By: Marisca Pichette
Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts USA
I walked through shadow after shadow, counting the trees by the neat lines that they dropped in my path: alternating beams of grey and gold, steadily lengthening as the sun plunged low into their ranks. There was hardly any sound that evening, save for my own breathing and the tireless murmur of the waves. I found myself alone on a cool beach, walking on ocean-worn stones spotted with ageing salt and kelp. In turns they appeared like shining jewels or dull rocks, depending on whether the sun or tree-shadow caught them first.
It was a beautiful night, after a successful day. But I wasn’t happy. Looking out along the beach, catching the slight movement of other people meandering in the distance, I felt only tired. I’d been congratulated by a hundred voices, caroused with a dozen friends, consumed a few too many beers… I’d done everything I’d planned to do, but I was not happy.
The morning came, and the moon hid his face in the pale clouds. Undressing in the crisp morning air, I played scenes from the future through my mind, imagining a day to remember. In my mind, I told a joke and imagined his response.
I wrote all day, pouring out the thoughts that huddled in the corners of my distracted mind. I could not stop as he drew near; I could not focus on anything else. Closeted in my small beach house with only a bedroom and kitchen, I waited for time to take the hours away.
He came to me from the West like the rising moon overcomes the sun. I saw him walking up the beach, carrying the old suitcase that he always held onto, no matter how many times I told him to trash it. I met him outside of my little two-room house, and he smiled. His teeth were pale in the light of the rising dusk.
Down to the gentle waves he washed me. I remember rolling up the cuffs of our jeans and wading in the chilly water. We were both covered in goosebumps that night; I felt them on his forearms when we touched.
As the tide seeped out, we found a wide, flat rock and lay down on it. He told me about the moon. It was a waxing gibbous, gently rising over our heads, pale face showing in the settling night. I remember the way his voice mixed with the whispers of the water, ebbing and flowing with the waves. I closed my eyes and listened as hard as I could, imagining this moment lasting forever.
“Are you happy?” he asked.
I looked up at the moon’s shy face, lightly veiled by a wisp of cloud. His arm lay across my chest, his hand over my heart. He always loved to feel the beating of my heart. He said that it made him feel safe.
The clouds were gone from the moon when I finally thought to respond, but it was too late. His face was slack and peaceful, his breathing as measured as the waves. Gently, I stroked his cheek.
“Yes,” I said to the silent air. “I’m happy.”
“What are you looking at?” I asked him in the morning.
He stared out across the cold waves, stubble blurring the cut of his jaw. Grey eyes reflected the hazy light; his sandy hair was damp from the fog. He didn’t spare me a glance when he replied, voice low and measured like the waves.
I laughed. “The world?”
He didn’t smile back like I thought he would. Instead he just looked at me with those stormy eyes.
“It’s out there, Walt. It’s not here.” He turned back to face the waves, eyes narrowing. I heard the bitterness in his voice, usually so soft. “Nothing’s here.”
Taken aback, I swallowed, working through my confusion. I saw the precipice ahead, yawning wide with possibility.
“You want to go?” Those were the hardest words to say.
Somehow sensing my fear, he blinked, truly looking at me for the first time. “Go? Well, I mean—yeah. But not without you. I want you to come with me.”
My heart quickened. The air was suddenly filled with a subtle electric charge, seeping out of the morning fog. “Where?”
He reached out and took my hand; his palm was rough and calloused, while mine was soft and smooth. We were like the rocky beach and the soft waves, meeting along the surf, blending together before parting.
I should have known then that the tide would recede.
When I searched for his gaze, it was turned back out to sea, grey eyes reflecting the shrouded sunlight. “Europe,” he murmured.
He spoke as if he could see the continent already, just standing there on that rocky beach, watching the sun rise over the waves. And when I looked into his eyes, I believed it was true. I saw Europe too. I saw the times that we would have. I saw us together, and I smiled.
“Sing me something,” he said abruptly, not turning his gaze from the horizon.
Obediently, I took up my guitar from the salt-stained Adirondack chair by the front door. He sat down on the ground, eyes narrowed against the sun’s ever-brightening light.
“One of the originals,” he said.
I sat down beside him and began to play. When I sang, he hummed along in a deep baritone. That day we watched the sun rise over the Atlantic for the last time.
Last, I put on my socks. Closing the suitcase, locking the door, I said goodbye to that little beach house. I handed the deed to a friend of mine. In two years, that house—and all of the trees around it—would be bulldozed to make way for multimillion-dollar vacation homes.
I never went back to that beach.
We decided to go by plane. I had some savings, and he had a plan. We met at the airport just as the sun was setting; our flight was a late one. Sitting together outside of a Dunkin Donuts, sipping blueberry coffee, I started to wonder if this was the right thing to do. I looked at him. We’d only been together for three months.
“Are you sure about this?” I asked impulsively, setting down my cup.
He was watching the people walking past with a lively, anticipatory expression on his face. At my question, he frowned and turned to me, the excitement fading.
“Sure about what?”
“Going away. Just dropping everything.”
Casually, he checked his watch. “Walt, our plane’s in twenty minutes. It’s a little late to be second-guessing.”
“I know—it’s just…” I trailed off, staring at him. He raised his eyebrows, and I couldn’t help but smile.
“So?” he asked, lips quirked into a lopsided grin. “Where do you want to go first?”
“First?” I shook my head. “You’re insane.”
He turned back to watch the people passing by, the stupid grin subdued into a smile. “I know I am. I want to see Amsterdam, or Berlin.”
“Our flight is to Heathrow.”
He bobbed his head distractedly. “Yeah. That’s just a place to start. Then we can go to Paris and Milan. Beijing. Don’t you want to see Dubai? Oh, and we’re definitely going to Moscow later in the season.”
“Season?” I blurted. “Whoa, there. I don’t have that much saved. How long were you planning this vacation to last?”
“Vacation?” He blinked, turning back to look at me. “This isn’t a vacation, Walt. This is living.”
We saw London first. Straight off of the plane into the driving rain, we called a cab that took us into the city. I remember a wild weekend of pubs, walking, taking pictures, eating chips out of newspaper and getting lost on the way back each night. Then we drove into the country. We collected fossils at Lyme Regis, took the Oldenburg to Lundy. Hiking across the island in a single day, I gathered bones and feathers, and played my guitar at the tavern that night. Then it was back to Bridport, and up to Scotland.
It was hard to keep up at times. He moved with single-minded vigour, sweeping into an area, seeing all there was to see, then leaving before we’d had time to fully adjust to our surroundings. I had hardly registered that we were in the UK before we were flying to Paris, and suddenly everything was in French. I played guitar on the bank of the Seine, and he took pictures. His camera captured more than my eyes could take in, at the speed we were moving. Always, he was taking pictures. A few times I asked stranger to take one of the both of us, but he was never satisfied with the result. He wanted the sights—only the sights—while I longed for the memories. In this way, we sped through France.
Spain came next—nights full of wine and sweat and stars. Though we didn’t stay long, I saw many couples like us. He wanted to keep going, so we found ourselves in Germany. We walked the streets filled with pensive men, pensive writers, pensive onlookers. Their thoughtfulness rubbed off on me, and I carried it to Moscow, and Beijing, and Shanghai. We never went to Dubai, but instead to Chennai, Mumbai, and Singapore.
I ceased to watch the sights. Instead, I beheld my friend. I watched him smile at the sky; I watched him laugh at the clouds; I watched him talk about the hills. I watched him watch other men, other places, other sights. I watched him look at everything—everything but me.
It began to dawn on me that I was not travelling with a man who loved me as I loved him. The reality was so cold, so pure and clear— it was like a measured incision. I watched the cut be made, and I felt the pain, but then the anaesthetic took effect, and I was numb. I still saw the blood spreading from the wound, but my brain replaced real pain with a phantom. I knew that I still loved him just as much as when we’d begun. I couldn’t stop loving him just because I saw the truth.
My savings ran out in Mumbai, and I barely followed him to Singapore. The night we arrived in our hotel room, eating greasy takeout out of Styrofoam, I told him I couldn’t go on. In eight weeks we’d visited eight countries. I had no money left.
“Let’s go home,” I pleaded.
He stared out the window. It was dark, and the only view we had was an alley. I realized then that he never looked at me when there was somewhere else to imagine, somewhere else to be.
“I can’t. I can’t stop, Walt. You know that.”
It was the answer I’d expected, but I couldn’t take it, even then. Even after everything. I forced myself to confront the blood, and bear the incision he’d made.
“I love you,” I said, though it came out in a mumble. I didn’t have the energy to add volume or power to my words. “But this is too fast. I can’t live like you do. I need to go back.”
He nodded, still looking out the window, at the shadowy form of a concrete wall.
In the morning, I called a cab. I left my guitar in the hotel room.
At the airport, I watched people passing. I sat for hours, my muscles aching, my head aching, my heart aching. Night came, and they made me leave. I barely caught a cab; when I got in, I didn’t know where to go, or what to tell the driver. When she asked for the third time, I gave her my friend’s address. She grunted and took me there.
I climbed the steps to the apartment with heavy feet, wondering what I was doing here. He was in Singapore—or, in all likelihood, on to a new place, taking pictures of lands that would never feel his presence, never remember him like I did. When I reached his door I sat down against it, burying my head in my hands. I stayed there for the rest of the night.
In the morning I left, and just walked. I didn’t know where to go, but I stopped at a gas station and picked up travel brochures. The Rockies, Niagara Falls, Lake Huron—I sat with them at a bus stop and thought of travelling. When the bus came, the brochures stayed on the bench.
I was done travelling.
The weeks and months began to slip away, and summer was ending. One night, I slept in an old tobacco barn. I fancied I heard the ocean. That night there was no moon.
My life was on hiatus. I remember that it began again sometime in late September, in Louisiana. I was sitting outside of a dingy crab shack, watching people as they walked past me along the pier. A scene caught my eye:
It was like an Elizabethan dumb show or a health insurance commercial, depending on your life view. A pristine white sail dominated the background, fully illuminated in the southern sun—but that was not what struck me. Two young men stood facing one another. Friends, or more, I couldn’t tell. They were bidding each other goodbye.
The scene was not large, and it hardly attracted the attention of those who passed, but to me it was everything. They hugged, and the nature of their relationship unfolded before me with their delicate kiss. I thought it a bold thing, out in the open in this southern state. Those men didn’t care. They embraced, and I looked away rather than watch them depart.
Staring at my can of Corona, I wondered how many partings were happening like this one, all across the country, the world. I pictured San Francisco– men in bars, on the streets, holding hands and talking. Sharing. Loving each other. Not one of them was alone.
I hadn’t written a word since going to Europe. That night, I picked up my pen.
I wrote about endings.
On my last day in Louisiana, I walked along a suburban street, meditating in the sweltering heat, relaxing my body and mind. I found some shade under a large, sprawling oak tree covered in moss. It reminded me of those trees in New England that no longer exist—a relic of the life that I’d left behind.
Casting my gaze up through the branches, I counted the spaces between light and shadow, between sun and shade. I remembered.
It might have been a hope for the future—for another friend, another companion like the one that I had lost. Or unlike, perhaps. I had dealt enough with wild spirits, with athletes. Maybe what I needed was a scholar like myself, an academic.
Or maybe it was a thought of that past, of those times walking the cold beach in early spring, pale moon overhead and the gentle murmur of the Atlantic in my ears, which always let me know my bearings.
Whatever it was, I knew that I couldn’t leave the tree without taking something along with me. I reached to the lowest branch and snapped off a twig, bending it idly between my fingers. Almost satisfied, I made to go—but then my eyes returned to the truncated branch, and I saw shreds of pale moss hanging, neglected and unsupported by their absent perch. They hardly moved in the sluggish, humid air.
I made up my mind that day. Gently, I peeled the moss away as well, wrapping it carefully around my twig, so they might not be parted again.
This small token came with me to San Francisco, joining me in a new life. A new city, full of men like me.
I left the oak alone, as I could never be.