Looking back, I can’t help but wonder. Why him?
Why do we gather, like moths, around the flame of one life and overlook the garden of lights all around us? Why, when I was sure I wanted to die, did I write to Joe?
One afternoon, slumped against my mattress, my legs tucked against the carpet, I was reading Villette by Charlotte Brontë, a novel about a woman who isn’t sure she believes in happiness but cannot bring herself to commit suicide.
“Certainly, at some hour, though perhaps not your hour, the waiting waters will stir; in some shape, though not perhaps the shape you dreamed, which your heart loved, and for which it bled, the healing herald will descend.”
I read the passage over and over, thinking only of him.
I thought of Joe M. so hard that finally, I started writing. I wrote him an email, and then I hit send.
* * *
I had met Joe when I was 16 years old. I stepped into a Tae Kwon Do class that fall, and there he was, an assistant instructor and a second-degree black belt only six months younger than I was. Joe had begun Tae Kwon Do at the age of ten. I had begun ballet at seven. We had each spent our childhoods studying under stern and intimidating instructors.
I’d like to say that I had no idea how important he would become, but I did. Every time I looked at him, I felt a shock of recognition. He had heavy brows, brown eyes, brown skin, and shorn brown hair. Several of my classmates were smitten right along with me.
One day Mrs. Henkel asked him to demonstrate his form for the class. We all knelt, and then he drew a breath and began. He moved so gracefully that the only sound was the snap of his cotton dobok and the flap of his belt. He leapt into the air and hovered there, the way I had believed only dancers could, and his legs sprang into a flawless side kick. My breath caught. My face reddened.
I had admired many teenage girls at Cornish—Tahnee and Naomi and Brittany had all possessed that special je ne sais quoi that marks the great artist, and they went on to run startups and to work for renowned dance companies—but I had never before admired a teenage boy. I had never before encountered the same mastery and discipline outside of dance. Finding it here, in this boy, pierced me as completely as an arrow.
* * *
I began to discover, at Tae Kwon Do, something like a family. One evening, we stood in a large semi-circle, as if gathered around a campfire, parents and children, teachers and students. I was just another student. Just like everyone else. Normal. I wished we could have all bunked down in sleeping bags. I wished we could have stayed like that forever.
I knew my father was waiting outside. He dropped me off every night and then came back to pick me up. He refused to come in and say hello to my teachers, no matter how many times I invited him, and I knew that the longer I let him seethe out there, the worse it would be for me later. But I didn’t want to go. Not yet. Joe was on my left, my friend Leah to my right, and I was happy.
Suddenly, a door banged shut at the other end of the gym. Everyone fell quiet and looked up. It was my father, glaring hard at all of us like a gunslinger hunting his quarry. I could see the tension in the way he stood, taut and electric with rage.
My father and I locked eyes. He swatted me over. “Get over here,” he growled.
Joe instinctively stepped in front of me, shielding me. Suddenly, I was looking at my father over Joe’s shoulder, and I knew that so long as Joe was there, no one could raise a finger to hurt me. It is hard to find words, even twenty years later, for what that moment meant.
Joe had just done, for me, what I had done for my mother six years before and had been beaten for. He had done what no one else ever had. He had tried to protect me.
It didn’t matter in the least that he couldn’t. It mattered that he wanted to. Joe stood there for a few seconds, his back to me like a drawn curtain, a sheltering wall I could have rested my forehead against. I felt safe. I felt valued. And I loved him then. Irrevocably. Eternally. His whole sarcastic, gummy bear-fueled, 17-year-old self.
With that one gesture, he changed everything. I was not alone anymore.
I had an ally.
And I was not crazy.
Someone else had seen my father for what he was. And Joe had found me deserving of something better than that.
* * *
After that night, Joe took a keener interest in me. I started driving myself, and we talked after class, sitting on the sidelines with Leah as the gym cleared out, and he asked me a few times about my father, inviting confessions. But I never cracked. Abused children almost never do.
So he tried another tack. One night he asked, with genuine concern, “What do you do for fun?”
I could tell the question mattered to him. Sometimes I liked to give him a hard time, to exaggerate my inexperience with the world, to dodge his questions with more questions until I annoyed him, but this time I wanted to give him a real answer. Still, I didn’t know how. So I shrugged, my legs stretched out in front of me, ankles crossed. “I have fun,” I said defensively. Though I didn’t. Not really. I was too anxious, too watchful.
“Yeah?” he said, grinning now. Daring me. “How?”
“Reading,” I said. “Painting.”
I had given all the teachers art for Christmas that year, and he had stared a long time at the tiny watercolor I had given him. I had painted a solitary tree with gnarled roots in black Chinese ink. It overlooked a lake, one boat on its mirrored surface with a lone figure rowing. Solitude and strength so intertwined as to be inseparable, as if I believed that was the only way to be strong.
But these were not the answers he was looking for. “What’s the point of being so serious 24/7?”
I didn’t know what to tell him.
So I jumped up and sprinted across the gym and leapt as high as I could, stretching my arms overhead as if I expected the air itself to take me up in an embrace, and then, laughing, I executed a grand jeté en tournant. My friend Leah started laughing and joined in, executing her best jump kicks, until finally Joe joined us, too.
Here, I was trying to tell him. Here is where I have fun.
* * *
He invited me onto AIM, one of the first online chat services. I avoided the telephone and still wrote longhand letters to friends. So I had never known the comfort of being under my father’s roof but not alone, of sitting at my father’s computer and typing in, “Joe. You still there?” and the chime as he typed back, “Yeah. What’s up?”
I had never known that so much kindness could hurt. How exquisite the pain of happiness could be, knowing that in my life under that roof, it could not last. When I looked at my mother’s roses out my window, I thought of Joe. How brief the beauty. But how very goddamn worth it, to love that. To have known it could exist.
* * *
When I began to starve myself the summer I was 19, Joe and I had not spoken in several months. I had quit Tae Kwon Do. He was across the state at Whitman College with the aim of heading to Stanford for medical school. I was at a local community college acing my classes, taking four or five a quarter because they were too easy, and trying to stay alive. But I wasn’t managing even that.
He promptly answered my email and asked how I was.
From there, we wrote regularly that summer. Not often from what I remember, but regularly.
I never told him I was trying to die.
But I did tell him what I had told the psychology professor. That I felt alone. I wasn’t sure there was a point to my life. I wasn’t sure there was much of a future for me at all.
And unlike either my mother or my professor, he heard what I was really saying.
And he wrote back.
That alone was enough to help.
But what he said was what I had ached to hear:
Maybe you feel so alone because you’re different. And maybe it’s just because you are different that you haven’t found where you belong, maybe you haven’t figured out what you’re supposed to do with your life yet. But you will. You’re going to do something amazing with your life, and then you’ll be able to use this time to help other people. You’ll find where you belong one day. I know it.
I climbed my cedar tree, the ancient redwood with the split trunk, and I gripped the branches. For the first time in months, I did not think of throwing myself off. I did not think of death. Joe believed I could do something with my life. He believed I was meant for greater things than my father’s rages and a life locked behind a window. I looked out over my parents’ roof and the houses on my street, out across the valley and towards the horizon. I rested my cheek against the soft leather of the cedar bark, sun-warmed and cinnamon-scented, and felt the sunset on my face. For the first time in such a long time, I believed it, too.
* * *
I heard from him one last time that summer when he was home from college for the break. He invited me for coffee. I said yes. And I never heard from him again.
I could have emailed him again. I could have checked in.
But I didn’t. I don’t know why. I would like to think that I knew I was too damaged, that deep-down I knew I wasn’t yet capable of a healthy friendship, let alone a relationship, and that we both deserved better. But I don’t think so. I think I simply felt it. We were at the end of our road.
I had already asked so much. And he had given so freely. No matter where we might have gone next, he could never have given me more than he already had. And it was a gift I could never possibly repay.
He had returned to me my will to live.
* * *
Albert Schweitzer once wrote, “In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being.”
Joe was the first person who had said exactly what, all my life, I had needed to hear: Maybe all along there had been nothing wrong with me at all. Maybe it was my home that was broken. My life. Not me.
I thought, at the time, that this was the beginning of the end of the darkness. I could not have known—it was better that I did not know—that I was still at the very beginning. That all the worst things that would happen to me hadn’t happened yet.
For years, I dreamed of him, and we always talked. Sitting shoulder to shoulder on the hood of his car, overlooking valleys and towns and shorelines, we talked. Sometimes, in my dreams, he saved me again. Sometimes he pulled me back from another ledge. I dreamed of him so often that he became an archetype: the nurturing masculine.
Not all men destroy.
Some are builders and healers and life-givers.
Joe was one of those.
When I think of him now, I don’t see him as the man he might be, middle-aged and well-established. Certain of himself and his beliefs, pulling into his driveway every night, setting the keys on the counter, peeling off his coat, kissing his wife.
I see him as he once was that night after a tournament in Portland. A boy, uncertain and intelligent and above all kind, leaning forward over his steering wheel and waving to catch my eye as I sat in the back of a pickup, his face glowing in the brake lights. So alive with all the possibilities of his life and my own. We sat there smiling like idiots, and then the stoplight changed, and we waved goodbye before he drove back into his own life, a safer life, but one from which he sent his wishes for safety and dignity and yes, a bit of fun—his prayers for the rest of us, those of us who cannot and never have lived in his world. He gave me his faith that we won’t always have to, believing for us when we lack the strength to believe for ourselves, that faith shining outward like sunlight into the darkness of the universe.