A little past two in the morning, I tell him I've got to use the bathroom. I get up and shove the shared stuffed animal over to his side of the bed, hope he's not really awake enough to notice an extended absence. We're staying with friends; causing scenes isn't what I do any more.
The box of tissues is on the kitchen table where I left it, easy enough to snag and take with me to the living room. That's pretty far from the guest room, maybe not far enough. Our friends are 24/7 operators and someone's at work in the basement, though, so I'll take what I'm given.
It's 1991, maybe '92, and I am 15, or maybe I'm 16, and my mom's just driven me home from the school play. I don't act. I take tickets, issue programs, guide grandparents to their auditorium seats. It's what you do when you don't act.
I sit down and I pull the first tissue out of that staid old Costco box and I put my head in my hands and I cry. I cry because we are well and truly fucked, in ways I'm not sure he understands fully. I cry because I haven't been crying since Thursday, when the news hit. I cry because he's three rooms away and a sound sleeper who snores a little and I've got maybe 45 minutes to get through this and go back and pretend I was in the head a little longer than expected.
Our house overlooks a steep hillside that goes down to the schoolyard on the next block. It's fall and it's dry and there are spindly New England trees, aspirational but crowded, down the slope of the hill.
I cry because being over 40 and not having a paying job right now is like being an economic stroke patient. Every minute counts, or you're looking at a longer recovery, more obstacles along the way, more work to persuade everyone that you don't need their pity so much as you need them to shut up and assume you'll ask for it if you want it.
I know about strokes because someone I love, someone my own age, had one on New Year's Day this year, and it's my job to get people over any way possible. I've done a lot of reading. I've had to stop reading every ten minutes or so because my throat gets tight and I feel weird all over, but I've done the goddamn reading because I'm too far away to do much else. I know you have to get there in time and get help. I know that's all you can do, untrained.
We pull up at the house. I pick up my program and the purse my mom foisted on me before I left. When I look up, the streetlight seems hot and bright. It takes a long minute before I remember that there's no streetlight on the woods side of the road. I don't notice much these days. I've got a lot on my mind.
One tissue turns into about ten and then twenty and who counts the ones you use to wrap up the wet ones anyhow. I think about a lot of things I've had go wrong in my life, and how he's had a lot of things go wrong, too, but not the ones that put you in direct financial peril. He's never had the ones where you have to sort out which way you're going to not eat this week. He's probably never slept on the 30-yard line of a football field in Rust Belt fall weather, or gotten most of his calories for a few days and an incipient kidney infection from a two-liter soda.
I'd hope he'd tell me if he had. I told him. I'm not telling him now that I'm crying at three in the morning in our friends' living room, but I did tell him about that.
"The woods are on fire," I say, and my mother looks over. "I'm going to go call the fire department." I leave my gear in the car. I run up the stairs. When my dad lets me in, I blow past him full force and dive for the phone.
My mother gets in while I'm giving the dispatcher our address. She turns to my father and makes a grand Bostonian hand gesture of disgust. "You KNOW it was Michael," she says. My dad waves off; he's already looking for the fire truck.
The tissues fall by the wayside after an hour or so. I sit down and try to pull it together, because someone is going to notice. I don't enjoy being noticed when this is going on, because it's hard to explain and it's embarrassing and eventually I get tired of trying.
We're well and truly fucked, the situation is getting worse by the day even while we try to patch it back up, and I am fifteen or maybe I am sixteen, and the woods are on fire and everyone knows Michael did it and I don't tell my parents that Michael's mom pulled me over a few months ago, when I was fourteen or maybe fifteen. I don't mention that she asked me to keep him out of trouble because she couldn't handle him and he'd always liked me. I don't tell my parents that I saw him a few weeks after that.
I don't tell them that when I saw him a few weeks later, I chased him down the road along the woods that are now burning up under the fire trucks' light. I don't tell them that I yelled down the road to him. That I told Michael to turn around and come back because I loved him. My mother's already told me that I'm too young to understand what love is, that I should stop worrying about silly things like that.
And I don't tell them that he took off and ran up to the crest of the hill and down into the woods where I couldn't follow him. That I wasn't just untrained, I was unprepared and I didn't get to Michael in time. I watch the woods burn from forest fire to embers. The firefighters mill around in the aftermath and I am thirty-eight and this is not getting better, but I don't tell anyone. I don't understand what love is, and I need to stop worrying about silly things like that, especially right now, when we are nine hundred and fifty miles from home and there is no money coming in and no prospects that will let us keep "home."
My husband knows about Michael, about the fire, about Michael's mom begging me to save him. He's heard this story before because I revisit it, in a tiresome repetitive teary sort of way, whenever shit falls apart. Only this time, shit's falling apart because of something that could only have happened to my husband, not to me, something that isn't even his fault, and I can't let him know that I am fifteen or maybe I am sixteen but I'm not thirty-eight. I can't let him know that all my attempts to keep my promises have never stopped those woods from burning.