By Meghan O’Brien
Copyright.©Meghan O’Brien 2002
Yes, Jeremy decided, half-open mouth evidence of his interrupted chewing, spoon entirely forgotten, held loosely between shaky fingers. Entirely too surreal. In the more than ten years of mornings reading the paper at the kitchen table, eating breakfast silently as he caught himself up on the world, he’d never once come across an obituary for someone he’d actually known. And Dane…
With some effort, Jeremy began chewing again, slowly, unthinking, and swallowed tasteless cornflakes. A mouthful of coffee failed to wash away all of the dry roughness in his throat. He looked at the paper again, at the picture that had caught his eye, not so much an obituary as a small article, “Local Man Killed in Apartment Fire”. Next to the typeset black and white words a small picture, unfocused and rather unflattering, but immediately familiar and breathtaking. Someone he’d known, loved, for fifteen years, once as intimately comfortable as home and now, somehow, five years removed, utterly alien to him. Unknown, impossibly; he’d stared unbelievingly at the picture for at least a minute, at first, knowing it was Dane but not recognizing the face in a way, anymore.
But it was Dane, he knew, skimming the words of the article with anxious eyes. He didn’t understand his reaction to this, to seeing this article. Sure, there was grief, he felt that and knew it and allowed it to unfurl through his body, smoky tendrils of the bittersweet feeling settling into his back, his neck, his limbs. He felt grief, and he felt how it weighted him down on his chair, his body suddenly heavier for it. The other emotions, though… regret, maybe. And separation, foreignness… a sense of not quite being able to understand something, to put his mind around it and master its elusiveness.
He remembered the last time they’d spoken; now, what, five years before? This was a memory he’d revisited semi-frequently, on dark, lonely nights laying in bed listening to his own breath for want of something better to do; on bright days of adrenaline-charged feeling, exhilaration, joy at being alive, and the sudden emptiness of solely owning that feeling, unable to reach out and offer it, share it with another. Now at his kitchen table, paper lying flat below unfeeling fingers and against hard wood, revisiting it once again. Jeremy closed his eyes and leaned back. He saw again, as he always did, Dane’s face from that day. His look of anger and hurt and sadness and pity, his low voice made lower from emotion.
“It just seems like such a waste, you know,” Dane had said; lowering green eyes to the ground before looking up again, eyes betraying a hint of hope, hope that things could be resolved, restored. “Fifteen years, I mean,” he held Jeremy’s brown eyes, imploring.
“Dane, I just,” Jeremy paused, gathering words, “I just don’t think this is working anymore. I don’t think either of us is happy at this point.”
“I was happy, Jeremy,” Dane said, eyes slipping shut momentarily. His voice was cold and quiet. “Maybe I wasn’t happy all the time, but I was happy enough.” He opened his eyes, which were harder now, staring. “Nobody’s happy all the time, Jeremy,” his expression tightened, “I think you expect too much. I think you’re always going to be disappointed”.
Jeremy opened his eyes and looked down at the paper, wondering why Dane in the black and white photo looked so unlike the Dane preserved in his memory. Was he right? Am I still disappointed?
Jeremy frowned slightly and took another sip of coffee, not tasting it. I may not be “happy”, at least not a lot of the time, but I don’t know that I’m “disappointed”. Even as he rationalized to himself he knew that these were the thoughts he’d been struggling with, the truth he’d been realizing, over the past year or so. He was forty-six years old now, not as attractive or fit or even just fucking motivated enough to pursue the pleasures he’d coveted in his youth, and he was tired. All the things he’d thought were important, the missed opportunities and endless possibilities of life, he was too tired of chasing them. He always expected his life to change, improve somehow, he expected that he would achieve some sort of nirvana in which his professional, social, and romantic lives would all just click and he would be at some kind of pinnacle, having found the perfect life of fulfillment and pleasure. He’d pursue something, or feel desire to pursue something, and in the end he always found himself discarding things, tossing them left and right as he moved forward, onward, in search of something better. Including Dane, he mused sadly, tracing a finger over newsprint, the pixilated photo a sorry substitute for warm skin he’d once so easily taken for granted.
The night he’d met Dane, memorable not only because he’d been introduced to his future lover but also because it had been the first time he’d actually slept with a man, not Dane but someone else at the bar, someone with blond hair and perfect teeth and a name which was utterly lost to time. Jeremy had noticed Dane that night, had even felt a hot flash of quick attraction to him, but they had done nothing more than talk loudly to each other over pulsing music for about fifteen minutes before Jeremy politely extracted himself from the conversation, interested more in the possibility of a casual thrill than in the “getting to know you” chit-chat that seemed even more awkward in loud bars than in real life.
Much of their conversation was entirely forgotten to Jeremy, much to his frustration. But there had been one thing, one exchange that had never left his heart, that he’d held close ever since he’d realized how much Dane meant to him, and maybe even a little before he’d realized, too.
Jeremy had just made some excuse about why he had to leave the conversation, but assured Dane that, yes, he would love to see him around again and, yes, it had been really great talking to him. He leaned backwards, his body communicating his intention to retreat, when Dane had reached a calm hand over to grip Jeremy’s bicep lightly, stopping any thought of walking for Jeremy. His green eyes seemed to deepen, the color darkening and the pupils intense, “I’m being honest right now… I really enjoyed talking to you. I find you extremely interesting… and attractive, of course. I know this is not the cool thing to do here, but… I’m not going to play games, because that’d drive me crazy, and I’m not going to spend the rest of my life wondering what would have happened if I’d just been honest with you, because that’d also drive me crazy, so… this is me being honest. I find you very attractive and would really like to get to know you better. I’d like to give you my number and I’d really like it if you’d call me and maybe we can spend some time together…” Dane stopped talking, and blushed, and Jeremy had stood, somewhat stunned, wondering what to do with this unusually open speech.
Jeremy’s first thought was that this guy was weird, really weird. His next thought was that he was also very possibly incredibly sweet and, just… intriguing, if he was being sincere. And it seemed too weird to not be sincere. Amazingly, uncharacteristically, Jeremy felt something a little deeper than he was used to feeling, right in his chest and between his legs. He considered the strangeness of the situation and his reaction to it, and then smiled.
“I’ll call you,” he said softly, almost shyly. “I’m… being honest, too. Honestly.” Jeremy grinned to hide his awkwardness.
Dane’s answering grin was something Jeremy desperately wanted to remember, something he had once remembered, vividly, his most cherished memory of a man who had somehow managed to capture and keep his interest for not one night or one week or one month, but nearly fifteen years. That grin was something he’d called up often in his mind at the beginning of their relationship, his own present-day grin matching the illusive grin in his memory, reflecting on his love and his happiness and his luck. It was something he’d called up less frequently in later years with Dane, whose comfortable presence was always appreciated but now seemed less exciting, less new, less awe inducing. And that grin was something he’d barely seen, barely thought about during the last year or so, when he was so focused on his own thoughts of new experiences and new people and, just, something different. After they broke up and Jeremy had enthusiastically pursued the “new” for months, a couple years, that grin was something that seeped back into Jeremy’s mind again on occasion. Some times more than others; dark, lonely nights or bright days, and Jeremy had felt genuine distress at the fact that this memory, once so treasured and then so abandoned, was faded and felt awkward and untrue.
What was Dane wearing that night? He wondered, closing his eyes and squinting in an effort to bring forth a detailed image in his mind. I must have known that at some point. For so long that night was so important to me, so much a part of who I was. He sighed and opened his eyes. And what exactly did I think when I first saw him? He knew nothing of the beginning of their conversation, but what he did remember was the goofy smile that had refused to leave his face as he’d walked away from Dane. He remembered how he’d still gone out and found someone to take home with him, to take his virginity, a source of irrational shame for Jeremy at the time, twenty-one years old with little experience. He remembered that even as he’d experienced his first sexual encounter, he was thinking of Dane, and honesty, and that grin, and when he came, part of him was thinking of that grin, a grin he swore he’d never forget. It had been something so genuine in an existence filled with things he couldn’t trust. He had trusted that grin. And he had made good on his own request for Dale’s trust, his promise, and Jeremy had called him four days later to make a date.
Jeremy felt a tear now, the first one he’d been conscious of, but, fingers trailing absently over his cheek, obviously not the first one he’d shed. What was that last fight even about? He had a vague memory of feeling so upset, so trapped, so irritated and hungry for release from his life. It had seemed so important at the time, the things he was missing. He’d imagined he was missing all kinds of things, things that were wonderful and that would fulfill him, things he could reach out and touch if only if it weren’t for Dane. What was that fight about? I remember… something set me off and I started yelling. I was so aggressive, I know that, but I just can’t… I don’t know why. The fight had been a catalyst, an excuse for Jeremy to release all his rage and uncertainty and desire and frustration, and the words and feelings had hung heavily over them like thick smoke, choking Jeremy in the effort to expel it all and strangling Dane into shocked silence.
“Is that how you really feel about our relationship?” Dane had asked him, eyes shiny with tears, voice wavering from the effort to contain them.
And Jeremy remembered that he’d confirmed it, now thinking that his words had been lies, or if not lies than the product of ignorance, stupid ignorance and ingratitude. He had felt that way about the relationship then, somehow, he knew he must have, but after all this time he couldn’t remember why. And that, more than anything, killed him inside.
And I can’t even remember that grin, he thought sadly, staring at the picture in the paper again, at his fingers that ran over it as if he could somehow reach the man immortalized there. As if he could somehow apologize and reconnect with him, recapture those fifteen long years, reclaim the five since which he had thrown away like so much garbage.
Jeremy didn’t know if Dane had found someone else after him, hadn’t spoken to him or asked after him since that last conversation, hadn’t even seen him since the moment Dane had turned around and silently walked out of their apartment, leaving Jeremy to quick gather his things and depart. He wasn’t sure if Dane had spent his last five years lonely or happy, regretful or satisfied. Is there anyone left to grieve for Dane as a lover? Or is it just me? Dane’s parents had died eight years ago and he’d been an only child. What family he’d had left had never been close, and Jeremy knew he’d been the only family Dane had really had in so many years. And I can’t even remember that grin, or what his voice sounded like when he was excited, or sleepy, or exactly what color his eyes were. Jeremy shook his head in self-disgust closed the newspaper in front of him, hands pressing flat against the front page as if to keep the obituary, and the feelings it had provoked, safely inside.
Five, ten seconds. Then Jeremy removed his hands from the smooth paper, grabbed his coffee cup and his half-full bowl of soggy cereal, and pushed back his chair to stand up. “I’m sorry,” he said softly, looking down at the table, and then turned to start a new day.