By Spencer Storey Johnson
Pine leans on his gravestone, dressed as he always was when we were young: artfully torn denim jacket, dark curls swept back teasing the glint of a gold earring. His feet don’t disturb the crust of snow on the grass and dirt that cover his body. The early morning sun filters through trees beyond the cemetery, playing over and through the sharp lines of his face.
“Hey, Old Boy,” he says. He looks me over, standing before him, melting snow already soaking through my shoes and thick wool socks. A shiver rolls through me that has nothing to do with the cold and everything to do with hearing the nickname he gave me when I wore tweed and argyle sweater vests and paisley ties in my twenties. A nickname that makes even more sense now that I truly am an “old boy.”
“Hello, Pine,” I say, although I’m not sure if I say it aloud. What do you say to the dead?
“Why don’t you tell me a story,” he says in the quiet voice he reserved for the post-sex moments when he would lay back and smoke and listen to me talk. I would tell him things about my life, about my classes and my friends and my childhood. Or I would make something up, speculating on our future or imagining the lives of other people.
“We were in your apartment,” I begin, not sure yet where I am going or what story I will tell, “the one in the basement of that creepy house by the park.”
Pine nods, closing his eyes, as if picturing the low-ceilinged studio in the flickering light of the bare bulb that swung from the naked beams. The basement was partially finished, with cement floors that sloped towards a drain in the center. There was a kitchenette tucked in one corner opposite a tiny bathroom, and the furnace looming from the shadows in another. I can still picture his elderly landlady who sang opera to her cats and demanded rent each month in cash. Lying in the musty darkness, his bed just a mattress on the cold floor, Pine and I would listen to her cracking soprano break over arias like the sea slamming into a rocky shore.
“You were writing something when I came in, hunched over your desk with no shirt on. It was October and already getting cold outside, but that basement was hot all year because of the furnace. You were writing by candlelight for some reason, so I flicked the switch by the door. You jumped like you’d been burned and told me to leave without even turning around.
“ ‘You invited me over,’ I said.
The place smelled like a dive bar—body odor, liquor, and maybe a little bile. You were drunk. You didn’t say anything until I came and put my hand on your back. It was slick with sweat. When you turned and looked up at me your eyes were bloodshot and wet, but you weren’t crying.
“ ‘Are you okay?’ I tried to touch your cheek, but you flinched away from me.
“ ‘I need you to leave,’ you said again.
“ ‘Let me help,’ I said.
“ ‘You can’t.’ You began to shake, but still did not cry. ‘You really can’t.’ I tried to comfort you, but when I touched you again, you began to yell. You didn’t stop, even when I left the apartment in tears. I could still hear you from the end of the block. It broke my heart. Two years with my first love and he had never hurt me. Now I had no idea what to do.”
I’ve just been staring out towards the sunrise while I speak and when I look back Pine is watching me. If he remembers that night, he doesn’t show it. I study his face looking for… what? An apology? Guilt? Forgiveness? He remains placid, as if I had only reminded him of yesterday’s weather.
“I do remember that,” he says, still expressionless.
“We never fought like that before,” I say, “or at least I don’t remember any fights like that from before. And we didn’t fight like that again. We worked things out. We didn’t talk for a while, but you weren’t mad at me, really. I guess you were mad at your folks.”
The thought of Pine’s parents sends a slow tremor of fear through my chest and down into my stomach, even after all these years. His dad is dead. The grave next to Pine’s is marked “Harold Pines – Husband and Father – ‘I rejoice in thy salvation’ 1 Samuel 2: 1.” I’m more concerned about his mother. She never liked me, or maybe just what I stood for, and the flowers on the pair of graves are fresh enough to tell me she still comes by.
“Don’t worry about her,” Pine says, “she wouldn’t recognize you now anyway.”
“Still.” I glance around, but don’t take my eyes off Pine for long. “She scares the hell out of me.”
“You only met her once,” Pine says. He laughs, a flat, hollow thing with as much humor as a wake. “She scared me too.”
I look down at my feet, unsure of what to say. The weekend before our fight in the basement, Pine had taken me to meet his parents. I’d been introduced as a “friend from class.” I’m not sure they bought it. His parents couldn’t have been much older than mine, but with their starchy clothes and the fear of God dripping from every mannerism, they seemed ancient to me. They were friendly enough at first, or as friendly as their faith allowed them to be with outsiders, but at dinner, I slipped.
“Would you pass the potatoes, Love?” I said, not realizing what I’d done until I saw Pine’s face go white.
His parents stiffened and I felt like the air in the room went cold. His mother excused herself and with a flick of her finger, Pine followed her into the kitchen. He shuffled after her, head low, his usual confidence cowed in the presence of this woman.
“You should leave,” Pine’s father said, expressionless apart from his knuckles drumming on the table.
As I collected my coat, I heard the smack of a bony hand on flesh, followed by another and another. The name of God was invoked, echoing through the house. I hurried out the door as voices rose behind me. I was sure Pine would never forgive me. I certainly never did.
I am suddenly aware that I am standing on Pine’s chest. There is six feet of frozen earth between my feet and his body, but it still feels disrespectful in some way. He doesn’t seem to mind. I take a few steps back, trying to position myself over his legs instead, only to step too far and almost trip backwards over another grave. The snow crunches under my feet and I dust loose flakes of my legs.
Pine watches the awkward negotiation of my body in relation to his with mild amusement. It is the same patient and bemused look he gave early in our relationship when guiding me in exploring his body and mine. He was my first in many things and I flush now at the thought that he would still see me as so inexperienced and ungainly.
“What happened next?” Pine prods gently for me to continue my story.
I stand still. Quiet. Reluctant to wade again into the murky waters of memory, I take a different, easier path.
“You dropped out of school,” a look of mild surprise flits across Pine’s aquiline face, but I continue, “I had always expected you would. It never made you happy to work to the expectations of others. And you seemed like a new man when you left. More free. You wanted to move, to add distance to your escape, but you stayed until I graduated.
“That summer we traveled. We didn’t have much money, but that didn’t matter to us. We went to Europe, lived in hostels and wandered in bliss. You made it your goal to learn the words ‘I love you’ in the language of every country we visited.
“ ‘Se agapó,’ you told me on the crystalline white beaches of Mykonos.
“ ‘Ti amo,’ you told me as we walked hand in hand across the Ponte Vecchio.
“ ‘Je t’aime,” you told me at a sidewalk café overlooking the Seine.
“ ‘Ich liebe dich,’ you told me, and I laughed as you tried to wrap your tongue around the unfamiliar syllables in a Viennese coffee house. But I believed you all the more because you tried.
“When our money was almost gone, we came home. I applied for graduate schools and in 1985 we moved to Los Angeles.
“The apartment we found was tiny, but it fit us perfectly. It had obnoxious yellow walls, shag carpet everywhere except the kitchen and bathroom where it gave way to tessellated linoleum, and a cramped balcony where you set up a card table to write.”
Pine listens with a slight frown, no more than a crinkle between his eyebrows, but he says nothing. I press on, knowing that I cannot stop now.
“I loved to watch you work. Sitting at the table in our cluttered kitchen, I would stare at you, avoiding my homework or whatever book I was reading. I was fascinated by your hours of staring into nothing, looking for the next thing to say, and the furious periods of scribbling or typing where the words seemed to fly from your hands and onto the growing pile of pages, weighed down often by a small potted plant. Hunched over your notebook or typewriter, squinting from the glare off the white pages on sunny days, your hair would fall in your face, and you pushed it behind your ear only to have it fall again. And when you occasionally looked up and caught me watching, you broke into a smile.”
I smile now remembering the joy I had felt in those moments, a joy to last me an eternity.
I have again been speaking to Pine’s boots. It hurts to look at him. He looks so young, yet his demeanor is closer to that of an aging stoic than a twenty-four-year-old artist. I force myself to meet his eyes. I wish that he would laugh or cry or yell, anything besides this otherworldly serenity. The figure before me looks like Pine, sounds like Pine, but at once feels alien and unreadable. I sense a lacuna in his existence here, a tear in the fabric of Pine’s nature. I remember the intensity of his love, the periods of abject despair, the fits of anger, the inexorable force of his happiness. He did nothing passively. Who was he without that?
“Do you want me to be angry?” Pine’s voice is tinged with an uncharacteristic confusion. “Should I blame you?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “You just seem so… thin. I guess. Less vivid.”
Pine glances down at his own body, then back to me. “Time dilutes things.” He shrugs.
For a moment, Pine appears to solidify, closing his eyes and drawing himself together, congealing in the air. But, when he opens his eyes, he fades again. The patina of moss and lichen on his headstone is visible through his semi-solid legs. I step forward, wanting to touch him. But I stop myself, fearing my hands will pass right through him. The thought nauseates me.
“Our life seemed quite perfect,” he says.
I sigh, my breath clouding in the frozen air between us. “It does. It did. But I guess it wasn’t.”
I wait to see if Pine will interject, perhaps encourage or coax me in some way. But he just runs his fingers through his hair and says nothing.
“By the time I graduated, you had sold a couple of scripts and gotten an agent. I began working in the Social Sciences department at UCLA. When you sold a few more scripts we traded in the cozy apartment for a condo closer to the school. We weren’t particularly social, but in our new place we hosted dinner parties with a small group of artists we had met. There was a painter and a photographer, a pair of filmmakers, and a couple of other writers. The parties were less about food and more about drinking and drugs, and conversations that would carry us into the early morning.
“On my days off, we would wander. Short trips into the hills to secluded hideouts where we could have sex under the trees and the sky. I reveled in the exposure, and half expected, half hoped, that other hikers would stumble upon us and, in doing so, bear witness to our love. No one ever did. Afterwards we would lounge in the shade and the pleasure of each other. You would write and I would read, or we would talk about the future. You never liked to waste time on the past, but you saw what lay ahead with such imagination, filled with potential. We built our life; from trips we would take across the globe to successes in our careers to retiring in a bungalow somewhere with mountains and water. Once, you even brought up adopting children. I went along with it, but the thought of kids terrified me. Maybe you could tell. You never brought it up again. But—”
I pause. Why am I doing this? What does saying any of this accomplish? I look out past Pine at the hundreds of graves spread around his. Hundreds of dead strangers. I feel them, as if they are an invisible audience leaning in with bated breath.
“But?” Pine says, the voice of the silent crowd.
There is no leaving this story unfinished. I don’t know how much time I might have.
“But,” I continue, after taking a moment to collect my thoughts again, “work stopped coming in for you. Or you stopped working. Maybe both. Or maybe your dad’s death affected you more than even you understood. You never mentioned it, but I found the letter from your uncle a few days after it happened. I suppose it could have been any combination of things. You never came to me for help. Or anyone for that matter. I noticed at first when you started each morning with a blank page and a bottle. By the time I came home from work, both would be empty. Then you discarded the pages all together, and it was just empty glass at the end of the day. Our life came to a stop. No hikes, no dinner parties, no more talking about the future. You withdrew from everything. From me.
“At first I tried to break through. It got to the point that I could no longer remember the last time I saw you sober. Our interactions grew terse and more strained as you pushed away, and I tried to pull you back. One night, I came home and you had torn apart the apartment. ‘Where is it?’ you demanded, yet you refused to tell me what ‘it’ was.
“ ‘What are you looking for?”
“A book? A photograph? A draft of an old script or story?
“You only repeated yourself—’where is it?’ ‘Where is it?’—until you got so agitated that you rushed across the living room and grabbed me by the arms. You shook me, part anger, part pleading ‘Did you hide it? What have you done with it? Why did you hide it?”
“You dropped your arms to your sides and stared at me, eyes wide and unfocused, as if I had betrayed you. “Why do you hate me?” your was voice soft and greased with malice.
“I don’t hate you!” I tried to kiss you.
“Don’t lie to me,” you spat in my face.
“ ‘I love you,’ I said again and again. You tried to hit me then, but you were drunk and slow and off balance. I wrestled you to the ground and pinned you there amid the depredation of our life. You kicked and struggled, sending books flying and breaking the leg of the coffee table. You started to cry. I cried too, my tears dripping onto your chest. When you stopped fighting, I held you until we both fell asleep on the floor.”
My eyes sting and I blink in the cold air, the sun reflecting off the icy crust of the snow. I think I see Pine’s eyes shimmering as well, the ghosts of tears.
“I should have done more,” I say, “I chose to ignore what was happening. Our conversations became invective, repetitive shouting matches. But you didn’t try to hurt me again, so I believed that meant things were getting better. You began disappearing in the evenings, and I chose to revel in those peaceful hours alone. You said you were taking walks to clear your head, and I wanted to believe you. It wasn’t until you were returned to me one morning with a DUI and your arm in a sling that I understood you’d been going out driving, drunk of course and probably on something else besides. That night you’d crashed through a fence somewhere in the valley. The owner of the house found you passed out in his yard and called the police. I couldn’t afford the repairs for his fence and our car, so I sold it and started taking the bus to work. I told myself that this would help solve the problem. And you appeared to resign yourself to being trapped in the apartment, only leaving to walk to the corner store.
“I wanted to help you, but I loved you, so I foolishly let myself believe that because you weren’t asking for my help, you didn’t need it. Perhaps I also chose to leave you to your devices as punishment for the wounds you inflicted on me, intentional or otherwise. And maybe I was afraid that if I offered to help, you would reject me, push me further away than you already had. I was weak, pretending I was respecting your space, but just trying to save myself.
“One morning, a month after our 8th anniversary, I came into the kitchen and found you slumped against the counter, eyes rolled back in your head, vomit sliding down your chin, dripping onto your bare chest, and a line of blood along your jaw, oozing from underneath your hair. I called an ambulance.
“The nurses pumped your stomach and began putting you through detox. I was not allowed to see you because I wasn’t family. ‘I’m all he’s got!’ I protested and yelled and cursed until I was escorted out. I spent the next two nights sleeping on a bench across the parking lot, until exhaustion forced me home. I returned every morning to wait. When you were released eight days later, you looked so weak, like an abused animal. I cried in the cab home. You said nothing. In bed that night, the first time we had shared one in so long, you didn’t touch me, but you whispered in the darkness, ‘Please. Help me.”
“I paid for your hospital bills out of pocket and dipped into our dwindling savings to send you to rehab. You had no insurance. The next four months were hard and lonesome. We talked on the phone often and I visited you when I could. I stopped drinking, too. I threw out every bottle and can we had in the house and drew some small satisfaction from smashing our wine and cocktail glasses.
“The first thing you said to me when you came home was ‘I missed you, Old Boy.” That night we had sex for the first time in over a year. It was slow and somehow different from before, like exercising a muscle that hasn’t been used for a long time. You had put on a little weight and cut your hair. ‘There’s nothing to pull on,’ I complained, and your laughter meant more to me than the sex.
“A call to an old friend got you a job teaching theater and writing workshops part time. Our life became quieter than it ever had been, and I think we were both relieved. You didn’t start writing again, and wouldn’t for some time.
“A few years later we moved out of the city. We had saved enough to buy a single-level, two-bedroom house with a yard and patio out back and a small garden in the front. I converted the second bedroom into an office and transitioned to working remotely, commuting only twice a week. You got a full-time positing teaching classes at a community college nearby.”
The sun is above the trees now and the whole cemetery glitters. In the harsh light Pine looks even more immaterial. He seems unconcerned, but his fading form ties a hard knot of panic in my chest. I wish more than ever I could take him in my arms, fetter him in this place, with me. Pine reaches out with a perfect hand and without thinking I extend mine to him, a heavy glove hiding wrinkles and other blemishes of time. He does not grasp my hand, but where our fingers meet, mine tingle, as if my hand has fallen asleep. He draws me closer until we are standing side by side, looking out over the gravestones, spires of rock in a sea of snow.
“How does the story end?” Pine’s voice has faded as well, a whisper, as much inside my head as out.
I sigh. “We grew old, I suppose. We got married at a courthouse in May of 2010. You started to write again not long after. Seeing you go back to work—focused, if perhaps more subdued than before—made me so happy. You refused to tell me much about what you were working on, but I would watch you on the patio with your laptop from my office window. ‘It is a play. And it’s a surprise.’ You said any time I pried.
“On my 57th birthday you took me to the theater at the college to see the play, put on by some of your students.
“Your play, titled Eulogy to a Life Unlived told the story of three old friends who meet again at the funeral of another, reliving their younger days and hashing out old differences. You illuminated the complexities of despair, the challenges of the past, and the hesitance and joy that can be found in an unforeseeable future. In awe and so proud of you, I came to every performance of the three-week run.
“Eulogy was picked up by a professional theater company and word of it began to spread. A few years later we flew to New York on our anniversary to watch it debut Off-Off-Broadway.
“While we were there you complained of minor abdominal pain, growing steadily worse over the next couple of weeks. We went to the doctor, and I held your hand as we received the news: ‘Cancer,’ the tests revealed, ‘but not untreatable.’ The weeks and months that followed were filled with consultations, tests, appointments, operations, and check-ups. I was with you at every moment, and in the end, you returned to the world as healthy as—”
“No.” Pine is no more than a smudge in the air now, and his voice echoes in my head. “That is not our story.” He floats his ethereal hand on my shoulder like a wisp of breath disturbing the air beside my neck, and I begin to cry.
Silent tears roll down my nose and drip, leaving pockmarks in the snow that covers Pine’s body.
“You told it beautifully,” he says, “But that is not what happened.”
Our story ended that night in the basement of the old house by the park.
The landlady found Pine the next morning along with a note that I never got to read. I was not invited to the funeral.
The truth is much the same as the fiction. I traveled after I graduated, but I did so alone with my grief. After many listless months in my childhood home, I did apply to graduate school at my parent’s prodding. I went to Massachusetts, not California.
I met my husband there, in a sociology class. It took him months to coax me into going out with him, but I loved him from the beginning.
It was I who—following the early loss of my parents in the years after we finished school—spiraled out of control landing myself in the hospital, and it was him who fought to be by my side and got me the help I hadn’t known I had needed. He was strong and patient as I grew evermore maudlin, and he helped me even when I didn’t want it. With Pine I could only imagine the impossible; my husband did it. He taught me to love myself. He quelled my fears about having children and is the reason I have grandchildren now.
When he got sick, our family was there with us. And when he didn’t recover, they took care of me. My son and his wife have been staying with me since he died. They’re presence in the house again is comforting, but I have still not been able to grieve. Now that he is gone and my future with him, I am terrified. The fear competes with a sadness that I have struggled to hold back.
The funeral is tomorrow. I have been asked to speak but cannot find the words. Or maybe I have been avoiding searching for them. It is that effort that drove me here instead, to relive a love I lost decades ago.
My throat is sore from speaking in the icy air for so long. I had hoped addressing the wounds of the past would help me understand how to address the wounds of the present. But I am still unable to find the words.
What can I say to the man who saved my life?
Pine whispers, “Tell him: ‘Thank you’.”
About the Author:
Spencer Storey Johnson is a previously unpublished writer from Seattle, WA living and working in Boston, MA. He is studying for his MFA in Fiction at Emerson College, where he also teaches freshmen writing.