Isolation




The first time I heard about it – the reunion – was from the friend of a friend, who'd heard about it from an old classmate of mine, who was also her friend.  It wasn't scheduled to happen until a good six months, eight months in the future though; and I didn't care anyway.  I wasn't planning to go.

Then, one day, and as far as I was concerned out of the blue, I got a call at work from one Utah Jones.  The name was at first a blank to me; after a few moments of silence it dinged a distant bell.  Remember me? he asked cheerfully.  He sounded like he was cheerful all time.  By comparison (and by comparison only; my day had been fairly productive so far) I felt myself going a bit somnambulant.  Umm . . . yes, I do, I said.  And I did, but only verrry slowly.  I was shuffling through old snapshots – no, old yearbooks – in my mind.  High school, grade school even.  Yes . . . but we'd only existed on the peripheries of each other's worlds; if we'd spoken as many as six words to each other during all those years I'd be surprised.  Which is why I found this sudden burst of friendliness on his part disconcerting.  Ah, well.  It helped to wake me up, to focus, that is, my attention from work and all its attendant duties to this sudden renewed contact with a bare acquaintance.

You're a hard man to track down! he expostulated, even as I was calculating the ways and means by which he must have found out via mutual friend of mutual friend where I worked, and then looked up the number, and so came to find me.

Oh? I said.  Am I?

It's great to talk to you! he beamed.  (Not that I could see him of course, but his voice beamed.)  How've you been?  What're you doing these days?

Fine, I said, fine.  I'm a manager here at – at –  But what was it you were calling about?  Professional courtesy kicked in at last:  How may I help you?

He laughed – cheerfully – and told me he was helping to organize our class reunion.  The fortieth! he cried.  Can you believe it?  It's a big one.  You'll be coming, won't you?

Oh! I said.  No.

No?  He was, bless him, surprised.  Why not?

They always asked that.  I went for the truth.  I'm just not interested.

Oh.

That had flattened him  The remainder of the conversation, such as it was, mainly consisted of him trying to prod out of me why I wasn't interested.  But what could I say?  I just wasn't.  I didn't particularly care about those people, though neither did I wish them harm:  I didn't treasure them, that's all.

Well, gee, can I have your email address, and perhaps your home address – so we can send you a reminder – just in case you change your mind.  I hope you will . . .

Politeness I deemed the shortest route to the end of the conversation.  I gave him my email address – almost automatically, before I'd had time to think.  But I refused to tell him where I lived.



It was maybe a month or so later that the emails started.  Not that there were all that many – though there were enough:  it's that even one was more than I was really interested in receiving.  Some were impersonal, part of a batch mailing sent out to members of a list, any and each of whom might be a potential reunion attendee and therefore was being sent all the info they'd need to be in the know.  Some were individually written; these grew gradually more personal in tone.  Could you let us know if you're planning to come? pleaded one.  Already answered that, I thought, and trashed the message.  We all hope to see you there! another exclaimed; I know I do! and once again I sent the email flying.  I stopped looking at them after that; yet another, then another, then another came, and this last one I opened in the spirit of exasperation.  It greeted me by name.  I really hope you'll come to the reunion, I read, noticing with relief a calmer, if still insistent, tone; I'd really like to talk to you!  This sounded to me suspiciously personal indeed, and I double-checked to make sure I knew who my correspondent was.  I'd assumed it to be Utah Jones – but no, it turned out to be another personage involved in the reunion cause – a certain Hendrix Rix Batton.  Happy to Know You! I read – it was written, in italics, below his signature line.

Rix Batton.  Ah, yes, I remembered him, a little bit anyway.  Average height.  Average weight.  Slender build – typical teenaged scrawniness.  He played sports of some kind – what was it, swimming?  Wrestling?  Tennis?  Something.  He had, I remembered, rather coarse-looking longish sandy-colored hair.  It came down in two longish waves either side of his face, a style not uncommon for the time.  Average face, so far as I could remember.  Details blur.  Oh, I don't know, his nose maybe was a little biggish.  His chin was firm – but his eyes, that's right, his eyes were . . .  A little smallish, I thought, snorting back a laugh.  No, but that was true though; his eyes were smallish – or narrow, or something.  I sighed.  Details blurred.

In fact, the only reason I remembered even that much about Rix Batton was because in high school I had felt, intermittently, a potential connection to exist between us.  A connection of only the most tenuous and uncertain kind – but when I thought of Rix I thought of one or two rather peculiar occurrences.  For instance, it seemed to me that I had, though only once in a blue moon, caught him staring at me from across, say, a classroom we shared, or from a neighboring row in the auditorium at a school rally.  Staring at me with a steady gaze – curious? knowing?  I could not tell.  Maybe the stare would have been more penetrating had it found a mark in me.  But it only happened a few times; I felt bewildered more than anything, bewildered by the seeming randomness of these sudden gazes:  they lacked, after all, any social context.  I dismissed them from my mind almost immediately and would have, I'm sure, forgotten them completely were it not for the fact that I attached them, for no reason beyond mere intuition (not, in me, a highly developed skill), to two other rather odd events that happened to me during that same time frame.

For instance, I remembered the time I was walking down the hallway at school – this was during a change of classes; there were moving bodies all around – and somebody tripped me.  I felt a foot tangling with mine, stumbled – did not fall – then looked about me at the throng of students and saw no one I knew.  No one looking guilty, or sorry; no one laughing.  And yet I had felt that foot.  So that was one time.  The other time was also when I was walking down a busy hall.  This time I felt someone pinch my ass.  I remember I jumped a little; there was no mistaking that pinch.  Again I looked about me; again I saw no one showing me the slightest notice.

These memories, I admit, had a dreamlike quality to me.  Dreamlike partly because the experiences seemed devoid of a connection to any identifiable causality, partly because memory was by definition a dreamy and inaccurate faculty.  I could not even now state with the assurance of true belief that any of these events had ever occurred.  They felt like dreams; it was only the sharpness of their recollection, and the persistence of their recollection over time, that convinced me of their veracity.

Well, I thought, lifting my eyes from my computer screen with a shake of the head, that was a nice little trot down memory lane.  But it was also enough.  I trashed the email.  As far as I was concerned, I'd had my reunion.



I don't know how long it was after that – six weeks, eight weeks.  I'd been home from work several hours; tomorrow was the week-end, so I could stay up later; tomorrow I could sleep in . . .  I was lying on the couch, watching tv.  I'd eaten awhile ago; I was thinking of having a bowl of weed for dessert.  Then maybe some porn-lite subscription channel, then to bed.  Wherefromin I'd watch some more tv, preferably a deliciously mindless sitcom, then turn on a book:  An Agatha Christie tonight, I thought, sounds good.  Turn out the light and toddle my way into sleep.  There was a knock at the door.

It was Rix.  I didn't recognize him at first, but then I astoundingly did.  Rix.  Of all people.  Rix Batton.  Huh.

I said hello.  You know, Hello, Rix!  Well . . . look at you!  Rix, mmm . . . Batton!  That's right.  That's right.  I waited a moment to let my alarm at the sudden appearance of this apparition settle in.  Once it had, I paused another moment to see if he might suggest something I could do for him quickly, there at the door.  He didn't; I asked him in, to, please, step inside.  He did, but then just stood there, grinning a little grin in the fuzzy dark of the entrance hall.  After another, shorter, slightly impatient pause I asked him into the living room.

He looked around, complimented me on the look of the place (it is nice, an eclectic mix of found-everywhere American blah), and took a seat at the end of the couch.  I sat at the other end and took stock of my unexpected guest.  Rix Batton.  Sooo, nooo, my dear fellow, you don't look entirely well, do you.  He was stooped slightly in the shoulders (or had they always been like that?); the hair that had once hung in crisp, magnetic waves about his face was now shorn, revealing a receding hairline of sandy gray.  His skin looked too pale, though maybe that was just the hour or the light.  His eyes were still small though, and looked somehow squashed into his face.  That I remembered.  I rested in the slight reassurance of that familiarity and waited.

He did speak, eventually.  I was at the reunion, he said.

Oh? I said.  Was that tonight?  How'd it go?

He said it had been fine but boring, and slowly we began to stumble our way through the opening gambits of a new conversation.  First we described our personal situations (we were both divorced, he after four years, me after sixteen); then we moved onto our jobs; next we completed a brief survey of the few classmates we'd both known and a few more that I only knew about – all of whom had done the usual things:  married; had kids; had careers of whatever sort; now they took vacations and tended gardens and film collections.  This last topic occupied us for some time:  we were both, as it turned out, buffs.

This went on, and still he never got to the point – whatever point it was, that is, that had brought him here.  I could have asked him, of course; but I hesitated.  I was afraid he'd tell me.  No, it seemed to me my best bet was to just tire him out, to exhaust him of whatever energy it was had driven him here, and then send him on his way.  This could be done, I knew.  Patience was required, and a certain tactful indirection . . .

As time wore on, however, I began to notice my compatriot shifting about in his seat in a manner that suggested a slightly unwell feeling.  At one point – I believe I was expounding on the virtues of the Classic Hollywood style of filmmaking – I noticed his face beginning to screw up on itself from time to time.  This odd expression increased in frequency over the next few minutes until finally he brought my words to a halt with an upraised hand and said:  Do you have anything I could take to help settle my stomach?  Well, sure:  I gave him a glass of baking soda and water, a concoction which tastes absolutely terrible – like liquid fart is probably the best way to describe it – but does have the twin virtues of regulating acidity and producing a series of unusually satisfying belches.  He swallowed this down, screwed up his face again and wiped his brow.

I haven't been well lately, he said.

I'm sorry, I said, and feared I sounded a little impatient.  I certainly felt it.  Then added:  Did you mean just lately, or for awhile?

Politeness can be a tricky mistress.  It can so often be misinterpreted as genuine interest.  Rix's confession, introducing itself here, took a particularly visceral form.  He yelped, Excuse me! and leapt from the couch, ran into the bathroom (which fortunately was not far) and vomited.  He vomited, in fact, for a very long time.

I sat and waited uncomfortably on the couch for it to be over.  Finally he stopped, and somewhere over the sound of the flushing toilet and the whir of the exhaust fan that he thank god had finally thought to turn on I heard a thin, wavering voice calling out my name.  Once, twice . . .  I heaved a sigh and waited.  Third time and the voice was growing stronger now, more persistent.  I heaved myself up off the couch and went to find out what the matter was.

The bathroom, despite the exhaust fan, still stank, but oh well.  He was the awful surprise.  He had leaned himself up against the sink, one hand wrapped around its edge, the other braced against the wall of the nearby shower stall.  A jittery smile played over his lips; his tiny eyes, which I noticed for the first time were blue, sparkled unnaturally.  The skin surrounding them looked spongy, their puffy enclaves damp with a mixture of tears and clammy sweat.

I looked at him a long moment.  Bad food at the reunion? I suggested hopefully.

His wobbly grin widened.  Really, he looked quite ghastly.  No, he said, no.  The fact is, you see, that I'm . . .  Well, I'm pretty ill.

Oh, my, I said.  Duh, I thought.

Yes, he said, and suddenly barked out a laugh.  Oh, my.  Because the fact is, you see, that I've come here . . .  I've come here looking for someone . . . to help me die.



I said no, of course.  No, I would not help him die.  Oh, I didn't say it right away:  first I frowned aggressively; I did that right off.  Frowned aggressively and pursed my lips – it was my honest response.  And that response was, as they say, written on my face.

He swayed a little against the sink at that; I could see him trembling.  Frankly, he was a mess.  I wondered vaguely if he always had been.

I'm sorry, he said.  Really, he said.  But then, as if to fill me in, as if we were merely continuing to exchange information as we'd done earlier in the evening during our introductory conversation, he told me first the name of his disease, then how he'd discovered he had it; what his quality of life was, what he could expect it to be . . .  He told me the story of doctors, of medical tests and grim waiting rooms.  What it all meant, in the end, was that it was time for the end.  He had decided to take his own life – not immediately, he stressed; but probably soon.  Which is why he was hoping to . . . why he was looking for . . . well . . .

Somewhere in the midst of all this I began shaking my head.  Noo, I was murmuring.  Noo.

He stopped and looked at me; his mouth went suddenly slack.  I scratched my nose and tried to gather myself together.  When all else fails, I thought, honesty is the best policy.  Look, I said, I'm sorry, but . . . I'm just not the one.  I'm just . . . not.  I shrugged helplessly.  He gave me a wan smile and waved me away.

I left him to collect himself.  It was beyond useless to say anything more – words were like a hedge, and he would try to peek through every chink, to touch me with a finger.  But it was no use.  I did not know him.

When he emerged from the bathroom, face and thinning hair wet, he apologized once again, for vomiting, and for putting me on the spot.  In other words, he took it.  He still looked a bit wobbly and I gave him a glass of water, which he drank thirstily.  After that he insisted on leaving right away.  At the door we did not embrace.  But we did shake hands.  And as we did so I wished him all the best.  And I meant it.



But think of the anguish,  I thought as I turned back towards the living room again.  Think of the drama.  And think what else might be involved – could be the police.  In fact, probably would be.  There could even be an inquest.  He'd told me that if I didn't actually participate I couldn't be held legally responsible.  I could even find him the next morning and call for help then . . .

But think of the days, the weeks, the months even between now and whenever then might be.  What was I to be to him in the meantime?  Friend, father, brother?  Hand to hold, shoulder to cry on, confessor?  No.  I did not know him.  Which had made it, oddly enough, easier to be frank with him.  No, I'd said, I'm sorry, but I'm not the one.  Just like that.  Easy to say because it was so true.

And all I wanted now was to flop back down on the couch and watch some mind-numbing tv.  It was too late, of course; but even imagining it as I stood in the living room door felt good.  How desperate he must have been, I thought.  Rix.  To have come to me like that.  I couldn't imagine it, that level of desperation.  I closed my eyes and tried.  No one to turn to, darkness all around.  No one to hear my call.  And wanting them to.  Wanting them to very much . . .  Huh.  And then, coming to me – but had there been others, before me?  I figured there must have been.  I wondered how many, for him to have finally traveled here, to the furthest reaches of . . . well, humanity, in a way.  I mean, we barely knew each other.  So, why?  Why?  Why had he come to me?  Why had no else heard him?  Why had no one else cared enough to say yes?  That question made me open my eyes . . .

What the hell was wrong with him?





~ END ~








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