|and anybody who is Friendly with Bears can find it|
Being the only story of mine to ever win a prize (Honorable Mention, 1991 University of Pennsylvania Undergraduate Fiction Contest), and the logical successor to the I Know a Girl poems.
Music lovers will want to check out the soundtrack.
Lying in bed in the dark, in a quiet house in a quiet suburb, life seems so simple. At times it's like you can will mountains into existence, if you just try hard enough. Or oceans, even. You stare at the ceiling and the room starts to spin and all of a sudden you're an eight-year-old screaming her lungs out on a roller coaster in the middle of summer, and you swear to God it'll never end.
But it does. Eventually things spiral to a stop and you wake up nineteen, with everything you own jammed inside four brand new suitcases waiting downstairs by the front door. And tomorrow morning your parents will drive you to the airport, and wave goodbye as you board Flight 513 to Dublin, and shoutso enthusiastically you'll want to throw up"Mary Lynn, it's not everyone that gets to study a semester abroad! Make the most of it!"
All of which leaves you with more to think about lately than you ever in your life bargained for.
Why am I going? Jeez, I don't know. Why not? Why do I keep asking myself these questions anyway? I have enough to think about as it is. I'm young yet; I shouldn't have to explain myself to everyone with half a claim to being "concerned" about me. My British ex-roommate Sally keeps saying "odd girl, that Lynn"; my baby sister can't see where this fits in "the great scheme of things"; my loving, paranoid boyfriend thinks it's his fault. I just don't understand why "because I want to" can't be enough. It was, when I was eight.
So here I've been the past few nights, lying in silence in the dark, in the same bed I grew up insame pink and white quilted covers eventrying to think up something bland but believable to tell all these people.
No peace in the Forest.
My mind's been wandering. It's strange where a mind ends up when it's wandering away from big things like transatlantic plane rides, semesters abroad, "what you want to be when you grow up." For some reason I keep thinking about someone I used to know once, a long time ago.
We worked together. His name was BrianBrian McNederland. It was three summers ago, the summer before freshman year, and we were working together in the diner half of Gary's Roadside Inn and Diner out on the interstate. Well, actually I'd come on just as he was getting off, around six o'clock, but he'd always stick around and shoot the bull awhile, maybe have a cup of coffee and overtip me.
"Ever go to the beach, Mary Lynn?"
"Sure, every summer."
"Ever just look out on the water, just stare at it for a while and think how enormous it all is?"
"Sometimes I do, yeah."
"All that waterthe sand doesn't really stand a chance...."
"A chance of what?"
"Of keeping itswell...of staying unchanged."
The very last time I saw him was at the end of August that year, a week before I left for school. It was a Thursday. Brian came by the diner around five of midnight, just as I was getting ready to close up. He was wearing dark glasses and a big, bushy Elvis wig with the lambchop sideburns and everything, but anyone would have known it was Brian. I thought maybe he was drunk or something, but then he launched into a note-perfect rendition of "Can't Help Falling in Love," vibrato and all.
Wise men say
He circled the room, bowing politely to me as he spun around the three-foot-high Brewmatic Coffeemaker.
Shall I stay?
Then he went to the storage closet, fished out a big, shaggy mop, and started slow-dancing with it.
Like a river flows
And he set the mop against the counter and knelt at my feet to sing the final verse and repeat choruses.
Take my hand,
When the song was over, Brian kissed my hand, and pulled out a sealed envelope with my name written on the front in large block letters and placed it in my open palm. Then he got up and started walking towards the door, pausing at the jukebox. He plunked in a quarter, and hovered over the selection panel awhile before he started to speak.
He asked me if I knew why people fell in love, and before I could answer, he said: "The ocean is just this way, Mary Lynn. No warning. Just sheets of water like it's the end of the world, and"hmmm, how did the rest of that go? Just my luck to have a memory lapse at a time like this. The last thing Brian ever said to me and I can't even remember it right.
Well, anyway, he said it, whatever it was, and then he pushed button 42 and walked out, leaving me with Elvis Presley's interpretation of the aforementioned love lyric, considered by some the hokiest in this or any language.
For what it's worth, I do remember the first thing he ever said to me. It was the middle of June, his first day on the job. Brian was still working when he saw me come in. He spoke to me after he got off, as he was washing up in the back. "Keep an eye out for bizarros...," he said, "'cause the only people who hang out in suburban coffee shops late at night are sex perverts and the desperately lonely. And you can never tell which will be more dangerous." And he smiled at me, and I smiled back, and I could tell we were going to be friends.
I could also tell pretty quick that he had a crush on me. Purely innocent stuff, you understand, but I could tell. So I made sure he knew about my boyfriendmy "powerfully built and insanely jealous" boyfriend, Benand when Brian just kept on being as friendly as ever, I figured things would work out fine. Some nights, Ben would come pick me up after work, and if Brian was still there he'd smile weakly and excuse himself with a polite "Howdy."
Ben never asked who he was, or why he was there. He'd say "hello" and leave it at that.
Some people just aren't the curious type.
Brian hadn't gone to Park Ridge North like the rest of us. His family had just moved here at the beginning of the summer. I knew that he was kind of lonesome, that he probably didn't have anybody to hang out with. I knew he was kind of shy, too, from the way he was always uptight around the other waitresses, Shirley and Louannit was all he could do to put together a complete sentence around either of them. But he always seemed right at home with me, and since I liked him and I was stuck at Gary's Roadside six hours a night anyway, I never once asked him to leave, though I sometimes wondered about all the time he was spending there.
Some nights he'd go home and then stop back in around ten o'clock or so, when the crowd was pretty much gone for the evening. A couple times he stuck around straight through my shifteven helped me sweep up after we closed at midnight. We'd get to talking about all sorts of things. Brian would ask about my family, my friends, what it was like growing up here by the interstate. He grew up on a farm in Ohio, and he wondered how anyone could stand having all those cars bunched up in one place like we did. "I suppose you just get used to whatever there is to get used to," I'd say, and he'd nod his head, but kind of skeptically.
I found out a lot of things about him. Hang around a person all summer and you're bound to, I guess. For one thing, Brian was a closet poet, so I'd always ask him about that, how his writing was going. "Still waiting for inspiration," he'd say invariably, and then he'd look at me and smile a bashful smile. He didn't look me right in the eyes very often, but he always did when he said that. "Still waiting...."
The best things in life are like that. Quiet, even silent. Times when words are just totally superfluous. Time spent waiting for inspiration, or, having found it, lovingly peeling away all its layers of packaging.
It's strange how little details like that stay with you. Random lines of conversation. Bits and pieces. For some reason I still remember Brian's hat sizeone time we were talking about the Wild West, cowboys and Indians, the OK Corral, and he said he had the same hat size as Wyatt Earp7 1/2. For all I know, he could have been making it all up, but I remember it like I remember Christopher Columbus and 1492.
We'd talk about the future a lot. Not all that surprising, I guess, for a pair of recent graduates. About a week after we first met, we had our first conversation about the Great Beyond-High-School. I was taking coffee cups out of the dishwasher and stacking them in a cupboard. Brian joined me.
He was on a step-stool, putting cups on the higher shelves. "You starting college in the fall?" he looked down and asked.
"Yeah. Turner College. Over by Edensboro. Ever heard of it? It's one of those small liberal arts places. Ben's gonna go there, too. We'll see how it goes." And I paused before asking, "You have any plans, Brian?"
"Me? Oh...I think I'm gonna take some time off, see some things I've been wanting to see. Maybe do some writing.... I figure the colleges of America'll still be there when I'm ready for them."
"That's a good attitude. Don't rush into something you're not ready for."
"Yeah, I suppose."
"My parents would never let me do that, though. As far as they're concerned, it's four more years and they're off the hook, and the sooner that day comes, the better."
Brian hesitated. "Well, my mommy parents split up a few years back, and I...I guess my mom's not the pushy type." The cups were all put away, so he stepped down off the stool.
I could see he wasn't all that comfortable talking about his family, so I steered the conversation back towards mine. "It's strange. My parents lay this big guilt trip on me for making them spend all their money for school, and then they turn around and they're pushing me to go abroad in a couple yearsmaybe England, or Ireland to 'explore our heritage' when all it'll do is cost them even more money."
"Some great writers came from Ireland. Yeats, James Joyce" His eyes brightened.
"I started to read Ulysses once. I had a headache for a week."
"Oh.... That's too bad...." The brightness flickered for a moment, thenpoofit was gone. He settled in behind the counter and read his newspaper. "I see where the airlines are raising their prices again...."
"Ever dream at night, Mary Lynn?"
"Well, sure, doesn't everyone?"
"You remember what you dream about?"
"Sometimes. I keep having this one dream where I'm going to a high school reunion and they won't let me in because I can't remember my locker combination. You have any dreams like that?"
"I have this dream where I'm at the seashore, and I've fallen asleep on the beach and someone's built a huge sandcastle all overtop me, so I can't move. All I can do is lie there still and feel the waves as they roll in...sand and water, and sand and water...."
And on it went through the summer, till by the end of August he knew just about all there was to know about Mary Lynn Riordan, and I knew just about all there was to know about Brian Paul McNederland.
All except the singing part.
And what about that? He loosed his vocal wizardry on me, and then vanished from the face of the earth, and everyone else lived happily ever after, end of story, right? No, not quite. Much as I like fairybooks and storytales, that isn't how this particular storytale (or is it a fairybook?) ends. As far as I know, The Brian McNederland Story doesn't really have a proper ending (as Sally would say). Not even now. Maybe that's why I'm still thinking about it.
And when I think about it, what sticks out in my mindmore than that last night in the diner, evenis one time in early August when Ben was away at the shore, and Brian drove me home after work. He asked me if I liked Linwood Park, and I said yes, well, of course, everyone likes the Park. He asked me if I wanted to go there now, maybe take a short walk in the night air. Sure, I said, that would be terrific. So off to the park we went.
We got to Linwood Park and dropped the car off in the main parking lot. Then we hit the walkers' trail.
"I really like the park this time of night," he said dreamily. "Just the trees and everything. No people around to spoil it all."
"I'm a person," I offered.
"You're not the spoiler type."
Brian looked at me and started asking about Ben. "Your boyfriend must take you out here sometimes, when he picks you up from work."
I shook my head. "Not once. But, of course, it's late and he's usually tired when he comes to get me."
"That's a shame."
I looked at him, and sighed. "Actually, we've been going out for three years and the only time we ever came out here together was after the senior prom."
He lowered his eyes. "So it's a special occasions kind of place."
"I guess. We didn't stay long after the prom, though. It was raining."
We reached the furthest part of the trail, out by Miller's Pond, and started back towards the car in silence. When we were about halfway back, Brian tapped my shoulder as a signal to stop.
"Mary Lynn, I" The words caught in his throat.
I stood still, not knowing what to expect.
I could almost see him physically brace himself for what he was about to say. He looked at me and started calmly, in aching earnest, "Mary Lynn, I...I want"
"What do you want?" From the look in his eyes he could have finished his sentence with anything from "a goodnight kiss" to "all your cash and valuables."
"Mary Lynn," and he got all red, "I want you to take something of me wherever you go. I want you to keep it close to you, safe and sacred and unchanging. I want you always to think of me at the most inappropriate times. I want you to remember."
"I will," I said. His request was either too huge or too simple to refuse. Or both maybe, now that I think about it. "Rest assured, I will. Is there anything else?"
"Well...," and he grew even redder, if that was possible, "I want to know something about you."
"What sort of something?"
"Well," he gathered himself, and got it out, "something that no one else knows about you. Something that separates summer friends from people you never forget about your whole life."
"I see...," and I did, sort of, though I wasn't quite sure where to start.
"I want to be important to you." Brian was straining to keep eye contact, but soon he just gave up and started staring at the trees.
"You are," I said, and he was, though that, too, was kind of hard to explain.
"I mean, I know you have a boyfriend and all...." There was an ocean of ambivalence in that wordboyfriend.
"But there's something between us that's so natural, and I.... I want to be in your thoughts, wherever it is that you end up in life."
"Uh...." I understood the feeling, but again, the particulars....
"And right now I want you to tell me something about yourself that no one else in the whole world knows, not even your mothernot even Ben. Anything, but it has to be just between the two of us." And he stood silently and waited, and managed to lift his head a bit and meet my gaze.
I wanted to speak, but I couldn't think of anything to say. It was the first time I'd ever felt nervous around him. "Well, Brian...there aren't many things about me that Ben and my mother don't know.... In fact, right now I can't think of anything about me that one of them wouldn't also know...." Which was true.
He hesitated a minute. Then he started slowly, "Well...at least make it something that only a couple people know about you, that really means something to you." And he stood there with his eyes open wide in expectation, and waited.
I thought and thought, but nothing came to mind. At all. I turned to face Brian, to tell him I was drawing a blank, but he wasn't looking at me. He was looking off into the trees again. So I looked off into the trees with him.
And out of the shadows, something came to me.
"Brian?" I said. He needed only a slight nudge to snap back into our conversation.
"Yes?" he said, giving his head a quick shake to clear the cobwebs.
"I've got it. Here's something that's very important to me. A strange-but-true story that very few people have ever heard, but that I want you to hear, because I think you might understand. Are you ready?"
"Ready." And his face returned to its natural color, and the corners of his mouth curled into a smile for the first time in a long while.
"Okay. When I was a little girl, I used to come here to the park every day in the summertime. All the little kids came here. There'd be three or four adults aroundit was sort of like summer camp, but not all that formal."
Brian nodded in rapt attention.
"Well, anyway, I'd always bring my Winnie-the-Pooh books, and each morning when my mom dropped me off, I'd go by myself, climb up into a tree by the pond and read all day long. And everyone thought I was really strange, 'cause all I wanted to do was sit up in a tree reading, and I didn't want to play tag, or play with dolls, or do anything that all the other kids wanted to do.
"And at first it really hurt, but eventually I realized I had to do what made me happy, and if the other kids thought I was strange, then I'd let them. And I knew I was right, and I memorized a line from The House at Pooh Corner so that I'd know why I was right, in case I ever forgot. And even today, whenever I feel unsure of myself, I think of that line: 'But, of course, it isn't really Good-bye, because the Forest will always be there...and anybody who is Friendly with Bears can find it.' There's peace in the Forest, you know."
The look on Brian's face when I finished telling him that story was the most serene look I'd ever seen on anyone's face in my life. "I've always been a sucker for a good bear story," he said at last, and he just stood there smiling a good while before asking: "Have you ever told Ben about that?" He was still smiling, still floating around some happiness cloud somewhere.
"Once, a long time ago."
"I'm sure he still remembers."
"Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe I should ask him."
Brian was silent for a moment, then started speaking in a serious but gentle tone, "You know, he comes around the diner all the time, and I have a sense of what he must be like, but I've never come right out and asked you what is it that you see in him."
"He's just really nice to me." And I wondered where the conversation was headed. "That's all it takes, really."
"Oh." There was something hollow in Brian's voice and expression. We started walking back to the car again, and he was about to unlock the door for me when he stopped, and spoke:
"Mary Lynn?" he said. I could see the dreaminess come back into his eyes. "You know what true love is?"
He'd caught me off guard. We'd never talked like this before. "No, what is it?" I said. He paused before answering me, and I felt like a little kid at an aquarium, wide-eyed, with a big goofy grin on my face, my nose pressed up to the glass, waiting. I was hooked. I knew that whatever he said, it would be the most wondrous thing I'd ever heard. I knew I'd remember.
"You see, there's this song...," he began.
"It's an old song. Old Elvis song. 'Can't Help Falling in Love'you know it?" And he started to say the words, but they came out funny because he couldn't quite decide whether to speak them or sing them"Wise men say...only fools...rush in."
"I know the song. My dad's an Elvis freak." I smiled.
"Well, I think it's true love if you can sing that song to a girl and both keep a straight face. That's ultimate trust. I mean, if she doesn't love you, she'll laugh you right out of the state; and if you don't love her, then you won't be able to sing it without cracking up, because" and Brian started to giggle, and then to laugh uncontrollably.
"Because why?" I asked, not sure I wouldn't join him at any second.
"Because," he said, composing himself just enough to speak intelligibly, "because that's got to be the hokiest song in the history of the universe." And he lost it again, but it was okay.
I didn't open the envelope the night he sang his song for me. The next day was my last day of work at Gary's Roadside. I didn't see Brian. He could've left early, I suppose. Or maybe he didn't go in at all that day. I don't suppose it matters now.
I'd brought the envelope to work with me. I figured I'd wait till after midnight, when I had the place all to myself, and then I'd open it. Which is what I did. I turned over the sign in the door so that everyone would know Gary's was "ClosedSorry, Please Come Again," and I sat down at the counter and slit open the top of the envelope with a butter knife. There was a sheet of loose leaf notebook paper inside. There were some words on it:
Why should I blame her that she filled my days
When I got to college, I asked around. Turns out the poem was by William Butler Yeats. "He was in love with this woman for decades and decades, and she treated him like he didn't even exist," one teaching assistant told me, without my even mentioning why I was interested in that particular poem.
I studied Yeats, and I studied James Joyce (though I still didn't understand a word of his), and I studied all the other great Irishmen, and when the time came I said, "Yes, mom and dad, I think I will try that semester abroad idea."
A few days ago I called up Brian's house. Maybe I had to. Maybe I just wanted to. I don't know.
I got his address from his momhe's out in British Columbia, doing something or other, I can't remember what exactly. Waiting for inspiration, most likely. I'll send him one of those breathtaking-aerial-view postcards. Maybe that'll help.
What'll I write on the back? "Came looking for you, but guess I took a wrong turn at the Atlantic." I don't know. Something dumb like that. Something hokey. He'll understand.
I remember it nowthe last thing he said to me three summers ago. He leaned over the jukebox with his index finger on button 42 and said, "You know why people fall in love? Because they've got that seashore feeling inside. They feel the play of sand and water, and they've got to understand it, like it's some great mystery that just won't give 'em any rest. Well, the ocean is just this way, Mary Lynn. No warning. Just sheets of water like it's the end of the world, and when they're gone you'd swear to God the beach'll never be the same. It knows too much."
And he was right, too.
I speak as one who has consulted with Bears.