Floating Goodbyes

May 22, 2011
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Three days.

Three days, four hours, twenty three minutes, thirty one cups of coffee, eighteen missed phone calls, two break downs, and one bottle of eye drops. That was how long it took Julian to sit down and write his story, a story that he had never told anybody else. And when he finished, he had never felt more accomplished in his life.

With tired fingers, he clicked the print button and headed into the kitchen for cup number thirty two of coffee, a weak smile etched upon his face. Fumbling around in the cabinet over the small, stainless steel sink in his dimly lit kitchen, he found a flimsy Tupperware container. It was one of the many that his mother had left in his apartment after bringing him various pies and desserts when she was feeling he looked a little on the malnourished side. Fishing around in the cabinet again, he produced a bright red plastic lid. Satisfied with his work, he set both down on top of an electric bill on his cluttered kitchen table.

In the next room, the ancient printer that sat next to his laptop chugged away, turning out an endless amount of pages. Julian had sort of gotten lost in the writing, never really getting a final page count. However, looking at the amount of paper that was starting to pile up, he figured he might have gotten a little carried away.

Oh, well. It wasn’t like anyone was going to read it, anyways.

When the printer finally hummed to a stop, he took out his final creation, stapled it all together, folded it in half, and then slipped it into the large Ziploc bag he had found on his last coffee break. Sitting on his desk, there was another sheet of paper, crinkled and thin from being read so many times. He slipped that next to the thick sheaf of pages. Zipping the bag up so that it was airtight, he picked his way back through the darkness of the apartment and back to the kitchen.

As he began to stuff the plastic bag into the container, he glanced down at what he had set it on in the first place. He let out a long, breathy sigh, shaking his head slowly. Bills. They littered the table from one end to the other, and all Julian could do was wish they would go away. He sure as hell couldn’t pay them.

You have to have money to pay bills. And to have money, you have to have a decent job. And to have a job, you can’t be an ex-con. And to be an ex-con, you have to be accused for your best friend’s murder. A murder you didn’t commit.

With the snap of the lid onto the Tupperware, thoughts of trivial things like money and jobs evaporated from his mind, and soon he was off. Leaving the dark brick building in his wake, Julian quickly strode down the dirt smeared sidewalk, not looking at a single person that passed him. He had just moments until the sun went completely down, and he was bathed in darkness once again.

There was a small river that ran through town, wide enough to see across and dirty enough that no one came near it but desperate fisherman and people looking to escape the rest of the world. It stank of sewage and fish, and it was a place that Julian generally avoided.

He tromped through the thin layer of forest that surrounded the muddy banks of the river, a wave of nostalgia rushing over him. He hadn’t been here since he was a teenager, sneaking booze and then chucking the evidence into the water with Cameron.

With Cameron. Always with Cameron.

The stench of the river reached him full force when he finally reached the place where the murky water lapped up against the shore. He gazed at it for a while, pondering his decision. Was he really ready to share his story with anybody? With some stranger that he had never met before?

Really, that was what had sold him on this idea in the first place. That it wasn’t his mother that’d he have to tell the truth to, not his little sister Ella or his parole officer. That he wouldn’t have to face the tears that his ex-girlfriend would weep at him if she really knew. Because even if he told them, they wouldn’t really know, they wouldn’t really care.

He felt tears well up in his eyes, tiny pinpricks on the inside of his eyelids, and a large, painful lump swell in his throat. He shook his head, not able to take the torrent of painful thoughts that was cascading through his brain. With a sudden surge of pent up anguish, he wound up and flung the little container into the rush of the current.

For a moment, Julian thought he had lost sight of his vessel. Then, the bright red of the lid popped up out of the muck, and the water began to lead the Tupperware upstream, to God knows where. A light smile appeared on his face, unexpectedly. He felt like he was watching his own son take his first few steps. As the container began to pick up speed and disappear under the bridge from which he came, Julian’s smile faded a bit. Maybe he wasn’t as ready as he thought to let go.

Crashing through the brush, he sprinted back up to the street, then back to the bridge that overlooked the river. Heart pounding, pulse racing, he climbed up to the side of the concrete contraption, looking over and searching the water for any hint of red.

For a few moments, nothing but deep green. Then, suddenly, out of his peripherals, he caught some slight movement against a fallen log. There was his hint of red, banging into and brushing up against every single log or rock it happened to pass. He found himself leaning further and further forward, silently cheering on the ship that carried his life story.

“JUMP!” someone exclaimed from a passing vehicle, whizzing by and lifting Julian’s auburn curls off the back of his neck.

That had brought him back to reality. The damn that he had put up to stem the flow of memories earlier on the bank of the river now broke, letting forth the flood of pain. He remembered standing in almost the exact same spot eight years ago, a senior in high school with college and a future far out of his intoxicated mind. All he saw was the urgency of the river below. All he felt was the weight of the bottle in his hand. All he heard was Cameron’s wild laughter.

Julian squeezed his eyes shut, blocking it out.

When he finally regained the courage to turn around and watch the little Tupperware make its way down the river, darkness had fallen and he had lost track of it. Frantically searching the water, he felt a sinking weight in his stomach. One that told him that it was out of sight, gone forever and incapable of coming back.

He forced himself to think of the positive before the negative consumed his thoughts, which was a method that his court-assigned counselor had taught him. You know, just in case he really did kill Cameron, and the suicide note was a fake. In that case, the counseling would probably make him a changed man, and he wouldn’t even dream of killing another person, right? Oh, yeah. Of course.

The positive: probably no one would ever find it. And if they did, water would have probably leaked into the Ziploc by then and every page’s ink would be smeared and illegible. Good. Julian could think of no other possibility that pleased him more.

The negative: someone could find it. It could be some high teenager, and they could read it aloud to their friends and laugh their asses off. It could be some depressed writer, and they could make a story out of it and sell millions of copies, making his story widespread. F***, it could be some zoned out hobo who thinks it’s the Bible and believes Cameron is codename for Jesus.

Either way, he didn’t have any control over it. His story was gone, out into the world. Wherever it ended up was where it was meant to be, obviously.

And so for a long time, he just stood there, watching the water and trying to imagine the Tupperware’s progress along the river. Then, just as abruptly as he had come, he turned and walked away, trying to be cool and indifferent. Trying to be carefree, comical, confident.

Trying to be Cameron, because nobody wanted Julian to be Julian.

In the night of death, hope sees a star, and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing. —Robert Ingersoll

Once upon a time, a little plastic Tupperware container with a blazing red lid washed up on the muddy banks of a river. The backdrop to this particular patch of mud was spectacular; a massive white Colonial, complete with pillars and a sprawling, grassy green lawn.

And sitting on that muddy bank, backed by that dream of a house, was a rather ordinary girl. She sat with her head in her hands, her mind somewhere far away from the river and the little container that she hadn’t even noticed yet.

The small gush of waves came in again, pushing the insistent Tupperware against her bare feet. She looked up, frowning at the touch.

“Hello,” she said, as though it could talk back to her. She frowned when it didn’t, pondering what a Tupperware container was doing on the river. She’d seen a number of things pass by while she was down there; cheap plastic water bottles, toy boats that accidentally made it to the real waves, string bracelets with ‘I LOVE YOU!’ beaded on. But never a Tupperware.

And never, she realized with something in it.

“Hello,” she repeated, this time in a tone of surprise, her eyebrows raised. She bent over to retrieve the mysterious package, wondering if someone had accidently dropped their lunch while working on a bridge or something.

But no, through the translucent plastic she could see what appeared to be paper. A thick packet of paper. Licking her full, deep red lips, she popped open the bright red lid of the container, only to have a Ziploc bag practically pop out at her.

She swore loudly, dropping the entire thing into the mud and pulling her arms back. She let them hang in the air for a moment as she leaned forward, inspecting the paper without touching it. It was all folded up so that no writing could show, and she could just make out another paper, seemingly unattached.

Curiosity got the better of her.

As it happened, Julian, the writer of what was on the papers, captivated her from his first line:

I didn’t kill Cameron Croon.

From there, she sat stock still for two hours and read all twenty three pages twice, and the copy of Cameron’s suicide note, the very one that had proven Julian innocent.

Innocent, that is, after seven years in prison.

Slightly numb, she gripped the mud tinged paper in one hand and the plastic container in the other. She ambled up to her house, the one she had lived in all her life and had loathed for longer than that. Entering through the door that led to the flawless, country style kitchen that only she and her father used, she discarded the Tupperware on the counter and sat down at the island, bright sunlight streaming onto her bitten up and sunburnt face.

She proceeded to read the story—the memoir was a better word to call it, she supposed—for the third time, never having been so enraptured by any piece of literature in her life (excluding Harry Potter for dramatic benefits). Licking her lips, she read over the line that continually gave her goosebumps, as though Julian had been thinking of only her when he wrote it:

The truth is that no matter how many times I tell the truth, they’re never going to take me seriously. That’s just me though, isn’t it? No matter how much good I put out into the world, the one bad thing I did is always going to weight me down. And I didn’t even do it.

It made her think about college. Fucking college.

“What kind of self-respecting scholar gets kicked out of school two months before they graduate with honors? It won’t be condoned in this family, Mae. It simply will not.”

Those were her father’s first words when she arrived home, her face streaked with tears and her bags in her hands. She hadn’t stopped crying for about a week, thinking about the bright future she had successfully thrown away.

Suddenly, she pushed away from the counter angrily, hopping off the expensive stool that only she ever used and stomping down the hallway towards the dining room. Once there, she paused in front of the wall length mirror that covered the area behind the head of the table. She stood there, staring at the tiny person in huge room, wondering who she was. What life she lived. If she was happy.

God knew Mae wasn’t.

She took a step closer to the mirror, staring down her reflection and trying to make sense of the feelings welling up in her chest. She felt like she had when she had first arrived home from school, fresh from being kicked out. Teary, overwhelmed, pointless. She knew that it had come from reading Julian’s story. Or, perhaps, from reading his best friend Cameron’s suicide note.

What kind of sick f*** commits suicide right in front of his best friend? Cameron Croon, duh.

Mae stared into her own baby blue eyes, searching for a significance that wasn’t there. She raised her hand, watching it slowly rise up next to her in the mirror, then slowly clench into a fist. She brought it down square against her reflection’s throat, and then let it slip down until it was touching nothing, feeling nothing, meaning nothing. Just like everything else.

Moreover, what kind of sick f*** commits suicide by jumping off a bridge while with his best friend? Oh, Cameron, the lengths you went through to get a rise out of people. What, did you expect me to jump in right after you? As though the irony of that situation wouldn’t have killed everyone else.

She swallowed taking a step back and trying to regain control of herself. She could feel herself spiraling down…down…and she was desperately trying to stop it. Licking her lips again, she quickly strode out of the room, reclaimed Julian’s story, and headed upstairs.
She passed by the room that she got to decorate when she was a little kid as her show room. She used to love that room, always sitting in there and playing with her dolls or showing it off to kids that wanted a taste of her family’s wealth. Now, she strode by without even glancing at it. There were no words to account for the disgust she felt for that room, this house, the stuck up, stereotypical little girl she used to be.
Mae passed by three more rooms before reaching another staircase, climbing that with heavy feet. More rooms, more rooms; more empty, wasteful rooms, and finally she got to hers. It looked heavily lived in, because Matilda hadn’t been by yet to tidy it up. The bedspread was halfway off the bed; a large, half empty—no, half full—glass of water stood on the nightstand; clothes were whipped this way and that, making a trail towards her walk-in closet.
She crossed the room, heading towards her bathroom. Once there, she pulled open the medicine cabinet and removed a large, orange prescription pill bottle, labeled neatly with her name, a date sometime last month, and the word Prozac. She pulled the lid off, spilled out two pills into the palm of her hand, then popped them in her mouth. She swallowed them dry, staring at herself in the mirror as she did so.
She was starting to get a ring around her lips from licking them too often. She should probably stop that.
Moving back into her room, she sat down on the corner of her king size bed and picked up the laptop that was carelessly strewn there. She tried to picture Julian doing this, miles and miles away in wherever he lived, but her thoughts were stopped short. She had to know what he looked like, first.
Cameron was always handsomer that me. He was always more athletic, smarter, more popular. But he and I were best friends, and that was just the way it was. Is that why I killed him, the attorney that represented his mother wanted to know. Is that why I pushed him off the bridge? Was it jealousy?
Opening up Google, she typed into the search bar ‘Cameron Croon’.
Song lyrics, book characters, lines in movies…but no cigar. She tried again with ‘Cameron Croon bridge killing’.
That did the trick. Images popped up of the deceased boy. He was tall but built, with a wide, cocky smile and blonde hair that swooped down across his forehead. He looked like the sort of d*bag that Mae would have hung around with in high school, simply because it was expected of her. She was a Neale, after all. If Neale’s were infamous for anything, it was reputation.
Reputation, reputation, reputation.
She clicked on an article, something with the title “He Knew Him Too Well: Cameron Croon Remembered”. It was half interview, half editorial, talking about why Julian did what he did. Mae wasn’t really interested in all that, however. Just by skimming, she found the two things she needed to; his name and his town.
Just as she was about to dig a bit further, there came a knock on her door, immediately followed by it swinging open. As if by reflex, Mae snapped her laptop shut as she looked up.
“Hello,” her mother chirped, carefully avoiding Mae’s searching gaze. “And where have you been all morning?”
“I didn’t think you noticed that I left,” she responded in a monotone, still staring hard, daring her mom to look back.
Mrs. Neale glanced up quickly. “You just look like you got some sun, is all.”
Mae didn’t say anything; really, there wasn’t anything to say. Every day her mother came into her room, trying to engage her into conversation. And every day she left with nothing more than she had started with. It was a vicious cycle, and she could tell it was tearing her mother apart. But Mae had stopped caring about things like that a long time ago.
“I did,” she answered shortly.
“Okay…” Her voice trailed off softly, and for the first time in a while, she looked into her daughter’s eyes, eyes that echoed her own in every way possible. “Mae, I know there’s something wrong with you. I just want to help, really sweetie, I do.” She bit her lip, crossing her stick like arms in front of her chest. “I just want to help.”
See, I wasn’t always an honest guy. I was no pathological liar, but I told my share of white lies. Who doesn’t? But I realized when I got to court that the only way I had a chance (the evidence was all against me) was if I told the truth. And the truth, unfortunately, was that I was too drunk to really remember what happened. My lawyer didn’t like that. How about you, Cam? Did you like that one?
Mae had lied to her mother so many times before about this particular issue, that it was her first instinct to spit out a lie at that moment. But somehow, miraculously, she managed to keep her mouth shut, staring straight ahead while she fathomed an answer.
She should tell her. As Julian had said, it was the only way she had a chance. Maybe, just maybe, a chance was all she needed.
Slowly, she rose from her bed, padded towards her bathroom, and pulled out the little pill bottle that resided there. Licking her lips several times, she brought it back out to her mouth, holding it out in front of her like it was something dirty that couldn’t touch her person.
Her mother stared at it for a long, long time. And when she finally looked up, she had tears in her eyes. “Oh, Mae…”
That was one thing Mae couldn’t take at that moment. She slipped past her mom’s open arms, past the chance that she had just set up for herself. With Julian Landa’s letter in hand, hometown in mind, and story in her heart, she sped out of the house and down the long, winding driveway. When she reached the gate, she looked up at the old man who had been gatekeeper for as long as she could remember.
“Could you send for a car, please?” she called up to him, squinting her eyes in the afternoon sun. “And could you not tell my mother?”
He smiled, the rumpled skin on his face folding into smile lines that she found devastatingly endearing. “Of course, miss.”
Moments later, one of her father’s black, inconspicuous cars pulled up, and the gates began to slowly pull open. She was confident that her mother could easily see this from the window in her room, where she probably still stood wondering how one of her perfect children could fall into such a hole.
My favorite part about Cameron was the way he could make anyone feel special, even if they were the lowliest form of scum ever to walk the Earth. Take you, my humble reader, for example. He would say you’re a great listener.
She pulled onto the street, where normal sized houses lined the pavement in a friendly, suburbanite way. She had always envied it, watching barbeques and pool parties take place from her bedroom window.
The thing I admired least about Cam was that he hardly ever used that gift, the one that made me people feel like a million bucks. More likely, he would cut a person down so that others would laugh, and when called out on it (as he had been in the past, before people learned to shut their mouths) he would be indifferent and cool, not flustered. Like he didn’t care. I wonder…did you care, Cameron?
Of course, she had been to Riverdale before, so she knew where to go. It was only a few towns over, and at one time she had imagined herself moving there when she got older. The homes were like the ones opposite hers; medium, with one, at the most, room to spear. Nothing empty or emotionless. Perfect.
She pulled into a parking lot once she had reached the town, pulling out her phone and doing a few more Google searches. People just made it too easy to find their addresses. It turned out that Julian was living in a halfway house—er, apartment—and it was located along the main street of Riverdale. She found the place easily, but what was not so easy was preparing herself for him
It wasn’t that he was gorgeous. From what he said, he wasn’t anything special in the intelligence department, either. She had complete confidence coming here, not even second guessing herself. So why was she stopped now? Halted by some mysterious force that suddenly gripped her and made her sit still?
Maybe it was the fact that the tone of Julian’s story was…final. He didn’t want anything to do with her, because she knew everything about him—everything—and he knew nothing about her.
I think you did care. I think that’s why you did it.
She swallowed, looking up at the darkened windows and wondering if he was up there, what he was doing, if he was staring down at her car and wondering the same thing.
That’s the thing. I’ve read your note a million times, and I still can’t make sense of it. What do you mean, you were depressed? I’m your best friend, you would have told me. Cam; why didn’t you just tell me?
Finally, she got out of the car, making her way towards the harsh looking brick building. It was all she could do to keep her steps in line. Her knees were shaking so bad she could have tumbled right off the sidewalk. She went up the front steps, one at a time, in careful measured steps.
They hate me. Your family, my family…they won’t say it, but they do. They want to know why I allowed myself to go to jail if I knew the truth. They think that alone is the reason that I’m guilty. Ella told me the day I got home from prison that she misses you. Never me, never Julian. Always Cameron.
Mae pushed the buzzer at the same moment as the door opened. She found herself face to face with Julian Landa, all six feet plus of him. She took a step back, immediately intimidated by the wiry muscles that showed through his wife beater and the scowl that adorned his face. He scrutinized her blatantly, running his eyes up and down and then turning away when he realized there was nothing much to see. Mae Neale was just…ordinary.
She caught a look at her reflection in the glass door. She looked small and insignificant, with her long, black hair pulled into a ponytail at the nape of her neck and her blue eyes shimmering with…what? Hope? Fear? Need? She brushed her bangs out of her eyes, licked her scarlet lips, and looked back at Julian.
“I forgot your Tupperware at my house,” she choked out when it became apparent that he wasn’t going to say anything. She immediately felt like turning around and heading back to her car, but she stayed rooted to the spot.
He stared at her, good and hard. He didn’t say anything.
If it wasn’t for you, Cam, I don’t know what I would have done. And now that you’re not here…well…I need to get a life. That’s pathetic and self-deprecating, but I guess that was always me, wasn’t it? I don’t think that’s me now. No one’s around to tell me.
“It’s just…” She searched her mind, trying to come up with the perfect words to say to him. What would she want said to her? “It’s just that it was a really nice Tupperware, and I’m kind of upset that I forgot it.”
He leaned against the door jam, crossing his arms over his chest and continuing to stare at her.
I haven’t talked in a long time. Not to Ma, not to Ella. It’s just easier that way. I never did much talking before now, either. I guess it’s difficult to talk when nobody’s listening, huh?
“I read it,” Mae finally said when Julian didn’t even crack a smile. “I read it a couple times, actually.”
Still, nothing.
I just want you back. I want Ella to say that she misses you, because you made me, me. I want to get wasted out in the woods. I want to not have to worry about checking in with my parole officer. I want to have a regular job, with a regular house, with a regular life. I want someone to forgive me.
“I’m a college student,” she continued. “Well, I was. But I got kicked out for helping a kid cheat on one of his finals. I mean, he was gonna flunk out, and his parents had saved up for so long so that he could go to school…how could I just let that happen?”
Julian was starting to make her a little uncomfortable, with that dark eyed stare that he had refined so perfectly.
I don’t know how to end my story, because I don’t exactly know how it’ll end up for me. It’s ongoing, and it will be til the day I die. So now what, Cam? Because here’s the God honest truth: I don’t regret a single thing about my life, except that I never got to say goodbye to you.
“Look, I know you don’t talk. I know.” She pulled the story—which she had rolled up into a tube—out of her back pocket, brandishing it towards him with a meek half-smile. “And why would you talk to me? I’m just some girl who read a story that—at least I think—was never meant to be read.”
He clenched his jaw, standing up straight and blinking a few times. It was as though he wanted to say something, but he had not spoken for so long that he literally couldn’t. Mae licked her lips nervously.
What I think I’m trying to say—at this point, I’m not one hundred percent sure—is that maybe they’re right. Maybe you were better than me. But maybe, just maybe, letting go of you is what I need to become Julian. Maybe sending your story down a river to a stranger somewhere in Nowhere Land is how I’ll let someone else in, and say goodbye to you.
“You would talk to me,” she said, answering her own question, “because I’d listen.”
There was that stare again. That hardened, indifferent stare that was creating powerful creases in the ivory skin of his forehead. She wanted to reach her hand up and smooth them down, but she kept her arm anchored at her side.
The word was so sudden, so gruff and rough sounding, that Mae was sure that it was the just the scruff of her shoe against the concrete. But no, now Julian was staring down at her expectantly, wanting an answer.
“Because…” The word lingered on her tongue. “Because I think you might have saved my life.” She offered up a shy smile, a light blush lingering on her cheeks. She felt like she had to give him one small part of her life, since he had already given her such a huge part of his. It was only fair.
He blinked, considering this. Finally, after what seemed like hours of waiting, he reached out and took the thick packet of paper from her grasp. “This,” he said, his words getting clearer with every word he spoke, “cannot be spoken of. Agree to that, and I’ll talk.”
“Of course.”
He nodded, slowly and assuredly. Then, he opened up the door a bit wider, letting Mae in.
Goodbye Cameron Croon, my best friend. Goodbye.

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