Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.
Barbara Kingsolver, "The Poisonwood Bible"
You see, I could have saved you then, when all was still in order and you were selfish and painstakingly beautiful. Your hair was still yellow-brown and choppy, your fair eyes illuminated. I saw nimble fingers, your unencumbering disorderliness Music was leaking from your core; you sang and your voice was abrasive and severe and true. This is my undeniable testimony: you had soul, you had some sort of genius, you could feel more intensely than I ever will.
Your testimony: those were the days, I was addle-brained and foolish and utterly in love. I disagree with the former because I've seen your mind take a downfall since your withdrawal. You're wiser, more mature and less creative. You can't think the way you used to, in the days when your mind took eccentric detours around every day subjects. This was the time when dreams were worth their weight in gold; which is to say nothing, other than romance and airy thoughts. Have you ever known anything as deeply as you once knew things? Sensibility is useful but the side effects are insurmountable. The world is not round; it is flattened at the poles and its supposed emerald green is dulled by brown. I oftentimes wonder whether you still have your emeralds beneath the brown.
Remember this: the last of the autumn butterflies clinging to hot bricks; noxious grey smoke rising eerily from the sewer grate; the song of noise emanating from weekday traffic. You stop at a street corner and hold her because she's cold. Always bare arms, always impractical. She kisses you. I didn't know how she tasted, but you did; I can only imagine the slide of her saliva, the odour of lipstick, click of her teeth against yours. Your jacket wasn't long for this world, nor was it seeing its better days. The black vinyl had already cracked and brittle threads waved from the worn out seams. This is why you are cold and she is too. April in October, like a tulip glazed with frost.
I knew what you did at night. I wasn't stupid or ignorant. But somehow, I couldn't stop you, not even when you came home bruised, with soda can scars across your thin red lips and daze in your eyes. Could I have stopped you, if I tried? Perhaps not. You were a loud, wilful, stubborn kid. You know I tell the truth, or at least parts of it. This is my sin; half-truths, details purposefully not acknowledged. It's a skill that I fine-tuned during your stints with some of the choicer opportunistic infections. Imagine me with my hands over my eyes and cloth in my ears. If I don't see it, the world won't, and everything will be fine.
You don't blame me for not fixing you because you know you can't. Anyone will say to me, if you loved him, why didn't you? But you are so indebted to me you can't criticize me at all, even when I deserve. I do have an answer for those who ask The Question: I didn't choose not to save you because I didn't love you. I let you be, simply because. This is what happened; this is what we cannot fix. Somehow, I had just the faintest inkling, merely a whisper in the dark, that some events cannot be changed. You can fault me— you more so than anyone—but here is my confession. You experienced everything the hard way and perhaps I never could have taught you if you hadn't learned through falling.
What I miss about you: the clutch of your cool hands, you—squinting in the sun, when you squeezed my shoulders all too tightly. Your smell, which was smoky and musty and tinged with sweat. I saw you in the snow shovelled thickly onto the grit of the Hudson. The river was weeping- I knew, because the dirt was seeping into the snow with wild abandon—almost as if it couldn't bear the pain of some aquatic heartbreak. Imagine me, bundled in fleece and melted snowdrops, sobbing on the ferry. That's your legacy.
I knew that you'd die in the winter. That was your style—it was a miserable, air-conditioned, teal-and-white summer cooped up inside achingly long hallways and your various rooms. What I remember most, strangely enough, is your window blinds pulled down tightly, so you could sleep. Also, the nearly broken vending machine spitting out sodas with a metallic tumble and thud…and me sneaking toilet-paper-tissues from your little bathroom. You were sleeping with the rhythmic beeps of your ventilator and I read magazines in the shadows, squinting painfully to make out tiny black letters from within the dark. You woke up fitfully and saw the glowing line of sunlight from beneath the windowsill—I was backlit and silhouetted. You didn't notice me there.
That was my June and July and August—creeping outside furtively to rub my face in the bright day glow and buy a fifty cent ice cream cone. You can't buy them that cheap anymore. I learned how to change your squishy IV bags and plug you into a variety of intimidating machines. I learned how to stay up all night on the last dregs of coffee and crumpled Village Voice. I learned to rub your shrunken feet as tenderly as I could- that's what we did at night, when it was cooler and I was patient.
You told me once that I was strong, so strong. I didn't know what to say- this was too hard, too sad, too fast. We were in my room at home—one of your choppy, short visits before being dragged back to the hospital—and you were collapsed on the bed, hair tangled and your eyes gleaming with feverish glassiness. This was October, almost the end but not quite. And you said you couldn't do what I had done and all I could think, while gently combing your matted, sweat-drenched hair, was that I could never have gone through what you went through. Isn't that strange…we are our own worst critics, I suppose. After I changed your catheter you fell asleep. That's all.
We had a small memorial service marking the tenth anniversary the year of your death. At your funeral, I felt as if you were there- watching, weeping, carrying on the way some of us were. But I didn't sense your presence this time around. More than anything, I felt as if you were not at all aware of this little memorial—you didn't know or perhaps didn't care. We had a few photographs of you scattered around—you blinking, grinning hugely, posing or trying to avoid the photographer (mostly me). It occurred to me how dated the pictures were. My god, Roger, you've been dead for ten years. You would have been forty now. I met you when you were nineteen.
Could you love me anymore? Could you love me if I saved you but I hadn't cared for you? Our best years together—no, they weren't, as you liked to believe, your healthy years. Our closest moments were snuck in between death and disillusion. We cheated your illness and stole hours away. I kissed your hairline and you fingered my collarbone from the ugly haven of a hospital room. You could only have had me. No one else was going to care for you.
Now. It's been a long enough time since I last saw you strike up a cigarette with uncharacteristic grace. Watching you smoke was my strange pleasure. And then leaning against your shoulder and touching your hot mouth—breath of tobacco and the yellowish pads of your fingers on my cheek. Sometimes I can taste you, smell you so precisely that I believe you're there. And other times you're a shadow on my past. You are someone who wanders through nighttime dreams like a ghost. I wake up and ask myself Where am I? Where have I been? Push the covers off, feel the sweat on my forehead and I think I've been speaking to somebody I haven't seen in a long time.
Oh, Rog, it's been such a very long time.
The first bloom of dandelions sprouting from the cracks in the sidewalk. The soft humidity in the air. The stillness of the rooftop night. Picture two people as black outlines against the blue haze. Smell the breath of the birds; taste the crunch of gravel. See how a skyscraper blocks the moon. This is how you feel; tired, cool, faintly sad and in love.
You curled your hand in mine. My chest rose and fell. We didn't sleep, not for half the night; we just sat and were. You said to me once that you had never appreciated the act of being. Well, there we were: being. You hardly stirred and if I cried I let the tears dry cool and sticky against my glasses. Imagine both of us, you the dreamer and me the skeptic; you the dying and me the living, just resting for this moment. Let this melancholy, magical night be your requiem. Hear the muted hymn of cars below. The sweet song of spring meandering through slender city trees and this: the faint pound of your heartbeat and all that was to come, whispering from the docile shadows below.