Christmas Eve, snow finally fell from an infinitely gray overcast, hovering since dawn and hanging motionless into the afternoon. Still coming down hard after dark, it resolved the village below us in a pinkish haze, a fog-shrouded pool with fuzzy streetlights struggling to pierce through. There was probably a foot on the ground by now. Fluffy, it kicked easily away from our shoes as we tramped away from Val’s house.
Val spread her long coat to help keep my ass dry. The one I’d wrapped myself in for the trip to Endicott wasn’t long enough for sitting on the ground, watching the snow, which we decided to do almost as soon as I got there.
We picked a bank on what might one day be a lawn in a vacant corner lot on the hill where she lived.
Heavy, drifting flakes forced a misty silence. Our heads were topped with white.
“I should’ve worn a hat. It’s melting and running down my face.”
“I don’t remember ever seeing you with a hat,” Val said.
She nodded in the dark.
“It’s really beautiful.”
She drew her hood closer to her face. Strands of wavy hair leaked out around the contours of her cheeks and alongside her neck.
Streets congesting with snow, edges rounded or eliminated like romantic poetry, Endicott looked as soft and gentle as the flakes showering it, make-believe in the valley below us.
“Like a dream,” Val added. She looked at me with a smile. “I’m glad you came out to see me.”
“Maybe I’m crazy, hitchhiking all the way out here in this weather.”
“Crazy about me?”
“I appreciate it. Most boys would never come all the way out here in this weather.”
“Love will do that to you,” I said.
Traffic thinned with the holiday, I’d been lucky to make it across the cities fast. I might need to spend the whole night walking back home. Cars might disappear as the darkness swarmed toward Christmas morning. I still hadn’t inhibited my routines with any habit for planning. Life would come, and I’d grab whatever events I saw skating by.
“Maybe I’ll freeze to death before I get home again,” I added, “but I wanted to see you. What else was I going to do, sit home and wait for Santa Claus? Nothing, absolutely nothing was going on. I was bouncing off the walls.”
On an impulse, after calling her to say, “Merry Christmas,” I decided to ignore the storm for a chance to see her. She was willing, and there was time.
“Do you still believe in Santa Claus?”
“I never stopped. What else have we got? God?”
“Me, too. I don’t know what we have to believe in now.”
In the year gone by, an emotional scrub brush scraped away my faith in the positive direction of the world. Eighteen years old felt like balancing on a pivot without any specific gravity or momentum in any direction, like my beliefs had been racked and a cueball struck them, scattering them in a chaos so wild only a magic physicist could yank them back into order.
“I think we need to figure it all out from scratch. I don’t even know where to begin.”
“At the beginning, one step at a time, that’s the only way…”
I had a feeling her remark was off the cuff, something she said without having thought about it before and may not agree with tomorrow.
“No shortcuts,” I added, “like ‘All you need is love,’ that kind of thing.”
“Yeah, but how do we find them?”
“I know I love you,” I said. “That’s always there. It’s a start when you have one thing you know is true.”
“I love you too, but what have we ever been able to do about it? Together, I mean. We’re such a mismatch.”
“Are we too loose?”
“When we’re together, we are, yeah,” Val agreed. “There’s no place for us. We have different lives in different places, and then, every once in a while, we have this time together when we connect, but then, it’s gone again so fast.”
She gestured at the snow softened cityscape below us, as if she created it.
“I wish you’d let me change that.”
The intensity of the snow, the cold air, the fluffed fantasy, dreaming in unison.
“How? What are you going to do? Carry me off somewhere?”
“I wish. I can hardly carry myself, as you know.”
“I think we should just stay like we are,” Val suggested, sweeping a dark, mittened hand through the falling snow. “You’re different for me. You make me look at myself in a different way. Maybe you keep me honest. Maybe we’d lose that, if we aren’t careful.”
Her voice lifted into a laugh.
“Maybe we’re in-betweeners, Val. We meet in the seams between the rest of our lives.”
“I’m not sure what that means,” she said.
“I hope you’re not counting on me to explain it.”
“You always knew,” Val reminded me now, “whether you wanted to know or not. It was all there.”
“Sure, in a foreign language, it was all there. Really, I didn’t know what I knew. We were so different. There wasn’t any other couple like us, you know, as much as we were friends. I didn’t know what was happening between us or what, if anything, I could do about it. I didn’t have any examples.
You were just always there, the continuum, you know?”
“That brings us to the point,” Val changed the subject. “You asked a question I think I can answer.
‘”You want a bigger picture. You want to understand how you got here, where you are now, from way back where we were or before, right?”
With an exaggerated gesture, she added a wisp of comedy to the mix.
“Always, I do. I’m kind of a mystery to myself. There are things I can’t explain. Maybe I don’t remember enough.”
“You can start with Ginny, but that’ll just make you feel guilty. Why not go back to where your parents turned you into an emotional gymnast. That’s what happens if you want to survive after your parents kick you into the gutter before you’re old enough to tie your own shoes. You learned to lean on yourself, to be alone and self-reliant. Didn’t it seem odd when Emerson got your attention, even when everything he wrote was way over your head? You kept looking at Self-Reliance like it was Chinese algebra. That’s been your style ever since. You absorb before you know.”
My brother let me ride along and hang out at the university library when he drove to Vestal to study on Saturdays. I always treated libraries the same way, like I was on a treasure hunt without much of a map, and I remember pulling Emerson’s essays off a shelf and getting scrambled trying to weed my way through his paragraphs.
“I have a style, Val?”
“Well, you left everybody, didn’t you — I mean, up to that point? To you, self-reliance meant independence. You took what you wanted out of Emerson, but that wasn’t what he meant. Emerson believed in community. You believed in staying out of it. When you tell your story, you make yourself out heroic, but let’s be honest. We’re friends. You weren’t heroic. A gambler, sure, but sometimes, you were a hurtful person to know. When mothers warned their daughters about you, they were right. You were dangerous.”
“Mothers usually liked me, at least a first.”
“Yeah because you were so cute and sweet. They didn’t get the whole picture right away.”
Got a pile of sins to pay for and I ain’t got time to hide, Bob Dylan wrote.
For Val, pictures were not hard to paint.
“Let’s forget for a minute that you were so careless with the girls’ feelings that you played around with Ginny’s little sister, the one time she was too sick to keep an eye on you, but what did you do when the big moment came, when you had a chance to be strong for her? You loved her, right? But you found it easy to cut her loose, didn’t you? Bing! You were gone.”
In a sharply pitched moment, Ginny ran across the room and disappeared into my arms, tears streaming down her cheeks, afraid, shattering.
“Take me with you,” she pleaded.
“‘I can’t.’ That’s what you said,” Val reminded me.
“I couldn’t take her with me. That was true. She was underage. I’d go to jail.”
“Cover story,” Val waved me off. “You made that up for the book. You were underage, too. You didn’t really know anything about statutory rape, and you sure weren’t worried about it when you took her pants off. If you told the whole story, you’d talk about waiting at your apartment, hoping she’d make it there on her own, but you knew she wouldn’t, didn’t you? Of course. Besides, who but you and Ginny knew you had sex? Anyone?”
I shrugged, not remembering for sure, embarrassingly confident that I probably told at least my best friend, Bruce, but he’d already shipped out.
“Her parents didn’t know,” Val insisted. “What would they get you for? Trespassing? All they knew is you were sneaking around with their daughter, and they wanted to protect her. From you. Imagine that. But you didn’t stand up for her or even for your own good intentions. You ran. If you stayed and confronted them, it might’ve changed both your lives forever. As you already know, things didn’t go great for her after you left her, not for a long, long time, I mean, decades.”
“I can’t be responsible for what happened to her after we broke up.”
“Really? Are you sure? Because if you’d figured out a way to stick with her and made good on your promises, you’d sure take credit for that, wouldn’t you?”
“Well, we can’t undo the past, can we? But I paid for what I did, as you also know, in a way I never imagined.”
My architecture fell apart pretty quickly without Ginny floating the joists. An emptiness washed in like some barren dam broke. It lasted long enough, I wondered if feeling so little was going to be permanent. Fate finally lent a hand, one late winter day, sending a pair of rescuers named Doug and Boyd to pull me out. I’d been stunned.
“I knew I loved her, but you don’t have to remind me I held something back. I always had one foot out the door, but I didn’t realize my heart didn’t come along with me. My heart was still fused with hers. It’s a funny thing to say, and it was a discovery that nothing I’d ever seen or heard prepared me for. Our hearts plug in, hard and deep, no matter what our boots do.”
Val leaned away to pull me off the subject.
“What the hell? I can’t fix it now, anyway.”
“You remember how you learned to hold so much back, don’t you?” she asked.
Was she pulling strings to surface memories or was it my own psyche?
In my earliest memories from my life as an escape artist, we were, all five of us, waiting like refugees on heavy wooden benches outside the office into which a social worker lead Mom and Dad. Two days on the train from Florida left us dirty, tired and smelly. Set aside Mom’s radical violation of visitation rights, our appearances alone might been enough to bury her claim to competent parenting.
Mom was, as I saw her later, a child raising children, a grown up who never grew up. That’s why we loved her so much and also why she failed. She was our great big sibling with keys to the car.
The door with the frosted glass opened. Mom ran out ahead of the others, a handkerchief pressed to her reddened face and, just like that, escaped down the stairs without a word. She didn’t, as she usually did, sweep us up with, “Let’s get going, kids.”
All five of us turned to look at Dad and the social worker, now a temporary couple. The only detail I remember about the social worker, besides her gender, was how explicitly she, not Dad, explained the realities ahead of us. Toward Dad, my feelings had improved from resentment when I saw him waiting on the railroad platform to indifferent.
“You’re going to stay with your grandmother for a week or so until we can straighten things out with your parents.”
Mom was gone, down the stairs. What was she going to straighten out?
I noticed my brothers and my sister crying beside me.
“I saw that, Val, and I remember thinking, I better cry too. So, I did.”
“You faked it?”
“I faked it.”
“You see now? You were already out. It wasn’t that incident that did it. You were already detached, at that age, more like broken off, damaged goods, adapted for survival.”
“I wish I knew how I got there…”
“Does it really matter?” Val interrupted. “The thing is, if you think about it, you stopped opening your heart to anyone, not completely, right there, when your mother ran down the stairs and left you by yourself, disconnected. You can’t ever have another mother.”
“How did you miss that?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t even seven, and I sure as hell hadn’t heard of Freud. I must not have wanted to see it. Even knowing it now feels horrible.”
“The thing you have to remember is, your loving people never stopped, just your willingness to open up to it. You buried that core instead, for safety. You couldn’t trust anyone with it. You loved your father, your mother, especially your older brothers you relied on for so long, your sister, of course, and others, but it was risky. You buried it. Survival first.”
“Those were some cold, fucking years, Val…”
“And what ended it? What happened?”
“By then, you were good at surviving, with a lot of help you didn’t know about, but you’re were a real mess with love. You hadn’t stretched those muscles enough. Your heart was a wreck.”
“Wait a minute, Val. What help I didn’t know about?”