I’m driving north on I-95. The asphalt rushes beneath my tires, and when the speedometer hits eighty, the steering wheel vibrates in my hands, this little sedan protesting. The trees along the interstate burn orange and gold, and the northern half of the East Coast stretches ahead of me. I’m driving north on I-95 in October, which means I feel like someone is dying.
My stepfather’s death two years ago, in 1998, was quick. In September he drank his coffee every morning, went to work as a chiropractor, and treated patients with crooked spines. In October he stayed in bed. By November 1 we’d buried him. That’s not exactly true. We cremated him, and a few days later my mother received the ashes in a cream-colored pot that we couldn’t open. I tried. The lid wouldn’t budge. I was twenty.
Now I’m twenty-two. I’m not driving north to stand around my stepfather’s bed and stare at his pale, gaunt face, once round and full and colored by poolside sun. I’m not driving north to watch him sleep or to mix him another nutrition shake he won’t drink, can’t drink, because his abdomen is swollen with fluid — a defense against the cancer cells’ rapid reproduction.
Why am I thinking of him in the present tense again? This is two years later. This is now. This is the unmistakable present of a Saturday sunrise, and I’m driving north from Baltimore to Delaware to visit a man I’ve started seeing. To hang out, make out, see where this relationship is going. There might even be sex — my first. There’s nothing sad about the occasion.
But this strip of interstate is too similar to the one that took me home to Pennsylvania. Leaves the color of rust on a knife. Leaves like saffron about to fall. Everything about to fall.
Toward the end, when I came through the front door of my parents’ house, I didn’t toss my bags down. I placed them gingerly on the brown linoleum tiles because he was upstairs dying, and when a person is dying, it feels best to go about things gingerly. And so I tiptoed into the kitchen, noted the new pill bottles on the counter, smelled the hopeful herbal tea simmering on the stove, and read the title of the latest book they’d bought (Sharks Don’t Get Cancer) before I headed up to my parents’ bedroom, where a little war was being fought inside his body, a conflict none of us could see. We mostly watched television.
I press my foot on the gas, push the car past eighty, and turn up the music, something by R.E.M. with wah-wah and hard downbeats. I want to make this trip go faster, to get to this boyfriend of two weeks in record time. Justin’s cute. He’s kind. His lips are pink and full, and they kiss mine easily. And he studies Zen Buddhism, the religion I touted months after my stepfather’s death, because it explained to me how attachments cause suffering. “Attachments are causing your suffering,” I told my mother, because I thought if only we could cut ourselves free of passions like scissors snipping through string, then we’d be fine. We’d never hurt again.
I also said to my mother that, according to Buddhists, there is no such thing as an “essential self.” She cried when she heard this. How could there be no essential self in her deceased husband? It was his essential self that she planned to be reunited with in the afterlife! “No, no, I cannot believe that,” she said. As I watched her eyes well up across the kitchen table, I realized that perhaps Buddhism — or my limited understanding of it — wasn’t making me a more compassionate person.
Justin seems compassionate. He listens to me, he prays, he reads the Psalms. He’s ecumenical: both Catholic and Buddhist. And he just spent a year in a Catholic monastery. Of course, a man who was once a monk — who isn’t yet sure if he should still be a monk — is not the likeliest of people with whom to start a relationship.
Still, my foot is heavy on the gas. I’m not sure I can accelerate any more without the steering wheel jiggling off. And that’s when it hits me: I am both longing to reach Justin’s door and afraid to reach it. An invisible string pulls me toward him, and a grief-stricken part of me holds up scissors to sever the cord before someone or something else does.
Blues bursts from the open window as I peek in and call Justin’s name. I spot his head in a blue wool ski cap, and he shouts back, “Hey, girl!”
Inside the house the music is louder. The drum and cymbals tap out a pattern, the piano saunters up to it, and the saxophone sways like a drunk at a jukebox. Then comes a voice I don’t yet know belongs to Muddy Waters.
You need meat? The guitar strums. Go to the market!
The harmonica calls, as if urging the singer on.
You need bread? The guitar strums again. Try the bakery!
It’s been a week since I last saw Justin. His spunky Jack Russell terriers race to nip at my ankles.
If you need love, baby, Muddy shouts, don’t go no further. Just come. On home. With me.
I kiss Justin. It’s quick, uncertain. What am I doing here with these terriers and this blues music?
When the next track comes on, I’m in the kitchen watching Justin cook breakfast, and Muddy sings, She’s nineteen years old and got ways just like a baby child.
“No man,” I say, “should call a woman a ‘baby child.’ ”
“It’s a classic blues song,” Justin says. “Everybody covers it.”
Justin knows I’m a feminist, but he doesn’t know that, because of some experiences I had as a girl, a grown man wanting a “baby child” doesn’t sit well with me, regardless of blues history. The line turns my stomach, brings out an urge to raise my fists and fight, a reflex from the shadowy past when I didn’t feel safe.
But Justin doesn’t seem to notice. He pops open a can of Guinness and pours the foamy beer into a pint glass. “I love to watch it settle.” The caramel-colored bubbles trickle through the black liquid, and a creamy head forms on top. Bacon sizzles in the pan, and I hear Justin’s foot tapping to another tune.
Good morning, li’l schoolgirl. Can I go home with you?
“Now he’s singing to schoolgirls?”
But Justin loves the music too much to scrutinize the lyrics. He’s possessed by blues. When he moves to the rhythm, he doesn’t let his head lead his body the way a cousin of mine does at weddings, biting his lip and sticking his neck out like a pecking chicken. No, Justin feels the rhythm from his middle. The music courses through his stomach and sends shock waves down his legs and arms. He flips thin strips of bacon to the beat.
It’s too much: the loud blues, the smoky aroma of bacon, the dark beer before noon. I don’t know how to say yes to all this sensory input. To pleasure. To loving the beat instead of analyzing the lyrics. I don’t know how to let go.
“How about some John Lee Hooker? Maybe you’ll like him better.” Justin changes the disc.
Hooker’s voice sounds like a dark beer, thick and rich and coming straight from the bottom of the barrel. And the guitar almost skims over it, like that creamy foam at the top of the glass. I lift my toe up and down. I pick up the pint and gulp, taste the bitter foam. This is my first beer before noon. I don’t have rules for these things exactly, but then again, yes I do: Keep everything clean, spotless, pure, untouched. And now look at me, a twenty-two-year-old virgin. I chew on bacon and, after I’ve finished the usual amount I allot myself — three pieces — lick my greasy fingers.
Justin pulls out a bar of dark chocolate and offers me a bite. The cocoa, the beer, the grease, the blues, the soulful voice, his body in the bacon-smelling air, my feverish lust (I want to reach around his narrow, dancing waist): I’m in overload. I’m slipping. I’m saying yes whether I mean to or not.
Whiskey and women, sings John Lee Hooker, almost wrecked my life.
“Doom and gloom,” my stepfather said. Lightning flickered outside the kitchen windows. “That’s what they said. Basically. Doom and gloom.”
“They” were his doctors. I was relieved by the word basically. As long as I’d known him, my stepfather would add basically to his statements whenever they weren’t especially well supported. “The government’s tracking us in our cars. Basically,” he’d said after people started buying little gadgets that let them pass through highway tolls without stopping.
He turned to my mother. “They said I’m a dead man. Basically.”
“No.” She shook her head, always the optimist. “They didn’t say that. They didn’t say that!”
I didn’t know what they’d said. I’d been waiting outside the doctor’s office, reading an old Rolling Stone feature on Bob Dylan’s album Time Out of Mind, a musical musing on mortality. It’s not dark yet, sang Dylan, but it’s getting there.
“We just need to act fast, is all,” Mom said now in the kitchen. “This kind of cancer just moves very fast.”
I stared at the brown and tan linoleum tiles, counted the interlocking squares and rectangles. They’d been there all my life, those tiles, and I’d never really looked at them.
The lightning struck again. How many seconds could I count between it and thunder? I made it to five.
“Do you want a salad?” I asked my stepfather. “I’ll make you a salad.”
He nodded, though he didn’t have any choice: salads fought cancer. I’d already gotten up from the table and was pulling veggies from the fridge. I washed lettuce, chopped tomato, tore broccoli into miniature shrubs.
Then he, the man who normally ate half a carton of ice cream in one sitting, crunched on raw produce and stared into the storm.
I sat down. I got back up. I boiled water and poured it into a mug and dunked a bag of instant coffee in it until the water turned black. OK, I thought. So he’s got cancer. A tumor, to be precise. And let’s be precise. The tumor is as big as a “grown man’s fist.” Which is bad.
Finally I had a real father, a man who loved me — which, yes, is a fairly sentimental phrase, but he did love me in a way my first father hadn’t. For the past ten of my twenty years he’d beamed when he saw me and hugged me heartily, pressed his beer belly into my stomach and lifted me up, squeezing my shoulders until the blades nearly touched. This love was mine, this feeling of daughterhood, and now he might die? Fuck. I thought of hurling the white coffee mug to the floor. But I didn’t feel like cleaning anything up. The mug of coffee sat undisturbed. The intervals between lightning and thunder got longer.
I had to say something. I had to make a point. I had to pour words and words and more words into one inevitable point, like water down a drain. “There is no doubt in my mind,” I started, “that you are going to get through this. I mean, is there any doubt in your mind? Because there’s no doubt in mine. At the very core of me,” I said, pointing to my chest, “I think you’re going to get through this. Do you think you’re going to get through this? Because I think you’re going to get through this!” I leaned back against the chair, relieved that I’d said it, believing that saying it could make it true.
I would never again mistake denial for intuition.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “No doubt, Heath. This isn’t gonna get me.” He shook his head as if shaking away the doubt, which did not exist, and he bit into another forkful of salad greens.
With bellies full of bacon and beer, Justin and I leave through the kitchen door. Out back the terriers wrestle in the mud under a huge trampoline. The sun is strong, a golden liquid. I tilt my face up.
When my feet dip into the slippery synthetic weave of the trampoline, the little pups underneath go wild. I jump up and down, and they take it as a game, nipping when my weight stretches the trampoline closer to the ground. Justin joins me until we collapse.
I kiss him. Why is he blushing?
“We’re outside,” he says.
“No one’s here.”
“But we’re outside.”
“So?” This from a man who drinks beer before noon?
He smiles. “Be patient with me. I’m not used to this.”
I concede. Three months ago Justin was wearing monk’s robes and shaving his head. His blues was an all-male chorus singing the Psalms. I shouldn’t let the decadence of brunch fool me: he’s still got one toe in the ascetic life.
When it gets too cold, we head back inside. He puts on more blues. She’s my baby. She’s my baby, one of three.
“One of three? Three women?”
“It’s ‘what a treat,’ ” Justin tells me. “ ‘She’s my baby, what a treat.’ ”
But every time Muddy sings it, I can’t help but hear a man who can’t commit. A man who might leave.
At 6 AM the sun barely casts its light through the window, and Justin’s already up. No sex between us yet — we spent the night in his twin bed. Now I find him sitting cross-legged on a black cushion, facing the wall, his back toward me, his body strikingly erect, spine perpendicular to the floor. Beside him a long stream of incense smoke rises, then forks, a snake’s tongue searching the room, twisting past his shoulder, forming a cloud over his books on Buddhist philosophy and Japanese history. The smoke dissipates just shy of his desk, where I know rests a letter from a monk in Colorado — a friend who thinks Justin will return to the monastery someday, who hopes Justin won’t get “distracted” while he’s finishing up college. There is no sound. I burrow into his old, thin sheets, tuck them around my sides, snuggle my feet together like two people spooning.
I am falling in love with a monk.
Before my stepfather surrendered to his bed, when the oaks still hung heavy and green in mid-July, the doctors attempted to take the “fist” of cancer out. The morning before the surgery I found him pacing the kitchen. His shoulders were up around his ears, his brow furrowed. “What are you nervous about?” I said. “It’s only cancer.”
It was my ongoing joke. This time he didn’t chuckle. But that was my thinking — put the word only before anything and watch the stakes fall: Only life. Only death. No attachments. If we held it all lightly, nothing would hurt us. I’d signed up for a class in Buddhism in the fall. I was preparing. No pain. No suffering.
But when they split him open that afternoon, the fist of cancer was gripping a million little nerves, holding tight. “Can’t take it out,” the surgeon said. “Not without destroying his arm.”
My stepfather came home shirtless with a tube that drained blood from the incision into a translucent plastic container. He sat in his chair at the kitchen table and smoked Salems with his good hand, tapping his cigarette ash into the old silver ashtray that he’d brought into our house years ago.
“Oh, Heath,” he said, and then we sat in silence. We were in new company. This mute Grim Reaper had taken a seat beside him at the kitchen table. How long would he stay before it was time for both of them to go?
More beer in the morning? “Just one,” Justin’s quick to tell me. It’s Sunday. We’re having brunch.
“Did you drink in the monastery?”
“Just on Sundays. One beer with dinner.”
“But Sunday’s, like, God’s day.” I say the last two words almost mockingly.
“Sunday’s a feast day,” he says. “It’s a day of celebration.”
I realize that when you’re a monk, every day is God’s day. It’s only when you hardly acknowledge any day as holy that you push all sanctity to the end of the week.
“Sunday’s schedule is easier, too,” Justin tells me.
“You got to sleep in?” I’m still harping on the fact that he woke up at three every morning.
“No, but we sometimes had a big dinner. We watched a movie in the afternoon. We did less work, too. No cleaning toilets. No baking cookies.” He tells me about the Sunday-morning services, which were open to the public, and how some women came dressed in low-cut tops, which was difficult for the monks, who were weeding out lust and directing their passions toward God.
“Why’d the women do that?”
“They had a thing for monks.”
“You’d be surprised! The monks get a lot of attention from the women in that town.”
“Did any of them have a thing for you?”
“I felt some of their sexual energies.” He considers this. “One in particular.”
“What did you do?”
“Just let it pass. Didn’t engage it. I wasn’t there to have an affair.”
“Why were you there?”
It takes him two seconds to formulate his answer. “To have a direct experience of God.”
“Did you? Did you ‘experience God’?” I feel strange saying the last two words.
I try to imagine the services, the monks singing the Psalms, turning God’s word into music, and the women sitting in pews with rouge and lipstick and flattering blouses, V-necks exposing their cleavage.
He shows me a picture: three men in an industrial kitchen, stainless-steel counters behind them. I’m surprised to see they wear jeans and sweat shirts. They’re holding bowls of popcorn. This is a direct experience of God?
“Did you ever listen to music?” I can’t imagine Justin without the blues.
“No. We sang the Psalms.” He gets quiet, looks out the window. “When we weren’t singing the Psalms, the Psalms were singing to us.”
“Just think,” my sister said. We were standing on the hill beside the hospital, watching the sun set. “Soon this will be the ‘good time.’ ”
“What do you mean?” I asked. The air was crisp, the sky streaked with horizontal flames. The blue dome of night crept over us like a hood.
“We’ll look back on this day, on this sunset, and it will feel like the good time.”
Because he’s alive now, I thought. Because even though my stepfather was withering in a hospital room behind us, even though the doctors had given him just weeks (they wouldn’t have been surprised by days), even though he looked like a crumpled leaf fallen into a crisp white bed, he was alive. So this was still the good time. Soon we’d look back on this day with envy, because we still had him. Soon we’d want him back.
“Hon, we’ve got a problem,” my stepfather said to my mother. “He broke up with her.” He was talking not about Justin but about my first boyfriend, whom I’d fallen in love with the summer before.
My mother clucked her tongue and said, “Aw.”
“That’s not all,” he said. “She wants him back.” This was a great problem in his eyes: Never want what you can’t have. Never hold on to something that’s slipping from your grasp. Never set yourself up to get hurt like that.
She paused. “OK, but how is it that we have a problem?”
He shrugged. “I’m just saying,” he said, another of his favorite phrases. It meant Listen to me.
My mother still loves to tell me this story: Look at how he wanted to protect you, she’s saying. He wasn’t even your blood.
He was a chiropractor. People entered his office crooked and left standing straight. When I screwed up my knees from running, he fixed them. When I popped a rib out of place, he put it back. He rubbed my temples when I had a headache, which I rarely ever had, because I was a chiropractor’s daughter. I had a model spine.
In a month he started radiation. In another month, when nobody was around, he cried. He admitted this to us later and said it was not from fear of dying. It was from the grief of leaving behind those he loved.
I have to leave Justin on Sunday afternoon. What would it mean if I stayed until dark, watched the sun go down on the weekend and found myself still in the whirl of his blues and his cooking? No. The sun is the voice of reason, and it says I’ve got to leave in the daylight. I’ve got work to do.
I’m driving south, driving away. The leaves are gold and red and brown. They’re falling. Any week now, maybe any day, the sky will turn stone gray, and the birds will have fled. I’m driving south. I’ve said goodbye. Is there any point in loving someone if all I’ll have tomorrow is grief?
Over the phone Justin tells me I’ve replaced the Psalms.
He used to hear the Psalms while he walked the halls of the monastery. They’d drift into his consciousness while he ate, while he worked, while he hiked the Colorado mountains. The word of God infused his world.
My mind is not normally on the divine poesy of God. It’s plagued by chatter. But that’s beside the point. The point is: I have replaced the Psalms. My words are beginning to rise from his subconscious, filling the white spaces of his day. My words are his thoughts. This flatters me to no end.
This also feels like winning — though I hadn’t realized I was fighting.
“Ow,” my stepfather said. “Ooh, ow.”
I looked over from the cot beside my parents’ bed, the one my mother had set up for herself; if they shared a mattress, her every small movement now made him moan. I saw him wince, then settle down. I turned back to the television.
What were we watching? I don’t know. I was lying on my belly, propping myself on my elbows, and I got my own wave of pain — a pinch in my lower back. “Ow,” I said. I changed positions.
What a ridiculous thing, that the same little sound expressed both my minuscule ache and his cancer spreading from chest to belly to spine to brain. What was ow?
“Do you think saying ow is natural or learned?” I asked.
He was right, I thought. We learn our reactions to pain. I stretched my arm over to his bed and slipped my warm fingers into his cold ones. We held hands, and he fell asleep while the TV muttered.
The days leading up to my next visit with Justin creep by like a slow-moving train. I want to speed down the highway to Friday, when I’ll drive to see him.
This weekend also marks the anniversary of my stepfather’s death: October 29.
The Sunday before he died, I saw him for the last time. I remember I pulled my stepfather’s chest to mine and wrapped my arms around his shoulders. They were startlingly bony. His neck was clammy as I pressed him to me and said goodbye for the time being, told him I’d see him next Friday. I headed back to college, went to three days’ worth of classes, had too many drinks alone on a Wednesday, got angry, got sleepy, drifted into a dream where spirits lifted from the earth and bodies sobbed and something got yanked from my stomach. I had the flu by Thursday morning, when I got a call from my mother. He’d died at 6 AM, the hour at which he religiously woke.
He dies in four days, I think now. This is how I think of it, as though he’ll actually die all over again.
I miss you, I think. I think this all the time: When I see his picture, his grayish-brown crew cut, his smiling eyes. When I remember something he said about health (Don’t listen to the FDA. They always underestimate how much vitamin C you need), or about boys (Ninety-five percent only want one thing), or about politics (That Ross Perot, at least he’s not out to get you), or about the body (Everyone has an innate intelligence. That’s God. God’s in you). I think, I miss you. This simple response, this pure absence is what hurts most. The perfect void. The low sound of ow in response to the throbbing hole in my chest.
But this year my mind doesn’t rest long on the date. My mind doesn’t rest long on anything other than Justin.
Our nightly phone conversations are about nothing and everything. We might as well exchange hums or coos. I tell him about my stepfather and about the month of October. I tell him about my first father, how he frightened me, how he left when I was twelve. I tell Justin I’m a virgin. He says, “It’s all practice. Everything. Life is practice.” I tell him I’m nervous. I tell him I’m thrilled.
It’s still October. The sun hasn’t turned to orange ice just yet. It’s nearly the weekend. All I want to think about is blues and bacon and beer in the morning. All I want to hear is the cry of every one of my cells for an encore of the weekend before, when they joined with his and sang.
I would rise up with the devil. Oh yeah, I’d breathe smoke and fire. Cross a river on a tightrope. Walk a canyon on a wire.
I’m not a replacement for the Psalms. He’s mistaken. I’ve fooled him. I’m deceiving.
Or he’s lying.
Or, if I can replace the Psalms, then they can replace me back.
It’s homecoming weekend at my alma mater. Justin was once the partying college student, but the monastery washed out his debauchery, and I’m a working woman, so I feel too old for it. Still we venture to the tailgating party with a flask of moonshine and two bottles of beer. It’s a ritual we both enjoy.
I marvel at the professional tailgaters who remember not only tables and chairs but tablecloths. They have the obligatory coolers of cheap beer but also cheese trays and macaroni salads. Someone lights a grill and cooks hot dogs. Justin and I have two protein bars and two apples in his cream-colored satchel. He’s the kind of man who can carry a satchel comfortably, who owns a rusting flask, who chooses one thick stout beer over four watery Budweisers.
“Justin!” a friend shouts among the crowd. He presses shots of whiskey on us.
“No, thanks,” I say. I’ve met this guy before. He smokes pot every day in a cold house with decaying crown molding and two huge, shedding retrievers. They roam in and out of his bedroom, their claws clicking on the wood floors. The covers of used philosophy books curl up toward his ceiling.
Upon seeing him, Justin exhibits the same enthusiasm that he does when a blues CD starts spinning in the player, and he takes the shot immediately. I don’t know if he wants it exactly, but I know he wants communion. Whiskey here is like bread and wine.
“Come on, Heather,” says the friend.
“No, man, sorry,” I say. “It’s against the Tao.” They both studied Eastern philosophy.
“It’s against the Tao!” the friend repeats and laughs.
The police kick all the tailgaters out of the parking lot — there’s an ordinance — and Justin and I are among the refugees left to wander the area surrounding the stadium. We walk and walk until we reach a vast stretch of grass, which we sprawl out on as if it were a great bed. Brick Jeffersonian buildings surround us. We’re far from drunk, but we’ve been around drunks long enough to have lost our inhibitions. We kiss in public.
A group of passing girls shout, “Whore! Whore!” and laugh.
This time I’m the one blushing. I hide my face under his body as he laughs. “Why am I the target?” I ask.
They’re incessant. They don’t let up until they’re beyond hearing.
Back in his rented room we remove layers of wool. He plays more Muddy Waters. The piano, bass, and guitar descend a scale as if it were a stairway. Then the harmonica just slides right down the banister with one loud blast. The swaying beat reminds me of a woman’s hips knocking from side to side.
I don’t want you to be no slave. I don’t want you to work all day. I don’t want you to be true.
We start kissing again on his bed.
I just wanna make. Love to you.
He moves my hand toward his pants, and I pull it away. “I’m sorry,” I say.
“Why won’t you touch me?” The word me means a very particular part of him that I’ve been avoiding for weeks. He’s noticed. I’m embarrassed that he’s noticed.
But there aren’t words to explain why I won’t touch him. So I just say, “It doesn’t help when you call attention to something that I already have a thing about.” My tears are hot and thick. I turn my head away and shut my eyes. Don’t get near this, I’m saying, but I’m praying he will.
“I’m sorry,” he says. He tries to bring my eyes to his. “I’m sorry,” he repeats. He curls himself around my waist and begins to stroke my back.
When will all my walls come down? When will everything become one big open space, where the wind can pass as smoothly as a note through the mouth of a choirboy, or a monk chanting the Psalms?
Justin sits up and says he feels bad. He looks as if he had a stomachache and leans back against the headboard.
“What is it?”
“I just don’t feel good.”
He looks surprised by his own answer. “Because you don’t feel good. I must really like you,” and a smile spreads across his face.
I wake at 5 AM to a sleeping boyfriend and a quiet dawn, and I consider going for a walk. October has reliably beautiful weather. You never know with April or May. Twice in Philly we had two feet of snow on the first day of spring.
On this day two years ago my stepfather died. I understand why the soul might leave its body in October. This month feels like home before a great trek into the dark.
It would be nice, I suppose, to go for a walk and consider the significance of this day. I would have done it last year. Sometimes, though, people stop observing anniversaries. Sometimes they just go back to sleep, then reawaken in midmorning, dreams already forgotten.
It was just the two of them when he died, my mother said. My stepfather told her, “I love you,” and she said, “Breathe, Ed. Breathe!” because he wasn’t breathing. Because she wanted to keep him.
Without ties of blood or genes I became his, and he became mine. The choice was easy and generous and boldly unselfish. We each offered and received. Like breathing itself. I am more blessed than bruised.
When Justin and I make love, it’s like breathing in and out, slowly, mindfully. We make love because October feels like being home. And we make love because I no longer feel the need to guard myself, to mourn. We finish, and we cuddle, and then we make love again, anchoring our eyes to each other’s.
This is it: The body. The blood. The union. This is the great risk, embraced.