Ventura Freeway


“As we all know,” Colby began ceremoniously, “it has been three months since the passing of our friend and brother, Hank. When Aaron and I first planned to take this little trip with Bret, we thought it would be just the three of us, but now we’re really happy at our good fortune that Marti is here too. Bret has told me just this morning how glad he is, because Marti also knew Hank, and Marti is a person with an amazing knack for seeing into people’s hearts.”

Marti’s tightened mouth and shivery eyes suggested hidden emotions. She may have been holding back humor at Colby’s pompous way of speaking, but I thought I read also, in the tautness around her lips, a longing to flee. Or maybe that was just what I was feeling.

“Our group is made still more complete by your presence, Nathan,” Colby continued. “You didn’t know Hank, but you’re getting to know us, just as we’re starting, a little, to know you. You can help to keep us honest.”

I began to feel angry at Aaron for inviting me to this gathering. He must have known that Colby was planning some kind of memorial for Hank. I had no place here, especially now that Aaron had convinced me that we had no future together.

Colby wended on. “Hank was my best friend from the time we were in ninth grade. I really admired him, but sometimes I didn’t understand the things he did. And I often wasn’t as good a friend to him as I wish I had been.”

Bret, who was sitting closest, reached out with both hands and grabbed Colby’s elbow.

“You’re the best friend he had,” he said. “Probably better than he deserved.” Bret glanced at Aaron, who nodded.

Colby cringed a little. His big, freckled hand came down on top of Bret’s smaller ones. Then he looked back at the rest of us. “As I was saying, Hank was important to different ones of us in different ways. But we’ve been confused. We don’t know why he died. If what happened was somehow an accident or if it was on purpose as seems to be the case. Or if it was just his being reckless, which he was certainly capable of. We don’t know why Hank did a lot of things. We don’t understand, and not understanding is making it really hard …”

Colby turned his face sharply away. I’m sure he had not expected to choke up. To see him do it panicked me. The silence pulsed. I noticed that the people who had been sitting around us when we first arrived had all left.

A long sigh came from Bret. Even as I could see that everyone was suffering here, I felt a pinch of envy at how closely Colby and Bret seemed to share their unhappiness. It wasn’t just the physical stuff—how they touched each other—but how able they seemed to reveal their feelings to one another.

Aaron spoke up, calm and self-possessed as ever. “What Colby is saying, Nathan, is that knowing Hank didn’t necessarily lead to understanding him. Hank only revealed what he wanted to. The rest of him was hidden. Maybe you’ll understand him better than we can because you might be a little like Hank yourself. You might have a few things in common.”

Though he didn’t say it, I instantly knew that these traits Aaron thought I shared with the departed tended toward the destructive—even corrosive—side.

By now my feelings had churned so much that I couldn’t stay quiet. I just said what came into my mouth, aware that everyone was watching me with curiosity.

“These things that you think I have in common with Hank,” I began, pleased to find that my pitch held relatively low and steady—“they’re why you keep treating me like I’m radioactive, aren’t they?”

It satisfied me to confront Aaron about this at last, looking right into his eyes. I got an even greater pleasure when I caught his very slight but still perceptible flinch.

“I wouldn’t have chosen that word, but …” He looked like he wanted to say something more. I thought perhaps he’d apologize, but whatever words were trapped in his throat stayed there.

From feeling that I wanted to get away from these people, my attitude turned again. Maybe the time had come for me to prove myself worthy to be one of them. What if I could appear so wise and understanding that they would be persuaded to trust me as their friend?

“I don’t know if I can help at all,” I offered, “but I’m glad to try. I hope you’ll tell me about Hank. What was he like?”