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542: Wait—Do You Have The Map?

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Prologue

Ira Glass

In New York, like in lots of cities, you can call 3-1-1 for help with city services, but also for all kinds of other stuff. The most common calls they get are about landlords not heating apartments properly. But they'll also help you get hold of a W-2 form you need from 2009. They'll tell you what streets will be blocked off for a presidential visit, connect you with the gas company, and a stunning array of other things-- 55,000 calls a day.

Victoria Dusini

Actually, I had a call today.

Ira Glass

This is 311 operator Victoria Dusini.

Victoria Dusini

The woman said that her fiance died in their bed, and she was pregnant, and she wanted to identify his DNA in order to get social security benefits. So she wanted to know who to contact.

Ira Glass

She got a referral to family court, which can establish paternity, to the Social Security office to find out how to get the benefits, and a legal referral to the New York City Bar Association. Here's 311 operator Angelique Pantoja.

Angelique Pantoja

Well, a woman was cleaning her garage and she moved a box, and there was a crocodile. So I had to ask her, like a crocodile, like, big, with-- she's like, yeah, it's going snap, snap at me.

Ira Glass

She says that was an easy one, of course-- call Animal Care and Control. But she also helped with this call.

Angelique Pantoja

I had a woman who was-- I guess she had an unruly teenager. Even on the phone they were arguing. And she just couldn't take it. She couldn't take the disrespect, and she wanted help.

Ira Glass

That woman was given a referral for counseling services. The way all this works is that the operators sit at computers with a massive database of answers on thousands of different topics. They can help you locate where your car was towed. They can explain the changes in your property tax. They can help you find something you left in a New York City taxi, which, by the way, they can do even without the cab number now that taxis have GPS.

But lots of people call for things that are not in the database. You see a UFO? 311 has no answers for you-- not in the database. You drop your keys in the sewer grate at the corner? New York City is not going to help you with that one, either.

And people call with all kinds of stuff. I know a guy. He and his wife were in a taxicab riding home late at night from a Halloween party. He was dressed as a Teletubby. She was a sexy creature from the deep sea-- fishnet stockings, short skirt, fake seaweed. They got to their apartment. It's late at night. His wife told him, get out. She would continue in the cab. She wanted to spend the night elsewhere. So he got out of the cab. And not sure exactly what to do, he dialed 311. Operator picks up. He says, I don't know where my wife is. The operator asked, is she missing? He could be connected to the police. No, no, the guy says. And at that point, he realizes. Right, she's been staying out a lot. Right. She's having an affair.

He didn't know exactly what it was that he wanted to get from 311. It's just he found himself suddenly not sure what had happened to him or how he got there. He had never been in this situation. It wasn't clear what to do.

Natashia Townsend

We get those types of calls because we are known for a place that gives answers. So I guess, why not try 311?

Ira Glass

311 operator Natashia Townsend.

Natashia Townsend

I've had a caller-- she called to speak about her boyfriend. She felt like her boyfriend was going to leave her because he was a model and she just felt like he had a lot of attention from other women. So I would try to offer her different services, like, maybe some counseling for their relationship, and she didn't want it. She just wanted to speak to a 311 rep. She's like, no, I don't want to speak to anyone else. I just want to speak to 311. And there's nothing in our database that we use to say OK. Well, if he's doing this, this is what you should do.

Ira Glass

Natashia found herself off the grid, so she improvised. She's not allowed to give personal advice, which she told the woman. So she basically said the only thing she could say in this situation that they did not train her for-- I understand. She said I understand over and over. The woman kept her on the phone for 45 minutes, and it seemed to help.

Natashia Townsend

I think she felt better after she got off the phone.

Ira Glass

How do you know?

Natashia Townsend

She said thank you. She said thank you for listening to me. That's really what it was. She really just wanted to talk.

Ira Glass

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today, on our program, what happens when you find yourself off the map, far from all the normal things you're used to and that you do, and things are way, way more extreme than they were for this 311 operator. You are lost in some situation you've never been in, and you've never heard of anybody else in, either, and you have to improvise, which either brings out a resource, heroic side of people, or just the opposite. Stay with us.

Act One: A Marriage of Inconvenience

Ira Glass

Act One-- Marriage of Inconvenience. This first story is about a couple who are in a relationship that is unlike the homes that either of them grew up in, unlike, actually, anything in either of their experiences. They're married, and it's a prison marriage. It's the guy who's the prisoner, and was a prisoner when they met.

If you're listening to our program on the podcast or on the internet, I just want to give you a heads-up. There's cursing in here that we have not beeped. If you prefer a beeped version of our program, you can hear that at our website, thisamericanlife.org.

Christopher Rhoads tells the story.

Christopher Rhoads

Prison marriages aren't so unusual. They happen. Michael Jewell was serving out a life sentence for murder in Texas. Joan Covici was a widow living in Dallas who volunteered with the ACLU. They never thought that Michael would get out, and they were OK with that.

But sometimes they'd talk about what it would be like if he were released, to spend time together at her summer cabin in New Hampshire, go fishing together, be married for real. And five years into their relationship, when Michael decided to appeal his case, in the very unlikely event that he'd win, Joan wanted to be prepared, so she drew up a contract.

Joan Covici

We made kind of a pact-- and I still have that document-- that we would try it for two years. Whenever he got out, we would try it for two years. And if we weren't happy after two years, that we would separate.

Christopher Rhoads

Joan keeps the contract in her desk at home.

Joan Covici

"We, the undersigned, agree to the following arrangements, following--"

Christopher Rhoads

The contract explicitly lays out all the very practical things that usually go unspoken in a relationship. Joan agrees that she'll provide Michael with a place to live and money for food and clothes. Michael agrees to take care of Joan, to be her companion. The contract is like a couple's fantasy of the most ordinary details of everyday life together. It gets amazingly specific. Here are some of Michael's duties.

Joan Covici

"House chores-- 50% participation in cooking, cleaning, trash-takeout, bed-making, and minor household repairs. Outside chores-- yard and garden maintenance, dog-walking, shopping, driving, and car and air travel assistance. Here follow some specific obligations for Joan. House chores, 50% participation in cooking, cleaning, bed-making, and laundry, providing--"

Christopher Rhoads

Without prison, it's unlikely that Michael and Joan would have ever met in the first place. She's 16 years older than he is, from a completely different world. Michael never knew much more than crime. When he was about seven, his father had him steal a pair of shoes. Things went downhill from there. Michael robbed grocery stores, cracked safes, he was in and out of prison. Then, in 1970, he killed a man during a robbery.

Michael Jewell

We spooked him, you know? We scared the hell out of him. And the wind was howling, and I was standing in front of him trying to tell him this is a robbery. Cooperate, and you won't get hurt. And he said, oh, oh, and made a motion like Matt Dillon going for the draw.

And my partner thought he was going for a pistol and shot him in the back. And when I heard the shot, just reflexively, I shot him in the chest. And when he hit ground, I knelt down and searched him, and he didn't even have a weapon. What he was trying to do was give us the bank sack.

Christopher Rhoads

Michael was caught and convicted, which, in Texas, means he wound up on death row. He was 23.

Joan's life in her early 20s was about as far from rural Texas as you can get in this country. She lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was married to a PhD student in English literature at Harvard named Pascal Covici, Jr. Pascal's father was the editor and lifelong friend of John Steinbeck, which meant that sometimes Joan got to go to intimate parties in New York City full of literary heavyweights.

Joan Covici

Saul was often there-- Saul Bellow and Arthur.

Christopher Rhoads

Arthur Miller?

Joan Covici

Arthur Miller. When Arthur married Marilyn, of course, then everybody wanted to go to the dinner party.

Christopher Rhoads

Marilyn, of course, was Marilyn Monroe.

Joan Covici

She was quiet. Didn't talk a whole lot, but she was so gorgeous. We all just sat there and looked at her and were happy that she was there. The men did most of the talking. And I was also quiet at those parties too. I didn't feel as comfortable. They were often talking about things that were not familiar to me-- about their work and politics. I had the baby by then, and that was taking up most of my attention.

Christopher Rhoads

Joan's marriage to Pascal was pretty standard for the time. He was the breadwinner. She was the homemaker. Joan raised two kids, eventually became a schoolteacher. And then, many years later, when Joan was 66, Pascal died of cancer.

After his death, she got more involved with volunteer work she'd been doing at the local ACLU chapter. She answered prison mail and started corresponding with several inmates to find out about conditions in the Texas prison system, which is how she'd first met Michael. He was 52, nearly 30 years into his prison sentence, and he sent a letter that found its way to Joan.

Michael Jewell

It says, "Dear friends, I am a prisoner on the Eastham Unit of the Texas prison system. I came to prison with the death penalty in 1970. I stayed on death row--"

Christopher Rhoads

There was nothing special about Michael's letter. He was asking about getting involved with anti-death penalty work. His own death sentence had been commuted to life in 1973. And he'd become something of an activist in prison-- heavily involved in prison reform issues. Joan read his letter and dutifully wrote back. Then Michael wrote back, then Joan wrote, and so on. Michael and Joan wrote to each other almost every single day for 10 years.

Michael was self-taught, but his letters showed how much he'd read, including most of John Steinbeck. And his intellect impressed Joan. She was constantly communicating with prisoners, 5 to 10 at a time, but Michael's letters stood out. He was a good writer. Take this letter he wrote to Joan after he intentionally injured himself-- cut his own Achilles tendon to protest work duty conditions.

Michael Jewell

"I had grown to love my body without narcissism, almost as a friend a faithful companion. It was, after all, my only refuge from the filth and the stench and the scorn. As I sit there contemplating the harsh task at hand, I felt like a traitor, as though I were committing the highest treason. It was most difficult to see a higher good in"--

Joan Covici

To me, he looked like James Cagney. He just was a perfect James Cagney, except that he didn't have very good teeth. He had just a few teeth on the bottom. So I saw him, and he was James Cagney, and I used to love James Cagney in his movies. But again, it wasn't love at first sight or anything like that because I'm not that sort of person. I go for the mind first. And he had a wonderful mind. And we just had lots to talk about.

Christopher Rhoads

It wasn't all intellectual. In his letters, Michael started using pet names for Joan. He'd call her Sweet Baby Joan and other things, too.

Michael Jewell

"Dear noble little squaw, sweet baby." "Dearest finger-licking-good sweet baby." "Dear honey butt." [LAUGHS]

Christopher Rhoads

In her letters, Joan loosened up, as well.

Joan Covici

"I think I'll fix a big scotch and go sit in the back yard and smoke a cigarette and try to get you into perspective. God, I wish you were here to spank." (LAUGHING) Can I stop there?

Christopher Rhoads

Every Sunday afternoon, Joan would drive the few hours to visit Michael in prison-- a book on tape playing on the car stereo. She'd stay at the same fancy bed and breakfast near the prison, became friends with the people who ran the place, and then the rest of the week, she got to go back to her own life and did what she wanted to do. It was romance, but on her terms-- something she'd never experienced.

Michael and Joan would hug and kiss discreetly on their contact visits. This was all in a public visiting room. There was nothing conjugal about what was going on. The limits of their time together were clear, and Joan was happy with the arrangement.

Joan Covici

I kind of liked being alone. It's very comfortable for a woman to know that somebody loves her, and yet, she has all this freedom to live her own life.

Christopher Rhoads

Michael and Joan knew that, no matter how close they became, they'd never really be together. Rarely, if ever, does a former death row inmate get paroled in Texas. So really, what they had was their letters. Here's another one from Joan.

Joan Covici

"A song that has always torn my heart is the 'September Song.' You remember-- 'And these few precious days I'll spend with you.' "

[MUSIC - WILLIE NELSON, "SEPTEMBER SONG"]

"And especially in our case, the days are few, and we may never spend them really together. We must get used to this reality and not ruin what years remain. I love you, precious Michael-- SBJ"-- Sweet Baby Joan.

[MUSIC - WILLIE NELSON, "SEPTEMBER SONG"]

Christopher Rhoads

In 2005, they got married, but that was mainly so that they wouldn't lose their visitation rights. The prison had denied them visits before. And they lived this way, happily, for five years. Then, in June 2010, Michael was summoned by prison authorities. He walked into a room, and an official came to speak to him.

Michael Jewell

He said, are you Jewell? I said, yeah. He said, here, I got a present for you. And he handed me a sheet of paper. And I started reading it, and I had made parole.

Christopher Rhoads

Michael was confused. Just a month or so before, he'd gone before the parole board and been denied, just as he had been many times before.

Michael Jewell

I think I stopped breathing for about two or three minutes. I didn't really-- I was kind of-- my first reaction was, this has got to be a fucking mistake, you know? It was unheard of, you know? Something like that happens once every 10 years in prison to somebody.

Christopher Rhoads

Michael has no real idea why he was paroled. He thinks it might have had something to do with a lawsuit he filed against the prison system, saying that it was understaffed and unsafe. Releasing Michael made the lawsuit go away.

Joan Covici

I think it was a surprise to both of us when he suddenly was put on the street. He was scared at the thought of coming out. He wasn't prepared for it. Neither one of us was, really.

I wanted him home, and I knew it was going to be hard. I knew it was going to be difficult. And I knew that the chances of the relationship lasting were very bad. But I had agreed to try it, and so--

Christopher Rhoads

Do you think that you would have gotten into the relationship as you did and to the degree that you did if you knew that he was actually going to get out one day?

Joan Covici

I can't answer that. I really don't know.

Christopher Rhoads

Now, with Michael about to be released-- the contract we'd talked about at the beginning of this story, the one that laid out all the shared household and relationship duties should Michael, a convicted murderer, ever get paroled-- that contract was about to be put into effect.

The contract stipulated a two-year trial period for their marriage. If it turned into a real marriage, fine. If it didn't, they would go their separate ways. Joan could fire Michael, or he could quit-- those are their words-- at any time. Nobody keeps statistics on how long prison marriages last on the outside, but lots of prison people will tell you most end before a year is up.

On August 21, 2010, after 40 years in prison, and 10 years with Joan, Michael was a free man. Joan was waiting for him in a parked car at the prison gates, wearing an earring Michael had made for her. Joan was so nervous and excited that she hadn't slept the night before. She had a whole romantic vision for the day. She'd made a reservation at a five-star hotel. Michael walked out wearing his prison-issued jumpsuit, nervous, and overwhelmed to be out.

Joan Covici

And he didn't kiss me or anything. He just got into the car and said, let's go. So it was a very unromantic meeting, and it kind of hurt me.

Michael Jewell

I was elated, but I was kind of bewildered. I don't think you can describe it.

Joan Covici

I thought he would be as warm to see me as he was in the visiting rooms, where he would hug me and try to steal an extra kiss or something. Oh, no. He was very businesslike. It wasn't what they show in the movies at all.

Christopher Rhoads

As comprehensive as the contract was, it didn't cover everything. It didn't occur to them to include anything about sex. A quick warning to anyone listening with kids, this next bit of the story is about that.

Michael had never had sex with someone he loved. And 40 years in prison left him pretty messed up on that subject.

Joan Covici

I did not expect him to be so afraid to cuddle. If we have our clothes on, he hugs me all day long. But getting naked with somebody makes him very uncomfortable.

Michael Jewell

Especially the last few years, she had taken on more and more of a mother figure to me. And when we got in a hotel room together, then I started pacing the floor, identifying with Oedipus Rex, if you know what I mean.

Christopher Rhoads

I think what he means is their relationship had shifted over the years. And she was now 79, remember-- 16 years older than Michael. Once they were in a hotel room, they realized that the nature of their feelings toward each other were really complicated.

Over the years they'd known each other, Joan had gone from initially feeling like she wanted to adopt Michael, to wanting to sleep with him to, now that he was out, a kind of mishmash of all those feelings.

Joan Covici

He's still an adopted child, and he's still my best companion, and I love him, and he's my best friend. So it's all together. And I'm comfortable with it.

Christopher Rhoads

So Michael moved into Joan's suburban ranch house in Dallas and got to know her family and friends. There were lots of academics, all sorts of people and settings he'd never encountered before. She was surprised how well he did socially, but they had their rocky moments.

Joan took Michael to a wine-tasting party and he got fall-down drunk. Joan had to haul him outside to avoid making a scene. This happened two or three times. He never really drank socially before, usually, just to get hammered. And at parties with Joan, he'd go too far, partly to calm his nerves. One of Joan's friends-- someone who'd been close to Joan's first husband, Pascal-- was appalled by her choice of a second husband and ended their friendship.

It's now been four years since Michael got out. They've made it way past the trial period in their contract. Michael still leaves the stove on and the front door open-- things he never had to think about when he was in prison. He leaves his stuff lying around everywhere. Joan says it's like having a teenager in the house again. But they've learned to deal with all this. Their lives are intertwined now.

Joan Covici

Somehow, there's an equality of people in this marriage that I didn't have before. I was too dependent upon my husband and his reputation. But with Michael, it's just-- you know, I figure I've become free in some strange way. The neighbors have to accept us the way we are now. They got a criminal in their neighborhood. I love to have him out there with all of his tats all over him.

Christopher Rhoads

Now that Joan is in her early 80s, she's started to wonder what's going to happen to Michael when she's gone. That wasn't in the contract. Joan figures maybe they've got another seven years together.

Joan Covici

We'll have to find you another old lady to take you in.

Michael Jewell

(LAUGHING) Prospects are going to be few and far between.

Joan Covici

(LAUGHING) I'll find another kindergarten teacher who will really shape you up.

Michael Jewell

Well, we often say that we should die together. So maybe we'll drive into a freight train or get hit by an 18-wheeler.

Joan Covici

Well, what about a plane crash? Don't you like that idea?

Michael Jewell

No.

Joan Covici

Oh, no, not that?

Michael Jewell

No, I'd rather drown.

Joan Covici

Oh. (LAUGHING) I see.

Christopher Rhoads

Until that day, whether they go out together or not, they like to watch Downton Abbey together. They go to plays. Recently, they went to see a Tennessee Williams play at a community theater near their house. And these two people, who have lived very different lives, had the same reaction. They thought the play sucked. They left at intermission.

Ira Glass

Christopher Rhoads.

It's been four years since we first broadcast that story, and today's program. Joan and Michael are still together. They're dealing with some difficult things right now. She's going through chemo. He moved into a treatment center for alcoholism, though, he's back in the house two or three times a week and stays over on weekends.

Coming up, Brother, Can You Spare a Lime? Siblings on a road trip through Mexico that is unlike anything either one of them imagined beforehand. Also, comedian Tig Notaro. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: Final Rest Stop

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme and bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program-- Wait-- Do You Have the Map-- stories of people in situations they have no preparation for whatsoever because most people have not been in those situations. In the second half of our program, both stories take place where you need a map-- that is, on the road.

We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two-- Final Rest Stop. Tig Notaro is a comedian who's been on our program before. Back in 2013, she went on a tour across the country that was filmed. It was a strange tour. She and this Canadian comic named Jon Dore went around the country performing in people's living rooms and their backyards and just lots of situations where they had to ad hoc their way through what they were doing. One of our producers, Nancy Updike, saw the film, which has many, many moments in it that fit today's theme. Here's Nancy.

Nancy Updike

Tig and John are like door-to-door comedy salesmen in the film-- invited salesmen-- showing up at people's houses and knocking on their doors. But my favorite parts of the movie are just Tig and Jon in the car in between gigs-- the road trip part of the movie. Jon's always driving, sometimes using special Canadian mind exercises to either stay alert or to annoy Tig.

Jon Dore

I'm going to name as many--

Tig Notaro

No. No, no, no.

Jon Dore

--Montreal Expos--

Tig Notaro

No, no, no.

Jon Dore

--as I can.

Tig Notaro

No, no, no.

Jon Dore

Andrés Galarraga, Tim Wallach, Tim Raines--

Nancy Updike

They talk in the car, riff on each other's jokes. It's like watching dancers staying limber between performances. Tig shows off her incredible impression of a clown's horn.

Tig Notaro

[HONKING]

Jon Dore

That's really good.

Tig Notaro

[HONKING]

Nancy Updike

They both look like they're having a really good time. Then, as Jon is wrapping up his impression of Johnny Carson auditioning for Jodie Foster's role in Silence of the Lambs, Tig suddenly grimaces in pain.

Tig Notaro

Ow.

Jon Dore

What happened?

Tig Notaro

I just get stomach pains.

Jon Dore

Is this something I need to be worried about, or is this just, like, your stomachache?

Tig Notaro

No, nothing to be worried about.

Jon Dore

Do you need to take a moment?

Tig Notaro

If it continued for a while, then there would be trouble.

Jon Dore

Do you need to take a moment?

Tig Notaro

Nope. I just have pains every now and then.

Nancy Updike

Tig had cancer two years ago-- famously, if you follow comedy. It was breast cancer, advanced. She had a double mastectomy. A few months before the cancer was diagnosed, Tig was in the hospital with a terrible, sometimes deadly, infection called C. diff.

Over the course of the tour, driving around, doing gigs, Tig and Jon log enough hours together that they get into all of that-- illness, fear of death. They joke about it. They're serious about it. They navigate it.

And at some point in the trip, Jon and Tig pull over at a roadside store that sells fireworks and tombstones. Maybe two different people on a different road trip wouldn't have stopped or wouldn't have stayed if they stopped. But as friends who were also comics, they both head into the field of tombstones and start improvising, neither of them knowing where this is going to lead and whether it's going to be funny or maybe a terrible idea.

Jon Dore

Hey, let's get you a headstone.

Tig Notaro

Yeah. Let's get me a headstone.

Nancy Updike

Tig explains to the owner of the store why she and Jon are looking for a headstone for her.

Tig Notaro

I've had some health issues lately.

Store Owner

Oh.

Jon Dore

This one's nice and cute.

Tig Notaro

I just want to be smart, think ahead. All right.

Jon Dore

Wow.

Tig Notaro

So this one's $250?

Store Owner

Yeah.

Tig Notaro

I really like this one.

Nancy Updike

Tig, at this point, is touching a modest, flat slab on the ground.

Jon Dore

See, now that's just the bottom. You could have that engraved, right, and just use that?

Store Owner

Yeah.

Nancy Updike

That's the owner.

Jon Dore

But you would want--

Store Owner

That.

Jon Dore

I would buy you this. I would love to buy your headstone.

Nancy Updike

Jon's pointing to an upright headstone. Tig seems momentarily thrown, like, are we still playing here?

Tig Notaro

All right.

Jon Dore

I'm not joking. I'd love to do this for you.

Tig Notaro

OK.

Jon Dore

I'd buy your headstone if you buy the base.

Tig Notaro

All right. Because I'm more than happy to just have that.

Jon Dore

You should have this, don't you think?

Tig Notaro

OK.

Jon Dore

What is that without this?

Tig Notaro

That is a base.

Jon Dore

Yeah, but what are you going to do with a base?

Tig Notaro

I'm going to go under it.

Jon Dore

You should have this.

Nancy Updike

Let me stop the tape. That pause-- that's Jon's moment to be stunned by the directness of, "I'm going to go under it." Then he recovers and keeps going.

Jon Dore

You should have this. People are not going to want to stand over it and read. They're going to want to look at it from a distance. Look at-- if you get something like this, people can sit down in front of it and cry. So you're underneath me, right? And I'm just bawling my eyes out, and I can read it here. I don't have to kneel down and come all the way over there.

Tig Notaro

Yeah.

Jon Dore

I can bring a lawn chair.

Tig Notaro

I guess this is hard on the back.

Jon Dore

Yeah.

Tig Notaro

To do this.

Jon Dore

I'd be in a lawn chair. I'd be there for hours.

Tig Notaro

You'd spend some time.

Jon Dore

You'd look beautiful under that.

Tig Notaro

I like it. I like it.

Nancy Updike

Jon buys the headstone. It's $425-- cheap for a tombstone, expensive for a joke. Then they get back on the road.

I watched this scene a bunch of times, the way they pushed the joke forward but kept saying real things with real feelings. It was a game, and the game was keep it going. Don't stop. Let's see where this goes.

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike, playing an excerpt from the film, Knock Knock, It's Tig Notaro. If you're in Los Angeles on March 31, you can catch Tig at Largo. All of her upcoming show dates are at tignotaro.com.

[MUSIC - MARVIN PONTIAC, "SMALL CAR"]

Act Three: Not All Who Wander Are Lost…But Some Definitely Are

Ira Glass

Act Three-- Not All Who Wander Are Lost, But Some Definitely Are. A car is a classic place to realize, oh right, I'm lost. Though sometimes, you realize that you're lost. You're, like, personally lost, and then you get into the car and you drive as far as you can to solve that problem. James Spring has this story. It's partly about that.

James Spring

There's this guy that I've known forever. His name's Kevin. He's about 40, a father now with two kids. But back in the summer of 1989, when Kevin had just turned 16, his dad let him drive from San Diego to Central America with his older brother. Kevin was super excited. It was the adventure of a lifetime. He'd saved up nearly $1,000 working after school at a yogurt shop.

Kevin's brother, who was 21 at the time, knew parts of Mexico pretty well. After he'd dropped out of college, it seemed that he was down in Baja all the time. He was a hard charger, lived with a bunch of tattooed guys who looked like felons. He drove this kick-ass red Jeep with no doors. So a little wild, but he'd always looked out for Kevin since they were little kids. Kevin wasn't worried.

Kevin

Good guy to travel with. He'll watch out for me. We'll learn some Spanish, drink beer, and smoke cigarettes.

James Spring

But there were other interesting facts about Kevin's brother, too, some of which would soon become concerns. That thing that the brother was doing in Baja-- not legal. The tattooed guys who looked like felons were, in fact, felons. And actually, Kevin's brother, himself, had recently been released from a short stint in county jail. The older brother had anger issues. He was a control freak.

So the trip-- I mean, it sucked. It ended badly, and it ended early. There was a blowout fight. Two drove down. One flew back.

Kevin

I was happy to get on a plane and go home. I'd had enough of the driving. I'd had enough of my asshole brother. And now it had become a fight. And even though we had fought before, really, this was the worst one.

James Spring

There's one more important thing to know about Kevin and his brother. When they were kids, they'd been everything to each other-- super close, like war buddies-- because they grew up with a stepfather who was a real bastard-- violent. And they moved around a lot. Every year, a new school. No friends-- really, just each other.

This trip, that fight-- it decimated their relationship. The two never really spoke about the trip again, didn't speak much at all. It's been more than 20 years. I wanted to talk to Kevin about this and how he feels about it now, since I already know how his brother feels about this. Because I'm his brother.

James Spring

OK. We're recording. You good?

Kevin

All right. I'm good.

[DING]

Was that me?

James Spring

I think so.

Kevin

Talk about the long trip?

James Spring

When I first suggested that we talk, Kevin was ambivalent. I think he wondered why-- like, what good could come of it-- which is fair because I have not been an easy guy to talk to. But I had some things I wanted to say. And look, in this story, I'm not going to come off well. I was a real prick.

In the late '80s, I was the first person in my family to get into college. I dropped out after six months. Some friends let me crash with them. One night, I threw a party that went off the rails and three shots rang out from a semiautomatic handgun. The idiot that fired the gun? That was me-- my gun-- evicted.

Then I started hanging with some truly bad people. We were running ephedrine and coke from Baja into San Diego. One night, there was a drug raid at our house. Everything got flushed down the toilets before the cops got through the door, but I still got arrested. Through all of this, though, I still somehow had this great girlfriend, just really sweet and wonderful. Then I slept with some other girl. You know what that got me? Gonorrhea is what it got me, and no girlfriend. I ruined so much, so much. But I could run away from almost all of it and take penicillin for the rest.

I was 21 years old, a colossal mess, and I just wanted to get in my Jeep and drive to Mexico and beyond-- see the temples of the Aztecs, the Mayan ruins. So I prepared to drive all the way to Central America for the summer. And I would take with me the one person who I was sure didn't think I was such a bad guy.

And I was done being that bad guy, anyway-- that shallow, selfish me that people hated. I was ready to throw myself into something real on this trip, something important, something smart. Before we left, I removed the backseat from the Jeep and replaced it with a welded lockbox with maybe two suitcases worth of storage space. Then I loaded it with a lot of books. I'd always been a reader, like a studier, and my plan for the summer was, sure, hang out with my brother, but also to learn the language of the Lacandon Mayans. And I was going to learn to read the Mesoamerican hieroglyphs. I even made flashcards for myself.

This trip would be an opportunity for me to figure out once and for all why the Mayan civilization disappeared. Yeah. Archaeologists had been on the job for more than a century, and still nobody knew why all these cities were abandoned. But I was pretty sure that this summer, I was going to get it nailed down. All answers lay somewhere in those lost cities deep in the jungle. And lucky Kevin, he was about to see every one of them.

Kevin

Palenque, Chichén Itzá, Teotihuacan, Uxmal, Mitla, Templo del Sol. I can name these things, but I can't remember them. They all just blend together for me as rocks crumbling. And the idea of seeing the ruins wasn't-- that was your idea why you would be going to Mexico. At 16, just turned 16, I knew there was going to be beer. I knew there was going to be ladies at the tourist spots, and hopefully surf good, warm water.

James Spring

I have no recollection of surf being on the itinerary. I mean, I don't know--

So off we went with our high hopes-- such wildly different high hopes-- into Mexico. To get us to the important places where I wanted to be, most days I'd need to drive us for stretches of six or eight hours. A lot of times, Kevin just wanted to stop, like in a village, and see stuff. But there could be no stopping.

When we did pull into little towns, people were curious about the two gringos who showed up in their pueblo. They'd ask questions, and I'd tell them to mind their own business. I wasn't some freak show oddity. What I was was a pretentious douchebag who could not be bothered to interact with the common man.

Kevin, though, was, like, energized by being around other people, and the more the merrier. He loved it when we were in the beach towns full of American tourists. And in the small villages, he'd fumble through the few Spanish words that he knew, and he'd start these inane conversations with everybody. It grated on me.

I wasn't much better on the road. Driving on mountain highways was frigging unnerving, especially at night. And a lot of the time, the map just did not seem to reflect the reality on the ground. My Spanish wasn't great, but the little phrases that I used to navigate around Baja weren't working for me here. The dialects were different. I couldn't understand a lot of the responses. And I didn't handle it well, which I couldn't hide from Kevin, who was sitting right next to me.

Kevin

As we'd pull away from the people, so often, I remember that you'd be like, (WHISPERING) oh, that fucking idiot. Or god, I just asked a simple question. And just kind of continually watching you, the navigator, ask, [SPEAKING SPANISH]. And I'd just be like, god, he just asked that question two turns ago. I knew he didn't understand what the guy said. So much in my head, I would just be like, pfft, you're calling that guy a fucking idiot, but I can even understand what he said.

James Spring

We drove south through Mazatlan and down to Puerto Vallarta. It was all green and jungly and full of tourists having fun. I knew that I was better than them. I wasn't here for the parasailing and the tequila poppers. I had a mission. This is from my journal entry about the ruins at Ixtlán del Rio.

"July 22, 3:01 PM-- this temple is the highest of the 15-plus structures found here. The floor of the temple structure is 4 feet off the ground and is reached by six narrow, steep steps. There's a perimeter wall that runs the circumference, save for four entranceways, not equidistant. The wall reaches to 10 feet above the ground and has in its design symmetrical crosses as portholes all the way around, 41 of them. The material of construction at this site is--"

The journal is 190 pages long. And late into every night, I wrote down all of the important Mesoamerican anthropology stuff from the trip, which includes virtually no people-- at least no living people. If you were forced to read this entire journal and then tried to deduce the importance of the Kevin character in my life, you might guess that he was maybe Boy in Taco Stand or Boy at Beach Number Four. He just didn't figure into my narrative.

And one other thing about this journal-- and I'm not sure how to say this except to just say it. Along the way, I met some girls. And if things went well with those girls, then they would earn a little note at the top of the journal page for the day right above the groundbreaking archaeological data. And the note would say, for example, "remember Blanca." And I totally do remember Blanca. So there's that.

For me, it was all ruins, all the time. We drove to the ancient Toltec city of Tula and visited Aztec temples at Tenayuca and Santa Cecilia and the ruins of Teotihuacan. And by "visited," I mean that we spent hours and hours at each site while I mapped and logged every important detail, while Kevin must have been doing something. In general, he was a pretty good sport about it. Clearly, it wasn't his thing. But what was he going to do?

James Spring

How are we doing at this point? How are we getting along, at this point, in your recollection?

Kevin

Fine. I think there would be times where we'd talk and be like, let's just not talk, or something. Pretty civilly getting through any frustrations. I wouldn't have gone yet and called you names I don't think.

James Spring

Not yet. Every night ended the exact same way, with me studying and compulsively writing notes in my journal late into the night with the light on while Kevin tried to sleep. He complained about it constantly, as if turning out the lights was more important than what I was writing. I just kept writing. I felt like the answers that I needed could be parsed later from the details that I wrote, and not like in a New Agey way. I mean like in a real anthropological way. So I kept writing.

And I drew a ton, too-- these really intricate field sketches of Aztec and Mayan designs. And then I mapped out all these ancient cities. There was no reason for this. All of the cities had already been mapped by actual archaeologists. Also, I had a camera. I took hundreds of pictures. Kevin appears in three of them.

James Spring

At this point, if you were going to write a letter to your best friend, or a postcard to your best friend about your brother, what would it have said?

Kevin

The postcard, I'm sure, would say, having fun traveling through Mexico, but my brother's pretty much an [BLEEP]-hole. I probably would've said, I'm getting kind of sick of him, but I'm sure we can get through this. The next fun place ahead.

James Spring

One day, Kevin met a girl about his age. She was Mexican. All I remember about her is that she spoke some English, and she had a small head. Kevin introduced me, and I was probably just my normal self. She told Kevin, your brother is really sangron, which I learned later that night means arrogant.

Kevin reveled in a great many retellings of that. He loved letting me know that everybody thought I was a prick. And for some reason, this particular jab from the small-headed girl really hit me hard because I normally had to work a little to make people dislike me. But I hadn't done that with her. She could tell that I was an arrogant jerk in my normal resting state.

Sangron became Kevin's new favorite word when we argued, and it drove me crazy. But even when Kevin was happy, he was driving me crazy now-- his whole "cheerful, surfer, stoked-to-be-around-people" thing.

It's funny, though, because I remember, as a little kid, I was the same way. In second grade, the teacher wrote a comment in my report card that said I was a bubbly student. That night, when our stepfather got home from the machine shop and read it, I got beat. He said he knew what the teacher meant-- that I was a loudmouth. I changed.

We spent a few days in Mexico City and worked our way south to Oaxaca on little two-lane roads and muddy trails. Kevin suggested that maybe we should skip some of the more remote ruins and head straight for the beach. And I told him no [BLEEP] way. We crossed the isthmus and over to the ruins in Campeche in Yucatan. And just when it seemed that Kevin was ready to mutiny, we were saved by our next stop on the map-- Cancun.

Kevin

Drinking and night life and beautiful beaches and scuba and snorkeling and beautiful water.

James Spring

Cancun was amazing in those days-- just this Caribbean paradise and lots of ruins. But it was OK. I was certain we could see and do it all. In fact, the days in Cancun might have been the best of the entire trip. We were both excited to get out to the islands.

Kevin

There was that island just offshore called Isla Mujeres, which sounded great to me because I knew mujeres meant women. So we got on some sort of just-- we didn't bring the car. We just went out there ourselves. No car. A ferry out there, I think.

And then we got there pretty late, I want to say. Long day-- and we found kind of a real quiet bar and started drinking, putting down some drinks. And then it was time to go up to our hotel, which is a fairly meager hotel, nothing fancy, and start turning in for the night.

And you, making notations in your journal, and it got to an argument in that hotel that night, where I pretty much let my mouth fly. And I said all the things I felt, which included, you think you're so cool. You think you're so much better than everyone around here. And I'm sure included in that was, you're a fucking idiot. You're a fucking idiot. You're fucking not as cool as you think you are.

And I went to the pimples on your face. I went to the chicks you had chosen. I went to how you treat everybody like shit. And you still didn't get up out of that bed or stop writing in your book. And it was a "volcano erupting out of my mouth" time. I would not stop. I would not stop. And I got you grinding your teeth and standing up.

And you said, I'm going to fucking hit you if you say another word. I think it was that. And I, of course, just said probably one of the slowest (SLOWLY) fuck yous. And that's pretty much when I got a slug right to the lip, I'd say. Good fat lip. fly backwards, oh! Towel rack fell when I flew back.

And I stood up tall, but I didn't hit back. I just let that mouth go some more. That didn't hurt. Do it again. Do it again. Fuck you. Fucking doesn't hurt. Doesn't hurt.

James Spring

Every horrid thing that he said in that room-- I knew he was right. I agreed with him, so I punished him bad. Threw him into a nightstand, shattered a lamp, upended a bed. There was blood. The door was blocked with the mattress, so we escaped out the window, ran down to the courtyard outside the hotel. Next door was a jungle gym. And the way I remember it--

James Spring

My recollection-- you were yelling for me to get away from you. You were running around the jungle gym on the opposite side because you thought I was coming back for you more. And I was trying to say, no, no, no. You don't understand. I should not have done that. I'm sorry.

Over and over, I apologized to Kevin, swore it would never happen again, but it was too late. Kevin was done.

Kevin

I was 100% down to leave because I did have the control at that moment. That was the one thing I could control. I could control saying I want to leave. I just didn't want to be with-- on that trip anymore. I just didn't want to be with you anymore. It wasn't the environment we were in. It was you.

I had told you when we got in a fight-- and I know you remember this-- I said, it's never going to be the same between us. That's it. It's over. I'm never going to respect you. It's never going to be the same again. You call me up, I won't even-- probably at that time, I would say I wouldn't talk to you.

But by the next day-- I remember your face and I knew your emotions well-- you were sorry, and you were sad that things weren't going to be the same. You knew it. You said, I know they won't.

James Spring

The next morning, we got back on the ferry and then drove without a word to the Cancun airport, where we bought Kevin a one-way ticket to San Diego.

I continued on alone to Belize and Guatemala and then turned back up to Mexico, where I stayed for the next four years. My mailing address was Lista de Correios, just General Delivery. And I didn't have a phone. It wasn't on purpose. Almost nobody in the town had phones. But also, I didn't want a phone. I cut myself off almost entirely from my family, not just during the years in Mexico, but even after I returned.

Kevin had been the very last person left standing in my corner, and I think this trip, at least in hindsight, had been like a bridge to fix things back home and show that I wasn't such a bad guy. Instead, it only proved what I'd always feared-- I was a bad guy.

What I didn't know through all this time was that Kevin actually did get over this stuff-- quickly. Pretty much as soon as he got back to San Diego. He had said things would never be the same, but "never" means something different to a 16-year-old kid. And I guess I'm not surprised Kevin's over it. He's not, like, one of those pricks who holds a grudge.

I'm the one who couldn't let it go, any of it. That trip in Mexico, for me to hit him, to beat him the way that I did after the childhood we had-- I felt ashamed. Kevin and I had never really sat down and talked about this, but I know I let him down-- not just in Mexico-- long before that, all through our childhood. There were beatings, just this violence, like, every other day.

When I was nine, I saw my stepfather throw Kevin face-first into the sharp corner of a wall. It opened up his forehead-- so much blood. Kevin was four years old. Even now, almost 40 years later, sitting in front of him, I can barely stand to tell him what happened when we took him to the emergency room.

James Spring

Right off the bat, stepfather saying, ah, he tripped and fell. He's bleeding. Need to get that fixed. And they asked Mom, and she gave the company line. And then they asked me, and I said, yeah. He tripped and fell.

Kevin

Mm-hmm.

James Spring

And as the older brother, I had a responsibility. I mean, regardless of what was beaten out of me, I had this responsibility. I mean, and it hits me now while I look at your face. You've got that-- I mean, that scar is a part of you that is a part that I wish I could forget.

Kevin

I bet.

James Spring

And we would go visit Dad every other weekend. And he would ask, and I wouldn't say anything, you know? I just-- I wouldn't do it. And then--

Our dad didn't know what our stepfather was doing to us until one weekend when Kevin was nine. Kevin had been beaten badly, and he must've said something to Dad.

James Spring

I don't know. I don't even-- I wasn't there. I don't even know what you said.

Kevin

Well, you were there. You were there. We were going to Dad and Kathy's on Cove Drive. And Kathy wasn't there. He took a little bit different way. We were on a more scenic route from Lakeside, like the 67. Remember the sunset and the mountain road.

And I remember I had just told him that, oh yeah, I got beat for leaving the paint out. And then, after getting beat and told to come back out in the living room, I spent about 40 seconds feeling sorry and trying to act normal-- that 40 seconds passed, and I didn't pick up the paint again, and so I got beat again for not picking up the paint. And it just was--

James Spring

Was this the electrical cord?

Kevin

Um, that time it was. Back of the knees to the middle of the back.

James Spring

The only thing that it took to get us out of that bad situation was for somebody to speak up, for me to tell my dad-- my real dad-- the truth about our life at home. But I was too afraid to say anything, so I said nothing. And this fact, more than most any other, makes me hate myself because I was the big brother. It was my responsibility to speak up, to protect Kevin. Instead, he's the one who stood up. He's the one who told our dad.

Kevin

And he called CPS. He called the police. They took Polaroids, in the room, of my bare ass and back. And we sat around a table and the policeman asked us, I want you to name every time you've been beat. That was the table there on Cove Drive, the dinner table. And we looked at each other like, oh, do you have a while?

And for years after that conversation, for years, maybe decades, I thought of what I had forgot to tell that guy. Oh, I never mentioned that time. And I'd know right away that I hadn't mentioned that. It would pop into my head and go, oh. I didn't mention that.

James Spring

Telling Kevin that I was sorry about the fight in Mexico-- that was one thing. Talking about the stuff that happened when we were little-- what I didn't do, apologizing for not protecting him as a kid-- that's what I really needed to say to him.

For the past 20 years, I've lived like half an hour from Kevin. He invites me to stuff all the time, but I don't go. And I'm not much of an inviter. I don't see him much or the rest of the family, either. Our past has always held me back. I've got a lot of regret.

Kevin

I'm kind of sad to hear that you have so much remorse over it. I don't blame you for it, and I don't blame you for being older and should have known better. That is something that happened a long time ago. And I don't want you to be tortured by your past. And I hope I haven't done anything to continue the torture. You're loved.

James Spring

I'm a different person now than I was at 21-- mostly. It took a long time to get my karma straight. But I'm still not a guy who's going to start a conversation with you on an elevator. And I'd rather you didn't, either. Also, I waited a long time, but I'm married now. I have a daughter who's nine and a son who's seven. They have a very different life than the one Kevin and I had.

Girl

I'm going to have this one.

James Spring

A couple of weeks after we spoke, Kevin asked us to come to Thanksgiving at his house. I drove up with my wife and my kids and a vegetable dish. There were a lot of people-- like 22. Extended family-- people who see each other regularly but don't see me much at all. Kevin likes having all this family around. It makes me a little anxious.

My kids played with his kids. Nobody got punched in the face. It was nice. I think I hoped to see them at Christmas.

Ira Glass

James Spring in San Diego. In the four years since we first broadcast this story, he and his brother and their families have spent Christmases together-- other times, too.

[MUSIC - RUFUS WAINWRIGHT, "HE AIN'T HEAVY, HE'S MY BROTHER"]

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Miki Meek. Our senior producer for this episode was Julie Snyder. Our technical director is Matt Tierney. Production help from Alvin Melathe.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website-- thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our program's cofounder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he told me the first time he went to a board meeting-- like, a real board meeting, at WBEZ-- he was totally disappointed. He thought there was going to be milk and cookies and all the candy you could eat.

Joan Covici

It was very businesslike. It wasn't what they show in the movies at all.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - RUFUS WAINWRIGHT, "HE AIN'T HEAVY, HE'S MY BROTHER"]

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