There are too many words, and when they flood my mouth I choke. Too many words, and I have to stop talking, and the silence mid-sentence, mid-thought, paints me as incomplete in feeling. The feeling is whole when unspoken. Yet I speak. I drone on until I’m drained of words and you’re asleep on the couch, leaving me wide awake in the bed with spasms in my lips.
There is a trail that extends the length of the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. Walking east to west, you go back in time, according to the line on the cement, hundreds of millions of years to understand how the rocks have formed and shifted. We walk and we go back in time and I’m excited to find something brand new in the past with you. Neither of us has seen this canyon, this wonder of the natural world.
I tell you that no one is going to love you as much as I will. That’s not the point, after all, and I know it. And yet I say it anyway, because I’m trying to salvage my own happiness, greedily and selfishly, the way I used to when I didn’t know better. The extent to which I love you lends me power. It gives me the right to tell you what to do. And in that split-second pissed-off moment I’m blind, and I trip and fall headlong into that canyon, and tumble until I hit the floor, unable to stop myself, foolishly calling for rescue through generalizations and cliches.
You tell me you’re happy, and I try my best in the worn-out after-anger to convey that if loving you involves accepting that you love in ways I can’t understand, I am able. I am endlessly, willingly able. Go forth and find your happiness, by all means. I once loved a girl, and then I stopped. And when I look back at the reasons why I stopped, they are foolish and wretched, charred by superficiality and inappropriate desires. I want to return to her. I want to give her everything I’ve become. There is still time. We are still young. We are still making the wrong decisions, and we will soon come to forgive ourselves, because with age increases the desire for divinity.
A new picture of us was taken today. In the picture, we are smiling. There is happiness in this moment. There is no effort being made to force that happiness. It is simply there. It is love despite the words that wreck it, despite the actions that stir my regret (though not yours, as you don’t believe in that particular word). There is a newness taking place of the oldness, against my determination to make that oldness the truth.
I am confused by these words. They swim around in me like jetsam. I am their product, and I speak the equations aloud until you are too tired to work them through. You are on the couch. I am in the bed. We will always be held apart by chasms. I will always lack the words to create your happiness. But you will discover it all the same.
Are you a sports fan? I’m not, not particularly. But lately I’ve identified with that narrative that seems intrinsic to sports, where the old dog comes out of retirement for one more bout, with everyone in the crowd on the edges of their seats, aching to see if he’s still got it. I feel that way when I go back to a city I haven’t been to in a while, like the old dog making his way back out onto the field/rink/court/what have you. Only the stadium is empty, and I’ve forgotten my throwing arm/how to crosscheck/tennis racket/pen.
You probably heard that January was published recently. She’s no old dog. She’s a pitcher at the top of her game. It’s a curious thing. The other night I was sitting around with Mike, who’s stressing about his job. He showed me a collection of things he’s been working on, these really impressive half-finished art projects, fantastic drawings and bits of graphic design, things I couldn’t do in a million years. Both January and Mike work incredibly hard. Why is one of them thriving and the other suffering?
I have my own half-finished projects. Where do these ideas go? I can remember countless things I’ve been passionate about, ideas that hit my brain like raindrops only to trickle off. There was a time when I saw a few projects through each season, no matter the response they received after I’d finished them. But I’ve become beaten down by a lack of appreciation over the years, for my art, for myself as a human being. Not enough readers, listeners, audiences telling me that what I think and feel and say is important. I’ve stopped talking as much as I used to. Not enough ego flattery, not enough questions asked by total strangers intent on uncovering some truth that only I possess.
The truth is I’ve always been concerned about the wrong things when it comes to writing. Even when my output was more consistent, a lot of it was mud tossed at the wall in hopes of adhesion, some Rorschach test of expression meant to mystify if mystifying meant grabbing attention. But what about those late nights we spent talking until 2 am in diners and pubs, those grand artistic ideals that came vomiting out of our little group over draft beer and roti, each of us dead set on moulding the literary landscape in our images? My hangovers are so much worse these days. My bladder has shrunk in size. Stall walls are the last refuge for would-be never-was authors who carry Sharpies in lieu of baseball bats onto fields where pins drop and cause cacophonies.
I’m playing around a bit, here. Look, I remember this short story you wrote a while back. It was damn good. I still think about the main character occasionally. My mind wanders in the job I’m doing now, and I’ll wonder what Claudette is up to at her shoe-shine stand in the Paris Metro. How long ago did you write that story, seven years? It still makes an impression. Why haven’t you written anything new lately? Why aren’t we busy doing what we used to do best – creating entirely new worlds and populating them with beautiful surprises? Why aren’t we outside playing catch?
I’ve been busy back at school, but you already know that. I’m sorry I didn’t call, didn’t return your shirt, didn’t even have the courtesy to tell you the why – why any of it. Even this, why this letter? I picture you reading this, hunched over your computer, or maybe sitting up in bed, maybe both. You’ll delete it when you’re done. You don’t save things.
You’re probably wearing your second favorite shirt, thinking, Man, I wish American Apparel didn’t make unisex stuff. But you’ve got to know that that’s not why I took your shirt. It doesn’t look better on me, just different. I like the way it never wrinkles, how it fit right into my suitcase, just a vague memory of someone who used to walk around inside its cotton arms and torso. I took it because I’m selfish sometimes, just like you. It’s all we’ve really got in common. And we both like brunch.
All we ever did was fight, but I liked your eyes, the way they crease at the corners, like the folds of a page. They made you kind. I always felt like I was seeing you through a window. I was always just outside of our conversations, looking in, throwing rocks to get your attention.
You’re almost thirty and you seem to think that the world is exactly as it is, every day. You don’t believe in magic. You didn’t believe in me, even as I laid there beside you, counting the three freckles on your forearm. I used to see you looking at me like you were taking a picture, an image of one-time significance.
I don’t miss you, but I still think you’re a quality human being. We were just a couple of dogs fighting over a bone that neither of us really wants.
I Stole Your Shirt and I’m Not Giving it Back
P.S. But who doesn’t like brunch?
I want you to tell me things, if you deem them worthy of telling, face to face, to know that you’re telling me alone. I want you to lead me into your room, sit me down on your floor, and crack open a photo album you put together when you were 12. I want you to point to a picture and say, “This is the time my dance troupe performed across town at St. Michael’s,” want to watch your fingernail tracing the ribbon that dangled from your childlike hand before it stretches out for the laminated page edge and flips.
To see your hands doing these things is necessary. I want to fall asleep studying them, wondering what you held one unassuming summer day in 1997. I want my thoughts to be consumed by the way you chose to bend the joints that day, some innocuous afternoon when you had no idea I was alive. I want you to take me to the spaces you used to exist in, some old playground that made an imprint, some particular position on a neighbourhood hillside at dusk, and feel tortured that I’ll never be able to see it the same way you saw it. I’ll hold my breath and try when you tell me to and cherish my inability to know you entirely.
Ask these things of me. I’ll give you the effort, all of it. I’ll take you to this one spot I know of that’s perfect, the one spot where the time and air and story I’ll tell will bring you to throw your arms around my neck in an attempt to embrace the words as if my throat were churning them out. “Here is where I fed a squirrel,” I’ll begin, “right out of my hand.” Or the little glen on the opposite side of the property where I French kissed a girl for the first time, and her breath was so bad and her tongue so wet and wormy I had no idea whether I liked it or not, but bragged about it afterward anyway.
You’ll nod, maybe, maybe lean into me and smile and ask a question about a nearby housing development that I have no idea how to answer. A modern question that takes us back to the idea that this space and our words and the looks on our faces are all just nakedly there, too present, too resistant to allow new memories to form. It’s fine. Down the road I’ll take your hand and look at the lines and follow each one into forgetting.
I did a silly thing a couple of weeks back. Ended up going home with a girl. Nothing happened, no. I didn’t even make it into her foyer, and that’s not a euphemism. On her porch I reneged, drunk as I was, and started lamenting the way I felt about you. Even teared up a little. She didn’t say so, but I know that sealed the deal then and there. You know I’m not the type to see that sort of thing through.
I’ve always thought you admired my toughness. The way you fawned over my forearms. I spend so much time now worrying about what it means to be a man, worrying about whether women find me macho enough in spite of how sensitive I am. And these words aren’t helping matters; with every one I share, I feel weaker, more vulnerable. Strands of Samson’s hair falling to the temple floor. They aren’t doing me any favours, yet they’re all I have right now.
These days I’m trying to get over the bowling alley. The squeak of your shoes on the scuff-marked floor. You probably don’t appreciate me bringing these things up. You prefer them to remain in the past. I can’t help it. The future has never made much sense to me. I’m sitting here now, feeling time pass, and can’t believe it, am unwilling to believe it, because 14 months ago you held a ball between your legs and tossed it with both hands, hitting your knees when it spun limply into the gutter, your silhouette in the aggressive neon blacklight. What am I supposed to do with that moment now? A collector’s item that’s been tossed against the wall.
Even the radio has turned against me. I just turned it on and heard “Somebody that I Used to Know” by Gotye, that damn song you were playing over and over again a month before we broke up. It pains me that there are certain songs, movies, paintings I’ll never have the opportunity to enjoy again. I’m losing them to you. And I’m letting you have them because I still love you, still want to give you everything, especially my attention.
I guess that’s why I got emotional on that poor girl’s porch (Willow or Wilma or Wendy, something with a W). Life is turning into a collection of things that I feel I can’t enjoy anymore. Music, literature, sex, it’s all the same thing. Losing you meant losing the strength to welcome the things that I love into my life. I guess that’s the sad truth about where I’m at right now. That moment on the porch with that girl was the last straw. I don’t want things to be this way any longer.
I’m sorry this letter is such a downer. We haven’t spoken in so long. I didn’t want my first effort at contact to come off like some tragic confessional. I’d love to tell you that I’ve moved on and found peace and success. I have in spurts, I suppose. But I know that I’m not going to find any real happiness until we’ve reconciled. I need a new memory of you to replace the girl in the bowling alley. As painful as that might be, there’s no other way forward.
My friend wrote a letter to a girl recently – someone he loved, I guess. He didn’t say, just that he spoke to her about going back to the place where you grew up once you’ve out grown it. Your shirt’s tighter, he wrote, too tight, and you pass an apartment you remember well, but no one you know lives there anymore.
I was thinking about that when I decided to write this. I should’ve written to you back when it was still snowy in New York, but I moved elsewhere since then. I’m out on the left coast, where you’d never come looking for me. Writing this, my feet in old shoes, my arms in a sweatshirt that once belonged to you, I’m back there, like my friend Cal, buttons straining to keep me in a body that used to feel like me. But I’ve changed.
I’ve met someone who makes me laugh. That’s not enough, but it’s a start. It feels like a start too, which is an interesting thought to have, but I do. I used to hate beginning. You remember – I race to the end in things, to the crack that I can fall into, disappearing, undoing whatever I’ve done. But now I feel like beginning again, like it’s possible to be new in this body that I’ve had forever. You’re not to here to make me feel differently.
I was in Chicago months ago. I didn’t think of you exactly, just our coffee cups, your soy in my latte, my ground cinnamon in your green tea. That was disgusting. I laughed back then. I laughed when I remembered it too.
That’s all I really wanted to say. I hope you never put cinnamon in your tea again. It would never be as funny as it was back then.
I was walking around the old neighbourhood tonight and decided to head down Bronson to Flora. You know the corner. The snow was piled pretty high by then. It was late, and the occasional car would take advantage of the empty lanes, sending slush airborne with a satisfying sound akin to tearing cloth. I lit a cigarette and stood, watching the smoke collect in clouds in front of the streetlights.
Have you ever hung out in a childhood haunt years later and felt disturbed by the way you don’t quite fit there anymore? Like your shirt’s too tight. You look around and wonder if people are staring at the straining buttons. But no one knew me there. An older man passed by without nodding. I held my breath as he crossed the street, and let it out as I took a few more paces toward your old apartment halfway down the block.
The windows were black. I looked up and pictured us on the second-floor balcony, sitting in wicker chairs, you with your cup of tea and long flowing hair and virgin pixie countenance, myself dumb and over-experienced, an ogre trying desperately not to crush a baby bird. That night I couldn’t sleep and made the trek back to your place, stuffing a blue jay feather I’d found into an envelope before leaving it in your mailbox, along with a little note about flight. Christ.
You’d always meet my declarations of love with quiet acceptance. Maybe I kept dishing it out because I knew you wouldn’t get mad. You’d talk me down with poetry. And I couldn’t say anything, do anything to get my ire back to that passionate pitch that used to guarantee me a bed for the night with other women. Our rare kisses had to be cut short. Always the want. It scares me now to think of it, how you bore the unfairness of my advances with infinite grace.
There I was, the smoke dancing in my lungs; I started thinking on getting older, and how people fall away from us like shriveling leaves. (That we can be both leaf and tree is an intense contradiction that I’ve never been able to wrap my head around, probably for fear of blowing away.) I watched you grow and find independence, the way a father might. It’s hard to explain. There’s a world of difference between your early and late 20s. Adulthood is an ever-shifting threshold. Sometimes you turn to look back across it and can’t believe your eyes.
I’m here, Rachael. Where are you? On to something new, fulfilled on a living room sofa, having moved on from tea and now sipping champagne in front of a stereo somewhere in Southern Ontario, sharing a laugh about God knows what. How hairy your legs used to get. The time you posed nude for a cut-rate literary calendar, but only because they shot you from behind and from afar. That night you met a writer on an elevator and put up with him as he walked you back across campus, pining, pining.
I’ve given up. I can’t take the deafening silence that comes from moving on. You’ll tell me I shouldn’t, hand me a cryptic line about the goodness of my soul and how you’ve always appreciated my words, the kind of thing that always undercut my early quests for your lips. I didn’t quit trying out of a lack of desire. Knowing you necessitated knowing a gaping deficiency that could only be filled by standing aside impatiently and watching you unfold, like a creased sheet of paper with fresh words at the ready.
This letter is a greedy thing. A stone skipped under the pitch black of midnight. I hummed a tune we used to listen to on the way back to a buddy’s place, pausing in the middle of the road because traffic allowed it, watching the snow blow down from the nearby rooftops. It felt good to leave footprints, to know I was there. I don’t think I’ll be coming back this way again.
There’s something nice about icicle lights, don’t you think?
I never thought you’d tell me this much, give me this much – about the small of my back, the red wall, all those tiny details we’d normally ignore or forget by morning.
I’ve been thinking about what to say to you ever since I got your letter. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write. What must you have thought, as I was taking my time? In any case, I hope this helps. I hope I can answer some of my own questions too. I sometimes wonder if my creeping into your dreams is just another way of chipping away at this friendship we’ve built.
I can’t remember the last time I trusted myself fully. Can you? I trust you, but in an abstract way. Like I’d trust you to dial 911 if I cut my hand while slicing a bagel. Any more than that and it all gets fuzzy in my mind.
I took this class once at a junior college, all about social science, how people relate to each other as animals do. Before language, all we had were our instincts. We could trust those.
And it’s true, even about you and me, that we might never talk about these things, might ignore them for another ten years of friendship, but right now, we’re just two lions pawing at each other from inside a cage at the zoo. Your letter was a little girl tapping on the glass, saying, Notice me.
And I notice you. But before your letter, I don’t think I realized just how much and how well you noticed me.
I may never be that girl walking up the stairs, petals falling by the wayside. I may fall short. But I figure, what the hell? Who’s to say who will fall and who will fly? If not now, when?
My number hasn’t changed.
I had a dream about you last night.
We were at a house party, hosted by some friend of yours over in the village, that guy I met that one time. Remember? He kept getting my name wrong. Kept calling me Alex. I knew it was his place, even though I’ve never been there, and he wasn’t in the dream.
The details are starting to wear off. I remember the place was lit low, with icicle lights. Intimate and kind of cheesy. We were talking with a bunch of people in the kitchen. Laura was there, and Mike, holding drinks and laughing. Two guys we didn’t know started fighting and crashed into the kitchen table. You grabbed my hand and we left the room, giggling.
You made for the second floor with me on your tail, and for some reason I have a vivid recollection of your shirt rising and falling over the skin at the small of your back as you climbed the stairs. You were wearing a belt with a rose embroidered along it, and you were shedding petals as you took the steps two at a time. On the landing we paused for a moment and looked back. I don’t remember what I saw.
In an instant we were in a room with each other. The walls were red and a comforter lay splayed out on the bed. You had a look on your face like you were choking on a song. I asked you what the matter was. You smiled one of those inside-joke smiles as you put your arms around my neck and brought our mouths together. And we made love.
Maybe this all comes as a humourous surprise. But it’s what happened next that shook me, and it’s the reason I’m putting word to page right now. After we finished, we rejoined the party, but you wouldn’t stay still. You kept walking, just ahead of me, out of reach. I kept asking you to slow down, but you acted as if you couldn’t hear me. I followed you throughout the house, from room to room, trying to catch up. It’s mostly a blur now. All I recall is the sight of the back of your head moving away from me, hiding your determination, like the autopilot in your brain had been switched on.
You walked out the front door and I followed. Down the front steps, out into the street. There were other people, out for walks and leering from café windows along the Square, wondering what we were up to. I looked around at them, feeling embarrassed and confused. I started to jog, but so did you. We came to the park down on Water Street, and you started gaining more ground. My heart beat with the panic at your leaving. As you became smaller in the distance, I slowed gradually, sat down, and wept. And then I woke up.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, I know. But I want this dream to mean something, even if it’s an excuse to be perfectly honest with you. Elise, when I came out of the dream this morning, I wanted you more than air. I know you’d never even begin to think of me in that way. But I’ve always thought of you as someone I’d follow upstairs, if only she’d reach out and grab me.
Now that I’ve told you all this, please don’t go away. If that’s the result, I’d understand. But I can’t ever go through another moment like the one I had this morning, when I thought I’d lost you.
The boat I made up. I’m sorry. Talking to you these days is painful. But maybe I owe you this. The truth, that is. So that you won’t be waiting on a dispatch.
I do remember that night. Your laugh, mostly. The moonlight on your puffy cheek and the golden strands of your hair pulled back. The sight of your breath against the stadium lights we jimmied into shimmering before running away, cackling.
The next day I was talking to Michelle, just before English class. She told me you were laid up that day. You’d caught a cold. I skipped out and jumped in my car, peeled from the parking lot like James Dean with the intent to swing by your place. I felt bad for dragging you out for kicks, partly, but it was also this feeling I’d been carrying with me the entire night before.
I pulled up to the curb and stared, unable to walk to your front door. The shades were drawn and it struck me how dumb a house looks when you know someone’s at home, but you can’t tell from the outside. I sat there for a good 10 minutes before I left.
Too many thwarted opportunities, too many missed boats. I guess that’s where I got the castaway idea. That and “Old Man and the Sea.” Everyone laughed when you nailed that metaphor, even Mr. Garskey. I love you more than literature, you gigantic teacher’s pet. Maybe that’s what I would have said to you that morning. Maybe that would have been the way that would have worked.
I’m a coward for doing it this way and not to your face. I hope you understand if we don’t talk for a while. You said you felt guilty for not feeling the same things I was feeling that night. Don’t. I’m the one who has some changing to do.