It’s the kind of place he would love to spend a few weekends, he says. Agreed: it’s the kind of place where you can stare and admire, desire and receive to a degree you only thought possible in magazines and on screens: the colors, the skin, the beauty, the volume and improbability of so much action on the street. I would love to be the person to show it all to him, but I couldn’t be, because I’m a woman, and because I love him. I’m a woman and I love him, so I want to see this city as a snowglobe that I hold in my hands. It seems all mine, little and destructible, purchased, owned. But it isn’t, nor is he. The world is tragically bigger than me and him and the things I want for both of us.
He would come, walk gallantly down the street with me by his side for a few hours one night, but then I’d be forced to send him away, up the crooked avenue lined with blinding images, to the things he felt he should see, then back downtown to the new nexus of things, to the young women in five-inch heels studied up on how to get in almost anywhere. I hope he would say that once he did it, he’d never do it again, that it wasn’t for him. But whatever happened to him would happen outside our ornament, strange and unimaginable, possibly beautiful, possibly unforgettable. I have no capacity to imagine his bliss, his joy in its purest form, because I’m certain he has never shown it to me. Never brandished it, at least. I glimpse it sometimes. I try to follow it around, try to follow his shell game, but I don’t know what I’m following, if I ever really knew where the joy was hidden to begin with.
Back on our ancestral perch, set too close to the water, taunting peril, it was so quiet that the only thing I could hear was the blood moving through my brain. In this staggering quiet, as surprising at first as the overwhelming volume in my big faraway city, language became important again. I studied Ursula Le Guin’s words, inches from the fire, dragging my finger across the glowing pages.
When we convened at the end of the work day, in the fleeting dark hours of early winter, it was possible for a single sentence to echo for the duration of the conversation and beyond, just as the author’s words. For a simple exchange about some little shared event to break new ground, open up a window to let in a gust of air, refreshing, revelatory. After a day or two there was nothing left in my brain but the whimsical voices of her otherworldly characters and his voice, which betrays how steady he is, how measured, at least until you drop a pebble or two into his composure, which I loved to do. Never to disrupt, just to awaken.
How can I describe what’s in my head now? There’s no simple way. The quiet is gone. Who knew silence could be a drug as powerful as the sounds we reflexively try to stuff our heads with? Still, I opt for excess now that I am back here in a city of excess. I douse my eardrums in new music at a high enough volume to drown out car horns and the steady hum, a bit like a steady wind, but vapid, as opposed to tactile, of thousands of cars moving, of air conditioners still running, of doors slamming and voices trying unselfconsciously to be heard through little cell phone speakers.
Somewhere behind that wall of sound is pain, silent but teeming across all regions of my brain. This is the pain, simply, of being a thousand miles away from the person I love best. This is the pain of feeling that at some point in my life, things got more complicated when they were supposed to get simpler. I looked at him and thought I saw simplicity, a clear road. A well-worn road. Did that ensure happiness? No: it just blocked any path that wasn’t as old as that road, turned away any face that wasn’t as familiar as his face.
That weekend some fine weather came east, and the weekend and weather together brought more people down to us, more warm bodies to shuffle into the house, complete the circle of chairs around the fire. So many people there weren’t enough seats for everyone. Some sat on the floor, others pulled in stools from the kitchen, threw down cushions. Elders had complained a few quiet, cold days earlier that people never just talked to each other anymore, but here we were, talking, and I wanted to tell them that that’s all we younger ones did anyway, then as now, whether they were in the room or not.
But I think they knew that. I think they stood quietly in the kitchen wiping down the counters and drying the wine glasses after dinner and felt the same joy I did that we were talking and laughing just the same way we’d done as kids. So little had changed that it was, in fact, worrying at times. We were, all of us, afraid in different ways. Tentative. Unconvinced of our own abilities. Too beholden, too loyal to other people at the expense of our own well-being. But we did try to help each other. Once the weekend was over, one talked to another on the phone, and the third reached back for the phone from his position lying on the sofa, as if to say, My turn. Each of us had a certain knack for talking sense into the others. But we were also too forgiving of each other, probably. It was hard to be stern with someone that you’d spent half a life reveling with, playing with. How to be authoritarian with one’s co-conspirators in rebellion?
We sloshed black coffee into our big glass mugs until long past noon, feeling, maybe, that coffee was something to feed the silence, as opposed to drown it out. To whisper small but powerful ideas into it, as I’d let it do all week. But I also felt it was a life preserver, and an elixir that I hoped would allow us to sit this happily, this curiously, forever, wash away any more grand plans for the day. Let coffee do what I feel I am too lost at sea to do, I thought. Let it propel me, even though I have nowhere to go, and nowhere I need to go. Let it motor me around this little place, a toy boat in a bathtub.
It came time to leave, of course, as it always did. Like my friends I would want to tear my hair out once I had to stop denying that I was gone, once I was out of the musty carpeted corridors of airports and off the leather seats of distracted cab drivers. But then, once back home, as it must be called, I would readjust, as we all did, throw myself into activity, noise, business. He would be the last to go, and he would go as part of the family caravan, back to the winter abode. No more stalling about the fact that the end of the year was coming. No more vacillating.
That last morning was as fraught as they all are, these last days that used to haunt my dreams as a child, repeating almost nightly — fifty ways to leave a place. The wind gusted, tossing my hair out of shape, blowing it in my face, continually, helping me to obscure my emotions. I sat on a wall in the sun, and he sat in the grass at an absurd distance from me, not out of earshot but — too far. Just before that he’d walked by me, looked at me out of the corner of his right eye. I followed that eye, waited for the mouth to speak. Swim? it soon said. No, I said, laughing, but frowning, too. The water was even more serious than my face that morning, due to the high winds. No, he agreed, that wouldn’t be very relaxing.
But what we were doing certainly wasn’t relaxing either. This is a fault peculiar to young people, I think: an inability to enjoy a moment because the moment is moving, is leaving, is running away. We could see it moving, even. Could feel it. Sitting, silently, in the wind, waiting, perhaps, for the wind to whisper a cue into our ear, to feed us a line. But no lines came, so eventually I just walked away, to meet the moment where it had run away to, inside my house, at the back door, with my packed suitcase, waiting for me.
Halfway from his house to mine I turned around to look at him, still standing there in the wind, arms folded, chestnut curls flopping across the top of his head. How could he know that in that moment I was thinking, Follow me, come with me, give me your hand, walk by my side through the rest of our lives. How could he know? I did not know my own face. Did not know its power to confound. But he’d fed me one of his precious sentences a few nights before to let me know that it was often hard to tell when I was joking. And then I thought: how could I forget. I am guilty of the same inscrutability that I so often accuse others of, that I accuse him of. And it only causes him to be more protective of himself, of the shapes his face makes when it is looking at mine, when it is speaking to mine.
We were given about three breaths to say goodbye, and that was not enough time to take off any piece of the armor that had taken years to put on, to say what words could not, no matter how much patient silence they had been given to find the courage to speak. But I tried, anyway, to express something, wishing I could have rehearsed in the mirror for this, wishing I could have practiced and perfected a face that said the only thing that was left to say, that was necessary to say, which was, of course, that I loved him. Instead I just sighed, frowned, as I was so fond of doing, so comfortable doing, and said a goodbye that sounded, and I think looked, like an apology. I’m so sorry, it said. For what, though? For coming and going, coming again and going again? For not being the strongest of the three of us, the boldest by a mile? Sorry for not moving my hair out of my face long enough to look him steadily in the eye and say something definitive, terrifying?
One day, I thought a few hours later, moving across a sunny airport terminal, maybe I’d just get down on one knee before him, believing that decades of fear and suppression could reasonably give way to the grandest gesture of all. His final word to me had been a question: Christmas? God, no, I’d said, extending the apologetic look that had come to my face to those words. I had this whole other life and other families to spend it with, somehow. Somehow. Somehow life went on, or rather, went. It in one direction and me, very trepidatiously, in another. And he had his path, a third path, but like mine it seemed to wind sneakily in the shape of a snail shell back to this place, at any opportunity, feigning progress just by moving, trying to convince the people around us that we were getting somewhere, when it was painfully clear to them that we were standing in deep mud, together, immovable and strangely pleased with ourselves.
If you were half as smart as you think you are, you’d be twice as smart as you are, his father likes to tell him. After sharing these short, blustery days with him, I was too loose, too sedate, too dumb to catch the meaning of that riddle at first. But I had an hour in a car with his father to mull it over, which meant an hour for those words to cut little nicks into my heart. What was wrong with us? I only knew that I could not fix him, nor him me. I was stuck, in my own way, a world away, and stuck with this love, a thing so animalistic, pure, and unwavering. It was inconsequential, this love, but it was great. A great fact with nothing to do and nowhere to go. But I thought, at least, that if someone asked me what the point of life was, I would have an answer.