Memory has always been my curse, and my blessing; the damning evidence against me, and the alibi that will save me in the end.
No matter how much time passes, I will never forget. I have filed it all away in the safe repository of my most secret dreams, where other extracts of my life are hidden like the discredited relics of an apostate saint. I have stowed them away in drawers like newspaper clippings of a terrible crime I wish I could forget; unspoken atrocities which I still savor in those moments when the past calls me back, somehow finding solace even in my most terrible sins. This time I am forced to watch all of it, as if my eyes are taped open, and there is a constant cacophony of voices like an angry hornet’s nest buzzing inside my head; an immutable narration, a relentless commentary on what I did wrong after every scene. And it all goes by so slowly. It’s torturous, and mine is dragging by, as if someone has hit the slow-mo button and every second of happiness and sadness, all the faces I have known, every single instant of pleasure and of pain, everything I had, and everything I have subsequently lost—all of it just keeps replaying over and over again, one image at a time. But this time I am only a bystander, watching from a safe distance, though I’m not really sure if any place is far enough away from your past to ever be safe.
The past is a dangerous place.
Lately, I have been going there way too often–but there is nowhere else to go. Sometimes it seems like I will never make it back, because the distance between here and there is measured in years, rather than miles, and that’s always further away than any place on a map.
But if I squint, and look at it with my head tilted just the right way, I can see him; someone that I will be; someone that I once was. A kid who never grew up, an old man who has forgotten what it means to be young.
He is standing in front of a door.
He reaches for the doorknob, but it’s already open; it’s always open.
He enters the room; it’s the same room, every time. There are others, but he can’t see their faces. He has never seen them, but still he knows who they are. They have been there forever, and will be there long after all of this is over—no matter how many times it happens.
He sits down.
The projector clicks as it switches on.
The lights go out. Everyone is quiet.
He focuses intently on the screen.
This might be conjecture; this might be a dream, someone whispers from the darkness behind him. The film rattles unsteadily like an old roller-coaster as it tumbles from the reel and falls into place. At first, the images are nondescript, simple geometric shapes that dance on the screen like shadow puppets. But slowly, the indeterminable silhouettes sharpen into the distinct images of two people. Next, their hands, arms and the rest of their bodies come into focus. A girl, and a boy. They are face to face, as if playing a game of chess. They lean across the table, falling into each other, at once the same being, and then two, back and forth, as if on a seesaw. First he, then she, weighted down by the gravitational pull of reality. When one is there, the other is not, and vice versa. Again, they move closer to each other, almost reaching the same place, and they are once again pulled apart. But then, unable to resist, they surrender and curve into each others existence like two waves that crash into each other and then lapse back into the silence of the open sea. Then gradually, like a piece of paper that is torn in half a little at a time, they are pulled apart and two faces slowly materialize.
The girl, a pretty brunette whose beauty lies in the simplicity of her subtle, country smile, stares across the table. Her face, though slightly cherubic, and still only the face of a child, is old enough to reflect a life that has already seen its share of tragic experiences, whose effects are discernible by the tiny lines on her forehead and around her mouth, and by a passive inflexibility that veils her entire countenance, as if the nerves that allow one to express their facial emotions have been severed. But he doesn’t care about that, for it was her eyes that made him love her, and they are still as bright as the first time he saw them; unaffected by time or circumstance, somehow separate from the rest of her being, detached and incomprehensible like stars that are so faraway they can never be reached, yet close enough , so he is always able see himself so clearly in their light, as if he had never before glimpsed his own reflection. And there, inside those two tiny spaces, he found the whole world, and realized why he was alive; she was his reason for living, and had been since he was fifteen.
As the dimming light of the early June evening shines on her hair, it reveals soft stains of reds and blondes dispersed throughout the dark waves that dance and shimmer as she moves like sunlight on a swift, clear river.
A boy of nineteen, almost a man, sits across from her. His black hair is sleeked back with gel and shaved on the sides, the thin sideburns descending into a rounded, perpetually youthful face that is peppered with the light stubble of a beard, sparsely distributed across the pale, almost glowing cheeks like mud spatter. They stare at each other, oblivious to the implications of every action, ignorant to the importance of every move they make. This is the crucial point. Until now they have been children. Steam rises from the cup of coffee she grips so tightly that her knuckles have turned white. He reaches across the table for her hand. It is trembling, but not from the cold. She pulls away and grasps the cup of coffee, awkwardly. It is out-of-place in her hands, as often are the props of adulthood in the hands of the young.
“Do you care?” he asks. “Have you ever cared? For four years I have given you everything, even when I got nothing.” His lips are out of synch, the voice wavering and trembling. He watches her eyes for any sign of expression, any lapse in her stone facade that will give away her thoughts, but the silence hangs on her lips like icicles, as it always has, each time this scene is played.
None of it changes, but still he watches, every time hoping that this will be the one time that she says what he has waited for her to say, and everything after will be changed. Every replay seems like the last chance.
Both of them remain silent, though this is not the shy, exciting silence between two people who have just met. This silence is different. It is like a deafness. There are plenty of important things left to say, but not to each other. They can no longer hear each others voices. It is like the eerie stillness after a storm that hovers over the scattered debris of obliterated lives. Everything that could be said, has been said.
Like sound, not all silence is the same.
She turns to look out the window. There are rolling hills in the distance that stretch for miles in smooth undulations, gracefully swelling and receding. The cattle’s slow moos rise from the fields, mellow as bassoons, and the sun sinks, slowly, silvering the tip of a pine-covered mountain with its flickering, purple light as it sways and dances sinuously like a wind-blown candle flame.
“I know it’s not yours.”
“How can you be sure?”
“I am. I’m leaving with him, tonight. We’re going back to New Orleans,” she says. In this silence the tick of his wristwatch is loud as a sonic boom, every second that passes shakes the walls and the world begins to tremble. A dark figure lingers in the distance, waiting for her.
“How can you go with him, after what happened before?”
“I saved you from him once, I can’t do it again,” he says.
“You won’t have to.”
As the walls start to fall away, there is nothing left except the three of them. The sky, the ground and everything disappears, leaving them untouched, as if they are all that survives of the physical world. The figure motions for her. She floats across the nothingness, weightless, gracefully as a swan moving across the undisturbed water of a pond. She looks over her shoulder one last time, and takes the outstretched hand. Her eyes (the bluest eyes the boy has ever seen, beautiful and destructive, alluring like the dangerous, beguiling current of the clearest river), slowly emerge from the oblivion of this memory. They shine like the unending light from a bright, enduring singularity; the one star that lights this crumbling world, a perpetual explosion full of hope and light and all that is good and beautiful.
Then the silence is broken by the soundtrack, crackling and out-of-sync, skipping in places where it has been scratched. At first, only voices, sopranos and altos a capella, then suddenly, a bow is pulled slowly across the taut strings of a violin like a knife across the pale, soft flesh of an exposed throat. Violently, the elongated half-notes are wrenched from the tight-stretched strings like the ear-splitting screams of the dying. The voices crescendo and decrescendo, they hold the last note until they lapse into silence, and a single voice, (obscured by static and broken up like a broadcast that has hung for years among the clouds) raspy, and weak, as if it has been screaming forever, takes over as the story begins.
The Art show in Midtown turned out better than I had expected. I sold a few small pieces, and there were a few serious inquires into my larger sculpture. Cameron and I were in the back room of the gallery, standing beside my largest Venus sculpture. He was explaining to this professor from Emory, that I do all my work with only a hammer, and chisel. The old fashioned way, he was saying, when she walked up, tapped me on the shoulder, and pointing at the statue that undeniable had her face, said:
“I know that girl.”
Cameron had a shocked look on his face, and shrugged his shoulders.
“Leigh,” I said.
“Yep. Want some champagne,” she said, and held up an empty glass.
“Sure,” I said, and she took my hand. I looked over my shoulder at Cameron, who was still talking to the professor, then I cautiously followed her into the other room. I knew that eventually I would see Leigh Mallory again, but I had no idea that it would come to this. Just a few hours ago she was lying beside me in the dark. Tonight is the first time I have seen her since the late 90’s, and I fucked it up again—or maybe she fucked it up—or maybe both of us did.
I quickly drank the first glass of champagne.
“How did you know about the show?” I asked.
“My brother told me. You remember Jake?”
She was wearing a red dress. Her hair was shorter than I ever remember it being. It was bleached platinum and it shimmered under the soft light of the gallery. Her face was blank. There seemed to be something manufactured about her. Like she had been put together from the pieces of many people, and she had just walked off the assembly line, devoid of all memory, with no clue about who she was.
“Is anyone with you?” I asked.
“Wow, I haven’t seen him in forever.”
The next hour is a blur. I got drunk very fast. Then the next thing I remember, I was getting ready to leave, when she suggested that we go somewhere and talk. Cameron gave me a look.
“I’ll be fine,” I assured him.
“Where do you want to go?” she asked.
“It doesn’t matter.”
We had a few drinks at a piano bar down the block. I figured she would leave after that, and I was still rather shocked that she even showed up.
“Where have you been?” I asked.
“A few years. I guess you heard that my mom died?” she asked.
“No, I didn’t. I’m so sorry.”
“Yes, but you know, she was always a junkie. I loved her, but that’s what she was. You were lucky. You had another chance. Most people don’t get another mother when theirs is a fuck up.”
“Are you doing OK? I mean, the last time.”
“I’m fine,” she said.
From the moment we sat down at the bar, it seemed like this unexpected reunion was just a rehearsal, only a preparation for another night, perhaps in another life, where there was always the possibility that we would meet again. I felt like we were living in a future that was malleable and inconclusive, playing out a drama that would never be fully realized; a vague scenario that could be lived again and again, many times and in many ways, our destinies pliant as fresh paint on a canvas that never dries, the figures and the landscape forever in flux, and if I were to have reached out and touched her hand, all of it would have disappeared. Though I like to pretend, there really are no accidents. Everything happens, not necessarily for some grand reason, guided by the hand of providence, predestined by God or whatever, but it happens because someone wants it to happen.
Someone makes it happen.
It’s that simple, and tor some reason Leigh Mallory was back in my life, even if it was only for an hour or two.
I’m trapped in the same life, and as long as I keep breathing, there will be a chance that this will happen over and over again. As Leigh and I sat there watching the world around us moving so fast that it seemed to be frozen, all at once, I felt as if I were reliving my worst nightmare, over and over; one from which I had never been able to awake; and simultaneously, I could feel the proximity of the elusive dream that I had chased my whole life; one of those dreams, that no matter what you do, you can never stay asleep long enough to dream it to the end.
“I really wish things could have been different,” I said.
“It probably would have been a better life,” she replied, as she quickly finished her drink, put her hand on my arm and squeezed it just below the shoulder, like she had always done when she was excited. Then, like an automation that had run out of energy and was waiting for someone to feed it more coins, she just sat there, staring out the window at the passing headlights of the heavy traffic on Peach Tree. As they sped by, the cars were nothing more than halos that drifted through the humid air, blurred by the condensation that had built up on the cool windows. They floated by, like they were moving through a world made of liquid, as if suspended in some substance that was usually invisible, but had been made manifest by our unlikely rendezvous. The whole world had been thrown off kilter, it seemed, as if the things that were normally insubstantial, had solidified, and in turn, every solid piece of the world had dissolved and time had slowed down, so you could see what was really going on around you, as it was meant to be seen. This, and the fact that the piano player had finished up his last set, leaving it strangely quiet for a bar in this part of town on a Saturday night, gave one the impression of being underwater, encapsulated inside a membrane that was meant to protect, but instead, had become a prison.