When my grandfather died and we were cleaning out his house, we found pictures of Jeff, Zoë’s ex-husband before my dad. Nobody had a lot to say about Jeff when I inquired, just that he was “a good guy,” and “definitely handsome,” and how he’d “got into some sort of accident,” and how “while he was in the hospital, he and Zoë divorced.”
I emailed Jeff requesting to stay with him for a few days, despite having not a clue where he lived. He agreed and directed me to San Juan Island in the Puget Sound just south of Vancouver — a place where orcas go to play, and where the principal mode of transportation is driving your car onto a big boat.
I arrived late and booked an Airbnb in a town an hour north of Seattle. My AirBnB was hosted by Lisa, and my room was a closet underneath her stairs which was advertised as “Harry Potter’s Closet.” During my conversation with Lisa, she explained to me how she had just returned from her own quest looking for her original parents before they adopted her, a fact she had only recently learned. I laid in bed that night thinking she didn’t seem happy with what she found on her journey, and I wondered if I could expect the same result.
The next morning after a two-hour drive and a 90-minute ferry, I arrived on San Juan Island. I drove off the dock to find Jeff standing by the side of the road. I had previously looked him up so I had an idea of what he looked like. He had been the owner of a popular vegan restaurant, which made him a town celebrity, and he clearly enjoyed being in the local news.
I picked him up and we headed to the new brewery restaurant in town. There was a sense of calm awkwardness in the air — an entirely unpredictable life situation for which neither of us could prepare for but understood we had to share it for the next few days.
It took us 30 minutes to sit down at the restaurant as Jeff stopped at every table to say hello, or ask about the house, or listen to a prediction of the weather. Jeff had lived in the area for three decades, and his celebrity status was evident. At each table we stopped, he introduced me as his “friend.” Clearly, an easier introduction than “And this is Luke, my deceased ex- wife’s son from the guy she met while I was in the hospital.”
After dinner, we left for Jeff’s house, which was another 30 minutes from the harbor in a remote part of the island. His house was nestled into a hillside with lots of tree cover and not much traffic. A five- minute walk and you were on a cliff overlooking the water towards the Canadian coast.
We were both eager to get on with the matter at hand, so as soon as we settled into his rustic living room, Jeff asked me about my agenda. I told him I had none, nor anything planned, nor did I have any questions. I just wanted to come to meet him and understand a part of Zoë’s life that I knew nothing about. This seemed to calm him down. He took a sip from his large glass of whiskey and began his story.
He told me everything in reverse, starting with his split-up with Zoë and ending with fond memories of courtship and love.
The End as I Understand: One evening Jeff and Zoë, married at the time, were hosting a party at their house. My dad showed up selling cocaine to everyone. Jeff then saw Zoë kissing my dad from across the party. Jeff was enraged and was held back by friends and told to forget about it. Over the forthcoming weeks, Jeff would not let the incident go. Until, with emotions running high, he crashed his motorcycle into a truck while riding recklessly through a canyon. Jeff was hospitalized for six months and had burns covering the majority of his body. While in the hospital Jeff would not permit Zoë to see him. Zoë sent flowers and pictures, and pleaded, but Jeff refused to let her see him, resolving to use the hospital as a means to break away. Which is exactly what happened. Zoë moved on, eventually becoming closer with my dad, and she and Jeff split up.
I suddenly realized I had shown up probably looking an awful lot like my dad would’ve when Jeff saw him kissing Zoë. At one point, quite selfishly, I thanked him for breaking up with Zoë, as that decision had the direct result of me coming into existence.
Jeff indoctrinated me with two things he now lives by:
- You don’t owe me anything. His hospitality, for example, did not need to be repaid.
- Don’t feel bad. I told him I felt bad for drinking all his whiskey and brought him a new bottle. He said he wouldn’t take it because I felt bad. So I re-stated my offer such
that it made me feel good to complete the circle of life by giving him that bottle. I found it very satisfying.
Jeff & Zoë’s Beginning: Over the course of a few days, Jeff would tell me the most beautiful stories of their relationship. How he first knew he was in love with her when they clasped hands while riding their horses mid-gallop. Or how you can still see their initials in the cement at the address on her Business Card picture. Or how she could call their crow and it would fly down and land on her shoulder. He would tell me these stories with a glimmer in his eye and a smile as those beautiful experiences were found in a distant corner of his mind.
Jeff’s stories put me in a state of wonder. To hear about Zoë as a young adult. Not my mother, but a bohemian artist who partied hard and did drugs and loved to throw punches… who lived many lives before the one I shared with her.
One evening, during a particularly emotional conversation, Jeff pulled out a giant plastic container that was filled with cards
that Zoë had made while they were together. A postcard-size drawing of Jeff sitting outside at their house while Zoë gazed out the window. Another postcard with stars and incredibly detailed creatures surrounding immaculate calligraphy saying that she loved him and that was all. There must have been at least 200 cards in this container. After reviewing only a few, I could sense Jeff reliving each moment as he pulled out a card. A visual time capsule in a world drawn with colored pencils. I soon realized these cards were personal to him, and sensing his discomfort, I asked him to put them away.
There are some parts of Zoë that I should not expect someone to share with me.
There are some parts of Zoë that don’t belong to me.
The morning I left, Jeff was already out of the house. We had said half-drunken goodbyes the night before, which seemed appropriate.
I left Jeff a print of the Golden Eagle. Right next to the plastic container with the cards.