It is better for the heart to break, than not to break. – Mary Oliver
He told me tales of Russia, and a hundred spiders dancing in his hair as he rode in a little boat, drifting across a lake. I thought of him there, gliding in the vessel, looking up at the night sky, hurtling on the long trajectory that would bring him around the world, across time and space, to where we would one day collide. He’d been born tiny, he said, and had to stay in the hospital for a few weeks before he went home. I wondered if that’s why he could stand to be alone, if that’s where his fierce independence originated. It made me wish I’d been left on my own earlier, so I could deal with it, so my heart wouldn’t ache so when he was gone.
Part of me knew what was going to happen. I’d been here before. It wasn’t the first time. And if I had just a little more strength, if I could have been a bit smarter, I might have put off the whole wretched thing by stopping then and there. I did not do that. I loved him already. I loved him too much. And so I fell.
The fever he inspired lasted a few days. Little by little it subsided, overtaken by the duties of life, until, a few months later, he could be remembered with the slightest of aches, the dullest of pangs, the merest wistfulness. One day I found myself laughing at my silly retail job, wondering how it was possible, then I realized I had been pretending all this time. No one had seen that something was wrong with me. No one had seen what I had lost. The laughter, as it was genuine, felt foreign, and frightening. It felt like I might swerve seamlessly into a crying fit, so I stopped myself. They’re not that much different – laughing and crying – especially when in the extreme throes of either.
The tools were here, the messages, already established, in the code of his written cadence, in the way he wrote, the words he chose, the way he put it all together. I was in love with his mind more than anything else. We could only last that way. And we couldn’t.
I couldn’t give him any more. I didn’t know what else to do. So I gave him this. Words, collections of words, words that conjured memories. They are all we have now. I tell the story to make it present, to make it real, to make it known that it mattered.
The way out of the old hurt was always through writing. Putting it down on paper was a little exorcism of the soul, in the same way that we sometimes felt the need to unburden and confess our feelings to friends. Though it’s often under the pretext of ‘What should I do now?’ there is never an answer to that question, not a fulfilling one anyway, but it’s enough just to lay it on the line and have it out there. Even if it’s just one other person on the entire planet, a shared secret is always better than a solitary one.
I gave him a letter. The story – our story – written out of love, out of a way to remain close, a way to cling to whatever it was we had. Like a favorite book of poetry, bedside and hearthside, waiting to be opened again, complete in itself but never completely done, never completely written, it remains without ending. For my part, I try to close the book, and take away something to sustain through the ensuing years. Mostly, I miss a friend. It’s a feeling of homesickness, for a home we never had, a feeling of missing someone you never met.
I could not regret it. How to regret something like that, how to pretend that each sensation was not welcomed, not wanted, not worthy of going through so I’d always have it to remember? I knew I had the choice. There is always the choice. I could let it pull me down, wallowing in the pain and inconsolable madness that his departure left in its wake. It was tempting to do so, and for those first few days I may have indulged in that. But there was also the choice to go on living, sharing the same world, miles and hours apart, perhaps, but watching the same sky, seeing the same moon, following the same sun. And I could take what he taught me, the enjoyment of the moment, the beauty of what was all around if you looked hard enough, if you examined it closely.
I stole whatever scraps I could of his life before he was gone. A hastily-scribbled note. A spritz of his cologne on a handkerchief. Is that all we are to each other? Symbols of something we need, something we lack? Can he exist in a faded scent on fraying cotton, in the soft, worn paper falling apart from running my fingers across his writing so many times? What was his presence but a nourishment to my soul? In his absence, bits of me – the best parts of the person I most wanted to be – fell away.
My mind goes back to him gliding on a lake. That’s where I think of him now, on a lake at night, looking up at this same sky, coasting along the gently-lapping water, his eyes bright and searching – as they had once looked into mine – and navigating his way through life, as alone as I was… as I am.
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