Paws to Appreciate

I moved to Indiana only a few short months after Newcastle was born, and a few weeks after my spouse invited him into her home. We quickly became best friends—even though he’s a cat. But we have so much in common. Like me, he is big, clumsy, and bipolar. 

He’s not the only cat. Since 2000 he has had two brothers—Andrew and Magik—who have graciously allowed me to live in their home.  

And so the five of us have grown older together, and unlike the people in the house, the cats have maintained perfect health, despite the fact that two of them are senior citizens. I should be bracing myself for their inevitable retirement, but I’m starting to believe they’re going to live forever. 

We had moved into the Washington DC metro area the year before, and I had yet to settle in. I’d been unemployed for the most part (this is by choice, since we could afford it), and we’d not really found any friendships that had stuck. And so, while my spouse was working overseas and left me alone for a few months during the autumn and winter of 2009, I had a breakdown. 

It was the cats who kept me grounded, particularly Newcastle, who follows me around like he’s my sidekick. I don’t know what I’ve done to earn his affection, but I’ll always be grateful. In fact, during my first session with a new psychiatrist, he asked me what my goal was, and I said I wanted to be as good a person my cat thinks I am. When he tells me to find my “happy place,” it’s Newcastle massaging my neck and purring, like he does every night before I fall asleep. 

We’ve been living in Qatar for the past two and a half years. I won’t go into details here about how things have gone, suffice it so say that there have challenging at times, and once again, it’s been Newcastle, et al, to the rescue. We’re headed back to the States mid-June, and for some pretty logical-but-convoluted reasons, we’ve sent the cats back early—as in this past Thursday. Our schedule’s been nuts over the past few days, so I’ve barely noticed their absence. But when life returns to normal starting Wednesday, and I’m all alone in the empty house … 

I’ve never been apart from them—and they me—for more than a few weeks in a row before, so six weeks is going to be particularly brutal. They’re with friends who love them and whom they love, so I’m not particularly worried about them. But man I miss these guys. 

Cosby

As an aside, I had a buddy in college … he had a man crush on me, and I thought he was pretty awesome too. My two favorite memories are when we each bought a flask of Wild Turkey and drank ourselves sick, just because we were trying to impress one another; and how he found me wallowing after my girlfriend dumped me (he raced over as soon as the rumor got to him), and he took me on a long drive through town, playing my favorite artist on his tape deck (PJ Harvey), which was cute because he only had one song by her on his mix tape.  

His only flaw was his girlfriends, who were all pretty not-with-it, and sometimes positively unhinged. Years after we graduated, a good friend dated him for a long time, and I thought, Finally, someone cool worth his attention. 

And when she finally extracted herself from that relationship, she reported that this guy was physically and verbally abusive, and utterly, totally controlling. And it explained everything. Now, upon this revelation, there was no conflict in my mind about my loyalty. To me, he seemed like bromance material. To women, he was a piece of shit, and that made him a piece of shit to the core. I don’t care how much I liked him. 

But what makes me cringe is this: Am I allowed to have good memories of him? How could I just not see the common thread with these women he dated? How could I miss this about him? How could I be so fucking stupid?  

This is the first time I’ve shared this, so it’s a little rambly. But a similar feeling came to me about Bill Cosby’s rape allegations. The man was an idol and a major inspiration to me, storytelling-wise. How can he continue to occupy such a happy place in my memories. How am I allowed to chuckle to myself when I think of his material?  

This has really rattled me. 

Lovely Rita

I kind of thought Rita looked like an elf. She had that slim build, sharp features, and short, dark hair. She could have been a Vulcan, but Vulcans didn’t smile that much. 

On September 11, 2001, I’d spent that particular day assuring everybody I was fine and calming down those who didn’t see it like I did. I told myself that their fear was more justified than mine because they didn’t see what I saw, and on that day I drank as soon as I could. Two days later, when I finally made it home, I found my stash of marijuana and lit it up. The rest of the time I consoled my girlfriend Andrea, whose birthday was September 13. 

And so, two weeks later, when Katherine O’Shea threw a party for herself and everyone who missed out on their own birthday, I sought out the most cheerful people I could find. That person was Rita and her companion Anne Marie, out on the smoking deck. 

I was on fucking fire. Were I not attached, I may have made a move on either of them. And, frankly, I feel lucky that it was them, because they took it in stride. My flirtation didn’t come across as creepy so much as it did all in good fun. Fun is the operative word here, because that’s what drew me to her, time and time again. And it didn’t hurt that she was cute. 

March Madness

Shane took it upon himself to familiarize me with two important aspects of the city—the first being the subway system. 

“Don’t worry,” he said as I squinted at something on the wall of a subway car that appeared to be a Jackson Pollack painting superimposed over a map of Manhattan. “You’ll get it if you just take your time with it. Just take the trains you need, and you’ll learn the hubs and connections.” His finger traced a strip of blue and stopped at a dot that said 135 BC. 

“A hundred and thirty-five years before the birth of Jesus?” I asked myself, but not aloud. As a resident for forty hours, I figured it was time to act like I knew what I was doing. 

“That’s where my dealer is,” he explained. 

I nodded like someone who actually understood. We exited the train and headed up the street. “He gets a little freaked out when he sees new people, so just wait by the entrance and look inconspicuous.”  

Harlem, New York, hosted Louis Farrakhan’s One Million Youth civil rights march that afternoon. Shane, whose blond hair, blue eyes, and the complexion of someone who saw the sun rarely—which fed into the speculation that we were siblings—dove into the crowd and left me alone on the sidewalk, humming, sweating, and avoiding eye contact. He returned after what could have been hours and hustled me downstairs. 

In Which We Pass

By three a.m. on January 1, 2003, the afterglow of a very long night faded as empty taxi after empty taxi zipped past the vacant cab stand. My girlfriend, awesome sister, and I looked perfectly normal, like young partygoers who would leave tips, so we weren’t the problem. No, the problem was the pair in the front of the line. 

Had I actually used drugs that evening, I would have assumed the black man wearing only a vinyl diaper and a bowler hat and his companion, the man with the striped three-piece suit, the sleek blond hair, the fangs, and the pointy ears of an elf were a hallucination. However, by that point, a journey across three subway trains, two rivers, and the width of Manhattan had sobered us completely up, and I was forced to accept their veracity. 

“What the fuck?” growled my sister Rachel. 

“I don’t even…” I sighed. 

My girlfriend Coral didn’t say a word. She ran off to the sidewalk, flagged down a taxi, and beckoned us furiously. Rachel and I hesitated, but once the vampire and his minion noticed these events and lunged toward Coral, we understood the stakes. 

“Hurry!” yelled the driver. 

We dove in and slammed the door. “Britton Street!” I told him. 

The vampire’s cane struck the hood of the car, and he bellowed, “You shall not pass!” 

“Go!” Rachel shouted. 

A strange peace washed over me at that moment, surrounded by the big city and the two women who, at that juncture, knew me better than anyone. 

Questionable Influences

I think of my life in terms of regenerations, like Doctor Who. The smug, leather-jacketed Jeremiah straddling 2002 and 2003 was not the same Jeremiah from twelve months earlier—bleary-eyed and asking “Now what?” as he had since the second week of that September. And neither of these Jeremiahs resembled the boy who’d first been entranced by this chattering, grinning young woman in October 1998. 

She made me swoon, but not nearly as much as this city had in the previous six weeks. 

I had it bad for New York. Here I had been, twenty-two, poor, mostly friendless, and unsure of who I was, but my joy was indescribable. New York had distracted me from the desperate bender I’d used to hide a devastating breakup. She’d provided me with two jobs I needed to cover rent and a meal-and-a-half a day. She was there for me.  

On second thought, maybe that was all Shane. 

It was easy to lose Shane in the shuffle, because, even though I worshiped him and considered him the most important friend I’d ever had, he’d managed to live in my periphery. Optimistic, sincere, unique, and carefree, he contrasted my teenage cynicism and angst and helped me do the same. He brought out the artist in me, which is the one aspect of my personality I’ve never outgrown. Throughout my senior year of high school, I lounged in his apartment while he painted, and we consumed strange music from the eighties that didn’t sound like music from the eighties. 

And yet our lives were so distant from each other’s. He was a dropout who hung out with adults who had adult concerns. I was a student immersed in life-or-death student concerns. He was my ride to my surprise birthday party, but not a participant. He had been working the night of the community theater play I co-directed. He never read a story I’d ever written. Hell, I’d only met him as a result of a wager with someone else about something else entirely, and months passed before I saw him again, living in the backseat of a VW Beetle.  

To his adults, I was his occasional sidekick. To my teenagers, he was my mentor. 

Years later, when I fled the pile of rubble I’d built out of my life, he waited for me in New York. And we were equals. He showed me how to buy weed, persuaded contacts to employ me as a copy kid at a tabloid, and convinced his boss at a concert hall to make me a part-time usher. 

Over time, he faded into the background, cheering me on as I taught myself how to draw, how to date, how to drink, and how to dust myself off every time I fell down. 

I didn’t know where Shane was that moment on January 1, 2003, as I sat in the back of that cab, a beautiful woman curled in my arm, my awesome sister fading into sleep, and my future spread out before me like a buffet. 

New Year’s Past

“Jeremiah!” someone shouted. “Jeremiah Murphy!” 

That someone recognized me at this party didn’t surprise me. Of the many I’d attended over the course of the past six months, about a dozen folks could always be counted on to be seen mingling. Their presence was so reliable they were practically staff. And then there were the reoccurring guest stars who popped in here and there, but could hardly be described as committed. I belonged in the second category, but I liked to think of myself as an up-and-comer. In short, the voice could have belonged to anyone. 

What surprised me, though, was that I could hear it, crammed into this Brooklyn loft along with, by my count, about one hundred thousand hipsters, with the music cranked up to be heard over them all. I scanned the crowd until I located someone waving their arms over their head—the internationally recognized signal for “over here!” 

Space was at a premium that night, but the voice had managed to commandeer half of a pool table to use as a chair. She beckoned me with a pale finger, crossed her black-clad legs, and patted the space beside her. 

“Who’s that?” yelled Coral. 

“It’s—” 

“Go talk to her!” 

“What?” I wasn’t abandoning her, not when she knew only one other person here.  

“I’ll be fine!” she assured me. “I’ll just hang out with Rachel!” 

On hearing her name, my sister snapped out of whatever trance she was in. By far, this was the biggest New York party I’d dragged her to, and she was easy to overwhelm. I worried about leaving her alone, even if it was with someone I trusted as much as I trusted Coral. “What’s going on?” Rachel shouted. 

Coral leaned in close to her, and they exchanged a few words. 

“Go!” Rachel told me. 

By now, the gesture coming from the pool table that had once taken only a finger had grown into one that required a full arm. I sighed and obeyed. 

I handed her my plastic cup of beer and hopped up beside her. She turned to me, and her dark red lips said, “I’m surprised to see you here!” 

I’ve always been a sucker for blue eyes and dark hair; Marina’s eyes were very blue, and her hair very dark. And when you added to that pale skin that made her seem mysterious and a smattering of freckles on her tiny nose that made her girlish and cute, it was no wonder I had been so smitten when I’d first met her. 

“Why not?” I replied. “Everyone’s here.” 

“What?” She leaned her ear toward me. Her black sweater wasn’t designed to show much cleavage, but when someone as petite as she is was close to someone as tall as I, it didn’t behave as designed. 

Rather than wait for me to respond, she said, “I haven’t seen you in a long time!” 

That was five months ago in the middle of Fifth Avenue—her headed to the 33rd Street subway station, me headed to the PATH. 

“I know!” 

Her hand rested on my thigh. 

I closed my eyes and sighed. 

“Is that your girlfriend?” Marina asked, nodding her head to the reason her advances didn’t dry out my mouth and raise my pulse like they would have before.  

Across the room, my girlfriend took a sip from her beer to conceal her smirk. 

My eyes begged for help. 

Coral’s eyes said, “You’re on your own.” 

My eyes responded, “You’ll pay for this.” 

Rachel turned away from me so I wouldn’t see her laugh. I’d known her all twenty-one years of her life—there was no hiding that look from me. 

Marina’s fingers squeezed. “Does she know about us?” 

What was there to know about? A fascinating first date followed by a romantic kiss on a crosswalk followed by an e-mail telling me that it would never work? 

She looked at her watch and I looked at mine. Crap. It was New Years Eve of what would ultimately be the last carefree year of my life, and I had eight minutes to free myself to make out with the woman I was pretty sure I was falling for. 

The Castle Doctrine: Gulf Edition

I had an experience today in the middle of the desert that underscored the differences between the culture in the Middle East and the US. Our Guest and I walked into a movie set from the 1970s that we had thought was abandoned. It turns out this was someone’s home, it was clear that we made the owner very uncomfortable. To compound matters, we knew only one word of his language. 

In the United States, we would have been informed of our mistake and shooed away, and there’s a pretty good chance there would have been a gun involved. This literally happened to me twenty years ago. And imagine how that would have gone had I not spoken the native language.  

Here, the man offered us tea, because that’s what you do. 

And that brings us to the second point. The only thing more rude than invading a person’s property and taking pictures in this part of the world is refusing tea when it’s offered.  

We drank the tea, said thank you, and waved awkwardly to each other on our way out. And then he locked the gate behind us. 

It’s about Time

This morning, I’d been showing my roommate a newspaper from Christmas Day, 1998, and at some point, I realized that a day that, to me, was one from just a few years back was actually her thirteenth birthday. 

My niece was two years from being born, while two of my dearest friends in the world then had a two-year-old daughter. The former spends her time making swords and fashion accessories out of duct tape, and the latter is an incredible young lady with graduation over the horizon. I’m sure to my parents, I’d left for college just a few months ago. 

This isn’t one of those “I feel old” posts, but rather just a way of reflecting how time passes differently, depending on what fraction of your life it is. For my roommate, it’s half, for my niece it’s just over 115 percent. For me, it’s only a third of it. 

Yesterday Never Knows

Long ago, I was cleaning out the rain gutter crowning my old home back in New Mexico. Because I was a teenager, I was really fucking stupid. Rather than employing a ladder or a solid surface of any kind, I chose to stand on one of those green, wide-lidded mini-dumpster things we called a herbie because beats the hell out of me. Naturally, every part of it that could collapse or roll waited just long enough for me to get comfortable before pitching me backward onto the dirt of my backyard. 

I wish I could say that I was lucky I didn’t land on concrete, but I can’t. This was desert clay, which, when dry, resembles dust-covered iron. This is the kind of firm that young concrete dreams of growing up to be. Because that didn’t suck enough, random chunks of sandstone jutted out of the surface here and there. You know, for garnish. 

And so, one moment, I was performing one of those tedious chores that are a consequence of living under your parents’ house, your parents’ rules; and the next, every single molecule of oxygen that wasn’t already tied up in hemoglobin fled my body. Blunt pain rattled my spine, and my heart stopped doing what it was it did out of confusion, as my lungs had evidently forgotten to breathe properly. I couldn’t move—less because of said pain and more because of the very tangible fear that I wouldn’t be able to. 

And that, dear readers, is exactly how I felt when I saw her picture last week. 

Her eyes were still mocha and enormous, with thick, dark lashes. Her hair was still an impossible blend of gold and platinum. And the way she smiled still inspired me to do the same. It reminded me how inhumanly gorgeous she was, making even overalls look sexy. And how she was confident enough to be visibly bored every time some boy came over to feign interest in her conversation, a fist clenched around a beer and a thumb hooked on a belt loop—yet only those who were really paying attention could make out the mournfulness hiding there. 

I remembered my reaction upon seeing her for the first time on the other side of a spirited party. (“That girl is way out of my league.”) I remembered my reaction when she waded through that crowd for the sole purpose of finding out who I was. (“Wait. Me?”) I remembered my reaction when she and her sister sought me out at a different, equally spirited party the next night. (“Seriously. Me?”) And I remembered my reaction to the fact that I had started to flirt with her. (“Okay. Clearly not me.”) 

But that’s not what knocked the wind out of me when I saw that picture last week. What did was the fact that I’d forgotten how deeply we were in love with each other. 

It’s been nearly fourteen years since I learned her name, and about thirteen since we last communicated. Over that time, I’ve convinced myself that I made all of these feelings up. We were simply two people with nothing in common, whose hunger for any kind of attention led us to comfort each other during the intense transitions we were subjecting ourselves to. Hell, we’d never even kissed; we were afraid to, because we couldn’t possibly be falling for someone we’d known for a handful of days. 

Except we were fooling ourselves. And for too long, I’ve been fooling myself. The intimacy of our letters and phone calls was real, and it was exquisite. It really was love. Eventually, I found my footing in New York City, she found her footing where she was, and we didn’t need each other anymore. 

And time passed. 

I don’t know how she remembers me. Was I a fling? An overreaction? A friend? A mistake? A pen-pal? An ex-boyfriend, even? I doubt I’ll ever know. That doesn’t matter, though, because somewhere, she is smiling.