“A year from now, we’ll all be gone,
All our friends will move away.
And they’re goin’ to better places,
But our friends will be gone away.”
—The Head and the Heart, ‘Rivers and Roads,’ The Head and the Heart (2011)
I find myself plagued by a strange notion of déjà vu as I walk down the street away from the Hall. I walk aimlessly towards the campus, unsure of where I’m going, and I have the same terrifying sense of liberation that I felt when I drove away from Drury for the first time so many years ago.
That profound, queasy sense of uncertainty that accompanies the first steps of a long, undefined journey.
At the same time, though, liberation comes with a price. I know now that there is no such thing as consequence-free emancipation. If we seek to release ourselves from the chains that bind us, we have to give up something we hold dear. Sacrifice is only way to earn freedom.
Whether it’s villagers neglecting to pay the piper, or Faust attempting to weasel out of his deal with the devil, it always boils down to the same moral—there is a price to be paid. Always, always a price.
I try to convince myself that the price I’ve paid is worth it. Logically I know that all I’ve given up is a pack of hoodlums. All I’ve walked away from is a den of thieves.
But knowing a truth and believing a truth are not always one in the same.
The air is somewhat cool, and a gentle breeze is blowing. It’s the kind of pretty, lazy afternoon that could just as easily be early spring or late fall. The kind of day where even mother nature isn’t quite sure what she wants to be.
As I walk, I hear random songs playing in my head, skipping from line to line like a stereo on auto tune, scanning the air waves for a usable signal. For some reason, I keep coming back to the Eagles’ and “Hotel California.” I’m not sure why. It was never a song that I cared for all that much. A good tune, to be sure, but nothing spectacular.
I do remember having a long, convoluted conversation with Tommy about it during a late night road trip. We were comparing the Eagles’ Hotel with ‘The House of the Rising Sun.’” Tommy’s take was that the Hotel California was a scarier place.
“You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave,” he said. “There’s no getting out.”
I argued that the House of the Rising Sun just sounded worse, a place menace and dread.
“It doesn’t matter,” Tommy said. “The narrator in ‘Rising Sun’ gets out. He goes back home.”
It was the kind of odd burst of random passion that Tommy was prone to. His beliefs were nothing if not scattered and random, but there was no denying his passion. He believed what he believed, and when he made his mind up, he embraced the notion with a passion and a fervor that nobody could shake.
It was a quality that always left me envious and full of awe.
As I walk, I can still picture him sitting next to me, expounding on this topic or that. Lashing out with enthusiasm or venom. He once called into a radio program, just so he could call the DJ a ‘pig-fucker’ because he had incorrectly called the Who song, ‘Babba O’Riley’ by the wrong name.
“It’s not Teenage Wasteland,” he had screamed into the phone. “It’s your fucking job to know these things!”
After he had hung up, I asked him were the term pig-fucker had come from, but he just smiled and laughed. Even when I wasn’t thinking about him, I missed him so much. That smile. That look of confidence.
The same satisfied grin that he would give me when the right song popped onto the radio, at just the right moment.
I can’t help but wonder if I’ll ever feel that balanced and normal again. It seems as though all of the perfect moments that I could experience have already been used up.
I feel my phone vibrating in my pocket. When I pull it out, there’s no name on the caller id, but the prefix is a ‘725’ number. A cell phone from back home.
I put the phone to my ear and say hello, and there is a long, pregnant pause. When she finally speaks, her voice is so soft and welcoming that I can almost taste it.
“Travis,” she says. “It’s Aimee. I’m here, I mean I’m at your school, and I have to talk to you…”
As I walk up to the top of the hill, I see her sitting on the steps in front of Byron Hall, directly in the middle of campus. She’s wearing a light, yellow dress with a white sweater thrown over her shoulders. I stop for a moment about a hundred yards away and watch her, nervously pulling at her hair as she stares out over the main campus quad.
Seeing her in that moment, she is impossibly beautiful. She conjures a raw, bone-deep attraction that leaves my chest feeling empty and full of a throbbing ache. There is so much that I wish I could go back and change, so many choices I wish I could reverse, but seeing her there in her yellow dress, I can’t imagine any mistake bigger than walking away from her.
Eventually, I will myself to keep walking forward, and she turns and spots me, her face a mixture of happiness and nervous energy. As I approach, she bites her lip and looks at me, and I wonder, once again, if she has any idea the power that she has over me, the power she’s always had.
At first, we don’t say anything. We just hug for twenty or thirty seconds and enjoy the kind of utter, tensionless silence that can only be shared between two very old friends.
“It’s great to see you,” I say at last, “but what are you doing here?”
She reaches down and pulls a white envelope from her purse.
“Your father,” she says. “He left it at my house, with instructions to deliver this to you…” She hands the envelope to me and resumes nervously tugging on her hair. “I didn’t know exactly how to find you, but I thought I’d start here, and I found your old roommate, Sam, and he gave me your number, and I…”
She is beginning to rush, the words flying out at a breakneck speed. I reach out and grab her arm, knowing that she only talks this way when she’s truly nervous. “Aimee, what is it?”
She stops, and takes a deep breath, collecting herself. “Travis, it’s your father, he…”
I put my hand on her shoulder before the tears break from her eyes. “It’s ok,” I say, “I know what happened. I know that he’s dead.”
She nods quickly as several tears fall down her face. “The news is saying that he went crazy, that Gil Grady acted in self-defense, but everyone knows that is bullshit.”
“It’s ok,” I say. “There’s no changing it.”
She points to the letter in my hand. “Anyway,” she says, “he dropped that off before it all happened. I guess he knew he could trust me to find you.”
We sit down on the stone steps, and I begin to pull at the lip of the envelope. My hands are trembling so badly that I almost need to hand it over to Aimee to get it open. There was a time when I would have thrown the letter directly in the trash, without ever wondering again about its contents, but things are different now. For all his faults, I can’t deny that he was there for me when I needed him the most. He literally saved my life, and no matter how big of an asshole he was when I was growing up, I can’t deny that now.
I pull the letter from the envelope and begin reading it aloud.
I don’t have the words to say what I need to say, but that’s nothing new. Communication has never been a strong suit for me. I don’t expect you to forgive me for walking away, and I know that I was a shitty father. When you were little, I always thought that I needed to say things or do things in order to be a Dad. It took me a long time to realize that being there is the only thing that really matters.
In any case, I want you to know that I’m sorry for all of that. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there when Tommy died, and I’m sorry that I couldn’t be when your mother died. Mostly, I’m just sorry, and I spend most of my days thinking about that.
It doesn’t make up for what I’ve done in the past, but I want you to know that I’m going to fix things with Gil Grady. It probably isn’t going to end well for either of us, but one way or another I’m going to fix things.
Don’t ever come back to Drury. As far as Gil and his boys know, you’re dead and gone, buried at the bottom of Gil’s sinkhole. I’ll make sure of it. That’s the only thing I can really give you.
It’s the only gift I’ve ever really had for you.
Freedom from all this shit.
I hope that’s enough.
I put the letter down and stare out over the quad, thinking about all of the negative thoughts I’d had about him over the years. He had said that he couldn’t make up for what he’d done, but somehow he had. I feel the last remnants of the hate I’ve always harbored for him release from my chest, and all those years of anger and shame seem to float away.
When I look back at Aimee, tears are streaming down her face. She has always had a tremendous capacity for empathy. Prone to random outbursts of tears for something as innocuous as a life insurance commercial. She is the living embodiment of Hallmark’s target audience.
“It’s ok,” I say. “We kind of fixed things at the very end, and…” I realize that there is no way of actually saying what I want to say, no words that actually encapsulate how I feel. “It’s ok…it’s ok.”
She wipes the tears from her cheeks and looks up at me. “I guess you’re kind of used to this,” she says.
I nod gravely, acutely aware of the ghosts in my past, the ones she knew about and the ones she didn’t.
“Oh, I almost forgot.” She reaches into her purse and pulls out a CD in a clear plastic jewel case. “When David heard I was coming here, he asked me to give you this.” She handed me the disk, the sun glinting through the case off the shimmering surface of the disk. “He said it was a mix, like you guys used to make back in high school.” She flung her hands absent mindedly in the air. “He refuses to use a cell phone for music like everyone else in America. Says that CD’s are more pure.”
“I’ll bet he’s got a lot of them.”
“Oh, Jesus,” she squeals, “there must be thousands. I don’t know how he finds anything.”
We both laugh deeply, but her laugh suddenly morphs into long, full sobs. I reach out and grab her around the shoulders, pulling her close to my chest. Feeling her this close again, it’s hard to contain the deep, painful yearning. So many years, that river of memories flowing back and forth through our physical touch.
When she finally catches her breath a bit, I gently ask her what’s wrong. Through heaving breaths, she finally manages to speak. “When we said goodbye before, I always knew you’d be coming back…eventually.” She reaches up and brushes her hand along my cheek, grabbing my ear lobe as talks. “But this is going to be goodbye for good.”
I pull her hand down and lace my fingers through hers. “Don’t worry,” I say. “You’ve got David to take care of you, and I’m going to be fine.”
She nods and sits up straight, taking a deep, cleansing breath as she pulls away from my chest. “Are you sure? Will you really be ok.”
I think about all of those things that I have left behind. The brothers I had grown up with, and the brothers that I had turned to when I came to this place. I thought about all of the stones that I had thrown in the past. All the rocks that I had cast across the water, the good and the bad.
Looking into her eyes, I know that I still love Aimee, and, at least in part, she still loves me, but that’s over now. It’s time for me to move on. There are new rivers to cross and new stones to throw.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “For the first time in a very long time, I know exactly where I am going.”