Trips

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On fountains.

Published July 7, 2016 by mandileighbean

It’s sweltering in my house. I was dripping sweat earlier. I went outside earlier, to try and benefit from the meager breeze coming from the bay, and my outdoor furniture was wet from a storm that had passed by earlier but I didn’t even care. That’s how hot it is.

I’m not telling you this for sympathy. I think I’m building character.

My life is quiet and small and plain. Again, I’m not telling you this for sympathy or vague reassurance that my life is not the way I perceive it (that just makes someone feel crazy, doesn’t it?). I’m telling you this to illuminate my character, because this realization makes me restless. I always feel like I’m wasting my time and my youth, that I should be doing more, more, more. So I’m taking baby steps to do just that.

On Wednesday, I went to Princeton with one of my best friends. We strolled the campus like we belonged there, despite me being clad in clothes purchased from Old Navy and not J. Crew or Ann Taylor or anywhere else equally as impressive and expensive. Not only that, but an intrusive coffee stain that was too large to be ignored assaulted the lower-half of my shirt in a way that simply screamed I didn’t belong, that I was totally and completely faking it. But I didn’t let my general sloppiness ruin the trip – I’m not that dramatic.

I dragged my patient and impossibly too kind friend to the university to peruse the F. Scott Fitzgerald archives. I anticipated manuscripts and pictures kept under class in a far and quiet corner of the library. I assumed the public had free and easy access to the most personal belongings of a literary genius, but I was so wrong. We had to register, received photo identification cards to enter a restricted part of the library, wash our hands, lock away our belongings, and specifically select which aspects of Fitzgerald’s life we wanted to access. We did this without complaint (which is saying something considering the heat of the day was blistering and my dear, dear friend never intended to spend 150 minutes looking at the personal affects of some dead author), and were shown into a reading room. There, I made plans to visit Great Neck, Long Island for a long weekend (the setting that inspired The Great Gatsby) and to travel to Hackensack, New Jersey (specifically to see the Newman School, which Fitzgerald attended). My friend and I both flipped through a sort of combined scrapbook of Scott and Zelda, compiled by Matthew J. Bruccoli (the only Fitzgerald biographer that matters) and Scottie, Scott and Zelda’s daughter.

Scott’s drama teacher wrote, “Good God, save the soul of the man with the spark!” in reference to Fitzgerald. What a tragedy; what a shame.

We were presented with a facsimile of the manuscript of The Great Gatsby, complete with edits and revisions in Fitzgerald’s own handwriting, not to mention the entire manuscript was handwritten. I nearly cried.

We read letters from Zelda to Scott, which chronicled the beginnings of their relationship, as well as the more tumultuous aspects of the courtship and marriage. I compiled a list of Zelda’s best quotes.

  • … it’s so easy, and believing is much more intelligent
  • And still I’m so mighty happy — It’s just sort of a “thankful” feeling — that I’m alive and that people are glad I am
  • There’s nothing to say — you know everything about me, and that’s mostly what I think about. I seem always curiously interested in myself, and it’s so much fun to stand off and look at me …
  • … something always makes things the way they ought to be …
  • I love you sad tenderness — when I’ve hurt you — That’s one of the reasons I could never be sorry for our quarrels — and they bothered you so — Those dear, dear little fusses, when I always tried so hard to make you kiss and forget
  • … It seems as if there’s no new wisdom — and surely people haven’t stopped thinking — I guess morality has relinquished its claim on the intellect — and the thinkers think dollars and wars and politics — I don’t know whether it’s evolution or degeneration
  • To be afraid, a person has either to be a coward or very great and big
  • … free to sit in the sun and choose the things I like about people and not have to take the whole person
  • It is odd that the heart is one of the organs that does repair itself

I loved the eccentric, charming and dangerous and alarming details I learned about their love, like how Zelda consulted a Ouija board, and how she blamed Scott for her mental illness but firmly believed he could cure her.

We read Scott’s letters with a painstaking clarity, as we knew of the end he didn’t see coming. It was heartbreaking, really.

I decided the goal is to  write the last chapter of my next book in the Nassau Inn, to truly channel the passion and vibrancy and tragedy of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I found some places I’d like to visit in France, places Fitzgerald went to and found some kind of inspiration, whether for writing or living large.

We wandered around campus for a while longer, sneaking into classrooms, disrupting tour groups, and feeling – even if for just a little while – that grand things were still possible for us.

We ventured into the cathedral on campus and a Starbucks and a book store to beat the heat.

We traveled to Asbury Park for some live music and great company. It was a great day, the kind summers are made of. I intend to have more like them.

I was inspired to write the following short story. Enjoy!

FOUNTAINS
by Mandi Bean

Carlos knew that the equator separated the globe into northern and southern hemispheres, and Carlos also knew that the farther south a person traveled, the hotter the weather became. However, Carlos could testify to the fact, and possibly even prove, that the farther west a person traveled, the same phenomenon occurred. He had lived on the eastern shore of New Jersey his entire life and could say without hesitation, could say with near absolute certainty, that the middle of the state was a burning, boiling wasteland in July – the most uncomfortable Summer month to begin with – and that it served no real purpose. Carlos had traveled west at the request of his fashionable, trendy girlfriend and now regretted it something fierce.

They were traipsing about the campus of Princeton University so that his girlfriend could admire the rich history and breathtaking architecture and blah, blah, blah. It was ninety-three degrees and Carlos was miserable. He felt damp and disgusting in places he didn’t even know could sweat. Still, he took it all in stride, trying to keep his girlfriend happy and blissfully unaware of his discomfort. He said nothing as they walked innumerable staircases to gawk at old buildings and open fields that meant something to someone somewhere, sure, but that person was not Carlos. His mood dangled precariously between “thoughtfully quiet” and “crankily homicidal,” and he offered his girlfriend only interested smiles as she prattled on and on about tradition and excellence and whatever.

Carlos only perked up as they neared the center of the sprawling campus. There was a pool, six inches deep at the most, with a fountain at its center, an impressive, enigmatic modern sort of structure spouting water. Carlos took his girlfriend’s hand and rushed towards it, the way someone might rush towards a miraculous pool while stranded in a desert. But this pool and fountain was no mirage; children splashed here and there, supervised by patient adults who smiled and nodded with a calculated, weary sort of encouragement. Carlos reached the pool’s edge, where wide, flat stone steps led down to the water. He was smiling wide, with a youthful exuberance, and he turned to his girlfriend. “I’m going in,” he stated and sat down to remove his shoes and socks.

His girlfriend offered a sweet smile, totally enchanted by Carlos’ juvenile need to cool and comfortable, by his childish ambitions. He was a beautiful young man with dark features that made him appear to be super intellectual, but in reality, he was nothing of the sort. But his girlfriend, equally as beautiful, was not disturbed by Carlos’ lack of desire for education and all things brainy. It kept her in check, kept a balance in the relationship. “Go right ahead,” she smiled. “I’ll wait here.”

Carlos paused and looked up at her. “You’re not coming in? This heat is brutal.”

She shook her head and seated herself beside Carlos. “It’s hot, but I’m okay. You go in, though. I can’t tell you’re dying to.” She leaned against him for a moment to kiss his cheek. That was all the permission Carlos needed, and he took off, splashing with reckless abandon to reach the fountain at the center. That spewing, falling water was the most efficient way to get cool. He passed the laughing, shrieking children and paused at the base of the fountain. The water fell on him in the most refreshing way and he was content to simply exist, it simply be in a world where water was free to fall where it may. What a time to be alive, what with fountains and pools to keep the intense summer heat at bay. He closed his eyes and attempted to wash away the sweat and sourness of the July sun.

After a few moments, he opened his eyes and leveled his gaze. He was surprised to find another adult, another wanderer about campus, engaging in the same activity. She was gorgeous, and Carlos also noted the way the woman had been equally as daring, had strode in the same way Carlos had, not caring for the onlookers or any kind of judgments. There was only the oppressive heat, and the refreshing relief of the water, roaring down from the fountain and tinkling as it reached the pool surface. They both appreciated the opportunity, had seized it, and now stood breathless, together in their choices and ideology, but separate in their strangeness to the other.

Carlos breathed a simple “hey.”

The woman nodded, and kicked water up at Carlos. That was her greeting; that was it. Aside from the playful smile, she had offered nothing, not even her name. But Carlos was game. He returned the splash. In a matter of moments, Carlos and the woman were doing their best to drown each other. Their raucous laughter and innocent challenges drowned out that of the children and even the most dutiful of supervising parent stole a glance at the two grown adults making complete asses of themselves in the fountain on the campus of Princeton University.

But, as do all things in life, the splashing lost its appeal and became old and tired. Carlos looked back to his girlfriend and found her reading (there was always a book in her over sized bag). He waved goodbye to the gorgeous, wild and free woman he had spent the last ten minutes with. Without really thinking about it, Carlos returned to the studious, safe and responsible woman waiting for him out of the water. He supposed that was the way it was supposed to be, that for every soul willing to get lost at sea, there had to be another anxiously waiting on shore.

As he came nearer, dripping wet and breathless and smiling, Carlos’ girlfriend looked up and barked a laugh. “Am I glad you drove,” she teased, “because you would never ever get into my car like that.”

Carlos bent to swiftly kiss her before she could protest or squirm away.

fountains

 

On clinging to the past.

Published March 4, 2013 by mandileighbean

On Monday of this past week, I found the moon.  It was fat, full, gluttonous, and bright.  I have a picture to prove it.

moon

I have another resolution for this relatively new year: to be as artistic in possible in all that I do.

I deposited my second royalty check – $23.22.  From October 29th to December 31st, I have made $95.40.  I am not, and have never been, a “numbers person.”  I am not sure if this means I am doing well, average, or poor.  All I know is that I want to keep writing, and I suppose that is the most important thing.  I did little to no writing this week, which is possibly why this blog post is so scattered and superficial.

I am convinced that in a former life, I was happily married to Ricky Ricardo.

Running in the wind is romantic and freeing.  Running in the wind and the rain is stupid.

There is a dry, red, and raw patch of skin on my hand between my thumb and pointer finger.  When I stick the cap on the opposite end of the pen, the plastic irritates the area.  I have icky winter skin.  I am over the cold, bitter weather.

I am sick of being tired.

I am envious of Winona Ryder – or at least her hair, especially when it is short.  I remember feeling similarly after seeing, “Girl, Interrupted.”  I watched “Reality Bites.”  I liked the tone of it and I do sincerely miss the 1990s somewhat.  I really am a fan of the earthy, sloppy fashion that was considered chic.  I would like to bring that style back, but am unsure if I would be able to do so single-handedly, and am equally unsure if there would even be any other willing participants; I might have no other choice than to embark on a lone wolf fashion revolution.  Either way, I am going to dress and style my hair accordingly – I am excited to buy new clothes once I lose the weight.  Manufacturers really do not make fashionable habiliments for larger people.

winona90srevival290srevival

I am mostly excited for Spring Break and vacation in Florida.  I called my Aunt Kim tonight and squared away the details.  Dad and his friend Andy fitted my car with new struts and fixed a leak that had to do with the transmission.  I am constantly making a mental list of what I want to do before leaving.  Lately, the trip has been all that I have been thinking about.  I do not mind going alone, but Mom is thinking about coming along, and that does not upset me at all.

struts

Sometimes, when I wash my face, I make the water too hot and steam rises up from the sink basin in the bathroom, and the water burns my hands, and opens my pores so wide that they sizzle.  Once I was worried because for a brief moment, I could not get the cold tap to turn.  Eventually I did, and it made me think of that scene from “My Cousin Vinny” when Marissa Tomei and Joe Pesci are ironically analyzing the dripping faucet that is off-screen as litigators would in court.  Then I wonder how a casting director could match Pesci with Tomei (or vice versa).  I worry that such wondering makes me shallow.  Am I shallow?  Am I a bad person?

What if I do not find romance after my teeth are straightened and after I’ve lost the weight?  Will I have to conclude the defect is not my physical appearance, but in my personality, my very being?

I am going to take up painting this summer.

I need to write.

My last baby tooth, which never fell out, was pulled on the last day of February.  So long, Little Mandi.  The very last tangible remnant of my childhood was violently yanked from me.  It was for the best – it was causing an infection and discoloration – but I was sad to see it go.  I am reluctant to grow up and relinquish my sometimes irrational passions, and I am unwilling compromise between responsibility and desire; I don’t wanna.  But then again, I am getting braces.  Maybe it all works out and I will never have to escape my adolescence.

babytooth

The way to blast blubber this week was to give up extreme thinking.  I set a realistic goal of losing two pounds, and I lost 1.8 pounds; just two ounces shy.  I have lost 18 pounds total since beginning dieting and exercising and I am getting closer to my goal.  Chipping away little by little is okay; I am seeing results without being perfect or extreme, and that is both a very important and difficult lesson to learn.

On idols.

Published August 17, 2012 by mandileighbean

Today marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the death of Elvis Aaron Presley, the King of Rock and Roll.

Thirty-five years is a decent amount of time.  It’s strange to think that Elvis lived, laughed, loved, performed and perished all before I was born, before my parents even met, before I was even a thought.  Yet, here I am, mourning his death and spending an entire day reminiscing, watching corny films and old news reels, flipping through photographs and listening to scratchy, dated recordings.  Elvis and his legacy and his story have captivated me for as long as I can remember.  My father loves him, and I can remember watching a rebroadcast of the Aloha from Hawaii concert with my father, my mother and my twin sister crowded on the couch with the speakers vibrating from the effort of amplification.  My twin – who would absolutely murder me if she knew I was writing this in a place where anyone could see it – would sing along to “Fever” while shaking her hips as she stood on the couch, and I would pretend to be a crazed female fan, screaming at all the right times.  My twin was Elvis for Halloween one year, even.  He was, undoubtedly, an integral part of my childhood.

I made a pilgrimage to Graceland with a good friend, college roommate and fellow artist.  I spent hundreds of dollars and took hundreds of pictures.  I am dying to go back to experience more and learn more.

And as a result, Elvis is an integral part of who I am.  All my wildest dreams of not only becoming a successful, popular and beloved writer but of finding romance and connecting with someone as beautiful and talented as he was stem from watching him perform and researching his biography.  He is such an epic and elusive figure.  He was an enemy of the state, sure to corrupt the youth with his gyrating hips and soulful music.  But at the same time, he loved his mama and served his country.  He was a miraculous kind of contradiction that revolutionized popular culture, celebrity status, sex and music with an air of humility and authenticity that has yet to be replicated.  Sure, there were revolutionaries who came after him: the Beatles, Michael Jackson, my own beloved Bruce Springsteen, but he was the first.  Elvis is an original.

And because Elvis was a phenomenon unfamiliar to our culture, we didn’t know how to truly deal with him.  Parents scorned him, adolescent males wanted to be him and dyed their hair dark and gelled it to perfection and adolescent females cried and swooned and held out glossy photographs in quaking hands.  We loved him, but he was removed because he was rich and famous – wildly so.  Thus, his story turned tragic and he became one of the first, but unfortunately not the last, victims of the machine of Hollywood.  Everyone watched him implode and mourned the loss.

I’ve pontificated at length about Bruce Springsteen and how he is a romantic hero of mine.  I have to admit, and not just because I’m mourning the anniversary of his death, that Elvis is a greater romantic hero.  His songs and his personal life meld together in my mine to create a kind of colossal figure that is to be loved and admired and feared and pitied and mourned.  As always, Bruce said it best: “…it was like he came along and whispered some dream in everybody’s ear, and somehow we all dreamed it.”  John Lennon, another performer gone too soon, said: “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”  Bob Dylan said: “When I first heard Elvis’ voice, I just knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody; and nobody was going to be my boss…Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.” Hell, even 50 Cent bowed to the King when describing the difference between him being in Vegas and Elvis being there: “That period was different. When Elvis was there, they were stopping everything. Elvis had the moment for real. While I’m here, it’s not all about 50 Cent, but it was all about Elvis.”

Elvis is an inspiration and a cautionary tale.  He is the stuff of American legend.  He is greatly admired and missed tremendously.  Of course, I am speaking personally and would never dare presume to speak for anyone else.  I really would love to meet a boy who looks like Elvis, who performs like Elvis, and who is as passionate as Elvis was.

I’ll leave with you a few quotes from the King himself, and wish you all a good night.

“I ain’t no saint, but I’ve tried never to do anything that would hurt my family or offend God…I figure all any kid needs is hope and the feeling he or she belongs. If I could do or say anything that would give some kid that feeling, I would believe I had contributed something to the world.” –Elvis commenting to a reporter, 1950’s.

“When I was a child, ladies and gentlemen, I was a dreamer. I read comic books and I was the hero of the comic book. I saw movies and I was the hero in the movie. So every dream I ever dreamed has come true a hundred times…I learned very early in life that: ‘Without a song, the day would never end; without a song, a man ain’t got a friend; without a song, the road would never bend – without a song.’ So I keep singing a song. Goodnight. Thank you.” –From his acceptance speech for the 1970 Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Nation Award, given at a ceremony on January 16, 1971. (Elvis quotes from copyrighted material with lines from the song “Without a Song”.)

“Man, I was tame compared to what they do now. Are you kidding? I didn’t do anything but just jiggle.”  –From the press conference prior to his record-breaking Madison Square Garden shows in New York City, 1972

“…the image is one thing and the human being is another…it’s very hard to live up to an image.” –From the press conference prior to his record-breaking Madison Square Garden shows in New York City, 1972

On making trips home.

Published August 16, 2012 by mandileighbean

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, hello there stranger.

It’s been some time since I last wrote, and I apologize.  I suppose I could lie and say that I was terribly, terribly busy.  I could lie and say that I was off doing fabulous things with the most interesting people.  I could lie and say that I had remarkable adventures that taught me things about myself in the process.  That seems like something a writer would do, no?

I have a feeling you’d be able to call my bluff, so let me be honest and save myself some embarrassment.  The family reunion was fun; it really was, even though I acted like a fool by drinking too much, throwing up and passing out.  I awoke the next morning, sweaty beneath a heavy blanket on a hammock with unfamiliar faces casting sideways glances.  I was embarrassed and took it easy the remainder of the party by sleeping.  I kicked myself for being so lame when I had been so excited for a break in the monotony.

The week after the reunion, my nephew Jimmy came to stay with us.  I turned down a teaching job in favor of another closer to home and though I believe I did what was best, I shed a lot of tears and twisted and turned my stomach into all sorts of knots about the whole thing.  I am a people pleaser; I like to make everyone happy, or at least I like to try to make everyone happy because in my short time upon this earth, I realize that it truly is impossible to please everyone.  I let people down and I am truly sorry.

Missy, my oldest sister, came to pick up Jimmy and brought Jack with her.  She had to take care of some legal documents, so she stayed through until Tuesday.

And that brings us to today.  Dad and I visited the veterans’ cemetery to pay our respects to Grandpa, Nick and Ron.  Nick and Ron were classmates of mine.  The trip inspired me to write a short story which I plan on submitting for publication to at least two magazines.  It is very rough – still needs to be edited and re-worked, but I thought I’d share it here with you.  I hope you enjoy it, and I’d like to dedicate the effort to Grandpa, Nick and Ron; heroes I was blessed to know.

MAKING THE TRIP BACK HOME

It was hot, but not unseasonably so because after all, it was August.  The sun for sorrow would not show its head, or so the romantic in me liked to believe, and spent the majority of its time behind large, stationary, ominous-looking clouds.  It was warm, but not sunny and the contradiction carried itself through the day’s activity; it seemed I only visited the cemetery in the summer, and only on the hottest days.  I don’t know why I did this and even now, I can’t say for sure what it is about the warmth and the light and the life of summer that makes me travel to the painful nostalgia and ever present grief of a haven for the dead.  I have been to visit my grandpa’s grave three times in the twelve years since his passing, and each time it has been so warm that my fingertips burn against the metal marker, and I can smell the pine needles baking on the outskirts of the trees, lying in the rays and simply simmering.  Every time I visit, I cry so that the mascara runs down my cheeks and every time, I forget to bring tissues so that, as embarrassing as it is to admit, my fingers and forearms become snotty messes.  I used to only kneel and say a prayer and kiss the corner of my grandpa’s marker, but unfortunately, in the past two years, I’ve added two more stops to my tour of grief.

That day, I convinced my dad to come with me.  He’s a combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and we had been talking about making the trip out to the cemetery for a while.  It’s hard to say for certain what finally got us moving.  Maybe it was the fact that Dad had attended Nathan’s funeral with me and had a vague understanding of how his passing had affected me.  Maybe it was because he missed Grandpa as much as Mom did, as Grandpa was the only father Dad ever knew; his own had been absent and his stepfather had been abusive, so when Dad met Mom, he was adopted into the family readily.  Grandpa helped Dad earn a job on the waterfront and had taken him under his wing.  Maybe it was because the night before, we had watched a particularly moving and patriotic documentary about a band that toured military bases and performed in support of the USO and veterans.  Whatever the reason, Dad and I were going on a random Wednesday in August and we were taking his car, as mine did not have working air conditioning and it was hot as hell.

During the thirty-minute drive, conversation was easy between Dad and me, but sporadic and usually superficial.  Dad was the kind of father who loved fiercely and blindly and did so through fun times and crazy antics.  He took us kids canoeing in icy cold water down the river that ran through the neighborhood and when the canoe flipped, he scrambled to get us on shore to safety and then dove back in for his keys.  He’d run after the school bus after my twin sister and I boarded it.  He would wave his arms wildly in the air and run for about a block and all the other kids would laugh and point and whisper.  My sister and I would feign embarrassment and rolls our eyes in commiseration about the insane guy running down a school bus but in all honesty, it meant everything to us.  He would tell us to say “shit” after we got hurt to stop the tears and start the smiles.  He would give us money to go out with friends even if Mom said no, and would always play chauffeur when asked.  He was a great father, so when he went to serve his country overseas for a year, the family was apprehensive and terrified.  The greatest fear was that he wouldn’t come home.  The second greatest fear was that he would come home, but would no longer resemble the loving, traditional Southern boy who left his children in stitches when he showed us the “Flea Circus” and unwittingly killed the performers when he gave appreciative applause, or who would offer to tell us a dirty joke and then say, “A white horse fell in the mud.”

When Dad did come home, he was different but the change was slight.  He was more reserved.  While he’d still be the first guy to offer you the shirt off his back, he wasn’t as forthcoming, I guess you could say.  One night, shortly after he returned, he was out in his shed.  It was light and moths were thudding against the floodlight Dad had attached himself over the entrance.  Music was playing softly and he had been out there for hours.  It made me nervous, seeing him so removed and with tears in my eyes, I begged my mother to check on him, convincing myself he was going to commit suicide.  Mom told me I was being silly, and I was; Dad did no such thing and never would.  As a writer, I have a flair for the dramatic and it can be bothersome at times.  I wanted Dad to be as dramatic as I was, to cry and spill his guts and then move on.  I wanted to talk about Iraq and everything he had seen and everything he had done and then I wanted to lock it all up in an iron chest and sink it somewhere far away and blue.  I didn’t want to watch him cry silently during war movies, or look for him in a crowd to realize he was already back at the car because it was too much for him to handle.

It wasn’t until some five years after his return that Dad started to open up.  Before, there was no way in hell he’d come with me to the cemetery.  Now, here he was beside me, where I always wanted and always needed him.  It was an improvement and it was progress, but he was still haunted by the memories and doing his best to cope.  Every once in a while, a vivid image would come through and he would share it to stunned silence.  Like the time we were eating dinner and in the middle of a laugh, he described how he’d been doing the same in Iraq, when a bullet struck a man to his right.  Dad remembered the man had been drinking Coca Cola from a glass bottle and the bullet had travelled up through the bottom of the bottle and exploded the glass and the man’s mouth.  He was dead instantly.  Mom didn’t know what to say or what to do and neither did I or any of my siblings.  As much as I wanted Dad to release his emotions and heal, I didn’t want to witness it.  It made the war real in a disturbing kind of way.  But my father had returned home safe and, in contrast, that kept the reality of the horrors of war at bay.  Dad had to live through near tangible recollections, but I did not.  Like Dad, Grandpa had been unscathed by war.  He served during the Korean War but only for a brief time.  Grandpa passed because of congestive heart failure, not because an unfriendly face on foreign soil had ensured his demise.  When I thought of Grandpa, I thought of his perfect pancakes and so-delicious-it-should-be-illegal spaghetti sauce.  I thought of his lack of fashion sense and the typewriters he’d buy, only to let me break them a short time later.  I had relatives who had been to war, sure, but they had made it home safe and sound.

We visited Grandpa’s grave first and in retrospect, I think we visited Charles Louis Thogode first because subconsciously, it was easiest to deal with.  Twelve years had passed; the grief was aged and manageable.  Dad knelt to clear it off grassy debris; the groundskeepers were mowing and weed whacking nearby.  I planted a small kiss on my fingertips and transplanted it onto the corner.  Dad breathed easy, smiled and whispered, “Hey Charlie.”  That was it; there were no heaving sobs, no collapsed bodies, no desperate minds begging for answers.  Dad and I, we were okay.  We walked back to the car, ready to continue onward, when a middle-aged man called to us.  He asked, “Find what you were looking for?”  He must have seen the pair of us meandering through the rows.  He must have heard us calling out plot numbers and reading out names.  He had a full, gray beard and a rather rotund belly.  Stretched over the pronounced stomach was a tee-shirt that read, “Property of Grandkids.”  He had a ball cap on and sunglasses.  His unremarkable shorts ended at his knobby knees, knees which were nearly swallowed up by tall socks.  The man certainly looked the part of the doting yet incorrigible grandpa.

Dad would talk to anyone and everyone.  Walking over, he smiled and said, “Yeah, but we got two more to see.”

“Tell you what,” the old man began, “counting this one, I’ve got –“ he paused to count upon stubby fingers – “ten in all.  This one was my colleague.  I was his ‘boss,’ but I never pulled rank on him not once.  Every time I come, I make sure to visit him first.  Next is my daughter-in-law; today is her forty-fifth birthday and she’s buried next to my son.”  The old man then proceeded to list seven other relatives who had made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and were now resting beneath the grass around us.  Dad offered his condolences, as did I, and we parted.  I was trying to hurry away, hiding the tears of sympathy I couldn’t stop from the poor man who was smiling, sharing memories and looking for a connection.  Dad was there, ready to be a compassionate ear but I wasn’t as strong as all that.  I could only show pity and buckle beneath the emotional weight hanging all about the place, waiting to drop when it was least expected.

Across the way was the burial site for Ryan Klein, the first of my classmates to become a casualty of war.  We weren’t close and hadn’t spoken in some time before his death.  The last time I saw him had been at the local mall.  He was just passing through, hurriedly walking, and I was with friends, friends who were not his friends.  That’s not to say there was animosity of any kind, only different social groups.  But Ryan had always been kind and I remember he hugged me, told me about his band and what else he had been up to and wished me well.  That was the last time I ever saw him.  He moved and went to a different high school and I was ignorant of what path led him to Afghanistan and the military.  When I learned of his death, I did not immediately recall that last encounter, but instead, I remembered fifth grade.  We were having a Valentine’s Day party in class and Ryan thought I was cool because I watched wrestling and knew who KISS was.  No one had ever thought I was cool before, and few have used that adjective to describe me since.  I remembered bonding with him during that party and though it was a brief connection, passing as quickly as childhood itself, I am grateful for it.  Standing at his grave, looking at the cold, stone numbers and performing mathematical equations like some kind of masochist to remind myself we were the same age and I was there and he was not, the tears came freely.  Dad bent to clear the grave of the debris, telling me absent-mindedly that “The guys do the best they can,” reassuring me no disrespect was meant, that it was just a side effect of lawn maintenance.  I nodded and slipped my sunglasses down from atop my head to over my leaking eyes, trying to make Dad more comfortable.  He tried to do the same for me, and thought it’d be best to keep me moving, so we went to visit Nathan O’Sullivan.

Nathan and I had gone to school together from kindergarten to graduation.  Up until the fifth grade, I was enamored of Nathan.  Having an older sister, I was exposed to cinematic notions of romance at a young age and thought such escapades were easily attainable at ten years old.  Other girls in my grade had boyfriends, and I was too young to realize what a farce it all was.  I wanted Nathan to be my boyfriend and I asked him to be my Valentine every year.  Nathan said no because to say yes would have been social suicide, even at such a young age.  I was weird; I read too much and didn’t play any sports.  I was overweight and didn’t care much about how I looked.  What I lacked in beauty, I made up in persistence and it paid off.  Close to the end of fifth grade, there was a school dance.  Nathan promised to save the last song for me.  Dressed in one of my mom’s shirts and my mom’s pants because I was too fat to wear anything like the other girls, I waited anxiously in the middle of the gym for Nathan.  He showed up, and I was elated.  We stood next to one another and silently rocked to Selena’s “Dreaming of You.”  Later that night, back in the bedroom I shared with my twin sister, I couldn’t stop smiling and thought that was the beginning of everything.  It wasn’t, but that’s okay.

I saw Nathan every now and again through middle school and high school.  Occasionally, we’d have the same class and we would reminisce together about our elementary school years.  It was nice.  I had nothing but fond memories and nice things to say.  So when I received a text message during work about his passing, it hit me hard.  I was working at the Navy Exchange at the local naval base; I was in a tiny, little room with small, covered windows, counting money.  I was trapped in there with the sudden news and onslaught of emotion and I didn’t know what to do.  Ryan had died a year earlier and now Nathan was gone.  Two little boys that I had known, one of which I had even fawned over, had become men and had become heroes but were gone.  We weren’t the invincible students that we once were.  We were young adults, making hard and fast decisions and living with the consequences.  It was a dose of reality I didn’t want and railed against, but failed.  Nothing was promised, nothing was guaranteed, and it truly was a blessing that Dad had made it home.  Not everyone did, and now I knew that.  That knowledge was awful, and it was enough to knock the wind from me.  I knelt before Nathan’s grave and just cried.  I told him I was sorry, and I thanked him.  I was that fat kid again, with swollen, stubby fists scrawling “Nathan and Mandi” in an untidy scrawl across a notebook.  How could he be gone?

How could Ryan be gone?  With chocolate smeared across our bright, innocent faces, we had discussed the finer points of The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin.  He had taught me about Generation X and how to perform the “Suck It” move that would completely infuriate my parents.  He had invited me to his birthday party.  How could he be gone?

And how could I still be here?  I felt guilty.  Dad had made it home and I had been so unappreciative of that fact.  All of the grief, the guilt, the despair, the mortality, and the uncertainty were purged in liquid form.  Dad thought it’d be best to leave me by myself and said he’d be at the car, but that I should take my time.  I wanted to thank him, to throw my arms around him, to keep him safe and close for forever and always, but I only nodded.  I sat and sobbed and felt stupid and small for a few minutes more before I returned to the car.

On the way home, Dad stopped at a roadside produce stand.  The sky was cloudier than before and was threatening rain, but Dad didn’t seem to care as he pulled in the gravel drive.  He put the car in park and told me I could stay where I was, that he’d just be a couple of minutes.  I watched him climb out of the car and shut the door.  He trotted over to the cart, heading straight to the watermelons.  He made small talk with the woman running the stand, asked about an antique car under a blue tarp, kept secure with heavy-looking rocks.  He bought a watermelon and more tomatoes that was practical, breathlessly explaining to me that he had made out like a bandit, that it had been a real deal.

On the way home, Dad showed me houses he had looked at with Mom before deciding on the unassuming, one-story ranch.  He showed me two, both painted white with finished basements.

On the way home, Dad made the radio louder and sang along to the country songs he knew and loved.

On the way home, I smiled at Dad and was thankful – incredibly grateful – for all of the trips home he had made, and for all of the trips home he would make, and for the trips home we got to make together.

In loving memory of my grandpa, Charles Louis Thogode.

In loving memory of Ron Kubik.

In loving memory of Nick Ott.

 

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