I'd started reading Rip Current because I needed something to cleanse my emotional palate after Jamie O'Neill's At Swim, Two Boys had messed with me so badly. If I'd needed to get away from that book's general theme, however, I'd made a wrong choice.
Rip Current purported to be the true story of a guy looking back on his relationship with his best friend from high school. That was too close to home; it was the complete antithesis of what I was looking for. The exact thing I wasn't looking for, in fact. From the first words, the tone was bittersweet, and that wasn't what I needed. But precisely because the subject matter dealt with a theme that had lodged in my heart, I chose to read on. The author's storytelling style had grabbed me from the first sentence. By the fifth paragraph I was hooked.
Rip Current was about a guy torn by conflicting needs: His first sexual impulses and exploits as a teenager are heterosexual; gradually, though, he comes to realize he's also in love with his best friend.
I settled in and began reading. By the time I looked away from the screen, two hours had gone by, and I was emotionally wrung out. As I made my way through paragraph after paragraph, I felt as if Drew, the author, had seen into my life and heart. I'd never encountered anything before that so exactly expressed my feelings. Reading Rip Current aroused strong memories of my own high school years: memories of what it was like to be bisexual and confused, to have your heart belong two places at once, with two different people of two different genders.
I was astonished. I knew people who could relate to pieces of my experience, but no one I'd ever met seemed to relate to the whole confusing mess as well as this guy seemed to. There were passages in Rip Current describing experiences that mirrored my own, and the way Drew expressed his inner thoughts was occasionally identical to the way I'd expressed my own feelings to myself. In the same words, even.
The story wasn't finished; it left off with the narrator's growing attraction to the blonde female classmate introduced a couple of chapters before the last one he'd posted. The last chapter available also narrated the main character's growing internal emotional tension: He was enjoying life as a popular, well-liked kid at school, a guy who'd made his way sexually through a large sample of the female population of his class; at the same time, though, his feelings for his best friend were blossoming into something that he could hardly admit to himself.
By the time I'd made it through where the author had left off, I felt like I'd been hit in the head with a sledgehammer. Drew's story tore through years of defenses and brought me face to face with the gaping hole in my life...
The place where Brian was supposed to be.
I sat at my computer desk, feeling vulnerable and alone, missing Brian desperately; physically aching for him, and almost angry about feeling so devastated, so sad. After all these years. After all the work I'd done shielding my heart from him. And now, here I sat, all my defenses blown away. By a damn internet story.
I thought about what a mess I'd made of my life with Jonah by bottling up all my fears and anxieties. Bottling things up had been my main coping technique over the years; I realized that now. I sat there, staring blankly at the computer screen, devastated by the enormity of loss I'd reaped for myself by that kind of "coping."
I needed someone to talk to about Neal, and it occurred to me that Brian was the only person I could even conceive of having that conversation with. In that moment, I decided that I wanted Brian back in my life.
No; I needed him back in my life. A phone conversation once a year and the occasional e-mail just didn't cut it. I didn't know how much of his friendship I'd ever be able to get back, but I had cost myself the most important relationship of my life because of my cowardice. I wasn't going to be a coward anymore. I decided then and there I'd reclaim whatever there was left of the friendship to reclaim. If it stung my heart for the rest of my life not to be able to have Brian as fully as I wanted him, I'd face it and deal with it for the sake of at least some kind of recovered friendship with him.
The problem was, I'd cut him out of so much. How could I talk to him about Neal, when I'd hidden everything I could possibly hide at the time Neal had put me in the hospital? I had no idea how much he knew about what had happened. I hadn't told him anything at all. In fact, I had pointedly refused to answer any questions he asked about it. The emergency room personnel had called Brian's parents when I was admitted because they'd been listed as my emergency contacts from when I lived with them, and they had medical power of attorney for me. Brian had come with them when the ER had called. I was sure his parents had been told enough about my injuries to make an educated guess about all that had happened; what had they told Brian? I wasn't sure, and in the days and weeks that had followed, I'd never had the guts to ask. It was hard enough to face him knowing he knew that I had let Neal beat the crap out of me fairly regularly. I couldn't have faced him at all if I thought he knew the rest of it, so I refused even to consider that he might. When he asked, I stonewalled him. When he expressed concern, I wouldn't let him in. And gradually, as time went by, he stopped trying to make me let him in. Finally, he let me have it my way; he let me shut him out of my life.
What was my next move? Was there even a way left any more for me to reach out to Brian? I thought about it and kept bumping into dead ends.
I let it rest after stewing about it for a half hour, and went back to the beginning of Rip Current. I read the whole thing again, right up to where Drew had quit writing. I couldn't shake the feeling that he was narrating a parallel-world version of my own life. I read it all a third time, and then went to bed. I'd been in turmoil for weeks, and as I turned out the lights, I was still in turmoil. Things were different, though; there was now a new set of anxieties. And in the middle of all that, there was an odd sense of hope, which was terrifying in and of itself. I turned all these things over in my head as I lay in the dark, and finally fell asleep.
* * * * * * * * *
Over the next few days, I re-read Rip Current a half-dozen
times. With each reading, the unnerving sense of familiarity
me; with each reading, I felt myself being pushed toward doing
something; what, I didn't know. All I knew was that I'd reached a kind
of end-point. I wasn't willing for "things" to continue as they'd been
going. I wasn't sure what that meant, but I was going to start the
process of finding out.
I figured I'd start with Drew, the author of Rip Current. His e-mail address was at the bottom of each of his chapters. After about the seventh re-read of his story, I decided to e-mail him.
I wasn't sure what I wanted; I only knew that I had to reach out to the guy. Someone whose story went the way his did...well, maybe he had some insights for me. I wonder how his story turned out. Did he manage to get over his love for his straight best friend? Did he ever tell him how he felt? Had he managed to keep the friendship intact? Was he still in love with him? How did he cope with that? Maybe if I could get him to tell me a little bit about how things worked out for him, I could get some insights into my own life, my own options. The first chapter of his story foreshadowed a sad ending, so maybe things didn't work out for him. But even if they hadn't, I might learn something from him that would help me in my need to re-connect with Brian.
Almost as soon as I'd decided to e-mail him, though, I began to torture myself with misgivings. I didn't know this guy from Adam. It would be pretty presumptuous to ask him to tell me about his life. Talk about a major invasion of privacy. I mean, sure, he was telling his story on the internet; that's not exactly keeping things confidential. But it's one thing to write a story based on your life, changing the details--which I figured he must have, at least a little--so that he couldn't be easily identified by anyone in his real life who might stumble upon his story...it's one thing to do that and another thing entirely to tell the real stuff to some reader who contacts you out of the blue. What if I wrote him, and he felt I was intruding? What if I came off as some disturbed fan-type reader? How would he respond?
I considered the possibilities in my head for a couple of days.
Finally I came to a sort of "what the hell" attitude and figured the worst he could do would be to tell me to fuck myself. Something like that would rank pretty low on the list of injuries I'd experienced in life, so I sat down, took a deep breath, and opened up my e-mail account.
I've always been painfully shy. Conversations, even by e-mail, with people I don't know well tend to make me feel like I'm skydiving and the parachute has just failed to open. Even calling to order pizza has a measurable effect on my blood pressure. Any measure of familiarity, either with the person I know or with the subject matter, makes things feel less like I'm free-falling and more like I'm on a roller-coaster ride. That's why I've been able to stand up in front of a classroom and teach. Beyond that, I'm kind of an adrenaline junkie, and because of my shyness I get an adrenaline high when I'm up in front of a classroom of college kids. In a way, I think, the rush that comes with all that actually keeps me interested in teaching. But e-mailing Drew, even from the safety of my own home, was really scary. I had a sense for what I wanted from him: I wanted to be able to "talk" to him some more. I hoped that maybe we could have a short dialog through e-mails. Maybe four or five exchanges that might help me with my dilemma concerning how to restore my friendship with Brian. That seemed reasonable, but my hands were still trembling a little as I put them on my computer keyboard.
I started typing. I understated what I wanted to say, and hoped Drew would read between the lines. His writing suggested that he wasn't a stupid guy, and the relationship between his protagonist and his protagonist's best friend bore so much resemblance--in so many ways--to the relationship I'd had with Brian, that it just about ripped my heart out. I hoped that Drew might see that even if I didn't state it explicitly or intensely.
As I thought about what to say to him, I thought back over his story, and back over mine. I missed Brian so much. As I worked on my e-mail to Drew, the years between then and now melted away in my mind: I thought back on times when I'd be sitting with Brian, feeling his support without anything needing to be said, just the way Drew said he had supported his buddy Matt when Matt had faced tragedies in his family life. I needed that kind of support right then, support that I could only imagine getting from Brian. The problem was, I had no idea how to repair the disaster I'd created by pushing him away over and over. I didn't even know how to put into words the depth of my confusion over what to do, my despair, my need to be friends with him again.
All of that came tumbling out in my e-mail to Drew. Or rather, I felt it coming out; I didn't actually say any of it explicitly. I couldn't force myself to be that direct; I didn't want Drew to think I was some nut-job.
I ended up saying something lame and ambiguous: "The parallels to my own life are striking." I looked at the words on the screen, thinking, "Wow, how's that for brave and upfront?" All cowardice aside, though, I couldn't explain any of it very well beyond those words, and I definitely didn't want to impose the whole grisly story on a total stranger.
I finished my e-mail to him, took a deep breath, and pressed "send." Then I spent about a minute and a half fighting off a panic reaction.
As I walked away from the desk and began getting ready for bed, I realized that it wasn't just Brian I was missing. I'd totally messed things up with Mary as well, too, and she had been another important person in my life. The thought of reaching out to her didn't scare me as much. I hadn't screwed up with her as badly as I had with Brian, so it seemed easier to approach her. She was safely married, anyway, with a child, so the dynamic was different.
I went back to my computer and wrote her an e-mail as well. I wasn't too direct. I told her that my life wasn't in such a good place and that I was hoping to regain some of the friendships and ties from my past that had been so important to me.
* * * * * * * * *
It was good to hear from her. She didn't write a whole lot, but her e-mail felt to me like a little beam of sunlight in the dark room that my life had become. The rest of the day I felt more hopeful than I'd felt in a long time. It seemed as though I wasn't doomed to stay in this horrible place of anxiety, fear over Neal, and ongoing personal sadness.
The day after that, I opened my e-mail account and saw a reply from Drew waiting to be read. Again, I had to fight through a brief panic attack.
It was unnecessary: Drew was warm and personable. He thanked me for
e-mailing him; he was glad I liked his story; and he told me that
several other readers had written him telling him how much his story
had reminded them of their own lives.
He told me a little bit more about himself. He was a graduate student, working on a Ph.D. in physics; he was engaged to a woman he'd known since elementary school; and he was still friends with the guy he was writing about in Rip Current.
I was especially interested in that part. I wondered how things had gone with him and his friend as the years had passed. In his internet story, he was building dramatic tension by emphasizing the discomfort and denial he was going through in high school, trying to distance himself from his growing feelings for his best friend. It seemed clear that in the "storyline" things were headed for some kind of crisis. I wanted to ask him about that. I wondered, though, if he wanted to give away advance details that would spoil his story if they got out. And I didn't want to impose any further. So in my e-mail response to him I thanked him for replying; I told him a little bit about my past with Brian; and I asked him if he were willing to tell me more about his relationship with his best friend. Again, I was nervous as I was writing to him, but not as nervous as I'd been the first time. I pressed "send," feeling anxious, but hopeful.
Two days later Drew replied. His e-mail was beyond anything I could have possibly hoped for. He was friendly and engaging, as he'd been before. And he was very generous in telling me about things that had happened between him and his best friend. He told me that his best friend had come to be aware that Drew was attracted to him, and that he'd been okay with it. Drew himself, though, couldn't handle it, and had begun distancing himself from Matt, assuming that his friend was now uncomfortable being friends with a "faggot." He told me that he realized too late that he'd manufactured that fear totally in his head, that Matt had never felt that way, and that he'd hurt him deeply by pushing him away.
As I read those words, a couple of tears fell from my eyes onto my desk. I knew exactly how that felt. I'd lived it myself.
I had to stop reading for a few minutes, overwhelmed as I was, again, by the similarities. How--why--had fate caused me to stumble into this guy who'd apparently lived a parallel version of my experience with my best friend?
I finished reading the paragraphs Drew had written in response to my request for him to tell me more about himself, and at the end of his e-mail, he asked me for more details about my situation and experiences. At that point I realized that we were starting something that looked like it had many elements of a relationship; a friendship of some kind, maybe even. Could a person do that over the internet? With someone he'd never met in real life? I didn't know, but I did know that since he'd been so willing to tell me more about his past, I couldn't very well decline to answer his questions about me.
What stayed with me the rest of the day, however, were the last words of his e-mail: "It sounds like you have a story of your own to tell, one that others might get something out of reading."
As soon as I read those words, I knew he was right. I did have a story to tell.
At least to one person.
And now I knew how to make the approach.
* * * * * * * * *
I closed Drew's e-mail and re-opened the one Mary had first sent me, the one where she'd sent Brian's e-mail address. I highlighted that e-mail address and clicked "copy." Then I clicked on "compose." A new text window opened. I pasted Brian's e-mail address in the "to" box.
I opened up a browser Window, navigated to Rip Current, and copied the URL to my clipboard.
Then I clicked on the new text box. I felt my own breathing become quick and shallow, and I knew the only way I'd be able to make this overture was to keep it brief and somewhat indirect.
I hope you're doing okay.
Read this. I hope you'll understand why afterwards."
Below those words, I pasted the URL to Rip Current.
I signed it "Sam." Not "Love, Sam" or "Sincerely, Sam" or "ttyl--Sam." Just "Sam." Anything else was saying too much...asking too much.
I stared at the e-mail for five minutes, trying to get the nerve to hit "send." Finally, I moved the mouse and put the cursor over the button, closed my eyes, held my breath and clicked.
I waited five days.
On the sixth day, after work, I fixed dinner for myself and Chris; I spent time playing with him and hearing about his day at school; I tried to make excuses for Jonah when he asked where Jonah was and why he wasn't around much any more; I watched some TV with him; and finally I helped him get ready for bed.
Once he was asleep for the night, I sat down at my computer. When I checked my email, I saw it: a reply from Brian was waiting for me.
I couldn't open it. I got up from my desk and walked away, shuddering. Just open the damn e-mail, you gutless wimp, one part of my brain told the other part. But I couldn't face it.
I went into the kitchen and made myself a cup of coffee. I sat at the table, zombie-like, memories flooding back like they'd been doing a lot lately: That first day of high school when he'd introduced himself and my whole world had lit up in response. The good times at the canyon. The bad times at the canyon. The way he'd always been there for me, never caring about any of the "bad" stuff or how my issues might affect him. The way he never wavered for a minute in his friendship, even after the whole school was gossiping about me.
I also began to remember how I was never there for him when he needed someone: After Tom's death, when he spent months, troubled and tortured, and I couldn't find the right things to say or do. During college, when a river of alcohol started to carry him away from safety. And worst of all, when he'd reached out to me to try to grab our friendship back.
I was being an idiot to believe he'd get over that kind of treatment from me. Hadn't his brother as much as told me Brian had left the country to get away from memories of my betrayal?
What was I thinking, sending him that link to Rip Current?
Filled with those thoughts, those regrets, I began to wonder what was waiting for me in the email from him. Would he tell me, either gently or brusquely, either directly or by implication, that he was done with me? That I was a reminder to him of too many painful things, and that he needed to keep that part of his life in the past? That I should never contact him again?
I didn't know. All I knew was that I needed him. I needed his friendship. And until he closed the door on it, I was going to try to get it back.
I'd find out something soon enough if I could get the courage to open that email.
I went back to my study, sat down at my computer, and clicked open his e-mail.
There were only four words to it:
"It hit me too."
Thanks, readers, for your continuing interest in my friend Dan's
story. There will be 29 chapters in this story. Dan wrote the very last
chapter himself, months before he died; I've made it through Chapter 26
in terms of my own writing responsibilities for this story. I have two
more chapters to put together. If you'd like to e-mail me, the addy is