How long has it been since I last saw him? I know how long it’s been, down to the hour, but real time is no measure of it, not any of it. Six hours. But in that time the sun emerged for the first time in five days, shining its white light down on us like a glaring camera flash, which made me think that maybe years had passed, since I’d never seen the sun like this before, or at least not in his company. At this point it’s still emitting a warm light, but only to the touch. We’re rounding a bend in the universe that causes it to appear less yellow now, and its desaturation indicates that some end is near.
It’s the end of the year, of course, the year that I want to call the year of him, since he sprouted up out of barren soil in the first days of January, and I was so happy to see something in that field, anything. And it turned out to be regrowth of something I loved once. How I had managed to stop loving him the first time, I don’t know, but would like to. I wish I could harness the wisdom of my preoccupied 20-year-old self. But it turns out my years-older self is as peculiarly passionate as my teenage self was. The woman who came between them is strong, strong enough to push us apart, hold us back from hurting each other, but where is she now?
She got a glimpse of him a few years ago and said, Oh. Now I understand. That he had grown into himself, and was slowing his growth now but appeared that he would never quite stop, that he would climb to some physical apex forever, that he would never age. Or that if he did, it would be, as they say, gracefully, just the way the solid structures of the earth, like wood and stone, became gradually weathered over time. He was not beautiful, certainly, and not in the least delicate, so the little lines on his face now, in the center of his brow and under his eyes, were like punctuation marks. The face read more or less the same without them, but they gave my eyes something to rest upon as he spoke. Something new, that is, because the old little exclamations — the flinty specks in his eyes, the freckles on his cheeks and nose — had been long admired, memorized years ago.
In the early afternoon today the sun came to upend the system, to swipe a table clean of the objects that had been resting dustily on it, to fling away the clouds, to still the leaves and flags and hanging laundry that had been blowing in the wind for days, to clean up, or so it seemed, after some rager in the sky. But we don’t like change. We come down here purposely to avoid change, so even meteorological shifts, or at least big ones, are unwelcome. The recent northern weather, stormy fall weather, forced us to come up with a new routine, a routine that mostly involved staying indoors, sitting in one warm place all day with a pile of things to read and work on beside us, and a mug of something warm: coffee, then tea, then a hot toddy, and finally, maybe, to end the night, to quell the effects of alcohol, hot chocolate.
The perpetuation of this cold front, unexpected for this month, did not weary us, since we are all familiar with the truly sullen season that will follow this one. No, we loved this bout more as the days went on, each day giving us another opportunity to perfect the routine, to make bolder forays into certain features of it, like hiking a mile up the hill behind us and back, to the little yellow house that wasn’t so far away that you couldn’t see, from the foot of the hill, the wood smoke trailing away from its chimney over the tops of the fir trees.
Six hours in which wood was carried from shed to house, in which a dog was run around the perimeter of the lake, in which a pile of warm food was prepared and eaten by the dog’s ravenous owner, already always hungry from the wind and cold, and more so today after the decision to run around the lake, and surprisingly fast, like a child.
The previous night we had sat in matching chairs like an old married couple and I had massaged my underused quadriceps with the heel of the opposite foot, a strange way of doing things, flamingo-like, wondering why my muscles were so sore, admonishing myself aloud, saying that all my strength was atrophying from so much sitting and eating and writing and reading, and that tomorrow I would run. I would.
He said he would too, but when I came to collect him the next day at 10 sharp — I had an inexplicable habit of coming over to his place exactly on the hour — he shook his head quickly, in pace with the wind, and frowned, and let out some chilly laughter from his mouth and said, “No.” And that was the last I would hear from him until night, but what did it matter? I would pore over this, this newest issue of his face, for the rest of the day, and be sufficiently entertained by it, thinking that even as the lips said, “No,” his face was so grounding to me that it didn’t matter what it was saying. Sometimes, admittedly, I didn’t even listen to what it was saying.
It seemed symbolic that he fled from here in his rusty truck around the same time the sun emerged, as if he was another feature of the landscape that she wanted to readjust. He got pushed away with the clouds, miles down the road, to wander the aisles of a store with 30-foot-high ceilings, to bring back supplies, enough supplies to allow him to stay down here, stay and stay, until they shut off the water. Then he would figure out what to do, where to go. But not until that day came, until the taps hissed, sputtering out air. At which point he would think: “Okay, okay,” but sit for a few more hours on the little cot in the back room, under four blankets, suited up in skintight wool underlayers followed by multiple flannel shirts and the old, wheat-colored Navy jacket, and a computer on his lap, doing whatever it is he does on there.
In those six hours the sun also set, or set, for all intents and purposes, behind the towering house to the south of ours, and I was glad to have night be coming again soon, even if night these days mostly meant a quick succession of being very warm, very drunk, and very tired, always in that order, although really “warm” and “drunk” worked in tandem, my face red and almost leathery-looking from the bonfire and the whiskey, my torso burning up, sweating, and my extremities still cold and stiff, no matter what. The wind also picked up as the sun went down, tossing boats and docks to and fro, returning us partially — if you just listened, and didn’t look outside — to the familiar sounds of last week: wood knocking against wood quietly, beneath the water and beneath the wind, and inside, beam pressing more urgently up against post, the chimney in the center of the house causing the whole house to sway very slightly, but not in a way that you could feel, like on a ship, only hear.
But the sun put on a show as it went down in a sherbet-colored sky, and it brought out some more spontaneous version of all of us. The summer version of us. We liked it because it was familiar. We were good at being summer people. It’s times like these you really know you’re alive, my neighbor said as she stood on her dock, hands on hips, and watched the sun go.
When he returned, he had someone else with him, and the three of us bumbled along for a few days, not all that differently from a three-wheeled vehicle as we tried to go someplace new together, physically, psychically. Three wheels were preferable to two, you could say, but four were vastly preferable to three. It just made more sense. We had tried a few fourth wheels, but they always seemed to break us apart into pairs, or worse, into three against one.
In our triumvirate there was no hierarchy. No one ever stayed at the top for very long. A rotating presidency, I guess you could call it, usually dictated by whoever was the least moody on any given day. Judging by his face this morning, he’d not been happy that he’d soon be one of three again, and so would take a back seat this evening, convinced he wasn’t part of the club. How long will you have to be a member of the club before you finally feel like a member of the club? I wanted to ask him. But I preferred such questions to try to find their own way, from one set of eyes to another, which is to say, silently.