Fall 2017 (Volume 21, Issue I)
It’s the handwriting on the envelope that catches my attention, because it’s mine.
I’d been hoping for a letter from you, or maybe trying not to hope. I didn’t know when — if — you’d write back, and I’ve written you so many letters that never reached an end, let alone the mailbox, that not-hoping just became another reason to stack the mail unread on the table near the door. As if I needed another reason not to look.
But there it was, waiting for me: a personal letter, three sheets folded inside a thick, cream envelope with your name written on it in my own block letters. It had come back to me with something added, a stamp of faded blue ink that obscured the first letters of your name: “Return to Sender: Attempted — Not Known.”
I last saw you by accident. It was — I have to pause to think — nearly twenty years ago. It was some philanthropic event, something social that filled a medium-sized room. I don’t remember the cause, only that I wanted to be seen to support it; appearances still mattered to me then. I’d stayed as long as I thought I needed and turned to shake one last hand, and there you were. You were looking at me looking at you. I could tell you were surprised, but maybe you were also delighted. I waited until you took a step toward me. My legs felt unsteady, but I met you in the middle.
You’d changed, in some way I couldn’t define. It was as if I thought I knew a secret about you, but now everybody could see it. All I knew for certain was that I had never seen any woman more beautiful than you were at that moment, in that room.
I said it was good to see you, which was as close as I’d come that night to saying what I meant. You said you were just visiting the city. You were married, which I knew, and had two small children, which I did not.
“No children for me,” I said.
Your smile barely curved your mouth at the corners; your right eyebrow rose in that almost undetectable way. “I’m not surprised,” you said. The old challenge.
I started to rise to it, but you looked away to rummage in your handbag and then you were showing me photos of your children — two girls. “They look like my husband,” you said, but to me they looked just like you.
And we made small talk — the smallest of small talk, the who what when where; never the why. In these small things, I had nowhere to place a foot and feel the ground common between us. It was inconceivable, this soft, banal conversation, when for half a decade you’d been the most important thing in my life. Back then we’d been all furious boil and killing frost; I didn’t know what to do with this tepid water in between.
And then you looked at your watch and said, apologetically, that you had to go. A hundred thoughts came to me, but I have often been caught in that place that comes between the thing and the words. I have never been able to say what I mean.
“I—” I began, and when I hesitated your eyes seemed to stop blinking, just for a moment, until I repeated, “It was good to see you,” which was no longer what I meant to say.
I could see some thought cross your face, but instead of speaking you leaned forward, your head turned carefully to the side. We hugged with the distant politeness of one-time acquaintances.
And I fled, walking directly toward the exit. I tried not to hurry, but when someone began to turn toward me, his mouth opening, I tapped my wristwatch as if the time mattered and I kept walking.
But just past the doorway I stopped. I should go back, I thought. I should tell you how happy I am to hear about your life — about this rich, full, wonderful life of yours that is not also mine. If I could hear myself saying it, maybe I could believe it to be true. I came back into the room and looked for you, but you weren’t there. You’d said you had to go; you’d gone.
I hold the letter to you in my hand and sigh, an exhale of disappointment and a little annoyance. Of course the address is outdated. You’ve moved; that’s what people do. I’ve lost most of my ties to that part of my life — or dropped them, really, not on purpose but also not by accident. I’ve heard news about you every now and again, from friends of friends, in small, disconnected bits that come without warning or context. I know the threads connecting us have grown frayed, but any strong cable has so many woven strands that it can lose a few without losing its strength. I know I can find you.
Still, I can’t put the letter down. I’d expected an answer or a not-answer, not this thing in between. That “Now Known” unsettles me.
It’s somehow fitting that it’s Chris who calls me. After all, so many roads lead to Chris. When I became your boyfriend he was your ex — but instead of going away, there he was with his own new, very nice girlfriend, always friendly, always there. It drove me mad sometimes that I could find no purchase for my anger, no ally in my awkwardness. I resented Chris — and admired him, too, which burned my resentment deeper. That’s why I didn’t want to call him about you, even though I knew Chris always stays in touch with everybody, and in fact I didn’t call him. But Chris is always there, and somehow now he is calling me.
“I didn’t know you hadn’t heard,” he says. Even over the attenuation of the telephone line, his voice is deep, even deeper than I remember. Maybe it’s the weight — of responsibility, of time — or maybe it’s the gravity that comes from being a judge, as he’s been for many years. Probably he now calls himself Christopher, but he doesn’t correct me. After all, he would probably say, the two of us go way back.
“No,” I say. “I guess I’ve been out of touch.”
“Yes,” he says, but there is no accusation in his tone. I expect him to continue but instead there’s a pause that makes the breath catch in my chest. Finally he says, “I’m sorry to have to tell you,” and then he pauses again, this time to clear his throat. It sounds to me like rustling sand. “You see … she passed away, the summer before last.”
“Oh,” I say. “Ah.” My mind has gone blank.
“Cancer,” he adds, answering the question I haven’t asked. He must be pressing his mouth against the phone; I can hear him breathing. “I’m sorry to say it wasn’t quick.”
Our words blur after that, but there aren’t too many. I don’t ask about your funeral. It won’t surprise you that he’s kind to me, which he doesn’t have to be. He knows as well as me, I think, that this is the last time we will speak.
After I set the phone down I feel the stillness of the late afternoon — the motionless leaves wilting beneath the sun, the road in front of the house absent the hiss and hum of passing cars. The stillness was already here; what’s new is that now I notice it. The world hasn’t changed at all, really, but it feels like change. You’ve been gone for more than two years; why hadn’t I felt the world shift beneath me?
Because I did feel the world shift when we broke up for that last time. I’d come to meet you for a fight, or for a reconciliation, and probably for both. That was the rhythm I knew, the back and forth, hot and cold — the constant motion I thought was the same thing as going somewhere. You were quiet when I found you, looking dark-eyed into the middle distance, but when I sat down on the opposite end of the bench, you looked at me. I didn’t see the ferocity I’d expected to see. I expected passion; what I saw was closer to compassion, or maybe to sorrow. Your eyes were as black and unblinking as the lens of that bulky camera you carried on our hikes. It felt like a long time, but it had only been a few weeks since we’d gone to your favorite part of that long trail. Because I was tromping dully on the path, my eyes on my own feet, the flap of the crane’s wings caught me by surprise. But you already had the camera up to your face. I could hear the shutter snap once, then twice more in slow syncopation. After the bird’s languid flight had taken it beyond the distant line of trees you said to me, You need to catch things when you can.
Something rattled. Metal, coming from your hand, which you’d clenched into a fist on your knee. When you opened that fist there was the ring with two keys — building, apartment — and the charm shaped like the paw of our cat. The paw was pinkish gold and covered in nicks and scratches.
“You’re going?” I said. My voice sounded flat, more like a statement than a question, which was not the way I felt.
“I’ve already moved my things,” you said. How could that be true? The keys were hanging from your fingers, swinging from the metal paw. We didn’t have a cat, not anymore; we’d buried his ashes in the city park where you’d found him, shrunken and thin, hiding behind the shrubbery. He hadn’t lived long enough to make the move to this apartment, but you’d kept the keyring.
I let the keys dangle from your fingers. “How?” I said, although that was not the question I had in my mind.
Something painful crossed your face, but only for a moment. You looked down and put the keys onto the bench between us. I could see the strokes of the brush that had coated the wood slats with thick green paint. “I left a check on the hall table,” you said. “For June.”
I didn’t know what was happening, outside or in, and no words came to me right away. In that pause your hand rose and came toward my face; I could see the fine hairs on the back of your hand, and I could almost smell the lotion you used, the one you said had no scent but always smelled to me a little like cherry cough drops.
“What about July?” I said.
Your hand stopped and your face moved sideways as if I’d slapped you. I wanted to reach out and stuff the words back into my mouth — to do something — but my hands and arms and chest were numb and massive and would not move. You looked down and ran your hands over the thighs of your jeans, back and forth, back and forth.
“Okay,” you said, still looking down, and then you stood up with a speed that startled me. When you walked away I expected you to turn back so that everything could be alright again, but you didn’t, and when I finally reached over to those abandoned keys, to touch my fingers to where you’d been sitting, the wood was already cold.
I expected something to happen next, because that’s the way our story had to work: the rising action, the obstacles overcome, this darkest hour — and then the crisis and the triumph, and the glimpse of the new world ever after. But I’d misunderstood the arc; the ending had already come. Everything that has a beginning must have an ending, but sometimes, up close, everything looks like everything else. Sometimes it’s only afterward that we can see the shape.
So it’s only now that I understand: That afternoon was the penultimate time. I used to love the grandeur of that word, penultimate. When I first came across it as that bookish, quiet kid reading in the corner, I thought it must mean something like extra-ordinary, that it must mean super-ultimate. But what I took for majesty was just a word that means next to last. For all its grandness, the penultimate is something you know only when you know the ultimate. You know the next-to-last only when you know the last.
There are things about you — about me and you — that I remember, and things about myself I know I’ve forgotten, but I’ve always known that you could help me piece them together. When we were together I relied upon you to remember where we’d gone for Christmas the year before, when we’d last seen my friends, that thing my mother wanted me to remember, and I’ve relied upon your memory since. You know things nobody else knows, so our pieces, together, could make a whole. This life I call mine is scattered among a hundred people, and sometimes I wonder if I have enough pieces of my own to make the picture whole. Even if I forgot — when I forgot — you could remember for me. Someday I would figure out how to ask.
They say that if the sun went dark, the darkness wouldn’t reach us for more than eight minutes. For 500 seconds we would look to the sunlight and think it would last forever. Is it the darkness that would reach us, or the light that would depart? Is light the absence of darkness or darkness the absence of light? The light shineth in darkness, they read to me in Sunday school, and the darkness comprehended it not. That’s also where they taught me that apocalypse means the same thing as revelation; what makes us shiver is not the end, but the knowledge of the end.
I thought the silence between us was a tangible thing, not the emptiness of the void but an invisible aether: Even if only we could sense it, this quintessence would connect us always. I thought that silence was a thing that could always be broken.
When I held the envelope to my lips and sealed it with my tongue, I didn’t know that the silence was already unbreakable.