…I Build Compartments

I’m still trembling. Thanks to everyone who looked at a draft this week and talked me through this.

There will be a day when I have to tell you about my spies.   Until then, there will be mornings like this one – rainy, dreary Early-March daybreaks, when heavy drizzle seeps into the ground and my world is pierced by droplet after droplet.  The elephant has his trunk up for good luck.

I’ve employed “Spy” as metaphor for years.  And I don’t even know how my use of it evolved, linguistically or otherwise. Like any neurosis, it starts with nothing more than a series of individual actions that you start to take, and then ten years later, you realize it’s now a web of habit you can’t untangle from. A trait. In my case, it’s the overwhelming compulsion to layer, to insulate, to wall off parts of my world from others.  And, simultaneously, the people I categorize this way, these people who remain cloistered – leave me with a different kind of emotional weak spot. A vague, ineffable secret I know has to stay hidden, even when my captors slap the thumbscrews on.

Maybe I crossed some kind of threshold when I turned thirty, and I knew the death toll would slowly start mounting. But there was always a redeeming bright spot. Sure enough, I lost a mouthy, disruptive junior high school student a few months after my 30th birthday. Mary was in a “Computers For kids” class my employer at the time allowed me to teach.  I remembered how she would always break into a chorus of “Cleveland Rocks” as I walked into the room. (yeah. I know. I look like Drew Carey.) Mary’s death was sudden, and violent, but pretty much everybody in the Department knew her.

But Mary was a civilian.

My mom passed away seven years ago, and the reception was so full of my long estranged Non-Magic-Underpants RLDS community, that I found comfort in how many lives my mom had touched. I remember the five hour drive with my sister, down from Lansing to Cincinnati, as one of the rare times when Michelle and I have meaningfully talked since we were teenagers.

Mom, too, was a civilian.

I lost a once-in-a-lifetime friend a few years later to a suicide I’m only starting to grapple with. It saddens me sometimes, but there are still SO many happy traces of Missy.  Indulge me, for example, as I digress into in a funny story:  I had pinkeye the day we finally met. Her cats, Sampson and Eli were climbing all over me and I kept running into the bathroom in the Short North to wash my eyes out, pretending it was because I was allergic. But I really had pinkeye. To this day, that story kind of cracks me up, and I always wind up telling it.

But Missy met my Cincinnati friends one night at Dirty Frank’s, on a Saturday when about fifteen of us all convoyed up to Columbus for the day.  Missy and I nibbled at our tater tots, sharing an eerie sense that that she was there to say goodbye. I’ve been around the black dog long enough to recognize that she’d long since checked out, and, true to form, it would be the last time I saw her.

But I met HER friends at her funeral, including a bunch of people who at least knew of me, from how I nudged her toward The Other Jeff. (Bonus Missy Story: I taught her this “move” called the ‘double hug’ where you embrace someone and then re-squeeze, very tightly, just as you feel the other party start to let go. If even dormant romantic feelings exist between the two huggers, this maneuver works roughly 83% of the time.)  I still have Missy’s DVD of Memento and a plastic piccolo she gave me. And we shared mutual friends – two of whom goofballI’m flattered to even know, one’s a goofball who peppers me with encouragement and reassurance and SERIOUSLY cracks me up.  (She’s in the foreground, Missy is behind her.  I’m posting this with Goofball’s explicitly granted permission.)

Now, our other mutual friend known to both my porkpolitan friends as well as THESE two –   is so deeply ensconced in my group of friends I can’t ignore her if I tried, despite her hippy chia seed smoothie/PDX tendencies. Natalie was there for me when I left the hospital last September – hobbling on a Pimp Cane and suffering from the unsettling Keppra freakouts that had everybody concerned. Spymasters need to be steady.

Again, Missy’s death hurts. Really hurts.  But even Missy was a civilian. This is about spies.

And this past Tuesday, I lost a spy.

She was the victim of a homicide a month or so ago.

I had Colleen atomized so deeply that no truly independent trace of her still exists. And that’s the problem. I talked about her a LOT, actually, but I only talked about her with my OTHER spies. At least in terms of mentioning her name and admitting out loud just how important she was to me. There are but twelve mentions in the vast sea of my gmail archive, but only one person who remembers my talking about her at the time I knew her in 2011.  I’m glad the failsafe held.

I‘ll mention bland positives but I can’t elaborate. Like her quick, natural sense of humor that clearly outshined even mine, and I wish I’d drawn on her considerable wine knowledge back when I barely knew a Rioja from a Riesling. When a magazine started paying me to write about restaurants, I wish I could have hit her up for kitchen gossip – the place she worked served a wicked osso bucco, and I haven’t been since just before I knew her.  My pit stop in Cincinnati, has now so much become my home, and I tremble when I have to confront that she’ll never be a part of it. I’d trade a limb to walk her home to Corryville from the Cactus Pear again.

Every big soul has a way, and she had hers. She threw herself into her hobbies (like her German dance group) and would GRAB my smartphone to make me mixes on my music app, each studded with catchy early 90s Colleen_playlistGerman hip-hop like the Fanastichen Fier. Not to mention “Young Jeezy.” She threw the javelin in high school and taught me a calf stretch I still use.  She taught me about elephants’ trunks, and how it’s considered bad luck to not show the trunks pointing upward.

I loved her.

But I can’t really go into these secrets and details, because they open themselves up to all of my worst fears – ones that even now,  I can’t let slip. Warning signs about what her daily life was really like – at certain points –  or even the more pedestrian fears that *I* was one of *her* spies, too, and that no one will remember me.

So, guys, listen. If I ever say “You have to meet my friends!” I’m being serious, okay?  I can’t be George Smiley anymore.

Ruhe in Frieden, Mein Kleiner Spion.  I’ve never been this devastated precisely because I struggle so much tethering you, the warm, exuberant 2011-you, to the rest of my ridiculous and beautiful life. And it happened so brutally I know that there’s more to the story.  I promised myself I’d be at hearings and try to connect the dots. When I get this novel out of me, action will center on the charming but emotionally adrift anti-hero. But his best friend will be based on you.


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