I've tried writing before. In high school, it was always pushed upon me like an overpriced appetizer at a cheap chain restaurant. My English teacher, Mr. Baldwin, had suggested it to our class relentlessly.
You all know a Mr. Baldwin. He was one of those talentless, washed up writers. So much of a failure that he could never even consider himself a has-been; he was a never-was. He would take all of his pent up anger, puff out his hollow ego, and use high school students as target practice. He also had the habit of putting his swollen, reddened face in front of yours until spittle flew onto your papers and dotted semi-colons that you'd missed. I felt bad for him though, I really did. Poor old Mr. Baldwin. His head resembled a pimple on the oily faces of his pubescent students, ready to pop. And who could have given such a name to a man with a hairline more receded than a beach at low-tide?
Anyway, my therapist also suggested that I try writing too. She wasn't just a school counselor either, she was a real therapist. So I thought I should believe her. My mom made me talk to her once a week for seven years after dad died.
Miss Anna was her name. She had a last name, but I forgot it after years of knowing her. That happens often though. Usually the people we've known the longest are the ones we know the least about. I had no clue if she was married or had kids, what she did when she wasn't a therapist, whether she had ever needed a therapist herself, or if she had ever been stoned when she was younger. All I really knew about Miss Anna was that she was consistently inconsistent (showing up late to nearly every session for seven years), that her hair always looked nice even when it fell out of place, that she loved coconut water, and she was at least ten years younger than my mom.
It wasn't until about five years into our sessions that she suggested I write. That was around the time that Elizabeth broke up with me, sort of. Elizabeth Atkinson had been my girlfriend for about three years when she finally got tired of me. It wasn't so much a breakup as it was a dumping and I was the garbage. One day I was in the school parking lot and I saw her bobbing up for air while giving Bradley Donavon a blowjob in his car. I still remember how she blushed when she saw me staring at her. We never did talk about it. I just kind of assumed things were done after that. It still took me a while to get over her though. With dad and all you'd think I'd be used to people leaving me.
Anyway, Anna didn't want me writing my feelings or listing things I liked about myself, she wanted me to try real writing. Like creative stuff. I got into writing the way you get into a pool: slowly at first to test it out and then immersing yourself completely. I wrote all the time. And that's not hyperbole either, which is a word Mr. Baldwin used a lot. Even when I wasn't physically writing on paper, words burned themselves into my mind like a brand searing soft flesh. Every event and thought became a story. After about a year I had gotten really good, or at least I thought I had gotten good. Sometimes it felt like every word in the entire world was inside of my pen and all I had to do was pluck the right one out. When I wrote, it felt like I was playing an instrument. An upbeat jazzy tune would resonate off the page, sounding just like the music that Hemingway and Fitzgerald listened to while they wrote.
They're kind of the same thing though: music and writing. Both involve the process of putting every single part of yourself into something and preying, desperately that something besides you will come out. Not many things are like that if you think about it. It's just art and love that are about becoming something you're not.
The thing about writing though is that it's not like riding a bike. You step away from it, even just to breathe, and you can never be as good. That's what really fucked me. (Mr. Baldwin said the F-word is a powerful writing tool by the way. It's like dropping a nuke. So loud for a second that everything before and after becomes silent).
I can't seem to remember why I stopped writing. Maybe all the words had dried up and spoiled like rotten fruit. Maybe I wanted to try and live in a world that wasn't fiction. Or maybe it was the summer I spent masturbating to online porn. Either way, when I tried to get back into it, I was scared. Staring at the blank paper was like staring at a naked woman. In both cases, I never had the right words. It's terrifying to know that writing is merely just a combination of putting words and punctuations in order, like filling in a puzzle. Anyone that's not a writer can put words in order, but it's so difficult to do it right. The best writers are the ones that can make words more than just a pattern. They make the words more than just words.
Regardless of the reason, I never should have stopped writing. It's one of my three biggest regrets. The other two regrets are the reason I'm writing this. Well, that's not entirely true. I'm writing this for her. Everything is all for her.
I met her soon after I graduated high school. Like everyone else, I was caught in between, lost in the empty space between certainty and the unknown. She became the only thing that was real. The only pure thing in a swimming movie-reel of blurred fakeness. She was the greatest character that I've ever met and I told her that one day I would write about her.
Swelling clouds whispered hints of a storm as I stepped into The Book Nook, a hole-in-the-wall bookstore in town. The rows of bookshelves suffocated the cramped room, giving the impression that the store was ready to vomit its innards out into the street. I walked towards the back of the store with my head up, taking in the hundreds of books and thinking how everyone seemed able to write one except for me, when my foot clipped something laying on the ground and my face high-fived the floor.
In a daze, I looked up and the earth stopped spinning. Somewhere there was laughter, somewhere there was music, somewhere there was a sunset, somewhere a flower was blooming, and somewhere a man and a woman were making love, but at that moment all the beautiful things in the world were collected like flower petals and dropped softly into a void to create the girl in front of me. She had the appearance of smoldering embers and smelled like rain. She sat with her back against a row of books, her legs out-stretched across the aisle. Her eyes were the color of the ocean in winter and they danced across the pages of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. All I can remember thinking was how badly I wanted those eyes to dance across me, if only for a moment.
Her hair was darker than ash and swept to the side. She was thin. Rain drops could have collected in the divots between hers ribs and the knobs on her spine dripped down her back like a jutting stairwell. Even still, I couldn't help noticing how tightly her white summer dress pressed against her chest.
In her left hand she flicked a lighter on and off, my heartbeat rising and falling with the flame. The soft yellow light sent shadows across raised scar marks on her inner forearm. They looked like haphazard scratch marks, maybe from a pet.
She never looked up from her book, as I scrutinized over her every detail like she was a piece of art and I doubt she ever would have if I hadn't said anything to her.
"Uh, hi there," I said, still sitting stupidly after my fall.
"One second," she said, pushing her tongue against the inside of her cheek.
I waited while she read, glancing from the lighter in her hand back to her flitting eyes. When she finally closed the book, she looked at me for several seconds. I was surprised that I was able to hold her gaze.
"You stopped before the ending," I said. "It's the best part."
"Endings are never the best part. They're always the same. Guy gets the girl, evil villain is dashed, or the whole thing was a big dream. I haven't finished a book in years."
"Actually, I'd say that book had a pretty unexpected ending."
"Does the guy get the girl?" She asked, stressing each word.
"Well it turns out that…"
"Do Charlie and Sam end up together?" She asked, begging me to give an answer she knew was coming.
"Yes. They do. But what's so wrong with that?"
"It's too predictable. And we should never let ourselves become too predictable. You knew it was going to happen, just I like I did. The whole fucking point of waking up in the morning is to see how that day is any different from the day before. And when you don't find any difference, then you have to change it." Her shoulders fell slightly as she took in a breath. I wasn't sure why she was so worked up, but it made me worked up too.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Sam," she answered without hesitating.
"Like the girl in the book?"
"Yes. At least for today I'm Sam." She started smiling. "And you're going to be Charlie." She took my hand and started to pull me towards the door. The lines in her palm fit together in mine like fault lines and as we ran out into the rain-soaked street, my world began to quake. We kept running. Her leading, me following. I would have followed her anywhere. The rain had birthed a mist that hung above the sweltering summer pavement. Billowed dark clouds shrouded all but scant rays from the sun. We left the resonating squeals of car horns behind us as we darted across streets, sidling oncoming cars, and splashing through the iridescent puddles nestled against the sidewalks.
"Where are we going?" I yelled to her as we ran between the cascading drops of rain. She either didn't hear or decided not to answer. While we ran I caught myself looking at her backside several times. The white dress formed to the curves of her body like hot wax around tight skin.
After a close interaction with Sysco delivery truck, we stopped in front of a flower shop. Underneath the overhang and out of the rain, I put my hands on my knees and panted while my heart screamed for air. I was wet and gasping, but so very alive. She stood next to me, waiting until I recuperated. Wet hair stuck to her face in strands and dripped off like candlewax.
"Tell me one thing about yourself that no one else knows. Then go in there and buy the flower that you think I'm most like," she said, in the same fervent tone she had in the bookstore. She spoke in a way that made every moment of your life feel more important than any that had come before, or would ever come, or had ever come to anyone else. I fought the urge to hesitate and tried to answer in the same earnest, weighted way she did.
"I don't actually want to be a lawyer like my mom thinks." Without waiting for her to respond, I opened the door to the flower shop and was greeted by the clang of wind chimes. In just a couple of minutes I was back outside holding a pink and white flower with six tongue-shaped petals. The petals were freckled like the bridge of her nose and thin stalks sprouted from the center of the flower like pine trees in a clearing.
"What would you rather be than a lawyer?" She asked, taking the flower from my hands. Her voice was soft for the first time and it sounded like snow falling to the ground.
"I don't know. I like writing, but that's not really a job. You're welcome for the flower by the way."
"Why did you pick this one?" She turned the flower in several different ways to examine it. Rain drops spattered and adhered to it, forming miniscule tributaries of water.
"I don't know, it wasn't like any of the other flowers in there I guess."
"That would have been a really sweet thing to say if you didn't begin every sentence with 'I don't know.'" Her voice returned to the same intensity as before. "That's the problem with everyone Charlie. They all say they don't know what they're talking about, but continue to talk anyway. So do you know that you chose that flower because it was unlike any other or not?"
"I do," I said.
"And why is that?"
"Because you're unlike anyone I've ever met."
"Thank you." She smiled, more to herself than to me. "It's called a stargazer lily, just so you know."
"Are you in to horticulture?" I asked.
"It depends how much I get in return."
"Horticulture is the study of plants."
"Oh. I knew that." She blushed slightly. Her cheeks, cherry flushed like sunset; the corners of her mouth outlining the sky like a verdant valley.
"So do I get to learn something about you that no one else knows?" I asked. She looked up from the flower and laughed.
"No one knows anything about me. So I could tell you anything and it would be something that no one else has heard."
"You could at least tell me your name."
"Nah, that's too predictable. Every other guy that just met a pretty girl has asked her what her name is. And you wouldn't want me to be something that every other girl is. For tonight you'll be Charlie and I'll be Sam. Tomorrow, well tomorrow we'll be different people."
"Who said I thought you were pretty?" I said, trying to work her mind for a change. She raised one of her eyebrows and stepped closer to me. I could smell the faint singe of lighter fluid on her hair.
"Charlie, please. Don't act like you were looking at the pattern of my dress when we were in library," she said. She put her hand on my chest, the scars on her arm beating with the veins behind my ribcage. "It's okay though. I think you're pretty cute too. I even might have given a glance to the pants after your graceful fall," she continued. "I've never understood why it's so difficult for a guy and a girl to say that they find each other attractive. It's the same thing as saying 'I think you're smart' or 'you're good at algebra' really. And it gets even harder after two people get close to each other. When was the last time you heard your dad say your mom looked pretty? Exactly. So Charlie, I find you very attractive."
"My dad died six years ago," I said. For the first time since I met her, I saw her hesitate. "But Sam, I think you're attractive too." Her eyes searched mine.
"I know you do. Now let's go."
This time she didn't take my hand when she started running. She was there and then gone. I watched her dawn and disappear like warm breath on glass. And then I was running too. I didn't even wonder where we were going because that was the first moment in my life that I felt like I was running towards something instead of running away.
We ran further into town, sprinting on backstreets between rising buildings, dodging dumpsters and sewer grates, with the rain cascading onto our backs like marbles. She guided me like the alluring glow of a lighthouse and I swam upon her every movement like a ship upon the tide. I ran harder, pounding my feet off the wet pavement until I caught up to her. She didn't stop running.
"Why do you want to be a writer?" She asked, her voice bouncing with each step.
"Because I want to give people something to hold on to when everything else is slipping," I yelled. I didn't even have to think about that answer. Sam stopped running so suddenly that I immediately tried to stop too, but ended up falling over again because of my momentum.
"What do you mean?" She asked, looking at me like I was some dumpster cat.
"After dad died I started reading stories because they gave me something that I needed. I don't know, it's kind of difficult to explain. Basically fiction became my reality. Sometimes I would pretend that my life was a story that someone else was writing because stories always have happy endings and real life doesn't."
"That's not true. Not all stories can have happy endings. The best writers are the ones that give you a heart and then rip it out of you."
"Have you ever tried writing? Considering that you know so much about it" I smiled as she pulled me up.
"God no. I love reading too much to let writing spoil it. If I did write, it would be for the same reason I have sex: the meaningless pleasure of it. Clean yourself up though, we're here."
"Where exactly is here?"
"Here is here." She pointed to a black door on the brick wall behind me. The door had no handle, but there was a small marbled window at the top which you could only see through if you were on the inside. She skipped towards me. "Excuse me," she said, pushing me to the side. She rapped her knuckles against the grainy door four times slowly and then quickly twice.
"Staying alive," she said leaning against the door.
"It's the beat to "Staying Alive" by The Bee Gees. That's the knock that gets you in." As soon as she said that, the door swung inward and a hulking figure in a black t-shirt stepped in the opening. Sam didn't turn around to face him. She watched my eyes widen and crack like hard-boiled eggs as I looked at the undulating veins tugging at his thick arms. His shadow stretched over Sam and I, swallowing us whole. If any human could resemble raw meat, it was this behemoth of a man.
"Jane? I haven't seen you in a while. That's a beautiful flower you have in your hair." The words leaked out his mouth quickly and timidly, like a young boy drinking without his Sippy-cup for the first time. His face darkened when he looked at me. "And who is your friend," he said, scanning my thin arms and narrow shoulders.
"This is Harrison Skinner. He just got out of prison for robbing a nursing home at gunpoint. And he's my friend."
He looked me over again, scrunching his face until he looked like a cyclops.
"So are you going to let us in or not?" Sam asked.
"It's been a really long time since I've heard from you, you know," he replied.
"Alvin!?" I sputtered out, unable to control myself. Alvin took a step towards me and for some reason that I will never understand, I took a step towards him. Sam intervened between us and for the briefest second I saw her give me a look that I had yet to see. It was almost a look of pride. She put her back towards me and smiled up at Alvin.
"If you do this one little thing for me, then maybe I could do one little thing for you." Even the inseam of my pants stretched a little tighter. Alvin put on his cheesiest grin.
"Deal. But I'm holding you to this Jane." He smirked as Sam pulled me past him and into the dark room.
The frames of the building must have been bending. Once inside I could smell the sweat of several hundred confined bodies. The electric drone of the people was almost drowned out by one bellowing voice, closer to us. From behind a burgundy velvet curtain we could hear the singing.
"Born in the U.S.A.! I was born in the U.S.A!" We were in a karaoke bar and the sickening feeling in my stomach told me that I was going next. I could feel my heart beating quicker.
"No," was all I said.
"Come on. It's going to be awesome. Plus, I'm singing with you and my shower head tells me that I'm a great singer." Her face was half hidden by shadow.
"No way. I'm not singing in front of God knows how many people. End of story." She looked at me and started to giggle. The man singing belted out the last few notes to thunderous applause.
"If you do this one little thing for me, then I'll do one little thing for you," she teased. She stood inches away from my face and I could feel the warmth coming from her tight skin. Another man with a microphone spoke to the crowd.
"Let's all give Keith a big hand for that terrific Springsteen impersonation!"
"No. Way." I stepped backwards. "And what was that back there anyway? Why did he think your name was Jane? Is it Jane?" I asked her.
"You ask a lot of questions when you're nervous." My look forced her to answer. "I was reading Jane Eyre on a bench outside of some gym when I met him. There was no way he was going to know who that was, so I said my name was Jane. Happy?" I wondered if she had run Alvin all over town like she was me. I must not have heard the man say: "Next up, we have a duet. Everyone welcome Sam and Harrison!"
"I'm just a little confused," I said.
"No time now," she said, pushing me through the slit in the velvet curtain. "We're on." Her fingers prodded the knobs of my spine.
A light hit me in the face as I tried to look out at the crowd. The faces in the audience were indistinguishable blurs of shadow. My heart jackhammered away at the inside of my chest. The man who must have been speaking before gave me his microphone and said, "Good luck you two." Yellow words lit up on a screen near the front of the stage. My hands shook on the microphone as I muttered out the first few lyrics.
"Summer lovin', had me a blast." Sam smiled and put her hands around mine. She looked at me and I looked at her and it all washed away. Her smile hugged my heart and slowed it down. To this day I still swear I saw her wink before she sang..
"Summer lovin' happened so fast!" For all of her perfection, she was an awful singer. Maybe the worst I've ever heard. The words steamed from her tongue like the shrill whine of a boiling kettle. For her, singing was not a measure of pitch, but of volume. Even though it was corny and I was nervous and she was awful, for the strangest most perfect reason, I smiled.
"Met a girl crazy for me." My words came clearer now, buoyed by confidence and set afloat by joy.
"Met a boy cute as can be," she screamed. Her hands were still around mine as we sang together.
"Summer days, drifting away. To, uh oh, those summer nights." She started to dance and stomp her feet, so I did too. And I'm sure that we shook the earth. She started to yell the lyrics, so I did too. And I'm sure that those words spiraled through the atmosphere at the speed of sound and five thousand years later they'll land hard on the surface of Mars in a puff of smoke and space dust. We were so alive, and I'm sure that our hearts beat louder than anyone else's on that night.
We were still yelling and jumping around as we finished in a crescendo that shot upward and exploded like a roman candle, bursting into a fabulous yellow spider across the night sky.
"Summer dreams ripped at the seams. But, oh, those summer nights."
Not many people clapped after we finished, but I didn't care. I was still smiling when the man who had given me the microphone jerked it from my hands.
"Well that was…that was something else. Everybody give them a big hand."
I floated backstage. For some reason I had the urge to go back out and sing again. I had forgotten everything: my inhibitions, my fears, my questions for Sam, my real name, and my sense of self. I didn't feel like any one person; Sam could turn me into whoever she wanted.
"I told you," she said. "I fucking told you. You should see yourself. You look like you just saw me naked you can't stop smiling."
"We were awesome," I said.
"We were awful."
"I think we were both."
We walked out into the alleyway. The first few stars had spilled across the night sky, but you could hardly see them because of the orange haze radiating from the city lights. I looked at Sam and she was clearer than ever before. It's funny how some things shine so much brighter at night.
"Same time tomorrow?" I asked with a faint hint of uncertainty.
"Do you have a car?"
"Well my mom does. I guess I could take hers."
"That'll work. Turn around please." She scribbled down her address on a scrap of paper across my back. I could almost see her handwriting as the tip of the pen tickled my shoulder blades. Her words were delicate and flowing, like the arch from her chest to her hips.
"But why do we need my mom's…" She put her whole hand across my mouth to stop me from talking. I didn't know what else to do so I stuck out my tongue and licked her palm. She jerked back, surprised.
"What the hell? You are one weird kid Charlie. I like it though. You keep on surprising me. I thought I had you figured out within a couple minutes, but I guess not. That's the god damn problem with everyone else: they're too predictable." Her voice jumped to the serious tone that she had earlier. "Honestly, how many times are you ever surprised by anyone? Like really surprised People always end up…." This time I put my hand over her mouth to stop her from talking. It sat there like a frog on a lily pad until she mumbled out "Fine, I'll stop."
I moved my hand away. She looked at me and bit the supple flesh on the inside of her cheek, glancing at my lips like they were a question she knew the answer to. Everything was moving so quickly in the violet hours of the night. A storm swelled behind her icy eyes and her breathing grew fraught with anticipation. I wanted so badly to kiss her. I wanted to put my hand at the nape of her neck and bring her into me. I wanted to put my lips to hers like they were a secret I could only share with her. I wanted all of this, but I couldn't do it. I pulled away and watched the storm in her eyes subside. This would become the second greatest regret of my life.
"See. Predictable. Pick me up late tomorrow," she said.
She turned and walked away, splashing iridescent puddles with each step. As I started to leave, I could have sworn I saw Alvin looking out through the marbled window. I walked back home feeling better than I had in months.
In my room, my thoughts became tangible and revolved above my head like the mobile that my father hung over my crib when I was a baby. The whole day had been simple and beautiful, but things that are simple and beautiful are never simply beautiful. They are fantastically, fascinatingly, amazingly, astonishingly, endlessly, infinitely, perfectly beautiful. That's what it was, and that's what she was.
I decided to pick her up the next day around eight o'clock. The sun was dipping behind the clouds, turning the sky the color of sherbet ice cream while a full moon ascended like a pale marble on the other side of the sky. My mom's minivan wheezed like a fifty-year old smoker as I turned it on. I remembered the directions to the address that Sam had written down and I wondered what her house looked like. For some reason I couldn't picture anything. Foreign images of family pictures and a cheesy welcome mat fumbled through my mind. It didn't seem possible that any part of Sam's life could be just like everyone else's. But as I turned onto her street, I was greeted by the familiar, plastic smell of the suburbs. White picket fences bared their toothy grins across each freshly cut lawn. I saw Sam standing at the edge of a driveway to a tan house with a brown roof. It looked so ordinary. Sam eased open the door of the van before I was even parked.
"Sweet ride," she said. She had on a Ramones t-shirt that cut off before her belly button; the strings of a bikini peaked out the back of her shirt like pink sutures. She also had a blue L.L. Bean backpack with the initials I.J.L. on it in black print.
"I told you all I had was my mom's car," I said. It was uncomfortable to talk to her at first. Even though we hadn't had sex or even kissed, we had shared something intimate and for some reason it's always uncomfortable talking to someone after an intimate moment. It's like you just want to stay there, trapped in a bubble of amber glass, like those insects that dad always used to get me. "Are those your real initials?"
"Huh? Oh, no. I got this bag from the Salvation Army."
We drove for a while in silence. Occasionally she would give me directions, but that was it. The radio was broken and I think we both liked listening to the sound of the wind rushing against the car. Sam had her arm out of the window and weaved it carelessly through the air like a snake searching for a mouse.
"So," She said. The word sat between us awkwardly, while I wondered whether it was a statement or a question.
"I wish I could have seen the inside of your house."
"Is that supposed to be a pick-up line?"
"No, I'm just curious. I can't really picture what it would look like."
"Well it's the same as every other house in those developments. You're not missing much. Have you ever been in a fight?" She asked, changing the subject.
"Never," I laughed. "Do I seem like the kind of kid that would get into a fight? This is me," I said as I stuck my hand out the window and ducked it down so it sliced through the wind like a blade in water. "And this is people who get in fights." I flipped my hand up like I was high-fiving the wind and my arm flew backwards. "See what I mean? It's a lot easier to get through life if you keep your head down."
"Try that again, but this time push against the wind," she said. So I flipped my hand up again and felt the wind's force upon it. "Drive faster." So I did and my arm was pushed back harder and farther, but I held it there as best I could.
"Now pull it back in."
When I did, my arm tingled and floated like I had just had a cast removed. I could hardly keep it from floating upwards.
"Doesn't your arm feel stronger now? Like nothing can keep it down."
I knew what she meant, and she knew that I knew so there was nothing else to say. We must have been driving for pretty long because we were out of the city. Rows of trees outlined our path and I watched as they blurred into one another the faster I drove. She took out her lighter and sparked her thumb across the wheel of it.
"Do you smoke?" I asked her.
"It's a disgusting habit. One of the worst I think. It's a microcosm of everything else in life. You start doing something to become something you're not and then you get so addicted that you can't ever go back to how you were before."
"So is that a yes or?
"Take a left here." I jerked the wheel and pulled onto a pebbled rode. Little white stones shot from underneath the tires like pearls.
"Okay, stop right here," she said and opened the door before I could respond. We were at a pond; the water was black and smooth like a trampoline. I could tell Sam was ready to jump right on it and see if she could bounce herself up to the moon that glowed like a doorknob in the night sky. The moon was so big that its reflection took up about half of the water. I knew that somehow, right in the middle of that small pond, Sam and I were about to land on the moon.
She rustled in her backpack and pulled out two bottles of lipstick colored wine. "One for before and one for after," she said.
We sat down at the edge of the pond and started drinking the wine. We alternated turns; Sam took long draws, while I took quick sips. Even so, I drank most of it. When Sam wasn't drinking, she was looking at her reflection in the black water. She was looking so hard that it was like she was waiting for the water's shadow of herself to move without her doing so. Cicadas droned around us unseen and pond skaters skimmed the glass of the water, birthing tiny echo waves. Near the end of the bottle I could see my wine-flushed cheeks and glassy eyes in the water. I had never been drunk before, but it made me feel very warm. Not warm on the outside, but on the inside, like the wine was running tepidly through my veins, warming the inside of my chest and extending out towards my fingers.
"Have you ever had a girlfriend?" Sam asked. I didn't notice that she'd stopped looking at her reflection.
"I dated Elizabeth Atkinson for three years, but she broke up with me a few months ago. Well, kind of. I saw her blowing this guy in the parking lot, so I just figured it was over." The alcohol drew honesty of out of me like a syringe. "The weird part is, I would have kept going out with her if she had asked me to. I don't have any idea why though."
"Did you ever love her?"
"I loved the idea of her. After my dad died I really liked the idea of having a girlfriend, but I never really liked Elizabeth that much. She was kind of stupid actually. Like really stupid. But I was stupid too." I don't know why I kept talking. The words that used to be stuck in the back of my throat seemed to slip out because of the wine. "I'll let you know another secret about me, Sam, or whoever you are. My dad isn't dead. He lives in Long Island with his other family. Can you believe that Sam? He had a whole other family while he lived with us and I didn't even know. The day my mom found out about it, he left. He chose them, instead of us. Instead of me. I think he got tired of being around me. Can you believe that? I can't. Sometimes I tell myself that he's dead so much that I actually believe it."
She was quiet for a long time after that. I finished the bottle, tipping it over my head until I fell backwards and started laughing. All of sudden I felt like I was going to throw up and it made me angry. I wasn't sure why I was so mad, but it was unlike anything I'd ever felt. I started to shiver, but it wasn't cold out at all. I took the wine bottle by its neck and smashed it off the ground. Sam just watched as it exploded into a thousand tiny shards like scattering ice. The slivers of glass looked like jagged stars as they caught the light from the moon. I looked up for the real stars and there were so many of them. I pretended that there was a wall of light behind the dark the sky and someone had punched holes the night sky with a needle to let little pinholes of light bleed out.
"One bottle down. It's go time," Sam said.
She stood up and slid the Ramones shirt over her head. Next came her shorts. She was down to just her bikini and because I was drunk I thought it was acceptable to stare. Every god damn inch of that bikini was filled out. She dipped her foot in the water to feel the temperature and shivered. I wish I hadn't been drunk for what she did next because the image would have been tattooed onto the front of my brain forever. She reached up and pulled the string to her bikini; it fell to the pebbled ground without a sound. Then she arched her back and sinuously slipped the bottom of her bikini off.
She stared at her naked self in the water. I stood and looked at her reflection too. The freckles on her chest matched the constellations of the stars above. She looked and looked, as if her body was a question, and then she dove in. Carving herself into the water and letting it swallow her whole. She swam out to the center of the pond, the center of the moon, and waded with her head bobbing just above the water's surface.
"Your turn," she said.
Maybe it was the alcohol, or maybe it was her, or maybe it was the way everything moves so much faster at night, but I pulled my shirt off and then my shorts and my boxers and found myself looking at my naked reflection. That was when I knew why Sam was looking so hard. The water shimmered in the moonlight and rippled with the echo waves, distorting my reflection. I was barer than I'd ever been, but the water never exposed who I truly was. Sam could never see a clear reflection of herself because there was no single Sam. She shimmered and rippled in life as much as she did in that water.
Heat lightning lit up the sky around us; each burst was like the flash of my mind's camera taking mental pictures of the moment. I dove in and felt the cold water gild my bare body. I swam out to the reflection of the moon and looked into Sam's eyes; heat lighting illuminated them blue and orange like the flame from her lighter.
"How do you feel?" She asked.
"Drunk," I said. She laughed and the moon lit a little brighter. I had never asked her for anything, but she gave me the moon. There we were, trapped in the amber of the moment when she kissed me. She held her wet lips to mine and I ran my hands through her damp, dark hair, glistening like ash.
All I can remember thinking was two days ago I had never met this girl kissing me. Two days ago I had no idea who she was, but now my heart was beating her name. Each pump sent her throughout my veins. Sam. Sam. Sam. But that was when I realized that my heart couldn't possibly beat and say her name at the same time because Sam and my heart were the same thing. My heart could only say her name in the brief time between beats, the quick seconds when there was no blood flowing, no brainwaves, no anything. My heart died a thousand tiny deaths without oxygen or blood, but it was so very alive with the idea of her. It lived for Sam. Now my heart was beating so hard and so fast because it wanted to cease beating so it could scream her name again.
Finally, she pulled her lips away and swam back to the shore. I followed like usual. I drank in her naked body one last time before she put her clothes back on her dripping body. After I put my clothes on, I sat down next to her and started in on the second bottle of wine.
"So is all this stuff spontaneous or do you plan it ahead of time," I asked trying to pull the cork out.
"If it has the allusion of being spontaneous then I think we should leave it that way. Here, give me that." She took the bottle from me and undid the cork as if she'd done it a hundred times before.
"Thanks." I took a few quick sips. "You aren't talking as much today. Why aren't you talking as much?"
"You're getting so plastered I figured you'd have the most to say." I lay on my back, still gripping neck of the bottle. Everything in the sky looked so close.
"Have you ever had a boyfriend," I asked.
"Oh God no. I would be awful in a relationship."
"Why?" I rolled my head over and saw her running her thumb over the scars on her wrist.
"I wouldn't know what to do with myself." She laughed. "I'd probably run away now that I think about it. I mean I like having sex. I definitely like that. I just don't see the point in starting something that I know I'd never finish."
"Kind of like books?"
"Yeah, kind of like that."
"Do you have any pets?" I asked immediately.
"No," she answered quizzically.
"Then how did you get all of those scratch marks on your arm?"
"Oh, my grandmother has cats. So Charlie, now that I've got you here all liquored up, why did you say your dad was dead before?"
"That's easy. The fact that he wanted a life without me in it made me want to be dead and it's a lot easier to pretend he's dead instead. The same thing happened after Elizabeth too. Everyone that's ever walked into my life has walked out of it. I told my therapist once that it was like they were all using revolving doors. They come in, they go out. Even right now I'm beginning to wonder when you're going to walk out. I know I just met you, so maybe it won't hurt as much. Or maybe it will hurt more."
"I'm not going to leave you," she said and I could tell that she wanted to mean it. "I have no reason to leave. I think you're one of the most interesting people I've ever met."
"You've got to be fucking kidding," I said. I hiccupped and could taste the wine on my breath. "I'm so damn boring. You're the interesting one."
"Fine. Don't believe me," she said, leaning back now too. "Maybe I will leave then." I could tell that she was kidding, but it still was odd to hear her say. She saw that it hurt me and said, "As long as things stay the way they are now Charlie, I'll never leave."
"If that's true then we should probably know each other's real names," I said, drinking the last of the wine.
"Please, no. Everything that I've ever hated is tied up in my name. And every other girl is giving their real names to boys who could care less about who they are or where they're going. All they want to know is where they've been and who they've been with and if they'll be with them. I know you don't want me to be like every other girl Charlie. So if you're going to find out anything about me, please don't want for it to be my name. Call me anything but my name."
We didn't talk for a while after that, deciding instead to look up at the sky and feel everything turn beneath us. The moon lit the sky like a kerosene lamp and the stars gathered around it like probing mosquitos.
"Do I get to know anything about you?" I asked, more harshly than I wanted. "Because everything I think I know about you, I don't. You're a metaphor of everything and a symbol of nothing." I wasn't even sure why I said that, but the more I thought about it, the more it sounded true.
"Other than my name, there isn't much to say. I don't have a favorite color. I don't listen to much music. My favorite book is Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, but I've never finished it. I didn't get good grades in high school so I'm not going to college. I've never had a boyfriend, but I've had way too many friends that are boys. My mom left me and my dad, like you're dad left you and your mom. I thought you were very normal until I you started talking. Oh and I lied to you about writing. I've written one poem and haven't tried since."
"What's the poem about?"
"You don't want to know. It's an awful love poem. Like all of them really. I'm surprised you didn't ask about my mom."
"I figured you would have told me more if you wanted to. That's how I am at least."
"My mom didn't have a reason to leave. She didn't have another family, she loved my dad, she lost her job, her house. The only thing that could have made her leave was me I guess. She must have not wanted me so much that she would give up everything else."
I took her hand and let everything that could never be said in a million words travel through my body into hers. The only thing that I wanted to do then was sleep with her. Not sleep with her to have sex, but just stay there holding her and resting, while our dreams danced upon one another over our heads.
Eventually it was time for us to leave. The amber shell dissolved around us and slipped back to darkness. The sky was black, the water black, Sam's face shadowed. I took the empty wine bottle resting on the pebbles and threw it into the pond. It broke the quiet, pristine glass of the water and sent ripples outward in perfect circles. The bottle floated there in the reflection of the moon, like we had earlier, as if it had a message inside. Only Sam and I knew that it actually did. The next person to find that bottle would never find the slick drops of a kiss or the glass whisper of a promise to never leave.
Sam drove my mom's van home because I was too drunk. I think she was still a little drunk too because she was swerving. I felt like I was going to be sick, but I had a funny thought.
"Hey, remember that part in the book where they stand up in the back of the truck?"
"Yeah," she said, unsure of what I was getting at.
"Well if I stick my head out of the window, it's not because I feel infinite, it's because I'm going to puke." She laughed like it was the funniest thing she'd ever heard. A full laugh that rang like church bells. We were still laughing when we pulled into my driveway.
"I can walk home from here," she said. "I'll be at your house tomorrow by noon. And you better not be hungover." I looked at my watch and saw that it was just after four in the morning. I groaned.
"What's our adventure going to be tomorrow?" I asked.
"That will be a surprise, but I know you'll like it. Trust me. Goodnight Charlie."
"Goodnight." She turned and started to walk. "Hey, Sam."
"Yes?" She asked, turning.
"You'd make a great character for a story." She smiled and kept walking, right toward the moon and the stars.
I collapsed to my bed thinking about how some people can be so loud. Not in volume, but in life. Those people that exude loud music, loud laughter, and loud moments without effort. The ones that people gravitate towards like space rocks or speak of in hallowed tones and fifteen years later will say, "yes, I met them once, and they burned brilliantly and endlessly like a brocading firework." Then there are the quiet ones like me. The ones that never utter more than they're asked to, never do more than they're expected to, and can't help but say commonplace things in a moment that's anything but. Sam burned though, like a spark to gun cotton, and I felt like I was catching fire too.
I woke up at ten the next morning; my head pounded like someone was driving a nail through my skull. The past two nights had given me several ideas of things to write about. So for the next couple hours I worked on a story about a young boy who wanted to live like his favorite writers. His only problem was that all of the great writers were either psychotic or drunk or suicidal. The boy had a perfect family, got good grades, and was truly happy. However he felt that the potential of his writing could only be reached if he suffered. I had just gotten to the point where he was about to run away from home when Sam knocked at the door. I knew it was her because she rapped her knuckles to the beat of "Staying Alive."
"How's the head feel hot shot?" She asked as I opened the door. She was wearing a light blue top that made her eyes radiate like frozen comets.
"Fan-fucking-tastic," I said. "So what are we doing today? And why so early?"
"Today," she paused. "You get to see the inside of my house."
"That doesn't seem like much of an adventure."
"Trust me, it will be an adventure."
I took my mom's van again, ignoring Sam's snide comments. I started driving to the same house I had picked her up from yesterday, but she told me to go a different way. After about twenty minutes of heading in the opposite direction of the suburbs, we pulled up to a white, one-story house. I thought she was kidding, or at least hoped she was. The grass hadn't been cut in weeks and the window shutters drooped like butterfly wings. In the gravel driveway was parked a brown truck, roasting road kill in its grill.
"Welcome home," she said bitingly. The chipped blue door had no knob, so Sam gave a halfhearted push to open it. The fetid stench of rat pellets and cigarette ash lingered about the room. Looking around the suffocated room I was immediately struck by the fact that there were no family pictures hanging on the walls, or resting on the coffee table, or anywhere in sight for that matter. Sam's life faced the constant struggle of forgetting itself.
"Come on. We're going to my room. I think he's sleeping now," she said, taking my hand.
"Who's he?" I asked as a man in a stained white t-shirt walked out of the kitchen holding a brown-necked bottle and a lit cigarette in the same hand. He squinted at the two of us and scratched at his bulging gut.
"What are ya'll doing? This here your boyfriend?" He asked, looking at Sam.
"No, he's just my friend dad. And we're going to my room because I wanted to show him my books."
"Of course. The books. I've spent so much damned money on those books and you ain't finished a single one. You believe that?" He shifted his gaze to me. "A thousand damn books in there and she ain't finish a single one." Unsure of what to say, I knew Sam would have the right words.
"You haven't bought me a book in years. I've gotten them all myself," she said.
"Whatever you say sweetheart. Hey, you been taking my damn lighter again? You know I told you to cut that shit out."
"You should really try to quit smoking, it's not good for you. That's everyone's problem. They always want to do what's best for them until the best thing is the most difficult. Everyone is so selfish and only looks out for themselves until it's easiest not to."
"What are you going on about again? She's always doing this. Gets it from her mother, God bless her heart. Hasn't been happy a day since she passed." I looked at Sam in a jolt of surprise. She kept her face veiled, not showing that she had been phased by the comment.
"We're going upstairs," she said. As I followed her up the stairs I could hear her dad talking to himself still.
My mind was reeling so much that I barely noticed Sam's room. It really was amazing. There were two bookshelves on either side of her bed, overflowing with dog-eared novels and pocket sized books of poetry. Above her bed was one small shelf built into the wall that was empty; a wooden sign hung above the shelf that said "Finished" in glossy black print. She looked at me and smiled; her raven hair was coming undone in strands by her ears like cobwebs.
"Do you like it?" She asked.
"Your mom's dead." I said, as if it were a statement and not a question.
"Yup, for four years this September. So do you like my room?"
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"For the same reason you didn't tell me about your dad. Avoiding the truth is impossible unless you surround it with a million lies."
"How did she die?"
"Charlie, I really don't want to take about this right now." Something deep inside of me propelled me into asking again.
"How did she die?"
"She killed herself. She tied about a dozen of my dad's neckties together and hung herself from the ceiling fan." Then she was crying. Tears ran over the bridge of her freckled nose and dotted the dusty floor when they fell. "Her legs were still swinging when I found her."
Then I was kissing her. Her tears felt warm against my cheeks and lips. She pulled me towards her bed, like she had been pulling me all along. My heart was a harp and her fingers ran up and down upon its wires. She pulled my shirt over my head and threw it off to the side, blotting the tear stains on the floor. Then her shirt was off and her body felt so warm against mine. The bristles on my neck stood up like pins when she gripped the hair behind my head. Undulating veins spider-webbed up my arms. I wanted to kiss her until she forgot and she wanted to kiss me until I remembered.
I had always imagined it differently. It was daytime and her father was drunk beneath us. Light seeped in through the window shades like water. There were no candles or music. I had never had sex before and my heart pounded. It was beating so fast, but I knew it was just to scream her name. Sam. Sam. Sam. Her pupils dilated and looked like light blue marbles in the morning sun. Sam. They fell backwards into her eyelids. Her skin was so tight and I dug my fingernails into her back, hoping my name would be etched there forever. Sam. Sam. She smelled of rain and lighter fluid. I breathed and it kicked up the smoke of her dying embers, their underbellies glowing red hot. The amber of the moment melted and dripped like candlewax onto our heaving backs. We were about to make love under the "Finished" sign and I thought about how so many things were started but never finished. Books, songs, movies, breakfast, road trips, relationships, puzzles, buildings, dreams. The only things that could finish before they start are life and sex. That was when I knew that Sam was going to finish this. She and I were going to burn forever.
It wasn't give and take, like I had always imagined. There was no ebb and flow like the tides. It was just give and give and give. Give until our lips became one. Give until my calloused hands became the same soft flesh of her breasts. Give until her dark hair wrapped around the spokes of the headboard like tree roots. Give until our hearts pulsed in unison and screamed each other's names until we said them aloud. Sam. Charlie. Oh, Sam. Oh, Charlie. We beat our names into each other until we actually believed they were real, until I remembered what it was like to be happy and until she forgot what it was like to hurt.
Her hand was down my pants and it felt warm. We were so alive, soaking up the radiating warmth of our naked bodies. But something felt wrong. I stopped kissing her and she bit the skin on my neck. It didn't feel right. I took her hands in mine and looked at her. Our shoulders rose and fell in panting breaths. I can't really describe why I did it. I guess when you care about someone so much, sometimes you don't want to do this kind of stuff with them. It's like it might make them less of a person.
"Did I hurt you?" She asked.
"No. Nothing hurts I don't hurt at all." I was smiling and she looked at me like I had finished having sex before I started. "I feel so good that I don't want to do this. I just want to sit here with you forever, in the amber of the moment." She looked at me, unsure.
"Okay. We don't have to do it if you don't want." We laid there for hours that felt like minutes that felt like infinites.
"I'm going to write about you," I said. "Not because I have something that I want to say, but because I have something that needs to be said. You're such a great character."
"That sounds great Charlie, but you're thinking too much about the future. Remember that we can't become too predictable."
"I don't care what I become because I know that it will always be with you. Maybe tomorrow we could have sex. But we could just as easily ride bikes all day in the park. We have so much time for everything. I just want to slow it down."
"Charlie you're talking a little crazy."
"Promise me that you'll never leave."
"I promise that I'll never leave." And I knew that she meant it.
I didn't leave until the moon was out again. Sam's dad was asleep on the couch when we walked out of the front door.
"I'll see you tomorrow," I said. "You better have a good adventure planned."
"I will, trust me."
I looked at her moonlit face and kissed her. It wasn't a kiss bent on passion or created by whim. It was a real kiss. A kiss that meant we have so many more days to be together. A kiss just like every other guy was giving to every other girl at that very second and it was the greatest regret of my life. That was when I knew. I looked into her eyes, blue as the stars, and they were fighting back tears. I started to cry while I looked at her.
"I'll see you tomorrow."
"Tomorrow. Goodbye Charlie."
I got in my car, tears shining on my cheeks. She watched me in her yard as I drove away. I cried the whole way home. I walked up to my room and cried and wrote until I fell asleep.
The morning sun woke me up and I ran to the Book Nook. I pushed through the door with so much force that books cascaded down from the shelves like comets. I looked throughout the store, yelling her name, but the words landed deafly to the floor.
I ran to the karaoke bar, knocking on the black door four times fast and two times slow. Alvin opened it. He looked at me and knew. He let me go inside the empty room anyway. I stood on the stage hoping to hear her yelling the lyrics off key behind me.
I ran to the pond. My shirt was soaked from sweat and tears. I yelled her name until it echoed off the peaks of the hills in the distance and landed softly like a secret in an empty wine bottle in the middle of the water.
I ran to her house and pushed open the blue door without stopping. Her dad was sitting on the couch, holding a letter in his left hand and a brown bottle in his right.
"You too huh?" He said as I ran up the stairs and into her room.
Nothing. I collapsed onto her bed and couldn't stop crying. My tears dotted the dusty floor next to the tear stains from the day before. My heart was beating so fast, but it wasn't saying anything. It couldn't speak. I pulled her pillows to my face, trying to take in every last bit of her. They smelled like rain and lighter fluid. I cried into them until they too became soaked. Up on the "Finished" shelf was a piece of paper folded in half. I took it down and read it.
The worst people always make the best characters.
On the back of the paper was a poem written in delicate, flowing handwriting.
Do you think we grow tired of beauty?
I asked her.
Not if it is truly beautiful,
I used to look up at the night sky and watch
while a dark canvas was pricked with pinholes of light.
I used to watch the sun set the world ablaze
and wait while it spiraled into a frenzied, flaming haze.
I used to dream in color
and laugh in song
look so deeply into you.
Do you think we grow tired of beauty?
I asked her.
But my words fell to the floor with a thud
more hollow than my heart,
remembering that she was lying under another man,
after I grew tired of her too.
I read the poem over and over again, hoping that the words would change but they never did. That was when I realized so much about Sam that I had forced myself into thinking wasn't true. That the cuts on her wrists were just railroad tracks that she wanted to hop on and get away. And that the moon was just a doorknob that she wanted to turn and enter a different world. And that I was just a mirror she was desperately looking into, hoping to see anything but herself.
After I left Sam's house I walked around until nightfall. I wasn't walking towards anything or away from anything. I just walked and walked because there was nothing else I could do. My head was so cloudy that I couldn't think. All I could do was feel. I thought that when your heart was broken you were supposed to feel empty, but I felt so full. Every emotion welled up inside of me like lighter fluid, blistering my insides. I started to take off my clothes because I felt so hot. No cars were driving by, so I walked in the middle of the road. Eventually my legs were too sore to keep walking so I crawled to the side of the rode and lay on the bristled grass. The road was on an incline to drain water, so if anyone did drive by they wouldn't see me. The grass tickled my naked body as I looked up at the sky. I looked up at the pinholes bleeding their scant light and knew Sam was looking up at the same sky. I had no idea where she had gone, but wherever it was, I was sure that it was beautiful.
I thought about how it had taken thousands of years for the light from the stars to reach here. In fact, most of the stars had probably died by now; their last traces traveling silently through the universe. It was sad that something so bright was left with almost nothing. But then I thought about what it was like for a star to die. A dazzling ball of fire, shrinking hard and red as a cherry pit, waiting waiting waiting, and then bursting like a beautiful kaleidoscope into the thermosphere. So much light that everything after it becomes perpetually dark. Those rays of bursting stars were splashing onto my body like raindrops, speckling my skin with stardust. Maybe it's better to burn brilliantly for an instant than glow gently forever. The thought comforted me as my eyes closed and the dying starlight continued to drip onto my face.
I must have been pretty out of it the next morning because I still can't remember being found by that bicyclist or going to the hospital. My mom said that I had been making such good progress since dad left, but I felt like I was back at the beginning. I had to meet with Anna for another year after that, sometimes three times a week. That was around the time that I stopped writing. Getting over Sam was like getting over dad: both seemed impossible until I did it. One day you wake up and realize that it doesn't anymore and that's the greatest day of your life.
I hated Sam for a long time. I hated her for leaving when she knew what it would do to me, but I also hated myself for becoming a person that she wanted to leave. We only hate people when we see a part of ourselves in them that we wish we weren't or when we see a part of them that we know we can never be. In Sam I saw both.
I should have been able to see it all along. It was her story the whole time. She took my heart out after giving it to me like all of the great writers. But just because we lose something doesn't mean we can never get it back.
I'm writing this because the fleeting thought that one day she may read it gets me by, that my story will intersect her burning path again. Pass by her eyes, slip through her hands, touch her lips, touch her soul.
The hardest part for me has always been ending things. When I think about it though, it doesn't have to end. Those three days are forever trapped in the amber glass of our hearts.