Sheaves of paper flutter like downed butterflies in the ocean breeze as dusk settles on the shore. He flips through the pages one by one and neatly tears them one by one from the stitched binding and when cardstock covers and emptied, their edges soft and feathered with years of thumbing and storage, they too join the fluttering pages in the steel cylinder he’s planted firmly in the wet, glittering sand.
They make him recall the monarchs of a distant home, the fluttering sheaves of orange and black and regal golden whites, heavy upon the pines, wings drawn down as they slumber and bear the winter in the mild and temperate embrace of another coast far away from the one on which he stands, barefoot and feeling the fine sands shift under the pressure of his soles. The monarchs though do not face a flame, and after the last emptied and year-creased cover joins the rest, a slightly shaking hand taps open a hard balsa matchbox and plucks a stick from its rest and strikes it and lowers its sulphur-smoking flame, fluttering just as the pages do in the steady breeze and the flame kisses the pages, and he recalls love.
The nights have grown cool and the dark comes earlier with each passing day, but his arms are still bare. He is alone on the shore under a full harvest moon as he gives to the fire his journals, notes, and halfmade stories.
It is fifteen years before the shore and the fire and they sit together under the warming sky of early spring in a broad, open park where the retreating snow is just beginning to bare the mummified grasses of the previous year. A shallow cardboard box holds two years of correspondence. Poems. Notes. Some typed, some handwritten, some collages of images torn from magazines. A torn collage of an opalescent glass vase dressed with words like a pulp noir ransom note: I am your vessel.
They sit together and hold one another, taking turns to read from the top of the pile before laying the sheet on top of the tongues of flame that rise and dance in the rusted steel box, stained from rain and salted meat grilled under so many summers of relentless sun. Her hair is like wheat equal parts gold of summer and the faded earthy white of early winter, its mixed hues resembling the sunlight dancing in the dead scramble of brush, beautiful in its contrasts of blond and brown and grey.
Together they recall the past: their love opens on the first day of winter. He is seventeen. She has just celebrated her forty-eighth year. They walk and sit and talk among increasingly barren plains scattered with leafless trees and windscoured soils.
On that day they first came to kiss two winters prior she says, If this was the seventies I would take you to bed. And she reaches her arms around him and under his oversized leather jacket against the wind of a winter settling upon autumn, before there is any correspondence, before the lust and love and desire spills out onto pages. These seeds grow within them in the moments when their eyes hold fast on the other’s and when their words flow like a seamless banner cut free from its mast and sailing over the world
Though the season of their love does not close that day they feel as though it is a harvest, and together they pluck from the vines of time moments like overripe stonefruit to be sliced and skewered and sacrificed over open flame until caramelized flesh drips like hot candy down their lips as they, laughing, devour one another. It is a week past her fiftieth birthday. In one week more he is away, at school, and she asks of him a token, the last artifact they share, a shirt he has worn, that smells of him, that she keeps tucked away, and to which she returns to drink of the past. Hers is the first love that, in any moment beginning when he first feels it until the time he forgets it and learns to doubt it, he feels as love, and he basks in it just as they huddle now together in the brittle warmth of that delicate afternoon as the flames consume the last of the communion that anyone might ever know them by.
Alone on the moonlit shore, the wind picks up and he pulls a sweater over his head, snagging a knitted seam on the brass clasp of the only meaningless bracelet he wears. He wraps a heavy cotton scarf around himself to fend off the mosquitoes, and continues tearing pages, reading them silently, sometimes murmuring them, sometimes laughing, but most often silent.
He remembers an earlier love.
He remembers the first time he says those words, the words that feel almost like nausea in his chest rising as he clutches with clammy hands in the dark of night in the basement which is his room a white cordless phone, pressed so tightly to his ear that it hurts and feels numb for an entire hour afterwards.
I love you, he says, almost as a whisper. Hadn’t he? Maybe he had said, I think I love you. He has to repeat himself, so quietly does he say these words though the telephone’s receiver is practically in his mouth.
He doesn’t know, even moments later, so fevered is his head. As though it harbors a waxing illness the threatens to turn him into ash from the inside out. But she speaks, after a moment, not as long as the moment between his admission and whatever had come before, her words lost to the pulsing in his head that dilates his pupils and creeps out as sweat from his pores and locks his hands around the hard, smooth plastic shell of the phone that her voice, tiny and tinny and distant comes out of.
But you don’t even know me, she says. Hadn’t she? Or does she begin with that conjunction, with that but? The moment is still alive and yet he must reach into memory to confirm what he hears and he cannot and the fever has already taken her words. He can hear her smiling. Just as she does when she he walks past her at school, and waits with her after the bell and before his bus and before the roaring black pickup truck with beaten chrome fenders lurches to a halt and an quiet, older, shyly leering man with heavy stubble and a black mesh ballcap leans over and opens the door for her every day, and how in the few hours they see each other she gives nothing but cold indifference to the many whom he wishes he was.
She walks through the long hallways, passing them, long black hair in motion like a flag heralding midnight and as she passes them and sees him, sitting in his oversized black corduroy jacket that he wears daily, religiously, and his loose jeans and frazzled moptop of a haircut, her stony face warms and she smiles.
He clutches her narrow waist, she shorter than he and though he himself was not tall he can see over her head, struggling to stay upright on the tall brown mare as it clops through snowy mud. They have known each other now for almost five years.
Do you want to come in, she asks after they return from the fields, and he pauses and thinks and hesitates no matter how much he longs to, but he nods and follows her into a cluttered and book-stuffed home that she shared with her mother and he could smell her hair still, conscious of his arousal as they pressed together atop the horse and she smiles with her eyes downcast, and laughs, softly, and he is lost in her hair that winds its way like whorls in a midnight pool down to her waist.
She shows him her dress that she wears to the dance he invites her to where they dance as his lover looks on, his lover with hair like wheat in late summer’s yellow and early winter’s woody whites, his lover who smiles at the affection of a peer she is not, and cannot be, and she, his lover, is caught between the betrayal of her flushing chest and her recollections of him inside of her and tears that will not come and seem hinged to her smile. A happiness that makes her cry because in it is loss, and in the loss, a sense of giving.
After the dance they drive back, along gravel roads far from lights of the town.
Do you want to come in, she asks, and just as before he demurs.
I should go home, I think, he says, and finds in his retreat something that should be comfort but instead unfolds as regret.
Call me when you get home and let me know you’re safe, she says.
She says, Thank you for tonight, and he drives off, and listens to the gravel clacking against the underside of the car on the empty, dark roads.
He is back briefly in the empty lands of those scrubthick plains and he sees her, his lover, she of the wheat hair, she is still soft and luscious beneath his fingers and for the first time his desire is split between attraction and reticence. He is seeing someone at school, so many states away. But he falls into the tangles of her late summer wheat. She is coloring her hair more now, and afterwards in the bath he begins to shake and tremble and feels as though he is submerged in a bucket of ice, and unwitting organ donor. I am a cheater now, he says, but she comforts him and loves him and strokes him.
After he leaves those endless plains and traverses the mountains, he thinks less and less often of that late summer wheat and the papers and poems disappearing into the fire, and there is no record, no words pull him back to that time. He opens a manila package one day in the mail and finds his shirt, carefully folded and emptied of its esters.
A handwritten note says only, I love you.
There is nothing else.
Years go by. In a high rise hotel, with she whom he thinks of as his first betrayal, when they first feel the other’s hot, bare skin. In two years he accepts a ring from her, as they pass a jeweler’s, as they walk and wander the streets of Copenhagen in spring, and in the thin silver band is set amber, a fiery, shining gold that the Baltic washes in upon the waves of every storm.
Would you marry me, she asks him. Not so quickly does she finish the sentence.
Yeah, he says, or thinks he does. He cannot remember.
Would you want to marry me, he asks, or believes he does, murmuring and drawing out the sentence long enough that he can see there is no thought beneath it to hold it up.
But she does not examine his words.
Her eyes glow at the returned question and they look through the jeweler’s and pick out two bands, simple, thin, silver, with that punctuation of ancient fire in the center. Two weeks after the ring he is making love to a different other, in for a week to visit on a cheap ticket and her equestrian legs wrap tightly around him and after she comes around his, the fire of her sex seeping into his naked skin, and after she comes and they lie beside each other she says, I love you, through eyes fluttering with the power and weakness of a long-held secret framed by tears.
You made me feel so beautiful, she says, and he remembers photographing her in the dark, in a basement, when he is in one moment fearful of desire that never arises so long as he remains behind the lens and she its object.
In another year he is with neither of them, not she with the amber ring which she takes back, and not she of the equestrian strength which she wraps around the waist of someone else.. In the circle of acquaintances or friends or those who share a case of beer or a bed he finds himself alone and so takes his eccentric orbit elsewhere but there is no more gravity anywhere else as there is in the vague circuits he knew before, when he wears amber briefly and pushes himself to argue his love in front of his doubtful father on that earlier spring harborside in Copenhagen before he returns to a home he does not know how to miss.
He sees his hair fading to an emptiness, circular, central, on the top of his head one day in the toilet on the train. His blood runs cold though he has silently expected this for years. But not so soon, his denial says. Not so soon.
He murmurs those words which this time do not tighten his chest or bring fear, falling asleep after dressing his face in the ecstasies of a new infatuation who slips into her own sleep only three days after they meet. He does not remember when she first says the same to him. Months tear in two directions, past and future, each equally split in regret and desire, and he is quartered by them, between one hand wearing that amber ring and clutching to him even as he is finally discovered for his betrayal in Copenhagen. He lets the amber into his life long enough to believe that he will not again dress his face in new ecstasies though no ring comes with her fierce and temporary attentions.
He returns to his new infatuation, and dresses his face with her ecstasies, and he asks her, Did you hear what I said the first night we slept together?
Yes, she finally says, smiling and perhaps reddening. She says nothing else.
Two years later he is abroad in a land of neon and concrete and ten lane streets as full of taxis as the streams of his youth were of salamanders. He is with her, she of the ecstasies, she of the silent watching. In writing a letter one day in a cold winter classroom where daily he lives in the space of self-doubt, of his place, of his purpose, of anything that anchors him or becomes an orbit in which any regularity becomes intimate to him, he falls in love.
But not with an other. There is no bridge that his heart crosses to that unknown space of an other. She is different, and in the icy blue of her eyes he sees himself. She feels like another himself and the vanity and allure of this disembodied narcissism is intoxicating and years of remembered conversations and dialogues run through his head as though they were present and simultaneous and he struggles to swallow and speak as he types. When she replies she confesses to tears and movements of her depths when coming to know of his love in his words. He is unmoored and he imagines that he celebrates a shared freedom and extravagant pureness of love in a way that outgrows his ideas of it and he is drunk on it.
He no longer even pretends to know whom it is he seeks in his affections, which take interest and take root and grow among the world he sees as new again.
In another two years he, and she of the ecstasies are in the flatlands that straddle South and Midwest and they are drinking bourbon and she of those eyes like mirrors of ice, of a never known twin is beside him and it is late and they are drunk and he leans to kiss her and she pushes away his face and he is confused and insistent and lost.
But you know what I wrote to you, he says. I thought you understood when you said -
It’s not ok, she says. This isn’t what I meant.
She pauses and is upset and says, And I haven’t heard from her! You’re the only one who speaks. I haven’t heard anything about this from her.
She knows, he says. I told her. She understands. She feels the same way.
Go to bed, she says.
They return to the land of neon lights and concrete and streams of taxis and she of the ecstasies knows nothing though he tells her later, his heart sunken like a rotting ship stranded in frozen mudflats.
I understand, she says, I love her too.
He types something later into the glowing void, a portal that the quiet and the black of night frames, and he casts his words to those now-distant mirrors, but she does not reply, and years go by. He is unknown and alone in company of she of the silent watching, with of short answers and no questions and he longs to be pried open like an oyster and devoured whole and quivering and wet on her tongue. She takes her pleasures alone now and he stays up late, and also alone.
He dreams of knots, of pine forests spiked along vast mountains he knows that divide his life between she of the wheaten hair and the many who come after. He dreams of tying knots, overhand, knots that should not slip yet which he cannot make catch on their own topography, their repeated defiance a maddening paradox that he cannot penetrate.
He dreams of a tautline hitch, teaching it to vague murmuring shapes on the mountainside who stand beyond his periphery, mirrory apparitions between where he kneels and the treeline, and the rope slips in his windchapped hands, and the rope catches his left wrist and comes fast around him and it tightens and the mountain crumbles into a midnight shoreline and the rope tenses as though a leviathan in the deep has caught itself upon the hidden hook of an anchor and the line’s tension drags him through the sand and towards the calm, lapping water and he struggles to raise his voice to scream but he only murmurs faster and angrier frustrations as his fingers of his one free hand claw at the stubborn Gordian web in which he is caught and then he falls and hits the sea face first with an gasping mouth leading his descent into the salty dark.
He wakes and the harvest moon is gone. He hears the dull roar of what may be an ocean coming in but its wavering static song knows no cycles of washing in and drawing out. He blinks but all around him and above is a vast blackness and he does not feel the sand shifting under him nor the crinkling surface of the old polyester sleeping bag and he cannot tell if his eyes or open and he feels adrift and spaceless. He tries to sit up and moves against no gravity and feels no horizon and the emptiness if perfect and full in its perfection of itself and a calm paralysis sets upon him and he feels himself relax and as though his hands are themselves an old memory his sense of having anything of a self fades and in the dark he is complete at last, complete and known and one with something that feels as though may be love and he forgets the concern of the truth of his nascent suspicion and if he still has a face to express anything at all with, then he is smiling.