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November 21, 2004

J. (6)

[This is the sixth and last in a series of posts which are probably best read in order, though some effort has been made to make each installment capable of standing on its own. The series starts with J. (1), continues with J. (2), and then J. (3), J. (4), and then J. (5). - CC ]

Night turns slowly to dawn in the west Mojave. Black envelops sky and earth. The dry air does little to mask the stars. A dozen miles away ten thousand bright pinpricks, like stars but brighter and more constant, spread across the ground. The lights of a borax mine, I learned later, but it seemed the stars had spilled out onto the ground there to burn against the desert soil. What was the soil, and what the sky? It wasn't until the first pale purple filtered through the eastern sky at 4:30 am that the horizon fixed itself, grew hills and Joshua trees and signs marking state route 58 near Boron.

My second morning waking in the Mojave, and I was again in Elissa's car. It was no accident this time.

We'd come back to the Bay Area two years earlier, in 1987. Elissa had passed the bar on the first try, gotten a job, become close with a fellow attorney, and asked if I minded if she pursued a second relationship. We muddled through polyamorously for a few weeks. The new love quickly took precedence. To compensate, Elissa and I planned to spend some time together in Los Angeles at her parents' house. The second day, he called and asked her to fly back early.

You don't mind driving my car back alone, do you Chris?
Sure. You bet, Elissa. No problem.

It occurs to me that Elissa is coming off badly in this retelling. That's unfair. She was young, and made her share of self-centered decisions, and the ones that hurt are the ones where my memory stays freshest. But she was good to me. I would not have made it to this day without her. She was fiercely loyal, a pitbull, objecting when anyone other than her criticized me unfairly. She was generous and, more often than not, kind. Thinking of Sun Tzu a couple weeks before our Los Angeles trip, I asked the other man to meet for coffee to discuss things. He was visibly shaken. At the end of our cordial chat, I'd realized he was better for her than I could ever be: he was desperately in love and willing to fight to be near her. Could I say the same?

I dropped her at LAX, saw her to her flight, and took off in precisely the wrong direction to head home. Up over the pass into the Antelope Valley, I had been filled with a mixture of fury and self-pity.

By the time dawn broke over Boron, I had been reminded of a few things more important than my disintegrating relationship.

Geometry, for one thing. Even the straightest desert two-lane curves with the surface of the earth. Drive and drive relentlessly, hands not straying from ten and two o'clock on the wheel, tires in perfect alignment and no wind to blow you off course, and before too long you will be pointed in a direction wholly different from your original destination. Tangent builds on tangent, a palimpsest of infinitesimal increments, and the weight of the world nudges you in a new direction.

Through Jeffrey pine forests, past the fantastic tufa towers of Mono, and over the great green granite wall of the Sierra I meandered. I arrived home several days late: Elissa seemed not to have noticed my absence, having spent the intervening days with him.

It wasn't working. Six years before, I'd clung to her in the aftermath of J.'s death to avoid facing one more loss. Now I wasn't sure whether staying longer wouldn't be a greater loss.

I told Elissa that I thought she needed to make a decision.

As I packed a few days later, the phone rang: Elissa's brother's girlfriend. She and I had become close confidantes over the last couple years, allies in contending with Elissa's odd family. "Mike told me you and Elissa are breaking up."

"Yeah, she's fallen in love with someone else."

"Well, I really don't want to lose touch with you."

Last week, as she worked through a stack of bills on our kitchen table and chatted with me about her day, I mentioned I'd written about J. She looked up, interested. I don't talk about J. that often, even to Becky. "How are you feeling about it?"

"Fine," I lied.

I read the first installment of this story to her, the exhilaration and the stunning grief, my numbness and acquiescing to life with Elissa, my hunch that if J. had lived we would not be on speaking terms. She thought for a moment after I was done.

"You don't know that, Chris. You don't know you wouldn't have been a good husband, a good father. You might have risen to the occasion: worse men than you have."

Becky's right, and that's just one of many things I don't know. I never learned J.'s last name, for mortifying example. Nor her parents' names, whether they got along, whether J. liked salmon or Chopin, desert or glaciers, green tea or Tequila sunrises; whether she read Stegner or science fiction or cereal boxes or at all. I don't know where - or if - she was buried. I don't know who killed her, or whether that person spent even a fraction of the time thinking about it that I have. I don't know her other friends, the other men (or women?) who loved her, her aunts and uncles and cousins and whether they still mourn. I don't know who I would be if she had lived; I don't know who I would be if I had never met her.

"Fine." I lied. Each sentence dredges up feelings I'd rather persuade myself I'd long left behind. I've shaped my moods like a director, sending myself off last weekend to hike Point Reyes in a haze of freshened grief, heading to work after writing the nursery section wearing the first deep and thorough smile in a week.

Drink a shot of mercury, and if you survive the first few months - and it will be touch and go there for a time - there will come a day when you stop dripping quicksilver from your pores, your eyes will clear, your hair will show less and less contamination. You may feel cured, but for the rest of your life the heavy poison will be suffused through every cell in your body. The task is to live nonetheless.

I had two months and a promise with J when she was alive. I have spent 120 times that since she died. I have a life surpassing my dreams, and love enough to dazzle me, and I have purple-leaved plums for remembrance. If I tell you there are no happy endings, that is only because I see no endings.

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Thanks for writing this. Adjectives fail me. The last sentence was a killer. Good work.

Posted by: Dave at November 21, 2004 06:07 PM
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