Eliza said once that she couldn’t imagine not being in love with me. Seems her imagination was faulty, though, because now, not only is she not in love with me any more, she doesn’t return my calls, my emails, my letters. I’m not sure what would happen if we ran into each other by accident. I’m guessing she’d force a smile, stop for a minute and talk, then frown and say she was late for something. But I’ve been wrong about her so many times. It’s possible she’d just purse her lips, tighten her shoulders, look away from me, and keep on walking.
When she said that, we were in her apartment, a shabby little cave in the Sunset District of San Francisco. This was a year ago, six months before we broke up. November. We’d just gotten back from a camping trip to Yosemite, and she was sick. She’d gotten laid off. She had student loans the size of Everest. The apartment was freezing, with only a time bomb of a space heater to warm it up. Mice had chewed holes in everything chewable and left miniature turds all over. Her books, her clothes, her papers, her CDs were scattered around like fallen leaves. She hated the apartment, was desperately ashamed of it. But we were snuggled in her bed under two quilts, our clothes still damp from Yosemite snow, completely lost in each other. Her skin was hot with fever, and she couldn’t stop coughing. She wanted to make love.
And she said that. She couldn’t imagine not being in love with me. I guess at the time I was the only thing going right in her life. As for my life—maybe she wasn’t the only thing going right, but she was the only one that mattered.
Now, it’s November again. Thanksgiving Day. I’m in the mountains, the east side of the Sierra Nevada, at my parents’ house in Aspendell. It’s an old mining town that’s turned into a resort for fishermen and campers. My mother grew up here, and when my grandparents died, she inherited the house. A few years later, when she and my father retired, they inexplicably sold their house in Santa Cruz, the one I grew up in, and moved here. Possibly the idea was that they were going to enjoy the wilderness setting, do some hiking and camping. As it turns out, television, Netflix, and the internet keep my father pretty busy; my mother spends her time writing convoluted mystery novels that don’t get published.
At the moment, my father is flipping channels between the Macy’s Parade and a muddy pro football game. My mother is in the kitchen, listening to NPR while she tears bread for the stuffing. I’m drinking Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale and trying—well, sort of trying—not to think about Eliza. I’d be bored out of my mind if I weren’t so depressed.
My sister Carrie is getting ready to go fishing. Unusual hobby for a 30-year-old freelance journalist—whose specialty is high tech, no less—but Carrie is nothing if not true to her quirks. She originally learned to fish, like I did, from our grandfather, right here on Bishop Creek with its scarlet-striped rainbow trout and at Lake Sabrina with its monster browns. After he died, she and I still fished together occasionally, but then after a while it was just Carrie. I got tired of trying and failing to keep her away from strong currents, submerged trees, and the brinks of waterfalls. I also got tired of her catching more fish than I did.
We used dime store spin-casting rods back then, with cheap ugly lures or salmon eggs or sometimes, when nothing was working, chunks of salami from the sandwiches we brought along. Now Carrie fly fishes, and she’s got hand-tied flies and carbon-fiber rods and three-hundred- dollar reels. As I go to the fridge for another Sierra Nevada, she’s buckling up her neoprene waders.
“Where you headed?” I always ask this. I like the sound of the place names even if I can’t remember where most of them are anymore.
“Not sure. Weir Pool. Or North Lake, maybe.” She throws back her hair—mixed blonde and brown, tangled as a root-ball—and cinches it with one deft twist of an elastic loop. Something occurs to her. “Hey. What are you driving?”
“Same as ever,” I say warily. “Outback. Why?”
“Long story, but I had to bring a rental. They gave me a freaking Ford Taurus.”
Not the kind of car you want to take on the road to North Lake. I cross my arms and ready a headshake. When she was sixteen, she talked me into letting her then boyfriend drive my Celica. She ended up behind the wheel, the car ended up halfway into a 7-11. And when she was nineteen, she borrowed my Civic and got busted for DUI and possession of marijuana.
She laughs. “I wouldn’t even ask. I’m just saying, why don’t you come with? I’ve got a spare rod. I don’t think you’d be missing too much here.” She cuts her eyes at my mother, who’s concentrating on getting the crust off a slice of Wonder Bread as neatly as possible.
Eliza and I met at this café on Ninth Ave, just outside Golden Gate Park. It was a dumpy place with ancient sofas, strange artwork, and a bathroom painted black. Old men played chess and talked about politics, books, sports. People our age played Scrabble and talked about music, movies, sex. For me it was just a place to go when my roommates were doing drugs and the weather was too grim for running or cycling. For Eliza, it was a second home, or maybe a first home even. She knew everyone, from the owners to the dippy baristas to the chess players to the homeless people that wandered in to buy coffee with their grubby change.
Who noticed who first? And then who really noticed who first? Those are hard questions. We talked about it later, after we got together, and we couldn’t decide. It was one of those things where you start nodding to someone because you bumped into them at the counter yesterday, and today you’re both picking through the old newspapers (her for crossword puzzles, me for the weather report or the comics). You just acknowledge that you’re occupying the same space and you probably will be again.
Or maybe it was less accidental than that. In truth she was not the most spectacular woman who hung out there, but she was someone I’d watched, someone whose persona spoke to me. She’s small but broad-shouldered, with long straight dark brown hair. A roundish face, broad cheekbones, a short straight nose—pretty enough, but a little worried-looking, with faint lines across her forehead and a perpetual questioning expression. She’d just turned thirty. At the café, she dressed a little younger than her age– jeans with the cuffs turned up, basketball sneakers, tight T-shirts with mysterious logos, a purple hoodie. But then occasionally I’d see her in a dress and makeup and serious shoes—on her way to work; she was a graphic designer for McGraw Hill—and she’d look almost glamorous.
One night her Scrabble partner didn’t show up, and she asked me if I’d like to fill in. Sitting across a table from her for an hour was a whole different thing than just exchanging nods in passing. Her eyes knocked me out—clear pale green, like glacial meltwater—and the curve of her jawline seemed to glow with soft power. Her voice was low but intense. She didn’t laugh ever, only smiled and sighed and looked down at her hands. I would have let her win the game, but I didn’t have to.
There were a lot of stops and starts after that, mixed messages and misunderstandings. But I think we both knew where we were headed. She liked me—was my guess—because I was ready to make her the focus of my whole life. I liked her because she was smart and pretty and sad. I don’t know if I thought that we’d make each other less sad, or just that we’d be sad together.
We throw two of Carrie’s fishing rods, her float tube, her tackle box, and an ice chest into the back of the car. The road to North Lake climbs steeply out of the canyon and around the butt-end of an unnamed ridge. Worn scabs of pavement tilt out of hard-packed earth here and there.
“Nice car.” She peers past my elbow at the instrument panel. “Does it do more than ten miles an hour?”
This is how it goes with my sister: a constant rain of more or less friendly taunts. Things she’s teased me about over the years: bad haircuts, braces, math grades, dorky friends, airheaded girlfriends, my taste in music, being old (all of three years older than her), and of course Eliza.
“Yeah, it does more than ten miles an hour,” I say. “But only in free fall.” I nudge the Outback toward the edge of the road. Across the Owens Valley—four thousand feet below—the White Mountains hang back in the haze.
She growls by way of saying, Not funny. “You’re so cheery these days. Rough year?”
“I guess it all evens out eventually, right?” I know better than to whine to Carrie.
“Sure it does.” She smiles crookedly. To me, there’s something harsh and angular about Carrie’s looks, but she’s undeniably got a kind of wicked charm. She’s seldom hurting for male attention. “You die, and there’s nobody left who gives a shit whether you were happy or not.”
At North Lake, the view opens up westward, into the heart of the Sierra Nevada. We’re at almost ten thousand feet. The aspens around the lake are like bursts of flame. Beyond, pale granite ridges crowd in front of the snow-covered main crest.
We park the car and haul our gear to the water’s edge. Carrie wades out into the shallows with her float tube around her ankles. If the fish are biting it’ll be out in the middle where the water’s colder. Sans float tube, I’ll just walk along the shore and plunk lures in and out. Highly unlikely I’ll catch anything.
“So what ever happened with you and Eliza?” Carrie asks. “Last I heard you were still hoping to get back together with her.”
Can this be true? I guess it can. Carrie lives in San Diego, I’m in San Francisco, and outside of holidays at our parents’ house, we only talk a few times a year. When we do it’s seldom a heart-to-heart. “Last you heard she was still talking to me. Now she’s not.”
She whistles. “What did you do?”
“Great question,” I say. “Nothing that I know of. She just stopped answering my calls.”
“That’s kind of hardcore.” Is this criticism or admiration? Carrie met Eliza exactly once, at a family get-together in San Francisco. Introducing Eliza to people was always an adventure. She could come off as a wingnut, as pathologically shy, or as the perfect girlfriend. That night she hit all the right notes. Afterward Carrie said to me, “O.K., what’s the catch?” Meaning why would someone that smart, that attractive, that focused—why would she be going out with me?
And of course, I have to suspect that Eliza’s breaking up with me has improved Carrie’s opinion of her.
“But the thing is…” Carrie says now, “why give someone that kind of power over you?”
“It kind of goes with the territory. You fall in love with someone, you’re giving them power.”
“I don’t see that at all.”
“Well, you wouldn’t,” I say. “You’re just not put together that way. But I am.”
She nods, acknowledging that unfortunately I am put together that way.
Whatever, I think. I was going to wait until she was out on the lake to get another beer, but now, well, screw it. I go to the car. The cold liquid sears my throat and stomach. I imagine I can feel alcohol bubbling soothingly into my bloodstream.
She’s still there when I get back to the shore.
“So are you still thinking you can patch it up?”
“Not really.” Part of me probably does think this, but most of me knows it’s too late.
“Then what? You want to be her friend?”
This is a good question. Eliza’s birthday is coming up, December 12, and I’m going to try again to call her. Maybe, I’m thinking, in her mind that’s the one day a year that exiled boyfriends are allowed to make contact. But even if it is, I don’t know what to say to her, how to reach for some sense of resolution. “I just want her to stop acting like I don’t exist.” This is the part I can’t quite get past: she seems to want to pretend we never knew each other.
“I don’t know. To me, if the thing is over, it’s over. You just move on.” Carrie squints at the lure on my rod. “I’d try a Kastmaster if I were you. It’s old, it’s corny, but short of Power Bait it’s probably your best chance.” She shuffles out into knee-deep water and sits down in her float tube. “But whatever makes you happy,” she says with her crooked smile, and starts paddling out from shore.
Eliza and I could never decide exactly when it was we’d first met, but clearly sometime in the winter of ’05—November, December. The Scrabble night was in June ’06. I didn’t actually ask her out until the 15th of August. “You want to meet for coffee sometime?” I said—a joke, because we were sitting in the café drinking lattes.
“I don’t think I could do that.” She looked away, trying to keep a straight face. Her smile was endearingly genuine, but without a doubt it threw her face out of kilter. She was prettier with her features in repose: calm, sad, sweet.
“Dinner then?” I asked, and she nodded as if I’d been slow in getting to the point.
We rode the ferry to Sausalito and got drunk on margaritas in a restaurant built out over the bay. Coming back, standing on the foredeck of the ferryboat with the wind and the spray sweeping over us, we kissed until we were breathless. Out across the water, the City’s buildings lit up as dark fell. It seemed as if we’d left our grubby, frantic, exhausted lives there like husks to shrivel up in the moonlight, and when we got back to the Ferry Building we’d step ashore as brand new people, with our lives in perfect order now that we were together.
At least, that’s what I thought, and I just assumed she did too.
For a good while it did seem that both our lives were headed the right way. In January we moved out of our respective rabbit-hutch apartments and got a place together on Balboa St., just outside Golden Gate Park. We bought a king-sized feather bed and a walnut dining table that we set up by our bay window. We took a truckload of old clothes to the Salvation Army. I washed my car for the first time in six months. We started running together in the early mornings. We hardly ever went to the café anymore—there were just too many things that we actually wanted to do. We went to the Farmers’ Market at the Ferry Building; saw the Giants trounce the Dodgers, and vice versa; listened to bluegrass music in Golden Gate Park; swam naked in Stow Lake one midnight; ate at ten different Asian restaurants—Chinese, Japanese, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Tibetan, Khmer, Korean, Bengali—in ten days; spent a night by a bonfire on Ocean Beach, making blind love under a pile of blankets.
She got a job at the University of California Press, and after a rough first week she started to actually enjoy it. More and more she was the Eliza who was in balance, who stayed on top of her moods and got the things done that she meant to. The night she met my family was a pleasant surprise, but in retrospect not so surprising after all.
So when my sister asked “What’s the catch?”, I said, “There isn’t one.” And it was, if not exactly true—because I still had in mind the times I’d found Eliza curled up in a ball crying, and the times she’d said seriously inappropriate things to virtual strangers—at least on its way to being true.
But then there was a different catch. It turned out that the intentional Eliza, the person she was trying to be, wasn’t entirely pleased with my habits. Things we struggled over: housework (she thought I needed to do more), our answering machine message (unprofessional, she said), table manners (in her rulebook, there was a complicated knife-and-fork dance that reduced me to laughter), sex (her: mornings and afternoons, fast and passionate; me: nights, slow and gentle), holding hands even (she accused me of trying to break her wrist with my infernal, unnatural finger-interlacing.)
I didn’t see a big problem. If she wanted our toothbrushes in a mug, not loose in the cabinet, fine. And where we really disagreed, I thought, wasn’t that just healthy static? Three days out of four were good to great, and the fourth—well, we didn’t throw things at each other.
We were walking in Mountain Lake Park one Sunday afternoon, making our way down a broad eucalyptus-shaded trail to the sunny amphitheater around the lake. I was being careful to clasp her hand in the approved manner.
“I’m thinking about moving out,” she said with no preamble.
“Moving out?” Not very articulate, but the best I could do under the circumstances.
“I need to be closer to work. I’m spending three hours a day on public transit.”
“All right. We can move.”
“It’s not just that. I want a place by myself.” She looked at me, her face compressed, holding something back. “I don’t see—Mark, I’m not even sure we belong together. I need to figure things out.”
“This is kind of out of the blue,” I said.
“I know it is. I know I screwed up.” She stared at her feet. “I couldn’t figure out how to tell you. But I had to. I couldn’t just keep thinking about it and thinking about it and hoping it would go away.”
The way she kept saying, I, I, I… made it clear she had all kinds of plans that didn’t include the both of us. Whereas my plan—I only had one—involved nothing beyond the both of us.
In places the shore of North Lake is gravel and boulders. In others the yellow alpine grass grows right down to a dirt bank. In still others the aspens trail their roots in the water, and tiny coves have been eroded between the trees. I stumble along, three casts here, five casts there. No bites.
Out on the water, Carrie’s doing O.K. Twice I look up and see her reaching for her rod tip, palming something silver. I shrug and keep moving. The wind, coming out of the mountains and across the cold surface of the lake, numbs my hands and face. The sun is still bright but seems to have all the warming power of a birthday candle.
The rod dips in my hands. I stumble forward, almost into the water, then jerk back. The fish jumps, twirls, slaps the surface as he goes back in. I glance over at Carrie, but she’s facing the other way.
The fish fights hard, but after all I outweigh him by a 100-1 ratio. As I lift him out of the water, he’s still thrashing–a rainbow, maybe fifteen inches, vividly striped red along the sides, olive back with black speckles. He’s solidly hooked, two tines of the lure’s treble hook through his lower lip.
Tricky release. I grip the hook with a needle-nose pliers and try to back it out. My hands aren’t steady enough, and the tissue around the trout’s mouth is tough as plastic. Finally one tine slides out. The fish, starved for oxygen, finally goes limp. I drop the pliers and work the lure with my thumb and forefinger.
Like a fist clenching, the fish’s body contracts in my hand. I feel a deep rush of pain, as if I’ve just plunged my hand into acid. The fish tumbles away from me into the water—gone. When the pain ebbs away, I look at my hand and see that my thumb and forefinger are stuck together by the lure, one tine of the hook buried in each digit.
Surprisingly, there’s almost no blood. And after the initial jolt wears off, very little pain as long as I don’t move the hook. Trout lures are small, so each tine is sunk less than half an inch deep. Unfortunately, that’s deep enough for the barb to be well buried, so I can’t back the hook out easily or without its bringing a chunk of me along.
But I retrieve the pliers and try. This really shouldn’t be a big deal. Fishermen gouge and slice themselves all the time. It’s just that I can’t get the right grip and the right leverage. I try jiggling the tines around to loosen them. This hurts like hell without having any real effect.
I take a break, close my eyes, breathe. When I glance up, I see that Carrie’s paddling back to shore. I don’t want her to see this. I take the pliers, grip the lure, and try to back it out. The pain doubles me over. The pliers slip off the lure and out of my hand.
Carrie beaches her float tube about a hundred yards down, slings a cluster of fish across it, and heads my way. All I can do is play it casual.
“Hey,” I call out as she approaches, “you have a knife on you?”
She frowns—stupid question. Of course she does. She reaches into the breast pocket of her waders and brings out a Swiss Army knife. “What’s up?”
When she sees what I’ve done to myself, she—I’m not going to say that she snickers, because for the most part she seems shocked and sympathetic. But there’s no mistaking the element of dark amusement in the wordless sound she makes. I’ve heard it before. Carrie’s been present at many of my most embarrassing moments (and the cause of a good few of them). Her reaction has ranged from disbelief to embarrassment to outright glee.
She watches in silence as I try to dig the hooks out with her Swiss Army knife. Blood wells up, the curve of the hooks protects the barbs, the lure gets in the way. I keep jabbing myself on the third treble hook.
“I’m not even going to ask how you did that,” she says.
“Good thought.” I rinse my hand in the lake and mop it dry with my shirt-tail.
“Can you just rip it out?”
“Dubious,” I say. “It’s in pretty deep.”
“Look, at least cut the hooks off the lure.” Carrie, never a patient person, clearly thinks this is taking way too long. She reaches into her pack, produces a pair of pliers with a wire-cutting blade, and grabs me by the wrist. None too gently, she reaches in and snips the treble hook from the lure, then cuts the tines apart. My thumb and forefinger still have pieces of metal protruding from them, but at least they can move independently now.
The Swiss Army knife is sharp enough for this job, but the blade is too big. I feel like I’m doing brain surgery with a meat cleaver. Finally, though, the shard of hook in my finger loosens, wobbles, and pulls free.
I rinse the wound in the lake, wrap the gauze that Carrie gives me around it, and sit back for a minute. The hand hurts now, no doubt, but it’s a deep, diffuse pain, just a notch or two higher than the cold in my feet, the ache in my head, the burn of high-altitude sunlight on my skin. Maybe I’m a little in shock. Everything seems distant. Nothing’s urgent. It’s as if I have all day to ponder any stray image that comes to me: Carrie paddling a canoe on Lake Sabrina; our grandfather stacking firewood in his garage; the broad stone fireplace of our house in Santa Cruz; the smell of bacon and syrup and citrus in the café on Clement St. where Eliza and I used to go for breakfast.
In the end I couldn’t talk her out of moving. She left. She found a place in Alameda, sharing with one of the associate editors at the Press. I found a studio in the Mission I could almost afford.
She got more and more elusive. We saw each other three times a week at first, then two, then one. She was doing well at work, she said, but it meant long hours. Finally, one night we got back to my new apartment after dinner and she told me she wasn’t staying over. She said we shouldn’t see each other anymore.
I tried to get her to stop, to talk it out, to fix what was wrong. She wouldn’t even have the discussion. “We’re just not right for each other,” was all the reason she’d give. She hugged me, gave me a long teary look, and went for the door.
It hadn’t even occurred to me that we might not be friends if we broke up. I saw her by chance at the café a few times, and we’d talk for a minute or two, but she always had to go somewhere, had to take a phone call, had to be anywhere but in my presence. Was she seeing someone else? Was that even why she’d broken up with me? No clue. She just seemed to think I was radioactive. The return phone calls and emails took days if not weeks. She wouldn’t explain. She stopped coming to the café.
I tried not calling her for a month. That seemed fine with her. She wasn’t going to break the silence. When I did call, she didn’t return it. Same when I called again, when I emailed her, when I wrote her a letter. Evidently we had to be total strangers.
This line of thinking winds up where it usually does: nowhere. There’s no solution except not to give a shit, something I can’t do yet. I bring myself back to the present and can’t figure out why I ever agreed to come to the lake. The beauty of the scene’s gone dead. We’re on the edge of a desert of granite, bleached rock worn to rubble or tortured into claws and bare bones. The water is a pit of cold reflection.
Getting the hook out of my finger should have given me a boost towards getting the hook out of my thumb, but somehow it hasn’t. I slice and jab and dig until there’s blood all over the knife and my hand. No effect. This one is wedged deeper and firmer.
“You know what,” Carrie says. “Just leave it in there. It’ll probably rust out in a few months.”
“Very funny.” I shake my head. How did it happen, I wonder, and when?—that she leap-frogged over me and became the older sibling, amusing herself by trying to make her little brother cry?
“Seriously,” she says. “Just rip it out. It’ll hurt like hell, you’ll bleed all over the place, you’ll have a big-ass scar. End of story.”
“I don’t know,” I say. It sounds right, it just feels wrong.
“All right, what then?”
I don’t say anything.
“The E.R.? In Bishop?” The nearest medical facility–a small hospital, just a clinic really, about twenty miles away.
I still don’t say anything.
She starts picking things up—her knives, her pliers, the broken lure. She breaks down my rod for me.
“Look, I’m sorry I screwed up your day,” I say. “I’ll drop you in Aspendell, you can still get in some fishing along the creek.”
“Don’t be stupid. You can’t drive that way.”
“Me driving with one hand is safer than you driving with two.”
“Not going to happen,” she says. “Unless you think you can wrestle me out of the driver’s seat.” She starts back to the car. I’m not keeping score, exactly, but it seems like she’s winning every point.
The drive takes about an hour. At first Carrie chatters away—our parents, the 49ers, the election coming up. I have no response. It all seems far away and meaningless. Silence for a good while. Then, still a few miles from Bishop, she says, “You know what I don’t get.”
“What’s that?” I ask tiredly.
“I could see you still wanting to be friends with Eliza…” She looks at me seriously, or mock-seriously, I can never tell. “But she’s been a bitch to you. Why would you want someone like that for a friend?”
I’m afraid the answer might be, Because I can’t help it. But if it is… well, then, I can’t help it. “I don’t know that she’s been a bitch to me,” is all I can think to say. “I don’t know why she’s doing what she’s doing.”
“So maybe she has some good reason to treat you like shit?” Carrie angles a wry smile at me.
“When we were still talking, the way she acted– she’s not happy about it, it’s not malicious.”
“Then what? What’s the explanation? You obviously don’t want to hear this, but sometimes you’ve just got to live without the person you can’t live without.” She says this just as if she’s ever cared that much about someone.
“Look, there’s an explanation. I just don’t know what it is yet.”
“Mark, you’re never going to find that out. And if you did, the odds are you’d be sorry.”
“O.K., stop,” I say loudly.
“Stop what?” She throws just a glance in my direction, as if she can’t be bothered to figure out what I’m talking about.
“Stop the damn car.” I pop the seatbelt and swing the door open. Dust billows in as Carrie pulls abruptly onto the shoulder. The car slews left, right, left, and stops.
She gives the steering wheel a vicious shake, glares at me, and sighs.
I get out and walk around behind the car. I sit down at the edge of the road, staring past the fields and treelines of the valley to the White Mountains beyond. I still have the needle-nose pliers.
I grip the end of the hook, squeeze the pliers shut until the grips seem to bend, and pull my two hands apart as hard as I can.
It’s like a grenade blew up in my hand. Strange that such a small digit could hurt so much. I feel a kind of a crunching or snapping within the heat of the explosion. My whole body tightens, my eyes close, I grab my wrist and squeeze it hard until the pain lessens.
Blood is welling freely out of the wound, which is now a long deep tear rather than a puncture. The hook is still there, though at a different angle. There’s also something white and ragged sticking just clear of the surface. Skin, bone, cartilage, I’m not sure.
“Mark?” Carrie, climbing out of the car and coming toward me, is oddly tentative. “Oh hell,” she says when she gets a good look.
“I thought I’d try,” I say.
“I see that.”
“Yeah. Well, my mistake.” She seems a little puzzled—not so much that it didn’t work, but more by the fact that I even made the attempt. She retrieves her first aid kit and tapes a huge wad of gauze over the wound. “Hold this. Up. Hold it up high.” She steers me back to the car, bundles me in, slams the door.
The doctor, a dark-skinned man with an Oxbridge accent and a Hollywood haircut, seems impressed by the ingenuity I’ve shown at hurting myself. The hook is lodged, he tells me after looking at my X-ray, not in the bone but next to it, in a band of cartilage now somewhat damaged by my efforts. He numbs my hand with a needle full of something, works away with a scalpel for a few minutes, and presents me with a plastic bottle holding what’s left of the hook. A tiny chunk of the inside of my thumb still clings to the underside of the barb.
He closes the wound with a couple of small, precise stitches. A nurse bandages it. I pick up some antibiotics and some painkillers at the pharmacy, and Carrie drives me back to our parents’ house. As we follow the canyon of Bishop Creek up into the mountains, I feel as numb, as detached, as if I’d already taken a few of the painkillers.
“What I was saying before…” Carrie sighs.
“Yeah,” I say, no inflection. The aspen groves look like neon fog creeping down the canyon walls.
“I’m not trying to tell you how to handle anything.”
“Doesn’t really matter anyway,” I tell her. “I probably never will know. The weirdest thing is, I’ll probably never see her again.”
“Probably not,” Carrie says, and then seems to be in doubt as to whether she should go on. Two or three bends in the road later, she does: “But things change sometimes. It’s just—it can take a while to see the other person’s point of view.”
A couple of weeks later, the day before Eliza’s birthday, I’m sitting in my sheetrocked cave of an office, trying to decide whether to call her and leave a Happy Birthday message (safe bet she won’t pick up). An email glows into life on my computer screen. It’s from Carrie, which is odd in itself. The subject line reads: About Eliza. The text reads: I kind of stumbled on this… followed by a link.
When we were together, I used to Google Eliza all the time. Seeing her name or her picture on the screen, these bits of her life that I might or might not know about (movie reviews or cookie recipes she’d posted, book jackets she’d helped design) gave me a jolt of proprietary satisfaction. I haven’t done it since we broke up, so what I see now is new. She has a page on a social networking site. There are photos, a profile, a journal. I hesitate. Do I really want to see all this? Yes and no.
But in the end, yes. And surprisingly, when I look through the site there are few surprises. She’s got more design credits—books by authors I’ve heard of, even. She did a 10K run in the Berkeley Hills. She’s published some poems in an e-zine. Her life without me doesn’t seem so different from her life with me.
The journal entries are sporadic and mostly very short. She seems to have given up on it after a few months. But there’s this.
“I was in the City yesterday, and I walked by the building where I used to live. Strange feeling. For a moment the past seemed so much richer than the present. It was like hearing from an old boyfriend, one you left for good reasons but maybe didn’t really get over. I don’t want to get back together with my old building, I remember all too well the mice and the bad plumbing and the warped floors. But I do wish I could go inside, sit on the kitchen counter while I wait for the kettle to boil, look out my old window at the liquidambar tree on the sidewalk, hear the mockingbird down the street imitating a car alarm.
“Only I can’t go in. I have to walk by. Other people live there now. And I live somewhere else, somewhere with no mice, good plumbing, level floors. It’s just that I don’t know if it will ever feel quite as good.”
Maybe I’m reading too much into these lines. Maybe she’s really just talking about the building, and the boyfriend reference is nothing more than a random simile. Or maybe she’s talking about some other old boyfriend. But I think not. I think this is about me, and it’s the closest she can come to explaining why she’s cut me out of her life.
At the bottom of her post is a little fountain pen icon, a link where you can leave a comment. I ponder this for a minute, then another minute. I start to put words together in my head.
Finally, though, I breathe in, breathe out, and close the window. Not that I agree with her, not that I think it’s right to take such harsh measures against your own regret. But this is as good a place as any to let things rest.
It takes a while to think that through, and then to be sure I’m not going to change my mind. Once I have, there’s the other thing: the odd fact that this came to me from Carrie. I email her: You kind of stumbled on it?
Her answer comes back almost instantly: no words, just an emoji that is so perfectly her, she might have served as the model for it—an almost expressionless face, with just the slightest angle to the mouth, a hint of a sarcastic smile.
Tom Gartner has had short stories published in various journals, including Aethlon, Whetstone, and Barnabe Mountain Review. One story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has a couple of novels in progress. He works as a buyer for an independent bookstore in San Francisco.