Chapter 11: The blues
“So what’s the show you’re going to today?” said Maggie, putting two plates down on the table and then pulling the rubber lid off a stainless steel bowl. She and Tammy were in Tammy’s kitchen, composedly setting the stage for their impending strategic assault upon some of the food Todd had brought home from his restaurant that morning.
“The Brevard Blues and Barbecue Festival,” said Tammy.
“Oh, yeah, yeah. That’s a new thing. They hold it at this outdoor auditorium that’s in this mind-blowingly beautiful place in the woods. The venue seats, like, eighteen hundred people.”
“Exactly. It’s HUGE. Bettye LaVette’s gonna be there, isn’t she?”
“Yeah. And so are the Blind Boys of Alabama.”
“I know! And I can’t believe I have to go to the festival ALONE and everything.” She feigned a sigh worthy of Marie Antoinette. “Buuuut, you’ve got your workshop—which sounds so, so cool, by the way—Charlie’s in Florida, Sam’s got the Farmer’s Market thing, clearly Todd has the hungry to feed. So I’m off to the blues show all by myself. How sad. And yet how fitting.”
“I don’t even know where Brevard is.”
“It’s about forty-five minutes southwest of here. It’s a beautiful drive.”
“Is there a drive around here that ISN’T beautiful?”
“Speaking of beauty, can I just say, Tammy, how beautiful YOU’RE been looking? You seem to be in a super good place lately.”
“I am, actually. Ever since I talked to Ryan, I’ve felt a lot better about things. Not from realizing how big a role fear has played in my life, for sure. But because I’ve been DOING stuff about that. Nothing major, I guess, but things that matter to me. I started painting again, as you know. I’ve explored a lot of Asheville. I got an AMAZING massage from your friend Heather at Spa Theology.”
“And I feel good about my relationship with Ryan, too. Not because I think we’re necessarily gonna get back together. It’s not really about that. It’s more about feeling like whatever happens between us, it’ll be okay. It’ll work out. I actually think it’s been good for us to spend some time apart, so that we can think about what we’re doing, and where we are, and what we want now. What we NEED now.”
“It gives you time to reflect, and assess things,” said Maggie.
“Exactly. It’s like, you have kids, and your entire life is immediately put on hold. Who you might have become, who you might have WANTED to become, gets wiped out by the reality of who you have to become—like, NOW.”
“Baby’s gotta be fed.”
“Baby’s gotta be fed. And changed. And cleaned. And dressed. And taken to school. And it never, ever stops. Not that you WANT it to, of course. But it becomes your whole life. The next thing you know, twenty years have gone by, your children have left home to start their own lives, and you kind of don’t know who you ARE anymore.”
“The empty nest syndrome,” said Maggie.
“That’s right. You’re just, like, ‘Oh. Now what?’ So I think Ryan and I are both going through a time in our lives when we’re asking ourselves that question. Who knows where we’ll end up? If it’s together again, great. If not, that’ll be great, too. The main thing is whatever happens between us, I think it’ll be good. I think it’ll be fair, and peaceful. We’ve been together—or were together—for twenty-two years. That counts. It counts for a lot. It means that we can do whatever we end up doing in a way that doesn’t hurt either one of us, in a way that’s respectful of the best of what our relationship has been.”
“That’s really beautiful,” said Maggie.
“And speaking of babes gettin’ fed,” said Tammy.
* ** * *
The Brevard outdoor auditorium and its setting was everything Maggie had said it was—and then some. The moment she laid eyes on it, Tammy understood why the gospel-singing Blind Boys of Alabama had wanted to play there. Matching such a venue would be a challenge for heaven itself.
But at least in the other place they probably sold beer. And for extremely cheap at that.
Which just then would have been ideal for Tammy. For it was while paying for the cup of beer she bought soon after arriving at the festival that she discovered she was nearly out of cash.
* * * * *
“Transaction declined due to insufficient funds,” said the on-site ATM.
“What?” said Tammy. She tried her card again.
Transaction denied due to insufficient funds.
* * * * *
Just behind the concert auditorium was a fairy tale size lake, glassy and serene. Set beneath several of the picturesque trees dotting its edge were backless wooden benches just wide enough for two. All were currently unoccupied. Tammy took back her debit card, reclaimed her beer from where she’d set it atop the little black machine, walked over to the lake, and sat on one of the shaded benches.
She pulled out her cellphone, and did something she almost never did, which was tap on the app for her and Ryan’s bank.
She barely knew how the app worked. It just wasn’t something she ever used. Ryan handled all their money.
“I take care of our money, because I’m the practical one,” he always said. “You’re the artistic one, Doodles. That’s why we make such a great team!”
It didn’t take Tammy as long as she thought it would to learn the balance of the account in question.
It was five dollars.
When it should have been about one thousand times that.
Tammy took a sip of her beer and then called Ryan.
It went to voicemail.
She called Ryan again.
It went to voicemail.
She dropped her phone to her lap and took a sip of her beer.
She returned to the bank app, searching around inside it until she found an option to transfer money from one account into another. She touched that.
She found her way to the savings account where she and Ryan kept all of their money that wasn’t part of his business.
She touched that.
It cycled for a long, long moment.
Then it opened.
Tammy blinked a few times.
She looked away, off into the sky at the clouds so far beyond the trees.
She looked down at the sloping ground between her and the lake.
She looked back at her phone.
The number she’d seen there hadn’t changed.
It really did say that the total amount in their savings account was exactly fifteen dollars.
Tammy dropped her phone.
* * * * *
At some point something that Ryan had last said to Tammy brought her mind back into focus.
“I want time to, you know, collect myself,” he’d said. “To collect us. To collect everything we care about, and make sure it all gets handled right.”
She leaned forward to pick her phone up off the ground.
The hand she extended for the phone wasn’t shaking. That seemed good.
She got her phone.
She called Ryan.
It went to voicemail.
She went to her home screen.
She opened her browser.
She logged onto Facebook.
She went to Shannon’s profile.
She went to Shannon’s photos.
After swiping through some photos of Shannon on a beach wearing a bikini she stopped at a picture which instantly sickened her.
It was of Shannon standing on a beach wearing a bikini, her arm around Ryan’s waist. In blue swim trunks and a red and white Hawaiian shirt, Ryan, beaming into the camera, had one of his arms around Shannon and his other arm around their daughter, Jill. Beside herself with glee, Jill was standing between her father and her brother, Kevin, who, completing the happy foursome, had his arm around her shoulder, and was looking from behind his sunglasses at something off to his left.
The picture was taken in Honolulu, Hawaii.
It was dated June 3.
* * * * *
Tammy sat alone on her bench, almost perfectly still, looking at but only sometimes seeing the sheen of the lake’s surface.
The beer beside her grew warm, and then warmer.
The first band to play since her arrival at the festival began their set.
They played and sang for a while. They finished.
The next band band started their set.
They played and sang for a while. They finished.
“All I care about is that you still care about us enough to let me do what I need to do,” Ryan had said to her.
“I miss you, sweetheart,” he’d said. “I just need a little time to figure out everything that’s going on between us.”
And then he’d gotten busy with the time she’d given him figuring out how to gut her.
Once that little chore was accomplished, he’d taken Shannon and their kids to Hawaii.
She thought of Kevin and Jill deciding amongst themselves that it would be best not to tell Mom about their trip to Hawaii with Dad and his girlfriend.
Didn’t want to upset her.
Suddenly Tammy needed to walk, now, anywhere, now.
Purse, cellphone in purse, stand up. Walk.
She pointed herself toward the wide space running between the auditorium and the vendors’ tents.
She was about halfway along the length of the auditorium when some small part of her registered that The Blind Boys of Alabama had taken the stage and begun to sing.
She kept walking. She had to.
Almost too faint to hear, as if coming from miles and miles behind her somewhere, she heard the men’s harmonizing voices, rough, sweet and deep, singing:
People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’.
Chapter 12: Until she’d screamed enough
Walking towards nowhere she was aware of, with the voices of The Blind Boys of Alabama coming through the air behind her, Tammy abruptly turned and headed herself between two vendor’s tents and the parking lot behind them, where her car was waiting to take her away from there.
She saw the black and yellow cord cover running on the ground between the two tents.
She miscalculated its height, though.
Down she went, in the featherweight, layered, full length skirt-of-many-colors she had bought for herself not three days before.
Fervid embarrassment got her right back on her feet and resuming her course.
But not three steps later she came to a grinding halt.
Her body was fine.
But her soul was crushed.
Her defeat was total.
Her mind became a black hole, a whirling vortex of affirmations that of course she had stumbled and crashed onto the ground, of course she didn’t belong at the festival, of course Kevin and Jill loved their lives without her, of course Ryan had it all now and she had nothing.
* * * * *
When back to herself she found herself standing but slumping, head hung low, breathing shallow and fast like she was panting.
She took a deep, steadying breath, glanced up just long enough to be sure that she was still pointed towards her car, looked back at the ground, and took one step forward before being shocked into stillness by the big drop of rain that popped right on the top of her head.
Another drop fell on her arm. And then another on her shoulder.
And then the rain was upon her, in the only way that a warm summer rain on a stifling hot day in the South can ever be upon anyone, which is lovingly.
Down and around and across her came the drifting rain, asking nothing of her, save perhaps for the slightest willingness on her part to accept its relief.
And she found herself willing to do more than accept it.
Face turned toward the sky, eyes closed, she began to revel in it.
And as she felt herself riding that train she also felt, from a place so deep within her that she was barely if at all aware of its existence, something ever so slightly stir.
Like the first shifting of lava in the bowels of a mountain that was really a volcano, Tammy’s anger stirred.
* * * * *
Shaking her dampened hair and wiping the moisture from her face, Tammy thought, “I’m not leaving. Why should I? I bought my ticket—which might be the last ticket I ever buy to anything. I WANT TO SEE THE SHOW.”
She turned around and headed back toward the auditorium.
From the stage came to her the Blind Boys’s crescendo ending to “People Get Ready”:
“I believe, I believe, I do believe.”
Before reaching the auditorium she glanced over at the lake. In the dusk’s soft light she spotted what she’d left there.
“Hey,” she said aloud. “I do believe that’s my beer.”
Back at the show, her beer in hand, she took a seat near the center of the vast auditorium.
There was almost no one seated near her; attendance at the festival, in only its third year, wasn’t what she imagined it would be in the years ahead.
She set her cup, still nearly full, on her lap.
The Blind Boys had just begun “Amazing Grace,” which they were singing to the melody of “The House of the Rising Sun.”
She’d seen the group five years before, with Ryan. Maybe halfway through their second song, Ryan had said in her ear so no one could hear, “Do they only sing gospel stuff?”
Tammy nodded yes. Rolling his eyes exasperatedly, he said, “I’m gonna go get a beer.”
Remembering that moment now, Tammy, settling herself in for a good hard listen to everything the Boys had to tell her, raised her cup a bit off her lap.
“To you, Ryan,” she said.
Except for some slight rhythmic nodding of her head, Tammy hardly moved at all for the duration of the Blind Boys’ set. Anyone watching her from a distance might have thought she was barely paying attention to the music.
Anyone watching her from closer up, though, might have seen the tears running down her cheeks, and thought differently.
* * * * *
By the time Bettye LaVette started singing her second song of the night, Tammy was ready to dance.
She peered down at the beer in her lap.
It certainly looked as if it had been sitting outside for hours and hours beneath a tree. It looked more like Dutch elm courage. If it had come out of the tap looking that way, it would have garnered either a citation from the health department, or an award for Most Organic Beer Ever.
After delicately extracting the tiny bits of what she supposed and hoped was tree flotsam floating on its surface, Tammy finally drank the beer that she had bought for herself in what felt to her now like a whole other life.
It wasn’t half bad.
Next she stood, walked out to the aisle, and then headed down to the cleared space between the front row of seats and the stage which served as the venue’s dance floor.
Once there she found herself in the company of maybe eight women in their late twenties and early thirties who were all dancing together near the stage, two middle-aged couples off to one side enjoying, with an air of studious nonchalance, the benefits of their dance classes, and seven or so middle-aged women who, even though each was dancing alone, were doing so in such close enough proximity to one another that, as a group, they were effectively possessing their own zone of the dance floor.
The aisle Tammy walked down deposited her by this latter group of women. Several of them smiled at her as she began to dance.
* * * * *
Tammy liked dancing amongst the middle-aged women. Grooving in their zone felt so safe.
And as Tammy danced, as freely as she had ever danced in her life, she realized, in a moment of arresting clarity, why they felt so safe.
It was because they WERE safe.
They weren’t “hot” anymore.
And as far as the world was concerned, that meant that they had nothing of any significance left to offer.
Which made them invisible.
Which made them safe. For who is safer than someone whom no one can see?
These women were being themselves, and since no one was paying them any attention, there was no one to stop them.
In a spontaneous expression of joy for all she had lost and all she might yet gain, Tammy threw open her arms and twirled around on the nearly empty floor, her beautiful skirt spreading in the air around her
In response, all about her, the women in her new tribe beamed at her, and clapped.
* * * * *
And right after that, moments into one of Bettye’s more raucous numbers, the dance floor was invaded by four thirty-something men who went straight for the women dancing nearest the stage.
The men bucked their hips in the air as they frenetically wove their way around and between the women, whooping and hollering. Two of them got on either side of one of the women, cackling wildly as they encircled her with their arms and jabbed their faces back and forth close to hers.
The objects of this onslaught reacted in all the ways girls are taught to respond to such intrusions: by acting amused, surprised, mock-offended, and even, of all things, flattered.
Tammy stopped dancing.
Her anger welled at it simply being okay for these men to behave as they were, at how just about any man always knows he’s safe doing just about anything he wants, no matter how rude or low it is, as long as the only people he offends are women.
Tammy knew that what she needed to do, right then, and as quickly as possible, was leave.
She walked from the auditorium straight to her car, climbed into it, locked the doors, and drove out of the parking lot.
And as the supportively robotic voice of the Google Maps lady directed her along her darkened way, a storm of thoughts raged through her mind.
* * * * *
Ryan had never loved her; he couldn’t and have done to her what he did.
He dominated her because he could; he could because she let him; she let him because what were her choices when the only two emotions he seemed to have were angry and needy?
Don’t want to enrage him; don’t want to leave him needy.
Do you, Doodles?
Cute little Doodles, doodling her cute little pictures.
She saw in her mind’s eye Jill’s frenzied smile.
He likes me! He likes me! He took me to Hawaii!
He loves me!
See what he bought me?
See how he doles out just enough affection to keep me hopeful that I can please him but never enough to let me know that I have?
Tammy thought of her mother, of her mother’s forced smile and her perfect house, her perfect hair, her perfect everything that wasn’t ever perfect enough to quell the temper of Tammy’s father.
Rushing across her mind came seemingly every man Tammy had ever known. She heard again all of their rude comments, patronizing explanations, condescending digs, endured again all of their unwelcome hugs, touches, pats and gropes, suffered again all of their dismissing of her input, assumptions of her incompetence, discounting of her worth—all of which they typically did while staring at her breasts.
She thought of the way she herself always smiled at such offenses—how she always “let it go,” always took the high road, always told herself that the men just didn’t know better, that it was just how they’d been raised, that that’s just the way it is, that they meant no harm, after all.
She thought of the Stanford rapist sentenced two days before to a mere six months in jail for the nightmare he’d visited upon a young woman; the judge was clear about feeling more sympathy for him than her.
Her own rape came back to her.
All the shame it brought her, the pain, the fear with her ever since and out of nowhere appeared a blinking traffic light that caused Tammy to slam on her brakes before she saw some kind of driveway to her right and yanked her car into there.
She had pulled into the parking lot of a little row of businesses closed for the day.
She killed her engine, turned off her lights.
She unbuckled her seat belt and threw the thing off her.
The whole world became as quiet as it was dark.
She grasped the top of her steering wheel with both her hands.
She let her forehead drop to her hands.
She began to push her forehead harder and harder into her hands, until she screamed.
She screamed and swore and pounded her fists on the dashboard.
She pounded until her hands hurt, screamed until her throat hurt; she screamed until, finally, she had screamed enough.
Chapter 13: Before Pulse
One week later, on the evening of Saturday, June 11, Charlie was in balmy Orlando, slightly buzzed and greatly enjoying himself at a crowded pool party being hosted by the jovial Gustavo Diego Davila, a local mover and shaker who was giving him a poolside lesson in the proper ways of moving and shaking while dancing salsa.
“Keep your head and shoulders up, nice and proud,” said Gustavo. “And then just let your hips do their thing, baby.”
Charlie followed Gustavo’s lead, stepping forward and then back again. “Just to be clear, is that dancing advice, or LIFE advice?”
A big man who loved to laugh, Gustavo indulged himself now. “Both!” he boomed. “You see? That, right there, Charlie, is why I hired you to make my hotels as beautiful on the inside as they will be on outside. You have a mind that captures the essence of things.”
“And feet, as you now know all too well, that capture the essence of Godzilla with arthritis.”
“No, no!” said Gustavo, patting Charlie’s hip as the two of them continued moving together. “You are doing beautifully! I’m going to spin you now. Are you ready?”
“Yes!” said Charlie. “Unless we’re still talking about dancing. Then no.”
With another laugh that a thundercloud would envy, Gustavo spun Charlie around, snappily guiding him right back to the exact position he’d been one dizzying moment before.
“Oh, my God,” said Charlie. “I think I just learned Spanish.”
“Estupendo!” laughed Gustavo. “Do you know what this calls for, mi amigo?”
“Another pina colada?”
“Another pina colada!” Gustavo called across his pool to where seven or eight men in swimsuits were picturesquely standing, sitting, and lounging about an outdoor bar area that looked like something Thurston and Lovey Howell might have built after their return from Gilligan’s Island. “Angel! Two more, por favor!”
One of the younger men on the business side of the bar waved in response. “Si, papi!” he said.
Gustavo took Charlie’s hand in his, and the pair began meandering about the party.
“Your home is so beautiful,” said Charlie. “The emperor of Shangri-La would be, like, ‘Daaaaamn, man! Now THAT’S a pool!’”
“Maybe we’ll make something like it for my hotels, huh?”
“I think we should. Especially if you bring in the emperor of Shangri-La as an investor.”
“HA! I will call him for a meeting! Ah, here is Angel with our drinks.”
“Wow,” said Charlie. “He delivers.”
“Indeed he does,” said Gustavo. “Charlie Sullivan, designer of lovely furniture and the rooms which do it justice, I am proud to introduce you to Angel Rivera Santana, who, as beautiful as you can see that he is, is more than just a pretty face. How are your brother and sister, Angel?”
“They’re good, thank you,” said Angel. “They’re both doing well in school. I’m proud of them.”
“Angel here—do you mind if I tell Charlie?”
“No, not at all,” said Angel.
“Angel here is a hero. He works two jobs—a bartender on weekends, and then full-time in a grocery store during the week. On top of that, he is a full-time student at The University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management.”
“Wow,” said Charlie. “When do you SLEEP?”
“Just about whenever I can,” said Angel.
“But you’re coming out with us tonight, right?” said Gustavo.
“That’s right,” said Angel.
“Once a month, Angel takes a night off for himself. It helps him stay sane,” said Gustavo.
“Well, more or less,” said Angel.
“He lost his father five years ago,” said Gustavo. “As the oldest child, Angel then took it upon himself to make sure that, come the time, his little brother, Octavio, and his sister, Mariana, could afford to go to college.” He put his arm around Angel’s shoulder. “So our boy here got BUSY, didn’t he?”
“I guess so,” said Angel, smiling shyly.
“You know so,” said Gustavo. “And when you graduate from Rosen—in what, only one more semester?—you’re going to come work for me, right?”
“That’s right,” said Angel. “Nobody else.”
Gustavo playfully jostled Angel’s shoulders. “Our future’s looking bright, isn’t it?”
“So bright I gotta wear shades,” said Angel.
* * * * *
Not long after introducing Charlie to Angel, Gustavo bustled off to oversee whatever apparent wonders were transpiring at his grilling station. For the following couple of hours Charlie meandered about the party, here and there engaging in the kinds of intensely personal conversations one sometimes has with affable strangers who swiftly become fast friends.
* * * * *
“You guys bought a HOUSE?” he said to the handsome young couple, Alejandro and Luis. “Like, a HOUSE house?”
“Like a house house!” said Alejandro.
“When?” said Charlie.
“We closed just yesterday” said Luis. “That’s what we’re celebrating here tonight.”
“Congratulations! You must be so happy,” said Charlie.
“We are,” said Alejandro. “It’s a dream come true. For years we’ve saved every penny we had. And now it has finally happened. Now we have our own home, where our friends and family can come and stay, any time they like, for as long as they like.”
“The first room we’re doing is our guest room,” said Alejandro.
“That is such a sweet offer,” said Charlie.
“Nah,” said Luis. What good is having a home, if you don’t share it with the people you care about?”
* * * * *
“You work at DISNEY WORLD?” Charlie said to a lean and almost astonishingly chiseled thirty-something man named Adrian.
“I do,” said Adrian.
“Do you somehow model for them?”
“No, no,” laughed Adrian. “Well, actually, yes, in a way.”
“It’s not hard to believe. What do you do for the great Disney corporation?”
“Well, actually, I was promoted just this week.”
“You were? Congratulations! To what, if I can ask?”
“To choreographer for our dance shows and parades.”
“NO!” said Charlie. “DANCING DISNEY CHARACTERS ARE THE BEST PART OF THE WHOLE AWESOME DISNEY EXPERIENCE!”
“I KNOW!” said Adrian. “I feel the same way! I LOVE my job!”
“Can I just say that you are now officially the greatest person I have ever met?” said Charlie.
Adrian laughed again. “Do you dance?” he said.
“Tell you what. Next time you bump into Gustavo, ask him, ‘Does gringo Charlie dance?’ And then don’t take your eyes off his face. You’ll want to see his expression.”
* * * * *
“I’m sorry,” said Valeria, wiping her tears away and dabbing her nose with a bandana handkerchief. “You don’t need to be hearin’ all this.”
She and Charlie were sitting in relative privacy on a couple of patio chairs beneath a cluster of low, broad palm trees in the yard.
“No, please, I want to,” said Charlie. He put his hand on Valeria’s upper arm. “I had a good friend who died of a drug overdose.”
Valeria looked up at him. “What’d you do?”
Charlie shrugged. “What could I do?”
“Right? You’re freakin’ helpless. And with my sister, Sophia, it happened so fast. I don’t even know where she got her first taste. But all of a sudden, she was, like, ‘Do this with me, Val. Just give it a try. We gotta do this together.’ And I was, like, ‘No way. I ain’t doin’ ’teca. Don’t you do it either.’ But she didn’t listen. Not to me, not to anyone. Stuff just tore off with her, man.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Charlie.
Valeria stared down at the grass in front of her chair for a long time before she spoke. “And sometimes I think, you know, maybe it’s my fault. I wanted Sophia to move in with me; I kind of even forced the issue a little. She wasn’t happy at my mom’s house, and she had this good job and everything. So I was, like, ‘Come live with me, hermanita. It’ll be good. We’ll have fun.’ So that’s what she did. And she seemed happy. It’s not like we didn’t know how to live together, you know? But then I got so busy, with my job and everything. I wasn’t home as much as I was before. And that’s the part that gets to me. Maybe if I had been home more—maybe if I’d made sure that I was, so I could watch over her a little better than I did—she’d still be here.”
“No,” said Charlie. “When you say things like that to yourself, stop listening. Because that’s not the truth of it. You were a good sister. You loved her. And of course she knew that. And of course she loved you, too. And there’s no way she wasn’t grateful to you for opening up your life to her as you did. I’m sure she appreciated that, and you, with all of her heart. But heroin is heroin. Once that stuff gets you, you’re got. And then everything else disappears. That’s just the way it is. But you loved her, and she loved you, and right now I’m sure that’s all she wants you to know, and all she wants you to remember.”
Through her tears Valeria smiled at Charlie. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” She wiped her eyes and dabbed at her nose again. “Sorry for dumping all this on you. I don’t even know you, man.”
Opening his arms, Charlie leaned forward in his chair. Valeria did the same in hers, and they hugged.
Sitting back in their seats again, Valeria said, “This is the first time I been to any kind of social thing in months. I knew that if I didn’t get out of my place, I’d go crazy—like, clinically insane—from sittin’ around cryin’ all day.”
“I’m glad you came out.”
“I am, too. These are such good people here. These are the people who’ll keep you sane when you’re losin’ it, man.”
Valeria took a deep breath, lightly slapped her thighs, stood up from her chair, and extended her hand down to Charlie.
“Now that you’ve saved me, brother, walk me back to the living?” she said.
* * * * *
“You’ve been married TEN YEARS?” said Charlie to Gabriel Francisco Torres and Miguel Ruiz Castillo, the couple to whom, upon his wandering into the bar area, Angel had happily introduced him. “Either I have grown a whole lot older than I think I have, or you two have found the fountain of youth—which you aren’t SHARING with the rest of us! That is so wrong of you, to leave all of us out here to rot and decay away, while you two secret sippers continue to look like a couple of hot teenagers.”
“Love keeps the spirit young, no?” said Gabriel.
“And also the body, apparently,” said Charlie. “Have you guys really been together ten years?”
“We’ve been together twelve,” said Miguel. “But married ten.”
“As of midnight tonight, that is,” said Gabriel.
“Wow! It’s your tenth anniversary! And you came here to celebrate!”
“We did!” said Miguel.
“But there’s more to our celebration,” said Gabriel. “We’re leaving tomorrow for a ten-day cruise around the Mediterranean.”
“Oh my GOSH!” said Charlie. You must be so excited!”
“We are!” said Miguel. He kissed his husband. “We’re really looking forward to it.”
* * * * * *
“Charlie, there you are!” said Gustavo. Settling himself into the lounge chair beside Charlie’s, he said, “I’ve been looking for you! How are you? Do you need another pina colada?”
“As ridiculously delicious as they are,” said Charlie, “I think it’s just possible that I can put off having another one for at least two minutes. But thank you. And thank you also for the—what are they called? The amazing sandwiches?”
“Tripleta is the only thing I want to eat for the rest of my life.”
“I’ve already wrapped up some of the filling and sauces for you to take back with you.”
“You are one awesome host.”
“I have such great friends.”
“And I’m so lucky to have met them, Gustavo. I’m not exaggerating, one bit, when I say that this is the kindest group of people I have ever met.”
“I agree with you. They all have such good hearts. Hey, I saw you talking to Valeria. That poor girl. I was so glad when she showed up here tonight.” He reached over and patted Charlie on the arm. “She told me your talk with her made her feel better. Thank you, amigo.”
“Of course,” said Charlie.
“This is just what she needs, being around friends. It’s what we all need. You know, a lot of these people haven’t had an easy go of it, being who they are. I know you know what I mean, Charlie. For some of them, whose parents or family members just couldn’t accept them, this has become their family. I am always happy to host these get togethers, because I have the means now, and because I know how important it is for people like us—especially young ones, or those just coming out—to have places to go where they can feel welcomed, and at home, knowing they’re amongst people who value and love them for who they are.”
“I know how much a place like this would have meant to me when I was just out,” said Charlie.
After a peaceful silence between them, Charlie said, “Gustavo, can I ask you a question?”
“Your cancer. Is it all gone?”
“It is! I’m glad you asked. I got the results in last week. Not a trace of it left. And I feel as good as I ever have in my life.”
“Oh, thank God.”
“Believe me, I have. My test results are one of the reasons I wanted to throw this party. I’m celebrating being cancer free!”
Charlie reached over and took Gustavo’s hand. “So this really is the greatest night ever.”
“And it’s not over yet,” said Gustavo. “You’re coming with us to the club, right?”
“Right,” said Charlie. “To—what’s the place called again?”
“Pulse. As long as I’ve still got one, I’ll be there.”
“Excellent. You’ll love it. It’s another place where gay people can gather to feel safe and have fun. And guess what?” Gustavo wiggled his eyebrows up and down. “Tonight they’re having Latin Night!”
Chapter 14: Drowning All Go West
Charlie was in front of The Brew Pump on Haywood in West Asheville, standing toward the back of a crowd that was clapping and dancing to the New Breed Brass Band.
He could see and hear that the horn group from New Orleans was rip-roaringly funky.
He couldn’t feel it, though.
Minutes before, in the parking lot of Isis Restaurant and Music Hall a block down the street, he had too much felt the West African music performed by the group Asa. So he had hurried away from that stage area and gone back onto Haywood, back amongst the throngs of people attending the All Go West Music Festival.
“Yeah, sweetheart, don’t go by yourself,” said Todd. “We should all go together.”
“No,” said Charlie. “I just feel like being alone. I’ll be okay.”
But he didn’t really know if he’d be okay or not.
Just about all he did know was that it was time for him to go outside.
For some reason, or no reason at all, he had been left among the living. And what, over the course of the past two weeks, he had been forced to learn this meant, was that—unless he took the option not to be, and he’d be damned if he was going to hand the murderer Omar Mateen yet another life—he was simply stuck being alive.
First, despite everything, he had slept.
Then, despite everything, he had eaten.
Then, despite everything, he had bathed. (He had not shaved, though. No blades for him near his face and neck.)
“Don’t worry,” he said to Tammy and Todd. “I’ll call you if there’s any reason to.”
He was polite, polite, kind as he could be manage to be; he loved Todd and Tammy now more than ever, if that were even possible.
But talking to them—and they were the only people to whom he’d spoken since his return from Orlando—was torture almost physical.
What he couldn’t say to them, and what he barely intuited himself, was that he wanted to be alone because he was ashamed of the fact that he would even think of going outside, of stepping into the sunshine, of walking and breathing and hearing the birds sing and seeing the trees and the flowers and the hyper little squirrels and the cuddly-looking groundhogs and the fireflies and all the beautiful life that was everywhere.
Who was he, that he should revel in such riches?
Knowing he had to right to what he had made him want to be alone with it.
“I love you guys,” he said, closing the door behind him.
One step into the hot, hot day and he flashed back to the moment, on the patio of Pulse that night, when he’d said good-bye to Gustavo.
“Don’t tell me you’re leaving us already?” said Gustavo.
“It’s almost closing time!” laughed Charlie. “I should have left an hour ago, at least. I gotta catch a plane tomorrow morning.”
“Love you, mi amigo,” said Charlie. “And thank you.”
“We’re going to do beautiful things together!” said Gustavo, patting him on the back. “I’ll call you Monday.”
“I look forward to it,” said Charlie.
Then he went back inside the club, where he hugged and said good-bye to five or six other friends.
Feeling happy and carefree, he then drove back to his hotel, where he got all of his things in order for the flight home, turned off his phone, crawled into bed, and slept through the night like a baby.
The following afternoon found him still in his hotel room, frantic, wailing, trying to control his breathing so that his hands would stop shaking so that he could use his cell phone and laptop to learn the latest about what simply couldn’t be true.
And then the City of Orlando put on its website the names of those first confirmed shot to death at Pulse.
And there Charlie read it.
Gustavo Diego Davila, 48.
* * * * *
At the first vigil he attended, Charlie found Angel, whom he hugged like a drowning man hugs a life preserver.
“Alejandro and Luis are dead,” said Angel. Staring at the ground, he seemed disoriented, confused. He looked back up at Charlie, and asked, almost wonderingly, “What will happen to their house?”
“I think there was a house exactly like it waiting for them in heaven,” said Charlie. “I think they’re in that house right now, looking down on us, wanting us to know they’re okay.”
Angel began crying. He stepped forward into Charlie’s embrace. “I think so, too,” he said.
At his second vigil, Charlie heard someone screaming his name. It was Valeria, whom he saw across a parking lot running towards him as fast as she could. She leapt into his arms, wailing her grief.
“Oh, thank God,” Charlie cried to the sky.
* * * * *
Like Charlie, Adrian, the choreographer, had left Pulse early that night. It would take some time before he was ready to resume teaching happy-seeming people how to do happy-seeming dances for all the happy people at Disney World.
* * * * *
Gabriel and Miguel, to whom the Mediterranean had never seemed so far away, spent the night of their tenth anniversary holding candles in the dark.
* * * * *
The New Breed Brass Band finished their set. Along with everyone else, Charlie clapped for the group—except he only clapped once. Because even though he’d done a regular clap, it felt like he had slammed his hands together so violently that every bone in his body had cracked from the shock.
So he just stood there.
Then everyone started walking back along Haywood again. So he started walking back along Haywood again.
He found himself back in the Isis parking lot.
Now on the stage in the lot were two guys sitting on chairs playing acoustic guitars. The one who was singing had a dark wiry beard and looked gritty, tough; he wasn’t likely to be a stranger to a hard day’s labor. His clean-cut accompanist looked like the kind of well-bred, corn-fed farm boy you could trust with your daughter.
The singer had a voice like Moses being tortured. He sang like he’d decided that this was the gig where he’d blow out every last one of his vocal cords—which, clearly, would take some doing, since his vocal cords seemed made of rusted hawsers and frayed steel cables.
And while his companion was playing a slide guitar that could turn water into whiskey, he was playing his guitar like the thing owed him money.
He was singing—he was growling, he was yelling—a song about a river.
About a river in a storm.
About a river in a storm that had risen so high it had taken a woman off its banks and drowned her.
He was singing, over and over again, until he was screaming it with the ferocity of the truly desperate, that someone should go out in the howling storm and fetch that woman’s body.
Charlie was drawn closer to the stage.
When the song abruptly ended it felt like his heart had stopped beating.
“I’m Pierce Edens,” said the singer. “And this here’s Kevin Reese.”
And then the duo kicked in with another song.
Literally: with his left foot, Edens started pounding a slow beat on the bass drum before him.
Accompanied by nothing but that steady booming beat, he started to sing.
From the first note it was an old sad song, a plaintive cry sung by a man on his deathbed, who, having spent his life working himself to the bone, now desires nothing more than to be buried wearing a new pair of black shiny shoes.
All the man wants are those shoes.
He wants them so he’ll look good lying in his grave.
And his terrible cry for that simple dignity turned Charlie’s whole self into everything that giving up is.
Down Charlie went. But his collapse came in a slow, almost controlled fashion, in the way of a person simply opting to have a little rest there on the pavement, someone needing but a respite, someone going down who may very well get back up again but don’t hold your breath.
He had his left hand and his left knee on the pavement when he felt his cell phone vibrate.
Like he was some kind of joke marionette being played with by drunks, he found himself standing upright again.
He fumbled around in his pocket.
He pulled out his cell phone, and saw a text message from Todd.
“Come home,” it said. “Something’s happened.”