Summer Island Page 33

“It feels like old times with you here,” he said, pushing a button and maneuvering his bed to a more upright position.

She smiled. “Yeah. All we need is-”

He reached into the bedside drawer and held out a fat joint. He gave her that same tilted, crooked-toothed grin she remembered so well. “Cancer makes pot easy to come by.” He brought the joint to his lips and lit it.

Ruby laughed. “So, you've been getting all our old friends high, huh?”

He took a toke and handed it to her. When he finally exhaled, he said, “There are no old friends around here. Not for me, anyway.”

Ruby took a hit. The smoke scalded her throat and made her cough. She handed the joint back to him. “I haven't smoked pot in years.”

“That's good news. So, how's the comedy biz?”

She took a smaller drag this time, breathed in, held the smoke in her lungs, then released it. After that, they passed it back and forth. “I'm not funny enough to make it big.”

“You're a riot. You always cracked me up.”

“Thanks, but that's like being the prettiest girl in Paducah. It doesn't make you Miss America. The funniest girl on Lopez Island isn't going to knock ”em dead on Leno. Sad truth."

“Are you giving up on it?”

“I guess so. I think I'll try my hand at writing.” She giggled. “Get it-try my hand at writing.”

Eric laughed with her. “It's not like you can try your foot,” he said between bursts of laughter. They both knew it wasn't funny, but just now, with the sweet smell of pot clouded between them, it seemed hilarious. “What kind of book will you write?”

“Well, it won't be on the joys of sex.”

“And it won't be on fashion.”

Ruby shot him a look. “Very funny. I have my mother to rag about my appearance, if you don't mind. Hey! That's what I'll write about. Dear Old Mom.”

Eric laughed more quietly this time. Snuffing the joint out, he leaned back on his elbows. “Somebody should do a book on her. She's a saint.”

"I must be so high I've lost my hearing. I thought you said she was a saint.

He turned to her. “She is.”

His face seemed to loom in front of her, two sizes too big. His pale blue eyes were watery, rimmed in nearly invisible strands of red. His full, almost ferm nine lips were colorless. And suddenly she couldn't pretend, couldn't make small talk. “How are you, ... ... . really?”

“It's what the docs call end stage.” He smiled weakly. “Funny, they come up with a euphemism for every step of the illness, but then, when you really need a little lip gloss to cover everything, they call it end stage. As if you need another reminder that you're dying.”

Ruby brushed the fine, limp strands of hair from his face. “I should have stayed in better touch with you. What happened between Dean and me, I shouldn't have let that extend to you, too.”

“You broke his heart,” Eric said softly.

“All of our hearts got broken that year I guess, and the king's horsemen couldn't put us back together.”

He touched her cheek. “What your mother did ... it was really fucked. But you're not sixteen anymore. You ought to be able to see things more clearly.”

“Like what?”

“Come on, Ruby. The whole island knew your dad was screwing other women. Don't you think that makes just a little bit of difference?”

So it was true: Everyone did know. “Caroline and I didn't do anything and she left us, too.”

There it was, the thing she still couldn't get past.

“I've gotten to know your mom pretty well in the past few years, and let me tell you, she's great. I'd give anything to have a mom like her.”

“Jet-set Lady had troubles with your lifestyle, I take it?”

“No. No trouble. When I told my mother I was gay, she said she never wanted to see me again.”

“How long did that last?”

“She's not like your mom. When my mom said 'Get out of my house,” she meant it. I haven't seen her since."

“Even now?”

“Even now.”

“God ... I'm sorry,” she said, knowing how utterly inadequate the words were.

“You know who got me through those tough times ... when I first realized I was gay and my parents disowned me?”


“Your mother. She had just moved her 'nora Knows Best” column to the Seattle Times. I wrote to her; anonymously at first. She wrote back, praising my bravery, telling me to keep my chin up, that my mom was sure to come around. It gave me hope. But after a few more years, I knew she was wrong. My mom had drawn her line in the sand. She wouldn't have a faggot son. Period.“ He grabbed his wallet from the top of the bedside table. Opening it, he withdrew an often folded piece of paper and carefully unfolded it. ”Here. Read this."

Ruby took the piece of paper from him. It was yellowed from age and veined with tiny fold lines. A brown stain blotched the upper-right corner. She focused on the small, neat lettering. It took her a moment to recognize the handwriting. Her mother's.

Dear Eric,

I can't express the depth of my sympathy for your pain. That you would choose to share it with me is an honor I do not take lightly.

For me, you will always be Eric, the rope swing king. When I close my eyes, I see you hanging monkeylike from that old rope at Anderson Lake, yelling Bonsai! as you let go. I see a boy who came by our house when I was sick, who sat on the porch crushing mint in a bowl to spice up my tea. I remember a sixth-grade boy, his face reddened by new pimples, his voice sliding down the scale, who was never afraid to hold Mrs. Bridge's hand as they walked down the school corridor.

This is who you are, Eric. Whom you choose to love is a part of you, but not the biggest part. You are still that boy who couldn't bear to eat anything that had once had parents. I hope and pray that someday your mother will wake up and remember the very special boy she gave birth to. I hope she will look up then, and smile at the man he has become.

But if she does not, please, please don't let it tear your heart apart. Some people simply can't find it in themselves to bend, to accept. If this terrible thing happens, Eric, you must go on. There's no other word for it. Life is full of people who are different, broken, hurting, who simply put one foot in front of the other and keep moving.

It is your mother I fear for. You will grow up and fall in love, and find yourself When I come to visit you, and we are both old, we will sit on your porch and laugh about the golden days that almost killed us. But not so your mother. If she continues on this path, it will eat her up from the inside. She will find that certain pains are endless.

So, forgive her It is the only way to lighten this ache in your heart. Forgive her and love her and go on.

I love you, Eric Sloan. You and your brother are the sons I never had, and had I given birth to you, would have been proud of who you've become



Ruby folded the letter back into a small triangle that fit in his wallet. “That's a beautiful letter. I can see why you carry it around.”

"It saved me. Literally. It took some work-lots of work-but I forgave my mom, and when I did that, my chest stopped hurting all the time.,,

“I don't know how you could forgive her. What she did-”

“Was human, that's all.”

“What about now?”

He sighed, pushed a hand through his hair. “It's harder now. I realize how precious time is. I want just one moment with her to tell her I love her. To hear-” His voice broke, dropped to a whisper. “To hear her say she loves me.”

Ruby turned to him, touched his face.

He smiled, pressed his hand on top of hers. “Forgive your mother, Ruby.”

“I'm afraid,” she said, using the words she rarely allowed herself to speak aloud.

He let go of her arm. “Christ. Time is short, don't you understand that? We bump along, blindly assuming we have forever to do things, say things ... but we don't. You can feel perfectly fine, and go to your annual checkup on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, and discover that your time's up. Game over.”

She looked down at him. “How do you forgive someone?”

He smiled tenderly. “all you just ... let go. Unclench.”

“If I let go . . . I'm afraid I'll fall.”

“There's nothing wrong with falling.” He kissed the tips of his own fingers, then pressed the kiss to her cheek. “I love you, Ruby. Don't forget that.”

“Never,” she whispered. “Never.”

When Ruby finally got home, it was past midnight. She crept past her mother's closed bedroom door and went upstairs. Crawling into bed, she reached for her pad of paper and began to write.

One of my best friends from childhood is dying. I stood at his bedside today and talked to him as if life were normal, and yet all the while, I couldn't breathe.

Until a few hours ago, I had not seen him in more than a decade, and in all that time, I had barely thought of him.

Barely remembered him.

This boy, now a man, who had walked hand in hand with me through childhood, I had forgotten. I kept the Saint Christopher's medal he gave me for my thirteenth birthday, but the boy, I lost.

Maybe he never noticed or cared. We did, after all, go on with our separate lives as childhood friends tend to do, but now I see the sadness in that ordinary course of things. I walked away too easily; I didn't think enough about what-and who-I left behind. Now, I can't think about anything else.

I left a boy with black hair and a booming, heart felt laugh, and I returned to a man so thin I was afraid to touch him for fear that I would see my own bones through his papery flesh.

And this dying man welcome never left. Did he know, I wonder, how much it hurt me to look in his watery eyes and see the reflection of my own emptiness? My own lack.

I want to gather the broken pieces of my heart together pull them into my lap, and study them. Maybe then I could find the hole, the missing piece, that allows me to forget those I love.

I am tired of my solitary life, weary to the bone. I have been running for years, so fast and hard, I am breathless. And here, at the end of it, I see that I've gone nowhere at all.

I want my mother. Isn't that amazing? I would if I could-go to her now, walk into the circle of her arms and say, Eric is dying and I can't imagine living in a world without him."

How would that feel? I wonder. Letting her comfort and soothe me? When I close my eyes, I can imagine it, but when I waken, all I see are the doors closed between us. And the ache that is spreading through my chest hurts more and more.

I recognize what it is now, this pain that has been a part of me for so many years.

It is longing, pure and simple. I miss my mom.

Chapter Eighteen

The next morning was one of those perfect June days that convinced out-of-towners to buy land in the San Juan Islands.

Ruby woke late, which wasn't surprising, given that she'd tossed and turned all night.

She knew, of course, that she and Nora would have to talk about her father's confession. Hopefully, they could put it off for a while-like, until Britney Spears's boobs started to sag.

She pushed the covers back and stumbled out of bed. A shower made her feel almost human, and she stayed in it until the water turned lukewarm. Even then, she was reluctant to get out. At least in the shower, she had a purpose.

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