An excerpt from CROSSING THE BRIDGE:
They closed the Pine River Bridge for six hours after my brother drove off it. I heard that the rush hour commute was a nightmare that day. I remember thinking that Chase, who loved to make fun of the “drones” heading to Hartford every morning in their Brooks Brothers suits, would have found it satisfying to see so many of them backed up on River Road, chafing at the maintenance crews who couldn’t possibly appreciate how valuable their time was. Chase could find entertainment in practically anything. He would have found even this amusing.
By the time the police reopened the bridge for traffic, my mother was on her third Valium and my father hadn’t moved from the window in hours. I wasn’t sure what he thought he would find by looking out there. It wasn’t Chase. Richard Penders knew his son was gone forever.
I sat in the living room with them for hours, sharing their suffering and their astonishment at the way life pivots. But other thoughts filled my mind as well, thoughts of something I couldn’t ever talk about to them. Chase and I had been together only a few hours before he died. His personality changed when he was drunk, and he had a lot to drink by the time I met up with him. The alcohol had made him say things I didn’t want to hear, and when I’d had enough, we’d argued and I’d left him to make his way home on his own.
I should have known not to let him drive. Before I got in my car and took off, wondering what the hell was wrong with him, I should have reminded myself that my annoyance with him was temporary. Then I should have taken him with me to sleep off his foul mood. That I didn’t, that I tossed it off with the easy confidence that I had the luxury of being pissed at him and that I would always be there when Chase really needed me, was something I knew I was going to have to live with. But I knew I couldn’t share it with my parents. If I ever admitted in any way that I had anything to do – even tangentially – with their son’s death, I don’t know where that would have left me in the family.
I couldn’t move myself to try to console Chase’s girlfriend Iris until the wake. They’d been together for nearly a year and I knew she needed consolation at least as much as the rest of us. But as soon as I thought of her, I convinced myself that I wasn’t the person she needed to get this from, that in fact she might prefer no comfort at all to any she would receive from me.
Though at eighteen Chase was three years my junior, he’d gone on his first date before me and always had more women around him. Iris was the first one – after many had flitted in his space before her – who didn’t seem like a groupie. She was centered and soft-spoken. And it was only when he was around Iris that Chase showed any desire to let someone take care of him. She was the only person I’d ever seen him willingly defer to, though even then it didn’t happen often.
I found it fascinating to watch the two of them in action. At least until the day that I realized that what really fascinated me was watching Iris in action. Long after it began, I became cognizant of how completely she had taken residence in my thoughts. I thought about talking to her, sharing quick snippets of conversation, a meaningful glance over my brother’s escapades. I thought about what the two of them were like alone together, laughing, kissing, making love. This was very new territory for me. It wasn’t simply that I hadn’t thought this way about any of my brother’s previous girlfriends. I hadn’t thought this way about any woman at all. It was simultaneously disorienting and seductive. I considered it all harmless fantasizing on my part.
Until the day that it went beyond that.
On the first warm day of the early spring, when Chase left me to await Iris’ arrival while he attended to other business – something he was doing with greater frequency – Iris and I kissed. Before it happened and even more so afterward, I was conflicted and unsteady. But while we were kissing, maybe thirty seconds that redefined the act for me, I knew that this was precisely what I should be doing, what I needed to be doing. And in the moment, Iris’ reactions seemed to echo mine. At first, she seemed confused to be moving toward me, and afterward she looked at me with embarrassment and regret. But while it was happening, I remain certain that Iris was fully and willingly there with me.
From then until the day Chase died, I tried my best to avoid being with them. I came home from college less often on the weekends and made certain never to be alone in a room with Iris. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I could control myself. I just couldn’t bear to see the warning in her eyes.
When I arrived with my parents at the wake, Iris was sitting alone in Chase’s viewing room in the funeral parlor. Chase had been dead fifteen hours at that point and I’d spent most of that time standing guard over my mother, watching her watching the distance. While I did, I replayed my last conversation with my brother, thinking about how leaving this home – something I’d planned to do once college was over anyway – would have an entirely different meaning to me now. Chase would forevermore occupy every chair and glance out from every picture frame. These were the thoughts I’d been tape-looping since the police officer had come to the door to tell us about the accident. But still, when I saw Iris sitting by herself, the very first thing that came to my mind was, do I touch her?
I approached her tentatively, hoping that someone would get there before me or that she would make some movement that would give me an indication of what to do. Instead, her eyes stayed focused on the casket at the front of the room. When I was only a few feet away from her, she turned in my direction. She stood and we embraced awkwardly, our stomachs and heads touching briefly and then pulling away. Then she sat down quickly. My parents were settling into seats in the row reserved for immediate family and I knew that I should join them, but I felt compelled to sit with Iris, at least for a short while.
The first time I met Iris, I thought she was beautiful. All of my brother’s girlfriends were beautiful, so this didn’t surprise me in any way. What did surprise me was that she seemed more beautiful to me as I got to know her and as I got to see her from a wide variety of perspectives. She was more stunning with disheveled hair after wrestling with Chase, with a flushed face after a snowball fight, with clothes spattered electric blue after helping my brother paint his room. And she seemed nearly unearthly now, with her eyes thickly encircled in red, her cheeks ruddy. Looking at her this way, I somehow felt that her loss had been greater than mine.
“Anything I say would be inadequate,” I said to her. She glanced over at me, pressed her lips together in a semblance of a smile, and reached out to give my hand a momentary squeeze.
“I’m so sorry for you,” she said. “I’m so sorry for Chase.” She turned from me and leaned forward to touch my mother’s shoulder, and my mother held her head against Iris’ for the longest time, both of them sobbing. When Iris sat back again, she didn’t attempt to dab at her eyes. And she didn’t try to look in my direction.
I wanted something other than that kiss to be between us at that point. I wished she and Chase had been together for years so my role for her could have been more brotherly. I wished that the age difference between us had been greater so I could have simply put her head on my shoulder and cried with her. I wished I could have said to her, “Give this time. We’ll work through it together.” But all I could do was sit there confused, wondering how to fit this new collection of wishes into the set of things I was already hoping had turned out differently.
“I need to go with them,” I said after a while.
She nodded without turning.
When the funeral was over, I didn’t see Iris again. As she left the gravesite, she brushed her lips on my cheek and said good-bye. Her parents had come with her and, as he walked past me, her father clapped his hand on my arm and gestured upward with his chin. My eyes moved from his to Iris’ back, only leaving there when another friend of Chase’s approached me.
For the rest of that summer, I attempted to set myself in motion. Motion of any type might have sufficed, but I found myself rooted to my room, my Discman burning dozens of batteries. I started skipping dinners when I realized that I could find no sustenance in my mother’s open-throated sorrow or my father’s empty resolve. I’ve heard that grief sometimes pulls families together. But I had no experience with that. I never felt more untethered in my life than I did in those months after the accident. It wasn’t simply that I didn’t know how to act or when any sense of pleasure or laughter or peace would return. It was that I also didn’t know where I would be or who I would be with when they did.
The summer was ending and my senior year at Emerson College was ready to begin. But as I packed during the third week of August, I knew it wasn’t for Boston. When I got in the car, I still didn’t know where I would end up driving. But as I crossed the Pine River Bridge, I had one definite destination in mind.
Anywhere but here.