I've known what the title of this entry would be for two months; even though I never could quite get around to putting fingers to keyboard to bring it into being. The word "laden" whispered itself to me as fingers touched blossom, whispered to me in that insistent voice that said, no matter how long it took, the chronicle of this moment was one that would not stay wholly in my mind.
It was my seventh wedding anniversary, but the story starts several days earlier, in an airport standing next to a man who, unbeknownst to me, had a plan.
* * * * *
I hugged Jake at the airport, marveling at his ability to take a cross-country flight and come out looking just as neat and calm as he must've looked upon boarding the plane. Through a screwup, I hadn't met him on his way to baggage claim as I'd originally intended; he was already at baggage claim by the time I found him.
"My bag was delayed," he said. "It's coming in on the next flight from Denver, so we'll have to hang out and wait for it."
For a moment I thought, "How do you know that? When my bag was delayed one time, it took hours to figure out what had happened to it. You just got off the—wait, I'm just glad you're here. Screw it. Let's sit somewhere." We sat, and we waited, and many thoughts coursed through my mind that I did not mention.
Mostly I thought about Chris. Chris, who is Jake's longtime roommate and a person with whom I have had a close, but volatile, relationship with for several years. Chris, who, due to events that must remain private, I was barely on speaking terms with. We could speak to each other, but every phone conversation was strained, painful; a memory of our prior closeness.
It took little more than the mention of his name to bring me dangerously close to tears.
I had made up my mind the day before; I was going to try something small, something that looked and smelled suspiciously like a peace offering. At the time, I rationalized it like this: it would hurt to have him in my life, hurt badly until things between us had time to heal, but it was infinitely better than the thought of not hearing his voice again.
I went to Junkman's Daughter and stood in front of the ducks. We had jokingly nicknamed him "duckie" and it had stuck to the point that, every now and then, I'd get him a silly rubber duck of some sort or another. He called them his "duck army." I thought if anything could serve as a peace offering, the cheerful little ducks might do it.
I said to Jake, "I bought some ducks. They're a peace offering. I was hoping that you could take them back and give them to him." He smiled and nodded. He could do that, he said.
But there was something. Something I couldn't place, some sort of oddity. It made me wonder idly if perhaps there was something not quite right with the story I'd been told. I dismissed it as pure fancy, the deluded wishes of someone who was going through a personal crisis with a friend … until I called Brian.
We had terrible cell phone reception. I called him to say that I had Jake sitting next to me, and that we were waiting, and that we'd have to play rock-paper-scissors to figure out who was going to be tonight's designated driver since we all really wanted to drink while we were at dinner tonight.
I wasn't quite certain of what he said in return, but I could have sworn that he said something about there being more people to play than I'd anticipated. The connection was so bad that we gave up trying to communicate, and hung up. I locked the keys on my cell phone before putting it back in my purse, and began slotting it all together.
Chris had called from the airport when he dropped Jake off that morning, and made mention of being in a part of the Denver airport that I thought you couldn't access without a ticket. I wasn't overly familiar with the airport, though, and brushed it off. He hadn't called to check to see if Jake had arrived safely. Hadn't we talked quietly, hesitantly, about him maybe coming out at some point?
My thoughts swirled a vortex around the question I was afraid to ask Jake, for fear of the answer being 'no' and being shown up for a hopeless fool: were we, instead of waiting on a bag, waiting on a person?
I thought to myself that I wasn't ready to handle this, wasn't ready for the possibility of even seeing him, given the unsettled and painful state of our friendship, but then I realized something. As we talked, I was not looking at Jake. I was scanning baggage claim, scanning every face that passed through, and I was hoping I would see him. Hoping that the next face I saw would resolve into the face of someone that, for good or ill or fighting or sorrow or laughter, I still wanted in my life.
I wasn't sure until people started clustering around baggage claim, and Jake walked over to ostensibly look for his bag. I saw him look across the carousel, and I saw him nod at something. Or someone. I followed the direction of his gaze, and saw the sight I'd been seeking for the past hour. I buried my head momentarily in my hands and thought, "Okay, kitty, here's your chance to make good on your thoughts," and went to hug my friend.
Because, for good or ill, for fighting and mutual misdeeds and everything past and unburied, my friend he still was. I looked at him, familiar stride and sunglasses, and the first thought that crossed my mind was "there's my duckie."
"Surprise," he said.
* * * * *
I wish I could say it was easy. I wish I could say there weren't tears. We staked out places on the back porch that night, sober and unsleeping, past the point when everyone else in the house had gone to bed. We had things to say to each other, things that couldn't be heard by other ears.
We argued. Accused. Cried.
In the end, we hugged, and my tearstains soaked his shoulder. We wouldn't ever see completely eye to eye, and wouldn't always approve of the other's actions, but the same statement held true: painful though it might be, it hurt more to imagine life without each other.
He was, after all, my duckie. I don't have a spare. He's the only one.
* * * * *
By Sunday, we knew that events were conspiring against me. Jeff was definitely going to need to fly to San Francisco that Sunday, for a trip that—at the time—was going to be only three days long. (Those of you who have kept up with me during my silences know that the trip ended up being three weeks long, and greatly disrupted our lives.) Monday was our seventh wedding anniversary, and it looked like we'd have to spend it apart.
As our DCTV filming extended from Saturday to Sunday, I thought about the concept of change fees. I knew that Chris had Monday off; unlike Jake, he could stay another day if he could get his flight changed. Once I knew that Jeff would have to go, I pulled Chris aside and said, "If I pay the change fee for you, will you stay another day?"
We were better. We could look each other in the eye and see past the hurt to the friendship that still remained. I knew that everyone else who was in town for the DCTV filming would disappear on Sunday afternoon, and that I would spend Monday by myself. The more I thought about it, the lonelier that idea became.
We called Frontier and changed his flight. I read out my credit card information over the phone, and paid the change fee. He kept his bags unpacked, and I kissed Jeff goodbye at the airport with a "See you Wednesday" that, in retrospect, was laughable.
I wanted a day. Just a single day. A day that we could be friends, to see if we could manage a day in which everything between us was simple and calm.
* * * * *
We went out for Chinese, and shared basil rolls after laughing at my first attempt to get a drink ended with a badly leaking plastic cup, which promptly made a mess all over the table. He confessed to a severe lack of Chinese food in his home town and we stuffed ourselves with noodles and curry.
We went shopping. I took him to the place where I bought his ducks, and we giggled at the selection before deciding that I had bought the right ones the first time. We wandered through music and comic book stores, and ended up heading slightly north to go for ice cream.
We parked on the right-hand side of the street, just past the shop, and I slung my backpack over my shoulders before asking, "Do you have these back home?" I pointed to the crape myrtles, which were so laden with blooms that the branches swung in even the tiniest breeze. "They're everywhere down here, and they bloom every color from white to yellow to red to purple. Everything except blue."
He walked back to the closest one and rubbed a frilled petal between his fingers. He sniffed it gingerly, and turned to me in surprise: "They don't have a scent."
"No, they don't," I said as I fed the parking meter.
"Come on. It's really muggy out here. Let's go get some ice cream."
I ate my tiny cup of ice cream and stared quietly at the floor, noticing the difference in wear where a recent renovation had uncovered previously-protected checkered tiles. Chris drank water to offset the ice cream and the sweltering heat. It was, after all, July in Atlanta. It took me a few minutes to realize what was different: we were talking. Easily. Simply.
My mind ran over it, like a tongue over a numbed tooth, fascinated by the absence of pain. He was here, really here, sitting across the table from me in an ice-cream shop, and not in some unknown building in a city halfway across the country. His was not the voice on the other end of the phone. I could watch him gesture with his hands as he talked, watch his facial expressions change as his thoughts drifted.
He was my duckie, and he was my friend again, and somehow, despite the fact that my spouse couldn't be on the same side of the country as me on our wedding anniversary, I had the oddest and most certain sense that everything was actually going to be okay.
I held on to that thought throughout the day, through the idle shopping excursions and the eventual trip to the airport. I held my tears until the moment I saw him duck inside the doors of the airport, and drove away with the suspiciously shimmering vision of someone who didn't quite have control of her emotions just yet.
I thought of him every time I saw crape myrtle branches, heavily laden with blooms, sway in the breeze this summer. I thought of him because some friends you just can't not think of. I thought of an anniversary that I expected to have to spend alone, and found myself grateful for the day that had done more to heal a friendship than innumerable strained phone calls over several previous months had managed.
He was, after all, my duckie, and I have only one.