I began with a platitude. “James was one of the best people I knew.” That was always a good place to start, right? I swallowed and shuffled the papers in my hands. Of course, I had the whole eulogy memorized; I had practiced at least a dozen times in front of my bathroom mirror, and I had planned out every phrase, word, even the enunciation of certain syllables. It was necessary – anything less and I would have given myself away. But I glanced down at the papers, for show.
I turned and looked toward James’s crying widow. I smiled. “Most people here know that James and Paula were kind enough to welcome me into their home after my divorce. James has been my best friend since high school. I always knew James was a wonderful person, but this act elevated him to something even greater in my mind.” Everyone began nodding; all in attendance knew James, and so even those who hadn’t been aware of this act of generosity weren’t very surprised.
I swallowed again, holding myself back, and continued on with a banal series of “James” stories. It was excruciating to watch the audience absorb and digest what I was saying with hungry eyes and ears, for the stories told so little.
I can’t pin down exactly when and where I began to love James. I’d never had those kinds of feelings for anyone before, or at least hadn’t registered them consciously. In retrospect, I was probably in love with James in high school, but, confused and scared, mistook it for something else. And even now – it was more an “abstract and ineffable inkling” than a “concrete emotional feeling,” and during my first few weeks at his place I worked very hard to suppress whatever it was inside of me that was so attracted to James.
“And, James being James, covered the meals for every single veteran in the place. That’s just the kind of guy he was!”
It was perverse at first. I know it was, and I’m ashamed. But I could hear Paula and James every night, and the sounds they made engendered such jealousy in my mind that I could barely sleep. And I felt so stupid for loving him, and so guilty for feeling stupid.
“Paula and I used to joke that we felt like we had won the lottery for even knowing James; it was an act of providence that he played such an integral role in our lives.”
Believe it or not, James made the first move. We were out on his back patio, piss drunk, and Paula and the kids were asleep. A series of storm clouds seemed to be wrestling with the moon up above, and scattered, dusky streaks of moonlight weaved themselves through a labyrinth of mist and enveloped us. James and I looked at each other, and he smiled. Beer cans littered the yard. He leaned in, slowly at first, as if to gauge my interest. I closed my eyes. We kissed, and I felt the full spectrum of emotions.
“And James would be the first one to tell you that he could dunk because he had dunked, though I was always quick to remind him that the hoop was only nine and a half feet.”
Things spiraled out of control from there. Thursday nights, in Paula’s mind, meant a basketball league for James, and therapy for me. In reality, those nights meant a reservation at the motel by the side of the highway. For the three months until I moved out, Thursday nights were all that mattered.
“If there’s one thing I really want you to know about James, it was that he always had your back. No matter what, he would be there for you.”
During the two years after I left, James was very non-committal. Thursday nights at the motel turned into infrequent poker nights at my place. When we spent time together, he was aloof and distant. I could sense some great inner turmoil playing out in his mind, and whenever I tried to approach the topic of us, he would grow angry and leave.
“And when I say there for you, I mean it. A lot of other people, they’re all talk when it comes to their commitments. But not James. When I needed him, he was there.”
I loved James so much that I grew depressed and even angry at his lack of interest and enthusiasm in our relationship. Our meetings grew rarer, mostly because one of us would blow up at the other. I don’t think I was happy one moment in those two years, even when we were together.
“And Paula, Tommy and Laura, I just want you three to know that I will always be there for you, just like James was there for me.”
It all played out about three weeks before, when I gave James an ultimatum. Lie to Paula about wanting a divorce and then run away with me, or I’d tell Paula everything. I know I was being unfair. I was asking too much. Even now, I can’t justify it.
“I’m serious! If you think I’m lying, call me, any time, day, night, whenever, and if it’s one of you, I will pick up the phone. On my life!”
James killed himself that night; he drove his car off a bridge. He didn’t tell anyone, but somehow, when he left my place, I knew exactly where he was going, what he was going to do. And I didn’t stop him.
“I loved James more than any one of you! I loved him! I loved him!”
I don’t sleep anymore. Instead, I take a cigar up to my balcony and watch as the moon wrestles with the clouds. Neither fights to win. No – I think they fight because they have to, and because they know, somehow, that I’m watching.
Andrew Older is a legal assistant and aspiring law student residing in Washington, DC. He has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine, has work forthcoming in Scarlet Leaf Review, and holds a BA in English from Cornell University.