The Midnight Song

I wasn’t on the schedule that day, but there was an emotionally pivotal scene being shot, and I wanted to be there to watch Bryan and Claire work. It was one of those soul-crushing moments we actors salivate over. Claire had her work cut out, but I knew she was up for it; we’d worked together on another film a couple years earlier, and her presence and vulnerability had impressed me.

Action was called, and I sat back in video village watching the monitor. In rehearsal, the camera had begun in a two-shot, then moved in for an extreme close-up on Claire as she finished her monologue.

On both the first and second takes, she crushed it. But it wasn’t Claire that was grabbing my attention. It was Bryan. He was sitting there listening to her: no dialogue, just sitting there and listening. Listening like no one I’d ever seen before. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed. I saw the director motion over the DP and the camera op and whisper something to them.

The third take began the same way, but as the camera pushed in, it panned to Bryan. Hanging on him. The deep, hidden emotions leaking out on the monitor in front of me. A chill walked down my spine.

After he wrapped for the day, I caught up with him on his way back to his trailer.

Hey man, that was incredible.”

Thanks,” he said, “Claire is super easy to work off.”

Dude…” I paused, not sure how to ask, or even if I should, “where the hell were you during that scene? I mean, it was a heavy moment, yeah, but you just… I don’t know… you elevated somehow.”

I realized I might have overstepped, “If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s cool—“

He laughed me off, “Nah man, it’s okay. Most of the time, I’m not all ‘super secretive’ about my process.”

So can you tell me what you were thinking about? Or whom? Or whatever? I just wanna try to wrap my head around it. I’ve never seen someone listen like that before.”

He opened the door to his trailer, “You wanna come in for a minute? I’ve got some whiskey. I’m gonna need it if I’m gonna talk about this.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that when you’re offered a whiskey, you say yes. Always.

Bryan pulled a bottle from the cabinet, and poured a couple fingers into a pair of Solo cups.

Cheers. I like to drink classy.”

Cheers to classy drinking then,” I saluted him, and we clicked cups.

I’ve never told this story before,“ he took a sip and rolled the whiskey around in his mouth, “not for any reason in particular… just never have.” He shrugged, looking out the window.

Let me guess, it starts with a girl?” I asked.

How’d you know?”

Doesn’t it always?”

He smiled, “Yeah… yeah, I guess it does. This girl and I had known each other for like, I don’t know… two or three years. Same circle of friends, you know how it goes. Never dated or anything, but we got along really well whenever we happened to hang out. Well, one night I got this text from her… her sister had killed herself.”

Shit…”

Yeah. I didn’t know the whole dynamic, but apparently there had been some relational distance there… but I mean, family is family, you know? So I drove over to her house, and when I got there a few other friends were there too. I didn’t really know what to do other than just hang out and be there. I’ve been around death enough to know saying stuff never really helps.”

I know,” I said. “Way better to just sit there and be with them.”

Right,” he said, “so that’s what I did. The group of us just hung out, drank a few bottles of wine, played music. A few people ended up leaving, but a couple of us stayed. I don’t really remember how and when I fell asleep, but I woke up the next morning on the floor under this pile of blankets, and she was lying beside me, just kinda huddled up against me. I had a meeting I had to be at that afternoon, so I got her up and got her to bed, made sure she was okay, then I left.”

He looked in his cup, “You want some more?”

Sure.”

He got up and poured refills, then sank back into his seat.

So later that night, I get this text from her saying thanks for coming over, and I was just like of course, if you ever need anything, call me and then she texts that she’s out with a few girlfriends and asks me to come hang out with them. Well, it was late, so I asked you sure? and she says please, I’d like you to come. So I went. She was already a few tequilas deep by the time I got there, and when she was saw me, she ran over and hugged me. Hard.”

He took a sip, “It’s crazy how when you share a moment like that—the night before—it can change the way you relate to each other. It’s like it can jump a relationship way further down the line. Anyways, a few of us went back to her place again that night, but this time I was the only one who stayed. It was late, and we both passed dead out. But the next morning we wake up together and…” he trailed off.

You ever have one of those moments: you’re with someone you know, and you’re in a situation you never would have dreamed up in a million years, but it’s like everything came together in that moment for a reason, like you were supposed to end up there?”

I shrugged, “Can’t think of one personally, but I feel where you’re coming from, sure.”

And I promise this is all coming around to answer your question from earlier,” he said.

Hey man, no rush. Take your time.”

Okay, well we’re both lying there, and we look at each other, and we’re both like are we doing this? ’cause when you cross that bridge for the first time with someone you’ve been close to, it can go a million different ways after. And it was like we both took that split-second, and… you know, honestly, I think there had always been an attraction between us, but it was so subtle… it was almost subconscious.”

He paused, started to say something, stopped. “Anyways, that started off several months of us spending nights together, and it was always really natural, like if we didn’t hear from each other for several days, we didn’t think much of it, but if we had time then we’d meet up.

So, one night—and I’m finally getting to your question—we were up late. We were on the couch. I was holding her; we were sitting there in the dark drinking whiskey.” His voice got quieter. “And she tells me she wrote this song about her sister. And then she asked if I wanted to hear it.”

He looked out through the window, and I knew he was back there: back in that dark living room, sitting on a different couch, drinking a different glass of whiskey. I realized I was holding my breath.

I said yes. And so she picks up her guitar, and she’s sitting there in her underwear wearing my t-shirt, and she’s just so open, so… vulnerable. And she plays this song, and her voice… singing those words… it was so raw, there was just so much hurt. And, I felt like something inside me came undone. Like I had just gotten to see inside another human in a way I had never, ever experienced. I sat there, and I cried, because it was real—one of those moments that two people share at the deepest level.

So every once in a while, I get a moment as a character where I’ve got to listen to someone tell me something hard. And sometimes—not always—I’ll find myself back there. And that feeling just washes over me again.”

I sat there looking at him, waiting for something more. But he was quiet. I didn’t know what to say.

What happened to her?” I finally asked.

Uh, I’m not real sure,” he sighed, then took a long drink. “The nights we spent together just gradually got farther and farther apart. But last I checked, she was doing good.”

He shrugged, and I saw a touch of sadness—but it was a peaceful sadness—move across his face. “I haven’t seen her in years… you know, I think that once in a while, when you’re in a broken time, you cross paths with certain people. And in that moment, you fit together perfectly. But as you heal, you just don’t fit together in the same way anymore. Sometimes you might get months with someone. Sometimes maybe only days. But for that time that we had…” he smiled, “it was right.”

***

Flame”

Maybe we weren’t meant for each other
But o
nly for those nights.
You scarred my heart
With your guitar
And covered me in light.
-ijs

Tomorrow Will Be Here Soon Enough

truck-bed

The party was lame, and when I say lame I mean that there were so many people there I felt like I’d walked into a Black Friday Walmart event. My only reason for attending—a favor to a friend, who’d introduced me to another friend before disappearing into the maelstrom of humanity.

So there I was—or rather there we were—standing like concrete stanchions suffering the abuse of a never-ending sea.

My new companion looked as thrilled about the situation as I felt.

“Give you a lift home?”

She laughed, “That obvious?”

“It’s coming off you in waves,” I smiled.

“Thanks,” she said.

***

I helped her into the passenger seat, slipped a tip to the harried valet running the key-stand, jumped behind the wheel, slammed the door, and exhaled in the sudden silence.

“Right?” she laughed.

I liked her laugh, there was something easy, yet heavy to it, like it had to push its way to the surface and was almost surprised at itself that it had somehow made it again. I smiled back at her.

I maneuvered out of the lot, inching past cars that most people only ever dream of buying. On the open road, I finally loosened my tie and sank back into my seat.

“Sorry about the lack of introduction. Did Kelsey drag you out too?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said, “it’s fine though. She’s great.”

“Yeah, she is.”

“Where am I heading?” I looked at her. “For you, I mean—sorry, I totally forgot to ask.”

She hesitated, “Would you mind if we just drove for a little bit?” Then in a quieter voice, “I’m not really ready to be home yet.”

“No problem,” I said. “Help yourself to the radio; passenger has DJ status.”

“Okay,” she said.

We drove on in silence for a couple minutes before she reached over and tuned the radio to an oldies station.

“I’ve got a place I like to go and sit when I want to be alone,” I said, staring out the windshield. “We can go be alone together if you want.”

She was quiet for a long comfortable moment.

“I think I’d like that,” she said.

***

Twenty minutes later, I’d backed my truck onto a dune overlooking the ocean. I pulled a blanket from under the back seat, and she followed me to the bed of the truck. Sitting there side by side, the gray sands ran away from us into the curve of the ocean, the waxing gibbous washing it all in an otherworldly glow.

I don’t know how long we sat, but the moon had moved a good hand’s breadth toward the black line of the horizon before she spoke.

“Kelsey made me come to that party because tomorrow . . . or, today I guess, is the anniversary of my divorce.”

I didn’t say anything. It’s always taken me a long time to think of something to say, and then more often than not I usually just say it to myself. Besides, there’s no correct response to something like that. I didn’t turn, but I felt her staring far away into the water.

“Do you ever wish you could stop time?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said.

She sighed, a quiet sound, almost drowned in the whish of the whispering surf. I don’t know if she even heard it herself.

“Just enjoy it,” I said, “tomorrow’ll be here soon enough.”

Her head was resting against the back of the truck, but she cut her eyes toward me and smiled. She had a beautiful, tired smile—the kind of smile that was finding it increasingly hard to get up in the morning.

“It’s hard to let people go, even when they’re gone,” she said.

I nodded then looked back out to sea.

“Do you think he ever really loved you too?” I asked.

She pulled her knees up to her chest, rested her chin on them, “Sometimes I wonder about that . . . but rarely more than twenty times a day.” She forced out that deep breath of a laugh again. “I don’t know why I’m dumping this on a complete stranger.”

I shrugged, “Sometimes the right person’s just in the right place at the right time.”

“I don’t know,” she said. She turned and looked right at me then. I could feel the weight of it.

“You have this . . . I don’t know . . . this cosmic sadness about you, like there’s someone way down deep in there—someone safe. Do you ever let people in?”

“I try not to,” I held her eyes for a few moments then offered a rusty smile of my own.

“What would it look like if you did?” she asked.

“Maybe I’m too scared to find out. Maybe they’d see me for the fraud I am,” I said.

She pursed her lips, thinking. Still staring at me but not at me.

“Maybe that’s it: maybe we’re all just frauds.” Her eyes came back. I was still watching her, sensing I needed this moment—this answer—somehow. She looked like she was going to speak again but then nodded like she’d solved some puzzle that had lain unfinished for years on the back table of her mind.

***

The moon had set. Across the horizon a buzz of warmth glossed the sky. It was a moment when the construct of time disconnects from the spinning planet we call home, the hands of the clock stand motionless almost in disdain of the parameters we dare to impose upon them. The bleeding sky reeled up the sun, but there was a weightlessness—a moment—I will never forget as we sat side by side, and when I looked at her again, she had fallen asleep on my shoulder.

 

*Author’s note: I have to give credit to Stephen King, Wendell Berry, and the film Before We Go for their influence on this story and to Jake Sidwell’s music for keeping me company while I wrote.

She Sleeps

she-sleeps

She sleeps.

I sit and watch. She feels safe when I’m there with her. I know even though she’s never told me. It’s there in the tranquil way her body lies under the sheets.

The autumn breeze whispers through the screen. The purr of cicadas whirs in my ears.

Is it possible to be so infinitely happy? So at peace. So still. So at home with the love of your heart.

She is the one I love. I knew it the first moment I saw her—that coffee shop in late August two years ago: me lost in some worthless conversation on my phone waiting on my order, and then I . . . how do I explain it? I felt her near me. I felt her before I saw her. I turned, and we saw each other.

Is it possible to fall in love at first sight? Can I use that cliché? It is a cliché. I know that, yet, I have to use it. No other words will do.

She didn’t smile, not right away, but in those bottomless eyes, those turquoise infinities, I felt her reach out to me. And I fell for her like a tree struck by lightning in the thundering mountain storms. Struck dumb to my core. Scarred for life. Scarred with a love so deep, so endlessly exquisite.

In that sliver of time—that breath—so marginal, so meaningless in its length, I was undone.

I became hers.

She became mine.

She stirs. I caress a strand of raven hair from her brow. I feel it damp with sweat.

I step to the window and raise it a bit more. Yes, good. The breeze flows around me, embraces me.

I stand watching her. My heart pumps, throbs, thrums threatening to explode with a love that consumes me.

She moves, subconsciously leaning into the night’s coolness. The curve of her breast pushes into the sheet for a moment as she turns and nuzzles deeper into her pillow.

I sit on the edge of the bed and watch her. She needs her rest. She works so hard; I can see the strain in her eyes when she gets home from work, the way she composes herself in her car before coming into the house. She doesn’t know that I know.

But when she sleeps, I know all is well. She is safe. She is loved.

I kiss the top of her head. Softly. So softly. I will not wake her.

She squirms, twists, turns onto her stomach. Glistening black hair cascades across her pillow, her naked back flawless in the moonlight.

I feel the love in my heart washing against my chest, waves crashing on forgotten beaches responding to the haunting call of the moon.

She sleeps.

At peace.

Radiant.

Goodnight I whisper.

I let myself out quietly.

Her husband will be home soon.

Come On Home

pen and paper

I would’ve missed him except for the bachelorette party. I don’t spend much time down on Broadway. Too many people. Way too many people. The beacon lights outside of Bridgestone Arena draw the tourists like bugs—swarms and swarms of them.

I was fighting my way up toward the intersection at 5th when the girls came pouring out of Tootsies. Jean shorts, check. Tank tops, check. Boots, check. Official Nashville bachelorette party attire checklist complete. The one in front nearly ran me over—the maid of honor I guessed by the way she was shepherding the poor girl sporting the lacy BRIDE sash. She managed to redirect at the last second after ricocheting off of me.

“Mscuseme! I am sooo sorry!”

Two blonde girls bringing up the rear found this whole thing uproariously funny for some reason.

I took it in stride. Considering where I was, I deserved what I got.

“It’s fine,” I said.

Bachelorette parties. On Broadway. Like shooting fish in a barrel—you couldn’t miss ’em if you tried.

“Congratulations.”

The blonde twins laughed even harder. It was nice to see them enjoying themselves since they probably wouldn’t remember much the next morning judging by their complete lack of pacing.

It was only 8:30 in the evening.

I left them there, a pack of dizzy minnows fighting the river of life flowing around them.

At the crosswalk, I lost the light and settled in for another wait. Something red to my left caught my eye. Turning I saw an elderly gentleman. He was wearing a sunny yellow polo shirt tucked into neat blue jeans. The starched jeans sported razor-sharp creases breaking over blindingly white Nikes. On his head was a scarlet baseball hat with USMC VIETNAM VETERAN stitched in gold lettering above the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor crest. It was his hat that caught my attention, but what held it was the look on his face—a look of calm, the kind of look you’d get while staring out across the gulf at sunset while the sun bled away . . . a look of tranquility stumbled onto after years of searching. It was completely incongruous with the mayhem around us.

“Semper Fi.”

He turned and looked at me, and I saw his eyes coming back, coming back from wherever that peaceful place had been, and for a moment I wished I hadn’t spoken. I wish I’d left him out there . . . wherever there was. But the smile he offered put me at ease—a smile that all those mall variety Santa Claus’s would kill for, full of thrumming warmth and vibrant humanity captured in an old soul.

“And same to you.”

His voice was quiet, but it cut through the tinny cacophony around us.

I stuck out my hand, and he shook it. Before I knew what was I was saying, my mouth took on a rare initiative.

“Buy you a drink?”

He cocked a furry white eyebrow at me then nodded.

“Down here?”

“No. Let’s go someplace where we can hear ourselves think.”

***

We tucked ourselves into the corner booth, and after the waitress dropped off our drinks I made my confession.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I have no idea why I offered the drink. I know this sounds weird, but there was something about you that I saw, and . . . well . . . I wanted to know your story.”

He took a sip of his beer, “That’s good.”

“Told you. Locally brewed too.”

He raised his glass, and I clinked my bourbon against it.

“So what do you want to know?”

“I . . . I don’t know how to say this . . . when I met you, you had this look on your face—this look of peace that I rarely see in anyone, much less anyone on Broadway on a Saturday night.”

He smiled, “Nashville was a special place for us—my wife and me. I was remembering our last time here.”

“I’m sorry. Is she—“

“She passed away two years ago.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you. We had a great life together.”

“I’m sure she was a lovely woman.”

His eyes got that far-off look again, “She was. We loved to travel. We went all over the country.”

He pulled an old Rand McNally map of the United States from his pocket and spread it on the table. It was creased, worn, and covered with pencil marks: cities circled here, notes jotted there.

“This was our bible. After I retired, we took this map and made our wishlist of all the places we wanted to go.” He ran his fingers across the map touching city after city as he told me stories of where they’d been. When he touched Charleston, something in his pale blue eyes sparked.

“One of our favorites. Spent our honeymoon there, and when all was said and done, that’s where we settled down. That’s where—“ he trailed off. His eyes were wet and bright.

“You know what’s great about getting old? You can cry whenever you want and no one’ll say anything about it.”

I raised my hands, “Nothing to fear here.”

It’s just . . . sometimes memories come back all crystal clear like you’re actually re-living them and not just remembering them.” He glanced out the window, his voice fading away. “We made love on the beach. The night was perfectly black, and we just lay there after . . . . Wrote our names in the sand, then lay there looking up at the stars and feeling like we’d never get old.”

He traced the X, “Charleston was always my favorite.”

Looking back down at the map, he touched a few more X marks, and when he turned his face to me again, it was the face of a man haunted by ghosts of pain I knew I did not fully understand; I only knew that it was awful.

“I lost her before I lost her. Her mind, you see, it went early. I think that was the worst because she was still there, and when I looked into those hazel eyes of hers—those eyes that made you want to walk into fire and kill dragons for her—and I didn’t see her in there anymore . . . it was almost more than I could handle.”

He took another drink then whispered, “Sometimes it was.”

He looked up and I saw a desperation in his eyes that didn’t touch his voice, “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

I nodded.

I did.

***

I took a deep breath then knocked.

“Come in.”

Stepping into the room, I fought the claustrophobia clawing up the back of my throat. Grandma sat in the small chair to the left of her bed. Through the two windows, the late afternoon sun warmed the gold walls above her dresser—one of the few pieces of furniture she’d brought when she’d left her house to take up residence in the assisted care facility.

“Hi, Grandma, how are you?”

For a second I wasn’t sure if she remembered me, but then she lit up, and I saw the shadow of the woman I’d always known—the razor-sharp mind behind the English professor, the prolific reader, the only one in my family who read faster than me. And for a few minutes we got to talk, and she was there, really there. But then I saw the light go dim as something in the back of her mind reached up and pulled the blinds.

She sat silently twisting her hands in her lap.

“Are you married?”

There it was.

I said no. I said no to my grandma who’d sat at my wedding in her flawless green dress, fur stole, and diamonds. The lady who exuded effortless class. The lady who now looked at me with empty, childlike eyes.

She pointed her finger at me—the timeless way she had of demanding absolute attention—and said, “Well, you find a good girl. Okay? You find a good one.”

Somewhere in my chest my heart crawled away into a dark corner.

I told my head to nod.

“Okay, grandma. I will.”

***

She would write poems.”

He was swishing the dregs of his beer round and round in his glass. “She would write poems when she had her clear moments. Sometimes not more than a few lines, sometimes she’d fill a page . . . it all depended on how long she was there. Once, she’d been gone for almost a week, and I was losing my mind, just losing it you know? I needed her . . . I needed her.”

He touched the map again almost as though the memories captured in the pencil scrawls gave him strength. “I came in and saw her with the pen in her hand. I could tell she’d just finished writing. I ran. I ran to her, but when I turned her around her eyes were already empty.”

He pulled out his wallet and extracted a tiny piece of yellow paper. Once he unfolded it, I saw it wasn’t yellow; it just looked that way. It had been folded and unfolded countless times until the original white paper had faded into a dusky yellow. The fold marks were nearly translucent.

He placed it on the table between us. Even though it was warm in the bar, I felt a cold hand slide down my spine as I read the beautiful, looping cursive—

Listen
For it is in those moments
Of deepest silence
I often scream
Loudest.

His hands trembled as he slid the paper back into his wallet then gulped the rest of his beer. “I almost went crazy when I read it . . . think I would have if she hadn’t written another one.”

“So she did write another one?”

“Yes. One.” He pointed at his wallet where he’d replaced the slip of paper.

“She wrote it three weeks later.” That horrible ghost crossed his face again. “Those weeks . . .” he trailed off.

“But we don’t need to talk about that. What matters is the last one.” The smallest hint of a smile touched his eyes. “But that one’s just for me.”

He faded off. Away out there again. I hated to interrupt, but I wanted to know.

“So why Nashville?”

He looked up, and I could see the young man deep inside him—the one lying on the beach tangled together with his hazel-eyed girl watching her eyes shift to green in the darkness. I saw the iron-edged strength at the pale edges of his blue eyes.

“When she wrote her last poem, we had a couple hours together—a couple hours where I had all of her. And she held my face like she’d do when she wanted to make sure I was paying attention, and she got real close—almost nose to nose—with those eyes of hers pulling me in, and she said You go on out there; you take our map, and you go way out there, and when you’re ready—when you’re really ready—then you come on home.

And so that’s what I did. I’ve been all over revisiting our favorite places and waiting for something—I’m not sure what. I just knew I’d know when I finally found it.”

He exhaled.

“I found it tonight.”

Folding the map in his cracked hands, he caressed it—a lover’s note that had whispered in his ear for maybe a little too long. As he slid it into his pocket, a weight seemed to slide from his shoulders. The last tiny cog in the maze of his soul fell into place, and with it, a small piece of himself that no longer needed chasing.

“I think I’m gonna go on home now.”

He nodded to himself, “Yeah. Yeah, I think so.”

He stood, and I watched him go, a small, hard man pushing through the door and out into the big night.

 

*Author’s note: I saw this man while I was driving through downtown. I couldn’t get his face out of my mind, and that’s where this story grew from.

Written while listening to Augustines “Walkabout.”

Splinters

splinter tree

He collapsed onto the bench beside me.

“You’re early.”

I nodded.

He sat for a moment soaking in the last of the September sunset; away to our left the sun ignited the sky, washing everything with a warm, pulsing glow. The traffic down the hill below us flowed along with its undercurrent of beeps and the throttled thrum of downshifting tractor trailers.

“How are you today?”

He laughed—or at least something that passed for a laugh.

“You know, you’re about the only person who asks that. Normally it’s you good . . . how are you . . . I’m so sorry.” He shook his head, “I never really know what to say, so I don’t say anything much more than I’m okay . . . I’m fine . . . thanks for asking. It’s like they’re embarrassed to talk about it.”

“It’s tough to know what to say.”

I pulled my flask out of my jacket and offered it to him. He took it without looking, unscrewed the cap scree scree and took a pull.

“You know the hardest one I get? When they say you’ll meet someone else, don’t you worry, such a great guy like you, just you wait, when you least expect it. What if I don’t want to meet anyone else?”

He twisted the cap back and forth scree scree scree.

“Is that wrong?”

I shook my head, “No.”

“I mean, the people who say that, maybe they just experience love on a different plane from me.” He took another swallow, coughed. “I can still remember the first time I saw her. Fifteen years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday, and it wasn’t love at first sight—I don’t believe in that—but it was something. I knew there was something about her—this blonde, green eyed creature who’d stepped out of some fairy tale and cracked the foundation of everything I thought I knew about life. She didn’t even notice me—there were hundreds of people around—but I couldn’t stop staring at her. I knew I had no chance. And then she actually said yes . . .”

scree scree scree

“I remember what she wore on our first date, that green sweater . . . her favorite color . . . man, the way it made her eyes crack . . . I don’t think I tasted one thing I ate that night. I couldn’t stop staring at her. I was afraid it was a joke, like the maître d’ was going to come up during the middle of our appetizer, tap me on the shoulder, and say I’m so sorry, sir, but there’s been a mistake. The lady’s real date just arrived. It’s time for you to go. And then some James Bond deal would walk up, take my glass of wine, and smile while the hostess showed me out the door.

Do you know what it’s like to be so out of your league you feel like you’re drowning? all the time? That’s the way I felt with her. Always. Like I was drowning. It hurt to breathe sometimes.”

scree scree

“Still does.”

A big rig hit its jake brakes and grumbled down the hill, the rumble reverberating around us. He turned to look at it then looked down at the flask like he’d forgotten he was holding it. Passed it back to me. The bourbon was good, the warm bite crawled down my throat.

“I know that look, you’ve got something rolling around in that brain. You can say it.”

I took another swallow, “Okay, I see it this way: I don’t think we look back at the past with rose-colored glasses simply because of how good the past was, but rather because we think about all the pain we’ve been through in the interim, and we realize that that past version of ourself hasn’t experienced that pain yet. We want to keep them always as happy and unscarred as they were back then.

I know that doesn’t make you feel any better. She’s gone—it was out of your control, is what I’m trying to say—and unfortunately, life’s instruction manual is pretty cut and dried: Pain Included. No Refunds. Thanks for Playing.” I shrugged, “Whether we like it or not.”

His voice climbed, a hard edge tinging it, “But just because she’s not in my life anymore doesn’t mean she’s gone from here.” He tapped his temple with two fingers. “Just last week I was at the mall, I was gonna buy a watch. I was at the counter, you know, just looking and all of a sudden I felt like she was behind me. I smelled her. That perfume she wore— I knew if I turned around she’d be standing behind me looking at me with those eyes. I froze. It was so real. I just stood there waiting for her to slip up behind me and rest her chin on my shoulder and whisper hey you watcha doing . . . I knew it was her, but I knew it wasn’t at the same time. This girl steps up beside me and it’s all I can do not to fold in on myself and go to pieces right there in the middle of the damn store. That girl had no idea when she put on that perfume that morning . . . she had no idea what she’d do to me . . .”

He grabbed his head with both hands, “There’s this splinter of her in here.”

Of course there is. And it might take years before it works itself out to a place where you can finally grab it, pull it free. Put it to rest.”

He closed his eyes, whispered, “Dammit it hurts.”

“I know it does. Splinters always do.”

He rubbed his eyes, leaned back and looked across to the dying horizon before pulling a package out of his jacket. With a quiet exhale he unrolled it on his lap, the paper shaking in his hands.

“Can I get one more hit of that?”

He took the flask, rubbing the worn leather with numb fingertips.

scree scree scree

“Daisies.”

He nodded.

scree scree

“She loved those,” I said.

He knelt and laid them alongside the marble headstone.

“Yeah. She did.”

The First Time – a short story

hands

I drove. You DJ’d. We made that deal on our third date.

But that night—the one I’m talking about—was our ninth. We hiked out to the bluffs to watch the sunset, remember? And then I got us turned around in the woods for a second because it got dark way before I thought it would . . . idiot, I know.

But it was the drive back. You remember—driving with the windows down, the summer air howling around us, tearing down those sleepy back roads with your fingers in my hair, and you were already falling asleep.

I loved how you could never stay awake on trips. It was like magic: you’d be amped to go—trail mix, carrots, water bottles, playlists—and twenty minutes later, lights out. Done. But the second I parked, you’d wake up. It was kinda freaky honestly. And you were always so sweet, ’cause you’d apologize and say you’d never do it again, and just wait until next time, I promise and I’d laugh and promise you right back that it was okay, really, and you’d get that bummed out look like you were mad at yourself, and I’d fall for you again so hard it felt like someone chopped me off at the knees. Then I’d hug you really hard, and tell you one more time it’s okay shut up, and you’d grin up at me and finally believe me.

You fell asleep that night slumped over the console leaning on my shoulder. I remember I could still smell the shampoo in your hair mixed with the musk of the day while the cicadas whirred and sang. It was intoxicating. I never ever remember being that happy. I thought if I could just keep that moment, keep it forever, I’d be the luckiest guy in the world. You can’t plan stuff like that. I mean, maybe some guys can, but I’ve never been able to. I’m the guy that gets turned around in the woods, but for some reason every time I showed up and asked you out, you’d cock your head in that funny way you do. And you’d say yes.

I still don’t know why.

Maybe I’m just that lucky.

I remember you were sleeping so hard that your breaths got to that point where I started wondering if maybe you weren’t really breathing anymore, you know, because there’s just that super long pause between each one, almost like you were unconscious, you know? And I realized that you trusted me. You trusted me to keep you safe, to get you home. And this warmth just filled me up inside, and it was so hot I just thought I was gonna explode. My heart hurt—it actually hurt. It felt like someone was squeezing it in two. I wanted to do anything to feel that pain for as long as I could, so I drove right by your exit. I drove by it because I knew the moment I pulled in your driveway you’d wake up and it’d all be over: your head on my shoulder, the breeze, the cicadas, the smell of your hair—all over. And I couldn’t do it. I needed more time. I had to have more time. And so I drove and I drove, and that’s when I knew . . . that’s when I really knew.

I love you.

I said it. I said it out loud. I said it that night while you were sleeping. It was the first time I said it to you. I don’t know why I never told you. I think part of me still feels like that night was a dream: driving while the stars spun away into the horizon, and the wind howled, and you kept on sleeping warm on my shoulder. I think I felt like if I ever tried to explain it to you, it wouldn’t have made sense, but now it does. It makes sense. Because I needed one last story for you.

I needed one last story for me.

I needed one last story for us . . .

***

“. . . that was the first time I said ‘I love you.’”

Her breaths came in ragged wheezes with a long pause between each one, a super long pause where you began to wonder if she really were breathing anymore. Almost as if she were unconscious. Almost.

“Are you ready?”

The voice floated down from somewhere far away.

He looked across at the white coat with the kind, forgettable face.

He looked at the machines.

He looked at her.

He looked at her sleeping there. Knowing he couldn’t wake her. He would never wake her again.

It was her exit. And this time he couldn’t drive by.

He leaned his head on her shoulder, closed his eyes, and nodded.

-ijs

*author’s note: written while listening to The National – “Hard to Find”

Just Coffee – a short story

coffee

It was that time of the afternoon when it’s still okay to wear sunglasses inside. No one looks at you like who’s that dude think he is.

I sip my coffee. Look at my watch. Look at the door for the twentieth time in five minutes. Tell myself I’m not nervous, why should I be nervous, there’s nothing to be nervous about and why the hell did I pick this table—

She walks in. Walks in like she owns the place. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not pretentious. It’s just who she is. You know those people who walk in a room and everything stops for like this millisecond? There’s an infinitesimal shudder in the air, and you convince yourself it’s nothing because how do you explain that? It doesn’t make sense. And you’re right—it doesn’t make sense. It’s just the way things are.

I watch her for that moment before she sees me—that fraction of a moment before her guard goes up, before she becomes the person she is now.

The moment—that fraction—is gone almost before I recognize it.

She waves.

My legs move beneath me. I’m walking toward her.

Unplanned. Unplanned. Sit back down.

We watch each other from behind mirrored lenses.

I lean in. Kiss her on the cheek. It’s normal. She’s wearing the same perfume. It’s five years ago . . . .

Get it together.

“Just let me grab a coffee?”

“Sure.”

I sit. Why the hell did I pick this table? Pull out my phone. Put it back in my pocket. Adjust my glasses. I unconsciously rub my eyebrow STOP IT.

She sits. Smiles.

I want to say you look amazing. Tell me everything that’s happened. Tell me about the last three years. Tell me where you’ve been and do you remember? Do you remember everything? And a razor sharp memory: lying on the hood of the Jeep watching the fireworks, wrapped in a blanket because it was a cold July, and how she’d had the hood of her sweatshirt pulled way up over her head so only the tip of her nose was sticking out, and how I leaned over and kissed her under the sonic explosions, and it was like kissing ice, and how she started laughing and couldn’t stop, and how we both almost fell off but I caught her at the last second, and how her bag left a lightning bolt-shaped scratch on the Jeep—

Be smooth.

“So how are you?”

Smooth.

She smiles—that easy, relaxed smile. The room shudders again.

She’s good. We talk. She tells me about the last three years, and I sit and watch her, and it’s easy—easier than I’d hoped. The sun reflects off her glasses and it’s hard to imagine that her eyes haven’t gone gold. And then I’m tipping back my cup, standing for a refill, reaching to take hers habit and catch myself at the last second, she laughs, pushes it toward me, smiles.

The walk to the counter is somehow easier. I can’t tell exactly what’s changed. Hand the cups over, wait, wait, realize I still have my glasses on, take them off, grab the coffees, turn, and see her sliding her glasses into her purse.

I set the cups down.

“Thanks.”

“For what?”

I push her coffee across. She looks out at the sunset. The light hits her just the way I remembered, her eyes glimmering sunset on the beach, the salt taste —

“I don’t know . . . for inviting me. I wasn’t sure—“ She takes a drink, looks directly at me. “I didn’t know what you wanted.”

Careful.

“This.”

“This?”

“Yes.”

“That’s all?”

I nod.

She squints. I squint back the same way we used to do when one of us would be keeping a secret—the famous staring contest. Surprises rarely worked with us.

“I wanted to see if you were good.”

She tucks her hair behind her left ear the way she always does when she’s buying herself a second.

“I am.” She nods, “I really am.”

“Then my work here is done.”

She reaches across and touches my hand. Another shudder.

“You know I have infinite tenderness for you.”

The sun is gone. Nothing but clarity in those eyes.

“And I always will.”

I want my glasses. But I sit. I sit and look at her and see what truth looks like, and in the moment she releases my hand she releases something else in me—something no number of sleepless nights, benders, tortured miles, and crumpled diary pages could ever give—myself.

Free.

I am free.

***

I sip my coffee. Look at my watch. Look at the door for the twentieth time in five minutes. Tell myself I’m not nervous, why should I be nervous, there’s nothing to be nervous about.

-ijs