The Place Where Things Matter

Below is my favorite passage from my favorite book which I finished reading again earlier this week on our flight back from Michigan.

Wayne opens his eyes, takes a short drag on the joint, exhaling a thin gray plume of smoke as he sits up a little. "Here on the cusp of the hereafter," he declares with mock gravity, "I've been granted a certain wisdom, for lack of a better word. An ability to see things with a clarity I never before possessed. It's a parting gift, I guess. You won't be advancing to the next round, but here's a consolation prize, and thanks for playing. That sort of thing." He pauses to smile ironically at his analogy before continuing. "I suppose that not being weighed down with the normal, self-absorbed concerns over health, wealth, and the future, my brain is freed to finally see the greater truth in everything. Or in other words"—he pauses, giving me a sharp look—"what really matters."

"And what does really matter?" I ask, inhaling a whiff of secondhand ganja so strong it stings my throat.

He grins at me, not answering, and looks out the window. The sun hangs low in the purple sky over the roofs of the houses across the street, and the afternoon light is quickly fading into the soft pink hues of evening. "Do you remember that day we cut school and took the train into the city—you, me and Carly?" he says.

I nod. "Sure. We went to the Central Park Zoo and then saw a movie."

"Back to the Future," Wayne says, closing his eyes as he remembers. "We were the only ones in the theater."

I have a sudden, vivid flashback of Carly doing cartwheels down the empty theater aisle in the middle of the movie and then skipping back to our seats, her face flushed with excitement, as Wayne and I applauded. I'd forgotten about that, and, recalling it, I feel a hot lump in my throat. "We had Kentucky Fried Chicken afterward," I say. "Brought a bucket of it on the train and stuffed our faces the whole way back."

Wayne nods, smiling. "All that shit with Sammy was going on then," he says. "I was still in denial that I was actually gay. That was a tough year for me. I was scared and confused, and I had this big secret I didn't feel safe sharing with anyone. But that day we all had a great time, better than if we'd done it on a Saturday." He turns away from the window and looks at me. "The three of us laughed a lot that day. That's what I remember most. And that for one day, I completely forgot about my secret and just enjoyed myself, for the first time in ages."

I nod, feeling my eyes becoming moist. Sitting there with Wayne, I can actually recall the way that day felt, the sensation of it, and what it felt like to be me then. The crisp autumn air, the noise of Manhattan, the delightful, conspiratorial sense of being somewhere we shouldn't have been, the flush on Carly's cheeks from the cool wind as we walked through the zoo.

"That day mattered," Wayne says emphatically. "There were plenty of other days that mattered too, but not nearly as many as there should have been. I've thought about it a lot. What makes a day like that matter so much, and why there are so many less of them as we get older."

"And what's the answer?" I ask.

"It's simple, really. We were doing what we wanted to do, instead of what we expected ourselves to do." He leans back in his pillows and takes a long, greedy drag on the joint, shaking off the ash into a cup by his bedside. "I'm here to tell you," he says, his voice high and clenched from the herb, "that at the end of the day, which is where I currently reside, nothing else matters but the things that truly matter. This is nothing you didn't know before, but even though you know it, it doesn't mean you really know it. Because if you really knew it, you'd act on it, man. Shit, if I could go back now..."

His voice trails off, and he's quiet for so long that I think for a moment that he's fallen asleep, but then he leans forward and takes a deep breath. "I am now going to invoke a cartoon character," he announces solemnly.

I indicate the joint. "What's in that thing?"

"Don't fuck with me when I'm being wise, Joe."

"Sorry."

Wayne rolls onto his side to better face me. A smattering of gray ash falls from the tip of the joint and disappears into a fold in his comforter as he readjusts himself. "You remember the old Roadrunner cartoons, where the coyote would run off a cliff and keep going, until he looked down and happened to notice that he was running on nothing more than air?"

"Yeah."

"Well," he says. "I always used to wonder what would have happened if he'd never looked down. Would the air have stayed solid under his feet until he reached the other side? I think it would have, and I think we're all like that. We start heading out across this canyon, looking straight ahead at the thing that matters, but something, some fear or insecurity, makes us look down. And we see we're walking on air, and we panic, and turn around and scramble like hell to get back to solid ground. And if we just wouldn't look down, we could make it to the other side. The place where things matter."