Christmas Time Is Here

Friday, December 23, 2011


"L, wake up."

A hand gently shook my shoulder. It was cold to the touch. 

I had been dreaming that I was unwrapping the Mego Planet of the Apes Treehouse, which I had been pining for with a white-hot intensity unmatched since… well, since I had pined after the Coleco NHL Table Hockey game the previous year. I was a fickle child.

In the faint glow of my Charlie Brown night light I saw my father standing over me, dressed in his police patrolman's uniform. I sat up, rubbed my eyes, then lifted the shade and looked outside. The downtown city skyscrapers glistened in the frosty air. It was pitch black outside.

"What time is it?"

"4:00 AM," my father said. "We need to get you up."

"How come you're home so early?" I asked. His shift usually started at midnight and ended at 8:00 AM. "And how come I have to get up now? School isn't until 8:30."

A veteran insomniac at the tender age of nine, I'd learned to treasure any night when I wasn't listening to my younger brother F snore in his adjacent room.

My father smiled.

"I took the rest of the night off. And you aren't going to school today."

That got my attention.

"I'm not? But it's our last day before Christmas vacation. We're having the Christmas grab."

"Your mother dropped off your gift for the grab yesterday while she was lunch monitor. And she picked up your gift too. If you get up and brush your teeth, you can open it on the way."

Now I was really intrigued.

"On the way where?" 

"I guess you'll have to get up and find out, won't you?" he said. "C'mon; I have to go wake up your brother."

"I hope you brought your gun home with you," I said. Surly DMV workers and hibernating bears alike cowered in fear at the specter that was F when awoken before he was ready. Typically, that was at least twelve hours after his head hit the pillow. If you were lucky.

"I have my billy club, so I like my chances," he said, tapping his holster. "Wish me luck; I'm going in."

I fired off a crisp salute. He returned it, then opened the sliding door leading to my brother's room. He may have flinched, but it was difficult to tell in the pre-dawn light.

Yawning mightily, I stood, slipped on my giant fuzzy slippers, and padded off to the bathroom.



***

Moments later, teeth brushed and cowlicks momentarily wrestled to a standoff, I emerged from the bathroom. My sister C, still clad in her nightgown, stood wide awake, seemingly unperturbed by the freakishly early hour. Her beloved stuffed dog Brownie, was, per usual, clutched in her hand. 

C had been in and out of the hospital a number of times the past several years due to a recurring health issue. Brownie had accompanied her on each and every stay, to the point that he was as familiar a face to the hospital staff as my parents.

"Hi C," I said.

"Brownie wants to sing a song," she announced.

Oh, no, I thought. 

Brownie's muse typically struck when C wanted something she guessed, usually correctly, that my parents wouldn't approve. It was then that C pulled out her secret weapon: Her voice, an instrument that produced an atonal warbling that would have reduced Yoko Ono herself to tears. Out of jealousy or pain, one can only speculate. It was crude, but effective.

"C, it's too - "

"Canada Dry/Ginger ale/Canada Dry/Ginger a-a-a-ale…" C/Brownie mewled.

"For God's sake, C, would you please stop?"

My mother stepped from her bedroom, shaking her head as she adjusted her watch.

"Brownie's thirsty," C said, undeterred.

"Then Brownie can have some apple juice."

C held Brownie to her ear. She shook her head vigorously.

"Brownie says he wants tonic."

"Apple juice or Zarex. Your choice."

"But Brownie wants tonic!"

"Well, I guess Brownie will die of thirst, then," said my mother as she turned away.

Frowning, C consulted with Brownie, then sighed the weary sigh of the perpetually put-upon.

"Oh, all right. If it will make you happy, Brownie will have some Zarex."

My mother nodded and set off downstairs, Brownie and C in tow.

"Make way, L!"

I turned to see my father approach with F slung over his shoulder, arms and legs flopping and head bobbing with every step. F had apparently left his skeletal structure behind in his bed, so complete was his state of repose.

"Your brother's having a little trouble waking up," said my father, unnecessarily. "M!" he called to my mother. "How are we going to get F's teeth brushed?"

"Is he still out?" she said in disbelief from the bottom of the stairs. "I wish I could sleep like that."

"But you do, Mom," I said.

"You'd be exhausted too if you had to clean up your room after you're finished playing every day," she said. "Which, now that I think about it…"

"Um, I think I'll go find my jacket," I said, slowly retreating.

"Try under your bed," she said as she climbed the steps. " If you dare. And tell your sister to get her coat too."

I headed back to my room.

"Let's just get him dressed, B,"  I heard her say. "He'll wake up in the car."

"You know," my father said, "If all fails we can swing by the fire station on the way and borrow a defibrillator..."

***

I was sitting in the back seat of our green Ford Gran Torino Squire station wagon. We sat a traffic light. Ours was the only vehicle on the road in all directions.

My sister and Brownie were riding shotgun all the way in the back. My brother F, semi-comatose for the first 20 minutes of our journey to an as yet unspecified destination, stirred beside me, eyes slowly gaining focus. I kept my distance; I had watched Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom enough to know that you wake a hibernating bear at your peril.

"Where are we going?" he asked.

"If you'd woken up when L and I did you'd already know," snapped C from the back.

"I'm not talking to you!" he snarled.

"No, I'm not talking to you," she said.

"Nuh-huh! I said I'm not talking first!"

"Did not!"

"Did too!"

The tenuous detente that had prevailed for the past few days in the ongoing Cold War between F and C was in peril. While the origins of the latest dispute were known only to the two combatants and the impartial arbiter who had negotiated the latest cease-fire (i.e. Mom), tensions could be traced to the distant past - five years ago, when what became known as the Pudding Incident occurred. 

C and F had become dissatisfied with the decor of the bedroom the three of us shared in the first floor apartment we rented from our upstairs neighbor, Mrs. Kelly.  A kindly widow who always remembered our birthdays with a gift box of Fanny Farmer lollipops, Mrs. Kelly's sense of aesthetics apparently failed to pass muster with C and F one summer morning. Deciding that the beige wallpaper in our bedroom could stand some brightening, C and F searched for a suitable canvas upon which they might unleash their heretofore-untapped interior decorator skills. 

Showing formidable ingenuity, they were able to recognize the previously unseen artistic possibilities in the Hunts Snack Pack pudding they found in the refrigerator. Eschewing anything as mundane as viewing them simply as a tasty dessert, they instead saw the perfect medium with which to create a Mark Rothko-esque tableau on our bedroom walls, alternating rows of chocolate, vanilla, and, in one, much-disputed departure, butterscotch. (I had, alas, compromised their vision by eating the other can while they worked.)

As so often happens, our parents failed to grasp the significance of C and F's breakthrough, asserting that Mrs. Kelly would not, in fact, reward their ingenuity by becoming their patron. (In their case, that meant more lollipops.) Sadly, their creative partnership splintered in the wake of this drubbing. Rather than further exploring their vision, they made the fatal mistake of believing their reviews, holding each other responsible for sullying their original, purer intent. And thus began the off-and-on Cold War in our household.

(As an aside, in an early declaration of artistic independence, your narrator also chose that particular morning to follow his muse. Seeing the clash of egos that doomed the partnership of my siblings, I chose to strike out alone in search of new territory. I quickly settled upon a mixed media project that would recontextualize common household objects. For what I envisioned as the first in an ongoing series, I chose to work with the materials at hand by creating an ice cream sundae in a bed. Specifically, my brother F's bed. (No sense wasting my own on a mere draft, after all.) My efforts, alas, met with an even harsher critical response. Such is the lot of the visionary in contemporary society. But I digress.)

I heard a gentle thud from the front seat. Looking up from my Peanuts book, I peered over the front seat to see my father slumped forward, pressing his forehead against the steering wheel.

"Mom, why is Dad banging his head against the steering wheel?" I asked.

"Your father hasn't had his coffee yet," she said.

"There's a Mister Donut over there," said my brother.

"We're in a hurry," said my mother.

"Brownie wants hot chocolate," called out C.

"We're not stopping for hot chocolate for anyone," said my mother.

"But - "

"That includes Brownie."

"Now you've hurt Brownie's feelings," said C, pouting.

"He'll get over it," said my mother.

I heard C clear her throat. Uh oh. I quickly ducked my head and covered my ears.

"Feelings/Nothing more than feelings/Trying to forget my/Feelings of - "

Suddenly, all was silence. Sweet, blessed silence. I uncovered my ears and opened my eyes, trying to ascertain what had wrought this miracle. I shuddered.

My mother was turned all the way around in her seat. And she was giving C The Look.

The Look was the ultimate arrow in my mother's quiver. Seldom seen, and accordingly feared all the more when it was deployed, it's power was not limited to the likes of myself and my siblings. Neighborhood children, tardy delivery men, and even my father's fellow police officers cowered in fear before The Look. 

Satisfied order had been restored, my mother turned forward. The light had, finally, turned green. Such was the power of The Look.

***

"L?"

I looked up, engrossed in my book. My mother was looking at me, not unkindly.

"Sorry, Mom. I didn't hear you."

"Good book?"

"Yeah. Snoopy's redecorating the inside of his doghouse."

I studied the page again. 

"What's a Van Gogh?"

My father spoke.

"He was an artist. Snoopy has a Van Gogh?"

"Uh-huh."

My father considered this.

"Interesting dog."

"Yeah, he's cool."

My mother pointed to the large bag at my feet. She had carried it out to the car without comment when we left.

"Is that too heavy for you to lift?"

I eyed it dubiously. 

"I'll bet F can."

Despite being two years younger, F was much bigger than I was. Most people, relatives included, assumed I was the youngest and he was the oldest. F lifted the bag without effort.

"Do you need it up there?" I asked.

"No, I just wanted to see if one of you could carry it when we get to the airport."

Airport? I thought. 

"Why are we…" I stopped.

"Are we picking someone up at the airport?" I asked.

My mother and father both nodded.

"Who?" F asked. My building excitement was mirrored in his voice. Even C was listening now.

"Why don't you look in the bag and see if you can guess?" asked my father, trying, and failing, to suppress a smile.

F unzipped the canvas bag, reached in, and pulled out two pairs of identically sized boys Toughskin jeans. Next came two pairs of work boots, also the same size. Then two Mighty Mac winter coats… suddenly it all made sense.

"They're home!" I cried. I looked at F, nearly bouncing out of my seat. "J and K are coming here for Christmas!!!"

F's looked back, uncomprehending. Then, after a moment, he, too, began to shout.

"J and J are home!" He turned to the back seat, feud forgotten. "C, J and J are home!"

C's large blue eyes were open wide. For perhaps the first time ever, she was speechless.

I turned to the front seat.

"Are Aunt M and Uncle A home too?"

My mother's face lit up.

"They are."

"Will they be here for Christmas?"

She nodded. I'd never seen her happier.

"They will."

I leaned forward and banged the back of the front seat.

"Hurry, Dad! Hurry!"

"I'm guessing they won't turn around and go back if we're late," he said. "Not after a 24 hour flight, at least."

Twenty-four hours on a plane. I had never flown; in fact, I'd never gone anywhere in a car that took longer than five hours. 

"They were a long way away," weren't they, Mom?" I asked.

Her eyes clouded.

"Yes. They were a long way away," she said.

Her expression brightened, and she smiled again, content.

"But now they're here."

They're here, I thought. They're finally, finally here.

 ***

Aunt M is my mother's identical twin sister, the youngest of eight children. Like most twins, they are extraordinarily close; saying they are each other's best friend doesn't do justice to the depth of their relationship. They can communicate without speaking, and, in fact, seem to know exactly what the other is thinking or feeling at all times. It can be a bit eerie to witness this.

My Aunt M and Uncle A married several years after my parents and, remarkably, had identical twins, J and K, who were the same age as my brother F. (While it's a myth that identical twins skip a generation, it's still unusual.) As you might imagine, our families were extremely close. Our other cousins (I have well over 30 first cousins, some of whom are as old as my parents) could never tell J and K apart, but my family had no trouble. 

J, K, and my aunt and uncle lived near my family for several years. Then myUncle A, an up-and-coming engineer with a large defense contractor, was assigned to work on a cutting-edge project. Unfortunately, the project meant that he, my aunt, and my cousins would have to move to a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for several years. I remember little about their departure; I was no more than six years old, if that. The one firm memory is playing with my cousins at their all but empty house on Thanksgiving Day while my Aunt M finished packing all of their family's belongings for shipping. I don't remember saying goodbye at all.

***

For the next three years our only direct contact with our closest relatives in those pre-Internet times was an occasional trans-oceanic phone call. Because they were seven hours behind us, coordinating a time when pre-K schoolchildren were all awake was difficult, if not impossible. All the more reason we treasured them.

The more common form of communication came from cassettes that my Aunt M and, on the rare occasions he wasn't working or traveling to Japan, Australia, or New Zealand, Uncle A would record with J & K and mail to my mother. I remember my father picking up my grandmother from her retirement community so we could all listen to the first side of the tape together as a family. At the end of that side - which always came much too quickly - my Aunt would instruct my cousins to said goodbye to us, then tell my mother she could listen to the rest of the tape after we went to bed.

I never thought too much about this until years later. I had received a boom box for my 14th birthday and was constantly filling up tape after tape. When I wasn't recording directly off the radio (a local station played a classic album every night at midnight, which fueled my love for The Byrds, The Band, The Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen, and, most of all, The Beatles), I was goofing around with friends, spending hours pretending we were DJs on our own radio station.

One afternoon, my friend T was over, and we wanted to record our latest magnum opus. Scrounging around in my closet, T spotted a dusty box tucked behind some old blankets. We pulled it down and, upon opening it, discovered a box of cassettes with unfamiliar handwriting. After a moment, I realized what we had found. Excited, we grabbed the tapes and my boom box and raced downstairs to the kitchen where my mother was cooking dinner.

"Mom! Mom! Look what I found!"

She turned around and glanced at the cassette I held in my hand.

"What are those?" she asked.

"They're the tapes Aunt M and Uncle A sent us!  I brought down my boom box; let's listen! It'll be a riot!"

"Throw those out," she said. Her voice was flat.

"Huh?" I stammered. "Throw them out? You're joking, right?"

"Throw. Them. Out." After a moment, her voice softened. "Please."

T and I glanced at each other. I shrugged and said sure.

"Do not listen to those," she said, staring at me.

"Okay, we won't listen to them," I said.

We won't listen to them, I thought. But I will.

***

Late that night, long after everyone had gone to sleep, I sat in my room, the box of tapes at my side. I picked one up, opened the case, and flipped it over to Side B. The other side, as it were. Headphones on, I held the boom box remote in my hand. 

I paused, and wondered again why my mother, typically restrained in most matters, was so adamant in this case.

I thought of my Aunt at the time she recorded those tapes. A young mother, only in her mid-twenties, living with a frequently absent husband and two small children, literally in the middle of nowhere. Thousands of miles from everyone she knew and loved, most especially her beloved twin sister.

My thoughts then jumped ahead several years. Back from their island stay, finally getting ready to settle down, my aunt, uncle, and cousins were building their dream home about half an hour north of where my family lived. One snowy winter weekend, my aunt invited myself and my siblings to spend a weekend with her and my cousins in the chalet they owned. Because C and F were sick, I was the only one well enough to make the trip.

We spent the entire day cavorting in the snow, racing our sleds down the nearby hills and staging massive snowball fights. Finally succumbing to the cold, I went inside for a moment to warm up before venturing back out. My aunt stood at the kitchen sink, an empty glass in one hand and dish towel in the other.

"I just came in for a sec to warm up," I said, unzipping my coat.

Glancing over, my aunt gave me a quick once-over, then stopped and looked again.

"Why don't you run upstairs and change?" she said, not unkindly.

"I'll be ready to go back out in a sec," I said. "No sense getting more clothes wet, right?"

"No, I think you need to go upstairs, hon." She pointed to my pants.

I glanced down. My pants were soaked. I had been out in the cold so long I had wet myself and hadn't even realized it.

Before I could say anything, J burst in the back door behind my aunt. Without hesitation, my aunt reached over with the dish cloth and began scrubbing my pants.

"Your aunt M is such a klutz sometimes, L! An entire glass of water all over you!" She turned to J. "Would you run upstairs and get a pair of jeans and underwear for L from his suitcase?"

J rolled his eyes. 

"Nice work, Mom. At least you didn't  dump hot chocolate all over him." He bounded up the steps, two at a time.

My aunt leaned over and whispered in my ear.

"Don't worry, L. This will be our secret. Okay?" She squeezed my shoulder and smiled.

I looked again at the boom box. After a moment, I reached down and pressed Erase.

***

We stood waiting, watching as the last of the passengers slowly trudged past us at the gate. My mother had been given special permission to board the airplane with the winter clothes in the bag we had carried in. Unsurprisingly, J and K had little need for overcoats when the average year-round temperature was 82 degrees.

"Are they staying at our house with us?" asked C.

"They are," replied my father. "We'll set up cots for them in the living room."

"I want to sleep downstairs!" cried F.

"Me too!" said C.

I remained silent. I doubted we could all fit in the living room. Let the little kids have their fun, I thought, a veteran at nine years old. Also, I secretly worried that If we all were downstairs, it might be too crowded for Santa to get to the Christmas tree. But I kept my own counsel.

"We'll see," said my father.

And then they were here.

Uncle A emerged first, his usual five o'clock shadow even more pronounced than usual after a day-long flight. C raced over and leapt into his arms.

"Well, hello there," he said, smiling. "You must be the welcoming committee."

Aunt M was next, her arms laden with the summer clothes J and T had shed moments before. J and T followed, peering cautiously at the door of the shutlte gate before entering the terminal. railed by J and T. F, suddenly shy, stood behind my father. Not wanting to appear unduly excited, I nodded briefly to J and T, who nodded back. Brothers in cool. Last but not least came my mother, clutching the remaining clothes and assorted detritus accumulated during the long flight.

We all stood for a moment, no one sure quite what to do.

Aunt M turned to my father.

"How are you, W-?" she asked, using her favorite nickname for him. He pretended it annoyed him, but he secretly delighted in the barbed give and take between he and M.

"It's a long walk back to my house, M," he said with mock gravity. "I'd treat your chauffeur with a bit more respect."

"Oh, piss on your respect," she said. Then she strode over. They exchanged a long embrace as she whispered in his ear. He nodded, smiling.

"Aunt M, my mother says you don't like to cook," C said, as my mother blanched.

"Nonsense," said Aunt M. "I'll make my favorite breakfast when we get back to your house."

"What's that?" I asked.

"S*** on a shingle," she said immediately.

Uncle A rolled his eyes.

"For God's sake, M, he's nine years old!" he said, laughing.

"Oh, L knows I'm just teasing, right hon?"

I nodded. Better play along, I thought. This could go south in a hurry.

J finally spoke.

"Where's the snow?"

My father shook his head.

"Doesn't look good, guys, I'm afraid. This is what they're predicting for the next few days," he said, gesturing to the slowly brightening, slate gray skies outside.

K sighed. 

"I really wanted to make a snowman," he said sadly.

"Me, too," said J.

"Don't worry, gents," Uncle A said. "I'm sure we'll get plenty of snow."

"Whenever your next trip is scheduled, I'm guessing," added my father.

Uncle A laughed again.

"If the past is any guide, then yes, that would a logical assumption. But," he said, putting my sister down, "I'm happy to say that that won't be for quite a while."

"But then we won't have a white Christmas!" exclaimed F, suddenly finding his voice.

"We're all together again," said my mother, eyes moist. "And that's all that matters."

Somehow I knew she was right. This was going to be one of the best Christmases ever.

***

"L! Wake up!"

I groaned and rolled over. I had been dreaming that J, K, and myself were busy staging a raid of the newly-constructed Planet of the Apes treehouse.

"L! L! Wake up!"

Do these people have something against me sleeping? I thought bitterly. I'm on vacation, for crying out loud.

A hand shook me vigorously.

"L! Would you wake up! Look!"

That wasn't an adult voice. I sat up and forced my eyes open. J, K, and F were bouncing from one cot to the other. C stood next to me, a look of awe on her face.

"What's got into you?" I asked, puzzled.

Eyes wide, she pointed to the window.

Shaking my head, I emerged from my sleeping bag, pulled on my slippers, and padded over the window. I lifted the shade. Then I gasped.

Snow. 

It was snowing. 

And not just flurries, but a good old-fashioned Nor'Easter. The entire neighborhood was blanketed in at least a half-foot of the white stuff, and more was falling.

My father and Uncle A entered the living room, nursing a cup of coffee.

"Uncle A!  Dad! Look! It's snowing!" I shouted.

They looked out the window.

"Well, so it is," Uncle A said. He set his coffee cup on the fireplace mantle next to the ceramic Christmas tree my grandmother had painted and given my parents for their first Christmas together. (Every year my grandmother asked if they had set it up; every year my father replied that he had thrown it in the trash. And every year she fell for it. Or at least pretended she did while we were around.)

"This is perfect. You'll all have plenty of time to finish your homework now."

"HOMEWORK?!?!" screamed C, F, and I simultaneously.

"Oh, didn't your Mom tell you?" my father asked. "Your teachers sent home all the work you missed yesterday. Plus extra, because you got out early and all."

"EXTRA?!?!" we shrieked, our voices approaching sonic boom levels.

"But don't worry," he continued. "With J and K helping, you should have it all finished by the end of tomorrow."

J and K joined the howls of protest.

"But tomorrow is Christmas!" shouted F.

Uncle A shook his head sadly.

"Do you really think Santa will look kindly on you slacking off on Christmas Eve?"

Aunt M called from the kitchen.

"W, A, what the hell are you telling those children?"

"We were simply explaining that they needed to finish their homework this morning," Uncle A said. "Otherwise Santa would be ups-"

He stopped mid-sentence. Aunt M and my mother stood at the door. 

I gasped. 

They were giving Uncle A and my father… The Look.

Wow, I thought, awed. They really are identical!

"Well, I suppose it can wait 'til this afternoon," he said, picking up his coffee cup.

"Looks like someone will be getting coal in his stocking this year," observed my father.

"Why should this year be any different?" Uncle A replied. He clapped his hands.

"Last one outside has to make the hot chocolate afterwards!" he exclaimed. "That includes you too, B," he said to my father as he headed for his suitcase.

"I figured," said my father. "That's why I left your clothes at the airport yesterday."

I scrambled up the stairs to my bedroom, hoping my boots weren't under my bed. (I never did around to cleaning it the day before.) I stopped on the stairs for a moment, surveying the chaotic scene below. 

This isn't one of the best Christmases ever, I thought. It is THE best Christmas.

***

To this day, that long-ago Christmas is still the best Christmas ever. Later this morning, I'll be packing my car and headed north. I'll be busy shuttling back and forth between my brother's house, where he and his family will be hosting their annual Christmas Eve party, and my parents, who will, as always, be hosting Christmas Day. 

Everyone will be in attendance: my mother and father, my sister C, my brother F, my Uncle Al and Aunt M, and my cousins J and K. We'll be joined by assorted nieces and nephews and aunts and uncles and loved ones. My pal M (my mother refers to him as her adopted Jewish son), who attends when work commitments keep him in town, will be in Florida with his family this year, but he'll be there in spirit.

Only my sister C knows my secret so far; I plan to tell the rest of my family in the New Year. While I can't predict the future, thinking back on the warm memories of that best of Christmases makes me think I have pretty good odds. 

I hope that wherever this holiday season finds you that you are with those you love and those who love you back. We all deserve no less.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

***

P.S. Santa did bring me the Planet of the Apes Treehouse that year. I told you it was the best Christmas ever!





The Return of Minty

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It must be Christmastime: Minty (The Candy Cane That Fell To The Ground) is back!



In the unlikely event that you don't already know the origins of Minty, here you are:

Finally, in what is no doubt destined to become a holiday classic, here's the mighty Los Lobos collaborating with Minty (in Spanish, no less):



As a bonus, here's one more Conan clip that had me laughing all day today:

My favorite: "Jingle Breasts" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (As God Intended)." ;c) Be sure to watch 'til the end!

Release, Vol. II

Thursday, December 15, 2011


"Hi, L. It's E - "

After a moment of silence, I realized I had hit Pause on my answering machine without thinking.

Senses suddenly heightened, I could hear the grandfather clock ticking on the second floor. I could see the dust motes dancing in the fading mid-October twilight that struggled to illuminate the living room where I stood, staring at the blinking red light.

Look what you made her have to do, I thought. You couldn't accept what she tried to tell you over and over for the past year-and-a-half, so now she has to be the grown-up and save you from making an even bigger fool of yourself. Again. 

I shook my head.

How did it come to this?


***

"What was her name again?"

"E. Why do you sound so shocked a girl called you?"

My friend D, son of the owner of the company where we both worked, looked at me, bemused.

"No, it's not that (not completely, anyway, I thought). I have absolutely no idea who she is."

He handed me pink telephone message, grinning.

"Well, she obviously knows who you are if she called from ----."

Suddenly it came back to me.

I was on the upper deck of a water taxi the previous summer, watching the sun set over the harbor.

"L, come here!"

It was my friend N. Along with his wife T, we were returning from a daylong music festival. While nearly ten years older than me, we had become fast friends through a shared love of music.

I turned to see N and T standing across the deck, waving at me. In front of them, backs turned to me, stood two women. They looked to be about the same age as me.

"Oh, there he is," said T. "I guarantee you, you and your sister will definitely hit it off with him."

The two women turned to me as I approached, smiling.

"L, this is M," he said, gesturing to a tall, striking brunette, curls falling halfway down her back. She smiled shyly and nodded hello.

"And this," he said, "is E." Shorter than her sister, with a mass of curly blonde hair ending just below her ears, she smiled warmly and extended a hand.

"The pressure's on, just so you know. According to R and T, you're a walking music encyclopedia."

Shaking her hand, I shook my head mock-ruefully.

"That's just a polite way of saying I have no social life."

She nodded, poker face in place.

"Speaking as a salesperson, I'd recommend going with their version. Branding is important, you know."

"Encyclopedia it is, then."

Normally self-conscious when meeting anyone new, let alone two attractive women my own age, I realized I was enjoying myself. E certainly has a knack for putting you at ease, I thought.

As N predicted, E and I did, indeed, share almost identical musical taste as we discovered while comparing notes about our favorite acts at the festival. While M stood by, nodding in agreement from time to time, E and I chatted amiably for the remaining few minutes it took the water taxi to complete the short journey back to town where we were all parked. As a teetotaler, I was the designated driver, so I say my goodbyes to M and E as I left to pick up my car.

And that was the last I'd thought of them until D handed me the slip of paper with E's number.

***

I called her that night when I got home. As it turned out, she had exchanged numbers with R and T the previous summer, and had called them first to see if we would be attending the festival again. They had a conflicting event, but told her I was planning to attend with my friend V and gave her my number.

"I actually asked N and T for it last year, actually."

"Oh," I said, surprised. "You did?"

"Mm-hmm. But M threw it out by mistake on the way home."

"Oh, well."

"Yeah. I made her walk the rest of the way to teach her a lesson. So why do you sound so stunned?"

"No it's not that. I just…"

"Forgot about me?" she said lightly.

"No, no - "

"Oh, don't mind me. I'm just teasing you." She paused. "T told me on the phone that you were a little shy. I'm sorry if I'm making you uncomfortable."

"See? I knew I should've called collect, just in case."

She chuckled.

"Well, there's always next time. Live and learn."

I was intrigued; ordinarily I would be tongue-tied the instant I sensed even the mildest form of mockery, real or not, but not with her. She wasn't like any other girl I'd known.

We chatted for well over an hour about music and work and made plans to meet up at the festival. She mentioned that M would also be attending, and in fact had insisted that E call. After promising that she wouldn't force M to walk the entire way, we said our goodbyes until the festival.

***

As it turned out, that year was essentially a non-event. We never did manage to connect on Saturday for a variety of reasons. Sunday's show was wiped out by monsoon-like rains that literally forced the evacuation of town and knocked out telephone lines in the region. Our only conversation was a brief, sodden one huddled under rain gear. It was cut short when lightning struck several boats in the harbor, moored mere yards from where we stood.

We managed to connect by phone upon returning home, though, and over the course of the next year we spoke five or six times, nearly always when E would call, usually out of the blue, just to say hello. For some reason I felt none of the usual anxiety that typically overtook me when talking to a girl; with E, it just felt… nice. And that was enough.

Before we knew it, it was festival time again. We made plans to meet again. And again, we didn't really connect until the festival was nearly over. After M got them lost on the way on Friday afternoon, they wound up arriving in town well after midnight. Consequently they didn't make it to the festival until mid-way through the day, which in turn meant we never managed to find each other in the sea of humanity.

Exhausted from the driving and the sweltering temperatures, they opted to spend Saturday night resting up at their bed-and-breakfast and to come to the festival at some point on Sunday. To cover our bases, we agreed to at least meet up for dinner on Sunday evening.

While I'd mentioned E and M to V on the way down, it wasn't as if they were the sole focus of the weekend. We'd spent the previous two evenings with our friends B and R, who owned the bed and breakfast where we were staying. We'd met the previous year under memorable circumstances (a story for another time), and had become fast friends. Still, I wanted to at least salvage one evening.

And so V and I were seated across from E and M in a crowded downtown restaurant on Sunday evening. As soon as we met up, it was as if no time had passed from last year. We chatted amiably about who our favorite acts were. V and kidded M about how her questionable map-reading skills turned a leisurely five-hour drive into an epic eleven-hour gauntlet. ("No problem, M; I got to see parts of the Eastern seaboard I never thought I'd visit," E consoled her sister.)

At one point, while waiting for E and M to return from the ladies room, V turned to me.

"Man, you weren't kidding when you said they were really cool. Especially E. She's awesome!"

I nodded absently as E and M returned, stifling a yawn. It had been a long weekend, and we had to get up early the next morning to head back home.

And then it happened.

Who can explain how, or when, or why you suddenly realize you have a crush on someone? While I'd enjoyed chatting with E, and was having a good time at dinner that evening, she was a casual acquaintance. So casual that I had, in fact, essentially forgotten about her shortly after meeting twelve months prior. She was very pretty, and we had similar tastes and interests, but that was the extent of it.

Until the moment I looked across the table at E as she sat listening to V. Suddenly, I felt my stomach clench, and I felt dizzy. The entire room and the attending clamor faded instantly, as if E were the only other person in the room. How had it taken me so long to notice her?

Somehow I got through the rest of the evening without making a fool of myself. As V and I walked home through the soft summer rain after escorting E and M back to their B&B, I was lost in thought.

"Earth to L! Earth to L!"

V was laughing.

"Man, you haven't heard a word I've said the past ten minutes, have you?"

"Um… no. Sorry."

"So what has you so deep in thought?"

I hesitated.

"Oh, you know, I was just thinking about tonight…"

"I know! What a blast! I'm just bummed that we won't get to see them now for a whole year."

"Yeah, I was thinking the same thing."

"But you look like you lost your best friend, L. What's going on?"

"I think I have a crush on E."

He looked at me for a moment, his smile slowly widening.

"Seriously? Since when?"

"Tonight. It just hit me all at once… and now she's all I can think about. I just hope I didn't act like an idiot tonight."

"L, honest to God, I had absolutely no idea. Don't take this the wrong way, but… well, you don't give much away. You're always super-friendly, but I never know what you're really thinking. None of us do. So I'm pretty sure E has no idea how you feel."

"Really? So… what should I do?"

"Man… you *have* to go for it. You *have* to. I know you really just met her, and that she lives a long way away, but…" He shook his head. "She is so totally worth it. You *have* to do this."

He stopped and put his hands on my shoulder.

"And you'll always regret it if you don't at least try. Don't do that."

I stood in the rain, pondering. I could just let my past failures keep me in the same rut… or I could choose to open myself up and risk it. I took a deep breath.

"So… what kind of flowers do I send?"

V smiled.

"I grew up with five older brothers, so I'm clearly the wrong person to ask. But… I'll bet we can figure it out tomorrow."

***

Ten days later, I sat in my living room. On the coffee table was a letter. E's address was in the corner.

I had, in fact, sent her flowers after returning from the music festival, aided by a kindly florist who helped me pick something appropriate.

A day later, E called.

"Thank you so much for the flowers, L. They're beautiful. I'm looking at them right now. I have to say, you took me by surprise."

"Good surprise, or… not-so-good surprise?" I asked.

There was a pause.

"I guess… I guess I need time to think about this. Is that OK?"

I had been in this situation many times before. Too many. And I knew how it ended. But this felt different. She was genuinely uncertain.

"Of course. I understand. Take as much time as you need."

"Good. I'm glad. I don't want you to think I'm blowing you off."

"I haven't known you long, E, but it's enough that I know you wouldn't do that."

"Thank you. I promise I'll be in touch soon. Take care."

I picked up the letter. It was a card, but, judging from the weight and bulk, clearly held more. I took a breath, reached for my letter opener, and slit it open.

It was, in fact, a card, as well as a ten page handwritten letter. E had clearly spent a great deal of time both thinking and explaining her decision. Without betraying her confidence, it essentially explained her reasons - all of which were completely valid - why she was unable to reciprocate my feelings. It was well written and obviously from the heart. She concluded by saying she hoped we could remain friends, and that she would call in a few days.

I was extremely disappointed, but it wasn't the soul-crushing disappointment to which I'd become accustomed. Her sincerity and genuine desire to remain friends, while a reminder that my interest in her was well placed, also made her decision easier to live with. It wasn't what I wanted, but it was certainly miles ahead of the awkward silences usually I'd experienced in similar situations previously.

E, in her straightforward way, got right to the point when she called, and within moments it was clear that being friends was, in fact, entirely possible. We discussed my upcoming return to school to become a technical writer while also working full-time, which meant I would be working 80-90 hours a week for the next ten months.

"Well now what am I supposed to do when I have a music question?" she grumbled good-naturedly. "Keep a list for the next ten months? You need to let us know about these life decisions ahead of time from now on, buster."

"I apologize. But hey, there's always Thanksgiving and Christmas, you know. So it's really not ten straight months."

"Hey!" she said, excited. "I have a great idea! Why don't you and V come visit over Thanksgiving weekend? It would be a nice break for you, and you could check out my hometown. I think M might even be off from nursing school that weekend. What do you say?"

"I'm in if V is in."

"Then it's done! This will be great!"

***

And it was. V and I left before dawn the day after Thanksgiving, arriving in the crisp late fall sunshine six hours later. E and M's entire family treated us as if we were lifelong friends. Their mother and father insisted that we stay with them after we asked for a hotel recommendation.

We spent the entire weekend on the go, mostly in M's car, which was much less cramped than E's coupe. ("Sporty… yet impractical," as she noted.) M proved to be a surprisingly knowledgeable tour guide, once she overcame her shyness. She even seemed to enjoy our near-constant ribbing about being directionally challenged.

The three days flew by, and before we knew it V and I were back home, having promised to make it an annual pilgrimage. E, typically, called that night to make sure we arrived safely, and we laughed as we recounted the weekend's events.

A few days later, I arrived home from school at 10:30 PM, having been on the go non-stop since 5:00 AM. I grabbed the mail, noticing that one of the Christmas cards bore a postmark from E's hometown. Smiling to myself, I threw it and the Christmas cards in my backpack as I tumbled, exhausted, into bed, making a mental note to read it the following day when I had a spare moment.

During my lunch break the next day, I eschewed eating as I usually did, opting to continue work on my latest programming assignment for school. Suddenly I remembered the pile of cards in my backpack. Joking to myself that Bill Gates could rest easily as I stopped for a moment, I pushed assigned my rudimentary C program and began opening the cards, eventually reaching the card postmarked from E's hometown.

Distracted by a knotty programming glitch I was trying in vain to unravel, I distractedly read the card's contents. It mentioned how much fun she'd had hanging out with me the previous weekend, and went over the highlights.

Puzzled, I picked up the envelope and checked the cancellation date. Tuesday. Why was E rehashing all of this when we'd already discussed it in depth on the phone on Sunday night? I shrugged and picked up the card again.

It continued in a similar vein onto the back of the card and an accompanying sheet of paper. I reached the final paragraph. Again, in the interest of privacy, I'll paraphrase, but essentially it reiterated how much fun she had and concluded by asking if I would like to come back to visit sometime soon - alone this time - so she could get to know me better.

I put down the card, genuinely baffled. I had no idea what to make of this. This didn't sound like E at all. The card's tone was clearly sincere, but the contents completely contradicted the understanding we'd reached just a few months before.

I removed my glasses and rubbed my eyes. I'd have to think about this on the drive up to class tonight. I needed time to think.

I picked up the card and slid it back into the envelope. As I did, my eyes fell on the return address.

The card wasn't from E. It was from her sister M.

***

V shook his head in wonder.

"I don't know how you do it. It isn't enough to have one gorgeous girl invite you to visit her; now her even more gorgeous sister does the same thing! And by yourself, no less!"

We were sitting at V's desk, the card between us. I had just summarized M's invitation.

I spread my hands.

"No one is more surprised than I am, V. I mean, you were there; how do you interpret this?"

He shook his head again.

"She asked you to come up - alone - so she can get to know you better? I'm not exactly Mr. Smooth, but that seems pretty straightforward to me."

I thought about it for a moment.

"I don't know. I mean, I'm not the most confident person in the world either, I'll grant you, but… I really didn't notice any kind of vibe from her, or even pick up a hint while we were up there."

Neither did I," V admitted. "So… what are you going to do?"

"Well, I'm pretty swamped with school and work, not to mention completely broke. But…"

"But what?" V asked.

"I don't know, V. I'm just thinking about what you said last summer when I was interested in E."

"About going for it?"

"Mm-hmm. I mean, this is a pretty odd situation…"

"Yes, it is," V conceded.

"…But she *did* invite me up. That seems pretty straightforward…. I think I have to go."

V nodded.

"When do you think you might go?"

"I don't know; maybe Presidents Day weekend? We have no class that night, so I could leave after work on Friday."

"Wow. That's a long drive by yourself. Especially with the hours you've been keeping."

He tapped a pencil against his teeth.

"How about flying up there?"

"Well, that would be ideal, but… I'm completely broke. I'm barely able to pay my bills as it is."

"What if I gave you the ticket?"

"What? No, V. Thank you, but I couldn't do that."

"Sure you could. I fly all the time for work here; I have more miles than I could ever possibly use. This would barely put a dent in it." He smiled. "Consider it an early graduation present if you want."

I wavered.

"How about if I pay you back when I'm making more money?"

He extended his hand.

"Deal. Now… where's that airline schedule?"

***

Two months later, I looked out the airplane window as the lights of downtown --- shone crystal clear in the frosty mid-winter air as we taxied to the airport terminal.

Here goes nothing, I thought as I removed my bag from the overhead bin. My heart was beginning to pound, and my hands were damp in spite of the frigid temperature.

I was in the last row of the plane, so I was the final passenger to disembark. I looked around. The terminal was empty. M had told me she would pick me up after her shift at the hospital ended, which should have been an hour ago.

"Are you lost, hon?"

A flight attendant, about my mother's age, looked at me inquisitively.

"Oh, no. My… um, friend said she would meet me here."

"I see. The switched arrival gates just before we landed, so she's probably at the wrong end of the building." She pointed to the other end of the terminal. "Is that her?"

I peered in the distance just as the figure turned around. It was M. Spotting me, her expression brightened. She waved and headed in our direction.

"Yes, that's her. Thank you."

"You're welcome." She leaned closer. "She's a lovely girl, and I think you two would make a cute couple. Good luck, hon!"

M walked up. After a moment's hesitation, we embraced, then stood awkwardly. After a moment, M broke the silence.

"Sorry I'm late. We were having trouble with one of the dialysis machines at the hospital."

"Good thing I brought a spare with me, then."

"Be still my heart. A man who actually knows how to pack? I'm impressed."

"Well, I *did* have to check it in. My goal next time is to fit in into my overnight bag."

"Always good to aim for the stars."

She fished her car keys from her pocket as we approached the garage.

"So, are you all set? I'm guessing you're starved."

I dropped the bag into the trunk, climbed into.

"Yes on both counts, actually."

"It's probably too late to get downtown before everything closes, but if you don't mind burgers, there are a good pubs on the way home."

"Works for me."

"If you're not too tired, I was thinking that we could stop off at the heights first. There's a really great spot with an amazing view of downtown."

She smiled.

"It's where all the young kids go."

"Oh, really?"

"Yup. Or at least the young at heart."

Hmm...

***

Ten minutes later, we pulled into the parking lot at the heights. It was a small clearing nestled in the middle of a forest in a secluded spot off the highway. The view was, as promised, spectacular.

After a minute or so of silence, I cleared my throat.

"So, do you have any thoughts on the agenda for the weekend?"

"I do, in fact. There's a really cool exhibit at the art museum, and the new Kieslowski film opened at the Odeon today."

"Red? I've been trying to see it, but my schedule is just insane right now. I'm a *huge* Kieslowski fan."

"Me too! I loved Blue and White, but I've heard this is even better, if that's possible."

"That settles it, then; can we add it to the official agenda?"

"Will do. Do we need to get it notarized?"

"No need; I'm off the clock for the weekend. So, any other thoughts on what we can do?"

"Well, E has plans on Sunday and Monday, but she definitely wants to get together while you're in town, so I was thinking you guys could hang out tomorrow afternoon while I'm cooking."

"What are you cooking?"

Still staring straight ahead, she replied.

"Oh, my boyfriend is having a party tomorrow night."

My stomach clenched as if I'd been gut-punched. The sound of a thousand trumpets rang in my ears. My entire being almost instantly went numb.

This can't possibly be happening, I thought. It just can't. No one would believe it if you tried to make it up.

And then another thought, from deep within, that only crossed my mind on the darkest nights as I spent hour after hour staring at the minutes flip over on my digital alarm clock.

You deserve this.

And then instinct kicked in. I forced the black thoughts back into their box for the moment; I was certain I'd spend countless hours pondering how I could have wound up in this situation. No, the most important thing to do at the moment was to save face. No matter what, the facade had to stay in place. No matter the cost.

"Oh?" I said casually. "What does he do?"

"He's a resident at the hospital. I think you'll like him."

I can't believe I'm having this conversation.

"Have a lot in common, do we?"

"Hmm… no, not really," she said after a moment. "I guess what I mean is, you're so easy-going; I’ll bet you can talk to just about anyone."

Well… I guess we'll put that theory to the test, won't we?

***

The rest of that weekend is an indistinct blur, with one exception. As I stared at the ceiling late that Friday night, I made a conscious decision.

You CANNOT think about this now, I told myself. You have to get through this weekend, and then you have six weeks to finish your portfolio for school. You do NOT have time to feel sorry for yourself. Other people have *real* problems, ones they didn't bring on themselves, so suck it up.

And so I did.

I never once let on that there was anything remotely strange about that weekend. We did go to the party, and, as it turned out, I did like M's boyfriend, who was the consummate gentleman. He quite clearly had no idea who I was when M introduced us, and, to his great credit, he also acted as if there was nothing strange at all about having a conversation with a total stranger that his girlfriend had invited up to spend the weekend.

And I did, in fact, spend the afternoon before the party with E, having lunch at her favorite restaurant (she picked up the check, telling me my out-of-state money was no good). In her typically classy way, E never once alluded to the circumstances that brought me there that February weekend.

As for the rest of the weekend, M and I wound up going to the museum and to the movies, although it turned out that Red was sold out for the late show. Since we were already at the theatre, we decided to purchase tickets for the only other movie that hadn’t started yet: In a twist that I couldn’t possibly make up, the movie turned out to be Before Sunrise. It’s a testament to Richard Linklater’s skill as a writer and director that I not only forgot how odd it was to being seeing that film under those circumstances, but it has since become of my top five favorite movies. (The sequel, Before Sunset, is, miraculously, equally good, for anyone who hasn’t seen them.)

M wouldn’t hear of it when I tried to pay for anything. “Shush - you’re a starving student,” she joked when I protested once too often, adding “E did the same for me until I graduated.”

Similarly, she ignored me when she bypassed the drop-off area and instead pulled into the pay lot, saying no one should have to wait all alone in a strange city.

Moments before my flight began boarding, I excused myself to use the rest room. When I emerged, overnight bag over my shoulder, M was nowhere to be seen. Thinking that perhaps she was one of those people who is unable to say goodbye, I headed toward my gate to board.

“L, wait!”

I turned to see M hurry towards me, carrying a large paper bag and cup of coffee. Breathless, she handed them to me.

“I thought you might want something to nibble on during the flight,” she said.

I opened the bag. It was filled to bursting with Italian cookies, which I had mentioned months before that my father loved.

“M, I could fly to Australia every day for a week and not be able to eat all of these! Please, take this to your family.”

“No, I want you to have them,” she said, pressing them back into my hands. “And eat them all; you’re much too thin. Promise?”

I smiled in spite of myself. “I promise. Mom.”

I glanced at the gate.

“I’d better board. It’s a long walk home otherwise, and I forgot my scarf at home.”

“You’re right,” she said. After a moment’s hesitation, we embraced awkwardly.

“Thanks for your hospitality, M,” I said.

“You’re welcome. I’ll be working by the time you get home, so call E when you get home so we know you got back safely, OK?”

“Will do.”

“OK… well, I’m off.”

“See you.”

From my window seat, I had a clear view of M in the terminal. She waited, unmoving, as the plane backed away from the gate and the terminal receded in the distance.

***
If anyone asked about that weekend, I simply told them I'd enjoyed the sights - at least that much was true - and quickly changed the subject. In fact, I proved to be so adept at it that I could almost convince myself that it really *didn't* bother me that much and that it was business as usual. Almost.

In retrospect, there were clues that this was far from true, although it took me years to make the connection.

I threw myself back into school and work with a vengeance, pushing myself as hard as I possibly could, until I was putting in over 100 hours a week. I lost almost 15 pounds off my already scrawny frame in less than a month. It escaped my notice until I picked up the tux for my brother's wedding and the pants fell to my ankles when I tried them on.

"What do I have to do to be skinny like that?" my brother mock-chided me as the tailor scrambled to take them in.

"My lips are sealed," I told him. And they were.

His wedding, which took place several weeks after my return, was hazy because I wasn't feeling 100%. I typically get sick twice a year like clockwork - once between Thanksgiving and New Years Day and again in March. I couldn't allow myself to get sick with the schedule I had to maintain that year, and I didn't.

But when I went for my weekly allergy shots the week after the wedding, I mentioned in passing to the nurse about to administer the shots that I felt a little bit… off.

"How so?" she asked, needle poised.

"You know, just sort of blah. Oh, and my back feels a little itchy. But I have dry skin, so that’s probably it."

"Let me take a look," she said, lifting my shirt up. I heard her gasp, and then quickly pull down my shirt.

"Umm… I'm afraid we can't give you your shots this week."

"Oh," I said. "Okay."

"We need to call your doctor too."

"Um, okay. But I have to get home; I have to do some school work."

"No, we need to call *right now*," she said in a no-nonsense tone.

"I promise I'll call in a few days, okay? I really have a lot to do tonight."

She looked at me for a moment.

"I need you to see something, OK?"

I shrugged. "Okay."

She moved me to a chair in front of a mirror, picked up a small hand-mirror, and lifted my shirt again.

"I want you to look at your back."

It was covered from top to bottom with huge welts.

"Look at your chest," she said. It was also covered.

"What the heck is this?" I asked her.

"Shingles. You have shingles."

She shook her head.

"And judging from their appearance, you've had them for a while. How…" She shook her head. "Did you really not notice these at all?"

"No," I told her. How had I not seen these? I wondered.

"These are excruciatingly painful for most people," she said in wonder. "Your pain threshold must be off the charts. Have you been under any stress lately? That's the typical cause in young people."

"Well, I'm trying to finish a big project at school, and I'm working two jobs."

"That's a lot. Anything else going on?"

I thought for a moment and shrugged.

"No. That’s it."

And I wasn't lying. It took me years to consider that, just possibly, there might have been another reason my body quite literally took it upon itself to tell me: you need to face reality.

But I couldn't. Or wouldn't.

***

At this point, in light of the past year's events, you would think I would have come to the not-unreasonable conclusion that perhaps it was time to move on. Instead, in essence, I doubled down.

Looking back, I was so afraid to face the truth about myself that I convinced myself that perhaps I could somehow convince E to reconsider. I can think of no other rational explanation for what I decided to do: I would move to E's hometown.

It wasn't as if I lacked options closer to home. The program in which I was enrolled was, and is, considered nationally recognized as one of the best in the country. As proof, a board member's company agreed to perform practice job interviews with the entire class. No actual jobs were at stake; it was simply an exercise to give us experience. Nonetheless, I was one of two students offered a job upon graduation.

I turned it down.

I also turned down several other interviews in the months after graduation, all with prestigious firms in the area that typically did not consider entry-level writers; such was the esteem in which the program was held. But I would only consider companies near E's hometown, which was not a high-tech hot spot by any means.

I had told E of my intention to move there during one of our semi-regular phone calls. These calls, nearly always initiated by E, had stopped after M’s invitation, but resumed after my return from that ill-fated visit. (By contrast, I never once called M, nor did she call me.)

After informing E of my plans, and no doubt acting yet again against her better judgment, she offered to let me stay at her apartment if needed and promised to keep her eyes peeled for any job leads.

Through the program's alumni board, I was put in touch with the regional director for a professional organization that, again, typically did not accept inexperienced writers such as myself. The regional director, F, a woman my own age, was kind enough to make an exception for me, and worked tirelessly searching for a suitable opportunity for me.

Remarkably, she found one. It was with a small startup that was looking for a young writer willing to work hard and grow with the company. The three partners agreed to interview me. E was as good as her word, and let me stay at her apartment. Tellingly, though, in what should have been yet another clear signal to me, though, she said that she would be out of town after my first night in town.

The interview went extremely well. A few days after I returned home, I received a conference call from the three partners. They were not only willing to overlook my utter lack of professional experience and take me on as their first employee, but they offered to help pay my moving expenses and find a place to live. Even at the time, in a booming high-tech job market, this was unheard for a newly christened technical writer.

E's response was pleased but muted when I called to tell her the news. But characteristically, and without hesitation, she offered her help, suggesting suitable neighborhoods and even putting me in touch with her realtor.

I was less than two weeks from moving when I arrived home from work late one crisp October afternoon and noticed my answering machine was blinking. I walked over and pressed Play.

"Hi, L. It's E - "

***

I stared at the answering machine. The Pause button blinked.

Something in the tone of E's voice as I listened to those four words broke through the elaborate delusions in which I had wrapped myself for the past year and a half. Her tone didn't convey anger, or disgust, or even the cumulative weariness of eighteen months of indulging me; it was a quiet determination to finally get everything that had gone unsaid, finally, out in the open.

You put her in this position, I thought, considering for the first time what it must have been like for her to realize she would have to make this call. I closed my eyes, sighed, and hit Play.

"Hi, L. It's E. I hope you're well. I took today off and went out to lunch with my mother, then went shopping with her. We had a really nice time. I don't get to spend anywhere near as much time with her as I wish."

There were several seconds of silence.

"L… we need to talk. When you get this message, would you please call me? I'll be up late, so anytime tonight up until midnight is fine. But… please call. It's really important.

"I hope you're well. I'll talk to you soon. Goodbye."

It was over.

***

Still standing with my jacket on, I immediately picked up the phone and called the start-up. When they answered, too embarrassed to admit the real reason, I lied and told them that I'd unexpectedly received the proverbial offer I couldn't refuse from a local company and had accepted it. Having asked for my word that I wouldn't renege on my acceptance of their job offer, they were, with complete justification, irate. They let me know in no uncertain terms about how utterly unprofessional and selfish my actions were. I had no choice but to take it; they were 100% correct.

I next called F, the regional director who had helped me connect with the startup. I repeated the same lie to her and apologized profusely for wasting her time and expressed regret that my actions might unfairly reflect upon her. Perhaps sensing my discomfort – I was told several times in the past that I was a terrible liar - she assured me I had nothing to worry about, saying she knew several candidates who could ably fill the position from which I had just walked away. I thanked her and hung up.

Now came the hard part. I knew I couldn't possibly call E. I tried to convince myself that it was because I could more fully express my feelings in a letter, but the unvarnished truth is that I l was too much of a coward to call her.

I sat down at my desk, pulled out some stationary, and began to write. I was determined to say what I wanted to say as clearly as possible.

It was a long letter - nearly ten handwritten pages - written without interruption. Again, in the interest of honoring E's confidence, I'll summarize by saying it was essentially an apology for my behavior, and a promise that, having finally acknowledged reality, I would leave her alone.

Several hours later, sitting in total darkness, I finished the letter. I knew from experience that it was unwise to send anything written in the heat of the moment… but this was the exception. Calling upon all of my experience, I had expressed as best I could how I felt. I folded it neatly, placed it in an envelope, adding her address, and sealed it shut.

I glanced at the clock. 8:00 PM. Hoping some fresh air might help, I decided to walk the half-hour to the post office to mail the letter. With a little luck, she would get the letter the day after next; all the better to bring this fiasco to a merciful, long overdue close for her. I shrugged on my coat and headed out into the night.

***

As I walked the near empty streets, my thoughts wandered back several months to mid-summer when my Uncle N, my father's oldest living sibling, was back in the hospital.

Along with my Uncle H, N still lived in the house in which he grew up. Neither N nor H had ever married, nor, to my knowledge, had they ever had a girlfriend or as much as a date. No one in my large, extended family ever commented on this; it simply was.

Perhaps as a result of a life lived in solitude, N was a notorious hypochondriac, repeatedly winding up in the hospital for various, invariably benign ailments. It became a standing joke among the younger cousins. We would all indulge N by visiting him in the hospital, but the jokes certainly continued unabated as soon as we were out of earshot.

When he was diagnosed with an advanced, particularly aggressive form of leukemia and given less than two months to live, I confess that I agreed with the general (albeit unspoken) consensus: he would be gone in a matter of weeks, if not days.

Instead, something remarkable happened.

Faced with mortality for the first time, N rallied, finding a previously untapped will that no one, including, I suspect, N himself, knew existed. His entire outlook on life changed literally overnight. He not only rallied past the two-month death sentence imposed on him; he went into remission, and was sent home with no sign of the disease in his body.

Walking downtown while running errands for work, I ran into N many times over the next two years as he made his daily walk around town. When I would ask how his day was, his reply was invariably the same: "Every day is a good day." Then he would be off on his rounds, waving hello to the numerous passers-by shouting out greetings as they drove past.

So complete was his turnaround that the hospital asked him to come in to speak to patients struggling with their illness. He complied, his message always the same: I beat this; so can you. You just have to believe in yourself.

At the party my parents held for me after I graduated, N, typically one of the first to depart, instead lingered. He shook my hand and told me I should be proud of what I had accomplished. Believe in yourself, he said, and anything is possible.

As N left for the night, I stood at the door with my sister and watched him drive away. I mentioned again how remarkable his turnaround was.

"He's dying, you know," she said in her straightforward way.

"What are you talking about?" I said. "He's been in remission for over two years."

"Mom and Dad haven't said anything, and neither has he, but I'm telling you he's really sick. I can see it."

She was right. Within a few days, N was back in the hospital. His condition deteriorated rapidly, a virus rampaging through his weakened immune system.

Early on a Sunday morning, the phone rang. It was my father. It was the first time I could ever recall him phoning; my mother always called, then he would speak.

"The hospital just called; N isn't doing well at all. We have to go right now," he said. "Your sister is here; we'll come by to pick you up. Your brother and T (my sister-in-law) are going to meet us there."

We drove the half-hour to the hospital in silence. We were the first to arrive. As we stepped off the elevator, T, his critical-care nurse, who had become a de facto member of our family, was waiting for us, her eyes red.

"I'm so sorry," she said, her voice quavering. "N… he passed several minutes ago."

My father, typically reserved by nature, walked over to T and embraced her, whispering something in her ear. Wiping her tears away, she smiled and said, "Thank you."

After a few moments of silence, my sister, a former nursing student, spoke.

"Who was with him when he died?" she asked.

Eyes filling again, T looked down.

"No one. Another patient had coded just a few minutes before, and by the time we could get to N…" Her voice trailed off.

"It's not your fault," my sister said, rubbing T's arm. "He knew you loved him; that's what counts."

"I did." She looked to the nurses’ desk. "We all did."

She took a deep breath.

"N is still in his room. Take as much time as you want. We'll be outside whenever you're ready."

***

As I walked, letter in hand, I thought back to my memories of entering N's room.

He lay in his bed, a peaceful expression on his face.

But alone, I thought. He lived his entire life alone… and he died alone.

For whatever reason, whether by choice or not, N never found anyone to share his life with, even for a short time. Growing up, I vowed more than once that I would never be like N and H. I would do whatever it took to find someone, I promised myself. The prospect of simply… existing, as they had seemingly chosen to do, shook me to my core. Most likely because even at an early age I saw more of myself in them than I could admit.

That night, as I approached the post office, the image of N in his final moments filled my thoughts.

I looked back over my life; all of the futile, increasingly desperate attempts to find someone, anyone, to be with me. All of them leading me here, standing in front of the mailbox, sending a furtive letter of apology in the dark in an attempt to absolve myself of the consequences of my latest attempt.

Not my latest attempt, I thought. My last attempt.

I pictured Uncle N in his bed again. I closed my eyes.

It's time you faced reality, L.

I thought ahead 25, 30, however many years ahead. A light sweat formed on my brow as I summoned up all of my willpower. It was no longer the image of Uncle N, lying alone as he took his last breath.

It was me.

This is what you have to be ready for. Uncle N did it; you can do it too. No more false illusions; no more self-deception. This is reality.

My eyes opened. I grasped the handle of the mailbox and slid the letter inside. I closed the door, then re-opened it out of habit.

No sense taking any chances, I thought as I stared, unblinking, into the darkness. Make sure it's really gone.

***

If anyone asked, I told them that the job fell through at the last minute. Perhaps as a consequence of no longer deceiving myself, my skill at deceiving others improved; no one ever questioned me.

Several weeks after I mailed the letter, I was hired at a nationally known high-tech firm a few towns over from my childhood home. I started just before Christmas, and within months, had a reputation as a diligent, highly motivated employee, willing to work as many hours as necessary. Or even unnecessary.

"It's always a pleasure working on a project with you, L," the assistant project manager told me one day. "You never complain, and you're always smiling. How do you do it?"

“Practice,” I told her, then smiled.

I had concluded my letter to E by telling her that I had decided that the best way to honor her was, quite simply, by leaving her alone. If she wanted to call, I would answer any and every question she had, no matter the topic.

The following summer, on a Friday evening shortly before the music festival where we had met four years before, my phone rang. It was E. She thanked me on behalf of her parents for the Christmas card I had sent them and asked if I had found a job. I told her all about my exploits, noting that my new nickname was "Mr. Readme," which made her laugh.

After catching up on the goings-on of our families - M was still with her boyfriend, as it turned out - the conversation turned to the artists playing the festival. It was, we agreed, a stellar lineup.

"That's why I so bummed out that I won't be able to make it this year," E said. "My boss is getting married that weekend."

"Well, that was really inconsiderate of them," I said.

"I know!" she agreed. "These are the Indigo Girls we're talking about, people! Although they're baby-boomers, now that I think about it, so that probably means nothing to them."

"Tell them they're like Peter, Paul, and Mary," I suggested. "Except there are two of them. And they're both lesbians."

"Right. Other than that, they should have no trouble grasping it."

We both laughed.

"Well, time for me to get going," she said. "Have a great time, and be sure to send me the reviews, OK?"

"Will do," I promised. "Goodbye, E."

"Goodbye, L."

E and I never spoke again.

***

In the subsequent fifteen-plus years, I never spoke to another soul about these events, nor did I ever mention them, even in passing, in my daily journal. The memories were too raw.

After I decided to transition, I thought I would start a blog to work out how I felt about the many, many things I had spent a lifetime pushing away. I didn't really know what that really meant, or what I would actually write about; I just thought it was a good idea to take stock of the events that led me to where I am today: the early stages of HRT.

Much to my surprise, events that I had long stopped thinking about flooded back. More than once I found myself taken aback as these memories, seemingly of their volition, leapt from my thoughts onto the screen. I was amazed at the clarity of these long-ago events in my mind.

I soon realized I needed to write about A <ADD LINK> and, in particular, E.

While I had many other encounters similar to A, something about the events of those few spring days long ago retained a powerful hold over my psyche. Looking back, I've come to the conclusion that it wasn't A's actions that caused this; it was being forced to ask L for help. I had come to rely on myself, in part to prevent others from getting close but mostly because I didn't want to admit I needed anyone.

And this was exacerbated a hundred-fold with E, and, to a lesser extent, M.

Regarding M, I confess that for a number of years I felt exceedingly sorry for myself, although I honestly don’t think I really blamed M. I simply couldn’t get past beating myself up over the entire mess. It was only fairly recently that I faced the hard truth: M had simply invited me to visit; I chose to read into it what I wanted. Nothing stopped me from asking M before I visited exactly what her invitation meant. Nor did it stop me from immediately asking the same question as soon as she told me we were invited to her boyfriend's party. But I chose not to, for whatever reason, and responsibility for that falls on me, not her.

As for E, I hope that I managed to get across some semblance of her warmth, humor, and generosity. Even now, it helps me to somewhat understand why I fought so hard to retain the illusion that I could win her over. I can only hope she found someone who brought her the happiness she richly deserves. She is a special person.

I've discovered that after writing about other painful events, their power over me vanished. Nonetheless, I resisted writing about A and E for a long time; their hold on me remained undiminished all these years later. It wasn't until I concluded that these memories were blocking my progress that I knew I had to finally come face to face with them and put them where they belong: safely in the past. My hope is that having let them go, I can now achieve a semblance of peace as I move forward on my journey. I wish you the same.

***

Yup, you knew it was coming: more Pearl Jam...



 

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