I’m standing in front of the customs person at the kiosk. I always feel special here. They are a curious bunch, not as suspicious as in certain other nations, like England, but they ask just as many questions. When they get to the point where they ask who I’m here to visit, for the first time I don’t know what to say, and hesitate, which probably draws suspicion. I am also here on a one-way ticket. The man glances at his computer and clicks his mouse once. I think he’s probably just flagged me. I want to say something frank and awkward like: I am here visiting the memory of dead relatives.
I am here to stand by their grave silently with a friend that I have dragged here with me and ask them things I forgot to ask them while my friend stands about ten feet behind me with his arms crossed, not exactly impatiently, but solemnly. Questions about somewhat inconsequential decisions like: should I go back to school? Logistical things. Because any questions bigger than that and I would know the answer already, know what they would say if they could. How did you know it was all going to work out? for instance. To which he would say: I just did. And to which she would say: Well, I didn’t. But I think he did. And then he might say: Have you ever thought about joining the military? I would say, yes, but another one of your grandchildren did that, so I feel like I’m off the hook. To which he would nod silently and then probably say: How about going back to school? Problem solved.
My companion is extremely forward-looking, partly because he doesn’t have good reason yet — death or deaths — to be otherwise. The deaths that have occurred in his family either happened long before he was born or when he was still young enough to not become preoccupied by them, to think for any length of time about his own death. He is about adventure and thrills which, actually, might be a product of death. The premature deaths — of his father’s parents — were an unspoken lesson (unspoken because his father hates talking about death): seize the day.
We’re on the way to some adventure and thrill right now, but we make a pit stop off this road going south to the little cemetery that sort of overlooks the body of water, which we live on the other side of, except you can’t actually see the water because of a row of thick trees and shrubs and an unfortunate chainlink fence just in front of the trees and shrubs. I am looking at the gravestones, which were just put in, but then I look back at him, and his hair blowing in the westerly fall wind, and I guess I would rather look at that, at him, because he is life. I think they would understand why. They knew him, mostly as the one who would come over swinging a tennis racket after dinner, the prop of the racket employed just to make it clear that he wasn’t coming over to spend time with me, but to recruit me, as on previous days, to be his after-dinner tennis partner. He also helped them with a lot of things as they got older. He is helpful. Handy. Yesterday I came home to find him lying on his stomach on the roof of his parents’ house, working on something gutter-related. This made me smile, which is stupid, but again, it seems exemplary of life somehow. Life evaporates off his skin. Even if he is unemployed, drinks too much, and barely has enough money saved to put gas in his car.
They make themselves seem even more blasé about everything because they sense that women like it, my mother said recently, “they” referring to him and his cohort, which, broadly speaking, is men aged 25 to 38 or so. Why women like something that is intractable, I don’t know, but it is likely because the attitude illustrates freedom, embodies freedom. Excepting the fact that everyone dies, their freedom makes them seem more alive, most alive, nearly immortal. They tend to live life close to the knife’s edge. Women, I would argue, tend not to, because of their role as mothers.
For example, he drives way too fast, which I made the mistake of telling my mother. You know that your grandmother almost lost her arm in that stupid accident, she said. I had no idea what she was talking about. You know, with that other man, this was before she married your grandfather. She went on some joyride with this young guy, and the brakes failed. I wanted to say that that would never happen with my “young guy” because he is good with cars. But: he also does things like jump off cliffs into shallow swimming holes and scuba dives without a license. When he tells me about such things I become visibly angry, and yet, who would he be without this deviations? Not himself. And not as alluring. Not as alive.
Like his father he grows impatient at the cemetery, arms still crossed, more tightly crossed now. At the most recent funeral they loitered outside, a few hundred yards away, so that when we all walked from church to the location of the wake, we walked past them, could focus on them, or at least I could, in my too-high heels, searching for him amongst all the blue-shirted suit-pant-wearing men and quickly finding him, and growing briefly giddy and visibly so, which was inappropriate, but I hadn’t been sure he would come. At the wake his father told me they “even brought Greg,” as if he is some consolation prize for the fact that my grandmother is now dead. And he sort of is.
I have all these silly, superstitious thoughts, thanks to so much death. Yolking things that aren’t meant to be yolked. I see this same young hawk perched on top of the telephone pole every day and I find it strange that this youngster is so alone. And I decide that Greg is that young-looking but still huge brown hawk sitting so still for so many hours, preening himself, looking around at the various goings-on of the bird community: the red-winged blackbirds in the bushes, the eagles pecking at carrion in the corn field, the crows, in pairs, trying to intimidate the adult hawks away from the carrion. For most animals, this is the loneliest time of all, when your mother has finally kicked you out of the nest, something Greg’s mother seems unable to do, and you are left to fend for yourself, to use the skills she taught you.
I read obsessively about black bears recently, and shared some of what I’d learned with Greg, and it scared him so much that he stopped running through the woods, because he’d seen a black bear there one morning. I told him that it’s usually the adolescent male bears that end up attacking and eating people, because they’re immature. They haven’t yet refined their hunting skills. If they’re hungry enough they potentially will eat anything that moves. I got a kick out of how afraid he was by this. He said he already has a recurring nightmare about being eaten by a grizzly, and this new fact about black bears would not help things. I laughed. Then a few days later I got my comeuppance: I ran up a road and met a young black bear at the crest of it, crossing from one field to another, looking for whatever berries were left in the aftermath of a too-wet spring. I was terrified — knew I was supposed to stop, stand my ground, and then slowly back away, still facing the bear. But instead I paused, and he — I was convinced he was an adolescent male, by the way he awkwardly carried his small, lumpy body across the tarmac — also paused to look at me, and then maybe decided I was too skinny to be worth eating and loped on. I turned around and sprinted back to my house, looking over my shoulder most of the way.
I told Greg, and instead of laughing at me, his eyes grew wide and he shuddered, slurped from his big plastic cup of whiskey and soda. He had put himself in my shoes. Were you scared? he asked. Even this seemed remarkable, seemed ridiculously satisfying. That he wouldn’t make feel stupid, like a child, for being afraid. That he never made me feel stupid about anything.
Death causes all the events that come after it to be heightened, to be either worse or better than they would otherwise appear. Grief, of course, has the markers of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression: its victims become highly reactive, like thin glass, liable to shatter at the most minor of incidents. So the people who are there for us after death are seen as not just nice but heroic. Death shows our true colors. Which in our case meant that when he took the time to write a brief and poignant note to me, and then stood there under the oak as we all walked by in black, and then stood with me in the cemetery, allowing this brief trip into the past, despite his strong preference for the future, I fell for him. Which might not have been what he’d intended to happen, nor I.