The whiskey stings like the phone call.
Keeping it down isn’t nice but it’s necessary.
Somehow both too hot and too cold.
I ask for a glass of water and try not to let the hurt take up residence on my upper lip.
I have been three different places looking for what I need.
The first bar has no place to sit.
The second bar does. I sit and ask for a double Jameson on the rocks. The bartender tells me yes and then turns up with one big ice cube and a no. It’s his first day. I drink a High Life, not wanting to be rude, and leave.
The third time is almost the charm. Music playing loud in the basement, the bar upstairs just empty enough. No Jameson, but something close enough. I call Dad to make sure. I want to do this right.
The bartender smiles at me between her braids. She doesn’t know what it means to me. She doesn’t have to. I tip her too much on too much and she calls me very kind. She does not know the part she has played in this my solo service. Just me, a stiff pour of Red Breast, and her, the only mourners at the night’s events.
The air outside is crisp and clean, a forgotten raspberry jam bar in my bag and Luis the Lyft driver still five minutes away. Each strong breeze blows the pretense away and then there are no benches left outside the theatre that I haven’t cried on.
There’s Jameson at home. I drink it as you would have, like warm milk before bed.
We always say there are certain things we can’t hear until we’re ready. This morning, as I was listening to a song I have heard more times than I can count, a song that makes me feel like I’ve been to church, I noticed that I have been hearing the wrong words to this one line every single time. I heard it clearly all of a sudden, as I turned my face up to the sun:
“I’m trying to find the meaning, letting loss reveal it.”
And even that small moment of knowing shows me it’s true. The golden retriever at the next table seems to know what I need, laying his plastic-coned head on my knees. It seems that in your leaving you have pulled a kind of curtain from my eyes.
And I remember-
One day when you were staying with us for the summer I asked you to tell me some stories. I secretly put my phone on to record.
You told me about the time you made a blind landing. You told me how the point of the exercise was to take off blind, to learn how to get out of a situation when you may not have a clear view. But the flight instructor had left the hood down the entire flight, and you had not said anything. You had used the instruments and the little sliver of earth you could see, the memory of trees that all looked the same, to navigate yourself to the landing strip, and when on the approach the instructor still hadn’t lifted the hood, you assumed it was part of the training and still said nothing. Your landing was bumpy, unlike your usual work, and the instructor wasted no time in saying so. When you told him what you’d just done, he laughed and laughed and brought you back to base to parade you around to the others. What a feat of idiocy and brilliance.
That was like you. You never liked to cause trouble. But you always loved a bit of mischief.
You took off, flew, and landed that plane without ever seeing where you were going. I know this is what you were like. Life had pulled the hood down on you over and over again. But you always just assumed it was part of the training. Flying blind was your specialty. Nothing was ever a problem. Everything was merely a challenge.
That day, too, you told me about Adeline.
“Carstairs and coke she liked. Carstairs was a whiskey. But the three-piece band played the nicest music and we just danced so well together. So that was the beginning of a happy time. She was a sweetie. Oh I loved her, from the very minute I saw her. I walked her up to the bus stop and by that time I was gaga. So before we were married I used to walk from Floral Park to New Hyde Park, probably 4 miles. And we’d hang out on the stoop or in the back of the house, take a walk or whatever. Did a lot of smoochin’. And then it’d be time for me to go home and she’d say “You better hurry up or you’re gonna miss the bus.” Okay, just a couple more minutes. Well there goes the bus. So she’d say “You better go, I have to go in.” So I’d walk a block, run a block, walk a block, run a block … a mile and a quarter…. Still remember those days.”
You got choked up then.
“We loved each other. Yup. So. That’s some more stuff you can put in your memory bank.”
I know Adeline has missed you, and you have missed her. I hope you feel at home now like you did in the little apartment on Cherry Lane.
It feels like the hood has been pulled down over me. I am not like you, not skilled in the art of aviation. But you would tell me that it’s simple- the only thing to do is keep going. And then, you would forget you had said it and you would tell me again. And you would mean it just the same every time.
You told the woman at the VA that they owed you nothing. That in fact, you owed them, because they had given you the one only thing you had ever wanted. You told her,
All I ever wanted to do was fly.
You spent your whole life reaching upwards.
So the hood is down. But I will turn my face up to the sun, knowing that though I cannot see it, it is there anyway. Like you, Tom. Like you.