blackbirdonline journalSpring 2022  Vol. 21  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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from You Are Here: A Memoir of Arrival
installment 8

Since Wesley Gibson’s death in December 2016, Blackbird has contemplated ways to ensure his literary voice maintains a presence in the world. With that end in mind, we are in the process of reproducing his book, You Are Here: A Memoir of Arrival, which was published in 2004 by Back Bay Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. Hailed at the time by Mary Gaitskill as “dark and sparkling, wonderfully intelligent, flip, and deeply felt,” You Are Here provides an excellent vehicle for honoring Gibson’s many strengths as a writer and his generosity of spirit as a friend. All excerpts appear with the permission of his family and publisher. Please visit our You Are Here table of contents for previous installments across multiple issues. Additional excerpts will be serialized in forthcoming issues.
   —Blackbird editors

On Wednesday, when I got home from work, Becky was already asleep on the foldout couch. I crept past her into the kitchen for my usual post-Telesessions nightcap. From Alan’s room, the underwater murmur of people fucking but trying to keep it quiet. This was no time for manners. I rapped on the slats of his folding door. He went, “Hmmmm?” his voice still stuck in the honey of his fucking.

“Alan,” I whispered, harshly, “it’s Wesley. We need to talk.”


“We need to talk. Now.”

A disgruntled “Uhhhmmm.”

The groan of somebody pulling out and not being very happy about it. Some moaning talking smooching. Then the door rattled open and Alan was standing there in a towel and his mangled hair. His body was everything it had promised to be, and I felt like breaking the vodka bottle over my head for being aroused by the sight of him at that wretched moment. What kind of a low-life pervert was I?

There was no point in messing around. “John’s dying.”

“I, uh, know. I talked to his, sister.” He was still struggling to the surface.

“What are we going to do?”

“What do you mean?”

“About the apartment.”

That slapped him awake. “Man, I don’t know. I really don’t know. I, I, I can’t fucking think about this.”

“Look. A couple of my friends, mercenary types, real killers, said maybe we could get the apartment ourselves.” In the mirror, I was still recognizably human; but the icy and amphibious blood of a New Yorker trying to survive was beginning to course through my veins.

“OK. OK. Uh. I met this lawyer a few weeks ago. I think I still got his card around here somewhere. Maybe I could call him.”

“Do it.”

“OK. I’ll . . . do it tomorrow.”

I slithered past Becky in the dark. A box of moonlight made a picture of her from the shoulders up. Her nightgown, pink and lacy, was scalloped across the freckled milk of her bosom like wedding-cake frosting. Her mouth was half-open in a frown and her brow was furrowed. In sleep, all the bluster was gone. She looked sad and bewildered.

Calling Jo Ann had become a nightly event, and I saw no reason to stop now.

“Hello?” Jo Ann said sharply.

“Are you all right?”

“Oh, it’s just Sheba.” Sheba was Jo Ann’s sixteen-year-old collie. They had this endless conversation going in which Jo Ann said Sheba’s name a lot in various tones while Sheba responded with sorrowful stares, hopeful wags of her tail, and the occasional excited yip. It was more than the usual pet/owner thing. It was more like two sisters who’d been rattling around the same house in bed slippers for a very long time.

“Me and Alan are looking into getting the apartment.”


“You mean creepy.”

“No, I mean weird. Creepy is when you’re sprinkling rat poison in their scrambled eggs so you can get the apartment. You’re not doing that, are you?”

“I’m not that far gone yet. Besides, wouldn’t rat poison turn up in the autopsy?”

“It always does in the true-crime books, but then I guess people who get away with it aren’t exactly crowing about it in some bestseller.”

“You just wait.”


As it turned out, I didn’t have to worry about the ethics of getting John to put me on the lease. On Thursday, as I was leaving for work, he barreled into the apartment, Becky on his heels. He was choking. She looked utterly grim and was shaking her head. They flew past me into his bedroom, where I could hear him retching. I felt like I’d just watched a train derail.

Alan had talked to his lawyer/trick. Yes, it was possible that we could get our names on the lease; but then we might also be liable for certain debts. No fucking way, Alan had said. He’d just gotten out from under all that shit. When I asked him what he was going to do, he sighed miserably and said, “I don’t know.”

Neither did I, but I did call the Gay Roommating Service. As it turned out, my hundred or so bucks had bought me the right to their list for six months. I waited to feel some small measure of relief. It never showed up.

By Friday afternoon I had an appointment to look at the apartment of some guy I’m going to call Joe because I remember thinking at the time that it sounded like the nice, normal name of someone who wouldn’t die after a few months while their picture of Jesus bled oils at you. Then again, there was John’s name, and where had that gotten me?

Joe’s room in his apartment wasn’t exactly a deal. Seven-fifty a month. But you didn’t have to pay utilities, so there was that. The price was about what every other room was going for. I was attracted to it because it was downtown, around Seventeenth and Third, where most of my life took place. My favorite bar was easily within late-night impulse range. It felt like a neighborhood. It didn’t have the frenzied, moneyed feel of the Upper East Side; and it also didn’t look like you’d have your throat slit if you had to run to the deli for a pack of smokes at 3:00 in the morning. I allowed myself a twinge of hope.

The building had been built in the sixties and had these odd glass columns in the foyer, lit from within, with plastic gemstones the size of brains stuck to them. Sort of czarist/Fred Flintstone. I knew they’d make me happy every time I saw them. The halls and elevator were spotlessly clean and flawlessly quiet. Maybe after I’d been there for a year I could find my own place on another floor. A joint this big had to have turnover. When Joe opened the door I was imagining a woman playing the harp in the corner of my studio apartment near a vase of fresh orchids while Fran Leibowitz and I traded quips.

He was a pear-shaped guy, about my age, with wavy, shoulder-length black hair, wisped gray. You could still make out the faded letters of a technological company on his T-shirt.

“Oh,” he said, tugging at his jeans, “hi.”

“Hi,” I said in my best supersalesman’s voice, shoving out my hand. He shook it, kind of.

“Come in,” he said sadly, like he was inviting in a terminal illness.

Down the centimeter of a foyer. To the left, a kitchenette so new it looked like it had just come from the loading dock. The living room was a couch, a coffee table, a TV, and a double bed with a Japanese screen in front of it. There was no floor to speak of. Or there were these trickles of floor. A person from a two-dimensional world would have been perfectly happy living there. I will never know how Joe, who was far from flat, managed it. He sat, with a sigh, on the edge of the bed.

Oh, yeah. I forgot. On every available surface were G.I. Joe-like dolls in every conceivable form of dress, like his own private “It’s a Small World after All.” Except in this small world everyone had a giant, erect cock sculpted to the sexless place that is usually a doll’s naughty bits. I’m guessing there were about three hundred of them, but it would have been like guessing jelly beans in a glass jar.

“So, tell me about yourself,” he said with a complete lack of interest.

Trying to ignore the three hundred or so doll dicks pointing at me, I went into my spiel. Quiet as a church mouse. Neat as a pin. Like a Muhammad Ali poem. He didn’t care if I smoked. We’d covered that on the phone. I loved to cook. Didn’t mind sharing. I had this wonderful new teaching job that paid a fortune. Given the cramped quarters, I threw in that I was never there, a bonus prize, like something you’d get with the cereal. To hear me tell it I was so busy I had to check my planner to see when it was time to take the next breath. He could sue me later when he found out I never left my room.

“OK,” he said, at 78 rpm.

Then, nothing, long enough for me to get nervous and say, nodding my head toward the nearest prick, “These are interesting.”

The mention of his obsession did not brighten him up. “I special-order them from a woman who makes them in San Francisco. They’re about three hundred dollars a piece.”

Some quick math told me that that came to about a hundred grand. “They’re neat,” I lied.

“This is my room. I guess you want to see yours.”

“That would be great.”

He stood up with all the energy and cheer of an anvil. OK. So he slept in the living room. So he made most installation artists look like rank amateurs. So the apartment was the size of a coffin. So he wasn’t exactly a comedy club. It was at least one evolutionary step up from a cardboard box in Central Park. It wasn’t John’s and that made it seem like the Dakota.

That is, until we squeezed ourselves into my room. There was a single mattress on the floor, dresser for a headboard. At least a hundred black-and-white photos, expensively framed and lit like Hurrell—museum-quality printing—covered the walls like ivy from a fairy tale. I guess you’d call them high-end porn, things like some naked guy, armored in muscles, gazing sensitively off stage left as he sat on a large rock in the middle of a river.

“I’d need to keep the chest of drawers in here,” he said.

“Well, I do have a couple of things I’d like to move in. And these pictures. Uh, what about them?”

“What do you mean? It’s my collection.”

“So I’d get to keep them up?” I said, trying for the best possible spin.

He nodded. I had another look around. Given my insomnia, a tiny bunny in the middle of a nighttime forest surrounded by hundreds of lamp-lit and predatory feline eyes would have a better chance of sleep. “Have you ever thought about storage?”

“No,” he said, like what kind of a philistine was I?

“I was just thinking they might keep better.”

He scratched his head. “Uh, look, this probably isn’t going to work out.”

“Why not?” I said, my voice glittering with panic and forced gaiety. OK, I didn’t want to live in this smut shop either, but if I couldn’t convince this weirdo that I was a desirable roommate, I had this sudden elevator-drop feeling in my stomach that I’d be sleeping with the pigeons.

“I don’t know. It’s just a feeling I have.”

“Talk to me here. Maybe you’ve gotten the wrong impression about me.”

He shook his head no with a grim little smile and gestured, palm up, toward the bedroom door, the universal sign for this is the way out, bub.

“You know,” I said, “I think you should keep me in mind, just in case. I mean that’s just common sense.”

“There are already a couple of guys ahead of you. Really cute guys.”

“You know, I think I could be very attractive if I lost ten pounds, did something with my hair, got a tattoo.” Nothing. Just the caveman back of his neck leading me down the hall. “That was a joke.”

“Hmmm . . . That was the bathroom,” he said as we passed it.

“Maybe I should have a look at that.”

“Nah. What for?”

He opened the front door and stood there, sentry.

“So what is it?” I asked.


“Why don’t you want me to move in here?”

“It’s nothing personal.”

“When somebody says that, it’s always personal. It’s like the old relationship conversation, it’s-not-you-it’s-me. Except it is them.”

“Hey, look, we’re never going to see each other again.”

“But if you tell me what it is, it might help me with the next place.”

“I don’t know what it is. It’s just a feeling.”

“What kind of a feeling?”

“You’re not . . . I don’t know, gay enough.”


“I mean, you’re gay, but the guy who rents the room now, he gets fistfucked. It’s like, I understand that.”


“You know what I mean?”


“Look, I’m a normal gay guy and it’s really important that I be around somebody who’s . . . gay. You seem, you just seem like you’d be happier living with somebody else.”

“Like who?”

“Somebody different. I’m HIV and, I don’t know, I think your energy would really bring me down. I have to be really careful about that. I’ve already been sick once.”

“Oh.” This conversation was just getting worse and worse. Now I wasn’t just an undesirable tenant but a potential threat to his immune system. And yet I thought I understood, in some vague cove of my mind, what he meant about me. I was . . . different. I wasn’t queer in the right way. I wasn’t queer as in dance beats and back rooms and workouts. Alan was, and that’s exactly why John hadn’t liked him. That’s why he had liked me. John and I were both . . . what? Odd, I guess.

Joe stood there, just inside his apartment, and there I was, not a foot away, but the doorframe between us may as well have been the sheer face of a cliff because I was in the hall. He was the man with three hundred dicks and he’d somehow convinced himself that he was normal, whatever that means. In some rarefied way, I suppose he was.

“I will keep you in mind,” he said. “You never know.”

“Right,” I said, never failing to be touched when someone lied to spare your feelings.


Joe was right about me, of course. I couldn’t get anything right, not even being gay, which you might have thought would have been a genetic cinch.

I once had a job interview to teach in the University of Alabama’s graduate creative writing program. For those of you who’ve never taught college, there’s this group called the Modern Language Association, the professional organization of mostly English professors. Once a year they have a big meeting where they present papers on topics so obscure that to the average intelligent person they would sound like the mumblings of a lunatic. At the two I attended there also seemed to be lots of extracurricular adultery. At first that seemed sad in the way closet drinkers are sad. Then I really thought about the idea of two scholars, released from the Chaucer mines where they pickaxed the tenses of Middle English verbs, now drunk on the minibar and going at it on the hotel sheets. It seemed sort of sweet.

Anyway, they also interview candidates for department jobs at these things and this one was in New York. I was staying with friends in Soho and the day before the big interrogation, I’d nabbed an African scarf from a parking-lot flea market. I don’t know how African the scarf actually was, but it was thickly blue and I liked the heavy texture from the feels I could cop through its plastic wrapper. The next day I thought, what the hell, and threw it on as a kind of declaration that I had a personality under all this M.L.A. gear. As I walked to the midtown hotel where the interviews were being held, I kept scouting for glimpses of myself in the gigantic plate-glass windows of the stores and banks. It was a bleak day, drizzly and cold, the kind of sky that bruised everything it brushed blue-gray, like a corpse in a movie. Still, I thought I looked pretty spiffy.

In the lobby, a mull of the other candidates, reading something like Verb Journal. Most of them visibly uncomfortable. There was a lot of nervous throat clearing and discreet sniffs at their armpits. Their accessories were making me nervous. Too many grown women in barrettes. The men favored these half-shoe/half-boot things that zipped and were disconcertingly elfish. I made for the elevator before I caught whatever fashion virus was going around out there.

In the room, three people were arranged in a semicircle on folding chairs: a man and a woman who looked like they’d been poured from instant professor packets—add Ph.D. and stir; and another Volkswagen bus of a woman in a sweat suit and cat glasses—her hair was two chopsticks in a bun. I shook their hands and smiled, I hoped, intelligently. Finished unraveling the scarf from my neck. Took a seat in the armchair thoughtfully reserved for me. They seemed edgy, but I just palmed it off as the awkward manners of university types who were more comfortable with books than people.

First thing, the professor-looking lady asked me how I would place my book in the Western tradition. I ignored my first impulse—rodeo boots and some cowgirl fringe—and said something about Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe, hoping this wasn’t one of those shows where they made fools of people with hidden cameras. I don’t know how, but I could tell that the professor man and the sweat-suited lady couldn’t stand each other. I guess it was the way one looked while the other was speaking. Once, while he was asking me about my experience, she pulled a chopstick from her hair and I thought for sure she was going to ram it into his heart; but she just chewed it thoughtfully, staring at him like she wished it were his liver.

I was doing pretty well here. They tossed out questions that I pretended to consider thoughtfully to buy time. Then I swatted back answers they pretended were fascinating. I’d never been on an interview for a real job before and it felt strangely like I was bargaining for my own life in a hostage situation.

Then, Chopsticks said, innocent as you please, “So, tell us about your teaching.”

And just like that, I couldn’t. What’s strange is that this was the one question I’d anticipated, prepared for. But suddenly I could see the headlights of an anxiety attack bearing down on me, and in literal seconds, I was roadkill. I used to have about six anxiety attacks a day—no kidding—real Godzillas, crushing me in their hands and hurling me against the walls. There’d be this roar in my ear, and everything would turn this horrible margarine yellow. My glands would leach every atom of moisture from my mouth and throat, drying them into sandpaper, and then spit it out of every pore as sweat. Worst of all, my heart became Muhammad Ali’s fist, hammering at the door of my chest like Mrs. Ali was on the other side, fucking his best friend. My legs would go Gumby on me. I’d feel faint, my mind the aftermath of a pillow fight, all swirling feathers. During an anxiety attack, you’re convinced you’re going to die, but not before you lose your mind first. They’re this weird dichotomy: on the inside, this cyclone rampages through you, bulleting telephone poles through barns, sweeping cows to the tops of the trees; outside, you’re frozen.


I. Tried. To. Explain. How. I. Taught. I. Used. A. Book. Yes. A. Book. We. Read. The. Book. It. Was. A. Good. Book. I. Um. Read. Their. Stories. I. Um. Yes.

The man professor, who’d been tapping his pen on his knee, stopped, pen midair. The woman professor stared at me like I was slowly transforming into a giant praying mantis. Sweat Suit’s mouth had dropped unpleasantly open and I could see her chopstick, resting on her tongue, chewed to a pulp. Which didn’t help. Gibberish. Dear God, I was speaking gibberish.

Mercifully, I don’t remember the rest of the interview. When anxiety attacks are done with you, they crumple you up and rim-shot you into the trash can. You just lie there with egg yolk on your cheek and coffee grounds in your hair, beyond caring. They said blah, blah, blah. I replied vacantly. They kept glancing down at their notes and conspicuously not cutting their eyes toward one another. The air was wadded with stale hotel heat. The Sahara of my mouth had reflooded, but it was too late.

I lugged my coat back on, flung my scarf around my neck, tried to smile, thanked them. The waitees down in the lobby were going to be hopping the next train to the tenure track. I could see that now. They were going to be on search committees and own foreign and expensive objects while I worked in a card shop, dusting the Hubbell figurines. Outside, it was still as misty and gray and sad as England under Thatcher. I decided that art might console me and headed for the Guggenheim.

Once there, I couldn’t help but notice that everyone, and I mean everyone, was cruising me. The ticket taker, the coat-check girl, the security guards. Two Italian men, model material, the world was their runway, whispered in their liquid language and followed me through an exhibit of Russian constructivists. It was like some cosmic consolation prize. If I couldn’t have worshipful graduate students and summers off, then at least I got to be sexy. I was going to wear this suit every day for the rest of my life.

I had a dinner date pretty early so I hurried away, unhappy to be leaving the new legions of my fans; but outside, it was the same Cinderella story. Doormen, rich young mothers trundling their children down the street in Cadillac strollers, the homeless. They couldn’t keep their eyes off me. My cabby was so glued to his rearview mirror that he was running red lights and playing bumper cars against the curb. I checked my seat belt and gave him a little gift, one of my newly irresistible smiles. What did it hurt me? I was a cologne ad. I was Julia Roberts.

I couldn’t wait to tell Ralph, though I probably wouldn’t have to. He’d just swoon to the floor when he opened the door.

“What’s that all over your face?” he asked, grimacing.

“What?” I said. So the carriage was a pumpkin after all.

“You’d better go have a look in the mirror.”

And there go the glass slippers.

I was blue from the eyes down, and not pale blue either. I was Matisse blue, art-deco-glass blue, the flecks in the box of Tide blue. Safira, the schizophrenic lady on my block, would smear lipstick from the hairs of her nose to the ones on her chin to halfway across her cheeks. She thought it made her look pretty. That was me now, only in my case it seemed twice as nuts because my blue looked, exactly, like eye shadow, titty-dancer eye shadow. That gothic blue face hovering above that dull blue suit—Salvador Dalí couldn’t have dreamed it up. Naturally, no one had said a word on the street because it looked deliberate—how could something like that not be deliberate—and you would not want to provoke the person who’d done it.

What the? How the? Where in the?

The scarf. Of course. The curse of the African scarf. That flea-bitten shmata of a scarf had bled in the mist. Oh, my interview. My poor, poor interview.


At my next Gotham class, we went over part of a novel Mai was working on. It was rambling and autobiographical and we were already familiar with many of the stories by the time we read them. The others were polite and tried to be helpful, though every time any of us made suggestions for improvement, Mai insisted that that’s the way it had happened and she was sorry but to change even one word would have been felonious. The nice thing about going over Mai’s story was that she wasn’t supposed to talk, which she mostly stuck by, though there were moments when the springs of her practically spit from her sides and burst from her head like a cartoon clock.

Next was Tryphine. Her first chapter was poorly typed and often hard to follow. It was a South African epic with more characters than the last number of a Busby Berkeley movie; but it had strangulating descriptive passages of things like necklacing, which was when a tire was fitted around your throat and set fire to. It was almost impossible to reconcile the world of necklacing with the world of this children’s classroom, with all its busy promise: a poster of how to make your cursive ABCs Scotch taped to the wall, the nubby fingers of the chalk. Speaking for myself, we all needed a long break to reel us back in.

Coffee. A cigarette. Melancholy. Ngong turned out to be a real writer, stories about a Catholic school she’d attended in Africa. They were like fairy tales in the blackness of their cruelty, but little bits of hope flickered here and there, like sparks whirling up from a bonfire into the night sky. Her sentences were limpid, but with muscular, almost alchemical evocations of landscape and character, with terrible ironies lashing through both.

There was some time left over, so I decided to read from the beginning of Carson McCullers’s “The Ballad of the Sad Café” because I wanted to discuss landscape, character, and the terrible ironies lashing through both. What I had forgotten was my audience. What I had forgotten was this phrase: “It was such a night when it is good to hear from faraway, across the dark, the slow song of a Negro on his way to make love.” As I began to read that sentence, as I heard the words “It was such a night . . .” I remembered, like a sudden bout of cramps, exactly where that sentence was speeding; and I tried to derail it, but in the chaos of trying to make it right, I ended up emphasizing “NEGRO.” “NEGRO,” I said, expectorating the word, achoo, violently sneezing it out.

Dear God.

By the time Miss Amelia’s Cousin Lymon arrived at the end of the paragraph, ball bearings of sweat slithered down my sides. I looked up, expecting to see the tiny gang of my students biting pirates’ knives between their teeth. Fred was placid, his fingers laced over his belly. Mai was examining her fingernails like they were a code she had to break. Tryphine seemed lost deep in thought. Ngong, the real writer, looked amused, like what a funny little man I was, what a hobbit of a fellow.

No one said a word. Fortunately, class was over.

Afterward, Fred said he wanted to write a story about a guy who went back to the Midwest to visit. He said it was really weird. I decided to trust him on that and encouraged him to go for it. Mai told me the entire rest of her novel. It was like being slowly filled with beeswax. I kept saying things like, uh-huh, no kidding, really? Tryphine asked me if I thought her novel was worth writing. I told her if people were fitting tires around one another’s necks and setting fire to them, then she had a duty to report it. Ngong waited. She let the others wander away. I pushed my stuff into the open mouth of my backpack, smiled at her. She smiled back, and her smile felt like that brown stuff they rub on you in surgery before they cut you open and yank out your liver. We made small talk. Hers was like the Romanov jeweled box of small talk. Mine was like that same box, except that it had been made in Taiwan and bought in Atlantic City.

In the elevator, she said, “What was that novel you read from again?”

“Uh, it was from a novella, ‘The Ballad of the Sad Café,’ by Carson McCullers.”

“It was very . . . beautiful. I think I could learn something from that.”

“Yes, well, you’re both writing something that’s more . . . talelike.”


“Here,” I said, scrambling through my pack as the elevator doors creaked slowly open like they were haunted.

“Thank you,” she said. “I will read it this week.” Then she gave me a smile that was as slow as six deliberate paper cuts. “You can still learn from a woman who says ‘Negro.’”


One night when I got home, Becky was in John’s spot on the couch, her head thrown back and at an angle like she’d broken her neck. Pillars of boxes labeled CHRISTMAS stood around like the last few guests at a party. She lifted her head and a ninety-eight-pound weakling of a smile limped across her face. “John’s back in the hospital.”

“I’m sorry.”

“He’s not going to be coming back out.”

“Oh, Becky.”

The terrible silence of two people who didn’t know what to say next. Becky very deliberately brightened her smile. There was something desperately managerial about it, maybe something she’d picked up from a positive-thinking seminar and now couldn’t get rid of. Who knows? Maybe it worked.

“I was supposed to go back tomorrow,” Becky said.

“I can keep an eye on him if you want.”

“That’s sweet, but my parents are coming up on Sunday.”


She looked past me. “He said he was fine.”

“Yeah, well. I guess it’s a hard thing to admit. To yourself. To anyone.”

“He wore himself out trying to show me the city. I wish I’d come sooner.”

“You didn’t know.”

“I mean sooner. More times. He’s going and . . . I haven’t seen him enough.” There were cobwebs in her voice at the end of that sentence for a whole block of haunted houses.

“Hey. I have an idea. Why don’t we have dinner tonight?” I suppose that was a nice idea, but it also made me flutteringly uncomfortable because it seemed shallow somehow. I checked my back to make sure Martha Stewart’s ventriloquist hand wasn’t shoved in there.

“I get back from the hospital at about nine. Is that too late?”

“Not in the city that never sleeps.” When exactly had my mind been destroyed? Next thing you know I’d be calling it the Big Apple, Gotham. But then I remembered that death—the primitive, stone face of it—made you stupid.

That night we met at the little Indian place around the corner, which was more of a hallway than a restaurant. Red fabric, geometrically patterned in mirrors, served as a kind of wallpaper and was also swagged from the ceiling. It had the cozy feeling of a child’s fort. There was a pleasant hum in the curry-fragrant air.

Becky told me she lived . . . somewhere. I can’t really remember, but it was the sort of place where you could own a bed-and-breakfast that catered to the championship fishermen who frequented the nearby lake, which was exactly what she and her husband did. They’d both been wildly successful at bank marketing technologies, something. About five years ago they’d decided they’d had it. Cashed in the stocks, sold the house. It was a Horatio Alger story for the nineties.

“Great,” I said. I only half meant it. I had a lifelong aversion to fishing. My father had taken me once as a child, and I’d badgered him the whole time. Was he sure the hooks didn’t hurt in the fishes’ mouths? Because they sure looked like they did. When I found out we had to slit them in half and scoop their guts out with our bare hands, I locked myself in the car. With the car keys. I knew getting gouged open hurt, and I felt betrayed, because now I suspected the hooks hurt too. I sat there in the driver’s seat stubbornly, my face locked in a frown, my arms twisted tightly around my chest, staring straight ahead as my father pounded the window and yelled versions of “Open this damn car door, or else.” I finally caved, but not before he promised a) not to beat the living daylights out of me, and b) not to ever make me fish again. My father was a relatively honorable man, and to his credit he stuck by his word.

Becky fascinated me because in the places where I was filled with dread, she was filled with zeal. She could easily have been the host of one of those late-night infomercials where you buy things for no money down and then sell them for a colossal profit. I faked being an upbeat guy myself, figuring there was no point in subjecting a stranger with that kind of drill sergeant’s determination to be happy to my own morbid personality, particularly when her brother was dying. So when she asked about me, and she did so pointedly, at regular intervals, with the nodding, interested gaze of a therapist, I spun it. No one who knew me would have recognized my life. I had all the facts right, but every miserable failure had become an opportunity. Things were grreeaatt! If you called now you also got a desk set, valued at more than one hundred dollars.

But around dessert—a tasteless, odorless, textureless flan—it began to unravel. She began to unravel. It was hard owning your own business. To tell the truth, she’d never worked so hard in her life. And it wasn’t as profitable as I might think. There were some months when she was borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. And the winding melancholy of that set her on the road to John. He’d always been a special little boy, very bright, and she wasn’t just saying that because he was her brother either. His teachers had all said so too. He’d won things in school, for penmanship, perfect attendance. But he’d had a tough time finding his way. When he’d finally become an RN, about the time she’d gotten the bed-and-breakfast, she’d been so happy. She’d always known that there was something special he’d been meant to do. He’d loved it so much, he’d been so good at it, he’d finally found his life. You would have thought their parents would have been a little more . . . accepting.

Oh, it wasn’t just John and his, lifestyle. There was that, but believe you me they hadn’t been any easier on her, not one bit. Her mother was so critical, and here her mother had been an alcoholic. Oh, she wouldn’t admit to being a drunk, and she didn’t drink anymore. But she had been one, and when she drank, she’d been mean. Nasty. Why couldn’t Becky stick to a diet? She’d never get a man looking like that. And then when Becky did land one, married him, well it was, oh sure, him, who couldn’t have gotten that? And did she get an ounce of credit for being so well-off, owning her business? No, she didn’t. It was about why couldn’t she have any grandchildren. Well, she couldn’t have children, but did her mother care about that? No, she didn’t. Don’t get her wrong, she loved her mother, she really did, but Mom was as hard a woman as ever drew breath.

My own family wasn’t exactly the von Trapps, and I dragged out a few of my choicer war stories in sympathy. It was funny listening to Becky sing the song, every verse, of the whole John. I’d only known him as the person he’d finally become; and it was final because there was no time left to become again. He’d never have the chance to quit smoking, buy some yoga tapes, sign up for those drawing classes he’d always meant to take. He wouldn’t be getting around to anything anymore. He’d never fall in love with a set dresser and move to Los Angeles. He’d already had the great love of his life, whoever that was. Now all he could do was struggle to keep the person he was alive.

But he had been a child—Becky had said something about being forced to play Little League—and then he’d been an adolescent, maybe taking the girl he’d been best friends with since second grade to the prom, with all the usual pictures on a fairyland prom bridge. He’d been a young man in New York, diverted by the easy promises the city could keep, his heart busy with ones it couldn’t. He’d dropped out of college and moved in with Buddy and then he’d become a nurse. It wasn’t easy to become a nurse. That human life was being wrenched away from him. I could see it now, his particular absence, swimming there in his sister’s eyes.  

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