After a long couple weeks on the road I set to drinking the exhaustion and loneliness from my bones. But each sip only summoned up old memories from years ago to rain down on me like dreams in a fever. I remembered when we were six and our moms took us to the zoo together. You were always enamored with the flamingos and the graceful way they could stand on one leg for hours on end. I always thought the tigers were cooler. Though I told you that if I were a tiger I would protect the flamingos from harm, you stuck your chin up and informed me flamingos needed no protecting: they can fly!
I remembered all those summer nights, running through the park. Or first year of high school with our class trip to the aquarium. We snuck off from the rest of the group to go make faces at the manta rays and kiss by the electric eels. We got back to the group before lunch had started and Mr. Elgrim never noticed we were gone.
I remember two years later when your baby brother died. You were torn to shreds. I took you to Sebastian's party three weeks later to try to take your mind off things. It was a good party, I think I might have seen you smile near the start. I lost you for awhile only to find you hiding, curled up in the bathtub, drinking gin straight from the bottle. I sat beside you in the tub. I remember kissing you on the cheek, taking in the sweet sickly scent of pine needles from your breath. I took the bottle from your shaking hand and patted your back. You cried, "Its not fair!"
"I know", I murmured back
"He was only seven! Why him? Why not me?", You sobbed, "He was so innocent. Look at me, I'm hopeless. It should have been me. It should have been me. Not him...Not Frankie."
"Shhh..You're not hopeless at all, you're right, it wasn't fair though."
I remember how we drifted apart over the following year before graduation. I ended up going away to school, you stayed. You thought that way your parents would have some stability and a chance to put yourself back together. We said we'd visit each other, you'd come see me at school and that I'd come home every chance. And we did, for awhile, but the distance took its toll. I met new people and you changed bit by bit. You kept saying how you wanted to travel out West to see everything. I wonder if you actually ever did.
I'm sitting in the kitchen, drinking gin straight from the bottle with these old memories swirling in my head like wild djinn. In my stupor I realize I still have your number, the new mobile you got a few years ago. I think about calling you and hearing your voice...and then the phone's already ringing, held up against my ear. I hope you don't answer in time, hope for the grace of you answering machine. What the hell would I say if you were to ---
"Steven? Is it really you? How are you? Its been too long!"
"Cassie! I wasn't sure if this was still your number. I'm good, my life's not too interesting these days. Honestly its not. Mostly I spend every other week doing sales-calls across the country. If I have to drive through Delaware one more time I sear I'll drive straight into a brick wall. Other than that I am good, peachy even. How're you doing these days? Did you ever make it out of our hometown?"
"Well at least you're traveling. I bet you meet some interesting people too. Two years after you left for school, when we stopped talking as much, I decided I had grieved long enough and that it was time to go or I'd never be able to move on. I packed a bag, threw it over my shoulder and took the first bus out of town."
"Where did you go?"
"Everywhere. I took buses, hitch-hiked and walked. I made it across the country and back about three or four times..erm no definitely three. I saw Phoenix, New Orleans, Austin, Denver, San Francisco - oh man, Frisco was the best! and farther down the coast I spent way too much time in Santa Fe, have you ever been?"
I admitted I'd never made it as far West as California, let alone Santa Fe.
"What?", you gasped, "Steven, you need to see the boardwalk in Santa Fe. Its brilliant, totally not hokey or touristy, just genuine, you know? And you need to see the Redwoods. Its like, try to imagine the biggest tree you've ever seen, then imagine a dinosaur and then the love child of the giant tree and dino had a baby tree; that would be almost in the ballpark of what its like to see a Redwood."
I laughed, "That sounds wonderful. Is that where you're living now? In a giant tree in California?"
You laugh, I didn't realize how much I had missed your laugh. You tell me that although you did try living in a tree once, it just wasn't worth not having running water. You tell me that you ended up in Minneapolis and never realized how beautiful winter could be. You decided to stay. Now you're a long-term substitute teacher with a love for ice fishing. You seem happy, which makes me smile.
I consider telling you how much I miss you, I consider asking you why we let each other slip away. I want to ask if you met anyone. Instead I make up a lie about having to run, having to take a roast our of the oven, having to save a pack of kittens from a burning tree, having to sleep, having to call the wife I don't have. You're disappointed and say we should talk again soon and that I should see the Redwoods. Then you're gone and its just me and the bottle of gin.
Drifting In and Out