21 August 2001 (again)

We find each other's campfires a bit at a time. Curl around ourselves, hugging our knees in the flickering light. We don't have to ask the child's question, "Tell me a story?" Now we're adults. We know that sooner or later, it'll get told.

I use words like "power" and "compatibility" and "distance" and even "commitment." I use words like "self-respect." I don't know what words he uses, at his campfire, not yet. The words are there to cover up the bare reality: we were, and now we are not. Nobody talks to us about us. They take him to get drunk. They ask me about the new boyfriend, have me show pictures around. We were. Now we are not. The mythology begins.

She says to me, "I will always have a soft spot for him." So will I, I think. She says, "I hope you don't think that's a criticism. I'm glad you made the choices you made. But he's still special to me. You're my kid, but he's still special."

Yes. I know he is.

We were. Then we were not, but it didn't last long. We raged, we cried, we went over the details a million times. So that he wouldn't do it again the same way, he said. Don't worry, I thought. This could never be done again, not by anyone. Certainly not by you. But it makes him feel better to hear the words, "power," "compatibility," "distance," "commitment." Sometimes even "self-respect," though he likes that one less.

We were. Then we were not. Now we're something different.

"I always thought you'd marry -- well," she says, laughing by my fire, "I suppose I was wrong. Best friends can be wrong." I don't laugh. She peers up at the evidence of her mistake through blackened lashes. "Does it bother you, that they're still so close? What do you think of him?" There is no right answer to that, and none is really given.

"She didn't love me enough," he tells a few of them, by own his campfire when I'm not there, when he's had too many vodka-and-cranberries. "I screwed it up. She didn't love me enough." It's no wonder that he likes to hear my words over and over again. His are simpler, and they make it into something else completely, a portrait of failure. The mythology takes a sharp left turn here. We are no longer talking about the same gods, the same heroes, the same power and the same compatibility.

"How are you guys doing?" they ask. All of them ask. "You're still friends? Still close like you used to be?" No. Nothing like we used to be. Closer. More used to hurting each other and being hurt. We grow separately, half a continent away. We grow together. We don't know how not to be like that any more.

Part of the mythology I don't tell people in my tales is the little voice that sings in my ears. When I say he's not my responsibility, when I say I can't make his life happy for him, when I say that it's up to him to figure out what he wants to do and do it, the little voice sings, "Liar, liar, liar, liar...."

He writes to me with words I don't recognize, words like "trust" and "life changes." I call him. I have to use the word he doesn't like, "self-respect," over and over again. I use some of his, too. My voice shakes, and I grind my fists into the ground beside me. He stops seeing his gods and heroes long enough to see me again. He, too, is shaken.

We agree not to behave like that again, not ever.

We were. Then we were not. Now we are, something different, something different again. It keeps shifting with our fires. It has to.

I stop by her campfire for a minute. She uses the words I was using. She says "power" and "compatibility." She even says "self-respect." I stand there and listen deeply. I make sure it's a different story, that she's not getting mine wrong. It's different. But somewhere it must be the same, or maybe it's just the process of building the mythology, of putting the words on what didn't have words before. Otherwise I wouldn't have to tell mine again, months and years later. Otherwise I wouldn't remember what it was like to have them peering into the fire's circle, in ones and twos, and standing there, waiting for me to give them words to put on what has happened, that we were, and then we were not, or that now we are something different. Otherwise I wouldn't think of Dylan Thomas and the poem from my bathroom wall about the first death after which there is no other.

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