Il Est Dans Ma Poche
Yeah, I’ll go ahead and say she had very long, straight, blonde hair (the kind that ensured she was hated by every woman she never met, I imagine) and uniquely-blue eyes – crystals. From a distance what I did was surely marked by some as another example of a guy being a shallow, horny, desperate douche. That doesn’t feel like it was right, but I guess it doesn’t feel 100% wrong either. I only know that I also remember some kind of deeper respect and connection, plus loyalty, integrity, stubbornness, clumsiness, and dozens of other things. Mostly, though, you should understand that it is completely irrelevant. If you are inclined to continue reading you will start to think that it is, because you will start to feel that you know this story as one you’ve heard dozens or hundreds of times before, but this story is not that story and I think you will find you agree at the end. For now, you have to trust me. Whatever the reason, I was certainly drawn to her and was going to go as deep into her life as she was going to let me.
For a long time, months, that was this far: I took her out for New Year’s Eve and at midnight she pecked my lips; I took her to her Senior Prom (being only one year out of high school, it was still within the “acceptable and not creepy” window); I drove to her house – her mother, stepfather, younger sister, and even younger brother in a fairly large trailer…very clean, comfortable, warm atmosphere – on the edge of a place that was just a zipcode and, itself, on the edge of a very tiny place that was on the edge of a very tiny town that was a part of the very small metro area I called “where I’m from” that contained the house where I lived…which was a 15 minute drive in all; it couldn’t have been the case that I drove there every night but I don’t recall NOT doing so and I don’t recall talking on the phone with her; I drove her, at her request, to a fast-food place an hour and a half towards the Florida coast where her Aunt, from Florida, would drive up to pick her up and take her the rest of the way…of course, this implies driving back and picking her up at the same place a week later (being a gentleman, I insisted on waiting until her Aunt arrived – being the girl for whom the gentleman was doing all of the above, she insisted that I not).
It was also far enough to talk about our relationship becoming romantic in nature. Estimating how many nights I made that drive (to wit, my parents built a house in that same general area of nowhere some 16 years later, and 4 years after that I was driving alone at night and decided to see if I could still mark that route of asphalt, gravel, dirt, and some grass with hardly a thought…the answer was, yes) over the period that included New Year’s Eve, Proms, and beach trips for high school seniors, the number of hours that we talked – because I know we did nothing more – had to have been very, very large. So, I feel safe in saying after all these years that the topic of our relationship was explored extensively. I don’t clearly remember the explanation for the answer, “not now”, but I do remember the qualifier, “maybe this Summer after I graduate.” Why that was sufficient to me then – for that period of time and in that context – is a question I’ve wrestled with since, but I won’t do so here because I promise: this is not that story.
She happened to work at the same grocery store as I so we got to interact there, too. As a matter of fact, it was in leaving one of my shifts – bidding her good night (she was on closing shift) – and walking to my car parked at the far end of the lot (as required) that I happened upon a group of guys from my high school but a year behind me. I greeted them as I approached my car and they returned the greeting…with one doing so and also walking towards me.
I didn’t know him well enough that this would have been considered normal, but I knew him well enough that it wasn’t considered alarming or odd. We shook/slapped/grabbed hands (whatever was normal back then) and he started chatting so I did, too. After some time I asked him what they were up to tonight and he replied, “Oh, I’m here to visit my girlfriend.” Perhaps, in the context, this is going to sound especially dense to you readers, but there was not a skip in the beat of the conversation at that point. The parking lot fronted a standard, small-town strip mall with dozens of businesses so the only question that occurred to me to ask was, “Oh, who are you dating?” I know the story so far doesn’t paint my intuition in a favorable light, but while the unavoidable commentary on what I’ve written could certainly be that a “normal” guy would have picked up on some hints by now, whatever I had missed was made up in spades when he said her name. Still, though, I assure you that this is not that story.
Whatever his motives or his knowledge of the preceding months, he afforded me my dignity and that is a rare thing. Once we began to compare notes he let me literally compare notes when he mentioned that he had “confusing” notes and other things back at his place. He offered to let me drive, yet another courtesy, and when we arrived at his home he showed me letters, notes, cards, pictures, and even her signature in his Senior Yearbook that all expressed yearning for that day when her Senior year was over and she could be with him. I thanked him – which felt odd – and after I drove him back to the parking lot he said we should confront her when she left work later that night. I told him I would but that I wanted to drive a bit to think.
What I thought about while driving were the coincidences. See, her family attended the same church as me. Being seen, spoken to, and referred to as “a catch” by the parents and other elders in the church was quite common…and, for my romantic life, quite unfortunate. In all my years since I have yet to come across anything that can snuff a teenage girl’s attraction to a boy quicker than the effusive approval of him by any older person, but especially by their parents. That said, what more perfect cover for her life could this blonde have been offered but the Junior High mentor, Praise & Worship music leading, regular solo singing young man from church? It was so obvious, so understandable, and absolutely infuriating.
I’m not sure what the other guy had in mind for the “confrontation.” When I pulled up next to the doors of the supermarket he was sitting on a bench smoking a cigarette. I took one, too. When she walked out it was as if into a Court of Inquisition. Her eyes never left the ground and she more shuffled than walked until she was seated on the other end of the bench from him…with the bench facing me as I leaned against my car. He looked ready to start but stopped short when I said her name. One thing was very clear: what she had told me and what she had written to him left no room for ambiguity. I waited, it seemed a long time, until she looked me in the eye. I only had one question and the answer was all I had any interest in hearing. “Did you lie to him, or did you lie to me.” Her response was quicker than I expected. Maybe by just a half-second, but I was afraid that was enough that some pain showed for the briefest of moments. “I lied to you, Ben.” I got in my car, and I drove away.
I’m fairly certain it was that Fall when I learned she was pregnant. It wasn’t by the guy mentioned before but another. It didn’t draw much reaction from me. There’s no way I had processed all those months so soon but I had damn sure stemmed the bleeding. It was months later when I heard she was in the hospital, and it was the next morning when I learned the baby – born prematurely – had not survived. I know it was the next morning because that was when the church Pastor called me into his office. There was going to be a funeral, he said, and she had requested that I sing a graveside hymn.
Even today when I think to use the word “speechless” I compare it to that moment. It’s not when no words come, it’s when too many words come and too quickly to be placed in any kind of coherent order. Even now it’s impossible to convey what was in my head. “Pastor, I’m not sure that…” “You will do this, Ben.” The Pastor had been our Youth Director for years and so I had known him a long time and quite well. It was the only time he was stern with me and in this instance it bordered on anger. I left his office and went to a small room behind our sanctuary that was a dressing room for weddings and a Bible study room on Sundays. It was where I went, sometimes, to think.
He had been clear: she requested I sing. No matter how long I sat I couldn’t get my head around that. Why? How did she think I would react to that? Did she even care? And while the Pastor could not have had full knowledge of what transpired between her and me, how could he dismiss my feelings so fiercely? I even thought he was a bit insulted. So there, in that room, I started writing. It was a letter meant for her that I would hand her after the service. I had been the pragmatic person before when I asked a simple question, got a simple answer, and I drove away. But now, in this letter, the big questions would come. The big issues. The big feelings.
It was cold the day of the funeral. Wearing a suit, I donned a three-quarter length trench coat for warmth. In the right-hand pocket I put the big letter. The funeral was at a different church than ours (our church had no cemetery). When I arrived I immediately noticed something was amiss. It was a very small, country church, but I had attended/performed at enough funerals to know that they all had tents, chairs, that artificial-grass carpet to cover fresh dirt/mud, and the diggers waiting politely off to the side with their excavators and wenches. There was none of that. There was only, at the very edge of the very, very small cemetery, a very small pile of dirt next to a very small hole. There were also very few people gathered.
When the Pastor came to discuss how things would proceed I learned that this was the only church that allowed her out-of-wedlock child to be buried on the site and at a price her father could afford. But he could not afford anything else and the church would not provide, so the very small pile of dirt had been dug out of the very small hole by her father himself, and inside he placed the very, very tiny casket. As the very few people gathered around the hole and the Pastor began his invocation, I finally understood his insistence that I perform at her request…my absence would have been noted. It was that simple. When it came time to sing a light snow started to fall. And that, the snow, was what finally broke the big things inside me. Like that snow, the pieces fell and melted away. After the short service I moved off to the side, and as I watched her father fill in the tiny hole he had made himself I felt her approach me. I had my hand in my pocket and I had the letter in my hand. She never looked up as she thanked me and then she hugged me. I could feel her sobbing as I embraced her myself…and both of my hands were empty.
Years later, when that trench coat was past its prime, I donated it to Goodwill. The day I did, I remembered the letter…and I decided to leave it where it was. Then, now, and always I’ll know where that letter with all my self-important hurts resides: it’s in my pocket.
Il Est Dans Ma Poche
I think I loved you,
I was just too young to know
And I wasn’t alone in that
You overflowed and
Flooded damaged days
With something palpable
I did not wish to name
I fell down laughing
Time and time again
And felt my tired eyes
Well up with sleep
I followed you, a fool’s distance
Watched you go where I could not,
Wake up after dark and leave the room
Step out alone into the wisp of night
(Still you think I didn’t know)
You subdued the darkness
With a reckless light
And told me your wild secret
Late one night
(No, that I did not know)
Then the stone still morning
With the unexpected snow
Near the ground newly turned
By your father’s own hands
I’ll never forget
Your pale gray eyes
As above the words you spoke
(Clear as glass on this winter’s day)
You could not bring them up to meet mine
It suited you
And when you drifted
Away into his arms,
I let you go.