GuysterRules (guysterrules) wrote,

A new way to look at old pain

I heard him coming up the stairs of our guesthouse and, as he rounded the corner into the room, Billy said, “It feels like I’m having a heart attack.” There was no gravity in his words. They took flight, but by the time they wafted to my ears, Billy might as well have announced a case of the hiccups.

It was around noon on the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day; early in 2002; twenty-six days after Christmas, when he’d given me the camcorder I’d always wanted; nine years and two months since we’d moved in together; and thirty-nine years, five months, and eighteen days from when he was born.
* * * *
Billy was the youngest of five kids, raised in a town of nine hundred in the rolling soybean fields of southern Illinois, just down the road from where my folks come from. He joined the Navy straight out of high school, spending most of his time on an aircraft carrier, and had plans to go to college to become a teacher after his stint, but youthful distractions led him in other directions.
* * * *
Four months after we moved in together, I got a job offer in Manhattan, and when I asked Billy what he thought, his answer was pure. “Sure! I’ve never been to New York!”

He often spoke in exclamation points.
* * * *
Early in our relationship, Billy told me he wasn’t interested in making money. “I just need enough to get by and be happy,” he said, and I looked at him as if he were mistaken. It took me a few years to come to understand what he meant.
* * * *
We moved to an apartment on the thirty-third floor of a high-rise that faced the World Trade Center. The job lasted eighteen months before I was fired. We moved back to Venice Beach, where we found our funky dream, an original beach cottage built in 1923, with a separate guesthouse constructed over the garage.

For both of us, it was the first time we'd ever found a real home.
* * * *
We adopted Bob Slobbers in ’95, at a local adoption fair for wayward dogs. He was just one of many dogs there that day, but when Billy and I sat on the floor to talk to him, Bob looked up at us as if he just wanted to go home, and we knew the feeling well.

He was a five-year old eighty-pound black lab mix, more lab than mix. He was closer to Billy than he was to me, seeing something of his own kind in Billy, maybe. It was Billy who gave him his name, and he knew Billy as “Daddy” and me as “Dad.”
* * * *
One hot Friday night in ‘99, we were roaming the promenade in Santa Monica, killing time, and I saw a big carnival wheel of fortune amid the booths, offering a spin for a prize at a buck a turn. I handed Billy a dollar, and he won a blinking light, which he held up, two inches from my face, brightly saying, “Look!” as if I had any choice.

“Try again!” he said, and I threw down another bill. The wheel clickety-clacked and a lucky gust of the Santa Ana winds brought it to a halt with the pointer squarely on the slot that read Swatch. The bored-looking girl operating the wheel handed me a wristwatch in a plastic box, and I turned to Billy and said, “Here, Guyster.” He looked at it like it was a Rolex.
* * * *
He’d complained of chest pains and shortness of breath about six or seven times in the preceding week. Once, while taping him with my new video camera, I caught him saying it on tape. I shrugged it off as a muscle pull, or maybe I just wasn’t listening.

On the night before Martin Luther King Day, I was watching the Golden Globes on the couch, with Bob at my feet and Billy sitting behind me at the computer, working on his new eBay business. He’d been laid off the previous fall and was struggling to find his way.

"Bedtime. Are you coming?"

“No, I wanna finish this up first." He was focused on his work.

“Okay. Come on, Bob.” Our dog slid sleepily off the couch and followed me downstairs. I fell asleep around half past midnight.
* * * *
He took the Swatch from me, pulled open the box, and tried it on, right there on the street. It was far too big, jangling around on his wrist, so he announced, “I’m going to use it as a clock,” and set it by the computer as soon as we got home.

“You can get the band reduced, you know,” I informed him.

“I kno-o-o-o-o-w,” he replied in a playful sing-song. It was a response that I’d heard ten thousand times in ten thousand different situations, one of the thousand little games we played.
* * * *
Sometimes the guesthouse was a bad place, where one of us would retreat when we were in combat. Or if I was being a “meanie” as Billy would say.
* * * *
At random, it seemed, Billy would start a game that was more than just play. He’d bow his head, looking up with innocent eyes, and ask, “Do you love me?

“Like a crazy person,” was my well-honed reply.

“Do you need me?”

“Like the air I breathe.”

“Are you gonna keep me?”

“Forever and ever, you big dummy guy.” I’d spin him around, wrap my arms around him from behind, and kiss the warm spot of the little raised heart-shaped scar at the nape of his neck.
* * * *
In the autumn of ‘99, I was in New York, babysitting a difficult client. Billy called me, crying, and said, "Someone broke into my truck!"

"Shit! Did they take the stereo?” I asked, as if that was something important.

"They broke the window and took my watch," he said, his voice breaking. I felt helpless.

"Aww, Guyster. What was it doing in the truck?"

"I was taking it to the jewelry store!" he said. In tears, he pronounced it “jewry.”
"Honey bunny, I'm sorry,” I said. I knew that the watch meant something special to him, a trophy from a perfect evening not so long ago.

“I loved that watch,” he said.

“I kno-o-o-o-o-w,” I softly sang back.
* * * *
I hopped into a cab for Macys on 34th Street, found the exact match for the watch he’d lost, ran to a nearby FedEx, and hurriedly wrote out a note.
This watch won't go away. Just like my love.

The next morning, Billy called, crying again, crying harder than ever. “I can't believe you! You’re too good to me!”

“That’s impossible. I love my Guyster!” I said, and beamed. I lived for those moments.
When I arrived back home, I found the new watch, in its box, back in its special spot by the computer. He never moved it again.
* * * *
I woke up around nine. Billy wasn’t snoring beside me, and I thought he’d probably fallen asleep upstairs on the couch. I pulled on some sweats and a t-shirt, went through the kitchen, slipped open the back door, and climbed the stairs with Bob trailing me.

I opened the door and the whole world shattered into a billion pieces.
* * * *
In bed, Billy and I were a perfect fit, in the way he folded into my arms, on our sides, drifting to sleep as I held his warm body and joined him. We were close sleepers, every nighttime a choreographed slumber, with Bob wedging in as closely as he could.
* * * *
Billy was on his back, his shirt off, his right arm across his chest in a relaxed salute, with no blanket. He was too white, all except for the purple that had settled at the bottom of his stiffened body. I heard the sound of screams. They were my own. I ran to him, hugged him, hugged Billy, and his body was frozen, moving as one piece as I rocked him.

“Please! No! Billy! Please! God! Billy! No!” I screamed over and over and over and over as I held him. Somehow, I managed to call 911. Over the operator’s urgings to try CPR, I kept screaming those same words to her.

God. Please. No. Billy.
* * * *
Billy believed in angels.
* * * *
It is not difficult to imagine that, at any given moment anywhere across the globe, millions of people are crying. Joyous tears lend a proud posture to the lacquered face of a newly crowned beauty queen as she adjusts her crooked tiara; they ennoble the wet face of a father who’s just seen his first born for the first time; they soften the dewy eyes of a lover reading the most romantic poem in the world written just for him. There’s little hiding them, no need to, even among men, and they flow openly down cheeks without shame.

Howls of grief are a different thing, as dark and thick as globs of motor oil: a distraught father weeping as he realizes his worst nightmare has come true, a crumpled young army wife finding two starched officers at her door, or waking up to find your lover has left the earth, without warning, without reason. Those tears have the long shelf life of a can of soup in the cupboard.
* * * *
I was the only lover Billy ever had. He always said he waited for the right one.
* * * *
I called his older sister, Dixie. I heard her screams, those screams, all over again. I joined her. Billy’s family flew out to Los Angeles, most of them for their first time.

The law required an autopsy because of his age, and so I had a week to plan the funeral while Billy was in the county coroner’s office. At the service, a few hundred people stared at me with eyes clouded by disbelief. I gave his eulogy with all the grace and emotion of a robot. I was afraid I would do it wrong.
* * * *
I had Love/Need/Keep tattooed on my ribcage for our eleventh anniversary; the second one we spent apart, my gift to my Guyster.
* * * *
For our last Christmas, I gave Billy a black leather-bound journal, something I thought he could use for his new business or just to write down ideas he might have. After he left, I started writing him a letter in it every single night, without fail. Not long ago, I slid back into those slimy sobs, back into the seasoned howls of impossible loss. It's as predictable as clockwork, sometimes sparked by a song, or by a familiar scent, or by seeing a car exactly like the new one he’d bought not long before the end. This time, I was watching TV, watching a program I barely care about, when one of the characters had a near-death experience, and the wheels started turning. That night, it was nothing but questions when I wrote my letter.

Dear Billy,
Was it beautiful for you? Did you feel a sense of relief? Or peace? Was there the white light? Were your mom and dad there to meet you? Is that when you knew what happened? What was the last thing you saw when you were here? Did you say anything? Did it hurt? Did you call out for me? Were you scared? Did your mommy take you by the hand? Were you still there when I came in that morning? Or had you already settled into your new way of being? Are you still Billy? My honey bunny? Did you see Bob coming? Was he happy to see you? Are you okay? Are you safe? Are you happy? When it’s my time, do you promise to be the first one I see?

I love you, Bill Ledbetter
* * * *
For months afterward, Bob would sit by the back door, waiting for his Daddy to come home, wondering why he wasn’t home yet. I’d practically drag him into the bed, spooning all eighty pounds of him, a little less than half of what Billy weighed.

We drove across the country together, Bob and me, for a new job in a new city. Bob hated it. He missed his backyard, and the game Billy and I made of hide and seek with his cookies.

If I thought it would’ve worked, I’d have joined Bob at the back door, sitting on the tile floor there, just watching, just waiting.
* * * *
After I finished asking my questions, I closed the book of letters.

Hunched over, gasping for air, I made my way to the bathroom and mopped my face with toilet paper. I’ve heard it said that you should never look into the mirror while crying, lest you fall in love with your own pain. I didn’t pay attention to that warning. I just stared at myself, saw a familiar stranger, and went back to the couch where I glazed over at the news. There was no love for my pain, only resignation that my cupboard would always hold a can of soup.
* * * *
It’s quiet now. There's nothing but the flicker of the TV on the other side of my eyelids.
I have to sleep.

They have other plans for me, though. This is when both of my nighty-night clowns with soiled jumpsuits come a-calling, one with a big red painted Bozo smile and the other with weeping sores in the corners of his mouth, giving him a permanent frown. Fully armed for the show with bag after bag of dirty tricks, they giggle and get to work. My chest tightens, my heart beats faster, my eyelids flutter, and I try to get warm.

“Billy wasn’t all that warm the last time you saw him, was he? He’s not very warm now, either, is he? I wonder what he looks like now?”
* * * *
My eyes open in a squint and I shift in the bed, restless. I try to focus on the old movie that’s playing on the TV, with William Powell drunkenly solving a murder, and I want to follow it, to live in its distracting world, but I have to wander back to the circus. My eyelids flicker shut.

“Do you really want to go to sleep? If you just hadn’t been asleep that night, Billy would be here with you now. Right about this time, too, wasn’t it, when you fell asleep? And so did he! Ha ha ha!”

I feel tears sliding down my cheek, spotting the pillow.

The clowns start to dance, holding hands and spinning around in a dizzy celebration. “Oh look, he’s about to cry! Boo-hoo-fucking-hoo,” they laugh.

“Try this one,” one says.
* * * *
A helpless whimper came from the other room, just after I arrived home from work, and I found Bob staggering, disoriented, suffering a massive stroke. He slipped away in my arms, and I heard myself screaming those same damned words all over again. It was two years, four months and twenty-eight days from when he lost his Daddy. His collar, the one he wore from the day we brought him home, now hangs on the peak of Billy’s framed folded flag.
* * * *
“Billy loved you more than you loved him.” No! “Well, he thought you didn’t love him, and that’s all that counts, isn’t it?” No! “Oh, yes. It’s just you and us now, Terry. You didn’t even get him a Christmas card on his very last Christmas, did you? Why didn’t you? The first time, and now the last, too.” One clown burps and farts, while the other stands with his face in an exaggerated pout, mocking me. I beg them to stop. “Not yet. There’s so much more ground to cover. You can blame anything all you want, Terry, but where were you when he really needed you the most? He even told you he was having a heart attack. What? Did it interrupt your TV schedule? And not even a kiss goodnight for your Guyster. Not one last kiss.”
* * * *
I often called Billy “my beautiful reward,” taking the title from one of our favorite songs. I always figured I’d lived a tough life, come out almost unscathed on the other side, and found my love, found this gift from God. About six weeks before our last Christmas, I barely escaped a head-on collision on the freeway, and I told him that that was the song I wanted played at my funeral, never thinking, never thinking.
* * * *
There were things I wanted Billy to keep forever: my wedding ring, which I traded for his, and a small porcelain angel he’d painted. At the last minute, I brought a little souvenir necklace I’d bought him at the Rose Parade twenty days prior. The most important item I wanted him to have, though, was the Swatch.

I had to ask the funeral director to help me place his “jewry” on him. It wasn't that I was afraid to touch him. I did that as often as possible over the next three days, kissing and holding him, unconcerned with the spectacle of it all, but I didn’t know how to put on his ring and the watch; I just didn’t want to disturb anything.

The last time I saw the watch was just before they finally closed the casket on the day of the funeral, before the grave side service, before the Navy honor guard gave a twenty-one gun salute, before Taps was played, before they folded the draped flag into a tight triangle.

Everyone had left the chapel, shuffling to their cars in a daze; I took one last moment -- just Billy and me. I fell to my knees, knowing this was it. I reached in and held his arm.

I pulled myself up, dusted off the knees of my black pants, and kissed my Billy for the last time. I held the kiss. I rose and stared at him. I told him I loved him. I adjusted the necklace, kissed his ring, and I looked at the Swatch.

It was keeping perfect time.
* * * *
I open my eyes again and glance at the clock. It’s one in the morning. I breathe deeply. I shift my arm and clutch at my pillow. The timer hasn’t turned off the television yet, and Myrna Loy is getting annoyed with her drunken detective husband. I breathe three deep breaths and sigh. It happened. It really happened. Somehow it’s going to be okay. It really happened. It happ…

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.