"Oh, how I love you," I once cried long ago
But I was the one who decided to go
To search beyond the final crest
Though I'd heard it said just birds could dwell
In the snow I remember Jacqueline was with me the afternoon I decided I knew what love was. The ground is powdered and the mountains draped in white. In my mind the atmosphere is smeared with the haze of brilliant summer sun. Sweaty legs stick to the beige vinyl car seats. Windows open, I hide my words under the noise of the road and the cars we pass.
She hears me anyway.
"You're never supposed to say that to anyone. You promised you wouldn't."
I couldn't have been but nineteen. Yet, I knew everything I knew.
"But it's true," I said, for once not pleading.
She cried. She was not afraid to die of hurt beside me. I had to pull over. And then over she said through her tears, "You said you would never say that to me."
Parts of my history make me want to remove my mark from the earth, George Bailey style, unsaved by angels. Not out of spite. Not for anything other than to erase the pain I've caused I would like to undo my birth, to allow all the goodness and badness of things to have happened without me. I could hide in anonymity behind the television screen, switching channels when the suspense got too high - like I was a spectator watching a home improvement show. Someone else's hammer hits someone else's thumb. Someone else measured incorrectly and so now the boards don't fit. Someone else carries the bricks from the front yard to the back.
There would be no note of me, no regret because I would never have been. And the house would have never been built.
I never told her I loved her, but she said she loved me. It wasn't supposed to matter. I was free and clear. I never told her. That's the way it works.
Today the air is filled with snow. Inside my boots my toes ache from the cold. The bald eagles are all grounded and the frigid breeze carries no raven's call.
I sing along with the improbable song in my head, exhaling a warm cloud that is all that remains of a day in the summer when I told her I did not love her and would not stay with her.
In the snow I wonder what I might have become had I not been so sure. Today I ask God to consider I was only a child making those decisions. I ask for a lighter sentence as I could hardly have been expected to act with any degree of the greater wisdom I have acquired with age.
Would that I had not spent the rest of my life escaping the summer for the cold.
I did not sleep with Jackie. It would not have worked out at all.
She assured me there would be no problem. Something in her past made it impossible for her to bear children. There was little that could happen beyond being caught by her parents.
The thought of it terrified me. Looking back, you might think there was something wrong with me, a healthy nineteen year old boy turning down an invitation to a girl's bedroom in an empty house.
It was a summer day between high school and college. A warm humid morning. Everyone was at work, but we were pre-responsibility. All the time in the world and nothing to do. My car was at the curb. I'd answered her phone call, promised I'd stop over. I stood on her front lawn next to the Norwegian Elkhound, looking up at her at her bedroom window, reverse Romeo.
"I can't come up. I have to go."
"But where are you going?"
"You're not dressed for work."
"Well, to Mike's then."
"Wait, I'll come with you."
I waited. Honestly. I want to be that person. I don't want to remember I left before she got to her front door.
I promise not to tell
That you're the one who makes me burn
Brighter than any star
And you know it.
She wrote me letters. She called. When I went away to college, she went to my house and hung out with my parents. My mom's tinny telephone-compressed voice told me through my Miami dorm room receiver:
"Jackie stopped by."
"Stanford doesn't start for another week."
"But why is she coming here?"
"I don't know. I have homework."
But I did know. And knowledge is not truth. Truth is not certainty. I was not her true love. I would not be.
Now it turns out that the girl I was seeing, with whom I was convinced there was true love, broke up with her boyfriend and he began seeing Jackie. The two of them got married as did the girl and I some 23 years ago.
And is wont to happen with the massive available connectivity of the internet, I found my old high school on the net. They have a website now, and an alumni association which also has a website. Next year will be the 30th anniversary of my graduation from high school.
In that time, CD players were invented. Personal computers became a household appliance. Iran/Contra and Greneda gave way to two wars in Iraq. The Japanese took over the American television set industry and put out of business such staid names as RCA, Magnavox, and Zenith. Apartheid ended. The Berlin wall fell. Yugoslavia busted into tiny genocidal pieces. The human genome was sequenced. We got pictures from the surface of Titan. The face on Mars proved to be a hardly-face shaped mountain.
Why does the past weigh upon us so heavily, then? What are we looking for that makes us ask those questions we neither want answered nor will benefit through having answered?
The site put me in touch with some former classmates. We hadn't had the need to converse for 30 years and being cordial didn't gave way to anything more than polite civility.
I found that my so-called best friend from high-school was working as a barista at a coffee house in Philadelphia. He shunned the internet and anything to do with his youth in New Jersey. He didn't sound pleased I'd contacted him, but he didn't try to end the conversation prematurily.
And he answered quickly when I asked him about Jackie.
I think I said, "Wow," or something to hide the gut-punched grunt I couldn't hold in. "Of what?"
"She was sick. It was a long time ago, though."
"A long time."
"Jeeze. Like almost twenty years."
"My God. She was young."
"We were all young."
I loved to read stories by Ray Bradbury. And even though I couldn't understand some of them, the mood they engendered poured over me like warm syrup and enveloped me in the possibility that unseen things could be.
There was one story of which rereading could not improve my comprehension. The action is simply a child denying a grandparent her own childhood. It was important to the child that her grandmother say that she had never been young, and the way things were, were the way they had always been.
Now I scan the electronic web pages of my high school alumni newsletter and see faces attached to names. Graying men smile through bifocals. Lines crease faces that suggest resemblances to girls I once fought shyness to ask to the Homecoming dance. Their children are taller than they are and it seems they are imperfect copies of a truer group of people that I know existed, in a time that is real to me.
The adults in the pictures are not the teenagers I remember. These middle-aged men in golf shirts could never have been the ones who spray painted the red barn. These are not the shadows of the ones who drank vodka and orange juice before math class. These are not the ones with who made fires on the beach and at midnight streaked naked past the lovers writhing in blankets near the pier.
Now I know I will not find among them anyone who claims to be her.
At night I lie awake in awe of the sublime truth, that life treats us the way waves wash shells to and from the sand. Now I cannot sit with her anywhere but in my mind. And she never said she loved me. And I never had to reply.
I am absolved from wondering that had I possessed the courage, another life would have happened. It's the way life works. I'm in the clear.
Because the way it is now is the way it has always been. And I grieve for something that never was.
"Mad Man Moon"