Author's Note: Hi everyone! It has been a very, very long time, I know. This is a demon I've had stirring around inside of me since I read Love in the Time of Cholera, and you'll definitely notice a lot of the same themes that run through Marquez's book in this piece. It's supposed to be kind of a little confusing, even dreamlike and ethereal, so I'm abandoning (to an extent) the hardcore realism I often take. I hope you enjoy it. It's different and a little crazy. I reference Neruda and Omar Khayyam often. The title is taken from a stanza of The Raven (Is there, is there balm in Gilead?).
Rating: M (sex, language)
Disclaimer: Not mine.
"Another Voice, when I am sleeping, cries,
'The Flower should open with the Morning skies.'
And a retreating Whisper, as I wake -
'The Flower that once has blown forever dies.'"
- The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Quatrain 28
Routine is the balm of the aged. He'd read that somewhere. A Proust short story, maybe, or a Wolfe novella . . . Sex Pistol lyrics . . . a Russian billboard . . .
Pain has been part of his routine for a long time. He has never liked to sink to his shoulders in self pity. He bore it with indifference for as long as he could, but defenses crumble and eventually he wasn't strong enough anymore and now he gets up in the morning and he smokes and his whole goddamn body aches.
To hell with it, he thinks. To hell with it all.
Sometimes the agony of it tastes sweet. Like alcohol that burns first. He hates that.
A magazine will want to do a piece on him every once and awhile. Mariano, the comet that whirled brightly and disastrously through the bowels of the literary world for a tongue trip of a moment, scattering a bitter but disturbingly familiar taste in his wake.
He has become an exhibit. A display that unsettles people just enough to put him behind the glass of the past, to ask him if he wants to buy a house in Cape Cod or which presidential candidate he's voting for. It amuses his and annoys him; he supposes if he cared enough it would drive him mad, but so it goes.
So to speak.
He lies still on his bed at night, fully clothed, watching lights dance on the ceiling. It is loud in Sao Paolo, louder than Manhattan ever was, throbbing and splitting at the seams with a culture that is different but the same because the bottom is the same everywhere.
But he closes his eyes and he sees her, eternally youthful, her hair upswept with flowers, and the wings of golden butterflies brush his face.
He loses himself in gardenias.
He has, he figures after consideration, always loved her.
Everyone needs a tragic flaw.
He wonders if he was hers. But life doesn't fit together so perfectly, and he doesn't think so.
For a long time he saw a redhead named Emma who illustrated children's books in Chicago. They met when she was a grad student at Shimer, and although he tries he can't for the life of him remember who the hell introduced them to each other. Probably a mutual publishing contact, or maybe they were just in a bar together. She would paint in the mornings, glorious and naked in the corner of his room, and he could feel nothing except a kind of vague uneasiness, like he was waking up in a place he didn't know.
She never asked him for anything. He figures that was a damn good coincidence. He could never find anything to give.
Eventually she became the other universe for him, the what-might-have-been or some shit like that, the almost-enough. She tasted like memory in his mouth, like at some time she might have belonged. But she never did belong. And they both understood. He thinks she may have loved him, but she loved him in the passive way that is not the love he knows, and although he visited her on and off for forty years there are a million other names that blend together from the same time. They burn dimly in the mists of his past and they have no form.
She died last summer. She had breast cancer.
He sat with her in the hospital, watching each descending beat on the LCD carry her a little farther away from him. He remembers thinking that he wanted her somewhere else, anywhere else other than the tiny room with artificial flowers from her co-workers standing stale on the windowsill and her sister's three-day old Hallmark card leaning against the lamp and the smell of decay and iodine making it impossible to breathe.
He thinks of that now while he washes his face with a trickle of yellow water that comes out of the tap. The mirror is tarnished and he needs to shave.
He thinks of that now, sitting next to Emma last summer while she died, with her shiny sheet of glossy red hair faded to patches of silver on her pale skull. He thinks, only now, that he may have loved her after all.
In a different way. In a way that maybe worked.
But he can't be sure.
He gets bitter Brazilian coffee at an open market every morning. He never used to drink coffee, but as much as he would like to say it is an unconscious memorial to her, a toast to their past that he has carried with him through the life he has spent without her, he doesn't think so. Everyone needs a new vice now and again, and he had already collected all the others he could think of. Stop at Go. Pick up two hundred bucks. Now he has a full set.
How many fucking times can he try to explain that he doesn't know how to be sorry?
She walks barefoot outside, her golden hair tangled around her face. The white hem of her sleeveless gown is stained green with grass, because she has sprung from the depths of the earth. The air around her hisses. Her fingers curl in the graceful arms of a weeping willow and her feet are lost in moss.
"Do you love me?" He asks her. She is focusing reverently on the ground, her eyes combing each tangled root and rock, searching for some deferred dream whose texture she no longer remembers.
"I don't know you," she says. Her voice blends with the voice of the stream that runs before them, like a whisper.
"Did you ever love me?" He asks.
She considers this for a moment. He can smell the gardenias that bleed on her skin.
"Does it matter now?"
He doesn't answer. A golden butterfly perches on the heel of her palm.
"Do you love me?" She asks, without looking at him.
His body is tense, coiled with ancient electricity. There is the sweep of her arm, the nape of her neck, the hollow of her collarbones. She is the unknown contour of an unconquered land, foreign but somehow home.
"Yes," he answers.
She studies the butterfly and he studies her. The butterfly flutters away.
"Does it matter now?" She asks him again.
And again, he does not answer.
The last time he saw her was sixteen years ago, at a funeral. She said hello. She asked how he was doing. He shrugged. I'm not the one in the casket, he told her.
A lot of people came, she said.
He looked around, his hands in his pockets, his shirtsleeves rolled up. The white church was raised against a white sky. The ground was grey and the air still tasted like rain. He did not recognize anyone. He did not recognize himself. Age had hardened him, made his body lean and weathered, the shadow of a beard on his face silver and black.
Yeah, he said. Well. A lot of people went to the diner.
He wouldn't have liked all the flowers, she commented.
I wouldn't be too sure. He had curtains.
She smiled a ghost of a smile. The past was almost close enough to touch, straining its shape against the surface of the space between them, but almost close enough still meant far away and he knew it. He wanted to trace the lines on her face.
He licked his lips. How's . . . ?
My mom? She asked, always, always rushing forward to meet him. His fingers danced with a cigarette in his pocket.
She folded her arms, trying to hug herself. She was linear. She was dignified. She was beautiful. Her hair had lost its dimensions and mystery and devastation, and he knew she dyed it. He tried to tell her not to, that the raw essence of her was holy, but there were no words.
She's taking it pretty hard. Except to come to the funeral, she hasn't left the diner.
There was a pause. He knew that she was crying without having to look.
God. A heart attack. After everything.
He smiled with bitterness. No amount of carrot sticks could cancel out the effects of this crazy town, he said. He held up longer than I would have.
She didn't say anything. She didn't need to.
Her eighteen-year-old self sits on the edge of his bed, hugging her knees to her chest, her hands clasping her feet.
"If only you had said something sooner," she says. "Maybe something would have changed."
He mesmerizes the pools of moonlight that ebb and flow in the valleys of her skin. He does not think about touching her. His back is pressed to the headboard, his white T-shirt stained with Brazilian sweat.
"It wouldn't have," he says. He is smoking, and the smoke tangles in her hair.
"You were afraid to let me love you."
Her eyes are mournful. He wants to stay here forever.
"I should have been there. When they published you, when they abandoned you, when your mother overdosed, when Emma died. I should have been there."
He is silent for a moment as he takes another long drag. He thinks her wrist is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.
"You were," he says.
He wakes up and lies there for a moment, the cheap cotton blanket stuck to his skin.
She lives in his bones.
After all this time, he just wants a little damn peace.
But then again, maybe that's not it.
Rivulets of lukewarm water cascade down his back, beading in the hollow between his shoulder blades, plastering his wiry silver hair to his cheekbones. His body is knotted, weathered, hard; somehow he abused it too much, he guesses. It's like a rental that got banged up a bit, and he's a little worried about turning it in and having to pay restoration fees. But he'll manage.
Sixty-two years old.
In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
He goes down to the fisherman's wharf every so often to help Antonio move his shrimp to market. He slits one from every pod down the middle with his pocketknife and checks to make sure that the meat is good. The small ones that will be rejected by the old woman whose stall Antonio uses are thrown into a bucket where they will be set in traps as bait for bigger fish. In a city of skyscrapers and metros and busses, which raised him with the pavement from as far back as he can remember, he balances on an ancient schooner and feels salt blistering his lips.
He is old, he knows, or at least close, and his back hurts sometimes, or his leg will want to cramp, or his arms will ache. But he can move past it, move over it, propel himself beyond it. He is tough with age and circumstance. There is no rhyme or reason, really, and he gets paid in fish and beer. He thinks even Fitzgerald would have been fine with that. Kerouac might have gone into celestial asphyxiation with the romantic sadness of it all.
Of course, the beauty of the streets that Ginsberg enthused about is lost on him. He doesn't give a damn. He just can't stay still.
Every once and awhile he likes to feel the world slide out from under his feet.
He writes until dawn and then there are no words on the paper.
The thirty-year-old widow who lives in the flat below his comes up to knock on his door one Thursday night. He grew up speaking Italian and English but he picked up enough Spanish from New York for the musicality of Portuguese not to be completely lost on him, and his carefully selected phrases and stoic silence the rest of the time has convinced the building tenants that he is fluent. He thinks it is impossible to ever be fluent in a spoken language. It has always betrayed him.
She tells him that she made a flan for herself and her two-year-old son, who is sleeping now, thank God. He's been sick for a few weeks. Anyway, there was some extra left over and she was wondering if he wanted any.
He says nothing.
She bustles past him into his excuse for a kitchen. The bright orange stucco of the wall is garish in the dim light and her black hair dances around her musical face. She places the bowl she is holding on the plastic table and then turns to him.
Sir, she says.
Jess, he corrects her.
Hess. She cannot make the 'j' sound. Hess.
She takes his hand, places it over the clothed hill of her breast. Her honey skin gleams with sweat. She doesn't need to say anything and he is glad. He unbuttons the rough cotton house shirt that hangs off one delicate shoulder, the scoop of her fragile bones making bowls and hills in her body. He feels her chest heaving with fear, shaking like a dove or a leaf choked with color, and his fingers are gentle against the tender skin at the inside of her elbow, the expanse of her stomach. He knows she is afraid to trust the silence, but he assures her he will not break it. She is so tiny and she doesn't want to need but she does need and he understands.
Yes, he does, he thinks as he enters her. He does understand. He knows what it is like, the hunger to feel gloriously alive. And there are no words. They are bound deeper than words.
He has known loss, too.
She cries without sound. He pretends he does not see her tears as her fingernails break the skin of his back, as she pushes her body hard against his and pulls him closer, closer, closer, as her hair sticks to her face with sweat and he thrusts into her again and again. He pretends he doesn't remember what it feels like, the first time you fuck someone but are thinking about making love with someone else, the first aftermath. He pretends he doesn't know that she will sink into a corner of her two room apartment after she leaves with her shirt unbuttoned, her fingers stroking her wedding ring while she sobs her husband's name over and over and over into the back of her hand, so as not to wake her son.
Her name is Aitana. It means 'glory.'
Death be not proud.
He could still have twenty years left. Maybe thirty. And he wonders when the waiting process began, when it was simply a way of biding time. Perhaps his whole life has been biding time.
He wrote in teahouses in Mongolia, he set up a publishing company in Morocco and walked the streets of Paris. He is not sure who he was looking for, Ernest Hemingway or Albert Camus or Joan of Arc or God, but he did not find any of them on the flagstone streets and he left Europe because he needed dirt under his fingernails and the different textures of noise that he lost in London and Prague and Venice. He lived in Chicago for a long time. He worked menial jobs for a while, usually as a waiter or a bartender or a factory worker, and he still wrote and tried to publish things from other waiters and bartenders and factory workers. He took some classes at Northwestern but he had been right back when he was eighteen. Formal learning was ash in his mouth. It was a waste of money and an overdose of pretention and he figured he could just as easily tell himself what to read instead of some goddamn professor who fucked the blonde girl in the front after office hours.
Where would you like to go that you haven't yet? Emma asked him one time when he came back from Fez, the smell of Arabian markets and thick oils and suffocating spices still hot on his skin as she lay next to him in bed.
He was silent.
Come on, Jess. Where?
I don't know.
Just one place.
He shrugged. He picked at random. Sao Paolo, he said.
She propped herself on her elbow, this girl he couldn't love. Then you should go, she said. She wanted everything for him.
So he went.
He clips her stories out of the newspaper. She was a big editor at The San Francisco Chronicle up until a few years ago, and now she contributes columns now and then.
He gave her everything. She didn't want it. He figures that's the worst goddamn insult a man can get.
He was thirty-four when his father died in a car accident. He got a phone call from a woman with a thick Hispanic accent while he was living in Chicago. For once, Jimmy wasn't drunk. He was hit by a kid who was high on marijuana. The kid sustained minor injuries.
Who are you? He asked.
Marianna. His wife, for two years.
He sat there for what felt like a long time, leaning back in his chair and staring at the glowing screen of his laptop. It probably wasn't more than a few seconds.
What happened to Sasha?
There was a pause.
Your father and I have been together for a long time.
He knew. Sasha got sick of Jimmy, that's what had happened. He figured staying with a guy who owned a hot dog stand and suffered from commitment issues had to be the same as listening to your life drip away down a rusty faucet with plumbing problems. Eventually promises rot and hollow from the inside out.
He was his father's son.
Marianna told him when the funeral was. He acted like he cared. He told her he wrote it down.
In truth, he'd been leaving the space for "father" blank on forms for as long as he could remember.
He never told Luke.
He writes for a newspaper here, too. A local Socialist rag that's sold for fifty centavos and is read by students and a few radical intellectuals that live communally because they don't make enough money to eat. They call him velho, old man. They talk about how his writing weeps with love and blood and poetry.
But that's not true. That's what a novel is for. He's written those already. He writes about poverty, only what he is, not what he thinks. He doesn't have any thinking left. And if that's what he is, love and blood and poetry, fine.
They run O Libertador from the back room of a bar, with palm blinds and one press. He tries his hand at writing in Portuguese, fails, and returns to English. They are thrilled, these student intellectuals; they say he is widening their audience. After he hears this, he works three times as hard and masters written Portuguese. The point, he wants to tell them, is to reach the people he is writing about. No one else. It is to pull them together and given them something like identity.
He doesn't write about Aitana. He writes about a little boy without legs begging in the street, and how he moved the little boy so he wasn't stuck in a puddle. He writes in third person. Antonio's cousin publishes it.
What is the individual, really?
She traces the peeling surface of the plastic table in his kitchen. Her breath is the mist of the universe.
"Why did we never make love?" She asks him.
He takes a deep drag off his cigarette.
"You knew I was ready and you only tried when it wouldn't work. Why didn't you try, really?"
He watches the smoke pirouette around her in the sinuous curves of time. The orange embers fall to the floor.
"I was leaving," he says. "I didn't want to take that from you and leave."
Her eyes are moonshine. "You didn't know you were going to end up leaving."
He shakes his head. "I was always leaving," he tells her.
She considers this for a moment. She bites her lip so hard he expects to see blood but of course there is none. The floor curves upward for her slender feet.
"Did you ever think," she says, "that maybe it wasn't just up to you? That maybe everything is not up to you?"
No. No, he never did.
Being a martyr is the most selfish thing he has ever done.
It has been so long that he is afraid he will forget the symphony of her face. He doesn't remember a thousand other things.
He sees the obituary a few weeks after it's first released. The paper is in a Starbucks and he goes in there to find her stories every month or so.
It's in the front section. He reads the name once, and then he reads the name again.
He stares forward for a long moment. Then he stands up, carefully folds the paper, stashes it under his jacket, and walks out.
He shouldn't be thinking like this.
He knows he shouldn't.
But he always has taken the path of most resistance.
Newspaper Magnate Passes Away at 64.
Logan Huntzberger, media revolutionary and head of Huntzberger Corp., finally succumbs to liver cancer.
That's what it says.
He never knew they had a kid. He wonders how he missed it. There is a picture included in the story of the three of them, and they are in Paris; he recognizes the avenue and the river. She is bending to smile at a giggling boy who is trying to peer over a railing, his chubby fist tangled in the fabric of her dress.
He closes burning eyes as he lights a cigarette.
She's a mother. A mother. He tries to fold that into his definition of all she is, of eternity that is wrapped in the nape of her neck. He tries to envision her dropping her son off at daycare, teaching him how to drive, watching him go on a first date, graduate high school, go to college, maybe get married. He tries so hard, so hard. He studies the line of her hand in the picture that cups the soft curls covering the back of the boy's head. He wonders what it would have been like to listen to a child kicking in her belly, to see the ultrasound, to fight about different names from different books and eventually make up and kiss and have a life between them, a-him-and-her, to feel redemption a little.
Goddammit. He throws the paper into the corner and it catches a bottle of beer that crashes onto the floor. He does not move to pick it up.
He takes another drag and drops his head back against the wall, his free hand shaking as he grips the table. He tears his fingers through his hair. He hates himself for thinking like this. He hates himself, and he hates her, and he hates himself for wanting her to be happy.
Because through it all, he loves her.
He died from liver cancer. That does not come as a terrible surprise. No, not really. The memorial service was held at a massive local church, and he wonders if he was religious or if the funeral home was just too small to hold all the superficial well-wishers and a barn would have been out of tact.
They went on a honeymoon to Hong Kong, he remembers. Luke told him. It was combined with some business trip to buy out a public relations team recently freed from British reins.
He would have taken her to Morocco. He would have taken her to Peru, so she could run her hands over ruins of a people ten thousand years old. Mongolia, Moscow, Prague. He would have helped her pack a bag and throw together whatever money they could find and just go, go, go, go and forget how to stop, write until he bled, have sex in the streets of Venice, sleep under the stars in Argentina.
It doesn't work that way. She went to Yale and she set the world on fire and she forgot how his fingers fit in the spaces between hers and it doesn't work that way.
Whatever. It can all go to hell.
Life, he figures, goes on. It always has. That's not so damn bad after all.
Aitana works every day cleaning the rooms of rich Americans in a five star hotel miles away, in the ritzy tourist district that the people do not recognize. He sees her sometimes, leaving at five in the morning, her bones rigid beneath her skin, a kerchief tying the chaos of her hair back from her wild eyes. Her mother and her sister care for her son. They have been living with them now for almost five months, since he saw the newspaper article.
Instead of throwing Antonio's small shrimp aside to be used as bait, he stuffs them in a bag and takes them to his apartment complex. He leaves them on Aitana's doorstep without saying anything. He knows what it is like to be hungry.
She comes to him that night. No, she tells him when she sees the unease in his face. No, it has nothing to do with that. She begins to cry.
É bem. Eu entendo, he says. It's okay, I understand. I understand.
She clings to him and he knows she won't knock on his door again. He knows it as he fucks her. He knows she is slowly resigning herself to a sterile, empty, bitter widowhood tied fastidiously to earth by the thin threads of everyday things. He wants to save her but he isn't sure how. She cries in a language that has no words.
It's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
He shaves, feeling the thinness of his skin, the tightness of his lips. His eyes are darker now. He rubs the muscles that seize up in the back of his neck. He is practiced, careful. The cheap razor he uses that cost him less than is probably morally viable is steady in his hands. Glide, turn, glide. Glide, turn, glide. Glide, turn, glide.
He hears kids yelling on the street, playing soccer with a homemade ball. The throb of the electric fan in the flat below him makes the floor vibrate against his feet. Sunlight filters in, dirty and diluted, clawing with weedy fingers through the smog and smoke of the city.
He shaves fastidiously. He pulls on a T-shirt. He sits down at his table with a notebook he bought back in the States and a Bic pen. He doesn't know what to say. He doesn't know whether he should be fucking conciliatory, apologetic, sympathetic, caustic, which mask he should choose out of the many he has mastered. There's a son involved, and decades of silence and cancerous growth and confusion that somehow spawned out of a fountain mossy with purity. I'm sorry for your loss. If I can help you in any way let me know. He was always a jackass and you knew it. Do you love him now? Can you love him now that he's gone? Isn't that the way you work? Isn't it, dammit? Isn't it?
Her hair glides over the palm of his hand. He wraps it around his wrist, buries his face in it. He wants to die with her in a field of clover. There is no I-am-so-sorry-so-so-sorry. There is no hope. No future and no past and no present. There is only her and the curve of her hair.
He is savage and solitary, but he will not pretend. He is too alive.
He writes: "With them the seed of Wisdom did I sow, / And with my own hand wrought to make it grow; / And this was all the Harvest that I reap'd - / I came like Water, and like Wind I go."
He sends it to her mother.
His ribs show through his weathered skin. Once you find Atlantis you can't come back again.
He gets an answer the same day he gets the figures from Truncheon in Philly. They expanded into New York and Chicago before he was thirty and then he left to start up an international sister publishing house so they could get their fingers in far away markets. Or at least that's what Chris and Matt told him. In reality, he thinks they could hear his blood boiling and they knew that they would lose him if they didn't let him move, goddammit.
Chris died thirty-one years ago. Some trigger-happy son of a bitch tried to steal the shitty Ambassador at a red light and, when Chris wouldn't give up his friend's car, they shot him in the face at point blank range.
Yes. Civilized America.
He was in the city then for a few months before heading out on another European tour. He remembers going to the scene when he got the call, and he remembers the blood and tissue and organic matter splattered like paint across the seat, and he remembers envisioning her in the passenger seat in her school uniform, her face caked with red.
He threw up in a sewer grate that day.
But Matt kept the publishing house going with the tenacity of a man who never really has understood reality, and it flourished under his well-guided, albeit shaky, hand. They left Chris' room just the way it was when he died. To his knowledge it still hadn't been touched, even now that Matt was married and living in the suburbs with two and a half grown children like every middle-class white guy they used to hate.
I can't drink this anymore, he said after Chris was murdered. I just can't drink this.
But that had been reality for a long time. It was nothing new. Liz overdosed a couple of years later, leaving a teenage daughter without a mother, a lost kid much like he had been. But for years Liz had been putting on the façade of happiness and family and shooting up alone in the bathroom at night, so Doula and TJ didn't know what the hell hit them. They weren't self-sufficient, they hadn't been taught to rely outside of her, to live in spite of her. He always knew and so when she died he felt no pity, only a final vindication of no intensity and no surprise. He was the only one who knew her and he also knew that the last thing she would have wanted was to be carted back to Stars Hollow and buried in the ground she had tried and failed so hard to escape. But he said nothing. She wrote him off before he was old enough to color in the lines so he let Luke put her where he wanted. Doula and TJ vanished into some town in the Midwest, and the last he heard, she was pregnant at seventeen.
That was life. He didn't question it.
And this is, too, he thinks, holding the non-assuming envelope in his hands. He presses the ink where she has printed his name so hard it stains his thumb. It has been too long, and he had forgotten what her handwriting looked like. He has forgotten so many things, dusty with age, bent with neglect, warped with years, sleeping comfortably in his ribcage, groaning at being moved after decades of lying dormant. This is life too.
Brazil. I wasn't surprised.
I looked for you at the funeral. You weren't there. I don't know if I would recognize you.
You don't age to me.
She leans out his window in the rain. There is no glass pane, and the shutters are thrown open. Newspapers and full notebooks are getting damp, their thin leaves sticking to each other, pages beginning to run. A piece of pottery holds clumps of wet ash and one still burning cigarette. The rain sprays onto the floor and splatters her bare feet. Her hair is sticking to her forehead, her lips, her neck. Her face is turned up to yellow clouds saturated with city and irony.
He wants to say something. He doesn't know what.
Don't, she tells him. Don't. She turns and moves toward him, her white dress transparent in the rain, her skin gleaming like mother of pearl. Just listen.
To what? He asks her. He studies the lines of her face. She wears a look of childish wonder. She reaches out one white hand to touch him, but she is not close enough. He can almost taste the resinous honey of her breath.
Can you hear it?
She shushes him.
And then he does hear it. He hears it and she smiles. He hears the warm, full beating of her live heart.
Fleshing out a ghost is a painful process, he is realizing.
They begin writing back and forth once a month or so. He tells her about the city, about its festivals, its people, its pain, its sounds and textures and tastes and smells, the percussion he feels interfering with the pulse of his blood. He wants her to breathe it in because she is not with him.
She tells him little antidotes about Hartford, where she has lived for a decade. She doesn't mention her home or Stars Hollow. Her son, she says, is out in Arizona. He quit med school and now he teaches English to new immigrants. He just got back from working in Honduras.
She sounds so proud, and a little bitter with regret.
He tells her, offhandedly, that they're old, they're not dead. What he means is this:
Each second is a lifetime.
They have been silent for many years and now the raw essence of time is something very much alive in both of their brains. Time is the plant that never blossoms, but secretly opens its perfumed flowers at night when the world is asleep. Time dribbles through their fingers like sand, like oil, impossible to hold. Time is fleeting, and so she's the one who first brings it up.
I loved you, she says. He was good to me, but I loved you. And I shouldn't have.
That always scared the hell out of him. It still does now.
I don't know, he says. I don't know, but I never meant it. The whole time.
His books are in vogue now with the collegiate crowd, she writes. Everyone has that second when they wake up to an awe-full world that is so terrifyingly cold and dark and lonely, so infinitely tender and infinitely gentle and infinitely suffering, so beautiful and sad and beyond comprehension, that they have to hold themselves together with their hands, they have to learn how to live with a void and a mystery inside of them for the rest of their lives. In his books, he shrugs to all of existence and they want to do that, too.
No one should ever want to do that, he says.
But they do. They want to talk to you. When I go in to talk to classes, you come up all the time. You, the recluse author who disappeared.
I can't be reached for comment, he tells her.
She doesn't write back for half a year. He accepts this. He is not patient, but the raw nerve endings that used to be exposed naked through his skin for the whole world to shock have faded.
It is what it is. He knows he loves her regardless, dammit. He has tried to stop and he can't.
He finally gets her letter one day. He waits until he is home with a cigarette and a mixed tequila drink to open it with a knife he carries on him all the time. He cleans it first because he also uses it for Antonio's shrimp.
Tanner found out that we were writing, she says. He was upset. I didn't want to make him upset. They didn't get along well, but he loved his father very much. I stopped writing because I wanted to keep him happy, I thought I could, he's my son, he means everything to me.
The flow of her pen pauses. He can see her biting the tip, hesitant. She goes on.
But there are some things he just doesn't understand. And one of them is that his happiness is not contingent on me. I hope he realizes this someday. I hope he grows up. I'm inching ever closer to death, and I don't have time to wait. Life screwed us over because we were too young, and now it wants to do it to us again because we're too old. I want to tell life to fuck off.
He grins when he reads that.
You've never used that word before, have you? He asks. She is seventeen again, with blue eyes that swallow him whole and feet that turn inward when she is uncomfortable. Say it out loud. Tell life to fuck off.
He hears her voice for the first time in sixteen years from a friend's cell phone.
A balm in this dry, foreign Gilead. He closes his eyes and presses his forehead against the rough stucco wall.
God, I miss you.
He waits uncomfortably. He's never been a big fan of waiting, and it's like a goddamn sauna out here. The button-up cotton shirt he shrugged on this morning hangs loose around his body, allowing the sticky breeze to stir against his skin misted with sweat. He's carrying his glasses in his pocket. He still doesn't like to wear them. He doesn't want to see the world in mediation.
The minutes tick by. He plays with a cigarette pack in his hands, trying to keep the rest of his body as still as possible. He's good at it. His tense muscles, ready to spring, do not move. A man selling spiced sausage keeps calling out to him, but he gives no sign of hearing. A girl is beating a homemade drum across the street. There are a few chickens wandering in the gutter, picking through the garbage. Laundry dances in color-coded lines above his head, orange and blue and yellow against a white sky.
He smells the bus before he sees it, bitter and filthy with human smell and the suffocating sting of diesel fumes. He's pretty familiar with the whole ensemble. It turns a corner, packed, people hanging out of windows, little kids jostling each other in the front. He slips his smokes into his breast pocket and folds his arms.
The world stops. It narrows and refocuses.
She is wearing a simple yellow dress belted at the waist. Age has given her grace; the timeless curves of her feet almost don't touch the ground. She has stopped dying her hair. It is a cascade of gold and silver pulled back from her face. Her eyes blister blue, the slash of a goddess' language, a distant land that is foreign but somehow home.
She stops and stares at him for a second hanging suspended without end, people flowing around her like water around a stone in a stream.
Hi, she says.
He doesn't say anything.
He still doesn't say anything.
He feels like he might burst out of his body, the tension in his bones escalating until he is being torn apart, and then his muscles ease slowly, painfully, with ancient familiarity, into the universe that is only her. His scorched soul, wandering and weary, shudders with his breathing. He was not waiting to die. He was waiting for home.
She is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.
Rory, he says.