In My Personal History of Boyfriends, John D. is subtitled The Drip. From his boy bob to his tentative spectacles to his Eeyorean countenance, John dripped from crown to sole like a crack in a cistern. Midway through my rather educational I-Can- Save-You-with-My-Love period (roughly 1989 – 2009), John’s moping form, wedged in the corner of the living room show at some hipster’s rowhouse, pulled at me like gravity. He was odd, he was smart, and he was missing a piece of his left ear since birth. He had his own record label and liked my songs. We trysted long distance between DC and New Haven, and eventually moved in together in Maryland. I found a darling 1920’s bungalow with a huge basement, a sleeping porch, and a claw-footed slipper tub. In that gorgeous place, I learned to hate John. He was keenly intimidated by my brothers, my friends, the neighbors, the UPS man, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and had they still existed, probably the Avon Lady and the Fuller Brush Man. If anyone came to our door unannounced, John would hide in the darkest room until they decided no one was home. I hid with him once. Afterwards, I just got the door. But it was a phone call I got while living with John that changed everything . Not just everything with John. Everything for always.
It was my brother Dan who called. He was all serious, which wasn’t normal. I was afraid something happened to my parents while they were in Italy. He told me it was our brother Joel. I actually felt a moment of relief, as if the stakes were somehow less high.
“So, he’s spending the night in the hospital,” Dan said.
He sunnysided it. “It may be lyme disease. They think it’s probably lyme disease.”
“Well, it could be leukemia,” he said. “They have to do some tests.”
After hanging up, I related the specifics to John.
I got scared and teary.
“Why are you crying?” John asked. “They don’t know that it’s leukemia.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but it could be.” Why did I even have to explain that?
Later that week, we found out it was leukemia. All the things we never wanted to learn about blood counts and chemotherapy and marrow transplants introduced themselves to the parts of our brains trying desperately to understand. And again, I was crying.
“What are you crying for?” John asked. “He’s not dead yet.”
We cannot know his legendary head
Joel was a high school senior in 1978. I was seven, and I worshipped him and all of his friends. The girls had long hair and wore sparkly eye shadow, leotards with bellbottoms, and little ribbon chokers. The boys also had long hair and wore bellbottoms, but paired them with ringer t-shirts and puka shell necklaces. They rode around in VW Beetles and spilled out onto our driveway, laughing. They were in plays at the high school and ran lines with each other. And unlike Dan and Jon, who continually labeled me a “pain in the neck” or a “spoiled brat,” Joel and his friends though I was “so cute” and “would need a stick to beat the boys off some day.” They actually played with me, included me. It was glorious.
When they were rehearsing for Hamlet, my parents had the cast over to watch the Lawrence Olivier version via a rented projector and a sheet pinned to the wall. After the film, they started acting out the swordfight scene. My friend Kate was sleeping over, and they propped us up on the back of the couch. We were to be the king and queen. Then John Searles, the tall and handsome lead, picked me up and whirled me around in an ersatz waltz that left me dizzy and exhilarated. If I had a fairy godmother, she would have waved a wand and made me just like them.
One year, when Dan and Jon were away at nature camp, Mom took Joel, David, and me to Rehoboth Beach. One of the few pictures I have of teen Joel was taken on that trip. He’s wearing cutoffs without a shirt, holding his hand up to shade his eyes, and reclining in the sand, tanned, his long hair lifted by the breeze. That semester he was in the chorus for the school production of Mame. It cracked me up to see him in that show, all tuxedoed and light on his feet. I never knew he could do that. One night during that trip to Rehoboth, we all took a walk down the beach together, probably seeking ghost crabs. The moon was immense. We didn’t need flashlights. The smell of salt, the warm air, even the feeling of walking around at night was sorcery. I asked Joel what it was like to do all that dancing.
“It wasn’t so hard. I can show you,” he said. He faced me and put one hand on my hip, using the other hand to hold mine out in front of us. “Follow me,” he said.
He started singing Fernando’s Hideaway as he counted out the steps, “One TWO three four, dada dada dum, one TWO three four, dada dada dum…” He showed me how to suddenly switch directions on the beat and said that I should look all serious, like I had a rose in my teeth and meant it. And for the very first time in my life, I learned how to be dipped. Oh, how I love being dipped.
I saw Joel as a celebrity guest star living in my house, and I’ve gathered a fan girl scrapbook from odd bits of memory. On a day when there was no one else to watch me or pick up my grandparents at the airport, Joel popped me in the car. On the Dulles Access Road, he flipped his head around in a cautionary scan, looked me in the eye for a beat, yelled “OPEN ROAD!!!” and floored it, rocketing my mother’s Honda to 75, 85, 90 miles per hour. At eight years old, it was the most free I’d ever felt, heart racing like a chariot, smugly delighted to be in on this little conspiracy. He drove me to a piano recital and introduced me to the word fuck after being rear-ended at the stop light in front of the 7-11. I remember him babysitting and having to use pliers to remove a huge bargello needle that had lodged in my foot through my Keds. And once, I flew to Los Angeles with him so I could visit my friend Laura Steiger and he could become National Model Rocketry Champion for the second year in a row. He built an amazing 2-stage rocket that was taller than I was and a wooden crate to cradle in en route. An article was published about him in The Fairfax Examiner, complete with the head line “Rocket Man Joel is Fascinated by Flight.” It referred to his “saucer-shaped eyes” and implied at several points that he was a stoner. It was probably accurate reporting.
It wasn’t just that he was cool. All my brothers were cool. They were gorgeous and confident, and I was squat and awkward, well aware of the differences between my little body and those of the postered icons of female beauty found within the inner sanctums of their bedrooms, Dan’s Cheryls, Jon’s ubiquitous Farrah, Joel’s 8×10 glossy of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. Because I was neither boy nor icon, Dan and Jon rarely received me in a cordial manner. “Get lost,” was the most frequent greeting. In retrospect, I imagine they wanted to smoke weed without corrupting me. I didn’t care what they were doing, I just wanted to listen to the music they had on the stereo. It was a gorgeous ritual: selecting the LP, removing it from its sleeve, placing it gingerly on the well-researched turntable, cleaning it with the discwasher (every record, every time), and dropping the needle. I know I must have been a pest. I know I wasn’t cool to have around if they were getting stoned. But I’m not sure they understood how devoted I was to the ritual. Once denied sanctuary, I’d sit outside the Church of Brother Bedroom and sing every last song beginning to end, as if that would prove me worthy of admittance.
But Joel would invite me in and show me stuff. I’d stare at the weird, fabulous things on his walls, plaques, blacklight posters, a framed engraving of a wheat stalk, and Joel would teach me about the History of Rock and Roll. He turned me on to Jimi Hendrix, saying that Jimi had these extra-long fingers that made him a really great guitar player. I was really excited and begged to see a picture. He showed me some album, and I must have looked disappointed. Jimi’s fingers looked pretty normal to me.
I may have lived my whole life chasing him. He was so different and so infrequent. If I’m still chasing him, it’s for the same reasons. I still turn to where he was more than I turn to anyone who’s still here.
the translucent cascade of the shoulders… like a wild beast’s fur
Joel graduated high school with a yellow honors sash draped across his robe, beneath his stoner anti-haircut. Lord, he had beautiful hair. It was grained maple in the winter, dirty beach blond in the summer, and it fell like a shampoo commercial. I wasn’t even 10 years old before I started trying things to make my wires lay flat like his. I would cake my head in mayonnaise or Hamilton-Beech steam iron it until I could smell it burning, but mine could never look half as exquisite. He didn’t do shit to his hair – I don’t know if he even washed it – but it was glossy as fine furniture, fanning effortlessly out each time he turned to hear his name. He might as well have been the Breck Boy.
He came to me one afternoon with a ponytail holder and a little silk flag. He wanted a ponytail, but he didn’t know how to do it. I relished the opportunity to play with his hair, brushing it to a hypnotizing shine before gathering it up into the requested ponytail, releasing it, then gathering it up again into a more perfect one. He asked me to tie the flag around it like a scarf. It was grossly oversized and fairly feminine. He looked magnificent, half household god, half show pony, skinny, stoned, and strutting.
And despite his habitually heroic intake of weed and acid, Joel not only graduated with honors, he won a full scholarship to my parents’ alma mater, The University of Texas at Austin. I saw a few photos of his time there, shirtless with other long-haired boys drinking Bud and doing bong hits on a little motor boat, cruising “The Loop” in mirrored sunglasses, making human pyramids in that big park, and cuddling with sparkly-eyeshadowed girls at house parties. The first time he came back, he brought me a “Longhorns” t-shirt, a few sizes too big, that I absolutely adored.
The second time he came back, he’d cut his hair short. Gone were the daishikis and baseball ringers. Joel was wearing a v-neck sweater and a yarmulke, and perhaps most shocking for our reform Jewish household, he was keeping kosher. He seemed quieter, more serious, and dead boring, like someone had vacuumed the fire right out of his soul.
Shortly afterward, Joel transferred from UT to the Lubavitcher school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. His litany of rules became longer and longer as his hair was cropped shorter and shorter. There was the rule about no blade touching his face, which translated into a long, scraggly, Rip Van Winkle beard. There was the rule about not working one’s horses on the Sabbath, which translated into the pious not being able to flip a light switch. One time when he was visiting, he unscrewed the little light bulbs in both of our refrigerators (being a family of seven good eaters, we eventually got a second fridge) so that he could open the door without working his horses, but he didn’t mention this to anyone. When my Dad noticed that the light didn’t come on upon opening the fridge door, he went to the hardware store and bought a new one. After installing it, Dad noticed that the other refrigerator light was also out, groaned, and returned to the hardware store. Only after Dad returned the second time did Joel inform him of his efforts to be holy. Eventually, Joel put his lights on a timer every Sabbath. Why this was somehow not working one’s horses, I will never know. Doesn’t the timer count as a horse? Are the horses that are the lights not considered working if a robot (like the timer) wakes them up?
Joel kept his own set of dishes at our house for when he came to visit, which we were not to touch. He was constantly on the phone with someone in Crown Heights, to see what the Rebbe would think the ethical ramifications of every possible decision might be. He wore a tallit or prayer shawl all the time, and was always going into his room and davening, a particular way of praying that involved him wrapping his arm with a thick black lacing, placing a mysterious-looking cube on his forehead, and bobbing his head rhythmically in prayer. My mother began to worry that he’d get stuck in some arranged marriage and then he’d never be able to come back from his lofty cloud of sanctimony. There was only one rule of Joel’s that required my cooperation, which I had little choice but to give. Because I was entering puberty, the Rebbe informed Joel that he could no longer touch me. Not just hugging or kissing, he couldn’t shake my hand or tap me on the shoulder. I became so conditioned to the space bubble in which Joel now lived, that I would engage my muscles on a tight turn to avoid bumping shoulders in the backseat of the car.
He wouldn’t come to my Bat Mitzvah. I remember him being on the phone with Crown Heights for a long time before telling me. He explained that if another Hasid saw Joel enter Reform Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia, they might think it’s okay to go in there. Even at 13, I found this a highly unlikely scenario. I suspected that like all of the recent, bizarre changes Joel made to our relationship, this one was also motivated by an ancient law: sexism. He explained this to me in his old bedroom, after which he said, “I’d give you a hug, but it’s just a physical thing.” Then he gave me some physical things: a book of Yiddish Stories, a Mogen David on a long chain, and a coin from Israel. I thanked him for the gifts and told him it was okay that he wasn’t coming. And it was okay. I didn’t care if he came or not. He’d become so dull and preachy. I just wanted to get this thing over with so I could stop wondering if I’d fuck up my Torah portion. I was thinking about my dress, my newly pierced ears, and how I couldn’t wait to get drunk at the reception afterwards. I had started drinking and smoking earlier that year. There is a photo of me at the reception in my Gunne Sax dress , one arm around each parent, beaming in that beatific way that only a drunken child can.
When Joel did get married three years later, it was to a woman some Rabbi had introduced two months earlier. I guess Mom was right. Debbie seemed okay. I got in a bit of trouble for missing her bridal shower. I had dropped three tabs of acid at a Grateful Dead show and didn’t see why I had to go all the way to New York when everything important was right there in Virginia. I had a mattress and a portable art museum (two sculptures and a thrift store painting) in the back of my hatchback. That’s what made sense. If she was going to be my sister-in-law for the rest of my life, I had plenty of time to meet her later. I’d even sent a present. What was the big deal?
The wedding ceremony was, in theory, the last time anyone but Joel would see her real hair. She and her mother went shopping for the best possible wig, made from the best possible hair, that was the closest match to her own. It looked phony as hell. If she had to hide her hair, I vastly preferred her in a babushka scarf. At least she looked real. The wig made her look like a spy or a charlatan, conveying a creepy sensation that something was not quite right.
It would be eleven years before Joel would touch me again. He led the funeral service for our cousin Rachel, lost to breast cancer. We were standing in the parking lot, and he put his arms around me and squeezed tightly for about 15 seconds, while I frantically tried to calculate what was happening. Finally, I understood that it was okay to hug back.
It must have been then that I started to think he might return to us. After three kids, I think he was forced to reacquaint himself with his sense of humor. He started growing his hair out again until it was just as long as it had been in high school, evoking Jesus in combination with his now trimmed beard. By the time I was in my 20’s, both he and Debbie had drifted from the Hasids. From what I understand, his colleagues started postulating that the Rebbe was the Messiah, and Joel thought that was too crazy for Crazytown. He was outta there.
I was 27 when I got the call from Dan that changed everything. Just as I began to notice that each year of your life is slightly shorter than the one that preceded it, Joel’s hair began to slip out by the roots. The chemo took his appetite, his weight, a healthy chunk of his dignity, and clump by gorgeous clump, his glorious mane. Joel explained how chemotherapy kills the bad stuff by killing all the stuff, good stuff included. He grew brittle and thin, and his tongue turned black for a while. But seeing him unable to raise even a single eyebrow hair – that’s what drove it home for me. Apollo to Sampson within a few eyeblinks. Just. Like. That.
that dark center where procreation flared
Joel had an affair. I don’t know if it was the classic variety, full of ruse and subterfuge, or if he announced his intent with his usual burning candor. I don’t even know if it was an affair of the body or just an affair of the mind. I know this much: there were reports of a dark-haired girl perched on the edge of his hospital bed. And there was a drawing in one of the sketchbooks I had given him of a pair of lovely, dark eyes, wet, above a surgical mask. They were not my eyes. They were not Debbie’s eyes. They were eyes I didn’t know.
Perhaps those lovely eyes blinked in front of a more like mind. He was working on a PhD in Religious Studies at NYU, and his new friend was apparently another student there. I was reminded of John Lennon and his wildly unpopular decision to leave his wife, Cynthia, for Yoko Ono. Though I initially fell into the Cynthia camp, I found one interview in which Lennon’s explanation was hard to dispute.
“I’d never met a woman I considered as intelligent as me. That sounds bigheaded, but every woman I met was either a dolly-chick, or a sort of screwed-up intellectual chick. And of course, in the field I was in, I didn’t meet many intellectual people anyway. I always had this dream of meeting an artist, an artist girl who would be like me. And I thought it was a myth, but then I met Yoko and that was it.”
I liked Debbie well enough, but Joel’s decision made sense to me. He was as determined to finalize his divorce as he was to finish his PhD. The PhD was not awarded posthumously. Neither was the divorce.
I’ll never know if I met his intellectual soul mate, if she attended his funeral, if she had been in the little apartment he took in Yonkers that I had never seen, or even what her name was. She’s a vapor, a specter, a dark-haired question mark. I wonder if the vapor thinks of Joel as often as his sister thinks of her. These days, it’s as if she never happened. Debbie maintains the title of “Widow,” although she apparently had little to do with him as he was dying. Considering she was getting dumped, it’s hard to blame her. But the title seems too grand for someone who could only bring herself to visit the Lombardi Cancer Center in Houston once, to get his Will finalized. She had to wheel him to the attorney because by then, walking was too hard.
My parents rented an apartment in Houston near the hospital so that Joel could have a homier lifestyle than he would staying on the cancer ward. We all came out for Thanksgiving and logged many hours in front of the TV. Since even the traditional overeating was not a possibility for Joel, watching TV was the one thing we could all do together. My brothers and I would span the couch with Joel’s kids climbing on us and laugh until we cried at Mystery Science Theater 3000. On one of those days I noticed his penis was hanging a tiny bit out of the bottom of his shorts. I guess we all saw it. It had come to the point where it just didn’t matter anymore. I remember feeling surprised that he had one.
When it was time to go home, Joel stood up. I told him he didn’t have to – he seemed so very weak. I didn’t want him wasting energy he could use for healing on dumb old me. He didn’t listen. He hugged me with more strength than I ever could have imagined he would have. I hugged him back carefully. He seemed so fragile. But he almost squeezed the breath out of me.
for here there is no place that does not see you
The week after we buried Joel I called his answering machine as much as I could. They were going to unplug it when they packed up his things. I remember a crack in his voice halfway through the message. I wondered if he thought about re-recording it because of the crack. Then I looked forward to hearing that part where the crack happens. When Dan and Jon went to pack up Joel’s apartment, I fought the urge to ask them to record his greeting before they disconnected the answering machine. I didn’t want them to know what I’d been doing.
Joel died on December 23, 1999, a week away from the dawn of the new millennium, like Moses viewing the Promised Land from the mountaintop. And every Christmas, without fail, I’m stabbed in the ribs yet again by loss. Despite our Jewish upbringing, I never had issues with Christmas before. I liked it. Since losing my brother, the twinkling lights, exultations of joy, and endless rounds of seasonal music piped from every store in the world wrench me open to expose my inconsolable heart year after year after year. I don’t want to hate Christmas. I like ornaments and eggnog and Eartha Kitt’s Santa Baby. But I do hate it. Every year, I’m that jerk who’s not into it. “Smile! It’s almost Christmas!” beaming elf-hatted clerk after beaming elf-hatted clerk tells me year after year after crap it’s here again year. And I force a smile out for each one. I don’t want to put a damper on their Christmas. Hating Christmas makes you an asshole. A Dickensian asshole. That’s not me.
Jews like to bury their dead very quickly. It is believed that until burial, the soul stays with the body. But since it was Christmastime, we had to wait until December 26th to have the funeral. It was hard to sleep those few nights, thinking about Joel having to hang out in that spooky old funeral home, just waiting for Christmas to be over. I wondered if he was lonely or scared, stuck in there like that with all those dead bodies. I knew I would be.
His funeral seemed odd. His casket was closed because Hebrews don’t do the open casket thing. It was a shiny blond wood coffin, rounded at the sides, with a tasteful inlay of a Mogen David on the top. The room filled up with people we knew and people we didn’t. Some guy who didn’t know Joel stood up and said some stuff I forgot. I have a vague memory of standing at a podium in turn, after my brothers, reading something I think I may have written from a piece of paper. We had selected a song to be played. A friend pushed the button on the CD player with a click so audible it made me feel cheesey as I forced a room full of mourners to listen to Jimi Hendrix’s Angel. At the time, I guess, it seemed really important for me to convey to the universe that Joel wasn’t just some Rabbi. He was my brother, and he was cool, dammit. He was the kind of guy who would want them playing Hendrix at his funeral.
The burial was close by, in a massive Falls Church cemetery complex. The entrances for each particular cemetery are on the same road, first the Christian cemetery, then the pet cemetery, then the Jewish cemetery. Ours has no headstones, just flat plaques on the ground and cement benches and little trees. There were streaks of cirrus clouds feathering the sky and I couldn’t help thinking of angels’ wings. My three remaining brothers, my dad, my cousin Keith, and my uncle Stanley carried the box. My dad stumbled a little as they moved, causing the coffin to dip a bit to one side. I noticed a bit of fringed white cloth – Joel’s tallit – that had somehow slipped through the crack where the lid meets the rest of the coffin. I wondered if I should tuck it back in. Should someone tuck it back in? Should I say something? Is this another Jewish tradition that has eluded me? Is that supposed to be that way? I said nothing. We all lined up to tilt a shovel full of dirt on top of him. The clumps of earth were percussive hitting the casket, and I wondered if the beautiful finish would get scratched. After all the mourners had a turn, my brother David picked up the shovel again and furiously dispensed of the rest of the pile until he was sweating through his suit. The gravediggers stood by, watching him do their job in a frenzy until the last clump was cleared.
Afterwards, we sat shiva at the house in which we grew up. Strangers came up to me and held both my hands while telling me some amazing way in which Joel had completely changed their lives. People brought food and made conversation. I made a crack to my brother Jon about how funny it was that someone offered kugel as a condolence (“Kugel! It’s entirely inedible! How could they not know?”) before discovering it was made by the lovely woman to my right with whom I’d had the one enjoyable conversation of the day. Even worse, it was a cheese kugel – a savory one. I didn’t know there was such a thing. I’d only had sweet kugel, which I found baffling and gross. I tried the cheese kugel, and it was really good. I wanted to cry.
For several months after Joel died, I would recite the Mourner’s Kaddish a couple times a day. They handed me a laminated card at the funeral with the Kaddish printed in Hebrew on one side and phonetically on the other. The latter, of course, served as my reference. I tucked the card into the secret pocket of my ludicrously oversized silver puffer jacket and filled the lower pockets with round, white stones I picked up on the beach near my parent’s house, where Joel and I had walked together. In Jewish cemeteries, you don’t leave flowers on the grave. You leave a pebble. I wanted Joel to have the prettiest pebbles. Once, I made them into a little heart on top of his flat marker. I wondered if that was against the rules.
Eventually I was curious about what the Kaddish meant. Day after day, morning and night, I was chanting, “yit gadal v’yit kadash sh’mei raba….” and assuming it would somehow help Joel navigate Heaven or maybe even help me navigate earth. But my recitations petered out when I learned the translation, which turned out to be all about the greatness of G-d.
May His great Name be blessed forever and ever
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled,
mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One
Blessed is He beyond any blessing or song…
I was stunned. I had never prayed for anything harder in my life than I did for Joel to live. I’m not about to go trashing G-d or religion or any of it, but it seemed like a cruel little prank, the Kaddish. I have my limbs, I have my health, and most of the important people in my life are still alive. I have plenty to be grateful for. There’s a Yiddish folk tale in which a beggar calls out to G-d to complain about being poor. He is immediately struck in the neck by a lightning bolt, grows a second head, and gains another mouth to feed. “Oh G-d,” the beggar cried out, “I never should have complained! Things can always be worse!” I’m way too scared to complain, but I’ve never asked for anything since. It doesn’t feel safe. I’ll give thanks, but I’m never, ever asking for anything again.
You must change your life.
A year earlier, I was still with John the Drip when my parents called to ask for a favor. It was pretty ironic of them to label it a favor, really, after all the food and shoes and clothes and education and whatnot. Joel was still getting chemo and in need of constant care, and my parents, after nearly two years at this crisis pitch, were in desperate need of a vacation. They asked if I could be Joel’s driver / cook / gopher/ company for two weeks so they could recharge. Of course, I agreed. Having chased Joel my whole life, I relished this opportunity to be, at least for a moment, the one person with whom he spoke the most.
Most of my time with Joel over those couple weeks was spent cooking. Because of the chemo, he had a very limited appetite and an extremely sensitive stomach. My attempts to dazzle him with my culinary artistry were limited to plain white rice, chicken broth, and other such unspectacular offerings. At that point, he was still able to give himself injections and tend to his own personal care, getting dressed, walking around, etc. But due to the unpredictable side effects following his chemo, I was still useful driving him to and from his appointments. Hyper-aware of the urgency of my mission and the preciousness of my cargo, I drove with extraordinary caution, and it drove my speed-demon brother insane. If I enacted a full halt at a stop sign, he would make fun of me: “You stop, you look around for a while, then you go…” He was more of a California Rolling Stop kind of driver. Once, after his treatment, he wanted to stop by his apartment in Yonkers to get a few things. I pulled out on to 9A and asked where to go, carefully following the speed limit in the right lane. He thought for a moment, and then told me to pull over.
“It’s hard to explain,” he said. “It’s be easier if I just drive myself.”
I protested. “But Mom and Dad said I have to drive you. The chemo…”
Joel grew exasperated. “Sarah,” he said, “I’m you’re big brother. Pull over and let me drive.”
I pulled over and slid into the passenger seat. Joel walked around to the driver’s seat and buckled in. As he pulled out onto 9A he glanced over at me with his little half smile. “When Mom and Dad find out about this, you’re going to be in soooooo much trouble,” he said.
Joel and I stayed at my parents’ house, which was a couple blocks from a lovely, stony beach. We’d take a beachcombing walk each day, picking up pretty rocks and chatting. I had an urge to tap his brain as much as possible, and peppered him with questions of love and life and the universe and metaphysics and religion, and he gave me the answers he had. I found a tiny grey rock that had a perfect circle of white on one end, and showed it to Joel. A few steps down the beach, Joel picked up a palm-size grey rock that also had a perfect little circle of white on one end. He handed it to me. “This one is like that one’s big brother,” he said. I put both rocks in my pocket. I still have them.
One topic pressing on me at the time was my relationship with The Drip. Getting away from John for a little while was another advantage of this odd situation. I droned on and on about the tiniest details of my unhappiness for what I’m sure must have been endless and tedious hours, as if I had to quantify it or provide evidence that I was, indeed, miserable. His answer, like so many of his answers, was modeled on Occam’s razor: simple, obvious, and true.
“You don’t have to be with him if you’re not happy,” he said. “Life is short.”
Sarah Azzara (it rhymes) is a poet, songwriter, memoirist, and visual artist whose work has been published in journals including The Southampton Review, The Whale, Long Limbs, The Din, The GW Review, American Literary, and Wooden Teeth. In 2011, she was selected for the Dramatist Guild of America’s Songwriter Salon showcase in Times Square. Her other awards and honors include The Academy of American Poets College Prize and the David Lloyd Kreeger prize in sculpture. Sarah holds an MFA from Stony Brook University, an MA from The George Washington University, and is a Full-Time Lecturer in the Program of Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University, where she also teaches for the School of Journalism and the Honors College. She resides in New York and cares for a small array of variously-sized mammals.