Approaching the total solar eclipse by James Niland. flickr
Our vantage point for the total solar eclipse was a mountain top in north Georgia. Darren insisted on driving down from Tennessee to meet me on my way up from Florida though I had originally planned on watching it alone. I was early to the lookout, having scrambled over that last purchase of rock face, breathing hard, sweating. I didn’t want to be with him at the site the whole time. I wanted to carry out some of my plan alone although of course for the actual phenomenon, he’d be here with me, long legs stretched out, resting, assured, the climb having cost him nothing.
The rolling landscape below seemed to have drawn breath, the contrast between green trees and shadow sharpening even since my sitting down and taking out my binoculars. The color of the sky had intensified as if it were the abyss of the ocean. There were no clouds and I noticed the birds were silent.
I did not want to be here with him, especially not alone. I would not have always said this when we were younger, when we both lived in Florida, when we were in middle school and high school. There had been a kind of silly camaraderie between us. And then a bit of a romance though I broke it off, being too absorbed in my studies and plans. “You broke his heart,” my mother said when he slipped into a coma before graduation. Though no one really knew why he became ill my mother’s words stuck with me being that they were both true and not true at the same time and had the power of a crucible. Before I left for college I visited Darren several times a week to talk to him and read to him while a machine helped him breath. When he woke several months later, I went to the hospital to visit. What hit me were his screams and inaudible complaints echoing down the hospital corridor. It was worse than the silence and again I felt selfish, self-concerned, but worried too. What was wrong? What would happen? No one spoke to me. I couldn’t go into his room to see him.
He recovered. He was fully functional again, eventually, even went to college. Rumors had it he had brain damage given that his tendency to make things up, to “get creative with the truth” had become vastly exaggerated. I was not in touch, however. At the time I only considered how his hurting made me feel, and by that time, I had begun to have challenges of my own, black shadows of depression, inexplicable highs. I was private and protective and I didn’t want to see someone who may handle me less than delicately.
I heard him climbing the mountain before I saw him. I could hear him walking along the path below in this newly silent world. It was like when he appeared to me many years after his coma: I, newly divorced and diagnosed with cancer, dealing with an angry son had been open, curious about my friend. The silence surrounding me during chemo had become an intense fog, friends had drifted away, some out of fear and some having been the friends with whom I had merely partied. And there he was, on the phone, talking to me like I had never left and he had never become ill. Admittedly, the attention from a man was soothing as well, as the chemo had taken my looks. He remembered what I used to be.
“Hiya, hot pants,” he said, that last scramble involving a climb on all fours. I wanted merely to watch the darkness spreading over the valley. I wanted merely to listen to the cicadas – to screech or remain silent – the verdict was still out. How little could I say and still be here with him.
He twisted down to sit and gave me a quick side hug with his massive arm. He was warm but not dripping with sweat like I had been. I was glad I arrived soon enough to look cool.
“Whatcha been up to?” he said, gulping down a water bottle from his pack.
“Nothing, Darren. Just waiting.”
I was over the cancer, thank God. It had involved strange and convoluted experiences with treatment. My hair was back but my appearance had finally caught up to my actual age. I was all of forty nine, and feeling it too.
He said, “Did you know we’ll be able to see millions of little half eclipses in the shadows of the trees?”
“You don’t say.”
He took another deep swig of water. The wind mercifully caressed my skin.
When he first started talking to me again after a twenty five year sabbatical, he spent hours describing in minute detail the horrors of living with his ex wife Debbie and her child, a boy of about eight. They also eventually had a child together, a daughter.
“I plan on looking at the sun,” I say. A squirrel skitters up a pine just beyond the rock. I don’t want to indulge him. After this, I would drive down to Birmingham to meet my son and his father and stepmom to get him installed in his new dorm room. I wanted to keep this short.
“There are cultures that believe that the sun and the moon are fighting it out,” he said, shading his eyes. “Some even believe it’s actually a time of resolving old fights.”
That’s rich, I wanted to say. In the depths of my chemo treatments, our long distance conversations over the phone had wandered into territory I could never have guessed when we first took up, when first he had presented himself as the well rounded, traveled, accomplished man.
By the time the fissure in his self presentation occurred, I was having frequent experiences with mental confusion and the highs and lows of my moods had intensified. And I was lonely, so lonely. I remember where I was the first time I heard him paint a picture of himself that shocked me: I was in the kitchen of my parents’ home. They were letting me borrow the home for the summer as they were away and it was a shorter drive to my chemo treatments than from my townhome outside of town. “Debbie accused me of sexually molesting the kids” he said. “Can you fucking believe that?”
To whom was I speaking? I remember thinking. I had no idea. Though we were long distance and his job would keep him from making spontaneous trips down, I could feel my chemo imperiled heart beating hard when he described the number of times he was picked up by the police and his incarceration in the local jail before his hearing. He was manacled he said to a huge man, accused of rape. “That bitch Debbie,” he said. “At first it was supervised visits, and then: nothing. What a bitch.”
I managed to end the call and get out of the house in the sweltering heat to walk my dog around the retention pond across from my parents’ place. I was sick. By this time, he knew a great deal about my life. I had emotionally begun to lean on him. And I had confided in him regarding my problems with child rearing.
And yet over the months, he had managed to convince me, somehow, that the accusations had no foundation, and to remind me there had been no actual conviction. And against my better judgement, I believed in him. Part of it, I think, was the effect of the chemo, my inability to hold onto facts and ideas for very long. And part of it, maybe, was that I felt I owed it to him to consider it, his innocence, maybe it was the old guilt working on me that I had left him when he was ill. And maybe he knew it. Another thing he knew was how much I needed a friend. I wanted to believe perhaps because at the time I felt I had to believe.
And so now, he we were. He checked his watch for the total eclipse countdown. An impulse arose in me at that moment to kind of shove him a little with my shoulder, as in a friendly gesture, and see what happened. The drop off to the trail below from the overhanging face was several hundred feet. I shrank back in horror from my own thoughts.
“You know there is no way he is innocent,” said a friend who ran a daycare. We were out to celebrate the end of treatments. I hadn’t confided in many people because I was afraid that once more I had been duped by the liar I had been friends with as a kid. “A guy doesn’t just lose all contact with his children,” said my friend. My single friends always liked to remind me how sheltered I’ve been, having been married for twenty years.
We were having dirty martinis, a drink I yearned for during treatment. It reminded me of the ocean of my good Florida, of my life. My friend and I had been close since I graduated college, longer than I had been friends with just about anyone, except Darren. It took that moment with her and a moment on the phone with Darren to clear my mind. Darren said that the judge who had been so friendly to him at first, someone he had known around town, wouldn’t even speak to him after the trial. “And why is that?” I said. “Because when she heard all of the evidence, it sounded convincing, like I had done it,” he said. Something in his voice sounded confessional. An eighteen month confessional. That’s what my cancer had been. Someone else had wiped their dirt on me. And he had lied and the lie threatened my sense of safety and safety for my son. Maybe this was his revenge for what he said had been my abandonment.
How had I wound up on this rock with him, this rock that would witness the rapid cessation of heat and light? How had I let myself become guilted into contact once more?
That criminal thought occurred to me again, that of giving him a little shove, like giving him a pretend friendly nudge, and watching him fall off the cliff as I feigned shock and innocence.
But of course I wouldn’t actually do something like this.
Instead, I said, “The sun and the moon, always at war. Interesting.”