Dying with Gilda Radner

One year since publishing Fragments. My favorite story from the book.

As an adult, I reinvented myself. Naturally bookish and wry, and a big drinker for years, I became an athlete as well. Fitness and endurance sports. Confident, funny, and carefree. Always on the move, distracted, numb. No opportunity, no reason to revisit the past. Life was easy, but ultimately, it was boring. Each day, each week, exactly like the last. Meet a new girlfriend, sign up for a 10K or a marathon, enjoy a bit of excitement, but eventually return to my rut. Get off work. Run or bike ride, then drink. A couple of nights each week, play soccer, then drink. Sometimes, needing a break, just drink. Change was overdue.

Out at bars most nights of the week. Never pausing to self-assess, to reflect, to analyze the uncomfortable incidents left in my wake. The things I’d rather forget. The scrawny, obnoxious kid, bullied at school. The nightly obsessive-compulsive rituals of my teenage years. Failed relationships in high school and college. My mother’s long struggle with cancer, her death just as I set out on my own life.

Looking at a road atlas one day, I hatched a plan. Bicycle across the United States. I was already on the East Coast, I would ride west. I quit my job and canceled my lease. Stored my stuff in a friend’s spare room. Endured a small and awkward send-off on my front sidewalk: my brother, my father, my girlfriend. I hopped on my bike and rode away. Searching for a new life, a new home. I planned to visit the towns I’d read about in fitness magazines. Hip, outdoorsy places where I might want to settle down, start fresh. Asheville, Albuquerque, Jackson Hole, Missoula. And of course, Durango.

Durango, Colorado. I’d anticipated this destination for days. Possibly my new home? Expectations high. “Dude, I love your tat.” This from a blonde girl on the street. Kerry—eighteen or nineteen years old. In 1994, people used words like dude and tat without irony. Thirty minutes in town, I was being picked up by a kid twelve years younger than me.

Kerry and I were on a roof-top bar drinking expensive beer. A sunny Friday afternoon in July. Town filling up with tourists. My spot secured in a grimy hostel. Everything of value in my pocket. Everything else under my hostel bed. Kerry grilled me, enraptured. Who was I? What was my story? Eight weeks on the road now. Long, wild hair; tanned, ripped body. Well, ripped like endurance athletes are ripped. Muscle and sinew. She found me interesting, mysterious, attractive. And broke—or at least on a tight budget that didn’t include craft beer in a tourist bar. Kerry was buying, that was the deal.

She wasn’t pretty. Short and squat, she wore an unflattering bowl-cut and small blue sunglasses that completely blocked her eyes. She was new to town, just out of her parents’ house in Colorado Springs. Sharing an apartment, working a minimum-wage job. Durango was her first adult experience, and I was about to be her first adult mistake. The sun still up, two pitchers down, no food, no excess body-weight. I was already drunk.

Eight weeks of riding, eight weeks sober. Drinking, of course, but never drunk. Long days on my bike and quiet nights in my tent, reading and writing. Alone with my thoughts, lost in my history. Plenty of time for self-reflection. The smallest, youngest, and most immature kid in my grade. Creeping around my parents’ sleeping household, triple-checking the locks and light switches. The deception of cheating girlfriends. My mother’s death. For the first time in more than a decade, some time to get to know myself. Finally getting reacquainted with someone I wasn’t sure I liked.

Those who drink, who really drink, know this feeling. Waking up after a party night with only a vague idea of what happened. Distorted video clips of memories. Hazy, bent, out of focus. The details elusive, but deep inside, you know it was a night to regret. My hangover alone was enough to convince me. That, and waking up in Kerry’s bed. Images of the night: Leaving the bar with a couple of six packs. Hanging around the hostel, partying with the other guests. Later, in bed with Kerry, seeing how far I could get. Later still, throwing up in Kerry’s bathroom. Her roommate, soaking beside me in his bubble-bath, laughing. “Dude, you’re really fucked up.” Kerry’s alarm jolting me awake at 7:30. This is what I remember from that night.

Three hours later we were up. Kerry leaving for work, I readied myself for the walk back to the hostel. Wondering if the stuff under my bed had been rifled, if anything was gone. Mostly wondering how I was going to get through this hangover without a private refuge where I could properly suffer.

Around noon, I was sitting under a shade tree beside the hostel, reading Gilda Radner’s autobiography about her frantic fight against cancer. A depressing read for a depressing day. Two women joined me under my tree. We talked about our hobbies, our home towns. They were intelligent, interesting, pretty. They were my age. Our discussion eventually got around to all the cool things to do in Durango. They’d gone to a steer-roast and a rodeo the night before. They were gearing up to take a rock-climbing lesson. I could see their disapproval when I admitted my plans to spend a day in the shade nursing my hangover, dying with Gilda.

The women left and I was alone again. Lonely and regretful. Then Kerry walked up. “Do you believe that bitch fired me? I was just a little late.”

“Well, a couple of hours late.”

“She fired me!”

And so I had company. The excited get-to-know-you banter of the previous evening expended. The bond of hooking up misread as an unspoken commitment. Kerry was too young, too fresh. We had nothing in common. And apparently, I was now her boyfriend. The next words out of my mouth should have been “Look, I was drunk, and I’m completely uninterested.” It might have salvaged a bit of my weekend.

The afternoon was dull and seemingly endless. Talking to other hostelers, sharing life stories. Kerry latched onto these tales like a prize. Nothing to add. On her first big adventure, hanging with an older crowd, hanging at my side. Grasping my arm with prideful ownership. Making plans to visit me in Washington. Talking about our future together. By evening, my head still pounding, I escaped inside the hostel for the night. I slept badly, feeling exposed.

Sunday morning, I got up and got out of town. Still shaky from Friday night, I rode only 20 miles. I set up my tent in a sad little road-side campground. I drank gallons of water and tried to flush the last two days from my system. I finished up Gilda’s battle with cancer, hard fought to the end. If Kerry had a car, I’m certain she would have come to join me.

Two years later, car-camping with Susan. Touring the Southwest. We swung into Durango for a night. I was hoping we’d go to a steer roast or a rodeo. We didn’t. But before we left town the next day, I saw her. Kerry was at the edge of a parking lot, sitting on a step. Homeless. Watching me as I drove by. She made eye-contact with me—expressionless, emotionless. Eyes that had seen too much. No spark, practically dead. I felt like she’d been sitting on that step for two years, waiting. Just to give me that look.

I found that new home. A small town in central Pennsylvania. Fitness magazines don’t write about it. Dudes don’t come here to be hip. It’s not outdoorsy, except in a hunting sort of way. But we have nice running trails and endless biking routes. It’s a real community, not a stopping place for young adults looking to delay life. It’s quiet and anonymous. Not exciting, maybe a little boring. It’s exactly where I want to be.

7 thoughts on “Dying with Gilda Radner

  1. God poor Kerry. She cuts a tragic picture in your tale. I remember the mortification of being eighteen and throwing myself into situations with wild abandon… Nothing like what she did but the same blend of remoseless enthusiasm and thoughtless action that leads to embarrassing moments you wish had never happened. The kind of thing you look back on and cringe… Although of course if years later you’re homeless and sitting on a stoop, maybe you look back and think they were the halcyon days. Who knows?


    • Quinn, your comment is so interesting to me. When I think of Kerry, I never think of her making poor choices. I only think of the role I played in ruining her life. When I first wrote up this story (for a fiction contest) I fictionalized an ending where I found her obituary online. In my mind for the past 20 years, I’ve been guilty of a heinous crime—stealing a life. It wasn’t until I wrote the story and talked about it with Susan that I found some closure on the whole sordid mess. This is my rock-bottom.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t think you played any part in ruining her life and you certainly shouldn’t feel that way. She was an impetuous teenager that got carried away but it wasn’t like you strung her along for two years before callously dropping her. She was in over her head as we often are at that age and so were you. Props for disentangling yourself when you could.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Jeff, your writing is so raw and real. I greatly admire your ability to write memoir pieces (or is this fictionalized memoir? Based on a previous comment I cannot tell). Fictionalized or not, I admire this writing. You paint a very vivid picture.

    Liked by 1 person

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