Jody looked over the railing and saw her brother’s
Cherokee pulling into the parking garage. She looked at
her watch. It was just past noon. Michael rarely came
home this time of day. She stood and slipped into her
housecoat. She had come out on the balcony to enjoy
the sun on this uncommonly warm day for early
She stepped into the hallway to find out why he
came home. Watching the light above the elevator door,
it popped on and the door opened. Michael stepped out
and she could see at once he was in an unpleasant
mood. He didn’t make eye contact until he stopped in front of her. Now pressed for
time since she had stayed longer on the balcony than she intended, she wasn’t sure
about getting into a long conversation about whatever might be bothering him.
“Why did you come home in the middle of the day?” she asked, her curiosity
heightened by his solemn expression.
“To pack a few things,” he stated flatly. “I’m leaving for a few days.”
His colleagues knew Michael as a slightly eccentric, but brilliant surgeon. The gay
community knew him as fun loving and hot. Jody knew him as the older brother that
often needed to be looked after. He would never have a wife to do that job, and
apparently not even a permanent male companion that might console him in an hour
of need. And since he had shown up in the middle of the day to pack and go off for
some reason, this clearly appeared to be an hour of need.
She watched him pull his keys from his pocket, aware he was distraught,
thinking she had never seen this level of sadness in his eyes. With his life a series
of emotional highs and lows, she often found him sullen, but it had been a long
time since she had seen a tear roll down his cheek. Jody’s need to hurry evolved
into concern for her brother. “What’s wrong, Michael?”
“I killed a little girl today.” He turned toward the door and pushed the
key into the lock.
She stared at the back of his head as the door swung open. Then he disappeared
inside, leaving the door open behind him. Jody reached for her cell
phone and dialed her associate’s number to cancel their afternoon appointment.
Concern for her brother superseded a meeting to discuss graphic designs for a
department store promotion, even if it meant a disgruntled client. She then
trailed into his apartment and heard him rummaging in the bedroom closet.
From the bedroom door-frame, she saw a canvas duffel bag fly out of the closet
and land on the bed, followed by a suitcase. She waited for her brother to reemerge.
He looked lost in thought, and determined.
“Michael, would you please calm down and explain what you’re talking
“It’s simple. I hung out in a bathhouse until four o’clock last night, knowing
I had a surgery scheduled for seven this morning. I cut open an eight year
old girl with less than two hours sleep. She’s dead because of me.” He flopped
on the edge of the bed and buried his face in his hands.
Jody closed her eyes; well aware that this was the inevitable day she had
dreaded from the moment he became a surgeon. She knew what something like
this would do to him; and the circumstances that apparently caused it were more
unfortunate than her worst fear. He was clearly wrong in staying out the night
before an early surgery.
“I’m not sure what to say,” she said, staring dumbly across the room.
Normally one of his moods would simply prompt a sisterly lecture. He might
pout or carry-on for a while; but in the end, she always found the right words to
help redirect his perspective. This was obviously not the time for a lecture, even
if he had been wrong, even if he deserved the consequences of such a bad decision.
Now was the time to be more concerned about his state-of-mind.
Jody approached the bed and sat down beside him, then put her arm
around his waist.
“Eight years old. All she needed for a long life full of promise was a competent
doctor. I wasn’t alert enough to head that procedure. Now she’s dead.
She’s dead because her pathetic doctor wanted to get himself fucked one more
“Michael, please. You can’t let this destroy you. You’re far too good a
surgeon to let one tragic mistake overshadow the hundreds of successes you’ve
had. It was a learning lesson. You won’t let it happen again.”
“That’s right, I won’t! I’m quitting.”
Jody’s jaw tightened. His statement came with the kind of conviction she
knew to not take lightly. She had helped him suffer his problems in the past, but
never anything like this. Now she was alarmed. In his present state, she feared he
might easily lapse into a spiral of self-destruction. She would choose her
words carefully, make him realize he could get past this; but before she could
think of anything to say, she heard his voice again.
“You were right about Shannon. After the operation, she wanted to be
helpful, to make me feel better. We went to the beach to talk. That’s when I realized
what I’ve done. She told me she had fallen in love with me. Can you
imagine what it feels like to hurt someone like her?” He looked at her. “You
have all the answers. How can I reconcile that?”
“Dear God!” Jody murmured. This alone would have upset him, but it
came on top of the worst tragedy he had ever faced. “Michael, you have to give
yourself some time to deal with this. I’m so nervous right now I can’t stand it.
Please don’t compound this problem by doing something irrational.”
“You don’t have to worry, Sis.” He took a small vial from his shirt pocket
and handed it to her.
“It’s my blood. I drew it in the office after the operation. I want you to
take it to that clinic I use to get tested for HIV. I’ll contact you in a few days for
“What!” She looked at him, incredulous. “You’re scaring me, Michael.
What do you mean contact me in a few days?”
“I’m quitting the medical profession and I’m quitting the insane lifestyle
I’ve been living,” he stated matter-of-factly. “If I ever have sex with another
man, he’ll be the one I want to spend the rest of my life with.”
At a loss, Jody looked down at her lap. She felt a sense of relief in that he
might actually be serious about quitting his insane lifestyle. That was hard to
believe. Worried about the way he lived for so long, she had almost grown
numb, resigned to the fact that she could lose her brother to AIDS or violence
long before his time. But this delusion about quitting the medical profession;
that bothered her. She was truly concerned. He was certainly capable of making
irrational statements when facing this kind of stress, but could he actually
follow through with something like this? Apparently so, judging by the tone of
his voice and the fact that he seemed convinced his patients could no longer trust
him. He was indeed hardheaded enough to quit.
“It makes me sick my life has been so shallow,” he went on to say. “At least
I can stop taking so many chances.” He shook his head sadly. “Looks like I had
to kill a little girl to realize it.”
“Would you stop saying that? You didn’t kill anyone.”
“I’m too incompetent to be a surgeon. And look at what I did to Shannon.
I’m incompetent and I’m a jerk.”
“Michael, you’re not a jerk. And you can put your suitcase away. You
don’t have to quit just because you made a mistake. Take a few days off. Think
“It’s hard enough to face being incompetent, but I truly hate feeling like a
jerk.” He looked at her. “I have to change, Sis. If I’m to go on, I have to figure
out how to become someone I don’t loathe. I’m gonna travel for a while, be
alone while I work it out.”
She sat gaping at him, at a complete loss. Then half a dozen questions
formed in her mind, all with an urge to leap off her tongue at the same time.
“Travel? Where to?”
“I don’t know.” He turned and looked at the duffel bag. “I might just
drive around the country for a few weeks.”
“How can you just give up your lifestyle?”
“I’m revolted by it!” He lowered his head, then looked up with another
tear in his eye. “It’s like an addiction. An endless cycle that always leaves you
feeling empty. Maybe it keeps my mind off hospital politics, who knows? But
that doesn’t matter anymore since I’m not going back. That little girl should be
in a room eating ice cream. She should have lived. She’s dead because I’m addicted
“You can’t simply quit your practice at the hospital!”
“Yes I can.”
“Michael, your office, your patients. Too many people depend on you.”
“I need your help, Sis. I honestly can’t walk back into that building. I
want you to go over there and talk to Dr. Whitlow. Soon as possible. Explain
it to him. He can transfer my patients to other doctors and terminate my relationship
with the hospital. Clean out my office. Ask Shannon to help.” He looked at the floor
for a moment in thought. “There’s one more thing. The little girl’s parents will sue me.
I want you to contact my lawyer and explain what happened. Tell him I have no
intention to testify in my own defense. Tell him I’ll state the truth if I’m put on the
stand. That family deserves a settlement, but I don’t want my testimony to inflate the
amount.” He studied her bewilderment for a moment. “Will you do these things for
“I’ll talk to your lawyer. And I’ll go to the hospital, but not to tell them
you’re quitting. I’ll tell Dr. Whitlow you need some time off. He’ll understand
after this morning. I’ll arrange for a leave-of-absence. But you’re not quitting,
at least until you’ve have time to think it through.”
“Fair enough,” he said.
“You’re breaking my heart.” Jody wasn’t the type that cried easily, but
now she was fighting back tears. “I don’t know why you can’t deal with this
right here. Watch a few movies. Catch up on your reading. Heal, Michael; all
you need is time to heal.”
“Won’t work. I have to get away.”
“So when do you plan to leave?”
“Soon as I pack.”
“Shit!” She noted his odd demeanor, sort of a tight state of calm. She
feared the underlying turmoil behind it.
Michael stood and walked to his chest of drawers. He opened a drawer and
slipped off his jeans, confirming his complete lack of modesty. She noticed the
absence of tan-lines before directing her eyes to the floor, reminded of her many
female acquaintances that have expressed regrets about his sexual orientation.
She remembered what her friend Vikki once said: “Michael’s ass has established
my standard by which all male butts are judged.” Another of her friends had
spotted him at Black’s Beach, where he sometimes went to spend an afternoon in
the sun. She mentioned later that he was one of the few men she had ever seen
that actually looked as good nude as dressed.
Jody knew her brother was a beautiful man, his broad chest patterned with
sun-bleached hair, same with his legs and forearms. She enjoyed her friends doting
over him, but his good looks were also the source of her deepest anxiety—he
was just as attractive to men. It was hard enough to accept the fact that she
would never be an aunt, and all but impossible to accept those sordid haunts
that he seemed so fond of, though he almost always came home depressed.
“Sis, I also need you to pay my bills. There’s a checkbook in the desk
drawer,” he said, inspecting a pair of wrinkled shorts he had taken from the
She looked up and watched him dig through the drawer. At least he
doesn’t have to worry about money. He had invested most of his income in mutual
funds, which could provide for him the rest of his life whenever he chose to
quit working. “So you’re leaving immediately, and you don’t know where
you’re going or how long you’ll be gone?”
“Yes, immediately, and no, I don’t know how long.”
“Then keep your cell phone turned on. I want to hear your voice everyday.”
He strode back across the room, carrying the shorts, oblivious to the bobble
and sway. Jody averted her eyes again. He sat on the bed beside her. “Sis ...
“You’re also naked, big brother.”
“Oh ... sorry.” He pulled the shorts up his legs and lifted himself to get
them over his hips.
She took his hand after he buttoned them. “I’m scared, too, Michael. I
don’t want you to go, not in this state-of-mind. After what you went through
today, I want you nearby so I can look after you.”
He ignored her plea, adding: “And I’m lonely.”
She stared across the room for a moment. This was something she understood.
They had counted on each other all of their lives, quite alone in the world. “I guess
we both are,” she said regretfully. “But we have each other.”
“And we will forever. But will we ever have the other? Someone to share
dreams with? Someone to grow old with and hold while we sleep?”
“Michael, please wait a few days before you leave.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ll call you everyday.” He paused before adding: “It’s like
there’s another man inside me, waiting to get out, waiting to change my life to
what it should be. I want to set him free, but I can’t do that here in San Diego.
Too much bad history.” He leaned forward and pulled on his sandals, then
stood and zipped the fly, looking down at her. “I want to see what’s out there.
Be around regular people and see how they live. Just observe, and think things
through. I want to free that guy inside me. I can’t keep living this way.”
An hour later, the Cherokee’s engine was laboring as he drove up the steep
western slopes of the Rockies, heading east on Interstate eight. Though his
heart still beat with the weight of lead, a calm began to settle in his hands as he
steered through the winding mountain curves. Left behind was stress, that relentless
phantom whispering in his ear, reminding him of unending obligations,
prodding an inhuman performance and longer hours. Ahead were countless
miles of highway and country he had never seen, giving rise to discovery that offered
nothing short of a fresh new perspective.
Michael, after eating a half dozen tacos, spent the first night in a small motel
room in Yuma. The room smelled musty with a hint of air freshener. He laid
on the bed, contemplating how long it would take to drive all the way to Key
West, Florida. But then, was that really a good idea? Key West? A city known
for its gay population, crowded, and probably much like San Diego. Perhaps he
should choose a destination that would provide therapeutic solitude, someplace
where he could think, find the inspiration for what he should do with his life.
He stared at the ceiling and smiled. Why not decide tomorrow?
Back behind the wheel by dawn, Michael had filled the gas tank and was
turning onto an eastbound entrance ramp. He had planned linger in bed and
have that second cup of coffee, but woke up anxious to see the desert sun and feel
the warm breeze toss his hair.
He had driven through the desert before, but this time he was actually seeing
it. The window down, the air-conditioner off, he drove with the wind on his
face, the feel of dry air on his skin. Long miles melted away behind him like an
endless stream of fading memories, as the wonders of timeless creation unfolded
ahead. He drove on, through panoramas so vast his imagination could not
comprehend their limits, a ribbon of highway stretching beyond what the eye
could see, so few cars and trucks the solitude lay over the land like quiet, invisible
weight. Miles turned into lost hours as the sun journeyed across the sky; and
it was alright with Michael if this drive through the desert went on forever.
In the late afternoon, growing weary, he pulled onto the shoulder at an
exit near Fort Stockton, Texas and got out to stretch. Staring back over the
unending stretch of concrete that disappeared beyond the western horizon, he
had never felt more alone or so utterly useless in his life.
It had come over him again. Why? Why had it come down to this? He had
won countless accolades for his accomplishments over the years—which now
seemed to belong to someone else. Rewards with no real value, no more meaningful
than that age-old quest for glory. Why had there never been a sense of
simply helping someone, simply rejoicing in the ability to do so? Had politics
and compromises and the clutter of rules led to his shallow choices: those
countless, faceless men? Was he now paying the price? He wanted to live, to learn
what it felt like to look forward to a new day. But to go on meant change. It
meant finding a reason to exist, a meaning, but how? How does a man who has
wasted half of his life point himself in another direction?
He turned and found himself staring at a large brown sign. Big Bend National
Park, 80 miles. A deep breath filled his lungs with warm dry air as he
pondered leaving the Interstate for a drive on the back roads through this vast
land. Back inside the car, he unfolded a Texas map and ran his finger over the
western part of the state until it landed on Big Bend.
Jesus, looks big. He looked back at the sign, deep in thought. I know I’ve
heard of it. He thought about the vast barren stretches of land he had driven
through all day, the blissful solitude. Must be wilderness down there, too. He
looked back at the map, wondering what it might be like to camp out in the
open air, miles from anything or anyone, to lay back at night and count stars,
and make coffee on the coals of a campfire.
Staring at the map, he rubbed his lower lip with his index finger. He had
never done anything like that before, and it unfolded in his mind as a grand
adventure. Camping in the wilderness, a challenge of self-reliance, something he
had not experienced since college. He could exit here at Fort Stockton, stop and
buy supplies and a small tent, and then head south toward Big Bend. Folding
the map, he looked back at the brown sign.
A few blocks from the exit, Michael spotted a Wal-Mart. He parked, went
inside and began filling a cart: a small tent, a bedroll, a variety of utensils, a
couple of paperback novels, snacks and dried fruit. He felt invigorated loading
it all in the back of the Cherokee.
After another night in a motel room, he found himself on a lonely asphalt
two lane road that led across the desert like a country song. He had never
contemplated territory so vast, and he wondered about the pioneers that had settled
such a barren desert landscape with its lonely horizon so many miles away. The
effect, at least for the moment, erased his memory of the problems he had left behind
and opened the door to adventures untold. He liked the solitary feel and
the fact that time had no meaning; for here, it seemed, a man really could get in
touch with his soul.
On he drove, up a long gradual incline which led into the park, and eventually
came to a modern visitor’s center that seemed situated in the middle of
nowhere. Inside, Michael looked over a few brochures, ignoring the half dozen
tourists that were milling about.
A park ranger emerged from a hallway behind the counter. Michael
looked up as he walked through the lobby, struck by the man’s stature and rugged
beauty. A man of African descent, he strode with confidence, his skin a rich
honey black. A gleam of boyish innocence shown from within his dark brown
eyes, which happened to belong to the kind of man that often caught Michael’s
attention. In spite of his desire to be alone, Michael couldn’t deny the long
lashes and full lips were most alluring, a thought lost to mental clutter because
such men were so rarely of like mind. Michael watched him cross the room, his
lean body well defined and masculine in the brown uniform, a small cocker spaniel
trotting happily ahead of him.
The ranger glanced Michael’s way, his mind apparently elsewhere, and
then he paused and turned once again at the door. He looked at Michael with a
meaningless sweep of the eyes, and then nodded before walking out. Michael’s
attention shifted back to the display of brochures. He picked up a map of the
park and then used the men’s room before going back outside.
He stood staring at the vista he had just driven through, across endless
miles of arroyos and the hues and thorny textures of sparse desert flora. He had
never seen the sun’s glare so bright, or the sky quite that shade of pastel blue,
and the moment lingered. A peaceful tranquility lay over the land like a silent
poem heard only through one’s eyes. Clean dry air passed through his nostrils
as he watched the broad circle of a soaring hawk, and all at once he couldn’t
imagine anywhere else he would rather be. It all came together in one timeless
image, vibrant by way of all five senses, soundlessly offering the promise of
centuries past and a future without end, country so vast it had the power to make a
man feel small, yet so alive.
Back in the Cherokee, Michael opened a bottle of water and took a few
drinks as he studied the map of Big Bend. Tracing an errant line with his finger
along the southern perimeter of the park sparked his imagination. Hmm ... the
River Road. Looks like a good bet. He had chosen a primitive road to explore,
one of the longest and most remote roads on the map.
A SONG IN THE PARK