Every year I write one thing on this blog. (Click here for past years).
This year I missed it.
So here it is.
03.22.13 :: Michigan
A lot happened here in Saginaw, Michigan, a lot I’m going to skim over or just skip entirely for the sake of a somewhat more coherent story. A lot I just don’t feel like explaining, a lot just doesn’t matter if I do. It’s not all my story, so it’s not all my place to tell it.
My first day was the second of the year. I walked into the Saginaw News office, an open room maybe the size of the ground floor of an average house. Open windows revealed every person that accidentally tried to walk into the offices, thinking they were the doors to the cafe next door. They also gave employees an advantage over the parking enforcement. Every few hours, someone would call out “They’re chalking the tires!” and a game of vehicular musical chairs would commence.
I was handed my smart phone, a beat up little Verison somethingorother. My photo editor, Jeff, opened up a brand new MacBook pro, which I was to use for assignments.
“Don’t look at your porn on here,” he told me. I laughed, but he didn’t. Apparently it wasn’t a joke.
My first assignment the next day was to photograph ice. Ice, and things in ice, like rocks, or moors for boats. No people, just ice. This is why I hate winter.
In March, Abbie broke up with me. She needed some time to learn to love herself, I was told. And for the umpteenth time I heard from someone that I was the right guy, wrong time.
“Bushmills neat,” I told the bartender as I sat down. He poured a glass and set it in front of me. Picking it up, expecting the weight of a heavy glass, I was surprised when it was a light, cheap plastic. There’s something that ruins the image of trying to drown your sorrows when it’s a plastic tumbler.
If you want to talk to anyone, look for the one other person in the bar also drinking a whiskey alone. That night, that one other person with me was Mike. After about an hour sitting in silence, Mike broke the ice with some dumb comment about that new Jackie Robinson movie. I ignored it. Several awkward minutes went by.
“Why are you drinking alone?” I asked.
“Why are you drinking alone?” he shot back apparently a little insulted I hadn’t begun talking with him earlier.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “My girl just broke up with me tonight.”
And we were off.
Our stories were so different, yet oh so similar. In both cases, we agreed that, yes, each woman having time away from us would do them good. His girl because they met when they were in high school, and she hadn’t figured out who she was. Abbie because she’s always been in a relationship and hadn’t learned to be comfortable with herself, hadn’t learned how to love herself. God, I wanted her to do that with me around, and she got close. I looked at this stupid plastic cup and swished around the liquid. But there’s nothing I can do about that.
We talked about jealousy, about how it still killed us even if it was better for the one we cared about. I bought Mike a shot, and he choked it down.
“Isn’t the first thing you want to do,” he burped a little bit. “Is go out and fuck the first girl that’ll let you?”
I laughed. No, Mike. You have no idea how untrue that is, I thought.
“No,” I told him, after contemplating how to answer for a time. “No. Even before this happened, anytime I’d talk to another woman, all I could see was why they weren’t her.”
He let out an exclamation between joy and amusement. He held out his hand as a handshake or a low-five, so I slapped it, but he held onto it longer than I expected.
“That’s love,” he said, swigging his beer chaser. “That’s love right there.”
I picked up my drink again and was suddenly really angry it made a dull thud on the bar when I set it back down, instead of a clink. Who has plastic tumblers? I’m trying to mope here.
I supposed that sounded sweet, but there was a part of that comment I was ashamed of. Everything about another woman disgusted me. I didn’t want to hear anyone’s voice, look into anyone’s eyes, make small talk about some inane drivel, explain what I want to do with my life. I didn’t want to fake being a person I wasn’t, a person without the flaws and anxieties I have after so freely displaying and learning to live with or work around them.
“You’re losing a friend, that’s the worst part of it,” Mike said. “All of a sudden, your best friend in the world says that she never wants to talk to you ever again.”
This tumbler, I thought. Where do you even find a plastic one? What children are coming to this bar that you need to protect from broken shards of glass?
“My two best friends,” he continued, “I’ve known them my whole life. They don’t know me at all.” His eyes began to well up with tears, or maybe that was just the lights. “She knows everything about me. Every goddamn thing.”
I thought I may as well be drinking out of a sippy cup, whiskey in a plastic cup…I wondered if it was a Michigan thing.
“You and me,” Mike said, holding out his fist for a pound. “You and me, we’re going to hit the town.”
“Okay, but I gotta pee first,” I told him. I tried to reciprocate his pound, but he flattened out his hand and I slapped his palm with the back of my hand. Maybe this was also just a Michigan thing, I thought.
When I got back from the bathroom, Mike wasn’t there. I stayed for one last drink and hit the road. Hoping that on Sunday, when he got a chance to talk to his girl again, things would work out.
The next day, I did the same thing, but in Ann Arbor. Saturdays were a bit harder to find an emptier bar, but I found an entrance to one in an alley just outside of the campus. A guy named Buddy flirted with me, I think. He told me if I ever needed a drinking buddy, just give him a call. I thought this was funny, considering his name. He reminded me of a friend I had back in Omaha, and as I wandered the streets of Ann Arbor, I wondered what they were doing back home. All these acquaintances, people I know through work and family. Friends? Not really, not anymore.
I suppose it began to happen three or so years ago, back in Lincoln. The amount of time I know someone, for whatever reason, becomes inverse to how much I trust them. I begin to look for holes in what they tell me, or ulterior motives in what they say. I begin to spend less and less time with them because, well, why not? I don’t need them, and if it came down to it, they wouldn’t need me.
On the way back to Saginaw, I stopped in Flint to gas up. Two teens approached me, asking if they could get a ride to their aunt’s place. Everything I had heard about Flint told me not to say yes.
“Sure,” I said.
Chatting with them in the car, I learned they were high schoolers visiting from Detroit. Their best friend had just been shot, so their spring break was to be spent coming back for his funeral. Trying to change the subject, I asked what it was like living in Detroit.
“I want to come back here,” the one called Pat said. “There’s more shootings here, but in Detroit, they just shoot from their apartments if you’re walking…”
He looked out the window. Alex, in the back seat, told me to take a left at the lights up ahead.
“I want to come back here,” Pat said again. “If I’m going to get shot, I’d rather get killed around people I know. Not to jinx it or anything…” Pat trailed off.
When we got to Pat’s aunt’s complex, I shook his hand. “I’m sorry about your friend. Really,” I said.
On my way back to Saginaw, Taking Back Sunday came on my iPod. When I was in high school, they were part of the soundtrack to my life, and I laughed out loud, remembering how I used to think I knew what it felt like to have a broken heart.
It’s okay some days. Other days, I find a strand of her hair on my clothing.
Where was that I saw this? I apologize for the vagueness, but someone, somewhere once asked “how do you know when you love someone?” And the response was…
“When it’s over.”
A week or so later she told me she loved me. A day later things were too different to for us to ever get back together. Another day or two and she said she loved me.
A whiskey neat.
04.12.14 :: Indiana
Hal appeared out of the corner of my eye while I was outside on my phone. “Excuse me, brother,” he said.
I held up a finger, indicating that I’d be a second, and secretly hoped he’d get the hint I was busy talking and just leave. He hadn’t gone by the time I finished my conversation, and he sat down next to me on the bench.
“I was wondering if you could help me out with a favor.”
There’s been a number of things I’ve been called over the years, and one that cut deep is “doormat.”
“People walk all over you,” she had said. “They sense they can take advantage of you, and you let them.”
I’m trying to change that.
“Depends on what kind of favor,” I said in my best ‘I couldn’t care less’ voice.
Hal stared at me for a second, big brown eyes behind thick round glasses, and he laughed, putting his hand on my forearm. Rough, dry skin, with a thumb in a permanent 45 degree angle.
He told me he had lost his wedding ring at Chipotle or Meijer or Scott’s, and he couldn’t get a hold of his cousin and I don’t remember what else because I was kicking myself for what I already knew my answer was. Some things never change.
“I…I’ve got plans tonight,” I told him.
“Please,” he said. “This ring has a lot of sentimental value to me.”
So I went upstairs to grab my car keys.
In 26 years, I feel like I’ve chauffeured around complete strangers more than the average person. There was an old woman I have a vague memory of, smelling like old sweat as she sat in silence. There was a guy who wanted a ride up the street to see if his brother was home so he could sneak in and grab his stuff without running into said brother. There was Paul and Michelle. There was an old man I drove from either downtown Lincoln to Pioneers Park or vice versa. There were three high school kids in Flint. There was a drunk woman whose boyfriend had locked her out of the house. There was Flames, a gay homeless drag queen in Saginaw I tried to do a story on, but he was impossible to find when he didn’t need my car. There’s a lot more I can’t remember right now, and now there was Hal.
“Are you a Christian?” Hal asked. People needing rides and faith seem to follow me wherever I go. My mental jury has yet to make a verdict, so I answered him “No.”
“So you’re just a good person?”
“No,” I told him. “Not as often as I’d like.”
He stared at me again, big brown eyes magnified behind his frames. Without warning, he threw his head back and laughed again. We walked toward the car and I slowed down to stay with Hal’s hobble.
“Where are you from?” Hal asked.
Hal lit up. “My brother lived there! I was thinking about moving out there!”
We drove to Meijer, Hal thanking me so much I started to feel guilty I ever considered saying no. “Don’t thank me.”
“You don’t know how much this means to me. I could have been waiting out there all night. You know, I could tell you were a good person, if you weren’t, if you were rude I would have just let you be and blessed you with the Holy Spirit. But I could tell you were a good person.”
My face turned red out of shame and I sank deeper in my seat and asked about his wife so I didn’t have to talk.
Hal told me they met on public transportation. “You really get to see who a person really is on a bus,” he said.
Hal asked me if I had a girlfriend. I don’t know, I told him. I don’t think so anymore. He asked me for gas money, and I gave him the six dollars I had in my pocket. He grabbed my hand and said a prayer.
“Thank you for bringing this man into my life,” I heard. I winced. After he said Amen I asked him again to stop thanking me.
“Can I be honest?” He asked me. He didn’t wait for an answer. I found out he and his wife were separated.
We got to Meijer and I dropped Hal off. I went and parked and kept my eye out for an old limping man dressed in flannel. I took my phone out and considered letting someone know where I was in case anything happened.
Hal came back out and I unlocked my doors. “No luck,” he said. I could see his eyes get shiny in the parking lot lights.
Hal told me he was hit by a car when he was younger, and he sometimes had memory problems. He asked me if his wife Mary would understand and forgive him if he fessed up to losing the ring.
“It’s just a ring. Do you think she’ll understand? I don’t think it’s a sign from God, meaning that I should give up on her. Do you think she’ll forgive me?”
Trying to sound confident, I said of course she would. It was only an object.
He nodded. “If two people truly love each other, love conquers all.”
Hal told me he used to be handsome. He told me he used to play basketball and run track, and was the fastest kid in school.
Chipotle was our next stop. Hal said his pastor had been scheming behind his back to get his wife to leave him. I thought that this was what was wrong with religion, people pretending they had the ability to interpret things none of us could understand. I opened my mouth to ask him who are we to say we know what God thinks?
Instead I listened to him tell me about his childhood, his college days in muggy Louisiana and how to get to a burrito chain.
At our last stop of the night, Hal hesitated before stepping out of the car. “You won’t leave, will you?”
“No,” I told him. “I’m already invested in this.” Literally, I thought.
Hal entered the car again, quiet and dejected. NPR was playing jazz softly on my radio. Hal pointed at it and laughed.
“What are you listening to this for? Do you ever listen to 88.3?”
I let him fiddle with the dials until he found his station. He turned the volume up in the middle of one of those uplifting, piano, guitar and drum-driven songs about Jesus. And Hal began to sob. I could make out words like “dear Jesus, you know what I’ve been going through,” but that was about it before turning into a louder and louder wailing. I didn’t know what to do, and Hal was practically screaming, so I reached out my hand and he grabbed it, nearly taking it off. He said something about his first girlfriend and she got sick, he asked me why he couldn’t help her, why God didn’t listen to his prayers and why she had to die. I said nothing and thought about my cousin and family I had left behind, friends I had lost contact with, about someone I thought was the other half of my jigsaw puzzle and why that piece didn’t seem to fit anymore. I left them all behind and still had the audacity to feel sad when I’m lonely. I squeezed Hal’s hand and he quieted a little. After two or three miles he told me to drop him off at a stop sign.
“Thank you,” Hal said.
“Don’t,” I told him again. And as I drove off I turned the radio back to a pledge drive I feel guilty for not donating to.
Some things never change.