Russo sends a link to a playlist the next day. I have a few hours to kill while my guests explore the gorge at Hell’s Gate. I recline the seat in the cruiser and hit play. The playlist starts with a cover of I Won’t Back Down by Tom Petty. There’s The Weight of us by Sanders Bohlke, Wait by M83, Gratitude, and a few other numbers by Benjamin Francis Leftwich. A mix of old and new. Songs that make you want to sit by yourself for a solitary pint. I expected a collection of songs he likes and that I may also enjoy but I realize that he’s curated it. In the playlist is an invitation not to merely look but to see. He wants me to see who he is, who he’s failed to be, and who he wishes he were. It is self-revelation.
I send him a message. This playlist is fire. I see you.
He texts back. Will you see me in person later?
That is how we end up having overpriced coffee at Buffalo Mall. We talk about how our days were, arriving at backaches that are the norm after a long working day. His from standing all day and mine from sitting and driving on bumpy roads. Naturally, we exchange remedies for back pain and bad posture. What it is about aging that compels people to notice and talk about every new ache? It turns out that he is knowledgeable on the subject, being the son of a hospital orderly.
“What’s that like?” I ask out of habit. Since I started working with people I’ve picked up certain prompts to get them talking. They are back door icebreakers that help me cut through the reeds of small talk.
He shrugs. “Ordinary. It was nothing fancy. We were humble, moved around a lot for his work so we never set roots anywhere.”
He says he has always felt untethered in his life. Even now, he refuses to claim any particular place as his home. He is afraid that as soon as he gets comfortable some circumstance will rip him out of it.
It reminds of when I was a little girl. One day I came out of the house in the morning and my dog didn’t come out to greet me. I went to look for her at one of the warm spots where she slept and found her curled up. She raised her head in greeting and I instantly knew something was wrong. She’d got in a fight earlier that night and was now hiding her wound. I had to pry her head away to find the bleeding bite on her shoulder. I have the feeling that I am doing the same with Russo. Animals know instinctively to hide their injuries and so do we.
All these years he has shielded this open wound. A little flinch here, a little flinch there and people leave it alone. He carries on, never having it looked at. Never having it swabbed, stitched, or cauterized.
“I suppose home is where the heart is.” It’s an empty thing to say but I can’t think of anything else. He fancies himself a light traveler who makes no attachments.
“What’s your mom like?” I ask, trying to find a point of anchorage for him.
“She was just mom. She’s gone now. Both Mom and Dad,” he says. I can’t remember the last time I heard a man call his parents Mom and Dad. It’s sweet unless he says he still lives with them, then it’s a deal-breaker.
“When you’re a kid you don’t think of your parents as people who once had dreams,” he continues. “You can’t picture them having a life that excluded you. You think of them as adults doing adult things.”
“She loved us kids and church. But she could be mean. I don’t think other moms were like that.” He tells me she was disappointed with how everything had turned out. Bitter because the things life denied her. She had the idea that life owed her more.
“As far as I can remember she always looked that way and spoke that way. The disappointment colored everything, so she wasn’t too successful at making anything stick,” he says. “Of course this is all in hindsight. I’ve been thinking about it lately.”
I nod and say, “Life gets us all.”
Later I’ll wonder why he had been thinking about it and wish I’d asked. I don’t ask now because I didn’t expect such a candid answer. It’s thrown me off.
“At the time I was too young to understand but I’ve been remembering things.”
His grandmother was ailing. Relatives and neighbors from the village used to pass by with a message that more money was needed. They were living in Nairobi where his father worked, the sole breadwinner of the family. His income was split in half between his family and the bottle. Meanwhile, back in the village, the assumption was that money must be in abundance since they lived in the big city.
“My mom used to say they think money grows on trees,” he says. I chuckle at that, remembering my parents using the same phrase. Most people plan to raise children but neglect to prepare for aging and ailing parents. The thought alone is as bad as if you conjured up the spirit of illness through dark magic yourself. Better to wish it away. Then when it happens, nothing knocks the wind out of you quite like it.
“She was raising four boys so she couldn’t leave us to take care of grandma. It must’ve been hard. Her mother was dying.”
It wasn’t quick either. It was protracted and agonizing. First, there was suffering then there was grief.
“And grief takes many forms, you know?” he says. More than once, he’d come home from school and find her lying on her side, facing the wall. She turned only to ask not to be disturbed. There was always food in the kitchen though. “What looks to the outside world as anger could be guilt or fear. Maybe she wasn’t mean. Maybe she was grieving.”
“What about your dad?” I ask gulping down the last of my coffee.
“What about him?”
“I take it you weren’t close.”
“He provided what he could. That was the extent of his fathering. Not that we expected more.”
“But you were disappointed in him nonetheless.” I can hear the words rolled into a ball on the roof of his mouth.
He shrugs. That subject is still a field of thorns for him. “I think things could’ve been different but they weren’t. No point dwelling on it.”
“Sometimes even just naming the thing you are facing is enough to subdue it,” I say. He feels deprived, perhaps even neglected. But he’s afraid that if he says the words aloud they might take shape outside his mouth and turn on him. So he locks them in a dark shed at the back of his mind and pretends they’re not there.
“No. I’ve said too much. That’s enough of me,” he says picking up the bill folder. He takes a crumpled note out of his pocket and stands up to leave. There is no time to argue over who is paying. He’s not waiting for change; he’s left a tip. Unlike most men, he doesn’t signal the waiter to come and pick up the bill just so he can say, “Keep the change.”
Outside a gust of wind sweeps up dust around us. A loose gutter creaks as we head for the car.
“Let’s talk about something else,” he says. “Tell me about your childhood.”
“It was a normal childhood. I remember playing snakes and ladders. The smell of new puppies. Watching the Adventures of Tintin. Swinging on gates. Jumping in puddles. Poking sticks in ant lines. Looking for millipedes under wet leaves. Screaming into the great beyond to hear our echoes, although I never did. I wish I had.”
“Because maybe I would have found my voice then.”
“Why didn’t you?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. You can’t tell by looking at me now but I was a timid child, afraid to ask for anything or occupy any space. I’m not sure I fully outgrew it.”
I turn on the cruiser and let the engine run. The music I was listening to earlier comes on.
“I’m curious. Is this a playlist you’ve always had or did you curate it for me?” I ask.
“It was longer. I trimmed it.”
“Why? Which songs did you take out?”
A flicker of a smile. “Some of them are raw songs that might’ve confused you.”
“Love songs in other words,” I chuckle. “You think I’m so easily confused?”
“No. There are just some questionable choices in there that would put me in a bad light. I didn’t want to shoot myself in the foot on the first…whatever this is.” His eyes flick to my golden wedding band that I instinctively twirl with my thumb.
“It’s two people talking over coffee,” I say. It is late evening so we could be having dinner but coffee is a safer bet. There’s only so much meaning you can assign to coffee.
“You liked it?” he asks.
“I’m always looking for music that moves me,” he says, “Or gives shape and form to something I am feeling that I can’t put in words myself.”
“Music as a tool for self-knowledge,” I say.
“Something like that. Music that resonates with you and calls the parts that are obscured to you out of the void. So that you can look at them and make peace with them.”
“Mmh.” I nod unwrapping a piece of gum from the glove compartment.
He is articulate and profound. I’m aware that he’s putting on a bit of a show for my benefit. Still, I don’t find him pretentious. He doesn’t pause to see if I’m following, which I would find condescending. Neither does he search my face to see if I’m impressed, which would be off-putting. He speaks his mind earnestly although he falters. Oscillating between confidence and moderation, he strikes me as someone who’s been taught to apologize for his nature. Tone it down. Dial it back. I appreciate a forthright person. It makes me want to tip my hat to him.
The more we talk the more tranquil I feel. It’s as if a barrel has stopped rocking and the silt has begun settling. It’s not simply about my all-but-dead marriage or even about Russo in particular. It is that a large part of the life I’ve span so far no longer energizes me. It’s a reality in which I’ve made a series of decisions to settle, and meeting Russo has awakened something in me. A memory of the life I wanted. A higher self that doesn’t trip herself up with doubt. An alternate reality in which I am my authentic self and I get what I truly desire.
I’ve pierced a membrane out of murky water into the clean, fresh air. I’m not going to drown after all. Someone has built a raft and come to pull me out.