Image by bloody marty mix
Friday, 26 September 2008.
40 Years in 40 Days [ view the entire set ]
An examination and remembrance of a life at 40.
For the 40 days leading up to my 40th birthday, I intend to use my 365 Days project to document and remember my life and lay bare what defines me. 40 years, 40 qualities, 40 days.
Year 37: 2004-2005
In the fall of 2004, I traveled to a family reunion in California. My mom paid for the plane ticket, as I was still unemployed at the time. The descendants of Patrick Henry Murphy gathered in what was once an old gold mining town. I found the family history fascinating, but I was less enthusiastic about the socializing. I didn’t know anybody there other than my mom and brother, and I’m not generally keen on the idea that I’m automatically supposed to feel some deep connection with a stranger just because they’re family. It’s not that I had anything against any of them. I just didn’t know them, and it felt awkward to me.
After the reunion, however, we went to visit my maternal grandfather, whom I had not seen since I was a child, and to him I was immediately drawn. A retired Air Force dentist, my grandfather was a wonky intellectual, with a childlike wonder for both the natural world and the world of the mind. As soon as I walked into his office, I felt a sense of relief as several odd pieces of my identity fell into place for the first time. After 30-some years, I had finally found my branch of the family tree. By comparison, the rest of the family never seemed to be anything like me tempermentally. Now I had found my people… or person, at least.
When we left the next morning, I was sad. My grandfather was not in the best of health, and I feared it would be the last time I would see him. I was also a bit resentful of the fact that I’d lived most of my life without this man in it. How different things might have been had I had a role model who understood me at an intuitive level, and who could have shown me that I was not a freak, or weird, or cold for embracing my rational mind. Almost out of instinct, I loved him. When it was time to fly back to Chicago, I sat at my gate and wrote him a long letter, telling him how I felt. Later, he e-mailed me to say that he was very touched.
Just days after I arrived back in Chicago, my biological father e-mailed me out of the blue. I had not seen him since I was 18, and before that, not since I was 13. He had not been in touch with me on a regular basis since I was a young child. He said he had found an e-mail address that he believed might be mine, and was testing it to see if it was. I had toyed for many years with the idea of tracking him down, but had never pursued it, so I was both nervous and excited. I had a travel voucher for Southwest Airlines that was about to expire, so I suggested that I fly out to San Jose to visit for a few days.
At the airport, it took a few trips around the passenger pickup area to spot each other. Neither of us knew how to recognize the other. He drove me to a restaurant where his wife was waiting for us, and we got caught up over dinner. The following day, he and I drove up the coast to San Francisco, stopping at several places along the way to get out and take pictures. We talked about what was going on in each other’s lives, and he apologized for not being a part of mine. He also said it might have been better for me that he wasn’t. It took him a long time to get his life reasonably together, and he felt he would not have been a terribly good influence on a child back when he was barely more than one himself. He asked about my mom, and about my brother, whom he had never met and knew almost nothing about.
On my last day there, he gathered his side of the family at their house for a big Mexican meal. My aunt and uncle, whom I had not seen since I was very, very young, were there, along with their kids, whom I had never seen. It was strange again, this meeting family members you don’t have any real connection with, but this time I was glad they were there. Having always had a difficult time knowing how to incorporate my Mexican heritage into my identity, it was wonderful to be confronted with it so directly. I could see that my eyes, mouth, and nose had come directly from them, while my pale skin, toothy smile, and wide square jaw had come from my mother’s side of the family. Later, C. would remark that pictures from that small reunion made him laugh because, for the first time, I actually looked Irish to him. In a sea of tan faces, I clearly looked like an "other."
C. and I were in a holding pattern. He still toiled at building his own business, and had no money to travel. I had no savings and no job. We had not seen each other in person in over a year. I loved him very much, but I was intolerably lonely, and my life seemed to grow more empty by the day. Friends I used to hang out with stopped calling me altogether, having gotten so used to my turning down invitations to come out. Initially, I turned down such offers because I was too busy chatting online with C., and thinking about the day when we would finally be together. Now, I turned them down because I simply had no money, and my friends were all lawyers, doctors, and IT professionals, who were into good food, and good wine. I could not run with them, so I stayed behind the pack and felt more and more dead inside.
It was into this darkness that Kurt came crashing back in, bearing light and heat. Kurt had been in my circle of social acquaintances for over a decade. He had lost his job in the 2000 tech bubble burst, and when he’d exhausted his savings a couple years later, he swallowed his pride and moved in with his parents in Indiana. I felt horrible for him, and sent him care packages and e-mails so he wouldn’t feel forgotten. We kept a sporadic e-mail exchange, sending each other jokes and random, funny images. I had been surprised by the degree to which I missed Kurt, but I didn’t think much about it, as I was fully immersed in my relationship with C. Now I was thinking about it.
In June, my friend, Mark, would be getting married to his girlfriend, Gina, who had also become a close friend. Kurt would be coming back to Chicago for the wedding, and I noticed that, as the wedding drew nearer, I began to think of the occasion more as an opportunity to see Kurt than as the day when Mark and Gina would be married. This surprised me. I wasn’t sure where these feelings were coming from. Kurt and I had hooked up a few times over the years, but it never seemed like anything but friends having a little fun. And, there was no doubt in my mind that I loved C. deeply. And yet, I kept thinking about how excited I was that I was going to get to see Kurt at the wedding. After weeks of this, I finally realized, to my great dismay, that a window of opportunity was opening for Kurt, and that if he were interested in climbing through it, I would let him. I was confused and scared. I did not want to betray C. We had an open relationship to allow for the fulfillment of our basic needs for physical closeness, but this felt like it might be something more than that.
When I saw him at the wedding, Kurt grinned at me and gave me a big hug. We were nearly attached at the hip the whole night, though I suspect that had more to do with me following him around than vice versa. When I’d had a sufficient amount to drink, I confessed everything. I told him that I wanted him to move back to Chicago, but that I was afraid that if he did I would fall in love with him. I immediately felt mortified, and told him to forget I said anything, but he was having none of that. He said he felt very emotional about me, too, and my heart leapt to my throat.
The next day, I flipped all the way out. I called Gina in a panic. What on earth had I just set in motion? I could almost hear her eyes rolling over the phone. She’d seen this coming a long time ago in the way he always looked at me when I wasn’t looking at him. She said she’d seen tenderness in his eyes, almost as if he wanted to protect me. I wasn’t convinced. I wrote Kurt a long, rambling e-mail in which I gave him ample opportunity to walk back anything he said that he might not entirely have meant. I suggested that, while I was feeling some dizzying feelings for him, I was open to the idea that it was just loneliness and that maybe we were just two lonely friends who needed some attention. He e-mailed me back his agreement with that basic premise. He felt it was best that we just remain friends. I felt a little crushed, but I had to admit, it did seem reasonable. I spent the rest of the summer trying not to think about him.
When my birthday came around, I was feeling sour and grumpy. I would be spending yet another birthday alone in my room, and I just couldn’t bear it. I mentioned this to Kurt, and he asked me if I wanted to come spend the weekend with him at his fraternity Homecoming. We would be camping out on the lawn next to the bonfire, and there would be hay rides, and dancing, and all manner of fun. I jumped at the opportunity.
We didn’t do much but hang around bonfires and BBQ’s and drink, but that’s exactly the sort of thing I needed, so it was perfect. On Saturday, we walked around campus with squeezie bottles full of gin and tonic, and hung out at the pig roast, and the football game. As we were walking along, I stopped because I got stung by something (I think it was a bee that I managed to dislodge before it was able to do much), and Kurt came running back to me, breathlessly asking if I was OK, and was I sure I was OK, because if I was not OK, he could get something for it. If we had really been dating, it would have been adorable. As it was, it was half adorable and half confusing (with a pinch of funny).
We went back to the fraternity house and hung out. Normally they have a hay ride, but the wagon was broken, so somebody pulled up a big pickup truck and we piled in. Kurt sat on the edge, and I sat on the bed of the truck in front of him. As we drove off, he reached down and grabbed my hand. I thought, Oh man, here we go, but we were having so much fun that I decided not to over-think it. By the wee hours of the morning, Kurt and I were the only ones left by the bonfire, except for one passed out guy on a lawn chair. Kurt decided we needed good music, having suffered through hours of the poor taste of undergrads, and pulled his car over to the fire to turn up his stereo. The two of us were sitting in his car when the music started, and as the first refrains of Cheap Trick’s "Surrender" floated out into the night air, he looked at me, grinned, and said, "Come on! " We got out of the car, and he grabbed me and started dancing. We ran circles around the bonfire, singing ebulliantly to the stars. Mommy’s alright. Daddy’s alright. They just seem a little weird. I threw my hands in the air and jumped up and down, while Kurt laughed and sang. Surrender!
Suddenly he stopped and grabbed me by the shoulders. "Are you having a good birthday?" he asked earnestly, leaning into me so closely I could feel his breath on my cheek. "I’m having a great birthday," I replied. He hesitated for just a hint of a second, then kissed me. His lips were soft and sweet, and lingered on mine for what seemed like hours, but must only have been a few seconds. Then we were were spinning away again, dancing in the firelight.
Who am I?
I am drawn to fire.
Just as I am drawn to water, I am also drawn to fire. Maybe it’s a lifelong need for balance that inspires this dual nature (I am a Libra, not that I put any stock in that stuff), but as I’ve gotten older, I am more and more captivated by fiery colors and flavors and experiences. As a child, I despised the color orange. Now, it’s my favorite color. It is the color of hot peppers, and tropical fruits, and desert flowers. It is the color of fire, and of a life lived passionately and with celebration.