His wit was nimble as a fencing foil, and oh I used to fence with it. Our verbal engagement was fleet-footed – parry, riposte, never lunge. The goal was not to touch, but to respond so quickly back and forth as to engage unison.
According to his personal lore, he was the Desperado in the Eagles song. As he told it, fellow students dubbed him so at the college where he skipped class across campus in moccasins with holes on the bottom and newspaper stuffed underfoot to keep out the snow. When I hear that song, it is always him, waiting somewhere. Because the story that I have told myself about my life, since the day I met him, was that we’d meet again, when we were late in years, wizened codgers, we’d convene, after conquering the secrets of the universe. We would meet having sewn and spewed our wild oats, as the bright burn of our lives cooled, to age like old monks on top of our neighboring mountains. We’d come down to spar a round or two, compare knowing notes, and return to sit among our respective clouds.
He was the only one I felt could peel back the skin of the world as ruthlessly as I. But unlike me, he could stare at the glistening guts and laugh. It is not so horrid, he seemed to say, that the mind flickers, that one mind bleeds into another, that the world of human is a consensus bubble, and no big deal if it pops, infinitely. While I parried these light dismissals, I secretly needed to hear them.
It took us three years to break up. I moved away and he followed – not like a stalker but like a habit. I could never fully leave his sober self, even as his alcoholic self, the daredevil, hand-me-any-pill-and-I’ll-eat-it self, continued spiraling down. He was sleeping on park benches in Miami when I moved away again. I heard, years later, as he, divorced, sober, a father, sat in the club where my band was playing, that in one drunken stupor on the Dixie Highway he challenged an 18-wheeler and landed in a 6-month hospital stay, paralysis, brain damage.
He seemed quite healthy, when he would come to the club in South Boston, watch my band, drink soda and chat with me during band breaks, catching up on the years. His flash was less competitive, tempered perhaps by the bonds of family. He had let love, his true north, win out over irony. At the end of each gig, he would say, “I’m so proud of you,” and disappear. It only occurs to me now that despite his charming arrogance, he was proudest of other people. We talked on the phone. And then it stopped.
Every few years, I would Google him. I thought perhaps he had been killed in Beliz, where he traveled every year to purchase exotic birds and reptiles for his business. And then, many years after he’d gone dark, I got a strange Twitter message from a 12-year old boy claiming to be his son asking me to please help his father. I thought it might be a hoax until I saw the boy’s image – the spit of Himself. His father had terminal brain cancer and was sinking and maybe if he heard from me, maybe he would get better.
I got in touch and we talked. Maybe three times by phone. He was so nonchalant. His situation never seemed that urgent. He would get better, he said. I believed it. Of course he would – we had an assignation. We would meet someday, when he called himself a Survivor and we’d figured out the trick of jumping parallel universes and could match foils in a grand way, fencing across them from our conjoined mountains – much, much later than this. And there would always be time, between worlds, for a quick parry because time is just the figment of a limited mind.
That story ended with him. It had taken us longer to leave each other than the ten months he got, after diagnosis, to leave life.
Where I work, a constant stream of oldies overhead makes sure I hear Desperado often. Each time I hear it, I think of him, not as his young self, but as someone “out there,” en route through life in some equivalent of worn moccasins, heading for our rendezvous. I continue to feel we have an assignation, off in the future, except for a vague sense that half our meeting has been erased.
The ephemeral fakeness of the stories we package our lives in used to bother me. It never seemed to bother him. And so, from our relationship, he has given me a broken story. Touche. I think more gravely about aging now. I am not as ruthless in questioning illusion. True, I’m learning something from the break – something more subtle than humor or answers or “live in the moment.”
When the cloud-capped mountains sank flat, they morphed into desert, quiet, where life is subtle because when it is loud the sun drinks it alive. This new learning is something I haven’t known before, something deep under the desert of not caring.
Happy Valentines, Jimmy O