I’ve touched roses and smelled the sweet blossoms of spring. Naked in the summer moonshine. I’ve stood on the low-tide breakers at dawn, sun rise over the Caroline coast. Beauty, as you’d have it, golden leaves that drift to the lawn –I am no stranger: a come-home whiff of birch burning on a fire stove. The slow fall of snowflakes that christen the lawn. We’re children, in the comfort of the warmth indoors. Shake-out a cold sweater. Leave the dust for the motes. Wake for the burning sun.
The sun was soft for the graduation field. Black gowns and black caps. The rays down on the principal who spoke his peace: Love, economy, success. The wealth of nations, the burden of gods. Soak in the righteous face of a dollar. Stand up! This is your time to speak. The doctor is here to see you, he is the CEO. No more burning in a dark bed for you.
Hairstyles are timely. So are your jeans: the bum-warming leather of a luxury car seat.
Arm in arm go the couple in white, down the aisle, through the crowd. Vows told in lace, speaking secrets in the midday sun: a bouquet soars across its yellow face. Consummation is a popular word for their grandparents. There’s a quiet announcement in the newspaper: congratulations. Congratulations from friends and family, a high school teacher, a neighbor down the road. Flutes of spirits that sing like bee stings and second helpings of steak. A Bloody Mary drops on the floor. Loosening ties, shimmying off shoes, slipping from dresses getting ready to dance. Loud voices in the barroom, singing on the dance floor: the bride and groom sneak out the back with a bag full of checks and cards. Empty cans of tomato paste clatter down the asphalt, memories of the bride and groom told long after they’re gone. Absolved of old schemes, and disease, and dishonesty, the couple in white take the highway red with sunset. A new house, a new family, a new history to be told: bedsheets aren’t bloodied once. The nursery will not birth itself. The modern Magi come with pins, tack the bedsheets to the roof, and voices come like thunderclaps through the rooms. In a dream the new bride can cry alone, and unravel her dress, threadbare through the red of long years.
Midnight had fallen on me fast with sprawling soul. Loosed from denotations, in a reverie wandering towards home; hidden pockets between buildings where the dark was densest, where mysteries held fast to their own little worlds. I had no ground. I had no self but the faint sounds of crickets and cars in the distance, millions of years buried in the rock beneath my feet, the thousands of stories and romances and arguments imprinted in the histories of the brick and stone buildings of this campus. This sidewalk I’d walked a hundred times: no longer would it end, but continue on through town, down side streets and avenues and winding through alleys till nothing I saw had a name I could recall. Time might not have passed; and I found myself crossing a parking lot not far from home, and in the middle I stopped. The lot was empty; and when I saw it, I knew the reason for my bliss: the storied light of the night sky. The milk that wet the asphalt, the tree tops and the lawns, falling down from nighttime’s wondering face. It was wrapped in twisting wisps of cloud, obscured, a gauzy fluorescent haze above. It stood alone, untouched and imperturbable, the only saint who could paint shadows in the death of night. From atop its composite metal pole it stood as though from another world.
I’d placed my faith in the wisdom of famous nomads, taken flight from safe restraints. Gone were the dreams of childhood, the joy of birthdays, familial affection. Hunger for the sun-bleached highways and the beauty of unwalked streets; afternoons of careless horizons. The college dormitories, the dust of traditions, tuition and careers and the map of a future planned by a degree — oh how sweet the heat of lost hills when the dogwoods are in bloom. How at peace the heart can be when it wants nothing but the lonely road, and has it. If only for a moment. If only for a moment to wake in that Carolina field and feel the peach sun drying the dew in your hair: the new day pregnant and unknown, beckoning with sunshine on the backroads and strangers, fast talkers, heavy drinkers, kind souls who drive you fifteen miles and maybe stop for lunch. If only for a moment to have your heart swept by peace and the innocence of wanting nothing more. I was unfit for the halls of laws, unfit for the ivy’d desks of poets and philosophers, lost soul looking for a river to gently guide my years. A decade of drinking, a decade of dissolute evenings and yearnings for a sunset to capture my eyes. The long road led me to you. And now that we’ve wasted so much of our youth on a carousel of broken friends and crowded sidewalks, again to find ourselves hungry for hillsides and roadtrips and campsites overlooking eternity — to find our angry hearts hungry and struggling to pay bills, stuck on the economic conveyor belt of bills and jobs and deadlines. We’ve got no degrees, we’ve got no skills, we ain’t the motivation for MBAs and 401ks. We got dreams, honey, and a long muddy hillside even Sisyphus ain’t damned to climb.
I’ve been walking your forest for miles, miles that have turned into months. Deep nights in the strange black of squawking sweat-dreams; the rats that dart through leaves underfoot. I’ve seen the ages of your ancestors carved into trees, behemoths, knotted and twisted, and the gold of sunrises that fade away before the bright green of the leaves can be seen. The shadows of dawn are perpetual. You offer no hand to guide me. Bright lit banners of bars in secret caverns of the wood, and the voices that echo for miles in the half-dark between the trees. An owl stays perched on a limb stripped of leaves, sentinel and sentient, watching. You offer no consolation, nor warmth nor mirth; and your heartbeats are small quakes in the forest floor. Tremble of the branches, tremble of the brush; old foundations of brick pits in the ground, shake mortar from their stones. Shake the sweat from my pores. You gave no hint, no tell-tale signs, that we would end up like this. Hits of meth in the ivy-covered ruins, the mists that creep over these grounds. The frustration of an aching groin kept awake in the night by lonely strangers. Let no safe sleep lie: the clearings are littered with boulders and the deer paths fester with ticks. And I am the man who slinks through your forest wanting nothing but a soft escape. To creep from your nightmares that crawl from the boughs of the trees and the bogs where your face, blistered, reflects a thousand times. But the laughter, oh in the laughter of the hollow trees is the daylight of a memory. Moments of fresh fields wet with dew and the milk of the moon, barefeet and pigtails and dirt on your jeans so that with fingers, with my crooked arms and twitching fingers I scrape through the mud of your wood: notes to your 4th-grade crush, family pictures by the willows you loved and the time you camped on the porch with Maryanne, I can’t leave until I bring them back to you.
I didn’t make it to school today because our car wouldn’t start. It might be the lack of gas, might be the oil congealing, might be the gears stripped of teeth in the transmission. So we stayed in bed and made pancakes for breakfast. It’s not the first class I’ve missed, and it won’t be the last; not that I’m keeping track but I don’t I’ll flunk out on account of absences, however many. We’ve stopped counting. How many weeks left until rent, how many days till our next paycheck; how many meals left in the fridge, what date did the milk expire? How many months since your last period? We know your job will fire you, at 22, leaving work when your back starts to hurt just to stand. So we’ll bide our time. We’ll bide our time on the white-washed walls of our 1-bedroom on the edge of ungentrified hell. I’ll walk the miles it takes to get to work, the miles it takes to find a second job. Someone’s sure to hire me, eventually. We’ll save our pennies and buy a new car and then I’ll go back to school. I’ll have a great job, then, as a manager or a shopkeep or a journalist or an engineer, once I have my degree. And we can see that on the horizon, in the blue distance, the wavering mirage of happy vacations with the children and the family dog. We’ll have to get a dog. And we’ll be miles from here in a house in the suburbs where the sirens don’t scream in the streets at night, where the men don’t harass you, where the neighbors in the apartment next-door don’t blast music through the walls well past midnight. You’ll have a flower bed to bury our fears in. I’ll have a lawn to mow. And we can pretend that the dreams of our children are the same dreams we’ve dying for.
We had three bedrooms and a garage for the car. We had hardwood floors and a full-size stove, we had an attic to fill with boxes of things we didn’t use. We had a king-size mattress that didn’t squeak, we had kids’ toys in the backyard and a dog that only barked when strangers approached the house. We had security: stable positions in offices that offered paid vacations and 401ks. You had a diamond ring on your finger. I had my weekends free to take hiking trips and car rides with you and the children. You had a black abscess spreading in your brain. We had holidays with visiting family from out of state, winter days bundled warm indoors and summer mornings eating breakfast at the shore. We chopped down our own Christmas tree. Rainy afternoons were for trips to the library. Your quiet breath had a stench of decay, something rotting. I had failed to notice. I had failed to see it in the Poconos, failed to see it in Cape May; failed to notice the rot on Sundays mornings when you wouldn’t get up. I couldn’t notice the rot eating through you, not during our movie nights, not while we got drunk on the porch, not while I felt the cockroaches squirming under my scalp. I didn’t notice the children had been feeding themselves. And I couldn’t notice you losing any weight – it’s not like we were taking our clothes off. And when I noticed you were drinking all my whiskey the solution was more important than the message: we just had to go get more. We just had to keep burning bright buttons into our stomachs, just had to keep ignoring the rot. Kids in bed early, I’ll be late for work in the morning, let’s stay up late – our drinking date – and tell each other stories.