I write to you on my plainest paper, forgoing the flowered stationery and letterpress cards for found items. I don’t care that you don’t write back. It’s better to imagine you carrying my scribbled words along with you, miles away. Here is a playbill for a show I didn’t see and here is a poem I found copied out, that reminds me of the heat, the dustiness of our walks, the way I saw you half-blind, chlorine in my eyes. How I sometimes feel like the edges of a pool, calling you over, grasping at floating things, all of them dead. It doesn’t matter, my day to day, these words are for you and I imagine them read, decades later by curious fans. That’s how famous you’ll be. Here, let me stroke your ego, you like it when I do that, don’t you? Don’t say no, let me undo you, for old time’s sake—surrender. The oven timer’s set, lay down our heads first one then another and another, xoxo—no—thinking of you—not quite—yours, Lindsay.
She’s sweet, the kind of girl who would be named after a city, and is. I imagine her in an apron and heels, but that’s not fair, her long hair tied up in a perfect bun. I can’t hate her, the woman who came after. She housed your heart so easily. While I strayed she stays, and who could blame her for that?
The truth is as I write it, and I rarely think of you now, but once a year when I remember again that I’ve forgotten your birthday or how my feet felt in my shoes at your grandmother’s funeral, too big to fill. You cried and squeezed my hand so tight I had red marks for days.
The ring is modest, as it would be, but painstakingly picked out and deliberated over. You always did work out the details, thought ahead. No grand gestures or cheesy clichés but you listen and you remember. It was probably lovely how you asked, intimate, a little nostalgic. But, then, you do nostalgia so well.
It’s difficult to say what I really mean when what I mean is drifting and what I say is hard pin points of light bursting through the shades. I love you. I never loved you. Looking back, you could have been anyone but you were you, sitting behind me in history class, letting me borrow your chewed up pen.
I’d love to congratulate you and mean it. But, how can I? You’re still 18 and fearless, driving on the wrong side of the road, playing chicken with my heart. You can’t be getting married, you’re still across from me at that 24/7 Perks Coffee, telling me how happy you are. I never did do honesty right with you, so I nodded and listened, smiled, and walked away again. Always.
So, here we are backs turned, living the lives we were meant for. Loving stronger, better, faster, the way you only can if you’ve learned from mistakes, lived through the heartache.
You’re engaged, and somewhere out there the fat woman is gearing up to sing. The things I’d say to her, to you, if I had half a chance.
Like, congratulations, you make a beautiful couple.
I wish you well.
I can feel myself peeling off in strips, slowly, so slowly. Lay it on a mannequin like paper-mâché. This here? It will all be okay. That’s what we say.
Careful not to breathe in too deep, share the air. Our lungs only ever half-filled.
I watch my lives walking beside me, all the people I could have been but wasn’t. All the choices I didn’t make, the people I didn’t love, the places I didn’t go… or left too soon. It’s okay, it’s all okay, don’t make eye contact. I don’t know you.
His eyes are steel knives freshly sharpened and we are all thin-skinned. Look at all these veins struggling to surface.
The love was never enough. The wine never lasts. It’ll all be okay, that’s what we say.
He carried me on his back. Stone to stone. Laughing, boosting me up. I kissed the back of his neck and whispered, “Let’s stay this way.”
We stay up late at night reminiscing. The moments are over before they begin.
I love so hard I can’t look forward, only back.
I don’t know what we are; smooth scaled and slimy. The residue of a thousand kisses clinging to our bodies like algae on the sides of a neglected tank. Slough it off, those memories that do better without us. People untangled from ourselves.
His grandmother warned me as we packed up the kayaks for a new adventure. Wear a life jacket, she said. That lake is known for taking prisoners, the plants that reach up to the surface and clench tightly around wrists and ankles, pull us down. There was a boy who drowned there last year, she told me. Don’t take any risks.
I can’t help it. I trail my fingers along the crest and open my eyes under water. I dive head first into shallows and embrace the lake floor, my fists closing around sand and stone, particles drifting up, glinting in the soft light of afternoon.
I take pictures without film and get them printed immediately at the grocery store. Flipping casually out of a machine. I miss the wait of development. I miss film canisters. Little treasure troves where we could store beads, fools gold, baby teeth. It’s so immediate, now. I tell time in album folders on my computer. I remember my life in snap shots and delete what is irrelevant to the story I am writing today.
Heartbreak in footnotes edited away. Happiness floating face up just below the surface, distorted.
Seaweed fingers sticking to our thighs as we
wade back in.
Bedouin Soundclash feat. Coeur De Pirate – Brutal Hearts
I don’t remember lovers much. Their faces fade and I have to strain to recall the shape of lips or the trace of fingertips. I forget.
I remember that he bought new sheets and a bed spread. I remember being pinned against the cloth, the feel of it against my cheek as I turned my head.
His breath on my neck like the smoke from his cigarette, trailing softly, temporary.
Like his dark eyes staring into the distance or an off-guard smile.
We fall in love with snapshots.
We forget that the sleep was never restful.
That we carried knots in our back for days
and bruises on the inside of our lids.
The Maccabees – Can You Give It
Press play then read.
Jónsi – Sticks & Stones
“I don’t even remember going there.”
She fingers a saved ticket stub and replaces it carefully back into the faded shoe box.
“I hate when I forget.”
Even with a physical anchor to the world our memories break free and float away. It’s this I think of when I look to the sky and part the clouds, when I open my mind and empty my heart. I leave the cage door open and beg them all to fly away.
“Fly.” I give my memories a stern look. “Fly.”
I jiggle my head from side to side, hope they will be unsteadied, hope they will take a fluttering step to the door. They don’t.
“You’re free. I don’t want to tether you anymore. Go. It’s time.”
The memory of his beard against my cheek cocks its head at the memory of my barefeet on his dashboard, quizzically. As if to say, “Bitch be crazy.”
“Look,” I say. “You’re fine and everything, great memories. You’ve served me well, kept me warm on cold nights, made me giggle for no reason, kept me going back and going back and going back again but enough is enough. I don’t want you anymore. I don’t need you anymore. You need to leave. Learn to fly. Go.”
The memory of our stolen kiss hops from one foot to the other.
The memory of his fingers strumming a guitar turns its back to me.
The memory of our laughter tucks its head under a wing and fakes sleep.
Eyes fly open, there is nervous chatter.
“I said I don’t. Fucking. Want. You. Any. More.”
I shake my head violently. I screw my eyes shut. Fists and tears and the sky.
Only my hollow voice echoing against the clouds.
Hiccups that fade quietly, swallowed up by the air.
My forehead, defeated, in my hands.
It’s his nickname that takes flight first.
Followed by the dimple in his right (or was it his left?) cheek.
Our inside jokes, one after the other, begin to block out the sun.
Bird after bird after bird circle the skies, crying.
Leaving me on my knees, eyes wide.
Palms open collecting black feathers like rain.
A night takes a turn for the worse and my fingers find the buttons. He picks up after the third ring.
“Can I come over?”
“Now? Sure. Is everything okay?”
“Uh, yeah. Bad night. I think I need to be held.”
“I can do that. I’ll leave the door unlocked.”
I do my best thinking while walking. I relax into the rhythm of steps, like breathing, my thoughts follow the rise and fall of my chest. As though with each lungful exhaled I rid myself of one more negative thought. One more mistake.
When I get there his door is ajar. Tiptoeing up the stairs I make it to the landing until the vodka sends me sideways and my flailing hand finds a picture on the wall, sending it crashing back down the stairs.
His face appears around the corner and I only have a second to register his tousled hair, the boxers, a worried look and then a smile before I am the sheepish little girl again, hiding my mess, perfecting the puppy dog eyes.
“I broke it…”
“No, it’s fine.”
He hangs it back on the wall, righted. I say I’m sorry but immediately want to smack it down again. Give me something to bruise, I think. Let me leave a mark.
I fall asleep in his arms. That’s the easy part.
The hard part is waking up with my contacts glued to my eyes. The hard part is the walk home, the memories that crowd my mind, all my setbacks. The hard part is needing to get out as fast as possible, racing the sun, before we wake up together. Before we eat breakfast.
Before I start to get used to him.
Fool me once, shame on me. Or however the saying goes.
Later, behind the safety of a screen I tell him I’m sorry I smashed up his house.
“It’s okay,” he says. “It’s how I know you were here.”
I smile. Close my computer. Look outside and watch the skies darken.
A storm’s coming.
Here’s the thing, it doesn’t matter how many times you rearrange your room; it’s still the room you last saw him in. If you stand in the corner by your bookshelf, you are still standing on the memory of him on your bed, wanting to hold you, and you sliding away.
Where your desk now sits, formidable, your chair once did. You can type pages upon pages about other men but you’re still sitting where you once sat, tears drying on your cheeks, fury beating it’s wings against your ribs, while he crouches by your knees, and rests his hot palms on your thighs and says, Look at me. Look at me. You hear the pleading in his voice but can’t tear your eyes from that spot on the far wall. You can’t stop screaming in your mind. And he says, Look at me, pulling your chin gently towards him. I’m sorry. God, I’m so sorry. It’s in his eyes. The fear and the tenderness. The slight shake in his voice.
It’s the welling in your chest. It’s knowing you have already forgiven him, that you would forgive anything.
But, your ribs break and you shift your legs away from his touch disdainfully and you whisper the words you already regret as they rake across your lips.
It’s the way our bodies react. The way our hearts and minds can’t agree. The words you say despite every fiber in your being reaching out invisibly, clutching at the air, desperately trying to reel them back in.
Come back, you want to cry out. I love you. I’m sorry, too.
The bones in your body aching. Your fingers, brittle, digging into the arms of your chair. Your teeth clenched, eyes burning with the tears your mind won’t release.
You can vacuum up his dust and you can take the pictures off the wall. You can make your room a wonderland of what once was but he’s still there. In the shadows cast by a lamp, in the note you find scrawled in an agenda, in the pictures you find hidden in an old text-book, as if you were saving them, from flames, from time, even from yourself.
That’s the thing. This time it’s your room, but it could be any room, as long as the lighting is dim, the right song plays on shuffle, or your mind quiets. Still enough to hear the memories scratching beneath the floorboards.
It’s your room, but it could be any room.
That’s the thing.
Pearl Jam – Just Breathe
(Song choice via Yellaphant)
We make French toast in the morning. The cinnamon and nutmeg filling the house with a comforting warmth. His arms find my waist and my lips search out his while the pan sizzles. I turn on the radio and put the kettle on for his tea, pour myself a cup of coffee, and lean back against the counter. He crouches on the ground doling out affection to my two Australian Shepherds. His hands in their fur he glances up at me, eyes laughing, revealing the little boy still alive inside the man. I want to rub my hands through his hair and let his eyes close, the way I have grown accustomed to. I want to feed him our concoction, sucking syrup from his bottom lip. I want to push him backwards to the floor, straddling him. The morning sun in our eyes until the bread burns, forgotten.
Instead, I collect condiments and set the table. I find him a book of New York Times crossword puzzles and read The Nation editorials while he interrupts me occasionally to verify an answer. I’m not much help but I rejoice when an answer I offer fits. I lay my legs over his lap under the table, settled, content. I go to check my messages on my cellphone and it freezes. So, I upset myself and jog upstairs to get my old standby. I switch out the sim cards as I head back downstairs and am turning my old phone back on as I settle into my chair when the first message in the inbox punches the wind out of me.
I can’t wait for cuddles and Chinese food with my baby.
Message after message, all dated the year before, all from L. My eyes glued to the screen and my thumbs scrolling viciously through each one. The books I was recommending he bring into his English class. The plans we had for the night. All the I Love Yous and endearments burning my eyes like chlorine underwater. I read them all, lost in nostalgia and the dull ache of scar tissue from a wound that never healed quite right.
“Denouement. That means ‘the end’ right?”
His voice startles my fingers from the keys and my mind back to the present.
“Denouement. C’mon, English grad.”
“Oh. Right. Yeah. I thought you were saying something else.”
I turn back to my phone, heart palpitating unevenly, pulled back from the edge. All the texts filling my memory with wasted space. The silly things we leave behind, unknowingly. I select ‘delete all’ and slide my phone away from me on the table. Take a bite of my breakfast, the syrup bittersweet on my tongue. The last word on the last page of a book you loved but needed so badly to finish.
I spend the night with my best friend, filling our cups with vodka, then tequila, then rum, and dancing wildly to electro at a club. We walk arm in arm through the streets and find ourselves at a friend’s house. Joints and cigarettes between our fingers. I blow supers into her mouth, lip to lip, and laugh loudly. I find a fedora and tip it low over an eye. Everything is loud and I trap a barking dog in a room, cautioning it like my demons. I call him to come find me and he does.
I get turned around on my own familiar streets and he rights me. I get hungry and he makes me grilled cheese from homemade bread. I eat it propped up in my bed watching Office Space, giggling. I get tired and he curls me into his wing. I don’t remember falling asleep, I only remember waking up with his bicep as my pillow and his body curved around mine. I only remember needing him to fill every pore of me, every cold space and every forgotten room. I wake him with my hips, slowly grinding into his. Rolling myself back and forth against him until he can no longer feign sleep. Until his hands pull the clothes off me and we devour each other in yesterday’s crumbs, smacking our lips and sighing.
Paolo Nutini – No Other Way (Live)
“Did you know L has moved back to the city?”
“Yeah, just a couple streets over.”
She gestures vaguely in the direction of the ketchup and I scan the restaurant, sure that with the mention of his name he will appear at my shoulder or manifest in the booth by the window.
“Unacceptable. This is my city. Tell him to go back to Hubbards where he belongs.”
She laughs and takes a couple of sweet potato fries from my plate.
Later, we are walking arm-in-arm down the slick streets as big fat snowflakes settle in our hair, heading homeward. My eyes dart from green car to green car. My stomach turns over when I see what could be a familiar back in the window of a bank. When we pass the commons we both stop suddenly, sure that the solitary figure walking a small dog is the last one I would want to see. The dark plays tricks on my mind, the lighting swallows up reality and presents me with ghastly form after form, daring me to look too close or glance away. I am sidestepping feelings and joking about stealing back my dog when it dawns on me.
This is a bad habit. Looking for him in the faces of strangers. Worrying. Letting him steal into my mind, a cold gust of wind when I was sure I had been insulated. No. No longer.
This is my city. My happy heart. I will not fear the turn of the corner and every beard and black frames. I will correct myself like I do my posture. I will stand straight as an arrow pointing to the sky and up and up. I will not bend and contort myself. I will not make room. These are my streets. That is my park. I am painting my name on roadside curbs, on the newspaper bins, all the windows he walks by each day. That’s my reflection staring back at him, frozen. I will not be trapped in the glass.
I will not be a character in his story. I will be his phantom and he can be my pavement.
My heels will kiss him with each step, violent as fists, and when I see him, if I see him, his face will be sidewalk grime and his body the car exhaust that we try not to breathe in. I will wipe my hands clean of him on my jeans or the sides of passing buildings. The litter of a past life, unsorted.
This is my city. My heritage buildings and indie coffee shops. My clock tower and waterfront. My homeless pirate in front of the liquor store. My squeegee kids and trendy upstarts and pseudo-hipsters hating on themselves. I built the soundtrack. I cut the scenes. I’m editing the script in between takes and he isn’t welcome here.
I’ll set up the hose, if need be. I will wash the streets clean and yell “action” in the crowd and fake rain.
I will. No direction necessary.
Frightened Rabbit – Backwards Walk