What, you don't believe me? Fine, I'm screwin' with you. Don't worry about it. You won't believe the rest of it, anyway. I don't. Might as well start off right. I already told Rockline that I'm writing my life story.
They don't know the half of it.
It was full daylight, really, which makes the whole thing even more ridiculous. The day started out just fine, and then went straight on to hell.
And took me with it.
* * *
I woke up at the regular time, sometime after 5, and did the regular thing. Shower, make coffee, sit on the deck and look at the crazy ass world I live in. That damn raven hasn't been around for awhile, finally, and didn't show up that day either. I was tired of him, anyway. They're noisy bastards, worse than blue jays if you ask me. But it doesn't matter. I got dressed and did another regular thing: walk down to the local newsstand. They still have them around here, usually right in the city, but not this guy. I don't live in the city anymore, and I'm never going to again.
Look. I gotta calm down to tell this, because I'm still pissed about it, about a lot of things. Ross keeps telling me to let go of it, it's done and I can't change it. After all, I'm alive, right? But it seems to me with everything else I've seen since, that I could change it, if I wanted to. There are a lot of things I could do, if I really wanted to, and I'm not doin' 'em because I still have boundaries. I don't have to have them, but I need them. When it's all said and done, people are made up of two things: their memories, and their boundaries. Everything else is just clutter you pick up as you go. I need to make that clear before I tell you the rest of it. Yeah, keep nodding at me, I've seen that nod on a hell of a lot of people since this all started. It's okay. You don't know any better.
Anyway, the stand is in town about a mile and a half away. I've started walking every morning since I got the hip replaced, and there's more to it than just excersize. It's good for me in a lot of ways, or it was until that day. Gives me a chance to think, which I do better when I'm moving around. Jon used to watch me pace around his house while we were writing, and he'd say, the hamster's in the wheel again.
There's an old guy who runs that stand, Morry. Little old guy, white hair, the whole bit, slight Russian accent. Says he came here from the Ukraine twenty years ago. The stand is right on the street, stuck between two clothing stores. He holds his own down there, cursing at the wannabe gangbangers and telling stories about the cold war to anyone who gets close enough to listen. He's a scream. I go down there every morning now and get a paper--even though the papers are full of stuff that's barely worth reading--and chat with the old guy. Sometimes I bring him coffee, sometimes he's the only human I talk to that day, sometimes he's the only human who sees me. He's never heard of me. Sometimes, I've never heard of me either.
It was a little gray, and I didn't bring an umbrella, just locked the house and took off. Rain hasn't killed me yet. It was pretty typical for November, somewhere in the fifties, a little windy, the light just beginning to show. I had a lot of time to think about the details, later on. I took my time, like I usually do now, a skill I'm finally learning.
Morry was at his post, watching folks go by, playing fashion police again. I try not to play, because if he'd seen me anywhere from ten to twenty years ago, he'd have plenty to say. Times have changed, though. I stopped at the Starbucks across the way and got him one of those house blends he likes. It wasn't quite seven on a Friday, and people were just starting to come out. Suits on their way to corporate middle management, semi-goths with wary eyes and cell phones, tired baby boomers wearing aprons bearing supermarket logos as they trudged for the bus stop.
Morry looked up from the most recent Newsweek and said, "You're late."
I snorted and handed him his coffee. Normally there would have been something smart to say, some sort of comeback, but I didn't have any that day. I was feeling dull around the edges, and fell back on cryptic phrases instead. In retrospect, it helped put me where I ended up.
But no sense dwelling on that. I'll just get pissed again.
"Better late than never," I said.
He looked at me over the tops of his wire rims in the growing light, letting me know what he thought of my attitude. "I don't see that pretty lady of yours anymore. She used to walk this route with you."
I'd been waiting for him to bring it up. He and Robin had hit it off right away, her youthful exuberance and freckles endearing her to him, and me too. She'd been with me on that morning walk quite a few times, at least once a week, the two of us hand in hand and not always needing to talk. There'd been an ease between us, neither of us needing to prove ourselves. An ease that transcended the age difference.
But she was gone.
Sooner or later, everyone was. Either I drove them off or they drifted away, and I didn't wanna talk about it. He must have seen something on my face, because he raised his eyebrows.
"We're not together anymore," I said, and it seemed to be close enough to the right phrasing. Driven off, gave up, tried to get through, woke up to sanity. Pick one. They were all the same to me by then. I missed her but it didn't hurt. It was getting harder to feel hurt, about anything. Getting harder to write, getting harder to get up. Get your violin out, right? Christ, I'm starting to bore myself.
The look on his face wasn't quite sympathy. Had it been, I probably would have been pissed, and I think he knew that. I don't do sympathy well, it's awkward for everybody. I shrugged and gestured at the magazine he had spread out in front of him. "Now what? The kids from 'Blair Witch' again, or another plane crash?"
He smiled a little. "It's the same thing every week, Steve. The names and faces change, but it's the same thing over and over."
I used to say the same thing, about touring. Every city is the same, only the names and faces change.
That was another life.
If you asked the guitar player, I said the same things over and over anyway, no matter where I was. But I'm not harping on him anymore.
"Well, the end of it all's coming, so don't pay any attention," I said. "Won't be long, now."
I was trying to be flip. I meant the Millennium. Y2-goddamn-K, Armageddon, whatever it was that week. It wasn't the first time an attempt to be glib came back to bite me in the ass later on.
He raised his eyebrows again, probably not sure what to do with that, maybe indulging me, and I remember thinking, 'why am I wasting this guy's time', or something like it. I'm old enough to know when I'm rotten company. I think it's part of why I've taken myself out of the world.
We talked for a few minutes more, the same old thing, and I probably did say the same things I said every day. Yeah, I am starting to bore myself. Then I bought a paper, extricated myself before I could scare the poor guy, and headed back the way I'd come, watching the morning traffic begin to pick up. It was still light, but the commute was under way, everyone in a hurry. The headline was something muddled about the World Trade Organization and the impact it would have when it hit Seattle later in the month, and something about that Egypt Air flight going down. I didn't really see it, just glanced at it as I walked.
And somebody grabbed me.
I don't mean brushed by, or took my elbow. I mean grabbed, with intent. It startled me, because I hadn't heard anyone come up on me, hadn't realized someone was that close. I turned my head, too confused to do more than get a look at who it was, to see what was going on. I didn't react as fast as I should have. I like to tell myself it wouldn't have mattered.
"Who let you out of your cage?"
Neal. Looking smug, something I wasn't accustomed to from him. I was surprised by the sight of him, by the tone of voice, by the grip he had on my arm. So I still wasn't reacting.
Let's break in to mention the unnecessary, huh? For the record.
I hadn't seen Neal since the last round of interviews we did during the winter of '96. Then a couple of times after, to hammer things out as far as getting the legal aspects of my involvement with Journey taken care of. It wasn't friendly. Something else was going on, and I guess it doesn't matter what anymore, but they were all acting fucking weird, looking over their shoulders. That bullshit started after my house got tossed.
Again, it wasn't friendly. We were all assholes during that time, but me and Neal...
It wasn't his neighborhood. He came out of nowhere. And by the time we'd split up the previous year, he would have crossed a street rather than run into me. He's not even allowed to say my goddamned name during interviews anymore, if that tells you anything. We've had the chance to patch some things up since. But there he was, purposely getting my attention and acting like he was up to something.
It raised the hair on my neck. And I ain't afraid of Neal, that's for sure. It was instinct.
When I didn't say anything, didn't do anything but stare at him like a moron, he smirked at me.
And didn't let go.
"What the hell are you doin' here?" I said. Wow, that's me, master of the quick comeback. I made a move to shake him off, and couldn't, and the first real shot of adrenaline hit.
Journey was supposed to be in San Francisco, putting on a benefit for the prevention of suicide later that day. It was a little out of his way to come hassle me. A couple of suits passed us on the sidewalk and glanced at us like we were out of place.
"Getting someone's attention," he said, and I felt the paper folded under my arm, and the small, cold shock of a raindrop hitting my face as the weather began to change, felt the grip on my arm tighten. It was finally painful, and I intended to disengage without having to force him. I was confused, and off guard.
Sound defensive? Good.
I said, "Do it somewhere else," and I made a real attempt to shake him off. He was strong as hell, and I blamed it on the fact that he'd spent a lifetime using his hands. I didn't want a scene. I didn't wanna give away the fact that he was beginning to scare the hell out of me. I just wanted to get loose and go on my way. But I didn't.
He shoved me back a step, closer to the curb, and I started to lose my temper.
"Let go of me," I said under my breath, sounding even more pissed than I intended to, "and back off, or I'll do it for you."
He leaned closer, a hell of a lot closer than I usually let anyone get unless we're in bed together. And I noticed stuff you begin to when adrenaline and testosterone start mixing, that moment when the world gets crystalline and slows down because it's fight or flight. The sound of engines, and somewhere behind me compression brakes being applied. The smell of damp pavement, and the coffee place down the street, and traffic emissions...
"You want me to let go?" he said, and there was a smartass humor in his voice and on his face, but not in his eyes. His eyes were flat, and no matter how pissed he's ever been, I've never seen his eyes expressionless. Neal's a guy who wears his emotions like a goddamned neon sign, he doesn't hide, I don't think he's capable of it. That's always been my job.
I couldn't move. I opened my mouth to say something, anything, and couldn't do it. It was like I was underwater, standing there drowning, no control over anything, least of all myself.
Then he leaned in and kissed me on the mouth. A brief, almost impersonal brushing of lips, cool and mocking.
And shoved me, hard. Backwards into the street.
Here's the kicker; the compression brakes I'd heard were on the 7:30 bus coming northbound to pick up those weary apron-wearing working folks further down the block. And guess what, kids, it was still a good two hundred yards to the stop, so the driver was still doing thirty-five when I did the Nestea plunge off the curb.
The last thing I saw was Neal, arms still extended from propelling me into the street.
A thud of impact, a shriek of brakes. Someone screamed, and I hope it wasn't me. I was weightless after that, knowing my eyes were open but not seeing anything. Head injuries are dark orange when you're looking at them from the inside, with little flashes of light going off every now and then while your synapses try and reconnect. Bits of sound hissed on and off for another moment, then were replaced by a high-pitched ringing noise, the one you hear after subjecting your ears to high decibel levels. This is a test of the emergency broadcast system. And you only need to smell brain fluid once to remember it the rest of your life, which is pretty damn short if it's yours. I should have been frightened, should have 'raged against the dying of the light'. But I didn't feel anything. There was just a sense of watching it all from a distance.
A lot of it.
* * *