A Mighty River

Drifting through time, this morning’s journey deposits me in front of two chairs and a crouching coffee table. Careful to steady a tray of coffees, I lower just over 200 pounds into the nearest of the two cushioned seats. The tray comes to rest upon bent knees, the coffee scenting still air. My chair groans as I ease into an agreeable position. And feigning a disinterested attitude, I stare across the table wondering if my companion will be the first to speak this morning. I keep my desire in check.

All around, but seemingly out of reach, a busy world goes about its business.

I wait for a moment, or perhaps two, before closing my eyes to recall the most recent of our many conversations.

And as silence envelops me in a comforting hug I am unable to contain myself.

I give in and smile at my companion.

Tilting forward, I place my bounty upon the table and help a small Dunkin Donuts coffee wriggle free from a paper tray containing two coffees, one small one medium. Small coffee in hand I extend an arm and speak first.

“I know you’re more of a Starbucks type but I got you one anyway. Decaf, one cream, one sugar, right?”

She leans forward to accept the offering. Her chair does not groan as she weighs significantly less than me. Thick brown hair falls in little waves from behind her ear to cloak the side of an angular face. Like a Broadway curtain opened before a hushed audience her hair sways gracefully, the even ends brushing softly against a white collar. With her left hand she returns her cascading hair from whence it came. She smirks as if expecting such a gift in exchange for her time.

As she stretches her right arm toward me, a starched white blouse shifts to expose a slender collar bone. Narrowed eyes hold mine as a brown arm uncoils to fill the space between. I return her smirk as our hands come together above the low slung table. Fingertips nearly touch as she takes the cup, withdrawing the gift to her lap. Above a simple black skirt extending to athletic knees she cups the coffee between her hands. As the warmth of the gift flows from finger tips to torso her shoulders rise and fall. And buffeted by a gentle tide she leans back, content.

She crosses bare legs and rhythmically bobs her right foot in the area between her chair and the coffee table. With each bob her foot comes closer to the table. She does not seem to notice, or care for that matter. For my part I wonder if she’ll bang the top of her foot on the edge of the table. The uniquely flawless skin of the unencumbered extends down a shining shin to a small foot wrapped in the overlapping bands of an elaborate sandal. Like her fingernails, her toes remain unpainted, natural. My eyes rise to find hers.

Having depleted her smirk she’s now smiling, almost bashfully.

“Decaf, one cream, one sugar is perfect. Thank you. I mean, that’s so nice of you to remember.”

I shrug and raise my cup, announcing the contents, “Medium decaf, two cream, two sugar.”

Taking a sip I return the cup to the table. She repeats my description and, though I do not expect her to purchase a coffee on my behalf, I wonder if she commits the order to memory.

Gently, deliberately, she sips her coffee; as if cherishing a treasure washed ashore. A smudge of red disembarks from pleased lips to the grasping paper cup. Returning the cup to her lap she slowly spins the gift between extended fingers. And upon each rotation the red smudge flashes me a reminder of her timeless smile.

I smile back as she launches our private conversation. “So, how are you?”

Tilting my head I raise my shoulders. “I don’t know.”

I nod before continuing, “Sometimes good. Sometimes not so good. But, mostly trying to make it good. I’m trying to spend as much time as possible with Gee and DJ before they’re off to a life without me, you know, when I’m more of a childhood memory than a part of their day-to-day reality.”

She leans forward as if to speak, but I end my brief summary with a question. “And you? How are you doing?”

She nods. “Me? Why, it’s so nice of you to ask. Thank you. I usually keep my head down and just go about my business so I’m good. Not much spare time for tête-à-têtes like this, as you can imagine. Though unlike you, I’ve no children to tend.” She forces a quick shrug before shaking her head. “Still, I will admit to being rather tired after some long nights.”

My eyebrows float up in mock surprise. “Long nights, you say? Interesting … very interesting. I hope they were long for reasons of fun and mayhem and perhaps some debauchery.” I lean forward, eager to tease. “Do tell. Have you experienced debauchery?”

She places her coffee on the table and waves a hand across her chest. She falls backward into her chair. “Ha! Me? Nothing of the sort! I’m, well … let’s say I’m more an observer than a practitioner of debauchery. And truth be told, I very rarely observe debauchery. Debauchery is usually such a noisy affair and, frankly, it’s just not my cup of tea … or coffee as the case may be.” She smiles at her little joke before concluding. “So, no. For me it’s all work. Work, work and then some more work.”

I feign disappointment. “Oh well. And here I thought you were gonna tell me you let your hair down and had a bit of fun.” She rolls her eyes and pushes back in the chair. Her leg bobs contently as my chiding continues, “I hope you won’t go forgetting it’s never a bad idea to mix a bit of pleasure with your work.” I scratch my chin. “You know, my father had a hard time remembering that. You should remember that, especially with your schedule. But, anyway, you’re happy. And it sounds like you really like what you do.”

“Yeah, I do. In fact I love it.” Taking a momentary pause she shares a guilty school girl smile. She whispers. “It feels so odd to talk about it. But ya know I like to think I add something to peoples’ lives. Like maybe I add a sense of balance, right?”

“You do. In fact, I’d say I’m proof of that. I mean, think about it. People may not always realize it, but because of you, the world’s a better place. You add, what’s the word, context. Yeah, that’s it. You add something special. And you should be proud of that.”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong. I am. But each engagement leads to more work and more worry. Each interaction is so very personal. It’s about getting it just right. About preparing and then letting things go where they may. And that means less time for moments like this. Less time for, as you like to say, life’s little pearls.”

Flattered she remembered my little phrase I repeat the last of her words in a whisper, “Life’s little pearls.”

I smile. “You know they’re pearls because they’re hidden below the surface. And if you wanna witness the reflection of a pearl sometimes you have to dive deep. And even then you usually have to pry it open.”

Silence lingers as I reflect upon this little pearl.

She leans forward and, again, her hair falls from behind her ear to shield her face. “Hey, you said, ‘Sometimes good. Sometimes not so good.’ So, why’re things not so good?”

Exhaling slowly I look away.

“You know, I don’t really have a reason for that. It’s just … I don’t know.”

“What? Tell me.”

“Well, it’s that, I don’t know why but right now I’d say I’m the saddest I’ve been in a long time; probably since my mother died.”

She uncrosses her legs as black eyebrows buckle to form a tiny steeple across her brow. Above her knees she joins hands in a pattern of interlaced fingers. She seems to shiver. Then, bending forward, she places elbows on huddled knees and raises her hands to a face stitched with worry. With her mouth partially covered she continues her probe. “Why’s that? I mean, I thought things were so much better for you.”

I draw a breath.

“Well, it’s like sadness, or maybe sorrow’s a better word, is a mighty river, right? It rushes in unexpectedly and you can’t stop it or dam it or change its course. I mean, you don’t even see it coming.” I stare through her. “It’s silent and it just hits you like a tsunami. And, yeah there’re things you can do to keep your head above the rapids but you can’t stop it. It’s like this flood washing over an otherwise sun-drenched horizon. And when it hits you just have to ride it out.”

“And, has this flood swept you away?”

I laugh halfheartedly, more to myself than to my questioner. “Swept away? No. But I guess you could say I’ve been hit by a swell; a big one.”

I shrug, resigned. “When it happens I’ve got lots of little things I do that seem to keep me afloat. Like, throwing myself into fiction books, dreaming up stories and writing, running and exercising, drinking lots of coffee (I nod toward the paper tray), eating extra chocolate – which my kids think is dumb – and forcing myself to go out when I really don’t want to go anywhere, and trying to do nice things for people (smiling meekly she glances at her coffee), not sleeping in and never ever taking naps. They’re killers. I do all these things to keep from being pulled under but, still, I find myself dragged along by the currents.”

She reaches out but stops midway across the table, uncertain if touching me so brazenly is an option. Her arm retreats as she tilts her head to the right. “But I thought everything was great with you and Liz. And with Gee and DJ; that you said they were really coming into their own.”

I shake my head as if fearful of speaking. The blooming silence prompts me to go on.

I speak softly, as if to myself. “Well, that’s it. I mean. Liz is super busy with work and the Vermont house – that takes tons of her time – but we’re doing great. And I really love her. And I’m pretty sure she loves me back, even after all these years. And I think Gee and DJ are out of the woods of the hardest parts of adolescence. I mean, they’re really decent people.” I smile the smile of a satisfied parent. “In their heart of hearts they’re artists, you know? And though they may not like to hear me say it I’m really proud of them.”

Nodding slowly, my companion forces a meager smile. She seems ready to cry; to add her tears to a mighty river.

I catch her gaze as I continue, “I mean I worry about them because they’re my kids and they’ve had to deal with some pretty hard stuff. But it’s more the tactical things I worry about now. Like do they have decent friends, are they staying away from weed and drinking, are they safe driving around, do they get home at night before I start to worry. And, of course, are they balancing school, and in Gee’s case work, with the fun things in life. But, truth be told I’m not that worried about them over the long haul. When I think of who they are I know they’re gonna be alright.”

My smile fades into the distance.

My companion says nothing.

I shrug. “Maybe it’s all those concussions from when I was a kid. Or maybe it’s just the stuff from my childhood, you know, the violence and all that. Or maybe it’s about my father and mother being gone. I don’t know. I just know it comes in waves and now I’m in the midst of a big one.”

She frowns. “How many concussions did you say you had?”

“Oh, I don’t know. One in backyard football, one at the YMCA when I was little, one in a car crash and a handful in hockey I’m guessing.”

“I see…”

I bend forward and, like my companion, place elbows on my knees. My hands, however, are not joined. They do not form a steeple pointing to the heavens. Untangled fingers dangle over the rim of the coffee table.

Quietly, my head drops, slumped at the base of the neck.

She waits for me to continue but I’m done.

I look up in time to see her bite her lower lip. It’s more an act of tenderness than an act of sorrow. And sensing the swell has taken me downstream she gracefully moves away from the worst of the rapids. “Hey, so here’s a question for you. Think about this. If you could be anything other than what you are now, what would you be? You know, what would be your perfect job or livelihood? What would make you happiest?”

I shrug and shake my head in the negative. “Pass.”

“Pass? Is that what you just said? Come on, this isn’t a goofy game of spin the bottle. You can’t just take a ‘pass’! I mean, I’m serious. I asked a simple question and I’m curious about what you’re gonna say. Tell me.”

Smirking, I slowly mouth the word ‘pass’.

Dramatically, she shakes her head. Her hair sways to and fro. “OK, fine then. Not that you asked me but if you were to ask me that question I’d say I wanna be a tennis pro like Serena Williams. You know, strong, beautiful, courageous, smart. All those things! And at the top of my game.”

Looking up I pull shoulders to ears. “You do realize, right, you already are all those things?” I throw my hands up in mock indignation. “No wonder you’re so content.”

She beams at the warmth of my reply.

“So, now it’s your turn. Come on, tell me.” She bends forward placing her palms on the low-slung table. “Please?”

“OK, fine. If I were to be anything else I’d be a soldier and…”

Lurching back in her chair she cuts me off, “What? A soldier? Are you kidding me? Why on earth would you wanna be that? I mean that’s crazy; really, really, crazy.”

She crosses her legs once more. This time, however, her foot does not bob. She sits perfectly still as I meet her gaze. She adjusts her skirt, pulling it taut as she takes a measure of me, wondering if I’m serious.

“I’m serious. You know I tried to join the Army, right?”

“What? Ah, no. I had no idea you did any such thing. When the devil did that happen?”

“Jeeze, back in 2003, 2004 or so. I’d been thinking about it for a while after my father was killed; you know thinking about how to fight back after he and all his friends were lost. I mean I really tried. I called every arm of the services, filled out forms and went to four or five different recruitment offices. I remember the last recruitment office I tried was up in Lowell, on Market Street, I think.”

“Are you for real?”

“Yup. I tried but I was too old. Every time I got bumped up the chain until I hit a ‘no’. So then I tried to get an age waiver.”

“This is a joke, right?”

“No, I tried for the waiver for a solid two years. I mean, I wrote letters like there was no tomorrow. And check this out; I ended up getting hold of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s fax number and so I faxed him a letter explaining what my father did and how he was killed and that I went to MIT, and know more than the average joe about IT stuff and finance and stats and that I can help hunt and catch bad guys. In the letter I asked him to consider making an exception for me so I could join one of the services.”

The area around the coffee table grows silent as my companion stares, mouth agape.

“And guess what? The next day his secretary called me at work. She said Wolfowitz read the letter and wanted to help but it wasn’t his call. So she connected me with this guy, Dr. Winker, of Reserve Services. Funny I still remember his name after all these years. He was very decent to me.”

“And, what’d Liz have to say about all this?”

“Liz? Oh man, she freaked! I mean, she was furious I was even thinking about it. I remember her telling me, ‘You have two kids. And this is not what I signed up for.’ And I was like, ‘well, I didn’t sign up to have my father killed, searching for him and becoming so fucked up’. And I reminded her how I didn’t marry her knowing she was gonna switch careers and go to medical school for four plus years and then be a resident working 90 to 100 hours a week for three years with two kids and then being a doctor on call all the time but that I dealt with that ‘cause that’s what she wanted to do.”

“And what’d she say to that?”

“She said it was different.” I wave a hand and ease back in my chair, drained.

“Well, she’s right you know. Killing people’s different than becoming a doctor and saving people. So what’d you do then? Bail?”

“Hell no. That was my dream. So I kept trying.”

My breathing quickens in response to the unexpected surge of memories. I remain silent until prompted to continue.

“So, obviously you didn’t get in. What happened?”

“I never got the age exception. I mean, I really tried. But unless you were a doctor or a pastor, which is weird, there wasn’t much room for an exception. I wrote Senator Kerry and asked for his help. He was really considerate in his response. And I asked my Congressman – his staff was as clueless as a bag of nails – for help and I asked loads of folks in the Army and Reserves and the Navy and even the Coast Guard to make calls and write letters for me and connect me with the right people. I tell ya, lots of people went to bat for me. And in the end the Army and the Reserve did end up raising the age limits. But I was always just a bit too old.”

Retrieving my coffee, I fall back in my chair and gulp down half the cup. My eyes narrow as my companion spreads arms wide.

“Jeeze, and I thought you were gonna say, ‘I’d be a writer!’ and I was gonna say, you already are!”

I toss her a smirk and sigh.

“The Army’s the one thing I couldn’t get that I really, really tried for.”

I exhale the breath of the defeated.

“You think maybe that’s what you’re sad about? That you’re not in the Army?”

“Oh god. Hell no! Just ‘cause that’s what I was trying for then doesn’t mean I regret not getting it now. I mean think about it. My life’s pretty good now, right? No way I’m sad about missing out on war.”

I lean forward to continue, “Just think about it. Just think about all the pent up anger I have inside me. I mean, every day I gotta keep that shit in check; every fucking day. So, like, if I’d gotten what I wanted and made it into the Army or gotten deployed through the Reserves I think it’s safe to assume I’d be one of the veterans taking his or her life every day ‘cause they’ve got too much to carry and just can’t keep their heads above the rapids of that mighty river.”

My arm drifts over the table as I continue, “I doubt very much I’d be sitting in this chair.”

I jut my chin toward my companion. “You know what I’d be if I’d gotten the exception I wanted?”

She shakes her head in the negative.

“I’d be a suicide statistic the country quietly sweeps under the rug. So no. That is most definitely not what I’m sad about.”

She listens intently as I whisper into the surrounding silence.

“I’m sad because the mighty river has decided it’s time to take me where it wants to go.”

I wait for a moment, or perhaps two, before closing my eyes. And with eyes shut tight, the busy world remains quiet.

In the darkness, silence gives me a final squeeze before releasing me from her comforting hug.

I know she’s leaving.

“Goodbye,” I whisper.

There is no response to my whisper. And as I drift away from the shores of silence I work to keep my head above the surface of a mighty river. It’s the little things that help.

Lingering moments drift past my chair before I am startled by a tap upon my shoulder.

Above me, a man clears his throat before speaking. “Excuse me, sir. Is this seat taken?”

The proximity of the stranger’s voice surprises me. The sound of his labored breathing fills a space most recently occupied by my departed companion.

A bulbous nose comes into focus as the stranger leans forward. His shoes shuffle gently as a red tie slips from his buttoned suit, swinging like a drawn curtain above my arm. His breath smells of mint.

He points to the vacant chair on the other side of the coffee table. He speaks slowly, as if to a child. “I saw you fiddling with your two coffees and didn’t know if you were waiting for someone. You alone?”

And gesturing for him to take the empty seat I shrug away the residue of silence.

“I am.”

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