Behind the Reflection by Paul Schweer
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I have no answers for you
I am no hero
-- Dave Matthews Band
Dan handled everything. He'd been named in the will as the personnel representative. I went to see Dan after Greg woke up.
Greg wasn't supposed to wake up, or talk. When they took the tube out of his throat he said he didn't want to live anymore. So I heard.
A dog started barking when I rang the doorbell. I heard a voice on the other side say, "Easy girl." Then the door opened and Dan invited me in. I stuck a hand out to the dog, turned the knuckles to her, let her sniff. Wet breath tickled the hair on my hand, then her tail started moving. I walked past her into the house.
"He spent a couple weeks here," Dan said. "He sat around a lot. Spent a lot of time sleeping. Finally I told him he had to go."
"That when he went to stay with his mom?" I said.
"He did the same thing there. Sleeping all the time. But he kept going to work."
I was sitting on the couch. The dog was leaning on my leg, looking up at me back over her shoulder, eyes rolling. Tongue hanging out a little. I scratched her ear.
"So he's in a coma, on a respirator. He hadn't been there twenty-four hours. They're all standing around his bed," Dan was talking about Greg's family, "blaming each other. Arguing about who gets his house."
"They're all crazy, Dan. His whole family's nuts."
I stopped scratching and the dog moved to where Dan was sitting. She leaned on his leg.
"What happens now?" I said.
"What do you mean?"
"When he gets out of the hospital," I said. "What's he going to do? He can't go back to his house, not on his own. And he shouldn't be staying with his mom."
The dog had moved to a spot between us, half sitting up, moving her head back and forth when we talked.
"You know him well as anybody," I said. "Is there anything I can do for him?"
Dan gave me a look and held it.
"You can't save him."
I nodded and my head kept moving. Slow, slight rhythmic bobbing, until I caught myself and held my head still. Found myself looking at the dog again. She came and sat next to me. I held my hand out, but she didn't sniff. I patted her side.
"When I heard Greg tried to kill himself," I said, "I wasn't exactly upset."
Dan did a little something that might have been a smile. He said, "I was relieved."
"I'm doing exactly what I intend to do this instant."
I was listening to my Aikido teacher, sitting to a side of the mat we trained on.
"My partner is not pretending to attack, and then pretending to die," he said. "He's giving me a gift. And I return it to him in a way that we're both better off."
Sweat beaded on my eyelashes. Cramps flourished in the arches of my feet. My left knee hurt. And sitting in seiza, a posture that rests the body's weight on legs folded tightly underneath, didn't help. I was in favor of doing Aikido, or anything else that would let me stand up.
"He gives me a gift, and I return it to him. But it has be honest. Something I can work with."
I've heard that if, when sitting in seiza, one remains still, discomfort will go away in time. Which is, I think, a way of saying numbness overcomes pain. I've not found this to be true.
"Give what you can. Go as slow as you need to. But give your partner something to work with. Whatever you can give."
I decided against flowers, which didn't leave many choices. Candy was out; card wasn't enough. A plant, maybe. But most were too feminine, pink pots and such. I finally settled on a low stretch of happy green in a long yellow pot, blue ribbon on the side.
Greg was out of ICU. That meant I was out of excuses for not visiting him.
I took my plant to the elevator and took it to the ninth floor, followed the signs to his room. Sign on the door said No Visitors. I opened the door and went in.
The room was small and dark. Greg had his head propped up on some pillows. Light was coming in through the door behind me. He was squinting and blinking; then he recognized me. He made a happy sound, made moves to sit up by sliding his butt around on the bed. He was unshaven, but he was clean. Even the fingernails, though they were very long. He looked skinny. And depressed. But he was trying to smile. I put the plant on a shelf and asked how he was doing. He told me a story about medications, shrinks, and hospital food. He described the clotting in his legs and lungs. He said his heart was probably damaged.
I asked him what his plans were. He didn't understand.
"How did I end up here?" he said.
"You screwed up."
He nodded. "I lived."
"You got a second chance."
A nurse came in and took his vitals, wrote on the chart, picked up his menu. She looked at the plant I'd brought him, and said something to him that I couldn't hear. Greg asked the nurse for pain medication. She said she'd bring him some.
I asked if he'd been going to physical therapy. He said that he had, but that he was also supposed to be walking on his own. We went for a walk around the unit. Step and stand, really. He did a lot of leaning on the handrail. He took a pill as soon as we got back to his room. A few minutes passed and his eyes got cloudy.
"What do you want to do?" I said.
"What do you mean?"
"When you get out," I said. "What do you want to do?"
He said, "I don't know."
"Have you thought about it?"
What would he do? He was sure smart enough. He'd already earned a graduate degree. And he used to be motivated. He'd had a hard childhood, but overcome it.
He did it once. He can do it again.
"What do you care about?" I said.
He blinked his drooping eyes. "What do I care about?"
"What are you interested in?" I said. "What do you enjoy? What makes you happy?"
He let the words hang and looked at nothing. There was a window in the room. The blinds were closed.
"You need a plan Greg."
Sunlight shone from behind the blinds.
I said, "You want the blinds open?"
I saw his head move.
Guess that's a no.
"Dark in here," I said. "You want it dark in here?"
No answer. I stood and walked to the window. Through a space in the blinds I could see outside to a garden with a walk and flowers and a fountain, benches and trees, a small birdbath.
"I gotta go Greg."
He said okay. And thanked me for coming.
Then I remembered, and said, "What did the nurse say about the plant?"
"She said it looks like it should be in the maternity ward."
My eyebrows went up. I looked at it again. Blue ribbon, sure. But a nice yellow pot, assorted green plants.
"No it does not," I said. "They had baby plants, but that isn't one of them."
He said, "It's okay."
"You think it looks like a baby plant?"
"You want me to take it away?" I said.
"It's the ribbon," I said. "Take it off."
He said, "It's okay."
"He's a mess," I said. "He can't go stay with his mom. He can't go home. Not and stay there alone, anyway. I don't see he has much choice."
Sherry and I were riding the elevator, on our way to see Greg.
"You?" I said.
And she said, "No."
We walked down the hall holding hands, and stopped to look out the window. It was cold in that part of the hospital, and quiet. The windows looked down on a miniature landscape of lakes and trees and towers, streets of brick, a four-lane road with too-small cars moving too slow.
"How long would he stay with us?"
"Couple weeks maybe," I said. "Maybe a year. Long as he needs to."
Somewhere an elevator arrived, doors opened. Heavy equipment rolled on the tile floor. Or maybe a stretcher. Somebody being wheeled to surgery, or the morgue.
"Maybe he won't want to," I said. "But I think you got it right. We at least need to offer. I don't see where he has any chance but to come stay with us."
A female voice spoke overhead, telling some doctor to call somebody somewhere.
Sherry said, "Me either."
"You never know," I said. "Maybe he'll say no and we'll be off the hook."
Happy music came from the speakers overhead, a measure of a chord in ringing chimes. Sherry turned and smiled at me when she heard it.
"Did you hear that?" she said.
"Do you know what it means?"
I said, "It means something?"
"It comes from maternity."
I didn't understand.
"They play that music when a new baby's born."
Greg arrived at our house with an overnight bag and small sack full of medication. I took the meds and dumped them on the kitchen table. Sherry started going through them. She was in charge of money and all things medical. Everything else was my problem.
"Have a seat Greg."
He was skinny and pale and looked weaker than he probably was. His posture was slumped, shoulders round. He was still holding his overnight bag, still standing where we'd left him after walking him into the house. He looked confused. He'd spent thirty days in the hospital, much of that time going back and forth between being half-awake and all the way out of it. He was still heavily medicated.
"Greg," I said, and waited til he looked at me. "Sit down."
"You want something to eat?" He shook his head no. "You gotta eat. What do you want?" He didn't want anything.
I found some leftover pizza in the freezer, ran it through the microwave, and put it in front of him.
"I don't really feel like eating," he said.
"I don't care what you feel like," I said. "Eat."
He picked at the pizza while answering Sherry's questions about his condition, medications he was taking. No reason he couldn't start exercising. No reason he couldn't be left by himself. Everybody and three-second-opinions had agreed it was time for Greg to leave the hospital, and nobody had argued against it. Except Greg. But nobody knew who'd be taking care of Greg.
Greg would have to learn how to take care of Greg.
I put a legal pad and pen on the table in front of him. "Sherry and I are both going to work tomorrow," I said, "which means you're on your own." He made a face I pretended not to see. "So we're going to make out a schedule. Write this down."
"A schedule?" he said.
"You'll have your whole day planned. All you gotta do is follow the schedule. You think you can do that?"
He said he could do that. He wasn't convincing.
"Write this down," I said. "Five to six, exercise. Six to...."
"Five in the morning?" he said.
"You and I are doing it together, and I gotta go at seven. Write it down," I said. "Five to six, exercise. Six to seven, hygiene and housekeeping. Seven to eight, breakfast. What morning meds you got?"
He shuffled through the bottles and gave me an answer. Sherry nodded her agreement. "Write it in," I said. And on it went from there. He negotiated time for an afternoon nap, and took careful note of exactly when Sherry and I would be coming and going.
"You think of anything else?" Nobody said anything. I said, "It's all there, Greg. Body, mind, and spirit. That's the program. Do that tomorrow and we'll see how it goes. Something doesn't work, we change it. No problem. But we gotta start somewhere, and that's it for now. Stick to it."
He nodded, and said, "Question?"
"Hygiene and housekeeping?"
"Hygiene," I said. "Brush your teeth, floss. Shower and shave. Every day. Keep your nails clean and clipped. Trim your nose hairs. You know the drill."
"Make the bed every day. Keep the laundry off the floor. Nothing big," I said. "Make sure the bathroom is presentable."
His head was down, looking at the schedule. "Shaving will be tough," he said.
"I know," I said. "And I got my own thoughts on why that might be. Might be good if you could figure out on your own why it's so difficult. But it doesn't matter. Just do it. Every day. It's important for you to do this stuff. It's a way to learn to care about yourself again. You clean your toenails, bend your feet and move them around. You're telling your body you care about that part of it. And how you treat your body affects how your mind thinks."
I wasn't sure if he was listening.
"It all works together," I said. "That's why there's time in your schedule for a little bit of everything. You exercise your mind. You exercise your spirit. You exercise your body. Pretty soon they start working together and you're on your way back."
I was pretty sure he'd stopped listening.
I asked Sherry, "What have we missed?"
She said, "Work."
"Right." I said to Greg, "You need to do some work. Give it some thought. Something around the house. I'll give you something if you can't come up with anything."
He looked up and out the window. Too dark to see anything. He kept looking at it.
"Part of me wants to say screw it," he said. "I'm a professional. I don't have to put up with this."
"Always an option," I said. "You're free to leave at any time."
He kept his eyes on the window.
"Pretty sad," he said. "I'm down to worrying about brushing my teeth."
"You do the best you can where you are," I said. "Just like me. Just like Sherry. You're not in any different spot than the rest of us. We're all doing the best we can with what we got. And if you can't quite see that right now, it's just because you're having a hard time seeing past your own nose."
Greg looked at Sherry and then at me. Arms on the table, shoulders riding high. His eyes dark, tired and small.
In the evenings I'd take Greg to Aikido practice, part of me hoping he'd take an interest. Part of me afraid to leave him alone after dark.
Off to the side, little way from the mat, was an area where people could sit and watch. Couple chairs and a big couch. Some books, a reading lamp. Greg would usually bring his own book and sit on the couch, keep to himself. People would say hi, ask if he had questions, but mostly they'd leave him alone. I never introduced him to anybody. He never asked to be introduced.
For two hours he'd sit there, alone and talking to nobody, head down. Reading a book. Sleeping sometimes. A few feet from him we'd all train together... fall down, get up, throw each other, roll and flip -- sweat, grunt, grab, punch... blend, relax, interact, resolve -- fighting our bad habits, trying not to fight each other. Giving and taking, failing, learning. Working with each other, working on ourselves. He didn't seem to notice.
After a while I stopped making him go.
We started out walking.
First morning we began with stretching and pushups. We walked for a while at Greg's pace, which was slow. Ten minutes into it I picked it up. He stuck with me for a couple minutes, then fell behind. I let him. The sun wasn't up yet, but I had shadows thrown by the street lights to watch. The shadows told me how far behind he was, and I could make sure he didn't fall too far back. We finished up walking at his pace again. Did more pushups. Went back into the house.
I sat him on a bench, and I sat on the floor. "Hands on your knees," I said, "feet flat on the floor. Sit up straight and pick out something to look at. Doesn't matter what, long as it ain't me. Let your mouth open slightly, keep the tip of your tongue up against your upper teeth. Breathe in through your nose up slow from your center and let it fill your chest, then let it out again through your mouth. Slow. Then do it again. Count each breath. Count to ten and start again."
We sat for a while.
"What did you think about?"
He said, "My mind was racing."
"Let it go," I said. "Let it pass through your mind and out. Don't think about anything. Just breathe."
He said, "I don't know if I can do that."
"You can try," I said. "Just breathe. Just be. It's a chance to work on controlling yourself. Controlling your mind, instead of it controlling you."
Every morning we'd go out. We'd walk and do pushups. We'd sit. And breathe.
After a while the pace started picking up. We were walking faster, but he'd still lag behind. He'd keep pace with me, but he wouldn't keep up.
Then one morning, about halfway through the walk, I heard him running to catch up. And I ran too.
"You didn't have to run," Greg said when we were done. "I was just trying to catch up."
"I didn't know you could run," I said. "It's time we started."
And after we sat he asked me about something he wanted to try. Something he'd tried to do before and failed.
"It's a run-walk program. I got it from a book," he said. "It starts out slow and builds up. At the end of four weeks you're running three miles."
"And you want to do it?"
"I've tried it before," he said. "I always ended up quitting after a couple weeks."
"Want to try again?"
And he said that he did, if that was okay.
He was in charge of morning exercise after that, although I don't think he thought of it that way. But it was his program. He knew the distances and he led the way. I followed him.
It took a few weeks to get through the program. Lot of times I could tell he was struggling, and I'd wonder if he was physically tired or just having a hard time mentally. I never figured out which. And then one morning it was time. Time for the three-mile run. Time for him to complete the program he'd started, and quit, so many times before.
We ran the distance -- the time came and went -- and finished without fanfare.
Greg said, "Your teacher is very offensive."
I was driving us home from Aikido practice. "I assume you're not trying to insult him," I said. "You mean compared to the other instructors?"
"They all seem very capable, but they always look like they're defending themselves. Your teacher looks like he's on the offense."
Good grief. He's been paying attention.
I turned off the road into a shopping center. The parking lot was big and nowhere full. Most of the retail space was vacant. It was late, but the grocery store was open. A few people came and went through the pair of automatic doors and dim neon light, carrying bags or pushing carts with wheels that twirled and jumped. I parked and shut the engine off. "Time to trade," I said, and got out.
Greg met me on the other side. "What are we doing?"
"You're driving," I said, and got in the passenger's side.
He took his time getting in. Closed the driver's door and fastened his seat belt. Slow, like everything he touched was made of thin glass. "Where are we going?"
"Around the parking lot."
He turned the ignition, put his hands on the wheel. "It's been a long time since I've driven a car."
I said, "Time to start again."
And he put it in gear.
"That's very perceptive of you, actually," I said.
"Your comment about being on the offense. But he talks about it a little differently. It's the difference between reactive, interactive and proactive," I said. "He's training at that higher level where you're dealing with the attack proactively, which is not quite the same thing as being on the offense. My understanding is an offensive posture means you're initiating the contact. Being proactive means you're joining with the contact as it's being initiated. Or very early on. You're stopping the trouble before it starts. If you're on the offense you're the one starting it. Being proactive means stopping it early. The earlier the better."
We were still sitting still. His foot on the brake and hands on the wheel, Greg looked vaguely straight ahead, but didn't appear to be seeing anything.
"That make sense?"
"Yes," he said, and took his foot off the brake. I saw headlights coming from the left. We kept moving.
"Greg," I said, and he stomped the brake.
"Please look around," I said. "Go slow and pay attention. Try not to run into anything."
Greg drove in jumps and lurches, keeping his distance from light poles and curbs.
"It's the same thing I've been talking about with your mental state," I said. "If you wait and try to react after you're already in trouble mentally, that's hard. It's better if you can recognize trouble as it's developing, and resolve it in your own mind before it gets too hot to handle."
A pair of white lights appeared above the rear bumper on one of the cars parked where we were headed. Greg yanked his foot up, but managed to press the brake pedal gently.
I said, "Eventually you'll learn to look for and recognize the warning signs. What thoughts or maybe particular feelings usually signal trouble for you. Then you'll know, when you spot them, that trouble is coming."
He seemed to have relaxed, and was moving us around safely and smoothly. I asked him to stop, and we traded places.
"You believe what I'm telling you?"
"Yes," he said.
"You believe it will work for you?"
He didn't answer.
"It's the best I've come up with. I'm just as crazy as you are, Greg. And it works for me. Sometimes. Better than anything else I've tried anyway. I try to be proactive, just like you saw in my teacher tonight. To deal with trouble before it starts."
"Why would she say that?" Greg said.
"Because she's nuts. Your whole family's nuts. What I don't understand," I said, "is why you listen to it. Why do you even talk to her?"
We were going to the store. Greg was driving. There was very little traffic, and he handled it easily.
He said, "She's my sister."
"And that gives her the right to say whatever she wants?" I said. "Here you are trying to drag yourself up out of the grave. You're finally on the edge, a little wobbly but you're standing. And she's kicking you in the gut? And you let her."
He said, "She had a couple of points."
"No she didn't. She didn't have any points at all," I said. "Why won't you even try to defend yourself?"
We were sitting at a stop sign. Nobody to wait on that I could see. But we sat. And waited.
"It's strange to be driving again," he said. "Am I doing okay?"
"You're doing fine."
He nodded. We rolled by the stop sign.
"You don't have to hurt her," I said, "but Greg, you don't have to let her hurt you. Protect yourself. Keep your distance, if nothing else. You know if you talk she's going to hurt you. So don't talk to her. Wish her well, but don't talk to her. You'll be okay at least. And she will too. But please, defend yourself."
He took a turn I didn't expect.
"You know where you're going?" I said.
He said he did. "I like going this way."
Long as we get there.
"I don't really think...," he said. "I don't think I know what self-defense is."
"It's strange," he said. "I've been on my own since I was sixteen."
"Yes Greg," Sherry said, "but for someone who's been on his own for so long you're very dependent."
"I am?" he asked. Sherry nodded, and he said, "Yeah, I guess I probably am." And then he said to me, "What do you mean by autonomous?"
"First step is learning to do what's right because you believe," I said, "because you decide it's the right thing to do. Doing what's right no matter what you feel. Do right and you'll feel right, like my mom used to say. Then once you learn to deal with yourself, dealing with others in the same way. Doing what's right no matter what anybody else might think, including your family. Maybe in your case, especially your family."
"Being independent," Greg said. "Not depending on anybody?"
"No, I don't think so," I said. "But I would hope depending only on those with whom you've developed a relationship in which dependence is mutual."
"Like marriage," Sherry said.
Greg looked at us, in turn. Eyes a little bigger than normal, I thought.
"Let me ask a stupid question," he said. "How do I do that?"
"I'll give you a stupid answer," I said, and softened my voice. "Nobody can tell you the shape of your own independence. If we tell you what to do and how to do it, well, kind of defeats the purpose. You know?"
And he smiled.
"He tell you he enrolled in a class?"
"No," Sherry said. "What's he taking?"
"Some kind of computer class," I said. "You talk to him lately?"
Plates were on the table. Silverware and napkins. Three places set.
"He sat next to me while I was trying to read," she said. "His sister called again."
"I didn't know that."
"He didn't want to tell you, probably. He thinks you're mean to him."
Wasn't the first time I'd heard that. "Do you think I'm mean to him?"
"No," Sherry said. "But he's used to people making over him. When you don't make it a point to ask him how he's feeling, he probably sees that as you being mean."
Pizza was coming. We had a little time. Greg was upstairs in his room, I knew, talking on the phone. He did a lot of that.
"He's starting to get to me," I said.
Sherry sat down at the table, and said, "I can tell."
"He asks me the same things over and over. And the things he's asking are pretty basic. And by that I don't mean easy," I said. "I mean basic. He wants to know how my thoughts are arranged. He questions my motivations. He questions my approach to life, on a pretty basic level. And you know I don't mind talking about that stuff. I like talking about it, in fact. But it's not like he's asking questions anymore. It's more like he's questioning me. Big difference."
"Like he doesn't believe you."
"Doesn't believe me or doesn't trust me. Maybe both," I said. "Same thing."
Sherry said, "Maybe he can't trust you."
I leaned back on a low counter top, folded my arms across my chest.
"Can't or won't?" I said.
I said, "What's he doing here then?"
"Where else did he have to go?"
He didn't have anywhere else to go.
"So that's how it is. He isn't with the program," I said, "because, to him, there is no program?"
"No wonder he doesn't do what I ask."
No wonder it feels like a fight.
Sherry held her plate to me, and said, "What have you been up to, Greg?"
I lifted a piece of pizza from the box, put it on Sherry's plate for her. Pushed the open box at Greg.
"I went to the lake yesterday morning," Greg said. "I went to church last night."
Sherry said, "You went to church last night?"
"Did you shave before you went to church?" Sherry said.
I looked at his face as he said no.
"You haven't shaved today either, have you?" I said.
Greg didn't answer. He just looked at me.
"You haven't shaved all weekend," I said.
He had a little smile I didn't understand.
"Why haven't you been shaving?"
"I haven't felt like it," Greg said, looking at me with that little smile.
"You didn't feel like it?"
"That's my excuse." And he smiled some more at me.
I took a small bite, chewed on it a while. Sherry and Greg were talking again. Talking about something I didn't catch, didn't hear. Voices, back and forth.
I said, "Hold on a second."
I used a napkin to cover my mouth, wipe it clean. Held the napkin in my hands, lowered and folded them on my lap. I needed to do this without yelling. I wasn't entirely sure that I could. I thought for a second about my breath, and when the words came my voice was soft. "I don't know what I did to give you the impression," I said to Greg, "that it's okay for you to not be shaving."
Greg had a half slice of pizza in his hand. He didn't put it down. He didn't take a bite.
"But we need to clear this up. You will...," I said. "You will shave. You will shave every day. You will shave every fucking day you're in this fucking house. Am I clear?"
Greg nodded his head.
I said, "Good." And went back to eating.
Greg found Sherry and me in the kitchen. He stood up straight, stood still, and said, "I need to say a couple of things."
I turned to face him, and said, "Okay."
"First off, thanks for the pizza."
His mouth was tight and his eyes were red. But whatever it was he'd done upstairs, at least he'd taken time to shave.
"Second," he said, "you're right about my not shaving. I know better. I'm sorry."
"Don't worry about it, Greg," I said. "It's all right."
"There's something else."
I said, "Okay."
"Your cursing isn't going to cut it."
"My cussing won't cut it? And I'm not supposed to yell," I said. "What am I supposed to do when he screws up? Pat him on the head and tell him it's okay?"
"That's a good question," Sherry said. "Why don't you ask him?"
Out the window I could see the old oak tree, horizontal limb running low. Near the ground. Low enough to touch, improbably thick. But I'd seen it move, once one late night, illuminated by flashes of light -- lightning and thunder playing with the wind whipping the limb.
"It just doesn't work like that," I said. "He's gotta be all the way out of his mind."
I don't have to put up with this crap.
"He doesn't get to stand in my kitchen and tell me what I won't do in my own daggone house."
Which is what I'd told Greg. And he'd left the house. Told Sherry and me that he'd be back late.
"That type of behavior reminds him of his father. It frightens him," Sherry said. "He doesn't feel safe when you act like that."
It had really been something to see, the old tree limb moving in the storm, twisting and bending in waves. Not breaking, even when I'd been sure it would. It was too big, too stiff, far too much weight too far from the trunk to bend the way it had. But it had.
"I am not his father. If he doesn't understand that, if he doesn't think I've earned the benefit of the doubt, then I don't know where he's been the past eight weeks. What does he expect? That I'll be nice to him? He's had too many people being too nice to him for too long. What he needs is a kick in the ass. That's my job. And I'm supposed to be nice to him?"
"I don't think he sees it like that," Sherry said.
"How does he see it?"
"He thinks you're his friend."
"He stopped being my friend a long time ago. Long time before he tried to kill himself. When he decided to start dumping on me every time we talked," I said. "I want him out. I want him out of the house. I want him out bad."
It was out. I'd said it. I was glad that I'd said it. Sherry didn't looked shocked.
"I'm at the end of it. He doesn't apply what I tell him," I said. "He can't even remember what I tell him."
There it was. Failure confessed.
I said, "Does he still need to be here?"
"He's not ready to be on his own," Sherry said.
"And we promised he could stay here," I said, "long as he needs to."
Ferns ran along the top of the big limb -- favorite spot for squirrels and birds. Ferns would go brown sometimes between rains. But when rain came they turned soft green and crowned the limb -- mass contained and quiet, still and stretching near the grass. Still there. Seemingly stiff, unable to bend. But it had. I'd seen it flex and sway in the wind. And then, I saw it in the morning, still again. Still there. Still strong.
"I don't want you to be unhappy," Sherry said.
"I promised," I said. "I'll be okay. He can stay, but I gotta make a change."
Ballgame was on, but I wasn't watching. Night game, out west somewhere. Sun was still out wherever they were.
I make him feel threatened and he draws a line. Says he won't stand for it. Trying to defend himself. That's what I told him I wanted him to do. Just couldn't handle his doing it with me. Or maybe I couldn't believe he felt threatened.
Sound turned down. Reading lamp lit.
He didn't have any right to feel threatened.
Too late for me to not be in bed. Be time to wake up before I knew it.
As if I had any kind of right to tell him how to feel about anything.
Standing at a window, looking outside.
You can't save him.
Looking at the dark. Pacing. Walking again to a window, waiting. Looking for something. Not seeing anything.
Didn't make a damn bit of difference.
Nothing to hear. Ringing, echoing, inside my ears.
Looking through the glass.
"I need your help."
"What do you need? You ask me the same questions over and over. I give you the same answers over and over. You don't believe what I tell you," I said. "You don't trust me. What can I do?"
"No," Greg said, "I don't trust you."
"I haven't pretended I'm better than you. I cracked my chest. I showed you my guts. I did my best to show you what I am," I said. "And you don't trust me? That's all I got. You have to question things, fine. That's how you are. But I can't let you question me anymore. I'll push myself, but not too far."
"I need help."
"Then you tell me," I said. "What do you need?"
"A mentor maybe?"
"And what is that? What would you expect from a mentor?"
"I don't think I know," he said. "I wouldn't know what to expect from a mentor."
Looking at the glass, looking at me. Reflection of me looking back at me.
I said, "Where's Greg?"
"His final is tonight."
"That class is over already?"
Sherry said, "Have you talked to him lately?"
"No," I said. "I try not to. What's going on?"
"He enrolled for next semester. He's taking eighteen hours."
"Eighteen hours?" I said. "You know, if he thinks he's ready to take that on...."
Sherry nodded her agreement.
Reflection. Dark behind the reflection.
"Are you telling me I have to leave?" Greg said.
"I'm asking you if you still need to be here."
"I think that I do," Greg said, and looked at Sherry. Looking for help, looked like to me. "I don't know what I'd do on my own."
"You've been on your own for weeks," I said. "When was the last time you needed help? Or needed me to look at your schedule? Or dorked it up? You've been on your own, and you've been doing great. You've been doing it here, kinda like a safety net. But you're already doing it on your own."
Nothing to see, looking at the glass.
"I found a room to rent," Greg said. "I'll move my stuff out Saturday."
Nothing to see.
"You found his key?"
"He left it in the kitchen."
There was a tree, big limb near the ground. But I couldn't see it out there in the dark, anywhere behind the image of myself. Couldn't quite make it out. Couldn't remember just what it looked like. Couldn't recall how I used to see it.
Practice was done and so was I. Tired, hot. I still didn't get it.
"You're saying it's more a matter of trust?" I said. "Learning to trust yourself? That seems so contrary to the concept of training for self-improvement."
"Trusting your experience," he said, and sat. "Your education and hard work." Wearing street clothes, ready to go home. Long hair pulled into a silver ponytail. Grey beard, wrinkles. Brittle bones. Talking about his time in Japan. "When I studied Kenpo there was a student who returned after five years away, studying at another school. One time I noticed the Sensei watching this student practice kata. I asked the Sensei if the student had changed much in the time he'd been away. He answered no, and I'm taken aback. How could that be? Five years of training and he doesn't change? And the Sensei looked at me and said, 'People don't change.'"
My gi was heavy, room-temperature damp. I sat in one of the straight-back chairs.
"This was hard for me as an educator," he said. "The idea is to teach people. To change them. Same thing with music. You study for years, you hope you're improving."
He adjusted his posture, smoothed his shirt with open palms -- irregular gaps between his fingers -- looked at his hands, then let them rest.
"I've been playing guitar for almost thirty years, and I like to think I've gotten fairly good at it. But my son played a tape for me recently," he said. "We made this recording years ago. I sounded the same as I sound now."
He smiled with one taut corner of his mouth. Eyes laughing; eyes sad. "Same me," he said.
Layers of stink were drying on my skin. The longer I sat the more I could smell it.
"So what's the point of practice?" he said, and waited.
I didn't have any answers.
"Practice. Practice, of course," he said, and looked at me as if I should have known. "What you seek is yourself."
I sat up straight, got my feet under me.
"The best you can do is become yourself. You are yourself now. You practice. Today," he said. "You do your best."
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