There’s only been one Halloween in my life when I was genuinely scared right down to my bones, when I couldn’t tell myself, “Don’t worry, it’s not real.”
It was the Saturday afternoon my friends Ethan and Sean took me over to the Berkeley Flats to some-girl-I-did-not-know’s apartment for a pumpkin-carving party, a very casual, midday affair. And the reason this was so scary was that I considered it The Very First Day Out After My Divorce. Not the first day out technically, but the first day out among people who did not know my story already, the first day out among people who had not been pre-briefed.
I had landed well. I had moved into a Pacific Heights garden apartment, complete with a brick fireplace in the bedroom. I had gotten the Bronco in the settlement. I had my job. I was in the prime of my life. Come on, you can do this! Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so tentative that Saturday if I hadn’t been so tired—all night long the phone had rung in the neighbor’s apartment next door, brrring brrring. And the thing that really kept me up was, I knew he was there. I could hear him. The bastard! Answer it!
Now, as we crossed the bridge and found a parking spot, I still had that incessant ringing in my ears. We walked up the stairs. There were the girls, four of them, eventually five. A small party. M&Ms. Beer.
This was the day of freedom I had looked forward to for so long, but I had simply not thought it through. Where did you put your hands? One guy had hooked his thumb in his pocket, dug it in with conviction. Man, why didn’t I think of that? Every gesture marked me a novice. Maybe everyone else wore blue jeans, too, but they’d added practiced touches that quietly oozed self-assured style. A cuff of the shirtsleeve. A barrette over the ear. Pro-Keds flat sneakers. Hell, was I ever intimidated.
The phone rang, and I jumped. But it was the fifth girl, saying she had the pumpkins down on the street in the back of her car.
The pumpkins! Thanks to the pumpkins, for some chunk of the party I would not have to talk to the girls. I could carve. The longer it took to scoop the gunk from the rind, the better. I was going to nurse my pumpkin like a summer day in Georgia.
You’re probably wondering when this was. Well, this was the year when R.E.M.‘s Out of Time was vindicating die-hard fans’ 11-year dedication, without yet spoiling it all by landing on the regular rotation of the locker-room soundtrack at 24-Hour Fitness. It was playing in the background.
I felt Ethan’s pat on my back. He could sense my hesitation. “You see a ghost or something?” he asked.
I steered his eye to the girls’ jack-o’-lanterns. They were astonishing. No half-moon smiles with saw-tooth grins. They were sculptures! One seemed to answer the theoretical question “What if Picasso, in his early cubist phase, had encountered a pumpkin?” Another girl had skinned her pumpkin, peeled the whole dark outer rind right off except for the pirate-patch facial features, so that, stuffed with candles, the whole thing was a glowing pirate head, light and dark reversed.
I gave Ethan a long, why-didn’t-you-tell-me stare. WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME THAT IN ALL THOSE YEARS I WAS MARRIED AND SITTING AT HOME BY THE TV, ALL THE SINGLE PEOPLE IN THE WORLD HAD GONE OUT AND ADVANCED BY LIGHT YEARS THE ART OF PUMPKIN CARVING!
“You’ll come up with something, buddy,” he assured me.
So I did. One last time, I reached way down and scraped the lining of my gut for the fuel to do what I did not think I could do, which was to survive another day. And I came up with something. I wish I could tell you for certain what it was. I asked Ethan the other day and all he remembers was that I pulled something incredible out of my ass. I know it wasn’t a triple-decker pumpkin: the snowman—I invented that a year later at Mary’s flat. I know it wasn’t the time I carved a lemon—yes! carved a lemon just like you would a pumpkin!—because that was at Noah’s girlfriend’s house. Maybe, just maybe, it was the year I carved a big-cheeked smiling sun. I took the meaty rind of the squash and carved into it but without pushing through to the hollow, so it had a three-dimensional surface, like a clay head, and I stabbed spaghetti-long slivers of pumpkin into the sides, which stuck out in a way such that, in darkness, the slivers caught the candlelight like rays of the sun. What I do know is that the girls held a contest, and while everyone won some sort of medal—The Pumpkin Most Likely To Rot First, that sort of thing— my pumpkin won the final prize, Best Jack-O’-Lantern—
—and I did not win because they felt sorry for the divorced guy. As I’ve stated, they had not been pre-briefed. Magically, I had survived three hours without anybody asking me. I’d never had to say it. Never had to use the “D” word.
And afterward, I noticed this girl was standing near me again. It was at least the fourth time that she’d moseyed close without being seen to jockey close. Subtle, but I knew what it meant. I got her name, Abigail, and she remarked on my pumpkin, and she was nervous, and I knew what that meant, too. I was too scared to open my mouth, but my pumpkin had spoken for me, and that was enough. I could see it all.
I could see that we’d meet again, two weeks later, at a dinner gathering of these same people, and because it was too late to drive home, I’d sleep in her bed. The week after I’d come over to her house in my Bronco, and she’d sear two lamb chops, and I’d find the slender bottles of flavored olive oils over her stove so incredibly damn comforting, so homelike, I could not help it, I would never leave. Because I had tasted freedom, and I wanted right back in the slammer.
In the coming months all of that would genuinely unfold, just like that, and there would only be one problem, which was that I had already made her the victim of a very vicious lie, just as I have made you.
Around nightfall, Ethan took me back to the city. My ears had never stopped ringing. I didn’t have my own apartment, actually. It was a halfway house where you rented a furnished bedroom by the week, called the Baker Acres. The bathroom was across the hall. None of the furniture was mine; I was even renting my towel. It was the sort of place you could do that, you could rent a towel. I wasn’t actually divorced. I hadn’t even filed for separation. In fact, I wouldn’t be divorced for eight more years. I was on the run. I had run away from my wife and my home and been unable to explain it to anyone, least of all myself.
GOD DAMN IT, ANSWER THAT FUCKING PHONE!
I KNOW YOU’RE THERE!
I went to pound on the wall. And then I saw it. There. On the table. The phone. Our phone. I knew this phone. It had been in our basement for five years, and I had brought it with me when I ran away. Now it was ringing. Hell, it had been ringing for days.
Oh yeah, I knew.
I could avoid this truth no longer: The man refusing to answer was me. And the person calling was her.
Answer the fucking phone, you monster.
Finally, I brought the handset to my ear.
“Po? Po, is that you?”
For once it wasn’t her. Oh God. It was my mom.
“Oh, Po,” she said.
Oh no, Mom, you cannot see me this way.
I sobbed uncontrollably for only a little while, maybe 10 minutes, then hung up without being able to confess a single word of it.
Why? Why! WHY!