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Year of the Buffalo by Aaron Burch: a Review photo

“I mean, how many shows in the history of East Highland High have started a riot?”

Euphoria

 

BECCA WRITES A REVIEW OF HER EX-HUSBAND ERNIE’S NOVEL YEAR OF THE BUFFALO IN THE VOICE OF THE NARRATOR OF EUPHORIA

Ernie Isaacson, arguably the protagonist of Year of the Buffalo and inarguably based on the author of Year of the Buffalo, Aaron Burch, was, we can presume, knowing what we do about Aaron, raised in a religious household, not necessarily a Mormon household, later a Presbyterian one, as Aaron was, but definitely tightly, strongly religious, because, toward the end of the novel, when asked by Scott, Ernie’s brother, who seems half based on Aaron and half on Aaron’s childhood best friend, B., and, oddly, almost not at all on Aaron’s real life brother, N., though maybe there are parts of N. in Scott, it’s hard to tell because  no one in Ernie, I mean, Aaron’s life ever seemed to know N., including Ernie, er, Aaron. Anyway. When asked by Scott. When Ernie is asked by Scott toward the end of the novel – Year of the Buffalo – “Do you know the worst thing you’ve ever done?” which is an odd way to phrase the question, almost implying Scott knows the worst thing Ernie has done and is going to tell him, but that’s not it, not what happens. When asked by Scott this question, Ernie instinctively answers, “Masturbating when I was little?”  offered as a question rather than a statement. Also, there’s the baptism scene with the father, in Year of the Buffalo, I mean. As further evidence Ernie was raised religiously. Ernie and, I guess, Scott, though, again, Scott seems based on Aaron’s best friend rather than his brother so it’s easy to forget they – Scott and Ernie – are supposed to have been raised in the same household, by the same parents.

But Ernie’s religious upbringing may be in part – large part? The repressive part of being raised in a tightly religious household? – responsible for Ernie’s passive ways as both a teenager:

In high school, running through his neighborhood after sneaking out of his house, Ernie made bets and rewards for himself …. He was always careful to word his self-bets to not put the burden of action or initiation on himself. It was always Katherine asking him to the dance, Jennifer telling him she liked him, never the other way around.”

And, as a married adult: “Back to there being…something between them. A wall, tension. Ernie wanted to say something but couldn’t. he was trying to be … better. Not himself. Or not not himself, a better version of himself. Address things where his normal impulse would be to not, to bottle everything up, to bury it. He felt like he’d made a breakthrough, telling Scott, realizing and telling himself, that this was part of why he and Becca had broken up. That it wasn’t because Bulleit ran away, it wasn’t because of work, it wasn’t because Becca fell out of love. Or: not entirely because of these things anyway. He’d been blaming symptoms instead of causes but was now trying to talk about things, trying to get better at taking responsibility. But he couldn’t make himself, couldn’t figure out how.”

Becca, Ernie’s wife, estranged wife most of the novel until finally she is his ex-wife at the end, based on the author’s, based on Aaron’s, ex-wife, Elizabeth Ellen, who is, oddly, metally, writing these words, typing them into a Word doc at nine in the morning on the Monday after the whole…you know… whatever, thing that happened last week happened … we’ll get to that later…in this …. essay or book review or fake TV episode (whatever this is) … Becca was raised, we can presume, though it is not delved into in the book, in Year of the Buffalo, though Becca isn’t really given any backstory or story at all, really, but since she is based on Elizabeth, er, me, we can presume Becca was raised in a very different sort of household than Ernie’s, a very free and yet strictly-run by Becca’s mother, a thrice married country club brat turned hippie, household. A household filled with books and interesting, complex, intellectual discussions, headed by a woman, Becca’s mother, who both urged her daughter to be rebellious and free like her, but who also could be at times strict to the point of cruel, who was an inebriate with violent tendencies, who enacted with her daughter, her only child, what in today’s terms could be construed as a trauma bond, physically and verbally punishing Becca, then crying and begging forgiveness for having taken things too far with her, returning them to a You and Me Against the World bond, an I-love-you-more-than-anyone bond until the next fight, the next thing Becca did wrong, which was always unpredictable, in which she lived somewhat always a little in fear, though she loved her mother, worshiped her, really, was obsessed with her.

Becca thought maybe it was this dichotomy – hers and Ernie’s vastly different childhoods, vastly different relationships as children with their parents – that was in large part responsible for why later they had problems in their marriage. The problems that are the basis for Year of the Buffalo, Ernie’s journey with his brother Scott across the country, a road trip or journey meant to uncover truths, in which Ernie is meant to change, to become an active, verbal participant in his life, in his relationship with his brother, Scott, at least, since he has, we come to understand, failed in, given up on, his marriage to Becca, his relationship with Becca.

            “Ernie kept thinking about Becca.”

            “Ernie thought about [the worst thing he’d ever done], tried to think if he could come up with anything worse [than masturbating when he was little]. Something with Becca probably. But that was more tendencies, patterns. Not really a worst thing, but regrets.”

            “Ernie thought about Becca.”

            “He hadn’t thought about Rebecca since they’d been on the road, maybe even longer, ...”

Or maybe it wasn’t the religion at all, the reason Ernie was the way he was, passive, uninitiative, maybe that was just the way he was born. It’s hard to ever really know these things. Nature or nurture. But it was something Becca had complained to her friends about, Ernie’s inability or unwillingness to initiate, to be an active presence in their marriage, and, later, to stand up for her, to say something, anything, on her behalf, when the shit hit the fan, so to speak, as it would once during their marriage, and once after. Why, probably, ultimately, she had divorced him. She just couldn’t figure it, figure him out. Why he was so self-admittedly nostalgic, caught up in the past, sentimental about the past, yet seemingly unemotional about the present.

            “One of [Ernie’s] goals for this trip was … to be more in the moment,” Ernie self-reflects.

            “’I don’t know exactly. Either thinking about nostalgia pushes me into zoning out, into… Ernie’s World. Or I zone out and then start thinking about the past and kinda get stuck there,” Ernie tells Scott.

 

WHEN THE SHIT HIT THE FAN (THE FIRST TIME)

Something else that had affected them, something not included in the book, in Ernie’s telling, but something that had definitely led to the end of their marriage, was Becca’s obsession with hypocrisy. Because Ernie had no interest in it. like zero interest. And sometimes Becca wouldn’t shut up about it. Sometimes it seemed like it was all she really thought about, all she really wanted to talk about. Especially after the cancellation, after Becca found herself the center of an online uproar, having penned a particularly controversial essay it seemed most people who later complained about it hadn’t even read. But Ernie had read it. Ernie had read it before she published it. She’d watched him while he read it. Stared at him, waiting, wanting to see his reaction in real time. He’d cried at the end. And when he had finished reading it, after he had wiped away his tears, he’d turned to her, each of them sitting in one of their pair of black leather chairs, and said, “It’s beautiful.” And she’d published it. On his journal. Their journal. Whatever. And while he hadn’t taken the essay down, and while that in his mind, at least, in Ernie’s mind, might have conveyed support, of her, of his wife, he also had said nothing publicly, made no public statement, to support her, in support of her, and nothing on her behalf, after, after they had come for her, bullied her, called her names, rescinded every invitation ever handed her: to be in anthologies, to blurb books, to judge contests, participate in readings, publish her stories, yada yada. He’d never said anything. And it was after this Becca had become obsessed with hypocrisy and it was after this she didn’t shut up about it and their marriage was weakened by Becca’s obsessions and Ernie’s repressions, his emotional absence, and her bitterness, a bitterness in part directed at Ernie, or was it a sadness? An inability to truly connect anymore with him?  

Whatever it was, Ernie didn’t want to have to care about these things, political things, questions of ethics, be forced into caring, be forced into talking about them, thinking about them, discussing them, ad nauseum, and she cared, Becca cared, too much. Way too much. How could she not? It was her neck on the line, her career stalled, practically erased. Not Ernie’s. Ernie was fine. Ernie was Mr. Peanut Butter. Everyone loved Ernie. Hell, half, no, three quarters of the literary world hadn’t even realized they were married. Couldn’t figure out why Becca wasn’t removed from the journal’s board of editors, after her controversial essay ran, was published. Why Ernie kept her on. And of course, Ernie never said. The truth. The truth that he had read and supported the essay, and that Becca was his wife. Ernie just longed for the old days, the days in which he and Becca talked about other things, anything else, played Scrabble, played Boggle, played music late at night, drinking, laughing, walked the dogs, went on road trips, went to Yellowstone, went to the Badlands, went to her hometown, went to Malabar Farm, drove two hours north to see where the eggs they bought at the grocery store came from, to see the chickens that had laid them, small adventures like that, that’s what Ernie missed, what Ernie longed for. He missed that Becca. Lighthearted Becca. Happy Becca. His Becca. The one before the controversy, before everything became about that. Their life before. How happy they’d once been, driving cross country the summer he moved to live with her: stopping in Vegas to gamble and walk the strip, getting called out for PDA, for making out in one of the casinos, stopping in Texas to buy matching cowboy hats, stopping at the Grand Canyon, standing side by side, holding hands, peering down, everything before them, the literary journal they coedited together, together, still new, still fun, two desks in one room, still together on everything, traveling together to literary events, always together, nothing yet coming between them, nothing and no one. That was the Becca Ernie remembered, the Becca he missed. He hated how everything had turned out, how everything had gone wrong. But there wasn’t anything he could do about it now. What could he do? So he had focused instead on his brother, on Scott. On other relationships in his life. Repairing those. His life with Becca gone, in the past, nostalgia.

Whereas, Becca’s next husband, her third husband, Bruce, was totally into it, talking about hypocrisy, in the culture, specifically in the lit world, talking about her, what had happened to her, asking so many questions, wanting to know everything, every detail, telling her how he would have stuck up for her, totally had her back, and it made her feel good, really good, thinking of him standing up for her, even though and maybe because he didn’t belong to it, to the literary world, was as far removed from it as possibly one could be, having worked his whole life in the auto industry, as a millwright in a factory just outside of Detroit…. They would talk for hours every night on the phone the first year after they met, not just about hypocrisy, about what had happened to Becca, about current events, politics, pop culture, the news and so forth, but about other things too, of course: animals and nature and weird shit that happened to animals in nature, weird shit animals did to each other, themselves – Bruce was always looking stuff up on his phone, reading Wikipedia pages and nature science articles to Becca, about fishing and hunting and farming and all the dreams they had, the ones they shared, making her laugh, entertaining her, but most of all, being her friend.

But the problem with Bruce was, and this had taken Becca two years to really figure out, to really fully understand, was his drug use, opioids, specifically, but other shit too, pretty much everything else also. It was a real problem in a marriage, particularly if one person used and the other didn’t because if one didn’t, the other felt it necessary to lie a lot, like, a lot a lot, like almost all of the time, like to the point where almost nothing that person said was true or could be counted on to be true, to the point at which everything that person said had to be discounted as lies, and it was just hard if not impossible to have a marriage like that, blizzarded with lies. Though Becca did, and this was the heartbreaking thing, love Bruce, loved him more maybe than she’d ever loved any man ever, or maybe it just felt that way, probably in part because, yes, he and the relationship reminded her of her mother, of her trauma bond with her mother, and yes maybe this is what she had felt was missing in her marriage to Ernie, in some unhealthy way, she may have attributed the lack of a trauma bond to the lack of passion, the inevidence of love. Anyway, it didn’t much matter because the end result was she couldn’t live with Bruce.

The end result was here she was living alone again in a house in her home state, Ohio. Not yet divorced again, estranged. And maybe she would be forever. She didn’t really know.

She’d been trying to focus on her writing again. Trying to make something of it again. Finally, eight years after the whole essay controversy, cancellation, whatever.

She’d finally, the week before been extended an invitation to judge a literary contest. The first such invitation in eight years. She’d been asked to send something to a journal that was well respected. Things were finally feeling on the upswing, with her writing at least. After eight years of being patient, of listening to her friends tell her she wasn’t cancelled, that no one even remembered, that it was just coincidental their careers had taken off, that they’d gotten increasingly more money and bigger publications, while her career had stalled. But finally things seemed to be moving again, finally it felt like she maybe had a chance to get an agent, a larger publisher, for the book she was currently writing, for the memoir on which she was working all these hours on, all the hours she now spent alone in the house in Ohio.

And then, last week, on the eve of the publication of Ernie’s novel, another controversy. Something else Becca had written. And the shit hit the fan again. But harder this time. So much harder.

 

THE SHIT HITS THE FAN A SECOND TIME

Becca came from a long line of strong, rebellious women. Women who drank hard and spoke their minds and didn’t take shit from anyone, especially from men, but also from women. They were equal opportunity ballbreakers. Each of Becca’s grandmothers had been married three times, her mother four. Most of Becca’s life, at least the first thirty years, Becca had been shy, quiet, sweet, unassuming, unlike her mother and grandmothers, in contrast to them, perhaps. But life experience changes a person. Sometimes you have to adapt to survive.

After the shit hit the fan the second time, Becca called her mother, first in a fit of outrage, but then, very quickly, the outrage had turned to tears. She was angry with Ernie. It had taken three days, but finally she was pissed the fuck off with him, with his inability to stand up for her. Again.

“He’s known me almost twenty years, knows me better than almost anyone on the planet, and he can’t fucking vouch for me, for my fucking character? He lets everyone think I’m bad, a bad person?”

“Honey,” Becca’s mother had said. “I know this sucks, I’m sorry this is happening, but you just can’t expect…not everyone is as courageous as you.”

I know that sounds self-serving, given who’s writing this book review or essay or whatever you want to call it, whatever this is, but have you ever called your mother in the middle of a crisis? Also, Becca’s mom was kind of the only person Becca could talk to now, now that she wasn’t talking to Bruce.

“You raised me to be like this!” Becca said. “I remember you always said, I forget who said it but that quote about how you can be the only person in a room saying something but that doesn’t mean you’re wrong.”

“And that was my father. He taught me that. So we can blame him for this,” Becca’s mother had said. And Becca had laughed. Becca had loved her grandfather. Becca had never really known her own father, and her grandfather had taken on that role, the paternal role, in her life, was the man Becca respected most in the world.

         

BECCA’S MOM’S FATHER

Becca’s grandfather. A man Ernie hadn’t met. A man who had died weeks before Ernie moved cross country to live with Becca, but a man Ernie admired based on a single family story, a single family lore, which went something like this:

When Becca’s grandparents had been married almost thirty years, Becca’s grandmother and mother went to Chicago for a girls’ trip, a girls’ weekend, staying at the famous Drake Hotel, at which they one night went down for drinks and happened upon a convention of physicians. One of the physicians was a man who happened to be a doctor in a neighboring town to the one Becca’s mother and grandmother lived in. Becca’s grandmother and the doctor had several drinks together that night. Something clicked. Some fireworks or flirtation, an exchanging of phone numbers, of information. Becca’s grandmother had been unhappy, had felt unfulfilled in her marriage. Or so she later claimed. It was news to Becca’s grandfather. Becca’s grandfather was completely devastated, completely blindsided when his wife left him, when she took everything, every sheet, every towel, every dish, everything, to go and live in the country with the small- town physician.

After that Becca’s grandfather never spoke Becca’s grandmother’s name again. Wouldn’t acknowledge her if anyone else spoke her name. Never again spoke to his childhood friend, his friend of fifty years, who happened to be married to Becca’s grandmother’s sister. And, on one infamous occasion, when Becca’s grandmother was walking past him in the hallway of the country club to which they both still belonged and Becca’s grandmother smiled and said, “Hi, Jack,” Becca’s grandfather just kept walking, never gave his head a turn, never said anything back, just kept walking.

This was what Ernie had admired about Becca’s grandfather. They had laughed about it, he and Becca, when she told him. They had laughed at what a baller her grandfather had been. But later, when Becca thought about it more, when a certain actor was in a courtroom and wouldn’t look at his ex, who was also in the courtroom, the actor’s and her grandfather’s behavior just seemed sad. Like they’d never gotten over the hurt, or the woman, or both. It just seemed sad that you couldn’t acknowledge or talk to someone you had known intimately for so many years. “I’m okay with that,” Becca figured Ernie would say. “I’m okay with it seeming sad or awkward or whatever. I’m okay with that.” And Becca wondered if her grandfather had prepared for that moment, mentally prepared for it for years, preparing what he would do if ever he ran into his ex-wife, or if it had just instinctively happened; if his instinct had simply been to keep walking.

 

SOMETHING I FORGOT TO MENTION

In between the shit hitting the fan the first time and the shit hitting the fan the second, Ernie and Becca had gotten divorced. For once Becca was smart about something, thought ahead, had her attorney write in something about the journal they shared, her and Ernie, the journal Ernie had founded a year before they met and together, for seventeen years, they had worked on jointly, with Becca financing every print run, all the travel they did for readings and conferences at which they sold the journal and later the books, whatever else the journal required money to do, to exist. She had her attorney put a clause in their divorce papers that wouldn’t let Ernie fold the journal, that said if he decided for any reason not to run it, to head it, she, Becca, could take it over. She felt she had to include this after what had happened to her, after the cancellation. The journal was the only thing she could count on, her only voice. And for whatever reason, Ernie hadn’t fought it. Perhaps because he still allowed others to initiate action. Perhaps because he believed it was fair. Or perhaps because Becca had agreed to give him money, even though she wasn’t legally required to do so, even though she didn’t have to according to the divorce papers, she had said she would, and she did. Becca wasn’t sure why and frankly, Becca didn’t care. She felt good knowing the clause was in there, she joked about it on occasion with friends, while never actually truly believing she’d need it.

And then.

 

THE SECOND TIME THE SHIT HIT THE FAN

Ernie didn’t even read the piece in question. “I didn’t read it and I’m not going to,” he said when he called that morning. He had started off the conversation almost affectionately. “Hey you.” And he had not been impolite. Neither of them had been. They’d both been soft-spoken, but steadfast. They’d never really argued in the seventeen years they’d been together. People had pointed out since the divorce that maybe this had been part of the problem.

“I’m not taking it down,” Becca had said.

And that had pretty much been it. They hadn’t discussed the piece at all. Becca knew it didn’t matter what the piece said. It only mattered how people responded to it, what people said about it, about her, about the journal. She knew it was probably impacting Ernie’s job, his reputation at work, or it would; that that was his fear. She knew also he was friends with the journal’s editors and he didn’t want friction with them. He had said as much, said something about choosing the editors over his ex-wife. She hadn’t even known the names of any of the editors at that point. She hadn’t paid attention in years. That was Ernie’s thing. She only used the journal on occasion, to put up this thing or that, not on any regular basis, had no interest in picking the editors, in deciding what was put on the journal, any of that. She had left that all to Ernie. She had liked Ernie being in charge. She had never wanted him not to be in charge. In fact, the night after Ernie had resigned, had made his resignation public, she had drunk some wine and complained loudly to herself, “I don’t want to run this journal! I want Ernie to run this journal!” It was the way it had been for nineteen years. It didn’t feel right any other way. But sometimes life experiences force us to change. And the next morning Becca woke knowing she was going to head the journal, that she too was capable. That this was her calling now. Her fate. It was also, Becca realized, a liberation for them both. “Maybe this is a final severing,” Ernie had said during that phone call. Ernie would no longer have to worry about what his ex-wife would say next. And Becca would no longer have to worry about saying something that might hurt or annoy Ernie. It was the final liberation for them both.

 

ERNIE:

“’I mean, I don’t do anything. Not ‘I don’t know what I do.’ I just bottle it up. You know that. I’m the quiet brother. I hold everything in.’”

 

YEAR OF THE BUFFALO

The timing of it was funny. Three days after Ernie’s resignation from the journal, Becca was at her best friend’s house watching a movie when she went into the kitchen for tea. There, sitting on the counter, was Ernie’s novel. “It came?” Becca said. She had forgotten they had ordered it a week or two before, had had it sent to Jenny’s house. She couldn’t remember now why. Something about sharing it. She picked it up, turned it over in her hand. Looked at the picture of Ernie on the back. Had she bought him that shirt? Or did it just look like ones she had bought him in the past? He had liked her picking out his clothes for him. She remembered fondly standing in a store at the mall, waiting for him to exit the dressing room, looking for her approval.

Becca spent the whole night after returning from Jenny’s house reading the book. She stayed up until five in the morning reading it. It was strange to see so much of their life on the page. Ernie had always said he didn’t like when people did that. “Bleeding on the page.”  Didn’t like when Becca did that. But here they were, here were their lives, attributed to both of the brothers and their wives in the novel. The time they went to the Badlands, developed a love for buffalo.

“[Holly] and Scott had driven across the country so see his brother in Michigan and they’d stopped in the Badlands. They sat in his car together, and then on the hood, leaning back into the windshield, holding hands, like they thought they were in a movie or something. Just watching the buffalo.”

The time they had gone to an art museum in Toledo, a visual history of the sneaker; an interaction she’d had with a little girl there. Becca set the book down on her lap, remembering. She’d been so tired that day. Not the kind of tired you get from too little sleep, but the kind of tired you get when you’re overcome by depression. She’d slept the whole way there, Ernie driving, and the interaction with the little girl had briefly brought her out of herself, out of her aloneness, her melancholy of unknown origin, which was the worst kind because without knowing the origin, you couldn’t know the end.

Becca sat on the couch, noticing now the artifacts from her marriage to Ernie all around her: the Hunter S. Thompson painting they’d bought one summer at the art fair, Becca telling the artist he should paint Courtney Love next, that she’d come back and buy it if he did, forgetting the following summer to look; the whiskey ad featuring Louis Bromfield’s boxers Ernie had had framed and given her along with books by Louis Bromfield on the bookshelf behind her; their dog, Woodford, on the black leather chair opposite her, the chair Ernie had sat in every Sunday morning reading the paper, the dog in his lap.

            Becca remembered the years Ernie was writing Year of the Buffalo, working on the novel. How he wouldn’t show her any of the pages. He’d given her a brief synopsis. How it was about two brothers. One lived on a farm with his wife. Something about one of them having been a famous wrestler, Mr. Bison. Something about a video game, Go West! But he hadn’t let her read any of it. She knew it was because she was too critical, because he was sensitive. She thought of that Nirvana song, the lyric about being a Pisces. Becca laughed softly to herself now. Maybe that was it. The secret to why their marriage hadn’t worked out: Becca was an Aries and Ernie was a Pisces. Of course, Becca thought. Of course, that was it.

 

TRUE WEST

Becca found herself the next morning, still reading it, reading Ernie’s novel, wanting to know about Ernie’s real brother, wishing Ernie had taken such a road trip with him. Though she couldn’t imagine the two of them alone that long, that amount of time. And she could hear Ernie groaning now. This was another problem, she always pushed, always wanted more of him, more of herself, too, but the problem was wanting more of Ernie. More than he cared about giving.

 Still, she thought about Ernie’s brother. How she’d worried it was her, that his brother had disliked her so much that it’d kept him and Ernie from being closer. She remembered a time they’d all been in Montana together: Ernie and her, his brother and his brother’s wife, their parents… She remembered Ernie wanting to connect with his brother, crying alone in their bedroom with Becca because he didn’t know how to talk to him, how to make them closer; crying because he was the older brother, it was his responsibility, his fault, they weren’t closer.

Why do some people remain unknown to one another? Becca didn’t know, didn’t know what to tell Ernie. Becca was an only child. She didn’t know anything about, didn’t understand, sibling relationships.

This was something that had endeared Becca to Bruce early on: his relationship with his brother, Matt, their closeness, all the stories Bruce had told her of their youth, growing up in a house of men, raised by their single father. All the masculinity, the rough-housing, the wrestling. The fishing and hunting. And later: the drinking and women. But then their father had died suddenly, two days before Christmas, when the brothers were still young, barely twenty, and eventually drugs had come between Bruce and Matt too. Even before they’d come between Becca and Bruce. Long before.

Life was hard. Often you didn’t get that many choices chances. Too many times you learned the hard way how to lose a person.

Or you never learned how to find them to begin with.

Either way, it was fucked up. Either way you found yourself crying alone in a bedroom in Montana (Ernie) or in Michigan (Bruce). A grown ass man crying. Glad his father wasn’t around to see. Or maybe wishing he were.

Becca didn’t know much about men; how they thought, what moved them. She tried over and over to love them, but something in her always failed. Maybe it was her wanting too much so that she ended up with nothing, ended up alone. Or maybe that was what she secretly deep down wanted or needed. Maybe it was the only way she knew how to be.

 

WHAT IS THE BIOLOGICAL PURPOSE OF NOSTALGIA

One summer, maybe it was the summer Ernie left, the summer Ernie drove cross country with his brother, Scott, it was hard to remember now. But one summer Becca had asked everyone she knew: what is the biological purpose of nostalgia? Or maybe it was: what is the biological purpose of sentimentality?

Either way, no one had an answer. People barely seemed to understand the question. Becca had meant it scientifically. Like, how did nostalgia keep the species going?

 

On the back page of Year of the Buffalo Becca wrote:

This, I think, is the primary Question of life. Not ‘why are we here?’ Not ‘Is there a god?’ But ‘Why nostalgia? Why do memories pain us, stay with us, affect us, comfort us, shapeshift, lie to us?

 

BECCA COULDN’T STAY ANGRY

Becca couldn’t stay angry with Ernie. Before she had even hung up the phone with her mother, she had returned to the feelings of heavy sentiment she always felt now for him. Sentiment. Nostalgia. Parts of the underlying themes of Ernie’s novel.

“A sudden sound jolted Ernie out of it. Sentimentlust. Becca called it. Her term for when her husband slipped into a king of nostalgia dream, teasing Ernie for his own teasing of his father’s wanderlust.”

Ironically, she had felt close to him again, momentarily, as they figured out, together, how to end things, how to separate from one another, finally, through the lens of a literary journal.

Now that that task was over, however, Becca found herself feeling emptier than she had expected. Or maybe it was lonelier. Everything in life, it seemed, was about this fine line. A fine line between solitude and loneliness. Just as there had once been a fine line with Ernie, between their time apart and growing apart. He’d written about it, written about it in Year of the Buffalo, their marriage through Holly’s and Scott’s marriage:

One of the joys of their life together was just that, being together, but one of their discoveries was also the joys and necessity of time apart. Of being alone. It had taken them a while to figure this out, longer still to find the perfect balance, but they believed it was the secret to their marriage. To marriage period, they’d sometimes proselytize, while other times believing maybe each marriage had its own secret and this was just theirs.”

But in the end, that balance had been off. And neither of them had noticed. Or maybe they both had. Maybe they’d both noticed and been too tired, finally, to do anything about it. Maybe they’d both counted on the other to do something.

 

THREE YEARS

For three years, since the divorce, whenever someone asked about Ernie, if they were still on friendly terms, Becca could answer: yes. She could tell them, smiling: he is always there when I need help with the journal or Woodford.

But it wasn’t really about the journal, Becca now realized. But about a means of connection. Something that still held them together and now that connection, that reason for connecting, was gone. “Maybe it’s the final sever,” Ernie had said that day when he called.

 

THE SUMMER BEFORE THE DIVORCE

Becca remembered that summer, the summer before the divorce. Ernie had gone to see his brother. Gone cross country. They’d barely talked, barely texted. He’d made it easy on her. That was something about Ernie, he always made it easy for Becca to leave, even when he was the one driving away.

“He was always careful to word his self-bets to not put the burden of action or initiation on himself. It was always Katherine asking him to the dance, Jennifer telling him she liked him, never the other way around.”           

Before he left, the night before, in fact, they’d gone to play putt putt and then gotten ice cream after. They’d spent the day at the zoo. They’d spent the day and evening doing all the Becca and Ernie things, holding hands, his arm around her shoulder. They’d had such a good time, it’d been such an enjoyable day. Only Becca knew it would be there final day together. Was it more or less cruel, that she didn’t let Ernie know?

She remembered calling him a few weeks later, the day she told him about going to the attorney, filing for the divorce. She remembered bawling on the phone, how Ernie had barely seemed to react, seemed unemotional. She remembered thinking maybe he was in shock. Maybe he’d come to her still. Drive back across the country. Reading this scene in Year of the Buffalo she wondered if he’d turned to his brother instead, cried with his brother, the tears she’d wanted for years to see for herself, as though tears were evidence of something deeper, some deeper emotion he hadn’t shown her in the seventeen years Becca had known him.

“He thought about Becca pointing out how he bottled everything up. How that was unhealthy. He thought about what it might mean to not. He thought about all that, and thought about it, and thought about it …

            Next thing Ernie knew, he was on the ground … he couldn’t remember the last time he’d cried this hard. Maybe never? … and then Scott was lying down next to him, taking Ernie’s hand in his…looking to his side, he saw Scott was crying with him.”

Becca thought it was good he had had his brother.

 

BECCA REMEMBERED HER GRANDFATHER’S FUNERAL

Becca remembered turning around in her seat at the front of the church, turning and seeing her grandmother sneaking into the back, taking a seat in the back. Her grandfather couldn’t stop her now, couldn’t stop his ex-wife from attending his funeral.

Becca wondered if he had ever thought about her grandmother again, after passing her in the country club hallway, what he thought, if he thought anything. She wondered if either of them, her grandmother or her grandfather, had thought of the other in the moments before they died. If either of them had been nostalgic, sentimental, regarding the other, regarding their past life with the other.

Her grandfather had been buried alone. Her grandmother, when she died, was in a grave next to her second husband, the small-town physician she’d left Becca’s grandfather for, but her grandfather’s grave was set apart from all the others. It made Becca sad even if it didn’t really matter. So many things that didn’t really matter made Becca sad. Her grandfather’s gravesite was just one of them.

           

EPILOGUE

In the back of the book, in the white space above the word ACKNOWLEDGMENTS, Becca wrote:

            “You don’t need my approval anymore, but: it’s good.” And: “I hope your brother reads this.” And: “But maybe we are all bound to our nature. I can’t ever keep my mouth shut and you can’t open yours! Lol!”

 

We knew from the start that things fall apart, intentions shatter
She like that shit don't matter -The Roots “You Got Me” featuring Jill Scott playing as you close your browser

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