The Big Brawny Beautiful Jeff B hosts a monthly writing exercise. PORTRAIT OF WORDS. This is Month #1. Please stop by Jeff’s place and check out the stories. It’s very simple. Look at a few pictures, write a story.
These are the photos we worked with:
And this is my story:
Paul sat quietly in the far corner of the funeral home’s main lobby. The doorway to Viewing Room B was right by the main entrance but he found it necessary to get as far away from that doorway as possible. He was grateful for being removed from the moment, distant from the scene. He had so much to work out and so little time. Soon he would need to face Patricia’s family and he was certain they had questions and he was afraid they had accusations.
Paul pulled back deeper into the shadows of the corner. He buried his head in his hands and stared at his feet. Christ! He had left his worn Keds on. He’d been in such a hurry to get to Brooklyn. A hurry to get to where he didn’t want to be.
Paul had been at school for just a few days when he met Patricia. She was, in Paul’s world, glamorous. She had Farrah Fawcett hair that she loved to toss about. She wore designer clothes, everything she owned had a name, and she seemed to only take the kind of classes that weren’t necessary. She was part of the Equestrian Club and looked like Lady of the Manor wherever she went. Paul was ROTC. He managed to look respectful in full dress uniform but was otherwise pretty much invisible. Certainly he was off the radar screen of girls like Patricia.
They met late on a rainy Friday afternoon. Paul commuted, Patricia lived in the dorms. Paul had heard she was from Brooklyn but lived in the dorms to avoid the long unsavory subway trip. The school itself was beautiful, lush green grounds, lovely old buildings that were well maintained and a bridge that connected the outer fringe of the campus to the famous Zoological Park and Botanical Gardens next door. A huge oasis in one of NYC’s declining neighborhoods. Paul noticed her at the top of the subway stairs. He was surprised she was alone, most female students traveled off campus in groups. She was searching through her bag as Paul took a deep breath and approached. “Need an umbrella?” he asked holding his out to her. She took it without a thank you. They stood staring at each other. Paul wasn’t at all surprised to realize she was even prettier up close. She had dark brown eyes and porcelain skin. “I guess we should share this” Patricia said, already walking. “Hope you can keep up”. Paul kept up, the umbrella barely covering his shoulder and dangerously close to poking out his eye. He peeked down at her shoes; they were flat which meant she was at least 2 inches taller than him. One more self inflicted demerit on his list of “Reasons Patricia Will Never Date Me”.
Paul and Patricia ran into each other many times before they spoke again. Patricia was always surrounded by a gaggle of giggling clothes horses and barely gave Paul more than a passing nod. Paul was a loner, his only friends were the other ROTC officers and they rarely socialized. Paul had developed a routine of playing handball at the deserted guest house of the old mansion that now served as senior housing. The school had run out of funding after renovating the mansion and had left the old guest house to sit in ruins. Paul liked it there. It was quiet and the old wood floors and hard marble walls made it an excellent all weather court. He usually went there early in the morning. A good fast game of hardball was a great way to start the day. Today however he went there just before dark. He hoped to get in a game before it was too dark to see. As he approached the front door Paul heard music coming from inside. It had never before occurred to Paul to wonder about the safety of being out here alone and it didn’t now. He walked in calling out “Hello, Hello, Who’s here?” The music stopped abruptly as the beam of a flashlight made its way toward Paul. “Who is here?” a quiet voice asked. Paul stepped forward and ran straight into Patricia.
“What are you doing here!?” they both said. Paul laughed, Patricia looked confused and annoyed; a look Paul would come to be very well acquainted with. “I come here to read” Patricia spoke first. “It’s too noisy and chaotic at the dorm. Even though I have my own room the common room is a non-stop party”. Paul understood. He told Patricia about his exercise routine and then they both fell silent. Finally Paul asked what Patricia was reading. She told him about the extensive reading lists for her Music Appreciation and Photographic Technique Classes. “So you’re interested in the arts?” “Not really” Patricia responded, “I want to be well rounded, I plan on marrying well”. And with that she left.
Paul started dropping by the old guest house every afternoon. Most days Patricia was there. She read, played music on her little portable cassette player and pretty much ignored Paul. Some days he’d actually play handball outside but most days he just sat and watched Patricia. After the first few times she didn’t seem to mind much. Their conversations were limited to superficial things – the neighborhood, restaurants, professors. Any time Paul tried to ask deeper, more personal questions he was shut down. If he spoke about his own life Patricia listened politely but never showed any real interest. They never saw each other anywhere but at the guest house or in passing on campus. Paul dearly wanted to explore their relationship but didn’t have a clue on how to get past Patricia’s icy demeanor.
The holidays came and Paul didn’t see Patricia for several weeks. They had never exchanged home numbers. Paul spent a good part of his holiday thinking about Patricia and asking himself what the attraction was. Certainly she was pretty but a lot of women who were actually interested in him were pretty as well. She was interesting only in her mystery. The more Paul thought about Patricia the less he liked her. Finally he decided to stay away from the guest house when school resumed. He laughed at himself for momentarily thinking of this as a break-up. He doubted Patricia would notice his absence.
School started soon after the New Year and Paul jumped into added classes and more ROTC activities, he also joined a local gym to avoid the guest house. He tried not to attach too much importance to avoiding Patricia by telling himself the guest house was too cold in the winter and it got dark too early. Weeks went by and he found it was easier and easier to not think about Patricia. Then he ran into her roommate. She stopped him on campus for some small talk. This seemed odd to Paul, they didn’t know each other well, they only shared one class and Patricia, and Paul was sure no one knew of his feelings for Patricia. After a few minutes of benign chatter the roommate asked if Paul has spoken to Patricia. “No” he told her, “why would I?” The roommate explained that since they were friends and since Patricia hadn’t come back to school yet she assumed Paul had contacted her. “Not back at school?” Paul was confused and worried. “Haven’t you spoken to her?” The roommate said she couldn’t get past Patricia’s mother and had hoped Paul had better luck. “I lost her number” Paul lied. “Plus I wasn’t sure she wanted to talk to me, we’re not that close”. The roommate told Paul that Patricia has often mentioned how kind he was. “I think she needs some kindness”. The roommate gave Paul the number in Brooklyn and asked him to let her know if he found out what was happening.
After a lot of staring at the telephone Paul dialed the number. No answer. No answering machine. He tried several time a day for days. And then he saw Patricia. It was a reenactment of the day they met. She stood at the top of the subway stairs. This time when she saw Paul she smiled and waved. She looked tired and pale which concerned Paul but she also looked softer, more approachable. He ran over, grabbed her bag and they walked to campus in silence. As much as he wanted to know what was happening he was so afraid of making the wrong move, asking the wrong question. “I guess everyone wants to know what’s wrong with me”. She sounded as exhausted as she looked. Paul told her he and her roommate were worried. She’d missed a lot of classes and hadn’t called anyone. “I told the school, I worked it out”. Paul was glad she had worked out school but how about life, and friends. “I didn’t know what was happening” he said gently. “I was worried … and I missed you”. Patricia graced him with a smile and touched his arm, for a moment. He walked her to her dorm and left her to get settled in. She promised to meet him at the guest house in the morning.
Paul got to the guest house early. He had prepared a picnic breakfast and had with him all the new music he had discovered. He also brought along his old camera, it had not seen the light of day in years. During the holiday break, while trying not to think of Patricia, he had done some research into the classical music she enjoyed. He was pleased to discover he liked it, the melodies were soothing. He listened all the time, even though his ROTC buddies teased him. Paul was very action oriented so gazing at someone else’s photographs could not hold his attention. He had dug out the camera from High School Yearbook days and had already shot several rolls of film. He hoped all this would give him easy common ground with Patricia. Although she seemed warmer, more vulnerable she was still a puzzle to Paul. Patricia arrived almost an hour late. “Coffee is cold and the toast is dry” Paul said testily. Patricia apologized and explained that she had needed the extra time to get up the courage to come. “I don’t make friends easily. I’m great with shallow acquaintances but not so good with real conversations”. Paul put on some music. Patricia was pleased that he had remembered all the masters she was studying. He pulled out the camera and took some photos of the guest house. Patricia remarked on how beautiful the winter morning shadows were. “Are you feeling better? You look more rested than yesterday.” Paul was still so careful. Patricia made him think of a jittery bird, always just about to fly off. “I’m fine, it was nothing” she said. She tried to sound dismissive but Paul sensed a great deal of weight in her words. The morning went well and they agreed to meet again the next day.
The morning meetings at the guest house became a regular thing. It was a mild winter so weather rarely got in the way. As spring approached Paul and Patricia started appearing as a couple. They went to student events together. They joined others to venture out into the neighborhood. Arthur Avenue was close by and offered up the best Italian food in the city. Paul had filled many albums with the photos he took of the area. He snuck Patricia into as many shots as he could. For someone so concerned about appearance – her clothes and her make-up always had to be perfect – Patricia hated posing for photos.
Summer was approaching and both Paul and Patricia had intern positions in Manhattan. They would both be living at home – Paul in Queens and Patricia in Brooklyn. Patricia’s mood darkened during these last days at school. She often hinted at hating the idea of being back at home. She rarely spoke about home and family. She mostly mentioned her mother who she seemed to pity and her sister who she seemed to resent. This too was a contradiction since she was very close to her sister’s son. Paul felt silly asking but he always felt he needed to be sure where he stood with Patricia. “So we’ll get together during the summer?” Patricia favored him with one of her infrequent genuine smiles. “Of course we will, I almost didn’t make it during Christmas, I’ll need you for the summer”.
I almost didn’t make it. Those words had always haunted Paul but now, sitting here in the corner of the funeral home they echoed in his head and took on more power than Paul could handle. He watched the door hoping to see people from school. It had only been a couple of years since graduation, was he really the only person she had stayed in touch with? He watched her family – her brother Michael seemed to be reveling in the attention, John was trying to disappear into the walls and her sister was holding her son’s hand in a death grip. Paul knew he needed to speak to them.
“You can’t hide forever” Dianne told Paul as she sat down beside him and touched his hand. “Trust me, I’m trying. The professional mourners are out in full force and Michael is hoping the paparazzi show up”. Paul asked where her son was. “I sent him out with Raymond; I’ve been making up errands all day. Anything to keep him away from this. I wish I’d been stronger. I wish I had put my foot down about wakes. This is barbaric. What’s really fucked up is that a lot of people think it was an accident. An accident! She happened to be walking on the railing of her roof and slipped? What the fuck.” Paul was a military man and valued being direct. “I wasn’t sure what happened” he said and faltered. “I, the newspaper, I …” Dianne laughed. “It made it into the paper. That amazes me. I’m sorry you saw it there first. The police had her purse and I didn’t get it back in time to find her phone book”. Paul told her not to think about that. They sat in silence for a bit. People approached. Dianne smiled at them and said thank you. She sent them to Michael. He was holding court.
“She tried a few days ago” Dianne blurted out. “They kept her in the hospital, they released her into our care, the shrink said she was getting better. This is going to take forever to sort through. You need a machete to cut through the guilt”. Paul cursed his inability to speak. “It’s OK you know” Dianne continued. “I figured out that she tried it during college. I think more than once. Definitely that first year. I told her not to go back there for Christmas. She was out, stay out. But my Mother dragged her back in. Always did”. “I knew her for years and we never spoke about anything important” Paul felt as though a lifetime of words were about to spill out. “I knew what I almost didn’t make it meant and I never dealt with it. And now I feel …” He stopped. Dianne’s son was approaching. A tall boy looking so much older than he was. He grabbed his Mom’s hand, the death grip renewed and leaned over and hugged Paul. “I don’t know who you are” he smiled, “but hugging everyone seems to work”. Paul saw his Mother’s personality immediately – an easy comfortable intimate way of just being with people. He also saw Patricia’s face, especially her mouth. Jeffrey looked so much like Patricia.
“He looks a lot like her” Dianne’s voice made Paul jump. He realized Jeffrey had moved on, he was hugging more people. “I need to make some rounds; if I get them first they will leave me alone. I’m glad you’re here Paul. And I’m glad you were her friend, I know it wasn’t easy. It would take forever for me to sort it out for you and I’m not even sure I’d be right. Just one thing – promise me this one thing – you’ll remember that it’s not your fault. If it’s your fault then it is certainly mine. And it isn’t. You can’t breathe for people Paul".
This is kinda, sorta a true story. Paul is a compilation of 3 young men. All the other names have NOT been changed since no one did anything they need protecting from.
September 9 was my sister Patricia’s birthday. This coming October 17 it will be 21 years since she stepped off the roof of her crappy apartment building. She will have been dead almost as long as she was alive. She forever altered my favorite season. That pisses me off. Jeffrey was the last person she spoke to. She called him, all 13 years old of him, right before she did it. That really pisses me off. A therapist we went to right after “the deed” said that suicide was the “ultimate fuck you”. I loved that guy for giving me something to wrap my head around.
I am the only person who speaks of Patricia regularly and in a normal tone of voice. Jeffrey will mention her from time to time but always quietly, as if the name will echo too long and too loud. My nieces don’t know she existed and my brothers never say her name. Her photo is not displayed. If I speak the “P” word in their homes all the air leaves the room. It’s not for me to judge. And it is not for me to fix.
I wanted to post something about Patricia on the 9th and then I didn’t. And then the day mercifully moved on. Later that day I went back to the POW photos. I had started and stopped 3 different stories. The girl in the frilly white. Bandaged wrists. The poor young man. The sheet seeming to trap him there. It all just came to be.
I don’t think this honors Patricia. She really wasn’t a very nice person. She was manipulative and cold. We were always at tug of war over Jeffrey. I know she didn’t like me much. She always felt the need to put me down. Jeffrey said it was because she was jealous. I was so much stronger. I don’t know if that’s it. I don’t think that matters much anymore.
I do know you should always speak out loud. Live out loud. Even if it’s messy. Even if it’s inconvenient. Secrets and darkness and isolation lead down ugly roads. And sometimes those roads end at a cliff.