People are born and people die. No one can argue those facts. Birth and death are as common as the sunrise. But inevitably after a couple of beers it's what we talked about even though more interesting things were happening.
Wars were waged. Presidents elected. Men and women circled the earth in space stations. Light had been slowed down to the speed of a bicycle.
I fell in love.
But we'd talk about dead people all the time. John Belushi, for instance. Janis Joplin. Gregor Mendel. Issac Newton.
I never knew Scout had another one hidden.
She was just barely from south of the Mason-Dixon line but lived her later years with us yankees. When she was born her parents were fresh from the Peace Corps and had a Harper Lee thing going on, so when we were alone together she joked about having slept with Boo Radley.
She took a lot of teasing about her name in damn yankee schools. The north-south thing was always in the front of her mind as if the whole of New Jersey was looking for ways to stifle her North Carolinian self-expression. It was her own private war of northern aggression fought daily. It hid the thing that was burning inside her.
Her hair was brown, full and wavy the way women with straight hair try to make theirs. But she straightened it and dyed it red. She said it went better with her green eyes.
No matter how many times I thought I knew everything about her, she'd always come up with something new as if she was bleeding out her history in bites I could digest like she was worried if I heard the whole burning thing at once I'd run away.
Maybe I would have. Things were really lopsided between us. I think she knew me better than me, and I hardly knew her at all, which put me at a two-to-zero disadvantage. If I had been smarter, I'd have seen how it couldn't last. Instead I fell so far in love I couldn't even see my own life anymore.
She kept talking about dead people. I kept thinking about her.
Her life was a Dickens' novel come true. Tragic and painful for the characters but captivating to us who have the privilege to watch from a safe distance.
Scout was fourteen when she met her first boyfriend, a sixteen-year old guy named Trent. His Mom called him Trinny and late one sultry summer afternoon he showed Scout what you could do after skinny dipping when you got close and nobody was looking.
And she liked it and they did it all the time.
When she got curious and told her mom about it her mom took Scout to the doctor and got her on the pill. When her dad found out there was a standoff and the women won and he walked out. She hadn't seen him since. He had been her hero. Her life was empty without him. She'd loved him so much she didn't know how she'd live without him, but she did. His love made him have to leave and leave her empty. She thought it was a kind of fatal gift.
These are the holes in people you can't fill. If you love them you try to distract them--make them look ahead and get far enough away the hurt isn't so dangerous anymore. But the holes are there. People spend their lives trying to stay out of them.
One afternoon when the sky turned deep gray-green and the suffocating New Jersey air turned cool and rumbled she got as far in the story as her dad walking out and she changed the subject as she always did when we got close to something important.
"Tell me about you. Don't say, 'Well I'm a chemist.' Tell me about you. Something inside."
The sheets were getting warm, but the thunder made her pull them up over our shoulders. She lay on her side and brought herself close to me. Soon the rain would come and we would be even more alone together.
I had to think for a minute because I was so used to talking about my work I wasn't sure I had anything else to talk about. But I loved her and it was important. So I cleared my brain for her and said the first thing that came to my head.
"Bookstores make me want to write. And when I play the piano my brain gets all full of words from stories. I don't know where it comes from. I just see these--these scenes--you know? It's like a movie. I just follow along and sooner or later I realize what's happening. Then I write it down."
The first heavy drops began to patter the windows and the wind made the trees hiss.
"How come you don't let me read what you write?" she asked me, and I told her I knew none of it was any good. So she asked me to tell her something else.
"Well, I was a virgin till I was seventeen."
"No kidding?" she said, propping her head up on a hand over an elbow.
"And I've only ever slept with three women, you being the third."
"You probably fell in love with all of them," she said, and added a little giggle at the end.
I didn't have to answer her. I couldn't keep it out of my eyes.
"I didn't mean that the way it sounded," she said.
But I was hurt and feeling I should retaliate, the mistake all young lovers make. She wouldn't answer when I asked her how many men she'd slept with or with whom she'd had impromptu quickies or oral sex, and told her she couldn't say because she'd lost count after fifty.
And she rolled to her back and pulled the blanket to her eyes and started crying and I could feel her falling into a trench in her history I was digging.
When the lightning flashed she took a breath and sat up. I got up with her. She pulled away when I touched her neck.
She said, "Maybe it wouldn't be this way if things were different. If I'd lived a sheltered life in suburbia instead of Appalachia."
I told her I was sorry but it didn't matter. You can't un-hurt people. All you can do is hope you can get them to look forward to better times, and if they won't the hurt stays hard.
And the lightning flashed again, and she put her hands to her face and cried again.
"I gotta go somewhere it never rains. Every time it rains I remember him," she said, and I knew enough to stay quiet and let her go.
She said, "We moved north and Trent wrote me all the time. The letters got stranger and stranger. More desperate. It was like, I was watching him kill himself from the inside out.
"Eventually I went to school back at Appalacian State so I could be closer, but something was wrong. The day I went to see him he wasn't there. His parents said he was away at a camp or something, and I thought that was strange for someone his age.
"His parents showed me his room, because he still lived at home. And there on his dresser was my picture. Me at fourteen. His Mom said I was all he talked about, but it had gotten too obscessive and she didn't think it was a good idea for him to see me. That's why they had sent him away.
"Well I was mad as hell. I couldn't believe they'd done that and when I left they knew how mad I was but they kept insisting it was for the best. So they offered me tea and cookies to distract me the way southerners do when there's something wrong and they don't want anyone to know.
"A couple of weeks later I decided to go back. Surprise them. See Trent for myself. But when I got there--"
She put her fists to her eyes and cried and I wanted so bad to touch her but she wouldn't let me. She kept breathing hard to steady herself like this story meant everything to her and it was going to come out if it killed her.
"You don't have to tell me now," I said. "It will wait."
Outside the wind blew the loose leaves off the trees and the rain fell in flowing translucent sheets that sounded like a million children clapping.
"No it won't," she said, shaking her fists, "Don't you see? I can't let you fall in love. I can't have anyone in love with me."
My stomach dropped. Suddenly I couldn't figure out how to move anymore. Nothing I'd ever done mattered, and I didn't know how to make my life move forward. With those few words she'd made me weightless and helpless.
She slid off the bed and got dressed, staring down at me whenever she could.
"When the creek swelled with rainwater his body washed downstream. They found him in the tree roots."
"I don't understand," I said, meaning us, not him, but she went on anyway.
"He was in therapy. They'd committed him several times and he'd just gotten out again. He didn't tell anybody--he just decided he was going to walk up to New Jersey to find me and he didn't know how to get here, so he followed the creek. And when it rained he slipped. He couldn't swim very well."
I got up and pulled on my jeans as fast as I could because she was leaving. I stood in front of the door. I couldn't let her go.
As mad as she was, she hugged me and pressed her face into my chest.
She said, "I can't be where it rains. And you can't be in love with me."
"I'm not going to go crazy. I'm not going to drown," I said, nothing else in my head but to try to keep her, and knowing that I couldn't.
"But it's all I think about," she said.
I could have, but I didn't stop her from pushing past me. I watched her from the window as she ran through the torrent and the puddles. She got in her car and drove away.
I called her right away. She didn't answer then, nor the next day, nor the next week. When I went to her apartment she wasn't home. Her roommate said she'd gone to California to look for a job.
After a couple of months I stopped calling. And after a couple of years things straightened out for me. I met another woman and we fell in love. We got married and had children.
As much as I love all of them, I have a big hole inside me that never goes away. I just keep looking forward, watching my kids go through life, getting old with my wife.
And whenever To Kill a Mockingbird shows on a movie channel I think of Scout, how I could have kept on loving her, and how sure I am I'd never have slipped in the rain.