Isolation




The first time I heard about it – the reunion – was from a friend of a friend of mine, who'd heard about it from an old classmate of mine, who was also a friend of the friend of my friend.  It – the reunion – wasn't scheduled to happen for a good six or eight months though, and I didn't really care anyway; I wouldn't be going.  But I nodded and smiled when I heard, adding the requisite, Huh at least twice, along with a genuinely noncommittal, I'll have to give that some thought.

Then, one day, and so far as I was concerned totally out of the blue, I got a call at my office from one Utah Jones.  The name, unusual as it was, was at first a blank to me; only after a few moments of silence did it ding a distant bell.  Remember me? he asked cheerfully.  I gathered from his tone that he was one of those people who strove to be cheerful all time.  Or maybe he was just used to being forgotten.  Umm . . . yes, I think I do, I said.  And I did, I did, but only verrry slowly.  I was shuffling through old snapshots – no, old yearbooks – in my mind as we spoke.  High school, grade school even.  Ye-es . . . but we'd only existed on the peripheries of each other's worlds; if we'd spoken as many as a dozen 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 so odd, a little disconcerting even.  Ah, well.  That 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 or enquired after the number of my office, 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 up to these days?

Fine, I said, I'm fine.  I'm a manager here at – at –  But what was it you were calling about?  Professional courtesy finally kicked in:  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.  Umm . . .  No.

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

I considered, casting about in my mind for some reasonable excuse, until so much time had gone by as to make the truth seem almost inevitable.  So I decided to go for that.  I'm just not interested, I said.

Oh.

That had flattened him  The remainder of our conversation, such as it was, mainly consisted of him trying to prod out of me some reason for my not being interested.  But what could I say?  I just wasn't.  I didn't particularly care about those people, that crowd of strangers I'd gone to school with – though neither did I wish them harm:  I just didn't treasure them, or the memory of them, that's all.

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

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

He seemed to get the point.



It was maybe a month or so later that the emails started to arrive.  Not that there were all that many – though there were enough – it's that even one was more than I was really interested in getting.  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 were the more irritating as they tended to be 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, having noted the intimacy, once again sent the email flying.  I stopped looking at them after that; yet another, then another, then another one came, and finally I did open one, in the spirit of exasperation.  It greeted me by name.  I really hope you'll come to the reunion, I read, noticing with relief the somewhat calmer, if still insistent, tone; I'd really like to talk to you.  This was sounding suspiciously personal to me, and I double-checked to make sure I knew who my correspondent was.  I'd assumed it to be the irrepressible Utah Jones – but no, it turned out to be someone else 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 – which is to say, he had the typical teenaged scrawniness.  He played sports of some sort – what was it – swimming?  Wrestling?  Tennis?  Something.  He had, I remembered, rather coarse-looking longish sandy-colored hair.  It came down in two thick waves either side of his face, a style not uncommon for the time.  An average face, so far as I could remember.  Details blurred.  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 with a snort.  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 strange connection, or potential connection, to exist between us.  It was a connection of only the most tenuous and uncertain kind – but when I thought of Rix I thought of one or two rather peculiar experiences I'd had.  For instance, it seemed to me that I had caught him, though only once in a blue moon, 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, unblinking gaze.  Curious, or knowing?  Certain?  Or trying to ascertain?  I could not tell.  Maybe the stare would have been more penetrating had it found a mark, a reply, in me.  But it had 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 relevant social context.  I dismissed them from my mind almost immediately and would have, I'm sure, forgotten them entirely 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 this same time frame.

For instance, I remembered the time I was walking down a hallway at school – this was during a change of classes; there were bodies moving all around – and somebody tripped me.  I felt another's 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, or even hiding a smile.  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, maybe even squeaked out a little yelp – there was no mistaking that pinch.  Again I looked about me; again I saw no one giving me the slightest notice, no one betraying themselves by a change of expression or by the light of knowledge in their eyes.

These memories, I admit, had a dreamlike quality to me.  Dreamlike partly because the experiences seemed devoid of connection to any identifiable causality, partly because memory is by definition a dreamy and inaccurate faculty.  I could not even now state with the assurance of genuine certainty 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 and shaking old recollections out of my 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 weekend, so I could stay up late; in the morning I would 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 switch on an audiobook.  An Agatha Christie tonight, I thought, sounds yummy.  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 astonishedly 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.  Rix Batton.  I waited a moment to let my alarm at the sudden appearance of this apparition settle down.  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, so I asked him in – to, please, you know, step inside.  He did, but then just stood there, grinning a little grin in the fuzzy dark of the entrance hall.  After another, shorter, by now slightly impatient pause I asked him if he'd like to come into the living room.

He glanced around, complimented me on the look of the place (it is nice, an eclectic mix of found-everywhere/anywhere 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, dear fellow, old chum, 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; they looked somehow squashed into his face.  That I recognized.  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 did it go?

He said it had been fine but a little boring, and after that fascinating start we began to make our way round the track, slowly stumbling through the opening gambits of a renewed (or new, as far as I was concerned) acquaintanceship.  First we described our personal situations (we were both divorced, he after fourteen years, me after almost twenty), then moved onto our jobs; next we completed a brief survey of the few classmates we'd both known and a few more that he had known and I had not – all of whom had done the usual things:  married; had kids; had careers of whatever sort; and now took vacations, played with the grandchildren, tended gardens, musical tastes and film collections.  This last topic occupied us for some little time:  we were both, as it turned out, film buffs.

This went on (and 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, exhaust him of whatever energy it was that had driven him here, and then send him on his way.  This could be done, I knew; I'd done it with others before.  Patience was required, that's all; patience and a certain tactful indirectness . . .

As time wore on, however, I began to notice my companion 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, saying in a rather hoarse little voice:  Do you have anything I could take to help settle my stomach?  Well, sure, I replied, and fixed him a glass of baking soda and water, a concoction which to my mind tastes like a liquid fart but does have the twin virtues of regulating acidity while also producing a series of unusually loquacious belches.  He swallowed this down, and I sat back to watch the results.  He wiped his brow.

I haven't been well lately, he said.

I'm sorry, I said, and I fear I sounded just a touch nonplussed.  I certainly felt it.  So for effect I added:  Did you mean just lately, or for awhile?

Politeness can be a tricky mistress.  It can so often be mistaken for genuine interest.  Rix's subsequent confession, first introducing itself here, took a particularly visceral form.  He yelped, Excuse me, leapt from the couch, ran into the bathroom (which, fortunately, was not far) and vomited.  Then vomited again.  In fact, measured from start to finish, I'd say he vomited for quite a long time.

I sat and waited uncomfortably on the couch for it to be over.  Finally I heard him stop, 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 appalling.  No, he said, no.  The fact is, you see, that I . . .  Well, I'm pretty ill.

Duh, I thought.  Right now, you mean? I asked.  Or more generally?

Uhh . . .  More generally, he said.

Oh my, I said.

Yes, he said, and suddenly barked out a laugh.  Oh my.  Because the fact is, you see, that I'm sick in a way that . . .  Well, I'm not going to get better.  In fact, the whole reason I've come here is . . .  Well, I've come here looking for someone . . .  I've come looking for someone to help me die.



I was startled, of course, at first; and also, rather oddly, a little flattered.  But of course I said no.  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, however unfortunately for him, written on my face.

He swayed a little against the sink at that; I could see him trembling.  Frankly, he looked a mess.  I wondered vaguely if he'd always been one.  Maybe it was only now finally revealing itself.

I'm sorry, he said.  Really, he said.  But then, as if to fill me in, or as if we were merely continuing to exchange information as we'd done earlier in the evening during the introductory phase of our conversation, he told me first the name of his disease, then how he'd discovered he had it; what his quality of life was at present, what he could expect it to be later, in the future . . .  He told me a story of doctors, of grim waiting rooms and medical tests, of potential therapies and useless drugs.  What it all boiled down to, in the end, was that the time had come for the end.  So 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 had begun shaking my head.  Noo, I was murmuring.  Noo . . .

He stopped his story then and looked at me; his mouth had gone 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 only 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 dripping with water and sweat, he apologized once again, for vomiting, he said, and for putting me on the spot.  In other words, he took it.  He still looked a bit wobbly so I gave him a glass of water, which he drank thirstily.  After that he insisted on leaving right away.  I followed him awkwardly to the door.  We did not embrace – but we did shake hands.  And as we did so I wished him all the best – the very best.  And of course 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 of 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 in his suicide 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 at the end.  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:  I was tired and wanted bed; but even just thinking about it as I stood in the living room door felt good.  How desperate he must have been, I thought.  Poor Rix.  To have come to me like that.  I couldn't even imagine it, that level of desperation.  I closed my eyes and tried.  No one to turn to, emptiness all around.  No one to hear my call.  And wanting them to.  Wanting them to very much . . .  Huh.  That must be something.  And then his coming to me, of all people – me.  Had there been others before me, I wondered?  There must have been.  How many, for him to have finally traveled here, to the farthest reaches of . . . well, humanity, in a way.  I mean, we barely knew each other.  So, why?  Why had he come to me?  Why had no else heard him?  Why had no one else cared enough to answer his call?  That last question made me open my eyes . . .

What the hell was wrong with him?





~ END ~








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