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My Middle Age

From: Tampa Review
45/46, 2013
pp. 18-25

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Two Afghan merchants carry a bucket of water down Chicken Street, a hub for Kabul's carpet dealers. Photo by J. Malcolm Garcia.

Jet lag. I've been awake most of the night. I look at the clock. Four a.m. It would be about noon in Kabul.

I kick out of bed, call my dogs. The white one looks up bleary-eyed from the floor. The black one's somewhere. I can't see him, but I hear the ID tag rattle on his collar. I flip on a light.

"Walk," I say.

Before we go outside, I push aside maps of Egypt for a reporting trip I'm planning to cover the Arab Spring protests, and open my laptop to check my email. As I wait for the computer, I notice a photo of Susan on my desk. She is sitting in her living room and behind her is a picture of her two boys. The sun reflects off a glass door to the porch where her daughter stands, and behind her the yard stretches into a wood fence darkened by shadows cast from a church.

I thought we'd be enough for you that you'd stop traveling, Susan had told me as I packed for my just completed, three-month trip to Afghanistan. No, I said, and zipped my duffle bag closed.

I put the photo in a drawer. I've been home three days and haven't called her. She hasn't called me either, and we stopped emailing one another a few weeks after I left. That ends that.

My computer makes a popping sound, and a little bubble rises in the lower right-hand corner. I have one message and click on it.

Tom is dead.

The sender, my childhood friend Gabrielle, had dated Tom in high school and always remained fond of him despite the passage of years, changes in geography, marriage and children. I suppose she just needed to blurt out her shock and grief in the way we do things now: tweets, email, Facebook, texting. No more the assurance of a sympathetic voice on the other end of a phone to convey the bad news.

Tom is dead.

I had not heard from him in years. I would call him, but he never answered and did not have voice mail to leave a message. Eventually his phone was disconnected. I mentioned Tom to Gabrielle in an email from Kabul while I was stuck in the airport on my way home. I had seen some kids playing soccer and thought of him. I didn't know it at the time, but after Gabrielle received my message, she searched the internet and found a one-paragraph news brief that said Tom had been found dead in his Dallas apartment.

The article said Tom was forty-six years old. It did not suggest any suspicion of foul play. The last time I had spoken to Tom by phone, he had just been released from a psych ward for attempted suicide. Pills and vodka. Just got drunk and stupid, he said, embarrassed to have been locked up with people "who had real problems."

I sit down, overwhelmed by the weight of sleeplessness, and try to wrap my head around Gabrielle's message.

Tom is dead.


I am sitting in the living room of Tom's future brother-in-law, Brad. He has just returned from Afghanistan, backpacking in a war zone. Dig it. Brad's a rangy kind of guy: tall, lean, sandy hair. Confident. He describes the occupation of Kabul by Soviet troops. Soldiers on every corner. Afghans hustling past them, heads down.

I tell him I'd like to go there. I'm itching for something. College grad, working the stockroom of a Chicago Crate & Barrel. Former English major filled on stories of the west bank and Hemingway and how all the writers of that time traveled endlessly and witnessed history: World War One, Spanish Civil War, World War Two. And then there was Kerouac traipsing across America with Neal Cassady.

After college, I moved to New York, and for a time I thought I wanted to...

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