Here I am again, at the old intersection of you and me. But no one is here, save for a persona of myself I barely recognize. The cars move along, close to the sidewalk. I always feel self-conscious walking along this road, like everyone moving down the street is an entertainment for the drivers, who always move slower than they’d like to, obedient to a strict speed limit. People around here like to know who’s about, what they’re up to. Drivers scan the sidewalks as they cruise down Main Street. Or maybe that’s just how it used to be, with the older generations, the generations who taught me how this place worked. Now it is a bigger town, a more lively town, bolstered by a college and all the attention that brings. The younger generations stare at their phones as they drive or walk. I blend in.
When I used to walk this road, I was walking to or from civilization, from my house to the town and back. There was so much promise in town: a library, an Internet connection, coffee, bookstores. My future: a summer job, an internship, possibly a boyfriend. But the promise that town held would never be fulfilled. I would slink home a few hours later, having whiled away a morning mostly finding songs that matched my feelings and scanning your profile on various social networks. In the afternoons, I would invariably stare at a blank Word document for an hour, argue with my mother, and re-read passages of the same Willa Cather novel.
In a journal I kept during that particularly unpromising summer, I wrote angrily about your first girlfriend, how she’d inched toward you one night on some sofa. You’d let her stay there, as if she’d tripped and fallen on top of you, and you’d suddenly realized the merits of a young woman’s warm body pressed close to yours. If she hadn’t worked so hard for you, you may have never learned the joy of her, or any of the women who followed, who I’m sure, in turn, worked just as hard as the first had. I related to that pioneering girl. I felt for her. But of course, I wanted to be her. Instead, I was on the sidelines, trying always to match your pride or exceed it, reporting any news to a notebook that no one but my future self would read.
This how I feel now, ten years later, walking down the street into town. Nobody, contextless, lost. Reporting to a record book on a computer or inside my head, but otherwise purposeless, drifting like a satellite, collecting information that is no use to anyone or anything but my heart, which should not be fed this kind of information, which should not be indulged. I come here because I have to. But I also come here because my heart makes me.
Yesterday the sun was persistent, blindingly bright. It all seemed too good to be true. The grass was that desaturated-looking green color you only see in early spring, when it snows or rains nearly every day. Wet mud surges up from below, and the sun’s light is still too white to give the grass any glow in late afternoon. That shockingly sunny day, there was still room for us. I stayed silent, for fear that any word from me would yield a response from you I didn’t want. I basked in the sun. I loitered in the potential that tomorrow held.
Today we’re covered in snow. Today we’re in black and white. The promise that yesterday held got swiped away with the sun at dusk. The snow came silently in the night, around the time that I decided sleep was a fine consolation prize. Sleep was a gift of a sort, a thing to possess in the absence of anything else, in the absence of you. Until sleep arrived, I used music to drown out silence. I used the arsenal of songs that remind me of you. But they don’t drown out my thoughts. They only indulge them. They call you up, they set some spectral version of you in motion in my head, so convincingly that I can almost smell you. There is one song that moves along quickly, persistently. The singer practically cries out the words, still raw from the blows. The heartbreak is happening in real time. Is this just a silly game / That forces you to act this way? / Forces you to scream my name / Then pretend that you can’t stay. Her voice is my voice. The ‘you’ is you. This rule was made before my brain was even fully formed.
I wasn’t even listening to the song. I was in the bathroom staring into the mirror at the red newly ringing my eyes, spoiling the makeup I had put on earlier out of boredom and in some preening preparation for you, or, as it would turn out, the ghost of you. But I heard the song in my head, calling me out of turmoil. I heard every inflection, at a low volume, coming from the depths of my brain, just as I heard it 13 years ago when you did a similar thing — left, or never came, or stayed away, or some manifestation of absence. The progression of the song, in this carefully catalogued part of my brain, the part where you are stored, signified the continuity of life, the insistence of life. I could not handle time at that moment, but music moving through time, an accompaniment to this new grief, or this layer of calm stripped to reveal an old grief beneath it, I could handle. I could even enjoy.
If I knew what was good for me, I would never listen to any of these songs again. I would never write to you again. I would never come here again. I’ve made too many associations between other things and you: landmarks, songs, scents, the very movement of the damp, salty coastal air through the trees. The associations need to be cast off in order for me to be able to cast you off. Does it ever occur to me that I might be happier with you and your sensory entourage removed from my head? I don’t believe it.
I tell this half-truth to anyone who will listen: I know well enough that the sharp pain, the excruciating pain that would come from getting you for a time would be worse than the dull ache I feel now, the ache of absence. I would give up a day or a week with you for a lifetime of your friendship. As we grow older, continuity is valued over immediacy. Delayed, or sustained, gratification is prized over instant gratification. There is a teenager living in my head who loves you. But she has less and less of a say over my actions.
I still know the sickeningly sweet taste of cheap liquor on your lips, and the feeling of floating down a river by your side. I know what your smile feels like. That it lights up my face. That your face seems to light up when you see me. How to change this equation without removing its two known quantities, me and you, entirely? The only way forward is to keep on, or to abandon you. I don’t know what ‘keeping on’ will bring. I don’t know what shapes we will shift into over the course of our lives. But I have seen so much death lately, and to me, you are just a little more alive than everything else.
Certain moments sit snugly in my head, permanent fixtures. If I think about you long enough, maybe I’ll start to remember the lost moments, the moments that my brain, for whatever reason, discarded as it developed and changed and renovated itself, day after day, night after night, over the last decade.
A friend calls you apathetic. I look up ‘apathy,’ as if reminding myself of the exact definition of the word will console me somehow: Lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern: widespread apathy among students. I meditate on those words: ‘interest,’ ‘enthusiasm,’ ‘concern.’ I think you are interested. I think you are enthusiastic. Your messages contain a lot of exclamation points, heaps of question marks.
Sometimes, if I can catch you by the hem of your t-shirt and pull you out of your heavily fortified, self-contained world, you are all three.
A moment later my screen lights up with news from you. I read some pleasantry and then it cuts off at the letter “P.” I know what “P” signifies. “P” is seven hours away. Unfortunately I’m in P–, reads the bubble of text. My heart begins to throb, my face warms with its roiling sadness. So you’re not here, you’re there. You decided not to turn your life upside down to make time for me, and I was foolish to think you would. The fates have conspired to make sure we never get each other alone. This is a lesson. But I wonder if there will be any reward at the end of the lesson.
Tonight in the limbo between denial and acceptance, I decide to read some article about the science of love. I learn that my brain is being governed by its limbic system, which does not think so much as feel. It tells the brain to trace back over its favorite feelings, like a drug addict trying to retrieve a particularly good high. Neurons constantly fire and forge connections, the article says. Certain links are reinforced through repetition. I wonder if certain people, the people we call ‘romantic,’ ‘nostalgic,’ ‘sensitive,’ ‘lost in their heads,’ simply just have more active limbic systems.
You are my prototype. That’s the word the article uses. The “favorite feelings” that the mind retraces tend to stem from some specific person, latched onto long ago, or at least, latched onto particularly forcefully. A relationship that strays from one’s prototype is limbically equivalent to isolation, it goes on. Most people will choose misery with a partner their limbic brain recognizes over the stagnant pleasure of a ‘nice’ relationship with someone their attachment mechanisms cannot detect.
This makes sense. My brain doesn’t like sense-making. Still, the knowledge, the science that I’m newly armed with, nudges me now, every time I feel myself straying down the path to where you wait. I still stray, but I feel some pinch of rationality every time I do.
I think of all the men I’ve been drawn to because they looked like you. I was too new to the adult world, too restless, to give up adventures in the wider world and just trek back to the original, the person who started it all. But I could at least seek out remnants of you in other men’s faces. And I did.
Now the brain has settled down. The surging sea of hormones has turned placid. I am getting somewhere. But I still close my eyes now and then and reach an arm back to see if you’ll take it. I walk out on the fields, the tortuously flat fields that stretch identically for miles in every direction, separated only by dirt paths that zig-zag back and forth between nature and civilization, between coast and road. I do this because I’ve done it. I do it because you’ve done it, and because we’ve done it together.
The stench from the dairy farms is almost nonexistent in winter, I want to tell you, even though you probably know this already. I want to tell you so many things. The air still smells like sand and salt. This last is a sensory disconnect, sort of like if I happened upon you standing in the middle of Times Square. I smell summer, but summer is back there in the past, and in a mysterious number of years to come. It’s that mystery, that not-knowing, that awareness of death, like some whispering bully sitting behind me in a classroom, that keeps propelling me in your direction. A good life needs shape and symmetry, just as a good story. You were there at the beginning, and I want to see you at the end. Without you, it would all just seem like an accident.