Twigs and Little Animal Skulls, Pt. 2
Read Pt. 1 here
"What do you keep in that pocket?" I asked. The creases that were starting to make their homes around my eyes and lips showed themselves on the left side of my face when I spoke. I felt like being playful. "Twigs and little animal skulls." She was laughing, "you don't believe me?" "You keep silver dollars in it, individually wrapped in cloth so they don't clink against each other, and you use them to buy candy for kids whose mothers look at you in horror and hurry off with their little parka'd cargo, whispering reproaches to them and snatching the chocolate up and looking desperately and frantically for the closest public trash can." "The moms don't know that I slipped some of the sweets into their pockets." "And the kids look back at you in the bustle and make impish faces and you know they'll never grow up to be good boys and girls." "And I feel useful and good." She was laughing wildly from deep in her chest as she reached across the table and picked up my glass and slid out from the booth and said "stay, wait" as she walked with one in each hand. She looked back at the table from the bar and tilted her head down slightly and pressed her lips together in a neat and private smile and her eyes were glinting and narrowed.
But I am no longer sure how the taxonomy of my memories of these things works. If I felt this or that way and held on to it to one day build stories out of as reminders. Or if I built stories about how I felt as a way to understand and make sensible the way I unraveled when she left. If the hole was so big, it was because the person who made it must have found all the ways into me.
And if someone that came later didn't make me feel whole the way she did, it was because they couldn't fill in the empty space she left.
Or it was because I dammed the many unmarked passageways to the pockets and recesses of myself.
In my adult life I have tried to know people well and to let them know me well in return. I have understood this as something that can be done with a willingness to be vulnerable with people not once they know you well, but as a way to build that intimacy. I see this as a way of unfolding myself, of smoothing—not flattening—out creases, showing a more complete map of me.
This is a work in progress. A work under review.
When I met Rachel we talked through the night and into the morning, and again and again for three more indigo nights and soaking heat days after. We spoke of many things, of what we had lost and how we had suffered. Of how we wanted to be, of what lives could look like.
Our intertwined lives became like a project, something to be built up and expanded in degrees. A future would be something we actively worked toward, made sacrifices and compromises for. The kind of thing that people would tell me was mature, practical. And for a long while I believed this too, that if I allowed time to play with my fondness, allowed her to bear witness to my wounds and my wilting, she and I would never come unstuck.
But what I have kept quietly tucked in incubation, nurturing it with prideful remembrance until I could finally speak it here, I could not say to her. I could not say that yes I love you from the highest heights of my heart but I do not feel that it will kill me to be without you. I could not say that I would drive through the night and sleep in cars and on cement floors not because I wanted to see you but because I needed to be near you. I could not say that I saw your family as my family and mean it in the same way. I could not say that you cannot be these things for me because in some dark part of me, something has decided that this is something I had once but did not cling tightly enough to and will pay for over and over again.
I decided that to say these things would be to inflict a violence. It would be to cross a threshold that could not be returned from. It would be to say you are not perfect enough and then ask forgiveness for this.
This, I know, I suspect, defies logic in many ways. I know that my memories of Anne, of how I felt with her, have likely become misshapen with time. I know that it is not productive or healthy for me to think in this way. I know that perfect is a story we tell. What I do not know is this: are there such things as other kinds of love? I want this to be true, to know and believe that as there are different iterations of me, so too are there different iterations of how I can love and be loved. And yet the passing sidewalk smell of a specific kind of cigarette sends me reeling into memory, into myself—apart from the people I want to love fully but cannot tell of what is stopping me from doing so.
She pulled a blue pack of Pall Malls out and bent it open. I looked at her, at the streetlight, at the cigarettes. She extended her arm so that I would know to reach with mine and take one, and would need to step toward her to do so. She took one after me and brought her eyes to mine. Her face didn't move. I reached my right hand into a coat pocket then lit the cigarette and handed the lighter to her. She inhaled and closed her eyes and sat on the ground. I stood watching the smoke plume toward the streetlight, watching it break apart on its way. I spoke without looking away, my voice flat. "What should we do now." "What we're doing is okay." "Look at the smoke. No, up." She put her free hand on the pavement behind her and craned her neck toward the sky before speaking softly. "There's a guy dancing in that window. His eyes are closed." "How old were you when you stopped dancing alone in your room?" "He doesn't bang into any of his furniture or his walls or his cat." "You should give your cat a name." "He imagines the neighbors watching him from their windows, that someone will buzz his apartment tonight or stop him on the street tomorrow and say 'I was passing my window and noticed you dancing, you move so gracefully.'" "The wig is perfect right now." She lifted herself from the sidewalk and kept walking.
I do not know what it means to remember and think of love in these fragmentary, opaque ways. To see it reflected in events that do not shine with gentler, more tender emotional gilding. To see it felt in mundane words and in glances and in the corners of eyes. I do not know by whose hand the markings that would translate into what love is were carved into my bones.
These are the markings by which I have traced others onto me, indistinct and disfigured across and outside the lines and with gaps and blank spaces within.
I left Rachel in these shapes, hoping that with time the lines would shift and be made new. That I would stop waiting for the lines to be filled in just so, with an exact likeness.
I left Bluets on my coffee table for months, took it out of its bookshelf hiding place, hoping it would show me that what I was missing, was mourning, was Rachel, who got me to read it and feel moved by it in the first place.
But it turned out that every time I looked at it, read it, I saw Anne's face, wild and alive in light. I saw my history and my not-yet-history billow up to the ceiling and watched from the floor as it spread outward into thinner strands, into the corners, through the windows and into the night sky, the light of the lamppost cutting through them so that they might be seen and known to be moving further from my reach.
I do not know if recognizing that I have searched for substitutions and likenesses of one thing will keep me from doing so again. I do not know if I believe that I should want that to happen at all. If there isn't a kind of private, isolated act of self-destruction we commit when we willfully reshape how we think of how we relate to and love people. This is not to say that these acts of violence cannot be productive or even necessary, but rather that there is a nostalgia buried deep within me for a time in my life when I felt a specific kind of fullness and sense of possibility. To reconstruct this would be to banish these more beautiful parts of myself to memory, to live with them as ghosts that tell stories of who I used to be rather than of who I still am. To tear larger pieces from myself and scatter them further about.
I do not know if recognition will allow me to say these things when or to whom I need to.
I do not know if it is good for me to hold to these things. I want it to be okay, but know it has not been. I want it to be okay to not be okay.
Robert Stone lives in Boston, where he studied English lit in grad school, and his Twitter is @robert_stone. He hails from Philly.