You Do What You Have To – James MacDonald

Ray and I met at work. Years later, we’d laugh about how pretentious it was to think that was cliché, but when we first met, it didn’t seem like we’d amount to much. I’d just moved home from D.C. after a bad breakup. Ray had just finished college. We waited tables in our home town, made eyes at each other and then, at the Christmas party that year, Ray and I had drunk sex in the employee bathroom.

I’ve often thought that most relationships start this way. It can’t always be as wholesome as old people make it out to be. Anyway, I thought it was a fling and so did Ray, but then the months went on and we sort of found ourselves together. In other words, we came out of the mutual rut we’d been in at roughly the same time. Then we were in love.

Ray had a way of making you believe his exaggerations were facts, or that he, in that moment at least, believed in his exaggerations. If he said something like, “Jeez, I could eat about a hundred of those,” you had no choice but to believe that he believed he could actually do it. It’s one of the things that attracted me to him at the start. It was the kind of freshness I thought people lost sometime after they turned eighteen.

Ray never lost it. When we were in the throes of our infatuation phase, I got drunk and told Ray that he’d better not ever lie to me – in a half joking way, of course. Ray got very serious, dropped a full beer can on the floor in my kitchen, and said, “I’d kill you before I did that.”

You might be thinking that’s a pretty messed up thing to say and you’d be right if it was anyone else. Ray and I just stood in my kitchen, drunk out of our minds, staring each other down, and then I couldn’t take it anymore, I burst out laughing, and Ray, once he realized what he’d said was totally crazy, he started laughing too.

We were fortunate because Ray and I had compatible dreams. I’d got wander lust sometime after Ben and I broke up, and Ray wanted to be a musician and he could do that pretty much anywhere, so when I asked him to come to Vietnam with me in the Fall of 2010 I knew he’d say ok. We got teaching jobs at one of those training centers that dot the streets in Asia like Dunkin Donuts do in Boston. We ate and drank and smoked and fucked. We moved to Japan, South Korea, China, and Thailand. Then before I knew it, it was 2015 and I was thirty-three years old.

It didn’t hit me all at once, but I started to feel like that girl who’s been in college for 7 years and hasn’t picked a major yet; that girl who’s twenty-five or twenty-six and still goes home with frat boys. My grey hairs showed when I wore a ponytail. My body had changed. I was tired on Friday nights. Ray was five years younger than me. He showed none of the trepidation I did about going to this weekend’s bar, club, or burlesque show.

Then one day and out of nowhere I got an email from an old coworker I hadn’t even thought about in years. She said she was head of the English Department at a school in Montevideo and that she wanted me to come work for her. It was in the aftermath of our latest romp in Bangkok and I told Ray about it as he intermittently vomited into a trashcan at the foot of our bed.

“Jesus, who’s that, Claire?”

“Jenny Caldwell. Remember? From Shanghai?”

“No.”

“Well?”

“Well, what?”

“Well, what do you think?”

“Christ, I don’t know. It’s your offer.”

We had the biggest fight we’d ever had after that. To me it was a sign that the feelings I’d been having were right. It was time to take some responsibility for the direction of my life. I wasn’t sure how Ray would respond, but I got my answer a few weeks after I accepted Jenny’s offer when he proposed to me at the top of the Burj Khalifa on a layover in Dubai. I said yes and added another ticket to my booking to Uruguay for the following February.

That first year in Montevideo was good for me. I got back in shape. I quit smoking and cut out hard alcohol. But Ray, it seemed, just couldn’t leave some things behind: He stayed out late and came home stinking of whiskey. He “quit” smoking but all that really meant was that he didn’t smoke in front of me. I don’t know why I ever thought he’d avoid cocaine in South America, when he wouldn’t in Asia where the punishment for possession is death by firing squad in some countries.

But then Ray was good, too: He came home stinking of whiskey, but never of perfume like had been the case with Ben. He bought booze and cigarettes and drugs, but he also bought me a red rose at the florist every Friday and left it on my vanity. He wrote me sappy love songs and made breakfast, no matter how hungover he was, every day before I went to work.

So when he got sick it wasn’t at all like I was indifferent to it. It still hurt me when he came home from the Doctors office that day, white as a sheet, and sat in the chair in our living room, the results of his chest x-ray in his hands, that thousand-yard stare in his eyes. I knew when I put my hand on his shoulder and he flinched that he hadn’t even noticed I was there. Then he looked up at me with these great big tears in his eyes and said, “Claire, I’m scared.”

“I know, baby,” I said, “Me too.”

We had health insurance through my job, and the care in Uruguay is much cheaper than it is in the States, so we decided to stay in South America for his treatments. Ray’s mother came down from Boston and would stay with us for as long as she could on a tourist visa. He’d get worse and then he’d get better and then he’d get worse again. I’ve read that’s the way with these things sometimes. There’d be some weeks where Ray couldn’t even get out of bed and some where he seemed almost normal, just a little run down like he had a hangover or something.

During one of his good spells, I came home from work and Ray had made dinner for us. He had gone to the store and bought Argentine sirloins, marinated them in wine, then topped them with a white mushroom ragout and served that with roasted vegetables. It must have taken him hours and he couldn’t even eat it, but we sat in the living room listening to music and laughing together about good times until well after midnight.

“When this thing’s over, it’s going to be different, Claire” he said during a lull in our conversation. “I know you’ve had to put up with a lot from me, and I promise you, I won’t do that to you again. I swear.”

“Ray…”

“Really, Claire.”

“Don’t do this to yourself, Ray.”

“No. Claire. I’ve already done it to myself. And it’s going to be different when this is over, I promise.”

Ok, Ray.

Happiness’s cruelest mistress is hope.

Towards the end, Ray got spiritual. He started talking about the cosmos and about past lives – stuff like that. His mom had always been hippie-dippy in that way and he must have gotten all of that from her. You do what you have to, I suppose.

Two days before he died I was sitting in his hospital room and he was hooked up to all those machines that pumped life into him. He looked at me and said, “Claire, don’t worry. This isn’t the end for us. This isn’t even the beginning. I’ve known since the moment I met you that you were it for me – that you’d always been it for me. I knew that I was destined to love you for the rest of my life and I know that I’ll see you again someday…Claire?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you believe me?”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too, and I always will. We’ll meet again someday. I really believe that, Claire. I believe that we’ve been chosen by history to love each other in every life and in every universe imaginable.”

“That sounds nice, Ray.”

“But do you believe me, Claire? Do you believe me?”

“Yeah, baby, I believe you. I believe you, baby.”

Ray’s been dead for a year now. I’ve been doing okay down here in Montevideo. I’ve got my job and my health. I go to spinning class twice a week and recently I’ve been into painting. It’s funny, I used to paint in high school, but I haven’t in almost twenty years. I’ve got time for it now, I suppose. I miss Ray. I’m not saying that like you should be surprised or that I’m surprised. It seems a given that I would, and I was prepared for it when I started to feel it about a month after he passed. What I didn’t expect was the guilt. It isn’t one of those “survivors guilt” situations; I’ve read about, and expected to feel, that. I guess it’s just this nagging feeling that, despite everything else, Ray deserved to know the truth.

***

James MacDonald has a degree in English Literature. He has taught English in Santiago, Chile, San Jose, Costa Rica, and, currently,  in Chengdu, China, where he lives with his fiance and his cat.