s apartment. Bruce is in the kitchen, making dinner, while Laura and Kyle and I are sitting at the table. They both clearly have something they want to say, so I let them have their say.
“So, the first thing is,” Kyle begins, “we’re pretty certain we know who put up the fucking flyers.”
“Who?” I immediately want to know.
“The guy’s name is Brian Quint,” he says and it all instantly makes sense. Because this all happened here at school, because it happened right after I tried to donate blood, which is what made me find out I was HIV positive in the first place, we all assumed that it must have been someone somehow associated with the blood drive or the school. It never occurred to any of us that it could have been someone from Orange County, certainly not the pathetic fucking junkie who almost certainly gave it to me in the first place when I sucked his cock last summer to score some coke. I shouldn’t have been so stupid, but I never could have imagined he would have been so fucking stupid as to share needles.
“How did you find this out?” I ask, although since Kyle envisions himself as a combination of Batman and Sherlock Holmes, that should be all the answer I need.
“Well, I got some help from Jacob,” he says and I feel sad. My brother, my stupid homophobic vaguely racist brother who still loves me and tries to protect me.
“What did Jacob do?”
“Well, since he were the first person you told, he did some figuring and figured out who you probably got it from. Turns out he gave Quint quite a beating and that prompted Quint to flee Orange County. But first, apparently, he decided to come up here and give you some payback.”
“My brother didn’t get arrested, did he?”
“He’s a special forces officer who beat up a drug dealer. I think it’s safe to say that Quint was less than convinced that the police would believe him. So he came up here and tried to fuck you over for revenge.”
“So how do we know that?”
“Because he’s currently in a jail in Reno. After flooding the school with flyers, he apparently took I-80 across the border, which is where your brother managed to track him down again, but this time just handed him over to the police. He had quite a collection of assorted drugs on him at the time, apparently.”
“So, mystery solved, then?” I ask.
“Well, yes, mystery solved,” Kyle says.
“But that’s not the only reason for dinner,” Laura says. I look at her and she looks nervous, apprehensive, like she’s not sure if this is the right thing.
“So, what’s up, Sally Ride?”
“I’m not certain living with me is the best thing for you,” she says. She looks guilty.
“Are you kicking me out?”
“It might be best if you came and stayed here,” Kyle says, quickly. “Laura is very busy right now and you’d have two people here to help you out. It would make your financial burdens easier.”
“Won’t it fuck Laura over? She needs my share of the rent,” I say.
“Jeff wants to get out of the frat house. He’s willing to take on your half of the rent.”
“You’re okay with this, Sally Ride?” I ask. She nods a little, but she still seems a little scared to admit it.
“I just want what’s best for you, honey. I think this would be best for you.”
“Are you asking me to move in with you?” I ask Kyle.
“Yes. I am.”
“And what does your roommate have to say about this?” I ask in a louder voice, leaning back so I can peak in the kitchen. Then I make my voice a little louder as I add “and he’s been watching The Big Chill too many times if he thinks the way to tell if spaghetti is done is by throwing it against the wall.” I see him take the pot off the burner and come over to the door.
“It was my idea,” he says and that’s the most surprising thing I’ve heard tonight. Bruce and I have known each other for years, since that same first day where we all met when Paul made us introduce ourselves with our hometowns and our favorite movie, but we’ve never been that close. He’s always been on one edge of the group and I’ve been on the other. I never would have expected this from him.
“Because we all care about you, Sarah. We want what’s best for you.”
“And I never thought I’d feel this way,” Laura says and I turn to stare at her, my eyes growing wide. Laura is good at the game, but this is ridiculous. But, horrifyingly, she continues. “And as far as I’m concerned I’m glad I got the chance to say that I do believe I love you.”
“And if I should ever go away,” Bruce starts to sing and now I’m really and truly amazed and horrified. “Well, then close your eyes and try to feel the way we do today and then if you can remember.”
“Keep smiling, keep shining,” Kyle says, “knowing you can always count of me, for sure.”
Then, even worse, all three of them decide to hit the chorus together.
“That’s what friends are for!” they all yell together and come together around me. I’m so embarrassed, partially because they have made me cry, partially because they are such good friends, but mostly because they have picked the worst fucking song ever to sing to me.
“Where the fuck are we?” when I wake up. I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I think it was somewhere in the hills.
“We are seven years past the point where you should be cursing in front of my daughter,” comes Bruce’s response, sitting in the front seat, with his eyes on me.
“Isn’t that your daughter over there playing with that puppy?” I ask, looking out the open window, where I can see Kyle and Kayce, some 50 yards away, playing with the world’s most adorable beagle.
“You didn’t know that when you asked the question.”
“Do you worry that you protect her too much?”
“I worry that when the right moment comes I won’t be able to protect her enough.”
“I am stunned that the gods of roommate assigning managed to so perfectly align you and Kyle.”
“There was a questionnaire if you recall.”
“Exactly how much pot did you smoke in college?”
“Depends on which two guys I was between at the time.”
“That is the strangest sexual reference you have ever made.”
“That’s not what I meant. That kind of thing only happened once. And there was a lot of pot that night. Not just us, either. Golden Gate Park was full of it. Maybe we should have given some to Eddie Vedder. Maybe he would have stopped puking.”
“Ah, the infamous concert where Neil Young filled in. No wonder Paul and Jim couldn’t give a very good description of it.”
“I assume you don’t want details.”
“Of Eddie Vedder puking? I’ll pass.”
“Of the threesome.”
“I will definitely pass.”
“It’s a good story.”
“Smoke until you forget it.”
“I gave up pot.”
“Kyle asked me to.”
He doesn’t say anything in response to that. He just looks out at his daughter and his best friend.
“Do you think he regrets marrying me?” I ask. I really shouldn’t. Paul was big on that. Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answers to. But it’s the last day for asking questions. “Do you think he would rather have been with Jenn? Or Michelle?”
“I have never known Kyle not to do what he wanted. If he had regrets about staying with you then he wouldn’t have stayed. He couldn’t talk himself into being a father. He certainly didn’t talk himself into marrying you.”
That was a better answer than I could have hoped for. I stare out at my husband, the husband who has given me so much and it makes me think of others who have given so much, others I won’t have a chance to say goodbye to. But that’s the way this has all come down. With one exception, I think. I think I owe one phone call.
“Bruce, I need you to grab my phone.”
“And do what?”
“Put it on speaker and call Laura.”
“Are you sure?”
“I need to talk to her.”
He seems like he wants to argue, but then he doesn’t. He pulls my phone from my pocket and finds Laura in the autodial list and when it starts to ring, he puts it on speaker.
“You’re lucky that this didn’t wake up Lyra,” she says upon answering. “I just got her to sleep.”
“Well nice to talk to you too, Sally Ride.”
“What’s up? And am I on speaker?”
“I can’t really hold the phone.”
“Is there anyone else there with you?”
“Just Bruce. Say hello, Bruce.”
“You’re a fucking riot, Yale,” Laura says.
“I need you to do something for me, Laura. And then I want you to tell me something.”
This shuts her up. I don’t usually call her Laura. If I call her anything, it’s Sally Ride, and it has been ever since that day the damn red hair dye made her hair come out bright orange. So she’s listening closely.
“What is it?”
“You’re gonna get a call from Paul sometime later today. Maybe early tomorrow,” I say, and I’m holding it together, but it’s close. I hope I can get through this.
“Why would Paul be calling me?”
“He’s gonna be calling you with some sad news. And it’s important, it’s so very important, you have to promise me, that when he calls, you will be surprised. You can’t be expecting the call. You have to be surprised.”
There is a pause and then suddenly it clicks for her.
“No. No. This is not fucking okay. Bruce, what the fuck is going on? She’s not seriously talking . . .”
“Listen to me, Laura,” I say. “Listen to me, please, love, please.”
“Sarah, you can’t do this. You can’t.”
“It is time, love, it is my time and so it is time for you to let me go.”
“You can’t ask me to do this.”
“You can do this, and here’s why. Because you’re the one I love enough to make this call to. You’re the one who’s not here but that I needed to say goodbye to. Because what we had, our love, is so important to me, I could not just let it go without saying goodbye.”
“Oh, and Bruce is going to keep this secret?” she says, trying to think of anything through the tears that I can hear, as she sniffles and tries to keep talking without completely breaking down.
“Bruce is so good with secrets, love, you can’t imagine.”
“Oh, yeah, right.”
“Bruce slept with Jessie.”
“That’s a ridiculous lie.”
“It’s true. And you never heard it. Because he can keep a secret.”
“Why would you . . .”
“I slept with her the first time on January 21, 1995. I slept with her five more times, the final time on May 7, 1995,” Bruce says succinctly. There is nothing but tears and sniffling on the other end.
“So, I guess he can keep a secret,” she finally says.
“So you need to keep this secret. Because I am asking you to. Because I love you. I love you enough to call you.”
“What do you need to know?” she asks.
“You said you wanted me to tell you something. What is it?”
“Lyra wasn’t in-vitro, was she?”
“It’s the last day of my life, honey. There’s no one for me to spill this secret to. So you tell me, because I desperately want to know. There is a father, isn’t there?”
“Send Bruce out of the car.”
“Bruce can stay.”
“Just because he can keep a secret about Jessie . . .”
“Bruce is definitely the man you want for a secret about paternity.”
“How do you mean?”
“Did you know that Gary Wagner is Kayce’s biological father?”
There is another pause.
“I didn’t hear Bruce say that,” she says.
“And you never will. So think about that.”
“Sarah, you . . .”
“It’s Paul, isn’t it? Paul is the father, isn’t he?” I ask and Bruce’s eyes get wide. I don’t think he ever even considered this possibility. That’s what so lovable about him.
“Sarah . . .”
“Come on, Sally Ride, we’re running out of time.”
“Have you already . . .”
“Just tell me, Laura.”
“Holy fucking shit. Details.”
“He was coming to Boston for a conference. He knew I wanted a baby. I had been checking all the signs. I knew I was ovulating. He came over.”
“Just like that? One shot and it was like magic?”
“It was a weekend. There were lots of attempts.”
“Oh, honey, I hope Sharon doesn’t ever find out, because Boston won’t be far enough. You’ll have to move to Europe.”
“Well, she hasn’t found out yet. And she better not find out from this conversation.”
“Hey, it won’t be from me. I’m sure as shit not calling their house to say goodbye. Remember, they can’t know. They absolutely can’t know.”
“And I have your word, Bruce?”
“Laura, I am glad that you got the baby you wanted. You deserve to be happy.”
There is another long pause, as Laura tries to decide what to make of that. Finally she seems to accept it.
“Okay, that’s what you needed to know.”
“Then I guess it’s time.”
“Sarah, you can’t . . .”
“I think Kyle and Kayce are headed back this way, love, so this is it. I love you, Laura. I’m so sorry we didn’t have more time together, the two of us. I am so happy for every minute we spent together.”
“Oh, Sarah, honey, I love you,” she says, crying fiercely. I’m crying as well. This was much harder than I had thought it would be, but the right things are never easy.
“Goodbye, Sally Ride.”
I nod my head towards the phone and Bruce hangs it up. I have my tears under control enough that when Kayce and Kyle get back to the car, they don’t seem to notice. Or Kayce doesn’t, anyway.
“You ready to come out in the sun?” Kyle asks.
“You better believe it,” I say.
Yesterday was the worst fucking Thanksgiving I could have possibly imagined. I don’t know what Kyle thought would happen. I certainly don’t imagine he thought it would go badly enough that we would drive all the way back to the Oaks from the city afterwards.
‘Are you out of your fucking mind?’ his mother yelled at him. ‘You haven’t had enough of the fucking Castro that you want to spend the rest of your life caring for someone with HIV? It wasn’t enough when your father died of AIDS?’
‘Oh was he really my father, Mom, because you were never really too sure on that one,’ he yelled back.
‘Your generation should know better than to get this fucking plague, Kyle Andrew! You should know enough to be careful with who you fuck!’
‘Yeah, well at least I know enough about who I’m fucking that I’d be able to identify a parent for any child I produce.’ he yelled back, which didn’t really make a whole lot of sense, since he’s male, but I guess it made the point. And then we were gone, back in the Mustang, headed back to school. Bruce was still at the apartment. He had refused, point blank, to go home and he didn’t want to intrude on this time Kyle had with his mother, not imagining how bad it could go. So he was there when we got back, watching The Princess Bride with Kevin and Kate for what was probably the eight millionth time.
Tonight’s supposed to be a card game. Kevin and Kate, though I imagine neither one is any good at poker. Bruce. Laura, because she didn’t want to go back to Idaho for the holiday and Jeff is down at home in San Diego. Kyle should wipe the floor with this group. But I bow out of playing, saying I’m tired. I am tired. Tired of life.
I feel like I can’t do this anymore. I’m not strong enough for this. I might be able to hold on to Kyle for a while. Maybe he’ll be able to patch things up with Jenn. Maybe whatever is keeping him apart from Michelle will ease and he can be happy with her. But the pure venom his mother spit at me was just too much. It’s not enough that my own fucking parents won’t talk to me, pretty much made it clear that settling things with the school was the last favor they’d be doing me, that if drugs got me into this mess, then I can look to drugs for some help rather than them.
I can’t put myself through this anymore. I can’t put Laura through this anymore. I can’t put Kyle through this anymore.
I’ve locked the door to his room. The others are all playing poker and they should be busy for quite a while. There’s the other bathroom, the main one, so they won’t need to come in here and use this one. This will be easy enough. And when they do find me, Kyle will have them around him to help him get over me. He shouldn’t have too much trouble getting over me. Not while Jenn and Michelle are both still single. Jesus, what is it with the fucking roommates on this campus getting obsessed over the same people?
I go into the bathroom and pull his razor from the medicine cabinet. My boyfriend is the only college student left in America who still shaves with an actual razor blade razor rather than a safety razor. But it gives me something easy to do this with. I turn on the hot water and run my arm under it. I undo the clasp and take out the razor. I stare at it for a minute. I put it to my left arm and press down, right where I can see the vein under the skin.
We hear what sounds like a cry of shock or pain. Kyle and I look towards his room. Then we both react. Kyle is up before me and over to the door. It’s locked. But Sarah must not have realized that this apartment is old and all you have to do to undo the lock is twist the doorknob several times.
By the time the lock is undone and we get in the room, the others are behind us. So, when Kyle opens the door to the bathroom and we see Sarah standing there, with the blood running down her arm, there are five of us standing together.
She hasn’t cut very much. I think maybe she discovered that it hurts a lot more than she thought. Or maybe she decided she wasn’t really ready to go through with this. Because why else on earth would she attempt this when there are five friends of hers ready to stop her? Is this real? Or a cry for help?
“Put it down, Sarah. You don’t want to do this,” Kyle says.
“I don’t have anything to live for, Kyle.”
“You have a lot to live for,” Kate says, from behind me.
“Oh, like what, Kate? A family that’s disowned me? A boyfriend whose mother disdains me? A fucking degree in art history that will be worthless once I graduate? A fucking disease that’s gonna kill me? You tell me what I have that’s worth living for. One fucking thing.”
“Me,” both Kyle and Laura say at the same time. They look at each other and Laura nods to him and lets him go.
“You’ve got me. You will always have me. Because I will not walk away from you. I will not let you go.”
“Kyle, you . . .”
“I let Sean go. I will not fucking let you go!” he says and everyone seems to take a little step back.
“Kyle, you can’t put your whole life on hold for me.”
“He’s right, Sarah,” I say and she turns to look at me. “We couldn’t save Sean. But we can save you. Love can save you.”
“Oh, one man’s love can save me, is that right?”
“We all love you, you idiot,” Kate says. And Sarah looks at all of us and it seems to sink in, enough for her to realize that there is love in this room, enough to fill a heart, enough to fill a life.
“Please, darling,” Laura says, “just put down the razor.”
She looks down at the razor, at the blood still dripping from her arm, then back up at Kyle.
“I will never leave you,” he says. “That is a promise.”
It is after eight when we finally leave Point Loma. The sun is gone now, sunk deep into the ocean horizon. It burned a brilliant color, red and orange and yellow and purple, and it was the thing I most wanted to see again. And once it is gone, I have Kyle carry me back to the car. We sit in the car, the four of us, and wonder at what to do next. In my jacket pocket is the bottle of pills I have that will make this all go away. Kyle has kept his promise, for all these years, but now I need to make him leave me, at least for a few minutes.
When Bruce asks what we should do about food, I point out that I saw a Baskin Robbins on our drive through town from I-8.
“All I want is some ice cream,” I say. None of them are liable to argue with me at this point and I think I probably have Kayce on my side when it comes to having ice cream for dinner. So we drive to Baskin Robbins and I ask Kyle and Kayce to go in and get me some Chocolate Raspberry. Kayce gets out, but I put my hand on Kyle’s arm for a second.
“Take a few minutes, please.”
“Are you sure?”
“You know, when they used to have duels, they would ask the doctor to turn around, to give him deniability. You’re law enforcement. It’s best if you’re not in the car.”
“You’ll still be awake when I come back.”
“I intend to eat my Chocolate Raspberry ice cream.”
He kisses me on the forehead and goes inside with Kayce. I’ll give them five minutes. That should be enough. I turn to look at Bruce. I’m able to get the pills out of the pocket and hand him the bottle. I nod towards the bottle of water he has with him in the front seat.
“I hope Kayce can forgive me,” I say, and I’m already crying.
“Someday she’ll understand. Someday she’ll probably think you made the best choice for you.”
“She was born at 8:11 in the morning.”
“You know where you were at 8:11 in the morning on August 28, 1995?” I ask him.
He stares at me. This is a boy who still believes in God, who at least kind of still believes in Christ. This is not an easy concept for him to allow into his belief system.
“Christ was resurrected. That’s about as far as I’m willing to go on the subject.”
“It’s not resurrection. It’s reborn.”
“You really believe it, don’t you?”
“It’s nice to believe in something.”
“Is there anything you need me to do before we do this?”
“I need you to kiss me like you did this morning.”
And so we do. It’s a nice kiss, a wonderful kiss, a beautiful kiss, and I don’t mind if Kyle sees it but I hope that Kayce doesn’t see it, because that would be too much for her to have to understand on a day when she’s already being given enough to understand.
After the kiss, he pours the pills into his hand. He doesn’t argue with me. He doesn’t attempt to defend the sanctity of life, the violation, and what he probably sees as the cowardice of suicide. He does not try to explain that I’m damning my supposedly eternal soul or claim that this might do something to the state of his own soul. He doesn’t point out that his own wife endured far more physical agony than I have and in the end, she let life work its own course through destiny to death. He does not do all of things and more. He gives me the pills and I lean my head back and swallow them. He holds the bottle of water and helps me to swallow. I swallow it down and then look at him.
“Michelle was so right to choose you. You are so worth loving.”
“So are you.”
“Go get my boy and your girl. I want my fucking ice cream.”
I am remembering images. The first time we were all together, calling out my name, “Sarah, Villa Park, Pink Floyd The Wall.” I remember Laura running her hand down my chest and my back arching. I remember seeing Eddie puking on stage and the wild night that followed, taking Jim and Paul at the same time. I remember yelling at Jacob to stop shaking my bed and realizing that it was an earthquake. I remember our city hall wedding and Michelle coming in with Kayce and suddenly realizing what it was that had kept Kyle and Michelle apart. I remember holding the razor blade in my hand after yelling out because it hurt too much when I tried to cut open my vein and the meetings with the school psychologist that I had to go through after that. I remember running down towards Mountain Lake, naked, and leaping in to join Jim in the water. I remember Bruce and Michelle, so happy together. I remember Kayce, the little girl. I remember Kayce, the pitcher. I remember Kayce, the light of my life. And I remember Kyle.
I open my eyes because I realize I’m starting to drift into sleep. I don’t know where we are, somewhere in the valley, headed back home. I won’t make it back home. There are still things I need to say.
“Hey,” I say to Kyle. He’s looking at me and I wonder if he thought I was already gone.
“I’m here,” he says. “I haven’t left. I made a promise.”
“And now you need to make me another one.”
“What is it?”
“Those two,” I say, pointing to Kayce and Bruce in the front seat. “You need to let those two in. You can’t block them out. You can’t do this alone.”
“What makes you think so?” he says, and I can see that he’s trying hard not to cry. This is not a man who cries easily, but he’s reached his limit.
“Because I know you, Kyle Andrew Barton. You need to let them in.”
“You know so much about me, huh?” he says, trying to stay strong.
“Everybody needs a place to rest,” I sing. “Everybody wants to have a home. Don’t make no difference what nobody says. Ain’t nobody like to be alone. Everybody’s got a hungry heart. Everybody’s got a hungry heart. Lay down your money and you play your part. Everybody’s got a hun-hun-hungry heart.”
“I thought using Springsteen was against the rules,” he says, but he’s crying now. Kayce is crying now. Bruce is somehow holding it together, but he has to drive, and he’s a parent, so he knows how to hold it together.
“Yeah, well, I’m dying.”
“How long are you going to use that excuse?”
“Not long. I promise,” I say, but I can barely get the words out. Kayce is bawling in the front seat and I realize that the time has come. I need to say everything I have left to say.
I can’t stop crying. I wasn’t there when my Mom died. Uncle Kyle and Aunt Sarah took me to their house so I wasn’t there. But I’m here and Uncle Kyle is so sad and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.
“Kayce, honey,” Aunt Sarah says. I turn to look at her.
“I need you to listen to me for a minute, honey,” she says. I can’t really get myself to say anything, so I just nod my head.
“Kayce, you’re not gonna understand this right now. But someday you might meet a boy. He’s gonna be a bit arrogant. But he’s gonna be handsome. And he’s gonna be charming. And you find out when he was born. And if he was born on May 12, 1996, well then you love him. You love him for the rest of your life.”
I start to frown a little and the tears dry up a little because she’s right. I don’t understand it all.
“But, Aunt Sarah . . .”
“It’ll make sense someday.”
“Okay,” I say, because I don’t know what else I’m supposed to say.
“You have been the light of my life, honey. I don’t know how I would have gotten by without you. You have been such a joy. And you are gonna be sad for a long time after today. And that’s okay. But I’ll be with your mom. And there’s no one else I’d rather be with. And we’ll be watching you. And we’ll be so proud, because you are everything we ever could have wished for.”
She seems to be trying to lean forward but is having trouble, so I slip under my seatbelt and lean towards the backseat. She hugs me tightly and kisses me on the forehead. I hug her back and then get back in my seatbelt. I turn to look at my dad. He’s driving in the dark, but he reaches out and rubs my head.
“Kayce,” he says.
“You remember what your mother told you? The last thing your mother told you?”
I do remember. She told me that there would be a time when I would need to be brave. That I would need to save my dad. And Uncle Kyle.
“Yes,” I whisper.
“That time has come.”
I think about the last time we talked about this, just over a month ago, when Spider-Man 2 came out. There’s the end scene, when Mary Jane comes back to Peter and says to him “Isn’t it about time somebody saved your life?” and I started crying in the theater. Now I know why. This is what my mom was telling me about.
I look at Uncle Kyle as he holds Aunt Sarah in his arms. He’s looking down at her and she’s smiling at him, but they’re both crying. She puts out her hand and holds it to his cheek.
“Sing me to sleep,” she says.
“Kayce,” he says, “can you put in the CD that says Love Songs?”
I turn back around because it seems like I shouldn’t be watching him at this point. I take the CD out of the case and put it in the player. I know the first song, know the train whistle that starts it off. And when it starts to play, Uncle Kyle does something I almost never hear him do. He sings along.
“I want somebody to share. Share the rest of my life. Share my innermost thoughts. Know my intimate details.”
Somewhere in the middle of the song, I cry myself to sleep.
When I wake up, I look around and realize that we’re home. Uncle Kyle and Aunt Sarah’s home. I turn to look at my dad but he’s not in the driver’s seat. I turn around and he and Uncle Kyle are both in the back seat, with Aunt Sarah. Her eyes are closed.
But he doesn’t say anything. They just there, holding each other, holding Aunt Sarah. Finally, Uncle Kyle speaks.
“Kayce, honey, I need you to do something.”
“What is it?”
“You know the security code to the house?”
“It’s my birthday.”
“That’s right. Now go inside and grab the phone. If you hit speed dial and 4, it will call Paul and Sharon Barrett.”
“You have your cell phone.”
“No, honey. It has to be from the house phone. Paul has caller ID. He knows I keep the cell phone off at home.”
I stare at the three of them. I realize as I’m staring that Aunt Sarah isn’t breathing. She isn’t asleep.
“We didn’t take the trip, did we?” I ask.
“You are a very smart girl, Kayce,” Uncle Kyle says.
“Is it okay, Dad?”
He looks at me. I haven’t seen him this sad since Mom died. But he slowly nods.
“There are certain things that Paul would not understand, honey.”
“I know. I read your journal.”
“Go make the call. You tell him that Uncle Kyle and I can’t come to the phone. Find out how long it would take him to get here. You tell him that she’s already gone.”
“But he’s gonna come anyway?”
“He will. That’s who he is.”
“Kayce, tell him to make the phone calls. He’ll know what you mean. Tell him to call Ms. Beaton first, Laura. Tell him he has to call Laura first.”
“Will he do it?”
“If you tell him to do it, he’ll do it.”
I stare at the phone. I’m trying to make myself stop crying, which started again when I got out of the car. But maybe I should be crying. Maybe he’ll believe me more if I’m crying. I pick up the phone and hit the speed dial.
“Oh good Christ, Kyle, what the hell time is it?” comes the voice from the other end of the phone, Irving’s dad. I take a deep breath and start talking.
“It’s not Uncle Kyle, Mr. Barrett. It’s Kayce.”
I can almost hear him sitting up, becoming more alert.
“Kayce? What’s wrong, Kayce? Where’s your dad? Where’s your uncle? Sharon, wake up.”
“What’s wrong, Paul?” I hear Mrs. Barrett say, sleepily.
“My Aunt Sarah died tonight, Mr. Barrett.”
“Oh shit. Oh, Kayce, don’t listen to that. Sharon, wake up.”
“What is it?”
“Oh, Paul, I’m so sorry.”
“Kayce, can I talk to your dad?”
“He can’t come to the phone right now. He said that you’re supposed to make the phone calls.”
“Okay. Yeah. I can do that.”
“He said you’re supposed to call Ms. Beaton first. He was very specific about that. You have to call her first.”
There is a long pause at the other end of the phone. I remember what I read in my dad’s journal, about how he and Ms. Beaton used to date when they were in college, but that it ended badly.
“Okay. Yeah. I’ll call her. As soon as we’re off the phone.”
“Are you coming here?”
“I’ll leave in the morning. I’ll be there sometime in early afternoon probably.”
“I’ll tell my dad.”
“Kayce, honey, was it peaceful? Oh, I’m sorry. It’s not the kind of question I should ask you. It’s hard to think about this.”
I’m crying again and I don’t know if it will make me more believable or not. I can’t help but cry. My mom always told me that I should be honest. I should tell people the truth, not just what they want to hear. But I heard what my dad and Uncle Kyle were saying in the car. And I know what I read in the journal, about how they all promised him they wouldn’t ever give up, about how they would stay strong and I think that this time maybe my mom would think it’s okay if I say what he wants to hear.
“Oh, Mr. Barrett. She was so strong, all the way to the end,” I say and I’m crying so hard I can barely get the words out. But I have to keep speaking. I just have to say this much so I can hang up the phone.
“You would have been so proud of her.”