Last time I saw her, it was at a fucking funeral.
Her mother had been having health problems and her father had neglected to take her to the hospital, so Claire, from states away, had to call a hospital nearby her parents and send an ambulance to pick her up. I can’t recall what the health issue was, but she met her end soon thereafter and Claire came down for the funeral. I hadn’t seen her in years and not to sound selfish, but this was kind of the epitome of awkward. Me in a church, for one; for another, this was a time of grief and I was happy, relieved to finally see her, and had difficulty suppressing my happiness despite the circumstances.
Her and I didn’t get to talk much, but just seeing her, it’s like my soul had been holding its breath for years and could finally exhale.
Now she was returning for her high school reunion, or at least that was her excuse for escaping Iowa to visit Ohio for a few days. Whatever the reason, I didn’t care, I just desperately wanted to see her. The day she decided to come down and bought the plane tickets she sent me several texts in a row, clearly hyped up about the trip (though her new medication undoubtedly played a role as well) and told me she wanted to see me. We planned on meeting at my parents house on a Friday, and then she wanted me to go to a party with her the following Sunday, so I immediately requested the day off.
I left Thursday after work, slept at my parent’s house (something I rarely do, but I was terrified about not waking up on time) and felt my anxiety growing the following morning as I awaited her arrival. The day was beautiful so I sat beneath a tree in the yard by the barn, sipped my java and chatted with my parents.
They had been seeing a lot of me this summer. For whatever reason, the visits there seem to improve my otherwise perpetually shitty mood. I miss my family and I miss being close to nature, close to the forest around their house. I miss the sky and all the stars you see without that blasted light pollution. It soothes my dark, twisted, tense little soul.
When she started coming down the long driveway in her rental car, I thought I was going to burst. She parked, got out and we hugged. She hugged me tightly. Like a vice. Any tighter and we would’ve melded into a singular entity. I could have happily died there.
Maybe, maybe neither one of us ever have to let go, I thought.
After that, it was as if I didn’t know my role, as if I’d forgotten my lines. As if I didn’t get the script. What am I supposed to do now?
We walked around the yard, took a look at my mother’s nursery, and Claire spoke about wanting to buy a plant from her for someone, I believe it was the friend she was staying with. Then we sat down at the table on the porch, where we drank coffee and talked.
My parents adore Claire and they always have. They liked Anne, too, and would occasionally ask about her when her and I were still speaking, but Claire always seemed to be the one on their mind. I’m sure that part of it is because they know how much she means to me, but I know it goes beyond that. They truly adore the girl.
My mom explained how she still remembered her as the skinny girl with hot pink hair who had moved down here from California. How teachers had pulled mom aside to warn her about Claire, which she found funny, as she had been to the house and seemed quite likable.
Claire spoke about her job, her three kids — one who just graduated high school and is entering college, one who is sort of a troublemaker, sneaking out, having sex, doing drugs. The middle child, he doesn’t stick out so much in my mind; he must be a sort of balance betwixt these extremes.
Thing is, Claire has led a life that is, on the surface, quite a successful one. She has a career, a house, has been a good mother to her kids, has attempted marriage more than once and survived divorce, she pays the bills and so on — and yet there’s this darkness, this dismal lack of satisfaction in her life. It’s like she’s constructed this epic costume, this wonderful mask, found her place in the game but she’s too damned intelligent to let herself be fooled by the illusion. She doesn’t see it, but beneath the illusion she is atypical in the most amazing ways.
She’s been married a few times, as I mentioned, and I remember her explaining her relationships with these men and how they don’t know her past, don’t seem to resonate with her on an emotional or mental level or even see her on that level and it always confused me. She never seemed to see it as a necessary component of a relationship, or at least that’s the impression I’ve always had. And it truly astounds me, because she is so goddamned interesting. Why wouldn’t she want to share it with someone, share her authentic self with someone she was at least planning at the time to spend the rest of her life with? Why would she want to spend her life in hiding?
I think she feels like an imposter, a fish out of water. Like wherever she goes, there she is, someplace where she doesn’t belong. Perpetually and irreversibly out of her element. And I feel the same way. Or maybe I’m just fooling myself into thinking that’s how she feels. Maybe this is just me projecting myself onto her because she means more than the fucking world to me.
Her talk with my parents solidifies my suspicion that she has indeed found what she has always sought: roots. She wanted a sense of belonginging, a sense of community, a sense that she has a place, and she has it, she’s fucking earned it, and it makes me happy for her — and depressed in ways I can never hope to properly articulate, because I am not a part of it.
And coulda-been thoughts are pointless, but had I played my cards right, I just maybe could have been a part of it. Maybe. And I have an abundance of regrets about my post high school decisions, with the two big ones being: I should have gone to school for art and I should have fought to keep Claire as a girlfriend. I could have fought to be with her that last time, struggled to make a life with her, had a starring role in her story and had her in a starring role in my own life narrative. But it took all the effort in the world just to tell her that I loved her, and I only accomplished that, after much effort and agony, right before she went into the Army.
And it blows my mind that that was nearly two fucking decades ago, and that I’ve known her for 23 years.
They say that youth is wasted on the young, implying that with age comes wisdom, but I’m not so sure we wouldn’t fuck it all up again if given another chance.
After we talk at the table awhile, my parents get up and announce that they’re leaving us, giving us some time to talk alone. The sinking suspicion I’ve been trying to ignore and overcome during the collective conversation suddenly inundates me, no longer deniable: I’m the same pent-up, anxious, unambitious, fucked-up boy she left behind two decades ago. I’ve accepted the girl as the love of my life, fantasized about seeing her again for years, and — nothing about me has changed. I’m so locked up around her, and it hits me so hard how little I’ve evolved, how far I have not come, how utterly fucking hopeless I am. I felt like a teenager again, wanting to kiss her but too shy to do so. Wanting to fuck her, the only girlfriend on my short list of girlfriends that I’ve never fucked, like crazy — and the potentiality never seemed farther away.
I just really, really don’t like myself sometimes and after seeing her again, in the midst of seeing her again, I liked myself even less. She may not be happy with her life, but she tried, she raised three kids, built a career. I’m in essentially the same place. A little hamster running madly on his dizzying wheel. Forever in motion yet never getting anywhere. Always wanting to change but forever seemingly incapable of doing so.
I remember that a friend dreamt once that I was a Christmas tree. It was an old roommate, Sandra, and at first it perplexed me. How on earth was I like an evergreen? The more I chewed on it, the more it seemed so fitting. It still does, which only furthers the point. No matter the season, I remain unchanged. Same job, same anxiety and depression, same anger issues, same incapacity to develop and nurture a meaningful relationship with a girl or even accomplish the most basic, instinctive function and get fucking laid again already.
I mean, it’s been a seven year dry spell. Wandering in the desert of circumstantial abstinence, distracting myself with pornographic mirages. Not to sound shallow, but one would think I could’ve at least gotten my dick wet by now — if I knew the first thing about approaching a girl.
Claire keeps telling me how comedian, actor and podcaster Marc Maron reminds her of me. At first I didn’t see it, but watching videos of him, its beginning to become apparent. He’s neurotic, hypersensitive, self-involved. He goes on tangents, he’s self-loathing, he alienates people. He likes coffee and nicotine. He lives alone.
Still, he’s successful. He gets laid. He earns money pursuing his passion.
Me? I hate my job. At work I’ve been getting that sense that I’m moving through tar. Like my feet are lead. I just feel heavy. I feel weak and low energy. It feels like such effort has to be invested just to go through the same old motions and every day seems insurmountable. It’s not. I do it. I just feel that in this job I’m dying inside, you know? I should have watched this place shrink in the rearview a decade ago, but: I’m the evergreen.
Back in 1998, when I worked at the grocery store, there was this lady I worked with. Her name was Patty. She had read some of the shit I’d written in the e-zine and seemed to hone in on Cumbersome, which was the story I had written about meeting Claire. She asked a lot of questions, the kind of questions I often imagine a successful novelist might be asked if engaging in an interview with a borderline-obsessive fan.
One day she asked me a particular question, and though I can’t be sure, I think it was this: what is the greatest compliment I could ever honesty give to Claire? I’m not sure what my answer was, but she then referenced the movie As Good As It Gets, starring Jack Nicholson and Jodi Foster. She specifically referenced a scene in which he tells her he has a compliment for her, goes on a shpeil, and then condenses the compliment down to a single sentence: “You make me want to be a better man.”
Twenty years later, I get it. I am there. She is wonderful, beautiful, all I want and need, and I am so hopelessly fucked up, and: she makes me want to be a better man.
But I am a bitter man. A lost boy. An evergreen.
We walk to the barn. Memories. Later, we leave and drive around the school, now closed down, and then to the ledges. More memories. We park and are about to go into the local diner when I realize I don’t have my wallet, and having her pay would kill me, so I remind her that my parents wanted to make us food. So we go back to my parents. When she was finally ready to leave, she asked me to walk her to her car, which I desperately wanted to do anyway. I wanted to kiss her, but I just hug her. Lost in the vice again, ready to die in those arms, and when she released, I must have had a look on my face.
“You’ll see me again,” she said.
Imagine taking a railroad spike, ramming it into my chest, and then pounding it into me with a sledgehammer.
It made me think of Kate, the second girlfriend who turned out to be a Virgo from California with tattoos of the sun, moon and stars on her body. In the midst of a short, intense relationship with promise, she left to visit her parents in California and said the same thing the last night I dropped her off — and she never came back.
Damn, I have the tendency to hang onto things.
Though skip a day, and I saw Claire again at the party she wanted me to go to with her. It was down the road from my parents house; still, it’s nonetheless amazing that I found the place without getting lost. The place itself was pretty cool. There was an awesome mural I saw on my way to the restroom and there were tigers everywhere. Not real tigers, of course. Big stone tigers. Stuffed tigers. Most of the time I spent sitting at a table in the back porch surrounded by people I hardly knew or may have only met once or twice two decades ago.
Then Claire’s cousin, Jolene, showed. I’ve always valued the lady because for the entire time in which I’ve known Claire she was the only one that she lived with who actually seemed to care for her and give her a sense of stability. She also got it into her head that I was gay, however, though I could never determine if she seriously thought that or it was just sort of a running joke. Being 39 now with no girlfriend and no kids had done nothing but reinforce the notion in her mind, I was sure, so whatever social anxiety I had been feeling only elevated when she walked onto the porch. She was nice, though, in her characteristically sarcastic, firecracker sort of way.
At some point Claire, sitting beside me, asked me if I wanted a drink, and I pretended to hesitate a moment before explaining, “yes. Yes I do.” She poured me some off-brand cola and chunks of ice in a plastic cup and poured in some whiskey, which tasted remarkably good. I wanted to get drunk, but I knew I wouldn’t. I don’t often do so in social outings anymore because I’m afraid of driving under the influence and I want to be able to leave when the mood strikes me — which is to say when I’m on sensory overload and the anxiety becomes too overwhelming. But a little social lubricant helped.
I mostly just interacted with the animals, however, which is sort of my default in social situations when the option is available, and generally-speaking, animals seem to like me. I spoke a bit with Antonio’s brother (married to Jolene) and then, once they arrived, Antonio and his girlfriend.
Claire’s father also showed. This part was unexpected.
Oh, her fucking father.
He needed to get his medicine at one point and Claire had me go with her as she took him to his house. As he sat and kept on about his bills, desperately, obviously trying to manipulate Claire, I stared at his refrigerator. It was covered in magnets, one for every state him and his late wife and, when Claire was younger and they hadn’t dumped her on this or that relative, Claire had temporarily landed in.
This is why she never felt like she had a family, why she wants stability but feels so awkward when she finds it, why she ached to develop roots. They were nomads. He destroyed her, and this cold machine in his little kitchen celebrates the journey of her destruction with souvenir magnets.
I fight my reactionary empathy, try not to fall under the spell of compassion when it comes to him.
We went back, I hung out a bit more and then it felt like it was time to leave. Claire walked me to my car. Hug again. Please crush me. Let me die. And I leave, back to being stuck in an inhale, and stop at my parents before heading home to my apartment.
They’re sitting in the front room in front of the television. We talk briefly and they offer to buy me a plane ticket to go down to Iowa and spend time with her. It’d be something to write about, my father says. Just think about it, says mom. It has to hurt feeling so connected to someone who lives so far away.
And I think to myself, Fuck. Dad, even mom, she actually seems to get it.
Sitting down, I stretch my arms, let my head fall back, trying to keep the tears I feel creeping from leaking out my eyes. Holding it in, determined not to break. Breathe. Just bloody fucking breathe, you pathetic price of shit.
“Just think about it,” mom repeats.
I drive home cursing myself.