He came back.
It’s not that I didn’t want him to come back, or even that I hadn’t thought about him coming back, because I’d be lying otherwise. Everyone hopes that their first, best love will return like a war hero and the golden sunset of perfection will rise above them. It’s a game we all play with ourselves sometimes.
But he did come back.
He was a warm spot in my memory and every now and then I’d bring him out, dust him off like an old photo album and remember that I was his rite of passage. I, with all the wiles a seventeen-year-old could muster had lured him into a corner from which he could not escape. He stood there in all his little boy nakedness while I tried to lie languorously on our coats … and well, I’m sure I’ve replayed the scene too often to know all the accurate details; it could not have been as good as it seems now. We do that a lot. Rewriting. Going back and making it all seem just so, trying to get all the pieces in place, to bring all the renegade bits of memory in line with our present selves.
But this is not a lie. We were the fastest of friends. We loved each other in a way deeper than lovers can. We traded favors for twenty years. And then he went away and left me here. I would like to be able to say that I knew it was going to happen. But that would be a lie.
That phrase sticks a little. “Left me here.” As if I had no choice in the matter. The truth is I chose to be where I am, well, not exactly where I am at the present moment, but I chose the path.
I married someone else.
But Stephen and I were not to be married. Hell, we never even dated. I don’t think he dated anyone, just lingered in the shadows of those high school dances like a ghost. I would want to run to him and drag him onto the dance floor, but I never did. But after Nick DeMarco and I had groped each other in the back seat of his father’s Dodge and maybe I sucked him off, later that night I would lie on my bed naked with Nick’s taste still in my mouth, his scent clinging to me like new skin and wonder what Stephen was doing, as if I didn’t know.
I’m sitting in my kitchen. The house is empty and silent. It has always seemed so. I live on Skyview Terrace, a dead-end street from which there is little sky to view and no terrace, but it describes me perfectly. I often wonder where my youth went. But I understand I left it in places no one will find, just as I sit in the kitchen of a house on a street with a make-believe name.
I can laugh now at the choice I made. We always think we are whole people, making choices at the top of our game. But we’re such animals, making choices because they feel good for the moment, turning one-night stands into life-long rationales for being. I loved Stephen Gardner, but left him sitting on that old shed roof, as he told me he did, staring at the stars. But I loved Nick DeMarco’s body, so smooth and hard at the shoulders and thighs, his tight little ass, and the way he felt inside me. But screwing is screwing at a certain point. I wonder sometimes if my body knows the difference between one cock and another. So, I married Nick. And Stephen went away.
And he came back.
I don’t really think those events are directly related, but the ego of my soul, the romantic, egocentric they-can’t live-without-me part of my soul wants to believe otherwise.
What did he come back to? A thirty-five-year-old divorcee with a lovely teen-aged daughter. Nick and I split up ten years ago. Lying alone in the dark of those first few years, Nick’s image would rise up and fill my vision. It was like his old high school photo: His close-shaved head sticking out of a pair of shoulder pads like a bald old man, his face unsmiling, the eyes hard; he was tough even then, out to prove something. His left arm was bent to display the battered red helmet covered with small Indian decals, awards of excellence on the playing field.
But Nick DeMarco didn’t play. Everything was too important. He never learned the difference between battle and victory; everything was just another battle.
Oh, Nick. We fought all the way through high school, through the courtship and paused long enough to get married before starting up again. But I loved you so. You were my real American hero. You took on the world so fiercely and I believed you were clearing a place in it for us so we could find peace together.
But there was no peace in the world for Nick DeMarco. Everything, including love, was a battle. You were not clearing a place for us, but just for yourself, taking back the territories to save that last bit of maleness in the world you saw slipping away.
And maybe one day you saw an image of yourself and it frightened you. At nineteen the vision of yourself at forty-five is a terrifying thing: Sitting in a blue cardigan, you read the paper alone in the kitchen, a cup of coffee half-empty on the table. In the corner of the room on a television set, a college football game is being played. You look up once in a while and recall the days when you played and your mind is filled with the crashing of padded bodies and the grunts of young boys joyous in their strength and youth. Where did it all go, you wonder. The passion, the thrills. So you struck out like a warrior, fighting and winning battles that years later hardly seemed worth it.
And when the world resisted your conquering, you turned on me.
The world, you said, was divided into men who conquer and men who are conquered. And I believed it for so long I forgot that it was all just another game and you were just another little boy who couldn’t play anymore. The real world was not so neatly divided and it did you in. There were no referees, no goal-line stands. You were my ideal, my perfect lover and husband. Stephen was not so perfect, and at times I thought I might have been better off trying to patch the imperfections.
All you left me was Annie, and as I look at it now, I’m grateful she is all you left me.
I wanted you, chased you down. And when I caught you, I realized I didn’t want you.
And then Stephen.
We spent the night of my divorce in a Burger King east of Utica on the New York Thruway, having driven there in a frantic pursuit, a crazy search for sanity. We sat in a booth till dawn and gulped down coffee and French fries and watched the truckers and other late-night travelers brood over their steaming cups or dripping sandwiches; they’d leave, shoving the paper trash in an overstuffed can, only to be replaced over and over again until it seemed that the shadow that hovered over our booth, the dreary sorrow and uncertainty, the plain damn fear, that drove us there in the first place was carried out in pieces until morning came.
And, yes, Stephen, you, too, were frantic. It hovered near your eyes, which darted around the room never resting on anything for more than an instant.
They didn’t even find rest in mine.
But then you came back.
Sad Stephen. Poor sad Stephen. She left you. And you came to tell me of it.
I wanted to laugh. Not at you, but at myself. Did I expect more? Of course I did. But you’re still out there, aren’t you, kid. Still wandering the emotional universe, still on that roof staring at the stars, hoping it all works out.
Nick DeMarco fights his way through life because he doesn’t know there is an easier way to do it. But you, Stephen, in you naïve arrogance, assume things will go your way merely because you want them to. You forget that other members of the board have a vote.
And the disappointment of the repeated defeats has settled in your eyes. They were once flecked with golden bits of light that flashed when you laughed and burned with your passion; as you spoke of her the bits of light disappeared as if taken out one by one and replaced with dull stone.
Oh, Stephen. How your face turned soft when you spoke of her, how your words turned my dull kitchen into a garden, an arbor of whispered passion. You were like a child at Christmas when you spoke of her, a man so deeply moved you knew not why, but wanted only to hold that feeling, that moment, in your hands forever. And so I listened to you tell of her and my heart soared and then fell as the feelings blossomed and withered as the silence overtook you.
And then there was only silence. The two of us, you resting your head in your arms crossed on the table, and I stroking your hair as a mother would a child’s, sat in silence; all these years between us and neither of us could speak.
So I said, tell me again, Stephen.
She was something new. A being. A feeling, a new pulse rampaging through your veins, a seed of so unexplained a sensation it did not germinate but bloomed wildly, cascading powerful shoots through every part of you. She had not so much awakened you, but beat your laggard spirit to life with mere presence. She was a new language, something wrestling through the blockages of your mind, squeezing out the trapped, filtered and distorted promises till it all emerged in your heart as pure light. It was not that the two of you had been selected, inspected and chosen, but that you had drawn each other out of the crowd, pushing your way past the unsuspecting bodies between you, shoving aside the solitary men and women moving at half your speed, drawn by the oldest human need, seemingly touched by these blessed hands for the first time; moving as if unpinned from your place on the graph and cast adrift in the torrents of swirling space, lost in one single sweet flower.
I tried to keep my face still, to keep my tears within. How I wanted that to be us. How I wanted to believe you knew that, too.
And then you told me this:
You remembered a day long ago when we sat in the school library and we began to pass notes back and forth. “I like your shirt,” I wrote. “I like your jacket,” you wrote back. “Getting any work done?” I wrote. “Too busy looking at you,” you wrote back. “I know what you mean, You’re very distracting,” I wrote. “Your eyes are beautiful,” you wrote. “I think I love you,” I wrote.
And you just stared at me.
Oh, sad Jenny. Loved all the boys and now hasn’t any.
He came back
And I sent him away.
The kitchen was as silent as a church when you finished speaking of her. You and I remained quietly staring into each others’ eyes, silent, close, reaching.
And she floated above us like a ghost.
Like a prayer.
And I wanted to hate her for the lines and worried look she had painted on your face, wanted to hate her for all the energy she had drawn from you and wasted. And when you finished speaking of her you seemed smaller, shrunken, as if expelling the words to describe her, the breath required to speak her name was torn from your very muscles, ripped out piece by piece, leaving emptiness.
Make love to me, Stephen, I said. Take me and hold me. Let us mix up all the things that happened and never happened, take in all the dreams dying and dead, all the wishes nodding in the darkness, all the orphaned cares and give them shelter.
Let us love, Stephen, I said. Let us break the gloom with shouts.
And in the warm darkness I felt the sweat form between your shoulder blades and run like a fevered river down your back. I opened my body to you and felt you climb inside. I tasted your sweet breath and moved under your touch. And at times we moved together, as if all the writhing and groaning of lovers could change the world, it would change that night.
My man done come. Back.
But in the morning when you awoke in my arms, she was in your eyes.
And I sent him away.
I will not save you, Stephen. The mistakes you make are your own. I have enough of my own.
One more lie exposed.
What was saved that night, Stephen? Have you gone back to that shadow where you fear that she might turn again that smile on you, or turn it off forever? Either is the same death. If you came here for answers, I only gave you questions.
But you could say the same to me. I wanted you to be a door, something with a knob I could grasp and turn and step through into a new place. But you were only a mirror. And the sadness that clung to your cheeks, clung to mine; the darkness of your eyes glowed in my eyes. I wanted to blame you for the place my life had rested in all these years, to say if you had only answered me in the library, told me you loved me, if you had only stayed with me that night after we drove on the Thruway, all would have been well. For as crazy as it was, that night was just what I needed. Everything had become so plain, so routine, I lost my direction. The wars with Nick tore down my resistance.
And then you were there. You brought me back to life. And I sent you away.
Had I been waiting for you to come back? You tell me. I had carried you around with me ever since. When I told you that day in the library so long ago that I loved you, it wasn’t some schoolgirl crush, it was the purest love I have ever known.
Still you went away. I sent you away. It seems now that it is the same thing.
Then you came back with her in your heart, trapped there by all that was right and wrong. If a night of love with me can not dislodge her, then I will move on.
He came back.
And I sent him away.
There is more truth in our souls than we thought.
You have been in my heart and mind for years. I have just shifted you to a place where I do not need light and eyes to see you.