Friday, November 6, 2009

God, I Loved His Smile...

Today is the day Andy killed himself. Nine years ago.

What I had hoped would someday be my "happily ever after" surely didn't turn out that way. Andy was a man I loved. And he did love me back, I'm pretty sure of that. We had a very secretive on-and-off relationship for about 2 1/2 years before he died.

The first time I met Andy was in the back of the Rogue Ales Public House bar and restaurant on the bayfront in Newport, Oregon. I was dealing blackjack there in a makeshift cardroom. There were four blackjack tables crammed into this room, in the back of a bar, where two pool tables used to be. There was a small group of dealers, and we all worked well together. Steve was a big, shy, funny guy. One of those guys who doesn't say much, but when he does, it is always funny or insightful. Dan was the class clown, hilarious, but strikingly insecure. Steve's brother Dave also dealt blackjack with us. You wouldn't know they were brothers unless they told you. As Steve was a tall, bigger guy with curlyish unkempt hair, Dave was a rather short little guy, clean-cut, and trim in build.

The four of us were standing behind our respective tables, waiting for action, and joking back and forth about who-knows-what. Dan and I were drinking beer, but the brothers were going sober for the night. In our cardroom, dealers could drink, and smoke, and pretty much do what they liked while dealing. And we liked to drink. The boys all got off on some guy topic, so I decided to put my cards in order before the game got started.

I was looking down, sorting cards, and this strange feeling came over me. Very similar to the feeling you get when you can feel someone watching you, you look up, and someone is watching you. And something else too, a warmth, a wave, a flood of energy. I heard Dan and Dave simultaneously say, "SHEP!" I couldn't take my eyes off my cards. I couldn't move. I couldn't breathe. The boys started to welcome Shep back from wherever he'd been, chiding him, and shaking his hand, ordering him a beer. Slowly, and matter-of-factly, I took a deep breath, raised my eyes, and smiled.

"SHEP! God, it's been a REALLY long time, how the hell are ya?" He smiled at me first, then looked at me, then, for a moment, tried to remember who I was. I had never met this man before. He had never met me. He knew in an instant who I was, and I knew him. He walked straight past the boys' tables, sat down at mine, and introduced himself as Andy Shepard. We shook hands for a moment or two longer than is necessary. We locked eyes for a moment or two less than we wanted.

He played at my table all night, we flirted like no one else was in the room. He wrote his number on a piece of a cigarette package, with a little smiley face and heart. When he gave it to me, he slipped it in my hand like a secret, held on tight for a moment, and said, mostly with his eyes, "Please call me." And so I did.

The reason our relationship was so secretive was because of his ex-wife. They had been high-school sweethearts, she got pregnant to keep him, and they got married. She was a very controlling woman who wanted him to be miserable. She played their child like the queen on a chess board, moving in every direction, always a step away from him. He loved his daughter more than anything. She threatened to take her away forever if he stayed with me. She wanted him back, and if she couldn't have him, no one else could either. I hated her.

We were in an "off-again" phase. I had moved to Eugene with a friend of mine, and we had only seen each other a few times over that year. About a month before he died, I went home to Newport and saw him at the other Rogue, the brewery bar. There was some function going on. I didn't know he was going to be there. I was angry with him for letting his ex-wife control our fate. But when I saw him, all I wanted was to be alone with him. To touch him. To feel him. And I was incredibly nervous. I could barely speak. We sat together with a couple of other people at a table and watched as people danced, laughed, drank. He moved in his seat so that our legs connected, tapped my foot with his, turned to me and sort-of smiled an apology. I asked him to dance, and he said he doesn't dance. Yet, a little bit later, some drunk woman he knew pulled him out of his chair and forced him to dance. I should've done that. That was MY dance, MY chance. And I missed it.

About a month later, I was back in Eugene. It was an uncharacteristically hot fall day. But beautiful. The sun was sparkling through our windows, our garden of flowers were all stretching up to get a big gulp of it, they were bright and stunning - the final flourish before winter set in. I was cleaning house, and happy about it. Playing loud music, and dancing, and dusting, and folding laundry like it was my favorite thing.

I saw a car pull up outside the house, did a double-take, and realized it was my Mom! Could this day get any better? A totally unexpected visit from my Mom?!?! How wonderful!

"Mommmmmyyyy!!! Yey! What are you doing here?!" Her face looked like she'd just seen a terrible accident. "What's wrong? Is is Scott? Oh, please tell me it isn't Grandpa... MOM! What's WRONG??? Tell me WHAT'S WRONG, PLEASE! Who is it?"

"Come in the house, Julie, just come inside."

"No, Mom, just tell me, please, just tell me. Is it Grandpa? Oh, God, it's he gonna make it? Mom..."

"It's not Grandpa, let's get in the house, please." I was shaking so bad I barely made it up the steps, I remember looking at the flowers and thinking that all-of-a-sudden they were grey, lifeless, dead already.

We barely got through the door when my Mom said, "Honey, it's Andy. He's gone." She handed me a newspaper clipping of his obituary. "I'm so sorry, honey, so sorry." Some sort of sound came out of me that I've only heard a couple times before. It's the sound those mothers make on the History Channel, the African mothers who've just lost a child to some unknown disease. A long wail, sorrow voiced, gutteral soul-pain. I crumpled to a mess on the floor, crying and shaking and breaking.

I took a week off school and work, and went home. By the time my Mom had come to deliver the news, Andy had already been dead a week. His family was ashamed, they didn't even have a service. The obituary listed no cause of death. I guess "he shot himself in the stomach with a shotgun and bled to death slowly" was too graphic.

At home, I met up with Andy's best friend, Laura. She and I met through a mutual friend, and had become friends too. We were at a bar right off the beach, drinking and crying, crying and drinking. It was loud. People were dumb. We needed a walk. Laura and I headed down to the beach, holding hands and walking, no more talking, tears sliding down both our noses. It was clear out, but cold, ice in the air. It felt good. The moon, huge and bright, lit up the beach like a spotlight. We walked toward the ocean as if we would just walk right in, and we probably would have - to disappear, to forget, to go with Andy wherever he went. But, there in the sand, something stopped us. Big, huge letters, carved at our feet. A message. GOODBYE. It was about 10 feet tall and 20 feet across. We stood and stared at it for a long time, then hugged and hugged each other as if that would bring him back. It was when the ocean washed over our feet, wiped away our message, that we stopped. Five minutes later, and we'd never have seen it. That was Andy for ya - big message, but only a little time to read it.

I've missed him a lot over these past nine years. I've wondered what could have been. I've second-guessed everything in our relationship. I've felt his warm breath on my neck, his hands on the small of my back, his eyes smiling at me. I heard his laugh once in a grocery store. I turned to find him, but it was an old man buying turkey kielbasa. I never wanted that man to laugh again - and what's so funny about turkey kielbasa anyway. Today, it's been nine years since he bravely and cowardly blew himself apart. I picture him that way sometimes because I can't help it. But mostly I picture him in the cardroom smiling, in his bedroom smiling, having drinks with me somewhere, smiling. God, I loved his smile.

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