Posted Monday, February 23rd, 2009
You were three years older than me, and your eyes were green. You were the meanest boy I'd ever met, and I knew I wanted you the first time you pulled my hair on the playground between our houses.
I was eleven when we told each other ghost stories under the elm that grew behind your window. I said I was afraid of vampires coming into town, you said you'd protect me. Was it really you, sat on that hillock, knees drawn tight against your little boy body, a jack knife in hand? 11 years old, scared to death, heart beating a bruise onto your chest? Later in life, when we were both a bit older, you opened the buttons of my dress and reached out for the light switch. Smiled and said, I'm not afraid of the dark, anymore.
I was sixteen when I saw you sitting on the lawn by the swings, a book across your lap. You were eating something, and I had never seen anyone look so impossibly beautiful in my life. I walked over, asked what you were reading. You looked up from Howards End, smiled awkwardly, said it's for school. You brushed hair out of your eyes with fingers smeared red, and asked if I wanted to sit with you.
Crushed strawberries bled onto the pages of your book, dripped between our fingers, sticky as dreams, and I'd never dared to kiss you before. That night I watched you sleep for hours, barely daring to breathe.
I was nineteen when we got married in an old stone church. Both my parents cried at our wedding.
Your father bought us the house in Westwood Heights in 1997. It was your first year teaching at the university, my second year working in the bookshop. The first time we went to see it, you held my hand as a flock of jackdaws flew over us, back and forth. I remember thinking it must have meant something, but I had no idea what. Nearby was a lake, and by that lake had once been the house your mother had been born and raised in.
It's there, you said, out of breath. Right behind that hill. Your eyes were gleaming. Birch Lake. Out of sight, but described by your mother a hundred times over.
It was funny, living on a hilltop. The city lights looked so different from up there, especially when it had been raining for days and everything was a bit foggy, indistinct. Milky rays of light filtering through the windows, through the trees, like the outside world wasn't sure if it really existed.
Next to us lived an elderly lady who people said had talked her husband into an early grave, but I thought she was sweet. She said I looked like young Katharine Hepburn, which was clearly an exaggeration or a downright lie, but it made me smile anyway. I loved our house, and the garden. We had the most beautiful hydrangeas in the neighbourhood.
The year after we'd moved up there I was pregnant for a while, but it was over quite shortly, in March, and I don't remember crying. In June you went to teach in Philadelphia at the summer college, and I didn't go to work. I slept late, read a lot and didn't really miss you all that much. When you came home the house was cluttered with overdue library books. Collections of short stories, selected poems, biographies. Cheap horror, paperback editions. Life turned back to normal, and you didn't mention the baby again. I was left with an army of unfinished diaries.
We'd been living that house for three years when one morning you looked up from your paper and asked me if I was happy. I thought about it, or pretended to, and said, not particularly. You looked hurt, but promised we would do whatever I wanted, and I thought I wanted more space.
You got yourself an apartment downtown, because you thought I couldn't bear the thought of having to move out of the house, and maybe that was true, or maybe you couldn't bear the thought of having to stay there. The place we were supposed to spend the rest of our lives in was the place your mother loved; I never knew if you even liked it.
Whatever I felt for you, at that point, it took me less than six months to beat it out of myself, or so I thought. The house felt empty, but I spent more time tending the garden than trying to fix things between us. My columbines bloomed, the heady, sweet scent of snapdragons filled the air. Bees swarmed. You used to call and ask me if I was okay. I always said yes. Sometimes you asked if you could come over. I often said no.
Your mother died of a long-term illness while we were separated. You called me from a pay-phone at the hospital and I said, you should come and stay here for a bit. Your eyes were huge, wet with unshed tears. I kissed your forehead, told you I loved you although I knew I didn't.
That night we went out and got drunk together. You talked, and I still remember how the alcohol felt swirling in my veins, I remember thinking how it, if anything, could make make me cry. The lurid light of neon beer signs reflecting from your glasses, making our pints gleam turquoise-golden. Your fingers rested against the ash-dusted tabletop, twitching slightly.
We took a taxi to my house, our house. I pulled a blanket over you after you'd passed out on the couch and turned off the lights. The streets were quiet when I walked to the bus station.
Sometimes I wonder if I'm ever going to see you again. I wonder if you're going to be okay. I wonder if you hate me. I wonder if I'll ever find another person I can treat as badly as I have treated you. I wonder if it will ever feel the same again.
I heard your father sold the house after you'd refused to move back in. The couple who bought it put a swimming pool where my garden used to be, but I pretend I don't care. I have started to hate everything I used to love. Gardening. Books. The smell of fresh ink. Dirt and freshly cut grass sticking to the soles of my feet. Everything except you, and maybe I never really loved you. Four letter lies, love and hate.
In the mornings I look in the mirror and think, this is it. The rest of my life. Just another morning I can't escape by saying I miss you out loud. I live in a place where people barely know what an elm tree looks like, and there are no bees. I've never been to the library, or the bookshop. To this day I feel like crying if I smell a hydrangea, but I haven't cried in fourteen years.
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