In bitterness I decide that only the beginnings of things can be enjoyed. At the time we see it as just getting started, ramping up to some staggering emotional climax, the crux of the story, the point of it all. But I’m in the middle now, approaching the end, looking back at the start, and I see how it was imbued with magic and enthusiasm the way only the beginning of something can be.
One morning in the beginning, not that long ago, we convened at my neighbor’s, avoiding work. It’s far enough away now to permit nostalgia. The weather sulked, the sky gray and the clouds low and thin and long, moving fast from the west like a magician’s scarf being pulled out of a sleeve. We didn’t mind the weather. The better to work with, theoretically. The idea this year was: work in the morning, vacation in the afternoon. It’s a change from years ago when work never entered the picture. We tried to concentrate, to focus when he had to and have fun when we didn’t, but slowly the afternoons crept closer to the mornings and eventually the mornings were all play too; the anticipation of you was too much for me to resist, and the anticipation of — what? — fun, laziness, the act of not-working, was too much for you to resist.
My neighbor says: It’s gonna be another beautiful day in paradise. But I’m too caught up in thoughts, like that if a person makes another person feel this way they should probably be avoided at all costs. I’m experiencing life on some beautiful, welcoming planet free from the troubles that the earth has. Soon I’ll be forced back home, and even the beautiful parts of the earth will look damaged or destroyed when you have stepped out of the frame. You find it pretty easy to step out of the frame.
It’s a disturbing loyalty I’ve displayed toward you. You’re too old to be doing this, some say to me, and I say it to myself. It’s more effective when others say it. But what exactly am I doing? I can distract myself with the question for hours. I wonder what I’m “old enough” to be doing. Telling you how I feel, or letting you go? Having children, writing a book, buying a house? I don’t want any of it, the supposed spoils of responsibility.
But to the question of you and me, mostly people say: Why not? My own father asks why not. Others say: Romances down here have a habit of lasting a long time. Others have sanctioned us. If only we could sanction ourselves before there’s too much in our lives for the other to destroy.
I’m in your orbit, trying to make plans for the future. But the force of you is too strong. I start to think your goals are my goals. I shed my skin and make my way to you, new, raw, and unhappy to find when I look into your eyes in the darkness, through the cloud of smoke we’re making, that I’m still myself. We will smoke until we feel we’re half the weight of our bodies, that the other halves have evaporated into the air above us, into the thin cloud beginning to drag over the stars like a curtain.
For nearly an hour we lie on the boulders waiting to see a shooting star. By the end you think it’s only been 20 minutes, which, like so many things, makes me nervous: more proof of the differences between you and me, how differently the same reality can be constructed. We just saw it from a different point of view. In the meantime, waiting for the stars to streak across, or appear as if they’re falling down the sky like a tear, I spot Ursa Major trudging up the sky, and you tell me of your dreams: graphic dreams, nightmares, of being eaten by a grizzly bear. Eventually we achieve an effervescence that urges us to move back up the steps to the house. And as soon as we lift our bodies to sit up, we see it: a shooting star, bright orange, directly before us, as if the universe realized something would be at stake if it didn’t put on a display for us. We all saw it. Or else we all dreamt it.
You knew me then, and then. I gather up all the milestones like gambling winnings. When I was a child. When I was not yet American. When I was too young not to be confident in myself, brimming with the encouragement of others. Before I had loved anyone else. When the future was as promising and inspiring as abstract love. When the future glimmered like the possibility of you and me. Slowly, so much else fell away, leaving a few nascent ideas of future happiness and, of course, leaving you.
One night, I speak low in the near dark, my mouth nearly pressed against the phone to make sure my secret doesn’t escape to the neighbors’ ears through the open windows. And I explain to a confidant how you’re so easily able to turn my life upside down. She turns from skeptical to understanding in a few minutes. It’s the history, I say. History is the heaviest thing. An anchor in me. Without it, love is just lust.
I called a whole list of exes, she admits, before arriving at her husband. Let me tell you, I wasn’t looking for anyone new.
I’m not looking for anyone newer than you. You were the standard by which everybody else was measured. I wondered for a time whether you would end up living up to you. But it seems you only grow with age. So many worries sloughed off and kinks worked out. You are grown. Solid as ever.
In the silence of this place I hear parts of songs I never noticed before. The average decibel level of the city drowned out all those pretty details. The soft echo of a voice, a cello. The new music, the music you introduce to me, becomes a part of me so much more quickly because there’s nothing else for me to hear, just rain falling on the roof, or a raven somewhere down the beach, or a mourning dove in the tree next door. And I stare at the pine ceiling or into the darkness, my eyes focused on the shapes the words are making. The lyrics are sewn into the fabric of my mind on first listen. I’m just a shadow of your thoughts of me.
At dusk, the pine cabin makes an orange frame around a very green picture: the big, crooked oak, the uniform plots of grass buffeted by gravel driveways leading to the gravel road out of here, and the four rows of pines lined up between my place and yours. I’ve spent hours looking out this window or pretending not to, so long that I sometimes have imagined your body walking slowly in that opening between the trees and bushes from gravel to grass, from car to house, when usually your body is a hundred miles away, and occasionally thousands of miles away, and sometimes just inside. All those distances feel equally unreachable to me.
I think I only did anything in here out of boredom, to pass the time between your leaving and coming back. There were so many of those times. Maybe I only became a writer by force of habit, having written away empty summer hours — what I insisted were empty summer hours — waiting. I alternated writing with reading, and maybe they fed off each other, but they were both born of a fascination with you that needed, sometimes, to be tamed, to be mollified.
You came and went, of course, because this is where you live: one family house here, and another a hundred miles down the road. This is your home. It’s all your home. Whereas I was here for a matter of weeks, and felt during that time that I had to grow roots: as little coming and going as possible. Just here, availing myself continually because soon I’d be gone. I’d be ripped out, and it would hurt, and I’d know to expect the pain, but still, every time, I’d put them down. It’s the only place I’ve ever bothered to.
You’ve left again, for reasons unknown, and in the third afternoon of your absence I feel some surge of perverse happiness, as if I’m enjoying this limbo. I have to enjoy it, see it as some lesson, because that’s all there is to do. And of course, I’ve left all kinds of people in my life. I’m used to it. You were just the one I was most reluctant to leave, or see go.
I lie on my back staring up at whatever I can see through the south-facing window, the one facing away from your house onto the house on the other side of mine. Shingle, solar panel, chimney, tree, sky. Later that night I will smoke too much with the owners of that house and then dream that our beach has crystal clear waters like Australia, and that the waves come high right into the shore, attracting untold numbers of surfers and bodyboarders suddenly to this relatively secret place. But in the dream the waves will freeze like some sculpture just before they crash, and then move again, throwing the surfers abruptly into the sand. You weren’t in this dream, yet you were there still, the director, perhaps, or the producer, checking to make sure he was getting his money’s worth.
I don’t know whether these dreams live up to the dreams of yore, when our brains were still sprouting thousands of connections and severing old ones every night while we slept. Before your body became what it is now. When your arms were still almost as thin as mine, and your hair short and still tamed once a month or more by your mother, not wild and furry the way it is now. You still live under her roof, but at dinner she only asks you ironically whether you’ve shaved today — your face is almost all hair, save for the wild, almost orange eyes staring out — and you smile at her. That’s the end of it.
But I’m not ashamed of my dreams the way I was then. They used to tell you not to bother me — what a word. Still I always felt I was bothering you. And once, a younger friend announced in the middle of a video game that I loved you. She doesn’t love me, you said, and we continued winding our characters around shadowy corridors in search of the desired targets: each other.
Now we’re too old for anyone to make such accusations or to feel self-conscious ourselves. But I’d rather continue to try to make sense of the designs of the cosmic dust, because it’s easier and in some ways more enjoyable than asking straight questions of you. There is an order here — the shifting tides, the stubborn shooting stars — and however it works, whatever is controlling it, doesn’t need our help. So I try in vain to decipher the mumblings on the wind. The attempt is just a tribute of sorts.
Some conspiracy between the sun and the water caused you the other day to move your chair next to me, and touch my arm to see how sunburned I was becoming. But that act uncovered nothing new in the code. I still don’t know what I am to you. I try to see myself as just one element in our cosmos, one piece of a mobile hanging from an invisible string. Something is holding us up and holding us together. Far be it from me to force us closer than we already are.