I’m sitting at your antique Queen Anne desk. It arrived this morning, and when I signed for it, I gave the guy from English Classics some money to put it upstairs by the big window in the study. You may have your own ideas about where it should go, of course. I think it’s a good spot, even though there’s nothing else in here, except the tall wooden hat rack you haven’t found a place for yet. I’ve opened the window to the breeze that ruffles these pages and chills the room. I can just make out the blue ocean through the elms.
I’ve got your old photo album with me. It’s weird, different from everything else in this place. Its creamy white is a desperate stab at formality, betrayed by its cheap vinyl construction, as if there were a market for wedding albums you could buy off the bargain table at Walgreens. It’s cracked with age and ragged from years of handling, but I can see how the biting irony of it would have made you laugh. I hadn’t thought about it before, but this old album might say more about who you used to be than anything pressed inside.
I’m writing this in the Jenni Bick Journal you bought me. Now and then, I stop and run my fingers over my debossed initials hammered into its spine. The journal is more like everything else in your house: ornate, meticulously hand-crafted, and expensive. It would be great to believe I’m a lot like this journal: handsome and well-made, but it’s just not so.
Lastly, there’s my Greyhound ticket. My bus leaves in three hours, one way.
I don’t want you to think I’m ungrateful for your gifts and this time we’ve had together. I don’t think it was a mistake and I’ve got no regrets about it. You may feel differently, but when you think about it maybe you’ll see this is for the best.
I was so happy when you found me. Your voice over the phone sounded just like it had twenty years ago, light and wry all at once, like laughter at the end of the world. You were exactly who I needed to hear, exactly what I wanted, and we burnt whole nights on the phone long-distance.
For all that time spent, our talks didn’t include much catching up. It had been so long since we’d seen each other, but we rode roughshod over those intervening years. You told me you were a CPA now, and that you had a big house on Wishart. I remembered that crummy ground floor apartment you lived in with your mom and figured that had to feel really good. I told you I had drifted around after the Army, headed west doing this and that over the years. I told you I had done some work with horses.
“Oh, I love horses!” you said, the way everyone who’s never mucked a stable or been thrown says they love horses. “I can’t imagine you working on a ranch. You were always the smart one; I thought you’d be writing your fifth book of poems by now.”
“I never got around to writing my first one.”
“That’s a shame,” you said.
I didn’t tell you that I had been pretty serious about horses. After the Army, I moved around north Texas as a stable hand, then a wrangler, for years before I landed a trainer’s position at a ranch in Kansas. I didn’t tell you how I got hurt pretty bad. I was getting this Friesian ready for the ring. I worked mostly barrel horses; dressage was not my strong suit. But Manny, the guy who ran the stable, put in a good word for me. Besides, Friesians are usually gentle and I thought we got along. I always thought I was good with horses, that I had a knack for it, but maybe I wasn’t ready. Maybe I spooked her, I don’t know. While I was in the stable, yarning her mane, she pressed me against the wall, pressed me hard. Broke three of my ribs and ruptured my L1 and L2 disks, just like that.
I didn’t tell you that the year before you found me I was living on disability and using up my unemployment. I was renting a shitty efficiency on the east side of Wichita, where I moved as little as possible while I ate OxyContin and tried to figure out what to do next.
It didn’t feel like I was holding out on you; you didn’t seem to want to hear about any of that anyway. You were more interested in who we were when we met, who we said we were going to be back then, and I went with it. Truth is that the accident and a year on my back had left me rattled, like I really wasn’t cut out for horses, or much of anything else. I was still passing time reading a lot; that hadn’t changed since we were together. It felt good to stop thinking about the present. It felt good to think maybe it was never too late to write a book of poems.
You were always drilling me about our time together, our friends, the way things were back then. “Do you remember Jason and Anna?” you asked. “Do you remember the Owl Creek Diner?” “Do you remember how we met?”
We met on the shore of Virginia Beach, by Lynnhaven pier, the winter after high school. There was a party, lots of people. I remember seeing you dance to The Pixies around the towering bonfire. The rest of us didn’t know who The Pixies were. My friends talking big and hitting on you, getting shot down one by one. I remember finally stepping up and asking if I could dance near you, and your friends laughing and you smiling and shrugging an indifferent “yes.” We never took our eyes off each other.
Later, when the hot fire was too much, you grabbed a bottle of wine with one hand and my hand in your other and we ran off into the dark. I remember the cold sky and the brittle starlight, the restless surf’s endless crashing, and the way you drew close to my ear to be heard. I listened to all the smart things you said and I remember the curves of your bare body pressed against my own. I remembered giving you my long wool coat and walking back slow, hand in hand, back to the light and the heat and our friends surrounding.
What I didn’t tell you, what I’ve been thinking about this past week, is how easy it all was back then. Whenever we moved we were dancing. We talked and we knew our words were smart. Whatever we looked at was beautiful, and we looked at each other. The very best thing I remember about that year we spent together was how inevitable everything was, how naturally our pleasures came to us, how little we had to really think about anything.
“Remember the poem you wrote me?” you asked. I remember the night I left for boot camp, I wrote you a poem and left it in your windowsill. It said something about how hard it was to leave, but that I had to go see the world. I remember it said something about wanting to go find something worth remembering, worth writing down. I remember that I wanted you to know I was going to miss you and wouldn’t forget you.
“Of course I remember,” I told you, but the honest truth is that I couldn’t remember any of the exact words I’d written.
I told you I’d never been married, got close a couple times. You told me you’d just been through a long, messy divorce, and now that it was over I was on your mind a lot. You found me on the internet, and there we were.
I’m telling you all of this so you’ll understand how much I appreciate your invitation after all those years. How good it felt to throw some clothes and a few books into a duffle bag and catch the next Greyhound for Virginia. Packed in tight with everyone headed east, I watched some big windmills churning in the dark outside of Hope and wondered what it’d be like to just start over with you, to finally be the poet I had set out to be all those years ago. I wondered why I’d given it up, why I’d never found much worth writing down or remembering. I want you to know that above everything else, I’m grateful.
I still have that selfie you took at the bus stop, first thing. The moons of our faces pressed close. Mine waning and grizzled from the road, yours beaming and bright-eyed. It’s still on my phone; I look at it all the time. It’s good to see on our faces the optimism we were capable of, to remind myself that as beat up as I am, it’s still possible to feel that good. I hadn’t felt that good since I could remember, and I’m sorry to say I haven’t felt that good since. Fresh starts are always best before you actually get started. I see that now.
There were other good moments like that. I don’t want you to think it was all bad. I don’t know when it turned. Maybe the bad had been there since the beginning, just hidden under all the nights we stayed up late, making love and binge-watching shows I hadn’t seen but you told me I had to. Maybe the bad was just under the blue horizon every weekend we caught the Number Six bus out to Neptune’s Park, just waiting for us to turn our backs on the ocean so it could creep in on the tide and find us. I don’t know why, but things changed. This fresh start, for all of those good moments we shared, has stalled, and I’m leaving. You deserve to know why, know all the things I can’t keep to myself anymore.
Your house is a big, old colonial, one of the very ones we used to drive by on summer nights and hope to call home someday. I don’t know if the years have worn on the house or on me, but it looks now like a sagging pile of bricks, with a busted foundation and floors warped and twisted into waves of cherrywood, dull and scratched.
Every night before bed, like a ritual, you wander the dusty upstairs, bemoaning every new crack in the plaster like some kind of fairytale banshee. La Llorona, issuing a forlorn tirade against the plumbers and roofers and carpenters, the HVAC specialists, and the masons, all coming to overcharge you, to rip you off and take away everything you’ve fought so hard to make for yourself. So you never call any of them to fix any of it, and the cracks fan out and deepen, the wood rots, the pipes drip faster, and your nightly inventories go on.
The husband who left you—whom I’ve never known except as the bullseye for the worst of your curses—apparently took half of everything, and so a huge part of your time is devoted to filling the hollows he left, the echoing rooms upstairs, the odd absences of arbitrary cookware and bathroom fixtures, furniture and appliances.
For as well as you have done for yourself, the years had not been kind to you, either. I see that now, too. You work too hard and too long. You come home every night exhausted and complaining about nuances of accounting that I don’t really understand, clients that I’ll never meet, bills I could never afford to pay for things I don’t think I’d ever want. You make more money than I ever will, but it’s not making you any richer.
On your days off you never want to do anything except Facebook and Instagram and shop online. I’ve never seen you read anything except the catalogs that come in the mail alongside the Amazon boxes that pile up every day on your gingerbread porch. Catalogs chock-full of Victorian candleholders and Betty Boop toilet covers, pizza cutters from Norway and wine from Costa Rica. The catalogs pile up in drifts on every table and on every shelf, burying the little stack of books I brought with me. I look at them, worn and dog-eared, and can’t help feel they deserve better. Between the nightly complaints about work and the nightly complaints about some new dent in the wainscoting, there is a time in which you open your boxes and post selfies with whatever new thing you have now. I watch you beam into your smartphone and leave you alone. These are your finest hours.
It’s not just you. I want you to know that I’m not proud of the way I’ve carried on, either. I tell you I’m writing; I tell you my ideas for poems. The truth is I haven’t written anything. Those ideas are just from other people’s poems I’ve read. While you’re at work, I take long walks and try to come up with my own. I walk huge orbits around your neighborhood, as far out as the Wolfsnare. I watch the leaves change and the sun get lower. I come home when my back starts to hurt; I bring the catalogs and boxes in from your porch. Other than that, I stare at the blank pages of the leather-bound notebook you bought me and wish I had an OxyContin. I sign for the odd delivery that arrives late and wait for you to come home.
I have terrible dreams. I’m back in Kansas in that stable and I can’t move and that Friesian’s eye is so close to my face it’s an obsidian marble set in a field of glossy black hair. There’s no anger, not even fear, only love in the white of it. Then she crushes me against the wall and my ribs crack inside my chest and I feel my back wrench and the vertebrae pop. It sounds like a controlled, three-round burst of rifle fire.
I wake up beside you in your big feather bed and I can’t breathe. I lay there in the dark and wonder how something can love you and hurt you terribly and it’s the rightest thing you can imagine. I lay next to you, listen to you while you growl in your sleep. Sometimes you flail your arms and kick and laugh out loud. When it looks like the sun’s about to rise, I go down and make us breakfast. When you come down I ask about how you slept. You tell me you slept fine. You tell me you don’t remember your dreams.
Last week I tried to explain all of this, but before I could say much of anything you said you needed to show me something. You produced from the back of an upstairs closet your photo album, and from among your old photos you showed me a worn and yellow scrap of paper tucked into a stationary envelope stapled to the thick, black page. You removed it and handed it to me so carefully. “Don’t tear it.”
It took a moment to recognize my own faded handwriting. It was the poem I had written you before I left, all those years ago.
Like I said before, in youth we moved with a confidence so natural I never appreciated it until I was old and it was gone. Youth makes it all look so easy, but it has its limits. I know now that in my own youth, for example, I couldn’t write a poem to save my life.
I am certain now that the poem I gave you all those years ago was the most pretentious, bombastic, clichéd, and malformed thing I’ve ever read. I mean that honestly without exaggeration. The goddamn worst thing. All the crap that passed for wisdom from a smug, know-it-all punk kid who didn’t know anything about anything at all. A poem from before he’d “seen the world,” and been awarded a medal for looking right into the eye of and then killing a kid younger than he was when he wrote it. Before he’d drunk, popped, and snorted his way out of the service. A poem from before the years of wasted stupor that followed, before he met Manny, who gave him a break and a job, and before he finally found something kind to him, something good in living beside great and graceful animals. Before that goddamn Friesian and whatever was wrong with her that day took it all away from me.
And the way you looked at me so proudly, like that dumb poem was the most wonderful thing. You’ve been keeping faith in that nonsense for all these years, built your life around it, like whatever you’ve become is in part because I left that crap folded up on your windowsill before I left. Like some old Japanese soldier proudly defending your atoll decades after your emperor threw in the towel. The truth is I was embarrassed for us both.
“That’s really something,” I said, and carefully folded up that old paper and gave it back. I haven’t tried explaining any of this since. I don’t think it would have done any good if I did.
By the time you read this I’ll have gotten on that Greyhound, packed in tight with everyone else headed west. I’ll have spent a lot of time looking out at big windmills and looking at our selfie on my phone, thinking about fresh starts. A few days ago I found Manny through Facebook. He’s in Nebraska now, heads a ranch, said he needed a wrangler with some experience. When he said of course he remembered me and asked if I was interested, I didn’t ask for any details. I don’t care if it pays bad or its back to mucking horseshit and hauling hay bales. I’ll do it ‘til my back gives out for good and I drop. There are worse fates; I see that now.
I’m taking this notebook with me, minus these first pages. I’m still trying to come up with some poems and you never know, I may need a place to write them down. This morning I found your photo album in the upstairs closet. I’ve torn up our poem and thrown it away. In its place please find this letter, and I hope something worth writing down and remembering.
As it turns out, I don’t think starting fresh worked out for me, but I think maybe it might for you. I wonder if maybe deep down you already know what you need to do. Maybe it’s what plays out in your dreams all night before you forget and wake.
Move and know you’re dancing. Take all the bills and all your clients, the dinged wainscoting and the cracks in the plaster, the catalogs, all the Amazon boxes and the selfies and this gorgeous Queen Anne desk and this letter, all of it, and light it all on fire. Build yourself a bonfire and dance fierce around it the way you did the night we met.