Friday, June 04, 2004

Leaving

Robert Raleigh and I shared a WordPerfect office together back in the early '90s. We both wanted to get better at writing stories, so we challenged each other to submit a story every Friday. We would use our fancy new electronic mail (e-mail) programs to send our Friday stories to each other, and to a few other friends. Some of these stories were written hurriedly on Friday morning. Others were crafted over time. Some have been published. Most have not. But here's the thing. I always enjoyed reading Robert's Friday story, even the hurried ones. Here's a story that reminds me of something Ann Beattie would write. (I had to convert it from WordPerfect format.)

Leaving
By Robert Raleigh

After dinner I tell Andrew I'm going for a walk.

"That sounds nice. Can I come?" he asks.

I had decided, as I was finishing up my dinner, not to let him come, but suddenly, looking at his enthusiastic face, I feel weak about this. I want him to be with me, to stay with me, tonight, next week. Sometimes in what I think of as my weakest moments, I want him to stay with me my whole life. I love to imagine us together as old people, drinking tea, puttering in the garden, straining to hear one another speak. This fantasy of the Geritol versions of Andy and me is a recent development, and one I attempt to suppress, because it seems so foolish.

"No, I'd rather be by myself," I tell him.

"Okay," he says, and smiles at me. He has mu shu sauce on his chin. I resist the urge to point at my own chin.

"I think I'll go visit a few people I still haven't said goodbye to, then," he says.

I've been amazed by how many friends he has. I've met most of them over the time I've known him, but now that he's leaving he's been visiting and being visited by friends in droves. I don't really understand it. I have maybe three real friends — college girlfriends — and it's all I can do to keep these fragile relationships alive, particularly since two of them are now long distance.

I know it's going to be chilly down by the water, so I put on a sweatshirt and gloves, then walk out without saying goodbye. Andrew, of course, will not be offended. Occasionally I am bothered by his seemingly endless patience. I tend to think of it as a kind of emotional constipation — eventually all that shit will poison his system or something. I think the surgeon general should warn people: BEING NICE MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH. It amuses me to imagine bringing it up with him: "Don't be so understanding," I tell him, and he, of course, nods understandingly.

I walk down the long wooden flight of steps to the lake. There is a slight mist over the lake, but not enough to block the reflection of the moon, which is nearly full. I love living here. I come down to the lake all the time to think, to write, to read, to sit and watch the birds, clouds, trees, sunlight. I never get tired of it. It makes me sad to think it will all be over in less than two months.

I have been housesitting for the parents of one of my three friends, Chloe. Chloe's parents are missionaries in Australia for the Mormon church. Chloe hasn't told them that I'm living in their house with a man, and worse, a man I'm not married to. I was worried about this at first, because I thought the neighbors might rat on us, and I didn't want something so pleasant to come to an unpleasant end. Chloe assured me that her parents hadn't lived there long enough to really make any friends. The neighbors, she said, could tell them after it was too late to do anything about it.

This sense of living in a beautiful house but knowing that it's only temporary, that it's really someone else's good fortune, is the same sense I have about Andrew sometimes, particularly now that he's leaving. He's finally getting his chance to work with a development organization in Chad. He applied for it, as he keeps pointing out, before he ever met me. And it is, he keeps pointing out, only for a year.

I keep wanting to point out: what if he likes it, and decides to stay longer, or indefinitely, or what if he falls in love with another woman, or gets killed? But I don't say any of these things. Instead I say, "That's great" and "I'm happy for you." Sometimes I mean it and sometimes I don't, and sometimes when I don't, he can tell, and sometimes when he can tell, it bothers him. So I figure, at least something bothers him.

Suddenly I hear someone behind me and this startles me. I jump, and my heart suddenly starts beating more rapidly.

"I'm sorry," she says, as she approaches. "I didn't mean to scare you." It is June Rasmussen, an older woman I often see, and occasionally talk to, when I'm by the lake.

"That's fine," I say. "I just didn't expect anyone to be out here in the cold this late."

"Isn't it chilly? It's the dampness that really gets to you." She hugs herself to show that she is cold.

"It does make it seem colder," I say.

She says, "In Arizona it actually gets colder at night, but it doesn't seem so cold. I mean, the temperature is actually lower—"

She sees me nodding and trails off. She often talks that way: she explains something, then begins to explain it again in a slightly different way, and then she realizes what she's doing and breaks off, often in mid-sentence.

I imagine an impatient husband telling her, "June, you just got through telling me this, so don't start again. You know how you are." And in response she smiles that pleasant smile of hers that seems to hide so much. It's a smile that reminds me of my mother, which makes me feel a certain combination of daughterly affection and annoyance that has nothing to do with June. Maybe one of her own daughters — she told me she has two — responds to her in a similar way, so that my mixed feelings are familiar to her.

"It's a beautiful night," she says, and sighs.

"It's always beautiful here," I say.

We sit silently looking out over the water. Then I look over at her and see that her cheeks are wet. I've never seen her show anything but her controlled, public exterior, so this private display of emotions surprises me. Perhaps she thinks I can't see her face in the dark.

For a moment I hesitate, afraid to invade her privacy, but then I say, "June, what's the matter?"

She lets out a small laugh of embarrassment and wipes the tears from her cheeks with her hand.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she says.

"Don't be sorry," I say.

"It's my son's birthday today."

"I didn't know you had a son."

"He would have been forty."

I don't know what else to say. I don't want to force her to describe her son's death to me, so finally I say, "I'm sorry."

"He died in a car accident."

I can see that she has already begun to regain her composure. She wipes the tears from her cheeks again and then takes out a handkerchief and blows her nose and dabs her eyes. She puts away her handkerchief and pats her hair. Then she apologizes to me again.

"No need to apologize," I say to her. "It's hard when someone you love dies."

I feel like I should reciprocate by telling about the death of someone I loved, and the grief I felt, but no one close to me has ever died. Except for a hamster I once had. This doesn't seem like an appropriate incident to bring up, though, so I remain silent.

June says, "Thank you for being so patient. I don't mean to unload my problems on you like that."

"Please, don't be sorry," I say.

Then we sit for a while again without saying anything.

Finally, June says, "I think I'm going to go inside now. I'm starting to feel the chill." She gets up and starts to walk away.

"Good night. I'm sorry about your son," I say.

She looks back at me for just a moment, smiles politely, and then turns and goes.

Not long after June leaves, I begin to feel the chill too, so I start the walk back up the stairs to keep myself warm.

When I get back to the house it is still dark. I think of it as a metaphor, which is something I often do when I'm feeling down. To cheer myself I go around the house and make a game of it: I leave water running and try to cut some paper with very dull scissors. I put on a Velvet Underground record and poise the needle just barely above the spinning vinyl.

After a while I am satisfied. I turn off the water and let the needle drop. I get a beer and turn out all the lights and curl up in an overstuffed leather chair. I indulge myself by being irritated about the length of Andrew's absence. I figure I might as well get it over with before he comes home, so I won't be tempted to quarrel. I don't want one of my last nights with him to be ruined by bickering over something so small. Especially when there are so many bigger issues to tackle.

I'm kidding myself, of course. I'm not going to tackle any issue, big or small. Issues are going to run around the house naked and wet, singing Gershwin songs off-key, and I'm not going to even give them a second look, much less wrestle them to the floor. It's just my way, or at least that's what I tell myself. My therapist would look at me sternly for saying such a thing, which is probably the main reason I'm no longer in therapy.

I hear Andrew's footsteps on the porch, then the jingle of his keys, then the weatherstripping at the bottom of the kitchen door brushing against the tile.

"Hello," he says loudly. I don't respond. He hears the music and comes into the living room and turns on a lamp.

"Oh, there you are," he says, and smiles. He looks tired.

I say, "How was your visit?"

He says, "It was okay."

"Just okay?"

"It was Colin. You know how Colin gets. Well, tonight, he was really on one. This time he's being persecuted by the entire Latin American Studies department."

The record ends as he says this, so I get up and turn it over.

Andrew says, "How was your evening?"

"It was kind of strange, actually."

"What do you mean strange?"

"Do you remember that woman I told you about that sort of reminds me of my mother?"

Andrew shakes his head no.

"There's this woman who lives over by the pier. Actually they just summer here. But anyway, I run into her a lot when I'm down by the lake. Her name is June Rasmussen."

Andrew yawns and then gets up. "I think I want some tea," he says. "Do you want any?"

"No," I say.

He walks toward the kitchen and says, "Don't stop. I'm listening."

"No, I'll wait. I don't want to shout."

"Come in here, then."

So I go in and sit down on one of the slatted kitchen chairs. It's a little cold. Andrew turns and looks at me, waiting for me to continue.

"So she was down by the lake tonight. Actually she scared the shit out of me. I didn't expect anyone to be down there. But anyway, we were just sort of sitting there when I noticed that she was crying."

"She was crying?"

"Yeah. It was weird. I mean, she's one of these country club matron types who always seems so proper and everything."

Andrew brings his tea over and sits across from me. He pushes the tea bag beneath the surface of the water with his spoon. I imagine that he is drowning it, and this makes me smile.

"What?" says Andrew, noticing my smile.

"Nothing. So anyway, I asked her if she wanted to talk, and she told me that her son died, and I guess it's his birthday today."

Andrew slurps some tea off his spoon and begins pushing at the tea bag again.

He shakes his head and says, "That's sad."

"The funny thing was that the whole thing lasted only about two minutes. I mean, it was like this little window that she opened up, sort of accidentally in a way, because I'm sure she didn't expect anyone to be down by the lake either, and then she closed up the shutters and went away."

Andrew smiles at my metaphor. He likes to tease me about my metaphors.

I say, "Oh, the thing I remember I wanted to tell you was that after she was done, I felt like I should tell about someone who died, just to sort of put us on an equal footing, and the only thing I could think of was about this hamster I had."

"A hamster?" says Andrew.

"Yeah, it was when I was a kid. My hamster died. Fluffy. That was its name."

"You told her about your hamster?" says Andrew, incredulous.

"No, I didn't say it. I just thought about it."

Andrew begins to laugh. In the slightly higher pitched voice he uses to impersonate me he says, "I once had a rodent I loved, Mrs. Rasmussen."

Then we are both laughing and Andrew spills his tea on his pants. As I sit across from him, laughing and watching him wipe his pants with a napkin, I can almost forget that a week from now I will be missing him like crazy, wishing he were here with me instead of halfway around the world, trying to save people he doesn't even know.

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