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An Involuntary Intimate, Part 24:

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For two weeks, the Nogo Arcade stayed closed. Martin, George, Cheri and Ruth spent half those days together on the beach. It was a time for making no demands. They spent the other half in individual pursuits: Martin trying still to get to the bottom of what had happened to Nogo, and George pondering how he was going to tell his friends that he was leaving. He had interviewed for the sales and marketing management position two states away and had gotten the job. Surprising how perfect a fit it was, right down to the ability to create nice pie charts.

Two suitcases packed in 15 minutes could hold all George had. He had never owned so little in his life, and he was not sure he wanted even to take that much.

Among his possessions was a photo of his brother, Chad, in mid-jump, taken just after a soccer game. The team had thrown off their shirts and run around the field in wild antics, celebrating an unexpected victory over a long-standing rival. Behind Chad was a brilliant blue sky and the sun, so that he was backlighted—pristine, mouth open, his blue eyes wide, brows up. Suspended midair at 18 years old, he was yelling, taking in everything, and it seemed one and the same motion—the inhale, the exhale, the vocal chords. All were a grand exchange with the world. It ran through his whole body as he threw himself into the moment.

Like Martin, Chad was always all there. The most attractive girls, men, old ladies, the little soccer players he coached, they all sensed how he gave himself to them, and they seemed to wait to be around him again, the way one waits for the sun to come out. George’s role had always been to resent all this and to point out defects—that Chad’s hair smelled, that his teeth pushed out slightly like a rabbit, that he was secretly scared and worried of so much. George deemed it his personal calling to roll his eyes, insult, and bring his brother down to earth, even while George, also secretly, resentfully, admired him.
Their mother was bent on fussing over Chad, polishing him, parading him around: “My son, my son, my son!” It seemed there was a rock cliff of everything Chad needed to be, and Chad was somewhere down in the middle, looking up. George had watched Chad charge through the hall into his room, and slam the door and knew that something was taking him piece by piece away. His father tiptoed around Chad as if one or the other of them would break, shatter horribly, if there was speech. At the time George could not have articulated precisely what that was, only that they circled around each other like matador and bull, and they spoke so delicately to each other that one might miss the conversation. It was so quiet and subtle, as if they were conversing on the sly. That was all before things shattered, and before George cared to discover why.

During his former days as a corporate manager, George had lived safe from too much involvement. Even in coming home to Melissa, the first thing he would do was channel-surf while she finished dinner. It seemed that back then he had gone years without a single meaningful exchange with anyone. It had been fine with him, as it had been fine for many years with his father, as if life were meant to be lived on autopilot. And Melissa helped with this general fog, for, hating confrontation, she would resort to “just drop it!” and leave the room before things got too heated. George could always count on that safety valve to rescue them from delving. So they lived for years tiptoeing around each other.

Back then, George had known, also, the boundaries of his influence and was quick to point out when something he witnessed was not his problem. He inherited that from his father as well. He lost count of all the times when he was a boy, and he had pointed out from the car’s back seat, a hit animal that stood a chance of living, needing only for someone to stop and take it to the vet.

“Not my problem,” Jack would say without slowing down. “Probably has rabies. Would die on the way. Not on these seats. Get used to it, George; there’s a lot of suffering in this world.”

And so on. Eventually, George discovered that the best way to get a thick skin was to acquire blind eyes.

When he began to lose each alcove where his identity resided—first Melissa, then his home, then his job, then his bank account—George had not expected anyone else to notice or care. When his new friends reached out to him, he could not quite get used to the idea that someone could and obviously did care. Losing so much taught him nothing, whereas finding a new, real connection with people on a level he had always previously ignored called for him to change. So he did, awkwardly and incompletely, but also profoundly, and so much so that he had little confidence in how to be anymore. Some days, silently, he yearned to care less. He wanted to put up a force field against his grief over Nogo, his growing feelings for Cheri, his pride in the progress of the pupils he was tutoring in computer skills, and his reliance on Martin, who was always completely out there, who knew nothing about living on autopilot or shutting down in order to avoid pain.

After going through his things and deciding what and what not to take, George tucked Chad’s photo in his coat pocket and set out for a coffee shop where his brother used to hang out. Someone there would know something about Leonard and where to find him.

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