Sorrow

IMG_9699She died on the last day of March.

My best friend from high school told me that morning via messenger. I was “working” from home which translated to sporadically checking emails between bursts of packing up cardboard boxes for my move.

I sat on the edge of my bed, staring at my phone, waiting for details. At first I assumed it was due to Covid-19, because that was the monster on everybody’s mind, but it wasn’t. She’d passed from complications of a long suffered illness which I’d known about, but hadn’t thought was all that serious.

“I’m just shocked.” My friend had said.

That made two of us. It didn’t seem real that someone my age, a member of our tight little high school group, could possibly be gone.

“I’m just…shocked.” My friend said again.

And really, what else could be said? I hadn’t even known she wasn’t doing well. I tried to remember the last time she and I had spoken. The last time I remembered I’d been living in New York City, which had to be five or six years ago. We’d exchanged a few messages, and she talked about some day visiting, though she never did, and now never will.

The last time I saw her in person was probably eighteen years ago. She’d come to a party at my apartment in Austin with some friends. Back then I was a person who threw parties. I was getting ready to move to Los Angeles. It was strange to see her in the city, so far removed from the tiny, farm town that we’d grown up in. I remember standing outside with glasses of wine and feeling so sophisticated even though some unruly guests were trying to set fire to a bag of Cheetos on the sidewalk.

It didn’t occur to me that that time would be the last time I’d ever see her. When we were kids, I’d stupidly thought that our little group, the Deadbeat Club, would be close forever. How could any five people who loved each other so much, who went through adolescence in the Bible Belt together ever drift so far apart?

But drift we had, and it hadn’t even taken very long. Three of them were a year ahead of my friend and I. After they graduated, the last year in high-school had been a long, lonely one for the two of us left behind. Three of us lived together in college for a while, but the drift, once it had begun, was irreversible.

I remember being in Kindergarten when she was in first grade. My older cousin Josh had told me that during recess I was supposed to call a girl a name so that the girl would chase me. I didn’t question the reasoning behind this, but I distinctly remember going up to her and calling her “chicken legs” and running away squealing in delight while she chased after me.

We spent our high-school classes passing obscene notes back and forth which, had they ever been read, would have gotten us suspended at the very least. Because she and I were neither a cheerleader, nor a football player, respectively, it somehow fell to us to raise the flag during Friday night football games. I remember standing on the edge of the field, slowly raising the flag while the National Anthem blared squeakily through the loud speakers. She stood with her hand over her heart, and when people cheered, she and I would yell, “Hail Satan!”

I remember a group of us driving the two lane farm roads one weekend night, stealing the flashing lights from construction signs. My best friend saying, “We’ve hit the motherlode,” her eyes moon big as we drove up to a row of ten or so signs all flashing yellowly together.

Other memories. Backstage at one act plays. School field trips. The time in her bedroom where I saw her birth control pills, and she panicked, not realizing that I had absolutely no idea what they were.

The summers back then seemed so long. The school year, endless.

The years since graduation are a blur.

She married. Got her PhD. Had three (four?) boys. I had a string of boyfriends, and lived in a string of cities, worked a string of dead-end jobs. We “liked” the occasional post on one another’s Facebook.

Several people from high school got in touch with me the day she died. People I hadn’t spoken to or thought about in twenty-five years. People I had never been friends with, and had barely known messaged me. Even her husband took time out from his own grief to send me a message. That was the most surreal part. That anyone would think of notifying me when I hadn’t seen her in nearly two decades.

Even if there hadn’t been a global pandemic, I wouldn’t have flown to Texas for her memorial. I couldn’t imagine what I might say to her family or her friends. Part of me was glad to have the ready excuse to avoid it altogether.

Because I’m a self-centered asshole, it was impossible to think about her death without also thinking of my own mortality. In the God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy called 31 a viable, dieable age. If that’s true, then 43 must be even more viable and dieable. I’ve reached a point in life where it isn’t unheard of for someone my age to die.

I was sad for her, for her life that had been cut short, and sad for her husband, her parents, and her boys. But mostly I found myself grieving a time in my life that exists only in memory. There are now fewer than a handful of people that really knew me when I was young. When they’re gone, then that boy will not have existed at all.

I packed my things into cardboard boxes. My condo closed early, and in mid-April, I moved into my new place. Things were so hectic that there were days I didn’t think of her at all. Then suddenly, while unpacking glasses, or struggling to hang curtains, I’d remember she was gone and feel guilty that I’d been happy.

Weeks later, I’m mostly settled into my new place. Sometimes I just stand in the middle of my living room, marveling that this place is mine. I never thought I’d be able to afford a place in this neighborhood and this city. Teenage me had dreamed of owning an apartment in a city, but the adult me who’d spent years struggling just to make ends meet had never really thought that it could happen. I remember sharing that dream with her, back in the days when anything seemed possible, and things like death, and middle-age were as far removed as the stars in a small town, Texas sky.

 

De-Voted

We counted seven deer grazing in a field in front of the airport. My mom came by herself to pick me up. Me in the front seat in jeans and a black hoodie, a pair of oversized headphones wrapped around my neck since they wouldn’t fit in my overstuffed bag.

“Texas is so ugly,” a woman behind me had said as the plane from Seattle landed in Dallas. There was no denying the ugly, flat brown expanse of it. I felt strangely defensive anyway. It may be big, and flat, and ugly, but it’s still home.

The flight from Dallas to College Station was mostly taking off and landing. We were only in the air for about thirty minutes. A handsome man had sat beside me reading a novel in some nordic language I didn’t recognize. Danish or Norwegian maybe. His long legs were folded up like origami, and he smelled like heaven. I sat for thirty minutes, achingly aware of his blue jeaned knees brushing against my own shorter ones. I’m always thankful for my stature when I fly.

The plane touched ground and he turned on a cell phone whose home screen was a summer photo of a pretty woman with a brown ponytail. Just as well. I looked for my mom in the parking lot, and couldn’t find her, so I texted her to honk.

Minutes later I was in her little black car, and we were driving past brown deer, nibbling, unconcerned, on brown, dead grass. It’s probably lucky for the deer that my dad was working, otherwise they might have ended up strapped over the roof of my mom’s car to later have their heads mounted on the wall of my old bedroom. There were precedents.

In my parents’ house I settled into my childhood bedroom, now occupied by my father’s hunting trophies, and the overflow of my mother’s closet. My father was working in West Texas so it was just my mother and I. We spent the days driving to College Station to shop and have lunch at chain restaurants I’d never have eaten at in Seattle, and evenings curled up on our respective couches in fleece blankets watching television.

“I wish A Christmas Carol would come on,” my mother said. “Or the Grinch. The old one.” Instead we mostly watched reality shows about people living in the Alaskan wilderness which has become my mother’s new obsession.

“I’d like to live off the grid like that.” She said. “Except with electricity and running water. And a grocery store nearby.”

“So exactly the way you’re living now?” I asked.

“Away from people.” She clarified.

When we weren’t watching people surviving the brutal winters in Alaska, we watched British mystery shows on PBS.

“Get off your phone!” My mother felt compelled to yell at me periodically.

I’d put my phone down momentarily and then pick it up again. Scrolling through profiles on a gay hook up app had become a compulsion. Interchangeable bearded men with muscular torsos with poorly written blurbs about what they’re looking for.

I’m just as guilty. My own profile pic is a filtered version of me with bulging muscles, chest hair damp with sweat after a recent workout, thick beard and baseball cap. A version of me that exists only in pictures. A profile that makes hairless twenty three year olds message me, “Hello Sir.”

But I’ve found that if I post a pic with a shirt on, I get no messages, and I am, above all else, an attention whore.

In actuality, I haven’t had sex, or even a date since June. I scroll through profiles hoping to stumble across a handsome man around my age who enjoys reading and quiet evenings at home with Netflix. But, as time passes, it becomes more and more difficult to even imagine a man who could possess all the qualities of someone that I’d look for in a potential mate. And, as time passes, I become less and less certain that a mate is something that I want in my life.

I spent the nights in my old bedroom, on a twin bed that felt like it was slanting to one side. The first few nights I was getting over a cold, so I took cold medicine that ordinarily would knock me out, but that instead had the opposite effect. I lay in bed, unable to sleep, my mind racing, imagining various endings of my supposed novel, of super powers, apocalypses, kinky sex, and sweet, romantic sex, and of a person who I could wrap my arms around and drift to sleep.

In November I participated in National Novel Writing Month. For that month I was dutiful and disciplined. I wrote every day, and managed the 50,000 word count with time to spare. Then the month ended, and I stopped writing again.

On November 16th, my grandmother died. She was 93. She’d raised 11 children of which my mother was the middle child. Five boys in a row, then six girls. She’d been sweet and vague. A kitchen presence that made fried potatoes and banana pudding. A collector of nic nacs. Of family photographs. Then she’d become cranky and forgetful. Then she’d spent years deteriorating until  she no longer remembered where she was, or who she was.

My mother and aunts had given up years of their lives taking care of her around the clock. She died at home, surrounded by family. The funeral was officiated by a man from my graduating class in high school. We’d grown up together, though had never been friends. He was a jock, most famous for having a large penis that I regretfully never saw. Of keggers and cocaine. At some point he’d become born again, and now is a youth pastor. His discovery of Jesus only made him more insufferable in my eyes, not less.

“He did a good job.” My mother told me over the phone. I didn’t fly home for the funeral.

One afternoon on my trip home my mother and I visited my grandmother’s grave. The cemetery was down a long, muddy, one-lane dirt road. It didn’t really hit me that my grandmother was really gone until I saw her grave. The fresh mound of loose earth. The headstone, already purchased years before when my grandfather passed, now with the date of her death filled in. So granite and finite.

My mother picked up a little Christmas tree the wind had blown over that was placed between my  grandparents’ graves. Red and gold ornaments glinted through fallen leaves. I picked through them and handed them to my mother. My mother staked down the tree so it wouldn’t blow over again, rearranged the fake poinsettias that someone else had left to her liking.

Nearby my uncle Bud’s tombstone had a cowboy hat on it. I wondered if I’ll have a grave, and what will they use to memorialize me? An iPhone. A muscled torso. A Lego. A book?

That Thursday my Father came home. Everything shifted to accommodate him. He watched old John Wayne movies in the living room, the TV blaring since he’s going deaf. My mother and I watched Poirot in her bedroom.

“Get off your phone!” She said.

We celebrated Christmas the Friday before. My job wouldn’t approve me to be off during the week of Christmas, so I had to go home a week early. The holiday wasn’t the same with my grandmother gone anyway. We’d always spent Christmas Eve at her house, filled to capacity with my aunts and uncles, my cousins and their children. Now the family splintered. My aunts all have grandchildren of their own.

I feel guilty for not having been the son my parents wanted. For not giving them a daughter in- law to complain about and grandchildren to dote on.

It’s just my mom, dad, and I opening presents in front of a tiny, artificial tree that my mother decorated alone. My mother opened the gift from me, a bracelet of gold hearts that she picked out and purchased herself. My father got shirts and accessories for his new, decked-out pick up truck. My mother gave me money and gift cards. My father gave us all scratch-off lottery tickets. I tell him I’d rather have the money that he’d spent on them.

We sat in the kitchen scratching off our lottery tickets. I won $5. I asked my dad how much he spends on lottery tickets every week, but he wouldn’t say.

“Stop squandering my inheritance, old man!” I told him.

I wonder what he would do if he won big. They already own their house and vehicles outright. He already refuses to retire because he doesn’t know what to do with himself. I wonder, but don’t ask him what his dream is. At this point in our relationship, a natural conversation seems impossible.

Over breakfast my dad asked if my clients at work are all black.

I was completely confused by the question, since I work at a cancer center, until my mom clarified. “He thinks you still work for the welfare office.”

I yelled at my dad for being racist. Then I yelled at him again for voting for Trump. “Republicans want to get rid of Medicare and Social Security. What are you going to do?” I asked.

“I am a lifelong democrat.” My dad said. “I just didn’t like Hillary Clinton.”

I was actually speechless.

The truth is…I voted for the first time at the age of 42.

When I was younger I wasn’t interested in politics. I thought it was one, rich white man who didn’t represent me or my values going against some other rich, old white man. Seeing the intelligent and capable Al Gore win the popular election, only to have the Supreme Court stop the recount in a very close race in a state governed by his competitor’s brother just made me believe that it was all fixed. Voting was pointless. The victor was predetermined by the powers that be, and choice was an illusion. I was apathetic.

When Obama ran the first time around I actually intended to vote. I filled out my mail-in ballot, but I accidentally circled in the wrong response on one of the local initiatives, so I didn’t want to send it in. When Hillary ran against Trump, I wanted to vote, but I was registered in Illinois, and we were living with C’s parents in California at the time of the election.

So finally, in middle age, I became engaged, and for the first time became actively involved in my governance. I still feel unrepresented, unvoiced, and apathetic. But, until we take to the streets in open revolt, it seems that voting is my only real recourse, so…I’ve become a voter.

My mother made Christmas dinner for the three of us. We sat around the kitchen table, which is metallic rimmed in the style of a 50s diner.

I scooped up cornbread dressing and deviled eggs with a giant roll. My mother collects 50s, red plastic kitsch, and has recently begun to amass a disturbing number of “mammy” figurines.

“Please stop buying these racist things.” I asked her.

“They aren’t racist!” My mother said. “They’re collectibles.”

She went on to tell me that she’s going to start taking pictures of all of her collected items with prices indicating how much they’re worth so I can sell them after she dies. “If your daddy shacks up with some floozy after I die,” she says, “Don’t let her get her hands on my chickens.”

On Saturday they both drove me to the airport.

I hugged them both goodbye. “You don’t have to go,” my mother said, holding back tears. “You can stay here.”

I feel guilty for wanting so badly to get back to Seattle, to my own tiny apartment, my own bed, my friends and my life.

On the flight from Dallas to Seattle I was dismayed to find myself sitting beside a chatty, young member of the armed services. He was in the Air Force, and noticed me playing my Switch. We talked about video games and discovered that we share a favorite game in Skyrim.

“Back at the base I play it on Oculus Rift.” He says. “I’m usually the only one in the officer’s lounge. Everyone old enough to drink goes off base, and everyone else is too young, so I have the video games all to myself.”

He talked to me at length about astro physics while I occasionally said, “that’s really interesting,” or “I didn’t know that.” Ordinarily I’d put on my headphones to discourage conversation, but his loneliness was palpable, and I didn’t have the heart to ignore him.

As we left the plane, I wished him a safe trip back to Alaska.

On Christmas Day, two of my faggles and I had Chinese food for lunch in the International District. The first restaurant that we went to was so crowded that we decided to find another, less popular place to ignore the birth of the baby Jesus. The place we ended up didn’t seem very busy, but an hour and thirty minutes after we arrived, we still hadn’t gotten our food. Brian ended up going back to his car and getting some cookies another friend had given him for us to snack on until our food finally arrived.

Despite terrible service, a ridiculously long wait for food, and finally being overcharged when the bill arrived, it was wonderful to be able to spend Christmas Day not with my biological family, but with the family of my choosing. The rag-tag bunch of misfits with whom I can actually be myself. We talk, and laugh at the ridiculousness of our surroundings. With them beside me I look forward to the year ahead. To love, and laughter, brunches and Bloody Marys.

My family will always be complicated, my love life may always be feast or famine, but my friends can always be counted on to love me for me. And to them, I remain hopelessly and happily devoted. Although if Sassy Bear ever reads this, I deny everything, you filthy whore!

Super-Connected

superstarYesterday I received a friend request from a friend of mine who died three years ago. It was unsettling. A few weeks ago I was whittling down my friend list to include only people that I actually care about, or people that I find entertaining in some way. When I came across her profile, I thought it was time to un-friend her.

I don’t know what the etiquette is, in these strange times when everyone has a presence on social media. Do you remain “friends” with the deceased forever, or do you let them go? She and I weren’t besties. She was a person who I used to know, who belonged to a group of people who spent time together. And then she moved to Detroit. And then she died. And then three years later I un-friended her.

And now there’s a new request in my inbox telling me she wants to be my friend.

I can only assume that she faked her own death. She’s been living in Aruba, drinking exotic drinks from coconuts with little paper umbrellas. I’d like to imagine her lying on a beach somewhere, and not cancer-riddled, decomposing underground.

I’m guessing the reality is, that whoever maintains her page, somehow noticed my absence and invited me back into the fold. Is the number of friends that we have on Facebook still important, even after we die?

After work, I met up with a former co-worker who was in town for a conference. We hadn’t seen one another in 15 years. He looked exactly the same, and I felt shabby, bald, and chubby by comparison. He had access to the Executive Lounge, so we sat across from one another catching up with complimentary finger foods, he in his suit and tie, and me in an embarrassed sweater.

After we both got fired from our former job back in 2001, he went back to school and got his doctorate while I wandered aimlessly from city to city. We asked one another if the other still remembered so and so, but neither of us remembered any of the same people. Still, it was nice to spend a couple of hours reconnecting.

He and I had never been friends outside of work, and if it weren’t for Facebook, we wouldn’t have stayed in touch, and we wouldn’t have found ourselves 15 years later, sitting in a hotel in Chicago, talking about the horrors of the presidential primaries, racism, and Postmodern Jukebox.

We hugged goodbye as he left to go see the Keynote Speaker, and I walked through the snow to catch my train back home. I was struck by how beautiful the city is at night, the ornate buildings near the Magnificent Mile lit up against the black backdrop of sky.

He is an awesome guy, and, under other circumstances, we could probably have been good friends. But as it was, we were two people who used to work together, who are still connected by the tenuous tether of the internet. I can’t help but think that all this connectedness is unnatural.

The train is still crowded, long past rush hour. I stand as the commuting zombies sit in overstuffed coats and scarves, gazing, hypnotized into their tablets and their phones. When I see someone holding an actual book, I immediately warm to them, even if the book in question is a terrible pulp novel. Especially if the book is a terrible pulp novel.

At home C is sitting on the couch with a close-captioned Futurama re-run in the background, his face blue lit by the rectangular screen of his laptop. He has this guilty expression that I’ve come recognize all too well.

“What have you done?” I ask.

“How can you tell?” He no longer bothers trying to deny it when I’ve caught him up to something.

He’d been doing research online and has changed his mind, again, on where we’re going to move next. This time I’m on board, though he’s sworn me to secrecy regarding our prospective plan. We never seem to stay in one place long enough to really connect to it.

Another city. Another set of ghosts to haunt. Of memories typed into an electronic page to try to make our lives seem somehow better than they are. The past is never out of sight and out of mind, because it’s always Throw Back Thursday, and the older you get, the more dead friends you collect.

C sticks his head inside the door.

“Are you busy?” He asks.

“No.” I say. I’m never too busy for him. He keeps me in the present, always pointing forward.We never dwell on the past, just focus on the future that we want to make together.

So when my friend who died asks to re-friend me, I do not accept the request.