CHAPTER 9 - THE GIFT

The years have nothing to do with aging. It is the heart that governs that process. It etches out its infliction upon your face like a sketcher dribbling carelessly upon unsoiled paper, leaving irrevocable histories of the wars and wounds endured.  

I see old people and I wonder about their wars. I try to read their faces; their lines of countless frowns and laughs. An attempt to extract some wisdom. I am sometimes left wondering if someday my hull will reflect my stories but be accompanied by the placidity I see in these people. That dovish, enlightened quality, that only comes late in life, that allows the thought of love to elicit a melancholy smile rather than crush my heart.

Sitting at my desk, displaced by my need for Richard, such nirvana seemed inconceivable. Although corporeally I may have been perched there, everything that lived in me, every single atom in my body was in that physically inaccessible realm where Richard thrived. I called my number for the ninth, maybe tenth time that hour, hoping that Richard had called. There were messages from Salman and Adrian, which I skipped over without even listening, cutting them off in mid-sentence, but not one word from him. The rest of the time, I just stared away into space, reliving every moment from my night with Richard, trying hopelessly to change the ending of a movie I had seen one too many times. I was past caring if the people around me witnessed my dementia. A voice from somewhere: “Excuse me, young man. Can you help me?”

Startled, I looked up to find an older man with his cane, holding bank brochures in his hand. I would’ve made some excuse and passed him onto someone else, so that I could have remained in my world, but it was too late. He had already started settling into the chair across from me. After the perfunctory questions had been answered, we began opening an account. I tried to focus on the task I was being paid for, but ended up asking him about his life. Maybe he could say something, impart some pearl of wisdom, that would bring an epiphany; the broken-hearted are a desperate breed looking for signs in everything.

It turned out Mr. Newman had been to Kenya. In his thirties, he had taken his wife on her dream vacation to Tsavo where she could experience the wildlife that she loved so much in their natural habitat. They had even ridden the railway. In his wallet, speckled with the dust that had managed to get under the plastic, was a sepia-toned picture of them together, which he proudly showed me.

“That’s my Naomi,” he said, smiling down at her with undying love and placing the open wallet in my hands. “She’s beautiful!” he said, as if she were waiting for him at home or in the parked car outside.

I was astonished at the metamorphosis. I looked at the picture and then I looked back at him, an old and shriveled configuration of the strong, young man in the picture. But not on the inside. Inside he was still ten.

“If Naomi had her way, she would even outlaw zoos,” he said, laughing heartily. “Nobody should live in a prison.”

As he slowly and diffidently stretched out of the chair, having made an investment he would probably never live to reap, he lamented about his arthritis; but in his voice was a vigor undefeated by the unjust crippling of his shell. A spirit that felt completely diminished in me.

“Thank you for coming in, Mr. Newman,” I said, rising to my feet, and suddenly thinking of my grandmother. “I’m so sorry you’re in such pain.

“That’s life,” he said, smiling warmly. “Enjoy your youth.  It will be a long time before you have to worry about such things.”

I smiled at him ingratiated in the reminder of how wonderful it must be to be so young and have a whole lifetime ahead of me.   But my face began to ache and my smile, I was convinced, came across as a contrived failure.  My heart felt tight and sore within me. And I found myself suddenly running to seek cover in the bathroom, as I had been doing frequently, where I could perch over the basin and cry.

When curdling, love was a bastard child noxiously debasing from within. So I hunched over and put my arms around myself until tears were pressed out from my eyes. To expel it was the only true remedy. If I could only learn to live with the vacancy ensuing its procrastinated abortion, but I was no longer sure I knew how to be happy alone. Six years had gone by. They told me I was still only a child and yet I felt I was a child only when I had first met him. Not since then. Not ever again.

I felt afraid. Terrified of imagining life without Richard. Without this madness to contend with for everyday of my life what would I do?  Who would I be? Ali had become the obsessor of Richard. My every conversation. My every thought. My only ambition.  When awake, I spoke of him. About him. As only I could see him. What promises he had made to me. And where he had failed in them.

And in my sleep, he came again. And most of the time we were both silent. He held me close, and nestled within him, I felt safe and assured again. Sometimes he made love to me. And in rousing myself from bed and discovering my semen marked on the sheets, I would enter into the day consumed by a tumult of arousal and shame.

Take all that away and what would be left of me? It was a death in itself to walk away from the Ali I had so distastefully helped create. And loathe him as I may, it was the only Ali I knew now. How would happiness embrace me after all this time of adulating misery? I didn't know how the door would open up. But I knew I had to get out. Nobody could love their jailor forever.

I looked at my reflection in the mirror above the basin. I didn't see someone in his twenties. I saw a man much, much older.   More ravaged than he should be. The skin around my face was still tight. There was only the hint of dark circles around my eyes. My lips were firm and full. My hair dark and thick. But it all felt like shellac filming a decaying core.

Is this why Mummy struggled to raise me? So I could learn such pain? Is this why I was doted upon, bundled from the cold in blankets and kept from grazing my knees of the ground? Force-fed and fussed over? So that I could grow up and in losing my heart, trip over and break it into a million fragments?

I felt cracked. Broken. Bits of jagged edges stuck outwards from within me and poked me until I winced. It must have been apparent from my eyes, this bungling collapse of my spirit. The self-loathing. The disappointment in myself. That must be why I meet no one else. Embarrassed by my insufficiency, I averted my eyes from others for fear that they would catch glimpses of my worthlessness. I looked away before they did. Sometimes I may have stumbled upon the hope that maybe someone would be persistent enough to scale the walls that I had cloistered myself in. But in Los Angeles that doesn't quite happen.   Apparently, we were all waiting for our saviors.

Instead I stood there and looked into the mirror, freshly doused but unable to eliminate the glassiness in my eyes or the swelling around them. A soul in dire need of absolution from its demons, waiting for an absentee messiah. Nobody was coming anytime soon. I might as well face up to it. I was going to have to wake up and realize the task had to be accomplished on my own.

I splashed cold water on my feverish face, unable even to drink it as it gushed forth from the faucet -- Not like Kenya, no. The sweet waters that I could cup in the palm of my hands and drink. Straight from the tap. Oh, God, help me find a way…Lift me out of this.

And like so many times before, I took a deep breath, hoping that when I got back out there, something would be different, Richard might have called. On my desk, I did find an urgent note waiting for me. But it was a message from Richard’s mother, asking me to call her right away.

Something had happened.