Getting old is a kick in the lady garden, Charles. I’ve only said that once to anyone out loud—to my friend, Jeannie (the one who told you that you had the profile of an aristocrat)—and she just pshaw’d me all over the place. Because to her, fifty-eight is young. Given that she’s sixty-eight, though, and blessed with fuck-you genes, I didn’t take her seriously.
I’ll start with the embarrassing stuff, because, well, I’m drunk and I can’t see your face. The men aren’t even looking at me any more as I walk by. I know, I know, feel it from the inside and bla bla bla. That’s the goal, for sure, but if your name isn’t Queen Latifah, it takes a lot of work (especially if you’ve gotten used to the eyes on you). The guys didn’t always stare--well, actually, some of them did—but they always looked.
I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t be telling you this, of all people. Maybe I’m still mad at you. Or maybe I just know that wherever you are, you’ll understand. You were (are?) a big enough person to do that.
I’m feeling tonight like I want to tell you everything as if we’d just met. As if we still had all of it in front of us.
I was born dark-haired and stayed that way, which is supposed to mean I had less fun, but I had long legs by the time I was fourteen and nice enough breasts by sixteen that the boys changed my name from Bebe Tidbaum to Bebe Titbaum. As a young feminist, I got in a few guys’ faces when I heard them say it, but part of me liked it. You see, I spent a lot of time reading books, and without those boobs, I might have been Bebe Nerdbaum for the rest of high school.
I will say, though this may sound stuck-up, I always liked my face. Not as much as you, but nobody ever did. As a teen, a couple of my friends told me I looked like a shorter version of Neve Campbell, and I guess I looked a little exotic, too, because a few guys asked me if I was from another country. In any case, once my chest got healthy, I never sat around on a weekend night again.
But it’s like I’m invisible now unless I show a ridiculous amount of cleavage. I won’t cheat like that. A cow could walk by, and if she managed to have her udders on her forehead, she’d have heads turning left and right. Before I met you, I used to say that the only thing more myopic than a man, is a horny man, but I don’t think that’s quite fair. We’re all wired for something. Many somethings, actually. At least that’s what my therapist tells me.
Tony moved away five years ago. I thought he might move back within a couple of states of me after he finally graduated college, but he really likes Tennessee! Rural Tennessee. I love him to death, but he sure does keep spinning out his riddles. How does a sensitive, thin-skinned Jewish kid from San Francisco end up in small town, Tennessee and like it?
Only people with kids can understand what it’s like to have yours go off and never come back. I don’t mean that the way it sounds—Tony regularly visits and I go see him—but he’s made somewhere else his permanent home base. And though his address may change, where I live will never be that place for him again.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be sixty-three and have my adult kid living with me. That’s some Freddy Krueger shit: Nightmare On Underdeveloped Street. But you give birth to someone, literally see him take his first breath, and you shudder over every cough, every punch absorbed or delivered, every disappointment; and you take your job more seriously than anything you’ve ever done, because let’s face it, it is more important than anything you’ve ever done. You’re the guardian of this life you’ve created and you know he’ll be deformed by cruelty and indifference and even his own blood, and if you don’t care for him with everything you have, he might physically survive, but he’ll be fucked up for his entire life, which might even happen no matter what you do.
And then he goes, and you’re just supposed to give it up to what: God? The universe? My therapist tells me I have to trust that I (we?) have given him everything he needs to succeed, but if that’s supposed to stop me from worrying late at night, she’d better get some new lines.
Wow, that bourbon is doing its thing! It’s always done that, remember? Tequila makes me hilarious, wine makes me sleepy and bourbon makes me an insufferable, sniveling crybaby. So why don’t I always drink Tequila? Because fuck you, I’m not perpetually here to amuse you. Yeah, that was a joke. In case you’ve forgotten over there, Charles, drunk or not, I’m a funny bitch.
Even in my dreams. Twice over the last three months, I dreamed that I invented computers! I recognized the need and the promise before anyone else and I brought them into the world.
It’s especially funny, because I couldn’t even build a decent radio in electronics class in junior high. Wound the coils too loosely, so all I could hear was a white static, as if everybody’s words got all scrambled before they reached me. That’s the way I feel now.
I have to tell you, when two thirds of your life is over, you have this Siri voice on meth screaming in your head. Mine is yelling, “Bebe! The Goddamn house is on fire! Get going”—but I can’t even get out the door. I order in almost every night. Give an extra tip to whatever delivery kid shows up because I don’t even brush my hair for him.
Sometimes, I think about trying to write again. I never read you any stories from my journals, but some of them weren’t bad. The only thing is, I’m not sure they’d appeal to a large audience. I kept writing stories about disappointing glaciers, ones that were melting in that sad way that snow surrenders to mud. The first story was okay—a kind of vision of our own undoing--but fourteen stories about the same thing?
Maybe being popular doesn’t matter. Maybe I just need to write for me. It sounds right, but inside, it feels like a laugh that’s already half the way to tears.
I ask my dog, Geraldo, almost as many questions as I ask you. He’s fabulous by the way. He’s a yellow Chow—looks like a little lion--and can count up to five. I know that because when I ask him to bring me six things, he just stands there like I’d asked him to jump to Pluto.
Of course, he never actually answers me, at least not in a way I can understand. What I really want to do is sit down with you, Charles, and say, “Love, what do I do, now?”
Because you’d tell me. You’d kiss me and hold my hand, and tell me. And here’s the thing: You might not even be right, because, sometimes, you weren’t. But being right wasn’t the gift.
I was thinking recently about that day we both played hooky and went to the racetrack, about a year after we got together. Before the start of one of the last races, you went down to go to the bathroom—or so you said—and you came back up with a big smile on your face.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“I put two hundred down on a sure winner!”
“Why?” I was upset that you’d wagered so much. You weren’t rich but as long as I’d known you, you’d always been really responsible with money. It was one of the things I liked best about you. You’d hardly bet at all during the first several races.
When the track announcer indicated that “Bebe’s Dream” was moving into chute number two, your smile got wider and I matched you, watt for watt. We were shouting our lungs out from the moment the race started, screaming and twirling when she went from fifth to third, running down our row with her as she moved up to second and losing our damn minds when she pulled even with ten furlongs to go. When the favorite nosed her out at the end, I sunk to my knees and you grabbed your head in disbelief. She’d come so close. But you kissed me and whispered that in the race that mattered, the result would be different; and later, at dinner (eating those savory empanadas we’d made), watching Tony laugh hysterically as we told him the story of us galloping through the grandstands, I believed you completely.
I write you letters and talk to you all the time, Charles, but if you’re answering me, you’re answering me like Geraldo or that old radio of mine; in some language I can’t decipher, your wisdom melting away to nothing before it can reach me.
It takes a lot to stop me from talking, though, as I’m sure you remember. So here’s the rest of it.
Aside from loving Tennessee, Tony still seems kind of lost. He’s working at a Walmart there until he figures it out. A twenty-six-year-old college graduate, making minimum wage, showing backed-up seventy-year-olds where the suppositories are!
He tells me it’s okay, but I know some nights he’s wandered beyond his tethers, because he’ll text me just to ask me some question about ancient history, like do I remember how Buster used to waggle his whole body when he sneezed? That’s a man looking for something to hold on to.
I wish he could talk to you, almost more than I wish I could. You were the only dad he ever knew—that worthless waste of spunk that was his biological never took an interest in him (or me after I cut off the panty hamster)—and I’m not sure the boy can still make sense of the world.
He told me recently that he thinks he might go backpacking through Appalachia for a couple of months later this year. He says he figures things out best in the woods. When I asked him what he was trying to figure out, he just looked at me with this sad expression, like he thought telling me wouldn’t do either of us any good.
So I wish you could be his sounding board. And that makes me wonder: How did you do it, Charles, embrace another man’s child, especially one who was so awkward and suspicious? He didn’t make it easy for you, God knows. With you, he was like one of those Joshua Trees, all prickly and deformed. You just kept coming back with that quiet, relentless love of yours. It probably saved him, but I think that was part of what wore you out.
You know what’s wearing me out? The diminishment. Some people never find what they’re looking for, but I did; at least some of it. But I couldn’t stop the other pieces of my life from taking me away from you. Tony, alone, was enough to keep me up most nights.
The day he got kicked out of that second junior high school, I think I walked seven miles. When I got the call, he was God-knows-where (as usual), and I knew in my bones that he was messed up on the pills again. You couldn’t leave work because of that audit, and suddenly, I was afraid to walk into my own home. Like the emptiness was waiting for me in the hallway.
Maybe I tried too hard to soften the sharp edges of the world for him. Kept him a child too long. The other day, he texted to ask how you could tell if mayonnaise has gone bad. I suggested he look at the date, and you know what he wrote back? “What date?”
And, of course, I had my own losses. I fell down the stairs in that Chinese restaurant and bit off part of my tongue. That slight lisp that you said you loved? I didn’t. You don’t know how comforting your own sound is until you can’t make it anymore.
Then Dottie got sick. They say that identical twins can feel each other across an entire country. We didn’t look anything like each other—weren’t even blood relatives--but that was the two of us. And I watched her shrink to nothing.
This world is like a surgeon, Charles: It just keeps cutting more and more of you away, and you stagger for a while, this lesser thing, until you finally regain your balance. But what you don’t regain—at least not fully—is a zest for it all. Every time you adjust, your big dream gets a little smaller until you’re really not even dreaming at all, just making it to the next day.
Even with you by my side, too much life happened, and my love got quarantined to a part of me that I couldn’t reach. Not even for myself. I think that’s what hurts the most: It was there, but I couldn’t get to it.
You hung in with me for so long! But finally, even you had had enough. I was bitter at first. Then I was bitter and sad, and I bargained with the air.
A few years ago, I tried calling you. Dialed all eleven of the numbers, but hung up before it started to ring. I don’t know if I was afraid that you wouldn’t talk to me or that you would.
I felt like an astronaut, coming back from outer space, staring at this gorgeous blue and green planet, not quite believing that I’d, once again, gotten so close. Like I could just reach out and grab it.
I’ve always been a warrior, Charles, but in that moment, I lacked the courage to believe that it could be that simple; that the blue-green love was mine for the taking, a second time, no less; that all I had to do was wrap my arms around it. Nothing had ever been that way, and that, I guess, is why something inside me said, No. Got my mind to tell me that we were too different; that I could never live up to what you were asking.
Which was, Be there. It should have been simple, but like an astronaut, I’d learned to live in the world in fits and starts. I could keep loving it only by knowing that I’d keep leaving it.
Last week, when I read that you’d had a heart attack and died, the thought that went through my mind was, How could you? From the moment I met you, you seemed intrinsic to the world, like colors.
That’s why I always believed I had more time. To smile at you like I did in the beginning; to argue over sandwiches; to trace the outline of your jaw in the morning, before you were even awake; to share bad poetry when we should have been working; to dance to our staggered rhythms; to make fun of those hideous shoes of yours; to write confessions in the sand; to say all the words I’m saying now, and to hold you hard enough for you to feel it to the very center of your lovely, aching heart.
Jason Gipstein's writing has appeared in Halfway Down The Stairs, Peregrine, and The Todd Point Review.