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November 12, 2004

J. (1)

[The titles of these posts have been changed for clarity. - CC ]

Elissa and I had been living together for a year and change. It wasn't going well. Not a good fit. She felt, I think, that she had foolishly restricted her romantic choices by inviting me to live with her. I felt... well, I wasn't in love. When things were good, she could be entertaining and generous with her attention. When things were bad, I withdrew into sullenness. Elissa got angry. She was good at cutting, cruel comments.

At one point, she informed me that I was going back to Buffalo on vacation. She had a forceful personality. She needed some room. I went, had a passably good time, and came back to a home in Berkeley that was marginally more pleasant. Then the tension started building up again, as it will when people in their early twenties move in with one another. Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

I quit my job making espresso and sandwiches at the Caffee Durant. Beto, the short-order cook and manager, had given a raise to everyone but me. When I asked why, he explained in no uncertain terms. I walked. My friend Herb, whom Lou Gehrig's Disease had made a quadraplegic, offered me a job as his morning attendant. I'd arrive at six in the morning, bathe him in bed, get him dressed and in his power chair and fed, and be done around ten and free the rest of the day. After a month, I wandered back to the Caffee Durant for an afternoon snack. Beto sat me down at one of the outdoor tables. "Listen, Coyote" - Coyote, pronounced with two long "o"s, was my nickname among my Mexicano co-workers at the Caffee Durant; the only nickname I've ever had - "I need you to come back."

"Thanks, Beto, but I already have a job in the mornings now."
"You work in the afternoons, then, Coyote. I raise you to four twenty five an hour."
What could I say?

Elissa and I lived in a crummy Berkeley apartment with housemates Rob and Charlie. We'd all met at the UC Berkeley Draft Counseling Center. A series of friends, and friends of friends, crashed on our couch for as much as a couple weeks at a time. Stray cats from the neighborhood wandered in, stayed for good.

Elissa left for her parents' house in Los Angeles for a weekend. I struggled home Friday evening after my 12-hour workday. J. was there sitting on the front step. She was a friend of Katherine, who had been staying on our couch for a while. J. had come up from Southern California for a surprise visit. Katherine was away for the weekend. Oh, well! She came in anyway. I was pleased: J. was good company.

Elissa had "dated" other men in the year and a half we'd lived together, and though we had lately drifted into monogamy she maintained that any semblance of exclusivity was a mere fluke, an effect of my taking up all her free time. The last time Elissa had said so, J. had been in the room. The night of J.'s surprise visit, it took almost no time at all for the conversation to turn intensely personal. We were both lonely.

We went for a walk hours later, watching the moon through the purple-leafed plums, smudging the storefront windows as J. admired the fabric in the sari shops along University Avenue, stopping for coffee at the Old Mole bookstore. It took us two hours to walk barefoot the half mile to downtown Berkeley, stopping to look at every distracting and wonderful thing we found. At midnight we hopped into the BART station to ride one stop north back to the apartment. The train came; J. stood next to the edge, and the rush of air whipped at her skirt and short hair. She grinned. "I love doing that."

When J. left at noon the next morning I'd been reminded how things could be between two people. This made Elissa's return and the further unraveling of goodwill between us all the more pointed. A couple months went by with me mainly working and staying away from the apartment, and then, after another argument, Elissa went back to LA for two weeks.

A week into Elissa's trip, J. called. I was astonished at the joy I felt when I heard her voice. Though she had at first written off our time together as a friendly and casual liaison, she said, she realized more and more that she missed me, and she wondered what the likelihood was that I might want to be with her.

I said that it would be a wrenching transition - I was still fond of Elissa - but that it would probably be the best thing to do all around, because I was pretty sure I was in love.

J. took a deep breath, then told me a bit more news she'd been withholding until she got my answer to her first question.

I hung up the phone two hours later, exhilarated and scared out of my wits. I would wait for Elissa to come home, we'd sit down and have the talk Elissa had warned me we'd have about our future and the thread by which it hung, and take the pressure off her by promising to leave. I'd move to Riverside with J., find a job, and get ready for the arrival of our child in seven months. J. would wait until I moved in to give her family and friends the news. "I know that seems strange, but I think it's really best," she said.

"What about Katherine? I'm having lunch with her next week."
"Oh, you can tell her. No, wait. Tell her we're moving in together, but let me tell her the part about the baby."

The next week passed excruciatingly slowly. I sleepwalked through days, came to myself only during the long phone calls each night. Two nights before Elissa was to return, J. wished me strength, said she'd be away from the phone the next evening, told me she couldn't wait to see me, told me she'd lined up a job interview for me in a cool cafe near "our apartment."

She needed to hop on her bike and get to the grocery store before it closed. She told me she loved me, and hung up.

Herb was in a good mood the morning after next, but then he usually was. I wetted the washcloth, reached down behind him, and lifted him away from the cushion to scrub his back. "More on the left side," he asked, and I moved the cloth. "More on the left side, he repeated. I started giggling. "What's so funny?" "I'll wash wherever you want, Herb. You don't have to call me a moron." Herb's lungs were weak, and it was risky for him to laugh too deeply while supine. He blinked hard to keep from chortling.

We finished early, and I walked through downtown Berkeley to the Caffee Durant, drinking in the sights I'd soon be leaving: the hills, the lefty posters on the telephone poles, the bookstores, the litter. It would have been bittersweet if I hadn't been so joyous. Telegraph Avenue was busy, but the Caffee was dark and quiet. Parviz, the owner, handed me a piece of paper folded tightly. "Your friend Katherine was here. She left this for you." I thanked him and he went upstairs to his office.

The note was on gray, lined paper ripped out of a steno pad. Katherine's angular handwriting kept neatly to the faint lines.

"Chris; J. is dead. She was hit by a car while riding her bicycle the other night. I am going down to Riverside for the funeral this weekend. I have to bail on our lunch date. I'm sorry. I'll call you when I get back."

I read it again. And a third time. Folded the paper back along the sharp creases Katherine had put there, put it in my pocket, worked my shift. Elissa came home, apparently having forgotten about our scheduled talk. She didn't seem curious about why I wanted so badly to hold her. I never told her.

The next year we moved to DC together: Elissa had made it to law school. I commuted to work on the Metro, standing close to the edge and wishing the wind off the train would whisk me from the platform.

It wasn't until 1989, when Elissa met the love of her life and we parted, that I told anyone about J. and I. I told myself all those years I was keeping the promise I'd made to her, secretly terrified of what might happen if I admitted the loss. Katherine was the first person I told. Exactly as according to plan, just six years late.

Her parents never knew, Katherine said. The car did enough damage that J.'s gender was determined through dental records. Forget about finding evidence of pregnancy. (I never met J.'s family, and I've hidden her name, which did not start with the letter J, and she didn't live in Riverside.) Katherine sighed, a catch in her throat. "She was so lonely in love. She was wonderful, and I always wanted some man to realize it."

"You guys would have been great."

Would we? The writer in me wanted to end this story on the train platform in Washington. But it seems dishonest to tie things up so tidily. If J. had lived, there's a good chance she could not now hear my name spoken without snarling. You think Elissa was wrong about all those faults of mine she always pointed out? Becky has worked and worked to train her husband in the art of humanity. If J. had lived, it's likely I would have failed to successfully support our family, my profound artist's pain interfering with such pedestrian trivialities as getting to work at 8:45 or making sure the gas bill got paid. We were too young, far too young. I spent the next ten years blaming everyone for my unwillingness to work, denying the injuries I'd suffered and sinking into drink and bitterness. If J. had lived, I would probably now have an impossible relationship with a 21-year-old kid who found me reprehensible and wished I could pay her tuition, and a once-true-love who communicated with me solely via attorney.

If only. I wouldn't trade my life today for anything. But god, I wish sometimes J. had gotten the chance to learn to resent me.

Continue reading J. (2).

Posted by Chris Clarke at November 12, 2004 06:27 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

1 blog(s) linking to this post:

Telling the Hard Story
Excerpt: Chris at Creek Running North has written an account of an experience in his life that will stop you in your tracks. One of the best blog posts I have ever read, capturing the heart of why I blog, and...
Weblog: Laughing ~ Knees
Tracked: November 13, 2004 09:01 AM
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Came home tonight in an unusually black mood, my mind full of baroque-yet-airtight arguments for why I will always be alone, and wondered: "Do bloggers ever let their private self-reproach play out in their blogs? Not just the fashionable self-doubts of the artist, but those deep pain-forged certainties about one's failure as a human being. And when they do, what response do they get?"

And then I found this ...

Thank you.

Posted by: Jarrett at November 12, 2004 08:33 PM
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Oh, Chris. I'm speechless.

Thank you.

I'd ask, again, helplessly, for more, but I'm afraid of what I might come back here to find.

Thank you.

Posted by: Siona at November 12, 2004 10:34 PM
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This is the first time ever while reading a blog that a story caused my heart to stop for second and a chill swept through me. I wasn't expecting such a turn in the story. But it rang so true that I pushed myself away from the desk and shook myself to clear my head. One of the best blog stories I have ever read. This is what I seek everyday in the blogs I read, and why I read them. I'll be thinking about this and feeling it for quite some time to come.

Posted by: butuki at November 13, 2004 08:49 AM
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I followed the link here from Laughing Knees not knowing what I was going to find. I am so glad I did. Your honesty is still sending ripples through me.

Posted by: Euan at November 13, 2004 09:58 AM
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I'm speechless!

Posted by: Rita Xavier at November 13, 2004 10:05 AM
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Wow. Amazing story, Chris. Thank you for posting this.

Posted by: leslee at November 13, 2004 10:25 AM
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Admiring. Respectful.


Posted by: SB at November 13, 2004 11:17 AM
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I'm not even sure of what to say or write in response. That was powerful.

Posted by: the_bone at November 13, 2004 12:48 PM
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That's a big story. And a lot of feeling crammed into a small space. Inside and out I guess.

Posted by: Coup de Vent at November 13, 2004 02:13 PM
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Blogs make me mad, blogs make me laugh, and blogs make me think. This was the first time a blog made me cry.

Posted by: steve at November 13, 2004 02:21 PM
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My own personal senilodrama has been one of slugs and razors lately, and I'll confess to having felt repeatedly kicked in the belly over recent events, keeping me down before I can even catch my breath. Yours is a humbling, timeless, a most inspiring call-to-arms, ad inf. Thank you.

Posted by: termagaunt at November 13, 2004 03:25 PM
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And so, while weeping and blubbering and sniffling, the girls asked me, "What's wrong, Mommy??"

"I never knew! He never shared this with me!"

I've come to the painful realization that I don't know my own brother.

Oohh, my heart goes out to you, Chris, for the past, present and future. I feel the tearing in my chest.

P.S. Becky has done a great job!!!

Posted by: Carrie at November 14, 2004 11:11 AM
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Don't feel bad, Carrie; I got into the habit of not talking about it pretty quickly.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at November 14, 2004 11:26 AM
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I'm horribly sorry Chris.
I hope writing it helped do what hiding pain so often doesn't do, heal it. I can't imagine, getting through this without the whole world falling around me. You are one strong man.

Posted by: susurra at November 14, 2004 04:59 PM
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Another reader bowing respectfully.
This was honest and beautiful and surprising. What I liked best of all was at the end: your clear-eyed debunking of any myth-making of your own.
Thanks for sharing this with us.

Posted by: elck at November 15, 2004 06:58 AM
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such honesty. one never knows where a single thread in our lives could have led. i'm sorry, chris, that you had to experience this in your life.

Posted by: Anne at November 15, 2004 08:14 AM
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Yeah. Sometimes I wake up completely bewildered. Why am I still here when they are not?

A question that presupposes absurdities, but I can't always refrain from asking it.

Posted by: dale at November 15, 2004 04:47 PM
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Jesus, what a story. A fine time I picked to get behind in my blog reading! I can't wait to see what you follow this up with. Good thing there's still plenty of wine left in the bottle. I'll be dreaming about this one tonight.

Posted by: Dave at November 18, 2004 05:34 PM
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