Crossing to Lopez
There wasn’t as much satisfaction as I’d hoped in watching Jason fall. Seeing him suspended for a second after I’d tripped the latch—not falling yet, but knowing he was going to, I did enjoy that. But at the same time I knew it wasn’t progress. No matter what had happened over the years, I should have moved beyond it. No matter that every rise of his was accompanied by a fall of mine, we were adults. I should have grown up, let the grievances fade between us. How else do you get past banging your head against a wall?
“Do you miss it?” my daughter asked just this morning, running her finger across my eye patch. When she was little, she would reach under the patch and touch the empty spot, gently. It never bothered her.
A typical equivocation on my part that she fortunately has not inherited.
“I like it this way,” she said.
It happened when we were in high school, me and Jason, crossing the Kendricks’ pasture to try to catch their llamas copulating and take pot shots at them with a BB gun. Stuck out on an island in Juan de Fuca Strait, with nothing but water water everywhere, that’s what we had. He claimed it was an accident, that he was aiming at the tractor behind me. But we’d just split two Colt 45 talls and I was arguing with him about my girlfriend Tricia who would soon be his girlfriend, so yeah, I’m skeptical. I’d come across them sometimes leaning close, their eyes—two each—lingering on each other unapologetically. I didn’t appreciate her sufficiently, he said, and he may have been right. So as we crossed from the road through the verdant yada yada fields with the malt liquor circulating freely among my suspicions, he extolled her virtues and my shortcomings, and I hated them both a little. I said she couldn’t go a day without being told she was a precious gift and if I still had the receipt I’d return her. And yes I did call her an emotional orca, but even I don’t know what that means, so as justifiable cause it’s pretty thin.
It didn’t hurt, exactly. There was an ache and a weird feeling of subtraction, something yanked out of me, but that was it. A red-tail circling above the ridge screeched once, then faded out, dissolved into a gray amorphousness. Not black, like you might think, just a dull spreading opacity, which it remains to this day.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the decision-making process,” Jason said, standing in front of the classroom where his daughter and mine sat next to each other, watching rapt as he turned his mice loose in their glass box to ram into transparent doors and claw their way over stickum-painted barricades. There was no cheese waiting for them at the end, which I had thought was customary and only fair. There was no prize at all, and no discernible way out. He set them going like balls rolling downhill, noting their choices, clicking his stopwatch to record their reaction times, knowing their journey would be without end or reward.
“We remove the reward so that each decision is a distinct event enacted for its own sake. A pure choice in isolation.”
A few of the kids nodded, as if they knew what the hell he was talking about.
When it was my turn, I put some spreadsheets up on the projector, knowing full well that no kid would want to hear more about math on a day that was supposed to be a vacation from it. The numbers were meaningless artifacts from a time when I believed in balanced equations, butterflies pinned to a cork board. I closed with this:
“Infinity is the greatest achievement in mathematics history. Aside from zero.”
We ate lunch with the kids at short metal tables bolted to the blacktop. My knee banged against the pipe brace every time I moved, and when the bell rang I limped off beside Jason and his mice into a light drizzle. My daughter gave me a hug. She didn’t hold my presentation against me. How in the world do we deserve such generosity?
considered a glass eye early on—Jason’s idea, incidentally—but that was a bust.
There was a place in Seattle that made them to order, custom colors, even
patterns and little overlaid pictures. Tricia might like to help me pick one
out, Jason suggested—it would make her feel connected to me, he said. I could
get an eye that matched her eyes, or went with her shoes, whatever. Not
surprisingly, things didn’t turn out as he’d intimated. She saw the socket for
the first time and was repulsed. She slammed her own eyes shut like security
doors, pinched them tight and turned away from my Sea of Intranquility.
The whistle sounded at the top of the grade, and we half-jogged down to the dock. Jason looked natural doing it, his arms swinging comfortably, his knees rising rhythmically, while I shuffled awkwardly downhill, scuffing my shoes against the asphalt. The road hovered indistinctly somewhere below me, owing to my compromised depth perception. My bones jarred against one another as the ramp rose up to meet me, their connective tissue worn to threads.
And—for the cherry on the sundae—who should we run into on the ferry?
Tricia gave Jason a big old hug, studying me with crinkled nose over his shoulder.
“What happened to you?”
“What do you mean?”
She waved me off and separated from Jason. She tugged the ponytail poking out the back of her ball cap and made the odd little clicking sound she’d always made when words failed her. The rain bounced off her spandexed limbs as she cantered in place.
“I’m training for a triathlon.”
“Good for you,” Jason said.
The water of the strait was almost black.
“Do you wear a wetsuit?” I asked.
“Some people do. I don’t.”
“Of course not.”
She tried to glare at me, but her eyes kept flicking up to my patch, decorated today with a bright whirl of Fibonacci spirals. I moved closer to the rail. She and Jason whispered, their foreheads almost touching. They’d both been married to other people for some time, but if that meant the same thing to them that it did to others it would be a revelation.
I tried not to listen, focusing instead on the bow wave rolling out toward Canada in a white arc. We'd gone there once, the three of us. To Stanley Park. We tried to get lost, and nearly succeeded, stumbling on the car at the end of the sea wall long past dark. Our island was a pale dot offshore, an afterthought. Tricia had been holding on more and more tightly to my hand as the day faded out and the temperature started to drop. Joined for good, I thought.
Just before we reached the car, Jason stumbled and wrenched his ankle. Tricia let go of my hand, and there he was between us—leaning his weight on me, his other arm looped around her neck.
"What kind of friend are you?" he said when I objected, prompting Tricia to give me the first of many scowls of diminishing appraisal. On the ferry home, we went up to the lounge and drank coffee thick with sugar. Tricia rested Jason's foot in her lap. We seemed to be on two different boats after that, with mine listing badly and taking on water.
Now Jason was holding up his cage describing his success in the classroom, and they were both laughing. Tricia looked at me dismissively from under her wispy bangs, then she turned away and jogged off, her shoes squeaking on the wet deck, fading off toward the bow like scavenging gulls.
Against my will, I still see her sometimes naked again beside me in our little cove on the west side of the island. She was beautiful, I have to admit, her skin like paper waiting to be written on, smooth and unmarked in the first good sun of the year. Her northern pallor translated as beauty against the gray rock, while mine came across as something sickly and deprived. She stretched languidly and rolled toward me.
“It’s almost worth living here on days like this,” she said. I agreed one hundred percent.
I was wearing a new patch, bright red with a gold-rimmed star in the center. She’d touched it playfully once or twice already—I didn’t like it, but she was so open beside me it seemed ungracious to object. Then she started to lift it; I could feel it hinging like a secret door. I grabbed her wrist, squeezing harder than I meant to.
“I just want to see it again.”
“No you don’t.”
“It won’t make any difference.”
I don’t know who she thought she was kidding.
She made the clicking sound, pulled her shirt closed over her perfect breasts and rolled away from me again. Something in the vicinity of my heart collapsed. The sun disappeared behind a cloud, and as far as I know never came out again.
She waited an appropriate period before dumping me, out of respect for her own sensitivity. She wasn’t so shallow as to hold my infirmity against me—she insisted on that. It wasn’t the sunken egg cup where my eye used to be she objected to, it was my inaccessibility. Though to most people’s minds I’m as accessible as a People magazine.
Meanwhile, somewhere not far away, Jason was waiting all sympathy and hard-on. She complained, he commiserated. What a burden lifted I was! How had she stood it so long?
“How long do they live?”
“I don’t know. Four or five months, I guess.”
“Is that normal?”
Jason nudged the box with his foot.
“Do they suffer, you’re asking.”
I didn’t know if that was what I was asking. Really I was just making conversation, but Jason had never had time for dithering. Even crossing the Kendricks’ pasture he took the straightest line. The trajectory of the BB to my eye was nothing if not direct.
“That’s what kids usually ask. That’s what they care about, and that’s ok. I mean they’re kids, I expect that. They’re not going to care about reaction times, cortex development, autonomic versus somatic. I mean, come on.”
“But I should.”
“Well, look, it’s survival. What separates us.”
“You flinch or you don’t flinch, and there you go.”
“Yep. There you go.”
I wondered if he’d ever tried to chase the neurons that go haywire when someone breaks your heart or stabs you in the back. If anybody had. That seemed like a sure bet for a grant.
Off to our side, a boat full of tourists sped along beside a small pod of orcas. The orcas looped and arced. Every time they turned, the boat turned. The people in the boat were bright orange in their life jackets, bunched on one side of the boat so that it listed unnervingly. We heard the captain say something over his microphone, and some of the orange blobs shifted back to the other side of the boat.
Jason smiled, leaning on the gate in the rail. He always stood there when he crossed, so he’d be the first one off at the other end. The gate rattled. The safety chain, normally clipped through a rusted hasp, dangled over the side and clanged against the hull.
“How’s CeeCee doing?” he asked. “Better?”
“She’s fine, yeah.”
“Not everyone’s cut out for…whatever. Success. Advancement.”
He tapped the mouse cage with his toe and smiled again as the mice scrambled down their hallways, turned in desperate circles in their cul-de-sacs. After blowing into his cupped hands to thaw his fingers, he reached down and flipped open a trap door in the top of the cage.
“The kids seem to like her anyway. She’s got Miss Congeniality sewed up, if nothing else.”
With a little flourish like a magician—which is what I think he’d always seen himself as, conjuring traps and mazes from straight lines, making animate objects disappear with a wave of his wand—he snatched up a tiny, wriggling mouse and lifted it out. He held it by the tail, watching it arch its back and claw at the air with its inadequate feet.
“The world divides up in essential ways.”
And with that he dropped the mouse over the side. A little white shape descending, bouncing once on the wake from the ferry and disappearing.
He smiled and made a mental note as if he’d learned something. His nose, pink in the cold, twitched. I wondered why we’d stayed on the same island all this time, bumping up against each other whichever way we turned. We could have left any day, either one of us.
He went under briefly before bobbing back up, eyes wide and bald spot showing. As a vivid illustration of my backward progress, there was Tricia again shaking me by the arm. I could see the spray of spit as she cursed me, red blotches on her cheeks, her chest heaving in fury.
She reached up and yanked my patch off.
The triumph in her face as she brandished it like a scalp, shook it victoriously and threw it over the side.
“There you are!” she screamed. “There you fucking are!”
True enough. True enough.
The tourists picked Jason up. He was a strong swimmer, even in wet clothes with a soaked jacket pulling him down—and something still stronger was pulling him in the opposite direction. Though it wasn’t love for his wife or children, or the shadow of unaccomplished accomplishments. Fame yanked away. No, he knew what I knew—this episode would cement my position on the island, deep in the shadows of better men. It would be my last nail.
And what could I say? It was an experiment? I was studying him, timing him, noting the twitch in his face, the fear in his eyes? Hardly.
He pointed a righteous finger at me, and everyone on the boat and on the ferry turned to look. I waved. A big, slow wave, like we were long lost friends who’d finally found each other again. Oh what the years had done to us! Oh the stories we could tell!
When we slowed on the approach to the dock, I reached down and clipped the chain back onto the gate. The rain was coming down harder, pinging off the deck and boiling the water down below. I tilted my head back and let it fall into the cup of my eye. It filled pointlessly, like a battered artifact left behind by some dead tribe, one drop at a time.