When Charlotte Comes Home
The day begins in Washington, D.C., where my sister, Sarah, attends All Souls Day Mass before going to the National Geographic Society where she works as a map librarian. Her two sons, Christopher and Aleph, who are both in college now, are with her this All Souls Day. Antonio, her husband, has dropped them off at the church on his way to Ronald Reagan Airport. In the back of the sanctuary, Sarah turns the pages in the Book of the Dead, touching the black letters of two names with the tips of her fingers as if to say, "Hello, you’re not forgotten. Please don’t forget me," as her boys watch. Then she brings her fingers to her lips to kiss them before kneeling in genuflection, half curtsy. I have watched her do this. It is a soft little dancer’s movement. The brush of the tactile making the dead alive to her once again. If it is a new church, precipitated by a move in the District, or if she is out-of-town on business and is attending the service at the parish closest to her hotel, she inscribes the names again, knowing that our dead will be mixing with a whole new set of souls.
As the sun moves westward towards Omaha, my father, Morgan, and my brother, Laurence, awaken to walk to the Cathedral of St. Cecilia to attend the earliest Mass on All Souls Day. They hold hands on their short walk to the church. Morgan holds hands for the strength and the balance of Laurence. Laurence would hold hands with anyone. The postal carrier or his supervisor at Long John Silvers. It is in Laurence’s nature to hold hands. It is one of the many surprising blessings of Down Syndrome people. Morgan and Laurence do not look into the Book of the Dead, although the names are there. It would be far too emotional an act for them. For one time, I showed them the names there in the Cathedral’s soft darkness, the letters lit by candlelight. They wept. Their day together ruined. The now bachelor lives of these two men disturbed beyond control. When my taxi came to take me to the airport that afternoon they stood on the curb of Thirty-Eighth Street in a mix of emotions.
"Maybe," Morgan whispered as he hugged me, "you could visit us, Fred, when it is not All Souls Day."
Two hours later the sun breaks into day at my house in San Clemente on the Avenida Barcelona where All Souls Day is the Day of the Dead. I stand looking out of my bedroom window at my former wife, Hetty, my lover, Thomas, and my daughters, Claire and Ellen, fifteen and eleven, respectively. They wait for me around Hetty’s aged red Volvo station wagon. Three surfboards are secured with bungee cords to the Volvo’s roof. My daughters hold bunches of marigolds and Thomas holds a picnic basket full of breakfast. Hetty holds the cooler. They stare at my window as I stare back at them, reaching for my gentleman’s handkerchief and knowing that it is time to leave for the mission church at San Juan Capistrano. They stand in the middle of the softening jack-o-lanterns that had decorated our yard for Halloween. My fingers drum the top of a gilded table. The table’s four legs resemble those of a heron. At this moment the table is my beloved object and I am afraid to leave it and its constancy. I am hesitant on All Souls Day, having looked for the sun long before Thomas awakened.
Loss has bred both hesitancy and the permanent stain of sadness into my character. At times it has germinated a false sense of wisdom and a false sense of destiny, hence my marriage and my divorce. But loss has its byproducts. My daughters, and Hetty herself, who came back into my life at a time when despair had taken over. Hetty represented to me what eleven year old girls become -- the intoxicating reality of beautiful women. Moreover she understood my sadness, and I, hers. Sadness is a difficult breeding ground for intimacy. We could not teach each other joy.
My friend, James Day, once told me, "Life is short, Fred. Be brave, cut Hetty free." But I held onto Hetty, hoping that we could become our parents. Our girls would have halcyon childhoods, as I remembered mine. Most of all, I stayed with Hetty because I loved her, something she never quite believed. "Good God, Fred," James used to say. "May I quote, Tina Turner? ‘What’s love got to do with it?’ You two argue like cats and dogs. You’re incompatible personalities." When the time came, it was hard to admit that James was right.
I was in graduate school when James turned up on my doorstep in Berkeley, needing a room. I opened the door that rainy afternoon and he walked back into my life like sunshine, duffel bags and all. Proximity melted the chill that had surrounded our friendship during his years in the Navy. Moreover it bred an unspoken forgiveness between us. I did not realize how lonely I had been until I saw him asleep across the room from me on that first night. As my roommate, James anointed himself my father-confessor, giving me advice on all topics, liberally quoting rock music lyrics as philosophical support for his point-of-view. James never gave up on debate. It led him to Boalt Hall and the law, and eventually to a very happy life in San Francisco.
I watch as Thomas guffaws while Ellen hoots and Claire chortles. They sound like a flock of seabirds. I can see Hetty smiling. Thomas is a rolypoly, horribly dressed man who does not take me, nor the fact that he is gay, all that seriously. He sleeps comfortably with my sadness, by ignoring it, as best he possibly can. He makes me laugh. "Pull on your face, dear Eleanor Rigby," he will say, dragging me out into the day.
Thomas shuts the door to the Camry that propels me onto the highway and into the parking lot of the Orange County Museum of Art. Hetty is now closer to Thomas than she ever was to me. Her friendship with Thomas allows her to forgive me most of my flaws. It is the byproduct of her loss.
On the nights, on the very worst nights, when my sadness leaves me anxious and shaking, Thomas holds my hand and says to me what he said to me on our very first night together, "So tell me your story, Fred Holly."
I tell it all. Again. It began with the colic. Charlotte was born with the colic.