this is the story of how we begin to remember
-Paul Simon "Under African Skies"
Ever since Derek found out that Beth is getting married, he's been trying to get in touch with Mike, and he can't. He's exhausted all usual methods. Emails without return receipts, phone calls that just dissipate into endless ringing, not even the satisfaction of a prerecorded message, and all of these communicative overlays make Derek realize that it's been months since he's heard Mike's voice, and that's a sudden and frightening thought. Derek doesn't even know why Beth's impending marriage has spurred this connective need, but some part of him wants to tell Mike about this, because then Mike would come back and stop it, because it's not like Beth ever thinks about anything, and in the child-home of Derek's mind, he sees Mike sweeping in with a trip to Africa, with court briefings and a promise of teaching rule of law in Manila and Beth going starry-eyed for something that might matter, that might spark some sort of conscious direction to her actions, which Derek was never able to provide, and he knows he's failed, and he can't get in touch with Mike, which compounds the failure.
He wonders if Mike will hate him forever.
The email from Beth is simple:
Sorry I haven't been around lately…super busy with everything. I'll stop in before the month is out, I promise. But anyway, I have some news!! Scott and I are getting married!! Next October!!
The two exclamation points. Derek marvels over them, remember Beth using exclamation points and emoticons and the onomatopoeia laughter in emails about her thesis, about graduate school, about law school, about all the futures she's placed on hold. Derek feels like the moon must, after a phase is complete- kind of floating in the black and waiting on a new run of sameness, except gravity and rotation has abandoned him. Rick and Mark and Beth are gone, but there's no one to replace them, no new lunar chart so that he can guide and be guided. The tide has ebbed, and nothing calls it forward.
Derek tries to call Mark now, even though he has not spoken to Mark in two months. The phone rings, and rings, and rings. There is no answer. Derek hangs up and he does not bother to call again.
Derek isn't sure this happened, but he thinks it did.
Once, two autumns ago, when Beth was a junior and going through one of her disgusted-with-academia phases (Beth needed a lunar chart of translation too, Derek thinks. Maybe more than anyone he has ever known), she'd made Halloween decorations for everyone's door. She'd joked that they paid her to sit and think of things to do to earn the money, and that particular day, she'd stolen paper from the business department and drew pumpkins, black cats, tombstones, and a cartoon ghost with big eye-holes and a smiling mouth, all done in harsh marker-black. She'd then gone about taping up the cut-outs- a pumpkin for Amrita, a black cat for Mike, a tombstone for Tony- and the ghost for Derek.
Derek came back from class as Beth finished taping, and he'd stared at her, the simple pleasure curling a smile on her full lips, and in an instant Derek had been sad and angry and maybe the closest he'd ever been to actually loving her, loving her.
But all he'd been able to say was "I don't believe in ghosts"
Her smile had faltered, but it hadn't failed, and that spoke pages about the core of her heart, how she faltered again and again through fear and indecision, but pushed ahead despite bad choices and the tangled weave she draped around her. She'd said
"It's ok. Maybe this one believes in you."
And the more Derek thinks about it, the more he realizes that it had to have happened, because he's not creative enough to imagine it, and he's sure if he really looked, he'd find that little cut-out ghost, somewhere squeezed between old Christmas cards and thesis drafts.
He wonders if Scott believes in ghosts.
Derek and Tony have not been friends since Rick arrived four years ago, and this is one of the many tragedies Derek has forgotten to enumerate. There's a conscious list of mistakes and memories and ghosts, and then there's an unconscious list of the things Derek's given up in service to those mistakes/memories/ghosts.
But unlike the ghosts (rick Mark Beth) Tony's managed to hang around the periphery, leaping through his own life with this ridiculous perpetual smile, the kind of intractable optimism that bore Derek toward Tony in the first place and then tore him away. Derek does not had the capacity for uncomplicated happiness. Neither did Mark, or Rick, or Beth. And they were weaker for it (except the weakness manifested in Derek, didn't it? Or is that because he's the only one left?). But Tony. Tony's uncluttered intellect, his oil-slick shield against the hedgerow entanglements that started five years ago and still manifest in Derek's loneliness…well there is a strength in unconscious acceptance. It is a natural strength. Derek envies it, and misses Tony in a way he cannot seem to mend.
They speak still, but no more lunches. Tony and Kenneth go to lunch now, or Tony and Amrita when she is not busy.
And Derek eats lunch alone this year.
The day of The Email, Tony sticks his head in Derek's office, his eyes glowing. He says "Beth and Scott are getting married!" like the news descended on heavenly tablets, like he's discovered a cure for rigid stupidity, which in Derek's estimation is the cause of most of the world's(his own) difficulties.
"I know," Derek says, his voice oddly strong. But after five years, he's learned how to regulate the cracking uncertainty and regret, the wavering conviction and fear to his inner monologue. His voice has grown stronger in direct contrast. Derek feels like his outward manifestation is draining his inner resolve, like some kind of cannibalistic vampire. It's so ridiculous and overwrought. He doesn't know what to do with himself anymore.
"She emailed you too?" Tony sounds overjoyed where others might have sounded surprised, but Derek can hear the difference, places the normal human reaction within Tony's context so that he knows that if Tony were anybody else, Tony would be surprised that Beth has emailed Derek.
And suddenly, Derek realizes something that, maybe, has been dancing on the rim of his vision, kept aside by the more monolithic thoughts of pity and loneliness.
He is surprised that Beth emailed him.
Because it means that Derek has been talking to ghosts.
And Derek has never, ever, ever, professed to believing in ghosts.
Tony grins, and walks back to his own office, whistling a Bob Dylan song that Derek can't quite recognize.
Kenneth is at a conference the next day and Amrita's presenting before Dean Naiak about the comprehensive performances of the graduate students. Derek has no meetings for the next three hours, and he's somehow managed to finish everything he's set aside for himself.
So he holds a séance.
He opens his email program and writes three emails. One is to Mike, and it says simply that Derek misses him, and that they need to go get coffee or something soon. It does not beg or plead, nor does it overwhelm with sorrow or effuse apology. It is what it is. Derek's message from beyond. The second is to Mark, and this one does offer an apology, but it is not specific, nor is it full-laden with the self-pity that somehow manifests even Derek's most sincere apologies. It is a simple apology for letting a friendship die, and a hope that resuscitation is perhaps a possibility. Neither email mentions Beth, or her marriage.
The third email is a reply. Derek writes:
I'm very happy to hear from you, and congratulations! Stop in whenever you'd like. I'd really like to see you again and hear all about what's been going on. You're always welcome here.
Derek decides that he must open his door, his heart, to things that he does not believe. Even if that means accepting that Beth has changed, even if that means understanding that things can never be the same, even if that means knowing beyond acceptance that whatever happens is usually for the best, and that the best means everyone, and all in their own different ways.
Tony comes back from class as Derek turns off his computer. He pops his head in, then furrows an expression of concern.
"You all right?"
"Sure," Derek's voice is suddenly weak, unsteady.
"Okay, just making sure. You look kind of spooked, that's all. Everything cool?"
"Yeah." Derek gives a small smile. "Guess I must have seen a ghost."
Tony raises an eyebrow, but there's the hint of a smile, the wisp of one, playing at the corners of his mouth.
"I thought you didn't believe in ghosts."
And Derek wants to say have you really known, Tony? Have you known all along? And we're you just waiting for me to ask?
But what he does say is "I guess they believe in me."
And then Tony does smile.