|LONGER THAN ALWAYS
But men get lost sometimes/ As years unfurl
One day he crossed some line/ And he was too much in this world
But I guess it doesn't matter anymore
In a New York Minute
Everything can change…
Part I: 2001
“Dana. Listen to me. Is John home?”
“Why?” He could barely recognize his own voice, forced as it was through his teeth, between painful gulps of air. “So you can palm me off on him?”
“No. I just meant…”
The end of the sentence was cut off by more tearing sobs. Panic flooded him and he tried desperately to stop his teeth from chattering. Terrified, he stumbled over his words, clutching the phone as if it might save him.
“James, I’m sorry! I’m sorry, please don’t hang up.”
He could no longer hear anything beyond his own weeping. He coughed, vaguely remembering that he was ill. The coughs came harder. Surely he would die.
But surely that was better than the alternative.
The voice he barely recognized as his own went on pleading, miserably, in the wails that would haunt his dreams.
“Please don’t hang up. Please don’t leave me. Please, please don’t. Please don’t hang up…”
I knew something was wrong the minute I put my key in the lock. Yeah, I know people say that a lot when bad things happen. They look back, and maybe it’s a comfort or something to think they could have predicted it. That it didn’t hit them as blind as it really did. I’m no psychologist, of course. But I AM in the people business. And we’d all seen plenty of people trying to make sense of awful things in the last few months.
But back to my story. I knew something was wrong because I could hear the faint sounds of Disney coming through the apartment door. Along with my natural reaction (Damn, I wish I could remember during sensitive moments that these walls are NOT soundproof!), I grew concerned.
It’s not that Disney is apocalyptic or anything. It’s just that Thursdays are our night to watch Simeon, and it’s really not John’s style to park him in front of an animated flick. He’s far more likely to be found teaching him to distinguish the Dutch masters or conjugate a French verb or balance his checkbook. Or something else appropriately wholesome, educational, and non-mechanical. And lately keeping him away from TV was pretty much a group effort. The six-year-old child of one of my co-workers had had nightmares for weeks when channel 5 broke in on a cartoon she was watching with some terrifying footage.
So I paused for a minute with my hand on the knob. It was one of those moments I’d had a lot recently. Do I really WANT to know? I could stand out here in the hall in blissful ignorance. Or I could walk into the apartment and find out something I was sure I didn’t want to know. I had taken to turning on the morning news with my eyes squeezed shut. Only one sense at a time could take the potential shocks. Once my ears made certain nothing more awful than the usual had happened, I opened one eye at a time. Then, and only then, was I ready for the news.
And then, you know, I went to work and immersed myself in the news for the rest of the day.
Sometimes, if I let my mind wander, I would hear that nagging voice. This isn’t how it was supposed to be.
Didn’t I know that.
In the end I pushed the door open after only a moment or two of hesitation. I was hungry, after all, and I missed John.
I had barely dropped my bag in the foyer when I heard the patter of Simeon’s little feet, coming to greet me. Along with the rest of him, of course. He threw myself enthusiastically at me and wrapped his chubby little arms around my knees.
I shucked my coat with one hand and scooped Simi up. “Where’s Uncle John?”
He patted my face with two small hands. “You’re cold!” he exclaimed, his grammar perfect. I suppose Uncle John was having a good effect on the child after all. Simi’s language explosion had rapidly proved to be the most – or maybe the only – positive thing about this autumn, and I was loving every minute of it.
“Sad,” Simeon observed, brown eyes steady on mine. Then, hearing the strains of singing silverware in the distance, he wriggled to get out of my arms and return to “Beauty and the Beast.”
“Who’s sad?” I called after him. No response. I could hear the low tones of John’s voice coming from the living room. He was sitting in the chair in the corner – he would never leave Simeon alone when he was baby-sitting, but it was clear he’d wanted or needed some semblance of privacy – talking on the phone.
I breathed slightly more easily. John was in one piece; Simi seemed healthy and even John couldn’t argue that one evening of Disney films would destroy his youthful mind.
“Tris!” John waved me over, then muted the phone by pressing it to his chest. It’s his own version of a hold button and one of the zillion endearing things about him. I could go on and on, of course.
“I’m glad you’re home.” He kissed me quickly. “Why don’t you take Simi to the Corner Diner and get both of you some dinner?”
He was reaching into his pocket before I could answer. “Do you have cash?”
I nodded. “What’s going on?”
“Go and come straight back, okay?”
He pushed my hair back and kissed me once more. I waited for him to tell me everything was fine.
“It’s going to be all right. Go, honey.”
Going to be. Future tense. Yes John.
This isn’t how it was supposed to be.
His eyes asked me: Do you trust me?
I gathered up Simi and our coats and headed out into the chill November air, aware that unspoken though it had been, I wasn’t sure I’d answered his question.
We walked companionably hand in hand. It amazed me these days how much of a person Simi had become. This very small blond human, whose birth I could quite clearly recall, was…company. He was lots of fun. He talked in sentences. And watching him blossom every week was helping to keep me sane.
Not knowing what was happening in the apartment made my stomach hurt, the familiar dull ache that told me I needed to be very careful with dinner. I steeled myself to it and distracted myself with the baby, who was happily kicking a pebble down the sidewalk.
The Corner Diner was at the other end of our block. It was where we went when we felt too lazy to cook; I knew its menu by heart and that bought me more time to think. And, admittedly, to worry.
It had, of course, been a trying few months. We’d taken on more responsibility for Simi, which was a pleasure in a lot of ways and he WAS our godchild, but the circumstances, quite frankly, sucked. Mel and her family had just moved into their apartment in Battery Park City over the summer and had been living there barely two months before they were forced out. Simi was still in day care close to our neighborhood and in the interim Mel stayed sometimes with us, sometimes with her parents in Connecticut. First it was just for a while, but it continued even after the apartment and her neighborhood had been cleared. She didn’t want the baby breathing in air she didn’t trust. Josh, her husband, didn’t want to leave the apartment. Something about fear, or morale, I don’t know. So Thursday nights John and I watched Simi while Mel went apartment-hunting. Then they usually both stayed over.
And we all tried to ignore the fact that she and Josh had, for all intents and purposes, separated. The legalities of it all paled in comparison to the geographic fact that they were split the length of Manhattan. I didn’t know what their plans were or how they would work out custody or where anyone would live. Josh’s job was apparently more unstable than they’d thought. Everyone had been so nervous, so on edge, for so long that the end of Mel’s marriage was somehow both inevitable and unthinkable.
I fed Simi chicken soup and a tuna sandwich, watched his apple cheeks and his smile across the table. He was so small and sweet in the red plastic booster seat, little feet drumming. I had the urge to grab him and run so neither of us had to go back to the apartment.
Mel was waiting, white-faced, at the door. She took Simeon out of my arms, kissed me quickly in greeting, and put a finger to her lips, gesturing inside.
“He’s still on the phone? What’s going on?” At her glare I dropped my voice to a whisper.
“James and Dana broke up,” she said quietly.
“What? That’s impossible. Dana’s leaving for Vancouver this weekend.” She had to be wrong. In the shadows of all the ugliness of the past few months, watching the growing love between those two had been a rare thing of beauty. And everything had been fine yesterday.
Still…if nothing else, we’d been conditioned of late to believe the impossible.
“John’s on the phone with him now.”
“I don’t understand. Everything was fine yesterday.” The pitch of my voice rose against my will and I started to feel slightly faint. “Maybe it’s just a small thing. They can work it out.”
We’d grown closer to James and Dana both in the last few months as they cemented their relationship. Dana had been in Canada with him only last month, and left to get things ready to make a semi-permanent move back there. He was packed, employed on the other coast, ready to go. My stomach clenched as I thought of how excited he was, how excited they both were, the love with which they’d spoken of each other. The four of us had been so happy to have each other; in helping them we’d helped ourselves, or so we thought. Meeting us had been like coming home, James had said. Their relationship wasn’t strange or odd, but natural and beautiful. We’d shared so MUCH with them, I recalled bitterly, embarrassment touching my shock. I felt betrayed.
“Dana’s a mess,” Mel said softly, one hand stroking Simi’s fair hair as she spoke, and there was something about the gentle tone of her voice that choked me up.
I was so SICK of this, so sick of bad news and fear and confusion and the rug pulled out from under my feet every time I turned around.
We stood awkwardly in the hallway: my old friend, who couldn’t feel safe in her own home; her child, who would grow up with no memory of his parents together; and me, torn between desperately needing the man whose quiet voice rumbled from the other room – and wanting to yank myself away now before it hurt any worse.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.
I slipped into the study at one point and draped myself on the arm of the loveseat, leaning against John. With our heads pressed together I could hear terrible sobbing from the other end of the phone. Dana, torn apart. I’d heard James countless times speaking of Dana with love and concern. Remembered Dana a few months ago, shaken up from the terror that gripped us all, driving his car off the road. Calling James, terrified. I’d spoken to him later that night; he was embarrassed.
(“I didn’t want to bother him, Tris. I felt terrible. It was practically the middle of the night for him.”
“No, Dana, James was happy you called. He wants to be the one you call.”
“He loves you. And he was glad you called, I know he was. He wants you to need him. He told us.”)
I remembered Dana speaking with pride of the changes they were implementing together. They were so in love.
Had the niggles of doubt been there then? Why didn’t anyone say anything?
On the other side of the phone, on the other side of the river, Dana wept. I couldn’t listen anymore. My stomach turned over and I left, afraid I would throw up.
John came out later, looking tired around the eyes. It was after ten o’clock; the faint sounds of Simeon fussing and Mel soothing him wafted out from the guest room. I was curled up on the couch, CNN turned on low and munching on dry cereal to keep myself busy. He sat behind me when I didn’t turn around and rested a hand on my side. He never tried to change the channel anymore. We couldn’t escape what was happening. Why try?
“What’s going on?” I asked without looking up.
John transferred my legs to his lap so he could sit closer. “James broke up with Dana.”
“I don’t care so much about the when and where, but you forgot the why,” I pointed out sourly.
He flicked the TV off. “I don’t know.”
“Is he okay?”
“Not really, no.”
He rubbed my back and I accepted the comfort somewhat, my face still pressed into the couch cushions. John didn’t lie to me, didn’t condescend, and I appreciated it even while the truth did, clichés be damned, hurt.
“He’s supposed to move in with James in two days.”
I sat up. “You’re not being very informative. You were on the phone for ages.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know much more, honey. I only spoke briefly to James, and Dana wasn’t all that comprehensible. It was mostly just settling him down, or trying to.”
“That’s James’ job,” I said automatically.
“Yes, and that was who he wanted.” John’s face was set in grim lines. “It was pretty bad.”
“I’m tired. I think I’m going to turn in,” I said quietly, avoiding looking at him as I stood up. He caught my hand as I walked by but it felt perfunctory.
I squeezed his hand. “I’ll see you inside.”
I didn’t say: “It’s okay.” Because, of course, it wasn’t.
I had the bunker dream that night, the one where we’re all underground in the desert somewhere and there’s too much loud and awful sound and light to identify, and something horrible happens that I can never remember once I wake up, nor can I identify why I’m crying.
please call. i’m so afraid. i don’t know how to do this on my own.
i just need to hear your voice. i won’t even say anything, really. i’ll just listen. i’m all by myself here and i don’t know what to do.
John was on the phone with Dana again early the next morning. I sat in the kitchen with Mel and Simeon, drinking juice and trying to calm myself for the day ahead. I still didn’t know anything more than I had the night before. I jumped up when I heard John hang up and caught him outside the bedroom.
“Is he okay?”
John shook his head. “He heard from James. He’s going away for a few days.” He paused and ruffled my hair. “They’re neither of them in good shape,” he said quietly.
“What do you mean going away? What’s going to happen to Dana?”
“I don’t know. A friend is going out to stay with him tonight; he’s welcome here but he’s sick and not in any shape to travel into the city now. Maybe in a few days.”
“But he’s leaving for Vancouver in a few days.”
“He’s not, honey. James told him no.”
The word echoed in my head. James told him no. He certainly did that often enough. But only to help. Because they wanted it. Because they made each other happy. I heard the N-word often enough in our house. No, you can’t do this, and I love you.
Never: No, you can’t be with me, and I don’t love you.
“How can he do this? He tells him not to come and then leaves?” My stomach hurt just thinking about it. Today was Friday. I’d spoken to both of them Wednesday. Dana was due to fly out to Vancouver on Saturday. I tried to wrap my mind around it: No. I’ve changed my mind. Don’t come. Cancel your ticket. I don’t love you anymore.
John put an arm around my shoulders and I let it lie there. It felt alien and heavy and I was flooded with a childish sense of I Hate Everyone.
“I think it’s horrible and I don’t want anything to do with James ever again,” I informed John, ducked out from under his arm and left to finish my cheerios.
It was a slow day at work. Mel wasn’t happy, I wasn’t happy, and to top it off the weather was as bleak and miserable as we were. I was sick of everything and sick of pretending I wasn’t. If it was making me this crazy, what was going through Dana’s mind? And James? I stopped myself. I don’t think I wanted to know what was going through his mind.
I called Dana at lunchtime.
it seems funny to start a letter i'm not going to send. but you said you'd call monday and i don't want to leave anything in your inbox before then. too scared you won't call me if i do. silly, i guess. i don't know anymore. really i'm not thinking much. my head is so filled up anyway, and i can't sort out what's being sick and what's just hurting. i miss you so much already. i think i can wait until monday. it's three days. but i can do it. you're going to call monday.
i wish i could sleep or something.
PS evan thinks you won't call, but i believe you. i won't listen to him. you love me. you said you still care.]
“I don’t understand,” he sobbed over and over on the phone, barely comprehensible through the congestion of the flu and prolonged crying. “Everything was fine Wednesday. He told me he loved me. He was even joking about whether I could move in sooner! Tris, what happened?”
“I don’t know…”
“But he’ll call Monday. I mean, he said he would. Do you think he will?”
“I think if he said he was going to, he probably will,” I said carefully, though to be honest I felt so thrown I really had no idea what was going to happen. “I can’t see any other reason why he would have said it.”
“It’s my fault. But I can tell him that when he calls. He probably feels so bad…” Dana’s voice trailed off as his crying worsened. Arg. “Tris...I don’t know what to do…”
“You need to try to calm down,” I said, then regretted it when he gave a sort of semi-shriek of outrage.
“How can I calm down? Tris, I have NO idea what’s going on! I woke up and…I mean, everything was fine and then – and I have no idea what’s going on and James – I just…”
“Tris, I have nothing else in my life.” He sobbed harder. “I know that’s bad, I know I shouldn’t have but…God, Tris, I was all packed!”
“I did,” he coughed. “But I don’t understand. I changed everything around for him. I was going to leave everything…to go and…I asked him every day before I bought the ticket, I asked him all the time, Tris, and he said yes! He said he wanted me!”
“Why is he doing this to me?” He whispered.
“I don’t know,” I said miserably.
“But you’ll talk to him? I mean, if he talks to you? You’ll help him?”
“I don’t think he wants to talk to us either,” I said frankly.
“But he needs someone to talk to! He’s all by himself. I’m worried about him…” He calmed slightly, sniffing.
Yeah, well. James had a chance not to be alone and apparently being alone was what he wanted. But I didn’t say that to Dana. “I’m sure he’s okay, Dana.”
“But if he’s okay then why won’t he talk to me? Doesn’t he care if I’m okay or not?”
“I guess you can ask him that Monday.”
“I don’t understand what I did to make him stop loving me…I just want to find out what it was, you know, so I won’t do it again…” His voice trailed off and he started to cry again. “I’m sick and I need him. And I don’t know what to do without him.”
“Tris, what am I going to do if he doesn’t call?” His voice rose, somewhere between fear and misery. “What am I going to do?”
i feel so sick and i can't sleep and i can't eat. i don't know what's the infections and what's you. but i think i told you that already. i can't really remember. i know if you knew how sick i was you'd talk to me. or i think that anyway. but you went away for a few days, so you don't know. it's not your fault. i know that.
do you remember a few months ago when i was sick and i couldn't sleep and you read to me over the phone long-distance until i fell asleep?
i'm scared we won't talk again and i'll forget all that stuff.
or maybe i'm scared i'll keep remembering it, i don't know. everything is kind of fuzzy.
but you’ll call monday. you said.
Tina says don’t talk to me like I am deaf and dumb
We’ve broken down and broken up so much that I am numb
Talk about – don’t shout about – the people we’ve become
There’s a little girl who’s crying over here.
Michael says don’t shout at me like I was born a fool
You speak of love and scream of love now dare to treat me cruel
Nothing’s fair in love and war so please let’s make some rules
There’s a little boy who’s crying over here.
Did you ever know me? I swear that I have tried
Did you ever need me? I feel like I just died
Did you ever want me? I swear that I have tried
How do you tell someone you don't love them?
How do you tell someone you don't care anymore?
How do you tell someone you don't love them anymore?
I hung up the phone with the beginnings of a stomachache. John looked up from the Times. “Well?”
“His old roommate is spending the weekend taking care of him. Or trying to.”
“How’s he doing?”
I shrugged. “Awful. He’s pretty sick; he’s in shock…I don’t know. It’s a mess.”
“John…I feel weird. I totally encouraged them.”
He held out a hand and I went to him where he sat at the kitchen table; he wrapped an arm around my waist and I leaned over to kiss his hair.
“Honey, it’s not your fault in any way. You…me…Dana…we were all taken in by James.”
“But how could he do this?” I asked, toying with his cowlick.
“It seems like something snapped. Or I’d like to think no one could be this cruel intentionally. But I don’t know.”
“Do you think he still loves Dana?”
“I don’t know, sweetie.”
“This doesn’t make any sense! Everything was fine on Wednesday!”
“Everything seemed fine, yes.”
“But how do you know something’s NOT fine? I mean, he told Dana everything was fine! He told him he loved him!” I paused, angry and confused. “Was he just supposed to know things were bad? How could he change if he didn’t know what was wrong?” Would you tell me if things were bad? I asked silently.
“In an honest relationship they WOULD talk about those things,” John said quietly.
“I hate this.”
I pulled away and went to start the dishes.
Tina says the pictures that we took are put away
Inside a box of memories for cold and rainy days
Poems in pencil rhyming with the things we never say
There’s a little girl who’s crying over here.
Michael’s old engagement picture’s in a wooden box
His wooden heart is tough as nails and solid as a rock
Keeps himself protected with a combination lock
There’s a little boy who’s crying over here.
Dana was already there by the time I got back from Zabar’s the next morning, sitting next to John on the living room couch, looking flushed and shell-shocked.
His face was swollen rather grotesquely from so much crying, but he gave me a wan, puffy-lipped smile. “Hi.”
“Hi.” I crossed the room and sat down on his other side. “I’m so sorry,” I said, not sure if that was what I meant to say or if it was right or wrong. Damn James for tongue-tying us all.
The questions and the answers – or the lack thereof – were all the same. Dana was confused and in shock; he held a sheaf of letters from James in his hand, worn at the edges from constant re-reading.
“I just keep looking and looking…he SEEMED happy…” Thick-voiced, Dana thrust a letter at me. “What am I missing? What did I do wrong?”
He sobbed, veering from denial to misery, always returning to the same question: Monday. Would James call Monday?
In retrospect, I wonder why I didn’t take more of a clue from Dana’s doubt.
His pain was so huge, so tangible I was almost afraid to go near him. But I’d be damned if I’d ever become someone like that. An old teacher of mine used to tell us to act like the person we wanted ourselves to be. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but I sat beside Dana, I listened to him and held him and tried to answer his unanswerable questions. John sat with us through it all, straight-backed, soft-eyed, and I loved so much the person he wanted to be…and the man he already was.
Dana caught a ride back to Chappaqua with a friend later that night; I got ready for bed in a daze – admittedly, not the awful kind of daze Dana was in, but a daze nonetheless. I couldn’t understand how things could go so wrong so quickly with so little warning. It was hard to catch my breath.
And sleeping…sleeping wasn’t much respite.
For instance: you can distinguish the awful stuff that happens in dreams from the awful stuff that happens in real life, sometimes, by the weird and out of place things that crop up in dreams.
Oy, that was some sentence. Don’t tell my old journalism professors about my run-ons, okay?
But you know what I mean. The craziest and most horrible things can happen in real life, and eventually you have to face that it IS real life. That it’s not going to do the fizzle-out-and-slowly-wake-up thing you want it to…where your eyes open and you’re in your own bed and warm and safe and it’s all just been an overactive imagination.
So many times over the last few months I’d waited for the edges of life to blur and distort and fade until I could wake up sleepy and safe and shrug it all off as a dream. It took a while to realize I couldn’t.
Things were so hard during the day that I guess my imagination couldn’t stop working just because I went to sleep. At night sometimes things were even worse.
I would close my eyes and panic would keep rushing through my veins. Sleep seemed impossible most nights, and once it came it was terrifying. People shouted and shots rang out and fuselage sizzled. My world fell apart piece by piece. There was running in the streets, stampeding and fear and blood. I couldn’t protect me. I couldn’t protect the people I loved.
And then the hardest part: in my sleep John left me…sometimes in a fiery blaze, sometimes with a slam of the front door, and other times with a cold-voiced phone call.
And it was too much.
Dana called at six that morning; I could barely hear him through his sobs but in a way I knew already what he was going to say.
“He’s not calling?” I confirmed slowly.
“I got an e-mail…he didn’t say when he’d call…he didn’t say if he would…I don’t understand…”
John appeared in the doorway, concerned, fresh from the shower with a towel wrapped around his waist. Ordinarily I would have taken a moment to admire him, glistening and still heavy-eyed from sleep, but this morning I just held the phone silently out to him.
“Dana?” he mouthed, taking the receiver from me.
“Dana…okay, calm down, I can’t understand you…oh, Dana…no, it’s fine, it’s not too early…Dana. It’s fine. Listen to me…”
I listened to John trying to reason with Dana. It wasn’t too early to call, but why should Dana believe us?
Why should he believe anyone who told him it was okay? Who told him HE was okay?
My stomach hurt. I wanted to go back to bed.
Not that sleep was all that much better.
I called Dana again at lunch. He needed to find something to do with his days. Still sick, still in shock, he was alternately coughing, crying, and sadly repeating the same Big Questions. The ones I couldn’t answer: Why doesn’t he love me anymore? When will he call? Will we ever talk again? What’s happening?
I didn’t have any answers.
“You know, I told him Thursday…Tris, I was afraid this would happen,” he said miserably toward the end of the conversation.
“What do you mean?”
“He’s done this before,” he said quietly. “This is how he… but they were different. The others. I mean, he said I was different, that he would never cut me out like that. Tris, I don’t think he’s ever going to talk to me again.” His voice was soft with shock.
“That’s crazy,” I said, wishing it were. “Didn’t he say he’d pay for your ticket?”
“Half,” he muttered. “But who knows? He was probably just trying to keep me from showing up on his doorstep. Tris, I think I’m losing my mind. I can’t do this. I don’t know how to do this.”
“I wish I could help.”
“I knew this might happen,” he whispered. “I…on the phone I told him. I told him I was afraid he’d never speak to me again. I begged him not to hang up.”
“What did he say when you said that?”
“He said he wasn’t going anywhere. He said he wouldn’t leave me like this.”
He uttered something between a laugh and a sob. “Of course, that’s exactly what he did, isn’t it?” he asked, tears in his voice. “He left me like this.”
I sat up in bed and screamed.
John caught me, held on, and I grabbed two handfuls of his pajamas and screamed again into his collarbones.
“You’re okay. I’ve got you.” His voice was low but strong in my ear. He didn’t shush me; he rarely did.
I heard Mel’s footsteps coming into the room and John murmuring to her over my head. She and Simeon had spent the night, and John and I still didn’t have a bedroom door. I was going to have to curb these night terrors or no one was going to get any sleep.
We sat like that for a long time, with me clutching his shirt in a death grip and John holding me, not stroking or rocking but just holding on, connecting. I tried to match my breaths to his, long and deep and calming.
“Don’t leave,” I said finally, my voiced muffled by green flannel.
He shifted, pulling me closer. “I’m not going anywhere.”
I pulled away.
“What?” he asked, and I hated myself for making him go so quiet and concerned. He brushed the hair out of my eyes. “What’s going through your mind?”
“ ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ James said that to Dana,” I said softly, accusingly. “I’m sure Josh and Mel said the same thing to each other. I. Don’t. Want. To. Hear. It.”
He reached for me again and this time I let him pull me close. He leaned against the headboard and I tried to relax against him.
“I’m not leaving, Tris,” he said quietly.
“You don’t know that.”
“I know it wouldn’t be by choice.”
“They thought that too!”
“What’s the answer?” he asked, both arms wrapped around my chest. “What do you want me to say? We split up now, so you can stop worrying about when it will happen?”
I tried to pull away but he was holding me too tightly. “I don’t want to talk about this.”
“You do, even if it’s not pleasant.”
“Leave me alone.”
“No. Not when you want me to, and not when you don’t. It doesn’t work that way.”
“Yeah, why don’t you talk to Dana about that?” I bit out angrily. “I’m sure he’d be very interested in how it all works.”
“What happened to them is very sad but they are NOT us.”
(John would never mistakenly use the objective case unless he was very upset. So this is about the point in the conversation when I lost it.)
“Stop saying it like that! Nothing ‘HAPPENED’ to them! God, I’m so sick of listening to both of you talking like that, like it was some…passive event or something! It’s something he DID! Dana’s not even MAD, he’s all crying and I’m so sick of all of you....” But I was the one crying at this point.
John just wrapped me up tighter, rocking slowly. “You have a perfect right to be mad.”
“Yeah, well, tell THAT to Dana too. He thinks the world will fall apart if he gets mad and he sits there and waits for the goddamned phone to ring and it’s Never. Going. To.”
I turned suddenly and hugged him, hard. “I’m sorry.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about,” he said, then put a finger to my lips before I could say what I had started to say. “I know. James said that too. But I mean it. And we’ll talk more about it when it’s not three a.m.”
“I’m so scared,” I said. I sounded like Dana.
“I know,” John said, stroking my hair, sounding like himself.
At some point I fell asleep again, I suppose, and we were still entangled when I woke up.
i've got nothing here.
but then you know that. you wanted me there, with you. you encouraged all these arrangements. you pushed it. you said you wanted me. well, you did!
i'm sorry. i don't mean to sound mad. i swear, i'm not. and i want you to be okay, really. i'm sorry for whatever i did that was so awful it drove you to this. i know it must be my fault.
i know you have to go on with your life. your job, your home, your car, the dog -- you have things to keep up and a life there.
i don't have one here.
i have an empty suitcase, a canceled ticket, a lot of unanswered questions, no job, and my childhood room.
but i'm not a child anymore, am i, james.
you saw to that.
“But why is he over it? He’s fine, he’s HAPPIER without me. He’s just gone on with his life. He doesn’t care if I’m alive or dead.” Dana’s voice was thick with tears. I heard the same questions and statements from him on an almost daily basis. “Why does he get to leave me like this and be happy?”
“Honey, he’s not happy,” John said quietly.
Dana looked up in surprise.
“Happy people don’t do things like this,” John said evenly. “Healthy people don’t profess undying love one day and disappear the next. They don’t run and hide for weeks and months at a time and abandon their commitments. He’s sick, Dana. You know that.”
His head dropped. “I know. But I can help him!”
“No,” he said firmly. “If he wanted your help, and he was willing to work at it and go through all the hard stuff without running and without cutting you out – then maybe you might be able to help. But he needs to want help, and he doesn’t – not from you, and not from anyone, from what I can see. And that’s very sad.”
“If I’d been better he wouldn’t have left.”
“NO, Dana. He left because he’s sick.”
“He said he loved me.”
“Honey, he probably thought he did. I think he believed what he set up with you. But it seems he spent a lot of time lying to himself about a lot things,” John told him.
“He’s not going to want to face that,” I added.
“But I need him! He knows I need him.”
I put an arm around Dana’s shoulders, which were starting to shake.
“But I don’t understand why he didn’t call Monday. He said he would.”
“He also said you could count on him,” Mel pointed out. She was sleeping over again after another fruitless night of apartment-hunting. “When are you going to stop believing him?”
I elbowed her. “What? It’s true,” she said.
“Stop it! He doesn’t MEAN to be like this,” Dana snapped. “He’s a good person. He’s just upset.
“He just needs some time, maybe,” Dana said then in a soft voice that sounded like he wasn’t sure whether he believed himself.
“Maybe he does,” John said. “That doesn’t excuse how he’s treated you. You know you deserve more respect than this.”
“But if I leave him alone maybe he’ll talk to me again! I just want to hear his voice again. I love him so much,” he said tremulously, and I bit my lip to keep from screaming.
HOW could he love someone who treated him like this? And how could anyone treat someone like this?
“Doesn’t he care that he made me need him? Doesn’t he miss me at all?”
Tina says I wish that I had never seen you smile
Your name is written on my soul in alphabetic file
All I’ve got’s my dignity so I will leave in style
There’s a million of us crying over here.
“What then?” I challenged, more or less out of nowhere, as we were doing dishes one night. “What makes us so different?”
Elbow deep in soapy water, John raised an eyebrow. “Different from what?”
“You know. Them.”
John rinsed an I Love New York mug and turned it upside down on the drying rack. “We’re working on it.”
“On everything. Remember Rabbi Kirshner?”
In spite of myself I smiled. A few years ago there’d been some trouble in paradise. We’d just been asked to leave our apartment (an eviction for which I REFUSE to take responsibility. Trust me, you don’t want to know), finding somewhere else to live was hell, John’s father was in and out of the hospital, and my mother was contemplating a move to New York (thank God, that was aborted). So when Mel recommended her rabbi, we took a shot.
Rabbi Kirshner was a likable guy. We spent a couple of early evenings in his office, talking about communication and commitment and honesty. And then somehow we ended up coaching the Hebrew School baseball team for a year. John still plays guitar for the Interfaith Youth Group every few months.
“We stuck it out,” John reminded me.
“You mean you were thinking of leaving?”
“No, never,” he said seriously. “But when we wanted help, we looked for it and we got it. Together. Didn’t we?”
“Life’s a bitch and then you still have to ride the subway,” he observed.
I threw a damp dishtowel at him. He fended it off and hugged me; I wrapped my arms around his waist, closed my eyes against the soft fabric of his tee shirt and played that old childish game: It’s all been just a bad dream. When I open my eyes, everything will be all right.
“So we’re going to be okay because we went to Rabbi Kirshner?” I asked, most of my mind on the lovely warm way his back curved under my hands.
“No,” he said, tipping me back and nipping my neck before returning to the dishes. There was a wonderfully hazy domestic air in the kitchen, the kind that makes me fill up with love.
“We’re going to be okay,” he continued, “because we’re willing to work at it.”
i wasn’t worth it. is that it?
sorry. i just have so many questions for you. and sometimes they just pop out.
evan was right about one thing. the humiliation is one of the harder parts. those hours on the phone when i was begging you not to leave me. i'm horrified just thinking about how i must have sounded. the fact that i had all these plans and how wonderful i was certain things would be. the way i allowed myself to think things could be this wonderful. the amazingly beautiful things you've written and said to me that you swear you felt THEN and do not feel NOW. they've just changed. but they'll never, ever change back. i must say that's kind of a strange attitude. all those firsts we had together...
god, they make me feel so dirty and confused.
and then of course i switch to hurting for you, which i have been doing a lot. you're so special and so amazing and so...closed. i fear i've hurt you so much that you'll never open yourself up to another person. that you'll let yourself be a hermit, that you'll close off all those wonderful, incredible parts of yourself and go back to the way you were. i feel like i have a hand in you and i don't want to trust you to someone who doesn't know you like i do. of course, that's sort of ironic because i 'trusted' you to myself and then hurt you enough to drive you to do this.
physical pain, mental pain, humiliation, incredibly severe disappointment, shock, confusion, and a great deal of hurting for you. if nothing else, you were a close friend and i love you as a person and i hate the thought of you in pain with no one to help you.
evan and i fell asleep in the basement last night, trying to watch a movie that i couldn't pay attention to anyway, curled up together...it was like being back at college, almost. i had an awful terrorism dream. haven't had one of those in a while. somehow though it was preferable to my usual dreams, where everything is all right and i can see you and touch you and you still love me. then i wake up and have to tell myself all over again.
do you know each time it's like tearing the wound open again. a little skin grows back during the day, just a little, and then i'm afraid to go to sleep at night because it's at night that i feel closest to normal.
then every morning it splits open again and the pain is so big i want to die.
if you knew i was this much of a mess you'd really want nothing to do with me ever again.
what am i saying? that's already what you want.
hope you're okay, though. really.
I used to think he had some kind of radar that told him where I was or, more importantly, where I wasn’t. Usually f I woke up in the middle of the night, no matter how quietly I tiptoed to the kitchen or the bathroom, John woke up. Most times the waking was followed by a drill sergeant-worthy order directing me back to bed. John has funny ideas about getting into bed, staying in bed, sleeping eight hours, blah blah. When everyone knows there are MUCH more fun things to be doing on a lovely king-size pillow-top mattress than sleeping.
That night I woke up before four a.m. It was the kind of waking Dana had described, the kind associated with a return from European or middle-Eastern travel. My eyes opened as if of their own accord, and I was…awake. More awake than I normally am at six or seven or eight. There was no hope of going back to sleep. My heart was pounding, my mind racing, and I needed to get up and DO.
John didn’t stir as I padded out of the bedroom and into the living room, where I batted the blinds away and opened the door to the terrace. The lights of a big jet blinked over the bridge, and the city was reflected upside-down in the water. I gripped the railing and let myself remember this view bold and bright in the pre-dawn dark. This was the magic hour. It wouldn’t be long before the garbage trucks sputtered and thumped and crashed on the street below, before honking horns and squealing tires and sirens were the norm again. In the city that never sleeps, these precious quiet moments are few.
It wasn’t quiet everywhere. On the southern tip of my island, right now, I knew, were people working through the day and night, trying to create order and dignity out of chaos and destruction. My problems felt petty in the face of such courage and selflessness. But they hurt all the same.
I closed my eyes and let the cold air sting my face like tears.
And then John was behind me, wordlessly holding out my slippers. I hadn’t noticed but the frigid slate of the terrace cut through my socks to chill my feet. John draped my robe over my shoulders.
I stared out at the river. “I’m sorry,” I said, not even sure what I meant.
John stood next to me, eyes on the horizon. “I wish I could tell you everything will be all right,” he said quietly.
“If I could, I would. If I could make everyone do what would make us happy, I would. But I can’t.”
We were silent for a few minutes.
“Dana’s not okay,” I said finally.
“No. But he’s going to live. People can live with tremendous pain.”
“I hate James.”
“It’s natural to feel that way.”
I twisted the belt of the bathrobe between my fingers. “I’m not being fair to you,” I whispered.
“No. I want you to…I want you to make everything okay. And then I jump down your throat if you say anything. I’m just scared.”
I chanced a glance at his profile in the faint glow of the streetlamps.
“But I can’t make everything okay. And you know that.”
“I just don’t want you to go,” I said, the words catching in my throat in spite of myself.
“I’m not going anywhere, Tris.”
I bit my lip.
“The words sound hollow now, I know. I wish I could change that. For your sake, for Dana’s and Mel’s, because they’re NOT hollow, sweetheart. You’re going to have to focus on the person, not the words, or you’re going to make yourself crazy.”
“I’m making YOU crazy,” I muttered.
“You’re not. And if you were, I would tell you. But I can’t make you believe me. I can’t change the awful things that have happened. I’m with you, though, for whatever you need and whatever we can do together.”
“I don’t want to make you do things you don’t want to do,” I said stiffly. “I’m scared, you know, and I’m watching them all fall apart and I’m so scared it’s going to happen to us. Your feelings could change!”
“They won’t,” he said firmly. “I’m John, not James or Josh or anyone else. And whatever changes come to us, we’ll work on them. Within the framework of our relationship, like we always have.”
“I’ll drive you away.”
“You might not love me forever!”
“But I will, even if I can’t fix everything.”
“You don’t have to fix everything.”
“I know that, honey. I know my limitations. I’m not superhuman,” he said quietly. “I don’t have magical powers; I can’t do anything for you you don’t want for yourself.
“I’m not perfect,” he continued. “I’m just here.”
I looked at his hand where it gripped the metal railing, blurred by my tears.
“I’m here too,” I whispered and laced my fingers in his.
is it wrong that sometimes i can only sleep after an imaginary conversation with you? i close my eyes and i listen to your voice and you comfort me. i know you would if you could...right? you wouldn't leave me like this.
funny how many sentences i start lately with "is it wrong?"
the lines used to be clearer, what was right and what was wrong. and we could handle anything together. it's different now. blurrier.
i'm so scared, you know? who else is going to change their mind? who else is going to stop loving me? who else is going to leave me like this?
i trusted you and i asked you if you could do it and you said yes. and now it's no. and it just happened. and that's all i get.
i could have been better. i wish you'd told me what you needed.
i must be pretty awful for you to do this.
thank god for benadryl. it's nearly two am. i like to stay up as late as i can though, since i can't sleep more than four hours at a stretch. weird, isn't it? this e-mail is kind of strange. good thing i'm not sending it, i suppose. then again you always did want to know this sort of thing. how i'd slept, when i slept, how i was. that must have been real, right? you cared about me. you loved me.
i'm not mad, really. i mean, maybe you'll call, and want to be my friend again. because i don't think you meant to leave me like this.
i can't think you did.
PART II: Still 2001
WARNING: Contains reference to self-injury
How can I make this unhappen?
You cannot make this unhappen
Choose before your choices fade away…
Funny how it goes when things are really rough. It’s not horrible all the time. It’s not all sobbing and fighting or numbness and shaking. The five of us, our funny little family, did a lot more than that in the weeks that followed. We cooked. We read. We took Simi to Central Park and the Museum of Natural History. Mel knit me a hat. John got nominated for a journalism award. Dana almost got a speeding ticket driving to Chappaqua. There were countless meals, loads of laundry, showers and shaves. Well, you get the idea.
We went on.
What else can you do?
Mel, who had a child to raise. Dana, who was sure he had nothing, who waited daily for a phone call that never came. And John and I, who had each other.
They were tough months though. Landmark months, holiday months. Dana was certain that James, who seemed incapable of marking time even in the normal ways, would unfreeze for the holidays. I hesitate to say he was better, because I’m not sure if he was. He had his down days and his really down days and his slightly less down days. (Those were the ones where he got dressed.) I talked to him on the phone, there was e-mail and when all else failed there was Metro-North. I had a demanding job and Dana was drifting, but I was there when I could. Of course he had good friends arms’ length away, but only John and I knew the whole story…the parts of the story the uninitiated often don’t get to hear.
But our increased understanding was a mixed blessing. It was because we knew the whole story that we could feel Dana’s pain so acutely. Trust is a terrible thing to break even in the least co-dependent relationships. I wasn’t sure how much I had to offer Dana except for my friendship, but I offered that freely. I could look myself in the mirror each night and say I was true to my ideals of how people love each other.
At least I had that.
“He’ll call tonight, I’m sure,” Dana told me with the sort of shaky confidence that made my heart hurt, the kind I heard a lot when he talked about James. It sounded like he’d forgotten his strength. “It’s the first night of Hanukkah.”
“He’s not Jewish.”
“We were going to celebrate together,” he explained patiently, as if talking to a small child. “Anyway, he’ll want to know how I am.”
“I thought he didn’t know you were sick.”
“Well…no…but I mean, he doesn’t know how I’m doing. He’s just waiting for the right time to call, I’m sure.”
He’s a bastard and I hate him. “We’ll see,” I said vaguely, because there was nothing I could say to make it better and everything seemed to make it worse anyway.
He didn’t call, of course.
Not then, and not any of the other seven nights either. I thought of Dana’s distant forebears who’d put such faith in a tiny amount of oil, who’d watched it burn for eight nights, thought of the word Hanukkah. Rededication. (Hey, not for nothing did John and I get marriage counseling from a rabbi!)
Around me all the time were examples of such sterling dedication, such caring, such commitment, that I wanted to scream at Dana, really scream, for expecting anything at all from someone who so clearly just didn’t care. Not at all. Not even a little bit.
We seemed to be sharing the stages of grief, Dana and I. He was sad, he was in denial, and I was angry enough for both of us.
The last night of Hanukkah John and I drove Mel and Simeon to Connecticut. We sang Raffi and the dreidel song as we sped up the Merritt Parkway, then spent a few hours with Mel’s family, eating brisket and potato latkes and jointly spoiling Simi.
It was late by the time the two of us left and my head was pounding. I was angry and guilty and didn’t know what to do with myself. If I let my mind wander for a moment I heard Dana’s tearing sobs or those awful choking sounds or the way his voice trembled when he lifted his chin and insisted, day after day, that today was the day James would call. Or the way he sounded in the morning when he woke up in utter despair and had to remind himself again what had happened. And then sometimes he would call.
(“Did it really happen, Tris?”
“Not your fault.”
“I know, but…”)
Then I would set my teeth and blink back tears (some times were more successful than others) and want to grab the phone, to dial James and scream, really scream. Why? WHY do this? Why entrench him like this, why engage him, why teach him to trust and ask him to trust and wait until he trusts and then DO this? The confusion and anger were tearing me apart. I’d known James, I’d liked him, and I’d trusted him too. I’d let Dana down letting him get involved. I’d supported Dana in wearing blinders to James’ problems. I’d let my faith in this type of relationship overwhelm my good judgment in just who was capable of having this sort of relationship.
I hated James. So much.
I wasn’t happy with myself, either.
Some days I hated Dana for trusting James.
I was so grateful I had John and so guilty that I was so glad.
So sometimes I hated John, too.
I stared mutely out the passenger-side window, watching Connecticut fade into New York and feeling trapped and suffocating. The heat was on full blast, the window foggy as I pressed my nose to it. It was black and cold outside and it was descending to the inside and I just couldn’t take it anymore. I had to get out, now.
Looking back it all happened so fast I’m not quite sure the order of events.
I do know I snapped off my seat belt, grabbed the door handle and pushed the door open, but I don’t know how far I got before John’s hand landed hard on mine, slamming the door shut again, yanking me back in with the crook of his arm at the same time. One or both of us shouted something and the car was decelerating the whole time until he eased it onto the shoulder and turned to look at me. I was gasping for breath, not sure why.
“I need some air!” I yelled incongruously, and then John was out of the car, around to my side, opening my door and pulling me out. Before I could fully process what had happened we were both in the backseat. I landed face-first on the cold upholstery, feeling the wind knocked out of me. John’s hands were less than gentle getting rid of my cords but I suppose the laws of public decency salvaged my boxers. I cried out at the first smack. It was too dark to see anything though of course that didn’t seem to slow up John’s aim. The lights of passing cars swung by once or twice but it was a slow traffic night and John moved hard and quickly to finish the job. I was sobbing by the time it ended, barely able to catch my breath. If he’d said anything during the task I hadn’t heard it, had heard nothing other than the blood pounding in my ears and the awful ringing sound of what he was doing to my rear. The thin layer of cloth offered little protection; I was burning and sore when he refastened my pants and lifted me off his lap.
I didn’t ask for comfort and he didn’t offer any but I cried harder as he eased me out into the chilly night, one hand skimming gently across the top of my head so it wouldn’t thump the roof of the car.
It had been quick, painful, and surreal. He fastened me back into my seatbelt, and the sweep of light from a passing SUV suddenly illuminated the whiteness of his face. He looked as frightened and angry as I felt.
“Don’t you ever scare me like that again,” he said quietly, severely, and we pulled off the shoulder and back on the highway. I cried until I slept, and then I slept until we got home.
We parked four blocks from our building and I stumbled the whole way home. John supported me with an arm around my waist and vaguely I realized I must look like a drunk weaving miserably as I was. I hurt and I wanted to sleep.
Not a word passed between us on the walk. I didn’t say anything until we were in the apartment, or more specifically until we were in bed. I lay on my stomach, sore and miserable. John was on his side next to me, long legs stretched out, one hand rubbing my back beneath the warm flannel of my pajama top.
“I’m sorry,” I said into the pillow I was clutching.
“What were you thinking?” he asked softly. I closed my eyes. I wish I could say I couldn’t answer, but the truth is just that I didn’t answer.
I fell asleep before he turned out the light.
When the nightmares woke me he woke too; I let him hold me, his unshaven face gravelly and comforting, moist against mine. I was mostly asleep again before I realized that the dampness I’d felt was his tears.
i'm not scared to die. i'm scared of not dying.
i'm scared i'll feel this way forever.
i'm just so scared.
I was trying to maneuver a piece of steamed tofu between my chopsticks – there’s no comfort food quite like take-out Chinese – when John looked at me over the seaweed and bean curd soup. “I made a few calls today.”
I nodded, waiting.
“I set up an appointment for you later this week with a—”
“Oh no,” I said, pushing my bowl away.
“Oh no what?”
“Oh no I am NOT going to a shrink, John.”
He raised an eyebrow with interest.
“You had that shrinky tone in your voice,” I explained. “But it’s not going to work; I am NOT going. You can forget about it.”
He didn’t respond.
“Well? Aren’t you going to say anything?” I challenged.
“I’m just thinking,” he responded calmly.
I rolled my eyes. “About…?”
“About what you said to Dana when he made that same argument to you.”
“But that’s different!”
“Because Dana needed to go,” I explained between gritted teeth.
“Because he did! I don’t know. Because he needed to talk to someone.” I got jumbled up when John interrogated me like this. It was frustrating.
“You need to talk to someone,” he said quietly.
“I have you,” I reminded him, more nastily than I meant to.
“Of course you have me. That has nothing to do with it.”
“It does! I can talk to you. I don’t need to talk to anyone else.” I tried to ignore how I sounded.
“First of all,” he pointed out gently, “you haven’t been talking to me.” He put up a hand when I started to protest. “I’m not criticizing or complaining, sweetie; let me finish. You’re right, you do have me, and you can talk to me anytime about anything. You know that. That’s not the point. You had me in July too but you went to Dr. Gorelick anyway and didn’t give me a problem about it – what’s the difference?”
“John. He’s a dentist.”
“You mean even though I love you and I’m here for you, you still didn’t let me pull your wisdom teeth myself?”
“Blah blah,” I mumbled. I hate it when he’s right.
“Don’t ‘blah blah’ me. Just because I love you doesn’t mean I can fix everything, remember?”
“I know that!”
“And it’s because I love you that I want you to get help from the right people…the ones who can help you or help you help yourself.”
I pushed a water chestnut around my plate.
“She comes highly recommended. Just go and give it a try, that’s all I’m asking.”
“I don’t have to,” I tested.
“No, but you’re going to,” he said calmly.
“Are you going to make me?” I asked
“You’re going to choose to go,” he said, blue eyes clear and steady across the table, “because it’s the right choice.”
i have such good friends. i mean, i know that. i know all the people in the world who love me and they've sure proven they're the ones who'll stick around when the person i most counted on vanished. i guess i'm a lousy judge of character.
that sounds accusatory but it's not. tris is mad at me for not being madder at you. he thinks i don't notice but i do. good for him, though. he's not scared of losing you forever. he's not scared to admit that you don't love me, either. but i am.
anyway, john said to me that in the end i was going to have pick which one was easier for me to believe: would i rather think that you hate me and don't think about me at all and don't care about me or that you do love me and think about me all the time but feel too horrible about yourself to do anything about it?
he said he didn't know the answer and none of us did, but i was going to have to pick the answer i could live with.
i don't know the answer, though. i guess i want to believe that you're in pain and you do care how much you've hurt me. and that you miss me.
what do you do with all those newly empty hours in your day? are you happy to have them? are you happy i'm out of your life?
thank god i'm not sending this mail because james, i'm so fucking terrified of the answer but...
are you GLAD?
don't answer that.
PS sorry about the language.]
On Christmas Day John and I exchanged gifts and Dana flew to Utah.
I remembered vividly his flight to Vancouver in October. He’d been terrified – not of being with James, he’d assured us, but of the flight. He’d called in a panic from JFK – did we know there were National Guard at the airport? Oh. Well, did we know they had big machine guns? He told me later he’d cried during take-off, afraid that he would die en route to Canada and not be able to be with James.
He’d landed in Vancouver shaken and exhausted; it had taken most of their time together, he said, to unwind from the stress of the flight.
And he’d been afraid to fly back to Canada too. He was obsessed with flight safety; he’d only just begun to calm down about the flight back to James when yet another airline tragedy occurred. Dana called me at the paper several times a day in search of breaking news on whether the plane crash had resulted from terrorism.
They were stressful times.
But now he’d decided to get away, was going to Utah to spend some time with his friend. He called me the night before he left to read me something James had written to him.
“He wrote this a day before he broke up with me,” Dana informed me in a flat voice. “I told him I was scared about the flight and he said… ‘It’s a few hours, darling. Then we have as much time as we want … I’ll take care of you no matter what state you’re in …’ Ugh,” he said in disgust. I could hear him shut the laptop sharply. “Never mind; it’s making me sick.”
I thought of Dana calling me in tears from the airport two months earlier, of how concerned about him James had been. I knew what Dana was thinking: how could he possibly do something as stressful as fly without James’ love and support?
But a thoroughly different Dana called us from O’Hare that afternoon. “I’m a good flyer again!” he shouted gleefully.
“It was a great flight. Well, except for the crying babies. But what can you do? It IS Christmas. And it was SO clear when we took off; I saw everything. It’s still beautiful, Tris,” he said quietly and tears filled my eyes. I remembered dozens of take-offs out of JFK, nose pressed to the grimy oval of an airplane window, dizzying myself watching the endless spires of my city grow silver and distant the higher we climbed in the sky.
Everything was different now.
“I’m glad the flight went okay,” I said cautiously.
“It was more than okay,” he said brightly. “Oh, gotta run catch my connecting. Talk to you later!”
When I hung up the phone I realized it was the first time in weeks I’d heard Dana sound like that. Almost like things were okay.
i'm a good flyer again!
you know, no matter how many times i say it, it still excites me.
i sat in that funny-smelling airline seat and fastened my seat belt and waited for the panic, but it didn't come.
i did think of you when i was flying. i thought about how much i miss you. i thought about how we were going to spend the holiday together.
it's your holiday, james. not mine.
you weren't waiting for me at the gate this time. no one was waiting to take care of me and nurse me through the stress of flying during these terrible times.
and you know what? i was okay.
i was more than okay. i felt great. soaring above the skyline like i used to love...i felt almost like i could make it.
i don't want to think about the implications yet. i don't want to think about making it without you.
or about how a small part of me wished the plane would crash...because then you'd feel bad about leaving me. you'd wish you hadn't ignored me for a month.
arg. i'm a horrible person. i guess i deserve everything you did to me after all.
merry christmas, james.
Back on the East Coast, I was starting to enjoy my sessions with Angie the Therapist, as I liked to call her. She had quickly become a high point. No Freudian, she was large and soft-eyed with a surprisingly deep belly laugh. She made me feel at ease. She didn’t make me feel crazy. For an hour or two a week I sat in her sunny, cozy office. And I felt things…some things I was afraid of, some things I’d hidden the last month or so, nervous about John, afraid of James, terrified they would turn out to be alike.
I felt things.
I was mad. There was so much anger I didn’t know what to do with it sometimes. It simmered, useless, under the surface. Or it bubbled over. We found out Mel and Josh had started formal proceedings with their separation. I raged against John that night.
“They can’t do it. You can’t LET them do it!”
“Tris.” He was looking at me in that way he does, head cocked slightly, expression patient and bewildered and very very soft. “It’s not up to me to let them or not to let them. It’s their decision.”
“Don’t you CARE?”
“You know I do.”
“You can’t let them. John, they can’t do it.” The tears came then, hard and fast. “Don’t you see? They split up now and Simeon will grow up thinking when things get tough people just take off and go. They leave their commitments, they forget their vows, and they take the easy path. He’ll grow up into James,” I spat, hurt by my own cruelty.
He reached for me and I yanked myself away.
“You’re letting them! You don’t care!”
“You know I care,” he repeated.
“John, please…” I couldn’t even finish the sentence. Please take it back. I heard myself begging and hated it. I felt for Dana, a sudden, swift tugging at my heart. Felt the way he must have felt. So far from my dignity and so far from caring. This mattered too much.
“Honey, things have been so hard. They…”
“Hard?” I whirled on him, so angry I could barely see. “That’s his excuse? That’s YOURS? Oh, great. They’re together for the good times, but the minute things get a little bit hard—”
“Tris, listen to me—”
I shook him off. “What’s it going to take for you, John?” I taunted, hating how horrible I sounded but unable to stop. “Another anthrax hoax and you start sleeping on the sofa? They pump chemicals into the subway and you move out? Or is it me? I raise my voice and you divorce me? No, tell me!” I was shouting over him now. He grabbed me, pulled me against him tightly.
“How ‘hard’ do things have to get before you take back every single … fucking… promise… like they did … before you …”
I was crying too hard to talk at this point, doubled over, clutching myself as tightly as John’s arms wrapped around me. I don’t know how long it was before I loosened my grip on myself and wound my arms around him instead. He held me through the storm, a promise.
do you ever think about me?
and when you do, do you still call me baby?
what about honey?
am i just dana now?
or maybe i’m nothing at all.
I stacked the cans neatly on the kitchen table, a small, sticky pyramid of defiance; I ignored the dull pain in my midsection and curled up on the bed to nap, my head pounding.
John appeared in the open doorway, backlit by the setting sun through the big living room windows. I woke slowly and squinted to see him. He held out a hand and snapped his fingers. “Come with me.”
I trailed him silently into the kitchen.
“We’re lucky enough to have one of the few apartments in this city without an insect problem. Is it wise to jeopardize that good fortune?” he asked, standing beside my soda can sculpture.
“No. Sorry,” I mumbled, wanting to go back to sleep.
“Rinse them and put them in the recycle bag, please.”
“John…I’m tired; I’ll do it later.”
“Now, Tris.” John and hygiene: he looked decidedly annoyed. I humored him and did as he said. He nodded with something like approval when I finished and put a hand on my shoulder, pushing me ahead of him back toward the bedroom.
I didn’t like where this was going.
He paused in the doorway and touched my forehead with the back of his hand. “How do you feel?”
“Okay,” I said cautiously, not really sure of the better answer. If I felt fine he’d have no qualms proceeding; if I felt sick he’d probably wait, but he’d be more annoyed that I’d made myself sick.
He sat on the edge of the bed. “Come here.”
“It’s just soda, John.” I stayed where I was, disdain in my voice. I hated the way I sounded sometimes.
He didn’t respond, just looked at me.
I dragged my feet to him, willing to humor him for now but still annoyed. “It’s not that big a deal,” I reminded him as he drew me closer, hands moving all too rapidly at the waist of my slacks.
“Do you drink soda, Tris?” he asked almost conversationally, easing me across his lap, one hand slipping my shorts down, the other pulling me close against his stomach, rubbing my back slightly.
“No,” I muttered.
I pressed my lips together.
He brought his hand down firmly. “Why not, Tris?”
“I’m not supposed to,” I muttered. A series of sharp smacks followed and I winced, wriggling in spite of myself.
“WHY aren’t you supposed to?”
“Because you said so?” I asked smarmily, then regretted it when he began spanking more thoroughly, increasing the pace and the strength of the smacks.
He stopped, rubbed gently for a moment.
“What are you trying to accomplish, Tris? Do you want to see if I’ll leave you like James? Is this really a good way to test that particular anxiety?”
“That’s NOT it!” I yelled, folding my arms over the back of my head, trying to drown him out, face pressed into the sheets.
“I’m not going anywhere. But you may wish I would if you pull something like this again. I do NOT appreciate self-destructive behavior, whatever the reason.” He paused and unwrapped my arms. “Do you hear me?”
“YES!” I snapped.
He swatted once, hard.
“Yes,” I gritted out slightly more civilly.
“I refuse to watch you in pain because you’re messing around with your diet, Tristram. I am dead serious here. You do NOT fool around in this area. And if you’re worried about something, you TELL me. You do not leave me messages in free-form art in the kitchen, and you do not do things to hurt yourself for any reason.”
“I wasn’t doing that!”
“Tris, I know you’re upset about James and Dana.”
“It’s not LIKE that! God! You don’t have to overanalyze everything. I just wanted a damn SODA!” I snapped, tears running into my mouth. I wanted to be anywhere but here.
“All right then,” he said calmly. “You wanted a soda. You got it. And was it worth it?”
I hated him.
He resumed the spanking and the sharp sting was spreading, dulling, then re-igniting. It HURT. I kicked a few times, crying against my will, angry.
He stopped again. “Do you want to tell me why you don’t drink soda?”
“Your choice.” His hand swatted down again sharply into the sensitive undercurves of my bottom and I cried harder, frustrated with him and with myself and unable to form the words I wanted. I wanted to answer him. I didn’t want to give in. The ache ran from my bottom into my throat; I couldn’t breathe around the tears.
“Because it makes my stomach worse!” I gasped out.
“And why did we make rules about that?” he asked, stroking very gently where I was sore. “Why do I care if your stomach hurts or your ulcer gets worse?”
“I don’t know!” I spat.
I couldn’t believe it when he stopped stroking and slapped firmly instead, first one cheek, then the other. I burst into fresh tears.
“Don’t apologize to me; answer my question.”
I shook my head miserably. I was on fire.
“Go on, sweetheart.” His voice was so gentle.
“Because you’re trying to help,” I sobbed. “Because you love me…because I want your help to…because we decided together…” I could talk anymore. I couldn’t think. I sobbed into my hands. Above me John stopped smacking and his hand gentled again, rubbing softly instead, touching the ache tenderly.
I slid off his lap when I was able and rose to my knees on the bed, wrapping my arms around his neck.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I love you.” I didn’t even know what I was sorry for. He cradled me, lay back on the bed so we were sprawled around each other. My bottom was sore and burning but the awful ache in my throat felt looser, the tears were starting to slow, and there was no one else I’d rather be this undignified with.
John kissed my hairline, my temple, cupping the back of my neck. I let myself give in to the security we gave each other. We needed it so very much.
“We’re going to be all right,” he crooned into my hair and I could almost believe him.
i thought you made me feel so safe. but now i’m not sure.
deep down i was always afraid you’d leave me like this. i knew what you were capable of, even if i couldn’t admit it at the time.
i’m not sure of much anymore.
why are you doing this to me? what did i do wrong? why do you hate me?
what would i say if i could talk to you right now? what wouldn’t i say? i miss you so much. you made me feel so special. so loved.
but if you hadn’t…if we’d just stayed friends…then it wouldn’t be so horrible now. i wouldn’t feel so terrible. so hated.
i’m afraid to hate you.
i’m afraid to admit i know you’re never coming back. you said you loved me! you said you’d never leave me like this!
it isn’t fair.
“When am I going to stop thinking about him all the time?” Dana’s face was white and miserable. One step forward, two steps back. One night without the dreams, two days with a pounding headache, a twisting stomach, waiting for the phone to ring.
“I don’t know,” I said honestly. I said that a lot.
Dana rested his forehead on his closed fist, sighed. I’d met him near my office for lunch but his roast turkey wrap sat basically untouched on the plate in front of him. I watched him, sympathy battling with frustration. Self-consciously he tugged at the wrists of the snug, oatmeal-colored Henley he wore.
“James liked this shirt,” he said, so quietly I almost didn’t hear him. I wished Angie were there to tell me if Dana’s use of the past tense was a good step. “I don’t want to think about it,” he mumbled.
“You know something ironic?” he asked. “I was just remembering…James told me on the phone when he broke up with me that he had to do it this way, now, to forestall a worse breakup in the future…God, Tris, what could be worse than the way he did it?”
“It could be worse for HIM,” I said. “That’s what he meant. That’s what he cares about.”
Dana pressed his lips together. Dark hair in his eyes, head resting in his hand, the pain written on his face was hard to look at without flinching.
“You’re going to think about him every day for a while. It’s normal,” I said quietly. His eyes met mine with a look of faint surprise.
“My first lover…” I trailed off and smiled slightly at Dana’s blush. “My first lover, in college, his name was Nathaniel.” I paused again, savoring the word, the name, intense dark brown eyes… I hadn’t thought of him in a while. “He was my TA,” I admitted. “He was so smart; he wrote so well…almost as well as he dressed. And I was so in love. In love enough to want to be honest with myself, about myself…so I told my friends and my family. It was hard, but I had him to support me and…I was sure I always would.”
“I was a senior. He got a job offer at Northwestern. He wanted me to go too.” I heard my voice go soft with remembering. I couldn’t tell Dana the hard memories got easier. But the pain did get duller with time. “I didn’t want to lose him. But I wanted to stay here; it was my dream to work here…he told me I didn’t really want to, that I could write for a paper in Chicago or go to grad school, that being together was more important.”
Dana’s eyes were dark, watching me. “You didn’t go with him.”
“No. I stayed here. A month after graduation he wrote that he had met someone else.” I closed my eyes briefly. “I never heard from him again.”
“Thanks. At the time I thought my life was over. If only I’d gone with him, if only I’d been able to prove my devotion…but he didn’t love me the way I was, Dana. He loved me the way he wanted me to be. And I loved the thought of our love so much that I was willing to go along with what he wanted…to play at being the person he wanted. And I almost followed him.”
“Do you ever think about him still?” Dana whispered.
“Sometimes,” I said honestly. “It’s been a long time. But you reminded me…I had this sweater then, a very very soft blue sweater…Nat loved it and for months afterward I couldn’t look at it. I never wore it again with thinking of him; I kept it for years, though…Dana, it was a long time before I stopped thinking of him every day. Even after I stopped crying about it something would remind me, some little thing…he was with me for a long time. That’s natural,” I assured him. “More natural than blocking it out, pretending it never happened, crawling under the bed and hiding from your past and your mistakes. You’re doing fine.”
“I’m glad you stayed here,” he said shyly.
“Me too. If I hadn’t stayed here, I wouldn’t have gotten the job at the Sun and if I didn’t work at the Sun, I would never have met John…or Mel…or you. It’s going to be like that for you,” I told him, believing it. “Better things are waiting for you. You’ll get through this and it might even make sense someday.”
He nodded, fingers laced through the wristbands of his shirt. “I still miss him,” he said, taking a long draw on his soda.
He sobbed late that night on the phone, breaking my heart. “Doesn’t he CARE that I’m like this? Doesn’t he care what he’s done to me? Why doesn’t he love me anymore?”
I couldn’t answer and I didn’t try.
“It’s not fair! Why encourage him and encourage him and then cut him out, just like that, no transition…it’s crazy, John. And Dana keeps worrying whether James is okay…IS he okay? I mean, aside from the obvious.”
“He’s okay, I think, by his definition of okay,” John said slowly. “Locked away, by himself, no one to care about him, but also no one to scare him or make him think or feel or DO anything. His version of safe.”
I thought about it.
“But if they can live without each other, why were they together?” I asked him. My question didn’t even make sense to me, but then again not much did these days.
John was silent behind me, rubbing some of the tension out of my neck. He had great fingers. But as soon as the stress had melted away under his touch it was back again anyway.
“Honey, not being able to live without each other is hyperbole. You know that.”
“What an incurable romantic you are,” I snapped sarcastically.
“What’s making you so angry?” he asked.
God, he was starting to sound like Angie. But his thumbs were doing something so nice to the base of my neck. It was hard to yell at him.
“Are you saying you can live without me?” I asked him finally.
“Sweetheart. I love you and I want to be with you. I hope you feel the same way. But we also both know that we can’t predict what outside forces are going to do what and when. I know,” he said gently when I flinched. “It’s not pleasant to talk about. It’s not fun to think about. But you are a capable and competent adult, Tris. I’d be doing you no service to make you believe you needed me to survive. We’ve both seen what that kind of illusion leads to,” he reminded me.
“…NOT,” he continued firmly, “that I am saying I would do anything like what James has done. I’m not capable of that, honey. I think we both know that. We honor commitments. We’re not leavers. But that doesn’t mean we’re fostering any more dependence here than two people who love each other and do what’s right for them.”
I listened to him do what I would call lecturing and he would call discussing. I didn’t mind much. He has such a soothing voice. Unwillingly though I thought of Dana, choking on his tears, asking me if I thought he might ever hear James’ voice again. The idea of never hearing John again terrified me. But my more mature parts answered Dana … because I knew even though I didn’t want to hurt him that he would never hear his James again. Even if James did eventually call – and I doubted he would ever be willing to face up to what he had done to Dana – it wouldn’t be the James Dana loved or the James John and I had known and trusted.
John ran his fingers through my hair, massaging my scalp gently. It felt so good and I was so tempted just to let go, to relax and trust him. I loved those big, warm hands. I loved how loved they made me feel.
And I hated James for making me feel so afraid of that love. Afraid of John’s leaving me. Afraid of the haunted, aching look in Dana’s eyes. My stomach hurt every time I remembered how he sounded, how raw the pain still was, how brutally he’d been torn by someone he’d trusted so deeply. I was afraid of that. And I was angry, so angry that James had made me doubt my own beloved.
Angie I had talked about owning your feelings. Being in your feelings. Taking responsibility. It hurt so much to face the truth but the alternative – to be James, to run, to hide, to cover my eyes from the pain I’d caused others and ignore my responsibilities when things didn’t go my way…I couldn’t do that. It would be a fate even worse than things were now. It hurt to face reality, yes. The fact that we were doing the right thing, the only thing, by facing it didn’t make it hurt any less.
“John…I love you,” I reminded him quietly. I couldn’t say it often enough the last few months anyway. Who knew when it would be the last time?
“I love you too, baby,” he responded, fingers moving soothingly in my hair. I sensed him shifting slightly behind me. We’d walked a lot today…I reminded myself that my darling could use a foot massage later. Years of speed-typing had given me strong hands. And little as I wanted to face it, the magnitude of the pain we’d been feeling had made me strong as well. Some of it could be chalked up to growing pains, I suppose.
I couldn’t close my eyes anymore. I couldn’t let myself believe I wasn’t responsible for myself. In the end, we’re all responsible for ourselves. The people we choose to love are also responsible for themselves – and for not trying to convince us otherwise. And I did love John. I couldn’t remind him enough.
“John?” I tipped my head back against him and he bent to kiss me.
“Yeah, sweetie.” His voice was low and rough as if he too had been lost in thought.
“ ‘If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you’…” I quoted, surprising myself. Things had been spinning so out of control for so long that I could definitely appreciate the sentiment, though.
He kissed me again. “You’re definitely a man, my son,” he teased, responding to my reference as he always did. My well-read man.
Dealing with stuff is hard, you know. Being grown up sucks sometimes.
But, I reasoned, as the kiss deepened and all thoughts of Kipling vanished from my head, it could be pretty cool sometimes too.
We hurt a lot in those few months. Lots of tears, and there might have been a door slam or two if John hadn’t already unhinged everything remotely slammable in our apartment. There were some okay things too. Maybe even some good things. We talked a lot.
“I’m hurt too,” John told me late one evening. We were lying tangled up on the sofa, just the two of us in the apartment, rare these days. “It seems painfully obvious now that James only wanted to be my friend to help him with his relationship with Dana. That’s over now, and he wants nothing more to do with us.”
“He damn well wants something to do with you when he calls to dump his problems in your lap,” I pointed out sourly. “I mean, not that Dana’s a problem. I love him,” I added quickly.
“It’s okay, I know what you meant.” John squeezed my shoulder. “He was wrong to do that.”
“I wish I didn’t think about it so much,” I confided. “I’m giving James power doing that, aren’t I?”
“Don’t even worry about him,” he advised. “You need to do what you can live with. What will keep you going.”
“He needs to do the same.”
But Dana called that night in tears. “I just want to talk to him,” he sobbed. “I don’t know what to do about anything without him. Do I go to law school? I have to give them an answer soon, Tris!”
He’d deferred a year at Columbia. “James said I don’t want to go to law school.”
“Well, DO you want to go?”
“I don’t know! I just want to talk to him!”
“And he thinks I’m crazy…that I’m pestering him…God, Tris, am I the awful one here? I’m the one hurting him? He’s going to rewrite history!”
“Let him rewrite it,” I told him. “Who’s going to read it?”
i look ahead and i can't see anything. it's all black. then i get scared.
so i hear you in my mind, your canadian accent and the way your voice got all husky in the morning. and you tell me it's going to be okay.
strange, huh? comforting myself with a lie about the person who's hurt me, who hates me. i'm a real head case these days.
sometimes i can't breathe, you know. i try to think ahead and i'm sure i'll die.
i remind myself what serena said. i told her it was too hard to get through the day. she told me to get through the next hour. i told her that was too hard. so she told me to get through the next minute. and if that was too much, then just get through the next second. “and don't even TRY to tell me you can't get through the next second,” she said.
she's great, james. you'd like her. she's been through so much and she's come out so strong. i wish i could be like that. i wish i didn't cry seventeen times a day. i wish i hadn't built my life around a fantasy version of you. i wish you'd call.
god, how i wish i could hear your voice.
And then it was New Year’s Eve. I didn’t feel completely like celebrating, but the publisher of John’s magazine was having a suitably intriguing fete that we felt obliged to attend. Josh and Mel went together to a costume ball in the West Village, surprising me.
“I agreed to go months ago,” Mel said by way of explanation. “Besides, he’s good company.”
Mel had found a place eight blocks from us to rent. Josh had been there several times, ostensibly helping her move.
“We have a child,” she said. “We’re always going to be in each other’s lives. And it’s New Year’s Eve,” she told me, patting my cheek. She’d dropped by to show us her slinky costume. I wished her a happy early new year and showed her out.
“Are they going to get back together?” I asked John as soon as I’d locked the door behind her.
“I don’t know,” he said, tying his dress tie in the mirror. “But whether they stay separated or not, they’re going to do it like adults. Mutual respect. Honesty. It doesn’t have to be the way James did it.”
It was a good point he made, but John looks so delicious all dressed up that I gave in to the urge to grab him by his half-tied neckwear and take advantage of the situation. It would have been a great way to ring in the New Year, but I had to quell my ardor when the doorman buzzed Dana up from the lobby.
“You’re not dressed!” I exclaimed when he walked in in sweater and cords rather than proper fete attire.
“I’m feeling kind of under the weather…I’d rather just crash here until you guys get back. Is that okay?”
“Do you want us to stay with you?” John touched Dana’s forehead. “Are you sick?”
“I’m okay. No, you two go ahead. Please. I’m just going to watch the ball drop and go to bed.”
I looked at him, concerned. “We don’t mind staying.”
“Really, go! You’ve had these plans for ages and it was sweet of you to include me, but I’m way more tired than I thought I would be. Please, go.”
I frowned. We’d planned for the three of us to go to the party and for Dana to spend the night. He’d arrived with a backpack so I assumed he was still sleeping here…but something felt a little bit off.
“Are you sure?” John asked again as Dana walked us to the door.
“Positive!” He pushed me out after John.
I leaned against John in the elevator, resting my cheek against the soft wool of his coat. Dana had crashed at our place plenty of times before, but still…
No. I was being silly. Dana was just tired.
The party was loud and festive enough to keep my thoughts away from our apartment. Out on the streets the mood was equally noisy. Security was tight but masses of people gathered in Times Square anyway; there was a somber tone to some of the festivities but it was also in some ways just another New Year in New York. We mingled, ate, and mingled some more.
It was around eleven p.m. that I separated myself from the group and walked onto the balcony. The publisher had a fabulous apartment…the view was to die for. It was cold and starry outside. I was watching the lights of a landing plane when it hit me.
I don’t know where it came from, I don’t know what it was even, but there it was.
We had to leave.
I crashed into a uniformed man carrying hors d’oeuvres in my hurry to find John and leave the party.
“Oh God…I’m sorry…” I tried to help him pick canapés off the floor as John appeared by my side.
I grabbed his sleeve, pulled him down to my level. “John. We need to go, now.”
We stood up in tandem and he caught my chin, eyes questioning. “What? What’s going on?”
“No time to explain,” I said breathlessly, weaving through guests to find my coat.
“Tris!” John took my arm again as I tried to push past him. “What’s going on? What is it?”
I grabbed his hand. “I don’t know,” I said seriously. “But we have to get back to the apartment. NOW.”
He looked hard at me and I feared for a moment that he would try to stop me. But he just steered me toward the guest room, took his own coat and let me tow him to the door. “Let’s go then,” he said.
Traffic was crazy. People streamed through the streets, drunk and celebrating. Lights and noise buzzed in my head. We needed to go. We needed to go.
East side, west side, all around the town… I pulled my coat around me and hailed a cab with a frantic wave. John was beside me, pulling my gloves out of my pockets, holding them out until I put them on.
It was already taking too long. “Crazy night to drive, eh?” the cab driver said conversationally but I was too anxious to answer. It was taking too long.
WHERE ARE YOU?]
I burst through the door, John on my heels. It was everything that had been happening all over again and my heart clutched in fear of what we might find.
I skidded to a stop in the living room. I could hear Dick Clark and the sounds of Times Square from the television. Dana was stretched out on the couch, his sweater draped over his torso like a blanket; he sat up in surprise. “Tris? I didn’t hear you come in. What are you doing back so early?”
I blinked, unable to process. The apartment was quiet except for the low hum of the TV. Everything was fine? I had been wrong?
“Nothing, I just…” I paused, feeling ridiculous. What had I been afraid of? “Happy New Year,” I said lamely.
“It’s only 11:56. Technically there’s four minutes of 2001 left before the ball drops,” Dana said, lifting an arm to point to the sparkling globe suspended in midair on the television screen.
“Oh Jesus!” It tore out of me as much in recognition as in horror.
The arm he raised was streaked with blood.
Part III: 2002
WARNING: Reference to self-injury
Lying here in the darkness/ I hear the sirens wail
Somebody going to emergency/ Somebody's going to jail
If you find somebody to love in this world/ You better hang on tooth and nail
The wolf is always at the door
In a New York Minute
Everything can change…
“Have you ever done anything like this before?” John asked quietly as he finished wrapping gauze around Dana’s forearm, motioning to me for the first-aid tape. I passed it to him with my free hand, my other hand holding Dana’s head against my side, stroking his hair as he winced under John’s ministrations.
Dana, who hadn’t spoken a word since 2001, pressed his lips together.
John had come running several minutes earlier at my shout; I knew the look of sick realization on his face mirrored my own. I gripped Dana by his uninjured bicep and together we maneuvered him to the bathroom, working jointly in the tacit and efficient way of a longtime team.
Dana, dark-eyed, white-faced, and silent, sat on the toilet lid where I lowered him, gritting his teeth noticeably as John and I eased off his shirt, sticky in spots with blood by the time the process was completed. Mutely he submitted to the examination. “Is this the only place you cut yourself?” John asked, scanning the rest of his torso and the other arm.
I soaked a washcloth in warm water and handed it to John, keeping one hand on Dana to hold him steady. We worked quickly but calmly to clean the scratches and locate and apply antibiotic cream and bandages – silently I apologized to John for every time I’d thought him paranoid or anal for keeping a well-stocked and handy first-aid kit.
He sponged the blood off gently and breathed a short, sharp sigh of relief between his teeth. “They’re shallow,” he muttered, either to himself or to us. “They’re going to heal fine.” Dana stared at the wall over John’s head and I stood beside him, pulling him against me slightly when he squeezed his eyes shut briefly in pain.
“Dana.” I touched his shoulder when he didn’t answer John’s question. “Have you?”
He shook his head slightly. He’d endured stoically the cleaning and bandaging process John – an Eagle Scout – had performed. But if he took any notice of the comfort I was attempting to provide he didn’t show it.
“All done.” John rose from where he’d been crouched in front of the closed toilet and ruffled Dana’s hair gently.
Dana didn’t move. His eyes were blank and wide. I let out the breath I’d been holding more or less since I’d first seen the blood. The slow, almost drugged way he’d lifted his injured arm nagged at the corner of my mind. An investigative reporter at heart, I felt certain I’d missed something along the way.
“Dana.” I helped him to his feet, cupped his chin in my hand. “Did you take anything?”
He blinked but didn’t answer. I tipped his head back slightly; his pupils looked normal but his eyes were heavy-lidded and exhausted-looking. It could just be from his ordeal, but still…
“Dana. Dana!” His eyes drooped shut and I patted his cheek firmly to wake him up. “Tell me.”
“S’nothing,” he mumbled, incoherently enough to convince me it was something. He was markedly drowsier than he had been on the couch when we’d walked in. Concerned, I patted his face again, holding it with level eye contact to mine.
“Jus’ sleeping pill,” he slurred.
“What? How many?” Over his head I caught the eye of John, who left the bathroom. I heard the rustling from inside of his looking for something.
“Jus’ two, ch’llout Tris,” he mumbled. “Same’s every night, ’m tired, lemme sleep.” He pulled away and wavered slightly before I grabbed him again, then pulled his uninjured arm over my shoulder, wrapped an arm around his waist and walked him out into the hall. John met us there, holding a small cardboard box.
“There are four pills missing. The dosage is two pills.”
“I took th’others other nights,” Dana protested, sounding slightly more awake.
“It’s okay,” John said stiffly, and I reasoned that even if he had taken all four he would pull through all right. It wasn’t his physical state that worried me the most anyway. Still, I believed Dana. He wasn’t a liar. John squeezed my shoulder and left to clean up the bathroom as I led Dana down the hall to the guest room.
“I wasn’t trying to kill myself, you know,” he said quietly, the most coherent thing he’d said since admitting to the pills. I did know that – scary as the blood had been, they were superficial scratches. We lay curled on the double bed in the guest room, Dana’s head resting on a pillow on my lap. I wasn’t sure I wanted him falling asleep yet, not while he still seemed shocky. I’d helped him redress in soft sweats and covered him with a quilt; gradually his body began to relax slightly against mine.
“What were you trying to do?”
“I don’t know.” He turned his head away from me and I stroked his soft hair, feeling a surge of protectiveness. His skull felt fragile under my fingers, his body small and warm and still too tensely curled. “I just wanted it to stop.”
“Wanted it to stop?” I repeated.
“The pain. I just…I needed to do something,” he admitted softly.
“Did it help?”
He shrugged and then winced slightly as the bandages pulled at his arm.
“He’s not ever coming back, is he,” he said very very quietly, his voice breaking on the last word.
“Oh, Dana.” I pulled him as close as I could without aggravating the bandaged arm. He buried his head in my stomach and I gathered him in as I whispered the answer he already knew. “No, he’s not.”
I held him as he cried, trying at first to talk around the sobs and then just giving in to the rhythm, gulping wetly and struggling for breath, his tears dampening the front of my shirt.
“I can’t…I can’t…” he gasped, his back jerking under my hands.
“You can,” I soothed, stroking him. “You’re going to be okay.”
He shook his head, crying harder. “Nothing’s ever going to be okay again,” he murmured between hitching breaths.
I shook him slightly. “No. That’s not true.” I remembered something Angie had said. “This is going to be the worst night,” I told him. “It’s going to get better.”
“It’s not,” his voice rose in a wail. “He doesn’t love me.”
“No,” I agreed softly. “He doesn’t. But I do. And John does. And Evan and Serena and Ariel and your family and Shoshanna and Derek and…come on, Dana.” I ruffled his hair. “You have more friends than you know what to do with. You’re not lacking for love.”
“But it’s him I want.” His voice was low and miserable. “I would have given them up for him. I was going to.”
“No one who really loved you would want you to give that up. And you didn’t give them up, Dana. They’re all still here and they still love you.”
“But for how long?” he whispered, leaning his head back slightly to look at me.
I gazed into his swollen streaming eyes and my heart turned over, feeling for John and wondering how he managed to be honest with me in times like these when all I really wanted to do was hug Dana tightly and swear to him that everything was going to be all right. I couldn’t lie though. I needed to act like the person I wanted myself to be.
“I don’t know,” I said honestly, cuddling him close. “But you don’t need to worry about that right now. You need to think about getting better. You have people around you who’ve demonstrated their love and their commitment. You trusted the wrong person once; that doesn’t mean anything about the others. They’re different people.”
I did not say: “They are better people. They would never coax you to trust them and then leave you a hysterical mess for other people to clean up.”
“And you need to go back to trusting yourself, Dana,” I reminded him. “Don’t let James make you forget your strength.”
He made a faint snorting sound and I heard it for what it was: Who, me? Strong? Lying here broken and miserable? I’d felt like that myself in the past. I rubbed his back as his crying tapered off. “You ARE strong. You’ll remember again, don’t worry. The people who love you wouldn’t want you to forget that,” I said pointedly, but kept my stronger opinions in check – admirably, if I do say so myself.
“I’ve never done this before,” he said quietly, shifting his arm to show me what he meant.
I leaned over to kiss his hair. “I know.” I did know. “You’ve crossed a line you never expected to cross and now you’re not sure where the line is. I’ve been there,” I told him gently.
He looked away. “James doesn’t care anyway,” he said, almost under his breath.
Automatically I reached over and swatted him once, hard. He half sat up in shock. “Hey!”
I pulled him back down again. “Don’t even let me think for a second that you did this to get James to notice.”
“He wouldn’t anyway,” he sulked, looking far more hurt than he should have considering the smack had been cushioned by about four layers of warm clothing.
“He’s hurt you enough, damn it, Dana. Don’t you dare hurt yourself over him.”
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly.
“Good. Be sorry enough never to do it again.”
“I don’t ever want to do it again.”
“And you’re never going to,” I said with confidence I hoped I felt.
He looked away. “I used to get so overwhelmed sometimes living at home…the family made me crazy…James got so upset when I was like that, he worried about me; he wanted me there with him where we could…and he would take care of me, and….” His voice trailed off, his swollen eyes dark with pain.
“He’s gone, Tris.”
“I know, honey. But you still have to go on.”
“It hurts so bad.”
“I know. It’ll start to get better.”
“When?” he sniffled.
“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “But like I said, tonight was especially bad. It won’t be this bad again,” I assured him, remembering what Angie had said about cycles and the lessening thereof.
He nodded and blinked a few times, his eyes starting to drift shut. I smoothed his hair.
“And, Dana? If you ever do anything like this again I’ll kick your ass myself,” I informed him.
His eyes snapped open again. “What?”
“You heard me.”
“I thought you were supposed to be a brat.”
“Yeah. That’s where I get my ass-kicking expertise. I’ve studied under an expert,” I explained, smiling at my own pun.
Dana smiled a little in spite of himself.
“I love you,” I told him seriously. “I’m not going to sit by and watch you destroy yourself. But it’s your choice. I know you and I know you can pull yourself together.”
“I can,” he said softly, sounding almost as if he believed it. “You know, Tris? I miss the me I used to be,” he admitted. “I want to know the me I could be.”
“You’ll find him,” I said firmly. “I have faith.”
I closed the guest room door behind me as quietly as I could and padded through to our bedroom. John was sitting up in bed, a book facedown in his lap. He looked up and held out his arms.
I clambered over him and snuggled down beside him. We held each other in silence for a minute or two. When I pulled back I realized John was still wearing the same deep blue dress shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbow, blood staining the fabric purple in several spots.
I reached to unbutton it. He was tense under my hands and I stroked his neck. “What is it?”
He pulled me close again, resting his chin on the top of my head. “Is Dana asleep?”
“Yes,” I told him, disentangling myself gently. “John, let’s get undressed. I’m wiped.”
He nodded and stood to strip off his shirt. We were both in pajamas when he picked up the shirt again. He seemed not to know what to do with it. I took it carefully from his hands. I didn’t ask: “Are you all right?” I knew the answer.
I hung it carefully on a hanger and hooked the hanger through the closet doorknob. I knew how he felt. It seemed disrespectful somehow to crumple up the shirt and throw it into the hamper when it was streaked with those precious drops of lifeblood.
John’s feet were unusually cold as we burrowed together under the comforter. I was used to warming my feet on his before we fell asleep. This time I stroked his feet with mine, then pulled them between my flannel-clad calves, trying to warm them.
He pulled my head down to kiss my forehead, then tilted it up to kiss my lips. He nuzzled my face with his, his long lashes wet. “You took good care of Dana,” he said softly, kissing me again.
“And you take good care of me,” he added, stroking the hair off my forehead before settling me against him.
“Likewise,” I told him. We lay in silence; his cheek was damp and scratchy, wonderfully alive against mine. We held each other tight as I thought. Sometime between when Dana opened his flesh and we closed it the ball had dropped and a new year arrived. I closed my eyes.
“Promise me,” John said suddenly, his voice low and urgent. “Promise me you won’t ever ignore your instincts.”
“Hm?” I had been falling asleep, I suppose.
“You were right tonight, baby. You have good instincts when it comes to the people you love. If we hadn’t come home when we did…just don’t ever forget to follow them … promise me?”
He sounded tired and serious. I didn’t think it was the time to inform him that I’d gotten in trouble on countless occasions for sniffing out dangerous or untimely leads at work…although admittedly I conceded the point that following my instincts was something different.
I thought about Dana, who’d ignored the voices, inside and out, telling him not to get involved with James, telling him James would and could and very well might leave him as he’d left others in the past (cruelly, quickly, without remorse and never looking back). I thought about Dana, who’d ignored his instincts.
I did know what John meant.
John’s feet were warm once more against my legs. Entangled like this I almost couldn’t tell where one of us ended and the other began. I don’t know when we drifted into sleep but I slept without nightmares until the sun woke me the next morning.
“He read about it,” I told John as we walked up Broadway. Real winter had arrived – it was COLD. Even with my gloved hands wrapped around a vanilla steamer (mmm) the chilly air was penetrating. “That’s where he got the idea. And the therapist said last week that if he scared himself enough the first time not to do it again it was a good sign….”
John shook his head, steering me around a puddle. “Poor Dana.”
It was late January and James was still unheard from. He wouldn’t talk to any of us. Dana hadn’t heard his voice in two months. We had an answer to the question Dana had stopped asking:
Will he ever talk to me again?
It wasn’t a question James had the courage to answer.
James was many things, John had said, but brave wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t brave to walk away from your commitments and from your responsibilities. It wasn’t brave to take the easy way out. It wasn’t brave to hurt the people you once claimed to love.
Oddly enough, forced to seek closure without James’ participation, the sun still rose and set, we all woke up every morning, and John and I still made plans to see “Iris” at Lincoln Plaza.
“I think Dana’s starting to do a little better,” I said tentatively. “Hooking him up with the Crisis Center was a good idea.” John had encouraged Dana to volunteer at a youth crisis center on Astor Place, where, as Dana said, he put his extremely expensive Ivy League degree to use stuffing envelopes and Xeroxing flyers.
He loved it.
“He’ll find his way,” John said.
I sent John ahead to pick up the tickets and I waited outside to call home for the messages, cradling my cell in one hand and a warm cup in the other.
I looked up in surprise. It was Dana, arm-in-arm with a giggling girl who looked vaguely familiar and flanked by two others. Even in the dim glow of the marquee I could see his dark hair was tipped with gold.
“Shoshanna just did it for me yesterday.” He twirled. “You like?”
“Very good, Holmes.” He stuck his tongue out. “You know my friends?” He gestured and named them. Shoshanna I recognized from a photo, tight curls, a head taller than the rest; the other two had unfamiliar faces but when I learned their names I realized I had heard Dana talk about them often. The one called Catherine was giving me a rather lascivious grin. I smiled back uncomfortably.
“Stop drooling, Cath,” Dana ordered. “He’s gay…and TAKEN,” he added quickly when her eyes lit up. I couldn’t help a faint snort. This was another side of the Dana who hung out with us: campier, more confident, he and his friends were making me feel decidedly…old.
We chatted for a minute or two before I realized I should probably go into the theater and find John, and leave these four to their – well, whatever kids were doing these days, I suppose. Oy.
“Have fun, children!” I called cheerfully with a friendly wave good-bye, designed to outrage. Dana raised his middle finger good-naturedly and they were off to whatever havoc they were planning to wreak. One step forward, two steps back. Or was it two steps forward, one step back? I watched them nudging each other and running to catch the light on the corner; they grew smaller and smaller before I turned and walked into the bright warmth of the movie theater.
The next weekend I dragged Dana to Bloomingdale’s. Without the press of Christmas shoppers or the scary post-holiday sale crowds it was (relatively) mellow. That is, just the usual mobs of the well-dressed. I was busy trying to talk Dana into a particularly sleek ribbed sweater. He modeled it, pivoting self-consciously, as a young employee walked by, paused, let his eyes rake over Dana and smiled appreciatively. He flushed when I caught his eye and hurried away.
I poked Dana gleefully. “You’re buying it. It’s a man magnet.”
Dana folded his arms over his chest, giving me a shocked look. “God, Tris! The body isn’t even cold yet.” But he smiled in spite of himself.
“Oh, it’s cold. Buy the sweater, Dana.”
We walked companionably up Lexington afterwards, Dana swinging his Medium Brown Bag.
“Are you going to grow out of John?”
“What do you mean?”
It was actually a rather comfortable way to talk, walking down the street side by side as we were – almost like driving, where we couldn’t look at each other, which made it harder to be embarrassed about the tough subjects.
“I mean, what if you…I don’t know…what if you don’t need him anymore or something?”
“Don’t need him or don’t need the discipline?”
He flushed to the tips of his ears. “Tris!”
“If you’re old enough to do it, you’re old enough to say it,” I teased him. “Look, Dana, this kind of relationship is like any relationship. The people in it grow and change and the relationship itself has to grow and change too…that’s natural. What’s important, I think, is the WHY. That the discipline, the rules, are mutual decisions. That they’re in place to keep both partners safe – not a way for the quote-unquote top to control the quote-unquote brat or to keep things from getting intense or scary or emotional. Things get intense and scary and emotional in relationships. That’s just reality.”
He hefted the bag into his other hand. “James said the relationship doesn’t change. The brat at 50 will be the same as the brat at 20.”
“Well, that’s not true,” I assured him. “I mean, you’re not going to be able to get away with that sweater at 50.”
He giggled. “No, seriously.”
“Seriously…no. I don’t believe that. I think anyone who’s finished growing at 20…or even at 50…is a pretty sad individual.”
Dana nodded, not looking completely convinced.
“Dana…what we do, we do for us.” I remembered what John had said. I believed it. “We’re working for things we both want. John’s not trying to control me because it makes it easier for him or because I scare him; we’re doing what works best for both of us. We’re honest about it,” I said slowly, tasting the words as if for the first time. In a cartoon a light bulb might have appeared above my head. We weren’t afraid to be honest with each other. We weren’t afraid of each other. The implications swirled.
We stopped at the corner to wait for the light and Dana stared at his feet for a moment.
“And a word of advice, little brother?” I said. “Don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re incapable of growing. Those are the kind of people you do NOT need in your life.”
We walked in silence for a few minutes. “Tris?”
“Something James said when he was breaking up with me has been bothering me….”
“He told me that he felt like I’d been in control the whole time. Tris, I don’t even understand what he meant, but it gave me this feeling…it scared me. I mean, it scared me that he would be so horrified at the idea of my having any control. What IS that? What did I get myself into?” His voice sounded far away.
I put an arm around his shoulders. “I think it’s a good sign it bothers you,” I told him honestly.
“I thought he knew what he was doing….”
“These relationships are like any other, Dana. There are good ones and bad ones. There are good partners and bad partners.”
“But James thought I was….” His voice trailed off.
“James was really good at telling everyone else what they were and how they should be,” I said, drawing on something John had said earlier. “But he didn’t or couldn’t ever look at himself.”
“I don’t deserve to be treated like this,” Dana said suddenly, his voice quiet but strong, and before I could stop myself I’d raised two fists in the air and grinned in the style of my therapist when she sensed a breakthrough.
I attempted to clean as I watched the ten o’clock news. John had a late meeting in Newark, of all places, but I reasoned he would be on the road soon. I’d saved pasta to heat up when he got back in case he was hungry, but a sudden attack of guilt had led me back to the bedroom to straighten up. I’d already recycled the day’s newspapers and washed the dishes, so I figured I’d finish my clean streak and REALLY impress John when he got home.
A car blared techno from the street below in discordant harmony with a wailing siren. It wasn’t the quietest of night music, but I liked it. It was home. I smoothed out the comforter, letting my mind drift.
“Are we going to move?” I’d asked John once in late September. Mel and Josh were still banned from their building and reports—whether from friends or the news—of people leaving the city were all over.
“Do you want to?” he asked me in return.
“No,” I said, and I’m not sure I realized how much I meant it until I’d said it out loud. “No. No way.”
He tousled my hair. “Good. Me neither. And I like living together.”
I snuggled closer. “We have to stay. I mean, I’ve lived in the city eleven years and I’ve only just gotten the hang of alternate side of the street parking.”
“Tris,” John said over my head, his laughter rumbling against me. “I’ve seen the tickets. You still don’t have the hang of alternate side of the street parking!”
Honestly. Some people are SO unforgiving.
“Then I guess we’ll have to stay here forever,” I said primly.
“Fine by me,” John said. “I like it here. If we left I’d miss the guy on the F train who hits people with his lunchbox. And I like paying twelve dollars to see a movie.”
“I like bagels,” I countered. “Real ones, not just circular Wonderbread with a hole in it.”
We were quiet for a few minutes, thinking. It was nice to laugh again. It was nice to lounge around together on the couch on a Sunday with late morning sun streaming in through the windows. I’m a stubborn person, you know. I won’t do what I don’t believe in.
The memory made me smile. I knew John wanted me to try to believe him when he told me he wasn’t going anywhere. To remember the person, not the words.
I did remember the person. I remembered comforting and being comforted countless times.
John was right. We weren’t runners. We didn’t leave the things or the people we loved just because things were tough. We had loyalty. We could stick it out.
We weren’t going anywhere.
I was just reveling in my epiphany when the phone rang. It was John, calling from the road.
“Where are you?”
“The New Jersey Turnpike.”
“Are you counting cars?”
“Very funny, Garfunkel. Mmmm, I love the new hands-free law,” he said cheerfully between bursts of static. “Now I can talk to you from the car and it’s almost like having you here with me.”
I beamed, flattered.
“Well, almost,” he corrected. “This way you can’t change my radio stations or ask ‘are we there yet?’ ad infinitum or spill things whenever I change speeds.”
“You’re very amusing. When are you coming home to amuse me in person?”
“As soon as I can, babe.”
“And I miss you.”
We chatted for a few minutes as I walked around the bed, tugging the sheets straight, fluffing the pillows, generally trying to make the room presentable.
“Dana’s coming over tomorrow night after therapy,” I told him. “Oh…and he has a date on Friday.”
“Please tell me he’s not seducing youth in crisis.”
I giggled in spite of myself. “Hardly. It’s another volunteer.”
I shook out a pillowcase and startled when my watch dropped out of the folds and struck the top of my foot. I’d been looking for that.
“Somebody put my watch in my pillowcase,” I said through gritted teeth, rubbing at the sting.
“STOP LAUGHING,” I ordered him, hurt.
“And I can still see you smiling,” I added.
“What am I going to do with you?” he asked, the smile still in his voice.
“I have some ideas,” I said slyly.
“Now I don’t think THAT can work long distance,” he said ruefully.
“Don’t get off the phone?”
“Sing to me,” I suggested a few minutes later.
“You hate it when I sing to you.”
“That’s because you’re usually trying to make me go to sleep.”
“Okay then. What do you want to hear?”
I thought about it. I thought about long nights in the car, about traveling cross-country early in our relationship, splitting the driving over long stretches of road, hours and days at a time. We spent about as much time arguing about music as we did…doing other things. I spent hours of semi-sleep during John’s shifts, drifting in and out of consciousness and watching the stars through the moon roof and wondering how I fell in love with a man who listened to the kind of music I used to associate with far less cool people.
It was a great trip.
“I want to hear Frank,” I told him.
“Tris? Are you feeling all right?”
“Ha ha. Sing.”
“Yes Tris,” he said, still sounding somewhere between puzzled and amused. There was a time I had hidden his Count Basie CDs, and I did tend to prefer Z-100 to WNEW. But there’s a time and a place for everything and I admit I was craving John’s kind of smooth crooning.
I settled on the side of the bed, listening to his voice, velvety and just slightly distorted by the static.
“More than the greatest love the world has known, this is the love I give to you alone,
more than the simple words I try to say, I only live to love you more each day…”
Mmm. I closed my eyes and let his voice swirl around me. I wasn’t sure which was more soothing, the tempo of the jazz, the timbre of John’s voice so deep and loving, or the song itself—an old favorite that always made me smile, even when it was co-opted in TV commercials.
“Keep going,” I ordered when he paused.
“More than you'll ever know, my arms long to hold you so, my life will be in your keeping, waking, sleeping, laughing, weeping…longer than always is a long, long time, but far beyond forever you're gonna be mine. I know I've never lived before and my heart is very sure, no one else could love you more…”
He held the last note and I knew I would hold onto it for a long time after it ended. I loved him so much in that moment I couldn’t speak. I sat with the phone pressed to my ear, flooded with warmth and gratitude, my arms aching to hold him.
We were both silent for a few minutes afterward, the only sounds the rumble of traffic outside the car wafting through the speakers as he moved closer to home and to me.
“Still here, baby,” he said. “Promise.”
“I know,” I said.
And I did.
i'm going to live.
PS you didn't think that was all, did you? i mean, even you must know me better than that. i’m not all better or anything. but i’m getting there. i'm just doing what they say, you know, taking advantage of the upswing. it's here for now, i worked hard for it, and it's a blessing.
you know what? if being with you, and being left by you, made me forget my strength, then i think now i’m starting to remember.
so goodnight, james, wherever you are.]
“New York Minute” by Don Henley
“How Do You Tell Someone?” by Cowboy Mouth
“New Orleans” by Cowboy Mouth
“More” – lyrics by Norman Newell, music by Rizero Ortolani, sung by the incomparable Frank Sinatra
“If” by Rudyard Kipling
No copyright infringement intended.
This story marks the swan song of Tris and John. I’m going to miss them, and they’ve given me a great time, but their story is done.
Thanks to Rusty, Sam, Julie and Libby for beta-reading and encouragement.
This story is dedicated in part to Diana, my beautiful and tolerant always roommate, who may not read this story but loves me anyway, who helped me realize that spooning is the best way to travel on the overnight ferry, who has been patient for two years now about my not telling her what “it” is, who let me practice with her, and who never, even though she really, really deserved to, said “I told you so.”
And it’s dedicated in other part to S, to R and L and J, all of whom I hope WILL read the story, and to those loved ones who exist outside of the web (believe it or not!), especially A, R, S, R&A, F, J, other J, L, M, other M, third J… (hey, this list is getting a bit long, but I suppose that’s a LOT better than the alternative)…all of whom daily help me, even when it’s tough, to maintain faith in friendship and love.
I’m so lucky to have all of you and I won’t forget it again.