Bert Laver climbed the last one hundred feet of the way to his destination almost on hands and knees. The place where he was going to was no more than four thousand feet above sea level, but he was almost forty years older than he had been the last time that he visited this place. The pack full of camping gear, added to the extra years and extra pounds that he was carrying, resulted in a very tired and profusely sweating Bert who finally rose up over the lip in the barely-distinguishable trail to arrive at his destination.
The place was a level area perched on the western slope of the Laguna Mountains in eastern San Diego County. This space was no more than fifteen yards deep and thirty wide, but it made an excellent camping area; an assessment that had been made by indigenous inhabitants of the area for hundreds if not thousands of years before Bert and his best friend Craig Lacey discovered it in their late teens many years ago.
Shade from oak and pine trees cooled the air at this place, and a ditch at the southern end of the shelf channeled water from a spring that flowed intermittently according to the snowpack and rainfall from year to year. This had been a dry year and no water now flowed there. At the east end of this natural terrace was a small cave in the rocks at the base of the upward slope which continued to the crest of Coyote Peak several miles further to the east. Inside that cave the rock walls had been stained by the smoke of countless Kumeyaay fires, and rounded depressions in the low, smooth stone rising up out of the ground around the cave mouth spoke of acorns being ground into meal that would be changed from the bitter and inedible fruit of the oak into a sweet and nutty food that would nourish the hunter-gather inhabitants who had once lived here and called it home.
He and his friend found this place while searching for a hidden spot where they could safely grow marijuana away from the searching eyes of parents and law enforcement. While driving on dirt roads north through the Viejas Indian Reservation, and never quite sure when they were on the Viejas or Barona reservations, or in the Cleveland National Forest, they had found a place to park and then walked upward and eastward in search of water and a patch of ground where they could try their hand at growing their own.
The place that they had found was no secret however. In fact, it had been known to the inhabitants of this area for probably the last ten thousand years. Every square foot of usable land that had water, even if only intermittently, had been known to the people who had lived here for so long. It showed no sign of recent visitation however, so the two bull-headed teens set themselves to try growing a large patch of marijuana plants. Their plan came to nothing though, as the constant traffic of their coming and going would have certainly drawn attention, and they were both bright enough to figure that out.
Bert and Craig returned to this place many times. After notions of a crop of weed were quashed by the realities that finally sunk into their brains, they continued to return to this place to drink or get stoned away from the jungle of the city, and sometimes they camped there overnight or for a weekend. On those lazy and idyllic days they would dream about what sort of lives had been lived in this place in the past and what sort of lives they might themselves hope to live in the future. Once Craig tried to bring a girlfriend to their hideaway, but the remoteness and silence of that place was so unnatural and so unsettling that she insisted that he return her to the city. After that event they agreed that it would be their private place, and so it remained to this day.
Bert picked up three stones from on the ground and threw one of them into the cave. He had no interest in entering that hole in the earth until he knew that no cat or bear was claiming prior occupancy. He kept his right hand close to the handle of his Ruger .357 Magnum handgun that was in a holster down the back of his jeans. He would not want to use his weapon unless he truly had to, but neither would he allow himself to be made a meal of without making the price a high one. There was no response to the first rock, so he threw in the second and then the third. Still no sound came to his ear, so he walked up to the cave and carefully stuck his head inside.
The cave looked exactly as it had when he first laid eyes on it. The dirt floor showed sign of small footprints, probably of wood rats, and some dried leaves that had blown in over the years. The dark varnish of old smoke still colored the stone roof of the cave. Ashes from the fires that might have cooked those wood rats, or simmered pots of acorn mush, had long since returned to the dust. Bert felt like he could still smell the smoke though, and he had always felt like he could see the ashes too, even if they were no more than gray specks in the brown dust. They were still there, and in some way the people who had once cooked in the cave were still there too. He felt it. He felt them.
Bert had no intention of making a camp within the cave. He selected a spot of soft soil in the shade of an oak that was relatively free of the prickly dry leaves of that venerable tree. He put up a tent, formed a ring of stones within which he would use his gas-canister camp stove later that afternoon, and unfolded an ultra light metal and nylon camp chair. With his camp in good order Bert then sat in the chair with a book that he extracted from his pack and tried to relax.
Relaxation did not come to him however. He opened his book and allowed his eyes to bounce from one printed word to the next without really following what the words were meant to convey. Eventually he gave up the enterprise and closed the book, allowing it to rest in his lap. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out an envelope, and for the twentieth or thirtieth time unfolded and read the letter that the envelope contained.
Dear Bert; I hope this letter finds you well, and I hope you will be kind enough to read it. I also hope to accomplish two things with this letter and the first of those, although the hardest for me to do, will be the easiest to accomplish. I want you to know that Donna has passed away. She was battling breast cancer for the last two and a half years and lost her fight a month ago on July 28, and it has taken me until now to be able to pick up a pen and write to you of this. It was a painful struggle but she died peacefully, surrounded by friends.
My second intention of this letter is less certain of success but I feel that I must – – no, not ‘must’. I wish, to try. We were once the best of friends and for the last four decades I have counted the loss of your friendship to be one of the great disappointments of my life. Now I must add the loss of Donna to that short list, and the hurt of it all is beyond description. But while I can never get Donna back, it has occurred to me that it might be possible now, even if it is only a remote possibility, to restore my relationship with you.
With that project in mind, I am asking you if you would consent to meet with me and see together if anything can be done to set things right between us. I will be sad and disappointed if that cannot happen but I would understand if it should turn out that way. Perhaps I’m just fooling myself as I grieve Donna’s death. I just feel like I have to try.
Let me know if you are open to giving this a shot. I will not write nor bother you again if you do not respond to this letter.
Your (former) best friend, Craig.
Bert read the letter over two more times, folded it up, and then returned it to his shirt pocket. He reclined in his chair and closed his eyes, his mind drifting to a time long years in the past. He met Donna in a history class at Grossmont College and soon his mind had to struggle to keep itself focused on his program in cardiopulmonary technology. Within two months of their first date they moved in together and eight months later when he graduated they were married and moved into a tiny rented house in Pacific Beach.
The program at Grossmont College turned out a new crop of technologists every year which led to a saturation of the job market for that position in San Diego hospitals, so it came as a pleasant surprise when Bert found a job at Mercy Hospital. This enabled Donna to continue her studies at San Diego State, seeking a degree rather than a career. She confessed to him that she was in college mostly because she had felt that it was expected of her by her family and she didn’t want to disappoint them. Bert didn’t care. He was happy to support the two while she went to school, savoring every minute of the time that they were together.
The end of their fairy tale life came abruptly. One day when he returned home early from a fishing trip with Craig, Donna did not return home at 9:00 in the evening when her shift at a little restaurant on Grand Avenue was over. Ten o’clock passed, and then 11:00. He lay on the sofa in the living room and fretted on whether he should call the police or call the local hospital emergency rooms, although the possibility of another unpleasant reason for her delayed return home had begun to form in his mind. He was at the point of picking up the phone and calling the police when at last he heard a key slide into the lock of the front door.
Donna walked into the house and stopped dead in her tracks at the sight of Bert. He rose up from the sofa and walked over to her, shut the door, and took his wife in a long embrace. “Thank God you’re OK,” he kept repeating while Donna said nothing. At last Bert released her from his embrace, stepped back and looked fully at her. Sadness put a blank mask on his face, and then he walked back to the sofa and sat down.
“You’re home early,” Donna said weakly, and was unable to think of anything more to say.
“And you’re home very late,” Bert replied. “I was worried that you had been in an accident or kidnapped or something. I can’t tell you how much I’ve worried tonight. Where have you been?”
“Uh, well, I’m all right. I, uh, I was at a party with some friends from work. I didn’t expect you to be home and I was bored, so I went there after work.”
Bert knew that Donna had no particular friends at work, none that he had heard of anyway. The probability of her going to a party with any of them and staying out until midnight was pretty low. Bert decided to press her on this, since it didn’t add up in his mind. “Where was the party?”
“At a house on Point Loma,” she answered.
“Take me there,” he asked.
“The party’s over,” she replied. “Nobody will be there.”
“Take me there anyway,” he pressed.
They got into her car and Donna began to drive. She took them to Point Loma and drove aimlessly around that neighborhood, up one hill on the bay side and down another on toward the Pacific Ocean. At last she claimed that she couldn’t remember how to find the home. Bert became convinced that there was no house and that there had been no party; not one that consisted of more than two people anyway. “Drive us back to the house,” he said once he became convinced of the true situation.
By the time they arrived Bert had fallen into a deep sadness. Anger would come later. For now he simply began to gather some clothes and a few things that he thought might be important to him while Donna followed him protesting her innocence, protests which became weaker as time passed. When Bert finished throwing his possessions into his car he returned to the house and stood before Donna and said, “All evening I have known that one way or another this was going to be a very bad night. I’m glad that you are alive and safe. I really am. It is me who is the loser tonight.” At this point the tears could not be held back, and they began to pour down his face as he continued speaking. “I hope that you have a good life, and I hope that I never see you again.”
Without saying another word he turned, got into his car, and drove to his parent’s house. Very nearly true to his word, he only saw Donna twice after that. The first time it was at the divorce hearings. They said nothing to each other, although Donna clearly wished to do so. The second time was a year later. Bert was shocked when he heard that Craig and Donna were seeing each other, and he broke off his relationship with his beast friend. Later, he was devastated when he learned that they had gotten married. What he felt had been a betrayal by his former wife had been compounded by this new betrayal by his best friend, and the pressure was finally more than he could bear. He resigned his position at Mercy and disappeared from all sight by Donna and Craig and any other friends that he knew, but not before one unpleasant scene.
All of those memories swirled in Bert’s head when, almost forty years later, Craig’s letter appeared in his mailbox. He almost threw it into the recycle bin several times, but for some reason that he wasn’t certain that he could explain he didn’t do that. The old hurt began to eat at him, and for no logical reason he decided that he should read the letter and perhaps see if anything in it could help to put that old hurt back in its box.
He asked his wife Becky what she thought of this and her recommendation was that he should go if it would not be too painful for him. Becky was an oncologist, a doctor dealing with cancer, and knew a lot about breast cancer and the damage that it does to loved ones as well as patients. Perhaps Craig was reaching for a lifeline to anchor his sanity. Becky was sensitive to that need.
“This person was once your best friend,” Becky told him. “You’ve said it yourself; as far as you know he was never cheating with Donna while you were married or at any time before. Look, I know that this has been eating at you for far too long. Maybe this is a chance for you to heal this old wound. All it would cost you is a few days of your time. As your doctor, I recommend that you go.”
“So, you don’t think that this thing about my first wife is an insult to you? he asked. I mean, you’re my wife and you’re the only one who I want to ever be my wife. Wouldn’t my holding on to any aspect of my ex-wife be offensive to you?”
“You’ve never been anything other than a loyal and honorable man,” she replied. “I love you and don’t doubt for a moment your love for me. If going back to San Diego and scratching that damned itch that has bothered you for so many years will give you peace on the issue, then I really encourage you to go. If it would help you I could go with you, but my personal opinion is that this is something that you should do on your own.”
Bert agreed with her on that, and after a couple of letters were exchanged on the topic the two former friends agreed to meet at their old favorite hidden campsite, with the hope that the positive memories of that place would make this meeting go as smoothly as possible. He arrived a day before the meeting was supposed to happen, intending to spend a night in the silence and peace of that place, collecting his thoughts before Craig was to show up the next day. He sat back deeper in his chair and let the peacefulness untwist taut muscles and silence jangling nerves.
His mind wandered from his own personal memories to thoughts of the native people who had once inhabited this site. This happened every time he had stayed here as a youth and he was not surprised that it happened on this day. He thought of the huts made of branches and grass thatch and cooking fires where whatever meat that could be hunted would be sizzling, or nuts and seeds and roots and berries that could be gathered were simmering. The gurgle of the adjacent spring-fed stream during wet years – and those would have been the years when this place was inhabited – and the rustle of leaves would blend in his mind with the murmur of a father or mother teaching a child some craft that they would need to know to stay alive.
He could see the father returning with a brace of rabbits, or the mother weaving a basked with a daughter and teaching her about herbs and other useful things that nature provided to feed them and keep them healthy. He heard the giggles and cries of young children lying in a soft cradle or playing with make-believe bows and arrows. It was almost as if it was real, and he wondered if he would see this tiny band of Kumeyaay families making a temporary home here if he opened his eyes. Would the sounds in his mind become real? He heard a sound and wondered if it was just his imagination or if his dreams were indeed real, and he opened his eyes to see if some ancient hunter was returning to camp.
But there was nobody there. No hunter nor wife nor children now engaged their lives at this site. Only he was here, wrestling with his pain once again. He was alone, perhaps more so than he could express. He looked toward the cave and tried to convince himself that he saw a wisp of smoke curling up from the entrance, but he knew that he had seen nothing. And the sound of the children playing? Was that imagined too? He listened carefully but heard only the breeze rattling the leaves of the oak tree. No gurgle or splash came from the dry stream bed. There was nobody else there.
Then he heard a rustle in the bushes, the scuffle that might have been of a boot heal over rock and dust. Bert reached for the handgun that he carried and focused his vision on the point where he had emerged from the trail up the side of the mountain less than two hours ago. He had no clear idea what had made that sound but he was not supposed to meet Craig there for another day. He did not want to be unpleasantly surprised. Soon he saw a baseball cap rise up over the lip of the shelf upon which he was camped, then a face with eyes covered by sunglasses, and then the full body of a man rise up and step onto the ancient camping ground.
Craig appeared to see Bert immediately upon reaching the shelf, or at least the sunglasses were pointed toward him. He stopped for a moment and stared directly at Bert – this time he was certain of it – and then resumed walking across the shelf. He came to within a few feet of where Bert continued to sit motionlessly and, without any change in facial expression, said simply, “It’s been a long time.”
Bert nodded and equally simply said, “Yes it has.”
An awkward, drawn-out silence ensued. Craig removed his pack and put it on the ground several feet from where Bert rested in his chair. He looked at Bert again and then silently turned and walked over to the cave, where he bent down and looked inside.
“This is awkward,” Bert thought. “Why did I agree to come here? This was our favorite place, but that’s all gone. Why the hell couldn’t I let that ghost story stay in the basement?”
Craig returned from his inspection of the cave and stood again in front of Bert. “It hasn’t changed in a thousand years,” he said as he pointed back toward the crack in the earth. “I guess there’s no reason why it should have changed in the last forty.”
Bert looked towards the cave, mostly so that he wouldn’t have to look at Craig’s face, and replied, “Nope. I don’t suppose that there is.”
The silence returned. Bert sat still and silent as the statue of Abraham Lincoln in that president’s memorial in Washington D.C. Craig continued to stand, shifting his balance slightly from leg to leg and looking now at Bert, now at the big oak that shaded them both, and now at the point where the trail led back down the hill and away from this uncomfortable situation. He then looked back at Bert and said “I had hoped that we might talk. Should I set up my chair, or is this thing over already?”
Bert considered calling off this meeting and driving straight back to Vancouver. He had travelled eleven hundred miles however, mostly at the insistence of his wife, and he did not relish driving that many miles back to tell her that he had not accomplished the task. She wouldn’t criticize him if he did, but she would be disappointed. He didn’t like the thought of that. “Go ahead and sit,” he finally said. “This isn’t easy but I’ve come a long way. I guess I’m a little curious about why you really wanted to do this anyway.”
He watched as Craig extracted his chair from straps on his pack. It was very much like the one that Bert had brought. Bert was not surprised by that at all. They had once been very much alike, so it was not such a surprising thing. Craig had developed a bit of a paunch over the years and his face, which had once been angular and framed by long blond surfer’s hair, was now more rounded underneath the graying businessman’s cut. A flush from the exertion of carrying his pack and his extra pounds up the trail still showed on that perspiring face. Bert felt like this man was not the Craig that he remembered, and that was oddly beneficial for the beginning of this unwanted reunion. It was as if Bert was not meeting with his former friend at all but rather with some other person entirely.
Craig got the chair unfolded and sat down in it, and then fished a bottle of water out of his pack. He took a drink and then daubed at his face with a bandana that he pulled out of his back pocket. “I’m not as young as I used to be,” he said.
Bert remembered his wet shirt when he had removed his pack a couple of hours earlier. “Neither am I,” he answered. “I remember that this used to be a lot easier.”
Craig chuckled at that. It was an attempt to lighten the dense tension in the air between them rather than a reaction to anything amusing in what had been no more than a statement of fact. He took another sip of water and then sat silently in his chair.
Bert felt that this meeting was about to end without anything positive to be said about it, so he decided that he must break the ice. “I suppose that we should shit or get off the pot,” he said. “So, you said in your letter that Donna has died. Were you two married all of that time?”
Craig’s face showed relief that Bert had opened the conversation, even if he did start with the hardest thing that he could possibly talk about. He also understood the deeper implication of the question and ignored it for now. “Yes. We were. We were married for 38 years. Almost 39.”
“Humph,” Bert grunted. “I didn’t expect that.”
Craig ignored the insult. “I suppose that I know why you would have thought that,” he said.
“Yeah, I suppose that you do,” Bert answered.
Again silence settled between the two men as they withdrew into their own thoughts, one trying to find a way to make this work and the other trying to find out if he had any desire for it to do so. It was Craig who broke the silence this time. “I know that you didn’t believe me the last time I said this, but I never cheated with Donna when you two were married.”
“I haven’t thought about that very much,” Bert replied, which was a bald faced lie.
“No, really. I never did,” Craig reiterated. “I admit that I was infatuated with her from the first time that I saw her, and I won’t deny that I was tempted to try something stupid on a hundred different occasions, but I never did. You were my best friend, and I was not going to do that. I never wanted to blow our relationship. I was shocked when I heard about what happened between you two and I didn’t go near her for as long as I could stand it after you separated. When I decided that it was really over between you two I made a move and it finally paid off. I had no idea that you would take it so hard. I thought that it was done between the two of you.”
Bert felt his anger flare when Craig told him this. It was an old anger too, an anger that had lain in his heart for decades like a grain of sand in an oyster, except that this grain of sand, instead of producing a pearl, had developed into something more like a suppurating ulcer that was encased in multiple layers of scab that was only mostly able to contain the noxious pus that still managed from time to time to seep out and poison his life. Little bits of that toxic ooze would sometimes show up in hours of sadness and repressed anger. His wife had seen this and hoped that this reunion might rip the scabs open and let in some healing light and air.
“Donna was my first love man,” Bert said, almost surprising himself with the urgency of his declaration. “ I know that sounds like soap opera shit, but it’s true. She owned me and I thought that I owned her. I told her when I left her that I couldn’t share her; that it had to be me and her or nothing at all, and then you pop up sharing a bed and a home and a life with her. Damn it man, what the fuck did you think I would feel?”
Bert felt the anger boil, and as it did he returned in his mind to the last time that he had seen Craig and Donna. Craig was lying crumpled on the lawn of the house that he and Donna then shared. Craig had asked him to come over an try to patch things up. Bert said that he could not walk into a house that Donna shared with another man and so Craig came outside to try to begin a healing process. Bert snapped and swung a furious right hand that caught Craig completely by surprise. He had fallen like a sack of dirty laundry, with blood beginning to run from split lips and a hole where a couple of teeth used to be.
This made Bert even madder, as the satisfaction that he had sought from a punishing fight with the give and take of blows thrown and blows received by both combatants had now been taken from him too. As a result he took out his frustration on a nearby palm tree, pounding it over and over again with a fist that was already bleeding as a result of his first blow against Craig’s jaw. Screaming his rage and grief and hatred of even being alive Bert beat against the tree, spraying blood in every direction with each blow while Donna wailed and cried over the prostrate form of Craig, pleading with Bert to stop his assault on the tree and leave.
Bert’s control returned, but only just sufficiently for him to grant a pardon to the tree and to leave as Donna had requested while she tried to help her groggy husband back onto his feet and into their bed so that she could begin first aid for his wounds. Bert turned away from them both and never looked back. One week later he was on the road with no idea where he was going, and a year later he was at the University of Washington in Seattle, as far away from Craig and Donna as he could manage while still being on the West Coast.
Craig looked down at the ground when Bert asked his last question and Bert backed off just a bit but continued, saying, “I’m sorry man. I know that it’s been too long to hold on like that. It’s just that it still hurts. It never goes away. It has never let me alone.”
Craig looked up when Bert was finished speaking and said, “It’s OK. I know it hurts. It would be ridiculous to imagine for a minute that it wouldn’t. I was just hoping that time had softened the hurt just a little. I can see that I was wrong.”
Craig’s conciliatory tone served to damp Bert’s anger, but he still had acid churning in his stomach as he said “You know it hurts? How is that? Maybe you know it as an academic exercise, but how can you know how much it hurts when you haven’t been through it. Give me a break, man.” Bert felt his anger growing again but this time he was more successful in controlling it. “I don’t think you know jack shit about how much it hurts.”
Craig looked up from the dirt at his feet and, taking off his sunglasses, looked with his red-rimmed eyes directly into the face of Bert and said, “I know how much it hurts because it happened to me, too.”
Bert jerked as if an electric shock had coursed through his body. “You said what?” he asked.
Craig sighed and slumped deeper into his chair, the stiffness of the tension that had existed in both of them from the first moment now escaping from him like air from a torn tire. “Yeah,” he said and then he repeated, “It happened to me too. A couple of times.”
Bert said nothing while he looked at Craig with his mouth open. At last he said in disbelief, “And you stayed with her?”
“Yeah, I did,” Craig replied.
“How?” Bert asked in stunned amazement. “How could you do that?”
Craig thought only for a moment before answering, which made Bert suspect by that quick reply that he had asked himself and answered that question many times already. “It’s like this; I loved her. You know how that is, right?” Bert didn’t reply. Couldn’t reply. Craig continued. “I loved her. Donna. I loved Donna. I loved her from the first minute that I saw her and as I got to know her I loved her even more. It was like, what was I going to do? What could I do? I loved her and nothing was going to separate me from her. Nothing.”
Bert continued to gape at Craig, unable to believe what he was hearing. “So, while she was in bed with some other guy you were OK with that?” he finally asked.
“No,” Craig replied. “It wasn’t like that. It didn’t happen often; really, only two times. And it never went on. She was a lovely woman and everyone was attracted to her. You remember that. I know that you do. Temptations were always there and on a couple of occasions she succumbed to it. It was like an illness, or a weakness. She would just lose her way and let a mistake happen. She would know that it was wrong and that she had done something that would hurt me, and she would tell me about it right away.”
“Holy shit!” Bert said. “I can’t believe that you put up with that. I mean, what man – – -.?”
“What sort of man would put up with that sort of thing?” Craig said, finishing Bert’s sentence for him. “Yeah, I heard that from a few people who knew about it. Look, I saw her after the deed had been done. She was in agony. She knew about how she had hurt me and she was hurting even more that I was. I knew her. I could tell. She didn’t come away from any of those episodes untouched. I can tell you, she suffered more than I ever did. I think that she suffered more than you did, too.”
Craig fell silent then and Bert picked up where he had left off. “I’m not buying it man. She lied about it to me. She tried to hide it from me. I didn’t see her doing any suffering when she did that to me.”
“How long did you stay with her after she did it to you?” Craig asked. “How do you know whether it hurt her or not that she had caused you so much pain? That was the first time that it had happened to her, too. She didn’t even know that she had the problem then. She was scared and confused and embarrassed; how would you expect her to act?”
Bert heard Craig but refused to accept the logic of his words. “How could you do it man?” he pressed his argument. “How could you stand to be with her after the first time much less any other, no matter how few they were? How could you be seen in public with her? How could you go to bed with her?”
“I told you already,” Craig replied. “I loved her. It hurt me. It hurt a lot. But ours wasn’t a cheap love. The price was awful, but I’d pay it again if I could have her back. She was a wonderful person – – -.” Craig choked a sob and stopped talking long enough to get his emotions back under control and then continued to speak. “She was wonderful. You remember that, I’m sure. She had a weakness. That didn’t erase all of the other wonderful things that she was. I was willing to endure the bad for the good. It was a good bargain and I would make it again.”
Bert sat silently now, trying to take all of this in. He remembered his grief, his tears and his rage. He thought of his physical violence against his best friend when that friend had committed no greater sin that falling in love with somebody who he had fallen in love with himself. Craig had, after all, waited until the separation was legal and seemingly complete. Struggling to put things into some sort of order that would make sense to him he asked,” Didn’t you want to rage out? Didn’t you want to kick somebody’s ass the way cheated husbands usually do once they find out about it?”
“No, Craig replied. “It didn’t work out that way. I didn’t ‘find out about it’ the way cuckolded husbands usually do.” He sighed deeply and then continued. “She told me. After she had stumbled and allowed a mistake to happen she would come and tell me. She knew that she had done a terribly wrong thing and she didn’t want me to find out through the grapevine. I remember her telling me once that I had every right to kick her out onto the street, that she wouldn’t blame me for one minute if I did. She ached. I could tell. It’s like, have you ever seen a child grieve when their pet has died?”
Bert remembered Tiger, his daughter’s cat that had developed cancer and withered away before their eyes. Tiger had to be euthanized to prevent his suffering. He nodded toward Craig in the affirmative to that question.
“Did you doubt that child’s grief?” Craig asked.
Bert remembered holding his daughter. Her young body was wracked with sobs while she said goodbye for the last time as Tiger was taken into the back of the veterinary hospital. Her grief had been unmasked, as open and unashamed as only a child’s could be. He shook his head, this time in the negative, unable to speak at that moment.
“Well, that’s how obviously and powerfully I felt Donna’s sorrow at having failed me. She didn’t want to hurt me. She had a weakness, just like an alcoholic who takes a first sip and then loses the ability to stop drinking until the bottle’s empty, or a gambler or a person with an eating disorder. The other 99.9% of the time she was the most wonderful woman in the world.”
Craig continued to talk about his love for Donna, and Bert watched his face as it was transformed from that of a man grieving the death of his wife and facing a hostile and injured old friend, into one with a glow and a softness that spoke of fond affection and complete acceptance. This didn’t make sense, and the thought entered his mind that Craig might be trying to bullshit him.”
“People just don’t do that man,” he protested. “They just don’t do that. I loved her too, and her betrayal gutted me like a fish. I really did love her, you know.”
“It’s OK. You don’t have to convince me,” Craig replied. “I know that you did, and you may or may not know it, but she continued to love you too.”
Bert rose up out of his chair and stood in front of Craig. “That’s bullshit!” he shouted. “She couldn’t do what she did to me if she loved me. Maybe she fooled you but she damn sure didn’t fool me. I’m not buying any of this!”
“Maybe you should ask Becky,” Craig said without stirring from his chair.
Bert stopped still and asked, “How do you know about my wife? Have you been snooping into my life?”
“No,” Craig replied. “I haven’t been snooping. I only know what Donna told me. She’s followed your life from a distance, which has been a lot easier since the internet and social media came along. She was excited when you went to medical school and she was happy when you were married. She was so proud of you when she saw the name “Bertram Laver, MD” somewhere on the internet!” Craig paused at this moment and then said, “She prayed for you too man.”
“She prayed for me, shit,” Bert snorted. “No god would listen to a prayer coming from someone like her.”
“Really?” Craig asked. “Donna was exactly the kind of people that God would want to hear from. Maybe you should ask Him about it yourself.”
Bert snorted again. “Not hardly. I believe in science.”
“Me too,” Craig said. “Science is cool. She believed in God though, and because of that I had to give it a thought myself.”
“That just doesn’t make any sense,” Bert said in what was beginning to become a mantra. “That just doesn’t make any fucking sense.”
“Yeah,” Craig agreed. “It sorta turns things upside down, but I lived with her for a long time man. I saw her every day. She cheered for you like you were the high school football team. She celebrated you from a distance. Hell, I was a little jealous of you at first, until I realized that it wasn’t a contest. She could love you as the person that she knew you to be while she loved me as her husband, and she could do it without diminishing the amount of either one. I guess God is probably more impressed with that than he is with any of the petty shit that I have to offer him.”
Bert turned and walked to the edge of the shelf. He looked to the southwest, across Viejas Reservation land and toward the fog bank that represented the marine gloom that had settled over San Diego that day. This conversation had stood everything that he had believed about his first wife and former friend on its head. Bert had arrived at this enchanted childhood hideout expecting, if not intending, to lash out at his old friend and his unfaithful wife once again. The pound of flesh that he had claimed almost forty years ago had cried out for a second helping.
Craig, however, had come with a story that he was completely unprepared for. Donna had hurt him, but she didn’t stop loving him. He had given her up in a big way, and then violently attacked his best friend out of rage generated by what seemed to be a double betrayal. But according to Craig she had only failed, not betrayed. He thought that again; She hadn’t betrayed, she had only failed. She never stopped loving him. She had never set out to hurt him in the first place. She took no joy in his pain. In fact, she had grieved the effect that her failure had caused him and followed his life, even praying for him!
And what did I do? he thought. I rejected her. Kicked her to the curb and then attacked my best friend, breaking his jaw and knocking him out. Bert felt a riptide of emotions as grudges that he had nursed for almost forty years ran head-on into this amazing story that was only beginning to sink into his numbed brain. He looked back at Craig and a new appreciation of him began to chip away at the cold anger that had owned his memories of his old friend for too long.
Craig had forgiven the failures of his wife and loved her anyway. Not only that, but one of the first things that he did after Donna died was to reach out and try to mend the long-severed relationship between himself and Bert. Bert stared at Craig, studying him as he sat in his chair. Craig seemed to sag in his chair as if he was tired from carrying a heavy load for too long.
Of course he’s tired, Bert thought. He’s been mourning for his wife. I remember how wonderful it was to be with her before I failed to understand her the way that Craig did. That has to be hard. How would I react if Becky died? I would feel like I was carrying the world on my shoulders too. Of course I would. But in his grief he asked for me to meet him, and here at this spot no less, so soon after her passing. I believe that I might be a part of that load that he’s carrying. He buries his wife one day and then as soon as he is able he writes me a letter. What sort of a friend have I denied to myself for so many years? What sort of an asshole have I been?
Bert walked back across the shelf and sat back down in his chair. He didn’t look at Craig; in fact, he didn’t look at anything. He leaned back into the nylon webbing of the chair and closed his eyes. Again he let his mind return to the vision of the people who had used this place for millenia before it was taken from them.
Something separate from his normal senses kicked in as it had here so often in the past. Once again he could smell the smoke of the cooking fire and the meat that was sputtering as it roasted above it. He could hear the children playing, the men talking about hunting and seasonal relocation of their encampment, while the women talked of gathering foods and herbs, tending to the huts they lived in and managing the cuts and illnesses of their families. He heard them making love at night and making amends among each other when strife would arise and threaten the security of their community.
Bert had always connected with this place in this way. He had at first been surprised by it and was never able to explain it. Today he felt like it was talking to him, telling him that love for an imperfect wife was not so different than love for an imperfect friend. Craig had shown him both of these things, and Bert now felt that now he believed that love like that was possible. Now he wanted to know how it felt.
Bert’s backpack lay next to his chair. He reached into an open pocket and retrieved a stainless steel flask. He unscrewed the cap and took a short drink, appreciating the warmth of the whiskey as it flowed down his esophagus and into his stomach. Then he turned and extended the flask toward his friend. “Are you up for a snort? We haven’t shared a drink for, what? Almost forty years.”