05 – Cake

A long winding bus ride through the Costa Rican countryside on his way to see Sara provides Grissom with ample opportunity to ponder his present course of action and the events following his decision to leave CSI for good.

Part of the Metamorphosis series. Follows “Stasis,” “The Rest is Silence,” “Guilt or Grief” and “The Readiness is All” and details events from episodes 909, “19 Down,” and 910, “One to Go” and takes place circa mid-December 2008.

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At this moment, I am not quite sure which is worse: being cooped up in the cold, white-noised, almost sterile nothingness of a cramped airplane for almost eight hours or spending more than three in the hot, bumpy bustle of a cramped bus knowing you still have almost two hours left to go before you finally arrive at your next destination.

I suppose I am just feeling a little travel weary, and anxious to arrive. It is nearly noon in Costa Rica, which means that between leaving early enough for the airport to make it in time to get through security, the hour-and-a-half layover in Denver, the flights themselves, waiting for the bus and then being on the bus, I have been traveling for fourteen very long hours that right now feel more like forty.

Why is it that time seems to creep the closer you get to the when and where you have been most longing for I wonder? 

For when you fly overnight, without the sight of light and sky and land to mark the passage of hours, time seems to still – slow — to the point where it is almost as if life, itself, has been temporarily put on hold, thankfully albeit without the annoying elevator music.

After so many months of feeling like my entire life had been like that – on perpetual pause – the entire flight felt horribly like an expectant breath still waiting to be released. 

My usual distractions proved futile. Even with four hundred music tracks, I couldn’t settle on anything to listen to. The book Dr. Velazquez recommended, Costa Rican Natural History, spent most of the trip unopened on my lap.  I ended up merely flipping through the in-flight magazine and AirMall catalog. Even the crossword, which wouldn’t have served as much of a challenge on any other day, didn’t manage to hold my interest past six across: a seven-letter word for land. So in the end, within the meditative lull and tight spaces there wasn’t much to do but think – and worry.

And for a few minutes, the disquiet took over and I felt a flash of fear for the first time. Not about the flying, not about what I’ve done, despite the strange looks and concerned queries that accompanied my leaving, but about what was to come. And I thought that perhaps I should have written to you first, to tell you I was coming, but apart from honestly not knowing what to say, I felt that it was time for talk and mere words to be over, that the time for doing and action had come. Maybe that choice was foolish, risky. I don’t know. I suppose only time will tell.

If that time ever comes.

All I know is, the bus seems to be barely slinking forward at a speed that can’t be too much more than twenty miles per hour — a caution necessitated by the country’s endless stretches of winding, bumpy, pothole-ridden roads.

Normally, I am not all that prone to motion-sickness — a somewhat seemingly absurd bodily response for a person who has for more than 20 years dealt with far more nauseating prospects — but the jostling of the bus, combined with the hot and sweaty press of the crowd, all the unfamiliar smells and the new-found heaviness of untempered heat and humidity – as there is no air conditioning on the bus – has become disconcerting to say the least.

Thankfully, I picked up a tin of ginger Altoids in Denver – a trick for upset stomachs I learned from you. Although it was to combat the more like faintly unsettling flutter of butterflies that lead me to buy them in the first place. 

I am almost equally grateful for my earlier lack of appetite both on the plane and when I finally landed. I have had enough migraines to know that there are certain foods that just aren’t appetizing the second time around.

So between the long hours en route and the nausea, part of me wants nothing more at this moment than to close my eyes and surrender to sleep. For while it seems that everyone advises getting as much sleep as you can on long flights, the on-again, off-again fitful sort of half-slumber/half-waking dozing I finally managed to get didn’t leave me feeling altogether rested. So the rocking of the bus, coupled with the heat, makes me want to sleep despite the tight press of people, the rumble of the tires upon the road, the rattle of the engine and the infrequent murmur of voices that are, more often than not, energetically and emphatically carrying on in a rapid sort of Spanish that my not quite so practiced ear can only catch about two or three words out of five. Besides, however tempting the idea of whiling the remaining time away in dreaming may be, I am more than a little concerned about oversleeping and missing my stop.

While I am not usually prone to over-worrying, I seem to have done more than my share of it during this trip. I worried about even being able to get out of Vegas, as only three days ago flights had been cancelled and the airport actually shut down due to the largest snowfall the city had on record for over a hundred years.

Any snowfall is rare enough within the city proper; accumulation is almost unheard of. Two inches descending on The Strip and more than eight out in Henderson was one of those freak occurrences that literally shuts the city down.

I have never been so happy not to be working. But when the snow began to fall again right before my flight, I honestly wondered if I was ever going to be able to leave.

I suppose I should feel lucky that I got to go when I did. That last case. I don’t even want to think about it. About the horrors of having to deal with serial killers, with the processing of body after body of the DJK and his accomplices’ victims.

I don’t care what Sheriff Burdick might have been offering to get me to stay on to lead whatever task force he had in mind for the department, the answer would still have been hell no. I have the feeling both he and Ecklie knew that, hence why they had Jim be the one to ask me. 

I suppose, too, that Conrad didn’t really want a repeat of that awkward interview in his office after I handed in my resignation. I had come in early to begin the process of clearing my caseload, only to have had barely enough time to hang up my coat, before I found him looming in my doorway looking even more dour than usual and saying rather imperiously that he wanted to see me in his office. The insistent Now he appended should probably have clued me into the fact that he wasn’t in a good mood. So my perhaps a little too flippant Good afternoon to you, too, Conrad, may not have been the most savvy of replies.

I hardly had the chance to close the door behind me before he barked, Is this your idea of a joke? not looking the least bit amused as he placed a copy of my letter of resignation down in front of me. But he didn’t even give me a chance to reply before he said, Because if it is, it isn’t funny, Gil. It wasn’t nor was meant to be, but when I indicated as much, he said, You can’t be serious.

Instead of answering, I began to explain that while I would stay on until I finished clearing my caseload, I would appreciate it if we could expedite the whole transition process as quickly as possible. When he continued to just sit there with a disbelieving look plastered on his face, I couldn’t help but grin and ask him why he looked so disappointed as we both knew that he’s been looking forward to this day ever since they promoted him.

When he replied, I was rather hoping the circumstances would be different, I chuckled and said I was sorry to have thwarted his fantasy of finally getting to fire me, which actually netted from him a wry sort of smile.

Then he sat back in his chair and said as more of a statement than a question, I suppose there is no persuading you to stay. I shook my head. And no point in asking why.

I shrugged my shoulders and said he was welcome to ask.

But you won’t tell, he finished.

I knew that after all those years of working together, he’d eventually figure that out, and told him so. Then in all seriousness, I insisted that I would be the one to break the news to the rest of the team.

Even if I hadn’t wanted to have to go through the inevitable awkward questions and explanations, even if it really would have been nice to not have to say anything and just be able to disappear one day, after everything the team’s been through in this past year, I knew I couldn’t do that to them.

So no interdepartmental memos or mass emails, I maintained and was surprised at how readily he agreed.

As I got up to go, he said, I guess all I can say then is good luck, to which I turned and said, Conrad, You’re going to need it a lot more than I am.

I remember once telling Warrick years ago now, that when I left CSI, there wouldn’t be any cake in the break room. That I would just be gone.

And for the most part, I got what I wanted. No fanfare. No parties. No cake. And although the actual words were never said, the bittersweet leave-takings were enough and what I will most remember of those last days. For while I didn’t think the whole telling everyone I was leaving thing was going to be easy, it honestly hadn’t turned out quite how I thought it would.

I guess I have always felt that good-byes are a lot like removing band-aids. They will hurt a lot less if you do it fast and just get it over with.

But having wanted to say the whole thing once, I made the decision to put off telling anyone until the whole shift was on together again. So I waited until Thursday night.

Even then, I almost left the room without saying what I had come to say. 

I do suppose that every once in a while, Catherine’s often not quite so subtle directness comes in handy. For I couldn’t honestly answer No when she asked Is that it? after I handed out that evening’s assignments.

Out of all the news I’ve had to break in that room, standing there with all of those expectant eyes on me and having to tell them that I had made a decision, that I was leaving CSI, was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.  So I was genuinely pleased when my phone, which I have upon more than one occasion these last several months wanted to chuck out the window because of all its insistent ringing, chirped and I was called out on yet another case. That way I could leave without waiting for a reply to my reluctantly asked question of Okay?

Part of me thought that would be the tough part, telling the team, and I honestly felt relieved once it was done. In fact, that was one of the few times I felt any real sense of relief at all since you left.

It didn’t last long, as I suddenly found myself both surprised and dismayed at everyone’s response. Surprised because I never really thought that my deciding to go or not would matter to anyone, and certainly not like this. Then dismayed because it seemed that the idea of me being capable of having a life, of even wanting a life beyond this – beyond work and the lab – was preposterous. 

I suppose it was reasonable for everyone to wonder how I could just walk away, how I could leave all of this behind after all these years, after everything. It is after all, a reputation I have spent most of my career cultivating.

Perhaps if I had explained then perhaps it would have made more sense. But I guess I have gotten used to not having to explain my actions and choices, in just having them accepted, that the questioning came as a bit of surprise.

It wasn’t the questions about why I was doing this or how I could do this though, but the queries that called into question my whole sense of certainty about what I was choosing to do that were the most troubling, especially when the truth was and is that I have never been more certain of any decision in my life.

Doc was curious more than anything. Although I think he knew, even if he shook his head and thought the whole thing was nuts. Which doesn’t really surprise me, his knowing. We’ve gone back a long time, Albert and I, and shared quite a few confidences and questions over cups of his strongly and illicitly brewed coffee. Though we never talked about Sara. I suppose that conversation we had over what we had originally thought was Joel Steiner’s body was the closest we’ve ever come.

When he asked if I was running away from something, I knew the answer was No and I am sure he did, too. As to his suggestion of my running towards something or someone, I am not sure why I didn’t answer. I guess some old habits die hard.

Besides, I never run exactly. Something I know you have given me a hard time about over the years. I suppose that has been part of the problem. For while one can often get to some places faster by going slow, there are times that if you do so, by the time you get there, it really can be too late.

I am hoping that this will not be one of those times.

Jim didn’t ask any questions, just offered his regrets. I suppose we both knew that keeping in touch wouldn’t be quite so easy and that all the talk about BBQs and going out fishing were little more than wishful thinking, but the sentiment was nice, especially when neither of us are all that keen on sentiment.

Nick, who often is and it is often to his credit, was fairly quiet about the whole thing. There were just a few words said almost in passing, which was rather unlike the awkward good-bye he gave me before I went off to Massachusetts, and thankfully so.

Greg, too, was fairly nonchalant about the whole thing. At least until after Nick had left the AV room to call PD. I still smile to think of him turning to me as we were about to go and saying, Oh and Grissom, tell Sara I said hello.

I suppose I was most nervous about Catherine’s response to my springing on her the news of my leaving and that of her promotion in front of everyone else. I suppose I expected her to be shocked. I think I may have even thought she would have had quite a few words to say on the subject, but she didn’t.

She just knew.

Although I have to wonder when she told me I knew before you knew, how long she’s really known. And what she’s known exactly. That at some point I would manage to lift my head out from that microscope (or more appropriately extracted it out of my ass) or that I would eventually leave to go after you? Her wink and the teasingly uttered Took you long enough after we jotted down Gerald Tolliver’s address, didn’t really serve to illuminate her thoughts on either question or possibility.

But Hodges, his response was the most unexpected and baffling. I wish I had gotten to talk to him first, before the news had spread throughout the lab, but the DB at Mt. Charleston took precedence. I certainly hadn’t expected him to walk away upset, angry almost, when I finally did have the chance to talk to him. His apparent standoffishness to Langston’s presence in the lab I could understand. His almost pedantic pep talks that were thinly veiled attempts at insisting that I couldn’t go, not so much.

Until I talked to David.

I have always liked David. He has a quietness about him, a sense of balance. Unlike me, he has somehow managed to find a way to offset a life spent among the dead with a life spent among the living. He has always been able to love and live despite, or perhaps in spite of, the darkness he sees every day. And I have to admire him for that. And for the possibilities his life conveys. That it is indeed possible after everything we’ve seen and done, for all of us to still be able to love and live, to have hope and joy and dreams.

But it wasn’t until I told him that I would miss him, the words perhaps more heartfelt than I would have planned to say and yet meant no less, that I realized that it was okay – okay to leave the job behind, to leave the life, the work behind and still miss the people I was leaving behind, the people who have become a sort of family over the years.

And I will miss them.

Even Hodges, who has somehow over the years grown on me – like a fungus. I think that was how you once characterized the feeling.

Though as shocked as I was about Hodges’ behavior, I wasn’t entirely surprised that when I had gotten to the end of packing up my office I couldn’t find Miss Piggy. While sometimes that pig really does seem to have a mind of its own, I am fairly sure she had a little help with her latest disappearing act and I am pretty sure I know whom from. But that is okay. She belongs there.

And I no longer needed to just disappear as if I had never been there at all; I no longer needed to be just a ghost who had once haunted those halls. And I have walked those halls enough over the years to have worn grooves in them.

But I know I have nothing to worry about. Everything is well in hand. The lab will go on fine without me. But I have never doubted that. Not for a moment.

I remember telling Warrick right before I left for my sabbatical that I was a teacher without any students. The truth was I had been for a very long time. What I have just begun to realize though is that I have, unbeknownst to even myself, long been a student with many teachers. And while Nick may have been my best student, Sara, you have always been my best teacher. Even when I wasn’t always the best of students, you taught me more about life and living and loving than anyone I have ever known. You taught me to finally live not just in my head, but also in my heart.

Ultimately, I suppose that all my leeriness about saying good-bye was really me thinking with a not quite so clear head. I should have remembered when I was dreading saying good-bye, that at its heart — or its etymological heart at least — that good-bye isn’t about the ceremony and spectacle of leave-taking. No, good-byes are rooted in wishing those you are leaving well — farewell, do well, be well and may God be with you. And while I am not in practice perhaps that particularly religious of an individual, the hope that lies behind that original gloss of good-bye, is indeed a comfort.

Like I told Hodges, it was – and is – the right time for me to go. Time for me to no longer be just my job, for my job not to be my life, my whole life. Just as it is time for the dwelling in dreams and longing for the past to be done. Time to face the future and greet it with arms wide open, whatever may come.

At this, I again think of Warrick. I would like to believe that he would have approved of this decision of mine to finally choose to go with the living. For he lived his life — for better or worse — not as if each day were his last day, but as if each and every day was his only day. He loved life and lived that way – without fear or caution and instead with zest and passion. I hope that when my time comes, the same can someday be said of me.

So yes, in the end, I got what I wanted. I didn’t leave amongst sadness and tears, or with cake and hugs and long speeches, but in contentment and hope and with the peace that comes with finally being able to have chosen for myself.

I got to say my good-byes in my own way to everyone, everyone but you, you who have been on my mind and in my heart more than anyone or anything else these past few weeks.

I shift the hat on my lap in order to fumble with the straps of my rucksack, eager to find out what I have done with that tin of mints as the road grows, however impossible it seems, more winding and rocky. As I rummage through the bag, my fingers close instead around a worn and well-thumbed paperback, but it is the snapshots that I slipped into the center pages that attract my attention more than the book itself and make me completely forget about the tin.

The first is a copy of a photograph of the team that Greg had brought back with him from Warrick’s place. It was a picture I had forgotten had been taken, but it was easy to figure out when, for there was only one time it could have been taken — that summer after Jim had been shot. It was from one of those start of summer Memorial Day weekend departmental picnics that I usually dreaded attending like the plague. And that one had been the last one where we were all still together, for that next year, you were missing and I made just a perfunctory appearance since you had just gotten home from the hospital and then Warrick had been shot not long before last year’s event.

Part of me wishes I would have known. Then perhaps I would have savored that day more. Laughed and joked and listened more. Joined in more. Not been so rigid in keeping my relationship with you from everyone else.

But then I had mostly done the same just before I left. Been hesitant to say that I was leaving to start a new life, to attempt for the first time to really make a life – a real life with you.

What that new life might be like, I have no idea. Right now, I can’t get much past imagining seeing you again.

Not even when I have your smiling face peering back at me from the next picture. This one was taken that same summer. It is of just the two of us this time, when we were out on one of those all far too rare excursions when we were finally able to get out of the city, if only for a few hours. Your hair is pulled back into a ponytail just like it had been the first time we met and a bright broad smile lights up your features in a way I haven’t seen it do for far too long. You are, there is no other word for it, breathtakingly radiant in that moment.                                                 

Sara. I cannot help but smile at the thought of you.

I know this journeying is the easy part. So was making the decision to come. That the actual making of a life with you – this new life – is what will be the hard part. For I know there is still hurt and heartache and all of our ghosts to deal with, that it will take time and effort, but learning to live this life with you has to be easier than it has been this past year learning to live without you.

And while the rabble of butterflies might be waging war with my insides right now the closer and closer I come to you, I don’t regret any of this – the goings or the good-byes. Even if I get there and you send me away, it would still have been worth it.

While I don’t really think or want to think that that you will just send me away, there is still that tiny voice of insecurity that mutters in the back of my mind that perhaps you won’t be as happy to see me as I am to see you.

After all, you did tell me not to worry about you, that you were okay, that you were happy. It is possible that you have moved on with your life, begun a new one where I no longer have a role or play a part in. I don’t want to have to believe it, but it is possible.

But then this decision wasn’t about operating within absolute certainty. For while yes, I am certain of my choice, of what I want to do, I have never pretended to know what the ultimate outcome will be. I know all too well that my coming is an act of hope, a leap of faith that is rooted in the belief that a life lived in hope and love are a place to begin.

I am so lost in my own musings that I am startled by the gentle, almost conspiratorially low Es una bonita mujer uttered by the old man seated beside me that I reply I’m sorry in English rather than in Spanish. Although when he says ¿hablas español? and I reply a little more than a little ruefully, this time at least, I manage to do it in Spanish.

So we try the rest of the conversation in a simplified form of his language that I can for the most part follow. He gestures to the photo and says again – She is a beautiful woman and I smile and nod. You are going to see her? he asks, to which I say yes and then no when he questions if you know I am coming. Una sorpresa, he grins and then tells me that it’s no wonder I look nervous. My own smile grows at this.

But when he asks, ¿Ella es usted media naranja? I must look as puzzled as I feel, for he then digs out an orange from his one of his parcels. I am still trying to work out the connection, when he indicates the whole fruit is me and then cutting it in half, indicates one half is still me, but the other is you. And I finally get that he is asking if you are my other half – or I suppose as they say here if you are the other half of my orange. To which I happily agree. We share a smile for a moment then return to our own thoughts. 

Not too much later, however, he asks me where I am planning to getting off at. When I tell him, he laughs and says I am about to miss it, before he calls out to the bus driver for him to stop. As I hurriedly gather up my things, I briefly shake his hand and thank him for his help.

Despite the fact that I know I still have a five kilometer hike a head of me, I pause for a moment to relish in the pleasure of being able to finally have both of my feet planted firmly on the ground before I pull out a copy Dr. Velazquez’s instructions as well as a GPS unit I picked up in Vegas just a few days ago and set out to locate the path she has indicated for me to follow.

As I make my way deeper into the trees, I begin to feel almost like a visitor to a whole new world. It isn’t just the changes in temperature and humidity, both of which feel almost oppressive compared to the usual cold dryness of Vegas at this time of year. The rainforest, even the very peripheral edges of it I am journeying through now, is for a lack of any better words, overwhelmingly beautiful. It has a vibrant verdancy to it, an almost overpowering fecundity in all its rich lushness that gives the land a sort of natural exuberance that Vegas with all its artificial twinkle and glitz cannot for all its trying, ever seem to succeed in replicating.

It almost defies description.

Or perhaps it is just hard to think of the right words when your stomach is tied up in knots.

I try to focus on you. To keep you in my mind as the time passes – here more in footsteps than in minutes, as with the ever thickening canopy of trees above, it is hard to tell by the sun the passage of time.

I may be tired and the sun may be hot overhead, but it is not hard to keep going now, for I know that each step I take is one more step closer to you.

So that when my latest check of the GPS tells me that I do not have far to go yet, I pick up the pace a little. There will be time for distractions and investigations and explorations and insects later. Right now, I just want to see you.

Then even though I know right well that it isn’t far now, before I know it, before I can even wrap my head around the reality of it, you are there.

For I would know that silhouette anywhere. Even in a sea of people, I would still know it was you.

And all the wanting waiting is done with that glimpse of you standing there.

My feet stop. Heart stops. Breathing stops. Everything stops in that moment.

There is nothing more amazing in the world than the sight of you.

And the breath I don’t realize I am holding, the one I feel like I have been holding for hours and days and weeks and months – for more than a year now – escapes in a long deep exhale.

You turn. 

*******

 

Series Continued in Postscript

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