“Why can’t I find a girlfriend?” her brother asks
plaintively. “Because you’ve either done them, or you don’t want to,” she
answers, opening her email. She figures it’s okay to
have personal calls at work as long as she’s working at the same
time. She has a talent for typing one thing while talking about another.
Sometimes she wonders if that makes her psychotic. Memories of her bi-polar
mother flit across her mind. I sure hope the
crazy gene doesn’t catch me, she thinks, saying “Want me to fix you up with someone?”
The thing is, you kind of have to have people set you up
when you live in the country. As his sister so elegantly put it, you've
either done them or don’t want to. The available pool of girls has pretty much
dried up. Most of his friends have
imported their girlfriends or wives from the city, like hunters venturing on
safari to bag an exotic species. When he’s in the city, though, the beautiful girls all seem conceited and unapproachable. Maybe you just can’t
look that good without knowing it. Maybe the knowledge is personality poison.
He had a girlfriend for a couple of years. They lived in his drafty wooden shack, lit fires in the winter, gardened in the summer. They went
camping, winter and summer, even though his sister said that the way he lived
was already like camping. She never got used to the composting outhouse or the
outdoor shower. She claimed that most girls would find the sanitary
arrangements a deal-breaker, though he pointed out that his girlfriend could
handle it. “We’ll see,” his sister said annoyingly. She turned out to be right.
The girlfriend ultimately moved to New York.
Then there was the casual friend-with-benefits.
That went on for years, sometimes to the detriment of other relationships.
“I don’t see why I can’t leave Friend's kid with my girlfriend
– if I had a girlfriend – and go camping with Friend,” he said.
“That’s why you don’t have a girlfriend, “she said, trying
not to laugh.
“I don’t see what the problem is,” he protested.
“The problem is asking your girlfriend to take care of another woman's kid while you screw her in the woods. That’s the problem,” his sister replied, exasperated.
Eventually the friend with benefits faded away. She decided she was gay and her new girlfriend, not
surprisingly, did not enjoy her new girlfriend spending time with an old
boyfriend. The old boyfriend, of
course, found this unenlightened and unnecessary, complaining to his sister
about how possessive and unreasonable women were. Where was the trust? Where was the love? Can’t we all get
along? His sister couldn’t believe how naïve he was sometimes. Could he really
be only three years younger than she was? And could he really have learned so
little in twenty years of dating?
“If I wanted to get married, he said, “I’d just go with that
person to the desert and stay there until we felt married. No dress, no
“Again, I have to say that finding a willing participant is
going to be a challenge.”
“Anything good is a challenge.”
“There’s challenging, and then there’s challenged.”
“Not every girl wants a big, poufy dress, you know.”
“Maybe not, but most of us want our friends
and family at our wedding. It’s kind of the point of the whole thing.”
“They’d be there in spirit.”
“Wow. What’s with the beard?’ she asked. She was visibly
He said, “Well, I’m so baby-faced. It makes me look older. Anyway, it’s a goatee.”
“Didn’t you get offended when someone said you looked
“Well, yeah, but everyone’s always
telling me I’m baby-faced.”
“A weather-beaten baby,” she laughed.
“You’re really not funny, you know. Did anyone ever tell you
She considered his ruddy face, blazing blue eyes, and blonde
“You know what?” she exclaimed. “You look just like Hulk Hogan!”
“You are such a
She flopped down on his bed. “Oh my GOD!” she yelled.
“What? What? What do mean, 'What'? What’s with the rock bed, dude?”
His bed had absolutely no give to it. She thought her spine
would shoot out through the top of her head.
“If you had a broken back, you’d have a hard bed, too.”
“Not this hard.”
“I need it that way. Sit somewhere else if you don’t like
“Well, if you ever get arrested, the bed in the cell will
seem just like home.”
“I can tell you from personal experience that jail beds are
less comfortable than my bed. At least I have a featherbed. There are no
featherbeds in jail.”
“What were you doing in jail?” she asked, petting her
brother’s ancient, almost toothless cat, a retired killer turned cuddle bug.
“Waiting to get out,” he laughed.
“Ha ha,” she said. “Seriously.”
“Remember when Rob and I stole that car when we were
“Well, we did. And Dad let me spend the night in jail. He
thought I’d learn something.”
“Yeah. Don’t get caught.”
“How did you break your back?” she asked, opening a bottle
“Fell off a mast,” he replied, turning on the radio and
taking out the chopping board. He had one for garlic and onions, and one for
"You fell off a mast?”
“Yeah, when I was working at Hyde Street Pier. The funny
thing is, I couldn’t find anyone to cover for me, so I just kept working. Later,
they told me at the hospital that if I’d gone to bed I would have been
paralyzed. Pass me the garlic, wouldja?”
“Don’t you remember I kind of walked funny at your wedding?”
She reflected, going through a mental
“Not really. But I had other things on my mind.”
“I bet. I went to see a doctor while I was there and he said
the same thing.” He paused, looking suspiciously at the jar in her hand. “Is
“No.” He stopped stirring to look at her. “OK,
yes. Yes, it is mustard. Call the police.”
“I’ll call the food police.”
“It’s only a bit. You won’t even taste it.”
“It’s amazing how picky we are about food,” she mused over
“It’s true,” he agreed, pouring wine into their glasses.
“You won’t eat beef or pork.”
“You won’t eat mustard or mayonnaise, you freak. What do you
put on sandwiches, anyway?”
He ignored her question, saying, “Well, at least we agree
that dairy products, other than cheese and ice cream, are totally gross.”
She nodded. “Also, fungus.”
They both shudder at the thought of mushrooms.
“I’ve always thought mozzarella was the vanilla ice cream of cheese,” she said.
“I mean, what’s the point?”
Sometimes she wondered if their adult eating habits were
cause or effect.
They’d had to eat everything on their plates. Even when the
plates contained something repellent, like Brussels sprouts.
Her way of dealing with the nightly horror of drinking milk
was to hold her breath, swallow it as fast as possible, and then eat something
immediately to remove the milk slime from her tongue.
This backfired once, when the milk had turned and she was
halfway finished drinking it before she noticed. She swore she’d never drink milk again once she grew up. And she
After dinner, they sat in the hot tub he’d made from a huge
old wine barrel and listened to an old radio play starring Vincent Price.
The sky was bright with stars, so many more than she could see at home in the city.
“There's millions of stars!” she sighed extravagantly.
Vincent Price was being trapped in a lighthouse by a horde
“There’s the same amount as there are in the city. You just
can’t see them there because of the light pollution.”
“I wouldn’t want to be Vincent Price in about ten minutes.”
“I really wish you had a bathroom,” she sighed, putting
on his rubber boots and wrapping herself in a sweater. “I hate peeing in the
woods, especially in the middle of the night.
You need a flashlight, there’s always some creepy noise, and then I always end up peeing on my feet.”
“You have to work on your technique,” he laughed.
“Easy for you to say. When you’re a boy, the world is your
toilet. If not your oyster.”
“Well, girls get boobs. It’s a fair trade-off.”
“I’m so glad I’m wearing your boots.”
When he and his girlfriend were fighting often, he promised to add
a bathroom to the shack. He roughed in the floor and had even bought the
plumbing supplies when she said she was moving out. Not only moving out, but moving
across the country. It was like she was making a point of moving as far away as
possible while still remaining in the United States. She refused to reconsider,
even when he showed her the plumbing supplies. Which still remain, rusting in the grass, under the platform of
the bathroom that never was. Forgotten by everyone but me.
It’s never as simple as plumbing, is it? Or the desire to
live in a city of eight million people instead of an isolated burg of three
hundred? You always think you’ll know the moment your relationship goes
sour, becomes irretrievably broken. Or at least that you’ll hear the creaking
or feel the bruise. Instead, you look back from the shambles you’re currently
living in and try to pinpoint that place where it all went wrong. But
you never can. At least thinking about the past stops you from thinking about
the future. If there is one.
“Why don’t you and Husband come up for Christmas? Get away
from the city, cut down a tree? I made some cider this year.”
She shifts nervously next to him in the car. She notices all
over again how dark it is in the country at night.
“Well…we’re – we’re breaking up.” Her voice catches in her
throat and she looks out the widow.
“Oh, man,” he says, putting his arm around her, drawing her
close. He doesn’t say another word, and she keeps her head on his shoulder for
the rest of the long drive.
She spends the next month with him, helping with their difficult, aging mother who is battling cancer in her own way. This
includes eating nothing but candy and ice cream, and insisting on treatments
while denying that she’s sick. A nurse refused to perform chemo on their
mother, who was in such a fragile state, and was almost fired.
They go to the hospital to sort out the drama. Every time
they enter the hospital, her stomach clenches at the smell, a combination of
stale cafeteria food, disinfectant, and fear. She doesn't think she'll ever get used to it.
All those Lifetime TV movies are wrong.
The terminally ill do not become noble and self-sacrificing. They become more
demanding and querulous. Yet another disappointment of adult life.
Their mother complains they don’t visit her enough,
even though one of them is there every day. Some people, her brother points
out, don’t have any visitors at all. Their mother is superbly uninterested in
this, her only concern being herself. Some things never change.
“Don’t leave when I fall asleep,” she orders. “I hate waking
up to an empty room.”
So they take turns watching her sleep.
Their mother has beaten the odds. She’s been fighting cancer for seven years now. One of the many things that are
dfferent in real life than they are in the movies is that doctors don’t say
“You have six months to live.” They don’t give you any idea how long a patient
has. You just have to wait and see.
For the past three years, their mother has lived with her
brother in his tiny house. He has weathered this better than most.
Sometimes she feels guilty. But mostly, she feels relief.
She can never tell anyone.
At least three times, their mother has been pronounced to be
on death’s doorstep. She bounced back, and each time, it is called
It’s surprising how much doctors don’t know or won’t tell.
Two weeks before her death, she insists on having chemo.
“I’m a cheerleader for my patients!” says the oncologist. They stare at her in
Their mother refuses to admit she’s dying, but she has
animated conversations with her parents, who died thirty years earlier. It’s
surreal to watch her carrying on these one-sided conversations, animated and
They are both there when the end comes, on a bright August
It’s not as dramatic as they expected. Nothing about this
long, painful process has been the way they expected. So they should have
There’s no Victorian death rattle, no last words, no
significant glances or gestures as she literally passes away. Her last breath
is as unremarkable as the breaths before it. They only realize she’s gone after
a few minutes.
They gaze at their mother, so small in the hospital bed. Her
deep eye sockets are more pronounced than ever. Gone.
Their mother’s death, they find, is easier to bear than
their father’s had been, two years earlier.
Their mother’s death had been a long journey, their father’s
a sudden shock. Their mother had abdicated most of the parenting to their
father when they were babies. Losing him sent their world out of orbit. Losing
their mother was almost a relief. They were glad that the suffering was over. Her capacity for enduring pain was astonishing.
She wondered if her mother could have been saved if
she had just admitted to the pain earlier, gotten help sooner.
The call came early in the morning. No good news is
delivered at 6 am, and from that time onward, whenever the phone rang late at
night or early in the morning, she steeled herself for disaster.
She hung up in shock, remembering how her father had slowly
slid to his knees as he received the call telling him of his own father’s
It was the first time in her life she had ever seen him cry.
Now she had to tell her brother that their father was dead.
She thought, “Let him
sleep.” It was her gift.
It was time to go.
She picked up her bags and walked down the stairs to the
waiting taxi. It was so early in the morning that it was still as dark as
As the cab drove through the dark city, she marveled at its
beauty, as she always did. No matter how long she lived there, its beauty always took her breath away. Even at a time like this.
Jet-lagged and shell-shocked, they go to get coffee.
Anything to get them out of their father’s house. Their stepmother is
As they walk toward the village, familiar to her and
unfamiliar to him, who rarely visited, her brother looks around.
As they wait to cross the street, he observes, “You know,
there no good-looking girls around here.”
She can’t help laughing.
“Yes, well, you’re spoiled by California girls,” she
“They don’t write songs about ‘em for nothing.”
“I think Princess Diana and Kate Winslet are about as good
as England gets.”
Back home, things are not normal. She thought that when she
got home, everything would be all right. Instead, she wakes up every day and
remembers all over again. The grief almost suffocates her. She’s like a zombie.
“I got halfway to work and had no memory at all of getting
there,” she tells her brother.
“I had the same thing when I drove to the store yesterday. I
couldn’t remember what I wanted, so I just went home again. I don’t think I
“It’s never going to be better, is it?”
He shows her the site of last summer’s wildfires. She is
appalled to see how high the flames had been.
“Sixty feet high,” says her brother, pointing. “A wall of
Walking down the road, he points to another spot. “Here’s
where we had to wrap ourselves in mylar blankets when the flames rolled right
over us,” he says.
Tears spring to her eyes, imagining his peril.
“The fire was only about a quarter mile from my house,” he
adds. “I was ready to evacuate.”
She throws her arms around him, in tears.
“What? Everything turned out okay."
As a volunteer fire fighter and EMS worker, he’s seen his
share of horrifying car wrecks and other disasters. Once, he opened a car door
and blood poured out. He pried a man out of a logging truck which had plunged
100 feet off a bridge, and the man survived. He’s rescued people from cliffs
and the merciless ocean. Whenever he gets together with his fellow
emergency workers, they swap stories like this which horrify civilians like
her. But one thing they all agree on: suicide scenes have a certain feeling
that no other does. They always know.
Their lives have taken different roads, but the road
has come full circle. She married, went to college, bought an apartment, had a
good job, lived in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. He did none
of those things, preferring a simpler life, off the grid and independent. Not
many Americans could live the way he does, with no TV, power from solar panels,
an outhouse, and water from a well he dug with his own hands. She now lives
less than a quarter mile away. They may be different, but they’ll always have