"She told me I took the best years of her life, did I ever tell you that?"
"Brian, don't do this, man. Not now."
The chuckle rumbles from me without permission. "Why not now? It's topical."
He wants to argue with me, I can see it on his face. But he knows I'm right. I need to talk about this, and there's no better time. The pain is still fresh, the memories as accurate as they'll ever be.
We're sitting on the edge of the dock, our legs hanging off the edge. There was a time that the water would have been high enough to soak our fancy shoes and our dress pants, but there hasn't been any rain in months, and the level of the lake has dropped significantly. The dust is the only threat to our attire, today.
We used to swim here together, the three of us. My best friend and his little sister, back before things changed. We grew up here, grew together here. It was always a good place.
I wonder, for just a moment, what would have happened if we had all stayed. Would we have remained safe, or would the pain of the world have found us here, too, in time? A bird cries out in the distance.
I thought the worst part of the funeral would be the social awkwardness. The looks from the people who know me, and from the people who don't, but who were told who I am. I thought dealing with the accusatory glances and the too-loud whispers would be the hardest part.
I was wrong.
That stuff was rough, sure, but the worst part of the service wasn't external. It was inside me: the memories, the regrets, the last conversation, playing over and over and over.
"I couldn't even argue with her, when she said that. Not because it was the truth, but because I couldn't think of how to explain the truth. If I could have, maybe things would have been different."
"This isn't on you, no matter how much you need it be. This was her decision, and she made it without consulting any of us. You think you're the only one thinking the things you're thinking right now?"
"Wow. Try saying that three times, fast."
"We're all kicking ourselves. Trying to figure out what we could have done differently. Thinking of ways we maybe could have saved her."
"Are you all thinking about how you broke up with her, knowing she was in a bad place? Are you all thinking about how you were always her anchor, but when it finally got too hard, you bailed? Abandoned her?"
"Nope. But we're all thinking similar thoughts. Some of us are even thinking about how maybe you shouldn't have had to be her anchor. Maybe we all should have done more to help her, instead of dumping it on you until it wore you down."
"None of you knew her like I did, James."
It's his turn to expel an unintentional chuckle. "I'm her brother, man--you think I didn't know her?"
"Not the dark stuff. Not the scary stuff. The 3 in the morning confessions of weakness and doubt and fear, that was just for me. And that's why I should have known."
"And then what? You think you should have stayed with her, knowing you'd never be happy like that?"
"Nobody's happy, Brian."
"I'm happy. Maria's happy. Our kids are happy. People are happy."
"People have moments of happiness. If it was a constant state, we'd take it for granted. If people were always happy, they'd convince themselves that they weren't ever happy."
"I told her she'd be fine without me. I told her she'd find someone better. Even as I was saying it, I think I knew it was a lie. In time, I think she really could have found someone better, but I think I knew that she wouldn't give herself that time."
"You need to stop this."
"I told her she'd be fine, and she told me I took the best years of her life."
"She was in a bad place. None of us knew how bad, and nobody's blaming you for being in the same boat as us. We all wish we would have done stuff different."
"I figured it out, today, while I was sitting there in the church, listening to that preacher talk about a woman he didn't even know. I figured out how I should have explained it to her that night."
"She's gone, Bri. This isn't helping."
"I should have told her that the best years of our lives don't happen consecutively. It's the moments, you know? It's waking up to your lover's smile on a weekend, when you don't have anything else to do but stare into her eyes. It's glancing up to see a beautiful sunset when you're leaving work. It's hearing a great song for the first time, or having an incredible after-the-party conversation at 2 in the morning with someone you just met, or feeling the first cool day of the autumn. It's all these little things. They add up."
I take a drink from the bottle we've been passing between us. As soon as I do, I know it's a mistake, so I take another one. Today feels like a day to make mistakes.
"They get lumped together with the rest of the shit, though. They get minimized, forgotten. But you add them all up, they become years. Those are the best years, and nobody can take those from you, no matter how big of a bastard he is."
"How many times do I have to tell you that this isn't on you?"
"Feel free to stop."
"Could you have handled things better? Maybe. We all could have. But it went down like it did, and the only thing we can do is move on."
I smile at the empty sky, at the creeping darkness and the fading light. The water splashes gently against the rocks below us, as if to quietly remind us it's still there. "Is it? Is that the only thing we can do?"
"You're worrying me."
"Don't be worried. I don't have it in me to self destruct."
"Maybe not. Not like she did. But you do it in different ways. Like this, beating yourself up over her, letting the pain sink in and take root. In the end, that might not be as different as you think."
"I understand what you're saying, and I appreciate it. But at the end of the day, you don't know me any better than you knew her."
The hurt from my words flashes across his face, and quickly transforms to anger. "You know what? You're right. I'm just doing the best I can." He takes one last drink from the bottle and tosses it out into the lake before standing up. "So maybe I should leave you here to self-flagellate, and I'll go get some more of that fancy cheese."
I want to apologize to him for my hurtful remark. I want to thank him for taking the time to check on me, for trying to reassure me. I want to tell him how much his kindness means to me; a soul debt that I could never hope to repay. Instead, I say, "That's probably a good idea. That cheese won't last long."
He doesn't say anything else; just turns and makes his way up the dock on unsteady legs. He stops at the end and turns back to me. "You sure you're gonna be okay?"
"No. But I hope so."
He hesitates, contemplating returning to my side, trying harder to save me, if I need saving. In the end, he continues on, making his way up the hill, back to their family home, back to the wake, or whatever it's called.
I take the flask out of my pocket, and take another drink.
It starts to rain.