Beta

Eastbound on the Third of July

I overheard you on the phone (everyone in our car did—I don’t know if you knew that). Things like: But you said, you said. Fourth of July, you said. And: Your wife and kids can light their own fucking fireworks. Then the next phone call, this time with another woman, one you used to know, I guess: But I don’t have anywhere else to go.

You slapped your hand into your backpack, the one with the stitches on the side, and pulled out a bottle in a wilted brown paper bag. Isn’t it funny how you just knew to bring it, knew you would be let down? Isn’t it strange? Funny like it’s funny that I was reading Anna Karenina in a train that isn’t a motif for anything else. Well. Pretending to read. Then the pewter train stopped, and a boy in navy shorts with those thick eyebrows threw a tantrum. We all looked up at him, except for you. He was on the ground, hands in fists, when his mother yelled, gripping his arm: Stephen! Behave!

***

These days I like to imagine you in white. A long, white dress—everywhere an object to stand in for growing up, isn’t it? I imagine lots of things. That you remember the first time you thought, I love my parents, only after so many years of, you love me so much it’s disgusting; in time you knew that pity comes from fear. You once lived in a bedroom with coral-colored walls, and in it you dreamed someone would spend a whole life just gathering your pieces, the ones so carefully disguised and so well scattered—the ones stored long ago but never forgotten (and still wholly imperceptible to the rest of the world). You hate being told not to cry.

I like to think that the roses you talk about missing were always either infested, or had just recovered from an aphid attack, or were on the verge of another summit with the cut- ting bees. Every six months they were cut by the stems to prevent disease, and they took three months to grow back. Six months of the year you waited for the return of the roses, more than the roses themselves.

I bet that you are thankful most of the time. You are terri- ble at breathing in traffic and always wish there was a second pillow to hold between your legs. You don’t understand wind energy, or the fear of heights. You held that love can’t be tru- ly unrequited, and that it’s never just semantics. Mostly you prefer private spaces. You were not afraid of being defensive, only of being seen as so. You found yourself wishing for the power to ruin, and you wanted to marry whatever light you could. Someone once asked to paint a portrait of you nude; you blushed. You were always losing your ID, and making friends at the blood bank. You’ve caused wildfires to have a reason to build new houses, betraying even yourself. You couldn’t help smiling whenever you thought of his ankles.

A lot of things made you a lucky person. It was a rainy day when you misread a song title as “I’m a foot to want you.” Later you wished your memory were twenty percent worse, because you were sure that then, you would be fifty percent happier. You always did like the idea of cities. You and an old friend once killed several hours arguing words versus images, but for the life of it, you can’t remember which side you were on. Happiness, as an image, looks horizontal to you—a bit of swinging your arms. You were barely four feet tall when a teacher looked at your drawings and joked, sweetly, that the way you sketched (with ten or fifteen insecure, broad strokes per line) was forgiving. You did your very best to hide the panic of fraudulence and pretend you simply did not know what it was she meant.

I think you know that they tried to love you well, the whole lot. You can’t remember a single birthday, but you remember the feeling of softening frozen grapes in the palm of your hand to feed them to your sister when she had the flu. You wish you were living by the water, but it was too expensive. Once you made a list of things you’d miss and not miss when you were dead, but you’ve probably lost it. You can’t remem- ber the last time you saw a photograph of yourself that you liked. There isn’t anybody you haven’t doubted, which you have to admit you’re proud of. You’re always too tired to finish puzzles. What would the day you turned into glass be like? You said listlessly about everywhere: it was a place to visit, not a place to live.

Things were not as circular as you wished you could make them. Someone once told you that your breasts were too small for his hands to cup fully, and about how foolish this made him feel. You weren’t sure how many earthquakes you slept through. What could be worse than a hangnail on a humid day? You left the lights on by accident. In small crum- bling photos your grandmother seemed to you very pretty, but not at all desirable. Depth has its own height, after all. Late one night you ignored the story read to you in secret rebellion, hiding the blistered bottoms of your feet under the covers and repeating to yourself until you fell asleep, it’s so hard to be a person, it’s so hard to be a person. It’s so hard to be a person. You always found relief in parting, but hated breaking promises. You were not afraid of being ordinary, only of being seen as so.

***

You smelled, but I didn’t move seats. Instead I watched the single tear drip down your face as we left the platform— so undramatic, so unperformative. I wish I could have told you that it was okay to keeping crying if you wanted, or even to weep harder. Instead I sat noticing the way your nails were bitten into triangles, your shoelaces worn into gathered threads. Your army green sweatshirt was unraveling by the top of your right hip. Then when you sighed I pretended I thought you meant Oh, well, when of course you were saying help, me. It was four summers ago now and I can still hear you say what you didn’t. Does it feel good? To be missed?

What do you think it is that teaches us: if I’m the only one to see you cry, I should carry you. You were just so naked—it made me feel the feeling of terror. What you grieved wasn’t just the weekend, was it? More like beginnings in general. In any case, I need you to know that I wasn’t lazy, or careless, or unaware of your pain. I wasn’t unaware of your pain. I stared in secret because that summer I wanted to stop worrying that I would let everybody down. And because I loved the distance of those hours: I wanted you to have to behave, the way I knew I had to behave; and to have all you needed, like I wanted to have all that I needed.