Back at the dawn of my thirties, in that wet, windy month when fall turns to fell, I found myself mostly jobless, newly loveless, living on a cold, dead warship with no bathroom.
When I’d moved aboard, in July, I’d had what felt like a solid plan: I’d live on the river, play hide-and-seek with capitalism, and snuggle in a small berth with the newest someone I loved. The ship, a rust-scabbed 150-foot tug built for but never used by the military, had no toilet, no shower, no heat—but in peak Portland summer, none of that had mattered. I couldn’t wait to show my old warship to my new love; I hoped it’d give me a splash of the brawn and mystique that I, in my textbook Pisces softness, had always lacked. My ship was hulking and angular. It was spectral rust and spiderwebs and lead paint. It was a labyrinth of gunwales and gangways and steam pipes and secret tunnels and tiny cabins, and I lived in one of those cabins, and one day, while sitting inside, trying to write, I looked out a porthole and saw a breaching sea lion chomp a salmon from the air.
That was in August.
Three months later, my ship was cold and leaky. I had this pathetic space heater, about the size of a toaster, and I spooned it as I lay in my berth, every night and most afternoons, listening to Sufjan Stevens and staring at my phone and rereading an email I’d just gotten.
There’s another guy, that email said. I like him better.
My only work that fall was teaching a writing class, which met once a week. I was new to teaching. I had no MFA, no qualifications save for my first book, which was finished but wouldn’t be published for months, and which, I’d decided, kind of sucked. I felt, in the classroom, like a fraud. Still, that was better than how I felt the rest of week, much of which I spent on my husk of a warship.
The ship was moored on Portland’s northern industrial fringe, so when I was aboard, I felt as far from the city as I’d ever felt from anything. Since I didn’t own a car, if I wanted to see anyone—like my sister, who lived in town and had been instructed, by Mom, to worry about me—I’d have to swaddle myself in rain gear, then bike across a yard full of chatty metalworkers, then climb a hill steeper than most ski slopes, then ride a half dozen miles in gusting wind and sideways rain. Then I’d arrive in a centrally heated home full of laughing humans, and I’d immediately miss my ship.
I was about to begin a new class. Eight students had signed up: six women, two men. A few days before class began, one of those men, Tom, wrote to say he’d recently been suffering from hypoxia and had landed at Portland VA Medical Center, where he’d gotten a dual diagnosis of lung failure and preleukemia; he was wondering if his son, a screenwriter and actor, could sit in for one night. Such was the depth of my insecurity that I pretty much skimmed over the lung failure and preleukemia and fixated on: screenwriter. There would be a screenwriter in my stupid class. I emailed Tom and said that, yes, his son could sit in. And then I shut my laptop and wrapped myself around my space toaster.
On the morning of the first day of class, I woke to raindrops on my steel roof and a phlegmy soup in my lungs. The studio where I taught was nine miles to the south, and I wasn’t really up on my bus routes, so I felt I had no choice but to bike, sick, in the rain. I left early and rode slow, stopping halfway to sit, shivering, in a bustling café, where I slurped overpriced tea and reread my syllabus and wondered how amateur it’d seem to the screenwriter.
That night, the screenwriter was first to arrive. His name was Ben. He smiled like he’d had training, and his clothes fit the way I wished mine did, and he looked like a Good Will Hunting-era Matt Damon but with better hair. This might’ve been intimidating if Ben hadn’t oozed such goodness and humility; the first thing he said, upon walking in the room, was that Tom—he called his dad Tom—may have exaggerated. Yes, Ben wrote for film. He acted. “But I’ve sold exactly zero screenplays,” he said. “And I’ve been in, like, two commercials.”
I exhaled a week’s worth of anxiety and said, “I think your dad might be my mom.”
The rest of the group arrived, and I shuffled my papers like a real professor might, and we began. An hour in, I already knew this class—these people—would be my beacon, my reason to crawl out of bed, my ship, myself. There was Charlotte, the aging, seen-it-all biker; Patrick, who seemed incapable of being unfunny; and Alissa, who had a knack for saying what we all were thinking. There was Carrie, half done with a haunting novel set near my hometown; Jessica, who crackled with new-writer energy; and Sarah and Quincy, who said little but said it in such a way that you knew their writing would be amazing. And, of course, there was Ben, who was supposed to just be taking notes, but who, by the end of class, was saying he might have to ask Tom if he’d mind his son tagging along.
I left the studio that night feeling warm, buzzy, necessary. But then I biked back to my warship, where I resumed my routine of shivering and not showering and eating Triscuits for breakfast and waiting for emails that would never come and feeling so intensely alone. And then, suddenly, it was Tuesday. I rinsed the film from my skin and climbed back up into the world.
The first thing I noticed when Tom entered the room was how big he was: tall enough to almost need to duck through the doorway, and thick all around, with bloated hands that spoke to decades of hard work with heavy tools. The second thing: his eyes, so blue, and so gentle, like his son’s. Then I saw the apparatus he was carrying, a sort of oversized briefcase, the color of industry, that spat out a plastic tube that disappeared into Tom. And finally I noticed Ben, walking behind his father, just far enough away to plausibly deny what he was clearly doing, which was spotting. Only then did I realize how frail Tom was. Only then did I think about lung failure, preleukemia.
When I think, now, of that night, I mostly remember Tom and Ben: Tom gushing over Carrie’s writing, and Ben blushing; Ben saying something funny, and Tom laughing loudest; Charlotte sharing a story that etched itself into my skin, and all of us going on about her bravery, and Ben and Tom smiling at each other in a way that made me miss my own dad with electric intensity. I remember watching the others watch Tom, and watching Ben watch them, and thinking that if I hadn’t decided to teach this class, none of us would be here. I remember forgetting, for a moment, to feel lonely.
In the weeks to come, I got out a bit more, but mostly I just traveled from cold, empty ship to warm, rare classroom. That was the word I used when I told friends about my class: rare. It was rare, I’d say, to get to see a father accidentally reply-all with an email that read: You can relax now, I think it’s awesome, they’ll love it. And it was rare, in a writing workshop, to see sensitive men sitting wide-eyed, humbled, in awe of the women before them. I, too, was in awe. I’d not yet been in many rooms like that one, rooms full of humans whose intelligence and self-awareness was exceeded only by their courage. All of them were sharing stunning stories, and when they discussed each other’s work, they did so with such tenderness. I began telling anyone who’d listen, “This is what I wish church felt like.”
A few hours before our penultimate class, I got a note from Tom. He was, as he put it, “south of AWOL,” and was at home, on oxygen, in bed. He was new to illness, he said, and not very good at it, so he’d need to miss class. That night, as the others read, I looked at his empty chair, and I wished he was in it, nodding, humming, making listening look like something muscular and strenuous and urgent. Then I looked at Ben, who was smiling like he’d had training and was putting it to use.
The next week, our last, Tom was up for critique. I kept waiting for the apologetic note I knew he’d send—but two days before class, Tom emailed us with no mention of his health, just a thank-you and a few notes on the piece he’d attached. If this were a movie, Tom’s piece might’ve been the next Great American Novel. In real life, it was an ambitious and somewhat confusing short story. I could tell he’d been working on it for a long time. So I peppered his pages with comments and questions, and I got ready for our final class.
Day by day, I’d been poking holes in my chrysalis, letting in more light, tasting air untouched by my sweat and rot and sadness. I was remembering that there’s an upside to grief, a moment when you begin to regain sensation in your fingers and ears and heart, when you feel like you’re feeling it all for the first time, when the whole world is vibrating and shimmering and a simple change in light is enough to make you cry. In this misty state, I showed up to our last class. I showed up ready to connect, to double down on all we’d built, to shoot tenderness and grace from my chest like a literary Care Bear. I was ready for everyone to walk out saying, “I will never forget this.”
I’m sure, looking back, that they all did say that.
I’m equally sure it had little to do with me.
I’ve now forgotten most of the particulars. I’ve forgotten what the others wrote about, and whether I said anything graceful or tender, and what we talked about when we talked about Tom’s piece. I’ve forgotten because, near the end of class, there occurred this black hole of a moment, a moment so powerful it obliterated everything around it. After taking our feedback with closed eyes and knotted hands, Tom looked around, face to face to face, and gave a speech I wish I’d had the foresight to record. He’d written for years, he said. He’d always wanted to share his work. And to get to do so now, in this room, beside his son, meant more than he could explain. He told us he’d never felt more alive than while hearing our stories and sharing his. He told us that life is short. He told us that the best thing we can do with our lives is tell stories about them as well and as often as we can.
For a long while, nobody spoke. We all just looked Tom, and then at Ben, who was smiling in that tight, quivering way you smile when you’re trying not to sob. The silence stretched and stretched until, finally, I said, “Thank you.” Everyone else said it, too. And then we stood, stuffed papers into bags, and carried them out of that rare world and into the other one.
Not long after, I left my warship. My ceiling was leaking, and wind gusts kept blowing out my portholes, and one morning, after a night when the temperature dipped into the twenties, I told myself, Enough. After hiding on my tug and cuddling my space toaster and savoring the taste of my own tears for a month, my heart just wasn’t in it anymore. I no longer had it in me to feel so bad.
I moved into a friend’s basement, which felt like a luxury suite. Suddenly, I was blocks from people I’d been avoiding, including my sister, who I’d begun to see often enough for Mom to call off the search party. When hanging out with her—with anyone—I incessantly told the story of Tom and Ben. I’d talk about vulnerability and tenderness, about the words Tom had left us with, and, in fluent humblebrag, I’d talk about how grateful I felt to have gotten the chance to make space for all that.
It was a Tuesday when I got the email from Ben. As soon as I read the first line, which spoke of a “storm that has been brewing since August,” I knew. I bit my cheeks and read on.
Long ago, Ben wrote, Tom had moved to Portland from East St. Louis, where he’d worked in an oil refinery. After a decade of visiting Tom in Portland, where they’d drink in Tom’s grimy studio and walk rainy streets until later than late, acting less like father and son than Kerouac characters, Ben had at last moved to town. As soon as he arrived, though, Tom started to slow down, his years in the factory having caught up with him, leaving him “biting at the air, starving for oxygen.” A day after class ended, Tom was rushed to the hospital, his oxygen saturation having dropped dangerously low; when Ben arrived, the doctors said, “If anyone wants to see him, they need to come now.” Family and friends came in droves, and for days that room shook and shivered and rose and fell, and finally, on the third afternoon, Tom said he was ready, he wasn’t afraid. As his loved ones gathered around him, Tom made a final request: he asked Ben to read aloud the comments he’d gotten from his writing class.
So Ben read our words about Tom’s words. And Tom listened like he always had, eyes closed, whole body smiling. And then he took his pages in his hands, exhaled, and was gone.
If I had written about this in the weeks following Tom’s death, the story would’ve been about what I needed all of my stories to be about back then: the pearls buried in the mud of grief, the rare beauty of tenderhearted men, the things that become possible when someone (read: me) holds a space of which others can make their own meaning. It would’ve been a story about pain, loneliness, and redemption, and I would’ve been the hero.
I know this to be true because, that next morning, I wrote to Ben. I wrote about how it had felt to have him and his dad in my class, and about how watching them had made me yearn to write with my own dad, and about how I couldn’t believe Ben had found the strength to compose that email. I wrote, too, about how good it felt to know that I’d helped create the space that’d meant so much to Ben and Tom.
I think I’m still glad I sent that email. And not just because Ben told me that my words were a balm. I’m glad because that email told a real, raw story, the sort of story I hadn’t yet shared with Ben or any other student—those being years when I still felt I, as a teacher, shouldn’t. I’m glad because that story stands as a reminder of how far I’d felt from everything when that class began, and of how badly I needed to be in the center of something, to be swaddled in stories, to be seen, to matter.
So, no, I don’t regret telling this story that way then.
I just can’t tell it that way anymore.
It’s been ten years since I taught that class. Over those years, I’ve been published and rejected, have dumped and been dumped, have moved back onto and off of that warship, the real one and the one in my chest. I’ve met hundreds more writers, and while there hasn’t been another Ben-and-Tom, there have been so many others who’ve walked into a room full of strangers and set their loneliest loneliness on the table and trusted that someone would pick it up.
The next time I write to Ben, I think I’ll say more about all of that. I’ll say that when I think of those weeks spent with him and Tom, in the presence of a story bigger than any I could’ve imagined on my own, I don’t feel like the hero. I’ll say I don’t know if this story needs a hero—I just know it needs to be told, and told again, to myself if to nobody else, so that the next time I find myself encased in cold steel, a million miles from everything, I can remember how it felt to be pulled off my warship, away from my edges, into a room full of people willing to be alone together. I’ll say what I said to Tom, the last time I saw him. “Thank you,” I’ll say. And then I’ll gather that warm, rare world in my arms, and I’ll carry it out into the other one, and I’ll hold on, as tight and as long as I can.
TagsCommunity, Work, Isolation, Writing
3 comments have been posted.
Thank you Brian, for sharing your story, and my brother Tom’s heart felt story of he and Ben’s last days together. I dearly miss brother Tom’s humor, perspective, heart,,and intellect. I have a picture that make you smile, of him in his hospital bed, huge ventilator on his face, typing furiously with Ben leaning over him, collaborating. He died with courage, like it was all going to be ok, but far too early with too many adventures and stories unwritten. Our family misses him dearly. Thank you again for sharing. God bless, Brother John
John Green | November 2023 | Mission Viejo, Ca
I was moved to tears reading about Tom and Ben, wishing I could have been fortunate enough to write next to one of my parents. Beautifully written. Having taken just one class from the author, I can feel and hear his gentle nature and vulnerability coming through. Thank you Brian. Your writing is a such a gift.
Julie Marquard | August 2023 | Beaverton, OR
I'm finding it nearly impossible to find adequate words to express my feelings about this piece. First, the writing is so economical and cryptic, saying so much, painting such vivid pictures with so few words. More importantly (And this is why we write after all, isn't it?) I was moved to tears by the story of Ben and his father Tom, and how this little confab of writers meeting in a safe place to reveal and share their common vulnerabilities gave validation to the instructor. Sending a virtual hug. Thank you. You have enriched my day.
Rand Bishop | August 2023 | Newport, OR