orange trees in green gardens and lemonade in shade in hot summers and the sweet soft hands of strange beautiful people—I planned for it. I wrote into my schedule all the small warm miracles of summer and found my hands empty and stained with ink. there were thunderstorms and dark days and angry broken people who hurt me with the way they screamed and there were fireflies that died in their jar prisons and knees that bruised and bled—but the grass smelled fresh and came up green. the darkness brought with it a lushness. I saw tomatoes grow and ate them dirty and bruised and tasted my own earth. I did not meet anyone who made me feel whole. I filled myself with things instead: crossword puzzles and knitting needles and fresh grapes and water colors. I bought myself cotton dresses and tied my hair with blue ribbons and I sent love letters to myself. “my,” the mailman said. “someone sure loves you a lot.” and I took the letters and I said, “yes.” and I meant yes.
last night I walked alone to the park and sat on a bench and watched the apples ripen and the sky turn. there’s a swing set down there and I watched a little girl in purple boots pump her legs hard so she soared in the air, her blonde braids falling comically to her shoulders as she swung back. she kicked her legs harder, she laughed with a warmth and lightness I could barely recognize, she pushed so her feet touched the sky. I sat there and I watched her and I felt something large and unnameable swell inside of me. I watched her push herself higher, trying to fly, and I thought of what it felt like to reach for something you could never grasp. there is a weight to it and a sadness to it and a hope you cannot kill. the girl jumped off the swing and landed heavily on the ground. her face folded and I thought she might cry, but instead she sat there for a long moment and then stood up. and she ran off to find the next precious thing her small arms could never reach.
Come visit me and I’ll show you the lake. If you climb over the fence and walk a little ways, there’s a part of the beach no one else knows about. When you sit there it’s like you’re stepping on the moon. It feels like that revolution, that miracle, but more private and beautiful.
If you come, I’ll show you the cave down the beach. We’ll wait out thunderstorms there together in the dark. It’s scary down there when it’s raining. The whole sky breaks open with lightning and the thunder shakes you cold and it feels like the world is ending. But the waves fly high and free and angry and the sky gets lit from behind and if there were someone there beside me—well, I think it’d be just fine.
The skies are heavy there at midnight and something inside of me feels lonely and pale. In the cave in the darkness your eyes could light me to brilliant golden flames, I think—lonely people are lovely and flammable. But you know that, don’t you?
I used to cry about everything. A good cup of coffee, a sad movie, a man sitting alone in a restaurant. Everything. My mother always told me my heart was too big, that that was why I was always feeling so much.
Years later, I went to have my heart checked. The doctor told me my heart was smaller than normal and I felt suddenly like so many parts of me were understandable. My love was bigger than my heart could hold, and that’s why I felt so much. My feelings were rich and colorful and could not pump with simple blood. They came out in tears that evaporated into the air that kept me alive. They brought me to people I loved and places that made me weak and they led me to corners of the world where I felt safe.
I wonder if this will be my downfall. I put love in everything I ever touch. What if there is a hole in my heart, and that is why this love is leaking out of me?
Here is a short story thing that I wrote. I don’t know yet if it is the final draft or not.
Also it is sort of long although not really but I mean long enough that there is probably not the patience for it maybe, but whatever I don’t really care.
There is a coffee shop on the corner of Rhodes Street and Honeybrook, and I go there often now. Of course you know of this coffee shop, because we went there so many times together, but I feel the need to repeat things. I’ve been longing for repetition lately.
I don’t like coffee much, but I figure I deserve the bitterness of it after all this time. There is a display case of pastries at the front of the store, and the barista always asks me if I’d like something from it, but I always tell her no, because that would be unfair.
There are two floors in the coffee shop, and the second one overlooks the first. I sit with my coffee at a small black table in a small, hard, black chair even if there is an available armchair. I watch all of the people coming and buying coffee and leaving before I can learn anything about them other than their coffee orders, and even then I can’t always hear their preferred drink. I look for you, even if it’s not practical, because after all this time, practicality eludes me.
There are girls like you who come in, small and thin and blonde, and I allow myself for just one split second to believe that it’s you. And it feels so good to believe that, so pure and strong and perfect, because if it were you then I’d have a chance. But then usually the girl turns around and her eyes aren’t like yours, not electrically blue and at the same time soft.
Once, though, she turned around, and her eyes were just perfect and I knew it was you. How could it not be? Same blue eyes, same blonde hair, only now with a pale purple streak framing the face. Same airy blouses and skinny jeans and chipped nail polish. And I told myself that I shouldn’t, because it would be cheating—denying our agreement, you know—to do it, but I stumbled down the stairs and I hugged you—her—and you—she—pushed me away and my coffee, my black and hot and bitter coffee spilled all over your—her—blouse and she screamed and I yelled your name and the barista came over with napkins and I yelled your name again and the barista told me to leave and I couldn’t stop yelling your name. And then some guy, in a leather jacket, a jacket I know you would hate, punched me, right in the face, and then there was blood, and I left the you—her—and the coffee in the coffee shop and sat on the curb with my toes pointing west.
Once, when we were twelve, you told me not to do that, you said what if somebody came along and drove right over my feet? And I thought of that, I really did, but the thing was that at that point I sort of wanted someone to run over my feet. It would have been a lot better than this.
My nose was still bleeding and the barista came out with some ice and told me I shouldn’t sue them or else the girl would sue me, and I said okay and held the ice to my nose and eventually the bleeding stopped and the barista said that my nose probably wasn’t broken, although she’s only a barista, so I can’t really vouch for the merit of her medical advice. And I figured I probably shouldn’t go back to the coffee shop again in case something like that happened again, and I promised myself I wouldn’t, but I knew I would. I have since then, too. It’s the only place where I know to look for you.
And I know that I shouldn’t be looking. I promised, right? I did. I was supposed to leave you alone, because that was what you wanted, what I should have wanted but didn’t, and things were supposed to end right then and there. But they can’t end, because it is too hard to stop things that have become pleasantly and miraculously habitual, comfortable, the closest possible thing to perfect. And that, Angela, is why I miss you.
But of course that is not the only reason. I miss you coming home from work or the grocery store or the hair salon and coming in and saying hello to me before you set down your keys or unpacked the groceries. I miss the cookies you baked and left out on the counter when you were working late, and the scent of your perfume, and of your shampoo. I miss the bad seventies music you blasted while you finished the work you brought home, and the dancing, and you tracing my calloused fingers with yours. I miss the way you wished you could play guitar but could never quite manage, and your purple painted fingernails, especially after they began chipping. And Angela, I miss you, the possessor of all these things. You carry so many things with you Angela, and they all make me so happy.
Remember the first time we held hands, when we were sixteen and walking down Rhodes street—the coffee house wasn’t built then—and a fat man walked past us and I moved to leave him room to pass and our fingertips brushed just a little and I remember your thin fingers feeling like guitar strings. And our fingers brushed again, and then your hand was in mine, and there was a harmony between our palms I couldn’t quite get out of my head, and I was humming something I’d never heard or written, and I wanted to write it down, to pin the notes onto paper, but I wanted to hold your hand more, to hear the song and later write it.
Of all the things I miss, Angela, it’s holding your hand I miss the most. Holding your hand always seemed to pull out some song within me, or maybe create one that had never before been there. You smiled up at me in this way that words or notes cannot ever describe, and I know that perfection doesn’t exist, but was there anything more perfect than that expression?
Here’s your answer: There was not. There is not.
I know you’ll never read this, Angela, because you are probably now in Minnesota or Belgium or Leichtenstein or something. You’re probably making some guy feel as remarkable as I felt and feel, and maybe the things that happened between us will happen between you and him, except maybe he’ll understand it, and maybe you’ll end up together in the end. And if it’s not him, it’ll be the next guy, or the guy after that, but it will not be me.
And that’s the thing, Angela: I never understood it. You told me that you had to leave, that you had to leave now now now, and that you would explode if you didn’t. You told me to go into the kitchen and finish making the lasagna, which was not going to be a culinarily excellent, and to ignore you as you packed you things. But of course I couldn’t do that, because I loved you, and I love you, and I miss you, Angela.
“I can’t do this,” you said. “Not with you.” And there was some much stress on not being able to do it with me, Christopher Daniel Weste, and that I had caused my own loss. But all I wanted, Angela, was you. All I wanted was your smile and your laughter to be close in proximity, to be tangible. And you understood that, I know you did. You used to want it, too.
And maybe, if you did somehow read this, maybe you’d wonder why I am writing words and not a song. Things were always perfect before: me, you, my guitar, your puppy, our apartment. Now, though, things are not so perfect. Things are pretty shit, Angela, to be honest.
I can’t even play my guitar. I can write songs, I guess, but I don’t because I can’t play them. Every time I pick up my guitar, I think of you, and the way the color of your hair is almost the exact same color as my guitar, and the way your fingers feel spindly and soft and resonant like my guitar strings. I have to put it down, Angela, because I often begin crying.
When we were six, I was obsessed with the climbing of trees. I came home and dropped my backpack near the door and ate an after-school snack of cheese and crackers and listened to my mother yell at me to put my backpack in my room and then I put my backpack in my room and went outside and climbed the trees in my front yard until dinnertime.
I fell out of a tree I was climbing one day, distracted by a bee or a garbage truck or something, and I broke my arm and my whole family came outside because I was screaming, and then you came over from across the street and there were tears streaming down my face, mixing with dirt. “Don’t cry,” you said. “Crying is for babies.”
And I know that you can’t possibly still believe that now, but I don’t want to cry, because the crying does not rid me of you or my problems. When I cry, I think of you only more, until my stomach hurts and my head hurts and my heart hurts and I can’t breathe and I run into the bathroom to throw up but nothing ever comes out. And it’s a painful existence, Angela.
You took everything with you, Angela, your puppy and your favorite purple pens and your refrigerator magnets and the milk you’d just bought at the store. You took everything but me with you, and I can’t help but feel that that was a horrible mistake.
Remember how you used to leave sticky notes with scrawled hearts in secret places like the inside of the medicine cabinet or tucked between that loose floorboard in the living room? Those were the only things you forgot, besides me. I still find them sometimes, in the sleeves of shirts you told me I should wear even though I thought that they made me look dumb, inside a box of stale Nutri-Grain bars we bought once because we were going to be healthy but never ate.
Remember when we drove three hours north to my grandmother’s house for my cousin Jessica’s wedding? We probably could have made it back home at a reasonable time after the reception, but you insisted that we accept my grandmother’s invitation to stay for the night along with all of her other grandchildren in her huge old farmhouse with the wind chimes by the door and the rickety wooden porch swing and the window frames that swelled with moisture when it rained.
We stayed in the attic bedroom, a room with a slanted ceiling and slanted light and a wrought-iron queen-sized bed that dwarfed everything else in the room. The morning after Jessica’s wedding, as the sun was rising, we stood in front of the window and I rested my hand on your shoulder. And I know that this is awful, but here is what I thought: In a matter of years, my father’s mother would die, and I would inherit this place. We could live there, and raise our children in the huge grass pastures with the thick old oak trees, and we could walk half a mile down to the little river and dip our toes in the water and sing silly songs aloud. We could eat ice cream out of the carton and sleep out under the stars on special nights, and the room that we stayed in, the attic bedroom, could be our children’s playroom. That was what I thought as the sun rose and blended all the rosy orange colors in the sky, and as I rested my hand on your shoulder that was so strong and bony at the same time, and as you breathed in and out so softly.
That is where I am now, Angela, in the attic bedroom. There is a small white wooden table with chipping paint that now overlooks the window. It wasn’t there when we visited, but my grandmother bought it at a garage sale and now, here it is. This is the table on which the creaky old typewriter sits, the typewriter with which I am writing this to you.
My grandmother isn’t here—she is on a cruise to somewhere tropical, some airy warm island miles from here. I didn’t ask if I could come here. I went to my parents’ house and spoke to them for a while and then stole the key to this place off of the key rack and I came here to be alone and write.
The sun will set in a few minutes, and the sky will be that rosy orange color again. I will look at the sky, and I will find it beautiful, but I will not imagine it as I once did. I will not imagine it as the sky that our children will one day see, a sky that our children would long to imitate with the watercolor sets we’d buy them for Christmas, a sky that would inspire some beautiful chain of melodies from my guitar.
As much as I have tried, as much as I have longed to keep my promise to move forward without you, I have realized that it simply cannot be done. After you left, I tried so hard to be a changed man. I tried so hard not to be a man who bought meals with quarters he scooped out of his own guitar case; I tried hard not to be a man who forgot to shave one side of his face, a man who was awful at spelling, a man who could make excellent peanut butter toast but nothing else. I tried so hard not to be that man, until I realized that that was the man you had taken such a large part in creating, a man you had spent so much time loving and hopefully still loved.
I tried hard to return to being that man, but here is what I have learned: I am not a man who can write songs about heartbreak, because in the writing of those songs, my heart breaks further. I have learned that the most I can do right now is to wait until my heart does not feel so shattered, so incomplete, and see this crisis through. The way I find healing is through singing, but because I suffer, because I am in need of healing, I cannot sing. What an awful paradox.
I have learned that the man you have made me is perhaps the man I was always meant to be, that in your absence I change but the foundation of me does not. I have learned that loving is often linked with leaving, and if you’re lucky, it’s linked cyclically.
I have learned that I am not lucky.
For a long time, Angela, I thought that I had stopped loving you. I looked for it every day—I looked for those pangs I used to feel when someone said your name, or when you walked into the room, or when I thought about the way your smile made your eyes crinkle. And I spent a long time thinking that the love was gone, that I was cured, until I realized that the love had not left me; it had consumed me. That dulling ache, that enduring ache, that was the love I had not yet relinquished, a love I could not relinquish, a parasitic love. And here is what I learned: the loving is sometimes more painful than the leaving.
And the sun is setting now, and as I look out the window, I see a girl who looks like you, and my heart hurts for you all over again. She has that same blonde hair, which I can see even in the glow of sunset, same short, thin legs and untied sneakers. She is walking down the road, and then turning towards the rickety white picket fence, and she is looking into the window I am looking out of, and she is seeing me and I am seeing here.
And here is what I learn as I look into your eyes from this attic bedroom: It is not the icy warmth to your eyes that makes them so remarkable. There is a heartbreakingly large number of people with eyes the color of yours. No, it is the feeling, Angela, the emotional warmth that is somehow communicated when you look at me, a warmth I see not when you look at someone else, but when you look at me and only me as you are now.
I look out the window, at the colors bleeding into each other in the sunset, and I think again of the future, of the million sunrises and sunsets we can watch again together. I think of forgiveness, of explanations, of becoming something together again, of understanding your departure, of telling you what I have learned when we were apart. I think of the children we will someday have, of making salads in a warm kitchen, of playing my guitar on the front porch in the summer as the lightning bugs just begin to emerge.
But right now, in the time between this moment and the moment when this house and this future and this love will be ours, I think of me, a man who likes sugar in his coffee and the feel of guitar strings and fingertips in his hands, running to you, a woman who has left and returned for a reason I do not yet know. I think of reaching you, of stumbling down the stairs to the front yard, and I do not think of being angry with you for leaving so inexplicably because after all of this time, the anger is gone. I think of running out into the grass in bare feet and holding your hand, and singing, and I must end this letter now so that I can live out this thought instead of just thinking it.
your teacher already tried to tell you that you’ll be less lonely one day. but you don’t have any reason to believe him. my teachers taught me where norway is and how to long divide and they asked me for facts and ignored that the world marches on without mercy outside of their little windows. I know your teacher’s not like that—he’s compassionate, and he really does care. but it is impossible to believe that you can grow up in this broken world and come out with all of your baby-soft skin uncut. maybe you can’t, but it’s okay. I want you to know that I heard you when you asked where the ducks went, and one night I woke up and felt them fluttering near my heart.
At 10:30 AM in the middle of her spelling test, Annie Brunning drowned. It felt like drowning, anyway—her teacher, who was reading the spelling words, seemed distant, her voice muffled and indistinct. And she couldn’t breathe, either. She couldn’t even seem to lift her pen. All she could hear or pay attention to were the words of her best friend’s mother. She had the panicked feeling that she was being pulled lower and lower, weighed by those words: “Your father’s food makes me feel so taken care of. It must be so nice to have that food at home.”
It wasn’t the first time someone had told her this. Her father owned a popular restaurant in town. He made pizzas and cooked chicken and chopped vegetables for salads and put everything he had into the food. He was good, Annie knew, in a big way. She knew if things had been different, if she hadn’t been born, her parents would be in Paris or New York or wherever important restaurants were. Her father would be famous.
He was famous in his own way in town. So many people told Annie that his food made them feel loved. It was that good, they told her, it was so full of flavor and feeling. But he didn’t love them. She knew this because when he cooked for her, she felt that same depth of experience and emotion and he certainly didn’t love her. It made her sick to think that all those people thought he loved them. She knew how it felt to be let down.
Whenever people told her it must be a pleasure to have a cook like him at home, Annie counted to ten in her head and waited to see if she would explode. It was one thing to be a good cook; it was another to be a good person. When she ate his food, she could feel the love they talked about and she wanted to be sick with the lie of it. Sometimes she was. Annie had bruises on her ribs. When he gave her a black eye, her mother applied makeup over the purple to make it look like nothing was wrong. When she looked in the mirror, she sometimes wondered if any of it had even happened. She wondered if her emotions were right or real.
“Annie?” her teacher said, and Annie snapped to attention. She wrote the next spelling word and no longer felt like she was drowning. For some reason, that just made her sadder.
how we’ll spend our summers
we’ll be on the porch sipping iced tea and laughing, painting our toenails and counting how many times the ice cream truck comes by before the next door neighbor gets money from his parents to buy something. we’ll be on our bikes in the heat with the wind in our favor and we’ll be in the grass staring up at spare clouds and we’ll be sitting with our toes in the pool with the sun in our hair. we’ll be cooking hot dogs and catching fireflies and playing games in cool basements and letting all our secrets evaporate in hot air. we’ll take a trip together to the beach and everything we do will be tinged with our love. we’ll stay together in a cottage there and feel like we are alone, and it will feel sharp and miraculous, and we will never go back—
I wish things could be like we imagine them. I spent all winter waiting for this and now all I can think is that I’m too warm.
why i keep going in circles
- everything we ever did was smothered by so much hesitation. we put all of our truths in everyone but each other and got so close to touching that i sometimes forget we never did.
- your friends didn’t keep your secrets very well. i wonder what it would have been like if i turned to you one day and told you that i knew, that you could stop pretending. what were we even pretending? why couldn’t we just say it out loud?
- i know you give your smiles away easily but sometimes it feels like they’re only mine. you told me once, joking, that you’d love me forever. it stuck in my throat and i’ve coughed it out with every word i’ve said to you since.
My mom thinks I can get into Harvard. Or she wants to believe it, I don’t know. Last summer she told me the only way I’ll ever get into Harvard is if I really get serious about my volunteer work. “Goodness of heart can really make up for less-than-perfect grades,” she said. I didn’t bother mentioning that it’s not really goodness of heart when you’re being forced into it by your mother. I also didn’t tell her that I didn’t really care about Harvard. That would have made her pop a blood vessel.
Anyway, last summer she made me volunteer at the hospital. All of the other volunteers were these intense, self-motivated girls who actually wanted to be there. They smiled at me and used my name a lot when they talked to me, like I was this great and magnificent being. I think it was because I was the only guy who volunteered with them that they loved me so much. There was this awful sense of competition between them when I walked into a room and it made me really self-conscious. I’m not good looking or interesting or anything, but they thought I was polite and had nice hair. I’m not really polite, actually. Mostly I’m just kind of boring.
What I really liked doing was looking at the babies. I know that’s weird or creepy or whatever, but I liked it. When my volunteer shift was over, I would walk over and look at them. They were soft and vulnerable and sometimes that worried me. Sometimes I wouldn’t leave until I saw each of their little bellies rise and fall as they breathed. I’m not an emotional person, but it made this feeling stick in the back of my throat even hours after I stood there looking at them. They were so beautiful and so perfect, so unharmed. They were the only ones the world hadn’t gotten to yet. They were like the fresh blanket of snow you see early in the morning after a storm, before the plows have come through. They were untouched by the world’s desire for efficiency and clarity. They were beautiful and complicated and existed just to be those things.
The first time I kissed the first girl I ever fell in love with, I whispered to her, “You remind me of babies.” I knew it was stupid and I knew it killed the mood but it slipped out of my mouth before I could stop it. She pushed me away and I rushed to clarify—“I mean you’re pure, the world hasn’t broken you”—but she never called me again. That got to me. That really did. It’s one thing to see that kind of innocence and purity in someone who’s just been born and it’s another thing to see it in someone who’s gone through sixteen years of hellfire.
You could call babies miracles, but if you did that you needed an entirely new word for someone like this girl. I tried to make one up. I tried to build something new for her to marvel at. She was more miraculous than infants, but she was far smarter than them too. She knew I marveled at purity because I was impure. She had no use for someone whose touch could crush her bones.