The idea occurred to me several times before, but I’d never had the courage. And honestly, this was the first time an opportunity presented itself when I was actually in a relationship, when any initials I carved wouldn’t have been and exercise in imagination. Cowardice disguised as confidence. One day, RSC hearts KEC or ABC or HIJ will mean something more than a long list of letters inferring a long list of never been lovers.
Which is exactly as pathetic as it sounds.
But she was different. Or I was different around her, which might be saying the same thing.
She liked winter rains, the sort that iced your eyebrows and lashes, made walking dangerous, filled with ankle twisting, bottom bruising obstacles. And she preferred silence when given the choice, her feet up on the sofa, across my lap while I read a book, no words shared for hours.
I also liked the rain, but preferred the October variety. As for silence, well, I didn’t believe it existed. There was always some little noise, a scratching in the back of my brain, which I trusted, if only because it helped me feel substantial, genuinely present.
One warm afternoon late in September, we hiked into the woods along a favorite trail for almost an hour (autumn leaves scattered across the ground, reds, browns, and my favorite yellows piling up, begging to be stomped or kicked about), rarely speaking, until we came upon a massive oak, somehow left unmarked among the aspens and elms lining the path, all etched with layer after layer of scribbles that stood out like scars on skin.
We stood in front of the tree, marveling at its unlikeliness.
“I can’t help but think,” she started, then paused. “No, you’ll think I’m being silly.”
I shook my head, somehow stopping myself from adding phrases which would only detract from the moment. I adore words, but I often say the wrong ones at the wrong times.
“I feel like this tree appeared out of nowhere, in this moment, in this place, just for us.”
I pulled my knife from its leather sheath, then walked forward, keeping my eyes on the tree, convinced she was right and if I looked away for even a moment it would disappear. With my free hand, I touched the bark. Deep, rough grooves touched back, and for an instant I thought the tree quivered beneath my fingers. I pulled away, looking up at the branches far above my head, swaying gently in the light breeze. A pale blue sky seemed impossibly far away. I tightened my grip on the handle of the knife, turned my attention back to the trunk, and selected the location to make my first cut.
In my head, I imagined the task already complete. I could see each letter already formed, rising out from the wood, tangible evidence of our connection, hers and mine, our shared adoration and affection. I wanted to say one word out loud, shout it, but it came as a whisper- love- because I did love her, and I believed she loved me.
I imagined other outings we’d take, coming back to this tree, staring up at the crudely carved initials somehow meant to represent us, hoping our love would last as long as the tree itself. Someday, we would bring our children, spread a blanket on the ground, share a picnic lunch and stories about the inevitability of our meeting, the permanence of our devotion. Our timeless love.
I wanted to cling to this image, but before I could lock it away in my head, store it like a memory my heart sunk and I knew.
What a ludicrous notion. I suddenly wanted to be anywhere but here, in front of the magnificent tree.
Before I could compose my thoughts, she stepped up beside me and put her hand on my shoulder.
“I don’t want you to do it either,” she whispered.
I slid the knife back into the sheath, put both hands upon the oak and wished it well.
Without looking back, we headed down the trail together, towards the parking lot where we’d left her car. A cooler in the back seat held cold water and some good chocolate.
Fifteen steps down the trail, she slid her hand into mine.
I’m not sure if it is a memory or a dream. Odds are it is neither. If not for the particulars, I might believe it was a story I made up to sound cool, frighten friends, elicit a particular reaction: shock, awe, incredulous amazement.
In this tale/memory/dream, I am visiting my second cousin, the son of my mother’s nemesis, someone who made making others miserable her profession. We are the same age, this boy and I, roughly 11 years old. One summer, we played on the same baseball team. Other than that, we have little to nothing in common. I don’t like him and I’m sure he doesn’t like me, but it is a summer evening in August and our parents are pretending to get along. We mimic them.
It is early in the new decade, 1982. I am likely wearing too short shorts and a t shirt that does not match, probably stained with dirt or food. My cousin will be dressed better than I, cleaner, which he will point out in subtle ways, a look, voice inflection, to which I will be oblivious.
Across the street and down half the block, new construction is underway. The shiny wooden houses look out of place set among the textured brick ramblers and bungalows lining the eastern side of the road.
We are unsupervised beyond the occasional look out the window. It doesn’t take long or much convincing for us to make our way to the vacant houses (some only wooden frames, others missing windows and doors, a few ready to welcome families), bravely wandering through the least complete, then checking for unlocked doors among the others.
One opens and invites us in. Dark yellow carpet and bright white walls (the aroma of fresh paint and glue) shine like warnings, and the unfinished kitchen gives us pause. Workers may be about, or will soon arrive. We are silent, listening for a hint of another human being, ready to run, hearts in our throats.
My cousin laughs, breaking the spell.
We explore rooms. It is a not-dangerous situation that somehow feels compellingly dangerous. Part of me always feels broken, different, but it is a secret part, one that few will ever see or understand. More often than not, I am passive, overly careful, unwilling to risk. Being here in this empty house, I feel unlike myself. I am an invader. A sudden urge to plunder rises up. I want to break something, kick a wall, a door, just to prove to myself I am capable of casual destruction. Instead, I run my fingers on the walls, whisper in hushed tones as if the future occupants of this dwelling are already present. observing my behavior.
My cousin calls to me.
He is in a back bedroom, un-carpeted sub-flooring marked and labeled with cryptic words defying understanding; numbers and lines that should have meaning, but appear as hieroglyphics.
He is kneeling near the wall opposite the closet. A toolbox in front of him. I imagine removing a hammer, a few screwdrivers, my earlier inclination towards random destruction returning in heavy waves of fear and excitement. He winks at me, flicks the clasp with too clean fingers, lifts the lid.
There are two versions of what happens next. In the first, the gun is a snub nosed revolver, chrome, with a brown grip. We do the right thing and leave it alone, locking the door as we leave the house, agreeing never to tell our parents.
The second seems more honest. The weapon is black, something a cop would wear high on his hip. In this version, the gun takes on the persona of violence (if there is such a thing), an ominous presence that fills the room, chokes the air from my throat. I am suddenly timid, cowering. I do not hesitate. I run.
Or maybe I stand still, watch as my foolish cousin reaches into the toolbox and lifts the weapon out, cradled in his palm. He looks at me, the total brown of his eyes sizing me up again, just like he will years later when we attend the same Jr. high and he tries to figure out how in the hell we can be related, when he is so cool and I am such a hopeless dork. He rests his index finger on the trigger, aims just to the right of me, laughs like this is a game.
But I am already outside, right? I’m running down the street, back towards my parents and the relative safety of the front yard. I don’t stay in the bedroom of the almost finished house, waiting for the inevitable sound of gunpowder igniting, the thud of the bullet as it enters the wall behind me, narrowly missing my face and neck. I would never be that stupidly brave, even if it would make that one girl (with long legs and soft brown skin) who lives down the street look at me with new eyes.
We will keep it secret and safe.
“Since I was a girl, it has been my favorite color.”
I nod, keep digging the earth with the jagged end of a stick, carving out my middle name, forwards, backwards, upside down, inside out. She makes a list.
“Tulips, dandelions, bananas, lemonade, the yolk of a chicken egg, perfectly cooked french fries, the bow tie my grandfather wore on my 10th birthday.”
I recall her party dress, lemon cake with lemon frosting, Lemonheads in a white bowl. Fifteen children sat on the carpet in broken circles, laughter between them and the crumbs on their shirts and skirts; the smell of warm confectioners sugar and food coloring.
She rolls over, presses her back to the ground, stares into the sky.
“The stars. I almost forgot the stars and sun.”
The clouds at sunset. The sound after a kiss. The breaking of my heart.
I stop digging. In my head, I sketch her outline, just like this, just like now.
“How we need another soul to cling to, another body to keep us warm. To rest and trust; to give your soul in confidence: I need this, I need someone to pour myself into.”
– Sylvia Plath
Only one more day of the A to Z blogging challenge remains. It has been fun and difficult. I have to admit, I almost threw in the towel around R. How about the rest of you?
Saw you on 34th and 7th. Thursday the 8th, around 2 in the afternoon.
Hey, Tall Dark and Handsome.
I like saying that as if it is your name. In fact, as I was typing this, I said it out loud five times. Hey, Tall Dark and Handsome. It almost dances off the tongue, don’t you think?
I’ve seen you many times before, and sometimes, I wonder if you’re everywhere, lingering on all the different corners, your back against a building, gazing over a crowd of tourists, walking briskly on your way to work or standing on the curb, hailing a taxi. I’ve thought to say hello, introduce myself, but there is always something holding me back- old anxieties, new ones, the monitor on my left ankle, always blinking up at me (that’s a joke, I promise).
I saw you again two weeks ago Thursday.
You were walking this time, right hand in the front pocket of those deep gray tailored slacks you like to wear. I sometimes wonder if you own five pair. They fit wonderfully, but you must know that, can feel it when you run your hands over the fabric as you pull them on, fasten them.
Instead of the pastel button down (and dark colored tie of the same hue) you usually wear, you’d chosen a forest green golf shirt, which surprised me a little. It’s alright, I like surprises. They keep me on my toes.
You turned left at the intersection (another surprise) and walked at a brisk pace for several minutes. Something important was on your mind. I didn’t like the way whatever was worrying you wrinkled the skin next to your ears and eyes. I wouldn’t say it made you unattractive, but it added an unwelcome element to your overall persona that gave me pause. I have to admit, I almost walked away, but I had to know where you were going first.
I didn’t hear what you called her (I’ll pretend it was Beulah, I’ve always hated that name), and I pretended not to notice the way she touched your shoulder, so natural, like her hand belonged on your body. I even tired not to notice if she was pretty (I guess some might find her so), or if she were thin, heavy, or athletic (she was frail, shorter than me, but more hippy, if that’s a thing).
The two of you sat out on the cafe patio in plastic chairs around a plastic table, and the server brought water first, then pretentious white wine for her, a glass of something caramel colored for you. I watched with fascination as you sipped without a grimace, the fullness of your lower lip exposed on the bottom of the glass. Then you winked at her. The act gave you an unexpected humanness, and for a moment, I had to turn away.
When I looked back, she’d placed her hand in yours, and it was clear the conversation had turned. I thought I saw tears on her cheeks, and a deep sigh come from your chest. For the briefest moment I hoped I was watching the break-up, the end of the relationship, and I almost felt sad, as if somehow I was to blame for what had transpired.
Then I saw it on her finger, a platinum band and six smaller stones surrounding an epic diamond in the middle. You’d asked, and she’d said yes.
I slumped down onto the sidewalk, feeling that all to familiar sensation: a mix of hatred, sadness and repugnance. A sudden sickness overwhelmed me. I stood and rushed to a nearby garbage bin. As I threw up, through the choking and stinging tears, it came to me. I knew what to do, I just knew.
They won’t find her body, at least not anytime soon. I observe and watch. I take careful notes. I’m cautious and deliberate. I make sure. I’m always sure.
In time, you’ll get over her. The sadness will be gone, and you’ll understand. You’ll be free. Any lingering memories will be like tiny pin pricks, moments when you’ll feel gratitude that her vanishing kept you from making the worst mistake of your life.
When that day comes, and it will, I’ll be ready, waiting.
One afternoon, you will round a corner, that placid look I adore so much back on your face, and I will be there, in the center of the sidewalk, arms open, ready to love you in the way you deserve. Because just like you, I am everywhere. Unlike you, I see everything.
Until then, I will be patient.
All my love,
The last of them had gone, leaving behind stacks of empty cans, tipped over bottles, crumbled and crushed food in the rug. It had been a great night.
Martin flopped on the sofa, letting the plush, welcoming cushions absorb his weight. Casually, he used his left foot to push aside a few items from the corner of the cracked coffee table (the result of an impressive night of mock wrestling gone too far. Jacob still wore the battle scar near his eye), then put both feet, one over the other on the glass surface.
Head back, his brain swimming, he finally realized how much alcohol he’d consumed that evening.
Many of his friends had come. Some he had not expected to see. He thought of Odette, the way she’d lingered close to the kitchen, her hand clutching a plastic cup to her left shoulder, the coy smile as he approached, and her subtle look-away when she lightly touched his arm (which made his heart skip).
He ran his finger over his lips, pretending the salty residue was a remnant of her kiss. He would call her in the morning, at least text, tell her how happy he was she had come. If overcome by a sudden surge of bravery, he might even ask her out. Stranger things and all.
Various scenarios ran through his mind. He closed his eyes and let them go where they wanted. Imagination obliged. He was happy in his distraction. So much so, he failed to hear the door creak open, didn’t notice the sound of someone walking across the floor into the living room, failed to sense the shadow as it passed over his legs, up his body, until it finally stilled, resting patiently on his face.
“I don’t like watching the sunrise,” she said, her face turned away from me, the blue and yellow of the coming day taunting and teasing her. “I don’t see what I’m supposed to see.
She was seated in a crouch, feet buried in the beach, her knees up against her chin, arms wrapped around her shins.
Foolishly I asked, “What are you supposed to see?”
She sighed heavily, then flopped back and stared at the sky, and I thought of the first time we met; rainfall, and her hand held tightly in his. She’d worn red and gray.
“Beauty, potential, new beginnings.”
She sniffed, and for a moment I thought she was crying. I started to reach for her, when she turned her defiant eyes to me.
“I don’t see any of that, Steven.”
I nodded like I understood. She turned away again, and gazed at the ocean.
“All I see is another reminder of what I have lost. No, a reminder of what was taken from me.”
She stood up, grabbing a fist full of earth as she did. A symphony of languishing elegance erupted from each of her three lithe steps forward. As she threw the sand and pebbles towards the sky, her scream was an unwinding, cold and forceful lament, like she was a punctured can of compressed air, all hissing.
Mark lifted the glass and took a slow sip, letting the acridness of the Cabernet wash over him. Despite his best efforts to train his palate, he never detected oak, cedar or any other woody flavor. Most fruity notes eluded him as well. He only tasted grapes, red and delicious, sometimes a deep purple, coupled with that always present acidity that melted his heart and warmed his soul. He could almost feel his teeth and lips darkening with each drink.
Across the table, Kathy closed her eyes as she savored the last drops from her stemless glass. Pretentious to the last, she could never say no to any trend, especially when it came to wine. It was one of her many talents.
He could admit he liked the look of the glasses. In the right light, with the proper amount of alcohol in his blood, his brain, they seemed to shimmer. Unfortunately, they were difficult to pick up off the table, and too many times he’d almost spilled, had spilled his wine, which always felt like such a waste.
He looked at the empty bottle. The estate house etched on the label carried some fancy French name he couldn’t pronounce. Mark knew she’d laugh if he tried.
“This particular winery is a few kilometers south of Bordeaux. I’ve been there. It sits on a raised knoll, and the curve of the vine covered landscape faces the morning light. The grapes are sun kissed to life,” she said, her voice a low, lingering, almost erotic hum, and he couldn’t help but wish he were as lucky as the fruit.
If I interviewed one of your friends or family, what would they say were your talents?
I have a knack for never answering a yes or no question without offering a long winded, unnecessary explanation.
I also adore wine. What about you? I also do not have the knack for tasting notes, but can tell the difference between certain styles of wine. I prefer red, dislike white.
She is overwhelmed (which she expected) when they put his small, heavy head on her chest. His breathing is loud, but she focuses on the feeling in her belly, the empty space where he used to reside, all six pounds and twenty inches of him. He sighs, and his arm moves, or maybe she imagines it.
Someone takes a photograph, posts it to social media.
Her first child would be 18 now. Her second closer to 12. The third she bled out at 2 months. She ignores the usual guilt that comes when thinking on them, focuses on the fourth. Here he is, breathing, living and she could not love him more.
Yes, this will trap her, make her stay somewhere longer than a year or two, but she wants that consistency, craves the responsibility. Her mother is near, which matters more than she thought. Her sister stands in the corner, smiling, and at last, they finally understand each other. The tears come easily and neither are ashamed.
Out in the night the photo makes the rounds, each friend, each family member sharing in her joy. Almost a perfect moment.
As she sat next to him on the airplane, the old man spoke.
“When I concentrate I can still hear the clicking on of the basement walk-in cooler. A singular sound, familiar and startling at the same time. I was young, ready for adventure. It was a summer job, nothing more. A chance to work away from the relative safety of my home in a city I’d never been to in a restaurant at which I’d not eaten. I never thought to encounter such strangeness, but there I was, confronted by something I believed could not exist.
There are no ghosts. I repeated the phrase in my head four times. Even said it aloud once more for effect. Everyone had gone home but me. I was tired, the last five hours spent washing pan after greasy pan. My ears had played tricks on me before, and maybe the radio had been on all evening, was always playing that sad song and I had finally noticed. It was conceivable that the candle had also been left lit by a careless waitress, accidentally overlooked in my earlier dining room cleaning routine. Regardless,when I finally heard the music, I walked towards its source. The radio was on, the candle on table sixteen was lit and I felt the presence of someone unseen. ‘Is anyone here?’ I asked into the dinning hall. Silence was the only response.
I felt my heart stop. A crash filled the air as somewhere just outside the large panel window, gravity or a small animal capsized a garbage container, sending refuse spilling loudly into the street. Terror griped me and I sprinted for the back entrance.”
She closed her eyes.
“In times past, back before there were so many electronic devices, you grandfather and I would sit at night around candles or oil lamps to talk about everything and nothing. He wasn’t my husband yet, and certainly the furthest thing from his mind was ever being called grandfather, but he had a warm heart and soft eyes. I can remember the way they looked when he leaned across the flame to give me a first kiss. We had been dating for almost a year by then. Not everyone took their relationships as slowly as us, but we wanted to be sure of ourselves, savor each moment together. Holding hands was bliss, and I was a content woman, but that first kiss changed me. The sky was suddenly a darker blue. When I looked at the mountains, I felt I understood them. Even the smell of baking cookies had a different aroma, sweet and penetrating. Nothing that potent can hold its flavor, and I have tried for decades to recapture that sensation. Maybe it was all in my head. I’ve made up many interesting things during my life. Maybe I just want to my past to be infinitely important. Something to validate my missing it so very much.”
Attractive blonde female, 35, seeks attention from attractive male, 30-45. Looking for companionship, late night conversations, walks in the city, someone to rub my shoulders after a long night of love making. Please call 555-0909, ask for Juliet. He read the rest of the paper with less interest, pondering what attractive meant to her, whether she was tall, or if her eyes were blue or gray. He wrote the number down in red ink on a paper napkin. He made all sorts of promises to call.
In her dark room, developing pictures from the Bermuda trip, she sat facing a tray of prints, waiting in the red light for them to slowly emerge. It had been three days since she had placed the ad in the personals. It ran in the Missed Moments column of the local paper, where young adults often wrote in, hoping to reconnect with someone they had met at the club Friday night, whose name they’d forgotten to ask, but days later could not get out of their heads. Some had forgotten phone numbers, or had been too afraid to say an initial hello, and in a final desperate plea reached out, hoping that their lost connection would be searching for them, read, know, and act.
She was not sure if it was love she was after, or what she would do if someone did respond. She was not an intrepid soul, and she wondered if she would dare to go out at all. Even a meeting at a crowded cafe’ or coffee shop held danger. Still, It was lonely for her in this new city. Moving from the east coast had accomplished the goal and separated her from her former life. She was not longer constantly bothered by overzealous family or friends, yet she found herself despising the silence, annoyed at the hum of the furnace in the hallway closet. Even looking at the pictures of her trip did not bring relief. She had gone alone, flown from San Diego to New Orleans, then to Bermuda. The man on the plane told her about his experience in the restaurant, she dreamed of her grandmother, she walked the beaches alone and carried her shoes on her shoulders like in the movies. Looking at the photos she realized that she was not in a single one.
He never responded to the ad. Something always was more pressing, required more of his attention. The distractions always won out. After a month the paper stopped running the personal.
She waited while the water lapped up against broken stone and sand, until the night turned red with the morning sun. The new year had come. Nothing blew up, or broke apart. God did not come, though she almost wished he had. “If he’d decided to show his face for the first time in a millennium, it should have been last night. It would have served them all right,” she thought.
Then, while she counted the passing seconds of the first day of a new year, she thought again of how nice it had been to be downtown, watching all the people walking about, hugging, holding hands, laughing and loving. The man with the Irish accent, fake though it was, had kissed her hand as he passed, wished her a happy new year, a fruitful life. She smiled and asked his name, but he was moving on, sharing spirits with other revelers. Things could certainly be worse. She felt lucky for the first time in months. In this new state of mind, she might eventually forgive them all for not seeing her, making her seem invisible, especially to herself. She stood to go home.